One week into my trip round South East Asia so I thought I better get my finger out of my proverbial and do a bit of an update. If I leave it until after this four week tour is over, I will have to take a weekend out of my holiday to write the bloody thing up! Much as I love it.... Think Lizzy and Billy are on the countdown until they arrive now. As am I of course. Although I am a little concerned as how a Tuk tuk driver will react to the three of us jumping into his glorified wheelbarrow. Probably kill the poor man! Asia is absolutely amazing - not like anywhere I've ever been and probably the first time I have seen real poverty. Just finished a week in Cambodia and really loved the place - the people always seem to smile and wave despite their history of war and their difficult way of life.
After the Adventure Tours trip, I flew back to Sydney for two nights before my flight to Bangkok. It was lovely to have another couple of days in the city - I still really love this place! Wayne and Amanda (from the Topdeck tour) were still staying in the hostel we had stayed in previously so I bunked in with them and it was lovely to see some familiar faces. Also bloody good to get a nights sleep without fear of dingo death. Wayne was working during the day - have to say I was well impressed, 5am starts and everything! So Amanda and I met up with Franci (also Topdeck) and had a bit of a catch up and shop! Absolutely no need to do any shopping to be honest. My bag at Alice Springs had been 25 kg. It's no surprise that the only time I carried that mofo was between terminals at Heathrow Airport. Managed to miss the sign for the shuttle bus and almost gave myself a hernia. Also managed to get my thatch of hair reined in a bit on some special offer at a rather nice salon in Sydney. Not a bad way to put in the day... Even if I did feel like I had been scalped by the end of it. Think I am becoming one of those people who hate getting their hair cut. Call me Rapunzel.
After a fairly hardcore repacking session (got to make sure I did a thorough search for drugs before I hit Asia according to Lizzy!) I managed to get the old rucksack back within the weight limit. Threw out all unnecessaries - including my new hiking shoes I had worn all through the Outback. Let's face it - there aren't going to be any repeat performances of that any time soon! Then I caught up with Sam and Sarah who I met on Contiki last year. They hadn't changed a bit and it was really lovely to see them. Knew I could rely on Sarah to find a nice place for dinner (although Sam swears it was his find).
So after some pretty amazing thai food, followed by a boomerang buying session and some promises to come and visit me in London, I said farewell and headed back for my last sleep in Oz!
Flew into Bangkok on Tuesday evening after a very easy nine hour flight. I sat and balled through the Last Song on the plane. Must have been the altitude - we all know I don't cry at films, except Bambi. Felt like a right idiot - the woman beside me must have thought I was on an institutional transfer to another looney bin. Met a man on the other side who was holding a LORNA HOUSTON sign and took my chances. Seems it payed off and I ended up in a mini bus all to myself. Plushest mini bus I've ever been in and the serious air con helped me look less like a par boiled tourist. We drove into Bangkok through a serious storm and the thought did cross my mind that my new nemesis may be lightning in this continent rather than wildlife. So far so good. Maybe Pappy took the hit for the whole family when he got his jolt years ago... Got to the hotel just in time to catch up with the group at the meeting - after a bit of info from our lovely Thai group leader - Pauline - we braved the rain and headed out for some Thai grub. Definitely a big attraction of a trip to Thailand! The group got on great right from the start. Some big characters to keep us all amused! There are 12 of us so people don't tend to splinter off as much as in bigger groups and everyone is after the same sort of experience so it makes life very easy! That night, after terrifying a Thai couple by trying to break into the wrong room, I slept in a proper bed and not a top bunk for the first time in 2 months. ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. Didn't realise I had missed it so much! Because there are three girls (TJ, Sepi and I) travelling alone and the rooms on the trip are twins, I flip between the other pair like a child in a joint custody agreement! After having so much company for two months, I hate the idea of being by myself so it suits me perfectly - I'm a pretty atypical 'only child' in that regard (maybe not others?!).
After an early breakfast (postive lie in by Outback standards), we got into our air conditioned minibuses and headed to the Thai/Cambodia border. We stopped just before the border to get some lunch. It was a proper authentic Thai cafe - no Western options for the faint hearted. Most of us took it fairly safe though and ordered up the Pad Thai. Safe?! So we thought. Rusty (the Kiwi of the group) had to removed a spider from his in the middle of lunch. Needless to say, my hunger subsided a bit after that! Our bags were then loaded into wheelbarrows and pulled by these tiny Thai men and women across the border and onto the other side to wait for us as we walked through. Way to make us feel guilty as we towered over the top of these human pack horses...
We all got our Cambodian visas without any problems (my chequered history must have passed muster) and managed to convince quarantine that none of us would drop dead in the next 6 days so we successfully made out way into Cambodia. We were met by a group of young guys taking pictures of us on their phones – think the light skin and blonde hair is a bit of a novelty over here. Paparrazi stress...
We jumped on another bus which took us to our hotel in Siem Reap. The bed situation got even better when we realised we had a double bed each. I feel spoilt rotten by the accomodation on this tour so far - things are just so much cheaper here! Because of the rain during the day, the water in the streets came up past our ankles which made for an interesting trip to the supermarket! After buying some presents for the kids, we headed out to a local school run by the New Hope Assocation. This group do some amazing work - an ex Buddhist monk set it up in one of the poorest slums in Siem Reap and it has since grown to include a medical centre, tourism service and restaurant - all the profit from which goes back into the school to provide education to kids who have no chance of being able to afford public school. The average income around that area is around 10 dollars a month and that may need to sustain a family of more than 6/8 people. Completely crazy. We were able to help the kids with their English class...
Their eagerness to learn was pretty impressive, as was their English, and it was amazing to see the work that this tiny assocation has accomplished. Afterwards, we ate a 5 course Khmer dinner in the association's restaurant and some of the current staff and students chatted with us about the school. One of them was from Londonderry! Small world...
After a pretty hairy tuk tuk ride, we made it back into the city centre and went for a walk through the nightmarket. Managed to pick up a bracelet, a cocktail and a foot massage for less than ten dollars! Score. A world apart from Landan!
Got home to find panicked messages from Lizzy to tell me that she has blocked my iphone because she rang it, got someone foreign and assumed it was nicked.... The mind boggles. The said iphone spent the entirety of its day in my handbag with no foreign people answering it for me... Over zealous? Mum?! Never.
Our full day in Siem was spent at the famous temples - Angkor Wat, the ancient town of Angkor Thom where we visited numerous temples and then a trip to the temple where much of Tomb Raider was filmed. We peeled ourselves out of bed at 5 am in the hope of watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately the weather let us down and we saw dam all. One minute it was dark, the next the sun was up - shite. The club sandwich breakfast the hotel had sent us was pretty odd. All about embracing the culture, I know. But still, who eats egg sandwiches at 6.30am?! Not me apparently. The temples were seriously impressive. Building them now would be an unthinkable feat, let alone 1000 years ago.... And the heat was unbearable - I spent my time dodging between shadows like a proper Brit. We had paid about ten dollars each for our private air conditioned mini bus and our guide 'Kim' who stayed with us all day - still can't get over the value for money over here!
Photo of Angkor Wat
Buddhas at Angkor Thom
TJ and I
We finished off with a walk up to another temple at the top of a mountain (glorified hill by Outback standards!). Decided it wasn't worth waiting for sunset, especially after the sunrise sickener! So we trotted back down the hill again - this time opting to walk down the elephant track. Grave error. There were at least two occasions where I was sure the end was nigh as two elephants overtook each other on this tiny track as I was pinned to the wall. Rather unceremonious way to go.... Against all odds, we made it down in one piece and back to the hotel. That night, Pauline took us to 'Pub Street' where we ate ourselves to a standstill for another ten dollars and watched some traditional Khmer dancing.
After the success of the night before, we returned for more massage - this time head and feet! Then the rain started and we thought it only wise to take cover in the bar and have a few bevvies until the storm passed before we tuk-tuk'ed our way to bed.
The next morning some of us headed over to the floating village – which involved an hour round trip on a tuk tuk – perhaps a highlight! I love these things and am gutted to realise that Vietnam doesn’t have them. I’m considering jacking in the law and setting up a tuk tuk business in Portrush – think it would go down a storm. It was pretty amazing to see the little community they have made for themselves on the water. We saw fish farms, floating shops, the floating school, a pig farm – whole little floating world! Whilst it was interesting, the whole place felt like a bit of a tourist trap. Smaller boats would pull up alongside our boat and small kids would jump in to sell drinks – modern day pirates! Or a boat would pull up with a small child with a snake around his neck. As soon as you dared to lift you camera, said boy would start chanting ‘one dollaaar, one dollaaaar’. Little shit!
Me and floating village
Floating pig farm
That afternoon we headed to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, on the public bus which was an experience in itself. TJ got drenched by a rather unfortunate drip above our seat and a Cambodian karaoke video played for the duration... Not quite Ulsterbus anyway. That night we ate at a restaurant, the profit from which goes back into the affiliated orphanage which was set up by a local man. Even managed to pick up a Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam for 4 dollars from one of the saleskids. None of the pictures are in the right places but whose complaining for 4 dollars?! Becoming quite the bargain seeker over here!
The next day took a more sombre turn as most of us headed on a private bus with a private guide to see some of the remenants from the Communist Pol Pot regime. We first visited the S21 jail (or euphemistically called ‘security unit’) which had previously been a secondary school. Most of the prisoners were educated people who were seen as a threat to the regime. They arrived in their thousands every day and were tortured non-stop until they admitted to being a threat (often falsely) and were then left chained up in cells measuring 2m x 1m.
I was particularly surprised when Mr T, our guide, pointed out two of the seven survivors who still spend their days at the museum, answering questions and helping to write the history books. One of them is almost deaf and blind from the electric shocks he received at S21. Mr T said that this is one of the only ways for them to earn enough money to sustain themselves - seems crazy that they have to spend any time there after their past experiences though.
We then visited a killing field where the prisoners were then taken to be killed and buried in mass graves. There were some pretty horrific sites including a tree which babies were beaten against until they died, all in front of their mothers. They have built a monument to the victims in the centre of the fields but they still have a large amount of graves to excavate – pretty horrific.
After a bloody good lunch, we took a quick trip to the Royal Palace where the Cambodian family still live when they are in the country. It was a pretty impressive display of wealth although slightly hard to swallow in light of the poverty we have witnessed throughout the country.
Some of the gals and I then went to visit the orphanage affiliated with the restaurant from the night before. The kids were in great form – dancing around like maniacs and finishing off a painting they were doing together. There were a set of identical twin girls who couldn’t have been more than 2 and were completely joined at the hip, never leaving each others sight – sweetest thing ever! Some of the kids had been on a recent trip to Japan and showed us the (many many) photos with serious enthusiasm! I can only imagine its what anyone visiting my house at the moment has to endure with my holiday pictures and Apple TV. Apologies!
That night, a pretty impressive storm hit the city and we were effectively imprisoned in the bar/restaurant. Worse things could have happened I suppose! Particularly because it was a Saturday night and there was a rather amusing Latino band playing.
After another public bus adventure, we arrived in Sihanoukville the next day. This place is on the coast and the relaxed pace of life was immediately apparent! Our hotel was run by an Aussie couple and had a good bar, spa and pool – not too shabby! Sepi and I headed down to the beach to find that the tide was seriously high and we had to perch on the side of the beach bars to avoid a total washout! I have learnt on this trip that I am pretty bad at saying no. During our couple of hours, I managed to give into numerous sellers and ended up with a manicure, pedicure, foot massage, fruit salad, bracelet, anklet and a cocktail. I must have MUG written across my head. That or the word spreads that I am just the girl who doesn’t say ‘No, piss off’.
We all went to one of said beach bars for a good dinner and partied there for a fair part of the evening – involving an elegant game of limbo. No prizes for guessing that I was not the winner of that particular activity! Lots of fun had by all tho.
Our full day in Sihanoukville was spent on a boat trip out to Bamboo Island. We woke up to torrential rain and the thought of a day in the spa began to sound pretty dam good. Alas, the rain conveniently stopped and we headed out on our ‘boat’. This thing was seriously rustic and the choppy seas made getting up the step ladder a serious feat! Most of us rolled onto the deck like beached whales – all very sophisticated. The sea was pretty rough but we all kept our breakfast down, against the odds and a few suspect moments. We stopped to snorkel but the only thing we spotted was a mean looking jelly fish was caused mass hysteria and a quick re-loading of the ‘boat’.
The island was pretty cool though – very remote and completely unspoiled. Better still, no one selling things! Saved me a fortune. John, the joker of the pack, was nursing a hangover and gave us all a fleeting moment of panic when we spotted him washed up on the shore. Particularly as another boat had just arrived and were stopping over his beached body to get onto the sand. Christian, being the decent guy, went to the rescue to find a very relaxed John. Not dead after all. Damn!
After we safely made it back to terra firma, Sepi, Amy and I went for an amazing massage. May have been the best I’ve ever had and it cost 10 dollars for an hour. You would pay 100 minimum in London. Loving the massage situation over here. Made the most of it in Cambodia because the Vietnamese massage is supposed to be really rough and leave you black and blue – thanks but no thanks! We rounded off our time in Sihanoukville at the pub quiz at the hotel. After putting in a surprisingly good performance in the first half, we ended second last... Poor.
The next day it was ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ as we left lovely Cambodia and headed to the border. We are in Vietnam for 12 days so I will leave that one for another mass update. You know you love it... Actually, if you’ve made it to the end of this, kudos to you. I think I’m getting wordier if anything! Missing everyone. No facebook here although Pauline tells us she knows the proxy address to avoid it so perhaps I won’t be cut off from all civilsation after all! LOVE xxxxxxxx
P.S. Thought I would include some of my favourite snaps of the sights of Cambodia...
A truck laden with baskets at the Cambodian border
A boy floating around in a bathtub at the floating village
Tried to take a picture of the Buddhist monks but as with everything in Cambodia - the tuk tuks got in the way. Captures two of the things I saw the most of though!