Friday, February 19, 2010

Siem Reap & The Angkor Temples

We didn't have the best intro to Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Temples. Andy, Rose, Lizzie and I were picked up from the bus station by a guesthouse arranged through the one in Phnom Penh. After checking in we were then harassed for tuktuks and guides for the temples - quite common for Siem Reap I've heard.

We knew something was up through the insistence that we make a decision TONIGHT about what we do tomorrow, the exorbitant price, and just the general lies that were being thrown around. We also discovered that we were quite far from the action in Siem Reap, and so made a decision to check out the next day and look for a better place. This wasn't taken too badly, although our "free" tuktuk to a new guesthouse turned out to be an even bigger rip off, and with a fight nearly breaking out down a small alley, we cut our loses and decided to walk. If you're ever in Siem Reap - do not stay at No. 10 Guesthouse! Lets just say we missed all our friends from Phnom Penh!

We found a great replacement in Mitri Guesthouse, who arranged a great driver for us (for about a third of the price), and we hit up the temples for sunset over Angkor Wat which was amazing. The next day we got up at 5 AM and this time saw sunrise over Ankgor Wat, moved on to Angkor Thom and the Bayon, and then to Tha Phrom, a temple left as it was discovered by Archaeologists - in dense jungle, crumbling, and covered by tree roots and vines. I couldn't pick a favourite - Angkor Wat was grand, Bayon exquisite, and Tha Phrom mysterious. One thing about Siem Reap and Cambodia this time of year is the heat - having seen all we'd wanted to see that day, we headed home to our plush little air con haven!

The next few days will just be spent chilling out around Siem Reap while we wait to get our bus back to Phnom Penh. It'll be great to get back to Phnom Penh and see our friends again, and from there we'll make our way to Ho Chi Minh City for the Vietnam leg of the trip. Can't wait!

Mr. Mab

Let me tell you about our good friend Mr. Mab. We arrived in Phnom Penh late at night and were taken to a few guesthouses run by the bus company. Finally we found one that we liked and it was Mr. Mab who showed us to our room, gave us a good price and finally managed to figure out how to use the air-con via a handful of about 5 remotes. He wished us a good night and told us that as well as security, he also drove a tuktuk and could take us anywhere in Phnom Penh for a good price - which we took him up on.

His tuktuk is not fast, in fact its incredibly slow, it leaks water and backfires, but its a great way to travel. We hired him for a whole day, and he took us all the way out to the Killing Fields, waited, then took us to a great restaurant near the Genocide Museum, and slept while we ate and while we were at the museum. Once we were done we found him playing a game similar to hacky (but with a shuttlecock type thing) with all the other tuktuk drivers, which he appeared to be a dab hand at - especially the back heel over the head which looked incredibly difficult to pull off.

On the way home he really wanted to show us his house, which was immaculate, and his kids - to us affectionately called Baby 1, Baby 2, and Baby 3, which we hung out with and played with for a while. We felt incredibly privileged that he would want to do this.

Later that night, after a few beers to take the edge off seeing the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, we got back to the guesthouse and heard a party. We were told there was a "small party" going on for Chinese New Year, and when we poked our head in the door we see Mr. Mab in the centre of the dance floor carving it up. His face lit up when he saw us and he dragged us in and immediately arranged a few beers, taught us how to dance Cambodian style (which we proceeded to do rather poorly). He was supposed to be working, and had a wife and 3 kids at home - nothing changes the world over!

I reckon we could all learn a thing or two from Mr. Mab (and most of Cambodia for that matter), he always has a big smile on his face and the same answer to almost any question - No Problem! If you ever are in Phnom Penh, you have to seek him out!

Phnom Penh

We arrived in Phnom Penh from an uneventful 12 hour bus ride - and found a good guesthouse near the Lake. We'd struck gold, as that night we were introduced to Mr. Marp, and Li-nin (more on them later), who looked after us so well that it exceeded all expectations - we'd heard Cambodia was full of hard selling groups of bus companies, guesthouse owners and tuktuk drivers, all working in unison.

Phnom Penh was a pleasant surprise - it has a population of around 1.3 million, and is very relaxed with wide open spaces, greenery, the riverside area and plenty of beautiful old french style colonial buildings.

On our second day, Mr. Marp took us out to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, which was pretty sobering. It was hard to imagine the sheer brutality imposed by the Khmer Rouge, and despite the huge number of skulls and remains visible at the Killing Fields, as well has the stories told by our guide, the severity of the atrocities commited didn't really hit home until I'd seen the individual faces of the victims at the Genocide Museum. I found it very hard to connect the dots as it was so far out of my realm as to what humans could inflict on one another. And in very recent history too (1976-1979). We headed home in a sombre mood, very much looking forward to a beer, things got slightly out of hand and between Andy and Rose (some friends from the UK), Lizzie and I, we polished off 3 bottles of cheap ($1.50) Mekong Whiskey.

One of the really cool things about Cambodia - from a tourist point of view, is that most people speak really good english. That may sound kind of like a cop-out, but the beauty with it is that it allows you to really connect with the people - to ask them questions about their lives. Mr. Marp for example, took us to see his family, we joked around, and even had a few drinks with him and the others that hung out around the guesthouse (supposedly working). And on one day we visited an amazing orphanage (SOAC) where we chatted to the kids who were so full of enthusiasm for life, and played football with them also (Man U. vs. Chelsea!).

The Cambodian people have been the only people so far to impart a bit of wit into conversation - they joke with you, telling you that your bill is $100 when it should be $10, only to burst into fits of laughter when they see the initial shock on your face. And you can give it back too. You should have seen the look on the poor tuktuk drivers face when we told him we couldn't pay him, followed by fits of laughter again when he realised what was going on. Its remarkable that they are so positive despite what they've been through, although, I guess they have to be.

We head to Siem Reap today to see the temples of Angkor, but we're glad we'll be passing back through Phnom Penh again on our way to Vietnam.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)

From Vientiane we took a surprisingly bearable overnight sleeper bus to Pakse, and after being shuttled on and off several other minivans and buses without really knowing what the final destination was, we finally made it to Si Phan Don (4000 Islands).

4000 Islands is a group of Islands on the Mekong River, on the border between Laos and Cambodia. We decided to stay on Doc Let Island and so took a longboat out with a few other tourists, packs balanced precariously at the bow. Si Phan Don is hot, sweltering hot in fact , so we found a Guesthouse quick smart and had a much needed shower after 20-odd hours of travel.

There isn't a lot to do down these ways other than to relax, heat up, swim, repeat. We hired bikes on our first day and rode to a small beach where we swam for a couple of hours. Here we bumped into our Belgian friends Stephane and Gitte again - its strange how on our travels we keep seeing the same people. We then took a longboat to see the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin - there are only something like 20 left. To be honest, the dolphin watching was average as we were quite far away, but the ride out in the longboat was incredible - the thousands of islands that are created every year when the river is in its low season make for an ever changing landscape. We could see trees that grow for most of the year underwater so that they are angled in the direction of the current, local net-fisherman, and on ramps made of bamboo for the local ferries (OSH would have a field day with these rickety structures!).

The rest of the trip was spent swimming and reading (the count is now x books), until it was time to board another bus, this time across the border into Cambodia to get visas and on to Phnom Penh. Very sad to leave Laos - it has been a wonderful country to travel in. My biggest memory will be the people - they are just so friendly, and so, so relaxed. Oh and the Beerlao too...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Vang Vieng

Sullied Eden, or Hedonists Paradise? That is how the Lonely Planet describes Vang Vieng – a town that exists purely for tourists to be bad, bad people. The town itself is nothing special, only dodgy restaurants that endlessly run 'Friends' repeats. I'll confess – after seeing it again after all these years, it really was a great show! Massive jagged limestone karsts rise out of the river valley, and so the scenery is pretty spectacular really.

But what the town is really famous for is the activity known as 'tubing'. For a small fee, a local operator will drop you in a tuktuk, along with your tractor tyre tube, 3 km upriver, where you then proceed to float along stopping off at bars that have been built on the banks along the way to party the afternoon away. There are waterslides, ziplines, and swings out into the water (it really does look like a scene out of the movie Waterworld), along with thumping tunes that resemble a Ministry of Sound Annual from 5 years ago. They also are quite ruthless with the remix. Each day you get a different colour cotton band, which entitles you to (more) free booze in town later that night.

Our friends Joe and Laura had been there quite a while already, and had in fact loved it so much they'd gone back. Instead of hiring a tube, they recommended just swimming, as everyone steals your tube anyway. We got to the first bar, had a beer and then got in the river and swam to the next one. This is where I was introduced to buckets. For less than the cost of a beer in NZ, you can buy a bucket, usually Whiskeylao and Sprite, plus M180, which is a cheap substitute for Red Bull. If you can handle the taste (usually like Kerosene), this is an economical way to wile away the day drinking in the sun. After acquiring a couple of wristbands and a two day hangover, we left for Vientiane and the journey further south.

Vientiane didn't interest us much, and we did washing and other admin here before moving on. It really is just another big Asian city, which true to the theme of this trip so far, we've discovered doesn't interest us at all. We've decided not to return to Bangkok, and instead to head further South to Si Phan Don, soak up some sun on a small beach, and then head into Cambodia that way. We are in love with Laos, and just don't want this part of the trip to end.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Luang Prabang

After exploring Luang Prabang for a couple of days, the inevitable happened...I got sick - the culprit a dodgy baguette aboard the slow boat to L.P. Feeling pretty bad, I didn't go to far from a bathroom for a full day, and wasn't feeling 100 % for a couple of days after also. It was devastating to get sick in what looked like such a cool place, so I we decided to stay for a few extra days – I weathered the storm, and Lizzie got out on a bike and got amongst L.P.

The city itself is one of the oldest in Laos, it is built on the banks of the Mekong and as I said previously has a stark French influence. There are amazing temples and a fantastic night market that you can buy all sorts of handcrafts, made buy the locals and not by some mass producing, knock off factory in China or Bangkok. Once I was back in action we went out to a waterfall 25 km out of L.P in a public park. It was incredible – the limestone formations the water passes over give the dozens of cascading pools a menthol blue colour. It was awesome to finally have a refreshing swim after so many days in the heat and near only filthy rivers.

On our last day in L.P we decided to go to the Elephant Camp. This place was recommended to us by some friends and something we'd thought about doing in Thailand. The elephants are rescued from lives as logging elephants which is now illegal in Laos, and live at the camp where the local villagers grow food for them – so at face value it seemed like a worth wile cause. After a trek through the jungle, we learnt the commands to ride the elephants ourselves, and after lunch we spent the afternoon riding through jungle again, screaming out commands (to the amusement of the instructors) and then took the elephants into the river for a bath. Mine was a young and apparently 'naughty' elephant, and it wouldn't kneel down in the river and blow water everywhere. In fact, I think I was wet more by the instructor than by the elephant. Lizzie was saturated on the other hand. It was hilarious. We climbed aboard our bus to Vang Vieng a little sad to leave. We're meeting some friends in Vang Vieng so will stay there for 2-3 days.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

After the Akha Hill House we crossed the border into Laos at Huay Xai. The Lonely Planet describes Huay Xai as 'brash and expensive.' It couldn't be more wrong. We found a great guesthouse, organised our ticket and some supplies for the slow boat the next day, had some shots of whiskeylao on the locals, and then spent the night sitting on the roof of the guesthouse drinking beerlao and watching probably the reddest sunset I have ever seen, over the Mekong. Our guesthouse owner was certain that we had to be down at the jetty as early as possible to get a good seat. We found out why. Slow boats are the most common method of transport along the Mekong river. They are long, skinny and...slow. The operators pack them tight, ours especially, which was obvious when they did the final headcount after we departed, all started laughing, high-fiving and then rang all their mates (I guessed) to tell them that they'd got some sort of record.

We arrived at the halfway point, Pakbeng after an agonising 6 hours. We found yet another good guesthouse and restaurant, bought some more supplies and hit the hay to mentally prepare for another gruelling trip the next day. We swapped boats the next morning to a larger boat, and had what was quite an enjoyable second half of the journey to Luang Prabang. The scenery is incredible, jungle above the sandy banks of the Mekong river, a few water buffalo, and loads of tiny villages dotted along the way. We pulled into Luang Prabang at sunset, found our way to some accommodation. I like this place already – it has a French influence from the colonial days and what looks like a great number of cool restaurants and bars to pass the time in...


Hi All,

I've just updated the previous two posts with some photos. Hope all is well back home, and wherever else you may be.