Siem Reap & The Temples of Angkor

We arrived in Siem Reap bright and early after the border crossing, a little shell shocked at what we had seen (being hounded by taxi drivers and scammers) but we were ready to put our bags down and get out to explore this new city.

The first thing I'll say about Siem Reap is that it is HOT. I mean H.O.T. Obviously no more warm than anywhere else we've been, but due to the lack of a breeze the temperature feels much higher than it really is, but hey what else should we expect being in Asia eh?

Our first night saw us venturing to the infamous Pub Street, an area in Siem Reap popular with tourists and holidaymakers. Yes, holidaymakers. Maybe we've been living under a rock but I never realised Cambodia was such a popular tourist destination for people of all ages, from all walks of life - you learn something new everyday. Or when you're travelling about a million new things everyday.

A lot of what you read in the guidebooks will tell you of the horrendous plight the Khmer people went through in the mid to late 1970s at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime - and really it is horrendous. The worst is that the effects of such times are still very much present in day to day life. It's estimated that there are still approximately 4 million landmines undetected in the countryside. Government backed charity organisations are doing their best to remove the land mines but it's a task that will take a long time; there's still a long way to go but they're making good progress with continued funding and support. A lot of people are victims of landmine explosions and have lost limbs in the process, and it's tough to see. I guess the main thing to take from the experience is to know that events like the one the Khmer people have been through should never ever have been allowed to happen and can never happen again, and through awareness and education we can help stop it.

That's not to say that our time in Cambodia has been totally doom and gloom (although in all honesty both Shay and I struggled with mixed emotions and a strong sense of consciousness for the first few days), after settling in, the next day we hired a tuk tuk for the day to go and experience the amazing ancient temples of Angkor.

I'm kind of lost for words when it comes to this day, nothing I could possibly say would come close to describing how awesome the ancient city really is. Just to put everything into context, Angkor was at it's most powerful in the 1100s and was home to a million people - at the same time in history London housed just 50,000 inhabitants. Which is quite something to try and comprehend. Our tuk tuk driver took us around for the whole day (a brilliant 7 hours of driving) for US $20 - total bargain.

The best bit about going to Angkor is just how interactive it is. Neither Shay or myself are that hot for museums or galleries as we both like to get stuck in - just looking at things tends to wear a bit thin, quite quickly. HOWEVER, at Angkor all of our British health and safety rules went out the window as we joined in climbing up, down, in and around the temples and ruins - obviously being respectful at the same time, but it really is the best part of visiting as you get to see all the intricate details of the carvings on every wall which I have tried to capture in some of the photos. But really, no picture will ever do these magnificent buildings justice.

And upon arriving back at our hostel, for a well-needed shower we found dinner at a local NGO restaurant serving the most delicious (also very very spicy) Khmer food for local prices.

After getting to grips with prices in Thailand, we did struggle ever-so-slightly with the prices in Cambodia - compared to at home, nothing is really relative in price, mainly because as a tourist you'll never pay local prices but if you seek it, you will get close to finding it. As a reference point, a plate of Western or Khmer food on pub street will set you back anywhere from $4-$8, but if you find where the locals are eating, you're more likely to pay $1.50-$2 a dish which works out at £1-£1.20. Cheap as chips, or fried rice to be more exact.

The day after Angkor we had a lazy day, but we did have one amazing experience. As always we went out for dinner, this time walking away from the loud, and westernised pub street area, and found ourselves in the night market in search of cheap but delicious food. If you go to Siem Reap I thoroughly recommend a place called Stephen Corner Barbecue, it's on a corner, would you believe, and it'll be packed out, every night. Most dishes range between one and two dollars and are absolutely divine... But because we were enjoying ourselves so much speaking to a retired Vietnamese-American couple all the way through our meal and filling our faces with food, I forgot to take any photos (naughty food blogger), so you'll just have to wait for Siem Reap take two to find out more about this place but for now, hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Battambang we go.

Partying in Pai & Arriving in Cambodia

Our next stop after Chiang Mai ended up being Pai, further North West towards the Burmese border. We hopped in one of the govt licensed mini vans for 150 baht each and set on our way. I don't know what else to say other than we loved Pai. The vibe of the town is so chill, with some amazing food on offer. I think on arriving in Pai we felt like we truly were on holiday.

I read somewhere that the further North you go in Thailand, the climate is supposed to get cooler. Maybe that's during the wet season but it only seemed to be getting hotter, still it's nothing a cold beer can't fix. On embarking from the bus, we struggled to remember where our accomodation was, but after a quick chat with some locals we were pointed in the right direction - confirming the lovely vibes we were getting from the town! We stayed at Pai Cat Hut, I found a deal on the night before, 2 nights for 1050b which equates to just under £20 - a mega bargain because the place is only a few months old, ultra clean and although it's in the centre of town, it's nice and peaceful at night. After grabbing a bite to eat at a local restaurant - I went for Khao Soi a typical Northern Thai dish which was uh-mazing and Shay for Morning Glory and rice - a dish which has become a staple in our diets here. We had a walk around town before settling back in the communal area during the hottest part of the day.

The next day we ventured out to see some of the sights in Pai, heading out of town Southwards, and on recommendation from two friends, we stopped for an iced latte at Coffee in Love whilst taking in the stunning views over the plain. I think it's possible I've seen about every single shade of green now, but it's not getting old. Everywhere is so flush with colour and life from the end of the rainy season. On finishing our coffees, we headed out to find the hot spring, but by this point in the day the thought of jumping into a boiling hot natural spring could not have been a worse idea really ha, and when we found out the entrance fee was 300b we did a quick u-turn to head over to the Pai Canyon. We took a couple of gormless selfies - we're still getting used to the selfie stick and focusing on smiling instead of whether we've got the background in the shot (evidence via instagram), and headed back to town, but not before stopping at the Pai Memorial Bridge. A real piece of history from WW2, the bridge was built by the Japanese so they could cross over the river to invade Burma, a British Colony at the time. After the war the Japanese destroyed the bridge, but it had become a vital part of life in Pai so the locals rebuilt it. Quite the unexpected history lesson and quite cool to come across a part of the history of WW2 that we're so unfamiliar with.

And so back to our accomodation we popped with plans of finding a tattoo shop for Shay - he was looking to get a traditional bamboo tattoo, so that happened! And then we had a night out with our new friends from Pai, resulting in us missing our 9am bus the next day to start our journey to Cambodia. But it's ok we pulled it back and owned our journey over the border. The reason for our failure to catch the bus can be summed up in two words, Sunset Bar. Filled with backpackers from all-over we had such a good night drinking Chang (for a change), laughing and dancing - although it was mainly me who was dancing - until it hit 3am, by which point we knew we had to head back to bed, reluctantly.

We jumped on a bus at 11am getting us back into Chiang Mai just in time for our 14 hour sleeper train back to Bangkok. Needless to say, this sleeper train wasn't *as* nice as the one we took on the way to Chiang Mai but we still managed to get comfy and catch some z's. We arrived in Bangkok at 5:30am, again just in time to catch one of two trains that would take us to the Thai/Cambodian border of Aranya Prathet/Poipet. The train ended up being 7 hours instead of 6 but by the end of our stint on public transport, we were happy to be nearing the end of the journey. After this I really felt like we were nailing this travelling thing, researching how to get somewhere and owning it, even with a slight setback. On arrival at Aranya Prathet we decided to stay the night instead of heading over the border for some well needed rest.

Eventually we found a place to stay in the border town, which doesn't seem to be a popular option amongst backpackers, it's a small sleepy town but we were smiling again once we had found somewhere to eat. Probably our cheapest meal in Thailand so far, Shay and I both opted for comfort food... a huge 40b plate of Pad Thai, complete with pork scratchings (insert heart eye emoji here). We chilled out and recharged our batteries ready for crossing over first thing in the morning.

We'd read that the later you leave crossing the border, the busier it gets so we thought we were being clever by leaving it to the next day. And at first we were pleased with our decision, we sailed through Thai departures, I think we were probably the first over that day, and the same when walking through the no-mans land to get our Cambodian Visas and subsequently through immigration. It probably took all of 30 minutes. But here's the problem, and definitely worth noting if anyone is planning on doing this; because we were the first through that morning there was no one else ready and waiting to jump on a bus or to share a taxi with to Siem Reap. We would have had to wait until 3pm for a bus, so we opted for the taxi option which took 2 and a half hours. We paid over the odds for it but we were happy to just be out of the border town and on our way to finally finishing this leg of the journey. We arrived in Siem Reap, bright eyed and bushy tailed ready for the next chapter of our journey.

Top of the Mountain To Ya | Chiang Mai

The day after the elephants we thought we'd take it easy, but as we knew we probably wouldn't have long left in Chiang Mai we decided to take on some of the touristy sights for the day. Just before 10am we set off heading up the mountain for Doi Suthep, the temple in the mountain. After stopping a couple of times for waterfalls and breath-taking views #thattravellinglife, all casual and whatnot, we climbed up to the temple. I'm not entirely sure just how many steps we climbed, but there were quite a few and they were steep. You're then welcomed by the 'foreigners this way' sign to buy your 30b entrance fee which is a bit of a steal really because it's definitely one of the best temples we've seen so far.

After we soaked in the stunning scenery, we decided to go to the top of the mountain after hearing a tip off of some even better views. Surely not, but off we went in search of the summit. A palace for the royal family just so happens to be up there, so it's not completely dead but we gave the palace a swerve and headed down a little muddy path with slippery steps (just want you want so high up) and we came to the most beautiful view either of us have ever seen. The photos will never do it justice but just to drive home the point, even I was speechless, so there's that!

By this point we had definitely peaked for the day ('scuse the pun) so we headed back to our guesthouse for some well earned beers. At this point I'd like to mention our guesthouse was called Baan Rachaya, but has use of the facilities of the boutique hotel opposite, BB Mantra, just for a smidgen of the price, we paid 700b a night which we thought was an absolute bargain. All the staff were lovely and the pool area was an absolute dream.

For the evening's delights we headed off to the North Gate market in search of the 'lady in the cowboy hat' and some of her infamous pork. You'll have to excuse the blurry night time picture but I'm still getting to grips with the settings on my camera, HOWEVER, this food lives up to it's hype - pretty much anything you read or hear about Chiang Mai will mention this lady's food stall. A plate of flavoursome pulled pork, a spoon of rice and a boiled egg - you know the drill, it's always the simplest dishes that are the best. We ended up getting a small plate each for 30b a pop and then ordered another because the food was that good.

We then moved on to another stall, had a plate of fried mushrooms and rice and then some more pork satay with peanut sauce because we are greedy. After eating we took a stroll back to our room for an early night, because we had to be up bright and early for our booked cookery course.

We had booked with the Mama Noi Cookery School which has its own organic farm. I think comparably Mama Noi is one of the cheapest options, coming in at 800b per person for a half day and 1000b for a full day, and I have to say it's totally worth it. Not only are all the teachers completely fun and friendly, we learnt so much more than just how to cook a couple of dishes. We learnt that Thai food is made up of four elements, sweet, salty, spicy and sour, made up of sugar, fish sauce, chilli and lime juice respectfully. My favourite dish I made was the spicy local soup, made from a chicken stock, and a whole array of flavourings and herbs, very much representative of northern Thai cuisine. I just know that if you weren't feeling 100%, this soup will sort you out no probs. We had so much fun in the morning class and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this school in Chiang Mai. We also got given a recipe book with all the dishes they offer (oh yeah you get to choose what you make), so I'm really looking forward to giving this a go when we get home... eventually.

I know this post is getting super long, but I also just want to mention a little restaurant we found on the Moon Muang Road on the eastern side of the city. They have a seating area in a little restaurant but could be mistaken for a street food stall as they cook at the front to entice people in. They're called Aroy Dee, we ended up grabbing dinner here twice because not only was the food banging, but averaged about 40-60b for a huge plate of food. The last picture is of a crispy noodle dish in thick gravy - oh yeah so delicious, I think the most we spent here was 120b including drinks! Thoroughly recommended.

P.s. There are no photos of the cookery school here, but lots on our instagram accounts, and if you're following along on #skrobbosontour - bad food blogger I know, but I was too engrossed at the time :)

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary | Chiang Mai

I'm so excited to tell you about the day we had at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the elephant tourist trade but there are aspects of it that make it not so appealing.

Before arriving in Thailand I read a lot about the Elephant Nature Park and was pretty much set on going. It's a place where rescued elephants are looked after in a safe environment, after living through the tourist trade. But due to the fact SE Asia is now in it's high season we weren't able to book to go for another week and a half - boo! Shame on me for not booking ahead of time. I was all ready to give up hope when the lady at the tourist office offered up an alternative, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. A similar operation in eco-tourism where the well-being of the elephants is their main priority - run by a hill tribe village, the elephants have been rescued from the tourist trade and are able to roam free in the jungle, but come back to the tribe for sugar cane and bananas in the day - I'd probably do the same.

We were picked up shortly after 8am the next day and in the back of a pick up truck we drove an hour out of town and almost another hour up a rocky, very nauseating mountain road. A short trek to the village later, and we were met by the most friendly team of people ready to take us on to see the elephants.

Split into two groups of no more than 10 we came across our first three elephants and were handed bananas and sugar cane to feed them. I have to admit, I was definitely nervous and a little intimidated by the sheer size of them (note how awkward and scared I look in the photos), but Shay got stuck right in. After a good while we moved on to another lot of elephants who were a lot more boisterous, including a very excitable baby elephant. The babies were certainly my favourite - they are just too cute, but it was so nice to see older elephants with a new lease of life, so calm and serene.

After a quick spot of lunch looking out onto the rice fields, we got into our swimming cozzies and went down to the river where the elephants were already splashing about. I have to say this was the best part of the whole day for both Shay and I, to see how happy the elephants were in the water, mucking about and genuinely enjoying their time there.

Some splashing around and a good scrub later, not to mention the pure elation of watching a baby elephant in water, we headed up to the mud bath to cover them back up for the next day. The mud helps to protect their skin from the sun and more importantly mosquitos, which we witnessed them batting away with bamboo shoots. I'll be honest, the mud pit was stanky, but the elephants did a pretty good job of covering themselves by sucking up the mud with their trunks and blowing it back over themselves and consequently us. At one point, Shay got stuck in between two of the large elephants, which could have been a bit scary but all he had to do was calmly place his hands on each elephant to let them know he was there and they moved out of the way.

We then said good by to the elephants and us humanoids headed back down to the waterfall to get clean. The mud was so thick it left orange clay marks on our skins - Shay was happy as he said it finally looked like he had a tan. We mucked about in the water for a bit, being careful not to break our legs/ankles on the slippery rocks and then headed back up to get changed and prepare to leave.

Honestly, truly, it was such a brilliant experience - nothing like either of us have ever done before. If you're heading to Thailand, I'd recommend looking into the elephant tourist trade and the effects it leaves on these magnificent creatures. You can check out the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary's website and facebook page - they offer free photography for the day too which is a nice little memento especially for the moments when a camera would be impossible to keep on you, allowing you to get fully stuck in and enjoy the day.

The last few photos in this post are ones taken by the sanctuary which I wanted to use to show the full experience!

Markets & More Temples in Chiang Mai

It's safe to say our time in Chiang Mai so far has made us feel like proper backpackers and it's nice to feel like we're settling in. We're still learning at every turn we take, which I would expect but now we know that if we haven't got accommodation booked, we find somewhere for the first night whilst we get to know our surroundings then if we want we can move on from there. It's a good feeling.

In terms of the place itself, we have fallen in love with Chiang Mai, the population here is less than 150,000 people, which is a much more comprehensible number than the 7.7 million people residing in Bangkok. It's a lot more laid back here, for example we can actually walk down the street without being hounded to jump in a tuk tuk and every local we have come across is friendly and willing to help.

Our first night happened to be a Sunday which coinsided with the weekly Sunday Walking Market, starting at the East gate of the old town. There's a bit more variety in terms of wares for sale here, but the real gem of the market is the food. We couldn't believe our eyes or noses on our first walk around. Shay and I were absolutely in awe, practically everything we tried tasted amazing. Shay first went in for a pork satay stick, then me with a vegetable spring roll which was huge, on a second walk round, we came across a man frying quails eggs which we have since come across again. We got a plate and doused them in soy and pepper and they were just...uh!!! They were creamy, melting little pockets of joy. We're now considering finding ourselves a frying pan that will do the job back home because everyone needs to try this, it's our favourite food we've had so far and we've had some good food in Chiang Mai.

Our other favourite bite from the Sunday Walking Market was a plate of pork gyoza also sprinkled with soy and what can I say, other than it has affirmed even more that I want to learn to make them, just so I can eat them all the time. After the Sunday Market we headed to the Anusarn Market and Night Bazaar just out of the old town, but there wasn't much on because everyone was at the Sunday Market, another lesson learned.

On Monday we rose bright and early to take a stroll around town and see some of the temples in the old city - one of them is so old that it's made of wood! I couldn't tell you the names of each temple we visited but just know that they are calm and serene places. A man making bracelets in one of the temple gardens tried to get us to ring a massive dong for good luck but we declined because it was too quiet and calm to disturb anything.

In the afternoon we headed up to the mountain in search of waterfalls and jungle scenery. It's a fair ride up the mountain but so worth it. For one, it's so much cooler and two the views are breathtaking - it's certainly a far cry from the home counties.

Monday night led us to the North Gate Market, for food. In fact it's just food there, just out of the city walls. We settled to try some of the basil leaf fried chicken with fried rice to share as well as a plate of mushrooms in oyster sauce. Funnily enough the chicken didn't really taste too much of basil but it was still delicious, including a hit of strong chilli every now and then and the mushrooms were amazing - tough and chewy but full of flavour, I definitely think this is something we could recreate at home. Not entirely full, we got 10 pork satay sticks with peanut sauce from another stall and washed them down with a Leo to share - which set us up nicely for stumbling across some live music and then a teeny tiny bar, full of locals.

We were on our way back from the market, walking through the sois (lanes) and came across the aforementioned bar and did a double take. Soon enough we were being welcomed in by a couple of people in the bar and all of sudden each found a bottle of chang in our hands. The bar was pretty much made of bamboo and could probably seat about 15 people max. We were both a little nervous at first but settled in when we got talking to some of the people there and finding out that their dog was called 7 eleven - which is effectively like someone back home calling their dog Tesco Express - just hilarious. We didn't really believe them at first until Shay said '7 eleven' and the dog looked up and walked over. No words. And I think it was at this point we really started to feel like we were throwing ourselves into this experience and even though we obviously have a lot more lessons to learn as well as things to see, we're already starting to get the hang of this travelling malarky.

All in all a brilliant start to our time in Chiang Mai, preparing us for the next day which would be one of the best days of our lives so far.

Also, should anyone wish to follow our journey further, we are also posting on instagram (and Shay's account) and under the hashtag #skrobbosontour - come and join the fun!