Ko Pha-ngan, Thailand

Sam came up with a brain-wave, that instead of flying between Cambodia and Indonesia, as we’d planned (to meet my old work buddies, out on their sabbaticals), we would instead travel overland to Malaysia and squeeze in the Malay Peninsula first. This meant we found ourselves passing back through our beloved Thailand, and we simply couldn’t resist popping back somewhere en route. Given we’d only been to a few islands (because of the rainy season before), we thought we’d swing by backpacker favourite Ko Pha-ngan and see what all the fuss was about.

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Despite it being Full Moon Party time, we decided to skip it (having heard horror stories about it being full of terrible wrecked people, and a bad vibe) and instead made a bee-line for the North West of the island, Huaad Graad. We’d met a hawker early morning at the ferry port who offered us a bungalow for a bargain 600B (£12) then he promptly disappeared, so we feared we’d been scammed – until we were picked up by his colleague on the island! After an exhilerating ride on the back of the jeep through the jungly bumpy roads, passed pristine beaches, we arrived at tiny Huaad Graad Villa.

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The place was super remote, with a 20 minute (scenic) walk along the jungly paths to the nearest strip of shops/restaurants. It had its own private beach and infinity pool, and was nicely tucked away from everything. The restaurant was pretty spenny, so we settled into the rhythm of buying in breakfast snacks from the local 7/11 and trekking to a nearby Thai restaurant – Ying’s – where we could find delicious curries and noodles for a quid. We picked up some smokes and settled into five days of this relaxing routine, swimming in the pristine sea, larking about in the pool, and sunbathing.

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After five days, we were rudely turfed out by the unfriendly staff as they had a gang of Full Mooners arriving. We didn’t really mind, as we’d visited nearby Salaad beach before and found it even prettier than our little private beach, so we hit the road and enquired at My Way – some bungalows we’d had our eyes on – and they miraculously had a bungalow at an even cheaper £8/pn, with hammocks out front! We settled in for another few days of chilling between bungalow, restaurant and beach.

We were pleasantly surprised by the island, and found the North especially to have a really nice chilled, slightly older backpacker vibe – lots of cool jungly roads to walk on (or bike, if you’re brave!), chilled restaurants and bars that shut shop on the right side of midnight. Definitely a great pick for the thirties and up crowd.

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After nearly eight days of wonderful, pure relaxation, we managed to dig ourselves out of our hammocks and make our way to Malaysia, via an agonising journey of late boat, late bus, missing the last train, waiting until 4am at the train station, then catching ANOTHER train, then a bus… to PENANG!!

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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap’s pretty full-on and bustling with tourists, as you’d expect, but it’s still a pretty nice place to spend some time pre/post visiting the big draw – Angkor Wat. In the days before we visited, we spent time relaxing on the river, drinking bia hoi, eating delicious ‘fish amok’ (Cambodia’s most famous dish, a rich tasty curry), drinking endless coffee, buying silly traveller trousers for the temple, and finding an affordable nice hostel ($9 as opposed to the original $15 we found over the weekend!)

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We also spent time finding a bike rental – an unbelievable $1 a day! – for Day 1 of Angkor Wat. Up early, we excitedly gathered packed lunch of baguettes, bananas, and cake, and took the excitable hour’s cycle down leafy lanes, past bustling schools and towns, and across crazy busy highways, to Angkor Wat itself. Having not cycled since Laos, it was really novel and fun to be cycling on the road, and we were pumped up and full of excitement by the time we arrived!

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Our first day was perhaps a little overzealous, and we covered over 40km to some of the furthest away temples! Err… they looked a lot closer on the map. We cycled past beautiful lakes, to tiny Neak Poan – a little temple surrounded by ponds – had lunch at the Botanical Gardens, then visited corridor-filled Preah Khan, known for its ‘hall of mirror’s effect, with framed temples seemingly going on for eternity. Outside is the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ relief, which is like a giant row of gods playing tug of war! Some of who’s heads have been removed by the Khmer Rouge. We then cycled back by Ta Nei and Ta Keo temples, replete with huge elephant pillars on the corners of the temple.

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Cycling is super fun, and for lots of the day there’s leafy coverage, but the heat was also pretty extreme at times, and we were super exhausted after the first day! Not to mention extremely sore and a little sunburnt!

Our second day was a little disastrous, as we were both exhausted and Sam accidentally picked up a terrible bike from the hire place with almost flat wheels. We held it together for the best part of the day, visiting Pre Rup, and Banteay Kdei via Sra Srang Lake (to stop for lunch) and Ta Prohm temple. The temples were all stunning with some impressive stupors, in the classic ‘Angkor Wat’ style of relief, dramatic archways, incredibly preserved carvings (hidden behind jungle for years), and god faces reminiscent of Bayon that we would visit the next day. Ta Prohm especially was pretty dramatic, and is known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, as its totally overgrown with tree trunks growing out of the stone itself – and features on the Tomb Raider film!

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After hours of cycling round and sightseeing in the now unbearable heat, we called it a day mid-afternoon and started the long cycle back, when Sam’s wheel really started playing up and he could only go at a crawling pace. We stopped to watch some hilarious monkeys dive-bombing into the big lake near the park entrance, when the bike wheel flattened completely. We took the executive decision to take the bike back to town on a tuk-tuk, which we wrangled for a bargain $4, and Sam cycled behind us on my bike. I sneakily returned it without the bike lady noticing – given she’d rented it out almost flat, we figured it was her responsibility!

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We decided to take the next day as a rest day, so spent the night on the town drinking delicious cocktails, cheap fresh beer, and a new cheap local restaurant with great curry, noodles, summer rolls, and an adorable little girl who played with us all night at our table with her aunt, the restaurant owner!

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After a relaxing day mooching around town, we woke up at an agonising 4am to cycle, in the dark, to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Waking up so early and cycling when the streets were yet to come to life, was really exciting in itself. Tour groups and tuk-tuks whizzed past us in the darkness as we peddled furiously on the high quality bikes we’d treated ourselves to (a whole $2 rental price!). Arriving for sunrise, to be frank we found the experience a little underwhelming. Heaving with ten-rows deep of tourists, and idiots shouting loudly at each other, dispelling the magic of the moment, and hustling for a good photo op, we decided this probably wouldn’t be the highlight of the day.

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After sunrise, we walked around the big Angkor Wat itself, which was beautiful – albeit fairly similar to the temples we’d already seen – and we climbed to the top, with hilarious fashion consequences, as I had to wear my new patterny travel trews with my crazy flowery top! – and the view was pretty amazing.

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However, the best was yet to come when we visited the stunning temples of Angkor Thom, namely Bayon. Bayon is an incredible ancient temple, replete with surrounding walls of bas relief detailing wars, daily life, religious scenes and history in wonderfully preserved conditions. Inside, the temple moves upwards up crumbling steps to the top, where you find yourself surrounded by imposing and humbling giant God faces carved into the walls, in statues and stupors facing every direction. Said to be placed there to reassure man that God is watching over, and to inspire worship and fear, the faces do just that. Looking up at them, and at the surrounding relief, was the most awe-struck I found myself during our time at the temple complex.

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The temples are said to have been built by various kings – each trying to out-do the previous king – to show that they were sent from God, and should be worshipped as such. It’s clear as you cycle around that each has its own particular beauty and form of extravagance, and I’m glad we chose to spend three days looking around in detail rather than a rushed tuk-tuk tour. We really felt like adventurers, and despite the sweat, toil, and sore bums, it was worth it!

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