Month: July 2012

The Trip – Part 2

 The Trip – Part 2

Hello there, here we go again to pick up where I last left off. It’s been a very eventful few weeks starting in Bangkok where I met good friends Matt and Caz or ‘Maz’ as I’ll refer to them collectively for ease. Maz and I managed to find each other in a restaurant near Khao San Road where we booked into a guesthouse (triple room) for $1.50 each per night. It wasn’t bad at all considering how cheap it seemed and was roughly the same price that we paid for accommodation for the next 2 weeks going through Cambodia and into Laos. I’m a little bit Scottish so being tight fisted and knowing I’ve got a deal is integral to me!

That first night in Bangkok after some excited discussions we planned to hit the road the next day and discussed our options; Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia? In the last week or so I’d decided to study my TEFL course at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand so bearing that in mind plus Maz’s travel plans we decided upon Cambodia then either Laos or Vietnam. We found a small backstreet travel agent selling bus tickets to Siem Reap (where the Angkor Wat Temples are) in Cambodia. It was 250 baht per ticket so approx $6 for an 8 hour journey. It seemed a little cheap and as the old saying goes, ‘if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is’. We totally ignored that thought and booked the tickets anyway and were met by a minivan at 7am the next morning.

After a 3 to 4 hour journey we hit the Cambodian border and our mental light bulbs lit up as it dawned on us why the tickets were so cheap – ‘ the visa scam’. You get taken to a restaurant near the border and asked for your passports and told that they need to get you a visa ( you do need a visa), they then take all passports from everyone on the bus and take them to the consulate and within half an hour they come back and charge you $38 for the whole affair. However if you are in the know then you just need to be a bit pushy and tell them that you know what are doing and that you’ll sort out your own visa at the border which you can for $25.

The border crossing is somewhat interesting and polluted as hell. The fumes that are being pumped out of the trucks are a filthy black and make the air hard to breathe. Bank staff, food stall owners and many others wear protective facemasks even when inside! As you walk between immigration points there are bulging casinos (gambling is illegal in both countries) and suspect characters trying to make a fast buck from anyone in no-mans land. It does feel lawless – because it basically is. After about half an hour and having signed a rather scary declaration form agreeing that we ‘may be subject to unknown chemical agents whilst in Cambodia’ we were back on another bus and heading to Siem Reap.

 

We arrived and immediately (as always happens when you get off a bus in this part of Asia) found ourselves surrounded by tuk tuk drivers and guesthouse owners all desperately waving brochures and repeatedly shouting ‘you take tuk tuk (motorbike taxi), you take tuk tuk’. It’s pretty hard to think with all the commotion and therefore almost easier to just agree to go with one of them. They are generally really nice people but will of course try and charge over the odds (you must bargain for everything – hotels, travel and even food sometimes) but the main problem is that when taking a tuk tuk straight off the bus you really don’t get any bearings about where you are.

We decided it’d be better for us to get our bearings by walking. We picked up our backpacks, looked at the map and ambled the 4km into town. We found a clean and cheap guesthouse after some searching and then grabbed a bite to eat and hit the hay. For the next couple of days we hired mountain bikes ($2 per day) to cycle around the temples of Angkor Wat ( a series of temples over a 30 km area over grown by jungle). The bikes were a great idea but only if you are reasonably fit (we did over 50km in 2 days) otherwise it’s advisable to negotiate a daily rate for a tuk tuk. To enter Angkor Wat you need to buy either a 1 or 3 day ticket. Realistically you need 3 days as there is a lot to see. But no joke, you will feel seriously ‘templed-out’ by the end of the last day.

Having enjoyed Angkor we jumped on another bus (3 hours) to Battambang in the East. Here we decided to ride the Bamboo train that is still used to transport goods between various places. It was fun for $5 and could certainly never exist in any country with health and safety regulations. It’s basically a 6ft x 6ft bamboo raft with a motorbike engine on train tracks. Sound a bit crazy? When it’s travelling at 50km per hour it feels pretty crazy! Our tuk tuk driver also took us to the Killing Caves where many people were killed during the Khymer Rouge regime. That was really interesting as it’s such recent history in Cambodia (70’s) but pretty bleak.

 

Back in Battambang we sought out a place to watch the Euro football as England were playing Italy. After asking around we were directed to a bar that might show it. We entered and met the French owner – who looked like a bit of a hippy and was on a laptop. I said very nicely ‘ hey buddy do you happen to have a tv screen as we’d like to watch the England football match tomorrow’. His reply was less than helpful, ‘Do you see a screen? I said do you see a screen? You’re in the middle of Cambodia, fuck the football, fuck business, forget about it all while you’re in Cambodia!’ Er yeh ok mate…. you just get back to being on your laptop, drinking your iced latte whilst using your high speed wi-fi connection.

The next day we jumped on a bus to the capital city Phnom Penh as we knew that we’d find a place to watch the footy there and because we were heading that way anyway. As soon as we stepped off the bus we picked up our bags and walked again until we found a place to stay a few streets back from the river which is the main foreigner area. That evening we wandered down to the river and found an Irish bar amongst the many seedy strip joints that was showing the footy. We lost on penalties at 4am our time.

When we woke up we decided to go to see Toul Sleng the genocide museum and the site of the actual prison camp from Khymer Rouge days (1975 – 1979). It’s actually an old school that was turned into a torture/death camp. Apparently 20,000 people or so died there. It’s incredibly ‘dark’, the walls and floors are still stained with blood that will never go away. If you’re in Phnom Penh you have to go, it wouldn’t be right to come to Cambodia without understanding it’s history to some extent.

 

 

 

With that in mind you can try and understand why people there are tough. I saw a middle aged woman beating her child repeatedly with a long 3 pronged stick. She must have hit the poor kid 50 times right in front of a tour bus. This is not the kind of place where you can intervene in something like that without potentially causing a riot yourself. To put it in perspective you have to remember that lady may have either suffered horribly or perhaps made others suffer horribly or both in the last 30 years. God knows how that would affect you and your actions/reactions. That does not mean I condone the treatment of her child, it’s just something I saw and am trying to make sense of.

 

Here is another example of being a foreigner in Phnom Pehn where you can’t say or do anything about things you think are wrong. One day we sat down in a restaurant with about 30 Cambodians at the other tables. We ordered 3 cokes from a smiling and friendly waiter. The falang menu (higher priced menu for foreigners) said they were 2000 riel (about 50 cents). Having finished we asked for the bill and were told it came to 7500 riel. Ok, that doesn’t quite work out so we asked to see the menu again as the price was different. The waiter brought back the menu where he had changed the price in pen to 2500 riel. It’s not a major difference but can you imagine if someone did that to you anywhere else in the world, it’s pretty cheeky. We tried to complain out of principal and had a stand off for about 10 minutes but were starting to cause a scene so paid up the 7500 and quickly left.

Incidents like that happened pretty much at least once a day to us in Cambodia and it’s something you need to be mindful of whilst at the same time remembering that you are a visitor. This isn’t your country, things don’t work the same and you kind off just have to go with the flow.

We left Phnom Pehn after 3 days and to be honest I was pretty glad because it really was a big dirty city.  The sex trade is really in your face with loads of dodgy looking older western men walking in and out of the seedy bars. That’s just my opinion I’m glad I went to see it but it’s one place I don’t need to go back to. I knew I’d see some stuff on this trip that wasn’t going to be ‘right’ to me, that comes with the territory, I have accepted that.

Having checked visa prices we decided that Vietnam would be too expensive to visit this time, so instead we headed towards Laos. Back at the bus station we boarded a local bus to Kratie, 9 hours north with a stop along the way where they sold piles of fried crickets and tarantulas from huge dishes. I gave those a miss, sometimes it’s good being a veggie…

Kratie was cool, it’s a good place with awesome sunsets to stop whilst going towards Laos. Whilst there we hired a long tail boat and went out onto the Mekong river to see the fresh water dolphins. Within 2 minutes they were swimming 20ft from our boat. It was a good hour on the river although if you do this don’t expect back flips from the dolphins, if you’re lucky you might see a snout, a fin or a spray from a blow hole.

We left Kratie after a couple days and headed to Banlung where we hired bikes, got absolutely soaked in a monsoon rainstorm and swam in a huge lake that filled an extinct volcano crater. That was our last stop in Cambodia, all we had to do now was get to the border safely and we’d be in Laos. Once again things weren’t so simple!

Having bought a ticket to Don Det island in Laos we were told we’d take a bus to the border then another bus once in Laos, then a boat. That sounded reasonable… instead however we were picked up by a tuk tuk which took us to a bus station, then we got on a bus, then got dropped off. We looked around for the next bus, instead of a bus there were 2 motorbike scooters waiting for us. So, 3 of us with 3 large heavy backpacks and day bags getting on 2 motorbikes with the drivers? Not the most ideal situation…  The driver of one motorbike put 2 backpacks on his lap and I got on the back wearing my backpack and clutching my day bag. Matt and Caz both got on the back of the other motorbike. That was a seriously scary 20 minutes drive but there was no alternative. You can’t just get a taxi! I have to say I was happy to be off the motorbike and on the next bus to the Laos border.

Once again subjected to ‘the visa scam’. But this time we were more pushy and said we wanted to get the visas ourselves. That worked out fine after some persuasion although we were told we couldn’t say anything to any of the other travellers on our bus as obviously they’d paid the ‘extra fees’.

Phew, now in Laos in 1 piece and we got to Don Det island. Relaxed for 1 last night together then I was parting ways with Maz as I needed to head north to catch my flight to Chiang Mai. I had 4 days to travel 25 hours overland.

So I bought my ticket to Vientiene (the capital city), Maz waved me off as I left Don Det at 11am on a long tail boat. From there I got a 3 hour bus to a place called Pakse. Here I had to wait until 8pm to get my sleeper bus to Vientiene.

I met some other travellers in a café also getting the 8pm bus so we chatted and waited together. But when I boarded the bus at 8pm I was told my ticket was wrong. Apparently there was another bus station on the other side of town… ah…I wouldn’t make that now. Shit. Oh well, I walked into town and found a room in a hotel for the night. The next day I had to buy a new ticket and wait until 8pm again after checking out of my hotel at 12pm. What a pain!

I slept well on my sleeper bed (I had the whole bed) and was nicely rested as we arrived into Vientiene at 6am. As I wasn’t tired I decided not to stay but to keep moving to Luang Prabang another 12 hour bus journey away but at least I’d end up in the place where I would catch my flight from in a couple of days. So, I wandered around the city then got on the bus about 9pm.

When you buy a sleeper bus ticket in Laos you only get half a double bed. As I was travelling alone now I wasn’t sure who else I’d be sharing a bed with. It was a guy from Laos who spoke no English. Now, just to explain, westerners are quite a bit taller and broader than people from Laos so these ‘double’ beds were much more like our single beds but shorter. We were squashed together as the bus travelled windy, bumpy roads for 12 hours. Certainly an experience and I hardly slept a wink. Mainy because I was lying next to the window and every time I drifted off the bus would hit a bump causing my head to hit the window, not ideal at all!

I was relieved to arrive in Luang Prabang. It’s really a beautiful and well developed town nestled amongst the surrounding jungle. I spent my time climbing to the temple in the middle of town and swimming in the amazing waterfalls. 2 really relaxing days before catching my Laos Airlines flight to Chiang Mai to start my course.


 

 

To be continued in Part 3

The Trip Part 1

 

I’m now a month into my travels and I can finally catch a breath whilst travelling on a bus in Cambodia to reflect upon my experiences of leaving the UK and the start of my travels.

 

A quick history to my story

 

I left London on 28th May 2012, a heat wave day in UK terms. I boarded a plane to Kuala Lumpur via Hong Kong having spent a week partying with friends and family, going to my good friends’ Graham and Lisa’s wedding and sleeping on sofas. I was actually really looking forward to the long flight just to be able to sit back and relax for 17 hours. I have to say Cathay Pacific were pretty good hosts and it was a comfortable trip even though I stupidly reserved a window seat in a row of 3. Seriously, no sane person over 5 feet 5 does that on such a long flight? I must have been tired when I checked in! Anyway it just meant that toilet trips were disturbing for the 2 British engineers sitting next to me who had to get up out of their seats to let me out. Oh well.

 

As I sat on the flight (awaiting take-off) it was the first time that it properly hit home that I was taking to the road having given up my rented flat and sold everything (or given to charity) minus what was in my backpack and a couple of guitars and small things which my sister and friends were kindly looking after.  A liberating feeling whilst also more than a little bit daunting because at the ripe old age of 31 you get niggles; – should I be being more sensible and planning for my future with mortgages and pension plans? What if I spend all my money and come back with nothing? When will I see my family and friends next? I quickly filed those queries under ‘irrelevant’ EXCEPT for the family and friends bit that I couldn’t find an answer too. I settled into the knowledge that things will just work out (one way or another) AND that this is just one of the many risks that I’ll take in my life to experience as much as possible.

 

Relaxing back into my window seat in row 68 with a cold beer (not ideal for the bladder when you can’t get to the loo without making people move) I made 2 decisions. The first was to let things happen as freely as possible. By that I mean that rather than having a set itinerary I would see what opportunities presented themselves and go with them with little questioning.  The second was to make this a financially sustainable trip, I had in mind studying a TEFL course and then teaching English somewhere but as of leaving had not decided where to study or where to teach. I would chat to people I met on the trip and see what their thoughts were and find out if anyone had either done a good course or knew of one.

 

The Trip Part 1

 

Arriving in Hong Kong for a change of planes was great, I loved Hong Kong as a child as my family lived in China for 6 years and we made several trips there over the years. Even though I wasn’t leaving the airport it was great to look out of the big windows at the skyscrapers and misty mountains. It felt right to be here although again I knew it would be tough being away from family and friends for an indefinite period of time. But at least these days with social networking and Skype calls, it’d be pretty easy to keep in touch.

 

Back on a plane and the next thing I knew I was picking up my backpack from the carousel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I headed into KL Sentral Masjid Jamak near Chinatown via the high speed train then tube. It was about £7 for a half hour journey but having travelled for quite a few hours at this point I wasn’t going to start scrimping by getting the local bus. I just wanted to get to the hostel quickly.

 

KL is called the city in the Jungle because it was literally built in the middle of a jungle. The huge trees that line the roads and stand tall between the space-age skyscrapers (like the PETRONAS towers – once Asia’s tallest buildings) are a constant reminder of that. I really liked it and had been before. I was coming back in a couple weeks hence why I decided on only a 1 night stop, plus the fact that I’d bought a cheap Air Asia plane ticket to Bali for the next day. My return flights for my week trip to Bali being the only set plans on my itinerary.

After a night drinking and eating some local street food with some nice people from my hostel (Reggae Mansion – recommended if you’re happy with Japanese pod style dorm rooms and a cool rooftop bar for approx. £8) I headed to the airport again this time via bus for about £1 to catch my flight. On my bus I was sitting next to an old Australian lady who told me about her family and politics in OZ. She also told me she’d been on the programme ‘Banged Up Abroad’ which was interesting but made me feel slightly dodgy as I’ve watched a few of those and I know that Bali where I was headed was a place not to mess around!

 

I had 1 bottle of whisky in my backpack (a present for a friend) which I checked in and going through duty free decided I’d buy another as spirits are really expensive in Bali due to the tax (a bottle of Jack is about 70USD). I thought nothing of it. Arriving in Bali I filled in my arrival card, which clearly stated just 1 litre of alcohol per person to brought in. So I declared 2 bottles on my form, as the officials are well known for being corrupt and fining you a lot!

 

I got my 25USD visa on arrival and went to pick up my backpack. It was the last one on the carousel and as I put my hand on it I immediately had 3 airport officials grab my arms, pushing me in the back asking me, ‘Is this your bag Sir’.  ‘Err, yes this is my bag’, I’m assuming this is because of the whisky but to be honest at this point I’m a little bit worried that someone has put something in my bag as the way they were dealing with me was way more harshly than I would have expected. Anyway I got dragged through an x-ray machine along with my bags and asked if I had anything in my bag. I said, ‘Yes, a bottle of whisky as mentioned on my declaration form’. Seriously, why had I met someone who’d been on Banged Up Abroad just hours earlier? Anyway they took me to a desk where I paid 20USD to keep the bottle of whisky otherwise it would be ‘destroyed’. A strange entrance to Bali and I was very glad to see my friend Alex waiting at arrivals! We immediately downed a bottle of beer and smoked cigarettes once I told him what happened. Although he explained that it’s very common as the country is very corrupt.

 

We headed back to his place in Sanur which he shared with his girlfriend via taxi for 80,000IDR – approx. £5. The flat was actually in a Homestay with an Indonesian family. Their flat was separate to the family’s house but was within the walls of their land. I had a lush separate 1 bed flat in the same place with a patio area and outdoor kitchen for 150,000IDR per night. Sweet! That first night Alex and I stayed up to test the whisky and make plans to surf the next day.

 

In the next week we surfed in Kuta beach 3 times which for me was ideal as I had little experience and the waves we’re ideal near the shore for beginners with some bigger 6ft sets rolling in at the back for those who knew what they were up to! I caught a wave on my third attempt then spent the next couple hours on the first day trying to achieve the same result. By the end of the week I was trying to catch the bigger waves at the back, often getting tombstoned but loving it all the same. We left all our bags on the beach with locals whom we hired boards from as Alex said ‘they believe in Karma so nothing will get stolen’. It’s only the other foreigners you need to worry about!

We spent the next week hanging out in Kuta, Sanur, Pedang Petang and Ulluwatu with Alex’s sister (Charlotte) and her husband (Ross) as they’d headed out for a 2-week holiday at the same time. We climbed to waterfalls, surfed, visited temples and drank cocktails. It was great to see them too and have a laugh as we’ve all know each other for about 12 years but haven’t had much of a chance to hang out in the UK. A great week all in all and I didn’t really want to get on my plane to Singapore, I considered changing flights but they were so expensive that my decision to go as planned was made easy.

I wasn’t looking forward to Singapore particularly. The only reason I’d bought a flight was to catch up with another friend Matt but he’d changed his travel plans from the very expensive Australia with his girlfriend Caz and ended up in Bali at the same time as me, so we caught up on a beach one day and hatched plans to catch up again wherever our trips collided again.

 

I got the tube from the airport to Lavender tube stop near my hostel. It was gone 11pm when I arrived and so I dropped off my stuff and headed straight out in search of food. I found a food court right next to Lavender station where locals were eating and scored some seriously good veggie noodles for about 50p and made plans for my next day.

 

In the morning till afternoon I walked through Little India sampling various foods and through Chinatown. It was actually a lot more reasonably priced than I’d remembered and very tasty! This time I was travelling as a veggie and was surprised at how many food options there were in Singapore.

 

In the hostel I got chatting to some other travellers and ended up heading out that eve with an Aussie kick boxer called Ben a young German guy called Mo and a Yorkshireman called Andy. We were a strange bunch but enjoyed each others company and went in search of a big screen to watch Germany playing the Euro 2012 football. We found a massive outdoor screen, purchased some 7/11 beers and settled in for the eve. I decided that I’d make a move the next day as I’d overheard another traveller from hostel talking about going to a place called Malacca in Malaysia and I needed to head that way.

 

The next morning I found that traveller who was Dom from Germany and we headed off to find the bus. This guy was a hard-core budget traveller, which suited me fine. We walked for 3 hours in the burning heat with our backpacks on (his 9kg, mine 18kg) in search of the local bus. We finally got to the Malaysian border at Johor Bahru for 1USD and then after a bite to eat and another hour walking with backpacks and found the next local bus to Malacca for 5USD. I think I lost about a stone that day!

 

Malacca is a very European looking little town with a lot of Dutch architecture, even a windmill on the banks of a river that winds it’s way through the heart of the town. We stayed in a cheap dorm room. The guy in the room with us was a huge Indian chap who snored like a freight train. His noise combined with the huge rats I saw outside the room at night led us to check out and find a different backpackers. That was better but soooo hot. I can’t believe how humid it was there, I literally never stopped sweating.  We spent 3 days there spending very little money, walking, eating street food, chatting and drinking the occasional beer. I really enjoyed it but 3 days was enough. I said goodbye to Dom as he went off to board a local boat to Sumatra in Indonesia and I took the local bus heading back to KL again. I was the only falang (foreigner) and got to Kl in a couple hours for another 5USD. Total trip from Singapore to KL approx. 11USD!

 

 

 

Back in KL I headed back to Reggae Mansion as I knew they had a big screen on their rooftop that ended up being a good place to watch England draw with France, although it did mean watching a 1:45am kick off.

 

The next day I booked onto an overnight sleeper train to Hat Yai the Thai border town. I had in mind heading from there to Raleigh Bay near Krabi where all the rock climbers go as the climbing there is incredible. Sure enough on my train I met 3 young American climbers who said I could tag along with them and also an English girl who also decided to tag along.

 

The train journey was great, beds very comfortable and cheap tickets, about 15USD for a 14-hour journey. They had a great food carriage serving food for about 1 or 2 USD.

 

Having got our visas sorted out at the border we all got in a mini van for the 5-hour journey to Krabi, then a 20 min boat ride to Raleigh Bay. But the backpacker area is actually not at Raleigh bay, it’s on the other side of the Peninsula in a place called Tonsai Bay but the tide was too low to sail there. To get there we did an almost vertical rock climb up a few metres at the end of the Raleigh beach to the start of a trail with a rope hanging down. Doing this in the near dark with an 18kg backpack and another bag with a laptop in is seriously not recommended. Also if anyone does do this in the dark make sure to have a head torch because you need both arms. After the 20-minute trek we found our way down off the rocks and onto Tonsai beach. A 10-minute walk up the first dirt track and we found some bungalows for about 3 USD per night, the Americans shared 1 and the English girl and myself shared another. Just to clarify, I didn’t succumb to her quite blatant advances. I guess I’m just not into hairy armpits…

 

I spent 3 nights and 4 days around Tonsai climbing with a Thai guide called Dee. He was a decent enough guy with a massive scar across his stomach where he’d been shot by a stray bullet during the most recent (few years ago) skirmishes in Bangkok.

During that week I’d been in touch with Matt and Caz who had made their way to Bangkok to stay with Matts’ brother who lives there with his wife and children. So I needed to head there to catch up with them.

 

Another boat and night bus later and I arrived in Khao San Road in Bangkok at 5am – absolutely shattered. Ehhh, what a horrendous time to arrive tired amongst all the craziness that is a drunken Khao San Road. I headed to Burger King (as it was the closest sanctuary) to gather my thoughts and decided where to stay, as it was an obvious escape from the crazy shit. Almost immediately I was accosted by a definite ladyboy who would not leave me alone. So I made a quick exit from Burger King, followed hot on the heels by the ladyboy. I went to the first decent looking hotel ( DD’s) and managed to get rid of the ladyboy before paying well over the odds for a room. However I did get to check in at 6am and there was a pool there for the next day so I couldn’t really complain.

 

The next day I finally met up with Matt and Caz after we sat in adjacent restaurants for an hour waiting for each other. I’m sure Matt and Caz won’t mind me saying that they were in the wrong restaurant, not me!

 

– the travels continue and so will the blog in Part 2 –