Battambang – day 371

We woke up early and transferred to our original hotel. We both felt much better after some sleep and as the guesthouse owner himself came to meet us at our replacement lodgings and walked us back to the guesthouse, apologising en route. Dropping our bags in the room, we rented a scooter and headed out for the day. First stop – the travel agents to buy bus tickets to Bangkok. Having learnt our lesson from Kratie, we went to four different places before making a purchase! Turns out that only 2 places sell tickets to Bangkok so we chose the cheapest! Got back onto the scooter and, I’m blaming the tiredness, I drove atrociously! So much so that Jayne told me off!!! Deciding it was going to be one of those days, I drove us straight to Gloria Jeans for a cup of coffee and a danish – or, as it turns out, a fruit smoothie, a coffee frappuchino, an almond croissant and an piece of Oreo cheesecake. Feeling more human (and less likely to kill each other), we jumped back on the bike and made our way to the bamboo train when it started raining. It rained so hard that we had to take shelter in the petrol station. The attendants brought us chairs to sit on as we watched the rain pound down, frogs frolick in the puddles and drivers swerve to dodge the water filled potholes. When the rain slowed down enough, we waved goodbye to our new friends and kept driving down the road to one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys!The 7km bumpy train journey goes from Battambang’s old French bridge (Wat Kor Bridge) to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. The journey takes 20 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop at O Sra Lav in between (for the obligatory gaggle of souvenir shops!).

Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like bogies, the one at the rear is connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people, or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.Sitting on straw mats that have been laid over the bamboo platform, we held onto whatever we could and the contraption quickly began to pick up speed!! Peeking down through the cracks at the rail tracks below was simply a blur and the long grass kept whipping our arms as the scenery shot past. We tried to talk to each other but we had to yell to be heard and, even then, the wind carried half our conversation away. The genius of the bamboo railway system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the most ineluctable problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going in opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so that the other can pass. The rule is that the car with the fewest passengers has to cede priority. We got to see this in action as the oncoming train was dismantled, removed and reassembled in front of our eyes in less than a couple of minutes. With the wind blowing in our hair, it was impossible not to smile (mainly because the speed was forcing my mouth apart) as we chugged past fields, across rickety bridges, and through stretches of bush. Locals walked on the tracks and only hopped off when the train was almost upon them. We also picked up a little girl and her mum halfway down the track. 

Arriving at the souvenir station, we did the rounds of each stall to pass the time but found the begging to buy something a little bit intense. Fortunately, by the time we got back to our train it was ready to go so we headed back to the start. Got about a minute down the track when it started raining again and we were completely soaked within 10 seconds. We were asked to tip the driver when we had finished, which always annoys me. If you ask for a tip then it is no longer a tip! One of the only times we have done it because the poor boy looked as much of a drowned rat as we did!! Jumping on our bike again before we got more demands to part with money, we had to take shelter in another petrol station as the rain made it difficult to see the road. 

Used the time to work out our route to the winery (yes, a winery!) while we waited for the rain to subside. Ended up driving down a little road where we got stuck in the mud. It was slightly tough dragging the scooter out of the mud without falling over ourselves – I ended up taking off my shoes and Jayne got covered head to toe in mud after I revved the engine at the wrong time… Emerging from the mud bath onto the main road, we spent some time declogging the tyre of mud to make it safe for us to drive again as locals watched us (and were laughing, I’m sure!). 14 kilometres out of town is Cambodia’s first and only winery, the Chan Thai Choeung (or Banan) Winery, which is open for visits and tastings. Known for its production of chilli peppers (harvested from October to January), Cambodia’s only winery grows shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes to make reds, and tropics-resistant Black Queen and Black Opal grapes to make rosés. Both taste completely unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in a bottle with the word ‘wine’ on the label. Putting it politely, the wine is not exactly to Western tastes – it tasted like vinegar!!! We also tasted their ‘cognac’ which isn’t as bad as the wine, and their juices — grape and ginger — are pretty good. Chatting to a French couple, who we had convinced not to try the wine, we organised to meet up with them for dinner before heading back into town. Dropped off our bike and headed up to our room to remove our slightly damp clothes! Chilled out for a while before going for a walk around the night market. A slightly odd experience as the market was a mixture between food stalls and shops selling random assortments of products, all with music blaring out and drowning out its neighbour. It was intense. The fairground section was also fun with its rides hanging halfway off the pavement or being run by fans!Met Francois and Veronica (I hope I’ve spelt their names right!) at the White Rose for dinner. It was a really nice evening, chatting about our respective travels. They had started with the Trans-Siberian railway and spent time in Mongolia – it sounds incredible and is now on my list (as is a million different other places!). We all went back to the night market for ice cream before heading back to our guesthouses. 

Wednesday 12th October 2016

Travelling – day 367

Now, we weren’t expecting good things from today. The guy who sold us our tickets was clearly a scam artist and we had kicked up a bit of a fuss yesterday when we went back to confront him. We weren’t expecting the day to go without incident and we were right! 

Leaving out guesthouse at 6am to make sure we were at the pick up point early enough so it couldn’t be claimed we weren’t there, we waited… And waited… And waited. Jayne called the number he gave us for ‘any problems’ but it was turned off (or disconnected!!). Fortunately, a staff member used a different number and within five minutes, a mini bus had picked us up and was driving us towards Phnom Penh. We were waiting to see if the other rows of seats got crowded since we had ‘paid extra to not share our seats’… Clearly wasn’t going to happen as everyone had their own seat the entire journey. Stopped at a rest stop after about 2 hours for a late breakfast / early lunch. We ordered a bowl of noodle soup although I ate most of Jaynes meat – it was either beef liver or tongue. I loved it! It reminded me of being back in France. Back on the minibus for a couple of hours, we arrived in Phnom Penh – in the middle of nowhere. I made Jayne stay on the minibus whilst I sorted things out. We were supposed to have bus tickets in our hands for Kampot at this point and a transfer to the bus station. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand my hand gestures and I was pushed back into the minibus and I was given a mobile phone. I ended up speaking to the boss of the travel agency we had used who said we had bus tickets to Kampot but needed to pay another $15. For those who don’t know me, I rarely get angry, but at this demand I lost it! I could see the driver look at me in the mirror as he negotiated the busy streets as Jayne rubbed my leg telling me to calm down. Turns out the boss didn’t realise that not only had we paid for the entire journey but also that Map had taken so much money off us – even he was shocked at how much we had been charged. He agreed we didn’t have to pay any extra but ‘conveniently’ couldn’t get hold of Map to confirm our overpayment for a refund… At least we had bus tickets in our hand at this point and were at the bus station. In the grand scheme of things, it was only $20 but it is the principal of the situation. Consoled ourselves with the fact that this is the first time it had happened during our year of travelling and it was a lesson learnt not to pay for anything when we are tired!!!

Got a pork baguette sandwich and some crisps at the bus station before boarding a second mini bus to Kampot. It wasn’t very busy. In fact, there was more parcels and packages to be dropped off en route than passengers! Passed the time watching ‘Game of Thrones’ and watching the countryside pass by. Dropped off the other two passengers in the seaside town of Kep before continuing the last thirty minutes to Kampot. Turns out our cheapest guesthouse of the trip is one of the nicest!!! Amazing beds and a lovely bathroom, we are both a bit gutted that we are only here for two nights. Headed to the waterfront and walked past the colonial buildings decorated with hundreds of fairy lights. Made our way slowly to the night markets where we had fried noodles and fried rice sat in the middle section with the funfair rides for children. The merry-go-round looked particularly fun as each horse was held on with ropes which meant you could swing them even more… And the kids did! So much so that one almost fell off. Walked to the supermarket to grab some breakfast supplies and an ice cream before heading up to the softest and thickest mattresses we have had in SE Asia. Saturday 8th October 2016

Siem Reap – day 350

The sound of the air con unit was muffled by the sound of the rain outside. We had no choice but to get up at early o’clock. So with a bit of tea, bread and jam we waited patiently under the tree at the main gate with the miserable weather for the bus to arrive. 20mins later than planned we were relieved that it turned up at all… how long does one wait for a tour bus, when they weren’t sure of the address when making the booking? Needn’t have worried, eeek! 3km down the road we pulled in to an elaborate building to buy our Angkor tickets. A well organised system we queued up in the line for 7-day passes. They took photos, printed our passes and we jumped back in the mini-van. 
The outside of the ticket is rimmed with numbers 1 to 31. Much like an old-fashioned Irish parking ticket where you punch in the date and time, the officers at the check point punched a hole through number 21. We were allowed to enter the historical area. But, we skimmed through the jungle, past sandstone walls topped with decorative stonework and occasionally drove past a gateway with amazing work atop the archway. A quick stop at the bathroom and we were then at the Flight of the Gibbon. 
We all had the usual paperwork to fill out and we were given a bandana to wear. As well as being a souvenir, it’s for hygiene under the helmets. A clever idea, but they weren’t very comfortable or fashionable. Who cares, harnesses on, safety demo in the woods and we plodded up the stairs to our first platform. 
We traversed 21 stations, crossing bridges, zipping across 10 lines and rappelling down to the jungle floor. We went up into trees almost 500 years old, getting a birds eye view of the landscape from 40m up. The Kulen mountains in the distance is the where all the stone came from for the various structures hidden in the jungle below. It, apparently, arrived by elephants on zip lines. Hahaha! The whole experience ended so quickly and was both a rush of adrenaline and completely serene and beautiful. Although near Ta Nei temple, we never saw it. We saw some of the same structures on the way to Srah Srang pool for a bit of lunch. A really nice set lunch included in the price of our zip-lining, the price should have included at least one drink, as they were an extortionate price. We shared loads of stories among the group and parted ways when we were the first to be dropped off. 
Back at the hotel we had a nap. Quite a long nap. Not sure if the amount of exercise, heat and humidity warranted it, but meh, who cared. We finally woke up and walked in to town. With no time constraints or deadlines we wandered for a time in the night market stalls. Katherine found a nice new set of trousers for a bargain – although having to haggle again is a right pain in the ass. Back at the hotel we watched some Modern Family and chilled out for the remainder of the evening. 

Wednesday 21st September 2016

Kanchanburi – day 343

Had a lazy and self-indulgent morning, just pottering around, watching a film and enjoying the view of the River Kwai from our raft room. Managed to drag ourselves away from our room to the rooftop restaurant and ordered ourselves a couple of mango smoothies as we flicked through the Thailand Lonely Planet book and checked emails as we continued to enjoy the view and quietness of the river. 
Leaving the guesthouse, we headed for the Thailand Burma Railway Museum that we had skipped the other day.Good job too as we spent nearly two hours looking around the exhibit. A mixture of information plaques, model scenes and recovered artefacts from PoW camps, the museum was incredibly moving and had both of us nearly in tears (Jayne more than me, obviously – I am a robot!). The drawings by prisoners that had been kept by their families and donated to the museum were incredibly detailed and the song that I used to whistle as a child (I knew it as the ‘work song’) was apparently composed at the PoW camps with the lyrics ‘bollocks to the Japanese’…

Feeling slightly emotional drained, we sat in the museum cafe, looking over the memorial cemetery, drinking our free coffee – it was comparable to tar! Even Jayne had to add sugar. Decided to go for a walk around the town and chose to follow the heritage walk which goes past all the original houses that were used during the PoW times to house visitors, generals and high ranking officers. The houses themselves were beautiful, boxed in on both sides by modern builds, you could almost miss them if it wasn’t for the information plaques that were positioned outside each one. Finishing the heritage walk we decided to just wander in and out of the back streets, going wherever the wind took us. Found a building being constructed with men sat on the iron girder as they were nailing in the wooden beams below, we walked past pet shops with puppies and kittens (took all our restraint not to buy every single one!) and we even stumbled across a market that wasn’t listed on any map. A bizarre animal was on display at the butchers counter – almost a cross between a large rat and a small goat… Maybe we should be more careful with what we order at the night markets!Back to the guesthouse via a lovely temple, although we didn’t go inside as neither of us were wearing shorts that covered our knees, so we just enjoyed the grounds and peeked inside from the bottom of the steps.We had decided earlier today to treat ourselves to a Thai massage as, in all the times we have been to Thailand, we have never had one. Both feeling a little nervous, we headed into the spa and got ready. They started by washing our feet – mine were scrubbed slightly more vigorously than Jayne’s, including the use of a nail brush. My only hope is that is was because I was wearing flip flops and not shoes! We then were taken to a room outback to begin. I have never enjoyed any of the traditional massages that I have had in the past. I think it is the feeling of someone touching you all over but any time I have had a massage I always get told to ‘relax’. Well, this one I loved! Not only did I get to keep all my clothes on (always a bonus!), my lady was like a tiny little, but incredibly effective, sledgehammer! She managed to work her fingers, elbows, knees and feet into every muscle. It even felt at one point that she was going to remove it from its ligament connecting it to my bones. Felt much more relaxed too as I was lying right next to Jayne and I could hear her toes, fingers and back crack with every movement – we all giggled so much! The women chatted away in Thai as they manipulated and twisted various limbs around. My woman even walked up and down my back which was amazing! Feeling far too short to be an hour massage, we were drinking sugary tea and feeling incredible – all for the insane price of 200 baht each (about £4.30).Headed straight over to the night market for dinner where we continued our ‘try anything that looks interesting’ approach, hoping that we didn’t end up with the rat goat meat we had seen early. Started with a very strange savoury/sweet pancake thing followed by some sausage with chilli sauce. We then got some noodles, red Thai curry and rice to eat back at the guesthouse with mincemeat parcels and sweet eggy pancakes for dessert. Everything was amazing except for the mincemeat parcels – a weird cross between a mince pie and a steamed dumpling, even Jayne didn’t want to finish them (if she won’t eat them, we know it’s bad!). 

Watched the ‘Inbetweeners 2’ during our feast and then packed up our bags ready for our early start tomorrow. 

Wednesday 14th September 2016

Death Railway – day 341

An early-ish start to the day saw us eating Milo cereal and fruit on our riverside veranda, watching the boats charge up and down the river Kwai. Had decided to take the train over the historical ‘Death Railway’ and wanted to catch the first train up to Nam Tok. Arriving at the station, we found out that you could only buy tickets 30 minutes before the train departure time, unless you wanted to buy a souvenir ticket for an extra 200 baht which included a complimentary drink… (FYI, the train ticket only cost 100 baht each). With just under an hour until the train was due to leave, we headed over to the ‘Death Railway Museum’ however, they recommend at least 40 minutes to look around and, knowing what the two of us are like for losing track of time in museums, we decided to save it for another day. Across the road was the war memorial cemetery. The railway was commissioned by the Japanese during WWII as a way to transport supplies overland for their troops from Thailand to Myanmar rather than by sea which had been compromised several times by the opposition. The railway was constructed by thousands of prisoners of many nationalities who cut down big trees to make the rail supports. Many thousands died during the construction of the railway (the memorial claims it to be as much as 1 in 3) due to the difficult terrain, the tropical climate, malnutrition and disease. The war graves were beautifully maintained and there was a real feeling of respect for each of the men who died here. We wandered up and down a couple of the rows, noting that some plaques merely had the individuals name, D.O.B and rank whereas others had been inscribed with a poem or a sentence from their families. Sad to think that some of those families never got to visit their loved ones resting place.Back at the train station, we bought our tickets and were on the train heading along the death railway. Sat opposite a couple from Bournemouth who rent out property for a living and pretty much travel all year round (they are my new idols!!!). About an hour into the journey, we pulled into a station and suddenly saw a bit of a hullabaloo going on… Turns out, the train engine had caught on fire and the guards were putting it out with fire extinguishers. We then had to wait for over two hours for another engine to turn up so we could carry on our journey. All of the tour groups, including the couple, were put back on buses and visited the ‘Deadly Curve’ part of the railway whilst we waited… And waited… And waited. I went off in the search to get something to eat and found a shop that was doing a storming trade to everyone stuck on the train. They were even offering people hot water to make instant noodles, which we ate although we did have to have a Milo ice cream first (it was hot after all!!). About two and a half hours later, we had a new engine and were back on our way. The death railway was set against a superb scenery backdrop but I have to admit that even my heart was beating fast when we slowed down over the bridge and it was still creaking. Arriving in Nam Tok, we should have had two hours to look around before catching the train back but, as we were so late, we had no time and simply sat back down and made our way back to Kanchanaburi. Deciding that since we hadn’t done very much all day except sit on a train, we got off one stop early with the intention of walking to the night market for dinner. The stop was the River Kwai Bridge which you are allowed to walk over – so we did!!! It was very strange walking over a bridge we had just ridden over, even more so that they were safety platforms regularly on the bridge to use if a train did come along! Walking back down the main road, it almost felt like we had taken a wrong turn. It was so empty and quiet! And then the bars offering fish and chips started popping up! Before long, we were back to an area we recognised and headed to the market. Much smaller than last nights (clearly it was a weekend thing), we still managed to find some amazing food for dinner. Sausage on a stick to start, noodle soup for main and a custard chocolate toast dessert thing. A quick shower back at the guesthouse before watching the final episode of Friends in bed. Monday 12th September 2016

Travelling – day 340

Typical… The day we have to set an alarm is the day that I don’t wake up ridiculously early of my own accord. Really wanted to throw the phone against the wall when it woke me up with its shrill musical sound. Fortunately, Jayne was in a much more functioning and capable humour. Up we got, showered, dressed and packed up our bags, ready to start the adventure again after three days of practically being hermits. Took ages for us to check out as the reception lady had gone walk-abouts and the cleaner just kept repeating ‘2 minutes’ to us. Fortunately, we weren’t in a rush so used the opportunity of an empty reception to steal a few of the lychee sweets that were in the bowl. 

All checked out and good to go, we started walking towards the oriental ferry terminal. Now, I’m going to openly admit that in all the time we were in Australia we didn’t have any problems with anyone. Within five minutes of walking down the road in Bangkok, I had already been told that ‘I eat too much’ and that the ‘ferry closed on Sunday but TukTuk good price’… Oh, how I had blissfully blocked out the joys of SE Asia. Even though we’ve been here several times before and travelled this area for the 8 months prior to Australia, the culture shock was a huge smack in the face – as was the fact we had a culture shock to begin with!! Kind of assumed we’d slip straight back into the Asian way of travelling, but it might actually take a few days to get back in the swing! That being said, walking down the back streets of Bangkok was nice and the ticket man at the ferry terminal restored my faith in humanity by making me laugh. Kept saying he was from ‘wetland’ and did I know it?!? When I said ‘no’ he seemed really shocked. We then suddenly realised he meant ‘Scotland’.Jumped on the really crowded ferry that took us up the river. Clearly there has been a big push in recent years to clean up the river with a huge reduction in water pollution and signs everywhere warning of big fines for littering. Dropping all the other ‘white’ tourists at the Grand Palace, we were the only ones left going to Thonburi stop for the station. Jayne managed to navigate us via the hospital to find the station. Got our tickets and then waited for the train. Leaving me with the bags at the station on benches that looked like they may have been recycled pews from a church, she headed off to look around the food market. Couldn’t quite tell if it was a night market or a morning market but at the time we were there it was a little bit deserted. Bought lunch from a street vendor – papaya salad, rice and meat kebabs. Jayne described them as mystery meat but I recognised one of them as chicken hearts. Not sure what they others were but they tasted good, so who cares?!?The train journey up to Kanchanburi was pretty easy although we were both struggling with the heat and humidity. The scenery was lush and green, baring in mind it is the wet season, and there was plenty to occupy us for the three hour journey. A Thai gentleman kept walking past us and telling us that it was ‘hot’ and then sat down next to us to say that The Beatles were his favourite band. He then proceeded to sing the opening one line from a large repertoire of their hits… It was actually really sweet, except when we tried to join in and he didn’t understand our English pronunciation, so had no idea what song we were singing… It was slightly embarrassing!!!  Arriving in Kanchanburi, we walked the 10 minutes to our guesthouse and checked in. Payed a little bit extra to sleep in one of their ‘raft’ rooms which meant we were literally sleeping on top of the river Kwai. We also had an awesome view of the river so we spent some time on our veranda enjoying the soothing sound of the water and the gentle rocking of the deck… Until the jet skis and party boat went past!!Headed back into town to grab some water and breakfast supplies from the shop, then to the night market to get some food. An amazing array of sights, sounds and smells, we were absolutely spoilt for choice and were glad we were staying for a couple more nights so we could sample as much as possible!! Had a cheeky chocolate cake as we walked around the markets before getting a fried ham and cheese sandwich to snack on as we purchased our main meal. Bought a sample of Thai dishes to take back to the guesthouse and a slurpee too (I haven’t had one of those in ages!!!). Ate back in our room, enjoying the air conditioning before having a quick shower to rinse of the day’s grime from the train. We then snuggled in bed watching some episodes of ‘Friends’. 

Oh – Happy Wedding Anniversary to Mags & Tom and Cathal & Maur. 

Sunday 11th September 2016

Bangkok, Travelling & Ayutthaya – day 246

Woke up to the busy sounds of the street outside, still both slightly shattered from the past month in Myanmar. Took our time getting ready to leave, knowing that we couldn’t check in to our hostel in Ayutthaya until the afternoon so there was no rush to leave Bangkok. Used the hostel wifi to order a few bits and pieces for Jayne to pick up when she is back in the UK (Jayne accused me of having a ‘massive spending spree’) whilst she tried to purchase a website domain for our blog. Went for a shower in the communal bathroom and I clearly won the hostel shower lottery. In my cubical, someone had left some Aussie hair care products – my hair was in heaven!! Although it then decided to punish me for mistreating it so badly over the past few months by going incredibly curly and unruly! Packed up our bags – it feels very weird to be back to two big backpacks after 10 weeks of just having one. The nice man in the hostel reception let me print and scan my ‘voting by proxy’ form so I could email to my electoral officer to vote in the EU referendum whilst Jayne continued sorting out website/blog stuff. Left the hotel and made our way down the familiar streets to the BTS sky train. Forgot how quickly the ticket barriers close and am now sporting a lovely bruise on my leg! Got the train to Victory Monument and tried to find the mini bus to take us to Ayutthaya. Slightly difficult since neither of us could pronounce it properly and the first bus conductor looked at us blankly before he shouted at a lady to come help. Clearly not the first tourists to be totally useless, she pointed us in the right direction and four bus conductors later, we were in the right place!!! Bought a ticket for us (for 60 baht each – about £1.20) and another seat to stow our bags so we didn’t have to sit with them on our laps. Jayne, fortunately, got to sit in the air conditioned mini bus but since I had the door seat I had to wait until the bus was full and everyone onboard before I could get in! Wasn’t all bad as I got to people watch, which I love. Took about 20 minutes for the mini bus to sell all fourteen seats and once I got in, the driver started packing bags and boxes of stuff all around us… Really glad we splurged on the extra seat now as we could barely move as it was! Headed down the motorway towards Ayutthaya – a very dull journey – Jayne passed the time playing angry birds and I read my book. Arriving in Ayutthaya, we walked to our hostel and checked in. Think we might be the only guests but we have a huge room with a fridge, dining table, TV, air con and use of a washing machine for £10 a night! After 8 months of travelling, the washing machine is a luxury that I just can’t wait to use and abuse. Headed down the road for a late lunch, grabbing a bowl of pork noodles in a street cafe – the broth smelt incredible from the street (which is what lured us in) and it tasted amazing.A quick stop off at the ‘7-eleven’ to grab some water and Milo ice cream before heading back to the hostel for the afternoon. We were very boring and spent the afternoon taking it easy – reading books and playing games before heading out to the night market. Full of amazing food (deep fried crickets, chicken legs or mealworms anyone?!?) and weird fruit drink concoctions, we were overwhelmed with the choice for dinner. Decided to have a food crawl progressive dinner, we started with some fried pork which we ate in the park next to some of the ruins and the lake.We then had some Pad Thai Noodles before finishing off our meal with a raisin waffle and some Milo chocolate. Back at the hotel to watch some ‘Friends’ episodes before falling asleep. 

Thursday 9th June 2016