Sunday, 29 August 2010

Wham, Bam, Battambang

What is it with travelling and these early mornings? A 6am pick-up for the slow boat to Battambang, Cambodia's I say a 6am pick up, but the minibus turned up about 45 minutes late, and was already full of people. We managed to queeze in, then it stopped again to pick up another two, so now I know exactly how many people will fit in a Toyota van (it was 14, in space for 10).

We rrived at the jetty nd immediately this friendly chap oicked up one of our bags to carry to the boat, then promptly asked for a dollar when we got there. Cheeky sod! The boat got incerasingly full, and I knew it was going to be a long uncomfortable day, having heard the trip could take anything between 4 and 10 hours, depending on the river height. The boat was a long vessel with two rows of thinly padded seats facing eachother. Most of the other pasengers were European, with a few locals, and there wasn't a great deal of space on the seats or to stretch your legs

Setting sail we went down the river, we went onto Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, and this was easy to believe looking at it on the map as it appears huge. We were on this for at least an hour and were only traversing a small corner of it between river inlets. The wind was relatively high and caused a lot of spray from the bow, so we had to put down screens to try and stay dry. There was a poor local lady at the prow who was catching the worst of the spray, though people on that side of the boat refused to move down to spare her the worst. One English guy was heard to say "Toughshit" when this the idea of moving down was mentioned. I had visions of pushing this miserable tw@ into the Tonle Sap to leave him at the mercy of whatever might belurking beneath the surface.

Past the lae we went up river (getting increasingly uncomfortable due to the cramped position) where the spray lessened meaning we were able to raise the screens and get a bit of a view of the passing countryside. We sailed past rice fields, through low level bush and the occasional dwelling. We waved at children who waved back, often shouting hello.

After about 4 hours we reached a place where the boat was refuelled, and we could stop for food. We hadn't brought any food, besides a couple of small croissants we'd nicked from breakfast, so were quite hungry. We bought some bread and I ate some warm food, not sure what. It had aubergine and some sort of omelette with plain rice, which was brave of me because I refused to care about the alimentary consequences. We loaded back up and set up further up river

The next part of the trip was along a windy section of river which reminded me of scenes in Apocalypse Now with added cramp. We kept running aground which meant the guy who wasn't the pilot had to keep getting a stick-cum-oar to push us back into deeper water so we could get going again. It was a very long trip. It started raining maybe an hour from our destination so the screen had to come down again which mant we couldn't see the scenery. Worse still, the screens were red which made the boat feel like you were sitting inside a huge womb with nothing to look at.

Eventually, as in 8 hours later, we arrived at Battambang and were immediately assailed by a horde of drivers touting for business and trying to get you to go to the hotels they had a kickback from. It was no good for us as we had a booking, so we got a tuk-tuk man to tke us to La Villa on the river. We also arranged to have him take us on the obligatory tour the next day. His name was Chin Chin, which is a name well worth drinking to.

We checked intot the hotel, and it was stunning. A boutique place with only a small number of rooms, but decorated in the most elegant colonial French style. Our room had a four poster bed, and a bath which was big enough to drown a camel in. While large chain hotels may trump them for luxury and consistency, small hotels such as this almost always offer so much more in character and atmosphere, and this is what makes a trip all the more memorable.

We freshened upo after our ordeal and wandered out into the town again. we passed the promoenade where the locals did aerobics, and played football, and wandered a bit over the river. It was getting dark and it was surprising exactly how dark it gets in a town with very few working street lights. This makes Battambang a dificult town to navigate at night, especially with poorly maintained roads and pavements. We stopped for dinner at a place called the White Rose Restaurant, recommended in Lonely Planet, which turned out to be a bit of a backpackers/locals cafe. The food was passable, but given that this was apparently one of the best there was to offer in the town, it wasn't much of an pinnacle in culinary achievement.

We went back to the hotel for a drink to find the bar was closed, so wandered down a nearby side street where there seemed to be some activity and ended up in one of those bars you only seem to get in tis part of the world. I'm not sure what they are to be honest. The place has a lot of girls who seem to be hostesses but if it is some sort of knocking shop, it's a very family friendly one as the crowd is usually mixed. Also, the girls take it in turns to go up on stage and sing some local songs. The point it though that they are quirky, friendly, cheap and most importantly, a local thing. We were the only white people in there, so it's nice not to be surrounded by backpackers.

We went to bed after this

Ancient temples and ruined Villas

Breakfast and out for a 9 o'clock pick up for another day temple site-seeing. Again, they do kind of merge together, especially since today's offerings were less impressive than yesterday's. There was one that was a little overgrown, and a companion temple to the Tomb Raider temple. Thi was relatively quiet, so had more atmosphere, though wasn't as overgown. There was one which was originally a large complex of fountains (including ornately carved heads of various epcies as water spouts), and another we remember was the very old Hindu temple in brick which had elephants at each corner of the outer walls, guarding the building. Probably might have trouble if invaders came riding mice-drawn chariots. I shall add more detail later once I correlate pictures and the guidebook

Lunch was at the same tourist trap place as yesterday, and fairly unremarkable.

We were back quite early as we had done enough templing by 3ish, so Tee got an early finish. He did offer us the chance to go to the Angkor Wat Museum in town, but this didn't seem to be a good deal as the temple pass (which gives you three days' acess from seven) costs $20 each, whilst the museum (which, according to the guidebook) has little to show, though quite well presented and costs $12 each. We headed back and just vegged by the pool for a couple of hours.

Thi evening we were in town in time for dinner at 7:30 locally at a place called Soup Dragon which serves good Vietnamese food. but also has a large screen to watch football on as Newcastle's first home game of the season versus Aston Villa. So we had good beer, good food and the spectacle of the Toon disassembling the Brummies 6-0. What a truly magnificent start to the evening. We wandered further for a couple of more drinks including bars called Angkor What? Banana Leaf and the Warehouse. Then it was back to bed for a fairly early night as we were off the next day to Battambang by boat for apickup at 6am!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

More temples than you can shake a stick at

(edited to correct the timeline. The bamboo train was a couple of days later)
Our first full day in Cambodia. Breakfast was OK: buffet with eggs cooked to your request. We had arranged a tuk-tuk the night before and met our driver for three days whose name was Tee. He was to take us around the temples,

We headed off to our first temple. This was within the massive complex of Angkor Thom, which is utterly massive. The whole area is bigger than downtown Siem Reap. The first one was Bayon with its enigmatic smiling heads on each pinnacle. The temples of Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and the others in the large area around Siem Reap date variously from the 9th century to the 11th, essentially when we in Britain were worrying which shade of wode was going to be in this season. The temple at Bayor was amospheric, despite there being a fair number of tourists around, and the amount of detail carved into the roack from which they were made is stunning, even now almost a millenium later. We saw more structures within Angkor Thom including the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King before moving onto another couple of temples. We managed to fit lunch into this at some tourist trap restaurant that our driver took us to, no doubt receiving some kickback, but this is normal for this part of the world, especially in areas so popular with tourists.

The temples through the day did kind of merge into one, and I can add further details when I upload pictures and cross refer with the guidebook. It's not that the temples didn't all have their own distintive haracteristics, but it's that there were so many. One temple that does stick in the memory is the one that featured in Tomb Raider, with its buildings and walls infiltrated by roots from big rainforest trees which look like rivulets of liquid rolling over the sandstone more than vegetation

Our final destination of the day was the wonderful Angkor Wat. This temple you cannot forget for many reasons. It's the building that's synonymous with Cambodia. Indeed, so proud are they of it that they actually have it on their national flag. It's also the largest religious structure in the world. It was heaving, as might be expected, but we had a good look around. The bas reliefs are stunning, with scenes from Hindu mythology (the Ramayana and Mahabarat) and local legend. This runs round the outside of the inner wall, further inside there are the famous towers to look at, and you can climb up and into the higher central one. Like a lot of these things, pictures speak louder than words and we do have some pictures to upload. However, our main camera ran out of power as we arrived here and we aren't able to upload pictures from the other camera as it's an Olympus which have a non-standard sized memory card so we have to wait until later to do those.

We got Mr Tee (pity the fool who didn't get to see Angkor Wat today) to drive us back. We were in desperate need of a shower and change of clothes. It had been a very hot day, and we had been climbing up and down pyramid-like temples (all that shape to represent Mt Meru again important from Hindu myhtology), drenched in sunblock (factor 50, of course), and DEET, caked in dust from the crumbling roads. A dip in the pool was fantastic.

That evening we headed out again to sample the delights of Pub St. We ate Khmer again, this time having the local delicacy of fish amok (not a haddock riot, but fish cooked in spicy coconut milk and served in banana leaves). We also watched some live football beamed over from the UK. Globalisation has a lot of downsides, but sometimes the global village is a good place to be living. Well it is if you are a privileged Western European at any rate

The Road to Cambodia

What kind of time is 4:45am to get up? I had a McBreakfast at the airport, sad to say (and it wasn't even that nice!).

We boarded our Air Asia flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Two hours, plus lost an hour as Cambodia is one hour behind Malaysia, despite being further east, paradoxically. The arrival hall is gorgeously done out in Khmer style, complete with statues of gods on various transport methods (elephant is the one you see first). It was good they had some nice sculpture to look at as they took some time to sort out your entry visa.

We were met by a driver from our hotel who tried to giveus the hard sell to get him to drive us around the next day. We weren't having it as we wanted a tuk-tuk (see later). The hotel was reached down a dirt track in the heartof the city, but what a gorgeous and idyllic place it was. A lush garden surrounding a swimming pool, with the most wonderfully friendly staff. Though it was little later than 9am we were able to check in straight away.

We dumped our stuff and had a wnader into Siem eEap, having breakfast at a French-style patisserie, dodging the offers of tuk-tuks wherever we went. This is a feature of Cambodia, offers of tuk-tuks, offers of a massage (legit type, often involving fish nibbling your feet), or ragamuffin children trying to sell you postcards or bamboo bracelets. It isn't major pestering, as a simple "no thanks" does the job. After this we wandered further into the city to get an idea of the orientation. We found a couple of wats to have a look around, similar to Thai style, though maybe a little less ostentatious.

Back to the Central Boutique Hotel for a breather then out for some lunch at a small cafe nearby where we had noodles/fried rice. Chatting to the owner, she had a American husband, though we didn't figure out the whole story. I did, however, win a free beer as my ringpull (one of the old fashioned ones you pull off) had a symbol for some competition where you could win up to something like 500,000 riel.

This is something to mention: currency. Cambodian currency is the riel as I just mentioned. However, they commonly use the US dollar such that, when you get money from the ATM it is in dollars. There are 4000 riel to the dollar, and when you buy something that isn't in full dollars, you get the change in riel (so a 1000 riel note is 25c).

We got back to the hotel and had a bit of a swim in the lovely pool. Then, doing a quick bit of research, I also found that there were aerobics classs at 5:30 in the evening which was something I was determined to have a go at, so I set of to look for them, just finding them in time. It was fun, if hard in 30deg heat and very high humidity, but only cost the measly sum of 1000 riel (or about 17p). Most of the clientelle were women, many of them quite old, but that's nothing new as far as my fitness regime is concerned.

I got back, and we got ready togo out for the night, and see what the begining of the weekend had to offer in Siem Reap. There are no shortage of nightspots, with the main drag for nightlife being called Pub St. We ate at a place called the Khmer Kitchen, which did the local specialities, not that there is any shortage of this around teh place as you might expect. The main dish was Khmer curry which was fantastic. Not disimilar to Thai style curries, but less hot, and with less obvious lemon grass and coconut milk.

We drank a few more drinks (mostly beers, but they d a good selection ofcocktails too) at a variety of places. Best of all the place is very cheap, with it being low season, and most places offering a happy hour all the time with draft beer being often 50c a glass. Cocktails too are usually chap to start with or on 2-4-1 offers.

We got a tuk-tuk home. Cambodian tuk-tuks are different from those you see elsewhere in that they are in effect moped-drawn chariots. That is to say, the passenger compartment is a trailer (sitting 4or 5 people) hitched up to a moped. It's a good way to travel, and relatively cheap. A quick one dollar ride home and we were in bed

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A nothing day

Day 10 Pelangi Beach resort

Today was a day of travelling and not much else. Upin time to catch the boat back to the mainland. This was a fast shuttle and the journey was actually quite hairy as there was a bit of wind which caused a bit of a swell, made worse every time we went past the wake of a boat going in the other direction. Rain started as we reached port as well.

From there we were bussed to Kuala Terengganu where we had a couple of hours to kill. Difficult as this was Friday (their Sunday in this hardline Islamic part of MAlaysia) and Ramadan. We returned to the Chinese cafe we had had a drink at the last time we were here before we went to the beach and ate chicken rice and duck noodles.

We then got on a bus to Terengganu airport to catch a flight to KL. The usual airport thing applied where you hang around for ages, before3 boarding our flight which lasted the same half hour. At KL, where we arrived at KLIA, we had to get a shuttle bus to the budget terminal where we had a hotel reservation at a Tune Hotel. Tune is a hotel brand starting to spread globally (they have on in London at Westminster) which is owned by Air Asia, and follows the same Dallas South Western (or, more familiarly the EastJet/Ryanair) model of no-frills. You get a room for cheap, then pay fo everything else: towels, aircon. The room was tiny, but clean, though the sink was blocked and one of the bedside lights had a dead bulb. Dinner was at a cafe in the piazza next to the hotel at a restaurant which offered a post-fast buffet which turned out to be a litle expensive, though it was good food. We enjoyed couple of beers then had to go to bed as we had a stupidly early flight to catch (7am flight, so at the airport for a check in 90 minutes before hand).

Friday, 20 August 2010

Sharks, mouse deer, Tiger beer

Day 6-8
Pelangi Beach Resort, Redang Island

This morning we were up early to get out on one of the included snorkelling trips. They run 2 a day, one at 2pm as we did after we got here yesterday, one at 9:30am. Breakfast was another ufet of two types of noodles, eggy bread and something else I didn't like the look of. It was OK, especially the eggy bread which warmed up OK in the grills they have to make toast

We were shipped out to the Marine PArk Centre on another, smaller island a little way off called Pulau Pinang (not THE Penang) . Snokelling was good, with some great coral and plenty of colourful fish. I even caught a glimpse of a small reef shark. We rented snorkels and masks as well as the obligtory lifejacket which anyone who has been snorklling more than a couple of times (apart from Jane) doesn't need. I mean, you can jjust float there breathing through the snorkel as long as you want without one, and if you hve a life jacket on you can't dive down to get a closer look at stuff. We chatted to a young English guy who had a Malaysian Chinese girlfriend who was stuying in the UK

On heading back it was time for lunch again, more of the same cold buffet (this wil be a theme on the next few days, believe me). We decided to duck out of the afternoon organised sborkelling trip and instead headed off to gor round a local reef reachable from the shore near where we were staying. This proved a good move because there was some reasonable coral for so near show (though showing signs of bleaching as is the case globally which is largely agreed to be due to increasing sea temperatures). There were a fair few fish as well: parrot fish, seageant fish, the odd yellow angel fish. Carrying on around the headland we swam to what is called locally Shark Bay, and the title wasn't a lie as we saw small black-tip reef sharks pretty close to shore. This made missing the trip worthwhile.

We headed back to our room to shower and go out for a pre-dinner drink at the Coral again, then same old same old buffet food for dinner. We then headed out to explore some of the other bars on the beach. The furthest to the north is Reef which had some Chinese teenagers doing cantopop karaoke, LAguna Beach I decided not to drink at as it was RM13 a beer (normal is 10), Redang Beach Resort was good, and one of our regular haunts. Our own place wsn't much cop, and there was Coral whichwas our overall favourite, and we got to know the barstaff well. So we enjoyed a beer or two at a few places before heading back to our room for bed.

As I'm behind I'm doing all our beach nights as they all were similar. Next day we had out breakfast and headed out on the jungle trail over the island to visit another beach. This has a very exclusive (and expensive) Berjaya resort hotel, but the beach was suposed to be stunning. The trek was amazing. Over a hill on a well maintained trail through otherwise dense rainforest whichbecame mangrove at the other end. There was wildlife galore. We saw a chameleon, a few squirrels, lots of macaques, and a mouse deer. At least I think it was a mouse deer, as I only caught a glimpse.
Soaked on sweat we arrived at the beach, and it was indeed stunning with ice-white sand and turquoise water, but this wasn't the resort beach and was a little rubbish strewn. We wandered over to a handy cafe for a Coke, then to the Berjaya. It was very swish, full of Italian tourists and had an immaculate beach. We had a melon juice to drink then found some shade to sit and enjoy the view before heading back.
We'dmissed lunch at the Pelangi, and he afternoon snorkelling trip, but went back to Shark Bay and saw loads of small sharks. Really close to shore in really shallow water.

Evening was more of the same then to bed

Next day we did the morning snorkelling trip, and hired an underwater digital camera to take some photos. We went beyond the Marine Park we had gone to on the first day to another reef which was not too interesting as it happened. Also the camera didn't work when we got there so got no underwater pictures. That afternoon we just hung out on the beach, though our view from the Pelangi was obscured by a large banner put up for a rock festival they were holding at our place this weekend. Our rest on the beach was also disturbed by them setting up. Two days before the show, and they were doing sound cecks before packing their stuff away in case of rain. Muppets

Instead of the buffet at Pelangi we ate at the Redang Beach Resort and had Malay standards which were good, and, more importanty, hot. We also went to the Coral for a last cocktail (aware that our ringit was running low and here was no ATM) and to say goodbye to the two barmen here who we had got to know quite well, then went to pack and go to bed.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Boom! Merang!

Day 5 Hotel Continental, Kula Terangannu
(interim post, to be completed with photos and more details)

Breakfast here was entirely Asian, so noodles all round. We packed up and got into a taxi driven by a madmanwho did the hour trip to the jetty in about 30 minutes. Apart from the fact he was overtaking left right and centre, the trip was interesting, seeing suburban and semi-rural Malaysia. We arrived at the jetty in a place called Merang where we had a short wait until the boat arrived over from our destination on Pulau Redang in the South China Sea. The trip out was about 30 minutes or so, where we disembarked and checked into Pelangi Resort. The sight you arrive to is a long beach of white sand, fringed by palm trees with buildings nestling back in the trees, tree which cover the mountain behind the resort. Some of the other resrsts aren't quite so subdued, with one r twoof them going for the bigger is better is more exclusive look. True, it's not as bad as a lot of Spanish seaside resorts, but is very out of character with the rest of the scene.
Our room was in a wooden building, a decent size with sir con and an electric shower, so way above the basic level we have stayed in places like Tioman nd the Perhentians which had no hot water and only a fan to cool you.. We unpacked a few things and went out for lunch at 12 (the accomodation is full board, and includes two snorkelling trips a day if you so desire). Lunch was a buffet affair of local ood, but served cold. Or at least served up warm, but rapidly cooled as there was no way of keeping ithot in the trays. It is a little like school dinners, especially in the fact that you have to clear your own plates.

After this we headed back to prepare for our first foray snorkelling which was to a nearby island. This had some decent coral and a fair few fish, though nothing spectacular. We were here for about an hour before heading back for afternoon snacks: curry puffs were especially good.
Now we lounged aro9und for a couple of while before having a wander along the beach to see what else was available, and alighted at a bar at a resort called Coral which was very pleasant to enjoy a beer, but it's aeach bar, so what else can you expect?

Dinner was BBQ night, so served up in buffet style we had chicken wings, fish (mackerel I think), lamb and vegetables including baked sweet potato. It was passable, but again quite cold by the time we got it.

That evening we explored what the beacjh had to offer in terms of nightlife. There are 10 resorts on the stretch of beach, and probbly all but one or two have somesort of bar. One of them is a very expensive place that we didn't even bother going in. As it transpired we went to three or four, ending up at the Coral where we had cocktails. It's defintiely not a holiday without the od cocktail.