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    Wednesday, 29 July 2009

    The splendor of Angkor

    Soviet's Tuk Tuk [Enlarge & More]
    We spent just over a week in Siem Reap, and on most of the days we were there we toured around various temple sites in the area of Angkor. Some were closer to Siem Reap than others, but our lives were made easier by having a friendly, flexible and helpful tuk tuk driver to show us around!

    Soviet was very good, and if anyone’s going to Siem Reap anytime soon then let us know and we’ll put you in touch with him. He normally hangs around next to the market near the river, and a lot of the times we walked past him he was practising his English in a scrapbook – so don’t go with one of those drivers who shout out “You want tuk tuk?” – go with him!

    Early Morning [Enlarge & More]
    On our first day of temples, Soviet took us on the traditional “short circuit” of temples, a 17km loop starting with Angkor Wat, and working in a loop through Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and a number of other temples in between. We started with sunrise at the not-so-traditional starting point of Phnom Bakheng, which has a decent view of Angkor Wat and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, the sunrise was not great – it was a cloudy day. It was also the day of the eclipse across much of south-east Asia, and although it would only have been a partial eclipse in Cambodia, this may still have affected the light levels. However, the mist rising off of the surrounding jungle, the lack of people around and the soft light made it a very atmospheric start to the day.

    Nature Taking Hold [Enlarge & More]
    Following this, we made our first trip to Angkor Wat of the week. It was very quiet there so early in the morning, and it was good to wander around the complex in peace. Although much of it has been restored, it’s an impressive structure for one so old – but even more impressive are the carvings on the around the edge of the temple itself. Depicting Hindu legends, stories and deities, every carving is unique, and the whole thing is very interesting to view.

    Bayon, Angkor [Enlarge & More]
    Following this, we went to a number of other temples, including Angkor Thom (Bayon and the Terrace of Elephants), and Ta Prohm – a partially restored temple which has giant trees towering over it, and growing into some of the walls – hugely impressive. Some of the smaller temples were very impressive as well – one of the common aspects of them was that they all have extremely steep steps leading to the top. Some of them are not for the faint of heart – a step wrong could send you tumbling down the side of the temple with nothing to stop you! We ended the day (covered in sweat) at Sra Srang, a large basin filled with water, opposite Banteay Kdei.

    Bang Melea, Angkor[Enlarge & More]
    The first day was extremely tiring, even though we only finished our sight-seeing in the middle of the afternoon. The following day we did the “long circuit”, which takes in some of the sights we’d already seen such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, as well as a wider range of temples in a 26km route further afield. One of the most impressive and unique sights on day two was Preah Neak Pean, a large series of basins with an odd statue of a horse with eight human legs. Preah Khan was also impressive – largely ruined, filled with corridors and original carvings. We finished the second day with another visit to Angkor Wat for sunset – but low-lying clouds meant it wasn’t the best sunset!

    Tarzan, Kabal Spean [Enlarge & More]
    Following this, we had to have a day of rest because we were very tired (physically and of temples), but on the fourth day we arranged for Soviet to take us to Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei, much further afield than the temples we had already visited. Kbal Spean was one of the most impressive sights we’d seen. After a 1500m walk uphill through the jungle to reach it at 7:30am, we reached it – a river which had been paved with thousands of lingas, inscriptions and carvings. Although a lot of it has been worn or washed away, there is a lot still to see there, and combined with the early morning light and the lack of people, it was a very magical location. Banteay Srei was also good, but much busier and hotter by the time we got there.

    Angkor Wat, Sunset [Enlarge & More]
    On the fifth day, we visited another far-flung temple – Beng Melea. Famed for being unruly and overgrown, it was just that. We had a guide show us around the complex, which is largely in ruins and has not been restored at all. It did feel like the ultimate of “Indiana Jones” temples – being in ruins, it felt like you were exploring it for the first time even though there was an actual path leading through the ruins (albeit you had to duck and climb your way through). It was definitely a trip worth making.

    One Temple Too Many [Enlarge & More]
    On our final day exploring Angkor, we visited some of our favourite places again – Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. Bayon is brilliant, with giant faces of an ancient king covering the walls. In the late afternoon light, the faces really came out of the stone, giving you an impression of being watched. That evening, we finally had a worthy sunset at Angkor Wat – the colours were worth waiting for! We said goodbye to the temples of Angkor – sad, but slightly temple’d out!

    Video of Bakong Temple:

    Monday, 27 July 2009

    The Biggest Surprise in Siem Reap

    The Tuk Tuk [Enlarge & More]
    Siem Reap has been full of surprises over the last 8 days and the biggest has been the relationship we have built up with our Tuk Tuk driver. We went looking for a good to deal to take us round all the temples in Angkor and we found Soviet relaxing in his Tuk Tuk. Once we’d spoken to him and asked him how much he wanted to take us sightseeing, he left us alone to have a think about it and when we decided to walk away he did not start on any sales pitch but let us walk away. We were so surprised that a few metres down the road we looked at each other and said lets go back to him. We knew he’d quoted a fair price and he made such a change from all the hard selling Tuk Tuk drivers we’d encountered up to this point.

    The Big House [Enlarge & More]
    We arranged to meet him at 5am the next day to get to one of the quieter temples for sunrise. At 5.15am, we were headed back to our rooms as he had not turned up! This has started to become another theme of our travels - the last time we waited in the rain in Ooty for the Taxi to turn up 30 minutes late! As soon as we got back to the room we heard him turn up. At this point we did wonder if it was worth it but he assured us we’d make it for sunrise, and he was not wrong.

    As soon as we got in the Tuk Tuk he went careering down the road. We flew over the bumps and out of our seats for most of the half hour journey to the temple. Every time we went flying he’d turn around, smile, and say sorry. We just laughed and we did make it for sunrise.

    The Son [Enlarge & More]
    Soviet has been a pleasure to spend time with, so much so that we ended up at his house a few days later. I can see he works hard to make his money and he’s very proud of what he’s achieved. From land that his father gave him he’s built a big house. He showed us around, telling us proudly that the wooden doors cost $100 and that the whole place cost thousands of dollars. The house is not complete but each time he makes enough money he gets a bit more done.

    The Happy Family [Enlarge & More]
    We met his wife and one year old boy, and the hospitality they showed us was lovely. He kept on feeding us coconuts, each time he’d say my father has many, don’t worry and after the second one each we had to politely say no. There is only so much you can drink. It was a great opportunity to spend some intimate time with a family that you rarely get to unless it’s on a tour and then it’s very contrived.

    Usually there is a catch when someone who deals with tourists all the time shows interest. In this case there wasn’t, he genuinely was proud of what he had achieved and was happy to show us. As a thank you I’ve taken some pictures of his boy and the family and will email them to him. Last night we got some printed and hopefully he’ll like them when we give them to him later today.

    Soviet and Son [Enlarge & More]
    I’ve found the whole experience humbling as when he is not working ferrying people about he spends his ‘days off’ planting rice and helping his wife and to top it off all he’s full of smiles. Such a nice, genuine guy.

    Friday, 24 July 2009

    When we thought we were gonners

    Bayon, Angkor [Enlarge & More]
    We are now in Siem Reap – the small town (but full of tourists) right next to the ancient city of Angkor, the area which holds the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat, amongst many others. Siem Reap is sort of like Phnom Penh, only it’s whole purpose is that it’s geared towards tourists – it has the restaurants, the bars, the markets, all geared towards tourists. There are hundreds of remorque-moto (tuk tuk) drivers patrolling the streets looking for your business, busy shops on the side of the road with owners calling out to you – it’s a busy place, but it’s not the real Cambodia. It’s an international destination.

    Boat to Siem Reap [Enlarge & More]
    We left Battambang at 7am a few mornings ago, by way of boat. The boat ride was very interesting – it started off in light rain which was not a huge problem, although as the boat did not have windows at some points the rain did drive in a little. There was a lot to see – thousands of people’s lives are centralised around the rivers in Cambodia and they’re a major transportation system in terms of getting from place to place. We passed countless small boats with people transporting goods from place to place, and in a few cases our boat stopped to pick up and drop off people who could afford to ride it. One woman had about two dozen bags of vegetables with her – I couldn’t help but wonder how much her ticket cost! Our tickets for the boat were $18US each for the seven hour trip – pretty expensive really when you consider a comfortable, air conditioned bus is about half that!

    Life on the River [Enlarge & More]
    Still, it was worth the money, although I did get a face-full of river water a couple of times – once when a smaller boat passed too closely to us and water went everywhere – everyone in the boat was soaked! Also, some of the corners on the river were quite sharp and we ended up with bushed poking in the windows a few times – usually only in my window I think. All sorts of precious little critters came in with the branches, and I had a jolly good time brushing the ants and grasshoppers off myself. Eventually I covered myself up with my rain jacket to keep the water and creatures off, and settled down. I had a cold, so was not feeling too good, but tried to enjoy the boat ride! There were a few interesting sights along the way, such as a crocodile farm which we parked right up next to.

    All was well until we got to the Tonlé Sap Lake – at which point we thought we might die. The trip had been long, and it was a relief to get to the lake as we knew that meant we were nearly there. Our driver navigated us out onto the lake, and off we went – however, within a quarter of an hour or so, we were surrounded by huge rolling waves driven by strong winds, which carried our little boat up and down, and threw us around. There was a couple of times where I thought we were going to at best take on water, and at worst capsize/die. The rule of thumb is to look to the locals who ride the boat regularly, and the driver who does the route daily and see how they feel – bad idea. We saw a local woman a couple of seats back leap for her lifejacket at one point, and the driver seemed extremely jumpy, throwing the steering wheel around like we were completely out of control! We did make it eventually, but it gave me a renewed appreciation for life!

    Tuc Tuc Drivers [Enlarge & More]
    We pulled in to Tonlé Sap Floating Village (all the houses float on the river, just off the lake), and pulled in to the dock. We were expecting another Battambang experience whereby the tuk tuk drivers swarm the boat for your business, and shout at you, and drag you away, but it wasn’t so bad. They did swarm the boat, but they were quite nice about it and friendly – and anyway, we had our hotel picking us up so we were no good to them! The conversation went something along the lines of:
    Them: “Hello, you want Tuk Tuk?”
    Us: “No thanks” (The most common phrase we use we’ve decided)
    Them: “You have someone picking you up?”
    Us: “Yes”
    After a dozen or so of these conversations, we found our driver who drove us to our guesthouse/boutique hotel combination (we’re in the guesthouse, but get to use the hotel WiFi and pool!).
    The hotel is nice enough – it’s called Golden Banana – although we had to move rooms a couple of times in order to get one which had a good wireless internet connection. We considered moving to the boutique part, but decided for the sake of our budget to stay where we are.

    Floating Village [Enlarge & More]
    Siem Reap is a proper foreigner’s town, and there are loads of places to eat/drink – from the very cheap (our meal last night combined cost $4.50 and was delicious) to the very expensive ($650 a night for a hotel up the river!). To give you a feel for it, most places have “Happy Hour” from open-close, where their draft beers cost $0.50! Siem Reap is a party all day! The main reason for being here is Angkor of course – something we’ve had our fair share of the last few days – we’ll write a separate entry on that though. It deserves all the credit!

    Tuesday, 21 July 2009

    The Bamboo Train of Cambodia

    Major Highway [Enlarge & More]
    Travelling around in Cambodia so far seems to be pretty straightforward. Both of us thought it would be very difficult but private bus companies travel between all the major cities. As for the road network it’s really simple, not many major roads cross the country and by the looks of it you have to go out of your way to get anywhere. Luckily the country is about the size of England with a population of about 15m so the roads are pretty quiet compared to India or Hong Kong.

    Aerobics in the Park [Enlarge & More]
    We are now in Battambang the 2nd largest city in Cambodia and to give you a feel for the place it has no traffic lights. Like Phnom Penh it’s got a lot of work going on to improve it, but for now the city has a laid back feel. On our first day here we stumbled across the local park just before sunset and found ourselves in the middle of a giant aerobics session – well, actually, several sessions.

    The last few steps [Enlarge & More]
    The attraction of Battambang is that it has some great temples in the surrounding area that pre-date Angkor. They are all on the top of hills which actually are few and far between, as so far Cambodia has been very flat. One of them had 358 steps to the top, in the heat it’s hard work. We both learnt our lessons from India and took it easy going up so that we did not end up in big balls of sweat. The temples have made us both even more excited about seeing the Angkor Wat temple and the others that surround it, one of the main reasons for closing Cambodia in the first place.

    The Killing Cave [Enlarge & More]
    Where there is such beauty, the horrors of what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge are always present. One of the temples also had what was called the killing cave as an attraction. It’s where victims of the regime were held in darkness and then killed. Walking into the cave is scary enough, I can’t even begin to imagine what the victims went through.

    Bamboo Train [Enlarge & More]

    To keep the theme of finding interesting ways to travel, the last time was in Oooty and the Blue Mountain Railway, we hunted out the Bamboo Train near Battambang. It’s an invention of the locals to be able to go back and forth on the single track railway they have in the country, transporting rice, wood etc. The single track is also used by the state railway so the bamboo train is dismantled to let is pass when an actual train does come along. As a tourist you can jump on and take a ride with the locals, it's fast and fun and a great way to see the countryside. Just remember to keep your mouth shut otherwise you may end up swallowing something you did not want to!

    Friday, 17 July 2009

    Phnom Penh, a city of contrasts

    We are having problems signing into Flickr so no pictures for this entry, we'll update them when we get it sorted.

    Phnom Penh was certainly a city of surprises, in many different ways. On the one hand, you’ve got the desperately poor people, and the horrifying relatively recent genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. On the other, you’ve got a city which is rising up from the ashes and changing from what seems like a small regional centre at first glance, into a worthy capital of Cambodia. There’s a great sense of change here, with roads being reworked everywhere, paths being laid along the riverfront, and piping and drainage systems being improved. The people are embracing the increasing levels of tourism too, with the tourism industry obviously being a major contributor to the local economy.

    We spent four nights in Phnom Penh, and after the initial shock on the first day where we witnessed the result of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, we spent a bit of time viewing the present state of the city, and our first glance at modern Cambodia. Starting with a walking tour of the city, we did many of the major sights in our second full day. The National Museum was definitely a worthy start to this, with an impressive array of Khmer statues representing the Khmer Empire’s history of association with Hinduism and Buddhism – with the Hindu statues being similar to (but with a different angle to) what we’d seen in India. A really interesting exhibition, and despite the age of some of the statues and other items, they were in great condition.

    We also visited Phnom Wat, the only hill in town – and it is barely a hill, not high at all! Still, on top of the hill was a Buddhist temple complete with monks playing a strange percussion instrument but producing some very soothing sounds. There were also a few monkeys up there, and apparently there are elephant rides around the base of the hill – but I didn’t see any elephants and I’m not sure the hill was big enough to make an elephant ride around it worthwhile!

    In addition to this, we did a quick sweep through a shopping centre (to feed my new-found interest in shopping) and checked out the train station – a nice building but it looked completely abandoned. Apparently the only trains in Cambodia are freight trains, and the railways are in such an awful condition that the trains only travel at around 20km/hr. No doubt, given time, they will be upgraded.

    The following day we also spent a few hours at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The palace is the permanent residence of the reigning monarch of Cambodia, so there are parts of it which are cordoned off, but we did see what I think was an impressive throne room, and some beautiful gardens.

    We also saw the Silver Pagoda – a large building in which the floor is covered in thousands of silver tiles (many carpeted over to protect them), but you can see a few thousand on display in a cordoned off area. The pagoda also contains Buddha statues, some covered in extravagant diamonds and other jewels. The courtyard was also very beautiful, containing several Buddhist shrines. We came across a group of monks, who were very keen to have a picture taken with the two of us. They look very serious for pictures, but as soon as the camera is off they are full of smiles and jokes – all the monks I’ve met so far have been really friendly and light-hearted – not nearly as serious as I thought they would be!

    We’ve spent more time sitting around having coffees and other drinks in Phnom Penh than anywhere else. There are a lot of very comfortable cafes and restaurants along the riverfront, and a lot of them offer free wireless internet connections for customers – handy when you want to get online while you have your coffee! Restaurants along the riverfront and beyond offer a wide range of food – both Khmer (Cambodian) and other Asian, but also a large variety of Western food for those who want it. We’ve been trying the Khmer food – so far, I’ve enjoyed it all – sort of a blend of Thai and Chinese I guess. The market and street stalls are very interesting too, but I haven’t seen too much that I would want to eat on them. There is a lot of meat on offer – roasted sparrows, frogs, sausages and other things which I could only guess at. However, getting smaller you’ll also find roasted insects – namely crickets, cockroaches and spiders – I’ll pass on those!

    The people here are the friendliest we’ve met, and everyone smiles (even when they try to rip you off). It makes walking down the street a little bit nicer, as people walk up to you offering their wares (often children offering books), but they’re really sweet about it and you can’t help but smile at them while saying no. The children are especially sweet, with big smiles, and I’ve found myself carrying sweets to give them rather than money for when they beg. On the other side, there is a certain degree of sleaze – you see a lot of older foreign gentlemen courting young Cambodian women and treating them to meals out etc. While I know the women wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t need to, and they’re probably getting a good deal of money out of it, it does feel like exploitation on behalf of the men, whatever their intentions.

    On the whole I’m really enjoying Cambodia and have enjoyed Phnom Penh very much. It seems like there’s a lot to see here, and transportation is not as much of an issue as I thought it would be. On the other hand, the recent history of the country really tugs on the heartstrings – you can’t help but feel for the beggars and the many poor people of the country, knowing the misery that probably put them in the situation they’re in, or the misery experienced by their parents and families. No doubt there will be a lot more of the good and the bad to come, but I’m looking forward to it either way.

    A little video until we get the pictures sorted:

    Tuesday, 14 July 2009

    Disturbing time in Cambodia

    Victim Remains [Enlarge & More]
    I’ve got mixed emotions being in Cambodia at the moment. I’m excited as ever about exploring, seeing, feeling and just spending time here but the first day and a half have been depressing.

    Yesterday after settling into Hotel Paragon on the quay we went for a walk along the river Tonlé Sap and something to eat. As soon as we walked out of the hotel entrance we were bombarded by the usual requests to take a tuk tuk or sightseeing tour but the big difference from anything else I have seen was the number of children begging or selling books. It’s really hard not to just ignore them as pests but not encourage them either. I find it very difficult. In the end we ended up eating in a place run where half the profits go a local orphanage. The kids selling the books are also allowed to wander in and try sell their stuff, we did not buy anything but had a chat with them and gave them sweets. What you don’t know is who the money they make goes to so we felt more comfortable giving them something they could enjoy.

    The Killing Fields [Enlarge & More]

    Today we took a visit to the Killing Fields where Pol Pot had many people executed. As you enter you are stood in front of a huge Stupa which is full of skulls. It’s a little numbing as I couldn’t actually relate them to individuals who were brutally murdered. As you walk around amongst the mass graves you see bits of bones and clothes. I had convinced myself at first I could see tree roots poking out and that someone had dropped a bit of coloured plastic but on closer inspection you are left under no doubt.

    It’s such a peaceful place now and without the Stupa and explanations as you walk around it would be like any other park really. I did find myself reading the signs with the explanations in disbelief.

    Tuol Sleng Prison [Enlarge & More]

    Once we left the Killing Fields we went to the prison at Tuol Sleng where all the people killed by the Khmer Rouge were tagged, tortured and kept before making the 15km journey to Killing Fields. If I was fooling myself about what I was seeing before this place brought it home, the place itself was a School before it was turned into a place a horror and was now full of pictures of the victims. A lot of them were so young including very young children and babies. Just shocking.

    The Victims [Enlarge & More]

    Over and above everything else, the thing that finally made it real for me was an exhibition in one of the holding cells of children who had been recruited by the Khmer Rouge and worked for the regime and now live ordinary lives. That made it real as the people who had taken part were now adults, it just sent a chill down my spine.

    We decided to walk back from the prison to the hotel and it did amaze me that the people are really friendly, full of smiles and just charming even with such turbulent history only a few decades ago..

    Monday, 13 July 2009

    A Whizz Around Hong Kong

    Neon Heaven[Enlarge & More]
    After leaving an (almost) 3rd world country – India – and arriving in a cosmopolitan metropolis – Hong Kong – a little bit of reverse culture shock was pretty much guaranteed. Hong Kong was clean, convenient, beautiful, and full of sights and little surprises. After a reasonably laid back month in India, we only had three and a half days in total to spend in Hong Kong, and we were determined to make the most of it – and we did!

    Our first port of call was the tourist information desk in the airport, and what an array of information we found there! Honestly, if you’re ever thinking of visiting Hong Kong, don’t bother getting a guidebook – you can get everything you need from the helpful people at the tourist information desk – plus anything useful they have to tell you – for free before you even leave the airport. We got everything we needed to plan a few days of sightseeing, and off we went on the airbus (HK$33 each) to the city, which dropped us off right outside our hotel in Mong Kok – very convenient. After wandering around an electronic store in confusion, we eventually found our hotel (Ah Shan Hostel) on the 14th floor of a building. At £25 a night we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a small but very clean and tidy room, with very friendly owners who were the most welcoming people we’ve met on our trip so far.

    Nathan Road [Enlarge & More]

    Once settled, we went out into the city to find our bearings. We walked the whole way down Nathan Road to the harbour in the baking and humid heat (it was a beautiful day), and walked through the Kowloon Park, which was beautiful. The sights and smells (I’m still not sure what was being cooked on a few street corners) were amazing and so different from anything we’ve seen so far – the streets are a perfect blend of cultures, and this is reflected in the people, the wealth, and the shops of the city. Huge stores leave their doors wide open, the air conditioning blasting out into the hot street and dissipating – showing just how much money they have to waste. Such a contrast from India, where the few places which have air con shut up tight so as not to lose the cooler climate!

    Harbour View [Enlarge & More]

    On that first day, we rode the Star Ferry across the harbour, and later watched the Symphony of Lights – a beautiful light show which brings the best out of the harbour front and displays the wealth and power of Hong Kong in a visually pleasing show for everyone to watch. The harbour was stunning when it was all lit up – I had already fallen in love with Hong Kong, and seeing that show just reinforced that.

    Giant Buddha [Enlarge & More]

    The following day, we made the trip on the ferry to Lantau Island, about half an hour from Hong Kong Island, where we saw a few more sights. At the top of the island, there is a giant Buddha statue – the biggest in the world apparently – watching over the landscape. We climbed up to it and wandered around – even though it was only built about 15 or 20 years ago, it’s still an amazing feat and some of the historical plaques made for interesting reading.

    Cable Car Ride [Enlarge & More]

    We also wandered up to the Wisdom Path on Lantau Island – a series of inscribed logs sawn lengthways and erected in a pattern. In the hot sun and with a blue sky behind them, they were very beautiful. Po Lin Monastery was also a good visit – our first Buddhist Temple of the trip. Finally, we ended the day with a ride down the Ngong Ping 360 cable car – a trip which contained some excellent views of the landscape and of Hong Kong airport (which is a sight in itself!). From the bottom of the cable car, we were able to ride the MTR (metro/underground) back to Hong Kong – getting around is so handy!!

    Victoria Peak [Enlarge & More]

    On day three, we visited Victoria Peak, riding the tram up the steep hill to the viewing platform and shopping/entertainment centre located there. It was well worth the trip – the views of the harbour were stunning from this perspective and the wind was very strong – a nice relief from the sizzling stillness of the city. Having an iced coffee whilst overlooking the city from hundreds of metres above it was a good experience! The view to the south of the smaller islands that make up Hong Kong was also very beautiful.

    Incense Sellers [Enlarge & More]

    Outside of these main sights, we also visited Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple (fortunately I still have the leaflet to spell it!) – a temple which incorporates Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in one place of worship, and also absolutely reeks of incense. You just have to be careful – there are people everywhere carrying the burning sticks, and if you’re not looking one might end up in your eye! The incense sellers out the front also do a good trade, waving people over as they approach the temple, and the fortune tellers see you on your way out. There were approximately 140 fortune teller stalls – I didn’t bother, I didn’t believe that all 140 of them could share that gift!

    Goldfish Street [Enlarge & More]

    We also visited Goldfish Street, Flower Street and the Bird Garden in Kowloon – you really can buy just about anything in Hong Kong, and the amazing variety of tropical fish, amphibians and crustaceans proves that. Visiting Goldfish Street made me want to start up a tropical fish tank, but I don’t think I could carry a turtle around in my backpack for the next 10.5 months!

    Finally, this morning, we left Hong Kong on our flight to Phnom Penh. We were both sad to leave, but we’re also confident that we’ll both be back here at some point – it’s a destination that I don’t think I’d get tired of. A few people will be shocked to hear this, but I actually shopped – I never shop. I even went into shops just to LOOK, a bit of a new concept for me, and I actually enjoyed it! What’s going on!!? Anyway, four nights was a good amount of time to spend in Hong Kong, and I would recommend the trip to anyone – our good experience with backpacker accommodation also shows that the city is open to anyone, even those on a budget – and you can still have a good time! Cambodia next – what will the culture shock bring this time?

    Saturday, 11 July 2009

    Hong Kong, the friendliest city in the world

    Long Way From Home [Enlarge & More]
    It was 1:15am in Chennai and we were finally boarding our 2:45am flight to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Both of us had mixed feelings about leaving India, it would be good to see somewhere new but we both had really enjoyed our time there.

    Cathay Pacific has a good reputation which it lived up to and the flight was uneventful. The time was the only downside as when we touched down it was 10 in the morning having lost 2.5 hours as Hong Kong was ahead and having had no sleep for 24 hours.

    Fried Rice,Anyone? [Enlarge & More]

    We have been in Hong Kong for a day and half now and it’s one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever been to. As soon as we stepped foot outside customs we’ve had people helping us when we’ve asked and also when we’ve not. A sweet lady helped us the first time we used the Metro here, the equivalent to the London Underground. We were having a ‘debate’ about which exit to use and she kindly pointed us in the right direction

    Harbour Skyline [Enlarge & More]

    On the Star Ferry for the first time going over to Hong Kong Island from Kowloon, a really nice guy helped us out by telling us all the places to go and see and where is good for what. There is Soho here, full of eating and drinking places a bit like in London.

    Jono has remarked a couple of times if he wanted to live in a city this would be it which is high praise indeed as he does not like cities generally. I love the place too, it’s a very modern place but East definitely meets West here. The view at night of the harbour front is the best I have seen, it beats Manhattan in NY by a mile and I thought that was the best. Then you turn a corner and you are presented with a Blade Runner like view that is definitely eastern, I just love it

    Milkshake - Yummy! [Enlarge & More]

    Being a city it is definitely muggier and hotter than India, the curious thing is that a lot of the shops are air conditioned but don’t have doors, so as you walk past you get a blast of cold air. It’s a momentary relief before you hit the wall of heat again.

    I’ve definitely suffered culture shock here, not because it’s so different from back home in England but it is so different from India. As we are only here for a few nights both of us have gone a little overboard on the milkshakes, sweets, coffees and food. My poor body does not know what’s hit it.

    Wednesday, 8 July 2009

    Temples at Last

    Tribute to MJ[Enlarge & More]

    Our last long journey in India consisted of a bus ride. Although we’d both done buses in India before, neither of us knew quite what to expect as we’d booked a sleeper bus (with berths rather than seats). We were both looking forward to leaving Ooty, as in the three days we’d been there it had more or less rained constantly, and it was cold enough that once wet, clothes would not dry. Once on board the bus, we relaxed in our reasonably spacious beds. The first hour or so was full of bends in the road, making the journey a bit unpleasant, but after that it was reasonable enough – I even managed to get some sleep overnight – the first journey in India where I’ve slept at all! We arrived in the sprawling city of Chennai the following day at 6:30am, and at that point, we managed to get a taxi for the remaining 60km to the seaside village of Mamallapuram. On the way, we saw a couple of tributes to Michael Jackson on huge roadside billboards – slightly odd but unique I guess.

    Curious Monkey [Enlarge & More]

    Mamallapuram is definitely not cold – it’s pushed 40 degrees a couple of times, so there’s definitely no more complaining about the weather – plus it’s not rained once! The beach here is one of the nicest we’ve seen, and as the monsoon is nowhere near as advanced as on the west coast of India, it actually feels like everything is still up and running. There’s none of the protective blue tarpaulin we’ve seen elsewhere, and all the fishing boats are still up and running here, which makes for quite a different feel from Goa and Kerala. Tourism is definitely at it’s peak here, and there seem to be almost as many foreign tourists as there are locals – a few hippies who have gone feral as well!!!

    Huge Elephant[Enlarge & More]

    We’ve existed here for the last three days on a diet of seafood and curries – we’ve had some delicious food. However, many of the restaurants here seem to cater for a very western palette, and one restaurant last night did not even do chapattis, but did do some Indian food – we walked out in disgust! However, all the fish we’ve had seems to have been freshly caught, making it all the more delicious. Furthermore, the hotel we’ve stayed in – Sea Breeze Hotel – has been an excellent final stay for us, with a large and very clean pool for us to cool off in!

    Five Rathas [Enlarge & More]

    While we’ve been here, we’ve also been browsing the sights in this area. Mamallapuram features an impressive set of temples and carvings cut from the rock in the area – there are ancient 1400 year old temples cut from entire boulders here. Many of the carvings are very well preserved, making for very interesting viewing – particularly some of the areas which are free for the public to view. The Shore Temple and Five Ratha attractions require you to pay to get in, but they are still well worth it – the large life-sized carved elephant is a sight to see, and is apparently one of the best in India.

    Tonight we fly from Chennai airport to Hong Kong, where we’ll spend four very busy days trying to pack in as much as we can! I’m looking forward to some delicious Sweet and Sour Chicken, Hong Kong style of course – although not so much to the 3am flight!!

    ..and finally a video of us enjoying ourselves by the poolside.
    ( you may have to visit the site if you can not see it in the email)

    Monday, 6 July 2009

    Grown Women Giggling Like School Girls

    Day Hike[Enlarge & More]

    Ooty itself never got any better however our stay here was made worthwhile when we did a day hike in the Blue Mountains (Nilgiri Hills) and a trip to Mudamali National Park.

    Our guide, Anthony, took us for a day long hike into the mountains. We went through Eucalyptus and Tea plantations, over rolling hills which reminded me of the Lake District and Jono of New Zealand. For a moment it felt as if we’d transported ourselves instantly to the Lakes with the drizzle, sheep and clean and pollution free surroundings. Sheer bliss! The hike was made even better as our guide who’d been leading tourists around for the past 16 years was known to all the locals and we got a friendly reception wherever we were. It was really sweet to see grown women giggling like school girls asking Anthony for sweets. I asked him how they knew he had some and apparently he always carries them with him.

    Sheltering from the Rain[Enlarge & More]

    Yesterday we got up at the crack to dawn and made our way to Mudamali National park to catch the 7am tour round it to see the wildlife, both of us hoping to see wild Elephants. The alarm went off at 4.30 and we packed up as we had to take all our stuff with us, as we were off to Chennai that night. Thankfully we’d bought a torch at Heathrow as there was a power cut and without it we’d have left half our stuff behind.

    The taxi we’d hired was due to pick us up at 5am so we dutifully waited outside our Hotel (Reflections Guest House). Half an hour later, the taxi had not turned up and we’d just decided to go back into the warmth of our hotel room when he turned up. Both of us were secretly disappointed that we could not go back to bed.

    Wild Elephant [Enlarge & More]

    The park lived up to expectations and we got to see wild Elephants, a little too close for my liking. As we were being driven round the park we were looking at Elephants in the distance to the right when I heard a trumpet and looked to my left where a whole herd of Elephants was approaching at speed. I panicked and tried to close my window, like that was going to help. Then I tried to take a picture but got nothing. So much for my calm photography skills. Luckily, Jono kept his composure and captured some video, it does not quite do it justice but I’m pleased he got it.

    Botanical Gardens [Enlarge & More]

    After the excitement of the park we traipsed around a few more sights but the dull, drizzly day made them a chore. We’d planned to spend the whole day doing this but by lunchtime we were done, so as to get some value for money we asked the driver to take us to the Botanical Gardens in Ooty. I’m so pleased we did as this IS the highlight of Ooty and if you ever get here it’s not to be missed. It’s well maintained and can compete with anything I’ve seen before. It has trees and plants from all over the world – some of which are hundreds of years old.

    Ooty has very little to offer, however the surrounding country side is superb and very different to anything else we’ve seen and getting there on the Blue Mountain Railyway is a real treat.

    Sunday, 5 July 2009

    Snooty Ooty – A Nice Cool Climate

    Rain Stops Fun[Enlarge & More]

    Not. What a dump. It’s done nothing but drizzle since we arrived here yesterday, and this does nothing to enhance the dreary, dirty, over-populated town that is Ooty. Promises of a cool climate, lovely lake, beautiful flora and fauna and some interesting sights have all fallen somewhat short, and so far we’ve been a bit disappointed by the place.

    Ooty has a history of being popular with the British upper class, and you can see why - at just under 2300m above sea level, it’s significantly cooler and less humid than the coast or the plains, with temperatures being about those of a British summer for most of the year. For a place steeped with colonial history, we were almost expecting a British version of Panaji, but Ooty is no such thing – it’s just like any other Indian town, only slightly grottier if anything! The only part of Britain Ooty retains is the weather – for the first time since we arrived in India, we spent the whole day in the rain – cold, miserable drizzle.

    Blue Mountain Train [Enlarge & More]

    To be fair though, there have been some good points. Two days ago, we travelled from our houseboat to a town called Coimbatore on a day train, where we spent one night. From there, we took the famous ‘miniature train’ up into the Nilgiri Mountains early the following morning – leaving Coimbatore at 5.15am! This was a spectacular journey on an old steam engine, with impressive sights and dramatic views of the countryside – forests, tea plantations, and general beautiful green scenery. The process of getting a ticket was a bit of a nightmare – we were told we did not need to make a reservation, however it turned out that this would have made things a little easier. First, I had to queue up to get allocated a seat. Then, I had to queue up again to pay for the seat. Finally, we had to pay tax on the tickets once we boarded the train itself – ridiculous. One person could have done the whole lot in a fraction of the time – I was quite annoyed. But the train was definitely worth it, and we didn’t want the journey to stop.

    Rose Garden[Enlarge & More]

    Unfortunately, it did, and here we are. Not long after we arrived in Ooty the rain started and it has not stopped. Late yesterday afternoon we went to the rose gardens – pretty, but not ‘The Best Rose Gardens in the World’ as the sign out front proclaimed – Swindon Town Gardens is just as pretty (although smaller!). We also visited an unusual exhibition of hand woven flowers – a sign on the wall proclaimed the exhibition a “miracle”… hmm, not sure about that one, but I guess it was quite unusual. The exhibition could have used a bit of sprucing up though – the green tarpaulin on the roof was a bit off-putting.

    Ear Muffs![Enlarge & More]

    As you can tell, I’m a bit disheartened with Ooty, but don’t worry – there’s plenty to keep us entertained. Yesterday, we were having a good laugh at all the Indian tourists in their warm clothes in the 23 degree heat. Some of them were wearing earmuffs – ridiculous! And not just any earmuffs – some sort of fashion disaster that wraps around the back of one’s head and covers the ears – odd. One woman looked like she was going skiing – hat, mitts, scarf, just missing the skis. Today is a lot colder, and tonight I looked like I was going skiing! It was maybe around 15 degrees, but I had about three layers and a rain jacket on, felt a bit silly, but I’m used to 35 degrees and 90% humidity now!!! I never thought I’d admit it – but I really miss the heat.

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