A Travellerspoint blog

Venturing North

Bangkok to the border


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I had already planned to head in to Northern Thailand and Laos and by coincidence David (see previous post) works for a travel company that do hop-on-hop-off tours of that route so kindly organised for me to join one.

We left Bangkok and first headed for Ayutthaya, formally a Royal capital and stuffed full with monasteries and reliquaries that are best seen from the river.
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Somehow I'd avoided sleeper buses since starting my travels. This one, to Chiang mai, was pretty luxurious, although none of us appreciated being rudely awoken at midnight to be given a probiotic tropical fruit yoghurt drink. Chiang Mai is north Thailand's biggest city but its old quarter, surrounded by moats and the remains of walls, makes it feels much smaller and has a very relaxed atmosphere. Having arrived at 7am and made ourselves more human we took a tuk tuk truck to Doi Suthep, a monastery on a hill over the city with views to confirm just how large the city is.
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In the evening we went to watch Muay Thai boxing, a traditional martial art that is popular all over the world. I'd never been to a live fight before and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. The fighters were respectful and you could tell how much the spiritual component meant to them.
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The next day a few of us went to have massages at the Women's Correctional Institute, where inmates are trained in traditional Thai massage as part of their rehabilitation. For 180 baht (about $5) I had an hours full body massage that left me so relaxed we had to cancel our plans to rent bikes for fear of falling off. Instead we walked around the old city, ate street noodles and had hearty dinners at my first Irish pub of the trip.

As I had limited time for this leg of my adventure I wasn't hopping off anywhere, so only a few of us headed on the next bus north. On the way we stopped at the bizarre White Temple in Chiang Rai, where a Thai sculptor and painter is constructing a Buddhist monument of his own design. Only one part is finished (the complex has been under construction since 1997) but the shiny wedding cake exterior is dazzling and the interior, decorated with contemporary figures such as Spider-Man and Angry Birds, is meant to illustrate how modern life has corrupted our spirituality.
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After a quiet night in the border town of Chiang Khong, it was time to make the short trip across the Mekong to Laos.

Posted by arianemeena 03:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

BKK


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If I'd been dumped on the infamous Khao San Road (elephant trousers, McDonalds, gap year students drinking out of buckets) by myself I'd have left Bangkok on the next bus anywhere. As it happens, Elaine who I was at Durham with and David, her boyfriend, have been living in the city since earlier this year and we had arranged to meet on the Saturday night.

In the meantime I visited the Royal Palace, still in use by the much loved king of Thailand and his wife, whose most well known outfits are on display in a lovely museum showcasing the sustainable Thai textiles that her foundation supports. As ever, the palace was overrun with Chinese and Korean tour groups but I fought through the crowds and saw the famed Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade), which has a different bling outfit for each of the seasons.
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I met Elaine and David that evening to get the skytrain out to a vintage market complete with beer, snacks, retro cars, vinyl and creepy Seven Dwarves dolls. This is where hipster Thais come to hang out and it was great to see the non-tourist side of Bangkok.
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After a considerable lie-in I spent Sunday visiting the Vimanmek Mansion and the museums in its grounds, the entrance for which was included with the ticket for the palace. The mansion is the largest teak building in the world and was constructed without a single nail. The highlight was the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, which houses the Arts of the Kingdom exhibition and is itself fabulously decorated with no expense spared. Sadly cameras are banned in all of the buildings.
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That evening Elaine and David took me to Soi 38, a streetfood night market. After satay skewers, noodles, pork and more I was introduced to the bizarre dessert of sarim, which is a surprisingly tasty bowl of shaved ice in coconut milk with neon green jelly vermicelli, candid coconut and some unidentified crispy pink thing.

Having been dubious about Bangkok's merits I now have huge affection for the place and I owe this almost entirely to Elaine and David for showing me that there is life beyond the Khao San Road and can't thank them enough for adopting me. However, it was time to venture north to Chiang Mai, from where I will enter Laos and use the Mekong River to slowly make my through the countryside.

Posted by arianemeena 08:51 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Discovering Angkor

Siem Reap


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For most foreigners, Siem Reap exists for one reason: as a base for the Angkor Archeological Park, the official name of sprawling complex of temples spanning several centuries of Khmer imperial history.

Having survived the minibus I spent my first full day chilling out as it was raining and I thought it best to defer my visit for the better weather forecasted for the following day. I used the time to see the Angkor National Museum, which although extortionate ($12!) was beautifully laid out and a great introduction to the history of the area. The afternoon improved enough to allow some time by the gorgeous pool at my guesthouse.
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The next morning, as much to my surprise as yours, I got up at 5am and cycled to Angkor Wat on the pink bike I had hired the night before for the princely sum of $1.
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The sunrise was slightly marred by a bank of dark clouds that appeared at exactly the wrong time, but still provided a decent photo or two and ensured I was there early enough to beat both the heat and the Chinese tour groups.
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Angkor Wat is the best known temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally Hindu but was gradually converted to a Buddhist site when the official religion of the Khmers changed and has been in constant use since construction began in the 12th century. It is suitably impressive and contains some truly spectacular bas-reliefs.
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Next came Angkor Thom, the ancient citadel. Most of the buildings were wooden so long disintegrated, but what remains are several temples and terraces. Bayon has many faces of Buddha hidden in its towers.
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Baphoun has been painstakingly pieced together from stone blocks scattered in the forest, a process that only finished in 2011 after over 50 years of work and was described as the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle.
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After refuelling with fried rice and fresh coconut water (and joined by a British girl and her Nigerian friend who I'd bumped in to at every temple before lunch) I cycled the couple of kilometres to Preah Khan, which was the first royal capital. It is undergoing work to stabilise it but remains largely untouched.
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Continuing my circuit I visited Neak Pean, a man-made island on one of the reservoirs that has an ornate at its centre (see Instagram for a view of the walkway) and Ta Som, one of the smaller temples.
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By this point the temples were blurring in to one, but a highlight of the day was cycling along the beautifully maintained flat road, not another tourist in sight, catching glimpses of ruins between the trees with the sun glinting off reservoirs and paddy fields.
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The late afternoon light provided the atmospheric Ta Prohm with even more character. Known as the Jungle Temple, this is where some of the adaptation of Tomb Raider was filmed. Whilst some restoration is being undertaken, much of the temple has been left at the mercy of the trees, which have grown through and around the stonework creating some spectacularly eerie visuals.
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12 hours and 45km after the start of my day, the sun set over the moat at Angkor Wat.
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Posted by arianemeena 20:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (5)

Phnom-enal

"She actually thought Sean Penn was the capital of Cambodia!"


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After a painless trip over the border from HCMC (the Russians could learn a thing or two) I pitched up in Phnom Penh, the dusty capital of Cambodia. In the evening light the river and temples glowed.
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On the advice of my guesthouse I went for Mexican food (every now and then you just need something different) which was fantastic, as good as anything I've had in London. I ate with a Kiwi lady who had come over for dental treatment- it seems PP is the dentistry capital of SE Asia and increasing numbers of health tourists are making the trip from the Antipodes to take advantage of the low costs.

The next morning I went out to Choeung Ek, the most well known of the Killing Fields. I'd been in two minds about visiting as I didn't want to participate in morbid rubber-necking tourism. I needn't have worried, the site has been presented in a sensitive and informative way. The audio guide is excellent and included personal testimonies from survivors and those who lost love ones during the tyranny of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime.
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On the way back I stopped off at Toul Sleng, known as S21, a former primary school that was appropriated by the state and used as a prison during the crackdown on anyone considered an enemy of communism. After liberation it was left virtually untouched (the 14 bodies they found were buried in the playground) and is a visceral reminder of the horrors that took place less than 40 years ago.
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As an antidote to the grimness of the morning I spent the afternoon at the Royal Palace. This is still home to the king and as such is immaculate, with beautiful temples and gardens.
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The next day I visited the National Museum, where there are many of the heads of statues from the Angkor temples that were removed soon after its rediscovery. I also saw Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in PP and a peaceful escape from the city.
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I had planned to take the boat up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap, but recent flooding had created whirlpools and it was considered too dangerous to run the service. So I made do with a minibus and tried to avert my eyes as lorries careered towards us, tuk-tuks veered out the way and the driver attempted numerous 'double overtaking' manoeuvres.

Posted by arianemeena 07:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Miss Saigon

HCMC


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There are 10 million people in Ho Chi Minh City and a staggering 5.2 million motorcycles. A mere 5 minutes after getting in to a taxi from the station (with a soundtrack of Bony M my driver had found specially for his foreign passenger) we had knocked someone off their scooter. Thankfully she was just shaken and could carry on her journey, but those road death statistics are starting to make sense.

I visited the Cu Chi tunnel complex outside the city, where Viet Cong and local villagers created an underground maze of bunkers to hide from the American bombs. The tunnels themselves are tiny, in parts only 80cm high and phenomenally sweaty. The VC managed to construct kitchens, ammunition workshops and operating theatres in the mud, all ventilated by bamboo pipes with outlets disguised as anthills.
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After the tunnels we went to the Cao Dai Holy See. This religion was formed in the 1920s and was originally an amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It later borrowed from Catholicism and Islam and is predictably bonkers. We observed a service- the priests wear blue, red or yellow robes whilst the adherents wear white. The cathedral itself is a confection of pillars and frescos and includes a mural depicting their three major saints, one of whom is Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables. Given that he died in 1885 and was a notorious rejector of organised religion, I'm not quite sure what he'd make of this.
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The next day I braced myself for a trip to the War Remnants Museum. It has, amongst other things, collected an extraordinary number of photographs from during and in the aftermath of the American War, by both Vietnamese and Foreign photojournalists. There are no punches pulled and the effect is almost overwhelming. A difficult but necessary visit and a fascinating insight in to how the Vietnamese view the conflict. I sought respite in the Vietnamese answer to Starbucks (proof of how far the country has come I suppose) where I had a caramel iced coffee jelly freeze (me neither) which turned out to be one of the best things I've ever drunk.

In the evening I got to meet up with the lovely German couple I'd met in Hoi An, Denis and Franzi, for dinner and cocktails. During my travels I've met many people only fleetingly and so it was refreshing to see some people again later on to compare notes. We were chucked out of the cocktail bar at 9pm in honour of the state funeral of General Giap, a significant figure from both the fight for independence and American War, who had died at the grand old age of 102 the week before.

After over two weeks in Vietnam it was time to move on. I've had 16 days of fantastic food and beautiful sites, but Cambodia beckoned.

Posted by arianemeena 08:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

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