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Chiara Gerek travels to South-East Asia

It all started with a $250 one-way ticket from Melbourne to Bangkok , a red cinnamon backpack that became my thread of familiarity as the country borders blended together, and a camera that was my proof it all really happened.

From the moment I landed in Bangkok the vibrant energy hit me with a spark of intensity that is unparalleled to anywhere else I’ve experienced in the world. After a few days in Thailand I headed south on local buses and pickup trucks to the Cambodia border where I nearly risked losing my passport over refusing to be scammed $30.

I quickly found myself in the northern city of Siem Reap where my travel partner Robbie and I rented bikes for the weekend to explore the endless complex of temples known as Angkor Wat. The infamous sunrises meant daily 4 A.M. wake up calls to ride miles and miles through the darkness to the largest religious structure in the world, the temple of Angkor. We spent days adventuring the intricate temples and Cambodian countryside visiting local quaint villages and farmers in the outer town limits of Angkor.

After a week, headed north to the mountainous and river country of Laos where a one-week trip quickly turned into a month, a decision I blame on new life long friends and magically re-appearing $1 Beer Laos. We hiked vertical limestone waterfalls into bamboo mushroom forests, and relied on the kindness and hospitality of families who graciously took us in as their own in these remote villages.. There we sat down for communal dinners enjoying the local delicacy of rat meat and played traditional drinking games with locally made “laou-laou” whiskey that tasted like fire down your throat and ended with the lucky winner eating a chicken head. The morning after I learned you haven’t experienced a hangover till you’ve been chased down a mountain by a cow separated from your friend and tour guide. Its scarier than and just as funny as it sounds.

The following 10 days I found myself blissfully stuck on the infamous river-tubing town known as Vang Vieng. With friends from all over the world, we found ourselves spending our days lazying down the rivers, biking amongst the jagged limestone mountains to blue lagoons and magical nights dancing under the moonlight at hazy jungle parties. As Christmas came around, we all headed south to celebrate the holidays in the idyllic 4000 Islands where time seems to slow down and days pass at the rivers meandering pace.

To celebrate our New Years we headed south back into Cambodia on a fifteen-hour bus that left us stranded when it broke down on the dirt highway. After an hour of only two cars passing by finally a pickup truck of exuberant women crammed us into the back of their white pickup truck. We hitchhiked our way in the darkness with a Thai wedding party who drove us to our next destination and eventually made our way to the island of Koh Rong. On this island the dense vivid green jungle lead to sprawling white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters where people have been known to stay for months even years.

Sleep was nearly impossible with the dogs and monkeys howling blended with the party revelers dancing well past midnight. A weekend turned into two weeks as the days of jungle treks and beaches blended into full moon parties and New Years celebrations, it was no surprise that I intentionally missed my flight back to the states. As mid January came around it was time to head home to New York, forever changed by the lifelong friends and experiences I encountered through South East Asia.

Words and photography by Chiara Gerek

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