We’re in Chiang Mai, and this is the last stop on the Emily-Cristian Asian express. So I’d better look back at our last month of adventures and tell the story of what we’ve learned since leaving Vietnam in March.
We head straight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we meet Adriana, Cristian’s older sister. She’ll be our companion for the next three weeks. For any of your who haven’t met her, she looks a lot like Cristian and their mum – petite, with dark, bouncy, curly hair. She calls Cristian “enano” which literally means “dwarf”, but is really a term of endearment for the youngest in the family.
Siem Reap exists only because of its proximity to the temples of the ancient Khmer civilisation. There are hundreds of temples, from the giant Angkor Wat to the intimate Banteay Samrė. They are spread out over an area of about 60km or so, which makes the place feel a bit like a mega Disneyland for history buffs.
We decide on a three day pass to make the most of it, and confidently rent bicycles for our first day. It’s about 8km out to the start of the park, and then another 15km or so around, plus 8km back. We didn’t bank on the insane heat either, ducking and diving from shade to shade, it must be at least 38 degrees outside. We guzzle warm water greedily, exactly the same temperature as the sweat that’s currently dripping off our noses. Yummy.
I buy myself a guide book, Ancient Angkor, from a guy in the first temple we visit. Pretty much every photo taken of me after that is of me pouring over the book. I love it. It’s like hide and seek but with Hindu Gods. “On the SE side of the W gopura you can see the rare representation of Ganesh riding his own trunk”. I zoom about the temples, spotting these little gems, loving the thrill of the hunt. I turn travel guide for Cristian and Adri, translating, trying to explain the myths and meaning behind what we are seeing. I don’t care that it’s hot, I hunt for my treasures, Adri and Cristian waiting patiently in the shade. In the evening I can’t stop reading the book, I love it so.
Each temple is really a whole city complex, with the temple standing tall and proud in the middle, a sacred space reserved only for royalty and clergy. There is symbolism and story telling everywhere. My biggest gasp moment was leaving Angkor Wat, and cycling up to the gate of Angkor Thom, another vast holy city just next to it. You cross the river on an epic bridge, with huge figures lining up on either side of you. On the left are massive, grimacing heads, these are demons. On the right are the gods, with contrasting expressions of serenity and benevolence. The vast figures are holding a giant, seven headed snake, known as a naga, so they look like they are in a huge tug of war. Acting both as a bridge and as a massive symbolic piece of art, the gods and demons are working together, they are churning the Sea of Milk, in order to release Amrita, the nectar of immortality.
As you pass the giant statues on either side of you, you approach the gate, a huge, triple headed stone doorway. The faces, so universal, are immediately appealing. I might not understand the intricate symbolism in the giant battle scenes you see carved on the walls of Angkor Wat, but I can definitely recognise a big, beautiful head. It screams power. It says – you are entering my city. I see everything and everywhere. I am MIGHTY!
As you walk around the temples, you yearn to enter them as they were, 800 years ago. In the central shrine of Banteay Srei, there is a large pedestal (with nothing on it), and grey walls pockmarked with holes. I delve into the book. At the time, the shrine walls would have been entirely covered in bronze, and a giant statue of the King would have stood atop the pedestal. A golden, glittering central sanctum, where you could admire the dazzling image of your own power.
So much of Angkor is still dazzling, but so much of it has been stolen. Seeing a statue with its original head is rare. Decapitated beauties line the walls, the bridges, the balustrades. These heads now sit in some private collectors’ homes, proud to own an original Khmer piece. Bought from a dealer’s catalogue, who know exactly which pieces still remain, and will come and desecrate on request. Bastards, all of them.
I am dazzled not only by Angkor but by the Cambodians themselves. We visit Kbal Spean, a sacred carved riverbed about 50km from Angkor Wat (tuk tuk this time, not bikes!). With my book I’m scrambling around, trying to find my treasures. This lovely man sees my furrowed brow and obvious enthusiasm for treasure hunting, and shows us each and every carving on the river bed. He exudes a gentle helpfulness that makes me want to cuddle him. And without him, we never would have found any of the amazing carvings, hidden among the river pools. The whole idea of a carved riverbed is mad anyway, and begs the question – why?
Why would you spend years labouring on hard rock, knowing that the river would finally wash your thousands of linga slowly away? Linga are the Angkor symbol for the male, a classic phallus with a rounded top. Carved onto the river bed, it looks like a bumpy, circular pattern. Alongside the linga, you have carvings of crocodiles, monkeys, and again and again, Vishnu. Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, floating on the sea of milk, having his legs massaged by his doting wife, a lotus flower blossoming from his navel, opening its petals to reveal the God Brahma, the creator of the universe. This is basically the Hindu version of the Big Bang. How did the world begin? This is how.
Cristian’s theory is that Kbal Spean was the local spa for fancy royals to come and swim in sacred waters. I think it’s a good theory!
From Angkor we cruise south to Battambang, a slightly non-descript riverside town. We don’t do much here except eat noodles and veggies, drink avocado shakes, and rent a motorbike for the day. With the three of us cosily squished onto the back, we head into the countryside to see a few more temples and caves. At times one of us has to get off and walk uphill, and poor little moto can’t handle three up.
The killing caves are up on a hillside overlooking the rice fields. They are our first glimpse at Cambodia’s sad and violent past, the bones of the victims displayed in a glass shrine at the bottom of a stone staircase. The Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian regime whose goal was to implement a Maoist style utopia, marched into Phnom Penh in 1975 and ruled for four years. In those four years they killed 2 million of their own people. That’s a quarter of the population. When watching a video interview of one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, he asked why only a year serving under Pol Pott felt like a lifetime. Four years doesn’t seem long in the history of the world, but it was enough to break the heart of this little country, and witnessing their story broke mine too.
When visiting these places of horror, like the killing caves, or the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, I didn’t get the immediate, visceral reaction that I’d expected. Cambodia’s sorrow seeped into me gradually, which gave me this funny feeling of needing to cry for about a week or so after coming back to Thailand. My heart hurt.
It was different to how I’d felt in Vietnam – there I’d felt a righteous anger at the international power games which use farmers and their children as fodder. Politicians, warmongers, soulless creatures with their bombs and chemicals. And that righteous anger was reflected in how I experienced the people who’d had to endure those years of violence – tough stares, hard negotiations, a meanness in the air. Three weeks in Vietnam and the smiles from locals were few and far between. But the Cambodians beamed at me. They grinned, and I melted. I loved their softness in the face of their suffering and sorrow.
As there’s not a lot of nightlife in Battambang, we spent many evenings sitting outside our room, talking. Processing. We started talking about the wedding. And I began the feel that I didn’t need one. I wanted one. I wanted to wear a white dress, and be with all my friends and family, and have music, dancing, food. I wanted public declarations of love and happiness, speeches, laughter, I wanted everyone to see what a marvellous and creative life we have and what a joyful spectacle we could create. But I didn’t really need it. I stayed with the feeling.
Phnom Penh is a funny little city, the best part of which is walking along the riverside in the evening. Cambodians are young – something like 70% of the population is under 30 – and they were out in force, strolling, playing, laughing. We stop, sit down, and a boy, about 10 perhaps, clearly homeless, all alone, comes asking for money. He’s emboldened by substance abuse – he makes strange faces at us, gives us high fives, and as he walks away, I see him bury his face into a bag of what must be glue or solvent of some kind. And I think – I really don’t need a wedding.
And so, dear friends and family, we’ve decided to get married but without a wedding. This is not a judgement on anyone else, as I’m so happy to have attended many beautiful weddings of friends and family, to have witnessed the coming together of two lives. We’d originally planned an informal party for everyone to get together, that rare chance to see everyone you know and love, together, in one place, on one day of your life. We’d still like to honour that commitment to see our friends and family and share the joining of our lives with them, but perhaps differently. I’m now pondering ways of doing this, without the mega party, celebrating on a smaller, more individual scale. I’ll keep you posted!
From Phnom Penh we fly back to Thailand, heading to Chiang Mai, cultural capital of the north. It’s Songkran, new year, which means city-wide water fights. We bundle into a tuk-tuk outside the airport, and head to our hotel. Buckets of water are literally hurled at us at a each corner, so by the time we arrive, we’re drenched. Locals and gringos get kitted up – super soakers (remember them?), buckets, even the funny little plastic bowls with handles they have in every toilet to splash your bottom with – everyone’s got a weapon. We’re a bit scared to go outside.
Cristian and Adriana are very anti-Songkran. I watch them flinch at each attack, dodging the splashes, becoming more irritated with each soaking. It reminds them of new year in Quito, where each year citizens bombard each other with water bombs, mercilessly soaking you whether you were game or not. As I’m not hampered by childhood flashbacks of unwanted soakings, I’m quite enjoying the atmosphere. Unlike Quito, it’s also bakingly hot here, so being dripping wet isn’t such a big deal. Adriana tells me that one year, she had had enough. Having spent all day getting bombed, she had gone home to get changed, and was leaving to meet some friends. It was evening, it was cold, and she saw a neighbour ready to attack. If you throw that bomb at me, she warned, I’ll hit you. He threw it. She hit him in the face. Fair’s fair!
Chiang Mai is a foodie paradise. The Sunday Walking Street (which is exactly what it is) is thronging with people and market sellers. We get deep friend tempura vegetables, fresh spring rolls (not the fried kind, the salad in rice paper kind), barbecued squid, fresh mango shakes (no sugar please), coconut ice cream… Adriana is in heaven, having never tried any of these yummy treats before. I introduce her to stir fried morning glory with garlic, which is a bit like spinach but not quite.
At each meal I proudly watch Cristian and Adriana order slowly more and more vegetables, each dish more vibrantly green than the next. To think that a few years ago, their little family watched me making my massive salads, looking slightly perplexed at the vast amount of plants I could consume. Since I’ve had to be more open with them about my food choices, and my struggles in and out of FA, Adriana started watching YouTube videos about the harmful effects of sugar, and the new awareness has aligned all of our eating habits. It’s nice to travel with people who can begin to understand why I’m so sad after finishing my ice cream, and why sometimes it’s a better decision for me not to have one at all.
Having a third person to make decisions with is rather nice, as we have fresh perspective and new energy. Adri’s idea is to rent some motorbikes and do an 800km loop around the north of Thailand. Neither Adri nor I have ever ridden a motorbike before. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, but with bikes costing only £4 a day to rent, and the freedom to go where you please, it’s a tempting idea. We’d both had a little practise in Cambodia, and when you see children driving their entire family around on a scooter, you wonder – how hard can it be?
So we saddle up our two 125cc Yamaha babies and head out, of course getting completely soaked along the way. Adri does a mean job of ignoring the soakings and focusing on the riding. We head to Pai, well-known hippie hang out, with its own baby canyon (that’s a small canyon by the way, not a rock formation filled with tiny people), waterfalls, caves and elephant camps. We find a place to stay outside the town in a pretty garden setting – think tree houses, little ponds and frogs galore. We sit on the bed, looking out over the rural idyll. A massive elephant walks right by our window, topped with three grinning Chinese tourists. I want to smack them.
It’s now illegal to use elephants for labour in Thailand, as before they were frequently put to work on construction sites for their mighty strength and gentle, faithful nature. Now these lovely beasts are mostly found in camps. The best of which seem genuinely devoted to giving these animals a peaceful retirement, free from the chains and beatings which were commonplace in their working lives. We drove past others where the elephants’ feet were chained to posts, and I cannot get on board with the idea of riding one. And I don’t think you need to be an animal-loving veggie to see sadness in their eyes. As this lovely bull walked past me his defeatism was palpable. You can always read more here if you’re interested – http://expertvagabond.com/elephants-in-thailand/
I’m very content with honing my motorbike riding skills, which gives me a new thrill (and a new skill) I’d yet to experience. Cruising along country roads, surrounded by mountains and the sky, I feel totally, utterly, free. This is the life I choose. This is the life I create for myself. I would not swap this freedom for anything, be it money, comfort, or a wedding. Freedom is my ultimate and only objective on this earth. What does it mean to be free?
We navigate the twists and turns of the mountains to arrive in Mae Hong Son, which is so far north west it peeks right into Burma. It is deliciously quiet here. With the Songkran festival, everyone seems to have shut up shop and gone away. We delight in the peace but bemoan the lack of eating options. One evening I don’t even bother to order, I’m so fed up with vegetables with noodles. Bleurgh.
Our saving grace is the trusted 7-11 shop, which, if you’re lucky, sells sunflower and pumpkin seeds, yoghurt, and coconut milk. Add those to some fresh papaya and you have yourself a tropical treat. On our first ever 7-11 trip with Adriana I get my usual – seeds and plain yoghurt – and Cristian and Adri head for the baked goods in packets counter, getting a ham and cheese toastie. They soon learn the error of their ways (Emily, why does your food always look so much nicer?!), and I convert them into full fledged seed-addicts in no time. We empty Mae Hong Song of its only natural snacks.
Mae Hong Son is surrounded by national parks, and we search for several hours until we find the perfect spot to lay our heads. After venturing up a mountain road in search of a B&B, Adri can’t get the bike to corner on some rubble, and her bike falls to the ground. She’s absolutely fine, as she was almost stationary at the time, it was just a case of not being able to maintain the weight of the bike. I take over and we decide to turn back, checking out a place called Fern Resort. It’s an expensive £30 a night (so a tenner each) but when we see the photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie behind reception we decide to stay – what’s good enough for Brangelina is good enough for us!
It turns out to be a good decision as it’s beautiful here – we’re right next to the trail so can go and explore the national park. We are alone on the trail, which goes past three lovely waterfalls where we stop to freshen up. Giant pond skaters cruise around us, huge silvery cobwebs hanging from glittering green moss. It feels wild, undisturbed, and perfect.
From Mae Hong Son we continue along our loop through another park, Doi Inthanon. We spend an eerie couple of nights in something similar to a mobile home, except they forgot to put any furniture in it. A bit like our mobile home, the whole park feels empty. We wander through campsites, kitted out with a whole host of tourist-ready accommodation, and there’s not a soul there. We visit a waterfall, no one. There is only one restaurant.
Being mega waterfall aficionados, we head on to see some more. There’s a perfect rock, right in the middle of the flow, bathed in sunshine, and we lie there, gently dozing. I watch the water, mesmerised, as it flows over the rock face. It flows, it flows, it flows… And the rock never complains, it allows itself to be smoothed, shaped by the water, never asking for a break. It feels like life, which keeps on moving, whether you want it to or not, your experiences gently shaping you, moulding you. After watching the water, my brain feels like it’s had a wash. Fresh, clean, nice.
And because we actually can’t get enough of waterfalls, we visit ANOTHER ONE! I know! And this one turns out to be the best waterfall ever. Better, even, than Iguazu Falls. Better, because it is truly ours. There is not a soul around. There is a deep, cool, and luscious pool which invites immediate nudity. The water tastes of clean mountain clouds. It makes me want to sing Julie Andrews, so I do.
At the end of our mountain odyssey, we return to Chiang Mai, desperate for some decent food after a week of eating sunflower seeds out of packets. It’s Adri’s last day, so we make sure she gets a final dose of Thai goodness – green papaya salad, Pad Thai, grilled squid, morning glory, fruit shakes… All the favourites are consumed and she heads back to Barcelona with a full belly and a happy heart. We have a Thai massage in the grounds of a temple, Adri and Cristian opting for back and shoulders, I go for feet. As I head there spines crunch behind me I’m glad I did. It’s quite lovely being massaged outside, listening to a fountain nearby, and the monks chanting their prayers. If I ignore the sticky sweat of my thighs on the plastic chair, I’d say it was pretty perfect.
I decide to write a list of all the new experiences I’ve had since starting this trip in January. Here it is:
Diving to 25m.
Riding a motorbike by myself.
And riding on a motorbike squeezed between two other people.
Having a shower under a waterfall.
Seeing the Milky Way in all its mega sparkly glory.
Kayaking until my arm muscles scream for mercy.
Going to a completely deserted island and feeling only woe because I know I have to kayak all the way back.
Teaching swimming (Adriana was never able to swim underwater, now she can!)
Eating on mats on the floor of a market.
Having a water fight in a tuk-tuk.
Reading tarot cards for strangers.
Experiencing 40 degree heat.
Pooing in a hole on the beach. Yes, it’s true. I dug a hole and I pooed in it. Then I covered up the hole. It was my only option.
Seeing phosphorescent plankton as you swish the sea water at night.
Drinking and eating a coconut warm and fresh from the tree.
Catching a frog in a glass and then release it back into the garden.
Swimming with turtles.
Eating stir fried vegetables for breakfast.
Doing karaoke on the street.
Getting bed bug bites all over my right bum cheek.
There were more, but I’ve got to keep some stories to tell when I get home!
I am thoroughly impressed with what these five cheeky countries have offered me. And although I can be a bit snobbish about the classic gap yaaaah trail, you’d be hard pressed to find a region where you can eat, sleep and play so cheaply and so safely. We have seen poverty, we have seen suffering, we have seen sorrow. But I saw more dodgy situations and dangerous behaviour in Colchester on a Saturday night than I did here. I remember clutching anxiously at my money belt in Bangkok, looking into all these new faces, wondering if they wanted to take anything from me. They didn’t, and if anything, I’ve taken from them.
I’ve sampled new tastes and textures, tropical fruits and sweet/spicy/salty combos. I’ve entered new worlds of deepest blue and green, oceans and jungle, coral and cloud forest. I’ve felt my body zing from head to toe with the energy of a class well taught, my yogis at my feet, basking in the bliss I have helped them to create. I’ve negotiated 4 months with my love, 24/7 togetherness, which is a big ask when you consider that Cristian and I are free-range chickens. We like our space.
And so I’ll end this here, in Chiang Mai, with a few days to go until home time. I hope these rather long tales have entertained you, it’s been lovely for me to know that you’re interested in our journey. The whole process of writing has been enjoyable, although Cristian still can’t understand why they have to be so very long. He’s waiting for me now – stop writing! Get to bed you mental woman!
Night night my lovelies, can’t wait to come and see you very soon. Write yourself a list of new and fun experiences if you can! You might surprise yourself with all the things you’ve learned so far in 2015.
Lots of free-range love,