A Singapore Fling

Singapore is one of those strange places that only exist in the movies. It’s a perfect city in the sense that the standard of living, public transport, public parks, safety record, policing, sightseeing, architecture, theme parks, multiculturalism and so on, it’s got it all in spades. If you are caught with drugs it’s the death penalty. In fact the entry Visa to Singapore states that on it too. There are no beggars looking for money, it’s just forbidden. You will see the occasional old person in the subway stations selling little packets of tissues. It’s the closest you will get to any form of begging. There is no rubbish left anywhere, the parks have running tracks, bicycle tracks, with markings on which side to walk on. Barbecue pits for anyone to use at any time (no drink allowed). High rise apartment blocks and buildings are everywhere with swimming pools galore. Universal Studios have set up a theme park on Sentosa Island, the zoo is open plan with a night safari train ride. People are super friendly. We were approached (not to be confused with asking for help) three times by locals asking if they could help us with directions. No scam intended, just a willingness to help. It’s like the perfect society with Muslim, Hindu, Christian and the rest living side by side with no ills. Chinatown, Little India, English widely spoken by pretty much everyone and glorious weather. The population is predominantly Chinese with Malaysian, Indian and European thrown into the mix. 5.5 million live here of which around 2 million are foreigners. Poverty is rare in Singapore. The government has no welfare system, stating that each generation must earn and save enough for its entire life cycle. One in six households are millionaires. We had seen the poorer of society selling tissues instead of begging but even these are means tested getting between SGD 400 and SGD 1000 per month, free medical care at government hospitals, money for children’s school fees, rental of studio apartments and training grants for courses. Singaporeans are proud of the city and rightly so. What makes it unique also is the fact that it is a city state. It’s quite small sitting at the end of the Malaysian peninsula. It’s super clean. Before we arrived, we had heard tales about the smell of bleach everywhere and chewing gum being illegal. True some of the public transport systems did actually smell like bleach but they were constantly being cleaned. I don’t know how much weight can be attributed to the legality of chewing gum but none of the shops sold it!?
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This might sound a little odd but there was something slightly unsettling about this place. It’s almost too perfect. A few years ago we were in Berlin and as someone with a huge fascination with history (especially when I visit a place as I think it’s important to understand why people behave as they do when you are a guest in their country), I read a lot about Hitler’s Third Reich and the plans for the Germanic Empire. As bad as World War II was, the idea to build a perfect society with perfect housing, education, public transport etc looked impressive on paper. A Utopian society is all well and good and many Sci-Fi movies explore the topic. I am a Sci-Fi fanatic and love the concepts but there is always one flaw. The rich live the Utopian lives, they drive the fancy car, have the big house, the perfect beautiful children, the highly paid job and live amongst the clouds. The Third Reich destroyed Europe and will go down in history as an evil bunch of individuals who corrupted an entire country. In Sci-Fi movies, the hero is always on the outskirts, looking in and it always comes crashing down. Singapore reminded me of these things all the time. It’s a truly beautiful place, the people are lovely, the roads, buildings, restaurants, bars, walkways are all immaculate. Everyone seems to be living a high-end existence. It’s a Utopian city, if ever the world had one. Where’s the catch?
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After travelling from Cambodia, we had left a little bit of our hearts there with the people. We arrived at Changi airport, jumped on a 36 bus (this does a loop into the city and is the best option other than a taxi to get around) and made our way to meet one of Denise’ oldest friends Helen, who has lived and worked in Singapore for the past number of years. There are hundreds of high rise apartment blocks and the view from inside Helens place was outstanding. Don’t confuse these with the run down shitty apartment stacks in some European countries. There is no graffiti, no junkies and no boarded up windows here. It’s pristine, safe and security guard protected at all times. We had a nice few days with her and she showed us a few cool places that we would never have taken in as just tourists. After our first day climatising to the different pace of the city after the laid back Otres Beach in Cambodia, we had a nice evening with a few drinks with our hostess. Next day Helen was heading to Australia for her own holiday and we headed off into the city to see a few of the sights. Singapore Zoo was great (I like zoos where the animals have loads of space) and the amazing Gardens of the Bay was like a scene straight out of Avatar. Our time here was brief but enjoyable. The Chinese New Year celebrations are gearing up so China Town is awash with colours and smells. If travelling here I recommend a few days is plenty, blitz the sights and enjoy it for what it is. Trust the people, they are really trying to help! And don’t worry about being scammed. This might be South East Asia but Singapore is it’s own little world. …And the catch is, it will cost a pretty penny. Some things like public transport, attraction entrance fees are not really much more than other countries. Food and drink (especially alcohol) will rip into the wallet. Some places quoted SGD 12 to 20 for a mid level glass of wine and beers aren’t too far behind. It depends on what kind of holiday/trip you want really. Hotels too are crazy prices so shop around. The prices reflect the wage that the inhabitants earn to be fair, but might not suit all who visit. We liked our stay here, once we settled, it was lovely to catch up with Helen and it was a change of pace from the rest of the trip, considering the standards of living etc, but we were happy to move on too. Back to the airport and onto Indonesia to visit Bali – Island of the Gods.

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Can the Real Cambodia Please Stand Up?

At time of writing we are sitting on a bus from Cambodia’s capitol Phnom Pehn, on an onward journey to Sihanoukville on the South West coast. Though we’ve been here a relatively short time, it seems like a month. Cambodia gets under your skin whether you want it to or not. You may hate it or love it (or both). The poverty is the closest to Third-World that I have witnessed in the flesh in my life so far. One day I will make it to Africa and will perhaps review this opinion, but for now Cambodia will be my own personal benchmark. Dominica in the Caribbean was similar. Certain parts of Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are poor and the people have very little. Abuse, poverty, street kids, orphanages., corruption. They are evident in all South East Asian countries to a degree. It seems like this could be a feeding ground for it all. The intro crossing the border certainly felt that way!

 

We walked out onto a dirt road outside hostel to explore Siem Reap a bit. We had agreed with our tuk tuk driver to collect us at 10am tomorrow to go to Angkor Wat. Siem Reaps Pub Street does exactly what it says on the tin. Compared to the Kho San Road in Bangkok, it is clean, wide streets and the usual street vendors. It’s a lovely oasis in the dust of the surrounding roads. It’s very Westernised with various pubs to live music venues to other bigger establishments like backpacker favourite ‘Angkor What?’ to full on nightclub ‘The Temple.’ Depending on where you choose to drink, the draft beers go from $0.50 up to $2.75. Most of the side streets veering off Pub Street are like narrow laneways with any amount of restaurants to choose from. A lot of French influence on the menus. I had Frogs Legs for the first time. They taste like chicken, but you would want to eat something else afterwards! Frogs aren’t too big! Denise found it easier to get food here too, with much of the menus catering for both Khmer and Western palates. She had a Tuna salad, and because of the French influence, having previously occupying Cambodia, there were a few selections for wine here too. As regards menus saying the word Gluten Free, don’t expect to see too much of it. Denise has had to go with her gut feeling a lot, but as long as there have been no Soy sauce she’s been ok so far but it can be hard trying to go over the same info over and over. Many Cambodians over the age of 50 can speak decent French, while the younger generation have a grasp of the English language. Communicating with the locals is easier here, though managing to say please or thank you in Khmer goes a long way. We still haven’t managed to grasp that one! Coming into Cambodia through Poipet on the border from Thailand, you would almost want to turn back. It’s dirty, dusty and wide open. Now and again you see cows looking half starved, more dogs wandering than you can shake a stick at, the traffic is chaotic. The bus regularly played chicken over taking anything smaller than it. When you get to Siem Reap, it’s almost like the slight apprehension leaves and you notice that it is quite a nice little town. It is still dusty and a bit rural, but there are numerous huge hotels, unlimited hostels, pubs, markets, street sellers, works of art everywhere and then there’s the people. Siem Reap has grown to be this wonderful little tourist spot all due to the huge 200 square km (yes that big) series of ancient temple kingdoms from Cambodia’s powerful past. (It once stretched as far as India). However, it is the people that make it a winner. They are super polite, please and thank you in abundance, plenty of smiles and a good chunk of attitude thrown in. they aren’t afraid to give the sob story hoping to get a few extra Riel or US Dollars from the visitors. They are so poor, it’s easy to almost forgive this trait in the collective personality. The thing about the Cambodians is that they think that because we have white skin and from the ‘west,’ then we must be rich. If only they knew the situation in Ireland and Europe from the recent Recession years they would perhaps understand that we don’t all have deep pockets. We had to work hard to get here and if we were to hand money to everyone we meet because they are poor, we wouldn’t get very far over here. It’s very hard to shake my head no at a child begging, or a person who has lost limbs from a landmine. The street beggars are everywhere. There are signs informing the tourists that the many kids on the streets begging are there by wishes of their parents instead of sending them to school. (We counted about 10 schools on Siem Reap) There are Social Services in Cambodia to tackle this and the more we as tourists hand over to them, the more they will send the kids out to beg. It doesn’t make it easy though. Saying no to a child who is dirty and making a pitiful sing song sound is not a nice experience.

 

On our first morning we checked out of our first nights accommodation, walked across the road into a better one at half the price and had some breakfast in a little café called Sanctuary. They help street teenagers etc to find work by employing them and giving them life skills. By eating here, we were actively helping the local community. Our tuk tuk driver Sovann was waiting for us bring us on the trip to Angkor Wat. We passed his school (Australian-Cambodian English language school) and explained that he had paid $50 a semester and put himself through school to learn to speak and write English. He now helps the local poor children by printing out school books (we saw the printers too) and is looking to try set up a foundation to get foreigners to come over to teach English as his skills aren’t good enough. Now to a cynical person, this sounds like an almighty sob story, but he was genuine, an absolute gent, and we witnessed even the books. He is also extremely poor. His clothes had holes in them and his bike was pretty small for the tuk tuk. Normally if this sort of story comes from the driver, I would be very stand off-ish but I found Sovann to be genuine in his ideas and plans for the future. I got some info sent to me by email, with details of what he is trying to achieve. I admire people who have big dreams and who have bettered themselves in order to help others less fortunate. If he ever gets his plans up and running then I will keep updating this blog in case anyone ever wants to help in the future. If anyone wants more info feel free to email him directly at angkor.sovann@gmail.com. Life is too short to pass over helping others no matter where they come from. A coffee or beer for me is 4 or 5 school books for him. The world seems pretty unfair sometimes.

Sokann - the tuk tuk driver with a big heart!

Sovann – The Tuk Tuk driver with a big heart!

As for his current job at hand, we went to the Angkor Wat temples as planned and they didn’t in anyway disappoint. The place is mammoth and no amount of photographs can ever describe the scale and wonder of it. Cambodia was once a giant kingdom and if the will of the people is anything to go by they can be so again. The price of admission for Angkor Wat is $20 per day or $40 for 3 days. The tuk tuk ride was $20 for the whole day. If you want to rent a bicycle for around $2 for the day it is an option but trust me the distance to cover is huge. The tuk tuk is worth it!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

The Gate of Erebor! (for any Lord of the Rings fans) Pure stone, and huge

The Gate of Erebor! (for any Lord of the Rings fans) Pure stone, and huge

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After the day, we said our good byes to a new friend and I wish him all the best that life can throw at him for the future. Walking around Siem Reap that evening the place was more comfortable, warmer and chilled. You get slightly immune to the atmosphere, the traffic and dust. It’s just basic climatisation and could Cambodia be a nicer place than Thailand? Could it? Walking back to our hostel hand in hand, stopping to take pictures of the beautiful lights and debating whether to get ice cream or not at 11pm, we were in great spirits. Loving this place. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a little 5 or 6 year old boy asleep in the dirt, his mother asleep hunched over him. For a second it didn’t resonate. We looked at each other, realizing what the pile of clothes was. We walked back to them. I tapped her on the shoulder and woke her and handed her some money. She was almost in tears and wanted to wake the child up to say thank you. We told her to let him sleep. We didn’t want any thanks, just to help a little. We walked on, Denise close to tears, I couldn’t think of anything to say and ice cream was the last thing on our minds.

 

We decided to hit the road to Phnom Pehn and arranged our bus tickets through Giant Ibis. There are several bus companies running this journey. Giant Ibis seems to be the best of them. The ticket one way to Phnom Pehn is $15 each. There are no trains in Cambodia apart from the Bamboo railway in Battambang. We won’t get to see that during this trip. Maybe someday… Giant Ibis have a GPS aboard to make sure the drivers go slow. They provide water, a Danish pastry, some movies onboard (though the sound is so low you can’t hear it) two stops on the way for toilet and food at a roadside restaurant. The journey took over 7 ½ hours. This was no ordinary journey though. There is practically 300km of roadworks. It is so dusty you can barely see the traffic in front at times. Thick red dust. It’s like driving on the surface or Mars. Every ten mins or so, the bus plays chicken with giant trucks, with motorbikes and cows nipping inbetween at the same time. Gaps with sharp drops at the edge of the makeshift roads make a fairly hairy drive at times. If you ever suffer from travel sickness, then take tablets! In spite of this it’s totally fascinating and the views of rural Cambodia as the sun was going down was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Arriving in Phnom Pehn after dark, I was surprised at how little major infrastructure there was. Sure, there are a few big hotels along the Mekong River banks but it’s no Bangkok. Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in Vietnam may be a chaotic, energy filled place, but Phnom Pehn is just a bit of a mess. As big capitol cities go, there isn’t too much to see. There are several sights like the Kings palace, a few big Wats (temples) and the riverside walkway along the Mekong River is lovely with numerous International flags fluttering in the cool breeze. I have a secret fascination with the Vietnam War (Platoon and Apocolypse Now are still great movies) and to stand next to the Mekong River was really cool. I went through the Vietcong tunnels in Vietnam a few years ago so now I’ve stood at the American side! Anyway back to Phnom Pehn…The city’s main attraction to see is the notorious S-21, once a school turned torture base for the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. To have something as notorious as this as a main attraction shows how much the city has suffered. Once we arrived, we got a tuk tuk to our Hostel Velkomment Geuesthouse and got ourselves washed and ready to go. The staff here are brilliant, extremely friendly and helpful. I had managed to book a second night through email with no fuss at all. The streets are full of bars, mini eateries, a small red light district and all manner of foreigners chilling next to the roadside sipping on cheap $0.75 beers. The street beggars here are everywhere. They don’t give up, they ask you over and over. A woman walked up to two guys beside us with a small baby. She made that sing song cry that they all do and pointed at the child. He shook his head no. She persisted. Eventually he gave in, she grabbed the money, gave no recognition and no thanks. She was a far cry from the lady we had seen on the bridge in Siem Reap. As soon as she walked away another woman with a child walked up to the same man. He was more steadfast this time and said no more forcefully. This woman was a bit overweight. Hungry she was not. The street beggars here are more refined and more in your face. It’s a job to them and it’s hard to distinguish genuinely poor from scammers. How do you say no without feeling like an asshole? I feel angry at these people for keeping their kids out until the late hours doing this. They have no future doing this. How can they change and get educated if their guardians make them do it? We sat looking at a little brother and sister play and laugh. Children just want to play. An older sister stood looking at them from the corner and they reverted to trying to sell trinkets and beg. What a shame. Why are these people doing this when there are brand new state of the art tuk tuks and landrover jeep driving around? We decided to go to the Genocide Museum (formerly S21) and then to the Killing Fields to get a better understanding of why Cambodia is so fucked up.

 

Two years ago we went to Krakow in Poland for five days and took a trip to Auschwitz. For anyone who has been there, it is a desolate sad place, and even standing in the billets of the Auschwitz jails or over the ruins of the gas chambers at Birkenau you still question your senses. Did this really happen? I can see the evidence, the piles of toothbrushes, clothes and other remnants of the horror, but it’s hard to imagine. This would surely never happen again in the world. We learn from history don’t we? Cambodia would disagree. Pol Pots regime killed nearly two million of their own people in similar fashion. We stood in the spot, saw the torture items, the cells and eventually, the Killing Fields. As we walked we could see the bone fragments still coming to the surface under our feet. The city dwellers were put into forced labour. Educated people were wiped out, even their babies were smashed off a tree. The Khmer Rouge believed that a whole generation had to be wiped out from families so there could be no future revenge retribution. The rural uneducated were enlisted as soldiers to carry this out. Only two of the regime have been tried in International Courts so far. It’s all very recent. Today’s population has had to rebuild. Like Auschwitz before, I didn’t feel right taking photographs. The one I did take of a sign about bones underfoot should be enough to explain. image

If ever in Phnom Pehn, I would recommend taking the time out to visit this place. Apparently when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power they found Phnom Pehn practically deserted. Given that the city now houses 8 million inhabitants, that’s an eerie thought. Cambodia is a country that is rediscovering itself, embracing tourism and rebuilding from nothing. Though I wouldn’t class Phnom Pehn as a pretty city it definitely has an energy about it. It’s worth a visit, as to get a feel for a place by absorbing the atmosphere is better than passing through. We were happy with two days here, and felt it was time to move on. Siem Reap had been a great little city, with a cultural mix of Khmer and Western/European society. It had superb 5 star hotels next to shanty houses made of wood and galvanise sheet metal. Phnom Pehn, too had some exceptional buildings but the whole place was grimier, dirtier and more lived in. It was once the ‘Pearl’ of South East Asia, and maybe one day it will reclaim that title. Having visited Bangkok, I seriously doubt it ever will. The one thing that has stood out overall in Cambodia, is the people. They are brilliant. True there are a lot of people begging or selling, but that’s a survival instinct. Many of these have had no chance of an education and the younger generation with smart phones, WiFi at every corner, a very good grasp of English and a fresh enthusiasm to be friendly will surely pull the Cambodians cheerily into the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, part of the charm being here is the fact that nobody really gives a shit half of the time. There’s been a few times we’ve just laughed to ourselves observing the world around us. From early morning to late late into the night, the locals have a strong work ethic. Everyone is doing something at all times, but when there is a chance to rest (some tuk tuk drivers have hammocks in the actual vehicle to chill in the afternoon sun) or to do things at a snail pace (patience is needed and expected) they will just get on with things their own way, while always cheekily asking for an extra dollar. Part of the fun is to barter, and as I’ve learned, doing it with a smile works better. Denise has mastered that! So if the big bad city has an extra bite, is a bit rougher around the edges, compared to touristy Siem Reap, then what does Sihanoukville hold for us? This is Cambodia’s premier beach destination stretching out into the Gulf of Thailand. We leave in the morning for another 4 hour bus journey – again with Giant Ibis. Accommodation booked online and looking forward to the change. So far the common denominator has been the local people, but the areas vary. Most are very friendly (if not fond of chancing their arm at times) and I can’t quite figure out if the people are actually not as poor as they seem. Everywhere we look, it’s normal to cook, sit, eat in not so clean environments. The local homes are run down but full of life. The country has an enormous amount of dogs! And the people seem to like having them around. Are the beggars earning a small fortune? There are no social welfare payments here. It’s work or starve. Or beg. Maybe the coast area will show us a different side?

 

UPDATE: Once we landed in Sihanoukville, we were accosted by the hordes of tuk tuk drivers in the now all too familiar bartering for trade. You can’t hate the guys for trying, they have to eat! At the top of the town there is a huge roundabout with two massive Golden Lions. Naturally this is a well known location for directions and for getting our bearings for our general location. We dropped our bags and headed out for a walk down the hill towards the beach. Serendipity road is basically a line of hostels, guesthouses, restaurants, massage parlours almost all with a bar attached with some very good spots. The Big Easy had a Britrock era theme to it and live music/open mic, cheap drinks promos and a great atmosphere. We were a bit tired after the travelling so we didn’t venture down to the beach where apparently it comes to life at around 12pm. We met an Irish guy called Glen who was a real character who filled us in on a bit of info about the area. Next day we hit the beach for the first time on this trip. So far it’s been cities, towns, trains and buses so it was a nice change of pace to just sit in the sun. The usual street sellers are here much like the other areas of Cambodia but the kids on the beach have a real bite about them. They aren’t shy in speaking their mind good or bad. Denise naturally made friends with one of the girls who gave her a free ankle bracelet. We got talking to an English guy next to us and ended up on the beer that night along the beach bars. Mr Wild is one of those people you occasionally meet in life. He’s neither glass half full nor half empty. He takes each facet of his life to the extreme. Wild by name and Wild by nature! We got some great info about the area from him, and after a night or two headed down the coast a bit to Otres Beach. There are two of these side by side, Otres 1 and Otres 2. In regards to the beach part, there’s not too much sand but what little there is, is white soft powder fringed by sun loungers in front of makeshift bars with the occasional hammock hanging from the trees. Pure relaxation and peace. It was perfect for us and we chilled for a few days here not worrying about anything. After a few weeks of travelling through various spots in Thailand and Cambodia this place was serene. Barely even a shop, dusty roads, beach huts and it felt like it was almost a forgotten place. There are still the street (or is that beach?) sellers but they’re a bit more easy going here. The one that always gets me are the guys selling sunglasses. Hello?! I’m wearing them, but they still try to sell me a pair! Anyways, the locals here along the beach fronts seem to have converted their homes into bars/restaurants and are open early to very late. All the family are around all the time, including the various dogs who frequent the beach. Rabies is alive and well this part of the world but I haven’t seen any sign of it. The dogs are quite friendly and are used to being fed by the tourists. Once in particular dragged herself around by the front paws. Her hind legs and lower back were all collapsed. If anyone encounters this dog be kind! She is one of the older dogs, very tame and is the victim of a poisonous snake bite. A Russian guy near us took off his shoe to hit her. Asshole. She went to sleep under our feet. A lot of these do a nightly BBQ and it’s definitely one of the best we’ve ever had. Denise had no problems at all with these with her coeliac needs. Oh and if you like weed or not you WILL smell it here. It’s openly smoked by pretty much half of the people. Everywhere. We stayed in a quiet little place called Otres Marina, a street off the beach. Out the back there was a salt water lake, a room with that all important mosquito net, air conditioning and outdoor toilet/shower. I’d definitely recommend it! So far this has been Denise’s favourite place that we’ve travelled to.

Dog chilling on Serendipity/Ochheuteal beach

Dog chilling on Serendipity/Ochheuteal beach

Sunset at Otres beach

Sunset at Otres beach

One of the things we noticed walking up and down the beach is that there is a huge amount of property development being done everywhere. Large hotels are starting to pop up and though some of them are nice to look at, the feel of Otres beach and the charm of the place is the rustic, patched together huts. If ever there is a time to visit this part of Cambodia it’s now. In ten years I reckon the place will have changed to resemble the Ochheuteal and Serendipity beach areas a few miles up the coast. After our few days here we headed back to Phnom Pehn (Giant Ibis dropped us at the airport) and flew out of Cambodia for Singapore. Leaving Cambodia we were both a little sad. The place is rough around the edges and sometimes certain aspects of it can play with your emotions. But the people! The Khmer’s are an incredible race who should have a chip on their shoulders but they don’t. They will barter, and have no fear of trying to get every last Riel/Dollar that they can, but can you blame them? Based on the new roads and buildings popping up and the spirit of the people I get the impression that Cambodia will find it’s feet again and become a strong nation in the region. But at what cost? The thing that makes people like me love the place is the fact that it is more rural and underdeveloped. Singapore lets be having ya!

 

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Into the Wild

Ok let’s get the truth out in the open here. Crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia isn’t exactly Hell on Earth, even though it can feel that way at times. It is scam after scam, it is hot and tiresome and it will drive you to the point of freaking out. It doesn’t have to be though! If you keep calm, ignore the many many touts, stick to your gut instinct you will pass through with no real problems at all. There are literally hundreds of buses, mini vans etc offering the service. There is the option highlighted on Seat 61 http://www.seat61.com/Cambodia.htm whereby, you get a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station to Aranyaprathet near the border. Jump on a tuk tuk to Poipet, cross the border (and all that goes with it) Walk to Roundabout, get a free Shuttle Bus ‘Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal’ and try arranging a shared taxi or mini van to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Now I don’t know about you, but that to me sounds like it’s a lot of hassle. We went for option number two.

After arriving in Bangkok from Chiang Mai on the sleeper train to Hua Lamphong train station, we jumped in a taxi. The driver had no issue with using the meter but did inform us that he had to pass through a toll to avoid the rush hour traffic through the city an that it costs 50 Baht (€1.35, $1.52, £1.01). We were ok with this as I had read about it online and knew that it was legitimate. We arrived at Mo Chit bus terminal about 15 minutes later. The taxi cost just under 100 Baht. At Mo Chit, when we walked in the door there is a glass information desk in the middle of the hall, straight in front. Directly behind that there is a ticket booth for tickets directly to Siem Reap in Cambodia. This bus drives to the border, and collects you at the other end, driving the whole way. No need for tuk tuks. Tickets one way are 750 Baht (€20.26, $22.91, £15.19). To the left of the booth we walked through the doorway to a seating area, and waited to board the bus. Now this was a little bit of a calculated risk. The bus to Siem Reap, much like the sleeper trains, have to be booked beforehand as they fill up pretty quickly. We arrived from Chiang Mai at 6:30am and the bus left Mo Chit at 8:00am so we were chancing our luck turning up for tickets. There were 4 seats left. We had a plan B, to just stay in Bangkok until the following day but we were glad that we got our seats. Bangkok is a great city and we love it but it’s nice to keep moving instead of wasting a day waiting to cross the border. There is a way to book these online apparently but there have been varying reports about how good this option is. I’d rather physically hold my tickets so doing it in person always works for me. Our seats weren’t together but we sat beside each other anyway. There were a few people who were solo travellers so it worked out fine for us. The bus gives a small breakfast of a pastry, orange juice (the type that the crazy woman on the Chiang Mai train fleeced me for https://roomz4two.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/the-lord-of-the-train/) and water. So far so good, painless, straight forward and no scam.
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Official Bus Tickets

Official Bus Tickets

[caption id="attachment_77" align="alignnone" width="300"]Stop off for food or toilet Stop off for food or toilet

On the way to the border, the bus makes a ten minute stop at a garage with restrooms. Not the best mind you and ladies you will have to squat. Then the fun part begins… Now as mentioned before, this journey is notorious for scams. Private buses are known to stop here and there, open the luggage compartment, let an accomplice climb in and go through the luggage while you are none the wiser. It’s a common occurance. This, being an ‘official’ bus shouldn’t have such behavior but the bus did stop. A lot. In fact I’m sure it stopped every fifteen minutes for the whole journey. But it wasn’t to open the luggage compartment. No this driver, who I’m pretty sure was Cambodian as he stopped more frequently on the Cambodian side and spoke away to the locals, was on a shopping trip. Food, wood, trinkets, you name it. If there was something on offer, well damn it this guy was going to have a look. I’ve heard of Thai time but this was torturous. Not half as torturous as the actual border crossing was though. We stopped at the office of the bus company, in a little stretch of misery and a guy hopped on board. He was wearing a denim shirt and jeans and sunglasses. He didn’t look in any was official at all. Well this ‘cowboy’ started a ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ speech about how we would be all filling out the Cambodian visa application (a white sheet of photocopied paper) and then he would collect our Passports to speed up the process for us. What a nice guy! What a load of bollox! Now this was a scam. While this was happening the second ‘official’ driver handed out a laminated company logo to hang around our necks. And then handed around a warm rice and sausage dinner. It was half edible, but as Denise is coeliac she couldn’t chance eating the rice due to cross contamination. There was a general grumbling on the bus about this stop and no-one knew what was going on. I knew it was a scam, and mentioned it to a couple sitting beside us. They agreed, having done some homework before the journey also. This made up my mind. No way was I handing back the form, no way was my Passport leaving my side and no way was I paying a single Baht. The Visa for Cambodia can be bought two ways. Online at http://www.evisa.gov.kh or at the other side of the border on the Cambodian side and is payable in US Dollars. We also had Passport photos with us (1 is needed) for the Visa. The ‘cowboy’ got back on the bus. Of course he came to us first, typically. Even though I knew it was a scam I was still a little nervous. “I’ll get mine at the border.’ He nodded and moved on. More and more people said the same thing. He didn’t make any fuss. I guess the tourists are slowly copping on to this and they have stopped pressurizing people. A few people did hand over their details. The thing is, the white ‘form’ said two copies needed on it. Surely then we should have been handed two to fill out if it had been genuine, no?

The fake Visa application form

The fake Visa application form

Stop over to fill out the 'fake' Cambodian Visa

Stop over to fill out the ‘fake’ Cambodian Visa

We then arrived at what I can only describe as Satan’s Lair. The minute we stepped off the bus there were several guys shouting, about our visa. We couldn’t go anywhere if we didn’t have it first, we would be left behind, come into the office for processing. This is as up in your face as you can get. If you are ever on this trip, ignore them, spot the sign for Passport Control, and walk to it. Walk fast, as it stops people haggling and also gets you ahead of the que. You then enter a building for Passport and exit visa control. The details are checked and you leave Thailand. Simple. No money exchanged. Then you will be stopped at a little tent, fill out a small form to say you are healthy, receive a yellow slip and walk towards the big concrete Welcome to Cambodia sign. Once there, on the right, there is an office where, surprise surprise you are handed the REAL Cambodian Visa application form. It’s smaller, and in colour. Again, easy stuff, but there is always room for another scam right? The border officials insist on 100 Baht per person for absolutely no apparent reason. The sign above says Visa $30 US Dollars and that’s all you have to pay. So I was clever, and hid any remaining Thai Baht. I can’t give them any bribe money if I don’t have it can I? ‘It’s ok,’ says the lovely official. No Baht then $3. Now I had just handed over a $100 dollar note to pay for myself and Denise so I couldn’t pretend I only had enough for the Visa. Bastard. I had to pay it. Instead of $60 it cost $66. I nearly had my phone taken off me for taking pictures for this blog but the guy who looked through the pictures saw I was doing no harm was sound, and I had a bit of banter with him. ‘One more step,’ he said cheerfully. I noticed one of the people from our bus walk in with his ‘white’ Visa in hand, after paying for this fake one earlier on the bus, to realize he still had to buy the official one here. The look of rage in his face. He couldn’t do anything about it either. The ‘cowboy’ though still floating around would be long gone once we got back on the bus. We walked out the other door into Poipet in Cambodia. This place is full of huge Casinos and is generally an absolute shithole. Poipet should be called Toilet. Once outside we walked up along the path for a minute or two (there are no signs) and there was a massive que. Our bus was waiting for us there. There are children everywhere here begging, people with no limbs too. It’s a bit overwhelming, along with the whole process, the searing heat, it’s hard to grasp. We went into the final room where our Passports were checked and our fingerprints taken electronically. Apart from the que it’s pretty painless here too.

Passport Control - Thailand

Passport Control – Thailand

Cambodia up ahead

Cambodia up ahead

Cambodia Visa. You Pay Here!

Cambodia Visa. You Pay Here!

The Official Visa form with Yellow Health check form

The Official Visa form with Yellow Health check form

Passport Control -Cambodia

Passport Control -Cambodia

Once we were back at our bus, we were approached by two little girls begging for money. We gave them the second meal that Denise hadn’t eaten from the bus. I told them to share it. They spent the next ten minutes or so laughing hysterically. They were so happy. The driver seemed a bit pissed off when he realised they had one of the trays of food from the bus and shunted them away. Prick.

Back on board we headed off for another 3 hours to Siem Reap. Cambodia is all open flat land. It looks like the Plains of Africa. It’s very barren, but very beautiful too. There seems to be a lot of rural farms, I’m sure I spotted a Massey Ferguson (tractor) or two, a few cows here and there. Still a lot of run down shacks and very poor looking people.
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We arrived into Siem Reap home of the world famous Angkor Wat temple complex and we were surprised how clean and built up the place was. We had nowhere to stay, having left Chiang Mai in a bit of a hurry so had to find a bed. The bus dropped us off at its office and we were swarmed by tuk tuk drivers who were all on a cut. At first we were wary, as scams and commission based work is rife here, even more so than Thailand. Cambodia is very poor, and has a high crime rate because of it. We opted for a nice friendly younger tuk tuk driver and he brought us around searching for accommodation. The tuk tuk’s here are different from the 3 wheel vans in Thailand. They are basically a moped or small bike with a cart hitched on. I’d imagine Thailand’s tuk tuk’s were once like this. They are generally on the commission buzz and it didn’t take long to find a place to crash. Our tuk tuk cost nothing. The hope is that we would call on him for the duration of our stay and give him the business. As we wanted to visit Angkor Wat the next morning we agreed on a pickup time. If I was to do this trip again I would FLY haha! For overland travel go to Mo Chit and get the official bus. Ignore the potential scams, follow the signs and it is straight forward enough. There’s a really good step by step guide here also: http://artydubs.com/2013/04/18/direct-bus-from-bangkok-thailand-to-siem-reap-cambodia/ From what we’ve seen so far, Cambodians are very poor but they are extremely friendly, have pretty good English and seem to have a spirit about them. The journey here might have been testing at times due to the overall unfamiliarity of it, but I think we are going to like it a lot here. When you understand the mentality of the people, know their (recent) history from the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge genocide years, realize there are still landmines undetected here and still admire their spirit for friendliness you can forgive the reported high crime and corruption. People are just trying to live here and we are guests. Tomorrow should be a good day.

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Chiang Mai

Without trying to sound like a Thai tourism tout looking for commission, I can safely say Chiang Mai is a superb little city. It is my favourite part of Thailand so far. I love cities. I’m one of those weird people who loves the hustle and bustle of city life. No-one looks at you in a city. They just move about like hamsters in a giant cage, going from A to B. There’s always that unique moment when you find inner peace amongst it. The noise drifts away and I’m content in my own skin. Anonymous to everyone else. Dublin, London, New York are places that I’ve felt this chilled. Bangkok and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) too have been contenders but I’ve yet to feel that moment where it resonates with me with those two. Denise on the other hand is a country girl at heart. She loves quiet, peace and harmony. She loves to walk and take in the surroundings around her. To mindfully take in every step. The word Serenity has an important meaning to her everyday life. Chiang Mai offers both. The day we arrived at the train station we definitely weren’t in Bangkok anymore. This is more of a large town feel than major city, yet a city it is. We had planned to book our hostel again through Hostelworld.com but our Bangkok hostel were recommending Vieng hostel and booked our first night stay for us. We decided to take just the one night and then work from there. It was 700 baht (€19.00, $21.44, £14.15) with breakfast. A very nice hostel to look at, in the centre of the old town and super clean. We had a separate shared bathroom and it might as well have been private, as much like siaphae hostel in Bangkok we never encountered anyone else in bathrooms/showers. The downside of this hostel is that it was actually a little away from the atmosphere and the mens toilet were filthy. Generally that wouldn’t normally bother me at all but as the place was so pristine everywhere else it was a bit poor. We went out walking and realised that the Sunday walking street was being set up. If you ever are going to Chiang Mai make damn sure you are here on a Sunday! Thousands of people fill up the long Ratchadamnoen Road spreading out into the side streets and into the various Wat (temple) courtyards. All manner of street trade is here from food stalls, crafts, clothes, blind buskers, young and old, Thai and Farang (foreigner) all weaving in and out. Even the Thai army personnel (remember the country is under Martial Law since June last year) walk around taking it all in. It’s across between Bangkok’s Kho San Road and Hua Hin’s market that we had experienced last June when we decided to do this trip. It’s definitely been a highlight so far. So Monday morning we went out for a walk to take in the city.

When you strip back the red Songthaew taxi vans http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songthaew , scooters, tuk tuks, pass through the Tha Phae Gate into the old ancient walled inner ‘Old Chiang Mai’ you will find a maze of lanes with hundreds of guesthouses, tiny restaurants and eateries, massage parlours, bars and coffee houses.
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Cars, people, tuk tuks and scooters weave through the narrow lanes at a snails pace. It’s as close a place I’ve ever seen that is chaotic and chilled out all at the same time. It really is a crazy place. Sure, there are GoGo bars across the moat in the newer parts of the city if that’s your thing and much like Bangkok you will also see older Western men with younger Thai girls. There’s no escaping that, it’s part of the furniture almost. I want to be judgmental and scorn on it, but if the Thais are accepting it in their own country then that’s something I have to swallow and move on with. One of the other observations too is the dirt and dust. Get used to it. There are a lot of cats and dogs in this part of the world. And rats? Get used to it. I guess there’s a reason for all of the cats. But yet we sat on the side of the road on little plastic seats getting served by 70 odd year old Englishman while his 30/40 year old Thai missus cooked up the grub from a little hut, cars whizzing by on one side, Moonmuang Road Lane 6 (good food area this!) on the other.
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Denise has been struggling on the first few days with food cross contamination. When you go into any indoor place you can’t see where the food is being prepared, the language barrier makes it difficult and then apart from being a coeliac, shrimp is everywhere and she has an allergy to the little buggers. So we opted for here. Plain rice, plain chicken, sliced cucumber (I think) with a dipping sauce on the side for her, plain rice, spicy pork with anything thrown over the top for me and two bowls of chicken broth. Absolutely gorgeous, filling, no sick stomach for herself and the whole meal cost 60 Baht (€1.62, $1.83, £1.21.) What a bargain! Go with your gut feeling. If there is a crowd eating, be it locals and fellow travellers, and the food looks and smells too good not to miss out on, then DON’T miss out on it. As for Denise’s ongoing search for gluten free food, she found a place called Butter is Better. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293917-d1945662-Reviews-Butter_is_Better_Bakery_Restaurant-Chiang_Mai.html They not only make gluten free food but it’s damn good too. Pancakes, buckwheat pancakes, cheesecake, bagels, fruitcake and more. It’s slightly pricier than the norm but who cares when it’s safe to eat in a country that doesn’t understand the meaning of the word coeliac?

Chiang Mai is an arty city. Many of the back alleys have graffiti like a big concrete canvass in any area without greenery or guesthouse doubling up as a restaurant. A vast majority cater for vegetarians and vegans.
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There are people of all looks and age cycling around lazily. Couples young and old, gay and straight, ladyboys, singletons, groups of families, friends all intermingling without any care or disdain for the people around them. There’s a real sense of individuality here and no cares. It’s bliss. There’s even this old Italian guy cycling around all day offering free hugs to anyone. There is a real love for coffee here too. Almost everywhere you go there is coffee, be it from the menus of small Thai outlets serving up Thai food, International fare, breakfast menus with iced chai latte and teas of every description in some places to fully fledged coffee shops, and little coffee street side stands. Here’s the thing, it’s not great coffee but it is consistent! It almost tastes the same everywhere so if you like it you are in luck! And yes it has Starbucks too. But it is shit expensive and want to charge 150 Baht (€4.07, $4.59, £3.03) to use their WiFi. Shame on you Starbucks! Every single place in this city no matter how small and cheap looking offer free WiFi. At least the Starbucks tastes the same as at home so that’s saying something. There’s a 3 storey one in the new city opposite Tha Phae Gate if anyone is looking for it. And yes there is McDonalds, and yes there is BurgerKing too. And yes, if you are a backpacker on a budget, these places will take a good portion of it. If you do crave a bit of Western food inbetween the far superior Thai equivalent, you can always grab a huge slice of pizza from a street vendor for 100 Baht (€2.71, $3.06, £2.02.) I was tempted as I’m a bit of a pizza whore truth be told, but I might never be here again and the Northern Thai cuisine is slightly different from the rest of the country. I’ve stuck to the local food, as has Denise when possible. Banana fried in rice paper? A whole fresh fish taken out of the bucket still alive and charcoaled to perfection, a selection of the freshest fruit made into a smoothie as you wait? Sneakily ordering a mango sticky rice before finishing a chicken skewer or Pad Thai or a Morning Glory? Where do you stop? And how are these people so bloody skinny? It’s all fresh, it all tastes better than the last, and it costs feck all. But as budget travelling is all about budgeting, it gets to be a balancing act. Are we eating because it looks/smells/tastes too good to leave it there or because we are hungry? All of these 50 Baht coffees x2, 40 Baht rice dish, 60 Baht this and that all adds up very quickly. Factor in accommodation then too. Then any alcohol. Then travelling around A to B and then any trips we want to make. Budget is well and truly blown if you don’t keep track. I’ve a small pocket diary and I account for everything. We have to know what we are spending, and what we are spending it on. It would be crap if we spent all of our daily budget on somewhere nice to stay but couldn’t afford to leave the bedroom. But sharing a wooden plank with a bunch of cockroaches so we could go out and get pissed every night would be pointless too. We have to keep a balance and that’s tough, as we take it day by day. On our second day we walked down through the lanes and popped in and out of a few little guesthouses/hostels asking for prices for double rooms. After 2 or 3 we came across Wieng Bang Guesthouse with a Lonely Planet sticker. Room available for 450 Baht (€12.20, $13.78, £9.10) per night, private bathroom. We couldn’t get to see the room but took it anyway. As hostel/guesthouses go it’s the worst of the 3 so far in the sense that it is a little dated and the private bathroom was a shower head over the toilet. Yet it was a far better location and price. The staff here were far more helpful than the previous hostel (mind you the older lady is quite tempermental, but her English is very good) and it was 250 Baht cheaper per night. This didn’t include breakfast though. We’ve totted it up and after paying for two coffees, getting a bit of grub etc we’ve probably paid out around 6/650 Baht so the real savings have been in the improved location. There are other options around here too with double rooms going with shared bathrooms for as little as 250 Baht. You get what you pay for, some have A/C and some have fans. Again, no breakfast. All have WiFi. It’s a learning curve for us as novice backpackers to get our balance right for what we need/want. There are some real gems out here to be found and keeping patient can work out well. Getting a nice place to crash, that provides good help for local info, a decent breakfast to set us up for the day and not break the bank will in turn keep our budget under control. Not eating everything in sight is another but it’s just too damn good! We’re getting the balance right and hopefully by the time we reach Cambodia we will be much better at this. If you didn’t care as long as you had a bed, and aren’t too fussy about what you eat, stick to local fare, it can be very very cheap. If, you want some sort of decency then pay a bit more (but don’t be afraid to shop around and always insist on seeing the room first!)

Chiang Mai is also a cooler climate being up North in the mountains. The evenings and early mornings have a slight breeze. It can get cool at night so having some long sleeves just in case is handy. It’s dry season so it’s warm but not too humid/sticky, but farther South is very hot. There are a multitude of things to do on the outskirts of the city or further afield if you want to travel to Pai or Chiang Rai. Most of the guesthouses have info but shop around. Remember everyone is on a cut so if the price is low, chances are you will stop ten times along the way to more expensive areas. This is part of everyday life. The bigger tourist attractions are the Tiger Kingdom and various Elephant parks. Now I won’t judge people who go to these attractions but animal welfare is terrible throughout South East Asia. Anytime you have an opportunity to ‘ride’ an elephant DON’T do it! It is cruel, no matter how many tricks they do or how cute the baby ones look. A lot of these elephants are saved from a life of hard labour like logging but they are now in parks walking round and round the same path for the tourists all day everyday. Sure, it’s a better life but it’s still not right. We went to one of these nice parks at Hua Hin last June, and yes we got the elephant ride and saw the baby dance for us. It was amazing and humbling. But I left with a sour taste that has never left me. The Elephant Nature Park http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/ who have saved countless of these beautiful animals is a far better bet. You do not ride the elephant here and you can stay for a day, overnight, a week etc working with them, much like a zoo, caring for them, washing them, feeding them and then sit back and watch them wander happily in acres of protected land. These will live out their lives here, safe, unharmed and happy. The same organization have started to convince other parks in Thailand and Cambodia to start following the same practice. With costs starting at 2500 Baht (€67.54, $76.39, £50.65) for the one day pass it’s pricey but if you want to have an encounter with an elephant knowing you are helping to protect them, then this is the place to go. As for the Tiger Kingdom, I’ve heard reports of them being drugged so people can lie across them for a photo. Some people on various sites have said it’s a nice place but having a close encounter with Tigers who sit still while you hover around them doesn’t sound right no matter how ‘tame’ they appear to be. We have two Yorkshire Terriers and if they want to chill out or don’t want a hug they will let us know. So for these tigers to never get annoyed or rebel gives me the impression that they indeed might be drugged. We decided not to visit here because if it turned out to be something that left a bitter taste in the mouth we didn’t want that experience. A Tiger Kingdom should be tigers in a protected environment with lookout areas for humans to get up close and that should be it. But that’s my opinion. Everyone to their own I guess. Chiang Mai has literally unlimited supply of temples (Wats) all around the city. Some are small, but some are absolutely mind blowing. There is one in the centre of the old city called Wat Chedi Luang. It’s a huge stone temple that housed the original Emerald Buddha, Thailands most revered Buddha image. An earthquake part destroyed the temple 600 years ago. Even today it’s impressive. Another worth seeing To Doi Suthep. Over at the North Gate of the old city a line of Songthaew taxis gather and as soon as they fill up they drive up the mountain. This costs 50 Baht. The trip up to the mountain temple is a crazy experience, much like a roller coaster. The view of Chiang Mai from the top is outstanding, especially is it’s clear. It was a little hazy when we were up there but the view was still worth it. On the way down the taxi will charge 60 Baht. There’s no other way down so they can charge what they want. It’s 40 Baht if you want to be left off at Chiang Mai zoo. We also went to see some Muay Thai boxing. It’s good fun, the bouts are full on, you can bet with the touts if you want, drinks aren’t too expensive and it goes on for about 2 ½ hours. Great value for money. We walked into the National Boxing Stadium and picked our seats for 400 Baht (€10.80, $12.22, £8.10) each. Some nights have a few guest fighters. Ours had a Canadian and he won with a stunning punch in the first round. The atmosphere was electric for this main event.
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As with booking the sleeper train from Bangkok to get here, it needs to be booked in advance to get back the other direction too. That meant a trip back to the station in a taxi. The reception at our hostel did this for us for a 100 Baht (€2.70, $3.05, £2.02) per ticket commission. We had thought about staying in Chiang Mai for another day or two but like I mentioned earlier our host is a little grumpy Thai lady. ‘Passport quickly! Quick!’ ‘Tickets will be here at 6pm, pay now.’ So turns out we are leaving today! Oh well. Chiang Mai it’s been great!
We walked with our bags, still a little unsure whether we actually wanted to leave yet and flagged a taxi back to train station. ‘How much you give me?’ was his response after we woke him up. 50 Baht. No probs and not much longer we were sitting on the train heading south to Bangkok again. I think we have left at exactly the right time. Stay too long in any place, you start to see the cracks. We’ve left my personal favourite part of Thailand so far and haven’t overstayed the welcome. Places like this make me want to come back in the future. For now though it’s onto Cambodia.

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The Lord of the Train

We arrived at Hua Lamphong station in a major hurry, sweat from the heat and weight of the backpack stuck to us like a layer of grease. We had plenty of time to make it here for our train up North. A wrong way direction on the BTS Skytrain, change of platform, jump on the correct train, up and down steps, half walking/half slightly jogging through the crowds, paying for ‘exact fare’ train tickets (have those 10 Baht coins ready!) and then the train was here waiting. Phew! ‘We had plenty of time!’ I proudly boasted. The I’m not one bit impressed look I got back was comical. Shit happens but this was too close. Yep! If I listened to my wife we would’ve been here an hour ago. We’re here now and onto the train we go. And there she stood. My little Thai nemesis.image

‘Orange juice?’ she proclaims holding out a tray with plastic cartons. ‘No thank you.’ I replied. ‘Yes please!’ says herself. “One? Two?’ Now remember we are hot, sweaty and trying to find our seat. Our carriage hasn’t been attached to the train yet so we don’t have a seat to find. “One,’ I replied. I had water with me. ‘Just the one please’ says Denise. POP! goes the straw. Denise takes her juice. POP! Goes the straw and she hands over the second juice. “I only want one!’ The little evil imp looked on in pretend shock hurt. You know ‘that’ look! ‘I open two now’. Bitch. ‘You pay later.’ ‘How much?’ ‘You pay later!’ Off she scurried down the carriageway with her tray of poison like Gollum and his ‘precious.’
Then BANG! The next carriage (our carriage) plunged into the train. It came from nowhere! We eventually got sorted to our seats, settled our stuff and relaxed. As trains go, it’s not the Orient Express, but’s a step up from the CIE trains we have back home in Ireland. We had checked up on the menu online a few days ago. The man in Seat 61 has all the details. Not too sure how it will pan out for Denise with Gluten free varieties a little harder to make out, so we brought some of our own food just in case. ‘You pay now.’ The bitch was back. No probs, even though I didn’t want a second orange juice (which was water with orange flavouring btw!) I will pay for it. The first one is still half full. €160 Baht. ‘What? I didn’t want two. I’m not paying for two.’ Now this is a rip off. Two beers I can understand (alcohol WILL eat your budget – drink responsibly) but this stuff. Coolpops at home taste better and they were 10p when I was growing up. Anyway it went on and on. ‘I will tell Police.’ To save the peace I paid. Denise mentioned getting banged up abroad and as that is not my idea of fun, for now the imp has won this round. ‘I think I have whiplash,’ quipped Denise. The carriage had hit us hard. Speaking of hard, for any male out there who has suffered motion flatulence on a bus, then imagine nearly five hours of it!imageimage

The seats were converted into sleeper beds and it was pretty cool the whole thing. This way of overland travelling saves budgets a ton of money with no over priced airfare, and it is also your bed for the night. The train tickets come in various prices. We opted for 2nd class sleeper upper and lower berth so we would have both seats to ourselves. It cost 781 Baht (€21.13, $23.85, £15.83) upper berth and 881 Baht (€23.84, $26.90, £ 17.86) lower berth–one way and we left Bangkok at 7:35 pm, arriving at Chiang Mai at 10am. It didn’t take long for everyone to pull across their curtains and the evening drifted into night. Now, as any fella knows the motion of the clickity clack vibrating has a strange effect. Viagra would have nothing on it. All I could do was sleep through it. I was glad when morning came and the attendant put the seats back to normal. Pulling back the curtains to see the sunshine through the trees over the mountains was a lovely view. ‘Breakfast kaaaa!?’ (Thai women say kaa a lot, think it means ‘yes’) The nemesis was back with her overpriced non-gluten friendly menu in hand. I shook my head no. Denise had showed me a book she was planning to read on the trip called ‘F**k it’ by John C Parkin and the intro she had read out to me sounded like a good approach. ‘F**k it.’ I thought to myself. I just shook my head no and looked forward to spending a few days chilling with my wife in Chiang Mai.

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Khao San Road?

‘Khao San Road please!’
‘I charge you 400 Baht.’
‘Meter please!’
‘Very busy, very busy, lot of traffic.’
‘It’s ok pal, I’ll take the meter anyway!’
Khao San very expensive’
‘It’s ok meter please’
‘Meter ohhh, maybe 2 or 300 Baht. Heavy traffic. Have to use highway.’
‘It’s cool man. Meter please.’
‘It take maybe 1 hour.’
‘Meter.’
‘Meter?’
‘Meter.’
Welcome to Thailand!
We arrive at Bangkok’s Khao (cow) San Road http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaosan_Road 10 minutes later and our fare cost 79 Baht. No matter what is quoted, when it comes to taxi’s here always insist on the meter. Not that it always goes to plan mind you! Another taxi we had gotten into tried the same spiel and drove for 30 seconds, stopped and kicked us out after weighing up the meter option in his head. It’s the law in Thailand for taxi drivers to use the meter but that doesn’t mean they won’t try pull a fast one! It seems that some of them would rather make no money at all instead of some. Everyone seems to have a link, a friend, a buddy who will give us a great deal. It’s all for commission. The land of smiles don’t flash those (un)pearly whites if there’s no profit to be had. Scams are everywhere and it’s always advisable to keep your wits at all times. Having said all of that, once you climatise to this and accept it as the norm, then you can relax your inner voice and let the place get under your skin. And under the skin it will go.

I booked Saphaipae Hostel through http://www.hostelworld.com/ for our first two nights in Bangkok.
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It was a little higher than planned initially budget wise as it was almost half the daily budget, but I figured that after a long haul flight it would have been horrible to end up in some shitty hostel bed with crap showers. Also it was very easy access to the main transport systems of Bangkok especially the BTS Skytrain http://www.transitbangkok.com/bts.html which is great for easy access around a lot of the city. It turned out to be better than first thought. Very clean, large and breakfast included. When we arrived from the airport, we got on the airport train to the city and changed onto the BTS. It gets pretty jammed during rush hour. In fact, imagine a tube that fills 40 people standing shoulder to shoulder and cram in another 200. With backpacks it can be tricky. But it’s cheap. It cost 60 Baht (€1.62, $1.83, £1.21) for us both. After a shower, we travelled two stops on the BTS Skytrain 25 Baht each (€0.67, $0.76, £0.50,) changed onto MRT train 19 Baht each (€0.51, $0.58, £0.38) to the main train station Hua Lamphong http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangkok_Railway_Station to buy tickets for the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. This has to be done in advance as it books up pretty quickly. Turns out we had to book for two days time as the day we wanted was already full. No biggie. The beauty of the way we are travelling is that things will change and we need to be quick on the ground. We had no probs booking our hostel for a third night. We had been to Bangkok before, had seen the shopping malls, street vendors, offered Ping Pong shows, had been ripped off by a Tuk Tuk driver and we had been to see a movie. On a side note, if you like going to the cinema then go to one in Bangkok if you have a few hours to kill. It’s an experience! Depending on what you are willing to pay, you can get bean bags, sofa beds, unlimited refills and more. And before every film starts the Kings National Anthem plays and you see footage of Thailand’s king. There were some in the audience in tears. Thai’s love their king, especially in Northern Thailand.

So, this time around we had more chill out time, having seen the sights before. We hadn’t been to Khao San Road, the backpackers main drag and probably the backpackers capitol in the world, and after insisting on the meter we finally arrived. Many people don’t like this area. It isn’t an authentic version of Thailand. Everything is for sale here. Street food, massages, beer, hostel rooms, t-shirts, fake I.D.’s, flip flops, tours and excursions, fake TEFL certs and you can be sure to be ripped off so be prepared to barter hard. Generally have a price you are willing to pay and start at around have of the asking price. Bartering is like a national sport! Just remember that the Khao San is tourism central and there is less movement on the price. Many will let you walk instead of coming to a fair price and whatever way you weigh it up, the asking price is still a lot cheaper than at home anyway. As for tours and trips on VIP buses, do some homework before parting with your money. Some of the trips are heavily subsidized so there will be a load of ‘stops’ and money making schemes at every turn. Personally we liked the place. As much as a lot of people like to get ‘off’ the beaten track to find their own little place, we like a combination of both. Having peace and tranquility is fine and hopefully that will come someplace along this journey, but being around the buzz is great too. We love people watching. Every sort of person walks down the Khao San road. It’s also a great way of immersing yourself into Thailand and I wish it had been our first stop when we originally came here last year. There’s something peaceful about sitting at a little roadside bar listening to live reggae tunes in broken Thai-English, looking out on the absolute chaos around you. The sounds, smells and sights can’t be described. It’s almost like a smell of fruit and sweet sewerage all at once. For a split second it’s disgusting, and then it’s the smell of the best thing you’ve never eaten before. The weight on the shoulders drifts away and you realize to yourself – shit, I’m in Thailand! And then you can get a massage. Generally the prices for a massage vary so shop around. 300 up to 700 Baht on the Khao San. (Denise had a full Thai massage for 150 Baht in Chiang Mai.)

And then there is street food!
I think I’m in love with Pad Thai. So simple! Noodles, beansprouts, egg (you can have it without) a choice of chicken, pork, shrimp, (or none/all 3) and topped off with however amount of flavourful chillies, salts/sugars/condiments. Feck it, throw it all in! And for 40 Baht (€1.08, $1.22, £0.80) it’s a meal that will fill you up no probs. And if you like mango then the Mango Sticky Rice (same price) will make you want to cry and eat at the same time. Denise has been blubbering like a baby over it since we got here. All in all, the first few days have been interesting and easy going. Next stop, we get the night train to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s cultural capitol.

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The best scenery is when we have to take a detour…

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Hi all, as this is my first blog, a little bit of info…

We’re a married couple from Wexford Ireland. As far as Yin Yang, opposites attract we probably tick most boxes. She loves to shop, I feel physically sick inside a department store! I’m a Sci Fi nerd, I love Star Wars, superhero movies and generally anything to do with horror. She loves comedies, chick flicks and ANYTHING to do with animals! I will eat pretty much anything at least once. She is a coeliac, has a very specific diet and has a very bad shellfish allergy. Eating anywhere is always a challenge for her/us and things are much better in some places. But travelling comes with its own perils, mostly the language barrier. Somewhere along the last 9 years or so we’ve been together, we’ve picked up each others’ habits and managed to maintain our individual interests. She’s now watched (and liked) Star Wars, I’m pretty sure she would leave me if Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine walked into the room and she is jealous slightly of Jessica Alba even in chick flicks! But the single biggest love that we both share is the love of travelling. We aren’t backpackers, flashpackers, 5 star hotel experts, travel snobs, we don’t have unlimited deep pockets but somehow we have managed to travel to a fair few places together (and separately) and have found ways and means of paying for it. We are just two people who like to travel and the best education we have discovered about the world is going out into it. A few times I’ve heard how do you travel so much? How can you afford it etc. In most cases it’s a struggle to get the funds together. Instead of going out drinking and clubbing every weekend we have worked, stayed in, cut down on cinema trips (probably my favourite thing to do in the world) we don’t smoke, and as much as Denise likes to shop, she has replaced designer shops for Pennys/Primark when possible. Trust me, my wife will sniff out a bargain from a hundred yards and make it look like she’s paid a fortune. Her motto is ‘I couldn’t leave it there!’ As much as I’m loathe to go into shops, the motto rings true when planning or researching a holiday destination or idea. If there’s a bargain to be had then it’s always worth a second look! Various websites and internet search engines have become my bible! We cook most meals, avoid take-aways, and cut down on any bills that aren’t a necessity. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we lead boring lives and we don’t do anything – far from it! We do drink, we do go to the cinema, we do shop and generally try to have fun whenever possible. It’s just that when it comes to travelling there is an element of dedication and stubbornness needed in order to finance any trip whether it’s long haul or a short break a few miles away.

We were in Thailand last June for two weeks for Denise’ 30th birthday. The day we met she was meant to be on a flight to the Land of Smiles and instead ended up in Wexford. As fate would have it, we were introduced, and now we are married. In those early days of young romance I promised her I would bring her to Thailand as she had never got to go. We went to Hua Hin and Bangkok. While we were in Hua Hin, our bank cards got stopped (something that banks will do over and over again unless you get yourself a dedicated travel credit card with no fees!) We had one night with literally a few Baht in our pockets and had to wait until the next day (time zones are a bitch) to ring home. Just down from the hotel we were staying in we found a small street market (or so we thought) This market stretched on through a back street into a big public park. Live music in makeshift bars, street food and crafts everywhere. Thousands of people bartering, eating and drinking on little plastic stools. We ate like kings (and queens). I had a few beers while Denise had a wine cooler drink. Even though this part of the world is close to Australia’s New World Wines, there is a severe lack of wine anywhere to be had. And the whole thing cost around 200 Baht (€5.45, $6.14, £4.06). Not bad eh? It got us thinking. We work hard and play hard. Work and save during the year, and do a city weekend break in Europe, a week in the sun etc – you know the drill. But that night in Hua Hin cost us less that two coffee’s at our local at home. Could we do this long-term? Could we travel a lot longer on the same money? It was a pipe dream we briefly discussed and got on with our holiday. But it lingered there. WAS it possible? Could we travel all around South East Asia on a budget? We decided to go for it and got to doing a bit of research. Denise went and bought Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a budget book. I took to a few websites and started following a blogger or two. I’d check in on them and read about their experiences. Backpackers are not some dingy girls and boys who survive on nuts, don’t wash and generally scrounge to get by. There are some who do and you do meet them, but as a travelling population they are American gap year students, Australian vegetarians, single white female travellers, couples young and old, European guys who want to escape their daily lives, surfers looking for the ultimate wave, party people, peaceful vegans, hippies, retired history seekers, full families with teenagers and young toddlers – the list goes on and on. Backpackers can be anyone, all shapes and sizes, colours, sexual orientation and religion (or lack of). Make no mistake about it. Sure you will no doubt find the majority being younger but as a couple in our 30’s we are at the lower end of the spectrum. At least so far!

The majority of blogs I’ve read have been written by solo travellers, and my favourite one is http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ Matt can show you how to travel anywhere in the world for $50 a day. Well worth checking him out. His site is like my bible. Another I like is http://www.goatsontheroad.com/ a nice site by a couple who travel together. As for researching, I found it a bit tougher to get definitive info for couples at times and as mentioned earlier, one of us is coeliac and that makes it harder to choose a location/destination without compromising her safety and allowing us to still travel to where we want to go. Food safety in general is a topic that you have to face up to when travelling anywhere in the world. Sure you will find a McDonald’s on a corner somewhere and yes it will taste the same. If home comforts are your thing then you will get the same Western foods at the same Western prices. But I don’t eat that shite at home and Denise can’t eat it due to her illness. One of my reasons for starting a blog is that I found the very best advice for travelling on these blogs by people who are doing it, making mistakes, getting scammed, learning how to make money last longer, seeing with their own eyes and learning all the time about themselves as people. As I mentioned earlier, we are not traditional backpackers and this will be our first time attempting this form of travel. If there are any tips or advice I can find out that might help anyone out there to try do the same then cool!

So as regards the trip here’s a rough guide to the plan. It might not work and the flexibility of backpacking will probably be called upon a few times…

Jan 19th Fly from Dublin Ireland to Bangkok Thailand

Spend a night or two in Bangkok. The train to Chiang Mai needs to be booked in advance at Bangkok’s main train station. Check out the man in seat 61. http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm#How_to_buy_train_tickets_when_in_Thailand The single best website for any train travel anywhere in the world. Every ounce of info was perfect.

Spend 4/5 nights in Chiang Mai and then figure out how to get to Cambodia to visit Ankor Wat http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668 in Siem Reap. Spend 3 nights or so there and move to Phnom Penh for a night, then onto Sihanoukville (Snooky) a coastal beach town and then maybe get a boat across to Koh Rong. I heard about this place through http://www.backpackerbanter.com/ a solo surfer called Chris. Again some nice info! Stay here for 3/4 nights. This is a small Cambodian island with no electricity. Then work back to Phnom Penh by bus, catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur.

1/2 nights in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and then train down into Singapore for a few nights. After that the plan is to get to Bali in Indonesia for about 2 weeks and then make our way back to Thailand’s islands before back to Bangkok and home.

We will be away 53 days in total and will be home just in time for Paddy’s Day! We have set our budget at €50 a day. Flights are not included in this budget. Basically the challenge is to find accommodation, eat, see the sights and travel (train, bus, flight or boat – it could vary). Now, this may seem a lot to some and not enough for others but it’s what we have to work with. So it’s into the unknown we go with a little nervousness and a lot of excitement. At the time of writing we are on our third day in Chiang Mai Thailand. I’ll throw up another blog shortly with a roundup of what’s been happening so far…

 

 

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