Barely breathing-in Bangkok, awesome temples in Siem Reap, sad stories in Phnom Penh and taking it easy in Sihanoukville
28.06.2011 - 11.07.2011 36 °C
What a completely different world we have stepped into, please bear with us, this is a slightly long entry. Bangkok, we arrive pretty late after a marathon bonanza of movies on our flight from Sydney. We hop in a taxi which takes us at light speed to our destination just off Sukhumvit road – downtown Bangkok. Our room is like a palace compared to the places we stayed in so we relish it just a little bit, enjoy some mini-bar and have a sleep in day 1 with air-con on the go full blast.
We didn't do much that first day, just walked and walked and walked between all the absolutely gigantic shopping malls and markets around Sukhumvit. It was a sort of a recce for me – too soon to actually shop as we'd have to carry stuff around with us so the cards are marked for our return visit before we set sail for home. That evening on our way home we stop in a British Bar called Bully's – it's your sort of stereotypical American theme bar but they gave us these ice-ice cold flannels for a freshen up – it was like heaven. We had after all been walking around in 39 degree heat that day. Immense. We topped that day off by heading to a spa at the end of our road. Stuart got a Thai Massage which he is still raving about, he got bent and cracked in all directions – in a clean way people, please! I had an HOUR LONG foot massage followed by a back,neck and shoulder massage, awesome. It cost us about £14 for the lot.
Our second day and time for some sightseeing. We headed for the single most iconic tourist destination in town, the Grand Palace. This was a bit of a trek for us. We took the Skytrain (which by the way is super efficient but also super ugly from the ground – it's basically a cement track built in the sky above the normal roads that blocks the sun and traps the smog) then a ferry and finally a wee walk. When we got there people were trying to sell us long clothes to put on but we knew we could hire some inside. Then an official guy came up to us to say the palace was closed during prayer time for about another hour. He did suggest we could go to see some more temples in and about the area until it reopened. Seemed sensible enough to us as we didn't have a clue where else to go, he told us to take one of the white number plate tuk-tuks to avoid being scammed, so all good and off we went with our guy. Unfortunately, we hadn't got very far before the tuk-tuk broke down. 10 mins later and we're back on the road again. 5 mins later and it's broken down again; this time on a hill with a bus behind us – poor, brave Stuart got out and started pushing – it was bonkers. So anyway, we got to see a lovely temple where we met a really nice Thai guy who said our driver would probably take us to the Tourist Information Centre – a government run project that sells tours, makes bookings etc, but charges flat fees similar to what locals would pay. Oh right, good stuff, off we go (after we get a push start from a couple of guys). The tourist place was fine, not too pushy but we weren't ready to book anything so back in the tuk-tuk. Then we stopped at a tailors, we told our driver we weren't shopping, he said if we go in that he gets gasoline from the shop as a back-hander, so we thought what harm? We can have a look. Of course, all the hard sells were going on there and we barely escaped with our money still in our pocket but off we went again. This time we stop at a jewellers, same thing...we then go to another temple which was quite nice too. At this stage I'm pretty sick of the ruse of walking around shops and not buying anything. So I say to the driver, no more shopping, he says 'just one more....gasoline, gasoline'...grrrr. LAST ONE! We get back into the tuk-tuk and he goes mental at us saying – 'You no even look!' - it was then the penny dropped that we were actually supposed to buy something or he wouldn't get his money. This meant war.... “no way Jose, back to the Palace asap” - an argument ensues with us sorta making to get out of the tuk-tuk but the truth was, we didn't have a clue where we were, the only other transport around were the other tuk-tuks who were also in the process of scamming some other suckers. So, next thing he takes off, I'm like oh god, he's going to take us down an alley or get his mates on us but he drops us back to the palace with a look on his face like a 3 year old who's been told he can't have any more ice-cream. We were livid. But really we were pretty lucky we were only down 60baht (just over a pound) and we'd got back in one piece. Nightmare.
It was when we walked into the Palace we saw the signs saying don't take help from strangers etc. Ah, maybe they should put them outside too. Later that day we finally got hold of a Lonely Planet – and oftentimes people slag them off but of course, lo and behold in relation to sights in Bangkok they say never trust strangers who approach offering help with transport or saying some place is closed. The whole 2 days we've been without a Lonely Planet during our trip we get stung. Anyway, back to the Grand Palace...by the time we got there we were a bit fed up so we didn't spend a very long time there but it is very pretty and worth a look. Check it out for yourselves in these pics.
Of all the people we have met that have been to Bangkok, only 1 wasn't caught by the tuk-tuk scam....be warned people!!
We weren't far from the infamous Khao San Road at that stage so we hopped on a ferry and headed to Pier 13. From there it was about a 10min walk to that mad street. You really can't miss it if you're in the area. It's chock-a-block with stalls and people and bars and all sorts of street vendors. There's a great vibe there, we had a look around and had a couple of beers to chill out after our stressful-ish morning. Then the minute we get up to go the heavens opened. What do you do? Stu goes for a foot massage and I head for a manicure and pedicure. Honestly, this is the life. We ate at a nice, busy restaurant that night. I don't know the name of the street but it runs parallel to Khao San Road. The place was called Macaroni Club, tasty.
The next day, we thought we better get a grip of ourselves and plan our onward travel. We decided to stay one more night and head off the next day. There were elections to be held that weekend in Thailand and we were a little bit worried there may be some unrest in the wake of it so we decided to head for the border and Cambodia. Our last day was spent hanging about and strolling around Sukhumvit again. We had to get some passport pics done so we went to this huge shopping mall. Bizarrely, there was a big Man Utd. promotion thing going on and lo and behold who was on hand but Rio Ferdinand and Park Ji-Sung; it's weird we keep bumping into celebs.
That shopping mall was called Central I think and they had an awesome, awesome food court where you could basically get anything you wanted. We were in there the first day and I just got a huge salad but the last day we had some stir-fried chicken. So, so good, cost about £2.
That evening on the way home we stopped at a bar just off Sukhumvit at around Soi 8 maybe, not sure. Anyway, this was where the sheer scale of the sex-industry began to hit home. Every bar on this street had girls dripping off the front of it and had 10s more sitting/cuddling/canoodling with men inside. We went to a sorta fairly standard Irish bar, which was pretty quite but after a couple of mins I realised I was the only western female in there. And you know it's not just wrinkly old men either, there's all walks taking advantage of the situation. I find this sorta difficult to have in my face, fair enough everyone involved seems happy with the situation but I find it hard to get my head around the fact a punter can go through this huge ruse and still hand over the money at some stage. It makes me feel pity for them and some disgust too to be fair. Apparently a lot of these girls are from the country and send there money home – I guess we will all have varying opinions on this, I don't like it though.
We had heard about a restaurant called Condoms and Cabbages, which is a chain actually and decided to give it a go on our way home that evening – as it turned out it was just near our hotel. The name refers to the ethos of this place. These restaurants were in fact set up by a Government Organisation tasked with providing family planning and sex education to the public, particularly those in rural and less developed areas. There is quite a population problem in Thailand with 67.5 million souls and it was hoped a number of initiatives would help bring the boom under control which have been fairly successful to date reducing the population growth rate from around 3.1% to 0.4% today. The name stems from the fact that condoms should be as much a part of everyday life as cabbages are for rural folk. We had great fun admiring all the fixtures and decorations that were made from condoms and happily the food was lovely and not rubbery at all! I would definitely recommend supporting this worthy cause if you're in the neighbourhood.
We had been advised that we could just hop on a bus from the bus station and didn't have to pre-book our tickets. So we head to the bus station around 9am. This place is unlike anything I have seen before and we saw some crazy bus stations in South America. The people, people, people, people. Sorta like the traffic in Bangkok actually, everywhere and relentless. By the time we found the correct window and queued, we weren't going to be able to get on a bus 'til 12 – thanks for the bad info hotel reception. So we sat around people watching for a couple of hours. The bus was okay bar the bugs...yes indeed, I don't think they were bed bugs but little ant looking things that were living in the seam of my seat. It was dreadful I spend the whole time trying to keep them off me. Life on the road can be trying at times. The bus we got supposedly takes you to the border, what it did in fact do was drive past the border stop and dropped us about two kms up the road so the tuk-tuk drivers could take our money to bring us back to the border. And to add insult to injury they try to get you to go into this visa 'agency' before the border to get done there too....every corner a new rip-off opportunity – we weren't falling for it this time though thankfully.
So we had been warned about dodgy border officials and what not but to be fair it wasn't too bad, we paid the standard $20 – they did add on an unexplained 100baht but that's like £2 so we weren't going to worry about it. The worst part in a way is the paranoia you feel all the time about being scammed, I've since learned not to care about it so much it's just a part of life travelling in SEA and the fact is if you're going to get ripped off it probably won't be for a huge amount of money unless you're really gullible.
As we crossed over the border, a guy sorta appointed himself our chaperone – despite us never asking him too. We had teamed up with some Americans we met on the bus, safety in number and all that, and needed to get a taxi that would take us the 2 hours to Siem Reap from the border. Our 'chaperone' haggled with us for a while but eventually we agreed on an okay $90 for the 6 of us to get a mini-van. He tried to get us to change money there too, but there was absolutely no need, everywhere on the tourist trail in Cambodia uses dollars' so avoid being done on the exchange rate. We were told we'd be dropped to our hotels and bid farewell to our 'chaperone' at which point he proclaims – 'don't you have anything for me, I work for you for an hour' – hilarious.
Of course, when we get to Siem Reap we don't get dropped to our hotels, we get dropped in the middle of nowhere where Mr Driver's tuk-tuk driving mates are waiting for us – it's relentless the scams. We agree with a guy to take us to our hotel for $2, he seems a nice guy and we have a good chat, he offers to take us around the temples the next day, we politely decline as we're doing nowt the next day. We get out at the hotel and he says $4 – how do you argue? We agree three – but then he has no change...I finally lose my cool and tell him he should 'screw with tourists, cause they won't come back' – I am proud to say I haven't lost my cool since ....it had been a very long day.
Siem Reap is a million miles from Bangkok, the roads are only paved at certain central points. The traffic may not have the numbers but it's still bonkers. The tuk-tuks are relentless, every 10 seconds 'where u going?', 'tuk-tuk', 'where you going tomorrow'....it never stops. We spent the day having a stroll around and seeing what was to offer, to be honest, there wasn't much on the go so we headed to a nearby hotel that had a pool which we could use. It was divine being away from the hawkers, lying in the sun and going for a dip when it got too hot to bear. That night we had a sumptuous curry before heading to meet up with our border crossing chums. Also the Wimbledon final was on so that was fun.
We had arranged that afternoon to hire a couple of bikes and a guide for the next day to go see the famous temples of Angkor Wat. We had heard the heat was excruciating out there and it might be a bit mad to cycle so we were a bit apprehensive.
Up bright and early the next day, we took our white bicycles (a charity set up to help street kids) which I think were made circa 1952 and hit the road with our guide; it was cool enough for the first leg, about 6km through the park entry and parked up near the profoundly revered Angkor Wat. The minute you're on your feet the kids are around you trying to sell you postcards or water and anything else you might buy. We spent about an hour walking around the ancient temple with our guide, who provided us with lots of history and explanations around the religious significance of the sight. It was interesting but overall we thought not the nicest site on the trip. Angkor Wat had been a big city back in the 12th century before mass movement of its citizens to other urban centres. It wasn't unearthed until the mid-1800s when some French explorers came along. Some parts of the temples have been restored, others are left to nature. This place is well worth a visit, it is in fact the largest religious structure in the world (originally Hindu and then Buddhist).
From there we headed for the Tree Temple, but stopped for some lunch en route, we had packed sandwiches so just grabbed a drink, the cutest kid in the world resided at the place we stopped. I nearly did an Angelina Jolie on it and packed her up and took her home with me; she never begged or anything, just sat about looking at us, barely cracking a smile despite our best efforts.
Ta Prohm or the tree temple is really, really cool. This was where they filmed some of Tomb Raider (two Angelina reference's in the one blog, my). The pics speak for themselves but this is one of the temples where they have decided not to try and restore it but rather let it remain as part of the jungle which it had become over 100s of years of abandonment.
From there to Angkor Tom, more grand and in the vein of Angkor Wat. This was the temple where they would celebrate victories in war and the like. Again, the pics speak louder than words. For more info on this beautiful place you can read here. Some say it's a waste to only spend a single day exploring the temples and we probably could have done a second day but not on the bikes, we would have favoured a tuk-tuk. The bikes were great, but it would have been too much two days in a row.
We ate just around the corner from our hotel that night, at the Lonely-Planet recommended Sugar Palm – it was lovely, we ate Khmer food for the first time which was great.
The following day it was time to move on once again. We got picked up from our hotel and taken to the bus station where we got accosted by sellers between getting from the mini-van into the bus. This bus was much cleaner, thank god, and the trip to Phnom Penh was okay. Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and as such is a bit more developed than Siem Reap. When we got off the bus there must have been 40 tuk-tuk drivers shouting at us, pretty intimidating, we just tried to keep moving and grab one that looks vaguely trust worthy. When we got dropped at our hotel, the driver 'Rambo' offered to take us around the sights the next day. We figured 'why not' as it's about the cheapest way of getting round. That afternoon we went for a stroll about, the riverside plays host to most of the tourist bars and restaurants so when we headed in the other direction it wasn't long before there wasn't a western face to be seen. Not particularly scary but not particularly welcoming either. We made our way to a restaurant called Friends for an early dinner. This is a project that helps ex-street kids learn skills like learning to cook and table service. It was absolutely fantastic food, if a little more pricey than the regular places but to be fair the money was going in a very good direction so it's best spent there. We had a chilled night that evening and an early start the next day.
Rambo was on cue as expected and we first headed out of the city to the infamous Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. I knew a little about Pol Pot's regime and the Khmer Rouge but nothing really prepares you for the horrors of the stories of those involved. It's estimated around 2 million people died during this reign of terror; the majority due to execution but others died from starvation. If you want to read up more you can start here.
There's also quite a few books written on the subject, one I am trying to get my hands on is Voices from S-21 by David Chandler.
This particular area was where mass graves were unearthed following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, around 17,000 people were estimated to have died there. Some bodies were headless, women and children included. In fact we had the absolute displeasure of seeing the 'killing tree' which Khmer Rouge soldiers used to beat infants to death against. In truth as you walk around this site, it's hard to believe the atrocities that took place there, beautiful butterflies flit between trees and greenery abounds everywhere. A huge Buddhist Stupa has been erected in the centre of the site that honours the dead and houses many skulls, bones and clothing that were found on the site. Apparently they are still finding remains, when there is heavy rains often teeth will surface from the mud. How nightmarish.
They haven't excavated all the mass graves and they can't actually identify individuals who have been excavated. Whilst it's all so terribly grim here the truth is it's also a necessary reminder of what happened; a place to remember those who fell victim to it.
When we returned to the city we continued our grim adventure and headed for S21 also known as Tuol Sleng prison, the former high-school which was converted to a prison and interrogation unit by the Khmer Rouge. Grim, horrible, violent, shocking and nausea-inducing are some of the words that spring to mind when recalling our trip there. It's been kept the way it was when the liberation took place, but the beds and some of the instruments of torture used on prisoners are still present for viewing. As are the graves of the 14 final victims of the Khmer Rouge within this facility; they were found there and buried on site as a reminder of the brutality that took place there. The barbed wire around the landings on the buildings wasn't there to prevent escape – there was enough on the exterior walls; it was to prevent the prisoners from killing themselves in order to avoid their impending fate. The vast amount of people that went through there were held as prisoners and then shipped to the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek to be disposed of, but some were killed there during interrogation and torture.
With heavy hearts we decided we need to chill for a while so went and got some food at a place Rambo said was good. Never trust a tuk-tuk driver we thought, but Khmer Saravan was tasty and fast food. We then headed on to the The National Museum of Cambodia, this was light relief compared to our morning. It was pretty interesting housing many ancient artefacts including umpteen statues of Buddha and Hindu gods. There was a gorgeous central courtyard there.
That night we went to watch the final State of Origin rugby match between Queensland and New South Wales – a hangover from our time in Oz. We were supporting the underdogs, NSW, but alas Queensland beat them fairly convincingly. Better luck next year guys.
We were done with cities in Cambodia, or so we thought and set out for Sihanoukville the next morning. En route when we stopped for a break I had an opportunity to taste some street food – bugs actually – I declined.
Sihanoukville is supposed to be the main resort in Cambodia, it's a pretty basic kinda place but we had two-fold reason for visiting. Firstly just to chill for a couple of days but also we needed to sort out our visa for Vietnam which you can get on the spot at the embassy there. We basically hung around the town apart from going on a boat trip one day, where we met up with a Swedish/Norwegian couple, Daniel and Tuné who turned out to be great fun. We had quite a few beers, did some snorkeling(which was pretty murky) and visited a lovely island, Kho Rong Samloem, which is supposedly the first protected beach in Cambodia.
A nice-chilled day which we followed up with a big BBQ dinner. We also had a lovely meal at Mick and Craig's and had the privilege of meeting Pierre the moustached cat, love this pic.
We had a skype date with Stuart's family which was quite funny as poor Stuart's mom ended up with every man and his dog in her house to say hi! Stuart was chuffed he got to speak to so many of his family so we topped off the night with a nice few beverages and a bit a of bop. We were very hungover the next day and did nothing, it rained and rained and rained so that was all very fitting.
Stuart didn't mind Cambodia, however, I don't rate it on the list of places we've been. I found the overbearing street sellers, beggars and tuk-tuk drivers relentless despite, I believe, understanding why they do what they do. I find it hard to ignore them but want to sometimes. Prostitution is rampant, and child sex is a big problem here. Many places where we stayed or ate had notices asking guests not to sleep with children etc. This made me feel sick. However, this country is so, so complex. When you look at its horrendous history you begin to get an understanding for why this country is the way it is. In more modern history the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide which eradicated millions of people, including and as a priority, intellectuals. People were killed for being able to speak a different language or wearing glasses. How can a country which has had a generation of some of its brightest slaughtered recover? Will it get better? I don't know, there seems to be a lack of direction but hopefully the next generation will make in roads into putting the country on the right track. And having said all that we did meet some lovely Khmer people and enjoyed much of what the country has to offer, including beautiful scenery and excellent food.
Our third country in South East Asia is waiting, Good Morning Vietnam!
Kingston Suites, 9/10 – this place was like a palace after months in crappy hostels, awesome brekkie. There was one sour faced girl in reception who nearly ruined it, Meaw I think her name was.
Bully's, 7/10 – air con with freezing cold refreshing towels.
Central World – shop, shop, shop at regular prices really
Platinum World – cheaper than Central world with lots of funky clothes.
King and I Spa – 9/10 cheap and super efficient.
Condoms and Cabbages, 9/10 – yummy and a good cause.
Macaroni Club, 8/10 – tasty and atmospheric place of Khao San Rd.
Park Lane Hotel, 8/10 – fine but the geckos in the room squawked a bit.
Molly Malone's, 7/10 – stereotypical Irish/American bar, big screen for sport.
White Bicycles, 8/10 – bikes could do with better saddles.
Curry Walla, 9/10 – very nice curry house.
The Sugar Palm 8/10 – nice local cuisine in a funky outdoor setting.
City Centre Hotel, 8/10 – the rooms were a bit pokey with bars on the windows but friendly staff and good breakfasts.
Paddy Rice's, 9/10 – great little Irish Pub, live sports on the telly and garlic chips and cheese, awesome.
The National Museum of Cambodia, 8/10, well worth the $3 entry.
Khmer Saravan, 9/10 our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off here so we were a bit apprehensive but it was actually good.
Friends, 10/10 – a project to help former street kids learn skills, delicious to boot.
Mekong Express, 7/10 – this bus company was fine, except you sorta got thrown to the lions once you got dropped off.
Beach Road Hotel, 8/10 – a grand hotel with nice pool, food was average.
Utopia, 8/10 - funtimes at night.
The Box, 4/10 – dreadful, awful dub step music, crazy Galway man behind the bar was gas.
Monkey Republic, 8/10 – food was pretty good and nice atmosphere with music from home.
Mick and Craig's, 9/10 – awesome BBQ on a Friday and Saturday night. Also, Pierre the moustached kitty lives there.
Beachside BBQs – can't remember the name – it was okay and so, so cheap.
Suntours Boat trip – 8/10 – it was fairly standard stuff but we did get some nice food and free shots.