Monday, July 31, 2017

Sihanoukville and the saga of Elizabeth's toe

This is a 2 way road and yes we are on the
wrong side
Buses! We have travelled in small buses, big buses, transport vans and trucks, both local and tourist, all around the world. From Peru to Portugal and Egypt to India we have experienced some of the world's most lawless roads and craziest drivers, but never did I actually seriously fear for my life. That changed on the trip to Sihanoukville from Battambang. Our driver was seriously dodgy. I constantly saw vehicles coming directly at me as he weaved in and out spending most of the time on the wrong side of the road, overtaking on blind corners and double white lines, and following behind trucks overtaking without knowing the road ahead, ducking in at seemingly the last moment or forcing the vehicle he had just overtaken to brake to let him in. Vehicles were constantly flashing and beeping at us, and even though this WAS actually normal for Cambodia, this dude took it to the next level. He forced most smaller vehicles coming towards us to move on to the shoulder as he played chicken with them in his bigger vehicle. The bus came with wifi so we googled 'leading cause of death in Cambodia', answer 'traffic accidents'; we were not comforted, or surprised. As a fellow traveller said in his Trip Advisor review, 'A food cart would have been safer.'

To add insult to injury, when we arrived we were dumped at a petrol station outside of town and set upon by taxi and remork drivers. Armed with google maps, we threatened to walk several times until we negotiated a sensible price and arrived a little shell shocked at our hotel the Don Bosco Hotel School. Run by students this was an awesome hotel to relax in at an incredible price. Final word on buses (and I could write a blog on them alone): check Trip Advisor for ratings. We chose our bus companies in Cambodia a bit more carefully after that.

Now that is off my chest, Sihanoukville, a cosy little coastal town famous for beaches and islands. We went into town to try to find an activity for the next day. We settled on a relaxing, peaceful hike that was available in the nearby national park. In the morning we woke up early and waited for our transport (a remork) to arrive, and were delivered the news that it was cancelled, not enough people, but a certainty for the following day. In compensation we were offered a boat trip to three islands that they could get us on for the day. We took up their offer, grabbed our bathers and set off for a pleasant day on the water (or so we thought).

The boat was called 'Happy Boat' and took us to the first island, a veritable Shangri La with beautiful beaches and bungalows on stilts so you could stay high up in the trees. Would have been a great place to stay, maybe next time :-) Next stop was out in the blue ocean where we were allowed to swim and snorkel. They had a slide going down from the second level so you could enter the water with a splash, and splash we did.

Finding a cat on the way to the waterfall
The day progressed like that until we arrived at the last island. It had a waterfall, and we wanted to see it, but with wet dirty feet we broke a long standing rule and did not put our shoes on. We arrived at the bottom of the waterfall without a problem so decided to climb up to a higher vantage point. As the path got rockier I turned and said to Elizabeth that this is getting a bit dodgy and that we might need to give it a miss, but I kept moving forward without waiting for a reply. Next thing I know Elizabeth is yelling up for me; I hurried back down to her and was presented with a small toe at a right angle to where it should be. Apparently it got caught between rocks as she slipped and her foot went one way without the toe following.

She attempted several times to stand on it but it was too painful. While I wondered what to do a  strong young Cambodian on his way down from the waterfall stopped and offered to piggy back her. Elizabeth enthusiastically took up the offer and he piggy backed her down the hill, along the path, across the beach and back on to the boat. It was a sizeable distance, and he did take a few breaks, but he refused offers of help and insisted on taking her all of the way, with me and his partner struggling to keep up. During one stop some local ladies had a look, confidently announced it was broken and pulled bottles of fluid out of their bags that they liberally doused on the toe.
The bottom of the waterfall
Heading back to the boat

Monday, July 24, 2017

You can't take the bats out of Battambang

We hopped on a bus and travelled to Battambang (pronounced Battambong). The bus kindly deposited us in a mud field with a hoard of tuk tuks (remorks) waiting. Our hotel had sent us our own remork and we jumped in with our friendly driver for the trip into town. He offered to show us around the countryside on a personalised tour the next day, but we declined as we had not had a chance to see what was available. Once we had dinner and looked at the options at the hotel we thought that a day out with a tuk tuk driver, which had worked so well in Siem Reap, would work well here. A lot of the attractions were spread far and wide.

So in the morning we headed out to see if we could find someone and lo and behold waiting just outside the hotel was the very same driver looking for work for the day! We later found out his name is Dara and he used to work in a factory in Phnom Penh but it closed down and he's now trying to survive as a tuk tuk driver with a vehicle obtained for him by his brother. We negotiated an itinerary and a price and set off for our adventure of a lifetime!!!

First up was the bamboo train. Cambodia used to have trains but they're not going anymore and there are many disused tracks. So they made small flat carriages out of bamboo and take you for trips to a little village and back. Thing is it's a single track so if someone's coming back you have a problem. The way they've solved it is by getting the carriage with the least people to hop out; they lift the carriage off the wheels and the wheels off the track, the other carriage goes past and then they put it all together again and off you go. As there were only two of us we were the ones who had to hop off EVERY TIME (about 7 times), but you start joking with the people coming the other way and everybody has a good time. Once they get going it can be more like a fairground ride as the carriage whizzes along a fairly rickety track with overgrown bushes brushing past your shoulders and the occasional buffalo can bring it all to a sudden halt. You need windscreen wipers on your sunglasses for all the insects that land. And keep your mouth firmly closed.

After some small stops at a suspension bridge, fruit bat hangout and a Muslim fishing village, we arrived at the next major destination, Banon Hill Temple. The temple ruins were at the top of about 400 fairly steep steps. You saw from the red faces coming down that this was going to take some effort, especially in the characteristic heat and humidity of Cambodia. So off we went, on the way playing tag team with a couple of other visitors. We would stop for a break and they would pass us, then they would stop and we would pass them, and then...well, you get the idea. We ended up chatting and trading pictures with them on the way up. The top was worth it, not so much for the temples although they were nice, but for the fabulous views and atmosphere among the temple ruins.
Rest break

We next headed to Phnom Sampov, a small mountain that again required a considerable amount of uphill walking. Along the way we visited a cave with an opening in the top where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed many people and threw them in. The cave's now a shrine containing victims' skulls, a reclining Buddha and a prayer section. At the top there were temples and many spectacular lookout areas as well as mischievous monkeys coming out to play.

Waiting for the bats

We had to head back to the bottom at double pace because this mountain was home to another famous landmark, the bat cave. Not the one with Batman and Robin but about a million actual bats, and every night around 6:30 they all head out to go feeding for the night. They hunt insects, including many agricultural pests, and it's estimated they prevent the loss of 2,000 tons of rice per year. Running about half an hour late the bats did indeed start streaming out from the cave for well over half an hour. It was longer and more impressive than I expected and fun to watch. I could not capture it well on film, one of those things where you did 'have to be there'.

Our trusty guide then told us he knew where there was a secret cave with twice as many bats so off we went again. It required some steep climbing to reach his 'secret cave' that appeared to be a fairly well known secret when we got there and found a crowd. Nevertheless it indeed had a constant stream of bats impressively streaking across the sunset for a night pillaging the insect population as far as 50km away.

It was a long day, but we had a fantastic adventure with another hardworking tuk tuk driver that will be a happy lingering memory and another friend made.

Roller coaster, Cambodian style


Friday, July 21, 2017

Discovering Angkor Wat

If it was good enough for Angelina Jolie then it is good enough for us. So off we set to the Hindu/Buddhist temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Used in the first Tomb Raider movie and stretching over 400 square kilometres, this sprawling ancient city is too big to cover in a day. But then again a lot of it is very similar so you just need to focus on a few of the most well preserved or special interest temples.

Churning the ocean of milk

First up was the Angkor Wat temple itself, the most famous of the complex. Adorned with numerous bas relief sculptures, one complete wall was devoted to the 'churning of the ocean of milk' Hindu epic. Roughly the story is about the gods and devils fighting over obtaining an elixir that gives you immortality and peace (yes, very ironic). It ain't working so one of the supreme gods Vishnu tells them if they work together by churning the ocean of milk they are more likely to obtain it. You would think this is the moral of the story but no, once the elixir appears they start fighting over it again. To make a long story short the devils grab it first but the gods cheat by getting Vishnu to intervene again and they have had it ever since. The bas relief is impressive and very long.

After Angkor Wat we went to Bayon Temple. This temple is a bit like wandering into the twilight zone as everywhere you look you see the same serene and smiling face in varying sizes. The faces are thought to be of King Jayavarman VII. Probably likely since he built it and vanity is normally a king's strong suit.

We also visited the temple called Ta Prohm. My favourite, this temple was left as it was found, with nature taking over. Trees were growing through walls with roots pushing up and snaking around structures. It was actually pretty cool and eerily beautiful. Surrounded by lush forests and fields where cows chew contentedly, the atmosphere is romantic and calm as nature reclaims what we abandon.

As the area is so spread out we took a friend's advice and hired a remork (tuk tuk) for the day, basically a motorbike with a carriage. Our friendly driver Li Hong looked after us by picking us up from the hotel, taking us to the ticket office (which is not where the temples are) and going around from temple to temple. When we were all templed out (about 4pm) he took us back to the hotel for a freshen up and then we concluded the day by going to the Phare Circus.

Ordering a fresh coconut juice
means cutting the top of a coconut
and putting a straw in it
This is a show performed under the big top, without animals, and with students from a school in Battambang that caters for disadvantaged and abused youth, teaching them skills in many artistic disciplines. The show has a social message and an artistic flair to it as well as producing some great acrobatics and juggling performances. A bit of a cross between a play and Cirque du Soleil, the show had a theme of ordinary Cambodians and tourists in the street coming together to help each other when problems arise. The school runs mainly on donations and the proceeds from these shows. A great night out, a great day out, and thanks to our fabulous remork driver, safely delivered back to a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep
Dinner before the show.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ties to Thailand

If you read my previous blog post you would know that we were here mainly for the dental work. But no point staying in a place for a month and not having a look around. So in between dental visits and recovery time we ventured around and beyond Bangkok.

In Bangkok our trips included a ferry ride on the Chao Phraya River, Ko Kret Island, Wat Arun  (or Temple of the Dawn), The Grand Palace, Nonthaburi, numerous shopping explorations and tiny art galleries and an afternoon at the cinema seeing Wonder Woman. Hey, it was good and in English. We learned the subway, skytrain and bus systems and how to say hello, good morning and thank you (the great multi linguists that we are). Elizabeth even spent some time at a local cat haven to get a much needed cat fix.

We also visited Lumpini Park, and Benchasiri Park multiple times. Benchasiri is a fantastic  park for people watching. Any evening of the week you can see masses of people doing aerobics at the motivation of an energetic instructor yelling over a loud PA system. There are two outdoor gyms with facilities including weights, two children's playgrounds, a skate park, volleyball and soccer courts, friendly cats (and not so friendly), a jogging track encircling the whole park, and more. Once we even found a group doing a form of Tai Chi with swords. It also has a beautiful lake in the middle and lovely views of the surrounding buildings, especially speccy in the evening.

We did a wonderful day trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai. You can take a train from Hua Lumphong Train Station that runs on weekends, which stops briefly at the bridge for you to look around and take pictures, and then goes over the bridge and on to Nam Tok and the Sai Yok Noi waterfall near the Myanmar border. You are given several hours to look around and walk up to the hilltop national park, and then taken back to Bangkok. At about $20AU, a bargain!

At one point we had a week between appointments since I needed to recover from a tooth extraction. We took that opportunity to go to Chiang Mai for a few days to visit our friend Dianne. One of the best things we did here was go to the Elephant Nature Park. No elephant rides or circus tricks here; this place is a sanctuary for elephants rescued from those types of activities as well as elephants injured by stepping on land mines while being used as beasts of burden by loggers. You see them relaxing and enjoying themselves along with buffaloes in a beautiful valley encircled by soft hills and tropical greenery. There are also sanctuaries there for abandoned dogs and cats. We learned that elephants experience terrible pain and trauma being 'broken' by beatings to make them docile for riding and circus performances. Please avoid the places that use elephants as performers and support wonderful sanctuaries like this one.

*** A note of warning from Elizabeth - other companies in Chiang Mai have chosen similar names to Elephant Nature Park but use unethical methods of discipline such as prodding the elephants with nails hidden in their hands. One of the most joyous experiences at Elephant Nature Park was watching from the bank as the elephants bathed themselves in the river and then clambered out and snorted themselves with their favourite sunscreen - dust - without any prodding. And it's far more comfortable to walk alongside elephants than to ride on them. You can observe them so much more intently by gving them their space and be happy knowing that they're happy. So make sure you choose the correct company (website above). Ok, here endeth the lecture. Love and pleadings, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Dianne grossed me out while we were exploring the old town by eating that horrible, foul smelling, banned in most places, Durian fruit. I pretended not to know them and sat on a bench by myself watching community aerobics. A nice activity that happens in many public parks in Asia. Eventually Elizabeth finished her fruit and joined the aerobics.

From here we took a day trip to Chiang Rai, including a boat ride to the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong River banks. It also included a visitor's pass to Donesao Island in Laos, bonus! In reality this is just a marketing opportunity as you were only there long enough to run the gauntlet of market stalls selling clothing, jewellery and whisky containing various animal parts. Being vegetarian we do not agree with treating animals this way, so did not sample or buy. I will take my whisky clear and with ice thank you.

We also saw the White Temple which was one of the most beautiful temples I have seen since the Taj Mahal, and dropped in to see the Kayan people with the long necks. They believe that the long necks make them beautiful, they certainly look fragile, but we were assured it is mostly an illusion. Their necks are the same length as ours, it is the shoulders that droop. They come over from Myanmar to earn more money than they can there and send it home and return for family visits. There are conflicting stories in this region about their treatment and freedoms but I can only go on what we were told by asking them questions with the answers translated by our guide.

Although we were in Thailand for medical reasons, we really enjoyed our time there and getting to know an area in a bit more depth than would normally be the case when travelling. Whether it is for dental work, catching up with old and new friends or visiting the cats and elephants, our ties to Thailand will see us returning soon.

The White Temple


Elephants at Play

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Bangkok and the one about the dentist

In our other life as full time housesitters we came across a couple who have all their dental work done in Bangkok. At a third of the price in Australia and with a recommendation on which company to use, we decided to give this medical tourism thing a go. Without medical cover since the late 80's I hadn't been for a proper dental checkup in nearly 30 years.

First impressions were: very thorough, very professional, super attentive and caring. They had different specialists for basically every type of treatment. There was the normal fillings and cleaning dentist, the crowns expert, a surgeon for the big stuff like implants, and a root canal professional. Most work would commence within minutes of the appointment time, after a blood pressure check due to the fact you're normally hot and sweaty coming in from the Bangkok tropical heat. A nice assistant would come down to the extensive hotel lobby style waiting area, escort you into the lift and deliver you to the appropriate specialist.

My dentist was impressed with the state of my teeth considering the lack of ongoing care, genetic deficiencies, extensive overcrowding and age. Thankfully I am not TOTALLY irresponsible and HAVE ALWAYS brushed twice a day and regularly floss. That being said there were numerous issues, a lot due to the overcrowding which has seen the loss of teeth and resultant gaps over the years. A treatment plan was put into place with my first appointment for a couple of fillings that very afternoon. They are geared to getting to work straight away and work weekends and into the early evenings, as travellers often have limited time.

The work progressed with a couple of hiccups. They tried to rearrange my appointments in ways that were not convenient or did not make sense to me, but when I expressed concern they agreed to stick to the original plan. Also, and I don't know if this is just me, but whenever they would remove an old filling (and we're talking 30 years plus) there always seemed to be an unknown disaster underneath waiting to surface. Cracked tooth, infected root, why is it never good news? To their credit they would always give me a mirror and explain ad nauseum what was going wrong, like the distorted mangled mess reflected back made any sense to me.

Dental work has progressed a lot since my last appointment - the work was much less painful with quicker recovery than I expected (or is it just that these guys are so good). I was particularly worried about implant preparation surgery where they put a post into my jaw. There was cutting, drilling, pushing, screwing to the point that I swear they were creating miniature furniture in there. But the pain was surprisingly small and I was able to eat within hours with my mouth feeling quite normal the next day. Any medication necessary is dispensed directly by the staff: no scripts, no pharmacies and exactly the amount you need.

One major advantage to having it done in Thailand is massages!!! After one  particularly gruelling 5 hour session (my choice, I just wanted to get it over with rather than multiple appointments) with aching shoulders, neck and jaw, I dropped into one of the 3 billion massage joints between our hotel and the dentist and had a 60 minute neck and shoulder massage for $14 AU. Problem solved :-) Obviously the other advantage is that you can get your teeth done, have a holiday with trips to the Bangkok tourist spots between appointments, and still come back in front on the cost at home.

I came away from Bangkok feeling well cared for and that I had been treated by professionals, with respect and at a fair cost. There were never any issues with billing as the initial consultation was free and they would bill you as the work was done and, even with the extra jobs, the final cost was within the initial range of estimates. I would thoroughly recommend getting your dental work done this way. While there we stayed at the S Box Sukhumvit Hotel which was a half hour walk to the dentist, quite comfortable and reasonably priced. If you're in my situation don't be afraid to investigate this option.


For things to do in Thailand between appointments you will need to wait until my next post...