Travel Diary by Ana-Maria Caia: “I left my soul in Thailand”

Ana-Maria Caia talks about two destinations close to her heart: Thailand and Cambodia

Often, when you’re looking for Ana-Maria, you find out that she’s yet on another journey. She saw plenty of places, from New Zealand to Pakistan, from Australia and Thailand to Lebanon and Finland. But, somehow, when she speaks of Asia, you almost feel that her heart has settled there.

Ana-Maria Caia is the Editor-in-Chief of Șapte Seri (“Seven Nights”) magazine and the host of the show ”Calatorii” (“Trips”) on Radio France International, which broadcasts each Sunday from 10 AM. She’s also Content Specialist for brandedcont.net, a company that provides content for brands. And, of course, she writes: on her blog, www.caia.ro, but also for Esquire or Harper’s Bazaar – mainly articles about her greatest passion: travelling.

When I asked you about the destination you would like to recount in this interview, you said Thailand and Cambodia. Why these particular two places?
It’s simple, for they are genuine “Best Value” destinations and there’s no joke here. Otherwise, for the people who are thinking of travelling, outside Europe, for the first time, these two spots are probably the best choices in the South-East Asia, in particular Thailand. It’s a combination of excellent tourist infrastructure and authentic, untainted hospitality that the natives really know how to show and offer it to the tourists.
Apart from that, however, I can say I have, literally, left my soul there. I first visited Thailand and Cambodia in 2006, and the last time in 2016. And if in Thailand I ended up for the first time on my own will, in Cambodia I got by mere chance.
I was in the Hong Kong airport, with the flight tickets in my hand for Nepal, when suddenly, just before check-in, we were announced: “We’re really sorry, the Maoist Revolution just broke out in Nepal, the airport is closed there now for a couple of hours already, we cannot fly.” We got back in town and started to think what we were going to do, I for one was a slightly fed up with Hong Kong so I got a map, I gazed at it for some time, and, finally, I said Cambodia. I walked into a travel agency and got the tickets. And that journey was a roller coaster of emotions and thrills; I came back home a different person.

 

What did you know about Thailand and Cambodia before going there?
For Thailand, well, I knew that it’s abounding with flowers, temples and smiles. And so it was, so this love story started – since then I’ve been there four times. I later discovered its vast silence, in the utmost sense of serenity, from the rural areas and the jungle, I became addicted with their massage and I brought back home suitcases full of soup ingredients. If you are to come to my house on a Sunday afternoon for lunch, there is a great chance you’ll eat a delicious Tom Yum.
Thailand has a nature which I was never quite able to describe: the incredible beauty and delicacy, everywhere, and I somewhat feel sorry for the people who go there for the beach and the sun bathing – and yes, they do have mind-blowing beaches, the hottest and the coolest all together, but this country should be grasped from elsewhere, not from the fine lines of the white sand meeting the amazingly blue waters.
On my last visit I was in the Gulf of Thailand, in a fishing village, and I came out in the estuary, leaving behind the mangroves woods, to pick up some tail shells from the muddy bottom of the water. I felt like in my mother’s womb, in that world of water, exceedingly warm and bursting with life. When I got back on land, I felt recharged with this good energy, the kind you only get from a generous nature, connected to something we seem to have forgotten about, a spirit of the waters, mighty creator and powerful.
Cambodia was a completely different story, I knew about the Red Khmers and the misery they inflicted to their country, killing their own people, exterminating the intellectuals. A disaster. First, I went to see the temples of Angkor – they purely overwhelm you, just seeing in front of you this huge area in the jungle with the most beautiful temples someone could have ever built; you go there in an unreal world, 1000 years back in time.
But the country is still powerfully scarred – as I said before, a roller coaster of emotions, as you can see children with missing legs from the anti-personnel mines. And they somehow find the strength to smile and live with this disarming optimism. And somehow you – the never-ending, well nourished, professional whiner from Europe – are placed in front of a reality that you can’t even begin to comprehend, neither to interpret its scale.

What plans did you make before going to Thailand and Cambodia?
I don’t make plans. I kind of know the territory for every journey, but mainly I learned not to have expectations. Expectations create disillusionments and I surely don’t want to roam around feeling grumpy. Sure, you gotta have a baggage of information about an area or some routes, that will unconsciously shape certain “dreams” about what will be ahead, but the most practical way is to simply live what happens to you.
Last time in Thailand, for instance, I experienced, practically, a dose of adrenaline on top of another. I was in a region pretty close to Bangkok, Nakhon Nayok, and I rappelled down the rocks straight in the middle of the tropical forest, rafting on a river mountain as warm as any big European sea in mid-summer, zip lined over the jungle, explored the villages in the very heart of the wilderness with an ATV. Plus, I drank French wine in the most hipster hotel I’ve ever been, a kind of complex of cement villas with graffiti everywhere in the midst of the rice paddy fields. Did I ever expect all this? Absolutely not. But it was incredible.
In Cambodia, for example, knowing the sad history of the Red Khmers, I were bewildered by the people’s kindness and a generosity – despite all –, which I rarely encountered. On my last visit, I interacted, however, with their authorities (tourism officials, mostly, but also local authorities) and I never would have expected, well, to say that they are practically blood brothers with ours. And this is not a compliment.

What were the places you enjoyed most and which would you recommend to your friends planning a trip to Thailand and Cambodia?
For Thailand: Trat, Nakhon Nayok, regions less trampled by tourists, where you can detach yourself from the beach and take an authentic portion of “thainess”. The eco communities in the North. The temples – speak with the monks, they’ve got plenty to tell you. Finally, the massage. Anywhere, anytime.
For Cambodia: the amazing and fun nightlife in Sianoukville, with a swimming pool in the middle of the gardens, packed with bars; beer and cheap wine and good people who laugh with all their hearts, an old-style hippie vibe. The islands nearby: the smaller, the better – more quiet, with tree houses on the beach, with interior waterfalls, in the very heart of the forest. Angkor, explored by bicycle, in peace and tranquillity, for a few days in a row.

… And the places you didn’t like?
In Thailand what bothers me the most are the go-go bars. They are despicable, but I’m glad that since 2006 till now, at least in Bangkok, the clients are fewer and fewer and, consequently, the number of the go-go bars decreased considerably. In Cambodia stay away from the casino hotels, held or owned by the Government and the Chinese investors: simply hideous places. But if you are not looking, you’ll have no trouble with either of them.

On your blog you posted some survival guides for various countries. Which would be the survival guides for Thailand and Cambodia?
The short version: smile and you will be smiled back. The long version: there are plenty of ATMs, so no need to carry too much cash with you. The dollar, though, is more popular than the euro. It’s hot, very hot, and sometimes, if you are visiting during the monsoon, it’s also very wet. Be calm and civilized no matter what, even when you have something to claim – these people purely don’t have the culture of conflict, in the European sense, we quarrel today and make-up tomorrow.
English is common, in the sense that you’ll be reasonably understood and be able to understand. The accent though it’s absolutely delicious: if someone says to you, “Chopping, madam?”, it doesn’t mean they expect you to chop something for them, it refers to shopping. Both countries are relatively inexpensive, but do not expect everything for free, remember these people must live, too. Street food is divine and mouth-watering everywhere and, sometimes, the cost is ridiculously low.
Almost all hotels have OK standards, and the luxury ones deserve every penny. Another piece of advice: do you play with drugs, especially in Thailand – they have a strict and harsh drug policy. You also need to know that any offence brought to the King of Thailand is punishable with imprisonment, but even without this law, the Thais see him as a deity, so it’s disrespectful to make any kind of inappropriate remarks. In general, safety is very high, the nightlife great, however, some common sense is necessary to avoid any delicate situations, just like anywhere in the world, for that matter.

Which are the reasons you would return to these countries?
Perhaps the best reason is that I feel comfortable there, comfortable with that world, and comfortable with myself. For the serenity, the nature, the smiles. The heat. I simply like them all.

How are the people in Thailand and Cambodia?
Let me tell you a story: I cracked the screen of my phone at the beginning of the year and as exploring non-stop, I never found the time to fix it. Till I had a day off in Bangkok, so I went to a repair centre there. The people have mend it, I went back to it pick up, and just before handing it to me, the madam there said to me: „Just wait a minute”. She took the phone and started to stick a protective foil on it and only then she gave it to me: “Not to break it again, to be happy”.
One day I was wondering the streets smiling and I bought a mango – the woman handed it to me saying: “To eat, to be happy.” People are about “to be happy”. In Bangkok, the 7 million inhabitants don’t honk on each other. No, never. Rickshaws, pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, there is no auditory frenzy, nobody spitting through the teeth at the stop cause you didn’t instantly take off when the light turned green.
In Cambodia people are poorer and even warmer, somehow. We would describe them as being patient, but I think the English have a word that fits better: “resilient”.

How about the food?
The Thai cuisine has an unique fragrance, it’s aromatic, hot and sweet, diverse, always exciting and interesting, challenging for the taste buds. The soups are insanely delicios – by comparison, ours seem a sea of boredom. The sea food is yet another delightful story: shrimps as big as the plate, creatures that we have seen only in zoological atlases maybe, green crab curry, octopus, calamari. Anything you want and anything you don’t want.
The Cambodian cuisine has a lesser aromatic taste, less perfume, it strives more towards the Vietnamese dishes, and the Chinese roots (found everywhere in the region) are stronger. Then, the whole of South-East Asia is a kingdom of fruits. And the king of the kingdom is the durian, a stingy fruit that smells like a hot waste bin, but that’s absolutely delicious.

 

Tell us a story, a conversation or even a place you’ve just never been able to forget from your holidays there.
I will pick a random one, because they are so incredibly many. Several years ago, I was in a Thai tribe, Thai Song Dam, doing a series about the thai cuisine and filming there some recipes. A bunch of beautifully dressed grannies from the tribe gathered in an outside kitchen and started to make some dry cakes.
And as we shot the scene, I suddenly noticed that one of the old women kept staring at me. At one point, she took me firmly by the hand and dragged me after her, sat me next to the cooking pot and began to teach me. And so, without any words, she corrected me whenever I did something wrong. Afterwards, again, she took me by the hand, holding me tightly – maybe, I figured, back then, I remembered her of someone she was fond of, I don’t know. In the end she called the guide and told her to take a picture of us.
To this day, I don’t understand exactly what happened there, but even now I have this strange feeling that I received a great deal of affection without any merit, without earning it, from a complete stranger.
And for Cambodia, I will tell you about a spot, Koh Rong Sanloem, a tiny island, tiny and perfect, as God made it and man hasn’t spoiled it.

Photos: Ana-Maria Caia

 

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