A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia: Phnom Penh I

A taste of the capital..

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We've been trying to fit as much travelling into our last 2 weeks here so it's been very busy. I'd initially wanted to squeeze in trips to Cambodia, Lao and Northern Thailand but we realised we just didn't have enough time and decided to leave Lao for another trip.

As time-pressed as we were we even treated ourselves to a flight instead of a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We headed out on the 16th of March, the day after Matt finished work. Our first day in Phnom Penh wasn't as productive as we'd planned: we took a nap, walked down to the Royal Palace only to find that it was closed, wandered around a little more and then had a few drinks and a bite to drink a lovely bar/restaurant called the Foreign Correspondents Club. As the name suggests, it's where journalists used to hang out in Phnom Penh (still do in fact). It has a very colonial feel to it, and has great views of both the river on one side and the beautiful National Museum on the other (being on the 3rd floor) and it was the perfect place to relax and reflect on the day.

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Although we'd planned to do more that day, it was actually a good idea just to wander around and get a feel for the city before doing some serious sightseeing the next day. Phnom Penh, and indeed Cambodia in general, has a very different vibe from Thailand. Although there is a lot of begging and drink/food/souvenir vendors who are very insistent/agressive, the people seem a lot less jaded than Thais. I guess Thailand has had its fair share of tourism and social-economic stability for a while now whereas both of these are relatively new in Cambodia. The people are warm and welcoming in a very genuine way, much more so than Thais (despite the infamous Thai smile). Phnom Penh also has a lot of funky little shops and places to eat and drink (a few of which support NGOs that work in the area) which makes the centre of the city to explore.

The next day we found ourselves a tuk-tuk driver to show us around. Other than being cheaper than getting individual rides to where we wanted to go, hiring a tuk-tuk for the day meant we benefitted from the local knowledge of our lovely driver, Sal. By the way, a Cambodian tuk-tuk is quite different from a Thai one: it is basically a little carriage pulled by a motorbike!

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We started with the Royal Palace. It is similar in style to Bangkok's Grand Palace but is much less glitzy and infinitely quieter.We wandered around the grounds and into the Silver Pagoda (thus named because of the silver tiles that cover the floor) and took in the beautiful architecture and grounds with only a handful of other tourists around.

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Afterwards, Sal suggested that it was a good time to go to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, both testament to atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge's reign. Visiting them was a truly harrowing experience, and Matt and I feel that an account of it deserves an entry of its own.

Later that day we also visited the Russian Market - not Russian at all but just where Russians shopped for souvenirs and local specialities in the 80s. To be honest, after some of the Thai markets of the same sort, this one wasn't that impressive and in any case after the Killing Fields we were in no mood for serious shopping.

We then went to the National Museum - a truly beautiful building that houses many statues, carvings and artefacts from the Angkor period - a good taster prior to heading off the Siem Reap the next day to explore Angkor itself!

Posted by meli1984 21:34 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Finishing up and Kanchanaburi

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So as you have heard, Melissa's contract is already up and she has been enjoying her free time (or getting restless with nothing to do!). I'm coming to the end of mine in two days, but I haven't had much to do for the past couple weeks.

Last Friday my boss and colleagues organised a very nice little send-off for myself and Mr. Terry (who was going back to Canada), complete with lots of food! Melissa was also invited which was nice. Ms. Montana (my boss) gave a very nice speech, and I got a really cool silver tie!

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Anyway, back onto our travels:
Last Saturday (10-03-07) we finally made it Kanchanaburi. We had been trying to organise a trip there for a while. We decided in the end we would make it a day trip, but that we could stay overnight if we really wanted to or needed more time. We got the 7:45 train from the western railstation, where foreigners pay 100 baht wherever they are going on the Kanchaburi line, Lonely planet's gonna have to mention that!

So, just like the last time, when we got the train to Ayutthaya, our train stood still for almost an hour, for no apparent reason at a station along the way. Still, travelling by rail is the most romantic way to travel, and the scenery along the tracks is often much nicer than along the roads, because the roads are lined with shops and other commercial buildings for most of the way, while the train tracks are flanked by farmland. On this trip we didn't see many rice fields, but I did see lots of corn stalks and banana trees.

Kanchanburi is the capital of the Kanchanaburi province. Our principle reason for going there was because it is the location of the Bridge on the River Kwai, as portrayed in the film (and book) of the same name. Which we watched the night before of course!

The film is about a battalion of British prisoners of war that are put to work on the construction of a railway bridge as part of the railway linking Bangkok to Burma. They were building this railway to link East-Asia to West-Asia, because the seas were too dangerous to navigate. During the war the Japanese used thousands of PoWs and also even more locals to build this and other railways throughout the area. The engineers in charge were cruel and worked only towards completion of their work with no regard for the workers although in their defense they were under immense pressure from their superiors. Many thousands died while working on the railway, be it from disease due to lack of medical supplies and malnutrition, or from physical abuse. The railway and its bridges had to be completed.. In total, the construction of the "Death Railway" claimed the lives of 16000 POWS and aout 90000 locals.

After arriving in Kanchanaburi and avoiding the usual taxi touts, we walked over to the very close (but un-sign-posted) Thailand-Burma Railway museum. There we read about the history of the railway and about the conditions the PoWs lived in. They were horrible and it was a little unsettling, especially with the many pictures of emaciated and dying soldiers and the war cemetery across the street.

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After this we walked down the street and we rented a motorbike (yes I can't get enough of them!). We drove down to the actual bridge over the river Kwai. For 50 eurocents we got a 15 min. train ride across and back over the bridge. It wasn't very impressive. It must have been a different sight back then. Most of the rainforest and difficult terrain has been cleared, and the backdrop isn't a lush humid forest, but a small tourist trap.

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Anyway, we then drove 40 km down Highway 323. Although, I don't quite know what that is supposed to signify, as there was the odd motorbike going down the wrong side of the road! (no it wasn't us)

At the end of the road was Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery, also known as the Tiger Temple. The story of the place is that hunters killed a tigress and a rich Bangkok couple bought its cub to have it stuffed. The stuffing was botched and even though the cub was injected with formalin, it survived! It then ended up at the monastery where it lived to 7 months before dying of heart palpitations. A few weeks later two male cubs (just a week old!), intercepted from poachers, were brought to the monastery. Then two more males were presented by local villagers. Finally border police contributed four female cubs, also intercepted. You can find the full story on the website. Just go to www.tigertemple.org .

What attracted us to the place is that you can walk around with the tigers and touch them! Supposedly they have just grown used to captivity and being around humans and are not drugged, however they seemed very groggy and unresponsive! When it was time for them to go back to their cages in the evening, they had to be pushed and pulled off the ground! They are nocturnal animals though, so maybe they just wanted to sleep! Other animals adapt to living during the day, so I don't see how the tigers would more easily adapt to captivity and change their instincts than change their sleeping habits! The pictures should speak for themselves. There were also a whole host of other animals, all with no sort of barriers or cages, just running around. At feeding time you had to dodge oxen, wild boar and deer. The tiny little boar piglets were very cuddly!

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Anyway, we are coming to the end of our time here. We have two trips planned before we leave. This Friday we leave for Cambodia, and the following week we will visit the Chiang-Mai in the north. More of that as it happens!

Posted by meli1984 22:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Koh Samui and the full moon party!

A weekend away from BKK :)

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I'm fighting against time to update this blog before we head off travelling next week (and maybe even this weekend) as I don't want to be hopelessly behind!!

Last weekend saw us pack a shared backpack and head off to tropical paradise.

We were heading for Koh Samui partly just to enjoy the sun, sea and cocktails and partly because a full moon party was scheduled for last Sunday. There are quite a few full moon parties (basically massive parties on the beach every full moon) in Thailand but we wanted to experience the original one on Koh Phangan (an island next to Koh Samui - Koh means island by the way).

Anyway, as we are saving for more adventures later this month we decided to get a cheap bus-boat combo. We spent a total of 4 days (3 nights) on Samui, and a total of 46 hours travelling!!!!! With retrospect we realised it was like us going home for a weekend (minus jetlag) but it was worth it!

We arrived tired and stiff after an overnight bus trip followed by a boat trip that took 5 hours instead of 2 and a half (due to a broken motor)! Koh Samui is very very beautiful especially if you find one of the less busy beaches (though busy here is relative, nothing like French or Spanish beaches). We found ourself a basic but adequate bungalow on the Southern part of Lamai beach. The beach was all white sand, palm trees and clear turquoise waters, just as you'd expect from a tropical island! We spent the rest of the day relaxing and making plans for the rest of the weekend. We also hired ourselves a harley davidson so that we could explore the island a little more independently. Ok, I lied, it was more of a scooter than harley but it did the job. After an evening ride on the bike to a neighbouring beach, as well as a lovely walk down a full-moon lit beach, we collapsed in our bed for some much needed sleep!

This may have confused you a little as I said we went to the full moon party. Well, many Buddhist festivals fall on full-moons and out of respect for them the full-moon party is sometimes a day early or late. Our full moon party was actually a full moon + 1.

We woke up the next day and wandered down to the beach for breakfast: banana pancake and mango juice for me, and rice porridge with chicken for Matt (it's a Thai thing!).

Plans for that day involved finding a waterfull during the day and then catching a speedboat to Koh Phangan for the party at night.
One of the advantages of having the bike was that we could explore on our own and get sidetracked when the fancy took us. While on our way to find the waterfall, we took an unexpected detour via the undecomposed remains of a monk - he died 35 years ago and apparently didn't decompose so his family stuck him in a large glass display case.. with sunglasses on!! On the way back we followed a series of signs to a butterfly farm; it ended up being a very serene enchanting little place with beautiful views.

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Back to the waterfull adventure: we eventually found a promising turn-off and headed down it.. a kilometre or so down the dirt track we came to a skidding halt as an elephant emerged from the surrounding forest. It was a pretty breathtaking experience to suddenly be so close to the gentle giant (even though it wasn't wild and was part of a jungle trek). We eventually got to the not-so-quiet waterfall: we had reached the easily accessed lower falls and there were quite a few tourists around. Undeterred, we got back on the bike to find the path to the upper falls, after a quick lunch break consisting of the world's best bbq'd chicken ever!!

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We eventually found the path and set out on the short trek up. At first it was pretty easy going but by the end we were sometimes scrambling on hands and knees!! Walking uphill along a waterfall/stream through a jungle in the heat was definitely worth the views.. And at the top we reached a lovely waterfall fed pool which we took a dip in to cool down!!

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That night we jumped on (or rather waded to) an overcrowded speedboat - the scum of all water travel as far as I'm concerned but at least it was fast. We arrived at Hat Rin (on Koh Phangan) as it was beginning to fill with party-goers from all across the island and neighbouring islands too. Hat Rin is a funky little beach town and in retrospect we'd have liked to stay there but by the time we decided to go the party it was too late to book a room (accommodation books up days in advance!). The full moon party was as mental as we'd expected: up to 10,000 revellers partying on the beach with music blaring out from the beachside bars, people getting their bodies painted with flourescent paint and fire jugglers wowing everyone just to mention some of the highlights! Oh, and I nearly forgot one of the defining elements: the "buckets." These are small buckets which cost almost nothing (from 180 baht, or 3 quid) in which are emptied a bottle of local rum, a can of coke and a small bottle of red bull. For slightly more you can buy a bucket with foreign spirits (usually smirnoff, sometimes JD or gin).

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The only trouble was getting back to Koh Samui: all the speed boat companies have boats scheduled for the same time and literally hundreds of people are crowded at a tiny harbour trying to get on them. Once you've located the right boat you have to push past everyone else trying to get on it or past it to the other boats! I think I personally elbowed at least 3 people and trampled on countless toes! But we made it on the boat and back safely.. and spent the next day taking it easy. The night we wrapped up our long-weekend with a delicious meal of barbequed fresh fish, including shark, which we got to pick out ourself from a selection of fresh local seafood. The restaurant was right on the beach (we were about 2m from the water!) and lit up by countless laterns and fairy lights. A low-key but magical affair which pretty much summed up our trip to Koh Samui!

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All that was left was another night in the bungalow and a mammoth trip home!!!

Posted by meli1984 20:06 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

February fun: markets, cooking and Laurent Garnier

sunny

Hello again everyone!

We've had a busy few days recently - a lot to write about and a lot of photos too :)

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself! Best to start at the beginning, or at least where we last left off. We haven't got up to anything too interesting since the Muay Thai night - just the usual BKK fun (eating out, cheap DVDs, chilling, markets etc). We did spend a hot but fascinating day at the mother of all markets: Chatuchak (or JJ to the locals). It's bigger than anything you can possibly imagine; you need a map to navigate around it and it is impossible to see it all in one day. Still, we attempted the impossible and wandered for hours in dark tiny alleyways and bigger brighter pedestrian roads around thousands and thousands of stalls. We saw everything from clothes (jeans, shoes, bags, funky one-offs, 2nd hand hippy stuff, mass produced fakes, jewellery, hats, sunglasses, you name it!) to furniture, from books to pets (fish, puppies, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, etc) and from food stalls to sticker stalls. In fact it was all so overwhelming that the only we bought weresome stickers to bribe our students with (for the record, they worked wonders!) No photos though as we forgot the camera!

Also, I took a day off from the brat pack (I loved them dearly, honest!) and went on a cooking course taught by the lovely (if slightly camp) Nusie from the Silom Thai Cooking School. I had a very laid-back morning which started with a trip to a food market to buy the ingredients and get a lesson in the differences between various kinds of ginger, limes and basil! Then Nusie, the two other people taking the class and myself headed down a Soi (small road/alley) to a house where we were to be drilled in the art of Thai cuisine. Well, not so much drilled as gently lead through the making of 5 delicious but simple dishes: Pad Thai (a typical Thai noodle dish), Tom Yam Goon (another typical Thai dish that goes under the name of Hot and Sour Shrimp soup I believe), Green curry paste and consequently Green Curry with Chicken, Laab Gai (a spicy North-Eastern Thai chicken salad - a favourite of Matt and I) and for dessert something called Rubies in Coconut milk. The dessert was the only thing I didn't paricularly like; it's made from dyed and parboiled turnip (covered in tapioca flour which goes see-through and slimy during the parboiling) and served in sweetened coconut milk!

We spent the morning washing, peeling, dicing, pounding, mixing and chatting while sitting on the floor in the prep room, and then going next door to the woks for cooking. Once each dish was ready we ate it and everything (bar the aforementioned dessert) was delicious! All in all I had a lovely relaxed time, ate freshly cooked amazing dishes which I can now make for myself and learnt all sorts of exciting things like how to make coconut milk or cream and tamarind paste, and the differences between the main kinds of Thai rice :)
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Anyway, that was the Monday of my last week at school. The rest of it was fairly relaxed as I just had to supervise and mark and few exams and say my good byes to my kiddiewinkles (which was very sad indeed!). I won't bore you with all the photos I took of them but here's a photo of the rather primitive cafe us foreign teachers usually ate at, as well as a photo of part of the foreign teacher gang on one of the days we escaped to a nearby Au Bon Pain for a more Western (and hygienic) lunch!
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I finished work on the Thursday, and by a collosal stroke of luck Laurent Garnier was to be DJing that night at Bed Supper Club which is where Bangkok's rich and trendy hang out. The club itself is like a giant pod decorated in all white with beds instead of seats and tables! LG played a typically eclectic but fantastic 3 hour set. It was an awesome night and a great way to celebrate my last day (as well as me and Matt a friend from work, Lou, was there too).
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Matt on the other hand had to get up to work on Friday, though school's out and he has very little to do so it didn't matter that he arrived late. Also, it meant he could take Monday and Tuesday off so we could head to a tropical island for the weekend! But that's a whole story in itself so I think I will leave that for a new entry!

Posted by meli1984 20:46 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Muay Thai

A trip to Lumpini Stadium

sunny

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This entry has taken weeks to finish again, sorry!

As far as school goes, February was filled with reviewing with the kids, writing, grading and supervising exams and writing reports.. In 2 weeks school finishes!

I'm done with work and Matt has only got a week left today. Then we'll be travelling for a couple of weeks before heading back to Europe (via Sri Lanka for one night) at the very end of the month! We'll be back ifor the whole of April and we'll try to see as many of you as we can! Then it seems we're off to continue our TEFL adventure in Japan for 3 months :)

Anyway, this entry is meant to be about Muay Thai (Thai boxing) so I'd better get to the point! On the 13th of February Matt and I headed off to Lumpini stadium for some Muay Thai action. Watching, not doing. And stadium is perhaps a bit of a generous name as it's not that big and a wee bit dingy. But that just adds to the atmosphere: along with the Thais betting left right and centre!

I'll hand over to Matt for more details as I've been doing a lot of the writing!

So, our taxi finally makes it to the stadium, which I hardly noticed from the street. As soon as we got out of the taxi touts try to sell us cheap tickets for good seats, and are showing us various pictures. Taking advice from our Lonely Planet we ignored them and went straight to the ticket booth for Farang (white foreigners). It was way more expensive than the LP said but our romantic pre-valentine's day outing was not going to be spoilt! So, our tickets in hand we are ushered to our seats (next to the other farang), while walking past a number of policemen, and our luxurious wooden benches hovering over a bottomless pit of rubbish (definitely) and rats (probably). The second fight of seven was already under way.

Our first impression was that the two competitors looked about 13. They weighed about 100 pounds I believe (which is near 50 kg) according to the program, which almost confirmed our thoughts. They were having great fun though, wacking away at each other. As the bouts continued the weight generally increased, and up to the main event, so did the skill. They still looked like teenagers though. The second thing that was imprinted upon us, was the crazy betting going on in the 3rd class standing seats. It was packed with thais all waving their hands. Melissa in her wisdom told me that the ones at the front were taking bets, with their hand and arm movements signifying odds and such. I had heard before about the amazing ability of those taking bets to remember what odds they gave and how much was bet. It is slightly strange though, I thought gambling was illegal in Thailand? In my school, even playing cards are banned! The large police presence at the entrance might suggest some official interest, but I wouldn't want to anymore than that.

Anyway, before the main event, we got a little information on muay thai and the stadium. The minimum requirements for contestants to our surprise was a minimum age of 16 and completion of junior high. We were also assured they were all physically checked out before the fights. After that we got a demonstration of old or traditional muay thai. If you've seen Kickboxer (with Van Damme), you would have recognised the hand raps :) Anyway, we got a demonstration of a number of techniques in a mock-fight. It was pretty good, they weren't pulling the hits very much and it flowed nicely. A lot of it reminded me of stuff you see in Ongbak (a Thai film about a young man sent to Bangkok to reclaim their stolen sacred buddha, who happens to be a muay thai expert (old style)), with spinning elbows, jumping knees and one or two nice throws.

The main event was obviously a bit more professional with more hits, and visible red marks, but the fights were clean and the referees took care of the fighters and the contestants seemed to enjoy themselves too. As did the croud and so did we!

Check out the photos (they are only thumbnails so you'll have to click on them to get a good view - they aren't photoshopped yet so are pretty dark!) The first one is of the ceremony they do before the fight...
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... or better still check out the video!

More soon..

Posted by meli1984 04:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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