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Good things and sad things

7 Aug

We still keep in touch with a lot of the people we met during our travels and had some happy news recently as we heard that Pathum, one of our friends we met in Sri Lanka, got married. We met him and his lovely family near Hikkaduwa (in this post) and again when we returned before we left Sri Lanka (here) and we are really pleased for him and his wife.

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Sadly, he also let us know that his Dad, Silva, passed away before the wedding in a road accident. The danger of the roads in Sri Lanka were made light of by us for the purposes of the blog, but bus journeys and even crossing the road were genuinely scary and we are sad for him and his family that such a nice man has died in such a way. He was one of our favourite of the many characters we met along the way in Sri Lanka and we are very sorry we won’t be able to keep our promise to see him again when we return.

Also heartbreaking was the news from Cambodia the other day that our amazing puppy, Namnam, whom we rescued from the jungle (here), nursed back to health, took on a beach holiday and to restaurants and on buses halfway across Cambodia before finding a suitable expat adoptive family for him to live with in Sihanoukville, has gone missing from his home. Having seen the evidence for ourselves in various markets across SE Asia, the inescapable conclusion is that there is a high chance that he will have ended up on the table. Cambodians were urged by their government several years ago to eat more dog as a way to access cheaper meat and also to reduce the stray population, and sadly a well-loved and fed dog is often more appealing than something mangey and starved on the streets. Apparently this happens quite a lot. Having come from such a bad start, I hope the year he had with his new owners and the ridiculous amount of love and affection we showered on him whilst he was ours made up for the potentially unbearably grim ending to his story.

Namnam

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That’s travelling folks!

14 May

And so we said goodbye to SE Asia. Sensing this, the taxi driver who dropped us off at the bus station took his last chance to rip us off and charged us 5 more ringgits than it cost on the way there because he refused to use the meter, but at 7am we weren’t going to argue. He had a good go at trying to convince us the buses would all be empty and would wait for hours before going to the airport and that we should actually pay him lots of money to take us all the way there, but we’d heard this many times before on our travels and just politely smiled, nodded, and then insisted we went to the bus station, where we caught the bus for £2 each and it left immediately. Can’t blame him for trying though!

Unlike the other airports we’ve visited, KL’s is quite big and full of people, so although we left with plenty of time, by the time we’d worked our way round the various queues and check points, the gate was already boarding. By luck of the draw, I managed to get a seat in the centre by myself – the third time this has happened, win! [Except seconds after writing this, a snotty kid came and sat next to me playing his bleepy little game thing. Giving him the death stare like I owned the plane didn’t work so may have to resort to actual violence, or at least making him kill himself. In the game, honest…I made him move in the end. I did give away my copy of Marie Claire to an Aussie girl to restore karma, but not sure that makes up for kicking a small child. Probably not going to heaven after all].  And the meal I’d booked whilst in Koh Samui before the tiny fish eyes incident was actually edible and Malaysian so that evens up our junk food:Malaysian ratio somewhat.

I ordered an Asahi beer and ended up with a bottle of sake but that was soon corrected and a little bag of Bombay mix was placed in front of me to go with the lager. I immediately gave this to Craig as I hate nuts…after inspected these he informed me that actually, it was a bag of tiny battered fish (with and without eyes). Yummy.

So I guess it’s time to do a round up of SE Asia seeing as I did one on Sri Lanka (don’t look at our ‘where are we’ page – our route looks like a plate of spaghetti)…

I was going to do a list of good things and bad things but it’s impossible as they often cross over. For instance, the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane is the wall of heat. That never, ever, goes away. If you don’t have a fan, or can’t afford aircon (like us mostly!), you will be sweating at all times. Even in the shower. We ended up getting used to it after so long, but the only time I really felt cold was when we were in Vietnam in January and when we had airconditioning in the room but weren’t given sheets. The rest of the time, you’re either slightly sweaty or very sweaty. But pretty much guaranteed sunshine every day was a never ending benefit despite the feeling of being hot all the time. It took a while to fight the English urge when the sun came out to immediately drive to the seaside and sit on the beach, no matter where you are. When you live in the Midlands, as far away as possible from the beach, sunshine is a rare pleasure and one that you can’t complain about.

Smells is another one. I will never get tired of the smell of frangipani trees, or jasmine, incense, delicious food cooked on the street, limes, spices and rain on hot pavements or grass, but all too often you’re half way through enjoying a wonderful combination of these and you spy a bin full of warm, rotting food, or fish drying in the sun and you tell your lungs ‘abort, abort!’ but it’s too late, it smacks you in the face before you can do anything about it and all you smell and taste is bin juice and fish guts.

One thing I feel really bad about though is the way they treat animals here. There are some people who look after them but I would say the vast majority don’t. From puppies in a cage in the boiling hot sun all day without food and water, to zoo exhibitions where the animals are in tiny cages, to stray (or pet) dogs covered in fleas and mange, it really broke my heart. I saw a Doberman like Holls in a cage in a petshop yesterday: clearly distressed and pacing in a sun-filled shop window and I really did consider buying it but there would be no way to take it over to Australia. Poor thing was docked and cropped within an inch of its life and was bored senseless. I am not sure why the state of the animals affected me more than the way the poorest people lived or seeing children begging on the streets – maybe it’s time to sort my life out? Or accept the fact and just work in a kennels?!

On that note, here’s a quick update on the puppy we adopted in Cambodia and rehomed with Geordie, a Canadian expat, and his family

From starving mongrel to pampered pup in three short months!

Something we could both embrace was the food though. Aside from the junk fest we’ve been having over the last few days, purely because it was there and it was a link to back home, not to mention laden in fat and therefore scrumptious, we have loved pretty much every minute of trying Asian food. We didn’t bother trying the things that we knew were going to make us sick (spiders, bugs, kidneys etc) but everything else was lovely and the worst times we got food poisoning was when we ate at restaurants, not street sellers. They have some of the cheapest and nicest food out there give it a try :)

Noise is another omnipresent presence in SE Asia. I hate not being able to sit in silence and it really began to wear me down that I needed to be underwater before getting any kind of peace and quiet. Whether manmade or natural, you will not find a quiet spot. I think that’s why I’ve read so much here – it helps block out the madness around me but eventually I’ll have to put it down and Asia will come flooding back in until the next time!

Philosophy – whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim or other, we very rarely saw people get angry or shout whilst we were out here. We know it happens as we spoke to the only farang Thai police on Koh Samui, and he definitely saw violence, but in day-to-day life, everyone we spoke to was very calm and resigned to the fact that being angry helps no one. If you want to bargain or disagree, it’s best to smile the whole time than get cross. This was incredibly difficult at borders where we charged huge amounts of money over the official price, or when we got robbed on the ferry etc, but I think it’s good to take a leaf out of their book generally and try and get on with things without bearing grudges or teeth. They also have some of the best manners – everyone is addressed as sir or madam in English and most countries’ people were very friendly and welcoming. In Thai they use ‘kaa’ if you are a woman and ‘kup’ if you are a man to show respect. This bled into English on Koh Samui so every morning you got ‘GOOD MORNINGKAA!’ or ‘HELLOKUP!’ depending on who was speaking. The exception to traditional manners is the habit of hocking up whatever is in your throat and then spitting it where you feel like – on the bus floor, on the street, over bridges, up walls. A custom I really couldn’t get on board with!

SE Asia was incredibly beautiful, particularly in the more undeveloped areas such as Cambodia and Laos. Whereas the ancient temples and buildings we saw were stunning, the landscape was breath-taking and it even made long and otherwise boring bus journeys a joy. We were never happier than when we were climbing the mountain in Vang Vieng, or cruising down the Mekong in Luang Prebang, or trekking through the jungle in Banlung. Even though I couldn’t afford to buy new lens for my camera, I am most happy with the nature shots of all the places we’ve been as they will cheer me up when I’m back in England staring at four grey office walls and wishing I was elsewhere :)

Toilets are fairly hard to find, never mind negotiate when you’re laden with backpacks and carrier bags. Carry babywipes with you and don’t breathe in. Don’t put your bag down because the floor is inevitable wet with water from the bucket and ladle (or worse) and don’t forget to check for spiders and cockroaches in the bowl or paper before you go! I found the bucket and ladle quite good though, especially when this was your shower option, as some of the showers we used were so weak you couldn’t wash the shampoo off. Best use the ladle and pour as much as you want over you!

Shopping was fairly amazing – we wished so often that we weren’t travelling and could take all the gorgeous things home with us. Even more tempting was the relative cheapness of everything! But we couldn’t carry much and the things we did buy were little bits and pieces for friends and family, along with some clothes for ourselves as the temperature changed. And best of all, you can haggle! If you’re going anywhere in SE Asia, never pay the first price. Or the second. Or even the third! Craig is more ruthless than I am so we got some pretty good deals.

And then of course there are the people. Obviously you get the scammers who are just after your money, but generally we found SE Asians to be the friendliest, gentlest, happiest and most generous people. Some people we met had been through the most horrific experiences but were still laughing to tell the tale, some people had nothing but offered us a shady spot and a cold drink when we had gone on one of our stupid walking adventures without water; from the old lady who fixed my skirt with her sewing machine, to the man in Laos who patched up our tyre and gave us two drinks for less than £2, to the many guesthouse owners who let us stay in their rooms with a six week old puppy, we’ll never forget you!

Things I have lost:

Sunglasses

Nail file

Bra

2 combs

Hairbrush

Phone

Needle

Towel

Bikini bottoms

Needle

Things I should have brought on the trip:

Something to wear on my lower half other than one skirt

Less cardis

DVD drive

Things we found:

60,000 dong in Vietnam

1 puppy

Total number of miles travelled:

19,037

Backpacker’s bad luck bingo:

Top 5 favourite experiences:

Thai New Year/Craig’s birthday on Koh Samui

Swapping a hat for a dog in a Cambodian jungle village

Gorgeous botanical gardens in Kandy

Messing about in a Cambodian waterfall

Mountain climbing in Vang Vieng

All in all, a great trip and something we were very lucky to get the chance to do. Saw a lot, got our eyes opened, laughed a lot and met some amazing people. Can’t wait to go back…although I have really missed cooking my own meals, gardening, having a bath instead of a grim shower full of frogs and spiders, the relaxation of being able to speak to someone in their own language and of course Marmite. The Aussies have this poor imitation called ‘Vegemite’ but I’ve asked my stepdad to bring the real deal over from England as our stash ran out in Sri Lanka. Oh happy days!

Three countries, four currencies, three days, two buses and one exploding tyre.

12 Mar

The last few days have been lots of fun but very bad for our wallets…wandering round the night markets and going out with friends seem to be unavoidable in Siem Reap, no matter how many people have got to be up at 6am to catch a bus (us) or to see the sunrise over the temples of Angkor Wat (Lauren)…

The night markets in Siem Reap are irresistible. If I had more money, arms and a house to go back to I would have definitely bought a lot more

 

But we were very restrained and only bought a few bits and pieces, assuring ourselves they would “come in handy at some point” (patterned scarves) or that they were “really useful” (sparkly bracelets).

We went out with Lauren and her friends Jayden and Tim to say goodbye the night before our bus to Bangkok. We ended up jumping in a tuktuk and asking the driver to take us to a karaoke bar…I was a little reluctant because the last karaoke bar we were taken to (last March) by a Cambodian was a karaoke bar/brothel/restaurant which was really not pleasant at all, but this one was awesome. You got your own private little rainbow booth for $3 per hour and songs in English, albeit it old ones.

We even got the driver involved

– he sang a song in Cambodian whilst we all got up and slow-danced (Cambodian songs usually being about heartache from what we’ve seen of their dance videos).

The next day we managed to get up for the bus and to be honest, I was looking forward to just sleeping to Thailand. But it was not to be – the bus companies had massively oversold the tickets so although we managed to clamber on the first one through some inventive and possibly underhand elbow manoeuvres, we couldn’t sit next to each other as there wasn’t enough spaces free. So I sat next to a French man with the longest legs I’d ever seen, and Craig sat next to an Israeli man who we ended up babysitting through the border, us being old hands having done it a total of once before, naturally.

There was a lot of faffing on the journey…we had to stop and “change the bus tickets” just before the border, then the border itself which took an hour or so to get through, then another change of bus (decanting us into minibuses as not everyone was going to Bangkok), then a lunch stop where yet another change of minibus would happen. We had managed to be fairly lucky about getting on the first of every bus going, so we had finished our lunch and were ready to go by the time the last of the other people who had been on the original coach were arriving. Bizarrely, we saw two people who both us made jump separately – Craig saw someone who from the back looked like a skinnier version of his best friend, Matt, who died last May, and I saw someone who was the spitting image (although a few years older) of a different Craig I knew who died in May nearly two years ago. What he was wearing, his hair, the way he smoked…scarily similar. But we were soon on the move again so quickly shook off the weird feeling.

We gathered all our stuff and tried to look ready so we could get on the first minibus to Bangkok (technically queue-jumping as we all had numbered stickers on us showing us the order). The plan worked and best of all, we were allowed to sit in the front by the driver which is right next to the air-conditioning. Win! I settled into my book and Craig napped a bit and all was well for a bit. However, the driver kept stopping at mechanics and pointing to a tyre. A couple of them gave prices he wasn’t happy with so we turned round and went back to the first one, where more air was put in the rear left tyre. We thought that was odd because if there’s a problem here, it’s usually ignored until it’s completely broken, but thought nothing of it as we were back on the highway going at the usual breakneck speed.

Until there was a huge bang – I had been reading and Craig was asleep so we weren’t sure what was going on – a very naughty word escaped from me as I realised there was a high ditch on the side of the road and it sounded like the bottom of the van had dropped out and Craig wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as there wasn’t one to wear. The driver didn’t panic thankfully and managed to get the van to a stop at the side of the road. We got out and surveyed the damage…this is what was left of the rear left tyre

The thing had exploded and ripped off, denting the van in the process and making a lot of mess. If it had been one of the front tyres I am sure we would have been done for. Craig helped the driver change the wheel but I was pretty shaky so stood at the side of the road with everyone else. I’m not sure if everyone realised what had happened (or could have) as the Italian girl’s first response was that she would now miss her connecting bus, and the two German girls didn’t even bother getting out…

But we made it here in one piece eventually. I don’t usually believe in fate or things like that but it was very strange we’d seen versions of Matt and Craig just before it happened. Weird. We were both still a bit dazed so we dumped our bags in our guesthouse on Khoa San Road and embraced the madness

We got chatting to a girl from Morocco who met a friend and took one of his fried crickets off him

…turns out she was expecting us to eat it – um no thanks – so she amused herself by arranging it in different positions on our glasses, in the ashtray, on the table…delicious. We ended up talking to three guys from Bristol which was a little awkward as it turned out that one of them was banned from the restaurant Craig used to work for in Bristol…by Craig. I left them chatting about the old days to go to bed :)

Just a short stopover in BK until we fly to Sri Lanka tomorrow morning, so I think the plan is just to get some really good hot Thai food and explore a bit before we’re off again….

 

 

Angkor Wat?

9 Mar

Soon after posting our last post on here, we met a Welsh girl called Lauren who was also staying at our guesthouse. Whilst I was talking to Mum on Skype, she was explaining to Craig that one of her bank cards had been stolen from her (locked) backpack and the other had been swallowed up by a cash machine at the border – meaning her bus left without her whilst she was trying to get back out of the ATM. When she did eventually get it out four hours later, it turned out her bank had blocked the card anyway so she had about $6 left on her. We leant Lauren my laptop so she could Skype her bank (call centre based in India – Craig went to check how she was doing and she busy repeating her date of birth 45 minutes into the call) but it looks like she won’t have a card for a week or two at least. As we both have UK bank accounts, her dad is going to transfer some money into my account so that I can take it out for her which should last her until she can pick her card up. Nightmare but at least we could pass on the favour Chris paid us in Banlung :)

We all went to get some food and drinks that evening, including a visit to Angkor Wat? bar on Pub Street. Last year everyone went out except me (in bed with food poisoning…familiar…) and went there and got free teeshirts after drinking two cocktails, so I was determined to go back this time and get me a teeshirt. However, I hadn’t reckoned on the size of the cocktails so we had one each (which I still got a shirt for, win) and Craig and I went back to the guesthouse, leaving Lauren chatting to some other people in the bar.

A combination of hangover and insane heat meant the next day was spent lazing in our hotel room. It has a fan and a curtain which was good enough as the heat was unbearable outside. We went for breakfast and then just immediately came back, stripped off to our pants and lied down for hours. After all that excitement, Craig did some laundry and ended up dripping with sweat. I’ve included a photo not because laundry is particularly novel but so you can see the mould in the room :/ At least we’re only going to be here for another day or two before we go to Bangkok to catch our flight to Sri Lanka.

Craig also set to work on his “make a diabolo toy from a coconut” plan (prototype one). He bought a coconut in the morning from a street seller and planned to cut the coconut in half, bolt it together to make a diabolo and see whether it worked as a toy or not. The problem was that coconuts here are sold with their tough green outer shell on, which has to be removed before you get to the more familiar brown husk inside. He had asked the street seller to cut it in half, but it didn’t go quite to plan as she got her machete out and smashed a whole coconut to pieces in front of him, looking very pleased with herself. Not quite what was meant…so he bought a whole one and started attacking it with his knife in the room. I was reading my book at the time, but over the next 15 minutes I could occasionally hear little hacking sounds and grunts coming from the corner. Craig eventually stood up and I saw that all that had been done was some random chunks of the green stuff had been removed as it was far tougher than expected…and that he’d got so hot he’d ended up stabbing it and had drunk all the juice, ruining the shell :) I look forward to watching the creation of prototype two.

We met up again with Lauren a few hours later and spotted Sinead, a girl who runs a clothing shop in Sihanoukville and one of Geordie’s friends, staying at our guesthouse. She had come on a shopping trip for her company so we ended up having dinner with her and Lauren. She said she had seen Geordie and Namnam the day before, and the puppy was running around with no problems. Geordie posted a picture on facebook last night of him

and a little video showing how much he’s improved since he was picked up just a few weeks ago in the jungle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kp-wEnorAZ8&feature=related

Today was spent eating ice cream (proper stuff from a shop plus delicious slushies picked up from a vendor on the street – sweet crushed ice drinks with what we thought were berries at the bottom but turned out to be balls of jelly, awesome), wandering round the markets loading our already-full bags with more bits and pieces and buying new flipflops for Craig. He bought some in Vietnam that rubbed in between his toes so badly he cut the “thong” bit off and has been on a quest to find new ones ever since, managing to keep them on only by walking with his toes clenched into a claw-like position, poor thing. So it’s a relief for him to finally be able to have a comfortable pair of shoes. My flipflops got stolen in Kong Koh (why anyone would want them is beyond me, they were disgusting!) so I have been wearing Craig’s impulse bought ones that didn’t fit him. I have also been trying to find new ones but every exchange goes like this:

Me [picking up a pretty pair of sandals in a tiny Asian size]: Have you got these in a size 41 please?

Stall owner [wiping her eyes]: 41? HAHAHAHA. VERY BIIIIIG! No, sorry, we not have. But these ones are 41.

At this point, the stall owner will invariably pick up the most chunky, black or brown enormous monstrosities of men’s sandals (mandals).

Me: Ah but these are for men. I am a women, I would like nice ones.

Stall owner [looking up at me doubtfully]: But these are for beeeeeeautiful lady. These not men’s. But how about these?

The stall owner will begin holding up a selection of what look like orthapedic shoes for giants.

Me: Sigh.

To bus or to boat? Which is more expensive and difficult? Well that’s settled then. Good day.

7 Mar

After the whirlwind of the day before, we spent the next chilling out in the Gecko bar. They do an amazing drink – fresh limes and juice mixed with crushed ice and mint. Refreshing when the temperature is 37 degrees. It only falls to 26-27 degrees at night so sleep is very difficult…keep having to get up to have cold showers in the middle of the night.

We also booked the boat to Siem Reap for $19 each. The receptionist obviously thought we had a screw loose as the bus only costs $4.50 and takes a couple of hours, whereas the boat takes 8 hours, but we were adamant we wanted to go on it because it was meant to be a very beautiful stretch of river, leading into the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia.

When we turned up the next day, we thought the receptionist might have had a point. The guidebook said get there early to try and get a seat away from the engine. Many people had had the same idea, and besides, the boat was crammed with people and luggage. Our minibus to the “port” was carrying an extra 13 people. I hopefully stuck my head in the boat only to see there was no space – even if people shuffled up it was going to make for a very uncomfortable and hot 8 hours so we took an executive decision and sat on the roof (factor 50 being in my bag).

This was the view on top of the boat so you can imagine how many people were inside. If the worst came to the worst and we had to swim, I would have preferred to be up here rather than trying  negotiate people and luggage underwater. So suncream came out, we stretched out on a bag of rice and enjoyed an interrupted view of the sights of the river

Flocks of seagull-like birds, two herons, catfish, eagles, hawks, snakes and eels joined us on the journey. Luckily our hotel had given us each a free scarf for staying there, which came in handy when the sun really got going after 12. This being a journey in Cambodia, it was obviously not going to be a smooth one. Our boat was overloaded to begin with, but because it is the dry season, the river was extremely shallow – far less than a metre in places. This meant slow going (so did the manoeuvering around the children swimming, fishermen waist deep with their nets and women washing themselves and their clothes)…especially when going past all the floating villages as anyone who’s been on a canal boat knows, it’s not appreciated when someone motors past you, created a massive wave. We also saw some of the poorest communities we’ve been past yet – tiny little makeshift shelters made from sticks and covered in plastic sheeting or just material. I am not sure whether these are permanent structures or whether they just live there in the dry season but even so, it’s not a way of life that looks particularly pleasent for even a few months.

After getting stuck a couple of times over the first few hours, we finally found deepish water so could go slightly above walking pace. But the slow journey meant we could enjoy the scenery and spend time waving at the hundreds of kids along the way who shouted hello to us. There were locals on the boat too, who along with their bags of comfortable rice (bye bye seat) and baskets of live roosters, needed dropping off at their doors or monks who needed picking up from their waterside temples.

We got to Siem Reap at the port where we had visited a floating village the year before and had bought the worst/best souvenirs ever – horrid china patterned plates with pictures of our faces stuck to them. They were so awful we had to buy them – I think they are now adorning Craig’s mum and nan’s houses…lucky them. We have been on a quest to better these and think we have got pretty close – matching teeshirts, the horror of which will be unleashed at a chosen point and of course, documented on here.

We found a little guesthouse here (well, we were customarily bullied into it by a tuktuk driver of course) for $6 a night. This one isn’t quite as fancy as the last one – the mouldering walls and stench of other people’s urine being new additions – but we’re only going to be here for another couple of days and most of the time will not be spent in the room. We decamped and then headed off to Pub Street for a welcome sit down and beer

Less welcome was the return of food poisoning for both of us, an allergic reaction (again for both of us, although to what we are still unclear) and an ear infection for me. Super. But SR is the best place to be to get medication I suppose as it’s a big city, so off we went to the pharmacy for antibiotics and antihistimines and for extra stocks for when it inevitably strikes again.

The next morning we went to the post office to pick up my new sim card (which hadn’t arrived, cheers Orange) and on the way back, saw a sign to the children’s hospital here. On our last visit, we were encouraged to donate blood there as the standards are very high and they “guarantee clean needles” (not sure how you’d rectify this if it was found to be wrong!) but I had only just given blood in the UK so couldn’t do it again. This time it had been 3 months since my last donation, we decided to pay them a visit.

We were assured that the various pills we had been taking wouldn’t cause a problem with donating, but for some reason they insist on a gap of four months between donations for women here (men are ok to donate every 3 months). The other checks they did were nothing like the NHS’s, which is a 2 page questionnaire of questions about where you’ve travelled, whether you’ve had tattoos recently etc but I guess as they only received 1,300 donations last year, they can’t afford to be too choosy. I explained that I was a regular donor in the UK and that I had given blood every 3 months with no problems, so they took a sample of my blood. Apparently I have a very high red blood cell count so I was in :)

I also have “fast blood” according to the nurse! Craig went next – his first donation ever and was told he had “warm blood” – and was a big bravey as usual

For some reason the nurse said that she didn’t need to test Craig’s blood, but me being the uncompetitive soul I am said it was probably a good idea. I had 4.72 million cells per microliter and Craig had 4.54. I managed to keep my elaborate victory dance to my imagination only, but it was a struggle.

Rather sweetly, we got a free teeshirt, a coke and packet of biscuits afterwards. Craig handed round some of the biscuits round to children in the ward and then we went and had a sit down – missing 350ml of blood in this heat meant this was a good idea. We’re now sitting in the guesthouse bar and planning what to do tomorrow – we saw Angkor Wat last year so would like to see what else SR has to offer before we go to Bangkok and then off to Sri Lanka for three weeks…just waiting for the e-visas to be approved before we book our flights sliiiightly off course but for the price (£100 return each way), seemed an unmissable opportunity. After that, it looks like I will be volunteering on an island in Thailand for 4 weeks (Craig will stay there too but will not be required to work, lucky boy), before heading off to explore the rest of the country. This is probably the most we’ve planned ever so I am sure it is bound to change!

Whistlestop tour of the sites of Battambang

6 Mar

We got off the bus to the usual clamour of tuktuk drivers, offering their services as tour guides, drivers and guesthouse recommenders. We had already spoken to a French couple who had been to Battambang and said we should stay at the Asia hotel as it was cheap and clean. One guy in particular was very keen to get our business and kept saying we should go to the Royal hotel…we said no, we’re going to the Asia…and he immediately pulled out their leaflet and said he worked for them as well :)

We decided to treat ourselves to an $8 room – no cockroaches, no rats, no spiders, no frogs. Air-con, a tv, two double beds and a massive bathroom. Amazing after the mould of the last place! Whilst we were checking in, the tuktuk driver, Yaryar, kept trying to tell us to take a tour with him the next day and the amazing things we would see. At this point we’d been travelling for 12 hours on various buses and really just wanted a shower, but he wore us down with his enthusiasm and cheerfulness. We signed up to a tour with him the next day for $10 each.

Sure enough, the next day he was waiting for us. He took us to a bookshop for free (there were no English books in Koh Kong aside from textbooks) so I stocked up and then took us for breakfast, where we met his dad, Mr Philay. Apparently his dad was going to drive us round instead of Yaryar, but his dad was super cheerful too so we said ok. When I say super cheerful, I mean he literally boomed all the time, smiling from ear to ear.

He shouted that his friend’s son was getting married today (another tuktuk driver) and would we like to go to the wedding? We were a bit unsure about randomly turning up but any doubts were met with “WE WILL GO TO THE WEDDING! HAHAHA!”. Ok, we’ll go to the wedding. When we got there, there was a large marquee decorated with pink and yellow bunting and lots of guests sitting on gold-covered chairs, all clutching wrapped gifts. A band was playing traditional Khmer music

and everyone was dressed up

Mr Philay explained at top volume that the bride was yet to come out, but when she did, “SHE LOOKS LIKE A MOVIE STAR! A MOOOOVIE STAR!!”

Shortly after she made her appearance and made her way to the groom

Mr Philay made guests get out of their chairs to let us sit down, all the time booming “TAKE PICTURES! PHOTOPHOTO!” He then decided it was time for the next excursion, the bamboo train, although he invited us to the evening do later on that day on behalf of the bride and groom.

The bamboo train was built to link Battambang with Phnom Penh by the French in the ’30s. Mr Philay said before it would take a month to walk to PP, and after the Khmer Rouge banned or destroyed most things mechancial, men would use bamboo poles to push the train – a kind of bedstead on tiny wheels – along. It now runs with engines from Thailand. The single track is very narrow. If another train comes the other way, the train is lifted off the track, the wheels removed and one of them continues, the other left to be reassembled.

At the end of the line, we got shown round a brick factory by a little boy. He showed us the tiny machine used to make all the bricks from the clay dug up nearby, and the kiln where up to 80,000 bricks could be fired at once. He also showed us a “sleeping plant” – if you stroke the leaves they all curl up like they’re napping.

From there it was to “Cambodia’s Golden Gate Bridge”

 

Mr Philay had just said to me “oh, my daughter’s taller than me” which made me laugh.

Then to see where the local chillies are grown

My heaven. There is hardly any spicy food here (no matter how many times you tell them “hull” – hot). Mr Philay insisted in picking every variety of chilli (it was not his farm) and giving them to me to taste and keep which will come in handy.

After that we went to the mini-Angkor Wat on the top of the mountain. Mr Philay sensibly said he’d stay at the bottom and “watch my bag” whilst we climbed all these steps and more

After a sweaty climb up and back down again, we sat and had lunch with him and his friend. Both had lived through the Khmer Rouge period and had lots of stories to tell us. Mr Philay’s father was an ambassador in Thailand and his brother was a pilot. They lived in a big house in Phnom Penh and had a Ford Capri. As his father and brother were educated, they were both killed by the KR, and in total Mr Philay lost 12 family members. He still does not know where his mother and sister are buried. He said he was working for 12-16 hours a day in the fields after the KR marched everyone out of Phnom Penh, living on a small portion of watery rice “soup” a day and having to eat food meant for the pigs, insects and leeches as he was so hungry. It’s unbelievable what people went through.

But he did not let this get him down when he was telling us about it so it was on to the next temple…also at the top of a mountain. We were accompanied by a little girl whose job it was to show tourists the way. She said she’d already climbed it three times that day and it was boiling so I felt sorry for her having to do this job at such a young age. She seemed quite mature though and plodded in front of us, laughing as the sweat ran into our eyes. She was very scared of the monkeys that lived near the steps though as she said some of them bit so she hid behind Craig for that bit!

On the way back, Mr Philay pointed at a tree with lots of black leaves on it. Ah, not leaves, “BATS! BATS!” – and before we knew what he was doing, he grabbed a long bamboo pole and whacked the tree with it, making these huge, previously sleepy, bats fly out. They were enormous

although maybe a bit smaller than the hedgehog-sized rats we saw in the evening near the market scraps. We got back and gave Mr Philay a tip as we had had a full day for not much money and he was so enthusiastic and joyful about everything it was impossible not to like him. He repeated his invitation to the wedding but as we’d have to pay another $20 for our food and drink, plus money for a present, and we were absolutely knackered after packing so much in in one day, we said we would probably call it a day :)

The day we walked to Thailand

5 Mar

We went for breakfast at a little place by the sea and whilst we were there, we found a book of things to do in Koh Kong. One of them was to go to the zoo near the border of Thailand. As it happened, we were eating just near the bridge to get across so we decided that rather than go back and get that bike from our guesthouse, we’d get a tuktuk across. We hadn’t appreciated that it was 12km each way so weren’t expecting the driver to tell us it was $15…so we said no we’d walk.”You can’t walk, it’s 12km.”

Well now you’ve told us not to do something, we’re going to do it. So we started walking…”Ok, ok, $12″. “No, we’re walking. Thanks”. “Ohhhh. Ok. It’s 12km!!” “That’s alright, we need the walk. Goodbye.” We walked off.

“Hey! You! $10?”

“No, we’ll walk. Thank you.”

“…Tuktuk?”

So off we walked to within 500m of the border of Thailand.

What we saved by walking may have been cancelled out by the amount we had to drink just to get there…including this

which tasted like “cigarette juice” according to Craig.

We didn’t see anyone else walking, but assumed that this was because walking was the intelligent decision favoured only by the knowledgeable few. The knowledgeable few who remembered that when you get to the zoo, you also have to walk around that…

But when we did get there (after seeing the tuktuk driver zip past several times, waving cheerfully to us each time), we were glad we didn’t pay to be driven over as it was $12 each – the most expensive entrance fee we’ve seen whilst we’ve been away I think. But when we looked round, it was clear they’d spent a lot of money on the enclosures and exhibits so we didn’t feel too bad.

 

I was expecting to see very small cages and sad looking animals given the standard of animal care here, but most of the animals looked happy enough, well fed and cared for and in reasonably sized enclosures. The smallest cage was the sea eagle’s…I guess they thought if they gave him a big enough cage to fly in no one would be able to see him, but it does seem weird they gave an enormous cage to the peacocks (who don’t fly much) and a tiny cage to a massive bird like the eagle. They also had animals shows on every couple of hours. The guidebook had warned us that these wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, so we weren’t surprised when we went to investigate the orangutan show, the orangutan outside was wearing a dress and made to pose with people for pictures. We had a look at the set for the show and saw “Orangutan Boxing Match!”. We decided to give it a miss in favour of looking at the ostriches. You could get really close to the animals in most enclosures

 

Got to feed bambis sweet potatoes!

One of the more special exhibits.

There was a massive electric fence seperating the tigers from each other’s pens…and a tiny little metal railing seperating them from us!

Direction…or instruction?

 

They wouldn’t let us have a go on this for some reason. Maybe they knew it was our intent to steal it and pedal it around SE Asia. To Australia the Stupid Way?

We did relent and get a motorbike back each from the zoo. When we got back to the guesthouse and told Paddy that we’d walked to the zoo he at first didn’t believe us and then just kept asking “why” :)

We spent a nice night with the guys at the guesthouse, helping Mara get on Facebook and setting up his email account. This is his new profile picture

Mai, the lady that works there, took me under her wing and re-patched up my foot, gave me eucalyptus oil for my million bites (which I swapped for a nail varnish which she seemed pretty pleased with) and gave me a back massage. Mara said that when we come back we can build ourselves a house on his land near Kampot…an offer he may regret making!

We also booked bus tickets to Battambang for the morning – not realising we had to go back to Phnom Penh first because the Cardamom mountains are pretty inaccessible by road and it would take ages. So an epic 12 hour 2-bus journey later, we finally arrived here having been invited to attend a Cambodian wedding by one of the guys we met on the bus. It turned out that the offer wasn’t serious but little did we know we’d be gate-crashing one 14 hours later…