Friday, July 16, 2010

Cambodia to Bangkok 10 July to 16 July

Saturday 10 July – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap
We were collected by minibus at 7.15 and taken to the big bus and left at 8am. The landscape is extremely flat and in some places looked like outback Australia. It was dry and boring interspersed with rice paddies and villages and towns. We arrived around 2pm and as the bus entered the depot they closed a gate behind which kept all the touts out so we weren’t inundated with accommodation touts and tuk tuk drivers. We got a lovely young man named Longdy who took us to town in his tuk tuk for $1US each. He took us to a guesthouse of his choice but we didn’t like the location so he took us to another one but it was on a main road so we went back to the first one and got the room for $8 instead of $10 and as it turned out it was in the perfect spot. The currency is Reil but all the ATMs give out American dollars. We arranged for Longdy to collect us in his tuk tuk tomorrow. We walked around town, went to the night market and ate at the local food markets for $1 each. Except Peter accidentally ordered two bowls of soup so we gave one to a tuk tuk driver. Bought a couple of books off a man with no legs. He had been a soldier fighting for the communists and trod on a mine in 1990 when he was just 24.

Sunday 11 July – Siem Reap
Longdy collected us in his tuk tuk at 8am and we headed off to Ankor Wat. We had the most amazing day – the temples are incredible. The first port of call was Angkor Wat itself. We walked across a long causeway across the moat and looked at a few buildings in the grounds then into the temple itself. We took an hour or two here and then Longdy took us to Angkor Thom. The second temple was amazing. At first glance it looks like a jumbly pile of rocks all piled up on top of each other then you see the faces in the rocks. The carved murals are in quite good condition and really interesting. The temple had three levels and we explored the whole place – it was amazing. We saw the Elephant wall and the Lepers Wall. It was extremely hot but the exploring was amazing. The one with the faces and the one with the trees were our favourites. The one with the trees had been left overgrown and in a state of disrepair and you could walk in and out all over the place. Longdy told us that in high season it gets so crowded it takes 4 hrs just to see Angkor Wat and we saw so many temples. Near one of the temples we followed a track through the bush (remember this moment!) and found the North gate which had a pretty good garuda in the corner. Most of the statues and buddhas have lost their heads – destroyed or plundered. There are lots of children around the temples all trying to sell little nik naks and are very persistent. They all speak excellent English and when you tell them where you are from they immediately start reciting facts about your country including Julia Gillard being the PM which as you know was a very recent change but they had it down pat! Longdy then took us back the way we had come so we could see all the places we had visited. A slow tuk tuk ride back to town finished off a truly wonderful day. We went down Pub Street and had some 50 cent beers and a meal. Bought the amputee (from whom we bought the books) a beer and had a chat. He is 44 and was 24 when he lost his legs. He was in the army for 9 years and gets a $45/month pension and supplements that by selling books. (A good few of the books including Lonely Planets are all good photocopies and not originals).

Monday 12 July – Siem Reap
Had a late start to the day – made enquiries about a bus to the infamous Thai/Cambodian border – our guest house charged $10 but the bus company was $7 then $8 so we decided to go with the guesthouse as he said we get a sticker to walk across the border and then get in a big VIP bus with a toilet. We walked around town and did some shopping. Met a fellow who asked us if we could speak English and asked us what swamp meant. Turned out it was a good ploy to get a conversation going so he could ask for money for books for his orphanage! We still don’t know if there was an orphanage or not as everything is just photocopies. We gave him $1 – we laughed about this with Cilantro as they also got pulled up and their word was meadow and they gave him $2!!! When we were eating at the night market we saw a person going along the street on their bottom so asked the waiter if they needed a feed. He went and got this person who turned out to be a little old lady who couldn’t walk so we bought her a meal ($1!!) and she was so thrilled to be sitting up on a seat there. We gave her another dollar for another meal and got a takeaway for a man we had seen on the footpath. We couldn’t wake him up so just left it beside him but we found out later that he is a hopeless drunk and the next morning when we drove past him he was still asleep with three unopened meals beside him. Very sad.

Tuesday 13 July – Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand
Happy third birthday Jessie
The minibus came to collect us to take us to the big bus but a Russian couple reckoned they had paid for their meal but the guesthouse owner said not so they wouldn’t let the bus go. We sat in the heat while a very heated discussion ensued ending in nasty insults from the Russians who eventually paid – around $7! We then went to the big bus which was a ¾ bus. Because we had requested specific seats (11 & 12!) we were put on the bus first then all the bags were piled up behind the back seat then the rest of the passengers got on and luggage was piled up the aisle and we left around 8.30am. It was around 150 Kms to the border and we had two stops in that time. Got to the border around 11.30. Got our stickers and walked across the border – no problems. Then we were shoved in the back of a troop carrier and taken to the ‘big’ bus which wasn’t VIP and didn’t have a toilet! It was an uneventful trip with one loo stop requested and another stop to fill with gas – we were all told to get off the bus and we didn’t know why so all refused! Then we realised they couldn’t fill the bus with gas with us on board. We finally got into Bangkok around 7pm (it should have been around a 5 hr trip). A rather longer trip than it should have been. The bus dropped us in the middle of the tourist area and we walked up the road and found a guesthouse and then went for a walk. It seemed to be a pretty happening place. We ate at a table in the street.

We have to say that we really loved Cambodia and her people and would definitely go back again. All the kids seemed to be in schools and English was widely spoken. They have certainly come a long way in the last thirty years and you really wonder how they all survived and how they are so happy.

Wednesday 14 July – Bangkok
Dell’s ankles are completely rashed and swollen. Walked around then met a plain clothes policeman who told us that today was the last day of a Government subsidy to tuk tuks. For 5 baht each we could have a tuk tuk for the day to see all the Wats. We saw two then we went to the gem centre then as a favour to the tuk tuk driver to the tailor which was ridiculous and then to another gem centre. Then it started pouring rain and he wanted us to go somewhere else as a favour and we said no and got him to drop us back. Sat in a bar in the street near our guesthouse and watched the world go by. Motorbikes riding on the footpath and they all seem to target Dell!!!!

Thursday 15 July – Bangkok
Caught a taxi to the station to book our tickets for the train. Unfortunately they only had upper bunks left. We then walked to China town but Dell’s ankles were itchy and sore and Peter started feeling unwell so we went to the shopping centres which weren’t up to much but were air conditioned. We then walked all the way back and down a street which had nothing but guns and ammunition for sale. Then Peter went back to the room to lie down and Dell went to buy a couple of shirts. Peter had a temperature of 102.4 so got some drugs from the chemist. We went out to dinner then to bed. (Remember that little walk through the bush in Siem Reap??!!)

Friday 16 July – Bangkok – overnight train
Dell did some shopping, Peter not too well. Were out of the room by 12 noon and sat in the guesthouse till 1.15 then caught a taxi to the station. Went to our little restaurant with the litre jugs of beer and had lunch. And then it was on the train and off for an uneventful trip.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Laos and Cambodia - Saturday 3 July to Friday 9 July

Saturday 3 July – Pakse, Laos to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Decided to hire a bike and go to the Bolavan Plateau. Packed the necessaries into one pack and stored the other where we hired the bike and by 10am were riding out of town. Once we left the main road there wasn’t much traffic. We stopped at a waterfall, treehouse resort and ethnic village. The village was very interesting but we felt it was a bit staged. Continued up the road past some interesting villages. We love the way the pigs just wander about then it got a bit boring and we were both thinking this isn’t much when we came to the turnoff to the village of Tad Lo which is gorgeous. There was a magnificent 100m wide waterfall falling about 7 metres. We stopped at a backpackers just over the bridge and the room was gorgeous – all tiles and clean with a balcony overlooking the river but the beds were boards – so hard. We checked and there was a mattress there – we thought later maybe they had put it on upside down because they sleep on the floor on sleeping mats and maybe wouldn’t realise it is supposed to be a bit soft!! Continued up the road and saw a sign for Palamie Guesthouse and a man came out to greet us. He had one rattan room and three wooden rooms without bathrooms and two brand new rooms – beautiful wood and brick only four months old and the bed was soft and had a mosquito net over it. It had a big verandah overlooking rice paddies and pigs wandering around. A lovely bathroom with hot water – huge room. We didn’t need the fan as it was cool enough. Par who runs (and built it) used to work at the Lodge up the road. He speaks English and was born in this village as were his mother and grandparents. Lovely chap with a wife and two children. It poured rain just as we got there so our timing was impeccable. Walked through the village and had a look around then found a little restaurant in another Guesthouse and had a lovely meal. What a beautiful place!!

Sunday 4 July – Tad Lo to Attapeu
The morning started realising why so many roosters end up cooked on sticks in the market!! Seriously, it was brilliant – cows out the front, we fed our pineapple scraps to the huge pig then packed up and went back to Tims for breakfast. At Tims the barbeque was half a bomb (all American), the pot plant holder was a whole bomb and the vase was an artillery shell nicely decorated with lots of littled drilled holes!! We were sitting watching the pigs and piglets, dog under the table and cat on the chair and on our laps eating banana pancakes when an elephant went past!! Stopped on a dime when the mahout realised we wanted a photo – just skidded to a stop! We headed back up to a big waterfall but as we went past an extremely poor, muddy looking village a couple of the kids yelled out waterfall and pointed up through their extremely muddy village. We could see a slight trickle over a big rock cliff so decided to give it a miss. Apparently the hydro electric people let water go in the evening. Even when we went past the waterfalls which were so beautiful yesterday the water flow appeared to have diminished. We arrived at the turnoff to where we wanted to go about 1.30 but it was 70 odd kms of dirt so we opted to continue to Attapeu and go back up again tomorrow. We did 185km today and it was long, hot and hard on the bot! A change of scenery down here – this is the most bombed area of Laos. Saw a fellow with a motorbike and trailer and he had found a huge part of an exploded bomb – chased him down and took his photo. We stopped at a Government place that does the Unexploded Ordinance clearance and they had some bits and pieces of bombs. Arrived at the capital of Attapeu Province around 3.30pm and found a lovely guesthouse then went to a bar on the river. We watched young girls eating fried crickets dipped in sauce. Had a rest – it was a long hot ride then headed to the noodle bar. We got a beer and they seemed happy to have us and put the fan and tv on for us then they disappeared. About 5.30 we asked if we could eat but apparently Papa was in the shower then suddenly he appears outside soaking wet taking our order and telling his wife what we wanted – hilarious. They do noodle dishes so Peter had the noodle soup and Dell had the fried noodle. They have promised us a great breakfast tomorrow and laughed their heads off when we asked if they would be out of the shower!! People like this make it all worth while!! Just an aside – no one in Laos seems to wear sunglasses.

Monday 5 July – Attapeu to Pakse
Had breakfast at Papas – he was doing a roaring trade – cooked us a lovely omelette and baguettes with cheese and jam and croissants. He was very happy we came back. Left about 8 and had an uneventful journey back about 47k to the turnoff to the dirt road. Stopped to take a photo of the water buffalos all sitting in a big puddle of water – really like the water buffalo. The dirt road was a very good road and Peter really enjoyed the ride. Saw a squirrel and an eagle. Found the big waterfall. The volume of water going over was amazing and it was extremely high. For a while it felt like riding through the jungle but tractors were clearing both sides of the road which took some of the ambience away! We rode right over the Bolavan Plateau through some villages and a town. Were grateful when we got back on to the bitumen as our butts were very sore. We stopped at two more waterfalls one of which was quite stunning – you could clamber down steps to the bottom – beautiful. We arrived back in Pakse around 3, found a different guesthouse, returned the bike, retrieved our packs and booked the bus to cross the Cambodian border tomorrow and went back to the Indian restaurant for a lovely meal.

One thing we noticed about Laos was that there seemed to be quite a few schools – quite shabby looking but they didn’t seem to be used. We didn’t really see any school children and not a lot of people spoke English.

Tuesday 6 July – Pakse to Kratie Cambodia
We were collected from our guesthouse at 7.50 after a lovely breakfast Peter bought in the market for practically nothing. The minibus fooled us as it had lovely leather seats and four of us in it but it delivered us to a crap minibus which already had 7 people in and Peter’s seat had no back. After a couple of hours we dropped people off and five of us went on to the border. We had heard terrible things about the border. When we went to check out of Laos a young French bloke was doing a lot of yelling. The Laos Immigration wanted $2US per passport bribe. The French guy gave me some change and we all paid $1US. Then we had to walk across the border and went to Health who wanted $1US but we all said no. Then we went to get our visa. We had been told it was $23US so we paid it (it is really $20 but they have always charged $23 here). The French guy was doing a lot of yelling – very brave or very silly as he was dealing with the military. Immigration then wanted $1US each so we gave them 20,000 kip which just about used up all our kip – it is useless out of the country as no one will change it. They put five of us in a minibus and we went to the next big town – Stung Treng and then we had to get out of the minibus and they finally let us on the big bus!! Arrived at Kratie at 2pm after a lunch stop – there were some stalls which were selling the fried crickets but also fried tarantulas!! With all their legs still intact! We walked around the corner to a guest house and then went out for a walk. Kratie is on the river so walked along there and through the large market which was across the road. We then went to a local restaurant with a lovely family and had a beer with ice and were just thinking how nice it would be to have some nibblies when the chef cooked us up some finger food and gave it to us for free so we decided to have dinner there and they cooked us up a lovely meal. The family were watching a soapie on tv and it was so funny to watch their reactions to the sad bits and tragic bits and funny bits!! People really are the same all over!

Wednesday 7 July – Kratie to Phnom Penh
We caught the 8am bus after having bought some baguettes in the local market . The landscape was amazingly flat with heaps of rice paddies. We noticed lots of brickworks as we were coming into Phnom Penh – most of them didn’t seem to be working. We went over a big bridge and the bus dropped us in the middle of the city – quite a busy city. We decided to walk to find a guesthouse and the tuk tuk drivers were polite and left us alone when they realised we didn’t want one. The traffic was chaotic and we had a bit of trouble with the traffic coming from the left but just when you get used to that a bike or two will go up the road the wrong way. We walked around looked at guesthouses but finally settled on The Spring which was Lonely Planet’s choice and this time they got it right. We took a fan room on the 5th floor for $6US. It was quite a walk up but a lovely room. Went out for a walk and ate dinner in the local market.

Thursday 8 July - Phnom Penh
It was so hot through the night that we decided to move to an air conditioned room on the 1st floor for $10US a night. We started our day with a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S.21). Over 17,000 people were tortured and killed in this place by The Pol Pot regime. It used to be a school. Suffice to say that it was rather overpowering and we decided not to watch the film and not to visit the killing fields. How this was allowed to happen is beyond us and why it happened is a question that 30 years later the Cambodian people still don’t know the answer to and no-one has ever been punished (we heard a couple of weeks later that the bloke that ran Toul Sleng got 30 years but will be out in 19!). A couple of top people in the Khymer Rouge were arrested in 2007 – Pol Pot died of old age. The UN has a lot to answer for in this and Australia also supported Pol Pot for a time. We then went to the Russian market which was huge. We bought a few things then took a tuk tuk to the river area and had lunch then walked to another market where Dell bought a pair of second hand Oasic sandles for $16US. We were wondering if people nicked them from outside temples!! Back to our room then out for dinner. They have big beasts (cows) on huge spits outside some restaurants. We went into one of these and got a jug of draught beer for 6,800 reil ($1.70) but their menu wasn’t in English so we ordered one dish – marinated meat, chips and egg then went up the road to where the menu was in English and had a lovely meal.

Friday 9 July – Phnom Penh
Happy Birthday Carol
The women wear their pyjamas – they are think they are trouser suits but they are PJs!!! - even have little bears and lovehearts or are floral. When we dropped the laundry off they had a dish full of skinned frogs on sticks sitting out the front in the sun! Walked the city looking at the sights and in the afternoon went to the palace. We wandered the palace grounds and went into a few temples. One had a 95kg solid gold Buddha with hundreds of diamonds. There were lots of gold dishes, small buddhas etc and we wondered about the lack of security but I guess no one would touch a Buddha. Went back to our guesthouse and booked the bus for tomorrow then caught a tuk tuk to the river area and found a wonderful little restaurant called Bojangles and had the best meal. We really like the Cambodian food – very different flavours. A few of the beggars came back to us a few times through the day and by evening we were saying we already gave to you and they laughed and acknowledged. We really enjoyed Phnom Penh.

Friday, July 2, 2010

LAOS - Monday 28 June to Friday 2 July – Vang Vieng to Pakse

Monday 28 June – Vang Vieng
Happy Anniversary to us – 35 years!!
Well we didn’t sleep too badly despite the noise from the island. It poured rain all night and looks as though it has set in for the day. We are watching the river flow by and a fisherman upstream with a net at the end of some bamboo poles standing in the river fishing. Decided the river was far too muddy to do the tubing (floating down the river with the current in a rubber tractor tube past lots of bars). Our guesthouse owner found a snake in his house eating a frog. He took the snake out and then took the frog out. We talked to an Aussie who said he had been to Angkor Wat and it was just a bunch of old buildings way past their used by date!!! Philistine!!!! A young Brit we met said he had been working at the bucket bar and three Irish lads came in. The young Brit had contracted red eye (conjunctivitus) so instead of shaking hands they were all touching elbows. He was looking the worse for wear and really needed to get out but was having trouble leaving! We went for a meal then decided to see what the Bucket Bar was about. The buckets were free for an hour – they held about 1 – 1½ litres of lao whiskey and coke, fresh lime with a straw. Everyone drinks from a plastic bucket – sat around on a built up platform watching the soccer, listening to the very loud music and chatting to our young Brit and Irish friends. Our bucket lasted us the entire time we were there so it was a cheap night. When we left our young Brit friend was up dancing and looked as though he was going to be stuck for another day – hope he gets out soon! Poured rain on the way back across the little bridge to our room.

Tuesday 29 June – Vang Vieng to Vientiane
Happy Birthday Yvette
Left in sprinkling rain after admiring the wonderful view from our room again. Took a tuk tuk to the bus station. The bus left at 7am and was pretty old but we had the windows open and it was only 30,000 kip each - $4.40. The tuk tuk cost 20,000 kip to go 3km. From Vang Vieng to Vientiane was around 170km. It started off a little bit windy and a couple of the locals had to get out their barf bags. The bus was only half full. The terrain then went flat with lots of rice paddies. They have a kind of tractor thing with long handles which they walk behind to plough with and on the road they put a cart behind to sit on and steer via the long handles. There were lots of little towns and villages along the way. There are a couple of major roads but when you get off them everything is dirt. All the houses in the villages have swept dirt around them, not grass. We arrived at Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, at about 11am. Took us a while to find a guest house but found a very nice room for 90,000 kip ($13). You really notice the French influence here – baguettes the principal sandwich and bread. The old French houses, some in a state of disrepair look great. There are lots of Wats (Buddhist temple complexes). A long avenue much like the Champes Elysees with an Oriental Arch de Triumphe at one end and the Presidential Palace at the other. The place was ransacked and basically destroyed in 1828 so the majority of the place was built after this period. There are a lot of huge expensive buildings and a lot of building going on. We walked around for the afternoon and had dinner and an early night.

Wednesday 30 June – Vientiane to Tha Khaek
Left our guesthouse early and walked back to the bus station and caught a local bus to the main bus station. Got there at 7.30 - an air/con bus – and got our seats and our baguettes and the bus left at 8am sharp and drove around the corner and stopped for 20 minutes while all sorts of people got on trying to flog off food. The bus was chock a block full. The scenery is very rural with lots of villages along the way and rice paddies – lots of rice paddies. They throw the seeds into one or two paddies and they sprout very thickly. When this has grown enough they pick it and put into little bunches and then plant it one plant at a time. Very labour intensive. A lady had a chicken under her coat and took it out to feed it. People kept getting on and the bus got quite crowded with kids doubling up and then a couple of stools appeared in the aisle. One lady was nursing her baby and one lady was nursing her dog! After about 3 hours there was the obligatory loo stop – ladies behind a big tree and men along the edge of the road. Just as we were coming into the bus station we saw two buses which had had a head on collision - where both drivers had been was all smashed in and the whole left hand side of both buses had been sideswiped. Confirmed our plan to sit on the right hand side – seats 11 and 12 looked good! Arrived at 2pm and took a tuk tuk to the Travel Lodge Guesthouse as recommended by Lonely Plant but were not impressed at the bare cement floor and inflated price so walked to the tourist office and then found a good big room at Pouhkanna guesthouse. There was one thing about Labuan Prabang we didn’t mention and that was all the street venders cooking chickens – whole chooks, bits of chooks etc – you would hardly credit there would be enough chooks in the country to keep up this supply!!!!

Thursday 1 July – Tha Khaek
Happy Birthday Jeremy
Woke to pouring rain but it was nice to be able to sleep in. Had a slow start to the day (much needed). We found Tha Khaek to be a lovely laid back town. We walked along the Mekong River admiring the decaying French buildings. The water fountain in the middle of town didn’t work and the town just had a lovely feel about it. We only saw one other white person through the day. We went to the markets and walked back out to the bus station to check the times. It was a lovely walk through the country and the people were really friendly. The people don’t seem to care if you buy anything or stay at accommodation – if you do, you do but they don’t seem to care. Walked for miles and went back to the river for a beer. Peter got a beer out of the fridge and rattled around but couldn’t get the girl to wake up so put it back and went down the road to where the proprietor was awake!! We could see Thailand across the river and it looked more affluent but having said that there is certainly some money in town. There are a lot of beautiful big houses – some huge and Government buildings and the vehicles are new Lexus and Toyoto diesel 4 wheel drives. Saw the World Vision office and it wasn’t too shabby either – three storeys. We ate the most delicious dinner at our guesthouse restaurant – best since we have been in Laos – served by three of the loveliest young girls. They could only bring one thing at a time. First the beer, then the glasses and finally the bucket of ice – yes ice. They drink their beer with ice and its really nice. This service could take 5 or 10 minutes but no-one minds – there is plenty of time. There were two other pairs of backpackers in and then 4 NZ/Aussie blokes turned up who clear unexploded ordinance in Laos and Cambodia so the power grid can go through. For the adventurous here there are caves and waterfalls and treks but we just had the loveliest day. Fell asleep to the sounds of very loud very bad karaoke!!

Friday 2 July – Tha Khaek to Pakse
Had our morning tea & coffee with our trusty little kettle – what a good buy that has been. We walked to the bus station leaving at 7 and got there around 7.40 in time to catch the 8.30 bus to Pakse. We stuffed around for a bit and next thing the bus started up so we dived on and our 8.30 bus left at 5 to 8! And holy moly this bus driver was in a hurry! He turned the air con off we think so he could go faster and passed everything in sight blowing his horn all the while. Two other backpackers were on the left front seat behind the driver – we were glad we weren’t there! The conductor was putting luggage in and hadn’t even closed the luggage door when the bus took off and he had to run to jump in the door. The first loo stop was a quick dive in the bushes – we presume everyone made it back on the bus. Second stop no time for modesty – quick dive into the bushes and the horn is blowing to get back on. This driver was in such a hurry! Apart from that the scenery was fantastic – so rurally rustic. The bus was supposed to stop at a big town Savahnakat but he offloaded those people going there onto an already overcrowded troop carrier truck – we were pleased we weren’t going there. The area was quite populated with villages all along the road. Houses range from opulent to lovely to wooden to huts – the whole spectrum. Australia and Japan seem to have put quite a bit of money into this country. The countryside is flat with loads of rice paddies, some in use, some overgrown. The middle part seemed to be in drought as there wasn’t much water around and then there was heaps of water. It is weird seeing so many water buffalo. We don’t know what their use is (food??!!) as they are not used in the fields – they use the hand push tractor things. There have been wandering cows, pigs, goats, turkeys, geese – a real rural menagerie. Most of the chooks seem to be on sticks in the market! (cooked). For a while we could hear chickens chirping on the bus – a man had three in a little cage. The bus driver slowed down when he nearly hit a cow! No it was because the speed limit went to 30 kph! We were supposed to go to the Pakse bus station but we pulled up and the driver told us and the other European couple this was our stop so we grabbed all our things and got off into a waiting tuk tuk which had two monks and two European girls already in. The other girl went to climb in next to the monk and a look of horror crossed his face. We had to stop her and sit her on the opposite side – women are not allowed to touch monks. On a bus a monk will sit on the back seat so we are not allowed to sit there. Anyway they threw our backpacks in on top of us and off we went about 6k to the centre of town. We found a place to stay close to the river – it was pretty basic and the mattress was lumpy. Ate at the Indian restaurant – very good food.