Friday, 29 October 2010

Autumn Watch Pants'n'Jo Style

We've had a really great half term hols getting out there and exploring some new haunts in Forest of Bowland )several new walks and secret river places discovered and lots of pints earned for long days trekking.
Also we reckon we've beaten the Autumn Watch team on rare species seen too.. well we didn't see a wild cat or swim with otters (sadly) but we've photographed Bearded tits, kingfisher, stoats and ... a hen harrier! Tres exciting for nerdy types like us.
Herewith some Autumnal scenes.......................

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A sort of homecoming

Back in BKK is a bit like coming home now for us. Arrived Monday afternoon after a very early start in Hanoi and it felt strangely good to be hurtling along in an aircon cab decorated with Buddhas, amulets and foreign money pinned to the ceiling- back towards the Sawadee guest house. Strange that once we were installed again in the "sweet" we realised how shabby in fact this place is and how expensive for what you get.

So the day before we left Hanoi (Sunday) we finally thought let's finally get around to seeing Ho Chi Mihn's body in his mausoleum- as we seem to keep missing going there. We took a cab over and were dropped off in front of great huge concrete communist style square building with massive soviet stylee lettering HO CHI MINH on the top and the Red Viet flag with its gold star in front. Also in front was the longest queue we thought we'd ever seen until about 30 minutes walk later around the edge of the complex we came to the end of it and realised that this was indeed a longer queue than ever Clitheroe post office could boast on a Saturday morning. It liteally must have been over two miles long. Everyone in it was Vietnamese and the guy's been dead for years - so clearly paying one's respect is still a big draw.
Needless to say - no for us!

We found our way into the Botanical Gardens and marvelled at the 10s and 10s of just married couples posing for photo shoots in all their plastic finery by the lake and the statues before halting for some much needed beers in the relative cool and calm of a cafe.

On the way out of the complex we thought we'd have some lunch at a really mad busy place teeming with Viet families and particularly groups of men - including coach loads of Viet vets sporting some heavily medaled chests! We plonked our weary, sweaty selves down and order a couple of beer hoi and got settled into a typlical Si'n'Jo style conversation before long the waiter brought over a couple of extra beers and pointed out that they were from some Viet chaps on a near by table (very nice gesture)

I went off nervously to find a loo (nervous to see what manner of hole I may find by way of such a facility) On the way back down the stairs I gazed over a bbq sort of area where the menu was being prepped and saw what I thought at first glance were whole pigs. I did think the tails had a familiar wagginess to them and then the ears were sort of small and then I got to the teeth and with a shudder realsied "pigs don't have canine teeth and noses!!" A big pile of whole cooked dogs!! AAGH! We opted not to wait for lunch!

On returning to the old quarter we did a bit of shopping and then decided it was cocktail time so nipped onto a balconied place above the traffic chaos for a Gin and Si for a beer. The guy brought me a tin of tonic a glass with two ice cubes and a wine glass full to the brim of Gin!!

Finally, after an afternoon nap for me and further exploration for the indefatigable Mr Pants we only went over the road for a dinner. A really interesting place. Upmarket restuarant, patronised by big groups of affluent young Vietnamese which sold a really strange range of Viet tapas (including frog wontons and cricket spring rolls) We ordered way too much food and Simon had to ask for a (dare I say it..) "doggy" bag for his cricket rolls... yuck!

So here in Bangkok we spent yesterday wandering around the amulet market and taking boats up and down the river until we arrived at Wat Arun where Si ran, like a whippet up the steep steps. I feel a bit Watted out by now to be honest - though they tend to be pretty peaceful.

Last night we went to see our old friend of last year the amazing Mr Pas. He remebered us immediately and conversation seemed to pick up where we left off a year ago. Soon his friend and colleague (Ronnie Banderas? Remember him?) arrived and there was much rejoicing. The food was as always incredible and a sight for sore taste buds. Mr Pas no longer had Gordon Ramsay picture outside his restuarant - he says Gordon has had his time and now it is Mr Pas time! Great. We had to write in his book again and were shown our entry from last year now completed with a photo he took of us stuck in the opposite page. It was terrific to see him and Mrs Pas and Antonio Corbett again and eat such fresh and tatsy grub.

We have a cab booked for 5.00am tomorrow and we should be home in Heathrow about 9pm BST tomorrow. Really really looking forward to seeing everyone so much.
Debs and Ells - we can't wait for the Green Man festival with you guys and hope we can bring back a bit of S E Asian weather with us. We will probably come down to Wirral on Tuesday in order to catch up with everyone. Wood family we may not drive back home til Saturday so we get Friday to catch up there likewise.

Anyway- i guess this is the last blog post of SEAsia 2010 (Maybe we'll write a refection piece with some final pictures when we have had a home shower and washed our clothes and had a day or two on the green green grass of home)

Just a quick note of thanks and love to all the fab people we've met out here once again (in case they pop by)
Mr Kim Leang and his lovely staff at the Mother Home
Dustin (aka the skinny backpacker) good luck in your continued travels friend)
Josh (NGO guru and manager of Funky Monkey in Siem Reap)
Botra (Tuk tuk driver extraordinaire and gentleman)
Chenny (Chef and teacher at Le Tigre de Papier)
Neil, Gary, Tony, Roy, Streng at Magic Sponge in Kampot
The ladies and gents at Hanoi Deluxe
Ian (the aussie ex chef and gent we met in Hanoi)
Mr Pas and wife and friends at Mr Pas Foodbar.
Cheers folks and if you're ever in town.... you know and stuff!

Friday, 6 August 2010

A trip to the toilet via the kitchen in Tiger Cage Bia Hoi

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Gin at the Hilton and Beer at the best Beer Hoi place in town

Yesterday we had the best day yet in Vietnam. We wandered down to the cathedral set in a really nice area with lots of boutiques and colonial style cafes. Wandered over to a sort of Chinesey place and enjoyed a few glasses of beer before wandering along the lake shore and into a few galleries. We then spied the Hanoi Hilton (not the prison but the real Hilton)and bethought us of a posh G&T.

The whole experience, whilst very pleasurable, was really surreal as there were about 4 french couples sitting together each sporting a 6 month old Vietnamese baby (they must have been quadruplets that the couples had bought) It was really sort of spooky and we began to bandy story ideas about - scaring ourselves more and more. Especially this became the case when we noticed two separate incidents of pregnant Viet women heading through a mirrored door off the lobby..

After that we went to the other extreme and found a famous Beer Hoi place (Tiger Cage Bia Hoi) across the road. A real locals joint where they served up snake, frog, dog and all manner of vile sounding delicacies. Simon order frogs legs and put one finger up which the servers thought hilarious (thinking he wanted just one leg instead of a portion of two) It was really good fun, with locals coming over and trying to initiate "down in one" style drinking games (though they had the advantage as they were drinking shots of rice wine, whilst Pants had a half a beer to demolish).

We finally decided to settle up but Pants wanted to visit the loo one more time and take his video camera! (I know he is a bit strange!) No no the reason was that to get to the boys room (basically a tiled cupboard with a hole in the corner) he had to walk through the kitchens and food prep areas. He returned about 5 mins later (I had begun to worry he may have ended up on the menu, he took so long) with some hilarious footage of the back room activities from peeled frogs, scorpions awaiting plating, to kitchen boys sharpening great chopppers, to cooks and servers waving at the camera and giggling. I think you may be in for a treat if he can load the video here.

We took a cab back and agreed a couple more beers before an early night. Ended at another little red chair beer hoi place and I watched in squeamish horror at a rat run across the porch roof of a bar opposite and then in even greater grossedoutness as another rat ran from a concrete telegraph pole across the wires and then down an electric flex into the cafe we were in and then straight into a plastic vegetable drawer set and then out again with a peanut in its jaws. This was repeated and repeated until the laughing staff put an end to my misery by removing the bag of nuts from the drawer.

We then began chatting with a great guy from Australia- Ian (an ex-chef, now in the export business - buying cookery equipment - knives etc and sending them back to Aus) We had a really enjoyable evening chatting with him about SE Asia and beyond. A cheeky waiter (aged about 14) kept pinching cigs off me and then asked Simon to buy him a beer and then... the cheeky little blighter, sat down like a oldster at our table and looked for all the world like he was deep into the conversation we were having. He drew a picture of a rat and teased me with it and then a picture of Simon with his big bushy beard!

Got back to the hotel about 8.30 and I hit the hay whilst pants went out for more fun and hilarity, returning about midnight with a jolly swagger and conical hat!! Least said about this the better... suffice to say he is quite humble this morning - GOOD!

Not sure how to spend today - I am actually a bit exhausted and really just want to get another book and settle in to read until Bangkok now- though there's always a food problem. Really not enjoying my food at all (though am still fat) Simon is getting braver and braver and I expect to witness some snake/dog consumption pretty soon unless I can lure him away with the promise of pizza.
Love to all

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Birthday treats

Thanks for all the birthday wishes folks. Last year my birthday supper was ion a red chair cafe by the river in BKK eating raw shrimp and then spending the night listening to Pants running to the loo. This year in Hanoi and after almost three weeks of dreadful grub we had a real treat and the very laid back and beautiful restuarant Green Mango. Delicious salmon and mashed spuds (yummy!) and Simon had pizza but with a smoked salmon wontons to start. Great cold cold Aussie Chardonnay too... oh heavenly.
We didn't get to see dead Uncle Ho as he only receives visitors until 11am and Fridays are his day off! We hope for an audience tomorrow. Instead we explored the old quarter all day and wandered around the lake, which is an oasis of calm in this mad moped overrun city.
Today we plan to find St Joseph's cathedral and have lunch somewhere around there before heading to the French Quarter and a visit this afternoon to the Vietnam history museum. Hanoi is 1000 years old this year and there are celebratory flower arrangements all around the parks.
Simon usually takes an afternoon off so he can stomp around exploring all the reall sleezy areas which I would freak out in. Yesterday he came back all sweaty and excited with photos of menus which offered boiled dog and fried bull penis. Yum.
We fly early on Monday to BKK for a few days. (I may have mentioned this before- I'm not counting down the days or anything...)
BTW.. video of me vandalising walls I believe may have been misrepresented. The DMZ Bar in Hue is covered in vandalism and so we just had to get in on the act.
Love to all

Hanoi Bia Hoi (fresh beer) corner

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The view from a sleeper bus

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Pants gets run down by a vicious market trader

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Night bus to Hanoi!

Basically trolled around Hue on Monday waiting for 5.30pm when we were due to be collected for the sleeper bus to Hanoi.

Obviously it didn't go swimmingly - obviously! A girl collected us and took us to a car with three men shoved in the back seat and two others trying to stick their backpacks, guitars, digerydoos and lord knows what other traveller detritus in the already cramped space; then themselves and the girl and the driver having some sort of row about how Simon and I would be able to fit in. She tried squeezing our bags on the front seat and then pushed Simon on to the back seat and then realised that there was no way I would fit in as well so promptly said "Wait here" and made to leave.. Simon hopped out and said I'll wait with my wife and we'll keep our rucksacks too if you don't mind. She did! Much shouting ensued and we were left at the road side with bemused cyclo drivers glaring anxiously at my red face shouting expletives after the departing vehicle.

By the time they came back for us we were all smiling and apologising.

Okay so the sleeper bus!!!!!!
Once again I have to give fair warning to my mum and brother- cancel your flights to Vietnam guys! Basically you take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag before walking up a 2 foot wide space of an aisle with "pods" at ground level and shoulder level (three columns of them - at each window and in the middle of the bus) We were in many ways lucky because we had a top and bottom place at window side not quite at the back of the bus - where you get three "beds" next to each other. The width is about 2foot and the length includes a bit where you slide your feet into the plastic casing of the bed in front - horrible for claustrophobes and for some of the big western guys over 6 foot. At first we managed to stay fairly calm. I was in the ground floor bit and could slide one leg out into the aisle. Then at about 8.30pm when everyone was fairly calm and settled into reading their books, they decided to switch all the lights out. (great! you could hear the collective thought patterns of all aboard... we have another 12 hours of this! And at that stage we'd already been travelling almost 3 hours)

By midnight I had managed a 5 min snooze but woke up in a panic as I realised that two local women had jumped on board and were now sleeping next to me in the aisle space (bear in mind the beds are actually on the floor) so that I had a head right by me. My saving grace had been the fact that I could clamber out of my pod and stand for a few mins if need be but now that option was a no go and the panic started to rise.

The only option was to take a valium- which I duly did and handed them up to Pants who also indulged. We managed about 4 hours sleep each.

Eventually at 8.30am we pulled into Hanoi. We took a cab to our guest house which is superb. Si went for an explore in the afternoon and I caught up on some zeds. Last night we wandered out to find some supper and found ourselves here in the old quarter which is a vast labyrinth of basically shops and markets. We found a little aircon place which was okay.

Then headed to a beer hoi place (locally brewed draught beer served in red chair cafes on street corners) I knew Pants was keen to sample this local experience and so gingerly sat on the tiny red stool in amongst the litter and dirt of pavement and gutter. We were served two beers in the filthiest glasses you ever saw. I am sorry but I have become an uber wuss by this stage. Having seen some enormouse (I am literally talking cat okay kitten sized) rats in broad daylight and some mouse sized cockroaches, I find sitting almost on a filthy pavement in the dark just not relaxing. Unfortunately there is no sort of tourist centre or cafe quarter so it looks as thought this is our lot.

Today (my birthday folks!!!) Simon asked me what I would like to do.... obviously when in Hanoi on your birthday there's only one answer...go and see Ho Chi Minh's cadaver in his mausoleum!! So that's what we're planning this morning. This morning Simon announced that in honour of my birthday we would go to the Green Papaya Restuarant tonight - of which there is no such place! The Green Mango on the other hand is beyond his budget so it maybe on me!! :-)
We have another 3 full days after today and then off to BKK for the final countdown to coming home. (To be honest, I am missing everyone and looking forward to clean clothes)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Vietscam!!!!!!! AAAAAGH!!!

Hewow from Hue! We took a bus up to Hue on Friday. Stunning scenery over a 3 hour trip over mountain passes and in flat sea level valleys by lagoons. Really pretty and awesome and made us just wish it was possible to hire a car and go it alone, stopping in some of these incredible places.

Arrived in the middle of Hue and immediately had a tout on our tail. We managed to ignore him and promptly marched off in the wrong direction through this really busy city. Eventually some creative map reading paid off and we sweatily staggered into the Amigo Hotel only to be told they were full. Went next door and they were all "yes yes velly nice room come and look" Relieved Simon went off to view a not velly nice room and so told her one night would do. Immediately she started "where you go tomorrow" - he lied- away on the train. "What time? Let me see ticket. You not know what time train goes? Stay here two night!" etc etc. Oh JUST BOG OFF!!

Found a crappy room in next hotel along, with one light bulb, two beds, one pillow and a loo with no loo roll- yep fine! After a speedy shower we headed out for grub and a well earned G&T (made with god knows what excuse for T and as for the G!) Went to a back packery type bar and were utterly sickened to see two western guys (poss german) ugly vile looking dudes order up a couple of hookers - the bar staff hurriedly providing plastic chairs for the lovely ladies and the two creeps ordering themselves some nice drinks while the ladies ran across the street and had to buy themselves a drink from a street vendor. Couldn't believe the staff at the bar were so okay with it.

Next day we headed out to walk across the river and explore the citadel. It was nice and quiet and very Vietnamese - hardly a tout in sight. Si enjoyed his best grub yet at a street food place. Massively hot though and after about 3 hours or so- no sign of the citadel. Took a cyclo back (kind of a bicycle with a big pram in front) Obviously there was a big discussion about price and some walking away and coming back and walking away before a deal was struck.
Can you feel the flatness in this piece? Are you getting the sense of ... bah!
Pants enjoyed a walk around in the afternoon to a riverside cafe. We then went out and ate western food- the pizza was okay but Si's bratwurst & chips was unsurprisingly awful. Bed by 9pm.

Today great plans for biking out of the city into the villages and finding the pagodas and tombs. First though, we needed to book our train tickets for tomorrow's 12 hour jouney to Ninh Binh. We went to the back packer place and met a po-face that huffed and puffed and said they'd have to send someone to the station to see about booking it as they couldn't do it on phone. She tried to suggest a sleeper train and lied about the times the day train got in to Ninh Binh (saying about 1am instead of what we know is the arrival time of 7pm) We decided to ride the bikes the 2km to the station as it was on the way to the villages and book ourselves.

Simon looked after the bikes whilst I nipped in and stood second in the queue. About20 mins later I was getting right royally hacked off with people just pushing me and stepping in front. At this stage a chap came up saying he worked at the station - where was I going? I explained, making sure I knew my stuff in terms of train number and times. He jumped in and spoke to the ticket girl before turning back to inform me that the train was completely full. All the other trains arrive at stupid o'clock in the morning (2am etc), no use for walking about a strange city looking for accom at that time of day. I asked about the following day and he said "full".

Next thing he is very plausibly suggesting sleeper bus and being quick to book it if we want places. Okay, we realise another revision to the plan is required and eschew Ninh Binh in favour of getting out of Hue and straight on to Hanoi. So he leads us not to a bus booking office as impled but directly into what is obviously his own cafe / scamming business!! Forget it man!

We cycled all the way back to town and went to a travel agent and he says "train station closed on Sunday cannot book train!!" So we are now staying another night here in Hell erm Hue and then travelling on a sleeper bus on Tuesday night straight to Hanoi!

Alright - so it is shit and everyone seems to lie to you but heh, we're here let's make the most of it. Back on the bikes and off we go. Great at first, as we were soon out of busy town (where people pull out in front of you, ride their mopeds the wrong way down the street and cut you up turning right at a cross roads- that's all charming though, isn't it? Travelling is such fun) Down the country lanes and it is starting to look better. Stopped at a red chair cafe and a big bunch of tattoed local lads drinking crates of beer are immediately raising their glasses to us, giving us beer & mangos, and stealing my Marlboro Lights with great joy and much mutual back slapping. This is the life - this is what it's about- these are the real people.

Following this rare success, we travelled on and stopped about an hour or so later at another such establishment for Si to have another great local food experience. The lady piled him up with random looking meats and rice and a beer. (I was feeling a little heat exhausted and not hungry - so took a water and checked out the map under a near by tree- okay there were dogs in the cafe and they didn't like me, I could tell!)
Next thing I hear Simon shouting "What! No no no!" The bloody woman is trying to charge him 100,000 Dong. (It should have been about 30, 000!) The old moo wasn't backing down and nor was Pants. I rather stupidly just threw the money at her and tried to call the boy off before some serious kick boxing ensued. (Quan 371 - the name of the rip-off joint - Pants)
And that my friends is where you leave us.... thoroughly, utterly pissed off with Vietnam.

It isn't the odd 50 cents or the odd dollar or 10 or 20 dollars... it is the relentless scamming, lying, thieving. It seems that you can not exercise your own will to do anything because someone is ALWAYS available to lie to you and lead you off down a different path and probably charge you for it. They offer things... western breakfast for example where you get a cheese omelete... was you get is a basically a messed up fried egg with half a triangle of laughing cow cheese spewing out of it. Everyone wants a piece of you and your money. It's not even poor like in Cambodia. It is just they see a white face and try it on! We would honestly fly back to BKK right now but we'd need to get to Hanoi anyway.

Not sure how others have actually enjoyed this country. Unless you are happy to just get pushed about onto allsorts of tours which cost a lot and are of differing quality and invariably lead to you needing to buy more things. Or unless you want to sit on the back of a motor bike and calm as a hindu cow just get lead wherever they want to take you for the least about of trouble and most amount of dollarage.
I'm sure that travelling types that read this may be happy to blame us for being what.. narrow minded, too western, not chilled.. Fine - our experience of Vietscam has been overall pretty goddamn awful and if friends and family were asking which SE Asian country to visit VN wouldn't be getting any recs from this quarter.

Hope you're all well, enjoying nice food and not paying too much for it just coz you is white!!

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Pedal Off to China Beach

We are over a crisis!

Couple of days ago - after the rainy Monday- we were up bright and early to take a couple of bikes out for a day exploring further afield. Within approx 10 seconds of mounting up Pants had to recall the little man because the front tyre of his steed was flat. The guy dealt with this simply by pumping what was clearly a slow puncture up and sending us off again.

We set off and after about 10 mins cycling, just going over a bridge to Cam Nam Island my pedal flew off into the traffic. Not just the foot rest bit but the whole arm of the pedal. We were not impressed with the fact that the 10 mins to this point equatated to about 20mins walking back pushing the bikes, turning the hot and humid air blue with curses on the whole of Vietnam and its people. We were so angry - especially because both bikes were in a rotten state anyway - with the seat on Simon's bike wobbly and the breaks useless. We tried to stay calm as we explained (forcibly) to the hoteliers the danger of sending unwitting tourists off on such unmaintained vehicles. Really seriously inconvenient if something happened 25km away on some far out country red road or worse - injurous to the rider in heavy traffic.

We spent the rest of the day walking in the heat. Wandered to Cam Nam island and found a bar (named as a highlight place in the bloody Lonely Planet) called Gecko Bar- crap! Great setting and all but food was crap and I bought some cigs which were musty too... Grr.

By the end of the day we were both over heated and miserably venting spleen on Vietnam. As we walked back into the hotel Si went to the travel agent bloke and said "We need to get out of now. The hotel, the town, Vietnam -we hate it!"

We decided we couldn't deal with any more po faced service at the town bars or restaurants and so nipped to the hotel foodery where Si had a set menu in which everything was garnished with shrimp and I unenthusiastically chose Seafood spaghetti which I didn't think they could mess up.. WRONG! It was a disgusting pink colour swimming in condensed milk and tasting like rice pudding with shrimp in it!! You may say well it is western food and they may not be able to cook that- SO WHY'S IT ON THE BLOODY MENU!!!

We talked long and hard about our experience of the place and thought about bailing to Thailand, Cambodia, home! It was a rock bottom kind of evening. Basically Hoi An- very pretty though it is - is sort of two trade town (tailoring and tourism- and the tailoring is for the tourists) They hit the hay around 10pm so they can get up early and make as much money as they can from tourists- usually this involves shortchanging the people who do patronise their places. We have definitely over stayed their welcome here.

I can't remember which of the guys in the Magic Sponge guesthouse warned us- but they were right- you won't get the genuine response from people in Vietnam. It seems correct by our reckoning- people often serve you with real po faces and then short change you. They are making money from tourism but put nothing into it- they are essentially being spoiled by the tourist money (money for nothing!)

Anyway...rant over! Yesterday morning we felt a bit better about things and decided to try for bikes again. I think our "forcible" chat with them the day before sunk in because the bike man made a big deal of showing us the bikes saying "very good bike" So off we went- we cycled to China Beach the capital of GI R&R during the "American War" 70 miles of uninterupted golden sand as far as the eyes can see, fringed with coconut trees. Mountainous island shadows along the horizon and very very few people.

Devoid of beach gear, Pants stripped down to his shreddies. Girls you should have seen him - boy was I proud! His farmer's tan on lower arms and legs and his glistening white torso, set off by the white sand. He galloped down to the sea periodically hitching his old brown cotton boxers to prevent another full moon festival breaking out.

Meanwhile I sat under a coconut tree in long trousers and shirt with tilley hat pulled low over my beach sullen face reading and growling at the touts. (it was like being a grumpy 15 year old at Durdle Door all over again!!) After Pants had played in the water a few times and come running back each time happier and happier - we wandered to a beach side restaurant and ate freshly grilled crab and squid.

Met a Russian guy who regaled us with some strange gurgling story about vodka before leaping off to run around the beach in a giant hamster ball. All this bliss eventually drew to an inevitable close as thunder grumbled and the sky bruised. We leapt aboard our iron ponies and headed back to Hoi An amidst the mopeds and the carts and rickshaws. I got bumped in the back wheel about five times by moped drivers. We made it back just as the rains really began to lash down.

Today is our final full day in Hoi An (hooray!) We've decided to keep on keeping on in the hope that Vietnam will redeem itself or suffer the consequences of our scathing reviews goddamnit! Seriously though, a few days ago, I was beginning to think I too could grow to love the smell of Napalm in the mornings!!! (heh heh- we never promised political correctness here!)

:-) Missing home and everyone.. Hope everyone's well..

Monday, 26 July 2010

Full Moon Festival and a wash out Monday

Still here in Hoi An. We have had a couple of days of exploration and the town is lovely- like being on a film set really. We took a boat trip down the river and got a look at the villagers fishing with huge nets strung up everywhere and a little guy in his boat gleefully flinging his net in a great dome across the river and then paddling over to us for some remuneration following that dramatic photo opp!

On Sunday night we headed out to see the Full Moon festival for which this town is famed. We first sat down to the ancient SE Asian delicacy of pizza and G&Ts at a little place on the lane leading to the river and the action and watched with wry smiles as a sweet little fella in his official party green army uniform, complete with hat and yellow star on red background, try to turn back all wheeled contraptions from rickshaw, bicycle to moped from driving down the lane which he was closing off for the night. Hilarious as a greet yuge yankie chap tried to cycle past and met with a severe telling off from the party official half his size.

Slowly the lights all went out along the lane and by the river and we wandered along watching people sitting on the road side lighting pretend money and burning it in little fires. This is the money for their dead relatives to spend in heaven or hell-I would have burnt some fake money for dad but he'd only go and blow it on booze so I kept it and spent it on booze for myself instead!

Little children with their faces glowing from the lights of candles in home made lanterns everywhere. The river was in darkness but occasionally a lantern would glow enough for you to determine the vague silhouette of a person leaning over the side of the boat to launch little floating lights. It was really pretty but mad busy with people. We had some fun trying to take photographs (in our complete photographic ignorance of anything beyond point and click and without tripods to hold absolutely steady during a slow shutter speed or long aperture setting) Anyway we got a few fairly effective looking shots.. if a little blurry.

Yesterday we awoke to Lancashire weather. Dark, torrential rain all day. We did venture out during one slight respite but ended up having to retreat to a cafe for a lunch of rice and grilled beef (sort of made with a lush sauce and sesame seeds) Funny how hot it is even though the rain is incessant- you end up drenched with both sweat and rain. The remainder of the day we spent being restless in our room reading.
Today is back to heat and blue sky and we're planning to rent bikes to explore a little further around the countryside.

I think we are both going through this strange internal dialogue about Vietnam and the holiday so far. Each of us suggested bailing either back to Cambodia or to Thailand yesterday.. but ultimately I think we're aware that we haven't really given V'Nam a proper chance yet. Saigon was cut short (the journey there having been hellish and then the journey away being hellish too) Hoi An is very touristy - lots of middle aged Aussies around in couples and foursomes and not much happening at night as Vietnamese around here basically shut down about 10ish. We fly back to BKK two weeks today and need to make decisions about how we spend that time. Probably we will head to Hue (3-4 hours away by bus) on Friday afternoon for maybe one or two days. I think then the plan is to head to Ninh Prihn (sp!) for a couple of nights for the chance to take a boat up the river there in amongst the lime stone karsts and sample some less touristy countryside. Then I guess it's Hanoi- which we've heard is favoured by most travellers though still a big busy city.

One issue we find is that of getting around. It is a really big country and that tends to mean big journeys from place to place and generally that means city to city. We'll see what we see today by getting out on bicycles but there isn't any other option unless you're prepared to hire a motorbike or take a trip on the back of a motorbike with a guide (which neither of us is keen on - given how extremely dangerous the roads are anyway and motorbikes per se don't appeal) There are no tuk tuk type vehicles around either. I think the great times we've had in the past tend to be in places like Chiang Mai where we could take an organised trip somewhere occasionally but generally we could hop a tuk tuk to places each day. Or in Siem Reap where we biked all over the place and got a real sense of life there. At the mo we feel as though anything we could do here means getting lead around by the nose and herded into places to buy things we don't want. Bike riding seems are best bet and if weather stays okay for the next few days we'll hopefully start feeling better about the place.

We are both struck by how very different Vientnam is from either Cambodia or Thailand. The whole communist thing is strange too - except for a variety of big posters and flags sporting hammer and sickle and yellow stars and Uncle Ho(Chi Min) there is nothing to make you feel we're in a Socialist Republic. In Siagon there were big designer shops, expensive cars etc. People don't seem too poor here and the country's economy is booming.

Anyway it is all interesting and extremely pretty here.
Hope all are well!!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Victory Gate - Angkor Wat

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Jo biking past paddy fields

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Pants gets a fright

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Cambodian monkeys - not rabid!

Ahoy Hoi An

Okay so we were waiting for a mission in Saigon last time. About 8.30pm we headed to the station and found a great little tiny red plastic chair cafe just outside the station where we sat and had a couple of beers and gathered some snacks and water for the marathon ahead.

The train pulled in about 10.45pm and we shuffled aboard Coach 6 Cabin 1 and immediately I went into panic mode (WARNING: If you are Mum Carol, John Walkup, Aunty Jean or any other being suffering from claustrophobia do NOT take the top two berths in a 6 berth sleeper in Vietnam!)

The tiny cabin comprised of an ancient Vietnamese chap sporting an Uncle Ho chin-string beard, his 80 year old dauighter sporting similar chin fluff, a middle aged pair of Viet fellas sporting hacking coughs and the national nose picking habit all ensconsed in their bunk beds either side of a 3 foot floor space. Above these bunks on each side a further "bed" amounting to a crawl space with a head clearance of about 2.5 feet max. The height up to said bed was about 8 feet up.

Simon began his ascent from base camp on the bearded Ho's pillow and having made the summit rolled around on to his back and craned his neck up slightly, until it touched the ceiling and could go no further, to shout down to me "Climb when ready" The Vietnamese all sat in stunned awe, nervously chuckling and shaking their heads as yours huge and truly began to clamber up in a style much like that used for climbing chimneys- sort of a legs akimbo bridging technic.

Once up in the coffin I discovered that the bed was a hard shelf with a disgusting old carpet on it (like a hall runner) You couldn't sit up at all. I lay on my back and heard Si whisper - "Just stay calm there's nothing we can do! You just need to stay calm - take a valium (which was a gift from our dreadlocked pal Gary in Kampot-as Diazipan are freely available over the counter in Cambodia) The thought of drugging myself seemed worse because I was so afraid it would disable me in some way which would prevent escape and then I would be trapped paralysed in some sort of living burial.....

.....About 30 seconds later I was sitting near the loos in the corridor on the floor trying to breath through the cotton of my sarong to regulate my breathes. Complete panic attack: throat constricting, no air, sweats, absolute terror. The guard came by and I was terrified he would yell like the bus driver and try to force me back up there- I thought I will have to literally fight him if this happens. A nice guy standing by Si explained to the conductor in Vietnamese that I was allergic to small spaces! In the end they arranged to swap me with someone in the cheaper seats in another coach. I was happy enough to spend the whole journey on the floor though- or in the toilet- anything but that space.

So Si used all his powers to zone out and lie back in his coffin space all night whilst I sat in a seat 5 coaches away surrounded by Vietnamese people eating eggs with fertilisd feathered chicks in them before spreading themselves out and snoring, hacking, yocking. Several women didn't seem to have seats and so laid down in the dirty aisle. One women on floor next to me was sick in the night. Neither Pants nor I got any sleep.

The next morning about 7am the guard who'd helped negotiate a bed to seat swap for me - told Si that he should go fetch me and locked up the now empty sleeper cabin so that we could have it for our own use the rest of the journey (almost 8 more hours)
After the bus journey from Cambodia and then this journey almost straight away we were in a pretty exhausted state when we finally arrived in the absolutely gorgeous town of Hoi An.

Hoi An is a World Heritage site as it has remained unspoiled by the wars that ravaged and destroyed so much of the surrounding towns and villages. It is a preserved example of an old Vietnamese trading/fishing town. Cars and mopeds are forbidden to drive in the old town and by the river. The town was used in the Michael Cain film "The Quiet American" those bits set at night with the lanterns floating on the river. This lantern floating thing only happens once a month to mark the full moon. Lucky for us that's tonight!!

We pottered about yesterday taking heaps of pictures. Everwhere you see images so evocative of Vietnam: ladies in the conical hats balancing yokes across their shoulders with baskets on each side full of fruit or tea making implements. Old dears similarly dressed punting boats across the river. The shops and houses are ancient and look sort of how you imagine old Chinese houses to be- wooden or with earthern-ware tiles on the roofs, red lanterns hanging everywhere.

Today we are going to explore further and then get ready for what promises to be the visual spectacular of the full moon celebrations tonight. We have booked in here until Friday 30th July as we really need to rest after the journeys of recent times. Then we think we're heading for Hue and thence to Hanoi maybe via a little countryfied place on a river or via Ha Long Bay possibly -if we feel able to handle the touts and hassles associated with the area. (We left home 3 weeks ago - seems like an age)

As I type here- Simon is loading up some videos he's taken to help give you a feel for the experience.
Hope all are well. Will update again in a few days.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Travel hell and Miss Saigon

Kampot was great - particularly for Pants who went adventuring by bike each day. Meanwhile I got sick and spent one of our main days resting up and mainly seeing the bathroom. Sad to leave the fantastic folk at the Magic Sponge. (Correction to previous post- Dan is actually called Neil and we got muddled coz his son calls him Da!- Sorry Neil)

Took our direct VIP bus from Kampot to Saigon yesterday and it turned out to be a living hell. The Cambodian bit was fine and we were informed that we would change to a VIP big bus in Ha Tien (Vietnam boarder town) which would take us direct to Saigon. Well we transfered to a tiny bus which was fairly comfy anyhow and had wide open windows -there were 7 travellers on it only. This was great as we set off down really poor quality dirt roads for hours watching the folks of the Mekong delta go about their day. Unfortunately we were then stopped at a travel agency place somewhere... and told "get out! Wait here!" Next we were piled into a people carrier for a ten minute ride to another travel agents place and told as we left we were getting on the "big bus" for Saigon and that the driver would drop us in District One of Siagon (right in midst of backpackerville) The big bus turned out to be a 14 seat minibus packed with squawking Vietnamese and a vile driver who started screeching at us all in his own tongue forcing all the remaining 6 of us into the back seats (two big Irish boys concertinered in with Si and I on the very back four places. It was literally like sitting on an upright dining chair with nowhere to move your feet even an inch (because they'd thrust all our backpacks under the seats) nothing to hang on to and nowhere to put your arms (really just had to cross them in front of you).

This horror then continued for 6 and half hours whilst the b**tard driver drove like a maniac over the dust roads, sending mopeds, cyclists, cattle, pedestrians flying, honking his horn constantly and yabbering in the most vile screeching voice I've ever heard. At one point a seat became free and si moved into it so that the Irish guys had some more room- this was bliss for about 5 minutes until the driver stopped came around, opened the door and literally screamed at us forcing a return to cramped up agony.

Finally finally at 8.45pm we pulled to a stop in the midst of Saigon. Two of our tourist number were a couple from US who'd lived in Saigon for a month before and started yelling at the driver as he began unceremoniously dumping our gear on the street, to take us to District One. He screamed back and ignored any reasoning or beseeching (like ..we paid for D1 not to be dumped here) Each one of us had completely lost our zen and were all for causing this guy some hurt (preferably physical and lasting!) In the end we decided to hop a shared cab to District One and within a short time Si and I had headed down a back alley dodged rats and cockroaches and found our guesthouse (the Vy Khanh) Lady here very nice and helpful- changed our dollarage into dongage at the best rate imaginable and gave us maps and advice.

We headed out - me limping badly after a stealth mozzy attack on both my feet sometime during the last 24 hours-which left both feet with around 8 blistering, weeping bites -extremely painful. The tiny proportion we saw of Saigon was madness. Busy, loud, smelly, great scuttling roaches running amongst litter and red plastic chairs outside bars and cafes. We supped a few local ales (30p each)and then found a lovely little restuarant serving trad Vietnamese grub - lush.

The dong situation is a mind bender (currently I'm a multi multi millionnaire ($250 dollars into dong) You order a coffee for say 20,000 dong (that's a dollar-which in turn is about 75p-so we're trying to suss it out. We slept well and were awoken at 7am by the sound of someone trying to break in through our bedroom wall with a slug hammer. Turns out next door are demolishing something and start at 7am until 5.30 each day... great!

After brekkie we set out to book our train ticket for tomorrow night to Hoi An - problem- no sleepers or seats left at all all day! Tonight at 2300
hours, there are two berths left only -so we needed to make the quick decision to book those and cut short our Saigon trip. It's a pain in the jacksie to be honest as we're still beat from yesterday's 13 hour bus horror so to already set out on a 33 hour train journey isn't appealing. Having said that, the idea of spending three nights in demolitionville and four days in crazytown doesn't bode of rest and recreation time either. So here we are at 12.45pm in.... "Saigon - waiting for a mission and every hour we're here we're getting weaker and every hour Charlie is out there in the jungle he's getting stronger!" (paraphrasing there from the start of Apocalypse Now- seems appropriate)

On the plus side.. we have met some really sweet folks- the hotel lady is a poppet and is letting us keep the room until 9pm and will still refund us for tonight. The little lady in her room across the alley sewed a button on Si's shorts and wouldn't charge him, the lady in the cafe where we had breakfast gave us a plate of chopped banana and announced very sweetly that she was so happy we had come here.

So dear reader we are offski again tonight and will hopefully be able to update from a place of safety, serenity and stillness in Hoi An sometime on Saturday. Hope all are well and thanks again to the terrific folks in Kampot if they check by here- we very nearly turned around and came back at about 10.30 this morning (only the thought of another journey with the psycho small bollocked bus driver put us off!)

Monday, 19 July 2010

fear=loafing in Kampot

We left our darling Mother Home Guesthouse in Siem Reap on Sat am about 6.30am and took the bus to Kampot. What a great long journey. The first 6 hours to Pnom Pehn was interesting but uneventful on a VIP bus which showed horrendous Khmer pop videos- dreadful (laughably so at first but after the first few hours it really began to grate on the cramped nerves)

At Pnom Pehn we waited half an hour befor getting on the next bus for another long journey. The second leg was really great- red dust roads, beeping people driving their great white hump necked cattle along the road. Incredible medieval life happening all around- huge families bent double in rice paddies, folks outside their stilt shacks cooking, dragging a dog out in one hand with a machete in the other, tending pigs, goats, kids playing, working, sleeping, bathing under water pumps. Really really magical! At one point our bus broke down and we were all unloaded to stand around this little village whilst the driver sewed some piece of bus together!

Finally we reached Kampot about 7.30pm and hopped a tuk tuk to Blissful Guesthouse where we were turned away to the tune of "No Room at the Inn". We wandered next door to an amazing ex-villa/ex-bank which called itself "The Magic Sponge Guesthouse" No probs we could each have a bed in a dorm with another guy for the night with a room to ourselves next day.

The place is really really chilled and funky. Run by a fab chap named Dad (from Eire) and helped by his laid back fun son Gary (talk about a craic these guys are so welcoming and funny) First night we grabbed some great grub and a few large G&Ts at the bar and were immediately dragged into the bar talk of several folks who loved it so much they stayed here. Tony - American advertising guru who regaled us with tales of his bush baby which he bought off poachers for $20 to save it from being eaten and also of his work selling bed bug terror to the good people of NYC. Roy - previous manager of the guesthouse who warned us of the perils of the packs of dogs late at night and chatted charities, NGOs and Cambodia's state of play right now. We went to bed early a slow steamed until about 6.30am when we arose for iced coffee and chilled out until about 9ish when we went to explore the town.

I have to admit I am possibly the greatest coward in living history and walked gingerly around scanning every pavement for canine terror baring it's teeth in my direction. We then crossed "the old bridge" jeez- I was almost crawling I was in such unfounded terror once over the and on the other side of the river we were in dogville proper. They were everywhere. At last one fella decided to come tearing out of his place of abode barking at us. I jumped sky high and basically descended into a blubbering wreck, which needed escorting back over said rickety bridge and to the nearest bar for restorative beers. Si went for a wander whilst I calmed down and then we headed back to safety of the hostel. Si took a bike out and toured far and wide getting some interesting pix.

The dog story basically is that the Khmer have dogs to protect their property and after dark (fairly late in the evening) they release the hounds and lock their gates.. You then get a situation of huge gangs of canines packing together around town- howling their coded attack messages to each other all night. They are notorious and the local rag describes how you should pretend to pick up a stone and fake hurling it the dogs. Walking down the middle of the roads exuding confidence is also recommended. Unfortunately this just exacerbates my terror as I know there's no way I can be confident.

That said we did venture out after dark to the river front where we ate some food before hopping a tuk tuk the 2 min journey back to the hostel. A crazy night then ensued with Gary (the dreadlocked son of Dan) and three girls form Uk and US who are out volunteering in an orphanage in Takeo and were enjoying a weekend break in Kampot. American Tony joined us and the evening descended in to an hilarious boozy night-finally drawing to a close at 6.30am.

Si is feeling terrible and has just gone back to bed. (it's 3.25pm)(Actually, I went back in because it was about 100 degrees out - Pants) I'm slowly improving. I think tomorrow we may take a tuk tuk tour of the area or Si will bike out and I'll hide with my book. We have our 10 hour bus journey to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) booked for 9am Weds and have a guesthouse pre booked there.

Cambodia is fantastic and we keep thinking everyone would enjoy Siem Reap for a few weeks. The people are wonderful, though many are poorer than anyone I've ever known. There's quite a lot of begging (from children) in Siem Reap and a considerable number of land mine victims about selling photocopied books to earn some sort of living. It is incredibly interesting country and here in Kampot you get the sense of what they've been through over the last 50 years with war and dictatorship of Pol Pot and khmer Rouge. They really are only starting to stand upright again and it's a slow process.

Kampot is hard for me to describe.. it is very laid back on a beautiful river and everywhere are old French Colonial buildings just descending into shells as they have been abandoned and stand empty. It seems that the Chinese have bought up a lot of land and property and have plans for developing the town - which will no doubt mean large casinos and hotels- a real shame I think.

The other thing which is new to us is the amount of charity and NGO workers around (non government organisations) There is so much help required from schools, medicine, building and infrastructure, orphanages, land mine clearances. Fascinating place it really is. Incredibly beautiful countryside and people - we both feel we would like to come back and if we do we will pack heaps and heaps of toys and books for the kids. Anyway we hope you're all okay. Probably going to chill out for the rest of the day and maybe won't get a chance to update again until Vietnam on Wed or Thurs.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Lessons learnt

I guess the title refers to yesterdy and our cycling trip to Tonle Sap (lake) It was ridiculously hot and shadeless along the lake road. On the return trip we stopped at a stilt house which was displaying a rather beat up sign in Khmer which looked to be advertising the place as a cafe or something. Anyway we stopped and were sourly invited in to the place- which consisted of a floor overhanging -at the moment -a 25 foot drop into stagnant waters and some muddy pools with some chickens pecking around (no doubt in a few days or weeks the rains will come and the house will be above the lake water) The floor was made of halved bamboo canes nailed to a rough wooden frame on these tall stilts. The place noticeably moved as we wandered in (bare foot as is right and proper in someone's home) There was a group of about 5 women sitting on a mat playing cards and about 9 children - 7 of whom were under the age of 5 & a couple of mankey looking dogs panting in the shade. There were no walls - all was open at the sides and no concrete or cement or stone (everything was grass roofs and wooden posts) The lady threw a woven mat on the floor and went off to buy us the drinks borrowing money from one of the card players. Amongst the children crawling, rocking and lying face down on the floor was one little tyke about 3 who stood near us, leaning back on the "fence" that protected him from the 20 foot fall out of his home. We were immediately hit by the complete deadness in his eyes. It was heart breaking! My smiles and silly faces didn't raise a flicker of anything which you would associate with a toddler. All the children were completely left to their own devises and there was not a ball, a crayon or anything bright or soft or shiny for them to respond to. Eventually Si gave me one of his postcards (on one side a pic of the College in the snow and on the other a colourful pic of a Thai chap painting a Fly Tail boat in Phi Phi island.) I made a little hat /sail boat thing out of it and tried to engage the little guy. He was interested but obviously didn;t know how to respond to my giving this to him. He still didn't smile and still his eyes were blank. After a while he climbed in to a hammock (the place was full of hammocks were they clearly sleep) and I gently placed the boat on him before turning away and pretending to ignore him. The moment I did that he rolled out of the hammock and ran to a quiet corner of the room clutching the boat. We watched him as he opened up the folds and looked at the picture of the Thai boat..... The smile that cracked his face had us both in awe. He then ran smiling and then stopping to look again at this picture. Heartbreaking but so real - what you always hear about such a little thing making such a difference. After about five minutes he brought the other little kids around and they stood by tentatively as our pal came forward and stuck 3 fingers up - so we gave him three more cards. By this time we had to go - it wasn't a very happy place. The little boy ran after us as we put our shoes back on and put his little hand out so Si did the high five for him - he was clueless so we spent some time teaching him up above down below you're too slow. When we finally started to wave good bye his face crumpled and we were worried he may cry- it was absolutely horrendous just how they had no stimulus or anything at all. Now staying another day and plan to take some things and leave them outside their place tomorrow (just some picture books or a ball -anything really)
Another long day on the bikes today cycling back along to the temples area. We have a bus ticket booked now for Saturday to travel to Campot in South East (near seaside place called Kep famous for Crab) Will spend some money tomorrow on tcrayons and paper etc and run back up to poor places by the lake ..probably just leave that little boy and his siblings some stuff by the door but there's also a temple school where we stopped and spoke to a young trainee buddhuist monk and they could use some resources too.
Hope everyone is well.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Cycling tour of Cambodia

Great day yesterday - we took bikes from the guesthouse and cycled off towards Angkor Wat and the site of the temples. Awesome! It is only the state of the infrastructure at the moment which is stopping Angkor Wat from becoming as big as the pyramids on the tourist trail... though the time is very near. Incredible architechure and feat of engineering quite unlike anything we've ever seen.

We both had thoughs of the Inca pyramids as the closest to describing these great structures. We wandered about Angkor Wat itself and then cycled off around to Bayon which is even more beautiful with its many towers with smiling Buddha faces on each side. All the temples are surrounded by jungle and it wasn't long before the monkeys were playing along the walls and surrounding areas.

It was very hot and sweaty, Simon loked like he'd been in the bath fully dressed. One child who was trying to sell us water even remarked on it! Poor old Pants- everywhere so far people have been calling out to him or saying straight to his face "Your body very fat!" I have tried to assure him this is a compliment.

We cycled around past the Terrace of Elephants and decided to start making our way back to Siem Reap but went the wrong way- ultimately making the whole journey 36kms long!!

Glad we did though because we stopped at a village on the way for a cold drink and had all the children talking with us and so sweet telling us their names, Boi, Po etc. We took some photos and showed them the images and they were delighted. In the end I gave one little lass my head torch and she was absolutely thrilled- running off bare foot to show her mother. These folks have absolutely nothing. The children (even tiny ones) are engaged in trying to tout bottled water & post cards to tourists around the temple sites and,as in this case, at the road side)

In this case the road was very quiet and in between the odd tourist climbing out of a tuk tuk near their home in order to enter the temple compounds, the children sat about playing with each others hair or tugging their naked baby brother about from one adoring sibling to the next. They have no toys, no ball, nothing at all. The all waved us off when we set out again and we felt that if we ever come back we will definitly fill a rucksack with books, crayons, beachballs, small games etc. The journey was so lovely through the jungle and past the farms.

We stopped at another shack later and again were greeted shyly by a group of 7 small semi dressed kids. they hid beind the big cold box and peered over at us with big wide eyes. Simon drew a face in the wet caused by the base of his can of beer and they drew the arms and legs for the figure. Si videod them and showed them - the laughter and delight I'll never forget (even now writing this my eyes are filling up)
I think it safe to say - we absolutely love Cambodia. Today we're planning on cycling down to Tonle Sap lake and then tomorrow back to explore some of the temples we didn't get around to.

We've pretty much decided to skip Pnom Penh now - as we've heard so many bad things (even from Cambodians) and we can't be bothered with hassle and potential risk this time. Instead we're going to look into getting a bus down to Campot and Kep (about 20km from Campot) they are in south east Kep on the coast and Campot a river resort - quiet but mellow) We are due to enter Vietnam on 21st Aug (A week today) so hopefully we can bus it from Kampot.

Last night Simon had Cambodian bbq which included Croc and Roo... He liked the roo but not the croc. I didn't know they had ros in Cambodia!! So far we've both faced all our fears with dogs, rats (huge rats) snakes. Last night we sta having a relaxing G&T at the Foreign Correspondants Club as night drew down and watched the biggest bats I've ever seen leave their roosts for the night (I think they may have been fruit bats- huge things)

Anyway hope everyone is well- you're all very quiet!!!

BTW- sorry about typos and bad spelling- just not getting long ebough to re-read these blogs. Also quick note- apologies for spelling Khmer- Khymer in earlier posts. It is y-less and spelt Khmer! (as in: Khmer Rouge!)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Across the lake and a day in the country

Yesterday we decided against the temples after a bad night's sleep and went for brunch into town. Ended up taking a tuk tuk to the river where we hopped aboard a boat with a very helpful young driver who lead us off to Tonle Sap lake (a huge fresh water lake that runs off into the Mekong.) It was pretty incredible as all along where reed shacks built on stilts with families going about their business. Everywhere nude kids swimming and fishing and playing along the mud banks.

Eventually we moved out of the river into open water and on to the floating village (complete with floating catholic church, school, police, general stores) The views were stunning with the lake silver and endless to all horizons.

At one point I was clicking away at a little boat chugging in the distance and as it started to come closer I was enjoying focussing on a cute little ragamufin of a girl aged about 5, sitting up front of her dad's boat and wearing a too big hat. I put the camera down to wave at her and the boat made a beeline for us. Within seconds I jumped in horror as I realised she was holding up a big snake which was writhing around her shoulders. Well as soon as I alerted Simon (who is afraid of snakes) the panic ensued (because I am afraid of everything let's face it)The girl was begging for money and bring the snake closer and closer, eventually pulling up right next to our boat - which was almost toppling from the sudden movement of Si & I rushing to find some reasonable small change to pay her off.

Later we saw another small pants-less laddy merrily rowing a plastic washing-up bowl around other tourist boats and profering snake threats!

It was a great trip and we were struck by the life of the people on the lake and also on the way to the area by tuk tuk. Our driver was a great guy named Botra and he secured a deal with us to use him to take us to the temples today.

We met up with him at 8am and decided to use the first of our three day pass to head about 30 miles away to see the furthest temples which we wouldn't be able to cycle to. The journey was really great and once again -probably our favourite part because of the opportunity to see real rural folks living and working their normal day. Fascinating how this morning on our way out every family was involved in some industry- in the paddy fields, making carvings, sewing, cooking, sweeping, fixing generators, making bricks or rice noodles.

The countryside is so beautiful and lush - the rice fields are the most vivid green. We stopped at the first temple and it was HOT and full of japansies, chinese, korean tourists in big groups so wasn't that great a deal- but pretty stunning. Next we travelled further out and stopped in a kind of national park where Si and I set off walking 1500 meters up a mountain path through the jungle. Amazing noises of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys. It was extremely sweaty going and Pants looked like he's been in shower fully clothed by the time we reached our destination. At the end of the walk we got to see some beautiful carvings in the rock floor of the river (so underwater) It was a pretty magical place and featured in the film (terrible film) The Two Brothers (about the tigers) It's called the Linga River.

We had a leisurely lunch with Botra and he invited us to his home to meet his wife and children- bless him... not sure I would feel comfortable doing this but still. On the ay back to town we had a chance to check out the Land Mine Museum (pretty bloody grim -that's about all I can say about Kymer history at this time of night)
Anyway we were dropped back in town tied, sweaty and dusty but having had a really insightful day. Early night for me - Pants is off on his Jack to watch the footy at 1.30am- idiot! Not sure tomorrow may be cycling templewards again or chilling depending on how late back Si is and how he feels in the morning.

Hope all are well... we've got ages to go and don't know what to do about Pnom Penh as we keep hearing it's pretty dicey and prob best avoided -even from Cambodian's whose best advice is if you have to go - stay one night only and then in the morning visit the Killing Fields and then leave. (So Killing Fields are the option rather than the city- that doesn't bode well) Update soon...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Chef Pants and the magic pizza

Despite an early start yesterday we decided against visiting the Angkor Wat site due to exhaustion from our long journey the previous day; instead we plumped for cooking school. We wandered in to town and had an ice coffee whilst watching the locals zip around on mopeds and then pottered about the market for a bit - wonderful bustling and smelt great from all the spices and herbs on sale. All the sales women perch squatting in the middle of the tables with their wares before them (including chickens displayed feet upwards towards the customers and live fish slapping out their death throes at the sales women's feet, awaiting a customer and the inevitable chop of a big machete knife- almost trod on one great monk fish making a desperate bid for freedom along the floor)

A few mellow jars were consumed whilst chatting to a Singaporean girl and her American boyfriend before we made our way to Le Tigre de Papier restaurant for our lesson in Khymer cooking. A nice lady named Chenny asked us to pick a started each and a main course each which we were then to cook. Simon picked fresh shrimp spring rolls and Fish Amok and I plumped for spicy mango salad and scallop Amok. She then lead us back through the food market this time explaining what every thing was and getting us to taste a variety of fresh herbs, fruits and vegs before taking back to the restaurant and up some narrow steps into an open sided thatched roofed turret atop the building.

The turret kitchen was spotlessly clean and a bowl of lime infused water was all set out for washing our hands before we were donned in chef's hats and aprons and set to chopping. She was very sweet and enjoyed our calling "Yes Chef" after she demo'd how to slice lemon grass, fresh sweet basil, tumeric, garlic, shallots, chilli etc. We also made a fab coconut custard which is steamed in a sweet green pumpkin for an hour. It was really really good fun and we learned heaps of techniques - cooking with out oil, the use of flavours and building each one into the dish separately , making the pastes. She also had us make little banana leaf bowls to serve the yellow curry in and sharon fruit roses to garnish the plate. One we finished we sat down in the restaurant and enjoyed obviously the finest meal ever (coz we made it!!)

After this we were full and tired and hot and came back to the hotel for a shower and rest. We wandered back out about 6.30pm for cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (The "F"- as we foreign correspondents call it!) Very civilized. To be honest I wasn't much in the mood for drinking a lot and took it easy. After the sublime surroundings of the F we went to the ridiculous ambiance of the Dead Fish Tower- a bar/restaurant with wooden platforms and steps towering ever higher,real crocs in pools and Apsara dancing (trad Khmer stuff for people with double jointed fingers)

By this time, feeling hungry again but not fancying any more Khymer cuisine, Chef Pants suggested pizza. Apparently back in the day the Khymer people innocently used marijuana as a herb in cooking and they still do this only now you cannot buy it openly in the markets. With the onset of tourism they have hit on the idea of making pizzas "happy" as (what we thought) a gimmicky option when ordering. Neither us were interested in this and ordered standard pizzas (telling the waiter "No thanks we're happy enough" when he grinningly offered to make it a happy pizza)
Well it was a small but actually very tasty pizza - Si had a beer with it and I a coke (as I say I wanted to stay sane knowing today may well be Angkor Wat day)

Hmmmmmmmm- the little sod went and happied our pizza regardless! Of course we didn't know this til we were back at the guest house enjoying a quiet (beer for Si, small Bailey's for me) Suddenly we were feeling pretty surreal and giggling at the silliest stuff. Slowly realizing why this may be, we decided to make a quiet exit bedwards. As I stood gingerly up from the table I became aware I was standing n something squishy and so carefully squinted all the way down at my foot. Whether it was the pizza which made my processing skills so slow but it took me a seemingly ages and slow dawning realization that it was a living thing struggling under my foot... The triple lutz, back axle and a semi quaver met with a standing ovation from all the audience except the French on the next table (who unfortunately were the only audience) All the staff came running in and it turned out the hijinks was caused by a little yellow frog! Suddenly a policeman appeared from nowhere and collared the beasty - I pleaded for it's life but could hardly speak for a sudden urge to instead beseech the French "You lot don't eat it!"It was all a bit nighmarish given the pizza induced high we were on and we made a sharp exit. Once in bed the blasted pizza really kicked in and at one point we were thinking of trying to score some gnocchi to bring us down.

Anyway a very paranoid night ensued and we have had a late start today. Off for some lunch now (needless to say NOT italian!!) then to Angkor for sunset this evening and to buy our three day pass around the temples. Love and Pizza Man - Caio for now xxx

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Up a Thai Temple

Holiday in Cambodia!

"Holiday in Cambodia"-a Dead Kennedy's ditty we're kinda partial to, also a highly recommended weekend break! One small problem is that it takes an age to get here and is fraught with border crossing stress...

Actually we felt we got off fairly lightly after reading copious horror stories of dodgy Thai officials and then seedy downtown Cambodian Poipet (the border town you emerge into from Thailand).

After a luscious hour sleep in BKK interrupted only by heat and the noise of Spanish fans celebrating their success against Germany and the knowledge that we had a 4am alarm call - we took a taxi to Hualamphong Railway Station. [Top tip again! DON'T let taxi drivers in BKK take you anywhere off the meter- we were touted immediately we left the guest house and told "no meter" but that the trip would only cost us 300Baht - we duly told him of an interesting way to get there himself and flagged a meter cab down to the tune of 53 baht!!!!)

All the train windows were wide open as we set off bumping along out of Bangkok, passing again the shocker of shanty towns built in the very roots of the high rise hotels and office blocks. It really takes the breath away how these folks manage to live in such squalour and poverty, yet we saw one little girl all neat in her school uniform standing on a home made wooden walk way above the stench of stagnant ditches, having her hair brushed by her mother. At least she's being cared for and going to school but I wonder if all her school mates live in similar shacks or whether they come from varying backgrounds? I suppose she doesn't often have friends for a sleep over!

The countryside was lush and gorgeous paddy fields, full of storks, egrets, strange but beautiful looking kingfishers and everywhere folks tending their crops in searing heat!

The journey seemed never ending, taking 6 hours and ending with the joys of border crossings. Almost the moment we got off the train we were set upon by tuk tuk touts. Carefully we negotiated only the border and "only 50 baht" - all seemed understood and we set off. Immediately he turned away from the arrow pointing to the border and straight into a travel agency - well I wasn't having it - I cannot stand naughty boys who don't listen to instructions!!!! I yelled "If you don't turn around right now and take us to the border -we'll get out and no pay!!"(What an old colonial bossy boots- but I knew I should have brought our own rickshaw wallah on holiday with us!) Anyway I clearly scared the fisherman pants off him as he duly turned around and headed demurely off for the border.

It was then a relatively simple affair to fill out departure forms to leave Thailand and fill in medical release forms for Cambodia and then the visa forms for the Cambodia visa (though the border official did exactly what the guide books and websites said he'd do and tried to charge us a extraneous 200 baht on top of the $20 visa fee. I said "What's that for?"he looked at his feet and mumbled "express visa processing"! No need to fear if you're doing this- don't pay the baht and wait for the longer visa processing which took 2 minutes.

Finally we walked into Cambodia and got hustled on to a "government tourist shuttle bus" Quite funny because everyone on it was questioning the guys and all were really paranoid that this too was a ruse to get more cash out of us. Whilst journeying along the french girls in front of us suddenly groaned as they found the bit in Lonely Planet that says basically don't get fooled by the official shuttle bus. Great! We were especially anxious as we'd arranged for our hotel to have a taxi meet us at the Cambodian side not at some bus station.

Anyway- in the end it worked out okay and on refection we don't think they wre trying to rip anyone off (I think they are trying to allay rumours of scams and corruption by being ultra helpful and efficient but because the all new modern bus station is actually in middle of nowhere and completely empty it looks like some sort of very expensive scam. Our driver wasn't there and a kindly police man allowed Si to call the hotel and after some misunderstandings and complexities which we still can't quite get to the bottom of, we got to the Mother Home Guest House some 2 hours later.

So far we love what we're seeing here. The countryside is stunning and people farm their land using oxen to pull their ploughs. Their are water buffalo everywhere in the fields - it is really lovely. The people are different too - extremely friendly.

Siem Reap is surprisingly new at first glance . It is open and light (no high rises) Lots of parks and royal gardens. Last night we walked into the centre where the bars and restaurants are and had the most delicious Cambodian national dish (Amok) Fish red curry - scrumptious. Draft beer at 50cents (about 40p) a pop and the meal about 3.75GBP.

There is a colonial feel to the old town and there are plenty of bars which have balconies which give a little more breeze and a view of proceedings away from the constant beggar action. I can feel this will be a continuing ethical issue for us...there are numerous land mine victims begging and also children (one very little boy could only have been about 4 years old and came running in front of us kneeling and bowing down head to the ground and little hands together) It's upsetting but also a concern that you don't want to encourage the life style for children. Prob best to remember how it feels to see them and donate to a charity when we get back.

Off to explore some more (prob staying here til 16th now as there's lots to see and do and the hotel is fab!)
More in a day or two.