Tag Archives: South East Asia

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 4: Not quite ‘Tomb Raider’, but my name IS Croft.

30 Sep

For a very long time, Siem Reap was a small town in the north west of Cambodia that if anyone visited it at all, it was because of the nearby Angkor Wat, one of the great monuments of the world. People still visit it because of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap has become a destination in its own right. It has a post-French colonial cool all of its own, which is enough to tempt many travellers. But a word of caution; Cambodia has several micro climates and in this part of the country things get hot. They get very hot indeed.

 

On the taxi journey to Siem Reap, I met Jimi, a very interesting guy from India, who is now working abroad. As I mentioned, his brother runs the guesthouse The River Queen in Siem Reap, which I recommend you investigate.

As for Siem Reap itself, the town’s name literally means ‘Siam Defeated’, which refers to the Khymer sacking of the Thai city of Ayutthaya in the 17th Century, if you ever get the sense Thai people look down on Cambodia, this does nothing in their defence. Imagine Anglo-Euro relations if Manchester was re-christened Germany Defeated. Yeah, see what I mean? Bold and blunt people, those Cambodians. I’m just glad they weren’t on the losing side; just imagine.

 

Siem Reap is quite a nice town, showing off much of its previous French influence and its Colonial buildings and tree lined boulevards do give it a unique charm, although the recent addition of ‘Pub Street’ does remind me more of the more hedonistic sights of the Costa Del Sol.

 

My stay in Siem Reap was at The Dancing Frog hostel, which was a pleasant enough stay. However, while in Siem Reap I finally succumbed to stomach issues, a moment I had been anticipating since I arrived in South East Asia, and began eating the food and just generally engaging with an alien environment. That Khymer Soup I bought from a street stall probably didn’t help either. There were more flies than people queuing up for that business; one of them was so big it could have been thinking about taking a chair. I just wish I’d seen them all before I placed my order, sat down and put the last spoonful in my mouth.

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Anyway, more about the outcome of that later, not to mention my adventures actually in Siem Reap, including the fascinating Nick Dale and his in progress book about his transgender daughter. That was quite a story. But more about him later. The main attraction, while in Siem Reap, is undoubtedly the Angkor temple complex, and Angkor Wat in particular. Angkor Wat, for those not in the know, is the largest religious monument in the world. Its name literally means ‘City which is a temple’ If there’s one thing you’re possibly picking up from this blog article, it’s that the Khymer people tell it like it is when it comes to place names. The Angkor complex is very close to Siem Reap. In a car, if you put your foot down, you could reach your first temples in less than 20 minutes, but this is a journey you’ll want to savour, so speed won’t be your aim.

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Angkor Wat was built in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, at the height of The Khymer Empire, one of the great Asian civilizations. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, with the whole layout based on a mandala, the sacred design of the Hindu cosmos. It is now considered a sacred Buddhist site, having been converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. There are three levels to Angkor Wat before you reach the inner shrine, and it’ll take you a fair while to walk there. By that point you’ll have had the experience of walking through the main causeway and into the temple proper, a never to be repeated experience of awe and jaw dropping disbelief. It will stay with you for a very long time, perhaps forever. One of the seminal, singularly impressive moments of my trip, I have to admit. I don’t have the in depth knowledge to do Angkor Wat justice, but I do urge you to investigate it further. It truly is one of the man made marvels of the world. Extraordinary.

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The day before I’d visited many of the ‘lesser’ temples around Angkor, which proved to be on eof the hottest days I experienced in South East Asia. Trust me, if you’re not wearing sun screen, a hat and drinking lots of water you will suffer the consequences.

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Here I am, looking bucket soaked and on the verge of sun stroke, and with an unreliable camera stick, but still willing to do an impromptu outside broadcast for you good people:

 

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Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples in Cambodia. Some are far away from where I was based, and have truly been enveloped by the jungle, but are now slowly being offered as realistic tourist destinations. Other temples in the vicinity of Siem Reap include Angkor Thom, which was the largest city in the Khymer Empire at the time (late 12th Century), and includes The Bayon, an extraordinary structure  featuring 54 towers, three levels and 200 huge stone faces, which may represent the all seeing and knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Try saying that after a few Khymer beers. Elsewhere in the vast complex, Ta Prohm is practically a ruin, but its beauty lies in the way the temple has almost become one with the forest, with great buttresses entwined with the masonry. Many of you will know Ta Prohm from its memorable appearance in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

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As I explain in the video clip, the usual practice for tourists is to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. A taxi would be far too expensive, and a tuk tuck means you get to ride around din the fresh air. Well, when I say ‘fresh air’, I am referring to some of the most stifling heat I’ve ever known. Fortunately my man had a seemingly unending supply of ice cold water, so respect due to him.

So, the most visually impressive part of the trip and in some respects a highlight. But there’s still plenty more to come…

Next time: elephants, monkeys and more temples!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 2: “Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions”- Todd Phillips

21 Aug

Nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with getting there and planning the Cambodian part of my journey, I’d let my first port of call shift to the back of my mind, which is quite something when you’re about to arrive there.

I was actually enjoying the flight so much that I wasn’t thinking too much about Bangkok (Qatar Airways certainly make the travel experience a joy, but more about them on the way back as well as their blatant attempts to remind us of their future stint as World Cup hosts). Arriving in Bangkok from Doha, which is considerably warmer than England, and the first thing I noticed was the temperature. Underneath the air conditioning was a heat I noticed as soon as I exited the plane. Yeah well, I thought I was noticing it then; the hottest was still to come. So, there I was, with my own sweat pouring into my underwear like it’d been raining, trying to broach the language barrier in order to give the tuk tuk guy directions. My Bangkok baptism of fire! To be honest, his English was better than my Thai and he even attempted some rudimentary conversation while we whizzed along the congested streets. I just kept smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, while gripping the arms of the Tuk Tuk seat with sweat still pouring down my bum (I quickly learned that the high speeds make the thing feel like it’s about to go over on one side, but it never does).

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View from my first tuk tuk ride. It almost looks car fume free.

Now, here’s a tip for you, passed on by my very good South East Asia travelling friends (and it won’t be the last). When you arrive at Bangkok Airport, and you’ve got your luggage, keep going down. Follow the escalators as far down as possible and you’ll reach the rail link or ‘skytrain’. For around 24bt, you’ll get a plastic coin token to operate the barriers and that’ll be valid to the final stop in the centre of Bangkok, which is where you get off.

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My first experience of being in the centre of Bangkok was coming out of the air conditioned ‘safety’ of the train and covered station and into the dusty heat of the streets. Prior to becoming acclimatised, it felt like standing near a blast furnace. After dropping two layers of clothing which had gamely survived on my person to that point, I hailed my first tuk tuk and off I went! My Guesthouse was near the infamous Thanon Kao San. I say infamous, but it’s more pleasantly edgy than all out scary. Think of Las Vegas having a secret affair with Blackpool front and the offspring being hastily shipped off to South East Asia to avoid any embarrassment to Vegas. That’s sort of what Khoa San road looks like; bright neon signs fight for attention on the crowded walls, there are guesthouses and hostels and bars aplenty and the market stalls never seem to close, with the smell of fresh food permeating the night air. Known as ‘back packer’s paradise’ for many decades, the Koah San Road district was originally an area of canals, now largely built over, and was once a major rice market.

The heat in Bangkok means that although some significant tourist attractions aren’t too far away, you are usually better getting a tuk tuk or a taxi to reach them. The Ratanakosin area is the best place to start your exploration of the city, and offers Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace, which I’ll tell you about later.

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Wat Intharawihan

Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok

 

So Khoa San road is a good spot to stay on a first visit as it’s not far from Ratanakosin. It is in the Banglamphu area of (Phra Nakhon district) about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) north of The Grand Palace (more of which later) and Wat Phra Keaw. Journalist Susan Orlaean once called Khoa San Road “the place to disappear” for any travellers wishing to escape the West,  and anyone who has read Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel The Beach, will have an idea of the kind of opportunities for that kind of ‘disappearance’.

 

Ok, there are many tourist attractions in a city as large and as vibrant as Bangkok, but I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s cut to the chase and get the elephant in the room taken back to the zoo…no, I didn’t meet any ‘lady-boys’ and I didn’t go in a place with this type of sign outside:

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been absolutely fascinated to do so (‘yeah, I bet you wouldn’t’, say several readers) but I didn’t really see many and didn’t go looking for them. Which yes, I hear you say, would be the right decision, given the misogynistic hallmarks (at the very least) of such practices! Basically, if you want to see Thai woman ejecting ping pong balls from their vaginas, then I imagine you will have an absolutely astounding holiday. Equally , if you want some good food, culture and other adventures, you’ll be equally gratified. Well, ok, maybe ‘gratified’ was the wrong word to use there, but you know what I mean. You’ll be …happy!

So, no…no ping pong balls.

Lots of Bangkok street food though, which you’d be a fool not to try. It’s arguably the best street food in the world. I now have a serious noodle desire, and Pot Noodle will not cut it.

 

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Khoa San Road

According to Wikipedia, which I can back up as fact. Khoa San Road “…is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north to Ko Pa Ngran in the south…” Visas and transportation to neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, can also be organised.

One word of warning though, is to veer on the side of caution when dealing with street vendors and tuk tuk drivers and the like. My first tuk tuk trip from Khoa San Road was a minor disaster. An agreement to pay 100 baht for a trip to the Grand Palace and other sites, ended in numerous visits to tailors and gem shops. Because I made a point of challenging this (which is common practice), I ended up walking fifteen minutes to the Pace as the guy had just dropped me off, realising his scam was revealed. 100 baht is no big deal; just a few quid, but it was frustrating. Some tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots with the owners of businesses such as a tailor, and get commission from bringing in tourists. It’s not what you’ve asked for, so don’t be afraid to challenge this. Even better, I’d avoid any tuk tuk drivers down Khoa San Road, and pick one up elsewhere. For 100baht you might even get him to wait around while you explore the various sites. Seriously, they’ll be glad to do it, and before I put you off, most of the Bangkok residents are hugely friendly and honest people.

 

I’d arrived in Bangkok during a Buddhist festival prohibiting all sale of alcohol. Just so you understand, I wasn’t tripping over myself to get plastered and hit the town, but it did make my first impressions of Khoa San Road more subdued than they would normally be. One frustrating outcome was that any bars selling alcohol were closed, including the wonderful Altern the 13th Blues Bar, which I had to visit on my return visit. I’d check in advance about this sort of thing, especially if you’ve got designs on having an ice cool beer when you arrive.

Buddhism is, as you probably know, a huge part of Thai culture and is the majority religion by a significant margin. Buddhism permeates the life and culture of many South Asian countries, and the very least you can do before visiting is just educate yourself on the etiquette and customs, more to make your journey a pleasant embarrassment free one more than avoiding offending anyone. Wats (Buddhist temples) will require you to cover up your arms and legs, so simple considerations like that are what I’m talking about. I’ll write more about Buddhism later.

20160719_222550Laksameenarai Guesthouse

Laksameenarai Guesthouse

The guesthouse I stayed in is one I heartily recommend. It’s a traditional Thai house, that’s been converted and was a welcome oasis of calm just five minutes from the hustle of Khoa San Road. If you’re in Bangkok you can do worse that book yourself in The Laksameenarai Guesthouse. It was truly great, with friendly service and comfy surroundings. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. Now, that’s just my recommendation, so feel free to shop around. There are more guesthouses and hostels in that area than you can shake your keys at. If you want to go upmarket, a plusher hotel room need not coast you an extortionate amount, but again, just spend a bit of time comparing prices and reviews. For westerners, Thailand is still good value for money. As I said in my Istanbul blogs, two years ago, some accommodation lends itself more to meeting people, which I would suggest is a better idea if you’re travelling solo. Even if you’re a bit more introverted, you’re going to want more than going back to the same four walls at some point. I met some nice people at the guesthouse, including a large proportion of Dutch people, who were unrelated, they just happened to all be there at the same time. The first of many late night drinking sessions occurred at Laksammnarai, which half the conversation in Dutch and half in English. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Double Dutch?

http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Laksameenarai-Guesthouse/Bangkok/83003

Bangkok’s assault on the senses means that a few days is not really enough to truly appreciate it, and I was glad to be returning in a few weeks, so this blog will return to the Thai capital in more detail. Bangkok is a relatively young capital, replacing Ayutthaya as the capital in 1782, following the Burmese sacking of the old capital. It now has a population forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai, and has become one of the most vibrant and fashionable cities in Asia.

 

After a few days in Bangkok, my plan was to leave Thailand for Cambodia, which meant some careful planning on an early morning train and the not inconsiderable challenge of getting to Aranyaprathet, near the border, navigating tuk tuk journeys, border scams and immigration and a trip by bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Next time I’ll give you an almost fool proof guide to getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap without paying a fortune, and having an adventure along the way.

See you next time, on the Bangkok to Aranyaprathet express!