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February 2015

Siem Reap: Temples, Trees and Tears

The town of Siem Reap is pretty much a resort built solely for swarms of tourist traffic directed to the famous temples of Angkor. All the surrounding hostels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars are crammed in, creating the illusion the town is much smaller than it actually is. A short 1km ride North (for this I’d recommend the $30 quad bike tour, pricey but worth it ) and you will enter rural villages, rice paddies inclusive of actual village people and the most beautiful Cambodian children. A stark and stunning contrast indeed to a city whose fickle lights of ‘pub street’ and cheap Angkor beer (0.50-$1) can keep a traveller there for days doing little else.

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I jumped in heavily at the deep end of the tourist trail by staying at the infamous Mad Monkey Hostel ($7)

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Upon arrival, tired and hungry from my scam bus ordeal I was shown to my twelve bed dorm by the pool and then forcibly warned by a drunk room-mate that it was ‘a pretty big night (for him and his ‘lads lads lads’) so apologies if I wake you which I probably will!’.

It was 9pm and I decided my body needed fuel despite not feeling hungry and opted for the lazy trope of attempting to eat at the hostel bar.

Now the rooftop bar of the Mad Monkey Siem Reap is quite a structure designed to replicate a beach, complete with South East Asia’s “shoes off ” policy i.e.; When you enter most dorms / minimarts / establishments of any kind you go bare-foot. Here after what feels like ten flights of stairs you are greeted by sand and receive your free arrival draft beer. (Many a traveller at mad monkey has walked off drunk wearing someone else’s flip flops so just a side note here leave those Haviana’s in your room, I was eyeing mine like I would my child in a public park).

It appeared I had walked into mayhem. There were topless men wrestling in the sand, there were beautiful girls with pupils like dinner plates dancing on tables and Aussies referring to themselves as ‘the wolf pack’ whilst downing their jäger. Then there was little old me just trying to squeeze by the turmoil, take the only free seat at the bar (which meant from then on everyone leaned over me sometimes on me to shout their drinks orders) all the while with me attempting conversation every which way to an unwilling audience.

Mad monkey boasts great American style food and indeed it was but with it boasts a much heavier price tag of $1.25 for chips $4 + breakfasts and mains (which although expensive for Cambodia, in hindsight after visiting the Philippines and Indonesia is actually very good).

Next day I was due to move rooms to a six bed dorm upstairs and I couldn’t have been happier by this, for the dorm by the pool attracted only the most angriest of mosquitoes and the noise from the Wolf pack returning kept me up most of the night.

As soon as I entered my new room there were others entering too – sweet Jesus other humans!!! Naturally I latched on immediately – my first victim a musically spoken guy from Inverness – the loveable Innis, who spoke like a character from one of my favourite films How to train your Dragon. Innis had cycled from Bangkok to Siem Reap and told me stories of staying in temples and waking up to monks watching his family videos on his laptop – I liked him instantly of course :).

By the next day there were 18 of us going to dinner including a super hot US marine who came quad biking with me.

Why oh why had I made friends with the hot twenty something blonde swedish girls In my dorm, told them I fancied him and then invited them to dinner as well. He was definitely flirting with me, we went to a karaoke bar and he even made us sing summertime sadness by David Guetta (because nothing says passion like attempting to sing badly written EDM). After karaoke we retire to pub street’s most infamous bar/club – the aptly named Angkor Wat (or as I referred to as ‘Angkor wat? What the fuck!’). After buying me a tequila he begins kissing my Swedish dorm mate. Yes the one I had invited out, the one who had given me clothing advice on what to wear that night.

After they left I did what any mature feminist 27-year-old would do….I practically sobbed my soul out in an alleyway then I kissed an Irish man. What a grown up. I had devolved to an 18-year-old. Oh Siem Reap look what you’ve done to me! Get me to the ancient temples quickly, clearly I need the clairvoyance of ancient ruins.

The Temples of Angkor Wat

I am such an earth child and if there’s one thing I go wild for it’s not only a good sunrise and silhouette scenario, its ancient trees and forestry with half collapsed ruins whose stories I yearn for.

You can spend hours losing yourself in these great temples, imagining the engravings being carved, the people who may have lived there – or simply reenacting tomb raider.

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A tuk tuk from around sunrise (4.30am) till 10am a good 5 hour stint will set you back $12 and between 4 people 4 dollars is not bad at all. For those with less time or the real hard-core temple runners you can go all day until 4pm for extra dollar dollar.

We had a lovely scrawny guy named Mr Sin who had a penchant for laughing manically at almost everything I did (including when I lost my temple ticket and had to buy another).

A day pass costs $20 and the next one up is the three-day pass ($40 which you can use over the space of the whole week not just consecutive days). For those on a budget or with time restrictions I would suggest purchasing the day pass and firing through the three main temples in one long day. However if time and budget permits and you are more of a cultural lover then stay longer – there are always more temples and ruins to roam.

Bring snacks for gawdsake and sunscream! 

Mr Sin would often pull up on the side of the road and hand us sacks of sugar cane in plastic bags to sip. They have these giant caine smashers which juice them into an odd sweet tasting and rehydrating drink.

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I absolutely adored the temples of Angkor most particularly the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ – Ta Prohm tree temple. However some of the best ruins for me were the ones that became parts of the forest lining the grounds leading to the main temples. Despite the famous temples drawing thousands of tourists there every day, the sheer scale of all the ruins allows for collecting of thoughts, walking freely in moments that make you feel not merely alone but transported.

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Suffice to say I shed different tears that day to my previous immature ‘he won’t love me’ pub street sobs. Silent tears of awe and of empathy for the stories held within these great ancient walls and always of course, for the trees.

I give the ancient site of Angkor Wat a travellers TEN that’s 10/10 for overall experience from silhouettes at sunrise to touching trees which have grown around rock. A world wonder and certainly a must see destination for all age groups.

 

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Bangkok-balance in the chaos

Bangkok is one of the most visited and by extension – busiest cities in the world, the very phonetic sound conjuring words on my tongue like brash and bold, quick and run. I spit out the word the way the locals spit in the streets: Dirty, inappropriate, harsh, bristle, push, pulse, skyline, lights, nights, malls, scraper, inhale, life.

In this sense Bangkok has an automotive conveyor belt purpose of sucking, sometimes chewing churning then spitting you out and before you know it you’ve returned, usually for onward travel connections, but never the less you are back on that belt trying to balance. I cant quite work out how I feel about Bangkok. I flew Asia’s high season of January with Etihad airlines 470 return. Not bad at all, my cheapest trip to date. Upon arriving the airport is sheek, clean and smiling, then subsequently you are quite suddenly born out onto the streets of taxis and tuk tuk relentlessness. I remember arriving after a fourteen hour plane ride and being greeted by two drunk hippy travelers stroking my blue hair and offering me help as well as a swig of ominous alcohol.

WELCOME TO BANGKOK Khao San road is like an old spinster madame who still attempts seasons in Bognor and Magaluf, I feel sorry for her one moment then angry, affronted then just as quickly amused.

I HATE BANGKOK – with its scams at every corner every agenda every person. TRUST NO ONE. There is no lucky Budha For gods sake do not purchase a suit or be lead to any ‘tourist information centers”. On my second and third trips back to Bangkok I avoided Khoa San Road in favour of Siam or Suhkummit districts and I fell in love with the BTS skytrain / metro system in the way one does in say Berlin.

I LOVE BANGKOK – with its 50Baht (1 english pound) pad Thai and its rows of foot massage bars in the road and its cheeky chattering locals. My first sleepless night in Bangkok was a lonely planet hostel – Suneta. I was awoken by the cry every traveler waits for ‘BED BUGS GET UP AND OUT”. By this time Id barely slept three hours in the 24 I had traveled. Off with my clothes it was. Having said this I would still recommend this hostel for its location, staff and price (US9). The tourism in Bangkok is as obvious as the humid smog, you cannot move for travel agents selling tours. For this very reason I did not visit much as I was adapting to life alone and this new ground which felt screamingly similar to Delhi to me. Ping Pong shows are offered nightly, every tuk tuk driver making crude popping sounds in their mouth’s with menus such as;

“Pussy swallows razor” “Pussy eats banana”  “Pussy spits out ping pong”

All very Dusk Til Dawn-esque lude descriptions of human trafficked vagina. I met countless travelers who like me didn’t agree with it but then changed their minds thinking “it is something I have to see” (As a feminist and a decent human I did not change my mind but I did ask many a traveler questions). What they saw? Every single traveler I spoke to sold stories of young women looking dead pan and miserable to the point of making the audience unsettled as they performed lude atrocious acts upon their genitals to the sound of western jeers and laughter all the while not once emitting a smile. Am I surprised? Not an ounce. Most but not all are immigrant women trafficked from neighboring countries who rarely see any of the western money, some stories I researched grazed my female soul and left me angry at my peers and countrymen. Because of this I have distinct memories of making friends with two Swedish girls and devouring “chang towers” these are like liter towers of the local beer and then barking at the tuk tuk drivers about ‘feminist ping pong”. Those same towers had me puking long into the hostel toilet the morning after, a cleanse if ever there was of the taste of Bangkoks darkest traits.

  I decided fairly early on I wanted to flee into Cambodia’s arms, my first ‘big border leap being to Siem reap – home of the famous Angkor Wat temples. For this journey I needed a long distance bus, now I had read about this border crossing being Asia s most notorious for scams and fake borders with every message board advising the government run bus at 750Baht was legitimately the safest option. I was all set to be a good solo girl and take this route when I met Louise a lovely swede who said she was going by 200Baht minivan but was aware of every scam. The lure of adventure and the inviting price made me agree to this sketchy plan, along with the knowledge that as a natural born worrier and over thinker I had revised every single scam like it was a university test.

CROSSING THE BORDER – SCAMBODIA “YOU NO PAY? THEN YOU STAY FOREVER”

Classic Asia- the bus was late but surely enough an older man appeared with  minivan and then ‘visa application  forms’. SCAM 1

“But there will be queues, this is the way, the bus no wait for you”

Me and Louise exchanged knowing looks of “here we go”. At every chance we had to insist upon doing the application at the border against cries of “önly 1600Baht if you do now” (almost double the price at the border USD30). SCAM 2 Constantly change drivers leaving no one and everyone accountable along the journey. When we got into our minivan it had other victims in the form of Daines and Italians. I quickly ascertained to everyone that the road will be full of scams and noone STRICTLY noone is to give any money until at the border. Oh how quickly people fell off that wagon. I felt like I was harboring a Jew among Nazis Germany telling everyone DO NOT BETRAY US, STAY QUIET.(Yes I am indulgent and dramatic but its my one time at being a leader .. kind of). Soon we arrived at a fake border SCAM 3 – a sketchy cafe, one guy had GPS which showed we were a mile left of the real border. Out come the ‘applications’. I am first to decline and say politely how I will wait for the real border. The guy leaves me alone, not wanting to make a scene in case I alert the others, which I do. Those nearest me who remain with shifty eyes that look at me as if to say “äre you sure…Maybe I will just do it y’know”. Some people fall victim and begin filling out, then when of course money is asked and a great deal indeed for a supposed “express service” that’s when shit hits the fan and it all goes off.

My one mistake on this path and me and Louise kick ourselves for it now was giving this man my bus ticket (SCAM 4). Automatically I assumed it procedure, however once the Daines start rejecting the applications and shaking their head and we all agree not to pay, we ask for our tickets back…. People begin to get angry, fists bang tables, shouts for police, at one point I even have an 18 stone Thai madam in a bum bag shouting in my face “THEY SAY YOU BUY VISA, YOU GO YOUR OWN WAY THEN…GET OUT”. There are suddenly camera phones out on each side, somewhere in the border town of Poipet a man has a photo of me wearing not only a makeshift bandanna but a frown mixed with an “im aware someones taking a photo so angle your face a tad” photograph. The Danes demands the man to stop photographing him to which the small man turns towards a nearby plant insisting he’s simply photographing his trees THANKYOUVERYMUCH. Im not even hiding my laughter at this point and still posing (just in case) urging everyone to calm down and put their backpacks on. A fellow westerner points us in the way of the border and we walk for ten minutes in blistering heat to the lines where borders combine and part. More traps await in the form of scam signs and “helpful” locals. Once again I urge everyone to just follow the official sign which we do that leads us to safety. Or almost. IMMIGRATION So at immigration an official sign reads VISA USD 30 then below on paper is scrawled USD30 +100BAHT. I had read about this scam too. However once again in my group I was the only one standing my ground (okay it was only 2 English pounds but still, were all tired and exhausted and its principle!). Two times immigration turned me away half barking to me that I “stay here forever then”. Then low and behold after all the people who are willing to give 100Baht pass through, me and Louise are let in. YES !!!! I HAD BECOME TOUGH!!! It was perhaps the toughest moment in my life because I am a sensitive bean and natural crier but my God that day I felt not only survived but strong AND SASSY (and also because everyone else seemed impressed and that’s what counts right? :-p !

I wont go on but there were two more scam buses from here (because the Thai Madame had taken our onward tickets as punishment) and then a “free” tuk tuk, which in poor Louise’s case wasn’t free at all as she was the last among a group of Khmer men in the dark alone in the fuck end of nowhere.

Fifteen hours later and I arrive at Siem Reaps “Mad Monkey” chain. A chain of hostels I will come to love and rely on throughout travelling Cambodia. They are pricier than the average ($6-7) but with that comes the promise of clean beds, tours, and most certain debauchery.

Next chapter will give an insight into Siem Reap from nightlife on pub street, to me crying in an alley over a boy, to the wonder that really is Angkor Wat. – Stevie xxx @lightofthedragon #longandlost

South East Asia 2015: I am ready for you: Brunch bars and buscopan 

“There’s no better advice than making then living by your own advice/mistakes – which pretty soon into any trip you will find yourself assessing and reflecting on who you are, your personal needs, must haves…”

As many may know I am off to the lands of the untraveled, underdeveloped, never before conquered or written about- Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and if my budget belies- Myanmur and Indonesia. Aka these are the atypical trails followed by gap yahhh students, often the 18-30’s destination for today’s season workers or who I like to call “Malia scum”. Lucky me!!!

Ha, I jest. I am somewhat painfully aware at 27 years old with two previous travel escapades behind me, being here has made me what we call a fully fledged travel snob (oh just that time I did Nepal, India and South America *sigh*). I’m only jiping  because I write this whilst out in Asia at the moment having met the youth who think themselves Christopher Columbus because they attended a full moon party with twenty thousand other Brits but managed to fit in a brief Island tour and a quick selfie with a local child they passed on their way to the mini mart.

 

Anyways to those thinking or starting a journey, I won’t go on too much as there’s no better advice than making- subsequently living by your own advice/mistakes which pretty soon into any trip have you assessing and knowing yourself, your needs,  must haves and items you wish you’d left at the departure lounge. This statement also holds true to certain behaviours, activities etc. For example: I know with a 95% certainty I cannot and will not ride a motorbike or underwater dive. However these rules can be fun or indeed horrific (maybe even fatal) to test but can also provide memorable or even memorial wake entertainment. Not that motorcycle accidents or malaria are hilaria butttt some humour has been born out of the; ‘Don’t sleep with your tour guide or dorm mate’, ‘don’t jump off that waterfall ‘, ‘that wound will probably heal’ , ‘ let’s all drink tap water and then we will be immune’ ‘don’t drink and smoke weed’,’don’t order the cheese on the side of the street’ ‘ oh look a monkey lets pet him’.😝🙊

 

Packing:

“Are you not going to take any cans of tuna?”

Now packing for me was and is always one of those things I put off as much as I can and then dedicate my god damn life to in two full days inclusive of first, second to third/50ish draft. These are all overseen by my poor mother who is often made to leave the room to then have me wailing at her to come back and decide between dresses for me, most advice of which I usually disregard (no I won’t need 60 denier tights mother). After three previous trips I have a good understanding of my body and needs, what I can physically handle and what I can sacrifice. Put down those straighteners ladies! This year for me I sacrificed my usual 40 packs of immodium and my blue hair dye 😦 who will love me now?

I try to pack the minimum; leggings, two “temple shorts”, linen trousers, three t-shirts, two dresses (casual) and my signature leotard – turned out to be a shockingly light weight 10.4KG which  had me “wehey-ing ” all over Heathrows terminal 4. This is because:

1) I’m a weak lanky monkey but and most importantly-  I’m self aware of this!
2). Mummaz gonna buy loadsa shit out there in the end.

 

Essential packing for South East Asia

  1. Mosquito repellent with deet!!!! deet deet deet!
  2. Antibacterial gel – Not only does this little gem come in handy for basic sanitation it also fairs well for treating mosquito bites and using as a gauze for wounds, as you will quickly find nothing heals properly in Asia (except broken hearts swooooooon).
  3. Sun cream– a reputable brand like Nivea factor 30
  4. Hiking shoes for those jungle treks and also a plimsoll type primark shoe setting you back £3 you’d be surprised how much you will use and then ditch at a later time to fit last minute presents in.
  5. A vanish stick (cut off a small square in cling film) / travel wash – a cheaper option to constantly doing laundry for those soiled undies and in the asian heat they dry in no time!
  6. A travel neck pillow – preferably a blow up one that then folds down in your small pack, these are a God given blessing for those many hours spent crammed with locals in minivans
  7. A lip sun protector factor 30 and other various lip balms- if like me your lips blister in the heat or the line of your lip completely melts into your face when burnt (which famously happened to me one trip to Greece) this is A MUST HAVE and has served me loyally.
  8. Buscopan and brunch bars along with the staple travel medications and condoms (no not milaria tablets either, unless you are Michael palin or Cheryl Cole, you will not need them). As an IBS sufferer (such a victim) I would always take buscopan and anti acids for those greasy meals and aching bowels! I would also reccommend hiding brunch bars in various parts of your bags for those times in peril, or for added surprise value when months into a trip you stumble upon a lowely brunch bar! I have tendencies to do his even when at home and going on long nights out at clubs,  nothing worse than going hungry! (It’s true I once ate a Mars bar on the dance floor ).
  9. A decent red lipstick – lastly for me this is my luxury item, my connection back to a reality where I am semi attractive. With one decent lipstick I can wear only that and nothing else and feel like I’ve spruced up my 5 day work creased smelly outfit on a potential night out. A bold lip can rescue a dry barren devoid of anything else face.

The rest is up to you, do not be ashamed if your heart desires a hair dryer, compensate and substitute with something else, if you can justify it to yourself that’s all that matters – just don’t  be moaning when it’s on your back! I’ve known people warrant straighteners or a £150 hat, everyone is different as is each trip.

Soooo now you’ve got your dollars and a bit of Thai baht and you’re ready to hit the big city of Bangkok- goodluck my doves!

Let the adrenaline fly the plane for there is no feeling equal to that of beginning a solo journey. The buzz of the airports, smell of the cabin and the feel of foreign airs is among you, bask in it.

Next chapter will talk about my journey to Bangkok and the adventure that was my journey into scambodia. Spoiler alert, there’s drama , fake border crossings, a metaphorical show down/ stand-off at immigration and some terrific island sex.

– Stevie 😬😬😬😬

Instagram – @lightofthedragon

#longandlost

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