Thursday, 23 August 2012

Travel Log: Roaming in Southeast Asia (Part 1)

I arrived at Bangkok's international airport at 9pm, already braced for the intense humidity and dangers of Thailand's capital city's streets. After being waived through customs without being stopped at all, I located the taxi rank on the lower level of the airport having successfully navigated the barrage of taxi touts at the arrival lobby. Stepping outside, the humidity hit me like a wall of heat. A sign blinked at me: 'Welcome to Thailand.' I greeted the lady sitting at the registration desk for the taxi but had to wait a minute or two before she acknowledged my presence: I wasn't in Japan any more. The taxi driver guided me to his vehicle and, once seated inside, asked me a question in Thai (I knew it was a question because he was looking at me expectantly). "Uh, no Thai," I told him. He nodded. The lady at the desk had given him my hotel's address so off we went.

The following 30 minutes had me clinging to the cushioned seat of the taxi's seatbelt-free back-seat as we barrelled down the highway towards central Bangkok at around 150 kmph, zipping between cars with little room for error. My lack of Thai language skills left no other option but to sit quietly and ride it out while praying for my own safety. I found it less terrifying if I stared out of the window to my left instead of straight ahead. The ride cost me about AUD$15 but it should have cost about $8 or $9 but I didn't argue with him because opening my mouth to do so might have prompted my stomach to empty. Maybe I was just a little giddy at experiencing my first swindling on my first night in Thailand.

Hot and exhausted, I slept soundly that night. 

Up early, I headed to Bangkok's old district where the amulet merchants cluster around the palace grounds to sell Buddha icons to local worshippers of the Jade Buddha, said to be one of the most symbolic and beautiful sites of Bangkok. Fearing further obscene charges from local taxi drivers, I decided to walk 30 mins in the early heat of the day to the palace. Upon arrival, I was told to done my cardigan which I had brought to cover my shoulders and did nothing to help regulate my internal body temperature. In Thailand, it is considered inappropriate to visit a temple with bared shoulders or any skin above the knee. But the uncomfortable heat was worth it once I had laid my eyes on the internal buildings of the royal palace. Each building was carefully decorated with glass mosaics. Gold statues of indeterminable creatures of folklore stood sentry. Massive pots of water stood on raised pedestals, bursting with water lilies. Sitting before the beautiful image of Buddha (feet pointed respectfully away) was an honourable experience. It was so hot, I was gulping down water faster than it was possible to locate and buy more. Wandering the markets just down the street from the palace was mind-blowing; fruits and vegetables both identifiable and not were displayed alongside various meats left out in the open heat to dry. Adorable Thai ladies tried to hawk t-shirts at tourists. One woman was so determined for me to buy her bag of seed to feed the pigeons she tried to cram it into my little carry bag before I shouted at her to leave off. 

The colours, the sights and the smells were like an assault of the senses. Hopefully, I kept my eyes open for an elephant sighting--the gentle giants used to roam the streets of Bangkok, guided by their masters looking for tourists to take pictures with for a fee--but recent laws passed by the Thai government banned the presence of elephants on Bangkok's streets largely because of mistreatment at the hands of their masters and continued traffic accidents. My hopes of seeing one were absolutely futile but if you are visiting Bangkok and have time for  a day trip, then I'd like to point you in the direction of the elephant sanctuary, Elephant Stay in Ayutthaya (1 hour  drive from Bangkok). Although I've never been, I had researched it as a option for something to do in Bangkok and it looks pretty good. 

A long meander lead me around to various temples before the heat finally drove me back towards my hotel. I didn't make it. I literally collapsed from heat-stoke halfway between my hotel and the old district, leaving me to sit helplessly on the steps of a bank, washing my face in cold water and trying to regain my senses. Even in Australia, I had never experience heat like this, the humidity making it worse. I finally made it back to the safe, air-conditioned refuge of my hotel room and waited for my group meeting with my tour leader. My tour group and I were going to head out towards Cambodia the next day...

At the meeting I discovered a pleasurable mix of people from various corners of the globe. My friends had warned me that the kinds of people who take tours of this kind were only drunken Australians and Americans but I was pleasantly surprised to find most participants hailed from Europe, were roughly 30-years-old and lovely, mature people. There were representatives from England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, America, and Australia. I hadn't been expecting great company like this on my journey, but I felt incredibly lucky to have these wonderful people along for the ride. I immediately met and bonded with a young Australian girl from Canberra setting out on a trip across the globe who was so cool, I didn't mind that she made me feel old. 

Cambodian border

At 7am the next day, we jumped into one of two mini-buses and set out on the 4 hour drive to the Cambodian border. To say the ride was a terrifying joy-ride of near-death would be an understatement. I don't think I will ever get used to the local driving style! Our driver overtook slower vehicles while other cars were already doing so from the other direction a little ways in front of us. Always, our driver slipped swiftly back into the correct lane with mere inches to spare between ourselves and oncoming traffic. He flew over speed-humps, disregarded speed restrictions and used the horn liberally for the purpose of alerting other vehicles to his wild and dangerous approach (from what I could understand). Shaken, we disembarked from our minibus and began the long process of entering Cambodia. Somewhere along the line, it had started to rain and the potholes quickly filled with muddy water. After lunch of fried rice and egg at the border, we crossed into Cambodia (which involved a lot of waiting in lines). Immediately, the street urchins (begging for money) and the mosquitoes were upon us. Another bus took us 2 hours down the road to Siem Reap, our final stop for the day. 

New Hope Cambodia (school, restaurant and hospital)
Too late to hit the nearby temples made famous by Angelina Jolie and her Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, our tour guide took us to visit a small orphanage and school in Mondul 3, the slum area of Siem Reap. The school was run by 'New Hope Cambodia,' a charity organization providing free medical care, education and training for many occupants of the slums. The children waved happily at us as our tuk tuks passed by. We visited the site of the old school which was shut down but still used as a women's shelter. I realised after being climbed all over and my hair tied in knots that the children there seemed to think: white person = jungle gym! Soon, we headed over to the nearby modern school where we were allowed to sit in on the end of an English class. I was back in my element! We were allowed to chat with the students (which let them practise their English skills) and help them finish their class assignment. After that, we received  a tour of the adjacent hospital where the people of Mondul 3 could receive free healthcare. Before the hospital was built, many of Cambodia's poorer citizens could not afford healthcare and those who could did not receive adequate healthcare. The institute also offered classes in sewing to help keep  local women out of prostitution. The on-site restaurant employed locals who had been trained in bar and waiting (and their skills were outstanding may I add) and served us an amazing meal from local ingredients (including fried crickets!). 

Fried crickets. Yum. 

Finally we headed back to the hotel. It was the end of a long day and I honestly don't know how some of the other group members managed to rally and head out to the local pub. I personally collapsed and slept soundly; we had to be up and out the door by 5am in order to watch the sun rise over the temples of Angkor Wat. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading! Stay tuned for more tales from Cambodia and Vietnam!

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