Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville: We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year

Christmas in Cambodia was a fairly low-key affair, but I guess that’s to be expected from a country where the majority of the population don’t actually celebrate Christmas.  There was definitely more of a festive atmosphere than when we’d left Thailand, and plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants had Christmas decorations and lights set up.  Our tuk-tuk driver from Battambang said that this was solely for the benefit of tourists and expats, but we did notice a couple of very sweet local Christmas time traditions – like the fact that Cambodians say “happy merry Christmas” instead of just “merry Christmas”, and the kids get dressed up in little Santa Claus and Mrs Claus outfits on the few nights before and after Christmas and hoon around on their scooters in the local parks.  Overall though, the 25th of December is just another day – all of the shops are open and it’s business as usual.

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We spent our Christmas morning Skyping family and lounging by the pool, and then set off for a traditional lunch/early dinner at the local Aussie pub.  The lunch was incredible, but the quantity of food was bordering on embarrassing in a country where so many people have so little.  Our waitress was absolutely stoked when we told her to take our helping of Christmas pudding home to have with her family.  She even came by our table to show it to us all packed up in a takeaway box, and said that she was going to let her son have it for breakfast (he’d be asleep by the time she got home that night).  Lunch left us unable to do much, but waddle home (stopping for a few more drinks en route) and pass out in a turkey/pork/stuffing/spud coma.  It was a fun day, but it’s true that there really is no place like home when it comes to Christmas and we were both a tad homesick throughout the day.

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Too much Christmas cheer = blurry selfies

On Boxing Day we did the same thing as loads of people back home, and hit the beach.  There is not a hint of sarcasm when I say that the bus ride to Sihanoukville was luxurious – there were only four of us onboard, we got given fresh baked croissants as we set off and then listened to epic old school pop tunes the entire time (Ja Rule, and pre-meltdown Britney, anyone?).  The rest stop was at a great cafe with western toilets and, wait for it, toilet paper!!  The whole experience was heavenly.  On arrival in Sihanouville we were straight in a tuk tuk headed for Otres Beach.  Sihanoukville has a bit of a patchy reputation – it is divided into a handful of different beaches; some are idyllic little white sand retreats, and others are tacky party pits known for attracting sex pests (that’s not a joke, there’s a real problem with that here), young backpackers and people with an aversion to deodorant.

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For us, Otres was the perfect in-between – there was a great atmosphere with beach bars and restaurants, prices that appealed to backpackers/flashpackers, but also enough family groups and couples to keep things from getting too scuzzy in the evenings.  There’s also some really cool local initiatives going on, like the Otres Market.  The Market sets up on random nights (you just have to keep your eye out for one of the fliers on the beach) and features local and international bands, a dozen food stalls (Mexican, Khmer, Portuguese etc etc), cheap booze and local arts and crafts.  The night we went there were two great bands playing and we spent an easy few hours listening to them, sucking back G&Ts and Cuba Libres and feeling very pleased with ourselves.  Days were spent lounging on the beach, and that’s about it.

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It’s just as well there was so much to keep us “busy”, because we’d had an absolute blow-out on the accommodation front and we didn’t want to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary.  While we’d been wandering around oblivious to what the month, date, or day was, all the other eager beavers had been scooping up all of the Cambodian beach accommodation for the Christmas/New Year period.  When we finally came to taking a look, our first search came back with two options – a private island for $3k a night (nice, but not in the budget), or a tent on the beach (not nice).  Panic rapidly set in, but after a lot of sleuthing and a lot of stressing we finally found somewhere to stay – another bloody eco resort.  This one really took the cake though.  When the manager showed us to our “bungalow” and opened the door Campbell’s face transformed from tentative optimism (he’d made the booking), to that of a small child that’d just discovered a turd in its school lunchbox.  The place was a dive, and it was absolutely full of critters.  I tried to stay upbeat, but when we woke up the next morning to a giant lizard on the bathroom wall and frogs on the toilet seat and the mirror, I joined the pity party as well.

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We’ve grown quite accustomed to Henry head-butting his way into the bathroom when we’re sitting on the crapper, but this was a whole other audience and I wanted them gone. Lizzy (the big lizard) was kind enough to just slink back to wherever he’d come from once he realised we were there to stay, but those frogs just wouldn’t budge.  We tried to smoke them out with one of those insect repellent coils, but they came back when the smell had worn off.  So it was out of pure desperation that I said to Campbell, “I wonder what would happen if you gave them a little squirt with the shower?”.  No need to die wondering, I can tell you exactly what happens when you squirt a frog with the shower – the frog will get really really pissed off and leap at your face with all of its little fingers and toes ready to suction onto your face and kill you (at least that’s what it felt like at the time).  You’ll then be so terrified that you fall backwards out of the bathroom, smash your arm on the wardrobe and fall arse-first through the mosquito net over the bed and rip it from the ceiling.  The frog will then go back to sitting in the bathroom watching you on the loo.  Wildlife – 1; Wilsilands – 0.

Despite loving Otres Beach, we literally bounced out of our bungalow this morning headed for our next accommodation on Serendipity Beach.  Cambodia is really giving us the treatment though, and we arrived at our hotel only to be told that they’d double-booked our room and had no rooms available.  We already knew that there was no accommodation left pretty much anywhere in Sihanoukville (except the private island), so tried to work with the hotel for a solution.  A lot of phone calls were made and people were running all over the show with walkie talkies, when the manager said that they had managed to “find” us a room.  We set off to check it out (up about 50 flights of stairs) and I knew it was bad when, from around the corner, I could hear that Campbell had been taken with a bout of verbal tourettes and was seriously unhappy with whatever room they’d rustled up for us  (“No!  I am very angry!  No!”).  I didn’t even need to see the room – the words “dorm” and “shared bathroom” meant it was a big ‘no deal’ from me too.

After many more telephone calls, a few choice words with the owner and a panicked call to Expedia, the hotel managed to “find” us another room (I’ve no idea where they kept appearing from).  We grudgingly accepted (it wasn’t what we wanted, or had paid for), but it would do the trick and, unless we wanted to sell our internal organs, the private island wasn’t really an option.  On the plus side, our hotel is in a pretty sweet location – close to the beach and lots of shops, cafes and restaurants.  We got lunch on the house, and there are a bunch of puppies that live here, which did wonders to help soften the mood.  We’ll spend New Year’s Eve here and then we’re looking forward to striking out for Kampot and Kep – the last destinations on our Cambodian trip.

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While our lack of planning screwed us a bit this last week, it has paid dividends on another front and we’ve realised that, once we reach Kep, we can catch a ferry from there directly to Phu Quoc island in Vietnam.  Phu Quoc was on our wish list of places to get to, but was starting to look a bit unlikely.  We’re so stoked to be able to go there before we venture north to Hue that we went straight to the Vietnamese Embassy in Sihanoukville this afternoon and got our Vietnam visas amended so we can get there quicker.  After the day we’d had, we were expecting something like a Visa amendment to be a real drama.  I was envisaging stacks of forms, some form of cavity search and lots of money changing hands.  I could have hugged the man behind the desk when he said that ‘yes, he could change our Visa entry dates’ and that it would only cost us $20.  He then rifled around in his desk, got out his twink pen, changed the dates, blew on the twink to make sure it was dry, and saw us on our way.  On a day when easy things have been hard, we laughed out loud that something with the potential to be hard had been so so easy.

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Kratie: The wheels on the bus. . .

We left Phnom Penh on Tuesday and boarded the loser cruiser for Kratie.  The trip was supposed to be a solid six hours, which we’d mentally prepared ourselves for.  Instead, it turned into an eight hour endurance event more akin to a hop-on hop-off tour of the Cambodian countryside, than the “express” service we were expecting.  We must have stopped on ten different occasions never with any idea what the hell was going on – sometimes there was just time to go to the loo, on another occasion we sat and waited while the driver tucked into a five course meal.  On the plus side, the bus was half empty (possibly because all the other tourists had decided to save themselves the agony and catch a minivan), so we could spread out and do our best to catch some zzzzs.

It was all worth it when we got to Kratie, because Kratie is beautiful.  It’s a lovely, mellow, little town, the main strip of which lies between the central market on one side, and the Mekong on the other.  Our guesthouse was an absolute monstrosity (it was slim pickings in town, but having to BYO toilet paper was truly a new low).  Its only redeeming feature was the balcony along the entire frontage that looked straight out across the river to the island of Koh Trong.  There was nothing quite as fancy as a table, or comfortable chairs to sit in while soaking up the view, but we scrounged up a couple of plastic picnic chairs and some kind of abandoned trolley and settled in every night for gorgeous sunsets and techno music courtesy of the group exercise classes taking place on the promenade.

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The main reason tourists visit Kratie is to see the pod of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the Mekong about 20 km north of town.  We got amongst the action and caught a tuk tuk to the village of Kampi, where we could catch a boat out into the river to see the dolphins.  It’s clearly a cash-cow for the local villagers who charge through the nose for the trip (if only more of the money went into conservation).  Notwithstanding that, we’d rather stump up with the cash than make dicks of ourselves like the Aussie man mouthing off in the car park about the fact that his driver hadn’t told him that he’d have to catch a boat to see the dolphins.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he expected.  I’m fairly confident there’s no Seaworld in Kratie so, if he’d bothered to engage his brain for a moment, he probably would have realised that he was going to have to get on a boat at some point if he wanted to see dolphins.

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We’d only been on the water for about five minutes when we spotted our first dolphin.  The dolphins don’t really look like dolphins that we see at home – apparently they are most closely related to orcas, but they look like belugas with rounded heads and snubby noses.  They’re also pretty little.  We spent an hour on the water and saw dolphins for almost the entire time.  As you’d expect, they’re tricky little buggers to get a photo of, but we tried.  Our driver was an incredibly likeable man, and was super respectful of the dolphins – we never got too close to them and he mainly rowed the boat about rather than having to use the engine.  It was a really cool experience and another “first” for the trip.

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The half hour ride to and from Kampi gave us a glimpse of truly rural Cambodia.  Campbell and I both commented that, in a lot of ways, the surroundings reminded us more of rural Rajasthan than of anywhere else we have been in SE Asia.  There were cows, pigs, ducks, chickens, dogs and cats on the streets, little kids running about and yelling out “hello” as we passed, a small shop out front of every house selling fruit, cold drinks or smokes and very very basic homes.  As with the rest of Cambodia, the houses here tend to be built on stilts – the family sleep in the home itself and the space underneath is used for cooking, storage and sheltering from the sun.

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On our second day in Kratie we caught the local ferry across the Mekong to visit the little island of Koh Trong.  Koh Trong is one of the most charming places we have visited in SE Asia.  There are no cars on the island, so it makes an ideal spot for a bit of cycling.  We hired a couple of old school cruisers straight off the ferry and took off on the 9 km loop around the island.  The attraction here is the beauty of the island itself – it is truly untouched.  There are rice paddies in the middle and orchards and jungles around the perimeter, along with a sprinkling of villages and only a handful of guesthouses and places to eat.  There are loads of cows and other animals pottering around, including the enormous snake that we managed to come across (and thankfully scare away) on our bikes.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about Koh Trong is the white sandy beaches that fringe the island, which (for a very brief moment) make the Mekong seem like an appealing place for a dip.  On the day we visited, the sky was so blue that the reflection almost tricked you into thinking the water in the Mekong was blue as well.  Sadly, it was most definitely still the sludgy brown we’d seen in other places.

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It was time to hit the road again after three nights in Kratie.  We decided to break the trip back to Phnom Penh by staying one night in Kompong Cham.  We also decided to skip the four hour bus ride and go for the two hour public minivan ride instead.  We knew that this could be a little challenging – when you book your ticket there are large signs saying “there are three seats in each row in the van and it is four people to a row.  If you want a seat to yourself you must pay extra”.  Luckily, for the first hour we all got a seat to ourself.  Things got a whole lot squishier when we stopped at a village and a desperately unwell woman boarded the van, along with four family members who had to assist her to walk and seemed to be the only thing keeping her comfortable/alive. There were a few more pick-ups after that and, before you knew it, there were 20 people in our 12 seater van.  Even though we had a woman knocking on death’s door onboard, we stopped another couple of times, so that the other passengers could pick up pineapples and deep-fried crickets.  If the trip had been any longer than two hours we would have gone mental, but it was short enough that we found the whole thing highly amusing.

Kampong Cham is the third largest city in Cambodia but, from a tourism perspective, seems to be known for nothing in particular.  We’ll enjoy dinner by the Mekong tonight (possibly for the last time of the trip) and then hightail it back to Phnom Penh tomorrow morning.  We have nice Christmas accommodation lined up and definitely want to make the most of it!

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Phnom Penh: Night Fever

I’m a little bit stumped about what to say about our time in Phnom Penh, mainly because I slept through the best part of our four days there.  Whatever fever/flu I had absolutely kicked my arse, so sight-seeing was a little bit limited, as was the amount of time I could stay awake.  It wasn’t all bad though – our hotel had excellent cable TV and a whole channel dedicated to action movies.  I have seen enough movies starring Harrison Ford, Samuel L Jackson, Jason Statham and Mark Wahlberg to last a lifetime (although Mark Wahlberg is a babe, so I won’t be taking too long a break from him).  Campbell made a strong last push for husband of the year, making trips to the pharmacy, giving me the only decent pillow in the hotel and miraculously appearing with food at all the right times.

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Luckily for us, Phnom Penh isn’t actually a city heavy on tourist attractions, so we still managed to tick off everything we wanted to do during our time there.  The main attractions here are the museums and memorials related to the Cambodian genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.  I will openly admit that I feel ashamed at how little I knew about this event before visiting Cambodia, and what we learnt during our visit to Phnom Penh was truly horrific.  One out of four Cambodians was killed by their countrymen during this time – that’s two million people.  Families were decimated (apply that percentage to your own family), along with communities.  I won’t give you a history lesson here, but it’s worth looking up.  Even your trusty friend Wikipedia will give you a decent rundown.  I didn’t take any pictures – it’s just not the done thing.

First stop was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  The Museum was originally a high school, but was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge and used as a facility for carrying out prisoner interrogation.  The things that went on at Tuol Sleng were barbaric (there is still blood on the floor in some rooms), and the audio tour and displays don’t pull any punches.  On the outskirts of town lie the “Killing Fields” (or Choeung Ek), the other key site for tourists to visit.  The  name pretty accurately sums up what went on there – prisoners who had been interrogated, or who had otherwise been sentenced to death, were driven to this remote location (there were 300 other similar locations throughout Cambodia), made to kneel over a pit dug into the ground and then beaten to death, whacked over the head with a blunt instrument, or had their throat slit – bullets were too expensive.  The bodies were piled up one on top of the other until the pit could hold no more, and then another pit would be created.  Some of the bodies at these particular killing fields have been excavated, but a huge number lay undisturbed under the ground.  During wet season, teeth, bone fragments and clothing routinely come to the surface and are collected by the caretakers of the site.

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On a more positive note, we thought that Phnom Penh itself was a great city.  It’s very pretty – there are lots of open spaces, large public parks, impressive monuments and more greenery than we’ve seen in quite a long time.  The riverfront promenade is particularly pretty, and it’s heaving with people every evening doing group aerobics classes, playing football, eating, chatting or just strolling along.  A lot of the hotels on the riverfront have a rooftop bar, so you can sit up there and have a drink and watch the activity while the sun sets over the river.   There’s a real cosmopolitan vibe to the city as well – there are great cafes and restaurants with pretty much every cuisine you can think of.  Apparently this is due, in large part, to the high number of foreign diplomats and NGO workers who call Phnom Penh home.  There’s also some really cool, quirky, shops that offer beautiful replica antiques and vintage travel posters etc, which makes a nice change from the standard night market offerings.

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We left Phnom Penh yesterday, but feel like we have a bit of unfinished business so will be heading back there for Christmas.  We have booked ourselves into a nice hotel and have reserved our spots for Christmas lunch at the Aussie XL bar.  God only knows how that will end up, but I’m expecting average food, good company and the beers to be flowing.

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Battambang: Redemption Song

We’d only been in Battambang for an hour before Campbell declared it “a shit hole”.  True, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing place we’ve seen on our travels, and we did have to walk past a few shady characters to get to our hotel, but I still thought he was being a touch harsh.  I tried to stick up for Battambang and defend its honour, but even I had to admit defeat when, on our way to lunch, we walked past a man passed out on a park bench with a bottle of rum in one hand and his dick in the other.  I know it’s an artsy kinda place, but there are certain forms of “performance art” that are best practised in private.

We were only in Battambang for two days, so Thursday was Battambang’s only real chance to redeem itself after an absolute howler of a first impression.  I am pleased to report that Battambang pulled out all the stops, and we had an incredible day.  We got picked up in the morning by Nicky Tuk Tuk, a local tuk tuk driver and tour guide, and headed straight out into the Cambodian countryside.  Nicky took us to various villages and homes where we got to see rice paper, rice noodles, BBQ rat, and banana leather sweets being made.  We also paid a visit to the local fish market where everybody was hard at work making fermented fish – a local delicacy and the form of protein eaten by most Cambodians.  The smell was over-powering,  and we weren’t even the ones sitting on the ground surrounded by fish guts.

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We had lunch together in Battambang town, where Nicky arranged for us to sample the local spring rolls and a couple of traditional noodle dishes.  Campbell tucked into the curried noodles, but I didn’t quite have the stomach for chowing down on the chicken feet, boiled blood and other identified meat bits floating around in the bowl.  The day finished up with a visit to Battambang’s most famous tourist attraction – The Bamboo Railway, or Nori.  The Railway was originally used for transporting rice from one village to another, but since roads have gone in it’s now purely a tourist attraction.  It’s a bit of a hair-raising ride as you hurtle along at up to 50 km/h on your wee bamboo carriage, bumping along on the uneven track and going over large bridges.  It had the potential to be naff, but it was actually really fun.  When we weren’t getting whiplash, we were in hysterics.

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In the evening we set off to one of Battambang’s other key attractions, Phare Ponleu Selpak, better known as the Cambodian circus.  There’s a really cool feel-good vibe to the circus – it started off as an after school activity for underprivileged children to give them a place to channel their energy and stop them doing naughty things out of boredom.  Since then, it has grown into an internationally acclaimed circus (some performers have gone on to Cirque du Soleil) and has expanded its programme to include art, theatre, music and dance classes.  The show itself was incredible – what it lacked in sequins and special effects, it more than made up for with humour, enthusiasm and the raw talent of the performers.  Some of the tricks they pulled off were incredible.  Campbell even said he thought it was better than Cirque du Soleil (high praise indeed).

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We also discovered in Battambang (after sifting through a fair amount of crap) some great art galleries (all local artists and all reasonably priced), amazing homeware stores with a mix of antiques and new things (quite similar to some of the stores in Greytown) and a food and coffee scene that punches way about its weight.  So, on balance, Battambang wasn’t quite the shit hole we first predicted.  There are definitely diamonds in the rough, you just have to get off the beaten track to find them.

Yesterday was a day in transit, as we made our way from Battambang to Phnom Penh.  It was an incredibly long, rough, ride in the minivan, made worse by the fact that I had been struck down by either a particularly savage flu, or dengue fever the night before.  The six hours spent in that minivan will go down on record as some of the most miserable of my life.  It was worth getting to Phnom Penh though where I promptly crawled into bed (and plan to stay here for a couple of days) and Campbell sloped off to play golf – win win!  Once I’m on my feet again we’ll get to exploring the attractions here and start thinking about where we’d like to be for Christmas.

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Siem Reap: Eat it

We love “new country day” – the day we arrive on the plane/train/bus/boat/minivan in a new country and get started exploring.  Our first day in Cambodia was no exception.  After a long day in transit we finally made it to Siem Reap on Sunday afternoon.  Siem Reap is a lot more rugged than where we had been in Thailand – there’s no 7/11s on every corner, no chain stores, it’s dusty and hot and there’s that distinctive fruity tang of rubbish on every corner.  There’s also no footpaths, so walking the streets is more chaotic here than anywhere we’ve been before (Campbell almost got taken out by a scooter on our first night).  It’s also an incredibly vibrant city, with a great buzz and a lot going on.  Three days spent here was easy peasy.

In typical fashion, after settling into our hotel we got ourselves all excited and immediately set about making plans to do a whole lot of things we couldn’t really afford; like a food tour.  We topped our first afternoon off with a traditional Khmer meal and a visit to famous “Pub Street”.  You’ve gotta love a place that clusters the vast majority of its watering holes in one handy location, and then slaps an enormous neon sign saying “Pub Street” above it, so even the most weary and parched traveller can’t miss it.  It’s an undeniable tourist trap, but there’s also a lot to love about Pub Street – like 50 cent beers and $1 margaritas.

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Yesterday, our first full day, was dedicated to a few key jobs.  Our beloved camera was on the edge of sucking the kumara so the first job of the day was to get it to a photo shop and get it repaired.  We didn’t want to tackle Angkor Wat, or any of the other famous sights without it, so while we waited for it to be fixed, we tackled all of the other niggly jobs we’d been putting off.  I desperately needed a mop chop, so was off to the local “salon”.  Haircuts in SE Asia have proven to be pretty average, but it is worth going to the hairdresser for the pure joy of getting your hair washed.  There are no salon products or fancy shampoos, but what you do get is an obscene amount of Palmolive shampoo (or maybe dishwashing liquid) and the best head massage of your life.  The whole shampooing process takes about 30 minutes, during which you can drift off to the sounds of the hairdressers cackling and shamelessly gossiping (I obviously couldn’t understand a word, but I know gossip when I hear it).  After that, you’re so relaxed that ending up with bowl cut or a mullet (if things got seriously lost in translation) doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.

Campbell meanwhile took to the shops for some much-needed new clothes.  His board shorts were threadbare to the point of really only being suitable for swimming after dark, and they had to go.  Siem Reap proved to be a bit of a winner for shopping for him, because there are a huge number of brand outlet stores where clothes made in Cambodia for big chains like Zara, Calvin Klein etc are sold really cheap.  I haven’t fared quite so well on the shopping front and have found most things to be too tight, too short, and way too Hello Kitty for my tastes.  Having managed to rip, split, or otherwise put holes in every pair of shorts I own, I was left to find a tailor to do a bit of mending.  The tailors didn’t speak a word of English, but were in hysterics when I held up my shorts with split from front to back and pleaded with them to fix them.  I’m pretty sure they were laughing at me, not with me, but I couldn’t have cared less when I got my shorts back, immaculately sewn back together for the sum of $2.00.

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We set off in the early evening for our food tour with our guide, Stephen, and fellow foodies, Cory and Eric from New York.  We sampled all sorts of different things – green papaya salad with smoked fish, fish amok, sour fish soup, Khmer noodles, BBQ frog, steamed fish with pork, BBQ chicken bums, BBQ beef with fermented fish dipping sauce and fresh veges, and some sort of icy, sweet, creamy, custardy, cakey dessert creation.  Stephen is a chef so, as well as taking us to some of the best local eateries, he was also able to teach us loads about Cambodian cuisine and cooking techniques.  Finding out that Eric is a Judge on the bench of the Supreme Court of New York also provided one of the few law geek moments that I’ve had on the trip.  There was no buyers’ remorse about forking out for the tour – it was awesome.

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Today we tackled Siem Reap’s most notable tourist attraction – the temples at Angkor Wat.  The Angkor Wat Archeological Park covers a massive 400 square kilometres and is home to hundreds of temples.  Some tourists choose to spend days exploring the various temples in the Park, but we elected for a quick half day tuk tuk tour to see six of the key sites (it would be fair to say that we have almost reached saturation point with temples).  We also opted out of a sunrise or sunset tour, which is when the majority of tourists visit the Park hoping to get that one amazing photo.  I’m sure it can be a really magical experience, but having to push and shove to find a place to sit, or share the moment with hundreds of other people, didn’t really appeal.  We saw everything we needed to during our tour, and were home in time for a nap.  Bonus!

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We visited:

  • Angkor Wat – The largest religious monument in the world.  Impressive, but not my favourite.
  • Bayon – A temple with 50 towers covered with beautiful carved faces.  This was my favourite.

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  • Ta Phrom – Great big trees grow up and through this temple, which was used in the Tomb Raider movie.

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  • Phnom Bakhen – A temple tower with multiple layers of stairs that you had to climb up with hands and feet.   Not a very flattering experience, as you can see!

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  • Banteay Khdei – A large monastic complex, with lots of crumbling pathways and a little old lady who had to be pushing 200 years old.

Tomorrow we hit the road for Battambang, the arts capital of Cambodia.  A visit here will be win-win – I love going to artsy places, and Campbell loves complaining about going to artsy places.

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Koh Lanta: If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain. . .

Last Friday we arrived on the island of Koh Lanta.  What was supposed to be a two hour mini-van + car ferry trip from Krabi, ending up taking closer to five hours due to the fact that we spent three hours sat at a bus depot in Krabi waiting for “two more people” to arrive and join our minivan load.  Waiting for “two more people” actually involved waiting for ten more people or, “two more people” five times – the guy at the restaurant seemed to think this was cute; we did not.  It was bloody frustrating and our tolerance for “Thai time” was stretched to breaking point.  Even once we hit the road our driver was in no particular hurry.  We got ten minutes out-of-town only for him to turn around and go back to town to pick up “two more people”.  We then stopped multiple times en route so that he could stop to talk to his friends on the roadside, or buy himself a coffee and fruit.

Finally we arrived on Koh Lanta.  The island itself was beautiful, but we arrived to torrential rain rather than the blazing hot sun we had in mind.  We were already struggling to get into the festive mood, and things were further tested when we were shown our bungalow at the “eco resort” we were staying at.  Don’t get me wrong, I fully support some of the resort’s “green” initiatives (there is no need to be washing sheets and towels every day  – nobody does that stuff at home) but, in some senses, the whole eco resort concept seemed to equate to things at the resort just being a bit shit – miserly toilet paper rations, lightbulbs of such low wattage that candles would’ve been an improvement and an intrusive amount of nature (lizards, roaches, ants, resident cats and dogs etc) in the bedroom.

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The nature side of things didn’t bother us too much, but the German guy next to us wasn’t having a bar of it.  He stormed home one night with what looked like a can of industrial strength fly spray and took to his bungalow (inside and out) like a mad man.  The fact he was hard at work wooing the German girl at the resort may have had something to do with his manic attempts to spruce up his bungalow.  On the plus side, I will say that the eco resort served up by far and away the best breakfast we have had on the whole trip, and I happily smashed back one of their bacon and egg mcmuffins every morning.

Despite being in a bit of a funk, we were determined to make the most of our time on Koh Lanta – we hired a scooter and rode around the island, we visited Lanta Old Town and wandered around the speciality stores there, we sat in the drizzle and drank cocktails, we developed an unhealthy obsession with a local foot massage place, and we hit the beach every time the rain let up for more than fifteen minutes.  When were weren’t doing that, we started planning our trip in Cambodia, all the while sporting what my Dad would describe as faces like twisted sandshoes.

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After four days of rain we would have been sorely tempted to pack it in and move onto our next destination, but we still had five days to kill before our flight to Cambodia and really didn’t want to head back to Bangkok.  The best we could do was a slight change of scenery, so we left the eco resort on Long Beach and headed south for Khlong Nin.  And, as we arrived at our new hotel, a Christmas miracle occurred.  The rain dried up and the storm that had been plaguing us finally passed.  For the next four days we were treated to blue sky days worthy of a travel brochure.  Finally we could get our bits out and work on the tan.

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The arrival of the sun prompted celebrations all over the island – most people hit the beach and the pool, others engaged in enthusiastic (and lengthy) photo shoots to show how happy they were.  Whatever the method of celebration, everyone felt like they’d kicked a goal when the sun came up, and our holiday certainly improved a whole lot!  We quickly ditched our plan to explore other beaches and islands in the area and decided to just stay put in Koh Lanta, which was now ticking all of the boxes.

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The remainder of our time in Koh Lanta resembled the “likes” section of a cheesy online dating profile – we took long walks on the beach, had cocktails at sunset, spent our days by the pool, frolicked in the sea, and read books, or listened to the Blackcaps getting a hiding on our phone.  It was dreamy and exactly what we had in mind.  We barely moved from the hotel (which was a major improvement on the eco resort) except if we were in search of food, or happy hour cocktails.  We ventured as far as a beach bar with a fire show one evening.  Things started out gently enough with the bar playing the same pan pipe acoustic CD that every place on the beach seemed to own, but rapidly switched a gear when the pan pipes were abruptly dumped and AC/DC started blasting.  We originally thought this was a mistake, but it quickly became apparent that AC/DC was on request, because the fire performer (who looked like Thailand’s version of Russell Brand) went ape shit with his fire pois when Back in Black kicked off.  It was quite the sight, especially when he got carried away and lobbed one of his pois down the beach (better that than into the crowd, I guess).

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Tonight is our last night in Thailand.  After almost six weeks here we are both sad to say goodbye, but also looking forward to getting to Cambodia – the last “new” country on our trip.  We are trying not to think too much about how quickly our trip is coming to an end and will be making these last six weeks count!

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Kanchanaburi: Long train running

Two days in Kanchanaburi wasn’t really enough, but we did as much as we could with the time we had.  Like most visitors, we were here to explore the Death Railway (also known as the Thailand/Burma Railway) and learn a bit about the horrors that went on here during WWII.  In a nutshell, Kanchanaburi was captured by the Japanese during the War.  The Japanese decided to build a railway connecting Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand, so that supplies could be transported more directly and avoid the dangerous sea passage.  The Japanese used hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and forced labourers from throughout Asia to build the railway and, in doing so, subjected them to horrific treatment.  Almost half the labourers working on the project (well into the hundreds of thousands) died from malnutrition, disease or accidents during construction.  At the end of the War a number of Japanese were tried for war crimes and committed to death.

Kanchanburi is home to the most famous section of the Railway – the Bridge over the River Kwai, three separate POW cemeteries and a variety of museums and memorials.  It’s not really a trip here without a ride on Death Railway, so we were up bright and early on our first full day to get amongst the action.  The ride itself is scenic, but fairly uneventful.  It’s only when you think about the people who built the Railway and the conditions they endured, that you really appreciate its significance.  We rode the train to the end of the line at Nam Tok and then opted for the quicker bus ride home, so that we had time to visit the Railway Museum and the biggest of the POW cemeteries back in town.  Both were fairly sombre, but pretty essential to understanding everything.

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To round out the history lesson, we hired bikes on our second day in Kanchanaburi and made our way to the Jeath War Museum (not worth the effort, but not to worry) and onwards to the Bridge over the River Kwai.  The Bridge is part of the operating train line, so photos have to be taken while keeping an eye out for trains.  Our original plan was to be in town for the annual River Kwai Festival, which commemorates the POWs and others who suffered during the war by way of a great big fireworks display and sound and light show at the Bridge.  Unfortunately, the manager from our guest house told us that the Festival had been postponed (due to the King’s death) and wouldn’t start until we had left town.  We were a bit disappointed when she told us, but not nearly as disappointed as we were when we were sitting having our dinner on our last night in town only to hear what sounded a lot like a massive fireworks display going on down the other end of the river.  Such is life.

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With everybody off riding the train during the day, Kanachanaburi felt like a bit of ghost town.  That all changed in the evening.  Almost on cue, every night at about 5 pm hordes of middle-aged men in stonewash Levi 501s, wearing leather belts with “statement” buckles (think eagles, Harley Davidson logos etc), novelty t.shirts and “Jesus Jandals” complete with 50 million velcro straps, would descend on the main street and pull up a pew at one of the many seedy bars.  The “Easy Bar” and the “Betty Boop Bar” seemed to be particular favourites.  There, lots of lovely Asian ladies would wrap themselves around said middle-aged men pretending to be engaged by their sparkling wit, all the while sneakily checking Facebook on their phones at every chance.  In addition to those establishments, Kanchanaburi had plenty of other watering holes and a pretty good live music scene.  We even bumped into Mr Miyagi, the jazz singer that we first saw in action in Ayutthaya.  Because we’re both old and boring, we rounded out both nights of our stay with a foot massage instead of a ten baht jagerbomb.

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Our time in Thailand is rapidly coming to an end.  We’re closing things off with a bit of beach time in Koh Lanta.  From there, it’s on to Cambodia, back to Vietnam for a bit, and then onwards to NZ!

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