Monday, 30 November 2009

Mallacca

We jumped on the bus from Kuala Lumpur and two hours later arrived in Malacca. It's the famous port that gave it's name to the straits between Malaysia and Indonesia. It was very nearly a nice trip out, but it was ultimately ruined by the chronic traffic problems that seem to afflict the centre of the town.
There are some nice old colonial buildings in the old quarter of the city. They were mainly from the period that the Dutch ruled the roost, but there were some remains of the old Portugese fort alongside the river. There wasn't really much to suggest the Brits had been here other than a few monuments and plaques celebrating Queen Victoria's Silver Jubilee. Even thought the buildings were nice, you were always peering over the roofs of cars as the ever present traffic jam crawled noisily and smellily past. To add the the traffic noise, the locals had taken the time and effort to fit large stereo systems to their previously silent bicycle rickshaws. They used these systems to pump out dreadful 80's Euro-pop at ear splitting volume. Bum-sniffers the lot of 'em.
The day was rounded off nicely by the two hour return trip ballooning to four hours as the coach trundled it's way back into Kuala Lumpur in a huge holiday traffic jam. The driver had a peculiar staccato technique with throttle and brake that he skillfully used to thoroughly piss off every single passenger on board.

I think I need a nice cup of tea and a sit down. And I think I know just the spot.....

Friday, 27 November 2009

Kuala Lumpur

Now just to get it out of the way at the start, let me tell you that Kuala Lumpur has rubbish street signs. Absolutely, useless. There, that's better.

We're staying right in the middle of the city in Chinatown. It has a real hubbub. Here's the view from our window. It was a top location for food and beer ( expensive though ! ) and for buying even more dreadful tat in the famous Petaling Street Market. It also drops us in the middle of all the disparate Malaysian transport systems, that almost link up....

What have we been doing in Malaysia's capital city ? Well, first we took some advice from our agent on the ground (cheers Anu). The Petronas towers are very impressive. I'm not usually one for shiny objects, but these take the biscuit somewhat. We went up the KL Tower ( a big communications tower in the middle of the city with a big viewing gallery ) and had a great view across the city. It's a real mix of low rise, high rise and greenery. We also schlepped across the city to the City Mosque (very busy with prayer time so didn't actually go in) and to the National Museum which gave us a nice insight into Malaysian history, right up to the present day.
The local buses are good and cheap, so a quick hop on the No 11 dropped us out to Batu where there are some vast caves. They are used as a Hindu shrine these days, but are open to the public. Very impressive and I was especially delighted by the indigenous population of cave chickens doing battle with the cave monkeys for the rights to bananas.

We only spent two days in the city, but seemed to have filled them. It's very, very hot and humid here which tends to make life for us pasty faced Europeans a bit of a trial, so we're knackered again. I think a day trip to the seaside might be in order.

Did I mention the rubbish street signs by the way ?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Temples of Angkor

Where do I start ? I'm not going to attempt to describe what we've experienced here. There is simply no way I could do it justice. This is a place that exceeds even the highest of expectations.

Briefly, the area north of Siem Riep is a huge archealogical park sitting in a beautiful, verdant forest. The jungle adds greatly to the experience, giving a feeling of vitality and mystery to the temples and also providing much need to shade to sweaty tourists. The temple sites cover a vast area. Some complexes are thirty kilometers away. The earliest date from the ninth century and latest, from the the thirteenth. They are considered to be the finest examples of Kymer culture and technology and come from the period when Kymer culture dominated South East Asia.

Here's a few photos and notes to give you a bit of an over view of some of the highlights.

Angkor Thom and Bayon
( a 9km square fortified city, complete with vast moat - previously the Kymer capital city )

























Angkor Wat
( the world's largest religious building at 1km square - We had to get up very early for the sunrise photo ! )











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Ta Promh
( a temple partially taken over by the forest )

Align Right video


Preah Khan
( more temple versus tree action with impressive stone carvings )






















East Mebon
( nice views across the forest from the top - might just be able to see the tips of Angkor Wat in the distance )

Banteay Srei
( amazingly deep and intricate bas relief stone carvings )


Siem Riep

Siem Riep is about the size of Oxford and is just as touristy.
It's a great place to buy God-awful tourist tat in lieu of proper Xmas presents. There's loads of options for food and drink, both local and western. So far we haven't got bored with the excellent local nosh. Today's favourite was a spicy chicken and mango salad ( plenty of fish sauce as usual). We've travelled around the surrounding area a fair bit on tuk-tuks and the countryside is lovely. Seeing as I've failed to take any photos for the town itself, here's a shot of the view just up the road.Good deed for the day - Picking up a tiny frog from certain death on the road and plopping into a pond.
Bad deed for the day - Dropping the frog into the safety of a pond, only to see it chased and devoured by hungry fish.....

Anyway, the reason we're here is nothing to do with the town itself, nice that it is. It's what's just up the road that we're interested in....

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Sihanoukville to Siem Riep via Phnom Penh

Big bus journey this one, bit it was probably less hassle to get it all done in one long day. And we didn't really want to spend another night in Phnom Penh without good reason.

It was a pretty trip. There are some small hills near Sihanoukville that were very attractive, but the real interest was beyond Phnom Penh.

We seemed to enter a bit of a time warp. Other than the road traffic and occasional small town, you be hard pressed to see anything to suggest that we're in the 20th, never mind the 21st century.
The countryside was patchwork of rice paddies, rivers and lakes, with the occasional higher bit of ground featuring a few homesteads and farms.
Most of the people we could see seemed to live in small hamlets close to the road. Houses tended to be wooden and were usually built on stilts. I presume the rainy season causes frequent flooding, or perhaps it helps keep people cool ? Amongst the houses there were kids running around chasing black pigs and chickens, people flaying rice, drying fruit and waving hammers at ancient looking farm machinery. Most houses had an ox cart parked out front, with a couple of skinny looking cows tied up close by. Every now and again, there would be a few huge water buffalos, though these were sometimes hard to spot as they tend to lurk in the ponds with only nostrils, ears, eyes and big scary horns above the surface. Mind you, it gives the ducks somewhere to sit.
The bus broke down briefly ( soon sorted with a bucket of water and a bit of percusive maintenance ) and was soon surrounded was the local kids. Doesn't look like much happens around here. We were only about fifty kilometers north of the big city, but we could have been two hundred years away.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sihanoukville - Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside...

Sihanoukville is a coastal port about two hundred and twenty kilometres south east of Phnom Penh. Fortunately, one of only two fully paved sections of road in Cambodia head this way, so the bus journey was a quite pleasant four hour affair. The town was orginally built about sixty years ago to provide Cambodia with a deep water sea port as an alternative to the Mekong Delta which the Vietnamese were taking over.

It's quite a spread out town, with several long beaches. The one we're lurking at has a string of beer and food shacks along the edge of
the beach for breakfast, dinner and tea. Very nice . Especially for BBQ fish, squid and shrimp. It's still a few weeks from high season here, so it's all a bit on the quiet side, but not that that bothers us. It's nice to escape the chaos of cities for a few days.
The beach itself was nice white sand with an occasional rocky patch to give a bit of interest. There was a serious storm here about three months ago that coincided with a spring tide that managed to strip away fifteen metres of beach. As a result, at high tide, the water is right on the edge of the food and beer shacks. The owners are all a bit cheesed off. They reckon the beach will recover, but it might take a few years. They're worried about the loss of trade, but to be honest, unless you intend to spend a lot of time sunbathing, it wasn't a problem. And if you do spend a long time in the sun here, you won't have any skin left.
The sea is ridiculously warm - just over 80°F. Apparantly, just beyond the beaches, the sea bed drops away to about seven metres and then maintains this shallow depth for miles and miles and miles. The sun, which is skin shrinkingly hot, doesn't have much mass of water to warm up. There's some decent snorkling to be done amongst the rocks, with shoals of fish, crabs and octopuses swimming and skuttling around. There's lots of brilliantly coloured lone fish too. Leopard's spots and zebra strips seem to be all the rage. Most impressive were the large black spikey sea anenomies with blue irridscent centres around bright orange mouths.

There's not much to the town itself. We hired a scooter for an afternoon ( more than enough - the traffic is light, but terrifies me. Even the police
ignore the red lights. Utter chaos. ) and didn't find much to see other than the, admittedly awesome, beaches. The local cops were out on a money making venture too. Apparantly you should have an International Driving Permit in Cambodia, which I haven't got. I managed to convince the cops that the Euro license was a worldwide jobby and got prodded on my way. A rather morose looking Aussie explained that he hadn't been so persuasive and the cops wants him to pay $10 to avoid a trip to the local station. Bolivian border guards Xmas fund again. Pay it and save the hassle I say.

Phnom Penh

An arduous overnight schlep via Kuala Lumpur ( Yes, I know it's quite a detour, but it saves us, or more precisely our rumps from, a three or four day/night bus extravaganza across the unsealed roads in the south of Laos and the north of Cambodia ) sees us in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It's a big city with about 1.5 million inhabitants and its sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. I'm sure the Mekong has been stalking us on this trip....

Flying in showed us that the surrounding countryside was pancake flat and covered in a dense network of lakes, pools and rivers. Perhaps the Mekong delta starts here ? While I've got my geography hat on I can also treat you to another juicy nugget - The Tonle Sap river actually swaps flow direction depending on the season. It's due to some complex interaction between the large fresh water Tonle Sap Lake that sits a few hundred kilometres further north, close to Siem Riep and the Mekong River. Very nice.

So, what's the city like ? Hard work and a bit grim to be honest ! It's bloody hot ( over 32°C at 9am in the shade ), the sun is ferocious and it's very humid all of which conspire to make any kind of physical activity a tiring and very sweaty affair. The city is beset with chronic traffic chaos which generates a lot of pollution, both noise and fumes. Traffic laws are either ignored or non-existant. Traffic generally flows on the right hand side of the road but there are always a few motorbikes or cars running along the wrong side of the road to take a short cut or just to add spice to the experience. Intersections are a mess of horns and creeping bikes, cars, tuk-tuks, trucks and buses. Might is right. Pavements don't really exist. They're either strewn with vehicles, shop fronts, rubbish or electrical installations..... Walking around isn't much fun ! The only way to avoid this chore is to take to the melee with a tuk-tuk, but this isn't really very calming...




video

So what have we been doing here ?

We spend one day exploring the dark underbelly of humanity. I'm not going to go into the history of Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge who governed the country in the late '70's, there's plenty of information on the fishing net, but suffice to say that their policy of converting Cambodia into a wholly self-sufficient, communist, agrarian society ( banning religion, outside communications, money, science and technology etc ) led to the brutal slaughter of several million of their own people. Nearly 20% of the population died. Everybody knows somebody who disappeared. It was a true genocide.

We visited Tuol Sleng, also called S-21, which was coverted from a high school into a centre for torture and exections. Over fourteen thousand people met their grisly ends within it's grounds. Only seven people survived after passing through the gates. More poignant than the cells and instruments of torture on display, were the rows and rows of mug-shot photographs of scared looking men, women, children and babies that were taken on their arrival. I've never been but I'd imagine only places like Auschwitz would come close to the feeling of this place.

We also travelled out of the city to visit Choeng Ek. This was one of about three hundred and eighty killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge to slaughter those that crossed their path. People were marched to the sides of pits dug in the ground and simply clubbed and hacked to death, their bodies being dumped into the mass graves. Some of the pits have been excavated, whilst some are still untouched. A large white Stuppa, containing over eight thousand skulls extracted from the pits, sits at the centre of the site as a monument to those that died here and throughout Cambodia. The site itself is quiet and pleasant. It feels like and orchard with fruit trees and chickens running around. It is truly chilling to wander through it and to try and imagine the terror and evil that happened here only thirty years ago.

Fortunately, there are some more pleasant things to see and do in Phnom Penh.

The Royal Palace is beautiful and sits in manicured garden grounds. The silver pagoda, whose floor is made from solid silver tiles ( about four tonnes worth ! ) is stunning as it the Emerald Buddha it contains. The National Museum is definatly worth a visit. It contains a large collection of historical Khmer artwork going back over a thousand years. There are numerous labyrithine markets to explore and to gawp at weird and wonderfull produce.

There is also the pretty location of the city on the river banks of the Tonle Sap to stroll along. Next to the banks of the river is the Foriegn Correspondents Club. It's the old drinking club frequented by the press that reported on the wars that led up to the Khmer Rouge government. It reminded me alot of Raffles in Singapore. Very posh. Surprised they let me in.

Food has been pretty good so far. Favourites so far include Pro Hok Kriss ( fried minced pork, fish paste, coconut milk, roasted peanuts, chillies and vegetables ) and Majou Kreung ( beef with lemon grass, turmeric, morning glory and tamarinds.

We need a break from cities, so next we're off to the seaside.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ultimate Lao Tea

Generally, I'd agree with the notion that Lao food is good, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of their Thai neighbours from across the Mekong. Mind you, they do have several cracking dishes, so here's our favourite tea menu.
Laab ( mince, fish sauce, shallots, mint leaves, lots of lime juice, roasted and ground rice and chillies ) with a portion of "Morning Glory" ( like a long leaved mild flavoured water cress, with big crunch stalks ) cooked with garlic in soy and fish sauce and a large fistfull of sticky rice. A nice glass of Beer Lao would go down well, or a cool drink of crushed ice with lemon juice and mint leaves might be better to cool down the Laab chillies.

Vientiane

After a ten hour bus journey, we finally returned to the banks of the Mekong at the Lao capital of Vientiane. Boy, has the river grown since we left it. We arrived into town pretty late so we headed straight to the river bank for a bargain tea of hot red curry and spicy crispy noodles from some open air kitchens that had set up on the sand. It was a nice end to the day, but the river bank didn't look quite so salubrious in the morning light...
The builders working on the top floor of the guesthouse had us up and about early in the morning by seeming to use tactical nuclear munitions in an attempt to demolish whatever they were upset with. This turned out to be a good thing. Vientiane is seriously hot and the sun is very powerful around noon. Bearing in mind my experience cycling through the midday heat in India last year, we made every effort to be out and about in the mornings and late afternoons and to be in hiding from the sun during it's peak. We also stumbled across a nice shop for breakfast baguettes and coffee whose main selling point for me was that the waiter had clearly entered the All Laos Boris Johnson Lookalike Competition. What a barnet for us to behold and admire.

We had an interesting few hours in the Lao history museum. Did you know the Lao were keen on standing stones ? Perhaps Obelix of Gaul was the first Frenchman out here ? The most interesting displays went through the more recent history of the country, from the growth of anti-French Colonial feeling in the 1920's, through the active fight for independance in the 50's, the struggle against US sponsored forces spilling over from the Vietnam War in the 60's, the establishment of a Lao government in the early 70's and finally the Communist take over in 1975. The museum had a very Soviet feel to it, with lot's of busts and pictures of Lenin and much communist phraselogy.
Just up the road from the museum is the Wat Si Saket. This beautiful 18th century wat that was quite different from the others we've come across on our travels in that it wasn't glitzy and gold, but was naked in it's old wooden construction. The roof beams would have been at home in the Tobie Norris pub in Stamford. It was also cloistered on all four sides. The cloisters contained thousands of little Buddha statuettes hidden away in niches cut into the outer walls.
We also visited the Wat Pha That Luang. This big gold wat is supposedly the most important in Lao and from a distance it looked spectacular. Up close if was a bit scraggy and down at heel..

About 25km out of central Vientiane lurks the Buddha Park. One fellas obsession with this Buddha dude lead him and his cronies to create literally hundreds of statues and place them in this lovely garden. Most are Buddist, but there's a liberal sprinkling of Hindu deities too. Some are only a few feet tall, but others are the best part of 50' long. Huge. They're all cast from concrete and unlike in the UK, the material has weather to give a lovely old stone kind of finish. I know it sounds a bit naff, but it was really good. We really enjoyed the local bus journey too.









Here's a sweep of the Buddha Park.


video

We've had a good couple of days in Vientiane. It's not the prettiest of cities. It's lost much of its colonial history to a swathe of contrete. There are a few tree lined boulevards remaining, but not enough to bring it up to Luand Phrabang standards. Anyway, we're off for a big fish supper by the Mekong tonight and then we're off to Kuala Lumpur. For the day.....

Luang Phrabang to Vientiane

Bit of ying and yang on this trip...

We'll start with the ying.
This was a bus journey through epic scenery. Imagine a jungle clad version of the Pyrenees and you're getting close. Several times the bus wheezed it's way up mountain passes to emerge above the clouds and to give us stunning views of jagged mountain peaks poking out of a sea of cotton wool. As we climbed and descended we passed through countless little hamlets clinging to the hillsides. They were all made up of small wooden houses and huts with walls made from woven banana leaves. There were dogs, cats and pigs scurrying everywhere, queues of kids having their daily hosepiping by the side of the road and huge flat baskets of chillies and fruit drying in the sun on the roof tops. It looked idyllic, but I suspect the reality of life here is piss poor. There was a much more obvious communist influence here than we'd seen so far in Laos. There were many collective farms along the way, and most had huge Soviet style billboards at the entrance with stylised images of farm and factory workers. Real hammer and sickle stuff. There were even a few folk wondering along the roadside with guns. I'm hoping they were for hunting, but what do you hunt with an AK47 assault rifle ? Wabbits ? More like capitalists.

And the yang.
It was a ten hour trip and we can't have been on a straight bit of road for more than thirty seconds throughout the journey. We had to suffer a constant barrage of dreadful Lao pop-bilge-soft-rock-drivel from the poxy, but undeniably, powerful bus stereo. The bog stunk like a Parisian pissoir in July. The bus performed frequent emergency braking manouvres to avoid sundry cows lying in the road and at one point, a fat brown snake. The final two hour trundle into Vientiane across agricultural planes was interminably tedious.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Luang Phrabang

I'm glad to say that we had got off the boat in the correct place, Luang Phrabang, even though it was very much a stealth town lurking amongst the trees along the Mekong riverbank. The reason for the town's leafy camouflage is that it is protected by a UNESCO charter with the aim of retaining it's undeveloped French Indochinese character. So, no buildings above tree height, other than the occasional Wat.
It's a very attractive town as a result. It sits on a
peninsular between the Mekong and Khan rivers, is covered in trees and feels more like southern France than Laos. All the buildings seem to have been built between 1930 to 1960 and are all unmistakably French in style. In addition, it is possible to dine on fine Lao food of an evening, and have a breakfast of pretty decent croissants
with a large cup of fresh coffee. Grudgingly, I have to admit that the French do have their moments.
It also have a very nice climate. It's certainly very hot during the day, but if you can get out of the sun, the air is quite cool. In the evenings, it's just about perfect for strolling around, though a second layer might be needed if you're sitting down waiting for your tea to arrive after watching the sun go down behind the mountains in the distance.

It's quite a touristy town, or the peninsular old French bit is. There's a large night market, but it's not like the ones we saw in Thailand. No tubs of chicken feet here, it's all pressed flowers, and indigenous craft tinkets. The central street is pretty much devoted to tourist activity shops and restaurants and bars. Nice for a stroll.
So, what else can you do in Luang Phrabang ? We spent a day kayaking down the Nam Ou to it's confluence with the Mekong. Glorious scenery. Very steep sided gorges with dense jungle and forest with the occasional jagged peak poking out in the distance. The water was also lovely and cool for a midafternoon dip ( Nam Ou was a clear bluey-green colour, though
the Mekong was a less inviting silty brown ).

There's also an impressive waterfall, Tat Kuang Si, about 30km out of town. It's quite a big one, and it runs through various layers, some of which look just like a posh hotel infinity pool. The water was pretty chilly, but after clambering up on side, over the upper lip and slithering down
the other, a dip was absolutely neccessary.












Here's a bit more kayaking action.
video

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Slow Boat from China to Luang Phrabang

Morning found us boarding a boat, along with about seventy other folk for the two day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. The Mekong's source is in the Tibetan Himalayas and it passes through China ( about 200km up river ) and Burma before getting to the Lao / Thai border. Even though we are only just at the end of the wet season, the river didn't seem that high. Looking at the debris on the rocks and river banks, it looks like the spring snow melt in the mountains could easily add another ten metres to it's depth. This is a serious river... All along the journey the boat was negotiating whirlpools and eddies, rocks, narrow ravines and various other types of hydro-tomfoolery. Hard to know if it would be easier with more water in the river, or more dangerous.

At the end of the first day the boat pulled into a tiny river side town called Pak Beng. Pak Beng survives solely on river traffic, so the arrival of the boat provokes a bit of a feeding frenzy as the local hostels and hotels vie for custom. Food and beer was cheap ( about 8000 kip or 55p for a large bottle of Lao beer and 9000 kip or 70p for a litre bottle of Lao whiskey... ). Only problem in Pak Beng was that whilst the Thais had the good sense and manners to drive on the correct side of the road, Laos had the grave misfortune to be colonised by a bunch of cheese obsessed Frenchmen and consequently, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Pesky.

Next day was more of the same as we continued our journey downstream though jungle clad hill sides, ravines, rock faces and the occasional village on the banks. Apparantly, there are some blind river dolphins in the river, but we never spotted 'em. The approach to Luang Phrabang took us by surprise. We seemed to pull into a quiet, heavily forested river bank with only a few buildings to be seen. I'm hoping the town is up there somewhere, otherwise we've got off the boat at the wrong stop. Mind you, my arse is killing me after two days on a hard wooden bench..

Into Laos via Chiang Khong and Huay Xai

From Chiang Rai it was a further two hour ricketty bus ride to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. The final part of the journey got quite hilly at we approached the border and their was a lot of banter between the bus driver and locals to keep us amused. We didn't really stay long in Chiang Khong, just long enough to get our exit stamps in our passports and to jump on a boat across the Mekong River. There were only six people on the boat, so that even though the Lao customs and immigration shack was a bit chaotic, it only took us a short while to get the formalities completed and we could clamber up the river bank into the little town of Huay Xai. We had a lazy afternoon with a couple of Lao beers ( including a potent dark jobby ), a bowl of noodle soup and a nap.
We pootled out for a few sundowners at about 6pm and found some loverly views back across the Mekong to Thailand. Once the sun had set, the Thais got into the swing of their festival again, and treated us to a firework and chinese lantern show on the opposite bank of the river. It was a very nice evening topped with a nice bit of Bye Jove on the bar stereo. It seems the Thai has a taste of 80's soft rock.....


Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is the last major town in North East Thailand before hitting either the Burmese or Lao border. It's about the size of Pontefract / Newry / Banbury. It took us about 3 hours on the bus to get here from Chiang Mai. It was a very picturesque trip, but unfortunately, the bus was designed for small Thai rear ends and had a five across seating system. Bit on the tight side for the likes of me. I was very glad to get off at the end of the trip.

At first we thought we might have made a mistake by staying a full day here. It was very much a utilitarian type of town, but after wandering around a bit we found a great museum and a fantastic market. The museum was in an old Wat and told some of the local history and showed of lots of the district treasures and crafts. The market was huge with everything from fish, meat, spices, garlic, chillies, fruit, veg, clothes, pots and pans to very tasty and very cheap water melons. We had an interesting conversation with a local lady whilst troughing the melon in what we thought was a park, but turned out to be a school.

Treat of the day though, was the night market and festival. We had various explanations for the festival ( Thai New Year, Light, Water, Flowers ), but either way, it took over the town centre with stalls selling food, toys and crafts. We indulged in griddled skewers of spiced pork and beef, prawn tempuras, salty fruit drinks ( surprisingly nice ! ), squid, BBQ prawns and a couple of helpings of grubs and crickets ( both quite tasty - bit like pork scratchings ).












Whilst we were munching our way through the local delicacies, we were entertained by traditional Thai dancers, a really good Thai folk group ( with a twin neck Mandolin - eat your heart our Led Zep ! ), some dubious karoke, and even a Thai soft rock group. Top night out. We even managed to catch the last few laps of the F1 Abu Dhabi GP in a local bar. Nice to see Jenson and Brawn finish their championship season with a podium finish.