Posts tagged ‘Cambodia’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery

April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

Rocks in a heap in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Before today neither Gary nor I had ever gotten up to watch a sunrise. We had seen sunrises by accident before – while stumbling home from a night out or in our rush to get to some airport or other – but without the intention its not really the same. Nonetheless we found ourselves peeling our tired faces off our pillows at the ungodly hour of 4.45am this morning to meet our tuk tuk driver and join the hoards on their pilgrimage to Angkor Wat.

By 5.30 we had arrived and were carefully picking our way across the crumbling bridge towards the temple taking in our first view of the five famous lotus peaks, luminescent against the night’s sky. Passing through the gateway we were welcomed by a stone Buddha and the sound of a thousand tired feet pattering their way excitedly towards the lake. After finding the perfect spot to shoot from (Gary spent half an hour running around manically, looking for the clearest path from the perfect vantage point from which he could take that iconic photo) we settled down to watch the show amid the shining displays of a hundred Japanese pocket cameras. We had forgotten how much we loved the Japanese and their own avidly efficient breed of tourism.

Slowly a hush started to fall over the chattering crowd and the hawkers retreated to their hammocks. The show had begun. Blue light started to diffuse into the dark sky illuminating more and more of the temple’s silhouette and offering us a tantalising glimpse of what we had come here to see.

As the sky took on a vibrant purple tinge the temple came into focus and the gratified audience began to “ooh” and “ahh”. Spurred on by this encouragement the sun really started to really show off, flooding the landscape with a blood orange colour and throwing majestic shadows onto the surface of the lake. The crowd went wild – gasping, cheering and clutching tissues to their damp cheeks as the sky became bright and the sun, beetroot red with delight, finally showed its shining face.

Bravo!

Angkor Wat was a tough act to follow so a lot of what we saw over the rest of the day was a little lost on us – just a big blur of dangerously steep stairs, towering Buddhas and kids screaming “two cokes for one dooooooooooolla. Have to go to schooooooooooooooool.” Two ruins that did meet our expectations however, were the Bayon in Angkor Thom and the Jungle Temple.

Most of the Bayon, and the rest of Angkor Thom for that matter, was made of wood and has been burned down in the intervening centuries. What is left though is a kind of pyramid shaped structure watched from every angle by huge carved Buddha heads. The faces have become so weathered that it looks like they were cut out of the rock by nature itself so that you would know that Buddha, in his infinite happiness, just wants you to smile. Its hard not to grin back when so many gods have taken time out of their busy schedule to come and beam at you.

The Jungle Temple (my personal favourite) has to be one of the quirkiest temples in the world. In fact, I’m still not convinced that it isn’t just the set of some old unreleased Indiana Jones film or the original setting for that scene in The Jungle Book where the monkey king does his dance. Never was the fight between man and nature more apparent than in the gnarled walls of this temple where the trees, outraged at having their friends and family cut down to make room for yet another stinking temple, have staged their revolution. Dragging their heavy roots out of the soil they have spread their tendrils across the stone walls, greedily dragging the temple down into the earth inch by inch, year by year. Sitting on their stone perches they are a testament to the superiority of nature over man.

Although I know it is a crime against a beautiful ancient civilisation to admit it, one of our favourite parts of The Temples of Angkor was all of the monkeys. Obviously in cohoots with the Tree Movement, they have staked the temples out, swaggering down the hallways of Angkor Wat and plonking themselves in front of half full bins for a feast of Snickers bars and Fanta. Every night when the tourists leave and the guards go home, they crank up the bass, crack out a few Tiger beers and swing from lotus tower to lotus tower saying things like “Yo momma and a blue whale, same same but different.”

More pictures from Siem Reap are available in the gallery

February 12, 2010 at 4:56 am 3 comments

Shirtless in Shianoukville, Cambodia

Picture this: a long stretch of white sand hugging the coast of a small Cambodian town. On one side the beach is lined with palm trees and a dozen or so wooden bars, laid back places where you pay your bill when the mood takes you and it is perfectly acceptable to sit over your beer (or lie over it in one of the hammocks) for two hours. On the other side the beach is kissed by crystal clear blue water that laps the shore in gentle waves. The smooth water is broken by a scattering of offshore islands and a handful of colourful boats that ferry tourists to and from the nearby coral.

As you lie stretched out on your sun lounger, leafing through the latest trashy chic lit (a photocopied version of course – this is Asia after all), looking for page 211 because it doesn’t come after page 210 but it must be around here somewhere (check after page 232) your peace is disturbed by a familiar crowing. “You want MASSAAAAAAAA?” No. “Maybe later?” No. “You buy my FRUIT?” No. “Pedicure for you sir?” No and I’m a woman.

The hawkers in Sianoukville are relentless but they’re half the fun, especially the kids. It is a commonly accepted truth that Asian kids are by far the cutest creatures on earth. Cuter than an Andrex pup even. So when you see them wiggling their way down the beach, palates of fruit balanced on their little heads, its hard not to just give them all your money and ask them to come home with you. But you shouldn’t do that because its creepy. And wrong.

As a general rule of thumb anyone who stays in Shianoukville for longer than three days (and everyone does, whether they had planned to or not) ends up with a local kid of their own. For Gary and I that was Em (aka Toto) and Pom – two gorgeous little 10 year olds with perfect english. The adoption was anything but a conscious decision. One minute we were buying a bag of pineapple and the next there were two kids sprawled out across our sunloungers demanding that we buy our fruit only from them. And that was only the start of their demands. Without realising it we had walked into a complex legal agreement which made us their property between the hours of 1pm and 4pm every day. This meant that we had to lose games of pool, play video games, share our sunloungers and answer endless questions on demand. We also had to mind all of their stuff (and that of their friends) whenever they went swimming. Worried that our $4 a day was fuelling a drug habit, we asked them how they spent our money only to find out that they rented roller blades every day after they finished their homework.

The kids were pretty much the best part of Shianoukville. As beautiful as it is, it has the strangest vibe (yeah I’m a hippy now, I whine about vibes and karma, man). I think its because everyone is in holiday mode, not backpacker mode so they tend to stick to their groups and frown in distaste whenever you try to befriend them (although we did meet the greatest British couple about 10 minutes before we had to leave).

Much better is Bamboo Island, a small nearby island where you can rent a bungalow on the beach and spend your days lying in a hammock and contemplating the meaning of life/your lunch*. For those afraid to spend that much time alone with their thoughts, the ‘three islands tour’ (which, by the way only visits one island) drops you off here for four hours. The tour also takes in snorkelling in murky water with dodgy gear and a lot of time spent sitting in a boat. And all this for only $15!

Actually recommended in Sianoukville though is Monkey Republic – a great guesthouse where lodgings are in bright blue bungalows, the food is great, the tea is Tetleys and the happy hour is ecstatic.

*note: Cambodian food is epic. Especially Fish Amok and Beef Luc Lak. They’re so good that Marks & Spencers has stolen their recipes and repackaged Fish Amok as their seafood curry.

More pictures from Shianoukville are available in the gallery

February 8, 2010 at 5:01 am 2 comments

Tarnished smiles. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Just outside of Phnom Penh there is a large field and in this field there is a large tree next to a large hole. It’s not a particularly memorable looking tree – reasonably wide, a few metres tall, a couple of leaves – it’s just a tree next to a hole really. As innocuous as it looks from a distance though, it’s not just any tree and it’s not just any hole and it’s not just any field. As inoccuous as it looks, this tree has ended the lives of countless infants, this hole has housed hundreds of tiny corpses and this field has seen some of the most horrific violence ever executed by a group of individuals against their own people.

The field is the Killing Fields, once the playground of the vicious Khmer Rouge who (under their leader Pol Pot) seized power after the Vietnam War, declared Cambodia a socialist nation and began a four year long programme of genocide to wipe out any Cambodians who worked for the government or in the military, had an education, voiced any opposition or wore glasses. They sent the entire nation to the countryside to work long days with little or no food, purposely seperated children from their parents and killed, raped and maimed at random to keep the exhausted, starving and disease ravaged people from rebelling.

The Killing Fields was where they did their worst though and the ‘Baby Killing Tree’ was a particularly nasty device. Reluctant to waste even a bullet on their fellow Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge brought people to the Killing Fields to be beaten to death and buried. After they killed young mothers though (for looking at them with anything less than hero worship) they were left with tiny screaming infants. Not to worry, they had the perfect solution – they would dig a mass grave next to the big tree in the field so that they could just grab the baby by the ankles and with one hand swing them around like a bat, bringing their tiny heads smashing into the tree. With the hole so nearby, they could then just fling the corpse into that without having to waste even one step and move onto the next one.


Three decades later the baby grave has been exhumed along with close to 100 other mass graves in the Killing Fields but a dark stain in the bark is testament to Cambodia’s wretched past. It’s not just the tree that acts as a reminder though. Everywhere across the field there are shards of human bones resting at the bottom of trees, stamped into the scorched earth and rustling under leaves. Scraps of clothes lay strewn across the grass in a morbid rainbow and to one side stands a monument to all the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Around 20 levels high, the building houses the remains that were dug up from the field. On level 1 clothes, then skulls, femurs, arm bones, collar bones… Thousands and thousands of unnamed dead held in one sky-scraping tower topped with a temple-like roof.

Back into Phnom Penh city center then and to the S-21 museum. A school until the Khmer Rouge drove everyone out of their city dwellings and into the countryside (everyone had to walk even if they had no shoes, even if they had been plucked straight out of hospital beds, even if they were in labour) S-21 became the country’s most notorious prison. It was a prison used to house those accused of being in the military or government before Pol Pot’s takeover. Mostly though, it was a prison where ‘enemies’ of the state and their families were taken to be tortured for information or just for fun.

Outside in the yard there is a big wooden support beam intended for use in gym class. Its actual use however, was to suspend prisoners by their bound hands and feet so they could be beaten to the point of unconsiousness and then lowered head first into a vat of putrid water to be woken up. In the cells, many of which still have blackboards on the walls, the ceilings are sprayed with blood, the tiles are discoloured by it and the bright yellow walls are thick with it. Hanging on the walls of the bigger cells are photos of the 14 prisoners who were found here, shown as they were found when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out and into Thailand.

Today most of the Khmer Rouge are still free, living in Cambodia and Thailand and have not yet been prosecuted. Pol Pot, the leader of the party and instigator of the genocide, lived until a ripe age on the Thai side of the border and died only recently of natural causes. It is not surprising then that Phnom Penh doesn’t really have the air of a city that has recovered from its past. The streets are filty, piled high with the days rubbish and small children with swollen bellies roam barefoot, diving from pile to pile in search of scraps. At night the pavements are crowded with homeless people sleeping in hammocks, in their tuk tuks, in boxes or just sprawled out on the ground – mothers curled around their children and orphans huddled close together, swatting at feeding mosquitoes.

Its not all pain though. The Cambodian people are by far the smiliest group I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and so stunningly beautiful. And what wasn’t burned down by the Khmer Rouge is pretty spectacular. Stretched out along the Mekong is the sprawling Grand Palace and its pleasure grounds. Glittering temples reflect the blazing sun and flaking French colonial architecture says that Phnom Penh, in its hey day, must have been something to behold.

More pictures from Phonm Penh are available in the gallery

February 3, 2010 at 10:04 am 1 comment


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