● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Monday, 26 January 2009

Struck Down

25th January

The first night of sweating in Ady’s sleep was blamed on the air-con not working properly. After night two and a continual 48 hour headache, combined with the fact we’d stopped taking our malaria tablets 5 days ago, we feared the worst. A simple trip to the clinic turned into an all day affair at the hospital. Several tests later, Malaria was ruled out but Dengue Fever was suspected. Time to call the travel insurance as an admission into hospital was required.

Every cloud has a silver lining – at least Ady was admitted to the Bumrungrad, supposedly one of the world’s ten best hospitals. The place has to be seen to be believed. With more design features than a Phillipe Starke boutique hotel it was all we could do to refrain from taking some photos. Oh, the view from Ady’s private room is hard to beat and the city skyline at sunset is just stunning!

Hopefully this won’t delay our trip too much (we don’t want to lose our newly acquired suntans!), though we may have to skip an island or two in the south. At least now we’ll have time to update our blog and Sam can do lots of shopping!

Sunday, 25 January 2009


22nd – 25th January – 29th January – 1st February

Alison (our friend from home) has a school friend, Rhiannon, who is currently working in Bangkok. She has an apartment right in the centre of the city, a world away from the usual traveller haunt of Khao San Road. We were looking forward to seeing a real piece of Bangkok, and avoiding the Khao San altogether. This wasn’t to be however as the bus from Ko Chang dropped us in the heart of Khao San – after all, what person who just came from Ko Chang would want to go anywhere else!

After trekking across Bangkok, we made it to the apartment and met Rhiannon. The place was amazing – our home for the next 3 nights was one of the nicest places that we have stayed so far on our trip.

See the next post for details on what happened next!

10 days later, and Rhiannon still had house guests. Sam had made herself at home in the plush apartment, hit the shops with the credit card, and provided housewife services to Rhiannon. When Ady returned to the flat from his little 5 star holiday, the girls had to get used to having a man about the house again!

After Ady recovered we spent the Saturday out and about with Rhiannon. It was a day of firsts where we took Rhiannon for her first ride on a local bus! We also took a trip up the Klong (canal) on a commuter boat, another first and will give Rhiannon a new way to get to work! To end the evening we had drinks (Ady’s non alcoholic!) at the Vertigo bar, perched 61 stories above Bangkok city skyline. The view was amazing as you can see in the photos!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Ko Chang

15th January – 22nd January

The effort in getting to Ko Chang was well worth it. After an incredibly crazy ride across the mountainous island (our Songthalew was carrying a record 14 people – good going even by Thai standards- including 10 lively French exchange students!) we arrived at Lonely Beach. As is the case with most Thai islands, Ko Chang has been well and truly “discovered”, and although Lonely Beach maintained true to its backpacker origins (versus the other resorts that were being developed as four and five star resorts) it was anything but “lonely”! Still, the beach was beautiful and we spent a whole week lazing around on the white sands and swimming in the crystal waters.

Each night, a party was t
o be found somewhere on the beach, so we had a few fun nights out involving buckets of Sangsom and fire limbo-ing (under poles saturated with petrol and set alight!). Our fears on how the Thai beaches were going to be saturated with really pissed college kids were allayed and we met loads of like-minded travellers who were enjoying the chilled vibe of the beach. The theme of the whole week infact seemed to run in the vein of the seven person rule (that everyone in the world knows someone that knows someone, within 7 links) – we met Zoe and Alyson first. Zoe worked with Emma Thornton (of Sweaty Betty) whilst at Jigsaw, and Alyson’s father was from Whitehaven! Later we met Ed who grew up with friends Tessa and Josh Williamson! Then Dave and Gill, Gill was from Carlisle!

It was hard to wrench ourselves away from the island, and we’d become quite se
ttled in our (near) luxury bungalow with 7 foot bed and outdoor bathroom (the Lonely Beach resort, not really a ‘resort’ as such, just 8 bungalows in a row, recommended if ever you go), but we needed to get back to Bangkok to arrange an Indian Visa. Sam was also itching to go shopping and after all, we’d be back on the beaches after a few days…?!

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Crossing to Thailand

15th January

$12 from Phnom Penh to the Thailand Border. $25 from Phnom Penh to Ko Chang. That’s an extra $13, or around 455 baht to get from the border to the island – a huge amount for the distance involved. We, along with several other people had only bought bus tickets to the border, and intended to travel onwards by our own steam.

None of us had considered the Songthaew mafia of Had Lek. All the guide books, and even the local people, tell you that you can get a minibus from the border to the next town, Trat, for 120 baht. We met some people who had already been waiting 2 hours for this minibus, and they told us how there seemed to be one guy in charge of transport, and he wouldn’t let any of them take the minibus to Trat, claiming that they had to have a ticket for the whole journey already. Instead, we were offered a Songthaew for a total price of 1200 baht. Fine we said, there are 10 people so we’ll take it. He then said there was a maximum of 7 people per Songthaew…. What a joke! You can fit twice as many people in the back as we know all too well.

We were all at this guys mercy as we needed to get out of the border town and he was being wouldn’t shift on price or number of people. A stand off ensued, eventually we got the price down to 1000 baht, but he wanted the money up front – another first for Thailand.

At Trat, we took another Songthaew to the pier, via the drivers friends ticket office where they tried to sell us overpriced ferry tickets. We insisted on going straight to the pier. Eventually on the boat, but having paid the inflated price of 160 baht return (30 baht each way for locals!!!) we could finally see Ko Chang in our sights!

Top Traveller Tip #15 – If you are crossing the border at Had Lek, pay for a straight through ticket from Phnom Penh to wherever you are going. We may have saved a couple of baht in the end, but we wasted hours waiting around, and had their not been the handful of other people in the same situation as us, we’d have paid a lot more than the through ticket cost.

Thailand Visa in Phnom Penh

12th – 15th January

Due to the recent change in Thai land border visa policy, we found ourselves in P.P. once again with the mission of acquiring a proper tourist visa for Thailand. This was no mean feat and required 3 nights stay. We had to submit by 11am one morning and collect the following afternoon, too late to catch a bus to the border. The highlight of our stay was bumping into Gill again! We finally made it to Boean Kak lake where she happened to be staying, and whiled away the evening drinking on the decking over the lake, enjoying a moan about Vietnam!

Top Traveller Tip #14 – correct information as of 14th January 2009. 60 day Thai Tourist Visas are available from the Thailand embassy in Phnom Penh for $35. You have to submit your application in the morning of day one (before 11.30am) and collect between 3pm and 4pm on day two.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Sihanoukville and Bamboo Island

7th - 12th January

Sihanoukville is supposedly Cambodia’s sunshine coast, a place, to quote a well known source “where you come to take a break from your holiday”. The town of Sihanoukville sits on a peninsular and features a number of resorts and beaches.

We took motorbike taxi’s down to Serendipity Beach, which
despite it’s increasing popularity was at least supposed to be lacking in girlie bars and the men that frequent them (if you want to see this, if just for comedy value, head straight to Weather Station Hill…). The place was less built up than we’d been expecting but the beach was really disappointing. Every square inch of sand was covered by wicker chairs and tables, all very well for a sundowner but where were we supposed to sunbathe?! I guess the tourists here were way more interested in drinking beer than tanning, though some could have done well to take a swim once in a while! The atmosphere was also a bit seedy and the stark contrast in wealth was difficult to deal with. Hawkers, old and young alike (some of the children were just a few years old) comb the beach selling their wares. This in itself isn’t so unusual in S.E Asia, but the sellers here were very clearly desperate for the business and it was heart breaking to repeatedly say no.

The neighbouring Otres Beach was much quieter and more conducive to a relaxing and guilt free afternoon sunbathing, though not without hawkers entirely. We decided to take a break from the mainland and head to one of the islands off the coast. The nearest, Koh Russei, known as Bamboo Island, was just 45 minutes by longtail boat from Serendipity, but a world away from the madness of Sihanoukville. There are two “resorts” on the island. We’d done a little research and made for Koh Ruh, where a wooden hut was ours for the crazy price of $12! What happened to $5 a night beach huts?! Did we mention that Cambodia in general and Sihanoukville in particular was probably the most expensive place (bar the obvious Australia, Singapore and L.A.) we’ve visited in 10 months?

There was nothing to do here except sleep, eat and laze on the beach, so it was definitely our kind of place! There are no bars or restaurants here, so you are very much at the mercy of the Ko Ruh restaurant. The food was great and reasonably priced but the cleanliness of the restaurant left a lot to be desired and the swarms of flies were massively off putting. We didn’t want to think the probable state of the kitchen.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


5th – 6th January

The town was pleasant enough as a stop off, but certainly doesn’t make for a destination of it’s own. We’d originally planned to call here on our motorbike circuit around Cambodia as the town is a convenient distance between both Siem Reap and P.P. In hindsight we probably should have headed directly back to P.P. on the route we’d come as it was a mission to get to Battambang by bus!

We only stayed 1 night, and we did enjoy a fun half day thrashing around on a dirt bike, taking in some of the surrounding countryside. A proper off road bike and proper Cambodian ‘roads’ gave us a real feel for the country, much more so than you can appreciate from a bus or minivan on a highway. The split of wealth in the country was more evident now, as we saw the poorest people working their land in the most archaic of ways. The poverty, particularly in the nearby villages, was immediately apparent and quite distressing.

Don’t expect to find anywhere decent to stay in Battambang if you’re on any sort of budget. Likewise for eating, which was unexpected as this was a typical town undominated by tourism. The one thing we will take away from Battambang is seeing a side to Cambodia that wasn’t obvious from the tourist hotspots of P.P. and Siem Reap.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

3rd – 5th January

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.

The sister guesthouse of Okay in P.P. is called ‘Hello Paradise’. Not wanting to trawl round looking at different places, the $6 room was nice enough so it took little persuasion for us to take the room. The guesthouse was located slightly north of the town centre, which was good for us as it was closer to Angkor Wat. Normally this wouldn’t be a concern, but we had decided to do our own temple tour by pedal cycle, and being closer to the entrance would be very beneficial at 5am the following day when we would need
to leave!

An early night was in order, after arranging with the guesthouse to pick up the bicycles at 5am. We ate in a local restaurant outside the town centre and hit the sack, with a big day ahead of us.

By cycling, we had no timetable to adhere to, or guide to follow, so we could spend as little or as lo
ng as we wanted at each of the sites. We wanted to get somewhere nice for sunrise, and had been told that it would be at about 6am when the dawn broke. Leaving the guesthouse gave us around an hour to get our tickets, and find somewhere to stop. There was a fair bit of traffic on the road to Angkor, mostly tourist tuk tuks and taxis. Not many bicycles! Our dynamo lights were working a treat along the poorly lit main road, and we found our way to the ticket booth easily. After paying $20 (and not even getting a leaflet or map to show for it!), we set off into the night to find our sunrise.

The poorly lit road soon turned into a pitch black unlit road, and the surface deteriorated from tarmac to dirt and gravel. It was more and more difficult to keep our speed up, but if we slowed down, our only source of light would fade! It was a balancing act between going fast enough to see where we were going and slow enough to avoid the potholes and being thrown into the trees! Not what you need at 5.30am!

We had planned to go to Ta Prohm to see sunrise, but on the way there we spotted a lake with some large statues of lions. We later determined from our m
ap that this must have been Sras Srang; definitely worth a visit for the beautiful sunrise. There were quite a few people hanging around, so we figured it would be a good spot to wait. As soon as we got off the road, we were bombarded by local children trying to sell us cups of coffee. They didn’t seem to understand that it was possible for a westerner not to want coffee in the morning. When we said no, they said ‘you buy later’. It was only 5.45am - we had the feeling that it was going to be a very long day!

After sunrise, we jumped back on our shopper bikes, and pedalled furiously towards Ta Prohm. Our effort was rewarded as the site was deserted, and we felt like Lara Croft and whatever one of the blokes from the film might have been called. After running around for half an hour, we found another person and decided to start heading back to the bikes. The crowds were now arriving thick and fast!

Several temples later, we found ourselves in the centre of Angkor Thom, near the terrace of the elephants. After a bite to eat, we took on Bayon along with thousands of others. We still managed to take some cool pictures using the height of the place to our advantage, cutting out the majority of other people. This, along with Ta Prohm were both favourites of ours – Bayon in particular is highly recommended at sunrise or sunset when the long shadows are supposed to distort the faces of the gargoyles peering down on you.

Top Traveller Tip #13 – If you are visiting Angkor Wat, head to the main Angkor Wat temple at precisely 12:00 noon. You should find it very quiet, as most of the organised tour groups are at lunch, and relatively few people are around the site at this time. We even managed to get a picture of Sam at the entrance with no one else in the shot!

We’d saved Angkor Wat until the end of our day, by that we mean 12:00 noon. Being on the road since 5am meant we were already tired, and getting close to being “templed out”. The largest and of course most renowned of the temples, Angkor Wat covers a huge ground area and is the tallest religious site in the world. We gave it our best shot and wandered around for what felt like hours, but to be honest, we were both a bit underwhelmed. Yes, the scale of the place is really impressive, and the carvings over all the stone amazing, but it wasn’t the magical place that we had expected. Perhaps this is when a local guide is called for, or at least some background reading beforehand. Again we were a little annoyed at not having received any handouts from the ticket booth!

At around 2pm, we arrived back at our guesthouse feeling completely exhausted. Personally, one day was enough to see the area, but some people spend a whole week wandering round each of the temples for hours at a time. That’s not for us I’m afraid, perhaps it’s a maturity thing and maybe a deeper interest in history and archaeology is required. Pleased to have seen the famous heritage site we were, all the same, looking forward to seeing more of Cambodia that isn’t quite as tourist focussed.

The town of Siam Reap deserves a mention – we spent the late afternoon and evening looking around. There are many bars and restaurants serving the tastes of westerners. You could be in any small European city or town with the variety of things on offer. Only the occasional passing amputee in a makeshift wheelchair, selling books for a living, brings you back to reality.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Phnom Penh

31st December – 3rd January

Despite all we’d heard and read about Phnom
Pehn, nothing prepares you for the capital of one of the worlds poorest countries. It was civilised (especially after Vietnam!), efficient and very clean and shiny! A lot of money had clearly been ploughed into the city in recent years and the public buildings and monuments were almost as shiny as the 4x4 vehicles that ruled the roads. The motorbike was no longer king here and you could at least cross the road in relative safety. Having said that, there were so many children and disabled adults (mostly amputees) on the streets, mostly begging but some selling their wares in an effort to scrape together a living. So all was not well after all…

There is very little in the way of benefits in Cambodia and the wealth gap is widening dramatically, in part due to the increasing corruption of the government and upper classes. We heard about how the government is selling off much of its land to foreign investors for short term monetary gain, necessitating the relocation of families from their homes to slums outside the cities. It was all quite distressing and depressing and unlike Vietnam where you felt less inclined to open your purse the more you got hassled to buy something, here we felt we genuinely wanted to help but didn’t know where to start, such was the scale of the problem – and so guiltily did very little other than (stomachs talking!) try to eat in some cafes where profits fund street projects to help the disadvantaged. For anyone with skills and time to spare there is however a number of projects you can get involved with. We later met a woman Sue who was a dental nurse working with children from the slums and local orphanages.

New Years Eve
Anyway, enough of the moaning… we’d arrived much later than anticipated but still several hours earlier than if we’d caught the “slow” boat and not the speedboat we’d been upgraded to! It was New Year’s Eve and seemingly every guesthouse in town was full, including the “Top Banana” we’d had good recommendations for. We ended up in the Okay guesthouse with some of the guys we met on the Delta tour. It was a fun sociable place and we settled in for food (having not eaten since the night before!) and beers before hitting the town.

Seven made our group and we cheekily piled into one tuk tuk built for four (westerners) insisting that seven Cambodians would have travelled this way! Nobody was surprised when the rain suddenly started lashing down and we hurriedly had to pull down the sides of the tarpaulin to avoid a complete soaking. After much deliberating as to where to go (the trials of travelling in a mixed group of ages – the youngest three were just nineteen!) we ended up in Phnom Penh’s premier nightspot – the Heart of Darkness.

We later read how this was the place to see and “be seen” and was frequented by the darlings of Cambodia’s elite and their entourage of minders, who weren’t afraid to throw their weight around. Thankfully we didn’t see any trouble, despite Mark falling off the stage where we were dancing, onto a table of drinks, not once but THREE times! In fact all the “kids” were incredibly pissed and clearly couldn’t keep up with us! Amusingly it took us back to when we were teenage clubbers, though the snogging that suddenly started (between them all…not us!) made us feel pretty old! Drinks were surprising reasonable though; we celebrated with a large bottle of Stoli, several tequilas and a bottle of something that was supposed to be champagne, feeling, for one night only, less like backpackers and more like the new “flashpackers”! The midnight countdown took place a bewildering ten minutes too early (according to each of our seven watches) and to the sound of (we think) Abba’s “Happy New Year”. To the amusement of the locals we celebrated our own “second” Happy New Year at the official midnight, accompanied with raucous Auld Lang Syne.

New Year’s Day itself was a bit of a write off and embarrassingl
y, we didn’t make it further than the nearest English pub for some comfort food – pie and mash – the first in nine months! Ady insisted he didn’t enjoy it and would have preferred something local so Sam scoffed down what he left, smothered with tons of Heinz ketchup!

S21 and the Killing Fields
Our next and final day in the city was more productive and we set out early with Chloe and Anouk to visit the Genocide Museum “Tuol S
leng” and the Killing Fields. As usual, wanting to avoid the day tours offered by the guesthouse, we hired a motorbike and persuaded the girls to do the same, Ady as on hand motorbike instructor as the girls grappled with riding a geared bike for the first time.

Tuol Sleng, the former “security office” S21 of ruling party “Democratic Kampuchea” was directed by the Khmer Rouge Brother Number 1 – Pol Pot (Salut Sor). On April 17th 1975, the site was opened for the detention, interrogation, torture and eventual killing of prisoners (the few who were not sent to the Killing fields) who resisted the new party’s communist regime. In an effort to break down social classes and promote equality, people in their thousands were driven from the city into surrounding countryside and forests. Communes were established where people worked on the land as virtual slaves. Those who resisted the regime in any way and intellectuals generally, people who spoke a second language or even wore glasses were arrested and taken to S21 where they were held between two and four months. Political prisoners (those suspected of leading the uprising against Pol Pot’s revolution) were detained separately and treated to such comforts as a bed and blanket but were held for up to seven months, before being sent to their deaths.

Eerily, the site was co
nstructed from enclosing both a primary school and a high school with two fold corrugated iron sheeting, covered with dense barbed wire. Buildings were also covered in dense barbed wire to prevent suicide attempts by jumping from the upper levels. In the yard a wooden pole used formerly for students to exercise was turned into a place of torture and interrogation. The interrogator would tie the prisoner’s hands behind their back and lift the prisoner upside down with a rope. After repeated action the prisoner would lose consciousness; they then dunked the prisoner’s head into a bucket of filthy water to regain consciousness before continuing the interrogation process.

The detention centre was turned into a museum in 1979, immediately after the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea. Evidence in the way of photographs, torture instruments and prisoner and worker confessions were collected and documented so vividly that one could never forget the oppression and exploitation of the Khmer Rouge regime.

After visiting S21, it was a short journey on the bikes out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Many of the pits have been excavated and the bones of the victims removed. This leaves a field with lots of shallow holes, now covered in grass, but clearly showing where each of the pits were located. There is a large monument to the victims, housing inside the skulls of some of the people found.

The whole experience was very chilling, and even harder to take in given that it happened only 30 years ago.

Wanting some light relief we stopped at Lucky’s department store on the way back. Stocking every conceivable luxury brand under the sun, all at imported prices, we splashed out and bought some of the things we’ve missed from home. Unfortunately on the way out, Anouk lost her ticket for the motorbike park and the jobsworth attendant wouldn’t let us leave, even though she clearly owned the key to fit the bike! Even funnier still, he explained that if someone found the ticket lying on the floor, legally they could claim the bike, even though if they couldn’t produce the key. Bewildered, we had to call out the guy from the rental shop to bring the original registration certificate as even our documents detailing our rental agreement weren’t enough!

Top Traveller Tip #12 – When parking your motorbike outside a shop you may be given a ticket for the bike by a security guard. Treat the ticket as a $1000 bill. If you lose it, you can’t get your bike back, even if you have the key! You have to present the registration certificate and then masses of paperwork follows.

Finally in possession of the bike we hit the city centre just in time for rush hour. The streets were in chaos and amongst the gridlock caused by the many large vehicles that rule the roads of Phnom Penh we took to the pavements with all the other bikes, mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians!

The following day we begrudgingly boarded a bus for Siem Reap having once again abandoned plans to tour Cambodia on motorbike. We gone as far as mapping our route and agreeing a price for a weeks rental of a dirt bike, but enthusiasm waned when we couldn’t, for love nor money, find a pair of helmets worth putting on our precious heads! The quality was strangely better than Vietnam and at least full faced helmets were available here – well… for men anyway. Sam was horrified when told that women’s helmets were not as expensive as men’s and though it wasn’t said as such, implying that women, as mere mothers and housewives weren’t really worth protecting!!! Annoyingly the road to Siem Reap was fairly quiet, well sealed and not at all scary. Our six hours on the bus was one of the most frustrating we’d spent.

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