13th January and I'm sitting in a net café on the south of Phuket, resembling a French foreign legion conscript after a nasty encounter with a Thai hairdresser last night. It'll grow back….eventually! On a break between morning and afternoon training sessions at the Muay Thai camp so will try and force my brain back into gear and recount what's being going on since my last update….
Worked my way down through Vietnam to meet Lace in Saigon on the 17th Dec. Massive city in the South of Vietnam with something like 8 million scooters and motorbikes…you can buy a Chinese 'Hongda' motorbike here for $250….tempting! Went to the War Remnants museum (formerly known as the Museum of American and Chinese War Atrocities but presumably this didn't do much for good feeling between the countries) and saw a lot of evidence and info on the barbaric treatment dished out to the Vietnamese, including the horrific effects of liberally-spread 'Agent Orange' chemical weapon. It was, of course, a very one-sided portrayal of events.
The following day we took a trip out to the Cu Chi War Tunnels, built initially to help the Vietnamese revolt against their French occupiers, and later used as a springboard for the Viet Cong to launch attacks against the US Army. Fascinating to see how the VC lived and operated, although the whole Cu Chi complex was packed with busloads of local and foreign tourists which turned the area into a bit of a procession. Good fun firing a M16 (weapon of choice for the US infantry during the war) and AK47 (used by the VC and most people generally up to no good to this day) whilst there...
Also in Saigon donned Vietnamese t-shirts and watched the final of the South East Asia Games football competition with the locals. Saw favourites Vietnam take on Malaysia with a beer, huddled round a tv set with shopkeepers and passers by in a night market, but unfortunately they lost to a late goal and the city didn't explode in celebration as expected. Meanwhile, got introduced to street game 'Cau', sort of a cross between badminton and football, and visited a watepark in China Town. They didn't look favourably on our board-shorts, so instead we were made to hire some skimpy little speedo-like swim shorts, trying to ingnore their dubious looking stains. Looking like a pair of idiots, we took to the slides with schoolboy-like enthusiasm, the locals looking on in obvious amusement.
Crossed the border via bus from Vietnam to Cambodia, making our way to the capital Phnom Penh. Lace was struck down with a stomach parasite there so he was bedridden for a few days whilst I went off exploring. And drinking…. Whatever it was he had, I didn't want to catch it, so the evenings were spent drinking and playing a lot of Connect 4 with locals (some of the barmaids are sh*t hot!), chatting to other travelers etc. And quite often hopping on the back of a motorbike saying 'take me to the Heart of Darkness', an infamous club in the centre of town.
When Lacey had mounted a recovery took a trip out to 'S21' - a converted school that the Khmer Rouge used to imprison, torture and kill thousands of people during their reign of terror. Then continued on by tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields, where the educated, suspected opposition etc were murdered in a mass genocide campaign. Both pretty striking, moving places, particularly the memorial tower at the Killing Fields where thousands of skulls are housed in a giant glass display cabinet.
The Royal Palace complex in Cambodia was very impressive, plus I'll also remember Phnom Penh for the awesome thalis you could get by the lakeside from one of several cheap Indian restaurants. They were like a long lost friend after my time in India, that and the sweet, milky chai also on offer.
Bussed to Siem Reap from the capital on the 22nd. It's mainly a town people use as a base to visit the temples of Angkor from, not much to see in the town itself aside from the shops and many bars and restaurants on Bar Street. Spent much of our downtime there with Graham and Kev, two guys I shared a hostel with in Vietnam and our paths kept crossing after. Graham, who had the knack of ending up with a different girl each night, and Kev, an Irish guy who lived up to every stereotype of the Irish and booze. Funny guys and good allies for Xmas eve and Xmas day.
I was feeling pretty rough Christmas Day after a heavy and late xmas eve celebration but powered through to visit a local orphanage, picking up a load of presents for the kids en route. We were greeted like conquering heroes as we walked up to the building, kids running out, arms wide, jumping and climbing up us, joy in their faces. Spent a while dishing out presents and playing with them before sitting down with a few other Westerners that'd made the trip for a performance of local dances and customs by the children. Nice way to spend xmas day being able to give something back and a good way to forget the hangover! Left the orphanage about tea time as the sun was going down, started walking in completely the wrong direction before flagging down a local for directions. He promptly invited us to jump in the back of his pick-up, turned around in the direction of town, and the four of us cruised back in the bed of the ute, wind rushing through our hair… Just when we were giving up hope, found a proper xmas dinner at an upmarket Irish pub, was pretty steep but worth every penny - bloody amazing grub! Turkey dinner and a glass of red really hit the spot.
Cambodia is probably most visited for the ancient Angkor temples and ruins. Bought a 3 day pass for $40 to see the Unesco World Heritage sight. It was the centre of the ancient Khmer empire from something like 800AD until 1400 AD and is spread over a vast area, temple upon temple being built one after another. On day 1 (23rd Dec) a tuk tuk picked us up at 5am, for a cold (not a frequent occurrence in South East Asia!) and dark ride out to see the sunrise at Angkor Watt. Angkor Watt is the main, focal temple across the site - it's image reproduced all over Cambodia, from their National flag, to coins, to bottles of beer. Pretty awesome seeing the sun slowly start to rise behind it, then once the sun was up we entered the watt complex to have a proper look around. Spent the rest of the day touring around in the tuk tuk, checking out Preah Khan, Prea Neak Pean, Ta Som, Eastern Meban and Pre Rup temples.
Christmas eve was our second day round the temples, taking a tuk tuk 30km to Bantray Say, supposedly some of the finest carvings in the world. Some pretty intricate work but can't say I was massively impressed, I guess carvings aren't my thing! Of more interest was the Cambodian Landmine Museum we visited after - set up by a guy who laid thousands of mines as a Khmer Rouge soldier, and then in a classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper story is now a famed mine clearer. Made our way to Pre Rup to climb to the top of the ruins and see a picturesque sunset, with a beer in hand (it was Christmas Eve after all!) over the Cambodian countryside. Was a great alternative spot where we managed to avoid the crowds at the more popular sunrise/sunset areas.
Hired mountain bikes on the third day (Boxing Day) to check out the remaining temples we hadn't yet seen. This was probably my favourite day around the temples, saw the vast ancient city ruins of Angkor Thom, and iconic Ta Prohm that features in 'Tombraider' and a few lesser known films. Ta Prohm is a remarkable spectacle, where you can see the battle between man and nature, with nature slowly winning and consuming the man made structure. There are trees intertwined with temples, whyere seeds have landed on temple rooftops hundreds of years ago and the tree roots slowly but surely working their way down the temple walls as the tree grows upwards. Ended the day at Bayon temple, where hundreds of faces are carved into the stonework, and seemingly everywhere you look there is a charismatic, somehow stern but vaguely genial face looking over you. Very atmospheric place as the sun was going down…
From Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor temples we traveled by bus back to Bangkok on the 27th Dec to then fly down South on the 28th. I enjoyed Cambodia, friendly people and nice countryside. I left though feeling I hadn't done it complete justice - Lace's illness meant we couldn't spend a night or two out of the big urban areas of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which you really have to do if you want to explore a country properly.
Koh Samui & Koh Phagnan
After a night out and stocking up on supplies in Bangkok, flew down to Surat Thani on the 28th to then finally get ourselves to Koh Samui on the 29th, after several bus rides and a 2 hour ferry. Our pilgrimage was made in order to make it to the Full Moon Party on NYE, seemingly along with every other traveler we'd met across South East Asia. This year was going to be big - it was the first year in twenty or so when full moon actually coincided with NYE, so no one quite knew quite how busy it was going to get….some people said 50,000 people, some 60,000…..some 80,000. The slight flaw in our plan was we had no accommodation booked. Staying on Ko Phagnan was therefore not an option, so we headed for nearby island Koh Samui where we planned to get a boat to the party from on the night. On the journey there kept bumping into an English guy called James, who worked as a political advisor (speech writing etc) to Geoff Hoon for three years - interesting guy to talk to and good having a different conversation other than the usual 'where have you come from, where you going too' etc etc.
By a complete stroke of luck, we struck gold on the bus ride to the ferry port. A large, warm-faced thai woman boarded the bus we were on bound for the ferry port, offering the last of the accommodation at 'New Hut Bungalows' in Lamai on Koh Samui. It was cheap, the pictures of the beachside bungalows looked pretty special, and to be frank we didn't have any better options. So we took a chance and made our way there and in the end it turned out to be one of the best places I've stayed on my trip so far (Milkman in Pushkar, India and Julie's in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand are also memorable). Along with the beachfront bungalows there was a fantastic wooden-decked restaurant offering tide-side dining, good music, and a relaxed atmosphere. The location was good too - Koh Samui can be quite touristy and Western, particularly in tourist hotspot Chaweng, but Lamai's a little quieter, and we stayed at the yet more tranquil northern end of Lamai beach.
Fleetwood, who I'd trekked with in Nepal, joined us early evening of our first day there. Great to see him and catch up on travel stories since we'd gone off in different directions. He crashed in with us for our four days in Lamai, pretty cosy (and f**ing uncomfortable!) in a 2 bed bungalow but easier when we managed to upgrade to a 4-bedder on day 3. The three of us hired scooters the day after we arrived (that'd be the 30th Dec) to check out the island. Took the ring-road round clockwise from Lamai, first stopping at some waterfalls that we climbed and chilled in for a while. Continued round from there to the northern coast of the island to Mae Nam that was supposed to be a good spot to take in thai culture in an otherwise very Westernised island. We didn't see much evidence of this it has to be said, but had a bloody nice lunch there nonetheless. Continued round after eating, stopping for a swim at Chaweng for a swim where the beach was sweet and the sea pretty amazing.
Spent the 31st relaxing, swimming and catching some sun - a chilled day in preparation for the night's shenanigans. For a while it looked as though we wouldn't even be able to make it over to Koh Phagnan, but eventually managed to battle through the hoardes to get to the Northern tip of Samui and catch the ferry over to Hat Rin where the FMP takes place. A small band of us left New Hut in the end - Lace, Fleetwod and I, Paul the German, two US girls and two other English guys. Once we hit Hat Rin spent some time liberally applying neon body paint (not normally my thing but everyone else was so I had to get involved!) and drinking, then hit the main beach. Running along the beach were a strip of bars, belting out a range of dance music, mostly commercial dance from what I remember. Maybe I was slightly disappointed with it after going to large music events in Serbia and other festivals in England - FMP is more about the booze and novelty of it rather than the music. After seeing in the new year at midnight the night becomes a bit of a blur it has to be said. After partying till dawn we all made it home separately somehow, at what time and by what means we're not all exactly sure.
Spent New Years Day trying to piece myself back together, a task made easier by the relaxed beach, sea and surroundings at New Hut. Went for a nice dinner that evening along the beach front with Fleetwood and Crystal and Katie the US girls, then headed off to Phuket and the Muay Thai Boxing Camp the following day!
It's now the 15th Jan and sitting in a net café, 3 more Muay Thai sessions left to go. A chest injury has almost recovered, my right foot is badly swollen, a toenail on my left foot will shortly be making it's own way in the world separate from my foot, and I've got a painful cut to my lower back. Loving (almost) every minute of it, however - a write up on my time at the camp to follow!
Books read since leaving the UK:
The Wrong Way Home
War Reporting for Cowards
How to be Good
Fantastic Mr Fox
Che 1 & 2
Seven Years in Tibet
All the above have been whilst at the boxing camp, in addition caught the below on my ipod on bus journeys through South East Asia;