Friday, 14 December 2012

So long, farewell Asia. You've been great but forgive me if I don't rush back..

I don't understand why bus companies lie. If a bus journey is going to take 6 and a half hours, then say that. Don't say it's 3. We EVENTUALLY arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Capitol city where the older western men come to find their child brides. The guesthouse we'd planned to stay at was full so our tuktuk driver took us to another. After checking the room was ok (5floors up, but ok) we went to check in and pay the driver, at which point Bryony's purse was snatched from her hand at lightening speed from a speeding motorbike as she sat in the tuktuk. Thankfully it was only cash that was lost but we all made the decision that we would only go out with the cash we needed for the day and nothing of any worth.

For my last day we thought we'd do something really uplifting and headed for one of the only 'must do' things in Phnom Penh - S21 and the Killing Fields. It was as unpleasant as you'd expect - the school-come-torturous prison was weirdly cool compared to the searing city heat and the fact that it happened less than 40 years ago makes it doubly horrible. The Killing Fields were accompanied by an audio tour which, given that we usually amble round completely clueless, was very interesting. It is so peaceful that its hard to imagine the horror and the paths constantly turn up teeth, bone fragments and scraps of clothing as the ground is worn away so you watch where you walk. We unanimously agreed that we want world peace - shouldn't be too hard.

We headed back to town late afternoon ready for lunch and asked our tuktuk driver to drop us at a cafe. Over our unnecessary cakes and shakes we realised that not only did we not know where we were, we didn't know where our hotel was, what it was called, what it was near or the street name. And having taken 'nothing of worth' out with us we had no way to google and find out. Great! At least it wasn't getting dark (it was getting dark). Luckily Lauren's beady eyes and my Gold DofE managed to get us back relatively issue free. What with our late afternoon snack we weren't up for dinner and I'd agreed to pick up a watch my friend had left in a spa. Lord only knows how she happened across the spa because it was down a very dodgy side street and was a 2hour round trip tuktuk ride away...another lesson learned - even with a map and a 'yes I know where it is' never trust a driver. They have NO idea!

As I'm still not ok with people touching my feet I thought I'd get a manicure before I left. A terrible idea for several reasons including
#1 I never like the end result
#2 I had to pack and wash my hair when we got back - nail intensive activities
Sure enough my almost painfully short, pink lacquered nails did not aid departure preparations, they look awful and I feel like a Barbie. Nail varnish remover will be purchased in touch down in Oz!

And so the time came to bid farewell to my two Brenda's (who are off to Phuket as I've flown to Bangkok). They didn't disappoint and wore their jasmine pants for a travel day . Helpfully the chap at Phnom Penh airport who said he'd checked my bag all the way to Sydney didn't actually check it all the way to Sydney. So I'm sitting in Bangkok airport, in a Starbucks (standard) waiting for check in to open for my onward flight. Only 5 hours, then 3 hours on the other side. Great! It wouldn't be right if the final journey had gone smoothly for once, it's just not the way they roll here.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

I really do like to be beside the seaside!

The last few days have passed by in a haze of sun, sea, sand, strolls, seafood bbqs and shandies. Lauren and I checked into a mushroom shaped dorm on Otres beach aka the most chilled out stretch of sand I've ever seen. We headed straight to the beach (a gruelling 30second walk acoss the 'road'), ordered a shandy and before we'd even sat down we'd somehow agreed to have our legs threaded. I'm still not sure how it happened. A family of three set about removing our hairs one by one in a very public manner repeatedly ensuring us they'd be 'soft like baby's bum yes'. I'm not sure what Cambodian baby bottoms feel like but I hope it isn't how our legs ended up. It was essentially the slowest (and sometimes a bit painful) shave we've ever had, but when people stroke you in public and announce it's serious you are shamed into saying 'ok'. (They really weren't that bad, but any hair they see glistening in the sun is horrible to them and I was just relieved I hadn't been offered a chin thread too). The worst part was
Pushy lady: 'How long you been cambodiyaaaa?'
Me: 'just a couple of days'
Pushy lady: 'yes I thought so because you skin so white still *annoying tittery laugh*'
At this point I nearly fumed that I had been working on my tan for nearly 3 months...

Otres was a joy - it was sunny, there weren't too many tat sellers (the mother of the threading family did keep coming up to me and touching knees saying my skin was cool and good which was disconcerting), the sea was warm (you didn't brace yourself wading in) and contrary to it's neighbour, there were far less old-fat-white men with young Cambodian girls. (One of the guesthouses we tried when we arrived only had rooms with a girl...). Days were filled with tricky decisions like 'should we dip in the sea?' and 'how would you lie on your front in that comfortable satellite chair?' and 'is it time for another shandy?'. After a couple of days of beach life we managed to gee ourselves up to go back to serendipity to look into some island trips. We booked a boat to Koh Rong leaving the next day, some snorkeling for Lauren and a couple of dives for me.

Koh Rong is one of those idyllic little jungle islands ringed by white sandy beaches with crystal clear water. Our boat was basic, but we were fortunate enough to be on the same one as a bar owner who was bringing seat cushions over to the island - which made for a most comfortable nap. As we approached it looked lovely - everything very rustic and thatched, no cars etc and I thought how it was the first island that wasn't a disappointment after the joy of the Gilis. On closer inspection it was far more basic than the Gilis. There was no road, just the beach, the bars had electricity but everything was run from a generator that was only on from 5.30pm-10.30pm. It is still fairly untouched, there isn't a way to walk safely around it (unless you fancy a bit of jungle trekking and after hearing that 10of Cambodia's poisonous snakes were resident we passed) so there is a short stretch that has everything.
Our accommodation here was CoCo Bungalows - basic thatched 'bungalows' with no mod cons, open to the elements (walls and ceilings have no need to meet) and as we soon found out, a few added extras. Before I'd even put my bag down Lauren and I had 3 children and a cat. The three little girls were overjoyed to be presented with skittles and a snapping watch and soon we had 6 children all sitting on the porch sharing out the small bag of candy.

We went to see what the island had to offer, had a lovely seafood BBQ and returned at leisure to our residence. The 'bathroom' was along a 'path' (the sort of uneven paving that Accident Direct would love) about 100m from the bungalow. I use the term 'bathroom' in the loosest sense - there was one bare bulb outside, rendering the inside almost completely dark which added to the damp feeling (as did the giant snails and mushrooms growing on the wooden walls). The toilets were a pour-water-in-and-flush-yourself type (there was a frog in the bucket) and outside by the bulb and the sinks (with suspiciously coloured water) were a family of arachnids the size of hands. Needless to say it was not a calming pre bed routine. We stumbled back to the room and opening the door I saw four separate rats scuttle in different directions. Four. The room was a bit like a giant hamster play pen with beams and poles everywhere, but rats clackiting along a pole at dado height right by your bed is not what you need! And obviously the cat was nowhere to be seen. We both got into one bed for safety and slept in the very centre being sure not to touch the mosquito net on any side. Once we'd been brave enough to turn the light off it wasn't long before the sound of something falling over made us jump. The head torch was on in a flash and we scanned the room...the Julie packet (some wafers we'd had as snacks on the boat down to sihanoukville) was on the floor and there was a rat in the bin. We used a broom to move the bin outside and attempted to go to sleep. Our night was interrupted by all sorts of miniature scampering and fighting squeaks - I woke up at one point to find Lauren with the headtorch watching two noses poking out of the corner. Our mosquito net protection seemed worryingly thin (and trapped a mosquito which was juicy by the time we found it in the morning). Morning came round soon enough!

As we walked along the jetty we saw a little boy who had just caught a little fish. As we we drew the breath to saw 'awww' he swung the line behind him, over his head an smashed the fish on the floor (imagine an overarm throw). An anti-awww moment. We were a little speechless. Our day on the boat was good fun, but a second waterproof camera proved itself not to be waterproof and I have been spoiled by learning to dive in Indonesia as despite our dive master guide saying how amazing the dive had been, it was very average.
When we were back on the island we decided to go and watch the sunset from the beautiful briny sea - it took much longer than expected, but we waited for darkness to fall so we could see the phosphorescent bacteria. It was very cool and we had lots of fun larking about (until realising it was actually quite chilly out of the water).
The evening passed by in much the same way as the others and although we could hear the rats, we didn't actually see any which sort of made us feel better. Until the morning when one of our rodent friends was brazenly sitting on the wooden surround of the bed. You can imagine how shrill I was.

So we checked out of Casa del Rat and set sail for the mainland (sadly minus the comfy cushions). We'd booked to stay in another shack style dorm in Otres (there isn't much choice) as Bryony was joining us again. Sadly she'd eaten a bad shrimp and was unable to move anywhere with a shared bathroom so came to meet us the day after instead, and 2 became 3 once more. Our last couple of days were spent much like the first, with sunset swims out to fishing boats (which with a bit of team work you could ungracefully fall into and jump off again).

With my Asian journey coming to a close we reluctantly booked a bus to take us back up to Phnom Penh. We spent our last morning on the beach and as we went in to change the heavens opened. Our cue to leave! One wet and bumpy tuktuk ride later we were deposited at the bus station. Everyone loves a bus journey. Yawn.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Hello Cambodia! Angkor What Now?

I take back anything negative I said about SE Asia... Cambodia is amazing (currently judging on one town). We flew to Siem Reap for our first stop, beautiful airport, getting visa and bag back was a breeze and the friendly tuktuk drivers didn't pounce, but were there ready to take us to town for exactly the price mentioned in the book. I mean it is hotter than anywhere else on earth with no breeze and a million mozzies, but it's pretty, it's sunny and the people are, dare I say so early on, really nice!

After checking in at a very cheap guest house (no a/c = steamy old night) we went exploring the delightful town of Siem Reap with its bustling night markets that actually have nice things in (don't get me wrong, there is still endless tat and the 'you buy something laydeeeeee' is still ever there) but it was just nicer.

Having decided a sunrise is a sunrise and our cameras are all so average that googling photos would show it in a far better light we opted to go to the Temples of Angkor for the more sociable time of around 9am. We had planned to cycle there and around as the roads are flat but Siem Reap is the hottest and stickiest place in the world and we were beading before we'd even left the guesthouse so we opted for tuktuk, which in hindsight was a most excellent decision. Our driver, Sinat, was very sweet - clueless on any facts - but very sweet and took us on a great route. There's a lot of walking/climbing around at Angkor and it did not take long before our clothes were stuck to us as we melted in the entirely still air.
Now, we all know I'm not a temple person, but Angkor Wat is one of those you-can't-go-to-Cambodia-and-not-see-it things that we felt we had to do and I can see why. It really is something, especially when you think about how on earth they built these things all those years ago. Although saying that as we were driving there was a
'I think that's Angkor Wat'
'No, it's not impressive enough to be Angkor Wat'
'Yeah, mist be one of the smaller ones'
exchange. It did turn out to be Angkor Wat and while it was very large, we preferred the other ones. They are very well kept and you can explore every nook and cranny.

We spent the day navigating the ruins in the sweltering heat and although it we really enjoyed it, one day was definitely enough...I can't think what you'd do with a week long pass.

With Bryony's boyfriend flying in for a few days 3 shortly became 2. We waved Bryony onto her bus, explored a bit more in the morning and by lunchtime a river of sweat was starting to gush down our backs. The only thing for it was to find a pool and not leave it until the sun had gone down. And what a pool we found! Nestled on top of a plush Hotel for a mere $5 we got a free drink and the afternoon around a gloriously cool pool. It was another 'backpacking is tough' moment as the barman came round to offer us a 'fruit skewer?'. Bliss.

That evening, after a Cambodian BBQ (what you need in the heat is an additional heat source on the table with which to cook your own meat - I tried kangaroo!), we decided to see what the nightlife had to offer. We headed to the aptly named 'Pub Street'. Hideous, grubby, drunk tourists was the answer. Angkor What? Was more Angkor What on earth are you thinking? Obviously we joined in but it was very much a laugh at not laugh with kind of a night. I mean some of these people were horrendous. We ended up being Gretta and Heidi from Bulgaria just in case we ever bumped into anyone again.

So with another culture tick in the box we decided to head down for some beach time at Sihanoukville the following day keeping all our fingers crossed Cambodian transport was a step up from their neighbour's efforts.

In hindsight staying out until 3am the morning before a 6am bus pick up was foolish. We weren't foolish enough to drink heavily but the 5.45am alarm roused us from the very depth of slumber. Also in hindsight trying new things and cooking our own food was a risky little game before a 6hour boat trip but thankfully this didn't have any repercussions. So our lovely guest house owners helped us into a tuktuk with some French toast for the journey. The ride to the 'port' was very bumpy and we arrived a choice shade of orange clutching our lovingly made breakfasts. We boarded our vessel, found two seats and after devouring the lovingly made breakfast attempted to sleep. Unsuccessfully. I had seen some legs disappear up onto the roof where the bags were and we went to investigate. There was a couple up there . Given that the majority of our co-passengers were on some sort of German saga holiday it was pretty much only us and another young couple agile enough to climb up. I can only imagine what this couple thought as we clambered up ungracefully, crawled along on our hands and knees and proceeded to fall deeply, deeply asleep, starfished on the roof. Aside from nipping down for a mid morning snack this is how our journey was spent. The bits we were awake for were very scenic and we passed all sorts of floating fishing villages.

We eventually got to Phnom Pehn and booking an onwards bus to Sihanoukville was remarkably easy and we only had to wait an hour for a bus. Someone once told me to pack a fleece for Asian buses because the temperature is akin to a Siberian winter. I would love to know where this happens because every bus I have been on has been trying to cook me. A combination of the driver moving at a glacial pace, a number of unscheduled repair stops (who doesn't love a bus that breaks down every 20minites) and Cambodian roads meant our 3 hour bus journey took over 8. 18+ hours to travel 200odd miles. I could have flown back to London quicker! This journey also included one of the most terrifying loo stops of my life (not even my mighty bladder can last 18hours) so I made Lauren stand guard as I fended off flying beasties, crawling beasties, jumping beasties and biting beasties over a squat toilet. Ugh. When we eventually arrived we drove around in a tuktuk and after an hour or so eventually found somewhere that wasn't full. It was next to the local club, but it had a bed for us, which given that we had done nothing but sit and nap (and watch House) all day, we were surprisingly pleased to see!

Oh, and one night we had 3 scoops of ice cream. With no regrets.