Having been in Durham for 2 years, I’d heard tale after tale of travel stories; “my gap year was literally life-changing”, “this one time, in China/Vietnam/Africa/Europe”. Having never really “travelled” before, part of me always wondered what all the fuss was about. This summer that changed. It was now my turn to take on Thailand and Cambodia and to share my tales.
Arriving in the sprawling Bangkok at night was quite intense for my first taste of Asia. The heat, humidity, smells and noises where quite overwhelming. Despite reading and seeing pictures of the hustle and bustle of the city, nothing prepared me for the sheer number of trucks, lorries, motorbikes, shops and people, all vying for the same square inch. And then there are those infamous tuk-tuk’s. You get used to refusing about fifty each day, refusals which got increasingly less polite as time went on. It’s all part of the experience though, these little three wheelers with surprisingly powerful engines, cutting up motorbikes, overtaking lorries where no pothole is too deep to just plough straight on through. All part of the “experience”.
When it comes to eating, Bangkok’s street food was delicious, with satay chicken, spring rolls and pad thai being sold by vendors everywhere. However, my travelling inexperience was evident when I paid my 20 baht for a satay chicken, picked one up and preceded to put it to my mouth, before hearing “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” It turns out it hadn’t been cooked and I was about to eat 5 pieces of raw chicken. Needless to say they kept a watchful eye on me after that.
But what struck me most and what really did make this experience life-changing wasn’t living rough, learning to barter, saying no to tuk-tuk’s. It was the kindness of the Thai people. This became evident from the fieldtrip where 17 of us stayed in rural villages for 5 days, 2 or 3 people staying with each family, living, breathing and tasting the culture first hand. Despite only being able to communicate with the villagers through a translator, we became fully immersed in their culture and day to day routines. There were a number of times when we were able to laugh at our differences in cultures; the delight they took in watching us trying to chew sticky rice, and our over-reactions to insects and snakes. As we laughed together, it made me realise that there are other ways of communicating that go far beyond language.
An example of such kindness was when one of our students mentioned that she liked the cushions which every household seemed to have. I say cushions, they were more like sleeping on a slab of concrete, but the patterns were really pretty. However, word got round that we liked them and our last evening, every villager bought some from their homes as a gift to “remember them by”. We then ended up with about thirty between seven of us!
We ended our travels with a week in Cambodia, visiting the terrible killing fields of Phnom Penh, then taking a dreadful sleeper bus to Siem Reap where we got a 3 day temple pass and saw Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat among many. I would highly recommend Angkor Wat at sunrise, so beautiful and well worth the 430 am tuk-tuk! Whilst interesting and still enjoyable, after everything we had experienced up until that point, I think all of us had a sense that something was lacking, traipsing round temple after temple. We’d had our taste of Western food by this point, and there wasn’t really any going back, but secretly I think we all missed the authentic local food, as that’s what really made the experience special.
So with a heavy bag, (I got way too carried away with bartering for bargains), and still hanging onto the 3 brick-like cushions, we arrived at the airport. The gastroenteritis which I later realised I’d caught (never buy a 30p chicken burger from an airport at 4am), was a small price to pay for what really had been a “literally life changing” experience.