Turns out, I’m a complete scaredy cat… achooo!

So we’ve established that I’m terrified of dogs. Especially in SE Asia – the mongrels growl and bark a LOT. They are often strays, which terrifies me even more because they are more likely to have all kinds of diseases. I didn’t get a rabies shot before I left the UK and I was beginning to regret it ever so slightly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not planning to spend that much time with our canine friends, but you never know when you’re going to come across a nutcase dog…

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Photo credit: Siem Reap Pagoda Cats

My landlady has two that really are pretty loud. The first time I turned up at the entrance to our little apartment block with bags of shopping from the supermarket, they went mental at me. Luckily, my landlady and her husband were doing some gardening close to the gate so held them back so I could get in. Then there was the day when I was planning to do laundry, I mean, the washing machine is literally downstairs; the dogs must have smelt me and came charging up the stairs at me and I locked myself back in the sanctuary of my dog-free apartment! It took me a couple of weeks and Googling “how to overcome your fear of dogs” to feel confident enough to walk past them whilst they were still barking viciously. There was one time when one of the dogs was just lying outside the gate effectively playing the role of guard dog. He was calm and then as soon as I got off the tuktuk with my shopping bags, he started barking at me. I shouted at him and walked straight past him. I stared him straight in the eyes as I wagged my finger at him like a naughty child and said “No. You know me. Stop it”, and since then, they’re fine with me. Normally.

 

There’s an Aussie guy who lives downstairs who has a very energetic dog that is both loud and loves to play. I feel bad, but I have to tell him “no, get down!” every single morning whilst trying to escape my apartment block on my way to work. This one kind of has a habit of nipping you at the ankles too which is quite concerning, considering the afore-mentioned lack of rabies immunity. But if I ever get a proper bite, I’ll be down the nearest clinic before you can say “you should get a rabies shot”.

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Yes, I can see how people can think they’re cute and harmless, but I just don’t like them, okay?? Photo credit: Siem Reap Pagoda Cats

 

Another thing about dogs, and now that I come to think of it, cats, rats, mice and lizards… You can find these on local menus, if you know where to go. Actually, what’s slightly more concerning is when you see a sign outside a little food shack that says “we do not serve cat or rat or dog or lizard”. Now, even though I’m not a fan of anything that walks around on more than 2 legs, and I’m fairly adventurous with local delicacies, I’ve never been keen on the idea of eating animals that can be considered pets.

One thing I have noticed is that a lot of people tend to adopt cats. And though I’ve never been a fan of anything furry with claws, some of the teeny tiny kittens are super cute. There are also quite a few charitable organisations in the area that aim to treat cats and dogs with minor ailments, malnutrition and the suchlike. One particular organisation focuses on stray cats and other animals that live in pagodas (tower-like structures similar to temples) called Siem Reap Pagoda Cats. The animals live with the monks in the pagodas and are well looked after. They are sterilised thanks to volunteer vets from all over the world, and if you ever find yourself in Cambodia, the owner is a lovely lady who would only be too happy to give you a tour.

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Photo Credit: Estelle Coralie

 

I guess the fact that I have fur allergies doesn’t really help my dislike of our four-legged friends, but then again, they are only mild allergies causing a bit of sneezing, sniffling and stuffy nose, a bit of eye-itching and running. And I think spending more and more time out and about, I am getting over them and my fear of man’s best friend. I don’t sneeze so much with the dust anymore, and there is a LOT of dust in Cambodia, even more so now in the dry season. And I don’t think I’ve experienced any hayfever since last May in the UK which is awesome! Edit: I’m definitely still allergic. But at the very least, I know the antihistamines that I have definitely work and kick in pretty quick. So don’t worry, it’s going to take a lot more than a little bit of complacency when I’m around furry animals to make me run away from Siem Reap!

Finding a job is like waiting for a bus…

You wait for ages and then two or three turn up at once. Or they do for me, whenever I’m on a job-hunt.

I should probably explain why I decided on Siem Reap, Cambodia to live for a few months. For those of you who have read MinionTravels from its humble beginnings a while ago, I’ve been to a fair few places in SE Asia, so how did I make the massive decision as to where I was going to plant myself? Well, I have a friend who made the move a few years ago who I actually know from school. I sent him a message, months ago, asking for advice on how to pack up your life to go teach English as a Foreign Language. I’d already taken the plunge and got myself enrolled on a TEFL course in Summer 2015, when I was tearing my hair out in a highly stressful and deadline centric job in the UK, but I wanted some more practical advice from someone who had already done it. And where does this friend live now? You guessed it, Siem Reap. Secondary question, what does this friend do in Siem Reap? He runs an English School. Well that’s handy, I hear you say… So there you go, that’s why I decided to settle in Siem Reap.

On arrival, my focus was finding a place to stay. Once that was sorted, I needed to find something to do with my time, and finding a job took longer than I expected. Admittedly, I was being really picky since actually living in SE Asia is mega cheap. I’d saved up a fair chunk of cash from the afore-mentioned and hated job back home, and as soon as I’d worked my notice there, I’d managed to get part time work at a wonderful restaurant in my hometown over the Christmas period. This was purely in an effort to pick up some hospitality skills, should my teaching abilities be found lacking whilst travelling our wonderful planet. So yeah, finding paid work immediately wasn’t a major financial concern, it was more that I was getting bored without a routine and something specific to do. Idle hands and all that.

So I put word out that a) I was a native English speaker, which is very important in SE Asia for an English teacher, b) that I was available to start working immediately, and c) that I was only available for about 5-6 months. I think that was the bit that made it really difficult to secure work quickly. You see, the schools that I wanted to teach at were those that only employed trained teachers, not just backpackers looking for a quick buck so they could make it to the next city. These schools wanted staff to stay for closer to a year, rather than a few months, which is fair enough, but that seemed to be the primary reason that some schools and I weren’t a right fit. The other type of school I encountered were not bothered about my qualifications at all, nor were they concerned that I only wanted to stay for six months, max . They just wanted to make sure I could start immediately.

After a few weeks passed, each with a visit to a school, an incredibly informal interview and trial lesson, a few friends suggested that I embellish the truth, or bend it slightly in my favour. Maybe omit to mention my personal timeline, or say that I wasn’t sure when I wanted to leave Cambodia. Unfortunately, as the good British girl I am, this didn’t quite sit right with me. I’d had enough personal experience with colleagues in the UK leaving even when working their notice, and I’d heard stories from my education-management friends in Cambodia that they were caught short-staffed because a member of their faculty decided to just book a flight and leave. I knew from the moment that I left the UK that I wanted to be in Australia by July ‘16, and August at the very latest. The reason being that I only have this one opportunity in my life to spend up to a whole year in Aus with the visa I’ve secured. And, I have a wedding to attend in July of 2017 back home in the UK, so of course I want to make the most of my year in Australia, therefore… if I extend my stay in Cambodia, I feel like I’m cheating myself out of valuable time down under!

Anyway, the more time I was spending in Cambodia, the more I was experiencing these two different types of school. Furthermore, on each “interview” or demo lesson I turned up at, I got very strange looks. I cottoned on pretty quick, that whilst I speak with a very British accent (every Brit I’ve met has made some quip about the Queen’s English or RP or that I must be from the posh part of England…), I do not look the part. Especially after a couple of months in the SE Asian sun… I look much more Indian now than ever before! A few Cambodian people had simply assumed that I was a local, which incidentally has happened in other countries too, but that’s a story for another day. Seems that you can’t escape White Privilege no matter what corner of the world you find yourself in.

I managed to find out, from a friend of a friend, about a very forward-thinking Primary School that was actually only 10-15 minutes walking distance from my awesome new home… BONUS! They were following the British curriculum, there was a vacancy for a Year 3 teacher, there were literally a handful of really sweet kids in the class and I would be teaching Maths, Science, Art, Music and PE as well as English. Sounds perfect, and after a demo lesson with Pre-K to understand the attitude and culture of the school, they sent me on my way with a promise to call back soon.

At the same time, another friend had put me in touch with the guy running an American English High School in town. I was invited in for an informal chat, but I had to take a teacher proficiency test, plus a grammar test of my own. I did the tests in the morning, and passed them (hooray!), was asked to return for a trial lesson that evening so went home for a few hours to prepare my class. In the three or four hours between my tests and my lesson, the Primary School called me! They actually wanted to offer me the Year 1 class and invited me back for another demo/trial with “my” class in the morning. Oh man, what to do??

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My lesson planning doesn’t usually look so tidy… must be the minion’s influence

 

In the end, I went to the trial class at the High School, being very open with the guy running things there and telling him about my predicament. He came to observe my lesson, was impressed enough to offer me the job, but I told him I would go to the Primary School the following day and then make my decision. And so off I went to the Primary School first thing in the morning, I fell even more in love with the place and the awesome little kids, and I knew that my mind was made up. Check this out and see if you can spot yours truly!

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Two of my little angels!

 

So what about the third job? I was also approached to be a private tutor with my friend’s school. I tutor a lovely Korean girl twice a week now. Oh yeah, and I’m currently covering a class at that school for a couple of weeks either side of the Khmer New Year break. So, I’ve officially been “Teacher Deena” since Wednesday 23rd March, which means it took me 7 weeks exactly since I set foot back in Cambodia to secure paid work. And there’s no rest for the wicked!

Kampot & Kep for Khmer New Year

The Cambodian New Year falls in time with the moon, like a lot of Sanskrit-based religions and cultures, so it doesn’t fall on the same dates every year. The New Year festivities last four days, usually in the middle of April, so no longer than 3 weeks into my wonderful new teaching job, I was rewarded with a week off! Unfortunately, as a part-time member of staff, I don’t get paid holidays, but the time off was a great excuse to go visit some more of the Kingdom of Wonder with some new friends.

You can travel pretty much anywhere in SE Asia by bus or train. The Cambodian rail network has ceased operating, most likely a lasting reminder of the Khmer Rouge regime, restricting convenient travel from city to city, but there are rumours about certain lines reopening soon. [Edit… 08/2016… there is now a fairly regular service operating between PP and Sihanoukville!] In any case, it is financially economical to get around by bus. If you don’t mind an 11-12hour journey…

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The not-so-glamorous side of travelling (but a rare opportunity to see part of my face!)

 

So the trip to Kampot, like most trips in Cambodia, goes via Phnom Penh, the capital city. We’d been promised a 20-minute wait at the “station” in PP, but it actually turned out to be significantly longer. We left Siem Reap at 11pm, arrived at PP at 5:00am, only to find out that the bus to Kampot wasn’t due to leave until 7:30am. In the hubbub of tuktuk drivers trying to make their first fare of the day, we managed to catch the eye of another tour company man. “Kampot?” he asks. We nod at him whilst still rubbing the sleep from our eyes. He asks us to follow him to his company down the street and offers us the most beaten up looking bamboo sofa couch (with no cushion, which really was literally a pain in the ass!) to sit on while we wait for our next vehicle. The irony of this was that the minibus we ended up getting on to take us to our final destination was sitting, unoccupied just out in the road in front of this little tour company. Since about 6:00am. Oh well, it was a comfortable ride, and I still wanted to sleep a little longer, so once we had established when we were to get off the bus, I curled up and fell promptly back to sleep.

On arrival in the sleepy town of Kampot around lunchtime on Saturday, we succeeded to navigate the throngs of tuktuk drivers, picking one to take us to our bungalow residence for the next four nights. The ride to the hostel seemed pretty far, so there was some talk of only staying one night and finding another guesthouse more central to town, but our first priority was to grab a shower and something to eat. Personal hygiene won out, but within 45minutes, we’d already called our driver back and set off downtown to find some grub. On reflection, we weren’t really that far out. All the tuktuk drivers that we met knew the riverside bungalow hostel, and for three people, we rarely paid more than $2-4 per fare, even after the sun went down, which is when drivers hike their prices.

On our mini-vacation, we managed to cram in a sunset and firefly boat cruise, a day at Kep Beach, a visit to a pepper plantation, a beautiful view of the secret lake, a trip to some caves, a lazy afternoon swimming in the river and snoozing in hammocks, some pretty good food, some not so great food, a massage by a blind man, plenty of 50c beer, some coconuts and many fresh fruit shakes. image

Not everything went exactly according to plan… for example, we were told when halfway through the sunset/firefly boat cruise that since it was the dry season, we might not see any fireflies. I think I did see a few, dancing on the surface of the river, but it might have just been the flashlight glittering on the ripples. But all was not lost. We did get a very surprising and pleasant stop off at a riverside bar! There was the option to jump in the water, but we had not been told about this, so we did not bring towels or swimwear. This particular bar was run by a family of Americans who were taking some time out to travel, they’d planned to stay in Kampot for 5 days, and almost 5 months later, they’re still there setting up a business.

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The Secret Lake was dug by hand during the Khmer Rouge regime. I can only imagine how many people were killed in the time it was created. Its vastness was a little eerie.

 

The morning we went to the secret lake, caves and pepper plantation did not start well at all. We were due to be picked up at 8:30am, so there we were, all ready and breakfasted, waiting for our private tuktuk driver for the day. It got to 9:00am and we still hadn’t heard anything from our promised tour company. There was a secondary (un-?)helpful tuktuk driver who we assumed had come to pick us up, but told us there was an entrance fee to the caves. We told him that out tour included entrance to everywhere and that’s when he said he was not our pre-booked driver. He took one look at our ticket and proceeded to tell us how terrible that particular tour company was. In fact, the adjective he used was “shit”, pronounced “shhheet”. We called the company and demanded to know where our driver was, and were promised that he’d show within five minutes. 10minutes later, still a no-show, so we made a seriously angry call to to company. I say “we”, but what I should really say is that my very good German friend who is a stickler for keeping to time (what can I say, he is German…), called the company back up again. He says with no room for error nor anything being lost in translation “Hi, it is me. Again. We have changed our plans. We will come to your shop, we will have our money back and then we make our own plans. We will be there in 10minutes. We will have our money back”. I heard some mumbling through the line, but nothing discernible. No sooner as he hung up, sheepish grins exchanged between us European folks (the other girl is Italian, and though I can easily pass for Cambodian with my tanned Indian skin, my customer service expectations are inherently British…), our driver turns up! Despite the confusion and frustration of the start of the day, the rest of the morning was spent happily touring the sights of beautiful Kampot.

imageThe day at Kep beach was pretty perfect, and I even managed to buy one of those microfibre beach towels that dry super fast. The sand was white and the sea was calm in the morning. In the afternoon, it got a bit more choppy and brought in a fair bit of debris. Sea weeds and plants and dirt and grit. The water was a great temperature though, and the sea breeze was just incredible. A far cry from the 40degree heat we could look forward to back home in Siem Reap.

Trying to find a place to call home…

So I arrived back in Siem Reap on the flight that comes in at 9pm on Wednesday 3 February 2016. I had already booked into a hostel on Sok San Road which is spitting distance from Pub Street (see YOLO bar), so got in a cab and headed that way. I wasn’t hungry as I’d eaten a great portion of Asian fastfood at the airport in Bangkok, but I was really looking forward to a good sleep.My bed for the next five nights was in a dorm room of 4. Very different to the luxury I’d been treated to in Phuket. Luckily when I arrived, there was only one other girl staying in my room, so I grabbed the other bottom bunk and got some shut eye. She was going to do the sunrise at Angkor Wat the following morning, so I knew it wasn’t going to be an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Plus, the house hunt was going to kick off in the morning and I had no idea where to start, so I knew I needed to rest. All good intentions went out of the window when I slept in the following morning… old habits die hard!

Anyway, when I finally ventured out, I had my mental note of the kind of place I wanted to call home. I wanted to be within walking distance of town, and I had been told by more than one person that it was perfectly possible to find a room for less than $100/month and an apartment between $175-200. Whilst this may be true at other times of the year, I’d timed my arrival beautifully with both the peak season and Chinese New Year. All the hotels, hostels, guesthouses and apartment blocks were either fully booked, unable to rent me a place for such a long period of time, or just extortionate (relatively speaking… if you call $450/month for privacy and peace of mind, A/C, fresh towels and linen once or twice/week, extortionate!!). I was feeling dejected, especially after visiting a couple of places that were an absolute dive; I was already thinking about heading off to Australia months ahead of schedule because more than a few of the amazing people I’d met on the G adventures tour were all going to be in Melbourne. I hated the shared bathroom at the hostel, with its daily cockroach check before grabbing a shower and I was finding it difficult to find a decent flat of my own. I even had to extend my stay at that hostel for 2 nights because I was running out of time, when I eventually found a brilliant real estate agent (through Facebook, of course!) who was able to find me a couple of options within my criteria. Over night. He was a miracle worker who had located a cute little apartment block which was a 10-minute walk to a hundred eateries, clean and modern with a western style bathroom and a hot shower, and perhaps most importantly, it had a teeny tiny little kitchen complete with a chopping board, wok and spatula. It really is amazing how much the little things matter! So whilst I’ve now been in my place for a couple of months, check out how excited Minion was when I first moved in to our new little home. (I promise he looks excited, sitting there by the sink… even if you can’t see him!)imageimage

In hindsight, it’s not bad for a week’s work. It took me another week to kit the place out with some simple home pleasures like a bathmat, a kettle, some kitchen supplies and the suchlike, all the while meeting new friends and getting acclimatised to my new town. For regular readers, you’re going to find my blog is going to read quite differently. Even though every day brings something new and exciting, there isn’t nearly enough content to make an interesting blog!

For newbies who are interested in MinionTravels from the beginning, click here, and for those of you who are just completely baffled by my timelines – check this out, and if you are still confused, send me a message or drop me a comment. I’ll be only too happy to clear things up for you!

Splashing out and about in Phuket

So in the end, I ended up paying a little more for the taxi than I initially wanted to, but for peace of mind and the fact that the airport was a little out of town, I was happy enough to fork out a few extra baht for an actual taxi, with windows and a gear stick! Plus – I was actually on holiday now, so I could justify splashing out a bit. In all my haste to get to the airport on time, I ended up being a little too early for a domestic flight, but when it comes to flying, I always prefer to be early than 2 minutes too late. There’s an Alanis Morrisette song in there somewhere, I’m sure! In any case, it was a great opportunity to write more in my journal and catch myself up.

The flight was an hour, on arrival at the airport there was no passport control or immigration, just pick up your bag and get on your way. There were so many minibuses ready and waiting to take you to your hotel, so I bought a ticket to Patong Beach and got on my way. The minibus service was one of these where they took you to one of those little travel agencies that was promoting things to do in the area – scuba diving, snorkelling, island hopping tours, that kind of thing. I was willing to bet that the prices were maybe double that which you could pick up at the beach. I smiled and said no thank you, hopped back on the bus and waited for my fellow passengers.img_1559

I made it to the hotel in one piece, approached the check in desk, wondering how I was going to locate my travel buddies. Their flight was a couple hours earlier than mine, but I couldn’t get a ticket for that one, hence travelling separately. I needn’t have worried because I made really good time, and they had literally just arrived at the hotel too. I gave my name at the desk and good news! Free upgrade to a deluxe poolside room. Well, sometimes there are perks to last minute bookings! The hotel truly was beautiful. As I said before, a little steep, but what with the free upgrade and the 30 days of madness and the fact I was still recovering from my second cold of my travels, it was a welcome splurge.

imageThe next couple of days passed with trips to the beach, sipping cocktails in funny shaped glasses and iced coconuts fresh from the trees. There was much lounging by the pool and welcoming the others as they caught us up having spent an extra day or two in Bangkok, dependent on their personal travel plans. Nothing much exciting happened, but that was kind of the idea. Oh no ,wait… there was a small matter of one of us getting hit by a motorbike! Don’t panic, no one was hurt, but I was seriously shaken up.

So two of us decided to grab a drink at a cute little rooftop place not far from our hotel. Just a beer, nothing crazy. We spotted the bar from over the road, and being the good Western people that we were, checked both ways before stepping out into the stationary traffic. As we walked out in front of a fairly large van, a tourist girl on a ropey looking motorbike swerved out from behind the van and collided into the side of my friend. She screamed, my friend grabbed her, she grabbed the motorbike, I darted across the road. Nobody fell, nobody got a scratch, the bike, which must have been a rental, was not damaged in any way, but my heart was absolutely pounding when I reached the pavement on the other side. It was possibly the most deserved beer on the trip! 

imageOn Tuesday, we’d booked to visit Raya Island, which is a beach resort island about half an hour’s speedboat trip away. We were promised a hotel pickup at 8:00am, they arrived at 8:45am. We were told that the boat would have no more than 20 people on it, there were at least 35. We’d seen pictures of a beautiful secluded beach, and though the views were pretty stunning, we were not the only boat of 35 people heading to the same strip of white sand. Don’t get me wrong, we had all learned to make the best of any situation, and though we’d been promised one thing and been delivered another, there was no way I would ever describe that day to be a waste. The weather was brilliant, the snorkelling was great, even if I still hadn’t quite perfected the art yet, and there was lunch included which was basic but tasty. And there were some pretty good photo moments too. Although Mr Minion did take a tumble through theIMG_1566 wooden slats of the beach shack “restaurant” were had lunch in, and whilst I was ready to go and retrieve him, one of the lads played Action Man and rescued him for me!

That evening, we ventured to Bang La Road, which is the club street in Patong. It was a little bit Red-Light-District with the scantily clad women and most probably more than a few ladyboys trying to lure us in to their bar or club or whatever. We ended up going to this area where there were multiple bars in a sort of pod-like formation, with all these poles running from the bar-top to the ceiling. Naturally, where there was a bar, there was a lady in crazy heels gyrating suggestively. Some were dressed rather conservatively – tank tops and hot pants. Some were not – string bikini tops and French knickers. It was still quite early on in the night so it wasn’t overcrowded and sleazy just yet, and we got chatting to the bar staff. They instigated some games – if you win, you get a free shot, if you lose, you have to buy a shot for yourself and one for the barman too. The game was simple and purely luck-based. That didn’t stop one of our girls beating the absolute crap out of the barman! The game only used three dice and a glass. To avoid the messiness of dice rolling all over the place, cover the top with your hand, swill the cup and bang it down to stop the spinning. All you had to do was roll three of a kind. Our lucky lady must have gotten about four free shots, we told her to quit while she was ahead and we went back out on the street searching for a place to boogie.

Cue some rep guy who appeared out of nowhere who guaranteed free shots and discounted drinks on arrival. A round of tequila slammed and 5 vodka lemonades later and we’re drinking Smirnoff Ices down a funnel and dancing with tourists from all over the globe. In the early hours of the morning I was persuaded to grab a Burger King meal which was pretty good, and the only Western fast food I have consumed to date. In the morning we were all heading our separate ways and this really was a great way to spend our last night together. The following day, I was to start my new life in Cambodia (I plan to stay for around 6 months, before I head of to Aus for another 6 or so… I’m not moving for good!).

Bangkok-Bangkok. We made it full circle!

As previously described, we arrived in the Capital of Thailand fairly early in the morning. We then had what felt like the longest walk to the hotel via the underground Metro station. We didn’t need to board another train, just walk under the city for a while, away from the blazing sun and the commuter-filled roads. Yes, yes you did read that correctly… it was hot! Finally, I’d managed to get back to a city in IndoChina where the temperature was better suited to the clothes packed in my bag!

We eventually made it, emerging out onto the street in front or a G Adventures-recommended laundrette and café, and for those of us who had sensibly arrived in Bangkok a day or so before the tour began, people started recognising landmarks as we approached the hotel. And there was no confusion or anticipation as to what the hotel would be like as it was the same one that we started at. As ever though, the rooms were not yet made up, and so we each grabbed our washbags and a change of more suitable clothing and did our best to freshen up in the bathroom downstairs. It’s amazing how awesome you can feel just brushing your teeth!

Since it was now breakfast time, but we had actually been up since about 5.30am, on arriving at a café attached to a youth hostel and perusing the menu, I ordered a smoothie and a hotdog. Well, sausages and bread is basically breakfast food, right…? Some people wanted to make the most of their final day out travelling, so headed off as soon as they were done eating, but I really wanted to check in and grab a quick shower before heading back out into the city. True to form, the food took a long time arriving, and before we knew it, it was 10am, so we were actually able to check in. I stuck around with the boys for the morning as they had a pretty succinct plan for the day – Wat Pho Temple with the famous golden reclining Buddha via the water taxi, and then a short tuk tuk ride to MBK – the biggest shopping mall in Bangkok.

The water taxi was a frightful experience and I wonder that the boat wasn’t overloaded! There was this tiny little Thai man with a whistle hanging round his neck that he absolutely did not need as his voice was piercing and quite high pitched and it carried with no trouble whatsoever! He was effectively the water taxi conductor and was shuffling people all the way down the boat and gathering their fares. We were all stuffed in like sardines though, so there wasn’t really that much room for us to be shuffling anywhere, but we managed to stand our ground amongst locals and tourists alike and even exit at the right stop. A couple of the lads were from the UK and we were discussing whether the journey was more or less pleasant than a trip on the Tube in rush-hour. Generally, we came to the conclusion that at least there were some nice things to look at on the water taxi.

Anyway, we navigated through the streets to Wat Pho Temple which was truly beautiful. The detailed mosaic artwork on the multiple stupors shimmered in the sunlight and I think I managed to capture some of their glittering in a few minion pics – what do you think? I was not expecting the massive golden reclining Buddha to be indoors, in a room with pillars every 10ft, obscuring your view of his magnificent size. It felt like he was almost hiding from the sunshine, but I guess it is likely much easier to maintain the gold plated effigy when he is not outside and open to the elements. In fact, the soles of his feet were closed for maintenance & restoration! I didn’t think too much of this until I decided to do a little bit of research, and then I realised what I’d missed out on. Oh well, to be honest, the subtle tarpaulin and small blocks of scaffolding at the end of his 46m (~150ft) length didn’t really detract from the massive structure. I attempted, like many others who had entered the temple, to take a panoramic photo on my iPhone, but this just ended in absolute fail where the perspectives were all out. We did manage to have another one of those panoramic shots where one person appears in them multiple times. image

We were feeling the heat and were all kind of itching for lunch, so we hopped into a tuk tuk off to MBK as we’d been told there was a great food court on one of the top floors. You did have to wander round, decide what you wanted to eat, top up a cashless payment card and then go back to that specific eatery to buy your meal, but I guess if you’re not a tourist, this form of payment is super-efficient.

Since I was not allowing myself to buy anything at all (bar foodstuffs) until I’d got myself a new suitcase, I didn’t want to spend too much time at MBK. Instead, I headed to the STA Travel Agent to see if they would be able to do a decent deal on the hotel I wanted to stay at in Phuket. Much cheaper to book online instead, so I headed back to the hotel, parked myself with my laptop and booked flights and hotels and dorm rooms and just organised my life, post IndoChina Discovery and G’s Got Talent, generally! I’d decided to prolong the group travelling experience as long as possible, and so I wasn’t going to be saying goodbye to ALL of them at once. A couple of them had already booked into a swanky looking place in Phuket for 5 nights, and a couple of others were thinking about joining in, so in the end there were five of us who splashed out on a bit of a beach holiday for a few days before the rest of our journeys continued separately.

We met for our final meal together at 7pm in the hotel lobby. Everyone made an effort, pretty dresses and a bit of makeup and we all looked glamorous as hell! Our resident hairdresser treated a couple of the girls to a neat updo and we all tried not to talk about the fact this would probably be the last time we’d all be together in the same place. We waited for our CEO for ages, and figured he’d gotten a little confused with our strange messages back and forth as to whether we were going to one of the expensive rooftop bars or not. We sent him a Facebook message, we tried calling him. Then someone suggested we get reception to place a call to his room, and the poor guy had slept through his own alarms! Bless him, he was absolutely shattered, but I guess working 24/7 for a month would do that to anyone. He was downstairs and we were on our way to the same restaurant that we went to on our first night, reminiscing the time that we didn’t know each other, and all the things that had changed. We had an extra person, for a start! I sent the minion round the table for everyone to do a selfie with him! I need to have a think about what I’m going to do with those pictures… they can’t stay hiding in a private album on Facebook forever…

Our CEO stood up and started a speech that I knew would end with at least some people being in tears! We’d also sent a tip envelope round and I’d put a little thank you note in it that I’d got everyone to scribble on, and a couple of people said a few words, like “Dude, you’re awesome. You make suggestions for extra things to do, you make exceptions and adapt our plans when people have issues, you hunt down doctors in the middle of nowhere and we know you are going to be amazing at whatever you put your mind to. This trip would not have been the same without you, and thanks a million!” and “Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, especially at the Laotian Homestay where it was freezing cold, there was little to no running water, and making me understand that we are so lucky to have experienced these amazing things with people who have zero prospects to travel outside of their town or village or country. They live vicariously through the travellers who visit their remote locations and I didn’t understand why we were there until you explained it to me and gave me the G Adventures book to read on the night train.” And more than one person uttered the phrase “friends for life”. Okay, I didn’t cry, but I did have a massive lump in my throat that I tried to swallow without making eye contact with anyone.

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This was not the only pose you could find Ronald McDonald in!

So, after the first emotional part of the evening was over, a bunch of us had already decided to go to a ping pong show. Walking down Khaosan Road, there were sleazy looking guys making disgusting popping noises with their mouths and shoving a ping pong menu under your nose, but our CEO had organised for us to go to a place a little further away from the tourist strip. To be honest, I felt insanely comfortable with the group by then, and there was a fairly large bunch of us that wanted to experience the phenomena, so I was happy to go along. If I was in a smaller group, even as a couple, I don’t think I would have felt safe getting in a tuk tuk, not entirely knowing the destination.

 

We paid 800 baht, no phone, no photos, only to watch these poor dejected women doing truly incredible and fascinating things with their vaginas. I mean, there was one woman who emptied an entire bottle of Coca Cola up in there, she danced about the stage for a bit, and then refilled the bottle. Women were pulling all manner of plastic ornaments attached to flimsy scarves out of themselves, there was one woman who blew candles out on a cake (hygienic!), here was one who fired darts out of herself with such force that she burst a balloon held 6ft up in the air. I mean, don’t get me wrong, when one woman drew a freaking caricature of a ladyboy with a “Welcome to Thailand” speech bubble just holding the pen between her legs, I was seriously impressed. But at exactly the same time, you can’t help but wonder – how do these women come to the realisation that they can do these things? What horrific things must these women have gone through to decide to work in this shady shack on the outskirts of Thailand’s capital city? Some of them were not young, more than a few were clearly mothers, and it was blatantly obvious that none of them wanted to be there. There was no theatricality here, and the audience had much the same attitude, with over 75% of us watching with eyes wide with incredulous pity, unable to tear away their gaze. The show finished with a couple performing some really crazy heterosexual acrobatics, in the only act to feature a dude, and everyone left as abruptly as we’d arrived.

By the time we got back to the rest of the group, I had my review ready. “Sad but fascinating”. I was a little annoyed at myself for subsidising that sort of activity, but then we kind of agreed that we must have already subsidised activities that we didn’t necessarily agree with, without even realising it, which was actually worse. We left serious talk to the side and continued on enjoying our last night together as a bunch of travellers and took our party to a brilliant little reggae bar a few doors down. I’m not going to lie, anytime I hear a Bob Marley medley, I’m going to be reminded of that night, those amazing people and I’ll feel a little twinge of sadness. But all good things must come to an end, with many goodbye hugs and kisses and promises that we’d definitely see each other at some point in the future, people trickled off into the night in order to grab enough shut-eye before their travel plans for the following day.

The next morning, I said goodbye to the best roommate I could have asked for, had my complimentary breakfast on my own for the first time in forever, hopped in a private taxi to the airport, Phuket-bound, to meet up with two brand new and awesome travel buddies and friends for life. All I was doing was putting off the inevitable. I’ve never been one for goodbyes.

A day spent sleeping and sneezing in a hotel, on a bus, and on a train…

Unfortunately, I spent the majority of my only day in Chiang Mai trying to sleep the cold out of me. Admittedly, at this point in the trip, to get a cold was nothing, most people had the sniffles, but I seemed to be getting a seriously bad deal. I even opted for late checkout so I could wallow in self-pity for that little bit longer! I toyed with the idea of having another scalding hot shower, but decided against it due to the notion of putting those damn jeans on again. In hindsight, I probably should have done, because a) you always feel better after a shower and, b) we were due to get the overnight train to Bangkok, so I’d have likely put on my long PJ bottoms anyway (there was no such thing as appropriate clothing in public and I’d actually purchased 3 pairs of PJ bottoms from Primark to wear during the day on my trip anyway!).

The train was possibly the best one of the trip. Unlike the Vietnamese trains with their conservative cabins, the Thai train had the vibe of being a tour bus with cute little seats and tables that efficiently folded out to form beds with their own bed linen, pillow and curtain. The mattress was comfy, the blanket was in its own vacuum packed plastic cover and it was the only non-hotel that I’d slept in without feeling the need to get my own bedding out. We witnessed the guy converting the chairs into our bunks for the night, he had it down to a fine art, and because there was such a large group of us, it did sort of feel a bit like a private minibus, so that was a bonus too. Plus, I managed to use the confined time to pass my book around for everyone to write in! Our incredible month together was fast running out…image

Our wonderful bed-converter did however have a piercing voice at an obscene time in the morning when he was alerting us to our destination “BANKGKOK PLEASE. WAKE UP PLEASE! WAKE UP. BANGKOK PLEASE. BANGKOK WAKE UP.” Admittedly, he did have the entirety of the train to put back to normal before we pulled into the station, and he did have a mesmerising rhythm to bundling the sheets and pillowcase into the blanket ready for laundry service that was quite calming to witness.