Wonderful South East Asia
Last year I decided to see Cambodia and Vietnam and more of Thailand. I would also be returning to Phuket…Kata town, for a lazy two week stay. But I would meet many people and experience many unforgettable things along the way and want to share some of them here along with my thoughts on my experiences.
I was travelling alone, for the first time ever and spent months working out overland routes, means of travel and dates. Actually the build up was fun, but as the months flew by I just wanted to be there, in South East Asia. My planning factored in a few things like anti-malaria and antibiotics for dysentery, that sort of thing. The itinerary would place me in a particular country at a particular time with 4-5 days in Vietnam on specific dates, the same being for Thailand and Cambodia. Most of my journey would be over land, with the exception of a flight from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to Bangkok, on the last leg of my travel…and of course a domestic flight between Bangkok and Phuket.
I first arrived in Bangkok, obviously, but it was early in the morning and even though I had a hotel in mind, I hadn't booked anything. So I turn up at this place off the Sukhumvit road, at around 7 am. Thankfully they do have a room but I will have to wait for it to be prepared. I also pay an extra levy for just turning up. No problem. Pay the levy and pull out the itinerary that places me in Bangkok on three occasions – first of course is my initial arrival then my return from Phnom Penh en route to Phuket, then my return from Phuket for one final night before returning to England. So I book my reservations for these dates also while I am there.
I have to busy myself until 12-1 pm, when the room will be ready. Well, as I intend to set off the following day on an overland journey to Surin, a town in North east of Thailand near the Cambodian border crossing of Chong Chom, I figure now would be a good time to go to Morchit station and buy my bus ticket. I leave my suitcase at the reception.
Now this is the first time I have used the Skytrain in Bangkok, but the receptionist very kindly give me a map of the Skytrain lines. I was also very close to a station on the Sukhumvit road, Thong Lo station. The system is simplicity itself, you just can't go wrong.
The train journey was easy as pie and it presents the city of Bangkok in a fabulous way. Huge concrete and glass structures slide by the windows as the train smoothly makes its way along a concrete spine running the length of the Sukhumvit road on a track that is elevated high above the city street. Bangkok is still undergoing lots of development so it seems.
Arrive at Morchit station, last stop on the Sukhumvit line and cross the main road to catch a bus to the Morchit bus terminal. When I get there I am unsure as to where to go for my ticket, and everything listed is in Thai, with exception of some popular tourist location written in English. I bite the bullet and amble on over to a counter and ask if they do a ticket to Surin. After some curious looks one of the girls directs me to a numbered booth for tickets to Surin. I leave and hear them giggling. God knows what they were thinking of this odd looking foreigner going to Surin.
Anyway, buys my ticket and checks the time…still only early with hours to kill. I decide on the Khao San road, although I can't see much going on at this time of the day, and I don't think there is much there to do anyway. The taxi driver however seemed to have other ideas and took it upon himself to take me to the big weekend market. When I realised I was at Chatuchak market I didn't object, as this was much more an interesting place. I paid the man and had a good walk around, bought a silly hat and some sun glasses.
By about 10 am I was beginning to feel the tiredness, and my feet were tiring so I stopped at a park near the Morchit skytrain station, not sure how I ended up near there but I assume that the big market is close. At just after 10 in the morning there a plenty of people out, and the sun is really starting shine. I am thinking now though that I just need to crash so I make my way back to the hotel with a mind to hang out in the lobby and use the internet, or sit in the restaurant adjoining. As I get back to the reception the staff inform me that my room is ready…great.
After a shower and a sleep I rise at around 5.30 pm in the evening and decide to go for a walk along the Sukhumvit road and grab a bite. I must have done some walking before heading back after a roadside meal of noodle soup. It was actually a very boring night in an otherwise vibrant city, but I had to think about the long journey across Thailand the following day.
Pile up on Sukhumvit road…
Walking along Sukhumvit road one has to be alert, as in any city in any country at night. But long stretches of the road are very poorly lit and I did encounter a couple of young men asking for money. They were obviously poor, possibly living on the street, but I wonder how a drunken foreigner would fare walking along this road. I wouldn't like to find out. Anyway, as I approach the main crossing, just after Thong lo station, or maybe before it, I hear a loud bang and immediately look towards the main road. Several people are scattered along the road and 3 motorbikes are lying in the road. At first I didn't see any movement but then a few of them start getting up off the road. My attention shifted to one of them that still lying in the road and I drop my bag and run to help. I was unsure whether to move the person, a woman of maybe 25. She was in a lot of pain and crying and at first I didn't want to move her, but as she was able to sit up I figured that I should at least get her to the road side. One of her legs was badly injured, so I had to put her arm over my shoulder and help her to the sidewalk. After a reassuring rub on the back and asking if she is ok I notice the other guys now talking to a policeman. At that point I make a quick getaway, grab my bag and disappear. People do drive a bit crazy around here.
So this is short time…
In bed for 10 p.m. hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep, feeling a little jet lagged, and it seems like I have been out for a matter of minutes when I am suddenly awoken by the drunken ramblings of one of my neighbours coming up the hallway, accompanied by the sound of high heeled shoes. I check my watch and it is just gone 2 a.m. This hotel is not the quietest place I have stayed in and any activity in the hall or in neighbouring rooms seems to be amplified. The sounds get nearer, the drunken rambling and the steady trot of the high heels suddenly halt. Keys jangling, sounds like they are coming into my room but then I hear the door close. I raise my head off the pillow to check that they have not in fact entered my room, peering through the white hazy mesh of my mosquito net warily. No, everything is fine, just next door. I kid myself into thinking that I will try to drift back into an unconscious state that resembles sleep and for a few minutes it seemed to work.
BANG…BANG…BANG…??? I believe that is how it went. A sound consistent with an item of furniture being knocked against the wall! Just as it starts I am thinking, oh here we go, but no sooner as it starts it inexplicably stops. A few minutes pass then I hear the shower going on. From there is a curious silence. Talk about short time, boy that was short! I then hear the sound of others, happy sounds coming down the hallway. I cannot sleep now and decide to start examining the damage done to my case by the baggage handlers and fix the cracks in the plastic with some duct tape I bought earlier. It is funny really, because throughout my trip, the various bus rides and plane rides, my suitcase would incur a little bit more damage. The last things to go were the zip handles, both of them! I ended up having to buy duct tape in Bangkok on the first night. Jeez, I am in Bangkok…most guys are looking for hookers…I'm looking for a hardware store so that I can perform surgery on my luggage!
After being woken by the sex marathon next door and performing a little reconstructive surgery on my case it is soon 5 a.m. and I switch the TV. on. Not much to choose from really, the only clear channel I can view seems to be a programme promoting agricultural products for farmers. I make myself comfortable on the other bed, as it is the nearest to the TV. and doze off to this riveting viewing but in no time an alarm has gone off in my head, it is 6.30.
The journey to Surin is about 8 hours and the bus left the station at around
10. 15 am. I usually hate bus journeys and wouldn't dream of taking one back home for that length of time, but the journey through Thailand was fantastic and I would do it again. The scenery is changing constantly and simple daily life is revealed in all its glory. I love the paddy fields and the palm trees and seeing the farmers at work. There are many young Thais on the bus and there is a TV, show playing on a television propped up above the driver. I haven't a clue what is going on but it is hilarious. I recognise one of the main characters, a guy in a film I saw in 2005, Ong Bak…the guys name is Petchthai I think, he was the one with the bleached hair. I get the impression he is prolific on Thai TV. as a funny man. Some Thai kids on the bus were hysterical with laughter.
Anyway, eventually arrive in Surin, but it is getting late and I am beginning to worry about accommodation…as I have not booked any and only had one guesthouse in mind…not very wise considering I spent months planning. I guess I had to allow for some spontaneity.
However, as we drive through Surin I do not see any taxis and begin to have a nightmarish vision of being stuck in a town where nobody understands me and I don't understand them, and my utterings of a certain guesthouse name (Piroms – which is excellent) would be met with a glazed eyed expression.
The bus pulls into the bus terminus and to my relief there are several tuktuks and I am accosted by two drivers, a lady and a gentleman. But the female of the species prevails and she asks me where I am going. I say Piroms and she repeats the name to her fellow tuktuk driver with a bit of a laugh, but in a way that indicated that it was a headache to get to. Well it was, for her, as her tuktuk kept on cutting out at junctions, traffic lights and eventually yards from Piroms. I had to get out and push for the last few yards.
The guesthouse is off the beaten track and I liked this. It was also earthy and basic, again, great for me. I had a bed, a mosquito net and a table, a nice wash room and open shower. It felt like I was out in the wilderness when taking a shower, but very private at the same time. I also arrived, unknown to me, at Loy Kratong and the owner of the guest house and his wife were great hosts. On the night of my arrival I was cooked a meal by Ari, Pirom's wife and given a map of the town centre prepared by Pirom. I used this map to find the Loy Kratong celebration, near the city hall. Obviously I did this on foot as this is the best way to see any town or city if possible, and I was not disappointed. The place was heaving with people and I liked the almost complete absence of foreigners, I saw one, as I walked around and took in the celebrations and the beauty contests that were taking place.
During my planning of the trip, I was wrestling with the idea of flying directly into Siem Reap or going through Poipet – which really didn't appeal to me at all. I am so glad I chose the option of travelling to Surin for the overland border crossing of Chong Chom.
I did plan to cross the border the following morning and then make my way to Anlong Veng and stay the following night there but a chat with Pirom, over my meal before setting off for Loy Kratong, kind of changed my mind. He convinced me that the roads at that time of year would be pretty awful, with just coming out of the wet season. But before this I also had doubts about Anlong Veng, but these owed more to principle than anything else – the contentious issue of tourism in Anlong Veng and the idea of a 'genocide trail' played an important part.
Some local people have objected to plans to develop Anlong Veng into what has been described as a 'Khmer Rouge theme park' and incorporate it into a genocide trail. The rebuilding of leading Khmer Rouge members houses in the area has provoked some controversy and a lot of it I agree with. Norodom Sihanouk himself voiced his opinion, saying that it was for the pleasure of tourists, but I don't agree with that. People do not take pleasure in seeing the ghastly legacy of tyranny. I guess they kind of just want to understand, and Cambodia offers visible and tangible evidence of the madness that we tend to call history. So Pirom unwittingly made my mind up for me…no Anlong Veng. I will stay in Surin an extra day and take the opportunity to see some of North East Thailand.
The following day, Pirom suggests I take the train and visit Sikhoraphum temple and I do. The train ride again exposes the beautiful land and the pace of life is easy. Women patrol the isles of the train dicing up melon and pineapple and selling it to passengers on the train. I arrive at the station and amble out into a main square not being accosted by anyone and it immediately strikes me as a sleepy place. So I walk…using the force to find my way. However, after walking a short while the force is telling me that I might be going in the wrong direction for the temples…I also have no clue as to the distance. So I walk back to the main square and engage a chap that is stood by a motorbike, he has a bib on which looks like the kind I have seen on guys touting taxi/bike services. I say to the guy, 'temple', but he doesn't understand me. A young girl in the near vicinity intervenes and asks me what I am after but I then twig…'Wat…Wat Sikhorapum?' She then takes on an expression of understanding and communicated this to the guy. I ask how much and she asks the guy…20 baht. No problem.
Sikhorapum Wat is peaceful and very self contained within open grounds and the whole area was very quite. The driver chatted away with some local Thais as I wondered around the temple taking photos. We then return from whence we came, back to the square and I thank him and give him fare for both ways and a little extra. I then feel an urge to jump on the next train to Si Sa Ket but when I ask the staff at the station this is not for hours. So I am standing at the entrance of the station, facing the square and notice the driver standing in the same place I found him, across the square. He must have noticed my apprehension and came over. He is now speaking a little English, 'You go to Surin?'. I say to him Si Sa Ket and he immediately yells at a bus pulling away about 30 yards away. 'go Si Sa Ket' the man says with a gentle smile. I thank him and run for the bus which has stopped for me.
Loud Isaan music is blearing from a speaker at the front of the bus, which is almost empty. I have no clue how long the journey is going to be and don't care as we cut through the beautiful countryside and villages. I realise then that it is a weekday when the bus stops off in front of a school and lots of school kids board. This goes on for much of the journey and the ticket man is chatting to people in the street as the bus passes through slowly. Eventually all of the children are delivered safely home and there are just 3 or 4 of us on the bus.
I eventually arrive in Si Sa Ket and when I disembark in the town I may as well have landed in a UFO – I drew quite a bit of attention, but never menacing, more curious than anything else. There was not much going on here but lots of people milling about. I have a meal in the main square and a walk around before jumping the train back. For me, the journey is the best part.
I arrive back just after 9 at Piroms and talk in the dining area with a German couple who had just been to Cambodia. Apparently they turned up not long after me, but the guy asked if I had been woken up at around 5 am by the local Buddhists place of worship, apparently it was rather loud. I didn't hear a thing, but then that was probably because I had been woken at around 3 am by a diesel train passing through the town. I had also polished off some Shivas Regal whiskey that I picked up in the town.
I prepared and packed for my early departure for the border the next morning and slept like a log. Had breakfast and a chat with Pirom before settling up and he calls a tuktuk and tells them where I am going. I would most definitely stay at Piroms again as he and his wife Ari are great hosts and Pirom is a wealth of information. It is also very cheap as 120 baht. Next time I would like to see more of North East Thailand, Roi Et and Ubon Rachathani before moving onto Udon and Chang Mai.
The overland bus routes, while long are a great way to get across Thailand, and the cheapest way.
Crossing the Chong Chom border in Osmach was not as bad as I thought. It was very quiet with hardly any westerners crossing, apart from me and a young German couple who had been on the bus. I asked them if they wanted to taxi share. There is a casino and some song tues hanging around, presumably ferrying Thais to and from the casinos. The touts approach the bus as I get off but my obvious determination to check out of Thailand and get my visa seems to put off pushy touts. Only problem is, because it is a remote crossing, and there was only one visible taxi I could see. The trucks were off limits, due to the bad roads apparently. But you wouldn't want to do this journey on truck anyway, not for sake of a few dollars.
We, the German couple and I had to spend the best part of half an hour negotiating a price with the touts and even then we paid too much, so it seemed at the time. It was a little menacing being surrounded by guys but I made a joke or too and laughed to lighten the tension, as the German girl was getting obviously irate. Eventually I just wanted to be on the road and we agreed to a price of 2500, lower than the 3000 baht they initially tried to charge but still expensive.
I would say to anybody doing this crossing that when engaging the guys there, and trying to bargain them down, relieve the tension by smiling and not getting irate, it really does make things easier and avoids volatility. You just have to remember where you are. Another thing one realises is that for the money they are asking, they are actually doing a lot of hard work when you factor in the condition of the roads and the damage that is done to the cars they use. Our taxi driver shattered his suspension during the journey. But the value for money only becomes apparent after the gruelling 6 plus hour journey.
The journey through Oddar Mincheay and Siem Reap province was pretty uncomfortable due to the terrible road, although you couldn't really call it a road. The countryside, when I could maintain a focus on it was incredible, beautiful and at times harsh. Life for the rural people is harsh and the scarcity is obvious, people are very poor. Villas with satellite dishes and 4×4 jeeps parked outside sit next to tin shacks complete with buffalo. Sugar palms and banana trees are abundant and to me a great source of beauty. The sugar palm is a national symbol in Cambodia and as well as natural produce, the trees are used to build, feed and sustain local agriculture. To me, as an outsider, they can also at times make the terrain and land look harsh and rugged, almost alien. There is so much paradox and contrast here – a theme through much of South East Asia.
After a lunch break in a town in the provinces we were on our way again. The driver seemed like a nice man and attempted to make some conversation, but driving conditions made any conversation quite difficult as the journey was unsettling. We crossed makeshift bridges made of tree trunks and young Khmer men stood by charging a small toll, which the driver paid up. At times in this barren and scarce place I would see people dressed in immaculately clean white shirts and blouses on their way to or from work on bicycles, while at the same time seeing kids playing in what looked like filthy ponds. Men fished in them and immersed themselves beneath the water escaping the rays of the blazing sun. Throughout the arduous journey I could not help but notice the pervasive presence of the Cambodian Peoples Party, signs everywhere, on various shacks, villas and buildings. I saw some FUNCINPEC signs and even rarer Sam Rainsy Party signs.
Eventually we arrived in Siem Reap district, heralded by high end hotels and country clubs, nearer to the airport, which eventually gave way to the cheaper guesthouses, although there are many top end hotels in the busier part too.
I won't go into too much detail, as there is so much to cover on this trip. In short Siem Reap is very much a spiritual experience. The Khmers that you will meet in the town are courteous, polite and at least appear to seem genuine interested in you and where you are from. Angkor Wat complex is a two day viewing and your moto driver will take you to each temple of the complex. If you are brave you can cycle on the second day, when you know roughly were everything is, but the traffic is a bit scary.
The first day began quite late, particularly as I had taken a few beer Laos from the restaurant the night before. But there was further delay in my leaving the hotel room owing to 'the ritual'.
Shower and shave. Pop my anti-malaria tablet. Cover myself in mosquito spray…which fills the room with a noxious odour making it impossible to breath or inhale for a few minutes, forcing me to take cover in the bathroom. After that, the sun screen. I must then sort my money out, I have at the time some dollars and baht but need Riel for smaller purchases, mainly bottles of water. That done, I need to then make sure that my small back pack has water, and check, for the fourth time that my money, held in a secret compartment is in fact there. That is it, after what seems like endless faffing I then decide that I may need to use the toilet before I leave, add another 15 minutes. This was consistent throughout the trip.
The guy I used for the entire duration of my stay in Siem Reap town was a young man by name of Tee (name changed to protect the innocent), who didn't speak great English, but was a very nice easy going chap. We could somehow converse and laugh and joke. At one point, I asked him to take me to the war museum, which I recommend, as it is very quiet and a virtual graveyard of ordinance, artillery and tanks from the turmoil of the Cambodian civil war, lots of rusting M16s and AK's. Tee picks up an RPG and popped it onto his shoulder with a beaming smile, which just made me laugh out loud. I had to take a picture of this. Sensing my amusement he then took position behind a 50 calibre machine gun, posing for a photo.
Along the way we stop off for some petrol. Now at first it didn't register with me what was going on. Tee just pulled into what appeared to be an open shop front of a busy road with rows of shops. I thought he was just saying hi to somebody and didn't think much of the rickety wooden shelves with dirty pop and whiskey bottles resting on them. Nor did I pay too much attention to the liquid that was in them. Just thought it was some local tipple. Tee then opens his petrol cap on his bike and a young Khmer chap comes over with a plastic funnel and a Johnny Walker bottle, the contents of which he promptly dispenses into the bike. Ahhhh..I see…
Back to the temples, I guess Angkor Wat is the highlight, purely because of the size and scale, as well as being the image that is presented to the world. It is impressive and also very peaceful in parts of the complex where you can sit and peer out over the serene landscape of Cambodia. Unfortunately my vertigo would not allow me to scale the very steep steps up the towers. I tried three times and couldn't get passed half way up, scared the hell out of me as the steps are so narrow. Inside the temple I was at one point a bit shocked to get the smell of urine in one part of the inner sanctum! It's true what they say…nothing is sacred!
The most aesthetically pleasing of the temples I think, is the Bayon, but the overall experience is incredible.
On my temple travels within some of the complexes I was ambushed by scores of Cambodian girls selling all manner of things and aging from 5 up to 14. These kids could teach us over in the west a few things about making the hard sell. But, in my opinion, it is an important part of the Angkor Wat experience. They are persistent and at times you cannot get a word out above the din, the sound I compare to a gaggle of geese at feeding time. Some of the Khmer kids speak exceptionally good English and one little girl, age around 10, could tell me more about what Manchester United was up to than I could tell her. I bought a few things, which came in very useful and are still being of use to me. That was the ambush at Banteay Kdei.
At the end of the day I pay Tee for his services along with a good tip before going back to my hotel room to freshen up and go for a meal in the restaurant. When I arrive, Tee is working away in the restaurant. These kids just don't stop working.
I was a little concerned that I would oversleep and that Tee would be knocking on my door only to find I am still in my pit, but I needn't have worried, as I was awoken by a rather loud Cockerell crowing away right outside my window. It wasn't just one or two cock a doodle do's, but somewhere in the region of 25 to 30. This wasn't helped by the distant replies of other cocks across town. I was not amused and decided that it would not be a good idea to go back to sleep, even if I could. It seems that my window opens out into the back yard and kitchen of a restaurant off the main road and that it has its own Menagerie, the various members of which rouse the kitchen workers up from their slumber and galvanise them into action. The kitchen workers start work at 5 a.m.
By 5.30 Tee and I were on the road headed for Angkor Wat, the main temple to catch the sunrise over it. Well worth getting up for I might add.
Sras Srang followed and consists of a Baray (water reservoir) with a temple in the middle that is apparently visible during the dry season. It is ideally situated and bereft of tourists. I figure that some quiet contemplation in the early morning while overlooking the reservoir is in order. Tee indicated to me that he will wait across the road at a cluster of market stalls and cafes while I walk around Sras Srang lake. It has just gone 7 a.m. and as I make my way to the far corner of the lake I am accosted by a boy of around 9 or 10 years of age offering to make coffee for me. At first I decline, but his polite manner and the absence of caffeine in my bloodstream culminates in a quick u-turn decision. The kid's name was Won and when I told him my name he ran off repeating my name to himself so he wouldn't forget. However, if I was thinking that I would enjoy a refreshing cup of coffee in the serene and tranquil setting of Sras Srang I was very much mistaken.
The ambush at Banteay Kdei was nothing compared to the ambush at Sras Srang! No sooner had Won fled to arrange my beverage, no doubt alerting the crew, which would be ready to take me down when I was sufficiently close. I was then surrounded by a gang of little girls. Having ordered a cup of coffee and being the only tourist around, there wasn't a chance of an easy getaway. The ages ranged again from 5 to 14, the older end doing the selling, all manner of things from t-shirts to drinks. They attack like piranhas and are sensitive to vulnerable prey, dazed from being up so early, defences down due to critical lack of caffeine, chicken feed to these kids!
I try to maintain the hard stance, 'I am here to see the temples' I politely exclaim, 'I don't want anything', but there is that sound again, that frenzied gaggle of geese sound, and it is far too early! I say loudly over the din that is comparable to a school playground at play time, 'right, O.K. I will have a coke off you ( a cute little feisty girl aged around 8 or 9), a t-shirt off you, and one off you, and Won, I will have that coffee, but first can you all leave me alone so I can sit in peace and enjoy the temple?' They reluctantly agree after several promises to keep my word. The kids go off in a swarm…they have done a good job on me!
I then sit for a while at the top end of the lake literally yards from what was a moment ago a full on attack. It is peaceful and the sun is still coming up. I see workers in straw hats and tattered clothing working the perimeter area of the Baray, not sure what they are doing, but I walk by as I make my way around the lake, which I estimate to be around 1 mile around, possibly less. As I walk along I notice to my right some of the local dwellings and Khmer music is blearing from a wooden shack with laundry draped over the window ledge. I focus my attention back onto the uneven and course path I am walking long and suddenly hear the grunting and squealing of a pig. I look around and I am alarmed to see a white piglet grunting and charging at me through some surrounding shrubbery. I freeze not knowing what to do, but a couple of local workers nearby shout at the pig and it halts and turns tail. They laugh and I am embarrassed.
I think to myself, damn, even the animals want a piece of me. I then hear the buzz of a moto and look around to find Tee coming up the walkway. I was not expecting him but gladly jumped on the back and we were off. I am sure I heard Won in the distance shouting my name and I felt a little bad for just disappearing like that. I say to Tee that on our way back we must stop off at Sras Srang again, as I promised some kids I would buy some things.
After a day of sightseeing we head back into the town, Tee heads for his bed, I head for the bank, as I need to get Riel and need to send a few emails. I arrange to meet back up at around 4 in the afternoon.
We meet up after 4 and I realize that it is late in the day and I am hoping that the kids I met earlier are still around. This time Tee takes me right up to the stalls were I was ambushed, but contrary to what I expected there was at least twice as many kids. I recognise some of the faces but cannot see little Won. A few of the girls I had promised to buy from are onto me but I ask about Won. Then one of the girls runs off to find him. In the meantime I am fending off numerous kids. I put my foot down, 'Sorry', I say, 'but I m here to buy off this girl, this girl and this girl. I made a promise to them.' The sales pitch persists around me but it is subdued by the girls that I am actually buying from. Won appears with a big smile and I order two coffees from him. He runs off to his stall and a number of older women go to work on the coffee, he ushers Tee and me to a table and we are followed by a throng of nagging young ladies holding various items of silk etc.
While the coffee is being made I square with the lady, the feisty one, who is sitting opposite me and honour my promise of buying a coke from her, in fact one for me and Tee. I then agree to visit the stalls of the two girls I had promised to buy a t-shirt from when I have had my coffee. In the meantime there is much friendly chatter with some far too precocious young ladies. They have a great sense of humour the Khmer children but one can't help but think that they have had a childhood bypass, given that they are actively and aggressively bringing money into the family kitty from such early ages.
It also becomes apparent that they act as a collective for the benefit of all the market traders, who probably take a share of each others profits if they have helped to bring trade to one another. I am not entirely sure how it all works but these kids represent a formidable front line.
The elders are still busily working away in the background and Won overlooks the proceedings. In the meantime, the feisty little girl I bought the cans off points to a little man I hadn't even noticed had joined us, perhaps because he had been discretely wheeled up to the table in a little push chair and was all of 18 months old and just about managing to sit up. Feisty lady says 'you buy baby, 1000 Riel', a rather sinister quip coming from such a young kid I thought!
Coffee arrives and the banter continues. I don't care much for Cambodian coffee, which is just like the coffee I have had in Thailand, very bitter and like treacle, pretty awful. But in politeness I drink it down as Tee infrequently injects a bit of conversation in Khmer as I chat to the cheeky kids. It was a pleasure to sit in the cafe' and spend time with the local children, but the poverty is obvious, and even the cafe' we were drinking in was a sparse affair, a few tables under a tarpaulin canopy. I thank Won before I make my way to the t-shirt stalls.
It is such experiences that I think demonstrate the importance of indulging the local people and letting them indulge you. After all, it is the people that make a country, not monuments, or temples or fancy shopping malls, and it important to engage them. I think so much can be learned and so much pleasure can be derived from doing so. It is also important to spend a little money, and even if you don't think you need anything they are offering, buy anyway. I mean, what are we talking, five, ten dollars?
Everything I have bought has been of use to me, or a gift to somebody else! Ultimately, you know that the money you spend is directly supporting local communities, very poor communities. Upon leaving, the kids thanked me for coming back and keeping my promise and the little girls of Banteai Kdei and Sras Srang gave me a piece of paper with a drawing, usually of a flower, with their name written on it and a wish of good luck!
The manager of the hotel informs me that a lady guest is also going to Phnom Penh and that he can arrange a taxi share. In the meantime I am talking to one of the guys that keep the various functions of the hotel running smoothly, a young man who speaks excellent English. I ask him what it is he hopes to do in the future and he tells me he wants to get into hotel management, working for the big hotel names. He tells me that many young Khmers try to 'talk like an American' but he no longer wants to talk like an American. Now he is trying to talk like an Australian.
So that is what that peculiar accent is I think to myself. I ask him why not American anymore, and he tells me that it is because Americans are unpopular. I do not persist with the line of questioning but I can only assume this is down to the Iraq war situation, and that this guy is probably expressing some harsh views he has heard from tourists. So, I find myself in the company of a young bright kid, his accent shifting from American, with a Khmer twang, to a not so bad Aussie accent, then back to American, all in excellent English!
I enjoyed my short stay in Siem Reap but I think that if one is to come this far, then one must go to Phnom Penh, the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. I was fortunate enough to share the 3 hour cab ride with a woman from Ireland going to Langkawi in Malaysia, via Cambodia? She was stopping over in Phnom Penh for 1 day and we spent the day seeing some of the sights – Silver Pagoda, Royal palace and the museum, before rounding off the day with an evening at the FCC and a restaurant off the Sisowath Quay.
I was prepared for Phnom Penh, knowing something about the history of Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century and having read up on the capital of today – Gordon Sharpless being a very good recommendation by Stickman. But I was still a little unsure of what to expect, given the poverty. Anyway, to the uninformed, Phnom Penh will come as a bit of a shock, with very obvious problems throughout the city. Despite this, the people are remarkably friendly and will not get in your face. There are also some top end hotels near the river – my temporary travel companion stayed in one at $120 per night. I opted for something much much cheaper.
The most memorable sights, in my opinion, are Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Psar Thmei, the big central market. I would also recommend hiring a motodup to take you around the city in the early evening, just to get a feel for the city at night. It is probably not a good idea to walk around the city at night though as holds ups in the street do happen, and usually it is other Khmers that are the victims. But I know I would not like a gun pointed at me in any situation.
Psar Thmei is an art deco building functioning as a central market place and is really quite a bizarre sight in the city and well worth a look.
The genocide museum is an upsetting experience and almost surreal given its proximity in the middle of the city. I would recommend using a guide there too as it is more than likely that they have lost family to the Pol Pot regime and can give you a better idea of the situation in Cambodia during the 70's.
There was a rather spooky moment when the guide and I walked into one of the rooms with the beds. I think it was A block, each room having a single bed in the middle, the room depressingly bare with a large photo picture on the wall showing the dead prisoner, as found at the time by the Vietnamese. There is a window facing and one can make out the lush green life outside. I was looking at the bed and the shackles resting on it when the door to the room slammed shut with an almighty bang. I instinctively looked at the guide and she had an expression in her eyes that made me think she was thinking what I was thinking. But it is just for a moment.
I found the photo rooms pretty upsetting to the point were I had to compose myself a few times at risk of looking like an idiot. Face up on face with ranges of expressions. But one realizes that out of the madness of the Pol Pot regime that the Khmer Rouge kadres themselves were victims, living in the climate of fear and suspicion that was all pervasive. Children were indoctrinated and brainwashed to hate and dehumanize their fellow Khmers and their own parents, as older generations harboured memories and ideas that were not compatible with the new Cambodia. I can't imagine living in constant fear of my own thoughts.
I decided before going to Cambodia that I would not see the killing fields. Simply because I do not want to see displays of human skulls if I can help it. In my humble opinion I believe that the skull cabinets of Choung Ekh and Toul Sleng represent a final and enduring indignity to those that died under Pol Pot rule. While it is argued that it is necessary to drive home the horror and bring in much need tourism revenue, it goes against the traditional laying to rest of people of the land, which to my understanding is in accordance with Buddhist traditions, that of cremation. There are a lot of wandering souls in Cambodia today I would think.
At the same time, Toul Sleng is a necessary reminder of the horror, and needs to be preserved, much like Auschwitz is today. Unfortunately, it is struggling for funding.
Coming out of Toul Sleng one will be accosted by many beggars, missing limbs and some with horrible disfigurements – a poignant reminder and legacy of the mayhem of the 70's. To a privileged outsider Cambodia can be a grounding country, it reconciles your soul and spirit and reminds you of what it really means to be a human being, revealing strength and ugliness and also reminds you of your privilege. It is this that you take away with you when you leave Cambodia. It is not about feeling sorry for people or indulging in pity, it is about seeing the strength and resilience of human beings and how they come out at the other end, despite the horror, and usually smiling.
I am not sure about the nightlife in Phnom Penh. The first night I stayed in the Boddhi tree guesthouse, which closes at 9 pm. Having left the young lady I spent the day with I returned quite late, but the staff sleep in hammocks out in the courtyard and let me in. I found this to be the case in Siem Reap too.
The next night was spent at an Irish guesthouse, and an excellent choice, a kind of oasis for the expat community. The owner ended up taking me to some bars with his wife after he shut up bar. But the Irish whiskey we had been drinking at his bar only gave me a hazy recollection of being, at one point, in Howies bar and a very late rise the next day. There are some popular bars dotted about but I am not brave enough to visit these on my own and besides, I am not sure it is wise to do so anyway. I read in a Cambodian news paper, Phnom Penh Post I think, an online English version with a story headline 'man shot with rifle during snooker game'??? Only in Cambodia!
Next stop Vietnam…
Vietnam is an 8 hour bus ride taking you into Ho Chi Minh City. The bus ride itself reveals beautiful rural Cambodia and I had the good fortune of sitting near an American couple, who struck me as very hippie. I could imagine these two protesting in the late 60's against the US occupation of Vietnam. It is funny because I have spoken to Americans that would not dream of visiting Vietnam because they have this entrenched notion of hostile, subterranean, almost inhuman people that hate Americans. I think they have been watching too much Oliver Stone stuff. They need to get their arses over there and experience the country and the people – they won't forget it and won't regret it. Neither did this couple, who had been all over and go every year. They gave me some good hints on what to do in Saigon, and when we were saying our farewells, I was given a very motherly 'be safe' parting shot from the good lady.
I was only in Saigon for 4 days and loved every minute. I stayed in a hotel near the Benh Thanh market and had only been in the city for an hour before I summoned a cyclo to take me to the war museum and reunification palace. The war museum is definitely worth a look, and it is obvious that the Vietnamese are very proud, and quite rightly so, and yet do not lord it over anybody. Time and time again you will see examples of Vietnamese ingenuity and practical mindedness. The people work hard and work long into old age. The cyclo driver is approaching his seventies and when I come out the war museum I find him asleep, and boy did I have a time waking him. Other cyclo drivers were laughing, it was highly amusing.
Off to reunification palace, a grand building that seems frozen in the Thieu / Nixon era of the late 60's and early 70's. It is luxurious and there are guides that will take you all around through the kitchens and the various entertaining rooms. The most interesting part is the lower levels, the bunkers and the war offices. It is very cheap to visit and a must do.
Getting around Saigon is easy as pie, and I did most of it on foot, at least the central districts, of 1 and 3. Just get hold of a simple map from your hotel. I went a bit further across the Saigon River which reveals a more local Vietnam – at least that is how it appeared to me.
Le Duan Boulevard is like one long lovers lane at night with many young couples kissing and hugging under the shade of the trees, with motorbike parked up close. I felt like a bit of a voyeur as I made my way up the long central part of the avenue. At the end of it I seemed to stumble into some sort of commemoration, young men with red t-shirts emblazoned with gold star baring torches that were yet to be lit. A TV crew was poised to film them walking into a ground with a stage. People were seated waiting and people were also queuing. I walked passed them and was not stopped. But I was only curiously observing.
A young chap passes me and thrusts a flyer into my hand advertising a burger joint. I ask him what is going on and he tells me he doesn't know. 10 minutes later the same guy turns up with a girl, she is also dressed in a red t-shirt and is part of the commemoration I guess. She attempts to explain what is going on but it is difficult to hear now, as the music has started and people are taking position on stage. I was happy that the guy had taken the trouble to help me out and it made me feel a welcome guest.
Before I went to Vietnam I never would have associated with it coffee. I always associated coffee with Brazil but coffee is one of Vietnam's biggest exports. Another merit of travel is that is blows away the cobwebs of ignorance. Anyway…Vietnamese coffee…what can I say…except wow! Once you have it there is no going back…and if you do go back it is only because you cannot get the Vietnamese stuff!
The food in Vietnam is also excellent, the noodle soup in particular. It is simple and kept me going for hours, I guess it is another indication of the Vietnamese way of doing things, with simplicity and effect. This brings me to the restaurants off the Ben Thanh market. These restaurants are literally thrown up, when the main market closes, complete with lighting, fans and mobile kitchens and dismantled just as easily. It is an experience that I would recommend and one can eat a delicious meal and drink a cold beer while watching the street market traders and throngs of tourists passing by. The restaurant packs out quickly and the food is good and cheap.
I avoided the main city bars, and went to drink outside in the local pavement bars, drinking locally brewed beer while sitting on tiny plastic stools that stand at a mere foot in height. I guess this is for stealth drinking and one gets the feeling that he shouldn't really be doing it in the street. I would walk down the street and be beckoned over by a couple of old men offering a shot glass of banana wine. I did not understand them and they did not understand me but we understood each other as we raised and clinked glasses. I though to myself I bet these guys could tell me a few stories, before making my way to a street bar situated not far from my hotel. I killed some time drinking with a couple of local Vietnamese before hitting the hotel. I wanted to go on the Mekong river cruise the next day.
If you do anything when in Saigon, do the Mekong Delta tour. It is a cheap and a excellent day out and the Delta is wonderful. The boat trips through the mangrove swamps give you a feel of the more familiar more stereotypical vision of Vietnam that we see on our screens. The tour includes a lunch menu of snake, eel and elephants ear fish and these are sold in kg or half kg portions. Be warned, the lunch is very expensive in relation to the cost of the tour and will most likely cost 3 or 4 times the cost of the tour itself, so avoid any embarrassment and bring enough cash to cover it. It is worth the experience over all. Chances are you will be with a small group and you can share dishes across all four main dishes.
See how coconut candy is made, wear a live snake around your neck, stick your finger into a beehive without being stung…do it all! Actually I bottled it when it come to doing some of these things and just watched others do it. It just didn't seem sensible to put a 5 foot long living rope of solid muscle around my neck. And I am not particularly fond of Bees or Wasps either.
The highlight of my stay in Vietnam was Cu Chi tunnels. There are tour operators that organise trips to the tunnels but I decided to take a moto. By the way, you will very quickly notice in Vietnam and Cambodia that many of the moto, tuktuk and taxi drivers do not have any more of an idea as to where things are than you do. If this is the case, do not use them. Make sure that the person knows where the place is before you get in, if they seem unsure, forget it.
I was amazed at how many of the moto guys I spoke to didn't have a clue as to where Cu Chi was and in some cases what it was. But I did eventually find someone who did know, there was a knowing on his face when I mentioned the Cu Chi. But be prepared for a bum numbing ride if you are taking a moto, it is not for the feint hearted. It takes about one and half hours and your life will flash before your eyes as you pass by cement trucks within a cat's whisker coming in the opposite direction. No helmet, you are at the mercy of God. But it is fun and don't forget your shades and makes sure you got a comprehensive insurance policy if you are going to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam!
Cu Chi tunnel complex is awesome and epitomises the ingenuity, strength, will and resilience of the Vietnamese during that turbulent time in history we refer to as the Vietnam War, what historians refer to as the Second Indochina War and what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. The tunnel complex is impressive with underground operating theatres, kitchens, war rooms, fitting rooms and weapons factories were Vietnamese guerrillas used bomb shell fragments to make lethal traps and unexploded ordnance to make mines. Everything was utilised including Bridgestone and Goodyear tyres for sandals. There is a shooting range, but in my opinion I think enough bullets have flown across this land already. In fact I copped for a hot shell of a spent round from an AK47 being let loose by some guy I think was from Essex in England…those Essex boys I don't know. Perhaps I was a little too close to shooting range. There is also an area were rice wine is made and rice paper is made, but as the guy attempted to explain the process it began to sound like a hot war was erupting a few yards away.
When one is doing the tour and seeing the horrendous traps that were set for the American 'neo-colonialists' as they were seen to be, you kind of feel for the GIs that stumbled into them. The human element is not lost here and you see it from both sides, admiration on the one hand for a people fighting for independence and against rampant US technology, and on the other, compassion for the suffering of many young Americans fighting a war that really shouldn't have happened and for reasons that many of them didn't even understand. In fact I think that is one of the more remarkable things about Vietnam, that despite the recent history, you don't feel an angry vibe or any hostility at all. The Vietnamese are out there making money and keeping the wheels of local commerce spinning. I don't think they have time for anger or resentment.
I decided to hire the same moto driver to take me around Saigon at night and it seems that this is when things really liven up in the streets. Many young Vietnamese take to the roads and ride around the city. Beautiful Vietnamese women with long black flowing hair pair up with friends and cruise leisurely along the wide neon lit roads. God, they are gorgeous!
I seized the opportunity to visit the post office, which is very impressive. The first thing ones eyes are drawn to is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh taking pride of place inside the huge opulent open space as soon as you walk in. Ho Chi Minh (often cited as meaning 'he who aspires to light) actually spent time in England training under the tutelage of a famous French chef. He also is attributed to co-founding the French Communist Party, the Vietminh and the Indochinese Communist Party.
At the end of the tour the moto guy, Nguyen, says to me that I have helped him out greatly by using his services for the day and that he has three small children. I thanked him in return. What a nice chap!
On my last night in Saigon I am beginning to look forward to the wonderful beaches of Phuket but not before an interlude in Phnom Penh en route to Bangkok. The good thing about the Mekong express bus is that you can buy your return ticket if you know the date you want to return. You also get the satisfaction of seeing Cambodian immigration squirm when they have to accept your $20 for your Visa, under the watchful eye of a Mekong express operator. Sweeet.
Back in Phnom Penh I realise that I have miscalculated on my dates and that I should have stayed another day in Vietnam. I am leaving for Phuket in three days as opposed to two days – which gives me two days in Phnom Penh and a day in Bangkok. I go to Boddhi tree cafe' for the wonderful noodle soup and to say hello to the guys working on the motodups and tuktuks, young men around my age. I kind of got the impression that they were a bit of a crew and look after one another. I was also surprised to learn that most of them were living in the S21 compound – Toul Sleng, across the street.
Speaking to people that work in the NGOs and people who run bars in the city one quickly realises that there are dangers in running a business in the city if one does not pay for proper round the clock security. Security is an important feature of doing business in Cambodia and can mean the difference between life and death for the proprietor and anyone else who happens to be around at the time. It is strange though, that throughout my stay in Vietnam, the far flung corners of Thailand and Cambodia, I never felt unsafe. In fact I felt safer than I do walking the streets of Britain where people can seem so angry and pent up. Ironic really, as they, my British counterparts, have so much to be happy about and probably the least to be angry about! Go figure.
Anyway, I digress. Phnom Penh at night is great, particularly cruising on the back of a moto or tuktuk and seeing the city. I like the billboard portraits of King Sihamoni and his mum and dad, Queen Monineath and Norodom Sihanouk. I sadly observe that King Sihamoni takes the first four letters of his father's and then his mother's name and the portrait of Queen Monineath makes her highness look curiously similar to our own queen in some ways, at least as she looked 30 years ago anyway. On my last night I enjoy a drink at the FCC, which is a great place to while away the evening and watch the people sitting off along the esplanade that borders the river, talking and eating, families enjoying the evening.
A pleasant ride to the airport…
After a fairly relaxed night in the Irish bar and saying my farewells to the proprietor and the wonderful staff over a few drinks, I am up at crack of dawn the following morning and handing my suitcase to the tuktuk driver at 7 a.m. prompt. At 7.05 the tuktuk driver is weaving in an out of Phnom Penh traffic and I feel a sense of confidence in getting to my destination in the rickety old tuktuk with plenty of time to spare.
What was that? Well, after less than 5 minutes of purposeful manoeuvring through the early rush hour traffic, the tuktuk driver pulls over. It quickly dawns on me that I have been here before, this is a familiar situation – he doesn't know how to get to the airport. Lo and behold, he gets out and walks over to a guy parked up on a moto and I can only assume he is asking him how to get to the airport.
I am now shaking my head in despair and thinking, you are having a laugh aren't you? I see some gesticulating between the two, but the moto guy providing the direction then tries to poach me. Only problem is, I have a suitcase, and as crazy as I have been, I draw the line at sitting on the back of a motorbike holding a suitcase, IN CAMBODIA! However, my tuktuk driver, seeing what is going on makes haste and hits the road again. I notice that familiar anxious shifting of the drivers head from left to right, scanning the streets for signs. All the while I am thinking, please let this be the right way to the airport, as I consult my watch.
I start to see signs for Pochentong and I feel better, as the airport used to be called Pochentong Airport but is now Phnom Penh International Airport. At least now we are in the right area I think to myself, and the airport cannot be far now. My confidence gradually recovers amid the awful traffic situation which can only be described as utter bedlam. I then see a sign for the Airport, but the resurgence of confidence I feel is short-lived when the tuktuk driver, going at full throttle, misjudges his braking distance as he approaches a tailback, and crashes into the back of a minibus full of workers. Fortunately, he had slowed down sufficiently that I didn't become air born with my luggage, but he did do some damage to the minibus.
Well, what can I say? In fact all I could do was mutter to myself words to the effect of 'I don't believe this', as the two parties pulled over to the side of the road. The driver of the minibus jumps out and lethargically ambles on over to the rear to inspect the damage. The tuktuk driver sheepishly utters some words to him. Then silence as the bus driver manages to look very calm and pissed off at the same time. I glance over the dashboard of the tuktuk and my view reveals a damaged rear light and a bit of a dent on the minibus.
Negotiations resume, God only knows what they are saying and I don't see any documents being presented but it all seems very calm. I think Khmer's are acutely aware of how quickly things can escalate if there is aggression and hostility, hence the calmness. By now a crowd is gathering around us and I am sat in the back of the tuktuk with a small college back pack on my lap and gripping my suitcase by the handle. I am beginning to feel a little worried, and expect that both drivers are going to turn to me and demand money from me to cover it. I was ready for that one, a firm but polite NO! I am also worried that we are going to be there for a long time and I anxiously look at my watch as time is getting on.
I had seen an accident before on Sisowath Quay from the splendid vantage point afforded by the FCC and they can turn into a spectator sport of Ben Hurr epic proportions – remember the endless chariot race? However, as I realize my worse fears there seems to be a breakthrough in the deadlock, probably aided by the fact that the people in the bus need to get to work! Some more words are exchanged, the tuktuk driver pulls some money out of his pocket, not sure how much, and the driver accepts it. He then jumps back in his bus and is off like a bat out of hell. My tuktuk driver inspects the front of his tuktuk, nods his head and then resumes what is turning out to be a stressful journey – I would prefer a simple one, which is what it should be.
More signs for the airport begin to appear and we are now close but we have to cross over to the other side, to what appears to be an entrance off the main road. The tuktuk driver turns into oncoming traffic passing in the opposite direction and just stops short of clipping the back end of a minibus, the very same one he crashed into only minutes earlier.
I really do not have confidence in this guy at all and the agony is prolonged when the security man at the 'entrance' tells us that it is in fact not the entrance and that we need to go back on the main road and continue down it, we will see the entrance then. Eventually, we arrive at the airport in one piece and I say a big adios to the driver, I hope I never clap eyes on him again! There should be mug shot photos of this young man pinned to various posts in Phnom Penh advising travellers never to board a tuktuk with him driving it. I am also of the opinion that Khmer's cannot drive, period.
I return to the familiarity of the big city, Bangkok, early at around 1 in the afternoon. I will be staying overnight and taking a flight the next day to Phuket. But in the meantime I make a beeline for the hotel I stayed in at the beginning and drop off my bags, before hitting the bus terminal for a ticket to Ayutthya.
When I arrive in Ayutthaya it is indeed just gone 4 p.m. and the bus has stopped on a rather subdued main road. The only thing that indicates that I have arrived at the last stop is when the last few passengers disembark, and the inspector shuffles on up the aisle and says Ayuttya. I get off the bus but can see little by way of indicators or signs of where tourist sights are. Perhaps there were signs along the way, but I didn't see any. I notice a small group of men sat on a wall near the bus stop, but don't look at them. Instead, I elect for silly tourist pretending he knows were he is going option instead, and as I haven't the first clue were I am going or what it is I have come to see, I am at a loss – this is one of the caveats of impulsive behaviour.
As a matter of damage limitation I turn towards the moto guys and one of them enthusiastically approaches me, 'where you go' he says, but probably noting the vacant expression on my face he tactfully follows up with 'you want see temple?' 'Yes, temple' I reply. tuktuk man quickly suggests that he takes me around all the temples, on an excursion that takes two and a half hours. We agree a price and we are off.
The first impression of Ayutthaya when you are coming through on the bus is that it is a very clean very nice city, pleasant to look at with monuments on main roundabout junctions (mainly Stupas) and portraits of King Bphumiphol everywhere. It also looks quiet sleepy in parts. However, the real beauty is in the ancient temples and ruins, and there are lots of them spread over a wide area of the city. I could quite happily spend the whole day slowly taking in the various ruins and walking through the parks. Many of the ruins are dotted about in parks were you will see elderly citizens jogging or walking, while others just sit by the ruins in quiet contemplation. Taking a tuktuk around saves lots of time and is convenient if you are making a flying visit, but otherwise, a very pleasant and easy day could be had here followed by an overnight stay. I thought that Ayutthya was easily the most peaceful, magical and mystical of the places I visited throughout the whole trip.
The journey back into Bangkok seems to take longer and this is followed by a crazy taxi ride back to the hotel. I mean, this taxi driver is driving like a maniac, which seems to be a common behaviour of Bangkok taxi drivers. They weave in and out of traffic at high speeds and leave little margin for error. I must say though, that if the same proportion of car drivers existed in Phnom Penh then I could imagine the capital of Cambodia looking like one big demolition derby, and everyone would be driving around in what would be the equivalent of stock racing cars. The taxi driver in Bangkok however was driving like he was preparing for Le Mans. I wasn't happy.
I spot a billboard notice on one of the numerous towering hotels that form the Bangkok skyline advising 'DRINK, DON'T DRIVE!' An understandable piece of advice given the way Thai people drive…just don't drive, do anything but drive!
A quick meal at the hotel restaurant and a freshening up and I take the train to Nana station and walk around the Nana area, just to see what all the fuss is about. I have to say I was totally surprised by what I found. Bustling markets line the main Sukhumivit road and Hijab covered women brush shoulders with working girls and Katoeys. It is a surreal scene but people move in overlapping circles here. At times walking along the Sukhumvit road reminded me of the Broadway that one sees in the 80's movies. I turn onto a main street, again, can't remember the number, and as I walk along it, I find Uzbekistani, Pakistani and Egyptian restaurants. If I didn't know where I was I would have thought I was in the middle east.
I peruse the menu of the Egyptian place, fried brains in gravy…umm…nice…I settle for a kebab and sit within the cool, austere setting, typically Middle Eastern. There are several families in the restaurant, mainly Muslim judging by the well covered mothers in black Hijabs. A middle-aged western fella walks in with a young girl around 20. She looked Thai, but I couldn't say with certainty if she was, but the other customers didn't bat an eyelid. They didn't flee in disgust, they just sat, talked and ate their meals. I found this remarkable and thought yeah, this is the way it is supposed to be, people just getting on with it and without ugly displays of disapproval, judgement and hostility. Each to his, or her, own! Outside, an old Egyptian man sits and takes a pipe while observing the life passing. Young Thai women sit out in the street at sewing machines working away. What an incredible city and what an incredible country Thailand is.
I am excited about returning to Kata town and seeing more of Phuket.
The following day begins with an early breakfast and another farewell to the hotel staff. My flight is midday and I will be greeted by a taxi driver arranged with my accommodation in Kata. I do love Kata so. But this time around I will be on my own. When I arrive in Kata I check into my hotel and have a beer before going straight to the beach and the reggae bar. But this is not before the proprietor of the hotel lays down the ground rules as he says in his unintentionally funny way "I don't mind you bringing girl back to your room. That is no problem. But I don't want any fucking in the pool! If I see a condom in my pool I will fucking kill everybody!" I had to stifle a grin at that point.
I take it easy for the first evening and go around a few of the bars where I get talking to a Swedish couple and a Swedish Biker chick. The Swedish couple are thinking about visiting Cambodia, so as you can imagine, I was in my element imparting my experience.
Kata really is a little piece of paradise that you just want to return to again and again. One forgets time. I looked at my watch one afternoon and realised that the time didn't actually mean anything…it may as well just have displayed in big bold letters 'your time dude…your time'.
One thing that I don't understand though…the joggers!? Sorry folks but I gotta get this off my chest…
Now, during the day the sun bares down with intensity sending temperatures to 35 degrees centigrade, probably more, but despite this, I see people jogging all over the beach?? What is that about???
I am sorry folks, but I thought the idea of a holiday was to wind down, kick back and relax. I feel the bile beginning to rise up within me as I wonder, why? Why do these people bother going on holiday? Why don't they just go back home to their 8 till 9's and then transport their overworked bodies to their overpriced gym's in their overpriced cars to finish themselves off?
Spare yourselves the cost of the 14 hour flight and accommodation, PLEASE! I mean for goodness sake…get a life…
…and get some clothes on while you are at it!
Sorry about that…now where was I…yes…Swedish women…and German ones too…
Kata attracts lots of Swedish and German tourists and I have to say, a lot of the women are very tall and statuesque, and very good looking. I did try my luck with a stunning German girl who had been staying in the same hotel with her friend, who I had seen leaving with some big biker dude. I seized the opportunity to talk to her but I think she was self conscious about her English. She needn't have been as I barely speak three words of German and her English was excellent. More likely that I just wasn't her type, but you gotta try.
I also discovered that the Swedish really know how to let their hair down and have fun. I stumbled upon a bar out in the sticks…on the way to Naiharn beach and happened upon a group of Swedish fellas, dressed like bikers, one of them owning a bar in Karon. They were trying to get a gorgeous Thai girl working behind the bar to reveal more of herself. Then the bidding started, as the loudest of the group took the girls hand and proceeded to stroke my face with it. It was all harmless fun and the girl was going along with it, reminding them every now and again that she did have a boyfriend and she wasn't taking bids. She was stunning, with a body that was…well…
I got to see most of Phuket's beaches and, wouldn't you know it, if you've seen one beach, you've seen 'em all. Well, that is not strictly true because while they are all basically similar, as in blue waters, crashing waves and golden or white sands, each offers its own unique vista. My beach-hopping has enabled me to make some observations, such as a comparison of Karon beach with Kamala beach and Kata Noi with Leam Sing beach. By the way, when I was in Surin beach there were lots of kids there who appeared to have been part of a coach party. There were two coaches with Khmer writing on the sides, which is unmistakeable. I assumed then that these kids were Khmer or from Surin. Which leads me to the question, does Surin beach have any significant connection to the actual place Surin, apart from the obvious. Answers on a postcard please!
Nai Harn beach is my favourite beach of them all, as it offers the relative tranquillity of Kata Noi but with much greater outward scenery and less developed surroundings. Rawai beach, which is not a great distance and an enjoyable walk, from Naiharn is itself not a great beach, but the outward vista is breathtaking – the best of the bunch. Rawai beach is not particularly geared to tourism, as there is a large fishing community there, so I understand, and they are eager to preserve Rawai for the local fishing community, which is understandable when you see how development can encroach on a town.
When I was in Phuket last year, I embarked on a crazy walk – Crazy walk Part I – from Kata beach to Patong beach, cutting through Karon and up a winding mountain road passing the impressive Meridien Hotel and eventually descending the hill into Patong. However, I would not recommend anyone do this, as there are no footpaths on the road, making it very hazardous with traffic flying by you frequently. The uphill sections around the mountain are also accident blackspots. The road is also almost entirely up hill once you pass Karon.
I decide this year to walk from Patong beach to Kamala beach and begin with a bus ride from Kata to Phuket Town, where I jump a bus to Patong. The bus ride was amusing because the full bus found it an awful strain climbing the mountain road to Patong and almost juddered to a halt at one point. I recall walking this hill, but I didn't think the bus was going to make it and I had visions of us all rolling back down hill and ending up in the tennis courts of the Meridian Hotel.
Eventually the bus makes it somewhat miraculously to the beach and I begin in earnest walking along Thawiwong road until it ends. I continue along the coast line and I am happy that there is a walkway this time, but after a couple of kilometres this disappears, there are some excellent vantage points from this extremity of Patong beach. The path thereafter takes a gradual upward gradient and the roadside view becomes dense shrubbery and trees with the odd shack nestling within. To my right side are the hills covered in lush green forest. I am wearing loose clothing, brown cotton pants that are airy, in the traditional pyjama style with strings that tie around the waist (bought during the ambush at Banteay Kdie), sandals (a bit silly to be wearing for such walks), a cotton shirt and my wide brimmed hat. My back pack holds several bottles of water and a bottle of sunscreen.
The road takes on the familiar winding I was acquainted with the year before when I did the Patong walk. The road snakes around the hills and mountains and I steadily stride the steep uphill sections of the road only to plateau and then descend steeply down. The downward descent is often more strenuous than the uphill climb, as you are working to resist your own downward momentum. The plateaus are short lived and only ever give way to an even steeper climb. The endless passing of cement trucks is indicative of the great change and development of the various coastal towns of Phuket, these trucks are also unnerving as they trundle downhill often straddling both lanes. Walking along these roads is not the safest thing one can do, but I enjoy the walking, the solitude and the surroundings, as well as the unknown at the end of it.
I eventually meet the mother of all descents but instinctively know that it isn't going to be the last. I move steadily forward with purpose and scan the surroundings of which are scant only for shrubs, trees and rocky faces tamed by sheets of mesh wire to prevent rock slide. All I hear is the sound of my own footsteps punctuated by the sound of a passing cement truck and one or two motorbikes.
Having practically tiptoed down the hill steadily and for what seemed an age, I am now on a plateau again and take the opportunity to rehydrate. There is a long winding stretch of road ahead and I expect more upward climbs, confirmed later by a monster upward climb and still no signs for Kamala beach.
Eventually I reach Kamala after what proves to be a more arduous journey than the Kata to Patong journey and find myself approaching a town that is very local in appearance, with shops set back far off the road to each side. At first glance it reminds me of the kind of town that one sees in the spaghetti western films, just a trifle more modern, and as I make my way into the town along the main coastal road that cuts through it, the sun is on my back and casts my shadow on the pavement ahead of me, the lone silhouette of a man with a wide brimmed hat and baggie trousers, it is Grasshopper coming into town.
The light is beginning to take on a twilight quality as the sun becomes enveloped in cloud. Kamala is a serene town, small with locals going about their business, clusters of shops along the road, a tourist bar or two and some restaurants. Many local residences are also obvious here. I see one or two tourists but Kamala is much quieter than Kata town or Karon. There is however, a huge hotel complex on the beachfront ideal for those seeking a beach holiday but this is well hidden from the main road and easily bypassed.
After spending some time on the beach, to recharge my batteries, I walk along it until the end, passing gangs of local teens playing football on the beach. I figure that I will end up back at the entrance to the town. I decide on a tuktuk back into Patong and enjoy a meal and a drink on the beach as night falls and things begin to pickup as tourists dressed for a night on the town begin to emerge. At the beachside the sea is hypnotic, as the waves appear in random strips of rolling white, emerging from the sapphire blue and breaking on the darkened sandy shore. I decide on a walk through Bangla road before getting a tuktuk back to Kata, and find that it is as busy as I remember it to be but even at this time, around 9 p.m. but it still has a way to go.
On the way back from Patong I am reminded why I actually avoid using tuktuks in Phuket. The tuktuk drivers basically drive like madmen in what amounts to a hair dryer on wheels. The object seems to be to offload passengers as quickly as possible so that they can go after the next fare, only they nearly kill you in transit. The tuktuk I am sat in is taking the winding mountain roads, which are now in complete darkness, at speed. More than once the driver rapidly gained on other traffic as we approached tight bends with the intention of overtaking, all the while I am saying in my head 'no…please…don't overtake on a fucking beeeeeeend!'
He does this several times, an action that to me is tantamount to having a death wish. He then hits the long stretch of coastal road along Karon at full throttle and I am thinking that he has some sort of hybrid tuktuk, souped up and turbo charged, because he is now overtaking 4×4 jeeps like a man possessed. A bizarre flashback of a film I had seen years ago pops into my head, Death Race 2000, and a character played by Sylvester Stallone called Jo Viturbo. I imagine the tuktuk being one of the race cars bombing it through the town with a running commentary 'and there he goes, Jo Viturbo, loved by thousands, hated by millions'. The thought certainly reduced the heart rate and made me laugh inside. Thailand definitely does things to you.
On the subject of modes of transport in Phuket, from what I have seen and experienced regarding tuktuks, I would say, while they are convenient, the passenger is exposing themselves to great danger using them. Particularly on the beach to beach journeys, as many of the drivers show little regard for the safety of the passengers or themselves, and also seem to forget which side of the road they should be driving on.
Tuktuks are also the most expensive way of getting around Phuket, as there are no meter taxis, giving tuktuks and local taxi drivers carte blanche to charge silly prices, prices that can only really be described as extortionate. To put this into context, an 8-10 km journey in Phuket will cost you an average of 300 baht, maybe more if you don't agree a price, while a journey on an air conditioned coach from Bangkok to Surin will cost you 360 baht first class, for an 8 hour journey covering almost 500km!
Many tourists in Phuket opt for hiring a motorbike, which works out cheaper by far and is in theory an excellent way to move around Phuket. However, there are a few problems with this, first of all, that if you hire a motorbike, it is more than likely that you are not insured. Secondly, that if you are planning to drive any kind of vehicle in Thailand, an international driving license is required – but this will never be mentioned when you are hiring motorbikes or motor vehicles. Thirdly, that the shocking number of accidents and fatalities on the roads of Phuket ( I read about something like 10,000 accidents and nearly 300 deaths a year) involve inebriated foreigners on bikes, as drink driving laws are hardly enforced, and fourth, that one can ride a motorcycle completely illegally on a day to day basis, if one is willing to pay all the fines if caught by the police – this is however extremely irresponsible and should one be involved in an accident with serious casualties, while driving totally illegally, the costs are going to be astronomical.
One of the violations the local police are rigorous on is the helmet law, and that anyone riding a motorcycle is required to wear a helmet. The local Police block off roads for spot checks to snare people in violation of the local laws. Again, violation is subject to a fine or fines, and possible chastisement, by being requested to visit the local police station for a telling off, followed up with showing the law breaker gruesome pictures of actual accident scenes and victims as a result of recklessness on the roads.
The helmet law is actually a farce, as was pointed out to me when I asked the hotel owner what the legal position was for foreigners riding motorcycles in Phuket, as so many foreigners seemed to be doing. He said, in his frank and inimitable way that the law was basically a joke, and that because there is no safety specification on helmets, like there is in the UK for example, one may purchase a plastic helmet from the local market for 99 baht, the likes of which if one were to fart on it, would cause it to crack
– to paraphrase him! He also recounted a story of a burly tattoo covered German he knew, who on his jaunts had spotted a police road block up ahead, and as he wasn't wearing a helmet, stopped at a nearby market and bought a tin pot. He then placed the tin pot on his head, handle sticking out to the side and proceeded to the road block. When he was confronted by an incredulous Thai policeman wanting to know what the man thought he was doing with the pot his head, the exasperated Policeman quickly gave up and waved the man on through. I suspect that this is some kind of urban myth, but would not be surprised if it were true.
I was surprised at how many people I spoke to that had actually taken the wrong motorbike home after a boozy session. The keys seem to work in any old bike, or new!
Hence, knowing what I know about the local transportation scene, I elected to walk, but there are options, cheap options for getting around. Bus is one of them and it is safe, and for very little, one can cover much of Phuket and see local life and pretty views. Car hire is also an option, and much safer than motorbike for obvious reasons, but also because one is insured – but this too is questionable, as the insurance does not cover what one would expect to cover. One of the biggest caveats for foreigners driving in Thailand is that if they find themselves involved in an accident it is always the foreigner that is at fault and the cost can be substantial depending on the injuries involved.
I recommend reading an article 'Driving and renting vehicles in Thailand' by Alex Malcolm for a better synopsis on the situation.
Actually, an added benefit of using the buses is that you get to see a little of local life and you realise that the local transport doubles as a local haulage system for produce from business to business, as vegetables and other produce are ferried between villages and towns using the buses. The driver gets a back hander for his troubles.
There are a few things that I observed while in Thailand, particularly in Phuket, that I am deeply curious about.
First of all and the most obvious being the Bob Marley cult that seems to have swept through southern Phuket. Not that I have any objection, having grown up listening to his music, but I am curious as to what it is that has made the Thais embrace the man and his music. I can only assume it is his benevolent character and that the easy going sound of Reggae music is fitting with the idyllic setting of the beach. I ask one of the Thais working at Ska bar, to satisfy my curiosity, and he tells me that the reason why Bob Marley is so popular is because they like the words in his songs. That's good enough for me but I suspect there is more to it.
Second of all Serpico, what is the deal with Serpico? I have seen mud flaps on gargantuan cement trucks with his face painted on them, passenger windows on trucks with his face painted on them, and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Serpico. There is a burgeoning cult as far as Serpico is concerned and again, I am at a loss as to why? I can only deduce that the character – as Serpico (played by Al Pacino) was a cop fighting corruption within his own precinct – is one of virtue, but I appreciate his character and appearance has lots of 70's cool appeal and I suspect that this may be he reason. Speaking of faces painted on mud flaps, Che Guavara is another favourite and I saw his face on many a mud flap on my walking travels to the various beaches.
Thirdly, Karaoke, Thai style. I have been in a local Thai karaoke bar only to find it is not Karaoke in the sense that I am used to back home, as in making a tit of ones-self in public, as one drinks far too much to muster the courage needed to sing a song very badly indeed.
Instead, in Thai Karaoke bars they just seemed to pop money into a juke box that played songs sung rather badly in Karaoke. The odd punter would actually sing a song and it was usually a girl singing quite beautifully. I just don't understand this phenomenon – but then we are in the land were face is important and this way one can participate in Karaoke and leave ones dignity intact. Maybe I have answered my own question! _______________________________________________
I decide on yet another easy evening of drinking in the local bars but first take a walk up Kata Noi road to see what has changed there and it appears that not much has, maybe for a few bars that were not there last year. Kata Noi road is quieter than the Koktanod road and the scene is predominantly very smart looking hotels, part of the Kata Thani resort and some restaurants and trendy bars in the beachfront complex. Part of the road consists of a row of shops, a tailors shop, some restaurants and a couple of bars. Kata Noi beach is barely visible from the road as the beach resort dominates, but it is very tasteful and minimalist modern in its style, adding to the charm of the beach greatly.
As I walk, the sky frequently lights up and this indicates that an electrical storm is brewing. For most nights there has been heavy rain, but this doesn't last for long at all and dries very quickly. I am roughly half way along the road when the sky lights up again and follows with a loud crack, my eyes squint in a reflex action and as I open them again all is black, total darkness and eerie silence. I look around at the hotels and the bars and despite the silence I am reassured by the sight of dark silhouettes seated near large windows. I think, no, it is not God about to speak to me, or some kind of alternate dimension I have just stepped into. After 30 seconds or so the lights come back on and the roar of electrical power supplies peak and then plateau to the point that they can no longer be heard, above the resumption of the social interaction in the bars and restaurants. An almost dream like scene and my cue to leave Kata Noi for the familiarity of the livelier Kata Yai.
On my travel back along the Koktanod Road through Kata I have to take refuge in a bar as the heavens quite literally open up. It rains solidly for 10 minutes, tropical rain, and the streets empty quickly. The rain abruptly ends almost like a tap has just been turned off. I finish my beer and resume my journey along Kata road before bumping in Steve, a guy staying in the same bungalow complex I had earlier been talking to at the bungalow bar and from practically the same part of England as me. Steve had made some smart moves in property back in England, making a fortune, and was looking to settle in Thailand. He asks if I fancy a beer and I suggest a bar, one of my regular bars. However, I hadn't bargained on the motorbike ride as I jump on the back of a beast he is riding, one of those monster machines that you can hear coming a mile away, the kind with a huge engine and no muffler. Apart from the fact that we took off like a rocket, I was extremely unnerved by the lack of space I was sitting on. This was not like the bikes you see buzzing around Thailand, the likes of which often accommodate several generations of the same family at any one time.
No, this bike was for speed freaks and the scant bit of room on the back is for the long haired waif that holds onto the rider for dear life. Only I was the waif, holding onto the rather large Steve for dear life, not very dignified at all really, particularly as we arrive at the bar, were every patron was alerted to the impending arrival by the loud rumble of the engine. As he takes the slope of a narrow side road off Koktanod Road up to the bar I come off the back, burning my leg on one of the exhausts. However, I retain some dignity as I land on my feet and not my behind. The incident calls for a rather large scotch.
The following day is uneventful. The morning begins with sunbathing on Kata beach before heading for Kata Noi beach which is less populated. I eventually take a long walk around Karon, the local Karon, not the beach side. Karon is a rather uneventful place with locals going about their daily business. There are numerous guesthouses and hotels scattered around the town but the local faces far outnumber the tourists, as they flock to the beaches and the bars and restaurants. As I ponder, I see a man in his late 40s, European, walking along Patak Road in nothing but a pair of repulsively tight black Speedos, or could have been a thong, but I had seen enough from the front and I am not inclined to look at men's bottoms. I wonder if he would walk around like that back in his home town. No, he wouldn't, because he would probably be arrested. Why is it then acceptable to offend the locals in another country I think to myself in disgust?
Patak Road is a main road that cuts through the local town of Karon and begins from Karon circle and continues on near to Chalong Bay ending at Peach Circle en route to Phuket town. When one takes a bus from Kata town the route is along Kata road which changes to Karon road, the coastal road that runs along the beach. The route along Karon road ends at the Karon Circle and turns onto Patak Road which goes back in the opposite direction and runs kind of parallel with the Karon and Kata road stretch.
Cruising along Kata road one passes rows of hostess bars, tiny dingy dens of iniquity, establishments of various names but all with the same theme, like a living room with a bar, some tables and seating, and maybe a pool table and a t.v. if the size permits. They are modelled on small huts and are joined together in a continuous row and with names like The Next Heart Bar, Gracefully and Funky Monkey. Of a night throngs of bargirls will be seated outside of the bars beckoning to passers by with calls of 'hi hansome man' or 'welcome'. It is funny really because I have seen them calling after middle aged men passing by with their mortified wives in tow, which gives an insight into the anything goes ethos here. The clientele is not exclusively male, but of couples and middle aged lesbians thrown into the mix.
In the daytime it is a different story, particularly when passing by on a bus at around noon. Some of the bars will be shuttered with bamboo fencing while others will have puffy eyed bargirls pottering around half asleep and looking groggy. Hotpants, skirts and bras hang out to dry on makeshift outdoor dryers hanging on clothes lines and on public display, in preparation for the merry-go-round of nightlife and hedonism in these parts. The day is young.
Walking around Karon town of a night one observes that many of the local family businesses operate well into the evening. I pass young men and women working away as machinists in premises with open shop fronts, others making suits, one chap is an upholsterer and furniture maker and he is busy working away at 10.30 pm, another I see making wicker furniture. I pass a shack with a string of lightbulbs draped over the door frame of the entrance, but I can just make out the shadows of people lounging around on seats inside, but it is rather dark and dingy looking. It appears to be a Karaoke bar for the locals and I hear the familiar droan of a Karaoke singer, coming from the juke box of course, and I can see the sky through a huge hole in the corrugated iron roof.
On my travels I eventually find myself in tourist territory were the loud music, hostess bars and restaurants dominate the streetside. I pass bar after bar, but being half Somali origin and having been baked by the sun I am rather dark, which can have great benefits to those not wishing to partake in the local bargirl scene. It is amazing really that I could walk the length of Kata road and Karon road and go by without so much as a 'hi hansome' or a 'welcome'. I put it down to two things, the first a lack of eye contact. Many of the girls will not say anything unless the passer by indicates some kind of interest, usually a curious glance at the girls will do. The second being my complexion, as I did have one or two tailors approach me thinking that I was in fact Thai or Nepalese – these guys were unsure of my nationality, so they hedged their bets and approached me anyway. In most cases I went unbothered, while sometimes I had girls coming right up to my face and looking at me as if to say, what is he?
The tailors were the funniest, as these guys are usually the most forward in touting there services. One will encounter the advances of many of the local tailors for the duration of stay in Kata or Karon. The annoying thing is that they do not take no for an answer and will accost you every time you pass them, which is tiresome when you make several trips per day to and from your hotel room and have to run the gauntlet of tailors shops that line Koktanod road. I however, had no such problem being so obviously of the poorer persuasion, whatever the perceived persuasion was!
I recognised some tailors that were extremely persistent with me the year previous but this year they were not even giving me a glance – and no, they didn't recognise me. Mind you, last year I was often accompanied by my friend, of British and Irish origin and very obviously Caucasian and of generous proportions (apparently a big belly or 'pumpoi' is an indication of wealth – so I have heard). I do not believe there is anything sinister in it at all – in fact I found the whole thing hilarious, particularly the looks of curiosity and confusion I often saw on the face of the tailors and the bargirls, and the effortless evasion of hassle on my part.
Walking through the busy tourist areas by night one becomes aware of the cattle trucks coming and going, unloading armies of workers from the local villages, clad in working gear, farmer's hats and with shovels and spades. As one load arrives another load leaves and it is a common sight to see construction being undertaken under halogen light, as workers continue into the night – or at least until the bars close up for the night. The newly built premises will contribute to the numerous bars, restaurants and hotels that already trade in the area, places the workers could not afford to frequent no doubt.
Having walked the earth I make my way to my bungalow but oh no, Rose (name changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent) is all dressed up for a night on the town and she spots me coming up the road. I won't go into too much detail here, but ever since I booked into my hotel I have been accosted by Rose, who seems to be after me. She works/manages a massage place near my hotel. I would usually stop and say hi out of politeness, but she is a he, and I got onto this from the start. Now Rose was trying to get me to have an oil massage and I am sure that Rose wanted to do it. But I compromised and said I will have a foot massage instead. With that I was taken into the shop and a motherly Thai woman in her 40s tended to me and did an excellent job, all the while Rose would appear at the window and pouting at me mouthing the words oil massage. I found it all highly amusing.
But there is no way another man is getting a hold of me in that way, particularly with the obvious interest that Rose was showing. Rose was strikingly good looking, but at the end of the day Rose was a man, there is no getting passed that.
Anyway, I have been well and truly spotted by Rose and I can see what is coming next because Rose appears to be wearing a black basque and black evening coat with black skirt and stockings, dressed to kill. She approaches me offering to buy me a drink and take me to a popular bar in the area. But I am ready for her and insist that I can't and that I am going back to my hotel. She looks with disappointment and I insist that I can't because I am tired and that I am a bore. Rose then becomes quite irate with me and asks me outright "why you never go with me?" Obviously I do not want to hurt her feelings, so I say that I can't go with her because I have a girlfriend back home. I follow this up with asking Rose if she has ever seen me with a bargirl while I have been in town. This disarms her immediately and I wish her a good evening before being on my way. Phew! I am not being judgemental here, probably very conservative, perhaps a little homophobic, but not judgemental. I know that in many ways I am uptight and should be more willing to let my hair down, but that is just me. I know I miss out on a lot of fun being this way but this is the way I am. For those who really do know how to party, then of course Thailand will not disappoint you. Lucky for me, there is something for everyone.
On the subject of Rose, the following day I get talking to an American guy staying in one of the bungalows and we are sat at the bar. He tells me that every time he walks up the road to the bungalow he gets verbal abuse from some masseuse outside one of the massage shops. He goes on to tell me that he popped into the shop for a massage one day, as he suffers with his back, and had turned down the offers of an oil massage from the girl who is now giving him abuse.
It turns out that he was speaking Thai to the masseuse that was working on his back and that the oil massage girl seemed to take exception to this and was saying things in Thai that he did not understand. When he enquired as to what she was saying, she retorted "You speak Thai don't you. Why don't you understand?" Apparently, ever since then she had been giving him abuse in the street every time she seen him. Maybe there was more to the story I don't know.
I had a hunch that this person he was speaking about was Rose and I describe Rose to him and he agrees that this is the same person. I tell him that the she is in fact a he, and I am surprised that he was not wise to this. I explain that I had a little bit of a run in with Rose last night, and that she 'got a strop on' when I declined her offer of a drink on the town. It is funny because when I said 'strop on' the American dude laughed with a loud shriek, and I immediately realized that he thought I said 'strap-on'. I was very quick to clear this up with him and tell him 'strop on' is an expression used in the UK to mean that someone has become angry or irritated. It was a funny moment.
Farewell South East Asia…for now
My last full day in Kata town begins with paying my hotel bill and then I take a morning jaunt around Kata and Karon with my Camcorder to capture the local scenes, something to take away with me. In Karon I pass a market place, a series of interconnected stalls with canopies overhead covering the entirety of the market and buzzing with local traders and local people.
The afternoon is spent at a bar that I had forgotten about, called Waiting You, a small bar, with a scattering of bargirls in the evening. The thing that attracts me to this place is the adjoining Mauy Thai boxing school and the very obvious boxing ring that sits at the back of the bar, visible also from the street. I order a drink and I ask one of the bargirls when the Thai boxers train in the ring. I am told that they train in the other ring at the back, and that I can have a look if I want. I do, but decide to be cheeky and get rolling with the Camcorder. I am surprised to see that the real action is all in the back with a separate ring and a number of European guys training with the resident Thai boxers. They eye me warily but no objections are raised, which is just as well really as I would not like to be on the receiving end of any of these guys.
I resume my seat at the bar with Bob Marley tracks playing in the background, while one of the bargirls is tearing down decorations from the ceiling of the bar and is precariously balanced on a chair. I feel uneasy and tell her she will come a cropper the way she is going, before I assist her in removing the remaining decorations, she tells me that it was someone's birthday party the night before. I am also roped into helping the bar manager decide if her trainee has made a proper Pina Collada.
I stay in Waiting You bar for most of the day as some of the Thai boxers take the main ring at the front, it's enjoyable to watch over a beer. A couple, that I have been talking to throughout my stay, pop into the bar and we start talking over a few beers. At least until one of the bargirls practically molests his wife. There are also a couple of European guys getting a little frisky with the girl that served me my drink when I initially arrived. Darkness has fallen and people are beginning to change into amorous beasts.
The following morning I go through the daily ritual and begin packing. I have enjoyed my stay here but now I must be off back to the big smoke, Bangkok. I have my last breakfast and go in search of chocolates as a gift to the army of ladies that keep the place running in ship shape and Bristol fashion and for keeping me in clean underwear for two weeks. However, it is not easy finding decent chocolates, but given the high temperatures, it is only to be expected. I do eventually find a shop that stocks some and I load up.
After a final night in Bangkok I fly back to England but I feel that a return visit to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is inevitable. I have taken a great deal from my journey and still feel like I have only scratched the surface. I will remember the people I encountered along the way. I will miss the sleepy bus journeys through the Isaan provinces, the curious looks from locals and the smiles. I will laugh to myself when I think of the crazy kamikaze style traffic situation in Phnom Penh. I will retain fond memories of Siem Reap, the enchanting temples and the wonderful children that make such an impression. I will never forget Tuol Sleng or Cu Chi. I will remember the young men I conversed with in the street, curious men with a great interest in the west and its exports, mainly football. I will miss the cold showers in Surin and getting 'pie eyed' with old men on the streets of Saigon. I will yearn to be on a bus cutting through Cambodia, to see the sugar palms and the stilted homes and the young children playing in the paddies. I will yearn to be on a beach, Bob Marley playing faintly in the background as the waves roll in and crash on the sand. I will yearn to return soon to the beauty, the diversity, the paradox, the mystery, the abundant culture, the cuisine and the wonderful people of South East Asia, there is so much to love.
This year I am trying to arrange travel to North Korea before making my way across China and heading Southeast to Hanoi and onto Saigon. I will cross into Cambodia to see Sihanoukville and Kep and end up eventually in Thailand…it always comes back around to Thailand!
I'm sorry, I still have not read it all, hence no specific comments, but wow, what a long one!