June 23, 2007

Thailand....so far

The white sandy beaches and turquoise waters of Koh Phi Phi In Thailand have been keeping us busy for the past while. Unfortunately the full brunt of the Thai rainy season has hit hard over the last day or so, bringing high winds, rain storms and power cuts so paradise beach life has been put on hold for the time being. It's also an ideal opportunity to get the blog up to date again.

The last installment was from Siem Reap in Cambodia where we were preparing for the infamous nightmare bus journey to Bangkok. In the last few years most of the major road routes in Cambodia have been systematically rebuilt and sealed with the notable exception of the Siem Reap to Bangkok road. Corruption is supposedly at the heart of the matter, it's rumoured that a certain airline (with Bangkok to Angkor Wat flights) made a payment to the Cambodian government to ensure that this major route would be amongst the last to be upgraded. Considering that the distance from Siem Reap to the Thai border is a mere 200 km it's mind boggling to think that Cambodia's most important international road is a rocky, muddy, dirt track that takes in excess of 7 hours to pass.

:: This wasn't our bus... its wheel fell off completely ::

Our journey to the Thai border took a nightmare 9 hours during which we managed to get two tyre blow-outs; after the second explosive puncture we were out of spares and forced to wait on the side of the dirt track until "something" came along that we could "borrow" a tire from. The "something" turned up in the form of a rival company's bus... it all seemed a bit hit and miss, you certainly wouldn't want to be the last bus of the day bumping along the road. In an effort to protect our very last borrowed tire the bus crawled to the Thai border. When people complain about the condition of this road they are by no means exaggerating... it's truly ridiculous. After been rattled around for 9 hours and travelling only 200 km we were delighted to reach the Thai border. Instantly recognisable by it's bright ATM signs, fast food outlets and gloriously smooth sealed roads. We clambered into the waiting super dooper VIP double decker deluxe bus for Bangkok and marvelled at the marked roads, signposts and traffic lights.

Time in Bangkok was spent to-ing and fro-ing to various embassies gathering visas for the next leg of our journey and escaping into the air conditioned shopping centres to get out of the city heat. Bangkok has some fantastic food courts which are well worth the visit including Siam Centre and The Emporium. We visited Khao San Road a couple of times but managed to avoid coming away with a tattoo or hair braids ... there's definitely a traveller's uniform in these parts! There's also some good shopping around this area with lots of "We buy anything" stalls which sell commonly jettisoned items from a backpacker's over packed bag. Wares include unused mosquito nets, hiking shoes, snorkles, sleeping bags and even half empty shampoo bottles. Our next destination was Phuket reachable by night bus from Bangkok... bring on our second nightmare bus journey of this entry. Special Tourist VIP buses (reclining seat, aircon, movies, toilet) leave Bangkok nightly bringing hundreds of backpackers south to the islands. The tickets for these buses are sold by every single tourist agency in and around Khao San Road. Local public buses make the same journey but charge double the fare. So what's the catch? Well it's very well known that on occasion some items go missing overnight from luggage in the hold of the VIP bus. After reading the colourful tales of theft on the travelers forums we decided to take a calculated risk. We bought the cheap VIP tickets, paid extra attention to keeping all valuables on our person, reinforced our big bags and ventured forth treating anyone associated with the bus as a suspected thief. As if playing exactly to the script of the stories we'd read we became aware of a guy crawling around the floor in the middle of the night looking through people's hand luggage. Marcus shone a torch down the aisle of the bus to scare him away and saw him slither down the stairs of the bus. The following morning we got off the bus and told people to check their bags. Immediately people found that they were missing money. Then all the big bags came out of the hold of the a bus and almost ALL of them had been thoroughly rifled through, ordinary locks didn't seem to be a deterrent. In all the uproar the bus drove away ... with Marcus running after it standing in front of it to stop it. The agency where we had stopped said the police were on the way but they would "replace" any missing money so there was no need for any fuss.

We didn't have anything stolen from us after our re-enforcements but were appalled to see the bus company give back money to people and people just accept the behaviour as normal rather than a criminal scam. A tourist police guy turned up but didn't seem to be able to do much. The fact that it was all done so brazenly (and daily) and is ignored by the authorities is a disappointing indication of how such scams can go on for years. It doesn't seem to be logical to have a large tourist police presence around the streets and then hoard all the tourists onto a bus to have them systematically robbed. It's the same buses and the same crews doing the same thing every night. So... after a very long sleepless night, a brush with the thieves a 5 hour wait for our connecting bus to Phuket we made it to our destination 24 hours later. Luckily Dee's cousin John and wife Nus were there to pick us up and bring us to their home where we enjoyed all the best in home comforts for a couple of weeks. Thanks for the hospitality guys!!!

While we still had the sunny weather on our side we hopped over to Phi Phi island and stayed at Long Beach for a few days. The beach there is stunning with it's white sand and turquoise waters, it's certainly a life you can relax into very easily. Added perks include a bungalow a few feet away from the water and shark snorkeling straight from the beach. It's low season at the moment and things are really really quiet, we've actually been surprised at the number of guest houses and restaurants that have closed up for the rainy season. While Long Beach seems to have been spared from the destructive force of the Tsunami the same cannot be said about the narrow central strip of land between Ton Sai Bay and Loh Dalum Bay. Although some new hotel developments have sprung up, large amounts of scattered rubbish, broken furniture and strips of neglected land take away from the beauty of this particular area. It looks like there will be a lot more flash packer development in the future. The tip for now is get on a long boat and get yourself around to idyllic Long Beach.

:: Long Beach on Phi Phi ::

Our next stop was Ao Nang on the Thailand mainland where we spent a couple of days before pushing on to Krabi town and taking a ferry out to a totally deserted Koh Lanta. Although we enjoyed the solitude of the empty beach and amazing sunsets we had planned to fit in some diving in our last couple of weeks Thailand so we decided to head back to Ao Nang and come up with a new plan. Ao Nang is a beautiful little seaside resort town that has become our favourite little base camp in this neck of the woods, even though we arrived here amidst huge storms it has managed to make a great impression on us.

:: Long Boat on Phi Phi ::

So our revised plan is to spend a couple more days enjoying Ao Nang and exploring nearby Railey beach before embarking on an overnight journey to the island of Koh Tao off the east coast of Thailand. It's here we plan to fulfill our diving ambitions ...fingers crossed they haven't heard we're coming and closed up shop!

:: Sunset on Koh Lanta ::

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June 6, 2007

The Temples of Angkor

:: Angkor Wat ::

The temple ruins of Angkor represent the remnants of the millennium-old Angkorian-era capitals of the ancient Khmer Empire. The Khmer people were and are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia. The name ‘Angkor’ refers to the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire that stretched across much of mainland Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries A.D., and also refers to the capital city of the Empire that was centered north of Siem Reap Cambodia. Most of these temples were constructed between the 9th and 12th century A.D. and represent the pinnacle of ancient Khmer architecture, art and civilization.

:: Bayon ::

At its height, the Age of Angkor was a time of wealth and power for the Khmer Empire. The capital city at Angkor was populated by more than a million people, Khmer kings constructed vast waterworks and grand temples and the Empire's military, economic and cultural dominance held sway over the area of modern Cambodia, as well as much of Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos.

Nowadays The temples of Angkor take their place amongst the seven modern marvels of the world. There are dozens of temple ruins in the Angkor Archaeological Park spread across more than 400 square km. all in different states of ruin and displaying a range of artistic and architectural styles.

We tackled the parks highlight temples in one very hot ,very tiring day. Most tourists take on a few temples a day, avoiding the scorching midday heat, visiting the park over a few days, but not us :-). 10 hours of climbing , scrambling, walking and drinking (6+litres of water) later......we had enjoyed a spectacular architectural feast all around us, in this truly awe inspiring place.

:: Serious Steps ::

We started our day with the centrepiece of the complex - Angkor Wat. This vast moat encircled temple will take the breath away from any first time visitor. Its scale, height and detail is amazing. One thing I was'nt prepared for was the steps. The very steep stairways represent the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods....and boy were they steep.

:: Ta Keo ::

From Angkor Wat we headed on to Bayon , Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and finished the day watching the darkness take over Angkor Wat from the top of Phnom Bakheng.

:: Ta Prohm ::

We really enjoyed all of the temples we saw. They were hugely different, from the clean unfinished lines of Ta Keo to Ta Prohm and its struggle to avoid being swallowed by jungle.

The temples are quite spaced out from each other, we needed to hire a motorcycle with a little 2 seat trailor to drag us in between them and back to Siem Reap town. Siem Reap itself is not the worst place to hang out for a few days. It sees the majority of tourists heading into Cambodia so has developed a good range of dining and shopping to satisfy all.

From here we head towards Bangkok, via the dreaded bus journey to Thailand...more of that in our next post.

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