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.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Big lizard watch

Hi folks!
We arrived- finally- it was a totally knackering journey all told. Met with Rev. Bill at Delhi Airport- wow that's a lovely place!! NOT.

We only got to speak with Bill briefly as he was on the job protecting British borders from advancing illegal immigrants- which looked to us a little tough and involved a lot of passport scrutiny and endless phone calls to check people's destinations etc. Anyway even for the short time we had- it was great to see old Bill (looking exactly the same age as he was 11 years ago)

Arrived at about 8.30pm in BKK in 30 degree heat and no air. No probs checking in and a good snooze had by all. Yesterday we re-aquainted ourselves with some old haunts and some new areas of general bustling humanity and lack of loos (eventually the call of nature necessatating (sp) a bail-out by tuk tuk back to Khao San Rd.

Numerous beers and a sleep and shower saw us set up for a night out (definitely quieter than last year) All the usual suspects were out and about selling all the usual rubbish. One of the Burmese mountain women (adele) who sold us Elli's chirruping frog last year remembered us which was pretty incredible. Suddenly about 10pm I (Jo) began literally to melt and had to shakily ascend to bed where I fell asleep for an hour and felt worse when i awoke. Not sick or anything - can only put it down to heat stroke or something daft! Si went out and watched the footy game (starting here at 1.30am!)

Today we tentatively took our first Anti-Malarial pills with a yoghurt and muselli brekkie and then sat back to await the onset of the side effects. It's now about 4pm and no ulcerated gullets to be seen!

Went for a gentler wander around some quiet back streets and took numerous pix of a 4 foot monitor lizard as it swam up the canal and then started to explore the alley under a house! Not the prettiest wild life watching moment. Had our first run in with a wild dog- well it was a poodle but it seemed pretty wild to me- well if not wild certainly pissed off!! Suffice to say, I hurtled off down the street like a startled gazelle (okay buffalo) whilst Simon sort of laughed at me and later reassured me that if it had been a threat he would have ripped its head off!! All bodes well then for the remainder of the trip (Watch out canines)

Tomorrow we jump a taxi at 4.30am and set off by train to Cambodia border crossing.
Hope everyone is well... we're a little bit jaded I think but I'm sure we're just acclimatising. Next update should be from Cambodia.