Wrapping and lapping it up in Bangkok.

As soon as we arrived in Trat (via the back of a pick-up) we made it to the bus station, where we promptly caught the first bus to Bangkok. We just had enough time to grab some munchies, and get on the bus. The ride was rather comfortable, and as it was only five hours, not too long. I couldn’t believe it, we actually only had days to go before we’d be back in Melbourne. We’d kept it a big secret, and Dad didn’t even know yet. I was planning on telling him once in Bangkok. I felt like I’d died and was racing towards the white light, with my life flashing before me, except this version was a little different. My life went back to August 18th, 2006, when we’d embarked on this journey, after which 27 countries and 16 months flashed before me. Wow! We had seen, done and experienced so much. I figured the end of the tunnel was Melbourne! I felt overwhelmed. I’d lived to be able to tell, yet another of my many travel tales. As most of you would only know too well, there is little that surpasses my love and fascination for the world and its people. My addiction of choice has always been travel!

As we neared the capital, I realised how very big and very modern Bangkok had indeed become. I remember my first trip many, many years ago where it was squalid and very third world. With a population of between 15 and 20 million (basically Australia’s entire population) it has become a modern and thriving metropolis, where nothing is unobtainable, if you know where to go. And if you don’t, and you are like me, you find out quick smart. On these last days we were on a mission, and that mission included fitting in a few decent massages, visiting the dentist, getting Alex some glasses, and doing some shopping. Yes, you heard correctly, shopping! As most of you know I am so not a shopper, but there’s something about Bangkok which at first lures and then unleashes the “bargain shopper within”. It was a bit of a tall order to try and fit all that in, but after 16 months, a new outfit of clothes (or two or three or four….) was more of a necessity than a desire. A large number of our clothes were most certainly not going to leave Thailand. They had been worn to death, and we totally over them. OK enough excuses, we just wanted a few new things that we hadn’t looked at each and every day for the last 16 months.

We went straight to Lamphu House, where we had also stayed when we were here in mid 2005. It’s a treasure of a place which we found coincidentally on our last trip here. Whilst only a block away from Khao San Rd (aka, backpacker central), and the bargain shopping area known as Banglamphu, it was a clean, safe and serene little spot. A good place to come back and relax in between doing all of our bits and pieces. And read on…there were many “bits and pieces to do. When we arrived at Lamphu House, not only did the owners and workers remember us, but they proceeded to show us a picture of us in a Thai Travel journal……..of when we were in Cambodia a few years back. We were flabbergasted! The story goes like this: On our last trip here we visited both Thailand and Laos, including some really off-the-beaten track destinations in Laos. We very vaguely remember being photographed, and we end up in a magazine, the photo taking up half a page. What are the chances!

We had arrived in Bangkok on the Friday night. Perfect timing, as every weekend, but only on weekends, Bangkok holds its famous Chatuchuk (or Jatujak) Market. Even the most hardened of shoppers or bargain shoppers would find this a mind blower. I have been here many times on subsequent trips, but it never fails to amaze me. This market is not only the largest in Thailand, but the largest in the world! Consider this: It covers over 35 acres (1.13 km²) and contains more than 15,000 stalls. It is estimated that the market receives between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors each day. The market sells, but is not restricted to, household items, clothing, Thai handicrafts, religious artifacts, collectibles, foods, and even live animals. Check out http://www.jatujakguide.com/main/index.php A sight to behold. So, it was an early rise the next morning. May the shopping begin!

I can assure you that we were not the only ones who had had the “early rise” idea. The market is so megalithic that it’s hard to follow any type of path or formula, so we just wandered around. We ended up with watches, shorts, chopsticks, tops for me and various other bits and pieces. Having said that, after years of travelling, and buying, I have become a much more discerning shopper, for a number of reasons. You know, that amazing Mexican sombrero looks amazing in Mexico, but once back home, you find yourself saying: What was I thinking when I bought that and what the heck am I going to do with it here, not to mention where to put it. And those beautiful table runners will certainly look good on the coffee table, but hey, it’s going to take a long time to rotate an over abundance of table runners. Now clothes are a completely different story and category! Whilst I would almost rather play golf than go clothes shopping in Australia, when overseas I am always tantalised by the exotic clothes, which are so very much my style. Call it ethnic if you will! I like bright, bold colours that capture and hold the energy of the world and its people. It’s a reflection of who I am and what I believe in!

We were knackered after several hours at Chatachuk, but with only days to go before our imminent return to Australia, “cram, cram, cram” was steadfastly becoming our middle name. Making our way back to Lamphu House, we dumped all of our stuff, and continued with our quest to achieve the near impossible. Oh, glasses for Alex. You can get your eyes tested for free here, and the glasses are way cheaper than in Australia. We ended up checking out a few optometrists in the Sukhumvit Rd area (by this stage, it was already Saturday night and we were leaving on the Monday afternoon), and finally found a place with decent designs, and which could have prescription glasses made up by Monday morning. We were cutting a fine line, but it was the best we could do. I had my eyes checked, and it seems that they are still OK.

Megs, Bec and Birdie were all in the Khao San area. Megs was about to go off to Vietnam, and Bec and Birdie had just come back from Cambodia. They were going to spend a few days with Pong and Link, and then make their way to the islands that the rest of us had been to. So, it was time to say goodbye. Unfortunately, both Becs and Megs, got a bit sick, and unfortunately I did not get to see Bec off. Nothing major, just that “dodgy stomach syndrome” which seems to afflict so many western travellers in third or second world countries. We did have a catch up with Bird and Megs though. I couldn’t help but wonder where we see them next. Megs would be going back to New Zealand, and Becs…..well, in what “exotic” location would I see her next?

Sunday was spent doing more shopping, and I think a haircut was thrown in there somewhere. We made the most that we could munching on street food, including pad thai and spicy papaya salad. How I am going to miss the Thai street food, which I believe is unrivaled world wide. I can always dream about it! On the Sunday Alex also visited Pantip Plaza, a veritable techno-head’s dream come true, with some five storeys of computer stores and stalls, selling everything from the most genuine, as well as openly pirated goods. As my techno interest is somewhat relegated to punching in a few digits on a mobile phone and using e-mail, I decided to visit the MBK shopping centre close by. We both came out of our prospective shopping venture with a few more goods.

December 24th, Monday morning! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah only hours to go before we would be returning home. So much was rushing through my mind, with one thought constantly trying to pole vault over another. I was trying to wrap my head around the last 16 months, as well, as do the last minute cram! Of course we still had things to do! Alex had his glasses to pick up, we both had a dentist appointment, and we also both “had” to have a massage. Oh, and I was going to do my best to have a pedicure, manicure and facial as well. Hammer and tongs! That’s my style. And let me tell you, it would only be when we finally sat on the plane that we would breathe a sigh of relief, before virtually collapsing. Needless to say, we were able to fit it all in.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, well hotel room, we were packing and culling. Out with the old and in with the new! Many of our tired (as opposed to tried) and true clothes and bits and pieces, would be left behind in Thailand. To be perfectly frank, we were over most of our clothes which we had not only worn to death, but were sick of looking at. And so, with our backpacks full, and a few other bags ready to give away to the reception of the hotel, we said our goodbyes and we were off.

As we sat in a mini-bus on our way to the airport, I could not help but feel how final this all was. It really was coming to an end. I stared intently at the road we were on, and the houses and people we passed, as I grappled with the thought that shortly, very shortly, we would be back in Australia. Hmm, Australia, a world so very different to the many places I had seen and visited. Waves of lots of things actually came over me. How would I fare? How would I feel? What would I think? I was soon about to find out.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, so we checked in and walked around a bit, before sitting down. We had brought our own snacks and food, as we were flying Jetstar, who does not get an A1 rating as far as its food goes. Before we knew it, we were boarding. As luck would have it, I got a “bed” for the night. Backtrack…..as we were flying home on Christmas Eve (to arrive on Christmas Day) the plane did not have all that many passengers. What I eyeballed almost immediately was the row of four vacant seats behind me. Thank you very much! A backpacker ’till the end, I popped up all the armrests, extended my body across the entire space, placed my ever faithful sarong over myself and placed my eye cover on. I had a fantastic night’s sleep, thank you very much!

I woke up not long before touch down. Flying over Melbourne was just as I remembered it. Too much like I remembered actually. Everything went smoothly, we picked up our bags, went through customs, where we had to wait ages to declare a couple of sets of chopsticks. If our biggest problem was having to line up for a little too long, it was minuscule in respect to many of the world’s problems as we had seen them.

Alack and alas, we finally made it through the automatic doors, and waiting for us, ever faithful as always, was Dad. Hugs all around, many kisses, a decent caffe latte, and we were off. We were off to Fulvio and Karen’s (my brother and sister-in-law) for lunch, and they had no idea at all!

And with this, our phenomenal 16 month sojourn came to an end! Only time would tell, how we would fare with “normality” and routine. As I walked outside into the open, fresh air, I sighed deeply. I was indeed happy to be back home!

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Dedication: This one is for my Mum, Adiga (Addie) Zanetti. Thanks for watching over me Mum. I felt your presence with me and know that you were always by my side. Your physical persona is gone, but your love, passion and strength of character have been my guide. Thank you for making me who I am today.

“If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything”.

NOTE: It is the 20th of July 2008, and this blog is being published some 7 months after the end of our trip. It is the last one on these travels. So much has happened since then. Alex and I are both working, and we also both went back to Thailand for 10 days in May/ June. Whilst I feel that this blog somewhat concludes the stories of our long time away and gives an insight into “the world according to Ombi and Alex”, there is still so much that I would like to talk about and share. Both with full time jobs, whilst time is not our worst enemy, neither is it our best friend……..WATCH THIS SPACE!!!!!!!!!

(Photos: 1.- On a pick-up truck back to Trat, making our way back to Bangkok. 2.- Bangkok aint what it used to be! 3.- Khao San Road by night, Bangkok. 4.- Chatuchuk Market, Bangkok. 5.- The many exotic flavours of Thailand. 6.- The Bangkok sky train. 7.- MBK shopping mall; a veritable shopper’s paradise, Bangkok. 8.- Alex having a massage, Khao San Road area. 9.- Tuk-tuk parked near the Grand Palace. 10.- Coming home; flying over Australian soil, well, water! 11.- A map of all the places we visited.)

Secluded bliss, at long last.

We had been travelling for close to 16 months and whilst culturally and spiritually invigorated, we were physically spent! I am usually into “doing” something rather than simply laying about, but I cannot begin to tell you how tantalising the whole idea of lying around on a secluded beach was steadfastly becoming. We had talked about what our last few weeks would look like, and now that time had come, we were ready. We wanted a couple of weeks on a spectacular beach doing absolutely nothing, before coming back to Bangkok, to fit in some shopping (and a few other things).But where in Thailand would we go? To what beach or area? Needless to say, the likes of Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui did not even make the top 100. Glitz, glam and sleaze were not on the agenda! (By this stage I was precariously close to wanting to do battle with anyone who even remotely looked like they were trying to crack onto the local delicacies).

As usual, our next destination lay only a few days ahead of us. That’s to say, that we usually only decided on “what’s next” from one place to the next. We did a bit of on-line investigating, whilst also flipping through our guide book, and the general consensus seemed to be that if we wanted to elude the masses, we needed to go somewhere along the Gulf of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border. Ko Chang looked like a good option, so in the days after Pong and Link’s wedding we were off. One of Bangkok’s bus terminals, the Eastern Bus Terminal, was within walking distance, and luckily for us it was the place where we needed to go to, to reach our next destination, Trat, from where we would then have to catch a ferry on to Ko Chang. Bec and Birdie saw us off, and before we knew it, along with Megs, we were on our way. I wondered where I would see Bec next, as she and Birdie were off to Cambodia in the next few days.

The ride was only some six hours, but we would have to spend the night in Trat, as it was too late to catch a ferry. Once there, we figured that we may as well stay a couple of days. At the bus station, we were met by the owner of Pop Guest House, who told us that she had some accommodation available. We all figured that we may as well go check it out. It was at the bus station that we also met the lovely Maya, from France. So, off we went to take a look at Pop. As usual, we did the usual check a few places out, but ended up back at Pop, which was very clean and comfortable. Unfortunately, despite being listed in the Lonely Planet guide book, we most certainly did not find that “staying at this homely place is like visiting your -mum. The owner will pamper you silly”. The husband and owner duo were a mean-spirited couple who only cared to pamper you silly if you ate at their restaurant and used all of their services. In true Ombi form, I did none of that. They were NOT happy campers, and on realising that they could not milk us, they were quite rude. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was accused, inadvertently of course, that I had stolen a pair of thongs! As if! Not having wounded me too deeply or personally, I was still able to enjoy Trat, especially its central market. Thailand is a foodie’s dream come true, and this market did not disappoint. But………..how much can one try? Speaking for Alex, Maya and Megs too, I would say….quite a lot actually!

Whilst in Trat, we chatted to a few people who had been to Ko Chang, and it appeared that it was no longer the idyllic haven it had once been. We had heard that one guy who had been going for the past 20 years, recently spent a night there, and returned, disillusioned! Why? It was quickly moving towards glitz, glam and sleaze alley. No thanks! A bit more research (again via internet and people who had recently been there), and we decided on Ko Mak. This place seemed small (only 16 square kilometres), with supposedly few tourists, and lots of stretches of sparkling golden sand and azure seas. I think we’d found what we were looking for. We caught a ferry out there, and I was blown away as we started to approach the island. Be careful of what you ask for though, as you may just get it! We arrived at sunset, and despite the throngs of mozzies(they say dog is a man’s best friend, well, mozzies are mine!), the view was spectacular. The secluded island we had dreamed about was…….real! We ended up at a place called Sunset Resort. It was bungalow style accommodation, and whilst passable, not what we were really looking for. Whilst we did not want the Hilton, we wanted our last weeks to be relaxing and comfortable. We had earned this! Thanks to Jo and Will, a Belgian couple we met at Sunrise, we ended up moving to Pano Resort the next day (please, please, please click on the link). It was really, really beautiful….and deserted….that’s the place not just the beach. So, we really did have it to ourselves.

What can I say? We spent a week at Pano, and did……….nothing except for sun bake, laze around, sleep, eat, and Megs and I would go for walks. The young couple who managed Pano, Bow and Boy, were sweet and friendly, and many a night was held sitting in the outdoor/restaurant area, eating food, which they often gave us to “try”. Of course we also bought food there, as on an island you have few options: the resort/ hotel food, a few local restaurants and a couple of grocery shops. Jane was the front-of-house person, who was also our means of transportation. As the island is so small, there are no taxis, and transport is via the vehicle the hotel provides. Having said that, most places were no more than 10 minutes away. Jane was also a keen soccer player, who seemed to be able to fit in this activity several times a week. Definitely the tom boy I once was, and whom many would argue, still am. Then there was the cook, O, and her little baby, Aum, who would smile cheekily on the several occasions we came back and gave her a bar of chocolate.

Although there was a tiny stretch of sand in front of Pano Resort, and certainly enough to read and sun bake on, we went in search of deeper waters (and wider stretches of sand). We found and were taken to a several beautiful spots, which I had thought only “lived” on glossy travel mag covers, or in a movie. Beautiful, tranquil, and relaxing! Alex tells me that all of the seafood he had was scrumptious. We also found a local restaurant, Pa Toom, that we visited a lot. Although the owner, naming the restaurant after herself, spoke little English, and we non-existent Thai, we were somehow able to communicate. It was usually more hit than miss and the food cheap and tasty. “Pet, pet” (hot, hot) I would ask for…remember what I said about being careful for what you asked for. Talk about shaving a layer or two off my palate! We kept coming back though. Not many internet choices on the island, except for one expensive one close to the pier, which we only used briefly on a couple of occasions. That’s island life, where most things are more expensive due to the isolation. Oh, but so very worth it!

Ko Mak is a relatively small island, covering an area of 16 square kilometres. It truly has a tropical island feel to it, and you are never too far from a palm-fringed beach (stereotypes are so adequate in creating the image, aren’t they?). The scenery mainly comprises of rubber and coconut plantations (yes, we sat on the beach munching on some hand-picked coconuts). Transportation is by foot, motorbike, bicycle or hotel vehicles. Cars are virtually non-existent, as there are so few roads. There is electricity, but it has not been around for all that long. In late 2006, it was rated as one of the “World’s Top 10 Secret Beaches”. By Aussie standards, that’s quite a tall order, but it is truly justified. The secret is out! So, if you visit, leave only your footsteps! We do not want another Pattaya!

We also managed to scuba dive on the island. There are only three schools and we chose Ploy Scuba Diving. Realistically, how bad can diving off a non-mainstream, and secluded island be? We took a speed boat out, and did two wonderful dives, and the conditions were brilliant. As I have mentioned before, it’s another world down there. Each place we have visited (diving) has been different; like its on-land counterparts, the sea also has a variety of different species and plant life. There is however something unnerving about “breathing” underwater. It’s this amazing sensation, which at the same time is juxtaposed with this bizarre feeling of something somewhat unnatural. It’s not for everybody, but say I: You have to try everything in life at least once, and if you like it, keep going back for more!
After a week or so of lazing, eating, diving, sun baking, eating, sleeping, lazing, relaxing……oh, sorry, got carried away…..we decided to move onto another small and secluded island. Have I mentioned what a hard life this is? We were on a roll. Decisions, decisions. Ko Kood, here we come. Again, we took an inter-island speedboat. Getting there was half the fun, as we flew past a crystalline sea, scattered with a multitude of islands, some tiny and with only a solitary palm tree. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, it could, and it did! Stuff that movies are made of!

We were on Ko Kood (or Ko Kut) in what appeared to be no time at all. Covering 105 square kilometres, although obviously bigger than Ko Mak, being further south, it also seemed more isolated. There were very few people on our speedboat, and the few that were on it, seemed to have resort-style accommodation organised. We checked out a la-dedah style place at first, but soon found Mark House Bungalows. What a place, tranquil, relaxing and only minutes away from the beach. Will I go on ad nauseum about the beach? Why not! More golden stretches of sand, confronting a sea whose beautiful clear waters were remarkably pristine, all amongst a backdrop of drooping coconut palms. Ah, la isla bonita! Talk about unleashing the romantic (or the very tired and weary traveller) within. The kind of place where stereotypes really do the whole set up justice.

I probably shouldn’t be letting the cat out of the bag here, but Ko Kood’s remote location has ensured that it hasn’t attracted the masses of people or developers looking to make a few quick bucks, oops,baht. This makes it yet another idyllic island get away. But, take heed! Same rule applies as Ko Mak, if you come visit, leave your footprints and nothing else! We noticed almost immediately that whilst bigger, there were certainly less people. Mark House Bungalows were actually Balinese style bungalows, which were both right on the KlongJao River and only 100 metres away from the KlongJao beach. A simple and clean wooden bungalow, with ceiling fan and outdoor shower, we could vividly see the spectacular blue sea, and the white sand beaches lined with coconut trees from our porch. I truly sigh deeply as I recall that view. I remember thinking, at this point, how very close we were to returning home. What would await us and how would we cope? What would be in the jungle that awaited us?

So, how did we spend our days? I began my day with a run along the beach (and if it wasn’t in the morning it was just before dusk) as I dragged myself out of sun bake mode. Mark House included free coffee, tea, and bread, so we would start our day with this as well as some fresh pineapple and yogurt. Pineapples from tropical locations and which have not been cold stored are phenomenal! Instead of being tart and tasteless, they are sweet and succulent. Yum! After a lazy lunch we would either go to the beach right in front of us, or take a walk in either direction, to find an even more secluded and tucked away beach. This was supposed to be their high season, and whilst the locals were not too excited about a lack of people, Alex and I felt like we had hit the jackpot. During the day, we would munch on a little something to tie us over, and once home, showered and rested, we would hit one of the local restaurants for dinner. One in particular, had such an amazing vegetarian green curry, that we were ordering it almost every night. “Pet, pet”, please! Hot, but amazing, we beaded liked we’d done an hour in the sauna!

Mark House also included free kayaks and we kayaked on both the river and beach on several occasions. Whilst their concept of safety is completely different to ours, we had lots of fun. Life jackets? What are they? Get in and she’ll be right mate! Well, I am a water baby, and I used to be a life guard and swimming teacher, so I was undeterred. As day turned into night, the views from the kayak were particularly amazing. This island had an ethereal, almost surreal quality. Is this where people in utopia live? We also visited the Klong Chao Waterfall, which was a relatively short walk from where we were staying. By world standards, I must say that it was rather average, and the surroundings not very clean, which did nothing to entice me into the water, despite the fact that it was an extremely hot day. Alex was a better person than I was, and hopped in for a quick splash. On the walk back, we befriended some Thai people, that were returning from a picnic at the falls, who kept offering us beer. They had limited English, and well, what can I say about my Thai, but somehow, we made ourselves understood. Through sign language I tried to explain that I just did not like beer. Surely Alex liked beer? He obliged and they were stoked. It was a brilliant exercise in camaraderie, and it’s amazing how others can be so genuine if you show even the slightest bit of interest.
A quick note on this island: Several small resorts on the island cater to mostly Thai tourists who prefer a quiet and family-friendly atmosphere. So far, thankfully, there aren’t the ridiculously over-the-top style resorts that many westerners seem to prefer. Thus, there aren’t that many foreigners on the island, and those of us that do find this little haven, are more than happy with it the way it is, thank you very much. We had spent nearly a week on Ko Kood, and we had not seen a solitary vendor selling tacky t-shirts, souvenir wood carvings or henna tattoos. Let’s just hope it stays this way!

You know what they say about good things? Utopia had come to an end, and before we knew it, we were on a small speedboat, making our way back to Trat. As the sun sparkled in our eyes and danced on the water, the wind whipped through our hair, and as we looked back the coconut trees got smaller and smaller as Ko Kut’s utopian golden beach faded into oblivion. I felt both euphoric and sad at the same time. In my mind’s eye, I blew the island a kiss and told it that I would one day see it again!

Ombi

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – John Powell





(Photos: 1.- Bangkok skyline. It’s come a long way from the backwaters of only a few years ago. 2.- On the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak (Mak Island). 3.- Ombi and Megs on the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak – what can I say about how difficult life is! 4.- The morning view from Sunset Resort, Ko Mak. No silicone, no airbrushing and no colour enhancements. This is it! 5.- The crew at Pano Resort, Ko Mak. 6.- Megs and Alex on one of Ko Mak’s spectacular beaches…..doing an ad for Toyota! 7.- Another un-airbrushed un-siliconed Ko Mak beach…secluded, of course. 8.- Ombi with the dive instructor of Ploy Scuba Diving. Between “dive breaks”, there was some lunch and a rest on yet another secluded island! 9.- Who remembers Bo Derek? Well, that’s Bo Ombi…sunset in Ko Kood (Kood Island). 10.- More idyllic bliss, Ko Kood. 11.- Alex with a plethora of fine Thai food on Ko Kood…..happier than a pig in the proverbial! 12.- Kayaking whilst watching the sunset, Ko Kood. 13.- Alex with a group of happy Thais, walking back from the Klong Chao Waterfall, Ko Kood. 14.- A secluded Ko Kood Beach (I know I am bashing the word secluded to death…..but I am truly telling it as it is). 15.- Goodbye Ko Kood! On the ferry back to Trat. 16.- Sunset on Ko Kood. 17.- These hiking shoes were new when I bought them in Australia just before we left. They had been worn to death, and it was time to lay them down to rest!)

On Thai Weddings and catching up with good friends.

We crossed at Poipet/ Aranya Prathet. It’s amazing what an “imaginary line” can do. As soon as we crossed this line it was more than clear how much more affluent Thailand is compared to Cambodia. The roads were excellent, showing us the most immediate, obvious and visible difference! In no time at all, we had negotiated a tuk-tuk to take us the 7 kilometers or so to the main bus station, where we organised a bus to Bangkok. Before we knew it, we were on our way. The last time we had been to Thailand was about two and a half years ago, and I was astounded by the change. Over the last 19 years I have been to Thailand some 5 or 6 times, and each time I return, I am overwhelmed by its rate of growth and progress. It was great to see! This country had been very third world when I first visited, in the early 90’s, but now, wow, it’s moved into the 21st century with its pedal to the metal and in fifth gear!

Although we normally do not book places to sleep in advance, we had done so for our arrival in Bangkok, as we would be meeting some dear friends, and all attending a Thai wedding together. Just a bit of background information: Bec is from Canberra, and I met her in Bolivia in 1999 when I was on my South America trip. Birdie is Bec’s partner. Megs is originally from New Zealand, and was house sharing with Bec (she’s now back in New Zealand). Pong was also Bec’s flatmate – she’s Thai and was studying in Australia. Link is the man that Pong was about to marry. Alex and I met up with them all (apart from Link, obviously) on the many occasions we drove through Canberra when we had the jewellery business. So, how is this….Bec and Birdie fly from Australia, Megs from New Zealand, and Alex and I bus it over the border….so we can all hang out, and go to a wedding together. You have to love that!

Once we arrived in Bangkok, we caught a bus to our final destination. In Thailand, whilst tuk-tuks are still used, taxis are a better and inexpensive option if you do not desire to accommodate a decent portion of the city’s smog in your lungs. We ended up staying at the Sukhumvit Rd YHA (Youth Hostel). Whilst it was clean, and organised, I found it overpriced and, may I be forgiven for saying, anal. Years ago, I used to use these official youth hostels regularly, but I have found that in recent times they have changed a lot, and believe that they no longer represent the best value for money. In our case, however, it was in a location that was close to the wedding, and where we would all be together. You cannot and shouldn’t complain, I suppose, when it suits your purpose.

As soon as we entered we saw Bec and Birdie! Hugs all around! The last time we had seen Bec was in Darwin in June 2006 (just before we came away on this big trip), where a group of us did a several day hike in Kakadu National Park. Bec and I have a penchant of meeting up in exotic locations. We met in Bolivia (before I met Alex actually), we then met up again in Peru, where we crossed the Amazon River all the way through to Brazil, another time it was in Peru, then Kakadu, and now Thailand! Of course we have also caught up several times in both Melbourne and Canberra. Megs was due to arrive later that night. It felt so good to be amongst good friends! We all had so much to chat about, but where to start……with some good food say I!

Ah, Thai food! My favourite cuisine by a long shot! I had been dreaming about it for months, and in places like China, I longed for it desperately. Thailand never fails to impress me with its food, the best part being that decent food is even obtainable on the streets. In no time at all, I was chowing down a vegetarian and tofu pad thai, whilst the others opted for its carnivorous counterpart. After that it was chicken (or beef?) satay sticks….I may not eat meat but the satay had me licking my chops! Yay, at last decent food! It was lovely to be able to kick back and relax and just catch up. Megs arrived later that night, but we did not catch up until the next morning. I was somewhere between la-la land and seventh heaven!

The next few days were spent relaxing, chatting, doing some shopping, and getting ready for the wedding. Pong and Link came to visit us one night at the hostel. Not sure how they did it as they had so much to get organised, and there were only a few more days to go before the wedding. It was nice to be able to finally meet Link, as we had heard so much about him. On another day, Som (Pong’s sister) took us shopping as Megs and Bec had to get a traditional skirt and top, as they would both be participating in the wedding. The skirt was found with relative ease, but the top……long after Som had gone, Bec was beading blood, as finding an appropriate top seemed to elude her. I might add here that Bec HATES shopping! She eventually found her top (as did Megs) but she was so over it! And I thought I hated shopping! You win hands down Bec!

Pong and Link would be having a traditional Thai wedding, which would go all day, and include several ceremonies. The date was the 2nd of December. We all had to get up at the crack of dawn, as the gorgeous Pong had organised for we gals to have our hair styled. So get up early, and have ourselves showered and dressed we did. I had bought a lovely orange silk dress in Vietnam, and matched it up with some strappy shoes I had purchased here in Bangkok. Alex on the other hand had nothing to wear, but he seemed far less worried about it than I did. Actually at 4.00pm on the day before the wedding, in MBK, one of the city’s largest shopping centres, he had looked at everything but purchased nothing! The pressure was on! He persisted, and finally found the “whole ensemble”, including a shirt, slacks and shoes. I had reached the point where I was saying, “Just buy something and throw it away after the wedding if you don’t like it!”. Perseverance obviously paid off, and he finally got what he was looking for. That’s my tranquil Alex!

The boys watched as we had our hair styled. The girls also had their make up done, but I opted for doing my own. We then caught a taxi to our first destination; a beautiful hotel, where Pong and Link would partake in two small, separate and private ceremonies. The former was a Thai one, in honour of Pong’s family, and the latter a Chinese one, in honour of Link’s Chinese heritage. Being Pong’s friends, we attended, along with very small number of people, the first one. Pong wore different, but very beautiful and traditional gowns, for both of these ceremonies.

“ALater, we would all attend a huge lunchtime banquet. This was more for the family than the friends (that was to come later). In this instance there were lots of people, lots of food and lots of drinks. Our table even had a big sign sayingustralia”, which left the others with absolutely no doubt as to where we were all from. The food just kept on coming and coming, and the quality was top notch. Unlike Australian weddings there was no band or dancing, but it was still lots of fun and very enjoyable. We felt honored and privileged to be able to experience something so unique and different. It was at this reception that Pong wore a gorgeous, western style, wedding dress.

That evening, but in another location, there would be yet another party. This included nibblies and cocktails, and was for friends rather than family. It was more casual than the lunchtime function, and Pong surprised us again, with yet another exquisite dress. Having said that, Pong is categorically gorgeous, both inside and out, and she would look stunning in anything. If you are reading this Link, you scrubbed up OK as well! (In Australia…that means that you looked great too!)

Wow, it had been quite a day, a fun and munch-fest! And all in good company too! Needless to say, we all returned home exhausted, and in need of a good night’s sleep, as well as a sleep in.

The next day saw us all getting ourselves organised for the next part of our prospective journeys. Bec and Birdie had just over 4 weeks in total and wanted to visit Cambodia, and Megs had a total of 6 and was open to suggestions. As for Alex and I (time to let the cat out of the bag!), we had booked a flight home months ago in China, for the evening of the 24th of December, arriving in Melbourne on Christmas Day. We wanted to surprise Dad, but had also wanted to keep it a secret. So, our aim was to spend the last two weeks on a deserted Thai beach, doing nothing but relaxing! Of course, we would allow some shopping days just before our return!

But, where to go? Anything that even whiffed of a resort and a million foreigners, was immediately ruled out for us. Thus places like Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui did not even hit the radar. We finally decided on the area around Ko Chang, in the Gulf of Thailand. What we definitely did not want to do was jump from one place to another, as we’d been doing this on close to 16 months! Bec and Bird were off to Cambodia, and Megs would come along with us. Sorted!

We had all had a wonderful time together, but as always, it was time to move on! I want to make a special mention of a beautiful French family we met at the Sukhumvit YHA. Sylvie and Serge were travelling around-the-world with three children, the youngest being Milla. Despite the fact that she mostly only spoke French, this little girl clearly showed how desire can bring so many things to fruition. She used her French, a little Spanish (that she had learnt in Peru), a little English and body language to make herself understood. When I asked her, “Do you speak English?”, she gave me this cheeky little grin, and answered in French, “Un petite po” (spelling?), which means a little bit. We had absolutely no problem understanding each other. She had such an amazing spirit and energy, and each time she would see me, she would give me a big hug. I will never forget her!

Ombi

Dedication: This one is for Milla. Milla you were like a shining light in a dark room. Although little, your smile was huge and radiant. Every time I saw you you made my heart sing. May you never lose that contagious smile and love of life. I looked at you, and saw myself. May adulthood never change your indomitable spirit!


” I have found that if you love life, life will love you back”
– Arthur Rubinstein (1886 – 1982).

(Photos: 1.- Two very itchy pairs of feet in a tuk-tuk,Bangkok. 2.-Entering Thailand on the Cambodia/ Thai border. What part of “don’t do drugs” don’t people get? 3.-Ombi and Birdie…sipping on a Birdy. Cold coffee in a can, Bangkok. 4.- The future bride and groom to be with the “mob” at the hostel in Bangkok. L to R: (top) Megs, Ombi, Bec & Alex. (bottom) Birdie, Pong & Link. 5.-The bridesmaids and me. L to R: Bec, Ombi & Megs. 6.- Pong and Link after their Thai Wedding Ceremony. 7.-Lunchtime wedding reception. Bec, Birdie, and …..Babe’s youngest offspring on a plate! 8.-The Australian contingent at the lunchtime reception. L to R: Alex, Ombi, Megs, Bec & Birdie. 9.- The Aussie contingent yet again at the nighttime wedding reception. Welcome to the “Cafe d’Love”. 10.- The Jetsons? No, Bangkok in the 21st century! Makes Melbourne look so yesterday. 11.-Ombi with L to R: Milla, Jodie and Brad. 12.- Ombi & Milla.)

Angkor What?

Siem Reap is Cambodia’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat, and indeed no visit would be complete without visiting the infamous temples of Angkor, only a few kilometres away. Siem Reap has become quite the thriving little metropolis! Maybe too much so! It now abounds with throngs of people on tour groups, who probably visit little else in Cambodia. The problem is that many look like they should be on a Milan catwalk, and look rather out of place amongst the poverty that surrounds them. This flaunting of wealth looks not only ridiculous, but totally out of place, in a country where so many people live precariously below the poverty line! Gucci handbags and stilettos have never really been my thing, but here they look both obscene and ostentatious! But that’s not all folks (not only do you get the free steak knives……) Siem Reap is full of pumping bars and pubs, pushing equally obscenely priced drinks………..whilst the locals walk around trying to make a living by selling whatever they can on the streets ! Alex and I refused to go to these places and pay the prices, and indulged in some phenomenal street food instead, thus trying to put some money back into the economy and helping the locals, rather than lining the pockets of the big players and the multi-nationals. Our gesture may have been small, but it was our way of showing some of the solidarity that humankind seems to steadfastly be losing!

Angkor Wat is free to the locals (and so it should be!) but overpriced for foreigners; a day pass costs USD $20.00, a three day pass $40.00 and a weekly pass $60.00. I almost would not have minded paying it, had I known that the money was helping its people. But no, a very small amount goes into conservation of the site (as in 10%) and the rest gets sucked into that vortex, possibly called corruption! I have never seen such a famous site so crowded and full of people. As I looked around and did my maths, I figured that the money being made on entry fees would be phenomenal….but where was it going? Was it fixing the roads? Was it feeding its people and eliminating poverty? Was it going towards a better education and thus helping create a future for its people? Having said all of this, as the Cambodians struggle to rebuild their lives after years of tragedy, trauma and terror, the temples are a point of pilgrimage for them, and no traveller would want to miss their extravagant beauty! Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!

Nothing, however, could take away from the Temples of Angkor. We had been told to prepare for divine inspiration! Indeed the temples of Angkor, capital of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire, are the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, nothing can take away from these most majestic structures, and the spiritual passion that went into their creation. The Cambodian royalty of old each strove to better their ancestors in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in the world’s largest religious building, namely Angkor Wat. What most people do not realise is how expansive the area containing the temples actually is. It cannot all be done by foot. One needs a bike, at the very least (and only for the smaller circuit), and only by taking a motorbike or a tuk-tuk (like a motorised motorcycle, with a carriage behind and taking up to 4 people) can you see the bulk of the sights. Can it be done in a day? It depends how long it takes you to get “temple burnout”!

Being the self-confessed culture junkie that I am, we spent a full three days at the various temples. Without a doubt, they were magnificent, and each had something remarkable to offer. On the first day, we did what is known as the Little Circuit, which is 17 kilometres and begins at Angkor Wat. We took a tuk-tuk, and hopped on and off at will. The way it works is that you effectively pay a driver for the day, and he goes where you wish, and waits for you, then taking you on to the next place you wish to visit.

Our first port of call was Angkor Wat. Although it was packed to the rafters with camera toting tourists, nothing could take away from its majesty. On coming around the corner and seeing it, live, for the first time, Alex and I were speechless! (Yeh, I know, doesn’t happen often with me!) It’s hard to describe, and re-live that spine-tickling moment when you emerge on the inner causeway and this temple of such grandeur presents itself for the very first time. I was overcome with emotion, and my eyes brimmed with tears as I, yet again on this amazing journey, thanked the universe for being able to experience that which I was experiencing! Although full of people, it was still an amazing experience to be able to walk around and explore this temple. Some of it is in excellent condition, and there are other parts that require ducking down and exploring, as if you were in an Indiana Jones movie. The bas reliefs are intricate and delicate, the most famous at this site being its beguiling apsara, or heavenly nymphs. Just to give you an idea of size, and exploration possibilities, Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat, 190 metres wide, which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 kilometres by 1.3 kilometres.

There were many, many temples, and over the first two days we saw many. On Day 2 we did what is known as the Big Circuit, which at 26 kilometres is an extension of the small circuit, and includes a multitude of other temples as well as the ancient gates that once enclosed the city. To be perfectly honest, it certainly is a lot to take in over a couple of days, and although each temple is different, after seeing so many, it can become difficult to recall each on individually. There are a few, however that really stand out. Bayon is one of these. The temple’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of enormous stone faces which are presented upon entering. The overall feeling is that there is a force here that is really bigger than us or that we can imagine! Preah Khan was another. It is a huge, highly explorable monastic complex, full of carvings and passages. The bulk of the fun was to wander and to see where it would take you.

Ta Prohm was undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, and quite possibly my favourite one. Unlike most of the temples, it has been left to be swallowed by the jungle, and has that real “Tomb Raider” feel. Indeed part of the movie “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider” , starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed here, and you can even see the infamous “tomb raider” tree, where Jolie picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth into…………probably some studio set! Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, close courtyards and narrow corridors, many clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks, dislodged by the roots of trees that have long since died. This temple truly transported me elsewhere, as my mind wandered…..where, what, why, how!

The list of temples and terraces we saw was both endless and astounding. We saw a spectacular sunset from Baphuon, a temple which is a pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt Meru, highly revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike. It’s a 10 to 15 minute climb uphill to get there, and I truly felt like I was on an ant trail (read chock-a-block full of people!), but the views were mesmerising. The fact that all of these temples are set in and amongst the jungle gives the whole area a very surreal and yesteryear feel!

On our third and last day, we took the 50 kilometre and very dusty trip out to Kbal Spean. Bitumen…..what’s that! We met a lovely Belgian couple in Siem Reap, split the cost, and took a remorque -moto (a motorcycle with a hooded carriage towed behind) out there. The journey to get there was actually half the fun, as we passed many traditional villages and villagers. These people seem to live a very simple and unfussy life style. As we whizzed by, they looked at us with curiosity. They were probably wondering what all the fuss was about . What we find fascinating and amazing is really just their backyard! Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle. Again, it’s the stuff that movies are made of. It’s a 1.5 kilometre walk up towards the carvings, and the path takes you through the jungle, passing by some interesting boulder formations along the way. The carvings include Vishnu, Shiva and a number of other Hindu deities, but the most interesting is the hundreds of linga that appear on the riverbed downstream. These are phallic symbols which have quite literally been cut into the riverbed, as the water continues to flow over them.

You may have heard that land mines are still a big problem in Cambodia. Although it is not something that affected us directly, it is still a big issue. On our way to Kbal Spean, we read the following in our Cambodia Lonely Planet guide, ” LAND MINE ALERT! At no point during a visit to Kbal Spean or Phnom Kulen should you leave well trodden paths, as there are land mines in the area.” This is also the thing that movies are made of!

After three days of temple after temple, I admit that we had both had enough of….temples! Instead of going straight to Bangkok, which was effectively supposed to be our next destination, we decided to do a boat trip to Battambang, as we had heard that the scenery was supposed to be amongst Cambodia’s best. In a tale to rival all tales, we were picked up early the next morning and crammed into a mini-bus. Crammed as in, no room left and dangerous! Alex and I began to voice our opinions and concerns, but it was obviously falling on deaf ears. After some 15 minutes of travelling in the foetal position (as there wasn’t room for much else), we arrived at the “port”. I couldn’t help thinking that this was going to be a good one! Apart from the trash and junk lying everywhere, I looked at the various “boats” and wondered whether they were going to be used as firewood, or whether they were truly going to be our mode of transportation. Not the safest looking boats I have ever seen! Needless to say, prospective firewood they were not!

The trip to Battambang took some 7 hours, in a rickety and somewhat uncomfortable sea vessel, which albeit survived the odds and stayed afloat! As we travelled along the Sangker River, we did pass some amazing scenery and many riverside villages. Having spent so much time on various bodies of water in the last months, however, we were perhaps a little bit blaze about it. To be brutally honest we were both looking forward to meeting up with Bec, Birdie and Megan in Bangkok, where we would all be meeting up for a Thai wedding. Battambang was an interesting enough place, and after looking for a place to spend the night, and dumping our bags, we had a bit of a walk around. Cambodia’s second largest city had an excellent market place and some wonderful coffee and food. We indulged in both! Our time here was short and brief, and we were keen to go. We had a couple of options. The first was to take the bus passing through from Phnom Penh at around 1.00pm. As it would take 8 or 9 hours, we did not want to get to Bangkok that late. Option 2 was to organise a private taxi to the border, and then catch an ongoing bus to our final destination. We opted for the latter, as we could choose our departure time, thus being able to leave early and arrive at our final destination at a reasonable hour.

Our tummies filled with good food and coffee, we had an excellent night’s sleep, and were ready to go at 7.30am the next morning. We would be travelling with a Dutch couple who were also on their way to Bangkok. The trip to the border was smooth and pleasant. We did pass an accident along the way, however, which left me a little shell shocked. Lying on the side of the road was a motorbike, and a bloodied person who was being given CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation) by a bystander. My humanitarian instinct made me want to stop and help, but then I reconsidered the option of giving mouth-to-mouth to a blood spattered victim in a country with poor hygiene and where the AIDS/ HIV infection rate is the highest in Asia. I sighed deeply and that image I had just beheld was my faithful companion all the way to the border.

We arrived safely some 3 hours later, thanking and paying our taxi driver, and farewelling our recently acquired Dutch friends. Exiting Cambodia was easy and painless, and we soon found ourselves in Thailand, a country that I have visited often and which I love dearly.

Ombi

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act ” – George Orwell (1903 – 1950).

(Photos: 1.- One of the many faces of Bayon, on the walkway to the temple, Siem Reap. 2.- The infamous yet impressive temples of Angkor Wat. 3.- Monks entering Bayon Temple. 4.- Intricate bas relief, Angkor Wat. 5.- Ombi & Alex….tomb raiders! Ta Phrom Temple. 6.- Kbal Spean, river carvings. 7.- Some use a boat, some use a bowl! Leaving Siem Reap to go to Battambang by boat. 8.- On the Sangker River, on the way to Battambang. 9.- Loading up a pick-up…..Battambang style! 10.- That’s me again in the Tomb Raider Temple, aka Ta Phrom.)

R’n’R in Sihanoukville.

As I have already mentioned, Cambodia wins no prizes in the outstanding road stakes. It’s a poor country, and its roads reflect this. The “main drag” from the capital to Sihanoukville was no different. The countryside certainly reflected the nation’s poverty, and as always, it’s interesting to be the quiet observer. Local transport always gives one the opportunity to do this. Sihanoukville is effectively Cambodia’s beach town getaway, but it’s still light years behind most Thai resorts and beaches. This alone , however, surely has to be an enticing thing!

Upon arrival, we caught a couple of motorbikes (drivers included!) in a bid to look for some accommodation, as the main sleeping area was a ways from the bus station. What a sight we must have looked, flying along the road, complete with two humongous backpacks hanging off us! It did not take us long to work out that although we had not paid a lot to be driven around, that the drivers were taking us to places where they would get a commission. After stop number two, we thanked them profusely, and scuttled away to look around ourselves. It is always the cheaper option! We eventually did find a nice little room in a place that was made of wood and set up on stilts. It was close enough to walk to the beach, but far enough that we could fall asleep at night without the echoes of duf-duf music!

It was lovely to be able to just hang out and relax on a beach. Actually, it had been so long since we had done absolutely nothing! Being a tourist is easy, being a traveller is not! Most of our time was spent hanging out on the beach……my hobby being running along it, and Alex’s eating on it! There was always some vendor walking along and selling various tidbits, like fruit or grilled seafood. Speaking of seafood, it was a great place to indulge, and most nights were spent at one of the various beach front restaurants (read: tables and chairs on the sand, only metres away from the sea). No problemo, we vegetarians were also well catered for, and I had night after night of some truly excellent cuisine, mainly in the form of curries. The green curry in particular was top notch! Imagine…..tables and chairs on the beach, relaxing by the moonlight, and eating fresh and yummy food! We were definitely onto a winner! As far as how “beautiful” the beach was is debatable. Rubbish everywhere! That always ruins it for me! A believer in “leading by example”, one day Alex and I walked along the beach, with two plastic bags, and filled them up to the brim with scattered trash. The freaks were back! Our biggest stares were from the locals! I am always saddened by the sight of garbage strewn everywhere, and am mostly infuriated when foreigners throw it. They do not do it in their own country (or maybe they do), so why do it in somebody else’s?

There are a few beaches in and around Sihanoukville. We decided to stay at a place called Serendipity Beach. It’s also a place surrounded by little islands and reefs. We had heard that the diving was only average, compared to Thailand, so we decided to save our money, and do a little snorkeling instead. There are many operators who organise day trips, so we chose one (they all seemed much of a muchness) and just went with it. Our snorkeling day trip proved to be both fun and relaxing, with a stopover on an almost deserted island (I can see that that will not be for long though!), where we also had a picnic lunch. There were a few (overpriced!) bungalows on the island, and a few bar/restaurants with even more overpriced cocktails. I could not help but think that this would eventually become another Phuket. One can only hope not! From what we were looking at, the odds were stacked against it.

On another day, we also hired a bike and visited the local market. Lots of fruit, veggies, food, people, and information (too much of it!). There are parts of the markets we visit that I simply refuse to go through. The meat section is one of them! Sorry, I just don’t do slabs of unrefrigerated meat, under hot tin roofs with flies hanging around! Guess what those flies use as a landing pad? In many of these markets, the hygiene has been appalling; well, the hygiene that I am used yo any way!

We also cycled to a beach called Victory Beach, which used to be the original backpacker hang out. I must say, the beach is hardly very enticing, nor are the people who seem to frequent the area. I found the whole area rather seedy and full of grotesque foreigners with young Cambodian girls. Prostitution is indeed a huge problem in Cambodia, and also huge is the amount of foreigners, with neither morals nor social conscience, who go out with these prostitutes! Whilst I pass absolutely no judgement on these women, I do on the men! Get a grip fellas, do you think these women are with you because you are hot……or because you can provide them with more in a day than they can make in a year! I would imagine that with the paltry wages women make in Cambodia being taken out for dinner for a night, and perhaps being given a piece of jewellery is not only a luxury but a big deal indeed. Not to mention the food for the family, that that newly acquired (tiny amount of) money might buy!

Siem Riep and Angkor Wat were going to be our next destination, but yet again, we would have to go through Phnom Penh (remember, all roads lead to Phnom Penh). At the very time we would be passing through, there would be Bon Om Tuk, the water festival is held here each year sometime between late October and November. Boat races are held on the Tonle Sap river and up to 2 million people are supposed to flood the capital for fun and frolics. Finding accommodation is supposed to be a nightmare! Neither of us were in the mood to find out, and besides, time was running out, as we would be meeting some friends (more of this later) in Bangkok at the end of November for a Thai wedding. We had been told that we would not be able to go straight through to Siem Riep as the traffic in the capital would be horrendous, which it was. The capital was full of party goers, and it was crowded to capacity, but we did find a bus that would be going on to our final destination, thankfully, where we eventually arrived quite late at night.

It was probably around 8.00pm, and we were exhausted. It had been a long day, and all we wanted was a place to rest our weary heads. It’s never that easy though, is it? So, we trudged around until we found a place to our liking, and we finally did! Once in Siem Riep, apart from wanting to rest my weary head, the only thing I wanted to know was….”Who won the election????”. We were travelling on election day, and I was anxious to get the results. So, we walked around for a while, whilst I asked a few people, “Are you Australian?”. I am pretty good with guessing nationalities, so it did not take me long to find a compatriot. And YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES, the race was finally over for Johhny Bush (or is his name George Howard?), his “presidential” term was over, and he even lost his own seat!!!!!! Johnny who? Perhaps there is a god after all!

Ombi

“If you don’t run your own life, somebody else will” John Atkinson.

(Photos:1.- R’n’R in Sihanoukville. 2.- Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville. 3.- Throw another fish on the barbie, Sihanoukville. 4.- Paradise, on one of the islands near Sihanoukville.
5.- More R’n’R in Sihanoukville. 6.- It’s pretty sad when advertising has to come to this………..TOURISTS SAY NO TO CHILD SEX!!! 7.- A portrait of the photographer (one of the few I can take credit for). 8.- Outside Angkor Wat. Q: Why are we so blissfully happy? Answer 1: Because we are at Angkor Wat? or Answer 2: Because Johnny lost the elections? )

Coming face to face with Pol Pot and his brutal regime.

Like all too many people passing through Cambodia, we didn’t spend enough time here! My usual war cry here, yet again, was next time, next time! Wedged in-between Vietnam and Thailand, most visitors to this small but fascinating country usually whip through as they pass from one side to the other, often not fitting in much more than Angkor Wat. But Cambodia is so much more than Angkor! We should have spent less time in Vietnam, we both kept repeating to ourselves. Hindsight is such a tremendous thing really!

We decided that our first stop would be Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. We also found out very quickly that in Cambodia, pretty much all roads lead to Phnom Penh , or at the very least, pass through it! It was a short boat ride to the border, Vinh Xuong on the Vietnamese side and Kaam Samnor on the Cambodian. The border formalities, well were not very formal, and after passing through both borders, we were left to our own devices. We soon organised a bus, and were on our way to the capital. Although the distance between the border and the capital is not necessarily a big one, the roads in this very poor country are horrendous, making the trip unnecessarily long. We arrived both tired and quite late, and we both dislike searching for accommodation in the dark. Surprise, surprise, someone jumps on the bus and has a “recommendation” for us. So, off we go, and……………it was atrocious! Filthy, dirty and seedy, and I told them so! Needless to say, they didn’t appreciate my getting upfront and personal. Stiff! I wish I could remember the name of the place so that should you ever go to Phnom Penh, you never end up there. We were both cranky and tired, but were adamant about not sleeping in a crud hole. We eventually found Malis Guesthouse, a quiet place run by a lovely local family. We were happy to be able to dump our packs, but we were also starving. Luckily there was a little restaurant upstairs, so we relaxed whilst having a bite to eat, and promptly went to bed! I cannot say that I was overly fond of the area that we were staying in, but I was too tired to care!

We realised the next day that we were in the area known as Boeng Kak, which is a backpacker strip along the eastern shore of Boeng Kak Lake. Most of the guest houses here are built on a seriously polluted body of water. Having said that, we also soon realised that it was an area full of alcohol guzzling foreigners, Cambodian prostitutes, and drug pushers! I would categorically describe the area as a ghetto, and was quite appalled by it. On a number of occasions, Alex and I were offered the whole gamut of illegal substances, from weed to cocaine. Don’t even get me started (as Laura and I would fondly say!). Supply meets demand! It is appalling and unethical that any foreigner should accept any drugs from any of the locals, as they are only doing it to fund those people’s habit or whim! If you want to damage yourself, that is your choice, but please do not damage others through your own selfish choices! When asked (on a multitude of occasions) if I wanted marijuana, I resorted to saying very loudly, “No thanks, I don’t smoke marijuana”, to which I was told to keep my voice down. On one occasion, I lost it, and told the person offering me the drugs that I didn’t do any drugs at all, and that he should take a good look at me, including my profile, and circulate my nationality and looks around to all the other drug pushers, leaving him with, “I don’t do drugs! Don’t ask me again!”. He was flabbergasted, but the tourists watching my little scenario more so! A couple of them were quite taken aback, saying that they did not understand what the big deal was about, and voicing their opinion that perhaps I had been a little OTT (over the top). I took a big breath in, and breathed out slowly, telling myself not to go there; I have recently come to the realisation that I cannot change the world single-handedly (although in essence I would dearly love to) . I breathed in again, and looked at them…..probably the very people whom had bought some drugs only moments before I had passed through. My point had been made!

We spent our first day wandering around central Phnom Penh, observing and checking out the sights. Overwhelming, eye-opening, mind-boggling and paralysing are some of the words that come to mind in a bid to try and describe this city. Whilst each of these adjectives aids in capturing a part of this place, none seem to encompass its entirety or complexity! Children begging and running on the street naked, often pushed forth by their mothers; more Lexus cars than you could poke a stick at; billboards stating that “Sex with children is a crime”; foreigners being offered 7 year old girls for sex; people with no arms, or legs, or neither! Talk about tugging at the heartstrings. I felt like they’d been ripped out completely, and then placed around my neck in order to strangle me! I felt alternate waves of nausea and devastation come over me so many times, as I found myself wondering, yet again, where humanity was really heading!

There’s actually quite a lot to see and do in Cambodia’s capital, let alone observe. We also arrived here in time to go to the Australian Embassy to vote. We didn’t have to, as we had so oft been reminded, but we oh so very wanted to! I am not about to enter a political tirade here, but I will say, yet again, that things do not change due to the masses sitting back and simply hoping that change will actually vapourise, or simply come to be! Remember my thing on complacency? So, off we both went and voted. This was Alex’s first time voting as an Australian citizen. You may or may not recall that Alex became a True Blue (Aussie) in August 2006, just before we embarked on this long adventure. Ask him how much easier life has been travelling on an Australian passport, rather than an Ecuadorian one! So there he was, Ecuadorian born, now citizen of Australia, voting for the very first time….and in Cambodia!

We visited the very interesting National Museum of Cambodia, which is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. It is housed in a beautiful traditional building, with a delightful courtyard, from where one can sit and observe. It was a great introduction to what we would witness later on, especially Angkor Wat. Wat Phnom was another place of tradition and tranquility. Set up on a 27 metre high hill (the only hill in town) it provided some arresting views. Other places of interest were the Independence Monument, built in 1958 to commemorate the country’s independence from France and the Psar O Russei (or Russian market), full of anything and everything you can imagine, from food and second hand clothes, to designer label rip-offs and pirated CDs, movies, and computer programs. My favourite market, however, was Psar Thmei, the mustardy coloured art deco building also referred to as the Central Market. Quite obviously, it’s in the city centre. Whereas the Russian Market was somewhat over priced and touristy, the Central Market seemed to cater much more to the local population. Having said that, it still has a bit of a name for overcharging. Having said this, markets frequented by locals, are an amazing way to help understand a culture. Markets are without a doubt one of my favourite cultural activities! Not bad for buying some unusual and exotic food either.

Coming to Phnom Penh and not visiting Security Prison S-21 or the Killing Fields would be like having a shower after bush walking and not using soap! They are both pretty full on, so we chose to do them on separate days. We decided to go the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15 kilometres from the city centre first. Our mode of transportation was a motorbike……that’s to say, Alex and I both on the one motorbike behind the driver! Whilst I would not call the drivers in Cambodia aggressive, I would certainly regard them as risk takers! I had seen one too many motorbike accidents in Vietnam and Cambodia, and hoped that we were not about to become statistics ourselves. Nothing could really have prepared me for Choeung Ek, the site of a former orchard. Between 1975 and 1978, approximately 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brought here, after having been detained and tortured at S-21. Effectively, this was an extermination camp, where the excessively cruel and ruthless Pol Pot Regime, often had them bludgeoned to death, so as not to waste precious bullets. Thus the name, The Killing Fields! The area is not large, but the overwhelmingly sad energy is of gargantuan proportions! It’s an instant knot in the throat that brings immediate tears, and leaves many questions unanswered!

On entering, and reading several panels of information the brutal reality of this place slowly unfolds, and along with it a total revulsion! The remains of close to 9000 people, many of whom were bound and blind folded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. What makes the experience so eerie and spine-chilling is that several of the communal graves have been left totally untouched, and fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are still scattered around the pits. Somebody’s mother’s top! Somebody’s father’s pants! Somebody’s daughter’s bones! It was gut wrenching, and I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me as I tried to reconcile the evil before me! How had this happened? What sinister forces had been at work here? We keep saying “never again” after what happened in Nazi Germany, but it did happen again, and continues to do so in a multitude of other countries today. Why, why, why????? Why do we persist in making history repeat itself? How could we allow this to happen? So many questions, yet so very few answers! Funnily, or oddly, enough it was at this very time that Blood Brother Number 2 (as opposed to Blood Brother Number 1, being Pot) was finally being tried. Too little too late!

As if all the fragments of bones and clothes weren’t enough, there is yet another imposing, very brutal reminder of Cambodia’s horrific past. Also at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, is the infamous Memorial Stupa, holding more than 8000 skulls, behind clear glass panels. The skulls of adults, children and babies that had been maimed , killed and destroyed, for some supposedly higher purpose or ideal! It was erected in 1988, lest we never forget the brutality that occurred. It seems that “lest we never forget” , however, is a phrase that falls on deaf ears, as that’s all we seem to have done as well as continue to do….forget, forget, forget! The silence in that stupa was phenomenal. Everyone who stepped in was quite obviously moved. I wept inwardly, and outwardly, as I again pondered the cruelty of man, in his quest for………..what, exactly! It is moments like these that continue to profoundly change my life! The impact has been and continues to be prodigious!

The next day we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, in the heart of Phnom Penh. In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison, known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It went on to become the largest detention centre and torture chamber in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 some 17,000 people were taken from this very place to Choeung Ek, to effectively be executed and annihilated. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of its barbarism. What is now simply an empty shell of a high school, still has an eerie if not calm feel about it. It’s not a place to scream and yell, but one of profound contemplation. Whilst there are still some items of torture laying about, and several cells that would barely fit a single chicken, it’s the room after room of harrowing black and white photographs of each and every person that would later be killed, that is so disturbing. Nobody had a name, but everyone had a number! I was profoundly affected! I was, again, looking at someone’s daughter, someone’s father, someone’s brother! Name unknown, destiny confirmed! I walked from room to room with a lump in my throat. The magnitude of my sorrow was immense. In this place, my tears were not silent; I went from room to room, with the tears pouring down my face!

I must say, after two days of tales of despair and destruction, both Alex and I felt a little shell shocked and emotionally exhausted. We had seen most of what we wanted to, but had to hang around for an extra day as the Australian National Elections were on, and we were definitely going to vote. I make it sound like we had to, but it was very, very much a calculated choice. Overseas or not, Alex and I both wanted a say as to who (or who was not!) going to govern us over the next four years. I was surprised at how many Australians we had met, who simply had said that they could not be bothered to vote whilst travelling! The very ones that probably whinge about the results! Gotta be in it to win it, I say!

What an eye opener Phnom Penh had been! Too much prostitution, too much poverty, far too many people without limbs (thanks to all the land mines….some still undetonated!), and too many lexus cars (thank you corruption)! We’d heard about a place called Sihanoukville, in the west of the country, known for its laid back atmosphere and for its beautiful beaches and superb seafood (that had Alex’s ears pricking up, as a lover of seafood). Sounded too good!

Ombi

Dedication: To all those people over the millennia who have died so needlessly, in the name of war! And for the many more who will continue to die in the name of war! May we realise, sooner rather than later, that war does not equal peace!

I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace” – George W. Bush. (What a profound statement from a profound man! Sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

(Photos: 1.- Border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia. L to R: Felipe, Alex, a Norwegian friend. 2.- On the banks of the riverfront which runs through the city centre of Phnom Penh. Houses and clothes lines look very different here, with little comfort and certainly no Hills Hoist! 3.- Near the area where we slept. Although Cambodia is mostly Buddhist, there is still a degree of cultural and religious diversity, Phnom Penh. 4.- One man’s trash is another couple of girls treasure! Phnom Penh. 5.- The beautiful buildings of the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. 6.- How the other half live. Kids on the Phnom Penh streets. 7.- First time Aussie voter. Alex outside the Australian Embassy, Phnom Penh. 8.- The lively markets of Phnom Penh. 9.- Wasted lives! Photos at Security Prison S-21, Phnom Penh. 10.- Can you read the sign under one of the trees at The Killing Fields? It reads, “Magic tree…..the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed”. 11.- The skulls of some of the many people that were executed at The Killing Fields. 12.- The Khmer Rouge fighters. Could have been your young son! Indoctrination started early, and the youth of Cambodia often become bold and ruthless killers! 13.- Whose son? Unknown! Simply, Number 1! Photo taken at Security Prison S-21, Phnom Penh).