Cambodia, Cambodia and Cambodia

I sit cross-legged on a comfortable wooden seat sipping green tea in a small coffee house in downtown Siem Reap and I realise that we are three weeks almost exactly into our Cambodian exploration. This means I’m also three weeks behind on blogging about it!

Better get to it! May I start by saying that by ‘Cambodian exploration’ I really mean exploration of Siem Reap and Siem Reap only. Sure, we have ventured further afield here and there (as we shall see) but Siem Reap is just so darn difficult to say goodbye to. Every time we muster the confidence to wave adieu to this gorgeous little city we buckle and end up extending our stay by another few days.. Another week.. Four more days. It has now reached the stage where Paul (Pavel), the trusty Russian owner of our guest house, responds with “how many more days this time?” In his thick accent before I can even assemble my first word. Usually it’s when I am about to ask for a can of Angkor Beer to cool myself off from the 34 degrees sun. The truth is that the city and all its humble inhabitants suck you in unknowingly until you find yourself completely ensnared by its charm, gusto and oddities. It truly wears its heart on its sleeve, and like many cities it has its problems but unlike many cities its problems are on a very modest human scale. Children walk the streets, their hands extended and clutching bunches of bracelets to sell while they accost tourists tucking into their lunch in the little cafes. With a sharp dismissive wave many are dealt with swiftly and clinically – a nuisance. It is not the kids fault that they find themselves on the streets, nor is it the responsibility of John, Dick and Susan from Kent to ensure they are fed and schooled. And this is where the problems that there are stem from; responsibility and action. (Something to discuss in my other blog I think!) But despite this the kids are smiling. Infact everyone is smiling – It’s both infectious and exhausting. Never have I been graced with smiles from all angles simultaneously and with so much sincerity.. It seems to be the default setting for Cambodians. As a local barista said to me when I questioned it “now is the time to smile”. Deep, eh?

In our three weeks we have befriended so many Cambodians from all walks of life and in so many different establishments around the city. One of our favourite places for a bite on a warm afternoon is ‘Sister Srey’, a coffee house started two years back by two young Australian sisters who suffered the same problem that we are experiencing (I.e, not being able to leave!). Their priority is the wellbeing of their staff, which they have adopted from all manor of heinous and troubled backgrounds. They pay for the housing, medical care and even the education costs for all their wonderful staff and all they ask in return is optimism and a drive to want to re-build their lives. The foundation they have started is truly touching and we have become very fond of all the employees, full of life and smiles as they are! One of the team, a spritely young chap called Jan, of only about 5 foot, greets me with a hug and a huge smile every time we arrive and insists that I am only allowed to speak Khmer there to practice! Siem Reap is not a puzzle to navigate. It’s streets were systemised by the colonial French into grids and still reflect the European names and facades of the period to this day. To the East of the compact centre is the Siem Reap River which divides the older from the newer and which creates a natural boundary to the city. To the South and West the city center itself is linked by a few earthy main roads and stretches out to meet lush green pastures and forest while to its north the concrete roads are interrupted, first by sections of dirt road, before being replaced entirely by deep red earth tracks and lanes. Even in the city centre itself it is common to find totally unpaved roads, dusty and red like the surface of Mars. This ‘work in progress’ attitude is what gives Siem Reap so much of its charm.

The buildings, while low lying, are a conglomeration of classical French colonial, red brick and modern glass and white wash, and at the very centre of it all sits the grand ‘Old Market’ proud and reasurring like a superintending grandparent. Tuk tuk drivers dot the sides of every road while mopeds wheezing under the weight of two, three or even four people negotiate themselves around crowds of tourists. The shops are as modest as the people, reflecting their culture very well through handmade wooden sculptures, textiles and local paintings. There is a real sense of national pride and a keen awareness of their heritage here which is demonstrated at its most colourful and potent through the arts and crafts. People will sell everything and anything on these street corners; small food bars on wheels line the streets after dark selling local cuisine for a pittance, retired soldiers, some missing limbs, walk around selling books to earn a living, while hardware stores are everywhere and sell everything from bike locks to stuffed baby crocodiles and fake watches.

The real fun is to be had in the markets. Similar to their Thai counterparts and not too unlike dusty Arabic Medinas, they are a treasure trove of human imagination. You think of it, they probably sell it! I couldn’t help myself and bought a Rolex watch in our second week for a painless $20, while other tourists and shop owners around me haggle over American dollars. In the cramped walkways of the bustling market the scent of incense hangs heavilly in the air while flies take their picking of the piles of fruit and slabs of raw meat. Oil lamps and modern electric lights gently light the walls and make the colours of the fabrics and paintings glow. The stall owners (often sat on small rugs or stools) address each ambling customer one by one and get your attention with “hey you Sir’madame, you want to buy something yes?”. Likewise the hoards of onlooking tuk tuk drivers outside will usually address every passerby with an open ended question or just a simple “can I help you with anything”. One apparently watched Abbi go into a shop the other day and when she came back out he grunted to her “oh my god what I would do to have you in the back of my tuk tuk”. She reassures me that she gets more spontaneous “I love you” ‘s than rehearsed sexual advances. Meanwhile I find it all quite entertaining.

The cycle from our lodgings ‘Snow River Guest House’ is wonderful. It only takes about five minutes and it takes us from 1km North of the city and along the length of the green river. Stern looking ceiba trees line the river amid well-maintained grass and white French lampposts which still light the way after dark. The buildings here are mostly traditional with a modern finish (white wash, large open drives, landscaping and flattering lighting) and the place is, for the most part, spotlessly clean. It makes bangkok look like a confused car boot (or yaaard sale for the Americans among you!). We have been very lucky once more with the weather here and we have had unbroken crisp blue skies and 30+ degrees now for almost a whole month. Our tans dont reflect this much though as we haven’t really been sunbathing as we did down in Southern Thailand a few weeks before. It doesn’t take long for your skin to shake off a tan these days! Following our first visit to Angkor Wat (as per my last blog) we settled on the idea of getting a three day pass to explore the complex in a little more detail and at a more stately pace. Suffice to say these three days were as wonderful for us both as our first day spent in the park.

On our first day we cycled through the gorgeous Bayon and past Angkor Wat once more towards the North-East of the park. We stopped at several small temple sites, trying to crowd-dodge, and found ourselves at a lesser known temple complex called Preah Kahn hidden deep in the jungle. The temple is approached by a causeway from the north and is bigger, grander and far more natural than the more publicised Ta Phrom (more commonly called the Tomb Raider Temple). Like Ta Phrom ten kilometres to the south this series of temples has been devoured over hundreds of years by the encroaching jungle. Massive Cebia trees launch out from between and within structures like twisted church spires while the grey stone blocks have a fine dusting of moss which give them an organic green hue. The whole place looks as if it were animated in its mangled state of organic orchestration, seemingly pulsing with life and history. The air is warm and floral and the light breeze and cooler shaded corridors make for a great respite from the hot sun. Abbi and I find a small corridor deep in the complex with a low set windowsill. After a crouch and scuffle we are through and into what appears to be a large secret courtyard. At one end to our left is a massive tree much like the others, it’s huge exposed roots spilling out and over a partially collapsed wall resembling the tentacles of a mysterious creature from the depths of the ocean, while at the other is a small pavilion which appears to have sunk into the earth. All around and infront of us are piles of collapsed building stone and I am soon scaling these in true antiquarian explorer style and looking out over the whole complex from my vantage point. What a treat it was to be the only two souls in this mysterious little area. Abbi looks at me with a concerned expression after five minutes and tells me that I’ve been bitten by something on my face. It is at this point that I realise that the right side of my jaw and face is numb and I ponder for the next thirty minutes that I’ve been bitten by a poisonous creature and will probably not make it out of these ancient ruins. Oh well, cool place to croak I guess!.

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We woke the next day, still very much alive, at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The cycle from Snow River and into the park seven miles north was much chillier, the moon being our main light source for the journey. After a coffee at a little street vender outside the complex we walked through the massive park and found a hidden spot towards the rear where we watched the remainder of the sunrise (the first portion was somewhat less romantic than we expected as thousands of other people had the same idea as us!). The rest of the day we spend in our lovely guesthouse and the day after this we undertook an epic 45 kilometre cycle around the ‘big circuit’ of the park. This took us to a previously un-mapped portion of the archaeological park and we ooh’d and ahh’d the afternoon away as we came across new temple after new temple.

During the following week we flexed our culinary skills in an evening Khmer cookery class in the heart of the city, Abbi enjoyed yoga classes at a wonderful little coffee shop in the outskirts of the city center called ‘Peace Cafe’, and we punched each others lights out in a kickboxing class. We sipped wine during a traditional Khmer Aspara dance show two nights later which was really special. It is a very minimalist and intimate form of dance; slow movements in the wrists, arms and legs while the hands are often held statically in positions to represent a Buddhist God or symbol.

Our evenings have been traditionally spent at the guesthouse with the wonderful team; Paul, Rith (pronounced Rit – he is essentially the front of house and multi-tasker employee and we have become very close), Gin (pronounced G for golf) Paul’s Cambodian wife and co-owner of the guesthouse, and her brother Goh who is a 34 and very quirky and very Cambodian. Over the last few weeks Rit has been helping me learn Khmer (very patiently I may add!) and in turn I have been helping him with his English pronunciation. I have also been enjoying extra Khmer lessons at peace cafe with a large group of expats and NGO members to improve my own pronunciation. In the late afternoons we have been gathering the other guest house staff in the large open drive and playing an Asian form of hacki’sack (played with a springy shuttlecock with feathers) religiously pretty much on a daily basis. The idea is to keep the thing in the air as long as possible by kicking, arming, kneeing and even heading it to one another. It is great fun and a perfect way to spend time under the bright blue skies with a cold beer.

A truly great memory so far has been driving in an open tuk tuk out of the city with Abbi, Rit and his Wife and 5 month year old girl Nina and into the countryside to his family village. He kindly took us to his family farm where we spent the evening drinking with his dad, brothers and sisters in the large open space under their stilted wooden house and enjoying a platter of local foods (smoked fish, spices, duck) they prepared especially for Abbi and I. They are gorgeous people, so very humble and giving and the evening we spent getting to know them and observing traditional Khmer life, culture and hardships will stay with me forever. Rit, in true humble Khmer fashion, was delighted for days after that we had wanted to go with him to see how traditions Cambodians lived – almost surprised that we said yes so quickly and eagerly! He has taken to referring to me as ‘Bong’ which translates to brother and I shall miss him and the whole family at Snow River very much when we leave to head to the beaches of South Cambodia next week.

We have one week left in this beautiful part of the country and have two volunteering projects to take part in before we even consider moving south. One is building new wooden houses for rural Cambodians struggling in their current uninhabitable dwellings (poverty takes on a whole new meaning here), and the other involves the construction of a new school for underprivileged Cambodian children.  A far cry from relaxing on the beach, the next week should be one to remember. We might even catch some sun!

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Siem Reap: Where Bordeaux meets Angkor.

Getting a Visa in a country like Cambodia was probably going to be a challenge I thought to myself before we had even arrived. But three stages of queuing, two stamps in our Passports, reluctant finger prints and photographs taken, three kilometres of jogging through governmental buildings and people around us quite literally fainting from the heat (one poor Dutch girl next to us collapsed and had to be carried off by her friends) – and we are in! Well, almost. We still have to get to Siem Reap in the north 85 miles away via two separate buses with no food, no water and with a very fleeting grasp of the Khmer language. Our first bus is pretty straight forward; it’s an old post-colonial bus clad in unremarkable rusted grey panelling and with seats that creak like the Lib Dems self-esteem. With it though is the promise of adventure and we disembark twenty minutes up the road at the main poipet bus terminal with a spring in our step. Negotiations for food rations are exhausting as our tender knowledge of both the language and the odd looking, crumpled currency prohibits any easy communication. I resort to the most primitive degree of communication by becoming excessively English, pointing and winking a lot. I’m sure the pack of crackers and bottle of water the shop keeper thrusts at me was a complete fluke, and that in reality she was probably just trying to get rid of a loud foreigner winking and pointing at everything around her in a state of momentary desperation.

We hitch up with our provisions next to a Scottish chap called Graham and talk the two hour drive about our experiences in and around South East Asia. “You can’t even trust bottled water out here” he warns me in a thick Scottish accent before suggesting that even the plastic seals can be forged without too much effort. It seems that I’ve entered a country in which even the most mundane and basic of tasks is a bit of a Russian roulette. I dread to think what might happen when I flush the toilet or flick on a light switch!

We trundle down the only main road through the northern half of this small country for a further hour before we start to see signs of life. There has been a real economic boom here in the past few years and it shows. The road itself is in quite good shape and the new road signs strike me as more Australian than Asian. Big, bold and lots of Yellow. I’m reminded by Graham that much of the North is still one of the most heavily land-mined areas on the planet and am told to expect to see the effects of this in the local population at Siem Reap. I prepare for the worst.

The bus very absurdly drops us off two miles out of the city at a small (probably illegal) Tuk Tuk check point. We have no choice but to get a tuk tuk the rest of the way to our hotel. I am quite irritated by this commission-fuelled scam but Graham and others around me and Abbi are quite obviously much more rattled by it. Our tuk tuk driver is called Lucky and after some haggling on price we are on our way through dusty un-paved roads towards the city centre. He turns to us over his shoulder after a few minutes and casually announces “don’t worry, I don’t rip you off”. I probably find this less helpful than he anticipated but I suppose it’s always nice to be reassured by a complete stranger that they aren’t intending to do you any misfortune. Still, the ride is nice. The sky here is unlike any we have seen so far on our travels. It is such a gorgeous deep blue, clinically sharp and crisp and is broken only by the moon, a shining celestial ball in first quarter lunation, twenty degrees above the horizon. The sun is setting steadily and the light it shines onto the green plants and deep red earth around us makes it all very calm, glowing and peaceful. I get a Spanish-Australian vibe from the countryside as we pass through it and into the low lying city streets, many of which are still not paved. The buildings in Siem Reap are mostly still French-colonial and give the place a familiar European feel while the people, vehicles, shops and road signs present a very Asian picture. It’s a great fusion where East meets West, Bordeaux meets Angkor. In 1884 Fules Ferry wrote of the French occupation; “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” While this colonial cultural-commodification is archaic, the French occupation introduced many Parisian luxuries aside from the architecture, and my small handbook suggests that we have to check out the French style cafes and bakeries spread across the city and in the aptly named ‘Old French Quarter’.

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Large public gardens dot Siem Reap

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The wonderful Gelato Lab coffee house

The staff at our hotel, Mango Rain Boutique Hotel, couldn’t be more welcoming and we are soon checked in, unpacked and back out into the dusty roads to go for an evening coffee. We have hired bicycles and the ride takes us 1km towards the compact city centre, and along a narrow un-paved road beside the river. Dogs are scattered around either laying down in the shade or walking slowly along the side of the road and looking over their shoulders cautiously. With them, children are playing on the sides of the road with toy guns and balls while their parents, keeping a watchful eye, ready their small food carts for the evenings business. There is a smell of barbecue and food in the warm air and the breeze is light and soft as we peddle along the bouncy road and park in the shade of a big oak tree adjacent to the old Market.

The wonderful staff at Mango Rain Boutique Hotel

The wonderful staff at Mango Rain Boutique Hotel

We stroll around the city centre for an hour, dipping in and out of the small markets and enjoying a couple of drinks and a meal at what is to become our regular Khmer restaurant in town ‘Lim Kim’. We save much of the exploration for tomorrow and head back to our hotel to get an early night.

The next couple of days pass in much a similar fashion. We rise early for breakfast at our hotel each morning and cycle our way along the same dusty roads into the city center. Blogging and reading in cafes, exploring the meze of streets and enjoying local Khmer cuisine become the norm and we meet lots of lovely travellers and locals who are keen to talk to us and share stories.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

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I have been waiting (not so patiently) my whole life to visit the Angkor Archaeological complex so even by the morning of our second full day I am almost at breaking point with restlessness, like a child sat kicking his feet around and huffing until he gets his way. We decide that the most popular way of seeing it by tuk tuk doesn’t appeal to us and air-conditioned taxis would just take the adventure, dust and exposure out of it. We decide to do it via the humble bicycle and by 9am we are out the door clutching maps and on our way towards Angkor Wat 6km away to the north. The temperature is already in the mid-twenties by the time we get to the bottom of the main road through the city and it isn’t long before the condition of the road deteriorates substantially and we bump along avoiding large pot holes, tuk tuks and motorists driving on the wrong side of the road. 3 kilometres up the road the buildings give way to jungle and farmland, and red earth replaces tarmac. Sunlight beams through the trees and the warm breeze makes me smile as it engulfs us. We reach the check point into the national park (a few smartly dressed officials stood by the side of the road) when we realise that we were supposed to buy our tickets 4 kilometres to the East and not here. Fortunately a police officer swiftly offers to ferry us down to the other checkpoint on his motorbike (for a small fee of course!) and collect our day pass. A quick zoom, jog, picture of our faces, exchanging $40 for tickets, hopping back onto the bike and zooming back later we are at the first checkpoint again and on our way into the park.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the Angkor complex. We grab at our big bottle of water and take a few deep glugs before we unravel our map and drag a finger around the route we want to cycle. We are heading North first past Angkor Wat and towards the 12th century city of Bayon before finally turning East to Ta Phrom (also known affectionately as the Tomb Raider temple). The rule, we have been told, is not to try to squeeze too much in so we have picked the three most popular attractions for today and will take it from there. We spend our first hour walking around the main Angkor Wat complex and try our very best to avoid the crowds. Luckily we have come at a good time – many people have scampered back to their respective hotels for lunch so there is less pushing and shoving than anticipated! We find ourselves completely alone in many cloisters and rooms of the giant complex and are able to really test our photography skills in the bright light. Angkor Wat itself is the main religious structure in the 200 square-mile complex and, with most of it having been restored over the last 120 years first by curious antiquarians and then by archaeological organisations, it is in great shape for its age and feels more like ten cathedrals next to eachother than just a single structure. I’ve been told that it is the largest religious structure on earth and it really shows.

Abbi looking thoughtful at Angkor Wat

The Gorgeous Southern Gate of Angkor Thom

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Abbi looking thoughtful at Angkor Wat

We hop on our cycles after a quick bite to eat from a street vendor ourside Angkor Wat and cycle twenty minutes towards Bayon past other mysterious temples and under the gorgeous Southern Gate of Angkor Thom. Bayon really has to be seen to be believed. It’s blackened towers rise out of the jungle like giant serpents, each with its own apotropaic carved face in the likeness of king Jayavarman VII. Our two hours exploring the dark corners of this complex were among some of the best hours spent on our entire trip so far and we were reluctant to leave and move onwards towards the East Gate of Angkor Thom. We stop for a quick smoothie at a huddle of little wooden restaurants in the large open plain opposite the Terrace of the Elephants. It takes us about 30 minutes more to reach Ta Phrom. The sun is getting lower now and gives the moss-covered towers and buildings of the temple a mystical green hue as it pours through the gaps between stone and tree. We approach from the Western gate and are struck by the volume of other travellers who had the same idea as us. Nevertheless the place is really special and feels very grand and archaic. Time has been hard on these blocks of stone as the three or four hundred years of solitude has given nature a chance to reclaim them. Ginormous Ficus and Ceiba trees stretch out from the buildings, their roots spilling out over ten foot high walls like disembowelled whales – the reality being that if they were removed the whole thing would probably fall down. This complex is not one giant temple but rather lots of smaller buildings, causeways, cells, enclosure walls and pavilions and it seems to go on and on. Large information boards are dotted around the skirting walls which portray the amount of archaeological work and restoration that has happened over the last two decades. It’s a delicate balance really because I suspect the temptation is there to leave them in situ and their natural context as they are but this would allow the site to degrade further as the forest continues to grow. Restoration and proper management also allows safer access for the increasing crowds of tourists who, until recently were allowed to clamber all over the rooftops and walls which in itself damaged the site. Lighting is a big factor here for me. I love seeing things in a different light and at different times of the day and during different seasons and it makes for some very dynamic photos! Crouch, angle and.. Snap!

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Ta Phrom

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Ta Phrom

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The towers of Bayon

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Bayon

The setting sun struggles its last thirty minutes of light before it holds its breath until tomorrow morning and we decide that, with a 15 kilometre cycle ahead, it’s probably a good time to leave and go grab a glass of wine in town.

The ride home is as bumpy and evaisive as it was on the way there but it is good fun and much easier in the cooler evening air. The sky is still clear and the stars are starting to ignite across the sky while we ‘ding ding’ our bike bells to the friendly staff as we pass through the hotel gates. We have two nights left at this hotel before we move onto a smaller guest house at the opposite side of the small city. We already love Siem Reap and the gorgeous Cambodian people and have assumed to eachother that we are probably going to stay here longer than we anticipated! We are considering a further three day pass for Angkor Wat as well as Khmer cookery class and yoga classes. There is still lots yet to come in this surprising part of this beautiful country.

Footprints in Cambodia Part 1

Day 49; Krabi to Aranyaprathet.

Wake 6:15 to the chirp of our phone alarm. The small eateries and stores along our little side street are still closed as we creep out into the young sunlight. Their blinds are pulled down from head-height to waist-height, prohibiting taller people but not short people or animals. We have been staying for the last two weeks in a small hostel called Popeyes in the bustling centre of Ao Nang. Located down a small side street and surrounded by little bars, it is colourful, playful and the quintessential Thailand backpackers hostel. We love it and, having befriended all the staff and locals, we are reluctant to leave. My Brother and his partner Autumn have been staying in Ao Nang these last few days and we have soaked up enough sun and alcohol with them for a lifetime! But now we must leave; leaving family and friends and beaches behind and onwards to Cambodia.

7:15am, Our mini bus arrives in style and on time. It is a silver Toyota people carrier, driven by a local man eager to drop his young daughter in the front seat next to him off at school en-route. The aircon is colder than the ice-capped mountains of Iceland so we pull on our sweaters for the first time in months. The weather outside is still warming, about 20 degrees celsius already, with blue and gold hues fighting for supremacy above us in a cloudless, crisp sky. As we near Krabi airport after 30 minutes we rise up high above sea level and are given panoramic views across the sea of jungle covered karsts that rise and fall far into the distance. People are already awake around us; farmers collecting fluids in small cups from their rubber tree plantations, oxen pulling ploughs, shop keepers hanging an array of colourful items around the walls of their stores and small families piled on to a single motorbike on their way to the morning markets.

Krabi airport is compact and modern and the terminal has great views of the landscape from its position above the runway. We board our plane after an hour of learning some Kumer language basics (Sure-s’day is hello and Ah’kun is thankyou) and drinking coffee in the terminal. I feel myself getting a little anxious as I remember that it was only two weeks before that an Air Asia plane was lost in poor weather over Indonesia. Fortunatly the flight lands with a heavy bump an hour later in Bangkok – wings intact – and we are soon out into the wildness of the city with our heavy bags and a wad of US dollars to swap for Cambodia ‘real’ when we cross the border. With an exchange rate of 6000 real to one pound Cambodia is probably one of the only countries where even Abbi and I can be Billionaires!
The weather around us in Bangkok is just as warm and settled as in the south and it seems that the whole of Thailand is basking in glorious sunshine at the moment!

Before too long the eagerly awaited A1 shuttle bus trundles along and into the bay in front of us and we are soon on our way through the chaotic streets to Mochit bus terminal 30 minutes away. The female bus conductor looks miserable as she paces the busy bus collecting money from the faceless passengers – that is until she gets to Abbi and I when she breaks out into a gleaming smile as I become the first person to actually say thankyou. Objective accomplished!
The bus drops us off at a very bland street corner, and we are pointed to the ticket office by a very lovely local woman keen to practice her English (and point a lot). We snap up two tickets aboard the 11:30am departure for the Cambodian boarder, which sets sail in only five minutes, and climb aboard to a sea of analysing eyes. Only two other people on the bus share our skin tone and we begin to feel a bit like the subject of an observational biology lesson. I take it quite flatteringly and beam smiles out towards my curious neighbours.
Five hours, four sandwiches, three bottles of water and a very suspicious cup of tea later we are dropped off at Aranyaprathet. The sun is yawning and the warm air already smells like evening as we stand a bit glazed over at the side of the main road into Cambodia. We reluctantly hail a Tuk Tuk who swivels and glides towards us like a panther to its prey and bounce two kilometers further down the dusty road to our hotel for the night, the Tournesol Boutique Hotel in Aranyaprathet.
The hotel is set amid several other resorts and functions primarily as a one-night stand for travellers like us dropping into Cambodia the next day. We are both glad that we have decided to break up the journey like this as we have heard that crossing into the mysterious Cambodia can be a bit perilous! The hotel is really quite nice; much bigger than we anticipated but still low-lying, modern and with a lovely courtyard and pool to cool off in. The staff, despite our best efforts to politely decline, line up eagerly to help us carry our bags to our room. Five people carry four very managable bags twenty feet and it all seems a bit Faulty Towers. Light hearted, earnest and with a very innocent agenda. The restaurant later is very charming; kitted out in a fusion of Thai and Khumer wooden ornaments and styles and with the same wonderful staff as earlier. Local food and local beer before we turn in to our comfortable bed, but not before I foolishly spill an entire bottle of water smack bang in the middle of my half of the bed. After some NATO-grade persuasion Abbi mercifully let’s me bunch over to her side! I sleep easily and excitedly; Tomorrow we cross a boarder into country I have dreamed of visiting since I was a child. The ancient Khumer people and mysteries of Cambodia await!

On board the bus to the Cambodian boarder, and last day in Ao Nang

On board the bus to the Cambodian boarder, and last day in Ao Nang

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The “Tomb Raider Temple” – Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat

Very thought-provoking and similar to my own observations when I visited the site a few days back. It seems that sometimes the boundary between physical heritage tourism and conscious tourism (you see what you want to see and act in a way prescribed by media) become a bit muddled up.

I fear, not just for the future of archaeological sites, but for human heritage as a whole, and the natural ecologies of the developing world, ‘developed’ world, and those areas between. Observing the culturally-blended hoards of tourists ambling through At Phrom I noticed people stashing empty water bottles in dark corners, dropping litter, scrambling over unstable structures, and probably most concerning; people face-booking, snapping selfies from five different angles and not actually paying any attention to the environment around them. It’s as if there were a sign at the entrance saying “please leave your conscious, thinking mind at the door – you won’t need it where you’re going!”.

Middle Savagery

What have you seen?

It’s a common question in Siem Reap, home to the many hostels and hotels that feed tourists to the Angkor Wat temple complex. Sunburnt tourists trade stories while cooling off in the bar with a can of cold, cheap Angkor beer–the famous temple on the label collecting beads of condensation. A list generally follows the question. Oh, I’ve seen Bayon, Angkor, Banteay Srey, the waterfall and the Tomb Raider temple. 

jolie_angkor Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft at Ta Prohm.

In his 2002 article for the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Tim Winter  outlines the history of Angkor, as UNESCO terms it, “a geographical region, an archaeological site and a cultural concept”. Angkor “emerged as a major seat of power early in the 9th century AD and lasted until the capital’s abandonment in the middle decades of the 15th century” wherein god-kings would construct an irrigation network…

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Days 23 -32; Christmas & New Year 2014 in Thailand

Tuesday 23rd December;

3:30pm; We arrive at Krabi airport after a short flight from Bangkok. The airport is surrounded for miles on all sides by steep limestone karsts and dense jungle which add to a sense of adventure as we descend towards the slick runway. Quickly collect our bags from the small baggage claim belt and move through the security processes to be greeted by warm floral air as we walk through the doors and into the greenness of Krabi. We are man-handled onto a rickety bus (which is long past its retirement) and sit waiting while other travellers assemble a very unstable mountain of luggage from our feet to the ceiling. Abbi looks worried that at any moment we may be crushed beyond recognition. My joke about dental identification doesn’t help and we pull away from the airport on time and surrounded by the noise of keen foreign travellers. I remember sharply back to when ‘Same Same’ in Chiang Mai taught us the phrase “Farang Bah” which essentially means ‘stupid bloody foreigners’ and smile to myself as I imagine the airport workers watching us pass are saying it through their teeth while they smile and wave at us.
4:30pm; We arrive in Ao Nang after humming through winding roads for 30 minutes between limestone towers topped with green jungle. The weather is fine and warm and people are sporting flip flops and vests with local jargon and symbols. “Same Same, But Different” seems to be the order of the day and it makes all the American, Russian, German and Scandinavian travellers indistinguishable from one another. Our bus drops us off outside Slumber Party Hostel which appears to be as nonchalant and suggesting as the name. We are greeted by recently chalked A-boards and neon signs advertising beer pong competitions, pub crawls and island hopping parties. Guys 400 baht, girls get away for 300 baht. I tell myself that this is because girls would probably drink less, although in truth I  guess it’s probably to encourage more girls to come along at the benefit of the single guys.
The hostel is colourful and playful and a bit like a student union – if a little dark and grimy. Our room is two floors up and doesn’t have a window so it is a bit dimmer and boxier than we have been used to until now. We shrug it off as we tell each other that we are only here for one night and leave our bags to explore Ao Nang before the sun sets. 6pm; We are accosted by every merchant and store owner outside every shop as we wind down the long high street and towards the beach. We are offered ‘special discount for English’ and more ‘lovely jubberlys’ than an episode of Only Fools and Horses and we start to feel rather special – until we hear other English accents and the magic is lost of course!

Dinner in a local thai restaurant called Thailandia. The place is gorgeous; made entirely of bamboo and wood and decorated thoughtfully with palm plants, atmospheric lighting and thai ornaments. The staff are dressed in local cloth and shine like air hostesses. A well longed-for glass of wine and local food before we stroll to the beach where we enjoy a few drinks at the Fishermans Bar and watch the sun set. Internet back at Slumber Party is very temperamental so we turn in eager to arrive at our 5-star Christmas break tomorrow on the nearby Railay peninsula.

Wednesday 24th December.

Wake early and ready to leave early. Pay for our night and we are given little brown bags full of sweets with the words “thanks for staying at Slumber Party, we ❤ you” stamped on. Nice little touch. We say our goodbyes before walking back down the long high street with our heavy backpacks towards the beach. We are avoiding Tuk Tuks wherever we can after our Bangkok experiences!
Breakfast at the familiar Black Canyon Coffee and catch up with the news. Russia is unhappy with the West, Cameron and Clegg are at their tethers end with one another, someone from the UK has won the Euro Millions, China’s economic growth looks a little bit shakey, and Islamic State are causing all sorts of atrocities in the Middle East. Optimistic bunch the BBC!

The day is warming and the sun rising steadily when we leave to walk towards the boat ticket office. The promenade along the beach in Ao Nang is about one kilometre in length with one-half dotted with restaurants and small store holders and the other half on the beach itself sporting lots of little bars and massage parlours. It’s a really attractive area and overlooks the beautiful beach with rows of coconut trees and mysterious Islands breaking up the horizon where blue sky meets blue water. A spot of tea and we wait to hop onto a long tail boat for a ten minute ride around the peninsula to the east and towards Ton Sai and Railay. The water is warm and calm and subdued – subservient to our needs – and we snap pictures of the towering cliffs and islands and inlets covered in rainforest all around us.

Our boatman cuts the engine 40 feet from the shore to let the small vessel glide into the shallow water and beech gently on the sand with a soft plod. We say thank you (Khap kun khrap!) and turn to heave our bags onto our shoulders and hop off the side of the low bow and into warm crystal water up to our knees. We wade the final few meters and begin to take in the surroundings. We have landed at Railay West, the most developed of the national parks four main beaches (Railay West, East, Pranang, and Ton Sai), and navigate ourselves (by memory of being here last year) through the little walking street and into the jungle that separates west and east. Our hotel, the Railay Princess Resort, is a hefty modern complex that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean or Hawaii. It flaunts is beauty flirtatiously a bit like a girl in a bar who knows all the guys are looking at her but doesn’t let up. Dangerous. We are greeted by the reception staff with a wine glass full of grape juice before being guided through the garden by a bell-man (not ‘bell-boy’ apparently) and onwards towards our room. Our room for the next three nights is just about the nicest place we will rest our heads on our whole trip so we were delighted almost immediately with it. Abbi is soon unpacking and I’m quick to jump on the bed, flick all the different lamps and lights on, rummage through the mini bar and marvel at the sliding glass doors which lead directly from our bedroom straight into the bath. Slide, slide, “this is awesome!..” Slide, slide “we are defiantly hopping into the bath later through these puppies!” .. And so on. Abbi gives me her tireless smile and suggests we go explore.

We spend our first evening, after a small bite to eat at a small street vender (or beach-vender), lying on Railay west beach under clear skies and surrounded by oil lamps while Miles Davis sets the mood for us and a light breeze nudges the warm air around us just enough to cool our faces. The view, while darkened by the night sky, is still spectacular. The lights of distant boats and buoys dot the horizon and give off just enough light to silhouette the many little mysterious islands that cause so many people to snap pictures in the daylight. The wide bay is fringed on both sides by steep cliffs and untamed jungle which glow just enough for our eyes to see above us while behind us the jungle is broken by hotels, a handful of restaurants a small walking street lined with colourful reggae bars and shops. It’s all pretty contained and, while it does hinder the feeling of a wild and natural landscape, the small luxuries are welcome after a long hot day, and the true virgin forest and white beaches are only ever minutes away. The nice thing about the development here is that it is sensitive enough to the ecology and natural design that, atleast along the beachfront, the tropical vibe is never quite lost. The few paths there are are sand not concrete, and buildings are all wooden and never rise above two stories.

We strike up a conversation with a young Scottish couple about travelling to Phucket and are soon walking back through the small paths to our hotel room. We FaceTime abbis family to wish them merry Christmas for tomorrow and retire to our room yawning. The bed is comfy and the air con a welcome relief and we both nod off within minutes.

Christmas day 2014;

Wake early to the sound of heavy rain. I remember that the weather in December is still pretty unpredictable and we will have to wait a few weeks more before the am-to-pm blue skies arrive. We dust off the large umbrella the hotel has provided and scurry down to breakfast across a courtyard lined with palm trees and glistening in the intermittent rain and sunlight. The buffet is epic in proportions and I induldge as if the world were about to end and this is my last meal. Needless to say our stroll to the famous Phranang beach after was a slow one. As we near the beach the path fades away and leads through a cave system overhung by massive stalagmites and volcanic features. Monkeys scamper around us and voices echo transitorially against the hard rock and into small dark corners. We emerge into Phranang beach after ten minutes and I am transported back immediately to my memories of last year. It is a wonderful place and it is quite easy to see why it has won so many awards as one of the worlds most beautiful beaches. It is smaller than Railay West, only about 300 meters in length. At the busier end the cliffs curl right round and tower hundreds of feet above us with big overhanging features, stalagmites dripping with water and rock climbers risking limb and leg to navigate their way up. The opposite side of the beach curves round out of sight and is open to the shallow blue ocean and dotted with lush vegetation. The stretch between is backed by smaller cliffs and palm trees and overlooks the same gorgeous line of mysterious islands as Railay West and Ao Nang beach further around the western peninsula. One of the saving graces of this remote beach, and the whole 100 sq-mile peninsular, is that there are no roads or even paths to get here. Mercifully It can only be reached by small long tail boat from the surrounding islands or towns which has really contributed its preservation and attraction.

Lunchtime; We hire kayaks and spend the few hours after out among the small local islands and inlets exploring and soaking up the warming sun. 6pm; The tide recedes with the sunset and we walk out to a tiny island only 50 meters out from the beach. The shallow water around our ankles is warm and laps peacefully against the exposed rock and coral structures and the waning sun floods the whole bay with a golden and red hue causing the water and rock to glow. Bats wake up and stretch their limbs above our heads while warrens perch on the protruding rocks around us and look magnificent and proud as they strike poses against the setting sun. The whole experience is very peaceful and we stroll back through the jungle and caves to our hotel a few hours later with beaming smiles after a brilliantly tropical Christmas Day.

Boxing day is equally as relaxing albeit slightly less adventurous. We spend our day after another mammoth breakfast reading and writing between different beaches and small coffee huts in the sun. We are planning to island hop to the southern islands of the great Andaman sea just after New Years so this time today is very useful. We both get a little sun-burnt and end our day once again sipping wine in a small beach bar to a chorus of insects and birds from the surrounding rainforest and wishing we didn’t have to leave for Ao Nang tomorrow.

27th December 2014 – 01 Jan 2015

Arrive back in Ao Nang after checking out of the Railay Princess Hotel and a few hours on the beach. We grab a Tuk Tuk back up the winding main road to Slumber Party Hostel for the second time and check into a more spacious, lighter room than before. We gingerly agree that we are much happier in this new room and settle in once again to the chilled and worldly vibe of the place. Our next four nights and days pass much as they did before; days on the beach and exploring the beautiful landscape while we spend our evenings at the small reggae bars and bamboo wine and cocktail bars that dot Ao Nang. On the 31st of Decembr we  book into a more voluptuous hotel called The Nine @ Ao Nang for New Years. While not quite as glamorous as Railay, it’s clean, sharp style makes for a much more comfortable place to wake up to post-new year drinking.

In the early evening we walk keenly down the main road and to Thailandia restaurant where we ate on our very first night in Ao Nang over a week before. The atmosphere is just as sophisticated and cultural. The restaurant now brandishes two young dancers who intermittently appear on a small stage, dance in traditional Thai styles to authentic music and then retreat for a further five minutes to a roll of subdued applause. The food and wine is equally as sophisticated and before too long it is all over and we are walking towards the beach where we have been invited to a beach party.

8pm; We meander through the bamboo beach huts and bars and palm trees along the eastern tip of Ao Nang beach to our party. Colourful paper lanterns hang from the trees above us while reggae and chilled house music permeates out from the different small beach bars. The stars are visible through the gaps in the trees and a warm breeze stirs the leaves and lanterns to give movement to the sand beneath our feet. We pull up a wooden seat each on the beach and sit there contently drinking rum straight from the bottle like a couple of pirates and making friends with a French couple, Quentin and Mariana. They are halfway through a two week trip to Thailand from Paris. She is a language therapist and he works (reluctantly) for an insurance firm. Once the rum has dried up we stumble towards a local club further towards Ao Nang named Chang Bar for Mojitos and then onto the beach along with thousands of other people for the countdown.

People around us are dancing, lighting paper lanterns and laughing and I notice that the crowds of people stretch as far as the eye can see in either direction along the beach front. Quentin and I decide that stripping off and running headfirst into the dark sea is a good way to impress our lady folk and I get a round of applause from many onlookers as I strip down completely to change into my dry shorts. After a few Mojitos and rum I lose the ability to become embarrassed. Not sure about Abbi though!

The countdown happens in sporadic bursts from different corners of the beach around us but I’m sure we were within a few minutes either side of the official count and we all applaude, high five and laugh for the next hour on the beach while paper lanterns rise to meet the moon in a momentary cascaedence of light and colour. We exchange details and stumble back to our hotels for a good nights sleep. Tomorrow; island hopping to Koh Jum and Koh Kradan.. Right now; street food to soak up the alcohol!

Ao Nang & Railay beaches

Ao Nang & Railay beaches

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Day 18-22; Nha Trang, Central Vietnam

Day 18; Ho Chi Mihn to Nha Trang.

Michael Palin once wrote that the compulsive urge to travel is a recognised physical condition. It is called Dromomania by the select few who have heard of it or suffer from it, and like Mr Palin, I’m glad to say that I suffer from it.

Being a self-diagnosed dromomaniac, I wake early keen to start moving again after three days of sedentism in Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC). Downstairs for breakfast at 6:45am, omelette, bread and tea for me. Twenty minutes later, bags packed and crevices of our room deeply inspected for things we may have missed. Receptionist at Blue River Hotel overcharges us by about $30. We both ponder the price and hold our receipt in custody between finger and thumb as we we glance between the words “final price” and the receptionist. Finally realise the extra charge and we sort it out, much to the embarrassment of the receptionist. It occures to me that this may not have been as accidental as claimed (this is Vietnam after all) but we smile with the benefit of the doubt and file into our taxi for the railway station twenty minutes drive away.

Our taxi driver, like many in South East Asia, is one of only a few short, sharp words and is keen to beep his horn at every animate and inanimate object around us. The lamp posts and fire hydrants glare at us with profound confusion as we drive past beeping at them. Seatbelts  must come at additional cost or upgrade as they are as absent as always. We cling on as we are whisked through the unimaginably chaotic traffic that is ever so common in this part of the world and arrive after one or two near misses at Ho Chi Mihn Station.

8:30am. Our train, the SE6 service, is a 14 coach relic. Like our overnight train to and from Chiang Mai, it is a re-commissioned Japanese carrier from yesteryear and has to be the widest train I’ve ever used – more like a passenger plane in scale than terrestrial train. The engine itself is a large red 20 tonne machine and is one of 8 used on this 1300km line between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Mihn in the south. The guards, two to a coach, stand proudly beside each carriage door wearing sharply ironed navy uniforms and holding, atleast while the remaining passengers scatter around the platform looking confused, an information sign with the coach number on. The facilities inside the train are basic but charming and modest and add to the sense of rustic and uncertain travel deeper into this most mysterious of countries. 9am, We settle into our seats, 41 & 42 in coach 10, and feel a guttural, seismic-like, tremble as the train engine  4 coaches ahead of us lunges forward under the pull of 14 carriages lined up behind it like heavy bricks in a wall foundation. I walk to the noisy compartment where two coaches meet and pass a toilet which I am yet to brave and no doubt measure against previous experiences. I take in one last deep breath of the warm Saigonese air through a pull-down window and watch the events of the Saigon streets as we negotiate them at a stately pace towards the countryside. The houses soon become stouter and more expensive, the roads less busy and better kept, and the trees more numerous and greener. Before too long we have broken free from the gravitational pull of the city and emerge into quite an unremarkable countryside with its scattered grey buildings, construction yards, deserted machinery and mountains of litter all capped by aggressive looking grey clouds. This isn’t what I was expecting. We smile at the train attendants as they busy past us behind a trolley of snacks. Coffee (pronounced ‘gah-feh) is on offer but they don’t seem to have ever heard of tea. Abbi brightly suggests that we can get a tea when we get to Nha Trang in 8 hours. I sip my water cencoriously.

10am, The blank televisions above us flicker into life and a flurry of colourful Vietnamese adverts are played, many of-which are played several times within a few minutes of eachother or, in one case, where the same advert was played three times consecutively. No locals raised a brow to this. 11:30, Lunch of pate, ham and cheese baguetts, brioche and fruit. Still no tea.

The scenery is changing now to a more picturesque and engaging landscape. We pass a mountain range on our left dressed in extensive lush green forest and half obscured by cumbersome clouds and mist. Wide rice paddies and jumbled agricultural fields furnish the flat basin through which we pass, disrupted only by the occasional road or cluster of buildings. I see lots of birds in motion on the wind and wish I could put names to them.

This area of Vietnam suffered abhorrently during the American occupation and it saddens me when I remember (from our visit to the war museum in HCMC) that 5000 civilians a year still die or are injured every year from standing on American land mines and that the ecology still hasent, and won’t for a long time to come, from the liberal American use of ‘agent orange’ chemicals. Agent orange is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest tragedies and war crimes ever committed by one country on another (although it has been used prior to the Vietnam conflict in much smaller quantities by the Brazilians, Americans and even the British). It’s destructive force as a defoliant to obliterate thousands of square miles of pristine marshland, forest and coastline has all but ruined every water source and habitat to this day, and has, as a result, caused the most obscene deformations, disease and suffering to millions of Vietnamese civilians. As I sit pondering this while I look out towards the deceptively attractive countryside I feel a desperate pang of dissapointment and resentment towards the American military. In particular the generals who would have organised and promoted this ecological disaster. If you feel the need to know more, and have a strong stomach, I urge you to google Orange Agent or Dioxin and make your own minds up. The Vietnamese response is one of unification, forgetting and forgiving and this both inspires and comforts me to let the graphic images of napalm and chemical wasted corpses from the museum go.

Fidgeting increases as we get closer to Nha Trang than we are Saigon, and the landscape changes again from open agricultural landscapes to dense jungle and waterfalls as we enter the Khanh Hoa Province on the east coast. Outside there are rain clouds in the sky as we pull into our third station. A cluster of teenagers wave at the train while, closer, a troop of train guards adjust their crisp uniforms in the reflection of a train window.

As the train heaves its way from the platform once more I decide to brave the toilet. I am met with a small closet devoid of everything except a hole for a squat toilet. The bulky metal window frame has been wedged down so warm, floral air from outside makes the process slightly less toxic. I am, by now, seasoned in this area but this in no way makes it any less intolerable, particularly on a fast moving train that seems to bounce about like a novelty fairground ride. Hand washing facilities are in an adjacent closet and include both a cold and hot tap. Not surprising, the hot water tap has been bolted tight off so I use the sporadic stream of water from the cold tap that smells gently of the musty interior of a warm caravan.

4:35; The final few hours pass and we are finally huffed and puffed into the station at Nha Trang on time. My backpack seems heavier every time I pick it up and I question if maybe Abbi is secretly filling it with rocks to watch me struggle. 5pm; after a spot of tea and another forgettable taxi ride with the least talkative driver to date (not a single word from the moment we stepped in to the moment we stepped out), we arrive exhausted at Tabalo Hostel in the backpacker hub of Nha Trang. Tabalo is a brand new complex of just three months and is eloquently simple and unashamedly modern. Our room, named a ‘cabin’, is a modern wooden panelled box cabin in which our sleeping area is located a short ladders climb above the en suite.

I have become more accustomed to cold showers now than hot so I was not surprised (although I was disappointed after such a long journey) to step into a waterfall of Icelandic proportions. The receptionist explained apologetically that their water system relies both on solar and electric, and blames two weeks of persistent cloud cover for my Arctic experience. We unpack our bags, not a rock in sight, and head out into the neon lit streets of Nha Trang in the dark. Dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant is nice enough but I had to push to one side most of my fatty chicken which I told myself probably looked like dog meat because it probably was. We leave, still a little hungry, and eyeing up the dogs tied up outside with sympathetic expressions before we are ushered into an attractive looking bar complete with extensive neon lights, downtempo house music and a free Pool table. We order a Saigon beer for me and a rum for Abbi and settle at the pool table. We laugh and joke with eachother between shots before i overhear Australian accents to my left. I head over and invite the group of 4 guys to join in. They accept in honest Australian tradition “sure mate, we can spend twenty minutes beating you I suppose”. Abbi, scrappy as always, replies “bring it on, Kiwi” unaware that, aside from being a fruit, a Kiwi is infact a New Zealander. This actually makes the threat more potent so we begin play. We all greet eachother and spent the next couple hours exchanging stories and joking about before Clint suggests we have a round of beer pong outside the front of the bar in the street. We call our team mates – I’m with Abbi and Bret – and laugh and drink the next few hours by in a demonstration of very ineffectual play. It transpires that they are all friends at different stages in their travels. Jake, from Tamworth New South Wales, still has another six months left. He is a fellow rock climber and we talk about our regular climbing spots back home.

After much drinking we wander the street in search of a tattoo parlour for Clint, who is certain in his intoxicated state that he must have a tattoo of an elephant on his arse right now. Unfortunately for the rest of us they are all closed, but we do discover a secluded elevator behind large cement mixers and building rubble at the far end of a pitch black, half constructed building. As one of them jokes over my shoulder that we should have a look I find that Ive pretty much already ran over to it and slammed the ‘going up’ button. I spot a small sign saying “Bar” and a mysterious arrow pointing up stuck to the closed doors of the lift. We file in anxiously and start to move upwards – what’s the worst that could happen? We alight the lift into darkness and I push my way through some heavy velvet curtains at the end of a cement corridor into what I would repeatedly refer to as “the coolest bar I’ve ever been to”. It is expansive and exquisitely furnished in absact wooden tables, African and Asian ornaments, large Buddhas, soft plushings, Middle Eastern rugs, cushioned sofas and I fall in love with it almost immediately. The network of rooms are lit only by red lamps, large candles and lanterns and a DJ plays mellow cafe del mar house music while people smoke shisha pipes and sip cocktails. I feel like I’m in a sophisticated party scene in the TV show ‘Don’t trust the bitch in apartment 23’. There are no windows on one side of the complex as the walls are all open to the warm evening air supported by beams wrapped in fairy lights, and we all sit smoking a shisha pipe and talking behind a backdrop of the city lights. Paradise is found. Abbi and I find our way home after saying goodbye to Jake, Bret, Clint and Will and climb the ladder into bed. Realise i had a lot more to drink than I thought and sleep heavily.

Day 19; Nha Trang.

6:20am, wake suddenly and shield my eyes from the sunlight seeping through the blinds by my pillow. Feel awful and brush my teeth very slowly and ineffectually and hold onto things for balance. I estimate, while I examine my gaunt reflection in the mirror, that I only had about 5 or 6 drinks last night. Abbi later doubles this figure. Two aspirin, tea and breakfast. 9am, still feel worse for wear but slightly more human now. Cold shower number two deflects off me as I barely notice it. 9:30, Dressed and out into the sunlight to explore Nha Trang by daylight. The streets are narrower than HCMC but familiar and easier to navigate. Traffic dodging is slightly less perilous here but one still has to be alert. Motorists, like those in HCMC, have the indefatigable ability to bend their vehicle around you regardless of speed. The rule, I soon discovered, is to walk steadily and slowly and they simply move around you like a school of fish around a larger predator. I joke to Abbi as we are halfway across a road that as a test, even a blind man could walk from one side to the other Scott-free. Could be a risky study though.

11am, We stop at “iced coffee” coffee house, a large western style cafe on Nha Trans main high street and with the friendliest staff of any cafe I’ve been to yet. I realise when I come to pay that I don’t have enough money (Dong) and nip across the road to an ATM. For some reason the ATM eats our only bank card and I’m left standing in the small vestibule with a look of confusion and horror on my face. Run back across the road ignoring the road-rule and tell Abbi – who quickly turns even paler than me. The staff hurry over gingerly with their usual vietnamese eagerness to help, and within minutes we are walked across the road by manager and into the bank itself where we plea without recrimination. We are asked to come back at 4:30 by which time they will, God willing, have it waiting for us. Travellers depend so much on people and invest a lot of trust in them and we find ourselves saying a massive thank you to Tony the coffee house manager for his swift performance.

walk for 4km northwards along Nha Trang beach in light rain and overlooking green islands shrouded in mist and low hanging cloud. The water in a deep turquoise green and the powerful break and dark sand makes it look more like the Pembrokeshire coastline than tropical Vietnam. Navigate a bridge and finally another faceless taxi experience before arriving at Thap Ba spa to have a mud bath and lounge in a mineral pool. The resort, packed to the rafters, has a happy-go-lucky feeling and the rustic, dated appearance and rough edges add to its charm. It’s a bit like re-visiting the chrismas Santas grotto in your local town square years later as an adult and noticing all the plugs, wires, spare Santa beards and the elves clustered around the back of the plastic lodge smoking and bemoaning about kids and Christmas.

The mud is warm, viscous and gloopy as we lower ourselves into our small mahogany tub for two perched on a stepped hill. We talk, laugh and try to use our body weights to anchor eachother. Humans, it seems, are very buoyant in mud. Walk back down the steps to a warm mineral pool where we sit surrounded by Russian accents for the next thirty minutes. The Kremlin and Vietnamese have recently opened new routes between several Russian airports and Nha Trang and the result is a huge volume of Russians. Even menus and street signs have swapped English for Russian. I note later that my hangover has been miraculously cured and celebrate with a beer.

Our card is waiting for us at Vietcom bank as promised and we walk back to our boxy hostel, looking and feeling spruced up. Street food and a smoothie each and spend our evening blogging and reading. Sleep fantastically and wish that all our beds over the next three months can be this comfy.

Day 20.

7am, Stir from a wonderful sleep. I remember elbowing Abbi on the head in my sleep and apologise resolutely to no one in particular. Cold shower number three. Realise how much time seems to have passed already since we gathered round the waterfall in Chiang Mai and promise myself to really make the most of the next three months. Eggs, baguette and green tea before we leave Tolabo and walk three or four minutes down the road to our next stop, CR Hotel. Our room, number 301 on the third floor, is sumptuously modern and clean and has a balcony and working shower complete with warm water. Much later; We decide to go to the cinema as a good old fashioned response to the bad weather. The Platinum Cinecomplex is located on the third floor of the very department store-like Nha Trang centre. It looks as you would expect any cinema complex to look and I forget momentarily that we are in Vietnam. Night At The Museum 3 was as you would expect of any Ben Stiller film – easy humour and easy to watch.

We had booked a table earlier in the day at a local vietnamese restaurant called ‘Lanterns’ – the name (‘dinloy’ in vietnamese) – comes from the 100 or so orange paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and casting a warm golden hue across the exposed brick walls and dark mahogany floorboards. Tofu, coconut and potato curry with a glass of Merlot for me, and a tofu lemongrass stir fry with a rum for Abbi.
9pm, Sit out on our balcony playing cards and topping up our teas with hot water until I embrace a defeat of 6-4 with a chivalrous nod and we turn in. Bed is soft and feels a little like a waterbed as it wobbles and rises and falls every time I move. Dream I’m floating in the ocean on a Lino.

Day 21 – Sunday

Sunday 7am. Wake with the noise of the city finding its way through our balcony door. The weather outside is a cool 16 degrees and the sky sighs down at me with low hanging grey clouds that cling to the mountains in the distance. People below me go about their livelihoods selling fruit, mending motorbike engines, selling cigarettes and tours and animals while tourists stroll around looking lost. A cool breeze filters through the narrow streets and spaces between the high rise buildings and I see people silently gesture to one another that it’s chilly. Much later; We walk at a stately pace along the beach southwards towards the pier. The beach opens up to a wider, less developed expanse and it strikes me that this is the neglected portion of Nha Trangs beach. I joke to Abbi that it looks malnourished before we decide to turn back towards the more luxurious stretches of beach with its rows of palmtrees, boutique restaurants and white sand. It seems that quality and priorities are concentrated to specific areas here – where uniformity, design and control are rarely diluted with the troublesome, chaotic or neglected. Ironically this misrepresents vietnamese culture which promotes inter-mingling of people and ideas. We purchase a lonely planet Vietnamese language book from a local student called Hugh who is stood by the beach side supporting his frame with two wooden crutches. Sit in a beachside coffee house called ‘The Sailing Club’ for several hours and become excited every time a ray of sunlight penetrates the thick cloud to cast light onto the marble floor. I find myself really looking forward to the warm beaches of southern Thailand. 4pm, back at our hotel. Turn aircon off. Read, shower and exercise in our room and watch as the sunset is reinforced  by the dark clouds gliding in from the South China Sea. Soon the city lights flick on replacing natural for neon and we turn in early again with heavy eyes.

Day 22, Monday.

Alarm wakes us at 6am and for once I am first out of bed and rearing to go. Breakfast on the 6th floor is stifled by the lack of chef. Receptionist checks us out and orders us a taxi while we wait the cooks to arrive. After breakfast and a series of goodbyes (“Cam-ern”) and thankyous (“dam-biet”) we are directed to a taxi outside. Taxi driver is a little more animated and responsive than usual so I’m both surprised and delighted when he mutters the word “okay” when I direct him to the train station. Talkative bunch, the Vietnamese.
We are sat at platform 4 by 8am as directed by a grunt and a nod from a member of the station staff. Communication on even the most basic level seems a challenge for the Vietnamese this morning. The wind changes direction and the air changes sharply and soon it begins to rain. The clouds seem to groan and creak with relief as our train rumbles into the station and comes to a jolting stop. Passengers disembarking battle with those trying to embark and the usual beautiful chaos of Vietnamese travel commences. We stand back and allow the battle to fizzle out and climb up into coach 7 of the massive train. Find our seats 10 & 11 towards the rear of the wide coach. My seat is broken and it means that I am to spend the next 8 hours in a fully reclined position while others have a choice of either upright or reclined. I soon adjust myself to my new position in the world and take the time to look around the carriage. The coach is traditional and reminiscent of an old Victorian train with dark mahogany panelling, golden curtains, wide windows and rows of orange-ochre lights down the spine of the ceiling. It feels more comfortable and better kept than our last train (with the exception of my seat of course) and is almost full to capacity. The train springs to life only five minutes late and we are away.
Our service is the southbound SE7 and I find out that all SE services with an even number are northward bound while all those with odd numbers such as ours are southbound. The attendants are turned out in crisply ironed uniforms and finely polished shoes but look a little travel worn and deflated after what has already been a 23 hour journey from Hanoi in the far, much colder, north. I find toilets in better condition than our northbound journey four days ago (a toilet bowl now occupies the space of the squat-hole) and while there is no hot water, the cold tap provides water of a more natural colour and consistency. We are out of Nha Trang within minutes and into the same lush landscape we came through from Saigon. The countryside seems greener now and I notice that the clouds are thinning and allowing sunlight to spill out and flood the valleys with a warmth and energy. It is Monday morning and agriculture seems to be the priority for most Vietnamese. We are running past extensive field systems populated by women – easily identifiable by their pointed Non La (leaf hats). As we pull into our first stop a woman strides along the track throwing small rocks at a herd of non-compliant donkeys who responsively scatter sharply downhill into the valley. Large pelican-like birds stand tall among the reeds of the water-logged fields while smaller, more wind-efficient birds pass overhead in formation.
4pm and 6 hours in our train comes to a very sudden and jolting stop causing everyone to lunge forward. As with almost anything in Vietnam getting information is almost impossible as no one speaks English and the few that do wave me away like an irritating child. Over an hour of sitting in the same place I am told, not by a Vietnamese girl, but by a Cambodian, that we had collided with a car twenty meters up the track. She reassures me and the other english speakers that no one was hurt and it was more superficial than anything. Later. The train grumbles with objection back into motion as the huge engine pulls on the 14 carriages. 6pm we roll into Saigon an hour and a half late and battle to get a taxi as we are again met by grunts and hand waving. Finally secure a seat and arrive at sunflower hotel after a taxi journey with a very one way conversation – “nice evening”.. No response. “You’re a man of few words I see, it’s okay – I bet you’re right laugh after a Saigon Beer”.. Not so much as a glance.
The hotel is eloquently fitted with marble floors, arches and floor to ceiling mirrors and our room is large, clean and bright. Dump bags and go to a local Vietnamese restaurant to recover from our nine hour journey. 9:30pm, Blogging becomes impossible as I struggle to keep my eyes open any longer. Tomorrow we head to Bangkok to catch our connecting flight to Krabi in the tropical South of Thailand. Filled with excitement and impatience as I think about the great experiences I had there earlier this year with my brother and feel excited to share this wonderful place with Abbi.

 

The ‘SAIGON’ experience by abz

James has finally allowed me to write a blog on his perfectly written travel diary. I hope you enjoy it, here goes!

– Abbi.

Saturday 13th December

Short and sweet… We climb down from the train with our fully loaded backpacks. Our trip from Chiang Mai was pleasant but long. With sleepy eyes we look for our hotel for the night, ‘Don Muang airport modern apartments’Don Muang is pretty different to the centre of Bangkok. A couple of street vendors and a temple our the only sites to see. Once in our cosy hotel we catch up on some sleep. Read, blog, eat and relax was the extent of our whole day. Dinner was a light pancake and meat on a stick, I say ‘meat’ because in fact there is no way to tell what it was that we were shovelling into our mouths.

Slept lightly in preparation for a 5am start to get our flight to Vietnam.

Sunday 14th December

Flight arrived safely 9:30am into ‘Saigon’. Plodded through all the necessary checks before arriving at the VISA counter. $90 later we are free to enter the country. As we reach our bags we see that the luggage belt has stopped and our lonely bags are laid out beside it “the last ones”. I envisage the luggage staff watching our bags go round and round on the belt, finally getting bored and throwing them off, if we were in Thailand they would have exclaimed “Ferang bah” (damn foreigners). Still at least they were safe and untouched as far as we could see.

The hot air hits us once again as we step out of the terminal. We head for the taxi rank. 230,000 dong, the price for safe passage to ‘Blue River hotel’. Anxiety builds up inside as I start to ponder, they could take us anywhere they want with our money already in their hands, or maybe James would sell me in exchange for his own freedom and/or to make a quick buck (he’s joked about it before). My fears quickly evaporated as we begin pointing out buildings and parks, the beauty of a city not so different from that of a French city. Taxi driver pulls over… ‘Blue River Hotel’ is no where to be seen. Frustration engulfs me as Taxi man points towards an alley way. James and I exchange glances clearly worried about the location of our lodgings. I eagerly point at the piece of paper with the address on and he nods excitedly and points again towards the alley and starts to get out of the car. We rush to the boot to collect our things exclaiming ‘cam on’ (thank you) and tiredly battle our way across the road encountering near misses with the fast moving traffic weaving in and out and between us. We smile as we reach the other side, thankful that we’re still intact bags and all. A man asks us if we want to buy his motorbike, we politely say no and ask him if he knows where our hotel is. He kindly guides us towards it.

We take a step into the hotel, but quickly remember we must take our shoes of as a sign of respect. Take two… We step onto the cold marble floor in the reception of ‘Blue River Hotel’ and are greeted by two glasses of fruit juice. We are given a discounted upgrade to a superior room.. needless to say the room is beautiful. We dump bags and head down and out to the street in search of some lunch. The usual chaos surrounds us, people selling sunglasses, coconuts, and offering us massages as we walk past. Noodles is our calling this day, beef for ‘Sir james’ and chicken for me. We lap up the last of our lunch and decide to go exploring. The blissful sun beats down on us as we walk to find near by land marks. ‘The Palace’ and ‘Notre Dame Basillica’ are just a couple on our list of things to do here.

A man (carrying a bamboo stick with a cool box on one side and a basket with coconuts and straws on the other) makes eye contact with James ‘bad news from the start’ lol. ‘You go palace?’ He inquires. As we walk along he engages James in conversation whilst I walk behind scrutinising his every move. No way is he getting our belongings I chant (in my head). He places the bamboo stick on James’s shoulder and mimes to me to take a photo… I do as I’m commanded and smile gracefully starting to trust the man. He takes back the bamboo stick opens up the coolbox, takes a coconut, cuts open the top with one chop and hands the coconut to james with a straw. He then repeats the action giving the second to me. Our jaws drop open as he demands 150,000 dong, about £5. We show our frustration and eventually the price is taken down to 100,000 dong £3. How to survive Asia Lesson 101 (or so it feels) ‘You touch… You buy’. I won’t be touching anything again.

Our day concluded nicely with free beer with our meal in ‘Miss Saigon’ bar, original eh? Needless to say we both slept heavy. I dreamt all my hair turned grey.

Monday 15th

Woke up 7am sharp. Workout started at 7.04am. We padded down to breakfast which consisted of an ‘Asian favourite’ eggs, bread and a banana each. Oooh and Lipton tea.

9am, map in hand we go in search of the ‘Saigon River’. We navigate through streets where there are no pavements and too many motorcycles to count. It seems the number of cars is outnumbered 100:1 by motorcycles. Destination is in sight… No way can we cross this death trap, the longest and busiest road we’ve seen so far. One look at each other, one shake of the head and raised eyebrows we turn on our heels and head back in the direction we had just come in search of coffee. Much safer we thinks.

The coffee bean and tea leaf serves us well, james has a latte and I have a ‘berried treasure’, a mixture of berries and yogurt. After much deliberation we head to the ‘War Remnants Museum’. Outside we get excited by the old aeroplanes and helicopters used during the American invasion, I snap a few photos of ‘sir spark’ as he pretends to fly. Life is great!! Inside is a different story. As we move from room to room intersted by the images and stories displayed. Interest is replaced by despondency as I learn what happened here in the south of Vietnam only a matter of 30-40 years ago. Dioxin or ‘Orange agent’ has caused horrific consequences, and thousands of land mines lay embedded in the earth which continue to deform or kill people. Much of the country is still affected by the horrors of the war and will continue to be for years to come. I am consumed by sadness for what happened here but at the same time filled with hope for the strength and power of the Vietnamese people as they continue to develop this beautiful country. Our next coffee is a solemn one as we try to put the graphic images of deformation and death out of our heads.

Our next point of call is the train ticket office. Nah trang will be our next destination from 18th to 22nd December. The train is £20 each return and a 7 1/2 hour journey of which neither of us our looking forward to. We are yet to see a Vietnamese train but going by the bacteria infected ones we were confined to for our Chiang Mai trip I am not much looking forward to it. I usually take to sitting in one position for the entire jouney so as not to touch more than is necessary and therefore avoiding contamination. Picture a child knees up to their chin grasping thier legs and rocking backwards and forwards.

A stiff drink is all it took to bring my spirits up, the rum here is outstanding and what seems to be a quadruple measure is supposedly only a double. Happy days, merrily I skip along behind james back to our hotel and run up the stairs with absolute gusto. This night we dine as vegans with tofu and fried rice noodles for me and tofu and some sort of tomato sauce with rice for james. After my reaction to the rum… We decide that tea may be the best option.

9pm ‘Good night’ light weights!!

Tuesday 16th December

A repeat of yesterday… I jump out of bed and to James’s dismay didn’t stop jumping for 45 minutes. ‘Can you have a day off tomorrow?’ He says disgruntled.

Feeling full after breakfast. We soon set off in search for the opera house. Like most places we try to find we don’t get there but instead reach the road that restricts access to the river. We look at each with adventure twinkling in ours eyes. I’ve seen people do it before… They gesture towards the oncoming traffic as if some unknown force will stop the vehicles from colliding with their confident stride. Slowly right foot, left foot we start in pursuit of the river. Like sardines we squeeze between the perilous traffic. Half way we turn our gaze and continue the same way to the finish line. ‘High five’! Made it unscathed. The surrounding area is beautiful with many buildings reflecting French colonialism. Another building, the ‘sky deck’, strikes us as interesting. In the shape of a lotus it is the tallest building in ‘Saigon’ and has 360 degree views. We continue along the river which is reminiscent of a skip. Eventually we arrive at ‘Tous Les Jour’ another little haunt we have come to love. We read and write for the remainder of the morning.

Our hearts are set on a massage today. We are given directions to ‘Beautiful Saigon Spa’. Our receptionist ‘Thuy’ advised me that if I wanted to keep my boyfriend then this would be safer than some of the other nearby spa’s. Pondering for a second ‘Beautiful Saigon’ became the natural choice hehe. As we enter the spa the receptionist steps forward and with her help we decide on a ‘full body aromatherapy massage’. We ease into the comfortable chairs as two bowls of warm water containing ginger, lime and some herbs are placed under our feet. From what I can see these are probably to rid our feet from the dirt we have picked up from outside, and I completely sympathise, feet are disgusting and in Asia they are seen as inferior to the rest of your body. I wouldn’t want to touch them unless smothered with antibacterial. Moving on… I lower my feet into the warm bowl of water, sit back in my chair, take in a huge relaxing breath. A simple village scene is painted on the wall. An elegant symbol of Vietnamese ladies in long dresses and conical hats. Above us is a chandelier and the furniture is a deep purple. A few moments later we are summoned through the beaded curtains and up the stairs to change. A nice purple rather than the ‘jailhouse rock’ type clothing we were given during our Chiang Mai massage experience. We enter a double room, and are lathered up with coconut oil. Very different to our previous massage which used no oil and included the masseur contorting us into different shapes against the will of our bodies.

5pm, we make the decision to head for the ‘Sky deck’ – everyone deserves a bit of luxury even on a budget. The receptionist ‘Thuy’ wishes us well on our journey to the bar.

At the top of the escalator We are approached by a women dressed in black. She points  towards some stairs and we are escorted through another barrier and to some lifts and told to go to the 52nd floor. Reminiscent of some secret operation, at every turn we are greeted by another person dressed in black. The lift climbs quickly and before we know it we’re up top stepping out into a sea of twinkly lights. James drags me away eager to get to the view of the sun setting over ‘Saigon’.  To my disappointment there is no happy hour and drinks are bordering ‘London prices’. However with the perfect spot we are able to see incredible 360 degree views with a calming glass of wine in hand. Blues, greens, purples are just a few of the colours that light up this city. I sit there thinking about its history together with it’s adorable charm and take in another one of those deeply calming breaths. This is the life I think to my self.

Dinner for us is simple, every day we walk past a lady who sings a merry song “one dollar noodle”. How can you resist that. Tasteful and cheap. We slither into bed after our long day of pampering and I read for a while before falling into a deep sleep where I am marooned on an island with rum at my side.

Wednesday 17th

Today is ‘RELAX’ day. Beautiful sunshine breaks through the gap in our curtains. A day of searching the net for the best weather forecast at our next destination. After all attempts the outcome is bleak… Our faces resembled two kids the day they find out that Father Christmas isn’t real!! We finally accept that the weather is going to be rainy and windy.  However they do have a mud baths and a spa. Something I’ve been excited to try for a while. I imagine pigs rolling around in mud – will my experience match this i wonder? I hear it’s a cleansing experience…

10:30pm time for dreams, catch you folks next time.

Days 9-11: Chiang Mai

Rise with the sun at 6 and lay in until 7am. Our quickly erected, wonky mosquito net and the noise from our party-inclined neighbours made for light sleeping. I stumble outside to take pictures of the glorious sunshine from the porch of our hostel. Scott, who also slept lightly as a result of the party goers, is sat at one of the large mahogany tables yawning. We catch up over some very questionable green tea and I stroll back into our room to find Abbi in the middle of a rigorous workout. I negotiate myself around her and shower before breakfast. Bacon, eggs and toast for me and cornflakes for Abbi before we exchange handshakes and goodlucks with the Spanish couple, Zuri and Christian, and Al before they leave for the South. I am sad to see them go, especially Al who I found very inspirational.

9:20am, we walk through the small alleyways towards the main promenade of Chiang Mai and soon find ourselves in Black Canyon Coffee, a Thai equivolent to cafe Nero or Costa in the UK. We seat ourselves outside overlooking the main road and the great red sandstone basilica of the ancient eastern gate. People stop from time to time to have themselves photographed infront of it and I notice with interest that many angle their cameras to include the Starbucks in the forecourt of the gate. I decide this must be a subconscious nod to both the historic identity of the city and the modern, western culture that currently presides over it. Two newly weds appear with beaming smiles from the gate. Following them is an entourage of cameramen, a gentleman carrying a large umbrella and their respective families. I watch as they are positioned then repositioned many times over by a very unagreeable cameraman who insists inexorably on perfection of catwalk proportions. The couple remain composed and collected but as the cameraman fusses over a repositioning once more I see the grooms solid smile wither for a split-second before he composes himself and is back to being the man at the centre of it all once again.

Later I am distracted by my book as a bearded elderly man slowly cycles past with a board reading “Free Hugs”. I contemplate this until I notice the smaller board on the back of his bike reading “No Fake Hugs”. I shrug and decide not to chase after him.

Streams of tuk tuks pass us alongside the 8th century walls while tourists, laiden with backpacks and many not yet sun-kissed, negotiate themselves between the traffic as they cross the road. I notice that traffic lights hold little authority here and people not only drive through red lights, but drive up the footpaths and even on the wrong side of the road. A means to an end I suppose. Another couple of newlyweds appear from behind the gates while local Muay Thai boxers drop leaflets for tonight’s fight into the hands of oncoming tourists or under coffee cups of those seated in the surrounding cafes. A 4×4 pulls up at the traffic lights opposite us with a megaphone announcing the boxing match tonight at 9pm. I catch the drivers eyes and throw a volley of playful air-punches his way just as he ducks behind the wheel and reappears just as quickly with his own volley of swings. I lunge back in my chair pretending to be knocked out and we all erupt into laughter.

Later. Abbi advises me that mosquitos are still lurking about even in the daylight so I lather up on repel before we leave Black Canyon Coffee. People are all too keen to sell everything and anything in Thailand and as we walk back along the promenade we are bombarded with offers of luxury hotels, massages, excursions and all manner of local treasures and fortunes. 12pm, As the sun rises so too does the pace of life in the warm city and people seem to seize all opportunities to explore, barter, indulge and consume. We decide to seek out a massage parlour as it seems like a good relief to the increasing strength of the sun. We search our collection of pamphlets and after some negotiations and coin tossing settle on ‘Lilya’ before strolling down the boulevard past wine bars, juice bars and small independent stores furnished with local fabrics, Buddha ornaments, bottles of water and clothes.

My watch reads 1pm and we book into our massage. We opt for “back, shoulder and neck massage” which sounds the most alluring. We are given striped clothes that would not look out of place in a national prison, and receive a complementary foot bath (although I suspect this was probably a response to our dirt covered feet from walking the city). We are soon graced with a cup of green tea before the massage begins. The air is light and cool and the smell of oils and incense permeates everything. My first suprise is how powerful my masseuse is with her hands, and the second, how soothing a combination of sharp, breath-stealing pushes and soft compressions are. Despite opting for the back, neck and shoulder massage, she starts with my legs and feet. I almost interject but quickly lower my head in subservience and just go with it. Glowing with health, and smelling very gently of alovera, we emerge an hour later relaxed and ready for a glass of wine.

8pm. After spending the remaining afternoon intermittently shopping and reading we seat ourselves in a local bar called The Coffee Club and order a glass of wine each. We use this opportunity to practice our Thai on eachother much to the delight of the locals around us. Before too long a gentleman leans over from my left and offers some assistance with pronunciation. His name is Alex and he is Thai but has spent the last ten years living in Hertfordshire, England. He has a fantasticly buoyant sense of humour and an infectious smile, and most strikingly a more English accent than me. This throws me a little and I find that Abbi and I glance at eachother occasionally after he pronounces certain things in an overtly English way. The evening advances and before too long our other wine drinking neighbours tune in and join in and we all introduce ourselves. Ian and Gwen from Newcastle have been coming to thailand for the last 28 years together and I joke that this is longer than either me or Abbi have been alive. I suspect this unsettles them a little as Ian sharply suggests that they must be getting old and sighs comically. They laugh as I give them my best squat-toilet impression as we talk about our recent trekking and they urge us, almost without compromise, to go to Laos and Pai in North Thailand. We make a modest deal and enjoy the blissful warm evening air. We drink and exchange more stories before Abbi and I wave goodbye and walk home. 11pm, climb in to bed before remembering to put up the mosquito netting. It is only really big enough for one of our two beds which have been united to form an extra large king size bed so we nominate one of them and huddle beneath the netting. Fall asleep to the noise of a fellow traveller above us face-timing her entire family one after another. Dream I’m on a chat show.

Day 10: Chiang Mai day two.

I’m talking to Scott in the lounge by 8am. Our attempt to keep the Mosquitos at bay was a success although the noises of industrial hammering and a man who insisted on retching for over an hour in a nearby room ensured our sleep was only just tangible. Out early with Abbi and Scott for breakfast at Black Canyon Coffee. The light is soft and gentle and the air already warm and dry and we take a seat overlooking the city gates once again. We sit and talk for a few hours before Scott sets off to find enlightenment in the artisan streets of Pai about 4 hours North of Chiang Mai. He insists that we should visit Canada next year and suggests that he can give us a tour of British Columbia, bears, and wolves included.

Later. We say our goodbyes and ensure we have exchanged details correctly. Afterwards Abbi and I spend most of the afternoon alternating between drinking tea, reading and soaking up the warm air and blue skies. We are bound for Ho Chi Mihn City the day after tomorrow and the weather forecast is so so.

4pm, We are picked up from Elephant Baan Hostel at 4pm after picking up our laundry from the small vendor across the road. We hop into the people carrier – a well kept Toyota – and are greeted with a mix of American, English and German accents. Drive to Lon Pet Market in the east of the city where we are introduced to ‘Perm’- our chef for our Thai cookery class for the evening. He is a man of many words, flamboyant and sports a permanent and infectious smile across his face. His tactic is to tell a joke and be the first to laugh at it. This way I suppose at least one person always laughs. It also encourages us to giggle back at his little jibs. His knowledge of the growing seasons, specifications, varieties and uses of fruit, vegetables and meats is outstanding and he guides us around the different stalls of the bustling market picking up everything from cucumbers to local indigenous fish to curry paste and spices. Some of the American attendees quietly mock his jokes but Abbi and I smile on earnestly without spite and with a willingness to learn. We learn lots of lessons about the qualities of our ingredients. Big eggs are bad, small eggs are good because they have been laid by younger hens and therefore have a superior taste. Eggs that rattle or float are bad while pink eggs, a Thai delicacy, are even worse – I am told they smell like horse urine. Un-cleaned eggs are usually the freshest because cleaning them warms the core temperature of the egg slightly and encourages the processes of decay. The lessons continue; large peppers are less spicy and but have more seeds, while smaller peppers are spicier and need to be in the pan slightly longer. It is not long until we have purchased our necessery ingredients and are in the car to his property 20 minutes into the countryside.

The location is fantastic. A modern timber structure which is supported by large oak posts houses brand new worktops, single ovens and grills, utensils and furniture. There are no walls so the whole structure provides views across miles of pristine land and gives perfect frame to a red sunset while we are briefed on the evening and drink beer.

We cook five dishes in all, each after a light hearted demonstration from Perm. I start with a coconut and wild mushroom soup and end with a delicately cooked Pad Thai. The time keeping of his team is impeccable as they busy about around us removing used utensils, dishes or replenishing ingredients. After we prepare the five dishes we are beckoned to carry them over to some dressed tables where we can eat our results. We end the night with a prep talk from Perm and a signed copy of his book before we file back into the van and enjoy the ride home through the attractive countryside of North Thailand. Stroll back along the familiar roads for the last time to our hostel for our final sleep before we leave for Bangkok and Vietnam in the morning. Pack bags and erect the mosquito net for the final time. Vietnam is a mystery to me at this stage and I feel both excited and apprehensive to leave thailand and the beautiful Chiang Mai behind. Sleep better and remember that I need to mail my postcards. Remember also that I need to write them first.

Chiang Mai & jungle trekking

Chiang Mai, day 4:

The train gently rocks from side to side as it reaches its higher speeds through the open countryside and breakfast arrives as we are snapping pictures. We eat quickly despite being frequently interrupted by the beautiful views. 10am: We pull into Chiang Mai on time. After 14 hours we are eager to get off the train to see Chiang Mai. Jeff hands me a signed copy of his bands album and I extend a handshake and say our goodbyes. I grab my go pro and film our walk through the beautiful station under bright blue skies. The air is already 28 degrees and people around us hasten to shed their layers from the cooler journey on the train. Sunlight beams through ornate metal arches, wooden statues and between glistening Thai flags and falls onto my face. We walk along the long platform with our heavy bags and catch eye contact with two bright eyed Thais clutching a board with ‘Mr James’ and ‘Mr Abbi’ scribbled on. We take this to mean us and walk straight up to them, exchange greetings and a solid high five before hopping into their 4×4. The drivers name is kasem, but everyone calls him ‘same same’. He is not local to Chiang Mai City, but part of the Karan tribe from the northern areas of the jungle that flanks the city. He speaks four languages and the conversation quickly decends into the world of English Premiership football once again. He is a Chelsea fanatic and tells us of his plans to see them play in England. He joshes about having a tattoo of the team emblem on his shoulder. The conversation is light and playful and we laugh and drive on through the wide roads of the city.

11am: Arrive at Elephant Baan House which falls within the 800 year old walls of the great city. Our room, 102, is quite big with an en suite but has a very rustic, almost hill tribe character. Walls are bare, glossed concrete and the floor white marble. We leave our bags and explore. EBH is a recently renovated traditional Thai house where modern furnishings blend with northern Thai styles. A large hand carved wooden elephant head overlooks large wooden tables, exposed brick columns, and cushions and plushings adorned with images of elephants, flowers and Thai symbols. People are dressed casually in baggy, almost hippy’esque, trousers and light tops and are all smiling while in deep conversations with eachother. We take a walk through the smaller streets towards the city centre and are struck by the cleanliness and beauty of the city compared to Bangkok. Unlike its southerly cousin, Chiang Mai is a charming, vibrant, colourful city with flag and paper lantern lined streets, elegant public gardens, sophisticated compact shopping squares, and a smile and bow at every turn. I instantly love it and try to soak as much of it in as I can. It’s positively infectious and I find myself not only smiling back with eager reciprocity, but initiating smiles and greetings with people keen to throw English words at me. In the evening we find ourselves in a night market just fringing the city walls. Japanese chicken Katsu curry for me and vegetarian pork and rice for Abbi. Weave our way back through the claustrophobic streets of the market and sleep lightly.

Day 5: Jungle Trekking.

7am: Wake early to pack bags and exercise in the coolness of our room. Fruit and green tea for breakfast. We introduce ourselves to our trekking family for the next three days. Al, from Spain, is a very meditative, wise and health conscious vegan who strikes me as wise beyond his years. It turns our he isn’t in his late twenties but actually 42. This is a massive surprise as he is in impeccable shape and mind. Scott is a 26 year old Canadian through and through who I instantly take to and we spend much of the trip in the mini bus chatting about our homelands and lives. We file into the mini bus and within an hour we reach an elephant camp.

First impressions are not overly concerning. The elephants are large and in good shape, their young closely shadowing their movements. We heed advice from people disembarking their animals to swap cameras with another person on our tour to get pictures of ourselves and visa versa. Before we can do this we are ushered up onto a wooden platform and onto the back of a particularly large elephant, carrier bag of bananas and sugar cane stems in hand. As we clamber, most clumsily, onto the bench strapped to the back of the animal our driver, a man of very few words, leans over his shoulder and throws us a thin white rope. He gestures that we should tie it around the sides of the bench in front of us as a kind of security measure –  their equivalent, I assume, to the metal bar you would have come down on a fairground ride to strap you in. I find myself glancing between rope, animal and ground level and decide that the only use the fraying rope would have is as an abseil rope to hurriedly disembark the beast. Fortunately for us this isn’t necessary and the rope survives another day in its current employment. We spend about thirty minutes hanging on as the mammal browses the surrounding flora and I have a distinct feeling that we are very much not in control. As we near the elephant camp where we embarked we plod up the centre of a wide, shallow stream. An elephant to my left is encouraged by its Thai driver to suck up water and spray it onto the backs of the couple on another elephant infront. We brace ourselves but are spared the free shower.

After the trek we are offered souvenir pictures which we politely decline. 12pm: Back on the bus to our camp. We park up at a small village and sling our bags across our shoulders. Our first stop is a waterfall about 30 minutes walk from the van. The base of the waterfall comprises a wide expanse of water flowing over smooth, glistening basalt rock and is sourced from three branches of falling water from about twenty meters above us. It is stunning and within minutes we are in our swimming shorts and snapping pictures in the warm sun. Scott discovers a scramble to a narrow ledge behind the waterfalls which he braves first. We follow and take pictures through the tumbling water to the others below us. There is a small Buddhist shrine hidden away in a cave up here and I clasp my hands together infront of my face and bow in gratitude of this wonderful, pristine place. Lunch from inside a string-tied bamboo leaf consists of warm rice and chicken with vegetables and it’s lovely.

After lunch we walk for three hours over hills, valleys, rice paddies and small, intimate villages. The walk is challenging but managable and invigorating and never becomes a chore. We reach a second, much more substantial waterfall system after another two hours trekking. This waterfall is breathtaking. Vast and powerful, the water races over the rock twenty feet above us in a variety of small, large, wide and frantic streams. We strike poses whilst balancing on a large boulder just a meter from the largest falling stream. My gopro camera is invaluable here and everyone crowds round to nudge their faces into shot. The most memorable moment is not the waterfall, for all its glory, but the thirty minutes, Scott, Abbi and I spend with Al as he teaches us a series of meditative stretches and exercises beside the waterfall to balance our bodies and mind. The surroundings are captivating and I struggle to hold back a gleaming smile as I realise how lucky we are to be here together and sharing stretches and meditations while the diminishing strength of the sun causes the surrounding rock and water and woodland to change from bold colours to silvers, deep reds and pale ambers. It is a spiritual experience and I am reluctant to put on my shoes and leave.

Our camp for the night is nestled on a high peak surrounded by dense sub-tropical and deciduous forest and the most amazing views across a very wide valley. The accommodation is a raised building on stilts made almost entirely of bamboo and wood and is divided into three large rooms – one with two rows of 8 floor height mattresses divided by a depressed walkway. Each ‘bed’ has its own mosquito net, sleeping bag and blankets and it seems more functional than comfortable. The second and third rooms hosts a large bamboo table long enough to seat twelve people and a very traditional kitchen. Food is prepared on an open fire in large, well used pans and pots and tastes fantastic after a day’s trekking. 8pm: We light a campfire just slightly further down the hill from the buildings and sit drinking Chang and playing guitar while the sun sets. It is sublime.

Day 6: The jungle.

I am stirred early by a shiver of cold. My watch beeps 6am and I tip toe out of our dorm room while a low sun makes beams of light stream through the bamboo walls and strike my body as I move through them. I sit by the smouldering fire from the night before and, looking out over the valley, meditate for half an hour as the sun rises and the sky playfully changes colour. After breakfast and a cold shower we walk for two hours before we reach a third waterfall and plunge pool to swim in. The current is strong and we try to swim against it. A Dutch couple have come down to swim in the warm water and offer us pellets to feed the fish. I capture the eating frenzie on film before we eat our own lunch as we dry off in the sun. A large moth with a wing span of two hands lands confidently on Abbis head with a plonk and she allows me to take a photo before it flys away. We trek for a further two hours and arrive at our second camp. It shares many similarities with the first and we play cards, drink beer and talk after dinner until we cannot keep our eyes open any longer and crawl into our sleeping bags.

Day 7: Trekking day 3.

We pack our bags early and soon realise there was no rush. Breakfast is later and we don’t leave the village until 11:30am. Facilities here are very basic, and the toilet is no more than a hole in the ground with a squat toilet bowl placed over the top. There are no sinks, hand soaps or toilet rolls (other than our diminishing stock) for miles so we have to improvise to some extent. We walk back through the village across a rickety bamboo bridge which looks like it can’t even support its own weight, let alone the weight of luggage bearing travellers. The local language here is that of the Karan tribe, the same as ‘Same Same’ from our hostel back in Chiang Mai, and hello is pronounced as “omo-chopper”. We use this flippantly, much to the delight of the locals as we pass them in their small, bamboo houses making breakfast or feeding children or doing chores. One thread of cultural continuity in Thailand, from South to North, is their ability to welcome and greet so gracefully and earnestly. I sigh when I think of how different people can be back home.

We are picked up within half an hour and drive to the side of a shallow, but wide river where we board flimsy looking bamboo rafts three at a time. My gopro once again comes into its element here and I capture lots of footage as we meander the slight bends and rapids of this beautiful, docile river. Dragonflies scoot about between us and the sun beams strongly through the branches and leaves of the trees flanking the river. A bird sings proudly to my right and elephants gather to cross the stream 40 yards downstream. A small water snake glides gracefully across the width of our raft only to disappear just as quickly. Abbi is thrilled by this and she suggests I take pictures but the animal has already slipped back into the slow moving water. Scott is beckoned to the front of our bamboo pontoon to try his hand as captain. He does a great job manoeuvring the raft with a large pole and his body weight alone and before too long we are ready to pull up at a small floating quey to start our journey home. The drive to Chiang Mai is uncomfortable and I find that I have a touch of poor bowels and a headache. I spend the evening relaxing and taking Imodium and paracetamol to take away the discomfort. The shower feels amazing after three days of bathing in cold river water and I sleep lightly but contently dreaming of snakes, waterfalls and the wonderful people of the Karan tribe.

The view from our camp, abbi at the first waterfall and our accommodation

The view from our camp, abbi at the first waterfall and our accommodation

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