Sunday, 28 September 2014

From Sunset to Sunrise, the Temples of Angkor Wat

We entered Cambodia through the notorious land border Poi Pet, known for its shady scams and dodgy sales staff, Sam had prepped me to let him sort the visas and not freak out if his pointing finger ‘you’re lying’ face came on. All the guidebooks and internet reading tells you of the fake buildings and fake security staff in place, supposedly helping you with your visas and quick route into Cambodia, however what will happen is you will be over charged, money taken and still be waiting in the long line with all the other weary travelers and locals passing through. We managed to make it off the bus, our bus driver being so lovely and in his broken English pointing at the actual border control offices, as the scam men started to surround us demanding our time and notes, we pushed through no finger pointing but lots of no no no, NO THANKYOU.  We got to the border control and even there the guards tried their luck, stating they needed an extra few $’s to put our visas through, at this Sam informed them, no sorry, we don’t have it and with a few exchanged words our visas were processed and we were in the queue crossing to Thailand, phew. 

We caught the bus to Siem Reap to meet lovely Ash and Mike, the journey wasn’t too bad apart from the fact we found out just before getting on the bus our friends had gone into labour, meaning the whole bus journey was a panic of if they were okay and how the labour was going. We somehow managed to get 10 seconds of internet at a random service stop and a beautiful picture of baby Heidi came through, we were over whelmed with emotion and both were teary eyed at the happiness we felt our besties had a brood but sadness at feeling so far away when such a special moment was occurring. 

We arrived into Siem Reap in standard SE Asia fashion with the bus turning into a dark dodgy bus terminal and a 100 tuk tuks awaiting our arrival, we bartered a price and then got on our way to our hotel. When we arrived we were greeted by the lovely smiles of our Canadian friends and instantly felt at home in their embrace.  The evening was spent settling into Siem Reap and making plans for the next few days, M&A had already been in Siem Reap for a few days and had bought the 3 day tickets to Angkor Wat, we knew we only wanted to do the one day, as with the one day you also get the previous evening, meaning we would buy our tickets the following day at 5pm, have that evening and the whole of the next day. M&A informed us they had done the two outer routes of Angkor but had saved the big temples for us for our full day together.  So with plans made we enjoyed the rest of the evening on ‘pub street’ drinking lots of wine, local 30p beer and a lot of good chats with two very good friends, we missed the fact a river of rain had flooded the streets and when we emerged from the bar at 3am we fell into a puddle and stumbled into a tuk tuk. We awoke the next morning with fuzzy heads and happy thoughts, I woke up earlier than the rest so went for a nice swim and enjoyed the morning sunshine on my back, after my swim I went and enjoyed breakfast catching up on my diary and filling in my last few days of Thailand. Soon the others joined me and we arranged a lazy day in Siem Reap before Sam and I hired some bikes and went for our evening cycle to Angkor. 

We arrived at Angkor spot on 5pm, we got our faces snapped and our tickets purchased and set out without any real plan, not planning to go in any temples, more just enjoy the cycle of what was to come and find a spot to watch sunset. I had no idea what I expected of Angkor and after being at Bagan (Burma) I had a similar image in my mind of the temples being smaller and quite similar and had no understanding of the distance between them all, some are miles away in a taxi (the outer route).  It was great to get a feel of the place before our main day and we nestled on a bridge at the end of the day to enjoy sunset. We headed back that night, prepared for our voyage into the mystic temples the following day, we chose to have a quieter night then the previous, meeting with a friend from home who was in Siem Reap also, we enjoyed a feast of Khmer curry’s and a few beers, oh and some tasty tea, heading to bed with full tummy’s ready for a 5am sunrise jaunt. 

We woke super early and were greeted by Mr Thom (who soon become Uncle Thom) for our days adventure, we chose to take a tuk tuk for the day at Angkor as our plan was to do sunrise to sunset and knew on bikes we wouldn’t make it, plus the sun gets so blazing hot at midday we wanted the shade of the tuk tuk and not the blistering heat on our faces. Uncle Thom was a total sweetie, he told us our route for the day, thankfully what we had planned and how he would drop us at each temple and wait for us as we explored. We joined the procession of tuk tuks and tourists and were dropped at Angkor Wat, the main temple in Angkor, everyone heads here for sunrise so as we entered it was slight chaos, everyone heads to the lake to watch sunrise, as the reflection of Angkor in the lake is spectacular, however it becomes a ipad, iphone photograph hell and for this reason we headed right as everyone to the grassy garden. We had our lovely trusty Indian blanket so put that down and settled ourselves for the morning, at that point Ash said ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a coffee’ with that James Bond (yep that was his name) came over with a list of coffee and promised he would bring it to us for our morning view. With coffee and comfort we were ready for a beautiful morning, or so we thought, sunrise was spectacular but sadly we had a child learning there ABC and was playing a very strange song out of his parents iphone, it did stop after a while but did leave us all laughing at such a random situation at such a beautiful spot. The joy of iphones and music, my definite travelling pet hate! We didn’t let it spoil our time though and managed to smile through it and embrace the beauty of what we were experiencing in front of us. 

Angkor Wat temple completely blew my mind and I was completely in awe of the beauty before me, Mike and I both had our guides/temple books which I would recommend to anyone visiting the temples, the books tell of all the bas reliefs (carvings/stories) engraved into the walls, stories of life times ago, wars, dietys and religious beliefs, they tell the tales of suffering and change and you can see the new carvings from the old, you can see where there has been change when the Khmer people left the Angkor complex and the temples were changed from Hindu to Buddhist carvings. For me the most beautiful carvings were the Apsara depictions, beautiful images of women nymphs/pixies saturated the walls, there were a number of similar images but everywhere the images embraced and flowed in groups and singular elements of these incredible women. I hadn’t ever heard the term Apsara but Mike soon explained they were seen to men as goddess and were worshipped for their beauty, I chose to do some further reading when home and loved the description of female spirits of the clouds and water, and they are youthful, elegant and superb in the art of dancing. How could these women not be respected and worshipped these mythical goddess sounded heavenly. Some of my other favourite carvings were the Rishis, Hindu sages, the representations was of old wise men, crossed legged like Buddha, with a long beard, looking wise and calm in his posture and positioning. My favourite statues led to a lot of laughs (and slight sex education lessons), these statues were the lungi and yoni, now some back history on yonis. I recently completed a course around feminist studies and working with vulnerable women, in this course we talked about what we called our lady parts and everyone had their hilarious name we all learnt as children. We were asked how we felt saying the word out loud and every one of us felt uncomfortable with the word, mine being ‘fairy’ which has always left me feeling awkward as I become obsessed with flower fairy’s and the magical world of fairy’s throughout my younger years and early twenty’s, therefore using the word fairy to describe my vagina and my best friend just felt wrong. After this course I chose a new word and one I would teach my child, that being yoni, so to see this word used to describe the fertility statues in Angkor Wat led me to informing M&A and Sam about my story of a change up in words. I went off on a wander around one of the temples to find one of these statues and joined a Chinese tour group as it was explained to them what they were, now this was amusing, as the tour guide poured the water and said some proactive words that made the ladies giggle and the men groan. The belief with the statues is that at one time the Khmer people poured water over the top of the lungi, the water then flowed into the yoni and out through a drainage system that led outside the temple, the people living outside the temple could then collect the water, drink it and wish for good fertility. It just made my mind spin how everything has such meaning and beauty wherever you step and wander. 

After 4hrs we exited Angkor Wat, hungry for breakfast and amazed at the humble amble we had just experienced. Our next stop was Bayon, we were welcomed by the most beautiful elephant trudging along, sadly carrying tourists on its back but the beauty of an elephant  a few steps in front of us was stupefying and I couldn’t help but let out a small gasp of excitement seeing its beautiful face and outstanding stature.  Bayon is a world of difference from Angkor Wat but just as magnificent and jaw dropping. I believe Bayon was built 80yrs after Angkor Wat by a new Khmer King, from far away the temple looks a pile of rubble but as you come closer it becomes a mass of smiling faces that at first glance could represent the familiarity of Buddha but when reading I learnt the images were to represent the Kings face, spread across 47 towers the faces envelope the towers, supposedly representing the 47 provinces in Cambodia at that time, the king watching down on all, creepy right? For me Bayon was a beauty but did hold a gothic eeriness and when learning about the kings faces I soon felt I understood why. Like Angkor, Bayon did have bas reliefs also which we attempted to understand but parts of the temple walls had fell into disrepair which was part of the beauty of this ruined attraction. 

Bayon is situated in the Angkor Thom complex; therefore we wondered the rest of the complex, enjoying various smaller temples and the terrace of elephants. We took a rest with a group of local boys who were playing in one of the pools and I enjoyed being splashed as they ran and jumped in front of me, giggling with excitement and happiness. 

Angkor Thom means big city and it was where the Khmer people once lived when residing in the Angkor complex, for me what astounded me was that is no evidence of settlement due to the residents using wood as there means to nest and live, stone was only for the gods and that’s why the temples were stone and still stand. When reading up about the movement of the Khmer residents there is no actual understanding as to why everyone left and therefore no records of how many people lived there.  Exploring these temples and  once distressed lands felt enjoyable but uncomforting knowing people were maybe run out of the home, their city and moved on to places nobody knows. 

We headed back to meet Uncle Thom for lunch then headed to our next stop Ta Phrom, known to all as Tomb Raider temple. Ta Phrom was what I was most excited to see, I had seen so many pictures and knew when planning this trip it was one of my top things I wanted to explore and experience and it sure didn’t disappoint. Ta Phrom is very different from the other temples as it has been left in a similar state to how it was found, piles of rubble, trees dominating the temple walls, nature taking back what belongs to it, land. The tetrameles nudiflora trees is what makes this temple so spectacular, it has literally been brought to ruins because of some of the trees, the roots engulf the insides of the temple and are beautiful to look at and photograph. We found so many nooks to climb into and climbed high as sun was coming down embracing the vast maze of ruins in front of us. 

After a few hours we exited Ta Phrom, with Uncle Thom telling us we didn’t have long for sunset and he would show us one more temple, Banteay Kdei, before our chosen sunset spot, he gave us 15minutes to explore our next one, which was a quick walk through, more beautiful apsaras, doorways upon doorways to walk through, another beautiful maze in the temples of Angkor. 

Like our morning jaunt we decided we didn’t want crowds of people so chose to ignore the guidance of the sunset temple and head to the kings royal bathing pool, Sra Srang to watch sunset on us. We didn’t pick wrong either as we enjoyed our time with a group of local kids, watching them play a game Sam played at cubs (therefore we learnt the rules from him), smiling and laughing like children should. As sun come down we reflected on what was an amazing day and how blessed we were to spend it together but also be on this incredible journey in this incredible place, one of the incredible wonders of our astonishing world.
Angkor Wat


Apsara and Sammy


Fertility Statue

Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom exploring.

Sunset at the Royal Pool.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Volunteering through the powers of Yoga.

So volunteering abroad, visiting orphanages and all the ‘gap year’ student ‘doing good’ has been a major discussion for me throughout this trip, not only with myself but friends who have come out to travel and other friends we have met along the way. Overall I am against it, but once I was a 23yr old, paying a lot of money to go and work in an orphanage in South Africa, although the trip didn’t work out due to a family bereavement and not one penny was refunded it set me on a thinking a stream, thoughts of where does the money go and what was the need for me to spend so much to volunteer, it therefore has been a question always with me and a way of thinking that has stayed. 

As most of you know my passion is children and young people, it’s my day to day work, it’s what I crave doing and what I hope to be part of for the rest of my working career, so therefore I started wondering whilst away, how do I volunteer but not cause attachment problems, have to pay stupid amounts of money or just generally be involved with a problematic organisation. 

I started to do a bit of research before coming away, I knew I wanted to stay in my current way of working with young people and preferably young girls, my research didn’t come up with much apart from the standard google search, pay £’s to volunteer, with this I put the search on the back burner and decided to look whilst away. 

Whilst doing my yoga training a part of the course was karma yoga work, we were asked to carry out a project with a group of people offering some form of karma work, this really got my thoughts going again of how I can use yoga to do this, therefore it’s not a long term piece of work but more of a workshop to offer skills, experience and knowledge, it just fitted perfect with my already way of thinking but also how I could offer volunteering throughout the rest of time in Asia. 

With this I started researching again and found a blog that had information on about different organizations in South East Asia, one that came up was in Chiang Mai, called COSA, Children’s Organisation of South East Asia, the organization works with young girls who have been or are at risk of sex trafficking, I just felt the organisation was perfect for the Yin workshop I wanted to offer and the age was an age I was used to working with, except for the language barrier I was ready to put an email together and offer my skills. After a few correspondences, a skype meeting was booked, I was so nervous but excitedly the meeting went well and we organized a date for when I would be in Chiang Mai and the girls would be off school. 

I was SO NERVOUS, my stomach went poorly, my mouth filled with ulcers and I just couldn’t concentrate, it was so weird but I just felt a bag of butterflies were in my stomach. Sam helped me through my nerves and after a bit of YIN practice and my workshop written down I was ready for the Saturday to come. 

Sam drove me to COSA which was just outside Chiang Mai, then Lori (center manager) met us and drove me to the shelter, after a brief introduction I was introduced to some of the girls and given the yoga mats to start the session, the girls were a mix between 7-17yr olds and had all tried yoga before, my challenge was the language, luckily for me one of the girls spoke English and helped me translate the difference between yang yoga to yin yoga.
I had put together a 50min session, knowing that at any time the session could be cut short due to the girls attention, understanding and experience of the yoga as it is a more therapeutic style of yoga and therapy in Thailand isn’t  something that occurs as it does in western countries. 

I felt so lucky though as the girls went through 45mins of the sequence perfectly, they chatted and giggled but at times there was such serene bliss in their emotions and asana posture it was a beauty to watch. The time when silence fell was just beautiful and I could see the depth of the yoga the girls had entered and how their minds had entered the yin bliss. 

At the end of the session I gave each of the girls a small hand out of what we had done and attempted to talk briefly with them about the practice; however they informed me they were very relaxed and pointed at Shavasana as their favourite posture. 

Overall I felt the workshop went well, the girls engaged and there smiles showed their enjoyment, the questions in my head still lay there and I felt that I was stronger in my decision about volunteering due to the conversations had whilst there. I did however feel so privileged to have the experience and the chance to offer yoga to the girls, when focusing back to my karma yoga I wondered what my aim was with the girls and realised the smiles on their faces were what my aim was and however they took the experience they all seemed to enjoy it.

Three stops through Thailand

Our trip through Thailand was done in two different parts; our first part was coming into Thailand through the busy lights of Bangkok from Malaysia. We left our beautiful Petani beach behind, choosing to cross into Thailand through the land border, then onto the sleeper train to Bangkok. The train journey was possible one of the best train journeys of the trip, where we even got our beds made for us and our food delivered to our seats, we arrived into Bangkok at 2pm a bit later than expected, but due to the comfort of the journey the feeling on the train was good and not the usual stress fueled feeling. We had 3 nights in Bangkok and had booked a hotel in advance as didn’t want to be stuck with accommodation near Khoa San Road, we had however stayed one extra night in Petani but had emailed the hotel saying we would be arriving a day later, however when we arrived at our hotel we were informed the room was booked, lucky for us next door came up trumps with a nicer room, balcony and cheaper, score, welcome to Bangkok. 

Our first day was spent recuperating and relaxing, we went to find Sam’s favourite Thai curry stand, which nicely still stood up to its amazing tastes, we took a walk down Khoa San Road and I got the standard traveler hair braid and a few other treats, as much as it was tourist trap heaven it was still so much fun to see it, experience the mentalness and dine on some tasty mango sticky rice and coconut ice cream, with our tummies full we headed back for a much needed sleep and fun the next day with two very good friends.

The following day was all about Chatuchak Sunday market, we were meeting our friends Ash and Mike, Ash had just arrived back from Canada after heading home for a week and Mike had been travelling part of Malaysia and into Bangkok with us, so we were super stoked to be meeting up with them again for some Bangkok silliness. We met the guys and spent hours venturing into the depths of the market, laughing at the crazy sales, vast amounts of tie dye clothes (yes I wanted them all) and hoards and hoards of home ware (honestly any nearer home and I would have been on manic buy). After the market we chose to head out to where Ash and Mike were staying and enjoyed some tasty broth at a ‘make your own’ restaurant. After numerous beers, laughs and experimental broth recipes we noticed the time was getting late and we were miles from home so jumped in a taxi heading back through the metropolis of Bangkok. 

Next day was visa Burma day, we spent the day heading back and forth getting our visas for our flight out the next day to Mandalay. We met Ash and Mike that evening, taking them to Sam’s talked about Thai lady to enjoy some Thai curry then for a tower at a hilarious locals bar, plenty of power ballads and a lot of beer, what more could one want!

After two weeks in Burma ( we flew back into Bangkok but headed straight out on another flight to Railay for some southern beach action. Heading to the southern beaches had been a real debate between Sam and I as Sammy wasn’t sure he wanted to head back to the beaches in the south, my only bargaining tool was he hadn’t been to Railay and it wasn’t an island like the other beaches he had previously been too. So with an agreement made we had 3 days booked to see some limestone cliffs, enjoy the clear blue sea and get back into some beach time. We arrived by night in an incredible long boat, Thailand dreams coming true, Sam had booked us into accommodation off the beach and after a hefty walk we found our stay up in the trees, jungle esk, we couldn’t believe our luck at this incredible find, sea view, up away from everything, amazing room and all for £12, deal. Our first two days were incredible and Railay was everything I had hoped for, beautiful ocean, stunning scenery, limestone cliffs surrounding the beach bay we were on, massages on the beach, warm swims, yoga in the mornings on our balcony, it was just idyllic and I couldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else at that time, sadly though things took a turn for the worse when I come down with sun stroke and my third day was spent hauled up in bed feeling sorry for myself.  We headed out of Railay the next day and I had luckily managed to get back to an alright way, trying to take the positive attitude that at least I had two beautiful days and now fully understand the beauty of Thailand’s Southern beaches.

Our next stop was up to Chiang Mai and we had 7 days booked to explore the hills of Chiang Mai, we arrived to a hostel we had booked, but soon left when we were shown our room, after a trail around a few hotels I managed to come across a real sweet stay and got a room on the 5th floor looking over part of the city.

Our days were spent wondering and visiting the wats, heading far out of town, getting lost and searching for hot springs, we clocked up 800kms on the scooter but everyday was a new adventure and so exciting seeing the beauty that surrounds Chiang Mai.

Some of our main adventures was to a place my brother recommended called Ngat Dam, which is a beautiful dam in a national park, you get the boat to a floating hut and spend the day swimming in the dam, relaxing and the evening eating at your hut, enjoying the silence around you.  It was such a special experience and so nice to drive out into the unknown and a new national park then sleep in a floating hut. The following day we headed to some incredible hot springs, which were so warm but so incredible, after not having a bath for 6 months to fully submerge and relax in the pools was just so soothing and was a perfect way to end a dusty scooter ride.

Another day I carried out my volunteering which was incredible (see volunteer blog post for more details).

Sam also got us to the Chiang Mai horse racing which in itself was just hilarious, we actually stayed most of the day, somehow managed to get a few winners and have a real laugh seeing the different way horse racing is carried out in another country. Overall it was a pretty surreal experience but a very different one at that and a very fun way to spend a Saturday, kind of felt like being at home but humid and sweaty!
Interestingly after the horse racing we drove back past the infamous ‘tiger kingdom’, which brought my thoughts to animal tourism in Thailand, and my thoughts on this in comparison to horse racing, I do admit it is one I struggle with as I have been brought up with horse racing through my step dad and as you all know my husband he loves a little flutter on the horses, so therefore as much as I don’t agree with aspects of horse racing I do enjoy going to the racing on derby day, however I don’t fully agree with the grand national and was pleased to hear the jockey being fined in 2010 for over use of the whip.

In Thailand a lot of elephant ‘sanctuary’s’ are present and as mentioned above tiger kingdom, my thoughts had been that with enough research I would find a elephant conservation project where we could meet orphaned elephants and it wouldn’t be so ‘tourist’ like where options of riding and feeding are, more like an environment where they are rehabilitated back into their natural world. Sadly though I didn’t find this and was just given leaflet after leaflet of riding, feeding, petting information, which as you all know is not something I am interested in. Tiger Kingdom is on another level, it’s a petting zoo where tigers are drugged up so people can have their photos taken with them, lying next to them, cuddling and petting them, its vile, its animal cruelty at its highest and is so sad the people of Thailand think every westerner wants to partake in such vile animal tourism, sadly though it’s the uneducated of us who feel things like this are acceptable and a great experience, now don’t get me wrong I was the 18yr old at SeaWorld watching the killer whale show, it didn’t click straight away but sometime after I realised that a great beauty of a killer whale shouldn’t be in such a small tank and certainly shouldn’t be on show for again us westerners. At the time I went to watch the show as I wanted to see a killer whale, I wanted that picture and I wanted that experience, how many I’s did I write there? But that’s the answer isn’t it, it’s always I, that selfish part of us that wants that experience, it means we forget the animals experience, how it can’t be right for everyday 2/3 people wash and bathe an elephant, humans wouldn’t like it so why would animals? I was asked the question recently do us humans think were better than animals, places like this could only make me answer yes, as otherwise why would we constantly feel the need to have this specific experience of touching, feeling and riding, after answering these questions and having this realistion I went back to our experience in India at the national park and there was no better feeling then seeing those 18 elephants in the wild, seeing them in their natural habitat and experiencing them in the way they should be living, therefore what difference would it make if I went to a conservation centre, it would never be as natural and beautiful as experiencing animals in the wild.

Chiang Mai really give a lot and at first I was intrigued by this city I had heard so much about, my first impression wasn’t that of wonder but I soon fell in love with the city and could see why people end up getting comfortable and resting their packs. Our 7 days were perfect for us, such a perfect amount of time for a great deal of exploring but with Cambodia on our minds it was time to move on and come head to head with the Poipet border, Thailand/Cambodia’s notorious nightmare land border.