Thursday, 26 August 2010

Ko Chang and Trat

Sunday 22 August: The slow 'wooden' ferry ploughs through the rain, landing at the large mountainous island of Ko Chang, which would be great for trekking in season - but not now. Then it's a sorag-taa-on onto Lonely Beach resort for one night. Rain, rain, rain. So next day I take the vehicle ferry to the mainland and the riverside town of Trat with good restaurants and undercover markets where you can buy freshly-cooked take-aways for a handful of baht. A big bag of cooked mussels with spicy sauce are just 20 baht (40 pence) - wash these down with a few Chang beers and you have a feast.
Wednesday 25th: By-passing the go-go girly beach-bars at Pattaya I'm on the express bus to Bangkok, yes it's still raining.
A few rainy photos of Ko Chang and Trat.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Thailand: Ko Mak

Monday 16 August: Minibus from the border at Hat Lek to Trat, sorng-taa-ou to Laem Ngop pier, then speed boat to Ko Mak. A sorng-taa-ou (63rd mode of transport), literally 'two rows', is a small pick-up truck with bench seats along both sides of the rear and a high tin roof - common throughout Thailand. Ko Mak is a small idyllic island with sandy palm fringed beaches in the Gulf of Thailand - where else would a Scotsman choose to spend his birthday?
Tuesday 17: It's off-season so I'm given Island Huts' best en-suite beach hut - right on the shore with private beach and views across the bay to tiny Ko Rayang - all for just 200 baht a night (about £4). I'm the only one staying so I get the entire beach to myself - wonderful.
I've just finished reading Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything (2005) which, incidentally, is a very good read (for a science text), much better than his earlier travel titles. Clearly Bill saw an opportunity when Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time
(1998) sold more than 10 million. So instead of seeing the island as a poet would, I see it as a physicist does. A bright azure sea with gently lapping waves becomes a bubbling chemical soup, poisonous to mankind, only held in place only by gravity, where life first emerged into a hostile world. How lucky we are to be here.
There's no TV so I do, on my own, what we all did before there was television
- yes, build a fire, of bamboo and coconut husks. I spend my beer-sipping evening watching the flickering orange flames, white lights of night-fishing boats bobbing in the bay and the bright green-tails of fireflies skimming past. Not a care in the world, well, except the danger of injury or death from falling coconuts. What a great way to spend your birthday.
Thursday 19: I could swim but I'm offered a free trip to Ko Rayang aboard the short-tailed supply boat that feeds the islands small cat population (it's uninhabited off-season and I didn't realise cats ate rice). I'm there all afternoon with a few beers, a kayak, snorkel and mask - another great day, but no camp fire tonight as the skies open and a storm begins.
Next day is bright and clear - old palm trees have toppled but wondrous new flowers bloom.
Sunday 22: Slow boat to Ko Chang.
Photos of Ko Mak.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Cambodia summary

A watery kingdom with an ancient Khmer past and a recent more barbaric, Pol Pot - Khmer Rouge led, history. Having survived a disastrous civil war, most Cambodians are still incredibly poor but the happy smiling Khmer people shine through these diversities. An inexpensive country, costs are still negotiable and most Cambodians will drop their prices quickly, if asked, almost embarrassed that they have tried to charge you a little too much in the first place.
Water: Bottled drinking water is readily available.
Drinks: Wine - Bottles of imported French and Australian wines can be bought from as $5 upwards, more in restaurants. Beer - Brewed in Sihanoukville, Angkor draft is very drinkable (50 cents a glass or $1 upwards if it comes in a can) but plenty of other tinned beers are available including Black Panther, locally brewed competition for Guinness - stronger and half the price. Tea - Black Lipton Yellow Label tea as well as local Cambodian tea is served. Coffee - Strong and black but Nescafe and with milk are often served in tourist areas.
Toilets: Mostly upright in hotels, guesthouses, cafes and restaurants.
Both Cambodian riel and US$ are accepted and also given in change (currently $1 = 4,200 riel but, for convenience, 4,000 riel is the usual exchange rate for both buying and selling).
Language: Just about everyone speaks a little English.
TICs: Friendly and keen, if not terribly useful.
Accommodation: En-suite with TV, and maybe a fridge, is usually the norm
Food: Some delicous noodle and rice dishes as well as western fare and, if you pay a little more, French fusion food
Small local shops and stores elsewhere.
Transport: Good bus and boat services.
Apart from the bamboo train in Battambang the rail system a slow freight-only network.
Medical: Variable quality medical services, best to get to Bangkok for serious problems.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sihanoukville and Koh Kong

Sunday 8 August: My four days in Phnom Penh are filled getting dull tasks done: Thai visa, tax self assessment online (a joy not to be missed), sandals heeled and stitched (again), trousers sewn, insect repellents bought, e-mails answered and finally, with a sparkling new Thailand visa, it's off to Cambodia's main beach resort - Sihanoukville.
Thursday 12: I'm staying at Sokhom Guesthouse ($4 for large en-suite with satellite TV, balcony and sea view) at Serendipity Beach, the backpackers favourite. It's off-season but after two days of rain the sun is shining and I jump on my hired 21-gear mountain bike (62nd mode of transport and cycle around for couple of days (I've been here before): Otres Beach with island views, Victory Beach with it's boat jetty, Sokha Beach and back to Serendipity beach near the city's icon - Golden Lion roundabout.
Sunday 15: Bus along the coast to overnight stop at the frontier town of Koh Kong with it's bridge sweeping low over the Stung Koh Poi river towards the Thai border. Tomorrow it's a moto ride across the bridge and into Thailand.
Photos of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Banteay Srei and beyond

Sunday 1 August: The last day of my 3-day Angkor pass so I'm taking a moto-remork to two of the outlying sites.
Banteay Seri, with it's lotus-flower moat and intricate carvings, is regarded as the most ornate of all the temples. It is pretty temple but crowded with Asian coach parties - it is a Sunday.
An hour or so further on is Kbal Spean or 'Valley of a thousand Lingas'. A linga is a phallic object of fertility worship and there are indeed thousands carved in the black rocks and on the stream bed.
From this sacred site the waters eventually flows into the Tonle Sap thus making the whole of Cambodia fertile. On the trail there are also pleasing views across the boulder-strewn valley below.
Photos: Banteay Seri and Kbal Spean .
Tuesday 3: A slight hiccup, the Bangkok government have changed the visa rules, you can only get a 15-day visa when entering Thailand by land. So it's back to Phnom Penh and three-days wait to get a free 60-day tourist visa from the Thai embassy in Cambodia's capital. The overnight bus to Phnom Penh, with wide reclining seats, is the most comfortable I've been on.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Angkor Wat

Saturday 31 July: The largest religious building in the world surrounded by a shimmering 620ft wide moat.
I feel a little let down - not by Angkor Wat itself but by the manor in which it's been put under conservation. While the experts may have university degrees in conservation clearly they don't even have kinder garden qualifications in aesthetics. Much of their work is screened by ugly bright green plastic sheeting making this wonderful building a disappointing sight for the visitors who fund their efforts. I'm glad I was here in 2008.
Angkor was built by Surya II (1112 to 1152) and is also renowned for it's fine asparas, or heavenly nymphs. These, at least, still make a memorable photo.
Photos of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom and Bayon

Friday 30 July: When in 1177 Cham armies, from the Mekong Delta, captured Angkor Wat, sacked it and burned the city to the ground, it took four-years before Jaya VII recaptured Angkor and drove the Chams out of (modern day) Cambodia. A devout Mahayana Buddhist he constructed the city of Angkor Thom, with Bayon at it's heart, and fortified it with a huge wall and wide moat.
Cycling towards the east wall, past a river and overgrown ruins, the first thing you see is the magnificent east gateway supported by six-foot high elephants and topped with the four benign, smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. The moat, once alive with fierce crocodiles, is now a pretty paddy field bridged and guarded by angry gods and demons at war - tugging at a lengthy naga (mythical serpent) in perpetuity. This is fantastic.
Passing through the towered gateway and along a leafy avenue, the vista opens up to reveal the honey-coloured sandstone Kleangs towers and the Terrace of Elephants, once a grand royal viewing platform. The city, at it's peak the home to one-million Khmers, had one-hundred times London's medieval population and a moat wide enough to put all of Europe's castles to shame.
To the south, at the city's centre, is Bayon. From a distance it looks like a pile of old rubble reflected in a puddle. Up close, it's astonishing. Inside the hollow pillared chambers are lined with bas-reliefs showing the defeat and banishment of the Chams under, the great temple builder, Jaya VII. But that is not all, on the third tier you get up close and personal with the enigmatic faces of Avalokiteshvara, a sort of male Mona Lisa. There are 54 towers, each with four-faces apiece, plus five gateway towers adding twenty faces - you can do the maths.
It is, to steal an expression repeated by student backpackers, awesome.
Photos of Angkor Thom and Bayon.