Chiang Rai

I’ve not heard a lot of positive things about Chiang Rai. Most of the people I’ve spoken to were like “meh, It’s just another city. You’ll get bored after a day”. But I wanted to see for myself and I am glad I did. The city is nothing extraordinary but not worth dissing either. There are enough restaurants and cafes and markets to keep you entertained for a few days. In fact I met a guy who got bitten by a dog and had been in Chiang Rai for more than 2 weeks and he said he was quiet enjoying it there.

On the first day Ben (who I met in Pai and who was still limping after his fall from the bike) and I just chilled in the hostel and ate in the night bazaar.

The second day we rented a bike and went to the white temple (which I was really looking forward to) and to the Khun Korn waterfall (that I was going to only coz we had the bike for the whole day and we didn’t know what else to do). The temple, in my opinion, was “meh”. I’ve not met anyone who agrees with my opinion but hey, it’s just my opinion.

DSCF4872

Yes the structure is beautiful but its right next to a busy road and is surrounded by parked buses, bikes, cafes and shops so there was no atmosphere at all. And the temple has a lot of oddities like skulls hanging from the surrounding trees or hundreds of hands rising from a pond giving the illusion of people drowning. I mean, what’s with that. It’s a temple and not a dungeon! So anyways, I wasn’t sold one bit.

Errmm...really?
Errmm…really?
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.

The waterfall, on the other hand, was “wow”! It was 70mts high and the fall formed a pool at the bottom in which I would have loved to swim (if I could). We walked 1mile in the national park to get to the waterfall and by the end of the walk we were dripping in sweat but it was absolutely worth it!

DSCF4882 (2)

We wanted to end that day with a sunset over the Singha park (as recommended by our hostel) but it being the monsoon season it was so cloudy that we could see no sun so we ended up enjoying some delicious tea harvested right from the plantations around the park.

One of the highlights of my Thailand trip would come the next day. A 163km bike ride (my longest so far) to the Mae Salong village situated on Doi Mae Salong (Doi means mountain) close to the Thailand Myanmar border. The first 30kms of the ride was just highways so nothing special but then the climb started and the scenery changed drastically.

At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong
At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong

DSCF4955

A lot of the times we were actually riding in the clouds and it was so chilly that I had to wear my sweater and was very tempted to put on my scarf as well. Mae Salong is a very Chinese influenced town. The houses, the music and even the food makes you feel you’ve left Thailand and entered China.

DSCF4933

We ate some absolutely delicious Yunnan style curry with fresh egg noodles.

I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!
I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!

It was one hell of a ride! On the downside, I don’t think my ass has every hurt that much and the 4hr bus ride back to Chiang Mai the next day didn’t help one bit.

Pai

Pai is a very small and picturesque town in the hilly region of northwest Thailand. The 3hr minivan drive to Pai is sort of uncomfortable due to the endless winding roads which prevent you from taking a nap and make you wish you hadn’t eaten anything before the drive!

The pace of life here is so slow that it seems to be at a halt, but in a good way. The town centre has a number of really good restaurants and cafes with healthy and tasty food. More than once I’ve heard people who went to Pai for a few days and ended up staying for a few weeks. There’s actually not much to do in the town except eat lots of delicious food, shop in the night market, listen to live music performance at Edible Jazz or (from what I’ve been told) smoke pot. The night market has some outstanding food from fried spring rolls to one of the best Thai curries I’ve eaten in Thailand to some delicious burritos. My fav way to spend an evening there was to eat in the night market and head to Edible Jazz and relax on a mattress or a hammock while enjoying some live music.

Ben, who I met at my guesthouse, and I went for a 100km bike ride to the Tham Lot cave close to Soppong. Although the cave was good I’ve seen much better caves at Phong Nha in Vietnam.

At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves
At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves

But the ride to Soppong and back was one of the best rides I’ve done in my 3 months in Asia. The steep ascend, the relentless winding roads, the countless hair pin bends, riding in the clouds (m not kidding!) and being on top of the highest mountain in the region and looking down on the mountain range was nothing short of spectacular.

At the start of the ride to Soppong
At the start of the ride to Soppong
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha mountain. Definitely one of the most beautiful experiences so far.
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha peak. Definitely one of the most beautiful sights so far.

This ride is not for a the faint hearted or for those who are not sure of their biking skills. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve had some nasty accidents on rides around Pai. Ben had a fall too but it was rather unfortunate as he braked hard on a slippery stretch. The fact that he had just moved off and was riding at 10km/hr didn’t help much as the bike landed on his feet! Ouch. But we managed to ride back to Pai before the pain got unbearable for him.

There are a lot more caves and waterfalls around Pai and I skipped all of these. I did however wake up at 4:45am to ride to the Pai canyon in time for the sunrise which I didn’t see it coz, as I found out later, it was the wrong spot but I had the place to myself and it was definitely worth the loss of precious sleep.

People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn't
People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn’t
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.

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!

Chiang Mai – Mahout Training

As I mentioned in my last post, after a last minute change of plans, I decided to skip Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and head straight to Chiang Mai. I left from Kanchanaburi very early in the morning and once in BKK managed to find tickets for the sleeper train from BKK -> Chiang Mai for the same night. Usually these need to be booked a couple of days ahead but I went there around 10:30 am so there were plenty of seats available.

Since I reached Chiang Mai I did nothing, and I am not exaggerating, for the first 3 days. I found 3 really good cafes one street up from my hostel which served delicious veggie food so I didn’t have to go too far for my basic needs. I’ve been very happy just eating delicious and healthy veg food, drinking smoothies, reading, sleeping and catching up on my blogging. Yesterday though, I decided to go for the Mahout training. According to wikipedia a mahout is a person who rides an elephant.

The only memory I have of being in close proximity to elephants is when I was visiting my cousins in a very small town called Pen in India. There was this giant animal standing in the middle of a tiny road. He was with his trainer and seemed very calm and no one was particularly worried and people were just watching it, patting it and walking away. Me? I was rooted to my spot, I could not go past it (and I needed to if I wanted to get home). I was this tiny little thing, less than 10yrs old, and he was just so big! What if it “lost it ” just as I tried to go past? I could not risk it. After a while, my cousin who had already walked past it, lost his patience, came and grabbed my hand and made me cross the road.

Fast forward 20yrs….Our day started with a 1.5hr drive to a near by village, in a pick up truck converted to a jeep with 2 rows of seats at the back. The back of the jeep was open and there were no seat belts. We were told that the last 30mins of the drive would be slightly bumpy. Slightly bumpy! Ha. More appropriate would be to tell us that there would be no roads at all. It was more like off-roading at the back of an open jeep with no seat belts on! And yeah, we were going uphill. But somehow we found humour in this drive and ended up laughing throughout the “slightly bumpy” drive.

After we stopped, we had a quick 10min walk down to the village and we could already hear the elephants trumpeting. Our guide, who was the owner of the center and trained the elephants himself, told us that the animals are letting us know that they know of our approach. When we came to the clearing we could see them wagging their tail and flapping their ears, as they could see their trainer and could smell the bananas that we brought for them! The smallest 2 elephants were actually doing sort of a dance by making an 8 in the air with their head! It was the most incredible welcome to the Mahout Training Center! The first thing we did was to feed the elephants their favourite food, banana and sugar cane, so as to “become friends” with them. When we were preparing their food they stood with the trunks up and mouths open, ready to eat. Lol Feeding them was, well, icky and a bit scary. Scary coz I was wondering what would happen if they closed their massive mouths on my palm and icky coz they have this big slippery and sticky wet tongue that you have to touch when you put food in their mouth. As if that wasn’t enough, the baby elephant gave us a sloppy, muddy, vacuum cleaner type “big suction” kiss on our cheeks! Haha

 

That's me getting the sloppiest kiss of my life!
That’s me getting the sloppiest kiss of my life!

This baby, the naughtiest one of the lot, loved playing with the trainer. When the trainer got on the baby’s back, he pulled the trainer’s slippers off with his trunk. After a few seconds, he lifted his trunk in the air to return the slippers to the trainer in return for a banana! LOL

Once we befriended the animals we changed into our mahout training clothes, fed them more food and learned the basic commands for our elephants, which we would need for our ride later on. Our guide was very sweet and extremely chatty so he gave us a lot of info on how he started his “family”, the importance of elephants in Thailand, their behaviour and about the life of the mahouts. Apparently, the king of Thailand loves elephants. He is the first one in the world to have started a hospital for them and the animals receive free care/accommodation/medication when they are ill. In the past, warriors used to ride elephants to war which gave them a distinct advantage over their enemies and hence the king is partial to these animals.

The elephants are extremely intelligent and can become very possessive of their mahouts/trainers. For eg, if they see their trainer playing with his dog they will push the trainer (which happened to our guide because of which he ended up with lots of broken ribs). This display of “jealousy” is the reason that most mahouts are single men. If they are seen with their partners it could be very dangerous for the mahouts.

The elephants sleep for around 3hrs a night and eat 10% of their weight in food every day! So Asian elephants who are 3000kgs eat 300kgs of food and drink 200litres of water and African elephants which are much bigger and heavier would eat 500kgs of food!!

It was already lunch time at this point. After a heavy meal of fried spring rolls, Pad Thai, papaya salad (which we made ourselves) and some fresh fruit it was time to go for a ride on the elephants. Now, I’ve heard a lot of stories about why you shouldn’t ride elephants because they are mistreated and tortured. But the training center I went to was different. Our guide, the owner, said he takes the longer process of training the animals. They use no knives or whips to train them, which can take as little as 2 days but make the animals more prone to lashing out unexpectedly. The animals at this centre were trained with….take a guess…..bananas! Lol. It takes 6 months to train them with food and love and gentle treatment but the animals then love you back. Anyways, getting onto the back of the big elephant was scary.

Beautiful Boonie and me, ready for a walk in the jungle.
Beautiful Boonie and me, ready for a walk in the jungle.

And they are so hairy! Their hair is more like toothbrush bristles and the mahout clothes weren’t thick enough! So after getting used to being so high up and then getting used to feeling like you’ll fall with every step the animal takes, you had to get used to the hair pricking you all over your bottom. But it was incredible to ride on them, see them in their natural habitat, just going for a walk, up rooting bamboo trees with their trunks to feed on it and following their mahouts who were treating them regularly with sugar cane.

Boonie taking one of his regular feeding breaks!
Boonie taking one of his regular feeding breaks!

After a bit more than an hour the elephants made their way back to the starting point and after we got off it was bath time for them.

First, the animals are left to themselves in the pond as it’s “family time” and no tourists or mahouts are allowed to interfere. There were 5 animals with one family of mama, papa and the baby. The 3 kept playing amongst themselves, splashing water on each other, rolling around in the pond but the other 2 didn’t join in coz they too knew it was family time for the other 3! When this was over the family started playing with the other 2 elephants and the mahouts and only then were we allowed to step in to the pond with them. Turns out it wasn’t just them who would get a wash! We were treated with regular jets of cold water from the baby elephant too!

Bathing time, for all of us!
Diamond decides we need a wash too!

After this we enjoyed more kisses from the baby, had some fruit and tea, said goodbye to our mahouts and elephants and made our way back to Chiang Mai.

I know this is a long post describing the day in a lot of detail but it was one of the most incredible experiences of this journey. To see these massive animals, displaying so much intelligence, so many emotions and love and to see them treated with so much love and respect was simply heart warming. It’s something that I will never forget and I highly encourage anyone visiting Chiang Mai to go for this training!

Kanchanaburi

Next stop after BKK was Kanchanaburi which is a 2hr minivan ride away. It’s a nice riverside town with a lot of bars, restaurants, clothes stall, salons, cafes etc all along the riverside. It’s busy-ish but not manic, which makes it the perfect get away if BKK has driven you crazy.

The main attraction at Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway to Myanmar which was constructed by the Prisoners of War (POWs) and Asian workers/slaves working for the Japanese during World War II. A visit to the Thai Burma Railway Center museum gave me a better understanding of the history around building of the railway and the treatment of the POWs who had to live and work in nightmarish conditions. Around 15,000 POWs and 100,000 Asian workers died during the construction of the railway! There’s a war cemetery right across the museum where the remains of around 7,000 POWs, from the UK, Netherlands and Australia, are buried. This railway is still functional and it was pretty interesting to walk on the track itself. The track has been turned into a pathway with a lot of observation decks where people can stand and watch the train go by. The train goes real slow though as there are people who stand in front of the train, taking selfies, while the train keeps honking to shoo them away! Lol

Apparently, taking selfies is more important than letting the train pass ;)
Apparently, taking selfies is more important than letting the train pass 😉

On my second day there, I went to go the Erawan waterfalls which is around 43miles from Kanchanaburi. I was told that it being the weekend it gets absolutely swamped with locals going for a picnic but I didn’t want to wait 2 days so I decided to wake up at 5am and be there for 7:30am hoping I would miss all the tourists and locals. And I did! On all the 7 levels, I saw a group of 3 people on the 2nd level. For the rest of the climb and the remaining levels I was all by myself (except the 100 or so lizards) which was just perfect.

Perfect spot to take a break from the climb
Perfect spot to take a break from the climb

I say 7 levels but I only went as far as 6 coz for the last one I’d have to climb rocks and wade through ankle deep water and frankly, I just wasn’t too bothered. The motorbike ride to the Erawan National park was another treat as the roads, which were lined by massive trees most of the way, were almost empty that early in the day.

2nd level of the 7 tiered Erawan waterfalls
2nd level of the 7 tiered Erawan waterfalls

There is another museum that I would have loved to go to which is the Hellfire Pass. This is the pass that the POWs and the civilian workers/slaves cleared by hand, by cutting and blasting through rocks, to clear a path for the Death railway. The walk through the jungle to go down to the pass, the walk along the railway line and the audio guide are meant to be an experience to remember. I didn’t go to this museum because I realized I was fast losing interest in “doing” things. I know that Kanchanaburi is a nice town and that the waterfalls were beautiful but this is more of an objective review than how I really felt. What I felt was ‘traveler’s fatigue’. I felt like I didn’t want to go sight seeing anymore and I didn’t want to move every 3-4days. Basically I didn’t want to “do” anything for a while. So after a last minute change of plans, I decided to head to Chiang Mai and stay there for at least 10 days.

Bangkok

I was super excited to finally come to Thailand! It’s where my backpacking adventure was initially meant to begin but I moved the dates around so I wouldn’t come here during the hottest months of the year. My first stop was Bangkok. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some people hate BKK and some think it’s ok. I had surprised myself by falling in love with Ho Chi Minh despite it being very hectic so I was interested to see how I would feel about BKK.

We left Battambang in Cambodia in a cramped taxi to get to Poipet, at the Cambodia – Thailand Border, which apparently is the busiest border crossing between the two countries with people having to queue for hours in the heat. This crossing also has a lot of complaints about extortion with border officials charging you “exit fees”. Deciding not to pay these fees results in a Mexican standoff that can last hours. We decided that if it came to it we will wait it out. But as luck would have it, or may be coz we’d left super early, we finished the exit formalities in under 5mins and got our visas for Thailand in another 10. And there was no demand for “exit fees” as well! So that was easy peasy.

We then took a minivan from Poipet to BKK which took about 5hrs. Just like when we crossed into Cambodia from Vietnam, we could tell that we were in a different country soon after we crossed the border. The roads were significantly better, the cars bigger and faster and I also saw a Tesco on the way (which is a chain of supermarkets in the UK)! Once in BKK, one of the first few shops I saw was Boots which is my go-to store in the UK for any toiletries and cosmetics ! I was so excited to have these familiar names and shops around me. I actually sort of screamed when I saw Boots as did this other Brit who was traveling with me. I was already liking BKK. I knew that I was in a third world country but it didn’t feel like it at all. It’s not exactly London but it sure as hell ain’t Phnom Penh either.

For me BKK is all about walking around and taking in the vibe. On the 2nd day I did a big loop around the Royal Palace, the Wat Pho, the river and back to the hostel. I didn’t go into the Palace coz I didn’t want to pay$16 for it but I did visit Wat Pho which was just beautiful.

Beautiful Wat Pho
Beautiful Wat Pho

It was nothing like the Cambodian temples which are (or at least) look much older and are in different states of ruins. This temple was very well maintained. Also, unlike in Vietnam and Cambodia where you are not allowed to enter temples if you are not appropriately dressed, in Wat Pho there are skirts and scarves for women to cover up for free which I think was very considerate.

BKK is an attack on your senses for sure. The tuk tuk drivers, the taxis, the bikes and cars, the hoards of tourists and travelers, the street side markets selling everything you can imagine and more is just wonderful!

Hungry, anyone?
Hungry, anyone?

Khaosan Rd, the backpacker area, was a bit too much though. During the day it’s a calm street with food and clothes stall set up like anywhere else in the city but come night it transforms into one big party street. The music is so loud that you can feel it in your bones! There are people dancing on the street drinking beers and god knows what else from small buckets (yes buckets!). I much preferred the Ram Buttri street, which is just one street up and had everything minus the madness of Khaosan.

All in all, I really enjoyed BKK. It is a wonderful lively city but I’m sure the pace would get to me after a while so spending 3 days was just about right.

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.

received_10205933200000546
Love the colourful houses

received_10205933201600586

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!

DSCF4449

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!