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Far East Trip - March 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

Still waiting...

It's now 6.15pm on Monday 2nd March and we still haven't heard from Mr Ross. But that doesn't really matter too much because Tracy's pain has subsided at last, and she's feeling significantly better. She's even stopped taking the painkillers now, so things must be better. She does have a cold, though, and that meant we had to cancel plans to attend a friend's “we can't go skiing party” at the weekend...

We've also agreed that as every time I wrote the blog outlining what we were planning to do something happened to prevent us doing it, I'd not update the blog until we were already either doing it, or had done it. If you see what I mean. So, here we are, doing it. I'm sat typing this on my new mini laptop at Paris' Charles-de-Gaulle airport whilst we wait for the connecting flight to Bangkok...

Having had to cancel our holiday, we decided that as soon as Tracy was able, we'd try and grab some time away. However, with our busy social calendars in March, the only time we could squeeze in some sun was going to be between 2nd March and 13th March, and so that's what we're doing.

This morning we had our appointments with another consultant, this time an orthopaedic consultant arranged by the insurance company, to assess the extent of our injuries in support of the compensation claim. When we arrived we had to recount the story of the accident, something that I'd not been expecting, and which, to be honest, freaked me out. I've recounted this story many, many, times now, and so to find it upset me anew was quite a shock. Perhaps it was because I was unprepared, and telling a complete stranger, but I suspect it was because I had to recount the horrific details with Tracy sat alongside me. With that trauma over we went through the details of our injuries. My broken knee and Tracy's somewhat more significant collection of broken bones. He then examined my legs (dropping my trousers in front of my wife and this stranger causing me to blush rather badly!), but didn't pass comment. Then he examined Tracy's arm, and back. He made a few comments about the lack of movement in her wrist, the reduced grip strength that the wrist position and lack of forearm muscles caused, her lack of general movement in her arm and shoulder and then asked her to stand up and lean forwards, then back. At which she nearly fell over backwards. I'd have laughed, but she shot me a glance, so I bit my tongue. He then had her rock from side to side as he assessed the range of movement in her spine. When he was finished, he wrote down lots of details, before proclaiming that she would also need to be assessed by a plastics expert (not the kind that deals with explosives, but the surgery kind) and also by a psychiatrist specialising in PTSD. And that he'd write up and send his notes in “in the next couple of weeks”. So that means we must wait a bit longer before the claim is finalised and the money paid. But at least things are progressing again.

When we left the hospital we headed straight for the airport, arriving well in advance of our flight to Paris, but with ample time to check in and grab some lunch. Manchester Terminal 2 doesn't have a great selection of restaurants, so we settled for a chicken burger from Burger King (the only choice) before grabbing a beer and waiting, waiting, waiting...

Then the short flight to Paris, where we're now waiting, waiting, waiting for the long flight to Bangkok. We arrive at lunchtime tomorrow (Tuesday) local time, but at last, at long last, we're on our way to another adventure... 9 days in the Far East, where we intend to grab some time on a beach on Koh Chang, and then hop into Cambodia to revisit the amazing temples at Angkor... now I just hope that me typing that hasn't put the jinx on it!


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One Night In Bangkok...

So after we waited and waited, eventually our flight was called for boarding and we joined the long queue to get on the flight to Bangkok. It's a long flight, over 10 hours, and we were hoping that we'd not be surrounded by screaming kids or annoying adults. As we took our seats a family with 2 young children took their seats immediately in front of us. And a small group of French adults sat behind. The kids were hardly noticable during the flight, but unfortunately the same couldn't be said about the adults who proceeded to behave like noisy jack-in-the-boxes as they continually got up, grabbing our seats (and on more than one occasion Tracy's hair) so they could haul themselves up, and then held loud conversations over our heads almost constantly for the full 10 hours. Fortunately the in-flight entertainment was good, as we each had our own personal TV screen in the seat-back in front and a wide selection of films to choose from. With Quantum of Solace, Hellboy II before I tried to grab some sleep and Transporter 3 as we were approaching Bangkok the time passed relatively quickly. But we did arrive with very numb bums as the seats were the most uncomfortable I've ever encountered on a plane... but we weren't complaining, as we were just very glad to be getting away, and Tracy managed the whole flight without problem.

Eventually we arrived at Bangkok's new airport, Suvarnabhumi, a really huge and very impressive sight, but still much like any modern airport anywhere in the world. We grabbed the bag off the carousel and headed out to meet the transfer agent that Tracy had arranged. He was waiting for us with a sign with our names on, and spoke impeccable English. We loaded ourselves into the air conditioned comfort of the people carrier and settled back to enjoy the journey to the hotel. Our guide explained that the airport was just 3 years old, and had been built to cope with Thailand's ever expanding tourist business, and was already welcoming some 45 million people a year – and has capacity for 250 million. It really is very impressive.


Tracy, sat in the minibus en-route to Bangkok


He then pointed out many of the sights en-route to the New World City Lodge, where we'd booked for the night. This is the same hotel that we'd stayed in on both our previous trips to Thailand, and so we wouldn't have to worry about orientating ourselves. However, the hotel has changed somewhat. Where there previously was an underground car park (one that I used to dream of us riding into on our round-the-world trip) there is now a building site. Which was right below our balcony...

Once checked in and shown our room, which was large and spacious with a huge king size bed and an en-suite shower room and air conditioning, we grabbed a quick shower before putting on our shorts and heading out. The familiar sights, sounds and wonderful smells as we made our way along cramped pavements with roadside stalls selling fantastic smelling (but not the most appetizing look) food, others packed with tee-shirts and assorted clothing, and yet more loaded high with tourist tat, made us both feel as though we had never been away. We quickly found ourselves on the Khao San Road, Bangkok's famous backpacker haunt and within minutes were sat outside a bar with a large bottle of Singha beer for company...


Cold beer, Khao San Road, Bangkok...


One beer led to another and then another as we whiled away the hours, chatting and people watching. The Khao San is a great spot to spend an afternoon relaxing in the heat, soothing away the stresses of every day life with cool beer and watching the world go by... and go by it did... all the usual sights were there, from the street vendors selling dodgy fake watches, tee-shirts with inappropriate slogans (my favourite was “I'm not an alcoholic. I'm a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings”), freshly cooked Pad Thai, fresh fruit, or sitting braiding the hair of young travellers from all over the world. Up and down the street people wandered, mostly non-Asian, and all looking relaxed and without a care in the world. After a couple of beers we decided to move on and try another bar – preferably one with seats that were a little kinder on our sore backsides. We grabbed some Pad Thai from one of the street chefs – costing all of 25Baht for the one with egg, all of 50p...


Street food, Khao San, Bangkok


With hunger abated we found another bar with a large electric fan and settled down for another beer or two. And some more people watching. After about half an hour the peace was interrupted with the arrival of the Sweeney. Screetching into the road from a side road roared 2 motorcycle coppers. Ok, so “roared” is perhaps an exaggeration as they were riding scooters, but I had been drinking. One of them parked next to a clothing stall and proceeded to take a large number of hangers with shorts on and place them on his bike. He then moved to the stall next door and grabbed a couple of mannequin heads with beaded wigs and some hair extenstions, and laid these on top of the shorts. The other one (Reagan to his Carter) pulled up next to a little old Thai lady and her Pad Thai trolley and took out his notebook. He gave her a ticket, but she was too busy cooking up another portion for some tourists to really care. He then moved on to the fruit seller and did the same, but this seller also seemed completely unperturbed. As soon as Reagan's back was turned, he screwed up the ticket and threw it in the bin. So much for “you're nicked, son!”...


You're nicked... Sweeney raid Khao San...


All of this excitement was almost too much for us, so we drank our beers and moved on again. To another bar a little further down the road, where we ordered some more beer. And so we sat and watched as the endless stream of tourists wandered past and enjoyed some more beer until the sun went down and it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner. We'd decided to eat there when we saw the new restaurant that had been built on the side of the hotel, as we would then be in crawling distance of our room. Having staggered back successfully, we sat down and ordered from the menu – for starters we had breaded prawns and calamari, spicy chicken drumsticks and for main course we shared a plate of Chicken Ko Paeng with rice. All washed down with... well, nothing, as the restaurant stopped serving beer at 9pm. Which was probably just as well, as I think we'd (well, me actually, as Tracy had been on the small bottles of beer) had quite enough already.

And so, feeling decidedly merry and with a full belly, we headed off to bed... content that we were finally here in Bangkok....


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another Day, Another Flight...

Wednesday dawned bright and early. 6 o'clock to be precise, as the workmen arrived to continue their work on the building site next door, where the underground car park used to be. Unlike building sites in the UK, though, there were no generators or heavy machinery involved, just men with hand tools, and so we were able to simply turn over and go back to sleep. Which we did, getting up at a very lazy hour of 9am, before heading downstairs for breakfast. Eating noodles and fried rice with chillies for breakfast didn't seem that odd, especially when accompanied with a freshly cooked omelet and washed down with a good strong cup of Thai coffee.

After breakfast we arranged for our taxi to the airport and paid to use the hotel's Internet in order to update the blog with yesterday's news, which we did whilst sat in the shaded bar outside the hotel, whilst enjoying a cool bottle of coke (not beer, it was just a little too early...). We then tried, unsuccessfully to arrange for a pick-up at Trat airport to take us to the resort on Koh Chang, before checking out and heading back to the airport.

Which is where we're now sat, in the Bangkok Airways lounge, taking full advantage of their power supply to write this, but with no Internet access, I'll have to wait until later to upload it. Our flight to Trat leaves in about an hour, and once there we'll have some fun trying to get to the resort without getting scammed. But in just a few hours we'll hopefully be sat on the beach, enjoying a few more cold beers...

All aboard the magic bus...

Ok, so it's not magic, but it was a bus, and it took us to the plane for the flight to Trat. I don't think Tracy's been on a plane as small as this since Pete flew us up to the Lakes to celebrate our wedding... Cosy, but very pretty...


The plane to Trat, complete with cartoon fish...


The flight itself was uneventful, out of Bangkok and to the very edge of the Gulf of Thailand, then skirting the coast with grand vistas of marshland below, and a tuna sandwich and cup of orange juice in front, with only the in-flight magazine to occupy my idle mind... But the landing was much more interesting. Trat airport gets my vote as the prettiest airport I've ever been to, with manicured gardens spelling out “TRAT”accompanied by thatched-roofed terminal buildings with no walls and no menacing security guards, whilst out front families of topiary elephants grazed for the tourist cameras against a backdrop of forested mountains... simply stunning...


They use grass elephants to wash the planes at Trat airport...


We joined the queue of expectant travellers to book our minibus to the resort whilst the baggage handlers wheeled a small trolley laden with tired rucksacks to where the carousel should have been and unloaded the bags onto the wooden floor ready for collection. Booking the minibus was as easy as remembering the name of the resort and once lightened by the princely sum of 1,600Baht (about 30 quid) we made our way to air-conditioned comfort in a minibus filled with expectant couples, like us, eager to get to paradise... A short journey later and we were unloaded onto the deck of the ferry to Koh Chang, which was bustling with westerners of all nationalities, shapes and sizes, but mostly young and busy chatting, drinking and smoking and looking for all the world like they've spent their entire lives without a care, travelling with little or no sense of purpose, or even perspective. Whilst we crave even short holidays to get a break from the stress of daily existence, worn down by years of mundanity, they wander round this paradise looking for the next party. Bastards. I'm jealous. But only of their youth. My time is coming, very soon...


Tracy surrounded by youth... shouldn't they be working?


Once off the ferry the minibus wound its way up the meandering road up and down hugging the mountains close to the sea, before dropping off the first passenger at a tired and run-down looking resort. Back on the road again, hoping that we weren't going to hit or get hit by either the large pick-up trucks that double as taxis, laden with backpackers hanging out of the sides like dogs panting from car windows, or the millions of scooters swarming past, their riders either red-skinned tourists trying to look cool, or beautiful young thai girls succeeding. We managed, and dropped of the other passengers two-by-two at resorts that looked much more like the brochures until we were the only two left, and then we turned off the road at a sign for our resort – Siam Bay Resort – down a very steep and winding road and stopped outside a grubby looking building with surly locals staring at us with “you looking at my pint” eyes. Not quite what we were expecting. The lodges by the sea to the left of the 'reception' area looked run down, with faded tin roofs and cock-eyed wooden balconies. To the right were some new villas, still being built, although thankfully not now. And then a row of small, squat white bungalows, behind which loomed a large apartment block. We'd arrived. We checked in and the bell-boy, who fancied himself as a Thai Rod Stewart, heaved our bag onto his back and showed us the way. Bungalow 113. Right on the beach. Large twin beds, air conditioning, a shower out the back under what looks like a greenhouse, toilet, TV, fridge and safe. Home. And with the sun starting to set right outside the window, above the island opposite an idyllic white-sanded beach. Things were starting to look up...


Sunset outside our bungalow...


No time to shower, we need a photo of the sunset. And a beer. Or two. Bottled Singha from the fridge whilst sitting in the fading sunlight listening to the gentle roll of the waves as the tide comes in, watching the small fishing boats bob up and down. Breathe deep. And Relax. Perfect...

Dinner was better than the surroundings suggested, but then again, isn't it always? Tom Yam soup, suitably spicy, followed by deep fried fish in sweet chilli and chicken pad thai, with perfect steamed rice. Sometimes you need to look beyond the cover to find a good book...

Back at the bungalow, fed and rested, relaxed and contented, we feel into a deep sleep, the hum of the air conditioner and the crash of the waves vying for our attention and filling our dreams. Until 12.30pm, when we both woke for no reason, and neither of us could get back to sleep, so we dozed and chatted until 2.30am, when I finally turned off the air-conditioner and fell asleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore just yards from my bed...


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sun, Sea, Sand and Singha!

And sleep we did.... woke after 8am from a deep and very realistic dream where I was at Danielle's parent's evening and had lost her teacher (what made it weird was the bit where I was searching in the lady's loos...) and woke Tracy, who was still snoozing in the bed beside me (always a great way to start the day....). After a quick shower we headed up to the reception/bar/restaurant area for breakfast and with a glass of orange squash in hand we surveyed, with growing disappointment, the array of stainless steel trays that contained the “buffet”. It bore more than a passing resemblance to yesterday's leftovers, so we had toast. With jam. Which was nice. And coffee. Which wasn't.

After satiating our rumbling bellies, we made our way back to the bungalow and then out onto the beach, where we started indulging in something that we'd almost forgotten how to do, Nothing. We sat and read, me in a hammock, swinging gently in the breeze, whilst Tracy reclined on a wooden sunbed (that didn't look comfortable at all). Within a few minutes we were both lost in our own little worlds, soaking up the sun and enjoying simply being, making occasional trips into the sea to cool down. Boy, did we need this...


Tracy enjoying the sun...


With the tide now in full ebb, or at least, going out, the shoreline came alive, with small hermit crabs and little fish filling the remaining pools of water, whilst on dry land the sand crabs emerged from their burrows leaving little balls of sand scattered around like an explosion in a ball bearing factory. At one point I looked up to see that Tracy had wandered off, and was sat on a rock with her feet in a pool mesmerised by the wildlife in miniature playing between her toes...contented... oh, yes...


Tracy, suddenly 6 years old again, finds some crabs and ickle fishes...


Not to be left out of this idyllic picture, I wandered over with camera in hand to try and capture a picture that David Attenborough would be proud of.


A hermit crab...  crawl into your shell and disappear from the world, me, I'll just come here and look at you, and the world will disappear from me....


I failed, obviously...

Returning to the comfort of the sunbed to continue indulging in one of lives truly great pleasures, reading a good book in the sun, I lost myself many times before my rumbling stomach interrupted me with a reminder that I didn't get this “oh, he's got a healthy appetite” physique without paying constant attention to mealtimes, and it was time for us to go hunting. A gentle stroll along the beach, made easier by the retreating tide, saw us emerge on the main road through town. Boy, it was hot, thirsty work, all that walking. So we sat down in a bar and ordered a pitcher of cold beer... Beer Chang for a change...


A picture of a pitcher... I know which I prefer...


Angels dancing on my tongue? Oh, yes...

With thirst attended to it was hunger's turn next. We ordered light. A stir-fried spicy prawn dish for me, and the same-same-but-different for Tracy. With chicken, not prawn. And rice. And it was good. Damned good. Full of those ingredients that see me scouring the supermarkets in Chinatown of a weekend when cooking for my friends. Round Thai aubergines, pea aubergines, fresh green peppercorns (the “spicy” part, they leave your mouth burning hotter than the sun), kaffir and holy basil leaves and large, flavoursome red chillies. I need to move my kitchen here. And replace my back yard with a white sandy bay. And my commute with a gentle stroll along the beach, hand-in-hand with my wife. Excuse me while I cry happy for a while...

Having come over all emotional it was time to leave the bar before another pitcher threw me a curved ball and prevented me from moving.

Back on the beach for some more relaxation. If I do this much longer I'll be proclaimed dead and my belongings distributed to the young Thai girls so they don't have to hang around with the fat, ugly, westerners any longer and can afford to tell them to “Feck Off” like all the western girls they've ever met have.

When the tide had gone out far enough to make the walk into it to cool down a drag (about 10 yards, then!) we moved to the pool deck by the reception/bar/restaurant and cooled down whilst swimming towards the pool's horizon which coincided with the bay's. Boy, this is beautiful. Then we grabbed the notebook and went for a beer. And so I updated the blog (hope you liked it, that was yesterday's post) whilst sinking cold Singha and watching two fat, ugly, westerners cavort with two young Thai girls old enough to be their grand-daughters. I don't know how much they're paying them, but it isn't enough. Hell, there isn't enough money in the world for that. Or perhaps I've got it wrong, and it's true love. Though when we see them in the beachside restaurant later I see the same scorn in the girls faces when their men are looking elsewhere, and catch the conspiratorial glances between them. And the gabble-gabble of unintelligible Thai that flows in staccato bursts when the guys are busy lighting fags or chatting. Gotta hang together to get through this and to the money, honey...

Back at the reception/bar/restaurant I find a free wireless and upload pics and the blog whilst chugging cold Singha and interrupting Tracy's readings with my ramblings... She smiles at me and I go light-headed. Must slow down on the drinking...


Paul updates the blog, with a beer for each hand...


With the blog only a day out of date I've had enough and we're hungry. We book an elephant trek for tomorrow, ensuring an early start, and head off down the beach in search of a restaurant and bar where we can ensure we don't get one. We find the perfect place – the “Porn Restaurant” - and grab a table on the beach, with chairs a mile apart and a stretch to the table, and order drinks. Not beer this time, Black Russian for Tracy and that ol' Thai favourite SangSom and Coke for me. And food. Spring Rolls, Stir-Fried Prawns in Ginger and Fish in Red Curry Paste. I get asked to select the fish from the iced display and pick a large grey one. As opposed to a large red one, which I think was a Red Snapper. Next time I'll bring my copy of the “Lonely Planet Guide to Thai Fish”. When it comes, the food arrives at once. But it's all good, Very, very good. The fish has been cooked to perfection and smothered in a freshly ground red curry paste, just like mama makes, if mama is native to these parts, not Cordon-Bleu trained and following Nigella and F'in Gordon F'in Ramsay's latest. Like I said, very, very good. The dogs looked appreciative too, as they paced the beach and laid down at our feet trying their best to look underfed whilst their bulging bellies gave the game away. Come on, guys, even I don't try that. And you've got no chance. I wouldn't feed my own dog at the table (if I had one), so you don't have a hope in hell. And Tracy's not the sucker for puppy-dog eyes you might think. I know, I've tried...


Beg, boy, beg...Tracy ignores another pleading...


Well fed and well watered, we pay up and leave. Less than 20-quid for a meal like that, in a location like this. Including drinks (hic). Why are we going home?

We wander into town to collect supplies, whilst doing endless impressions of Colin's best joke. The one about the Chinaman who gets a job in US army logistics during the Vietnam conflict. When the tired G.I.s return to base hungry and thirsty he jumps out from behind a tent and shouts “SURPLISE!”. Wearily they reply, “No, you dumb bastard, you're in charge of supplies...”.

Armed with a bottle of SangSom and a couple of bottles of coke, and some beer for Tracy, we head back to the bungalow. Which is where I am right now. Creedence Clear Water Revival blasting out of the netbook (need some proper speakers before I do this again), SangSom and coke in one hand, bad typing in the other...

Cheers!


Friday, March 6, 2009

Me Tarzan, You Tracy...

Woke up 10 minutes before the alarm was due to go off, having had another very vivid and very weird dream, about a colleague at work getting a new company car and emailing the person whose car it was – she was called Tracey with an “e”. It was so real, that I was shocked when I opened my eyes and instead of the inside of a grey open-plan office I saw thin muslin blinds with the clear outline of the bay... hey-ho, another day in paradise...


Another day in paradise... early morning, Siam Bay Resort, Koh Chang...


Showered and dressed we headed for breakfast, confident that our early morning start would make the buffet look more appetizing. We were wrong. Toast it was. With jam. And Orange squash and bad coffee. Then the guy arrived with his Toyota pick-up and the Great Elephant Trek was on. We climbed into the back and braced ourselves as he headed up the steep driveway and took us into town, where we picked up 3 eastern-European or Russian men before leaving town and turning into the elephant's home. Which stank of elephant doo-doo. I guess they don't know it's a bad idea to shit on your own doorstep...

We paid our money and had our choice made for us. We'd be riding “up front” on a rather large-looking elephant. Come to think of it, they were all rather large-looking. It's an elephant thing, I guess. We went upstairs in an odd-looking building with a landing that looked down on an elephant-sized pathway, into which our elephant was manoeuvred, and then clambered onto a bench-seat mounted on his back, just behind the driver (or pilot, or captain, or whatever it is you call someone who drives/rides/steers an elephant). And then we were off. The gentle rolling of our seat caused by the elephant's huge shoulders as he carried us gently up the trail was like being on a very small boat in a very big ocean with very big waves... but it was simply brilliant. I giggled and laughed like the little boy I am inside, whilst Tracy smiled and laughed alongside me (if this doesn't prove there's precious little wrong with her back now, nothing will!). The Russians, split across 2 elephants, tried their hardest not to smile. Wonder what's happened in their lives that means they've grown up so much they can no longer be 5 years old?


Elephant on trail...


Our guide/driver/pilot/captain spotted a snake in the grass (ok, leaves, but it was a snake) and then started pointing into the trees. We scoured the branches looking for monkeys, or Tarzan, or even a large python, before spotting the lizard that was perfectly camouflaged and almost invisible against the trunk of the tree. We even wandered into a rubber plantation. Jungle, on an elephant? Yeah...


Elephants run amok in a rubber plantation...


We then meandered through the forest for an hour or so, stopping every now and then so the elephants could destroy some more vegetation, as they pulled down bamboo or dug up large grasses and smashed their spoils against the ground to break away the soil, presumably to make it more palatable. Elephant cooking. Sort of.

Eventually we arrived at the river pool where we were due to bathe the elephants, except it didn't look like a bath, more like a stagnant puddle. When a nice English-speaking chap suggested that with the water in the condition it was, we perhaps forego the bathing and let the elephants take a walk in the water so we could have our photo taken, we gladly accepted his offer. Nellie (or was it Dumbo?) seemed to sense the reason why we were still on his back, and did his best not to get us wet. At least the photo looked good, and will sit nicely along with others we have that have been taken by proprietors of tourist entertainment...


A sedate wash today...


That's not us, or our elephant, in case you didn't spot it. It's another couple who we caught up on the trail...

To make up for the disappointment of not getting to bathe our elephant (an no, that's not a euphemism for some strange Far Eastern pastime...), we got a slightly longer ride. And I got to steer/drive/ride/pilot/captain our elephant. Oh, yes! With our guide walking in front, seemingly not bothered which way Nellie took us (I say “steer”, but, trust me, without handlebars or a wheel, or even reins, I had no hope!), we continued down the trail whilst I bit my tongue to prevent me from yelling out like Tarzan... “aaaaarrrrrraaaaarrrrrraaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaagggghhhhhhhhhhhh”...


Me Tarzan, You Tracy...


5 years old? Oh, yes...

Except my body isn't and the effort of hanging on with just my thighs made me tired and I was glad when we finally arrived back at the strange landing and were able to dismount and collect our “professional souvenir photo”...

We took the pick-up back into town and got the driver to drop us off at the bureau de change we'd spotted on the way out and gratefully changed some money as we'd been coppering-up to pay for the photo. We then wandered aimlessly up and down the high street looking for a suitable place to stop for a beer, before finally deciding to head for the beach and grab lunch where we ate last night (I said it was good, didn't I?). So lunch was taken sat on the floor, with a very small table and a very big view. We ordered a Thai salad – Larb Gai, just like I make at home except a fair bit hotter (than hell!) - and a chicken and basil with chillies on rice (also fairly spicy), and a couple of beers. Which fortunately were very cold and help soothe our burning mouths. God, I love Thai food....


Lunch... beats a sandwich from the Copley canteen, eh!


Satiated once again, we strolled back along the beach to our bungalow and were pleasantly surprised to see it had been cleaned. And I now had a bed with sheets on (I've been using my new silk sleeping bag liner, which is just brilliant). And towels (we've been using our trekking ones). And fresh bottles of water in the fridge... Cool...


Our bungalow room...


And so we changed again into our swimming gear and headed for the beach (or stepped outside our bungalow, it's the same thing). Where we relaxed and read and cooked until done....

A quick shower, beer and an update of the blog and it's almost time for the sunset...


Tracy's picture of the sunset captures its full glory...


Which Tracy captured on her new camera whilst sat on our patio...

Suitably chilled and with the temperature dropping to mere infero from the hell-hot of the day, we made our way back along the now familiar route round the beach to town. We'd seen an interesting looking bar earlier in the day, called the “Rock Sugar” which had a guitar-motif and a stage, and served pizza. We made our way there and ordered drinks and more Thai food. With a Garlic Bread starter... washed down with a very strong Black Russian (a drink, most of the Russian men we've seen are pale white and quite fat) for Tracy and a cold beer and SangSom & Coke chaser for me. Main course was the best yet – a fantastic whole sea bass deep fried and with a crispy garlic topping accompanied by the freshest tasting Thai Green Curry we've ever experienced. And rice, naturally.

We were all set for a long evening's drinking and merry-making when my stomach coughed politely and asked if we could head for the exit and a long sit down as quickly as possible. So we paid up and left, walking with clenched buttocks back across the beach, expecting at any moment to have to pull a very fast Reggie Perrrin and make for the sea... But we made it back in time to preserve what little dignity I have, where I disturbed the peaceful tranquillity of the resort with the loudest fart ever recorded. Sorry, but it's hard to write a blog and leave that sort of thing out...

With my stomach now more gentle breeze than rolling thunder, we read a while before attempting to go to sleep. It took much longer than usual, probably because of the lack of liquid sedatives, but eventually we fell into a deep sleep...


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Invasion of the Japanese Kayak Stealers...

We woke late. Very late. 8.45am and missing breakfast late. So we snoozed some more just to make sure, and then showered and went to hire the kayak. Today was our day for gently rowing out into the bay and exploring the island opposite that always gets the best of the sun in the morning.

Only it wasn't.

Overnight the entire Japanese teenage population had rocked up in our resort and stolen the only 2 kayaks. Only there were 5, but 3 were propped up enjoying the sun and unable to come to play. Or so said the sour-faced receptionist, revelling in destroying our well-made plans. Plunged into a depression worthy of a wet weekend in Skegness and not a hot day in paradise, we trudged back to our bungalow and grabbed our books. At least the hammock and wooden sunlounger were still available. Probably because they were in the shade... No matter, we made ourselves comfortable and lost ourselves in our books...

For about ten minutes...

That's when the Japanese teenager soft-porn photographic society arrived and started their photo-shoot. Using the swing next to us, and the spare, broken, wooden sunlounger as props. They snapped away, jibber-jabbing like the cicadas that keep us awake of an evening, taking each other's photos in various poses using various cameras and mobile phones. What the hell the Japanese do with all these millions of identi-kit photos is beyond me. They must while away many an evening back in the Tokyo suburbs, getting hammered on sushi and sake and boring each other to suicide with endless photos of their friends in strange poses against a backdrop of famous and not-so-famous sights. When one of the young lads got a guitar out we feared we were in for an even worse Karaoke performance than we heard wafting painfully from one of the beachside bars during last-nights last-ditch dash back to the bungalow. But no, the guitar was another prop. And so, laid on his back on an inflatable li-lo in the shallows, he pretended to strum away, whilst his giggling gaggle of friend click-clicked away... And Tracy and I muttered under our breaths “give us back the kayaks, you thieving yellow bastards!”...

But a quick dip in the bath-warm sea soon soothed our stresses away, and relaxing in the hammock, reading a good book, it's hard to stay even faux-cross for very long. We laughed and splashed. Therapy? It beats seeing a psychiatrist...


Come on in, the water's warm enough to make tea...


Hammock, sunshine and a good book...Relaxed? Oh, yes...


On one of our regular dip-trips my wading was interrupted by a movement under the waves, and I saw a sea-bass, just like the one we ate last night except raw and very much alive, swim away. Then when stood with Tracy, knee-deep in warm water, we heard a splitter-splashy sound and saw a flying fish jump up and skim the water, looking like a skimmed-stone thrown by a young boy across a perfect pond. Therapy? I'm cured... but can we stay a bit longer?

Back to the hammock to cook until raw. Red raw.

By now Tracy's doing her usual chameleon impression and turning from cute white chick to gorgeous bronzed babe, via a short period of deep red take-me-to-bed loveliness. Me, I'm getting sore shoulders and a burnt bald-patch. Where did my youth go?

Ok, time to get out of the sun for a while and grab some more sustenance to make up for the lost breakfast. Changed into comfy shoes to avoid the blisters from the sand in my sandals (oh, so that's where they get their name from), and with the netbook in my backpack we head once more along our stretch of beach from home to town. All life is here, from beachcombers combing the beach (yes, they brush it every morning to clear the flotsam and jetsam so it doesn't hurt the feet of the tourists), to a couple of guys rebuilding the top-end of a huge car engine fitted to the back of their boat...


Piston broke? … No, it's the clam-shaft...


… to the massage parlours plying Thai or Foot Massages for less than a fiver underneath the palm and coconut trees (a lot more exotic than down the back alleys of Manchester, and probably a proper massage, too)... to the lobster-coloured bikini-clad babes relaxing in swanky resort next door to ours, on their cushioned sunloungers and umbrellas with a soundtrack of cool running water from the architect-designed pool... to local builders working in the furnace of a freshly-concreted resort building to the strains of a tinny radio (no Steve Wright In The Afternoon for these guys, though)...

… and onto the main street in the baking heat, struggling to summon the energy to put left in front of right, shuffling along like a dog with no legs, eyes scanning left to right for a bar with atmosphere and cold beer, for a place with comfy seats for dead-beats, for a place to sit and eat and drink and relax...

We found it, of course. Only this one didn't have comfy seats, just cold drinks and hot food. Good food. Thai food. Chicken fried rice that tasted better than the one I cooked in Cesky Krumlov whilst we drank tinned beer and toasted our freedom, just days away from disaster. I never thought we'd find chicken fried rice that tasted better. But we did. And Pad Thai with Shrimp for a quid. But before we get carried away and start drinking beer again, an ice-cold tea and ice-cold coffee. Tracy's tea was rather special, though whether they deliberately made it so it was colour-coordinated with her vest, and matching tongue, we'll never know...


Tracy's drink changes her tongue to match her vest and the awning... clever...


But the chairs weren't comfy so we had to move on. Via the Bureau de Change to change yet more dollars and give us the means to settle the bill back at the resort, and the 7-11 for cold Cornettos, to the bar we ate at, when? Oh yes, 2 days ago. Seems like longer. And another bottle of beer whilst I break out the netbook and let my fingers do the rambling...

Before Tracy's stomach coughed politely and asked if we could head for the exit and a long sit down as quickly as possible....

So we paid up and headed back to the bungalow and the comfort of air-conditioning and a shower in the greenhouse out back. Cold water and searing heat. What a combination. And cold after-sun soothing glowing flesh. Life just doesn't get much better than this... Or does it?

Time for another beer and we'll find out...

Disappointingly, the resort's Internet connection was not working, and so I was unable to upload yesterday's blog entry. So we decided to head back into town and take the netbook with us and see if we could find an Internet cafe. But first, as we strolled along the beach we had to stop and take yet another photograph of a glorious sunset...


Another night, another perfect sunset...


We grabbed a beer in the bar we sat at earlier, and attempted to hack into their wi-fi connection, unsuccessfully. I even tried asking for the WEP key, but for some reason couldn't make myself understood. Ever tried miming “Wireless Encryption Protocol”? And charades was never my favourite game...

Still, there's an Internet cafe across the road, so I left Tracy with her beer and her book and went over to try my luck there. And was able to connect and collect the endless spam emails Tracy's mother sends (please stop, Margaret!), but had a problem with Blogger.com and couldn't get the blog loaded. Damn. Will have to try another day...

But first, more beer...

We wandered back to the Rock Sugar, determined to stay out late and catch the band play. Tracy got adventurous with the cocktails (Sex on the Beach? Maybe later...) whilst we shared the best spring rolls I think I've ever had. And we had a few more drinks, watched the world go by, chatted and chilled. And then ordered some more food – another Sea Bass this time deep fried with sweet chilli sauce and Prawns with Salt in Bish. Well, that's what is said on the menu. Before long the band started setting up and the piped soft rock was turned off. We were still the only people in the restaurant, but that wasn't going to stop them. Expectantly we watched as the guitarist and bass guitarist tuned their instruments, and the drummer did what drummers the world over do before a gig... sit grinning like an ejit behind a large drumkit and start practicing twirling drumsticks round and round. And then they started to play. Elevator music for a Stannah Stair Lift Convention. Seriously, all they lacked was a hammond organ and purple suits, frilly shirts and bow-ties... Laugh, I nearly wet myself. But what made it all the more funny was the sign they'd put up in next to a hat in front of the stage...


and the band played on... and on... and on....


The sign reads 'TIPS FOR THE POOR BAND'...


I could think of a few, like hiring some musicians, or learning the words, or changing their repertoire, or quitting and selling sea shells on the sea shore...

I think Tracy thought I was going to have a coronary... and what the band thought of playing in front of a sunburnt couple, with the man having a serious fit of hysterics is beyond me.

Rock Sugar? More like Candy Floss...

At least the food was as good as previously, and Tracy seemed to be enjoying the Sex on the Beach (or was that later?). Fed and merry we paid and left, whilst the band played on. And said goodbye to us, with a cheery wave. Must have caught us singing along to the Carpenters songs they were murdering...

Another late-night stroll down the beach, hand-in-hand, all loved up. Via the supermarket to get some crisps and another bottle of SangSom. And then to the bungalow to play music on the netbook and get tipsy whilst packing the bags ready for the early start...


Sunday, March 8, 2009

From Koh Chang to Siem Reap...

Woke up just before the alarm at 5.55am, and started coughing. I've got a sore throat, which I put down to sleeping in air-conditioned rooms, as they never agree with me. Am pretty certain it's that and not the SangSom and hysterics of last night. My coughing fit wakes Tracy, so we shower and get dressed quickly and then head up to the reception/bar/restaurant area to wait for the minibus to collect us. Today is much more cloudy than previously, and it's even starting to rain, albeit of the pathetic not-enough-to-warrant-a-brolly kind. Even so, and despite the early hour, the view is still pretty spectacular...


The view over the pool, Siam Bay Resort, Koh Chang...


All in all, the resort has been much better than our first impressions, made all the better for the great location and short walk into town. I certainly wouldn't recommend it over others we saw, though, and with all the building work going on around us, in a few years it's likely to be very crowded indeed, and I don't think it'll be able to cope with the expansion – after all, they only seem to have 2 kayaks!

The minibus was late and we were starting to get concerned, so I phoned the office and was given the classic taxi dispatcher's response “he's just turning into your road” (actually, it was “be there in 10 minute”, but it's the same thing – he arrived in 20...). We then loaded up and set off back to the ferry and on to Trat airport. Check-in at Trat airport, including passing through security and passport control couldn't have been easier, or the staff more friendly. But that's what you get when your airport looks like the picture below, and not a concrete dungeon..


The airport buildings at Trat airport...


On arrival at Bangkok airport, in between bouts of violent coughing, I started singing a new song I'd made up to help us while away the hours before our flight to Siem Reap, which revolved around the whereabouts of our big yellow North Face bag. Waiting at the carousel it goes something like this: “Where be that ye-llow bag, where that ye-llow bag be”. There's only those 2 lines. Repeated over and over. It's very catching. Or as Tracy put it “very annoying”. Still, it helped pass the 3 hours we had to wait. Although Tracy did look a little travel-weary by the time our flight was called...


Tracy waiting at Bangkok airport...


Boarding a plane is a simple matter, even one that's heading to Cambodia. Before getting on the plane, you show your passport and boarding card to the air steward(ess). That simple process had a large group of 'mercan tourists flummoxed, because they'd not been trusted to look after their own passports and had given them to the tour guide. Who then had to give them back, so they could board. Naturally, he chose the most sensible place in the vast, empty, waiting lounge to do this. Directly in front of the check-in desk. Imagine the scene, as 30-40 50-60year old 'mercans all clamoured to get their passports back from a guide who couldn't organise a food-fight in a school canteen...

We pushed out way past and onto the bus and then onto the plane, trying not to get irritated by shouts of “HEY BOB, YOU GOT MY PASSPORT THERE BUDDY?”. Why do they have to SHOUT all the time?

Finally we were airborne again and handed a snack before starting our descent. I still can't work out why the airlines insist on feeding everyone on a flight of less than an hour, but the water was welcome because I stopped coughing for long enough to breathe.

Arriving at Siam Reap the chaos started again. Trapped in our seats by a passenger who wanted to be last off the plane (and who'd stolen my isle seat) we were last to disembark, which meant that when we reached the arrivals lounge, and needed to make our way to the Visa desks, the entrance was blocked by 30-40 50-60year old 'mercans hollerin' about what they had to do. Like sheep without a sheepdog, they seemed completely incapable of walking up to the (nearly empty) desk, handing over passport and completed visa form (complete with photo) and $20 and then collecting their passports, resplendent with a full-page Cambodian visa inside some 5 minutes later. I'm on an organised trip later this year, and sincerely hope that I don't find myself as incapable as this group of numpties...

So, with visas in hand we went in search of our baggage, to the strains of “Where be that ye-llow bag, where that ye-llow bag be” and “will you pleease shut the f' up!!!”. Having collected our bag, and narrowly avoided collecting a black eye as Tracy swung her arms about wildly (she said something that sounded like “damned flies” but I couldn't see any), we met up with our driver (how posh!) and got in the people-carrier (not posh). The drive from the airport to the hotel could have easily been down any rural road in France, but with added heat and more traffic...


Cambodia or France? Arriving in Siem Reap...


It all looked very different from when we arrived back in 2004 in the back of a dusty pick-up truck. There were new hotels everywhere, and most of the scooter riders were wearing helmets (apparently it's compulsory now or a $2 fine). Their passengers (yes, plural, it's not unusual to see entire families on one bike) not, though. It's only compulsory for the rider, not the pillion(s). We passed a beautifully manicured park and along the side of a river, over a bridge and back along the other side. Aha, one-way streets, left bank going South, right bank going North. In theory, yes, as Cambodians don't seem to abide by the laws of the road. The result looks like complete madness, but we didn't see any collisions. Think Rome, but hotter, dirtier and with the traffic moving a bit slower. And the people not as well dressed.

Our hotel, the Claremont Angkor Hotel, is down a side street just off the right bank of the river, and it surprisingly good for £27 per night. The staff are all incredibly friendly and very attentive, and the room clean and well equipped. We even have a bath, although I think it's sized for Cambodian men, not overweight English men like me.


Our room, Claremont Angkor Hotel...


A quick shower and change and then a wander into town, dodging the traffic and find a bar down by the river where we can sit and have a cold beer and watch the world go by. At last, a cool beer to soothe my sore throat. Doesn't stop me coughing, though, so we pay up and move on to find somewhere to eat. Opposite the market we find a likely-looking place with air-conditioning, which given the temperature is still very high is a good thing, and wander in. Like tourists, we order the set menu for 2, which comprises 6 traditional Khmer dishes served in banana leaves and a dessert. I order a banana milk-shake to line my throat and try not to splutter curry across the table when it doesn't work. The food was good, but neither Tracy nor I have much of an appetite, and when the dessert arrives and is cooked banana in coconut milk, we decided to pay up and head back to the hotel. We passed an open shopping mall and whilst they didn't have any cough medicine, I did find some Strepsils which helped a little. En-route we also passed Nelly:


Cue incorrect nursery rhyme...


… and started singing “Nelly the elephant lost her trunk and said goodbye to the circus”. Well, it made a change from “Where be that ye-llow bag be”...

And so to bed...


Monday, March 9, 2009

A Day at the Temples...

As a result of me spending most of the night catapulting Tracy out of the bouncy bed as a result of my violent coughing fits, it was 8am before we rose, showered and headed up to the 6th floor balcony for breakfast. With the ever-attentive staff ensuring that we had a good view, and that our coffee/tea and pancakes were to our liking (they were), breakfast was a relaxed affair. Even my coughing seemed to chill out for a while...


Breakfast on the balcony...


After eating as much of the pancake as we could (about a third in my case, Tracy managed almost half), we headed down to reception and booked a taxi to take us round the temples. A few minutes later our driver, Andy (real name Vandy, but everyone calls me Andy) arrived to drive us round for the day. First stop was the ticket booth where we intended buying a 2-day pass, only to realise that we'd not come out with sufficient cash (2 or 3 day passes are $40 each), so we bought one-day passes instead (only $20). As we'd left it fairly late in the day to set off, Andy suggested that we modify the traditional order and go to Angkor Thom first, then Ta Prohm and finally Angkor Wat after lunch. We'd chosen these 3 main temples despite having seen them before, as we wanted a little more time to explore then – last time seemed so rushed.

Whilst Siem Reap may have changed beyond all recognition, the area around Angkor hasn't, and looked very familiar. First, we arrived at the bridge leading to the South Gate of the Angkor Thom, the great walled city which covers some 10sq Km. The bridges are decorated with asura (devils) on one side and deva (gods) on the other, each pulling on a Naga (5 or 7-headed mythical snake). The bridge crosses a moat that surrounds the walls, and is somewhat more impressive than moats around castles in England...


Bridge leading to South Gate, Angkor Thom


A deva head overlooking the moat round Angkor Thom


Once inside the city, we headed for the first major temple – the Baron. Built sometime in the 12th century, this remarkable temple comprises 54 gothic towers, each hosting 4 faces (believed to be of the god-king Avalokiteshvara), one on each side, staring out to the 4 corners of the compass. Wherever you are within the temple complex, these faces seem to be looking down on you, watching your every move. The temple itself is a mass of narrow corridors and steep steps, which lead to upper levels from which the views are fantastic.


The Bayon temple


Tracy gets the feeling she's being watched...


Like most of the temples at Angkor, the Bayon is decoratively carved all over – wherever the stone-work is visible, it is carved with intricate patterns, or of dancing Apsara (heavenly nymphs). It's the sort of place you can easily lose a whole day looking round, and use up an entire memory card taking endless photographs of...


Dancing Apsara, Bayon Temple...


But we didn't. Well, we do have a lot more photos, and I'll create a Gallery for them later, but we needed to move on. Leaving the Bayon and heading North took us straight to the Baphuon, which is still being reconstructed – so that gives us an excuse to return in a few more years – and on to the Terrace of Elephants. This is a 350-metre long terrace which was used a giant stage for public ceremonies and overlooks a large flat area that's mostly used for parking now, but would have been filled with people during these ceremonies – must have been quite a sight. The terrace itself is also beautifully carved, with carvings of elephants all along the walls, and large statues of elephants emerging from the walls.


The Elephant Terrace


From here we climbed down and rejoined Andy, who had been relaxing in the shade with his fellow taxi drivers, and made our way over to Ta Prohm. Apart from Angkor Wat, this is probably the most famous of the Cambodian temples, as it's the one used in Tomb Raider, where Angelina Jolie gets lead into the depths of the temple, which is partly-hidden by massive trees, by a little girl. It was also my favourite from our last visit, as it still gave the impression of having only just been discovered, as the main temple buildings and walls were covered in tree roots, and there were massive trees growing everywhere. The only thing that had partially spoilt it last time, was the gaggle of Japanese tourists pouring over the place taking endless photographs of the same spot and pushing everyone else out of their way. Well, that's not changed (although now its groups of Koreans and Russians), but the temple has. It seems they've decided to try and restore it. Which has meant that many of the trees that made it so special have gone. And scaffolding has been erected inside the temple buildings to hold them up. And now there are wooden walkways everywhere to prevent tourists from tripping (and suing?) on the rubble. So now it's lost a lot of its charm and become just another temple, but without the intricate carvings of the Bayon, or the storyboard carvings of Angkor Wat, I don't think it's going to remain a “must-see” for too long... Especially when the most famous part is surrounded by whooping Koreans having their photos taken...


The whooping Koreans get behind the barriers for that all important Ta Prohm photo...


Suitably depressed we headed back to Andy and then drove on to lunch in front of Angkor Wat. Neither Tracy nor I had much of an appetite, the searing heat sapping what little energy we had, but we did manage to guzzle our way through a litre-and-a-half of water washed down with iced tea (Tracy) and coffee (me). Back out in the heat we arranged to be back with Andy in an hour and headed across the bridge to Angkor Wat. This is the most famous of all Cambodian sights, and even appears on the Cambodian flag. It is also believed to be the largest religious structure anywhere in the world, and I can easily believe that to be true. It's simply massive. Surrounded by a rectangular moat that measures 1.5 x 1.3Km and is 190m wide, the approach is over a sandstone causeway and through the outer wall which leads into the main courtyard. From here a walkway leads towards the temple proper, with its impressive towers reaching up towards the sky...


Angkor Wat from inside the outer wall


All along the walkway there are steps leading down into the courtyard below, each with a naga (7-headed snake) head on either side. Then when you reach the temple walls, you have a choice – enter the temple or take a wall round the outer corridor which runs for 800m completely surrounding the inner temple courtyard. It's here that Angkor Wat has something really special – all along the walls are a series of carvings depicting scenes from ancient history, whether real or mythical.


One of the carvings, Heaven and Hell, depicting the 37 heavens on the top row and the 32 hells beneath


Our favourite is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which depicts a scene where 88 asura (devils) and 92 deva (gods) pull on either end of a naga snake, wrapped round Mt Mandala which sits in an ocean of milk, in a great tug of war, in order to release the elixir of immortality. Or cheese, as we call it.

Ok, I made that last bit up for a cheap laugh. The carving is beautiful, though.


Churning of the Ocean of Milk


By now it was getting unbearably hot, and we were getting very, very tired. And we were also late for our rendezvous with Andy, so we said our goodbyes to Angkor Wat, and headed back along the causeway to the exit. Where I nearly stood on a small furry animal that at first I thought was a cat, until it sat down and started picking at something held in its hands... it was a small monkey!


Angkor Wat


We got back to the car and Andy was nowhere to be seen. So we bought a cold drink and waited in the shade of a tree. When he still hadn't turned up 10 minutes later, Tracy asked another Taxi driver if he knew where he was. Fortunately, the driver recognised Andy's car and called him on his mobile phone. Within seconds, Andy was running towards us, shouting profuse apologies and trying to explain he'd positioned himself to see us leave the temple, but missed us. Reunited, we drove back to the hotel whilst en-route arranging our plans for tomorrow. We arranged for Andy to pick us up from the hotel at 8am so we could take a boat journey on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village.

And with that sorted, we were back at the hotel and in the bath. Well I was, because when in, I wasn't getting out again, and there wasn't room for Tracy. Once clean I managed to get out of the bath after much grunting, and we dressed and went upstairs to the rooftop restaurant for dinner. We still didn't have much of an appetite, but did manage to get through a fair amount of the delicious food we ordered – vegetable somosas to share, then I had Lamb curry with garlic naan and chips (desperate for some roughage!) and Tracy had chicken in mushroom sauce and chips. Washed down with a very acceptable bottle of South African Chardonnay...

And then to bed. Where my cough returned with a vengeance...


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Muddy Waters...

I spent most of the night coughing violently until I discovered some of Tracy's tablets called “Night Pain”, and reasoning that's what I was being, took a couple. Within half an hour I was fast asleep, and that's the way it remained until I woke in a blind panic as I realised we'd overslept and it was less than an hour until Andy arrived to take us on our boat trip. So I woke Tracy, and fell asleep again whilst she had a cold shower, then got up and enjoyed a warm shower as all the cold water had been run off. Unsurprisingly, this didn't start things off in the best of spirits. And missing breakfast didn't help matters, nor did the overcast sky and high humidity. But the sight of Andy, filled with enthusiasm at the prospect of taking more money off us during the day, lightened our moods and we gaily jumped in the back of his car and set off towards town, where we parted with $40 for 2 tickets on a “VIP boat tour” of the lake and the floating village...

The journey out of town took us through a part of Siem Reap that looked a lot more like we remembered it from back in 2004, with the hotels giving way to residences, wooden houses built on stilts with the lower level for storage (of what looked mostly like junk) and the upper level comprising a single room for living, cooking and sleeping. The residents were out and about too, small children in tattered clothing playing in the street, mothers with babes-in-arms cleaning or cooking, and fathers bathing under outdoor showers wrapped in sarongs, or sleeping in hammocks. Further out of town the houses got more and more sparse, and more and more derelict-looking. Andy asked us if we wanted to stop for a photograph, but we declined, feeling that to do so would be an intrusion. How would we feel if a car full of tourists stopped outside our house to take a picture of us, cleaning or washing or tending the garden?

Eventually we arrived at what would normally have been the lake shore, where the boat-house station was situated. None of this seemed familiar, despite us catching a boat down the Tonle Sap in October 2004 to Phnom Penh. That's probably because this huge lake undergoes something of a dramatic transformation every year. After the rainy season, the Mekong River into which it flows floods and reverses the flow, filling the lake and flooding the plains, pushing the forest we could now clearly see underwater. Last time we were here was shortly after the rainy season, and only the tops of the trees were visible emerging from the lake. Now, whole forests were visible, a whole town of Cambodia's really poor had sprung up on the dry flatlands, planting and growing rice, and the lake was reduced to a muddy river for around a kilometre from the shore. Andy explained that the people who lived here either had enough money to claim good land, and could build houses on stilts that would survive the lake flooding, or built temporary houses on the unclaimed, and therefore “free” land further away from shore, in the certain knowledge that their homes would be lost to the floods in a few short months...


Rice fields where the Tonle Sap lake usually is...


Andy sorted out our boat ticket and drove us down a muddy causeway past rice fields until the muddy river grew to our right, where there was a collection of small boats waiting. Our “VIP boat” was there too, so he parked up and we slithered down the muddy bank and over the gangplank onto the narrow wooden-hulled boat, ducked under the low ceiling and sat down on the garden chairs laid out across the deck. Once on board, the 'captain' and his cabin-boy pushed us away from the bank and started the car engine out-back and we were on our way, past families in dug-out canoes fishing in the muddy waters and onto the lake proper...


Fishing on the Tonle Sap


Kicking up a wake...


All along the side of the river we sailed down was evidence of it's peculiar existence. The banks were layered with clear lines where the previous year's flotsam and jetsam had been deposited and then covered with a layer of mud, and atop those were the trees... with endless bits of rubbish in their branches, from where the floating garbage had been left when the water level dropped. All around was evidence of the lack of care afforded to the environment here, with plastic bags, bottles and other assorted junk littering the ground like it was part of a huge landfill. I guess when you live in this much poverty, cleanliness goes out of the window...

Before long, though, we emerged from the river and onto the lake proper, and there, filling the horizon was the floating village. Houses, complete with floating herb gardens, churches, schools and even a basket-ball court (with mesh-wire sides) floating serenely on the muddy water as we past by, taking the obviously well-worn route, judging by the smiles and the waves from the inhabitants...


Floating house, Tonle Sap


Floating church, Tonle Sap


Before long we stopped at a large floating building and moored our boat alongside. It was a “Fish Farm and Souvenir Shop”, obviously geared to receiving tourists taking the trip round. We disembarked and were met with an unexpected sight. Crocodiles. Lots of Crocodiles. All sleeping in their under-deck compartment, unaware they were being grown to be photographed or eaten by curious tourists. We took our photographs, but declined lunch. And then went wandering round the souvenir shop, only to be accosted by a very pretty young girl holding a large snake. Yes, a SNAKE! Tracy was naturally very wary, but I had to act brave and have my photo taken. What you can't quite make out in the photo is the large puddle behind, where I wet myself...


Paul, a little girl, and a big snake...


Once we'd done with exhausting our cameras with the views of the lake and the floating village, it was time to head back on our “VIP boat” to the shore. As we approached the “docking area” we noticed a really strong smell of fish. Further investigation revealed it wasn't my stomach misbehaving again, but the locals unloading a fishing boat into a dumper-truck. Using large wicker baskets and shovels. At first, I thought they were shovelling gravel, but Andy insisted they were fish, so a closer look was necessary to confirm his assertion. He was right. And the smell was truly awful...


Loading fish into the truck


and with that, it was time for Andy to take us back to the hotel...

… where we showered (it's so damned hot and humid here that showering 2-3 times a day is not only a good idea, it's essential to prevent yourself from becoming a puddle on the floor), changed and headed back into town for some lunch. Fancying something other than Thai or Khmer cuisine (or Indian which we had last night) we headed for the pizza restaurant we'd spotted earlier. Opposite the river, it afforded yet another fantastic opportunity for our favourite sport – sitting in the sun, drinking beer and watching the world go by. This time, with aptly-named Angkor beer...


Angkor beer, Siem Reap


When the pizzas finally arrived, they were very, very good, although with the amount of garlic on Tracy's, any ideas of amorous entanglements later were quickly put on hold...


Tracy enjoys some 'normal' food...


After a hearty lunch, we wobbled in the direction of the market for a bit of cultural exploration. Rural markets might be making a comeback in the UK (although the one in Royton seems to specialise only in Chav clothing), but here they're very much a way of life. The market in Siem Reap is an odd affair, with the prime tourist-facing stalls on the outside of the market bulging in locally-made crap whilst inside was an eclectic mix of silk clothing stalls alongside silver jewellery stands which then led onto a fresh vegetable, raw fish and spices area, all bright colours and pungent smells. The dead frog stall was particularly fragrant. As was the pickled cabbage and fish heads... now we know where the truck full of fish end up...

But what completely stopped me in my tracks was the “foot and sandal” stall...


The foot-and-sandal stall, Siem Reap market


There was no way to deal with that sight, except with another beer, and so we crossed the road and sat down in the sun and ordered a couple of cold ones, which we sank relatively quickly before grabbing one of the weird “Cambodian Tuk-Tuks” which are actually small 2-person covered trailers towed behind a scooter. Naturally, our driver rode the wrong way up the “one-way” streets at the side of the river, but I was very relieved to find Tracy laughing like a lunatic next to me, and not at all freaked by what was going on... me, I was crapping myself...


In Cambodia, they drive on the right, and this is a one-way street. Guess which way...


Back at the hotel it was time once again to try and catch up with the blog, largely because I don't want to forget anything that's happened and unless I write it down I will, but also because it allows me to sober up before we go out for dinner. Which we didn't because the East India Company restaurant on the 6th floor is so damned good, we went there again. Whilst neither of us would claim to have got our appetites back, we still managed to eat a delicious meal and down a bottle of more than acceptable South African Chenin Blanc before retiring to bed...


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to Bangkok...

We woke early, probably as a result of yet another coughing fit, as I try to bring my feet up through my insides and out of my throat. It's just 6.45am, but as we're leaving today and heading back to Bangkok we need to be up early anyway, so I try to soothe my throat with the remaining cold water and get showered and dressed. Breakfast on the 6th floor balcony and we both manage the full American, which demonstrates that no-one at this hotel has ever been there. 2 eggs, sunny-side up and a thin rasher of bacon, slice of grilled tomato and 2 rounds of toast would not even count as an entree in the US, let alone a full breakfast. But in the heat of Cambodia, it's more than enough for us, so we're not complaining. In fact, we both struggle to clear our plates. Wish I could keep this up when I get home, I'd soon get rid of the large belly I seem to have acquired over the last few years...

Breakfasted and check-out we meet up with Andy again and throw the bags in the car so he can drive us through the early-morning madness to the airport. And madness it is this morning, with 2 cars overtaking us in the face of a swarm of oncoming scooters – and for the first time we genuinely thought there was going to be carnage. There wasn't but these speeding idiots can't have claimed that was by design, at least not judging my the last-minute avoiding action the scooter-riders took to avoid them changing from swarming to squashed...

Just outside the airport Andy announces he has to stop to “put something on car” so he can avoid paying fees at the airport, and proceeds to place a “Taxi” sign on the roof and numbered plates on each door, change his shirt for a blue one and get back in with a grin... “now you're a real taxi” I said and he just laughed. Seems there's a few of them “share” the licence... but he's been really good with us and done all we asked, and for no more money than we'd have paid elsewhere (we checked, we've been scammed before...). So we bid him farewell and for posterity took his picture complete with the “taxi”...


Tracy poses with Andy and our 'taxi'...


At the airport we check-in and pay the “departure tax” of $25 each. So Cambodia cost us $45 each to get in and out again, but it's been worth it – just a pity we don't have time to explore some more, and we're pretty sure that next time we visit Siem Reap it will have changed even more, given the amount of building work going on. Just hope they don't further “restore” the temples, or they'll lose their magic...
The flight to Bangkok was on-time and comfortable, and short. We're both dreading the 12hr flight from Bangkok to Paris tomorrow, given our backsides haven't really recovered from the journey out here, due to the lack of padding on the seats... Arrival, passport control and customs were passed without any problems, as we're now well and truly in the jet-setter groove, knowing exactly where to go and in what order. And the “Where be the ye-llow bag” song helps too, although it did seem to make Tracy walk much slower than me, and on the opposite side of the walkway...

With the ye-llow bag collected we found a taxi to take us to the hotel for 400Baht, and once cleared of the Bangkok traffic and back in the hotel we checked in for 2 nights, even though we will be leaving at 8pm tomorrow. That gives us the room for the day, so we can shower and freshen up before setting off home – with the temperature here, I think our fellow passengers will appreciate the effort. Unless they don't do the same and sit there stinking, of course...

Back in the familiar surroundings of the New World City (Lodge) Hotel it wasn't long before we found ourselves sat outside a bar on the Khao San Road, enjoying a cold Singha and watching the world go by (and go buy – from the endless shops that line this backpacker heaven). We could get very used to this...


Another day, another beer...


For the story of the rest of the afternoon, see last Wednesday (beer and people-watching on the Khao San road). It was very, very, hot sat in the sun, and some of the plastic seats had undesirable side-effects for Tracy, who was wearing some shorts that don't exactly hide the sweaty bits (she's going to kill me for this!):


Tracy models the latest fashion – a sweaty arse...


We did manage to avoid a complete groundhog day, despite the excellent beer and passing entertainment, and went back to the hotel before it became too difficult, in order to get showered (again) changed into some clean(ish) clothes for our last night out. When we were here in 2005 for the Laos trip, we went with our tour group to a riverside restaurant within walking distance of the hotel that served excellent seafood, so we thought we'd see if we could find it. Remarkably, we did, very easily (turn left, right, then left again). And secured a table for two right next to the river with excellent views of the Rama VIII bridge, watching the illuminated boat goes by...


The Rama VIII bridge at night


We were feeling adventurous, so ordered some fish balls for starters (cue the joke “I didn't know fish could dance”), followed by breaded fried scallops with dried chillies (bloody hot!), and a fried swimming crab (although it was in no condition to swim when it arrived, as it had been fried and had its legs and claws ripped off). The food was very good, although the crab was a bit too fiddly to eat, as we were sat in almost complete darkness... Tracy did look a little surprised when the crab arrived, though...


Tracy looks shocked when she sees what they'd done to her pet crab


But tonight wasn't a night for getting up tight, it was a night for being chilled, despite the fact it was still hot enough to boil a monkey's bum...


For those who have not seen it before, this is Paul, chilled...


Full of crab we walked sideways back to the hotel, where we stopped in the bar opposite for a nightcap, as the hotel we're staying in is now “dry”... and then to bed...


Friday, March 13, 2009

Last Post...

… queue distant strains of a single bugle... OK, so this isn't really my Last Post, but it is the last one from the Far East on this occasion. Currently sat in Bangkok airport, having walked about 5 miles past all the expensive watch and handbag shops, past the duty free and tacky (but beautifully presented) tourist tat, past the burger bars and Thai food outlets, past the cosmetic counters smelling like the inside of a French brothel (or so I'm told), and finally through security and into the holding pen by the departure gate. With only 25 more minutes to while away before boarding... but enough of the present, let's look back over our last day in Bangkok...

First, we were woken early by the sound of the person in the room next door going to the lavvy. It was so loud, I was convinced he/she would emerge from our own en-suite and join us in bed. Until I heard his/her door slam and the pitter-patter clump of his/her footsteps in the corridor. That was around 4am. Must have been going to see the floating market. Bloody tourists... (we plan to do that on our next trip). Back to sleep and woken a little while later by the sound of the builders starting work right outside our balcony. Separated from us by panes of glass that were little more than transparent sheets of thin air, it sounded like they'd taken exception to me drying my smalls on the balcony and had decided they were a radiation risk and needed encasing in concrete. Put in place using very large sledgehammers. And lots of shouting. Peaceful, it wasn't.

With little choice but to emerge from our slumber, we got up, showered (again) and dressed before heading down for breakfast. Avoiding the early-morning spicy noodles for a change and opting for a more sensible Spanish omelette, cooked by the chef outside on the veranda, and washed down with a strong Thai coffee. A combination that worked wonders for our fragile bowels and saw us racing each other back to the room to see who could fart the loudest (Tracy won, but then she's had more practice ;-0).

Once we'd managed to get things back under control in the botty department, we made our plans for the day. We'd take the boat along the river and visit the main shopping district around Silom road, and just wander around for a while. I was a great plan, that led to a disappointing and uninteresting morning. Apart from the boat journey, there really was nothing worth writing about. Well, perhaps the endless ranks of tuk-tuk drivers trying to encourage us to take an hour's tour with them, visit their brother's jewellery stores, or see the lucky Buddha. As we did that back in 2004, resulting in a large argument the following day as we tried to get our money back, we passed up their kind offers. It is interesting to note that there are now posters all over Bangkok warning tourists about these scams, though, so perhaps the practice will eventually die out, and the tuk-tuks will be useful ways to get around once again. But until then, we'll make do with the boat ride, which for the princely sum of 26Baht return will take you anywhere along the Bangkok Riviera. The journey itself is worth it for the breeze, and for the eclectic mix of buildings that line the riverbank – from beautiful palaces and well-tended gardens, high-rise apartment blocks gleaming white in the sun, through to semi-derelict warehouses and run-down wooden buildings inhabited still by some of Bangkok's less well off.


Tracy admires the views from the boat in Bangkok


After we'd wandered for way too long, and turned ourselves into dripping, sweaty, hot and slightly less relaxed effigies of ourselves, we headed back on the boat towards the hotel. But rather than go straight back we decided to head back to the Khao San one last time, to try and find a necklace for Tracy, and to get some lunch. On the way we discovered a little alleyway with a couple of backpacker guest houses and restaurants, and stopped in one for a drink and some lunch. Sat once more with a cold beer and pizza, we quickly regained our relaxed demeanour and agreed that the next time I suggest wandering aimlessly round a built-up and busy city in 40 degrees of heat and high humidity, Tracy would take a pair of tweezers to my most sensitive parts.


The last of the Bangkok beers...


On the way to the Khao San, we also passed a 2nd-hand bookshop, and as Tracy has finished her book, I insisted she went inside and didn't emerge until she'd bought one. This wasn't purely out of a desire to see her improve her literacy, but more to ensure she was occupied when I got the netbook out later to write this rubbish...

We did manage a final stroll along the Khao San, but failed to find a necklace she liked, and as we were returning to our earlier disgustingly damp state, we called it quits and headed back to the the hotel, for a shower and a snooze... and for me to update the blog, ring BMW up to confirm my attendance on their advanced riding course this weekend, cancel my bank card (which I discovered was missing when packing) and pack the bags for later. With all the chores done, the phone rang to say our transfer to the airport had arrived (an hour early), so we grabbed one last shower, dressed and went downstairs to check out and complete the journey to the airport, where we checked in, had our last Thai meal in a fast-food outlet, and made our way to the gate...

… past a new and very colourful statue of the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” that featured on the walls at Angkor Wat... (more cheese, Gromit!)


The statue of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Bangkok airport


Next step is a 12 hour flight to Paris, and then a further wait before the short flight back to Manchester, and then a car journey home... oh, such joy!

...

And “joy” wasn't quite the right word for it. Seated in row 26 of the Boeing 747-400 we realised that our seats had been reduced in size because they're in front of the emergency exit, and next to the toilets. Which meant that once in them, we couldn't get out again, arses wedged firmly between the arm-rests. And whilst we had the middle and aisle seats, the window-seat was occupied by a rather large French lady who snored loudly and leant on Tracy's arm-rest the whole way. The seats, being in front of the emergency exit, also reclined less than normal, so we had a face-full of the row in front. And with the toilets so close by, a constant stream of people passing by to keep us company. All it needed to complete the nightmare was a screaming child.

He was sat 2 rows back... with his slighter elder and equally noisy brother...

The rest of the journey home was a mix of snoozing and reading. The wait at Charles-de-Gaulle was not too bad, and our flight from there back to Manchester bearable (just – what is it about Air France that it attracts passengers with the worst B.O. imaginable?). The real drama was when we got home, and Tracy discovered someone has cloned her credit card and maxxed it out (in Tokyo!) - the company had sent her a letter as they knew it was fraudulent because she'd told them where we were going – and when we discovered out central heating boiler had broken down (we'd turned it off before we went) – so no heating or hot water... and it's Friday the 13th now...

… just as well I'm off this afternoon to spend the weekend in a nice B&B in Wales, attending some advanced riding training... poor Tracy and Carlie (who's coming home for the weekend)will have to endure a very cold house without me...


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