Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cambodia - Siem Reap & Angkor Archaeological Park

Our alarm went off at 3am on Sunday morning. We both had bad food hangovers from the excesses of Old Airport Road hawker centre. We had made the mistake of letting my old colleague Jason and his fiance Suzanne order for us!  By 8.30am we were eating breakfast in our hotel in Siem Reap having been picked up by Mr Han and his trusty tuk-tuk. 

Our guide Mr Now arrived around 9am to escort us round the 'Old Market' which is a real local market complete with live fish, chickens with heads and feet attached, veggies galor and a wide variety of smells ranging from nice to extremely nasty! Having bought a souvenir or two almost our first of the entire trip, we were taken to 'Artisans of Angkor' an organisation dedicated to improving rural Cambodians' quality of life though arts and crafts. 

We were shown round the apprentice workshops where villagers are trained to create high quality items to sell in the attached gift shop and other stores across the country. Normally we'd give gift shops a wide berth but the items on offer were really quite nice and we ended up parting with more cash than we intended!

After a spot of lunch we had to retire to the coolness of our room to catch up on some sleep before heading out to the Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP) to pick up our passes and check out the sunset from Phnom Bakeng. We joined the hoard to climb up to the top of this crumbling temple to try to snap a shot of Angkor Wat and its surrounds as the sun set in the distance. The earlier rains had left some reslient clouds though so the colours weren't quite what we'd hoped for. It was still good to get an idea of the geography of the area we would explore in more detail on the following day.

Once the sun had dropped below the horizon it got dark rapidly and without a torch the climb down was a little daunting to say the least. We met up with Mr Han again at the bottom to ferry us back into Siem Reap. We decided to check out the night market which is billed as being aimed at tourists and it lived up to its reputation. The quality and prices were higher than the Old Market but we still bought a few trinkets and early Christmas pressies!

We had another early start the next morning to beat the crowds to Ta Prohm. We left the hotel by 6am and were following Angelina Jolie's (Tomb Raider was filmed here) footsteps through the decaying temple complex before too long. We had the place almost to ourselves, we only saw three other tourists the whole time we were there. The jungle is trying to reclaim lost land and seeing trees growing out of the temple ruins really is awesome.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast while the crowds were on their way to Angkor Wat. By the time we'd finished and headed there ourselves the crowd had thinned significantly and although it wasn't as quiet as Ta Prohm we only had one Korean tour group to contend with. Mr Now kept up a constant stream of information that to be honest I'm struggling to remember already. Lots of stories of Vishnu and King Suryavarman II, there were so many it was hard to keep up. We were joined by some trainee tour guides too who kept things entertaining though. 

After several hours of wandering around in the heat we were ready for a break and some lunch. So we stopped at a rest area overlooking Bayon. Here we watched as the tourists swarmed out to head back to their hotels and the town for lunch as we munched our packed lunches. By noon the place was deserted and we almost had the place to ourselves again.

Bayon was superb the towers were all covered by faces on each side. We had a lot of fun taking daft pics before moving on to Bauphon and then other parts of Angkor Thom whose names I forget, except for the Terrace of the Leper King, which I thought was a cool name...

By now we were hot and tired so we headed back to the hotel for a well earned drink and rest before the evening entertainment of an Apsara show started. Apsara are the celestial nymphs depicted all over the Angkor area in carvings and statues, all are topless but for modern modesty the real ones we saw dancing were fully clothed...

We really enjoyed our stay in Siem Reap although we only wish we'd had longer to explore even more of it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Malaysia - Perhentian Islands

From Adelaide we flew to Singapore for a wild weekend with old friends there. On the Sunday night we caught the train from across the causeway in Johor Baru to Wakaf Baru (the nearest station to Kota Baru) in North East Malaysia. The sleeper carriage we were in was a bit like a huge travelling dormitory with bunk beds running down each side of the aisle in the middle. As people got on and off at each stop through the night we didn't get a great deal of sleep even with our trusty earplugs and eye masks on.

We arrived in Wakaf Baru around 8.30 on Monday morning and although all the guide books and travel guides suggest this is the best place to catch a taxi to Kuala Besut there was in fact only one waiting. So after a fair amount of haggling and a good deal of silence as both sides tried for a win-win situation, we hopped in the rusty bucket of a cab for the hour long trip to KB. On the way the cabbie had to stop for oil and petrol just in case. The fake leathery plastic seats and no aircon made it a very sweaty experience even so early in the morning and with all the windows wound down.

The cabbie stuck to back roads and tracks so we didn't see any sign posts for KB until only a few kms out. This always makes me nervous and stupid thoughts of jungle robbery spring to mind! But he got us to the jetty in one piece and before long we boarded the big speedboat filled with other travellers. We were almost the last people off so we got a good tour of the islands while the boat dropped others at accommodation ranging from very basic to five stars.

We'd decided to stop at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil (pronounced per-hen-t-ian ke-chill not perhenshian kesil as we first tried) the small island. We figured as most places were closing for the end of the season (monsoon season is on the way) we stood a better chance of finding somewhere still open. We ended up at Mohsin Chalets which were up on the hill overlooking the beach. They were clean enough and had power between 6.30pm and 7.30am so the fan worked while we were asleep! The room did have 24 hour water though which was a real selling point as a lot of places didn't.

We spent the rest of the first day relaxing and eating lots of tasty Malay food. The next two days we went on snorkelling tours round the two islands (Kecil and Besar, small and big). We enjoyed it so much the first day we had to do it again the next. Both days we saw at least 3 or 4 different green turtles, more than ten black tipped reef sharks and tons of other tropical fishes including clown fish (nemos) by the bucket load. On the second day we even got a chance to see the turtle sanctuary and saw some just hatched baby turtles which was magic. Both evenings we ate at restaurants on the beach serving fresh barbecued fish and other goodies.

On the boat back to Kuala Besut we met an Australian couple going back to Kota Baru too so we shared a cab with them to the city, and spent the afternoon with them (mainly eating and drinking) before we all caught the night train back to Singapore.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Australia - South Australia

After the long drive along the Great Ocean road we briefly stopped in Mount Gambier for a night. We stayed at the Old Jail hostel, where we slept in an old cell turned into a double room. We had to double check we wouldn't be locked in when we shut the door! It has got a lot of potential as a hostel but is in need of some serious TLC.

We were up exceptionally early the following morning to get to Adelaide before midday. We were staying with our friends James and Emma in their new house in a lovely suburb there.After a quick tour of the house and garden we all headed out for Sunday lunch and some wine tasting in the Maclaren Vale region a short drive away. Thankfully Emma drove us home so we got to sample tons of tasty tipples and even ended up purchasing a fortified shiraz that was too good to refuse!

We spent the next few days,
our last in Oz, chilling out and preparing to leave. We still managed to squeeze in a trip to the excellent Cleland Wildlife Park, a tour of the market followed by a picnic in the park and a nice lunch with Linda (one of Anna's relatives). All of these were packed in around a lot of playing with James' toys; the Wii and pool table were real time wasters! And lots of fun.

Our time in Adelaide disappeared way too quickly and before we knew it we had to pack our backpacks and head off to catch our flight to Singapore.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Australia - Victoria

Our first stop in Victoria was Lakes Entrance. It was a big drive from Batemans Bay which meant Anna had her first go driving the 'big car'. We stopped for a couple of nights there to chill out. One lazy afternoon we played a round of 'Pirate' mini-golf. We drew the game but Anna fluked a hole-in-one on the 18th which won us a voucher for a Subway sandwich! We couldn't do much more Lakes Entrance excitement so headed on to the bright lights of Melbourne.

Our hostel in Melbourne was in the suburb of Richmond, it was actually in the basement of a posh-ish hotel. It felt odd strolling in with our rucksacks into their fancy foyer! But at least the car didn't look out of place in the car park. We had a couple of days to explore Melbourne which is quite a cosmopolitan city with loads of great eats. We found a great Indian that did proper Masala Dosas, really crispy! We also really liked the Queen Victoria market where we stocked up on supplies for a picnic in the Botanic gardens for the price of a couple of sandwiches...

After Melbourne we followed the A1 past Geelong and eventually hit the Great Ocean Road, the world's longest war memorial. The road mostly hugs the coast between Torquay and Warrnambool. We stopped halfway along at a tiny hamlet called Princeton, which consisted of a backpackers, a campsite, a pub and a shop! It gave us a good base to explore the most photographed part of the road, the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. We spent sunset one day and the morning of the following driving along stopping for every brown sign pointing to yet another glorious view. London Arch (Formerly London Bridge) and the Grotto were the other side of Port Campbell so we didn't see them till the second day. The scenery was spectacular even if the weather was bitter at times.

Our time in the smallest mainland state was over quickly and we were soon to arrive in South Australia, completing visits to all five mainland states for me!


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Australia - New South Wales

We celebrated Anna's birthday in Byron Bay with a posh fish and chip dinner, including oysters and calamari! We had nice ice creams by the lighthouse while trying to spot humpback whales from the clifftops. We didn't see any whales but we did see a pod of dolphins hunting a school of fish nearby and a turtle lolling around in the surf at the bottom of the cliffs!

The next day we carried on towards Sydney, stopping off at Coffs Harbour for the night. We arrived mid-afternoon so managed a trip to the botanic gardens where we'd heard rumours of wild koalas having been spotted. We didn't manage to see any though...

We spent another day on the road getting to Port Stephens. We stayed at a lovely YHA hostel called the Samurai Beach. It was out in the bush and made up of individual cabins with a bush kitchen in the middle and had a resident huge fluffy german shepherd puppy. The owner lent us her binoculars and showed us where to see a wild koala and baby in the grounds which was awesome! We explored the area during the remainder of the afternoon and did a short walk to a lookout that was a bit overgrown so couldn't really see a lot!

We arrived in Sydney after a fairly short drive (only 2 and a half hours). Stopped off in Palm Beach to watch a spot of filming for the infamous Ozzie soap opera 'Home and Away'! We had an ice cream again as the crew and cast took several 'takes'. They mustn't have had any talent scouts around as we weren't asked to help out...

We were staying in Manly, one of the many suburbs of Sydney. Its a very chilled out sort of place. We caught the ferry into the city as it was more scenic than the bus. You get great views of the Opera house and bridge from it anyway! I'd bought Anna a bridge climb tour for her birthday, so we were up bright and early to join the commuters on the ferry. We arrived early to the climb centre so we got bumped to an earlier tour and after a half hour or so of preparations we were on our way to the top of the bridge.

It was great fun climbing up above the eight lanes of traffic and two rail lines. Our guide was quite new but still very competent. Although one of the guys in our group corrected him when he said most of the steel used came from London, allegedly it came from Stockton... The whole climb took about two and a half hours, not including the time taken to clamber in and out of our flattering grey jumpsuits, headset radios and other safety equipment.

When we'd finished at the bridge we had time to wander down to Woolloomooloo to Harry's Cafe de Wheels for a 'Tiger Pie'. They don't have real tigers in them, but they do come with mash, peas and gravy all on top of the pie. Genius.

After all the walking and climbing we returned via the ferry to Manly. I was so tired I even had a sneaky forty winks on the ferry until I woke myself up snoring much to Anna's amusement.

The next few days we spent hanging out in Sydney, wandering round the shops and botanic gardens. Taking lots of pics of the bridge and opera house and eating another Tiger pie!!!

Our last stop in NSW was Batemans Bay at another YHA. This time in a converted caravan that was surprisingly well decorated. We'd imagined some nice 70's oranges and browns! We only stayed the night before heading on towards Melbourne.