Posted by: kim | August 28, 2007

Colourful Phi Phi Island

We’re now on the beautiful island of Phi Phi with its clear turquoise water, green cliffs and sandy beaches. As we’re nearing the end of our mammoth journey, the next few days are for relaxing and not doing much at all!

But first, the story of how we got here. We had to take an overnight train from Bangkok to the town of Surat Thani (10 hours). We bought a first class ticket (cost around US$40 per person) and we had the whole cabin to ourselves, which was great. We even managed to order an edible meal and, unlike all the other trains we’ve been in, someone actually makes the bed for you rather than dumps the linen on your bed. How’s that for service?
Once we arrived, we then had to go through the rigmarole of getting a coach to Krabi, the coastal town that takes you to Phi Phi. We didn’t like the pushy salespeople that met you at the station offering to take us there for 200 baht ($6) each — and besides, the coach looked full and we weren’t ready to perch on one of those plastic stools they place along the aisle for three hours. So we took a local bus to Surat Thani (about 40 cents each, 20 minutes). Inevitably, touts were at the bus station ready to sell us tickets. One guy told us the next coach to Krabi wasn’t for another 90 minutes and would cost us 250 baht each! This made no sense, as we were just told it was 200 baht. We told him this and immediately smelt something fishy. Luckily Rob noticed an operator across the road that matched the logo on one of the waiting coaches bound for Phuket. The lady at that place told us the tickets for Krabi cost 130 baht — the very same coach that was leaving in 90 minutes! So we got those, ate breakfast at a friendly home-cooked veg restaurant then had enough time to get on the Krabi coach.

After a three hour coach trip we were in Krabi. While the coach leaving from Surat Thani station, confusingly situated in the nearby town of Phunphin, was full of tourists, our coach was a local number travelling backroads. The usual touts were at the destination bus terminal, trying to sell us overpriced taxi rides to go one or two kilometres. Forget it! We simply hopped on a <a href=””>songthaew</a&gt; and shared the ride with the locals (which included kids swinging off the back of the modified vehicle) and got dropped off right in front of our hotel minutes later.

Rather than head straight for Phi Phi we spent the night just outside Krabi in a beautiful little budget resort. We had a huge room with amazing views of the lake, hills and lagoon swimming pool below. Next morning we were picked up by the Krabi agent of our Phi Phi hotel who drove us the 5km to the Krabi pasenger pier for the ferry trip to Phi Phi.

We got to Phi Phi by lunchtime. Part of the island was hit by the tsunami in 2004 but you’d never guess it today as everything has been rebuilt. The place is quite busy, even though it’s technically low season. The resort hotel we’re treating ourselves to after our long journey is secluded and peaceful, but there are still plenty of water activities available. The bungalows are huge with confortable bedding, ample balcony space to relax on and the all-important air conditioning. (The bathroom though, doesn’t have a proper door – just a thin linen curtain that doesn’t go all the way across! And chips cost SEVEN DOLLARS… what a rip-off!)
So, for the next few days it’ll be sitting on a deckchair, relaxing in the air conditioned cafés or breezy restaurants, swimming, and eating overpriced (and just above mediocre) food. We’re also keeping an eye out for more people with odd t-shirts, like the one below.

Posted by: rob | August 26, 2007

In Bangkok

Newsflash: We’ve arrived in Bangkok, Thailand!! It is our 84th day of travelling overland, but only the 83rd since leaving London as we’ve crossed more timezones than I can remember. There is more to come. We have another nine days of travel in Thailand before returning to Bangkok and the end of our overland adventure. Then we jet off to Sydney, Australia for 15 days of catching up with family and friends. Most of the next week will be spent lazing on beaches or by swimming pools so updates will slow to a trickle.

Posted by: rob | August 24, 2007

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai


We’ve just had two of the most enjoyable (and saddest) days of our trip. We had a two day visit of the Elephant Nature Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai in the Mae Taeng valley. Thailand is chock full of elephant “experiences”. You can ride elephants, watch them paint pictures, play drums, do a trick for food, or lug supplies on trekking adventures. This park is different because it does none of that. It is home to 31 elephants that have been abused or orphaned or rescued over the last ten years.


An elephant and his mahout.

First, the good stuff. You can watch the elephants in their natural habitat playing and frolicking and socialising amonst themselves. Elephants have lifespans similar to humans and form families of similar composition and duration. At the park you will find elephants aged from a year old to more than seventy years old. Some of the youngsters have mothers but all have “aunties”. These are elephants that help out or have adopted them, even if not genetically related. There are a couple of older male elephants including the king of the clan.


Kim gets a snotty elephant kiss.

We signed up for a two day visit, but many people volunteer for a week or month or even longer. Most tourists visit as daytrippers. First port of call after being picked up from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai was to buy fruit at the market. Each elephant can eat over 100kg of food a day so you we had to form a chain-gang for the exercise. We loaded three pickup trucks with watermelons and bananas, and this was just breakfast. Arriving at the park you meet the other tourists, numbering about forty on the first day of our visit and twenty on the second day. Most of the time you spend on a wooden platform that extends out into a field at what should be described as “trunk height”.


A mahout playing with his elephant.

Your guide for the day begins by introducing you to the various elephants and their relationships with each other, and before long a dozen of them are sniffing around the group with their trunks for they are expecting lunch. Each elephant has a laundry basket full of fruit made to order. One wants its watermelons peeled, another won’t eat bananas, another won’t touch the cucumbers until the rest has all gone. Feeding doesn’t take long. There are enough elephants for every tourist to have their own to feed and you soon discover their personalities. There are cheeky elephants, nosy elephants, lonely elephants, greedy elephants, fast eaters and slow eaters. You don’t get out of this exercise without a lot of elephant drool and snot on your hands.


A few hundred kilos of elephant rolling in the mud.

After the elephants have their lunch we have ours, trying to avoid it being such a spectacle. In fact, the food is excellent. Because it is a buffet there is something for everyone, including vegetarians like us. Once lunch is over it is time for the next highlight of the day. Everyday the elephants are washed at about 1pm and 4pm and it is their favourite time of day. By now they are covered it mud, dirt and flies. Everyone heads to the river for the washing ritual and it is one of the funniest things you could ever see. These giants like nothing more than splashing and playing in water, rolling over and over. At times they totally disappear underwater only to reappear and trumpet water over anyone in range. With washbucket and srubbing brush we set to work cleaning them and these huge animals are as happy as kittens or puppies. An amazing experience even after these months of exotic travel.


Practising the hat trick.

After washing the elephants we meet Lek, the founder of the park. Her names means small in Thai and she is definitely that. Every one of the elephants comes to greet her and it is clear she has a special affinity with them. Kind of an elephant whisperer! We learn the various stories behind each elephant. One walks like an invalid because she had her legs broken in logging accidents. Another is totally blind because her mahout (handler) stabbed her eyes out with arrows in order to invoke subservience. Yet another was shot because he threw some tourists off his back. The king was victim of ivory poachers. One killed a man because it couldn’t take the abuse. Every elephant has a story like this.


Our accomodation for the night.

Between the two washing sessions we watch a National Geographic DVD that shows the plight of the elephant and Lek’s campaign to save them. There were 100000 elephants in Thailand a century ago, 25000 twenty years ago, 5000 ten years ago, and less than 2000 today. Almost all elephants lead horrific lives that I had no idea about. I’d thought this park was about rescuing sick or abused animals but the footage shows that almost all elephants in the tourist trade are abused. Even the elephants at sanctioned parks like the Elephant Conservation Centre near Chiang Mai abuse animals to train them into performing for us tourists. Lek has taught two of the baby elephants at the park to do similar tricks, like kissing with the trunk, or picking up hats, through positive reinforcement only, not negative reinforcement. She hopes to spread the method throughout Asia.


Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park

The daytrippers disappear and we watch some of the training first hand. Dinner is as excellent as lunch and we meet many of the volunteers who have been there for weeks or months. Accomodation is definitely on the rustic side but the bed is comfortable. The night is far from silent. Apart from 31 elephants there are 42 dogs, a dozen cats, water buffalo, cows, frogs, and millions of insects in the park.


Kim scrubbing an elephant.

Day two is much like day one except that in the morning we are allowed to go for a walk with the elephants. There are just five of us overnighters but we have six elephants (and their mahouts) to ourselves. Whatever we thought of yesterday, today is the highlight so far. One of the youngsters plays in the water for more than an hour while we take many photos (I took 400+ photos in 24 hours). The elephants let you get very close to them as they now recognise us in the same way we recognise them. Watching the blind elephant is incredible as she holds her trunk to the ground and listens to where the others are.


I could go on and on about our trip but what everyone should do is visit for themselves. It was a great and memorable experience.


Posted by: rob | August 20, 2007

Good Pai

We’ve just spent a couple of days in Pai (pronounced Bye), a valley town amongst the mountains near the Burma border and situated on the Mae Hong Son loop of road. Although it is only 100-ish kilometres from Chiang Mai it takes a few hours to reach by minibus. The town itself is as famous for the road to get there as anything else. On a 65km stretch there are 762 stomach churning curves, so the souvenir T-shirts say. It feels like more. The road continually snakes and hairpins up and down and around mountains without any straight sections. I spent half the trip with my face in a plastic bag though thankfully made it there without having to use it. Our minibus driver evidently takes it upon himself to set new records on his twice daily trip for he was taking the racing line the entire distance and he overtook every car we saw. Going around hairpin bends at 80km/hr is not fun. Kim says it was actually 100km/hr but I had my eyes closed at that point. When he finally hit a straight he took that little Toyota Hi-Ace up to 140km on the wrong side of the road. The return trip had us just as white knuckled.

The town itself has great character. While Chiang Mai has Starbucks, McDonalds, and Boots chemists, in Pai every restaurant has family cooked food, fresh fruit, and veggie options. We saw burka-wearing motocyclists, burger munching rastafarians, Japanese hippies, and spacey looking old guys. All the locals, apart from the Aya Service minibus workers, were very friendly. Kim managed to get stung by a small bee on the first day and the roadside pharmacy gave us the asian cure-all of Tiger Balm for relief, and of course the pain went away in a few minutes.

Pai is just a small town but there are hundreds of guest houses. We splurged on one of the most expensive at $40/night for a private bungalow but there are options down to just a dollar a night. Although our bungalow was in the middle of rice paddies (much like the field shown above) it had air-con, satellite TV, hot water, and was next to the best pool of our trip.

Once in Pai tourists generally go exploring on a rented motorbike ($3/day) or do an organised trek. We weren’t keen on an organised trek or organised anything so rented bicycles ($1/24hr) and headed off in search of Mae Yen Waterfall that the map said was a 7 km walk after a few km of cycling. I don’t know how far we walked but after 3 hours of hiking along a river we decided the safest thing to do was turn back for another 3 hours of hiking in order to return before dark or any potential afternoon rain. Slightly disappointing as we must have been very close to the waterfall which is supposed to fall 30m into a swimmable pool of water.

The trail to the waterfall criss-crossed a small river or stream that only ever went to knee depth. By the time we finished walking we’d crossed it 82 times! At the turning back point the trail had all but disappeared and the only option was to climb up metre high waterfalls. We weren’t doing that, but earlier five clambering Canadians had passed us and we assumed they went further than this. The only other non local we saw was a beanie wearing Japanese hippie carrying a rifle on his shoulder. From a distance I’d thought it was a guitar. We exchanged pleasantries, as one should when meeting a gunman in the woods, and continued on.

Pai was one of those places that you spent a couple of days and wish that you’d spent more. While Chiang Mai is interesting and relaxing, I recommend readers go further afield if you have the time.

Posted by: kim | August 17, 2007

Cooking Thai

The popularity of Thai cooking means that there are dozens of companies offering you the chance to recreate popular dishes like green curry, pad thai, tom yum soup, spring rolls and so on. And even if you can’t cook, it’s easy, as most of it just involves mixing and stirring!

We decided to try the Gap’s Culinary Art School (Gap’s House is a small guesthouse in Chiang Mai; they do a delicious veggie buffet from 7pm to 9pm every day except Sunday). They’ll cater for all types of diets. Food, including the vegetables and the meat, fish (or tofu) is pre-chopped so you don’t have to worry about doing that either. The trip began with a visit to a local market where one of the really camp cooks explained the main vegetables, herbs and spices used in Thai cooking such as galangal, ginger, lemongrass, soy sauce, turmeric, the many different types of eggplant (aubergine), shallots, cumin, and the ubiquitous chillies, of course. The cooks had a tendency to act like schoolteachers, but in a comical way. They’d repeat someone’s name after explaining something, like “Isn’t that right, Christoooooophe?”

We began by looking at how to make a curry paste. (“You learn 2000 way or 1960 way? Blender, same same, mortar, too much work. I like a ladyboy, I like blender.”)

gaps culinary art school chiang mai
We were able to mix and match flavours to our preferred tastes whilst cooking. Too much soy sauce? Just balance it out with a bit of sugar. Too much coconut milk? Add a bit more stock or water. Each of us got our own workstation, but we were only ever at it for a few minutes at a time. It only takes a minute or two to make many of the dishes we tried out.
I’d recommend the course we did (900 baht per person; about US$27). It lasts from 10am to around 4pm and you get to take home the afternoon food for dinner — and you get loads of it. The picture of me is just what the two of us made for lunch. We had the veggie versions of the chicken green curry, chicken stir fry with ginger, fish soufflé in banana leaf, pad thai noodles, fish cakes, tom yam soup, jasmine rice, spring rolls (roll your own) and pumpkin with coconut custard. (Gap’s pictures.)

You also spend a short time learning how to garnish with an onion and a tomato. Quite a bit of practice is required to make your vegetable look as fancy as the demo version but we all did OK!

Most of the cooking classes will do a different course each day in rotation. So if you like the look of a particular course you may not be able to do it until that one comes around again. This might have an impact on which school you choose to use but I think most of them are of similar quality. Make sure you get a recipe book and a certificate at the end! The others on our course — Brits — seemed to enjoy it and the cooks were able to answer any burning questions you had about Thai cuisine!


Posted by: kim | August 15, 2007

A royal reception

All Thais love their Royal Family. Well, you can’t not love them or you’ll be causing great offence or even breaking the law (remember how Thailand temorarily blocked YouTube last year after someone posted a defamatory video about the King?). Drop a coin on the floor and you can’t step on it, else you’ll be stepping on the King’s face – a great insult.

Every restaurant, hotel, wat and household will have a photograph of the King and/or Queen adorning the wall. If you’ve eaten in a Thai restaurant outside of Thailand you’ll probably see pictures of them too. Mother’s Day was last Sunday (the Queen’s 75th Birthday) and there was much celebration.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, the Thai Royal Family is allowed to have an opinion, and everyone respects it. If Queen Sisikrit says jump, everyone will jump. This weekend sees in Thailand’s first referendum on the draft constitution, which was rewritten after last year’s peaceful coup. When monks expressed concern that Buddhism was not being made the country’s official religion in the new constitution, the Queen said in her birthday speech that religion was “beyond politics” and should remain separate. Immediately after, monks said they did not want to “upset Her Majesty” and withdrew their protest.

We went to see The Simpsons Movie last night in a cinema (yes, I had to clarify that it was a cinema – we walked past bars that were showing pirated copies on the small screen). I felt like I was in Hurstville Westfields; Rob thought he was in Westfield Penrith – same thing). But anyway, I digress. Before every movie, and after the trailers and the ads, everyone must rise respectfully for the National Royal Anthem (equivalent to God Save The Queen) and watch a sugary tribute with scenes of happiness and images of the Royals doing their good deeds. The clip ends with the words, “We love the King”. That’s patriotism!

Posted by: kim | August 14, 2007

Service with a smile?

I went to Thailand a few times as a teenager in the early 90s. (To put that timescale into perspective, I remember buying a pirated cassette by the old Swedish band Roxette circa 1992 – how embarrassing to admit!) I remember liking everywhere but Bangkok, and I remember going to various jewellery and handicraft places with my parents who were importing goods from Thailand at the time. I remember the wild ride up the mountains to Chiang Rai and then to Mae Sai, the northernmost part of Thailand, and going across the border into Burma for a couple of hours where I insisted upon having a stamp put into my passport. I’ve yet to visit Thailand’s beaches or islands.

Now, Thailand is a hotbed of tourism: eleven million visitors a year. Compare that with Cambodia (900,000 annual visitors) and Vietnam (three million). It’s hard to really escape the tourist trail, and if you randomly look up a lesser-known city in our Rough Guide book it invariably says there’s “nothing of interest here, but it’s an important transport hub”.

That’s certainly what you could say about Surin — there really wasn’t much to detain us, but there were certainly a lot of Westerners there. Mostly comfortably balding, pot-bellied men in their 50s with their equally comfortable Thai partners (the majority of couples in our hotel). One of them was a friendly and talkative American we met at a cafe, who told us he’d been living in Thailand for eight years. He’d just bought a large ceramic trough in which to keep goldfish. “I like goldfish,” he said. “They keep the mosquitoes away.” His partner (“not my wife”) gave us a bunch of longan fruit to try. He’d never been north to Chiang Mai and had never heard of Ayutthaya. There were also Americans in our hotel lobby having a boring religious argument with an equally boring old English guy.

Thailand’s slogan is the ‘land of smiles’, but we’ve had a few sour faces since arriving here from the hotel staff. In Ayutthaya, we arrived quite late at the Krungsri River Hotel at 10.30pm. They insisted the hotel rate was 1766 baht although we’d seen it listed at 1200 baht a night. They refused to even acknowledge this, although when we checked out we saw someone else’s receipt on the counter for — guess what — 1200 baht.

But that was only a minor gripe — when you check out of a hotel in Asia, they’ll usually check your mini bar; probably because they don’t trust you.

And this hotel alleged that we’d drunk two bottles of water from the fridge when we clearly hadn’t, and the receptionist and assistant manager wanted to charge us 80 baht for them ($2.50!). The bottles simply weren’t in the fridge to begin with. We’d even gone to the 7-11 to buy our own that night.

“Wait a minute,” they said, coming back with a sample plastic bottle. “Did you drink this?”

“No,” we replied. “We only drank the complimentary water that came in the glass bottle.”

An uneasiness between the two staff members. “But there is not water in the fridge.”

“It wasn’t there when we checked in. We arrived late at night and bought our own water. Look.” We held up the large bottle we’d bought.

Another uneasy giggle.

Rob asked: “Did you find any empty bottles in our room?”

“No…” After a minute, the assistant manager reluctantly took out a piece of paper with the words ‘Rebate form’ on it. “You have to write down that you didn’t drink the water.”

And there was Rob, writing what amounted to an affadavit or legal testimony. “WE DID NOT TAKE ANYTHING FROM THE MINIBAR ON 12/8 EG MINERAL WATER.”

So much for trust in the customer!

The tuk-tuk drivers also attempt to charge you over the odds for a short ride, and grumble if you won’t want to pay that much. “The gasoline! The gasoline!” they bemoan. “It outside town. It cost MORE.” One woman’s frown was permanently etched on her forehead; she zoomed off in a huff once she dropped us off. Thankfully though, these people have been in the minority, but a little more smiling wouldn’t go astray.

In Vietnam and Cambodia people have had it hard for so long that they are very grateful to see you in their country. Here they seem to take us a bit more for granted…

Housekeeping for nerds: If you have an RSS feed reader you can monitor updates to this site using the address

Posted by: rob | August 14, 2007

Headed north


We’ve spent the last few days zigzagging up to Chiang Mai in the northern mountains of Thailand. From Surin in the northeastern province of Isaan we caught a five hour train southwest to Ayutthaya. The Thai trains are as good as any we’ve had in Vietnam or China, with reclining seats much like in a plane and air conditioning. Unlike China and Vietnam however, people don’t bring huge buckets of cargo or larders of food (though the tickets do once again say not to bring any ‘malodorous fruit’). Although Ayutthaya is just 80km north of Bangkok we don’t intend to reach there for another ten or twelve days.

Ayutthaya is famously the ancient capital of Thailand. The palaces and temples that made it great have long since been reduced to rubble or usually stacks of red brick, though there are a few buildings still standing. After witnessing the splendour of Angkor in Cambodia, it was difficult to rouse much emotion at these sights but there was enough to interest us for a day or two. From Ayutthaya we moved north to Chiang Mai. As Thailand is so heavily touristed all the trains were sold out at least a day ahead so we had to settle for travel by bus. The ‘VIP’ bus ($23pp) took nine hours to reach Chiang Mai and we chose the day bus (10am-7pm) rather than the night bus (9pm-6am). It was the longest bus trip of our journey but it flew by in genuine comfort. Everything in Thailand is a riot of colour and the buses are no exception. Many of them are covered in primary colour depictions of super heroes or cartoon characters, as you can see below.

Now we’re in Chiang Mai with very little planned for the next week or two. Immediate impressions of the town are that it is relaxing but also mega touristic, something that could be said of Thailand as a whole.



Posted by: kim | August 11, 2007

Overland from Cambodia: O’Smach/Chong Jom

We’ve successfully negotiated our last international overland border crossing of the trip: the obscure O’Smach/Chong Jom border crossing that connects Cambodia and Thailand.

Most people travelling overland to Thailand will leave via Poipet and make a beeline for Bangkok, but as we’re visiting areas slightly north of there we thought we’d leave Siem Reap by one of the less frequented routes and head to the town of Surin in Thailand.

Our friendly tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Sukhin, told us his friend could take us to O’Smach for $55. “But the road is not so good,” he said, making undulating gestures with his hands. Most of the roads in Cambodia are not sealed and are thus in a state of constant disrepair… the rains do nothing to improve matters. A few days ago, the red dirt road we had to take from Battambang to Siem Reap had deteriorated rapidly when we got to the junction at Sisophon. Later that day, Sukhin told us that his friend had wanted to use his new car to take us the 150km or so to O’Smach, but he was afraid it might get wrecked so he was borrowing someone else’s instead.

At 6.30 we left the relative comfort of Siem Reap’s roads and headed west on to the ‘highway’. Those going to Poipet will share this initial part of the trip. After the rains, there were an incredible amount of potholes in the rocky, red dirt road and our driver began to do the pothole ‘dance’ which involved swerving rapidly at the last second to avoid them. Invariably you’re then confronted with another car in the opposite direction doing the same thing. If any astronaut plans on going to Mars, try practising driving your buggy on a Cambodian road! At times the driver reached 80 km/h but much of the time he was going at 40 km/h, so it took us about 4.5 hours to get to O’Smach.

It’s not all whiplash and juddering jaws though… the countryside really does change dramatically. It gets more mountainous and even more sparse, although crops are still prevalent and there seem to be more cows on the road. About 85 per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas and you’ll see many children herding, or running around naked playing in puddles or on dilapidated statues. The small wooden shacks people live in are filled with people, and there are many roadside stalls selling fruit, drinks and homemade food. The road got slightly less potholey once we headed north as not as many vehicles pass through, but it was still spongey and bumpy.

Along the way there also seemed to be a visible amount of foreign-funded schools and information signs about registering your child once it’s born or looking out for landmines. As we headed up towards O’Smach we saw people looking for land mines (this is pretty much the region of Khmer Rouge’s last stand), and another five-on-a-motorcycle sighting, this time with three monks on it!

We passed a car with some Westerners and as we approached O’Smach, we saw the big casino in the distance that attracts daytripping Thais (gambling’s illegal in Thailand). The border crossing was uneventful and straightforward enough — we made it to Thailand and immediately, we noticed how the road was sealed and even had paint on it! The problem now was getting to Surin without any baht.

Luckily the three young Americans in the car behind us were also going to Surin (about 90 mins away), but they were hard bargainers. Only one driver offered to take us to Surin in his private bus and wanted 1,000 baht for the privilege (about $30). No one could tell us when a public bus would arrive. The Americans were initially only keen on paying 50 baht per person ($1.50). Eventually, after almost an hour of discussion and negotiation, we all agreed on paying 100 baht per person “but you share with some Thai people”.

Finally we got to Surin after occasional checks by the bus police (some Thais had to get out of the vehicle – don’t really know why…) and despite a few people dropping in and out at various stops it was pretty straightforward. Our hotel was even next door to the bus terminal!!

Surin is a provincial town but compared to what we’ve seen it’s pretty big. It’s famous for its ‘elephant round-up’ which is some kind of fair involving elephants participating in contests of skill, beauty and showmanship (I think). Apart from that, there’s nothing too exciting apart from huge DIY stores, keycutters and so on but the people are laid back and friendly! And we did see one elephant in the bus car park…

Posted by: rob | August 10, 2007

Temples of Angkor


Wow! This was our first reaction upon seeing the jawdroppingly stunning Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap in Cambodia. To see the temples, and there are actually dozens of them, you need to decide in advance if you want to visit for one, two, three, or seven days. We chose the three day ticket ($40) which was just enough time to see all but a few of the smallest temples. It allowed us to tag rest days before and after the temple days for some well deserved R&R.


The temples and buildings date from around 800AD until around 1200AD. Almost all fell into disrepair or obscurity before 1400AD, not until the mid 1800s did a French explorer unearth the sites and realise he had discovered structures that rivalled the pyramids or great wall for their importance, architecture, and purpose.


As far as accommodation goes, the only real option is to base yourself in Siem Reap, just 3km away from the temples and in the throes of escalating tourism. Sadly but not unexpectedly the town itself offers almost nothing in the way of showing what real Cambodia is like. It has a ‘Pub Street’, a ‘Grub Street’, and not much else. However, this matters very little as visiting the temples is literally a dawn until dusk affair as thousands congregate to watch the sun rise or set over the magnificent spires and time spent in Siem Reap is minimal.


While Angkor Wat is the most famous of the complexes and the site in best condition, there are half a dozen other major sites that can be explored for many hours. Angkor Thom is a walled city several times the size of Angkor Wat, and it houses the mysterious Bayon temple, famous for the many staring Buddha faces carved into rock. And Ta Prohm is an almost alien experience. Here, the jungle is taking back the temple and huge trees wrap themselves around whole buildings. You might have seen this in the Tomb Raider film. (I’ll have to watch it myself one day …)


Unless you are travelling in a tour group, nearly everyone hires a tuk tuk driver for the extent of their stay. You can see what the Cambodians call a tuktuk below, which is different form a Thai tuktuk. The first haggling question a tuktuk driver will ask you is “Where are you staying?” in order to surreptitiously gauge your ability to pay. For anyone else headed this way, we managed $12 a day, but I’m sure you could haggle a few dollars lower, and we found out going directly through our hotel would have set us back $46 a day, though this included a guide. Your driver takes you between the sites, which are each a few kilometres apart. and justs waits from you to return at your leisure. During this time you form something of a friendship or loyalty with the driver. One the first day, you learn his name. On the second, about his family. On the third, where he lives and how he slept last night. Good thing we didn’t get a seven day ticket.


Don’t imagine that seeing the temples is all about chaffeur driven luxury, though. While you can get a basic experience walking up to the front entrances, there is a huge amount of walking involved if you want to get full value. The is also a good quotient of climbing to do as well, and at times it appears quite dangerous. Even in Angkor Wat, the central citadel can only be reached by climbing up very very steep slippery rocks without handrails. One slip here and you’d end up in hospital at best. That is nothing compared with the skills you need to avoid the touts. Literally hundreds of times a day you will be asked to buy a book, water, Tshirt, or postcards. Usually by gaggles of cute 10 year old kids. Kim has some funny videos of the touting (“Mister long hair, you buy shirt! Lady Pink [shirt], you have look?”).


The only down side to our trip was that it was our first steady rain for more than two months and it rained everyday. It wasn’t such a problem especially in the covered temples like Ta Prohm but it was not always good for photography. I seem to have collated several dozen pictures of Kim standing next to humongous trees!? And at times, you’d find a tour group of fifty South Koreans descend just as you had found a peacful place to explore.


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