Guest post by Keith Hancock
Anyone with time on their hands can make a journey through Southeast Asia that will leave them breathless. The car or bus rides in themselves are nothing to write home about but the four cities on this ride are as varied, as fascinating and as completely mind-blowing as anything you are likely to encounter, anywhere in the world.
The Big Mango or City of Angels as it is called in the Land of Smiles, Thailand, is as wild and whacky a place as you’ll find. Some amazing temple sites, arguably the finest cuisine in the world, the wildest nightlife on the planet and hundreds of terrific hotels. The Chao Phraya River that flows through the city is a thoroughfare and trade route that has supplied the city since it was founded. Its Thai name is the longest name of any city in the world. Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit is known by locals, simply as Krungthep. The full name means city of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.
This is no ordinary city. Its notorious nightlife is centred around three distinct areas, Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy. It is estimated that there are 400,000 working girls in Bangkok. Of course some of these are not girls in every sense of the word. Thailand’s Ladyboys are famous throughout the world. Successive governments keep saying they will clean up the Bangkok’s lurid reputation, but it always carries on regardless.
The food here is astonishingly good. Many rightly claim that Bangkok has the best street food in the world, and it is hard to argue. Take a riverboat trip to see the amazing temples of Wat Arun and Wat Phrakaeo and you will pass some of the city’s finest five star hotels as you sail by. The nighttime diner cruises are very popular and a great way to spend an evening.
Just about 6 hours away by road and you’ll be in:
You will have to encounter one of the weirdest border crossings imaginable, in order to get there, but it is worth the trip. The Thai border town is Aranyaprathet and it’s a quiet sleepy border town like any other. Pass into no man’s land between the two countries and you are in something that looks like the set of Blade Runner. Poipet on the Cambodian side is even worse. Dust filled in the dry season and ankle deep in mud in the wet, it is a terrible introduction to a wonderful country. I have never understood why they don’t at least try and do something with it. Still from here one of my favourite towns in the world is not far away.
Siem Reap is a languid, tranquil frontier town where the pace of life seems slower than anywhere else. It is famous of course for the incredible temple complex of Angkor. Angkor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world and the whole complex of Angkor Thom is breathtakingly beautiful. This area really is spoilt for choice when it comes to temples. Angkor Wat will always be the star of the show but for me Ta Phrom and the Bayon are just as terrific in their own right.
Right on the doorstep here of course is The Tonlé Sap waterway system. A lake and river of the same name this is one of the most amazing waterways in the world. In the dry season it is 3 feet deep and covers and area of a thousand square miles. Come the monsoon rains and the river changes direction, whilst the lake becomes 30 feet deep and covers an astonishing sixteen thousand square miles, making it the largest lake in Asia.
Six hours south of here and you arrive in:
This fabulous old colonial French city sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. It must have been amazing in its heyday, but the crumbling facades on Sisowath Quay are a shadow of their former glory. For me though this simply makes it more interesting. It has the look and feel of an old cowboy town. Ageing U.S. Vietnam Vets propping up the bars in any number of the town’s increasing number of girlie bars merely adds to that flavour. This really is the Wild East!
The Riverfront restaurants are great places in which to sit and watch the world go by. The French influence here is strong and is reflected in the bars and restaurants. But that is not to say that’s all there are. Irish bars, English pubs, European style wine bars and restaurants of every colour are to be found here. I think Phnom Penh is unlike any other place I’ve ever been.
Even in the heart of the city, some of the streets are unsealed and unlit at night. Barefoot children beg for scraps and the local tuk tuk drivers constantly pester for clients. It is like going back in time. And speaking of going back in time, the nearby Killing Fields and S-21 death camp makes for a sobering trip back to the days of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. These people have suffered unimaginable horror and still manage to remain the most pleasant, happy and friendly people I can think of.
7 hours and another border crossing brings you to:
Ho Chi Minh City
The more romantically named Saigon changed its name following the end of the war in 1975. When the tanks crashed through the gates of the Royal Palace on April 30th that year, it signalled the end of the war and the end of the old city name; a shame in any ways, as few city names on earth conjure up the magic and mystery of Saigon.
This is a fabulous city in every meaning of the word. Massive glass towers, ancient Chinese style structures and wonderful French colonial buildings, all rub shoulders in a chaotic, riot of noise and wonderment. It is also one of the greenest cities in Asia with tree-lined boulevards running through its heart.
Motorbikes rule here, there are around 4 million of them and the chaos in the rush hour has to be seen to be believed. Somehow though, it all works. It is astonishing. In the midst of all this old world madness there is a thoroughly modern city waiting to greet you. It has fabulous restaurants and bars, amazing shopping, terrific culture and at its heart the wonderful Vietnamese people. If there is a more beautiful, traditional, national dress anywhere on earth than the Ao Dai then I haven’t seen it, and women of all ages will wear it. To see young women walking through the city centre wearing it is a delight. Elegant, respectful yet sexy, it is the epitome of style.
So there you are about a day on the road, and four incredible Southeast Asian Cities. This region is truly beautiful.
About the author: Keith Hancock is owner and writer for InSeAsia.com. Following a highly successful 25-year career as a singer/songwriter and musician, Keith left the rat race and moved to Southeast Asia in 2008. He lived in Thailand, Cambodia and now Saigon. He started the Saigon Districts website, turning it into the fastest growing site in Vietnam. After careful consideration, he decided to cover not just Vietnam but the whole region that he loves so dearly.
Keith has had work published in magazines and websites in the UK, Europe, USA, Australia and Asia. He has written for the BBC and has appeared on TV and radio in many different countries. His great loves are music and travel, but he writes on a whole range of subjects.
InSeAsia.com is a labour of love as Keith’s travels round the region garnering subject matter