Northern Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - Temples, Cookery Classes and the Wonders of Angkor....
Arriving in Bangkok after 2 months in Australasia was a definite shock to the senses. Bangkok is a world apart from Sydney - it has a population the size of London and everyone seems to be on the road at the same time. We genuinely feared for our lives the first time we got into a car here! As a city, it's loud, polluted and overcrowded but it's also fascinating and we spent a couple of days here seeing some of the many Wats and Palaces and having our first taste of Thai Green Curries!
After a couple of days we headed north to the town of Phitsanulock, 6 hours north of Bangkok and a day trip away from the ancient city of Sukhothai. Sukhothai was the one-time capital of the Khmer empire and there are 21 well-preserved historical sites within the city which we spent a day cycling between.
We carried on to the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and home to over 300 temples. After a day sightseeing though we were starting to develop 'temple fatigue' so we took a day off to attend the Thai Cookery School run by Sompon Nabnian, Thailand's equivalent of Jamie Oliver. The course itself was run from his home and we spent the morning at the local market buying ingredients and the remainder of the day learning how to make red curries, coconut milk soups and steamed banana cakes. We prepared 6 dishes in total and everything we cooked we then ate (except one dish which Paddy rendered inedible by adding 10 chillies to rather than the recommended 6...!) and we literally rolled out of the school at 5pm vowing to go on a diet the next day!
We got back to our hostel later that evening and opened our room door to find that something was moving on our bed. This being Asia, our first thought was that it was a giant rat but closer inspection showed it to be a dog! Relief turned to wonder - why was there a dog on our bed? We then turned discovered that not only was there a dog on the bed but there was someone asleep in the bed as well and none of our belongings were anywhere to be seen. It took a further half hour to resolve the matter as it turned out that the hotel manager had decided to move us to another room but hadn't thought to tell us or any of the hotel staff and had since finished her shift so it was by pure process of elimination that we found a room with our bags in it! Although travelling has been fantastic, there are times when we're glad to have only 2 months of backpacking left!
We then spent a day at an Elephant Conservation Centre before taking the sleeper train to Bangkok and then flying off to Vietnam. Vietnam was a country we were both looking forward to experiencing but unfortunately, it was one of those times when nothing went to plan! The country itself is relatively new to tourism and not quite the tourist-friendly place that Thailand is. It was also freezing!
When we left Thailand it was 35 degrees. As we knew we'd be returning to Bangkok 3 weeks later, we left most of our jumpers, trousers etc at the hostel to save us carrying them around. Stupidly we didn't check the temperatures in Vietnam though and arrived in Hanoi to find that it was just 5 degrees and even colder than the UK! None of the hotels or restaurants had heating and we were absolutely freezing. We spent a couple of days visiting nearby towns and attractions and an overnight boat trip to Halong Bay which would have been great if it were 20 degrees warmer but most of the 5 days we had in north Vietnam were spent shivering whilst wearing all of our clothes at the same time!!
As soon as we could we headed South in search of warmer weather and spent a couple of days in a town called Hue before heading to Hoi An, famous for it's tailors. The plan had been to get some clothes made for our return to the UK which can normally be done within 24 hours. However, although we knew things closed for Tet, we hadn't realised they would close down 4 days beforehand. Nor that we would be unable to get any form of transport until Tet was over. Hoi An is a pretty town and there are worse places to be stranded but it's a very small place and 7 days here is far too long - especially when pretty much everything was closed around us! Tet itself was fantastic though and we spent a really nice evening watching the celebrations and fireworks but cabin-fever had set in by day 4 and we were thankful when the transport started running again so that we could escape!
As a result of our extended stay here, we now had less time to get through the rest of Vietnam and Cambodia so it was just a quick visit to Saigon before heading to the border. It wasn't quite the experience we'd hoped for but things don't always go to plan so, our tour of duty complete, we thankfully crossed the border to Cambodia!
We arrived first at Phnom Penh. Although we both knew about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that had occured between 1975-79, nothing could prepare us for the absolute horrors of S-21 and the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng (s-21) was actually a High School that was turned into Security Prison 21 by Pol Pot's security forces. Classrooms were converted into cages for prisoners and thousands of people were tortured and killed here. It's now a museum. The school remains much the same as it was when it was discovered after the torture ended - the cells remain, as do the shackles and instruments of torture. The walls are now covered in hundreds of photographs of the victims. The next morning we visited the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. People who didn't die as a result of the torture at S-21 were brought here to be executed and when the grounds were excavated in 1980, 129 mass graves were discovered holding an estimated that 17,000 people. The terror that was inflicted at both S-21 and the Killing Fields was just unbelievable and we left Phnom Penh stunned and appalled at what we'd seen.
Cambodia is a country of complete extremes. From the absolute horror of Phnom Penh, within a few hours we were at one of the worlds greatest architectural wonders - the Temples of Angkor. The contrast between the two couldn't be greater and the temples are just incredible. Angkor Wat is the most celebrated but there are actually many temples and you'd definitely need a few days here to see them all. Time was running out for us though so we just spent a day seeing the main ones but they were amazing and a definite lift to the spirits after Phnom Pehn.
Our northern loop of Southeast Asia had been a real mixed experience. Northern Thailand was chilled out and good fun, Vietnam was hard work and Cambodia both horrified and amazed us but was an incredible country. With only 3 weeks left until we return to the UK it was a quick stopover in Bangkok to pick up some clothes before heading to the Singapore and Malaysia in search of Orangutans...