A Travellerspoint blog

Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

sunny 33 °C

I arrived in the city of Siem Reap at 6am after taking a sleeper bus from Sihanoukville. I couldn't waste a whole day travelling as I was planning to overstay my visa, which incurs a fine of $5 a day and a possibly difficult border crossing (perhaps the most stressful part of travelling SE Asia). After a bit of down time on a real bed I was eagerly anticipating my absolute 'I have to see this during my trip' destination - the temple complex of Angkor including the world famous Angkor Wat.

The biggest challenge facing you while planning a visit to the temples is how to negotiate the huge size of the complex. At roughly 1,200 square miles it is comparable to modern day Los Angeles but thankfully the main sites of interest lie within a more manageable area. All the better for trying to understand what a great city this might have once been - another challenge comparable to Los Angeles.

I chose to have a tuktuk driver over a bicycle so that I could see as many temples per day as possible as well as not die from heat exhaustion. The purchase of a guidebook made a cheap alternative to a personal guide and as a solo traveller I could read about and wander the temples at my own pace.

The first day was spent seeing many of the smaller temples and I was hoping to finish it with a picturesque sunset but clouds got in the way and the temples closed at 5:30pm, before the sun got really low.

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My second day began at Angkor Wat at 5:30am as I joined the crowds to see sun rise above the historic temple. Once again weather spoiled my plans as a thick layer of cloud obscured the sun from view. It turned out not to be a complete waste of effort due to the majority of sunrise watchers subsequently heading back to their hotels leaving Angkor Wat as empty as your ever likely to find it. It's almost hard to appreciate the scale of such a building when skyscapers are such a common occurance but nothing of the grandeur is lost when spending the time to observe the detailed carvings that cover nearly every square inch of wall.

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Ta Prohm (or the 'jungle temple') was a highlight of my second day and it's obvious to see why it's a tourist favourite. With relatively less restoration work there are still trees perched on many walls, huge roots cutting through the stonework. In other places the stones lie across the ground, long since abandoning their duty as gallery, gopura or balustrade.

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It was brilliant exploring the temples on my own, free to linger at anything that caught my interest and enjoying the temples in a period of pure observance and self-reflection. In my view, how they should be experienced.

Posted by oli.heeley 09:51 Archived in Cambodia

Volunteering in Sihanoukville

sunny 34 °C

(Excuse the long entry but this covers 4 weeks)

After Bangkok it was time to enter the 6th country on my travels, Cambodia. It was also here that I chose to spend 4 weeks volunteering at a school in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. In previous months I had heard mixed things about the country, mainly that the people are nice but it can be very dangerous. I couldn't wait to settle down and find out for myself.

Upon crossing the border (and paying a fine for overstaying my Thai visa - naughty me) I found that I had missed the last minibus but a friendly chap was all too keen to call in his friend who would drive me where I wanted. Alarm bells were ringing and when the taxi appeared it was a regular unmarked private vehicle. After negotiating the price down and asking to the remaining half on arrival I hesitantly entered the vehicle alone. The next 10 minutes were spent trying to ingratiate myself to the driver in the hope that he wouldn't dump me in the middle of nowhere with just the clothes on my back. At this point the car filled with a Thai man and a further 2 tourists and my fears subsided. It turned out that the driver was just a nice guy doing his job - who would have guessed?

Entering Sihanoukville I realised that had I not been volunteering I would have only spent 2 nights there max. It's main attractions for the casual tourist are drinking, lying on the beach and the many western style cafes/bars. As a result the typical visitor is either fat, white and middle aged or a flourescant vest wearing douchebag (trying not to generalise here). The people who kept me sane were the locals. I have to say that Cambodians must be the happiest, friendliest and cheekiest nation of people I've ever encountered. Cambodians I met through the school and in casual encounters were generous with smiles and I felt very welcome. The ability to laugh at yourself is certainly required as they are not shy of teasing or highlighting any sore points you might have. Apparently I have a long head and small ears???

During my stay here I volunteered at a school for poor and 'at risk' children called 'Let Us Create' or CCPP for short, after it's former name of the Cambodia Children's Painting Project. The project aims to teach children of all ages English and art skills while providing a safe environment in which they can receive food and health support that they don't get at home. Finished artworks are then sold in the school's shop with proceeds coming back to help those in need. Please check out the Let Us Create Facebook page for more details.

(All photos in this blog entry are taken from the Facebook page due to the necessary restrictions surrounding child safety)

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It was an absolutely brilliant experience working with the children. They have a real desire to learn and attend school, appreciate the value it has and nearly always arrive with a beaming smile. This is all the more outstanding when you see what kind of home life these children have. Sharing a bed with your whole family and living in what is really just a wooden shack is common among the children. Having 1 or no parents is not unusual. Going on a home visit and learning about their lives really puts things in perspective. The school also undertakes social care work - regularly meeting high risk families, giving rice and paying rent where necessary. While I have to admit that the town and volunteer experience weren't what I thought they would be, seeing the needs of the kids and the good work occurring I was determined to make a difference for them in whatever I could achieve in 4 weeks.

This really was the hottest place I've been to so far. Scorching heat every day and working most the day in an air-con and fan-less school meant at least 3 showers a day were in order. The volunteer house only had cold showers but these were always welcome.

One highlight activity of my time here was participating in a Khmer cookery class where I made traditional dishes such as a fish amok (coconut based curry) and lok lak (beef in a flavoursome tomato sauce). These 2 dishes will go superbly amongst my current repertoire of stir fry chicken, spaghetti bolognaise and oven pizza.

One weekend the school took part in the annual city carnival where various organisations would transform trucks into floats based on a certain theme. This year it was road safety and HIV awareness! Hence our slogan: Always wear a helmet. Our truck went with a 'Stop' and 'Go' theme with 2 big hands as the indicator.

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By the end of the 4 weeks I was really sad to say goodbye to the kids and the great people I'd met in my first stop in Cambodia. It was also quite exhausting trying to maintain a 6 day work schedule and busy nightlife so moving on was very much welcomed by my body. It felt very strange getting back into the routine of finding accommodation and booking buses. Routines are very easy to get into. When I started travelling I felt the way of life came quite naturally to me and when settled down for 4 weeks I felt the way of laziness was just as becoming.

Posted by oli.heeley 06:56 Archived in Cambodia

Bangkok Part II

sunny 30 °C

As I'm sure the avid readers of my blog remember, my last stay in Bangkok was a very nightlife heavy experience. This time I was determined to explore the many places I hadn't yet seen and get the most out of the daytime hours. I was also really really craving a big city again. My whole travelling since Bangkok part I has been all chilled out places and big towns that call themselves cities. I needed a proper big city with crowded pavements, 24 hour noise and a metro system.

After many nights in basic dorms and bungalows I decided to treat myself with a stay in a cheap but nice hotel. Cheap meaning just over £20 a night. It was great having a comfortable bed, air con and hot showers again.

One day I spent 4 hours in a tea shop in Chinatown. This was a proper tea shop where you make the tea yourself using a tiny pot and loose leaves. The tea is then shared around the table in tiny cups the size of shot glasses. It's a process where you get to appreciate the complex flavours of tea and also the differences between each infusion. The pot can be filled with water maybe 4 times, revealing different layers of taste. A harder concept to believe is that the tea will taste different depending on who makes it and the result will indicate their own style or personality. My tea was apparently a full on taste of 'every layer in one cup.' According to a fortune teller in my group, my personality is like a snowball with a fire inside. Make of that what you will...

Another new experience for me was Yoga. I kind of knew it was more difficult than just stretching but didn't appreciate how much of a workout it is until now. While walking around new towns an catching buses can wear you out, it's been a while since I had some proper physical exercise. Both times I went to a Yoga class I was aching for a day or two afterwards but it felt great. I found it a bit like meditation so good for the mind as well as body. I wouldn't say I was converted to an Eastern lifestyle but I think the teamaking and yoga would certainly make some good adoptions when I return home.

On the Saturday I went to the absolutely massive weekend market. I thought the single road markets of other places requiring a 15 minute walk were big but this was a huge maze of nearly everything you could think to buy. Hours could be spent walking through the cramped pathways but as I'm not really a big shopper it was far less for me and the park next door felt much more appealing.

I managed 2 excursions during this Bangkok stay. One was a day trip to the ancient temple town of Ayutthaya, rather like Sukhothai but more spread out and not as picturesque. The temples were in amongst the busy road system as opposed to the closed campus of Sukhothai. The other trip was a weekend in Pattaya, probably the worst place I've been to but makes an interesting spectacle. It's main if not only purpose is for drinking and prostitution and the main pedestrian road closely resembles Amsterdam's red light district. I'd guess that 80% of the tourists here are Russian so I'm not sure if that says anything about the nation's tastes....

Bangkok is one of those 'love it or hate it' cities and I would say that I definitely quite like it. With a teaching qualification I could make a comfortable living out here teaching English in schools and privately. It's something I would definitely consider when I get back to the UK in April and have to decide what to do with my future.

Posted by oli.heeley 00:04 Archived in Thailand

Koh Mak

sunny 31 °C

Well, I let the blog slide again during my 4 week period volunteering, which meant I never blogged my progress just before. Looking back now I realise that 6 weeks can feel like a lifetime when travelling.

Going from Laos to the Thai island of Mak involved the longest single journey so far. Starting at 10 in the morning we caught a boat, then a bus across the Laos-Thai border to the Thai city of Ubon. From there we got on an overnight train to Bangkok. We were really fortunate to get on that train as we'd been told it was fully booked. I wanted to experience a sleeper train during my travels and I found it surprisingly pleasant. The bed was comfortable and the train gently rocked me to a lovely night's sleep. In Bangkok we went by metro to the Eastern bus terminal to catch a bus going out to the coast and from there a speedboat to Mak....Phew! 27 hours on the road.

Koh Mak was a real surprise. We just picked it randomly on the map as a small island that would hopefully be quiet and it was just that. Very unspoilt compared to many Thai islands it is mainly visited by couples and families. It's possible to find primitive accommodation for £3 or for a beachside bungalow £9. Stunning beaches that are mostly empty and some excellent restaurants, I really hate to give this place any more attention in case it ever changes.

The 5 days I spent here consisted of enormous amounts of relaxation and I never felt like I should be doing more. One day was a snorkling trip where I brushed up my underwater diving skills and another day we rented a bike and toured the island. I left the island after just the right amount of time. I could have stayed a bit longer but it's nicer to leave somewhere before you get tired of it.

Posted by oli.heeley 00:01 Archived in Thailand

Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)

sunny 28 °C

At the very bottom of Laos the Mekong river spreads wide across sandbars and provides the land-locked country's closest alternative to a beach resort. There aren't really 4000 habitable islands as many are just bit of sand protruding from the water. No idea why they chose the figure of 4000...

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My 2 days here were spent taking relaxing bicycle rides, swimming in the river and seeing a massive waterfall (on water volume not dropping distance). The popular backpacker island of Don Det felt very peculiar as there was an abundance of 'Vang Vieng' style bars/restuarants (aimed at people who want western atmosphere and heavy drinking with some offering 'happy' food/drink) but not many people. My visit was in peak season so I'm not sure whether this was typical or whether tourism has dropped on the island in recent years.

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My travel through Laos had been a lot quicker than anticipated and I realised that I would need to stay here over a week before my planned entry to Cambodia (couldn't go earlier for boring VISA reasons). The Dutch guy I met on the loop was looking for a quiet island to chill out on for a short while so I decided to join him as we set a course for the Thai island of Koh Mak finishing with another stay in Bangkok.

Posted by oli.heeley 01:30 Archived in Laos

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