Sunday 30 December 2012

Kep and Rabbit Island

Our final stop in Cambodia was the seaside town of Kep. Famous for night time seafood restaurants and ruined French villas. We got to enjoy both of these aspects during our time here and also a lovely day trip out to the small Rabbit Island.

After an expensive taxi ride from Phnom Penh we ended up arriving at our accommodations which showed a lovely garden retreat. Our expectations were not that high but we found a half finished lacking of garden hotel. Since our rooms were not ready we dropped bags and got the bikes and headed out to explore. Despite the heat its extremely refreshing to bike in Cambodia until you slow down and the breeze stops. Didn't really have too much time before the sun set, which we enjoyed dining on local fishy cuisine from the lovely night markets filled with both tourists and locals. On our ride back we started to look for new accommodations but didn't find anything. Rather than ranting here please read my review on Tripadvisor, but we ended up leaving and staying our time at the more expensive Vine Retreat. This place was amazing and in the middle of Kep National Park. Would recommend.

The next day we organised to go out to Rabbit Island. There are a number of companies in town that offer tours but we just paid for the boat which is the cheapest option as you can hire everything else out there anyway if you wanted. Wouldn't recommend swimming though as, as with the rest of SE Asia the water is not the best. There is a track around the island that is fascinating in that every cove is amazingly different. Our first stop was perfect postcard tropical paradise with white sands. Watched the locals fishing before heading on. The next cove was polluted, dark, and abandoned apart from a lone dog. The next was full of drift wood and broken tree parts. And the remainder involves a bit of bush bashing your way through things but is worth while as you end up back at the main beach.We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon in hammocks with food and cool drinks before getting a slightly earlier boat back due to a very obvious incoming storm.

Once back on the main land we enjoyed a significant water blasting which was very refreshing and cleaned the place up a bit. After having a final explore of the fairly abandoned town (used to be the premier location for French snobs to visit back in the day and has since decayed to its present state), we headed back out to enjoy the best salad with banana flowers and other unknowns, at Vine Retreat. Seriously the food alone is a reason to head here.

The next day it was off to Vietnam...

Friday 28 December 2012

Phnom Penh and the Killing Zone

We arrived to Phnom Penh after what can only be described as the worst/best bus journey of my life. We got the "express" bus from Siem Reap shaving 3 hrs journey time, although it still took 7.5 hrs in total. During this we had Cambodians even scared with the manic swerving by the driver to avoid water buffalo, a baby vomiting on my foot (the worlds worst feeling), having to clean said foot in the toilet/sauna next to drunk Aussies, going 10 km/hr on gravel roads for 2 hrs during which time the air con decided to die (this was made worse because the baby vomit had not been cleaned up at all - although we had moved seats), and the bus kept overheating/stopping making the overall time longer than the paid for 6 hrs. Something to tell the kids about one day...

Anyway we arrived in Phnom Penh, and straight away ran into haggling difficulties which is what we will predomiantly remember this city for. The tuk tuk drivers are terrible demanding insane prices and then changing their minds. Our first and only stop here was the goal where thousands of people were tortured to death for no real reason during the Khmer Rogue era. The experience in this place was similiar to that of Auschwitz in Poland, although not as peaceful. It was very easy to imagine the horrors that went on here with well documented photos and most of the torture chambers intact, complete with bullet holes puncturing the walls.

We eventually got to where we were staying the night, and settled in for fun with our host. This part was great. We even managed to secure a private taxi for the next day to take us to Kep and stopping along the route to the Killing Fields. Oh so we thought. Next morning they showed up, changed the price by quite a bit. So we sent them packing. After 2 hours of calling around other places we evnetually found a new driver after giving up hope of getting something decently priced. I would not really recommend this option, except that buses south depart early in the morning and there is no other way to get to the Killing Fields (even by tuk tuk, it is at least $18USD return trip from the city) on route.

The Killing Fields were as depressing as expected. Even though we were prepared for seeing the bits of bone and clothing sticking out from the ground, to know that you are walking on the reamins of someone that was horrendously murdered was quite traumatic. For me the worst part was seeing the baby tree. Here mothers were forced to watch as their babies were repeatedly swung onto the tree trunk until dead and thrown in a pit, after which the mothers were usually decapitated. Absolutely horrific.

From the Killing Fields, we headed further south to our next and final destination of Cambodia: Kep.

Monday 24 December 2012

Temples Galore in Siem Reap

After several different buses from our homestay in Isan, we ended up crossing the border in Cambodia. If you get a bus to the Aranhaprathet border crossing rather than training from Bangkok, the bus drops you off right there. In amongst the throngs of tourists, is an even more impressive large market, with hundreds of stalls. Point to note, change your money here as over the border the exchange rates are really bad. Getting through the border crossing surprising didn't take too long on the Thailand side of things, however, entering Cambodia was long, hot, and even longer. If you do have the spare cash the "rip off artists" as we thought with the VIP line, is actually a real thing and if you pay the stupid price (that is 300% cheaper for locals) you can cut the immigration line.

Once you get through that madness you are further ripped off to get to Siem Reap. We found another couple to share a taxi with for and extra $3 USD per person and shaved off an hour of travel. Checked into our guesthouse for the night and found a nice local restaurant to eat at.

Us with Angkor Thom main temple

The next day we checked out and headed off for our first day of adventures exploring the wonders of the Khmer period in Asia. We started off with the main areas of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complexes that everyone visits when they come here, and are therefore quite crowded. The lesser well known sections of Angkor Thom we found to be most interseting, like the Baphuon with its massive reclining Buddha made from stone, or the leppers or elephants wall that are part of the procession leading to the main temple of Angkor Thom. After all this we headed out to stay at a smaller village bordering Siem Reap, where we taught an English lesson at the school of our host. After that we got to experience what life is really like for Cambodians. Our night was capped off falling asleep listening to roosters, dogs barking and fireflys dancing around the open air room.

Reclining Buddha

Ta Prhom or the hidden or tomb raiders temple was amazing, with the trees overgrowing the ruins. But this was actually overshawdowed the next day when we went to the lesser known Beng Mealea. This temple is quite far from Siem Reap, but the hour tuk tuk ride though the countryside on the way is actually just as interesting. Real Camobida village life was fantastic. At Beng Mealea, we were met only with Asian origin tourists and as this place is not as visited you are able to crawl and touch absolutely over everything. This temple complex is also in extreme disrepair but that actually adds to its charm. This is a much do place.

Crumbling Beng Mealea

Our final day in Siem Reap, we explored the lessen known surrouding temples. The good thing with this is that you can relax as there is barely anyone around and you can stroll through these places enjoying the scenery and taking shade as needed. Had a enjoyable last night in Siem Reap before the horror of our trek to Phnom Penh began.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Homestay in Isan Province

We were extremely lucky to stay with a lovely lady in the tiny village of Ban Hoatumnop through the brilliance that is couchsurfing

This was the best experience of our time in Thailand. We got to experience and enjoy Thai village life, in a small village in the province of Isan which is in North East Thailand. This area of Thailand is known for having a significant Laotian influence due to its proximity to the country both in language and food influences.  One of the first things we got to do was attend a Buddha Day Ceremony or Uposatha, which only occur on specific days each month in relation to moon cycles and is complexly calculated in advance. This involved us walking down to the local temple with some food offerings. A ceremony was held and we did out best to respect the local Buddhist traditions of what to do during the ceremony.

Local monks at temple
It was very interesting to see and be part of this special day.We also walked to a nearby village where one of the locals runs a little restaurant out of their house and enjoyed some very tasty noodles. As we walked along we got to learn about the governments involved with helping to provide regular water for irrigation and drinking in the area and also seeing local gardens, and how everyone grows what they need trading predominantly amongst each other.

Us getting a lift on a pick up truck to the local farmers market
In addition to this, if you cannot grow or trade for what you need, every week (which was luckily during our stay) you can go to the local market. We piled onto the back of a truck with many locals from Ban Hoatumnop, which was an enjoyable experience in itself. This local farmers market was a great way to see many different types of food, which was lovely to sample, as well as the local produce. It is amazing the differences in the vegetables and food that was the best presented at this market.
Trying to help out making flower blessings
Sampling of some of the farmers market.

In amongst exploring and doing things in the local area, we also learnt and tasted a lot of fantastic local traditions. Talked to local elders, heard the government announcements proclaimed over speaker phone to the entire village, met some animals, got to know our hosts family, and ate as much as we could of the best food we had in Thailand. We were very sorry to say good bye to our host, who had given us so much in friendship and experiences as we moved onto the next country of our SE epic adventure. We got up early to get multiple buses from near Phimai to Cambodia. See this country link for the continuation of this journey.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Ayutthaya and Phimai


Most people will be familiar with the name Ayutthaya, as it is a UNESCO heritage site that is easily done as a day trip from Bangkok. Some of the more amazing places are only able to be done by boat around the island, and obvously going to the historical park to see the famous palace/temples is a must do (and we focused on).

Apart from the amazing temple and palace complex, that were built during the Ayutthaya Siam Reign in Thailand, there is not much else happening for this city. There are bigger night markets elsewhere, and must more interesting places to look at. The novelty of being on an island though its nice, and if you avoid the main part of the pub/tourist street it can be quite nice.

We also were happy we saved our Thai massage experience to be outside of Bangkok, as the prices dropped by about half. There are quite a few options in town, and we enjoyed the one we selected (at the start of pub street). Definitely go for the hour if you can spare it as its a wonderful experience.


Phimai Historical Park
It is a shame and blessing that more people dont know about Phimai. I originally stumbled across Phimai when I was looking for something that was kinda on route to Laos, yet easily able to get to Cambodia within a day.

On the train to Nakon Ratchasima (from here you take a bus to Phimai), we met the only other European descent tourists we saw in this city, and it was really nice to go somewhere that was overrun with local tourists (as we were leaving mass Thai tour groups and school kids arrived). We were extremely lucky and while we were there, we managed to almost have the whole place to ourselves (6 others in total for the first 2 hours). The ruins at Phimai are quite amazing and extremely old. Originally settled during the Khmer period (the famous Angkor Wat people) it is one of the oldest scared sites in the Isan area. It has been rebuilt throughout the ages, but the overall structure is more in line with Angkor Wat, than Ayutthaya or Thai styles. The place is very well cared for, and it was lovely to see the local people maintaining it using exactly the same tools (in type) that were used to construct this place (see the museum in the site for what I mean).

A little bit of the tree
The town encloses on the historical park, and has a few other tricks up its sleeve, such as the very good night market, and the fact that its quite small so you can walk most places. We did venture out of Phimai to see the amazing Sai Ngam Banyan tree. This tree is one massive tree, and has definitely got the feel of being alive and lurking everywhere. Everything that you see, is all sprouted from the one acicent tree. The locals consider a very scared place, and there is even a temple woven into the trunks. We loved the cool feeling you enjoy under the canopy and you are able to get your lunch delivered from the local shops across the road. We easily got a ride back with hitch hiking (although we got a moto out there), and after that we headed to our home stay in the region.

Monday 17 December 2012


Bangkok from the longboat
Bangkok was quite the shock. When we arrived, we were greeted by a clean, modern city. Which is in stark contrast to the way in which Thailand is more readily known by the outside world. Bangkok is comparable to London in the noise, dirt level, and poorer areas, apart from the oppressive heat. It is amazing to think that this is the dry/cool season for Thailand. Anyway after getting over the shock of how modern Thailand appeared we firstly met up with a friend of mine, Nam, who I hadnt seen since Otago days, as we went to the nearest restaurant to our hotel. After not long enough of a sleep, we got up for our only full day in the city to explore it.

Wat Arun
Took the Metro (amazingly clean) to the main train station, as our place was to explore Bangkok from canal. Got out and of course could not find a tuk tuk driver that was willing to be fair about price, so we started walking. Along the way we meet a lovely old man, who explained to us our plans wouldn't work as the boats didn't run and suggested an alternative. He organised a tuk tuk (for a local/fair price) to take us to the docks, where we then got a private long boat to take us around the area. Total cost was 2000 Baht for both of us which was mostly ok, until the guide refused to take us the full route we wanted. We did enjoy driving around in the long boat, and seeing more of the places where "real" people lived, and going thru the locks. We got dropped off at Wat Arun at the end of it. Wat Arun, was the highlight of Bangkok (50 baht). The temple has amazing detail and colours, and the view over Bangkok city from the top most point is impressive. It was also very interesting to wander around the complex and see all the burial points and how different it was to a NZ/Czech perspective.

Reclining Buddha
After having our fill of this awesome place, we got the ferry (3 Baht) across the river, and had an iffy lunch, then headed onto Wat Pho. Wat Pho is similiar to Wat Arun, but is not as tall, and has different coloured ceramics on the towers. This temple is famous for the massive gold reclining Buddha which is worth the 100 baht to visit.  Afterwards we walked to the Royal Palace and Emerald Buddha, but did not go in. At 400 baht and overcrowding this place isn't worth the hassle if you have a tight timeframe. That night we meet up with another friend (from my exchange semester at Corvinus Uni) at the famous Terminal 21 mall, and tried a local BBQ delicacy that originates in Bangkok. Its a combo, steaming, frying and boiling apparatus that you get way too much yummy food to cook on.

Bangkok streets
The next day we relaxed a bit, before meeting a friend from Toronto for lunch, and heading on the train north to Ayutthaya.

Monday 14 May 2012

West Coast Overview

The west coast of the South Island, has to be one of my favourite spots in New Zealand. There is an indescribable feeling about this place that just makes you happy inside. It is very remote and a lot of people don't really get to really enjoy it just focusing on the main "tourist" sites.

One of the main tourist spots (which are very worthwhile) are the Glaciers. Franz Josef is the larger glacier and is about a 1-1.5 hour return walk to the terminal face of it from the carpark. It is very interesting going here different years as you get to see how the glacier changes. Although sadly its not for the best. Both of these are seriously shrinking and retreting up the valley.
Franz Josef Glacier (or what is left)
Fox Glacier was my favorite, but when we last visited seeing the massive change in shape and appearance due to retreating was heartbreaking. However I would still recommend the glacier hikes here. It may be smaller but if you do the glacier hikes you will get more "ice time", and it is definitely an interesting trek. It is also much closer to the carpark which allows people easier access to it.

The towns associated with the glaciers, are fairly decent places to stay in the area, although Fox tends to be a bit cheaper. If you are short on the cash. MacDonalds campsite about 10 mins drive north of Franz Josef is an excellent campsite on the foreshore of Lake Mapourika, which makes for excellent "showering" facilities. Also home to some lovely black swans.

Beach section of 3 mile lagoon trek
The next most visited place on the coast is probably the Monteith Brewery in Greymouth or the Pancake Rocks near Punakaiki. Both are recommended. The tasting after the tours is great, and the walks around the rocks are also fun times.

Kayaking up Okarito River
But the best places on the coast are the ones no one really hears about. Okarito is one such hidden wonder. Here you can go kayaking, fishing, and stay at a beautiful coastal town. Not to mention it is one of the last places (other spot is in Karamea) in the world to see the white herons (see the back of $2 coin for this bird). These birds are much bigger than expected even if you don't get too close. Also of interest here is the Three Mile Lagoon trek. If you time it right you can go along the old road on the way to the lagoon, and return via the beach on the way back (recommend this way around for less up hill). If you had more time and a tent you could also continue onto the Five Mile Lagoon. This area is steeped in Gold mining history, in fact, the trek, is along the old road! Also take the time to visit to the kiwi habitat.

Oparara Arch. 50m wide, 200m long.
Karamea National Park is north of Westport and you will need to make a special journey to get here but it is well worth it. There are some amazing and the largest arches made by rivers in NZ. And the peacefulness is quite worth it. In addition it seems to be the capital for pukekos and wekas (native birds)! As this place is out of the way the people that live here are very colourful.

Hokitika Gorge is a decent drive inland from Hokitika town, but the variation in the gorge waters are quite interesting with some great rock to go with it. Bring your insect repellent though.

Mount Aspiring National Park is tricky, as technically it is part of the West Coast but the only way to access it easily is from Wanaka. This park is amazing and has some of the best day and longer walks in the country. The variation in colour of the landscape is fantastic. Rob Roy Glacier is of particular mention. Just 4 hours of awesome.
Mt Aspiring National Park, part of Rob Roy Glacier trek.

The best way to experience the wild west is slowly. There are so many little nocks and crannys to explore, short and long walks, things to taste and try, experiences to go on (some free), and places to stay (e.g. gillespies beach, copeland valley, lake paringa, haast etc...). Don't rush it.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Gold Coast 2.0

For a number of reasons we decided on a spontaneous trip (booked 8 days in advance) to the Gold Coast. We stayed at a hotel in Varsity Lakes. After my arrival (late Fri night) went to the nearest one for a walk (Martin was already there for work), and got to enjoy seeing some toads, and numerous fish jumping out of the water.

Our first day together, we headed off South into NSW, to see places we hadn't the previous time. Sadly the weather turned quite icky so we didn't get as far south as we wanted (aim was to get to Maclean to explore the Scottish tributes of this town).I was very happy to have seen "real" wild kangaroos jumping around in the fields near Broadwater. Definite highlight of the day. Went to see the Tea Tree stained lake (Lake Ainsworth) near Ballina. And then onto the final short stop of the day, driving up Mt Warning. Hadn't realised this earlier but the whole area we had been in is actually a massive old volcanic crater, with Mt Warning, being the upthrust in the middle of this massive rim! Had a very short bush walk here and then back up to the hotel to get ready for dinner with Martins Aussie boss in Surfers Paradise.

The next day was quite relaxing. Went back to Nobby's Beach (where we stayed the previous time) to enjoy the sun, sand, and very very warm water! Such a weird feeling being in such warm water without being on a tropical island or in the Mediterranean. Spent a good half a day just swimming and sunning, awesome times. After that headed up to Mt Tamborine to have a late lunch at the polish place! The views from here were amazing, as its on the far side of the northern part of the crater rim. Could see for miles. Also got to play with a lot of parakeets which would be flying around your head begging for food. The sound at times was deafening. Had a quick wine tasting (or Martin did) at Witches Falls, and did a short walk to Cedar Creek Falls.

The final day in Aus wasn't together. Martin had work, so I went off with 3 fellow female travellers to go hiking in Springbrook National Park before my flight. Did the twin falls circuit, which took us along the cliff top, down, through a variety of different tree types (the smell of eukalytus was overpowering at times), through some short caves, under waterfalls, and back up. Saw an Australian blue lobster under the last falls, and at the very end of the track something interesting slithered across our track. I was at the head of the group wondering why the birds were making such paniced noises. And 2m before stepping on it, noticed that there was a huge python calmly crossing the path. Would have been at least 7ft easy, maybe longer. I dont like snakes. After calming down and having lunch from the "best lookout" viewpoint which looks inwards onto the crater (you can see the other side of the crater from here), headed back to Surfers Paradise for a while, before getting my flight.

Monday 16 April 2012


Most people tend to frequent Soutland after moving on from Catlins. One of the first stops is usually Bluff, which is the 2nd most southery point in NZ that most people frequent (Slope point is the most southern on the south island and is a decent walk in the catlins to get to it). There is a good cafe nearby to enjoy the views from. You can also see Stewart Island from here on a good day.
Invercargill doesn’t have too much to offer but is the main hub in the Southland area. Its a good place to stop off and resupply.
After Invercargill, Riverton is the next biggest place you will find. It is a nice seaside town, and it has some very interesting volcanic remains; Riverton Rocks. These rocks are very odd in that they are blue/green/purple/brown in colour. And they look like balls of popcorn mashed together.

Colac Bay is a bit of an undiscovered jewel. A sheltered quiet cove that offers a nice retreat on your way to Te Anau. Would recommend hiring a holiday home here if you are passing by. The coastal area just before and after here, has many a beach with interesting differences from the rocks and shells that you find washed up. For example gemstone bay, just 15 mins drive away, actually has precious stones that wash up on the beach every so often.

The best part of Southland is actually the Fiordland National park area. This has its own separate write up.


The Catlins area is a bit confusing as technically be partly belongs to Southland (the forest area) and also belongs to Otago (coastal). So it has been given a section of its own to help explain

The first place that you will get to is Kaka Point, which has a very lovely beach and the waterfront cafe/bar has some excellent food choices, so is a good place to lunch. From here is the only access to the very pretty and geologically interesting (uplift events and massive sea erosion) Nugget Point. There is a lighthouse here that is quite pretty but it is the view onto the “nuggets” of rock that are interesting. The view here on a clear day is amazing and you see for miles. Also keep an eye out for seals and larger seagulls.

From Kaka Point and heading south, you will pass by many other interesting places (there are maps of the “to dos” everywhere) such as many different falls. In particular the MacLeans Fall is amazing. Two big drops, logs strewn about, with tannin coloured water is a must see and explore. You can actually explore the “landing” between the two drops but be very aware of your surroundings. A fall is possible if you are not being careful.

Something that personally would not advise seeing is Jacks Blowhole. Unless there is a storm brewing. Went here at exactly the right time only to be very disappointed to just see a hole in the ground onto the ocean. Can see that on the west coast and its much better.

From MacLeans Falls, is a short drive to a historical logging site that has remnants left to play with (such as an old logging tractor and metal items). There are boards around to help guide you around this area.

Cathedral Caves are pretty awesome but the timing of seeing these is very strict and there is a $3-5 entrance fee. It is worth the money and time if you have it to spare. Unlike Cathedral cOve in the Coromandel, there is a lovely seaweed smell as you enter and if you are lucky you may even see some interesting cave insects or crabs.  Just opposite the entrance almost is the whistling frog cafe, which is another yummy place to stop off at.

All throughout the area are awesome little villages/houses that make for great places to stay at and most have B&B type places available for quite cheap. Definitely try to enjoy these rather than the hostels that are focused on certain areas, as its not a “real” experience.

One of the most popular things in the Catlins is the Curio Bay. This place is rather special internationally as its one of the few places you can observe a fossiled prehistoric forest, and its right by the ocean. The downside is that it is slowly eroding away. In addition to that there is also a chance to see penguins if you time it right. Yellow eyed pengiuns are just one of the many species that you can see in many places throughout NZ.

There are other more "difficult" to get to places such as Slope Point (the south islands most southern point - not bluff as is commonly believed) or the Waipapa lighthouse. Excellent detours off the "main" route if you have the time.