Goodbye Asia

Koh Chang was a little too busy for us so we only spent one night and then got a speedboat (thank god for Thai sea sickness pills) to Koh Maak. It’s a tiny island just a few hours away and so far wins our award for being the laziest place on earth. The island is only fully open to visitors for around four months a year due to the weather. Some of the accommodation is a little tired so get there early and eyeball huts rater than book upfront. We split our time between a place on the main beach and then another resort on the other side of the island which we really recommend.

Buri Natural Resort
Buri Natural Resort

Buri Hut Natural Resort is a cheap resort made up of about 20 bungalows, pool, bar and restaurant. There were about four other people staying whilst we were there, but we never saw any of them very much. The next few days we spend doing nothing by the pool (except getting a little sunburnt). The staff are great and food excellent and there are even a few pets to keep you company: a cat that never shuts up, two great dogs and two tame boars. The boars like a tummy rub and massage, just make sure you wash your hands afterwards.

The pet Boar

So that’s it. Asia over. The plan was to wind down, forget work and stop talking in PowerPoint. Job done. We are going to keep up the blog. We’re not great writers but it’s fun and a great record for us to keep of our travels and hopefully it’s at least a little interesting for anybody else who’s reading,Thanks for all the emails and comments and feel free to ask us any questions about Asia if you’ve organised a little trip yourself.

What next? Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, down the Amazon into Brazil again, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Should take us around one year.

Looking forward to meeting up with visiting friends along the way… Rich & Leah.

Siem Reap – temples, temples and more temples

…we are getting a little tired of temples and the like but we have kept some reserves for arguably one of the best in the world, Angkor Wat.

The bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was only a little over five hours but, overbooked, a disappointed Israeli couple were given small plastic chairs and told to sit at the front of the bus with the driver. Leah and I learnt early that the key to bus travel round SE Asia is getting to the bus before everybody else and also NEVER expecting the bus to look like the one promised when buying the ticket.

Honestly, after three months in Asia we are getting a little tired of temples and the like but we have kept some reserves for arguably one of the best in the world, Angkor Wat. We plan to spend just 2 ½ days here before we head back to Thailand. Our guest house, dirt cheap, has a swimming pool so we also intend to make full use of this. I’ve been here before and my best memory is walking around Angkor Wat before sunrise. It’s pitch black and wandering through the temple with bats circling above is incredible although creepy as hell. I recommend anybody who comes here to do this. Get to the ticket office at 5am sharp and then walk on your own into the temple. Just make sure you bring a torch and watch your footing (note – the drips from the ceiling are bat wee). When booking a tuk-tuk you will need to make sure they pick you up at 4:30am to get you there in time for a walk round then back to the entrance for sunrise. 99.9% of people arrive just for sunrise so you have to argue with a bemused tour agent that you want to be there when it’s dark.

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Arriving at the hotel, we hit the pool and discover the bar sells Beer Lao so we get stuck in. Later we head in town where there is loads to do, with decent restaurants, street food, busy bars and endless markets, but we have to be up at 4am so make notes and head home for an early night.

Day 1

4:30AM.  After convincing someone to call the tuk-tuk driver to come pick us up when we wanted (yes we really did want it at 4:30 and yes we know it’s dark) we head off to Angkor Wat. Entrance is now sold in 1, 3 or 5 day tickets ( TIP – if you buy a one day ticket after 5 for the next day, you can use it that evening to catch the sunset).

Walking around the complex in pitch black is just as magical as I remember. We were the only people there walking from room to room and around tiny carved staircases of stone where the only noise is the resident bats. If you turn off your torch you are instantly drowned in total darkness – Tomb Raider stuff, literally, it was filmed here.

 

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The sky getting lighter, we head outside to bag ourselves the best spot by the lake to watch the sunrise, it’s now Leah realises why I was so insistent on the early morning – the crowds arrive. By 6:30 it’s heaving, Angkor Wat is now firmly on the comfortable tourism map (and so it should be), it’s a huge American tourist destination – especially after Angelina Jolie bought some kids here.

As the sun comes up and the temperature rises we take some time to venture round and take it all in, the pictures don’t really fully express what the place is like, you really have to come here to see for yourself. Around midday we head back for a quick nap and then head back out in the cooler afternoon to mop up the rest of the temples. We squeezed everything into one day but I’d recommend a full two days to see all the big sights properly and take your time.

Day 2

It’s Leah’s birthday!!

Still, we have a schedule so it’s up again at 4:30,  as today we are heading out to Tonle Sap lake (the largest freshwater lakes in Asia )for sunrise, which is home to the floating village Chong Khneas. We have a boat and the lake to ourselves (TIP – most people come for the sunset ). The sunrise is stunning, there’s a few pics here. Sitting on the roof of a houseboat we watch locals head to and from the fish market whilst we scoff some out of date pastries we bought the night before. This houseboat is also home to about 10 crocodiles in a small pen. Me thinking how cool they are, Leah thinking handbags, I spend a few minutes winding them up with silly noises until Leah tells me off.

 

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The rest of the day we spend by the pool and then head back into town to celebrate Leah’s birthday. Birthdays are a bit weird whilst travelling and it’s impossible to buy anything in secret so for both our birthdays we pick a nicer than usual restaurant and work our way through the menu. Dinner was great and included some snake (as expected, tastes like chicken). Strong cocktails + bottle of wine + 5AM start = knackered, no big night out, and we head home around midnight ready for our return to Bangkok.

Our plan is to spend the last week in Asia on a quiet island just a few hours from Bangkok, relaxing and taking stock ready for South America. So we jump on a bus to Bangkok, then on to Koh Chang (yes we now know it’s quicker to go straight from Cambodia,whatever) for the last leg of our Asia trip.

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Phnom Penh

Another border crossing (1 ½ hours) and it’s into the last country on our Indochina leg. I remember Cambodia being quite feisty, but as soon as we get off our bus, onto a tuk-tuk and check into our guest house it seems apparent that this place is remarkably more friendly than Vietnam. I’d say the same of the other countries we’ve visited on our trip and it’s a shame that we now look back at Vietnam as a place where it’s all about extracting the tourist dollar and genuine friendliness not common. We heard tales from travellers coming down from Hanoi that it’s impossible to exist there with constant scams and rip offs. We also met travellers who had just had enough with Vietnam and were making a rush for the border. We had no problems, but it was certainly not as comfortable as Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. I hope things change – the tourism will suffer soon as word spreads.
Phnom Penh is as cosmopolitan as an Asian capital can get but a vast number still live in immense poverty. Elegant hotels and French bistros are packed yet the outside seating is picketed by heart-breaking street kids that would be easier to ignore if they were not so damn nice about their begging. So being backpackers *cough* we head to said French bistro and nibble our free nuts with our imported beer. The tuk-tuk driver who brought us from the bus station has been hired for the next two days for tourist type stuff so we have an earlyish night.
We spend the next day looking around various palaces and temples in Phnom Penh. As it’s still Chinese New Year period some of the temples are crammed with worshippers burning incense and money as offerings. It’s difficult not to feel like you’re imposing and there are some tourists sticking huge cameras in the faces of those praying, but we just try and mingle. At lunch I discover the Cambodian dish Amok, a great curry not unlike Thai green, served in a bamboo leaf. At £1.50 a go, it’s in my top five meals next to Laos Larp, minced chicken with mint.

Phnom Penh - Wat Phnom

Phnom Penh - Wat Phnom

S-21 torture room

After lunch we visit S-21, a former school that was converted in to a prison, torture and execution centre under Pol Pot’s regime. We knew it wouldn’t be a comfortable trip but are not going to shy away from the darker stuff. We learn that an estimated 2.2 million Cambodians were killed during Pot’s regime, with thousands passing through the prison, their main crime being an ‘intellectual’. Doctors, teachers and local media stars were interrogated until confessing their ‘crimes’ at which point they were killed. Apparently wearing glasses was enough to grant a visit here, grim stuff.
During the regime, residents of Phnom Penh fled the city, leaving it a ghost town, and with many of those who lived in the large French colonial houses executed, we asked our driver what happened to the vacant properties after the liberation. According to him, many farmers just moved in to empty houses and still enjoy the riches today, something which is still regarded as controversial.
It’s our anniversary so that evening we have a night out, with dinner at the Titanic restaurant which overlooks the river and is done up to look like a ship (not nearly as tacky as it sounds and actually a very pleasant setting). A woman is doing traditional Cambodian dancing and has the bendiest fingers I’ve ever seen – when we try to replicate her moves at the dinner table we realise quite how difficult it is and are told that she has been training since a young child. Later we head to some bars on the riverside for a few post dinner drinks. It’s worth remembering that many of the better restaurants shut around 9pm, but bars open later so eat first, drink second.

S-21 victims

S-21 cells

Killing fields

The next day our driver takes us out to the killing fields. If you don’t know that much about it I recommend a quick read here . The former orchard is now home to the mass graves of around 20,000 Cambodians who were brought here to be executed, with many beaten to death to save on bullets. It’s certainly still an open grave, and even though a new memorial has been built here to house 8,000 skeletons already exhumed, many of the mass graves have yet to be dug. Walking around the grounds you find yourself regularly walking over scraps of clothing that rise to the surface after it rains and notices asking visitors to report any bones or teeth they find to an employee for removal and documentation. The onsite museum also offers a short video documentary detailing the genocide, although the quality is terrible and the credits open with added wind and howling wolves audio effects. Considering the location and subject this sinister addition is a bit comical. Myself and Leah shoot each other raised eyebrows without a hint of a smile.

Killing fields

Killing fields

Killing fields

We finish our sightseeing trip with a meal at the Friends restaurant which we would definitely recommend. It’s part of an NGO which works with kids, helping to educate them and provide them with opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Teenagers are trained to work as chefs and waiters in the restaurant with many going on to work in some of the city’s top restaurants. The food is great (although we didn’t try the fried tarantulas) and you get that nice warm fuzzy feeling knowing that you are contributing to a good cause.
Next stop Siem Reap, and the biggest temples of them all…

Saigon


Saigon is one of those cities you know is going to be fun. Home to 9 million, it’s the oldest city in Vietnam, much older than the young upstart Hanoi, the locals will tell you. The city is huge, but the first thing that strikes you is the volume of motorbikes on the road, my rough estimate is around a 1:250 car to motorbike ratio. The second thing that strikes you (or hopefully not) is the motorbikes themselves. There are very few traffic lights in Saigon, but the city streets are built in a New York-style grid system, with crossroads and roundabouts everywhere. Crossing the road is an art to be mastered, and certainly not for the faint hearted. Pick your spot and start walking at a steady pace, do not at any time stop for a vehicle or change pace, just let the traffic wind its way around you. It works, but as Jeremy Clarkson would put it, it’s squeaky bum time.

We arrived in town late in the afternoon and spent that evening organising our time and booking various tours. Excursions from HCMC are dirt cheap – we booked a half day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels for $5 each and a whole day in the Mekong Delta, including lunch, for $10. Admittedly you are with a whole coach full of people which is sometimes slightly too large a group but it’s still great value for money.

The Cu Chi tunnels is about an hour’s drive outside of HCMC and the site of intense fighting during the Vietnam war. The network of underground tunnels was built by the Viet Cong (South Vietnam communist guerrillas) in the decade before the war but was used in battles against the Americans. First stop on the tour was an ‘educational video’, not one of the most objective accounts of history I have ever seen, describing the Americans as ‘crazed capitalist devil dogs’. We were not the only ones stifling giggles as we watched, it’s no laughing matter I know, but like I said, a tad biased to say the least.
Next we were guided through the forest and taught all about the tunnel network – how they were built, what they were used for, how the Viet Cong concealed their existence, what traps and weapons they used – before being taken into a 100m stretch of the tunnels themselves. They have widened the tunnels to enable tourists to fit down them (us Westerners are somewhat fatter and taller than most Vietnamese) but they are still very hot and pretty claustrophobic when you have people in front of you and behind you.

I’m trying out some new photo format, as with all photos on this site, click to enlarge!

Saigon - Bui Vien

Cu Chi - education

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi - man trap

Cu Chi - tunnel entrance

Cu Chi tank

By lunchtime the tour was complete and it was back to the city for an afternoon of sightseeing and more Vietnam propaganda. First stop was the War Remnants museum, a national project to document the Vietnam War and all the atrocities that came with it. We are quick to realize that we are not being treated to an objective account of the war which is a shame as they have a fantastic collection or photographs and articles from the troubles. My advice is to go and look, but not to spend much time on the commentary that partners the displays.

Next we get lost, have a terrible cup of tea, find ourselves on the map again and spend the next two hours looking round the Reunification Palace. When the first Communist tanks rolled through these gates, American diplomats and families fled from helicopters on the roof, and North and South Vietnam became one again. To commemorate this, the building once home to the war command and President’s office has been left as it was in 1975. Thus, within, you will find some rather incredible 70’s kitsch styling plastered all over this astonishingly symmetrical building. The bar room and rooftop dancefloor are just awesome, think Starsky and Hutch vs Casablanca. But the highlight for me was the lower levels containing the old communicating equipment, cinema and war bunkers. I sneaked a photo of myself in the command chair whilst nobody was looking, although my serious face actually makes me look a little constipated.

Reunification palace

Reunification palace - roof

War room

Reunification bar

War museum

War museum - gun

We stop off at a great restaurant call Ngon, which turns out to be quite flash. The Vietnamese elite seat themselves around us, us in our flip-flops and grimy t-shirts. We didn’t have a clue how the menu worked, but managed to get a few dishes which were not only superb but also dirt cheap. Saigon’s KaoSan road equivalent, Bui Vien, sells food twice the price to foreigners and half the quality. Our meal came to around £4, so we decided to book a table for Chinese New Year.
The next day, it’s back on the tour bus, this time for a trip around the Mekong Delta. First stop is a temple with two enormous Buddha statues which are pretty impressive looking and provide a great opportunity to add to our growing collection of Buddha photos. Next, we hop on a boat and head up the river, stopping after about an hour for some lunch on Tortoise Island, slap bang in the middle of the Mekong Delta. The rest of the afternoon is spent sailing between various other islands where we get a taste of Vietnamese village life, including a coconut candy workshop, some traditional music and singing (watch the video to get a taster!!) and a cruise through the backwaters, being punted by a lady so old she looked like she might best be in a museum.

Mekong delta - big buddah

Mekong delta - mangroves

Saigon - balloon seller

Saigon - New Years outfits

Saigon - New Year posing

Saigon - street flower shows

By mid-afternoon it was time to head back into town to see in the New Year with those that were left in Saigon as many families had already headed back to their home towns, as is tradition in Vietnam. We got some advice from the hotel staff as to where we should head, and were told our best bet was to make our way towards the riverfront. So we take a slow stroll through the streets towards the Mekong, and what was a few hours earlier a ghost town changes, as the streets start to fill as families and friends join our path towards the river.
As we get nearer to our destination, we find streets lined with fresh flower displays, water features and statues. It seems like whoever is left in this city has the same plans as us, so we grab a few beers, squeeze down towards the river and take a spot on the pavement with the locals (much to their amusement). At the stroke of midnight the city put on an enormous fireworks display, HUGE! There were seven displays at the same time all over the city and it lasted for about 10 minutes, putting the Southfields Nov 5th Extravaganza to shame.
I bought Leah a Hello Kitty balloon as it seemed the thing to do and we made our way on foot back to our hotel, the streets still alive with thousands of motorbikes. The balloon by the way was robbed by a small street urchin, who grabbed the balloon and refused to let go. Thinking it would not look good for a man for be wrestling a balloon from small child’s grasp we let the little sod have it. Hopefully she kept it and didn’t just sell it on.
News Year’s day and the city is dead, and many shops and restaurants are closed. That evening we head back to Ngon for an utterly disastrous meal. Having thought we’d mastered the menu first time round we are greeted with an entirely different one, order two plates which we are told will be enough but are clearly not sufficient for us fat Westerners, are told they don’t have one of the dishes we want, try to order an alternative, then wait a seemingly endless amount of time for it to arrive before we finally give up, stop at the supermarket for snacks and head home to watch a film on the laptop. Massive Vietnamese restaurant fail. Cambodia ahead of us – the last country on the first leg of our adventure.