Along the well-worn path…

On 2 June, I packed my scruffy Duke of Edinburgh rucksack (a hand-me-down of Baba’s from when he was in his 20s!), grabbed the Lonely Planet South-East Asia guide and set off to Bangkok. For the next three weeks I was joined by three  of my closest friends – Alisha, Anjali and Sana – as we worked our way across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

(If you’re thinking of a similar trip, look at my footnotes for more information on transport, ideas on what to do and costs).

Our first four days in Bangkok were all about finding our feet and catching up with eachother – I hadn’t seen Alisha or Anjali since Christmas. We spent our first day wondering around the massive and congested Victory Monument, trying to make a plan on the spot and failing to find a bus cheap enough to take us to the floating markets we so desperately wanted to see.

This was the first of our learning curves. The fact that everything, and I mean everything, seems to cost more money than you expect. With our ambitious, but very reasonable, £10-a-day budget we quickly realised that the first step to travelling without parents is having to sacrifice some of the most typical tourist sites. Instead the next four days composed of looking at the Grand Palace from outside the gates on our way home from Wat Pho, a day trip to the ancient ruined city of Ayuthaya and countless wanders around busy Thai streets, finding the most appetising street-food.

Four days in Bangkok were enough for us and, of course, that is the true beauty of being nineteen and travelling on a budget: when you’re bored of a place, you find the cheapest transport option and get out of there. And so we jumped on a breezy but boiling hot train and zipped through the Thai countryside to the Cambodian border[1].

Our first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap and the huge awe-inspiring Angkor Wat. Think massive stone temples nestled amongst the jungle… overrun with tourists. My best advice on seeing the temples is to get bikes. They gave us the flexibility and freedom to get away from the crowds and see some of the more interesting and less known temples. Our favourite: Prea Khan – huge piles of rubble which we could climb on and tall walls covered in even taller trees.[2] Make sure you buy your tickets in town. We cycled to the temples at 5:30 am to catch the sunrise but missed it because we didn’t have them. Instead, the sun rose at our backs as we took a tuk-tuk to the official ticket office, 5km from the main gate.

 

The next stop was Battambang, an old French town framed with wide, leafy streets and old European-style houses. We spent a day cycling along hot, dusty roads trying to find a temple and then almost passed out with heat-stroke in a cute air-conditioned café. The same day saw an evening trip to Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. Don’t be taken in by the $7 student price – it’s only for under twelves! Still, the circus was great and we even bumped in to an old Parmiter’s teacher! [3]

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Cambodia is a country haunted by its past. As you drive out of the towns, you’re aware of poverty and are shocked at how barren and dead the countryside seems to be. In 1975 the communist party took control of the country and during the next three years three of the eight million population were brutally killed. This was devastatingly evident at the Killing Fields just outside Pnomh Penh where you can still see bones and old cloth rags coming to the surface of the mass graves.[4] We left feeling shocked and emotional. Near Battambang we visited a killing cave – a diorama at the top of the stairs clearly depicted the horrifying violence and brutality for which this period is known.[5] I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like, especially as so much of this history is still in living memory and has effects to this day.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. On the same day we went to the Caves Alisha found her future husband. Yak Kil is a tuk-tuk driver from Battambang as well as a boxer with three championships to his name and an infuriating, but sweet, habit of asking if we were happy every five minutes. He saved us from a particularly aggressive driver in the morning and then proceeded to amaze us with his chivalry all day. We were especially blown away by his offers to carry Alisha up the steep hill we were climbing. Unfortunately he didn’t extend the invitation to the rest of us.

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Cambodia wasn’t the only place with the tortured past. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam very clearly drove home the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the effects of Agent Orange. From 1961 – 1972, the Americans released the chemical on huge areas of the countryside. At the time, no one realised how severe the effects would be but it led to a whole generation of children born with various physical handicaps. The Vietnam War is also one of the most photographed in history; everyone can think of the photo of the little girl running naked along a road after a napalm bomb. Suddenly America wasn’t seen as the hero anymore: it was the first time that public intervened in military affairs and eventually the Americans pulled out. The photos also reminded me of how desensitised we are to war now. During the ‘60s those photos sparked massive protests. Now we see photos of death and destruction in the news every day.

In spite of this, it was one of my favourite days. Ho Chi Minh was big but easy to navigate: leafy lanes and lovely parks where we sat with a deck of cards and the most amazing Vietnamese Coffee (it’s made with condensed milk!). The food was incredible: big steaming bowls of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), sandwiches stuffed to the brim with egg and chicken and amazing sauces (Banh Mi) and pancakes bought crispy and hot on the side of the road. The Cu Chi Tunnels, an hour outside of the city, were also really interesting. [6]  In the war against the Americans, the Vietnamese showed just how much of an advantage knowing your territory is and built an intricately complex system of tunnels stretching from Saigon to the north. We crept through these tunnels for a mere few metres and I began to feel claustrophobic. It’s incredible to think these soldiers did it for months on end with no sunlight.

Ho Chi Minh seemed to exemplify everything we were chasing in our journey. I was in a new city, surrounded by three of my best friends and I had all the time in the world. No one was expecting me to hand in homework, speak a different language, wear make-up or be anyone apart from exactly who I was. We were completely free. No one knew us, we knew no one and we could make friends and explore without having to worry about checking our phones (no data) or wandering what people thought of us.

And it just kept getting better.

A few days later we were sleeping on a spacious comfortable clean night bus to Nha Trang.[7] We spent two days lying on the beach and enjoying the relative luxury of our hostel. Happy Angel Hotel was luxurious. And by this I mean exquisitely clean – we didn’t even have to put our sarongs down on the beds to sleep on!

It’s funny how quickly such mundane things become luxury: clean sheets, hot showers and smelling nice are things that we take for granted. Unfortunately, travelling on a 19 year-old gap year budget didn’t allow for them and so Nha Trang was a lovely respite.

And then we were on a scruffier bus for the twelve hour drive to Hoi An.[8]  Hoi An was long lazy cycle-rides around the beautiful old town, hours drinking coffee and playing rummy in riverside cafes and days spent lazing at the pool-side of a fancy hotel that we just happened to walk into. We spent four perfect days relaxing and recovering from the hectic rush of travelling. It was definitely one of our favourite places.

Lazing in Hoi An was the perfect way to finish three hectic weeks of travelling in mainland Asia.  Travelling is exhausting and never let anyone tell you otherwise. There were times when I felt like finding a guesthouse and never moving again, times when everyone you’re with is annoying you, times when you can’t work out what to do or how to get somewhere or what the cheapest option for a hostel really is. All too often people over-romanticize their stories (I’m probably guilty of doing the same). When you tell people about your trip you miss out the time you felt like crying because all your clothes smelt (sweaty and damp) and the time you were sharing your bed with cockroaches; you don’t mention being leered at by creepy men or walking down a street and feeling scared and nervous. You talk about sitting on the side of a river feeling nineteen and invincible; the rush that you get from being constantly on the move; the exhilaration of being in a new place and being completely anonymous.

I started out my trip hoping it was going to be perfect. I now know that perfection isn’t enjoying every second of every day. Instead it’s those rare moments when you realise how incredible life is. We travelled through three countries in three weeks and it was amazing.

Transport, Costs and Places to go…

[1] Bangkok – Siem Reap: We took the train (35 THB) from the Central Station in Bangkok to Aranyaprathet. From the station, take a tuk tuk (80THB) to the border where we had to pay a 100 THB bribe in order to get the visa!!!! The Visa Office is in a white-walled building – just follow everyone else – and the visa itself was 30 USD. The 100 THB bribe was for three of us, after we made a big song and dance. From the border we took a free shuttle bus to a bus station and then a $10 (!!!) minibus to Siem Reap.

[2] Angkor Wat: $20 entrance fee and $1 dollar bikes – there is no excuse for not visiting. Prea Khan was set further back from the main complex. Take the road past the Bayon and keep on going. Make sure you buy your ticket in town, ask at your hotel for where to go!!

[3] Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus: $14, don’t be taken in by the $7 student price – it was for under twelve year olds! Definitely worth it for a good (romantic) story-line, impressive gymnastics and easy watching. I loved it!

[4] Killing Fields at Cheong Ek: we rented a tuk-tuk for the day and were taken to the fields ($4 entrance) and Tuol Sleng Museum (free for students, make sure you have proof). The tuk-tuk cost around $15 for the four of us.

[5] Pnomh Sampeu: $1 entrance fee for the caves and monastery at the top of the hill. Everyone will tell you that it is too steep to walk up to the top – DO NOT listen. The walk was fun and definitely not too hard. We rented a tuk-tuk that took us to the caves, a temple and the bamboo train for $15. If you’re short on money, give the bamboo train a miss. It cost $5 and was admittedly very cool but if you want to, just take a look before carrying on.

[6] Cu Chi Tunnels: In the end we decided to go on a group tour and payed 90,000 Vietnamese Dong each as well as the 110,000 entrance fee. Worth it if you have the time. Otherwise don’t worry.

[7] HCMC – Nha Trang: $9 for a ten hour journey.

[8] Nha Trang – Hoi An: $11 for a gross bus! But the best price we found.

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