A retrospective journey through Southeast Asia
We’ve been going through all of our old photos from our early travels and we don’t want them to continue sitting on a hard drive with nobody looking at them! In the days before uploading instantly to facebook and instagram we had my beat-up Fuji Finepix camera. Somehow, the CD’s we copied the photos onto, have just about survived nearly two decades of moving constantly! It got us thinking we should document our old travel stories as much for ourselves as for interested readers of the blog. In 14 years of travel we’ve been to Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Africa, back to Australia again, the U.S., Canada, South America and New Zealand. My God we look so young in all of these photos and a few stone lighter, particularly in the days we travelled around South East Asia over 14 years ago!
How did we end up there?
Well if you’ve read the About Us page, you’ll know we met in Sydney while on Working Holiday Visas and have been together since. When our visas were up we planned on travelling in Asia for as long as our savings lasted before heading back to Ireland. We were lucky that my extremely kind and cool brother, Mícheál, was working in Kuala Lumpur at the time and he welcomed us to his gorgeous apartment for the next couple of months. Neil’s visa had expired only a few day before our flight and the immigration officer who decided to take it very seriously frightened the life out of us. Neil was threatened with imprisonment and fines until I started balling my eyes out! Thankfully my hysterics saved his skin! It was a bittersweet start to our next adventure.
Luxury living in Kuala Lumpur
Mícheál's apartment was stunning, complete with garden pool and our own ensuite bedroom. He really spoiled us rotten and we had a fantastic time with him. By then he knew the city really well and he took us to all the hidden gems and interesting local sights. We had a laugh going out on the town eating delicious food, finding cool bars and occasionally partaking in Karaoke (Neil blew the roof of the place with Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ to the delight of the local band). We got very fond of a great Mexican place with Tom and Jerry cartoons on the TV and of course excellent tequila! The heat though, was excruciating. It’s definitely one of the hottest cities we’ve ever been to. The humidity was unreal. Needless to say a lot of time was spent in the pool which even had a slide so the other residents had to listen to our childish squeals of delight a few hours a day!
We hung out in the apartment, playing music, watching Malaysian copies of new releases and cooked a few of Mícheál's favorite Irish meals. He had loads of 'Lonely Planet' guides for Vietnam and Cambodia and everywhere else in this part of the world and it got us thinking. We decided on Cambodia and take it from there.
Overland through Thailand and Cambodia
We booked a train from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. We got a sleeper carriage as it was a 12 hour journey but we were too excited to sleep! Such beautiful scenery and a great atmosphere on the train, it’s one of those unforgettable experiences and one that needs to be repeated. We’re looking for any excuse to get back there! For now, we reminisce (a lot) about our little room on the Khao San Road and getting ‘dressed up’ in new (really cheap) clothes from the stalls, bumping into old friends from Australia to drink Mai Thai’s all day and tuk tuk drivers trying to force us to buy tailor made suits! We walked the feet off ourselves as well visiting the vast amount of temples and Bangkok grew on us.
Yet we were full of excitement to keep exploring more so we booked ourselves a bus across the border to Cambodia with all the naivety of a couple of young, clueless twenty-somethings expecting a normal coach ride on your average highway! Wow, we were so unprepared! squeezed into a van with about 12 other people we bumped and bashed our way across 450 kilometers which took about 10 hours. The border crossing was a shock. The drastic change in conditions within mere feet from one side to the other was palpable. We were immediately confronted with absolute destitution and heartbreaking encounters with landmine victims, mostly children. Pretty sure we were scammed with the visas and money changers but in the grand scheme of things around us we were millionaires. After the border the roads worsened although we didn't think it would be possible! Windows closed meant suffocation so we were head to toe plastered in sweat and red dust when we finally got out of the bus around midnight.
Visiting Angkor Wat
We’d been taken to a ‘tourist approved guesthouse’ just outside Siem Reap and pretty much told "this is where you stay, the bus stops here". Some people opted to walk into town but we just took the scam on the chin and got a room, too tired to fight it. In fairness it could have been worse. We showered and changed and headed into town for a drink or two and ended up getting chatting to a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us around Angkor Wat for the next three days. We were to be ready next morning for 7a.m. but he warned us he wouldn't pick us up at the hostel we were in, alluding to the owner's monopoly on tours for hostel guests. We realised how true this was after four days of constant questioning about where we were going, how we were getting to the temples and why wouldn't we book a tour with them! We just kept saying we were meeting friends everyday in town and that got them off our backs.
Our three days with our saint of a tour guide were heavenly. It was incredibly chilled out and we got to spend as much time as we liked at every temple. He didn't rush us at all and when we'd be ambling back to the tuk tuk after exploring all we could, he'd be there lying down in the back of it, playing a little traditional flute. He took us to the best roadside food stalls where he chatted with his friends and introduced us and we shared laughs and delicious Pot Ang (bbq corn). The time of year we were there seemed to be particularly quiet as we mostly found ourselves alone wandering around the temples.
Epic sunsets, long relaxed walks and delicious food have given us some of our most precious memories. We feel really lucky we got to see it like that which is surely a thing of the past nowadays. We also feel it was one of the pivotal moments in our blossoming relationship.
A moment that well and truly secured the bond between us. It was a shared discomfort in the bowels that lead us to ask a guide if there were any toilets, to which he visibly belly laughed and with a sweeping gesture he pointed to the jungle that surrounded us. After a warning to not step on any landmines we had to stick close together and share a very intimate 'bathroom experience'! Our only other slight mishap was there was a huge spider that dropped into Neil’s open rucksack back in our hostel room one night. It was about the size of a dinner plate and had come in through a gaping hole in one of the walls. Not knowing if there are poisonous spiders in Cambodia or just to ignore it I chose to run out to the front of the guesthouse and try explain what was in the room. A nice young fella followed me in, saw the spider, freaked out and took his bunch of keys and absolutely whacked the sh*t out of the spider. Little did we know she was carrying an egg sack. All he said was, “oh many babies” and walked away. Awesome. Spent most of the night “ass-hosing” away millions of tiny spiders from inside Neil’s bag and all his clothes. To this day, we are expecting to see a huge spider crawl out of somewhere in his mam’s house, having hitched a ride all the way from Cambodia!
Riverboat to Phnom Penh
When it was time to head to Phnom Penh we opted for the boat trip across Tonle Sap lake. A haphazard scramble on board and a spot on the roof of an overcrowded river boat didn't exactly make us feel safe but we had become accustomed to accepting our fate in this part of the world! The start of the journey was utterly peaceful and compelling. We slowly putted past floating villages and watched children play in the water or see them in school uniforms making their way in their own boats along the river, waving at us. It was fascinating to see everyday life here and it was the best part of the journey. Once we got to the lake the boat took off at full speed and we got soaked! In order to dry off you had to breath in engine smoke at the back of the boat. We opted for a good old drench and sunburn! Oh how we suffered! By the time we got to our destination we had 6 hours of misery. There was absolutely nothing pleasant about the rest of that journey. We spent the next two days in our hotel room with full-on sunstroke. Let's just say we were glad of the ensuite bathroom! I managed to venture out and get a lift on the back of a motorbike to the blackmarket to exchange more dollars but that was about it in terms of being tourists in Phnom Penh!
Over to Neil!
Right you are. Orla has no memory of this place so I thought I would step in and try fill in the blanks. Neither of us can remember at all how we got to Sihanoukville but trust us, we did go there. I have no recollection on why we went there. I think we read that it was one of those unspoilt hidden gems or it was super cheap. Either way we arrived and using the Lonely Planet guide we found a hostel I can't remember the name of……...wait, why am I typing this?! The hostel rented out mountain bikes and honda 50’s so we were set. We got ourselves a couple of mountain bikes to explore the area. Feeling awesome, racing downhill, my bike decided it had had enough of these shenanigans and totally seized up and a tire blew out. It was great fun walking back up the everlasting hill back to the hostel! That evening we were chilling out in the hostel hammocks where we were met by the hostels friendly cat.
We sat up having a few drinks organizing the next days adventure. We decided to rent ourselves a scooter. This to me was such a highlight. Orla, on the other hand, was terrified, she had a bad experience on a scooter in her younger years. So while driving the little scooter through the lush countryside on roads that were still being laid we found ourselves a little slice of paradise. I had never been in water so warm! I was thinking this would be great to help cool off from the heat of the day, but nope, I felt like an egg being slowly boiled to a runny perfection. After lounging around the beach for a while we headed back. We didn't stay too long here in Sihanoukville but we would have loved to. Looking at pictures of it now it seems like a very different place.
We headed back into Thailand via Trat and it was here that we discovered we had no money left! We had planned to head to the island of Ko Chang (I think). We had thought it may have just been the ATMs in Trat that had no money left in them so we headed back to Bangkok and all going well, we would head to Phuket as this was on the way back to KL. We arrived into Bangkok and low and behold it was us that had no money! We had just enough money to get back to Kuala Lumpur and after another overnight train we arrived back in Mícheál’s apartment. He was gone home to Ireland for Christmas but we were looking forward to heading home ourselves soon and seeing our families. Having not spoken to my mam for a long while I rang home. I was greeted with tears and with a sigh of relief, she told me to turn on the TV. It was then we witnessed the horror of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. There isn't a day that passes that we don’t feel grateful to have run out of money those couple of days beforehand. It forced our hand to remain inland and ultimately safe.
Apart from the insane end to our time in Asia we can't help but feel that the time we spent there was something special. We got to know each other a lot more and it was this time spent together that made us realise we wanted to explore and travel the world together. We have plans to head back to that end of the world again very soon, so we will see how things have changed. I have no doubt that we will have just as much fun now as we did then, those many years ago.