Wonderful South East Asia – Part 1

Last year I decided to see Cambodia and Vietnam and more of Thailand. I would also be returning to Phuket…Kata town, for a lazy two week stay. But I would meet many people and experience many unforgettable things along the way and want to share some of them here along with my thoughts on my experiences.

I was travelling alone, for the first time ever and spent months working out overland routes, means of travel and dates. Actually the build up was fun, but as the months flew by I just wanted to be there, in South East Asia. My planning factored in a few things like anti-malaria and antibiotics for dysentery, that sort of thing. The itinerary would place me in a particular country at a particular time with 4-5 days in Vietnam on specific dates, the same being for Thailand and Cambodia. Most of my journey would be over land, with the exception of a flight from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to Bangkok, on the last leg of my travel….and of course a domestic flight between Bangkok and Phuket.

I first arrived in Bangkok, obviously, but it was early in the morning and even though I had a hotel in mind, I hadn’t booked anything. So I turn up at this place off the Sukhumvit road, at around 7 am. Thankfully they do have a room but I will have to wait for it to be prepared. I also pay an extra levy for just turning up. No problem.  Pay the levy and pull out the itinerary that places me in Bangkok on three occasions – first of course is my initial arrival then my return from Phnom Penh enroute to Phuket, then my return from Phuket for one final night before returning to England. So I book my reservations for these dates also while I am there.

I have to busy myself until 12-1 pm, when the room will be ready. Well, as I intend to set off the following day on an overland journey to Surin, a town in North east of Thailand near the Cambodian border crossing of Chong Chom, I figure now would be a good time to go to Morchit station and buy my bus ticket. I leave my suitcase at the reception.

BTS Skytrain…

Now this is the first time I have used the Skytrain in Bangkok, but the receptionist very kindly give me a map of the Skytrain lines. I was also very close to a station on the Sukhumvit road, Thong lo station. The system is simplicity itself, you just can’t go wrong.

The train journey was easy as pie and it presents the city of Bangkok in a fabulous way. Huge concrete and glass structures slide by the windows as the train smoothly makes its way along a concrete spine running the length of the Sukhumvit road on a track that is elevated high above the city street. Bangkok is still undergoing lots of development so it seems.

Arrive at Morchit station, last stop on the Sukhumvit line and cross the main road to catch a bus to the Morchit bus terminal. When I get there I am unsure as to where to go for my ticket, and everything listed is in Thai, with exception of some popular tourist location written in English. I bite the bullet and amble on over to a counter and ask if they do a ticket to Surin. After some curious looks one of the girls directs me to a numbered booth for tickets to Surin. I leave and hear them giggling. God knows what they were thinking of this odd looking foreigner going to Surin.

Anyway, buys my ticket and checks the time…still only early with hours to kill. I decide on the Khaosan road, although I can’t see much going on at this time of the day, and I don’t think there is much there to do anyway. The taxi driver however seemed to have other ideas and took it upon himself to take me to the big weekend market. When I realised I was at Chatuchak market I didn’t object, as this was much more an interesting place. I paid the man and had a good walk around, bought a silly hat and some sun glasses.

By about 10 am I was beginning to feel the tiredness, and my feet were tiring so I stopped at a park near the Morchit skytrain station, not sure how I ended up near there but I assume that the big market is close. At just after 10 in the morning there a plenty of people out, and the sun is really starting shine. I am thinking now though that I just need to crash so I make my way back to the hotel with a mind to hang out in the lobby and use the internet, or sit in the restaurant adjoining. As I get back to the reception the staff inform me that my room is ready…great.

After a shower and a sleep I rise at around 5.30 pm in the evening and decide to go for a walk along the Sukhumvit road and grab a bite. I must have done some walking before heading back after a roadside meal of noodle soup. It was actually a very boring night in an otherwise vibrant city, but I had to think about the long journey across Thailand the following day.

Pile up on Sukhumvit road…

Walking along Sukhumvit road one has to be alert, as in any city in any country at night. But long stretches of the road are very poorly lit and I did encounter a couple of young men asking for money. They were obviously poor, possibly living on the street, but I wonder how a drunken foreigner would fare walking along this road. I wouldn’t like to find out. Anyway, as I approach the main crossing, just after Thong lo station, or maybe before it, I hear a loud bang and immediately look towards the main road. Several people are scattered along the road and 3 motorbikes are lying in the road. At first I didn’t see any movement but then a few of them start getting up off the road. My attention shifted to one of them that still lying in the road and I drop my bag and run to help. I was unsure whether to move the person, a woman of maybe 25. She was in a lot of pain and crying and at first I didn’t want to move her, but as she was able to sit up I figured that I should at least get her to the road side. One of her legs was badly injured, so I had to put her arm over my shoulder and help her to the sidewalk. After a reassuring rub on the back and asking if she is ok I notice the other guys now talking to a policeman. At that point I make a quick getaway, grab my bag and disappear. People do drive a bit crazy around here.

So this is short time…

In bed for 10 p.m. hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep, feeling a little jet lagged, and it seems like I have been out for a matter of minutes when I am suddenly awoken by the drunken ramblings of one of my neighbours coming up the hallway, accompanied by the sound of high heeled shoes. I check my watch and it is just gone 2 a.m. This hotel is not the quietest place I have stayed in and any activity in the hall or in neighbouring rooms seems to be amplified. The sounds get nearer, the drunken rambling and the steady trot of the high heels suddenly halt. Keys jangling, sounds like they are coming into my room but then I hear the door close. I raise my head off the pillow to check that they have not in fact entered my room, peering through the white hazy mesh of my mosquito net warily. No, everything is fine, just next door. I kid myself into thinking that I will try to drift back into an unconscious state that resembles sleep and for a few minutes it seemed to work.

BANG…BANG…BANG…??? I believe that is how it went. A sound consistent with an item of furniture being knocked against the wall! Just as it starts I am thinking, oh here we go, but no sooner as it starts it inexplicably stops. A few minutes pass then I hear the shower going on. From there is a curious silence. Talk about short time, boy that was short! I then hear the sound of others, happy sounds coming down the hallway. I cannot sleep now and decide to start examining the damage done to my case by the baggage handlers and fix the cracks in the plastic with some duct tape I bought earlier. It is funny really, because throughout my trip, the various bus rides and plane rides, my suitcase would incur a little bit more damage. The last things to go were the zip handles, both of them! I ended up having to buy duct tape in Bangkok on the first night. Jeez, I am in Bangkok…most guys are looking for hookers…I’m looking for a hardware store so that I can perform surgery on my luggage!

After being woken by the sex marathon next door and performing a little reconstructive surgery on my case it is soon 5 a.m. and I switch the T.V. on. Not much to choose from really, the only clear channel I can view seems to be a programme promoting agricultural products for farmers. I make myself comfortable on the other bed, as it is the nearest to the t.v. and doze off to this riveting viewing but in no time an alarm has gone off in my head, it is 6.30.

Surin bound…

The journey to Surin is about 8 hours and the bus left the station at around 10.15 am. I usually hate bus journeys and wouldn’t dream of taking one back home for that length of time, but the journey through Thailand was fantastic and I would do it again. The scenery is changing constantly and simple daily life is revealed in all its glory. I love the paddy fields and the palm trees and seeing the farmers at work. There are many young Thais on the bus and there is a t.v, show playing on a television propped up above the driver. I haven’t a clue what is going on but it is hilarious. I recognise one of the main characters, a guy in a film I saw in 2005, Ong Bak….the guys name is Petchthai I think, he was the one with the bleached hair. I get the impression he is prolific on Thai t.v. as a funny man. Some Thai kids on the bus were hysterical with laughter.

Anyway, eventually arrive in Surin, but it is getting late and I am beginning to worry about accommodation…as I have not booked any and only had one guesthouse in mind…not very wise considering I spent months planning. I guess I had to allow for some spontaneity.

However, as we drive through Surin I do not see any taxis and begin to have a nightmarish vision of being stuck in a town where nobody understands me and I don’t understand them, and my utterings of a certain guesthouse name (Piroms – which is excellent) would be met with a glazed eyed expression.

The bus pulls into the bus terminus and to my relief there are several tuk tuks and I am accosted by two drivers, a lady and a gentleman. But the female of the species prevails and she asks me where I am going. I say Piroms and she repeats the name to her fellow tuk tuk driver with a bit of a laugh, but in a way that indicated that it was a headache to get to. Well it was, for her, as her tuk tuk kept on cutting out at junctions, traffic lights and eventually yards from Piroms. I had to get out and push for the last few yards.

The guesthouse is off the beaten track and I liked this. It was also earthy and basic, again, great for me. I had a bed, a mosquito net and a table, a nice wash room and open shower. It felt like I was out in the wilderness when taking a shower, but very private at the same time. I also arrived, unknown to me, at Loy Kratong and the owner of the guest house and his wife were great hosts. On the night of my arrival I was cooked a meal by Ari, Pirom’s wife and given a map of the town centre prepared by Pirom. I used this map to find the Loy Kratong celebration, near the city hall. Obviously I did this on foot as this is the best way to see any town or city if possible, and I was not disappointed. The place was heaving with people and I liked the almost complete absence of foreigners, I saw one, as I walked around and took in the celebrations and the beauty contests that were taking place.

During my planning of the trip, I was wrestling with the idea of flying directly into Siem Reap or going through Poipet – which really didn’t appeal to me at all. I am so glad I chose the option of travelling to Surin for the overland border crossing of Chong Chom.

I did plan to cross the border the following morning and then make my way to Anlong Veng and stay the following night there but a chat with Pirom, over my meal before setting off for Loy Kratong, kind of changed my mind. He convinced me that the roads at that time of year would be pretty awful, with just coming out of the wet season. But before this I also had doubts about Anlong Veng, but these owed more to principle than anything else – the contentious issue of tourism in Anlong Veng and the idea of a ‘genocide trail’ played an important part.

Some local people have objected to plans to develop Anlong Veng into what has been described as a ‘Khmer Rouge theme park’ and incorporate it into a genocide trail. The rebuilding of leading Khmer Rouge members houses in the area has provoked some controversy and a lot of it I agree with. Norodom Sihanouk himself voiced his opinion, saying that it was for the pleasure of tourists, but I don’t agree with that. People do not take pleasure in seeing the ghastly legacy of tyranny. I guess they kind of just want to understand, and Cambodia offers visible and tangible evidence of the madness that we tend to call history. So Pirom unwittingly made my mind up for me…no Anlong Veng. I will stay in Surin an extra day and take the opportunity to see some of North East Thailand.

The following day, Pirom suggests I take the train and visit Sikhoraphum temple and I do. The train ride again exposes the beautiful land and the pace of life is easy. Women patrol the isles of the train dicing up melon and pineapple and selling it to passengers on the train. I arrive at the station and amble out into a main square not being accosted by anyone and it immediately strikes me as a sleepy place. So I walk…using the force to find my way. However, after walking a short while the force is telling me that I might be going in the wrong direction for the temples…I also have no clue as to the distance. So I walk back to the main square and engage a chap that is stood by a motorbike, he has a bib on which looks like the kind I have seen on guys touting taxi/bike services. I say to the guy, ‘temple’, but he doesn’t understand me. A young girl in the near vicinity intervenes and asks me what I am after but I then twig…’Wat…Wat Sikhorapum?’ she then takes on an expression of understanding and communicated this to the guy. I ask how much and she asks the guy…20 baht.

No problem.

Sikhorapum Wat is peaceful and very self contained within open grounds and the whole area was very quite. The driver chatted away with some local Thais as I wondered around the temple taking photos. We then return from whence we came, back to the square and I thank him and give him fare for both ways and a little extra. I then feel an urge to jump on the next train to Si Sa Ket but when I ask the staff at the station this is not for hours. So I am standing at the entrance of the station, facing the square and notice the driver standing in the same place I found him, across the square. He must have noticed my apprehension and came over. He is now speaking a little English, ‘You go to Surin?’.  I say to him Si Sa Ket and he immediately yells at a bus pulling away about 30 yards away. ‘go Si Sa Ket’ the man says with a gentle smile. I thank him and run for the bus which has stopped for me.

Loud Isaan music is blearing from a speaker at the front of the bus, which is almost empty. I have no clue how long the journey is going to be and don’t care as we cut through the beautiful countryside and villages. I realise then that it is a weekday when the bus stops off in front of a school and lots of school kids board. This goes on for much of the journey and the ticket man is chatting to people in the street as the bus passes through slowly. Eventually all of the children are delivered safely home and there are just 3 or 4 of us on the bus.

I eventually arrive in Si Sa Ket and when I disembark in the town I may as well have landed in a UFO – I drew quite a bit of attention, but never menacing, more curious than anything else. There was not much going on here but lots of people milling about. I have a meal in the main square and a walk around before jumping the train back. For me, the journey is the best part.

I arrive back just after 9 at Piroms and talk in the dining area with a German couple who had just been to Cambodia. Apparently they turned up not long after me, but the guy asked if I had been woken up at around 5 am by the local Buddhists place of worship, apparently it was rather loud. I didn’t hear a thing, but then that was probably because I had been woken at around 3 am by a diesel train passing through the town. I had also polished off some Shivas Regal whiskey that I picked up in the town.

I prepared and packed for my early departure for the border the next morning and slept like a log. Had breakfast and a chat with Pirom before settling up and he calls a tuk tuk and tells them where I am going. I would most definitely stay at Piroms again as he and his wife Ari are great hosts and Pirom is a wealth of information. It is also very cheap as 120baht. Next time I would like to see more of North East Thailand, Roi Et and Ubon Ratcathani before moving onto Udon and Chang Mai.

The overland bus routes, while long are a great way to get across Thailand, and the cheapest way.

In the next part…crossing border into Cambodia, the wonders of Siem Reap and a few ambushes along the way.

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