Cambodia – Part 3 – Siem Reap

Archaeology is not what you find, it’s what you find out.” ~ David Hurst Thomas (Archaeologist)

 

You’ve seen the films, the exotic shots of ancient civilisations, the anticipation as the intrepid hero is on the trail for fortune and glory. In his path ancient evil is not far behind. Traversing temples, eating monkey brains and beetles and rituals and sacrifices are all just part of the plot. When I first studied archeology I was led by this fictional story, only to find that archeology was more about collecting data than the stories. It didn’t take long to realise that my imagination couldn’t cope with the day to day drudgery. However I appreciated the work. I loved reading about past archeologists and looking at images of before and after a dig. It’s a pity that it took me 35 years to find my hobby. I first remember my love of ancient sites. The moon and the sun pyramids of the Aztecs. I thought to myself how come I didn’t know about this. I was fascinated, although it would be 10 years later before I took a couple of units of archeology and anthropology to appreciate the past at Uni. Since then I have become a passive lover of ancients sites and have had the opportunity to visit some of the worlds most amazing sites, which doesn’t include Egypt, yet. So it was a no brainer that I would visit Siem Reap. I deliberately didn’t read much information, I wanted to go with a clear mind. I had no idea what I was in for and as it would turn out, it wasn’t just the visit to the many sites in this region that made the 4 days of discovery an amazing experience.

BACKGROUND FIRST

Before I set out to decide the areas I would like to explore, I spent a few hours doing my due diligence by going to the Museum. My knowledge of the Khmer empire began in Thailand at Sukhothai. I also visited the royal palace in Phnom Penh where I came across some interesting reliefs and murals that told the story of this once mighty empire. The Museum gave my head a full work out and as much as I could try I knew I needed to read more. I think in retrospect I should’ve understood the physical geography a little better. So after learning about textiles, the technical aspects of art and carvings I was ready to choose the sites, so I spent the day lying by the pool and learning about the appropriate sites to visit. Very nice indeed, that’s the way to study.  Then with my notebook in hand the next challenge was that I needed to work out how the hell I was going to get to them all. This is the thing about just turning up at a place and not really knowing what to expect. On the positive the excitement of something new on the negative trying to work out how not to get ripped of. The hostel I was staying at was for the under 25s and they weren’t to interested in 4 days of getting up at 5am and returning at 7pm. The Chinese tourists were either paying for a private car or tour buses that shuttle you around like cattle. I did have many tuk-tuk drivers who promised me the world but most couldn’t speak English, only knew what the travel brochures told them and they wanted to take me to as many sites they could fit in one day. To me it was quality and also my ability at the time to traverse the many sites with my healing broken foot.  I am not going to explain every site I visited here as the video does show you and really you need to come and see for yourself.  But lets just say, the expanse of this empire was indeed mighty and their show of power intimidating, magnificent in detail and size.

YOUR ONLY AS STRONG AS YOUR WEAKEST LINK

It’s funny, that most good stories always include a back story, sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor players to the big gig.  This wasn’t any different, as it was the Tuk Tuk drivers that added to my discovery about the history of the Khmers, including my tuk-tuk driver Rus.  When I first met Rus my intuition kicked in and I knew he wouldn’t let me down. We worked out the best routes and what I was to expect. Well to the best of my knowledge anyway. I felt really comfortable talking to him and he was honest with me.  So we worked out a price and set the ball rolling. For the many tuk tuk drivers it is pay day, the money they can earn helps with the basics of life.  The other businesses that profit from Siem Reap’s archeology enable the people to prosper in many ways. However like all touristic places there are also the normal pitfalls, culture clashes, lack of infrastructure, alienation.  I have already commented on a previous posts about this and Rus was quite aware of many of the issues.  He didn’t enjoy the loss of community and the building of mega size hotels with casinos that bring in thousands each week.  They fly in spend two days, give all their money to Chinese owners and nothing left for the locals.  Rus also knew, rather than just being a driver and be stuck in a revolving door, he needed to aim higher he needed to go back to school and learn about the history of his ancestors and also his own local history.  He also realised that being able to communicate also required many hours learning other languages.  When I met him he was still learning and happy to.  He was aiming to save money for his young children who would need more than just a basic education.  He also was the bread winner for his mother and father who were subsistent farmers and his younger brother was a cowboy, his role was to look after the farm animals because he did not have an education.  Rus did not want this for himself or his family.  So Rus started small and over the past few years has been able to earn more.  He needs extra cash for repairs on his Tuk Tuk and is also hoping to buy an environmentally cleaner, faster and stronger Tuk Tuk like some of his friends have.  With many people going on organised tours to the main sites he needs to take people to places a little of the beaten track. A point of difference from the major travel companies.  He says he is learning every day new understandings of the past and proud and honoured to be a spokesperson. Similarly with his friends I met who were also Tuk Tuk drivers.  Over time I got to know the other drivers and if Rus didn’t know an answer to my question there was always someone who did.  Like community education.  They also worked in teams using their mobiles to warn other drivers when buses or when the Lexus cars would be arriving.  They would know the bus route and they made sure I and other tourist using Tuk tuks could visit various sites without hoards of people.  Of course this did not always work out but you know that when its Chinese New Year you really only have yourself to blame.  Of course the Chinese like any other group of people should also have the ability to visit this area.  Its just a little sad that the mystery of the place has now been lost to an over saturation of tourists. I wish I went 20-15 years ago when this incredible area was only a paragraph in the lonely planet. Yet without tourism I wonder what Rus would be doing.  Like he says “in Cambodia you have to make the most of the opportunities because you never know when you will end up with nothing to show for it.” The history of the Khmer and their ruins are evident of that.

Video of Siem Reap

 

Cambodia – Part 2 – Family business

It was time to leave Stung Trent and I was still hoping for a chance to spend some time with a local family but every time I enquired there was some sort of hidden agenda, cost, only groups or even tours that benefit the company rather than the people whom we visit.  However by chance whilst exploring the different options I did come across a home stay on the Island of Kaoh Trong, across the river from the town of Kratie. I made contact with a young man Vireak and he offered me a few nights to stay with his family.  I had no idea what to expect other than meeting him at the boat ramp.  When I eventually arrived at the rivers edge I looked down to where I had to board the boat, my aching body cried. There was no way I was going to navigate the 50 steps down with two packs and a dodgy foot which was still not 100% and was causing other pain related issues in my lower back.  I was relieved when I heard “are you Virginia” let me help you take your bags.  Vireak so young looking for 29, he had a smile from ear to ear.  He explained to me how we will be travelling to his home.  “First by boat then you will be taken on a motor bike by my younger brother, over the sand dunes and to my family home.  I will leave you here on the boat as I have to go to work.  I will be back tonight and if you cannot understand or need help here is my phone number.” Next thing I am sitting in a boat with more water in it than out, the water pump completely useless, but we made the 15 minute journey across the Mekong to the island in one piece and my bags still dry.  Somehow we were able to ride up and through the sand dunes with the two of us and my load.  At times all I could do is just pray the bike would not flip as it plowed through the sand.  In my mind I was ready to jump.

When I arrived I was greeted with open arms from Vireak’s parents. They gave me a tour of their home and property, Vireak’s mum also took me to her sisters house.  I met the extended family and helped prepare their dinner.  Everything is manually processed, no blender here.  On the way back I was given a tour of the village and introduced to the local community, I had no idea what the conversations were but I was warmly welcomed.  I started to realise that Vireak’s family are well respected and by starting the home guest adventure it was a way to be not so reliant on farming.  Farming can be great if you can reap some income and feed yourself, however as I was told, prices for food are often linked to prices set on international markets, if the crop is plentiful, then prices are low, if not and your crop fails then you are left with nothing until the next crop season, often a year or 6 months.  Vireak could see that by having another income stream his family could afford items for the home and I don’t mean a TV or a computer.  Basic cooking vessels, even a pump for water so they didn’t rely on the mule. Very simple things that would make his mothers life a little more bearable in the home.  He didn’t want to be like many farming communities where the younger generation go to the big city to find work, breaking up the family is not part of the Cambodians or his ethos.

Vireak’s mum and father were obviously nervous and it takes courage to let strangers into your world.  Even more so when you have a bunch of wealthy international guests.  However for the travellers that I met whilst I stayed, we weren’t concerned about the basic living quarters, we were more concerned that Vireak’s parents slept on the kitchen table and we took their beds.  Additionally, when more guests arrived  preparing food with such basic utensils became overwhelming, including the supply of water.  However the whole aspect of home stay is that you dig in and help rather than waiting for the food to arrive.  We enjoyed the experience helping Vireak’s mum in the kitchen and learning about harvesting food.  I even enjoyed learning from Vireak’s father whose family comes from the mountains, indigenous people who lived by hunting and gathering.  He has kept many of his tools and was proud to show us how they were made and their uses.  I wonder if he would prefer to live back there, something tells me if fear for ones life was not such a risk then yes.  Just like many Indigenous peoples, their culture is misunderstood and rejected, rather than embraced and used for land management and other useful skills. Oh the power of the modern world and its useless vices.

One could also not forget what Vireak’s parents had to go through during the Pol Pot regime.  This of course is still very raw with many Cambodians.  Especially the Indigenous peoples who were often the first to be collected and killed.  I had the opportunity to speak to many Cambodians who were very open and willing to tell me their story.  Many of the younger generation felt it necessary to tell me their families history during the Pol Pot regime.  Many elders made sure the younger generation understood what occurred during those dark days.  However I still get the feeling that there is an impatience for real change to occur.  However the ruling party rule with a smile and an iron fist.  Many people including Vireak are unsatisfied with the current regime and the only change is connected to Chinese investment.  This includes casinos, horrible resorts, cheap clothing factories, damming the Mekong, building private airports and destroying the environment for mango farms.  However to speak out or supporting the opposition means reprisals. They do however feel free to talk to foreigners.  Maybe the hope that word will get out and the international community will put pressure on their government.  Well I know the Australian government won’t put pressure on them considering the amounts we are paying to keep refugees locked up in Cambodian camps.

Vireak is so invested in improving his families lot that he often works to exhaustion.  He was working for a local NGO organisation, studying english, taking visitors on local tours and running the home stay.  I did get the feeling that the family felt overwhelmed with the response and with Vireak often away were not coping with the daily running of the business.  When working with Vireak’s mum in the kitchen, this became apparent when she had to prepare 10 meals using one coal cooker and water had to be rationed. Vireak spoke to me and took me to a relatives empty home that he was hoping to use for extra beds, however the expense was holding him back.  He needed to build bathroom facilities and refurbish the kitchen for his mother. I now wish I went to trade school when I was younger. 

Apart from riding around the island I was invited to have a tuk tuk tour of the communities along the river on the mainland. We visited a Buddhist community and had lunch at a place where the locals relax mainly in the weekends. A series of hand made jetties which included hammocks and food. The main attraction the ability to swim in the river. The amazing thing about this type of resort was that once the dry season ends they pack up the jetties before the river rises. The amount of work that goes into building and then dismantling is incredible.

It was time to begrudgingly leave the island and stay at accommodation in Kratie as I had to catch an early bus to Laos.  When I arrived at my accommodation I regretted that I couldn’t help more.  It played on my mind that I should do more for the family that had given me so much.  I spent the rest of the day basically eating and drinking great coffee not even realising until I heard Men at Work playing in the background that the place I was staying at was owned by a 25 year old Australian. He had decided to give up his NGO position, sell all his worldly possessions to buy a run down hotel and cafe. It was his story that gave light to why work done by many agencies are going nowhere.  His frustration and lack of care by those who live in gated properties made him disillusioned with the nature of the work.  He was so invested in helping the community but felt nothing was improving.  So when the opportunity came he thought it would be better to buy a business, employ locals and give them real skills than continue to play the victim game.  The other bonus was that he had heard about Vireak and wanted to meet him and discuss a meeting of ideas and opportunities so I gave him his phone number.  However what would happen next just blew me away.  Later that night I received a phone call from Vireak who wanted to see me.  I was curious and happy that he would want to contact me.  When he arrived he spoke to me about his plans for future of the homestay and the concerns that his parents have.  I got a sense that it was getting out of hand.  He then pulled out a piece of paper, I read it, it was a resignation letter, he was going to quit his paid employment to work full time at the home stay.  I was a little surprised as this is a regular job but also in awe of him to take a big chance.  What I was overwhelmed with was that I was the first person he spoke to so he could get advice.  I was flattered to say the least. He really needed help with writing and also contacts that could help with building his business, I know for a couple of minutes I was about to cancel my bus to stay longer, but just like Vireak I was also on a journey.  I do hope I will return and also help in some way.  Especially his mother, they don’t want handouts they are just your typical Cambodian family hoping for a better future for themselves and their community.

Video of Meekong

Cambodia – along the Mekong, part 1 (Stung Treng)

“Cambodians life is centred on family, faith and food, an existence that has stayed the same for centuries. Families stick together, solve problems collectively, listen to the wisdom of the elders and pool resources. The extended family comes together during times of trouble and times of joy, celebrating festivals and successes, mourning deaths and disappointments. Whether the Cambodian house is big or small, there will be a lot of people living inside.”

After I read this paragraph from lonely planet I really wanted to spend some time with a family or with a local community. I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Apart from some areas like Siem Reap, Phom Phen and the Kampot region information is hard to come by and impossible to confirm. This was apparent when I decided to explore the northern region of Cambodia. I wanted to visit the mountain regions, to visit the Mekong and also stay in a beautiful environment. I had had enough of cities and large groups of tourists who congregate. I was thinking that the further north/northwest I could travel the chance of gaining a unique view from people who live far away from the hustle and bustle would be a great learning experience. So rather than go west to the islands of Thailand I went north-east. This route is also a favourite route for those wanting to head to 4000 islands and to travel further north in Laos.

When I started to speak to the passengers on the bus from Siem Reap I quickly realised I was the only one who was getting off the bus at Stung Treng and very few had even heard of Kratie. When I arrived I knew I was in a completely different world than the one I had just left. (Siem Reap has become the Archaeologist version of Disneyland)  There wasn’t any drivers waiting at the steps of the bus ready to drag me to their waiting Tuk Tuks. Normally I am surrounded by hoards of drivers screaming in unison wanting to take me and my money. I was also miffed because now I had to lug my bags 650 meters, my walking gait at the time made the a hunchback look like a catwalk model. As I limped  towards my hotel I past the market, it reminded me of places I visited 30 years ago in Africa, overripe fruit, withering veggies and meat that was unrecognisable. I did learn however that many indigenous people kill wild animals because it is seen as valuable food source. This practice is highly policed today and only a few months before I arrived a massive police presence was enforced for anyone selling wild animals. Someone obviously didn’t agree and the market was set on fire. No wonder the place was a mess. When I arrived at my hotel the management were bemused that I would be staying for 3 nights. I found this a little unnerving but I took it on. When I enquired about visiting the surrounding area I was greeted with a puzzled look.  There was the odd organised trip but the price was ridiculous and you needed more than 3 people. The later an impossibility to organise. So with 3 days already booked I decided to make my own travel plans and hire a push bike and forget about trying to organise a visit to more remote regions.  But first I wanted to check out the place and find a spot to watch the sun set along the river.  In my imagination, I could picture sitting on the banks with a beverage and enjoying the serenity of it all.

Stung Treng is a border town, a place to refuel and restock and a place you never see promoted in the travel brochures, my perfect town. As I strolled along the broken boulevard along the Meekong I felt like ET. I was a novelty and at times there seemed to be a million eyes peering at me. However by making eye contact, a warm smile and a wave often eased their fears or curiosity. It was the children who really broke the ice, they would walk with me and ask the only english they knew; What is your name and where are you from? My knowledge of language is appalling so when I attempted to respond I was often met with hysterical laughter. They would also ride their bikes ahead of me, showing the way or challenging me to a race, most just wanted a smile and some sort of recognition. The walk was just stunning, as the sun was setting behind the river, it was a pity that the romance of it was lost when I tried to find a place to sit and take it all in. I eventually found a viewing area next to an industrial dump site, the wedding party also enjoyed the photo opportunity. The walk back was a little further than I had intended and somehow I ended up taking an unfamiliar stroll through the back streets rather than along the river. I could feel the staring eyes watching me as I passed, for a moment I felt I was a character in the Village of the dammed, white eyes popping up behind bushes like fire flies.  It was no surprise as the sun was setting and as the full moon was rising, I felt like calling home.

The bike ride along the Mekong was one of highlights of my time in Cambodia. Like usual where I imagined I could ride compared to my ability was way out of whack. I knew the road along the river was flat so in my mind riding for 20-25 kms one way was doable. Yup, Nup. Sure if I managed to think about the seat before I left I am sure I could have managed a longer ride but riding a male bike with a hard seat did not sit so comfortably. There was also, unbeknown to me the destruction of the land with very few areas that had tree cover, the sun was scorching making a romantic leisurely ride more a race for shade. Additionally, although I had a mountain bike I hadn’t thought about the numerous bridges that were not made for motor or bike riding. Anyway with all of this my journey along this remote road was incredible. There wasn’t a time where people would stand along the road for meet and greet. Local shop owners were happy to refresh my thirsty palette and introduce me to their family and friends. Riding along the empty road at times was peaceful. There was a sense of just me and the river. The only noise was the distant putt putt sound of the motor boats. However that never lasted too long thanks to the Cambodians love of karaoke that filled the air. I love Karaoke but the Cambodians just go that extra mile. I noticed this when I was resting opposite a convenience store, come bar, come family house. Like usual they offered me some food and water and I sat on the rivers edge enjoying the tranquility of it all. That suddenly changed when a group of people showed up including children and women with food. They pulled out the speaker, grabbed the mike and proceed to sing Cambodias top 10 hits. They were so invested in it, a time for family and friends to share each others company rather than working in the hot sun for hours on end. They all knew that later in the day they would be working in the fields again but for a few hours they could forget. I just wish they had the lyrics to a Madonna song, Like a Prayer came to mind. Luckily for them they didn’t.

When I decided to return to Stung Treng I realised I had taken the wrong turn and was riding in a deforested area for 2-3 km’s. The heat was unbearable, I was loosing energy and my backside was screaming so with nothing else to gain I turned around. Now I don’t know what changed when I turned around but all of a sudden my mind started to deteriorate. Rather than enjoying a leisurely ride back I started to wish that I hadn’t ridden as far as had. I couldn’t sit on the seat anymore and I nearly rode the 25km’s back standing on the pedals. My legs were on auto pilot and every bump was agony. I could hear the children calling at me but I couldn’t lift my head, I couldn’t even wave my arm, I just wanted to get back. I do think the last 5 km were the worst, that awful feeling you have when you are just in reach but the ending is still so far away.  By this stage even if I could, I couldn’t even get off the bike, my butt was like a coconut. When I did return I literally fell in my room and for the next few days my lumpy bum certainly paid the price. However when going over my journey and looking at some of the film and photographs I took, the pain was just a result of an amazing trip. Sometimes you have to push yourself to find the greatest reward.

Just a footnote,   (6 months earlier, Stung Treng was ravaged by a major flood caused by a dam wall breaking, killing hundreds and completely inundating the town. this has had a major effect on the morale of the town including townships downstream.  I do make light of my time, but acknowledge the people are suffering and still no sign of compensation.)

Video link

Mekong

 

 

Phu Quoc – when you know you are part of the problem

We all want what we know is not good for us. What we know that might break us in the end, and yet we fly towards it. Always wanting the thing we cannot have.” – Madonna (Crave)

What it is about hotel companies and corrupt governments that believe the idea of building large structures only 15 meters from the water is a great idea. I could only think that when they first built some of these holiday accommodations on Phu Quoc they might have been 100-200 meters away. (I told ya mum you will have a water front property soon) The Russians and Chinese flock here even though they only have a foot of sand to play with. I kept on thinking, why would you want to come to a resort on the beach where the water is grey and looks like it’s nearly run out of oxygen? It was not the first time that I have seen water like this and I am sure it won’t be the last but I did fear for their health and happiness. Certainly the marketers have done a great job selling the dream. Says something about the world we live in. Profit for a few and destroying a way of life and the environment for those who have no voice.

It was not all doom and gloom, the sunset was divine, the bustling street markets selling plenty of food and voices of happy people singing to all hours their favourite Karaoke tune.   When I eventually found the beach where the locals meet, sleep and eat I started to see how, maybe within my life time, Phu Quoc was a beautiful place. However as I strolled along the foreshore it was sad to see the environment totally destroyed thanks to hap hazard rubbish collection and a lack of regulation. The fishermen and their families lived on the shoreline in homes made from any building material they could find. I wondered how on earth could the government allow this to happen? I started to get a picture in my mind that although tourism has a positive effect for a few, for the majority it actually is devastating.

As I continued my walk along the beach towards the main town, (separated by a river from the tourist center) there was a huge pier that I needed to navigate, however it was fenced of. I had hobbled to far to go back so I weaved my way through horrible piles of rubbish and filthy gunky puddles and managed to crawl and rock climb the man made shore breaker. About 100 meters in front of me were domestic buildings and what looked like a thriving village. I didn’t want to arouse the locals but that was impossible. At first I think they were also shocked to see me. I gingerly smiled, feeling like I was intruding in their private business but they were more than happy to show me the right direction. With my hiking/walking stick in hand I disappeared into a maze of laneways. After a short time I had lost my sense of direction so the best thing to do was to roam and observe the people going about their daily life. I stood out like a sore thumb especially with my camera so I decided to put it away, rather than focusing within the frame. I needed to see, hear, feel, smell and taste this world. I’m glad I did. I mean what was I going to take a photo of? I think it was around this time that I started to question the purpose. Because what I was seeing was not right? How can one not be appalled at the millions of people that have been taken advantage of? How can I not question myself?

Before arriving in Vietnam many people spoke about how great the country was. I met those who took advantage of the cheap travel; accommodation, transport and simplistically of life. I met those who took advantage of a party one can have. I met those who can stay long term because it’s cheaper than home. I met those who went for the cultural experience, for whatever that might mean. I met those that went for the food. I met those to experience the beautiful landscape. I met those who want to have a ‘real’ experience. I then met myself.

When I left, I felt empty, betrayed, cheated and angry at myself for being everything that I thought I might not be. The privileged. We come and go and leave a country that is in such bad shape environmentally which we have contributed to. We view through a prism, the market places alive but dead, the beaches and their resorts a fake reality, we take advantage without giving back yet when we leave we speak highly of the time we had. We get home or go somewhere else and thank god we don’t live in Vietnam.

I am glad I went to Phu Quoc, if anything it has reinforced my view of the world and the idea that we must fight for decency, dignity, fairness and making the untouchables accountable. We live on one planet, pity some think it’s all theirs.

So what are some solutions? Maybe with the money we save we could give to local organizations that help the environment, fund educational programs for the people by the people or subsidize community programs to help to regenerate the land we are quite happy to use. Choose resorts that have taken the effort to engage with their employees that help promote education and environment problems. Take the time to engage with the local community you are visiting. Pay a fair price for goods. There are many people who have made goods that are more expensive and the money goes to the local community, not to someone from another country, ie China. Stay at resorts owned by locals rather than multinationals. Book accommodation through their website rather than the big chains. The money goes overseas not to the locals who have no control over their bookings. If you use plastic bottles make sure you use them again. Don’t use a plastic bag to carry what you have bought. Ride a bike rather than a motorcycle, take public transport, it’s hard but u still get to the same place.

Finally, I keep on thinking about my own country. Is this what happens when human rights are disregarded? Here we have a country like Vietnam (and many more) where people who are a position of power. They control by means of corruption or through the threat of physical or psychological violence? Yet here we are in Australia thinking we are above all that. Yet are we? We are certainly not trying to hard to reconcile with indigenous Australia as facts and stereotypes are often distorted. We continue to destroy our environment and treat the less fortunate with disdain and blame them for all our woes. We also think by dismantling the basic tenants of human rights that many fought for is some sort of conspiracy that takes away our freedom and opens up our borders to terrorists. More than ever we need to take a good hard look at ourselves, because bit by bit it won’t be immigrants, the poor or indigenous Australians who threaten our so called lucky country but those who have the power to stop anyone who disagrees and challenges their agenda. It happens slowly and history has a habit of repeating itself.

 

Video of Vietnam

 

 

 

 

Apartment 101

Siagon– calm surrounded by chaos.

When you arrive at the airport there is a nervousness you feel as you go through customs, work out money and try to organised transport especially late at night.  You feel somewhat relaxed with the drive towards the city as you look out of the window from the air conditioned car.   You can’t see the hustle and bustle or hear the constant noise.  It’s like you are immune to all its vices.  It’s not until I hop out of the Cab (on one leg) and struggle to gain my breath as the humidity slaps me in the face, that I realise we are going to be in for on one hell of an adventure.  The driver dumps our bags on the driveway in front of what looks like a car depot but it’s the building for our Airbnb. ‘Holly molly’, where the hell do we go. The only clue as to where our room is was via the message we received when we booked the place. No meet and great here.  So with no other choice Jody has to carry not just her own bag but mine as well.  She is a strong lass but I am feeling a tad sorry for her and I’m sure she is thinking, ‘what the hell have I got myself in for’, as she leaves me behind disappearing down through the carpark entrance. Eventually and I mean eventually Jody comes back, she is obviously flustered and didn’t realise there was a code, she has left the bags at the front door.  We need to get there quick smart but I cannot go more than one hop at a time so the journey to the 8th floor was certainly an eventful one, including the issue of the elevator attendant, who knocked of at 11pm and it was way past that time.  So we eventually arrive on the 8th floor, sort out the code and let ourselves in.  The room is just that, with a loft and a small bathroom and a smaller kitchen.  Believe me smaller than the cooker I had when living in the bedsit in London.  However it is clean, quiet and hospitable, except that when we booked the place we didn’t realise that it had a loft and only a double bed.  Luckily with further investigation there was a spare soft mattress and with great effort Jody managed to carry it down the stairs to the ground floor where I would sleep.  After a while we were safe again, just like in the cab oblivious to what is happening 8 floors down.  Although in the back your head you know that in 6 hours when the sun rises you will have to learn on the run (or the hop), how this place ticks.

The apartment was one of at least a hundred on each floor within a vast apartment complex. I loved the short time we stayed mainly because I got to meet the locals who resided on our floor. In the evenings I would sit in the corridor next to a wired window that provided a breeze and a view of the world outside, although a narrow one. This was a time when the kids would take over whilst their parents where having some me time. Running up and down the corridors and the stairs, playing chasey, cops and robbers, dancing and singing you name it.  This would go well into the night. A young girl would often sit with me so I could help her with her English grammar book and she seemed very happy indeed that I would take the time to help and listen.  She would run of and tell her parents the new words she learnt. (can someone tell me why Giraffe is a word you would teach to new english learner)  I am sure they had no idea what words were spoken.  During all this mayhem Grandmothers would also help out mum and dad and push the toddlers on their plastic bikes trying to shove food down their throats. I was happy to help at times, pulling a few funny faces often did the trick. The other aspect of apartment living in Saigon was the community of shops and businesses within the complex. Hairdressers, convenience stores, juice bars etc. also the elevator man who controlled the elevator sitting at desk all day, however he also used his time wisely by knitting.  Mainly kids clothes, the quality amazing.  I often hear from people how they couldn’t live in a apartment complex and I totally get it. However if this is an example about how to live as a community within close quarters then this is the way to do it, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Video Link

Vietnam

 

 

 

American Pie

Making the decision to stay in Pia for two weeks whilst on crutches was the best thing I could do. I paid a little extra to have my own room, with balcony and easy access. The bonus was the room faced a beautiful garden and like Pai itself very peaceful. The owners bent over backwards to make my stay enjoyable. The other bonus was that I was only 5 minutes from cafes and convenience stores. The downside is that when you stay in your own room you often miss the interactions of other people. Not that I really cared as I was struggling with myself after the accident. However that all changed in a flash when a new guest (Jody) booked the room next to mine. We hit it of straight away. We had many things in common at the time. Jody had quit her job as a Research and development chef (geez I hope I got that right Jody?) and she was looking for new options in life. One was not to be controlled by others who could only see the bottom line. I am also sure there were heaps of others reasons, but she wanted to travel and most importantly focus on her online business.

Food is her passion, but not just food per say but the process that goes into each completed dish. I was fascinated by her work and folks if you are wondering about flavor in processed foods well Jody is the inventor of those flavors. She also was a chef in many places including New Orleans and what I love about Jody is her passion and willingness to make a success of her life. Jody was also searching for a place to stay and make a base. She was also traveling solo for the first time. It takes courage to give up everything you know and embark to countries and cultures unfamiliar. So the timing of us meeting up was meant to be. I suppose for Jody meeting me, helped her adjust to the oddbods travelers you meet. Pai is a place where the lost often head to. Pai reminded me of where I was at 30 years ago, without a dime to my name. I understood the many reasons why travelers ended up here. That is the beauty of traveling without an itinerary, everyone is on their own personal journey. Not what society expects you to do or should I say the pressures that modern life makes you feel you should do. The comfort of a job that brings in a wage is also the devil in disguise. Work, make deadlines, and then have a performance review so the boss can get their bonus for all the work you have done. Jody also felt this also.

When time had come to leave Pai and travel to Chang Rai (I had another doctors appointment and my plaster was removed) we were happy to start our journey together. I had spent plenty of time in Chang Rai, so it was like a homecoming. I also had to spend a week staying in one location to rehabilitate and get some confidence back. For Jody she again wanted to investigate the flavors of northern Thailand. This was great because I could share food for a change and we certainly had fun doing so. Jody also for the first time stayed in the hostel for a few days. For Jody this was well out of her comfort zone, however apart from the odd issues with sharing a room, she made the most of a hostel I would rate the best I have ever stayed in. Always good to make good first impressions. I knew that it was going to be hard to follow. So after a week we came to the decision that we would go to Vietnam. For me I don’t think I would have gone on my own, as I was still very limited in my movement. We were both super excited and now when I think about it although it was the beginning of backpacking together it was also the beginning of the end as well.

After 2 weeks we travelled from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia then went our separate ways. It was nice and also a relief to have a travel buddy especially when I was trying to get back onto my feet. I will always be indebted to her. I also hope I had a positive influence, however sometimes living 24/7 can be a challenge and we were starting to find that we wanted to take a different path. Jody atm is based in Vietnam (update now in Bali after 3 months in Vietnam) and uploads daily posts through Instagram the amazing food safari she is on. Here is her link, please follow and do yourself a food favor. 

Link to:

Video

Thailand to Vietnam

Link to

Wunderlustandrootvegetables

 

 

Lessons learned

My mind was racing a million miles and an hour after returning to the hostel from the hospital. I kept on looking at the X-ray which showed a substantial break of my left foot. I couldn’t see any good news and the doctor in residence said that I might need an operation but wouldn’t know for sure until I saw the specialist the next day.  I was stunned to say the least.  How was I going to tell my family and friends why I was returning to Australia? How was I going to tell my friend in Africa that I would not being visiting her after promising time and time again that I would?  I felt stupid, a failure and embarrassed. I kept on repeating the fall in my mind, over and over again. How the hell could I be so stupid? if only? what if? Why the hell was I rushing around, I didn’t need to? I watched people from the hostel go about their usual stuff, coming back from the market, planning their next journey, even just walking to the loo. I was screaming inside, I tried writing in my diary but looking at the photos from the day before made me angry. In my mind the world was ending. I just want to sleep and wake up from a bad dream.

When I did wake the reality of what had happened was made more real when I looked down at my foot wrapped in a temporary cast.  It took me about 1.5 hours to get dressed and pack a night bag just in case I had to stay overnight in the hospital. The little things were taking forever and I must say at this time I really needed some assistance. It is time like these that traveling on your own really sucks. Sure there was sympathy from other travelers but they were busy with their own life. To be honest I really didn’t want their help or sympathy I just wanted my foot back. At least I still had my mind and luckily a positive disposition. So all I could do was to make arrangements with the hostel to look after my gear, because as far as I knew I would probably be going back to Oz in the next couple of days.

As I was wheeled into the specialist office, I was sick to the stomach.  He introduced himself and briefly spoke about his family in Australia and his qualifications, in retrospect if there was a perfect doctor he was it, he invested in me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone or vulnerable.  He then bought up the X-ray on his screen. It looked horrible, the bone looked like it was completely broken.  At the same time this was going on I was able to get hold of the medical team in Australia.  After hours of trying to connect they wanted to speak to the doctor whilst being examined.  This is where todays technology and communication has changed. He sent an email copy of the X-ray, going over the X-ray, looking at the different angles and communication with doctors at home. Broken 5th metacarpal, small crack 4th metacarpal. I could hear the medical team in Oz agree. Diagnosis, no operation required bone still attached, plaster cast and complete rest for 4-6 weeks. Did I hear correctly, no operation? OMG. The doctor put me back on the phone to the medical nurse in Australia. She reassured me and explained the course of action. She wished me well and said with appropriate rest and therapy I will be back on my feet. I could feel myself welling up inside. I think I said thank you a hundred times and started blabbering like one does when overcome with unexpected joy.  The journey to the theatre to have the plaster cast fitted was euphoric. I don’t think I ever looked forward to having a plaster cast as much as this. I was even making jokes with nurses who probably didn’t understand why I was so happy. Sure the hard work was in front of me and I would have to rearrange my plans but it beats the hell ending my journey. At least I can ring my family and friends now.  The first call I made was to my mum. Like usual the rock of Gibraltar. In the midsts of disaster, all alone, she was the one that encouraged me to go forth.  I made a pact with myself that day, that I would not again rush around from place to place, I would smell the roses.

Fast fwd 2.5 months. The bad dream is over I am sitting and chatting to a lovely French nurse in Pakse, Laos when we both see a young French girl (Marine) with bandages and horrible wounds struggling to make it to the entrance. Still with her bloody clothes, we help her inside. She looks pale, is shaking and has tears rolling down her face. She tells her story, how she was riding her bike, trying to get back to town (rushing) because the sun was setting and didn’t see the hole in the road. Within a split second she was sprawled across the road, unconscious. The local community must have seen the fall and took her to a medical clinic to bandage her up and stitch her wounds. She spent the night in the village alone. The next morning they put her on a local truck back to Pakse. We are the first people she has spoken to. She is afraid to call her mother and friends, ashamed that she could do something like this. We sit with her for hours and the nurse gives her new bandages, I give her panadol Forte. We help her to her room so she can rest and sleep. For me, flashbacks of how I felt when I had my accident. The hopelessness I felt.

In the morning the nurse had left for Cambodia and I am sitting at the cafe next door having a coffee, Marine gingerly sits next to me. She is still in shock, still felling ashamed and stupid, replaying the incident over and over again. I try and console her, saying that you can’t take back the past, maybe there is a reason why certain events occur, she agrees, maybe she was doing to much and not taking the time to smell the roses.  A young German lad sits with us and he encourages her to go to a hospital and have a doctor look at her wounds. His girlfriend is a pharmacist and would help her with the appropriate medication. I am starting to feel rather under qualified on this journey. I decide to go with her, she needs support and someone to talk to. We speak about life in France, her wonderful job as a fashion designer, her love searching for new materials and the way local women weave and color their fabrics. It gives her a chance to think about other things. Eventually she sees the doctor and goes in to have her wounds checked and re-bandaged. Whilst in the waiting room I notice the state of the hospital. How bloody lucky we are in Oz to pay our taxes so we have a reasonable health system. Eventually Marine returns she looks grey, what the hell. She then starts sobbing, and shows me a photo of the cut under her chin which has 3 stitches. It looks worse than it is and she probably will have a little scar. In between sobs she blurts out “that no man will love her now that she has a scar.” Suddenly I feel like I am in a classroom listening to an emotional 14 year old after breaking up with their boyfriend, thinking their life is doomed. I put my teachers hat on and listen to her fears and I put my arm around her. I retell all the wonderful things she has told me about herself, her purpose of traveling and her hopes for her future. The same things my mum said to me when I was sitting with my plaster cast in Chang Rai.

I don’t know how Marine is traveling but I am sure she will be immersing herself with her love of fashion and traveling the world for the most beautiful fabrics. I do hope the scar is now a story to be told and not of lost love.

 

 

An education from Past to present

After returning to Bangkok to collect my over weight backpack, I chose a route that would take me to northern Thailand then over the border to Laos. I really wanted to catch the overnight train to Chang Mai however the 2nd class sleepers where booked out for the next few days and I really didn’t want to spend anymore time in Bangkok.  So I took a nine hour bus to Sukhothai instead.  There was of course a bonus, I needed to learn a little about Thailand’s history and the Sukhothai historical park seemed just the place.  Its literal meaning the dawn of happiness’, the capital of the first independent Thai Kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries.  The park comprises the ruins of royal palaces, Buddhist temples, the city gates, walls, moats and the water dyke control system of ancient Sukhothai.  This would surely help me because of my lack of Asian history.  I spent two days at the site.  Although not as mind blowing as Machu Picu, set up in the Andean mountains, or as vast as the Egyptian Pyramids, the Sukhothai site is still a work in progress so to speak.  Beautifully manicured areas and amazing ruins still being excavated and processed.  Actually the place is so big you really need a push bike to see it all and in retrospect I wish I had done exactly that.  However on one day I walked around the main site and the next I spent strolling around other ruins but most of the day I spent in the museum and it was here that I learnt more than I ever could imagined.  I am often in awe of the people who help reconstruct ancient sites.  I do wonder however why these places always make the ancient life look so idyllic.  Like “let’s make the world great again”.  If u know what I mean.  I also wonder who controls the narrative, as many large artefacts have been recreated.  But maybe that’s just me digging deeper than I should.  Religion and past empires are often shown in some glorified way, so we in the present feel some sense of gratitude.  Don’t get me wrong, The ability to design, then construct such monuments and the array of intricate features from such a long time ago is mind blowing.  I am still not educated enough to understand everything to do with buddhism however here is a link for further information about  the various Sukhothai monuments and features.  I’d rather not try.

Apart from visiting the ruins I decided to get a little more aquatinted with the local area. What a way to do this by riding a bike for a day.  We rode around the lane ways of Sukhothai, meeting local market owners and learning about the use of various foods.  We then road through the farmland a combination of rice fields, tobacco and a range of other vegetables and fruits.  The scorching sun made the ride at times unbearable, I don’t know how the farmers and their workers face up to it day in day out.  If somehow wearing their wide brimmed hats with cloth draped down their neck and back, gives them some sort of relief.  To think that is also meant to be the colder months.  At times we would pull over under the shade of tree just long enough so our sweat would cool us down, then back on the bike pedalling at a decent speed.  I suppose what kept me going was the music the played along our journey.  Every 100  meters or so a loud speaker hung from an electrical pole and sounds of traditional Thai flutes lulled me into a time gone past.  Although I have never been to Thailand in a time gone past.  You could hear it from the rice fields from quite a distance and without me asking I am sure it is a way to help the farmers work in the hot sun.  It certainly helped me continue to pedal.  We eventually made it back onto a main road and 5 km’s further to a house owned by a friend of the tour guide.  It was the first time I had been into a locals house and we weren’t there for a tour, but for lunch.  We must have looked like cooked lobsters as I peeled myself of the seat.  I even had problems trying to organise my thoughts and missed the opportunity to have a hose down.  Not to worry, before I had time to say sà wàt dee I was whisked away and given a towel, a foot bath, herbal tea, fresh water and enough food that I couldn’t lift my leg over the bicycle seat for the ride back.  This was more than I hoped for, especially when we met the rest of the relatives.  After we had finished our lunch we were introduced to the family and excitedly introduced to a young boy.  At first I wasn’t so sure why this boy was special, even though he was very cute.  However before long I realised what all the fuss was about.  I kept on hearing boy girl, boy girl, for a second I thought there was going to be a show with boy girls parading around like in Phuket.  Then to my surprise they were pushing the young boy towards me.  He was fully made up and I was a little envious of his eyebrows.  I was then told that they were very fortunate that their family, a large one at that have a boy girl.  They were very excited for me to meet their special child that all the kids performed a song for us and of course guess who had the staring role.  Not only did he have the starring role but a very spoilt child to boot.  He seemed to have the best of everything, the first and last of everything also.  I was fascinated not because they had a boy girl but maybe because they are revered in similar ways to that of the Fa’afafine’s, who are men raised as girls and identify with that gender in Samoa.  I did notice the night before during the market festival, many boy girls also performing.  They weren’t seen as odd or even left out, the complete opposite.  For a second I wondered why I was so intrigued that there were so many boy girls.  Should I be curious? I was told there were many families all over Thailand that have Boy girls and unlike many countries they were proud and saw themselves are privledged to have a boy girl in their family.  Unlike some of the stories I have heard about the Fa’afafine’s where abuse is often common.  However I must note, was he lucky he had a great family because I am sure just like the Fa’afafine there would also be disturbing stories.  However with this only one experience to go on and the belief that boy girls in Thailand are treated with honour, I was pleased to see an inclusive system of respect.  Finally, as I write this I am wondering why I am writing to you about boy girls, why would you care?  Well one reason is that in our society we often see gender differences as an affliction as a curse, arguing over semantics like what toilet should they go to.  How refreshing it is to travel to a country that doesn’t seem to have this affliction.  Oh and how we could learn so much about how to treat a small group of beautiful people who just want to live their lives like everyone else.

I could continue to write about the bike journey as we cycled at a slower pace along the river.  Riding past rickety homes held up by whimsy poles to protect the houses from the rising water when the river floods, old men repairing their equipment sitting under large trees and women crouched down lighting small coal fires in pots ready to cook dinner.  I could also write about the fisherman we met catching small fish by net as his wife drank a bottle of rice whiskey and danced a better version of my bogan dance.  Or the fun we had at the bar we went to, sipping a Mojito and listening to 1970’s hits like Bonney M.  This was all in a days work and more than I could learn ever from a text book, a newspaper, a documentary or a you tube video.

Road to somewhere

The bus journey to Sangkhlaburi was nothing special but I wasn’t expecting a ride through the Himalayan mountains.  I did not read much about this area as I only chose to come his far because I made an error when booking my room in Thong Pha Phum and I had 3 days to kill.  In a way though the unexpected is the most enjoyable.  It’s like going to a movie without reading the reviews and being pleasantly surprised.  Thais visit Sangkhlaburi and the surrounding area for weekend trips and I met very few international visitors.  The hotel I stayed at was remarkable, not just because of the price but the location.  It is not often you stay in your own room for hostel prices right on the lakes edge.  The bonus, you could watch the sun set behind the hillside with a large Wat standing proudly on top.  It’s gold facade shinning brighter than street lights as the sun set behind.   The other unexpected bonus was that a group of photography enthusiasts from Bangkok had booked the weekend away with a photography instructor learning how to take photos at night.  I just happened to be setting up my gear when the instructor started chatting to me.  After a while he invited me to join their group.  At first I was a little hesitant because I am sure the group had paid handsomely for the weekend away, however they all seemed to want me to come along.  They of course had the most amazing camera equipment compared to my kit, however its not the size that matters, it how you handle your equipment.  At first I thought we were going to learn the basics about how to use aperture and shutter speeds at night, something I love to tinker with.  However as I soon found out this course was not just some ordinary photography course, the main aim was we were learning to create light painting, (photo trails) painted by fire using steel wool, sparklers, torchlight and glow sticks.  Sens-bloody-sational, I had always wanted to learn how to do this.  I know I had tried this activity with students once in the dark room with glow sticks and with limited success.  However this was on another level.  I actually think (looking at my photos) I was pretty successful.  I know a teacher who now has some of my technical notes, I just don’t recommend using steel wool in the dark room, but hey you can blame it on me!!

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Since Sangkhlaburi is so close to the Myanmar border there were many different groups of people who inhabit this part of the world.  There are many Burmese that live in the area, most escaping the regime, including Karen and Mon. These marginalised people lost their land when the government flooded the area over 30 years ago to build a dam. They lost their livelihood and their land; sound familiar.  Many of the people today live in houses on the lake.  One of the main attractions is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand that you have to cross to get to the other side. Of course there is a new bridge for transport which has now opened up the area for more mundane reasons, like logging and tourist shops selling traditional garments.  I spent a day roaming the streets and taking a boat ride around the lake.  There are Orphanages, mainly housing refugees (none were on their way to Australia) and I met a young girl who has returned for the 2nd time to work with the children.  She helped me learn about some of the issues that the kids face within and outside of the orphanages. There were also various NGO agencies trying to educate the Thais about the work that they do.  I believe that once they complete primary school many children have to leave and fend for themselves, without offical documents or an identity.  Some make their way to Bangkok hoping to earn money however unfortunately most end up with scrupulous men or get caught by police and sent back to Myanmar. Sadly, the Karen’s and Mon’s have become beggars for tourists, children sit on their own or with other children and beg to paint your face or perform.  There is a support network at least, with various community groups making a concerted effort to assist, although I think the government really just gives them lip service.  The weekend I was there like many weekends in Thailand the market area became a place to showcase music and dance and a place to speak about the issues with the Karen, Mon and the Burmese.  I started to feel a pang of guilt that maybe I should stay here and help out.  However after doing months of research back in Australia about volunteering unless you have specific skills, short term volunteering is often a hinderance rather than a cure, so I donated some money and bought plenty of food the kids had made.  I am sure when I feel I can really make a difference I will spend more than a couple of weeks to volunteer.  Teaching english is really not what they need, more a sense of belonging and that someone cares and I needed to get to Thong Pha Phum, in a sense my journey had just begun.

 

Your can do it, yes you can.

I love to go to a place that I often saw in documentaries when I was a young girl.  I loved watching very old episodes of Tarzan and hoping one day I could go to those places. Therefore it was a no brainer, that I would at some point have a journey into the mountains in Thailand.  I knew there were plenty of out of the way places up north, however at the time I wasn’t going to go that far. So when I read about Thong Pha Phum National Park, a park that also stretched well into Myanmar, I was won over. The bonus, the park had tree house accomodation.  This sounded cool, I did find a couple of You Tube videos and the images were amazing.  Another tick was apart from a few paragraphs in Lonely Planet I wanted to challenge myself and explore a few places often only Thais who have transport could visit.  Of course nobody seemed to know anything about the national park or how to get there.  Even the locals including the girl at the tourist office in Thong Pha Phum were bemused as to why I would want to stay there.  Without your own vehicle or the ability to ride a motorbike you are very limited.  I was so nervous about this trip to the national park that I nearly stopped myself from going.  However Bell the owner of the hotel where I stayed in Thong Pha Phum took me to the van stop and the lady who owned the food shop, where the van picked up passengers fed me and helped me with supplies which made me feel a little bit reasured that this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. 

The two hour journey to the National Park started slowly, I was a bit disappointed as the road seemed in good condition.  Maybe the comments I read about the dodgy road must be outdated as the ute was making good progress.  When we stopped for a toilet break I noticed that the driver started tying things down.  I don’t think I consciously knew at the time but in retrospect he knew what was coming.  It was only a few minutes after our stop when the ute slowed down, I peered through the gap between the cab and where I was sitting to see the road narrow from three cars wide to a car wide.  The ute was now laboring, women were using we what seemed to be smelling salts and some were huddling up to each other, it couldn’t be that bad could it?  I think I could have walked faster than the ute, which was also swaying side by side, switchback after switchback.  As the incline increased it also meant that we had to hold onto anything available, often squeezing my legs up under the seat and my hands gripping on for dear life.  At times all you could see when weaving around blind turns was the edge of the mountain, no road barriers and eroded edges that led to the bottom of the mountain. God help us if we met a car or truck coming the other way, but I had trust in the driver.  As we continued to climb the mist began to roll through the mountains.  The stillness of the environment with only miles and miles of lush jungle was awe inspiring.  It reminded me of the journey I took long ago through the African jungle and the Amazon, and I was thrilled that I could have another experience.  There is something about an unlogged environment that makes the hairs stand on end.  To think that there are very few places left on this earth.  A bonus with this trip was that we had the pleasure of enjoying the company of an older lady who was sat in the cab and was from the e-Thon, a closed border town with Myanmar. I am sure she made the driver stop at the scenic lookout or he didn’t have any other choice as she had the ability of talking without taking a breath.  (I think I saw a little of me in her) I also think the driver just needed a respite from the chatter. She was obviously well known through the community as she seemed to know every person getting on and off the van.  She even took me to the police check point when I arrived at the National Park.  Even with considerable language troubles we were still able to communicate.  There was no way anthing out of the ordinary was going to happen at this police check point anyway.  So with a hug and further chatter the ute drove around another bend out of sight.  I paid my money and was given a key and that was it. I was like, where do I go, but without google translator or any other way of asking I picked up my bag and walked past the check point into the unknown.  

I must have walked about 300 meters when I saw a sign, written in Thai but with an arrow and numbers, 400m.  Oh good I thought, not a problem I’m sure this must be where the tree house is.  I was really felling like was the first solo 54 year old out in the middle of nowhere and looking fwd to what would be a great place to stay.  That was until I walked around the corner.  I don’t know who designed the road, but I couldn’t see the top of it and suddenly 400 meters seemed like 10km’s.  Luckily I bought my walking sticks, so with no other choice I began the climb. I think I must have been at a 50 degree angle, I was looking down and my forehead was nearly was touching the ground when I heard an engine.  For a second I was like, hell now I have to try and not fall flat on my face and make a complete dick of myself.  I dropped my bag and turned around to see a Ute slowly moving up the road and in the back a group of army cadets.  As they drove past me, one of the cadets yelled out and the ute stopped. The next thing I know I was being carried and lifted into the back of the Ute. I clambered my way up to the front and held onto the bar with dear life. I sort of felt like a damsel in distress standing on the back with 1/2 dozen army cadets!  I started laughing nervously as they were all staring at me and speaking in a quizzical tone.  Then out of the blue someone says in english “you on your own, lady?”  I didn’t know if that was good or bad so I smiled and said “Ah yeah I am, why is that ok?”  I mean what the hell else was I going to say.  “No, my husband is waiting for me in Thom Pha Phum so you better leave me alone.”  They all turned and looked at each other in either horror or what the F, is she crazy kinda look.  I started feeling a little nervous, I mean, I am on my own, I not what you would call ready to defend myself in shape wise and I don’t speak a word of Thai, let alone there wasn’t any telephone connection.  However before I knew it the ute stopped, they grabbed my bag, picked me up and plonked me down in front of the tree house which faced the most amazing view I have seen in years.  All good in terror and war, I thought. 

After roaming around the park for a couple of hours I decided have a bite to eat. Nothing like cold curry and rice, a few choclate biscuits and warm mango smoothie. What else did one need as I watched the sunlight slowly disappear from the mountains. As darkness took ahold I sat and listened to the night animals take over, sort of eery on your own.  So I decided that I would hit the sack, I sealed my food and hung it up on the hook.  I know from my experience in Tassie that you should never leave food around, but that is another story.  So I tucked mysef in with some background music for company.  I am not sure what time it was but I did wake at sometime and hear some noises, I tried not to freak myself out and went back to sleep. I am not sure how long I was asleep for when I was again woken to scratching sounds.  I froze quickly trying to think what the hell it was, then I suddenly realised, for some reason and I don’t know what I was thinking but stupid me did leave some some food in a bag on the floor next to my bed and I totally forgot. Yeap, you guessed it Mickey mouse and probably his family decided to befriend me during the night and decided to head into my bag.  It’s funny how during a moonless night, in the middle of a strange land, on your own, the million thoughts that go through your head.  There was no way now that I was going to sleep in my bed. So I grabbed the blanket, locked the door and sat on the balcony looking out at a moonless sky. It was when I had to go to the loo that paranoia really did creep in.  I decided that it was better to go down the stairs from the tree house and relieve myself on terra firma than using the pretty primitive loo in the tree house, plus I would have to go back through the bedroom. So as I climbed down with my trusty light, which I still didn’t know how to use properly yet, I noticed a car parked behind the tree house.  My initial thoughts were guards sleeping and protecting the area.  Of course I still don’t know what the guards were thinking when I got my lift.  So I flashed my bright light around and tippy toed around to find an out of view location.  Suddenly as I was relieving myself I heard the car doors open and shut.  Bloody hell, so with half my pants down, I quickly made myself back to the tree house.  Who were they, what do they want?  Suddenly Mickey became the least of my worries.  I listened and crept around the balcony to see who they were.  I heard the doors open and shut again however, after a few tense moments I composed myself and decided that the best course of action was to stay up and wade through the night.  At least if something did happen I had my camera for evidence, a headlamp, a bottle of water and food hanging from the hook.  So for the next 4-5 hours I made myself busy hoping no-one was going to climb the stairs.  I learnt a lot about using my video on my camera during a dark night and how to work my headlamp, whilst listening to a podcast I downloaded from the Record Doctor, the unhcharted hits from Madonna.  Nothing like listening to, “I F’ed up, I did it again, nobody does better than myself” to make you feel at home.  

When the sun started to rise I noticed that it wasn’t guards or even some crazed madman but two women sleeping for the night in their car.  I think they were scared also because when I made my way down and they saw I was just a little old lady, they started laughing hysterically.  For Mickey, he enjoyed my biscuits, thankfully he wasn’t anywhere to be found and he left no trace in my bag.  As the dawn became daybreak I realised I had to get transport back to Thong Pha Phum so I made my way back down to the police check point.  This time without a lift, but at least it was down hill.  So with my limited knowledge of Thai, and my horrible drawing skills I asked the police what time the van came, 7:30 the young man wrote, great I thought only a 15 minute wait.  What a joke, either they had no idea what I was asking or they really had no idea when the van came.  I spent the next two hours watching ants disect and carry a dead cricket away, what amazing little creatures they are. When the transport did arrive I was thrilled (for a minute anyway) to know I was going back until I realised that there wasn’t any room inside.  I spent the next 2 hours, going down the mountain hanging off the back of van with my backpack wanting to pull me down with it. The exhaust spewing carbon monoxide my way whilst the van weaved its way down the mountainside.  To say I was excited about returning to the bus stop was an understatement. Let’s just say I got a lifetime of carbon monoxide, until I returned to Bangkok.  After a 10 hour journey back to Bangkok, I suddenly realised what an achievement. Sure not everything went to plan, but having the opportunity to give it a go and to spend 10 days traveling to areas outside my comfort zone and without the use of a guide book was rewarding.  The moral of this journey was having a dream, ambition, hope and a goal. What would life be without it?