Christmas and New Year

20 Jan

As soon as the holidays were approaching I was busy planning my next little adventure. I say planning, but really it was just a case of choosing where I would like to go and then hoping hotels and transport would book themselves, which annoyingly they didn’t. I had decided a while back that I would go to Cambodia this Christmas to finally tick off the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap. I’d heard a lot of rave reviews, not only of the temples but of Cambodia itself. I got myself a re-entry visa and booked 3 nights into the Amra Angkor Hotel, a modest place but all importantly with a big, outdoor pool.

The tricky bit was deciding where to spend New Years Eve. I wanted to go back to my favourite Thai island, Koh Chang, and Diary was keen as she’d never been there before. It all seemed feasible, but would require a lot of travelling in the short time period we had (always seems to be the way when I go somewhere).

We left for Cambodia about midday on 27th December, as soon as Diary had finished her last exam. The journey to the border took around 6 hours, costing just 150 Baht (£3) each. At the boarder we were quickly hassled by both Thai and Cambodian taxi drivers asking where we were going and offering us visas and transport to Siem Reap. I let myself down at this point. I paid an inflated price for an express visa and believed an Asian Del-Boy that it’s difficult to book taxis on the Cambodian side. So we booked a taxi for 2000 baht (54 dollars) and headed through immigration. As soon as we were through, taxi drivers were everywhere and offering rides to Siem Reap for half what we just paid. I really should have known better!

When we arrived at Siem Reap it was late and we just wanted to get to our hotel and relax for the night. But our driver didn’t go to our hotel and instead dropped us off at a tuk tuk rank. Here, we were offered a lift by Cambodian called ‘Jonny’ who made the cardinal sin of saying ‘lovely jubbly’ when I told him I was from England. That instantly made me think he was likely to sell me a suit or scam me some other way. In the end he seemed quite friendly and we agreed to book a tour of the temples with his company for the following day.

The next morning we were up early and heading for a day of sightseeing around the temples. We had our driver ($20) and our tickets ($20 each) and stopped for breakfast ($8), and quickly discovered we were completely out of money on just our first morning. I thought Cambodia was cheap!!

The first stop was Angkor Wat itself. It was enjoyable strolling around in the sun admiring the sheer scale of this ancient building and the intricate decorations inscribed into the stone. But it was still just another temple, and temples just don’t get me that excited. The next stop on our Tuk Tuk tour was Bayon Temple. This was actually my favourite place of the day. It was a lot more dilapidated than Angkor Wat and consisted of scores of pillars each covered in giant Buddha faces carved into the rock. This time I was able to get more of a sense of the age of the building and enjoyed picturing this grand stone building in its ‘hey day’. After Bayon temple we climbed up to the dizzy heights of ‘The temple of the Leper King’, which, presumably at some stage was built by a king with leprosy. Again the temple was interesting and pleasant and offered a fantastic view from its top. However it was a tough climb in the heat and on tired legs.

 

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Top: Inside Angkor Wat. Bottom: A few of the 36 giant Buddha faces

Because of this, and because it was under renovation we decided to skip the next temple and move on to Ta Prohm, which has been made famous for being the set for the Tomb Raider film. This was quite an astonishing place, where trees have slowly been winning the age-long fight with the stone temple. It looks quite unreal in some places, and stupidly I couldn’t help thinking it was just like a Hollywood movie set. This was our last temple visit, and after a quick bit of harassment from the street sellers we were back on our way to the hotel.

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Top: A view from the top of the Temple of the Leper King

Middle and bottom: Ta Prohm temple among the trees

After a quick dip in the hotel pool we headed back to the centre of Siem Reap for dinner. There is an abundance of good food available but it is more expensive then I had expected. Tonight we ended up eating traditional Cambodian ‘Boston style’ pizza at Belmiros. I didn’t feel guilty at all, the pizza was amazing and almost as big as the table. Diary and I shared a MEDIUM size and still had enough for breakfast in the morning. The staff were also excellent, a refreshing change to Thai-style hospitality (which is to stand awkwardly at your table while you look at the menu and to not smile at all costs). The owner of the restaurant came over to every table for a chat and to make sure everything was OK. If you’re ever in Siem Reap, try this restaurant!

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Above: Pizza at Belmiro’s Pizza and Sub

The next day we woke up early again and headed into town for breakfast. We found a really nice cafe where we could sit upstairs and observe the market across the road while we waited for our food. This time I did eat some local cuisine and had a type of Cambodian omelette.

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Top: Cambodian style omelette.

Once fed we set off for the local war museum. It was a short tuk tuk journey away from the centre and cost just five dollars. This allowed you enter the museum and got you a ‘free’ guide. I say ‘free’ because of course you are expected to tip. The museum wasn’t exactly what I expected, it is entirely outdoors for starters, but it was interesting and informative enough. More importantly there were loads of weaponry to look at and hold. Our guide didn’t speak the best of English but was a true war veteran. He had been either shot or blown up numerous times until he was forced to quit after stepping on a landmine.

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Top: An RPG rocket launcher. Bottom: Diary buying yet another fruit shake

The rest of the day and that evening was spent relaxing, eating and exploring. By now I had managed to accustom myself to the money and how to direct tuk tuks to our hotel, but just as I had mastered these essentials our time in Siem Reap was ending. We had booked a bus to Koh Chang the next morning and I was already excited to be going back to such a beautiful island. I was however a bit concerned. It was 30th December and I knew he roads would be busy. We also had to get to Trat, where you take a ferry, before 7pm. Our final problem was our complete lack of accommodation and everything online was completely booked up for New Year’s Eve. An all to familiar predicament.

Our journey to Koh Chang began with a 3 hour drive to the border. It went smoothly and I spent much of the time talking to an old timer from Oz. He was in the process of becoming another pensioner to move to Thailand in order to marry a younger Thai wife. But he was friendly enough and good to chat to. Once at the border our smooth progress came to an abrupt halt. People were piling out of Cambodia, supposedly with similar intentions, to spend New Year’s in Bangkok or on a sandy beach somewhere. I was stuck in a queue at immigration for nearly 2 hours, dripping with sweat, tired and hungry. It was definitely one of those moments when you realise travelling is not all fun and games!

Once across the border we took a tuk tuk to the bus station where we waited for our mini van to Koh Chang. By this time I was seriously concerned we wouldn’t make it in time for the last ferry. We finally set off about 3pm and began our dash for the pier in Trat. Our driver also needed to get to Koh Chang tonight and drove like a lunatic the whole way. Thankfully we made it on time and in one piece and even had time for some Mama Noodles while we waited at the pier.

Our final predicament was our lack of accommodation. If it came to it, I had an offer of a tent for the night, but considering how tired and in need of a shower I was, it wasn’t much of a consolation. My plan of action was this. Get a taxi to the south of the island (near Bang Boa/Lonely Beach), hire a motorbike, and find a room with a hot shower. By the time we got a motorbike it was nearly 10 pm and most receptions were closed already. Those that were still open told us that all the rooms were taken. It wasn’t looking good.

Thankfully a lady who had finished her shift and was relaxing on a hammock overheard that we were looking for a room. She called her boss and told us there was one last room available at Exotic Bungalows. It would be 1500 baht, but we had no choice, and were just thankful to have found somewhere. The room was drab and had a very stale smell, but had a hot power-shower and a comfy bed. We weren’t alone in this either. Just as I was drifting off Diary let our a scream as though shed seen a ghost. Thankfully it was just a humongous gecko (Godzilla) hanging around in the corner of the room.

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Above: Godzilla

The next morning we woke up early and I set about looking for a nicer place to stay. Rooms were hard to come by but I did find a very basic place for just 200 baht a night, but it wouldn’t have been a comfortable. Just as I was going to give up I found somewhere with a final bungalow available. It turned out to be a really nice, modern, cozy room. Finally a stroke of luck. Now we had a roof over our heads it was time to make the most of our day on the island. We jumped back on the bike and headed to beach.

The weather today was perfect, not a cloud in the sky. Once at the beach I couldn’t resist hiring kayaks and attempting to reach a tiny islet in the distance. It was hot and sweaty work but we made it and enjoyed our secluded beach for a while before heading back. Here we enjoyed some refreshments, Diary consuming her umpteenth fruit shake of the day (she’d become an addict), before going back to get ready for NYE.

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Above: James Cracknell  Below: Did not even break a sweat!!!!!!!

Koh Chang is such a beautiful island, and part of its beauty is because it is still underdeveloped, green and raw. Even on NYE, with all accommodation fully booked it still felt quiet and relaxed. I was more than happy to celebrate the New Year with a low key party on the beach, rather than pushing myself through crowds or waiting 12 hours to see some fireworks. We headed out for a meal, I treated myself to a particularly spicy pad ka pow guay (chicken fried with basil),  before going to find a beach-side bar. As usual there were some fire dancing displays. The highlight of this was running through a flaming archway with Diary on my back.

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Top and bottom: Beautiful scenery on Koh Chang

After a few hours we had strolled up the beach and it was on the stroke of midnight. Fireworks erupted all the way along the coast in both directions. We stayed dancing on the beach for a while before heading back (the kayaking had taken its toll). The next day and it was time to head back to Korat. It had been a bit of a whirlwind trip but a really enjoyable one. It’s not too long until summer break, and a possible trip to the Philippines. To be continued…..

 

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