Thursday, February 17, 2011

12th Stop: Siem Reap

So, we got off the boat from Battambang, and meandered through a crowd of tuk-tuk drivers til we saw our guy from the Golden Mango holding a sign with Aisling's name. Although the boat trip had been amazing, we were on the water all day and it was roasting hot, so we couldn't wait to get to the hostel just to chill out, in every sense!

The Golden Mango was the number one ranked hostel in Cambodia in 2009 and 2010, and we can see why! As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with ice cold goblets, (yes, goblets!) of orange juice, and cold towels, while our bags were taken to our room. As well as that, they had free internet, free tea/coffee, free breakfast, free bike rental and free tuk-tuks to anywhere in the city! What a place! And when we got up to our room there was even a complementary bowl of fruit, though we weren't entirely sure what it was...

There you can see an apple, a few tiny bananas (they really were tiny!) and then some weird furry things... We later found out they were called rambutans. We didn't really get how they worked and we were trying to bite into the hard exterior, thinking that was the fruit. It turns out you have to open them up, kinda like a chestnut (though not as prickly) and the fruit was inside. It was delicious too! It tasted like a mix between a grape and a coconut, if you can imagine that. I was hoping we'd get a fresh bowl of fruit every day but sadly we didn't...

It was late enough in the day at that stage so we just did our usual routine of Pizza Company and Amazing Race, and planned for our stay in Siem Reap. There are literally hundreds of temples around so we had to do some research on what ones we actually wanted to see. (Like Bagan, I won't bore you with the details of each one!)

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast in the hostel, again with some more weird fruit (the pink and white speckledy one is a dragonfruit, which was quite nice, kinda like a watered down kiwi) and then made our first voyage, cycling to the nearby Roluos Temples.

That's the last picture of fruit, I promise...

The Roluos Temples were the earliest, though probably not the most impressive of the Khmer temples, but still worth a look considering they're over 1,100 years old. As I said, I wont go into detail about each one. Bakong was probably the most impressive of all the temples we saw that day, and especially notable for its Flintsone-like scaffolding outside.

There was another smaller one nearby, Prasat Prei Monti, so we said we might as well have a look as we were here. We cycled down a few country lanes, but there was no sign of it anywhere. We stood there looking at the map for a while, when this woman who was walking past pointed down a little dirt track and ushered us to follow her, so we presumed it was close by. Ten minutes later, after following her down a series of narrow, jungle trails, we started to get the feeling that maybe we misunderstood and we were actually just following this woman home... She hadn't said a word since giving us the directions, and there was no way the temple was this far away. We were really in the in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful, sure, but it wasn't where we were meant to be!

We eventually arrived at some temple (not the one we were looking for, but relieved that she was actually leading us somewhere!) but when we landed, there was some woman saying we needed to pay 2,000 Riel (around 50c). We presumed she meant that we should give it to the woman who showed us the way, which was fair, so we gave her the money. But no, she wanted money for herself! Who was she like?! I think she was trying to imply that she owned the temple or something. Seriously! I was going to pay her, just to get her to go away, but Ash told me not to give her anything, out of principle. She was right too, as I said, who was she like?! In the end, we ignored her and walked on.

The temple (well, I say temple, it was just some ruin in the forest) was actually pretty cool. Not so much down to the building itself, but because it was in the middle of nowhere, with no tourists around, and also cause there were leaves everywhere!

We still don't know where this place actually was...

We played around in the leaves for a while, until we finally had to 'leave' ourselves. We wandered back along the forest trail and miraculously made it out onto the main path again, and so we jumped on our bikes and cycled on. It was great actually, cycling around the temples for the day, and just look how red the dirt is!!

I don't know why, but I really love red dirt!

We went to our last temple of the day, Lolei, (which was nothing special at all) before journeying back to the hostel just as the sun was setting. Cycling is fun!

That night, we went into Siem Reap town for dinner and got dessert in a local bakery, The Blue Pumpkin. They have a brilliant offer actually, that after 8 o'clock, all of their pastries are half price. It's genius really, seeing as they'd just be throwing them out anyway. It's a good way of making some extra dough...

We then took a wander around some souvenir shops, and while the shop assistant wasn't looking, started trying on their hats for our amusement. Aisling was caught rotten though, but pretended to be interested in buying one, telling the assistant that she was going to get money and would be back!

She never came back...

The next day we had to get up early for a cooking class we had booked in a place called Le Tigre de Papier. We didn't really know what to expect from it but it was actually a lot of fun! When we went in, we were given a menu and told to pick out a starter and main course that we'd like to cook. Then we were taken through the mazes of street markets to pick up the ingredients. Myself and Ash both made pumpkin soup for starters, while she chose chicken & cashew nut, and I made chicken with fried noodles, for the main course.

We were even shown how to make fancy little decorations for our plates!

All in all, we had a great day! The pumpkin soup was incredible, I'd even say it was the best bowl of soup I ever had! The mains were only alright, but we were so full from the soup that it didn't really matter. We were given some sticky rice and mango then for dessert, which was unreal too! It was excellent value for $12 (about €9), considering you were getting a 3 course meal, and being shown how to cook it! 75% of the money is given to charity too, so we had a very wholesome day really!

We even went back there for dinner the following night!

That day we also fulfilled our promise to Happy and gave his friend, Mr. Peakdey, a ring. Now, I don't know what happened when they were giving out nicknames, but this guy was 10 times happier than Happy! He was a lunatic! We loved him though. We needed a tuk-tuk anyway as we were planning on doing some serious templing, as well as going to Banteay Srei, which was 32km away.

Banteay Srei is one of the most famous temples in Siem Reap, despite being so far away, and you can see why it's described as the "jewel in the crown of Angkorian art". The stone carvings are incredible and even though it was built in the 8th century, they are still in pristine condition today.

The only downside really was that it was absolutely jam packed when we were there, and because the temple itself is quite small, you'd really notice the crowds. That, and it was quite a long way out from Siem Reap itself. The long journey was most certainly made worthwhile on the way back though! Let me explain...

While we've been in South East Asia, and Cambodia in particular, we've seen motorbikes carrying 2, 3 and sometimes 4 people, and it's become a little game of ours when we're travelling to see as many people as we can on the one bike. I've been trying desperately to get a picture of a 4 person bike for my records, but it's hard when you're whizzing by so quickly. On the way back from Banteay Srei though, we saw one on the road ahead of us. I fumbled around for my camera and just about got the photo off as we passed by. I was delighted with myself, 4 people on the one bike!

But what's that?! It couldn't be!?! As I checked the camera to see if I had taken a clean picture, I noticed a 5th little head at the front! No way!! I know it mightn't seem like a big deal at all, but we were ecstatic! 5 people, what a result!

Again, I'll skip past some places we went, Banteay Samré, Eastern Mebon, Pre Rup, and it's funny really, I'm skipping past these place because I've nothing really of note to say about any of them, which just shows how desensitised we've become here. These are some incredible temples, that anyone would kill to see, but we've seen so many beautiful places over the last couple of weeks that our standards have really gone through the roof!

Next was Banteay Kdei, and Aisling's 12 year old entrepreneur. Now at most of the temples, you'd get kids running up to you trying to sell you postcards, fridge magnets, bracelets etc. and to be brutally honest, these kids are usually pretty rubbish at it! But at Banteay Kdei, one little girl absolutely charmed the pants off Aisling! She was excellent in fairness. She was smothering Ash with compliments and said she was just selling this crap so she could start her own business. She even had a few words of Gaelige to throw in too! Very impressive stuff.

As I said before, we really became spoilt with all the amazing things we had seen, and so it would take something really spectacular to impress us... and then there was Ta Prohm. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. In fact, no. It was like something we had seen before, but something you'd only ever see in a movie. It looked like it was fresh out of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. (It turns out, it actually was used in Tomb Raider! Go figure!)

Some of the temples we've seen so far on our travels have been centuries old and so, ravaged by time, the elements and even invading armies, but we've never seen one ravaged by nature itself! It was unreal! Roots the size of tree trunks sprawling across rooftops, vines obscuring ancient stone carvings, solid walls crumbling beneath the weight of branches - these buildings were pretty much being consumed by the jungle. It was like discovering a lost world (except for all the tourists obviously!). I guess it just shows the power of nature.

Doesn't it just look like a scene from a movie?!

Next we went to Ta Keo, with its almost vertical climb to the top. The steps were literally 15 inches high and 4 inches wide, not an easy ascent in sandals under the hot Cambodian sun.

Our last stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng, to watch the sunset with Mr. Peakdey. It was a nice spot, with a nice view, but that's all it was really... "nice". I think it's more of a case of it being famous for being famous. People go there for sunset because, well... people go there for sunset! It's a thing that's done so that's why people do it.

But if sunset was underwhelming, we more than made up for it at sunrise.

Ok, I didn't actually take that picture myself, I found it on Google images... It's nice though, isn't it?!

So then, Angkor Wat, the biggest religious structure in the world, the national symbol of Cambodia and probably the most famous landmark in South East Asia. What better place to watch the sunrise on our last day in Siem Reap! We had a lot of temples still to cross off our list, despite the marathon session of the day before, so we hired Mr. Peakdey again to take us around, starting with a 5am trip to Angkor Wat (or Angkor whuuut?! as we like to call it...).

It was (quite obviously) pitch black as we arrived and followed the crowds to the best spot, waiting for this massive wonder to emerge from the darkness. And emerge it did! (although maybe not as dramatically as the picture above would have you believe...). Another upside to visiting the place at sunrise was the fact that it wasn't crammed with tourists (bar us hardcore few of course), so after the sun came up, we went for a walk around the temple grounds.

Again, clearly, I didn't take that photo, but it gives you a good idea of what the place looks like. Unfortunately though, there was some construction work going on while we were there, so the spectacular views were partially obscured by scaffolding. One thing we did see though was a monkey stealing a bag of fruit from some woman! It was very entertaining for all concerned, well, probably not for the woman herself... but definitely for us! And, I'd imagine, even more so for the monkey!

After Angkor Wat, we went over to another one of Cambodia's most recognisable images, Bayon, with its iconic stone faces. (And according to the Lonely Planet, there are in fact 216 of these stone faces). Our early start really helped us beat the crowds that day.

Next door was Bauphon, and although it might look like a graveyard out front, those are actually pieces of the temple - numbered but not exactly ordered. See, Bauphon is known as "the world's largest jigsaw puzzle" because before the civil war, it was taken apart by archaeologists for preservation. However, their records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign, and so now it is being painstakingly being put back together, piece by piece...

We zipped around to a few more temples before we really had to call it a day. We were wrecked after our early start and to be honest, a bit templed out, so we asked Mr. Peakdey to take us home. In fairness, he really earned his money over the last two days, with a tuk-tuk here, and a tuk-tuk there (here a tuk, there a tuk, everywhere a tuk-tuk!) We had a great chat with him too after he dropped us at the hostel. He's had a pretty tough life, like most Cambodians I'd imagine, but you wouldn't think it for a second to look at him. He's a great guy. We eventually had to say our goodbyes, but he was definitely one of our favourite people of the whole trip, and one we'll be sure to get in contact with if we're ever in the area again.

And that was pretty much it for our time in Siem Reap, and Cambodia as a whole. Certainly a rival for Myanmar in the best country stakes, again not just for the scenery but for the people too.

So, it was off to our next city/country... Singapore!

Friday, February 4, 2011

11th Stop: Battambang

So, Battambang (or 'bottom bang' as it's pronounced) was, I have to admit, my pre-trip prediction for worst city. I don't know why, maybe the name, maybe because we weren't staying there for very long, either way, I'm an idiot. Battambang is awesome! Not so much the city itself, which is average at best, but the surrounding area, the countryside and the people are what makes it one of our favourite stops on the whole journey. Like Bagan, we've so many memorable pictures from here, I'll try to cram in as many as I can. Not bad for a town that we only really spent a day in!

We arrived in Battambang on the night of the 6th, after two bus journeys, first from Kampot and then Phnom Penh. Again, we made about 50 stops on each trip (Cambodians ay?! ). We didn't mind the travelling too much though. We were happy campers looking out the window, Ash was listening to music, while I was boning up on my Irish history. (Before we left Ireland, I thought I should really learn more about my own country's history, before we start learning about the history of others, so I downloaded a 240 part audiobook... Well, it was easier than actually reading!)

When we arrived at the bus stop, we were happily greeted by Happy, our tuk-tuk driver. We grabbed our bags from the luggage compartment, and as we did, a chicken jumped out, and ran across the road (Cambodia, the land where jokes come to life!). We thought this was hilarious, but were kinda afraid to laugh in case the locals took offence. Happy thought it was equally as hilarious, we liked him from the start. Seeing as we had been on a bus all day, we decided to head into the town centre to get some late dinner. We found a place that was highly recommended in the Lonely Planet called the Smokin' Pot. Well, the one thing I would say about the place is that it's certainly well named, in that the waiters must have been smokin' pot themselves, as it took them about half an hour to actually serve us! The food itself was mediocre, but it was cheap at least. We just retired to our room after dinner, to be ready for our action packed day ahead with Happy.

We met up with Happy at 10 o'clock the next morning outside the hotel, and he had a day full of activities planned for us! So off we went to our first stop, the bamboo train. This is one of the things we had previously read about, but didn't really know what to expect. In a nutshell, it's a bamboo frame with wheels and a go-kart engine, that runs up and down the old train line... and that's pretty much it!

What an experience though! It was like being on a magic carpet travelling over the railway tracks, except of course for the excessive vibrations on your behind. (I guess they call it 'bottom bang' for a reason!) Sometimes as well, you'd encounter another bamboo train coming towards you in the opposite direction, so one would have to dismantle and wait for the other to pass. It was really cool though, jetting along about 10 inches off the ground, especially over these abandoned and overgrown tracks.

At the end of the line was a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, with a little brick factory. It was just so different from your regular touristy trip. We got a guided tour around the place from a local boy of around 10 or 11, and we gave him a dollar for his troubles. He must make a killing as a part-time tour guide! The people here in the village were lovely too and Frankie was even making friends with the locals!

Next stop was the hill-top Phnom Sampaeu. It was a long hike up, but definitely worth the effort. Like Mt. Popa in Bagan, the crowning temple wasn't anything special, but the main draw here is most definitely the view. The land all around is pretty much completely flat, bar the odd little bump, making this rocky peak ridiculously out of place amongst the surrounding fields, ironed out as far as the horizon.

While we were up there too, we saw some monkeys playing with a balloon! Haha... monkeys!

On our way back down the hill though, poor Aisling's flip-flop broke. Disaster! She couldn't walk in them at all, and it was still pretty early on in the day, we didn't want to have to go back to the hotel. But fear not! Fresh from my laptop fixing, I swooped into action! Unfortunately in this scenario, there was nothing to take apart or blow on, but instead I outdid myself by fixing it with a hairband and a pair of tweezers! I felt like MacGuiver!

There was a few more temples and Buddha statues scattered around, but the peak on which Phnom Sampeau stands is probably most famous for the Khmer Rouge killing caves. There's now a staircase that leads down into the open chamber, although victims were thrown down here to their deaths through a natural skylight in the roof of the cave.

Wherever you go in the country, there seems to be scars from the Khmer Rouge. There's now a reclining Buddha statue in the cave itself, along with a memorial for the victims. There were also two monks down there who gave us red string bracelets.

When we reached the bottom, we hopped back in the tuk-tuk and went on a tour of the Cambodian countryside. What an incredible experience. It's definitely up there in the highlights of the entire trip, just for the palette of colours alone. From bright blue skies, to warm orange dirt tracks, with deep greens and yellows too!

And most vibrant of all, the rich red of the chili farms we passed along the way!

Next stop was Phnom Banan which, despite not being that hyped up in the guidebooks, was one of our favourite temples from the entire trip. We had another steep climb to endure, with 358 steps to the top, but again, totally worth it. This time for the temple itself as much as for the view. It just had a different feel to the others, and there was a kind of Aztecy style to it too that we loved.

It also held the answer to a mystery that was plaguing us for the whole trip! When we think of Buddha, we think of the fat, jolly one, but all we've been seeing for the entire journey was the young, lean one! (And we've seen a lot of Buddhas...) We couldn't figure out where the change came, from slim to fat. Then we found the answer, caught in the act!

Too many jam sandwiches, that's the reason! Mystery solved!

Before we headed back to the hotel, we went around to a couple of other places, with Happy narrating along the way. We went to a shaky suspension bridge over the river, a couple of small country villages, and a big tree with hundreds of fruit bats in it. As it was the middle of the day, the bats were obviously all sleeping. You wouldn't even notice them at first, they just looked like leaves, dangling from the branches.

But Happy soon woke them out their slumber for us, and the tree just erupted with bats flying in all directions! They were huge! They just flew around up in the sky thankfully though, we didn't have to run for cover or anything.

One last point about our day in Battambang; driving through the country villages, it was like the circular train in Yangon all over again. We were like celebrities! Kids would wave and shout hello at us wherever we went and would even run up to the tuk-tuk to shake our hands. If you're suffering from low self-esteem, I'd definitely recommend a drive through the Cambodian countryside. They'd make you feel like the most important person in the world!

And that was that for our one and only day in Battambang! Happy dropped us back to the hostel, and since we were going to Siem Reap next, he gave us a number for his friend (probably Dopey or Bashful...) who is also a tuk-tuk driver in that part of the country. As he had been so good to us, we promised to give his buddy a call when we got to Siem Reap. And so, we said farewell to our friend Happy.

We got dinner (delicious dinner may I add) in the Gecko Cafe that evening, and also grabbed some snacks for our boat trip to Siem Reap the next morning.

Now, usually a journey from one city to another might get a paragraph, if even that, but I've got to say, this trip was one of, if not the highlight of the whole holiday! It was amazing! I could write a whole entry on it! If I could recommend one thing to do in the whole of South East Asia, the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap would be it! And that's saying something. There's no better way to see a walk of life so far removed from your own. And if we thought we were like celebrities driving through the countryside, well, this just took the biscuit! Our arms were sore by the end of the journey from waving so much! Every few seconds, all you'd hear is a tiny voice in the distance shouting "HELLLOOOOO!!!", and you'd have to search windows and doorways to actually see where the waving was coming from! It was like some bizarre shooting game! Kids were popping up everywhere and you had to wave back before the boat passed by.

Oh, I forgot to mention. All the villages we passed were floating villages. That's right. Houses, shops, temples, schools, all built on the water. We even saw a floating TV shop! How the hell could there be a TV shop?! Well, if you look again at the picture above, you'll see an aerial on the roof. Don't even ask me how it works! These people live in houses made of straw, completely built on the water and with no windows, yet they still probably curl up on the couch every night to watch an episode of Fair City (or whatever the Cambodian equivalent is...). We couldn't get our head around it. We even saw one with a satellite dish! (I wonder if they know that you can get 50 quid's worth of M&S vouchers if you recommend a friend...?)

It was great to experience though. Things that seem so alien to us are perfectly normal for them, playing on floating basketball courts, taking a bath on your doorstep, rowing to school, and they don't know any different. (Although, considering they have satellite TV, they probably do know different...!)

Along the way, our surroundings changed so much, which is pretty strange for a boat journey! We went from wide open lakes, to the narrowest waterways you've ever seen. (Some of the time you literally had to jump out of the way to avoid oncoming branches!)

From floating villages, to vast wetlands with trees growing out of the water!

All the while, balming out on the roof of the boat under the hot sun! I hate to say it, but Myanmar may have some competition for best country...