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…