Don’t be afraid to travel alone - it's fun and EMPOWERING!
When I received an e-mail from my ex-husband with flight details for our children to visit him in Sydney for the summer (winter down under) I thought nothing of it as my girls often travel to Sydney and Singapore to see him. However, on the news that night there were riots and demonstrations in Bangkok (where the girls were passing through) so within the next twenty four hours I had booked to fly with them to Bangkok and three and a half weeks later to return to London with them. Now how much of my decision was over protective parenting (always a bit guilty of that) and how much of it was my subconscious wanting to revisit South East Asia again is debatable. Nevertheless it felt like the right thing to do for both reasons!
I am no stranger to travel. When I was 20 I chucked on a backpack and went to India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. A few years in Sydney followed suit then a couple more in Vanuatu and Fiji (where my 19 year old daughter was born) then back to Sydney where my 13 year old daughter entered this world. But they are all other stories for another time! The big question on my mind was:
Would being a forty something single woman in South East Asia be different this time around?
On the last day of term Alice, Lucy and I raced straight from the school bell to Heathrow airport and twelve hours later we were in hot, steamy Bangkok! We had a couple of wonderful days soaking up the smells of Durian fruit, marvelling at the bonkers tuk tuk drivers and taking cover from the extreme wet season heat and warm downpours which do little to relieve the heat!
Two days later I said my farewells to Alice and Lucy in Bangkok and boarded my plane to Trat, a small town in southern Thailand. My flight was cancelled and thus the adventures truly began! Bangkok Airways, as was only right, reimbursed me for for my flight and gave me 1,200 baht compensation. They also arranged for a minibus to take me and a Russian family to Trat which was about five hours away. What a great start to my travels alone – to not be alone! I spent much of the journey enjoying the scenery as we whizzed past banana plantations and mango trees. I also received some impromptu Russian lessons from the five year old daughter of the family accompanying me and I tell you something - Frozen will never be the same again now that I have seen it in Russian! We made a brief roadside stop to eat Pad Thai which was both delicious and cheap - about 50p if my currency translations are correct. Not long after satisfying our appetites we boarded the big old rusty roll on roll off ferry for the forty minute journey to Koh Chang, a large, quite mountainous and jungly island which has a National Park at its centre. I chose Koh Chang because it sounded like Koh Samui used to be 20 years ago before mass tourism hit and I was right: it was beautiful and unspoiled. How long it stays like that remains to be seen.
I booked accommodation through Air B&B (first time I had used them and I was not disappointed!). Maddekehoo house was even more beautiful than the photos - spotless and utterly relaxing. It is the home of Roberto from Italy and B from Thailand and they couldn't have been more gracious hosts.
Roberto and B were kind enough to organise a day for me at Koh Chang Cooking School which happened to be a mere 100 metres from the house. We concocted Thai green and red curry paste from scratch, spring rolls, fish cakes and sweet chilli dipping sauce. And yes, we ate it all. Devoured may be a more appropriate word! My fellow budding chefs were from Holland and Germany thus ensuring an entirely European contingency around the table!
The following day saw me join an elephant trek at Ban Kwan Chang in the National Park. I picked it because it seemed the most authentic elephant experience on the island. More important to me, however, was that the animals were well looked after and the families that take care of the elephants live with them in houses on stilts in the jungle. I sat bare foot on top of the elephant, perched on a bench on his back and it was an extraordinary feeling as my bare feet rested on his leathery shoulders! They are such huge beasts but so quiet and surprisingly lithe as they plod through the jungle, sometimes stopping to reach for longan fruit with their trunks or to move a branch. After the trek through jungle they asked if we wanted to swim with the elephants and it was a big fat yes from me!
I enjoyed a few more blissful days on Koh Chang. I visited a waterfall and relished the tranquil walks I took along the practically deserted beaches.
The next leg of my journey was to take me from Koh Chang to Bangkok and then onto Siem Reap with Bangkok airways. I arrived at Siem Reap Airport in a rain storm, had my visa processed and then jumped in a tuk tuk before I could get any wetter! My destination was the Angkor Bodhi Tree Yoga and Meditation Retreat, my home for the next ten days. The retreat is run by Bob, an Australian Buddhist monk who has lived in Cambodia for nine years. Bob soon made me feel very welcome and at ease in my new surroundings. The lovely thing about going to stay somewhere like a retreat (and this was my first time) is that you are instantly in the company of like minded people. I found that I always had someone to talk to or a more than willing sightseeing buddy! As for the yoga, I had only ever tried it once before and didn’t fare too well if I'm being completely honest. This time, however, I approached the discipline with a very different attitude: I wanted to learn, undoubtedly inspired by the authentic setting!
My daily routine went something like this:
7.00am - time to wake up and meditate
7.30am - a delicious breakfast of dragon fruit, pineapple, mango and muesli with yoghurt then your choice of eggs
9.00-10.30am - yoga in a gorgeous wood panelled room upstairs in the house
10.30am-5.00pm - free time to do as I pleased
5.00pm - time for some more meditation which could take the form of chanting. I found this both therapeutic and mesmerising!
6.00pm - final yoga class of the day
7.00pm - dinner, chats and a nice early night!
During the days I explored the local area, taking in the many incredible and architecturally intriguing Hindu and Buddhist temples. I visited Angkor Wat (considered the most important of the temples), Bayon (the temple of many faces), Tha Prom (of Lara Croft and Temple of Doom fame) and Elephant Terrace. The heat was suffocating in the middle of the day when I made my first visit to the temples so for my next trip I made the very wise decision to get up at 4.30am. I sat in front of the temples as the sun rose and remember thinking that I was experiencing a truly perfect moment.
The day before I left Siem Reap I went to Kampong Pluk which is a village near the mouth of Tonle Sap (South East Asia’s largest inland lake). The people fish for a living and take small boats or rafts from house to house or to school or to the doctor (all of which are on stilts too). What an insight into a very different way of life and one that you most probably could only be born into!
Cambodian people are so very gentle and kind but it's a poverty stricken country and one that has suffered a tragic and brutal recent history at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. It's hard to ignore that there are virtually no elderly people in Cambodia since many did not survive the Killing Fields. I felt I wanted to do something to give back to this country that had welcomed me with open arms so I asked my friend Bob at the retreat about any volunteering opportunities. He informed me that he supports a school about 12km outside Siem Reap and arranged for me to go.
Another tuk tuk ride and I was soon at the school being met by Sam, an Australian woman who volunteers from time to time. It was very poor and basic, that was clear to see from the outset. Most of the children were wearing their pyjamas and few boasted a pair of shoes. They were so happy to see us and so eager to learn English! A group of children immediately took my hand and we sat on the floor and I read and I wanted to hear them read and they were only too happy to oblige.
There were children from the age of three to sixteen and they were the lucky ones since most of the children in Cambodia work for their families on farms, in paddy fields, selling fruit and veg and looking after livestock. Pure and simple, it's the only way that these families can survive.
Before too long - and before I was ready - I found myself on a plane back to Bangkok. This plane to be exact, complete with its very own set of propellers!
I met my beautiful daughters at Bangkok airport, a most wonderful reunion but the adventure continued as we were diverted to New Delhi for four hours due to some kind of technical hitch. My poor girls ended up travelling for 28 hours straight (almost!) without a complaint. We hurriedly and excitedly shared tales of our travels and I could tell that my girls were proud of their adventurous mum!
And you know what? I'm proud of me too! I grabbed the bull by the horns in spite of any nerves and anxieties and I feel truly empowered and ready to tackle whatever may come my way. And with yoga and meditation now part of my every day life my travels in South East Asia have had a positive and lasting impact on my life.
Celia, over and out.
P.S. Have you ever travelled alone? If not, is it something you would consider? Where would be the first place on your travel list?