Back to Bangkok

Our knowledge of the free internet cafes in Siem Reap meant we passed the final hours trying to find a nice hotel for Delhi. Going by the reviews on, it’s not an easy task, but we picked one that didn’t mention cockroaches or dirty sheets and hoped for the best.
Our trusty tuktuk driver dropped us off to catch our Bangkok Airways flight with asia’s boutique airline, whatever that means. As we’re heading for our final country soon, it’s starting to feel like we are going home, and to prepare we bought the book “Dos and don’ts for the United Kingdom”. It’s full of useful advice to prepare us for the culture shock that is the UK: car headlights flashing means both “I’m coming” and “you first”, don’t stand on the toilet (or at least don’t leave footprints on the seat), and the gem “don’t blow your nose into your hands and wipe it on the wall”. I’ll miss Asia…
We only had a night to kill in Bangkok before our flight to Delhi, so we’d found a cheap (£12) airport hotel, and so were convinced we had the wrong hotel when we were met by smartly dressed porters at the airport and taken to one of the nicer rooms we’ve stayed in. To top it all, there was free wifi!

Cambodian countryside

A combination of us feeling ‘templed out’ and the temples yet to be seen being too far away, and thus too expensive to get to, saw us hanging around in cafes and internet places once again today. Between our extensive ‘research’ on restaurants, cafes, internet shops and hotels (we are now on our third in Siem Reap) we could probably, by now, compile our own version of the Lonely Planet for this area.
The highlight of the day was a pre sunset quad biking trip through the Cambodian countryside. As we vroomed our way along dirt roads, seeking out the puddles for that mud splattered look (until I burnt my leg on engine splash back! – Si), we found ourselves attracting quite a lot of attention from the local villagers. In fact a bit of skillful, one-handed driving was called for to steer around whilst waving to the children who came running out into the road to shout hello. It was nice to see the children showing so much interest in us and I soon realised that their enthusiasm was partly (entirely?) fuelled by the lead quad-biker handing out sweets!
Just as we were getting the hang of child waving/swerving through the villages, the road opened out to reveal the countryside proper. Suddenly we were surrounded by acres of swampy green fields – rice paddy fields. It being almost sunset by now and therefore the end of the working day, this turned out to be the busiest stretch of road as lots of workers young and old, their bikes, tractors and cows were obviously making their way home.
Another sunset bagged and we began making our way home. Trying to navigate around the cows and ‘hello’ shouting children was even more tricky in the dark, plus now we also had to try to avoid running over the many frogs jumping across the road.
Our last supper in Siem Reap was a Cambodian BBQ, basically a DIY meal consisting of a clay pot of burning coals placed in the middle of your table alongside your choice of raw snake, ostrich, crocodile or kangeroo which you cook yourself. Very tasty but a bit too much like hard work.

Sunrise, rainfall

One of the “must dos” at the Angkor Wat temples is to catch a sunset and sunrise. We’d watched a sunset a couple of nights ago, and apart from standing on a temple with hundreds of tourists, it could have been a sunset anywhere. So, at 5am our trusty tuktuk driver took us, along with swarms of other tourists in tuktuks to Angkor Wat, all in hope of a magnificent sunrise. Still amazed by the number of people up at such an ungodly hour, we settled down by the royal ponds in front of Angkor Wat, and waited for the sun to rise behind the temple. Alas, the sun didn’t really rise, the day just got brighter, but at least we had tried. It looked like most other tourists were staying at the temples, as if the sunrise was just an early start to the day, not for us! To us, 6.30am meant there was still time for a snooze before breakfast. It turned out to be an exceptionally good choice, as the wet season had hit with avengeance by the time we re-awoke. Well, that’s what good books and cafes are for!

More Wats, only one why.

To be honest, we’d probably seen enough temples after one day, but a three day pass is a three day pass, and over enthusiasm when booking flights in Thailand meant we had 6 days in Siem Reap.
Hoping for something a bit different, we tuktuk-ed our way over dusty roads for an hour to reach Kbal Spean, a mountain river with linga carvings. The carvings were a half hour walk up a hill, and either we are exceptionally unfit these days, or the midday jungle heat is just too much. The rock carvings were alright, not enough to justify the hours to get there, but could be considered an extreme activity as there are unexploded mines in the countryside around them.
Back to visiting temples, and Banteay Srei was actually quite good. Called the womans temple as the carvings are so intricate that it’s not thought possible a man could have done it. Even more temples followed, including one more overgrown and tree covered than Ta Phrom. By the end of the day we’d visited just about every one, time to head back to Siem Reap and it’s many fine restaurants.

Angkor Wat

If there’s one thing the ancient Khmers knew how to do, it’s build temples. There have been quite a few temples on the way so far, and we were expecting a lot from Angkor Wat, but it still managed to impress. The complex is surrounded by a huge moat, (more like a lake) with a crumbling walkway to the main gate. Inside the outer walls it was still a good few hundred metres walk (a long way in the Cambodian sun) to the temple proper and it’s distinct five towers. Intricate carvings covered most walls, and it was even quiet enough for moments of solitude. With such an impressive stucture it’s easy to see why it was adapted from Hindu to Buddhism over the years.
Angkor Wat is just one of many temples in the ancient city, Ta Phrom is a very atmospheric temple that has been left to the jungle ravages. Stone walls and ceilings have collapsed everywhere, and those still standing are more than likely to have a tree growing on them with it’s roots hanging down the side. If you want see what we are talking about, the movie Tomb Raider has a few scenes set there. After many more temples (I’ll save you the details…) we took a look around the ruins of the city, Angkor Thom, with it’s huge relief walls. The scale of the ancient civilisation is hard to comprehend, but at a time when London had a population of about 50,000, Angkor is believed to have been home to around 1 million.
Inevitably, in a country where incomes are low and every tourist (even us!) is considered rich, there were a abundance of street stalls and children selling bracelets or postcards (for 1 dollar, obviously!). Beyond being annoying with repeated chants of “10 bracelet, 1 dolla”, and “when you come back, you buy from me”, there were the failed attempts at guilt: “if you no buy from me, I cry”, and the sure fire way to get me to walk away: “I saw you first, buy from me!”. Still, it was useful having cold drinks at every stop, and the advantage of high visitor fees is that there were no sellers inside the temples.

Leaving Laos

The Luang Prabang airport surely wins the title of most obscure airport of the trip, and definitely the smallest. The departure lounge was just that, about the size of a lounge, with a nice patio door to an oversize driveway/runway. The UK government website warned against flying with any Laos based airline, and the Vietnam Airlines flight we boarded looked as though it also shared some concerns too as it didn’t even refuel before departing to Siem Reap.
As with Laos, Cambodia is meant to easily accept US Dollars for payment. What is surprising is that the local Riel currency has essentially been demoted to a second currency. The cash machines dish out US notes, the taxis and restaurants quote prices in US dollars, and you get surprised looks when you want to pay in Cambodian money, but at least our 4000 times table is getting practice.
The first thing noticeable about Cambodia is that it feels a notch lower on the development scale compared to Thailand, the roads are dirtier, the houses more “rustic” and dust seems to fly everywhere. Each Asian region we’ve visited has it’s own flavour of Tuktuk, from the custom made 3 wheel Tuktuks of Thailand to the Laos’ chopped off front end of a motorbike stuck to a cart. Siem Reap is no different with it’s Moto remorques (a moped with a two-seater trailer, great fun!). We took one of these out to the floating village, passing lots of wooden shacks on stilts with dogs and children running around in the dust. The floating village itself consisted of houses strapped to anything that floated: bamboo poles, oil cans and even the odd boat. Everything needed was floating too: churches, shops, farms, schools and so on, and they all moved with the seasons as the lake levels changed. We also got our first taste of feeling like walking wallets as little children held up snakes and crocodiles for their photo to be taken, only to be followed by chants of “1 dolla!” (we even saw one man fall for the trap…)

Not so Laos-y

Despite having an international airport, and being one of Laos’ (Laoses? Laos’s?) premier tourist destinations, Luang Prabang is quite a small place. With that in mind we again found ourselves on a couple of classy sit up and beg bikes to tour the temples. As you might expect, the temples were pretty much the same as others we’d seen, but one did have days of the week Buddhas (that’s Caroline next to Friday…)
Wondering how I was going to explain someone pinching one of the bike locks we’d rented, we explored the limits of the city, quickly realising the roads either went nowhere or were too busy to ride on, unless you’ve got a death wish. I also found out that cheap plastic ponchos actually get you wetter on the inside when it rains.
With all that exersion, it was time for a massage and I even put my doubts to one side and joined Caroline (well, it was cheap, and you do have to try new things…). The experience was quite relaxing, with only the occasional bit of pain and only slightly tickly when my feet were done. A few hours later my neck and calf muscles did start to hurt, which I can only put down to the massage!

A little too close for comfort

Our muddy re-embarkation to the ferry revealed not only a tiny boat with seats inches apart, but also twice as many passengers as before. Amid passenger complaints of “get another boat!”, the ferryman cast off and headed down the river, no doubt mentally swimming in the cash just earnt. So on we went with a slight list to one side, stopping off at villages to pick up yet more passengers, as well as their chickens, rice and pigs. Some boarded via overhanging branches, others plodded through mud, but one enterprising young man of about 5 had a shuttle service going, and was furiously paddling people from the shore. He was obviously doing a roaring trade going by the wodge of notes in his back pocket, but then Laos doesn’t do coins. We also navigated some hair raising rapids, as well as passing big brown swirling vortices. The water was like chocolate milkshake, so we had no idea how deep it was or what lurked beneath, I just hoped the driver knew what he was doing.
Seven hours later we pulled up to Luang Prabang, reputedly the prettiest town in South East Asia, and with a definite French feel to it. It is also home to a night market filled with merchandise that puts Chiang Mai’s market to shame, and we were especially glad we’d emptied our bags a few days back!

It’s all about the journey

Sometimes the journey is just as good as the destination, which is probably just as well in this case as our journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos will haven taken two and a half days by the time we’re done. Today began with our crossing the border from Thailand into Laos via a short boat ride across the river. We then learned why it was necessary to have two hours allocated to the debaucle that was Laos Immigration Control!
Finally we were ready to board the slow boat to Luang Prabang (we took some advice from the guidebook and passed on the fast boat; it goes twice as fast but is ten times as dangerous – we waved off the helmet and life jacket wearing passengers not in the least bit envious!) The boat was actually a houseboat belonging to a Laos family who seemed to make their living from ferrying people up the river on board their home. It maybe wasn’t the most salubriuos of accomodations for the journey but we had a seat each and space to spread out. Any shortcomings were more than made up by the glorious scenery as we meandered our way down the Mekong river through rural Laos. We passed and stopped at several villages, characterised by wooden huts with thatched roofs, smiling locals, and the sound of laughter as happy children jumped and splashed around (naked) in the river. We arrived in Pak Beng, our home for tonight, feeling glad that we had ignored the advice of the man who tried to tell us that the boat was full and that we’d be more ‘comfortable’ on a mini bus for ten hours.
Pak Beng is a small town with one street of guesthouses and restaurants which surely must have popped up as a result of boat loads of tourists arriving every night and leaving again the next morning.
We thought we’d better try some traditional Laos food tonight – think a plate of minced up meat with lemongrass flavour… We’re looking forward to croissants for breakfast from the French bakery.

Sticking our necks out

The fruits of our travel agent visit paid off today with a days trek into the hills around Chiang Mai, although there wasn’t much walking involved! The first visit was to some hill tribes, a few straw huts set amongst some paddy fields with old women attending to their stalls, strangely enough selling tourist tat! We’d paid extra to visit the long-neck “Karen” tribe, whose women from an early age start wearing ever increasing numbers of brass rings around their neck, causing it to elongate. The place had a touch of theme-park feel to it, added to by the mopeds lined up behind the shacks.
Back in the bus, we suddenly stopped and reversed to a waiting kart being pulled by camel cows! Turns out that someone beat me to it and called them “Ox”, rather boring if you ask me… The Ox kart ride involved us sitting in the back whilst the driver grunted and poked at the Ox to make them move along, whilst a couple of kids ran behind and secretly got a free lift.
The next excitement was an elephant trek, now I thought Asian elephants were meant to be small, but the beast we got on was huge, with us 3 or 4 metres above the ground. The thing was also banana powered, every couple of steps a huge trunk would reach back over his head to where we sat, until a banana was placed in it’s finger like grasp. Before too long he’d eaten the whole bunch, but the trunk still came up, huffing and blowing snot over us until he eventually gave up. We almost got a soaking as the elephant sprayed water through his trunk to cool himself down, good job his aim was good, and the water was cleanish anyway.
The final activity was bamboo rafting. We’d been warned to bring a change of clothes and leave all belongings behind as we were going to get very wet. It turned out that the ride was very gentle, to the point of relaxing. We only got wet as the raft was partially submerged with five people on board, but I had faith in the discarded tyres holding the bamboo together.
That night we boarded the night minibus north towards the Thai-Laos border. We were never going to relish spending the night on the road, but by 3am we’d arrived, enough time for a decent sleep, and worth the day we saved!