Saturday, 11 April 2015

It ain't half hot Mum - Phu Quoc (30 March - 4 April 2015)

This episode contributed by Ant

Never in the history of this blog have so many people complained about the heat for so long, my god it's hot in Phu Quoc! 
But I'm jumping ahead of myself.  Safely deposited at Ho Chi Minh City airport after our drive from the Mekong, we find that we have five hours to spare before our flight!  It took the three of us only one second to agree to try and get an earlier flight at $80 each, but it was worth every dong.  This resulted in us running through the airport, I think taxi to plane in less than 25 minutes and we were off.  40 minutes later, the turquoise seas, golden beaches, and green forests of Phu Quoc came into view and we'd left the muddy Mekong behind. 
Then the heat hit us!  Five nights and five days of unrelenting heat.  We would sweat more than our body weights by breakfast!  How do people live here?  It's the build up the monsoon and by far the hottest time of the year.  The heat has clearly kept travellers away, the beach is very empty,  restaurants and bars deserted, in fact the lack of other travellers is a bonus that is almost worth paying for.
Accommodation, was at the pleasant, simple but very dated beachside Seastar Resort, small rustic bungalows, but on a positive note it was fortunately situated on the shadiest and prettiest part of Long Beach.  The Gulf of Thailand lapping gently at the shore a few metres away.  David and I couldn't wait to get into the sea to cool off, so after a record quick change, some "walking on a hot tin roof" manoeuvres across the red hot sand, we finally plunge into the......... oh damn it's hot, sea! 

We spent five nights in Phu Quoc in total, which was enough.  Lazy days, which with the benefit of hindsight, focused more on hunting out good food spots than playing volleyball on the beach. Mornings were spent looking for good coffees for breakfast - the Embassy and Alanis Cafe won this battle,  German bakery had best food. Vietnamese coffee is muddy, sweet and served with condensed milk so you can understand our search...
Lunches were always beachside at the  Spice Market restaurant at the Cassia Cottage. Dinners varied widely.  Night one was a post Mekong splurge, The Pepper Tree at La Verandah, high brow, expensive, slightly lacking in authenticity and definitely lacking in germs.  (Hooray say David and Gill). We sampled a few tapas places to give us respite from rice.  Itaca was fantastic, groovy cool Ibiza vibe, wagyu beef burgers, Mondo - more mundane and a lot less exciting.  Mystic turned out the best noodles by far, accompanied as so often on this trip, and so very welcome by fiery red chilis, that left us crying, lovely!  Noodles cooked in a wok by a man on the street, best noodles ever and Ozzie Rose wine to boot -a winning combo.   We planned a last night revisit, but got waylaid by the happy hour cocktails at La Veranda and ended up eating on the beach, which was no hardship at all. 

We ventured away from shade occasionally, for example, we went into Duong Dong town a few times. The first time, like idiots, we walked and ended up soaked with sweat after the 30 minute schlep, making a 40p taxi ride seem worth every penny.  Buddy's ice cream bar proved the only appealing watering hole in the whole town which is dominated by the fishing industry. The night market selling fake pearls and live fish didn't appeal at all. 

David and I did an early evening beach walk once!   Ant and David did of course swim every day, even a hot sea was welcome relief!   As we were on the west coast sunsets were pretty special too, and given Vietnam's geography the only place in Vietnam where you can enjoy them at a beach. The beams of the setting sun giving way to the fluorescent green and white squid boats that fished just offshore.  

We taxied to Sao Beach, considered the most beautiful beach in Vietnam, spent a few lazy hours hiding in the shade, emerging just long enough to take a dip and get slight sun burn. The beach really was special, clear turquoise water and white powder squeaky sand, a mind's eye perfect beach.

Best trip ever though was to Fish sauce factory, the heat and rotting anchovies made this a very special place. Caught every night, and then left to ferment for a year in 3000-gallon wooden vats. As you would expect, all these fermenting anchovies create one hell of an odour. Allman wrote: “As I entered the factory, the smell hit me like a door being slammed in my face. It took my breath away.” Needless to say, she said the little thimble of nuoc mam she was offered to taste-test tasted divine, but unfortunately airline policies prevented her from taking any of it home with her."  That’s still the rule, so we left empty handed but committed to only ever buying Phu Quoc fish sauce in London.

This really is a one town island, with only one scruffy road.  It also appears to be undergoing a major revamp, as ten year old buildings are being demolished everywhere and replaced by gargantuan hotels to cater for Russian charter flights to the new airport.  Suspect, we've seen it just after its peak and it will now slide down the Phuket slide to mass tourism.  Bye bye Phu Quoc it was a pleasure to know you. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Relaxing By Bum on Boat (27 - 30 March 2015)

We have been told many times on our travels, especially in Vietnam, that the way to get from A to B was "walking by feet" but for the next few days we decided the feet were getting a rest and we were going to "relax by bum" on a series of boats whilst we meandered the Mekong.
The temperatures here have been really high, regularly at 37 C with high humidity so we were glad to be starting our few days floating around, hoping for a cooling breeze. Our journey from Phnom Penh to the Mekong Delta was aboard the Blue Cruiser Express Boat, a smallish river launch capable of seating about 25 people. Fortunately there were only five of us on this five and a half hour trip so it was really comfortable. We had a choice of the very expensive first class Victoria Speedboat, the cheaper $25 US speedboat or the "business class" Blue Cruiser which included lunch. After seeing the "lunch" of a cold hot dog in a so not eco friendly one use polystyrene container we decided the only positive to this upgrade was that we avoided a crowd of very loud Italians who has taken the cheaper option...The river was quiet as we motored along, the banks with just a few cultivated fields. The Cambodia Vietnam border came into view after about four hours and we decanted into the border post. All very Cambodian, dusty and grubby but no queues as we hand our passports over for the exit stamp. Then back on board for a few hundred metres of "no man's river" where we again decant into the slightly more official Vietnam entry section. But it's all verv easy, someone from the boat takes the passports into the office whilst we relax outside where we could buy a cold drink or change money. No customs or any other formalities. And then back on the boat for the last couple of hours into Chau Doc. This was Ant and David's first river exit and entry between different countries, so much more of an adventure than going through airport immigration. It's really interesting, whilst the banks of the river and indeed the river itself had been quiet and lazy in Cambodia, all of a sudden on the Vietnamese side there was industry, fishing, dredging and other river activities. A perfect illustration of the difference between the two countries. But there was some "funny border business" going on in between the Cambodian exit and the Vietnam entry as the crew opened up the engine compartment and began to change the fuel supply lines. Then some dodgy fuel in a big plastic bottle was introduced. It all threatened to go horribly wrong as the engine refused to restart and we drifted for a while in the river. But eventually the dodgy fuel kicked in and we were soon motoring along again.

Just as the sun sets we arrive in Chau Doc and clamber onto solid ground. We have opted for the economy version accommodation here, a newish place run by a Vietnamese woman and her British husband, the Murray Guesthouse. She seemed to run the place, we never did see him. It was only a couple of hundred metres from the boat dock but our transport choice was limited to a very strange Cyclo contraption that even if we had managed to clamber in, we may never have got out. It also seemed wrong to ask some thin little old man to pull each of us and our big bag for one dollar. So we were back to "walking by feet", pulling our bags along the dusty Chau Doc riverside to the amusement of the local populace, I don't think it's a very common sight... We had been chatting to the other two people on the boat and they had booked the Murray Guest House too. They were laughing as they thought we were joking as I told Ant and David that I had booked posher rooms so we were guaranteed a window. They had booked standard rooms, so they soon stopped laughing - their room didn't have a window... Whilst we were walking by feet we were checking out the dining options of Chau Doc. Suffice to say we unusually patronised the posh hotel terrace restaurant on the river that night...
Next morning we were back to "walking by feet" to make the 200 metre dash to the posh Victoria boat dock where our Song Xanh sampan was waiting. Ant and I had stayed on one of these before but just for a night in 2008. For historical perspective check out this link:

This time we were to have a full on two day "relaxing on boat" floating along the Mekong.
We settle in, just the three of us and four staff and find it very easy to relax on bum on cushioned rattan chairs and sofas whilst the Mekong flowed by. Lunch was served out of what looked like a cupboard on the back of the boat as we continued on our way. After drinking a bottle of chilled Tattinger our guide repeatedly told us to "relax on boat" - we obeyed. We also settled in to our new titles that had been bestowed upon us. Madame Gill, Sir Anthony and Mr David, we quite like them!

The afternoon drifted by as we motored towards Long Xuyen, we were aiming for Tiger Island. This was clearly the fish farm centre of the Mekong with floating villages lining each bank, each house having a big submerged cage to breed their fish in the middle of their floating house. We were also surprised by the number of domestic dogs who lived on these floating houses, we were reassured however that people in the South do not eat their dogs so they weren't cultivating their dinner... The currents must have been against us as we arrived too late to get to the birthplace and house of the second president of Vietnam, Ton Duc Thang, it closed at 5pm. We moor up in a field of water hyacinth and then are taken to an ancient house for dinner. We walk (by feet) over a rickety bridge and then through the increasing evening gloom past locals who were all gearing up for their Saturday night and some lounging around watching the telly. The guide tells us it was only in 2002 they were able to get colour tv, before then they relied on car batteries which could only support black and white. Some of the more isolated communities in the Delta are still on the car batteries. Like many of these rural areas life is lived in the open, tv's were blaring, some kids were running about in the dirt roads and the younger people were getting ready for a Saturday night of karaoke. Dinner is at the ancient house, served with a bottle of red local Dalat wine. The meal was interesting but some of the meat may have been as ancient as the house....

Back on the boat as we cast off to get to our mooring place for the night, we settle on our sofas on the front of the boat and sip why why enjoying the cool breeze as we motor along. 
The next morning was all go. At 6.15 the engines start as we motor back the short distance to the bridge to get back on Tiger Island. We again find we are walking by feet to arrive at the museum devoted to Ton Duc Thang in time for its 7am opening..... The earliest any of had ever been, or indeed ever intends to be, in a museum! We did our best to appear interested as we were regaled with the story of fishermen and white tigers and the life and times of said Ton Duc Thang. But it was soon over and we get back to the boat which had been magically reversed back to a living room and bedroom. Breakfast was laid out beautifully on the table on the stern. During a breakfast of bacon, egg, sausage, Vietnamese coffee, yoghurt and cornflakes, there were some odd engine noises and concerned looks. It appears we had left it a bit late to get off the mud in this dry season of low water - we were becalmed in a sea of water hyacinth. So we did what was expected of us and relaxed by boat on bums quite happily until the river rose just enough for us to float off the mud at about 11am.
The delay did mean our itinerary for the day was concertined a bit but there was still time for a boat cooked lunch and a bottle of cold wine as we went along. We visit a brick factory and as we reach Sa Dec, a Cao Dao temple, an off shoot Buddhist sect who think some unusual people such as Victor Hugo and Joan of Arc are their saints. A visit to a Chinese Temple and then to the home of the lover of Marguarite Duras.- then we are taken around the fascinating market in Sa Dec where we tried to identify fish and vegetables that we had never come across before. We arrived at the meat section of the market, never a favourite. We asked about the little pink skinned mammals we saw neatly laid out. We were told they were "field mice" from the rice paddies.... Rather large for field mice we think, rats? We check the "pork meat" in our dinner that night extra carefully... It had been quite a full day so we were pleased to be back to the boat for a beautifully served dinner on the back of the boat, again accompanied by a bottle of slightly better local Dalat wine. Dinner over, we perch ourselves again on comfy sofas on the bow of the boat sipping cold why why as we relax by bum on boat again across a rather wide stretch of the starlit Mekong to get to our overnight mooring spot. It was a slight worry though, this section of the Mekong is quite wide and lights on boats, even the really big ones don't seem to feature. Our captain though did shine his torch every so often to check we weren't about to hit anything....
We were warned of an early start the next morning and at 6.15 am the engines coughed into life. It is slightly odd to be motoring along the Mekong inside the dark cabin under a white mozzie net. I opened the front and Ant got up to sit on the bow watching the dawn come up and the river come to life. David decided to relax on back in bed on boat. Yet another breakfast served on the back of the boat and we then motor on to Cai Be, through the floating market. This acts more like a water based wholesale Covent Garden where all the local fruit and veg are brought in from the fields. We motor through boats full of watermelon, dragon fruit, bananas and pineapple and various other vegetables, each boat hoisting one of the fruits or veg they were selling on a big bamboo pole for advertising. Time only for a quick visit to the sweet factory, and of course a purchase of sweets for the journey, before we have to get off our lovely little boat and back to walking by feet. We walk by said feet through dusty lanes for a few minutes to be suddenly back in the real world where our taxi to take us to Saigon airport was waiting. Relaxing by bum on boat was over till the next time...

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Penh is Mightier than the Sword (24 - 27 March 2015)

Today's contribution is by David

Next day we had an early start from the Delux Villa. How we would miss their enormous fruit plates! We were met by a very jovial driver who seemed to find everything that we said hilarious, despite not being able to understand what we were sayingAfter the now customary Krypton Factor-esque puzzle of how to fit our luggage in the boot, we were off, weaving through an anarchy of tuk tuks, scooters and lorries that make up the Cambodian streetscape. Our route to Phnom Penh was fairly direct. We made it in under five hours through an almost continuous succession of villages and dried up rice paddies. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh we slowed to a crawl for the last part of the journey.


Hot and tired. we were eager to arrive at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Gill is an habitué of the FCC, Anthony once had Christmas lunch here, but for David it was a first. The FCC is in a prime riverfront position in Phnom Penh and today is a well known watering hole for expats and visitors alike. The walls are decorated with photos and stories from its 1970s heyday when it served as the hub for foreign correspondents covering the descent of Cambodia into Khmer Rouge rule, and the later disintegration of the regime. Despite the availability of club sandwiches and sauvignon blanc, it still felt evocative and we could imagine the former glory of the FCC where adrenaline and alcohol-fuelled journalists competed fiercely for stories and fought to get their copy out first.


After laid back Battambang, Phnom Penh was an assault on the senses. The centre of town is a jumble of architectural styles, centred on the Royal Palace and National Museum. Close to the FCC, Trunkh is a great place to shop for quirky Cambodian products. They stock a wide variety of clothes, art and housewares made by co-operatives from across Cambodia. The owner is a very friendly Aussie lady who was not only a great salesperson (“ouch”, says our credit card) but also gave us recommendations on places to go in town that we would not have found in a guide book. We hopped into a tuk tuk to spend our first evening in Lane 308, which has recently developed a reputation as the place to go for bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh. We were amazed to discover Cicada, a gin only bar. Anthony and David decided that this was “research” so we stopped off for a few gins served in copper tankards. 


The next day was rather more sombre as we were to spend the morning visiting the killing fields just outside the city, followed by a visit to the notorious S21 prison- both of which now serve as important reminders of the brutality and nonsensical nature of the brief but devastating Khmer Rouge’s grip on Cambodia. The tuk tuk drivers who congregate outside the FCC reminded us of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. It was impossible not to be intercepted and cajoled by competing drivers. How to decide between one and another when they all rely upon tourists to earn a living and are desperate for a morning’s work? The more savvy drivers managed to remember our names from the first morning. Being greeted by name from a tuktuk parked across the street was disarming to say the least. In short, transport is never a problem in Phnom Penh…


After 45 minutes of weaving through the gridlocked and fume filled streets we arrived at the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the cityThe almost bucolic scene that awaited us seemed to belie the grisly purpose of this site during the Khmer Rouge era. This location served as an execution site for citizens who had fallen foul of the regime. Transgressions were as random as wearing spectacles, breaching minor rules or being compromised by family links. Many of the mass graves have been excavated but others remain untouched as a mark of respect to the dead. The most telling reminders of the history of this place are the fragments of clothing and even bones that are seemingly given up from the ground and are clearly visible to visitors. An audio tour provides testimony from survivors of life under the Khmer Rouge and a temple has been constructed in memory of those who were killed at the site. The grisly spectacle of piles of skulls and femurs attested to the history of this sad place.


Continuing the theme, our next stop was the infamous TuolSleng prison, or S21, where dissidents and opponents of the regime were often detained en route to the Killing Fields. The complex is in a suburban part of the city and its original purpose as a school is immediately apparent to any visitor. The conversion of classrooms into cells and torture chambers was made to house and interrogate those who fell foul of the regime, again for often spurious reasons. An estimated 17,000 inmates were imprisoned here between 1975 and 1979. The number of survivors is disputed but estimates range from 9 to 129 people who left Tuol Sleng alive. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about recording the reception of inmates and their time at Tuol Sleng. Today their carefully maintained records serve as a reminder of these forgotten people, many of whom had been separated from their families and were never seen again. The photos of the inmates stared back at us from room to room. Some were frightened, others defiant...The shy smile of a teenage girl, the confused look of an elderly woman, and even the mischievous smiles of toddlers serve as a powerful reminder that each one represents a life, a family, hopes and dreams and only represent a sample of the millions of ordinary Cambodians who found themselves subject to thisnew and barbaric regime. They will not be forgotten by anyone who visits S21.


The midday heat was punishing in Phnom Penh, driving us back to the FCC each day for a rest. We had read that the Olympic Stadium was an interesting place to visit in late afternoon as the heat of the day subsides. The stadium was built in 1964, and has had an interesting history including hosting North Korea vs Australia for the 1966 World Cup qualifiers. No other country would host them at the time and North Korea eventually qualified for the tournament and made it to the quarter finals of the 1966 World Cup. It was no surprise for us to learn that during the Khmer Rouge period the Stadium was used as yet another execution site. Today the Stadium has a happier use as a focal point for locals who congregate in the late afternoon to do mass aerobics. Competing sound systems blare out western dance music to a mix of mostly older people around the rim of the stadium.  Meanwhile more serious runners do laps of the stadium below. The atmosphere is jovial and fun and it gave us an interesting insight into how locals spend their time in this frenetic but somehow captivating city.


The Mansion is a must visit for any visitor who finds themselves in the vicinity of the FCC. It is a derelict building that has had an interesting history, like just about every other building in Phnom Penh. It was constructed as a colonial mansion, and inhabited by a succession of wealthy families before being commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. These were followed by the Vietnamese army in 1979 until their withdrawal from Cambodia; all of which has taken its toll on the building. Faded elegance it isn’t: trees and shrubs are growing out of the building, the roof is largely absent and the masonry is flakingBut don’t call Phil and Kirstie to make an offer just yet, as this makes for an excellent watering hole, helped enormously by a very generous happy hour policy. The FCC now run The Mansion as an art and event space, and at night the building is lit to its best and most dramatic effect. Hours can slip by on the slouchy sofas in the courtyard to the soundtrack of Ibiza style chillout music and the horns of tuk tuks. We recommend the Front Line cocktail: a heady mix of passion fruit, gin, chilli and kampot pepper.


For those with an interest in architecture there is a fascinating tour that can be taken either with a guide or downloaded. It covers most of the city centre, guiding the visitor through the various architectural styles from French colonial, through the 20s and 30s to 50s and 60s brutalism.The Central Market was a particular standout on the tour, and it offered us welcome respite from the midday heat. The joy of the tour was that it did not just focus on tourist guide landmarks, but concentrated on rather more prosaic sites such as public toilets, apartment blocks and other municipal architecture.  This is what makes Phnom Penh such a singular place in contrast to most other Asian cities where identikit high rises predominate. How long this will last is uncertain as the cranes dotting the Phnom Penh skyline are the harbingers of a new city that is growing from the old. Many of the locations on our walking tour have now either been demolished or are under threat, so go now to catch a glimpse of a low key, low rise, and ultimately enchanting Asian capital that has not been strangled by expressways, shopping malls and high rises (yet).


We left Phnom Penh with mixed feelings. It was Anthony’s view that Phnom Penh was reminiscent of Bangkok 20 years’ ago. It is certainly true that the city has much to offer to the casual visitor. Aside from the set piece guidebook sights, and the Killing Fields in particular is a must for any visitor, Phnom Penh is a captivating place to spend time planning the next happy hour venue.


The next stage of our trip would take us across the border into Vietnam and into the heart of the Mekong delta. The best way to do this is by one of the boats which ply this well trodden route.We left the planning to Gill to decide which boat to take. Not known for her sea legs, we let Gill loose on unsuspecting touts on the quay who compete for business on this stretch of the Mekong. We are sure that they could not have anticipated her forensic questioning on the size, pedigree and sea worthiness of competing vessels.


Friday, 3 April 2015

Bouncing Along on Bamboo in Battambang (22 - 24 March 2015)

Although secretly we are a trio a of soap dodgers, we eschewed the thought of a $6 each bouncing soap dodger bus and chose instead a $60 bouncing taxi for the 170 kms journey by road to Battambang. We saved a couple of hours time too so worth every cent.... We leave Siem Reap reluctantly and could have stayed longer, but the Swanley Travel itinerary was calling! We travel out of the town along the airport road which was still looking pristine following the big clean it had had a couple of days earlier before Michelle Obama had speedily travelled into town along it. 
Battambang has long been on our to do list for Cambodia. Perhaps arriving Sunday afternoon when most places were closed didn't help but we found we had to search hard to find the "leafy, dreamy city with examples of colonial French architecture strung along a lazy river snaking through the town" that we were promised by Wanderlust. We were also promised "art and soul in Cambodia" by the Guardian and they told us it was the cutting edge of Cambodia's new art scene. We were looking forward to small trendy cafes and restaurants hiding the best artists Cambodia could offer.
Hmmmm.... Our first explorations had us searching amongst closed up by iron gates shophouses built in the 60's and holding our noses whilst we stood on the broken paving peering down at the bright green muddy string of water posing as the Sangkae River below.  We had checked in to the Delux Villa, another piece of 60's Khmer architecture but this one at least was in a good way. It was built to take the overflow from the Royal Guest House so we felt quite regal. So clean and recently refurbished, nice although full of the hard, highly varnished, ornately carved, dark wood furniture so loved in this part of the world. The breakfasts were a sight to behold. Each person has a fruit plate with enough to manage your five a day for a week and the following continental breakfast was a carb fest we challenge anyone to eat. French toast, pancakes, French bread, croissant and other white flour delights covered every inch of the huge plates. I know we are all slightly larger than your average Cambodian but..... But still desperate to find a decent lunch and having a "nose" for these things we did manage to sniff out the best restaurant in town, actually from what we could see, the only usable restaurant in town, the Jaan Bai where we discovered the best orange gin fizzes ever - oh and some rather good food. It's another of those places you often find out here that trains disadvantaged young Cambodian's in the art of hospitality.
But things looked up on Monday as the city sort of came back to life after the weekend and we commandeer a tuk tuk for a tour round the countryside to see the must see sights of Battambang, it didn't take long..... We first stop to admire a big roundabout... It did have a huge statue of the man who founded Battambang in the middle with little temples to worship him. In ancient times he had a magic stick that he could use to control 200 cattle. One day he lost his stick and now the town is called "Lost Stick". We feel something of the romance of the story in the explanation by the tuk tuk driver may have been lost in translation...

Cambodia does actually have a rail network but the thing that Richard Branson may find unusual is that there are no actual trains on the track. The station in Battambang stands deserted with the clock stuck forever awaiting for the 8.02 to Phnom Penh. But one local train, the bamboo train does keep going so we search it out - it's one of the world's all-time classic rail journeys albeit another bouncing Battambang journey. From O Dambong, on the east bank 3.7km south of Battambang's Old Stone Bridge, the train runs southeast to O Sra Lav, via half an hour of clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. Each bamboo train - known in Khmer as a norry (nori ) - consists of a 3m-long wood frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultra-light bamboo, that rests on two barbell-like bogies, the back one connected by fan belts to a 6HP engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h. The genius of the system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one train is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so the other can pass. The rule is that whichever car has fewer passengers has to give way, though motorbikes pull rank, so if you bring one along - or have a convincing inflatable moto decoy - you'll get VIP treatment. We had to disassemble our train only once. It's great fun and we did a return journey having to close our eyes quite a lot as it wobbled over the bridges. Also we had running repairs on the way, the simple fan belt structure kept breaking but we got back in the end. 

We then move on to some more Angkorian temples, but this one, Ek Phnom, is on top of a huge set of steep steps on a hill. Ant took one for the team and climbed up, David and I declined but sent our cameras... At least my excuse was I already had twelve days of ruins under my belt and David's excuse, although wimpy, did produce the quote of the trip again  - "I am so hot I could cry"!
We then move on to Battambang's answer to the Killing Fields, the Killing Caves, Phnom Sampeau, a temple and caves where the Khmer Rouge dumped the bodies of the many people they killed in that area. One cave for children, another for adults... a sobering experience. The route there was across country through dry, dusty rice paddies who look desperate for the rainy season to start. We left behind a huge cloud of dust everywhere as we bounced along on the dykes separating the dry paddies. When we arrive a problem was that said cave was half way up a mountain, it was 35 degrees in the shade and there wasn't much of that. So we again take the "easy option" and commandeer a rusty jeep like a group of Khmer Rouge on the rampage. 

On a more serious note, the cave is located halfway up a mountain which is dotted with beautiful wats, statues, and lookout points over the village below. Macaque monkeys roam the mountainside.  Stairways snake up the mountain and back down again into limestone caves and canyons. One of these caves is the Killing Cave itself. The descent on slippery steps down into the cave is quite beautiful – the rock is covered in green vegetation and low-hanging vines. The cave is quite large inside, and a huge golden Buddha reclines in the centre. But at the bottom of the stairway sits a chicken-wire cage full of human bones. To the right is another memorial of human remains, these are in a glass box. These are the bones of the doctors, teachers, men, women and children killed by the Khmer Rouge here. At the top of the cave is the natural skylight which the Khmer Rouge marched people to, lining them up, then bludgeoning them and letting their bodies fall into the cave.Today a mix of mostly Cambodian tourists mill around the cave, and people sing and take pictures. It is a surprisingly jovial atmosphere considering the horror of what took place. But apparently Cambodians feel joy is the best way to move past tragedy.

Drained, we head miles back into Battambang bouncing along in our tuk tuk, covered in dust but looking forward to a refreshing orange gin fizz at our favoured Jaan Bai. At this point David, closely followed by Gill then produced the most disappointed facial expression of the trip when we realise our favoured watering hole was closed on Mondays... We ended up in Lotus, a Guardian recommended art space and cafe restaurant. If the art was as bad as the food they certainly wouldn't sell much...
When we were in Siem Reap we were so busy we didn't find the time to go to Tripadvisor's No 1 recommendation, the Phare Circus - not the animal kind but more modern performing art. But in Battambang they have their training school so we spend an hour in the evening in the small big top watching some pretty clever dancing, balancing and cirque de soleil type stuff. After the excitement of the circus we wanted some food. As we had already discovered this was easier said than done in Battambang but we ask our tuk tuk to take us to a highly recommended one. It looked a bit iffy as we drew up so we had to ask the driver to speed up saying "don't stop, don't stop", the poor Cambodian owners who had stood up to welcome us looked all a bit confused as we speeded up like escaping bank robbers...
So our jam packed day in Battambang comes to a close as we pack our little cases to move on to the big city, Phnom Penh.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Sizzling in Siem Reap (19 - 22 March 2015)

This blog entry is courtesy of Ant
Why are we always surprised by the wall of heat that hits us as we step out of a plane in the tropics?  Bang! in your face, a huge wall of hot humid air, it was 37c when we arrived in steamy Siem Reap. 

Our second surprise within minutes was being hugged by a diminutive Gill, looking very trim after her recently completed 1000 mile walk.  She looked amazing, bringining our pasty, fleshy, economy flown North European bodies into sharp relief. We spent three days in Siem Reap, catching up and exploring favourite haunts.  Swanley travel had arranged cute duplexes at the formerly 'gay friendly' Golden Banana, thanks Gill! It's now thankfully rechristened the Rambutan Hotel. It was an oasis of calm, just across the river from the madness of downtown SR.  We also loved the FCC of course, especially at happy hour! 

Pub St has certainly grown since I was last here in 2006 and Gill a couple of years later.  It's far from charming, but fed and watered us well for a couple of nights and a great place to people watch.

Angkor Wat, was of course the must see!  Gill had done her research well and by avoiding the peak times, we almost had the temples to ourselves.  Tuk tuk hired for a half day, we phut phutted out into the jungle.  It is really spectacular and we were all blown away, even though it was only David who was seeing it for the first time.  We scrambled up sheer staircases, exclaimed at household scenes in the bas reliefs and loved catching unexpected photo angles. saffron clad monks and gold draped Buddha's completed the scene.   We also explored Bayon in Angkor Thom and Ta Prom, the Angelina Jolie one as the day got hotter and hotter. We ere so hot we must have looked a bit tired - the local guard suggested that "short walk best for you" as we were deciding which route to take around the temple... At one point David exclaimed that 'he was so hot that he could cry!' We agreed with him, and felt that our temple time was up for the day and indeed for this visit. Angkor Wat, big tick. 

The splendours of Cambodia's past history is in stark contrast to modern day life for most of the locals, who appear to live in dire poverty.  We had decided to visit a local, little visited fishing village on Tonle Sap, some 40km south of SIem Reap.  The poverty didn't seem to bother Michelle Obama's motorcade though as she drove people off the road on her way to lecture poor people to let their kids go to school.  if she had donated the cost of her trip and those of her security staff, then I'm sure more good would have come of her self satisfied smug visit.  Anyway, she sped past us, we and everyone else chased off the road, there was a dying or maybe even dead young guy lying in the back of a hand cart next to us.  Michelle, didn't even slow down. (That was an Ant rant...)

There is a closer fishing village to the one we visited  but it is highly touristic and now Korean owned like a "poverty Disneyland". We really got a sense in Cambodia that they will take a handout from any country that offers it.  Kampong Khleang was astonishing.  As the lake level is so low, the stilt houses are hanging 20m up in the air, an extraordinary engineering feat, made possible by planks and nails.   Kids played in the filth, dogs fought for scraps, people rocked slowly in their hammocks beneath their houses.  Health and safety clearly had never visited!  We chartered a small boat to take us down this creek and out onto the lake. It was  hard to imagine that later in the year, this would all be 20 metres underwater.  The creek bit was no more than half a metre deep, but Gill of course still sported her life jacket! Our taxi driver insisted on joining us in the boat and enjoyed taking photos too, he pointed out areas in the lake where 'Fish make babies'.

He was a fount of knowledge and we learnt how so much fuel in Cambodia is smuggled in illegally and hence not subject to tax.  He explained this as our taxi was parked in a shed and he was buying petrol in a water container that was being weighed!  He also told us how teachers and government workers are only paid $100 per month and have been told that they will need second jobs to survive, parents are therefore chipping in.  He says many teachers in the area have "run away". Ironic as we had just seen him avoid paying fuel duty!  It made us smile. We motored out to the lake to a small floating village with a school, shop, petrol station etc, the light brown shallow muddy waters lapping at their bows,  it must be a strange existence to live out here.  The route back to the shore was marked in the water by tree branches stuck in the mud, it was really at a low level. 

Our evenings were spent drinking and eating, we enjoyed cocktails at the upmarket Shinta Mani, after having shopped at their little artisan market.  Probably our favourite meal was at Haven, a restaurant that teaches street kids some marketable skills.  SIem Reap is touristy, but we enjoyed it.  The large groups of Chinese and Korean tours follow easy to avoid timetables, and tend to eat at their enormous edge of town chain hotels, so are not a problem in the evenings.   We all had fun and vowed to return, maybe in the wet season. 

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Sunday, 15 March 2015

A tuk tuk to the temples (12 -15 March 2015)

If I am walking each day it makes sense to do it in the huge Angkor Archeological Park rather than the random streets of Siem Reap so I have invested in a seven day ticket to the temples. I catch a tuk tuk into the park which gives me the equivalent of an early morning Pilates session as I strengthen my core trying as hard as I can to actually stay in the thing as it rattles along the uneven roads and speed bumps. Why do I always get the maverick driver but perhaps they're all the same, I've not met a slow careful one yet!

I've just done day three so am becoming a bit of an expert on my bas reliefs.... Well not really but they are nice to look at! The whole complex is really busy. It's funny how your mind remembers things differently though. Both Ant and I seem to remember the place where you buy your tickets as super efficient with barcode controlled Disneyworld type entrance gates. If that were ever the case I can only assume that it broke down and they replaced it with the usual melee of ticket booths and the scrum of tuk tuks as they wait for their passengers to get said tickets. Certainly not the efficient machine I thought I remembered. And funnily enough walking round the park I seem to be the only person ever stopped to have their ticket checked.... I guess they assume that big tour groups are automatically honest... Or I look like some hippy wandering around on her own, a more likely explanation. The parade of coaches, taxis and tuk tuks into the park is relentless, and the tuk tuk queues forming at the pinch points like going through the narrow gates into certain temples are reminiscent of the Dartford Crossing in rush hour.

And the snake of people going into some of the more popular temples is like the Bejing ring road during rush hour.... I am really surprised by the small proportion of Western tourists about and amazed at the huge number of Chinese. But the sheer size of the place overall and individual temples means that they absorb so many people it really isn't too crowded. So far I have concentrated on the places Swanley Travel will recommend on their forthcoming escorted tour.... Angkor Wat, the main must see, Angkor Thom, the one with the faces and Ta Phrom of Tomb Raider.

Swanley Travel clients are not known for their sightseeing patience, indeed one of the Company's specialities is speed sightseeing, so I think this will be more than enough! I also paid a visit to the National Museum here to see if that was worth a recommendation, but again, Swanley Travel clients base their liking of most museums on the quality of the gift shop, so this one probably won't make the cut... But on my times when I m just wandering the streets in town I am beginning to see where all the new development is. The east bank of the river is filling up, I remember it being empty, with cool new chic hotels and restaurants as is the French Quarter where the FCC is located. They are certainly giving the FCC a run for its money. But I see that the FCC is about to go through a complete renovation as well as an extension with more hotel rooms across the road. It's probably time, it's still very stylish and always smells amazing as the oil burners are always lit but is slightly on the tired side now. There is a new Hard Rock Cafe just opened as well as a Costa Coffee, but both very sympathetically designed so fit in very well. And no sign of any Golden Arches... There are some new, extremely stylish shops and spas too with other buildings still going up. But it looks like none of them are going to be nasty high rises, I hope not.
Yesterday was a very busy day in town. There was a huge procession with thousands and I mean thousands, of people going through early afternoon. Traffic was at a standstill for almost an hour. But a la Thailand if the roads were at a standstill, the bikes just took to the pavement! It started with the uniformed local school kids band, followed by lots of women in white crimplene (never good in this climate...) suits, followed by older school kids carrying the national flag followed by what looked like loads of office workers carrying the national flag followed by hundreds and hundreds of orange and maroon clad monks then followed by what looked like all the women in town in white blouses and black skirts followed by all the OAP women in town in white shirts with shaved heads followed by a mix of other I assume, less mobile people in a huge parade of tuk tuks and cars. There were a few floats in between, one of of flower covered elephant. Everyone was carrying lotus flowers and most had a picture of a man wearing orange monks' robes and glasses.

It was such a big production I assumed every one would know exactly what it was all about. The girl in the bar I repaired to for a cool drink (diet coke, honest) had no clue. The hotel staff when I got back had no clue apart from it must be a Buddhist Celebration... even I could work that one out. The nearest I got was a waiter I asked at the side of the road. His English was pretty bad (but better than my one word of Khmer) but he seemed to be saying that it was a celebration of the guy in the picture wearing the monks robes that everyone was carrying who many many many years ago had discovered the Khmer language. Frankly it seemed improbable, the guy was wearing glasses so it couldn't have been that ancient! But improbable or not he was pretty close. The joy of Google found this:
Samdech Sangha Raja Jhotañano Chuon Nath (Khmer: ជួន ណាត [cuən naːt]; 11 March 1883 – 25 September 1969) is the late Kana Mahanikaya Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Amongst his achievements is his effort in conservation of the Khmer language in the form of the Khmer dictionary. Nath's other contribution to Cambodia include the current national anthem, Nokor Reach. Nokor Reach was written to correspond to the motto of the nation, "Nation, Religion, King" as well as demonstrate the grandeur and the mighty past of the Khmer nation. This phrase is on the Cambodian visa.

Amazing what you learn whilst travelling, just a pity most of the locals didn't have a clue! I assume the parade was today as it was the nearest Saturday to his birthday.
And then while trying to understand all about him whilst drinking my Diet Coke, it was all lights, camera and action as what looked like a music video was being filmed in the streets.

And on the way back to the hotel early evening I discover mass aerobic dance sessions. On the next block to the hotel is a big building extolling the virtues of the Cambodian People's Party. Each evening it appears to get taken over for the good health of the people.... while Hun Sen, the long serving leader looks on benevolently...
Prices here are ok too, even with the appallingly weak pound against the dollar. All transactions here are in dollars, with your change, anything less than a dollar is given back to you in grubby Riel notes. No coins circulate here. Interestingly water is much more expensive than in Thailand, but in a balance that suits me, wine is much cheaper and better! I am living high on the hog, eating at the expensive FCC where last night's dinner eaten under the stars was of smoked salmon and tomato bruschetta, FCC Salad of chicken and Parma ham and two glasses of a good Chilean Rose and it came in at just £12.20... Result!

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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friday, 13 March 2015

What's Wat in Siem Reap... (10 - 12 March 2015)

If you have two weeks holiday and want to decide where to spend it, two weeks in Siem Reap may not be an obvious choice, but that's exactly where I've rocked up for almost a fortnight. But don't worry I haven't gone temple crazy, I do have my reasons! My Thai visa, even though for a year still meant that I needed to report in to immigration after 90 days. I had heard stories that this could take all day as the new tourist visa rules meant that all those people who previously were whizzing about doing visa runs to the border were now crowding out the small immigration office on Samui. They are building a new one but it isn't finished..... I also needed to get to Cambodia ahead of time and needed enough time here to get a Vietnam visa. So all in all it made sense to get out here a couple of days ahead of when I really needed to be and also do an advance Swanley Travel recce for my VIP visitors expected soon. So am happily ensconced in the FCC Angkor and am equally happy wandering the streets and walking along the river. I am re discovering Pub Street, a great place to people watch and enjoy the pleasure of a glass of decent why why (I don't say thanks to the French very often, but this time thanks for the wine legacy...) and at only £2. Can't say I am missing Mont Clair wine yet... I am also just getting my bearings from the last time I was here and whilst I can't see any big developments it is definitely busier. But there is still that old charm of dirty streets, broken pavements, markets, backpacker children and backpacker adults. The bottom seems to have fallen out of the photocopied book business though I guess Kindle finally put paid to that although you can now download them cheaply at ROGUE, as you can download $2 movies there as well, creating another business failure out of the copy DVD market too! Big tour groups, although they will be here, are, I think tucked away in the bigger tourist hotels on the airport road when they are not "doing Angkor Wat". Most people just drop in here for a couple of days, do the temples and then leave. I seem to be doing the opposite..... And I am having to get used to the new traffic.

Unlike Thailand who drive on the left, I now have to remember to look the other way. Crossing the road is impossible at times until I recalled my old Vietnam training - take a deep breath and go, the sea of motorbikes should part around you.... So far so good... And the drivers here do seem a little slower than the Thai's. There are a few sets of traffic lights here too even sporting little green men at the crossing and unlike the Thai's the Cambodians do actually stop at red lights, a real novelty... On the way from the airport the driver explained the police stopping some motorbike riders who were being fined "one dollar" for not wearing their helmets. No mirror on your bike is also "one dollar" and not obeying a red light is also "one dollar". I wonder how many "one dollars" end up in the police pockets?
Yesterday I walked into the Angkor Park in the rush hour, all tourist life was in the traffic. Big coaches of Wendy Wu type Chinese tourists jammed into big coaches, streams of ten tuk tuks with groups of Travel Indochina type posher smaller group tourists, gorgeous independent travellers (as you find with Swanley Travel) in their own tuk tuks, rich American's wafting in from Raffles in their aircon limo's and the Germans and Swiss on their push bikes.... and me bringing up the rear in my flip flops. And that reminds me, my Jawbone UP told me recently that I had completed my thousandth flip flop mile in 88 days, way ahead of my 100 day target. I am now trying to pat my own back...
Today I walked through a bizarre sight in the park in front of the a Royal residence. I have never seen so many brides in my life. All being attended by cameras, video cameras, make up artists. Some looking graceful in traditional Khmer dress but most looking far from that in pretty bad Western ones. I do feel the poor girl below was rather badly advised.... Perhaps "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" is on tv here... I think it's all about getting the pictures, I think the ceremony itself follows on weeks if not months later.

But Siem Reap itself, although it has brash places like Pub Street, it also has lovely little lanes with some great shops and restaurants.

Oh and of course some big temples... I made my first visit this time this morning and unlike last time, about seven years ago, there was some water in the reflecting pool and here's the pic to prove it!

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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia