Sunday, April 27, 2003


My updates really have been getting more and more spaced out. In a temporal sense of the word. My last group email was from Phnom Penh in Cambodia almost 5 weeks ago. After the harrowing visit to the Killing Fields, we decided it was time to chill out a little & went on a trip to Sihanoukville on the coast. Where am I now? You’ll just have to read until the end of this mail to find out. Or scroll down like a cheat.

Sihanoukville is on the Southwest coast of Cambodia, and we stay by the pleasant Ocheuteal Beach. We get motos down to the beach, and stay at a place that was reasonably priced and near the beach. The fact that it didn’t have a roof didn’t bother us too much. It’s a phenomenon that we saw a few times. Instead of building a whole hotel, and then open it up, which would take a long time, they build and finish the ground floor and open the hotel as a work in progress. Its weird – the ground floor looks perfectly normal – plasterwork and paint all done but the upper floors are just the skeletons of wooden scaffolding.

There’s another beach – Victory Beach that most of the backpackers go to which we’d heard some fairly rotten reports about – that it was dirty and that the hawkers on the beach can be pretty aggressive. Thankfully, the beach we were on was lovely. There were little huts along the beach selling food, and in exchange for buying a couple of things, you could use their deckchairs and sunshades. Local girls walked along the beach selling fruit. One girl gets me to promise to buy a fruit salad if she beats me at noughts and crosses. After drawing many times, I’m eventually distracted and loose. I’m thus forced to buy a delicious fruit salad, freshly prepared by the girl chopping up the fruit on the beach. Tough times.

We stop back at Phnom Penh for a day en route to Siem Reap. We get the express boat across Tone Sap lake. I spend most of the 5-hour journey watching films (Street Fighter) that have been bizarrely dubbed into Cambodian and bollywood tunes. We stop at a smelly floating village where we get a smaller boat to the shore. We have moto drivers waiting for us, and we’re driven down a dirt track to our Guesthouse in Siem Reap centre. Which is next to another half built hotel.

Siem Reap is where the famous temples of Angkor are situated. We get a 3-day pass to explore them, and hire moto drivers to drive us around. On our first afternoon there we climb up to Phnom Bakheng. It’s somewhat magical watching sunset from this ruined hilltop temple alongside the monks and elephants.

Our first day’s tour proper begins at the fortified city of Ankor Thom. We stop at the south gate and then onto The Bayon. It looks like a ruined temple from a distance, but close up it is absolutely amazing. It has 54 stone towers decorated with faces looking in 4 directions (the ones that are in all the pictures). We also see Baphuon and Terrace of Elephants, but the weather isn’t bet suited for sight seeing – the heat makes it a little unpleasant, and so we have a siesta before heading back out again. We go to the awe inspiring Angkor Wat. We climb up the very steep steps and pause to reflect that you could never possibly do anything so precarious in the UK. We chat to some monks at the top of the temple, and they don’t appear to be obsessed by Jo’s boobs for a change. On the way back we see lots of wild monkeys playing by the side of the road. Monkeys, monks, elephants, ruins and beautiful ruins; it’s a cliché, but still amazing.

My temptation to get up early to see one of the temples at sunrise is defeated by the reality that I’d have to get up at 4am or so. Instead we get up at a civilised hour and do what is known as the small circuit. At one of the ruined temples a shifty looking policeman (well his uniform says police on it anyway) approaches us. We’re a little concerned as the thin blue line is a little more blurry in this country. He offers to sell us a police badge for $5, and we politely decline. Another 2 policemen try and sell us various parts of their uniforms before the day is over. The highlight is seeing the ruined Ta Prom; a big rambling temple from 12th century that has been left to nature to take over, tentacle-like roots of huge trees engulf the stonework. Broken stone blocks many of the entrances, and I felt as if I were in a computer game, negotiating a maze. Indeed, some of the film “Tomb Raider” was filmed here. We also climb Ta Keo, a temple with lots of steep narrow steps that rises 50 metres upwards.

Well that was Cambodia, and next we were going back to Thailand. We took a crappy beaten up minibus with no aircon down bumpy dirt roads and across bridges of dubious quality down to Poipet on the boarder. During the journey my bag almost falls out of the back of the bus after a Dutch girl thoughtfully opened the window for it. Poipet is described by guidebooks as “a hole”, so I wasn’t expecting much. Thankfully our border crossing was mercifully brief and we were soon on a new aircon bus on the other side of the border, being served snacks, as we headed along a smooth motorway towards Bangkok.

We stay near the Khaosan road (backpacker central), and Bangkok seems a much less intimidating place this time around, now that 3 months of SE Asia have hardened us a little. We have 18 days left in Thailand, and we discuss what we should do next. Our choices are made harder by the fact that Songkran festival is coming up on 13th April and lasts 3 days or longer in some places, and isn’t a good time to be travelling around. It is basically the New Years celebration with a water theme. Monks wash their Buddha images, and everyone else goes crazy, throwing water and flour at people. These days a lot of Thais use big supersoaker waterguns as part of the celebratory water fights. Unfortunately there are a lot of accidents, with drunk driving and lax road safety contributing to the many deaths. When children are throwing bags of water at drunken motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets will inevitably have tragic consequences.

One of the places we think about going to, but don’t is Kanchanaburi, famous as the location of Death Bridge- bridge on the river Kwai. Nearby is The Tiger Temple, where tigers roam free under the watchful eye of the temple’s abbot, who keeps them calm while a pack of tourists tentatively stroke and photograph the fearsome creatures. The tigers were born in captivity, abandoned and rescued by the monks as cubs. A sign at the entrance informs visitors that the authorities bear no responsibility for injury or death. Could just be a matter of time.

We do however, go on a day trip to Ayuthaya, a former Thai capital until it was practically destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, and famous for its hundreds of Temples. We start at Golden Mound Chedi, a giant white stupa and we already are feeling the oppressive Thai summer heat as we climb to the top. We explore Shrilankan; Burmese and Cambodian style temples, including Wat Phutthansawan with a large reclining Buddha. Next is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a large ruined complex and Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit that houses a large golden seated Buddha. We have a breather at a place that gives elephant rides. A problem facing Asian countries is what to do with the elephants that were once used in industries such as logging. They can’t be returned to the wild – and there isn’t often much of a wild for them to return to. The solution is to use the elephants in tourism – giving rides, and also as rides for the people protecting elephants in the wild from poachers. Is it cruel? I’m not sure – their keepers seem to love and take care of them, they seem well fed and have access to shade, and I’m not sure what the alternative would be. There is a really cute baby elephant there that does tricks, posing for photos and standing on her head. When we stop for lunch, we discover that a Japanese guy from our tour is missing, and despite waiting for a long time and searching for him, he doesn’t turn up. Before we head back, we see a European style Buddhist temple, looking very much like a church, complete with stained glass window. Several hours later when we get back to Khaosan road, we see the nutter of a Japanese man that had disappeared earlier walking down the road, in a new set of clothes. Maybe he got hot and decided to go back on his own steam. Who knows?

We decide to take a long trip to a beach on an island, and opt for Ko Pha-Ngan. You can get an overnight bus there from Khaosan, but we opt for a more adventurous route. We get the morning train (the overnight trains all sold out because of the holidays) from Bangkok south to Surat Tani. From there we get a songthow gown to the pier to catch a ferry. Unfortunately there are only 2 day ferries and they both leave in the morning. We have to wait for 5 hours to catch the night ferry that leaves at 11pm. The food vendors at Bat Dan pier seem to be more interested in selling themselves than in selling their food, and spend several hours putting on makeup, and they try to massively overcharge us for our meagre snack, which is a little upsetting. As we wait on the boat, I read “Neither Here Nor There” by Bill Bryson and it strikes me what a boring old git he is – blowing every minor incident out of proportion, always finding something to grumble about, and never venturing anywhere more adventurous than Europe or America.

On the night ferry to Ko Pha-Ngan there’s a roomful of people sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and I don’t sleep well. There’s a big Thai guy in the middle of the deck who seems to be staring at me (one of the crew?), and he makes me feel very unsettled and not really in the mood for a deep sleep. Unlike Jo, who hits me when I wake her up at 5am when we arrive. We get a ride to the North of the Island to Hat Khom beach and stay in a place called Coral Bay. I work out that our journey has taken almost 22 hours, and take a well-deserved nap. That evening we take a walk over the rocks to get to the neighbouring beach to check out the town and to buy a hammock. Along the way we see the most perfect sunset that makes me think I have stepped into some saccharine painting. Unfortunately the sun setting also means that it is dark when we attempt to get back, which involves negotiating the same rocks that we scrambled over on the way there; Jo slips and gets a nasty cut on the back of her leg. Fortunately she has over a week of lying on the beach doing nothing in which to recover. Which is what we did. Our routine consisted of breakfast (normally a banana pancake), followed by lounging around on the beach or in the hammock, reading a book and then having something nice for tea. You can live very comfortably for £4 a day. Which means you could pack it all in, and live for 2 years on 3 thousand pounds in a cabin on a pristine island beach.

So a few days on we repeat the exodus to Bangkok, stopping at Ko Samui and taking the night train back this time. An odd job is that of the guy that has to wake everyone up in the morning on the night train, and turn them out of bed so he can clean them up. An old northern guy on the train isn’t happy at all about being woken up early in the morning and gets into a bit of an altercation with the “wake up” fellow, who gets the railway policeman to have a word with him, handcuffs at the ready. Trouble is averted when a Thai guy brokers peace talks in which it is agreed that if the old fella says sorry then the matter will be dropped. When I was little, and didn’t want to get up in the morning, my dad would throw my duvet on the floor. In Thailand, it seems that they fetch the police instead.

We have a few days to Spend in Bangkok before we leave for London, and much of it is spent shopping. We visit the busy Chatuchak weekend market. It is massive, selling anything and everything, with over 9,000 stalls and attracting about 300,000 people. I’d like to explore it properly, but the oppressive heat means that we evacuate to the air-conditioned charms of the MBK shopping centre where I stock up on monkey themed t-shirts.

Our last day in Bangkok is spent killing time waiting for our flight. We bar hop around khaosan road, watching movies and drinking Cokes. By the time we get our flight at midnight I’m not looking forward to the in-flight movies quite so much, having watched 3 movies already that day. But end up watching 3 more films by the time we get to London anyway. Sars free, I might add.

So that is where I am now – London, home of dangermouse etc, as I catch up with various things that I missed in the last year; congestion charges, television programmes such as “Your Face or Mine”, my brother looking like a grown up and other assorted oddness. I’m staying in London for the moment, job-hunting, though will be visiting Devon for a bit (going down this Thursday).

That’s it then. Looking forward to catching up with people. Let me know if you know of any decent jobs! I've got acess to a computer, so I've got absolutley no excuse for not replying to your mails, so write back and let me know what you're up to!

End of captain’s log.


No comments: