Friday 8th March, 2002 Sydney to Bangkok
Angie calls in to see us before she goes to work – hate saying good-byes but we’ll only away for a couple of weeks this time. Also kiss and cuddle our babies, Sally and Layla (cats) then Dad picks us up at 10.30am. We spend an hour with Mum and Dad before we leave. Lauren meets us here as she’s driven back from Sydney this morning. She drives us out to Pelican Airport and we sit out on the verandah with her till Mark’s mum arrives. It’s sad good-byes again and I cry as we take off just like I always do. I promised myself that I wouldn’t this time but I just can’t stop as I see my baby standing there waving us off.
The flight to Sydney seems a long forty minutes and we’re glad as usual to get off one of these small planes. Aeropelican still stops at the Ansett terminal despite Ansett finally packing it in this week. It’s deserted and we’re quick to grab our packs and catch the airport bus to the international terminal. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, increased airport security means that we have to book in three hours before takeoff. We’re three and a half-hours early but we line up anyway. Although we’re early, we still don’t manage to get our favourite seats at the back of the plane. We do manage to get a window seat, though, so we’re content with that. We’re starving by now so we head to McDonalds as soon as we check our bags in. We spend ages in the bookshops but buy nothing, go through immigration and buy 1125mls of Bacardi and Jim Beam (only $20 AUS each) then wander around the duty free perfumes and watches. There are two more security checks to get on the plane because of the September 11th attacks and I have to hand over my nail scissors in case I go beserk onboard. All our hand luggage is searched, as well.
Although we’d booked on Qantas, our plane is a British Airways 747 but we’re pleased as we haven’t flown with them before. On board the plane we’re confronted with a disgusting stench of body odour as we enter our cabin only to realise that it’s the Middle Eastern man sitting in the seat next to mine – great! He is friendly, but ever tried to breathe through your mouth for nine hours? He also looks like a beardless Osama Bin Laden so I’m glad Mum can’t see us now. The smell remains horrid then later he smells like shit as well – fluffs or hadn’t wiped his bum? Despite this, the trip is enjoyable. I manage to get in two one-hour naps but Mark can’t sleep at all. We have individual television screens on the back of the seat in front of us and we watch movies most of the way. Mark and I stand up the back for a while and do our exercises. I’m also wearing elastic stockings – no way are we going to get deep vein thrombis which is definitely flavour of the month at the moment.
We’re excited when we land at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport half an hour early at 9.50pm. Immigration and customs formalities are quick but I have time to ring Mum and Dad while we wait for our bags to be unloaded. Mum is so nervous about us flying, so I ring her although it’s 2am at home. Outside it’s hot and humid and busy as usual – fantastic! The airport bus takes us into town in forty minutes and drops us off at Khao San Road. Everything looks the same. We’re hot and tired and so glad we’ve booked a room ahead. We rang Sawasdee Guesthouse from home last week and reconfirmed last night. We joked that when we got here they’d say ‘no ticket’ which is a saying we’d become all too familiar with in Vietnam last year. We’re not surprised, then, when the girl at the reception desk gives us a bored, blank look. There’s no record of us booking, reconfirming … nothing. We wonder later what had actually taken place when we’d rung from Australia. No-one apparently wrote anything down so the whole thing was a total waste of time. No problem as they have one single bed left. We’re too tired to care and are given the key to our cupboard-sized room. We literally have wall to wall bed except for a couple of feet on one side.
We dump our gear and head for Khao San Road for food. Absolute chaos as always but somehow different this year. There are the same masses of people but there seems just as many young Thais as backpackers and the street had taken on a sleazy feel. Maybe we’re just too tired, though, and we eat and run. The atmosphere is much better in our street although it’s full of party people and loud music is pumping from everywhere including the Sawasdee Guesthouse. For some reason, we wander around looking for another guesthouse for tomorrow (must be delirious) but decide to wait till the morning. Back in our room, we find we have a tiny balcony overlooking the street but it’s too noisy with the door open. We also have a fan which is good but no sheets which doesn’t matter. After cold showers we put in our earplugs and sleep well till 8am.
Saturday 9th March, 2002 Bangkok
We wake to a beautiful clear, hot, humid day and Bangkok looks absolutely wonderful from our balcony. The street is a completely different place in the morning. It’s quiet and looks so green with trees all down one side and in the grounds of the temple opposite. We’re out into the street early for breakfast and to look for a new guesthouse. We’re only here for three nights and we’ve decided to stay in three different places to experience as much as we can.
First we have breakfast in a lovely outdoor café in the same soi. The young waitress teaches us to say ‘kaup khun karp’ meaning ‘thank-you’. After searching for half an hour we finally like the look of the Thai Thai Guesthouse situated off the soi down a short alleyway. It’s a two-storey wooden building painted green and very Thai looking. It has the usual messy foyer with highly polished white tiles and the owners lounging around on vinyl lounges watching television. We check out of Sawasdee Guesthouse and check in to Thai Thai. Our room is no bigger and the only window looks out onto a messy yard but we love it. There are shared toilets and cold showers like most guesthouses, but only costs 250 baht ($12AUS). Around to Khao San Road then, to change money and get on the internet. We also look around here and Thanon Rambutri for a guesthouse for tomorrow night. Back then to the Thai Thai to get our daypack ready.
Out in the laneway we try to get a tuktuk driver to take us to Vimamek Mansion but he can’t understand us. We’re helped by a friendly English-speaking Thai lady who explains that we’re saying it wrong – pronounce ‘v’ as ‘w’, so say ‘Wimamek’. She explains to the driver where we want to go and arranges a cheap fare for us. She also tells us where to catch bus No. 56 back from there. Off we fly at top speed through the streets – just love tuktuks. Our driver is a smiling old man who continually gets lost and keeps turning around to us laughing. After lots of u-turns and more laughing we drive in through a large archway in a high wall and into a vast area of beautiful buildings, gardens and ponds. We buy our ticket into Vimamek which is the oldest teak house/mansion/palace in Thaliand and was the original residence of King Rama V. We walk around the grounds then watch a traditional dance show in an open sided building on the edge of a klong. For the 20 baht charge to take photos we’re given a garland of fresh jasmine.
To tour the palace we’re told to take off our shoes and no photos or videos which is a great shame as it’s so lovely. It’s made entirely of teak and inside is painted shades of pink, blue, green and cream. Some sections are two floors high and some three. It’s built in a kind of semicircle with verandahs on each floor closed in by windows of bevelled glass. The polished floors are dotted with oriental rugs and the rooms are filled with Asian antiques, flowering plants, potted palms in blue and white Chinese vases, silk curtains and carved furniture. Everywhere there is a feeling of welcome – not at all palace-like but more a beautiful home in the tropics. A funny English-speaking Thai guide shows us around and we learn so much about Thai history and culture.
Out again in the street, we ask directions to the bus stop and soon find ourselves on a tiny green No.56 bus at a cost of only 3.5 baht (20c) each. The conductress tells us where to get off which is at a wat near the entrance to Khao San Road. This is a nice area we haven’t seen before and we sit for a while on a bench watching monks leaving the temple grounds, some getting into tuktuks. It’s hot and humid so we cross over to Rambutri Road to have a drink and lunch at a street stall. We sit at a tiny table on plastic stools in the shade behind the stall where we can see our food being cooked in large woks. Our lunch is omelets and fried rice with squid – very nice.
From here we decide to catch a ferry down to the Oriental Hotel but can’t find the public pier. Out on the street again, we take ages to find a tuktuk driver who’ll take us as they all say it’s too far. Some of them promise to take us for 10 baht, which translates into taking us first to a gem shop or two – not dumb ‘farangs’ this trip! Finally we find a nice man who isn’t trying to rip us off. It really is a long way to the hotel and there’s heaps of traffic but it’s so interesting it doesn’t matter. Always so much to see as we pass wats and the Grand Palace and street stalls and monks. The driver drops us off at the back entrance so we just walk up through the car park and through the main doors like we’re staying there. We made an effort to look presentable this time, as last year the guards at the gate wouldn’t let us in as we looked like backpackers – which we still are. Wearing our poshest travel clothes, we obviously pass the test and we try not to stare at the fabulous foyer. We walk around the pool area outside and the restaurants overlooking the Chao Praya River. Finally we find the oldest part of the hotel where famous people stay and where we’re hoping to get into the Authors Lounge. It’s so lovely here with its old-world charm – palms, bamboo in pots, fans and white cane furniture. We order the traditional ‘afternoon tea’ which consists of a pot of Earl Grey tea, cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and cakes. It costs us 550 baht, which is more than we’ve paid for two night’s accommodation, and it isn’t enough to feed a flea but we love it. Experience is everything, they say! We sit in the library then find a bookcase in the foyer with books written by the famous authors who’ve stayed here – Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughan, …..Also use the loos, which are almost worth a photograph.
The river is close by and we ferry our way back down to the pier at Wat Pho. We’ve always loved this pier with little shops that line the walkway. It’s always busy and has so much atmosphere despite being a bit dark and dingy. The fish market next door smells but only adds to the appeal for us. In one of the old shophouses across from Wat Pho we talk to a friendly old man who sells dried fish. He drags us into the back of his shop to proudly show us photos of his family and his son’s university degrees. We spend ages talking and looking at his crowded little dark shop. There are lots of faded prints of Buddha and framed pictures of the royal family. He gives us directions to the Wat Pho massage school which has moved out of the grounds of the temple as it’s become so popular and needs more space. After much searching we find it down an alleyway. We’re so disappointed as it has zero atmosphere so we say ‘we’ll come back later’ – no chance! Looks like it’s become a victim of its own success, as they say.
We walk back through the dried fish market to the wharf then catch a ferry up to Banglamphu – definitely getting more confident about using transport other than tuktuks – much cheaper, too. We do, however, get lost when we get off, but we see places we wouldn’t have otherwise, says Mark. One good thing about ending up here is that we manage to buy a towel. We didn’t bring one as most guesthouses we’ve stayed in on previous trips have provided them. It’s so thin you can almost shoot peas through it but it’ll have to do.
We give Khao San Road a miss as it’s become too touristy/sleazy/mental. We look for a guesthouse instead in the same road as Thai Thai Guesthouse in Thanon Rambutri. The AT Guesthouse is down an alleyway which opens up into a tiny square with guesthouses and cafes all around. We like it here at once and book a room for tomorrow night. Across from the guesthouse we notice a groovy looking place open on two sides where people are being massaged on a row of mattresses high off the ground. We both have a Thai massage with Sharlo and her husband who own the massage place and the guesthouse upstairs called Mama’s Guesthouse. They have the cutest baby boy about seven months old. It’s the best massage ever and Mark’s back is heaps better now. We really, really enjoy it here.
Feeling high from our massage, we head back out into Thanon Rambutri. We find an open-air café called Tuptin with lots of flowering bougainvillea and good food – spring rolls and fried rice with squid. It’s getting late so we set off back to Thai Thai for quick, cold showers then out again into the street. It’s dark now and very busy. Tables and chairs have been set up along the temple footpath across from the cafes. We sit under the trees watching all the action and drinking Bacardi and Leo beer. It’s a great atmosphere but I literally cannot stay awake and eventually go back to the guesthouse to pass out while Mark finishes a beer. A good sleep despite a rock-hard bed.
Sunday 10thMarch, 2002 Bangkok to Ayutthaya to Bangkok
We wake about 6.30 am, shower, pack, check out and are having breakfast at Sawasdee Guesthouse by 7.30am. Loaded down with our big packs, we walk up to the AT Guesthouse and check in. Our room is up a set of steep stairs at the back of the foyer-cum-bedroom. Surprising decor with frilled pink satin curtains and a Mickey Mouse print bedspread. We like it though and not expensive again at 250 baht ($12AUS). We dump our bags and set off in a tuktuk for Hualumphong Station to catch a train to Ayutthaya.
We’ve been to the station a couple of times before and it’s packed as usual inside and out. Someone guides us to a tourist information booth as soon as we walk in and we’re told that the train for Ayutthaya is leaving in ten minutes at 9.10am. We race to the ticket window and easily find platform 10. I’m lucky to get seats while Mark goes off to buy a chicken leg on a stick. There are only third-class seats to Ayutthaya. This means wooden bench seats with straight backs and knees almost touching the people facing you. We sit opposite three young Thai men who are very polite and sleep most of the way. The train leaves on time and it’s good to be moving and have the breeze come in through the open windows. There’s so much to see as we leave Bangkok and then out into the open countryside. The train becomes very full and some people have to stand the whole trip. We feel sorry for a young Thai lady and her two sons who get on half way. We give them our seats and stand up for the last half-hour. It’s only a one and a half-hour trip and is so enjoyable. At Ayutthaya station, we meet a tuktuk driver who shows us a board with the prices for driving us around the temples. Not too bad at 200 baht an hour.
He drives us first to a wat next to a busy market. We pay at a tiny booth on the way in then pull up in the big parking area. Already there are lots of buses and tuktuks waiting for the worshippers and sightseers inside. First we walk across to the market to buy water and some dried bananas. Inside the wat we take off our shoes then watch hundreds of people burning incense and buying lotus flowers amid tall red and yellow lighted candles. A small doorway leads to an inner chamber which houses a golden buddha that must be thirty feet high. The area in front is packed with people who all cheer every few minutes. Several men are standing on the buddha’s folded legs and are thrown lengths of fine gold material which they throw up over the buddha’s left shoulder.
Our next stop is an ancient temple set in beautiful green gardens full of trees and flowering bougainvillea. A huge stone reclining buddha is clothed in a golden cloth and, as always, is laying on the right side for pleasant dreams. The main stupa is surrounded on four sides by hundreds of buddhas all looking very handsome in their golden robes. Steep stairs lead us to the top of the stupa where we have great views of the whole area. From here we drive to the outskirts of town to the next temple complex. This is set in a flat dry grassy area on the river. The temple was almost destroyed by Burmese invaders and all of the buddha statues have had their heads smashed to pieces. We buy drinks before setting off again for the next ruin. This is in a village area and we pass elephants on the way. Another huge reclining buddha, also wearing the gold robes, reclines with his head on a lotus flower Our next stop is another newer wat where we have turns of hitting the huge temple drum. There is a large market outside where we watch spring roll wrappers being made by the hundreds. Inside people are buying small pieces of gold leaf and sticking them on small buddha statues. The massive buddha is most impressive but we were definitely getting templed-out by now so we head back to the station. Mark gives our nice driver 100 baht extra as he has been so good.
At the ticket window we’re told to go to Platform 4 which is actually four sleepers on the other side of the tracks – excellent! The sun is scorching but luckily the train is on time. We buy bags of chopped watermelon and pineapple to eat on the way. As it pulls up we jump into the closest carriage which is almost empty and has padded reclining seats and heaps of legroom. When the ticket collector comes around we realise that we’re in 1st class but that we only need to pay an extra AUS$1 each to stay here. The only problem with the trip is that it takes two and a half hours instead of one and a half hours as we stop at every station. I sleep for a short time but it’s so hot and I’m getting a headache. At Hualamphong Station we ask about catching a bus back to Banglamphu but we can’t find a bus stop anywhere. Suddenly Mark notices a No.53 bus so we jump on very pleased with ourselves. We may be saving a few dollars, but the bus takes forever to get back to Banglamphu. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to get bored in Bangkok. We drive firstly through Chinatown which is jammed with people and then past Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. At the At Guesthouse we shower then send off E-mails and drink beers at a café next door. Too tired to eat and an early night.
Monday 11th March, 2002 Bangkok to Battambang
At 5.45 am we start to dress and pack then walk down the unusually quiet street to the little tourist agency in Soi Ramabutri. I stay with the packs while Mark walks back to Sawasdee Guesthouse to order breakfast. Time to go so we swap. I wait for the food while Mark collects the packs. We’ve only ordered toast and it’s there, already popped up in the toaster. A waiter is sitting at the counter only inches from the toaster and I ask if I could please have our toast. He asks me to ‘wait one minute’ then screams something in Thai at a waitress just behind him. Of course, it never happens and we leave with it still sitting there in the toaster.
The young man from the travel agent leads us out onto the street and we’re joined by other travellers from other agencies. The bus is to pick us all up at seven o’clock so we wait in the shade of some trees near the main road. We’re a motley looking crew, like travellers always are – unshaven, uncombed hair and crumpled clothes. The bus arrives only slightly late and we climb in quickly. The seats are upstairs with room for luggage and toilets underneath. This is good as we can get better views from up here. The trip out of the city is slow as we’re held up by the notorious Bangkok traffic jams and the need to wait for the inevitable latecomers. The bus stops alongside a row of three storey houses with the bottom floor below the level of the street. From our window we can see into the tiny back yards and watch women threading meat onto skewers, babies playing with their mothers and a man bringing home vegetables on the back of a motorbike. We can see into their homes, too, and I watch a young girl combing her wet hair in a mirror. There seems to be a communal feeling to their way of life that’s almost enviable.
The bus is surprisingly comfortable despite permanently reclining seats and air-conditioning which is blasting cold air into our faces from the broken vents above. It’s hot and humid outside already so we’re lucky to be cool for this five-hour trip. Although we missed getting our breakfast, we’ve got water and meusli bars brought from home. It’s an uninteresting drive to the border and we arrive at Aranya Prathet about 11.30am. We all pile out so that people can get visas for Cambodia. Lunch is available, too, in a thatched open-sided café. We order while the visas are being processed although we already have ours. This means we can relax for an hour. An American girl called Tiffany and an English guy called Ben eat with us. They’re both great company and it’s a shame that we’re not going on to Siem Reap with them today. Feeling very intrepid travellers as we’re the only ones not going on with the rest but doing our own thing to Battambang.
After an hour we’re back on the bus and drive only a couple of kilometres to the border. Everyone is grabbing their packs and doing the ‘quick walk’ to get to the border first. The border is so exciting and absolute chaos as people, carts, people pulling carts, and animals cross from one country to the other – Aranya Prathet on the Thai side and Poipet on the Cambodian side. The lines at immigration and customs are long but the people are so interesting it’s not a problem. It’s annoying, though, when a group of about twenty men in Moslem robes push past everyone to get to the front of the line. Mark and I and another traveller stand three abreast with our packs on so they can’t get past. It doesn’t work but now our passports are ready and we’re so proud of our Cambodian stamps.
The entrance into Cambodia is marked by a huge stone Khmer archway and it’s like crossing into another world. The difference is immediate and from the paved highways of Thailand we walk into the dusty, dry streets of Poipet. My God, we’re here in Cambodia!
A uniformed tourist guide tries to screw us by charging too much for a pickup to Battambang so we head off on our own. We only know how to get there by what we’ve read in the Lonely Planet but there’s always someone to take you wherever you want to go in Asia. Anyway, we can stay here if we have to – no set itinerary. Suddenly, touts surround us and we’re shoved into the back seat of a Battambang-bound pickup before we know it. This is a good ploy on their part as we have to barter for the trip from here. According to advice from other travellers, we want to buy the whole back seat instead of sharing and being squashed the whole way. They agree we can pay for three seats but then they try to tell us that the backseat holds four people and we’ll have to pay more. There’s always just one more scam. We refuse but pay more than we’ve been told anyway and the touts are happy so I guess they got us after all. No problem, we’re on our way. Well, we aren’t really on our way. We spend the next half an hour driving around with the driver yelling out ‘Battambang’ until the front seat and all the open area in the back is full. Another pick-up carrying the pushy Moslems in the back, flies past us in a cloud of dust. Their white robes fan out after them as they disappear from view.
Finally, we are on our way. We pass through the very awful streets of Poipet then bounce our way to Sisophon. We pass through dry open countryside and through green villages surrounded by coconut and palm trees. The road is bearable in parts but teeth-chattering most of the way with the radio blasting loud Cambodian music at all times. The other passengers are all Cambodian except for a sunburnt Dutch couple frying in sun in the back. They both have lily-white skin which is burning to a crisp before our eyes. I pass my hat to the driver to hand it to the girl and get a smile and the thumbs-up through the back window.
Sisophon is only an hour and a half drive. It’s another small dry town but more appealing than Poipet. Here we repeat the looking-for-customers routine when some people get off. We’ve stopped in a market area and we’re soon surrounded by young girls selling baguettes and drinks and unrecognisable dried meats or fish from big cane baskets. They’re the sweetest girls and are all wearing wide-brimmed straw hats over checkered Khmer head scarves. We jump out to talk to them as we have a fifteen-minute wait to fill the truck. They teach us to say ‘hello’ in Khmer and giggle continually. Two young girls arrive to fill the front seat so we climb back in, ready to go. We still have a wait but have a great time with the girls as they try to teach us their language. One is wearing modern Western clothes as if she works in an office while the second girl is wearing work clothes and, for some reason, a toweling teatowel covering a hat on her head neither of which she takes off.
Finally, the back is full of village people and we’re ready to leave Sisophon. Off we go with music blaring and our brains bashing about as we take on the horrendous roads. We pass a family of five on a motorbike and endless remorque-motos, which are old carts pulled by a motorbike. These are always packed with people who are probably on their way home to their villages after working in the fields. The villages we pass all consist of thatched huts and greenery and lots of activity. It’s just how I imaged it would be. It’s a long hard dusty drive but we enjoy every minute.
At dusk we pull up at a house in a village and unload sacks of grain from the back and our two friends in the front seat say goodbye. An old man takes their place and we set off again. We arrive at Battambang about 5.30pm and four hours after leaving Sisophon. I’d like to say that Battambang is a picturesque backwater and that we’re so clever to have come here but right now it appears to be an ugly, dusty town. This is not good news especially as we’re to spend two nights here.
The truck pulls up at the new and shiny Royal Hotel but we wave them on further down the main street to the Teo Hotel. This is the traditional old hotel where ex-pats usually stay. It’s also the most expensive hotel in town but for $25 AUS we’re happy. It’s set behind a high wall and is hideous and impressive at the same time. Our room is big with a television, air-conditioning and our own bathroom. After quick showers we head off to look for somewhere to eat. We don’t even get to leave the hotel. We’re spotted walking past the dining room door, which flies open, and we have no choice but to be escorted to a table. The room is big and pleasant with French doors opening on to a verandah but the problem is we’re the only guests. At all times we have five people hovering to wait on us and to refill our glasses after each mouthful. The food isn’t as cheap as in Thailand and it’s all priced in US dollars and not the Cambodian riel. The exchange rate is 2000 riel to the Australian dollar so it’s only used to pay for anything inexpensive. The meal is good, if a bit uncomfortable, but I’m almost falling asleep at the table. We have an early night.
Tuesday 12th March, 2002 Battambang
We both sleep soundly till 8am but get ready quickly so we can get out into the street. From a balcony off our room we look out over the town which appears so beautiful this morning. This can’t be the same town. We can see wide streets and temples and lots of coconut trees. We walk down to the Sangher River which at this dry time of year is at the bottom of a wide, steep-sided ravine. There must be so much more water during the wet season. The road running alongside is wide and paved. There’s a steady flow of traffic (mainly motorbikes) but it’s so quiet compared to most Asian towns. We walk along the footpath opposite the river and pass lovely old French colonial buildings. Most of them are run down but they still look beautiful in their dilapidated states – louvred shutters, wide verandahs and palm trees. They’d make the most fantastic guesthouses instead of the monstrocities that are springing up all over Asia. These are skinny, characterless, multi-storied buildings with shiny white tiles everywhere. If they’d only use the beautiful buildings they already have they’d have travellers turning up in droves.
We stop to look at lotus flowers a young girl is selling on the footpath and see orange-robed monks crossing the footbridge across the river. This area of Battambang is so lovely and reminds us a lot of Luang Prabang in Laos with its French influence, monks and quiet streets. For breakfast we look for a café recommended by Lonely Planet called the White Rose Café. Apparently there’s no sign outside, just a white rose painted on the back wall. Although it’s hidden away in a side street, it’s about the only café in this part of town and Mark has no trouble finding it. The walls are white and tiled and the tables and chairs are plastic and so are the flowers. It’s the usual hideous décor but for some reason it comes together here and it’s a nice atmosphere. The diners are all locals except for us and a guy who’s obviously an ex-pat. You know, someone who’s an expert with chopsticks and not a guidebook in sight. Our Khmer noodles and duck soup are good but I’m hopeless with chopsticks. I ask the ex-pat about boats to Siem Reap. This is a good move as he tells us exactly where to buy tickets further up the river. There are no signs at all so there’s no way would we have found it otherwise. We actually walk straight past it and have to be directed back towards the hospital. This is a picturesque white building surrounded by gardens and palm trees with a red cross out the front. Opposite, is the booking office, which consists of a tiny table and a couple of chairs under some trees. Three young girls with very painted faces and nightclub-style clothes serve us. The boat tickets are not cheap at $15US each and we leave tomorrow morning at seven.
After inquiring about moto drivers to take us to some sights around Battambang, the girls make a phone call. Two young men on motor bikes soon arrive. One is a handsome guy called Mono who introduces himself in fluent backpacker English. We ask what the other driver’s name is, but Mono says ‘call him whatever you like, he doesn’t speak English’ – this is the first of Mono’s jokes. He has a whole book full of handwritten jokes and slang he’s picked up from other travellers. He’s so enthusiastic and happy and we love him immediately. The other driver’s name is Pii. He’s very quiet, has a gentle smile and is also very handsome.
Discussing where to go, we finally decide on Phnom Sampeau, which we’d read about from travellers’ diaries on the internet. Mono also tells us of other places out in the same area so we’ve got a full day ahead of us. Off we go although I’m a bit wary at first as this is our first ride on motor bikes (motos as they’re called in Cambodia) since Danang in Vietnam last year. We also have no helmets although we do stop for Mono to pick up his from the Royal Hotel – ‘to keep out the dust’, he says. To keep the dust out of our lungs, Mark and I have bandanas which we’ve tied around our necks and pull them up over our nose as we hit the dirt roads. The ride through town is exciting already as we pass the central market and wind our way in and out of the traffic. Then we’re heading southwest out of town and into the open countryside. Feeling exceptionally intrepid today – but glad Mum and Dad can’t see me now. We pass remorque-motos and people on foot and a few trucks pass us but otherwise there’s little traffic.
After a very bumpy and dusty half-hour ride we come to the village of Sampeau. We pass the school and a large wat on the main road and then turn off into a side road near the base of the mountain. Mono and Pii pull in at a roadside grass shack with a verandah shading a couple of plastic tables and chairs. A pretty young woman serves us cold cokes which we also buy for Pii and Mono. No other tourists here except for a couple of gay Frenchmen also arriving on motos. It’s so hot that we decide to rest before tackling the steep climb. We’re also covered in dust and the front of Mark’s hair is totally white.
There’s a relaxed and soothing atmosphere here in the shade with village people swinging in hammocks and half-naked babies running around in the dirt. Mono tells us stories of his own life and about the Cambodian people. His grandparents died due to the Khmer Rouge as anyone old or sick died either of starvation or lack of medical help. When Mono was eight years old, the Khmer Rouge came into his school and cut his teacher’s throat in front of the children. They took Mono and some of his friends back to one of the their jungle hideouts but his father was able to get him back as Mono’s mother gave the Khmer Rouge kapok pillows. All Cambodian people have had relatives murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. The area we’re now in was a place where many horrors of the genocide took place only twenty three years ago. The mountain of Phnom Sampeau still holds evidence of these atrocities.
To reach the top of the mountain, we need to climb the hundreds of steps that start beneath a carved archway just opposite our little shack. Mono has found an easier route, though, and we follow him through the village. We pass a screaming baby being bathed in a tin basin and children running out to wave and say ‘su sadee’ which is ‘hello’ in Khmer. Mono points out all the different trees the village people grow and he shows us the difference between palm trees and coconut trees. We come to a dirt path, which is a longer but less steep route up the mountain. It’s a bit unnerving here with no-one around and especially after hearing Mono’s stories. Even now, this area is still not entirely safe and Brother No.2 (the nutter who was second in charge to Pol Pot) lives not far from here. As we climb higher, it becomes too hot to feel paranoid and we have magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. This is completely flat and only broken up by Crocodile Mountain not far to the south. The heat and humidity are killing us and we stop to drink water and pour it over our faces. About half-way up we come upon a small monastery. This was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge who would march sick or tired farm workers up the hill to their death.
Not far from the monastery is a wooden structure with a raised floor, a roof and open on three sides. Here, four Buddhist nuns are sitting on straw mats drinking tea and chewing betel-nut near a colourful Buddhist shrine. We ask Mono if we can talk to them and they welcome us with big red-teethed smiles and put another mat down for us to sit on. The nuns are shaven headed and wearing the traditional white robes. One is pounding betel nut in a tiny mortar and pestle while they all chew and occasionally spit red gunk through cracks in the wooden floor. They pour us glasses of hot tea then put betel nut into our palms and we try the red dried piece of flattened nut that breaks into crunchy pieces in our mouths. I’m worried that my teeth will go red – have a thing about teeth – but apparently it takes years. Next they paint a lime leaf with some pale pink paste, fold it in and give it to us to chew as well. The taste is so disgusting and I pull agonising faces before spitting it all out into my hand – sorry about that. They don’t mind and just laugh. With Mono interpreting we manage to talk with them and learn that there are only five nuns left living on the mountain. There are also some monks and an ancient one is sitting on a raised platform just behind us. He’s sits cross-legged and is as still as a statue. He smiles, though, when the nuns feel Mark’s hairy legs and say he should be called the ‘boogie man’. They all think it’s a great joke. Before leaving, we give them a donation for their monastery. The money is blessed and then us and then we’re told that we’ll have healthy, happy lives – excellent! This has been the most amazing experience that we’ll never forget.
From this happy place our next stop is just the opposite. Mono walks us further up the mountain to two caves that were used as killing fields by the Khmer Rouge. The caves are now so peaceful and one contains a large reclining Buddha. This was called the Theatre Cave as plays were often held here before the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Two million out of a population of seven million were either murdered or starved to death by their own people. Those too sick to work the fields disappeared after being brought to this mountain. It was only after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese that they found the skeletons of those missing people. The victims were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs before being thrown through a hole in the top of one of the caves to the pit below. We saw holes in the cave walls where other people were entombed alive. We saw where people were tortured to death, where babies were dashed against the rocks and where they would cut open the stomachs of pregnant women. Both caves contain cages with the sculls and bones of the victims and even some of their clothes. It’s impossible to understand how humans can cause such pain to others. The sadness we feel here seems so trivial. Places like this can really pull you up to take a look at your own life and realise how incredibly lucky we are.
We head next to the temple at the top of the mountain stopping half way to buy water from some ladies swinging in hammocks under a canvas shelter. At the top is a wat and a stupa but best of all there is a group of orange-robed monks. As I ask Mono if we can photograph them, one says in a deep melodious voice, ‘what do you want?’. He is so handsome with a commanding but friendly presence. His English is good and he tells us that his name is Mao Lim and that he’s come to the Battambang area for the wedding of his brother. He is particularly taken with Mark and asks him lots of questions. Also, after group shots, he wants a photo of just the two of them. They all walk down the steps with us but leave us half way down. Before we say goodbye he invites us to visit his temple when we get to Phnom Penh in a week’s time. He writes his address on a card so we know this is no idle invitation. We’re so excited! Monks are my favourite people in the whole world and Mark says I go weird whenever I see orange.
At the bottom at last, we order lunch for us and Mono and Pii and then we’re back on the bikes. The village of Sampeau is picturesque and lush with palms. The road beyond is so dusty and at first we drive through open countryside. It’s such an amazing feeling to be in this place but get that uneasy feeling at times. It’s better driving through villages and we feel so welcomed by these friendly people. Mono tells us that the country people are happy to see tourists as they know that this means their country must be safe. It brings it home how dangerous this country still was only a few years ago. Although the Khmer Rouge were officially overthrown in 1979, they weren’t captured and many disappeared into the jungles and have made irregular attacks on locals and tourists up until the late nineties. It’s ironic, now, that we make the village people feel safe and vice versa.
We drive to Wat Banon but one look at the three hundred steps to the top, we say ‘no thanks’ – too hot today and I’m definitely unfit. The closest village is across a suspension bridge where we stop and walk down to the river. Here people are bathing and washing metal cookware and some village kids are swimming. The water is brown with silt but not polluted so in we go. I’m fully clothed, but Mark strips off his shirt. He has an instant audience of men in the water who stare at his white body and hairy chest. My poor darling, he’s so tall and good looking and I’ve had many people tell me I have ‘handsome man’, but hairy legs and a hairy chest, no way. He doesn’t mind, though, and we have great fun doing handstands and somersaults in the water with three little girls who’ve suddenly appeared.
Dripping wet, we hop on the bikes again and drive for an hour alongside the river and through endless villages. Our wet clothes keep us cool, as the heat is stifling by now. As we approach one village, we can hear music being played from loud speakers. The whole village population is crowded around a small enclosure where two big monkeys are chained to spikes in the ground. Mono says this is a ‘circus’ but it’s really a weird sales pitch to sell snake oil to the villagers. The noise is horrendous as a man with a microphone bellows out information, which is interspersed with deafening music including the song ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’. This village seems strange. The people stare and seem wary of us. There’s no smiling as there has been in other villages and we decide to leave in case we’re imposing for some reason. I’m shocked, then, when as we get back on the bikes, a little girl who’d been staring at us with a hard face suddenly runs forward to give me a flower. The dear little one. It makes me sad that I thought these people were unfriendly when maybe they’re afraid or nervous of us. I don’t know why they would be as they must see lots of tourists but maybe none of them stop here. Then again, it could be Mark’s hairy legs. We smile and wave as we leave.
At another village on the banks of a river, we ask Mono to stop as the people are very friendly and lots of kids have come out to wave to us. The grass houses are all on bamboo stilts with areas under the house for animals as well as the inevitable hammocks. There are cows standing in the shade of trees and chickens scratching around the dirt. It’s paradise, really.
A group of children of all ages come out to talk to us and have their photos taken. Mark shows them what they look like in the video camera which creates lots of excited laughter. Older village people wave to us from windows and from their hammocks. We’d love to stay longer but it’s getting late and Mono says it’s too dangerous to be out on these roads in the dark.
Our next stop is at a wat where a cremation ceremony is taking place and where a colony of bats have taken residence in the huge trees outside. From here we cross another narrow suspension bridge but have to pay a toll to a lady swinging in a hammock in a small grass hut at the entrance. Another hour-long dusty ride takes us to the outskirts of Battambang. It’s almost dark and a lovely time of day to be driving through villages with the smell of smoke in the air as the evening meal is being cooked.
At the Teo Hotel we pay Mono $20 AUS and Pii $12 AUS as we’d arranged. We’re so grateful to Mono for giving us one of our best travel days ever. Back in our room, we sleep for an hour and I try to get up to go out for dinner but I’m exhausted and fall back into a dead sleep. Mark walks down past the prison to some big food places we’d seen this morning. While they look good they’re quite strange. He’s put in a booth where he can’t see anyone and has to eat alone with nothing to look at. He’s back home by 9.30pm.
Wednesday 13th March, 2002 Battambang to Siem Reap
Mono and another friend pick us up on motos at 6am to take us to the boat. With our big packs across their laps and with us on the back it seems very unstable but we make it as usual. The morning is perfectly still and sunny once again and the town is alive even at this early hour. At a shack near the river we order cheese and cold lamb baguettes for the boat and noodle soup for Mono and us for breakfast. Other travellers have arrived on motos and there seems to be about twenty of us booked on the boat. Besides us, there are Germans, Dutch, French and Cambodians. We all scramble down the steep embankment to where the boat is moored. Mono comes down to say goodbye and to tell us about a good guesthouse in Siem Reap called the Happy Guesthouse.
The boat is picturesque. There are cane chairs with padded pink cushions and we’re comfortable if cramped. There’s a roof for shelter but otherwise it’s open on all sides. Mark and I are first onboard and choose seats at the back. This is a bad move all round as we’re soon to become deafened by the engine noise while we now have to watch it being repaired with all sorts of improvised tools. This doesn’t look good for a seven o’clock start. Fuel is being loaded onto the boat and poured into the tank via a funnel made from a chopped up plastic coke bottle. Meanwhile, a young German woman two seats in front is happily puffing away on a cigarette. I ask her if she thinks it’s a good idea to be smoking so she chucks it in the river. A French backpacker tells us it’s probably not dangerous because it’s diesel but then points to another boat where a tank of petrol is being loaded by a man with a lighted cigarette hanging out of his mouth. My God, get us out of here.
Half an hour later, we’re ready to go. Mono waves us goodbye and we set off down the river into a slight mist rising off the water. For an hour after leaving Battambang we pass some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever seen. The banks are lined with grass huts, coconut trees, banana trees and vegetable gardens. We pass monks in a canoe and they laugh and wave as we race past them. There are temples and lots of waving children. Unfortunately, the banks gradually become less populated and the palm trees disappear to be replaced by the occasional hut on stilts and a barren landscape. Even this gets worse as we pass small settlements where filth lines the banks and the water’s edge and where the water level has dropped so dramatically that we get stuck on the bottom several times.
It’s also extremely hot and we’re glad when the boat pulls in after three hours at a sort of floating shop. In fact, the whole village is completely over the water. Here the river joins the Tonle Sap Lake so we need to change to a ‘fast boat’ to take us across the lake. Meanwhile we buy water at the shop and move our packs to the new boat. No-one is impressed with this boat, as it looks a veritable death trap. The cabin feels like a tomb and it would be impossible to get out if the boat sank which isn’t totally out of the question here.
For the next hour and a half, we hurtle across the lake which is so huge its banks are barely visible. The two Dutch passengers are the same couple who were in the back of our pick-up from the Thai border to Battambang. Despite the fact that both of them now have skin the colour of cooked lobsters, he squeezes out into the hole in the back to sit in the blistering sun. Mark and I can’t believe it. Maybe we’re like all Australians who’ve lived under the sun our whole lives and are all experts on the sunburnt thing, or maybe he’s just plain stupid.
We soon forget the Dutch guy when anxiety for our safety suddenly skyrockets when the driver decides to go up the back for a cigarette and hands the driving over to a boy of about thirteen. We all give each other terrified looks and just want this horror boat trip to be over.
We finally slow down as we come to the river into Siem Reap and pass villages and huge partly-suspended fishing nets. There’s lots of water traffic here as we pass the Vietnamese floating village and then pull into the boat-stop itself. Instead of a pier, a narrow plank is placed between the boat and the muddy shore. We’re blown away by the filth of this place. It must be a fishing village as the water and the banks are covered with garbage and dead fish and the stench is horrendous. Fishermen are clambering over boats and hawkers are waiting to pounce on the new arrivals. As Mark tries to extract our packs from the rest, I’m inundated with moto touts. It’s chaos and we get on the back of the first bikes we see. Other traumatised travellers from the boat are also on their way into town and we continually pass each other the whole way. The road runs along an embankment lined with raised huts covered in red dust from the passing traffic.
In fact, everything is covered in red dust – buildings, trees, bikes, everything. I’d read about the dust of Siem Reap but this is ridiculous. As we draw closer to town, though, the dust subsides and we see that this place is really lovely. The river that runs through the centre is lined with shady trees and has wide grassy banks. We pass the old market then cross one of the many bridges over the river. Along more dirt streets and laneways we finally pull into a guesthouse – Happy Guesthouse, in fact – Mono would be pleased.
We seem to be a bit out of the way but Johnny, who runs the guesthouse, desperately assures us that we’re in the best spot. The laneway is lined with other guesthouses and with grass houses built on stilts. It’s very green and quiet and we fall in love with it. ‘Happy’ consists of two double storey verandahed buildings with gardens in front and potted palms and pink and cream bougainvillea. There’s a pergola shading cane tables and chairs for which we make a beeline to order beer, coke, chicken baguettes and noodles. Johnny takes us to our room which is big and airy with a tiled floor and a huge bathroom next door. We have a wall fan and a floor fan that has three settings – ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘windy’. An odd sign in the bathroom also tells us to ‘please do not put somethings inside toilet’.
After dumping our gear we sit in the shade with two German girls who’d been on the boats from Battambang and who’d also been kidnapped to ‘Happy’. They’re planning to spend their whole three days here looking at temples. We’ve already decided to just do one day temple-hopping and the rest seeing the town. We also talk to Sam, a young Cambodian man, who’d also been on the boat. He wants to be a guide at Angkor so he comes here to learn its history. He can’t read or write so he has to remember everything in his head. He knows that tourism is the best way to earn money and he’s pretty cool so we think he’ll make it.
In the next street we find an internet shop and get our first messages from home in three days. Always afraid that something has gone wrong and so relieved when I read the first lines and know all is well. This street is dirt as are most of the streets in Siem Reap. Cafes are dotted along both sides. These include the ‘No Problem Pizza Café’ and the ‘Cheese Sandwich Café’. The rest of the afternoon we hang around ‘Happy’ sorting out videos and photos and diary writing.
After dark, we ask one of the guys hanging around in the lane to take us into town. We both climb onto the back of his bike and the three of us set off in search of Siem Reap nightlife. The town is beautiful at night as many of the big restaurants along the river are lit up with fairy lights. We cross the bridge and drive through the old market before stopping at the only nightclub in town. As its only early, the club is almost empty but the band plays continuously. Tables are set up outside so we decide to sit here where it’s cooler. A young waiter called Mai shows us to a table where we give our order to a pretty waitress. Mai asks if he can sit with us and tells us of his life and his dream to go to university. He works here every night from 6pm till midnight when he sleeps on a bench in front of the club, as it’s too far to make it home in the dark. At dawn he cycles the twenty minutes to his village where he then goes to school from 7am till 11am. He’s such a sweet person and happy with his life. He teaches us more Khmer language and we think we do quite well even though he laughs at us. By the time we leave, Mark can say ‘no, too expensive’ which may come in handy and I can say ‘two babies’ which is totally useless. Inside the band is still playing while a series of singers take turns either in solo or in groups.
Later, we thank Mai for his Khmer lessons and we head across the road to the Zanzibar – a trendy traveller’s café run by a spaced out French hippie. A visit to the Zanzibar is a backpacker’s must. Old sixties music is playing and there’s a good atmosphere but I’m almost falling asleep at the bar. We only have one beer then find a moto driver to take us back to ‘Happy’.
Thursday 14th March, 2002 Siem Reap
We wake again to a hot humid day and decide to stay in town and do the temples tomorrow. We’ve also decided to fly to Phnom Penh on Saturday instead of doing seven hours on a boat – had the long terrifying boat ride already so we’re opting for the short terrifying plane ride instead. Before leaving ‘Happy’, we meet a lovely English lady called Julie and we arrange for the three of us to go to the Grand Hotel tonight for ‘happy hour’ drinks.
Setting off on foot, we pass young monks in orange robes on their alms rounds in our laneway. At the camera shop in the next street, we leave films to be developed and then we turn left onto the busy Highway 6. The road is paved, hectic and exciting. It’s a short walk to the bridge past food carts and shops. Across the bridge we can see the Grand Hotel d’Angkor set behind a green park on the right. It’s very impressive in its colonial glory and obviously full of Japanese and American tourists who are the only ones who can afford it. Further on is the Green Garden Restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, so we go in. Breakfast is chicken baguettes, eggs and soda water. I try not to stare at two monks who come in to talk to the owner.
Out onto the road again we find the Seeing Hands Massage d’Angkor. Blind people have been taught massage so it’s a worthwhile cause for them and for us to get our backs fixed. It’s situated in an old wooden building set back off the road. There are big trees in front and some women are hanging washing on lines strung beneath them. A man sitting near the door takes our money and shows us inside to a room downstairs. We’re introduced to a young lady and man dressed in white pyjamas and then we’re given the same to dress into ourselves. The massage is unfortunately agonising and, even more unfortunately, is an hour long. Most Asian massages are painful but this is worse. We’re belted for an hour but the last few minutes of continuous slapping is hilarious as I can hear Mark on the next table getting his share as well. My God, we leave worse off than when we arrived. We thank our friends and get the hell out of there.
Further down the road, we talk to a couple of moto drivers who take us to the airline office in town where we buy tickets for Phnom Penh. I suddenly have an attack of the ‘Indias’, as we call it – alias Delhi-belly, Bali-belly, etc. A nearby café looks clean and we order lemon sodas before I casually ask about a toilet. Fortunately they have one and it’s amazingly clean as well. The cafe is called the Red Piano Bar probably because of the red piano in the corner. We cool down under overhead fans and sit on big cane chairs amongst a forest of palms. The old market is on the next corner so we set off to look for souvenirs. Everything imaginable is sold here and we spend ages in the food area – fruits, vegetables, flowers, dried fish, meat and unrecognisables. There are endless souvenir stalls and we have fun bartering with the ladies. We buy ten silk cushion covers for $3AUS, four silk tablecloths for $9AUS, two silk bedspreads for $18AUS, temple rubbings for $16AUS and a bronze queen’s head for $44AUS. This is too much to put on a moto so we hire a rickshaw to take us back to ‘Happy’.
For lunch we walk around to the adjacent street and find a quiet café. After E-mailing home, we hire a moto driver to take us to the Crocodile Farm on the outskirts of town. We squeeze three on a bike and love the drive through town. The Crocodile Farm is a big disappointment, though, as the crocodiles are all asleep. We’d been told not to miss the feeding frenzy, so I ask what time they’re fed – ‘Sunday’ she replies. Never mind, I find some baby ducklings to play with so that keeps me amused. On the way back we ask our driver to take us to the village on the other side of the river. This place looks idyllic. It’s clean and picturesque and there seems to be a close sense of community despite the obvious hardships of village life.
Back at the guesthouse we sit in the courtyard and have drinks with a German man called Karl. He’s been travelling for thirty years and surprisingly he loves Bali most of all. We swap travel tips and then arrange with Johnny for moto drivers to take us to the temples tomorrow and this afternoon. The deal to visit all the temple complexes is $20US for one day or $30US for three days. Whichever you choose, you can go after four o’clock the afternoon before your first day for free. We’re introduced to our drivers who are friendly but unfortunately can’t speak English. We tell Johnny where Karl has advised us to go so he translates for us. It’s three o’clock now so we set off for Angkor on two bikes.
From Highway 6, we cross the bridge and then turn right to drive past the Grand Hotel d’Angkor and a couple of new 5 star monstrosities on the way out of town. Off the main road, we turn onto a dirt track and drive for several kilometres through a sparsely populated area to arrive at the Land Mines Museum. This consists of a couple of grass huts full of land mines collected by a local man trying to educate people on the horrors of war. It’s a non-profit museum but donations go to victims. Ironically, through the fence is a village where a group of boys are playing soccer. One has lost a leg but is doing famously on his crutches.
On the main road again we soon come to the ticket selling gates for the temples. There’s a line-up as everyone is hanging around waiting for the stroke of four. We buy our one-day pass and race off to Angkor. The road is straight and shaded by an avenue of tall trees. At a T-intersection, we turn right instead of left where most of the motos are heading for Angkor Wat. Karl has advised us to see the temples in this direction today and do the big ones tomorrow. The intersection is at a beautiful lake where we can see lines of fishermen in the water holding huge nets. We pass a group of monkeys with their babies on the side of the road and soon arrive at our first temple called Prasat Kravan. This is not terribly impressive but it’s our first temple and we climb all over it. We’re hassled by hawkers to buy hats and postcards but we head off for our next stop only minutes away.
Banteay Kolei is reached through a stone archway with a smiling face carved into the rock. The sun is low and a monk passes through just as we arrive – how beautiful. The temple is situated on the edge of a small village and water buffalo are wallowing around in a shallow dam. We walk down a long path to reach the temple itself which is a single story structure with literally hundreds of doorways and windows. While the temple is amazing, we love the serenity of the jungle setting the most. There are only a couple of tourists here so we think we’re lucky we took Karl’s advice.
From here our next stop is Pre Rup from where we’re to watch the sunset. We stop first at one of the ubiquitous drink and souvenir stalls opposite all the temples. We buy drinks and a ‘I’ve been to Angkor Wat’ T-shirt for Mark then start the steep climb to the top of Pre Rup. This is a big temple and the stairs are so narrow we can only get half a foot onto them. They’re also incredibly steep and I crawl up on all fours. At the top we strain our eyes in the direction of Angkor Wat but all we can see is jungle. Maybe we’re both half blind or maybe all these other people are just having themselves on. The view is lovely anyway but we decide to head back to town now and beat the inevitable rush.
At ‘Happy’, we’re just in time for drinks with the German girls (never did ask their names) and then have a quick shower to go out with Julie. It’s dark by now and the three of us walk over to the Grand. Even at this time of day it’s still hot although there seems to be less humidity. At the hotel we walk up the impressive front stairs where a uniformed doorman opens the doors for us. We’re directed up another staircase, along a corridor past the dining room and then down a curved staircase to the Elephant Bar. To stay here it costs about $400 a night but we’re more than ‘happy’ where we are at almost a hundredth of the cost. The bar is decorated in the colonial style of the tropics with cane lounges, overhead fans and elephant tusks decorating the walls. The lights are dim and the room is set out in intimate lounged areas. We find a vacant corner and order our ‘happy hour’ drinks. Julie knows a young English couple called Becky and Mark playing pool near us. She’d met them somewhere else in Cambodia and we spend the next hour hearing about their travels in Asia. They’re so sweet and we invite them to visit us when they reach Australia. Meanwhile we all enjoy the free popcorn and our cheap cocktails. Mark has two Tom Collins and I have two Margaritas all for $4 US a couple. At 9.30pm we walk back home with Julie and jump straight into bed with our fan on ‘windy’.
Friday 15th March, 2002. Siem Reap
This is the day that is to be the highlight of our trip. Today we see Angkor Wat. The thing that all visitors must do is to see it at sunrise. We dress in the dark and meet one of our moto drivers in the laneway. We have to ride three to a bike and then meet the other driver out there for some reason. No problem and we set off at 6am. It’s chilly on the bikes this early and I put on an extra shirt when we stop to show our tickets. The scenery is wonderful again and we pass elephants on the side of the road. At the T-intersection, we turn left and ride around the lake till we can see the long causeway to the temple. I admit to getting tears in my eyes to think that we’re here at last.
Across the road there are buses and vans and motos, all empty now of passengers who are apparently already inside. We cross the moat and pass beneath the wide archway and there it is – Angkor Wat – the reason we’ve come to Cambodia. To borrow the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘it is not so majestic as I had imagined’ (he was talking about Antarctica – hilarious!). It certainly is lovely, though, with the sun about to come up behind it and the moment only spoilt by the hundreds of tourists. Of course, we’re here as well so we can’t complain.
Despite the amount of people there is total silence as everyone waits for the sun to rise. Suddenly the sky turns pink and there’s a flurry of activity as videos start rolling and cameras clicking. People are moving around to get better vantage points and we do the same. The sun then peeps out from behind one of the three towers and the sky behind melts into gold. Now, this definitely is as majestic as we’d imagined. We walk through the stone corridors to reach the other side to view it from another angle. Within minutes the sun is well above the temple and the initial magic is broken. As we look back towards the main entrance we can’t believe that most of the tourists have gone. They have their pictures and now they’re back in their air-conditioned buses heading back to their five-star hotels for buffet breakfasts. I suppose, they’ll be back later so we must make the most of the isolation now.
As we walk up to the main building we’re entirely alone. Angkor Wat is the principal temple of the Angkor area, which is dotted with numerous temples in approximately a thirty mile radius. It was built in the twelfth century as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II and is the largest of all the Angkor temples. The whole area was once densely populated but, since only religious buildings could be made of stone, the wooden houses have long since disappeared. We decide to walk around the outside first so we turn off the main path and turn right.
From the side it’s possible to realise the temple’s massive size. A stone wall separates the temple on one side and the jungle on the other while grassed areas between the temple and the wall are dotted with tiny white wild flowers. At the rear end we climb stone steps to the first level and examine the endless bas-reliefs that stretch in 800 metre lengths. These are carvings in the outside walls and are usually scenes from religious stories starring gods like Vishnu and Shiva. The second floor is reached by wooden stairs as the originals are still under reconstruction. To get to the top floor there are four sets of exterior stairs on each side. These are incredibly high and almost vertical and, like those at Pre Rup yesterday, incredibly narrow. One look and I almost can’t do it.
Then I remember I’d read a traveller’s story about a railing that had been placed on one side. So relieved to find it and I go up first so that Mark can catch me when I faint. I’m saying this as a joke, but when I get almost to the top I’m supposed to move to one side and hold on to another rail. I just can’t – as pathetic as it sounds, my legs are jelly and I cling instead to a landing on the left. Mark casually walks up behind me and others are doing the same – no other cowards. I desperately want to get to the top so I climb through a window on the ledge and there we are at last – at the top of Angkor Wat.
We’re stifling hot by now and have a drink in the shade while we look out over the grounds. Palm trees and dense green jungle add to its magic. Climbing back down the dreaded stairs to the second floor isn’t frightening at all. On every floor there’s so much to explore that it would take days to see it all. Within galleries that wind around each floor we see Buddha statues all swathed in saffron robes and burning incense at their feet. How special this place must be to the Buddhist people who are here now praying and making offerings.
Before heading off to the next temple, we decide to have breakfast probably in one of the stalls across the causeway. But as we leave the main building we’re beckoned over to the trees on the right where a table is set up and people are cooking breakfast. This looks wonderful amongst a plantation of banana trees so we’re happy to eat here. There’s only coke to drink and only one baguette left but enough eggs for an omelet so we enjoy our breakfast in these marvellous surroundings. As we leave, a village woman gives me a bunch of tiny grape-looking fruits to try – bitter and hard to chew.
Although it’s only nine o’clock, the air is hot and humid as we walk back along the causeway to the market across the road. Our moto drivers have already seen us and are waiting to pick us up. The breeze cools us down as we take off on the bikes towards Ta Prohm. This is a Buddhist temple built in the seventeenth century and which, unlike the other temples of Angkor, has not been cleared of the jungle which devoured it for hundreds of years.
Along the way, we see more ruined temples and a row of stone elephants running the length of a bridge. Other backpackers are flying past on their motos – very exciting! The entrance to Ta Prohm is through a tall stone archway on the side of the road from where a dirt track leads us through the trees to the temple. A group of busking Cambodian musicians are sitting on the edge of the path playing for the tourists.
The temple appears and it’s magic – straight out of Indiana Jones but the real thing. Giant trees are growing out of broken towers and stone walls. Their roots are like tendrils slithering amongst the ancient structures both breaking them up and holding them together at the same time. This is what the French explorers would have found when they came upon the ‘lost city’ of Angkor in the 1860’s. The jungle closes in on all sides almost threatening to take over again. We’re alone most of the time and all we can hear are the birds in the nearby trees. A group of elderly Japanese tourists suddenly appear though a whole in the wall. We have nothing against elderly Japanese tourists, but they always seem to have a guide with them bellowing out instructions. This group is quiet, though, and we spend another half-hour wandering around enjoying the peace.
The heat is getting to us by now and we still want to see Bayon before too many tourists beat us there. As we walk back along the track to the road, the Cambodian band are poised, ready for action. They’re not interested in us penniless backpackers but are lying in wait for the Japanese tourists coming behind. We hear them strike up as they approach.
Before we reach Bayon, we stop at another temple called . This is smaller but has the same horrible steep, steep stone steps leading up to the main towers. I’ve had enough terror for one day but Mark has no problem getting to the top – I’ll see the video! Back towards Siem Reap we arrive at Bayon. This is another huge temple most famous for its massive smiling faces on the third level. These are carved in the stone walls and leer down at you from all angles. Inside a tiny chamber within the temple, an old nun shows me how to give offerings to a Buddhist shrine. We burn incense and I’m sure I look a total fool as I try to copy her as she bows three times to Buddha – don’t care, I love this so much.
We’re suffering now from heat exhaustion and climb down to sit in the shade of trees across the road. This area is very alive and other temples are scattered all around. The markets are bigger here as well and there are plenty of tourists buying drinks and food cooked fresh at the food stalls. After wandering around more ruins close by, we’re dripping in sweat so we order fresh coconut milk from a makeshift café across the road. It’s cold and sweet and drunk through a straw straight from the coconut. Feeling exhausted from the heat we find our moto drivers and head back to Siem Reap.
At ‘Happy’ we rest in the cool of our room then lunch at No Problem Pizza Café around the corner. This is a trendy little grass hut-style place with greenery shading the entrance. A handsome dread-locked couple sit near us. At the internet place next door we thankfully find that everyone is well at home. Back at the guesthouse we ask our moto drivers to take us to the Central Market which is in a part of town we haven’t yet seen. As we reach the Highway 6 junction, we turn right and drive only about a kilometre south. The market looks like a shantytown as the stalls and walkways are shaded by a mishmash of materials. Everything imaginable is for sale. Mark barters for two green hammocks and we buy a watermelon, fresh peanuts and a bunch of tiny mangoes. On the way home, our drivers take us on a shortcut and we zigzag our way through back alleyways to get to ‘Happy’. Out in the courtyard Johnny brings me a plate and a knife to cut up the watermelon, which we share with him and the moto drivers.
After cold showers we dress again in our posh clothes and head for the Grand for more happy hour drinks. Can’t see Julie anywhere so we go on our own. Five roles of photos are ready which we pick up on the way. At the Elephant Bar, we find a different corner to sit and order calamari and fish and chips – will cost us an arm and a leg but we’re spoiling ourselves tonight. While we wait we eat the free popcorn and look at the photos. Our happy hour drinks include a Pims No1 and a Long Island Tea for Mark and a Harvey Wallbanger and a Daiquiri for me. We love travelling rough but it’s so nice to visit these wonderful places now and again. It means we can have the best of everything; have a cheap holiday where we experience the local culture but also have a taste of luxury for a fraction of the price.
Walking back along the river, the night is still and balmy. Crowds of young locals are drinking and eating in temporary open-air cafes set up for the evenings. At a nearby night market Mark is about to buy a bag of apples but he is so blatantly being ripped off he says ‘forget it’. Never mind paying a bit more but sometimes it’s just a pain in the arse.
We must eat at The Bayon Restaurant. It’s another must that Lonely Planet and every traveller’s diary I’ve ever read recommends. The only problem is, it looks suspiciously not like the restaurant described. Probably another case of something becoming ‘famous’ by making it into Lonely Planet and then everyone else tries to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen another Bayon Restaurant in the last few days. The food is good anyway so it’s not a problem. Julie is sitting in the courtyard when we get back to ‘Happy’ so we dig out our Bacardi and Jim Beam and stay up talking for hours.
Saturday 16th, March, 2002 Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
This morning, we’re up at 5.30am to be ready for the taxi at six o’clock. Our driver apologises for leaving the windows down all night as the whole interior is filled with man-eating mosquitoes. It’s just getting light as we reach the airport fifteen minutes later. The terminal is a small one-storey building and we quickly pass through baggage check-in. In a corner of the boarding lounge is a sort of café that really only consists of a counter and three tall stools. The staff are slow to get organised and don’t seem to be in any hurry to serve us. All we can order for breakfast is a cold packaged croissant and a cup of tea. A guy sitting on the other stool introduces himself as another Aussie after he recognises our accents. He’s the first Australian we’ve met so far. He lives in Taiwan and works for a US company so he earns massive dollars – lucky bastard.
Surprisingly, there are about a hundred people on the plane which is much bigger and better than we expected. I suppose we were imagining it’d be like Lao Aviation’s ‘plane from hell’ that took us from Luang Prabang to Vientienne last year. As we take off from Siem Reap there’s a slight mist so we can’t make out Angkor Wat although later we have good views of the Tonle Sap lake and river. The flight is only thirty five minutes and. It’s smooth except that the pilot makes a couple of hair-raising right-hand turns as we make our descent to Phnom Penh.
Wow, can’t believe we’re here. Phnom Penh is one of those exotic cities that conjure up images of ex-pats and journalists lounging around in old colonial hotels with overhead fans and potted palms.
The airport is smaller than I imagined but I guess this is the domestic bit. Outside taxi touts are waiting to swoop down on us but we’re ready for them. Can’t remember who, but some traveller told us the price we should pay into town so we know they’re ripping us off at $7 US. We shrug them off and walk out onto the main road. A group of young moto drivers are waiting for us and we ask the two least pushiest to take us for $2 US each. This isn’t only cheaper it’s also terribly exciting and terribly trendy to arrive in Phnom Penh on the back of a bike.
The centre of the city reminds us of Saigon although there appears to be more evidence of destruction. An entire three level block has the whole side-wall missing but people are still living in it. Everything is dirty, rundown and in need of repair and there are people everywhere. Motos, street stalls, markets and dilapidated buildings – the lot. As awful as it is, it’s real and it’s thrilling. Down many unpaved side streets we pull up at the Narim Guesthouse – ‘no, we want Narim II Guesthouse’. Off we go again this time with two new drivers who say they know where it is. They’re right and we soon arrive at a skinny multi-storied place which is obviously popular on account of the many backpackers lounging around in the downstairs café/foyer. The owner drags us up six flights of stairs to an unmade room. We’re not happy with being this high up and the whole place looks dirty and a fire trap. We say thanks but decide to keep looking.
Our new drivers are James and Ali Baba and are full of suggestions for alternate accommodation. They take us to a Chinese hotel but I want to look at the Renakse Hotel where Intrepid Tours stay. It’s only one street back from the river near the Palace and I love it immediately. Through a wrought iron fence we pull into a graveled driveway surrounded by overgrown gardens. The building is an old colonial and full of character. The only room left, though, is expensive and dark and musty. Reluctantly we return to the Chinese-run Royal Highness, spelt wrongly as the Royal Hiness in huge neon lights. A doorman runs out to meet us as if we’re royalty ourselves. Inside, the ground floor is open plan and includes a restaurant and a sweeping staircase to the next mezzanine level. Here are lounges and coffee tables all very Chinese and extremely appealing. We’re shown to our room on the second floor. It has a television, bathroom with hot water (luxury) and air-conditioning (more luxury) all for $15US. We’ve never stayed in a Chinese hotel before and it’s a nice change from trendy backpacker guesthouses.
We only stay long enough to use the loo, then back outside to meet James and Ali Baba. It’s still only 9.30am, so we have all day to see as much as we can. Off first to the National Museum which is an attractive terracotta-coloured building with sweeping roof lines. Inside is an open courtyard formally set out with ponds and tropical gardens. The museum holds an impressive collection of ancient Khmer sculpture but we’re just not into museums and we’d seen the real thing at Angkor anyway, so we leave. Also feeling ‘palaced out’ so our visit to the Royal Place is also quick. The Silver Pagoda is very beautiful with thousands of silver tiles on the floor but same, same otherwise. There are so many elaborate buildings inside the compound and we explore a few before meeting the guys out in the street at 11am.
Our next stop is the Foreign Correspondents Club set on a corner opposite the Tonle Sap River. The club is on the first floor of an old French building and has stacks of atmosphere. Wooden furniture, potted palms, overhead fans, big old lounges and, on the whole, what we’d expected. Two sides are open so that besides getting a cool breeze off the river, it’s a great vantage point to watch the local activity. Below is a busy street with a promenade running alongside the river. After pizza and lemon sodas, we sit on the edge of the promenade but feel a bit spooked by a group of teenage boys hanging around us. One is carrying a large pair of scissors which is more than slightly suspicious. We’ve been told to be wary of gangs of kids like this even in the middle of the day. Glad to see James and Ali Baba pull into the curb. We show them the address of the temple that Mao Lim had asked us to visit. They’re suitably impressed that we ‘know’ a monk and agreed to take us there even though it’s quite a way out of town.
We head north and follow the river for a time before veering off into less populated areas. Ali Baba stops several times to ask directions and I’m getting the feeling that this ‘meeting the monk thing’ isn’t going to happen. He probably won’t be there anyway so we’re not too optimistic about seeing him. A woman at a roadside stall directs us off the main road and onto a dirt track through a village. We pass ponds where water lilies are flaunting their pink flowers and where men are walking chest-deep through the water. Ali Baba explains that some are collecting the flowers to sell while others are catching snakes. Ahead is the tall arched gateway that heralds a temple and we’re here at last.
Wat Toulsantevan consists of a small pagoda and a few wooden monks’ quarters and outer buildings. A group of young monks come out to see who we are and James asks them about Mao Lim. At this moment, he appears from nowhere with a delighted smile on his face. He’s as happy and surprised to see us as we are to see him. He takes us inside to an open sided room where woven straw mats are brought out for us to sit on. The room is painted blue with pictures of the Buddha’s life decorating all the walls. With the monks’ orange robes, it’s a colourful scene. Mao Lim sits cross-legged on a raised dais while the other monks crowd around. Everybody is smiling and we feel totally welcome and relaxed.
Bottled water and fresh mangoes are brought out for us and we all talk for an hour with a ‘brother’ translating between us and the monks who can only speak limited English. Other lay residents of the monastery come and sit with us as well. These are mainly women and one poor lady has the biggest goiter we’ve ever seen – reminds me of that Seinfeld episode. We’re introduced to Old Yang and Young Yang who both want photos and videos taken of them. Old Yang is chewing betel-nut and never shuts up even though we can’t understand a word she says. She’s a definite clown and all the monks laugh every time she says something. I love her and she wants me to sit next to her. Mao Lim proudly brings out a postcard from a man who lives in Canberra and we promise to send back copies of the photos we take today. We exchange addresses and then he takes Mark for a walk and shows him the huge new pagoda halfway through being built. Before going outside, a monk runs up to us with white rubber thongs for each of us to wear.
I leave Mark and Mao Lim alone – I think they’re in love. Meanwhile, the other monks take me to the kitchen which is a weathered wooden structure with a dirt floor and open on two sides. Three shaven-headed nuns who do the cooking want to have their photos taken. This is wonderful. They’re all dressed in long black sarongs and plain white collarless blouses. The first nun is introduced as ‘cooking the rice nun’ and the second as ‘boiling the water nun’. I don’t know what the third nun is called but for the monks’ sake I hope it’s ‘cooking the vegetables nun’ or ‘cooking the meat nun’.
Before we leave, Mark gives Mao Lim a $40 AUS donation for the new pagoda. Again we’re blessed and our money is blessed so now we’re going to have even longer and even healthier lives. We’re both on the biggest high after our time here. A small crowd waves us off as we speed towards Phnom Penh. One of the monks has given James and Ali Baba directions for a shorter route back to the city. On dirt tracks we wind our way through small villages that are full of life and through open countryside, so that we see a completely different side of Phnom Penh.
Soon, we’re back in town and are heading for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 as it’s more commonly known. A pot-holed side road leads us to the entrance where other moto drivers are hanging around waiting for tourists already inside. Dying of thirst, we cross to a café almost hidden by an overgrown garden. It’s lovely in here away from the heat and dust and we sit on cane lounges drinking lemon sodas and banana shakes. But now it’s time to see the museum.
S21 was used as a prison / torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 till 1979. Possibly a hundred people a day were tortured here for up to three months each before being taken to the killing fields to be murdered. Pol Pot and his cronies were paranoid about traitors and would torture people, even those in the Khmer Rouge army, until they confessed to working for the CIA or the KGB. Most had never even heard of them. All intellectuals were killed first along with their entire families. None were spared, not even the babies. It was madness beyond belief.
After paying at the gate we find a guide who takes us first to the rooms that were used for torture and then to other rooms whose walls are covered in photographs of the victims. The whole process was meticulously recorded with each person photographed before and after torture. A list of instructions on a wall tells prisoners that ‘if you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge’ and that ‘while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all’. When we first came in, I’d asked the guide how long it takes to see the prison as there’s a film about the Khmer Rouge showing at three o’clock. He said that it varies because some people become too upset. Within minutes we were the same and we both had to go outside into the yard to calm down. As shocking as it is, we believe it’s right to see and know what happened. The Cambodian people’s suffering shouldn’t be hidden and it’s part of their healing process to show the world the truth about the maniacs that almost destroyed them.
Moving on, we see that other rooms are partitioned off with tiny brick cells where people would wait to be tortured. The verandahs of the two floors above are enclosed by barbed wire so that the prisoners couldn’t jump off and commit suicide. We’re shown paintings by one of seven survivors who survived torture and death because he was forced to paint propaganda pictures of Pol Pot. The hour-long film afterwards is held in an airless sauna of a room and is packed with tourists. Personal accounts by survivors tell how they weren’t allowed to sing, write or even to love. Families and lovers were deliberately separated, and surviving family members read out letters of the broken hearts of those they never saw again. I’ve always noticed that after people watch something like this there’s total silence. It’s the same here. There’s nothing you can say. Probably the most awful thing about the prison is its façade of normality in that it looks like any other high school built in that era. Now children are playing in the yard seemingly oblivious to its dreadful history.
On the bikes again, we now turn towards the Russian Market. We’ve decided that if we can see this now and get to the Grand Hotel tonight for ‘happy hour’, we’ll set off in the morning for the coast. As we blaze our way through the streets, we stop for no man and no traffic light, for that matter. Busy intersections aren’t a problem as we create our own bypasses through petrol stations and temple grounds. We always wonder why, despite the incredible volume of traffic, there never appears to be any signs of irritation let alone road rage. It seems accepted that this is how it is and everyone will get their turn.
The Russian Market is huge and a rabbit warren of walkways between hundreds of stalls. In the central food area, so many foods are being cooked that we don’t recognise but we finally settle for some doughy banana pancakes. They’re hot and sweet and we eat them sitting on tiny plastic stools. Old beggar women are all over the place and they’re irresistible especially when they ask you to take their photo and then hold out their hand for payment. We barter for buddha statues and other fantastic souvenirs but decide to wait till we get to Sihanoukville to load up on more Cambodian keepsakes. Of course, by now we’re filthy and stink from another sweltering day, so we’re ready for showers.
At the Royal Hiness we pay Ali Baba and James and thank them for a great day although I think they’re disappointed that we won’t be around tomorrow. Before going to our room we find out about bus tickets for the morning and then E-mail home. After quick showers and dressing in our posh clothes, we’re back out in the street and, in no time, in a cyclo heading for the Grand Hotel. The cyclos here are like those in Vietnam where the passenger sits in front. It’s weird being right out there in the middle of it all and unfortunately with a much better view of the endless near misses. Our driver is a dear, weathered old man wearing a constant beaming smile. I feel guilty as I never realised how far it is – it didn’t look this far on the map and it’s dark by now. At last we see it and we’re dropped off in the street. Wouldn’t do to arrive in a rickshaw at the most extravagant hotel in town. The Grand is very grand, to say the least. It’s part of the Raffles group and even lovelier than the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap. ‘Happy hour’ at this Elephant Bar is better as well since we’re given free corn chips and salsa which we down with half priced Margaritas and Tom Collins. Meanwhile, we’re being entertained by that very famous American singer (never heard of him), Jimmy Little. What he lacks in talent he makes up for with his terribly impressive appearance – big, black and beautiful.
Time to leave as by now I’ve definitely had too much to drink on an empty stomach. Besides we’re having dinner at the Royal Hiness and it’s getting late. I tell the doorman who is dressed in traditional Khmer costume that he looks impressive in his ‘hat’ and ask for a taxi. Instead, we’re whisked away in the hotel’s private car and off we go, flashing tail lights and all. I have verbal diarrhea the whole way whilst pretending to be rich, posh and famous, ‘darling’. At the Royal Hiness restaurant, we’re the only customers and receive speedy service mainly because I think they want to go home. Our choices include ‘stewed sinew of ox’ and ‘stewed sinew of pork’ but I eventually order ‘beef salad’ and Mark orders ‘chicken curry’. They arrive within minutes in trays divided into little sections like TV dinners. There’s rice, beef, peanuts, a fried egg, four things I can’t recognise and a side bowl of fish soup. After only a couple of mouthfuls I stick to my Angkor beer. Mark eats his dinner, of course, but even he balks at the breakfast menu – ‘porridge duck’ or ‘porridge with sliced fish’.
It’s nine o’clock by now and late according to Cambodian time so we get an early night which we both need anyway.
Sunday 17th March, 2002 Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville
We’re up early to get to the bus station as quickly as possible as there are varying accounts as to how many buses there are and at what time they leave. Apparently, there’s no way of booking a seat ahead so it’s first in, first served. After checking out of the Royal Hiness, we jump on the back of two motos and speed off towards the bus station. The seven o’clock bus is full so we buy tickets for the next one leaving at eight thirty. Some official in a uniform points to an office where he kindly lets us store our bags while we go in search of breakfast.
Across the busy street and down a bit we find a busy sunny, corner café with tables and chairs set up on the footpath. After ordering omelets and tea, Mark reads an English newspaper while I hand over my walking boots to a shoe-shine guy. I don’t really want them done but I can’t refuse his sweet face. He carries them off behind the tables and squats on the footpath to set up his little box. He’s so conscientious and I should have guessed what was happening when it takes so long. My beloved fawn suede walking boots are proudly handed back to me, now dark brown and shiny. They’re horrible and I hate them but say thanks anyway. Shit happens as they say. We finish breakfast now and decide we should look for a toilet before setting off on a four-hour bus trip.
A girl at the bus station hands me a key and points around the back. I’m not quite sure what keeping the door locked is supposed to achieve because inside is like a scene from the sewers of hell. I can almost see the germs crawling up the walls. No way but to wait till we get there. This area behind the bus station backs onto a street where a row of cafes are blasting out trendy Asian music while trendy young Cambodian teenagers are eating and watching television. And it’s only eight in the morning. Ear shattering music seems the way to go all over Asia and we’ve seen instances of it in every country we’ve been to. And it doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is or where it is, just play it to distortion level and everyone’s happy.
The bus to Sihanoukville is no exception. It’s modern and full of locals but no leg room and again we’re a disco on wheels. We leave on time but do a lap of the market situated on a kind of massive round-a-bout and after five minutes we’re just coming up to the bus station again. Walky-talkies also seem to be the go in Asia and are used, like now, by people standing within talking distance of each other. A guy on the bus and a guy at the bus station, which we’re now passing again, have a chat and then the guy on the bus jumps out as we pull up at the petrol station across the road. It’s all very important. On the bus we have the cutest little girls in seats behind us and opposite us. They’re dressed in the usual elaborate style of satin and lace dresses, these ones in yellow and red.
As we leave Phnom Penh the countryside opens up into dry fields in some places and vibrant green rice paddies in others. The cows are white but are also skinny which I’m not sure is because of the breed or because they’re hungry. About half way, the bus pulls in at a roadside café where we all pile out for lunch and to use the loos. These are a great improvement on the bus station’s toilet from hell. One reason for this could be that it’s black as pitch and we can’t see anything anyway. It’s a bit hard to aim for the hole in the floor but we’re getting experts by now. In the café we buy lollies in wrappers but can’t stomach the huge meals some of the local people are wolfing down at this time of day. Outside, village people are selling fruit from a couple of shacks with thatched roofs. Here again we buy bags of chopped pineapple to be eaten with wooden skewers.
All this sounds very pleasant, and it is, but on the way we’ve been reading a bit about this area and it was on this road only a few years ago that three Australians were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and shot. Travellers’ stories I’d read on the internet also warned to stay off this road at night and while there’s no chance of that, it does give me the creeps. I’ll be glad to get there.
Nearing the coast, there are more villages and we can see that there’s a sea breeze blowing the palm and coconut trees. We arrive at Sihanoukville at 12.30pm. It’s an ugly sprawling town on the Gulf of Thailand and doesn’t look at all appealing. At the bus stop we transfer our gear, like the other backpackers, to a free bus sent by the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse. This is good as we’d been told by Julie in Siem Reap to stay here. From the centre of town the bus takes us up and down hills to reach the dusty laneways of the backpacker area. For some reason this is high on a cliff above the water and it’s a good ten minute moto ride to the beach. Surprisingly, or should I say, not surprisingly, the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse is full. So why did they send a bus to come and get us, you may ask. We don’t know.
Mark grabs our gear and we’re off down the lane to nab a guesthouse before the others get there first. Our first choice is the Christmas Guesthouse aptly named because the front courtyard boasts two large Norfolk pines decorated with tinsel and Christmas decorations. How could we stay anywhere else? The family who own the guesthouse is friendly and live on the bottom floor in one huge open room with a cool white tiled floor. Our room upstairs is big and airy, has a ceiling fan and a big window looking over a back garden. We can see palm trees and hear sounds from the surrounding village so it’s nice. At the front is a big sitting area overlooking the street and the row of cafes and guesthouses opposite.
It’s hot as hell and we’re starving so we head for a very trendy looking cafe called Sam’s Place. The café is above the family home so shoes are left in the street then we walk through their living room and up a set of rickety stairs to the café. This is open on two sides with a couple of very basic guestrooms on one side and a counter on the other. The walls and floor are bare boards and is just how we love it. Anyone can play whatever CD they want and a group of we’re-so-cool backpackers are lounging around like they own the place. An English couple are sucking up fiercely to an old French hippie who’s the real thing and lapping up all the attention. The family has really worked out what westerners want – a mix of Asia and home so that you can have Khmer food or fish and chips if you’ve had enough of noodles and rice. We do have noodles but get the fish and chips and fruit shakes as well – the best lunch so far.
We wander around after lunch then stop for a drink at the M.A.S.H. Guesthouse run by a freaky but helpful American couple. The guy is swinging in a hammock from which he yells orders for our drinks and promises to order our boat tickets for tomorrow. He looks like he’s had a few too many joints over the years so we hope he knows or remembers what he’s doing. Outside, moto drivers are hanging around and offer to take us into town. We ask them to take us to the market as this is our last stop in Cambodia and we want to get our souvenirs today.
The centre of town is ten minutes away and it’s nice to be on the bikes to cool down. The market is, as expected, a clutter of jerrybuilt erections but with the usual array of intriguing things for sale. In the flower section are the most incredible varieties especially the huge eye-catching bunches of lotus flowers. There’s dried fish and vegetables and household goods and clothes and incense and everything you could imagine; everything, that is, except souvenirs. Mark tries to explain to our moto drivers what we’re looking for and they seem to understand so we head off on the trail of Buddha statues and masks. Of course, they don’t understand and after half an hour of driving aimlessly around town we give up. Back at the M.A.S.H. Guesthouse the American guy says there’s nowhere in town that sells anything like what we want so that’s that.
At sunset we wander down to the Mealey Chenda Guesthouse that has a big verandah looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. It’s almost full but we get a table and order drinks. A television is set up to run the nightly showing of The Killing Fields. We’ve seen it already so we decide to go back to Sam’s Place for food. It’s pumping here with the same crowd as lunchtime and we have a great night getting drunk on our Bacardi and Jim Beam.
Monday 18th March, 2002. Sihanoukville to Trat (Thailand)
There’s no need for an early start today although it’s too hot to sleep very late. From the verandah we can see a line of people leaving Sam’s Place at eight o’clock. It’s a wedding and they’re all in their Sunday best and carrying trays and bowls of fruit. We stalk the wedding party as it rounds the corner, only to see something fall off one of the offering trays. A couple of men are jumping around and I imagine it must be something extremely spiritual and a great loss. As we come closer we see a punctured can of coke spraying its insides all over everyone’s feet – very spiritual. Turning right at the next corner, we realise that we’re just going around the block and end up back at Sam’s place. A man also watching, informs us that the ‘wedding’ in an engagement party so the whole thing is a fizzer.
It’s also a bummer that we won’t be able to have breakfast here as we’d planned. Instead we eat at a grubby café around the corner. This is definitely a comedown with its flies, dogs under the tables and a pig wandering loose across the road. It’s a good people-watching position, though, and we notice that this town, or this area anyway, attracts a lot of aging male hippies. They all seem the same – long grey hair, tanned skin turned to leather by the sun, ethnic clothes and probably perverts.
Mark suddenly realises that we don’t have the temple rubbings we’d bought in Siem Reap and that we must have left them on the bus. Again we get motos into town but no-one at the bus station has seen anything. This is really pissing us off as we know they were up the back with our packs but the guy is adamant. It’s not really a good idea to make enemies here so all we can do is forget it. While we’re on the bikes, we get our drivers to take us to Serendipity Beach. My God, I wish we’d known about this place before. There are grass accommodation huts and a cafe right on the beach. Tables and chairs have been set up under trees on the sand and girls are wandering around with baskets on their heads selling fruit to tourists lounging around in deck-chairs. We don’t have our swimmers with us and we’re leaving soon anyway, so all we can do is order fruit shakes and talk with some of the kids hanging around. It just goes to show how people can have totally different opinions of places just from where they stay. I’m sure we’d have much better memories of Sihanoukville if we’d stayed here. But then, we’d have missed finding Sam’s Place so I guess it all evens out in the end.
The boat leaves at midday so we race back to the Christmas Guesthouse to grab our gear and meet at M.A.S.H. to get our transport to the pier. The German girls from the Happy Guesthouse in Siem Reap are here. We keep seeing familiar faces wherever we go. The crazy American is not so crazy and has everything arranged. He shoves us into a taxi with a friendly German guy called Willem and two other backpackers along with all our gear. We’re bursting at the seams with four of us in the back seat, but apparently it’s not far. It actually takes about ten minutes to get to the pier and we see a different part of town than we’ve seen so far. Running alongside the water is a thatched village with a pot-holed road leading to the wharf. The water is clear and blue and fishing boats are tied to poles in the water and some are being repaired on the bank. It’s an attractive scene but we’re bathed in sweat and dying for a drink. Luckily there’s a sort of café on the pier where we can get drinks as well as food as we somehow forgot to have lunch before we came. Willem sits at a table with us and we all order food before I go in search of a toilet. A young girl points to an area behind the kitchen where I find a door leading to the cleanest loo in Asia. There’s a hole in the floor above the water and that’s that. As we’re about ten feet from the water, it doesn’t do to picture your waste products heading for the water and on show to whoever can see.
From the café we can see a stream of travellers walking towards the boat and decide we’d better line up. On the pier near the entrance to the café, a tiny old lady with a shaved head is begging. I give her our remaining riel, which doesn’t amount to much, so I give her another US $1 note. She looks up with a big toothless smile as she sees the riches I’ve bestowed upon her. My feelings of benevolence are squashed, however, when next minute I see her lining up for the boat. The fare is expensive even for us, so either she’s running a great scam or the Cambodians don’t pay much. Probably both.
After not too much confusion, we board the boat. This is surprisingly sleek and modern with the inside set out like a 747. We sit next to Willem in comfortable seats and watch the coast as we head out into the Gulf of Thailand. A television screen at the front of the boat runs an endless string of exceptionally bad karaoke videos. These are almost identical. A pretty Asian girl and a big faced ugly Asian man (all different people but same, same) come happily together, then she gives him a filthy look and walks away, he frowns and sings by himself for a while and then she comes back and they walk away together smiling. They’re also all set outside, usually in a garden. Hideous or hilarious, depending on your mood. Next is a movie that causes all the Cambodian passengers to roar with laughter. I can’t understand a word but even I get a laugh. Mark is feeling off and tries to lie down and sleep as Willem has gone off to talk to some friends.
After a couple of hours we stop to unload some local people but others board and take their seats. Almost half the boat seems to have gone up top for a fag and I thank God once again I’m not dependent on that anymore. An angry English guy is storming up and down the aisle with smoke almost coming out of his ears. Apparently his wallet had gone missing while he was asleep. It was then miraculously found by a young Cambodian girl sitting directly behind us. As a reward for finding it, she wants him to give her money but of course he refuses as she’d obviously stolen it in the first place. She looks guilty as hell to us as well. Keeping an eye on the time we know we’ll be arriving soon and we pass on to Willem our top-secret tip from the crazy American at M.A.S.H. The border closes at 5pm and if we don’t make it we’ll have to backtrack and spend the night in Koh Kong instead of being on our way to Trat in Thailand. It will literally put us a day behind.
Willem passes the info onto his friends so by the time the boat stops we’re up top and ready to jump ship. The first problem is to squeeze past a group of German ignoramuses who’ve spent the entire four hours either stuffing their faces from packed picnic boxes or fagging on the roof. The next problem is for me to get through the swarm of hawkers on the pier and grab a fastboat while Mark tries to dig out our gear from the pile of backpacks on the roof. Along the beach next to the pier is a row of small boats waiting to speed us all off to the border. Touts yell out and frantically beckon passengers to their boats. We have ours already and with Willem and his two French friends, we’re very smug being the second boat out. It’s imperative to get to the border before the others to beat them to the immigration window so we can cross into Thailand today. We’re shooting along the coastline and overtake the boat in front. It’s a definite race to the border almost like a matter of life or death – terribly exciting. Mark and I laugh maniacally.
After only fifteen minutes we veer towards shore where we can see men clambering down the embankment to meet us. We’re besieged by the mob who are pushing and shoving each other to be the first to grab our backpacks. Willem is screaming and the French girl is hitting them. Mark and I stare in disbelief and think it’s a joke but then Mark loses it as well when one of our backpacks takes a nose-dive into the water. It’s spirited away into the boot of a waiting taxi but Mark pulls it out as the driver also wants us all to pay US$3 each. After noisy and frantic arguments with taxi drivers to get a fare of US$1 each, the five of us are now speeding towards Koh Kong. This really is the most confusing border crossing and an obvious scam to screw tourists out of more money. Apparently the big boat can go all the way to the border but they stop short so we’ll have to take the speedboats and the taxis. It’s also why the boat leaves Sihanoukville at midday so that there’s no time to argue if you want to get to the border by five o’clock. Whatever the reason, we had a ball and great to know that we’ll be some of the last travellers to experience it as the bridge between Koh Kong in Cambodia and Hat Lek in Thailand will soon be finished.
As we arrive at the border, a few drops of rain fall which is the first since we’ve been here. Luckily it doesn’t amount to anything and it’s still hot and humid. Other travellers have caught up to us now but we all manage to cross into Thailand in time. We lose Willem but cram ourselves into a small van with an English guy Mark’s been talking to. We’re heading for Trat and there’s eleven of us in the van with all our packs. It’s claustrophobic, to say the least. I’m up the back with the English guy whose name is Jes and his girlfriend, Jo. Mark is in front with a Dutch guy called Robert and his girlfriend, Elizabeth. She slept through the whole boat trip and is now dead to the world again. Robert is a great talker and keeps us all amused for the hour and a half to Trat. He and Elizabeth have been travelling for eleven months and Jo and Jes for nine months. Our two weeks is slightly embarrassing but we try to look as travel weary as they do.
The road to Trat is narrow and we wind our way around low hills. I’m glad of Robert’s stories as they keep my mind off my unhappy stomach. Armed Thai guards stop us at four checkpoints where they inspect our van and look inside. As dark falls we pull into Trat which is a medium sized town on the coast. Apparently it doesn’t have anything outstanding to attract the tourists except its proximity to the Cambodian border. Nevertheless, it looks okay. From the van we’re ushered straight into a waiting songthaew. Jo and Jes and Robert and Elizabeth come too and we all agree to take a look at the Jame Guesthouse. Once we didn’t like to be hassled by touts to go to their guesthouses but then we figured that if they have the initiative to hang around waiting for buses and trains to arrive, then they at least deserve a look. You can also get good deals at times.
The Jame guesthouse at US$2 a night is a very good deal. Admittedly, we only have a bed, a fan, a mosquito net and bamboo walls but love the atmosphere. It’s situated down a side-street and behind a shop front. A narrow alley leads out the back to the wooden guesthouse where we climb polished stairs to a verandah with rooms opening onto it. The backyard is overgrown with flowers and banana trees and the whole thing very tropical. The toilet and shower are outside in the yard and surprisingly clean. I love standing in the garden cleaning my teeth and listening to the noises of cooking coming from the surrounding houses.
We’re hungry ourselves but need to change some money into Thai baht before we can buy anything. The other part of Jame Guesthouse is across the road above the Jame Café. Here we talk to Mr. Jame about changing money but there’s no such things as money changers in Trat and no banks open at this time of night. Unbelievably, he hands us 300 baht for dinner and says we can pay him tomorrow. He’s so generous and then insists on driving us to the night market. It’s not far and just across the road from a 7Eleven store. We definitely will eat at the market, but first we’re going to have a Magnum each – heaven.
The Trat night market is fantastic. There’s the usual unusual things we have no idea about but here there’s so much that we do recognise. Things like barbequed pork on skewers, barbequed fish, crumbed chicken pieces, sausaged pork and noodles. We have a bit of everything while sitting at a plastic table in the centre of the market. A couple of old hippies who’ve definitely had too many years of drug-taking are good entertainment as well as all the local activity. We can just fit in banana pancakes smothered in condensed milk and chocolate but I manage to dribble it all over my hands and feet. We need water anyway so we find a supermarket still open and I have a wash in the street as the sticky stuff is driving me crazy.
At Jame Guesthouse I E-mail home while Mark orders beers. The young woman who owns the guesthouse chats with us at our table and gives us heaps of information about Ko Chang where we want to go tomorrow. She organises for a songthaew to take us to the ferry at 8.30am in the morning then gives us directions for a bookshop that’s still open down the street. If we’re going to spend a few days lying around on a tropical island we’ll need a couple of trashy novels to keep us amused.
The street is dark and quiet and it’s relaxing to walk around in the coolness of evening. Most of the shops have closed for business but, as they also double as the owner’s living rooms, we see families watching television, sewing, eating and generally going about their lives. The street goes on forever and still no bookshop in sight. Backtracking we find it down an alleyway just near the guesthouse. While we’re looking through the books, Jo and Jes turn up and a few minutes later, Robert and Elizabeth. Apparently we’re all off to Ko Chang tomorrow and all with visions of lazing around reading books. Too tired to read tonight, though, and we’re glad to crawl under our mozzy net with the overhead fan going to keep us cool.
Tuesday 19th March, 2002 Trat to Ko Chang
The heat wakes us early which gives us plenty of time to shower and pack. We drag our packs over to the café where we order an omelet, a plate of fruit and tea for breakfast. Mr. Jame has organised with our songthaew driver to stop at the bank in Laem Ngop so we can change some money. He’s a real sweetheart. I mean, we could be anyone. We can’t thank him enough and set off at 8.30 am with Jo and Jes and a young Thai couple. Laem Ngop is only half an hour away through open countryside and forests of coconut trees. We must have seen millions this trip.
The town is small and quiet this early but the bank is open. We race in and change our money and hand our driver what we owe Mr. Jame. On now to the ferry wharf and we jump out at a ticket booth near the water. Here we’re told to buy our tickets but then to get into another waiting songthaew which will take us to the real ferry wharf. Why don’t they have a ticket booth at the real ferry wharf, you may ask again. We don’t know. Well, we probably do know. It’s yet another ruse to get tourists to pay more than they need to – to screw us, in other words.
The real ferry wharf is only a kilometre away through some back laneways of town. We like the look of the ferry that’s being loaded already. It’s an old wooden tub but very colourful and picturesque. Robert and Elizabeth have arrived by now as well as about twenty other backpackers. Most of us climb onto the roof which has a canopy for shade. Ko Chang is a small mountainous island not far off the coast and at the moment is bathed in a fine mist. The forty five minute ride is smooth and cool with the breeze coming off the water. I can’t see where there could be even a road as the whole island looks like one huge mountain. The boat pulls in at a tiny wooden ferry wharf where songthaews are waiting to take passengers to any number of beaches on the other side of the island. At the wharf a few ramshackle shops are selling water and women are cooking in woks inside. Mark throws our packs onto the roof and too many of us are squashed inside the back cabin. The road is a series of hairpin bends that wind up and down hills while we have fleeting views of the white beaches and bright blue waters beneath us. Thick tropical vegetation covers every inch of ground until we come to White Sands Beach. Some people get off here but we know this is the daggy beach and we’re heading with the others to the very trendy Lonely Beach. In between is Kai Bae but we keep going even though I’m getting totally sick of being in this songthaew. At least Robert hasn’t shut up again and is keeping us all occupied. He’s asking everyone what they miss the most about home -‘English chocolates’, someone says and ‘a baked dinner’ someone else says. We’ve only been gone for less than two weeks so, embarrassingly, we miss nothing.
At last we arrive at Lonely Beach. The first place we’re taken is called The Treehouse. This consists of the tiniest huts you’ve ever seen. They’re all on stilts and scattered around a grove of banana and coconut trees that looks like it might be the home of about a million snakes. The café/laying-around-looking-cool area is packed with too many dread-locked hippies laying around looking cool. The setting is incredible with bamboo decks built out over the water but no way are we staying here. It’s full anyway and the six of us head off along the beach to the next guesthouse. Here there’s only one hut left so Jo and Jes take it while the rest of us keep walking. Mark and I take a cabin at the next place called Nature Beach Resort but it’s too expensive at 400 baht for Robert and Elizabeth so they keep going. We’re just glad we’ve found somewhere as we’ve seen people we’d dropped off at Kai Bae walking along the beach looking for a room. Everywhere must be full.
Nature Beach has a café and lounging around area (minus the hippies) built over the sand and about twenty huts behind. Our hut, like the others, has a thatched roof, bamboo walls, a wooden floor and a verandah at the front. We have a slate bathroom (but no water), lights and a fan (but no electricity) and a dog. The water and electricity are only available between 6pm and 2am. Very convenient – I mean, we’re always showering and needing lights on at 2am. This means we can’t have an afternoon nap in here without the fan going, it’s just too hot.
Since breakfast wasn’t much, we decide to eat again even though it’s only 10.30am. In the open-air café on the sand we order chips, sodas and a club sandwich and tuna sandwich and eat half of each. The water looks fabulous and we’re sweating like pigs so a quick change into our swimmers and we’re in. The water is warm and clear and the whole beach is picture perfect. It’s probably only a few hundred metres long and the few resorts are hidden behind palms and banana trees with coconut palms fringing the beach from end to end. We spend the afternoon reading, swimming, bartering for a sarong from a guy walking along the beach and having massages on the sand. Two local massage ladies have set up a bamboo frame with a thatched roof and sarongs hanging down the sides for privacy. They’re friendly, laughing ladies who talk and giggle to each other the whole time. We splurge and have an hour each. Mark has a traditional Thai one while I have an oil one although it’s hard to keep the sand from getting in the oil and it’s more like having a body scrub than a massage. Mark has a bad back and feels so much better now.
Further along the beach we find another guesthouse with a huge open café and dining area on the sand and a row of huts facing the water. Mark asks about booking a room for tomorrow night but they’re booked out for days. It’s time to eat again and this time we share a chicken salad, chips and sodas. A local man and two ladies who must work here spend the whole time nearly wetting themselves laughing. Wish we could understand what they’re saying. Back along the beach we read for a while then have a swim at dusk.
Now all this sounds idyllic, heavenly, utopic, etc etc. But the truth is I’m getting bored. The truth also is, tropical islands are a bore. I mean we’ve done the lot; swam, sunbaked, read the trashy novel, had a massage, walked along the sand and in a minute we’ll see the sun set over the ocean. Beautiful but what now? What is happening now is that Mark is feeling very sick – violently ill is more like it. He spends the next eight hours throwing up and spraying the walls of our bathroom from his other end. ‘You just don’t want to know what’s happening in there’ he says after emerging for a brief respite. No sooner does he hit the bed and he’s up again and at it. This is definitely a case of food poisoning as it’s come on so fast. The problem is that I ate the same food, literally ate off the same plate all day. I guess he must have just got the bad bit. I’m sick with worry and he’s sick with worry but neither of us say it. Mark has diabetes and it’s so dangerous for him to not eat. I buy bottles of coke for him to sip to try to get some sugar into him. He keeps trying to eat tiny bits of meusli bars but vomits it up almost before it hits his stomach. He eventually settles down and I fall asleep at some time but we both keep waking to dance music that’s blasting through the whole area. It’s so loud I think it’s coming from the hut next door but when I go outside to look I find it’s not even coming from our guesthouse. Nothing to be done but we’re getting the hell out of here tomorrow. Lonely Beach is just too noisy.
Wednesday 20th March, 2002 Ko Chang to Pattaya
By morning Mark’s vomitting and gastric have stopped but he looks like shit. We have to get off this island in case it comes back. There’s no way there’d be a doctor here so we want to at least get to the mainland today. As soon as I see the café open I enquire about boats leaving the island. The bitch behind the counter doesn’t care less about a sick guest and just wants to serve her healthy paying guests. I’m a bitch back and she comes around eventually. The directions are to stand out on the road and a ‘taxi’ will come past sometime between 8am and 9am and then we’ll get dropped at Kai Bae where we’ll wait on the road for another ‘taxi’. But ‘Mark is too sick to barely walk’, I tell her. She yells something to a young guy who throws our gear in the back of a pickup and is obviously not happy about driving us to Kai Bae. The road is awful and seems so much worse than yesterday now that Mark is sick.
We’re dumped on the side of the road at Kai Bae and told to wait for a taxi. When it will come or what it will look like we have no idea. Eventually a songthaew comes towards us so we flag it down and jump in the back. If this isn’t the taxi we’re going in the right direction anyway. Along the way we stop to pick up more people. Just when it seems full, three more men get on with so much shit I thought we’d end up with the kitchen sink as well. No-one hurries and no-one seems to care. By the time we leave White Sands Beach we’re packed to the rafters and God knows how much stuff is hanging off the roof. The songthaew behind is worse with people literally hanging out the sides. The road to the ferry is so dangerous and I can’t believe these trucks don’t tip over on the bends. At least they’re so rundown we can’t go fast and sometimes barely make it up the hills.
At the bottom at last – survived another one. Mark looks bad to say the least but he loads our bags onto the boat which is ready to leave. The inside is full of people trying to get out of the sun so we have to sit outside right at the front. I love it here but Mark is a greeny-white colour and this boat trip is the last thing he needs. He finally crawls in under some shade on the other side of the boat and makes it back to the mainland without throwing up. At the wharf, we’re met by the usual crowds of hawkers, drink sellers and touts. The touts are shoving people into the back of waiting songthaews and everyone is sitting on top of each other. Everyone, that is, except for a beautiful blonde Dutch couple who’ve spread themselves out at the front and totally oblivious to the fact that everyone else is suffering up the back. They’re pissing me off but, I say to myself, maybe they’re not ignorant at all, maybe they’re just dumb blondes.
The songthaew drops us at the ferry wharf where we’d originally bought our tickets to Ko Chang. We have an hour before we leave for Pattaya so we look for somewhere cool to wait. In an open-air café over the water Mark collapses, flat out on the table. No-one seems to care so I leave him while I use the horrid toilet. There’s a few people from the boat still hanging around so I guess that, as usual, we’ll be packed like sardines in the minivan to Pattaya. Mark is still out to it on the table so I buy cornettos across the road and send off a few quick E-mails. When the van arrives, it appears that the only passengers are us, the dumb blondes and two young guys. No way are we going to get stuck with the crappy backseat, so I throw our daypack onto the long seat behind the driver. As we take off at one o’clock, we’re sure we must be stopping somewhere else to pick up more people. We can’t possibly be going all the way to Pattaya in comfort. Soon, though, Laem Ngop is far behind us and Mark is able to lay down and sleep.
Suddenly, about twenty minutes out, the driver’s mobile phone rings. I just know what it means and when he pulls over and starts doing a U-turn, I lose it. ‘Two more people’ he says. ‘Fucking idiots’, I think. I’m absolutely seething which is totally senseless and childish but I can’t help it. Mark is too sick to care, the two guys up the back are asleep and dumber and dumber don’t even know what day it is; so I’m the only idiot feeling totally pissed off. This is only the beginning because when we get back to Laem Ngop, here are a laughing middle-aged German couple who don’t give a rat’s arse about making us turn back. I probably should shut up but I give it to them. They still don’t care and laugh and make smart-arsed comments in German while I make smart-arsed comments back in English. Rude pigs and I have to sit next to the male pig for the next three hours. After two hours we stop at a petrol station and buy iceblocks to cool down. Soon after, we thankfully turn off the freeway to drop the German ignoramuses off at the Ko Samet ferry. ‘Have a shitty time, pigs!’.
Feeling so much better and Mark sleeps while I can now enjoy the scenery. Besides backtracking to pick up the pigs, we’ve taken about two hours longer to get to Pattaya than we were told. It’s usually the way. I wake Mark as we drive along the coast road at dusk. Pattaya is huge and spreads out for miles along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Hundreds of high rise apartments and hotels line the road facing the endless beaches covered in deck chairs and umbrellas. Leather skinned aging couples parade the streets in fluoro shirts and mini-skirts. Old women with bleached hair and sun blackened skin are buying clothes too young for them while beautiful young Thai girls try to look older in high heels and painted faces. No problem with the old beach babes but it’s pitiful what the Thai girls have to do for money. Most of these girls are here for the same reason – to attract the horrible old farts that come from all over the world to use them as prostitutes. It’s a sleazy, over-touristy town and one night will be enough.
The young guys and dumber and dumber obviously know where they’re going but I’m frantically looking through the Lonely Planet. The Apex Hotel sounds okay so the driver waits outside while I run in to see if they have a room. The hotel is rather impressive with a large shiny foyer and even a lift. Our room is on the second floor and has a television, air-conditioning and our own bathroom. While Mark sleeps, I wash clothes then jump into bed with him. It’s a strange night as we sleep, wake, watch TV, eat junk food and read on and off till morning.
Thursday 21stMarch, 2002. Pattaya to Bangkok
This morning Mark seems at least human although he’s obviously still sick. He wants to try to eat something so we head for the buffet style breakfast near the pool downstairs. There’s a good selection of Asian and western foods but Mark can’t eat much. I stuff myself with watermelon and pineapple and orange juice. At least five tables near us are occupied by middle-aged men sitting alone – obvious why they’re in Pattaya.
After breakfast we pack, pay our bill and hail a songthaew to take us to the bus station. Even though it’s only nine o’clock, it’s hot and humid already. Mark is still white as a ghost and feels worse now that we’re on the move again. The bus to Bangkok leaves on time at ten o’clock. It’s packed but everyone has a seat and best of all, it’s air-conditioned. We’ve bought icecreams at the bus station so we’ve really cooled down now. The road to Bangkok is a wide freeway so we will probably get there in the promised two hours. Along the way we see a huge cemetery that looks like it’s got a bad gopher problem. The hundreds of graves aren’t flat but are mounds about ten feet in diameter and four feet high. We pass Chinese temples and coconut trees and then as we come closer to Bangkok we see klongs and finally McDonalds – we’re here. The Eastern bus station is the end of the line but unbeknownst to us, it’s miles from Khao San Road. We barter hard for a taxi and feel we’ve been totally ripped off until it takes our poor driver an hour to squeeze his way through the horrific traffic jams. The wait at traffic lights is so long he turns the engine off. At last we recognise where we are and finally pull up at the D&D Guesthouse in Khao San Road.
Thank God they’ve got a room and we quickly book in and race upstairs for cold showers. The guesthouse is nothing like the three we stayed in two weeks ago. This has probably about eight floors of clean, new looking rooms with air-conditioning, TV, our own bathroom and a tiny balcony. It may have all this but lacks the charm of the little cheap guesthouses. We’ve no choice now, though, with Mark being sick.
After showers, we eat in an open-air café on the street but Mark goes straight back to the room to sleep. I spend the rest of the afternoon shopping and pricing buddha statues. They’re so expensive here and most of the stall owners aren’t even interested in bartering. If I don’t buy them there’s thousands more here who will. I visit Mark upstairs then wander around to Thanon Rambutri. In a small clothes shop I buy five summer tops for the girls then ten pillowcases back around in Khao San Road.
Mark ventures out for dinner and he’s looking almost human. We walk miles looking for pizza. I barely eat it at home but now I have to have it. We find a place that looks like Pizza Hut but the pizza tastes horrid which serves me right. On the way back into the guesthouse we pass a tailor shop and go in for ‘just a look’ This involves me getting measured for a woolen coat and skirt while I talk Mark into ordering three silk collarless shirts like he had made in Vietnam last year. An early night.
Friday 22nd March, 2002. Bangkok
Mark is still not fully recovered but he refuses to stay in the room any longer. We have breakfast in our favourite café then set off early as we’ve got heaps planned for today. Last January when we were here we visited Wat Mahatat and loved its serenity. This is mainly due to the lack of tourists that plague the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Across the road from the temple is an amulet market which sounds fabulous. We never found it last year so we’ll look for it again today.
The morning is hot, still, sunny and so, for us, just perfect. Using a Lonely Planet map, we head towards the Grand Palace. The roads are busy but this area near the park is so lovely with wats and the museum nearby. At the end of Thanon Na Phra That we can see tourist buses unloading some of the thousands of people who’ll be visiting the Grand Palace today. We went there on our first trip to Thailand in 1997 but we’ll have to see it again one day. I just know that Bangkok is somewhere we’ll keep coming back to.
The main entrance to Wat Mahatat is on the next street, Thanon Maharat, but we cut through an alleyway instead of going all the way around. Inside are monks quarters and one of Bangkok’s Buddhist universities as well as the temple itself. Entering the temple area we’re approached by a monk who introduces himself as Sumedho. He shows us around and he tells us about the temple and about his life. He even takes us through a short meditation sitting on the tiles surrounded by hundreds of life-sized Buddha statues covered in gold leaf. This is spiritually amazing but as he finishes every sentence with ‘Mr Mark and Mrs Virginia’ it’s a bit hard to be serious. I guess it’s a language or cultural thing but it’s pretty funny. He shows us photos of himself teaching in Laos and with ‘famous’ people like the Dalai Lama and Leonardo di Caprio. He writes a message in our Lonely Planet wishing us peace, health and love and signs it ‘Sumedho, the honest slave monk of the Buddha’ – cool! The setting here is fabulous – so peaceful and cool and so many trees and plants. I can’t believe we’ve met two monks this trip. We could hang around here all day but leave in search of the amulet market.
Across the road from the wat is a row of shops and cafes that look interesting but we still can’t see the market. On the corner of an alleyway is a stall selling religious statues in bronze, silver and clay. Some have prices written on them and we can’t believe how cheap they are. Further down are more stalls selling ceramic jars decorated in flowers and gold leaf and here are more stalls selling amulets. Is this the amulet market? I don’t know but we’re going off trying to work out what we’ll buy and how the hell we’re going to get them home. The statues weigh a ton so one stall owner who’s selling literally thousands of them lets us phone a courier service to see if we can ship some of this stuff home. Of course, we’ve left it too late and, with the language barrier, it’s too difficult. There also appears to be some restrictions on taking Buddha images out of Thailand.
I want to buy an urn about twelve inches high with a lid and edged in gold but we need more money. The lady who owns the stall tells her daughter, her ‘baby’ as she calls her, to show us where the bank is. ‘Baby’ obviously doesn’t want to do it and she drags herself down the street – just like teenagers all over the world. We feel sorry for her but she’s gives us a sweet smile when we get there. The Siam City Bank is set in a lovely old building on a bend of the road near the Grand Place. Inside is air-conditioned so we don’t mind hanging around in here for a while. A young man shows us to a seat at a desk and we change our traveller’s cheques in the nicest place ever. Everything is done efficiently and quickly and all with genuine smiles and enthusiasm. Incomparable to the bureaucratic mess we found in the banks in India a few years ago.
We take our time walking back to the market. I love this street where there isn’t a backpacker or tourist in sight. It’s a true local area where the cafes only cater for the Thai people and stalls along the footpaths are selling traditional herbal medicines, pink eggs, amulets and even false teeth. Food is being cooked in the street and people buy noodles and soup in ceramic bowls and sit on tiny plastic stools provided by each stall. There are trees on either side of the road and at times there’s even a glimpse of the river. Back at the market we barter for the urn then buy a handful of clay amulets. Because this area isn’t inundated with tourists no-one is trying to rip us off and we pay maybe only a bit more than the locals – we think anyway. We don’t know what to do about the buddha statues but decide to have a think about it today and maybe come back in the morning.
The heat is unbearable so we catch a taxi back to the D&D to drop off the urn then head off straight away towards the river. Wat Chana Sangkhram is opposite the T-intersection of Khao San Road and we take a shortcut through here after buying the best drink in the world. Our favourite drink used to be the lime and lemon sodas in India but this drink is kumquats freshly squeezed into plastic bottles sitting in mounds of ice. It’s sweet and freezing cold and we go back to buy another. Inside the wat we sit inside for a while then wander through the monks’ areas before coming out onto Soi Rambutri. At the river we wait in the sun on the floating pier till the ferry to Wat Po comes along. The ‘Reserved for Monks’ area inside the boat is full as young monks make their way to different parts of the city. At the ferry wharf we change to one of the flat-bottomed across-river ferries to Thonburi and Wat Arun.
Wat Arun is more commonly called The Temple of the Dawn and dominates the Bangkok skyline as well as appearing in most of the city’s tourist brochures. It’s a 240foot tall porcelain-covered Khmer style prang (or tower) which sits in the centre of four smaller prang amid gardens and food and souvenir stalls. A handcart selling icecreams is inside the grounds so we sit on the grass in the shade and have our first taste of real Thai icecream. To enter the temple I hire a shawl to cover my shoulders then we spend an hour climbing all over the towers. The only way to exit is through a covered area selling souvenirs and we spend a wonderful half-hour bartering for a hand-embroidered elephant hanging with a hilarious Thai lady. Mark is great at bartering as he bargains hard but always seems to get everyone laughing. We buy a large hanging for ourselves and three smaller ones for Angie, Lauren and Jacky.
The ferry back across the river is just about to leave but there’s a delay on the other side for the up-river ferry. While we wait we decide to look at the stalls on the wharf as we’re after a mask to take home. We’ve been buying masks on all our travels and need one for this trip. The stalls here are tiny and we can barely fit the two of us inside. Each time we ask ‘thao rai’ meaning ‘how much’, the young salesman puts it under a bench that’s covered by a floor length cloth. It takes a while for us to realise that someone, presumably the owner, is under there – having a rest supposedly. We buy three wall plaques and two Buddha masks for the girls.
Back up the river again we now know exactly where to get off and find our way easily to Khao San Road. On the way upstairs we have a fitting for our clothes which are looking great. Leaving our gear in the room, we change into our swimmers and head for the pool on the roof. This is amazing to pay so little for a room in the middle of Bangkok and get a pool as well. There are great views from the roof especially at this time in the afternoon. The pool area has potted plants and sun lounges and it’s so good to be in the water after another scorching day. No time to relax too long, though, as we want to have another massage at Mama’s on our last night.
Down in the street, chaos rules as usual. It never stops. It’s a circus of freaks, drug addicts, wannabe hippies getting instant dreadlocks on the footpath, music coming from all directions and a never ending stream of backpackers getting in and out of tuktuks. This place never alters – the faces change but are, at the same time, ‘same, same’. To escape the freak show we walk around to Thanon Rambutri and sit at a long trestle table set up on the pavement. All along this part of the street, similar eating areas are packed with backpackers getting freshly cooked healthy meals for next to nothing. We order pork fried rice with egg and watch it being cooked right next to our table. It’s a good people watching vantage point as well. Young backpackers are chatting each other up while having a beer and at the next table a Western guy is having a meal with his Asian wife and baby.
After fried rice and having a few beers ourselves, we cross over to Mama’s Guesthouse. As usual there’s a group of young people hanging around on the verandah but we’re able to get a massage without waiting. I ask for Sharlo and Mark asks for her husband again. We also ask for half-hour massages but they both last forty-five minutes and they refuse to take any more money. After my massage, Sharlo’s husband presses down on my stomach which is where I told her was the most painful. This pressing apparently does you good but right now, it’s killing. We played with their beautiful baby boy afterwards and had photos taken with everyone. Sharlo then shows us a shortcut through a tiny winding alley back to Khao San Road. Now I have freshly made banana pancakes smothered on chocolate topping and condensed milk – so much great food to eat here. Next I’ve been meaning to have a pedicure so we walk down the main walkway back to Thanon Rambutri where most of the ‘beauty parlours’ are. For 100 baht or $5AUS I get a pedicure and polish while Mark goes back to the room. We watch CNN before having an early night.
Saturday 23rd March, 2002 Bangkok
Our last day. Get up early for showers and downstairs for breakfast. We choose a new café that’s very clean but lacks everything Asian – a bad move on our last morning. Breakfast of omelets, toast and tea is good but too much. We’ve decided to take our chances of taking Buddha statues out of the country and exchange a heap of money into baht. It’s illegal to take antiques out of Thailand but we’re not sure if these statues will cause a problem as well.
A quick tuktuk ride to Wat Mahatat and we’re back at the amulet market. It doesn’t take us long to choose three different bronze Buddha statues but Mark and another guy spend the next hour digging clay out of the middle of them. This will reduce the weight as they all weigh a ton. I talk to the lady who owns the shop and who’s given us such a good deal at approximately $70AUS for each statue. Further along the alley I barter for amulets, six monk statues and six clay plaques – all for 380 baht or $18AUS. Now we’re flying back through the streets to the D&D to try and get all this and the rest of our stuff into two backpacks and a carrybag. I leave Mark to it while I go back down into the street to pick up our clothes from the tailors and last minute photos.
Mark manages as always to fit everything in. The big ceramic urn will go into my daypack and Mark will carry one of the Buddhas in his. We literally drag our bags along the corridor to the lift and meet our driver for the airport bus in the foyer. Somehow our packs are thrown onto the roof and the inside is crammed with other travellers heading for the airport as well. We arrive an hour later and put our packs through the X-ray machine. They want Mark to unpack one of the big packs so I jump into the baggage check-in line to grab a spot. They have some problem with the bronze queen’s head we’d bought in Cambodia. Luckily they wave it on while poor Mark has to try and squash everything back into the bag. He’s laughing, though, which just goes to show his good nature.
To show my less than good nature, I nearly jump the counter to strangle someone when the woman at the check-in desk tells us the bad news that our Qantas flight is overbooked. She then tells us the good news that we’ve been transferred to a British Airways flight leaving twenty minutes earlier. We even get to pick our favourite seats. We’ve three hours to wait so we eat, buy a bottle of Christian Dior perfume and use up our spare baht buying junk food for the plane. There’s a holdup on the runway as we have to wait while the Thai Air Force lands some jets as it’s been using the civilian airport today for some reason. At last we take off and head home.
Sunday 24th March, 2002. Sydney
The flight is great – love getting meals and drinks and watching the little television screens – love it all. We land on time at 6am then Mark has to unpack another of our backpacks as they say the X-ray shows we have food in there. Of course we don’t and it’s another waste of time. Then because Ansett no longer exists, there’s no bus to take us to the domestic airport. This means we have to take our trolleys outside and across the road to wait for the airport bus. Sydney is freezing and stupidly we’re not wearing warm enough clothes. At the Ansett terminal where Aero Pelican is still operating, there’s no-one around at all. A security guard comes to the glass door only to tell us that all Aero Pelican flights have been cancelled this morning. Furious, we drag our gear around to the Qantas terminal to ring the Aero Pelican arseholes. The stupid bitch on the phone is quite happy to tell me that we’ve been confirmed on the one o’clock flight for this afternoon. Great! I tell her to shove her one o’clock flight and we want our money back and we’ll never fly with them again and we’ll tell all our friends etc, etc. Now we try to hire a car but we don’t have our driver’s licences so that’s out. Now we decide to fly home with Qantas but they’re booked out. That leaves catching a train. Great! The station is a few floors down and the train to Central is fast and efficient. The bad news is, that railway stations don’t have trolleys, so we again literally drag our bags to the platform. We wait an hour, grab our seats and I promptly fall asleep. Two and half hours later we’re here. And people say travelling in Asia is hard!
Great to be home!