Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Dubai and Home!!

Leaving Tokyo late at night I arrived in Kuala Lumpur at around 7am.   I was due to catch the overnight train to Singapore at 11pm so my friend Shirleen had offered her place as somewhere I keep my bag and get showered etc… As this was my last day in South East Asia I told Shirleen my priority was three awesome meals.  The first of which was a breakfast meal of spicy pork and rice.  After I caught up on a few hours of sleep I was ready for lunch and so we headed to an Indian place for a scrumptius green (!) chicken tikka kebab and sweet pulled tea.

In the afternoon we headed to a waterfall where we could cool off and I could take in my last views of SE Asia.

Shirleen scales the waterfall:

My final Malaysian meal was somewhat predictably a third visit to my favourite Dim-Sum restaurant, after which I said my goodbyes and was on another sleeper train.

Tray full of Dim-Sum:

Sun going down on my Asian adventure:

Cosy bed on the sleeper train:

Arriving at 8am in the morning in the northern part of the Singapore Island I only had time to catch a bus to the airport before catching my late morning flight; which got me into Dubai at around 4.30pm having spent the past 42 hours and 2 nights on planes, trains and auto-mobiles 😉

No time for rest though as it was the 2nd group stage of the Euro 2012 finals which meant England were playing a crunch match against Sweden, and coincidently a Friday night, so a Dubai-night-out was on the cards.

Jack and Vicki met me at the airport; and I realised the last time I had seen them they were getting married and I was performing best-man duties!  They took me to their ridiculously swanky apartment (5 bathrooms :/)  just a few minutes from the airport and before we’d had chance to really catch up it was time for Jack and I meet his mates at one of Dubai’s premier sports-watching venues for a night on the tiles. England’s dramatic win kept us partying into the wee hours.

The next day we chilled out by pool, and went to the Mall of Dubai in the evening to check out the amazing aquarium and musical fountain display.

The Marchington’s lounge overlooking Dubai:

And the pool:

View from their apartment, the Burj Khalifa imposing itself over the city:

The next day Jack had booked us a tee-time on a local golf course.  With it being Dubai high standards were guaranteed.  After a couple of holes I realised this was the best course I had ever played; but unfortunately my shots weren’t matching the standard of the trimmed fairways and lightening quick greens.   Nevertheless it was really good fun, especially tearing around on our golf buggies.

The time was very strictly stuck to.  Our buggy had an onboard computer that told us if we were running too fast or slow.  After hacking our way round the first few holes we found ourselves 5 minutes behind schedule which resulted in one of the course marshalls prompting us to get a move on!

One of the times I somehow found myself on the fairway:

That’s more how I remembered it:

Unlike most courses I’d played where if you shank your drive you can pretty much write-it-off as lost, due to it being in some trees or 4 foot grass; in Dubai you are quite fortunate because off the fairway is the desert and spotting your ball is fairly easy as Jack found here:

After four hours baking in the desert heat I was very glad to dispose of my soaking clothes and get into the air-con.  For the record Jack won by a shot or two which was to be expected with his home advantage 😉

I still had a couple of days left in Dubai which I spent chilling by the pool, eating delicious food and taking in some of Dubai’s sights.

One of the local traditions, smoking a shisha pipe over a lunch of chicken shawarma and fresh fruit juice:

Just a couple of the many good-looking buildings in the Dubai:

The sparkling Burg Khalifa, tallest building in the world:

Jack and I on the last day of my year-long adventure:

So that was that, and it was finally time for me to head back to the UK, 365 days after I had left.  During my time away I had been to 26 countries, across 5 continents and I’d had the best year of my life.  What really made it special was all the amazing people I had met along the way.  If anyone is considering doing something similar my advice is: just do it!

Back in London; black cabs, red buses and Union flags:

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Japan: cultural immersion in Kyoto

I was expecting an awesome trip for the 7-hour overnight bus from Tokyo heading west to Kyoto, as things in Japan, I had come to expect, are generally awesome.  However I was slightly disappointed with the rather cramped, stuffy bus sat next to a larger (albeit extremely polite) gentleman.  Nevertheless we arrived on time and I had managed to get a few hours of kip.

Kyoto used to be the capital until a few hundred years ago and has managed to retain many of the traditional temples, shrines and grand official buildings that were constructed in the lavish glory years.  Strolling around the east area of the city it feels like you’ve stepped back in time, and many locals and tourists enhance this by dressing up in traditional clothing.

Before entering a shrine you go and take a sip of water from the fountain and then wash your hands as demonstrated by this traditionally dressed Japanese:

Traditional Japanese graveyard.  Even the gravestones are designed to save space:

This Buddha was HUGE. Use the tiny figure to the right as a size reference:

The purpose of the Buddha statue:

Kyoto is also the best place to spot one of the rarest creatures on the planet: an authentic Geisha.  Geisha girls are dwindling in numbers but their practice is still alive and their services are procured by high-rollers for about £1,000 an hour :-0!  For this you can expect a fan-dance, some pleasant chitter-chatter and your tea poured.  Sounds a bit of a rip-off to be honest but it’s all about honour.

I managed to pap this Maiko (trainee Geisha) as she was out doing a spot of morning shopping.   Shortly after this she shuffled her way into a Geisha parlour.

This pair were doing a photo shoot.  Probably weren’t actual Geisha’s but they looked cool anyway:

Not sure what this dude was but he was chanting something and looked really mystical:

One of the nights in the hostel a group of university students came in to teach us how to do origami.   By now this type of friendliness and willing to go-out-of-your-way to help out strangers was become the norm.  I really got into that paper folding and made loads of different bits and bobs.

With the super-happy teacher, Mari, after having completed my first lily:

I got slightly addicted and ended up making loads:

The next day I hired a bike and decided to do a tour of the out-lying sights.  Just outside the town there were some lovely sights of tree-covered rolling hills and wide sweeping rivers.  And the shrines and temples aren’t restricted to the inner city either.  One of the most revered sights in Japan is Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pagoda.   Originally built as a villa by a powerful statesman it has since been converted to a Zen Buddhist temple and is an awesome sight to behold.  Unfortunately 30 minutes into my cycle the heavens opened so I didn’t catch the pagoda in the bright sunshine which would have added to the spectacle, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.

After a few more stops at various shrines and temples I was soaked to the bone so decided to call it a day.

That evening a group of us headed out from the hostel and Mari convinced us to partake in one of her’s and most Japanese girls’ favourite past time: Purikura.  To you and me photo booths are generally exclusively used for passport photos but to young Japanese people they’re a cracking friday night out.  You can dress up, do your make-up and even straiten your hair in the Purikura place,  so you can look your best for your ‘photo shoot’.  Then its the turn of the photoshop software to make your skin airbrushed and pale, eyes bigger and rounder and smile whiter and shinier.  The final step is to graffiti the photos up whichever way you choose.

On this one I went for the Doraemon onesy (gadget cat from the future) and afterwards the guys put a bow-tie and glasses on me.  We chose eye size extra-large:

Scary:

After the excitement of the Purikura we headed to an Isakaya which is a traditional Japanese pub.  For me, these places have one great aspect and one terrible aspect.  The first is that for £13 it’s all you can drink until 5am in the morning (which considering it’s about £6 a pint in Japan is an amazing deal!), the second is that you are confined to your own personal room, which is a bit weird as pubs are generally there for socialising and I don’t really know why people don’t just go round to someone house – there’s not even any music!  Not to say that the company wasn’t good, it was, it’s just you can hear people in the next cubicle having a laugh, but can’t see them or talk to them.

My final day in Kyoto I took a trip to Fushimi Inari which is an amazing series of thousands of Toriis (Japanese-looking archways which signify the start of a shrine).  You can walk through a couple of miles of these orange toriis passing shrines and scenic lakes along the way.  There’s even a lake with tons of turtles swimming around towards the end of the track.

Mind-boggling:

Really cool to walk through:

One of the shrines:

Afterwards we decided to head for a bit of Udon, which are these really delicious thick stodgy noodles.  But first I spotted this pup which I was tempted to kidnap:

Udon, served here with raw-egg, springs onions, some Japanese sauce, chicken tempura and tempura bits. Unbelievably delicious and one of the cheapest options for eating out in Japan:

The next day I caught the bus back to Tokyo.  This time I had stumped up an extra few hundred yen for the ‘Theater’ bus which offers a personal screen with a catalogue of movies, live TV and the Pièce de résistance, old-school Sega games such as Golden Axe!

On returning to Tokyo I checked back in with Tadashi and Hiroshi who had hosted me at their place in my first week; as they had offered me a futon for my last night in Japan.

My evening flight wasn’t until 11.30pm meaning I had one last day in Tokyo, and so I decided to stroll to  the nearby Tokyo Dome which is a 55,000 baseball arena coupled with a huge entertainment complex.  On arrival I realised there was a game being played and after some uncomfortable conversations with several officials who although incredibly polite were terrible at English, I ascertained that it was a university tournament.  As I had covered most of the other places on my Tokyo itinerary I decided to check it out and wasn’t disappointed.  The game of baseball I could take-or-leave; the high-light was the team’s supporters.  Despite the stadium being about 99% empty each university had its own band, troupe of cheerleaders and uniformed fans.  The most interesting/funny thing about it all was how organised and rehearsed everything was.  When one field was in bat, their fans would kick up a real hullabaloo, with singing, dancing, chanting and band-playing; meanwhile it was etiquette for the other team to sit-down and shut-up.  Then when that team was out, it would switch round in an instant, even if it meant cutting short the song.  There were also some very interesting rituals performed by wailing, suited, arm-waving guys at the start and finish of each game.  It was all very entertaining and I definitely recommend watching how the Japanese have made such an American cultural experience their own.

The teams line-up and bow:

It was hard not to giggle as a group of uniformed-and-bandanered Japanese university students hum-singed the chorus to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ whilst banging green cones to the beat:

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And after the victory it was the winner’s ritual.  At the end of this, the guy turns to the opposing fans and does the exact same thing:

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After catching a couple of the games there was only time for one last huge bowl of noodles before saying cheerio to the guys that had been so accommodating and helpful by letting me stay with them.  It’s hard to explain why Japan was one of my favourite countries, after all I hadn’t been to any breathtaking beaches, mountains or jungles, but it’s just a really fantastic place to be; I guess this has to be put down to the people, which you’re probably getting sick of me saying, but are so unique, friendly and charming.

Japan: Harajuku girls, arcades and musical loos

The next day I decided to get a travel card for the Tokyo Metro and take in various neighbourhoods that were famous individually for something or other.  The first was Akihabara, or Electric Town as its known.  This is where to head if you want to buy the newest gadget to hit the market or indeed just about anything you can imagine that involves electricity.  Any ideas I had about picking up some cheap Asian electronics were quashed when I went in one of the supposedly cheapest megastores only to find even the Japanese-made electronic brands were selling at about 25% higher than the UK rate.  I later heard that Tokyo had nothing on  Hong Kong and Singapore in the respect, but nevertheless was interesting to browse the seemingly endless rows of headphones, digital cameras etc..

The area also has its fair share of arcades which themselves are a cultural experience.  Seemingly another area of sexual segregation these places were like 18-30 clubs for geeks.  There are rows upon rows of young men puffing away on cigarettes whilst bashing furiously yet controlled on 3D beat-em-ups, space-invader type games, fishing simulators and footy games.

One of the many video arcades in Tokyo Electric town:

The lads in Tokyo love their arcades. And cigarettes:

One thing I found hilarious and slightly worrying was the phenomenon of hostess (and host) bars.  These places, which are widely accepted socially, offer men (and women) the opportunity to chat to girls for about £35 an hour.  One of their marketing techniques (like many business in Japan) was to hand out free tissues with their advert on:

After leaving Akihabara I headed to Ginza which is like Bond Street with all the expensive brand names like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani etc….  It was here I stepped into a really swanky department store and found probably the best toilet I’d ever sat on.

Ginza. Posh:

Ginza department store loo.  You could eat your lunch off it:

Man clean. Woman clean. Music. Obvious stuff really:

However, other than loos, I had come to Ginza to check out the Sony tower which showcases all the newest Sony gizmos for free.  I had a go on a camcorder which recorded in 3D and a headset that played DVDs straight to your brain.  What’s nice about this place is the staff, like everyone else in Japan, are super friendly and even though they know you’re not buying anything they do everything to help you out and make sure you’re sorted.

Later I headed back to Shibuya to check it out at night-time with all the lights on and the hustle and bustle of people meeting with friends or going for a bite.

Cross-street at night:

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The next day was Sunday, and I’d been told by multiple sources that I should check out hip-and-trendy Harajuku where, on Sundays, certain girls from the sleepy suburbs of Tokyo come into the centre and go a bit mental with Cosplay; parading up and down the high street.  These Harajuku girls have been made famous in recent years after Gwen Stefani nicked a few and made them dance with her in all her recent videos.

The doll look is in:

Cheeky pose:

The following day was my last day in Tokyo and there were a few more places I wanted to check off the list before catching my night bus to the cultural centre of Kyoto.

I’d met a very lovely Japanese lady called Kokoro at the couchsurfing place I was staying and in true Japanese style she offered to take me to the Imperial Palace and show me around.  The Imperial Palace is next to the financial centre of Tokyo, Nihombashi, and as she was married to an investment banker and had various fingers in pies herself, she knew the area well.  Unfortunately the Imperial palace was closed but I was able to get glimpses of the traditional Japanese architecture.  Nevertheless, the area surrounding the palace is a large open park which overlooks the gleaming towers of Nihombashi, and therefore pleasant for an afternoon stroll.

Wide-open spaces, overlooking Nihombashi, financial centre:

Kokoro was very interested to hear about my history in finance and was suggesting I should try to get a job in Tokyo; this was very tempting as I was falling in love with the place and its people.  Again, surpassing any normal concepts of hospitality for a random tourist she took me to the top of one of the towers in Nihombashi and treated me to a traditional Japanese lunch at a very swanky restaurant!

My next stop was to take the driverless train over the rainbow bridge to the commercial area of Odaiba.   Here there are various malls and attractions such as the Toyota Megaweb where you can test-drive Toyota’s newest cars (but only if you have an international driving license grrrrrr..).

Rainbow bridge over to Odaiba:

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Not quite right with the translation here but amusing nonetheless:

Before I caught the night bus I ascended to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to have a last look of the lit-up sprawl of Tokyo:

Japan: crazy Tokyo

My flight was due-in to Tokyo Haneda airport at the unsociable hour of 11pm and the last train to the backpacker district where the reasonably priced accommodation was, was 11.40pm which meant that I hadn’t booked a place to stay in case I was held up and missed the last train, in which case I would stay in the airport :/ Fortunately the plane was early and I breezed through customs and so caught the last train to Asakusa in the north-east of central Tokyo.

What I didn’t realise is that all hotels and hostels close at 11pm in Tokyo and very few have 24h check-in, so I was very lucky to meet a Swiss guy on the train, who said I should stay at his hostel as it was unlikely I would find anywhere else at 12.30am. As there was a spare bed in his room he said he would let me in and I could kip there. So I got lucky as I may have had to spend the night in a 24h McDonald’s!

The next day I moved to the capsule hotel I had booked for my second night and left my bag there whilst I went out exploring Asakusa.

Capsule bed.  Complete with your own TV and radio.  Cosy:

Asakusa is a historic area of Tokyo and home to its oldest temple: Sensō-ji, so I went to check that out along with hundreds of Japanese school kids.  Outside the front of the temple is an incense-well where the smoke apparently cleanses your soul so the Japanese make sure they have a good waft of it.

Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple:

From the side:

Pagoda next to Sensō-ji:

The other more modern and controversial symbol of Asakusa is the “Asahi Flame” or known by some as “The Golden Turd”:

After escaping the hustle and bustle I marched a km or so in the direction of a huge structure I could see towering above the other sky-scrapers.  It turns out it was in fact the newly constructed Skytree, the highest tower in the world! (Not the highest building, which is in Dubai).

Tokyo Skytree, 634m:

Although I couldn’t go up it because it was fully booked until July, I had a look around the shopping mall below which was an experience in itself.  You are surrounded by bowing, smiling, shop assistants repeating a Japanese greeting which equates to “Welcome honoured guest!” over and over again.  The busiest shop I went in sold plastic display food, for extortionate prices!  A 50cm high ice-cream sundae would set you back about £400. Ouch!  In the food section I saw two real mangoes

I really don’t understand why anyone would pay £400 to look at a giant plastic ice-cream sundae.  It would just make me hungry!

More reasonably priced bowl of noodles, just £16:

Some interesting Japanese figures.  The pink mickey-mouse looking fella is wearing a Sex Pistols album cover which is one of the more popular British cultural icons here, along with the Union Jack, which is everywhere…

Fruit.  Unbelievably expensive. £12 (1,400 yen) for 2 mangoes.  Equally shocking, £12 for 6 puny looking satsumas.  I’d rather get scurvy:

The next day I had arranged for the first time to couchsurf at someone’s house.  My host Hiroshi lived with 6 other lads and said I could arrive anytime and someone would be in.  I never could have imagined my first couchsurfing experience to be so amazing.  The house was more of a social club, with 4 other couchsurfers staying there and other friends of the group often kipping on a spare Japanese futon.  The door was never locked, which amazed me in central Tokyo, which meant I could come and go as I pleased.  It was ideal.

In the afternoon I headed out to Shibuya which is kind of like 5th avenue in NYC or Piccadilly in London, and home of most-trodden road crossing in the world.   Apparently 40,000 people an hour cross the road at the scramble crossing.

Shibuya.  Loads of people crossing the road:

Smoking area at Shibuya.  For such clean people the Japanese don’t half like their smoking.  But if you want to smoke then you have to smoke indoors (!) or in specific smoking areas, mainly near train stations:

After a couple of days in Japan, I could summarise Tokyo by the following two words: culture shock!! It’s the craziest and most amazing place I’ve ever been, and really has to be seen to be believed. Just a few things that struck me on my first days:

  • The people are so friendly and polite it’s unreal, even though it’s a huge anonymous big city.
  • It felt the safest city I had ever been.
  • Jay-walking is unheard of here. On my first day I had to laugh when I saw a woman sprinting (maybe for an appointment or to catch a train) and suddenly stop when she came to a traffic-less road, to wait for the green signal to cross, at which point she started sprinting again.
  • English-speaking ability is pretty low among the general public which leads to a lot of embarrassing gesticulation (get your chicken, pig and cow impressions sorted before you come).
  • Cleanliness is of high importance here, and everything is spotless. Instead of flyers, tissues are given out with adverts on them.
  • When you order your food in some cafes, you buy a ticket from a vending machine and take it to the counter.  For that matter there are vending machines everywhere.
  • Helpfully,  pictures and even plastic models of food are very popular, which makes ordering food a tad easier.
  • It’s expensive! The pound/euro/dollar have all fallen by 50% vs the yen in the last 5 years.
  • Tokyo doesn’t feel so packed and suffocating as I expected; in fact the roads are very wide and not too busy.  It doesn’t feel claustrophobic at all.

Decide what food you want, insert the cash, press the picture, get a ticket, give it in, get your food, eat!

For those ignoramuses amongst us who didn’t bother to learn any Japanese (me), they have plastic food displayed outside that you can point to: 

Tokyo blog to be continued…..too much to report in one go.

Thailand: start of the rainy season in Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi

I left Sihanoukville early in the morning and by lunch-time had arrived at the Thai  border.  After a few minutes was out of Cambodia and back into Thailand. I’m not a smoker but if you are then Cambodia would be a good place for you to stock up; some hawkers at the border were flogging 200 Marlboro cartons for $5!

I then caught another two buses and by 9 pm was back in Bangkok.

The weather had turned from when I was there 2 weeks earlier, as the rainy season had kicked in.  So the boiling hot sun had been replaced by tropical rain showers. This restricted my movements slightly and meant the pool where I was staying was unfortunately not required.

Rain showers kept me indoors and out of the swimming pool:

For the few days I was in Bangkok I took advantage of being in the big city by visiting various malls/shopping centres,  and taking-in the crazy backpacker district of Khao San road.  I probably think of all cities I’ve ever been Bangkok is the best for shopping.  You can get everything (of varying quality) at rock bottom prices.  And the lovely Thai people make it stress-free with their huge smiles and delightful temperaments.

A busy road in the centre of Bangkok:

After I was shopped-out and my bag was bursting at the seams I caught a night bus down to Krabi in the south of the country where I hopped on a ferry to the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi.

Leaving Krabi:

Approaching Phi Phi:

And the video of the approach:

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Phi Phi town:

Unfortunately as I found out in Fiji, island paradises are not immune to rain, and similar to Bangkok I arrived just at the start of the rainy season. This meant in the few days I stayed on Phi Phi I only got to the beach twice. Fortunately the hotel I had randomly chosen had an awesome group of Thai staff members who made my time really enjoyable. On the first night I was there they invited me for a lovely Thai BBQ and the next day when it rained all day they kindly took several hundred Thai Baht off me in an awesome card-game called Kyang.

One of the friends of the hotel brought a huge snake in a bag.  It had killed and eaten his cat so he was going to kill it back:

Rainy-day activity, losing money to wily Thais:

Over the few days I just chilled out talking to the guys at the hotel and filling my tum with delicious Thai meals and fresh-fruit-ice-smoothies (strawberry and lime became my favourite). In the evenings the island steps up the tempo and there is a bar for everybody’s taste. My personal favourite was the Rolling Stoned bar where a cover band performs top rock tunes every night, and are always happy to take requests. If you visit the beach at night you are treated to numerous fire shows with up to 15 performers all twirling fire around their bodies at the same time.

Some guy climbed a tree with no ropes and then hacks at the coconuts with a machete. Look out below!

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Quick the sun came out, get to the beach!!

And what a glorious beach it is.  This is known as the back beach:

This is the more popular beach on the other side of the town:

Here comes the rain.  This was about 30 minutes after the above photo was taken.  A huge storm ensued:

Several cats lived at the hotel.  This was the awesomest one called Milky; not only did he look like a mini snow leopard, he also killed rats:

With only 2 days until my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo I had to leave Koh Phi Phi and take the night bus into Malaysia. Once back in KL I contacted my favourite group of Malaysians: Maggie, Shirleen and Samanta, who had been beyond hospitable the last time I was there. With Samanta up in Ipoh and Maggie at work it meant it was just Shirleen and I who spent the afternoon looking for a new pair of jeans for yours truly, in one of the KL shopping malls.

Later in the evening we met up with Maggie and made our way to a Dim-Sum restaurant (the girls knew this was my favourite) where I ate until my stomach hurt. We then went to Maggie’s mum’s food court and I somehow managed to force down a fresh-fruit ais kacang.

Inside this desert is shaved ice which has absorbed the fruit juices.  Delicious and refreshing when its 35 degrees at 10pm!

With the girls, Shirleen (left) and Maggie (right):

The next morning Shirleen again extended her duties by offering me a lift to the airport for my flight to Tokyo! BANSAI!!  I hope one day I can repay all these delightful people who have gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome in their countries.

Cambodia: hitting the beach at Sihanoukville

My last stop in Cambodia was the seaside resort of Sihanoukville on the south-west coast.   This small town had a fairly strange layout with a town-centre a couple of kms inland and then several different beaches off in different directions dotted up the coast.  The biggest development was where I stayed at Serendipity beach.  I heard of this place from a couple of travellers as the place with the cheapest accommodation going: free.  One of the hostels offered free beds during low season and a negligible $1 during high season.  Despite the temptation I decided to treat myself to my own double room in a beachside hotel instead that cost $7 a night.

After my fun in Phnom Penh on the scooter I decided to hire one again in Sihanoukville so immediately got myself a Honda Click for $4 a day and rode around the windy roads to the various beaches, just having a look around.

The following day my Filipino friends who had been following me around Cambodia showed up 😉 and I spent an evening at their hotel bar playing, and getting beat at connect-4 with their very entertaining bar-tender.

The next night we went out for a meal and found a place that had a rather interesting buffet:

Doesn’t look so bad…

But when you get close-up you soon see what they’re trying to serve you:

And a few crickets for good measure:

Although they didn’t taste bad, they didn’t taste good either.  Rather like a salty piece of edible plastic or something.  I had no desire to have any more.  I also tried another local favourite, snails, which were slimy and rank.

Luckily, more edible delicious Cambodian options were available which we quickly got stuck into:

After the meal we hit the beach where we bought and set-off some fireworks that the locals were selling before hitting up one of the many beachside bars for a bit of dancing.

The beach at Sihanoukville, whilst not up to the standards I had experienced earlier in my trip, was pleasant enough with white sand and luke-warm water and so I spent a couple of afternoons chilling under the parasol and every now and then going for a dip to cool off.

The beach is that way! and that way!

Occidental Beach,  about a 20 minute ride over dodgy terrain from the main town:

One of the beaches more popular with the locals.  You might be able to make them out in the water, fully clothed, as is the culture in Cambodia.  I joined in a game of footy with the locals off the back of this beach which was the first footy I’d played in yonks:

One of the other spots I stumbled upon whilst cruising on my scooter was a place at which Cambodian youngsters would come to feed a troop of wild monkeys that lived in the forest, away from the road.  Whilst the ethics of this practice are a bit iffy I decided to join in and so bought some crisps to feed them.

Monkeys!

This cheeky little rascal saw an opportunity and went for it.

And here the rest of its mates play around:

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The next night I went to the Filipinos hotel for one last go at game-playing (getting beat at Jenga this time) before saying farewell to them.  I would be heading north-west to Thailand, and they east to Vietnam.  I’d had a really awesome time with them, they were four of the coolest travelling buddies you could hope to meet.

Cambodia: killing fields at Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has had a crazy recent history.  Without going into too much detail, as the capital city it was the centre-piece for the Khmer Rouge disaster.  The Khmer Rouge were a disgusting extreme-left political party led by the abominable Pol Pot, responsible for the genocide of approximately one fifth of the countries then 11 million people including anyone with a university education or as a proxy, if you wore glasses!  They evacuated the cities and sent everyone to work in the rice fields and any sort of mis-behaviour resulted in your death.  This all happened between 1975 to 1979 so it’s mind-boggling as you walk around to imagine that anyone middle-aged will have been witness to these crazy, tragic events (and might have been involved with the KR).

As a result the population which was 400,000 prior to the KR era is believed to have dropped to a mere 20,000 consisting mainly KR officials and their families.  Since the Vietnamese saved the day in 1979 the city (and country for that matter) has been rebuilding and there are now around 2 million inhabitants.  The city used to be  described as the Pearl of Asia in the 1920s because of the attractive French architecture but since the French were kicked out it’s become a rather unattractive concrete jungle with the exception of the river-front which has retained the French charm.

Most people seem to travel to Phnom Penh with one thing on their agenda, to visit the killings fields and S-21 prison.   That and Angkor Wat seem to be the big draw cards for going to Cambodia which I guess is a bit of a shame because the former is quite a negative experience but one that’s hard to avoid once you’re there because of some strange intrigue that pulls everybody in….myself being no exception.

So after arriving in Phnom Penh and having a quick explore around the city I had an early night and was up the next day to rent a scooter to drive the 15km out to the killing fields of Choeng Ek.  But not before visiting a local market to get some breakfast down me.

A sea-food restaurant adjacent to the market was selling these little critters.  Some sort of turtle with a piggy-like snout but an internet search says the pig-nosed turtle can only be found in Oz and Guinea, so I don’t know what these animals actually are!

Asian fruits: from the left  durian, mangosteen and rambutan. Very common here, kind of like apples, pears and strawberries back home 🙂

Breakfast in SE Asia could easily be confused with lunch or dinner.  For this brekky in particular I tucked into a bowl of noodles with chopped up spring rolls, fried pork and various herbs and spices:

Around mid-morning I headed out to the killing fields and after paying the $3 entrance fee was given a set of head-phones and as you walk around a narrative explains the various sites.

The basic format for this place was that people suspected of being enemies of the state were first sent to the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh for processing and then shipped out to this place (which was out-of-the-way to avoid unwanted attention) and slaughtered.  As ammunition was expensive,  farming tools such as hammers, scythes and machetes were used, which led to brutal, gruesome deaths.

Around 17,000 people are believed to have been murdered and buried in mass graves here, some of which still haven’t been exhumed (so as to leave the bodies in peace).

It is quite a harrowing experience as you step over human bones and clothes that regularly re-surface  following heavy rains and are left on show.

You might want to skip these photos…..

One of the mass graves:

Clothes and bones are often washed up when rains come.  They are cleared up every month or so:

One of the more shocking parts of the museum is the killing tree.   Here Khmer Rouge henchmen would hold babies by their legs and smash their skulls on the tree.  The bodies would then be thrown in an adjacent pit with their mothers.

Watch your step.  A human jawbone lies exposed in the path:

A Buddhist Stupa filled with 5,000 human skulls:

Close-up:

Back in the city I completed quite a depressing day by visiting the S-21 prison museum.  This used to be a high school, but as schools were no longer needed under KR, it was converted into a prison to house and torture men, women and children the government didn’t like, prior to them being sent to their untimely deaths.  Again, another grim experience because now the ex-class-rooms-cum-prison-cells house thousands of pictures of those that passed through.

The rules of S-21.  Perhaps a bit lost in translation but you get the gist:

Guilty:

All guilty:

The next day was spent crusing around on my bad-ass scooter checking out some sights and trying to survice the crazy Phnom Penh trafic.  One thing you get told and you soon notice about Cambodia is it’s still recovering from the KR.  This means that corruption is rife, and the legal system is flimsy to say the least.  This results in traffic laws being flounted to the extreme.  90% of the traffic is on scooter and it appears that if you are on a scooter:

  • red lights mean: retain your current speed whilst crossing the junction without hitting anybody coming from your left/right;
  • one way streets mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding anybody coming at you;
  • pavements mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding other drivers and pedestrians.

Walking down the pavement can be hazardous:

To sum it up you get from A to B by the quickest means possible without hitting anybody else.  Simple really.

Now the police usually won’t stop you for any of the above unless you meet one specific criteria: you appear to be a foreigner, which could result in a bountiful bribe of $5-$10.  I was aware of this prior to commandeering my bike so was extra careful but on this particular day I had left my head-light on (definitely a bribable offence) which quickly dawned on me as two cops started flagging me down with their batons.  Slowing down my mind was racing, and I decided I didn’t want to pay the bribe so hit the gas knocking the policeman’s baton to the side and raced off into the sea of other scooters!  Slightly naughty but I knew they wouldn’t come after me as they would just wait for the next white face.

The next day or so I just spent my time chilling in the hostel pool and taking in some sights of Phnom Penh.

There is a hump in the middle of the city, atop sits an impressive temple Wat Phnom (literally Hill Temple):

Royal palace:

Garuda statue on the riverfront:

Hard morning tuk-tuking for this guy.  You might say he’s tukered out. 😀

On my last day I met up with the Filipinos I had met in Siem Reap and we checked out the national museum which housed hundreds of cool early Khmer statues and archaeological findings.

Monkey warrior.  There were loads of these involved in the mythological Khmer wars:

The national museum:

The remains of a huge thousand-year-old bronze reclining Siva:

Room full of Hindu/Buddhist statues:

Room full of Buddha statues:

No pictures allowed! Right of the picture I’m being approached by an armed guard.  “But I’m British!” I protest:

Later that evening we celebrated Shiela’s birthday again (she was having a birthday month apparently) by visiting a high-class Uruguayan owned Salsa restaurant. After a few glasses of Australian red I was showing the girls the moves I had picked up in Colombia ;).

After my few days in Phnom Penh and witnessing bag snatchings amongst other iffy things, I decided it was probably the dodgiest of places I’d been in SE Asia, and I was coming to realise that Cambodia was probably the least developed of all the places I had been on my trip so far. Definitely not a place for the faint hearted, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Cambodia: temples and massages

I caught the night train from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok, which like the train in Vietnam was thoroughly enjoyable.  The train consisted of normal sit-down seats which were converted to beds at about 11pm after they’d brought out a scrumptious Thai meal.  As I was to find out transport times are massively unreliable in Thailand and the train rolled into Bangkok two hours later than forecast but I wasn’t too concerned as it just meant a bit more time chilling on the air-conditioned train.

The panels above the passengers came down to convert into upper bunk beds and the seats below were collapsed into lower bunks:

As I planned to catch an early train to Cambodia I shacked up as near to the Bangkok train station as possible but unfortunately I could only find a fan room which meant a thoroughly uncomfortable sleep.  As there was no pool I was showering every hour or so just to cool down.

There is only one train to Cambodia a day leaving at 5.55am, and after my alarm went off at 5am I decided another day in Bangkok wouldn’t hurt so much; so I had a lie-in and then spent the day checking out some of the big malls.

That night it was the Manchester derby at 2am and so I didn’t really get much sleep beforehand as I was too excited, not to mention the 40 degree heat keeping me good and sweaty.  And after the disappointment of the loss I was too upset to sleep so didn’t really get any rest at all that night before I was boarding the train at 5.55am!

The train only had 3rd class carriages meaning no AC and bench type hard seats which was awfully uncomfortable and didn’t afford me much sleep.  On the plus side the 6 hour journey cost me just under a pound:

Arriving at the border I made my way into Cambodia, avoiding all the scams that include the immigration officials saying you need to pay an ‘administration fee’ of about £2 which goes straight in their pockets.  On the other side of the border I jumped into a shared taxi and within a couple of hours was in the temple capital of the world, Siem Reap.

Welcome to Cambodia.  The border has a miniature version of the national symbol, Angkor Wat:

Siem Reap is home to nearby world wonder Angkor Wat and the Angkor archaeological park which is home to hundreds of ancient temples dating back a thousand or so years.

After the heat in Bangkok I’d learnt my lesson so booked into a hostel with air-conditioning and a pool; the imaginatively named, Siem Reap Hostel.  After sampling some street food I discovered one of the best things about Siem Reap, $3 hour-long Khmer (meaning Cambodian) massages.  I was so taken by my first one that I walked down the street and got a second!

Seeing Angkor Wat is notoriously best seen at sunrise and after my tiring day of travelling I didn’t fancy that so spent my first-day-proper chilling around the pool and getting another massage 🙂

The next day I was up at 4.30am and negotiating with a tuk-tuk driver to take me around the ruins for the day.   I arrived at Angkor Wat with several hundred other tourists hoping for a spectacular sunrise, and after a short wait mother nature delivered.

Day pass to the archaeological park, cost $20 (or as I unhappily realised, 7 massages):

Crack of dawn with my tuk-tuk driver:

Arriving at the huge walkway over the moat/lake surrounding Angkor Wat:

Inside the walls of Angkor Wat:

Just before the sun showed its face at the main temple:

There he is!

With the help of my Lonely Planet I self-guided my way around the main temple and the bas-reliefs (wall carvings) which depict ancient Hindu/Buddhist stories (Cambodians adopted Indian religious ideas early on which were later taken over by Buddhism).  After working my way around the impressive temple I caught some monkeys clowning around.

The bas-reliefs surrounding the main temple depicting ancient stories of gods, kings and wars:

Nuns in white and monks in orange in the grounds of Angkor Wat:

Angkor Wat main temple:

An ancient library at Angkor Wat:

Monkeys having a scrap:

My next stop was Angkor Thom which is a huge walled ancient city that is believed to have once held a million people.  The centre-piece is the awesome Bayon temple with loads of smiling faces of the King who had the place made for him.

Angkor Thom, Bayon temple, with its 54 towers:

216 smiling faces adorn the 54 towers.  Supposedly a mix between Buddha and King Jayavarman VII by whom the temple was built:

More faces:

Some cool carvings:

A tourist takes in Bayon temple atop an elephant:

Just next door to Bayon in Angkor Thom is the grand Baphuon temple, built to represent Mount Meru. They wouldn’t let me in here because I was wearing a vest, spoil sports:

Sat on some ancient steps in Angkor Thom.  This was about 8am and it was sweltering hot, already high 30s:

And my last stop was Indiana-Jones-like jungle temple Ta Phrom which was my personal favourite.

Much of the temple is entwined in jungle to give the place a really cool atmosphere:

This was the location chosen for some scenes from the Tomb Raider film:

There was way more of the archaeological park I could have explored but by 10am I was so hot and dusty that I was what a lot of travellers called being templed-out so I returned to the sanctity of the air-con and pool!

The Angkor temples were really interesting and what fascinated me was the transition (which could be seen in the architecture) from Hinduism to Buddhism,  with the latter becoming prevalent in modern-day Cambodia.

After another couple of days of chilling by the pool and massages I caught the bus out of Siem Reap to Cambodia capital Phnom Penh but not before meeting five of the most splendid travel buddies ever, Filipinos: Shiela, Dingkay, Kuki, Jo-Ann and JR and celebrating Shiela’s birthday with 35 cent glasses of beer!

Cheap beer:

Celebrating Shiela’s birthday.  Anti-clockwise from the top: Seth, Jo-Ann, Dingkay, Shiela, Kuki, JR, Me:

Siem Reap town:

A local guy takes a bath in the river (bottom right):

Thailand: biking through the mountains to Pai

The  day after the bungy jump we escaped the heat of the city by visiting a local hotel which had a rooftop pool.  We spent the afternoon just soaking in the pool and enjoying the views, before inexplicably I felt the need for a sauna!

The rooftop pool in a swanky hotel in Chiang Mai:

The quintessential Asian pose, performed here sub-aqua:

The Vietnamese girls Trang and Jessie, enjoying the pool:

Sunset over Chiang Mai:

That evening we took in an awesome Thai hot pot.  This consists: a clay bowl that contains red-hot coals, and atop a bowl of steaming water which you proceed to place chunks of meat and vegetables into.  It soon turns into a tasty broth:

Sam had a flight to catch to Malaysia so we said cheerio to him but just as he left we met another yank from Washington DC called Daniel.

The next day Daniel, Eric and I hired motorbikes to make the 150km trip to a popular small town called Pai.  Despite the girls being Vietnamese and therefore being born with tiny scooters attached to them, they didn’t fancy driving because Thai’s drive on the left (ridiculous excuse, I know ;)), so Daniel and I offered our back seats to them.  Eric had rented a 650cc Kawasaki Ninja for the ride so we didn’t think it would be responsible for him to have a passenger.

The journey was epic.  Starting on wide open roads with big sweeping bends to steep-sided mountain sides where there seemed to be endless hairpin curves.  The scenery was awesome, weather perfect and there was hardly any traffic on the road.  I really got into riding that scooter on the trip, I just can’t believe it took me 28 years to get on a motorbike!

A roadside sign celebrates the hugely popular Thai king as we enter the mountains:

The camera does it no justice but we had some awesome views over the tree-covered mountains:

Dan and Trang coming up the mountain:

This might drag on so feel free to skip it!

That’s right, This Guy is buzzing because he’s just rode through the awesome Thai mountains at a million miles an hour (well, anyway, it felt like it):

Once we arrived into the small hippy town of Pai we were hot, dusty and sweaty and desperately in need of a swim. We found a rather plush hotel with a pool and decided to get a couple of rooms there despite it being one of the more expensive options.  The rest of the afternoon we soaked in the pool and later went out for some awesome Thai grub.

They sent me to test this random bridge we found whilst trying to look for hotels.  I gallantly/foolishly accepted:

View from our hotel over the river, and yonder mountains:

Going from 40 degree heat to 30-odd degree water is pure bliss and feels like you are engulfed in silky warmness whilst also being thoroughly refreshed:

The next day we retraced our tracks back to Chiang Mai where I would be spending my last night before catching the overnight sleeping train down to bonkers Bangkok.

Eric races off on his super-powered bike.  We didn’t see him again for several hours:

Thailand: up north in fun capital Chiang Mai.

I travelled back south from Laos tubing-town Vang Vieng to capital Vientiane where I needed to transfer to the international bus that would take me to the Thai city of Udon Thani where my onward coach would take me to Chiang Mai.   However, arriving in Vientiane around lunch-time I found the international bus was sold-out until 5.30pm which would be too late for me to catch onward travel to Chiang Mai.  The alternative option I was forced into taking was the international bus to the Thai side of the border, then a tuk-tuk to another bus station and a local bus to Udon Thani!   In 37 degree heat this was not that enjoyable, especially when I got on the non-air-conditioned local bus in Thailand and had to perch above a kind of bench over the boiling hot engine next to the driver.  Although after several minutes I realised I was the lucky one to have a seat as more and more passengers were crammed into the aisles until it appeared there was no more space as people were stood on the entry stairs but amazingly another 15 or so people were jammed in!

The upside of the journey was that I met 3 guys that would be good travelling buddies over the next week or so: Sam from England, and Trang and Jessie from Vietnam.  Sam was also making the trip to Chiang Mai whilst the girls were staying in Udon Thani for a while but would be travelling to Chiang Mai in a few days.

After what seemed like an eternity squished and roasting on the bus we got to the station in Udon Thani to find out that the night bus was sold-out.   A night in grotty Udon Thani was the last thing on Sam and I’s minds and after a bit of hanging around the ticket booth looking like lost puppies the lady gave us a lifeline (and an extra bit of cash for her and her co-workers!) by offering us the drivers sleeping cabin!  We checked it out and it seemed ok so we snapped up the tickets.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later when another Thai chap and a family were also stuck in there that we realised it might not be as cushty as we thought.

We travelled in the drivers cabin as the bus was sold-out:

Nevertheless we arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning having at least caught a few winks and found ourselves a cheap and cheerful hostel with air-con where we could catch up on some sleep.

The rest of the afternoon we headed out with new yank room-mate, Eric and explored the old town which is set out in a really simple grid-system and is surrounded by a very attractive wall and moat which dates back to the  13th century and was built to keep out the pesky Burmese.

Elephant monument and outer wall of the old town in Chiang Mai:

That evening we attended a Muay Thai event (Thai kick-boxing) which was good fun but pretty poor standard.  There was only one knock-out and that was in one of the earlier matches which appeared to be between two 14-year-old boys (102lbs category)!

Kick to the midriff:

The following day was mostly spent avoiding the near 40 degree heat by staying inside the mercifully air-conditioned room planning some trips for the following days.  But as it cooled slightly in the evening we were able to take-in the huge Sunday market which stretches almost 2km from one end of the old city to the other.

Chicken bottom!?  5B is about 10 pence:

Cute puppies for sale:

Furry United fan:

Capped the evening off with a £1.20 foot massage:

The next morning Eric, Sam and I headed out early and hired scooters so we could drive out of the city and up the windy mountain road for 15km to one of Northern Thailand’s most revered temples Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which many Thai’s make pilgrimages to.  At a height of 1,073m the temple also offers cooler mountain temperatures which was a real relief coming from the hot city.

After perusing the temple grounds and viewpoints we continued up the mountain to the top to check out the views and then raced back down to the city for our afternoon activity: bungy jumping!

Bike gang, from the left, Sam, Eric and me:

The temple centre-piece:

Outside the temple:

The view from the top of the mountain:

Just as we arrived back at the hostel for lunch I got a message from the two Vietnamese girls that they were at our hostel so they joined us as we headed out to the bungy jumping spot which also had loads of other activities like dirt bikes, buggies and zorbing.

When we arrived at the bungy place I saw the tower up at 50m and the main emotion I felt was probably excitement.  I wasn’t really scared as I knew the safety record of the place and that thousands before me had completed it so after a bit of administration we walked over to the lake over which the tower loomed and Eric stepped up for his jump.  After Eric it was me and I was amazed at how quick it all went.  They strap your legs up, you hop on a lift, you go up, walk to the edge, lean forward and BAM, you hit the water!  I probably expected the impact to be less violent than it was, and even though they told me to close my eyes it happened so quick that I forgot to and lost a contact lens!  The feeling coming down is like nothing I’ve ever felt and it most certainly kept me pumped with adrenaline for the next hour or so.

I Jumped off that:

I heard of a British guy slipping out of the strapping in another part of Thailand (he survived but was badly injured) so I made the guy triple check it was good and tight:

Hopping over to the crane:

Excited:

Pretty weird feeling at that stage as you’re looking over the edge:

Ready to jump:

Very unnatural feeling as you just fall forward:

Leap of faith:

Splash down:

Was pretty disoriented for a bit because of the lost contact lens, being soaking wet and upside down:

.

Certified bungy jumper:

After Sam had jumped the girls tried a spot of zorbing as the bungy was not something they fancied:

The excitement was all a bit too much for Eric:

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The route: