Thailand part 3 - With Added Cambodia

19th March 2017
Up to now we'd spent nearly four weeks in Thailand and as we didn't have an extended visa we had to exit the country. No worries - having travelled this far across the globe it seemed a shame not to visit somewhere else, so we headed off to Cambodia.

Thailand has come a long way in the past few decades and the quality of life seems generally quite good. The infrastructure is far more developed than some quieter parts of Ireland and we saw little poverty in our four weeks in the country, though this was no doubt partly due to the nature of the areas we visited. But right from the start it was evident that Cambodia is less well off. As our tuk-tuk driver navigated the orderless traffic between the airport and our Siem Reap guesthouse we passed scenes more similar to parts of rural India I'd visited a few months earlier. But despite the economic struggles on show the people we met were almost always warm and welcoming. Even the passport control clerks in the airport were laughing and joking with one another and the tourists. It was a world away from US customs, my memories of which are shadowed by a feeling of imminent imprisonment. Though Thailand may be lauded as the Land of Smiles it seems a more fitting moniker for its eastern neighbour. Not that I hold anything against the service we received in Thailand. Given the sordid styles of tourism in some parts of that country you can see why foreigners might not be given stellar service by every tourism provider out there. Having worked in tourism for a good few years now I'm happy to say that the customer is not always right and if they act the bollocks they can't expect to get much in return. Dealing with people who expect the world can be hard work, and I was sad to see so many westerners who seemed to put themselves above the locals while away.

If there's one thing people come to Cambodia to see it's the Angkor temples. Built a few centuries either side of 1000AD they represent the pinnacle of the Khmer civilisation. Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world when it was at its peak, fed by a complex system of waterways and marked by temples than were richer in design, size and number than anything else on the planet. Though only a few famous names might ring bells in the minds of most of us there are hundreds of temples surrounding Siem Reap and I generally found the quieter ones to be more atmospheric. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around for a two day temple tour.

Though the size and scale of the temples was impressive, especially given the lack of diesel in the middle ages, the detail was what really caught my eye. Window pillars at Banteay Samré.

Incredible carving at Banteay Srei. Imagine how long all this would take, and it's a fraction from one temple of hundreds! We don't build like this anymore, probably because it's so inefficient.

The trees that haven't been cut back since the temples were abandoned are often the most impressive features. Preah Khan.

A simple (relatively) structure at Neak Pean, an island in the middle of one of the vast man made reservoirs.

Dappled late light at Ta Som.

More mad trees at the eastern gate to Ta Som.

Elephants love sunsets. Imagine how heavy that block is and then think how they brought it up to this terrace before combustion engines existed. Elephants are strong but it's still an amazing feat. East Mebon.

Sunset glow on East Mebon.

Crowds at Pre Rup, the sunset spot on the temple tour. We didn't hang around to see it go all the way down.

Sunrise crowds at Angkor Wat. The builders of the holiest of all the temples would no doubt be glad to see the admiration people still have for it. I haven't seen crowds like this since I last went to Electric Picnic. We didn't stay long, keen to escape the hordes that would invariably fall on the other temples of the circuit. As selfish as it might be it was nice to have these places somewhat to yourself.

Terrific tree at Ta Prohm. My favourite of seventeen temples we visited. The place hasn't been restored as much as the others, and there's a lovely balance between ancient ruin and conservation. Given enough time the trees and the weather would raze these places.

There are very few blank walls in any of the temples. Most are carved in some way or another, and many of the carvings are of people, a lot of which have been beheaded.

Ta Prohm.

And from another angle...

Trees have never looked so alive as those that step around the walls of the temples. Ta Prohm, again.

Ta Nei, a nice quiet ruin that reminded me of the castle my grandparents used to live beside.

Some of the iconic faces carved into the walls at Bayon. This temple was superficially quite Aztec looking apart from the faces. Funny to think how humans on opposite sides of the world were coming up with the same designs around the same time.

Amazing carvings on the outer walls of Bayon. These stretched for hundreds of metres around the site and showed various parts of day to day life at the time of building.

At this stage we were all templed out. From Siem Reap we took a white-knuckle minivan ride to Kratie (pronounced Krah-chey) with the hope of seeing some of the Irrawaddy dolphins that populate this part of the Mekong. We were turfed out of the van an hour and a half ahead of schedule with no indication of where we were, so it was with much relief that we found the guesthouse we'd booked and found out we were in the right town. Jasmine's wisdom teeth were at her so we located a pharmacy and got some suitable drugs through a combination of pointing at her teeth and nodding and shaking our heads.

The next day she felt no better but we carried on with the plan anyway - a kayaking trip on the Mekong to find some dolphins. It was a great outing, totally relaxing and just what was needed after being cooped up in hot cities for a few too many days. We ate lunch on a sandbar, swam in the warm water and floated past trees that have somehow managed to take root in a river that rises 15m at the height of the monsoon. Their roots were swept back like the hair of a woman standing on a windy headland. All my years looking for wildlife from boats came to good use - I was the first to spot a dolphin. Soon we'd seen about half a dozen, though it was hard to count them. They evidently had little interest in boats and for the most part seemed to be trying to stay well away from us. It wasn't a spectacular encounter but it was a privilege to see animals that may well be extinct before I am. They face plenty of threats on this part of the Mekong, from electro and dynamite fishing to pollution and river damming. The population suffered a lot during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, when food became extremely scarce and people turned to the rivers for sustenance. Like all cetaceans these ones breed slowly and they don't seem to be replacing themselves faster than they're dying off.

Kayaking on the Mekong.

Three Irrawaddy dolphins.

Mekong sunset.

Opposite Kratie is an island in the river called Koh Trong, a giant sandbar that escapes enough of the monsoon floods to house humans. We took the short ferry ride across and rented bikes for the day, slowly cycling around the rural island. There wasn't a whole lot to see apart from the island itself, which had a bit of old Ireland about it - saved hay, the smell of cow dung and free roaming chickens. It was another relaxing day away from the bustle of town, yet active enough to help sleep come quick that night.

Hipster bikes on Koh Trong.

The island's coast was surrounded by huge tracts of sand. The closest I've been to a desert.

Next up (that's right, moving again - all this travel is getting a little tiring...) was a bus to Phnom Penh, from where we would fly back to Thailand. But before getting on a plane we'd have to survive the minivan journey, which seemed impossible at times. The driver looked quite young but this didn't curb his confidence at the wheel. He drove manically and after awhile I decided a seatbelt might be in order (I had neglected to put one on as there were three motorbikes crammed in behind our seat and I figured they'd negate any help a seatbelt would have in the rather likely event of a high speed crash). I reached around for one but found there was none to wear anyway. Oh well! At least it would be one less thing pressing against me in the heat. While I was looking down at my iPod to see what music could distract me from the sense that death was on its way and the horrible smell of rotten fish that came in with the last passenger I heard a scream and looked up in time to see us not quite stop in time and crash into the back of another van. No harm done, just a broken headlight and a bumper relieved of its position on the front of the vehicle. The negotiations with the other driver took only five minutes and gladly nobody seemed very pissed off. Our own driver seemed eager to make up for lost time though, and doubled his efforts to drive as fast as possible towards Phnom Penh, which some might say was so far away as to make rushing redundant. I settled in and resigned myself to fate, though I could sense the tension oozing out of Jasmine. Nobody else seemed to mind though. The atmosphere in the van was quite genial. Maybe the petrol in the motorbike tanks had sloshed around enough by now to make everyone high and carefree. It certainly smelled like it. At one stage there were twelve of us in the eight seater and though we couldn't tell it seemed like everybody knew one another and got along quite well. Five hours later we arrived without any more crashes, though our nerves had crashed several times and we both felt quite ready for bed that evening.

Phnom Penh was the biggest city we'd visited up to now and it was a little tiring. I'm not really into cities and the past week or so had involved too much transit for my liking but any complaints were soon put in perspective. We had a day to spare in the city and spent it learning about the reign of the Khmer Rouge. First up was a visit to Choeung Ek, one of the famed 'killing fields' a short distance outside of the city. This was one of many sites around the country where people were taken and killed by Pol Pot's men, much in the style of the Nazis during World War II. The killing was brutal - because bullets were expensive and gunfire might arouse suspicion the murder was done with farming tools, clubs and even the serrated leaves of sugar palm trees, which are plentiful around South East Asia. Revolution music and the noise of diesel generators drowned out any screaming and the bodies were dumped in pits where remains are still being found today. While it's relatively easy to understand a single act of violence or revenge the systematic nature of this killing is hard to comprehend. It involved too many people and went on for too long in too organised a fashion to be an act of briefly unchecked anger. The tour was given on headsets handed out to everybody, so despite the fact that there were a few hundred people present there was very little human noise, a fact that made the site that bit eerier. I often think of how lucky I am. I try to remind myself of it every day. After all, nobody has any say in when and where they get born, or who they are born to. These huge factors that influence so much of our lives are totally out of everybody's own control, with the result that much of our lives are down to chance. I'm lucky to have been born when and where I was. I could have been born in Cambodia in the seventies and been tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge for the simple reason of being who I was.

When we came out to our waiting driver, mind blown and bewildered, we were asked if we wanted to go to a shooting range next! Evidently life must go on and the tourism of today needn't be at odds with the horrors of the recent past if there's a living to be made from it.

Some style of lizard at Choeung Ek. Part of the reason I'm interested in animals is how much simpler their lives seem. The rest of the animal kingdom might be 'red in tooth and claw' but it's less sadistic than some of the things humans do to one another.

The shooting range might have been more enjoyable than the next port of call, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Once a high school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge once they'd gained control of Phnom Penh and used for the next four years as a place of torture and interrogation. It was another extremely interesting tour, in the most morbid sense. I needn't go on about it but if you ever do end up in Cambodia I'd recommend it. It's not fun but it's extremely important to remember things like this so as not to let them happen again. It's an idealistic world view but it's the only one worth taking because what's the alternative?

So that was our quick tour of Cambodia. It was obviously too short to get a good idea of the place but from what we saw it was amazing how warm the people we met were. This is a country that's been through the wars and is still struggling with plenty of social problems - poverty, child prostitution and corruption are all rife. It's not easy or realistic for any individual to make it all better but if you do go to Cambodia you can help by staying in and buying from the places that support the poorer people in their communities. There seems to be a decent bit of this kind of active aid in the bigger cities and if you're privileged enough to be able to holiday in a place like this then you've got a moral duty to try and make a positive difference.

Standard traffic lineup in Phnom Penh. It seems orderless to western eyes but it all works fine, just differently.

Back in Bangkok we called in to my cousin. It was nice to see some familiar faces and stay somewhere that wasn't just another anonymous accommodation. We even got food delivered, which was a novelty after eating out for every single meal for the previous five weeks. Self catering isn't really a thing in this part of the world. My cousin doesn't even have a kitchen in his Bangkok apartment, the views from which are like something from a futuristic film, to my eyes at least. Neither Jasmine nor I were keen to spend much time in Bangkok so on my cousin's recommendation we headed south to Sam Roi Yot National Park. Though not terribly easy to get to it's a beautiful area and as we were there mid week it was very quiet. It was nice to be back on the coast. We rented a scooter and hit the local sights.

Bang Pu Bay. Nice indeed to be back at the coast.

Tham Phraya Nakhon and its well placed temple. Far from being an eyesore in such a naturally beautiful place I think it enhances the cave by drawing attention to the sunlight that pours in through the skylight. Well worth the sweaty walk.

We all crave sunlight...

Classic beach scene at Hat Sam Phraya.

Porcupine Cave, Sam Roi Yot National Park. A relatively simple cavern in the side of a hill but we visited at an opportune time for photography.

Spectacled langur in the treetops.

Macaques in the mangroves.

Getting to know the locals in Tham Sai cave.

We didn't have a whole lot of time to spend in the area and after two nights we had to head back to Bangkok. Keen to make the most of our last half day we took a kayak from the place we were staying and paddled out to an island off the coast called Ko Ko Rum. Huge lizards scrabbled away from us on the rocky coast and bored looking macaques stared out at us in our big pink boat. We pulled up on the beach where a gang of lads from the Thai army had been left for two days of survival training. I had a swim, my last of the holiday, or so I thought. The sun shone and the sea was calm and it was all very carefree.

Paradise before things went to shit...

About half way back from the island I noticed the kayak was quite low in the water. I quickly realised we were sinking. Big plastic sit on top kayaks had always been nearly indestructible in my head but it was suddenly pretty obvious this one had a hole in the hull and we started paddling for all we were worth. Within two minutes of noticing the predicament the boat was capsized by a tiny wind swell. It all happened so quickly that it took awhile to register. Initially I was quite relaxed, trying to keep my little camera out of the water and hold to on our sandles that had been sitting in the boat, not fully taking everything in. But we were far out to sea, holding on to a sinking hulk of plastic, with no lifejackets (welcome to Thailand) and nobody to call to. We'd gone from carefree holiday mode to crisis in such a short space of time that the realisation of our situation came like a sickening slap in the balls except there was no hope of the feeling passing. I'm not a very strong distance swimmer and Jasmine doesn't even like being out of her depth. Neither of us said it but we were both fully sure we were going to die. Land was too far away in any direction to be attainable and after a minute or two of screaming it was clear that nobody had noticed our slip into the sea. I began to think of the mechanics of drowning, wondering at what point you just can't keep yourself afloat and how awful it must be to know it as you go under for the last time. It was all so stupid and sad. We'd have been home in less than four days. Instead we were going to drown and nobody might ever find our bodies or know what happened.

Eventually we abandoned the sinking boat. Jasmine wanted to go back to it after a short while but it was drifting faster than us and not towards land. It's hard to make decisions in situations like that because the wrong one might be the difference between living and not making it through and the time to think things out usually isn't a luxury when things have taken a turn down shit creek. Thankfully I had kept one of the paddles to wave in the air as a signal, but it served me better as a floatation device. Jasmine had brought a bag with her, which she'd wrapped up in a bin liner, which I now think is the most fortunate strange thing she's ever done. Initially designed to keep splashes off her bag it was now a pretty decent float and she reckons she'd have certainly died without it. We lay on our backs and started kicking for the shore, afraid of trying to swim properly in case we tired ourselves out quickly. Staring up at the sky, wondering what was going to happen, we called out to one another regularly, keeping things positive even if it didn't feel so. A southerly breeze splashed waves over my face and I took in more saltwater than was enjoyable. Between that and the screaming for help my throat was pretty raw. Every now and then I'd try to gauge our progress by turning around and looking at distant boats moored off the beach. I have never approached a destination so slowly in my life.

After awhile the initial despair lifted a little. We weren't out of the woods but we were getting there (albeit painfully slowly) and if we kept going we should make it. Thankfully the water wasn't cold. Jasmine got a decent bit ahead of me so I had to turn onto my front and swim properly, but I was able to lean on the paddle and stroke with my free arm to make up the distance. The wind was pushing us parallel to the shore the whole time, lengthening an already too long journey. A moored boat (why did the ones with people in never hear or see us?) became a target and we inched towards it. We could see people walking on the beach and it seemed impossible that they shouldn't see or hear us, but they didn't. I was beginning to feel some positivity but was very afraid of letting the guard down. Until we could stand we could drown and I was very aware that it was quite possible to tire within a few metres of safe ground. Jasmine looked to be slowing up but thankfully a kayaking couple spotted us. I ditched the paddle and swam for the boat, hoping to find a life ring or something to throw to Jas if the kayakers didn't get to her fast enough. I was shocked at how weak my arms were when I threw them over the gunwale of the fishing boat. We had been in the water for about an hour and a half. Once I'd climbed aboard and looked around I saw the kayak get to Jasmine and they brought her over and then took us the final hundred metres or so to shore. Neither of us could believe we were alive and well.

Always wear a lifejacket. ALWAYS! It's super easy to get complacent on holidays, and I for one enjoy the freedom that exists in countries where health and safety hasn't reached the stifling levels to be found in some aspects of life at home. But the sea is too serious to ever get complacent with, even one as flat calm and warm as the Gulf of Thailand. I've spent enough time on water to know that, which goes to show how anybody can be at danger of complacency. It's quite easy to stay upright in a sit on top kayak, and even in the unlikely event of capsizing they're very easy to right and climb back into. The idea of one sinking had hardly even occurred to me before that day. But evidently they occasionally go under and having a buoyancy aid on is a sure fire way to not drown if you happen to be unlucky enough to end up on a similarly ill-fated craft. We were super lucky. Our phones and cameras didn't survive the swim, our sandles and Jasmine's sunglasses and a nice hat I'd had all drifted away but it didn't matter a bit because somehow we made it back. Writing this piece now has me amazed again at how lucky we were (as well as leaving a horrible sensation in my stomach). I don't really like thinking about it all that much but the upshot of the whole debacle is that I'm amazingly thankful to be alive! Being able to control your fate when seemingly close to danger is something I've always enjoyed from climbing, though I rarely climb anything very dangerous. That feeling of control can be quite empowering and being forced to look at your life near the border with death makes it much sweeter. But this whole escapade was far too close for comfort!

The final weekend of the trip was understandably subdued. Jasmine and I were both pretty exhausted and had gotten pretty bad sunburn in the water so we weren't feeling up for much. A friend of mine who lives in Hanoi and come to Bangkok for a visit so we did a bit of sightseeing on Saturday. It was a good distraction, even if Bangkok wasn't all that inspiring. Sunday was spent on Koh Kret, a manmade river island north of the city which had a nice mix of mental markets and laid back rural scenes. It's a pleasant escape from the city, and easily done in a day trip.

A dust collector's dream on Koh Kret.

Koh Kret street scene.

Apartment view. Cool for awhile but not somewhere I'd like to live.

I was full on ready to go home by now. I could have happily gone back to Ireland two weeks previously. Not that I didn't enjoy our final fortnight. It was well worth staying on for, but we hopped around too much and spent a lot of time in places that left us feeling more tired than inspired, with the result that we were both exhausted when it came time to fly home. Of course nearly drowning kind of bookended the entire holiday, but though it was the event that left the single biggest impression and was hard to shake from the mind it didn't take from any of our other amazing experiences, of which there were more than enough. It's a great way to spend the Irish winter if you have the lifestyle to do it. Being jobless in West Kerry during the darkest months of the year is both less fun and more expensive than living in South East Asia so it's a no brainer to do it while I can. Both countries are easy to get around and cater to tourists very well. Having been to Nepal and India before this I can see how Thailand and Cambodia are less like jumping in the deep end of Asia, which might suit some people better. It's still a world away from anything we know in Europe but needn't be as manic as some other far flung places. If you're looking for an easy few weeks of sun in the winter months I'd highly recommend it.

The biggest thing I always take back from going away is an appreciation of home, and this trip was no different. As much as I enjoy myself abroad I've never had the feeling that I could stay anywhere else. I'm only ever a visitor without a future in foreign countries. Ireland is home, and that means a lot to me. As a bonus I'm never disappointed about coming back to the wind and rain after a holiday!


Photo comment By Mark Eldred: Well Written, and the photos complement the Story.

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