First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.

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Rollin’ On A River

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought it was only appropriate that I explore a little more of Vietnam before heading off to the Cambodian border. After sussing out the logistics of my various options, I decided that heading south to the Mekong River delta would be the most interesting and diverse experience. The day trip involved a two hour bus ride out of the city, so I rose uncharacteristically early that morning and trudged onto the bus still half asleep, yet curious to see what the wider country of Vietnam would have in store for me.

***

The Mekong River is the largest river in Asia, starting in Tibet, and flowing through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it divides into 9 tributaries that all flow out separately into the South China Sea. The south of Vietnam is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ due to the established crops and farms throughout the region. The real tour started at a riverside town called My Tho, and from there we walked through the jungle on a small undergrowth trail until we reached the river.

From there we got into small wooden row boats that took us down a narrow river system that was surround by thick vegetation on each side. We weren’t too far from the main roads, but we were well and truly out of the city now, and floating down the river in the long rowboat really gave me an idea of Vietnamese culture that was probably a little more traditional then either of the living situations I had experienced so far. The short trip took us to a modest little business that turned out to be a factory for making coconut candy. We were able to taste some of the sweet substance right as it came out from melting and thickening over the fire – it tasted a bit like fudge – and were given the opportunity to buy some. That was the first inkling that I was on a tour that I’d heard been referred to as a “tourist trap”, where the initial cost of the tour is cheap, but all the extras come at an additional cost, and almost every stop along the way tries to sell you something.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

After we had concluded business at the candy factory, our tour guide fetched a hessian bag, reached inside and produced a snake from within the depths of the sack, immediately offering it to individuals in the group to pose with it and take photos. Luckily I had faced and conquered my fear of snakes back in Bangkok, otherwise my reaction to the surprise might have been extremely embarrassing. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the reptile – or to be more accurate, to get the reptile around my shoulders. I thought back to the fearless little ten-year-old boy I had been when I visited the Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland, itching to get my photo taken with the huge python, and realised that I’d come full circle again. I didn’t even flinch as the tour guide draped the snake over my shoulders and looped it around my neck.

Getting friendly with the locals.

Getting friendly with the locals.

After the reptilian meet-and-greet, we jumped on another larger boat and headed down and across the river to another town named Ben Tre. We had lunch at an elephant fish ear farm – large flat fish that resemble their namesake. However, that particular delicacy was another tourist trap that wasn’t included in the price of the tour, though I’m not a huge fan of fish and was able to settle with tour included beef and rice dish. I sat at a table with two couples – a pair of British 27-year-olds taking their annual holiday, and another retired British couple who now lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They were all very nice and interesting to talk to, although I’d been hoping I might meet some more people like myself, solo travellers or backpackers. Groups and couples tend to already have their itineraries firmly set out, so I just had to enjoy their company for the day before writing them off as what Tyler Durden would call “single serving friends”.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

The last stop of the tour was the centre of the town, where there was a temple complex with several pagodas and statues of Buddha. I hadn’t gotten around to visiting a similar site in Saigon, so I was glad to be able to make up for it here instead, though the more I saw of South East Asia, the more similarities I began to see in all these temples and monuments. Which doesn’t make them any less holy or worthy of reverence – it just means you can’t spend quite as long marvelling in awe at them when you saw that temples bigger cousin in a different city. Overall, my day tour on the Mekong River was pretty average. I guess being a day tour it was obviously going to feel a little rushed, but there was nothing particularly amazing or breathtaking about it. Although it was nice to get out of the city and see some more the of the country of Vietnam, no matter how briefly.

Happy Buddha!

Happy Buddha!

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

***

That trip happened during the middle of my week in Vietnam. To stick to my river theme and spare you from any more river references in my blog titles, I’m going to throw chronology to the wind even further and tell the short story of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City…

After a slow day of recovery from my last night in Saigon, I hopped on an overnight bus towards the riverside town of Chau Doc. Not wanting to travel all the way to Cambodia via bus, I had decided to split the trip up by traveling to a border town on the Mekong River, staying there for a night or two, and then catching a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t as cheap as a bus, but I figured it would be a great way to see some more of the countryside, as well as being one of those rare opportunities to listen to Lonely Island’s I’m On A Boat and giggle smugly to yourself at the accuracy of the content.

Though for all the research I had put into transportation, I hadn’t bothered to investigate too much into the town of Chau Doc itself. Crawling off the bus at 5:30am, I was unimpressed (mainly with myself) to find myself alone in a tiny riverside town, where hardly anyone spoke English, at a time where hardly anything was open. “Cheap hostel,” I managed to convey to a motorbike taxi, and we roamed the streets for about 20 minutes, moving from closed hotel to closed hotel. Eventually I gave up and repeated “boat” while pointing at an address in the Lonely Planet guide, and my taxi driver seemed to figure out what I wanted. I found myself sitting at a dock on the river, half asleep while I waited for the world itself to wake.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

Despite the dull light of the dawn, my short ride around the city had proved to be very illuminating. There didn’t appear to be any major tourist attractions here, and the level of English speaking locals seemed to be at a concerning low. I could see things going very wrong very quickly in a place like this, and after the bus ride I had just had, it was something I did not want to deal with. In a split second decision I changed my mind, and my stopover in Chau Doc went from a couple of days to a couple of hours, in a couple of seconds.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Luckily there was room on that mornings boat, so after only a couple of hours of being in Chau Doc, I was speeding up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border. My companions for this voyage turned about to be a bunch of Americans from Philadelphia who were doing a tour through South East Asia as part of a masters program. They were all extremely friendly, and they took me under their wing when we went through the border crossing process, which I was thankful for, since this was the first overland border crossing I’d ever done. It’s a feeling of sheer terror handing your passport over and one check point and then not getting it back until the next one. Once we got back on the boat from the Vietnamese exit point, the rest of the Americans had their passports returned, but mine didn’t come back. I knew it must have been because I still had to get my visa, while the others had obtained theirs in advance, but all the same, it’s still an uneasy feeling.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

But it all went up without a hitch, and I spent rest of the 6 hour boat ride to Phnom Penh chatting to my new American friends, admiring the rural scenery and nodding in and out of consciousness – to say the least, it had been a very long morning.

Monkey Business

After the reawakening of my travel bug on the back of a motorcycle, I noticed myself growing slightly restless with the fact that I had been in the same city for over a week now. I’d been all around Bangkok, seeing the sights, tasting the flavours, and soaking up the smells, and while it truly is a huge city and simply impossible to see and do everything, I felt like a wanted to venture out and do some more exploring. At the suggestion of a friend who had traveled through Thailand before, I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Lop Buri, about two and a half hours north of Bangkok via train. Lop Buri, I had been told, was rather famous for its large population of monkeys that inhabit some of the old nearby temples. It might have seemed rather novel, but after spending to much time in the city I was interested in checking out a town that had been partially overrun by the native wildlife. The day turned out to be quite an eventful adventure, though not for the reasons I was expecting…

***

To make the most of my day in Lop Buri, I caught the 7:00 train. To allow ample time for getting ready, getting to the train station, buying my ticket and finding the platform, I crawled out of bed at 5:30 – the earliest I have gotten up for as long as I can remember. Navigating Hua Lamphong Railway Station turned out to be surprisingly easy though, and before long the train was pulling out of the platform and traveling north. It was a slow start, with the train stopping at several smaller stations in the Bangkok area, and a couple of times just stopping, seemingly in the middle of nowhere for no reason. But as the train kicked off again, I realised that the train tracks frequently crossed the streets roads, and I could only assume that we had been waiting for the barriers to come down and stop traffic so that the train could proceed. The further we traveled, the less frequent our stops became, and soon enough I was racing through the Thai countryside, wind in my hair from the open window and a smile across my face. It really was a great way to see more of the country than just flying from city to city, though I have to admit to nodding off into a micro-sleep every now and then – early morning starts have never agreed with me.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Thai countryside.

Thai countryside.

Lop Buri train station.

Lop Buri train station.

Due to some of the stops we’d made the train was running about 40 minutes late. I kept a cautious eye out for signs as we pulled into every station, slightly anxious about missing my stop, but it was about 10:20 when the train finally rolled into Lop Buri, so I jumped off and wandered out in to the town in search for monkeys. The sun was high in the sky now, and I wandered the streets for close to an hour, just observing the scenes and the environment, appreciating just how different it really was from the big cities like Bangkok. There were a couple of old relic temples, and I soon realised that these historic buildings were the towns biggest official tourist attraction. However, while I did find the temples intriguing to behold, I had come to Lop Buri for the monkeys, and so far I had not seen any. I told myself that I had a whole day, and that I simply mustn’t have been looking in the right places. I stopped walking and gazed out into the streets around me, and then looked down to the pavement… to see a monkey, casually leaning against a telephone poll and eyeing me with a look of disinterest.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

It was as though I had stumbled upon them seemingly out of nowhere – one moment I was searching the streets desperately, the next minute there was a throng of them sitting on the footpath ahead of me. Someone had thrown some food on the ground – from what I could see it appeared to be a huge batch of hard-boiled eggs, though they smelt kind of rotten. Or maybe that was just the smell of the monkeys, I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that the monkeys are scampering around to pick up every last bit of food. Some of them were fighting, some of them were mating, some were climbing up buildings and poles, shrieking wildly, while others sat about casually plucking scraps off the floor. I approached with caution to get a closer look, but they didn’t seem to pay me the slightest bit of attention as they hastily went about cleaning the food off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Making themselves at home.

Making themselves at home.

That was when I noticed another old temple just down the road. As I carefully stepped my way through the crowd of lunching monkeys and approached the building, I realised that it was covered in monkeys. Some were running around on the grass and dirt that surrounded the temple, but there were more draped over the stone statues and steps, masses of limbs and fur all clambering up the concrete and into the shade that the building provided. Again, I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, and most of them simply looked at me with rather blank expressions – but I’m not sure if monkeys faces are really capable of showing emotion or if I was just reading far too into it. As I circled the temple, however, I encountered a bawdy collection of monkeys that were a little more feisty. It may have been something to do with the open packet of peanuts I’d left in my bag, who can say? But just when I thought that I was the monkey equivalent of a severely unfunny comedian, I felt a tiny pair of hands latch onto my shorts. I looked down to find a monkey crawling up my leg… and then turned my head to realise there was one on my shoulder too, and before I knew it there were about four monkeys hanging onto my various limbs. One was clinging onto my backpack, tugging at the at one of the tags on the outside of the bag, but thankfully none of them managed to unzip it.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

At that point a local boy came running up to me, screaming and shouting. At first I thought that I was in some kind of trouble, but he began clapping his hands very close to my shoulders, and I quickly figured out that he had rushed to my aid and was scaring away the monkeys. I thanked him… and then awkwardly had to ask if he might take some photos of me, while the monkeys hung from my legs and shoulders. He obliged, so I edged back over towards the curious critters, and in no time at all they were all over me again, tugging at my clothes and calling out to each other. The local boy snapped a bunch of photos, then returned to my side to help scare the monkeys off again. I hung around the temple for a little while longer, though I kept a safer distance from the monkeys for fear that they might eventually figure out a way into my backpack. When I was done, I waved to the local boy and thanked him, and then continued on my way.

The monkeys didn't stay disinterested for long, though...

The monkeys didn’t stay disinterested for long, though…

Good thing I've had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

Good thing I’ve had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

I still think they're kind of cute, if a little dirty.

I still think they’re kind of cute, if a little dirty.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

***

It was just past noon, and as I wandered the streets I came to the slightly bleak realisation that, other than the monkeys and the temple ruins, this small country town didn’t have a lot to offer. While I did find it interesting, there’s only so long you can walk through the streets of a little country town and absorb all the cultural differences. The small town couldn’t have been more different from the big city hustle and bustle of Bangkok – in a way it reminded me more of some of the smaller towns in countryside Australia I had been to, except that the element of relative poverty was quite distinct. However, I had not properly visited the rest of the historic attractions, so I consulted the map that I had acquired at the monkey temple and made my way to some of the other sites.

There was one particularly large temple complex that I enjoyed walking through – the scenery looked like it could have been lifted from a Forest Temple in a Legend of Zelda video game, adding to a sense of adventure (for myself, at least). The grounds were huge and as you wandered inside you quickly lost sight of the main road – in some parts it felt as though you were actually lost in the jungle somewhere. It was a different kind of beauty than the Grand Palace, which was still fully functional and constantly had people attending to the paint and decorations to keep the complex looking beautiful and up to date, despite their ancient histories. These ruins had a completely different vibe – the stone was worn and broken, grass had overgrown all the floors, and many of the structures were in pieces. It was not completely abandoned – some on the inner chambers showed signs of recent visits, perhaps to pray or show respects, so it was as though these monuments had been allowed to age gracefully,  growing old and worn, rather than constantly revitalised to be kept new and pristine for all of eternity.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

I spend a while reflecting on these juxtapositions, when suddenly I heard a voice call out. I turned to see a Buddhist monk walking slowly across the grass, smiling and waving. I had seen many monks during my time in Thailand, though most of them had seemed rather solemn and stern, keeping to themselves whenever I saw them riding the BTS through Bangkok. However, I had personally known a Buddhist nun back in Australia, so I wasn’t too concerned or nervous as the monk approached me. If truth be told, I felt a little special that a monk had stopped and taken the time to even pay me attention, although this time I was the only person in sight, rather than a face in the crowd on a busy Skytrain. We met face to face on the grass, and he spoke to me in what was limited, broken English.

“You alone?” he asked in a gentle voice that almost sounded like a quiet sigh.
“Me? Am I alone?” He nodded slowly, and I looked around, as though some friends may have materialised around me while he had been asking the question. “Ah… well, yes. I’m here by myself. So yeah, I guess I’m alone.”
The monk nodded and smiled. “Ah yes. Come and sit with me.” I didn’t really know how I was supposed to refuse a holy man in his own country, so I followed him to one of the temple ruins. He laid out a small orange cloth to sit on, though it was only big enough for himself, and then motioned at the ground beside him. As I sat, he asked me if I was thirsty. It was impossible to not be thirsty in the ridiculous midday heat, so I told him that I was. He had been carrying some plastic bags, and from within them he pulled out a large bottle of water, and a few smaller bottles of flavoured iced green tea. He offered me one of the teas, and filled up my small empty water with some of his own. They’d all been newly bought, still sealed, and I figured that monks would be known for their kindness and sharing. I knew enough about the teachings of Buddha that greed and material possessions weren’t something that meant a lot to them, so I graciously accepted his offer and drank the tea.

But you can imagine my surprise when, after some small talk about where I was from and what I was doing, heavily strained through the language barrier, the monk proceeded to pull out an iPhone.
“Can I take photo?” he asked me. I was taken aback – it certainly wasn’t the kind of encounter I’d been expected from a revered holy man – but I didn’t see the harm in it. I then asked if I could take a photo of him, thinking that it would make a nice picture to go with the story of how I met Buddhist monk in a tiny village in Thailand.
He smiled and nodded, but as I went to take the photo, he shook his head. “No, no. Of both of us.”
I was even more surprised by that – taking selfies with a monk? Though I wasn’t one to shy away from the unconventional, so I shuffled over so that we were sitting close enough, and leaned out my arm to take the picture. When I showed him afterwards, he gave a little giggle and pointed to our faces, side by side. “Black, and white!” he said through his mirth as he pointed at both of our faces, one by one. He’d told me was forty-nine years old, though I might have guessed older, and it was strange to see a grown man take such delight in the simple juxtaposition of skin tones. He even reached out to take my hand and examine the paleness of my skin, and held our arms together to see the difference. “Black and white,” he repeated with a grin.
“Ebony and ivory,” I chuckled, going along with joke, though I think the phrase was beyond the limits of his English.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

Later, Rathana would tell me that the monks were technically not even allowed to touch the lay people. If I had known that, alarm bells might have gone off inside my head a little bit sooner. Yet I put it down to a supposedly gentle nature of the monks, and I myself am somewhat of a tactile person, so I didn’t think much of the gesture. However, he had noticed my tattoos, and became very interested as I began pointing out all the spots where my body was adorning ink. He wanted to take photos. I just laughed and went along with it, although when I went to roll my sleeve up to show him the bird on my shoulder, he said “No, no”, and made a lifting motion to the bottom of my shirt. It seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t really mind, so I went along with his request and removed my t-shirt. He then asked me to stand up, and it wasn’t until I was standing shirtless in the middle of an old, abandoned temple while a Buddhist monk took photographs with me on his iPhone that I fully comprehended how bizarre, and definitely not normal, this situation was.

I put my shirt back on, but the monk wanted to take some more photos of the two of us. He wasn’t as good as taking the selfies so I offered to operate the iPhone camera. It wasn’t until he went to pose for a photo by kissing me on the cheek that I knew something was definitely wrong with this picture. Not wanting to simply grab my things and run at the first sign of weirdness, I instead tried to diffuse the situation by asking if he could take some photos of myself in front of some of the old temples. He agreed, and took a few photos of me in front of the various buildings, but as we sat down again it wasn’t long before he was wanting to take more photos. The bright sun combined with the shadows and shade we were sitting in made it quite difficult to get the lighting right within the photographs – I thought it seemed reasonable that he was simply trying to just get the perfect picture. Though after a while I began to grow tired of the whole ordeal. I had expected to perhaps discuss Buddhism, world peace, the meaning of life – something, or anything, that might have been considered somewhere closer to enlightening. Instead, I’d starred in a topless photo shoot and sat through mostly unintelligible conversations that were completely lost in translation.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

When I finally plucked up the courage to tell him that I had to return to the station and buy my ticket – a half-truth, but I wasn’t going to tell a monk I was leaving because I was bored and/or slightly weirded out by his company.
“Ahh,” he said with a sigh. “Wait, sit down a moment.” I had already put my backpack on, so I lightly eased myself down onto the step where he was sitting.
“It was very nice to meet you, thank you very much for the tea and the water,” I said to him, genuinely grateful for that part of our meeting.
“Ahh, goodbye,” he said in his high, airy voice, and outstretched his arms. A hug was a hug, so I thought nothing of it, and lightly leaned into the embrace.

At the most, I had been expecting a light cheek kiss, something appropriate for acquaintances who have just met. So this monk very much shocked me, not for the first time that afternoon, when he turned his head to try and kiss me on the lips. I was stunned – I had absolutely no idea what to do. I certainly didn’t want to kiss him, but in my mind I was still thinking ‘How do you say no to a freakin’ monk?!’
I just sat there, our faces touching for an awkward moment. Then I felt his tongue press against my tightly closed lips, and I knew that I had exceeded my daily limit of weirdness. I firmly pulled myself away from the monk, but I was still at a loss of words.
“No,” he said to me in that soft voice, which had made the jump from gentle to just plain creepy. “You kiss me for longer time. It’s been so long.”
“Ahh…” I just stared at him in disbelief. “No. No, I’m sorry. I have to go now.”
“Okay,” he said, his voice exhibiting that strange quality that made it sound like he was sighing. I was sufficiently creeped out, but as I hurried out of the temple to the main road, I actually spared a moment of sympathy for the man. He’d been a monk for seven years, and I couldn’t even imagine how lonely one would feel after that long.
Then I remembered that he had basically forced himself upon me. I scurried back to the train station and caught then afternoon train back to Bangkok, shuddering every time the moment replayed in my mind.

Statue at Lop Buri station - one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

Statue at Lop Buri station – one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

***

Over the weekend, I recounted my story to the group I had gone out with last week – Anna & Co., if you will. While they found my experience highly entertaining, none of them seemed that shocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even a real monk”, one of the guys said, and suddenly the cynical worldview that my sociological background had gifted me with came flooding to the surface of my mind.
“Yeah, that’s true”, Anna had agreed. “Still, many of the monks don’t even choose to become them. Poor families that have too many sons often donate them to the monasteries.” I imagined being donated to a religious institution, and forced into a life of celibacy, and while for me that seemed like an awful punishment, my experience had left me a little shaken and unable to muster up any more sympathy for the monk. The discussion continued. “In a way it’s pretty similar to the sex scandals of the Catholic Churches and what not, although…” Anna looked towards me with a genuine look of sympathy. “Not to condone what he did to you at all, Robert, but I think we can all agree that we’d much rather them try with 21 year old men than with 10 year old boys!” I returned the smile, and we all had a bit of a laugh at my bizarre experience, while still recognising that perhaps such incidents aren’t as isolated within certain religions as one might first expect.

I don’t think I can say I was glad it happened – the way it turned out with the Buddhist monk was not a pleasant experience in the slightest. Still, it was definitely a unique story I would be able to tell of my travels for a long time – I mean, how many people can say they’ve been hit on by a monk?

The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.