Saturday, January 19, 2013

There And Back Again

Significantly colder, though at least not raining, we are now back in Glasgow. While expected, the six weeks just flew by and hard to believe that it's back to work and normalcy already!

Travel is a bit of a drug really. I thought this trip might satisfy the cravings but of anything it has made me want to travel even more. It's a big world out there, ad many adventures left to be had!

But until then, its time to put H&MS back to sleep for a while. Though hopefully I will have an excuse to wake it up again sooner than later! Until then...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

One Night in Bangkok

Writing this while trying to kill time in Dubai before the flight back to Scotland. Still quite can't believe this trip is just about done!

After a predictably shambolic journey from Siem Reap to Thailand, we had exactly 24 hours to experience Bangkok. What a shock to the system after the old world charm and relative quaintness of Cambodia. I hadn't fully appreciated how big this city is. By no means can you do it justice in one day, but crammed a lot in nonetheless!

Last night had a great Thai meal, explored the night market (had good fun bartering to get some new shoes) and gawk at the go go bars (duly impressed with the menus being waved in our faces listing services and acts which would be performed - even Amsterdam would blush). Capped it off with a drink on the 63rd floor of a hotel for vertigo inducing views of the city.

As the flight wasn't till 8pm, also crammed in the Grand Palace and the huge reclining Buddha in Wat Pho. Not a bad taster. Had really hoped to see much more of Thailand but 6 weeks, as long as it sounded in the planning stages, really does fly by.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Temples of Angkor Day 2

Up really early today (4:30) in order to get down to Angkor Wat for sunrise. This complex is rightfully revered by the Cambodians (it appears on their flag) and watching its iconic silhouette appear out of the pitch black as the sun comes up was pretty spectacular. And after the sun rose, many sleepy tourists disappear giving you (relatively) a quiet few hours to explore before the masses and heat of the day arrive.

Also took in the temples in Angkor Thom which was the capital of the ancient Khmer empire. So many beautiful temples, each one distinctly unique. The Bayon was particularly incredible with its smiling faces, as was Ta Prohm where the jungle blends beautifully with the buildings (not seen it, but they filmed parts of Tomb Raider here).

And what to do after a day of temple hopping? A Cambodian massage of course! Even dunked my feet a fish massage pool (creepy) while drinking Angkor beer (tasty).

And thus ends the Cambodia portion of the trip. Up early again (shall sleep one day) and on a bus to Bangkok in the morning. Painfully aware of the impending end of this journey now!

Gastronomic Interlude

I've not intended to sample every animal in SE Asia during my time here. But (and with apologies to my vegetarian friends) I seem to have given it a good go nonetheless. In addition to goat, water buffalo and Vietnamese venison, the list photographed below was tackled last night at a great Khmer BBQ resto.

They didn't have snake on the menu though I was game. For the record, I've not entertained thoughts of dog, cat or rat though they are on the menu (at least on Vietnam and Laos). "But only local dogs and cats" I was reassured, so no Dalmatian for tea. I've also come across several sweet and savoury insect stands, including spider, aphid and grasshopper but wasn't drunk enough to brave it. Nor scorpion and snake wine (with a full scorpion and snake inside the bottle)? No chance.

Temples of Angkor Day 1

Proving that fatigue is all in the mind, a mere 4 hours after hitting bed we were back up and on a tuk tuk ready to see some of the famous temples of Angkor. These are a series of Hindu and Buddhist temples originating from as far back as the 8th century and built by the ancient Khmers.

The first day we decided to hit the more remote and less touristy temples and save Angkor Wat for day two.

East Mebon and Preah Kahn were highlights. The former for the incredible elephant statues and latter for the way the jungle and temple has almost merged. Trees literally have rooted into the walls creating an otherworldly effect.

Warning: gratuitous temple shots ahead.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Beaches and stuff

As a bit of a counterpoint to the capital, we arranged for a few days on the excellently named Lazy Beach which is found on the island of Koh Rong Samleom and only accessible by a 2 hour boat trip. Clouds threatened rain on the way, but nothing came of it and we were treated to dramatic skies instead.

At the risk of cliche, I'm going to use the term a little piece of paradise to describe this place. A private beach, with only 16 cabins though you'd hardly know anybody was there. We genuinely had the beach to ourselves during parts of the day. Crystal clear water to swim in, our first snorkelling experience (multicoloured fish and coral along with sea urchins and white sand - simply stunning, despite some inhalation of sea water!) as well as some incredible Khmer food and even Beer Lao. The cabins themselves were cozy, and nothing beats the sound of waves to coax you to sleep. Despite getting scared awake at 3am by the sound of a gecko cry right above my head (like some weird horn sound - no escape in SE Asia!). Even set the alarm for an early wake up to swim in the sea while the sun came up. Bliss.

Less blissful was the trip afterwards though. 2 hours of choppy sea, then a truly epic 15 hour bus ride from the coast to Siem Reap. I'm loving Cambodia, but man it ain't easy travelling around this country. The roads are pretty terrible, and buses stop all the time to pick up random people and things so you never know when you're going to get somewhere.

Forgot to mention while in Phnom Penh that we attempted to go to see the Royal Palaces, but were informed they were closed. As it turns out, the controversial ex-king Norodom Sihanouk who I'd been reading about as being very much alive had recently died and was lying in state ( We were also at the Killing Fields on the 7th of January which is Liberation Day (34 years since the Vietnamese booted the Khmer Rouge from power). So living history all around!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Phnom Penh

I'm writing this from the coastal town of Sihanoukville where we stayed over one night so we can catch a boat this morning out to an island 20 miles off the Cambodian coast for a few days of laziness. This town however is the classic cliched SE Asian tourist mecca - backpacker bars along the beach and rampant sexual exploitation by sleazy old white guys. While I'm sure the locals like the money, they must despair what their town has turned into.

We spent the previous several days in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Considering that the city was emptied in the late 70s because of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge thugs, it has recovered remarkably well. No doubt, it contains some of the worst poverty I've seen yet. Lots of begging, and whole families sleeping rough. But there is also a real buzz and optimism that I really liked.

From a sightseeing standpoint, it was quite emotional as we visited the Killing Fields, one of the places where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands of innocent people. While I was certainly aware of the atrocities that occurred here, seeing this place really drove home the horrors of this all too recent period in Cambodian history. Seeing a monument containing over 5000 human skulls, and wandering beside fields full of mass graves is a feeling I can't quite describe. This followed by a visit to the S-21 prison where people where tortured and forced to confess to non-existent crimes before being sent to the Killing Fields. It has been left as it was found when the country was liberated, with torture devices still in place and faded blood stains still quite visible. Humbling.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Long Day

When travelling, sometimes you have to accept the day will consist of just that - travel. Yesterday was an epic one - early rise, boat, then bus to the border. As it turned out, no bribery was required but an almighty long wait in no-mans land between borders until our passports were processed and the bus company figured out what was meant to happen. Then we boarded the SE Asian cliche bus, complete with overcrowding, broken air vents, and terrible music videos playing three songs on a loop. The road to the capital was very slow going, with the bumpiest roads yet and several high speed near-misses with cows. But all part of the experience. As the mantra goes, you do get to where you're going eventually so just gotta go with it. Managed to read half my book. And now in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Time to explore! From just an hour of hotel searching last night I can tell it will be intense (tuk-tuk sir?). Got my "no thank you" ready.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Into Cambodia

I'm writing this near the Laos-Cambodia border with some extra US dollars in case bribery is required as apparently corruption is notorious at this crossing. Fingers crossed!

We're now leaving Laos after two days on Don Khon, one of the 4000 islands that make up the archipelago of Si Phan Don. Again, the journey here was an adventure in itself: a tuk-tuk to the Mekong, then a shaky canoe across the river where we were deposited on a quicksandy shore (luckily we avoided the worst of it after watching the first people sink to their knees!). Then a bus to another stretch of the river, then an equally shaky motorboat that we got to by climbing over others (incredibly nobody ended up in the Mekong).

While there isn't much to see as such, the islands are a beautifully sleepy place where the main effort of the day is to get yourself off a hammock to find another Beer Lao. While there were a few guesthouses, by and large the islands are populated by local farmers and fishermen and it looked as though it hadn't changed in decades. To say it was laid back was putting it mildly.

We rented bikes and cycled the circumference of both Don Khon and the neighbouring island of Don Det, stopping often to take in the beautiful views. Many of the cafes had cushions to sit on the floor with, while eating delicious local food cooked from scratch (so no rush to get your food - it's on Laos time). And you know the feeling after a good meal where you want to lie down and have a quick rest of the eyes? It is what you do here - hammock or stretch the cushion out to a bed. Awesome. Plus the sunsets here are the nicest I've seen as the light dances on the Mekong.

You'd never know it from looking at it, but these two islands were historically important during the colonial days. France held territory in northern Laos and the English were threatening - the French needed to get gunships up the Mekong but it is impassible at this stage due to the Li Phi Falls (we saw them - true enough!). So the French built a railway on Don Khon and Don Det, then a bridge to connect the two islands. This allowed them to transport ships overland and around the falls and ultimately defend their northern territory. Later it was used for goods transport. The railway was abandoned after WWII since roads made the railway uneconomical. Jungle quickly reclaimed the tracks. It was only in 1990 when a tourist discovered two engines on tracks deep in the jungle! Goes to show how remote some of these places were, and in many ways still are.

A great way to finish off the Laos portion of the trip. While the pace was much slower than the madness of Vietnam, and while they can't quite compete with the food and prices of their eastern neighbour, I found Laos to be a lovely country with incredibly chilled out and friendly people. Noticeably compared to other SE Asian countries, there was no pressure to buy stuff from an army of vendors. The understated beauty of this country will stick with me, and you can only hope it doesn't change too much with the inevitable increase in tourism as the years go by.

Now onto Cambodia. There will no doubt be some sad things to see here what with the recent Khmer Rouge atrocities, but important to see I think. But looking forward to seeing how the people and country have recovered.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Heading South

I'm writing this from a hammock which is the way forward for any kind of stationary activity I reckon.

Perhaps confirming that we've been doing a bit of "flashpacking", we decided to grab a second internal flight from Vientiane to Pakse in an effort to maximise the time we have left as the road infrastructure in Laos is still pretty primitive and we'd have lost at least a day to dodgy bus travel. This allowed us to take a trip from Pakse to the wee (and I'm talking one street wee) town of Champasak.

Almost to offset the flight guilt, we took a sawng thaew (literally translated as "two rows" - think converted pickup trucks with benches down the side) to get there which was an adventure in itself. These things won't go until full (and I mean full - people, chickens, every good imaginable). So we sat for at least an hour and a half before departing, amusing locals with my gangly legs squished on a bench. My ass was numb by the end. People came by to sell pretty much everything you could imagine from the back (we bought bread - very tasty!). After all that, the trip itself was only 45 minutes.

Champasak itself was charming enough in a sleepy way, but the main attraction is the incredible Khmer temple ruins of Wat Phu. We rented a bike to get there, cycling through a series of small towns where kids were intrigued to see us. Lots of waves and "sabaidee" (Laos for hello). The temples themselves were so deserted considering their magnificence. I think most tourists leave Laos behind after Vientiane. The ruins are located at the base of a mountain, pretty much covered by jungle so you'd hardly know they were there until you were nearly at it. The temple grounds were so serene and peaceful - you could really feel the weight of history over this place (the place is largely undisturbed since the 10th century).

Got back just in time to catch a Beer Lao alongside the Mekong as the sun went down. Unreserved contentment at this point!