Traveling through Thailand and Cambodia with no plan
26.03.2009 - 22.04.2009 36 °C
We arrived into Bangkok with a reservation at a hostel in Rambuttri Road and a rough idea of how much to pay a taxi driver to take us there, but that was about all the research we had done. We bought a cheap Lonely Planet guide on the first day (2004 edition) and flicked through to find some points of interest. After we left the hostel it took all of about 5 minutes to be approached by a guy, claiming that the local police station was a tourist office and we were ushered inside, where we were given a map and all sorts of 'useful' advice about where to go and where not to go. Then he offered us a 60baht tuk tuk ride which would take us to the 3 'most important' places, since the others were 'closed' at that time.
Since it was so cheap we jumped at the chance and were pretty happy when the tuk tuk driver let us stop off to buy water and use the ATM machine. Alarm bells only rang after we had visited the 'only legitimate' TAT office to book tickets to places we hadn't decided we were going to yet. We casually mentioned Cambodia and were offered a 'discount' trip by minivan, with 3 nights accommodation at a Hilton Hotel for 'only' 9000 baht each. We had a budget of 20 pounds a day including accommodation, so there was no way we were going to book anything on day 1 especially at that price! So we thanked the agent and went back to the tuk tuk. For the next few minutes we were quizzed by the tuk tuk driver about what trip we had booked and when we said we didn't book anything he got annoyed and dropped us off at the next street corner. We realised after a few days that the tuk tuk ride had merely taken us round the block to the places we could walk to from our hostel, but what the hell we were only conned for 60 Baht!
One fantastic thing about Thailand is how cheap it is to use the internet...especially in Bangkok. The Green House Guest house has a number of different payment systems for the internet, the best being 99baht for 10 hours! You are given a piece of paper with a code that will deduct the time used, and is valid for 2 weeks. Because of this, we were able to Skype home, upload photos and research everything we needed to know about traveling around Thailand and Cambodia.
Rambuttri Road is in the backpacker area of Bangkok, far enough away from the noise of Khao San Rd and only a 5 minute walk away. The whole of this area is full of travelers and shops and street stalls geared to selling us all our souvenirs. They sell cheap T-shirts, dresses, scarves, jewellery and lots of New Age traveler style clothes and merchandise. The area's bustling with a good atmosphere, and reminds me of Brighton somehow. We visited the weekend market at Chatuchak during our first week and as well as getting lost and not being able to work out where we came in, I picked up some real bargains on bags, Thai fishing trousers and leather sandals. Prices range from about 100 to 250 baht for most popular items.
We went to a couple of the big temple areas in Bangkok which were within walking distance but the April heat made everything feel further away than it was. We were trying to avoid taking tuk tuks or taxis because the drivers were always lying about tourist sites being closed and trying to overcharge grossly for every journey. We learned from someone we met that the cheapest way to get to the main shopping areas (e.g. Siem Paragon Mall) was by river boat and cost only 8 baht each way! Siem Paragon is a large mall with an impressive food court, International bookshop, brand-named clothing shops and a cinema complex with IMAX and deluxe theatres. It is one of a selection of malls in the area, within walking distance from each other.
Our first excursion out of Bangkok was to the popular tourist island of Koh Samui. We booked our tickets at a tourist office on the first floor of Hualomphong Rail Station and paid about 1200 baht for a one way ticket by 'luxury' bus and including the boat ticket over to Koh Samui. It was an over night trip on a coach with toilet and TV showing English films. The seats reclined and we had air conditioning and a blanket. The first bus was pretty comfortable although I found it difficult to sleep. We arrived into a run down drop off point and had to wait over 2 hours for our connecting bus to take us to the ferry at Surat Thani. The next bus was very different, with broken windows and fans on the ceiling, but we were only on it for an hour or so. The ferry was also run down and the journey across to Koh Samui was pretty rough and took about 2 hours.
At the port we took a pick up truck to Chaweng Beach which took about 45 minutes and then walked around until we found a hostel we liked the look and price of. We were easily able to stay on budget at 540 baht per night for an aircon room, close to the beach. Unfortunately our plans to chill out for 3 days on the beach were hindered by the constant rain and storms throughout our time there. The beach was reasonably pretty but not as great as we expected. The better beaches seemed to be in the areas of the island less accessible. We spent most of our time on the island reading, eating at the local restaurants and enduring power cuts and storms.
After three days on Koh Samui we decided to cut our loses and head for somewhere far away from the popular beach resorts of Southern Thailand. We booked a ferry and minivan package to Khao Sok rainforest in the Suratthani province. It was not as easy to find accommodation here as we had hoped, since the 'hotels' were spread quite far apart and were not easy to find. We managed to avoid the touts by telling our taxi driver we were staying at one place, and once he had driven off we started looking for somewhere else.
We ended up at Our Jungle House, a place listed in the Lonely Planet guide. It was a bit more expensive than others and set about 10-15 minutes walk away from the main road but its location was so beautiful and peaceful it was worth paying 800 baht per night for a treehouse.
The resort was located on the bank of a river, overlooking a high cliff on the other side, which gave the place privacy and a lovely view. The restaurant served amazing and cheap food and stayed open until 9pm each night. We were trying not to spend too much money so we didn't go on the excursions offered by the resort but we were well aware that there was a vast area to explore. We went into the National Park once and chose a trail that seemed of a manageable distance (4km).
Guide books had described the trails as well signposted and easy to navigate alone but our experience was very different. Our trail started off reasonably easily, with steps and bridges and clear walkways, but became progressively steeper and narrower. There were points at which, due to mud slides the path had been entirely washed away and we needed to hold onto trees just to stop us slipping down the steep embankments. The path ahead at each point seemed noticeable but signs were few and far between. We needed to cross the river 6 times along the trail and on some occasions the only way across was to wade areas about 2-3 feet deep. All enjoyment ceased as we started scratching and found leeches stuck to our ankles. They were not easy to remove and we had to pull them off through our bandanas. We were both wearing long trousers but even tucking them into our socks didn't stop more leeches from working their way into our shoes and socks everytime we stopped to take a breath. We both started to become dehydrated, but without knowing how far we had walked or whether the trail proceeded in a loop of 4km, we didn't know whether we would be traveling further if we turned back. After 2 and a half hours we had made it to the waterfall.
I was feeling incredibly tired and sick by that point and was then worried that we needed to turn back and cover the same 4 km distance but with no water and potentially only a couple of hours until sunset. I felt totally stupid at how unprepared we had been, setting out as if it was a stroll in the park with only a couple of litres of water between the two of us. I was worried that if we took as long to get back it would be too dark to see and no one actually knew which trail we had taken. So after I had a bit of a breakdown, we set off as fast as we could and managed to save an hour on the journey back. Once I got back to the park, I was barely able to drink any water and vomited by the side of the cafe. I spent the whole night with a headache and being sick every time I tried to drink water.
We spent the next day and in fact the rest of our time at Khao Sok sitting in the restaurant, reading and playing cards. One day we went swimming in the shallow river and found a pool where the fish nibble at your feet. There were only a few other guests and so there really was a sense of seclusion at the resort. At night you could hear the insects and animals pretty loudly outside the tree house but their repeated hums and drones made it easy to sleep.
In the restaurant you could see toads and lizards and fireflies, undeterred by the mosquito coils that we needed to have burning constantly. Every afternoon we would sit under the palm roof listening to the insects becoming silent, the trees whooshing and then watching the torrential downpours of rain. Khao Sok was a perfect place to while away 5 days.
We returned to Bangkok by overnight bus and booked into our previous hostel for another few nights. We researched where to go in Cambodia and decided that it would be very interesting and very cheap to go by 3rd class train. I had read reviews of the journey and although it sounded like a rustic and long journey, no one had reported any problems with it. We needed to turn up at Bangkok's Hualamphong Train station early to buy our tickets for the 05.55 service to Aranyaprathet. That meant leaving the hostel at about 3.30 to make sure we would have time to get a taxi or tuk tuk for a reasonable price. A journey to the train station should only cost 60 baht but we never got it cheaper than 100.
Diary entry Wednesday 1st April 2009
"The atmosphere at Bangkok's Hualamphong rail station is pretty relaxed, where foreigners and locals vie for spots on the floor while they wait for their train. The station is old and dirty but with modern amenities like Dunkin Donuts, KFC and a number of other eating places and travel agents. Besides the noise of bustling travelers, is the sound of a local radio station and the occasional muffled Thai announcement. One rather interesting feature, next to the fixed Departures and Arrivals boards, is the photos and paintings of the King of Thailand. There are images of him everywhere in Bangkok and people here seem to take the monarchy very seriously."
Diary entry Sunday 12th April 2009
" It's 5am and the station is already buzzing with people who, I assume are taking early trains home to prepare for Thai new year. Hawaiian shirts seem to be popular at the moment, or it could just be a coincidence! We're heading for Cambodia today and I'm already scouting the western faces for couples we might eventually share a taxi with, once we get to the other side of the border. I was a little nervous about the journey before, but now I've read a few people's recent experiences of the border / customs crossing I feel alright."
Diary entry Monday 13th April 2009
"The sun is up in what seems like such a big sky. After being in Thailand, Cambodia's expanse of flat land really stands out. Crossing a land border brings something different to the experience of changing countries and in this case, the geography is the most noticeable difference. The road from Poipet to Siem Reap is notoriously dodgey but with the new road surface, it's clearly the drivers who have to take the blame for the danger! I think our taxi driver was perhaps the worst I have ever seen; constantly driving 100mph on the wrong side of the road, towards oncoming traffic! Siem Reap is dusty and developing. There's nothing much for the tourist in the part we saw yesterday but I'm interested to find the local markets...
...Our hotel is really nice and the guy at reception speaks good English. The hotel is modern, with a nice restaurant area and a footprint shaped pool (the logo for the company). I'm starting to get into the groove of traveling now and even though yesterday's 8 hour train journey was a struggle (with no seat and a carriage packed so full we were struggling to find a place for our feet at times) we can at least say that we did it like the locals, and only paid 48 Baht for the privilege!"
After spending a few days to recover from our long journey from Bangkok, we booked a tuk tuk driver from the hotel to take us round Angkor Wat and the temple complexes. It cost 15 dollars per day for the driver plus 40 dollars each person for a 3 day entry ticket for the temple complexes. We managed to explore for 2 whole days but were templed out by the end of day 2.
Cambodia has it's own currency (Riels) but there is definitely a two-fold currency situation at work in the country. For the tourist everything is priced in US dollars, and Cambodians are very used to tourists so the prices for everything are inflated. All of the ATMs give out money in US dollars so there's no need to bring much into the country, except for your initial taxi fare from the border to Siem Reap. My husband and I found the food mediocre compared to Thai food but were aware that we had moved further East and West is definitely where the food gets better (in our opinion)! Anyway, I decided that despite the fact that shopping was a little worse and more expensive than in Thailand I liked Siem Reap because it has retained a feeling that it is in some ways less explored by outsiders. The markets are dirty, and poorly lit but are inviting, with many little shops with items you can't quite identify. Cambodian silk products are everywhere and we picked up a woven elephant double bedspread for only 15 dollars.
Cambodia is a very poor country and there are many beggars on the streets and around the temple complexes. It's very common for young children to be put to work, whether it is by selling local souvenirs, begging or steering tourists to their parents shop or drinks stall. The little girl above was sitting in the street outside the market with her family; none of them watching that she doesn't hurt herself with the huge knife they gave her! I thought I would feel pity when I saw Cambodian children on the streets, but I came away feeling anger that the parents manipulate their children for money; creating a society of street wise, dishonest and manipulative children, who have no sense of personal pride. Of course westerners have the luxury of wealth and opportunity, but it seems to me that Cambodia lacks even the most basic notion of child protection, hence the shocking figures for child prostitution (35% of prostitutes are apparently under 18).
Across the road from the Old Market is the French influenced part of town. Many of the restaurants and bars have very charming architecture. There is one street in the French Quarter devoted entirely to tourist shops, restaurants and bars (known as Pub Street). There is a good atmosphere on Pub Street and a variety of International restaurants.
We spent 5 days in Cambodia, which was enough to visit the temples and experience some of what Siem Reap has to offer. We booked a bus journey back to Bangkok that cost only 11 dollars each, and despite the first 3 hours being on a slow government bus to Poipet, the minivan waiting for us on the other side of the border provided a comfortable and speedy means backs to the city.
We didn't do much on our last few days in Bangkok. We went shopping, watched a film at the IMAX and spent the rest of the time around the hostel, enjoying our last few nights sleeping in a bed before heading to Kenya for our 7 week camping trip.