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.