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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Nha Trang and the Tet Festival

The "sleeper" bus proved to be anything but. Designed for oompah loompahs, the "bed" was approximately five foot long, which is ample if you're of South-East Asian descent but ridiculous for anyone Western and over the age of 12.
Our plan to catch this bus, get a good 10 hours sleep (the journey time), and then arrive in Nha Trang refreshed and calm, dissolved before our eyes as we climbed aboard and looked around. Now I know I keep whingeing about the bus journeys so I'll try to keep it short, but man, this one took the biscuit...
We located our beds..top bunks next to each other above a large Vietnamese family with 2 small children and grandad sleeping on a piece of foam in the gangway. Kicking off my flip-flops I climb over him and try to cram my size 8's in the rungs of the tiny ladder up to my bunk.I manage to fit only my big toes in and yank myself up using my arms. Then I attempt to lay down. Hmmm, can't seem to fit my legs inside the metal casing of the lower half of the bed, designed to stop you rolling out when Jenson Button (aka the Driver) takes a bend at 100K's per hour.
Bending my knees to one side, I try to lay down. Nope, not gonna work. I try again, this time bending my neck at right angles to my body. I fit in, just. I look over at Liam, who's doing the same. I look like Alice in Wonderland, after she's drunk the potion that makes her grow.It's funny for about 10 minutes, as we crack up and take phots of each other wedged in these little coffins. We're the only Westerners on the bus and the locals nearby laugh as they watch us trying to contort our bodies into the beds,casually stretching themselves out in theirs, elbows behind their heads.
As we stop laughing, reality sets in. We've got to spend the next 10 hours in this unnatural position. The roof of the bus is only a few inches from our heads, so sitting up isn't an option. After an hour, during which the 2 TV screens have played loud sitcoms and karaoke in Vietnamese, the neon strip lights above my head have been switched on and off at least 10 times, and the aircon has broken, it's not funny any more. Combine this with Lewis Hamilton senior at the wheel, honking away and bouncing us out of our beds every few seconds and it soon becomes painful. Liam and I put on the belts that strap you to this metal torture device (aka the "bed") and resign ourselves to a sleepless night...
Thankfully, our hotel's driver is waiting at the bus stop in the pitch darkness to pick us up at 6am, bless him, only it's not the taxi we'd arranged, but a motorbike taxi. He was a little over-optimistic, seriously planning on taking 2 6-footers, 2 large rucksacks, 2 daysacks and another shoulderbag to the hotel on one clapped-out bike. Finally giving in, he calls a mate over to help and we make the journey to the hotel, which, thank God, is lovely. For a two-star. We're shown to our rooms and collapse.
When we woke up we realised that we have a large balcony, seaviews and a lovely ensuite with... a bath. A luxury for a traveller.
Feeling better, we explored the city, taking in the huge sleeping Buddha statue, the Long Son pagoda and the Hindu temple, where the monks were sleeping.
We walked along the picturesque beach, watched the stage being set for that night's concert and had lunch at a restaurant before heading back to rest and change for the night's celebration for Tet and the Chinese New Year.
That evening we headed down to the beach along with a mere 40,000 others to watch the show. Brightly-coloured costumes filled the stage as the live music filled the air. Being the only ones on foot, we managed to get a good postion at the front. Almost everyone else had driven to the square on motorbikes and were staying on them, lined up neatly for miles around.Young men in red satin costumes played the drums and danced, neon dragons on metal sticks were paraded across the stage.The dancing and music continued, followed by parades beautiful young girls dressed in the traditional dress of "ao dai", a silk tunic slit to the waist with elegant wide-legged trousers. The atmosphere was happy, charged, but without the alcohol-fuelled menacing air that often happens in England at such large events.
We took a break to get some dinner, before returning to the beach to watch the rest of the show and catch the fireworks. By now, there were even more people, although we only saw a handful of westerners and were aware of locals gawping at us and whispering, but in a nice way. The people here are extremely polite and friendly towards us, as they have been all over South-East Asia, smiling and calling hello to us. Ok, so it's usually followed with requests that we buy something, but people have also stopped their bikes to offer help if they've seen us looking at a map or looking lost, for example. We've never felt in danger or had any "encounters" as we did in South America.
We watched the fireworks from the beach, which were being let off simultaneously on 2boats out at sea - it was an amazing display and must have cost a fortune.Despite the size of the crowd, it was peaceful to watch, with just the "oohs" and "aaahs" in stereo all around us to remind us that we were not alone.
It had been a fantastic and memorable night, and a stroke of luck that we just happened to be in Vietnam for Vietnamese and Chinese New Year...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was the motorbikes. Literally. Well, almost.Crossing the road after piling off the long-distance bus from Cambodia, we were almost run over by the spider's web of motorbikes that criss-crossed the main roads. Indeed, we were so overwhelmed that when a Vietnamese man with a taxi beckoned to us to get in we couldn't wait to escape the chaos all around us and jumped in. Having been travelling for almost five months now, I knew to agree a price beforehand, but he insisted that he had a meter so we clambered in. What he didn't say, however, was that his crafty little hands had been tampering with the aforementioned meter and within a few minutes it was reading 100,000 dong. Which is about 4 quid. Not as scary as it sounds in Dong I know , but a complete rip-off nonetheless. I started pulling him up on his dodgy money-making scheme, gesticulating wildly, and asked him to turn off the meter. Suddenly, he developed a classic case of selective hearing and went completely deaf. "Stop the car, we're getting out here, " I shrieked in his earhole, the meter now on 210,000 dong. As we'd only been in the car for 5 minutes, I reckon he had his meter set to "London black cab." I argued the price but he was having none of it, so I chucked a 200,000 dong note at him resentfully and we huffed out of the cab, dragging our rucksacks, daysacks, books and a handbag with us off into the humid evening. We weren't even at our chosen hotel. Upon finally finding accommodation that wasn't on the 4th floor of a block with no lifts, we checked in and collapsed. Out of interest, I asked the guy on reception how much a taxi should have cost: "about 20,000 dong max...". Oh well...
I went to the cashpoint to get some money out. All the options were in the millions. I randomly selected 3 million (about 120 quid) and feeling like millionaires, we set off to explore the city and have a few drinks.
No sooner had we left our hostel than we bumped into 2 lads from Leeds who we'd met a few days earlier in Cambodia, at the shooting range. They'd recognised me from the dreaded "Ibiza Uncovered," (my second recognition in 2 days due to Sky's current reruns) and we'd got talking. Calling us over to join them, we ordered some drinks. And some more."One for the road?". "Why not?". By 1am we'd ploughed our way through the cocktail menu and were staring in amazement at the strange scene playing out in the street in front of us:
Two bikes had crashed into each other. Both passengers were a bit dazed, then suddenly one of the motorcyclists jumped up off the floor and started punching the other guy who'd just picked himself up. He knocked him clean out. Then ensued a huge fight, with bikes swerving, people rubber-necking and near-misses taking place. It was a crazy sight.
Forget New York, Saigon is a city that never sleeps. Watching the action on the streets is like watching a movie on fast-forward..even more frantic than the hectic scenes we witnessed in Cambodia. There are so many bikes on the road that motorists start riding on the pavement too. Pedestrians scatter like skittles trying to avoid becoming another statistic. Honking your horn is not something you do occasionally if someone cuts you up - in Vietnam it's essential, like breathing. A policeman who's supposed to be directing traffic stands helplessy with his arms by his side, baton dangling, in the middle of the road whilst everyone completely ignores him.
The sound is deafening. I'm sure it's chaotic anyway, but combine that with the fact that it's currently Chinese New Year and Vietnamese New Year (called Tet) here and it's a recipe for a heart attack. Crossing the road you just have to close your eyes and hope for the best. Freeze in a panic (like I did) and you're more likely to get mown down. In the last week, we've witnessed 4 accidents (we were the victims in one of them.)
After drinking the bar dry, we all agreed to meet up the following morning to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a rabbit warren constructed by the Vietnamese in order to avoid the bombs dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Obviously, when the morning came around we were all nursing a mild hangover and weren't really relishing the prospect of crawling around on hands and knees in hot, dirty underground tunnels. We met up with Richard and Danny, resolving to do the tour the following day instead. Liam and I then went off in search of food and found a great place with a cinema upstairs and decided that a cool drink and a darkened room was just the place to recover from the previous night's frivolities. The fact that there was a film on too was just a bonus. We emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight, a few hours later having watched Slumdog Millionaire feeling much better and continued our sight-seeing.
The next morning we set off bright and early for our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Having hit it hard on the cheap booze again, The Northerners were nowhere to be seen. Lightweights.
Luckily, I had the tickets so Liam and I joined the tour on our own and set off for the Cu Chi tunnels, stopping on the way to visit an art factory, where people who had been disabled by the chemicals dropped on Vietnam by America during the war. The chemical, called Agent Orange, was a herbicide meant to defoliate the countryside and wipe out al the food and vegetation. It also had the effect of disabling thousands of people and causing birth defects in their children.We watched them work painstakingly with tweezers, applying tiny fragments of broken eggshell to decorative artworks, then laquering them, with impressive results.
A few hours later we arrived at the tunnels. Our guide was an eccentric Vietnamese veteran of war - a skinny little old man with a huge personality, which made the tour all the more interesting. He showed us various booby traps that the Vietnamese set for the Americans, such as a grass-covered trap door that gives way to reveal deadly pointed shards of bamboo. He showed us huge craters left by B-52's, old bombshells, tanks and other remnants of war. Then came the piece de la resistance..the tunnels themselves.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a complex network of tunnels that run over 3 levels underground - around 4, 8 and 12 metres deep. As they get deeper, so the tunnels get smaller, so that even the Vietnamese, who are tiny, had trouble squeezing through. These tunnels became home to thousands of Vietnamese during the war - people lived underground, eating, sleeping and working here. People were married underground, there were honeymoon suites, a maternity hospital, kitchens and armouries. The tunnels continue for over 250 Kilometres, stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border.
Much to the frustation of the Americans, the tunnels were undetectable from the surface and the American soldiers used sniffer dogs to try and find the entrances to these warrens, located deep in the forest. The main entrance was in fact underwater, so the Vetnamese would swim to the surface at night to wash in the river and clean their clothes. Since the Americans didn't fight at night, they did so in safety.
The Viet Cong soldiers even tunnelled their way directly into the Americans' barracks, stealing their weapons in the dead of night. Our guide explained that as the Vietnamese army couldn't afford such expensive guns that as well as stealing them from the Americans, they also drew on other natural ways to defeat their enemy, such as positioning beehives, boobytraps and scorpions where they knew they would cause maximum damage.
Soon it was time for us to go down into the tunnels. I wasn't feeling too keen on this seeing as it was about 30 degrees, humid and dark in there, but knew it was essential in order to really understand how they worked. We had to crawl on our hands and knees - me in a nice silk dress, the rest of the group in shorts and t-shirts.
After only a few minutes we felt claustrophobic and hot as the tunnels were so narrow. And these were the tunnels that had actually been widened for tourists. Fortunately, there were evenly-spaced "emergency exits" that led up to ground level, which I took advantage of after about 60 metres.
Following the tour we went back to Saigon city and spent the next day or so sampling the local food (though not the cockroaches, as one of the Northern boys did), drinks and generally getting into the spirit of the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and Chinese New Year celebrations.
We agreed it would be great to celebrate Tet at the beach concert in Nha Trang rather than the smoggy city so booked ourselves onto the sleeper bus out of the city on Saturday, ready for the festival on Sunday night...

Friday, 23 January 2009

Wildlife Sanctuary and Wat Phnom

After the horrors of the previous day we decided to lighten things up a little with a visit to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Santuary - a shelter for rescued animals. After several near misses in out tuk-tuk on the way there we were a little disappointed with our first sight of the sanctuary - it appeared deserted, depressing and underfunded,almost completely run by kids.
Some kids sprang from nowhere, offering to be our guides, and led us the entrance, where a pregnant deer with a broken leg was grazing. Tugging at the heartstrings, the kids offered to sell us some bananas and coconuts as food for the animals. I thought this was supposed to be our fun day, with none of the sadness of the previous one? I didn't think I could take another tear-jerking day of grief.
It is bad enough seeing all the human victims of landmines, without meeting all the animal ones too. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with an estimated 6 million unexploded landmines still littering the landscape.
"Never EVER stray from the path" , warned the Lonely Planet. I hadn't even thought of mines as I'd gone into the bushes to answer the call of nature the previous day.
The sanctuary turned out to be better than expected, even if the streetkids DID relieve us of precious dollars every time we came to another orphaned or maimed animal. I didn't realise that bears ate coconuts,and stared wide-eyed as the children tossed in our overpriced purchases. The baby bears tore them open and drank the juice before devouring white flesh. (the coconut's not mine, fortunately)
And so the tour continued..my favourite animals were the gibbons, swinging like gymnasts with ridiculously long arms from their many poles.
When we came to the footless baby elephant, I began to smell a rat. Once again,we were asked for cash, this time for a new foot for Chouk. Bereft and now skint too, we politely declined. When I asked what had happened to her foot,the keeper said she had got stuck in a snare. Her foot is probably an ashtray now, or maybe an umbrella stand.
After fleecing us of any "spare" cash (as if any traveller has spare money knocking about) we sat down to lunch with our driver. Seeing as tourists pay around 3 times what a local would pay for food, we decided to let Sambath order. Big mistake.
The "food" arrived. Thinking it was beef in black bean sauce, I began serving it onto my plate. Then, on closer inspection, I realised it was actually the bony knuckles and kneecaps of chicken. Oblivious to my disgust,Sambath began tossing these knuckles into his mouth, crunching bones and cartilage before spitting the remains back out.Gross.When I saw a whole chickens foot, complete with claws, on the plate I had to subtley put my lunch down and turn away, pretending I was full after only a few mouthfuls of rice.
The sadness of Phnom Penh, combined with the dodgy meals and an abundance of lone middle-aged Western men with questionable motives for visiting the city, meant that we were eager to leave for Sihanoukville...
Unfortunately the Vietnamese Immigration Department would only issue us with a 15-day visa for Vietnam, bought for us through our hotel reception for 30 dollars each. This meant that we had to leave immediately for Saigon, since the clock was ticking on our visa, yet we hadn't even visited Sihanoukville yet. Any dreams of beach life were banished as we packed our bags and hurridly left for Saigon in Vietnam, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Another bustling city. Oh well,we'd just have to squeeze some beach action in later....

S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields

As our bus pulled into Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers clambered over each other, forming a scrum as they competed for our business. It was like being a movie star on the red carpet, with paparazzi shouting your name and trying to get your attention..only less glamorous.
"You want tuk-tuk?" shout the men. "Mine has air-con," jokes another, pointing to his vehicle. As all tuk-tuk's are just basic open-air carriages attached to a motorbike they all inadvertently benefit from a cooling system I guess.
Searching out the least dodgy-looking tuk-tuk driver, we select one with a round, warm face and climb in. The reason we chose so carefully was because once you've taken a tuk-tuk, it's hard to shake off the driver, who will cling to you long after the journey is complete, a bit like a bull mastif with a stick. You literally have to prise their salivating jaws from you in order to disembark, so eager are they to be your driver for the duration of your stay. Having been driven around several unsavoury guesthouses (even though they were in the Lonely Planet), he finally suggested a budget hotel that he knew. Having inspected the umpteenth room and agreed a price with the manager, I went back to the tuk-tuk to retrieve our bags and Liam, who was animatedly doing a deal with Mr Tuk-tuk for 3 days' chauffeuring around Phnom Penh and the surrounding countryside.
Agreeing to pick us up at 9am the next morning, Sambath drove off into the sunset, happy now he could feed his family for another few days.
The next morning we went downstairs to find a cheap place for breakfast to find Sambath waiting patiently for us outside, 30 minutes before the agreed pick-up time. As these drivers tend to congregate around hotel entrances, he had been worried that we may go off with another driver. I wondered if he'd been there all night...
We knew that Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor had shown the awe-inspiring beauty of Cambodia, but also that the country had a sad and tragic history, which we would be presented with in Phnom Penh...
After stopping at the riverside for breakfast, the first place we had arranged to visit was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the S21 Prison. Now this may sound a somewhat morbid choice of venues but we were assured that to really understand Cambodia and it's people we must first learn about it's bloody past.
During the late 1960's Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War. The US began secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia and shortly after the 1970 coup, American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country to root out Vietnamese communist forces. The country plunged into Civil War, ending only after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The Khmer Rouge, led by the evil Pol Pot,then implemented one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen. Within hours of taking over they had begun to systematically round people up, particularly those who were educated or wore spectacles. Once Tuol Svay Prey high school, Pol Pot turned this instead into the infamous S-21 prison, where over 20,000 were taken, tortured and dumped in mass graves between 1975-79. Only 7 people survived.
Walking through the silent corridoors it was possible to imagine it as a school, that is until we stepped into one of the rooms. Instead of desks and chairs, there was a single rusty metal bed, leg irons and a small metal bucket. On the wall was black-and-white photograph of the same room and furniture, only in the picture there is a horrifically dismemebered body on the bed, pools of blood underneath. When the prison was finally discovered after the fall of the Khmer rouge in 1979 (soldiers were led there by the smell of decomposing bodies), this was the exact scene that greeted them. Our tour guide took us through many rooms like this, each with a few items of torture or a bed and a picture on the wall depicting what was found in each room. To prove that the items in the room were authentic, she pointed out a dent in one of the beds which was the same in the photo. It was extremely distressing to pass through these rooms and see what had happened 30 years ago on the exact spot that we were standing.
These poor victims had been plucked freom their homes, for no better reason than the fact that they were educated and that Pol Pot wanted to "start again" as Year Zero, with "fresh" citizens, the abolishment of money and a peasant-dominated cooperative.
At this very high school now called S-21, thousands of people were tortured, with an average of 100 innocent people dying every day. Those who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. Those who survived were driven in the dead of night to Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves.
We were shown various torture devices used for pulling out people's fingernails, dunking people underwater, stretching limbs, electrocution, boxes for containing scorpions used to sting victims into false confessions...
Victims were also stabbed, hit, the list of horrific acts goes on.You get the picture. Classrooms were converted into tiny cells, or left as they were but with 20 people shackled together with leg irons. We were shown a blackboard, once innocently used by teachers, now used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to write a list of rules for prisoners. For some reason that was one of the things that disturbed me the most - seeing the rules written in chalk in curly, girly writing, orders such as "do not speak, remain totally silent, do no move unless ordered to do so..." The writing looked childlike, and in the next room we found out why...
On the walls were pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge of hundreds of their victims before they were killed, numbers tagged to their clothes for identification. The terror these poor people were feeling showed in the mugshots, many of them children or teenagers, some were even holding their babies, who were also executed in cold blood. Then the guide pointed out the soldiers who had carried out the killings...children themselves, many of them under 18 years old. It soon became apparent that many of those perpetrating such atrocities were also victims themselves - children who had been forced to join the regime as soldiers, or who had joined voluntarily, not knowing what disgusting tasks would be required of them.
As the sunlight reflected the bars on the windows onto the glass frames containing these tragic portraits, it gave an eerie, ghostly quality that made me want to escape the confines of this haunting place.
Out in the sunshine, I was glad to leave this disturbing memorial, amazed that such horrendous acts could have taken place so recently, during my lifetime. It was shocking to think that all this was going on here, whilst I was being bounced on someone's knee and gurgling innocently on the other side of the world. I said as much to Liam, who gently reminded me that such atrocities are STILL going on today, only this time in Zimbabwe..
Our history lesson not over yet, our driver continued on to Choeung Ek, the "killing fields", where excavations in 1980 uncovered around 17,000 bodies of those held at the nearby S-21.
There is a huge white memorial called a "stupa", which has glass windows and contains the skulls of 9000 victims. A truly unforgettable sight. Other bones are encased underneath, and there are piles and piles of the victims' clothes.
The fields themselves are dotted with 129 huge grassy craters, mass graves which have now been excavated. Hundreds of people were found in each one, many headless,or grouped by sex or age. The victims were made to crouch, were shot or beaten about the head,then rolled directly into the mass graves.
We walked silently amongst the huge ditches, both noticing something at the exact same time...the areas where the bodies had been were now host to hundreds of beautiful butterflies, all fluttering in and around the grave sites. Thinking this must just be a lush area where there are naturally lots of butterflies we looked around us. The other side of the fields and the surrounding areas where there were no graves had hardly any butterflies. They definitely appeared to be clustered only in the direct area of the graves. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence, but it was both a beautiful and haunting sight nontheless...
The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown in 1979, but not before they had tortured and killed around 3 million Cambodian people, one fifth of the entire population.
In the newspapers here there are details of the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders, due to start next month, 30 years after the killings took place. Unfortunately, several key defendants have already died, including the evil Pol Pot, who escaped justice when he died in 1998.
And so ends my history lesson.
Before heading back to the hostel for a stiff drink (medicinal of course to help with the shock of what we'd seen), our driver suggested we visit the shooting range. I was conspicuous as the only female for miles around, as testosterone-fuelled guys fired live rounds at the targets. Liam opted to fire an AK-47, so I hovered nearby as the official photographer. I'd hardly had time to switch the camera on before Liam was firing away, trigger-happy as he discharged the entire 30 bullets he'd paid 40 dollars for in about 20 seconds. That was 2 night's accommodation.The staff at the range thrust the menu back to Liam, offering him a choice of M-16's, rocket launchers and other such monsters available for a hefty fee. "For an extra charge you can shoot a chicken or even a cow, " we were told gleefully. "No, I'm not in the mood to kill anything, funnily enough..."
It had been a stressful, sad day, but left me admiring the Cambodians even more - these strong people who have suffered so much yet are still one of the friendliest, most good-humoured nationalities we'd met on this whole trip.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Journey to Phnom Penh...TARANTULAS!!!

We were jolted awake by our alarm ringing in the darkness for the fifth day in a row..this sight-seeing business can be pretty demanding...and dressed whilst half-asleep for the early bus to Phnom Penh. Amazingly, the minibus to take us to the bus station turned up on time. Then, even more amazingly, the main bus left on time too. Will wonders never cease?!
We settled down for the 5hr journey and attempted to get comfortable, despite the fact that the Cambodian people are tiny and our limbs had to be bent into unnatural shapes to fit in the seats. The little Khmer lady in front of Liam slammed her seat back as far as it would go, meaning that Liam had to have his legs either side of the seat and the old woman's head practically in his lap. I tried to surpress my laughter.
After 5 hours or so I thought we'd scored a hat trick of miracles when the bus pulled into a bus station. Surely we couldn't have arrived at our destination on time? "Of course not," laughed the driver when I asked him. "We have a short break." Hmm, I guessed as much.
We got off the bus to stretch our legs and were immediately accosted by groups of kids touting their wares - soggy , warm pineapple is not that appealing but I felt sorry for them so bought a couple of sweaty plastic bags of it anyway. Groggy from the journey, I hadn't actually noticed until this point that the kids were covered in....TARANTULAS!!!!
I screamed as they yanked them off their t-shirts and began thrusting them towards me, saying "you like spider madam?". "No," I screeched as I took off across the marketplace. "No bite, friendly spider, " they called after me.
Once I had managed to reduce my heartrate to a normal level, I walked gingerly back to where Liam was happily allowing the girls to attach the huge furry tarantulas to his t-shirt. I'd held the python the day before, but I definitely drew the line at these badboys.
I looked over at the market, wondering what those crispy black things were on the silver platters that all the women were selling. More tarantulas, no less! So the women cook the tarantulas to sell as crisy snacks, whilst a few escape the cooking pot and become pets for their children. I was horrified, although I preferred the company of the deep-fried variety, glad that the cretins had got what they had coming to them.
The huge cooked spiders were accompanied by deep-fried locusts and crickets. I stared at them bug-eyed, wondering who on earth eats these things. Everyone in Cambodia, it seems. The other local delicacy here are duck embryos, which are incubated under hot lights then removed from the shell and eaten whole. I thought I'd seen it all when I saw people chowing down on roasted guinea pigs in Peru but this really takes the biscuit.
After 20 minutes of near heart-attacks as the children dropped their "pets" near my feet and chucked them about near me I could take no more and scrambled back on the bus, where thankfully the driver was now ready to continue the journey., refuelled on crispy duck embryos and a side order of tarantula no doubt.
The bus driver then proceeded to honk his horn annoyingly all the way to Phnom Penh, arriving only 2 hours later than promised....

Siem Reap and the Floating Village

After spending 2 full days climbing amongst the rubble of the lost city of Angkor we were all temple'd out so on the third morning in Siem Reap we jumped in the tuk-tuk and headed for the countryside. Our driver was very enthusiastic about showing us the floating village on the Tonle Sap river, which flows into the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest lake. During the rainy season (June to Oct) the water flows northwest into the Tonle Sap. As the Mekong river falls during the dry season (Nov to May) , the Tonle Sap river reverses it's direction of flow. This unique process makes the Tonle Sap one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish, hence why thousands of people live on the river.
As we drove into the countryside we were aware of the poverty becoming more apparent - children ran alongside the tuk-tuk begging for money in dirty clothes, smiling and singing "hello, hello" over and over again, whilst their elders sat at the side of the road offering us small cooking pots to put our spare riels into.
The homes of these people were small wooden huts built on stilts over the paddy fields. Some of them looked at though they were about to keel over at any moment (the people as well as their homes), yet they still managed to support large extended families. As we drove by the locals gawped at us and then smiled or waved and we waved and attempted to smile back without ingesting mouthfulls of the red dirt which was flying up from the dusty road.
Eventually we came to a steep riverbank and were directed to a long boat, or "sampan". I immediately regretted wearing a dress as I clambered awkwardly onto the boat. We bought our tickets and met our driver and guide, who explained that the people who lived on the river were Vietnamese fishermen and their families who had fled Vietnam during the war. We cruised along the river, where thousands of people live in little huts on stilts. As the average family in Cambodia has 7 or more children, there were children everywhere, swimming in the river (which was filthy-looking), playing with their siblings and generally swinging about like monkeys from hut to hut. Even the toddlers were climbing on and off boats and playing over the water, narrowly missing falling in yet their parents showed little concern.
As we passed by, we saw a floating pigpen, a floating orphanage, floating vegetable markets, schools, basketball pitches - everything you'd expect to find in an ordinary village, only floating on the river. I wondered how they felt about the boatloads of tourists like us who pass by every day, snapping away and staring at them llike animals in the zoo.
Our driver stopped to show us the floating fish farm and then the crocodile farm, where lots of angry crocs were snapping about on top of each other.
We stopped for a cold drink at a floating restaurant and a little girl came up to us with a huge python wrapped around her neck, offering it to me to hold. I don't know what I was thinking but I took it from her wrapped it around my neck and posed for a couple of wide-eyed pics before passing it onto Liam, who bravely did the same before handing it back as it started constricting around him. There was pandomonium later in the little gift shop when a snake escaped from a hessian bag and bit a child, before zigzagging off across the floor. We bought some pencils and exercise books for the children in the orphanage (for an extortionate amount) and continued on the river to the orphanage, where we found a teacher barely controlling a small classroom full of young children. As I climbed back on the boat I almost fell into the murky water, (much to the amusement of our guide), just managing to grab hold of a wooden post in time, skinning my shins in the process.
Although Cambodia is cheap, everyone expects to be tipped, for you to give them money or to buy products at greatly inflated prices. Westerners are seen as millionaires, cash cows to be milked until their metaphical udders run dry.
Other travellers have told us that in the last 3 years prices for foreigners have increased greatly due to increased tourism - for example the guide who told us about the floating village charged 10 US dollars (about 7 pounds at the moment) for an hour's work. What we've saved in room rates and food we've made up for in tips, guides and paying over the odds for drinks etc. Whilst you accept that this is how it is and you do want to help the people it can get a little wearing at times, particularly when someone has sidled up and started offering you information that you didn't want or request then demanded money for it.
After the floating village tour it was off to a few last temples called the Roluos Group before dinner and returning to our hostel to pack our bags and catch an early night, ready for the early-morning bus to the capital, Phnom Penh. If this journey was anything like the last we'd need all the strength we could muster...

Saturday, 17 January 2009


Earlier that day we'd been marvelling at how the road users were so adept at coping with the chaos of the streets without the benefit of traffic lights, taking every unexpected manouvre in their stride and making quick life-saving decisions every few minutes.
We were soon eating our words however, as our tuk-tuk driver almost killed us in a road accident. The words of the travel operator in London resounded in my head, "the biggest cause of death or injury for a traveller is a road accident."
Our young driver had taken his eye off the ball for a moment,long enough that he didn't notice that the Toyota Hilux pickup in front of us had braked pretty sharply. It was a main road, jam-packed with traffic coming from all angles, so the driver had little choice but to plough into the back of it. On my side of the tuk-tuk was a coach full of tourists, which we also hit. The side of the tuk-tuk buckled and the bumper of the coach caved in with that horrible crunching sound of metal on metal. I instinctively brought my hands up to my face, narrowly missing getting my arm crushed between both vehicles. Miraculously we all escaped unscathed, but that was the end of our sightseeing tour, and as our driver was dealing with the police crowds gathered and everyone piled off of the coach to survey the damage.When the drama was finally over we returned to our hostel a little shaken. The next morning that same driver showed up beaming away as if nothing had happened, the damage to the tuk-tuk patched up sufficiently to be almost unnoticable. Gluttons for punishment, we climbed aboard and continued with the tour...

The Temples of Angkor

As soon as we awoke the next morning we set about moving to a better guesthouse, stopping only briefly to eat breakfast. For the first time in weeks, it didn't have a hair in it, which cheered us up no end.
Tuk-tuk drivers lined the streets, each clambering for business by offering transport to the many temples in Siem Reap. We decided to explore the city for a while before committing to anything, and hired a tuk-tuk for a tour of the local area. We agreed on $2 for half an hour and so began a hair-raising introduction to Cambodia. The busy streets were a frenzy of bicycles, motorbikes and tuk-tuks all driving in apparently random directions, honking horns and ringing bells. The only rule of the road seemed to be NO STOPPING, as vehicles swerved to avoid each other. At roundabouts noone gave way,rather it was a free-for-all as everyone attempted to go at once. Despite the chaos, the tanned faces remained calm and impassive, even the tiny children who were squashed between various other family members on the battered motorbikes. The only ones registering the potential for disaster were us, who clung to the sides of the tuk-tuk as if it were a white-knuckle ride at Alton Towers.Never have I seen so much going on at once - I attempted to take a few photgraphs but didn't know where to look first - everywhere I turned a scene more jaw-dropping than the last was unfolding. Coupled with the fact that we were spinning around as if we were on a waltzer at the fairground, we soon gave up trying to get a good shot. Motorbikes were stacked high with unlikely cargo : pigs, chickens, large panes of glass (sideways on), entire families (I counted 6 on one bike), trays of eggs stacked high..the madness continued. The children in Cambodia are absolutely gorgeous and so friendly - running alongside the tuk-tuk waving furiously and shouting hello, smiling shyly when we waved back. I can see why Brad and Angelina couldn't resist. Despite the poverty the children all appear happy and smiley, content to be playing in the dusty roads with a puppy and their many siblings. It's impossible not to compare them with our largely-spoiled children in the west, always wanting the next new toy and demanding the latest trainers, but still never content.
That afternoon the heat was beginning to get to us so we returned to our guesthouse and arranged a tuk-tuk driver to look after us for the next 3 days, ferrying us to the famous temples and the floating village in the countryside.
That evening the driver (whose name I couldn't even say, let alone spell) picked us up and drove us to a temple called Angkor Wat, which was an ancient royal city monastery built around a thousand years ago. It seems we weren't the only ones wanting to watch the sun set over this breathtaking ruin - tuk-tuk-loads of tourists were also making the pilgrimage to this holy site. We purchased our 3-day pass to the huge archeological site and continued on to the temple...
Angkor Wat is a huge stone work of art, with intricate carvings adorning the walls depicting battle scenes, buddhas and other religious figures, as well as huge stone dragons & elephants. The sheer scale and size of the royal city was amazing - it's hard to put into words just how it feels to walk around ancient ruins so steeped in history. I won't bother to spout cheesy cliches, but the hairs on my arms DID stand on end at times.
The next morning our driver picked us up at 5am in order to return to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Again, a crocodile of tourists led up to temple awaiting sunrise, even at 5am when it was still pitch black. All you could see was a chain of flashlights, which we hadn't thought to bring and so stumbled around the site looking for a good place to pitch up and await sunup. Luckily it was worth the wait, and the sky turned from black to purple to pink to blue as the sun made it's way into the sky - the perfect backdrop to such amazing craftsmanship.
We spent several hours wandering amongst the ruins of many temples - there are more than 15 different sites, all with varying styles and designs. We both agreed that Angkor Thom was our favourite, with an impressive 181 huge faces of Buddha carved into the temple towers. I think I took a picture of every single one.
It was an amazing sight, something I'll never forget, and a definite highlight of our trip so far, which takes some doing as we've seen so many awe-inspiring things. Of course, where there are tourists there will be beggars and vendors, but there were almost as many children selling various obscure objects as there were tourists. Their wares ranged from the obvious: water, postcards, guidebooks, to the not-so-obvious: flutes, puppets, bracelets...
As I said, the little urchins were so cute that we ended up buying all manner of useless stuff and by the end of the day my bag was bulging with fridge magnets, flutes, books, postcards etc. We kept saying that we wouldn't buy another thing, but then one of the kids would look at us with huge sad eyes and before I knew it I was buying a CD of the music being played by landmine victims (all missing limbs yet smiling away at us) and all sorts of stuff that we neither needed nor wanted.
By the afternoon we were exhausted and returned to our hostel covered in red dust from the road and red-faced from the baking sun..
The following day was spent visiting more temples and climbing amongst the ruins, marvelling at how they came to be in existence in the first place. Our jaws ached from smiling for so many photos of us standing in front of various ancient doorways, many of which were used in the Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie. The temples are home to hundreds of monkeys, who boldly climbed all over peoples heads (I kept my distance, not fancying rabies at this point in the trip). A group of Aussies showed no such fear and soon the monkeys had stolen a flip-flop, a can of Coke (and drunk it) and a foot-long baguette.
After another full-on day of sightseeing, we collapsed back into the tuk-tuk having agreed with our driver that he'd take us to the final group of temples. Little did we know that disaster was about to strike....

Bangkok to Cambodia (via God-knows-where)

We had been told by the honest-looking tour operator that the bus journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia, would take around 10 hours. We automatically added on a few hours to allow for "Thai time" and booked the earliest bus to give us plenty of time to find accommodation upon arrival. We had heard about a scam whereby the driver purposely takes a longer, bumpier route than necessary in order to ensure that the bus arrives late at night. He will then drive straight to the guesthouse of a relative who pays him commission, and as it is so late at night and the travellers are so exhausted they agree to stay at the substandard guesthouse. Determined not to be sucked into such a ploy, we made sure that the border crossing to be used was at Poipet, the most efficient checkpoint,said the Lonely Planet.
It didn't get off to a good start - we got up bright and early and strode purposefully towards where we thought the tour office was. What we hadn't taken into account when mentally noting landmarks was the fact that at that time of the morning the market and shops would all be closed. The Khao San Rd area looked like a different place without the brightly-coloured stalls and bustling streets, and there were at least 30 different tour operators in the immediate vicinity. Huffing and puffing with our heavily-laden rucksacks on our backs, we eventually found the right meeting spot, outside the Canary Travel tour office. We needn't have worried..the operator who was due to round everyone up and lead us to the bus Pied Piper-style was 20 minutes late, then when we went to meet the bus it didn't show for another 45 minutes, then when it did finally arrive and park up right in the middle of a roundabout the driver forgot to put his handbrake on and the coach full of open-mouthed tourists started rolling backwards, careering across the main road. All the guys grabbed hold of the bus and managed to bring it to a halt as the driver leapt aboard and pulled on the handbrake. Disaster averted, we all clambered on board, where the tour operator began pressure-selling Cambodian Visa assistance, saying (falsely) that we'd have a tough time at the border should we attempt to arrange the visas ourselves. Thankfully we didn't buckle and arranging the visas at Poipet was probably the easiest part of the day.
Crossing the border into Cambodia, the roads took a distinct turn for the worse. We were instructed to change bus for the third time that day, this time for a smaller, ramshackle local vehicle with no headrests and hardly any legroom.Whoever designed that bus must have been some kind of masochist. Folding ourselves into the seats like a couple of contortionists, we took out our inflatable neck pillows and attempted, ridiculously,to sleep. Any hopes of slipping into unconsciousness were dashed when the bus began juddering it's way over gravel and dirt tracks, jolting us around like crash-test dummies. It wasn't neck pillows we needed so much as neck braces and a couple of gumshields as our teeth rattled in our heads and almost got knocked out on a few occasions as our driver did emergency stops at every opportunity. At least we knew the brakes were working. What was supposed to have been a 10hr journey turned into 12hrs, 14hrs and finally 15 long and painful hours in that old boneshaker.
Having left at 7am, we should have arrived at 5pm but instead we rolled into the dusty driveway of a shabby-looking old guesthouse at around 10pm. It had already dawned on us that the old commission scam was alive and kicking, and sure enough the guide told us that this was (by sheer coincidence) his uncle's hostel, and he would kindly arrange cheap rooms for the entire busload of disgruntled, weary tourists. Quelle surprise...
The rooms were sparse, unwelcoming cells and had we arrived at any other time of day we'd have turned our noses up and looked elsewhere but under the circumstances we practically ripped his arm off. It's a sorry state of affairs when a landlord has to go to such lengths to get custom, we agreed, and duly paid the room rate without a struggle. Well, it was only 6 US dollars.We were so exhausted we could barely string a sentence together so we didn't bother to haggle. We were asleep as soon as our heads hit the dusty pillows, which at least meant we didn't have much time to take in the grotty surroundings...

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Patpong, Bangkok and the foiled Gem scam

After a short and pleasant flight (well, apart from being served up a grey circle of processed meat in a bap) we arrived at Bangkok airport from Koh Samui. We were planning a big night out with my friend Mark, whom I'd worked with in Ibiza 11 years earlier and had not seen in 10 years. As he is currently living in Bangkok he promised to show us the sights. Although some of the sights he showed us I wish we hadn't seen...
The night didn't get off to a great start when we touched down at Bangkok and I switched on my mobile to a text from Mark informing us that there was an election in Bangkok that night, so no bars or shops would be selling alcohol until midnight on Sunday. We were exasperated - I mean why hold an election on a Saturday night? It seemed absurd.
We gathered up all our worldy goods onto our backs and negotiated our way back to the Khao San Rd, where we hunted out suitable budget accommodation. Arriving at the Khao San Palace we discovered that this title was pretty undeserved and the room rate was double what had been advertised ("only deluxe room available Madam"). Eager to get out on the town , we accepted it anyway and hurried upstairs to get ready. "If this is the deluxe suite, I wonder what the basic room is like, " I pondered aloud, scanning the room dubiously. The walls were dirty, there was one holey sheet on the bed and no topsheet and the shower was a feeble shower head positioned above the toilet, despite there being plenty of room for it elsewhere in the bathroom. It was a bit of a jolt after the luxury of the villa in Koh Samui but we tried to readjust ourselves back into penniless traveller mode and carried on...
Changed and ready, we took a taxi to Mark's apartment off the Sukhumvit Rd where he was having a drink with his friends before heading to Patpong. We had heard about the seedy nature of the area but seeing as it was the only district to be serving alcohol during the ban we swallowed our pride and headed out to a show...
Stepping out of the taxi we were greeted with flashing neon signs, go-go bars, begging children and a bustling street market selling everything from counterfeit sunglasses to fake tattoo sleeves (which Louise bought two of later that night.)
Bracing ourselves we allowed ourselves to be ushered into a Ping Pong Show, where the promoter assured us we'd get our first drink for free. Agreeing that we'd just stay long enough to satisfy our curiosity and have one drink we stepped inside.
I was greeted with a pingpong ball whizzing past my head, narrowly missing taking one of my eyes out, as the whole crowd inside turned to follow it's path. Not the calm and controlled entrance I'd been hoping to make but still, at least it hadn't hit me. I shuddered as I contemplated explaining to an STD clinic how I'd managed to get an infection in my EYE. Yuk!
We took our seats, Louise Kirsten and I being the only females in the "establishment" - well, the only ones wearing clothes anyway.And with all our own teeth.
We ordered our drinks and sat back to watch the show, trying to avoid making eye contact with any of the girls on stage. As the club was pretty small this was more difficult than you might think and I found myself averting my gaze as the tiny Thai girls (and a couple of not-so-tiny ones) slithered up and down poles. One of the girls stepped forward and assembled her tools of the trade on the floor in front of her. I was alarmed to see darts and balloons, and before long she was spread-eagled on the floor popping balloons held above various mens' heads with parts of her anatomy that should never come into contact with darts.
And so the show continued - we saw a fat woman playing a French horn (and not with her lips, well not the ones on her face anyway), a girl who picked up plastic hoops with her nether regions and tossed them over empty bottles (I'd don't think that was what Fisher Price had in mind when they designed them), and one who produced miles of streamers from "down there". After half an hour or so we'd seen enough and made a swift exit. We gave a sigh of relief and headed for one of the "normal" bars, although I'm not sure that normal exists in Patpong.
After several more vodka redbulls and tired of being harrassed by streetkids touting their wares (Louise the sucker bought entire bouquets of red roses from the cutest ones) we headed back to Mark's and then on to the hostel, where Kirsten and Louise had just enough time for a shower and a powernap before their earlybird flight back to the UK...
Later that evening Liam and I headed out for dinner on the Khao San Rd, before going back to bed, ready for some sightseeing the next day.
The next morning we set off to arrange our tickets to Cambodia and settled on some bus tickets which would leave at 7.30am the next day,take us to the border at Poipet, wait whilst we arranged our visas into the country, then continue on to Siem Reap, arriving at 6pm that evening. Or that was the plan, but obviously when you take into account Thai Time which I mentioned earlier we knew this was unlikely to be the case.
Happy that we'd decided on a plan of action, we headed out into the streets of Bangkok to take in some sights. As we stood gazing at our Lonely Planet and trying to work out which way the King's Palace was, a little Thai man appeared out of nowhere and began chatting to us. He leaned casually against the railings of the bridge and offered us directions, not seeming to want anything in return. We should have smelled a rather large rat at this point, but allowed him to explain that the King's Palace was closed due to a public holiday, but if we liked he could draw us a map of some other temples which were worth a visit and free for tourists to enter. We studied his map and a tuk-tuk driver who just happened to be nearby took the map and agreed to take us to each of the temples for only 20 baht. Seeing as 20 baht is about 40 pence we thought he had made a mistake but he assured us that this was correct. I know that saying "if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is" but we pushed our cynicism aside and jumped into the tuk-tuk.
For the first part of the afternoon he kept to his side of the bargain, dutifully taking us to a huge standing Buddha made from gold, then to a temple where people with ragged clothes and lacking teeth spent their last baht on tiny slivers of gold leaf which they took it in turns to solemnly rub onto various religious statues.
The next 2 temples he took us to were closed and he appeared to be getting a little impatient. The final port of call on our little jaunt was a gem factory.Hmmm.. Finally, the penny dropped. We were expected to buy grossly overpriced gems in gaudy yellow gold with brightly-coloured stones which were probably fakes anyway. The driver begged us to buy something, saying that the factory would give him free gasoline if we did. Having heard first-hand of such scams and knowing people who have fallen for them, only to find their jewellery to be worthless, we made our excuses and attempted to leave.Jumping back into the tuk-tuk, our driver began to drive then thought better of it and dumped us unceremoniously into the street, shouting abuse at us. Oh well, we'd had a free afternoon's sightseeing, hadn't succumbed to their cunning plan and the poor chap hadn't even got his 20 baht, seeing as he had jumped back into his tuk-tuk and sped off into the sunset.I'd been planning to give him a generous tip as well. One point to The Walshes I guess...
By the time the morning came we'd had our fill of hectic Bangkok and were eager to continue to Cambodia. Little did we know just how much Buddhist calm would be required for the epic journey to Siem Reap, home to eighth wonder of the world, the temples of Angkor...

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Koh Samui

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for our ferry to Koh Samui. When I say "we", I mean Liam and I - we had left Louise and Kirsten to work their way through the cocktail menu before stumbling back to their bungalow at sunrise. Needless to say they were feeling a tad worse for wear, not at all looking forward to another ferry crossing like the last, which was akin to being on a spin-cycle in a washing machine.
Fortunately this time we had the benefit of a catamaran, which felt infinitely more sturdy than the previous vessel.The journey passed without any dramas. The girls even managed a little shut-eye, which would've been impossible on the last boat.
We all agreed that Koh Tao had been fantastic and were curious as to whether Koh Samui would impress us equally. First impressions...probably not. Taking a pickup to Chaweng Beach, we were greeted by that Thai delicacy...MacDonalds. The golden arches were accompanied by a Burger King, a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut. We expressed our disdain at seeing all this Westernised gluttony....and then headed straight to Pizza Hut for lunch.
Well, we WERE starving and hadn't eaten breakfast for fear of regurgitating it on the ferry.
We had come to Koh Samui to meet up with our friends Jo and Ross who had booked a luxury 5-star villa called Eden Rock, which was located between Chaweng and Lamai.
Fully recharged on deep pan delights, we took another taxi up to the villa. When I say "up" to the villa, it was a 75 degree angle uphill to the resort, on a clifftop. Impractical to get to, but the altitude of the house made for fantastic views over the Koh Samui coastline.
Welcomed by Jo and Ross, they ushered us inside where we were greeted by what can only be described as a palace, such was the sumptuous luxury of this villa.
The living area was absolutely huge, with a bar, 4-poster bed, piano, chaise-longue, pc, flatscreen tv, sofas and various other pieces of furniture all rattling around and still planty of space for a football pitch or two. Well, maybe not two.
The ceilings were so high that our voices echoed.I could picture Katherine Jenkins belting out a few classical tunes in that vast room, such were the acoustics. French doors opened out onto a balcony overlooking the infinity pool with swim-up bar and breathtaking views.
The rest of the house was just as impressive - 4-posters in all the bedrooms, huge marble sunken baths, walk-in closets, waiters and a chef..this place was seriously impressive. Even a proper diva like Marey Carey wouldn't have been able to stick out her bottom lip and find fault with this place. I kept half-expecting the crew from MTV Cribs to show up and request an interview for the next episode.
After 4 months of backpacking, such luxury brought a tear to my eye. Not having had a bath for ages, I had the taps running and my lotions and potions unpacked before you could say "freeloader", although Jo insisted it was no trouble.
Some other friends of Jo and Ross's were due over that evening so we washed and changed and generally made ourselves at home. Louise draped herself over one of the chaise-longues wearing a chiffon kaftan. She reminded me of a photoshoot I'd seen for OK magazine featuring Nancy De'llolio.When Jo had said there was plenty of space for us all to sleep over we had pictured bodies piled high on sofabeds, not that Liam and I would haver our own honeymoon suite with a bath big enough for 6 to sit in comfortably. We could hardly contain our excitement.
Later, Ross's friends Terry and Dan arrived, along with Fran, Anna and Nicki. The 11 of us got better acquainted whilst the chefs and staff busied themselves preparing a banquet fit for a king.
We all went up to the dining area and tucked into a mouth-watering meal of tiger prawns, red snapper, chicken and various other barbequed delights.
Afterwards we retreated back to the pool area where the evening began to degenerate from sophisticated soiree to drink-fuelled mayhem. Some of the boys explained a drinking game called Circle of Death whereby playing cards are arranged in a circle face down and each person takes turns to turn one over. Each card has a rule, action, or word game attached, with drinking penalties for failure to complete your task. After 2 games (and plenty of vodka, whisky and beer) the rules were being forgotten and it was all getting too confusing, so we did what any group of Brits abroad would do...we all jumped in the pool and messed about..
After drinking,dancing and working our way through the villa's extensive CD collection we decided to call it a night after one more rendition of "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics..oh, and a few plays of "the Reflex-flex-flex-flex...."
The next day we hit the beach at Lamai and indulged in several treatments - a foot-file buffing treatment whereby a Thai women removes about 2 inches of hard skin from your feet then excitedly holds up the shavings for you to see just how gross your feet were before. (I'm only five foot six now, the rest was dead skin..)
Liam and I also had a full Thai massage, where bones you didn't even know you had are cracked noisily by tiny Thai women.The girls all had a pedicure and little flowers painted on their toenails.I opted out of this one - I think my therapist was still traumatised after picking up all the dead skin from my heels..)
That evening we went for a Thai meal in Chaweng, then hit the bars for a few drinks. Unfortunately, the Brits were out in force, beering it up and springing about in an alcohol-fuelled frenzy to dodgy drum-and-bass music. We avoided this area like the plague, except for a bar called Mint, where Brandon Block was spinning old house tunes, with the help of his old mate Ricky Butcher. I told you it was tacky - I kept expecting Bianca to come screeching out from behind the decks at any moment, letting out an ear-piercing "Riickkkkkaaaayyy!!!".
We stuck it out til 4am - by this time I'd had enough of roided-up bodybuilders and bleary-eyed skinheads, no matter how good the music was...
The next day we had just enough time for a cooked breakfast by the pool and a bit of speed-sunbathing before it was time to say a sad goodbye to Ross, Jo and the beautiful villa and head to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok and the evening's entertainment - a ping-pong show in Patpong....

Koh Tao

So, we wait at the entrance to our villa complex for our driver who is due to pick us up and take us to the ferry port at Thongsala. And we wait. And we wait. When it becomes clear that the driver (who we stupidly had already paid for our ferry transfers) is not going to show we jump into the nearest pickup and hurry to the port. We needn't have bothered. Let me explain about "Thai time." If time were a person, in England he'd be an uptight businessman. In Thailand, if time were a person he'd be a dope-smoking rasta. There is simply no importance attached to time here. When Thais say the ferry leaves at 8.30am, they really mean that they'll start to think about leaving at around 9.15am, and will probably actually leave at around 9.30am. They would be sacked for tardiness within a week should they take up employment in London, not that they'd want to, obviously.
The ferry finally lurches into action after 9.30am, grossly overcrowded due to the fact that all ferries had been cancelled the previous day because of rough weather conditions. Liam and I just managed to get a seat, squeezed between two Japanese guys,whilst Kirsten and Louise wedged themselves down the other end of the boat. Then the fun began - the ferry took off at an alarming rate, bouncing off the oncoming waves with such force that every window was being soaked with spray. I had wondered how the "express" boat could do the journey in 1 1/2hrs, whilst the regular crossing took 3 hours. Now I knew - by zooming along, listing dangerously from side to side and with the front of the boat going up at 90 degree angles when it hit particularly large waves. Within minutes everyone on the boat had turned an unflattering shade of green, even several Thais. Children were throwing up their breakfast into carrier bags that their mothers had thoughtfully remembered to keep handy. Looking out of the window I saw sea, sky, sea, sky... and decided closing my eyes would be the best option.
A white-knuckle ride is not what you need first thing in the morning and by the time we reached Koh Tao we were all seriously fearing for our lives, even a group of tough-looking German guys looked terrifed. (Since that ferry ride Liam heard on the local news that a similar ferry had capsized in Indonesia, killing all 240 passengers).
I don't know if it was just that we were grateful to see dry land, but our first impressions of Koh Tao were all good - white sandy beaches, blue skies and neat little bungalows. We took a pickup to Sai Ree Beach,the area of Koh Tao famous for diving schools, and began our search for accommodation. It was very busy, being peak season, but we managed to find a couple of bungalows right next to the beach for 800 baht per person per night (16 pounds each, which wasn't as cheap as we'd hoped).
Koh Tao was beautiful and we quickly settled into a blissful routine of breakfast, sunbathe, lunch, sunbathe, dinner, cocktails and bed.
To our relief the sun shone brightly and the sea was warm and inviting. Finally we were able to work on our tans after the clouds of Koh Phangnan...
Days were spent lazing on the beach and meeting the various stray dogs on the island (by the end of our stay they all had names and different personalities) and by night we would go for a meal at one of the beachfront restaurants.This would be followed by cocktails at one of the many bars, our favourite being Lotus, which was a chilled-out bar on the beach with a DJ and some flame-throwers entertaining the crowd who reclined on embroidered cushions on the sand.
One evening we went to a party at The Castle, an open-aired club with all different areas and pumping house music. After several buckets (plastic bucket containing a gallon of Vodka, Red Bull and sometimes Sansong whisky) we were up for continuing the party so took a pickup back to Sai Ree Beach and joined the throng of people at Bann's, a plush resort and diving school near our bungalows.
Desperate to make the most of the sunshine we got up relatively early the next morning, despite having gone to bed after 5am. A full English breakfast soon sorted us out and we soaked up the rays whilst all the grease from our brekkie soaked up the alcohol.
That evening we enjoyed one last Thai meal, had a few caipirinhas and left Kirsten and Louise to continue partying whilst Liam and I took the lightweight option and went to bed, ready for our ferry to take us to Koh Samui bright and early the next morning. If it was anything like the last one, we'd need a clear head and a strong stomach for the journey...

Monday, 12 January 2009

Koh Phangan cont..

To our dismay the weather didn't improve, so we decided to rent a pick-up and drive around the island. We'd been warned about the state of the roads and how treacherous they could be, so Liam was the designated driver. I'm not saying women drivers aren't the best, but Liam took charge of the situation and us girlies were more than happy to let him. You can rent a pick-up for the equivalent of around 16 pounds per day, which was hardly anything between the 5 of us - me, Liam, Kirsten, Louise and Hannah (who we'd befriended on the train journey from Bangkok). It was my job to navigate.Hannah sat up front with Liam and I,whilst Kirsten and Louise looked cool (literally, it wasn't sunny remember) sitting in the back with their hair whipping in the wind.
We hadn't realised just how small the island was, and had travelled from Thongsala in the south east to the far north in about half an hour, taking in lush countryside covered in densely-packed palms, waterfalls and small townships. We stopped at an elaborately-decorated temple with brightly coloured ornate windows surrounded by tiny pieces of mirrored glass which made for a breathtaking sight. A few Buddhist monks dressed in the traditional orange robes and with shaven heads watched us disinterestedly as we circled the temple taking photographs, although we didn't try to enter as we were not dressed appropriately - shoulders and legs must be covered and we were wearing shorts and vest tops. We also saw elephants up in the hills, patiently waiting to pick up tourists and take them trekking. We decided against this at this stage as we have already planned to do jungle and elephant trekking when we go to Northern Thailand later in our trip.
As darkness drew in we decided to return to our villa since the roads are bad enough in daylight...
Back at the villa we showered and changed and took a pick-up to our entertainment for the evening..a Thai Kick-Boxing event. As we arrived at the outdoor stadium we could hear the beat of the music and noise of the crowd, who were drinking Chang and talking animatedly whilst awaiting the start of first match. Snake-charmer music was played to announce the start of the match and 2 Thai men climbed up into the ring, one dressed in red silk shorts, the other in blue. In Thai boxing pretty much anything is fair game - kicking, punching, pushing and slapping. Of course, it may be a bit more technical than this, but to my untrained eye this is what it looked like.
We watched a few more fights, the crowd egging on their favourites, sloshing beer about in their excitement and the atmosphere became more and more charged.I thought Louise was really getting into the match, but alas she was only jumping from foot to foot because a huge cockroach had crawled onto her leg.A Thai man casually picked it up and put it in his pocket, before throwing it at his girlfriend. I hope she dumped him for that.
Then came the turn of the English fighter. I'm not sure which weight category he was supposed to be in but he was definitely OVERweight. He looked like Dale Winton wearing a gorilla suit (this guy was HAIRY), only with more fake tan. He was 43, and looked every one of his 43 years, maybe even a couple more. He ddn't do his country proud - we were watching through our fingers, wincing with embarassment as he blundered around the ring, swiping at thin air, stumbling over his own size 11 feet and looking like an elephant fighting a ballerina, such was the grace and size of his opponent. Needless to say, he got his fat ass whipped and limped out of the ring with his mahogany-coloured balding head bowed only a few rounds later. We found it hilarious.
The hilarity was to continue, with an obese American guy taking on 2 Thais who were about the same weight as one of his fleshy arms. He practically knocked them out with just a flick of a moob (man boob in case this expression is new to you) and despite their best efforts were both KO'd in seconds. The rest of the fighters were a bit more evenly matched, which seemed fairer but was infinitely less entertaining. After about 12 fights we decided to call it a night. On the way back we stopped at a classy-looking bar (not!) called Smash Hits Bar(the name says it all) - a tacky establishment with half-naked Thai girls (we think they were girls anyway) gyrating on sticky tables outside. Once we realised that a steady stream of ugly Western men seemed to be coming out of a room at the back of the bar with sleazy grins on their faces we decided to drink elsewhere and headed back to the beach bar next to the villa. Having met some other English people, Liam and Louise coaxed everyone to sit up until 3am to watch the Spurs match. Everyone was pretty merry by the time the bar revealed at 2.59am that their Sky channel was down and that we wouldn't be able to watch the footie after all, much to the Spurs fans' disgust. Oh well, let's just have another cocktail instead then..
The next day we took the pickup to a different part of the island and found a nice restaurant and gorgeous beach. We spent the day chilling (literally, the weather was rubbish again) before dropping the car back in Thongsala.
After 5 days of overcast weather we'd had our fill of Koh Phangan and decided to go to a different island in the hope that the sun would be shining. We'd heard that Koh Tao was only an hour away by ferry and that the weather there was better.
The following morning, having bought our ferry tickets to Koh Tao, we awoke to brilliant sunshine.This was mildly annoying as we'd waited patiently for the sun, only for it to come out with a vengeance just as we were leaving, completely altering the look of the beach.Whereas the beach had looked a bit grey before, now the hammocks swayed gently, the sea looked bright blue and the whole beach was bathed in a gentle orange glow.
Let's hope the weather is just as good in Koh Tao...

Monday, 5 January 2009

Koh Phangan and the Full Moon Party

The next morning was New Year's Eve and to our horror we awoke to grey skies and torrential rain.
The first thing we did was find an internet cafe and book our onward flights from Koh Samui back to Bangkok, such was our desire to avoid another journey like the one we'd endured the previous day.
The weather failed to improve as the day went on and our image of New Years Eve spent partying on the beach under the stars was replaced with images of us stomping about in the rain with mascara-streaked faces, frizzy hair and flip-flops sinking into wet sand.
As we were getting ready we applied industrial-strength make-up and even put our shower caps in our pockets in an attempt to ward off the inevitable bad hair moments later on.
We piled into the back of a pick-up truck and set off for Haad Rin beach in the south of the island, over a series of treacherous hills and pot-holes in the badly-maintained roads. We knew by the buzz that we'd arrived, as hundreds of revellers thronged the streets clutching their "buckets". Buckets are plastic buckets (duh) filled with a whole bottle of Samsung whisky, vodka and redbull. Two of these and you can forget the rest of the night.Literally. Wisely, we declined the offer of buckets from all angles on the stalls in the street and headed to a restaurant for some dinner.
Having lined our stomachs with suitably stodgy fodder, we headed down to the beach for the main event, the Full Moon Party. These parties have been running since the Eighties when a party was thrown on the beach to celebrate someone's birthday. It was so successful that they have continued regularly ever since, and have now been accompanied by the Half Moon Party and the Black Moon Party. Basically, any excuse for a party.
As we approached the beach along with several thousand other holidaymakers and travellers, most of whom were either English or Australian, the pumping bass of the music got louder and louder, and the average age of the partygoers got younger and younger.
Down on the beach the party was in full swing, with buckets being sloshed about, people dancing maniacally on every available surface.Several beats from various different soundsystems clashed as the many beach bars vyed for people's attention.
We stocked up on vodka redbulls from one of the many bars on the beach and wandered up and down the beach checking out the music and the crowd.
We found a bar at the end of the beach called Magic Mountain which suited our musical tastes the best and started partying in earnest. When the clock struck midnight fireworks were set off all along ther beach, fire dancers gyrated and skipped over a flame-covered rope and everyone kissed each other Happy New Year. House and techno music blasted from the sound sytems and people danced or sat around chatting on mats scattered around on the balconies in the bar.
Already some people were worse for wear, bodies littered the beach and people were jumping around fully-clothed in the sea. A couple of civilian caners were slogging it out in the unattended Thai Boxing ring, much to the amusement of the onlookers.They weren't so much punch drunk, as just drunk.The atmosphere was fun, laced with an edge of danger. With 30,000+ people on the beach, most of whom had had a skinful, it was inevitable that there would be a few casualties and we heard that already this year there had been several fatal motorcycle accidents, drownings and falls from balconies as a result of the Full Moon parties. Early-ish into the party, one guy fell from the balcony at the bar where we were dancing and seriously hurt himself, the bone sticking awkwardly out of his leg and his big toe missing. There were 2 such accidents that night, which was hardly surprising given the rate at which people were knocking back the buckets.
Liam, Louise and I stayed until 6.30am, leaving Kirsten and Hannah (who we'd met on the train from Bangkok, along with her friend James) to carry on at the afterparty.
As we made our way down the beach to get a taxi home we had to climb over the many bodies strewn along the beach in various states - most of them were still clutching a half-drunk bucket and several were being sniffed by the many curious stray dogs roaming the beach. Surveying the fallout, it looked like a scene of devastation one might expect following a major natural disaster, not a New Year' Eve party.
Obviously we couldn't resist taking a few snaps of the many corpses, Louise spooning one young lad who was covered in drink and sand. Sounds sick? Wait till you see the pics...hilarious. Unfortunately the flash going off woke up some of our victims - they opened one eye sleepily and looked more than a little shocked to see 3 30-somethings standing over them, cracking up and taking pics of their sorry state.
The sun was now up and we looked around at the carnage surrounding us...people sat looking misty-eyed out to sea, where battered blokes stood relieving themselves. Some of the hardcore posse were still raving as if their lives depended on it, some people were asleep on the huge speakers of the soundsystem, vibrating as they snored away in a drunken stupor. Some were stumbling down the beach desperately trying to remember what the name of their guesthouse was..or maybe what their name was, for that matter. It looked like a scene from the video to Michael Jackson's Thriller, when all the ghouls are lurching about in that graveyard.
It had been a funny night, we agreed - enjoyable on the one hand, but also a bit sad - how Westerners have come to these stunning shores and turned them into..what? Well, it was all a bit tacky. A bit like Southend or Blackpool, only with a much better view. They'll be selling "Kiss me quick" hats next.Maybe we're just getting old - we had been amongst the oldest at the party after all.
Back at the haven of the villa we slept like babies, grateful that we'd stayed off those buckets and had all made it back safely...

Journey from hell...

Our taxi dumped us (and our ever-increasing pile of luggage) unceremoniously in the middle of the busy road outside the train station and we bustled about trying to locate our cabins on the sleeper train which would be home for the next 14 hours.
As we'd paid in advance for a first-class cabin with bar and meals, we were somewhat surprised to be shown to a 5ft by 3ft cell which had already been gatecrashed by a family of cockroaches. There were ominous stains on the seats and decades-old dirt ingrained into every crevice. We refused to be deterred by our less-than-glamorous surroundings and cracked open the Chang (local beer) whilst we had a good chinwag.
Dinner turned out to be a surprisingly palatable Thai dish of chicken with cashew nuts, as long as you closed your eyes whilst you ate it and tried not to picture the squalid kitchen where it had been prepared, if the rest of the train was anything to go by.
At 9pm a Thai guard came into our cabins and transformed our stained seats into..stained bunkbeds. He had the cheek to wear a cotton facemask, presumably to prevent him from inhaling the dustmites who were greedily devouring the dead skin of hundreds of previous passengers. The paying customers on the other hand (ie us) had no such luxury, and were expected to bury our faces into the filthy cushions and drift off into a peacful slumber.The liberty! Those facemasks should have been standard issue, handed out with the tickets as we boarded.
We finally arrived at Surat Thani at 9am, 3 hours later than promised, with stiff necks from sleeping fitfully on breeze blocks disguised loosly as pillows.
We all filed off the train and onto a sweaty bus which would take us to the port to catch the ferry to Koh Phangan. After a few hours of waiting and 10 games of Blackjack it became apparent that something was amiss. As we were bundled onto another yet coach and taken to a different port we definitely began to smell a rat ( or it may have just been our armpits, given that we'd all been in transit for well over 16hrs at this point).
By 4pm there was still no sign of the boat, only a sea of angry passengers fuming at the Thais to get us to our destination.
We eventually made the ferry crossing, but not before we'd watched "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" 3 times on the (seriously overcrowded) boat, two of which were in Thai, which made it strangely more watchable.We arrived on Tuesday night, a whole 24hrs after we'd left Bangkok.
Luckily, our villa was the epitome of sleek, modern style and boasted luxuries such as hot running water and a western toilet. (Holes in the ground are commonplace in Thailand.)
Locating the beach bar next door to the villa, we finally began to chill out with a radioactive cocktail and the soothing tones of Bob Marley...

Bangkok (Hilton? hardly..)

We vacated our 4-star haven in Sydney on December 28th and reluctantly handed back the key-card, all too aware that the accommodation honeymoon was over and we were about to be plunged back into hostel hell.
We weren't quite so reluctant to surrender the keys to the campervan however and breathed a sigh of relief that we'd slept in that day-glo Mitsubishi monster for the last time.
Once again, it was time to bid adieu to another country and get our quota of Qantus catastrophes. And they didn't disappoint. Already on a downer at having to leave Sydney,one of our favourite cities so far, we arrived at the airport at 4pm only to discover that we wouldn't be leaving for Bangkok until at least 10pm.
Feeling like Tom Hanks in Terminal, the film where the homeless guy lives in the airport, we plotted down and began waiting in earnest. 6 hours and a couple of free meal vouchers later we finally began boarding.
Ten hours after that we finally touched down at Bangkok airport, which was just as well as we'd had our fill of plane meals (2), low-budget "comedies" (1), flatulence (unidentified source), and turbulence (lots).
By now it was 7am Sydney time, 3am local time, so we were feeling a tad tired to say the least. As Liam's head lolled around in the back of the taxi, our Thai driver and I attempted to locate our dilapidated guesthouse which was lurking next to the Khao San Road in Banglamphu.
Stumbling up 6 flights of stairs (sadistic receptionist..grrr!) we couldn't wait to get our backpacks off our backs and crashed out instantly...
We awoke a few hours later to the shrill tone of my mobile bleeping, letting me know that my mates Kirsten and Louise had arrived from England.Yay! They checked into the same hostel and caught some Z's whilst Liam and I checked out the locality.
Khao San Rd was buzzing with life - tuk tuk's chugged noisily past as did motorbikes carrying entire families, beaten-up old cars and the main cause of all that traffic - a steady stream of stray dogs.
Bunting swayed in the breeze above our heads along the entire street, which was lined with market stalls selling rip-off designer goods for as far as the eye could see.We shopped with gusto, picking up an impressive array of designer labels - it was like an hour in the life of Victoria Beckham, only she has the real versions of course, and probably prefers Bond Street to Bangkok.
Within an hour we had bags of Havianas flip-flops, Ray Ban sunnies to replace the real ones Liam had inadvertently left in a Sydney nightclub, shorts, jewellery, guide books, beauty products, the list goes on. All for the princely sum of ..about fifteen quid. Liam thought he was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman with all his new merchandise, even stopping for a haircut to complete his new look. At one point I thought he was going to ask for a manicure and facial.
All shopped out, we went back to our roach motel, met the girls and celebrated our new purchases with a few beers and a couple of Marlboro Lights, lit using our new fake Louis Vuitton-print lighters, fashioned into novelty mini handbags. Naff,us?
The sun was shining and spirits were high - well they were until we began the traumatic journey to Koh Phangan by train, coach, taxi and boat, where we had a date with a certain Full Moon Party..