Archive for October, 2010

29
Oct
10

light, luxury and lylia’s in langkawi

(EDITED 30/10 TO INCLUDE 3 PARAGRAHS I DIDN’T COPY PASTE!)

I blogged towards the start of the trip about wanting a quiet little beach escape – it was safe to say that I didn’t find what I was looking for in Karon Beach, Phuket. Sure I had a tidy room, ate reasonably good foods and managed to catch up on some much needed sleep, but it wasn’t quite the chilled time on the beach I was craving. The large amount of tourists didn’t help, both package holiday and ‘me love you long time, hello welcome’ sex holiday types, blinding any visions I may have had of a luxurious beach break.

Arriving in Langkawi, situated a ninety minute ferry ride from mainland Malaysia, I was ready for a beach break. Here I am some three afternoon later and I can confirm that I have found that beach escape I was searching for. This is a stunning little island that has won a place in my heart already. So much so that I’m going to do my best to come back here next February for a longer break before a hard slog round the Indian sub continent.

So far my tales have mainly been the kind that I would hardly be jealous of back home. What is so good about a seventeen hour train and bus ride through Thailand or dodging the danger of a night lost in a leech infested jungle with no water? How about a de-hydrating, back breaking bike ride off road in Cambodia or waking up in a foul mood in Kuala Lumpur? Hardly the kind of activities or experiences the average bod I know would get green envy over. Part of this chapter is going to be a little boast back to everyone reading this back in the UK, braced for another arctic winter. By the way, I see the clocks are to change – that must mean its dark by 6pm nearly, yeah? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

My three days in Langkawi have been the stuff dreams are made of. The early morning rain that had greeted my arrival had now cleared so I set off for the beach in good spirits. I’m staying at a guesthouse called ‘Zackry’ which, at 33 MYR (£6.50) is a steal for a smart, single room. The two main beaches in Langkawi are Pentai Tengah, where Zackry is located, plus Pentai Cenang. Seeing as Tengah was my local, I took a late morning walk along its kilometre stretch of sand, interrupted by just one Malay family with not one westerner in sight. After a quick swim in the beautifully warm water, I took another relaxed stroll to the bigger, more touristy Cenang beach. Now, when I say I touristy I would hate to give the impression that this is a busy beach – oh no. This several kilometre stretch of golden sand has acres of space to feel free. Being such a big beach, I happily walked the length of it knee deep in the lovely warm, clear water with not a single person in my way. The tourists that are here all seem to be craving the same peace and quiet that I have been. After several large, polluted cities in the last couple of weeks and the disappointment of Phuket, its safe to safe I’m thrilled with my findings in Langkawi.

The afternoon was spent walking along the beach front, swimming in the gorgeous clear waters of the sea before retiring to a beach shack to watch the sun set. Here I happily drank several pints of acceptably priced Carlsberg while listening to Oasis on my MP3. Perfect. There’s something quite brilliant about going for a swim in the sea, getting out and not worrying about drying off or getting changed. Just walking on for a while until you start to feel a little clammy again, dump your bag off and go for another swim. A hard life, a world away from the clocks going back in the UK.

The other thing I love here in Langkawi is the ability to walk around these so called touristy areas and not get hassled. So often in places like this you will be hassled by shop or market owners to come in and look round their premises. Going for a walk at night you are so often harassed by waiters or waitresses desperately trying to get you to eat at their restaurant. Walking down a beach, your peace is broken by some moron desperate to sell you some artefact that you would never have a use for on holiday or otherwise. Taxi drivers slowing down to try and get you to take the option of a lift as opposed to walking the short distances between guesthouses and bars. None of this seems to happen here in Langkawi. Everyone just leaves you to it, not pushing for a sale or a moment of your time. Even the Jetski operators on Cenang beach aren’t bothered about hassling tourists – they are too busy sunbathing or riding the Jetski’s themselves to care about drumming up business. I remember taking a walk down the beachfront to get away from the continual cries of ‘tuk tuk?’ and ‘taxi?’ on Baga Beach in Goa a few years ago. Thinking knee deep in sea water I’d be safe from the said cat calls, I was interrupted by an Indian guy on a Jetski, racing up behind me and asking if I required a ‘water taxi?’ I could have screamed – ‘No I do not need a bloody lift, why do you think I’m taking a walk down a beach you utter fool?’

Anyway, relax. That’s the most worked up I’ve got in the last few days so forgive me.

Yesterday I splurged properly for the first time since I left the UK – without boring you with the details I’m on a budget of around £50 a day, not a huge amount if you consider the forthcoming Australian tour. With my next payday being May 6th, I do have to be a little careful with all things currency. When I did a little research on Langkawi I stumbled upon a cracking little golf course called ‘Gunung Raya’ that I felt could satisfy my need to keep my game in something resembling order. After all, the day before I flew out for Bangkok I finally beat my stepdad, Martin, for the first time over eighteen holes (sorry Mart, had to get that in) It would be a shame to let standards fully slip, as I’m sure he will be gunning for revenge on my return in April. You can visit their website at http://www.golfgr.com.my/ if you want to look at the challenges I faced. After a nervy start I managed to claw my score back to 112, 40 over par for the record! I finished Martin off with a 92 round in that victorious round. Hardly the most striking score in the world, but given I started the first three holes with three lost balls and being more interested in driving the golf buggy than what club I should use, I was reasonably happy. The course was stunning, quite hilly in places with the odd sea view and beautifully maintained fairways and greens. Every time you finished a hole, a green keeper would come on and check for any crevices you may have left from an approach shot.

My arrival in Langkawi was via a ten hour overnight sleeper train from Kuala Lumpur to a place called Alor Setar. Here I disembarked early to share a taxi with a couple I’d met on the train to get the ferry to Langkawi from Kuah Khedah. My original plan was to stay on the train to Arau, where I’d catch the other ferry option from Kuala Perlis. Seeing as I’d been fortunate enough to make mates with Michael and Alice on the train, it made sense to join them on the last leg of the trip. They were originally singletons from Ireland and Nottingham who had become an item on the road (literally) between Europe and China. They had travelled as part of an overland tour that started several months back, only to separate and go their own way as a couple once they hit China. They told some tales of far flung places visited on the road such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan (well done, spell checker to the rescue there I can tell you!) Its amazing the people you meet on trips like this, there are some seriously far out adventurers out there. They were both very down to earth, and not blasé at all about what they are done and where they had been. Great effort and I wish them well in the future.

As for my immediate future, it’s a last night in Langkawi tonight before taking a ferry down to a much bigger island called Penang, famed for its curries. From there I will ignore warnings to expect boredom from a KL hostel owner and from a mate of mine from the cricket, Winslow, during an in and out trip to Brunei before making my way via another couple of ferries to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, otherwise known as Sabah. Even more immediate is a walk to ‘Little Lylia’s’ beach bar to watch the sun go down over Langkawi.

Its just gone 6pm and still light here.

Unlike in the UK.

Sorry.

26
Oct
10

you can always depend on the kindness of strangers

I woke up yesterday morning in a foul, grumpy and somewhat downbeat mood. Call it early travel blues or whatever, but I was not in a mood that should go hand in hand with travelling the world. Quite the opposite in fact – my mood could be likened to that of a stroppy child, upset at his new found noisy, uncomfortable surroundings while wanting to do nothing but sleep to get away from this hole he had got himself into.
This new found surrounding was a slightly grubby hostel room in the Golden Triangle area of Kuala Lumpur. With nothing but a plastic covered mattress, a hospital style light, blaring loud music from the local restaurant next door and several hungry mosquitoes for company, I had my first moments of wanting out. Not out of the trip, oh god no – but just wanting to be out of this sweaty shithole I found myself in. All I pined for was to be in a cool, comfy bedroom with peace and quiet. At one point I even considered packing my bag and walking to one of the nearby luxury hotels and splurging on a room that was more humane. A room that could provide a proper sheet to cover myself from the mozzies would have been an improvement.

After finally drifting off, I awoke early and decided to get straight out and about. It was pre-8am – I might have had a few hours broken sleep on the back of a 5.30am start the previous morning, leaving Fred for my flight from Phnom Penh. I thought about packing my bag and checking out, but seeing as I had paid for the two nights, I thought that I’d go out for a while and consider my options later that afternoon.

The day started poorly – I took a stroll towards Petronas Twin Towers, where I’d been the previous afternoon, taking in the impressive Kuala Lumpur skyline for the first time. A quick chat with a security guard confirmed that I should have read my guidebook more thoroughly – the walkway that links the two towers were closed on Monday’s. Great start. After a quick chai latte I walked up to the other major high-rise attraction in KL called Menara Sky Towers. There is something quite flauntful about this tower. I liked its appearance the instant I clapped eyes on it from the bus and monorail ride to my hostel yesterday. It doesn’t really need to be this tall, with nothing but a lift shaft and an emergency staircase in between the shops on the ground and the observation tower some 276 metres higher, but to me it was a fantastic piece of showmanship from the owners, showing how mighty their communication company was. My mood was also lifted by a friendly shuttle bus driver who started to help me out of my bad mood with some general chit chat and banter. After noting the option of ‘afternoon tea’ in the revolving restaurant for a mere two ringgit (40p) more than the observation tower alone, I decided I would pop back later.

Armed with the standard LP guidebook, I decided to take a trip out of town to the Batu Caves. Kuala Lumpur is a huge city, but in terms of tourist attractions or day trips, it is pretty limited. That doesn’t bother me, as I find tours and guides pretty boring at the best of times. I took a walk to the fantastically efficient nearby monorail station and got off just outside Chinatown. From here it was a stroll through the bustling mid morning Monday market and an endeavour to find the bus stop marked on my map. I felt myself perking up no end now, delighted to be doing a bit of exploring, well getting away from the grim start to life in Malaysia. After taking my seat on the bargain 2.50 Ringgit bus, I found myself the centre of attention from a group of Muslim women and kids who it later turned out were from Jakarta. I smiled to myself as they were obviously taking photos of me, sat next to two of the kids. Isn’t it nice to be people’s tourist attraction for the journey? I whipped my camera out and we laughed as we took turns in posing away to each other.

Batu caves were OK, the main highlight being the number of reasonably tame monkeys who entertained the hoards of tourists by generally ‘monkeying about’ on the temple roofs, while stealing any stray water bottles or food from bags. The caves themselves are a bit of a pilgrimage site for Malaysia’s large Hindu community (after all, the tourist board slogan is ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’) and attractions over a million visitors during a religious festival at the start of the year. Crowd control during these events must be hard work; the caves didn’t strike me as having a seven figure capacity!

As I waited for the bus, I saw the Indonesian women again. We quickly realised we were the wrong side of the road for the bus back into town, kindly pointed out by a passing bus and its conductor. Racing across the road, dodging the crazy Asian traffic, we piled on the bus just before it was due to leave. Much to my amazement, the women said that they would pay for me! How very kind, I thought, my mood returning to the high levels it should be at a quick rate. We sat on the sweat box of a bus, making friends and telling tales of our travels. It was here I told them that I was visiting Indonesia in a few weeks, then discovering they were Jakarta sisters taking their younger family members out on holiday. One of the girls was studying in KL and was very keen on giving me her details so she could get her friend to show me round Jakarta…..I didn’t ask if they new any good bars! They were extremely courteous, even giving me an email address and phone number if I needed any assistance in their country.

Skipping off the bus at Chow Kit, I caught the beautifully air conditioned monorail back down to the Golden Triangle area. One thing I have found here in KL is that the humidity is as potent as anywhere else I have been – even Colombo. It’s the kind of heat that you sweat as soon as you leave an air conditioned room, a sweltering city. More good luck followed as the bar I had popped into let me have a beer at happy hour price, despite arriving half an hour prematurely. It was the first pint glass I had felt in three weeks, with all other beer either being served in ‘mug’ sized glasses or straight from a bottle. After supping up my first pint in Malaysia, I braved the rainstorm for the short uphill walk to Menara Sky Tower for the delightfully named ‘afternoon tea’.

Thankfully the lift was in good walking order, taking me and a couple of other excitable tourists to the observation station level. As the lift went up you could feel your ears pop as your body adjusted to the new found altitude it was at. Walking out of the lift gave me own of those brilliant moments that only seeing new places can give you – a view to take your breath away. If you climbed the stairs, I suppose it would literally be a breathtaking view, but to me, the sight across Kuala Lumpur and its vast surrounds was enough to give that effect. There are certain moments that you know will stay with you forever. They are usually moments of being surprised at something or viewing sheer natural beauty in my experience. The view from Menara was defiantly both of those combined. I was amazed at how the city and this part of the world looked from this elevated position, taken aback at just how high up you were. Never visiting America or China, I have never really come across a sky scraper – there aren’t many of those in Hereford, for sure. Walking round, trying to take it all in, gazing across the landscape in awe of man’s ability to build such great feats. A quick trip back into the lift, I was now up at the revolving restaurant.

Menara Towers revolving restaurant is 282 meters above the ground and as the name suggests, the seating area rotates slowly, thus giving each diner a full 360 degree view of KL and its surrounds. What a place to sit, chill, drink a pot of tea and eat a big fat piece of chocolate cake. All for 40 Ringgit – bargain. It was one of the most remarkable places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. I guess it helped that I had never seen a single picture of the view before, that I had never been anywhere so high up (apart from in a plane, obviously) and that I had no real expectations of the place. I always recall a trip up Sigiriya rock that a few of us did back on that memorable Sri Lanka I keep speaking about – we went with no pre-conceived ideas of how great it could be, and were taken aback when we got there by the sheer brilliance of the place. Menara was certainly in the league of being surprised by what it had to give. The price of a beer was close to £6 – like that mattered. Never has a ‘mug’ of Heineken ever tasted so good after the day I had turned around so well yesterday. If you ever come to KL alone – come here. If you ever come to KL with a friend – come here. If you have a girlfriend and want to propose in a certainly eccentric and beautiful place, you guessed it – come here.

Returning to the hostel some thirteen hours after I left in such a sour mood, I returned refreshed and excited about the travels ahead. The room and the hostel wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I remembered, my change in mood no doubt helping as I had a cracking nights sleep after making a few minor adjustments to my surrounds.

I prefer travelling with a friend – it’s great to share experiences with others as well as having someone to support you. But no feeling can match the feeling of meeting new people, putting yourself out there and discovering moments of brilliance due to your own decisions. Moments like the kind gesture from the Indonesian girls to being blown away by places such as Menara Towers make travelling so rewarding. Right now I feel very fortunate to be here, doing what I am doing – probably for the first time. Tonight is a sleeper train up towards the island of Langkawi, off the north west coast of Malaysia. A game of golf and beach time beckons.

I just hope there is a proper sheet for the bed.

24
Oct
10

here i go again on my own

Sat in my hostel room in Kuala Lumpur to be precise. It seems a little odd to be back on the road ‘alone’ again, sorting out logistics such as airport buses and monorail tickets without a partner in crime as support. Still, I subconsciously enjoyed having that full responsibility again, finding my way to the hostel in the heart of Kuala Lumpur without any dramas at all. All of this after I said my latest farewell this morning to Fred, back in Phnom Penh. You’d think I’d be used to saying goodbyes now, but this morning was a strange one as barring any mishaps I won’t see any family till next April now.

The last time I blogged we were down on the south coast of Cambodia having an excellent time exploring the rural countryside of Kep. The morning after our marathon bike ride we took a trip to a little island offshore called ‘Rabbit Island’ I’m told it is called this because someone once announced he thought it looked like a rabbit from the air – no one else seemed to agree with that said persons view, but still, the name stuck and it stands today. Not seeing the island from anything other than a few feet above sea level who am I to question the likeliness? Anyway, the island itself was beautiful – golden sands, clear, warm waters, palm trees all mixed in with peace and quiet.

After hopping off our personal little boat, Fred decided it would be a good idea to go for a walk through the jungle. I reluctantly followed – I was suffering from sunburn to my left shoulder from the previous day as well as having my first case of travel weariness, so wasn’t in the greatest mood of all time. The walk started averagely as the first beach away from the beautiful one we had just left was covered in washed up drinks bottles, rubbish and the like which ruined the setting somewhat. As we walked deeper into the jungle my mind went back to Khao Sok – I really didn’t want another jungle trek. Especially in flip flops. Luckily the trees thinned out and we came to a tiny secluded beach well away from the tourist beach at the arrival of the island. Stupidly I forgot my swimming shorts, but seeing as I was with someone who has seen me starkers in hotel rooms round the world, it was hardly an issue….the decision was made to skinny dip! There was no one around and I wasn’t going to swim around the Gulf of Thailand in boxer shorts. After a short clamber over some rocks we were out at sea enjoying the warmth of the water and the beauty of the island again. It was brilliant to swim in water as warm as your average bath, especially as the shower back at Veranda was freezing cold that morning too.

Talking of Veranda, I haven’t actually told you what a cool place it was. Located on a hillside in thick forest, Veranda’s main restaurant overlooked the sea, giving spectacular views across the open Gulf. When the weather was clear, you could see as far as an island that belonged to Vietnam. Our room was a rustic affair, positioned on stilts above the forest. The adjoined bathroom was just like the bedroom, open in places to the outside world, which led to some noisy nights what with the insects and animals that reside nearby. The balcony had a hammock, which was a cracking place to dry off after a morning or afternoon shower. The guesthouse pool was massive, its waters warmer than a hot tub – something of a bonus given the places I have stayed at in the recent past with pools in Kingston, Jamaica and Durban had freezing water!

After our morning at Rabbit Island we took an evening tuk tuk out of town to a place down the road called Kampot. Our driver was a lovely bloke, pulling into his own driveway half way to briefly say hi to his family as well as batten down the tuk tuk hatches to protect us from the imminent rain storm. These guys put in incredible hours at work, waiting around for us tourists to eat and drink for several hours just to give us a lift home. If you consider you don’t pay them till the end of the night, they show a great deal of trust letting us disappear off into the night after driving us for a good hour without any advance payment. The countryside on this journey from Kep to Kampot reminded me of Sri Lanka; stunning natural beauty, the rice fields and the happy, waving people at the roadside houses and cafes. Travelling back later at night we commented on the community spirit that rural Cambodians appeared to have – every village seemed to have an open hall, bar or restaurant where all the villagers were congregated round the television. I’m not sure how good Khmer soaps or entertainment shows are; the only experience I had of local television was the endless karaoke programs they have blaring out on the bus rides – not so good.

Yesterday on our return to Phnom Penh we decided to eat at arguably the countries most famous restaurant, ‘Friends’ This is an eatery set up as a charity that gives street kids the chance to learn a trade and earn money by working in the restaurant. The students all work their way up the ladder, starting at the bottom as a waiter or a kitchen assistant, working their way to a position where they can start teaching new students that come in.

After an afternoon chilling we took another tuk tuk to the outskirts of town where the CCH orphanage is based. This was the site that my sister spent most of her time, teaching the kids English and generally just being a mentor. On our arrival we were met by one of the older lads who has achieved some incredible things through CCH – meeting the King of Cambodia through my sisters photography project being the most impressive. He was embarrassed when I mentioned that I’d seen a clip of him on the Kings website! After a quick look around the site, we were soon surrounded by very excitable kids who had just returned from a boat trip. Once I had said an individual ‘hello’ to what must have been twenty or thirty kids, I decided to join one of the more excitable ones in playing a game of throw the tiny mouse key ring through the basketball hoop. The enjoyment he and several of his mates got out of something so basic was incredible. It shows you how spoilt kids (and adults) really are back home and across the developed world. The games continued for a good hour or so, the main one involving a bouncy ball that appeared from nowhere – throw the ball into the ground and chase after it, the winner gets the privilege of being the thrower next time. It was crazy! The kids at CCH are very impressive – from their ability and hunger to learn English to happily welcoming in strangers into their homes to play ball games with them. Not to mention their general upbeat demeanour. All of this on the back of upbringings such as working and living on rubbish dumps. It was a very humbling experience and one that I’m proud my family members are continuing to support despite now being back in the UK.

So, I made a sweeping statement after a couple of days here that I may have found a new favourite country in Cambodia. My thoughts are still very much in sync with this first thought. What was this other country I hear you ask? Well, that was the island of Sri Lanka which I visited for a few weeks back in 2007. On that tuk tuk ride to Kampot which I spoke about above, I had a moment where I realised some obvious similarities in the countries. The main religion in both countries is Buddhist. They have both been through recent pain with civil war and atrocity and shown great signs of coming through the other side. The people are so genuinely happy to see you visit their land, not after anything in return for the sake of a smile. The countryside is in places very similar, certainly on Cambodia’s south coast. The rice fields, palm tress and picturesque beauty are present in both. You can even get clean and tasty local and western food in both countries without the fear of illness – a massive tick in the box.

Although Cambodia is not going to knock Sri Lanka off its perch at the top of the palm tree just yet, it’s a definite front runner. I suggest people visit soon – word will soon get out about this truly remarkable country, get in quick before others do!

21
Oct
10

long way round

Ok, so who of you have seen the series ‘Long Way Round’ with Ewan McGregor and his mate, the self proclaimed adventurer, Charley Boorman? Quite a few of you I’d imagine….if not then the idea was to motorbike around the world from London to New York. They also did a follow up, ‘Long Way Down’ which saw them do exactly the same but this time from John O’Groats to Cape Town.

An excellent effort, may I say so myself. Fred and I did about five hours off road cycling today, I can start to appreciate the skill required to drive a motorbike through similar conditions as we faced today. Naturally I’m sure it would be even tougher, given the weight difference. However, at least these guys had an engine to get them through some of the terrain, where as we only had pedal power.

We reached the small province of Kep yesterday afternoon. Kep is a small town which is looking to recapture its more glorious 1960’s days, pre Khmer Rouge. The province itself has a tiny population of just over 13,000, a far cry from the mayhem of central Bangkok or even Phnom Penh during rush hour. On arrival, my impression of the place was similar to a rundown seaside resort back home. Though full of palm trees. And friendlier people. And no amusement arcade (you get the picture) It has obviously seen better days, though it has a natural beauty given its climate and location overlooking the gulf of Thailand. By all accounts there are big plans afoot for Kep from the Cambodian government. A golf course is planned for Bokor Mountain – located just off the Kep coast, as well as a port for day trippers to visit from nearby Vietnam. At the moment though it is just a quiet seaside town, with plenty of seafood eatery options for those inclined.

Anyway, back to today’s fun and games. We took a stroll after breakfast down to the crab market area where we located a couple of mountain bikes for hire for the day at the generous sum of $2 each. With no real plan other than to achieve the agreed goal of having an active day, we set off down the main road. My feelings on Kep being quiet were soon confirmed as we cycled the main street and came across only a handful of people who were all gathered in one area. They weren’t doing anything, just lounging by the road, watching the world go by (or us, it would seem) Pretty unspectacular stuff – until we turned off the main road.

Here we went into countryside on friendly enough tracks to ride down. The general idea was now to head back towards the coast, which we had come off in the later parts of the main road cycle. The friendly tracks soon receded as we found ourselves on salt plains. Well, at least they were slightly raised tracks above the salt plains, but still the main ingredient of these tracks was salt. This was reasonably easy stuff to cycle in – sure, it got stuck to your tyres from time to time, but at least it was solid ground to be confident enough to cycle quickly. We were quickly pointed back the way we came by two Cambodian woman, who were full of laughs and smiles at our efforts to reach the beach. From here we took another wrong turning before finally choosing correctly the third and final time.

By now Fred’s temperamental left pedal had fallen off for about the eighth time so he had to give up and push his bike. I rode on, through a track that had now become rather muddy and full of stones. It was great fun, taking me back to younger days going on bike rides across the Castle Green or Bartonsham Farm with my mates. A couple of friendly locals pointed us up a red clay road where Fred could get his pedal put back on. At least that’s what we made out by the hand communications! We had been out for a good hour and a half in seriously hot weather, stupidly not bringing any drink with us. After countless friendly and excitable ‘hellos’ and points in the right direction, we finally found the centre of the village to get some water. Fred got his bike fixed at the local Halfords and after a mix with the local kids and shop keepers we disappeared back towards the beach.

The next obstacles we faced were rather wet and muddy rice fields, as well as more of our new favourite, sticky salt plains. The local adults looked in bewilderment at these two Westerners while the kids just shouted more ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ at us. We weren’t really sure where we were actually heading, though word was there was a location ahead called ‘secret beach’ which was 30km away from Kep via main road. As we were taking the somewhat more scenic shortcut, we reckoned it was ahead of us at the end of a stretch of beach. Now, this stretch of beach seemed to go on and on. My new found love of cycling was diminishing with each sun stroked, dehydrated minute. After what seemed an age, we clambered up the beach and found a little village shack where we threw drinks down our throat like it was going out of fashion.

The locals were welcoming – we were probably the only Western visitors they would see for the next month or more! Again, the local kids came over to us talking to us in Khmer – Fred showed off his multi-lingual skills as he counted to ten in the local language much to the kids delight. Despite the storm that was now brewing in the distance over Kep, we decided to head back. After toying with the idea of getting a local fisherman to take us, a look at the state of the boat made us brave the cycle back. This was hard work – the earlier lack of drink was taking effect as my hands and feet were starting to cramp up.

The adventure wasn’t complete without a final piece of drama when the bolt holding my right pedal sheered off – after an attempt to cycle the last few Km’s with just one pedal, I gave up and we clambered into the back of a tuk tuk. We had been on the road for a good five hours by the time we got back to our guesthouse, Veranda, where we jumped straight into the pool to recover.

This is a beautiful part of the world with awesome scenery – a professional photographer would have a field day here, it really is perfectly picturesque. When you throw in the brilliance of the local people, once again, quite happy with their lot, you complete a perfect place on earth.

Even if the pedals are slightly dodgy.

19
Oct
10

a blog from the balcony

We arrived back in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon and have retired back to room 31 (13 is seen as unlucky here too) after another tough day of relaxing, people watching and eating. On our arrival back at Bluelime we were placed back in the same room as our previous stint here a few days ago – on our return from the massage parlour this afternoon (an official one, thankyou) the staff informed us they had moved all our stuff to a different room. I had that moment of panic where all thoughts went back to the safe and my passport that I had left for ‘safekeeping’. For a while it wasn’t clear what had happened to our belongings but all worked out fine and the passport is back safe in my possesion. The reason I tell this tale is due to the title of this blog.

After being moved from a perfectly adequate room slightly lower down, we now find ourselves on the top floor of the guesthouse in a much smarter, airy reside that has a small balcony overlooking part of Phnom Penh city. As I write this a spectacular rainstorm is drawing to a conclusion, with the odd clap of thunder and flash of lightning lighting up the sky of this cool city. These little twists of fortune are just adding to my growing affection for Cambodia.

This afternoon was spent getting a traditional Khmer massage. Now, I have only ever had one type of massage before and that was in the hands of a lovely, middle aged chiropractor that took great pleasure in cracking my lower back into place after something went playing cricket a few years back. This was a slightly more relaxing affair – even if I did spend the majority of the ninety minute rub down trying not to giggle at her tickling my feet and lower legs. As anyone that knows me in a ‘certain way’ will profess, I am stupidly ticklish when it comes to the lower parts of my body. (Sorry mum)

We left Siem Reap yesterday morning for the return leg back to Phnom Penh. This is just a little stop over before we set off an a bargain $4 bus ride south to Kep and Kampot. They are small, coastal resorts that should be much quieter in terms of tourists. Our last night in Siem Reap was spent getting native. I wrote an earlier blog about Chinese people and their love for outlandish seafood. Now, here in Cambodia they enjoy a little bit of seafood too. Kep is infamous for its love for crab and fresh prawns. Down in Siem Reap we took our seats at another street food stall. We had gazed down from a bar the previous night and agreed that a traditional Khmer BBQ was a must.

It’s quite a smart set up – they bring out a tiny gas BBQ and place a large bowl on top, with a towered section for you to cook the meat on yourself. Cooking the selection of meats ourselves, we feasted upon chicken, beef and pork along with the seafood options of prawns and squid. Peer pressure was on and I was forced to try squid – I lie a bit…..they were such small portions, I didn’t mind trying. I reckon I would never try a whole brand new dish alone for fear of going hungry! I’d imagine that the embarrasment of leaving a whole dish untouched would be terrible. Besides, being on a strict budget on this trip, throwing away a whole meal would be sacrilege.

Eating this dish on the street gave a perfect chance for more young Cambodian entrepreneurs to practice their English and selling skills on us. One lad who claimed to be sixteen managed to hang around long enough to talk me into a best of three game of noughts and crosses. He said that he won then I would have to hand over a dollar. When I asked what’s in it for me to win, he paused, before grinning and replying ‘You get peace and quiet when I leave you alone!” Great answer – safe to say I was a dollar short a few moments later as he ran off to buy powdered milk for his baby sister.

Now reading this back home you are probably thinking what I would be thinking – there is no baby sister and he just wanted money. Before this he even asked me to go to the shop for him to get the said product, naturally being in the middle of an Angkor beer and a mouthful of chicken and noodles I wasn’t going to be moving any time soon. I even offered some food – he rejected, saying he was fine but was just out for his mum to get powdered milk. Again, he may of been fibbing, but the story and the fact he wanted me to buy it for him struck a bit of a chord. He was a funny lad, with great bantering skills and actually provided some entertainment for us over dinner in what was just another street stall. Once he beat me at noughts and crosses, we shook hands and he ran off a dollar up.

In other countries I have visted I have been very anti-hand outs. I feel they breed a society of acceptance to give up and beg full time, which is no way to encourage people to stand on their own two feet. However, these kids are out on the street trying to sell bits and bobs of general rubbish and do it in such an impressive, entrepreneurial manner that it is hard not to give a little when they give up many minutes of their evening. Another thing I have found myself doing here is giving away the last of a bread roll or a mouthful of drink from a water bottle. I’ve never done that before in other places full of beggars such as Marrakech or Chennai or wherever, but for some reason I am mellowing in Cambodia. I’d never give a free handout of money, but if someone is so desperate of a mouthful of clean water or food then I feel fine about handing a little over that I don’t need. When we were at the bus stop in Phnom Penh waiting for our bus to Siem Reap I gave a little girl and her baby the last bit of my cheese sandwich – her face was a picture as she skipped off down the street, happy at a bit of food.

And that’s the thing about this part of the world. There are beggars, there is poverty. Yet everyone seems so happy just getting by – they don’t want riches, just enough to survive another day.

And perhaps that is why Khmer people come across as very content people.

17
Oct
10

a new favourite country?

Ok, maybe it’s too early to say for sure but I am quietly confident that barring no strange twists I may have found a new favourite country. Cambodia is only the nineteenth country (EDIT, make that twenty one…how could I forget Spain and Greece) I have set foot in (connecting flights naturally don’t count) but after just four days here I can safely say that its people, culture and general upbeat nature have made me already fall for the place.

I have a vested interest in Cambodia. As I have explained in previous blogs I have had a sister and a brother in law set up home in this country. They found work, both paid and unpaid in Phnom Penh for a whole year of their lives. My mother has spent pleasurable time here while several friends have also told tales of being smitten with Cambodia, explaining how great it is. Just a handful of days in this fascinating land have seen me want to sign up to this Khmer fan club.

All of this could easily cloud a personal opinion. When you hear people’s views on any subject it is naturally a human instinct to follow and want to agree. I think travel is a little different to day-to-day examples of this, and I am the kind of person that will happily differ from public opinion if I don’t agree. But I do agree one hundred percent with the opinion that Cambodia is awesome. Perhaps this is slightly too early to announce my love for a country? Even it is, I defiantly want to see more of it, experience more of its friendly people and take in everything it has to offer. If Cambodia was a woman, I would defiantly be asking it out on a second date – no questions asked.

And what are the reasons for its brilliance? Well, number one for me is most defiantly its people. I have never encountered such a country with a general overawing feeling of one so outwardly and openly happy with its current position. Every bus ride, tuk tuk journey and stroll through its streets so far has been met with nothing but warm, happy smiles from the average Khmer person. They say first impressions are crucial, and from the offset the people have been so welcoming and pleased to see people visit their country. I have lost count at the number of Cambodians who have waved and smiled at me in the last few days. Its funny how in England, and most over countries in the so called developed world, smiling at strangers innocently would bring confused or even angry returns back. In England if you smile at a stranger you could be accused of being a little bit odd, or a tad simple. If you smile at a member of the opposite sex it naturally means you want to have sexual intercourse with them, not that you could just be being friendly. I quite often bang on about going into Tesco or Sainsbury’s and getting some sour faced moron serving you who barely can look you in the eye. Here in Cambodia smiling is the norm, whether you are interacting with someone one on one or not.

It isn’t just the fact we are tourists that we are having this amazing attitude shown towards us. There was a feeling in Thailand that I felt people were being nice because they had to be. I wrote about that in Phuket. I have been watching the local people with fascination, and they all seem to show incredible respect to one another. It seems a very non-confrontation country which is quite happy going along day to day and getting by. I don’t want to get into a history lesson but I do wonder if the frightening history of modern day Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge has something to do with its people’s uplifting attitude. If you had survived several years of a leadership that either killed your friends or family because they were seen as ‘intellects’ or you had been moved out of your home to work effectively as a slave in a rice field, maybe you’d have the same ‘happy to be alive and well’ attitude? Its such a cliché, but if you have your freedom, what more do you really need to be happy?

This was a country battered by war in the late 1900’s – as recently as 1998 some factions of the Khmer Rouge still existed. During its power in the 1970’s it is estimated that up to two million people were killed from such ridiculous reasons for wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language. I find it quite amazing that this went on for nearly four years before effective outside intervention. It seems that original support for Pol Pot and is Khmer Rouge regime came because the Cambodian people were so scared and frightened from American bombing of it’s country (they were fighting Vietnam at the time and believed Cambodia was hiding some rebels) that they had no alternative but to trust the Khmer Rouge.

With all of that horror still very much in living memory for some surviving Cambodians, I wonder if this current new found love of the world and seeing visitors to its country can somewhat be linked to the idea of simply having its freedom. If that is the case, I hope this endearing attitude continues for many generations. The kids here seem quite content on what they have – which, in many cases is very little. As with any bus journey through a third world country you see people living in pretty basic and in some cases, less than basic conditions. On our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we passed many flooded villages, full of people smiling, playing and working. They seemed content with what they had, just sitting at the roadside by their little shops, watching the world go by. Perhaps they don’t know of anything ‘better’ so why should they care?

Another endearing feature about Cambodia is the manner in which the kids sell the usual bits and bobs to the tourists. We’ve had several kids come up selling us bracelets or whatever and their banter is quite brilliant. They don’t just push a product in your face like in many other counties I have visited – they actually ask what country you are from (I’m still being accused regularly of being Australian) then continue to share the knowledge they have of your country. The great thing is all the kids know the same facts – the population of Britain is sixty million, David Cameron is PM and that there is a credit crunch! One girl at Angkor Wat was a specialist at naming capital cities, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic Congo being her best. I told her I’d buy one for her if she knew the England cricket captain…..Andrew Strauss was not in her repertoire! Another Cambodian kid was cycling next to me yesterday and asked ‘What country?’ When I replied ‘England’ he paused for a moment, smiled, and said ‘Lovely Jubilee!’ in a Del Boy style voice before cycling off to catch his mates.

That kind of interaction is priceless. As was the opportunity to visit briefly a place very close to Michelle and Fred – CCH, or Centre for Children’s Happiness in Phnom Penh. Now, I’ve very inexperienced when it comes to dealing with places like this. Sure, I give loose change to charities in pubs or in shops, I’ll even donate to Children In Need, but close up visits to charity organisations are very new to me. In fact, CCH was the first charity I’ve ever visited. It was a tidy set up, with many more classrooms than I expected. We arrived with lessons still in progress and sat around saying hello to the odd kid who would run up, say hello to Fred (well remembered) and practice their English on us. There was one little lad who must have been new to school being in Grade 1. He ran straight up to me, grabbed my arm tightly and started practicing the alphabet and counting up to ten. It was a strange moment, as I’d never been seen as an adult to look up to and ask for help before, but it was a lovely thing to see the smile on his face when he got to the letter Z with a little bit of help from me on the way. I can see why Michelle enjoyed her time teaching at CCH – a picture of her with some of the kids is on the wall to this day, from when their photo exhibition was viewed by the King of Cambodia. A pretty impressive mark to leave on the place.

We watched some kids sing a song in English as part of an English lesson (amazingly) It was all to do with the letter ‘K’ with the best bit undoubtedly being the kids go from pronouncing simple words such as ‘Key and King’ to the slightly tougher ‘Kindergarten’! They have a website that you can view at http://www.cchcambodia.org if you want to know more about the work that goes on.

We arrived that night in Siem Reap in torrential rain. The tuk tuk managed to get through what must have been a good foot and a half of water and got us to our guesthouse, the Golden Banana, in one piece. Luckily it had cleared some what by the time by hopped on a couple of hired bicycles the following morning.

Now usually I despise cycling. It either means that I am cycling to work when I would rather still be in bed or I am sweating my balls off coming back from playing golf (yes, you read that right – I do cycle to the golf course with my clubs strapped over my shoulders) This was a slightly more uplifting bike ride though. For we were heading for a site about 5 miles out of Siem Reap that is known for being the eighth wonder of the world – Angkor Wat. This was an amazing place that doesn’t need a history lesson. Just make sure you visit this site one day – and I would suggest by bike. We quite happily rode from temple to temple on our little one geared, Dutch style bikes while doing our best to avoid the numerous Korean tour buses that speed from major temple to the next without time to breath. Despite this being comfortably the biggest tourist attraction in this fine country, the vast area of the leech-free (phew) rainforest meant that you could find many places to find a little quiet time away from the hoards and take it all in. The most impressive temple in my view was not Angkor Wat – it was a temple that oozed eeriness. It was called Bayon, or as Wiki informs me, its full name is Prasat Bayon. This was a temple that was not only mightily impressive in size, but also gave an air of mystery with the large number of identical carved faces of Bayon.

Angkor Wat itself is singularly the largest religious site in the world. It is spread out over large, open grounds and protected by a wide moat. The local kids were doing back flips off the bridge that takes you over the moat – a slightly better place to cool off than the kids in Hereford risking life and limb jumping from the Victoria bridge! Inside the walls were plenty of other smaller temples and a long walkway that led you to the grounds of a big temple at the back. Sadly you can’t climb the very steep steps to get to a slightly more elevated a position here, as a tourist slipped and died a couple of years back, closing the steps to the top. Not a great way to go, to be fair.

My final Siem Reap tale comes from this morning where we had the experience of seeing not one, but two floating villages. The plan was to take a tuk tuk to the official boat that would take us on a trip out on the lake to see how some local people lived out on the water. We didn’t actually have to go that far as a mile or so outside Siem Reap we experienced our first floating village. Or perhaps sunken village would be more accurate. The river has flooded here big style, and if we thought the water was deep when we arrived a couple of night ago, then this was something else. Our tuk tuk driver somehow managed to avoid flooding the engine and got us through several stretches of water that was almost coming into the back of the tuk tuk at times. He was aided by the warnings of big sticks placed in the water that indicated where a pot hole was. I recalled the days of playing football down the park and doing the same, but warning of dog shit as opposed to holes in a road! The locals didn’t seem overly bothered, not panicking that their homes and livelihoods were two feet deep in flood water – just chilling in hammocks, playing in the water while waving and smiling at tourists braving the floods to get to the real floating village.

So, after just four days in Cambodia I can safely say I have started to fall for the place. I’m looking forward to reconfirming this in a few days time in my next date with this brilliant country.

Now its time for another ridiculously cheap Angkor beer – excellent.

15
Oct
10

and in other news

I have been sent this from the work telephone directory –

Surname FirstName Title Department ExtNo Mobile Fax
KEMP R.S. Richard Away Till April 2011

Which I liked – alot.




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