When I finished my contract in Niger after 12 months in West Africa, I was pretty spent. That was back in 2006. I finished on the Friday, and the following Monday I loaded a backpack, hopped on a bus, and simply travelled for a month across West Africa. I’m still in the process of writing that trip up, which is taking a while, but with luck I’ll have it posted here this year. If I find the time…
I finished my contract in Papua New Guinea in December and while not quite as screwed up as I was finishing in Niger, I certainly wasn’t in the best frames of mind (as some of my posts below might hint at). The month I spent travelling around West Africa was a life-saver, a time of decompression, rationalisation and self-assessment all in the context of some of the most challenging and difficult travel I’ve ever done. I came away physically exhausted but mentally refreshed and emotionally healing (if not healed) from the gunk I’d subjected myself to. So in the interest of mental health, I decided I’d take a month’s R&R in South East Asia.
Which is why you haven’t heard from me in a while.
I won’t go into too much detail of the trip right now. It was a good trip, and exactly what I needed. Not too many adventures this time, but a gentle and relaxing time of recovery, and an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with my digital SLR (well, one of them), which was a lot of fun as well.
The first few days were spent down in Krabi, at a well-worn beach called Railay, a short boat trip from the town of Ao Nang. It’s a picturesque location with dramatic plunging limestone cliffs and attractive sandy beaches. Time was spent chillaxing with friends, and my only dissapointment was that it was cloudy almost all of the time. What the…? I thought this was supposed to be the dry season. I still found the odd patch of blue sky however, and we had one of the most wonderful sunsets I’ve seen for several years- and I’ve seen a few good ‘uns in the Pacific, let me tell you!
I was in and out of Bangkok throughout the trip- three different times in fact. I like Bangkok. It’s a big, grubby, noisy city, a violent explosion of modernity, Asian-style. From the chaos it embodied on my first intoxicating trip there as a young teenager in the early nineties, it’s blossomed into a sophisticated and well-run city, an enticing blend of amenities, entertainment, and yet somehow more than a sliver of the exotic as well.
New Years I spent with friends in Chiang Mai, where we explored the city, hired bicycles, and the highlight of the trip (for me at any rate), took a Thai cooking class. Kitchy, I realise. Who doesn’t? But it was a lot of fun. A world away from my usual turban-wearing gallavanting (no wild photos from that particular day), but maybe because it was so different I found so much pleasure in it.
Sadly, I still wouldn’t recommend you try my Pad See Eu (eeeww).
From there, I headed off on my own to the delightful Mae Hong Son Province, where I spent several days around the town of Pai. While Pai (the ‘P’ is pronounced as a ‘B’) is becoming a well-trodden tourist hub, the area hasn’t lost its appeal. A small tourist town chocked full of quirky guesthouses, Thai and faux-European-speciality cafes, and more farang on scooters than you can wave an elephant’s trunk at, it is perched in the middle of an attractive open valley in the highlands of north-east Thailand. The winter foliage is subtle shades of dry green, the fields along the river are lined with haystacks, and yes indeed, beware of the elephants on the side-roads. I took five days of doing little bit eat, sleep, read, write, and zip up and down the country lanes on a little motorcy. A holiday like that I haven’t had in years, and I loved it.
Heading back through Bangkok, I arrived in Phnom Penh for a brief stay in what I was expecting to be a busy, charmless and rather forgettable city. I sorely misjudged the place. Cambodia’s capital somehow manages to tread that fine line between vibrant and sedate, between modernising and quaint, and between relaxing and fun. The traditional Khmer architecture of the city centre is dazzling, both inside and out of the main attractions. The french-influenced restaurants down by the river (and elsewhere) provide a diversity of entertainment options, and are chic, affordable and darn tasty. The Khmer people themselves are some of the warmest, sweetest and gentlest I have come across- even next to the foil of Thai hospitality. Probably the ‘highlight’ (if you can call it that) of my time there was a visit to the infamous Tuol Sleng, the school-turned-detention-centre through which nearly twenty-thousand Cambodians passed during Pol Pot’s genocidal purges in the late seventies, and just a dozen survived. It touched me deeply, and you’ll see more on Tuol Sleng here in coming days.
The final leg of my journey took me to Siam Reap, a locale I visited earlier in 2008 for a work function, and about which I had been initially disappointed, and for which I had some reservations about revisiting. The first trip h
ad been during the monsoon season and with my Powershot G9, so photographic opportunities on our one day off (in a charter bus) had been pretty ordinary. This trip though, I was on vacation, with a friend, had my Canon EOS 400D and accoutrements, and it was the dry season- much better lighting. Hitting the temples, cafes and restaurants in equal measure, I managed to use up an embarrassing number of gigabytes of digital storage AND invest fairly heavy in the catering industry of Siam Reap. All up, a fantastic little town with a really gentle vibe, well worth paying it a return trip.
So that’s a bit of an overview. I’ll post a few more specific tales and images in coming weeks. It’s fun to be back online.
1. Catch the Light: Saharan sand folds like chiffon silk among the dunes of northern Niger.
2. West Beach, Railay: Early morning provides a few minutes of blue sky above Ao Nang’s famous limestone cliffs.
3. Sukhumvit: Late morning traffic on one of Bangkok’s best-known thoroughfares, Sukhumvit Road, near Siam Square.
4. Doi Inthanon Flowers: The modern temple and its manicured gardens atop Doi Inthanon, an hour outside Chiang Mai.
5. Afternoon Luminance: Bright evening sunlight washes over the Pai valley.
6. Downtown Colour: Traffic and tradition in central Phnom Penh.
7. Tuol Sleng: One of the detention blocks in the infamous S-21 prison camp in downtown Phnom Penh.
8. Derelict: Ruins of a 14th-century structure at the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat.
9. Indigo Temple: Pre-light dawn backlights Angkor Wat’s UNESCO World Heritage spires.
10. Scattered: Broken blocks from Bayon’s temple superstructure lie scattered around the grounds of Angkor Thom near Siam Reap.
11. Long Ago: A face looms from the foliage that has reclaimed it near the entrance to the Ta Prom temple.
12. Ochre Rocks: Red dusklight bathes the warm rocks of Pre Rup temple a short distance outside Siam Reap.