Thursday, 21 February 2013

You wan massaa in Sihanoukville?

This repetitive phrase has been the only blight on a delightful five days at Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. Followed shortly with... "You wan pedicure? Manicure?" When you've politely declined all three with a solid "no thank you", the girls which offer this service start to look closely at your only marginally hairy legs and armpits and in Rob's case, quite hairy chest, and suggest they can remove the hair by threading. Some even sit beside you and start to check by rubbing a finger on your leg to prove they need some attention. Oh to give a girl or very hairy man a complex! That said, we have seen lots of women having hair removed, even the bikini line in this rather public domain. Also touting along the beach are numerous sellers offering bracelets, sunglasses (even if you're wearing a pair), langoustine, a selection of fruit, doughnuts and freshly barbecued squid.

Gorgeous sunsets
We've spent days on the beach, walking, reading and relaxing and evenings watching the sunsets and eating and drinking at low-key beachfront joints with the waves lapping inches from our feet. Bliss!

Our well travelled backgammon set
Our backgammon championship is still under way with the score sitting at 21-19 to me (Sonja) and we have decided to learn some new card games as gin rummy is quickly becoming a bore.



My career at pool is not going well, especially under the influence of alcohol and the "winner stays on" rule, but Rob has left me a snooker widow as he keeps on winning, staying on the table to beat all the contenders. Bandit!

Pool bandit
Cow on the beach

Friday, 15 February 2013

Phnom Pehn you long time!

Our journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia's capital, was a very pleasant 6 hour coach drive though Cambodia's varying countryside. Lush green rice fields were in abundance as we whizzed by.

Phnom Pehn definitely has more of a city feel than Siem Reap with high rise buildings and commercial venues. It does however have a more functional feel, dominated by shops, street sellers, millions of tuk tuk drivers, street food cooking away and the now familiar sight of local girls befriending western men.

Rules for inmates!
Whilst in Phnom Pehn a visit to the Killing Fields and S21 Genocide Museum is a must. It's certainly not for the faint-hearted but equally an important part of Cambodian history that cannot be ignored. S21 prison, was a former school turned into a torture, interrogation and killing establishment by the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970's. Sadly over 20,000 Cambodians and foreigners were killed here.



Remarkably this figure was a drop in the ocean of deaths compared to reports suggesting that over 3 million of their 9 million population were murdered during the regime. The Killing Fields we visited was one of hundreds dotted around the country, used for mass genocide. Seeing the graves, bones, teeth and old clothing was very surreal and emotional.

Clothes of the deceased
Mass graves now empty
To lighten the mood, the following day we headed to the Phnom Penh museum followed by the Royal Palace. The museum displayed artefacts from Cambodia's history including numerous statues and busts. It didn't really float our boat, perhaps we'd been museumed out by then. The Palace grounds contained several courtyards each with number of beautifully decorated buildings including temples and the Silver Pagoda as well as a collection of exotic flowers. Part of the grounds including the main Palace was closed off to the public as it is the Royal residence.













Who has the third one?
As a little treat before the next leg of our trip, we went to Bloom Cafe. Raved about on Tripadviser for it's amazing cupcakes, we couldn't resist. We were not disappointed. Inside, the cafe was adorned with many bright and intricate cupcakes in addition to numerous large cakes in fantastical designs, all proudly displayed in a show case. The cupcakes tasted as good as they looked, washed down with some posh coffee. Well worth the trip and expense.

Edible makeup?

Siem Reap, jolly good.... Wat wat!

Our bags are having an adventure.

Our visit to Cambodia started well with the coolest tuk tuk ride from the airport. Here they have motorbikes pulling very comfortable tuk tuk carts. Not only that, but the transfer was free, along with the free bananas, free tea and coffee, free pool table, free massage, free wifi, free bike hire and free smiles all included in our room rate of £18 a night. Not bad, we thought.


Angkor Wat
The town itself is totally geared for tourists who are all headed for the infamous temple of Angkor Wat. We discovered however that it is not just one temple to come for but hundreds spread out over miles and miles around Siem Reap. We decided on just one day of touring the temples but some people spend three full days exploring these ancient ruins. Hardcore! We also declined the 5am start in order to see the sunrise as we had had a seriously early start the day before for our flight and we're pleased we did as it sounds like thousands of Chinese and Koreans (all on their Chinese New Year holidays) were elbowing their way to prime photoshot position. Whilst Angkor Wat was impressive in size and would have been astounding in its day, we were not really blown away by it, instead preferring some of the other temples surrounding it. As most of them were from the 11th and 12th century, they were ruins, often incomplete and with lots of the stones fallen or scattered around.

Smile for the camera!
Good views from a temple.
Bayon temple was our favourite with its 216 faces sculpted into the temple towers.

Where are we?
The centre of Siem Reap would certainly appeal to a few of our friends as it is heaving with places to drink and eat, where you can while away a lot of hours watching the show with a coffee or a beer. There's even a road called "Pub Street" in case you didn't know what to do there.

Apsara dancing.
Also crammed along the pavements are many massage chairs for a quick street-side massage, lovely if you're not looking for peace and relaxation! Tourists also seem to be falling hook, line and sinker for the rather gimmicky "fish pedicure" where you can dunk your feet into a fish tank so that the fish can eat the dead skin. You are promised soft feet, a giggle and no piranha!

For our kind of relaxation, we took a couple of bikes for a tour of the lanes and streets, soaking up the sun, dust and local area. Bumpy unmade roads and gravel are not the best surfaces to ride on a bike but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless and managed to escape with only one scuffed toe in collision with a tuk tuk.

Our final day was the best as we went on another cookery course, this time to learn how to create typical Cambodian fare. A bit out of the town, we visited a local house in a rural setting and then spent the day cooking outside and eating our meals on a shady pontoon over a lake. Very relaxing and very filling.

Green mango salad.
Fresh spring rolls.

Proud of my cooking.
Gorgeous lunch and dinner setting.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Petronas Towers and rain for hours in Kuala Lumpur

So apart from the famous twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, we have not really been bowled over with this city and perhaps the heavy rain has not helped either. It is like the poorer brother to Singapore. Not as big, not as clean, not as easy, not as beautiful, not as wealthy. Although to be fair, it does feel more like a real city rather than a toy town.

Getting ready for Chinese New Year
3D mural in temple
We enjoyed the obligatory mooch around China Town, Central Market and a Hindu temple and then headed towards the bird park where we spent a couple of hours admiring amorous peacocks and dodging bird poo.

In the evening we headed over to the iconic twin towers, two stunning 88 floor structures built by the oil company, Petronas. Whilst they are not now the worlds tallest buildings ( I think that title is held in Dubai) they are really quite beautiful and so we headed toTraders Hotel Skybar opposite and sunk a few cocktails while savouring the view and ambience. It was a good job that I hadn't been drinking for five weeks as the price of the drinks was likely to sink the budget.
Gorgeous display.

The smile of a tipsy tee-totaller.
Day two was blighted by heavy rain in the morning and foiled our plans to go to the Batu caves, just outside the city. Instead we waited a while and then decided on a good rainy day activity by heading to the mall and going to the aquarium.


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The hills are Borneo

Room with a view!
So for one who's not that keen on creepy crawlies, I thought it was pretty brave to book a wooden hut in the rainforest canopy so that we could experience it to the fullest. The view from our bed/balcony overlooked a river meandering through the forest and our bathroom was open air. Perfect for wandering around in the nude with only the lizards and giant ants to catch a look.

The forest is literally alive with sounds - during the day, the cricketing, clicking and chirruping of insects, birds, squirrels and other unseen creatures is continuous. But at night the volume and variety of tunes scales up a notch to provide a symphony of nature. It seems everything comes awake at night and the call of the lizards, frogs and bugs is arresting. The scuttling and scratching of a mouse in our room at night has been an added extra so the fan has been welcome to blanket the noise.

Lizard enjoying our dinner.
Wildlife here is super sized; from the giant green leaves and the four inch butterflies and moths to the five inch bright green, flying grasshoppers. So it is surprising that the lizards don't seem to get any bigger than the span of my hand.

Our other reason to being in Sepilok, Borneo, is to see orangutans in one of the two places in the world that they live wild. Unfortunately more than 50% of Borneo's rainforest area has been destroyed, with the majority of its replacement being huge palm oil plantations. Deceptively it looks like the island is still covered with trees but these palm plantations have eradicated habitat for millions of creatures including the infamous orangutan.

Swinging in for a spot of lunch.
We went to a rehabilitation centre where they spend years reintroducing orphaned, sick and starving orangutans back into the wild. In the final stages of rehabilitation the monkeys live wild in the forest but can come to feeding stations twice a day if they need to. Mostly pregnant, nursing or younger ones come as the forest provides enough food for the majority. Whilst we were allowed watch from a distance as they came to feast on fruit and milk, no human interaction occurred so we felt like we were observing them in the wild. It was so odd to see such human-like movements such as peeling the bananas or standing on tiptoe to see in the basket.

Is it bananas or mangoes today?
The afternoon session proved to be even more exciting as a whole family of Macaque monkeys turned up to share to spoils as well as a very close encounter with an orangutan along the walk way on our way out. Slightly scared, as he was only a metre or so away and looking us straight in the eye, Rob failed to get the "money shot" so you'll have to take our word for it.

Flexible and gymnastic!
The one that got away.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

High altitude at Mt Kinabalu

We came, we didn't see.... but we did conquer Mt Kinabalu.

No visibility
Definitely British with a Daily Mail poncho
Okay I'll explain, as we wound our way up towards Mt Kinabalu from Kota Kinabalu in a mini bus, the mists descended over the roads and the clouds obliterated the sky. Even at the foot of the mountain we had no idea what we were to climb the following day. At 1600 metres above sea level, base camp was already one of the highest places we've rested our heads and so after some hearty carb loading and a decent sleep we started up this mystery mountain with a guide.

Rain forest
Whilst we had anticipated walking through rain forest to the top we were not pleased to find that it rained heavily for the majority of our four hour ascent to middle base. The terrain was continuous uphill walking over steep steps and rocky paths through rain forest and alpine forest as the torrential rain tumbled down the paths like a waterfall. Despite our trendy ponchos, we were soaked from head to boots and with legs burning and hearts thumping so hard we thought they might explode from our chests, we were not sure that this was fun.

Laban Rata hut
The rest house, Laban Rata, is a necessary overnight stop to acclimatise you to the altitude. It sits, lonely on the mountain at 3000 metres and was camp for another night. This time sleep was not so restful as we were sharing a dorm with a snoring couple, suffering slightly from altitude sickness and had to awake at the ungodly hour of 2am in order to breakfast and then set off for the summit at 3am. Of course, it was pitch black because we were trying to get to the top to see the sun rise but at least the rain had cleared and we were in for a dry walking day. A funny sight seeing dozens of people climbing in the dark with only a head torch to show the way. Whilst the three hours it took us to climb the final 1000 metres was less challenging in the gradient and the terrain of granite rock faces and boulders was a bit easier on the knees, the thinning of the air, freezing temperatures and effects of the altitude made it just as difficult.

Ropes to help you up
Waiting for sunrise
4090 metres is seriously high
We reached the summit of 4090 metres with 20 minutes to spare, not ideal to wait in these conditions so as soon as the sun rose, we dashed back to middle camp for another breakfast.


Clouds below us
Thinking the worst was behind us, we were surprised to find that the true torture came when we spent a further four hours getting back to base camp with shuddering knees, and aching muscles. As we crossed the finishing line, Rob put down his walking sticks, had a little cry and claimed the descent was more painful than the marathon. But of course..... another amazing achievement and fantastic experience.

My face says it all in that moment