Friday, 12 August 2011

welcome to the kingdom of cambodia.

As you all surely recall from my previous post on Thailand, I did mention that I managed to squeeze a few days into my stay in SE Asia to visit Cambodia. I was particularly interested in visiting the temples of Angkor and budgeted about 4 days for a round trip from Bangkok. It would turn out to be a truly memorable “escapade”, for the amazing cultural scene I would take in during those few days and the great people I enjoyed such an experience with.

Curious to admit that, this time around, the title of the post is far from related to my stay in the actual country or what I saw/experience/visited while I was there. It is actually related to my journey from Bangkok... After having spoken to Maria (the friend who had given me such wise advice on Thailand and other parts of SE Asia), I decided that the most time-effective travel itinerary would be a combination of land travel on the way there and a flight back. On the way there, I took a train departing Bangkok central station at 5:55am. That meant 4am wake-up, zombie shower, cab to the station (on the meter of course and not a pre-arranged flat fee as I tend to be a very shrewd negotiator. hehe) and 45 baht later (c. 1eur) I was on the train. From what I had read on, the extremely helpful travel website/blog covering all ones needs to know on rail transportation in a country (also into and out of) and which I have been using during my whole trip, the c. 200km to the Thailand/Cambodia border would take c. 6 hours (yes, do the math to imply the average speed). Only 3rd class on the train but I guess travelling for 1eur is not too bad. I was meant to get off at the last station, which was c. 5 km from the border. The journey was relatively decent and I actually managed to rest up and sleep for a while on the train. Once we arrived to the “terminus” a horde of mouth-watering tuk tuk (I think I mentioned in my post on Thailand that these are the three-wheeled taxis most people use in SE Asia) drivers were waiting on the platform (some even got on the train before passengers could disembark!) on the lookout for easy, gullible prey with plenty of Baht at their disposal and unclear fx conversions. I had read online (big “thank you” also to the user-generated reviews/content on the site telling their real-life experiences when crossing the border and doing the whole Bangkok-Siem Reap journey) that the border was well-known for scams, pick-pockets and other things of that nature so I made sure to be on my toes. As I tend to do, I walked around outside the station until I found a tuk tuk which would take me to the border for a reasonable price (c. 20 baht – 0.5 eur). Very cheap relative to what I was expecting and to what most people told me they paid later on but I foresaw this great deal had some sort of catch to it... and there sure was. A brief note here on the whole visa process to get into Cambodia. Most main entry points (Poi Pet, the one I used to get into the country, being one of them) accept visitors obtaining a visa on arrival for a “modest” 20usd fee. Alternatively, which is what I did, one can get an “electronic” visa, pay online and print out a pdf which serves as an equivalent to the visa on arrival. Much more convenient in practice as I had heard of scams at the border with fx conversions, etc. So, back to the tuk tuk... The first 5 minutes (and after I told the driver I already had a visa – you’ll see why in a minute) were relatively “normal”: we were doing about 60km/h on the main road leading to the border and everything seemed in order. It wasn’t until we made a random right turn off the main road (which had clear road signs indicating the border was straight ahead) that I began to grow suspicious. I had read online (don’t know what I would have done without all the info I gathered online on travel blogs, forums, etc. during my travels) that sometimes tuk tuk drivers take tourists to a fake Cambodian “consulate” where, in theory, one can obtain a visa and fill out the relevant paperwork prior to entering the country – all bogus of course and totally lacking consular validity. And that’s exactly where I was taken. Off the side street, a shady-looking wooden hut, with plastic chairs and tables in it, had a Cambodian flag hung on the wall behind the fake border officials with the following sign written on it: “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodian”. Right... After telling my tuk tuk driver that I had a visa and that I was perfectly aware that this wasn’t the border, he refrained from commenting and advised me to speak to a neatly-dressed and perfect-English-speaking dude. He greeted me very politely (with a “welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia”, obviously) even as I refused to get out of the tuk tuk. I repeated the story but he was persistent and mentioned that even if I had a visa there was some “heavy” paperwork he could help me with. I knew this wasn’t the case and told him an all-mighty phrase which I have popped out here and there at times when I have been heavily hassled: “listen man, I have been here before... I know as well as you do that this is not the REAL border, so please tell the tuk tuk driver to take me there” to which he replied: “fine sir, not a problem, have a good day”. Dodged the scam in a very professional and polite way and off we were back on the main road towards the real border. Once we got there and when I gave the tuk tuk driver his undeserved 20 baht, he seemed puzzled and asked me if I wasn’t going to give him a tip. I went mental on him... for the next five minutes I gave him a speech on why what he was doing was not only a cheat but also totally unethical. He just smiled at me for the most part and drove off. Obviously for them it seems like a win/win situation. They get a commission on every bogus visa sold at the “consulate” and they are completely safe from any legal action as the area around the border is a complete no-man’s land. In addition, their relatively cheaper fare prices for the journey to the border from the train station serve as bait for budget travellers, such as myself. If only the potential scams ended there...

Once at the border, one notices there are many locals willing to help tourists “cross the border”. Not entirely sure what that entails but I later found out that most people actually crossed the border with some form of local escort... obviously at a price or tip which would later be claimed by the “friendly” guide. Nonetheless, relatively straight-forward for a savvy world traveller such as your narrator (hehe) and made it through relatively easily. Did have to dodge a few guys coming up an offering their services and others trying to “sell” the most ludicrous things, such as immigration or quarantine forms for 1usd in random wooden huts. What I did find very interesting was that there is actually a vast area in between both countries – i.e. the border is actually much more than just a booth for passport control and immigration. One walks past plenty of casinos, bars, duty free shops... and even hotels in that strip separating both countries. Apparently gambling is a flourishing business there as it is forbidden in Thailand and many Thais spend the day there trying their luck at blackjack or on the slot machines. Interesting to say the least... After transitioning through the border I finally made it to the Poi Pet bus station where I paid c. 9usd for a bus ticket to Siem Reap. Although I got to the bus station at around 1pm, the guys at the booth informed me that the estimated departure time would be around 3pm. So I still had a couple of hours to spare before beginning the journey to Siem Reap from the border. As in many other places, public transportation in Cambodia seems to work on the principle that a bus/van only departs once it is full, thus making timetables and scheduled departures completely pointless elements of logistics for ground transportation. During my wait at the bus station I met a few fine fellows, most notably Eric, an American university professor currently teaching in South Korea and fellow blogger (, and Keisuke, a Japanese student travelling in SE Asia for a few weeks. The journey on the bus was relatively calm, yet bumpy at times and we stopped along the way for a break/refreshments. In general, it was a very “virgin” landscape from Poi Pet to Siem Reap. Throughout the c. 3 hour journey, very few houses, buildings, municipalities... mostly just green fields spreading into the horizon. Quite the setting for an afternoon bus ride nearing sunset. Also comes to show how virgin Cambodia is as a country (how how virgin it has been left – or turned into – by its most recent and devastating political/governing classes. Cfr. Khmer Rouge) given that along the main artery connecting the country to Thailand there is nothing but pastures, pastures and more pastures. Upon arriving in Siem Reap, we were quickly approached by the usual suspects (i.e. tuk tuk drivers) who were not only hoping to be our escorts into town right there and then (as the main bus stop is c. 5km outside of town) but also our “drivers” during our visit of the Angkor temples over the course of the following days. Most of the guys on the bus with me hadn’t booked a hostel and didn’t have much of a clue re. where they would be staying. Regardless, I shared a tuk tuk into town with Eric for a more than reasonable price and let them know where I was staying. The other guys ended up opting for other hostels/guest houses but we made planes to meet up in the evening for dinner/drinks. This whole-day trip had left me quite hungry (as I had only had a very light breakfast on the train, consisting of cookies and a juice) and was looking forward to a decent meal later on that evening. I found my hostel quite easily and proceeded with the customary check-in procedures. At reception I ran into a very nice and welcoming Chilean guy, Andres, who I accidentally took for an Argentinean (apologies...). He invited me to join him and a few other guys from the hostel for dinner but as I had already made plans I told him we could always meet up later on. And so I joined Eric, John and Dean (two other dudes whom I met on the bus from the border) for dinner on the notorious and eponymous “Pub Street” which is one of the main streets in Siem Reap and the centre of the post sunset entertainment. We enjoyed a nice meal, shared an interesting conversation and hit one of the local bars. Needless to say that while not being very big and even if the town does not count too many evening hang out spots, we were still able to enjoy the bucket-filled nightlife on Pub Street. It is rather sad though that given the gigantic tourist appeal of the Angkor temples and the tourist invasion of the town, inevitable contrast spur from every corner when juxtaposing the crowds of opulent foreigners with the underprivileged locals. It is not uncommon to see masses of local tuk tuk drivers standing outside the main bars on Pub Street in the hope to desperately clinch a “taxi” drive back for a drunk tourist or little girls and boys begging on the main street or exchanging flowers and other objects for some spare change. Sad reality that some forget while they are cruising through the country, getting wasted and visiting the temples.

After an enjoyable evening, I woke up at around 11am and met my Chilean buddy (who happened to be in the same dorm as me) and a few others people from the hostel (Alex, Jack and Edwyn) at the lobby and prepared to hit the temples. Typically, most people get around the gigantic complex in a tuk tuk or (the laziest and more well-off ones) taxi, but we opted for a more conventional and cheaper means of transportation: bicycles. We each rented one for 1usd and headed towards the temples. Let me say that while being a complete workout given the c. 20-30km we cycled per day (as ended up going the following day as well), it was a completely fascinating, unique and relaxing way of exploring the temples. After paying the 20usd daily entrance fee, we began our visit by going to the famous Angkor Wat. There, one is quickly dwarfed by the temple protected by a surrounding basin (most likely devised to protect the temple from intruders and the like back in the day) and standing at the end of an endless boulevard. On the way down that main alley, we were quickly approached by a young girl who was promoting her family’s food shack/hut situated on one of the sides of the “main” avenue and on the way to the temple. We secured a very good deal from her (2usd for a meal consisting of chicken fried rice and a soft drink) and told her we’d be visiting the temple before joining her for lunch. The temple was simply amazing... During this trip, I have had the chance to visit 5 of the world’s New Seven Wonders (Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, The Great Wall, The Taj Mahal and Petra) and quite frankly Angkor Wat (or the whole Angkor temples complex for that matter) does not fall short of any of those. After a very enjoyable lunch and the classic photo shoot in front of the temple we took our bikes (which we had left at a “bike parking” escorted by some local children who agreed to watch them if we bought a bottle of water from them upon our return) and headed to Bayon or the “face temple”. Another impressive sight, yet very different from Angkor Wat, as the former stands out for the face-shaped stones and silhouettes present across its immensely rich 12th century decoration. There, and in first instance to protect ourselves from the seasonal and common afternoon showers, we spent quite some time. First we inspected all the hidden corners and then messed around with some of the faces by taking silly group and individual photos. Nothing out of the ordinary but still very fun!  We then headed back towards Angkor Wat in the hope to catch sunset atop a nearby hill but ended up going inside the temple and witnessing it from there. Amazing and very inspirational moment... In the evening, some of us went to a guesthouse close to our hostel which was known for its British pies and pasties (hanging out with Brits, that’s what one gets!!) and which turned out to be worth the stroll. Delicious steak and ale pie with gravy and mash! Yes sir. Later on, we returned to “Pub street” for our daily dose of entertainment and bar hopping. Good times in which we enjoyed some crazy dancing, pool games and beer to top off a very physically-demanding day. That all culminated in a few of us driving a tuk tuk around Siem Reap. Kuddos to the friendly tuk tuk driver who accepted to lend us his vehicle for a few minutes and let us arse around with it. There is visual evidence of my driving skills but I am still waiting for one of my buddies to share the videos with me.

The next morning, similar game plan imposed itself off the bat: another day cycling around the temples. I was quite keen to return as the previous day, and although we had visited the emblematic Angkor Wat, we had barely managed to cover c. 20% of the whole complex. The prospects of another c. 20-30kms on a bike did not put me off one bit! During the course of the day we saw very different and unique temples, some of which may be known to some of you, like Ta Prohm (featured in the movie “Tomb Raider”) which is amazing for having been completely overtaken and almost swallowed by the surrounding jungle... roots weaving their way amid the temple walls, fungus growing all over its structure and so on. Some pics below for the curious ones. Another highlight of the day was the improvised game of volleyball we shared with some locals. A brief not here related to the Ankgor complex... While foreigners have to pay 20usd per day to enter the temples and the surrounding area, locals are exempt of such a fee and can wander around there freely. Some even live inside and off the recurring and stable tourist industry, hence the group of people we met alongside one of the roads on an improvised sand volleyball court. One of my day companions, Nicolas, was unfortunate enough to get a flat tire and so had to stop at a local shop to see if someone there could repair it. In the meantime, the rest of us spotted this group of people – some playing and others watching and cheering with true passion and fervour. We asked if we could join and off we went. Although I was quite motivated by the prospects of joining in, I decided to be the “official” photographer of such an epic sporting duel in such a remote location. The locals were quite clearly better than us and ended up beating the living crap out of our improvised team but nonetheless we had a very fun c. 45 minutes. We parted ways after Nicolas’ tire got repaired and ended up reaching the hostel at c. 7pm, just after sunset. From there, we took a short break and joined a few others for dinner at a local Khmer restaurant. After a nice meal some of us went for a fish ( + conventional massage at a local parlour (incredibly relaxing!) before heading over to some bars for the evening. It was my last night in Cambodia and enjoyed it thoroughly as, in addition to the usual fun and games, I met up with a friend from university, Carol, whom I hadn’t seen since 2006.

The next morning and after a late wake up, I head over to the airport on a tuk tuk as I had a 2pm flight to catch back to Bangkok, from where I was due to fly to Mumbai later on that evening. The flight was rather uneventful but the plane did suffer from some turbulence here and there due to its very small size and the fact that it was being powered by two tiny propellers. Up next, and after a short layover, I would have to get ready for a couple of weeks in India, but that calls for a different post. Enjoy the pictures!


Thursday, 4 August 2011


After a great few days in Taiwan and following a very short stop-over in Hong Kong for the second time, I got on a Cathay Pacific flight bound for Bangkok, Thailand. Up next would be two weeks in which I would explore Thailand, for the most part. I would also end up finding a few spare days to visit Cambodia and the fabulous temples of Angkor...

“... Enfin c'était flou tout ça, pour l'instant je manquais de partenaires. Je me levai après avoir payé, marchai cent cinquante mètres en évitant différentes propositions et me retrouvai devant le Pussy Paradise. Je poussai la porte et entrai. Trois mètres devant moi je reconnus Robert et Lionel, attablés devant des Irish coffees. Dans le fond, derrière une vitre, une cinquantaine de filles étaient assises sur des gradins, avec leurs macarons numérotés. Un serveur s'approcha de moi avec rapidité... En plus je commençais à avoir envie de la 47, une petite Thaïe très mince, même un peu maigre, mais avec des lèvres épaisses, et l'air gentille; elle portait une mini-jupe rouge et des bas noirs... Je jetai un nouveau regard sur la 47: c'est un moment excitant, l'attente, on aimerait la faire durer très longtemps ; mais il y a toujours le risque que la fille parte avec un autre client. Je fis un petit signe de la main en direction du serveur... «The girl number four seven!» hurlai-je en détachant les syllabes. Cette fois il comprit, fit un large sourire et se dirigea vers un micro placé devant la vitre, où il articula quelques paroles. La fille se leva, descendit des gradins, se dirigea vers une sortie latérale en se lissant les cheveux... «What is your name ?» en profitai-je pour demander à la numéro 47. «I am Sin» dit-elle... Je me levai à mon tour. Lionel me jeta un regard reconnaissant ; il était visiblement content que je parte en premier avec une fille, c'était moins gênant pour lui. Je hochai la tête en direction de Robert pour prendre congé. Son visage aux traits durs, crispé dans une grimace amère, parcourait la salle — et, au-delà, le genre humain — sans la moindre aménité. Il s'était exprimé, du moins il en avait eu l'occasion ; je sentais que j'allais l'oublier assez vite. Il m'apparut d'un seul coup comme un homme battu, fini ; j'avais l'impression qu'il n'avait même plus vraiment envie de faire l'amour à ces filles. On peut caractériser la vie comme un processus d'immobilisation, bien visible chez le bouledogue français — si frétillant dans sa jeunesse, si apathique dans son âge mûr. Chez Robert, le processus était déjà bien avancé; il avait peut-être encore des érections, mais ce n'était même pas certain; on peut toujours faire le malin, donner l'impression d'avoir compris quelque chose à la vie, toujours est-il que la vie se termine. Mon sort était similaire au sien, nous partagions la même défaite ; je ne ressentais pourtant aucune espèce de solidarité active. En l'absence d'amour, rien ne peut être sanctifié. Sous la peau des paupières, des taches lumineuses fusionnent ; il y a des visions, et il y a des rêves. Tout cela ne concerne plus l'homme, qui attend la nuit; la nuit vient. Je payai deux mille bahts au serveur, qui me précéda jusqu'à la double porte menant aux étages. Sin me tenait par la main; elle allait, pendant une ou deux heures, essayer de me rendre heureux.”

Plateforme, Michel Houellebecq (2001)

Having read Michel Houllebecq’s “Plateforme” a couple of years ago and, like many, having a very limited knowledge of Thailand or anything related to the country and its people, I couldn’t help but have this general preconceived notion that this South East Asian nation’s tourism industry was, setting aside the beautiful beaches and other paradise-like destinations, partially devoted to sexual tourism. Nonetheless, as has been the case in other countries during my travels, this “projection” was more a vague idea cast upon me by Western “thinking” and urban legends rather than a genuine personal belief. Again, as has happened time and time again during the past 6 months, what I would encounter and discover would be totally different to what was projected onto me by the outside world...

After a very early departure from Hong Kong, I arrived to Bangkok in the late morning (factoring in time difference) and headed directly downtown, to the district of Silom, where I had booked a hostel for the next few nights. My initial plan, and after having chatted with Maria, a Spanish girl living and working in Bangkok (and very much a “local player” as her knowledge of Thailand, and South East Asia in general, is impressive) who had been introduced to me by a common friend, was to spend a couple of days in Bangkok and then head over to the Southern islands for about a week. The first day in Bangkok, I took it rather slow... I explored the area around my hostel, went for a nice meal to a local Thai place close by and in the evening met up with Maria and a few friends of hers in a popular expat hang-out spot to meet in person, after the excessive facebook/virtual interaction, and enjoy a fun evening full of music, free cocktails and endless banter on a rooftop terrace.

The following morning, I got up early ready to take in as much as I could from Bangkok’s cultural and local offering. I was in for a treat. Following a combination of my hostel’s map/guide and Maria’s sound advice, I visited the most amazing of places. This was one of the greatly surprising things about Bangkok: A huge city... yes; a hectic city... yes; a loud city... yes; a vibrant city... yes. But also a beautiful city, full of temples, green areas, amazing sights and some truly amazing areas to wander around and get lost in. Some of the highlights of that first day were the Golden Mount (Wat Saket), a golden temple nested atop a hill in downtown Bangkok where one can get some astonishing views of the city, the Grand Palace (and neighbouring temple), the former residence of the royal family where I was forced to borrow long pants from the cloak room as a sign of “respect” before entering the premises, the Reclining Buddha (inside Wat Pho), a gigantic golden statue of a reclining Buddha (of which I unfortunately have no pictures as my camera’s battery died as I was entering the templ!!), Chinatown and the commercial district around Siam Square. I have to admit that my first full day in Bangkok was rather exhausting... I spent most of the day outdoors, walking around the city under an intense and humid heat (a common trend in most of the Asian countries I have visited, whereby one sweats incessantly all day long!) so by the time I reached my hostel in the evening I was not in the mood for much. In addition, I was due to catch a plane to Phuket the next morning at 7am (very cheap by the way... flying with AirAsia is like flying with Ryanair pretty much!). I caught up with a few friends, wrote a few emails and called it a night.

After a c. 1.5 hour flight, I arrived to Phuket International Airport. As one can expect, and similar to what I would experience in many other places across the region, upon exiting the terminal building (well, not even – actually upon leaving the arrivals lounge/baggage reclaim area), I was surrounded (as were all others who had been on the flight with me) by cab drivers, tour operator representatives and other similar individuals begging that I follow them into whatever business they were offering. Having done my homework, even if just the night before, I had already booked a hostel in Patong Beach and had learned that a shuttle bus from the airport would take me there for just about 80 baht (c. 2eur). Compared to the ludicrous prices charged by most taxi drivers, I felt I did well. After sharing an interesting conversation on the bus with a Thai lady, mother of two and married to a Scottish dude, I arrived to my hostel in Patong. I relaxed for a bit before heading to grab a bite (my first Pad Thai – a local and delicious noodle-based dish with vegetables and a choice of chicken, seafood, etc. to the beach. To be frank, I wasn’t very impressed by the area in general – it didn’t really live up to my expectations. Again lead by urban legends, I thought Phuket would be worth a visit, even if short. Very crowded, very dirty (especially the beach) and a panorama filled with eager European tourists seeking pleasant and relaxing experiences in massage salons (here very much on the same wavelength as Houllebecq’s portrayal). Aside from that, not much to report really. Not my kind of place... spent the afternoon at the beach enjoying some beers and a good read. In the evening and after getting a sense for the “ambiance” along the main streets, I had a delicious bite at a tiny shop close to my hostel and called it a night quite early. I was also quite keen to work on updating my blog so I spent part of the evening on that.

The next morning, I took a bus from my hostel to the Phuket town harbour where I got on a ferry to Kho Phi Phi. I had heard great things about it, namely that it (or one of the islands – Phi Phi Ley) was where the movie “The Beach”, with Leonardo di Caprio, was shot. I met a couple of German guys, Carsten and Toby, on the bus/ferry ride over and after the 3 hour ferry ride agreed to spend the afternoon/evening with them. As a side note on the general transportation around the islands in Thailand if I may. It is rather interesting that it tends to be the case that hostels and hotels offer all-inclusive transportation packages, which most times include various legs and vehicles, at a cheaper bundled price than if one were to travel independently. Economically interesting that no real (or at least apparent) margin is obtained from ridiculous tourist prices on these bundles... nonetheless, assuming it is likely a question of volume rather than price as the “facilitators” likely get substantial economies-of-scale benefits... So in Phi Phi I was planning to spend just a day/night before hopping on yet another ferry en route to Ao Nang/Krabi. Phi Phi Dong, the island where I was staying (and, in fact the only part of the archipelago that is inhabited) is a beautiful little island with a stunning beach. Most shops, guesthouses, restaurants and bars are located on a thin strip of land with the beach on one side and the harbour on the other. After walking along the beach with my camera in hand for a while, I asked my hostel’s receptionist for some tips on local spots for fine dining. He recommended a small pad thai place just a few meters down the street. Overall, I must have had something close to 20 pad thais and the one in that intimate, cosy and tiny wooden “shack”, which very much resembled someone’s kitchen, was by far the best. Not only was it succulent but also the experience was a pure treat. The whole place was covered in notes, messages and drawings that had been left by previous visitors. I wasn’t surprised after my meal why nearly all of them praised those noodles... I also left my own “review”. In an effort to promote that little place I will not share it with you. Maybe, who knows, this will lead you to visit the island. Just need to ask for the best pad thai place in town to find it or try to recognise the setting from one of my pictures below. That same evening, I met up with the German guys and got a taste of the local nightlife. Totally different crowd and atmosphere when compared to Phuket, to say the least... A very young crowd in general (even younger that me I would say. ..), all foreign, very few locals and a nightlife comparable to Mykonos or any other Greek island. You get the idea, I imagine. Still fun to party on the beach in the company of interesting/fun people and those loveable “buckets”. It ended up being quite a late one, yet again.

In spite of the late night, the following morning I got up relatively early (10-ish) and in the early afternoon got on a ferry to Ao Nang, which is located in the Krabi municipality. Initially I wasn’t all that attracted by the area but as my parents are planning a trip to Thailand in the near future (potentially to Krabi), I decided to inspect the area nonetheless and to see what it had to offer. Again, very different to both Phi Phi and Phuket. This time around, I found that the Ao Nang area was more set up for families and couples. It is more resort-based than the other destinations I had checked out beforehand and it was a bit quiet I would say. Maybe part of it was due to the low (rainy) season during which I visited Thailand and the Andaman Sea. The day I arrived, and due to the fact that the journey from Phi Phi, which began at 2pm, took a few hours, I was unable to do much though. I explored downtown Ao Nang for a bit and hit up a local “food cart” on one of the main streets. Had some great curry chicken and a mango shake. Superb combination. Back at the hostel, which was unfortunately a bit out of town, I met an English guy, Dan, with whom I chatted for a while. As in so many occasions, the conversation mainly versed around our travel experiences. On top of that though, as with all Brits I have met on the road, there is quite a substantial “football” component to any conversation. Fun stuff...

The next morning, and after exploring the surrounding beaches for a while (which were quite phenomenal... and totally deserted!) I got on a bus to Hat Yai, which is the largest city in Thailand before the border with Malaysia. There was nothing in particular that I was aiming to do over there, but it was a must to stopover for the night if I was aiming to reach the island of Koh Lipe the next morning. In Lipe, which is part of an archipelago to the very South of the Andaman sea (if one were to draw an imaginary line continuing along the border between Malaysia and Thailand towards the Andaman sea... that’s where Lipe would be), I was hoping to spend a few relaxing days on the beach doing as little as possible, aside from snorkelling and enjoying endless beers and pad thais. Nothing much to report on Hat Yai really... I had been informed beforehand so wasn’t all that surprised.

Early wake-up the next day to get on the bus + ferry combo to Koh Lipe. The bus was standard enough, the typical minivan which is used for most short haul overland trips in Southern Thailand. But what I wasn’t expecting was the ferry... I was thinking it would be a proper ferry, similar to the ones I had been on over the course of the past few days, which were relatively slow and had a capacity of close to 200 people, but much to the contrary I got to ride on a c. 20 person speed boat for just about an hour, doing speeds of nearly 40mph the whole way over to the island. The sea was a bit rough that morning and many people got sea sick along the way. I was lucky enough not to, even if “sudé la gota gorda” (or had a few real bad moments) from time to time. Interestingly enough, during the low season (May – October) this once-a-day boat trip is the only means of access to Koh Lipe, so you can imagine how many people were on the island. Absolute paradise! Once there, I got to my “resort”, which consisted of a bunch of bungalows spread out across the beach and, after a little rest, set out to explore the beautiful virgin island. During the next couple of days, I didn’t do much really. Snorkelling, pad thais, beers, beach, reading, blogging... what a real holiday should be all about. At times on this trip it has been hard to “relax” (at least 100%) as I have mostly been going around “like a headless chicken” from one place to the next. This time though it was 100% though. The setting was ideal as well. Barely any foreigners, no one on the beach, the corals and the surrounding islands all to myself to explore with my mask, snorkel and fins...

After a superb couple of days, I returned to Hat Yai, where I got on a plane (again at Ryanair prices with AirAsia) bound for Bangkok. This time around I was hoping to spend one day or so before heading over to Cambodia. There were still a few things on my list that I had left from my previous stay a week or so back. From the islands though, I would conclude (and this really comes after having seen only a few spots) that there is in fact a bit of everything. I think there is sufficient variety out there for one to find whatever is being sought... whether it is go-go bars, family resorts, party central or stunning diving spots. That’s the beauty of Thailand I guess... there’s a bit for everyone. Maybe that’s probably why their tourism model is so successful as well! In Bangkok the following day, I made sure to enjoy a boat on the Chao Phraya river and go to Wat Arun (or Temple of Dawn), which is a big pagoda-style temple with unique decoration and from which there are nice views of the city laying across the river. Some more wandering around that amazing city and I called it a day rather early. I had to pass (not very common in me) on a night out with some people at the hostel as next up on the menu was a 4am wake-up in order to catch a train to Cambodia. That calls for another chapter though... I will leave you with some pics of my stay in Thailand. I did take way too many pictures (this time many many more than usual), so hope I picked the ones that let you picture this beautiful country best.

Hasta pronto amigos.