Thursday, August 31, 2006

One Night in Bangkok

Ok so maybe more than that, but having all your favourite fast food joints and hi-speed internet finally, kinda leads to sensory overload.

We stayed near the legendary Khao San Road in a nice wee place called Lamphu House, not too shabby for rocking up at check out time to see if they had any spare rooms. We witnessed many people come along looking for a room and finding absolutely no joy. It was a bit of a hassle to get here tho'. When we arrived from the border it was still raining so we jumped into a tuk-tuk and got him to take us to his "friend's" place for the night. Ok so I can be anal about where I would like to stay, but staying somewhere that has holes in the walls of the corridor, supplies no bloody loo paper and just generally smacks of dodginess, just ain't me. But then again for USD6 (with private bathroom) can you complain? One probably shouldn't but this one certainly did. So after he had tried us out on two of his mates' places, we found another place and he upped his fare. Bloody typical!

Anyway, we got our room and as it was still early headed out to see what the whole hoopla was about Khao San Rd. Not really much to say. A big market (like that's something new), loads of bars/restaurants and a whole bunch of young ones out on the prowl. Fair dues, but we left them to it. Preferring the sedate granny-esque stroll through the street. Finished off by Burger King...

Mmmmm... Chicken 'n Cheese Sandwhich.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

WRC: Cambodia Style

It was bloody fantastic let me tell ya! We were on a bus (more of a bonafide mini-bus this time) with all the gear stowed in the back seat and heading to the Cambodia/Thailand border. The road heading out of Siem Reap was not bad, had some rather large potholes which after the rain of the previous night, could quite easily have been mistaken for the local paddling pool or pond. 4WD's would be more of a neccessity than a luxury here. I felt for the passengers in the numerous Toyota Camry that were making the same journey.

Once we were in the countryside the fun really started. Our bus making some quite horrific metal on metal scraping/crunching/"help I'm seriously falling apart here" noises. A ride that was roller-coaster esque but without the safety guarantee. Wasn't really that much of an ordeal however, and in terms of our recent border crossing experiences, really quite tame.
Although... When we arrived at the Thai border, it started to rain. Hard. Resulting in mini swimming pools that required traversing in order to actually get into Thailand. So shoes off, pants (trousers) hiked up, and 20kg pack on back, a semi shuffle-waddle-dash was made from building to building or cover to cover. Having been stranded at the border by anyone who knew where we should head once in Thailand, wandering in the rain was the only option. Eventually, soaked but laughing, we found our bus stop and waited. Upon querying our guide as to when the bus would leave for Bangkok, I received "When 10 more people arrive" as an answer. Well fair enough then. No time soon then huh?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

1000 steps to heaven

Well at least it bloody felt that way! Welcome to Angkor- a city of temples that involve incredibly steep steps. These steps also being in various states of disrepair and varying degrees of width, sometimes big enough for just your little toe, and sometimes big enough for your whole foot. It was really the luck of the draw. But it was also an amazing thing to see. The sheer amount of stone that was involved is mind-boggling. And with no visible quarry in the area, the whole act of transportating the stones and building these huge structures warrants at least some admiration.

So our first night at Angkor was on top of some hill- supposedly the best view for the sunset- however the clouds were having none of it. Stubbornly staying put til well after the sun went down. But it was all good, 'cos we had bought a three day pass and if you buy your ticket after 1700 you get a free sunset, then the ticket starts the next day. So the next day we were up bright and earlier (before the sun) in order to be at Angkor Wat to witness a supposedly spectacular sunrise. Shoulda known better. Cloudy at night, we should have guessed it would be cloudy in the morning. So we could see behind the clouds that the sun was actually rising, but there was no real sunrise. Never mind, had some brekkie then began the days trekking round temples in earnest.

Turns out once you've seen one temple, you've pretty much seen them all. The only thing that changes is height, location, state of disrepair, size and carvings. Might sound like a lot but really its not. So come lunchtime, I was knackered, but kept on the move. I dunno how many temples we saw that first day but it was alot.

Day 2 saw us have a sleep in (by not much tho') and still more temples. Our tuktuk driver directing where to go and we just numbling following him. Bit of excitment for the day tho'- we stopped at his "friend's" restaurant and he started playing cards. Turned out he was quite good and skunked the other drivers out of some money! Not a bad effort! I decided I'd utilise him and make him earn his money and take me back for another sunset, this time at Angkor Wat. But my plans were thwarted again. A beautiful day, quickly turned overcast and then just before sunset, the heavens opened! I got a bit wet, the driver got soaked and that was the end of our Angkor adventure.

Favourite temples: Ta Phrom, Angkor Wat and the young fulla liked Takeo.
Angkor is very worth a visit, but a bit like the Louvre; overwhelming in the extreme.
My advice: take it easy, have a beer, saying "Nah" to the kids (selling all manner of things) gets rid off them quicker than "No Thankyou", take lots of small riel (Cambodian currency) or USD1's, because everything is "2 for wahn darlah".

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mini Pattaya Beach...

At least that is my opinion (knowing Pattaya Beach by reputation only) of the Riverside in Phnom Penh. As far as the eye can see there are open air cafes, bars, hotels and of course Girlie Bars. The riverside wouldn't look out of place in any Western city in the world. Not really my cup of tea, but did manage to have a Neenish Tart from the Kiwi Bakery!! Bloody Kiwis, they're everywhere!!

Enjoyed Phnom Penh, it has a bit of a grizzly history which is of course a major tourist attraction. So we jumped on the banwagon. Nothing like bearing witness to the atrocities of the past now is there? S21 (Tuol Sleng Museum) is where one such public display of horror is visited by the multitudes. It hasn't been watered down too much, I mean the blood has been washed away but that's about it. Unfortunately thanks to modern day news broadcasts, and the fact that I am generally quite a cynical lass, I felt quite immune to the horrors these poor blighters went through. We didn't make it too the Killing Fields, the bridge was out, but got to experience the nice bumpy ride out and back. As a positive sign that Cambodians are trying to move past the horrors of yesteryear, just opposite the S21 Museum is a great little restaurant- Friends, friendly staff and fantastic food. A great cause aswell.

On a much more pleasant and relaxed note, we managed to get to the Royal Palace and the National Museum, but they didn't toot my whistle either. But they were an excellent way to escape the heat of the midday sun, and of course check out some less violent history.

After being on an Island with bugger-all people, a city was a jarring shock to the system. So we stuck to the major tourist haunts and got outta there quick smart. By Boat to Siem Reap. At 7 o'clock in the morning! Man these early mornings are definitely not holiday material!!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Highway to Hell

We didn't want to leave. We shouldn't have.
However good sense won out over intuition and we purchased tickets to get us from Don Det to Phnom Penh. We were told it would be by mini bus. Fine by us. Unfortunately we made the unforgivable mistake of assuming. Turns out mini bus in Lao means a van or mini van. A 14 seater mind you, but a van all the same. Now imagine (or remember) all those sporting events you went to with your school team, how big the van was, how much gear you had (equipment included) and how the roads were. Let me fill you in on how much more comfortable that travel was to our jaunt.

Ok, so we have 14 people who need to fit into 12 seats because luggage has taken up two and there's no roof rack. There were complaints but we were told it would only be a 20min journey. People doubled up and they cranked on the AC. Not too bad a start. The road was hazardous but bearable.
We arrived at a border town to have all our luggage packed into another van, with a roof rack. However our 14 had just been joined by another load of people. Choas ensued. There were two vans full of gear and people and 6 more needing seats. Our drivers tried to get us all to bunch up but our mainland European counterparts were having none of it. Finally the drivers relented and two cars were produced from thin air. Making more assumptions we were on our way, relatively comfortable and secure in our belief that it would be non-stop and hassle free from there on in.

Well the border crossing was indeed hassle free. Got the visa, got the stamp, paid the "processing fee" and officially entered Cambodia.
The fun began in earnest. We had to switch vehicles 'cos some girls travelling together had been split up. No biggy. The road and the driver were bloody hilarious. It was a "new" road but had no apparent markings or signage, but it did have alot of potholes. How that guy (the driver) still has shocks I'll never know. The way he just plowed through those holes had to be seen to be believed. I was suitably impressed. Thought his car may give out at any moment but impressed nevertheless.

Arriving in one piece at the river crossing, the heavens decided to open up to cool us off. Stung Treng is the border town where we stopped for lunch and got packed into yet another vehicle. With a roof rack and not enough seats. Confusion was the order of the day here aswell. One poor chap had his ticket checked and rechecked, people going to Phonm Penh and Kampong Cham were told to get in one bus, then told to get off, the Siem Reap lot the same and so it went on, til we were all lumped together on the one bus with 8 people still needing seats. Another company arrived and we got rid of 2 people from our van, there were arguments in "half-speak" (broken English- of which now after teaching the language I'm completely fluent in), and the other company agreed to take more of our group.
By now we had wisely done away with the assuming and were just hoping to get there.

At Kampong Cham we lost a few more people and could finally stretch out. It was crapmed for me- short-ass that I am- so I really felt for the six foot Dutch chick behind me.
Our driver felt that he needed to test our patience just a bit more. So he stopped for a bit of a drink and picked up 3 more passengers. Unfortunately for him, none of us were moving, so they crammed two in beside me and my mate and the third in the front seat. They bitched and they moaned but we didn't give a toss. I momentarily felt bad, but then fell asleep.
We got into Phnom Penh no worries and our Italian counterpart took over and directed our very unlucky driver towards the riverside and away from any potential commission he would have made. Again I felt momentarily bad. But I quickly got over standing under a hot shower and jumping into a clean bed.

Hellish journey but Heavenly end.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Simple Life

Such a grand thing. No electricity. No traffic. No plumbing. No worries.
Don Det is where the simple life is the only way of life.

It was great being in a place that ran on daylight hours. The locals got up with the sun and if they didn't have a restaurant, went to bed not long after the sun went down. At our guesthouse the generator was run from sunset til about 2230. It was pure heaven. We stayed at Mr Tho's Bungalows. Four bungalows on a bank of the Mekong. Hammocks provided. Relaxation assured. A restaurant on hand whenever one felt the hunger pangs get the better of them.
Ning (Mr Tho's daughter) was in charge although it was a family affair; her hubby and brothers helping out, her young son providing entertainment and her elderly aunty picking up the slack. As in Vietnam though, it appeared that the women were the only ones who did any real work, the men preferring to watch the back of their eyelids, or pilot the boat to and fro. I'm sure they did more but I personally was not privvy to it.

So our typical day went thus... Waking up with the rooster. Maybe getting up for the sunrise or just going back to sleep. Hearing the locals head off to market in their boats at about 630am. The temple accross the river donging its bell for morning prayer. Breakfast whenever you decided now was the time. Lazing in the hammocks on the verandah of your bungalow. Reading books. Watching the world float by. Taking a dip in the Mekong when you got too hot. Maybe occasionally heading out to explore. Appreciating that apart from the odd tour van the only thing resembling a traffic jam was a water buffalo who stubbornly refused to move til he/she was good and ready. And the heaviest traffic being said buffalo.

I took time out from hammock appreciation to check out Buddhism Lao style by participating in the local temple's morning prayer (and having my preconceptions about Buddhist monks being quickly dispatched). These monks weren't vegetarian, they quite happily chucked a cat around when it was searching for tidbits from the brekkie table and they weren't sombre during what I assumed was prayer. The young fullas (there were only seven monks in this temple with an approximate median age of 20ish) were smiling and laughing throughout. Made quite a difference from the few "Church Parade" experiences I had as a young Brownie which were a sombre affair. So a condensed version of a morning at the temple: prayer, offerings from worshippers (breakfast), chillin' while the monks eat, prayer, finish. Quite a relaxing morning of worship and a bit of an eye opener for a heathen such as myself. Throughly enjoyed it!

So other than this one dalliance from the usual, we spent 11 nights in the aforementioned do-nothing manner.
7 books read. Hammocks well used. Many swims taken. Many a beer consumed. USD5 a day. Total.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Paradise Awaits...

One more day we spent in Vientiane. Hiring more wee scooter things, and going about the place at night. Turns out once the lights go out, the populace has some fun. Not in the "drunken sports fan" or "teenager/university student on the prowl" kinda way, but a "lets just enjoy the night in a relaxed fashion with someone I want to be with" kinda way. The park around the Memorial Monument (L'Arc de Triomphe) was positively teeming with families and couples, and people out to do a few laps. Running that is. It was quite a nice thing to see. (the whole family/couple/spending time together thing not the running part)

Anyway the following afternoon we were southbound onboard a VIP bus. Yep for USD15 we got to travel in some style. An almost fully reclining seat, blanket, free water, dinner and a movie. Kinda like a "drive thru movie" date but you didn't need a car.
Arriving in Pakse, getting off the bus proved to be quite an ordeal. There were a multitude of bus drivers, tuk-tuk drivers and god-knows-what drivers, all vying for your money. Walking off with your bag if you let it go. Gave "running the gauntlet" a new meaning. We were gonna stay the night but in the face of all the bustling drivers, we instead made a dash for a bus headed towards our final Lao destination. Don Det. All the blogs we had read referred to it as paradise.

So bags safely stowed on top of a rickety bus, sitting in seats that rocked with every motion, and garbage rolling round the floor doing its upmost to stick to your feet, we began our "3 hour" journey. Turns out time is relative in Lao. Bit like Maori time. Things start when they start, and you get there when you get there.
Being a public bus (of sorts) it stopped often, with young fullas outside trying to sell you food. At one point our driver got hungry so stopped the bus, got off and had a feed. Fine by me, I tried to get some sleep, valiantly ignoring the ants that were tickling my arms and legs in their search for food.

We finally arrived at the ferry "port" (bank with boats anchored by string to a tree or a peg in the ground) and were soon dashing across the Mekong to the small island in the area that is known as 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don).
And it is a small island. Walking across it takes bout half an hour. Course if I were to walk it, it would probably take twice that.
Scorching sun, heavenly hammocks, R'n R. Perfect. Paradise.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Sights and Sounds of Vientiane

Hiring a wee motorbike or scooter is a must-do in any SE Asia country I reckon. Having no fear of course is also a bonus. But getting in there and revving it up with the locals is a ball!
Walking around Vientiane is recommended by the guide books and that is good fun, but also limiting due to the heat. I mean when the sun ain't burning a hole through you, the humidity is doing its best to make sure you melt into a puddle on the sidewalk.
Renting a bike gives you the illusion of a not-so-hot day and is cheaper than taking a tuk-tuk (I think, and offers the freedom to explore outside of the city.

So mechanical steed acquired we were on our way. To where exactly we had no real idea, just a general direction. Passing the Friendship Bridge (border crossing Thailand/Lao) and some very dusty and potholy kilometres later we bumped into Buddha Park. A most interesting if slightly surreal collection of concrete statues depicting various Hindu/Buddhist deities. It being a lovely day we decided to chill with all the Buddhas under the vast canopy of a lovely old tree.

Relaxed and with the sun heading towards the horizon we sped our way back into town and discovered that Vientiane has a mini Champs Elysee. With the Victory Monument (L'Arc de Triomphe) at one end and the Presidential Palace at the other. Well of course this discovery meant we had to do a lap (a la Audrey and Gregory in "Roman Holiday" minus the "Rome" part) and all was going swimmingly until we stopped to take the obligatory photo and got a puncture. Well the romance is most quickly extinguished when you have to push your uncooperative transport to the nearest fixer-upper. Thankfully with the kind help of some school girls (giggling at our misfortune) and the friendly smiles of locals we found a place that could do the job no worries. They supplied us with cold drinks, fixed our steed and sent us on our way. The girls waving and smiling at us as we passed them by, we headed back to the "strip" to complete our "Roman Holiday" re-inaction.

Continuing the theme of Italy in Lao with a Kiwi flavour, we discovered a Scandanavian Bakery that made excellent pizza. Dinner. Pizza and beer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Gods have forsaken me...

The Digital Gods that is. Seems I have inadvertantly brassed them off, resulting in first; my iPod going kaput and second; horror of all horrors... my camera went ka-phuct!

Yes! My baby, my joy has gone! I feel bereft without it... What to do, what to do?
A tangi (funeral) will be held and messages of condolences greatly appreciated.

So unfortunately until my grief has been overcome there will be no more digital delights accompaning (?) this witty prose. (unless of course the young fulla deems me worthy of his photographic philanthrapy).

Right! Nuff said. It's beer o'clock!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hoi An to Vientiane

After the peace and quiet of Halong Bay, the boisterous bustle of a quaint little seaside town was quite unexpected.
Hoi An had been the recipient of many plaudits from various sources. However the place did nothing for me at all. Maybe we caught it at the wrong time. Maybe all the charming people who our sources had met had vacated the town for the time we were there. Maybe we had the wrong vibe about us, which in turn made everyone we met a dickhead. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
There was a bright spot though; walking down a dusty street we heard "Hey Bro!" from the opposite side of the road. Music to the young fullas ears it were. So the obligatory Maori greeting was exchanged (eyebrows and head raised in greeting fashion) a couple of cheeky grins and a few words. Unfortunately we couldn't stop as we had to catch our bus, but 'twas a lovely moment.

Now as you have probably ascertained by this point, exiting a country smoothly is not our forte and so why would this time be any different? The bus was late but it had aircon. Of course as we were leaving the country there had to be a mini drama. No disappointment there! We had sent our passports away to the Lao consulate to get a visa. The travel company said no problem, they'll be back here in time for the bus. We went to the company in the morning just to check everything was ok. He told us that they would arrive at 5pm. We pointed out that the bus was at 2pm so that wasn't really a good thing. A phone call was made and an assurance said documents would be in our possession by 1340. Well appointed time came and went. Our bus arrived at 1430 (ish) as did our passports. So documents in hand and a "contract" not a ticket, we boarded the bus for Lao.

There was some confusion as to where the passengers for Vientian were supposed to be let off. Some passengers thought one thing, the drivers thought something else. It was a funny sight to see. Eventually we were reached the drop off point for the connecting bus. As our "contract" had been taken from us at an earlier point, you can imagine the apprehension with which we waited for the bus. Nothing like waiting in the middle of nowhere at 3 o'clock in the morning to bloster spirits either!! Never fear! The bus arrived as promised and was totally overloaded with god-knows-what in dubiously leaking cardboard boxes. But we were on our way! Lao here we come!

Arriving in Lao was a similar mini drama. We were hurtling along windy mountain roads (akin to the Kaimai's before upgrades) at a speed which seemed certain to plummet us to our explosive deaths, when we arrived quite abruptly at the Vietnam/Lao border. Which didn't open for another hour. And who's loos were all locked. Joy! Not a great hassle though, had a bit of a kip (nap), left Vietnam after paying the processing fee or "payment for stamp" as its officially called (USD1), walked down the hill and waited for our bus.

On the Lao side payment of the same official fee was made, we got our stamp and boarded the bus. The Lao countryside is quite beautiful from the border into the capital Vientian. Lots of thatched wooden houses, mountains and of course the rice fields. We stopped a few hours into Lao and were informed that this was our last scheduled stop. There were to be no more stops unless you specifically requested them. Well no one requested it but we did have quite a long stop. The tyre blew. The entire tread was shredded. Now considering the speed and way the driver was driving and that it was overloaded, it was no real surprise. Provided some good photo ops though! And alot of us took the time to visit the nearby bushes for relief. It was quite a sight to behold. Four skinny wee chaps trying their bestest to get these huge tyres off the bus, bouncing on the wheel wrench thingy. Replacing the blow out with the spare that looked equally dodgy was not as big a drama as I had expected... Sigh...
So on to Vientiane. No more dramas. Found a place to sleep easily. Had a shower. Ate dinner on the banks of the Mekong River looking across to Thailand. Bliss...