Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cycling around Battambang...and a new visa to add on our passport!

Today we rented some bicycles with Jack and Theo whom we’ve met at our guest house in Siem Reap. We happened to take the same bus to Battambang so we decided to stick together in this super hot and hectic town.

A tuktuk driver offered us a full tour for $2 but let’s face it, it’s much more fun to cycle when it’s 40 degrees and humid than being driven along.

Especially when you get overtaken by stuff like this!

We cycled about 35km in the countryside around Battambang. We started along the river until a dirt road and realised we may not going towards Aek Phnom Temple as thought We asked a local who pointed us the direction where we came from, on the other side of the bridge. Half an hour and a sugar cane bottle later we reached the giant Buddha next to the temple. After seeing temples like Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm we become a bit more picky when it comes to appreciating a temple, so we decided not to stop at the wat and carry on on a dirt road full of pot holes. 

The other reason why we didn’t stop is that it’s just too hot when you stop and loose that tiny breeze you get when you are on the move.

The Cambodian countryside is really pretty with its shades of green, rice fields and muddy area. It is however scary to think that about 6 million mines are still somewhere around here! We’re drifting now so we’ll tell you more about this later. 

Once back in Battambang we found by pure luck (we got lost) the Vietnamese embassy and got our visas sorted for next week…in 20 minutes! That means we won’t have to stay too long in Phnom Penh! Yeaaaah! 

It all happened very quickly. As soon we got our visas we bought our bus tickets from Battambang to PP for tomorrow morning. The plan is to stay one afternoon in PP -it’s a big city and you know us by now- and the next day we’ll travel to Kampot and stay on the coast for a few days. 

We should enter Vietnam on the 5th of June.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Honour Village Cambodia

3 days ago Prhom, the chilled out owner of the guest house we stay at in Siem Reap told us about this English lady who set up an orphanage out of town. We felt like going there to find out a bit more and see if we could do something useful.
After randomly meeting Hailey a South African volunteer at the orphanage who also stays at the guest house we decided to cycle to Honour Village on Saturday. We ended up going back on Sunday too.

The village was built for kids from poor background but also children whom parents have remarried and do not accept them in the new family. 

We were not really sure about what to do or how to act once we got there. We were drenched in sweat after a gruelling 45mins of cycling in a very hot (about 35degrees) and humid weather but the kids didn't seem to care and came towards us to introduce themselves. They are a really well behaved smiling and  kids and it was great to get the chance to share some time and plays with them.

It is difficult to believe how much these kids have gone through, how little they have and how happy they seemed to be. Since their first day at the village, they've been told they were all brothers and sisters and they should care for each other. They also learn English which could give them a nicer job when they grow up as Cambodia's doors are now opened to welcome more foreign visitors every year to discover this amazing country.

In the meantime if you are looking to donate to a good cause donate for http://honourvillagecambodia.org/index.html

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Check out the local delicacies

Pig heads

Catfish (worth $10 a kilo)

dried frogs

fried termites

noodle soup and herbal iced tea

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Temples (or “Wats”)

There are about 1000 Wats near Siem Reap, ranging from non descript piles of brick rubbles to Angkor Wat, the world's largest single religious monument.
We won’t see them all. Fact.

We bought a 3-day pass to allow us to see a tiny portion of the temples.

On the first day we visited Angkor Wat - It really was on our way- as well as Angkor Phom and  Ta Prohm.
Angkor Wat is impressive by its size. We visited it early and it was a cloudy so we were not waowed by it but Thomas came back later in the day and thought it was beautiful. The colours really make a huge difference.

Bayon is the main temple within Angkor Phom. It is super steep to climb -literally- up the stairs and we enjoyed the Buddha faces built within the walls.
Ta Prohm was our favourite. Not only because it is were Lara Croft kicked ass in “Tomb Raider” but also because unlike most Angkorian temples Ta Prohm has been left in much the same conditions in which it was found. Trees and roots are coming out of doors and roofs. 

The best feeling of all is that it is low season here and it’s so hot very little tourists are around. We’ve visited temples alone! We were not expecting it and we loved it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Arrival in Siem Reap

We flew in a very nice little Foker 70 from Luang Prabang “international” airport in Lao to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Our flight was at 10.40am. We took off at 10.10am.

There were about 15 people in this plane and we had never been in and out of the plane, through customs and with a brand new visa so quickly.

We were taken from the airport to a guest house area in Siem Reap, not too far away from the river, about 7km south of Angkor Wat.

After a quick search, we found what would be our home for a few days: “Golden Takeo”, $8 a night with breakfast included and free use of bicycles. That’s a sign. We’ll probably visit the temples with bicycles as previously thought.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kayaking to Luang Prabang

We stopped in at the Green Discovery office in Nong Khiew just to see what there was to do in the area and before we knew it, we had booked a 3-day kayaking tour to Luang Prabang with a lovely English couple on their honeymoon.  But before starting the long journey, we decided to do a short overnight trip to the small village of Muang Ngoi which is only accessible by boat.  We were very happy to see the riverfront guest houses and restaurants after for an hour and a half in a crammed long boat with wooden seats. 

After a short walk to see some caves where the locals hid from the American bombings during the war, we spent the rest of the hot afternoon in a bar sipping pina coladas with Helen and Rijan and another couple from New Zealand Craig and Karen.  Near the end of our Indian dinner, we could tell that the staff were waiting to go home so we said our goodbyes around 9:30.  In Lao, things close down early.  That's because people are up working by 5:30am!

The next day, we took the boat back to Nong Khiaw.  This time we had a bit more room and it only took an hour with the current going in our direction.  After a bit of prep time, we were on the river again this time in 2 person plastic kayaks and our 21 year old guide Tha.  Tha was alone in a 2 person kayak with all our camping gear and food and was able to keep up with us.  It soon started pouring.  Thankfully, we had a bit of shelter during our lunch break and soon after it stopped raining. 

We found a place to camp on the bank of the river.  There were only 2 tents so Tha made a shelter using the paddles, an umbrella, our life jackets and some bin bag liners.  After dinner, the boys went fishing along the bank with a net and caught a plastic bag full of little fish.  About an hour after we went to sleep, it started raining.  We offered to share our tent with Tha, but he said he was okay.  Once it stopped raining, the mosquitoes came out in swarms.  Once again we offered for Tha to join us and he said, "maybe later."  Instead he built a fire and slept next to it.  The next morning he was covered in bites, but he never once complained.

With a good current and some muscle power, we ended up at our stopping point for Day 2 by 10:30am. We decided to carry on.  The rapids were not very big, but both couples managed to capsize a couple times each.  We continued to be impressed by our waterproof rucksacks.  They have kept our belongings dry through torrential rains as well as dips in rivers.

The children in Lao are so friendly.  Throughout our journey, we would hear kids shouting out "Sabai dee!!!!" and running to the bank to wave at us.  They wouldn't just say it once or twice, but would continue to say it for a minute straight.

By 3pm we were all tired, but we needed to find a place to stay for the night.  We stopped at a village and Tha spoke to the "Voice," the second in charge.  He agreed to let us stay in his house.  After a long day, you really appreciate the little things like being able to take a bath, a tiled toilet area, a bed and a mosquito net.  Tha cooked us a delicious buffalo soup and we enjoyed it while watching a very dramatic Thai soap opera on tv.   As we were making our way back from the market, Helen grabbed me and turned me around as a big truck drove by.  It drove through a big puddle and a huge wave of muddy water came up over our heads.  Sweaty, sunburnt and tired, we just had to laugh.

After a few more hours of paddling, we piled into the back of a pickup truck and driven an hour to Luang Prabang.  This was by far the scariest part of our journey.  We all tried not to look as we sped along narrow roads overtaking and being overtaken by motorbikes and trucks.  Thankfully, we made it to LP safe and sound ready for a shower and a cold beer.

We could have done the same journey in 6 hours by slowboat, but the trip gave us a chance to really appreciate the beautiful landscape made up of karsts and interact with the locals.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"THE best tour"

We were dropped off in the village of Chaluansouk and parted ways with Sang, the second guide, who would meet us with our inflatable kayaks at Ban Nalan Tai village, our home for the night.  The village is not accessible by car.  We walked for a couple hours before reaching the “restaurant” a hut in the middle of two villages.  Our guide Pet and a local “support staff” Som presented us with a feast of sticky rice, pumpkin, aubergine and pickles all displayed on giant banana leaves.  They made us chopsticks out of bamboo and we all sat down and enjoyed a fantastic meal.  In Lao, people make small balls of rice and dip them in the other dishes.  Pet said that 30-35 balls make up a meal.  We tried to keep track of how many balls we ate during each meal, but always lost track.

After lunch it started raining and didn’t stop until we reached our destination 2 hours later.  It absolutely poured.  Yumi managed to slip on her butt again leaving another mud stain on her shorts.  We stopped at an abandoned village to hear Pet explain the government’s plans of bringing running water and schools to the area by combining villages when suddenly….ouch!  Yumi feels something stinging her leg.  It’s not a mosquito.  It looks like a piece of straw, but it hurts.  It’s a leech!  Thomas tried to flick it off, but it was sucking on tight.  Pet yanked it off.  In its place was a bit of blood.  As Yumi explained what it felt like the others soon experienced it for themselves.  Sille wasn’t sure if she was imagining a stinging between her legs.  She dropped her shorts and sure enough there was one stuck to her inner thigh.  There is no better way to bond with a stranger than trying to remove a leech from her crotch using a tobacco leaf.  Thomas also found one getting way too close to 3rd base and removed the sucker.

As soon as we arrived in the village some kids started to look at us and followed us to our hut for the night. Yumi was thinking about something to do to interact with the kids. Suddently hop scotch came up and she started drawing the game on the floor while the kids were wondering what the heck she was doing.  A few minutes later they started to understand how it worked, so they started playing. Thomas drew a bigger hopscotch to challenge the older kids and the game took like a forest fire.  The little ones were hilarious to watch.  They were very technical about the game and were quick to call any line touches. 

Thomas thought he’d have a bit of time to practice Tetsudo and went to a quiet spot near the river. Before he knew it 3 kids who were not older than 5 years old started to imitate him and use bamboo sticks. After teaching them basic stick work for about 3 minutes, it came to his mind that maybe it wasn’t the safest thing to do.  So he starated showing them blocks and 5 other kids showed up. There was no longer enough room so they all moved to the main place of the village. 

All the kids lined up and copied Thomas. They practiced until it was so dark they couldn’t see each other (and were ready by 7am the following day!)

After dinner, it was time to go frog hunting in the rice fields.  Armed with torches, a few of the older boys absolutely amazed us with their frog catching skills.  Before we could even spot one, they would have caught it, broken its legs and put it in our small woven basket.  Within half an hour, the basket was full.  The boys led us back to our "hotel" and left us with the basket of frogs.  Thomas, Sille and Catherine felt bad for the frogs and let them go...What were we going to tell the boys in the morning?! 

It was a great experience and Thomas really enjoyed teaching bits and pieces of what he’s learned in London over the past 2 years with at Tetsudo club.  The kids have very little in terms of material things, but they were all so friendly and happy.  Their constant laughter was priceless.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Huay Xai to Luang Namtha

Good Morning Lao!

After getting our visas - $30 and $35 USD, guess who paid more? - at Huay Xai we looked for transportation to Luang Namtha, a small ish town 1h South of the Chinese border. The road was not bad at all as it was built by the Chinese to export to Thailand. The rest of the Lao roads are still dirt roads with huge pot holes, especially in the mountains.

Luang Namtha is split in 2 parts: the old town on the South side and the new town some 10km North. We had to take a taxi to the new town where we’d look for a guesthouse. It was easily done and we went for a walk in the scorching heat to look for stuff to do. And eat.

We ended up at the Green Discovery office which offers tours and inside we met Katherine and Sille from Denmark who were also looking for a trek to do. After chatting for a couple of minutes we decided to go for a 2 day tour, 1 day trek to a remote village where we’d spend the night and 1 day kayaking to go back to civilisation.  It turned out to be THE best tour…

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Choo choo to Chiang Mai

The 14 hour train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was nice--air conditioning, a porter made up our beds, curtains to sleep in privacy and big windows.  Unfortunately, we didn't sleep very well.  Yumi was awakened several times throughout the night by a loud British boy who was high on coke and kept coming in and out of the carriage.

Chiang Mai is a big city, but much smaller than Bangkok and immediately we felt more relaxed.  Because we have to wait for our visas, we have had time to explore it and get to know it a bit better.

One evening, Yumi went to a temple to take part in a monk chat and meditation session.  80% of Thais are Buddhist and temples and monks are like our equivalent of Starbucks.  You see many young monks.  Usually these are boys from poorer families who cannot afford to send their sons to school.  Monks have to keep their hair short and cannot wear jewelry or watches.  I asked how they know what time it is and one of the monks pulled out his mobile!  They are allowed to watch television and use the computer.  Informed monks.  The meditation session was good, but difficult.  We lasted about 20 minutes, 10 minutes standing and 10 minutes sitting with a break in the middle.  People's legs fell asleep and our backs were sore.  As the monk said, we need to practice more.

Food is very cheap here.  1 British pound will feed both of us.  We eat at local stalls so it is mostly a noodle soup diet, but we love it!  Our favourite treat is a fruit shake.  Pineapple, mango, papaya, banana...all local fruits...blended in front of your eyes and so delicious.  Guess which fruit is super expensive here?  Apples!  They have to import them from China.  No worries for us because there are so many wonderful exotic fruits to try here that we don't miss them.

A funny difference in toiletries...in the UK we buy tinted moisturizers.  Here all the moisturizers include a whitening agent.  We always want what we don't have.


Scooting through Pai

We decided to take a short trip to the small town of Pai and it was definitely worth it.  Yes, it is touristy with its 200 guest houses, bars, burgers on the menu and tourists everywhere, but there is a reason so many people go there.  It is so relaxing and easy.  We booked a bungalow just outside the "city" and went for a short dip in the pool.  It was a scorching day.  We were alone and surrounded by beautiful countryside so it's no wonder we stayed in there for over an hour.

Then we rented a scooter and checked out a waterfall and a Chinese village.  We stopped to watch a group of men play Sepak Takhraw, a Thai sport.  It is similar to volleyball, but the net is lower, the ball is smaller and made out of woven wood and instead of playing with their hands and arms, they play with their feet and heads!  From our novice point of view, they were really good!

In the evening, we treated ourselves to a Thai massage.  This sounds like a relaxing way to end the day, but for those of you not familiar with Thai massages, they hurt.  Thomas laughs when he is in pain and he was laughing the whole time.  They push, pull, twist and pretty beat you up, but you feel good afterwards.

The next morning we got up early to continue our scooter tour.  We climbed a few hundred stairs to reach a temple on the hill.  As we reached the top, we saw a road that led all the way to the top.  Oh well, we can use the exercise.  Then we went for a hike in our flip flops in Pai Canyon.  It was definitely time for a fruit shake.  After a quick break, we tried to make it to another waterfall.  Unfortunately, this one required riding on a muddy path.  We somehow managed to stay on the scooter, but after a couple of close calls, we decided to turn back.  After a few more loops around the town, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai to pick up our Chinese visas.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jungle trek in the Mae Tang region, Thailand

While in Bangkok we looked for a place to stay in Chiang Mai and Parami guest house was the chosen one. It is on the East side of town about 20 minutes walk away. Dang who works there was really helpful and showed us the many treks available. We were interested in a 3 days trek involving long walks in the Thai jungle as well as an elephant ride, white river and bamboo rafting.
We stopped at a couple of guest houses to pick up BelI, Sam, Sarah and Amy. Beli and Sam would only stay with us the first night while Sarah and Amy were doing the same trek as us.

The first stop of our journey was at the orchid farm. It was shown how jewellery was made out of real orchids, hand picked by the workers. We believed we stopped there so we could buy some but that didn’t happen.

The next stop was the snake farm. There only were a few cages full of lethal and not so lethal snakes such as python, cobras and the “others” which are not so popular as they can’t kill an elephant…

During the show we witnessed one of the snakes charmers “playing” with cobras. From the untrained eye it really looked like he was pissing them off and putting his life in jeopardy.

Yumi and Thomas volunteered to get a huuuuuge python around their neck, with a snake charmer  holding its tail and the other one holding its head. “These snakes are really heavy!”  said Yumi while Thomas didn’t really like the snake charmer making the python sniff his family jewels. The python did not comment but it is pretty sure he didn’t like getting that close to Thomas’s nuts either.

We also stopped at the Long Neck Karen village. it all looked nice with little waterfalls, many stalls and a few huts but it seemed that it was all fake and made for tourists. The Long Necks were real though. Eeek.  Find below which one of these two Asians is NOT a long neck.
Hint: she is not wearing a black shirt

We finally stopped at a local market to buy the kind of things we’d need for the next 3 days: water, ponchos and toilet paper. At about 1pm we stopped for food and headed towards the mountains and the village where we’d spend the night. Amy and Sarah impressed us by walking around with their flip-flops and Ikea bags while the 4 of us had trekking shoes and proper backpacks. Nobody told them the walks would be tough and slippery. Not nice.

We saw a couple of elephants 20 minutes into our journey and our guide kept on feeding us with jungle leaves and fruits. Wat deemed them safe to eat. None of us suffered stomach aches so he was spot on. The village we stopped at is on top of the mountain with stunning views over the rainforest. The rain finally ceased as we arrived at the village. Just in time to start a little fire and have a beer. Yes that’s right. There is no electricity or running water here, but beers are available!

Wat was a cook for a guest house before being a guide so he cooked some yellow curry with chicken as a main dish and collected termites which he fried and salted for desert. Crunchy. It tastes like popcorn.

The girls were already sleeping for a while -it was 10pm- when Yumi decided to go to bed, leaving Thomas, Wat and a bottle of moonshine by themselves. The bottle of moonshine did not make it through the night.

We said goodbye to Sam and Beli on day 2 to carry on to our next camp, 6h away. It was so warm we sweated a few liters of water, luckily we dipped in a couple of  streams and near a waterfall to cool us down. Our hut for the second night was next to the river we’d kayak and it was really loud but no matter how noisy it can be, when you are knackered you sleep anywhere anytime.

Day 3 was a bit of a Thai triathlon: Elephant ride, White river and Bamboo rafting. The elephant ride was not great as it really looked like the elephant did not want to do anything and we felt bad about it. Thomas tried to feed bananas to the elephant but he didn’t want any. So Thomas ate them all.

The white river rafting was relaxing and we flowed down the river effortlessly. Thomas had a bit of time for a couple of dips. After about an hour, we docked on some kind of bamboo pier but it was our bamboo raft! The guide -who kept on singing “la vida loca” from Ricky Martin- manoeuvred us to a hut where we ate, played cards and waited for our ride back to Chiang Mai.

It was a great adventure and 3 days felt like 10 and as usual it was a shock to go back to a big city after getting into the Thai jungle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chinese embassy adventures

We had already gone to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok and seeing how busy and manic it was over there we decided to try our luck in Chiang Mai. A quick tuk-tuk ride took us from our guesthouse to the embassy. At 9am on Monday only a few people were around filling up the form to obtain the very valuable Chinese visa. It was nothing compared to the rushed and stressful office we saw in Bangkok so we were happy with our decision to do it here.

For once Yumi’s form was straightforward to fill and handed over to the officials. “Come and pick your passport up on Monday” she was told. It is probably because her visa is 4 times more expensive than Thomas’s we thought. 

For Thomas it did not go as well. “Oh you’re French” they said. “You need to write a letter to explain why you want to go to China”. “We also need your hostel and flights bookings, bank statement”. Had Thomas been employed he would have needed a letter from his employer confirming his job situation on top of that. A colon inspection was the only missing on the list. Thank Buddha for that.

Luckily Thomas likes to spend time on his computer and in the afternoon all of the above was done. It took more time to find a place where he could print these documents than booking the hostels and writing the letter, but a friendly local drove Thomas to the internet place. 

By 9.20am this morning (yes, the embassy is only opened from 9 to 11.30am, Monday to Friday.) Thomas had given all the documents and we are now expecting our shiny Chinese visas on Tuesday 10th. 

Hopefully Buddha is on our side…

In the meantime we’ll go for a night safari. 
We’ll go trekking too.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

Muay thai boxing

Muay Thai is the most popular sport in Thailand and I just couldn’t miss that. I managed to get a ticket to see 8 fights from 9pm to 11.30pm but I was not prepared to see what I was about to witness.

First of all, I was welcomed by 2 very cute ladies wearing very short skirts. So far so good. They had nice legs, huge boobies and something I was not expecting. An Adam’s apple. At school I was not so good at biology but this didn’t seem right. 

Then it was time to follow the ladyboys in that narrow alley filled with pink neon lights. That gives you an idea of the atmosphere. I entered the “stadium” -not just any stadium: the #1 stadium in Chiang Mai- and saw the shemale bar on the left, tables next to the ring and another couple of bars on the right hand side. Apart from the made in Thailand ladyboys and fighters everybody else was Caucasian. This is not the picture I had from Thai boxing. 

Where the heck was I? (This is a question that comes quite often here in Thailand) 

I was expecting a mean crowd of locals going crazy for the fighter they had put their wages on.
A bit like in the film “Kickboxer”. or was it “Hot Shots Part 2”? Anyways, it wasn’t either.

I joined the table were many beers had already perished. 4 English guys were seating there. That was not a surprise.

The English guys were as surprised as I was when we saw a 13 ish boy entering the ring. Never judge a book by its cover. 

Neither him or his opponent were here to exchange little kicks and weak punches. A couple of minutes later one of them was on the floor knocked out cold while the other one raised his fist. “Me Win” he seemed to say.

In between fights the crowd was delighted to admire the ladyboys dancing. 

Bare chest too. Eeek.  

Note: the "parenting fail" in the foreground :)

The next fights involved older local fighters until a white guy showed up. “Tony English” had been learning muay thai for the past 6 weeks and was boxing prior to that. In front of him was a shorter local guy, ready to do anything to put the white guy to shame, on front of the other Caucasians. 

I gave little chances to Tony but a fight it was not. As soon as the bell rang Tony started giving punches and kicks away like flyers outside a tube station and the Thai fighter was on the floor in less than 6 seconds! I didn’t even get the chance to set my camera on “video mode” that the fight was over.

I wanted to be amazed, surprised and witness something I had never seen before. I was served.

Next time I’d like to go to a real stadium but that was a surprising and interesting experience. 

I hope you enjoyed the pictures.

PS: how many of you zoomed in on the third picture?