South East Asia 2014
South East Asia June 2nd –July 7th 2014
After our trek round Annapurna, we took a flight to Bangkok. The original plan had been to perform a kora or circumambulation of Mt Kailash in Tibet, but unfortunately the Chinese government decided just before our departure that no-one should visit Kailash at that time. Hence the early flight to BKK and two extra weeks in SE Asia.
I hadn’t been to Bangkok for nearly 30 years and was interested to see what had changed. The airport and subway system were very impressive, and much of the city is very modern. Khao San Road was still fairly new for travellers when I first went in 1982 but now it’s a fully fledged ‘Ibiza Lite’ with clubs competing in terms of volume of music and booze. Just away from the main centre though are some quieter areas where we managed to find some excellent food – no surprise there!
My best memory of Bangkok had been the Royal Palace, so we went in that direction in the morning. Almost fell for the ‘it’s closed, take a cheap city tour’ scam, but thought better of it and went off to Wat Arun (via a tasty breakfast of murtabak) across the river. In a theme that was to develop through the trip, it started to get very hot so by the time we got in to the main Palace, so we spent a lot of time avoiding the sun. It’s certainly a lot busier than in my previous visits, but it remains a stunning collection of buildings.
The next day we flew up to Luang Prabang, the World Heritage site in Laos. It was immediately noticeable how quiet and genteel the city is. Prices were considerably reduced as it was the hot season, so we chose a lovely ‘boutique’ villa run by the eponymous Madame Chitdara. We selected a garden hotel in the hope we might see some birds, but we were very disappointed in that respect – though not with the butterflies.
We tootled round on pushbikes along the rivers, and visited some of the temples and villas, all the while getting hotter and hotter. The lime, ginger and mint slurpie won the ‘most refreshing’ prize. There was also a visit out to the elephant sanctuary, Elephant Village. I always love spending time with these magnificent creatures, particularly in the wild, but the experience was a little ‘canned’ for my liking. Nevertheless, Nancy thoroughly enjoyed herself so it was a worthwhile expense.
Next stop was Vang Vieng. It has a reputation as a party town, but is actually a bit schizophrenic. There are plenty of bars with cheap booze, but also some elegant hotels. We splashed out ($35 for a $100 hotel) with the best view of the striking karst scenery. We hired bikes again and melted in the heat. After a few hours we retired with sore backsides to the comfort of a quiet restaurant and sat out the afternoon storms.
I had read about the kayaking trips down the river and wanted to take one towards Vientiane. In the end it scarcely seemed worthwhile as there was almost as much driving as on the normal bus. We did manage to capsize on the river, and I lost my Tilley hat as I was too casual about it.
Laos had not really worked for us. It was pleasant enough, but we weren’t excited by it and were saddened that we only managed to see something like 10 different bird species, so we headed back down towards Thailand’s biggest national park, Khao Yai. The park lies just outside Pak Chong, and is surrounded by a considerable number of tourist developments. We wisely decided to take a tour into the park, as it would be nigh on impossible to see anything except the deer and monkeys round the HQ if you went on your own. Having Googled a fair bit about the park, we ended up with Greenleaf tours.
While the accommodation is a bit basic, and the food a little dull, the guides are excellent spotters and know where to find the local specialties. The bat cave was spectacular, but more interesting to us were the geckos, snakes and insects that were pointed out. Birdlife was good too. We chose the day and a half tour which goes both outside and inside the park.
I was thrilled that Nine, the guide, found us some Lar gibbons after short walk through the rainforest. We then continued walking both on- and off-trail and saw some great birds including the Siamese Fireback pheasant. Less pleasant was our walk along the river trail as it had started raining. This brought out the leeches, which we hadn’t had a problem with previously. We were provided with leech socks, but they still managed to find their way inside my shirt and up to Nancy’s armpit. One of them was so bloated by the time I found it, it fell off of its own accord.
A disastrous transport day followed, where we were sold tickets to the wrong destination by a careless ticket vendor, and ended up having to go back to Bangkok to get to our next stop, Cambodia. Because of the cockup, we only arrived at the border late at night, and had the added complication that the Thai coup had created an exodus of (illegal) migrant Cambodians who were flowing over the border.
We did manage to find an okay hotel at the chaotic border town, Poipet, and then took a share taxi the next day to the city of Battambang. This is generally described as a ‘charming colonial town’, but we saw nothing of the charm. We did take an excursion out to the ‘bamboo railway’, which is an ingenious collection of flatbed trolleys which can be dismantled to allow passing on the single track train line.
We met a vendor who claimed to have been a general in the Cambodian army prior to the Khmer Rouge, and certainly had some scars to show. Having few family to support him, he had a tough time of it and we were happy to help him by buying a few things. Nancy even bought the sarong that he was wearing – though maybe regretted it when it continued ponging for a while afterwards.
Like Luang Prabang, there is a thriving ‘boutique’ hotel scene, with seasonal discounts which we took advantage of. Some people were happy without aircon, but we were much happier with it. It’s a laidback town with good eating and lodging options, so we enjoyed a longer stay than we had planned.
The main reason for going to Siem Reap (Thailand Conquered!) is of course to visit Angkor Wat. Ever since I first heard about the temple complex I’ve wanted to visit, so I was a little nervous that I would be disappointed. We opted for bikes so we could take as much time as we wanted without the pressure of a guide. Though it’s not too far from the city, it’s a hot ride in the summer time and we were already pretty sweaty by the time we turned up in front of Angkor Wat itself.
Though we didn’t initially admit it, I think both of us were a little underwhelmed. I don’t think that a combination of bad light and soaring temperatures helped, but we took our time wandering through Angkor Wat and up the central column. There is an amazing frieze depicting supernatural battles which runs along some of the colonnades, but in some places the stones have been very poorly renovated.
Next stop was Bayon, the temple of giant heads with a variety of smiling expressions. Although it is part of a larger complex than Angkor itself, the main Bayon building is considerably smaller, and a little easier to comprehend. In the late morning, the near-vertical sun didn’t show the heads in their best light, but they are still impressive.
In one of the smaller temples, we met a guide who told us of a back route for the bikes which passed a little visited temple, and took us in the back route to Angkor Thom, the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. This was our favourite part of the day, evading the crowds and getting some decent exercise. It was fun to explore independently before coming back to the tour groups. Angkor Thom is incredibly photogenic with its walls covered by writhing roots and teetering trees.
On our way out, we returned to Angkor Wat and saw it in much better light. As we have found previously at the Pyramids and other monumental sights, it takes quite a while to get your head round their sheer size and magnificence – and the massive undertaking to construct them. I think the sweltering bike ride took more out of us than we expected, so we spent a few days chilling out in Siem Reap
A frustratingly slow bus ride to Phnom Penh (we should have checked out the TripAdvisor reports) took us to the capital. I had entertained all kinds of ideas about going from there into the eastern forests, but our experience with the leeches, and the debilitating heat made us hanker for the beach.
We did visit Tuol Sleng (the ‘processing camp’) and the Killing Fields which was a harrowing experience made all the more poignant by our guide, who told us of her personal experience of losing her mother to the Khmer Rouge, and by meeting the two remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng (7 out of 18,000 who passed through the camp survived the ordeal!).
We chose to chill out on the remote island of Koh Rong Samloen. In contrast to my early visits to Asia, where the first accommodation on an island was always backpacker bamboo huts, now it seems to be the boutique villas which pave the way. ‘Secret Paradise’ was a pleasant place run by a lovely Polish couple, but it was a little too quiet for us. We did chat with one other couple, but found it much more sociable across the island at Lazy Beach – though it did help being run by Brits.
Unfortunately, there is no transport across the Gulf of Thailand to the Thai beaches, so we made the long journey back to Bangkok with an overnight stay in Trat. Funky hotel here run by a Thai who had lived in London. Got ripped off by the counter clerk at the bus station, but was too slow to do anything about it.
We wanted to take the train down south from BKK, but opted to break up our journey by doing a Thai cooking course. There’s a huge number to choose from, but not many are open on Sundays so we ended up at Silom – and great fun it was too! The chef was a very camp food expert called Jay, who took us round the market and showed us how to make five dishes – Tom Yam soup, Somtam (green papaya salad), Pad Thai, Mussaman curry, and Mango with Sticky Rice. Definitely shouldn’t have had breakfast beforehand! Particularly interesting for us as we cook Thai regularly at home, but we did learn a lot.