Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Amazing Angkor Wat

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Happy Guesthouse in Siem Reap created a very good first impression of Cambodia. It was easily the nicest place we’ve stayed since the first week in Bangkok and at US$11 per night for a twin ensuite room a good price too.

We hired a tuk-tuk and driver for the day and headed off to Angkor Wat. What an amazing place. Absolutely stunning. We did the “mini-circuit” route and I can’t decide which was the most impressive – Angkor or Bayon. Both appealed in different ways. It’s important to remember they lay unused for centuries and have undergone various restoration works since the early twentieth century.They’re amazing now, in their heyday they must have been even more phenomenal. If you think Stonehenge is an engineering marvel the temples here are masterpieces on a colossal scale. The clouds appeared by mid-afternoon so there was no nice sunset behind a temple for us.

All of the temples are surrounded by locals intent on parting the tourists from their dollars. Every time our tuk-tuk pulled up we were immediately surrounded by children and adults attempting to sell assorted tat. Every conversation went something like

“Hello Mister. You buy <insert tat here>? One dollar. Only one dollar.”

“No thanks”

“I give you good price, big discount.”

“No thanks”

“How much you give me? Very good <insert tat here>.”

“No thanks”

“You buy from me. Not many tourists today, I give you very good price. Two <tat> for one dollar.”

“No thanks”

All the time you’re walking towards the temple and they’re tagging along. After the first few times you just want to say “Oh sod off”. As you get closer to the temple and further from the road they lose interest and scurry back to harass the next arrivals.

On our second day we got up early to catch sunrise at Angkor. Despite leaving at 05:00 as recommended we missed the nicest pre-sunrise red sky but caught the actual sunrise. We went out to Banteay Srei and the landmine museum and then the biggest temples on the “grand-circuit” finishing at Phnom Bakheng for sunset. Nature again conspired against us, delivering the same horizon-hugging bank of cloud that has plagued my attempts at catching some nice sunset photos for the last week or so.

I visited a silk farm on the third day while Hannah went and saw the Rolous group of temples. I missed the free bus to the silk farm so cycled 16km each way. It was too hot in the afternoon to do anything but laze around at the guesthouse. In the evening Hannah succumbed to the temptations of the night markets and spent until her money ran out.

After three days in Siem Reap we’re on the move again, next stop Phnom Penh.

Goodbye Laos

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Pakse had one redeeming feature: a Vietnamese embassy which turned out visas in about fifteen minutes. The official even let Hannah off the passport photo requirement for her visa. There was nothing else to recommend the town so we left after one night for a couple of days of downtime in 4000 islands.
We bought bus tickets from our hotel for Pakse to Don Dhet and Don Dhet to Siem Reap. For the Laos to Cambodia leg we were expecting to have to change bus at Kompong Cham but the hotel manager claimed we would change at the border and have one bus all the way through from there to Siem Reap.
We’d read and heard mixed reports about Don Dhet and Don Khong in 4000 islands. We found Don Dhet offered basic accommodation, simple day trips, unexciting food, mind-numbingly slow service (and always with a scowl). There wasn’t much to do except drink and laze around. We notched up quite a lot of hammock time. I hired a bicycle for 10,000 kip (about 80 pence)  for a day and took an hour to cycle all round the island. They wanted 20,000 kip to cross the bridge to Don Khong which is just more of the same plus a waterfall (pay extra to see it) and maybe some dolphins (pay extra to see them). Laos has more scams than anywhere else I’ve been and 4000 islands has the greatest concentration of all. Hiring a kayak and paddling round the island (50,000 kip per kayak per day) seemed too much like hard work, but it was nice to have a swim in the Mekong.
Peaceful it wasn’t. We stayed at Mr. B’s sunset guest house, right next door to a small collection of locals’ houses. They were having a funeral the day we arrived and their PA system started delivering rather loud monk-type chanting and bloody awful music soon after we arrived. It got louder as the day went on and continued until 05:00 the next morning. It resumed at 07:00 and continued until about 15:00. If we hadn’t paid for three nights upfront we would have moved as there were plenty of other places with empty rooms. We met up with Mark and Stacy again on the second day when they arrived from Vientiane and stayed at our guest house.
After 3 nights it was time to move on; another day of sitting around waiting for buses and sitting on buses. For added excitement we had the border crossing into Cambodia. Being a Sunday the visa cost US$29 instead of US$23 – more bribes and “overtime” payments than on a weekday. Transport for the day started with the 08:00 boat from the island (extra 15,000 kip please) and an oversized tuk-tuk to the main road and the waiting “VIP” bus. The “VIP” bus had a temperamental engine and mostly non-functional air conditioning. We went off-road in it several times where the road or bridges were being upgraded. We had the same one all the way to Kompong Cham where we did indeed have to change bus. Those going to Phnom Penh stayed onboard. It broke down or the driver just pulled over and tinkered with the engine four times. At Kompong Cham those of us bound for Siem Reap transferred to a minibus for the last four hours of  the journey. We arrived at the bus station at 22:15 where there was a tuk-tuk sent by the guesthouse waiting for us.
So that’s Laos done. The northen part of the country, the slow boat down the Mekong, and Luang Prabang were really nice. The rest of it didn’t leave such a good impression. The people were generally miserable, unfriendly and unhelpful and always ready to scam you any way they could. However the countryside was really beautiful and I think if you were touring on a motorbike you could have a fabulous time.

The people (actually the adults) were generally miserable, unfriendly and unhelpful and always ready to scam you any way they could.

All places V…

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

The pick-up from our guest house to the bus station arrived on time at 08:30 but things went downhill from there. There were two partially full minivans for Vang Vieng and the dispatcher was adamant they weren’t going anywhere until they were full. Our bus had three out of eleven empty seats, the other needed just one more person. There were no solo travellers on our bus, and not three who wanted to switch together on the other. So we sat and waited. Entertainment was provided by a pot-bellied 55+ year old guy exercising and stretching shirtless in front of the buses. There was much sniggering from the girls on our bus. We could only guess what the other occupants of the second bus, or the watching Laotions thought of the show. A tuk-tuk delivered nine more recruits but they were a group who wanted to travel together and partially filled a third bus. Almost two hours after arriving at the bus station we were still waiting to depart. Eventually another tuk-tuk arrived with three people on board – Joe, Phoebe and Renee. We got Crazy Dutch and the third bus Joe and Phoebe. Shirtless stretching guy bought the empty seat in his bus and we all set off.

The road to Vang Vieng wound uphill and we swerved around potholes and slower moving traffic, or bounced through the potholes when the driver misread the road. Hannah was feeling unwell to start with and felt much worse by our lunch stop. Shortly afterwards she hung her head out the window and decorated the side of the bus with vomit. Classy! I kept an eye on the road ahead to make sure no oncoming traffic took her head off, and the driver carried on oblivious.

We travelled past lots of villages, all looking the same. A mixture of stilted and non-stilted, timber, block-built or woven bamboo walls, thatched or tin roof dwellings on both sides of the road. About 30-50% had 1.8m satellite dishes out front. Kids played at the roadside, tiny stick-thin creatures with smiling, happy faces. Mothers bathed babies and toddlers in metal bowls and hung washing from lines in front of the houses. The driver was impatient to pass anything and everything in his path, frequently overtaking on blind bends. Only luck prevented us joining the accident statistics we passed off the sides of the road. I couldn’t work out whether Laotian drivers don’t use their mirrors and don’t realise people are trying to pass them, or if they are aware and deliberately pull out to the middle of the road to make passing difficult.

At some point we reached our highest point and began descending. The villages got bigger and more prosperous looking. About 20km before Vang Vieng the potholes won the battle with the tyres and one of the rear tyres blew out. We bumped to a stop, all piled out and the driver replaced the wheel.

Vang Vieng, when we arrived really had nothing to recommend it. A town full of bars showing endless repeats of Friends, and hotels full of 19-year olds busy getting drunk and going tubing on the river. Two nights there was quite sufficient.

The bus to Vientiane picked us up on time and arrived when it was supposed to – amazing! Vientiane has slightly more to recommend it than Vang Viene. The National Museum has several galleries but only the first two had information in squiggly wiggly and English. Those two were very interesting. The remaining eighteen or so had exhibits labelled only in squiggly wiggly with a few photos having French descriptions too and and even smaller number labelled in English as well. On the wall above the comments book at the exit was a sign saying they’re working on providing multilingual exhibit labelling. The sooner the better! There are wats aplenty and a Victory Arch modelled after the Arc de Triomphe. Other than that it’s ugly concrete buildings, a multitude of bars and restaurants, and lots of construction. There are a few photos over at Flickr.

Vientiane was also a place of farewells. Yesterday was Phoebe’s birthday. A group of us went out for celebratory drinks and dinner. Today the group has dispersed to destinations across south-east Asia – Renee to Chiang Mai, Joe and Phoebe to Hanoi, Marcel and Claire will go to Vietnam tomorrow, Matt and Susie are going to Thailand in a couple of days and in a couple of hours we’ll be on an overnight bus to Pakse in Laos. We might be in Phnom Penh at the same time as Joe and Phoebe in about ten days time to trade stories about where we’ve been, where to go and where to avoid.