Thailand is diverse, yes, and distinctly Thai all over – green curry and lemongrass, laid-back beach boys and lady boys laying back. It’s a sophisticated up-and-comer with a cool middle-class that loves skinny-mocha-latte-frappuccinos and travelling the world. Bangkok is ablaze with passion, neon, creativity, vice and above all, vibe. Laos too, has a distinct flavour. Its natural beauty is breathtaking; the people are genuine and extravagantly generous with their smiles. Their history of invasions and secret wars is harsh and life is hard – but simple – and in one way or another, almost entirely dependent on the mighty, glorious Mekong River that holds the country up from Northwest to Southeast like an ever flowing spine.
But what do we capture when we need to wrap everything we experienced in Cambodia into 90 seconds of digital visuals for our latest project for Stray Asia?
Let’s take its history: Reaching way back, we have the most powerful and robust relic of all of ancient South East Asia – Angkor Wat. Built around 900 years ago, it’s staunch, sculpted stone walls and thrillingly intricate spires tower over the jungle and dominate all constructions in SE Asia bar the most recent of skyscrapers. It’s the jewel of a massive 1000sqkm temple and ancient city complex, atmospherically only partially reclaimed from the jungle into which it was lost by 1300AD, way before Angelina Jolie clambered seductively around Wat Tha Phrom in the perfect set for Tomb Raider. Angkor Wat is even the centrepiece for the nation’s flag and pride, and many visitors to the country come to see this impressive place, and almost nothing else.
Those that do stick around to explore Cambodia a little further often find themselves entering the dark domain of one of the most destructive and depraved eras in human history. Rural born Saloth Sar, who later adopted the name ‘Pol Pot’ (short for ‘Political Potential’) led the nation to catastrophe in the 1970’s in his attempt to re-boot society. He envisioned a simpler lifestyle of agrarian self-sufficiency – a brand of communism that would see society return to the iron-age.
When his party, the Khmer Rouge, came to power in 1975 he declared it “year zero”. It seems he attempted to “fix” the issues he perceived by switching society off and switching it on again – only “switching it off” meant exterminating anyone who stood for society’s progression or the betterment of themselves and their lifestyles. Doctors, teachers, engineers and academics were first – rounded up, tortured, worked to the bone and often killed – most of the time along with their families. With the utter breakdown of society that followed, millions more starved. You can go see the evidence today in a Phnom Penh middle school transformed into hell, where innocent people were imprisoned and tortured, and many died. It’s now a gory museum, Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21.
Then there’s “the killing fields”. The remnants of a human slaughter factory turned into a memorial site and museum is sadly only one of dozens of similar (but as yet closed to public) sites in the country. In the most graphic but poignant of ways you can pay your respects before a towering stupa filled with the skulls and bones of over 3000 victims of Pol Pot’s regime, the evidence of their violent deaths brutally apparent in the holes, slashes and fractures of their remains. The killing fields are gut wrenchingly confrontational, yet an incredibly important experience to appreciate Cambodia as a whole. Go there, stare the darkest aspect of human nature in the eye sockets and be thankful for the life you’ve led. Reflect on what you can do to make sure humankind doesn’t try to dissolve itself again.
Pol Pot didn’t quite see his dream realised. Once the world understood what was happening, the Vietnamese army rolled in to salvage what it could of Cambodia. What was left of the country (only about ½ the population by that stage) put its strongest, bravest foot forward to start the long, slow battle towards a better life. And they’ve come a long way. Whilst this part of Cambodian history cannot be ignored, neither can the backdrop to this tragedy – the pure physical beauty of the country. Lush, green rice fields and one of planet earth’s most unique, reversible river-systems, the Tonle Sap, which runs inland in the dry season and back out to sea in the wet, like an enormous lung, breathing in and out with the rhythm of the tropical seasons.
We are welcomed by dozens of laughing, curious kids at our homestay near Battambang, who can’t wait to show us around the neighbourhood, play catch in the rice paddies and leap headfirst into haystacks to see who can bounce off furthest. Whilst the owners of our stilt hut for the night share a communal bucket shower with adventurous (maybe just sweaty) members of our group, others cook mouth-watering dinner. A local group of musicians have a night off and play music so we can join in dancing with the elders. Everyone is so genuinely sweet and interested; we leave reluctantly the following morning.
Then there are the gorgeous beaches and islands off Sihanoukville in the south. A thumping seaside hedonist resort around Serendipity Beach, the further away beaches are idyllic and splashed with sumptuous colour every sunset – go there and you might just catch the best sunset you’ve ever seen in your life. Get to Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island) to swim through the shimmering green phosphorescence at its brightest under a new moon after the generators are switched off for the night, or explore the salt & pepper farms around Kampot that flavour Cambodia’s tastiest national dishes. Finally, you’ll have to be bunkered up in your hotel room with food poisoning to miss the coolness of the capital Phnom Penh. Big city lights, bustling makeshift markets, artistic community projects that rival Siem Reap’s fantastic Cambodian youth circus (a MUST visit!), amazing food and world-class street art grapple for your attention.
So how do you wrap all that up in 90 seconds without being all doom and gloom, without ignoring the ghastliness or not taking things seriously? How do you capture the darkness and the light? What is Cambodia’s flavour?
The common thread to these stories was standing right by us the whole time. It was plainly evident in the curiosity and welcome on the faces of the people of Cambodia. Energy and sass of the youth and wisdom and wrinkles beyond words in those old enough to remember. And in every face blinking back at us, whether in smile or in furrow, was hope moving forward. Something we recognise easily, and probably the best thing in all our faces.
We admit it. We’ve been in hiding. A whole month and a half without a word, even a simple little ‘boo!’ failed to emerge from the Casa del Rat & Dragon. (Unless you have us on twitter/instagram of course). Our mothers have been worried, our younger siblings moving into our metaphorical bedrooms and our friends, well… probably just thinking ‘bet they got stuck in some jungle waterfall or super-secret hilltop rave pad in Borneo. Bloody typical’.
Fear not, dear (otherwise avid) readers. For we are back. Back from the jungle of our own minds, from a journey that took us from dodging crocs in northern Queensland to working the fields of central New South Wales to careering around the hinterlands of Cambodia with a bus full of off-the-hook nut-jobs to conquering the mystical backpacker Eden of Myanmar.
As we emerge from the little hideout we shared with Tanaka-Tigerbaby, blinking into the bright daylight of what some refer to as ‘the civilized world’, we find ourselves in one piece but also split to opposite ends of the globe. In the next few weeks, our Dragon will be reporting from the front line of the centre of the universe (also called ‘London’) and our Rat is on standby during her rural work and can be spotted climbing the coconut trees to get reception in the middle of nowhere (also called ‘a farm and hour’s drive from Spot X’). Bring binoculars and avoid early mornings.
You have been patient. You have grown your Karma points beyond belief. But in the next few weeks, hold your horses. For you’re about to be rewarded by having a humongous amount of awesomeness pour straight into your retinas.
11 months in the making, Tag has been our most ambitious project to date. Now spearheading STA Travel’s global Blue Ticket campaign, our project of love throughout our 2014 Epic Journey from London to Sydney has quite a few Easter Eggs hiding in it. Without further ado, find out some interesting facts about the shoot and see what you can spot:
1) Quick fire facts:
Total millage covered in production: 40000km
Total countries covered: 19
Total destinations and activities filmed: 34
Total featured destinations in the final cut: 19 across 10 countries
Total featured activities in the final cut: 8
How many can you name? Travel buffs are required to accept a handicap of -4 points to level the playing field 🙂
To make it to two minutes we had to cut Tallinn, Penang, Roppongi, Kyoto, our friend Wu’s Kung Fu demonstration at 798 Art District Beijing (spot him in STA Travel’s Insider Intel film!), temples in Ubud, Bali (check out Ganesh in the Tag lowdown) and Uluru. Talk of killing your darlings…
Unlike a lot of movie magic, most scenes in Tag were shot in sequence, though there are some fun exceptions. Surfing Bondi was actually shot at Spot X, the epilogue was shot in a public park in the middle of Joetsu, Japan. There’s one scene that’s shot on the other side of the world to where it’s set. Guess which one!
Our two outfits (before and after swimming) stay the same throughout production, so we needed to cart them around for 11 months through all sorts of climates. An exception are our shoes. How many pairs do Nic and Sax get through? And what country does Nic change her hairstyle in?
Some things, such as our longtail to scuba shot, were carefully planned and took several takes to get right (see how Nic goes from dry to wet hair?). Some things, on the other hand, were complete coincidence, but we just had to include them. The Chinese dude spitting on Tiananmen Square gave us the same feeling a wildlife photographer gets from capturing the perfect shot of a majestic eagle catching salmon. Can you guess another one that was complete pot luck?
Production consisted of a skeleton crew of 2 people, plus local assistance for knowing the best places to shoot and guarding our kit of Canon DLSR x 2, Hero3 GoPro x 2, Lenses: 50mm 1.8, 18-55mm, 50-300mm, Sennheiser mike, Zoom recorder, Tripod, Slider and compact steady-cam.
Finally, we could not have produced Tag without our unsung heroes. Kahori and Yumi-delux, two of our best mates from Japan, nailed playing professional patty cake in front of snowy Joetsu’s Takada Park samurai castle. Nicola’s brother J is in the background on Koh Phi Phi doing what he does best: adding tone. Paul, Kate, Honorata and Rob at the Victoria STA Travel store – thanks for your lunch breaks!! And Celina, Saxon’s sister, (who’s a professional actor!) and boyfriend Ryan presented an outstanding emotional performance as the perfect UP couple with a happy ending! For a cheeky side-track, can you spot the ‘porn’ star?
Tag was indeed a monster to create, but we’re stoked that so many people will be seeing this little piece of epicness as part of STA Travel’s Blue Ticket campaign. Whilst we’re mega busy at the moment (watch out for Oz road trip films and TLC adventures coming soon!), we can’t wait to get our hands on our next Epic Project.
Returning wide-eyed and open mouthed from our 3 day mind-warp to the Field of Pots, (sorry, Plane of Jars), the Pot People (i.e. Ricky, Jodie, Matt, Toto, Dragon and Rat) met our new travel companions at the left turn off that gravel road by the tree. 4 hours windy bus ride later we drifted down the Nam Song River at Vang Vieng, in inflated tractor tires, beverages in hand. It was the perfect activity to align our hugely expanded minds with Amy, Evelien, Harriet, Matt number 2, Jay, Lilly and Chao, who did a fabulous job catching up with the help of river-flavoured Beer Lao.
Whilst rope swings and spring break bars have shut down due to health (/death) issues, tubing is still a lovely thing to experience as the surrounding scenery is breathtaking and our fantastic group took the party way through dinner and beyond, turning our riverside restaurant platform into a dance off competition with another table in the bar next door. Cue the re-birth of gangnam style.
The capital lay ahead of us the following day, but as anyone who has been to Vientiane knows, it’s large and industrial with a quaint city centre, but there’s not that much going on. Apart from the very impressive COPE centre (must-see organization dealing with the ongoing effects of UXOs from the Secret War), some temples and the picturesque riverside night market, we were most amused by our guide Chao’s smug giggles at explaining the origins of Laos’ own Arch de Triomphe. American funds and cement intended for a new airport (read: increased US military access) were appropriated somewhat differently by the Royal Laotian government, who had Patuxai Gate constructed in defiance. Locals still repress proud smiles and refer to the Victory Gate as the ‘vertical runway’ to this day.
Far more exciting was our next stop at Kong Lor, where we stayed for two nights amongst impressive karst mountains and rice fields. In true ‘middle of nowhere’ style, the electricity gave up after 5 hours, which lead to a collective loss of inhibitions as we bunched up to hand-wash our dirty clothes in a large bowl ‘borrowed’ from a nearby shed. Local legend has it that a farmer, many years ago, lost his flock of ducks whilst he tended to his far too full bottle of LaoLao one afternoon. Confused yet laissez-fair, he proceeded to explain the concepts of time travel and multiple dimensions to his wife that evening, just to find his ducks being sold at a market on the other side of the mountain a week later. Inter-galactic teleportation aside, the ducks could not have crossed the mountains un-aided, so after frenzied exploration on the farmers part, a huge cave was discovered hiding behind a nearby bush, with a gushing river leading 7 km through the mountain and out the other side. Just goes to show how much attention people sometimes pay to their nearest surroundings.
Pumped up by tales of legendary duck-courage, we split into groups of 3 to board individual longboats, and set off into the vast cave with an incredibly skillful boatsman each, who found his way through the pitch black, around submerged jagged rocks and up underground waterfalls armed only with a flimsy torch. Chao proudly pointed out the electrical cables that lead to a small but impressively lit 5 minute walking trail in the heart of the mountain, where we could see various stalactites and stalagmites before jumping back into the boats. This was indeed the height of technology in these parts. Topped off with a BBQ, swim and Ricky’s own fishing show, we all had a fantastic day.
A long drive brought us to Thakhek, where we persuaded our driver to drop everyone off and then take two laps of the small town with our kitted up Dragon perched on the back of a borrowed motorbike, ridden (by our Rat) precariously close to the bus, other vehicles and at one stage the police. The mission for the perfect bus-exterior shot raised a few local eyebrows, as did the amused hollers of the rest of the group, camped out in a nearby restaurant. Mental scaring ensued as four of us (who shall not be named) accidentally paid for a massage in a brothel. At least Chao, who swore he has ‘always told every other group to not go there’ thought it was hilarious. Which in itself was hilarious.
After Thakhek’s somewhat seedy border-town charm, we had a real treat lying ahead of us. After several hours of singing East 17, Hanson and 50 Cent at full pelt we took a right turn off the main road and the driver got his revenge. Our buts got the best massage in weeks, but the potholed dusty paths we hurtled along lead deeper and deeper into amazing countryside so no one paid much attention to the fact we were being turned into Schnitzels. A quick stop at an unassuming pond with a small temple in the centre brought forward 5 huge soft-shelled turtles who were lucky enough to have been born in a lake they were considered sacred (not supper). “Beautiful little buffalo, come to me, aye aye aye” sang the driver and Chao in unison, coaxing the creatures out of the murky water with crackers sold by one of the more entrepreneurial locals just outside the park gates. We decided it wise to not enquire further about the local attraction to little buffalo. While everyone tried to get his or her cameras right into the turtles face and feel its soft leathery shell, Amy made a friend for life in a local, white and brown-patched dog.
Back on the road to Xe Champhone, we drove tantalizingly close to our home stay, but dropped by the local temple first, where a monk happily chatted to us about his life in Michigan until we all hooked up on facebook. The temple was also home to a 200-year-old Buddhist library full of thousands of Sanskrit scriptures and bamboo tablets, all crammed into three small wardrobes in a tiny stilt structure in the middle of a lake. A huge white Buddha statue on the other side of the lake, that had been donated by the Thai government after the old one was bombed in the war, provided a great photo opportunity, as did the monkeys in a nearby forest our group eagerly fed bananas to. Monkey porn ensued.
Our second home stay, whilst less integrated with the locals as the last, was a great communal experience for our now rather large group. We had left the Dutch behind in Vientiane, but four new faces, Tanja, Mary, Claire and Kelly had joined. Tanja and Chao united to become the driving force behind dinner, creating huge amounts of curry, vegetable dishes, bamboo sprout dishes, sticky rice and other tasty treats whilst Ricky and the boys tended to (i.e sporadically and expertly poked) the barbecue. Our Rat was even fortunate enough to try some of the drivers special chilly sauce which, without further ado, made her head explode. Without this core team’s efforts, we surely would have died of starvation. Sitting around the campfire after the fantastic meal we once again reminisced about the joys of travelling, meeting new people and telling the rat race to go eff itself.
Nursing our hangovers over omelet and coffee breakfast, we couldn’t believe there was so little left to go. On the way to Pakse, our group declared a mutiny and, despite what our driver and Chao recommended, jumped straight into the freezing waters of the spectacular Tad Ngeuang waterfall. A hangover cure if there ever was one was followed later by a massage and Indian feast in Pakse’s city centre.
And so, dear readers, we arrive at the final part of this trip through incredible and unsung hero of a country. Scaling the heights of Wat Phou, an ancient temple complex built as the capital of the Khmer empire before Angkor Wat, we marvelled at the amazing views, the intricate carvings of the temples and calm serenity of its hillside setting. It was even better than Bonnie Doon. Little old ladies chanted prayers as they bound cotton bracelets around our wrists and a clear stream of water emerging straight out of a gigantic overhanging rock cooled our sun beaten faces.
A few hours later saw our bus board a river ferry made of a rickety bamboo raft supported by floaters made of old war plane fuel tanks and packing our bags into our final little longboat, we sped through the Mekong’s 4000 islands on the way to Don Det. Cycling through the sunset past numerous bamboo hideouts, some scattered hippies swaying to their private head-raves and a mid-street local cock fight was the perfect round up of this incredible trip with awesome people we can’t wait to see again soon. Laos, you’ve enchanted us, and grown our appetites for adventure in the next stop on our TLC project: Crazy Cambodia.
The mother of water. The cocoa coloured wonder. The Mighty Mekong. Call it what you like, this river rich in history, legend and adventure had us awe struck from the moment we set foot on our long, slim slow boat to begin our 2 week trek from the Northwest to the deep South of Laos.
More Stray adventurers had joined our group (check out our Thai trip!) over the last day to now collectively gawp at sunny rays softly illuminating the incredible scenery of lush green rainforest covered hills, elephants being bathed nearby little villages and kids back-flipping into the rushing river. Apart from filming, there was little to do but take in the scenery, and it was so spectacular that even after 5 hours straight, we got off the boat and still stood staring in wonder at our surroundings.
Our first night was to be spent in a homestay village right on the Mekong. We arrived around 4pm, just in time to join the local kids for a few games of football and some singing and playing tag at the local school. Newcomers Rick, Jodie, Matt, Paige, Brian and Anna did us proud by jumping straight into the fray with everyone else as we ran, hollered, laughed till we cried and rolled around on the floor with equally enthusiastic local kids from three to 20+ years old. It was HUGE amounts of genuine fun and luckily for everyone there was a head teacher monitoring that all kids (he included us in this definition) played nice.
We also had two groups of older and way wiser Dutch (Ellie, Michael and Jolien) and Kiwi (Amanda and Kayla) travellers with us, who had kept mainly to themselves (we can’t blame them as we’d turned into a bit of a rowdy bunch), but joined in in full swing, which was fantastic. Playtime ended when Ellie was hit by a near scoring ball but it was getting dark and everyone was hungry so both teams decided to call it a draw – apart from the goal Rick scored, but for some reason this still made it a draw. It struck us over amazing candle lit dinner under the stars (the generator had kicked the bucket after the entrée) that everyone was so uncomplicated, that there was no resentment or “that was definitely offside” or arguing at all – everyone’s sheer joy at playing together was so infectious that the usual dinner conversations that, at least in the UK, inevitably involved complaining about something were replaced by everyone chatting about how amazing life was.
The power cut had other positive effects as we sat on the floor in one of the small houses, our tummies full to bursting with delicious food, and were treated by the village elders to a Ba Si Soul Calling ceremony, that was rendered all the more magical by the necessity of being candle lit. The villagers had spent hours that day painstakingly preparing a small offering of sweet banana sticky rice, an egg, a bundle of flowers, a candle and incense in a small banana leaf tray for each one of us. In the middle of the room stood a beautifully decorated centerpiece of fresh flowers, banana leaves and white cotton threads – 32 per person to symbolize 32 parts of the body – that the elders proceeded to tie around each person’s wrists individually in order to call back lost fragments of the soul and tie them back together for peace and harmony. Even describing the ceremony as magical, moving and thoroughly wonderful wouldn’t do it justice, as every one of us agreed it was one of the most beautiful things we had experienced on our travels.
After a good nights sleep in bamboo stilt huts, we headed further down the Mekong and stopped off at the Pak Ou Cave filled with Buddha statues (where our hand made flower, candle and incense bundles came in handy) and amazing views across the river. Soon after we arrived at the shores of one of the top destinations on our wish list: Luang Prabang.
Unesco world heritage site (we keep on bumping into these!!) since 1995 and originally founded in 698 AD, Luang Prabang is teaming with history, art, awesome food, great markets and saffron clad monks. You can get the best view right from the centre of town, after climbing aptly named ‘Phu Si Hill’ (*cue giggles from our Rat & Rebecca*), and we can see why people get stuck here. Most things are within walking distance, and there so much to do, including marveling at over 30 distinct temples, mountain biking to nearby turquoise-coloured Kuang Si waterfalls, learning how to cook amazing food at Tamarind and enjoying the most talented of the South East Asian movie business show off their latest projects at the yearly Luang Prabang Film festival.
One activity we most enjoyed during our short visit was visiting the Living Land Farm where assistant manager and all-around small, nimble and smiley guy Sia Lee walked us through the numerous stages of rice farming. It was an utter joy watching Sia, who was incredibly knowledgeable, humble and sweet as he showed us in true hands-on Laos style how to germinate, plant, plough, weed, harvest, dry and process rice plants and the entire group relished getting stuck in the knee deep soft and squelchy mud whilst singing planting songs, clearing space for young rice saplings and steering ‘Suzuki’, the obedient but massive water buffalo through a flooded paddy in need of a plough. Sia told us all about the project, that he had set up with his brother Laut, to employ locals who would otherwise not find work due to their low educational background and supplies Luang Prabang’s restaurants with organic rice, vegetables, herbs and salad greens.
After all the planting, dodging Suzuki’s horns and breath, grinding rice flower, squeezing juice from sugarcane and picking salad fresh from the pristine gardens, Sia instructed us on using all sorts of ingenious contraptions made out of bamboo, including steamers, fish & rat traps, irrigation systems, bowls, baskets and most fun of all – a crossbow. As we took aim and mostly missed at a flaming yellow flower perched on a haystack, an incredible smell seeped through the hut – the food we’d been gathering was cooked and ready to feast upon. And what a feast it was. Refined and flavoursome as a high-class restaurant, we munched on deep fried rice crackers, coconut waffles, chili & buffalo skin sauce, garden fresh salad and carrots. It was incredible and we’d visit the Living Land Farm again in a heartbeat.
Time was pressing on and, over an amazing dinner only reachable via a small bamboo footbridge that gets washed away by monsoon each year and subsequently re-built (fairy lights and all), we said goodbye to most of our group who continued to Vientiane. We on the other hand had heard rumors floating around Luang Prabang of a mystical and long-forgotten place: The Plane of Jars in North-East Laos. The magnitude of one of our most surreal trips to date simply won’t fit into 5 lines, so check out the lowdown here.
****** short break due to possible alien abduction******
Go! Grab a quick pee-break, a cup of tea or stiff drink. For you insatiable spirits, we continue our travels in TLC: Southern Laos.
6 months ago we were in a rice field shouting “Nam. You weren’t there! You didn’t know what it was like!” with full conviction of telling the whole world what an awesome place this was. We’d just finished filming Stray Asia’s brand new tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and were exhilarated by the beauty, madness and resilience of a country that had spent the last decades re-building its fascinating identity out of the rubbles of war. Then the phone call: “Hey, d’you guys fancy a project through Northern Thailand and down the Mekong through Laos to Cambodia?”. “We are a fan of rhetorical questions” replied team R&D, and *poof* appeared on our second flight of 2014.
Bangkok – one night here makes all sorts of things your oyster. We’ve been here countless times before but it’s baffling how you can discover new aspects of this crazy city all the time. We’re not talking new sites to ‘do’ (Bangkok can be seen as rather mundane in comparison to other tourist destinations), but how everyday life sprouts out at you from every corner. Street art and the trendy urbanite scene were our discoveries in April, cute family weekend markets and the embassy network in May. This time around we discovered the river and canal boat system as incredibly handy and thoroughly enjoyed hanging out in a park under Rhama 8 bridge, where groups of teenagers and families with small kids congregated at night to eat grilled quid, enjoy the river view, practice their skateboarding, drumming and acrobatic dance routines.
Starting in Bangkok, Thailand’s simplified reputation as a cheap, health & safety free and 3rd world charming backpacker’s stomping ground was to be challenged many a time throughout our trip. As we headed off with a group of Stray adventurers next morning to Thailand’s old capital and historical landmark Ayutthaya, we discussed the countries unique status as the only South East Asian country to have never been colonized by a European power, the strong presence of its university educated middle class, and its resulting hipster culture.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U Thong (nope, we’re not making this stuff up) to escape a rather nasty smallpox outbreak just down the road, and lay the foundations for the royal courts Australian sandal making business. Declaring it Siam’s capital and the construction of some gigantic monasteries made the place a rather happening spot on the map, so by the year 1600 AD its 300,000 inhabitants (or 1 million inhabitants by 1700 AD if you believe the census manager Sober Bob) made it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Guided around by local Rita (who was awesome, and may or may not have once been a dude), we boarded a cooling river boat and visited several temples including Wat Chai Wattanaram (“fall down steep steps”), Wat Phra Chao Phananchoeng (“huge gold disapproving buddah”), Wat Phutthai Sawan (“Khmer mismatched tower”) and Wat Mahathat (“that one with head thing coming out of that tree”). Jokes aside, the temples were fantastic to view and showed off Ayutthaya’s incredible mix of historical cultural influences that were unfortunately all bashed to pieces by the Burmese army in 1767. Ruins of temples, monasteries and Thailand’s first church (pesky Portuguese building churches everywhere!) are now protected by UNESCO world heritage status. Beers and dinner lead to various bonding experiences, none of which was stronger than our overnight journey to Chiang Mai via sleeper train. We are constantly astounded at the ingenuity that goes into land travel outside Europe, and so new friends Lindsay, Sarah, Rebekka, RV, Saya, Sujan, Toto, Rat, Ped and Dragon emerged refreshed and giggling in Chiang Mai the next morning.
Mountain air and chilled out vibes greeted us in one of Trip Advisor’s 25 Best Destinations in the World (2014), not that we pay TA much attention, but we thought it would make our mates there proud. Founded in 1296 this city has had more time than others to develop an astonishing richness in architecture – especially of the surrounding temples, of which we visited two stunning examples. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (1383) is the most well known of Chiang Mai’s temples and offers panoramic views of the city whilst you snake past beautiful gold stupas and lots of colourfully clad tourists, monks, street vendors and workmen. Our especially arranged Thai guide explained the temple was built of a site that a white elephant carrying Buddha relics lay down to rest. Or may have outright died, no one was quite sure. Poor little Nelly.
Wat Pha Lat, (great instructions on this blog) on the same windy tuktuk ride through the hills, was a different story altogether. Built integrated within the forest, not despite it, we marvelled at the serene and stunningly beautiful carved stupas, statues, walkways and serpent staircases that melded into their natural surroundings. And by ‘we’ I mean just ‘we’ and some monks. No one else. We marvelled at the city view from the middle of a waterfall that, even in dry season, rushed with little streamlets of crystal clear mountain water and listened to the birds and bugs as they hovered around this piece of paradise. In fact, we shouldn’t be even telling you about it. It’s that special. Peer into the light at the top of my pen. We’re not the Men in Black. Who are they? There are of course many other temples to explore within the city limits, some of which date back to 1297. Yep, we’re going rather heavy on the dates here, but things are just so impressively old. As we said earlier, this ain’t no country of newly built bamboo beach huts and westernized cocktails.
A somewhat different experience awaited us later that afternoon, as we signed up to our first ever Thai boxing class. The teacher wasn’t as committed as he should have been, but one of the students (really cool girl with a half shaved head – spot her in the film!) picked up the pieces so we ended up having a good time. And as film makers, the golden hour light was to die for. What the class did do very well was put into context the actual fights we saw later that evening in the arena in town, and it was fantastic to see so many people engaging positively and respectfully in a sport that requires a huge amount of discipline.
For the templed out, Chiang Mai has a wide array of alternative activities to offer, one of the most famous being the Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining experience. And for good reason. With state of the art equipment and a world class guides, it was a fantastic way to see the jungle whilst flying through the canopy at the perfect height to grasp the immensity of the trees as well as the beautiful details of leaves, branches and flowers around us. That evening, we feasted our eyes on a stall after stall of useless but beautiful things at Chiang Mai’s Anusarn market (cue *giggles from our Rat & Rebekka*), some tourist tat, some really amazing jewellery, bags, clothes, scarves and knickknacks we would have happily paid a good price for at Westfields. The evening was rounded off by one of the most fun nights we’ve had out at a show: The Chiang Mai Cabaret Ladyboys. Bring tip money, it’s well deserved.
Our final stop before heading over the border to Laos was the white temple in Chiang Rai. You may or may not have heard of it – one of the most surreal and theatrical places, a huge sparkling macaroon of a temple that could have popped straight out of ‘The Never-ending Story’. Adorned with all sorts of references popular culture, it was crowded, kitsch and anything but serene, and we loved it. You can’t take pictures of the mural inside the main temple, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself.
And so we headed off to Laos, over one of the most relaxed border crossings in the world, and were rewarded with a tantalising glimpse of the mighty Mekong, on which we were to continue our journey floating down it the following morning. And what a journey it would be.