Sunday, 31 August 2008

Going back - El Lazy Fish, Phnom Penh Cambodia

El Lazy Fish - to date having the dubious honour of being the most dodgy place i've stayed in - a row of wooden huts extending out into "the Lake" in central Phnom Penh, a flourescent green body of water that no one, even backpackers drunk on their 3rd bucket of Mekong whiskey, dares to swim in.

It was right smack in the heart of the action on Boeng Kak, a self contained commune of cheap guesthouses with great lakeviews (and plenty of mosquitoes, though not mentioned on the brochure), backpacker shops (selling the staple of flag patches, pirated CDs, pirated books (they even have pushcarts selling these), cheap T-shirts and the lot), backpacker cafes, cheap restaurants, travel agents, money changers, sundry shops... The Lazy Fish being bang right at the end of a dead-end alley that would have led all the way down into the lake if not for the rows of wooden bunkhouses at the end of the concrete front yard with a few chickens scratching around, divided into rooms by thin, wooden walls.

The shower. Plus fantastic lake views from the window!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Agra - Going to the Taj Mahal

Gateway to the Taj - you can see a small part of it through the huge Mughlai style gateway. There are 4 gates to the Taj - i think this is the South gate, facing the Taj Ganj area which used to house the artisans and craftsmen from foreign lands building the Taj.

Everyone goes to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. My first glimpse of it though, was slightly disappointing. I had dumped my bag in my room in the Shanti GH after finding my way to the Taj Ganj sprawl - messy, but Paharganj still owns all - and ran the flights of stairs to the much fabled rooftop of the Shanti. And there was the Taj, milky white, in the distance, hovering over a congestion of huts, cheap guesthouses, and multi-coloured concrete buildings. But still, i put off visiting the Taj as yet - to fully appreciate it on a nicer (drier) day.

It rained heavily that day - the monsoon had come early, near the end of May. It turned the Taj Ganj's zig-zagging, trash lined streets into veritable rivers of rubbish, and completely concealed all the pot holes and huge gaping drains that characterise most of India's streets. Hence - my good deed for the day - i made an autorickshaw wallah roar in laughter by rejecting his ride and walking on into one such sinisterly concealed drain, dropping knee deep in trash water and joining the floating pieces of plastic bags and discarded food wrappers for company.

All in all, not a fun day out. I was dripping wet from the rain - and most probably smelt like the drain i had just fallen into, which is saying a lot, given the state Indian drains are normally in. It was nothing short of calamitous. Being forced to take a cold, cold shower in my room using water from the rooftop tank in the monsoon was not fun either. This was followed by having to wash all the drenched and foul-smelling clothes and boots and finding creative ways to dry them later on.

My first experience with the Indian monsoon - a very stark departure from the romanticised version you often read about. But yes, it descended without any warning, catching people on the streets, the sky breaking and sheets of water sweeping over the land in an instant, sending people running for shelter. And yet there is a certain jubilation, a certain joy in the rain that pours onto the parched earth and dusty streets after unrelenting months of summer.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Chasing trains, India

This continues the previous India post - "Kennet Lane"

Above: Indian Railways train ticket

Managed to not fall asleep on the 645 train to Agra and alight when i saw the yellow Agra Cantonment sign 3 hours later when the train pulled in (instead of being carried off all the way to Lucknow or Varanasi - which would have happened seeing they don't announce the stops, only some vague announcement about please do not go to the toilets during breaks to avoid stampedes and please don't take too long to buy your chai or we will leave without you - ok the latter isn't but i wish they did - having darn near marooned me at a few weirdly fantastic Soviet looking industrial towns complete with belching smokestacks in the middle of nowhere in central India after i hopped off to join the stampede for chai and parantha).

The song Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol probably took on an ironic twist here, me chasing trains, goddamn it, that seemed determined to leave without half its passengers (just as i almost got my chai/pakoda). What follows is screaming and shouting (cheering and encouragement) from the people in the train for the people out of the train (despatched to go hunt for food) to run and grab hold of whatever they can and pull themsleves onto the train that is fast hurtling out of the station without advance notice.

The evening Shatabdi form Amritsar to New Delhi, Carriage C7

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Going back.... Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The GST guesthouse - a very palatable option run by the folks behind the bus company of the same name. 5 minutes from the sand at Sihanoukville (if you take a shortcut through a dark, tree lined path that winds up by some shacks and 2 beach bars). This place reminds me... that i feel bad clogging up the uber-clean shower area with sand. Yea, it wasn't that memorable - it was kind of characterless, like what you'd expect if folks that run a bus company decided to run a guesthouse one day. Anyway, the main draw is the sand - i can't even remember spending any amount of time in my room. I mean, given a choice between happy hour cocktails on the beach, lounging in a beach chair reading, writing, and watching the world go by, and sitting in my room watching Cambodian soaps/BBC, it was rather an obvious call.

Not very good pics - apparently there is insufficient lighting hence the exposure time has to be longer and accordingly you have to keep the camera still for a longer period of time - which i couldn't do resulting in fuzzy images....

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Going back... Kampot, Cambodia

The Kampot River View

Bought a bus ticket from Phnom Penh's central market bus station to Kampot at noon - took a few hours for the 80 km stretch to the coast, including switching from a small bus to a smaller one halfway there (and the mandatory mysterious breakdown). Kampot was pretty quiet - a small fishing village going about its own business. The bus dropped me off at some road junction - followed some guy to his guesthouse, which was this place right by the river. It wasn't too memorable, to be honest - i had this small cabin to myself in the front garden of the place, which was like a big, open house (the dorm - overrun by some very drunk Czechs so i decided to take the cabin/hut).

I remember going down to the wooden verandah/makeshift restaurant by the big house at night after putting down my bags to look out into the river in the darkness, eating my fried rice and downing a reviving bottle of Angkor beer after managing to locate the cook. Was rather enjoying the soft music on the stereo - Damien Rice (!) being quite unexpected, and looking out at the fishing boats bobbing up and down in the darkness to the tide when the Czechs decided to come in for a drink. I paid up and left.

The view at that place was great though - i took this photo from my window - just popped my head out and snapped the shot in the morning. Went up the Bokor Hill Station and managed to meet up with a few friends for drinks at the Mealy Chenda - which i later found out was the place to be, hosting the backpacker population of Kampot - for the following days before heading off to Cambodia's costa del sol of Sihanoukville.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Going back...

I like taking photos of the different rooms i've stayed in during my past years travelling. Its funny how these places can bring back memories, the feeling of living, spending the night in a new place for the first time that to me is so much a big part of travel. That, and waking up the next day, thinking, hey just where the hell am i? Or it may be just watching funny TV programmes and laugh at some of the ads - when im lucky enough to have a TV in my room. It could also be stumbling back to the guesthouse, somewhat intoxicated after a night out with friends, and tripping over the couch in the reception. That ranks among climbing the gate to find that its not locked as severe alcohol induced cases of folly and embarassment. And getting lost walking the 100 metres back to the guesthouse in Siem Reap from Bar Street, i guess.

I find that often, i have a story to tell, memories to recall for each of these places, so here goes:

The Lucky Ro, in Phnom Penh Cambodia to the left. My first room - first night travelling alone in a foreign country. I couldn't sleep - kept telling myself, damn, here i am, in Cambodia. I couldnt't believe it. That night i walked down to the riverside for dinner, through the wet market by the streets, and felt that this was amazing - this was what i wanted to do, to travel and experience the world, to see new things and learn.

The view from my window - I woke up and looked out of the window, and there i was in Cambodia, that instant - kinda shocking. The sound of motorcyles, the bustle of people going about their daily business at the Psaa Chaa (New market), the tooting of horns...
Will continue with places i called home, albeit however briefly, in Cambodia in the next posts...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008


Decided to "reclaim" my blog, making small changes here and there - and still shopping around for a new template; sort of trying to revive it. (And i do realise that the "new" blogger is easier to use after my 3 month hiatus)

Will try to wrap up the Lao part, and post some new stuff on India/Nepal soon (hopefully). Its back to school for me - less modules this semester, but an ever increasing reading list. At least i love my new timetable - late Mondays and early Fridays effectively giving me a four day weekend i spend sampling the teh tarek in JB. Basically, i love going back to Malaysia - the way of life is just so different, relaxed and you feel that no one knows where you are (especially good if you have pesky project mates) - that you can just disappear, not care and do what you want to do, instead of constantly worrying about that project/proposal/term paper and escape for a while the materialism and regimentation/uniformity that just gets to you, as in all big cities.

I do love my country, for its down to earth vibes, the endearing honesty, and the fact that it is home, afterall, where i grew up... As much as i don't want to turn this into a political blog (i'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself), here's hoping for change for the better in Malaysia.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Going back to my first love,

Indochina. Where 2 years ago, my big trip was planned on, the trip that would take me down from Hanoi to Saigon, and then into Cambodia by boat and bus, then weaving into Thailand past the town of Siem Reap, best known for the Angkorian imitations of heaven nearby, and then to Bangkok before going to Phuket and catching a bus down to George Town, Alor Setar, and KL and then home! It seemed so implausible (and infinitely exciting) that i could travel, overland, from Hanoi back home, without catching a single flight.

I did manage to travel then, but to Cambodia only, on a limited budget, before flying home. In the following years i would like to think that i've seen a bit of this planet - journeys taking me through most of mainland Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, doing many silly and crazy things along the way, but surviving to tell the tale (sometimes barely - like the Nepal Chitwan ambulance incident - that was almost academic suicide - almost missing the registration period for next semester's courses) .

2 years later, im realising in full the dreams of the junior college boy, daydreaming over cups of coffee and maps - making a clean sweep of Southeast Asia. Took me 2 years, yea, but i've done it. Vietnam. The original dream of road trips and backpacks and neverending days on the road and freedom. Will be there this November - December, if all goes well...

Indochina will always hold special memories for me, being my first introduction to independent travel, and the many memories and life lessons that she has taught me - at the foremost self-reliance, simplicity, and appreciation of life's little things, and humility, and love, and family.

Thank you, Indochina.

Monday, 4 August 2008

"Kennet lane, please. Egmore station."

The best souvenir i brought back from India was this CD, Hari Om, by Satyaa and Pari. Listening to it everytime brings back strong memories and recollections of India, a powerful flashback of random images, sounds and smells starting from the crowded streets of Madras, Kennet Lane, where i started my adventure in India, hopping into a classic yellow-black taxi in the sweltering Indian night, passing the crowds milling outside the airport at 9 o clock - "Kennet lane, please. Egmore station". I can still feel the excitement i felt saying those words, hopping into a taxi and speeding away amidst a sea of cars, people in colourful sarongs and saris, and the swelling crescendo of car horns all around - a fact of Indian life i soon got used to.

Jesus, Ganesha and Islam - Religious harmony in Madras

From Madras i went down Tamil Nadu's coastal roads to French flavoured Pondicherry, with her whitewashed buildings, wide, tree-lined avenues and cobblestoned streets and the seafront promenade, which you find the whole of Pondi in the morning and at dusk. Further north i stopped at Mahabalipuram, a seaside town famous for stone carvings and seafood, before heading back to Madras to catch a flight from an airport in a frenzied state of security - 2 days after the Jaipur bombings; long queues, delayed flights and baggage checks (two rounds) which bottlenecked everyone at 2 makeshift, wooden security gates cum metal detectors. Not to mention i almost missed my flight too as i forgot to get some little luggage tag which was to be stamped by security - the stern female soldier at the gate to the tarmac was adamant not to let me pass for that little indiscretion. Thank goodness i did not have to rejoin the queue to get it stamped - i would have missed the flight for sure.

New Delhi! At the Lal Qila (Red Fort)

Arriving in New Delhi at 1 in the morning was not fun - especially if you have to find a room in the labyrinth of snaking side streets that was Paharganj, the telephone and electric cables haphazardously dangling overhead successfully adding to the claustrophobic, slum-like, "i hate this place" feel. Throw in gangs of touts that drag you around literally, and numerous operators posing as "Govt. approved" tour agencies and telling you "don't worry, you are safe here. You don't go out now and find room, very dangerous here. The people, the rob you... I have room here, you see, you like, i book for you... " And invariably, these rooms cost above 10 dollars for a fleapit (shared baths). And someone tried to sell me a train ticket to Amritsar, 2nd class seater, for 57 USD. I bought it the next day at the New Delhi Railway Station, right across the street, for 12 dollars.

Hence it was no surprise that I didn't stay in New Delhi for long - well, actually long enough to fall sick and hate New Delhi even more after having some insanely sweet and deep-fried bright-orange jalebis (Jalebi Walla - Bollywood stars supposedly send their reps here to "pack")and paranthas for dinner at Chandni Chowk. Gah. Feeling sick i boarded the evening Shatabdi to Amritsar, which was excellent really - good, plush, clean reclining seats to sink into and almost too much legroom, and was even more pleasantly surprised when i was served tea, followed by dinner, dessert, and supper. Amritsar was great - generally it was less chaotic, and there were great shops along Nehru shopping complex for one to fall sick in (im not sure if the kind staff at Cafe Coffee Day remember the sickly looking young traveller who sat beside the toilet (very clean) for easy access and ordered copious amounts of hot lemon tea. I spent most of my sick days there, writing in my journal and reading. Punjab also had more than her fair share of creameries AKA "milk houses" which sold ice cream and other treats, and cafes and restaurants for road weary travellers seeking to escape the daily routine of naan, roti, chapati, dhosai and dhaal curries. It was a welcome break from the stresses (and shocks) of travel in Uttar Pradesh (affectionately UP), India's most populous (and by far most chaotic) state. And that's not even talking about the main attraction yet, the Golden Temple, Sikkhism's holiest shrine. It was lovely - and so was the Amritsar's affable and friendly turban-clad, Sikh population. I took a side trip from here to the border bravado ceremony at Attari-Wagah - one of the highlights of my trip. It was unbelievable - the theatrics and exaggerations that border on parody.

Spent a good few days around Amritsar - named after the pool of nectar (Amrit Sarovar) that surrounds the Golden Temple exploring museums and learning about Punjab's great one-eyed Sikh leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who greatly expanded Punjab's borders into Afghanistan. And feeling better i made the trip back to Delhi (transit only) to catch the train to Agra. My transit day in Delhi went well enough - i dropped by the Gandhi Museum at Raj Ghat and paid tribute to the great man, and hailed an autorickshaw to Humayun's tomb, set in stunningly, painstakingly revived Mughal-style gardens of the brightest greens and brilliant blue waterways that run through the garden, and the buttery yellow blooms and flowers. If you have time for only one sight in Delhi, then this is the place to be. After Delhi i took the 645 a.m. train to Agra Cantonment station, staying up to catch the rather staid football match that was the Champions League finals - and almost missed the train in the process, falling asleep during the seocnd half.

*To be continued - pics coming up soon...*

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Indian summer - its been 3 months

whew! its been 3 months. Looking back at my posts ive been struck by the fact that most of them were literary equivalents of cups of stale tea. So this little writing exercise has come to a kind of crossroads, i guess, to be honest. To continue with the pretence of writing interesting prose or to just leave it and hopefully come back another day feeling more inspired.

3 months of life has just trickled by, and i feel ive done quite alot in that time, my life changing that little, barely discernible bit, criss crossing India on trains, running after them at stations when they start chugging off before i have bought my paratha/pakoda and chai at regular stopovers, becoming quite an expert at reading tickets, waitlists and schedules... climbing into glaciers (4300m) and over frozen waterfalls and landslides in Nepal, and slacking off on teh tarek and late breakfasts and suppers (Ramlee burgers, tandoori chicken - now thats something that stirs memories of India - to be exact, weirdly, i think of eating dinner on the rooftop of the Shanti Guesthouse in the Taj Ganj at Agra, looking out at the milky dome of the Taj Mahal in the orange sunset dotted by kites flown by young boys on the rooftops of the multi coloured sprawl of houses linked by wooden planks and tarpaulins, the evening soon giving way to night, the Taj draped in it, mysterious and cool, sitting as silently and as regally as ever in the distance.)

What a 3 months those had been, now that i'm back and just going through all the photos, ticket stubs, and assorted memorabilia. I get quite a kick still, a hangover from travelling i guess, cleaning out my boots, sorting out the laundry and popping out to the photoshop to get my pics developed and waiting excitedly for them to be done...

And theres also getting ready to start the new term, checking my registered courses (the registration exercise was quite a pain to do (involving an ambulance) when you are in the middle of nowhere in Nepal and internet costs 5 USD per hours at crawling speed, moving back to dorm, buying school and cooking supplies (saving up for my year end jaunt - Iran???) - its much cheaper to cook, and also obviously much cheaper to "import" fresh from JB into Singapore each week (i do my grocery shopping in JB)...

Almost 11,000 km and back, climbing to 4,300 metres, travelling on plane, bus, autorickshaw, cyclerickshaw, foot, bicycle, train, car, motorcycle, dugout canoe, jeep, and ambulance (! - its kind of a long story). Its a new start for me i guess, somehow, my life has changed that little bit, and i can just feel it. And its not even four more months to the next trip.