Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Day 66 – A deserted beach resort, electricity troubles, and crossing the road. (Cambodia)

Now in Otres Beach, on the South coast of Cambodia, we are experiencing a very small and out of the way tourist beach resort in low season. We’ve found that basically everywhere we’ve been has been in low season. Most of the time this is exactly how we want it – especially in places such as Koh Phi Phi or Siem Reap where it would be horribly packed in peak season, and a lot more expensive. Otres Beach however is on such a small scale that even in peak season it would still be very small and quiet. We’ve found a really nice place to stay though called Moonlight Rock, which was absolutely the cheapest, but also I think the nicest. And it seems that the other five people in Otres Beach right now are also staying here. Having no other people around though does make it easy to find each other. Tom and Tom just went for a swim and I said I’d meet them down there if they tell me which bit of beach they’re going to. They pointed in the general direction of the water and said “we’ll be the two people on the beach”.

We did experience a couple of powercuts while we were in Kampot, but since arriving in Otres Beach 20 or so hours ago, we have found out just how much a part of life they are for people living in this area. Well, for people that have electricity to begin with, which I’m sure wouldn’t apply to a lot of the housing we passed on the drive here. It is basically just constantly going on and off, sometimes only for a minute at a time, sometimes for a couple of hours. And when they decide they need it for something (lights at night, internet, etc) they boot up the generator. And this is why power is so expensive in Cambodia. According to Lonely Planet an Australian on minimum wage works for 18 seconds to pay for an hour of electricity, whereas the average Cambodian (and really I think this is probably still generous) will work for an hour and a half for an hour of electricity. We had wondered why A/C rooms in guesthouses are generally about double the price of a fan room, but this explains it perfectly.

Driving in countries where the general rule is “if there’s a gap, and you can pretty much fit into it, you can go there” is something that we’re working on mastering. It’s pretty easy for me actually, considering that’s how I usually drive in Melbourne, but I’m not used to everyone else on the road also driving like that. But being a pedestrian and most importantly crossing the road where this is the mentality of the traffic, is a separate thing to come to grips with. Looking right, left, right (or left, right, left) just won’t cut it. At first my idea was that you have to “just go”, which is mostly correct. What I’ve refined it to though is “pretend you’re a car”. Everyone knows that the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way you have. So if you pretend you’re the biggest vehicle on the road, they’ll all go around you. The boys were sceptical, but none of us have been run over yet so it seems to be working out fine.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Day 65 - A few beers with some locals, and a foggy search for an abandoned casino. (Cambodia)

The town of Kampot where we are currently staying isn't exactly built up and happening. In fact we tried to compare it to an equivalent in Australia and realised we couldn't, because we wouldn't have ever heard of such a place. So when we headed out for something to eat last night we didn't have many options, so stopped in at the first street kitchen stall we found. Our meal was fine, and we were just about to pay up and head home when it started raining - tropical style. So really with no other option we decided to migrate inside and have a beer to sit out the rain. At this point we realised that inside was actually just the family's house - there were children sleeping in hammocks in the corner. But we were made to feel most welcome by the ten or so men that were sitting inside drinking and eating, so in we went. One of them (a policeman we were told) shared some of his meat (probably pork) with us, taught us "cheers" in Khmer and showed us some tricks with his beer can. Then the power went out, which the locals were obviously quite used to, immediately pulling out torches and candles from their pockets. Growing up in the countryside of Scotland, we were always equipped for this kind of thing, but it's something that living in Melbourne, we just never encounter. We were so out of place in this Khmer family's house, but they were so accepting of us, and I guess as long as we were buying beers from them they were happy to have our company. And so we bought beers and they kept us entertained until the power came on and the rain eased.

As with all the abandoned French villas in this area, there is an old casino of the same style up in the hills, supposedly only accessable by a 4x4 track and weather permitting. It was a pretty rainy day (not tropical type rain though, just constant drizzle which we found peculiar), but we decided to give it a go anyway. We took the turn off to the mountain road and were stunned by the brand new, perfectly marked, two lane road which has obviously been built since the edition of Lonely Planet that we have was published. As we ascended though we became enclosed in a huge cloud hanging over the side of the mountain, removing all visibility and making it incredibly hard to figure out if we had accidentally driven past the casino. There was quite a surprisingly complex road network, which we ended up exploring quite thoroughly. One of the roads we turned onto actually ended, abruptly and definitely with no warning. It's the first time I've ever seen a brand new road just finish at an exact line like that - very odd looking. We stopped at a grand old gateway, also abruptly ending the road we were on, through which were a few abandoned buildings from this era. Probably one of those buildings was the one we were looking for, but it was so foggy and by this point also raining and therefor muddy, so we decided to sit in the car and eat baguettes and pate for lunch instead. We may or may not have found what we set out to look for, but it was an incredible drive through dense fog in a Cambodian national park.

Day 64 - Fitness tips when in Phnom Penh. (Cambodia)

There's a brilliant opportunity to get some free excercise by the water front in Phnom Penh. Something like 100 people, more at times - mainly old local ladies, but also a few men, tourists and young people - participate in a Zumba/aerobics type class, that as far as we can see is on at all times and open for anyone to participate in. Of course it seemed pretty inviting to get involved, but it was a bit hot and sticky for me to be inclined to excercise. Ben however joined in and got right into it, strutting his stuff and showing off his sweet moves.

There was also a bunch of treadmills and weight machines and other such equipment, but alas they were all in use so we weren't able to try them out.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Day 64 - Killing Fields, people watching, abandoned French villas and thoughts about food. (Cambodia)

Before leaving Phnom Penh we took a drive out to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (better known as the Killing Fields) just outside of the city. This is one of the hundreds of sites all over the country where the Khmer Rouge brought about 20,000 people to be executed in the 1970's (a total of about 3 million), a truly horrible yet significant place to visit. It's very hard to put these things into words without losing some of the intensity and horrificness of the situation, but really it is such a confronting thing to face.

We found a nice shop by the water front in Phnom Penh (aimed at European ex-pats we assume) which sold pharmacy items, English language newspapers, cigars and a wide selection of foreign soft drinks and beers. So we purchased a Leffe Blond each and sat on by the side of the river, which turned out to be an excellent people watching position. We were happily surprised by the lack of hassling and begging aimed at us. Most of what we did get was people asking for our empty cans and bottles, or actually selling stuff but being able to take no for an answer. We even saw a few people with the interesting business idea of carrying around bathroom scales and offering a weighing service. Of course there was the usual white men with young Asian women, and a few backpackers. At one point we watched two foreign men (probably in their 70's) approach a local woman, and although we couldn't hear what was being said it was fairly obvious what was going on. Unfortunately her high heels, nice dress and inviting figure had given them the wrong idea, but in fact she wasn't aiming to sell her body and was probably just heading out for dinner with some friends. She was fairly blunt in trying to shake them off, but they were persistent and kept following her for a while. Eventually she got the point across, but it was quite an embarrassing things to witness. As she walked away, obviously quite humiliated, we watched them continue to accost other similarly dressed women. Some of the Western couples and families though were hard to pick whether they were on holiday or actually living locally. When we saw two old white women who didn't look like tourists we actually wondered whether they could be left over from before the Khmer Rouge, but we dismissed this as fairly impossible. We did meet one American guy who was here to help with the de-mining; I wonder how many other people we saw are also here for similar type of aid projects.

Today we made our way from Phnom Penh to Kampot, in the South of Cambodia. The roads we've driven on in the last few days have deterioratied a lot since our first impressions, becoming much more like what we had expected throughout Asia. We're starting to realise why luxury four wheel drives are what all the rich locals are driving. The 150km that we drove today took us around four hours.

We stopped for a look around the town of Kep, which we compared to Portsea in Victoria (Australia). There's not actually much there, in terms of shops or attractions - it's just a nice place by the beach with really expensive properties and lots of very nice hotels. It seems to be the popular place for wealthy Cambodians to go for holidays. What sets it apart though is the remnants of the French colony still present behind the beach front. All the old French villas are still there, shelled and abandoned at the time of the Khmer Rouge, now left to disrepair, but still the majesty of the buildings is so evident. There's an odd feel about the town, sort of like a ghost town, and yet it is very enchanting. It is such a surreal thing to see - these houses that forty years ago would have been resplendent, set on the hills overlooking the ocean, in a lively town full of French people; now completely dilapidated, and left to be taken over by the forest.

We've been loving the food in Cambodia so far. There's a lot of cross over with other cuisines such as Vietnamese and Thai, but the freshness and variety available has been quite impressive. Evidence of the French colony also remains in the plethora of bakeries, baguette stalls and French restaurants, and after not having had these types of food available to us really since Australia, it is quite a nice change to have these options. A couple of nights ago in Phnom Penh, we decided to really fork out and eat at a proper posh French restaurant. We shopped around a bit and decided on Comme a la Maison where we had an incredible three course plus drink meal for around $12 each. It feels like a lot when that's 12 times what we're used to spending on one meal, but it was actually a highlight for us and we're still talking about it several days later.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Day 63 - Local humour, and a new driving style. (Cambodia)

Siem Reap is a very beautiful city, very obviously based around tourism, but still retaining its small town feel. On the drive in from Poipet we were astounded by the huge and luxurious hotels lining the road, but once we were in the town centre we became engrossed in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the mixture between backpackers and locals. It was a shame though how sterile the town seemed in a way, because the vast majority of the buildings were really quite new. We had planned on staying for three or so nights probably, but suddenly we'd been there a week already and had to drag ourselves away.

With the exception of a bunch of children trying to scam tourists and the odd dodgey tuk tuk driver, we were so amazed by how truly friendly and helpful the locals were. One of the guys working at our hostel - Mr Paul - took it upon himself to basically mind our car for the duration of our stay. It's the first country we've been to on this trip where they understood our humour and were quite happy to laugh at us and themselves, in a very light hearted way.

One evening I was purchasing a can of coke at the convenience store and when I asked for a straw the guy told me quite sincerely that it was $5. Thinking I may have misheard him I asked "sorry?" and he answered "$5", but this time with a smile. Realising I had heard correctly and he was making a joke, I asked if I could have a special price, to which he asked "what you pay?". This is exactly how any market sale or bartering is worded. I suggested the price of $0, and he agreed.

We've also taken to playing some games with tuk tuk drivers - seeing as the vast majority of them actually get what we're doing and a lot of them even like to play along. When they ask if we want a tuk tuk we can respond with "I think we'll drive actually". Most of the time though they simply just wave and point at their tuk tuk, screaming out "tuk tuk". So we've taken to waving back and pointing at other objects such as buildings, cars, people, shops, bikes etc and calling out the respective names. Or then we thought maybe "tuk tuk" is a greeting, and they're all just saying hi when we walk past. So when they wave and say "tuk tuk", we respond by waving and also saying "tuk tuk". Sometimes we're met with "my friend, tuk tuk". To this we can respond with "my friend, Tom". The list goes on, and continues to grow. It is somewhat rewarding though when they understand what we're doing and also find it humourous.

The children in Siem Reap that were begging to tourists were usually girls around 8 years old (probably - they actually could have been 6 or 12, I'm not sure), and always carrying a baby. They almost exclusively approach women (always tourists) and say in perfect English "I don't want money, I only want food. I need milk for my sister. Please lady, it's for the baby." It is quite a heart breaking sight, and at first it seems that they're really genuine, but over our week in Siem Reap we were able to watch their antics. They would be standing around playing with each other and acting like kids, then as soon as they see some tourists approach on go the sad faces and into the arms with the baby. Between possible donors they pinch and slap the babies to make them cry. We did witness one good hearted lady who got sucked in. She was in the convenience store buying milk for the baby, and as she was paying for it the child grabbed it away and ran off yelling "you stupid lady it's not for the baby, it's for me hahahaha".

The first stretch of the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh remained at a pretty decent standard, and we were starting to wonder whether we'd ever get to the poor quality of roads that we were expecting to spend most of this trip on. And then we got there. Quite suddenly the road completely deteriorated, becomig basically unmade in sections and extremely uneven. We drove through quite a blustery storm at one point, and the road got completely flooded, which made avoiding the potholes and larger rocks quite a challenge. The traffic also started getting much heavier and the drivers seemed to get a lot crazier. The last 30km before Phnom Penh took us over an hour. Changing driving mentality is quite a challenge. When you're used to the idea that each lane goes in one direction, and you only overtake if you can see clearly ahead of you and nothing is coming, switching to the idea that any gap is fare game is somewhat daunting. But if you don't adopt the local driving style, you actually just won't get anywhere.

We've been a bit shocked at the wealth that's evident in Phnom Penh. The number of Lexuses and Landcruisers, as shiny as if they'd just driven out of the display room, driving around is incredible. Likewise there is an incredible amount of really posh housing, locked up behind huge security fences with guards or even police out front. I would always expect there to be an upper class, with a huge divide between them and the lower class, in any third world or developing country. I just hadn't expected so many people to fit into this upper class.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Day 59 - Seven guys in a car. (Cambodia)

Our new friends Daniel and Chrissie from Germany and Caro from the Netherlands (who we met when they challanged us to a foosball match in a bar and then beat us 5-1) were heading out to a nearby fishing village on Sunday, so we decided to have a rest from Angkor Wat for a day and join them for a roadtrip. So we unpacked the boot and piled three in there to fit the seven of us in the car - you know, do as the locals do.

We headed out to Chong Kneas, a village that we believed to be a bit off the beaten track, not exactly sure what we were actually going to. Sure enough it was no where near any sort of beaten track, so we drove along the  potholed and rocky dirt track for a few kilometers before reaching the end of the road where we parked and went for a wander. All the houses and buildings were wooden and built on stilts, arranged seemingly haphazardly around a large number of fishing boats. Because it's now the dry season we missed out on seeing the village floating though, as it would in the wet season. We wondered what it would be like to have the opportunity to re-park your house every six months. If you don't like your neighbours can you just make sure you float away from them before the end of the wet season? Perhaps they sometimes play tricks on each other and pretend they're all going to park on the other side of the river this year. Then that guy would have to swim across the river every time he wants to do anything.

On we went in search of Me Chrey, another village that was a bit bigger but supposedly still accessable by car (most of the ones in guidebooks etc are only accessable by boat). With no real map or directions we did our best to find the village, but nobody along the way had any idea where this place was. Realising we'd gone much too far we decided to drive into a country club we came across to ask for directions. As with the casinos in No Man's Land, we were faced with the bizarre contrast between here and a few meters over there. We left the un-made road packed with locals on rickety bicycles, scooters stacked up to twice the height of the rider and unwashed children playing in the gutters. At the entrance to the country club we passed a immaculately uniformed security guard who ushered us in, where we drove along a smooth, newly laid road, through a perfectly groomed golf course, until we reached the magnificent building staffed by several perfectly manicured and well dressed Cambodians. Ben put on his golfing hat and entered the lobby to ask for directions, causing much hilarity from both our party and the line of staff watching us. Thankfully one of them knew where Me Chrey was, and sure enough we had gone too far. So back we went.

There was a market near the turn off so we stopped to ask for some more directions and have a quick look around. It's the kind of market where they don't get many (or any?) tourists, and we had the best fresh spring rolls with the most delicious sauce I've ever tasted for only 500Riel (12.5c) each.

The road we'd been told to take was made of bright red dust which in contrast to the bright green of the trees and fields, dotted occasionally with a wooden building, some cows crossing the road or a child playing in the mud, was one of the most stunning natural sights we've come across yet. The road did deteriorate quite drastically though and after a few kilometers we decided to switch to four wheel drive - for the very first time on this trip. Three people in the boot is pretty tight, so we'd been leaving the back door folded down for some extra leg room, but the road became much too uneven so all limbs had to be folded back into the car and the door closed. Eventually we reached what we thought might be a village, but it was only a couple of houses and the ladies outside directed us further along the road. On we went, the road becoming ever narrower and muddier, the foliage on either side closing in and coming in the windows as we drove. But there's no way we could to a u-turn when we could barely even fit the car on the track, and we weren't overly inclined to drive into the tall grass in an area known for unexploded landmines. Surely we would arrive at the village soon. As we approached a very small clearing, two kids on bikes coming the other way told us, when asked, that we couldn't drive any further. So as a group we pulled a very tight three point turn (one driver and six directors/checkers of unexploded landmines), and headed back the way we'd come.

We never found the village we were looking for, but we had a darn fine day bonding with our new friends whilst taking Trevor for some off-roading and enjoying the Cambodian countryside.

Monday, 21 May 2012


Some more photos in the Cambodia album. Our first proper four wheel driving experience in the countryside near Siem Reap.


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Day 55 - Friendly Cambodians, Currency confusion and a day at Angkor Wat. (Cambodia)

We were really surprised at the high quality of roads throughout Thailand, but were expecting that once we got to Cambodia they would deteriorate drastically. Again though, they're really just fine. The road from Poipet was a bit more hectic perhaps than what we're used to, but the road itself is no worse than most main roads through the Australian countryside. Having expected it to take four or five hours, we were pretty happy when we managed to cover the 150km to Siem Reap in a couple of hours.

We stopped for lunch on the way, at a street kitchen in a town we don't know the name of and were immediately struck by how friendly everyone was. The ladies in the restaurant weren't hassling us or ripping us off, and despite their complete lack of English and our complete lack of Khmer, we negotiated a price and had a good meal. When I felt an arm around my waist I thought either one of the boys was being a bit inappropriate or someone was trying to steal my money. I turned around though to find that the arm belonged to a smiley old lady, much shorter than me, who just wanted to say hi.

The currency situation in Cambodia is a bit confusing. They use both US$ and their own currency, the Riel. Although we're well aware that we'll be dealing with this a lot over the next few months, it is our first experience of it so we're still getting used to it. Most things $1 or over seem to be priced in $, and anything less is dealt with in Riel, but the two are quite interchangeable. The exchange rate is $1 = 4,000Riel, so for example if something is 75c you can pay with $1 and get 1,000Riel change. Or if something is $1.50 you can pay 6,000Riel. What we've noticed though is that things seem to be much more expensive because of this. We had expected Cambodia to be much cheaper than Thailand, but this isn't the case at all. It will be interesting to see what it's like when we're not in a tourist town next to one of the biggest attractions in the world.

We spent yesterday at the famous and magnificent Angkor Wat, only a couple of km out of Siem Reap. It certainly is a huge complex of temples and buildings, and it was a big relief to have our own car to be driving around in. The whole circuit is over 30km and there are things to look at the entire way. Most people seem to hire a tuk tuk and driver for a day, at a cost of something like $20-$30. We had hummed and hawed about whether to get a one day ticket for $20 or a 3 day ticket for $40. We decided in the end we'd spend the $40, which was just as well because we spent about six hours at the site and by the end we were completely exhausted and still had not even seen 10% of the whole place.

It's incredible to see how well preserved so much of it is after hundreds and hundreds of years, yet the bits that have been left to ruin were so interesting to climb around and explore. It was ridiculously humid though, despite quite a cool breeze and we got very very hot and smelly walking around the various buildings. There were several very steep staircases for us to climb that were made out of the original stone, now worn and uneven, each step upto my knee and sometimes barely wide enough to place a foot on. They must have been incredibly fit.

Our favourite temple was actually the one where Tomb Raider was filmed. The trees seem to have grown out of the stone, and now the roots are consuming the walls. The building is a maze of doorways, passages and clearnings, surrounded by both walls still standing and ruins of walls and roofs that once were. Every way you turn, there's another nook or cranny with something to look at. While we were inside this temple it started to rain. It never became more than a light drizzle, but it was enough to scare off all the tourists. So as we explored the ruins, we were by ourselves and the silence made the whole experience so serene.

It is very easy to see why Angkor Wat is considered one of the most culturally significant and interesting sites in the world. We bought three day tickets so we can see a bit more of it, but today we decided to have a chill out day and we'll resume tourism tomorrow.


Photos of Angkor Wat are now up on www.facebook.com/4guysinacar/photos

Our friends in Bangkok (Thailand)

While we were in Bangkok, we had a meal with family friends who live there. One of the things I haven't been doing as much as I would like to is trying all the tropical fruits that are sold all over the place. Partly it's because the company I'm holding isn't overly interested, and partly it's because I don't really understand how to buy it or eat it. So when they pulled out the fruit bowls for dessert I was over the moon and filled myself up on lychees, mangosteens, watermelon and some others I can't remember the names of.

Mike and Jane and their two daughters have lived in Thailand for years doing all sorts of good work in various areas of the country. At the moment they are stationed in Bangkok where Jane is working on an AIDS project and Mike works with children who have been abused or exploited. If anybody is interested in finding out about their work or would like to help in any way you can look at these links, or we can put you directly in contact with Mike or Jane.

A powerpoint about the AIDS project:


The English website of Mike's child project:


Friday, 18 May 2012

Day 55 - A disgustingly luxurious night spent in No Man's Land. (Border crossing Thailand to Cambodia)

We had expected the drive from Bangkok to Aranya Prathet/Poipet (Thailand/Cambodia) border to take a couple of days, but we managed it (thanks to the surprisingly good condition of the Thai roads) in one. The Thai side of things ran pretty smoothly – they checked our Carnet (even though Thailand’s not in the Carnet system), stamped our passports and on we went. We paid the 25Bhat (80c) “fee for our car” and went onto the Cambodian Immigration office where we were asked for US$20 + 100Bhat each for our visas. We paid the US$20 that the visa actually costs and told them we wouldn’t be paying their “service fee”. They weren’t overly happy with this, but it was just a matter of sitting it out until they got bored.

At this point we were struck by what can only be described as South East Asia’s Las Vegas, located in the No Man’s Land between the two countries. Between the humble towns on either side of the border there were a dozen or so casinos. We were one of the very few vehicles on the road that wasn’t either a brand new, unregistered Humvee, Escalade or other type of luxury 4x4, or a hand-made wooden push cart, piled high with cargo and being pushed and/or pulled by its hot and dusty owners.

We had been advised by our friends in Bangkok that these casinos can be a good place to look for cheap accommodation because they’re for Thais who want to gamble, and not at all for tourists. So we thought we’d have a look, and sure enough we found that each of the casinos was offering different deals. The one we found to be the cheapest was offering double rooms for 1,000Baht (approx $30), but they gave you 500Bhat in chips on arrival. The chips were "promotional" so couldn't be cashed in straight off, so we sat at a baccarat table for a few minutes, hedging each other's bets, until we had real chips that we could exchange for cash. So in the end we got a proper 5 star hotel room for 250Baht each(approx $8).

Being in the awkward location of No Man’s Land, we weren’t sure until we arrived what currency they’d be using though, so we thought we’d just have to use a credit card or withdraw from an ATM.  We had not foreseen however that they wouldn’t accept a credit card, considering the magnitude of these businesses, and after asking in almost every casino we discovered that there weren’t even any ATMs in No Man’s Land.

Uh oh, by this time it was almost 7pm, already dark and we were stuck with no money. We realised we were going to have to enter Cambodia to get money out, then try and re-enter No Man’s Land. This could be a tricky thing to get past Cambodian Customs, but we had no choice. Ben waited with Trevor in No Man’s Land (just in case we couldn’t get back in and he’d have to drive into Cambodia), and we approached the Customs Officials to try and explain our situation. They told us it was fine, we just had to leave one passport with them which we could collect on the way back. So on we went to the border town of Poipet, from where we could still see the lights of the casinos. Carrying nothing but our bank cards and two of our passports, we walked along the dirt road, trying our best to avoid the children’s hands grabbing at our pockets and the insistence from everyone that we either give them money or buy their goods. The only light on the streets was that from the casinos, and the contrast between rich and poor has never been more evident to me. Eventually we found an ATM and took out the money we needed, and on our way back to the border, just hoping that we’d get my passport back with no bribery or patting down involved, we passed the confronting sight of a cattle truck driving into the police station, stuffed to the brim with people.

Back at Customs I was returned my passport with no problem, until he then decided I needed to get it stamped into Cambodia. We couldn’t be sure if he understood that we were crossing back into No Man’s Land, and the fact that he only wanted my passport stamped was curious. And we were carrying a very uncomfortable amount of cash. Eventually some more people came and said stuff and yelled at each other, and we decided it was best if we all got our passports stamped then.

We had a great night, living up the luxury of our hotel at what for us is a very affordable price, knowing it would be a long time before we stayed somewhere that comfortable again. All the while though, aware that just outside this climate controlled paradise, there were people on the street, homeless and starving.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Day 53 - The sewage boat, bathroom design, and some time in a Thai prison. (Thailand)

As we had been driving north to Chiang Mai and Pai, we were really enjoying the gradual but definite lowering in temperature and humidity. But now that we've driven back south again to Bangkok, the tropics are once again taking their toll on us. But we've pushed through and have spent the last two days wandering the streets of the city.

We took part in the important cultural experience yesterday of catching the river boat, or as we have fondly nicknamed it, the "sewage boat". This is a small vessel that travels the narrow canals or "open sewers" at a pace most of us would be uncomfortable doing in a car on an open road. As we found out the hard way, the splash from the river into the boat is quite hefty as you're travelling along, so there are tarpaulin walls operated by a rope. Unfortunately the onus is on the passenger next to the rope to lift the tarpaulan, and we were that passenger. So everyone got a nice splash before we realised what we were supposed to do. This is where we're glad we had the foresight to be immunised against things such as hepatitis.

As we're travelling, we are continuously baffled by the bathrooms. Squatting instead of sitting, and squirting instead of wiping, and lack of hot water and soap are all things that we would expect and can to some extent understand, and certainly deal with quite easily. But the thing that we just can't fathom is that even when a bathroom is reasonably spacious or we're in quite a Western establishment, the shower is invariably located above the toilet. It's great if you need to relieve yourself whilst showering, but for the vast majority of us (Ben being one of the few exceptions) this isn't actually ever an issue.

The Prison Museum sounded exciting and was recommended to us by our friends who live in Bangkok, so we headed there this morning. At first we were a little skeptical when the guard with the gun told us to follow him down an alleyway, in the opposite direction of the arrows on the signs, but we did as we were told and he took us to an old prison building. Then he unlocked the huge bolts on each of the doors, showed us in and closed it all behind us. We weren't entirely confident that we weren't locked in, but we did what the man with the gun told us to. The museum was actually very interesting, if not a bit spooky. There were all sorts of torture devices and objects prisoners used to make and use such as dominoes for gambling and pipes for smoking. And there was information on all the different methods of execution, accompanied with pictures and life-size models. As it turns out it is a free museum, so that added to the overall enjoyment of the experience.

When we left we were all quite thirsty so resolved to stop at the next 7-11. Usually they are within 200m of each other (sometimes literally across the road) so we just walked in the direction we wanted to go. We realised it was actually the furthest we have travelled in Thailand without passing a 7-11 and decided to ask someone for directions. We still couldn't find one and even started walking around in circles a little bit. This is the land of 7-11's and the one time we were actively looking for one, we just couldn't find it. Needless to say we bought drinks elsewhere, and around the next corner we found one.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Day 50 - Great times in the incredible city of Chiang Mai (Thailand)

After originally planning on staying only one night in Chiang Mai, we realised we were enjoying the city way too much to leave and ended up staying for four. Although we didn't do any of the organised jungle trecking, elephant related activites, or other such things that people flock to Chiang Mai to do, we had a fantastic time exploring the city and its surrounds. Doi Suthep Temple on the mountains overlooking the city was incredible; lots and lots of shiny gold. One does get somewhat exhausted of temples in this part of the world, so choosing the ones to go and see becomes important. And it's a very interesting city, the old town surrounded by a wall and a moat, with remnants of colonial style buildings all over the place. There are plenty of tourists around, and yet it is a city full of Thai people and the things that make them interesting, such as entire street of harware stores. I'm not generally into hardware stores but when they sell 50 year old appliances, ponchos and guitars it's a completely different story.

But the thing about Chiang Mai that kept us there for three extra days was the other travellers that we met at our hostel. It's easy for us because we have a car to miss out on this aspect of travelling; we often stay at very cheap hotels in cities we've never heard of where they've never encountered a tourist. Although this is an interesting part of our trip, it is nice to revive our social skills every now and then. We took a drive to Teung Thao lake yesterday, and on the way out bumped into the various people that we'd met while we were there. We ended up leading a ten-person, two-scooter and Trevor convoy, with our first ever passengers in the car, out to this beautiful lake where we spent the afternoon sitting on a bamboo shack over the water.

It was actually quite sad to leave our new friends, but we all parted ways yesterday and we made our way south towards Bangkok. We spent the night in the unknown town of Phitsanulok, about 400km north of Bangkok.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Day 47 - Muay Thai (Thailand)

We had the pleasure last night of experiencing a real-life Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) show. We arrived at the advertised start time of 9pm and paid our 400Bhat (AU$13), to find that we were amongst the only half a dozen spectators. We found a jenga set to entertain ourselves with and quickly realised that the point of getting us in an hour early is to wrangle some extra drink sales. Some more spectators arrived and we noticed the disproportionate number of single middle aged white men.
Eventually the fights started and we were surprised that the first fight was between what looked like 10 year olds. The second opponents were probably 15. We hadn't realised that we would be watching children fight, and the cheap skate in us harked up, considering it to be less value for money. And then our upper-middle class educated and oppinionated upbringings came out and we wondered whether it's right for children to be fighting professionally at all. Surely, if nothing else, they may not be able to develop properly, and the risk of long term injury must be much higher than that of a grown up. I wonder how much, if any, of our entry ticket goes to the fighters.

We weren't overly impressed when we found out that we were also expected to pay for the privilege of using the toilets, if you can call them that. Surely our entry ticket could cover the running costs, considering there's nothing like toilet paper or soap provided, and they didn't seem to have huge cleaning costs. Anybody who's ever travelled anywhere has experienced this type of frustration, but that doesn't stop it from irking me.
As the evening progressed we noticed the increase in young Thai females (or dressed as such) paying attention to the single middle aged white men. By the last fight there were very few groups/couples that weren't made up of this demographic. Interestingly enough, all the bars set up around the area were quite openly catering for this strand of tourism.
Perhaps a Muay Thai show would be better in a bigger, or more famous arena. If it was set up for locals who are interested in the sport instead of tourists looking for a cultural experience, I'm sure it would have been quite a different kettle of fish. Having said that we were tourists looking for a cultural experience, and that certainly is what we got.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


Some more photos of Thailand, and a few from our day in Burma are now up on facebook.


Monday, 7 May 2012

Day 44 - A change of vehicle and Accident #2 (Thailand)

We decided today that we would follow the crowd and be normal tourists, hiring scooters for the day. All the cool kids were doing it and although having a car is awesome, the idea of scooting about the narrow mountain roads on a scooter did seem appealing. And we certainly did have a very enthralling day exploring the area, including a 40km or so chunk of the mountain pass between here and Chiang Mai.

We did however have our second accident of the trip - funnily enough this one also involved a scooter, but this time the culprit was Ben. Although he had actually been hooning for most of the day (I am obliged to include the fact that his top speed was 110kmh), it was starting to get dusk and we were on a pretty tricky bit of road so we were all taking it carefully. Unfortunately some sort of bug got caught inside his shirt and gave his arm a sharp bite, sending him into freak out mode which resulted in a run-in with the nearest ditch. His legs are actually more cut up than the guy Denner knocked off his bike in Krabi. Special thanks go to Doctor Denner who did a brilliant job of administering alcohol wipes (much to Ben's disgust) and some well secured bandages to the damaged areas.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Day 44 - A day in Burma and a drive through the Thai Highlands (Thailand/Burma)

Having picked up some stupid bug somewhere along the lines, I haven't been feeling very well the last few days, hence the shortage of blogging. But all is now well.

We tried and failed miserably to stay a night in Petchaburi. After driving around the town for two hours and stopping in a shopping centre for directions, we eventually found our way to a hotel. Unfortunately it was a proper posh hotel costing at least five times as much as we planned on spending, so even though that's still a little under $20 each, we couldn't really justify it. On we went to Ratchaburi where we did manage to find somewhere cheap and dingy enough for our requirements.

The following day took us to Tak, a town about 80km from the border of Burma. We've noticed that everybody seems to come out at night a lot more than we're used to in Australia. At 10am there are often not many people on the streets and most shops are still closed. Then rush hour seems to be the duration of the afternoon, and most shops remain open until 9 or 10pm. We've also noticed that most people eat dinner much later in the evening, and the night markets and street restaurants are open until quite late at night. Tak however, perhaps just because it is a much smaller town than Chumphon or Phatthalung, seemed to be up and running much earlier in the day and closing up sooner in the evening.

Day 42 (Saturday 5th May) was the day we've all been looking forward to. Well, one of the many days. We drove the exciting and treacherous road from Tak to Mae Sot, a 80km stretch of wet and windy danger where we passed about a dozen overturned 4x4s, a few derailed semi-trailers and way too many unfortunate scooters in the ditches. Despite it's windiness, the road was actually pretty wide and properly sealed, the local drivers just don't seem to be able to keep their vehicles on the roads. Needless to say, we were much better at staying on the road and managed to get to Mae Sot with our car still on all fours.

We were disappointed, but not at all surprised to find that we couldn't take Trevor with us into Burma. So walked across the Thai - Burmese Friendship Bridge into the border town on Myawaddy. At Customs we were escorted inside the office where we had to pay 500Bhat (AU$16) and leave our passports for the day. Foreigners are only allowed across the border for one day and the border closes at 5pm.

Although probably not a really true picture of the country, being one of the very few places tourists are allowed to visit, and located right on the border of Thailand, it was a very interesting day for us. Their choice of vehicle, unlike the Thais who much to our surprise drive mainly brand new Toyota Hiluxes (although usually with a around six people sitting in the tray), was more along the lines of the beat up van with five times extra rear suspension, piled high with layers and layers of packages, people and smaller vehicles; the tractor type machine which runs on an engine that has been tied to the front with some sort of rope, and bubbles as it runs; the motorised scooter with seven people on it; and the make-shift bus put together with panels from smaller, worn-out cars. The roads and houses were also worlds apart from their neighbours in Thailand, with only one sealed road in the town and very few houses made of anything other than wood.

But the thing that really struck us was the reactions we got from people. Sure, we got stared at and a few of the bolder ones or young children waved at or even talked to us, but unlike what we usually experience in the developing world, it was out of sheer interest and they were ever so polite and timid about it with no hint of asking for money or anything else. It was most refreshing and really helped us enjoy our few hours in the country.

We arrived yesterday in Pai, a small village north of Chiang Mai in the highlands of Thailand. It's our first time since the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia that we haven't been sweating and have even been able to pull out some trowsers, which is a huge relief. Because the 90km drive from Chiang Mai took us three hours (it was somewhat windier and hillier than we were lead to believe on the map), we'll stay here a couple of nights before heading on our way.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Day 39 - Eating in Chumphon (Thailand)

Other than the time we had to treck through sewage, our last four days which we spent on the island of Koh Phi Phi were very pleasant and relaxing. As is what's the norm when one visits such a place, we did some eating and some sleeping, some swimming and some walking, some drinking and some sleeping. We even visited Maya Bay where the movie The Beach was filmed, and went for a snorkel in the rain.

Now we're back to the real part of our trip where we drive on local roads and stay in obscure towns that most white people have never heard of. We have been very pleasantly surprised with the roads so far. The main highway we have taken through Thailand from Malaysia is of a standard that one would find in Australia (possibly better than some parts of Australia), and even the side streets are all pretty well sealed and of a regular width.

Our destination today was Chumphon, which is a charming town close to untouched by tourism. We're staying in a pretty reasonable hotel - the type that have lifts and a lobby and off-street parking. After checking out all the hostels and guesthouses in the area, we found that it's actually a lot cheaper to do it this way - and we get a much better room. This is where the locals stay, so this is how to get local prices.

As we've had a couple of great experiences of ordering food at a place with no menu and no English, we have become pretty gung-ho with our choice of restaurants. This evening we chose one that was buzzing with locals, which we found very appealing in it's busyness and amount of smoke coming from all sorts of cooking throughout the room. As we sat down, a couple of hot tiles were put on our table and some sort of metal device that had something on it that looked like food. We were getting pretty excited, but then the guy just looked at us expectantly. So we sort of tried to ask what we were supposed to do, but as we were speaking to him in English, he was speaking back in Thai. So we decided to just go for it and started saying various words such as chicken, meat etc. Unforunately it was to no avail, as we were received by a blank stare and lots of funny looks from our fellow diners. As a result, I am ashamed to say, we gave up and went to the next restaurant where we sat on a table on the road and were given the option of pad thai with chicken, tofu or egg, and when we ordered drinks she crossed the road to the convenience store and bought them for us.


There are now some more photos of our adventures in Thailand.