Friday, July 27, 2012

Days and nights in Angkor

After three days in Siem Reap and the surrounding Angkor region, exploring, climbing, learning and walking around ruins, temples, markets and busy streets, we are exhausted but grateful to have seen such spectacular sights and met wonderful people- both local and other travellers, and are rather sad to leave.

After our time in Phnom Penh we were excited to spend more time in Cambodia as we immediately loved the people and culture, and were particularly keen to seen the history-laden old capital- Siem Reap.

The bus ride was long but fairly easy, with free water and a lunch stop, delivering us to our new destination around 7pm. We checked into our guesthouse with a pool (we were excited about that, it’s not everywhere you can pay $10 for a room and get a big pool as well!) and walked the city, keen for our time there.

First photo of Siem Reap- blurry and bright, rather like our time there.

 I swear drinking cocktails isn't all we ever do... ahem.

The famous 'Pub Street' of Siem Reap

We decided the next day to do a full day tour of the Angkor temples as we didn’t want to walk around not understanding any of the history or stories behind the ruins. This turned out to be a great choice as our guide was funny and knowledgeable and taught us a great deal about Cambodian ancient and more modern history, as well as about the culture and language. We explored the most famous ruins- Angkor Wat, Bayon (the giant stone faces) and Ta Prohm the ‘jungle temple’ being some notable ones, but also 5 or so other less touristy sites which were really interesting to see the development of architecture and history. The ruins were incredibly impressive, particularly after gaining an insight into the stories that built them. We had a wonderful but exhausting day climbing, walking, exploring and admiring some of the most impressive structures ever built.


A band of Cambodian amputees 

 Ta Prohm, the 'jungle temple'

 Sanscrit at Ta Prohm

The city of Siem Reap itself is cute and easy to get around, with a compact and happening old centre and lots of restaurants, bars and markets. The next day we spent mostly exploring the city and shopping around the markets. At night we decided to go see a traditional ‘Aspara’ dancing show- depictions of which we had seen engraved on the walls of Angor Wat.

The show we saw was free if you bought dinner, and probably not the most professional you could go to as there are big theatres in Siem Reap where you can pay a (Cambodian-standard) fortune to see it, but was impressive nonetheless. There were several different dances, including the traditional Aspara dance, then a ‘peacock dance’, a ‘fisherman’s dance’ and a few others, with boys dancing with the girls. The boys were clearly not the most trained dancers, but were hilarious comics and constantly flirting with their partners, making for a fun and entertaining night. I also felt that this was perhaps even more true to how the dances should be done- for fun.

Later we decided it was our turn to do some performing. We had walked past the ‘European Karaoke’ bar the night before but chickened out of entering the empty club, but after our show, fueled with a few Angkor beers, we decided it was our time to shine. We bonded with an American couple and all sang about 6 songs each, getting more and more outrageous in both song choice and sound quality with each turn. It was pretty much the greatest thing ever. Yes, I will be a superstar yet.

Some of our finest moments- Phil Collins and the Divinyls. Yes, I went there.

However. Our choice to stay up well past our bedtime and consume far too much liquid courage was paid for the next day with pretty much the worst 12 hours of my life. Ok maybe not, but pretty bad. Feeling pretty fragile as it was, we poorly decided to take our malaria tablets on an empty stomach. Bad, bad option. Very bad. Mixed with about 10 hours of bumpy, sweaty bus rides and 2 hours of painful immigration waiting, it was not a pretty day. But, we got to our nice hotel in Bangkok where I promptly threw up for about the 4th time that day, and then the hell was over and we had a lovely last day in Thailand in a gorgeous hotel.

Thank you Asia, you were messy but amazing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Breath of fresh air

Cambodia was a whirlwind of sights, action and amazing people. We would definitely come back to this region of the world- there is just so much to explore and learn- both from the tragic history and the resilience, strength and hope shown in the Cambodian mentality. We flew into Phnom Penh, the capital city, last Wednesday, and stayed for three nights. I was expecting just another big city, and whilst it is a business and tourist hub, Phnom Penh greeted us with such warmth, hospitality and ease that we immediately loved it. The old town of the city is bustling with a café, restaurant and cocktail bar culture, with the Mekong River acting as the centre for much of the activity. Although a bit touristy in this area, there were a million side streets and many fun places pretty much all accessible by foot, unless you succumb to one of the many tuk-tuk drivers constantly wanting to give you a lift.

Tuk-tuks abound

The palace grounds near where we staying 

 Interesting food stalls

There weren’t a lot of ‘sights’ as such, however there was the extremely important but highly confronting ‘Toul Slang’ museum- an old highschool which had been converted during the Khmer Rouge regime to become a prison and torture institution, and now serves as a Genocide Museum. The experience is disturbing and haunting, as many of the chambers, cells and torture rooms remain unchanged, and the stories and ghosts linger in the corridors. The actions of Pol Pot’s regime remain in my mind some of the most gruesome, barbaric and devastating to affect anywhere in the world, and it saddens me that the topic remains largely unknown when it affected so many people and was one of the worst genocides in history- not only that, but still affects many people today. 30 years is so heartbreakingly recent for a country to have lost over 1/5th of their population- an estimated 1.5 million people, and it is a wonder that society can still function- albeit remaining largely in poverty, but still with hope and positivity. Walking through and reading the stories of those who were captured and tortured for often no reason at all, and the history and background of this brutal regime is heartbreaking but important, and something I would highly recommend to anyone who has the chance to visit.

The rest of our time in Phnom Pehn was spent exploring the city and appreciating it for what it is- poor and affected by still recent cruelties, but a living, breathing and hopeful city with a lot to offer.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Life of the Party

(very delayed post, now in Siem Reap about 4 days later)

We are now in Phnom Penh, after a hectic but fun last few days in Laos.

We did get up extra early to see the Bat Kam- the walking of hundreds of monks down the main street of temple and culture-rich Luang Prabang, which was quite a spectacle. It has unfortunately become rather touristy, with many foreigners lining up with the locals to give the monks innapropriate food and flashing cameras in their faces, however over all it was still very interesting to see.

Besides the annoyance of other tourists, we were further plagued by a nasty bout of food poisoning from our street market sausages the night before- to be expected at some stage I guess, however not very convenient before an 8 hour bus ride!! So our ‘VIP’ bus to Vang Vieng, besides not making us feel particularly ‘VIP’ with dodgy air con and sticky, cramped seats was also extremely windy with frequent hair pin bends and overall one of the less nice experiences of the trip as we both tried to avoid being sick, shitting ourselves and feinting from the heat. Lovely.

BUT, we got there. To the infamous ‘party capital’ of Laos- Vang Vieng. This little town on the banks of the Nam Song River has become infamous for drunk travellers, tubing down the river, local deadly whisky, and equally deadly bars by the water ending in many broken limbs and blood baths. So we weren’t exactly sure how this would go, particularly since we were in rather fragile states. In the end we found our way to ‘Maylyn’ Guesthouse, recommended to us by a Lao guy Tim worked with. It was on the other side of the river away from the town centre, and consisted of a collection of adorable bungalows facing a small river and surrounded by an amazing garden. It was so peaceful and beautiful, the perfect place to relax and mend our poor tummies.

The view from our bungalow

The quiet side of Vang Vieng, a peaceful villages surrounded by spectacular mountains.

When we had regained some momentum we managed a great hike through rice paddy fields, little villages and past incredible mountain scenery to ‘the blue lagoon’ and a cave. The cave was an extra hike up about a billion super steep stairs and then about 200 m deep in practically pitch darkness, to find ourselves in a mass of incredible stalactites and stalagmites- it was a rather impressive cave to say the least. After the struggle back down we had a well earned swim in the beautiful lagoon.

We did see the party central, however as we had still not managed to keep food down, avoided the mayhem. We would probably have tried tubing down the river and watching the shenanigans happen, however as it was, we were so glad to experience the beauty of the surrounding region and had a wonderful, relaxing time.

After Vang Vieng we had a much better bus experience to Vientiane, the Lao capital. This city seemed exactly that- just a city. There weren’t really any notable sights as far as we could tell, and we were a bit sightseeing’ed-out so we just hung out and had some good food, preparing for our flight to Cambodia the next day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Little bit of Utopia

(Again, from a few days ago, but finally in good speed internet so might write another post later tonight! If we're not up to mischief elsewhere ;) )

Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city situated on the river and surrounded by mountain scenery. We have had a lovely few days here, wandering the streets, the river-side and the night market in a rather relaxed little place. Yesterday we went on a little day trip out to Kuang Si Waterfall, about 45 min drive  from the town. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the area was pretty beautiful with clear, bright blue water to swim and jump into. It was a bit touristy but we found a quieter pool to have a swim in which was lovely.

A Sun bear lazing in the nearby bear sanctuary, where rescued bears saved from street entertainment are given a pretty nice place to lounge about.

Last night we had some drinks on the river with some new friends from the Mekong boat ride, dinner at the market, then headed to a bar (one of the only places open later than 9pm)- Utopia. It was a pretty funky garden bar with little tables and candlelight, shisha abound.

The food market.

Today we have just relaxed, and are planning to get a massage (Tim) and manicure (me- I'm a little too jumpy for This/Lao massages I think) and have some dinner at a place for locals we saw near the river. Luang Prabang has a really nice restaurant/food/cafe culture, so its a lovely place to just walk around. Tomorrow morning we're planning a super early rise to see the Tak Bat ceremony, when all the monks of the village walk the streets to collect gifts from the people- mostly rice and bananas. After our 5.30am rise to see that, we'll catch an 8am bus to Vang Vieng, the infamous 'tubing' central of Laos known for its party scene and big rubber tubes used to bar hop down the river. We're planning to stay with Tim's friend's sister who owns a guesthouse across the river, which is meant to be a nice, quiet area with good access to hikes in the mountain and to the blue lagoon and surrounding waterfalls.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Up the mountains, down the Mekong

(I wrote this a few days ago, Wednesday the 11th- wifi has been a bit scarce!)

We’ve had some great luck the last couple of days. Managed to see everything we wanted to when we thought we wouldn’t make it, met some amazing people who steered us away from tourist-traps, not been ripped off at border security, and now arrived in a nice, cheap guesthouse after what we were told would be a 9 hour boat ride got us here in 6!

Chiang Rai was a blur of a night market and busy streets, and not a lot else going on. However the city made a good starting point to access some cool sights that we were shown by Em, our hilarious guide and driver for the day.  He took us to first to the White Temple, which was like the Disney castle of Buddhist temples, all sparkling spires.

At the night market in Chiang Rai, Tim realised after eating three in one bite that these little suckers were not, indeed, tiny beans.

The White Temple

Next was the Monkey Caves, which involved a hike up a million stairs to this eerie cave in the rain with monkeys running around and catching bananas we threw for them! I’ve never seen so many monkeys up close so that was really fun.

 At the entrance to the Monkey Cave with a Buddhist shrine buried into the mountain side.

He then took us to Mae Sai, the Thai-Burma/Myanmar border and the Golden triangle, the point where the rivers intersect to create the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma. It was pretty cool to learn about and get a glimpse into this country which for so long has been completely inaccessible. We could have crossed into Burma for a tourist fee to get our visa stamped and some gratuitous photos of the border town, but I think if you really want to get an idea for the country it’s best to go to the capital- on the to-do list for next time.

 The Burma border Immigration point

The border cross-section of Thailand, Laos and Burma.

Last stop was Chaen Saen, where we saw some of the oldest temple ruins so far. After taking us around for the day Em drove us 1 ½ hours to the next place we needed to get to in order to cross in to Laos, Chiang Kong. He was a wonderful guide and gave us so many great tips, and it was great that he could drop us to our next destination or else we would have had to bus it, cutting our day short. The car ride along the way was also great as we went through beautiful mountainous countryside and cute little villages.

Once we got to Chiang Kong we managed to cross the border that afternoon into the Lao town of Huy Xai, meeting a funny American (Dan) along the way who was super prepared having done so much research into where to stay and what to avoid, so he really helped us out the next couple of days. We managed to pay less at the border control by paying in US $ which was handy and then stayed in a nice place that Dan found, conveniently close to the port where our slowboat to Luang Prabang was due to depart at 8.30. Of course the boat was 3 ½ hours later than we’d been told, but we found a nice riverside place to have a long breakfast and relax before our long boat ride.

Having now arrived in Pakbeng, the mid-way stop on our two day boat trip to Luang Prabang (and found another really nice and cheap place thanks to Dan our savior), all seems to have gone smoothly, with some beautiful country side and (mostly- there’s always the compulsory obnoxious group) good company along the way.
Looking forward to Luang Prabang and exploring more of Laos tomorrow!