It is strange that I enjoy a good travel book or a book where there is a strange mission – particular favourites include Digger by Max Anderson, Round Ireland With A Fridge by Tony Hawks and The Dark Tourist by Dom Joly – since I struggle to make it out of Somerset, and when I do it is usually on a South Westerly heading. Sure, I’ve been across the channel a few times (Bristol and English) but never to a proper “jet lag” destination. So I was more than a little apprehensive when my other half Timmy informed me we were off to visit her family in Thailand. I’d managed to put it off for more than 10 years, but she was out of patience and I was out of argument, so with that we were off.
The first week of our trip was spent at a beautiful villa overlooking the sea on Koh Samui. We went on a terrifying but scenic 4×4 safari, visited some funny shaped rocks and saw a mummified monk wearing cheap shades – you can Google “Wat Khunaram” if that’s your thing. Week one complete it was then on to Bangkok Airport to rendezvous with Timmy’s parents and collect the enormous Toyota hire van.
Our silver land yacht delivered us efficiently to Sa Kaeo province in Eastern Thailand a couple of hours outside of Bangkok, and close to the border with Cambodia, to catch up with the rest of Timmy’s family (there are a lot of them!). It felt more than a little familiar with large flat areas of farmland set against a few gentle rolling hills, like a very warm Somerset but with bigger potholes in the roads. Sa Kaeo city itself isn’t especially remarkable, but the surrounding countryside has some real gems. My children loved Khao Chakan Arboretum or “Monkey Mountain” as we called it, a limestone outcrop where you can hand feed wild monkeys. We also visited the strange rock formations at Lalu which look like the set of a science-fiction film, and the stunning butterfly reserve and waterfalls of Pangsida National Park.
But the real highlight of our time in Sa Kaeo, and of the whole trip really, was Prasat Sdok Kok Thom. This is an 11th century Khmer temple just a few hundred metres from the Cambodian border. In fact so close that it has been fought over by Thailand and Cambodia during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Clearance of landmines was only completed in 2004 towards the end of a restoration programme started in the 90s. The temple hasn’t really made it onto the tourist trail, to the extent that it doesn’t even receive that many Thai visitors, let alone foreigners or farang. On the day we visited there were only about 8 other visitors. As we made our way through the wood to the entrance it was hard not to be overcome by the vicious 37° heat.
The main sanctuary is approached along a cobbled street across a moat to a grand entrance, which you pass through to reach an inner courtyard. At the centre of the courtyard lies a big sandstone tower. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and historically it is massively important. Carvings and inscriptions which were once in place here have unlocked some of the secrets at other bigger and more well known sites like Angkor, though these are now held at museums in Bangkok. The tranquility and grandeur of the temple is something never to be forgotten.
Leaving Prasat Sdok Kok Thom was like exiting the set of an Indiana Jones film, and it is possibly the most amazing place I’ve ever visited. It feels something of a privilege to have set foot there, and I would never have gone there had I not been in the company of locals.
Following Sa Kaeo we moved on to Pattaya for a few days, taking in the worlds worst magic show, meeting Thailand’s No.1 Michael Jackson impersonator (not that we saw many other MJ impersonators for comparison, but he was good) and getting kissed by a beautiful performer at Mimosa: City of Love – a sort of shopping mall Disneyland with dancers. Timmy insists it was a ladyboy, but she totally and definitely wasn’t, OK. Not at all. Ever. The last leg of our visit was spent in Bangkok to catch up with a few more cousins, explore a few more temples and enjoy the excellent transport systems.
This could have been written last August whilst still in Thailand or straight away after returning, but following the brilliantly inspiring article by Bryn last August I decided to wait and see how I felt a little down the line, and I’m glad I waited. I’m a slightly less reluctant traveller and actually enjoyed it more than expected. Thailand, the land of smiles, is a beautiful country. Fond little memories keep springing to mind and raising a smile. Six or seven months on and there are still little pieces of treasure to be enjoyed.