Chiang Mai

It took me 10 full days to get my fill of Chiang Mai. On around 5 of those day I didn’t even leave my hostel except to get some food. I just needed a break from being a traveler. I wanted to sleep in the same bed for longer than a few nights, I didn’t want to budget my meals, I didn’t want to go to “yet another temple” or “yet another waterfall”. But the 5 days of doing nothing (and lots of delicious, healthy, vegetarian food) gave me the energy to come out of hiding again.

Fresh veggie spring rolls with yummy mango shake!
Fresh veggie spring rolls with yummy mango shake!
Bean burger with tomato salsa and cucumber and mint salad
Bean burger with tomato salsa and cucumber and mint salad
Simple but oh-so-delicious veggie stir fry with one of the best mango shakes I've had in the last 3 months @ Dada Kafe
Simple but oh-so-delicious veggie stir fry with one of the best mango shakes I’ve had in the last 3 months @ Dada Kafe
Just could not resist the mango pancake! Pancakes in Thailand and Cambodia tend to be more like a cake but this one, cooked with fresh mango slices, was a treat!
Just could not resist the mango pancake! Pancakes in Thailand and Cambodia tend to be more like a cake but this one, cooked with fresh mango slices, was a treat!

In terms of attractions, Chiang Mai has lots to offer. The old city is buzzing with countless cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and numerous street side markets. But the pace of the city is such that you won’t feel rushed at all. Outside the old town though the story is very different, there’s a lot of traffic and in general you don’t feel the calmness like in the old town. Chiang Mai is famous for its markets, besides the countless day markets, there is the daily Night Bazaar, the Saturday walking market and the Sunday walking market, which is the biggest one in the city. It’s held along a 1km stretch of road and, by the looks of it, is expanding rapidly as a lot of the side streets and even temple compounds were occupied by stalls when I visited. The market had a festive air and was alive with street performances, live music played by the blind, Thai dancers, and a lot of stalls selling the usual handicraft, clothes, jewelry and of course, a LOT of food. It’s a must do when in Chiang Mai!

There are many temples in the city but I only went to the most famous one, Chedi Luang. The temple and the ruins are good for an afternoon stroll. I didn’t feel the urge to see the others as after 3 months in Asia I am finally “templed out”.

The ruins at the Chedi Luang temple
The ruins at the Chedi Luang temple

I was lucky to have experienced a live Thai cultural performance while eating some authentic Northern Thai cuisine. All this for free! The owner of the Mahout training center was kind enough to get me a free ticket that is usually reserved for his family members. At the risk of sounding sexist, I enjoyed the performances by the men (some played musical instruments, some performed with scary looong knives) more than the ones by the women (which basically were giggly Thai girls, all dressed up, and doing these slow delicate moves). Or may be I just don’t have a taste for cultural shows.

Another time, I spent a whole day on a motorbike going first up the mountain to the Doi Suthep temple, then going down to the other side of the mountain just to see what lay beyond and coming to a very quiet village (I think it was called Huang village) and then riding the Mae Sa valley loop, a total of 150kms. The temple itself was ok but what I enjoyed more was being on the bike and riding the winding roads and just hearing the wind whooshing past my ear.

Stairs leading to the temple
Stairs leading to the temple
Doi Suthep temple
Inside the Doi Suthep temple

And then there was a full day of cooking class. The day started with a trip to the local market before going to a farm where the class was held. For the pre-siesta session I cooked tofu jungle curry, veg pad thai and tom yum prawns. As everyone had picked different items from the menu we were going around the cooking stations and looking at how the different dishes were turning out. And when we sat down to eat we got to taste green curry, yellow curry, jungle curry, tom yum prawns, chicken in coconut milk, pad thai and chicken and cashew stir fry! At this point we’d eaten enough to last us the whole day (or two)! We then proceeded to take our promised siesta which is the only thing we had energy for. After this, believe it or not, there was more cooking and eating. We ate papaya salad, fried spring rolls, mango with sticky rice and banana in coconut milk. None of us know how we managed to keep down so much food but we did! It was all too delicious to resist.

Pre-siesta meal - Pad Thai, Tom Yum prawns and Jungle Curry
Pre-siesta meal – Pad Thai, Tom Yum prawns and Jungle Curry
One of the best naps I've had (after the mosquitoes stopped biting)
Well deserved break from all the eating!
Post siesta dessert - the all famous mango and sticky rice
Post siesta dessert – the all famous mango and sticky rice

After a lot of deliberation I decided to skip the Tiger Kingdom (where you can play and stroke and take “cozy” pictures with the big cats). However magnificent they might me, they are still natural predators and there’s no way I’d be able to get close to them without screaming my head off and m sure the tigers wouldn’t appreciate that one bit and then god knows what they would do to me! Yes, yes, I’m a wuss.

In hindsight, my stay in Chiang Mai was well balanced. I did enough to keep myself entertained but also managed to get the down time I needed. It’s my favourite place in Asia and if there’s any place I’d consider living in, it would be Chiang Mai!

Battambang

Battambang is the second biggest city in Cambodia and as per Lonely Planet has the best preserved French period architecture in Cambodia. I’ve heard it being compared to Kampot which is a beautiful riverside town and was my first stop in this country. I’ve only spent 3weeks in Cambodia but it’s been tiring to get from one place to the other. I’m not sure if it’s because the roads are worse than in Vietnam or all the bus journeys of the last 2 months are finally catching up to me. Either ways, I really needed a quiet town before heading to Bangkok. My first thought when I reached Battambang was, “Where the hell are all the beautiful buildings I was promised?!” And the tuk tuk drivers! They are the worst I’ve come across in this country. They just don’t understand “No” when they hear it and keep following you asking you the same question in different ways until you lose your temper and tell them to leave you alone (they also leave you alone when you stop responding to any of their questions and pretend they don’t exist). So needless to say, my first impression wasn’t very good at all. But after spending a few days just chilling and walking around, somehow, the city grew on me. I began to notice the colourful colonial buildings, the traditional shop houses and the relaxed pace of life. It’s no Kampot, but the city has it’s own character.

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Love the colourful houses

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I didn’t do much in the 5days I was there, somehow I was just too tired to do anything. But I watched a lot of movies including all 4 from the Bourne series (which made me miss my me-time in my flat in London so much!) and for part of the stay I treated myself to a stay in a hotel (with an awesome bed and a massive, clean, fully functional bathroom, a TV and an air-con! 😀 ) instead of a hostel and watched a few hours of Nat Geo. Only thing missing was room service but oh well…can’t ask for too much for $15 a night. Another thing I really enjoyed was the Cambodian cooking class where we learned some traditional Khmer dishes (I’ll be adding the recipes to the blog soon) using the freshest ingredients we bought from the local market earlier in the day. One potential downside to fresh food is that if you are buying meat you sometimes see you “food” alive while buying. When we stopped at the fish stall to buy snake fish, they were in a very shallow pan with no water and were just flapping around in it. One actually managed to jump out of the pan and onto the market floor and was literally trying to get away! It was one of the most pathetic things I’ve seen. And our cooking teacher pointing at the fish and saying “that’s your food for today!” made me wish I didn’t remember this sight while eating my meal. You’d be glad to know that I had completely forgotten about the poor creature until after I had devoured my Fish Amok curry.

The meal we cooked at our Khmer cooking class, delicious!
The meal we cooked at our Khmer cooking class. Fried spring rolls, Fish Amok and Beef Lok Lak, delicious!

 

 

Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat has in some ways become synonymous with Cambodia. When one speaks of Cambodia, the first thing that comes to mind is the temples. Even though I love ruins I wasn’t particularly keen on doing a 2day temple tour. I knew it was a must-do in Cambodia. I generally avoid doing things just because I am in the area or because everybody else is doing it but this time I had to make an exception.

So we set off from Kratie on an 8hr mini-bus ride to Siem Reap. This was on of the most uncomfortable journeys in my 2 months of backpacking! The van was old and rickety, the roads horribly bumpy and the driver absolutely rash. To add to this, my backside was still very sore from kayaking (I know my arms should have been sore and not my butt but the seats were so uncomfortable in the kayak!) and bouncing around in my seat for 8hrs was a nightmare. Once I reached Siem Reap I decided I wasn’t in the mood to do anything for at least a couple of days. So Joel and I spent that time ambling around the town, going for walks along the (really dirty) river, shopping in the one of the many markets that dot the city and treating ourselves to some expensive-ish food in gorgeous cafes (which totally made me nostalgic for Europe).

The first day of the tour we did the big loop of the temples which basically has the smaller temples. We decided to do this first so as to leave the bigger and more well known temples for the next day.
We started our day at 8am in a tuk-tuk that we hired for the day. For some reason I was very tired and I began to wonder if we should have just skipped the smaller temples altogether. But it was too late to back out so I just went along with our plan. We visited around 5 temples and after the first hr or so I was more awake and was beginning to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. By the end of the day I was definitely glad that I hadn’t backed out!

The beautiful Banteay Srei temple
The beautiful Banteay Srei temple
Crazy tree growing on the temple of Preah Khan
Crazy tree growing on the temple of Preah Khan

Next day was the big one. We were doing the smaller loop with the bigger temples on a bicycle starting with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. So we woke up at 03:45 and started our cycle trip to the majestic Angkor Wat. The sun rise was good but nothing spectacular but I had got some good pictures so it was worth the early start. We then visited Ta Phrom, which is also known as the Tomb Raider temple, and then Angkor Thom temple complex to see the beautiful Bayon temple. After taking a break for a couple of hours we were back at Angkor Wat to watch the sunset which I actually enjoyed more than the sunrise!

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From the top most tier of one of the temples at Angkor Thom
From the top most tier of one of the temples at Angkor Thom

It had been a looooong day. We’d been up since before 4am, we’d bicycled 50kms in the heat (it was in the mid 40s) and we finally made it back to our hostel 15hrs later, at 7pm! Was it worth it? You bet it was! The temples, the complex they were set in, the ruins were all spectacular! The big temples are the biggest draw in Siem Reap but the tour would not have been complete without the smaller temples. In some ways, seeing the big temples on second day made me feel glad that I had seen the small temples as well.

The last day in Siem Reap we treated ourselves to a full body Khmer massage which was fabulous! There was a lot of stretching and pulling and kneading with a final twist&pull from the waist up that resulted in the most creaks I’ve ever heard coming from anybody’s body! We also rented a private cinema room and treated ourselves to some Robert Downey Jnr action (The Judge) and some popcorn before heading to the night market for dinner. It was the perfect end to my stay in Siem Reap, most expensive city so far but it was all worth it!

Kratie

Kratie is a small riverside town in the northeast region of Cambodia. It has a very relaxed vibe, similar to Kampot. It has a few good places to eat and a market in the town center. The real attraction for me though was the chance to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. There used to be around 2000 dolphins in the country but the numbers have gone down drastically after the Khmer rouge killed loads of them to feed their army. There are only around 80 left in the whole of Cambodia.

Instead of doing the customary tuk tuk and then a boat ride to the dolphin pool we decided to kayak there! Even though I cannot swim and i’m usually terrified of water I enjoyed kayaking in Ha Long bay and have been wanting to do it again ever since. Of course, I always make sure I have my life jacket on. I would wear 2 if I could.

We started the day at the kayaking center where they served us delicious homemade pumpkin bread for breakfast. We were then loaded at the back of a truck, along with our kayaks, for the 20km journey to Kampi. After 45mins of the bumpy ride we arrived at the starting point. Joel and I were on the same kayak and he sat at the back coz he was the stronger one and would be able to steer the kayak better. May be it was the beginners luck in Ha Long Bay or may be Joel and I make for terrible kayaking partners but we just could not manage to hold a straight line! We were supposed to follow the guide who was in the other kayak but most of the times we were around 100mts off. There was a lot of bickering and blaming each other for steering the kayak off course and then blaming the kayak itself but it was all in good humour. After 6kms, we stopped for a break at a small island where we were given a snack and some time to relax/swim.

A tiny island in the Mekong, perfect for a break half-way through.
A tiny island in the Mekong, perfect for a break half-way through.

After that we had another 6kms to go. The second half was tougher as we were surrounded by a floating forest so the river was flowing faster and the water was churning around us.

Beautiful floating forest in the Mekong, picture taken by a friend in the other kayak..
Beautiful floating forest in the Mekong, picture taken by a friend in the other kayak..

I had started to get scared at this point due to the tiny waves crashing against our kayak and making it rock. The guide didn’t help when he said that if we go too close to the trees our kayak could flip over! This was a major concern as Joel and I still couldn’t row in a straight line and we were constantly getting too close to the trees. A few times, when we realized we were getting too close Joel would start steering faster to get us away from the tree and all he ended up doing was making us crash into it faster! Silly man 🙂 One time, after we crashed, we tried to start rowing again and to follow our guide, instead we ended up doing a 360degree turn and having moved barely a few feet! 😀 Needless to say, there was a lot more bickering and “you stop it” “no you stop it” type of arguments. Every time I think of this trip I always double up with laughter thinking how funny we must have looked zig zagging (and bickering) our way around the river! LOL

That's Joel and me kayaking...we looks pretty happy despite all the bickering we were doing :)
That’s Joel and me kayaking…he looks pretty happy despite all the grief I was giving him 🙂

After all that we finally managed to reach the dolphin pool. My shoulders were achy and I was beginning to get a few blisters on my hand but I was super excited to see some dolphins! There are only about 20 in this pool and we saw quite a few of them just swimming lazily around the river and coming up for air often. It was just incredible to be sitting in a kayak in the middle of the river and looking at dolphins around us. It was also very peaceful (except when I was telling Joel off for splashing water with his oar or for drumming his fingers on the kayak) as there were just 2 kayaks out there. I was hoping the dolphins would jump around and play with each other but apparently they never do, at least not in this pool. I do want to seem more of them and see them up close, more of a reason to learn how to swim! The trip ended with us taking the super bumpy drive back to Kratie where we spent the day just chilling, eating and laughing at our kayaking “skills”.

Chi Phat / Cardamom Mountain Trek

Cardamom mountains is the second largest virgin rain forest in SE Asia, the largest being n Myanmar. There’s a village to the south of these mountains called Chi Phat. Before 2006, there wasn’t a single foreign tourist that visited this village and most of the locals survived on farming and hunting. Then the village became part of an eco-tourism project to help support the local villagers by finding alternative and sustainable means of income.

I arrived in Chi Phat after a 4.5hr bus journey from Phnom Penh to Andoung Tuek and a further 45min bike ride on the dirt roads leading to the village. Despite being very tired, I could appreciate the beauty of the lush green forests and the mountains that stretched all around me.

Joel joined me too from Koh Kong. After reading through a multitude of trekking and biking packages we settled on a 32km, 2.5day jungle trek with 2 nights in the forest. There’d be no running water, no electricity and we’d be sleeping in hammocks! Less than a week ago, on my first day in Kampot, I was super grumpy coz there was no water in the hostel and I would not be able to take my 2 showers a day. And now, I was excited about the jungle trek even though that probably meant no showers for the next few days!

The first day in Chi Phat we stayed with a local family in their home (called Homestay) some 2kms away from the village.

Homestay for the first night in Chi Phat
Homestay for the first night in Chi Phat

The village has electricity only a few hours a day and we went to the homestay expecting the same. Turns out they were too far out to have electricity! So we had to go back to the village center to charge our phones and use Wi-Fi. By the time we got back it was dark, so we ate dinner cooked by the family. Luckily they had a bulb than ran on a generator so we could see what we were eating. After that it was time to take one last shower before the trek which was essentially, standing outside the house in darkness, wrapped in a cloth, and pouring some jugs of water over my head. At least I got to see a sky full of brilliant stars!

 

Day 1

We started the trek at 5:30am. 2 other guys, Ben and Manu, had joined us too. We also had a local guide and a cook with us. We started with a 2hr boat ride, on which all the guys fell asleep, but I stayed up as the jungle around us was beautiful and the water so clean!

Early morning boat ride to begin the 3-day jungle trek
Early morning boat ride to begin the 3-day jungle trek

We then switched from the motor boat to a row boat for a 30min boat ride to see some birds and gibbons. We heard some gibbons and saw some birds but other than that it was just a quiet ride on the boat. We then started our 10km walk in a leech infested jungle! It was the first time I was seeing leeches and they are these tiny, wriggly, creepy little things that just made me shriek out every time I got one on my legs! I was the only one screaming like a nutter, rest of the guys were just flicking them off their clothes or shoes! The walk itself was great, there was hardly a trail most of the times and without our guide we would never be able to find our way!

Half way through we stopped by an almost dried up waterfall, where the cook prepared lunch and some coffee. I was still too terrified of the leeches to be able to relax fully and then there was also the matter of peeing in the jungle which was a terrifying idea coz I didn’t want any leeches, you know, down there! But after lunch I started to enjoy the walk more, I start looking around me instead of just at my feet. I started to soak in the nature, to enjoy being in the jungle, something I’ve never done before!

At the end of the day, we reached the first camp site. After relaxing and putting up our hammocks, we were called for dinner. This was my favourite part about the jungle trek and also one of the best evenings I’ve had on my travels so far. It was 6 of us, from different parts of the world, sitting on a bamboo picnic table illuminated by 2 candles, eating delicious dinner, surrounded by the dark jungle which was alive with the noise from insects. We exchanged a lot of stories, learned about each other, about the Khmer culture, about Chi Phat before and after the eco-tourism project and about the lives of our guides. It was, like Ben said, “magical”. After a few hours though, we were ready to sleep in our super comfy hammocks.

 

Day 2

We started the day with some noodles and coffee and set out on what turned out to be a very easy walk. It was still through the jungles and there were still many leeches but my panic of the day before had turned into frustration and I angrily flicked them off every time I got some on my clothes.

We were super excited about the next camp site as we were supposed to be by a water fall and we were all desperate to get into the water which is the first thing we did when we reached at around 1pm. Looking back, the water was not very clean but we were so dirty that we didn’t think anything off it before we started washing ourselves! I made do with sitting at the shallowest end while the guys enjoyed their high dives off the cliff!

After this we had nothing much to do for the rest of the day so we just talked, ate, relaxed and talked some more. This night wasn’t as good as the first because we were joined by a group of 50 college students!! Goes without saying, it was very noisy and nothing like the ‘night in the jungle’ experience we expected.

 

Day 3

This was the toughest day for me and a few others. The 14km walk was not so bad but we didn’t have the cover of the jungle and walking that distance in the heat was not fun. We also didn’t have anything to snack on after breakfast at 6:30am We took more frequent breaks along the walk and were very relieved when we finally stopped for lunch at 1pm, 11kms later. After that it was another 3kms to the village which was better as we were well fed and it had turned cloudy so we didn’t have the sun beating down on us. We were all super happy to have finished the trek.

This trek is definitely one of the highlights of my trip! It was my first jungle trek and the first time I slept outdoors. The food prepared in the jungle was delicious throughout! The group and the conversations were superb, something that made the 3 days fly by!

Once back to the village, I rewarded myself by staying in a hut which had electricity, running water, an actual shower and a fan! It was great to be back to civilization!

A treat after the jungle trek!
A treat after the jungle trek!

P.S. I don’t have many pictures for the trek just yet but will add more as soon as I get some from others in the group!

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. It’s such an ugly city! lol It doesn’t have the feel of the capital city at all. There’s not much to see here. There’s the Royal Palace, the Independence Monument and a couple of markets. The river front, with all the restaurants and cafes, is the saving grace of the city.

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace, as seen from the river front

 

The river front
The river front

Having said that, it’s a must visit on any trip to Cambodia for the Killing Fields just outside the city. I hadn’t heard about the Killing fields and the Khmer Rouge until 2 weeks before I was to come to Cambodia. And from what I’ve noticed not many travelers knew about it until they decided to visit this country.

Khmer rouge was the name given to the followers of the communist party of Cambodia, led by then Prime Minister Pol Pot, who ruled “Democratic Kampuchea” for 4yrs from 1975 to 1979. In these years, in the name of ‘equality for all’ and ‘self sufficiency’, the regime orchestrated a genocide against it’s own people and introduced ‘social engineering’ policies that resulted in deaths from famine and wide spread disease It is believed that in these 4years, roughly around 2 million people (from a population of only 8 million!) had died. Of this 2 million, around 1.4million are estimated to have been executed in over 20,000 killing fields spread across Cambodia, one of which is found around Phnom Penh. Even after the Khmer rouge were defeated and ousted from the country they continued to rule remotely for another 20years while the west still recognized them as the rightful leader of Cambodia. It is shocking to know that such a thing happened, just a few years before I was born. It was so recent but still it isn’t something that people have been made aware of.

To see mass graves, the Killing Tree where children and infants were killed by being smashed against it (because their parents were accused & killed for make-believe crime and the regime didn’t want the kids growing up and seeking revenge), to see the towering display of skulls of the victims leaves you speechless.

The Killing tree
The Killing tree
The memorial that holds the skulls of the 450 victims from mass graves
The memorial that holds the skulls of the 450 victims from one of the mass graves

There are signs throughout the fields warning people that bones from the graves resurface even to this date and ‘to not step on bones’ which it more real. I don’t think it has sunk in for me yet. We know genocides have happened in the past, we’ve learnt about them or read about them. But something so recent that the world is oblivious to is particularly harsh.

There’s also a museum in the city called Tuol Sleng which is a former school that was turned into a prison and torture center. The stories of victims are terrifying. The testimonies of people who worked for the Khmer Rouge revolting. I read testimonies where those who worked for the regime said that they had no choice but to do as they were told. Not doing so would have meant death for them. I think there’s always a choice. In this case it was a choice between death for yourself Vs a life where you kill and torture thousands of your fellow countrymen. I know what I would have chosen.

Getting used to good byes

I’ve never been bad at good byes. They always hurt but knowing I won’t be seeing someone for a while makes me make the most of those last few moments instead of rushing it and/or running away.

One of the biggest perks of traveling for me is meeting people that I would most likely never have met otherwise. People with jobs way different than mine, with a lifestyle or culture a complete opposite to mine or from different continents/country than where I come from, and it’s a fine experience exchanging life stories and comparing how the same things are done differently in different places.

I’ve never been one for much small talk and filling silence with useless chatter. In fact, I really appreciate silence. Over the last couple of years, since I started meditating and practicing mindfulness, my tolerance to people talking just for something to do has gone down tremendously. I cringe from forced conversations. I make new connections if they happen naturally, have conversations if they happen naturally. This coupled with absolutely loving me-time means I can go days enjoying solitude without trying to find people to hang out with. Of course, the whole concept of ‘solitude’ takes on a different meaning when you are a in a dorm of 6 or sometimes 12 people. For me, it’s become more about emotional solitude rather than needing to be alone in my room like back in London. It’s almost like building a bubble around myself in a room full of other people. This too isn’t forced which means that I won’t resist a conversation with the fellow travelers in my room if it happens.  But I “recharge” in this quiet period and it helps me connect with the right people in a more meaningful way. And when I do meet people such people and spend a few days or a few weeks with them it’s quality time. I learn something new. I grow a bit more. And when the time comes to say good-bye, like it always does, it is sad. Yes I am happy that I met them but I am also sad that it’s over. I am learning to take it in stride coz it’s not the first or the last of good-byes. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, even if it’s just a little bit. But that’s part of traveling, meeting new people and forming new bonds, hoping that you’ll stay in touch and get a chance to meet again someday in the future. And I am grateful that I have this opportunity, I wouldn’t change it for anything!