A Travellerspoint blog

Day 41: Hue to Hoi An

The trek to Tailor Town

sunny 37 °C
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My smugness at having booked the same bus as my friends for a dollar less didn't last long, as I realised that there were 2 separate buses headed for Hoi An and I was now facing the 4 hour trip alone. I drowned my sorrows in a honey-covered stack of banana pancakes and with my guard dropped I also ended up spending 100,000 dong on a (rather cool) pair of "Ray Ban" wayfarers from the hippy on the street.

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We joined a sleeper service on its way down from Hanoi and feeling bold I ventured to the back of the bus and found that the five upper tier loungers in the last row were all empty, with no armrests or gaps between them. Still a little spaced out from the bed bug insomnia I bounced up, and within seconds had myself stretched out across the width of the bus with a sleepy grin on my face. This didn't last long. Once again the Vietnamese roads and our ex-rally driver made sure that I was treated to impromptu chiropractic treatment instead of rest, though fortunately the drive along the coast offered some of the most beautiful views I have seen across the paddy fields to the sea and these kept me entertained.

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At 10:30am we stopped at a roadside shack for a "lunch break", and with the temperature already pushing 35 °C the little local woman was amused to see this sweaty Englishman attempt to correctly pronounce 'ca phe nau da' without pointing at a menu. A failed attempt to find the toilet brought me to a barred window and as I walked past a little boy appeared and allowed me to take one of my favourite photos so far (even if it was on my phone, see below). Back at the table I extracted a very gooey and misshapen cereal bar from my bag (the last of my UK-bought Jordans stash) and had a delirious few minutes giggling to myself at how much it & I had in common: contains nuts; store in a cool, dry place...

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My iced caffeinated beverage arrived only moments after the bus driver had announced our departure (15 minutes after ordering) and I made the mistake of taking an extra minute to enjoy it in the fresh air. When I got back on board my face flushed with rage - our driver (who had now been replaced for the second leg) was spread face down on my super king chair bed with his bare feet resting on my bag. Perhaps fuelled by the coffee I ran up the aisle and made a loud re-entry into my seat, indelicately repositioning his legs in the process. Unfazed, he simply changed the angle of his body to leave me with just one of the five seats and promptly fell back into a loud, snoring sleep. This guy was a pro.

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We passed through Da Nang and finally arrived in Hoi An a little after midday. The usual circus was there to greet us off the bus, largely made up of commission hungry touts trying to entice people into their mates' hotels. I'd had the Sunflower Hotel recommended to me by my roommates in Hue, but despite being told that it was at least 2km away I waved off the taxi driver who was loading my bag onto the back of a moped and started walking. A helpful observer approached me a few paces from the bus and whispered that the hotel was only 400m down the road! The short version of the next hour's events is that there was a bed for me but not for Russ & Rachel (who had yet to arrive on the other bus), and after much fun and games they checked into a hotel up the road and I had a swim and lunch by the pool at the Sunflower before heading up to check into my room.

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I've found many things in hostel beds over the last couple of months (mainly hair, insects, odd socks and the occasional bit of food), but I wasn't expecting to find a sweaty, hung over bloke wrapped in the sheets. The rest of the room didn't look hopeful, I quickly spotted the plate of yesterday's chicken wings responsible for the room's fragrance and the occasional moan identified the location of several other suffering residents. Once I'd shaken him awake the guy explained that he was supposed to have checked out at 10am and had cunningly gone down to hand in his key at reception before returning to bed to sleep off the night's frivolities at some crazy club nearby. He didn't seem to understand my frustration at having nowhere to take an afternoon nap and told me to "chill". So I took a chilled walk down to reception, told them that my bed wasn't made or empty and jumped into the free shuttle bus to the Old Town.

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Hoi An at night is one of the most wonderful urban sights in Vietnam. Much like the atmosphere in Siem Reap, the town comes alive after dark and the night is filled with the sound of live music, the smells of street food vendors' carts and the sights of the old buildings lit up in an orange glow and perfectly reflected in the river that runs through the centre. Hoi An is famous for its tailors, and the streets are lined with mannequins stood in front of impressive shop fronts like well dressed soldiers on parade. The buildings are all in a French colonial style, with beautiful stone balconies and wooden shutters, and as I walked through with my camera I felt like I had gone back in time. Trip Advisor recommended Lantern Town for dinner, and I enjoyed a veggie Vietnamese noodle dish overlooking the river while watching a family of kittens attempt to jump between the rooftops. I treated myself to a rather foul coconut donut on the street for dessert, and then haggled for a cheap Viet star cap before heading back for an early (and thankfully, empty and clean) bed.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 18:32 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXIX - XXXX: Hanoi to Hue

The overnight bus journeys begin!

sunny 39 °C
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The overnight sleeper buses in Vietnam are notorious, infamous even, for their lack of comfort and the insanity of their drivers. Nevertheless, the thousands of negative trip advisor reviews were ignored and three tickets were bought for the 12-hour bus ride to Hue leaving at 1800. After a lie-in and two breakfasts (I was hungry) we checked out, dumped our bags at reception and found a nice streetside cafe for Felix's last Vietnamese iced coffee. The owner seemed glad of the low-season business and introduced us to his two birds who were given baths and a fruit buffet next to our table. Felix's taxi arrived at 2pm, so we shook hands and made plans for a reunion beer in the autumn - Oktoberfest! Back at reception, Muhn admitted her feelings for Felix to me: "he's just SUCH a nice man". I agreed of course, waiting for my own compliment but it never came.

I met up with Russ & Rachel a few hours later and we each set off on our own missions before the bus came: Russ went in search of pizza for our evening meal on the bus; Rach headed down the street to grab some last-minute souvenirs; I sat at the table in the lobby writing postcards and watching the bags. Unbeknownst to Rachel & I, there had been a power cut in the food quarter and when Russ arrived flustered and irritated in a taxi he explained that he had only managed to get one pizza. Our shared knowledge of night buses told us that we'd have a food stop at the half way point so we weren't overly worried, and we had a reserve stash of Pringles, Oreos and teeny tiny bananas. The hotel staff very kindly gave us clean towels to have a shower before the bus journey, though this proved to be completely unnecessary once we arrived at the travel office in our taxi and were drenched by a surprise rainstorm!

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Dripping wet and with strict instructions to put our shoes in plastic bags we found our seats, double-decked semi reclined chairs with a small storage compartment which were laid out in three rows along the bus with a walkway either side of the middle row. We all ended up on top bunks, and Russ & I quickly realised that we were a good foot longer than the seats! It was far from comfortable despite being a "VIP" class bus, which essentially just means it has a smelly onboard toilet and doesn't have to make any toilet stops. We devoured our shared pizza a little too early in the trip, as the very angry driver (short man syndrome methinks) announced that there would be no food stop. There was no entertainment so the bus was soon illuminated by various blue gadget screens, and I was very impressed at R&R's practised journey routine - Rach even changed into her pyjamas! As a few muffled snores started I put my earphones in and prayed for sleep to come swiftly.

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Russ awoke after an 8-hour sleep as we approached the Hue outskirts, and looked round to see two pairs of very bloodshot eyes. For Rach and I sleep had never arrived, and we had had to endure hour upon hour of high-speed, often near-miss driving on pothole-ridden roads which had been especially brutal for the top bunk sleepers who faced a constant risk of being launched onto the floor. This, coupled with the bright interior bus lights, endless horn beeping and the snores of the giant man at the front kept most of us awake all night and we couldn't help feeling quite resentful towards Russ' well-rested face. The sleep-deprived rage helped us meet a couple from Manchester, Neil and Rachel, and after checking in at our hotels we arranged to meet up see the city together. Without the luxury of a partner to keep me warm I opted to stay at the Hue Backpackers, with a very nice dorm room with mini lockable charger lockers and giant suitcase-sized under-bed storage. I met the other four for breakfast downstairs (egg & cheese burger!) and we all set off across the very lovely river to visit the Citadel, Hue's main tourist attraction.

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It is very easy to do Hue in a day, and before we'd even arrived at the Citadel we had all decided that we would leave the following day! Lonely Planet had advised that the entry fee was 55,000 dong so even allowing for inflation we were a little surprised to have to fork out 105,000 dong each to get inside. I wouldn't have cared so much if I hadn't then found that the east gate to the citadel was open with no admission fee, and I was already regretting the money I'd spent on a glass of sugar cane juice from a nearby street stall which had triggered all sorts of wonderful stomach cramps. Inside, the citadel is made up of a collection of restored buildings and ruins within two outer walls and a large lily-filled moat. There is no set route around the complex so after setting off in search of decent photo spots I managed to lose the others and didn't see them for the rest of the afternoon. Outside the east gate there is a Vietnamese antiquities museum and a small car park housing several captured US tanks and planes from the war. I gave both a moment of my time before clearing out the nearest supermarket and scoffing a giant cheese baguette, Pringles and a dodgy yogurt in the park.

Back at the hostel I narrowly avoided being dragged out to a club by my new roommates and after a reunion spent the evening playing pool and abusing the bogof beer deals at a bar, before an interesting Skype chat informed me that my little brother had decided to throw himself and my bike off a wall and ended up in A&E! I booked myself a $5 bus ticket for 8am and had the worst night's sleep of the trip - it had been over 3 weeks since my last night in a dorm and with a few too many beers on board I spent the next 7 hours in a cold sweat convinced that there were giant bed bugs lining the walls.

Posted by WorldWideWill 12:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXVII - XXXVIII: Ha Long Way to Ha Long Bay

Enter the happy room

all seasons in one day 32 °C
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We left our backpacks at the hotel and jumped on the 4-hour minibus ride with only a daysack and a bottle of water each - so liberating! We were introduced to our guide for the trip, a self-declared comedian called Tinh who started his speech with a description of Hanoi's bridges and a few too many references to how beautiful they are "provided there are no more U.S. bombs dropped on them". He informed us about the "happy room", the odd Anglo-Viet term for a toilet stop, and finished with a 'hilarious' anti-vegetarian joke about eating cat, dog and monkey on the boat after he'd taken note of our dietary requests.

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At the halfway stop - a tactical commission-earning shop selling everything from cookies to giant marble statues - the weather turned nasty and as we neared Halong City the clouds became darker and the rain fell hard. Brilliant. We were herded into the waiting area with the hundreds of other tour groups while we waited for our boat to be prepared (there are over 600 boats operating in Halong Bay and it can get very congested, extra time should occasionally be budgeted for climbing across other boats to reach your own!), but there was now a very reluctant atmosphere in the crowd as the mist fell across the Bay and obscured the magnificent views. Tickets punched, we were welcomed onto our 'Fantasea' boat with refreshing moist flannels and a cup of juice, then dropped our bags in the room before lunch. We had a luxurious twin room with a brand new bathroom, air conditioning (turned on at night) and stunning views across the water. Fortunately the rain brought cooler temperatures and made the stay very comfortable.

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Our first mealtime was a farce. Tinh announced the imminent arrival of the food and then told all of the vegetarians (3 of us) to stand up and move to another table together, "to make things easier for the crew". The initial laughter turned into rage, particularly from the British girl from our hotel who was being asked to eat away from her boyfriend! The mob mentality triumphed but soured the mood, which was a shame because the food was incredible: a giant buffet-style spread on each table that included fried beancurd, tempura veg, tofu salad and mini omelette rolls. Felix and I befriended a Dutch couple, again from our hotel, and spent the first hour of cruising through the Bay exchanging travel plans and plotting revenge against our new dictator.

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The first stop on the tour was the Dau Go cave (the Cave of Wonders) and we got our first real taste of how busy the tourist scene is in the Bay. Tinh treated us to a 15 minute history speech outside while we all stared at our feet or at the hundreds of other boat passengers that were walking past with no lectures from their guides. I was especially distracted by my first sighting of a floating trader, a woman in a rowing boat completely full of snacks, drinks and cigarettes who would stealthily row up behind people stood on the jetty before thrusting a pack of Oreos at them. We rushed through the cave, desperate to get to the kayaking spot, but not before Tinh had pointed out the various animals and phallic shapes that could be seen if we let our imagination run free. At the cave exit is a very opportunistic gift shop asking for 50,000 dong for a small bottle of water! The kayaks were waiting for us at a floating pontoon in the middle of the bay nearby, and Tinh was very strict with our 40 minute time limit. Felix and I were the first on the water and set off at full steam. I had the crazy idea of trying to circumnavigate one of the smaller islands and it felt fitting that I should embark on something so suitably challenging on the 10th anniversary (ish) of my completion of the DW canoe race. We turned back after what must have been over 30 minutes of paddling, having realised that we had picked one of the biggest islands in the area and there was no sign of the end! The human-sized jellyfish were starting to freak me out a little too, so we sped back to the boat hoping we weren't too late (and working on various excuses if we were).

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Tinh met us with a red face, and in an attempt to avoid his lecture about how we'd let everyone down I abandoned Felix in the back of the kayak and ran back to the boat. The final stop was Tiptop Island, where a depressingly small beach and an alarmingly high hill gave people the choice of a swim or hike before sunset. Seeing the human soup in the 'swimming area', Felix and I decided to stay on board (much to Tinh's consternation) and spent the hour playing cards. Our anchor point for the night was in a small bay with only a handful of other boats, and after a huge buffet dinner with some very dodgy soup we stayed up chatting with the Dutch and the Belgians and slowly cleared the onboard beer fridge. No one took Tinh up on his offer of a karaoke evening, choosing instead to attempt squid fishing - made much harder by the traders and beggars that kept appearing out of the darkness! Soon the engine stopped for the night and we let the waves rock us to sleep.

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Predictably (I suppose) we were woken just minutes before our alarms by power-happy Tinh banging on everyone's doors. Fortunately breakfast was of the delicious and filling variety so there was minimal resistance when we were all asked to "check out" at 8.30am and put our bags in the restaurant so that the crew could prepare the rooms for their next guests. After paying off our bar tab I found most of the crew asleep in the newly vacated rooms, but decided not to mention this to my fellow passengers...

We set sail for Cat Ba Island, a beautifully peaceful journey through an empty stretch of water flanked either side by very impressive limestone cliffs and floating villages. We dropped off the 3-day passengers and said our goodbyes to Tinh who was more concerned about who had stolen his pens - we had been given questionnaires to fill in and he had not scored well. Despite the rain we spent the next two hours sat on the top deck under the canopy with our new friends, Rachel & Russell (the Brits from our hotel who had nearly been separated at dinner last night). We ordered tea from the bar and shared a pack of Oreos before discovering that lunch was being served at 11am! Our new guide thought I was joking about being vegetarian, so I had to share Rachel's non-meat alternatives (including a bowl of peanuts) before we disembarked back at Halong harbour. The bus back took us to another expensive tourist trap shop with very Vietnamese promotions:

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For Felix's last night in Vietnam we ended up having a giant pizza with several cheap beers, followed by a walk through the night market and a few hours spent taking light trail photos by the road. I was very sad to be losing my German travel buddy, but I made loose plans to hook up with Rach and Russ the next day when we would discuss the journey south.

Posted by WorldWideWill 18:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXVI: Good Morning Vietnam!

A very lazy day in Hanoi

sunny 38 °C
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My night on the floor was surprisingly comfy, if not a little dusty, and I bounded downstairs for the free breakfast - fresh baguettes with eggs and Vietnamese coffee. We spent the morning in the hotel waiting for the cleaners to finish so that we could move rooms, and ended up with a very nice triple room with fridge and a view over Hang Cot street. One of the giggly staff said I was handsome as we left, so I was in a good mood when walked through town to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

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On the way we had our first encounter with the Vietnamese Army, very sharply dressed soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the Defence Ministry who were thoroughly unimpressed when we tried to cut through after misreading the map! Our walk took us past the War Museum and the Flag Tower and we arrived at the Mausoleum shortly after 10:45. This ugly communist building houses the preserved body of Vietnam's biggest national hero, Ho Chi Minh himself. All of the streets in Hanoi were adorned with red flags and banners in celebration of his birthday (an annual display), but instead of finding a queue outside it was silent and deserted (aside from the very smartly dressed guard who shouted at me for crossing the yellow painted line in front of the steps outside!). A quick recheck of The Book showed that we'd missed the last admission at 10:15 and it wouldn't reopen until the following morning! Just round the corner was the Ho Chi Minh Museum so we made the most of the walk, paid the 25,000 dong and went in to absorb some history. Or rather we would have, if they hadn't started ushering everyone out of the building after ten minutes in preparation for their closure for lunch at 11:30! To be honest, neither of us could make any sense of the place anyway - essentially the life story of 'Uncle Ho' has been offered up for interpretation by several abstract artists and the whole place is filled with a mad jumble of sculptures, photos and weird exhibits including a giant table of fruit.

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On the way out I was surrounded by at least 30 Korean men and a couple of them shook my hand and asked where I was from. When I said "the UK" they asked if I liked Manchester United and if I'd heard of Ji Sung Park (the footballer, a few of them were wearing shirts with his name on the back). When I said that I'd lived in Manchester for five years they broke into a chorus of "ooohhh"s which sounded identical to the aliens from Toy Story. Felix was highly amused by this but I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic so we left without waiting to see if they'd say "the Claw...".

We briefly toyed with the idea of going back to the museum when they reopened at 2pm, but after a delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (easily my favourite national specialty) at a local cafe we gave into the oppressive heat and had a slow walk back to the Old Quarter. I'd had a tip-off from Sam (from the Cameron Highlands) about a tailor that had made his wedding suit, and with the promise of mates rates I wanted to find him and tick off "get tailored suit made" from my bucket list. We had another cafe stop while we waited for Mr Nam to return from lunch, and then spend a good while browsing the materials in his shop. I had been forewarned that he spoke no English, so all communication was done over the phone via his daughter (there were several calls, bless her). Eventually I was left with a time dilemma, as it would take him 3-5 days to complete and I would need to buy my own silk lining from the market as he didn't stock the colour I wanted! Lunch was needed before tackling the indoor market and we ended up at Egg Talk, where we got a whopping 2% discount for 'liking' them on Facebook! With all that saved cash burning holes in our pockets we walked in, and swiftly out, of the Dong Xuan market away from the stale heat and hundreds of hands pulling our arms towards their stalls.

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After a nap we booked our trip to Halong Bay, and it was rather overwhelming to be presented with a dozen different brochures and having to choose the right tour operator. In the end we settled on a 2-day, 1-night trip on a midrange boat for $75 each - based on the pictures it would be a little more luxurious than we needed but the $50 trip offered a very basic route and no activities. We had dinner plans with Felix's friend and arranged to meet him at the Opera House. A miscommunication outside the hotel resulted in the two of us being squeezed into a one-man rickshaw, pedalled by an alarmed and dangerously old man. In hindsight we could probably have walked there in the same time that it took, and it would have been safer too - our 'driver' decided to take the highway for a couple of miles and I could only sit and film the cars and bikes whizzing past us, praying that we'd make it through each junction. We paid the drenched man his 50,000 dong despite his attempt to drop us off on the wrong street and met Christian (who had clearly been waiting a while). He took us South of the Old Quarter to a very Bavarian "brauhaus" where we had a few giant beers and smoked cheese followed by an expensive but tasty meal on the balcony. We chatted for a couple of hours about Christian's work at the World Bank and how the different blends of communism had benefitted Vietnam and stunted Cambodia's growth, and at the end he very kindly picked up the bill.

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Back on our patch we spent a long while browsing through a great little shop selling old propaganda posters from the war, and then finished the night on another streetside plastic chair with a pint of bia hoi. I made Felix watch Animal House on HBO before bed, essential viewing.

Posted by WorldWideWill 12:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXV: Fly Boys

Week five, country five!

sunny 35 °C
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I managed to lure Felix down to the free breakfast that he'd been ignoring with the promise of syrup pancakes and we planned our day. The flight didn't leave for Hanoi until 16:45 and check out was at noon - they wanted an extra $10 to extend it until 2pm! Felix booked a taxi to the airport for 14:00 for $9 (standard rate) and we made the most of the air con and HBO in the room until 12:01 just to spite the receptionist, who had called us at 11:45 to remind us about the time.

With just two hours to kill there was nothing else for it but to head back to Happy Herb Pizza! I know, our imagination for lunch venues has been somewhat lacking but didn't someone once say you can't have too much of a good thing? After lunch we took the cameras for a second walk through the market. I'm sure that smell capture technology will never really exist, but if it did I'd insert a little preview here and have no further need for typing or trying to describe the level of filth that can be found (and inhaled) in Phnom Penh. At the entrance to the market a woman was shoveling food waste off the street into a giant, already overflowing skip and next to her a man was urinating beside the food stalls. The smell was horrendous, and implied that this skip had been sat there festering away for weeks - the bottom was already leaking with decomposed food juice. We pushed through the smell barrier, mastering the art of mouth-only breathing as we passed raw meat hanging in the sun, large metal pots being brought to the boil with dozens of large fish still swimming about in panic and vegetable stalls with chickens roaming about pecking at the greens. It was a remarkable sight and the maze of stalls was vast; moving towards the centre the hygiene improved and the fruit stalls merged into clothing shops and beauty salons. The immune systems here must be super-strength, we certainly weren't going to risk a cheeky snack.

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Back on our street we noticed a strange man sat turning a metal cylinder back and forth over burning coals, steam all around him. Naturally we went to investigate and found that he was roasting coffee beans, which were then decanted onto wicker trays on the street to cool before being used to make fresh coffee at the cafe next door. Nostrils well and truly cleansed, we had a sudden craving for caffeine and with 10 minutes to spare until the taxi Felix found us a table and ordered two iced coffees. They were... indescribably good. I'm sure the novelty boosted the taste somewhat but it was like nothing we'd tasted and we were distraught at leaving our new discovery after just one serving.

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Our 'taxi' was a beaten up old Ford but the journey to the airport was quick and comfortable - our only scary moment was seeing one of the crazy women from the Siem Reap minibus on the back of a motorcycle, and our attempts to hide failed miserably! Our timing was nigh-on perfect and we checked in straight away with no queues. I remembered too late to ask for a seat with more leg room, so I was amazed when the man casually ripped up the boarding card he'd printed for me and rebooked me and Felix into the emergency exit row! Passport control was equally entertaining: while I was trying to look all serious for my photo and having my fingerprints scanned, the passport official smiled at my boarding pass and said "Hanoi huh? Vietnam girls, very nice". I thanked him for his tourism advice and then got distracted by the very cute drug dog lying on the floor by the xray machines.

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Duty Free was unusual, because everything was more expensive than the high street! A large Toblerone (the standard benchmark for these price comparison exercises) cost $25! The rest of the airport can be covered in a three-minute lap, and I took the opportunity to buy some last-minute postcards and use the free computers. Boarding was surprisingly late, especially as Felix had pointed out that we were on a giant Boeing jet but again there were no queues and we were shown to our outrageously spacious exit seats. The doors closed and the stewardess informed us that there were 30 passengers on board this 120+ seater aircraft, what a waste of travel space! We were very impressed though, the plane was brand new, as was the crew's enthusiasm and the 90 minute flight passed in no time.

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On arrival at Hanoi, Felix had to take his letter and queue up at the visa issuing desk, while I smugly went straight through passport control and collected our bags. An ATM visit was next, and after doing some crazy maths to work out the exchange rates ($1 is 21,000 dong, GBP1 is 31,000) we popped in our PINs and simultaneously became millionaires! The maximum withdrawal was 2 million dong (VND), just 65 quid. This first withdrawal lasted a long time. Our research told us to ignore the taxis and aim for the minibus stop, where we were charged 40,000 (just over a pound) each for the 35 minute transfer to the Old Quarter in the city. Memories of luxury leg room on the plane soon faded as we were piled in and were forced to play the knee-licking game! Driving into the city, Vietnam felt like another world from Cambodia. The roads were still busy, true, but they were organised, well built and the buildings lining the street were all in a good state of repair. I was struck by the number of motorbikes here though - at every junction the view was blocked by a sea of helmets from at least two people sat on several hundred bikes. This brought about another fascination for me: from the demand for bike helmets had grown a whole new fashion industry, and I was amazed at the different designs on show. Solid baseball cap shapes, Burberry stripes and (my favourite) small cut-outs at the back of the girls' hats to allow them to be worn with a ponytail! Clever sods.

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As usual we were mobbed by the taxi driver crowd when we stopped, and as usual we opted to walk the extra 2km to the hotel to get a feel for the city. We fell in love with Hanoi immediately, walking through the Old Quarter was like walking through a French village and it was wonderful to be completely ignored by the locals. The streets of this part of the city are lined and often covered by trees, and every building is fronted by a shop or small cafe selling Vietnamese coffee and home-brew beer. We arrived at the Blue Sky Hotel late evening, and after climbing four flights of Parisian townhouse stairs we were presented with our booked room: a cosy double. There had been a mix-up but we were told not to worry and went out in search of food.

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The streets in the Old Quarter are organised by what they sell and are named accordingly (in Vietnamese). Unfortunately for us, we were nowhere near the food streets and walked aimlessly for half an hour before stumbling across a lovely little restaurant on Ma May where we sat on the very French terrace and enjoyed a few beers alongside Vietnamese spring rolls and a traditional clay pot stew with rice. On the walk back we explored the side streets and found the backpackers' hive, a series of lively bars playing live music and small corner shops all selling "bia hoi", locally brewed beer sold at just 5,000 dong per glass. We ordered two glasses and were sat on small plastic chairs on the street, lapping up the atmosphere and quietly contemplating moving here. The beer was good, very similar in taste to a British pale ale, and at 15p a pint no-one was complaining!

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Returning to the hotel we found the furniture had been rearranged to fit a single mattress on the floor next to the bed (they had no rooms left). I gave Felix the double and happily fell asleep on the floor.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 16:52 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

XXXIV: Visa Run!

The most expensive purchase so far!

sunny 39 °C
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WorldWideWill's Quick Guide to Vietnam Visas:

Getting a visa for Vietnam is a fairly straightforward, albeit ridiculously expensive, process. There is no 'visa on arrival' option for Vietnam, so you must have either a valid visa or letter of visa approval before you cross the border. This can be done in four ways, take your pick (any prices are as of May 2013 and WILL CHANGE)!

1) Send your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy at home before you go [$40-$70]

Pro: very simple; no need to worry about it while you are travelling; can often be cheaper; visa issued within 3-4 working days
Con: you must set your arrival date into Vietnam and cannot change the visa start date (for free); pay recorded postage both ways to the embassy (unless you go in person)

2) Apply for visa approval online (only for flights into Vietnam, not for land crossings) [$55 - $100]

Pro: quick and easy; can be done any time and from anywhere with wifi (no need to be in a city with an embassy); no need to be separated from your passport; in advance it can work out cheaper
Con: there are hundreds of websites offering the service at different prices, you need to find one that is legitimate (use recommendations from travellers); if done last minute it can get very expensive to pay for the "rush" service, up to $50; no visa is issued, only an approval letter - you must wait for this to be emailed to you, print it out and present it at the airport before boarding your flight to Vietnam; on arrival you have to queue up at the visa desk to have a visa issued to you (an extra $45 stamping charge), and then queue again for passport control

3) Arrange your visa through your hotel [$45-$60]

Pro: efficient service; can be very cheap in some countries (e.g. Cambodia if the passport is sent to Sihanoukville); you can carry on with your trip while you wait; you are issued with a visa within 2-3 days; no waiting for approval emails
Con: you're trusting your passport with a stranger; you may end up paying over the odds for the transport costs depending on how many passports they can collect

4) Apply in person at the Vietnamese Embassy/Consulate [$60 + $10 for on-the-spot processing]

Pro: stress free, official processing; visa can be issued on the spot if needed immediately (for a fee); no processing or stamping fees; no waiting for approval emails; good place to meet other travellers!
Con: you need to get to the place, not always easy (especially in big cities); price changes are not advertised on their website - visa price went up from $45 to $60 in January 2013

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The Vietnamese Consulate Office in Phnom Penh opens at 8.30am on weekdays, and I had decided to get my visa issued in person purely for convenience and a reluctance to entrust my passport to our receptionist! I was up and fed by 8 and started the 4km journey from hotel to visa office on foot to avoid tourist-inflated tuk-tuk fares. My web research told me that I would need $45 for the visa and another $10 for express processing, and I had $10 plus a slightly torn $50 bill that had come out of an ATM in Siem Reap and been flatly refused as legitimate tender at every hotel and restaurant (the Cambodians will only deal in pristine US dollar notes, no rips allowed). I managed to change the $50 at the bank but the ATM wanted to charge a 'hefty' 1.5% withdrawal fee so I stuck with my 60 bucks and planned to find a Canadia Bank later (the only bank whose ATMs are charge-free). For the first time I accepted a streetside offer of a motorbike taxi ride and we agreed a $2 fare, though he seemed a little unsure of the address. It took a good 15 minutes to get there, and my knuckles were bright white from clinging onto the back of the bike for dear life as we weaved in and out of Phnom Penh traffic. Great fun though!

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The driver offered to wait outside but not knowing how long it would take I sent him away after paying him and went inside to fill out the application form. I found out that they could turn it round in 5 minutes for the $10 fee (I was one of just two people in the office), but of course that would have been too easy - a homemade sign next to the desk ruined my morning, stating that the visa price had gone up from January to $60. My argument about the out-of-date prices on their website fell on deaf ears and I was directed to the nearest ATM to make up the $10 deficit in my funds. A five minute walk brought me to the traveller's worst ATM: ANZ Royal. Infamous (to me at least) for charging super high fees, I always avoid them like the plague. This one wanted to charge a flat fee of $5! I couldn't stomach it, particularly as I had a secret mission to spend less than Felix had on his online visa process and a $5 ATM charge would have been counted by the judges. So a standard Will mission unfolded as I walked and walked through the blinding heat looking for a free or at least cheap ATM. I tried and abandoned six in all, the last of which was attached to a money exchange. Thankfully I still had a 1,000 Thai baht note in my money belt, and the lovely lady in the air conditioned office politely ignored me dripping all over her kiosk and gave me $32 - an incredible rate for Cambodia! For some drama-loving reason I decided to jog the mile and a half back to the visa office and five minutes later I had my lovely new visa.

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$70 lighter I walked outside to find a ride back, adamant that I would spend no more than $2 (to keep the total outlay under the suspected $75 that I thought Felix had spent!). A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take me as far as the Royal Palace for my money, but not without several attempts to convince me that he could drop me at my hotel and wait for me to get some more cash out for him! I walked back to the hotel and met up with Felix, then booked onto tomorrow's flight to Hanoi for a slightly inflated last-minute fare of $200. I had originally planned to cross into Vietnam overland between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, but I was enjoying travelling with Felix and as he only had 5 days in Vietnam (an expensive stay considering the visa price!) he was keen to see Hanoi and Halong Bay and I was happy to do Vietnam from North to South. As I was booking, F received his letter of approval and we both breathed a sigh of relief.

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With everything so expensive, and now with a firm departure sorted we saw no reason to spend unnecessary money on lunch and walked back down for our 'usual' at Happy Herb. We met our favourite tech-savvy kids again, and enjoyed watching the girl beating the boy over the head with a water bottle when he claimed she was his girlfriend! The burger and beer combo was good enough and cheap enough to buy two but we wanted to squeeze a little more culture into our stay and walked down the street to the National Museum. On the way we passed a naked baby lying on the pavement (we had seen it being washed the day before in a roadside puddle) - the mother was a few yards down the street tending to her 'legit' Lonely Planet guidebook stall!

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The museum was more expensive than we'd bargained for - $5 - and was so small that we managed the circuit in under half an hour at a leisurely pace. We had a rest in the courtyard watching the obese koi carp bobbing around in the ponds, then took a detour through the local market back to the hotel. I'll describe this experience in tomorrow's entry - it needed to be revisited and photographed.

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We rewarded ourselves for our visa success with a mango ice lolly on the roof and an iced tea in the pool, something that Cambodians haven't quite got right - a tea bag dipped in iced water... We'd had such a good experience at Friends last night that we wanted to try out their sister restaurant, Romdeng, a little further from the river. As we left the hotel I was asked by two forlorn looking Brit girls if there were many English people staying here. I jokingly asked if she was trying to avoid them and reassured her that it was largely Indian and she looked crestfallen! I don't understand people that come travelling, eat Western food and crave company from their own nationality - I pointed her towards the cockroach inn next door.

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Romdeng was outstanding. It's in a lovely setting, a beautiful French style building with a huge balcony overlooking the leafy courtyard below. The only drawback was their fame for 'crispy spiders' on the menu, and we were presented with one of the poor things (a rather large, though tame, black tarantula) which sat nervously still in Felix's hand until our food arrived. Seven years of chivalry in saving Lucy from house spiders still haven't completely eradicated my childhood arachnophobia so I sat on my hands a safe distance away, and then watched as F handed it over to a petrified waitress! The food was amazing and wonderfully presented, I had been eager to try the traditional 'amok' curry and my pumpkin, bean curd and mushroom amok came in a banana leaf bowl. We made the mistake of having a dessert each, and three giant crispy rice flake banana dumplings with palm sugar syrup nearly finished me off!

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Our walk back towards Friends brought us into the backpacker territory and PP's equivalent of Pub Street. It was good to see that we had chosen the quieter street to stay, and we picked up pace at the first sight of drunken Westerners. Felix bought a handmade 'magic wallet' from the Friends & Stuff charity shop next to their tapas restaurant though we ended the night on a bit of low as we wandered past the overflowing bins and even an old woman rummaging through the rubbish outside our hotel.

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Back at the hotel with mixed emotions about the city outside (the food was worth a lot of points) I couldn't resist a picture of the in-house rules on our wall - sums it up nicely I think.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 14:31 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

XXXIII: Phnom-nom-nom (Penh)

Big City Life

all seasons in one day 35 °C
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It was an interesting night, and we'd discovered that we were sharing a corridor with six or seven Indian sex tourists who were all sharing a room and spent most of the day parading around with different Cambodian women. The free breakfast that we had haggled for was a now predictable buffet of fried carbs, so I dug out the remains of my birthday muesli to supplement the egg and toast. It was laundry time again so we took our giant bags around the corner where they were only charging $1 per kilo and left blushing slightly after being called "very handsome men" - I was back! We collared a tuk-tuk driver and booked the 'City Tour' for $15, which would include the long drive out to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek as well as the S21 Prison and a handful of the sights back in Phnom Penh. I had been warned to expect it, but I was still angry when he asked if we wanted to go to the shooting range to fire some weapons ("great fun, great fun"). Felix was equally shocked at the insensitivity but here was the line where respect for the dead ended and business took priority. Still, the driver was taken aback at our "NO!" chorus and agreed to stick to the tour.

His name was Champine. He wore a Barcelona baseball cap on his head and a stupid grin on his face. He was a nightmare. The roads leading out of the city were insanely busy and the exhaust fumes were visibly mixing with the roadside dust and sand to form clouds of gritty smog which lined the inside of our nostrils. Champine's one and only nice gesture was stopping at the side of the road and offering to buy us each a face mask (big business in SE Asia). We declined purely based on experience of being overcharged later on, and used cupped hands as a makeshift mask instead. I admired his enthusiasm at first, pointing out different buildings and smiling back at us, but he was completely oblivious to anything going on around him on the roads. We hit unseen potholes, ramped over unseen piles of sand and very nearly hit several unseen vehicles and pedestrians. A day of riding in this carriage would be enough to give anyone a six-pack with the amount of muscle clenching we had to perform! Gradually the roads got quieter, which was a relief because Champ had no horn and was trying to attract attention by whistling, and at last the sign for Choeung Ek appeared. We drove straight past the turning, but I suppressed an angry twitch and decided he must know another route. He didn't, we stopped for petrol a couple of kilometres further up the road and he asked me if he could borrow $3 to pay for it! Felix had gone into a meditative silence and steam must have started to appear from my ears because he quickly set off again, but still in the wrong direction. When we turned onto a side street I asked him where we were going and got a laugh and something inaudible above the engine noise. We were following another tourist tuk-tuk so I kept an open mind, right up until he pulled into the shooting range car park. I lost it, I was absolutely furious that he'd so blatantly ignored our earlier conversation and all he could do was laugh his stupid laugh and practically beg us to at least go in for a look (clearly on commission). It didn't help that the four ignorant Brit guys from the other tuk-tuk were running in whooping with excitement, but he eventually said "it's up to you" and reluctantly drove us to the Killing Fields.

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We ignored his comment about him only waiting an hour for us (after all, we'd only given him $3 so far so if he left he'd be doing us a favour) and paid the $5 entry into Choeung Ek, which comes with an introductory video at the museum and a portable audio guide. I won't go into too much detail, but our biggest shock above all of the atrocities was finding out how recently the group responsible - the Khmer Rouge - had been operating. The trails into the crimes were still underway as recently as 2011. The fields themselves are the site of the mass graves where prisoners from the S21 Prison were executed in horrific ways, purely for being suspected of opposition to the communist regime. 20,000 men, women and children were killed here, and many of the graves have been excavated to place all of the remains on display in a huge central memorial monument (7 levels high) where the families can pay their respects. There are some details that I could never bring myself to write, but I will mention that every time it rains it brings more bones and rags to the surface, and these are collected every few months to add to the memorial. Once you pass the sign explaining this, suddenly all you can see beneath your feet on the paths are chalk-white fragments and weathered pieces of material. It is a very difficult thing to experience.

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By chance we only took an hour, but when we got into the tuk-tuk Champ informed us that we would have to wait as he'd booked an extra fare back into town for two more people. Luckily for him our sombre hour had calmed the morning's rage so the argument was short and concise, but saying "it's up to you" again didn't do him any favours - his tip was long gone anyway. We drove back into town to visit the S21 Prison, previously a high school before it was divided into cells, clad with barbed wire and used to torture innocent Cambodians. It was just $2 to get in and again it was a difficult experience, particularly when you see the photos of all of the inmates - the Khmer Rouge were as thorough as the Nazis with cataloguing their crimes so every prisoner was numbered and photographed. Only seven survived. The original classrooms had been divided into tiny numbered cells with brick walls or wooden slats, and the barbed wire around the balconies was erected to prevent suicide attempts. I was quite upset by a couple of things here, firstly the sign on one of the buildings that said "no laughing" and secondly by the placement of red paint or fake blood in some of the cells. Some people need a good slap.

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Rather poetically it began to rain as we walked through the rooms where the last remaining prisoners had been found by the liberation forces, so we went back to the drenched tuk-tuk and asked him to drop us off on the riverside for some lunch within walking distance of the Royal Palace. On the way we noticed for the first time that in front of Champine's seat was the lid-less fuel tank, which was dangerously slopping around and we realised why he'd been driving so slowly! This sealed the deal for him, and after he'd once again tried to drop us at a friend's restaurant for one last commission we stopped him and paid the remaining $12 - his request for a tip was laughed off.

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We went to a place called Happy Herb Pizza for lunch, purely because it was convenient and had been recommended by The Book. It is the best value food in town - we both ordered burgers and fries for $2 - and has the cheapest beer at $0.50 a pint! I took the opportunity to Skype Dad at the table, and soon had a small crowd of fascinated kids waving at him on the screen. They were surprisingly good with technology, and happily grabbed Felix's phone and flicked through the photos with no instruction. It was only after we left that we understood that "Happy Herb" meant marijuana and wasn't the man's name! Luckily the herbs were only added on special request so our burgers were (presumably) safe! A walk down the Royal Palace found it to be closed, which was actually a relief after an emotionally draining day so I took a few photos of the millions of pigeons and we retreated for an air-con movie back at base.

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The value of our room had a huge boost in the evening as we ventured upstairs to the 8th and 9th floors where we found the pool, a bar and a roof terrace overlooking the city. A few beers were had (of course) with the sunset and then we collected our beautifully pressed and bagged laundry and were invited in for dinner! We had plans so politely declined and walked down the road to the highly recommended Friends Restaurant for some tapas. The restaurant was packed with Westerners which, for the first time, was a good sign - this place was expensive even by Cambodian standards so not just anyone would eat here. We ordered four dishes between us, including roasted pepper, zucchini & rocket spring rolls with basil lemon mayo and chinese veg stir fry. The food was so amazing that we ordered the mango crumble with ice cream for dessert and nearly died of happiness.

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Friends is owned by a company that funds charity projects to help the street kids in Cambodia find work, and most of the staff there have been taken in as part of this scheme. We felt very happy to pay the bill plus a small tip for a good cause and we had a quick look at their charity shop next door before heading back (via the now huge piles of waste on the road outside). Next door to our hotel, Queen Wood (forgot to mention that yesterday I think) is a backpacker hotel called 11 Happy Backpackers and we were intrigued to see what their roof bar and rooms were like in comparison to ours. We had a couple of beers to very loud music (luckily the 80s classic rock had just started) but on our way to check out a room we saw a large cockroach that had made its way up 5 flights of stairs so we quickly left!

We'd had quite enough of Phnom Penh now but the weekend had scuppered all plans to get hold of a visa for Vietnam, even for Felix who had done his online and had to wait the extra 2 days for an authorisation letter. Tomorrow is visa day, and hopefully our last day in Cambodia too.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 11:21 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

XXXII: Trans-Cam Highway

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

sunny 38 °C
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I'd be lying if I said that we were excited to be spending six hours on a bus on the Cambodian roads, but at midday (after finally settling my giant room bill) Felix & I were loaded into a tiny "Mercedes" minibus and driven around Siem Reap collecting travellers en route to the bus station. It was a 10-seater, but the driver managed to squeeze in 15 passengers plus backpacks and we ended up with two crazy Cambodian women sat on our feet surrounded by bags of food. You should know that Felix can have a rather short fuse at times, and I had been up until 3am that morning on Skype, so we were both far from being in the mood to play sardines with broken air conditioning. When these women started throwing food at their German "boyfriends" (?) and then stroking our legs and laughing we'd had enough and when we reached the station we took seats on the coach as far away from them as possible!

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The bus wasn't uncomfortable, and the views across the rice fields and the still unbelievably flat landscape kept me entertained for at least three hours of what ended up being a seven hour journey. It was a real shame to see so much waste everywhere though - just like Morocco, a beautiful country has been ruined by the arrival of Western plastics and every ditch was full to the brim with discarded bottles and plastic bags. The roads themselves were simply awful, and as we'd taken the back row of seats we were being thrown around for most of the trip - it's hard to imagine what the roads were like before their "overhaul" two years ago. I'd remembered reading that in Thailand the back seats of a bus are always reserved for monks, and when an orange-clad Buddhist got on the bus before lunch I wondered if the same rule applied in Cambodia. No one asked us to move so we stayed put...

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At the lunch stop the roadside snack offer was less than appealing: mounds of fried insects which were being happily devoured by our Japanese bus-mates. Crunchy. We had only been given 20 minutes for lunch so we settled for a coke in the restaurant and (as we hadn't noticed the one on the bus) had a toilet dash. I mention this part because while I was drying my hands I received an alarmingly sharp poke to the ribs and turned round. Standing behind me, bony finger still outstretched, was the monk! I didn't have much time to think about this near-assault from a supposedly peace-loving man, as he started shouting at me in Khmer and then expected me to respond. Clearly I had no idea what he was on about so I just repeated what he'd said, got a nod in return and then I was left alone again, nursing a small round bruise. We left the restaurant via a long loop away from Mr Crazy-Eyed Monk's table, and with no better food available we came back to the bus with two loaves of bread and a pack of Laughing Cow cheese. This was a low point in food terms, made worse by how long the cheese had been in the sun, and I have no clue how neither of us got ill.

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The last four hours passed painfully slowly, though we were faintly amused by the choice of films they decided to show - Prison On Fire, followed by Prison On Fire II. Not quite what we'd expected to see on the way to the S21 prison but clearly the driver was a big Chow Yun Fat fan. Arriving in Phnom Penh at 8pm presented several issues, the main ones being hunger and the need for a bed (we had so far failed to decide on a hotel). Once again the bus was surrounded by tuk tuk drivers who, as usual, tried to convince us that everything was "very far". The free wifi sign alone (honestly) drew us off the street into KFC and we sat down with a Pepsi to find a nearby bed. Our 15 minute walk to the hotel gave us a chance to see the capital city and we weren't blown away - the traffic was mental, with the same lack of lights at a 4-way crossroads as we had seen in Siem Reap only with twice as many vehicles, and it was dirty. Here everyone throws their rubbish on the street where it sits until the rubbish collection lady arrives in the evening, so the accumulated smells towards the end of the day are far from welcoming. Our street turned out to be on the edge of a thriving sex tourism hotspot too, something that had been left out of the hotel's facilities list. We were shown around a couple of rooms and settled on a rather nice twin on the seventh floor (largely due to the breeze), and after refusing to pay full rate ($45) we negotiated a 33% discount at booked a few nights at $30 with breakfast included.

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We ate by the riverside and had a couple of well-earned beers. Then the stream of beggars started, first with single mothers and sickly children, then old men and finally children carrying baskets of flowers who had been trained to ignore the word 'no'. It was gone 10pm and this poor boy stood at our table for 15 minutes before moving onto the next one where he fell asleep on his feet. We returned to the room slightly angered by the contrast between the two cities and made plans to see the more sombre sights tomorrow.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 06:42 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

XXXI: Khmer Khameleon

Last day in Siem Reap

sunny 37 °C
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I was grateful for another late morning start, templing is hard work and 8 hours' sleep is just not enough recovery time! Once again we drove away from the Angkor site, this time South East along the highway to reach the Roluos group of temples. Within minutes of leaving the relatively sedate roads of Siem Reap I felt embarrassed about my earlier rant about Thai driving - Cambodia takes the crazy to a whole new level!

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A minute on a Cambodian highway is the best snapshot you can have of the madness that is this country's road network and transport system. The average 6-lane dual carriageway is used by no less than 12 streams of traffic, all going in independent directions and carrying loads that not only violate any and every manufacturer's weight restriction but also confound the uninitiated spectator. Motorbikes are king and mule here, and in any given minute you can expect to see one loaded with everything from a 10ft-high stack of recycling bags to half a dozen pig carcasses. How these engines don't implode I have no idea. The larger vehicles are no better, and our highlights of this short journey included a minibus with two mopeds strapped to the open tailgate and a people carrier packed so full of bananas that they were bursting out of the windows and the passengers were forced to travel at 70kph on the roof! The preferred vehicle for rural loads is the tractor engine driven much like a domestic lawnmover, which we saw pulling loads heavy enough to worry an HGV driver.

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Of course with such chaos, no matter how well the locals negotiate it, there is always catastrophe and when an accident occurs it's usually pretty serious. We passed three accidents in a short stretch of road, all involving a helmet-less motorbike driver and a fairly serious injury as well as severe damage to the bike and its crazy load. Cambodia is no place to self-hire, and even a tuk tuk feels exposed on the main roads. It is easy now to see why Siem Reap bans tourists from hiring motorbikes, please don't try and bend this rule!

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The temples at Roluos were, frankly, a bit of a let down. My birthday had been the best day hands down, and the three temples we saw this morning were poor relations to the stunning architecture and scenery we had already seen. Our morning was saved, however, by the local kids here. Roluos temple children have a level of hyperactivity unknown to the Angkorian hoardes, presumably due to an excessive intake of bonbons (their teeth are shocking) from the buses of tourists that were being dropped off every minutes to shrieks of excitement from dozens of tiny faces. Felix and I took the opportunity to allow Supiret a little more sleep than the meagre ten minutes we had given to the first temple and sat taking pictures of the children and their tourist frenzy. Before long there was a lull in the bus deposits and we were mobbed, but instead of throwing a handful of Maoam sweets in the air and making a run for it, Felix wanted them to earn the treat. I sat transfixed on the faces as they slowly learnt that only saying "Can I have a sweet please" would release Felix's tight grip on the packet, and he was strict - "You give me sweet... please?" just didn't cut it.

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Two more temples came and went without incident or piqued interest, the only highlight being another run-in with the kids - this time one made me a ring made of leaves and refused my offer of a sweet because he said it would damage his teeth! I was impressed and gave back the ring - no amount of dental care would earn my dollar today. The mango girl accepted the bonbon option but it backfired when her friend spied the exchange and told me that if I didn't give her one too then I wasn't handsome! We'd already starting moving off before I could answer her but the damage was done - that was the moment I started wearing mascara.

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Felix and I did our favourite thing once we returned - had a "lazy afternoon"! Another baguette lunch just about fueled a brief attempt to shop for souvenirs in town but the challenge of finding decent postcards was too much for me (largely because I then realised how good the $1 deal from the Angkor kids really was!). At 7ish we met up for dinner again along with Erna, a friend of Felix's from his trip in Laos. We stopped for a few $1 draught beers on Pub Street and were joined by two more new friends from Felix's hostel, both travelling during a break from study in Hong Kong. It felt great to be with a large group again and the personalities more or less fitted together as we bonded over travel talk. The short search for food ended at the Red Piano, famous for its association with Angelina Jolie (you'll have to look it up, all I saw was a cocktail with her name on it) and we all ordered from the traditional Khmer food menu. Felix and Jieyi are spice fiends and F made a point of telling the waitress that he would be highly disappointed if the curry didn't make him break into a sweat. A deal was made: "You no cry, you no pay"! Three of us were laughing moments after the curries arrived as J had burst into uncontrollable spice-induced tears and Felix was making very little noise at all - looked like we were paying. I was quietly content with my "mild" Khmer curry, which was honestly one of the best curries I've ever tasted.

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It was sad to say goodbye to the new faces after only a few hours, but we swapped emails and made the usual wishful comments about maybe bumping into them later on the trail. Tomorrow F & I leave for the capital.

Posted by WorldWideWill 11:15 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

XXX: Banteay Birthday!

Not a bad way to celebrate...

sunny 40 °C
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It was a restless sleep, largely because I hadn't decided before bed if I would wake up to see the arrival of my birthday at midnight local time or UK time and ended up seeing both and feeling no better for it! At 8 I was up and on my private balcony opening a stack of birthday cards - the precious cargo that I had been transporting for a month in my daysack. There was a mini moment of loneliness as I read each one without the sender present, but I was left smiling and feeling good about day two of temple running. I'd done well with breakfast too: fruit muesli, OJ and fruit loaf kept me going most of the day (which was handy seeing as we would miss lunch). I got the birthday traditions out of the way, made my wish and went down to join the guys for our 10am start.

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We had a slightly customised route to follow today which would take us several miles away from Angkor to see the outlying temples and was due to end with sunset back in the main temple complex. Even on paper it was far more appealing than my original birthday plans to chill out and read at the hotel all day. Felix handed me my only birthday present of the day as he got on board, a large pack of American style pecan and choc chip cookies! I was touched, and even further impressed when he produced two packs of sweets to be used to keep the temple children at bay. Up until this point I had been curious about the roadside stalls selling reused bottles filled with a strange yellow/green liquid that I had decided was either olive oil or bodily fluid (hey, it's Cambodia - anything's possible). I watched intently when Supiret stopped and bought two bottles, but when he was handed a small funnel I turned away, convinced that my second assumption about the liquid was accurate. The smell caught me by surprise and I felt a little foolish as I realised we had just stopped for petrol...

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Our first stop was the ancient crematorium of Pre Rup, built from volcanic rock and boasting several very tall chimney towers. It was deserted for good reason: the mercury had crept over the 40C mark and with the sun directly overhead the only shade was inside one of the towers where incense burning women lay in wait for a quick buck. A friendly police officer let me behind the rope and up onto the top level, usually closed to the public. In exchange for a few words on the temple's origins he requested a small fee, but I countered with the "it's my birthday" argument and gave him (and an American tourist who announced that he was also celebrating his birthday) a piece of chewing gum instead. I was still musing over the concept of a policeman trying to make some extra money as we walked back to the tuk tuk, when another cop approached us and offered to sell us his badge!

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The drive up to Banteay Srei took about 30 minutes and followed a quiet country road through stilted wooden hut villages and parched rice fields. There were cows everywhere, at least one per home roaming through the trees to find shade or being given a bath from giant clay rainwater tanks. The temple is small but elegant, reknowned for its intricate carvings on every exposed pink-stone surface (much like Angkor Wat but in finer, more impressive detail) and it is surrounded by a lily pad moat. Again the heat, and the travel distance, meant we had the place to ourselves so we sought shade under the trees and had a birthday snack of cookies and dried banana chips. It was hard to get up close with the barriers protecting the stonework so we ducked into a cafe for a coconut shake to escape the sun and jumped back in the tuk tuk for a cool breezy ride back to Angkor.

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I heard the clatter of my glasses hitting the tarmac too late, and watched in despair as my only source of long-distance vision was run over by a tuk tuk and then a car. Miraculously they stayed in one piece, albeit a mangled, bent and obscenely scratched piece but impressive nonetheless! Lucky I brought a copy of my prescription with me.

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At this point I realised that I hadn't booked an extra night at the hotel, and more worryingly I hadn't yet given them any money. My panic was short lived though, as Supiret waved off my concerns and told me that I could stay as many nights as I wanted and they would only make the room available and take payment from me once I checked out. What a great attitude.

The string of temples that followed was the highlight of the day. Supiret had devised an excellent itinerary to cover the top of the 'big circuit' before sunset, and the timing was so perfect that every place was empty of tourists. A dusty shortcut took us well off the beaten track and we were the centre of attention as our tuk tuk tried to navigate giant holes and bumps in the sand road. Ta Som was the first stop, an awesome semi-collapsed temple hidden in the jungle. Huge wooden struts hold up the walls and its big attraction is the giant tree which grows directly out of the far East entrance with Lord of the Rings style appeal. With few visitors the children here were extra active, and Felix & I quickly distributed a round of sweets in an attempt to escape. F was lured by the challenge from a 7-year-old to a game of noughts and crosses, which he promptly lost and a $1 fine was demanded.

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Dark clouds gathered as we arrived at Preah Neak Poan and the wind whipped through the trees, forcing us to dodge a hail of branches, leaves and insects falling from the sky. This peaceful water temple is reached by a long boardwalk which passes over scenic marshland and a lake before entering a tree-framed tunnel leading to the pools. The wind had even cleared the traders and beggars so we were quite literally the only people at the temple. A long wooden barrier blocks entry to the temple itself but with no one to police the area we slipped between the fence panels and had an independent tour, snapping a few quick pictures before the park attendant returned. A fallen tree trunk was too tempting not to strike a surf pose on the way out.

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Preah Khan is the jewel in the Angkor crown (in my opinion), a vast sprawling temple oozing with rugged character that makes you feel as though you are the first to discover it hidden away in the jungle. I was in awe from my first glimpse of the stones and overgrown tree roots that rival Ta Prohm, and for the gamer within me it felt like I had walked straight into the Forest Temple from Zelda. There were no warning signs here so we took the opportunity to climb up the collapsed stone walls and take in the view from one of the ancient rooftops, before walking back to our chauffeur over the huge stone moat bridge.

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We arrived at Phnom Bakeng in plenty of time to climb the hill paths and steps before the 1730 deadline when no further guests are allowed up to the top. The upper terrace commands breathtaking views over the West Baray lake and across the tree-covered temple complex, and the towers of Angkor Wat can be seen behind the elephant parking on the hill! Several monks had gathered on the terrace, and it was perhaps for this reason that a strict dress code had been enforced at the entrance - anyone wearing shorts above the knee (mainly girls) was practically forced to buy a scarf or hippy pants from the smug traders to gain entry. The storm clouds had fortunately bypassed Angkor and hit Siem Reap, however it was enough to ruin the final sunset moments as the sun was enveloped by the blackness on the horizon. We were ushered down the hill and into the waiting tuk tuks as darkness fell, and soon realised that our ride had neither lights nor horn!

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I had a reverse fake tan when I got back to my room, standing in the shower watching as a head-to-toe layer of dark dust washed off and left me looking decidedly Caucasian. I felt embarrassed to wear my shorts again without a good scrub, so I put them on and walked back under the water jet for a travellers' wash & rinse cycle. Felix joined me on my balcony for a birthday beer and a game of cards before we headed out in search of a suitably decent celebratory meal. We were the only customers when we arrived at Avatar Palate for our second consecutive night and we were greeted with open arms. Our compliments and tip from last night had gone down extremely well, and we were waited on by an eager team of 7 staff (2 waiters, 2 barmen, 2 chefs and the maitre d'). The menus were unnecessary, we ordered exactly the same and it was phenomenal. We left to a series of bows and birthday wishes, and I finished the day with a birthday Skype session. It'll be hard to beat this on my 28th next year!

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Posted by WorldWideWill 16:40 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Day XXIX: Temples of Angkor: Remorkable!

Angkor Wat and beyond...

sunny 39 °C
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NB. The temples at Angkor are nothing short of spectacular. In three days I took over 500 photos, wrote several pages of blog notes and felt very fortunate to be there. None of the guide books or magazine articles adequately prepared me for the experience and a personal blog will be no different for its readers. So please excuse the lack of specific details about the individual temples over these next few entries - this is something that needs to be experienced first-hand and my words could never do it justice.

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Bleary eyed but excited we assembled at 5am sharp outside the hotel and our driver introduced us to our ride for the day, a cute little tuk-tuk or 'remork' made up of a motorbike towing a small roofed carriage behind it. Very nice indeed. We set off at a little-too-leisurely pace up the road to Angkor, and by the time we reached the ticket booths there were already deep red scars appearing in the sky. The ticket office is a little like a toll checkpoint on a motorway, with loads of tuk-tuks, minibuses and even mentalists who have decided to cycle queued up to purchase their passes. Felix & I jumped off our carriage while it was still moving and got straight to a booth in front of a giant coach-load of Japanese tourists, paid our $40 fee for the 3-day pass and were back in our seats within 5 minutes. As we turned the corner around the far edge of the temple complex, the orange sun reflected in the giant moat and our first sighting of Angkor Wat was a dark silhouette encircled by a river of fire. We were far from alone, the roads and paths into the temple were already packed with sunseeking tourists and we took a few photos from the outer walls before following the crowds inside for the main event.

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By 6:30am the sun had risen over the temple and the masses that had gathered by the pool, fighting for the best position to capture that iconic photo, had dispersed. We took a seat at a cafe nearby and had an expensive banana pancake breakfast, then made the most of the empty grounds to explore before the daytime hoardes arrived. Zlatan had warned me in an earlier email that I may be underwhelmed by Angkor Wat, and he was right. Yes, it's a magnificent piece of architecture and its size is impressive, but walking around it feels like too much of a deja-vu after seeing it so well publicised all over the world. Nevertheless, we enjoyed walking the grounds with very few visitors around and two hours after arriving we arrived back at our tuk-tuk and patient driver and continued on the 'small circuit' route around the complex.

Next stop was the walled city of Angkor Thom, with the highly impressive Bayon temple. The 54 engraved stone towers that make up the temple each display four giant faces, so visitors are greeted by the intimidating stare of 216 pairs of ancient eyes. It was here that we were introduced to the first of the many 'children of Angkor' who roam the temples begging for money and sweets from the rich Westerners. This first boy was a little different to the ones we would meet later in the day, and showed us a hidden, steep stone staircase at the back of one of the old library structures that we climbed to get a decent photo viewpoint. Once we decided to leave he produced a laminated sign asking for donations to help with the local children's education. Having taken Dad's advice, I had packed a small stash of Bic biros for just such an occasion and handed one to the boy in place of the dollar he was expecting. He seemed happy enough, and we continued up the path to the smaller Baphuon temple and the intricately carved Terrace of the Elephants.

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Back at the tuk-tuk and now in full light of day we were bombarded by traders and beggars. The grating sound of "Hallo sir, you wan buy cold drin? You wan mango? Two for one dollar..." from the female traders became very tiresome very quickly, but was still a welcome break from the hundreds of young children intent on selling packs of 10 postcards for a dollar. These children are all trained to say the exact same lines and put on a whinging voice (which soon disappears after they run back to their friends) as they walk beside you counting out each postcard and repeating "ten for one dollar... one dollar... one dollar..." Beyond power-walking, avoiding eye contact and in extreme cases shouting "shush!" we couldn't come up with a foolproof system to ward off their advances. When we arrived at Ta Prohm we found a solution: a rather stupid woman had sat herself against a wall and was producing mini packs of Oreos from her bag. The kids were all over her, and her futile attempts to control them allowed us to pass into the temple uninterrupted and with a plan to go shopping when we returned to town.

Ta Prohm is the 'Tomb Raider temple' that is famous for the giant trees that have taken over the stone walls, and Lonely Planet readers swarm to see "nature run riot", another annoyingly over-used part of their phraseology. It is quite spectacular to see the difference between the pristinely maintained Angkor Wat and this tumbledown mixture of rubble and overgrown tree roots, and it quickly became our favourite temple of the day. Our final stop was Banteay Kdei, another fascinating blend of man and nature where the tree roots run through the walls and stone paths like thick snakes and make the whole place come alive. The morning sun had by now reached its full intensity so most of the children here were fairly sedate, but two bold girls approached us and sat on the rocks opposite for a chat. We were blown away by their manners and their command of both French and English, and when they asked for chewing gum instead of money we gladly obliged and proceeded to be educated on the Khmer school system and the local temples.

Supiret, our driver, was fast asleep when we reached him but seemed grateful that we were ready to go back to town. The temperature had reached 39C and it felt like at least 2pm, yet when we stopped in Siem Reap for an iced tea the clock only showed 11am - 6 hours of temple hopping had taken its toll. We treated Supiret to a drink too, and he seemed more than happy to accept when we asked him to be our chauffeur the following day. With just enough energy we found our way to a little restaurant down a side street and I couldn't contain my excitement upon discovering a French baguette (real bread!) on the menu. It was an emotional sandwich and set the tone for a wonderfully chilled afternoon - I was too tired to fulfil my promise to visit Felix's hostel for a swim and a beer and opted for an afternoon nap and a movie (Hunger Games, had me sat on the edge of the bed for an hour!) instead.

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Before Felix arrived for dinner I ventured out to the local minimart to purchase some birthday breakfast supplies, a very Cambodian experience as nothing was priced so I had to some several shuttle runs to the till before settling on a giant bag of muesli. Fortunately Felix shares my dislike for the tourist scene, and particularly the Western drinking scene so we skirted around 'Pub Street' a found a fantastic little Khmer restaurant on a small side road. It wasn't very busy, possibly due to slightly inflated prices, so we had very attentive service and the food was magnificent. Freshly made spring rolls with satay dip followed by vegetable roti cutlets and banana fritters, delicious - we sent our compliments to the chef who waved his thanks through the window, and our small tip was warmly received by the whole staff.

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We ended the night at one of the town's night markets, but after some unsuccessful haggling and being forced to join a dance to 'Gangnam Style' we went home for a long sleep.

Posted by WorldWideWill 11:06 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Day XXVIII: Same Same, But Different

Week number four, country number four!

sunny 38 °C
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I was a little too excited for a lazy lie-in today, and I don't exactly know why. Everything about Cambodia beyond the superficial Lonely Planet and National Geographic research was a mystery to me. Nevertheless, I was up and packed early and sat with my bag at Lucky Beer enjoying another fantastic fresh fruit muesli (no pineapple this time). While I waited for Charlie to join me I found a nice looking hotel in Siem Reap on my TripAdvisor app and pinged them an email to book three nights in a private room, and a free airport collection too.

My RV time with Charlie came and went, and picturing the likely embassy queues he'd be facing while getting his visa I grabbed some supplies and headed for the bus. I made a point of greeting the two travel agency girls by name, and was satisfied to hear that they had committed the Will Smith nickname to memory - this would surely become useful in a few weeks' time when booking day trips and our Chiang Mai transport. The bus arrived right on time and I left them with a message to say farewell and thanks to Charlie, it was a shame not to have said goodbye in person though.

I had the minibus entirely to myself so I spread out for the hour-long journey and tried to read up on the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. From what I could tell, there was lots to see and a single day pass into the complex wouldn't be enough so I made a mental itinerary around a 3-day pass and spent the rest of the journey trying to figure out how to get around the temples (bus? taxi? motorbike? tuk tuk? bicycle? walking?). Even though we had spent most of the hour sat in slow moving traffic we arrived at the airport bang on time, and I found it highly amusing (and rather efficient) that the traffic time had been so accurately calculated and factored into the journey estimate.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport is amazing. It's pretty much brand new, and so vast that the walk to my check-in desk left me out of breath! I was super early for my flight so took the opportunity to sit down and repack my bags, and while I worked I was approached and quizzed by a rep from the tourism office. My positive responses to her questionnaire were rewarded with a lovely little elephant magnet, and I was still smiling when I reached the desk and gave them my bag. It was impressive to see that my bag still weighed under 12kg (and worrying too, seeing as the jeans and fleece I'd worn on the last flight were now inside - I'd clearly left something heavy and important somewhere in Malaysia!), and my good mood was boosted even further when the check-in lady handed back my passport and wished me an early happy birthday! Relieved of the weight I sat down to try and get through the two large bottles of water that I'd bought (stupidly) with a strange lunch of fruit bread, crisps, nuts and an almond croissant. I'd hoped to have wifi to check my hotel booking but was told that the free internet access was on the far side of security. Bloated from downing three litres of mineral water I staggered through the metal detector and had a great hour on the immaculate departures side of the airport. I was surprised to see how well guarded the free wifi password was: only after registering your name were you given a blacked out payslip-style envelope containing the password. Bizarre.

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Our plane was a cute little turboprop with no more than 80 seats and a cargo hold where the front passenger doors usually sit. Having asked for a seat with legroom I was annoyed and relieved to see that the plane was half empty and that the whole front row next to the exits was free. A friendly German guy came to sit next to me, but I was on a mission and moved forward before we could start a conversation. I greeted the steward with my best 'sawasdee krab' before remembering I was on a Cambodian plane and quickly sat down to read through the language section of Charlie's Cambodia guide. We were kept busy in the air with immigration cards and snack packs for the whole 50 minutes of the flight, and touched down in SIem Reap to a captain's announcement that it was 4pm local time and 38C outside.

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We filed into the immigration hall and there was a flurry of activity as everyone grabbed a visa application form and fought for a pen and space on the writing desks. I was one of the few super organised passengers and made it to the front of the visa queue with my form, passport photo and $20 fee in hand. The visa desk is a daunting sight, a long wooden semi-circular desk with no less than 15 uniformed officials sat behind it. Once you have handed in your passport at the far left end you make your way to the far right man and wait for your application to pass along the bench through the different stages of approval. While I waited I was approached by Felix, the German from the plane, who asked if I would share transport into town with him. I agreed, having not heard from my hotel about my booking, and we passed through passport control (with our new giant visas) to collect our bags. It seemed we were the only ones without onward transport, and after a long and overly hopeful wait to see if either of our hotels was sending a car (plus a failed attempt to convince a jolly tuk tuk driver that one of us was the 'Emma Freeman' on his sign) we split a $7 taxi into Siem Reap.

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I decided to abandon my plans to stay at the Golden Temple Villa, assuming the email had never arrived, and joined Felix as he checked into the Siem Reap hostel only to find that they were fully booked. I rang Golden Temple and received the same news, and this was repeated at the next three hotels nearby. In desperation I even tried the 4-star lodge down the road but they had no rooms, but I was touched when they allowed me to sit down in their posh lobby to check my guide book and then brought me a cup of chilled jasmine tea. In the end I settled on a previous recommendation, Shadow of Angkor Guest House, and paid the jolly tuk tuk man (who had since found the real Emma Freeman) a dollar to take me there. I expected to be turned away again, so was happily surprised when the lovely receptionist man took me up to a private ensuite double room overlooking the river with a hot shower, air con, private balcony, mini-fridge and TV. I said I'd take it, relieved to find somewhere to lie down and more than happy to pay the $20-a-night rate to have a little luxury for my birthday week.

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Running low on currency after the visa purchase I went straight into town in search of a Canadia Bank ATM (apparently the only one that doesn't charge a fee). I instantly fell in love with Siem Reap town, with its French colonial buildings and its wide tree-lined streets. There was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere to the place, a welcome break from the noise and stress of Bangkok. My card was rejected when I finally reached the machine, and an emergency message exchange with Dad discovered that the Caxton card system had crashed leaving me with no money to pay for my room or (worse) my Angkor ticket. I arranged to settle the room bill when I checked out and eventually managed to withdraw enough cash to get me through the first day.

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I'd given Felix my email address and we arranged to meet up after some dinner to discuss sharing a ride around the temples. I ate at the first place I could find and had my first experience of the strange 'US dollar only' culture. I ordered the all-you-can-eat veg fried rice for $2.50, paid with a $5 bill and received $2 and 2000 riel as change. Odd place.

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We sat poring over the temple map on the terrace of my hotel, and having established that the nice man at reception could book us a tuk tuk for the day at a good price we called him over to help us make a plan. He gave us a detailed 3-day itinerary, explained how the tickets worked and advised the best places to see at sunrise and sunset. We were suitably impressed and told him to go ahead and book a tuk tuk for us, asking if the driver would speak English as well as him. He seemed confused and we soon realised that he was going to take us himself, being a licensed Angkor driver as his second job! It all seemed too easy, but I felt like karma was on my side and we arranged to meet our guide in the lobby at 5am to go up to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Posted by WorldWideWill 22:32 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Day XXVI - XXVII: Krung Thep Maha Nakhon

Sawasdee Krab!

sunny 38 °C
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Checking into a hotel at 7am messes with the mind a little, especially if you go to sleep as soon as you arrive. When I woke up from a few hours in bed I firmly believed it was Monday, and started panicking that I had missed my meeting with Charlie altogether. I was delighted when I realised that it was still Sunday morning and that I had (in my mind) bagged a free night by checking in so early. The sound that woke me came from the alleyway behind the hotel and conjured up an image of someone being beaten up, but in a very methodical manner. The combination of shouts and thumps turned out to be from a local Thai Boxing gym that opened its doors to foreigners every morning for two hour training sessions, and I told myself I'd give it a go later on.

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A few logistical Facebook messages later I met Charlie at the entrance to the hotel and a firm manly handshake welcomed me back to the party. Having blown the budget on luxury rehab accommodation in Krabi another expensive baht withdrawal was required, followed by my first Thai tuk tuk ride. Charlie's job for the next two days was simple: show me around the city and share enough Bangkok knowledge with me that I would look like a pro when Lucy arrived a few weeks later. We negotiated a price (200 baht, a little expensive) and set off for the market. After four weeks of buses and boats, the reckless speed and rushing air as we weaved between cars and trucks was exhilarating! We were thrown about in the back as our driver took every possible shortcut, overtake and illegal manoeuvre, and in less than 20 minutes we had covered the 12km to Chatuchak.

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Chatuchak Market (or Jatujak/JJ market) is the world's largest weekend market with over 5,000 stalls selling everything imaginable, with prices all 'TBC'! I was badly in need of some lightweight shirts and Charlie was on his bi-annual t-shirt run, so we made our way through the vast indoor arts and furniture areas to the clothing stalls. There is nothing comparable in the UK to the size and density of the market and it is hard to describe, but if you imagine walking down the aisle of a train or plane and every row of seats is another stall you'll be getting close to it. It took well over an hour for us to find what we wanted at prices we were willing to pay but we were both highly successful, particularly Charlie with his bag of 18 (!) t-shirts. The heat didn't mix well with the crowds and our growing hunger, so we stopped for a street food snack (giant veggie spring rolls, mmm...) and then flagged down another tuk tuk.

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Charlie was keen to go to a Thai Boxing event at the national stadium in the evening, but with nothing more than a curious interest in the sport I let him go alone, wanting to explore the Khao San area a little more before phoning home to welcome Dad back from Afghanistan. In the 8 hours since I'd first arrived, the street had woken up and was in full swing with shouting market stall owners and bass-heavy music blaring from the restaurant speakers. I was satisifed after a short walk that it wasn't somewhere I'd be desperate to return to, and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling down at the hotel with the Lonely Planet guide getting ready for the trip to Cambodia.

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A quick food run that evening found the street food to be rather disappointing, and I threw most of my tasteless pad thai in the bin. On the way back I walked into a scene from Fast & Furious, and watched a dozen grown men showing off their pretty cars without being allowed to race (under the watchful eye of the police). The image of my own car falling into disrepair on the driveway at home popped into my mind, so I let down a couple of their tyres and went to bed.*

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  • This may have been a dream.

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I slept brilliantly and sauntered down onto the sleepy Khao San to find Charlie and the restaurant that served (in his words) "the best fresh fruit muesli in Thailand". Still sticking to my travel ethos of following personal recommendations I ordered and fell in love with the muesli, which came with a pot of fresh yogurt and was mixed with huge pieces of banana, watermelon, papaya and pineapple (which I picked out). We had no firm plans for the day, but I had decided that I was going to leave for Cambodia tomorrow (the 14th) so that I could arrive and get settled in a hotel in time for my birthday on Thursday. A quick search on my phone's Kayak flight app found a bargain flight to Siem Reap for 4475 baht (under 100 quid), but predictably after half an hour going through the booking process the webpage froze as I was confirming payment. Instead, C took me to a cosy travel office opposite my guest house where he had clearly been a few times before, as the two Chinese sisters (Lek and Yai) that own the place came out saying "Mr Charlie!". A round of introductions followed and I turned on the charm, jealous of Charlie's rapport with the girls and their memory of his name! By the time Lek got round to booking my flight the price had gone up by a few baht, but she worked some magic and got me the flight plus a transfer bus for 4900 baht.

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Charlie had his own business to take care of at the office, booking onward flights and visas to China, so I left him to it after double checking that my name had stuck with the girls. I was dubbed Will Smith for ease of memory, which became my second favourite nickname from Southeast Asia after my surname was misheard on the Perhentian Islands and I was referred to as 'Mr Danish'.

With my flight booked I spent the afternoon planning my stay in Cambodia and made plans to spend the evening exploring more of the city with Charlie. A deafening electrical storm passed over the hotel and I sat on the balcony watching the tourists running for cover as the smugly amused tuk tuk drivers looked on from under their passenger canopies. Monsoon season is a wonderful time of year, with its reduced crowds and spectacular storms, but most importantly (for me) the sense of relief you get from the temperature drop after the rain. The raindrops fell hard and I could almost hear the sizzle as they hit the burning hot corrugated iron rooftops. When it was safe to leave his own hotel, C very kindly came over and took me through a physio routine for my knee and back while I filmed the various stretches I would need to do to get shot of my three-year-old injury. Feeling energised we jumped into a tuk tuk and Charlie took me on a high speed tour of the slightly seedier parts of Bangkok. We managed to dodge most of the advances from street touts while we perused the counterfeit merchandise at Pat Pong market, and then had a heated argument over street food pricing (hungry Charlie is not a man to be messed with) before heading to Nana Plaza in search of a sports bar with a pool table.

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We spent an hour trying to find a bar that was showing the Formula 1 (I'm now not convinced we got the date right), and after failing in our search Charlie promised me a game of pool and a beer before he had to head back to meet up with a friend. There was a catch: "we're just going to pop into this one club first". Inside I realised I'd been lured on false pretences into what appeared to be some sort of gentleman's club, but the glint in Charlie's eye made me suspect that something else was going on. As soon as we stepped through the door we were ushered into a booth and watched in amazement as a parade of thirty rather stunning bikini-clad girls lined up in front of us and we were asked to pick the ones we'd like to share a drink with. We politely declined and the crowd dissipated, moving on to the next new punters. This gave me a moment to turn to Charlie and ask in a less-than-polite way why he had brought me here, knowing full well that I was in a happy long-term relationship. He grinned and answered by calling over the waitress, asking her to point out which of the 'girls' were actually female and which were... not. I couldn't help but stare and marvel at the craftsmanship when (s)he told us that there wasn't a single girl in the room.

My mind was elsewhere as Charlie beat me severely at pool, and seeing the distress on my face as I started to question everything I had ever taken for granted in the world he loaded me into a bright pink taxi and took me home. I packed immediately, desperate to leave the following day - I'm a scarred man.

Posted by WorldWideWill 18:15 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Day XXV: All Roads Lead to Bangkok

storm 32 °C
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Let me tell you something about Thai roads. There are only two rules: drive on the left and don't hit anything. Ok, it's really just the second rule. Out here you can go anywhere, anyhow and at any speed, and trying to drive like a considerate, cautious Westerner will most likely get you killed. Slip roads join from the right, there are no overpasses so all junctions involve a U turn onto the opposite carriage, and hard shoulders are for motorbikes and tuk tuks, and any vehicle that feels like driving in the opposite direction to avoid a pesky legal manoeuvre. The bus drivers are similarly entertaining. Outside of pre-planned toilet stops they will happily pull over to stretch their legs, have a cigarette or even buy some lunch, leaving a bus full of bewildered travellers in a sun-baked car park. I feel sorry for people who fly everywhere and miss out on these little observations.

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Saturday morning: this time I was ready. A second night of sleep in relative luxury had worked wonders, and with a bounce in my step I went to the minimart to buy supplies for my bus journey and a new razor. I ate well, tactically avoiding the slightly undercooked part of my eggs, and after a hot shower, shave and throwing on a freshly laundered t-shirt I felt like a new man. I'd peaked a little early with 6 hours still to kill until the bus, so I did what any poor writer who has committed to producing a travel blog would do with the time and sat painstakingly touch typing 5 days' worth with my phone. Finding a computer in your hostel is a rare treat in Thailand, and without the speed of a keyboard a daily update is a little taxing.

Annoyingly the bus driver was punctual and my bags were taken from me and loaded before I'd had a chance to say goodbye to Lucy on Skype! I settled in for the 2 hour transfer to the bus depot, and was more than a little surprised when I was kicked out five minutes later at the same travel office (in front of the same woman) that had hosted our little spat two days earlier. With my ticket checked and taken from me I was branded with a 'Bangkok' sticker and sat with several other bemused folk with no explanation of when we were leaving or why my bag was still on the bus. I took the opportunity to stock up on snacks, ignoring the pair of flea-ridden dogs lying next to the food stand.

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A lady came out from the desk and did a lap of the office holding a sheet of cardboard above her head like a ring card girl from a boxing match, which read "Don't leave valuable in your bags". I was confused again until I realised that there were two minibuses going to the bus checkpoint and several bags were being taken separately from their owners. Being at the back of the queue I did the gentlemanly thing and ran for my bag (every man for himself!), and was luckily placed in the same bus. Unfortunately I was folded into the middle seat next to the driver, which meant that in addition to getting no leg room I also had a front row seat for his insane manoeuvres. His unannounced cigarette break allowed the nerves to settle halfway there.

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Miraculously unscathed we reached the bus checkpoint, Hell's waiting room, at Surat Thani. It's essentially someone's garage with tables a kitchen attached, and owing to yet another downpour we were all huddled under the roof gazing at the food menu and trying to guess the wifi password. I spent 20 minutes helping a British guy track down his bag (they had travelled individually, the fool) and then ordered myself a "cheese sandwich", very excited at (a) the prospect of an actual sandwich with actual bread (not big in SE Asia) and (b) eating my first proper meal since falling ill. This is what I received:

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Yes, a stale (solid) burger bun with a processed cheese slice. Natalie Haynes (one of my favourite Times journalists) once wrote that "being in favour of the processed cheese slice is morally identical to being in favour of cutting down ponies with a scythe". A little dramatic perhaps but I've always been inclined to agree so I'm ashamed to say I took a few bites before throwing it away, and for fear of getting ill again rather than what it looked/tasted like - enough ketchup will mask any flavour! Luckily I still had a stash of fruit buns and pringles to make a meal from and our VIP coach had arrived just in time for the heaviest rain. Inside the air con was set to a welcoming 'Scottish Highlands' rather than the usual 'Frozen Wasteland' and we had fully reclining armchair style seats. I logged the location of the toilet (downstairs!) and a large TV screen started to play a movie with heavily delayed subtitles. This felt good!

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After watching what I could see of Life of Pi (very good, overrated a little though I thought) I snuggled into the smelly blanket I'd been given and tried to sleep. This plan was abandoned within 30 seconds as the next movie, 'Flight', started playing at full volume. Those that have seen the film (as I already had, recently) will know that it involves a plane crash - not a soothing soundtrack for tired souls to fall asleep to! Halfway through the film the roof began to leak, streaming through the air vents and soaking everyone on the other side of the bus. This meant all vents were closed and the bus became very warm indeed, so the midway stop at midnight was a welcome break. The storm escalated in intensity very quickly at that point, to the extent that it caused a complete blackout at the service station and the lightning was so bright that it had the effect of staring at a camera flash. Partially blinded I stumbled down the bus stairs to investigate the toilet, which I found acceptable until the realisation that the 'complimentary' water bottles next to the cistern were to be used to manually flush the loo...

(Picture not provided: you're welcome).

The remaining 6 hours of the drive passed slowly and uncomfortably with no hope of sleep but we eventually arrived in Bangkok with the storm still in full swing. Predictably we were set upon by the tuk tuk drivers as we got off the bus, which quickly drove off before most of us had found the pile of our bags slowly absorbing a cascade of rainwater from a phonebooth roof. With only sketchy directions to the Icelanders' hotel and no sign of Khao San Road I latched onto a Japanese guy who seemed seasoned enough and we found our way to backpacker central. Khao San Road is notorious, infamous and hailed as the Western traveller's destination of choice in Bangkok and I was glad to have the opportunity to walk its length at 6am on a Sunday and get my bearings before the madness descended later in the day. I was rather disappointed to be honest, but being dangerously tired I ploughed on, found the Lucky House hotel and checked in to a double room with air con, hot shower, TV, wifi and fresh towels. Perfect. Not wanting to lose the day I sent a quick email to Charlie hoping he was still around and could show me the sights and then fell into bed for a power nap. What a long day.

Posted by WorldWideWill 19:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Day XXIII - XXIV: Sickness in SW Asia (Round Two!)

sunny 36 °C
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This was worse than Singapore, so much worse. I was woken much earlier by the cramps than usual but this time there was an added sense of urgency - I have never been more glad of a private bathroom! The five metre dash game kept me occupied for about 4 hours, after which I was not only exhausted but also dangerously dehydrated. At 9am I attempted a walk to find water and a cup of tea, got as far as Mom's for a speedy facebook status update and then lost balance and had to ease my way back to bed. I lay there until checkout at midday, dreading the huge journey ahead of me to Bangkok that we'd booked the night before.

Walking out into the heat with my bag weighing heavy on weak shoulders was too much for my body to cope with, and I'm ashamed to say that halfway down the path to reception I was forced to use a wheelie bin as a giant sick-bowl. And then a drain. And then the reception bathroom. Charlie appeared late and confessed to having an upset stomach (though with his experiences in India he was better trained than I) and we instantly jumped to the conclusion that Mom had poisoned us. We made a point of telling them we were just fine when they asked as we passed, and Charlie led me stumbling through the forest to spend our last couple of hours on the posh beach. My drink order was fairly simple: one glass please, and directions to your nearest toilet. Both acquired, I set about making another Dioralyte cocktail which proved pointless moments later as I rushed through the bar at breakneck speeds.

I managed a distress call to Lucy via Skype between my shuttle runs and together we agreed that a 14hour bus to Bangkok wasn't a great plan. I headed back to the hotel and asked to cancel but it was too late and I lost my 650 baht. I did keep my boat transfer to the mainland though, and there we bumped into our Icelandic friends who had been up all night with food poisoning! Coincidence? No. Stupid rice.

The boat was tricky to manage on a wobbly stomach but I sensed that the worst was behind me and somehow made it onto the minibus transfer which I had understood would take me back to Krabi town so that I could find a bed to sleep it off. This wasn't the case and, long story short, I ended up miles out of town in the middle of an argument between Charlie and the greedy tour operator woman who was charging me another 150 baht for a taxi into town (despite the fact that I'd practically given her 650 baht, plus the 300 I'd paid to change the date of my bus). Eventually I'd had enough and coughed up the money, desperate to just get into bed. I was taken back to K Guest House where I knew I could get a more fancy room with air con and the all-important private bathroom. They seemed genuinely happy (and slightly concerned) to see me, and offered me a generous discount of 150 baht off the 650 baht room.

The rest of the day passed in a blur, and all I really remember after collapsing on the bed and setting the air con to 'arctic' is a couple of delirious phone calls to Lucy and being offered a taxi to the hospital by the guest house owner when I emerged to buy some water in the evening. Charlie and the Icelanders had carried on to Bangkok on the overnight bus, and I knew I had made the right decision to stay put.

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The next morning started better, and I woke up to several supportive texts from Lucy, including the address for the hospital. I honestly don't know where I'd be without her! After getting up, the first test of the morning was to see if I could hold down fluids. Having successfully passed I made the wobbly walk up to the 7 eleven for water and then collapsed on the bed again. At 9am I ordered toast and took the malaria tablet I'd missed the night before. This was followed over the course of the day by most of my first aid kit, including paracetamol, ibuprofen and a probiotic multivitamin. I still didn't have the strength to face the bus, so I booked another night, handed over two kilos of laundry and walked to a payphone to change my ticket. When I got back I was happy to see that Doug was still here and we had a nice chat before the bus came to take him back to Hat Yai.

My afternoon was equally exciting, broken up only by a quick walk into town to buy postcards and a loaf of fruit bread to give me some much needed ballast and energy. A trip to the pharmacy restocked the rehydration sachets at 11p each, and after a couple of hours' WiFi access I headed back to bed and fell into an uninterrupted 9 hour sleep.

Don't eat the rice, folks.

Posted by WorldWideWill 00:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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