A strange thing has happened to me! Whilst travelling through South East Asia, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I actually miss home. So because of this, I’ve controversially made the decision to book a flight from Bangkok to London. I don’t like to fly when I could go by land. But I don’t have a Russian visa to return the way I came, and the thought of doing the Trans-Siberian again alone fills me with dread! As I get closer to Bangkok, though, I guiltily wish I had tried to get that Russian visa and travelled the long way home.
From Vietnam, I need to cross through Cambodia again, so I decide to stop off in Siem Reap for a few days. Siem Reap’s a tranquil place, and I’m reminded of why I fell in love with Cambodia all those years ago. Because I saw all of the famous Angkor temples on my first visit, I have a lot of time to lazily relax in the peaceful city. I spend most of my time in the beautiful, perfect Peace Cafe.
There’s a much lesser known Angkor temple called Beng Mealea, which gets barely any visitors. It’s a good hour away from Siem Reap, and so I decide to hire a motorcyclist to take me there (for some reason, foreign tourists are not allowed to hire scooters in Siem Reap). I ask the manager of my hotel for a bike helmet. He gets one for me and then insists on putting it on for me and adjusting the strap under my chin. I tell him that I can put it on myself, but he says no and continues to stand close to me, reaching under my chin. In the end, I forcefully tell him,
“I don’t want you to touch me!”
“You don’t like me?” he asks.
“I don’t like people standing too close to me and being in my personal space,” I reply.
I reflect upon this very subtle action – the man touching the woman in a seemingly innocent way, but with an ulterior motive to be close to her (and in this case, under the guise of ‘chivalry’). As women, we are all subjected to scenarios like this: scenarios that make us feel really uncomfortable but where the act is so subtle that we barely complain for fear of overreacting.
I should have said to him, “You wouldn’t do this if I were a man.”
The journey on the back of the bike to Beng Mealea is amazing. My wonderful driver weaves through the mud as we drive through beautiful villages of wooden houses. Because Beng Mealea is my fifth or sixth Angkor temple, I’m not as bowled over by its beauty as I should be. But the journey alone is worth getting off of the backpacker trail for!
A few days later, I’m on the road to my final destination: Bangkok. Thailand has an ‘excellent’ rating on Hitchwiki, so I decide that I have to hitchhike there. I take a succession of pickup trucks and a couple of cars, and arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, eight hours later, in the pouring rain.
Coming to Bangkok is like returning home, in some ways. I’m on familiar territory, having been here at least half a dozen times. Despite the fact that it’s huge and traffic clogged, I love Bangkok! I spend a week here, and think to myself, “I could live here if it wasn’t for the pollution.” My chest hurts after just a couple of days of being stuck on buses in Bangkok’s traffic jams.
I stay in the Samsen Road area of the city. Years ago, Tom and I stayed here, close to the canal. Nowadays, gentrification has kicked in and there’s even ’boutique’ hotels. But it’s still a beautiful area, with its tiny alleys and old wooden houses. This time I stay in Phiman guesthouse, which sits on stilts right on the banks of the massive Chao Phraya river and my room is literally on the water’s edge.
I explore the city by using the passenger boats that ply the narrow canals. They wind through the city centre, and show me a completely different side to Bangkok. I realise that packed in amongst the skyscrapers in the richest area, there’s not only waterways, but also communities living in traditional wooden houses, somehow managing to keep their land.
After a few days of eating the most tasty food in the world and attending some Buddhist talks, it’s time to pack my rucksack for the last time. I have mixed feelings about my recent travels in South East Asia. I have definitely grown as a person and I have met beautiful people and collected special memories. But a dark cloud has overshadowed my experience as I have witnessed firsthand the destruction of nature: the dams in Laos, the flattening of the rainforest on the Cambodian island, the filling in of the lake in Phnom Penh, the rubber plantations all over the region, the insane amounts of plastic that wash up on the shores here. I wonder what the region will look like if I come back again in another seven years….
Read my post about hitchhiking in South East Asia here