A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

Yikes... this is it... we're on our own!

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We originally planned to take a sleeper train from Bangkok to Chumphon and then onwards to Koh Tao by ferry, but Dan & Gemma were heading down to Hua Hin by private minibus with Gemma's family who'd arrived for a short break, and they offered us a ride down with them. The 3.5 hour trip cost me and Ant a bargainous £17 between us!

Hua Hin was quite laid back, it's a golf and beach resort and is where the King of Thailand lives. Out to sea you can see four battleships strategically placed to guard the royal palace.

Our main priority after getting accommodation was to book our onward bus/ferry combo ticket to Koh Tao. Once done we rewarded ourselves with a beer in a quiet bar (we were the only customers) and enjoyed a chat, until a big Aussie guy walked in, shook our hands, asked if he could join us - sitting down before we even had time to answer. He introduced himself as Graham 'Pepe' Lopez. He reminded me of a less attractive Oliver Reed, and it turned out he had an equal love of the booze. He preceeded to tell us in great detail about his recent dental work and the fact he has a problem with drink... I thought the afternoon was going to be hard work...

However, after a couple of beers, Pepe Lopez (56) was quite interesting company. He was a terrible listener and loved to talk, so we pretty much had his life story (and full molar history), but once we moved on to talk about his home country, he gave us loads of useful tips and information. He'd just left Pattaya (sex tourist capital of Thailand, but not a detail he imparted) to get his teeth fixed, and although he gave up "the grog" in 2008, he'd fallen off the wagon and had partied hard there. His bar bill after one week was apparently 58,000 baht (just over a grand!). He shouted us 2 beers without any hesitation and epitomised the term 'bar fly' as he only had a couple himself before leaving us to it.

After a great pizza (recommended by Pepe) we headed back to our hotel. During the night there was a most almighty storm with ridiculously heavy rain - we're just coming into a changeover of monsoon seasons for this region so the weather is unpredictable.

Thankfully the next morning was clear and we caught our bus to Chumphon. We sat next to a really nice older Kiwi couple off to Koh Samui and spent several hours chatting about all sorts. They gave us their email as her sister lives in Sydney, with an offer to give us lots of pointers for our New Year's Eve stay there, and for New Zealand. It's really encouraging, so early into our adventure on our own, how easy it is to strike up conversation with friendly/interesting people.

Posted by Galavantie 09:52 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Summary of Indochina Encompassed tour (G Adventures)

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What can I say... the tour has been incredible. We've loved (almost) every minute. We've seen and done so much, and experienced such a variety of landscapes, activities and cultures, it really has been fab.

We also had a brilliant bunch of people along for the ride. We were so lucky everyone got on so well and were such an easy-going group, it made the trip so enjoyable. We'll miss everyone and there were lots of tears on the last morning as all departed (well, from the girls anyway!).

The below is a short extract from an email Rod sent to the group after the tour... think his words do a pretty good job of summing up how lucky we were to have such a great crowd...

"I owe it to you guys, you who made our adventure so nice, easy to lead, as I result, my days off will be great, I just kept thinking about the wonderful people I have met and talked about you to my friends already.

I have to say that you guys were one of the very very few groups that I will always remember forever and with no doubt, maybe you become the best group this year and why not?, in SE Asia since I have been leading trips here. I have been leading trips for almost 4 years here and not many like this group, all of you assembled together so nicely from the very beginning until the very last minute of the trip despite of many things like nationalities, ages gap, languages and so on."

Summary
Our favourite country was Laos. The people were so warm and friendly, and the country was the most beautiful. Vietnamese food was great, but only in the north and central areas (we maybe just got unlucky in the south). Cambodia was very suprisingly the most expensive, but possibly down to everything being in US dollars.

Favourite places were Luang Prabang (Laos), Hoi An, Halong Bay (Vietnam), Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Chiang Mai (Thailand) - probably in that order. Taking everything into account, Vietnam was our least favourite country even though we had some brilliant individual experiences there; the places already mentioned, whizzing around on motorbikes in Hue and visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. The people seemed quite rude, the food was hit and miss, the general landscape was a bit uninspiring and crossing the road in the cities wears you down! We both feel that we've 'done' Vietnam, well... certainly seen the highlights, and that we're unlikely to return. But I would definitely go back to Laos.

Phnom Penh was the biggest let down and had a depressing air about it, but Cambodia meant so much to me, something which probably came through strongly if you read the Killing Fields entry. The people here were also very friendly and service was always with a smile. And Angkor Wat at sunrise was amazing - a really special moment. Exploring Tomb Raider was also great, seeing how the trees have just become one with the ancient temples.

I can't recommend G Adventures enough. Our guide, Rod, was simply wonderful. Such a character and someone who made the trip effortless for us - everything ran with no hitches and he's a brilliant people person. It definitely wouldn't have been the same without him.

People in the group who'd done other tours at the 'standard/basic' level also said they couldn't believe what the 'comfort' level got you - our hotels in the main were excellent and many of the extra excursions were included.

Thanks Rod and to everyone on the trip who made it the truly fantastic experience it was.

xxx

Posted by Galavantie 09:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

One (more) night in Bangkok

We had a crazy long day travelling through Cambodia and Thailand to Bangkok - a total of 9 hours on the minibus. Unfortunately, as a result, our last night with the guys was a lot more subdued than we would have all liked.

After dinner, most of the group wanted to go to a ping pong show, we weren't fussed as I saw one years back in Amsterdam and Ant wasn't bothered. Rod had also warned the group that they try and scam you to pay money for each 'show' even though they entice you in first by giving an upfront price which includes a free drink. Those of us who didn't go wandered around a crappy night market for a bit before meeting up with everyone again for a ladyboy show.

Turns out the ping pong show was pretty gross... and most didn't enjoy it. One woman was in her 60's apparently! The staff turned aggressive when they tried to leave and pay the amount originally quoted, and one woman was screaming at them. Really relieved we didn't go! Yup, Bangkok isn't growing us... we flippin' hate the place.

The ladyboy show was in the gay area and was very amateurish. I was expecting not to be able to tell they were ladyboys, but it was effectively a drag act. Some of them had had breasts implanted but they all had big necks and hands so they weren't fooling anyone! Funny to see anyway.

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After a final drink in town we had teary goodnights at the hotel with the crazy Germans (Verena & Christine), who were leaving early am for Koh Phi Phi, and Danny who was heading to the airport for his early flight back to Toronto.

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Felt sad the tour had come to an end and we were both a little apprehensive about setting off on our own, having had the hassle of travelling taken care of for the last month. But we're also looking forward to more freedom and flexibility, and staying in one place for longer periods of time. And so many amazing places yet to see!

Posted by Galavantie 09:43 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Sunrise at Angkor Wat (amazeballs)

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The second day was an early start (although almost not early enough), to experience a sunrise over Angkor Wat. It was truly beautiful and we were lucky to have the right conditions for a stunning sunrise. Our local guide was at the hotel to pick us up at 5.30am and we only just made it to a good vantage point in time, so we were all a bit annoyed with him for suggesting the time he did. You don't travel thousands of miles to miss an opportunity like this for the sake of 15-30 minutes! Turns out Rod said he was the worst guide he's ever had, and we all thought he was pretty rubbish too - he had a habit of saying the same information but in different ways and was hard to understand his constructed sentences. We gave up listening to him in the end and wandered around at our leisure.

As a result, I can't tell you much about the history or temples, other than Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century and is one of the modern day 7 wonders of the world, so you'll just have to enjoy the pics instead...

Sorry there's several sunrise shots of exactly the same view, but the light was changing all the time, and they're all beautiful :)

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Wandering around the temple after...

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We created own our entertainment due to poor guide... ha ha

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Siem Reap was our last stop on the tour before our final journey back to our start point, Bangkok. We all clubbed together for some gifts and tip for our tour guide, Rod, who's looked after us so well for the entire month. He's such a great character.

For our last day, we surprised him by coming down to the bus with matching t-shirts bought from the market the night before (same same but different - a common phrase you hear over here and the t-shirts are everywhere). He pulled a sad face thinking he was left out, until we presented him with his own purple one!

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A fab group of people!

Posted by Galavantie 07:24 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap - Angkor Thom & Tomb Raider

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Another longer stop - we had 3 nights here. Having arrived mid afternoon, we had the chance to chill by the pool for a few hours. The boys lined up their bottles of beer on the shady side whilst the girls gravitated to the other side to soak up the sun. We whiled away the whole afternoon sat on the edge of the pool chatting, sharing stories and drinking cocktails and bubbles - bliss!

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View from our balcony

Siem Reap caters well for its 2 million tourists every year and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants... with one road aptly named Pub Street in big red neon letters. A little tacky, but once inside the restaurants they're of a good standard with nice food.

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It's also got the largest night market in SE Asia. We were happy to see some good quality stalls amongst the tourist tat, and treated ourselves to a hand carved Buddha head which took 3-4 days to make (apparently). It is rather beautiful. It was also a good place for a fish pedicure... a first for all of us! The boys felt a bit more manly as it came with a free beer...

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But, of course, Siem Reap is all about one thing - the temples of Angkor with Angkor Wat the daddy. We spent one day visiting three temples of Angkor Thom; Bayon, Baphuon and Phimeanakas, followed by an exploration of the famous Tomb Raider temple. As we were visiting the latter, a distant storm rumbled providing some theatre to the already dramatic location. Just as we had finished Tomb Raider it provided some rain too, so we called it a day.

Lots of photos of Tomb Raider as it was so evocative... but first up, the temples of Angkor Thom...

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Atmospheric Tomb Raider... really cool

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Posted by Galavantie 06:26 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

The other side to Phnom Penh

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We had a free afternoon in the city so a few of us visited the Grand Palace. Am starting to feel a bit templed out now but I still appreciated its beauty, immaculate gardens and the fact that it was so much quieter than its counterpart in Bangkok.

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The city's promenade by the Mekong River

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We also stopped by the FCC - Foreign Correspondent's Club - for a beer. It's longed been famed for a hangout for expats and was the sanctuary of journos who filed their breaking news reports during Pol Pot's bloody regime. Great place, very colonnial.

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I wanted to like Phnom Penh more than I did. In reality, it's a poor capital of a poverty stricken country. There was a market close to our hotel which we walked through a couple of times, and at night it was a particularly unpleasant experience. The smell of fish and meat kept out in the open for too long, combined with a strong smell of urine, was putrid. We could hear rats everywhere rustling and 'eeeeeking', I had to cover my nose but started to gag several times as we were walking through. It may sound prissy of me, but the smell was really that bad.

We were warned of recent bag snatching and encountered several children begging. I also noticed a number of uniformed men, whether police or military, smattered around the city. For some reason their presence made me more uneasy than comforting, so all in all we were happy to move on.

The road to Siem Reap was long! The bone crunching 6.5 hour journey was often on no more than dusty pot-holed dirt tracks. They were definitely the worse state of repair roads we've encountered so far, as my spine knows only too well. I attempted to write some blog entries and an email to a friend, but every 4th letter was wrong as I was jolted into the air every few seconds!

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We passed endless flooded plains, roadside homes and shacks and verdant paddy fields. At times the bright green fields dotted with palm trees was how I expected Vietnam to look like, but that wasn't anywhere near as lush.

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One loo stop gave Ant the opportunity to play with this... wtf?! I've got a great video clip of this, just need to get my youtube account linked up to the blog...

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But we eventually made it, and our last stop before we return to Bangkok and Ant & I head out on our own. Since Vietnam the time has absolutely whizzed!

Posted by Galavantie 06:03 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Phnom Penh & the Killing Fields

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Firstly, I make no apologies that this is a long blog. There's much I want to convey about the appalling history of Cambodia and the slaughtering of its people. It also doesn't make for an easy read...

As we crossed the border and into Cambodia, the landscape soon changed to that of lush green paddy fields dotted with tethered bony cows. It was considerably less built up than Vietnam - life looks much more simple and rural.

The road to PP was as straight as a dart for mile upon mile, with very little traffic. At frequent intervals along the road, we passed countless political party billboards (Cambodia People's Party - the current government, Cambodia National Rescue Party, Funcinpec Party and numerous others I couldn't make out from the bus), which given its unforgivable past, made me wonder just how stable this country currently is.

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Bus views as we start to get closer to Phnom Penh

Sure enough, as we were driving through the city, Rod spoke about the political troubles and unrest with its people towards their thoroughly corrupt government. He warned that the country could be on the brink of a civil war at any time and we should be prepared to leave the city quickly if told to do so. Highly unlikely given our very short stay, but it did make me feel a little uneasy nevertheless.

The current government have been in power since 1979. The results of the general elections last summer were broadcast live on TV. It looked as though the opposition party, Funcinpec, were going to win, much to the delight of the population - finally the chance for some changes. Then the TV coverage went down, only for hours later a public announcement to be made that the existing party were victorious. Unsurprisingly, there have been cries for an independent investigation and public demonstrations ever since.

After a quick orientation walk through the market (less sanitised of all the food markets we've seen so far) to the river front (complete with park benches sponsored by Prudential!), we had a group cyclo tour. We had a quick photo stop at Wat Phnom before the wind suddenly whipped up and the heavens opened. We got a drenching which was both uncomfortable and amusing in equal measures... the tour was cut short to get us all back to the comfort of the hotel.

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We only had 2 nights here and the main reason was to visit Toul Sleng Prison (also known as S21) and the Killing Fields.

Our guide was excellent and gave us so much information on the history and the current political state of his country. Sadly, he lost three older brothers and his mother and aunt were raped during Pol Pot's reign.

Quick history of Pol Pot's and the Khmer Rouge regime -1975-1979
Cambodia was deeply affected by the Vietnam War. Once the Americans found the Viet Cong Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran down the Vietnam/Cambodia border, they bombed vast areas and many innocent Cambodians were killed. This, coupled with an equally corrupt Lon Nol government heavily supported by the US, lead to many Cambodians to support the Khmer Rouge. When they overturned the government in April 1975, there were celebrations and rejoicing on the streets of Phnom Penh, in anticipation of liberation and a new start.

Literally hours later the Khmer Rouge soldiers drove through the city forcing its inhabitants to leave. They told people they only had to leave for 3 days as the Americans were going to bomb the city. People were evacuated with few possessions and mostly on foot for mile after mile in burning heat.

Three years, 8 months and 20 days later the regime ended. In that entire time, no-one was allowed to return to the city, their people deceived from the off. Pol Pot's (abbreviation of Political Potential) aim was to create a utopia of simple, rural folk and to rid the country of any western or city influences. To achieve this 'vision', the genocide of Cambodians took place during his almost 4 year reign of terror.

People were enslaved to work up to 20 hours a day in the fields. Thousands died of starvation or disease even before the mass murders took place. Anyone with an education and white collar job were considered a threat and were to be disposed of.

S21
After the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, they set about adapting a school into a secret prison, for the purpose of torturing 'VIP' prisoners (lawyers, civil servants, doctors etc) and commoners. Of the 17,000 who were imprisoned here, all but seven died from the brutality. Of those survivors, two still live today. Incredulously, they are both present each day in the prison grounds having both written books on their ordeal, and are there to sign copies. It was so humbling to see a man (known as Chum Mey), now aged 73, who was once kept chained in a tiny cell and made to clean up his own defecation with his tongue because his body was too weak to use the box provided for waste. We bought his book, 'Survivor', which will undoubtedly be a difficult read.

The Khmer Rouge made detailed records of the prisoners and after the regime had ended, hundreds of photographs were found of point of entry and of death for each prisoner, as macabre before and after shots. These are on display throughout what was once the cells of the prison, and made for grim viewing.

It's unspeakable just how gruesome the prison torture and the treatment was to its captives, it was a very upsetting and chilling visit.

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The buildings have changed very little externally since they were in use - there were 196 places like Tuol Sleng across the country

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Cells just like Chum Mey had, and the man himself

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Cell numbers etched into the wall by the guards

Choeng Ek - The Killing Fields
We were then taken to one of the Killing Fields located 15 minutes out of the city. At its peak up to 300 people would arrive here each night, transported by trucks for their imminent fate.

The site consisted of many mass graves, once filled with decapitated bodies because the Khmer Rouge believed a soul cannot reincarnate if there is no head. We also saw a memorial building housing 9,000 skulls excavated from the area, categorised by age and gender.

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Bracelets left around the mass graves by visitors in remembrance

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Memorial housing some of the skulls found

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The sign says it all... they went to great lengths to ensure their operation went undetected

The most disturbing of all was a grave next to a tree. When excavated in 1980, it was found full of naked women and children. The Khmer Rouge used the tree to smash the skulls of babies, whilst unblindfolding the women so they could watch. Words cannot describe. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn't stop the tears for the pain and suffering of these poor people. It's so incredibly hard to believe what humans are capable of doing to each other.

Only 5 Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged for their part in the atrocities, and four of those are STILL on trial. One who has been sentenced to life has had a $1 million purpose built cell made, whilst the average Cambodian earns just $1.25 a day. Even today, the government instils fear into the populous by saying if they don't vote for them, the Khmer Rouge will return.

This poor, poor nation. There appears to be no justice whatsoever.

Posted by Galavantie 05:18 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Mekong Delta

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On our last day in HCMC we went to the Mekong Delta, just a couple of hours on the bus from the city. Along the way we spotted tonnes of gravestones/tombs in the middle of rice paddies. Seemed like a slightly odd place to bury the dead, around your main food supply...

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We boarded a small boat which took us to several drop off points, including Unicorn Island in the middle of the river. Although you couldn't help the feeling of being 'farmed' as tourists (take tourists to stop A... sing to tourists... put box in front of tourists for tips... take tourists to stop B... show tourists what they make with coconut... sell coconut candy to tourists), I am being a tad glib as the stops were all quite interesting.

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Blimey, there's gert big watercress around here...

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Cocoa seeds - they tasted pretty nice, but fruity not like chocolate!

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Front room of typical island dwelling

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Rod photobombing

We did have to listen to a pretty dire musical arrangement. They have no other forms of entertainment so they play their often handmade instruments in the evenings. You'd have thought that with all the practice they'd be a little more tuneful!

Produce is plentiful and the locals are incredibly resourceful with coconuts, using every part... they sell the stringy bits to China to make carpets, the hard outer shell to make a variety of wooden objects - from chopsticks to handbags... and of course the flesh and milk is used in cooking or to make rice paper and candy (which was delicious freshly warm).

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The highlight was a very pleasant boat ride through narrow natural canals lined with mangroves and palm trees, before heading to a smart riverside restaurant for lunch. No-one was tempted by the local speciality, Elephant fish, but Danny did pluck up the courage to try a couple of fat writhing widgety grubs which were panfried live with garlic butter. Mmmm mmmm!

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Christine attempting to photo bomb!

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Elephant fish... must have been at the back of the fish queue whilst waiting to be bestowed their looks. I suppose it's eternally grateful the trunk fitter was off that day.

On our return to the mainland, Ant & I appeared to be given special treatment when the guide said she'd take our photos at the front of the boat and that we could stay there, sipping our coconut juice. Seeing as we both like nothing better than to be on a boat, we were pretty chuffed (deliberate word selection for you Diane, my dear cousin in America!).

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Back in the city, we headed off to the GPO for both a practical purpose and to sightsee. We wanted to ship back our lovely lanterns from Hoi An and a few other souveniers, and to visit because it's a beautiful building. The interior was impressive (for a Post Office anyway), its creator was none other than the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower.

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Although looking back I see our photos compliment the city, we were somewhat relieved that it was time to move on from Saigon and enter Cambodia.

Posted by Galavantie 17:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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