A Travellerspoint blog

Enter the colonial: being British in George Town

13-16 Jan '14

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Arriving in Penang I have never felt more like a colonial - within minutes I'd seen a clocktower dedicated to Queen Victoria, a bunch of European architecture and I was staying in an old colonial house in Love Lane in George Town. Now I know George Town was founded by the British and was the very important port between West and East, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. Nowhere else are four of the dominant influences on modern Malaysia so apparent - Penang's culture of Chinese, Indian, Malay and British is intoxicating. So where to start...


Chinese clan houses (kongsi) and temples abound - you literally see one every time you turn a corner. I photographed and/or wandered into eight. Khoo Kongsi is one of the most impressive - very beautifully restored, but I really liked Tokong Han Jiang and Hock Leik Chieng Sin, which were much smaller but almost better for it, and Kuan Yin Teng, which wasn't pretty, but was so busy and exciting - a real working temple full of incense and people.

I also visited the Kapitan Keling Mosque - and after a brief guided tour, was almost forced to take a book explaining how the Qu'ran and science work together (I was too polite to refuse). It was pretty, but Ottoman mosques beat it hands down. On the second night I also saw a Muslim procession - no idea what for though.

Sri Mariamman is a massive contrast to the mosque I saw - this Hindu temple is the oldest in George Town and its pretty crazy inside and out - and seemed more alive than the mosque (even though I was at the mosque at prayer time) - with ladies meeting for a gossip, painted Hindu priests wandering around, and the preparations for Thaipusam - where devotees do such things as piercing their own tongues with a spear, or stick hooks through their skin and then carry things. Unfortunately I left Penang before the festival, and our next two stops didn't really seem to celebrate it.


One of the best things to do in Penang is walk around admiring the architecture - apart from the temples you also have Chinese jetties, colonial Raj-style buildings, churches, a fort, colonnaded walkways floored in British style Victorian tiles, and most impressively, mansions. The Penang Peranankan Mansion celebrates the Peranakan or Straits Chinese community - those Chinese who settled in Penang, Malacca and Singapore from the sixteenth century onwards, rather than later settlers from China. They used the Chinese religion, but customs, language and dress of Malays. Often very wealthy, this sumptuous mansion is covered in gold leaf and full of stunning furniture and jewellry. The mint green building is beautiful, and even includes a secret passage to the clan house next door. Similar but even more impressive is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or Blue Mansion (it's indigo). Not a Peranakan, Cheong Fatt Tze was a Chinese businessman who was so astoundingly rich and famous he was known as the 'Rockefeller of the East' - this mansion is just one of many he had spread around Asia. Although basically Chinese in style, it incorporates Western elements too - the tiles are Victorian patterns from Staffordshire, the iron posts are from Glasgow, the stained glass is art deco in style. It's awesome, and really came alive under the stories of the tour guide.

Street art

The other thing you notice when walking around is the street arts. Its everywhere. Some is pretty purposeful - "marking" George Town with metal cartoons with historical undertones - some is interactive - you can sit on a swing next to two kids or behind a guy on a motorbike - and some is just plain wicked.


Penang is known for its food. It should be. It's ace. Although the specialties are mostly Malay/Chinese fusion, I mostly gorged on Indian food. In three days I had Indian five times. Once I had seven vege curries at once, plus rice and poppadom for just £1. I had Rogan Josh, garlic naan and mango lassi that made me think I was in Birmingham. It rocked. And the Chinese and Malay food was pretty good too.

Posted by GoonishPython 18:43 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Andaman Coast: island hopping from Thailand to Malaysia

5-13 Jan '14

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So just after New Year, I headed to the Andaman Coast for a spot of island hopping - thi is where all those pictures of turquoise seas and limestone karst islands with white sandy beaches come from.

At the advice of a friend, I headed to Krabi, and from there to Ao Nang and on to Railay, which is, frankly, pretty stunning. It's actually known for rock climbing, thanks to the dramatic limestone cliffs, but the beaches are pretty good too. I even took the 20 minute scramble over some rockes to Hat Ton Sai, which was definitely quieter, and actually almost prettier than the more popular Hat Railay West.

Next stop from Railay was Ko Phi Phi, famous both for its looks and its nightlife. I ended up there at peak season, so it was packed, including with all those who had just left Koh Phangan after New Year Full Moon Party. So there were no dorms - I got the final bed in a not great one. But it was fun and sociable enough - although two nights partying on Phi Phi is enough when you're already tired and combining it with half a day travelling to Phi Phi Leh for snorkelling, swimming and some spectacular beaches. The most famous of those, Ao Maya, used in The Beach, is beautiful, although totally packed with tourists.

So on I headed to Ko Lanta - one of the bigger islands, and actually surprisingly flat (in comparison). I originally intended to spend 1 night in Lanta, but my guesthouse was lovely, and because they'd overbooked the dorm, I was upgraded for free to a double room. Having bumped into a girl in the street, we ended up hanging for a while at a chilled beach bar - sipping a beer while listening to the sea and Bob Dylan is always a good end to an evening. The next day - four more islands and a lot more snorkelling and swimming. A very choppy journey by longtail, but pretty worth it. Ko Lanta is known for diving, so it was almost guaranteed to find some fish, although the drivers dropping nbread in to attract them was not my idea of how it should work. Chilling at another bar to the early morning was maybe not the best start when you have a 5-hr ferry the next day, especially when it ends up taking over 7 hours. But Ko Lipe is worth is - because although its become popular, its not yet totally commercialised and you can still sit on one of the main beaches without it being too busy.

Unfortunately my time on little Lipe was short, and after one day I headed to Pulau Langkawi, my first stop in Malaysia. Langkawi is actually a pretty big island, and its duty free, so the cheapest place to drink in Malaysia. I actually stayed in a little village in shore - a big mistake as it meant I was suddenly reliant on lifts to get anywhere. Some people in my hostel shared a hire car, so we headed to Langkawi's big attraction - the Skycar - essentially 2 cable cars to the top of a hill so you can see amazing views of the island chain. Impressive. We then did a brief climb up many many steps to Seven Wells, a load of pools, and the waterfalls below. It was pretty, but nothing to compare to waterfalls in Laos. But overall I was actually glad I wasn't spending much time in Langkawi.

Posted by GoonishPython 13:06 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Adventures in Bangkok: Part 3

3-5 Jan '14

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So after another epic bus journey (involving being left at the border and woking out ourselves how to get to Bangkok) - Cambodia is getting a record on these - I arrived back in the busy capital of Thailand about 4 hours late, and just ready to sleep. With my favourite hostel full, I'd booked one nearby, and unfortunately it just wasn't good, but at 11.30 pm, you can't take the risk of refusing it and finding somewhere else. A very uncomfortable night followed, but at least the shower was warm.

The next day began badly with finding I'd broken my glasses, and continued going wrong, although I did meet some lovely people once I'd headed back to Born Free for a better hostel experience. We went out to a local festival and night market at Santichaiprakan Park, before a brief excursion to Happy Bar and Khao San Road. I headed back to sleep, and on getting up to get the bus to the airport, discovered my fellow revellers just coming in. A wise decision on my part then.

Posted by GoonishPython 12:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Snorkelling and secluded beaches

Sihanoukville and Koh Rong: 30 Dec '13 - 3 Jan '14

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So after a very very long bus journey from ho Chi Minh, interestingly for a direct bus going via Phnom Penh, and made longer by the lack of toilets or stops, I arrived three hours late in the brash seaside city (town to our standards) of Cambodia - Sihanoukville. Essentially a collection of beaches linked together with bars, Sihanoukville is famous for its laid-back but lively nightlife, $3 dorms and sex tourism. Absolutely your first choice of stop. So close to New Year's Eve, accommodation was almost non-existent, so I'd booked a $12 (pushing the boat out) hotel room. Alright on first impressions, but you gradually realised how filty it was. So after a long complicated day, in which I'd been ripped off and ignored, Sihanoukville was not giving a good impression of Cambodia, a little different to the time before. Although the expat bar with enormous English breakfasts was a treat.

Despite its lack of charms, Sihanoukville is the gateway to Cambodia's hidden gems: the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Rong is a tropical island of forest and sandy beaches that has been spotted as a tourist destination - although plans for a road around the island and an airport are yet to materialise, possibly because no one wants to invest in an economy that is so corrupt it might fall at any second. Most of the guesthouses etc. are focused in one area in the south of the island, but where I stayed was on the north side - the aptly named Lonely Beach. A deserted stretch of golden sand with views across to the other islands, it is simply a restaurant. dorm a few bungalows and some very basic bathrooms (toilet, trough of water and big scoop for flushing and showering). But the Cambodian style open-sided dorm - a platform on stilts in the jungle, was cool and comfortable, and the setting was sublime. Sharing the dorm with three French girls living and working in Cambodia, they invited me to join them for dinner - some treats from home - Foie Gras and green olive tapenade - and a bottle of reasonably drinkable Australian red wine. Delicious. Together with some other guests (there was probably only 20 in the whole resort), we settled down to a beach bonfire to see the New Year in.

New Year's Day dawned bright, clear and sunny, and after a swim, we set off to snorkel off a nearby island. For my first proper try, it was pretty spectacular, with loads of tiny colourful fish darting around the greyish-white coral and rocks. A few hours reading Robinson Crusoe (almost completely coincidentally) on an almost empty beach, while watching crabs dig holes and a bit of gentle paddling is enough to relax anyone.

Sadly I had to head back from the delights of Koh Rong to Sihanoukville. This time, with a dorm bed at a rock themed hostel, was a lot more fun. having spent a relaxed afternoon in a beach cafe at Serendipity beach, I ended up out at a few of the classic backpacker bars - Utopia it may have been named, but Utopia it was not. Luang Prabang's Utopia beats it hands down.

Posted by GoonishPython 15:20 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

'There are more than four million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh'

Motorbikes and the Mekong: Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta: 26-30 Dec '13

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Faced with choice of a cheapish flight or a 30 hour bus journey, and with the weather in Vietnam so far not inspiring for beaches, I cheekily flew from Da Nang, near Hoi An, to Ho Chi Minh. Saigon was, for me, a difficult city to travel in. As the biggest city in Vietnam, it has all the infrastructure, plenty of hostels and bars, and lots of interesting places to see. But my hostel was half-empty and it was seemingly impossible to find out or book onward transport through the Mekong Delta to Southern Cambodia. Sure, buses exist, but no one can tell you when or how they work, but they'll assure you the do know, before suddenly not being able to sort anything out. So a very frustrating time was involved.

Despite this, the former capital of South Vietnam is a fascinating city, and packed from end to end with a multitude of motorbikes. HCMC is the place to learn about the Vietnam War - with the interesting Reunification Palace - preserved as it was when the Northern tanks broke through the gates in 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered - and the War Remnants Museum, which poignantly displays the atrocities of the war, although not from an entirely unbiased perspective. I also took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong controlled a large area by hiding from the US in an extensive tunnel network with scarily ingenious traps and other guerilla operations to stop the US army in its tracks.

In contrast to this, I visited some of the symbols of old Saigon - the Notre Dame Cathedral, the impressive French Colonial Post Office, and two contrasting temples, the Mariamman Hindu temple, all riotous colour (including neon) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda - a Chinese style temple that was surprisingly darkly coloured, although with the explosion of statues like the Hindu Temple and a lot (an awful lot) of turtles.

But the best thing in Ho Chi Minh was the street food - who can argue with lunch for half a dollar? My favourites were Banh Mi - a baguette filled with a pate like substance plus various salads and meats, and possibly an egg - and a noodles salad where she just kept adding things to the bag. I also got fresh Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is guaranteed to make me happy.

The nightlife in HCMC is as bustling as the day - with a big fair in the park full of food, live music and even badminton, and the big street bars in D Bui Vien, where you can drink to your hearts content for a couple of dollars.

Next stop was the Mekong Delta, which I ended up doing on a day trip returning to Saigon - not my original plan, but the only one that seemed to be giving me any sense. Although obviously geared to tourists (visits to a workshop making coconut candy, popped rice and rice wine (whisky) anyone?), it did give you an insight to the Delta - with visits to Cai Be floating market, Vinh Long land market, cycling through a village, and boat rides through tiny canals and the Mekong itself. It made me wish the original homestay plan had worked out...

Posted by GoonishPython 15:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cooking, Christmas and Cham temples

Hoi An and My Son: 23-26 Dec '13

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So Hoi An held a lot of hopes - after all Lonely Planet describes it as "Vietnam's most atmospheric and delightful town" - and everyone kept telling us how beautiful it is, especially with all the lights at night, which should be good at Christmas. I'd arranged to meet a friend there, a guy I travelled with in Cambodia and Laos, as neither of us wanted to spend Christmas alone. Yes, Hoi An is beautiful - as a Unesco World Heritage Site the old town has been preserved, but we saw what we wanted to in half a day! It didn't quite have the culture of somewhere to chill out in - it was a bit too high-end for backpackers. It was still a cool place to wander round but as its so small, you do find yourself quickly orientated. The traditional nineteenth century merchant house was very interesting, with its mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles, as were the Chinese temples, but travelling with someone who's just been to China means he quickly got pretty templed out, and actually, after you've seen one Chinese temple, they all look pretty similar.

So, after a few very cheap beers (3000 dong a glass - about 9p), we headed to find another few bars - trying the recommended Why Not? bar - it was empty at that time - then on to Before 7 now - not the cheapest but with pool tables and a decent jukebox for a chilled end to the evening.

Christmas Eve started early with a cooking course - Hoi An is famous for its cuisine - and we ate from 7.45 am to 2pm - starting with breakfast (many many choices - we ate about 10 things), then a tour round the market with fruit to try, sampling more food at the restaurant (the silk worm salad made me gag - not from the worm but from the mouthful of peanuts), then cooking four different things to eat for an enormous lunch, We just couldn't fit it in. As Christmas Eve was important to my friend - he's Danish so celebrates a day early - he caught up with his family and then we headed in search of cake - after all, its not Christmas, or a bakery tour of South East Asia, without cake. We even found a Christmas tree to go with it. We managed a late, busy and drunken evening, thanks to cheap beer and our hoarded bottle of Lao-lao - bought in a fit of surprisingly sober confusion at the night market in Luang Prabang (the black rice wine had only made it as far as the night train from Laos - Thailand). We even floated lanterns down the river, resplendent in our Christmas hats.

Christmas Day dawned, and with it, a trip to My Son - a collection of ruined Cham temples in a beautiful setting. As we knew we'd be wanting some sleep that morning, we'd sensibly opted for motorbike taxis instead of an organised tour - and although more expensive overall - we got to see the temples rested and without many tourists - win win I'd say. I wasn't sure what to expect, but actually, it reminded me most of Bagan - lots of small brick stupas rather than big impressive temples. Pretty cool. We celebrated Christmas again that evening, but a little more chilled - and it wouldn't be Christmas without tipsy Jenga.

So overall, a pretty relaxed Christmas with very good company - quite appropriate for my first Christmas away from home.

Posted by GoonishPython 16:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

In search of a lost city

Hue: 21-23 Dec '13

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On the banks of the Perfume River lies a small city that can claim to be the heart of Vietnam. Hue is the former capital of the Nguyen emperors and the Imperial City is a world heritage site. Unfortunately it was heavily bombed by the US, but it's gradually being reconstructed. For me, Hue was slightly ruined by one big thing - it rained pretty much continuously for two days. Now I know I'm British and get what rain is about, but this was pretty excessive even in our terms. So while the citadel was impressive, tramping through the mud when you're wet through to find the Forbidden Purple City suddenly becoms a bit of a chore, especially when its so ruined you walk right past it. The To Mieu temples in the Imperial Enclosure were pretty spectacular though, and gave you a real sense of what the rest of the area must have looked like. I'd have loved to explore more, but sadly torrential rain tends to put a downer on things.

The next day dawned just as wet as before, but we had booked a motorbike tour of the royal temples and pagodas scattered outside the city. We quickly plunged into rural Vietnam - speeding along small tracks above the rice paddies and down paths in villages. First stop was Thanh Toan Tile, a Japanese (I am assured Vietnamese) style bridge, and a fascinating local market. We also visited an agricultural museum - definitely not exciting, but the little old lady demonstrating rice preparation and fish catching (including using her shoe as a prop) made up for all of it. Heading up to a bunker overlooking the Perfume River, we failed to see views of anything, but the trip to the incense and conical hat making workshop (the crafts Hue is famous for) was mercifully short - our drivers got that while they were meant to take us there, as backpackers we weren't going to be splashing any cash.

In the forest we then pulled up to To Dinh Tu-Hieu, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery, which had some small tombs, a very Japanese looking garden, and some grey-swathed monks and novices who definitely needed a lesson in chanting together. It settled beautifully into the forest, seemingly beginning to peacefully blend and hide into the trees - but maybe not quite as well as Hōnen-in, the moss covered temple in Kyoto, which I also saw in pouring rain.

Next stop were some of the Imperial tombs - Tu Duc tomb is probably the most famous with lovely temples and buildings set around a purpose built lake, complete with its own island that used to house the emperor's zoo and private relaxation space, as Tu Duc was also where the emperor escaped court life. But better than Tu Duc, and much further from Hue, is the tomb of Minh Mang, which despite the rain reaching a drenching peak, was still stunning, with temple buildings surrounded by forest and lakes. We continued to Thien Mu Pagoda, which has an octagonal tower and some intriguing statues, and also the car in which a monk was driven to Saigon before self-immolating in protest at the treatment of Buddhists by the Diem regime in 1963. This was the first of a number of self-immolations by Buddhist clergy, which brought their problems to the international stage.

Finally, after six hours, we settled down, thoroughly wet through, to some traditional Hue cuisine. Emperor Tu Duc was apparently so fussy he had 50 meals prepared by 50 chefs, and Hue's variety of food is the result. We had banh khoai - Royal pancakes - essentially a sort of deep-fried rice pancake filled with meat and shrimp (mine minus shrimp) and vegetables, whcih you stuff with herb salad, cucumber and green banana before dipping in a special sauce. Very tasty, but my stomach unfortunately didn't agree.

Posted by GoonishPython 11:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Good morning Vietnam!

Hanoi & Halong Bay: 17-20 Dec '13

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Journeying to BKK to catch a flight to Hanoi, I encountered a fellow traveller from our tour through Cambodia and Laos. In our time in the airport, numerous grops of school children approached us to ask questions for a school project - but they were irrestibly drawn to Claudia, probably because of her blonde hair.

Despite a good flight, first impressions of Vietnam were interesting - first a Thai businessman asking far too many questions, and then an almost two hour wait for our bags. Having met a British girl at the airport, we arranged to meet for streetfood and the night market in the old quarter. A good choice as we saw Bach Ma temple, one of the oldest in Hanoi - an ornate very Chinese style temple - as well, before settling down in a street cafe for very good noodles and beer.

The next two days were spent cruising Halong Bay - a simple stunning collection of three thousand limestone karst islands dotted with caves. The setting is almost indescribable, but with so many tourists the cave trips are busy and crowded, although the tour guides bizarre description of rock formations as various animals etc. was amusing (the ostrich described as a big chicken with a long neck almost won the day, and nearly proved the existence of prehistoric salt-water chickens).

Returning to Hanoi, I checked into my new hostel (the first had been very boring), and immediately discovered it was the hostel's anniversary, so a big party was in order. With my face painted within roughly 30 minutes of arriving, a fun but expensive night ensued.

The following day gave me a real taste of Hanoi. First, I met a friend of my friend's mother who lives in Hanoi. We had breakfast - an excellent bowl of pho in a tiny local place - followed by caphe trung da - a coffee made with beaten egg white that tasted like tiramisu in a cup - andwith views overlooking the lake. Delicious. Next, a walking tour through the old quarter including Hoan Kiem lake and Ngoc Son temple - on an island in the lake and housing an embalmed giant turtle. Bizarre doesn't quite cover it. Then the tourist moments - the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum - both well worth a visit. The Temple of Literature is a Confucian temple from the eleventh century, and late a university. Scholars obtaining a doctorate would be awarded with a stone turtle supporting a slab - as a fellow traveller remarked: if only education was valued as much today - although a bunch of Vietnamese students were having their graduation photos taken there at the time. The Fine Arts Museum gave a good introduction to Vietnamese art throughout the centuries and well labelled so you understood the differences. Some of the modern art was brilliant, and the bizarre monk statues almost hilarious.

Despite being ill (again), Hanoi had a lasting impression - beautiful and ugly by turns, full of motorbikes in tiny winding streets and stunning temples, but with both amazing and weird food, and friendly people contrasting with pushy people or those out to make a quick buck, but generally, pretty cool.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Adventures in Bangkok: Part 2

14-17 Dec '13

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My return to Bangkok began with a trip to Laos' only railway station - taking us just over the border to Thailand and to catch a night train. Unusually, the night train wasn't in the compartments - instead bunks were down the side of the carriage, so two bunks facing two across the aisle. Armed with cheap Pad Thai, supersweet cake and a new brand of beer - Archer - as well as some Laos black rice wine, we settled into a merry evening, including such oddities as teaching a Danish boy to sew.

On arrival in Bangkok, our group dispersed - some to meet up again that evening. We passed a relaxing day in coffee shops and a park, before heading for a massage. Despite selecting only feet, neck and shoulders, pretty much all of me except my front torso and nether regions got at least a little attention - well worth the few dollars, although being jabbed with a stick was not fun. Returning to Khao San Road again, mercifully a little busier this time, the remainder of our group reconvened for merriment our tour leader had originally planned for the first night. However, finishing a tour singing along with a guitarist in a bar seemed a fitting end to our trip.

Unfortunately the next day I spent with food poisoning, occasioning a cancellation of my planned bike tour, but I got a lot of necessary planning and research done. Back at my favourite hostel, I headed out to chill in the surrounding area with a pile of food and a few (soft) drinks. A relaxing evening, but not what you would necessarily expect in such a mad city.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:03 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

A bakery tour of Laos

Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng & Vientiane: 9-14 Dec '13

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Our time in the homestay over, we headed to Pakse, a town surrounded on three sides by two rivers. And here began the abiding theme of Laos: bakeries. Settling down for a cofee and a French patisserie in Pakse when there is afew hours before you head to an airport seems like a good idea at the time, but in Laos it was the beginning of the end. Bakeries followed bakeries; Luang Prabang clocking up three (plus additional cake) in under three days, Vang Vieng an extended stop and Vientiane an impressive three in half a day. Not so good for the waistline, but definitely worth it for the proper coffee. In fact, the visiting of bakeries/coffee shops had started long before in Cambodia, but it took on a whole new level in Laos, which seemingly continues to this day.

Luang Prabang is an UNESCO heritage site, which means the beautiful old French colonial buildings and quiet temples have to be preserved. The result is a laid back (typically Laotian) sleepy, beautiful town. That said, the night market is bustling and crowded with excellent street food, and a few decent bars enliven up proceedings. The same cannot be said of the Laotian nightclub we visited, where everyone does the same slightly bizarre dances, depending on how upbeat the music is.

Luang Prabang was also where two of us tried to give back a little by volunteering to read to children. It did not go well, as we weren't actually wanted! A real highlight was visiting Kuang Si waterfalls, which we climbed over the top of and then once back below, some of us jumped into the pools off a swing rope in a most refreshing manner. We also saw and heard about moon bears, an endangered species often poached for their use in Chinese medicine. The bear centre at the waterfalls houses a number of rescued bears with the intention of releasing them into the wild.

The temples and monks are one of Luang Prabang's lasting memories - Wat Xieng Thong is simply stunning - but the fabled monks alms in the morning did not quite live up to lunchtime in Bago's (Myanmar) Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery.

Next stop was Vang Vieng - legendary hedonistic party town known mostly for tubing. Tubing is essentially sitting in a big rubber inner tyre and floating down a river - basically something me and my brother did in the sea as kids. Actually, Vang Vieng is a sleepy town set in a beautiful landscape of karsts and ricefields, and although you can still party (we did) and tube (we didn't), in fact many of the bars have been closed down, and Vang Vieng is instead full of outdoor activities - caving, trekking, climbing, kayaking to name but a few; some of us hired bikes and after a brief and bumpy ride through the fields, pedalled leisurely around the outskirts of the whole town.

Vientiane may be the capital of Laos, but as typifies the whole country, it is hardly the most lively of cities. We visited Pha That Luang, a very important temple and national symbol. Its huge gold taht (stupa) is impressive but surprisingly tame after the mass of super-ornate stupas in Myanmar. It is, however, square, so a little different. We followed this by a visit to Patuxai, the vertical runway - a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in concrete - so called because it was built with cement donated by the US for building a new airport.

This was followed by visits to three bakeries. Oops.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Mekong Adventures Part 1

Confused dolphins and the Four Thousand Islands Cambodia & Laos 6-9 Dec '13

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Having first encountered the Mekong in Phnom Penh, our adventure continued following the river North. Stopping at Kompong Cham, previously an important French trading post, we encountered our first taste of Christmas and our first proper coffee in Cambodia. Sipping an espresso and listening to Jingle Bells Rock while it's 32C outside is definitely an experience.

Our stop for the night, Kratie, is a small town famous for its proximity to one very special animal, the rare massively endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin (They got lost. The Irrawaddy is just 1200 or so miles away.). With a distinctive shape and colour, these dolphins are only found in a handful of places in South East Asia (they proved very elusive in the Ayeyarwady, despite their tradition in helping local fisherman by driving fish into their nets). So as we were in one of the best spots to see them, just a short motorbike ride from Kratie we settled into small boats to watch the sun set spectacularly across the Mekong. And the dolphins even made an appearance too. We even saw part of a Cambodian wedding on the return journey.

Crossing into Laos (a long and slightly tricksy business) we headed into the heart of the Mekong - Si Phan Don - the Four Thousand Islands, an archipelago spread across the river. We settled down in the guesthouse bar, essentially a roofed terrace on the riverside, and relaxed into the laid-back Laos way of life. Essentially my stay on Don Khong island was negotiating my way between hammock and bed, a feat made all the more impressive given the copious amounts of Beer Lao (a much recommended choice - we used up all the bars stock) and generous portions of Lao Lao (potent Lao rice whisky) consumed. Our regrettably short stay concluded with a very early morning to watch the sunrise and offer alms to the local monks. A daily scene throughout the country, monks process a set path with their offering bowls, and the faithful duly await them kneeling to offer rice and other food for the monks meals. Don Khong has three monks. I apparently can't divide a basket of rice between three.

After a brief nap, we set off to another of Laos' natural beauties, the Kho Pha Phoeng waterfalls, reputedly the largest waterfalls by volume in South East Asia, where the water plunges dramatically through a myriad of islets. Next stop: Champasak, back on the mainland, the site of Wat Phu Champasak, an impressive ruined Khmer temple, originally Hindu but now Buddhist, with beautiful views from the top of the hill and a crocodile shaped human sacrifice stone. Despite a beautiful sunset, we had to quickly board our raft-like little boats to Don Deng, a small island where we would stay with local families.

Don Deng is small but pretty. The village we stayed in had a small pretty temple and a school with children who were fascinated both by us and seeing themselves on camera. A real highlight was the adorable girl at my homestay - only 1 year old, my gift of biscuits won me some favour pretty quickly, and by the time I was showing her pictures of my hometown the next morning, she was firmly engaged and happy to laugh and play around us. I left her with a postcard of Cambridge in the snow (complete with bicycles), and her mother with how to say elephant and hippopotamus, the two she didn't know where to start with in her daughter's book. A real highlight of the trip.

Posted by GoonishPython 21:50 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The Pearl of Asia

Marmite, Buddha's eyebrow and the discovery of the Cambodian water-chicken Phnom Penh 4-6 Dec '13

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After a very bumpy ride through the heart of Cambodia, relieved only by the munching of tarantulas in Skuon and tales of the Cambodian water-chicken, we arrived at its capital, Phnom Penh. At first impression, the city seems thriving and modern, with new high rise office buildings and shiny 4x4's clogging the streets, but these cars are just an outward expression of the corruption that pervades Cambodia - from the border officials charging a stamp fee to the unrepaired roads to Siem Reap because someone high-up has a stake in the national airline. That said, Phnom Penh has its charms, with old French colonial buildings, bustling markets (with cheap pineapple, outrageously expensive oranges and their very own traffic jams inside), and a beautiful gilded palace. The temple containing Buddha's eyebrow hair, Wat Ounalom, is another surprise - despite being the centre of Cambodian Buddhism and containing some fabulous Angkorian statues, the shrine is small and contained, in contrast to the stately gold stupas just outside.

However, one of the main reasons people visit Phnom Penh is its more recent legacy. Forcibly emptied by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh became the home of some of its worst atrocities. The faces staring from the hundreds of photos lining Tuol Sleng and the scraps of victims clothes and bones that keep re-emerging from the mass graves at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek tell their own story.

A harrowing afternoon was softened by a sunset river cruise - Phnom Penh is set on the convergence of the two great rivers of Indochina - the Tonle Sap, from the biggest lake in South East Asia (when full it covers an awful lot of the country) and the mighty Mekong. For me, further enjoyment came in the form of a British classic - Marmite on toast for tea - something I didn't realise I'd miss so much. Apparently the big grin on my face was a picture. I had to ask for extra.

Posted by GoonishPython 21:22 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Angkor What? to Angkor Wat to Angkor What? in 24 hours

Siem Reap 2-4 Dec '13

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First impressions of Cambodia when we crossed the border at Aranya Prathet/Poipet are not particularly favourable, with a sharp contrast between the Thai and Cambodian sides. It improves as you continue with the flat Cambodian countryside full of flooded rice paddies dotted with houses.

For a small town, Siem Reap seems surprisingly vibrant, until you remember it is the gateway to one of the most impression collections of temples in South East Asia, if not the world. Our introduction to Cambodian culture began with traditional Apsara (spirit) dances as we ate, followed by a visit to the night market, then to the famous Angkor What? bar, the oldest bar in town, situated on the aptly monikered 'Pub Street'.

A very early start led us to Angkor Wat (note spelling) for sunrise the following morning. Despite the crowds of tourists, it as every bit as atmospheric as you expect, and the carvings covering the walls inside (including the Ramayana again) are simply spectacular. Our next stop (after a return to the hotel for breakfast) was the gates to Angkor Thom, a massive 12th century walled city containing smaller temples. Well smaller in comparison to Angkor Wat. Bayon has 54 towers with faces on - 216 in total, and a multitude of carvings. Baphuon has only just been restored - taken apart before the civil war, the records were destroyed and it's taken years to work out what goes where without them. Bizarrely, Baphuon has a Buddha surprise - a reclining Buddha built into the back wall that you can hardly see. Next stop were some Khmer elephants parading along a wall, but the stop after lunch stole all the awards - Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, a 12th century building smothered by the jungle, with trees towering over the crumbling walls, their roots blocking corridors and tumbling stones. The evening began with a peaceful sunset from the top of a pyramid style temple, but ended rather more uproariously with many beers and finally dancing back at the infamous Angkor What?, making a nicely rounded trip.

Posted by GoonishPython 21:09 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Adventures in Bangkok: Part 1

29 Nov - 2 Dec '13

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So I said goodbye to Yangon and after far too long in airports, I arrived in the backpackers mecca of Bangkok. A bit of a return to civilisation, the streets centred on Khao San Road, just north of the old centre of the city, feature such western delights as multiple McDonald's, Burger King's and (blessedly) a Boots. My chilled out hostel, a 10 minute wak away, is newly home to two adorable rescue cats - little balls of affectionate grey fluff.

The first venture into Bangkok takes in legendary street food (scorpion is very bitter) and a view of the protests, currently centred on Democracy Monument. They seemed pretty chilled out to us - very organised, with water and food stalls and a mobile toilet block, roads closed off a reasonable distance away and everyone just sitting around cheering and waving little clappers at the speeches.

Later on, a few of us headed out to sample the local nightlife. Despite a reputation for a little hedonism, Khao San Road was surprisingly tame - perhaps because of the riots, but possibly because of the 2am curfew - certainly Birmingham on a Saturday night would give it a run for its money.

The next day our little crew headed off to the weekend market - reputedly the biggest market in South East Asia. Essentially it came across as more of a tourist attraction than an everyday market, but it was so enormous we probably only saw a tiny amount! The food was intoxicating though, and the mystery bus ride there was a mini adventure.

Early evening saw two of us taking the river boat down to the cultural heart of Bangkok - two of its temples. Wat Arun is a stunning Khmer style temple covered from head to toe in mosaics made from porcelain tiles left behind by Chinese merchant ships. The praang (spire) is so astoundingly steep that I couldn't face the final level, which looked seemingly almost vertical. Crossing the river, we headed to Wat Pho around sunset - a great time to visit - this temple is the oldest and largest in Bangkok, with the largest collection of Buddha's and biggest reclining Buddha in the country (impressive, but I've seen larger). The grounds are beautiful, with some stunning stupas that shone as the sun set. A cruise back along the river at night was followed by chilling in some live music bars, again in/around a subdued Khao San Road.

A busy Sunday followed for me, as I headed to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Again, stunning architecture, but the big draw wasn't my favourite bit - instead, the murals around the wall in the temple complex, telling the story of the Ramayana (Rama & Sita of Hindu mythology), caught my eye, along with the interesting Museum of Textiles within the Grand Palace grounds. I also visited the National Museum, but the lack of explanation of exhibits really detracted from it - after all, in a room of 200 Buddha's, how do you know what styles followed what?

Meeting with my tour group in the evening, we were advised not to head to Khao San Road as the protests had taken a turn for the worst. Maybe that explained the quietness the nights before...

Posted by GoonishPython 20:50 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Trishaws and trucks

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Bago and Kyaiktiyo, 26-27 Nov '13

In the few days I had before heading to Bangkok, I decided to check out a bit more of southern Burma. I wanted to head to Mawlamyine, because this beautiful colonial town was where George Orwell lived and worked, but it was a bit of a stretch to and from Yangon. Instead, I headed to the other checkpoint on my list: Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock.

First, however, beautifully situated halfway between the two, I visited the old capital city of Bago. A little extravagance: I found a trishaw driver to take me and my backpack round the sights. He didn't speak English. His friend essentially translated as 'take her to the Buddhas'. Bago has a lot of Buddhas and some are spectacular, including an even bigger reclining Buddha than Wat Pho in Bangkok. But the best part was the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery. One of the three biggest monasteries in Myanmar, tourists flock there to watch the monks receiving lunch. I arrived an hour early and got to wander around the calm beautiful grounds, chatting to a monk and followed by a little girl, and occasionally pursued by dogs (all monasteries have dogs and they all seem to fight. Go figure). It was lovely to see the monastery in its everyday light, not just when there were piles of tourists photographing as many of the three hundred or so monks lining up as possible.

Hopping back on a coach, I headed to Kinpun base camp at the foot of Mount Kyaiktiyo. Having not realised it was National Day the next day, I'd had problems getting a room and ended up forking out for a proper hotel room. And very nice it was too. You could swing several cats in the bathroom and the grounds were wicked - how's this for a place to chill?
The next morning I headed up the famous hill, packed like a sardine into the back of a pick-up truck. The rock itself is frankly astounding: a huge gold-leaf and stupa-crowned boulder perched on the edge of a cliff.

Posted by GoonishPython 01:46 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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