South East Asia Part 1 - Bangkok, Cambodia and Vietnam


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Asia
December 22nd 2011
Published: December 22nd 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Hi there folks! We finally found the time to write about what we've been up to for last few weeks in South East Asia. Here, we've just written about the first few weeks, from Bangkok, over into Cambodia and then Vietnam. Next blog will be about Laos and Thailand's islands and then whatever we get up to after that!

Hope you all enjoy reading and have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Thailand

Bangkok: 11th Nov – 15th Nov

We arrived from Kathmandu at Bangkok airport. Immediately we were shocked to see all the Thai girls in mini-skirts – it was a stark contrast to India and Nepal; it almost felt indecent! We made our way to Khao San road, which was recommended by Lonely Planet as a backpacker area of town where we could find a cheap room. Little did we know that Khao San Road is like Birmingham‘s Broad Street on steroids! It was packed with tourists and bars advertising buckets full of strong cocktails, and playing rubbish loud music. At first we didn’t mind, and were quite intrigued by it all (India and Nepal are not quite the party places!). But we realised our mistake at night when we were trying to fall asleep in this brouhaha! We even resorted to buying earplugs!

The next morning, we came downstairs 30 minutes after check out time and the guy charged us for a whole extra night! Unfortunately, we’d given a deposit the night before so there was nothing we could do about it. After exchanging some high-pitched Thai insults, we moved on to a much nicer quieter hotel just around the corner. Didn’t want to mess with the hotel guy too much – you never know who’s got some Thai boxing moves up their sleeves!

We didn’t do much at all the next day – sometimes you just want to chill out a bit and not do much! We wandered around the area near our hotel at our leisure, stopping for the odd drink wherever took our fancy! One thing that Bangkok has definitely got going for it is its food stalls. On pretty much every corner you can find something delicious to munch on. You don’t really know what you’re ordering, but it’s always tasty!

In the evening we ended up on Patpong Road, where all the ping-pong shows are. For anyone who doesn’t know what a ping pong show is (like Oriana, who actually thought we might see a good game of table tennis!), well we won’t tell you here...Google it! For anyone who does know what it is and wonders why a couple would go to watch one together…well you’re only in Thailand once, right?

So there we were in the seediest bar you can imagine, with a couple of dirty old men sitting around a dimly lit stage which had some ropey-looking, podgy Thai ‘women’ unenthusiastically gyrating to the music in the centre. Before we knew it, a girl shot a banana across the room which landed in Lee’s lap! We’ll let you guess where it was shot from! Amongst other performances were bottle-opening, whistling, trumpet playing, cigarette smoking, balloon popping (with darts), writing, and of course the traditional ping-pong that we all know and love!

All of this entertainment for the modest sum of 3,100 Bhats – about £60!!! We were told that we’d only have to buy a beer! But what can you say when you disagree with a semi-naked, podgy, aggressive Thai woman? Just give her the money and run! Needless to say, the first thing we did back at the hotel was take a lengthy shower!

Although the ping pong show was pretty funny (and a little haunting!), it has to be said that Bangkok’s sex tourism scene is pretty seedy and nasty. You see big, pot-bellied, middle-aged losers walking hand-in-hand with young women, or even girls and boys. One of the saddest points is that they wander around together hand-in-hand as if they’re a happy couple…you’re not fooling anyone, we know your game. Honestly, it’s so hard to watch, but it just seems to be an accepted part of life here, and quite a few of the women do it out of choice, to exploit the money of the sex tourists. What’s even worse that many of these guys are English – makes you feel ashamed to come from the same part of the world.

And then there’s the ladyboys (“Michael, tell me about the ladyboys!” in the words of Alan Partridge)! You see them all over the place and some of them are pretty convincing! But there’s always something to give them away…the way they walk, the broad shoulders, the Adam’s apple, the strong jaw, the voice, the todger.

Anyway, the next day, not satisfied by our cultural feast at the ping pong show the night before, we decided to actually go and visit some of Bangkok’s proper sights: Ko Ratanakosin was a very unexpected sight, crammed with temples with very detailed facades, gold carvings and pointed roofs. We wondered why we hadn’t heard more about it beforehand – it was beautiful. Randomly, we bumped into Gretchen and Courtney, a couple of American girls we’d met the day before and headed off for a few drinks with them.

Afterwards, back near our hotel, we went for a Thai massage. It was pretty hard core – they basically straddle you and then put all their weight through you, working their way all over the body, and pulling you into funny stretches, cracking your bones and joints. At first you wonder whether you can trust the masseur not to break any of your bones, but once you relax it’s actually pretty nice and you certainly feel the benefit after it’s finished. After that we had a fish massage, where you stick your feet in a tank full of hungry fish and let them nibble all the dead skin off them! It was pretty weird at first and took a while to get used to the feeling of it but Ori loved it; As for Lee, well…he was far too ticklish to keep his feet in there for more than 10 seconds at a time!

In the evening, we went to meet Dani (a Roller Derby mate of Ori’s from back in Brum), her boyfriend Oli and another mate of theirs. Dani and Oli moved out there about 18 months ago. We had a nice dinner and then went back to their back to their condo (with an awesome view over Bangkok) where we watched CCR playing against Sioux Falls. It was an awesome game but watching them makes us realise how much we miss it all - Ori misses being on track with them so much!

The following day, we walked to the Reclining Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), a humongous gold statue of Buddha lying back, looking smug. It was quite a sight – 43m long!

Later, as we were wondering aimlessly, we ended up in the flower market where we saw a couple of flooded streets. The flood had mostly receded by the time in Bangkok – in fact, I don’t think it ever affected Bangkok too much, at the expense of many other areas in the country. We took a taxi to Siam Square which is basically the centre of modern Bangkok. We visited a couple of shopping centres which would put the Bullring to shame, and then went to the Sea Life Centre which was well worth it. In the evening, we paid a quick visit to Chinatown before making our way back to the hotel to pack our bags ready to head off into Cambodia.

It’s often said that Thai people are amongst the most smiley in the world. Well, we certainly didn’t experience that in the touristy parts of Bangkok that we saw. Maybe it’s because it’s a capital city, or because there are just so many tourists in Bangkok, and have been for the last 15 years or so, they don’t really care about being friendly and nice – they’ve reached tourist saturation. It was also surprising how few of them speak English. We just hope the people are a bit more friendly and welcoming when we reach other parts of Thailand in a few weeks.

Cambodia

Siem Reap (Angkor Wat): 15th Nov – 18th Nov

And so on to Cambodia! It wasn’t until our bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap that we realised that Cambodia is pretty much completely flat – almost as flat as Norfolk!

Siem Reap is the town just next to Angkor Wat, one of Asia’s most magnificent sites. Most towns that are used as a base for a big tourist attraction tend to be dumps – like Agra, where the Taj Mahal is for example. But Siem Reap was actually a really nice town – nice markets, excellent food, friendly people and a good few bars and restaurants as well!

Angkor Wat is just one of countless temple ruins close to Siem Reap and we decided to tour them by bike with some guys we’d met on the journey from Bangkok. It meant getting up well early in the morning and cycling about 25km on rubbish bikes in stifling heat, including making our way home in the dark, but it was great fun and definitely the right choice!

The sights themselves were amazing too, we started off with a few of the relatively smaller ruins and worked our way up to the magnificent Angkor Wat at the end of the day. The highlights were Ta Prohm, Bayon and of course Angkor Wat itself. Ta Prohm was crazy – basically there has been relatively little work done on it since it was ‘re-discovered’ by the French in the 19th century, so it is still covered in jungle – massive trees crawling all over the ruins, with the routes clinging to all the walls, hanging down in strange patterns. It was so atmospheric - there have been quite a few films shot there, including Tomb Raider.

Bayon was quite a sight! The King in the 12th Century had decided to build a temple, comprised of a series of towers which all had his smug grinning face on each side. We lost count of how many times we saw that face as we were walking around it, must’ve been hundreds! As you walked through the site, you always felt the eyes of the old emperor on you, which I guess kept his people in check! A bit of an antique version of big brother!

And then onto Angkor Wat. It was an awesome sight, its iconic towers stretching high into the sky, with detailed carving into the stone on every surface. It’s pretty crazy to imagine how long it must have taken to build at the time, no tools or machines, just pure slave power! Unfortunately it was really packed with massive amounts of tourists, but quite rightly so – it deserves that many visitors!

We cycled back to Siem Reap in pitch black and went for dinner with our mates from the bike ride at a food stall. We had a Khmer barbecue, where they give you a plate of meat, veg, noodles and rice and you cook it all up yourselves over a little gas stove! Tasty! And we met the cheekiest little boy ever, the son of the owner of the food stall – he spent the whole time dashing around tapping people on the shoulder and running away, such a cute little kid.

Most tourists who visit Siem Reap end up in ‘Angkor What?’, an awesome bar on Pub Street where the music’s loud (although rubbish!) and the drinks are free-flowing. We went there for a few cheeky ones but ended the night getting messy in ‘Hip Hop’ club, where we were pretty much the only tourists. We were surrounded on all sides by young Cambodians, mostly teenagers, who were largely way too drunk for their own good, and had nothing but smiles for us!

Battambang: 18th Nov – 19th Nov

We’d heard mixed things about the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang – the bus is both cheaper and quicker. But we decided to take the boat anyway as it was supposed to be a very scenic journey. And we didn’t regret it one bit, as this boat trip offered some of the best moments of the trip so far.

We had prime position on the boat, sitting right at the front on the roof, the sun blazing down on us.

The scenery was gorgeous, but what made it so special was when we went through the tiny floating villages en route. There can’t have been more than 50 houses in each village, some on stilts, others literally floating, but practically every one of them was packed with little kids, and they were all so excited to see the boat! They all came running to the front of their little wooden houses on the water front, all waving at us and yelling in a chorus of “bye-bye!” That was all we could hear, from every angle, a different group of kids, most of them half-naked, jumping around, dancing, yelling “bye-bye!” trying their best to get our attention and get a wave back! It was hilarious!

As well as that, we also had some laughs as the boat had some trouble getting through the wetlands. In the dry season, the water level is much lower, but this was at the end of the wet season, so there were loads of treetops sticking out of the water in various places. At some points the boat struggled to stay on course and basically ended up careering into the branches at full speed, completely out of control, much to the dismay of the people sitting at the front of the boat on the level below!

When we got to Battambang it was a bit of a disappointment. It was overrated in Lonely Planet, as an ‘elegant’ and ‘charming’ town, with a ‘remarkably chilled atmosphere’. Sounds good, right? No. Try the words ‘average’ and ‘dilapidated’ town, with ‘a bit of a funny smell’. That’d be more accurate. But it wasn’t all bad – as with everywhere else in Cambodia, the people were really friendly and there was plenty to do outside of town.

On our first evening, we went to watch a show called “Rouge” (after the Khmer Rouge) put together by Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts centre set up for disadvantaged kids, which gives them free education and teaches them painting, sculpture, circus skills, and other artistic skills they may be able to use to earn a living when they’re older. The Khmer Rouge was the dictatorship that ruled from 1975 to 1979 and murdered millions of innocent people in their quest to create a peasant-dominated communist state – we’ll talk more about it later. The show itself was great, really symbolic, and helped depict some of the things the Cambodian people went through during those tough years. But we’d learn more about the Khmer Rouge story the next day when we took a tuk-tuk tour to explore the sights around Battambamg.

We started our tuk-tuk tour with a ride on a bamboo train, which is a mode of transport that the locals have been using for years. Basically, it’s just a couple of sets of wheels that they plonk onto the age-old train track, and then a lightweight bamboo frame that sits on top of them, with a small engine that links up to the wheels to drive the ‘train’ forward! Awesome – what a rush! It didn’t exactly feel too safe though! After the first few minutes of shitting ourselves, we managed to kick back and relax and enjoy. And given there was only one track, whenever a bamboo train was coming in the other direction, one of the ‘trains’ would have to get off and dismantle and let the other ‘train’ pass!

We then went in our tuk-tuk past numerous rice fields that were being harvested. Our driver explained to us what a strenuous job it is; farmers work long hours crouched down in the fields in baking heat, often in bare feet (thus risking snake and other animal bites), for the modest sum of 2 dollars a day!

Our next stop was the killing caves, where the Khmer Rouge killed and dumped their innocent victims. There were 3 caves in total, one for men, one for women and a last one for children. There was not much in the caves other than a collection of skulls at the entrance; but as you walked on the soil where thousands of people met their death, you couldn’t help but recreate the horrible scenes of genocide in your head. Given that it all happened so recently, everyone is Cambodia has a story of how their immediate family was affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Our tuk-tuk driver explained his story to us – how his grandfather, as with everyone else, had little choice but to cooperate with the soldiers and, being a fisherman, would be forced to leave his family for weeks at a time to go fishing ‘for the good of the communist cooperative’. And then one time, he didn’t come back. His grandmother waited and waited, but he never came home. She dared not ask any questions; else you can guess what would happen to her and the rest of her family. Such a sad story, but as I said, everyone in Cambodia has a family story like this, if not worse. Doesn’t stop them being happy and smiling all the time though, that’s what’s so cool about Cambodians!

Our last stop was the crocodile farm, which hosts over 1,000 crocodiles. On our way, our driver found a dead snake on the road which we fed to the crocodiles. We hung it on a piece of string and teased the crocodiles with it. At one point one of them snapped its mouth to try and catch it - the sound of its jaws snapping closed was so loud, it was damn scary! There were all generally just lying there, with their mouths open to keep cool, only a couple of meters below us, on each side, with no fence or anything! Better watch where you put your feet! The owner told us that they export their skin and meat, especially to the Chinese, who are particularly keen on baby crocodile meat for their New Year.

In the evening we had some time to kill before taking our night bus. As we were walking through the market, we entered the hairdresser area and so Ori decided to give it a go – she always wants to grow her hair but gets impatient when it gets a bit long and messy! It was quite a funny experience actually; the woman started by cutting Ori’s hair using a blade only, no scissors involved at all. Then she washed it using a jug of water (as they don’t have running water in the market!) whilst massaging her head pretty violently.

We wondered quite a bit about where to go next, but given we’d been on the road for over two months and hadn’t seen a beach yet (!), we decided on the long journey to a deserted island off the south coast!

Koh Rong: 20th Nov – 24th Nov

We had done quite a bit of research on which island off the Cambodian coast to visit and Koh Rong was without a doubt the most tranquil and deserted island we’ve ever been to. It’s the size of Hong Kong but not very developed at all: no road, very little electricity and above all a gorgeous unspoilt beach of fine white sand and turquoise water.

The first couple of nights, we stayed in a bungalow in ‘Paradise’ lodge. It was very nice and comfortable but at 20 dollars a night it was a bit too much for us (what cheapskates we’ve become!). So we ventured around the village and came across some guys who were renting a shack on the pier for a month. They seemed like a nice bunch of people and they could sub-rent us a room for 5 dollars a night so we quickly moved there. It wasn’t as luxurious as our lodge but it was nice enough! On that day, we played some beach volley and cooked in our bungalow (whilst dodging the resident rats!).

The next day, Lee and I went off exploring the island in the morning. We walked deep through the jungle for an hour to the other side of the island to find an 8km beach even quieter than where we were staying. It was blissful and we stayed until the evening to watch a beautiful sunset on our own beach. The walk back to the other side was pretty scary as we did it in the dark with head torches. Trees were surrounding us at first and we had to use ropes over the most challenging parts to climb back to the other side. Then we arrived in a flatter area with a tiny path through some elephant grass. We could hear the noises of the jungle, movements around us…God knows what animals live there! As we approach the village, a heard of dogs was angrily barking at us in the night, all we could see was the reflections of their eyes from our torches. I (Ori) just couldn’t possibly make it through, it reminded me of when I was bitten by a dog as a kid. I got scared at all these yellow eyes waiting for us and we decided to cut through some villager’s garden. In the end we got back safe and went for dinner and a few drinks with our roomies. We ended up going to bed pretty late – probably due to the amount of M150 we had drunk!

Sihanoukville: 24th Nov – 25th Nov

Back on the mainland, we spent one night in Sihanoukville, chillaxing on a long chair by the sea, drinking beers and eating crabs.

Phnom Penh: 25th Nov – 27th Nov

Early the next morning, we made our way to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Everyone would have you believe it’s a proper shit-hole, but it was actually a really nice, clean and friendly city.

We visited the S21 prison, where the Khmer Rouge committed atrocities on innocent Cambodian people. It was a poignant experience to be standing in the same place where thousands of people where incarcerated and tortured only 30 years ago. Some of the detention and torture rooms had pictures on the wall of the dead bodies found there when it was liberated in 1979, and with the same furniture in the room, in exactly the same position. It really brought the horrific images to life. There were also galleries which showed mugshots of the victims just as they arrived in the camp, staring eerily back at us from the past. We could see expressions of fear, despair, pain and anguish in their eyes. Some of them were completely expressionless, as if they were dead already. And then there was the odd picture with a faint smile, almost as if they didn’t realised what was waiting for them in the weeks to come. There were also pictures of the Khmer rouge soldiers; we were surprised to see how young most of them were – many of them were taken from their parents at a young age and brainwashed to follow the cause of their dictator, Pol Pot. If any of you want to read about Khmer rouge, there is a book (“First they killed my father”) written by a past victim Loung Ung, which tells the story of her family throughout the Khmer Rouge years.

The rest of our time in Phnom Penh was dedicated to Christams shopping, and we spent a few hours wondering in each of the city’s many markets. Bizarrely, in the markets, and throughout Cambodia in general, all the women wear pyjamas all day long, usually really cheesy colourful ones with teddy bears all over!

Sadly our time in Cambodia had to come to an end, as we moved on towards Vietnam. Cambodia was such a nice place, and in particular it was the people that made it so enjoyable – they were so easy-going, so relaxed, so friendly. And for a people that has so recently been through such trauma, to be so chilled out living in such peace together, you have to take your hat off to them.

Vietnam

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City): 27th Nov – 28th Nov

We only had a brief stopover in Saigon, to organise our trip to the Mekong Delta. Based on being there for an evening, we can just say that there are lots and lots of motorbikes and mopeds, and also quite a few Western perverts in the seedy bars in the tourist area of Pham Ngu Lao.

Mekong delta: 28th Nov -29th Nov

We embarked on a 2-day package tour from Saigon to visit a couple of places in the Mekong Delta: Ben Tre and Can Tho. After the gorgeous boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang in Cambodia, we were eager to see what the Mekong delta had to offer! But it has to be said, we were pretty disappointed with it. The area was really industrial, lots of massive tankers chugging past, throwing out diesel fumes. On our first day we found ourselves shepherded around with a bunch of Aussie teenagers who were on a school trip! We went from tourist trap to tourist trap: 5 minutes of “here’s how the locals make coconut candy/rice noodles” which was interesting in itself, but then we’d be left to wander the tourist shop for 15 minutes with another 3 boat-fuls of tourists! Not once did we get to see how the Mekong Delta people live, or speak to them.

Luckily we made up for the boredom of the first day by having a very ‘memorable’ meal in the evening. We went to a food stall in Can Tho, where there were loads of locals sitting around grilling meat and fish. We thought we’d give it a go and sat at one of their wobbly cardboard tables by the river. As we looked at the menu, we see ‘mouse’ as a meal. Is that another spelling mistake? We ask the waiter to clarify…in fact it was rat (from the countryside, but still!) on the menu! Rat?! But you only live once right? So Lee chose grilled rat, whilst Ori went for grilled “Keo fish” - some long and skinny fish, almost like a little snake, about six inches in length, served raw on skewers, ready for the barby. Pretty freaky.

Even freakier: as the waiter puts the first skewer of fish on the grill, we see it twisting and squirming over the hot coals…nooo…we didn’t realise it was still alive! And there it was dying in front of our eyes, being grilled alive…Only now did we notice that the fish on the other skewers were still breathing and you could sometime see their little fins moving. It felt atrocious at first. Then we thought, well… at least it’s fresh fish right?! Same kind of fish we have back at home except we see it dying in front of us…still pretty cruel… but if that’s what they do here then why not?! It tasted ok but not great. Lee’s rat tasted pretty wild I thought, although he seemed to enjoy it!...and surprisingly we didn’t feel too rough the next day!

The next day, on our way to the boat station, people in the street were selling fish (alive as always, trying to flap their way out of their basket) and cutting big chunks of meat. It reminded us of our epic dinner the preceding night - people here seem to eat anything!

We visited the floating market of Can Tho, where lots of boats meet on the Mekong to sell their fruits and vegetables. Flags on the boat indicated what sort of goods were to sell. Pineapples, potatoes, coconuts, all sorts of fruit and veg were on sale. It was pretty cool. But again the setting was pretty industrial –there were big boats roaming by us, and a lot of tourist boats.

Saigon - 29th Nov

On our way back to Saigon, it started raining pretty hard. It was funny to watch the Vietnamese people on their motorbikes, huddled under plastic sheets in a vain attempt to keep dry. Some raincoats even had two holes; one for the driver and one for the passenger at the back!

We didn’t even stay the night in Saigon on this visit – a few hours after getting back from the Mekong Delta, we left on a night bus to Nha Trang and also booked another night bus for the following day from Nha Trang to Hoi An. Yes, that’s right, two night buses in two nights! That’s how double’ard we are!

Nha Trang: 30th Nov

Just a fleeting visit to this town for the day, relaxing on the beach whilst waiting for our next night bus onto Hoi An.

Hoi An:1st Dec – 2nd Dec

The night bus to Hoi An was a complete nightmare. The staff on the bus were talking to us like shit, they kept yelling at us for no reason and put all the foreigners in the crap seats. So we found ourselves at the back of the bus, where it’s the bumpiest, stuck in the middle of a row of 5 people with no space for our legs. And it was a 12 hour journey. Overnight. Not gonna get too much sleep then!

Every hour or so, the bus would stop to pick up some more stuff. Our bags were crammed in the boot, in the middle of some petrol tanks and other boxes. At one point, as we were stopping for dinner, an American guy opens the boot to get some sleeping pills out of his bag. As he takes his stuff out, one of the petrol tank falls out of the boot…its lid was open and its content spilled on the floor. It turned out that there were some tiny baby fish inside the tanks and they were now flapping all over the place on the floor! When the drivers discovered what had happened, they went absolutely mad at the guy and pushed him violently as if they were going to start a fight. It was pretty tense. They picked up every single fish by hand and yelled at us to go back inside the bus! After a very long and uncomfortable journey, with very little sleep, we finally made it to Hoi An.

Hoi An was a charming little town settled around a river. There’s not much sightseeing to do there - apart from a very old bridge and a few old houses, but there certainly is a lot of shopping to do! They have tailors absolutely everywhere! But we didn’t get any clothes made – who knows what size we will be when we get back home! The other good thing about Hoi An is their delicious food. There are a few French bakeries, where we stopped for breakfast and deserts. And Hoi An has a couple of specialities, including White Rose and Cao Lau – absolutely delicious!

From Hoi An, we had planned to go further up the coast to visit Hanoi and Halong Bay, which is supposed to be beautiful. But that meant another 20 hour journey, to see some touristic sites, and then a two day trip after that to skip across into Northern Laos. By this point we were getting sick of tourist-drenched places and all the long journeys so finally decided to go straight into Southern Laos from where we were, and skip Halong Bay. It was a tough decision, but in the end probably the right one, as Laos was amazing, so chilled out and so few tourists (as you'll see in our next blog entry). Halong Bay will have to wait for another day!

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