Wat Rong Kun or The White Temple is a free, must-see location on a visit to Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Stunning, startling and unique. This modern Buddhist temple takes tradition and injects it with contemporary design and powerful statements on the state of our society and culture through the use of art. Re-built after falling into disrepair by an artist from Chiang Mai, the project will not be completed until 2070!
I loved it. Bright white plaster shapes and reflective mirror tiles oozed beauty and simplicity. Weaving through the whole design of sculpted bridges and archways were deeper comments about life and death. One of the most striking and thought-provoking areas is inside the main temple where the painted walls lay out a picture of modern day events, issues and well known figures from movies to politics. It showed me the power art has to speak out about injustice, evil, inequality and humour.
My next challenge was a three day trek into the Thai forest and mountains with a local young guide from the Karen tribe called Mr Quick, who lived up to his name and a small but adventurous group of tourists.
The Karen people are beautiful in spirit and in appearance and we were privileged to visit their small village community in the mountains.
We started out on the back of a pick up truck winding up mountain roads. The group I had joined were an eclectic mix of people, many of whom had met each other on the buses or trains up to Chiang Mai. There was an Irish carpenter, an Indian medical researcher from Texas, a hairdresser from France, a nurse from Scandinavia and a lorry driver from Holland. Our common interest was a sense of adventure and curiosity.
First stop of the trip was elephant riding.
I hadn’t realised this was included in the tour. Elephant riding appears on the surface to be great fun. Who wouldn’t want to be close to such a wonderful animal? But there is a dark side to this practice that tourism is fuelling.
I had until the day before been totally uneducated about this practice until I glanced at a website about this and began to learn more. Everyone in our group bar myself rode the elephants because they are beautiful animals. However, after the ride they came away questioning what they had done having seen them hit repeatedly with sharp metal hooks.
Elephant spines are not designed to carry the weight of humans and can be seriously damaged especially by the numbers taken on a daily basis. The Asian elephant is also now becoming endangered in the wild due to the illegal capture for tourists. A wild elephant will not allow people to sit on its back. So as a young elephants they have to be forced into submission. Often this is through pain.
This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.
The site we were heading to was a small village community in the forest. After escaping over the border from Myanmar (formerly Burma) due to fighting with the Burmese army many Karen people settled where they could in the among the trees.
This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.
The journey through the forest was eerily quiet. There was no bird song. I asked our guide why. He said the birds and monkeys that used to be there were all gone. Hunted, shot and eaten. This is the tragic reality of much of Asia. Any insect, bird, fish and mammal is seen first and foremost as a potential food source. To demonstrate this, Mr Quick pointed out some large ants. He plucked one off a leaf, pulled off its head between his teeth, ate it and offered us the chance to do the same. A couple of brave trekkers did and said it tasted of lemon. The only other creature we saw was demonstrated by our guide. Pointing out a small hole in the ground, he stuck a stick down and pulled out a huge tarantula-style spider. Holding the arachnid from behind we were told this was a deadly spider. One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.
One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.
We arrived at the village at dusk and were provided a with a long, covered wooden platform overlooking the tree tops that had mattresses and mosquito nets. I wanted to get a sense of my surroundings so wandered through the dirt track to see more.
I watched a lady herding mother hens and their chicks into woven basket chicken coops. I saw a man chopping wood. Houses were made of natural materials, often raised up on stilts off the ground. The space beneath had an old pig or a cow tied to the posts. I wondered how the villagers must feel about our presence there. Due to its remoteness the place had not become commercialised, although when we first arrived we were offered hand made bracelets to buy by the ladies of the community. I also discovered they had just received electricity the previous month, which was already changing people’s habits, they could now get and watch t.v!
After a delicious meal of curry and rice cooked on a fire, we were treated to the local children singing together around a camp fire. One of our travelling party had also brought some fireworks. After I suggested that setting them up near the fire and a flammable wooden building wasn’t the best idea, the whole village were treated to a sparkling display that they had never seen before and really enjoyed. Luckily I am a good sleeper and I drifted off to the buzz of forest crickets, a spluttering candle and plenty of snoring.
Early morning rays of light woke me before the rest of my fellow trekkers, so I decided to explore village life at the start of the day. I stumbled along, bleary eyed taking in lung fulls of fresh mountain air and blinking at amazing views overlooking the spreading forest. As I wandered through the village I came across a group of South Korean teachers staying with another local family down the road. It didn’t surprise me. Having met so many Koreans on the Camino long distance path in Spain, I knew this nation has a passion for walking, so where else to find them enjoying their time off than in a remote tribal village in Thailand!
I watched as a Karen household respectfully came out of their home, bowed to an orange-robed monk passing along the dirt track and discretely placed food in a metal bowl he was carrying. This is a tradition across Asia for the Theravada form of Buddhists. Every morning before midday they collect food from the generosity of people and this alone is what they eat for the day.
Our trek for the day took us further into the forest past a waterfall where we cooled our legs and whilst relaxing Mr Quick carved me a bamboo hair pin, a real treasure. We passed a water buffalo and its young calf grazing in a man-made paddy field and saw home made trellises ladden with passion fruit vines.
One of our group, a nurse, had been bitten from head to food by some kind of bug during the night and for the whole walk she was scratching and itching. I felt so sorry for her and realised I had a lucky escape as I was on the mattress next to her.
For dinner I learnt how to catch and cook eels dug fresh out from the muddy rice fields. Boiled first, then barbequed.
My job was to catch them as they were thrown through the air still wriggling and place them into a plastic bottle, easier than it looks. The most unusual food item I think I tried on my travels also turned up on the dinner menu in the evening – char-grilled rat! I have to say it tasted pretty unpleasant. I did, however, admire the self-sufficiency of our guide who could survive so well in what would be a hostile environment to most.
Our home for the night was a simple jungle camp, much cooler than the previous location due to a nearby river. Mr Quick’s Uncle demonstrated his hunting skills by pulling out a musket that they use, complete with gunpowder. He fired a shot which rang through the trees and made me jump.
The campfire was really welcome in the cold, inky darkness and we all drew together for warmth, laughter and safety and played “guess the band” to music playing on the Texan’s i-pod.
Our trek sadly ended the following day by balancing on a bamboo raft and being punted down the river, avoiding the river snakes, to the start of our journey. It was an unforgettable experience and an epic adventure.
The logistics were the easy bit. It took around 9 months of plotting, planning and action – a large task but managable with enough time. I was fortunate to have a forward-thinking employer that released me for 6 months. This allowed me to have a break and was an opportunity for self-development. What I discovered from this process was how hard it is to extract yourself from day-to-day life for a temporary amount of time. It was also a really healthy experience because it forced me to tie up loose ends, give lots away to charity and spring clean my life.
The key thing was deciding to go. Firstly a discussion with my mum helped put things into perspective. She simply said to me “how about taking a break”. Just voicing those words was enough. It sat right with me and I knew it was exactly the thing I needed and wanted to do. I could then throw all my energy into it.
“The key thing was deciding to go”
The next bit of inspiration came from a story about Moses and his wooden staff – a simple object in Moses hands that could make things happen. I took from this the idea of looking at my own hands and asked the question: What is in my hands? What do I have that maybe others don’t have? What can I do with what I have? This turned what had seemed to be negative things into positives.
I was single – so no ties or responsibilities
I didn’t own a property – therefore no mortgage commitments
I didn’t have children – no restrictions
I had some savings – amazing, why not use them?
What did I discover from travelling and taking a break from paid work?
Happiness and Fun
I wanted to remember what it felt like to be me, without a job title and all the expectations that were put on me and without the stresses of everyday life.
After 2 months I really got back to a happier self and I started to re-discover my love of learning and being creative and enjoying the moment instead of worrying about the future. I had fun. I fell in love again with the simple things in life like a beautiful flower, laughter, a friendly cat, a glass of red wine, fresh air and fresh bread. I felt alive and thankful and happy.
“I fell in love again with the simple things in life”
Make the most of the moment
I realised on a few occasions whilst starting my travels that I missed unique opportunities to try things, buy things or speak to people in more depth. When you are on the move, you have a limited time and it makes you focus and prioritise and take opportunities while you can. This taught me to put myself forward, to have a go, to try new food, to have those conversations and make the most of my time spent with people. A good lesson for life.
“it makes you focus and prioritise and take opportunities while you can”
Adapt to change
Travelling ensured I had to embrace change on a daily basis. A change in plan, landscape, culture or language. You learn to navigate both a landscape and a society very quickly. You have to find out the dangers, learn the scams, understand the customs, discover what to see and do in a very short time. In short it makes you very adaptable. It also forces you to talk to people to learn – from taxi and tuk tuk drivers to fellow travellers. These conversations can give such valuable insights and bring about great connections.
“You learn to navigate both a landscape and a society very quickly”
Travelling through multiple countries allows you to compare and contrast ways of doing things and see patterns or differences. What do I mean by this? An example is corruption – in the countries where ordinary people are struggling due to lack of proper infrastructure, opportunities or services – the answer to why this is happening always came back – corruption at the highest levels. I saw this particularly in the Philippines and Cambodia. Also in Thailand – where votes can be bought from the poorest people by promising to give them something, like a chicken. The countries that prospered economically, for example Singapore – had Governments that were in power to at least try and serve their people.
When you are carrying everything on your back, catching flights and getting up and out of hostel dorms early – you have to become pretty good at being organised. I don’t think I ever completely perfected this, but I certainly had a go.
Fear and Trust
The very nature of travelling means you are on the move and anything could happen. Whether its trying street food, crossing a Vietnamese road or taking a bus into the mountains of the Philippines. You discover life is a risky business, but rather than doing nothing and avoiding risk you have to find ways to deal with it. You often have no choice. To get to where you want to go or to try something new, you often have to (with a little common sense) step out and trust and hope things will be ok.
Think for yourself
In developing countries I quickly learnt never to assume anything. I constantly had think for myself. I had to ask myself – what would I do if xxxx happened? This was mainly because no one would look after you. In many countries I visited there was limited health and safety, health care and emergency services. Walking along the pavement you have to be aware of the unexpected – anything from trip hazards and cows to motorbikes taking short cuts passed you. In larger scale emergencies, I discovered you cannot assume the Government will have an organised plan. You have to think on your feet and be prepared for anything. It made me admire the resilience of the people I met, who had often lived through cyclones, landslides, earthquakes and just got on with it.
“You have to think on your feet and be prepared for anything”
Whether it was in the night markets of Vietnam and Thailand or the souks of Dubai – bartering is a fairly new concept that I have had to pick up and I actually really enjoyed. It makes shopping a lively and memorable interaction. Sometimes you get a great deal and sometimes you pay way too much, but you have to accept its part of the game.
I now have a greater appreciation of things I used to take for granted. Decent health care, clean water, trustworthy police, a stable government, rubbish collection, electricity, peace, job opportunities, fair working standards, freedom to walk or talk, free schooling. We have so much in Europe and at the same time so many people have so little around the world. Just remembering this when I see the problems in my life or feel like complaining is really healthy.
What would I do differently?
I have no regrets about deciding to take a sabbatical. It has broadened my understanding of the world and other people and is a great education in life. The only things I would have done differently is to take less stuff, go for longer and try out home stays where you really get to meet the local people and participate in their lives.
“The only things I would have done differently is to take less stuff, go for longer and try out home stays”
This is the process I am experiencing now. I fortunately had a home, friends and family and job to return to, which have given me some structure, routine and familiarity. The shock of the cold weather and time difference have now worn off. I have tried to keep things simple and do one thing at a time. Unpack. Get my car back on the road. Get slowly back into things at work. A key thing I have tried to do is sleep and drink lots of water. When I was on the road I survived often on little sleep because I knew it was temporary. Returning back I have deliberately kept my diary fairly quiet both at work and home and I am allowing my body to rest and adjust. Its a good opportunity to meet up with friends and make time for phone calls.
The inner adjustment is about dealing with the change in perspective. Your vision and territory changes from whole world thinking where I am constantly meeting new people, learning new things and seeing larger scale concerns to a much narrower perspective of everyday life where many things haven’t changed and everyday worries and fears start to flood back.
“The inner adjustment is about dealing with the change in perspective”
The other struggle comes from the change in levels of adventure, freedom, challenge and direction. Its important to not be too hard on yourself, to look at all the good things in your life, to take time to reflect on your experience and also to channel the energy and confidence gained from travelling in some positive way. You won’t have all the answers, but it is ok. Just doing one thing to move your life forward in some way can really help.
“channel the energy and confidence gained from travelling in some positive way”
I have actually enjoyed doing nothing, just watching a movie or staying at home and pottering – things that you don’t get a chance to do very often when you are constantly mobile. A key thing I did was create a list while I was travelling of a few things I wanted to do when I returned. This helps keep me focused and positive.
I had a week of no plans and complete freedom to decide where to go. Northern Thailand had caught my imagination. I heard it was a place of mountains and forests and trekking. That was enough to inspire me to find a way to get there. Being a true romantic the discovery of a journey by night train to Chiang Mai finalised my decision – I had to go.
I headed to Bangkok railway station the day before I was due to travel with hope but caution. I had been told by my Thai family that it would be very busy as it was the National holiday and everyone was going North to escape the city. I turned up at the counter and asked for a single, top bunk and was given a place straight away. I was amazed, grateful and excited for the next adventure.
I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion. Just as I was pondering these questions my eyes caught sight of a tourist office on the upper level of the station. I thought it might be worth asking for suggestions in there. Sure enough I got my answers. The staff were brilliant and I sorted out a hotel for the first night and a 3 day trekking tour into the forest away from the main tourist trail. They were quite astonished that I had managed to get a train ticket as minutes earlier a couple of tourists had been told the train was full!
“I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion.”
I love to travel by train and this was no let down. It was well organised and a great way to meet people. I met a lovely couple just down the road from me, who were studying for PHD’s and we had a long and interesting conversation about the scams they had experienced in their first few days of arriving in Thailand. I was soon rocked to sleep. The only downfall of the carriage was the air conditioning which was on maximum. I slept in full clothes and fleece and was still cold.
“I love to travel by train and this was no let down.”
Early morning arrived and I enjoyed watching the beauty of dawn on the hills and rice fields as we shunted into our final destination, Chiang Mai. I was greeted at the station by a friendly lady who drove me to my hotel and confirmed my tours. I decided on the spur of the moment to book a trip to visit a mountain temple and the King of Thailand’s gardens later that afternoon. This turned out to be a good choice.
Bhuping (or Phuping) Palace is the King of Thailand’s winter residence and the open gardens are a real gem. I had done no research and so had no expectations, but I was amazed at the attention to detail and beauty. Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air, tree ferns adorn the forest garden, orchids fill the glass houses and it costs only pence to enter.
“Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air”
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or The temple of the White elephant is the holiest temple in Northern Thailand. White elephants exist and are considered sacred across Asia. Legend in Thailand says a white elephant carrying a relic of Buddha on his back wandered up the mountain near Chiang Mai, trumpeted three times and then fell down dead. The local people took this to be a sign and a temple was built on the spot the elephant died.
Wandering through the temple was a real sensory experience. Outside rows of bells were being rung by visitors, flames and incense smoke was rising, people were processing around a central point, the sunlight shone through a statue that glowed yellow and all around were the views over the mountains, forest and town below. The creativity, the beauty, the interactivity of the site is something I will take away as a great memory and something to incorporate into my own faith.
Beyond the beaches and brightness of Thailand is a deeper story of hardship and heartbreak from World War II that I wanted to discover by travelling to see the Death railway and the Bridge over the Kwai.
After seeing the film “The Railway Man”, I realised being in Thailand was the perfect opportunity to see and learn more about this important part of our history that I knew so little about.
Early morning at Mochit bus station, Bangkok was the location agreed to meet up with my friend Tanzeena and her partner for a day exploring the reality of war on the building of the Thai-Burma Railway. We caught a local minibus which hurtled along to Kanchanaburi, 120km away from Bangkok and jumped aboard a larger local bus just pulling away that would take us to Hellfire Pass and Museum. We ran and caught it just in time, although it was standing room only. One scary moment came as we were nearing the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and police got on board to check identity papers, which we didn’t have on us. Luckily they ignored us!
Hellfire Pass museum is set in what is now a peaceful and beautiful part of Thai countryside.
The location marks one of the toughest sections of railway construction built by Allied Prisoners of War and Asian workers on the demand of the Japanese. The railway was constructed to allow food and weapons to be imported to support Japanese troops in Burma (now Myanmar). The reason it was called “Hellfire” was due to the fires that burnt through the night forcing people to keep working in terrible conditions and painting a picture of hell on earth.
The Japanese were merciless in their treatment of the people in their custody. They were not well fed, kept in terrible conditions and forced to labour even if they were sick. What brought it home to me was a letter on display by a young man from Luton writing back to his family in the UK. He was an ordinary person caught up in this bizarre other-world so foreign, far-away and awful. Listening to recordings from POW’s that survived, the key thing that got them through such a horrendous experience was camaraderie and the care of their friends. On completion of the railway around 90,000 Asian workers and almost 13,000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and America had died.
“On completion of the railway around 90,000 Asian workers and almost 13,000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and America had died.”
Walking through the disused pass cut through solid high cliffs of rock was a moving experience. Small memorials left by family members were left tucked into crevices of stone.
We then headed to a nearby railway station and caught the old train that still rattles along significant parts of the death railway and over the river Kwai bridge for 4 hours back to Kanchanaburi.
Its strange to think such an enjoyable experience was built on the back of blood and horror. This was emphasised when we saw the vast area of land filled with the graves of men who died on the railway. It was a day I will always remember. So nice to be with friends and also so important to learn about a part of World War history not often known about.
Living with a Thai family for a number of days gave me an interesting insight into Thai values and lifestyle. I discovered without much surprise that they love to eat and shop!
There is an art to buying and eating food in Thailand. Most food is bought from street stalls, where a complex, fresh and tasty dish can be made in minutes before your eyes. This is fast food with style and elegance. Herbs are thrown in, soups are poured and dips and rice are packaged. A whole meal is contained within clear plastic bags tied with elastic bands.
Eating is a communual affair and everyone brings a dish they discovered to the table. The skill then comes in adding the right dipping sauce to the right dish. It is important to have a mix of hot, sweet and sour together. I tried everything I was offered – from famous Thai fish balls to crab, crayfish, giant prawns, fried fish, spicy soups, rice porridge and one of my favourites – fried mini coconut pancakes. My tolerance to chilli grew, but one lunchtime the food was so hot my eyes started watering and I had chilli tears running down my face.
I went to a buddhist temple with the family. It was so different to simply visiting as a tourist and snapping photos of the beautiful structures. We went as an act of gratitude, it was a chance for my thai friend to say thankyou for answers to her prayers 2 years previously. The whole family – brothers, wives, sisters and husbands went together and I was humbled by their sincerity and faithfulness. The experience was also very interactive with children folding petals and offering lotus flowers, incense sticks being lit and bells being rung. They also bought and released different river creatures. Each animal represented something you hoped for – from prosperity to good health. The cynical side of me saw this as a great business opportunity, where the animals are then caught and re-sold.
Another side to Thailand, not often seen by tourists is the parades and fashion shows of wealthy, young thai children. Aiming to be like American beauty pagaeants with an asian twist, children as young as 7 or 8 are preened, made up and encouraged to be like models. I did not enjoy seeing this competitive and pressurised environment that promoted an image based culture of beauty. It was an unexpected insight into the values of some Thai people.
The Thai people are also obsessed with royalty. Many people venerate and worship their existing monarch to the level of a God. King Rama XI is the longest serving head of state in the world and is genuinely loved by the vast majority of the country.
I was in Bangkok just after his recent birthday and the streets were lit with strings of lights and flowers were planted especially for this occasion. I visited Rajabhakti Park down the coast in Hua Hin, which was built by the Thai Army to display huge statues of Kings past and present. It was packed with Thai visitors buzzing around in the sunshine under bright umbrellas.
I also went to the elegant and beautifully designed summer palace built out of wood and open to the sea breezes. The big worry for the people is the age of the existing king who is now in hospital and who will be his successor. I got the impression his son, who is next in line was not popular, whereas his daughter is admired for her fairness and care. I think it will be extremely turbulent times in Thailand when the King dies.
My next destination was Manila in the Philippines. I found a volunteering project that really caught my eye through STA Travel. It was to work on the first farm – university in Asia that brings together entrepreneurs to develop social enterprises.
The Philippines has a huge amount of land that is underused, lots of people wanting jobs and yet the country imports a large amount of food and products. The aim of this hub is to gather entrepreneurs in a melting pot of ideas, give them food, accommodation, land and networking possibilities to encourage good business that addresses all three of these challenges.
The first half of the trip was a chance to relax in an area called Zambales, near the unspoilt west coastline, staying in a beach side hostel.
I met two lovely, up and coming Filipino musicians who had volunteered to play cello and piano for us for a couple of days and a brave 19 year old German girl who was taking a gap year before starting university, plus a large contingent of STA travel agents from around the world who had come to experience the trip and the country so they could sell it to customers back home. We met with the fantastic staff organizing the trip, part of a company called Make a Difference or MADtravel who are themselves a social enterprise.
We were thrown straight in to Filipino life; with delicious home cooking of fruit, vegetables and fish I had never tasted before served on banana leaves, followed by a fire complete with marshmallows on the shoreline in amongst the beach dogs who roam the area. I slept for my first night in a hammock.
In our time here we visited the Aeta – an indigenous hill tribe who live in the forest around Mount Pinatubo, a live volcano that last erupted in the 1980’s forcing a large number of the tribes out of the inner forest and nearer to urban areas. We trekked for over an hour and a half, wading through rivers and assisted by a carabao (water buffalo) and cart and helped to paint the village school pink and yellow.
This was an immense privilege, we were the largest group of westerners the tribe had ever seen. We met the oldest villager who was in his 80’s and proudly announced he could still “squat” and lived through the volcanic eruption.
The Chief told us about life in the village, his memories of surviving the volcano and demonstrated his hunting skills with a bow and arrow. The two musicians from Manila – Coeli and Aman, played music for the children. A boy with special needs who lived in the village loved it when they performed “Flashlight”.
After a small amount of teaching English in a couple of rural schools we were treated to a homestay at Silver Heights community within what was a slum in Manila. Our welcome and hospitality were wonderful. This is a vibrant, colourful and kind place. Set up by an organisation called Gawad Kalinga. It helped slum dwellers build their own homes and create a beautiful and safe place to live.
I really enjoyed this experience, especially singing karaoke with the Cabico family I stayed with. The following day, we helped out preparing and delivering meals for around 2000 children in schools around Manila who otherwise would go hungry.
The rest of the trip was spent with Lea, the German girl at Gawad Kalinga’s enchanted farm. We did a mix of practical hands on work, meeting and talking to entrepreneurs and teaching 2 hours of English each day to two schools. The experience was a wonderful mix of interaction with local people, children and business leaders. Really informative and rewarding. The warm heart of the Filipinos I met will stay with me forever.
After 10 days of volunteering I headed to Subic Bay, 4 hours North of Manila to meet with the Head of Forestry and Conservation. I was greeted with wonderful hospitality and treated to a lunch at the Yacht club. I spent the next 3 days learning about the forest and bay in this area, once an American military base.
I was treated to the sight of a hundreds of fruit bats leaving their tree at dusk to hunt, trekking with an indigenous guide in the woods, seeing the largest solar farm project being undertaken in South East Asia in a bid to provide renewable energy to the Philippines and being treated to a huge Thanksgiving meal with American ex-pats. I am humbled by the generosity and hospitality I was given throughout my stay here.
My final stop was in the North of the Philippines. I headed to the mountains via local bus and got to experience one of the most breath-taking, stunning and potentially dangerous roads in the world with 300km of hair pin bends around the mountains to Sagada.
People in this region are so used to risk. Every day they travel with steep drops and navigate around rough roads, many areas of which have experienced rock falls or land slides in the rain. I was amazed by their resilience and acceptance of this way of life. Sagada was set up well for tourists – and I went on a number of short tours and met some lovely people.
I went to a sunset tour, without a sunset due to cloud and a sunrise tour, without a sunrise due to cloud! We swam in a waterfall pool and saw hanging wooden coffins attached to rocks and cliffs in the valley.
The adventure increased on my route to get to Banaue. I took a Jeepney, an ex-American bus, to try to get there. It stopped half way and dropped off a load of locals and told me to wait until the bus filled up again. I waited 2 hours but only a handful of people wanted to go in the same direction. The Jeepney driver got on his phone and an old Landover turned up and we all squashed in. I got a front seat, which was hair raising when we were going around some of the bends.
Banaue was fantastic. Lots of adventure was had exploring the local villages and World Heritage status rice terraces. I had a memorable ride in a motorbike side car with a Dutch brain surgeon and his friend. I had to laugh when the motorbike driver said we all had to lean forward up the mountain slope to stop the bike flipping backwards.
The rice terraces challenged me significantly. I have a fear of edges – and rice terraces are all edges, narrow ledges and large drops. I am forever thankful for my local guide Vincent, who held my hand at scary points and gave me a big stick for balance. I am proud that I faced my fear and did it.
Bumping along in a minivan on my way to Thailand, I felt myself rapidly going downhill. Arriving at the border crossing office between Cambodia and Thailand things got worse!
There was around an hour long queue to get passports stamped.
In the heat, the strange smell of live animals and rubbish was really overpowering, I stood for a while, then sat on the floor shuffling my large rucksack forward a few inches and at time. When I was half way through the queue I faced a dilemma. Should I leave my place in the line to find a toilet and face holding up my whole group or stay and try with all my might to keep the creamy, Beef stroganoff I ate the night before in my stomach?
The decision, in the end was made for me. I had seconds to react and thankfully the greatest sight before me was a nearby window which I stuck my head out of. Luckily no one was passing by below or they would have had quite a surprise. This was probably one of the physically lowest points of my journey. Being sick, whilst on the move, isn’t fun. I would be forever grateful to the girls guarding the toilets on the Thai side of the border who then let me in without payment when I crossed over. I think they took one look at my face and relented. Also to the South-African family who brought me some plain food when I was laid up in bed that night.
“Being sick, whilst on the move, isn’t fun.”
In the blur of my journey I saw how different Thailand is to Cambodia. Expensive cars replaced mopeds. Advertising billboards with modern brands trailed the motorways. Roads were smooth, well tarmaced but also congested with the number of cars. Tall buildings everywhere. The contrast to Cambodia is massive.
I rested up in a plush hotel in Bangkok and felt suprisingly well the following day. This was the end of the organised tour and I said farewell to all my fellow passengers, apart from Dion, a lawyer from Johannesburg who accompanied me on a day exploring the city.
We caught the local bus and visited Wat Pho temple, which houses a 46m long statue of the reclining Buddha and many beautiful and elaborate stupas. These are mountain like shapes which house the ashes of people or important relics.
I was getting hungry so we headed for street food, which is practically everywhere in Bangkok. The entrepreneurial spirit of Thai people to create delicious, portable food stalls is incredible and I enjoyed freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and Pad Thai.
“The entrepreneurial spirit of Thai people to create delicious, portable food stalls is incredible.”
We took a 3 baht (5p) river boat ride across to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn and admired the intricate mosaic tiles that adorned the buildings.
This was followed by a crazy boat ride through the winding Bangkok canals on a super long thin boat with a giant engine.
Our journey took us back through Bangkok flower market. This is a vibrant and beautiful place packed with a multitude of shops selling garlands, bouquets and bunches of exotic flowers. I saw sack loads of individual orchid flowers being sold for very low prices. The Thai people really love the beauty of flowers and also use them as offerings when they visit Buddhist temples.
The evening held a nice surprise. My friend Tanzeena from the UK had returned from travelling in the Thai islands and we met up for dinner on a roof top over looking the river and city. It was really great to see a familiar face in such an unfamiliar place and catch up on her adventures. We arranged to meet up again in a few days time.
The next day was Christmas eve and I headed across the city to meet a Thai family who had connections to my own family and spend a few days with them. After navigating the Bangkok MRT underground system and taxis I was introduced to some new faces and welcomed to their house. It was nice to be part of a family for this time of year and it was a great mix of young and old, Thai and Indian people.
This was the first moment I had to really acknowledge it was Christmas. I had seen lots of decorations in the Philippines and Vietnam, but it felt strange that people were still working and it was super hot and sunny.
I was taken out for an evening meal to a huge, outdoor themed restaurant popular with Chinese tourists called Chocolateville. This is where I saw my first Asian Father Christmas and got covered in fake snow. The young girl in the Thai family and I had a great time.
Christmas day was business as usual in Thailand. I enjoyed the lack of pressure to purchase and consume, but I missed my family, my church and the sense of stillness and togetherness that happens in the UK. So, after managing to have a nice chat with my family back home I decided to embrace my location by having a Thai massage. This was a vigorous and unique experience. Firstly you put more clothes on than you take off and the masseuse manipulates your legs and arms to angles I never thought possible! After recovering you do feel great afterwards
In the evening we did get together as a family and we had a delicious Thai dinner followed by a lucky dip of presents that the young girl had organised for us so she could experience a “real Christmas”. We watched a cheesy but fun Christmas movie and danced to Christmas music salsa style. A very memorable and different Christmas.
To lift our spirits after the tough visit to S21 prison and the killing fields, late in the evening we bumped and bounced in a tuk tuk over to a kickboxing match – a favourite sport in Cambodia.
This was set in a well organised arena complete with tv cameras and a live band playing background fighting music. A huge amount of gambling goes on with these fights and the crowd was packed full of passionate men yelling and shouting and spurring the boxers on. The winner, I think, is the person to either knock someone to the ground or have the most number of contact hits. It was less violent than I expected with a referee keeping the opponents under control and I was soon cheering for a fighter.
Our next destination was Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat – the famous Cambodia temples that were hidden for many years in the jungle. As we drove through the countryside this is what I wrote, hopefully it will give you a flavour of this unique landscape.
“Rivers, grassland, sugar palm trees, stilted houses made of brick and wood, white cows, water buffalo, dusty red dirt roads, road side stalls with colourful umbrellas, plants weighed down with red earth, bourganvilla, rice drying on the roads, lotus flower ponds, golden temples with dragons and snakes heads”
The road we took was the main highway between the capital and Siem Reap, but at times you could be mistaken. The terrain was often un-surfaced, very bumpy and filled with clouds of Cambodian snow – otherwise known as red dust. En-route we stopped to visit an amazing fishing village built on and in the river that leads to the huge Tonlesap lake.
This was something truely different to anything I had ever seen. I felt like I was being transported back in time. All of life was on display as our bus dodged dogs, chickens and children playing in the road. Tall wooden pole houses towered above us signalling what happens later in the year.
The whole area floods as Tonlesap lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, doubles in size and the water level rises by 10m. This happens when the Mekong river swells with melt water from the Himalayas.
We caught a boat out through more of the stilt houses and saw adults and children busy at work mending nets, catching fish, ploughing the river bank fields and swimming in the water. Our boat reached a floating fishing village of houses in the lake constructed on bamboo. These amazing constructions help the villagers to access fish quickly. The lake really is the life blood of the area and helps to feed 1.2 million people.
Our journey got us into Siem Reap just before dark ready for an early start to see Angkor wat at sunrise.
There was a sense of anticipation as we walked in complete darkness across an ancient stone bridge over inky black water and stepped through a large stone doorway into Ankor Wat temple complex. We could see nothing except shadows of stone and the ever growing crowds with cameras, selfie sticks and tablets gathering to get a snap of the rising sun reflected in the lake fronting the temple. The longer I stayed the more frustrated I got. I didn’t want to push and shove to get a space to see a decent view, so instead myself and one other lady walked away from the people and in to the temple itself.
This turned out to be a brilliant decision. The two of us had Ankor Wat and all its carved corridors, sanskrit writing and courtyards almost to ourselves, except for 2 young lads who were buddhist monks and had spent the night in the temple. It was for me, the most memorable experience. To walk in quiet and absorb the sense of the place without the thousands of people herded together outside was totally magical.
Another thing I will not forget in a hurry is our tour guide loosing 4 of his group which included me. In the rush to leave the temple we got split up in the crowds and we found ourselves abandoned. We waited at the entrance hoping he would return. This is when we discovered our form of “logical” thinking is not the same as his. After failed phone calls and desperation we decided just to start walking and hope.
This tactic worked and we discovered him waiting for us on a bridge where I felt both relief and annoyance for his poor planning and bad group management. Never mind, this is Asia, things don’t always go plan.
“Angkor” means capital city and “wat” means temple, and this amazing sandstone and lava feat of engineering built for the King orginally had around 1 million people living in near it from 800ad to 1300. The temple is a mix of astronomy based civil engineering, faith, fortune telling, superstition and stories. Its about marking the centre of the Universe.
Across Cambodia there are around 3-5000 temples. Each one different, several are still hidden by the jungle and unexploded landmines. Hinduism and Buddhism seem to merge and different figures from these two faiths appear in stone.
One of the temples we visited was built by the King for his sons wedding. They started the building when the son was born – now that’s forward planning! Originally it had rubies and emeralds stuck to every outer wall and was surrounded by water. The only way to arrive was by canoe. In my imagination this looked amazing. We also visited the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed and posed where Angelina Jolie burst out from the doors entwined with vines and tree roots.
Phare, a Cambodian-run circus is another fantastic night out. The circus emerged like a phoenix out of the destruction of the Khmer rouge. It was set up to keep Cambodian arts alive and provide young people with an education in the arts. The circus runs as a social enterprise, using the money from ticket sales to invest back in the training of several young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The theme was “ghosts”, which is a big feature of Cambodian culture. Many people believe in ghosts and are often scared to venture out alone in the dark. The performers were brilliant with talented acrobats and jugglers, often involving a great deal of risk and very good balance. Its a treat, not to be missed if you get the chance to visit Siem Reap.
Later in the evening I tried a flaming sambucca poured over a tower of glasses in the aptly named “Pub street”, followed by the most awesome game of “kick badminton” which is a favourite in Cambodia. We played in the street with waiters and passers by and massage girls who were bored. At one point a couple on a motorbike passed through and managed to kick the “shuttle cock” which went flying and missed the street bbq sellers grill by millimetres.
The next day was the long journey to Bangkok – I had to say goodbye to Cambodia, but I knew I would return in a few weeks.
Marie-Anne’s stay in the Fiji Islands has been marked by an enormous Tropical Cyclone Winston. A great deal of damage has been suffered by the area. She has just made contact from her hotel. She was fortunately evacuated on the last government boat from the tiny Bounty Island during the storm. Glad to say Marie-Anne has managed her flight to Hong Kong. Our prayers now for the Fijian people and their losses.