Ayutthaya and the sleeper train

On the way to Chang Mai we decided to stop in Ayutthaya to check out the ruins of the ancient capital. Ayutthaya was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1991. The ruins date all the way back to 1350 and there are many different sites to visits. We visited Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol which was a royal monestry back in the day and also the Royal Palace. My favorite of the sites was Wat Mahathat where you can find a Budda’s head entwined in tree roots. The great temples of Ayutthaya where destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767. The Burmese invaded the capital and destroyed the religious statues. As a result there are scattered bits and pieces of Budda everywhere. It is belived the Buddas head was hidden and protected under the tree routes to be recovered at a later date. Another theory is that the Budda head was taken by a thief during the invasion and then hidden under the tree.

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Once you’ve seen the world heritage sites in Ayutthyaya there is not a lot else there so we decided to get the sleeper train to Chang Mai. The train cost around 750 Bhat for the top bunk and 850 Bhat for a bottom bunk (about $24-$28 or 14-16 GBP) and takes about 14 hours. We got a second class ticket and the carriage just looks a normal train carriage and they were pretty clean! We have recently ridden another night train which was a bit pissy so I guess its just luck of the draw which train you get. After looking at the different in cost for the trains in Thailand and the busses the train is definitely the best way to travel. We recently travelled across the border by train which cost about 45 Bhat each the bus took longer and got 600 Bhat!

My favorite thing about travelling by train is that it feels totally acceptable to have a couple of beers while you ride somehow on the bus drinking beers doesn’t feel right! Its also lovely to wake up in your bed cabin and look out the window to see a little piece of Thailand that you ight never of otherwise see. The ride up to Changmai and into southern Thailand is so green. A great sight to greet the day by.

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Koh Rong Island

Koh Rong Island is my new favourite place.

This island is small enough to let you relax without feeling like you’ve left anything unexplored and big enough to adventure should the feeling take you. There are enough shops to supply the basics and enough bars to allow you to indulge in a change of scenery and different culinary delight every evening. The local and the western business owners live together as one both taking advantage of the tourists that hit its shores 3 times a day everyday on the ferry from Sihanoukville. Likewise the guesthouses offer employment to those travelers who don’t want to leave in exchange for free board, food and drink. In doing this travelers without the restrictions of time can spend a lifetime in Koh Rong without spending a penny.

On the island electricity only runs from 5pm to 1am everyday and when the water in your bathroom and shower runs out you have to wait for the rain. All drinking water is shipped over from the mainland on the same boats that carry passengers and is also no rubbish disposal system here so the garbage is moved over to the mainland by boat as well.

Ko Rong is a beautiful place and the minute you get of the boat you are given an information session on how the place works. This isn’t to try and sell you a guesthouse or tuk tuk (there are no roads here) but to make tourists mindful of pollution, saving water, animal conservation, fire safety, snake safety, safety in the jungle as well as a friendly reminder not to ride the water buffalo. The organisers here try to encourage awareness to allow Ko Rong to stay beautiful and to encourage the tourists to support the local businesses.

There are organized beach cleans and volunteer programs to help the local children learn English. There’s also a centre that helps look after the local dogs. To control the growth of stray dogs here each restaurant guesthouse or bar takes responsibility for a dog or two so that they are domesticated and people friendly. The centre also takes donnations for their shots and medical treatments. There are donation boxes for the centre called “Help Choco and Friends” in the most popular gusthouses and bars and the dogs make up a huge part of the atmosphere here. Inbetween the Cambodian children and the puppies the cuteness factor on this island off the radar!

Koh Rong is one of the best places in the world (next to thr Muldives and Puerto Rico) to see plankton or as my family like to call them “the sparklys”. We took a boat trip to swim into the sea at night time away from all the lights on the island. We watched tiny balls of electricity against our skin, ingniting with every movement. It was truly magical and psychedelic. We also went snorkeling and fishing. The water was so clear that you could see a lot of the coral without even dunking your head under as well as schools of little blue fish that hang out by the coast line. One day we went to Long Beach which is where they filmed the TV series “Survivor”. At Long Beach we saw swarms or small white fish jump out of the see in unison whilst riding the waves, it was awesome.

We tried fishing but there are no large fish left in this area. Fishing boats have already cleared the area out with big fishing nets. This is just one of the many negative effects of Ko Rongs growing popularity. Although the island is beautiful the peace here is disturbed by the sound of drilling all day long. Guesthouses are being built left right and centre to make way for the next high season. Bars scattered along the main beach play music until the early hours and you have to walk further up the beach or find a more secluded area along the island such as Long Beach, Police Beach or Coconut beach to get any real peace and quiet. This begs the question – how long will the atmosphere on Koh Rong last?

Cambodian Tycoon Kithr Meng bought a 99 year lease on the island in 2006 and word on the street is that he will be building a casino. He has also paid to install internet which although handy indicates a huge change of pace here. How many sacrifices will be made on the islands peace and tranquilatiy in the name of big bucks? I got the sense in Koh Rong that we should make the most of it while it lasts. Neibouring island Koh Rong Samloem already has a “Full Moon Party” and it is feared that it will not be long before the cheap living and white sandy beaches will be ruined by the booming influx in tourism, likening Ko Rong’s fate to that of Thailands Koh Phangan or Bali’s plastic littered shores. And it is not just the westerners to be blamed for this pollution, there is little education within Cambodia a collective naivety towards the bigger picture. On a boat trp to Battambang last week I saw a man eat his Luk Lak from a polystyrene tub and then throw it over his shoulder and into the river. There are also no bins on the beaches or roadsides. I ofen find myself carrying a coke can or a takeaway tub back to my guesthouse because those facilities just aren’t readily available in South East Asia. In a way the westerners have had a good influence in this respect. Although the information sessions and signs about cleanliness and water usage may be aimed at the tourists this has inadvertantly raised awareness among the locals too. Along with money sometimes a new a clash of cultures can bring insight and surely that is a great thing.

Koh Rong, I miss you already.

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Bangkok: Where it all began

It all started in Bangkok. I could feel the heat hit me the moment we walked out of the automatic doors to the airport. It felt good to feel the smoggy sweat against my face. We finally made it to Asia!

With good budgeting intentions we got the local bus to Khao San Road. The bus journey was SO SLOW. Traffic was creeping about a mile an hour. In Melbourne every road and transportation route is built with purpose, the city planners designed the city to deal with congestion and to function with efficiency. In comparison the main roads leading though Bangkok can only be described as chaotic. The rule of thumb here is that if a vehicle is bigger than you it has right of way.

We only stayed 2 nights in Bangkok and in true tourist stlye we went straight to Khao San Road. Although this area doesn’t feel very authentic there are still so many delights to be enjoyed. The place is a food haven! I just walked up and down the roads gliding from street vendor to street vendor. Pad thais, currys, spring rolls, tom yams, coconuts, fresh fruits, kebabs, BBQ fish (probably from the canal), smoothies and mango and sticky rice. Shane and I even wrapped our lips around a couple of deep fried crickets! Tasted a lot like a deep fried prawn with a earthy after taste, Dad will be proud.

Although the atmosphere in Bangkok is a lot of fun I couldn’t help but feel like a goafer in the store sellers game. Naturally the longer you stay in Thailand the better you come to understand the value of things and although for us the clothes and trinkets are cheap it is most certainly the most expensive place to shop in Thailand thus far. I suppose good on the Thais for making the most of the opportunity. The wooden frogs, the baggy pants, the flowing dresses, the wristbands, the backpacks the fake Lacoste can all be purchased for “special price”.

Like a lot of places in Asia you can have some fish nibble the dead skin off your feet. I tried this and decided it not for me! It feels like insects crawling all over you. If you want amazing feet in Thailand pay for a scrub and pedicure, it only cost around $8 (250 Bhat) and your feet will look superb. Plus, no fish will have to endure your crusty foot skin, I can’t imagine that stuff taste too good or holds any nutritional value although the fish do seem to love it!

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Khao San Road served its purpose, a few well needed drinks and some time to generally get used to being on holiday. Next stop, the train to Ayutthaya. On the way to train station we crossed a bridge over the canal that runs through Bangkok. Here we saw a woman popping a squat off the side of the canal. Although it was pretty disgusting watching the brown specimen dangling from her bum it’s an image that made me reflect…

The buildings, the fashion and general hustle and bustle of Bangkok is proof that the country is developing rapidly. Thailand is becoming richer and this can be seen in the development of buildings,education and shopping. It is however still worth noting that the country is just that – “developing”. This means you can get high street brands, eat in 5 star restaurants and visit luxury spas. You also have to be prepared to accept that sometimes people poop in public.

As our train left the station I was given the chance to ponder the skyline of the city, the shacks and houses built next to the train line are made of rusted corrugated iron, very simple and very cheap. The backdrop behind is made up of apartment blocks and high-rise office buildings, an ever growing skyline with very diverse comparisons. All this squished into one very unique city.

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