Monday, 17 July 2006

Cambodia—Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) Pt 1























Cambodia—‘Heart of Darkness’ or the Land without ATMS!

(I decided to post my adventures in Cambodia in several parts in order to keep my avid readership up to date.)

First, the photos:
a. Me waiting for a bus in PoiPet.
b. The bus!
c. Posted on the back of my guest house door—someone was having a fun time.
d. My first view of Angkor Wat.
e. Lots of tourists.
f. Some details
g. View from the top
h. View from the top 2.
i. Me and Angkor Wat.


With a great deal of regret I finally made the move from the Kingdom of Thailand to the Kingdom of Cambodia. From my reading I knew that this would be more of an ‘adventure’ than any of my previous travels. The Lonely Planet guide warned of the ‘Bus Scam’, the bus which carries one from the border goes not to the designated bus station but to a local quest house. To be frank, after 10 pleasant days in the ‘Land of a 1,000 Smiles’ I was not looking forward to hassle and troubles, however, I did want to see Angkor Wat. What I have come to find distressing about travel is not the expected: the hurry up and wait, but rather the sense of dislocation that occurs with each move. One gets settled and comfy, forms a social network, and then moves on, never to return.

Thursday the 13th of July was my departure date. I left my hotel at 07.30 in a mini-van, which carried me to a larger van, which in turn carried me to the Thai/Camb border, a three hour trip. The border town was dusty and dirty, and our driver warned us about pickpockets and child beggars. Here is where the fun began. We slowly moved through Thai and Cambodian customs, the details are lost to me, but there was a lot of dust, dirt, people in fancy uniforms stamping things, and time spent waiting in line, inter-sped with long walks along (dusty) paths. After at least an hour we were finished and through into Cambodia.

After experiencing several moves over borders I have to say, why bother with this border control waste? If anyone truly wishes to cross between any two countries in SE Asia, without official notice, there are 1,000s of kilometres of unguarded jungle. Effectively, border control is worthless. And, one could ask, what is one going to smuggle into Cambodia that is not already there? The entire procedure does not provide any meaningful protection, it merely provides sinecures for a few people, while wasting time, money and tourist patience. A second opinion I will share: the crossing was not as bad as we were led to believe. After all of the warnings I was expecting the wild west, in reality there were maybe a dozen children begging, with dozens more running around. If you chose to ignore them they were not a problem. The saddest part of the experience was the sight of children, dressed in rags, playing on a rubbish dumb.

After the border crossing we were conveyed (again) on a mini-van to a bus depot in the border town of PoiPet (aka dusty rathole) where we 'enjoyed' a long wait, at least an hour (‘20 minutes sir, no more’) before our bus arrived to take us to Siem Reap. This trip was an experience in itself. The road was poorly maintained, think of the worst country road in Australia, maybe a bit worse, and that is the road we travelled on. Overall, it was a seven hour journey, with two stops along the way. The bus was very crowded (by western standards), with luggage and people—I could not see any way to stuff more people on board—but the passing local buses showed how this could be done. I would not recommend a local bus to any potential traveller to Cambodia. However, I found the trip a bit of a hoot! Our ‘conductor’, who sat on top of our bags, provided some humour to the trip, and answered the usual silly tourist questions. The landscape along the way was the most beautiful I have seen to date: rice fields, villages and towns, temples, hills, valleys and trees. If the road was better far more people would travel into Cambodia, a commonly shared sentiment.

The buzz is that Bangkok Airways(?) have bribed the Cambodian gov to not upgrade this road, forcing people to make the journey by (expensive) air. This is somewhat confirmed by the good condition of the other main roads in Cambodia. I was told that the road between Siem Reap and Phon Phem is in excellent condition.

I arrived in SR at around 21.30. There was a small amount of hassle upon arrival, the ‘conductor’ just happened to run a guest house which we were all requested to inspect. Not bad, US$5 a night for a room, bed and TV, with private facilities. However, I insisted on going to the Mandalay Inn (an outrageously expensive US$15 a night, with breakfast), which I had already booked. I arrived there at about 22.00, had a look around, paid for my room, showered and went to sleepy bys. I will add that the manager of the Mandalay, Mr Maun, was very helpful to me when organising my journey. He runs a happy Inn.

The major industries of Siem Reap are tourism, textiles and agriculture. I am fairly certain that it is tourism which brings in the hard currency. I was told that the main groups of tourists are Japanese and Koreans, however, my bus contained a wide mix of people from Australia (me) to a guy from Macedonia. To accommodate this influx accommodation in SR ranges between 5 star, $1,000 a night hotels, down to $2 a night guest houses. In the central tourist area of town I am sure that every second builiding is either a guest house, a restaurant, a money changer or an internet cafe. Apartments are approximately US$500–$1,500 a month to rent and $35,000–$100,000 to buy. I am inclined to say, overall, that SR is a nice place to visit and to stay. I suspect that in years to come Cambodia, rather than Thailand will become a destination for expats.

Angkor Wat (Temples of Angkor)
The reason Siem Reap is the city that it is, and not a small and sleepy village, is the centuries old collection of buildings referred to, incorrectly, as ‘Angkor Wat’. In reality AW (Wat = temple) is merely the largest of what is a huge collection of temples (100s over 100s of square kilometres), which collectively should be referred to as ‘The Temples of Angkor’. This collection was created way back between the 9th and 13th centuries AD by the egomaniacs who ran a large Cambodian empire stretching as far a field as Thailand and Vietnam. The kings of this empire, as kings invariably do, built ever increasingly large palaces and temples in order to glorify the gods, And themselves And their own ‘greatness’. As a demonstration of divine devotion one of these kings Jayavarman 7th, created images of the Buddha with the king’s own facial features. What a guy! Interestingly enough, J the 7th is now something of a national figure in Cambodia.

In the guide books this ‘empire’ is referred to respectfully as being a ‘great’ empire. Well, I am sure that it was, however, with all empires and the egomaniacs who create and run them the average folk, both in the conquered and conquering country, are worse off. For example, the great king Jayavarman 7th had a temple (Ta Prohm) built for his mother. While this sounds like an outstanding example of filial piety the reality is less than pleasant. Eighty thousand people in dozens of villages were required to care for and maintain this ostentatious residence, which included a large statue of the rather obese woman. Perhaps the old, and rather grumpy looking matriarch would have been happier in a more human and less stony abode? These huge edifices are never built for personal comfort (e.g. Versailles), they are created to overall and impress others. The people who live in these palaces are emotionally retarded children.

Another fascinating aspect of religion is that the gods live in stone while the lowly humans live in less durable wood. Thus even the palaces of the kings are decayed away with only boundary stone, walls, and other fragments to mark there existence. Perhaps if all this time and effort was invested in a sewage system the bulk of the population would have been better off?

However, having said this, it must be understood that all the human suffering and misery created by ‘empires’ does have one concrete benefit—big things tourists can photograph and climb all over. AW is the biggest and best climb, it has sets of very steep steps which one can slowly and carefully both can ascend and descend. There are of course steps with handrails, but only girls would use these. All great fun.


To be continued...


PS There are no McDonald's in Siem Reap!! I repeat, no greaseburgers!!
PPS Our driver from Thailand assured us all that there were no ATMs in Cambodia. Not true, there is one in Siem Reap.

Sunday, 16 July 2006

Thailand!













Thailand


Photos:
Again, blogger is not overly good with photo layout. Also I am posting from Cambodia where dialup is high speed access, so bear with me:

a. Me, on a Ferris Wheel! A real hoot.
b. The old capital of Ayuthaya.
c. From the top of a tall lookout in Bangkok. A view of the city far below.
d. A genius of modern design who created this and other masterpieces of art.
e. Me comfy and fed on a boat heading back to Bangkok from Ayuthaya.
f. Just in case the Arts Degree does not pay, I have an alternative career waiting.
g. Enjoying a ride on an elephant.
h. At Ayuthaya, climbing a Temple steps.
i. The resting Ian.
j. One of the 'naughty' areas of Bangkok.
k. One of the other 'naughty' areas of Bangkok.
l. Me and an elephant getting acquainted.


How can mere words describe my happy times in the ‘Land of 1,000 Smiles’? I will state here and now that Thailand has been the most fun destination in my Asian travels. The people, the places, the sights have all been enjoyable, rewarding, and fun fun fun.

My first stop in Thailand was in the southern city of Hat Yai, while small, this is a bustling town with a booming economy. I spent a day here in order to sample the delights of Thailand before diving into the megalopolis that is Bangkok. I secured a room without a view at a small hotel which caters for passing farangs (Euro foreigners). I then looked around for a few activities. The most obvious was a one day expedition into the jungle. This I partook of, it was hot and humid, sticky and with a few bugs, but an enjoyable experience. After this I was more than ready to head north to the big city. I booked a train, first class (the other classes were not so good), hopped on board and immediately went to sleep.

The train trip itself was fine, however, I have noted that most of the countries I have visited were somewhat bureaucratic in their operating procedures. Thai rail was no exception. No less than three people came by in my first half-hour on board to ask to see my ticket. This was in addition to the chap who showed me to my cabin. Needless to say, this was not overly helpful when it came to sleep.

Upon arrival in Bangkok I was approached by a local taxi driver who offered to take me to my hotel for a mere 200 Baht (~A$7), and offer which I accepted. I did suspect that this was pricey, and was later to learn that this was in deed excessive, when relying on the meter few trips in Bangkok cost more than 75B. My hotel, as I was again soon to learn (travel is an educational experience), is in the middle of the red light/entertainment area of Bangkok. There are several such areas catering to western men (and more than a few western women) in search of paid ‘romance’ (or fucking). To be frank I see nothing wrong with a little financially remunerated humpy bumby. If I were to register an objection to any form of social behaviour it would be towards smoking and the consumption of alcohol. However, what I did find disturbing was the sight of attractive young Thai girls walking hand in hand with some of the grossest, fat, loser slobs you have ever had the misfortune to set your eyes upon. Every day at breakfast there would be this dichotomy between beauty and the beast. One sight sticks in my mind, this loser from the UK had his girlfriend wear a Supergirl outfit, including boots and cape, for several days. The scariest sight, one which I am still attempting to suppress and will never mention again, was a old, ugly, farang, walking along a main street, in a bright red dress, with his (remaining) hair dyed blonde. Very scary. The Thais are a tolerant people.

One of the entertaining activities in Asian travel is a visit to the local markets. One of the larger in Bangkok is the JJ weekend markets. This is a large area located at the end of the BTS (the Skytrain). I went there on a Saturday to look around and to also meet up with a Thai girl (Aon) I had met on the internet (yahoo messenger to be precise). After a little running around and miscommunication we met and spent a few enjoyable hours chit chatting and travelling around the markets. In summary, prices were I believe good, and there were lots of farangs wandering around looking hot and tired (just like me). One thing I will mention is that it was at this market that my mobile phone was stolen. So far this has been the only disagreeable event of my trip. It was my fault. I normally kept my phone inside my shoulder bag but I had just used the phone and so put it on my belt. A crowded market is a prime location for pickpockets. So, future travellers, be warned!

Speaking of visiting things, I went on a lot of tours, however, with one exception, I shall not attempt to individually itemise. I saw temples, museums, art galleries, saw old building, toured new, climbed high places, visited everything of worth. In case anyone is wondering Bangkok is a great city to visit.

The one tour I found particularly worthy of note was a visit to the old capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya (‘R-U-T-R), which lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Bangkok. It became the ‘old’ capital after an invading Burmese army destroyed the place. Thankfully, old temples and palaces do serve one useful purpose, they make excellent tourist attractions. I took a one day tour to Ayuthaya. In short, it was great, maybe the best tour so far. First we visited the King’s summer palace, then we headed to the old city. It is in ruins, but is slowly being restored. Amidst the rubble and half standing buildings there were hoards of Thai students running around and having their photograph taken. Clearly Ayuthaya is a designated ‘cultural’ artifact for the Thais. My tour group was shown two main set of ruins, one was the palace complex, the second an adjacent temple complex. The tour would have been better if the guide had been a little more knowledgeable about what we were seeing. Fortunately, I had previously purchased a book so I had some idea (and of course, there is that source of universal information: ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to ....’. Then, after the history, was the fun part. A small amusement area, with elephant rides and things to buy. Great fun! The journey back was on a ship, which served an excellent lunch. Being a vego the catering staff kindly made for me an excellent and very large vego meal! I got back to Bangkok happy, replete and tired.

One amusing aspect of touring in Thailand is the presence of touts. You will find these people standing outside tourist spots: temples, sights, and markets, saying something like ‘Where you from?’ or “You like to see something better?’. There goal in life is to take you not where you want to go but to somewhere they want you to go, and spend money. In effect these folk are harmless. There is no prospect of physical violence or intimidation (the Thai’s are a polite people, and also a people small in stature). Their patter, after a few iterations, is amusing, and one can, if one wishes, have some fun with these guys by answering their patter back—’Are you sure this temple closed? People are walking in and out’, ‘Maybe I go, can you pay for taxi first’, etc. All good fun. I did see a few people become annoyed with the touts, understandable, but keeping one’s cool and staying in control of oneself is always the best option. As Mark Twain once wrote, ‘A man should only be concerned about the prospect of being shot in the morning’.

A few passing thoughts on Thailand:
Before I left for Bangkok I had read and been told about the omnipresent noise, pollution, and congestion of the city. I had heard so much that I had come to believe that this could be a damper on my enjoyment, however, I am happy to state that reports of Bangkok’s environmental degradation are greatly exaggerated. It is true that rush hour traffic does not, that noise is omnipresent, and that vehicular pollution can be annoying, but I found all of this, and me coming from the small and quiet city of Perth, not to be a great problem. Away from the main streets you can find quiet and peaceful accommodation, while even near the main thoroughfares things are not so bad. Do not let the oft repeated claims of Bangkok’s detractors put you off from visiting this fine city.

I did see a two movies in Thailand (‘Superman’—OK; ‘Pirates 2’—not so good). The cinematic experience is, I am sure, the same world wide, however, there are two small items of note: Thai cinemas are cold, I was shivering in one; second, the Thais respect their King, amidst the movie previews and the adds for hair cream, there was a 60 second advert for the King, everyone in the cinema, including yours truly, stood. This respect for the King is found in the innumerable signs, banners and posters of the King which are found all over Bangkok (and I am sure throughout the country).

As I am sure everyone knows Thailand is a Buddhist country. The guide books say 95% of the population are Buddhists and, judging by the overt and covert Buddhist activity, I can only agree. This amount of religious adherence does lead to an interesting situation when yours truly is asked to discuss his religious affiliation. Every Thai ‘knows’ that Australians are christians, as such when the topic of religion arises I am invariably referred to as a christian. When I try and explain that I am an atheist and that god does not exist I am met with blank stares from most Thais. The paradigm of religion is deeply embedded in Thai society.

There are lots of farangs in Bangkok, and tourism is a big business, however, it is not being developed as well as it could be. I keep coming back to the example of Singapore, which is essentially a small island with nothing of real interest, but has created a tourist market from scratch with manufactured and somewhat cosmetic attractions while other countries, which do have natural features of note, ignore or fail to fully develop their tourist potential.

After close to two weeks in Thailand I decided it was time to depart and find new adventures. This was to lead me across the border into Cambodia—the next step on my Odyssey.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Malaysia—Penang

Pictures:
a. The artisan who hand crafted the 'Kris' knives of Malaysia.
b. Me, about to ascend Penang Hill.
c. George Town from a lookout in the city
d. The ferry which carried me across to Penang.
e. George Town from the top of Penang Hill.







Malaysia—Penang

Originally, I never in fact planned to visit Penag, it was an idea put into my head by a chance acquaintance on the road (an English traveller by the name of John), and by a desire to break the long train journey to Bangkok.

First, some explanations for those not in the know. Penang is a small island off the coast of northern Malaysia. Its major city is Georgetown, across the water is the neigbouring mainland city of Butterworth. Gtown is a more expensive, tourist city, there are a fair number of visitors and a fair number of expats (largely from the UK) who reside either temporarily or year round on its balmy shores. Transport across is either by ferry or the 13km long (longest in Asia) bridge.

In my mind I thought of Penang as being a sleepy, small town, with a few palm trees and a handful of hotels—nothing could be further from the truth. The town is a growing enterprise with condominions springing up along the coast like weeds. It was only when I ascended Penang Hill (800 metres) and saw the entire city spread out around me that I appreciated the size and diversity of this city (600k people: according to Lonely Planet). It is a vibrant city, yet also friendly and relaxed. I am a little hard pressed to explain this apparent contradiction, but even though people in Penang were usually busy they were never to busy to chat or say hello. Every time I walked past the taxi drivers outside my hotel (a 4 star for A$30 per night! the off season) they said hello and chatted with me for a few moments. In comparison Singapore was a busy and working city, you were definitely a tourist: arrive, see a few sites, and move on: KL was more lively than Sing, but it definitely had that big town feel. Not so Penang.

I spent a total of five days on the island and enjoyed them all. I am almost at a loss to explain what I did. Looking back I can recall the usual tourist activities, and the expected tourist sites, but that still leaves a lot of time unaccounted for. The first day I slept, the second I planned to do my own site seeing but the day began with heavy rain which only got heavier, so I spent most of the day either at Starbucks (with coffee and wireless internet) or in hotel reading and sorting my photos. After that I decided to accept the offer of assistance from a local, a man by the name of Ahmed, who offered to show me around town for a day.


Transportation:
I want to say two things about public transport in Malaysia (this applies to Sing and so far to Bangkok). Everywhere I went, and everyone I spoke to warned my about taxi drivers: they would overcharge, take me on scenic routes, and generally try and scam me. My experience was the total opposite. Every taxi driver, everywhere I went, was curtious, helpful, and honest (mostly). Taxi drivers gave me advice on sites to see, places to visit and where to (and not) to buy things. After my first week abroad I came to rely on these men (so far no female drivers) as my most valued sourse of information. Even when walking past a taxi stand I found that asking a taxi driver gave me the information I needed. So, while I am sure there are unscrupulous drivers out there, this must be a small minority.

The second form of transport I want to discuss is rickshaws. Most people know or have seen these devices, a human powered cart which carries one or two people. In Malaysia (and in a small way Sing) these are tourist attractions, hop on board and a man will pull you around the town. To cut a long story short, after some thought, I decided not to partake of their services. My thinking is that it is undignified and disrespectful to use a human in this way. I realise that this is their job, and they can potentially make a fair sum, but that is my opinion and I will stick to it. Suffice it to say, I did not ride a rickshaw.

More advice:
For those contemplating a trip to SE Asia (or at least the countries I have visited so far) don’t feel a need to bring my travel stuff with you. You buy most items (if not all) much cheaper in Sing or Malaysia. Get off the plan, go to your hotel, and then wander the streets looking for the suburban shopping centres/Malls (not the tourist places): cameras, electronic stuff, bags, etc, will all be cheaper. Of course, if you already have this junk, then no need to worry. Two more but smaller items of advice: carry small denomination US notes ($1 & $5), very handy for tips and small purchases. Second, carry with you a small notebook, to jot down notes and to write instructions for people.

I would recommend a few days for the weary traveller in Penang.

Onwards to Thailand!