Birthday Bungee!

As many of you may well know, Alex turns 34 today. It’s now an annual ritual for Alex to wake up on this day each year and feel old, miserable and dejected. I then spend the rest of the day trying to make him feel young and vibrant again, or simply try to take his mind off things. God knows what he’s going to be like in many decades to come when he’s actually old! This year my job was made a little easier by the fact that Alex decided to do a bungee jump from the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, the worlds first bungee jump. What better way to feel youthful than to fling yourself from a 43m-high bridge! Well done Alex – my brave, wonderful, amazing and crazy man!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

 

 

Jacangi is the new Bob

This is our new home… for a time at least. We’re now back in New Zealand and have moved from Bob into our new camper van ‘Jacangi’ for a few months to explore all that this beautiful country has to offer.

We arrived back at the end of February after spending a fabulous few months in Thailand with my parents. I didn’t have to wait too long to see family again, however, as just two weeks later my brother Tom and his girlfriend Sue flew out to join us for an epic fortnight exploring the North Island.

The two weeks before they arrived was spent frantically doing various jobs on Bob and Jacangi in preparation for their visit. Most jobs involved preparing Bob to be sailable and then to be left unattended for a few months (again!) whilst preparing Jacangi to be lived in for a few months. I did find some time, however, to make a few home improvements…

This is the galley just after I started working on it. You can see where the old wood has degraded, the counter top is very stained with various disused holes and the tap was starting to get a little corroded.

This is the galley after. Actually, it’s still a work in progress as it needs painting… but you get the idea. The taps were replaced, counter top was tiled and grouted, wood was sanded and varnished (4 times) and I even polished the sink and cooker!

Tom and Sue were only able to take 3 weeks off work to visit us. They spent at least 3 days of that time travelling on various flights, so it was VERY important to make the most of their visit and cram in as much exciting stuff as possible! I think we succeeded. It’s possible to see a lot of the North Island in just over two weeks when you put your mind to it, and it has a LOT to offer.

The Bay of Islands

The best place to sail in the whole of New Zealand is thought to be the stunning Bay of Islands with its tranquil warm waters (well, warm in comparison to the rest of the country) and impressive green islands protruding from the depths. The four of us spent a couple of nights on the boat and luckily had absolutely perfect weather for a few day sails around this spectacular group of Islands.

Sailing through the Bay of Islands on a lovely sunny day.

The group on Bob, minus photographer of course.

Tom was exhausted after our loooong 20 minute hike to the view point on the elaborately named island of Urupukapuka.

A home on wheels

We moved into our camper vans after the boat trip. Alex and I into Jacangi while Tom and Sue moved into their hired camper ‘Shadowfax’. Any Lord of the Rings fans will know the significance of that name as being the name of the horse belonging to Gandalf the wizard. What better way to explore the very land where Lord of the Rings was filmed than on Shadowfax! Although Tom quite rightly pointed out that perhaps the name was a little unfitting as Shadowfax is supposed to be the fastest horse in middle earth – their camper van on the other hand is about as fast as a tortoise on a treadmill. Just like the tortoise, however, we were able to take our time and enjoy some of the enchanting wilderness of this stunning country.

Shadowfax!

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to take your home with you as you travel and enjoy many familiar comforts in unexplored territories. As with boats, motor homes also require a lot of upkeep and we had to be constantly aware of our water and power usage. Toilet breaks had to be properly planned and dumping of waste water in appropriate locations had to be considered. This particular aspect was something new for all of us and sometimes proved to be a bit of a challenge, as Tom demonstrated when he accidentally emptied the contents of the toilet all over his hand! Don’t worry Tom, a wise man once said that the most valuable lessons in life are usually the most challenging ones.

Freedom camping near Matamata at one of the Department of Conservation sites.

Camping and doing laundry in the Tongariro National Park

Hobbiton

As huge Lord of the Rings fans, Tom and Sue were finally able to fulfil their lifelong dreams of becoming hobbits. We of course were more than happy to join them in the fun as we visited the charming Hobbiton film set. The set is now a popular tourist attraction and the grounds are immaculately maintained. Very well done to the four gardeners who do a super-human job keeping the grounds looking vibrant and lush all year round.

A hobbit hole complete with its beautiful garden.

You ACTUALLY become a hobbit in this magical place.

Exploring the enchanted hobbit holes.

Enjoying a drink at The Green Dragon.

The wake up call of a thousand Scots

We spent a night camping by the lake in Rotorua, only to be abruptly woken up at about 7am to the sound of bagpipes! As time went on the more bagpipes started playing. Not able to ignore the sound any longer, we stuck our heads outside and to our amazement we could see at least 5 bagpipe bands (all fully kitted out in the proper Scottish attire) playing instruments in various streets and car parks in the vicinity. It turns out that the National Bagpipe Championships were being held in Rotorua that day and everyone was practising for the upcoming parade – what a wonderful and fortunate surprise!

Practising in the streets of Rotorua.

Here are a few snaps during the parade. I know Scottish music isn’t renowned for it prowess but I promise you they all sounded and looked amazing! I guess they were the best in the country.

Getting hot and steamy in Rotorua & Taupo

Some of New Zealand’s active volcanoes are located in the region around Rotorua and Taupo and have led to some truly amazing natural wonders. Scalding hot water, bubbling mud pools, serene hot springs and explosive geysers are all products of volcanic activity deep beneath the earth’s surface.

Having a dip in the natural hot waters of a hot spring near Taupo. The temperature is about 40 degrees Celsius – perfect bath water temperature.

A mud splat at the bubbling mud pool near Rotorua. There was an entire pond like this – just amazing!

A hot water beach with a man bathing in the apparently ‘scalding’ water. It was a bit chilly at the time so I was quite envious of him.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been voted as one of the best day-hikes in the world. It spans the oldest National Park in New Zealand and crosses adjacent to the peak of Mt Ngauruhoe – an active volcano better known as ‘Mount Doom’ from Lord of the Rings. The track covers rare alpine landscapes, babbling streams, luminous turquoise mineral ponds and violently boiling pools of sulphurous water. These natural wonders are combined with amazing views of awe-inspiring scenery. Who knew Mordor was so pretty?!

Tom and Sue on the climb to the summit of the crossing. You can see Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) in the background. Unfortunately, I stupidly had my camera on the wrong settings so these photos are not so good. Tom took some better ones which I’m hoping he’ll share with me soon.

The turquoise mineral pools of the crossing. You can also see the steam from the boiling pools to the right of the photo.

After four hours of uphill hiking we finally made it to the top! Hurrah!

Ohakune Old Coach Road cycle track

We decided to do a bike ride over the Old Coach track in Ohakune. This trail covers areas of historical significance and passes over some wonderful old viaducts, bridges and tunnels as well as through beautiful native bush with stunning views. The locals have done a fantastic job at restoring this trail and have installed a lot of information boards along the way. It also has the bonus of being mainly downhill. Unfortunately this only served to highlight my unfitness as I still spent most of my time struggling to haul myself and my bike through the uneven terrain. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.

Admiring the lovely stream while having another quick rest during the bike ride.

The old viaduct on the Old Coach Road cycle track. It’s a lot higher than it looks! In fact, it was one of the first places in New Zealand to bungee jump from – until killjoys… erm… I mean ‘health & safety legislation’ put a stop to it.

Another old viaduct on the journey. There are three in total.

There were a number of other highlights along the way which of course added to the whole experience. We enjoyed the sun filled afternoons in the outdoors with cold beers and board games. The Milky Way was prominent on clear nights, it’s vastness never ceasing to amaze. There were also treetop adventures at Adrenaline Forest, which is like GoApe but even more intense. Tom and Sue (being a little more flush than us at the time) also splashed out on a white water rafting experience and a cave tour to see some glow worms. Oh and I can’t forget about The Big Carrot – one of New Zealand’s finest attractions.

One of the easier obstacles at Adrenaline Forest in the Bay of Plenty. I’m told the views were wonderful, but I was too scared for my life to notice.

We weren’t able to watch Tom and Sue on their white water rafting adventure as we were busy doing laundry. We did, however, get another opportunity to watch some brave people fall down a waterfall in a bright yellow inflatable tube. This is what they looked like and how I see Tom and Sue in my minds eye during their experience.

The photo of these glow worms were actually taken near our friends house (Alexa who we originally met in Niue and her boyfriend Blair) after Tom and Sue had already left, but it’s similar to what they must have seen on their tour.

It’s a big carrot!


Tom and Sue flew back to the UK at the end of March while Alex and I have continued to drive south to visit friends and explore more of New Zealand. It’s always heartbreaking to say goodbye to those you love, not knowing when you’ll next see them again. Hopefully next time won’t be quite as long. It reminded me of just how many people I care about who I’ve not seen in far too long. We still have the rest of April to enjoy our road trip, so there’s still time if anyone else would like to join us! Anyone tempted….?

What’s Alex going to do with that scorpion?

Alex is looking fondly at his recent purchase – bought from a market vendor on Khaosan Road, Bangkok.

With over 8 million residents, Bangkok is one of the busiest capital cities in the world. I was filled with anticipation and slight dread at arriving in this metropolis after spending two years in some of the worlds most remote areas. What I actually found was pleasantly surprising. I don’t know if it’s the short height of Thai people or their Buddhist religion (or perhaps both) but I found that the Thais are some of the most unassuming, calm and respectful people in the world. Despite being surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people, I never felt overwhelmed or intimidated and always had plenty of personal space. This, along with the vibrant colours, wonderful food and sundry cheap market stalls makes Bangkok one of my all time favourite capital cities.

Colour is everywhere in Bangkok. The stalls, food and clothing make the city look like it’s been kissed by a rainbow.

The famous street food of Thailand.

Bangkok is absolutely massive and very built up. One of the down sides is that much of Bangkok’s natural swamp is being sacrificed daily as more and more buildings emerge. The remaining swamp is home to many native snake species which are now often venturing into residential areas as their natural habitat is diminishing and becoming more fragmented.

We learnt about the various native snake species of Thailand at the Bangkok Snake Farm. This gentleman is showing off a highly venomous banded krait.

This is me holding a stunningly beautiful albino Burmese python at the snake farm. Alex, can we get one for Bob please? Pretty pleeeease?

I’m not sure what this species is but this particular snake was slithering along my parents garden wall one morning!

There are still a few green areas that are preserved in and around the city. We took a visit to Lumpini Park to see the fresh water turtles and huge monitor lizards. We also took a scooter journey to ‘The Green Lung’, which is an area of Bangkok where much of the wetland has been preserved. There is stunning parkland interspersed between small houses and narrow lanes. It even has an unexpected ornate temple and a small floating market with amazing food and great bargains to be found.

Lumpini Park

Monitor lizards can be found roaming everywhere in Lumpini Park.

Fresh water turtle at Lumpini Park. I think this species is a red eared slider – an older one with a somewhat faded red ‘ear’. One of the world’s top 100 invasive species!

My parents on my Dad’s scooter during our day trip to The Green Lung.

A tranquil and lush park at The Green Lung

Thailand is a Buddhist country and I always thought that if I had to choose a religion, I would choose to be Buddhist. I really like their respect for nature and their desire to acquire knowledge and greater understanding of the world around them. I also know that I would benefit greatly from adopting some of their outlooks on life. The world is always changing, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Being able to accept this and find positive ways to deal with bad feelings is something that doesn’t come naturally to me but something that I would very much like to improve. I also like that, at least in theory, Buddhists don’t worship a deity – they ‘give thanks’ to Buddha for his teachings but don’t worship him as a god. Having said that, the many temples around Thailand unfortunately have a specific agenda that reminds me of many other religious establishments – they are after money. Foreigners are charged to enter the temples, then there are donation boxes EVERYWHERE constantly guilting people into giving more money and of course it’s often the local Buddhists themselves that give the most even though the average salary in Thailand is very low. The whole thing seems very un-Buddhist to me. Still, the temples are beautifully ornate and a wonderful spectacle which obviously costs a lot to maintain. New temples are still built in a similar way today and it’s nice to see that this magnificent architecture has not yet been lost to history. We were lucky enough to see a number of impressive temples on our travels. Those that we didn’t have time to visit we were able to see replicas of at ‘The Ancient City’, which is a kind of interactive museum giving information and history of Thailand’s most iconic religious sites.

This is the White Temple in Chiang Rai. This is quite a modern temple as far as they go and you can see many modern art sculptures around the grounds.

This is the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho temple.

By comparison this is the reclining Buddha replica at the Ancient City

Replicas of ancient Cambodian ruins, similar to those we saw in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but not quite to the same scale.

Towards the end of our time in Thailand we visited Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai with my parents. Both are wonderful towns and really they deserve a dedicated blog each to properly do them justice. Unfortunately I think we would fall drastically behind with this whole website if I did that, so to avoid giving you outdated blogs I’ll just tell you about my favourite bit for each place.

We visited an ‘elephant sanctuary’ in Chiang Mai which was a really fabulous experience. They advertise themselves as ‘elephant friendly’ and allow their elephants to roam the camp freely and do not use sharp hooks to control them. We avoided visiting an ‘elephant riding camp’ because we had heard terrible stories of cruelty in how they train the elephants with the brutal use of hooks and that carrying people on their backs the way they do is really bad for them. We were given a talk when we first arrived by a local Karen man who has spent his life raising and looking after elephants. He had some very strong views about elephant riding, but they weren’t quite what you’d expect….

He explained that there are about 7000 Asian elephants left in Thailand and over half of them are owned. It’s the legal responsibility of the owners to look after them, but as elephants are no longer used for forestry work as they once were it’s very difficult for the owners to make money from them – and therefore difficult to afford to look after them properly. The tourism industry has provided a wonderful opportunity for locals to earn money once again and therefore provide their elephants with the necessary care. However, the recent backlash from tourists regarding the use of hooks to control elephants has led to changes in the way Thailand runs its elephants camps. Now there are fewer riding camps and more ‘elephant sancturies’ as a result. Surprisingly, our local Karen guide does not think these changes are necessarily for the best. Since they no longer use hooks around the tourists, they can only do tours with passive elephants who have a friendly temperament. This has led to many family groups being separated which is not so good for a species as social as the Asian elephant. Some of the more temperamental elephants are still used for riding camps and are controlled with a hook. Ultimately the hook will not do a thing to physically stop an elephant on the rampage and will not do any real physical harm, but they learn to respect it through a harsh training ritual and it is this fear which keeps the elephants in check. In this way the more aggressive, temperamental individuals can be safely managed. This might well seem cruel, but without the means to control these elephants safely there would be no income to care for them at all and they would be left starving and neglected. So perhaps the lesser of these two evils is not as bad as many think… at least until a suitable alternative is found.

This lovely girl was one of the older elephants of the herd. She has some nice views from her home camp in Chiang Mai.

Elephants love bananas for their dessert and we had a great time feeding them. They were very good at using their trunks to sneakily find bananas hidden behind your back or even in your pockets!

We also got to have a mud bath with the elephants and swim with them in the river. Of course Alex and I ended up having a mud fight… I think I won 🙂

My favourite part of our visit to Chiang Rai, which is a few hours further north of the similar sounding Chiang Mai, was the International Balloon Festival which I believe is an annual event. We had no idea this event was being held when we planned our visit and it ended up being one of the most amazing displays I have ever seen – what a fabulous surprise. The very best hot air balloons in the entire world gather here, and for over half a week they fly during the day and take part in a festival in the evenings. After dark the balloons inflate around a large lake in Singha Park and burn in time to music. We all gathered around the lake to watch this most amazing light display.

The hot air balloons burning in time to the music. Their reflection off the water makes the display even more spectacular.

Here is a short video of the display. It really was spectacular and I don’t think the video does it justice, but hopefully you get the idea.

Oh, I almost forgot. You wanted to know what Alex was going to do with that scorpion right?…

Death Railway

415km of railway were constructed between Thailand and Burma during WWII – that’s a lot of sleepers!

Although I had heard of the book title ‘bridge on the river Kwai’, I never knew the full story of the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway or the significance of that bridge until our visit to Kanchanaburi a few weeks ago. It’s one of the most moving and heart wrenching stories I’ve ever heard. The cruelty that was inflicted on so many people was so truly horrendous that even thinking about it now sends chills down my spine and makes me feel incredibly uneasy. It’s a story that I think is important to share and important to remember.

The beginning

Back in the late 1800s, the British government considered building a railway to connect Burma with its neighbouring country of Thailand. After surveying the proposed route, it was decided that the mountainous jungle and numerous rivers would not only be physically challenging to penetrate, but would be totally inhumane for labourers working in the stifling tropical heat and inhospitable environment. The proposal for the railway was, quite rightly, abandoned.

During the Second World War, Japanese forces invaded many countries in eastern Asia and the Pacific. Part of their conquest included seizing control of Burma from the British government. They supplied their forces in Burma using an oceanic route but were frequently attacked by Allied submarines. They became particularly vulnerable after they lost a gruelling sea battle (the Battle of Midway) in May 1942, so to avoid the hazardous 2000-mile sea journey the Japanese formed plans to construct a railway linking Thailand (Ban Pong) to Burma (Thanbyuzayat). This would connect existing railways and be the key to safely supplying much needed resources to their troops – even though they knew it would be the worst kind of living hell for the labourers.

Many Japanese and Koreans were employed to work on the railway as engineers, guards and supervisors. However, the cruel task of constructing the railway itself was given to prisoners of war and slave labourers from neighbouring Asian countries.

POWs

Prisoners from Britain, Australia, America and Holland were forced into trains, 30 – 40 people per carriage, where they travelled for up to 4 days with no food and barely any water, in the stifling heat, no toilet facilities and no space to even lie down and take nap. Once they arrived at their destination, many men then faced an exhausting trek through the hostile terrain of the tropical jungle. Sleep deprived and already malnourished, they were expected to hike for days carrying supplies and construction materials to their designated work camps.

Romusha

The Japanese were in a hurry to build the railway and “employed” 180,000 Asian civilians (known as Romusha) to bulk out the existing workforce of 60,000 POWs. The Romusha were essentially tricked into working on the railway. Many arrived with wives and children on false-promises of good wages and housing facilities, while others were conscripted by force. They arrived into hell-like conditions, they suffered the same conditions as the POWs but they hadn’t had the same military training as the POWs and ultimately suffered even more as a result.

Working conditions

Camps were set up using bamboo as the main construction material. Sleeping platforms were created in a space about 60 meters long, they were completely open to the elements and each one housed around 200 men. The men had very few belongings and most just had the clothes they were wearing. In the tropical heat and humidity, clothes and shoes soon rotted away and many men were forced to work barefoot. By contrast, the nights were comparatively cold; many men saved their tattered clothes for sleeping in to keep themselves warm. During the day they worked in nothing but a loin cloth.

Just imagine this for a second – you’re in an impenetrable jungle and sleeping in filthy, tattered, often damp clothes on bare poles of bamboo at night, then during the day you are forced to do extreme manual labour in the searing heat with nothing but a rag to cover your genitals. Exposed to torrential rain during the wet season, to searing sun causing unforgiving sun burn during the dry season and to all the hazardous wildlife that live in the jungle. Of course, you might think the many poisonous snakes that live in Burma and Thailand would have been a big worry – but far more worrying were the microbes found in dirty drinking water that lead to many cases of debilitating dysentery and cholera, and the mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue fever.

This drawing of the sleeping platforms was done by one of the Allied POWs and is on display at Hellfire Pass museum

Meanwhile the men were given food rations that were a quarter of that required to keep a regular man well-nourished, yet alone a man doing extreme physical labour. Food would often be sent from afar, but after travelling for many days in the tropical heat much of it would be maggoty and rotten. The Japanese would claim any good food for themselves, whilst the workers would be left with scraps. The guards would bury food they deemed unfit for consumption, but the workers would often dig this food back up and eat it – that’s how desperate they were.

Photographs on an information board displayed at Hellfire Pass museum.

Prisoners found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving culture. Japanese culture is often about maintaining ‘face’ and many were brainwashed during the war to believe they were the world’s most superior race. They were taught to never surrender – that surrendering would be incredibly shameful and that even if the only alternative was death, this was way more honourable. They truly believed that if they were captured by the enemy they would have been treated unspeakably badly. Given the hierarchical system in their culture, they had zero respect for their captured prisoners and slave labourers and would treat them as sub-human. I listened to an account of a prisoner who survived death railway and he described how guards would dish out horrendous beatings, often for no reason, which would render men unconscious or even be deadly. He described a common punishment for misbehaviour where guards would force the men to stand holding a heavy rock above their heads for hours on end, then beat them when they were so weak that they could no longer hold the heavy weight.

Another drawing by a POW done in 1943 and displayed at the Hellfire Pass museum

Sickness was a major killer on the railway, but the Japanese offered little in the way of medical supplies. They would even prevent sick men from receiving their food rations as an ‘incentive’ to get back to work. They would get men to defecate on the floor and examine their faeces to see how ill they really were. If there was 50% blood or less, they were deemed fit to work. Skin ulcers often became so bad that skin rotted away exposing bare bones. The account of one POW describes seeing a number of cases of tropical ulcers with “legs bared to the bones from ankle to knee”. The medics did the best job they could with the supplies they had. They used natural resources from the jungle, administered charcoal to relieve the symptoms of dysentery, saved precious marmite to be used as medicine rather than food, used thorns from plants in lieu ofhypodermic needles and used bamboo to create prosthetic limbs after skin diseases became so bad that amputation (with no anaesthetic) was the only option.

An account from one of the POWs describes the stunning landscape as one of the few joys of working at Hellfire Pass and something that would help to raise morale in such a desperate time

Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass was a section of the railway that was particularly difficult to build. It’s an enormous cutting through the rocky hillside which was created by malnourished and sickly labourers with inadequate tools working up to 18-hour shifts a day. Sixty-nine men were beaten to death and many more died from disease in the 12 weeks it took to build this cutting. At night the starving men would work under fire light under the harsh control of Japanese guards – as a result the area became known as Hellfire Pass due to its remarkable resemblance to a scene from hell.

Another POW drawing depicting the labourers working at Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass as it is today

It’s amazing to think that this huge pass was created by men using nothing but manual hand tools

Bridge over the River Kwai

One of the most challenging aspects of the railway was the construction of the bridge over the Mae Klong River (which later on became known as the River Kwai Yai). A film was later made called Bridge on the River Kwai, which unfortunately I have never seen but I’ve heard is very good – albeit a little unrealistic.

A camp of British POWs were forced to build this section of the railway and conditions were equally as tough as what is described above. There were originally two bridges over this river; the first was a wooden construction which was finished in February 1943. This was accompanied by a more modern concrete and steel construction which was finished in June the same year. Many POWs tried to undermine the plans for the bridge by exposing parts of the structure to vulnerabilities whenever the opportunity arose. This would include planting termite mounds next to wooden structures and letting ‘nature take its course’, or reducing the length of piles which were subsequently driven into the ground to make the structure less stable. Despite being one of the most difficult sections to build, we learned at the Hellfire Pass museum that very few men died during its construction in comparison to many other sections of the railway thanks to the organisation and management of the camp leaders, who were POW officers. Both bridges were bombed on two separate occasions in 1945 by Allied Forces and subsequent repairs were done by the slave labourers and POWs. Since the camps were next to the bridges, some labourers were killed and injured during the raids. The wooden bridge was never rebuilt but the concrete-steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.

A model of a wooden bridge displayed at Hellfire Pass museum shows how the old wooden bridge over the river might have looked

Bridge over the River Kwai as it stands today.

The railway over the bridge is still in use today

Final thoughts

The 415km railway was finished ahead of schedule in October 1943, just 13 months after the start date.  Over 200,000 Romusha were forced to work on the railway as slave labourers – over 100,000 of whom died from disease, starvation or brutal beatings from Japanese guards. Over 60,000 POWs also worked on the railway, over 12,600 of whom died. Interestingly, 1000 Japanese and Korean overseers also died during its construction. Well over 100,000 men lost their lives, that’s a death rate of 45%, in just over a year. I’m not a person of faith, but if I had to prey for something, it would be that no human ever has to suffer in this way again.

The memorial cemetery with 7000 POW graves

An Accidental Trip to a World Wonder

Thai visas last for 30 days from the time you enter the country. Upon arrival you are supposed to provide proof of onward travel within the visa period. So, a few days before leaving New Zealand Sarah and I sat in a pub and booked two tickets out of Thailand for 29 days after the date that Sarah was to arrive. There were two requirements for these tickets – they had to have a destination that was somewhere outside Thailand, and they had to be cheap. We had no real intention of using them, so we didn’t care where that destination was. They cost us $12 each.

Fast-forward a few weeks. Sarah’s visa was due to expire shorty, so we started to explore our options. Visa extensions are available in Bangkok for $60. But what about those tickets? Where did they go again? Cambodia? Cool. Where in Cambodia? Some place called Siem Reap…………………………….

A quick Google search revealed that purely by chance we had booked minibus tickets to the site of some of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world, including the largest religious site in the world – the world famous temple of Angkor Wat. (I had at least heard of Angkor Wat, even if I didn’t know where it was precisely)

“Well, that sounds kind of cool. Should we actually use these tickets?”

“Sure! Why not?”

It turned out to be a superb decision. Getting there was a great laugh – 14 people literally stuffed into a minivan along with all their stuff for 12 hours. Whenever anyone from the back wanted to get out we had to unload the whole van. You couldn’t see them the rest of the time as they were obscured by a wall of rucksacks. By chance I was allotted a plum seat – the one just behind the door on the port side by itself – and I was even able to stretch my legs through a wall of bags and lay them up against a window. Sarah wasn’t so lucky – she was stuffed in the back.

When I said it was a great laugh I wasn’t joking (har har) – it was genuinely great. We met some great people (REALLY met them! At close quarters!) and had a good time playing a game called ‘spot the scam’.

Cambodians are master scammers, and we weren’t quite ready for just how masterful they are. The bus was supposed to take 6 hours, but we stopped fairly frequently including quite a few hours at a restaurant about 20 kilometres from the border. We were offloaded, told that we would be changing buses, and also told that we were to arrange our border crossing documents here rather than at the border itself. Fortunately Sarah and I had arranged our visas online already but we still forked out 100 baht each (about $3) for ‘immigration fees’. One Swedish couple were really savvy and refused everything, but everyone else organised their visas with these guys and ended up paying about $10 more than they needed to. The whole service, as it turned out, was available at the border fee-free. In the meantime we were encouraged to eat and drink at the restaurant, and they took their time about things so that we’d eventually give in out of sheer boredom and buy stuff. The whole restaurant deal was a scam – it was owned by friends of the people who run the bus service and they were all getting a cut of the ‘fees’.

Next was the money-changing scam – telling us that we’d get a better rate of conversion if we changed our money to local Cambodian currency (Rials) at the border rather than in the city, another friend-shop-scam, and finally a tuktuk scam whereby the bus skirted around the edge of the city (so that we couldn’t see ourselves being deliberately driven through and then away from our destination) and then dropped us off at the far Eastern outskirts. Conveniently (and miraculously) there happened to be a host of tuktuk (a tuktuk in Cambodia consists of a 4-seater trailer attached to a motorcycle and driven by a madman) drivers waiting at our destination. Since it was now 9pm and many people had yet to arrange accommodation we were willing to pay the vastly-inflated fee of $4 for a ride into the city – a ride that should only cost $1. Oh, and they’d be happy to arrange accommodation at the very bestest and cheapest place in the town (“Same same as others, but different”). Any guesses who owned those establishments?

I’m making it sound like the whole experience was horrible but it really wasn’t. We were having a great time trying to identify which parts of what we were being told were true, which were embellishments and which were outright lies. Besides, it didn’t cost us all that much by our standards. We thought of it as paying a fair fee for life experiences.

We went out for a meal ($3 each including drinks) with some backpackers we’d met on the bus, checked into our hotel and lay down our heads for a long, peaceful sleep in our nice big comfy bed at Bliss Villas. Heaven on earth. ‘A calm, tranquil environment to relax and enjoy your surroundings’, said the marketing brochure. Well, at least we were spared the necessity of setting an alarm clock. We were awakened bright and early by this (note: in order to replicate the authenticity of the experience, I recommend you turn the volume on your speakers to maximum before playing this video):

 

We still have no idea what the festive occasion was, but the sound you can hear is that of monks chanting. They’d set up a pavilion just outside our window and had HUGE speakers angled outwards – directly at our bedroom – blasting out the chant (interspersed with occasional horrendous ‘music’ produced by what I can only assume was 10,000 cats being tortured) for most of the day. Fortunately our fears that this would be the modus operandi on subsequent mornings were unfounded. We chalked it down as another fascinating cultural experience.

Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent loafing. The food was excellent and very inexpensive. There’s an appropriately-named street called Pub Street where we spent a couple of enjoyable evenings and a night-market where we were able to haggle for some new clothing and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the place. We spent a day just wandering around to see what we could see and discovered another market, a beautiful temple and had a remarkable conversation with a Cambodian gentleman who approached us on the street and then, instead of asking us for money as we were expecting, astounded us by asking us to explain why the UK wanted to leave the EU. We were more than happy to spend a while exchanging cultural, political and economic comparisons between our countries and thoroughly enjoyed chatting to him. Then came the shift. He did want money after all. He claimed to be the headmaster of a school for impoverished children in one of the rural villages and he put on a very convincing show, with various pictures and publications to show us. He did such a good job in fact that we gave him $10 despite being on-guard for scams. Either he was genuine or he was the best actor I’ve ever met. We looked his school up on facebook when we got to the hotel and found pictures of him with the children. Even that, though, is no guarantee. They will go to enormous lengths to scam people – mothers will rent out their children to ‘orphanages’ for the purpose of extracting money from tourists. See what I mean about the mastery of the scamming? It’s quite admirably resourceful in a way.

Of course, we also visited the temples. After all, they are the main attraction of Siem Reap; and for good reason.

The temple of Angkor Wat and the surrounding structures constitute the largest religious site in the world. The whole site is surrounded by a huge moat, and it boggles my mind to try to comprehend the amount of manpower that went into the construction of that moat alone – never even mind the temple itself, which is truly spectacular. But Angkor Wat is only one of a score or so of similar buildings, many equally spectacular in their own ways. Prasat Bayon at Angkor Thom houses huge arrays of stone faces looming from the sides of a collection of grand towers. Beautiful bas-relief scenes are carved into the walls of every temple depicting intricate scenes of the daily lives of ancient Khmer people as well as recording great battles and scenes of spiritual significance. The area as a whole – the ancient Khmer city of Angkor – was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It’s a truly amazing place, with a fascinating history spanning over the last 1,000 years or so, in an area of the world that has frequently been subjected to large-scale warfare and great social, political and religious unrest. The sites have not survived unscathed. Khmer Rouge forces (led by the infamous dictator Pol Pot, under whose brutal regime a staggering 25% of the population of Cambodia died as recently as the 1970s) occupied the site during the Cambidian-Vietnamese War, burning any remaining wooden structures for firewood. A US shell destroyed one of the pavilions, and a bas-relief was subjected to a barrage of bullets during an exchange of fire with Vietnamese forces. Subsequently the majority of statues were decapitated by thieves, who sold the heads to black-market collectors. Presumably these relics are still to be found scattered around the planet in the living rooms of affluent (and unscrupulous) persons. This alarming thievery led to the site being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Fortunately this put a stop to the destruction, and the site has been well-managed since then. With about 2.1 million visitors every year and an average ticket price of about $55 the site generates a massive $115M annually, and that doesn’t include the income generated from the accommodation, food and transport that all those tourists require. Not inconsiderable in a country where the average wage is $120 per month.

Our trip back to Bangkok was relatively uneventful. We’d paid a little more for our bus tickets and we’re going with a different company. There was no changing buses or scamming along the way. I did have one small problem though. My stomach was feeling decidedly delicate on the morning of our departure so I paid a visit to a pharmacy and asked for some Imodium. “We don’t have any”, said the pharmacist, “but this is the same thing”. He handed me a packet of pills. I paid him, pushed a couple of pills through the foil and popped them in my mouth. I didn’t have any problems on the bus, and the whole trip back was remarkably relaxing and enjoyable. It wasn’t until I looked at the pill packet much later and saw what I’d been given that I understood why. It was Diazepam, better known as Valium 🙂

 

It’s a good thing the Valium did the job that I hoped for. As it turned out the bus was so luxurious that it had a toilet on board, but this sign makes clear certain restrictions associated with it’s use:

 

Now for some photos of nicer stuff:

The appropriately-named ‘Pub Street’, where we spent a very enjoyable few evenings, including one at a reggae bar (not something we expected to find in Cambodia!):

 

The temple of Angkor Wat, displaying typical characteristics of Khmer architcture:

Because of the lighting at the time of day we were there and also the shear number of tourists getting in the way of the shots it was really tough to get a good picture of Angkor Wat (despite Sarah’s top-notch photographic skills). It’s worth googling an image of it to get a better idea of the scale, taken from an angle that we didn’t have access to.

 

Another view of Angkor Wat with me standing in the doorway to give an idea of scale. The steps, as you can probably tell, are very steep. We wondered if this was meant to make the site defensible. Certainly the moat and the general construction of the place would tend to suggest a construction with fortification in mind as well as religious practicality.

 

Water features are a predominant feature among the ruins of Angkor. This one is within the temple of Angkor Wat, but others are huge. The largest is a full 8Km by 2Km, all dug by hand 1,000 years ago. The purpose of these reservoirs, basins and pools is not known and is disputed by historians and archaeologists.

 

One of the huge faces carved into the sides of Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom. Whose face is depicted is another subject of dispute. Some say it is Buddha, some say it is the face of the Khmer king of the day, and still others say it is an amalgamation of the two.

 

Sarah standing beneath the ancient archway of a viaduct or aqueduct (we’re not sure which). The trees in and around the temples have grown into the structure of the stones such that the trees and stones are now often mutually dependent on one another for support.

 

Last but not least, a bas-relief depicting some sort of nautical war theme. It’s amazing to think that this level of intricacy was achieved by hand and chisel. There are several miles of these to be found on the walls of the various temples of Angkor.