Follow our three week journey through Southern Thailand to Bangkok and East through Cambodia. We have absorbed luxurious beaches in hotspot tourist destinations, delicious cuisine and the sad truth, witnessing a poverty stricken nation as it recovers from atrocious genocide.
Our story begins after a long night on a cold airport floor, followed by a flight to Thailand. By flying we would avoid the violent regions on the southern Thai / Malaysian border.
Landing on Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, we randomly chose the town of Patong for our first two nights. The choice was slightly swayed by the luxurious looking capsule hostel – capsule beds offer more privacy and let in less noise. Although the hostel was as amazing as we thought, it wasn’t matched by the town – the result of a devil mating ritual between Benidorm and Malaga. Our street was full of bars; they sold women at the bar, hassled you as you walked and everywhere smelt of sewage – not the best first impression.
We couldn’t leave soon enough, hastily crossing the island to Phuket Old Town. A peaceful town by Thai standards, the old town was more reminiscent of an Italian Square sipping coffee and talking amongst friends. In our Thai scenario the friends took the form of Nancy, a 60+ year old San fransician and Anna a 25 year old Polish girl.
We chose the town for its proximity to the islands of Phi Phi Ley. Chrissy was keen to visit the film set of “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Nancy joined us on the full day tour that began with a bone shattering speedboat ride. The trip highlighted how narrow minded Thai tourism is. The Beach, chosen for its isolation, is now filled from left to right with some 40 speedboats, each spilling out at least 30 tourists onto the small beach. Snorkels are provided to look at the coral under water, which is being destroyed at an alarming rate. All said and done, it wasn’t a waste of money, we had a good time and took some amazing photos that will provide excellent memories.
Across the mainland the Eastern islands consist of Ko Tao, Ko Pagnan and Ko Samui running north to south. Ko Pagnan is host to the famous full moon parties – another hive of illegal drugs, alcohol and prostitution. We were headed for Ko Samui, the most southerly of the three. The main attraction would be a three day silent meditation retreat.
High up in the hills, amongst woodland and overlooking the sea a group of monks would welcome us and 30 other westerners. The Dipabhāvan Meditation Retreat was all about removing distractions and learning the basics of meditation to find inner peace – the removal of distractions included all reading material, partners (as males and females would eat, sleep and meditate on seperate sides of the room) and speech! That’s right, entirely silent, for three days – which by mis-timing included my Birthday!
The beds consisted of planks of wood, complete with wooden pillows, from which the group would be woken by a large bell at 4:30am. Meditation would begin at 5am and so the day would continue. Until 9pm, a constant schedule of activities would take place, most of which were either sitting or walking meditation interspersed with teachings to help us meditate or give us some background into the Buddhist faith. I volunteered to do one of the 5am readings, unfortunately it fell on my birthday, so, wondering not for the first time what I’d signed up for, I was sat cross legged meditating in silence until 5am at which point nervous as hell I had to do a reading in front of the whole group – slowly and carefully whilst stopping the cramp from beginning in my crossed legs!
Looking back, It sounds easy, but my god it wasn’t. Sitting still and trying not to daydream is the most challenging experience we’ve come across. It wasn’t till after we left the retreat that Chrissy noticed the benefits it had on her mindset. And for me, I hadn’t appreciated the effect sitting cramped and doing two yoga sessions daily would have on my flexibility – I can now nearly touch my toes!
Despite still being woken at 4:30am on our departure day, we were set for a tremendous journey and wouldn’t get back to a bed for more than 36 hours, hundreds of kilometres northeast from where we’d started. We first rode with others in the group in the back of a pickup truck to the ferry terminal. A ferry and two buses later and we made it to a mainline train station – all the time wary and cross checking prices to avoid scams which are everywhere (one of the favourites being, “there’s no public bus (for $2) to here, take our private bus (for $10+)”). Again cost saving we bought a 3rd class train ticket. The train was 30 minutes late which by Thai standards is positively on time, the standard being up to three hours late. The train ride was insightful, the man across the isle was swigging rum to withstand the harshness of the seats. At each station you could buy food from vendors on the platform, through the window from your seat and at night it got really cold, except not all the windows would stay closed! Brrrr.
Despite a number of elongated stops for ‘accidents’ we did arrive in Bangkok, shattered and exhausted. We missed one train to the Cambodian border by minutes and had to wait six hours for the next one. Both trains, a total of over 18 hours cost just £4.90 for each of us.
It’s time for Cambodia, nervous with anticipation for what we might find. We would be travelling from West to East and the first visit would be Siem Reap from which we’d visit one of the worlds most famous heritage sights. Built between the 9th and 12th century, Angkor which means Capital, is an ancient now deserted city. The main temple, Angkor Wat (Wat is ‘temple’) is the biggest religious monument ever and took 30 years to build. Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, even the surrounding moat is 5km long!
We’d hired a private tuk tuk driver / guide for just $15. The complex of three main temples were as immense as they were intricate. The main Angkor Wat temple was massive, as we walked around with stiff necks from looking up we could see that every wall, column and even window bars were intricately carved from solid stone. It was magnificent!
The town itself is a tourist Mecca and hence not really to our taste. Maybe we’re becoming accustomed to the lower prices, but $5 for a curry just seemed a little steep. The hotel owner; Louis the Italian, spoke a dozen words a second and, when understood, was a useful source of information. He got us booked on the next bus to Phnom Penh, the capital, which would pick us up from the hotel the next day.
As we move East across Cambodia we discover we’re not here to see the tourist sights, but to see the Cambodian locals’ sights. It strikes us we’re in a true third world. Children are sent by their parents to beg on the streets. Houses are mere wooden shacks, built on unsturdy wooden legs to avoid the floods in wet season. And women sell home cooked food on the streets whilst husbands are in the rice fields. This is the case in every village we pass through on the uneven dirt road between cities.
Across the road from our hotel in Phnom Penh we became quite acquainted with the cafe owner. She spent $5 a week (a lot of money) to send her child to school (one of three daughters). Talking about the money she earns from the small cafe she said she had good days and bad days. We hoped there were more good, because the food was delicious and just $1.50 for a main meal. A bad day would be a total turnover of $10, not enough to even cover ingredients.
We are in the capital to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, something which isn’t taught in UK Schools. In the museum (originally a school but converted to a prison / torture rooms) we learnt how the dictator Pol Pots took it upon himself to enforce a one-world communist community where nothing is taught and nothing is bought or sold. In 1975 the countries capital Penhom Penh’s population plummeted from 2 million to just 45 thousand – most were sent to the country to farm rice but died from exhaustion and starvation trying to meet impossible production targets – it was said that at most meals they could virtually count the grains of rice, whilst the bulk of the production was sold to china in exchange for weapons.
No one was allowed to be educated and as a result all teachers, librarians, doctors and other professionals were sent to killing fields. The other part of the day was visiting the largest of the killing fields. Mass graves, one of which held 450 bodies, another was reserved for women and children. In Cambodia nothing is censored (maybe skip to the next paragraph if you’re delicately minded)…., they pointed out a tree next to a mass grave, when it was found it had bits of bone stuck into the bark, only later did they realise this was where babies had been killed by swinging them head first into the trunk by their feet. It was an awful, sickening day.
The tour finished at a large monument tower building, filled with cracked skulls of men, women and children exhumed from 129 mass graves in the area. Each case told the age of the persons and the cause of death; blunt stick, iron bar etc. The dictator was toppled in 1979 meaning that anyone over the age of 30 would have been affected. The West played a terrible role whilst the dictatorship was toppled. For nearly 20 years they didn’t recognise the new government and in fact continued to send foreign aid to the dictators party, which by the end was responsible for the murder of 1:4 Cambodians.
In dire need of a stiff drink we slumped back to our hotel. I didn’t know it at the time but the next day I would come down with a terrible fever. It left me weak and nauseous for several days with the thick eventually clearing after 3 days. The irritable stomach would unfortunately keep rejecting some food for over a week afterwards. And so it was, clogged up with Imodium and Paracetamol that we took our final Cambodian bus to the Vietnamese border. Having crossed at the basic border post we’d catch a boat down the Mekong Delta to Chau Doc.
It’s been an eye opening experience over the last 3 weeks. Witnessing the way the exploitation of the beautiful Thai coastlines by tourists is destroying a wonderful place. Relaxing in the presence of monks for my Birthday and finally, spending a week crossing Cambodia, being taken away by the true unimaginable poverty which is their daily lives.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog. We’re having an equally great time in Vietnam, ducking and diving around further illness whilst working our way up this strikingly beautiful country. Read all about it in a few weeks time.
Charlie and Chrissy