Customer Support Executive Belinda put her worries of overland travel to one side and headed off on our Indochina Encounter trip across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. How did she get on?
"In the week’s leads up to my trip, I spent my time telling anyone who would listen how anxious I was about the long overland journeys and whilst I do consider myself well-travelled, I admitted to being a bit of a 'travel princess'. Of course everyone told me it would be a great experience and not to worry, so I set my fears aside and off I went!
The trip starts in Bangkok, a wonderfully vibrant city that manages to blow you away with its bright lights and serenity all at once. From the busy night markets & tuk tuks everywhere, to the amazing street food, I loved everything about this city. What's not to love when you can enjoy freshly cooked Pad Thai and a relaxing 90 minute massage for less than £10! The hotel that we stay in is close to Lumpinee Park, it was a real treat to spend a few hours wandering around the beautiful lush green scenery and landmarks, with a city backdrop in the distance - not a sight I expected in Bangkok so it was a nice surprise.
The next morning we were up before sunrise, ready to embark on the 6 hour train journey to Cambodia. The train journey was more comfortable than I expected and you soon realise that no one is exactly excited about the prospect of the hours ahead, but that you're in it together. Soon I was sharing snacks and stories with the locals, all eager to learn where you are from and introduce you to their family. A girl in our group lent down to scratch an insect bit on her leg, within moments 2 locals were reaching into their bags and offering her something to make it better, definitely not an act of kindness you're likely to see on the London Underground! As the hours rolled by, we passed ever changing scenery, from rice fields, to little villages and wildlife. Before I knew it we were at our final stop, ready to cross the border into Cambodia.
We spent a total of 6 nights in Cambodia, staying in Siem Reap, Battambang & Phnom Penh, all equally wonderful, but different in their own ways. Our tour leader Vutha was welcoming from the very start and the entire group thanked him for making our time in Cambodia so memorable.
Siem Reap is of course the gateway to the abundance of temples at Angkor and being able to encounter these remarkable temples in real life was a definite highlight of the trip for me. It's fair to say that no photographs can capture the greatness of the temples and if you get the chance to I would recommend visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise. Our Leader was fully trained in guiding for the Angkor temples and I enjoyed learning so much about the temples and Buddhist beliefs.
On our second day in Siem Reap we took an optional excursion to Tonle Sap Lake - this was without doubt the highlight of the trip for me. Weaving between the floating villages on this vast lake is a memory that will stay with me forever, seeing schools, churches & monasteries along the way was just incredible. It was really amazing to see how the locals live life on the water and I have never seen anything like this before.
Phnom Penh was busier with restaurants, cafes and bars down by the waterfront. We were lucky enough to be here during the Buddhist New Year, our tour leader took us to Wat Phnom where we danced and celebrated with the locals. This was a really fun experience and the locals wanted photos with us as much as we did with them! For me this is something that really made me appreciate having a local tour leader - it's fair to say none of us in the group would of joined in with the celebrations had he of not taken us there.
After the fun of the New Year celebrations, the next day saw a more serious side to the Phnom Penh, visiting the genocide museum and killing fields. Our local guide Chum was kind enough to share his personal experiences of the war with us and by the end of the visits the whole group was feeling very reflective. Although this is a very sad part of the Cambodian history, it's one that's important to learn about and really made me appreciate the warmth and friendliness of the Cambodian people, despite the terribly hard times they have faced in the past.
Our next and final stop was Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still call it. The journey here took 6 hours via a public bus, but it was a comfortable journey and one that yet again saw us sharing snacks and stories with the locals, whilst watching the world go by and seeing once again, the difference between two countries.
Saigon is a really busy city, I have never seen so many mopeds, scooters and motorbikes before, crossing the road felt like a real life game of chicken, but somehow the craziness works and it fits together; from the big 5* hotels, to the coffee shop chains and designer clothes stores.
For me, Cambodia was without a doubt the overall highlight; the country has left an imprint on my heart. I began this trip anxious, aside from the worries of long overland journeys, this was also my first time travelling with a group. I can honestly say that by the end of it I felt so happy, relaxed and care free. I have said to friends that I feel as though I did a gap year, in 2 weeks, 15 years too late!"