Monday, 10 May 2010

Cambodia


Cambodia has really been a pleasant surprise. The lovely, surprisingly optimistic people,  the wonderful cultural heritage (the Phnom Penh Museum was probably the best one I've seen in the South East Asia region so far) and the beautiful countryside (which we didn't really get to explore for fear of landmines) made it actually a much more rewarding destination than Thailand. We only had a week in Cambodia, so we tried to make it quite sight-seeing intensive. We first landed in Phnom Penh, which has an interesting mixture of the horrors-of-war memorabilia, and the remnants of the ancient Khmer empire. We first paid respect to those killed by the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Prison, a seriously grueling experience, which I found to be a bit too much for me. Imagine Auschwitz, with the 'before' and 'after' pictures of men, women and children killed there. As I said: too much. But thank God Cambodia has much more to offer than the wrist-slashing-sad remnants of war.

In Phnom Penh we visited the already mentioned museum, which had an enormous collection of Angkor-era sculptures. We really enjoyed it, but we were detained for two additional hours by a flash flood! My first experience of the kind, really. While we were inside the skies opened. I have never seen the streets being flooded this quickly (I'll try to get pictures uploaded soon).

Another impressive thing we saw in Phnom Penh was the Royal Palace with the Silver Pagoda, which housed several solid gold statues, which somehow managed to survive the war, the solid-silver tiled floor and the guide with a seriously funny accent (something between Sean Connery and American movie trailers). We also managed to squeeze in a lovely dinner with the hippie friend we'd met in Thailand, which was great. 


Now- moving on swifltly to Siem Reap. The Angkor temples were many, tall and interesting: basically everything they are said to be. The Baynon one was a little creepy with the gargantuan statues depicting the face of the most egotistical king in the history of egotistical kings staring at you from every corner. The ones that I will really remember though are the ones that are in the jungle, covered by the roots of huge trees. Those temples are carefully preserved the way they were first 'discovered' by the French in the late 19th century, overgrown, but not too much so, just enough to guarantee a spectacular picture. Once all the Japanese tourists disappeared we walked around the ruins, which was just beautiful.


We didn't get to spend as much time in Cambodia as we would have liked but this is definitely one I will come back to.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Thailand-Bangkok, Ayuthaya, Kanchanaburi and Chang Mai

As life would have it, we happened to arrive in Bangkok in the middle of a national emergency (the red/pink and yellow shirts formed a veritable rainbow of protesters), sightseeing became a bit of a logistic nightmare, with people generally being a bit panicky and the sights closing at unfortunate moments (unfortunate for us, not the sights, of course). But during the week we managed to see pretty much everything that the guidebooks recommend for the capital, and we were quite impressed with the Buddhist temples with the various standing/sitting/lying golden Buddha statues, pointedly unimpressed with the terribly didactic museums (all of which seemed to have been designed to promote the nation's love of it's royal family) and quite smitten with the cinemas, which we have visited on more that one occasion (khem...).

We thought that the red shirts' protests were just a bit of a nuisance really and nothing much to worry about until we saw the military drive out 7-8 tanks  through the city. Even then both the protesters and the military seemed quite relaxed, waving and even allowing tourists to take pictures. Then a day before we left Bangkok the hell apparently broke loose with both sides firing live ammunition at each other. We were far away at that stage, and thankfully all it caused us was some inconvenience, with the road blocks and the taxi drivers refusing to take us back to the hostel. All in all I was quite glad to leave Bangkok for Kanchanaburi  and Ayuthaya.

Kanchanaburi doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions to recommend itself, except of course for the famous bridge over the river Kwai and a little museum devoted to its history. Considering the heat and the sheer size of the bridge it seems difficult to imagine the process of its construction. The whole steel thing was so heated up that even touching it must have been torture. From there we went to the Tiger temple, which is not so much a temple as a place where you can have your picture taken with the 60 abnormally placid (we were told they were not doped, but in hindsight I'm not so sure) tigers. I had mixed feelings about the place. On the one hand it was an amazing experience to be so close to those animals and at least they were alive and well and not made into Tiger Balm, but on the other hand it was sad to see those magnificent animals reduced to a tourist attraction. Everyone can make their own mind I suppose. I'm posting a picture- please don't hate me for it.

We spend the night in Ayuthaya, the old Thai capital, and the next day we went exploring the old temples. Again, little was left, but even seeing the sheer size of the main temple complex was really impressive.

We have arrived in Chang Mai right in time for the New Year festival which means that wherever you go, people throw buckets of water at you. It becomes a several day long battle where you basically can't go anywhere without getting soaking wet. Great fun, as long as you don't have your camera on you. from Chang Mai we went on a 3 day trek in the mountains! This was probably my favorite experience of Thailand: beautiful sights (even though we went during the dry/fire season, which meant that a lot of the hills were still smouldering after the local tribes burnt out the old rice fields to prepare for the wet season), brilliant food prepared by our guides (the best I had in Thailand!- simple, home-cooked meals are always the best), and the friendly Karen tribe families with which we were staying.

We are now back in Bangkok and tomorrow we are flying to Phnom Peng in Cambodia. 

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Singapore and Thailand

Goodbye India, Hello South East Asia!

(And of course HAPPY EASTER TO EVERYONE!
Wesolej Wielkanocy znaczy sie!)

Singapore was a truly lovely surprise (after hearing mostly luke-warm opinions about it, our expectations were not particularly high) . It does not have all that much when it comes to monuments, 'tis true, but we had already seen more than our share of temples and palaces in India. One of the places in Singapore that we have truly fallen in love with, is the absolutely most beautiful zoo I had ever seen! Now that's what it's supposed to look like! The animals' natural habitat was recreated as closely as possible, and the animals (the ones that can't eat you that is) roamed free, gawking at the tourists and seemingly enjoying themselves. Orangutans swinging above your head, turtles puttering along the path, you get the idea.  Basically the first time I could enjoy a zoo guilt-free. The food in Singapore was amazing, and I was also really impressed with just how clean and green and nicely organized the whole place was. True, chewing gum and littering will land you with a ridiculous fine, but personal freedom aside, I felt that the Europeans have much to learn when it comes to urban planning.

On the 29th of March we flew over to Krabi in the South of Thailand, and stayed on the Ao Nang beach for a couple of days. A bit too touristy, but we managed to squeeze in a trip to the Princess Lagoon, which involved a climb (ACTUAL ROCK-CLIMBING) up and down a mountain. It was basically a couple hours one way of climbing a near vertical wall holding on to the ropes that some kindly Thais have attached to the occasional roots and rocks. I felt like I should be getting some wizard points, until I saw a group of young Thais zooming past us in flip flops, scorning, of course, the same ropes that we were hanging on to for dear life. It was quite exciting on the whole, although we could have done without the tropical rain that began pouring on our heads just as we were about to head back. The water quickly created waterfalls (water mixed with red clay- an all-over mud mask nightmare), and once we managed to get back we were soaked through (but still rather proud of ourselves).

From Ao Nang we took a rather complicated route to one of the paradise islands in the South-East, and so we are now in Ko Tao! Yesterday we took a snorkelling tour around the island and it's been one of the best things on this trip so far. The water was crystal clear and I had never seen so many kinds of fish and coral and colourful slugs in my life. I was humming 'Unda' de sea, unda' de Sea- Life is de bubbles under de sea' through most of it.

The next stop-Bangkok!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Goa and Varanasi

This is our last Indian stop on this trip.
We arrived in Goa 3 days ago after spending a couple of days in Varanasi (aka Benares). I had been very keen to see the ancient city, as I have recently read a couple of books that described it, and I must admit that the boat trip on the Ganges at sunrise was a pretty amazing experience, even though the sight of cremating bodies on the shore was a bit much for me. The boat guy stopped next to those for the longest time; a massive tourist attraction apparently.  But apart from that the boat ride was pretty spectacular.
We were also shown some silk workshops, for which Benares is known. A touristy stop?  Perhaps, but well worth our back-packing pride- the works were some of the most beautiful and ornate that I had ever seen.

Goa is probably one of my favourite places in India, to be honest. It's green. It's lush. It's clean. The Portugese influence makes this a truly unique place. After we reached Goa we went on a couple of trips a little ride off Panaji to see a museum of Goan houses and a spice plantation, where we were shown how they grow cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla and a bunch of other things. The place was something between a jungle and marshes, and worth visiting just for the view.

Tomorrow we're going to Mumbai and the morning after that we're heading on that outbound plane to Singapore.

Anyway- India was fun- now onwards to South East Asia!!!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

On our own now

This morning we have said goodbye to Karam, as he dropped us off at the train station in Delhi. Last night we stayed with his family in his home village, which was pretty amazing. The Rajasthan area that he is from is particularly beautiful, and his family are very warm and welcoming. There was his older brother, his sister in law (who is both his wife's sister and his brother's wife) and his parents. It was nice to spend some time with them and they all did everything they could to make us feel at home. His mother was a charming lady, who, although she spoke no English, was fluent in the universal language of hugs.


The last few days of the tour around the Rajasthan area were truly amazing! We went to the more desert-like areas, like the India's first lived-in fort, Jaislemere. Again we were guided by one of Karam's good friends, who told us a lot about the history of the place. People were friendly, with the ususal mix of hawkers and fake holy men added in for the flavour, so we have really enjoyed ourselves there. The same night we went to Jaislemere, we went of a camel safari: I was quite chuffed to see I could gallop on a camel on my own! OK- so it was more of a trot that a gallop, but I still felt very Lawrence of Arabia-ish.

At the moment we are in Orcha, which we will begin to explore tomorrow.
The pictures are all at the bottom.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Hello India - a quick introductory post.

Finally! Internet connection! A little longer and I would start forgetting things... I arrived in Delhi on the 2nd of March. Cameron has arranged for us to be driven around by the same man who has driven his family around in December. The driver's name is Karam and he is absolutely amazing; he has planned out the 10 days or so of travel for us- going from Delhi to Agra and several cities in Rajasthan. He is not only very knowledgeable but also such a sweet person that me and Cameron are getting really attached to him-goodbye will be hard.We have already seen Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udepur, and at the moment we are staying in Jodhpur. I will put up some pictures but it is hard to describe the sheer glut of things to see- today, for example, we went to a Jain temple that is probably the most beautiful building I had ever seen. Even with the blistering sun outside, it was nice and cool, made entirely of white marble with intricate sculpures and richly, yet elegantly ornamented columns (around 150 of them!). It seems almost incredible, but there are just so many beautiful things in Rajasthan alone that Taj Mahal is not even the second most beautiful thing I have seen here so far. And it's just a week into the trip!
I will try posting some pictures soon!

more from the Trek

more from the Trek

Waterfall in the Jungle

Waterfall in the Jungle

Sweating on the Trek

Sweating on the Trek

Ayuthaya

Ayuthaya

the Tiger Temple.

the Tiger Temple.

As the tanks roll by...

As the tanks roll by...

The bridge over the river Kwai

The bridge over the river Kwai

Floating Market

Floating Market

Squid Stick. Yum.

Squid Stick. Yum.

Fish Spa- little fishes eating the dead skin. Ticklish

Fish Spa- little fishes eating the dead skin. Ticklish

Fruit Market

Fruit Market

outside a Wat in Bangkok

outside a Wat in Bangkok

Ko Tao beach

Ko Tao beach

The snorkelling trip in Ko Tao

The snorkelling trip in Ko Tao

The Princess Lagoon

The Princess Lagoon

Rock climbing to see the lagoon

Rock climbing to see the lagoon

Thailand- Ao Nang beach in the South

Thailand- Ao Nang beach in the South

me with the world's biggest flower

me with the world's biggest flower

the famous white tiger in the Singapore Zoo

the famous white tiger in the Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

On the spice plantation in Goa with the stinky fruit. It's not allowed on public transport

On the spice plantation in Goa with the stinky fruit. It's not allowed on public transport

The Main Mosque in Delhi

The Main Mosque in Delhi

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

No prizes for guessing where that is!

No prizes for guessing where that is!

Taj Mahal again

Taj Mahal again

in front of the Jain temple

in front of the Jain temple

Jain Temple

Jain Temple

Jain Temple

Jain Temple

Our room in Jodhpur

Our room in Jodhpur

Jaislemere

Jaislemere

Jailsemere

Jailsemere

Cameron of Arabia

Cameron of Arabia

me on the camel called 'Lucky'

me on the camel called 'Lucky'

the rat temple - the most pampered rats in India

the rat temple - the most pampered rats in India

Cameron having his nail painted by the world-class master of miniature

Cameron having his nail painted by the world-class master of miniature

Cameron and Karam next to an underground corridor leading to the local fort, near Karam's village

Cameron and Karam next to an underground corridor leading to the local fort, near Karam's village