Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Angkor Temples: a photo diary part II

Sunset at the South Gate of the Angkor Thom

The Baphuon, under renovation and "off limits" supposedly. Impressively large temple with a long causeway and a huge central domed temple.

Garuda at the causeway to Ta Phrom

The Angkor Temples: a photo diary

Above Right: Interior details at the Angkor Wat

Above: The Angkor Wat, the shot everyone takes across the lake - but i like mine best =)

Enigmatic smiles at the Bayon (pronounced Ba-yoo-on by locals)

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Keane - Somewhere only we know

Other personal favourite spots around the Angkor would include the Bayon, with carvings that re-enact scenes of everyday life and battle. I remember the first time i went, on foot, being the idiot i was i asked to be dropped by my moto driver at the Angkor Wat, walking to the Bayon, and having doubts that the greyish form in front of me was the Bayon. But nearer to it one begins to feel the magic, the faces that smile slightly while giving nothing away staring down at you at height from every angle, suggesting the omnipresence of some God or supreme being.

Another spot that was absolutely stunning was the hidden wall at the Terrace of the Leper King near the center of the Angkor Thom (Great City), with carvings fresh and sharp as if they were just carved yesterday.

The Kleangs, normally quite deserted and devoid of any annoying tour groups clamouring to pose for photographs just so they can get back on to the air conditioned comfort of their bus is yet another personal favourite. For reasons stated above. It was just peaceful and tranquil, surrounded by some trees and lying in a clearing.

Learning the Language

Just found this really useful site that has podcasts and audio files of some languages as free downloads.

Monday, 26 November 2007

My Favourite Temples

Preah Rup

Climbing up towards the central platform in the evening, and finding myself in the company of nagas, sentinels staring silently at the horizon, and a cluster of temple-towers with strands of stray grass growing out of the roofs. The evening atmosphere was magical - the crimson orb of the sun casting its fading light over the temple compound, illuminating everything in a tranquil, warm orange glow.

While everyone rushes off to the circus at Phnom Bakheng, you'll be amazed how peaceful and beautiful it can be atop some lesser known temple awaiting the sunset and just talking to the kids that try to sell you little trinkets like bamboo flutes and post cards.

Ta Keo the tower of glass

Ta Keo is an enigmatic, unadorned temple that rises some 50 metres high, and apparently construction stopped due to an inauspicious lightning strikes, as some theories go. Some of the sandstone blocks transported down the river for its construction still lay unused along the outer passageways, showing how abruptly construction was halted.

What i liked about Ta Keo was its sheer scale and grandeur, being one of the largest Angkorian temples, and the somewhat menacing and eerie enigma that surrounds the sudden halt in building work. There was this Khmer guy who showed me around the compound, pointing out facts and little bits of trivia, and i quite enjoyed his company as we strolled down the deserted passageways and he showed me the supposed easier stairway to the topmost landing, 50 meters or so up.

I had an aborted attempt to reach the topmost tower, stopping about halfway up, seeing another traveller already on the ledge and looking on with envy. I remember thinking i don't want to die in Cambodia, it was that scary, and real, a fear, which saw me crawling bravely over to a ledge where the guardian lion sat and joining it for some company.

Neak Pean the coiled serpents

Unique is the best word to describe Neak Pean, a large pool with a central island shrine encircled by the body of 2 serpents (which lends the name) surrounded by four smaller pools that flow into it, once filled with water and reachable by boat, but now dry. The four chambers that allow the smaller pools to feed into the large one each has a different spout in the shapes of a lion, an elephant, a human and a horse

The Angkor Wat

"One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo —might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome..."
-Henri Mouhot

What i really loved about the Angkor Wat was less the facade itself, althought that was stunning, but more so the cool dark interior corridors that once had seen the passage of people, priests and maybe even kings of the great Khmer civilisation, now whispering such secrets, thick with history and intrigues, in its bas reliefs, carvings, beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and false windows, and the occassional statuette in the confluence of silent corridors. All silent, all cool in the half light despite the midday sun blazing overhead. I used to stroll the corridors, aimlessly, and wonder, what it must have been like almost 1 millenium ago.

The Angkor. Mode of transport: Bicycle

The Angkor. Mode of transport: Bicycle

Cycling around the Angkor is still a pursuit undertaken by relatively few travellers. Most hire a tuk tuk for the day for around 10 to 12 dollars to take them around the Grand Circuit.

Why cycle then? For starters, there is more freedom in taking to the road yourself, instead of being chauffered around the circuit in a tuk tuk crossing off the temples as you pass them by or stop for a quick look around. Cycling is pretty much an own time, own target enterprise. I am hassled by no one, i move when i want to move, and i can spend as much time as i want on the road, admiring the jungle itself and the play of sunlight on the trees or just stopping by a lesser known temple and finding that im the only person there, embarking on yet another attempt to climb towards the central landing, only giving up halfway up and then settling down on the stairs to enjoy the view and slightly quaver in fear at the immense height and inevitable treacherous journey down.

Seeing that these temples were meant to symbolise an ascent to the abode of the Gods, climbing was not supposed to be an easy task - well, its never going to be easy to ascend the heavens right?

Left: An impossible ascent, now that the sandstone steps have been eroded by the ebb and flow of time and history.

Above, right: Treacherous steps that lead up the the central tower of the Angkor Wat.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Travel more, pack/plan less

The more i travel, the less i plan and the less i pack. Remember the first time carrying a huge 20kg pack in Taiwan, had trouble even getting it off the bus and into my room, and planning even the minutest details like where to have dinner etc.

Now i pretty much stick to around 20 plus litres going and then more coming back, and just have a rough itinery at hand of what i want to do and how im going to fit it into the time i have in the country im travelling in.

Friday, 23 November 2007


The Angkor Wat. Words fail me. My first glimpse of it was on the back of a moto, heading towards the checkpoint to buy my pass - took the week long one for around 60 dollars. Very expensive, but worth it.

First glimpse of the Angkor took my breath away - 3 tiny, yet distintive towers in the distance, hidden in trees, that i've come so far just to see, had that impact on me. Stunned silence, that i am actually looking at it with my own eyes, and then great joy.

The main sandstone causeway across a huge moat to the Angkor Wat. The start of a symbolic walk to the centre of the universe at Mount Meru, the heavens epitomised by the central, tallest tower of the Angkor Wat, surrounded by 4 shorter towers.

Of Lattes and Maps

Love sitting in a quaint little cafe somewhere, sipping a nice cup of coffee while poring over my maps and planning for the trip ahead, watching the world go by and feel just a little weary and that little bit older.

I seem to have a predilection for that Starbucks outlet outside United Square, in Novena, Singapore. Watching the water cascade down the fountain-wall from my favourite seat on an idle weekday afternoon is always nice, you feel that you have all the time in the world, and with it the ability to do anything you ever wanted to.

Particularly memorable was sitting down in there, before Christmas last year, with a hot Christmassy drink in hand, and planning for my first crazy adventure that would see me travelling overland from Hanoi weaving through Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia before finally reaching Singapore city, Singapore. It didnt materialise though, very sadly. But the audacity of it, for a first timer. Brings a smile to my face today, to think of it. To borrow from David Stirling, Who Dares Wins, and that young lad of 16 planning that madcap overland trip on such a low bank budget probably played a huge role in me realising who i am today and who i want to be, a vagabond at heart, existing for myself and none other, and a backpacker.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Destination: Laos

Will be in Laos in 8 days. My packlist ie stuff im trying to stuff into my small 3o litre pack now reads like this:

  • Security packet - waterproofed, left at bottom of pack and hope to never open it
  • First aid kit - Again, hope never to open, left at bottom of pack
  • Guidebook, Map and Compass
  • Hydration system - its just convenient and distrubutes the weight of the pack much better than big 1.5 litre water bottles.
  • Money pouch - i prefer the one that wraps around your calf - very hard to pick
  • Alarm clock - smallest one possible
  • Camera - stuffed in pocket
  • Batteries - plenty, for the camera
  • Torch
  • Shirts - 4 - 1 wash, 1 to wear, 1 just in case and 1 to sleep in
  • Shorts - 1 pair, to sleep in
  • Track pants - 1 pair, just in case
  • Trek pants - 1
  • Jeans - 1
  • Underwear
  • Socks - 2 pairs
  • Waterproof jacket - 1
  • Watch
  • Boots
  • Flip flops
  • Spare spectacles
  • Tape - for repairs - Nasa requires each space shuttle mission carry one - need i say more
  • Toilet roll - crushed, waterproofed, left on top of pack - my theft deterrence system
  • Writing material
  • Passport photos - for visas etc
  • Toiletries - ziplocked bag
  • Ziploc bags

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, at times chaotic, at times beguiling. Trying to cross the road at Preah Ekereah outside Wat Ounalom was definitely the former, along with visiting dark, wet and labyrinthine fresh produce markets.

Places to visit around Phnom Penh include the National Museum, interesting collection of Khmer artefacts and a nice, tranquil courtyard with fish ponds and housing the statue of the Leper King (the one at Siem Reap on top of a knoll is a replica).

The Russian Market, Psaa Tuol Tom Pong where during the height of the Cold War Russians shopped for Ak47s and marijuana, is now a nice, family friendly touristy market. Worth visiting? For a few souvenir kramas and carvings - nothing else much actually, and so's the other markets i checked out including Psaa Olympic, Russei amongst others.

The more memorable one was Psaa Thmei, the huge yellow ziggurat like dome in the middle of Phnom Penh, due to its sheer size and architecture. Some of the traders here speak Chinese (being Cambodians of Chinese descent) and it was quite nice to chat with them about life in Cambodia in general, and without the language barrier it was as if i was exposed to a whole new world of insights. Its always nice to meet someone in a foreign land, a local who share a common language with you, like the owners of the Malaysia Restaurant who spoke Malay, but alas were not exactly friendly or in a good mood when i popped by for breakfast. The opposite place, where the waiter was Malaysian was much better. The food was quite good as opposed to the rubbery beef at the Malaysia, and he even made teh tarek for me when i asked for tea. Although it was mind-blowingly, diabetes-causing sweet, it was nevertheless a really nice gesture and a taste of home this far away.

Monday, 19 November 2007

S21 Prison

Rivers flowed with blood during Pol Pot's murderous reign. Brother No 1 was responsible for the deaths of 1-3 million Cambodians.

The horror at Security Prison 21

A prison cell at the S21. Bloodstains can still be seen on the floors and walls.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was actually the first stop of my journey in Cambodia, my introduction to the world of solo backpacking.

Reached PP at night on the 28th of December, 2006, cleared customs and walked out into the night in Phnom Penh. That feeling is always exhilarating, clearing customs and then walking out into the warm night, taking in the city all at once, right there waiting for you to explore. After ging to some guesthouses in the city, finally found a place at Lucky Ro, some GH near Psaa Chaa (New Market) and the Lyon d'Or and the riverside. 7 dollars a night here got me a TV, bed and shower.

First few days in Phnom Penh were spent visiting the S21 prison-museum and the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek, a chilling testimony to mankind's brutality and cruelty against his fellow men.

Above: Mass graves at Choueng Ek. When it rains, new teeth and bone slivers and clothes are often unearthed around the Killing Fields area.

Skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge

Siem Reap

Reached Siem Reap late afternoon, after the bus broke down on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Dropped off at some bus depot, but amazingly the touts that LP claim swarm you (that i was dreading) failed somehow to materialise - I was amazed as i stepped off a bus and not a single tout/moto driver was to be seen. Wandered some ways out of the bus depot before i managed to get a moto to town. For the first time in Cambodia, i managed to get a room in the guesthouse i had originally planned to stay in, at the Popular GH, just off Bar Street.

Paid i think was 5 dollars for a single room which was very clean, spartan, but clean, with a single bed, coat hanger and a paint bucket that doubled as trash can. Shared toilets were just down the corridor. Clean, also. The had a nice restaurant/cafe on the second floor, a nice touch as well for those seeking a quick breakfast or a snack before moving out.

Siem Reap itself was a small town, divided neatly by a river into 2 halves connected by a few bridges that serve as a rough guidepost as to where you are in Siem Reap. Bar Street, admittedly, was a bit of an incongruity in Siem Reap, an entire street that was cordoned off by the tourist police at night so that tourists and travelllers can waltz/stumble down the street with no risk of being hit by motos. As the name suggest, the street was really a collection of bars, pubs and some clubs, with the occassional souvenir shop and bookstore. Still, a nice place to get lost in at night after a tiring day exploring the Angkor temples, although not nearly as atmospheric as Boeng Kak. Say what you want, but backpacker ghettos have a certain charm to them, the itinerant charm of thousands of young backpackers passing through throughout the years in search of adventure and their own true selves, and that you are one of them, just one of the many in this greater journey of life.

Left: Photo of a Psaa (market) opposite Bar Street at evening.
Bar Street, on the other hand, was more tourist oriented, and the prices were generally much higher. What was more fun, i found, was the places just outside bar street, the roadside stalls and street markets that obviously are there to cater to the poor young backpacker who cant really afford to wine and dine in Bar Street. I remember this stall selling fantastic tukalok (Cambodian fruit shakes - amazing) for around 2,000 riels, and great, hot meals like fried rice or noodles for 4,000 riels (1USD), way cheaper and more authentic than what the restaurants in Bar Street offers, enjoyed al fresco perched on the little stools. That said, there was this Mexican restaurant around Bar Street that had amazing tortillas and margaritas thats worth a try. And Khmer Bohrane Restaurant wasn't too bad either.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The Art of Happiness

Seek not to have what you want but want what you have. Wise words from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Another quote i find particularly meaningful is that the richest man is not the one who has the most, but the one who wants the least.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

One Day in Southeast Asia

Left: Psaa Chaa in Cambodia through my room window

Waking up, and thinking hey, im actually in (insert country name), and looking out of the window, first thing in the morning, taking in the fresh morning air and looking at the locals who have already awoken before you going about their lives.

This is then followed by washing up with the really cold tap water, and then packing for the day's activities. You then go out of your room, making sure its locked securely behind you (occassionally turning back midway down the stairs just to give the padlock another pull), and reach the streets you saw from your window and so many months ago in that guidebook or website, instantly hit by an assortment of new scents in the air, the inevitable moto drivers that camp in front of your guesthouse, touting their services, the stream of people passing by and the sound of motos and people going about their daily lives.

The immediate priority is then breakfast. Hunting it down (in an almost neanderthal cave-man analogy) is a joy. Following your nose through the labyrinthine local markets, walking down alleys, avoiding stray dogs foraging through last night's trash and going in coffee shops with men in jackets sitting out front sipping tea and staring at you while you enter, and looking forward to a great, authentic local breakfast is one of the small, sweet joys of travelling.

Breakfast is the time when you see a nation on the move, workers having that quiet, introspective cup of coffee before heading off to work, housewives shopping for groceries at local wet markets, and children going to school. Waking up and smelling the coffee, literally, is an amazing start to the day, especially on those cold, chilly mornings.

After downing that hot steaming cup of coffee - sometimes it doesn't matter what you order, coffee seems to be the rule in Southeast Asia, from the Super 3-in-1 mixes you get in Burma to authentic Vietnamese coffee. The exception, of course, is Malaysia, where protocol dictates you start the day with a hot glass of teh tarik (pulled tea literally, ie tea with condensed milk poured form mug to mug at sometimes spectacular heights) with your roti chanai or nasi lemak.

Finishing that warming mug of coffee and settling the bill, you then hoist your daypack over your back, well fed, warm and looking forward to what adventures the day will bring. From the little coffeeshop or stall nestled in a row of colonial buildings, you then walk, cycle or hail a moto to bring you to your next destination, might it be a museum, a monument you've seen countless times on postcards, or just the riverside for a slow walk to collect your thoughts, as is often the case in Indochina with the lovely French colonial cities that line the mighty Mekong.

Boeng Kak aka the Lake

After the sun drenched beaches of Sihanoukville, it was going to be a brief stopover in Phnom Penh before catching another bus to Siem Reap. There was the somewhat dodgy option of an 11 hour mega bus peregrination to Siem Reap, i gave that a miss. But for those who want to try it, this exciting deal can be purviewed at some of the beach huts that clutter around Seredipity.

The road to Phnom Penh was blissful tarmac all the way, nothing really interesting happened. Fell asleep through the 4 hour ride, which soon pulled up in Phnom Penh's Psaa Thmei (Central Market), or Psaa Niek Mien (Rich Man's Market) as known by the locals. After fighting off the touts, it was find-a-place-to-stay-for-the-night time again. Having stayed at the somewhat more middle class (read:boring) area around the riverside during my first few days in Phnom Penh, i decided to give Boeng Kak, backpackersville aka the Lake a try despite its rather bad reputation even within a city that has probably the worst reputation in Southeast Asia. That said, i still love Phnom Penh for what it was - unassuming, messy, chaotic, without any of the facade commonly draped over mega cities that draw tourists by the plane loads.

Boeng Kak, was, at least interesting. Although the place i stayed in definitely wasn't. The i don't really care im only going to stay here for one night mentality is not a good one when you crawl back in at night to find youself surrounded be cardboard thin wooden walls, and a shower area that i wouldn't dare linger in, after even having braved Burmese toilets that were basically just a pit in the ground. It was dark, claustrophobic, slimey and dirty. And to top it all up, my room had a window. Yep, a window that opened out right into the lake, with all its algae and infestations (trust me guys, Boeng Kak lake is not somewhere you'd want to go swimming). That in itself wasn't a problem. The problem was that this was a surefire sign i was going to get eaten alive by half the mozzies on the lake that night. Thank God for insect repellant and mosquito nets.

The guesthouse in question (Dead Fish or Lazy Fish, i think it was the latter) was at least cheap at 3 dollars a night, and it had a pool table and something that resembles a bar overlooking the lake. This if of course balanced (i say outweighted) against the state of the rooms.

Back to pleasanter topics. I was having a nice quiet Beer Lao on the deck overlooking the lake when guess who decided to return to PP en route to Siem Reap and check into the very same guesthouse? We had a few drinks before going out to explore Boeng Kak for the night, and had some great naan at the Indian Curry Pot, which took us some time and asking around to find. But it sure was worth it. (Crane your necks a bit - it's upstairs, above some diver's bar or something that has a catchy blue neon sign.) Popped into a little souvenir shop and bought the little flags that now sit proudly on my pack.

Boeng Kak itself was labyrinthine, mazy alleys of banana pancake shops, travel agencies, money changers, restaurants that cater primarily to the backpacker. A self contained and sufficient backpacker community, ala Khao San Road, which has more than its fair share of detractors. My take on all this is that, once in a while, its fun to be in a backpackers ghetto, see similar people, have the much maligned banana pancake, get a drink or two, have fantastic curry (Indian Curry Pot!), but do this all the time and your adventure becomes a tad pointless doesn't it? Personally i treat these places as a bit of a Friday's night out place, where after say a week of exploring the city and roughing it, i can kick back and maybe feel a slice of home or just hang out with the backpacker community, and get some travel related stuff done - admittedly its much easier to sort out visas etc at these places.

Departure next day to Siem Reap, can't remember if i bought the bus tickets before hand. Probably not. So the next day i was crawling out of my mosquito net early in the morning, thankful i haven't got bitten (minor miracle at work here), got into a tuk-tuk and was soon on a bus to Siem Reap.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Koh Russei

A day trip from Sihanoukville saw me ending up at Koh Russei, Bamboo Island. Koh Phi Phi it is not, with the less than pristine beaches, ramshackle beach bungalows that are an eyesore, with travellers that look like they forgot to go home - doesn't look anything like the Beach (the Leo Di Caprio show) by any means. The lack of amenities (one single beach shack, which, sadly wasn't operating) can normally be justified and outweighed easily by the sheer, breath taking beauty of such hidden, untouristed, serendipitous paradises, but sadly, this is not the case with Koh Russei. The main draw? It does offer some relaxation, but the beach was (over)crowded and it was more akin to a Vietnam War GI R&R beach than anything else.

Day trips to the island can be arranged through most guesthouses in S'ville (~8USD), if you have time to kill. Other activities include (actually are, or is) snorkelling at a few spots before stopping for lunch at Koh Russei itself. And my friend had this to say about snorkelling - She saw a fish. So we can deduce that the snorkelling most probable isn't great either. And for those who like to keep dry, (ie me), staying on the boat is relaxing, chatting with the other hydrophobes, but not a way you'd want to spend most of a morning/afternoon.

The saving grace was the really memorable picnic lunch of barracuda steak, baguette (again) and salad, the fillet of fish wrapped in aluminium foil and cooked right on the beach. Most Southeast Asian veterans who have included a stop at Russei probably remember this meal as one of the best in Southeast Asia. If nothing, a trip to Koh Russei is synonymous with the barracuda steak/burger - well apparently there is the burger variant too.

The picnic thing got to me though - felt like a whole package tour thing, you know, the everyone stick together and follow the leader, not really my, or any independent traveller's cup of tea. Give this a miss, Ream National Park, though expensive at 15 USD, is a far more rewarding trip for those who have a spare day in S'ville and are juxtaposing Ream with Russei (as most do).

I balked at the high cost, but pay peanuts, get monkeys (think NKF saga) is probably ironic here in that you actually get to see monkeys amongst other wildlife like eagles and even dolphins if you venture into the national park, also known as Preah Sihanouk National Park.

Le Monde

Here's a very nice world map to help with visualisation of great, kick-ass adventures and justify (as much as possible) the dull weekends in, taking public transport, or sampling your own culinary creations. Which basically sums up the state im in now, trying to save up as much as possible for my Laotian adventure, and possibly a Vietnam traverse come summer.

7 Ways to Stay on Top of Your Travel Goals

7 Ways to Stay on Top of Your Travel Goals.

I find buying a map particularly helpful, and also having a separate fund where how much you save translates directly into how much more your travel budget is. Buying a guidebook in advance is also a good idea - flipping through it and envisioning journeys occupies the time you normally spend on the town, and it keeps you motivated to save for the journey.

And finally, no, you don't have to be a college student (with too much free time) to travel. Although, admittedly, i rather do appreciate those long summer breaks (3 months =).

Monday, 5 November 2007

Cat Stevens - Katmandu

काठमाडौं, काठमान्डु

Yes, Kathmandu, Ill soon be seeing you... Now that SilkAir flies direct from Singapore to Kathmandu at around S$800 (~USD 500) for a return trip, considerable cost savings for a (poor) backpacker.

Beached in Sihanoukville

Coming from Bokor's rocky roads, Sihanoukville can't be a more well planned destination. By the time i finally got myself a room at the GST guesthouse, i was giving myself major pats on the back, especially when i saw the nice, clean shower. And it didn't cost a bomb. You even get cable TV at 7 dollars. Best part of the deal was that it was a nice 5 minute walk from the beach - Bungalows right on the sand are available but you would have to bear with the noise and the higher prices. Another plus was the internet cafe downstairs.

Going to Sihanoukville from Kampot was an almost 3 hour ride by taxi (covered in previous post extolling the virtues of buying 2 seats for some breathing space), over smooth, beautiful tarmac, a real highway at that. Passed through a small town on the way, asked for the name and forgot it by the time the trip was over. A seat should cost 3 to 4 dollars.

From Phnom Penh buses run to S'ville (4 dollars) and vice versa, smooth ride, few hours. Cant remember exactly, must be around 4. It was that uneventful that i think i managed some sleep. Shared taxi also ply this road, if you feel the urge to get squeezy or are rich enough to travel in comfort by chartering the whole cab. There is also the option of going by a combination of boat/bus from Thailand.

Other things to do at S'ville, besides the obvious suntanning/swimming/getting drunk/partying/very happy shakes include visits to Ream National Park and Koh Russei (Bamboo Island). Both can be visited on day trips organised by guesthouses in town, which, speaking of, deserves some exploration. Most people just wind up on the beaches, but the town was rather interesting too, a nice diversion. Quiet, some nice restaurants, places to discover, a nice town to explore and get lost in. Landmarks around town include the weather station hill and the Golden Lions roundabout. Was walking from Victory beach out to town when i bumped into Jake, coming from the opposite direction, from the Lions. Settled down for dinner, had a nice banana shake right on the beach watching the sunset before we went our separate ways only to bump into each other at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap again, by sheer, sheer coincidence (literally walking into each other around a corner).


Also known as Kompong Som, Sihanoukville is the beach destination of choice in Cambodia (if you can't wait for Thailand, have come from Laos , or have just destroyed your backside going up the numero uno road in Kampot Province and are in dire need for some relaxation (I had, and was)). While it certainly isn't outstanding (at point of visit in Jan 2007 - apparently there are plans afoot now to turn it into Phuket/Samui), it does have its charms. Among them, and for the moment, it is still relatively undeveloped as a tourist destination - there is still the distinct backpacker vibe around S'ville. Not as quiet as Phu Quoc, but nevertheless, quiet enough for a nice cocktail/read/suntan on the beach, with the occassional offers of massage and kids selling trinkets. Locals with fruit platters balanced gracefully on their heads - upon order the fruits are sliced and served in front of you, complete the scene at Sihanoukville.

At the moment, no annoying Japanese/Korean tour groups (sorry, but my research findings fail to disprove this theory), no touts, no persistent local trying to sell things you obviously don't need, no over-commercialisation. Reasons enough to go? I guess. It's not paradise on the Cambodian coast, but it sure is a welcome change from temples (if you're from Siem Reap), wilderness (Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri), or the tragedy of Pol Pot's genocidal reign (Phnom Penh - S21, Killing Fields).

Victory beach was the original backpackers beach. It gets two thumbs down from me. Main reason being that it is right beside the port, and a new jetty is being constructed. 'Nuff said about visual pollution. Promises of a fantastic sunset (see Sihanoukville Visitor's Guide)? Not really, as i found out having wasted an evening there. There was a grand total of one beach shack in operation. Combined with the fact that you could see the nearest guesthouse and the road if you just turn your head on the beach, Victory beach's ratings can't be very high on anyone's books.

Better (far) options for the evening at S'ville include having a nice dinner at a beachside cafe/restaurant on Serendipity beach, watching the sunset. Nightlife is one of Sihanoukville's main draws too, and most of it is centered around Serendipity, by far the better free beach on the coast. Free brings us to the fact that some beaches aren't free (hint hint the private beach at some posh hotel) - Find your own way of sneaking in, its part of the fun.

The nightlife- Sure the wild parties and fire twirling acts are nice, but i'd much prefer just sitting on the darkened and very quiet beach, listening to the tides crashing onto the beach. And think, what's a lad like me doing here? Its like i'm being let in into some secret, some hidden place that exists beyond the world that most of us know only too well - the world of corporate ladder climbing, paying for your car/house, having the obligatory 2.4 kids...

Other nicer beaches probable exist along Sihanoukville, just wander further down the coast, yes, the wander and be wondered theory applies everywhere. The main downside is the lack of hydration (think bars/pubs that line Serendipity), and the lack of transport (i had some trouble getting a moto after dark), and of course safety issues when it gets dark. But still, i like Serendipity just because its a good balance of all the things you look for in a beach destination - fresh seafood, good restaurants, cheap and plentiful liqour (the Angkor beer brewery is located in Sihanoukville), interesting nightlife along with the choice for some peace and quiet at night. Nice name too, apparently Bob, some American guy who came up with the name, if now in a court tussle with the Sihanoukville developers over the rights to the name. Oh well.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Bokor Hill Station: Getting There

Bokor Hill Station: Getting there (in one piece)

There are a few options available,

1. Find a moto driver insane enough to take you up the hill
2. Bike up, which involves in the first place getting a good off road bike (hard) and gear (hard)
3. Taking a monster truck up (highly recommended)
4. Taking a pickup

The last 2 options can be easily arranged at most, if not all guesthouses in Kampot, costing around 6-8 USD if u share with other travellers. Add to the cost the 5 dollars you have to pay for entry into Bokor National Park. You don't actually have to find travel companions, the GHs in Kampot seem to have wonderful organisational skills in that they have several trucks going up each day that makes stops at the various GHs dotted around town to pickup passengers. Try to get a ride on a monster truck up, if you can, and just for your information the road up Bokor is known very affectionately by local guides as "number 1 road in Kampot".

On whichever mode of transport you chose its long winding "roads" up to Bokor. Roads, as you can see is used in inverted commas, due to the fact it is under extensive reclamation (by the vegetation), which can whip passengers in the cargo bed rather mercilessly as your truck ploughs up the (non-existent) roads. And try not to laugh at people being smacked in the face by vines and creepers. Karma, baby. The same species of vine that caught me across the face decided moments later to whip my obviously humoured friend. But still, the solidarity of the poor 8 (plus big backpacks) crammed into the rear of the truck in wincing together as we (again) bump over another humongous pothole (crater size is the rule) and try to avoid being whipped by stray vegetation was a fun (if painful) experience.

Sitting in the cargo bed (I got the last seat) you also have to somehow get used to getting covered in dust and breathing black fumes belches from the exhaust as the truck struggles over yet another boulder in its path, stopping more than occassionally. Upon which the guide goes down, takes a look, kicks the tyres, and voila, we were good to go. Speaking of the guide, we had a great time talking to him - "charming boy", so he says is his name, spoke great English and regaled us with tales of Bokor and his life. Apparently, they used to have wild, and i mean wild New Year's eve parties at the Bokor Hill Station (we were there on the 2nd of Jan i think), but not anymore after last year some drunk soldier took out his gun and started a war between the police and the army, with some fatalities.

The first stop on the road up was the Black Palace. Not much of a palace actually, don't know where it got its name from. More like a small house with a rather nice balcony that had amazing views of the Cambodian and Vietnamese coast - You could make out Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam clearly in the distance. Then its a 45 minute trek through the forest before we hit the main road and were picked up by the truck, then ferried to the Hill Station itself, where we were served lunch of rice, some curry and the obligatory baguette.

The hill station itself, deserves a few hours of exploration, try getting on the roof for great views of the cliffs and the surrounding structures. Sleeping at the hill itself is an option - there is the Ranger Station, extremely clean and well kept place, where a bed will cost you 10 USD. Didn't sleep over as i was headed for Sihanoukville the next day but I must think exploring Bokor at night must be some kind of an experience, something you'd want to tell your grandchildren about. Going down the hill later we picked up two Canadians who spent the night, and they had nice things to say about it, the solitude and all, feeling, under the starry firmament that you are the only person on earth.... So yea, thoroughly recommended. Bring a torch though. Kind of regret not staying over.

Other places to see on Bokor include the Catholic church, old French barracks and the casinos. Yes, you got me right. An Integrated Resort right smack on top of Bokor hill. Built by the French colonialists and then used by the Khmer government after independence. Quite a sad tale, i was told, being abandoned after many people lost too much money and jumped off the cliffs (just 20 yards away). In fact, if i get my facts right i think there were 2 casinos on Bokor itself, the newer one built further away from the cliffs after the first was abandoned. Don't quite know what happened to the newer one, but it soon became part of the surreal ghost town of Bokor too.

Made our way down by truck at around 5 o clock. Same routine - Bouncing up and down over rough terrain and potholes, dodging (unsuccessfully) vines and stray branches, holding on to the rail trying not to fall off the truck, enjoying the now familiar scent of diesel fumes, and soon (3 hours later) we were back on normal roads. They had a bit of a surprise in store for us though - we were dropped off at the coast, where we were taken by boat down the Kampot River, with Bokor and the setting sun in the horizon, me singing sunset sailing on april skies in my head, while the two sweet kids with the couple from Australia (?) fell asleep immediately, Jake looking melancholic peering out at the darkening sky. That moment, looking out at the darkening sky, seeing Bokor in the horizon, fringed by trees, listening to the whirr of the boat's motor, the smell of the engine oil was one i probably won't ever forget.

We soon rendezvoused up with our truck, which sent us back to our respective places of lodging. Had dinner with Jake that night at Mealy Chenda's as we discussed travel plans (going to Sihanoukville) and our future. Surprisingly we had a lot in common - both fresh out of high school, just did A levels and thinking of going to college. We were to meet alot again in Cambodia, every single time by coincidence, which mostly involved me walking down the street and him strolling down from the other direction.

Bokor Hill Station

Yep, its the hauntingly beautiful and melancholic Bokor Hill Station pictured above. Photo taken from the Hill Station itself, the main building on the hill. It had this whole colonial-days-gone mood to it, Bokor itself, originally serving as a summer retreat for the French colonial staff, reflected in the now eerily empty grand ballroom in the hill station basement and the rustic fireplace.

Bokor's checkered past also include serving as a base for French colonial forces (the barracks and Catholic church still exist), then for the Khmer Issara nationalists fighting for independence, and in a last sorrowful chapter, as a place where invading Vietnamese troops fought the Khmer Rouge. The Catholic church, apparently, was where a major battle took place, the Vietnamese troops firing at Pol Pot's troops bunkered in a nearby casino less than 200 metres away.

You could almost feel the ghosts of the past and its history in the tendrils of mist that gathered around the abandoned structures and swirled around the cliff edge. Haunting, indeed, was the experience, walking, even in daytime, in and around the rooms of the once grand Bokor Palace hotel, through empty halls and corridors, and up and down the broad, crumbling stairways.

Left: Thats the basement of the Bokor Palace, note the fireplace on the left. The sheer emptiness of the hotel, which once must have been grand, and the plaster gathered on the floor just adds to the ghostly, hauntingly beautiful appeal of Bokor, like it has been left to the past and forgotten by the rest of the world.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Practicing hedonist

"Practicing Hedonist ( I'll get it right one of these days )".

Saw this on someone's profile. Brough a smile to my face

Music to Travel to

Currently hooked on Simon and Garfunkel's El Condor Pasa, lovely stuff.

"I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet, Yes i would, if i only could, i surely would"...
Magical, i say.

Other all time favourites include:

  • Damien Rice - Cannonball
  • Five for Fighting - If God made you (Thats where the blog title came from)
  • Johnny Cash - I've been Everywhere
  • Willie Nelson - On the Road Again
  • Lisa Ono - Take me Home (country roads)
  • Lisa Ono - Jambalaya
  • Lyle Lovett - If I had a Boat
  • Oasis - Don't Look back in Anger (singing along in Angkor What? bar/club in Siem Reap with a group of half drunk Swedes and a Briton was memorable)
  • Oasis - All around the World
  • Murray Head - One Night in Bangkok
  • Kim Wilde - Cambodia
  • Toto - Africa
Almost tempted to do this APA style, after all the painful hours doing APA formatting for my college papers (most of the time wasted on trying to find rubbish like the year of publication, publishing house, etc etc. You get the drift.) Bullet form is well, a liberating experience.

Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia

Having referred to Bokor quite a bit in the previous postings, i guess ill do a proper section on the hill station itself.

This, on the left, is the view of Kampot, a small fishing village on the Cambodian coast that is the base for going up the Bokor Hill Station, which i believe is gazetted Bokor National Park.

Going to Kampot from Phnom Penh, according to theory, and Lonely Planet, takes 4 hours or so. In theory. Assuming the roads are tarmac and paved and the bus doesnt break down (on purpose or otherwise). What life tells us about theories is that they remain theories because they are often wrong.

What i expected to be a short trip from Phnom Penh, starting at 12 noon, to Kampot soon developed into a 8 to 9 hour long voyage, in no small part due to the roads that were scarred and potholed extensively. Another delay was caused by having to change buses (from a small one to a smaller one) midway - the bus just stopped abruptly and we were told to get off, when it was around 7 in the evening. I was either too tired or ignorant to be anxious, but, yes, commission scam alert, (the lesser of two evils - I don't want to think too much of the other one), and we were delivered faithfully into a waiting pack of touts. And picking up random people (and their chickens/bags of rice/veggies) along the way, which seemed an unwritten fact of bus travel in more remote parts of Southeast Asia, while an interesting experience, did nothing to make the journey faster. Bumping around in the bus and trying to peek out of the windows through the drawn curtains (it was hot) reminded me of Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night, in the thank-god-i-don't-have-to-read-it-again way (it was one of SIX texts we had to prepare for the A levels).

Since it was late, i was willingly "touted" to a nearby guesthouse, seeing its touts as the lesser of two evils. Well, turns out, after all the "my friend, come my guesthouse" sweet talk, it wasnt half bad. The view was awesome - the photo was taken from my room window - Right smack beside the Kampot River, river breeze, fresh air and all all adding to its ratings. The "restaurant" had decent food at decent prices, and again the view was a big plus. Great music too - music to chill and reminisce to, thinking about life this far away, in some far flung corner of the world, staring at the darkened river, hearing the soft lapping of water against the shore.

Seeing that this place is not listed on any of my guidebooks, ill just do a basic impartial intro on it here.

Kampot Riverview Guesthouse.

They do have a dorm (one main building with TV in the centre of the compound) as well as single/double rooms (chalet style, right smack before the river). I took the single room.
Was about 4 US dollars for a clean, spacious room with attached shower (big plus at 4 dollars - other places u only get a spartan room or a dorm bed for this price). Furnishings incude a helpful rack and a hatstand. Bed was clean too.

Other services provided include transportation (shared taxi, friendly owner has a moto and willingly ferries you around Kampot) and organisation of short trips to nearby Bokor, Kep (for the limestone caves), and some waterfalls. One word though, is that u can get better prices at other places in town - Mealy Chenda GH (guesthouse) offers the best prices for tours.

If u need more info, i seem to have their email and phone number jotted down somewhere. Drop a comment, ill pass them to you.

Kampot, of course, if famous for her pepper. LP proclaims "no self respecting French restaurant would be without Kampot pepper". Having sampled some - it made a world of difference to plain bullseye eggs I can say that Kampot pepper is famous for a reason.

From Sihanoukville/Kompong Som (for the royalists), its a more (very) humane 2 hours plus trip to Kampot by shared taxi, going down smooth, beautiful tarmac all the way. Much like Malaysia's North South Highway, with plantations and trees at both sides. Taxi cost 3-4 dollars (depending on how good u are at bargaining) - for A seat. Cannot stress this enough. You pay for one seat, but as a nice surprise, guess how many seats they have in an old Japan imported Toyota Camry/Corolla? 4 at the back, and 2 in the front passenger seat. Needless to say, its going to be squishy. The trick is, if you are not on such a tight budget, pay for 2 seats, and ask/beg/plead for the front seat. I did this trip (to S'ville) in reverse, going from Kampot, and sharing it with a family, i got the front seat. (yay-ness)

In Jan 2007, they were building a new bridge across the Kampot River. What new transport options will be available, im not sure, but i think it might be the continuation of railway services to Phnom Penh.

I realise i haven't quite covered Bokor, ill leave that to my next post then.

It started with a map

This map brings back so many memories. I remember looking at it and thinking in June 2006 back in junior college that hell, i wanna be there. I should be there instead of here, in front of a computer terminal right outside the library and looking at a "normal" (read: boring) life ahead of me. The social "wisdom" of going from primary school to secondary school, to junior college then a good university, get a good degree, then start earning money just so you could pay for the house, car and whatnot that, sure, you really need.

In January 2007, I was there. At the Angkor standing alone on the Terrace of Elephants just like the God-kings of old, inspecting his victorious troops in parade after marching in through the Victory Gate of the Angkor Thom (Great City in Khmer). The incongruity of it eh. It was like discovering a new world that existed beyond the doomed cirle of production and consumption, to be slightly modernist about it.

Laos Please Don't Rush

Lao PDR. Standing for Laos Please Don't Rush. I like that. Slow being an understatement of travel in Laos PDR (People's Democratic Republic actually). Wonder why countries with Democratic in their names are usually anything but.

Rough itinery now is like this. Arrival Udon Thani (UTH), then to Nong Khai, Thai bordertown 2 hours or so away from UTH, where ill hitch from the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, Sandalwood city on the Mekong, 22 km away.

All my distances are in rough estimates, cant really do proper planning at the moment, no thanks to the exams. The quiz on Thursday was a real morale (what's the antonym of booster) - dampener just doesnt sound drastic enough. Never knew Multiple choice questions could be so hard. Hell, what's done's done i guess. Times like this, knowing life is more than a single bloody quiz is rather comforting. (Cue images of the Greater Mekong, the Angkorian temples, hot coffee on a cold Burmese morning (they do get rather friggin' cold) on the road to Mandalay...)

Anyway. Back to the plan. From Vientiane, ill take a bus up to Vang Vieng, spend a few days, tubing and all, then again up the road to Luang Prabang, then its Luang Namtha and Muang Sing at the Chinese border, where do some trekking before trucking back to Namtha, then going straight back to Prabang.

From Prabang, its off to Phonsavan, Plain of Jars, if i still have time on my schedule. Then its back to Vientiane, Nong Khai and UTH, and a flight back to Singapore.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

It's November

It's November, in this part of the world.

Exams in 13 days - hell where did all the time go? And leaving for Laos in 29 days.

Which leaves me little time to continue my postings. Looking forward for the post exam period where ill try to get the Burma posts done before jetting off to Laos.

Laos seems to be the new buzzword amongst the backpacker grapevine, its name whispered among independent travellers as someplace yet largely untouched by tourism and commercialism, somewhere where the travel experience is still authentic and somewhere where travel itself is the attraction. I remember sometime back it was postwar Cambodia, appealing to the danger travel crowd, and decades ago it was Thailand and her many shimmering tropical islands.

I guess i was somewhat influenced by the hype in choosing Laos, wanting to see it before it becomes another package tourist destination, like Siem Reap with the Angkor Temples are now and Thailand's many gorgeous beaches that were serendipitous paradise islands before these were claimed by tourism and corporate interests.

So far, i guess Burma has been my most authentic travel experience, beating largely my own trail and not seeing foreign faces around me most of the time. Bokor in Cambodia ranks pretty highly on my list as well, the hauntingly beautiful French casino and hill station, along with the Catholic church that stand as silent sentinels on a cold, remote mountain top, bearing witness to many things time itself has even forgtten, surrounded by lush primary forest trying hard to reclaim the single track up. Finding my own paradise. Hedonistic? Not actually. Just a reminder of how simple and uncomplicated, beautiful life can be.