High Life Ho Chi Minh – Part 2

Back to Ho Chi Minh! We decided to spend a while in Dalat to explore the surrounds and see as much as we could, which worked out well but it did seem a bit of a shame that we ran out of time and weren’t able to visit nearby Mui Ne, Hoi An or Nha Trang but hopefully we will be back some day.

20130403-111840.jpgSo back into the swelter for a couple of days and again hitting the town with Thom, some gift shopping and a little sightseeing. This time though we had booked a cool little hostel just off Pham Ngu Lao st (the main backpacker street), where a pokey little alcove near the hostel was filled with local food markets every morning. Wandering through and seeing poor old toads being decapitated and gutted with scissors, fish squirming around in shallow damp bowls, lots of fresh veg and plenty of haggling was the norm. The atmosphere at this, and most other SE Asian food markets is always vibrant, gritty and in-your-face.

20130403-112103.jpgAsian food markets also really emphasise how detached most people are from their food in the developed world and may prove a challenge for the stomachs of some travellers ;). Our two days back in HCMC was really cool though, we spent a couple of late nights hanging out at some great bars (check out the exposed Chill skybar if you are in HCMC), playing pool with some friends of Thom’s, who he had met during his time living in HCMC and seeing the band play one last time (and of course dancing along no matter how bad we looked :)). In amongst the attempted catch up on sleep, last minute shopping and washing we took a look at the war remnants museum, which was an interesting and disturbing photographic view into the Vietnam war and the affects it had and still has on many Vietnamese and military people alike.

20130403-201620.jpgOne of the more unique experiences we had after dinner one night was to visit the blind association, where blind people are trained and paid to give massages, thereby giving them a meaningful job, which are few and far between for disabled people in Vietnam. So, of course we had to give it a try and it was a damn good massage, even if the building and rooms felt like some kind of asylum…

20130403-201218.jpgSitting here in our hostel room though, having just packed our bags, we dont know how to feel just yet, as we are flying off home in a few hours. What an amazing trip it has been, 3 months, 6 countries and so many awesome experiences! We will put up a highlights post soon, but for now Bon voyage!

Tips for Ho Chi Minh aka Saigon
– District 1 is the place to stay near the city centre, Check out Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien st (near each other) if you want cheap accomodation, food and drinks
– Only catch Vinasun taxies. The rest are dodgy (before we found this out we took a trip in a non-Vinasun taxi and it cost 3 times as much for the same trip as with Vinasun, even while using the meter)
– Cash and dress yourself up if you want to drink at one of the sky rise bars like Bitexco building, Sheraton, Chill Skybar, etc as drinks are not cheap and dress codes usually apply
– If you are into live music then there is plenty in the backpacker area or you might like to dance to some well rehearsed international bands and mix it with the billionaires at the 5 star Caravelle or the Sheraton
WATCH YOUR VALUABLES!! – This mainly applies to footpath walking, but keep your camera slung ACROSS your body and make sure you have a good camera strap. It is common for motorcycle riders to ride up to tourists and snatch cameras and mobile phones from the hands of pedestrians. On our visit this happened on 2 occasions and we heard of one other occasion while we were visiting. One rider even pulled on a camera hard so that the strap broke. BUT, don’t take this as a “OMG Saigon is so dangerous” because we didn’t feel in danger once, its a cool city that feels very safe, just keep valuables out of sight on the street and remain vigilant.

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Driving While Day-Dreaming in Dalat

Lauren here! I cannot express how much I love seven hour bus rides packed with locals, listening to the harmonious sounds of food being chewed with mouths open to accentuate the beautiful music of half-ground food. I love it! But I would take that bus any day over the buses in India! After this fantastic bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City we arrived in Dalat. We had mixed feelings for heading to Dalat. We were super excited to check out another city but, alas, this will be our last new city to visit before heading back to HoChi Minh which marks the end of our three month tour of Bhutan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But I’m sure we’ll post later on the highlights of our big trip. Dalat is a beautiful city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

20130401-173007.jpg It’s surrounded by hundreds of small family farms, most of which are hidden under a blanket of plastic greenhouse shelters. Dalat also has a lot of adventure activities including hikes, bike trails and canyoning. We had a quiet and fun evening meeting up for dinner with a family friend of James’, Alain. Alain lives in Dalat running a banana and vegetable farm with his friend, Jeff.
The next day we set out with Alain to check out the local produce markets which also have clothing, shoes and other items on the higher levels of the market building. It was very interesting and similar to many of the markets we’ve seen in Cambodia and Thailand. Although, it’s pet shops are a little different…

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A great way to get around Dalat is to hire a scooter and check out many of the sights yourself. We spent two days hiring a scooter and one day on an organised tour. Our first scooter day was spent visiting the ‘Crazy House’, Bao Dai Summer Palace, Lam Lake and taking a cable car tour. ‘Crazy House’ was, as expected, crazy.

20130401-173422.jpg It’s a funny hotel (though I think they get more visitors than guests) where there are artificial spiders webs in the garden, tree-type buildings with high scary walk bridges over the roofs that have pretty inadequate hand railings. Bao Dai Summer Palace is, like the guidebooks say, like stepping onto a film set… A film set from the 1950’s maybe. It’s the most modest palace we’ve visited with its simple furnishings and basic room set ups. The grounds around the palace are very nice and basic also, with strange fairground style toy statues all around one part of the lawn. Scooting on down to Lam Lake and Truc Lam Zen Monastery we got some lunch by the lake and walked around the monastery gardens, which were beautiful. From the monastery we caught the cable car up to Robin Hill and back, which is definitely worth it. The scenery is beautiful looking over farm fields of flowers.

20130401-173601.jpg Unfortunately this time the afternoon rains were setting in so we scooted on back to our hotel for a quiet evening. Later during the countryside tour, our guide told us that due to Dalat’s climate, it’s rainy season for six months a year. And it always rains right on cue around 3-4pm.
James took a day trip out to visit Alain’s farm and had a really good time checking out the farm area and seeing the various dairy processing plants in Dalat.
We ventured out the following day to check out more Dalat farms on a countryside tour as I mentioned before. The guide was really lovely and very knowledgable. Our first stops were at a flower farm and coffee plantation where we got to try some regionally grown coffee.

20130401-173748.jpg We also visited a cricket farm, where the crickets are raised in plastic pens for… Crunchy Vietnamese snacks. James tried a few but I gave it a pass. The highlight of the day was a visit to the Elephant Waterfall, which gushed with thunderous amounts of water. We were able to walk down into the valley below and stand underneath the waterfall, but the airflow coming through the rocks near the bottom was so powerful that you only needed to stand near the falls to get saturated. It was great fun and one of the Canadian fellows on the tour actually ventured out into the downpour and came back very, very wet. We also visited a silk farm and saw the process of silk being made: from caterpillar to cocoon to hot butter to spinning machines. Very interesting, especially the boiling in hot butter part. Apparently that’s another fantastic snack also. Our final “farm” was really a room of cages where they feed weasels coffee and bananas so that the weasel digests the coffee beans and through the process of fermentation, the weasel poops out the beans which have apparently “improved” in taste quality… We skipped the poop coffee. After a long lunch we checked out the old railway station, saw a steam engine then went on back to the hotel again. Our last day in Dalat was spent on the scooter again seeing the last sights we hadn’t made our way to yet. We visited the Valley of Love which is an incredibly kitsch but fun love-themed park where all the statues are lovey-dovey with pony rides and swan paddle-boats to add to the romance. Instead of holding hands while paddling across the beautiful lake, we decided to have fun mucking around on the buffalo and cow statues 🙂

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After a fun-filled morning at the Valley of Love, we moved on to the flower gardens which also sported many kitschy statues, but this time Disney-themed. We saw Snow White and her dwarves, mops with buckets from Fantasia and I’m pretty sure I saw Mowgli from the Jungle Book tying up Shere Kahn…
We had a quick lunch near the gardens while watching the storm clouds begin to roll in so quickly scooted off to see the Domaine de Marie church which was unfortunately closed for lunch so we continued on to a different religious building, the Linh Son Buddhist Pagoda. After a quick visit here, we had to rush back to the hotel in time to watch the rain come down from inside the comfort of our hotel room. Although we only had the opportunity and time to see Ho Chi Minh and Dalat in Vietnam, I would definitely recommend a trip out to Dalat to enjoy its unique, romantic atmosphere.

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High Life Ho Chi Minh – Part 1

It was a good bus trip from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh city really. A Nice and simple border crossing helped and booking a bus through a more reputable company eased the burden of potential hassles at the border (we didn’t really want to share our leg room with illegal contraband of live pigs or boxes of noodles). All we had to do was add our passport to the pile being balanced by the smiling bus lady, walk by a booth, scan hands and smile for the camera :).

20130328-153718.jpgDriving in to Ho Chi Minh we were surprised at how wide spread the city really is and it seems like the bustle starts from the border, with almost unbroken towns and roads the whole drive in. The roads are packed with scooters and we pass a few precariously held full sized doors, pig trailers, various vegetable sacks and generally difficult items being carried by unfortunate scooter passengers.The bus eventually dropped us into district 1, where most inner city accomodation, markets and sites are located. BUT, this close to the end of our trip we weren’t looking for any old accomodation. So, we jumped into a cab (no tuk tuks here :() and headed for the nearest 5 star hotel…well, sort of. There was a reason why we came to be in Ho Chi Minh and that was to visit my brother Thom who plays in Wave band, a part of el-live productions, which rotates bands to a different Asian country every few months. It’s a pretty awesome gig and being in the house band at 5 star hotels means that the band gets some pretty cool perks.

20130328-174606.jpgWe stayed a week, watched the band lots, danced, spent lots of money on cheap jeans, shirts and gifts at the Ben Thanh markets, drank cocktails at the bar of the huge Bitexco financial tower nearby, had a suit tailored and searched for food that might have come close to our budget. Note: Ho Chi Minh’s city centre is not for the budget traveller and I think we worked out that a drink in most nice bars cost us more than a nights accomodation in some of the cheaper places we have stayed on our trip :(.

20130328-154143.jpgI don’t think the bar staff were that happy that we would only buy 1 beer each time we visited to watch the band… We had a great week in Ho Chi Minh though and it is a nice city to visit, there are lots of monuments, the huge Saigon river is nearby and there are quite a lot of museums and parks around to check out. The city centre isn’t too far from the Mekong delta either and Thom had organised a day tour for us all on his day off.
The Mekong delta is basically the food bowl of Vietnam, where about 2.4 million hectares of land is used for agriculture and where 50% of Vietnams rice and fish is grown and produced, so as you can imagine it is a pretty interesting place to visit.
Our trip to the delta started with a 2 hr drive to a boat station near Vinh Long, where we jumped on a long boat bound for the Cai Be floating markets.

20130328-161829.jpgTall vertical bamboo poles with different fruit attached to them are used by mid river marketers to say “I sell coconut, papaw, etc”, so our boat lady had a quick glance around and made a beeline for the dangling coconuts and Longan fruit, which were very tasty indeed! We cruised onward with our tropical snacks to a small mekong island to check out some coconut candy making, puff rice sweet cooking, rice paper roll creating, handicrafts and a poor old python in a cage.

20130328-162854.jpgOne thing we have noticed in Vietnam is the amount of animals being exploited for tourism – pat the python, feed the weasel a banana, pay to release the finches from their cage, etc, which is not good, so don’t pay to release the finches, they just catch them again anyway.
Our next marine stop was to another small island and a tasty and different Elephant ear fish, rice roll, sour soup lunch, where we also watched a small cultural music show based around field songs and stories. After lunch the motor boat was traded for a traditional Mekong river rowboat, which was skillfully navigated through a small Mekong canal system by our smiling pilot. The trip was serene and we passed below small villages and lots of fruit trees.

20130328-164349.jpgTo finish off we balanced our way along the paddleboat and back into the motorboat before speeding off to the minivan. It was a pretty jam packed day but well worth it for a taste of the mighty Mekong delta!

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Pitiful Poultry & A Prison in Phnom Penh

Lauren here! After a very nice bus trip from Kampot to Phnom Penh with a new bus company, we made our way to our hotel and settled in. We found that at the end of our street was the Orussey Market, a market that is more for the locals than for tourists. At Orussey Markets, there were plenty of fruit, veg and meat shops, an entire floor just for clothes (the trendy clothes young Cambodians wear) and toys shops, hardware shops, electronics, etc. We wandered around the streets near our place and stumbled on a nice restaurant round the corner from our hotel. Because our hotel wasn’t in the tourist area, this restaurant turned out to be our cheapest and, only, option to eat at in the area.
During the tuktuk trip to the hotel we saw a motorbike ladened down with chicken and duck bodies just strapped to the rack on the back of the bike. It was gross but we thought nothing of it until one of the ducks moved and we realised that these poor animals were still alive… During our few days in Phnom Penh the bad treatment of birds were a similar and terrible sight.

20130321-090251.jpgThe next day we wandered aimlessly around the streets in the area then wandered further than we realised to the Royal Palace area, tourist area and main markets. The Royal Palace was a non-event unfortunately as we were clever enough to head there while it was closed… Smart one. We checked out a Buddhist temple called Wat Oulamon which was very impressive and well cared for. We kept walking, found ourselves in the tourist area so headed up to see Wat Phnom. The grounds outside Wat Phnom are very cool with a clock built into the hill and a wicca woven snake sculpture.

20130321-090354.jpgThe temple itself is quite interesting with many mini statues of Buddha rather than having one large ‘centrepiece’ Buddha and smaller ones around it. At the temple, people were ‘selling’ release-a-bird services where they catch and collect birds, keep them in a little cage and you pay for their freedom… You’ll never win with this because if you don’t do it, the birds remain caged, but if you do pay for their release, it only encourages the sellers to continue catching birds… hmmm.
At the Central Markets we saw an alleyway of jewelers soldering jewelry together which was fascinating to see and although most are made with fake gems, the work they put into making the jewelry is probably worth the prices they charge.

20130321-090659.jpgThe next day we had prepared ourselves for a pretty intense day as we were going to see the killing fields (Cheoung Ek) and Toul Sleung Prison (S-21). We agreed for a tuktuk driver to take us to both places for $13 which seemed reasonable comparing it to what others suggested would be the cost from online forums we read. We first headed to the killing fields where an audio guide is included in the entry fee. I won’t talk about what we saw and what we learned as much of the information about what happened is on the net and what we saw really is something you need to experience for yourself. It definitely is a difficult place to visit and changes your ideas on how much the human mind can justify and the actions some are willing to do in order to protect their own survival.
Toul Sleung Prison S-21 (a converted high school) was a prison and torture centre during Pol Pot’s regime. The information and galleries there are more visual with incredibly confronting photographs. Again, it is something that needs to be experienced and I can’t give the story justice in a blog.
It’s hard to imagine that this only happened 30-odd years ago. The friendliness of the Cambodian people today makes it hard to believe what many did to each other not that long ago.
That evening, we went in search of another place to eat instead of our usual restaurant… We came across a very strange nightclub-like restaurant where you were blinded by neon flashing signs, deafened from the pumping music and confused about the random girls walking around, sitting down with groups of men, eating some of their food then moving on to steal food off another group of men… I felt very discriminated against…what was wrong with my food? Why didn’t they want to sit with us? So not fair.
The next day was our farewell day to Phnom Penh and Cambodia, and our nice-to-see-you day to Vietnam! (This photo is of a baby at the markets chewing on a tomato, sitting in the tomato box while mum worked around her… Pretty funny sight!

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Skimming through Sihanoukville & Salt and Pepper Kampot

After a great start to Cambodia and loaded with plenty of information given to us by other travelers about how to obtain a Vietnam visa, we decided to save a bit of money on accomodation and take an overnight bus to Sihanoukville, a small beach city on the southern coast of Cambodia. The bus was great, it came equipped with layback bed/chairs, a toilet and a super fast driver! It took about 9 hours all up, with a couple of stops along the way, one of which was in the capital Phnom Penh. The trip was pretty hassle free apart from one fellow using Lauren’s arm to steady himself at midnight and the occasional swooshing of flashlights by a few people who looked like they were trying to contact the rest of their travel party by code…

20130314-141500.jpgArriving at the desolate bus stop in Sihanoukville meant sharing a tuk tuk to town with a couple of fellow travelers, which turned into the usual ‘negotiate a price and get taken to the tuk tuk mans restaurant instead of town’ but we managed to arrive nearby and wander up to Serendipity beach area, where lots of guesthouses are situated. So, after finding a cheap hotel, which came equipped with soiled towels, 4 large signs in our room stating that staff are not responsible for anything that goes missing and a dodgy door lock, we grabbed some hire bikes and headed for the Vietnam consulate. The visa turned out to be very easy to get in Sihanoukville and it only took about 10 minutes for everything to be processed, which we were very happy about because we weren’t that keen on the place. The beach was pretty quiet apart from the many offers by young kids and women who were selling bracelets, sunglasses, massages, etc and party boat organisers offering cheap booze. The beach and surrounding area had a pretty sleazy feel to it, especially when you saw the older foreign men holding hands with very young Cambodian girls. It might have been nice on one of the quieter beaches or nearby islands but we felt that one day to get our visa was enough before we hopped on a mini bus to Kampot.

20130314-141626.jpgKampot is a great little town about 3 hours drive from Sihanoukville. The township is split by the Kampot river and is renown for its salt and pepper production. The sleepiness of the place, the many little restaurants, guesthouses and bike hire places make it a nice spot to relax or do some more exploring too and although there are plenty of tourists around on their way to either Kep and the Vietnam border or Phnom Penh, it still has a very local feel to it. The vast salt fields are just out of town and were great to visit on the pushbike in the morning before the heat kicked in.

20130314-141714.jpg The locals seem to be very proud of their town and especially the Kampot river, with many public bins around and cleanup days happening to try and reduce the amount of rubbish, which often ends up in the river. One of the cleanup days was happening while we visited and we watched on as more than 200 students marched by, some with t-shirts and banners stating ‘I love Kampot river’.
Tips
– If you aren’t into partying, stay at one of the quieter beaches or one of the islands at Sihanoukville
– If you are mainly going to Sihanoukville to get your Vietnam visa consider taking an overnight bus to Sihanoukville, getting the tuk tuk to drop you at the consulate and then jumping on a mini bus to Kampot for some relaxation.
– Watch your valuables in Sihanoukville, especially when walking on the roadside, in the cheaper guesthouses and hotels
– Don’t buy from the beach kids, it keeps them out of school and vulnerable to abuse. Instead, visit the not for profit shop, M’Lop Tapang on serendipity beach road that supports parents to keep their children at school.

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Sunny Rides & Spectacular Ruins in Siem Reap

Lauren here! After a long and exhausting trip to Siem Reap we had a good sleep in then headed for the Old Market area and checked out a Buddhist temple along the way. Wat Preah Prom Rath was an interesting place to look around and was very quiet and peaceful. It has beautiful gardens around it and inside a huge reclining Buddha is slowly sinking into the tiles of the building from its weight. We walked a bit further and started to explore the Old Market which is very big and is a market for tourist trinkets and locals also come here for clothes shops, butchers, hairdressers, fruit and veg and hardware.

20130313-152140.jpgJames enjoyed exploring the meat section which was right across the tiny walkway to the hairdressers which was a crazy contrast. We walked through another section and while James had a taste of some strange seasoned black beetle, I felt a cold, wet slithering thing around my ankles and squealed! A catfish had escaped from its table and was swimming around on the pavement. I don’t think the lady was impressed that I didn’t put it back for her, but there was no chance I was picking that thing up! The poor fish do sit on a metal table, alive, and only get water poured over them every now and then to keep them just alive for a “fresh” sell.
In the evening we returned to the same area and went down “Pub Street” a tourist street full of touts, drunks and cheap alcohol. Before dinner we decided to have a fish massage where you put your feet in a tank and little fish eat the dead skin off your feet. James enjoyed it but I thought it was too bloody painful and weird. I had had enough of fish swimming around my feet! But it only cost $2 for 30 minutes and a beer. While we were having our ‘massage’, we caught up with Anna & Bryn, two travelers we shared the taxi ride from the border with.

20130313-153440.jpgWe arranged to visit the temples together the next day.
We also caught up over some dinner and drinks with Darren, a friend of James’ he’d met on a previous trip to Nepal. Darren lives in Siem Reap as a photographer and offered to take us around for a day on dirt bikes to see the off-the-tourist track places near Siem Reap.
The next day we met up with Anna & Bryn and flagged down a tuktuk driver for our day trip to the Temples of Angkor. After swinging by to get our temple tickets ($20 1 day, $40 3 days) we went straight for the big one, Angkor Wat. Until you enter the complex, you really can’t see Angkor Wat because of the walls surrounding it. It is also surrounded by a beautiful and big moat. It was very dry when we visited and has a huge expanse of ground that surrounds it inside the complex. On the walk up to the main building, there are people selling palm juice which has an interesting smoky flavour. It was fascinating going around the lower level looking at all the Indian inspired wall carvings and stories displayed. The second level is lovely to walk around also. We never went up to the final level as the line was massive! Angkor Wat is definitely a must-see because of its fame but in our opinion is not the pick of the bunch. We continued on to Bayon (Angkor Thom) which was incredible! The many towers have huge carved faces on all four sides and it is incredibly run down so you truly are in temple ruins. there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore and is much less touristy than Angkor Wat.

20130313-153917.jpgThe third temple to visit was Ta Phrom, where the trees are dominating the ruins. There are many trees that have grown all over the ruins and creates a very mystic feel to the place. One particular tree growing over a doorway has featured in a Tomb Raider film.

20130313-155422.jpgThe temple itself is surrounded by nature so feels very remote and special. We visited a few smaller temples and met lots of children selling their wares, who even as young as 7 or 8 have very colourful language if you don’t buy from them.
After a bit of a rest back at our hotels we met up with Anna & Bryn again to try a traditional Khmer BBQ degustation which includes frying meats on cookers while a soup cooks in the drip area. Our meats included pork, beef, bacon and… snake?

20130313-155712.jpgThe snake meat was very chewy and I don’t think I’d try it again.
The next day was organised to head out on the dirt bikes with Darren. It was an incredible day riding down red dirt roads along farmland and villages, children waving as you ride pass and palm trees scattered everywhere. We visited a few temples from the outside and had a chat with a Buddhist monk at one of the temples. We also visited the city trash site which was incredible. A dump truck had arrived at the same time and we watched as all the residents of the dump gathered around to start sifting through the pile.

20130313-160848.jpgThey burn off what remains which creates such an otherworldly scene but the people all seem happy at the site.
We ventured on to a floating village where, in the dry season, the houses stand tall on long stilts until the wet season comes and they use boats to get around.
We had a great day cruising around the countryside but were absolutely exhausted by the end. Courtesy of Darren, he told us about a sweet deal at a villa where it only cost $6 for a swim, lunch and drink. We met up there again and spent the next day relaxing by the pool catching up after our couple of action-packed days.
After saying farewell to Darren, we spent our final day at the hotel and having lunch with Anna & Bryn before we all went our separate ways to our next adventures…

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Check out Darren’s photos at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cambodia-Images/282481971774340

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Crossing the Thailand-Cambodia Border

20130310-214924.jpgThe most affordable way to travel from Thailand (Bangkok) to Cambodia (Siem Reap), if you aren’t riding/driving your own vehicle, is to take a train, tuk tuk and bus/taxi.
BUT, before we go through each step, we will say that it is not a pleasant border crossing and if you can afford to fly it would be much quicker and less stressful, unless of course you have a fear of flying…

Here’s a few tips on how to do the crossing (Results may vary ;))

#1 – Get up early in Bangkok! The first train to leave for the border is the 5.55am train to Aranya Pratet, the last stop, which is also where you want to get off. This is a local third class train, costs 45Baht each ($1.40ish) and takes about 6hours. It’s not as bad as it sounds though because the scenery is beautiful, the seats are comfortable and there are plenty of fans

#2 – Have some lunch near Aranya Pratet station as the food is cheap, simple and tasty, it is relatively peaceful and you will need the energy for the next step!

#3 – Catch one of the remaining tuk tuks, or if you are travelling light, a motorcycle for about 80 Baht to the border. This is where you will probably encounter the first scam. The tuk tuk driver will most likely drop you at an office where other foreigners are filling out visa forms. If you enter the relatively bare office you will be told by official looking men to fill out visa forms and that you must pay $40 each in Thai Baht, “ABSOLUTELY NO USD” they will say. Do not enter this office, which seems difficult at the time as they can be very convincing and pushy (You will get a visa here but you will pay twice the cost) The Truth. You can pay in USD (most people do) and the official price is $25 each.

#4 – Walk past the expensive visa office, ignoring the persistent, official looking touts, to the line at the border (very busy, many vehicles lining up). It will say something like foreigner departures, which means you will be stamped out of Thailand before getting to the visa on arrivals office. If you are unsure of where to walk consult the police booth near the border.

#5 – Cross the road and proceed to the visa on arrival office after exiting Thailand. The office is signposted (ignore more touts). After you have your visa walk on to the Cambodia arrivals line. The whole process can take two or more hours if your unlucky.

#6 – After entry into Cambodia you will be confronted by many drivers offering taxis or a ‘free’ shuttle to an overpriced bus depot. If you are easily flustered this is the place where you could lose a bit of money. So, either meet up with a few other travellers, walk past the roundabout and get a shared taxi to Siem Reap for about $10 each or walk down the long street to a hotel for the night (not recommended) or walk straight down the road to one of the private bus companies (difficult if you arrive late).
We took a shared taxi after trying to find a private bus at 4pm (hard), while at the same time being relentlessly pursued by taxi drivers, making this the worst place for touts of our whole trip.

#7 – After arriving in Siem Reap your taxi driver will probably have a tuk tuk mate siting at a car park where you will stop. He will probably tell you that it costs him an extra $5 to enter the city centre so we should take his friends tuk tuk for free. When you arrive at your hotel the tuk tuk man will then try to sell you his service for visiting the temples and he may be very persistent. Politely say no thanks firmly or else you risk the driver being outside your hotel in the morning expecting you to use his service. Most tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap have seemed pretty friendly though.

#8 – You will probably arrive at about 6ish so it’s better to have pre-booked or at least written down some accomodation options to check out.

20130310-215155.jpgTips
– Take plenty of $USD’s out at a bank in Bangkok as they are the main currency used in Cambodia and you can also pay for your visas with USD’s.
– Pre book a night or two accommodation in Siem Reap before you leave
– Expect to spend a fair amount of time waiting in the heat, pack plenty of water
– Try not too get too stressed! It’s a long day, the touts are bad and it can be frustrating but in the end it’s only one day and you will wake up ready to explore dusty, friendly, Siem Reap, a truly incredible place.

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Snorkel, Scoot, Swim, Sleep and Sunburn in Koh Tao…WHAT, NO DIVING??

20130301-174203.jpgAfter the adventures of India, Lames McFuzzy needed a break somewhere peaceful and scenic, so what better place than the small island of Koh Tao, three hours off the south east coast of Thailand.
The 8 hour train ride down the coast went surprisingly fast in the sticky heat of February Thailand. Luckily the train carriages are well ventilated, equipped with comfy seats, rotating fans and windows that open right up (no bars on the windows or cramped legs here). The scenery along the way is also nice and the train passes waterlogged rice fields under cultivation, dense jungle, small villages and little market gardens. Had we done a little more research we would have known that there were a couple of places to stop along the way (Hua Hin, etc) but instead we pressed on to a late arrival in Chumphon.
After wandering up to Thatapow road to a guesthouse we had read about we were informed by the kind lady at reception that there is nothing to see in Chumphon, “not even a cinema!” so we should catch the 7am boat to Koh Tao rather than stay another night. So, bleary eyed after a few hours rest we jumped on the crammed taxi bus to the ferry. The 3 hour ferry to Koh Tao is quite large and it heaves its way, sickeningly smoothly, through the swell forcing most people to migrate to the upper deck for fresh air, a snooze and a steady horizon (including us), or some more breakfast beer in the sun…which may come back up…
Koh Tao is known worldwide for its diving and there are a huge amount of dive shops offering diving/accomodation packages, which we assume most people visit Koh Tak for. This also rises the price of everything and we decided early that we wanted to stay somewhere a bit cheaper and away from the main tourist areas of Mae Haad bay and Sairee beach.

20130301-173618.jpgSo, after another awesome fruit muesli yoghurt banana pancake breaky we did a quick net search and found some bungalow accomodation at Hin Wong Bay, a quiet bay on the east coast of the island with spectacular views and snorkeling. The bungalows were by far the cheapest accomodation we came across and although they had no wifi, hot water or electricity through the day, it didnt matter because it was quiet, they were equipped with hammocks and the sea breeze blew right into your bed making it feel like we were on a tropical island….oh wait.
The only downside to being at Hin Wong bay was that its about a 45 min sweaty walk to Sairee beach and calmer waters. Fortunately scooter hire was easy and we were able to pick one up for about $5/day + another $2 for fuel.
Note: You will have to leave your passport with the hire place and if you scratch or damage any part of the cycle you must pay for a whole new part (not just a simple repair job), which means be very careful, especially around the sometimes very steep hillside roads.
Snorkel and fin hire is also easy but a little pricey and we would probably suggest buying a set here if you are snorkeling for more than three days (100Baht/day/person to hire mask and fins). Don’t try and save money by buying a second hand mask though as they will probably leak, which we found out and no refund! There are also whole day snorkeling trips, which are probably worth it of you don’t want to hire a bike to get to the more remote areas of the island.

20130301-174001.jpgApart from snorkeling and diving there are heaps of beaches to relax on at Koh Tao and we found that Sairee beach, as touristy as it is, is a great spot to have an afternoon swim before sitting down on a beanbag for dinner at one of the many beachside restaurants.
Over the next few days we saw more of the island and had a relaxing time of it. Snorkelling the shallow wreck off south Mae Haad beach and the shallows and depths of Nang Yuan Terrace was excellent with plenty of corral and fish to see. One morning I also took the snorkel and scooter down the steep, dusty roads to Tanote and Aow Leuk bay’s, while the hammock at the bungalow was occupied by a certain someone, and then cruised onto Freedom beach at the southern point of the island (much calmer through the day than the east coast bays).

20130304-052831.jpgBy the end of our time on Koh Tao we were thoroughly sunburnt, rested and relaxed. The island was nice, if not a little expensive and mainly based around tourism, which made it a good place to sit back and relax or go snorkeling, rather than it being a cultural experience (unless you enjoy learning about the drinking and drunken dancing habits of foreigners).
The way off the island is a little testing on the patience as it is considerably more expensive than getting there, the ferry was an hour late and the bus 2 hours early into Bangkok, which meant a 5 hour wait at 3am on drunken Kao San road for our hostel reception to open. All in all it’s a nice island to relax on for a while but it’s probably not for the budget traveller or someone trying to escape the droves of regular foreign tourists that visit Thailand every year. Oh, and if you can afford it an have the time go diving. Its cheap in comparison to many other places and apparently it’s pretty amazing.

20130305-105357.jpgTips for Koh Tao
– If arriving in Chumphon from Bangkok consider staying in Chumphon town and book the ferry+free shuttle from your hotel, it cost us 500Baht each, but on the way back 650 so maybe book both ways
– Pre-book accomodation. We were lucky to get a bungalow where we did and Koh Tao didnt seem like the rock up and find your way kind of place
– Hire a scooter if you are staying out of town. Some roads are very steep though and scratches on your scooter are expensive so it’s probably not a ‘learn to ride a motorcycle’ kind of place
– Book the Lampraya catamaran a few days in advance if you want a day trip to Bangkok, otherwise you will arrive at about 3am on the ‘overnight’ bus

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Bunches of Bananas in Boiling-Hot, Beautiful Bangkok

Lauren here… In Thailand! We flew into Bangkok, Thailand at about midnight after a hellish flight from India. As a final farewell from India, it decided to go all out and test our last bit of patience. The four hour flight consisted of the man sitting next to James putting his leg in James’ footwell, the man behind me putting his knee into my back, then later giving me a very disgustingly disturbing look. As soon as the seatbelt light went off many of the passengers were out of their seats milling around, leaning on my backrest, pulling my hair, etc. They played loud music on their phones and, the final tipping point, a man nearby had some real bad flatulence issues… We high-fived each other once we arrived in Thailand, realising we had just survived one month in India!
Because of our late arrival in Bangkok and being uncertain of getting accommodation, for only the second time this entire trip we prebooked our accommodation. We stayed at a fantastic hotel that included breakfast where, each morning, we were overloaded with banana, pawpaw and pineapple, as well as fresh juice, eggs and toast.

20130228-191226.jpgThen on the streets everywhere you come across coconut water (coconut is cut open in front of you and then a straw inserted so you carry around the actual coconut), bags of cut mango, more pineapple, I really could go on for some time about the endless availability of fruit in Thailand…
After a nice sleep-in we had our breakfast and caught a ferry to BMK Centre (shopping mall) for a quick look for things we needed that weren’t available in India, then caught the sky train to the Chatuchak Weekend Markets which are HUGE! We ate lots of fruit (of course), saw hundreds of clothing shops, food shops, flower shops, pet shops, etc. Some of the pets included puppies, rabbits, mini possum-looking things and… Squirrels in dresses? I kid you not, the squirrels and rabbits were in specially made dresses. It was a fantastic place to visit and we were just lucky enough to be in Bangkok on the right day of the week to visit the markets. In the evening we went to check out Khao San Road, the main backpacker area of Bangkok. Unfortunately Khao San Road turned out to be what we weren’t looking forward to about Thailand.

20130228-191757.jpgThere were drinking holes everywhere, girls in skimpy clothes, guys in raggy singlets and just a big tourist trap. We grabbed some dinner, caught sight of the ever-so-popular scorpions on a stick to eat then decided to get out of there. To place the scene in perspective, as we were leaving the street a preacher had his bible in hand and yelling down the street his beliefs of the sins being committed in that street… Very interesting to see, but we knew it wasn’t our kind of scene.
The next day we ventured out to see the temples and other sights of Bangkok. For breakfast we were stuffed with more fruit and juice then went on our way to the first stop: the Grand Palace & Emerald Buddha. It cost a whopping 500baht each (approx AUD$16 each) which is expensive for Thailand prices but the architecture is pretty spectacular. One building was all gold tiles and others were painted with fantastic aqua, purple and pink colours. For some reason all the temples were non-accessible to the public that day so we could only see the outside of the building and a tiny glimpse of the emerald Buddha. Also, we could only view the grand palace from the outside.

20130228-192054.jpgUnfortunately it wasn’t until we were nearly finished looking around here that I realised that the nice new pair of pants I bought in India had split at the seam in the butt. I could fit my hand though the hole it was that big! So awkward. We managed to fold the waistline of the pants in a way to hide the gap, but for the rest of the day I kept asking James “can you see my undies?” or “check my butt, is it still ok?”.
We then walked onwards to the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho). When we arrived, it cost another 100baht each so we decided to skip it and check out Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) which we read was the #1 must-see in Bangkok… And yeah, it was pretty amazing.

20130228-192539.jpgThe temple is incredibly detailed and coloured and you can walk to the very top to get 360 views of Bangkok. It was across the river from Wat Pho so we paid the 3baht each ticket (AUD$0.10) and travelled the short distance over and an entry fee of 50baht (AUD$1.60). The climb up to the top of the temple is really steep and is a bit daunting on the way back down. By this time, it had been a big day and we were starting to get blisters so we headed back to the hotel.
In the evening, we headed to Khao San road again to grab some cheap food… And to get a new pair of pants.

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8 Hour, Double Booked, Layback Journey to Jodhpur

20130225-213218.jpgOur trip to the third ‘pur’, Jodhpur turned out to be another ripper. The ‘tourist’ buses in India are quite similar to the buses in Nepal only they also offer sleeper! This is a pretty cool feature where on the long overnight trips you can pay a bit extra for a single or double bunk (sitting above the chairs). So now that the coolness is covered let’s cover the not so coolness of Indian tourist coaches. They always seem to run 1-2 hours longer than claimed, stops are regular but why we are stopping is usually unclear (toilet breaks are not that popular), seat bookings don’t mean much when the attendant is trying to sit you on the back bench seat (hold your ground and demand your booked seats, unless of course you want to sit crammed in the back for 8 hrs) and sometimes the chairs are stuck in the layback position cramming the legs of the poor soul behind. You can just imagine the poor locals who have to take local buses, which make tourist buses look like maharajahs carry carriages.

20130225-212242.jpgSo after our 8 hours journey we jumped off the luxury bus and into a rickshaw to find a guesthouse. We eventually found a great little Japanese/Indian guesthouse in a quiet area, but only after having to threaten no pay for our rickshaw driver after he took us not to the clock tower but to a “very good, cheap guesthouse” where his friend was conveniently waiting for us.
A note about this scam – Its best to get dropped off near a monument or site close to a guesthouse area, rather than to a guesthouse. The reason being, rickshaw drivers get commission from hotels/guesthouses. So, who pays? Not the hotel but you in your accomodation cost. Rather than your room costing 300rps it now costs 500rps. Although rickshaw drivers get paid by you once they want more and our guy even called ahead to his friend, which we suspected may be the case even when we requested the clock town so be firm and demand to be taken where you want to go!

20130225-212422.jpgJodhpur, or ‘the blue city’ actually is blue and the views of the city and the huge fort that grows out of a stony mountain high on the horizon are spectacular. Jodhpur felt less busy than Jaipur but at the same time more manic than Udaipur so for us it felt kind of in between. The old city is where a lot of the guesthouses are and its a good spot to get a feel for local living. The narrow streets are interesting to walk around and you can come across kids playing cricket and cows tethered for milking, although you do have to be careful of the local dogs as we ran across a few that wanted to eat our legs. We also came across a few young men intent on staring or commenting sleazily in Lauren’s direction, which has been pretty common in India. It’s funny the lack of respect many Indian men have for women, or maybe it’s just tourists in general…
The last afternoon of our leisurely stay in Jodhpur saw us take another walk through the blue alleyways of the old city and up to the fort, where we took the complimentary audio guide (worth it) and wandered for a couple of hours amongst the grand battlements, rooms full of royal furniture and canon ball damaged walls. This was one of the more impressive forts of our trip through India and a great way to finish off our Rajasthan adventure.

20130225-212530.jpgBefore we jumped on our overnight train to Delhi though we had to have lunch at the omelette shop, a tiny little corner store where the same man has been making omelettes for 30 years. He assures us that he sells 1000 eggs and cooks 1000 eggs every day. The masala cheese omelettes are damn good too and come equipped with a gooey mayonnaise like centre smooshed between two pieces of bread. So, if you don’t mind questionable cooking conditions, sharing your stool with the occasional passing cow, speeding rickshaws and suicidal motorcyclists it is definitely worth a visit.

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