Stop Twenty, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
(Written by Her)
A whole day with elephants in Kanchanaburi...like the animals themselves, we will never forget this experience.
Picked up by an open back truck with bench seats we bounced the 45 minutes into part of the most rural area of Southern Thailand. By the time we arrived at 9am the heat had already penetrated the dirt track outside the sanctuary building such that it radiated like a furnace under our feet. Today was going to be a scorcher!
After a very informal introduction by the long-term elephant volunteers, us day-visitors were asked to sign a waiver along the lines of "wild animals can injure" etc. We were also given some rudimentary safety advice from a local "mahout" (or elephant handler) in bad English, "No pull tail, no shout ear." After the preliminaries we headed over to the food stores to help with the morning feed.
We had been asked to bring one bunch of bananas each but once we saw how much each animal received for breakfast our offering seemed like a drop in the ocean. Along with a Spanish couple we were assigned one elephant, Johnny and a 20kg basket of fruit which included whole watermelon, whole ears of corn, bananas (skin on), pumpkin wedges and raw turnip. The whole basket was enough for just one elephant. Johnny was the youngest of the group and apparently the most troublesome. His mischievousness was immediately evident when he investigated the other elephants' baskets while scoffing his own as well. It was amazing to watch Johnny eat, he would take handfuls of fruit in the curl of his trunk end and deftly flick them into his open mouth. The trunk operated exactly like a hand. His powerful jaws crushed through the hard turnip and whole melon as if they were toast. We could hear the loud pop of the larger fruit as it broke in his mouth and then as quickly, it was gone.
These elephants are fed up to 200kg of food a day. Their diet includes mainly fruits, veg and greens – such as banana tree trunks and leaves. Elephants loose their teeth at about 65 years old and as a result will often starve to death in the wild. Here in elephant world however the gummy ones are sustained on balls of cooked, soft veg mixed with sticky rice, protein powder and crushed elephant feed pellets.
One of our tasks was preparing these "meals-on-wheels" style snacks. After we had fed the younger ones we headed to the ‘kitchen’. This open hut consisted of a fire pit upon which was placed a giant wok and a long wooden table where we were all handed some cleavers – no safety instructions here! We spent 30 minutes chopping and de-seeding pumpkins, shucking corn cobs and adding these to the rice over the heat. The pumpkins were rotting and filled with wiggling maggots that jumped around our hands as we worked. We all took turns stirring the wok contents with long wooden paddles until the rice had given up its starch and took on the runny consistency of porridge. It was tough work in the heat but with some hungry elephants standing watching from outside we were under pressure.
The elephants in the sanctuary are all rescue animals brought here to recover from injuries and to avoid previous abuses & neglect. Many had worked as loggers where their size and strength was used to fell and carry trees. Such work is not just strenuous but also increases the risk of blindness which can easily occur if a stray branch connects with their face. The elephants often had punctured their skin and ears working in the jungles with the scars still visible. Other jungle work includes trekking where tourists ride in seats secured to the elephants back. An elephant's back is its weakest body part, the strongest being their head and neck. In fact an elephant can hold just 100kg on its back, any more does permanent damage. The seats often used for for trekking are large wooden frames weighing 50kg. Add 2 to 4 people and the elephant is in severe pain. One new arrival who had been rescued from trekking still showed the deep puncture wounds of the wooden frame which needed to be swabbed daily to prevent infection.
Other elephants worked with beggars as street performers, being made to walk around the city and pose for photos or do tricks. Elephants are not built for cities where the pavement damages their feet as they feel the aching vibrations of constant traffic=. Elephants can sense ground vibrations from up to 16km! Still some of these elephants are afraid of vehicle sounds and we witnessed one elephant pull away from his mahout and run when a tractor in a nearby field passed by.
After our own lunch we watched the elephants bathe in the mud pool. They clearly loved it, flicking the mud along their back and belly to protect themselves from the sun. The smaller ones even rolled around in the mud, pushing with their shoulders and sitting on top of each other. As we stood on the over-looking wooden bridge we were reminded just how close we really were when a blast of mud from a nearby trunk covered half the group including ourselves.
After the mud bath we needed to gather tomorrow's green foods for the elephants. We piled into the back of some pick-up trucks – standing holding onto the searing hot bars and took off about 5km into the jungle where our driver spotted some banana trees. One of mahouts, armed with a rusty machete, merrily hacked away at the base of the trees. No safety pointers, no call of "timber"– just make sure you get out of the way was all that was implied. Indeed some people were quite lucky! Once felled, the trees were cut into two more manageable pieces to be dragged back to the pick-up trucks for transportation. Of course the trees did not just have bananas living on them with many of us encountering enormous red ants, unafraid to dig their visible pinchers through the skin of our exposed limbs. Ouch! The tree felling routine has to be completed everyday.
Back at the ranch we had to return to our sticky rice – now that it had fully cooled and the maggots had been cooked off we had to mix in the crushed elephant pellets and roll them into balls big enough for the elephant to hold and put into its mouth. Each ball was rolled in protein powder before serving. These older elephants will eat 30 balls of sticky rice per day. By the end it felt as though we had been feeding them all day and yet they were still hungry.
With the rice balls digesting we were brought to the veterinary area where we met the Thai owner / sanctuary vet. She explained that many of the elephants developed ulcers, skin fungus and other debilitating conditions because of prior neglect. As well as those injuries mentioned above we were introduced to an older elephant suffering from lock-knee. Because she can’t bend her legs she can’t walk to the river to wash and bathe. Our task was to bring pales of water from the river and wash her. She enjoyed it so much we gave her a bucket of water to hoover up and throw over herself as well. This elderly giant was placid and very happy. The other elephants could wash themselves in the river and for an hour or so, we were allowed to join them! With up to 10 adult elephants and 2 babies our group waded in to splash and play with these amazing creatures. It was a complete once in a lifetime experience to be so close and to interact so much with Asian elephants enjoying their natural habitat. The mahouts kept a close eye on everything that was before walking the elephants in to dry off before dinner.
We ended our day by – you guessed it – feeding the elephants again with each getting a second full basket of fruit. More melons, pumpkins and corn disappeared into these eating machines. As we hopped back on the truck for home we were covered in mud, ant bites, trunk slime and yet thoroughly satisfied. Money well spent!
Stop Twenty, Kanchanaburi, Thailand 10/08/2015 to 13/08/2014
(Written by Him)
Just three hours West of Bangkok lies the quaint little town of Kanchanaburi. We hopped on a local train from outside Bangkok which had two available classes - wooden benches or 'soft' seats. Air-conditioning is rare on local trains, instead the windows of every cabin are opened for the entire journey. It's a sticky, loud but fun way to travel. At each station vendors sold food and drinks from baskets that they carried up and down the train or from outside the window. Of course we had to try some of the local delicacies, herself stocked up on pineapple, melon and wonton style dumplings, I had beef with rice and pigs skin with spices. Delicious!
Kanchanaburi was originally a defence outpost established to protect against attacks from Burma, the town is most famous for its military history. Kanchanaburi stretches along the banks of the River Kwai.... of bridge fame! In 1942 the area was occupied by the Japanese, then allies of Germany at the height of WWII. To transport troops and supplies across Thailand, the Japanese instigated the construction of the Burma railway built in just 18 months by mostly British POWs. Almost half of these prisoners died from malnutrition, exhaustion and disease. Today the town remembers those who died with a specially designated cemetery and museum. The railway bridge, still in use, is Kanchanaburi's primary tourist attraction.
The WWII museum is actually one family's collection of artefacts and memorabilia from the era. Naturally the focus is on the Japanese role during the war. As a somewhat unofficial exhibit the displays are fairly rough-and-ready, dust covered and badly lit. For example, there are numerous billboards displaying printouts of Wikipedia articles. However, the main building's roof-top does offer excellent views of the bridge and river.
Almost next-door to the museum is the large black railway bridge over the River Kwai. With only a few vendors situated at the entrance it is a relatively understated attraction. None-the-less there were visitors dotted along the length of the stretch. Of course we had to walk it, one by one across the sleepers, trying not to burn your ankles on the searingly hot tracks. Apart from a few photos and a quick walk, there wasn't much else to do at the bridge itself. We purchased a t-shirt before speeding the 8 minutes across town to the railway museum and adjacent cemetery.
The statistics are stark, one man died for every sleeper laid in the railways construction. This museum's modern exhibit does a great job of describing the railway in its wider geo-historical context. With interviews from surviving POWs and a number of sophisticated models displaying the extent of the line it was a great way to learn more about this famous track. The most spectacular part of the line is called "Hell's pass" located about an hour away where the line clings to the steep of a sheer rock mountainside. The cemetery was as you would expect of a military graveyard, pristine in its up-keep with tidy, uniform plaques adorning each plot.We wandered along the rows, reading the names and ages. The vast majority of the graves were those of British men in their early twenties when their life was abruptly ended. Herself got upset at the thought of these young chaps buried here, so far from home, although she found some solace in the fact that they are united together in this peaceful place. As we walked, the rain began to fall.
We hopped back on our MDF steed for the trip back to the hotel. A police check-point came into view on the main road. Unflinching our easy-rider pulls over a mere 20 feet from the cops, puts his helmet on over his baseball cap and drives through slowly before immediately removing the helmet again. "Helmet, very important," he says with a straight face, stuffing it into his side pouch, one hand resting on the handlebars as we speed along.
That evening after dinner (thai curry of course) we stopped into the "Bridge over the River Kwai Bookshop". Owned and run by an English ex-pat in his 60's with his Thai wife the guy is pure character. Within 10 minutes of entering the shop we hadn't managed to browse one complete shelf but had instead been serenaded with a self-authored song about timber logging followed by a rendition of the Sally Gardens. In the end I had to leave herself an audience of one so that I could get around some of the sections in relative peace. A gentleman by every account however and I popped into him again before we left to pick up a few more paperbacks. I spotted a London post box style piggy bank on the counter with a picture of a young Thai girl about 5 years old. When I asked he told me he was collecting for his granddaughter's third level education and when I heard that she wanted to learn guitar as well I was happy to donate my change.
On our last evening we were lucky enough to hit on a really authentic Thai gem. Well.... I was delighted, herself was patient. "BBQ pigs tongue" to start followed by "fried pigs stomach" sticky rice and local beer. Herself settled for a plate of fried rice and a side of French-fries, despite all my generous encouragements for her to share my feast. Guilt ridden I was happy to purchase an ice-cream on the way home.
Stop Nineteen, Bangkok, Thailand - 05/08/2015 to 10/08/2015
(Written by Her)
Arriving in Bangkok from Siem Reap was like going from the Ring of Kerry to O'Connell street, Dublin. We planned to spend 5 days in the city giving us time to both relax and sight see. However, neither of us really clicked with Bangkok from the beginning, I guess it wasn’t quite what we had expected. Noise, pollution, people, craziness, those we had expected. Unfriendly people, rip off drivers, overcrowding and lack of modern comforts, those we hadn’t. Thailand is a well-travelled country in S.E. Asia, not just by backpackers but by package holiday lovers. Given that Bangkok is at the centre of that well-throdden path we thought it would be more westernised in parts. It's not. Bangkok is not a pretty city, it's not a friendly city - it's a working city.
Fresh off the Plane
After buying long pants for himself – no shorts allowed – we entered through the large white gates. A guy on a loudspeaker was turning people away who were inappropriately dressed. ‘Sir’ he shouted at himself… ‘nice pants’!. Mortified we skulked in, everyone checking him out.
The palace is fabulous. The unique Thai architecture means tall golden stupas and ornate mosaic guardians (ugly looking statues guarding gates). In between the rainy season showers, we walked around each building, the most famous of which is the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Visitors must remove their shoes while entering the Chapel. Carved from a single Jade stone, the statue is said to bring great wealth to any country in which it resides. The 26 inch green statue is therefore revered across the country.
Fairly unusually, there is a model of Angkor Wat in the courtyard of the Royal Palace. In the mid 1860s the King sent 2000 men to Cambodia to dismantle Angkor Wat and bring it to Bangkok, as a demonstration of power. When the Thai army reached Cambodia many of them died of disease in the jungle and leaders were killed by the Khmer. The King settled on having a model of Angkor Wat commissioned for the Royal Palace. In the end, he died before the model was even completed. What a waste.
Lively Khoasan Road
After 4 hours traversing the crowds in the Grand Palace, we got a tuk-tuk to Khaosan Road to see what all the fuss was about. Made famous by the book (and movie) 'The Beach', Khaosan Road has become a popular backpacker ghetto. Filled with KFC’s, McDonalds and Chang Beer Bars, Khoasan Road is certainly a haven for the party goer in Bangkok. We wandered the streets and shops, spotting fried scorpions for eating, endless tattoo joints for regretting and even fake IDs for…well…anything you could possibly want! A short street, jam packed with scams, it wasn’t our favourite hang out spot. Moving on please!
Wat Pho is one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok (built before Bangkok was the capital city), it houses the largest collection of Buddha images and statues in Thailand (1000+), including a 46m long gold reclining Buddha. It is also considered to be the birthplace of Thai massage. Information for visitors is good and a free map is given – the temple is 80,000 sqm overall, encompassing many buildings.
We visited the reclining Buddha temple where we walked single file past the enormous Buddha, impossible to photograph properly because of its size. The statue is lying down to symbolise total peace and the end of all reincarnations. The statue is covered in glass mosaics, mother of pearl and gold leaf. The building was purpose built to house the Buddha in the 1800s. Along the corridor there are 108 bowls. People drop one coin in each bowl for good luck and for the upkeep of the temple.
Wat Pho is also considered to be the first public university and the first official school of Thai Massage. On the walls of buildings surrounding the main temples there are inscriptions and diagrams which detail the workings of the body. These carvings and images are still used in the teaching of massage students today. Apparently we could have gotten a massage from one of the students but the only people we saw were monks! We plan to head back there on our final day in Asia!
Across the river from Wat Pho is Wat Arun. We hopped on a ferry that would take us across the Chao Prang River for just 5 baht per person. The waters were filled us gas guzzling boats emitting black plumes of smoke, small wooden traditional boats and large tourist filled tour boats - not exactly a picturesque waterfront. Our ferry left a lot to be desired, bobbing up and down, I was glad we weren’t going too far in this rust bucket. We hopped off 10 minutes later at the opposite side of the river. Wat Arun, we have arrived.
Wat Arun is apparently one of the most recognizable landmarks in Thailand. I say apparently because, well, we couldn’t see much of it. Unfortunately for us, the entire Wat was under construction and there was very little we could see beyond the scaffolding. I guess travelling in low season has its down sides. We walked around the gardens, took in the views of the river and climbed some of the steps towards salvation. Then the heavens opened! Things not quite going to plan, we stepped into a pavilion to wait out the rain until it was time to get the ferry back.
On the plus side, our shortened visit to Wat Arun meant that we had time to wander around and try some of the street food at a local market near Wat Pho. Himself stocked up on barbecued pork, chicken, fried squid, sausages, and won-tons with the obligatory Thai chili sauce (all for about $4). The food is incredibly spicy in Thailand, even the smallest few chilies can send you over the edge. We sat on a wall by the river eating lunch before heading back to our lovely hotel for the night.
As a quick aside, the hotel 7 Luck that we booked for our 5 night stay in Bangkok is a family run business. It is spotlessly clean, staff are friendly and it is beside an enormous 5 star hotel which boasts four restaurants and a rooftop bar. We have been in and out of the hotel next door so often I wonder if they confuse us with actual paying guests! Some of the best rooftop views of the city were available from this hotel. Furthermore, they have a sushi bar, which although a little pricey, has saved me from starving in the spice ridden world of massam curry and rice!
When we read that Bangkok had the largest flee market in the world, we couldn’t resist. For the previous few days we avoided buying souvenirs, holding off until we could shop 'properly'. Saturday morning we hopped on a tuk-tuk, driven by another Kamikaze driver, and made our way 25 minutes outside the city. Entry to the market comes complete with its own map. With over 15,000 individual stalls one could spend hours getting lost in the maze of t-shirts and household wares. We spent about 3 hours wandering around in the stifling heat, among the covered stalls, popping in and out for a gulp of fresh air every 10 minutes or so. Amazingly, we were quite disappointed with the market. Much of the stall sold the same thing, many of the items were for locals only i.e. kitchen sinks! What’s more, many of the items being sold were not of Thai origin and were a little tacky. Although we left with our hands hanging, it was worth the journey just to see the enormity of the place.
Ending on a High Note
Feeling that we hadn't warmed to the city, we set out on our last day in with an itinerary of must-do's. Firstly, for the sake of saying we did it – we set out to buy and eat some infamous Durian fruit. Durian has been available in every country we visited, it is considered a delicacy but is banned from all hotels, buses and business premises due to its pungent smell. Having smelt the sour odor from laden food stalls, we knew that durian has an acquired taste – to say the least. We bought a quarter from a street stall vendor and I tucked in alone. The texture was like a thick custard under a thin skin. The taste was somewhere between sweetness and rubber tyre. We’ll post the video soon – its priceless.
After washing the taste of Durian out of my mouth I was ready for our first stop – Jim Thompson’s house. Having previously known very little about the American businessman, I was eager to hear about his life. Jim Thompson was an architect, army officer and one-time spy who was born in Delaware. After being posted in Thailand during the war, he later returned and built a home on the banks of the river Khlong. He started life in Thailand by buying and restoring the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok with a group of investors. During that time he became fascinated by Thai silk, an industry which was dying out at the time. In 1948 he founded ‘The Thai Silk Company Ltd’ and brought samples of Thai silk to New York fashion designers. The company achieved real fame when Thompson’s silk was used for all of the costumes in Rodgers and Hammerstein 1951 movie The King and I. From that time on wards the silk industry in Thailand prospered, with many giving sole credit to Jim Thompson himself. His story ended mysteriously when, on a trip to Malaysia to visit friends in 1967, he went for a walk one afternoon and never returned. His disappearance triggered one of the largest search missions in Thai history but his body was never found. The Thai government declared him dead in absentia in 1974. The mystery continues...
Thompson’s unique wooden house was constructed using parts of old Thai houses, it is now a museum for visitors. Each guest must go on a guided tour which brings you through the house barefoot to view some of the many architectural quirks and antique collections that Thompson treasured during his life in Thailand. I really enjoyed the tour, it was one of the highlights of my time in Bangkok. Thompson’s house is like a refuge, tucked away down a small alley, it backs onto a canal and it is overgrown by tropical greenery. When inside, it is hard to believe you are in fact in the centre of a bustling city.
Having spent too much money in the Jim Thompson gift shop we headed to Asiatique Waterfront for an evening of cultural entertainment. Asiatique is an open air facility facing the Chao Phraya river. The centre has restaurants, shops, a night market with over 1500 stalls, go-karting, a Ferris wheel and numerous warehouses where cultural shows are run each evening. Officially opened in 2012, Asiatique is new to Bangkok but it is a very professional set up. We had pre-booked tickets to see Muay Thai Kickboxing – when in Rome and all that...A 30 minute tuk-tuk ride south of the old-town, we arrived about an hour before our show began and spent time wandering around the area, buying souvenirs and snacks and thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere.
Our evening of Muay Thai started with a showcase of the history of the sport played out like a theater show. The performers were incredibly lean, muscular and energetic. Some of the feats required real sporting talent. Munching on popcorn and drink a cold Chang beer, we were very impressed by the display. After the show there was time for photos with the cast while a boxing ring was erected in place of the stage. The atmosphere changed as two professional fighters were invited into the ring. The audience was glued to every move, a group of women at the front kept everyone entertained with their whoops and hollers. After a few rounds we had a winner. Although the sport can be potentially brutal, the fighters showed great respect towards each other, allowing breathing space when needed. It was a really enjoyable night – highly recommended. We returned back to the hotel feeling that we ended our Bangkok stay on a high note and will be happy to return in a couple of weeks.
Since writing this blog there have been two bombs in Bangkok killing 20 and injuring many more, including tourists. We have witnessed a surge in security around Thailand and hope that those responsible will be caught very soon. We were lucky to have left the capital city one week prior to the first incident. It is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected. We will return to Bangkok tomorrow and hope that we will leave Thailand, homeward bound, without issue.
Stop Eighteen, Siem Reap, Cambodia - 30/07/2015 to 5/08/2015
(Written by Her)
The transition has not undermined the cultural identity of this place however (as so often happens) with conservationists working hard to keep Siem Reap’s Khmer roots and traditions alive. The concept of "Angkor Tourist City" was developed in 2001 which advises locals on development and promotes the use of traditional architecture and materials in new projects. These initiatives mean central Siem Reap, with its markets and hawkers still oozes charm and atmosphere.
We found the touristy nature of the town just improved aspects of our experience in that there were more markets, better quality hotels and restaurants to choose from and more transport available - which really does make life easier when you’ve been DIY-ing it every day. The town centre itself is small with the main drag, Pub Street, being home to a variety of restaurants, shops, spas and bars! Tuk-tuks line the street, beckoning to every white face that walks past but they are very good humoured and willing to haggle. You gotta love a good haggle, especially when there’s friendly back slapping and 50% discounts to be had!
A City & It's People
We started our day by going for a wander, sending some postcards and hoping to stumble across a nice tuk-tuk driver whom we could book for our 2 day Angkor extravaganza. The legacy of French occupation (colonised until 1953), is still quite visible in Siem Reap. Not just in the architecture but also in the food. Plates of cheese and meats were offered in many restaurants - making me very happy. Similarly, French baguettes and even banh mi are available on the streets.
After our run in with Mr Mao, we were approached by a jolly fellow in a wheel-chair named Mr Lang. Disabled since birth, Mr Lang cannot walk but he has great artistic ability, and even greater charisma. A self-taught sketcher, he supports himself, his wife and his little girl by selling his work. Wheeling himself around the streets of Siem Reap, he sells sketches, paintings and printed postcards from a small box on his lap.
The Angkor site is located 6km outside of Siem Reap and stretches to 13km North. There is an option to rent a bike and cycle but we would recommend tuk-tuk as you’ll do enough walking in the ruins themselves, particularly the ones that are set a few kilometres back from the road. Not to mention it’s incredibly hot. The slight breeze generated by the tuk-tuk in between temples was our only solace as we witnessed more optimistic tourists doubled over their handlebars with exhaustion. Having purchased our tickets, we set our itinerary with Mr Mao, opting to visit Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Som (See map). There are over 100 temple sites to visit around Siem Reap but with only a few days we limited ourselves to the most well-known and those that interested us in particular. We started with the famous Angkor Wat!
Originally a Hindu temple and later transformed into a Buddhist place of worship, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world (lets just take a second!). Constructed in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was to be dedicated to Vishnu (Hindu God) and to be the capital city of the Kings empire. It went on to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Abandoned in the 16th century, the moat around Angkor Wat protected it from the surrounding Jungle, while many other sites such as Ta Phrom were taken over by encroaching trees. The temple was re-discovered in the 19th century and has been meticulously restored.
The approach to Angkor Wat leads you across a massive, uneven stone bridge crossing the moat, through a gate building and inside the walled complex. From an aerial view, Angkor Wat is like a walled city within a walled city, surrounded by a moat. The actual temple itself is in the centre, raised higher than any other internal structure. What strikes you most about Angkor Wat is its vastness. We walked for what seemed like an age, over the bridge, through the gate, up-stairs, down-stairs, over thresholds, past expansive green spaces (all within Angkor Wat's outer walls) until finally we reached the internal structure with its three proud towers. The walls enclose 200 acres of land in all and the towers stretch into the skyline some 65m.
Built in the Khmer style of architecture, the structure is most similar to Prambanan in Java (another Hindu temple), but still very distinct. The walls are covered in sculptures and carvings which depict scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, two epics of the Hindu religion. The front of the temple has 2 reflection pools either side of the entrance walk, where the most famous photos of Angkor Wat are taken. Of course we got ours... Smile!
A lessor known temple of Angkor, Preah Khan is further North. Originally used as a Buddhist University and dedicated to the King’s father, the remains of the only Angkor library are still visible onsite. We walked through doorway after doorway in this expansive ruin. Similar to Angkor Wat, the walls are adorned with carvings and, although partially reduced to rubble, you can still see how impressive this place must have been. During its prominence, over 100,000 people lived within the walls of Preah Khan.
Having spent 5 hours walking around temples at this point we were ready to go home. Throw the itinerary out the window, we were done. Mr Mao, had different ideas! ‘Just one more’, ‘it’s a small one’, ‘l’ll bring you there and you can decide’. We arrived at Neak Pean, which Mr. Mao assured us was close to the road and wouldn’t take long. We started the walk down a narrow boardwalk through surrounding marshland. From the start we couldn't even see the end of the boardwalk in the distance – it was NOT close to the road but feeling refreshed by the 5min breeze in the back of the tuk-tuk, we powered on! Neak Pean is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple at its centre, surrounded by water – like a fountain! It was designed for medical purposes i.e. people believed that bathing in the water cured illness. To be honest, after Angkor Wat, it was a bit of a disappointment.
Our final temple of the day was Ta Som. A small temple built in the 12th century, it was left unrestored and has been taken over by vegetation. At the very back of the temple is a gateway, overgrown with massive, tentacle like tree roots and is a popular spot for tourist photos. We walked through the temple, accompanied by a little girl selling postcards, a boy playing a flute (also for sale, of course) and another girl selling fridge magnets. The children were so small and insistent that it is hard not to be completely taken by them.
Earlier in the day we had bought souvenirs we didn’t particularly want from children in other temples so we resisted on this occasion. When we said goodbye, one little girl, very put-out said ‘no goodbye for you’, it was a very funny moment in an otherwise heart breaking situation. We noticed many people, families and children living in the jungle around the temples. There are hammocks erected from trees and open fires with pots boiling dotted about the place. While these people were clearly poor, not all here children suffer hardship – many of whom we spotted playing hopscotch in the dirt, swinging on vines and playing in the trees. We have seen much worse elsewhere.
A Break from Temple Hopping
After completely wrecking ourselves during the previous day’s temple hopping, we decided to take things easy today. Some shopping in the old market, night market and made-in Cambodia market were in order. Souvenirs in Cambodia are extremely nice, more-so than some of the things we have seen in other countries. We had been told that many items however are not local but bought from producers in China or Vietnam. We were eager to find some local produce so we headed to the purpose built ‘made-in-Cambodia’ market. Incredibly, we met a French woman (not Cambodian) who had lived in Northern Ireland during the 1970s before moving to Cambodia. She has owned and operated a fair trade shop in Siem Reap for the last 12 years where she sells local products made by local craftspeople whose trade had all but died out as a result of the genocide era. Her products were on the expensive side (I picked up a ring for $398 and nearly had heart failure), but she also showed us some of the more affordable items. In the end I bought a Krama for myself.
Later that day a young girl approached me on the street. She was about 12 years old with a baby tied to her (using a Krama no less). I immediately said ‘no thank you’ and continued walking, but she stopped and said ‘lady, I don’t want money, I want milk’. How could I possibly refuse. I told her to bring me to a mini-mart to get some milk. When we arrived, she pointed to baby formula (stupid me, I thought it was cows milk she wanted). The formula was $20 for one tin. I obviously said no. So she said, I’ll take $5 and ask someone else for the rest! The only reason I’m mentioning her at all was her ingenuity in coming up with a plan that worked. I gave her $5 and later saw a group of 5 girls, twenty somethings, clubbing together to buy her the tin. I see the same girl an hour later asking others for milk. I am convinced she has some deal going with the minimart, whereby she can sell back the tin of formula for cash. Begging is rife in Cambodia and the people are poor but it has to be said, visitors are also nice. We gave more than our fair share on occasion. The UN advocates giving to a regulated charity rather than encouraging street begging among adults and children, but when you come face to face with these people it can be extremely hard to turn away.
We had arranged for Mr Mao to collect us at 7:30 pm that night and take us to the Cambodian circus. However, being rainy season, the weather was torrential and we thought the better of it rather than suffer through a damp and leaky big-top. Having no way to contact him, we intended to pay him and send him home when he showed up. What we didn’t expect of course was that he would pop for a few pints before collecting us. No doubt he thought he could sleep it off during the circus before he went home. Whatever the reason, Mr Mao was blotto. All smiles and giggles he was standing in the rain with his poncho on – no rain covers on the tuk-tuk, water rolling off the seats. He yells ‘get on, we go to circus’. We looked at each other and decided to let him take us to the corner of the road instead.
Mr Mao leans back as if taming a run-away stallion (i.e. his tuk-tuk) and we are jolted from our seats at the sudden stop. We get off quickly, exhaling with relief. Our driver hops off too. He feels the need to grab himself around the waist and joist him into the air, singing ‘I believe in Jesus’. It was both the funniest and scariest five minutes in Cambodia by far.
Back to Angkor
Mr Mao met us at 7am, looking a bit peaky and much quieter than the jovial soprano we experienced less than 12 hours before. We figured he needed a quieter day today. We chose to visit Ta Phrom, Bantaey Kedi, Ta Keo, Bayon and the Terrace of Elephants.
Made famous by the Tomb Raider movie, Ta Phrom is one of the more famous temples of Angkor. Again founded as a Buddhist monastery and university, the temple was constructed in the 12/13th century. Another UNESCO world heritage site, Ta Phrom has a very special feel to it. Vegetation has taken over the ruins, growing over and in between the huge stone slabs looking as though the trees are actually growing up from the stone. The carvings and the corridors could keep you busy for hours. We spent at least an hour wandering amid this massive complex.
For me, the most unique temple in Angkor is Bayon which stands at the centre of the ancient city of Angkor. Its most distinctive feature is the large stone faces which adorn all facades of the main towers. There are 216 stone faces in all. Some believe that the faces are a likeness of the King himself, others believe that they are Gods. Bayon was the last temple to be built at Angkor. We walked in and around the temple complex, entering through a huge stone doorway. Naturally the best vantage point of the serene faces is at the top of one of the towers, scaleable only by way of the mighty stone steps.
Across the road from Bayon is a large gold shrine to Buddha. We wandered over to have a quick chat with the female monks (like nuns except with shaved heads), who were sitting around, barefoot, at the base of the shrine. For $1 we each got a blessing which came complete with handmade string bracelet and sacred chanting. We left happy!
The Guy Under the Tree
To finish off the day Mr Mao wanted to bring us to see the "Buddha head tree". We had no idea what he was talking about but followed him with curiosity. We climbed through the forest, up a steep hill which led to the ridge of the Northern Gateway into Pra Thom (the temple complex that houses Bayon). Amazingly for Angkor, there was no one else around except one young guy painting simple, beautiful water-colours on paper. We took some photos under Mr Mao's direction of what turned out to be a view of the Bayon face between two tree trunks!
After 7 days in Siem Reap we wanted to stay longer, although something tells me one or two months wouldn't even be long enough. Instead, we left for Bangkok with a heavy heart. In just two weeks in Cambodia we developed an overwhelming fondness for the country and it's people. Its official, we have vowed to return someday. During our trip we learned about some awful atrocities in Phnom Penh's Genocide museum and Killing Fields. We heard terrible stories of suffering that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. But we also met some of the nicest, happiest and most friendly people and children in all our travels through Asia. And we visited some of the most unique & spectacular places on earth. Forget the dirt, the heat, the rats – go to Cambodia. It will stay with you forever.
Stop Seventeen, 30/07/2015
(Written by Her)
Our itinerary dictated that we would be taking a 7 hour boat trip up the Tonle Sap river to travel from Phnom Penh in the South to Siem Reap in the North. Not everything goes to plan and given that rainy season had hit a little earlier this year, a boat trip was just too risky. We opted for a private car and driver to take us the six hours across country instead. At $75 it wasn’t the cheapest option but it would afford us the most flexibility and we used the opportunity to stop in Skun, a small village renowned for its culinary delights...
Free of the city congestion he put the foot down hard, weaving in and out of traffic like a convict on the run. He tailgated every motorist we met on the highway, furiously beeping them off the road. Knuckles white from holding onto the backseat I tried to ask him to slow down but without a word of English it took a while for him to grasp it…
We tried to walk on a bit just to get some perspective of the place but they followed us like a ravenous posy, convincing us we could find some use for the fruit. "You can eat durian now, its not allowed on bus and save banana for later". In the end we did buy some fruit but gave it to other children who were begging nearby.
After we had bought from them and asked some questions the children considered us friends. The 6 year old girl brought me around to show me Cambodian fruit and took some from stalls for me to taste for free. Her English was incredible for such a young child. We asked about the trays of fried spiders lined up – to which she responded "you try, you try, tastes like chicken". The older girl proclaimed; "I have a live one" and ran off while her little sister grabbed a rouge fried spider leg which had fallen to one side and held it up for me to try. Looking at her eager little face I almost brought myself to eat it…almost!
As we walked around the market place in Skun we were offered maggots and crickets by the bag full and of course fried spiders, price dependant on the size. If you find yourself paying more than $0.50 each for your spider you are being over-charged! With full plates of ‘treats’ available each day, we definitely left wondering if Cambodians actually eat these insects any more, or whether they are prepared only to entice tourists to stop by Skun for a photo opp! We left leaning towards the latter, suspecting that the plates of insects we saw couldn’t be freshly prepared every day. Our driver did have his lunch while we stopped but we never found out what it was. Later in Siem Reap we were assured by some Cambodians that they do in fact eat insects. We have yet to figure out the truth.
The road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is not surfaced so there were plenty of roadworks and lots of unfinished red clay tracks to navigate. The scenery kept me entertained for the whole journey. I say me because anyone who knows himself knows that putting him in a moving vehicle is like rocking a baby in a warm blanket, he was out like a light!
The majority of locals in the countryside live in wooden stilt houses to avoid the inevitable flooding during rainy season. The houses are basic but some of the stilts have been reinforced with concrete to improve durability. Passing through fields of rice and other crops, Cambodia is a green place at this time of year. Cars and trucks share the road with locals walking and cycling with some dragging very skinny looking cows along with rope. One thing I noticed was the excessive presence of Beer and Cigarette advertisements. Cambodia draught and Angkor beer signs littered the countryside. Locals used them as canopies over their veranda or a Cambodia Beer umbrella as shelter over their outdoor kitchen table. The contrast between the poverty of the people and the wealthy beer companies with all its scattered merchandise had me thinking for hours about advertising and the health of the nation…simultaneously the signs encouraged drinking but also provided essential shelter!
We pulled into our Siem Reap hotel exactly 6 hours after leaving PP leaving our poor driver to turn around and drive back. Money well earned, we tipped him and said our goodbyes. A new city to get familiar with in the morning!
Stop Seventeen, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 25/07/15 to 29/07/15
(Written by Him)
While in Phnom Penh we set aside days to visit the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and one of Cambodia's killing fields. It is necessary to discuss a little of Cambodia's history here in order to understand the significance of these sites.
A Little History
For most of the world Cambodia's identity is defined by events which happened during a very short period between 1975 and 1979. It would be irresponsible and wrong of us to visit this country and not make efforts to understand the whole story and to not visit the renowned sites where the darkest parts of this country's soul reside. The history of politics in Cambodia is complicated of course but I will summarise. Led by Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia, became an independent nation from French colonials in 1953. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Cambodia prospered and was self-sufficient. However, many people regarded the Sihanouk government as corrupt and self-serving, where the poor got poorer and the rich became richer. Various nationalistic factions sprang up to demand reforms. One of the groups, a secret communist faction called the Khmer Rouge, launched an armed struggle against the Cambodian government.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge established The Angkar (translated as, "the organisation") with the purpose or ruling over a pure communist society as envisioned by their leader, Pol Pot (pictured above). From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot's Angkar perpetrated some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.
In April 1975 the victorious Khmer Rouge soldiers, having won the civil war, drove into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and received the welcome of hero's. Later that very same day they demanded that every single citizen living in the cities was to leave and march to the countryside. They encouraged people by saying it was necessary to clear the cities to avoid the US bombings and that everyone could return in three days. They lied. Pol Pot believed the city dwellers had been corrupted by Western materialism and capitalist pursuits. The only good people were those in the countryside who worked the land and lived in relative poverty. The city dwellers were forced into the countryside to farm. The idea being that Cambodia needed to produce more and more agricultural products to not only pay back the Chinese for financially supporting the Khmer Rouge to victory but to also become independent of any other country. Despite the increased production of food millions of Cambodians starved as ever increasing amounts of the produce was sold to other countries. The Khmer Rouge also killed all the intellectuals in the country, lawyers, doctors, teachers and academics, even anyone who wore glasses, as these people posed a threat and might overthrow the Angkar regime i.e. people like the two of us!
By the end the Khmer Rouge were killing almost anyone. As Pol Pot's paranoia grew more intense, more people were killed. From 1975 Cambodia fell silent to the rest of the world. Telephone and radio communications were cut off and everywhere along Cambodia's borders mine fields were planted to prevent anyone leaving. No one outside the country knew what was happening. Some Cambodian refugees managed to escape and tell of the atrocities but they were not believed as Pol Pot would invite certain Western cohorts, particularly the Swiss, to visit him and he would show them a fake and deceitful picture of life in Cambodia, the complete opposite of the reality (like the Nazis in Germany). By 1979 Vietnam became suspicious and had fears that an army was readying to invade Saigon in the South. They decided to invade Cambodia first, defeating the Khmer Rouge and ending the genocide.
Tuol Sleng Museum
We hired a car and listed our destinations to the driver. Our first stop was Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Originally built as a secondary school, TS was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison and torture camp during Pol Pot's reign. It was here that many of the top ranking officials of Lon Nol's government were held. The prison, also known as S-21 is a series of three story buildings, each floor having about 10 rooms. As we enter we are told that the building has not been altered from how it was found in 1979. There are sheets of barbed wire across all the balconies of each block. In each room of the first block are steel frame beds with stains on the tiled floor below. On the wall of each room hangs a black & white photograph of the prisoner's dead body as it was when found. I have specifically left out the more gruesome photos - the museum did not.
Across the yard in another block are photos of the many, many victims taken by the Khmer Rouge as they arrived into the prison. Young, old, men and women each holding up a number. Some are smiling, more or not. No one, not even the people themselves were sure of what was happening on a grand scale. The people were consistently lied to and as they had done nothing wrong they were never expecting the punishments and murders that occurred so frequently. In the central area between the blocks were hanging bars with large pots beside them. Prisoners were tortured by being dunked in the pots first, filled with water and human waste and then hung up by the neck before being interrogated again. Pol Pot's paranoia meant that everyone was a suspect and inevitably with enough torture people admitted to things which were complete fabrications. These "confessions" were justification enough to kill "the traitor".
There was a Tuol Sleng survivor at the prison also, selling signed copies of his memoire. A kindly man in his 70's he was imprisoned there for 10 days and was even transported to the nearby killing fields but managed to escape during a commotion. He was happy to show us on his hand and foot the physical scars where they had pulled his nails off during his time here. We spent some time with the man and of course bought his book, the proceeds of which go towards a foundation for survivors that he founded.
Cheoung Ek Killing Field
The killing fields lie on the outskirts of Phnom Penh within the village of Choeung Ek. A bare and desolate place, there are no buildings, destroyed by the locals in 1979. The only structure apart from the ticket booth is a tall, commemorative stupa for the thousands that died here. Inside the shrine are layers and layers of human skulls and bones, recovered from the site. There are no guides but each visitor is given a set of head-phones and there is a narration by a survivor. As such the killing fields are eerily silent with visitors walking slowly from one point of interest to another listening privately to its significance.
The victims were rarely shot in order to preserve ammunition and were bludgeoned instead. There is a children and babies grave towards the back of the fields. Beside it grows a large tree upon which a plethora of skull, hair and brain fragments were discovered. It is believed the children were killed by being smashed against this tree. It is now covered with wrist-bands left by visitors as a mark of both respect and sorrow.
By the end 2 trucks a week were delivering people to the fields. This transportation was always done under cover of darkness so the nearby farmers would not become suspicious. Once they were delivered, truck engines and revolutionary music was played at deafening volume in order to mask the screams. There is nothing to say in terms of how we felt as we walked. This is a horrific and extremely upsetting place. At the edge of the field is a tall wire fence and on the other side a family resides. They have a little girl, too young to understand what happened here, who was looking through the fence at a group of us, listening intently to our audio-guides. I thought to myself, she must think that every Westerner is so sad and quiet because I am sure every visitor she has ever seen through her fence has found it impossible to smile. There are killing fields all across Cambodia and they will never, ever be used for anything else except remembering.
One quarter of Cambodia's population (over 2 million people) were wiped out in just 4 years.
Stop Seventeen, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 25/07/2015 to 29/07/2015
(Written by Him)
Cambodia is infamous for few things and they include, genocide, starvation, corruption and extreme poverty. We had the same expectations anyone might have who knew little about this 3rd world country and was visiting for their first time. A sense of foreboding shaped our outlook as we wearily disembarked into the greenhouse-like humidity at Phnom Penh airport. We were certain Cambodia was going to be difficult, under developed, physically exhausting and the most challenging destination on our entire trip. Of course we were completely wrong!
Our fears were not allayed at immigration when we had to pay the gruff, masked police officer for a 30 day tourist visa, one of the only countries on our itinerary together with Vietnam and Indonesia which charges for tourist entry. We meandered through heavy traffic from the airport to our hotel. The tiredness of the previous 12 hours catching up with us now, we crashed in the room for a few hours before venturing downstairs for dinner. At first glance our street appeared quite rough, surly looking groups of men, dimly lit by the sparse street lamps, eye-balled us as we entered and exited the nearby mini-market. We dined in the hotel that evening, dried pork and rice washed down with Angkor beer ($1 US dollar for 2 glasses). Just as we sat down a well fed rat (surprisingly agile for his swollen physique) leapt from the plant box not 2 inches from herself and sprinted along the gutter. Our time in some of the world's poorest countries must have effected us subconsciously as we surprised ourselves by not bating an eyelid nor letting it curb our appetites.
Walking the streets of Phnom Penh there were bags of rubbish, empty plastic containers and of the trees we passed, many of the hollows were half full with household waste. Again this did not affect us as much as it would have done 5 months ago but it was noticeable. Many of the walls and drain grids had obvious rodent holes allowing vermin to roam freely although we did not see any more in Phnom Penh after the previous night's dinner guest. During the course of the day and later on in Siem Reap we did notice more naked babies & toddlers on the street, not due to any sort of neglect with mothers close by but an unusual cultural quirk for sure.
Cambodia uses two currencies which can get very confusing. While we knew that American dollars were widely accepted we did not expect to receive dollars from the local ATM, instead Cambodian Riel. In fact almost all prices are quoted and paid for in dollars including tuk-tuks, shops, restaurants etc. The riel is used for prices and change of under a $1 dollar value. In a country where one third of the population survive on less than a dollar a day the need for the riel is obvious ($1 USD = 4,100 KHR).
The museum building itself is impressively large with a particularly adorned tiered roof with long corner spire pieces. The exhibits were displayed in an open plan square which surrounded a beautiful central courtyard. While no photos were allowed inside we took enough in the spectacular courtyard to make up for it. Many of the exhibits were of a religious motif, mostly Buddhist, and as we passed one larger statue a woman handing out floral offerings encouraged us to pray with her.
On leaving we again declined the eager tuk-tuk drivers angling at the exit gates and made the short walk to the Palace. According to our guide book the Palace was open everyday apart from Sunday with the visitor entrance facing the river. As we rounded the corner we were again set upon by a sole tuk-tuk driver. He immediately informed us that the Palace was closed and that he could take us instead to xy & z attraction around the city. Of course we had heard this scam played out many times and we walked on "no thank you, we take photo anyway. No thank you." Yes, he was telling the truth and we ended up walking the entire circumference of the Palace grounds, some 2.5km looking for an entrance before we realised. Our newly acquired cynicism had not served us this time. Sweating like the pig that knows he's dinner, we dropped into the nearest air-conditioned drinks vendor to cool down.
Here the smiling faces and eagerness to haggle were all good signs. The vendors were happy to reduce their prices and we could always get a little more off if we pretended to walk away without buying. It's counter-intuitive but now we feel like we know where we are if we can haggle. In other markets we will be quoted a price that we feel is too high and when we ask for a reduction they will take off a tiny amount or simply say "no that is the best price". When all the vendors stone wall tourists in this way you will end up paying to much but what choice do you have except to go out of town to find the desired item. By all accounts things were going very well here and we really enjoyed joking and haggling with the locals to get the prices we wanted.
That night we ate in a fantastic burrito place where the service was quick, a rarity in Asia, and the prices good. Back at the hotel we watched some traditional Cambodian kick-boxing on the local TV channel. Shrill traditional Khmer music played during each 3 minute bout. The fighters clearly had great respect for each other and would not only allow their opponent to catch his breath during the round but would also bow in apology if a strike was below the belt. Beautiful buildings, honest tuk-tuk drivers and great service all in one day, Cambodia was very much looking up!
Our initial grumblings were cut short when we rounded the first corner of the Palace entrance way and set eyes upon the Throne Hall. This magnificent structure, originally built in 1866 by the current King's great grandfather, is like nothing we have seen on the trip so far. It boasts a 59-meter tower with Buddha's face inlaid. The tower roof is beautiful, decoratively tiered with golden coloured tiles, it is huge and dominates the sky as we stare from the ground. We go in search of the silver pagoda in the adjoining enclosure, also known as the Pagoda of the emerald Buddha. The floor consists of more than 500 solid silver blocks, partially carpeted now to protect them we can still see the blocks in certain sections and even reach to press our bare feet against their coolness.
The magnificent 17th century emerald Buddha statue is made of Baccarat crystal and solid gold. We read that it weighs 90 kilograms and is adorned with 9,584 diamonds. On the wall, surrounding the Pagoda compound, (the oldest part of the palace) are hundreds of meters of frescos depicting an episode of the Indian epic Ramayana. These are the biggest mural frescos in South East Asia. We did not expect to be so awe struck twice during our palace visit but the place is incredibly unique.
Sitting beneath some frescos are three young monks, wrapped in their brown & orange robes and sandals. There are so many rules regarding religious sites throughout Asia, no shoes, no photos, you must wear a sarong, no singlets, no hats etc. it is impossible to know if we can approach these monks without offending some tradition. Eventually I just go for it and ask if we can take some photos with them. They are extremely nice and we get our photos but not before we must take a photo for them on their camera phone as well.
The one designated to have the best English engages in conversation with us about where we are from and what he does and thinks when he visits the palace. Afterwards I realise they are the same age or younger than me and I muse about how different our day to day lives must be but yet we can still appreciate and delight in the beauty of the palace and chat so easily about various topics.
While inside the palace it started to rain. Cambodia has two main seasons, hot and dry or hot and wet. We are visiting during monsoon season and so every afternoon without fail it rains. The temperature doesn't get any cooler but the rain is heavy and sometimes prolonged. The rains led to some serious flooding in the city on two afternoons.
That evening we dined in the "Friends" restaurant, a charity established to teach street kids how to be chefs and waiters. The menu was a mix of Western and local so we decided to go our separate ways in terms of dining experience. She went Western and I went local with pork and shrimp balls in a honey glaze and beef with fried red tree ants. The pork was delicious...
Our next couple of days were spent learning about some of Cambodia's tragic history of Genocide and Civil war. I have posted these days as a separate blog. We think it is important to recount some of Cambodia's history but some people may find it upsetting.
Usually one pays extra to have a driver wait but there was no need in Phnom Penh as tuk-tuks were plentiful. We decided we would not be paying him any more for the trip back than we paid to get there, thats if we went back with him at all. There was little Russian about the Russian market so named as many Russians and foreigners shopped here during the 1980s. It is a sweltering, sweat box of a place, sprawling and very busy. It is worth the effort of course as the souvenirs and trinkets are beautiful and can be got for relatively little if you bargain hard enough. We could have taken any exit out of the place but we decided to try and re-locate our driver for the trip back. Surprisingly he looked for nothing for the wait and charged us only for the two trips. We couldn't help giving him a little extra for being so fair.
On the way back to the hotel we got our driver to stop at the river. Phnom Penh city is located at the point where the Mekong River (flowing into Vietnam), Tonle Sap river which flows through the centre of Cambodia. We took a few photos just before the heavens opened decided to give the planned boat trip a miss.
More tuk-tuk adventures that evening as we hired a novice driver for a trip back to our burrito place. He didn't know where it was but did not want to let on in case we looked for someone else to bring us. We quickly realised he was lost and with only 4 days of Phnom Penh behind us we ended up directing him through the narrow back streets around the palace. Bouncing and speeding over the poor road surface in the dark, I would tap him on either his left or right shoulder depending on which direction he needed to turn as herself screamed the directions at me over the buzz of the small put-upon little engine. Great fun!
Below are photos of a local food market that we walked through each day to get to our hotel. It was incredibly busy and we suspect all the food we ate in local restaurants originated here!
Stop Sixteen, Perth, Western Australia – 19/07/2015 to 24/07/2015
(Written by Him)
The Irish perception of Australia, at least for those who have never been, is of a vast, strange, far away land bordered by the ends of the earth. The myths have been well and truly broken down in recent years with so many young Irish people emigrating down under where prosperity abounds for those prepared to leave home and hearth behind. 5 days is all we had set aside for this leg and within that we would be hanging around Perth only. As such we just can’t comment on Australia as a whole and so we say welcome to Perth, lets get stuck in!
We flew into Perth about 11pm from Singapore, the longest plane journey we have endured since arriving in SE Asia at 5.5 hours. As with most Irish people today, we have family in Australia and it was their location which determined Perth as our destination city. We met her cousin Karen at the airport and would be staying with her and some very welcoming extended family for the duration. Immediately it felt like a home coming rather than reaching what is the furthest destination from home on our trip. English speaking, first world, western infrastructure and lifestyle meant a welcome break from the hot & humid bustle of our previous 4 months. With an Irish breakfast the following morning complete with copious mugs of Barry's tea (brought over from the old country) we felt like actors in a "Dairygold" commercial, reminiscing of the good times only available in Ireland and only accessible abroad through real Irish produce. We spent this first morning formalising our 5 day itinerary before hitting the highways of WA!
The afternoon of day 1 was dedicated to Aussie wildlife. There is nothing more Australian than Koalas and Kangaroos so it was a no-brainer that an indigenous petting zoo had to be on the list. Like the orang-utans in Borneo and the proboscis monkeys in Brunei there is something very special about seeing an animal in its native environment and while the animals were by no means wild (in fact they were extremely domesticated) it is still much more than the offerings of ones local zoo, miles from the animal's natural context. An hour out of town we pulled up to a austere looking, visitor free Cohunu Park. Inside we were enthusiastically greeted by Trish (good sign already, hi mom) who brought us straight out to the area specifically for the bears.
Koala petting done we grabbed our popcorn (food of choice for Aussie wildlife) and headed out to feed anything and everything we came across. At 4.30pm we had somewhat mistimed our visit as many of the animals were so full of popcorn from a full days entertaining that it was very difficult to entice them with our offerings. Fortunately the parrots seemed perpetually hungry and were our first stop as they called shrilly from their cages. "Hello Darling..." was the most frequent chat-up line but we were also wooed with "Whats happening..." and "Wanna scratch..." accompanied by a head turn. The latter was a little misleading as every time I went to scratch the bird it tried to bite my finger. Moving on from the birds we headed for the kangaroo and wallaby enclosure, round the duck & gull pond and passed the emu sentry.
I for one had no idea that kangaroos predominantly walk on their tail using it to push forward, simply landing on their legs. It was a bizarre sight at first when I had expected to see them hopping & bounding, cartoon-like across the horizon. Both roos and wallabies are very pleasant company, passive and looking somewhere between a rabbit and a dog at least when standing low to the ground. Most were happy to pose for photos none-the-less and the odd rub was always welcome. The popcorn flopped though. In contrast just a few pens over we were delighted to be in such high demand from the goats and donkeys. These jolly guys were delighted to see us and eagerly helped to empty our bags of popcorn. After lots of petting, photos and meaningful chats between man & beast we popped out only to notice the massive black and white sign affixed to their fence, "THESE ANIMALS ARE ON A DIET. PLEASE DO NOT FEED". On the way home I bought some roo burgers and a half dozen "kanga-bangers" to complete the full experience. I fed them so...
We realised that even in Australia we were still the only Western visitors on the boat, surrounded by a chattering Chinese tour group. The water was noticeably choppy after the previous nights heavy downpour as we bounced across the waves to the furthest island, home to a variety of local sea birds.
Sailing back towards the sea lions and Penguin Island, "Ange", our guide had everyone on Dolphin watch. This of course created a little confusion among our fellow seamen who, after a number of false sightings, had to be educated in the subtle differences between dorsal fins and plain old floating seaweed. The sea lions were immense looking, happily beached amongst the flocks of birds. They will travel for miles to hunt so when they return to the coastal islands it is for rest & relaxation. The lazy things barely moved for us! We took a tantalizingly close look at Penguin Island and will just have to take Ange's word for it that the lil' fellas are hidden within the cliffs waiting for the warmer months. Things were looking bleak on the dolphin front too until an actual sighting of two medium sized bottle noses' brought a worthwhile conclusion to the trip. The excitement among our Asian friends was such that the boat threatened to tip over as they ran back and forth from port to starboard to catch a fleeting glimpse.
By 1832 it became too difficult to recruit new people willing to relocate to the area. The only solution was to transform Fremantle into a prison colony and have the convicts build the much needed infrastructure required to survive comfortably. As I said, even to this day, we are reliably told that Perth still "just doesn't have the infrastructure!"
Fremantle became home to one of the most notorious prisons in convict and post convict Australian history. Finally closed to all prisoners in 1991 this imposing 6 acre heritage site and buildings provides a number of different tours for those interested in prison life. We booked ourselves in for two half days to complete the "Doing time" and "Great Escapes" circuits. After local snapper n' chips down by the pier we headed through the intimidating 6 foot iron gates for our "Doing Time" tour with Steve, a former Fremantle prison guard. After recalling the initial strip search, compulsory shower and prison rule recitation all prisoners underwent upon arriving we moved on from the processing area to the kitchens. Kitchen jobs were for those prisoners who could be trusted with knives and fire (interestingly, mostly murderers) the kitchen staff also got a shower every day for hygiene reasons, unlike their contemporaries working elsewhere and showering only once a week.
The vast limestone cell block is four storeys high and 500 feet long. This building, which could hold around 1,000 inmates, was separated into two wings by a central building, which served as the administrative heart of the prison. All of this was constructed by convict labourers. The cells were small during convict times but when the prison became too crowded during modern times these small cells were split into two! Among the more gruesome features on display were the solitary confinement cells, pitch black with walls so thick they were nearly sound proof. The flogging post came next where prisoners would receive punishments by way of lashings followed by rubbing salt in the open wounds to prevent infection. Finally we visited the death row cell block and the hanging room. The tour was heavy going in some parts and potentially quiet upsetting if one were to consider some of the men themselves. I was thankful that our modern prison system is focused so much more on rehabilitation that brutal, inhuman punishment. I firmly believe that if you treat a person like an animal there is little incentive for them not to become one.
One inmate having escaped several times was brought to Fremantle maximum security in the hope of holding him permanently. Triple bars were affixed to his cell windows and the walls reinforced with Jarrah wood, the strongest timber available. The man escaped after 17 days. Fremantle prison maintained a "flawless" record in terms of escapes with all attempts either prevented or the prisoner being recaptured and returned to serve the remainder of their sentence. There is one exception... Irish man John Boyle O Reilly's story is enough for a separate blog so stay tuned for that.
Kings Park & City Beach
Part of what makes Australia unique is the outdoor lifestyle passionately practiced by its residents. Perth is built at the convergence of two rivers and possesses a nearby coastline. The city also has huge green lungs where residents can picnic, bike or take long walks through some of the carefully preserved and promoted indigenous foliage and fauna. We spent some time wandering around the war memorial and nearby walkways which make up the King's park area of the city. There are spectacular views over the city and harbour and it is certainly worth any visitors time.
The coast is equally impressive with a number of well kept beaches offering bustling and sandy, more laid-back surfer or public BBQ fun. Visiting during the Aussie Winter we obviously didn't get the full down under beach experience but we did see a surfer and a shark tower so really all we missed was the sun. On the topic of sharks we had set ourselves the mission of eating some while in Australia. It turned out to be quiet a treasure hunt but we finally got our hands on some "flake n chips" for dinner beside the beach. Delicious!
Swan Valley Tastings
Swan Valley is Western Australia's oldest wine making region at 181 years young. A short 30 minute drive outside the city and your on the wine trail. As travellers on a budget, now well into our 4th straight month on the road, we are always looking for those money saving opportunities. We might take an extra banana from the breakfast buffet to munch later or we dice with diarrhea at the dodgier street-food vendor rather than fork out for the fancier fare.
Wineries give free samples... thanks again for driving Karen! We avoided paying for lunch by guzzling fists of free chocolate samples, chutneys, biscuits, spiced almonds,nougat and jams. All washed down with snifters of the cab sav, the sav B and the cabernet don't you know. We did pay up at the Cheese Barrel however, goats cheese, a soft blue and a caramel cheddar all locally produced and excellent quality. We are still debating whether it is too ridiculous to have the blue delivered to us once we're back home - it was that good! If you visit, be sure to check out Swan Valley's invisible reptile farm. You will see signs for it everywhere but its nowhere to be found. Its free though, unless you find it!
On our last full day we decided our guide probably needed a few hours to herself so we hopped on the local bus heading for Perth city centre. Getting off at the cactus (it's a Perth thing) we spent a couple of hours simply browsing in the shops and soaking up the street scene of this great city. We are probably city people more than anything else and having visited over 20 cities throughout Asia since we were eager to spend some time in Perth's central business district.
We stopped in for lunch at Jaws sushi. Real Japanese staff with an actual proper sushi conveyor belt service. The different sushi is on plates of different colours. Each colour signifies the price of the dish. You simply grab a stool by the belt and take off as many plates of whatever you feel like. It's very easy to bite off more than you can afford. At the end the cashier counts your plates for the bill and you're outta there. Unbelievably Jaws sushi had no shark?! But it was great fun, delicious and so quick!
P.S. During the course of our time in Perth, our host Karen bested the author in a dubiously regulated game of Scrabble. Of course she was more than surprised and impressed with herself at achieving what will no doubt be her finest feat! She robustly declined all offers of a rematch, fearful of the certainty she must surely have felt that such success was a fluke and that lightening does not strike twice. Karen aggressively insisted her win be recorded here. You're welcome, Karen.
Stop Fifteen, Singapore – 15/07/2015 to 19/07/2015
(Written by Him)
Since we began our Asian odyssey some 4+ months ago we have encountered diversity in every guise including foods, languages, climates, landscapes, economics and much more. Needless to say a diversity of religion has also been ever present. Sometimes subtle and muted other times utterly unavoidable as you figuratively (& literally in the case of Bali) trip over the local spirituality on a daily basis.
As is tradition, lets begin at the beginning!
To describe "Hinduism" is like being asked to describe "European", while there are some broad similarities amongst all Hindu beliefs, the differences within this denomination are profound and it is simply incorrect to say all Hindus believe the same thing. There is no central creed or scripture such as the bible. Hinduism is not confined in many places to being simply a spiritual pursuit but it seeps out into every other facet of society from economics to social class to law and politics. While Christianity has some of these aspects it is to a far lesser extent as we will see and so it is partly because of this intertwining with the local state of affairs which has contributed to Hinduism's widely diversified nature across the globe.
The earliest Hindu scriptures have been traced back to around 1500 BC but there is evidence that the stories contained within these were being told for hundreds of years before that. The most revered of these works is the epic Mahabharata which was completed between 500 and 100 AD. A section within the Marabharata, known as the Bhagavad-Gita is a microcosm of the primary Hindu values and beliefs as described throughout the larger works. As such the Bhagavad-Gita is generally accepted as the most important text in Hinduism and it is this book that I will draw from in order to discuss this fascinating religion.
Upon seeing old friends, teachers and mentors lined up against him Arjuna breaks down saying he doesn't want to fight and begs Krishna for his advice and guidance. As Krishna and Arjuna discuss life and morality the nature and values of Hinduism are revealed. The battlefield is the perfect metaphorical backdrop as the Gita’s subject is the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious. Most believe that the conversation in fact takes place in the depths of consciousness where Krishna is not some external being, human or superhuman, but the spark of divinity that lies at the core of the human personality.
Karma then has been described by scholars to mean the notion that every thing that happens is both a cause and an effect. If we accept that humanity is a web of interconnections, like ripples in a pond, then each time we act selfishly we send out negative energy (or Karma) that will eventually come back to us. Karma is an educative force with the purpose of teaching the individual to act in harmony with dharma. At death, the karma we die possessed of will determine the next body we come back with and the reincarnated will have the purpose of working out that remaining karma and achieving a mind and consciousness free of desire and scorn and to simply be neutral and at peace. Once the karma is worked out the individual is "absorbed into the Lord". (Sound familiar? Live well and righteously and you will go to Heaven).
Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna he must strive always to separate himself from the distractions of his senses, pleasure and pain, power and poverty, "Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do...When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgment as storms drive a boat off its charted course on the sea."
"When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes. Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is an utter waste. But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self."
Krishna's advice to Arjuna is summed up in the following passage,"Selfish desire is found in the senses, mind, and intellect, misleading them and burying the understanding in delusion. Fight with all your strength, Arjuna! Controlling your senses, conquer your enemy, the destroyer of knowledge and realisation. The senses are higher than the body, the mind higher than the senses; above the mind is the intellect, and above the intellect is the Atman. Thus, knowing that which is supreme, let the Atman rule the ego. Use your mighty arms to slay the fierce enemy that is selfish desire."
So there you have it, a snap shot of Hinduism and its core values. It is comforting to know that whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or even atheist, these are values we should all be striving for, to act in the interests of others and to avoid the fleeting and ultimately meaningless fruits of selfishness.
Of course if you would like to know what Arjuna eventually does, you will just have to read the Gita!
Stop Fifteen, Singapore – 15/07/2015 to 19/07/2015
(Written by Her)
We checked into our first hostel on the trip and it certainly lived up to the grotty reputation. For S$50 per night (well below average for Singapore) we had a room the size of a shoe box with bunk beds and a private bathroom. The size of the room and the sleeping arrangements didn’t bother us as much as the dirt of the carpets (some free toe nail clippings included), walls and bedding. The lack of windows meant the bathroom ceiling was covered in mould and a damp musty smell filled the room. What really took the biscuit was the enormous number of mite-like insects living on / crawling all over the bunk beds. Despite our killing about 20 of them and spraying the wood with insect repellent, they still graced us with their presence every night of our 5 day stay! Included in the price was breakfast in a communal canteen area where you can make toast and coffee and then wash up your dishes. Actually this was a blessing because we needed to stock up on food before hitting the streets.
What was more exciting than the apparent tooth were the hundreds of small Buddha statues lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Walking around the Chinatown stalls we saw many familiar items – silk Kimonos from Vietnam, handbags from Indonesia but all for four or five times the price! Needless to say, we bought very few souvenirs.
The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is an iconic feature of the Singapore Skyline, housing the largest rooftop swimming pool in the world, an observation sky park, 2 theatres, a museum and casino. The hotel has three central towers, stands over 650ft high and has more than 2500 5* hotel rooms. It is widely considered to be one of the most expensive stand-alone resorts ever built costing approx. 8 billion. When we arrived, the vast lobby was extremely busy with guests checking in and out. We went for lunch in the central café where hanging sculptures loomed over usand enjoyed the surroundings. The hanging sculptures loomed over us, reaching hundreds of feet in the air. It was a fabulous place, worth the €400 a night price tag (if you had it!).
After our spot of tea we walked to the nearby Super Trees Grove, part of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. Opened in 2012, the gardens are one of Singapore’s newest attractions. Designed by British Architects who won an international competition for the design, the gardens are comprised of two conservatories (the cloud forest and the flower dome) and a Super trees garden which together hold pride of place along the bay. There is a fairly hefty fee to enter each of the conservatories so we decided to leave those for next time and head straight for the Super Trees.
Humidity (85%) was taking its toll by around 3pm so we decided to get the MRT back to Chinatown, thank God for air-conditioning. Feeling a bit peckish we made our way to Chinatown Food Street, a designated area for food stalls and small restaurants. It was crazy busy and we struggled to find a free table at the canteen style outdoor courtyard. The food was great and the concept meant that we could order different foods from different stalls. I went for Indian while himself had some Malaysian. We returned here most nights for some of the best pork soup dumplings in Singapore, thanks to restaurant Lan Zhou La Mian.
Rising at 7:30am we had a big day ahead of us. We had pre-booked tickets to Universal Studios Singapore and S.E.A. Aquarium on Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a dedicated resort island off the coast of Singapore. It has numerous beaches, golf courses, hotels and theme parks. I had never been to Universal or Disney so I was super excited to spend the day in the land of make believe. From the harbour front we caught the Sentosa Express, an elevated monorail system used to ferry passengers from the mainland to the island. Apparently, the express can transport 4,000 people per hour but given the queues we were faced with at 8:30am, you’d never believe it! The train took 3 minutes to drop us to the gates of Universal Studios. Whoop!
Another ride we graced was the Return of the Mummy in Ancient Egypt. However, from early in the morning until midday, the queues for each ride never went below 120 minutes. You couldn’t pay us to stand in line for 2 hours for a 3 minute ride. I even spent 45 minutes queuing for a bottle of water – you wouldn’t want to be dehydrated! We walked around doing all the non-ride stuff in each zone. I was particularly excited about the Jurassic Park Gate (of which we took about 100 photos). The Diner-saur canteen area in the Lost World Zone came complete with Giant T-Rex and some pea porridge concoction for dessert! We were transported straight to the original movie – so much fun. We spent 5 hours walking around Universal in the heat until we couldn’t walk anymore. After catching the Hollywood Dreams Parade at 3pm, we headed to the Aquarium!
The S.E.A. Aquarium was much larger than expected (our legs didn’t thank us), with almost 50 different habitats and 800 species. We walked through shark tunnels, touched star fish and fought through hordes of Chinese tourists to get a photo of some Jelly Fish. The most impressive attraction in the Aquarium was the ‘Open Ocean’ tank filled with thousands of gallons of water and enormous Manta Rays, Leopard Sharks and Mahi Mahi!
The time was reaching about 6pm which meant queues for the Sentosa Express train back to Singapore were manic. We were told by a staff member that it would take 1.5-2 hours of queuing to get back to the mainland! After a really long day of walking that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear, we felt particularly bad for those who had small children. We opted to get the express further into Sentosa - to Palawan Beach. Palawan is a man-made beach on the shore of Sentosa. Our main reason for the visit was to walk across a suspension bridge erected on the beach which stretches to the southernmost point of continental Asia. We couldn’t travel around S.E. Asia for months and not stand on the southernmost tip now could we!
Visiting a man-made beach was a new experience for us, I’m pretty sure Tramore has been around a while! What surprised us most was the texture of the sand. We found it very difficult to walk barefoot because the sand was so rough under foot. Nevertheless, the place was full of beach goers, music was blaring from a portable radio and kids were playing in the sea. We did what we set out to do, took some photos, paddled in the sea and headed back to the Express hoping the queue may have dwindled. It hadn’t. After about 1 hour queuing for the Express’ 3 minute ride, an MRT back to Chinatown and then a walk back to the smelly hostel, we were well and truly suffering…and we still needed to go out for food!
Sentosa Island had broken us…
The following morning our bodies ached but it was our last real day in the country and himself was eager to get to Little India. We hopped on the MRT and walked around the back streets of Little India, talking photos of the flower garlands and haggling with the stall owners. We stopped for some Teh Tarik (we missed it in Indonesia) in a huge forecourt with about 50 food stalls selling different types of curry and naan! Himself was delighted with life as he sweated through one of the hotter curries.
Some of the most famous people in the world have stayed at the hotel including; Michael Jackson, George Bush, Christian Louboutin and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge if you don’t mind! We could hardly miss out?
It just so happens that 2015 is the 100th Anniversary of the Singapore Sling, a pink cocktail devised by a Raffles Barman to allow women to drink alcohol without being detected. The Singapore Sling became a worldwide sensation and tastes pretty good as well! We visited Raffles Long Bar, home to the famous drink and underwent “one of the true rites of passage of travel” (aka a bit of a tourist trap).
On one occasion we watched what appeared to be a wedding ceremony. On another a funeral. Every day, music filled the air and people flocked in and out of the large wooden doors. Like the exterior, the interior is highly stylized with colourful murals, tiles and iconography. Unlike Buddhist temples or Catholic Churches, Sri Mariamman was not a quiet place, instead it was full of life, full of sound, full of colour. We enjoyed our visits so much we did a bit more reading and he wrote a blog specifically about Hinduism – check it out.
We ended our final day with a visit to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. Who knew we would be missing the pho and spring rolls. Delicious - we seriously need to rethink our Vietnamese food blog now that we've eaten in so many other Asian countries!!