Monday, 23 March 2009

Angkor What?

Entering Cambodia was the first border crossing we have had to do by land so far on the trip and was a nerve wracking experience. We beat the visa scam that was operating on the bus by not agreeing to hand over our passports to the person on the bus, who may or may not have actually been working for the bus company (whose company name we didn't know), despite her attempts to worry us with tales of corruption at the border and there being no guarantee how much we would have to pay the police as a bribe if we didn't take advantage of her "service". We stuck to our guns and passed through the Thai immigration to 'No Man's Land' which was a bizarre kilometre or so of land full of casinos. Obviously there are no gaming laws in No Man's Land - maybe Buddha doesn't reign over that bit of dusty wasteland?!

The bus company representative at the border, upset that we didn't opt to use the visa "service", was not interested in helping us find where we should get our visa, and would not even point us in the right direction. His only comment on the subject was "Go find your visa" - sore loser! We found the right place eventually and duly filled out the seemingly pointless forms, handed over our passports and the necessary payment, and watched the Policeman walk away. It is a really awful feeling to be in stranded between countries with no passport to go anywhere, surrounded by Policemen who don't speak English and who don't care about anything except the exchange of money. But there was no need to worry as the guy came back with our passports and visas, and it only cost us $28 instead of the official charge of $20, which was still cheaper than the visa "service" we were offered, Ha! A little confidence paid off :-).

The first impression of Cambodia is that is that the landscape is very different to Thailand. It is full of ploughed crop fields rather than rice fields and it is very, very, very flat in all directions. The country is much poorer than Thailand and consequently there are more beggars and sellers trying to get you to part with your money. Trying to negotiate a Tuk-Tuk ride when faced with 3 or 4 guys all telling you that they haven't had a customer for 6 hours is heart wrenching. We have replaced the constant "You want massage?", in Thailand, with " You want Tuk Tuk?" and it annoys me to see foreigners walking past these people as though they do not exist. They are only to trying to make an honest living, and in a part of the world where there seems to be more dishonesty than honesty in the tourist trade they deserve a break, or even just a polite 'No thank you'.

We engaged a friendly Tuk-Tuk driver as our guide to the temples and as we set off at 9am the temperature was already soaring. I will gloss rather quickly over temple descriptions as a picture says a thousands words. We started at 'Bayon" - the temple of the faces, built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, with 52 replicas of his face looking out in all directions so that he could keep an eye on everything that was happening in the Kingdom.

From Cambodia

The next temple of interest was the one featured in that Hollywood "masterpiece" 'Tomb Raider'. This has to be the most interesting and picturesque as the jungle has taken over. Huge trees, 20 or so metres high grow from the top of buildings; giant roots wrap walls, now keeping them upright through time.

From Cambodia

From Cambodia

We saw other smaller temples, but the temperature was now around 35 degrees and my interest was beginning to wane. The finale of the day was Angkor Way itself. A truly immense structure - it took 10 minutes to walk across the moat to reach the entrance way. It is unfortunate that they are currently undertaking restoration work and so the towers that are synonymous with photos of Angkor Wat are covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin which spoilt the photo opportunities somewhat. We walked into the temple and around its covered portico's, but I am afraid that I was a little underwhelmed by it. Sacrilege I know as it really should have made it into the revised Seven Wonders of the World, and sure it is a massive structure, but up close there's not much to differentiate it from the other temples. Macchu Pichu was more awe inspiring I'm afraid. However, we spent a few hours wandering around and exploring so I feel we did it justice and then we just had to retreat to the guest house to find some relief from the heat. I will try to do better at appreciating wonders of the world in future :-).

From Cambodia

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A picture of Thailand

As the time nears to bade farewell to the Land of Silk I am looking forward to a new country, language, food, and people but I will miss Thailand alot. Although I am sure that things will not change too much once we cross the border into Cambodia and we will still walk around to a chorus of "Where you go?", "What you looking for?", "You want shopping?", "You want tour?". Unfortunately the people are unable to distinguish between strapped for cash backpackers and the well dressed, monied, folk staying at the 5 star resorts. I suppose we are all just walking Dollars really, and when even the backpackers can spend the equivalent of a day's wage on one meal, we are all fair game.

I will miss the smell of barbecuing meat skewers that waft at intervals on every street, and I will miss watching the strange mingling of home life and business on the streets, where people who run the night stalls seem to use their little patch of pavement as an extension of their living room. Or perhaps it is their living room? Tucked behind the stall, to the side, or even in front if space is tight is a small TV hooked up to the power lines overhead, and the family watch their evening programs as the street traffic passes on by.

This is a country where you can get almost anything you want, or need, on the street. A complete meal, a new set of clothes, maybe a fake watch or pair of sunglasses to complete your ensemble; souvenirs for all your friends; ornaments or bedding for your home or a relaxing massage whilst you watch the world go by.

All of this trade on the pavements does make walking anywhere a mission of weaving in and out of stalls, TVs, children, massage chairs and more often than not it's simply impossible to walk on the pavement at all, and so you join the scooters, Tuk-Tuk's and cars on the road. Thai people do not walk anywhere, which is why presumably the pavements are viewed as prime space for a business. Every journey, no matter how short, is done on a scooter usually with a small child balanced on the seat in front, or stood on the footbed holding onto the handle bars.

The countryside is a patchwork of bright green rice fields which sit in contrast with the red earth and scorched grass surrounding them. Little oasis of green with flocks of storks and other assorted birds steadfastly ignoring the scarecrow plastic bags fastened to bamboo sticks. Scattered in amongst the expanse of rice fields are fields of 2 metre high sugarcane making the scenery look scruffy and unattended in comparison to the neat, ordered squares of paddy field.

Driving is done at break neck speed with all bus drivers attempting to reach their destination in record breaking time. Bicycles are used as transport, not for human passengers but for crops and other goods presumably bound for market. These bikes are piled ridiculously high, and carefully wheeled along the edges of the highway in another old versus new juxtaposition.

When travelling some of our fellow vehicles on the road are huge lorries stacked high with cut sugarcane, winding their way in procession like a long, fume producing snake, to the sugar refineries. Perhaps to one day end up in our shops at home. These truck drivers drive like everyone else on the roads - sheer bloody lunacy! The Thai drive like they are riding bikes (pedal or motor) weaving in and out of each other with no regard for lanes. You can easily fit 4-5 cars/Tuk-Tuk's/scooters side by side on a 2 lane road so why not? There are inches, and sometimes not even that, to spare between these weaving manoeuvres, but everyone is very well tempered. There's no beeping of horns because you have just been cut up by a scooter that balances underneath 3 adults and a baby. The Thai just accept it and carry on.

We've been on the road for 5 weeks now and have lapsed back into things easily. There's plenty of time for introspection, digesting the latest strange sights and smells, and reading (Mike's averaging a book a week currently!). But hey, with the most pressing daily concern being what shall we have to eat for lunch/dinner, life's pretty easy! Onwards to Cambodia...

Here's a few more photos we took in Thailand:

Mike's burger chain

Floating market

Cooking noodles at the market

ATV off roading in the jungle

Walking in the countryside

'Costa Del Tourist' aka Khao San Road, Bangkok. Home to cheap eats, cheap hostels and all the scams you could ever wish for!

At the Royal Palace

Elephant artistry

Kayaking in the mangrove swamps

Nightlife Koh Phi Phi style - fire dancing

Friday, 6 March 2009

For the Love of Elephants

We spent a wonderful 3 days in Lampang, Northern Thailand, at the Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre where now redundant elephants get to live out their lives because the logging trade has been made illegal. There is not enough forest left for all of the elephants in Thailand to live freely. Their only future lies in tourism, fortunately or unfortunately, whatever way you look at it. They are well cared for at the TECC and get to earn their keep.

Let me introduce you to 'Som Choi': 10 years old, large and grey, quite hairy, weighing in somewhere around the 2 tonnes mark. Som Choi was my elephant for the duration of our mahout training course and lovingly called 'naughty Som Choi'. I quickly found out he does his best to live up to his name! He's a typical young boy: restless, inquisitive and always looking for the next mouthful of something tasty. He's also gentle, obedient (most of the time) and very patient with stupid tourists like me making a hash of his commands and trampling all over him in an effort to get up and down.

From Thailand

From Thailand

So Mahout training school involved each tourist being assigned to an elephant of varying ages, sizes and temperaments, along with the elephant's regular mahout (also of varying ages and temperaments, but all basically the same size - small!). The first thing to learn are the basic commands to get up onto the elephant and back down again; make the elephant sit down, lie down, pick things up etc. After a short while of practising these commands and getting up and down several times I established that although Som Choi may be small in terms of elephants, I still couldn't manage to hoist mayself up onto his neck. This inevitably resulted in me half way up with one leg sort of over his back, completely unable to get any further. A strong push on the backside from my mahout was always required! We then proceeded down to the lake for the first of what would be many elephant baths over the next few days.

This bath marked the start of the elephant show for the tourists visiting the centre for the day. They got to watch as we waded into the water and sloshed water over the elephants to clean them. My mahout didn't speak much english but thought it was hilarious to get me as wet as possible during these baths, usually by instructing Som Choi to lie down in the water so that he was completely submerged and I was dunked to my waist.

Now this wasn't a nice clean lake that was inviting for swimming. It was opaque brown and full of floating elephant dung; it was probably 50% made up of elephant pee and it was also full of the debris washed from the elephants 2-3 times a day. The bathing was great fun though and we just tried not to think about the state of the water! Most of this bath time was spent by the elephants filling their trunks with water and then squirting it high into the air and over us - so the bits that didn't get wet from being dunked got wet from showers! My Mahout would then spend the walk back to the show ground giggling about my dripping condition and saying things like "You wet ha ha ha":-).

Now started the tourist show "proper". Each elephant was introduced by name, and they would bow to the audience, we would then walk around the show ground each holding the tail in front whilst the audience were given various elephant facts. The new mahouts (us) then had to demonstrate to the audience the commands we had learnt - get up on the elephant, get back down, get the elephant to sit down, lie down on their belly, lie down on their side, pick up the stick etc, etc. Som Choi knew all the moves off by heart and upside down but he wouldn't do them until the command had been repeated several times. All that was except for the 'lie on your belly' command, and it always took me by surprise. Having clambered back onto his neck, rather ungracefully in front of the watching audience (clutching my sodden trousers, which are so heavy when wet, and hoping they wouldn't end up around my ankles at that precise moment), I got Som Choi to sit down and pick up the stick I had dropped on the ground; then Som Choi would lie down straight away without a command being given. This sudden movement left me, for the tiniest fraction of a second, still sitting at the height we were at but now minus an elephant underneath me. Gravity would then take over and I'd drop back down to his neck now a meter of so lower than the previous second, leaving my stomach behind. This was of great amusement to my mahout as I let out a little yelp of surprise each time Som Choi disappeared, momentarily, underneath me!

This was the end of mine and most of the other new mahouts role's in the show and the real mahouts would take over. There would be a demo of pushing and pulling logs as the elephants would have done in the logging trade. The largest elephant, Jo Jo, would then walk a log like a balance beam, stand with just 2 legs on the log, turn 360 degrees, then come back off. Their awareness of their feet, weight distribution and body position is amazing for animals so big. This show sounds a bit circus-esque but I assure you it was all done in the best possible taste and the elephants are treated very well.

From Thailand

From Thailand

Mike then got his star turn in the show riding his elephant, 'Patchya', whilst she pulled logs using chains. Mike's elephant was bigger than mine and an old timer at 29. She was very stubborn but very well behaved. Mike got to bathe Patchya by himself as his mahout didn't like getting wet and he was told several times that "Michael good mahout"!! I'll let Mike tell you more about his elephant experiences later.

From Thailand

The end of the show saw the elephants showing off their artistic talents. 3 elephants would have an easel set up in front of them and with the help of their mahouts, who put the paint on the brushes for them, they would paint pictures. Some were very abstract swipes of the brush and some with more practise drew flowers and even elephants. I have to confess that this was more down to the mahout's skill at guiding the trunk than real elephant artistic talent but they were still very good! After the painting 5 of the elephants, including Som Choi, would play the Thai national anthem on a musical instrument that was like a set of wind chimes. The elephants were so enthusiastic at playing the chimes that they stood practising in anticipation - so cute! The show ended with a bow and then the audience could feed them sugar cane and bananas. At 2pm each day we would take the elephants to the forest, where they would stay for the night and gorge themselves to their hearts content.

From Thailand

We did 2 shows a day, and 3 baths a day, and all in all it was really exhausting (and really wet), but a truly, truly wonderful experience. We all had aching limbs from sitting on the elephants neck's, which was surprisingly comfortable but you had to hold your knees up and put them behind the ears (a bit like a jockey position but there's no stirrups so you have to hold them there using muscle power alone). By the 3rd day it was preferable to be on the elephant rather than off because walking became very painful!

There is a nursery at the centre with 2 babies there currently - Seven (born 07/07/07 hence the name) and Piannoud (no idea how to spell it) who is 4 months and cute beyond belief!

From Thailand

From Thailand

I can't wait to go back again!


So we had to venture out of our little haven of Kanchanburi after 5 days and we took a bus to Ayathaya (the old capital of Thailand) where the new city is built around the ruins of the ancient cuty, quite literally. Totally unimpressed with Ayathaya as a new city, (it is crowded, dirty, smelly and a mosquito breeding ground of small streams in every street), the way the old and the new are sitting side by side is interesting though. There's a few wooden shacks, a few shops built of cement, and then a clearing and a tumble down ruin of a temple or a palace from a time long before. By night these ruins are lit and are pretty impressive.

From Thailand

From Thailand

Whilst in Ayathaya we climbed to the top of a temple to watch the sun set. It was a lovely view across the rice fields to a gorgeous orange/red orb gradually sinking to the horizon, when suddenly it wasn't an orb any longer. First the bottom disappeared in a perfct straight line, then it became a semi circle, then there was nothing at all, and the horizon was nowhere near. Smog - it's not only in Bangkok we have discovered, in fact it seems to cover the majority of the country, making the sky seem permanently cloaked in grey cloud. It was a very strange sight to watch the sun set above the horizon!

From Thailand

The temples of Thailand (Wat's)

Just a quick note on the Wat's we've seen so far. They are huge, sprawling, elegant edifices that are decorated to the highest possible degree in gold leaf, large murals and colourful glazed ceramic tiles. We've seen sitting Buddha's, standing Buddha's, reclining Buddha's and every stance in between. Some are covered in gold, some are carved from wood and some are carved from stone. Some are in perfect condition and others are battered by time, but all are impressive.

I do however feel Buddha fatigue coming on :-)

From Thailand

From Thailand

From Thailand

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Beware the fierce monkeys

It is interesting to be part of a world again where computers do not exist. Everything is handwritten in carbon copy triplicate and business is conducted by phone (albeit mobile phone). Nothing is fast. Patience is the key and whilst not quite running on "African" time, schedules and agreed times for meeting are somewhat flexible.

Three hours drive outside of Bangkok we arrived at Kanchanaburi, home to the bridge over the river Kwai and the Death Railway. Picturesque, on the banks of the river, with a bit of night life - perfect! The museum about the treatment by the Japanese Prisoners of War in WW2, and the cemetary, were extremely moving and it was very interesting to hear about the war in Asia/Pacific as we were not taught any of that in school. In fact I don't remember the Japanese being mentioned at all.

From Thailand
Our first tour whilst here saw us walking to the top of a seven-tiered waterfall and swimming in the picture perfect turquoise pools beneath the falling water. What a beautiful introduction to Thailand's countryside.

From Thailand
We were highly amused by the sign that greeted us at the start of the walk that warned of fierce monkeys that would steal our belongings. We saw one such monkey but he didn't look particularly fierce, more cute and cuddly - but it's always the quiet ones!

From Thailand

From Thailand
At the end of the day we rode a train on the railway tracks laid down by the POW's. I would have liked to have some time to reflect on the circumstances that bought the tracks into being but any poignancy was totally lost in the tourism of it all unfortunately. Hundreds of tour groups all jabbering away and falling over eachother to get one more photo out of the window of the train. Hey ho.

We are now trained in the art of Thai cooking and pretty darn good at it, if we do say so ourselves! We were taken around the local market and ingredients were explained, tasted and smelt before heading back to the kitchen to start cooking our 4 chosen dishes. We cooked a Thai salad, Pad Thai and two different curries. Mike cooked the salad which was pronounced "Great" by our teacher, Noi, and I cooked the Pad Thai which also got the seal of approval (actually the Noi said the Pad Thai was "Perfect" - Mike). We then broke for the first part of our lunch and enjoyed the food we had just cooked. It was then back to it with Mike cooking the red curry. This had to be done really quickly and as a result was quite stressful but it tasted good - only half as spicy as the demo one that Noi did which was blow your brains out spicy! The last dish was a bit if a strange one with loads of ingredients and not much sauce, and was really fast too. I let my pan burn and got told off! I don't think we'll be making that one again, but we can't wait to try out our skills when we get home.

10 million people and an awful lot of fumes

As we left Sydney I told Mike that I was bored of Western culture and I wanted my senses to be assualted. I certainly got my wish - Bangkok has just about battered my senses into non-existence! It's hot (really hot) and the fumes are so thick and cloying it's like the city is permanently shrouded in fog. It hurts your lungs and stings your eyes and even the smallest flight of stairs leaves us gasping for breath.

After a night of luxury at an airport hotel (lots of granite and bowing waiters) we took a taxi into the city amd it pretty much met expectations - thousands of cars, not much in the way of road rules, deafening noise and sky scrapers lost in the fog/smog. Our first attempt to see some of the smaller sights started badly as we wandered hopelessly trying to follow tourist maps that were not to scale and do not depict sights geographically where they actually are. Our wanderings eventually attracted the attention of a very "helpful" guy who told us that today was a Buddhist holiday and the Governement was giving Tuk Tuk drivers free fuel for the day in celebration. This meant, he said, we could get a Tuk Tuk to take us round any sights we wanted to see, all afternoon, for the bargain price of 20 Baht (50p) - great we said, lets go!

Our Tuk Tuk driver was a very nice man who first took us to a tourist office so that we could book the bus tickets we needed, then he took us to the Sitting Buddha (a very under whelming collection of Buddha's all in the sitting position). This tikki-tour of Bangkok then turned into one sales pitch after another as we were ferried first to a tailor's then to another tourist office, then a jeweller's and finally to another tailor's. This was all explained as necessary so that he could get his free fuel (he even showed us his free fuel coupon) because apparently the Government wished to boost tourist spending in this current economic climate. We were under no obligation to buy, he just had to take us there. He was very nice, and very convincing, so we felt sorry for him and went along. Oh what naive fresh arrivals we were! We later discovered that this is a well known tourist scam to get commissions on tourist's purchases and there's no such thing as a Government promotion for free fuel; there probably wasn't even a Buddhist holiday. Oh well, despite it being a bit harrowing having to listen to all these sales pitches, then say no, we didn't part with any money, so no harm done!

The rest of our time in Bangkok was spent wishing we'd already left, to be honest. We saw the main sights - The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun - and went on a Long Tail Boat ride on the river and canals. We also visited a night market but it was mainly fake designer goods and guys trying to get you to go into 'Go Go' bars where girls do unimaginable things with parts of their bodies you don't even want to think about. Not really the cultural experience I was looking for! Overall the heat was stifling, the dirt pervaded everything and I don't think I'd go back. Bring on the rest of Thailand, quickly :-)