Straight Outta Uxbridge

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Cambodia looks like.... Cambodia

Cambodia, at times, is hard bloody work. Intercity travel is uncomfortable, the non-stop hassle is frustrating, the 38 degree heat can be unbearable, the use of 3 different currencies is confusing and the dollar sign that every westerner seemingly has tattooed on their forehead means that you have to keep your wits about you. Definitely NOT a trip for the faint-hearted.

The people of Cambodia are both its greatest asset and it's most aggravating drawback. From the second you set foot in this country you become some kind of bloated cash cow that the natives try to milk as hard as they can, before they pass you to some friend or family member for further de-dollarment.

The scams begin at the border. Poipet is a modern day wild west frontier town, chocked full of casinos and unscrupulous individuals keen to relieve you of a buck or 50. Even the officials are at it. On crossing the border from Thailand, a 30 day visa costs $20 or 100 baht, of course the current exchange rate makes $20 worth about 800 baht so the men in uniform insist you pay in baht, even though they are sitting under a big sign that clearly states the cost is $20 - where do you think that extra 200 baht goes?

Unfortunately I only had a couple of hundred baht left, so after a lengthy argument in which I insisted that I was not about to walk back to the Thai side to change my dollars into baht he finally capitulated.

"OK, $20" he said. I thanked him and handed over the money. "And 100 baht" he added with the smug look of victory reserved only for those in officialdom. Bastard.

Once in Poipet you are harangued by taxi drivers, insisting that there are no more buses today and eager to rip you off on a $50 ride to Siem Reap, but we were wise to this one and fought our way through to the bus station to take a $10 a head mini-bus instead. The road from Poipet to Siem Reap is widely regarded as the worst in Cambodia - and believe me, that's saying something! Our only comfort during the 100 mile, 5 hour bumpfest was that our 10 seater van only had 5 passengers. Our driver told us we were very lucky as on the last trip he had managed to get 15 in there!

We eventually arrived at 9pm, when the bus station was apparently "closed". The only place our driver would take us was "his friend's" guesthouse (it pays drivers commission to bring it fresh blood), but this scam turned out to be alright as the rooms were nice and $8 a night seemed reasonable - at least until I found out that everybody else was paying $5, but a small scream up soon resolved that!

Siem Reap is the gateway to the biggest religious site in the world, the temples of Angkor Wat. The temples are truly amazing. Angkor Thom comprises of about a hundred sites spread over roughly 50km, but only 20 or so are essential viewing so we bought a 3 day pass and commissioned the traditional local transport - a 2 seater carriage pulled along by a moped.

Most of the temples are 800-1200 years old and are in various states of disrepair. Angkor Wat, the biggest and most famous of them all, is virtually undamaged, but Ta Phrom (used in the film Tombraider) is partly reclaimed by the jungle and has an amazing atmosphere due to the trees that grow around and through it's ruins.

However, such incredible historical importance was, rather predictably, soon wasted on us and half way through day 2 we had had enough of climbing up and down hundreds of giant steps in near 40 degree heat. Also,as is to be expected I suppose, each site is patrolled by a small army of tat sellers who actually start running towards you even before your moped chariot has stopped.

"You wan cold drink?" is whined at you at least 100 times a day, regardless of whether you are carrying one or more bottles of water at the time or not. Other favourite sales pitches include:

"You wan silk scarf, 2 for one dollaaaar"
"You wan pineapple, just one dollaaaar"
"You wan postcards, 10 for one dollaaar"
"You wan guide book, this book one dollaaaar"
And my personal favourite, just plain old "You give me one dollaaaar"

The sheer persistence of the people, most of whom are aged between 6 and 20, is mind blowing. The simply do not give up until you either buy something or are pulling away on your tuk-tuk. However, look a little closer and you can see that it is all a game to them. You can see groups of them cracking up as they deliberately torment short-tempered tourists. Other hilarious gags include the classic "You wan one dollaaar?", and "You wan small baby, just one dollaaar?" as someone tries to thrust their baby sister into your arms. At least I hope its a joke.

By day 3 all the sites started to look the same, and visits had deteriorated into going in, finding some shade, having a cigarette and going out. We had finished by lunchtime, relieved that we hadn't bought a one week pass.

Anyway, it turns out that the centre of Siem Reap is a dusty, rubble strewn slum that is impossible for the western face to stroll about in peace and by now enough was enough so we decided to leave for Phnom Penh early the next morning, giving us plenty of time to catch the last connecting bus from there down to the coast. Obviously, this being Cambodia, the driver managed to turn a 4 hour drive into a 6 hour drive, in the process ensuring that we had to pay twice as much to take a private mini-van down to Sihanoukville. We later found out that the mini-van companies pay the driver a commission to turn up late - surprise surprise.

Sihanoukville is as close to the Costa-del Cambodia as you are going to get, it's no Thailand, but it's pleasant enough. By all accounts the best thing to do is to visit a few of the local islands, but we didn't really have time for this so we just chilled out in and around our guesthouse on Weather Station Hill. It turned out that the owner wanted a website, so I spent a couple of days sorting that out for him in return for free food, beer and accommodation - result!

Before long, we were heading back to Phnom Penh. At this point let me just say something about Cambodia's capital city: I have been to such cities as Bangkok, Havana and Cairo, but never in all my days have I been witness to traffic chaos on the scale of Phnom Penh.

Cambodians are supposed to drive on the right, but in practice they drive wherever they damn well please! Thousands of mopeds swarm in and out of bigger traffic on both sides of the road, in any direction. They drive on the pavement, the pull out of side roads without warning and they consider roundabouts nothing more than an inconvenience. There are no traffic lights here, and so watching a major crossroads is like watching one of those high speed criss-cross maneuvers you see performed by motorcycle display teams - except here, nobody is wearing a crash helmet, there could be anything up to 4 people on one moped and they are most definitely not just going one at a time. Being on the back of a tuk-tuk in these conditions is a genuinely nerve-wracking experience!

As I said earlier, to the foreigner Cambodians have a split personality. You can guarantee that within 5 minutes of meeting one, he or she will have made at least one attempt to extract a few dollars from you, and during the last 5 minutes he or she will try hard to pass you to a friend or family member anywhere in the country who can provide you with whatsoever service you next require. However, in an attempt to finish on a positive note, once you have parted with some cash and the pressure is off, 99% of Cambodians are the most incredibly friendly, funny, polite, helpful, conversational and generally warm people you could ever hope to meet.

As for the other 1%, they are the ones in uniform.

Misty Mountain Hop

Pai (pronounced bye) is a small village up in the highlands, north west of Chiang Mai. We spent about a week here, and it rapidly became Kerri's favourite place.

Unfortunately, we were here about a month ago, and the only things we can remember doing are helping a class of primary school kids with their English and trekking through the forest on an elephant that also took a swim in a river with us.

Apart from that there was much watching of films, drinking of beer and general lazy wandering up and down the main street, wondering what to do with ourselves.

I would write more but a. I cant remember anything else and b. I need to get on and write the Cambodia blog.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Chiang Mai

When we left Koh Tao, we decided to go through Bangkok and push on all the way up to Chiang Mai. This turned into a 33 hour mega-trek that included 3 hours on a boat, 8 hours on a coach, 15 hours on a train, taxis, a bus and a tuk-tuk, not to mention an awful lot of waiting. When we finally got to our hotel never known 2 people more in need of a shower and a beer in my life!

The next day we hired a moped and explored (read: got lost). The centre of Chiang Mai is an old walled and moated city that was built in the 13th century. Although it's Thailand's 2nd city, it has none of the glitzy development of Bangkok, instead it retains it's charm as the old city spills beyond the city walls and spreads out for a few miles in every direction. Still, a city is a city and the main attraction to Chiang Mai (apart from a few impressive temples) is the surrounding area, so we resolved to go to Pai, 4 hours north-west, the next day as several people had recommended it.

In the meantime, that night Kerri decided she would like to have a go on the moped, as up until then she had only ever been a pillion rider. Coincidently we were only 200 metres away from our hotel, so I said she could ride it back and I'd walk there.

Instead of this, Kerri wobbled her way across the road and stacked it straight into a row of parked mopeds outside a bar almost opposite where I was sitting. I rushed across, suggesting as I went that now was probably a good time to let go of the throttle. Fortunately Kerri was alright, but unfortunately she had crashed directly opposite the place we hired it from. I quickly pulled the bike up and urged Kerri to jump on before Mr. Beer noticed that it was one of his bikes causing the commotion. When we were safe and on a quieter bit of road, I asked her if she'd like to try again, and off she went at a much slower pace. Five minutes later I was starting to worry, but she came back safe and sound. However, it took her 3 hours to admit she had fallen off again, this time at a set of traffic lights.

Luckily for her, Mr. Beer didn't check the bike when I took it back, and fortunately for all of us Kerri has sworn never to ride a bike again.

Koh Tao

Can it be possible that after a week in Koh Tao I have nothing to write about? I've just checked my notes and all but 1 of those days has entries along the lines "Sat by the pool" or "Watched some footie" or the ubiquitous "Didn't do much today" - Koh Tao is not very big, but is crammed full of dive centres. This means that most of the island is out at sea during the day and having an early night in the evening.

As mentioned we did have one busy day, at what a beauty it was! I did a couple of dives (which to be honest didn't really live up to the hype), Kerri came along and did some snorkeling (which she says was superb, although as a result of this, she was unable to sit down properly for a week due to sustaining 3rd degree burns that turned her arse into a belicia beacon). When we got back we went to an Aussie bar called Choppers where, to our extreme joy, we stumbled into a free BBQ. We stayed there to watch a Spurs dominated England team beat Uruguay and then got hammered and boogied until the early hours to a live Irish band.

All this excitement in just one day - no wonder we didn't do anything else all week!

Koh Pha Ngan (pron. pang yang)

It's impossible to get a room on this island in the week before a Full Moon Party, but directly after one it empties out considerably. We were running way over budget and so decided that we would try slumming it for a week or two to try and save some cash so went back to Hat Rin, the home of the party, and moved into a shithole, 93 steps up the side of a cliff, for 200 baht per night (about 3 quid). Fortunately, there wasn't much to do here except for laying around watching DVD's and eating.

We did go out on the lash one night and staggered home in the early hours to discover Martin, 23 from Croydon, limping around outside our bungalow in a right old state. He had apparantly climbed the steps and, thinking he lived further along, had tried to climb over a barbed wire fence at the cliffs edge, cutting his feet open in the process. Kerri and I calmly explained that he probably didn't live over there, as the only thing past the fence was certain death, and so reluctantly agreed to let us help him back down the the beach.

"So where DO you live?" I innocently enquired. Martin gazed out to sea for a moment, then instantly burst into tears, sobbing that he didn't know.
"Well when did you last see your mates?" says I, completely unprepared for the response. In a split second, tears had been replaced by raw, uncontrolable rage.

And so on we went for nearly half an hour – tears, rage, tears, rage – until I for one was ready to ditch him, but Keri, the good Christian that she is, would have none of it and so we led him to the taxi rank.

Anyway, alls well that ends well and eventually (after another half hour with a very confused taxi driver) a more useful word than those above came forth from his mouth.
"PIRATES!" he suddenly yelled. Kerri and I looked at each other believing him to have finally lost his marbles, but to our surprise the taxi driver nodded and carted him off to God only knows where.

"What a bloody eijit." pronounced Kerri on our way home. "Must be something to do with his name!" Which I personally thought was a little unfair (Kerri says sorry Veg!).

So the time came to move on round the island, as Kerri had a friend whose brother was getting married in Ban Khai. Unfortunately I contracted some kind of tropical disease and was too feeble and feverish to attend (no, I really was), but she assures me it was a lovely day.

We stayed in a bungalow that was so close to the sea that at high tide the waves came up under the supporting stilts and broke directly under where we slept. The place was run by a builder from Ealing and at times the three of us were probably the only people within half a mile! Ban Khai has a population smaller than the Three Tuns on a Saturday night so the combination of cheap beer, good food and satelite TV meant that we rarely ventured away from our place – in fact, we had to run a tab as it took 4 days before we could be bothered to walk to the cash point!

When we finally managed this mission we stopped for a beer at what we soon realized was a girlie bar. The owner, a petite Thai woman in her mid 30's and a total nutcase, served us our drinks and challenged me to a game of Connect 4 – with one additional rule. If she won, she was to give me a lipstick-laden kiss on my face and it had to remain there until I had walked home.

Well, as St. Bernadette's School Connect 4 Champion 1985/86 I didn't think that this would be a problem – how wrong I was! I lost 6 straight games, much to the hilarity of the entire staff. In fact, the owner herself was laughing so much that at one point she could hardly breathe! Those Thai's – what a great sense of humour, this hilarious joke also seemed to amuse Kerri, several people on mopeds, a bus load of tourists and an entire building site of tough looking Thai blokes.

Anyway, back at the ranch Kerri had finished her Rolf Harris Animal Hospital bit with a stray kitten we found and dubbed Richard Parker and so we decided that a rolling stone gathers no moss...

Nine Years of Progress...

When it rains in this country, my word does it rain! The initial deluge lasted 3 days without break and turned roads into rivers, it continued to rain, on and off, for the rest of the week and made our time here a bit of a washout.

We had made our way from the port, across the island to a town called Chewang. I stayed here in 1997 with Mr. Lynch and Mr. O'Sullivan when this sleepy little town was paradise personified. Well, 9 years of "progress" have wrecked that! What was once a handful of small shops and a couple of bars is now a sprawling 6km stretch of tat shops, brothels, DVD sellers, nightclubs, English Pubs, McDonalds, Starbucks, Tescos etc, etc.

The music booms out until 6am, pick-up trucks cruise the streets advertising nightclubs, blasting out there own music and tannoy announcements so loudly that the noise pollution can be unbearable. Sunburnt western kids roar up and down the streets on motorbikes far too powerful for them, whilest others limp along heavily bandaged down one side. Old grey haired western men proudly strut along, arm in arm with skinny young Thai girls. I can honestly say that the Thai trademark smiling and friendly face is nowhere to be seen.

The first place we stayed was a hellhole above a nightclub, but we were desperate and it had a picture of the fab four on the wall, which at least cheered Kerri up a little. The next morning, after very little sleep and a skinful of beer, we hired a bike and zipped round the coast road in search of somewhere new.We settled on Bo Phut, a small town with a few 5* resorts scattered along the beach and a community of ex-pats, none of whom seemed overly thrilled about living there!

Due to the rain, our main activity involved sitting on our balcony for "book club". However, during one rare sunny spell we did wander down the beach and, like a couple of pikeys, crashed the pool at a luxury resort under the pretence that we were staying there.

The only other noteworthy event was when we took a speed boat to the world famous Full Moon Party. Once upon a time this party was the preserve of 5,000-6,000 hippies and backpackers, smashed on whisky, mushrooms and Thai weed, raving until dawn wearing nothing more than flurescant body paint.

The party is still good, but it's a bit different now. 20,000 people now cram onto the beach – the majority of whom I would describe as "holiday-makers". I say this because some of the girls there looked as though they dressed for as night at Discotheque Royals, not for a night sitting on a dirty beach and pissing in the sea. A strong police presence means that the strongest brew available is a combination of the good old Sang Som (as previously documented) with what the Thais call Red Bull, but is probably more like liquid caffine. Still, this is plenty strong enough, and there were more than a few unconcious casualties littering the streets when we got there at midnight, and by 5am it had certainly done the job for us!

Anyway while we were there we also discovered that Koh Samui is very expensive compared to Koh Pha Ngan, so once we had recovered, we upped sticks and moved.