Angkor Wat: A Photo Essay

WE ROSE AT 4am. It was still pitch black when we reached Angkor Wat, yet people were queueing for tickets. We traipsed along the causeway crossing the temple’s moat, led by our guide’s torchlight. It was warm; cicadas buzzed in the trees and the glassy black moat reflected the stars. Angkor Wat was a grey outline across a wide pond. We joined the seething mass of tourists and guides, all stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the breaking of the night. Red began to creep up the edge of the sky. We and a thousand others began to snap blurry images of the temple’s towers.

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When the sky was light we crept further into the temple to witness the rising of the sun. The smell of incense wafted across us as we quickly left the crowds behind, and we found ourselves at the foot of a smaller building, which we climbed using steep stone steps. At its top we paused, not a soul in sight, and watched the sun rise.

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When the sun had fully risen, we joined the rest of our group – those wise enough to have had the extra two hours in bed – and followed our guide (a short, well meaning, though somewhat long winded man), through the temple as he explained to us the history of this twelfth century temple, the largest temple in the world.

There were a lot of engravings.

They were amazing, interesting, full of history and…. a little bit boring. Unfortunately, our guide also had a very pronounced accent and at one point spent ten minutes telling us how the French had used semen to mend a part of the temple. “They used semen?” I asked. “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, pointing to the cement on the ceiling, “semen.” Obviously, I was very mature about this mispronunciation.

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Eventually, mercifully, the engravings ended, and by popular mutiny we decided not to follow the guide’s suggested course through the temples, and instead bussed directly over to Ta Phrohm, AKA the “tombraider temple,” where Angelina Jolie was filmed jumping through ruins as Lara Croft. Many photographs ensued. Roots wider then me gripped, broke through, supported and entangled walls built many centuries ago, their trees rising tall tall, high above, their tendrils coiled and looped like someone had poured them over the temple. Here and there, the face of Buddha peeked out from between roots.

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Inside, the temples were dark and wonderfully cool except for shafts of muzzy sunlight lancing through the broken roofs or walls. Here and there, monks prayed, and wizened old women sat burning incense or selling trinkets. Outside, the sun hammered down, ratcheting up the humidity.

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We made one final stop, to Bayon – the temple of the faces.

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We left hot and tired, having only seen a fraction of the whole complex, but happy to have been there. And that was Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the world.

Trav3-19NEXT TIME: I enjoy morning glory.

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Upon Arrival

WE ARRIVED IN Bangkok tired, unwashed, and with the faint whiff of vomit about us. The flight from Dubai had been traumatic. Five and a half hours in which the flight crew attempted to serve two meals and three drinks to us and our tired co-passengers, interrupted by long bouts of turbulence over India.

The turbulence was a problem, hitting us just after dinner had been served. There’s a special art in getting food into your mouth rather than your ear when the world is moving up, down and sideways, seemingly all at once. The turbulence was making BK-C feel queasy, so she donned her eye mask to try and shut out the world whilst I continued to plaster food all over my face. Fifteen minutes later she said she needed a sick bag. There was no sick bag. The crew were busy with clearing away dinner, and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So I gave her a cup – you know, one of the really tiny plastic things that they give you on flights. Not a great substitute for a sick bag, but BK-C managed. With the first cup. Unfortunately, she was still wearing her eye mask and wasn’t able to see the second cup that I held out for her.

“Oh no… you just missed the cup,” I offered, helpfully. As if she didn’t know. It was everywhere. On the traytable, on BK-C, on me. The guy sitting next to her moved pretty damn quick, I can tell you. Meanwhile, I offered a consoling pat on the back and attempted to mop up ineffectually with a tissue. Trapped in the window seat, it was all I could do. “Oh well,” I said brightly, “at least we’ll be in Bangkok soon.” BK-C began to weep gently behind her eyemask.

SO, AS MANY other stories doubtless start, we arrived in Bangkok. Prepared for the worst, we approached the baggage collection only to find that our bags had arrived. Prepared to be ripped off, we approached the taxi rank, only to walk right up and get a taxi that ran the meter and charged us less than we expected to pay. Unprepared to be wandering around Bangkok so soon and in such good, if tired, spirits, we walked like zombies through gringo-central, where we were staying, slack jawed, wide eyed and mono-syllabic through lack of sleep. Ate Phad Thai. Were disappointed. Slept for two hours. Felt worse. Met tour group. Bought some hippy flip-flops, failed to haggle. Ate at a restaurant, drank first beer of the trip. Nearly fell asleep in food. Did a tour of 7-11 shops looking for wheat-free portable food for BK-C for the long journey to Cambodia the next day. Bought more snacks and then some more just to be sure. Collapsed into bed. Declared Day 1 of travelling to be a success.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

NEXT TIME: We visit the largest temple in the world. I do an impersonation of Lara Croft.

Lost in Transit

Airport!

WORLD, I’M FREAKING out. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m not freaking out, but I feel like I should be. I’m sat in a very comfy reclining seat with a footrest, looking at a giant sign for Le Clos, purveyor of the Finest Wines & Luxury Spirits.  This is Dubai Airport: a shining glass and chrome building dedicated to the quiet, desperate, soothing capitalism of travellers in airline limbo.

Next stop: Bangkok and a year of travelling in Asia and Australasia.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There's probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I'm just too tired.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There’s probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I’m just too tired.

BUT LET ME take a step back. My last update was 3 November. What happened to my promised posts? Time accelerated. Travmin took over. Packing up our flat became a priority. Saying goodbye to friends, equally important. I veered between frustration at having to repeat the same information (“yes, yes, we are going away for a year and yes it’s going to be awesome – what of it?”) to embarrassment that we’re privileged enough to be going away for a whole year (“yes but guys, think how depressed we’ll be when we get back.”). We packed, we moved, we said our goodbyes, Christmas and New Year happened, and now I’m sitting here in front of Le Clos, having circumnavigated the departure lounges twice, declined to buy any camel-related merchandise (if the shop Dubai Gifts is anything to go by – and really, what better way to judge a place than its airport giftshop – then camels are pretty big out here) and nipped into McDonald’s for the sole reason of seeing what concession they’ve made to the locale (the Arabian Plate, in case you were wondering).

Christmas and New Year in different parts of the UK made me miss both my friends and the English countryside before I’d even left. At 8.30am this morning, saying farewells to family, a year seemed like a long time. So BK-C and I were strangely subdued as we boarded the plane. Even the very best in-flight entertainment systems known to humankind (for which the Emirates systems must gain the accolade simply for having all three of the Back to the Future movies available for your viewing pleasure) could not alleviate the malaise. Landing in Dubai – A Real Foreign Place – changed it all. The year stretches out ahead of us, unblemished and full of promise that we could go anywhere.

World, I’m freaking out.

English Countryside

All that’s left behind.

A Year’s Navel Gazing

Devon: not where we're going.

Devon: not where we’re going.

I CAN’T DECIDE whether or not to take a pair of jeans.

Two months to go until we depart for a year of travelling, and this is what is preoccupying me. The internet is divided on the issue, and the arguments for (dress up or down, it’s the uniform of the world, they’re comfy, and they don’t need washing often) and against (they’re heavy, slow drying and not much use in hot climates) are well worn and probably a little cliché (this article on BK-C’s new favourite website for the packing obsessed summarises the debate nicely).

Arguably I should be worrying more about the very real issues of our chinese visa, securing a cholera vaccination or how we will access our money when abroad. I am acutely aware of The Things That Need To Be Done, but cannot stop obsessing over inconsequential details. It was all fine until we spent a Saturday evening watching YouTube videos of people unpacking their travelling bags and describing what they’d taken on their trip (it’s a rich seam of Saturday night fun, with more videos than could ever fill your rapidly diminishing social life. Check it out). Then the lists took over. Our families have been issued with Christmas lists of needed items (“Mother, it’s essential that I have a silk sleeping bag inner and a bottle of iodine”), our friends with dates when they are required to say their farewells to us (weeping is optional but strongly encouraged) and various assorted relatives with inventories of items they will be required (“honoured”) to look after for a year. The gravitational pull of the Master List increases as we speed towards January 3rd.

THERE HAVE BEEN some early wins. New passports, their covers stiff and unblemished, complete with our married name (yeah, we’re those people with a double barrelled surname). Vietnamese visas, excitingly foreign looking in our otherwise blank passports. And the contents of one bookcase (out of five) transported to my parents’ for safe keeping (except for the Riverside Chaucer, which, for some unknown reason, I insisted keeping here in case I wake up in the middle of the night have to check something from The Canterbury Tales. It hasn’t happened yet).

Here we come, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Here we come, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

As 2014 gets closer, things are starting to get a bit more real. Little things – like this week we went away to Devon for half term and the bed was neither as comfy or as big as our bed at home, and the realisation that “our bed” wouldn’t be ours for much longer and frankly we better get used to lumpy mattresses. I’ve had to stop visiting our local British Red Cross shop to buy their £1.25 paperbacks because “you can’t take the library with you David.” And when we buy store cupboard food items, we’re starting to think whether we’ll get through them before we leave.

Unlike this rocking chair

Goodbye home comforts. In an effort to harden herself against the expected deprivations of travelling, in Devon BK-C bought this chair with four legs that don’t even touch the ground. It will also, she tells me, simulate the rocking of the ocean, so that I can acclimatise for all that sailing we’ll have to do between Indonesian islands. That’s right, we’re in training.

Meanwhile, all of my friends seem to be buying babies and having houses, or combinations thereof. Some are onto their second of each. But for us, I find it hard to plan beyond our year away. Where will we be living, what jobs will we be doing? We have an idea but nothing set in stone. It’s exciting but also slightly dislocating when we visit friends’ houses and talk about their next few years’ planned renovations. This week in Devon we visited some good friends. As we were saying our goodbyes, I realised that I wouldn’t see them for probably another eighteen months – their baby would be walking and talking and their three year old would be, well, doing whatever it is that five year olds do.

The temptation, as you may have guessed from this blogpost, is to become a little self indulgent. Perhaps that’s the point of taking a year out: it’s a grand exercise in navel gazing. I try to get over it by worrying about the jeans.

The writing on the wall§

On Buying a Bag: The Agony of Luggage

Backpack Buying!

I AM STOOD in Beer Gonzo, in Earlesdon, Coventry. It is by far and away one of the best UK beer shops that I have ever been in, and I am struggling to keep my composure due to the sheer ecstasy of choice before my eyes. An attractively laid out bottle selection informs me that the beer of the week is called Shnoodlepip and contains pink pepper, passion fruit and hibiscus. I am in heaven.

Unfortunately, I have just bought seven bottles of beer at the off license down the road, thinking at the time that they had a great selection and I should take advantage.  Wandering amongst the aisles of the new bigger, better Beer Gonzo, I berate myself for my stupidity, and then buy three more bottles, telling myself that one is for my father-in-law (we’re in Coventry for his 60th birthday: we later share it at lunch) and the other is for my wife (she doesn’t like beer, but I keep trying): so in reality I’m only buying one more bottle for myself.

Later, BK-C confronts me. “Dave, you’ve bought nine bottles of beer, how on earth are we going to get them home?” She points out that we are travelling by train and without a suitcase between us. I point out that one of the bottles is actually technically hers, so it’s a shared problem. She leaves the room, inexplicably exasperated.

IN GENERAL, I am reluctant to visit shops and then chronically indecisive when I do. This leads to either zero purchases when I actually need something or, as in Beer Gonzo, impulsive purchases that I later regret (this is a lie: I will never regret buying beer). The saving for the Round the World Trip is going well.

So I try to offset the impulsive/indecisive dichotomy of shopping by doing Research. We are going to the Coventry Go Outdoor Store (a giant warehouse of outdoorsy stuff, akin to the USA’s REI stores) tomorrow, and I promise myself (as I have done for the past two weeks) that I’ll do some bag Research before we go.

IT’S 24 HOURS later and I am standing in the Go store. I have not done any Research, besides some hurried googling on my phone on the way here. This does not qualify as capital R research. It is BK-C’s idea that we have come here, she having been here two weeks previous and identified a contender for her RTW backpack. Now we sit in the middle of the rucksack aisle, surrounded by an orgy of luggage. It’s like we’re auditioning for QVC, as we zip up and unzip the various bits of luggage around us, demonstrating to each other advantages and disadvantages of each bag. This one has a better, more comfortable back. That one has a daysack attached. This one has side opening; that one has top opening but more pockets.

I still harbour ambitions to be featured in the John Lewis catalogue.

I harbour ambitions to be featured in the John Lewis catalogue. I’m still waiting for the phone call.

BK-C’s parents arrive, ostensibly to pick us up from the store, but in reality just so that we can QVC audition with an audience. We demonstrate what all the various buckles, straps, zips and pockets do on all of the bags. They nod appreciatively. After half an hour, they’re up to speed on the latest models, and the pros and cons of nylon vs polyester, top loading vs side loading. The Go store is a black hole where time mysteriously evaporates, like water out of a boiling pot.

IN THE END, it comes down to a choice of two bags. The Osprey Farpoint 70, or the Osprey Aether 70. The Farpoint is side opening, like a suitcase, and has a detachable daysack. The Aether is top loading but with an extra side opening zipper. It has no daysack but more pockets and feels a bit better on my back. I am crippled by indecision, and insist on trying on both backpacks in a number of different combinations, postulating a number of increasingly unlikely scenarios that we might find ourselves in over the coming year, to test how each bag would survive (“We’re caught in a typhoon and we’ve lost all our clothes, no, wait, I still have a baseball cap that only fits if I wear it backwards, the peak facing the top of back pack. And there’s a volcano erupting.”).

Ultimately, I am swayed by the Farpoint, for two reasons: 1) it has a daysack and the other one doesn’t and, 2) during my brief research in the car on the way to the store, it came out as the top bag for 2013 on OutdoorGearLab’s Travel Backpack test. Obviously at this point I haven’t cross-referenced that review with at least seven others, but it’s the best that I have to go on.

The Farpoint also happens to be the same bag that BK-C had previously identified for herself: unfortunately, now, as was the case two weeks ago, Go don’t have it in the small size so she doesn’t buy it. Yes, we are going to have the same bag as each other. We will be that couple. But I’d just like to state publicly: I bought mine first.

BACK AT BK-C’s sister’s house, I do some Research (yes, I know, why bother after I’ve bought it, but I can’t help myself.) I stumble across This Kentucky Girl’s devastatingly forensic review of why the Farpoint just hasn’t worked for her as bag on her RTW trip. She makes lots of very practical, reasonable points. I am devastated.

Suddenly it is time to catch the train back to London-town, and I hastily pack. The side opening pocket is great – so easy to pack stuff. I heft the thing onto my back. With nine glass bottles inside alongside all my other junk, it’s quite heavy. But now that extra weight that I didn’t have in the store makes it feel so much better on my back: it rests snugly on my hips, and carrying it is no bother at all. I stride out of the house, and leave Coventry feeling happy about my choice of bag.

Thank goodness I bought all that beer.

Beer reflections

Goodbye London, Hello World

The FutureTHERE ARE GOING to be some changes round here.

I love South East London as much as the next man, but it does have some vital deficiencies:

-There’s no sea.

-There’s no sand

-I have to go to work

I realise that the last one isn’t strictly restricted to living in London (but from the way some Londoners go on you could believe that nothing happens outside of the capital). But it’s such a major minus, I thought that I’d chuck it in there anyway.

So we’re leaving to go travelling for a year.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement, and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement (much like this blog), and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels (not like this blog).

THE TERM IS “Career Break,” which is a wonderfully professional sounding phrase for a year long holiday. And the really weird thing about it all, to my mind at least, is that no one has said that we shouldn’t do it. I’m kinda expecting someone to stage an intervention soon, y’know? We’ll come into our flat from work or something and all of our friends and family will be there.

“We had to go along with your crazy talk for a while, David,” they’ll tell us, “we thought you’d get it out of your system but now you’re talking about actually booking real tickets that will let you get on a plane. This madness has to stop.” Then everyone will nod sympathetically, their expression sorry but serious, like when someone tells you they’ve just run out of gin at cocktail party, and they’ll all repeat “it has to stop.” Then my mum will cut our passports into little pieces and everyone will go home.

There's going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. ("Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera...")

There’s going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. (“Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera…”). Yes, it’ll be sickening.

There’s a lot of literature around career breaks. And Chapter 1 is always “how to tell your family, friends and work colleagues that you’re leaving.” There are always sections like “overcoming nay sayers,” and “convincing your boss.” I don’t know if it’s because a lot of this literature is American and apparently having a holiday as a US Citizen is pretty much a criminal offence, but this has not been my experience. I haven’t met a single person who thought it was a bad idea. Perhaps my parents might have had more reservations if they’d have first asked where we intended to store all our stuff for the year; but, seriously, that back room has needed clearing out for some time now. Dad, you won’t even notice the difference when it’s filled with all our junk instead of yours*.

Honestly, you'll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

Honestly, you’ll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

SO WHERE ARE we going? The headlines: SE Asia and Australasia. The details:

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand.

That’s the plan anyway. We were just going to get a one way ticket to Bangkok and let the wind take us, but then we got a fantastic quote for flights from the wonderful Travel Nation and we realised that we could save quite a bit of money and stress on the road if we booked our flights in advance, so that’s exactly what we’ve done (for a rundown of the pros and cons of each approach, I recommend Bootsnall). No perhaps it’s not what Paul Theroux would have done, but there’s still a five month gap from when we fly into Rangoon in April until we fly from Bali in September.

So I reckon that’s plenty of time to get lost.

I've never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it's a winning combination.

I’ve never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it’s a winning combination.

SO WHAT DOES this mean for Elsewhere, Underwritten? You’ll see some changes over the next few weeks. I’ll still be continuing with my longer, more in depth pieces on the places that I’ve been in Britain and beyond. And the California series is certainly not over. But you’ll also start to see some shorter pieces on my preparations for our Round The World Trip. The focus will still be on a slightly offbeat, under the skin look, with an eye to the absurdities of life. I can’t help but feel that the trip to the Chinese Embassy to pick up our visas is going to feature somewhere, in a kind of it-was-a-horrifying-five-hour-wait-to-be-told-that-we-filled-our-forms-in-wrong kind of a way.

And I don’t even want to contemplate the fact that I might end up with a matching backpack to my wife (OMG we are those people. We might as well just give it all up now and buy matching gilets).

In short, there’s a lot to write about, and that’s before Mrs Knight-Croft and I even leave the country.

And then, on 3 January 2014, I’ll get to write about stuff like a real travel blog. You know, actually involving travelling.

I hope that you’ll stay with me for it.

Lago de Atitlan

For those who are curious, all of the pictures featured in this post were taken during our two trips to Central America in 2009 and 2011. The sunset is Roatan, Honduras, the dive bombing in Belize, the city sunscapes Leon, Nicaragua, the get lost picture Antigua, Guatemala, and the volcano picture Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala.

*I am, of course, incredibly grateful to my parents for agreeing to look after all our stuff for a year. Though every time I tell them that we bought another book or piece of furniture there’s a significant pause at the other end of the phone.

Got any recommendations about where I absolutely need to visit in SE Asia and Australasia? Let me know.