As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.
In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school to travel in Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.
I started this trip with only one pair of ill-advised shoes — a pair of cheap sandals I had purchased in a mom-and-pop store in northern Bali the spring before. They were two inch high pieces of foam rubber with a wide blue band with no grip whatsoever on the bottom. One time while walking in Lovina, the town in northern Bali I lived in for several months, I slipped on the sidewalk and landed on my behind in 2 seconds flat. These were clearly some high quality shoes and just perfect for some backpacking. I have long wanted to write a story of this trip with this title, though the shoes are only a minor actor in the tale.
On January 1 I flew to Bangkok. I was exhausted and did not have the energy to do much searching for a cheap place. The place I stayed the last two times appeared to be closed so I went a few doors down and paid $8 for a room. I believe this is the most I have ever paid for a room in Thailand. I did not do much for the next two days but eat and sleep and read. I needed a rest. Then I booked a bus ticket to Siem Reap.
The bus was supposed to pick me up at 6:45 am. I was a little anxious as the last time I was to be picked up early for a bus in Bangkok it failed to arrive. But at 10 til 7 a man showed up in front of me and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and I was moved about 10 feet from where I had been standing. Ten minutes later another person came up and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and was ushered along with another group of groggy foreigners shuffling down the street. We walked about 10 minutes and crossed a rather busy road to wait in a highway circle. There were buses there but the herders made no move to get us on them. We stood for about 15 minutes and then the selection process began. We were asked to show our tickets. Some people got yellow tape or a badge to place on their shirts. I received neither and was held back in a smaller group. I began to wonder what was going on. Then we were motioned to move onto a second bus. The first bus looked more posh, but ours was less crowded and I actually had two seats to myself. Our tickets were checked again and we were given orange pieces of paper, and then we were off.
We drove to the Thai/Cambodia border where we disembarked for lunch and visa applications. We went through immigration on the Thai side and then walked across to the Cambodian side. It seemed a strange border as all kinds of people were simply walking across without checks. Unfortunately one person from our bus was denied entry and had to return to Bangkok. We changed to a mini bus on the Cambodian side and our orange pieces of paper were collected. Unfortunately some riders had lost the paper, were berated by our “guide” and were forced to pay more money to continue.
This time we were squeezed in shoulder to shoulder and the road was incredibly worse, if it could be called a road at all. We were told we would arrive at Siem Reap at 7 pm, but instead finally made it at 9. The trip had been fun for the first few hours and then it became very tiresome. I guess that it is part of the beauty of travel, it was easy to get there then some of the fun is lost, at least then fun in re-telling the journey, and everyone would do it. Again, exhausted, I took the first guesthouse I found.
I stayed three days in Siem Reap and saw the incredible temples of Angkor. I spent hours examining the amazing carvings in the largest of the temples and clamoring over ruins in those ridiculous shoes of mine. And yet I wrote very little of this part of the trip.
On January 8, I had a 5:30 am pick-up for a truck to take me to Tonle Sap lake and then the boat to Phonm Penh. I had a choice seat in the back with my legs crushed awkwardly under other people’s backpacks. As we bounced over the steadily worsening road, I was sure I was going to bounce out backwards into a rice paddy, but after some 30 minutes we all made it safe and sound. We boarded small boats to ferry us out to the “BIG” boat, which turned out to be not all that big. I sat in the very last row in the back of the boat where the boat vibrated so loudly I could not hear the Cambodian karaoke movie properly (a blessing?). I tried sleeping bu the vibration made my nose itch beyond control. Instead I read my book (which I left behind and I will never know what happened in Mexico) and watched the mute videos. Four hours later I gratefully disembarked in the capital.
The same day I went to visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek. After a bumpy 25 minute motorbike ride I arrived at the field where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people, bludgeoning them to save bullets. There is just the excavated graves and a pagoda with 17 shelves of skulls, almost 9,000 of them. And 43 graves yet to be excavated. My guide lost his parents there. The weather was beautiful – a sunny day with blue skies, the fields green. It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. On the 9th I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which used to be a school but was turned into a prison for interrogation and torture. Not a day of lightness. Is it strange that this country boast the architectural achievements of the Khmers in monuments of beauty and grace and yet is also home to some of the sites of the most atrocious horrors done by humans to other humans. Not uplifting, but it should be seen nonetheless.
I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, stayed one night, and then flew to Phitsanulok in Thailand, where I took a bus to Sukhothai.
As soon as I step off the bus in Sukhothai I am accosted by a woman who demands to know where I want to go. I look at my guidebook. Yupa guesthouse? OK. Forty baht. I look at her dubiously but agree. As we head to the “taxi” I realize it is a little truck, a songtheaw. I also notice another songtheaw full of Thai people though I am being led to an empty one. I aks her, how come all the Thai people are over there? Farang (foreigner) 40 baht and Thai 5 baht, I ask her. She laughs as she helps me into my own personal truck. You must walk far if you take Thai truck, this truck right to door, no walking! I wearily agree and off we go.
I do not have much energy for the day so I have lunch and take a nap. I meet a woman from Belgium and we agree to have dinner. She tells me the truck from the bus station is 10 baht. The woman from Belgian tells me that the guesthouse is blissfully quiet. I can hardly wait. As I lay down to sleep after a furious storm a concert begins. It is Children’s Day and some pop star from Bangkok is in town and there is nothing more enjoyable to do on Children’s Day then to set up a huge outdoor concern and keep all the children and everyone else in town awake until after midnight. I put in my earplugs and try to get some sleep.
iOn January 13 I decide to visit Si Satchanalai, another town 56 kilometers north of Sukhothai, where there are some nice ruins. I consult someone at the guesthouse down the road and discover I can take a bus in the direction of Chiang Rai. The owner of my guesthouse gives me instructions to the bus station. He tells me “PingBaBaBuKaLa.” I look at him. He repeats “PingBaBaBuKaLa.” I repeat after him. He looks at me. I realize he is saying “Pink Purple Bus Color.” Ah ha! I am set.
I write nothing about my time in Si Satchanalai or Sukhothai. I am always curious of my choices to record some things and not others. I remember renting a bicycle and riding around the ruined city and my ridiculous shoes constantly fell off as I cycle and I walk right out of them when I get stuck in some mud.
I travel next to Chiang Mai. I take part in a Thai cooking course. I take a three hour Thai massage introductory course at the handicapped center. I visit Doi Suthep, the temple on the top of the mountain, where I assist an Italian woman bitten by a dog. I then follow it with my unexpected trip to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which I chronicled in another post. As I sit in a hotel room, once again in Thailand many years later, I feel nostalgia for this trip, for the kind of travel I used to do. Though this time I have some better shoes.