A Travellerspoint blog

Chi Phat, Cambodia

Chi Phat, 12-14 January

sunny 29 °C
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The Lonely Planet advised us that one of the only ways to penetrate the Cardamoms was to go to Chi Phat – where the Wildlife Alliances community-based ecotourism project is well underway, to protect the Cardamom ecosystem from poaching, logging, and encroachment. After a lovely 1.5hr bus ride through the forest we are dropped off by the Preak Piphot River to fend for ourselves - Chi Phat waiting 21km upriver. We negotiate a ride for US$5 on a long tail boat, laden up with bricks and locals. A very scenic but 2.5hr slow journey – only breaking down once and resorting to hand pumping as the boat water pump dies, but no real set backs.

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Once there we wander along the dusty dirt road trying to converse with the locals to find a guesthouse, until a lady wearing brightly coloured pajama's (which all the women seem to wear around here) finds us and takes us to the Wildlife Alliance office. One of the project organizers gets the chef to cook us up a huge feed while he explains the project to us, and introduces us to the English teachers and Project Coordinators - very organized! Today we're the only visitors at Chi Phat, but tourists are starting to trickle through here most days now. We settle into our guesthouse and meet the others – a guy who works on the reforestation project, an architect to assess the infrastructure requirements for ecotourism, the volunteer coordinator for the Israeli English teaching project, and the rest of the volunteers. The projects have only recently been set up and internet and cell phone reception have arrived accordingly (last week). Once the projects are successfully up and running smoothly, the goal is for the locals to continue unassisted, creating a source of jobs and income through ecotourism, and protecting the environment. Very noble initiatives indeed!

Down at the pier the local boys play volleyball, the children play in sandpits, and parents seem wary of our presence. We walk down the main road past the coconut palms, abandoned houses past their use by date, houses on stilts with chickens, pigs, cows, cats, dogs, children, and adults all seeking shade beneath their homes. Ox carts and bicycles, and tiny children who follow us down the road yelling out "hello" and "bye bye". Cute! We find the river after many games of charades along the way, trying to convey to the Khmers that we want to find the river. Once there we find the river to ourselves however – so peaceful swimming among the boulder rocks and shallow drops, then dozing in the sun on the hot rocks.

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Back home for dinner cooked with love by our lovely old Khmer lady cook who keeps bringing out dish upon dish of food – and it's only for us two! While we eat we watch the night English lessons being taught to an open air classroom of children; the children chanting English at the tops of their lungs – so enthusiastic. Inside the main "office" Vishna is teaching English to the adults of the community - even the chief is learning which is very encouraging. We join them and have great fun and laughs introducing ourselves to the class, running dialogues with one another. Today has been the first day of lessons, it's now 8.30pm and they're still going strong. They are shy but actually pretty good! We write our names up on the board, and then get asked "do all people in your country write with their left hand?" haha (both of us are lefties). The whole village of 500ppl is getting behind these projects; it's great to be here supporting them in the initial stages, already showing such positive developments. They have set up mountain bike trails and walking treks, with further activities on the cards.

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We decide to do the mountain bike trek and get up close and personal with the Cardamom forest. Our cute cook gives us packed lunches wrapped in banana leaves, packed into little flax baskets. Our guide, a young Khmer boy with no English (yet), takes us on a great track -despite the sand which we spin out on constantly. We ride through dry plains with wild ox running past, many streams and forest cover, steep and technical sections through dense jungle and see a large red centipede cross the track. After a good few hours we ditch our bikes for the ascent through the forest, to view the burial jars. These were once used for the heads of the dead which were always buried on the peak of a mountain – a sacred site according to Hindu beliefs. The jars sit amongst the large limestone rocks, and although discovered in the 80's, are just beginning to be studied (by a kiwi who came here recently to carbon date them). As soon as we arrive at the jars we hear a large animal crashing through the jungle – an elephant or a black bear according to our guide who frantically points at his picture cards. We walk around the corner to see more jars but something spooks our guide and he hurries us back down to our bikes and exclaims "tiger".*

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Back on our bikes as Guido comes across a large porcupine lounging on the path. 0.5m high, black with golden spikes, it careers down the track as he almost cycles into the poor fellow. Then it's down to a nice stream for lunch before coasting it back through lush forest, wind in face, bird life chorus, butterflies, hot sun, and…. then surrounded by forest fires, burning either side of us along the plains. A scorching heat as we cycle through, our guide radio's them in… Close to the village we cool off with a dip at a waterfall before returning the bikes. A mammoth 42km ride it has been – and only our second time mountain biking ever! We relax our achy bodies and drink coconuts freshly chopped down for us - divine! Then it's that inevitable time to brave the barrel showers, pouring buckets of cold water over ourselves to clean off. We join the rest of the crew outside for yet another mammoth dinner, green tea and good times.

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Next day we bid farewell to our new friends, and wave goodbye from the back of our motobikes. A 45 minute sand slide ride back to the main road lies ahead, constantly spinning out in the sand on a joke of a "road", thankful to be alive when we arrive!

  • Later on we queried Vishna on what exactly our guide got spooked by (as tigers haven't been seen around here since the seventies). Smirking, Vishna explains that rural Cambodians are naturally very superstitious and that our guide saw a shadow sweeping over the jars, thought to be a bad spirit (bringing bad luck to those who see it and their families). Eek!

Posted by beefnlamb 22:30 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Koh Kong - Cambodia

Koh Kong, 10-12 January

sunny 30 °C
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Conversions:
1 NZD ~ 20 Thai Baht,
1 NZD ~ 4000 Cambodian Riel

The land border crossing from Hat Lek, Thailand to Cham Yeam, Cambodia was running smoothly - despite the corrupt government officials charging 1200 Baht (~$60) for our visa when it should have been 20 USD (~$35), until we were head of the queue for our Visa stamp. The government official was only processing the passports that included an additional cash payoff of ~100 Baht. Adamant that we would not endorse this, we patiently waited… and waited… and waited... Alana on the brink of collapse, with plastic bag in hand in the likely event of puking, determined to keep at the front of the queue. Even when there were no more touts pushing cash and passports past us across the counter, the official would still not acknowledge our passports or us. Eventually he conceded.

Next hurdle was to negotiate a taxi (160 Baht) to Koh Kong Village (8km from the border). We were joined by Mark from the UK, who upon our arrival at Koh Kong Guest House, insisted on buying "Yow" our driver a beer... he also convinced us to join in for "just one beer"... and before we knew it we'd drunk a few dozen Angkor Beers and drunk the fridge dry. Moving onto the warm beers somewhere along the way we were joined by another Dutchy and his taxi driver. Yow got very pissed and kept insisting on buying more rounds of beers. He made Guido answer his phone when the boss called in, and wanted to take Guido to a sleazy lady bar (despite the girlfriend factor!). God knows how he got his taxi home! Humble Kho Kong was once Cambodia's "Wild West"; its frontier economy dominated by smuggling, prostitution, and gambling. It still has an element of all this, yet is becoming more respectable with ecotourism initiatives on the cards for the ecologically important jungle of the Cardamom Mountains that extends undisturbed, right down to the mangroves and sea.

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The town has 3 currencies - Cambodian Riel, US$ and Thai Baht which makes for a confusing transaction. When they charge in Baht, you pay in US$, and get change in Riel... only 3000 Riel though for a baguette with mystery meat, sauce and salad (thanks to the French influence in Cambodia from the colonial period). We wander around the dusty, scruffy town and bump into "Crazy Jimmy" (resident expat who strongly believes that all Khmers are thieves and drunks) who dispensed some good advice - to go to "Oasis Resort" for advice from Irish Jason. We walked the 1-2km along a red dirt road out of town, past cute children calling out "hello", to arrive at a true Oasis with a large pool overlooking the Cardamom Mountains in the distance. We laze in the hammocks admiring the view and chatting to Jason.

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Jason's tuk tuk driver takes us to the mangrove forests of Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary. Our driver patiently waits for us while we explore the elevated walkways through the forest, picnic platforms, and observation tower that overlooks the estuary. We see lots of small fish, crabs, an apparently rare white heron like bird, and a cheeky monkey. Driving back we observe houses on stilts and riverine village life. We feel like royalty as we wave to the ecstatic children from our tuk tuk carriage.

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Posted by beefnlamb 19:44 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bangkok Bonanza - Thailand

Bangkok, 2 - 8 January

sunny 29 °C
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Arrived at 4am in Bangkok and wandered around for about an hour or so looking for a place to stay - most of the cheapies are full it seems. Luckily for us, we run into a girl on her way to Burma, who gives us a heads up on Merry V guesthouse - a super sweet 200 baht deal off the main drag. We're in Banglamphu, the travelers ghetto of Bangkok proper - where nightlife is sophisticated and distance to sights short. At the heart of it all, legendary Khao San, a caricature of itself full of the usual internet cafes, bars and a great many tailors selling amongst others Ar.mani suits (yes, that's how it's spelled here) for only 89 euros. Shops and stalls line the sidewalks flogging 20 baht Pad Thai, 100 baht bootleg dvd's, assorted cheap fashion, tattoos, dodgy travel deals and what not. The ubiquitous tuk-tuk makes an appearance and you can even pick up a false personalised ID card from the New York Police Department (of all things).

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We're lucky, the street we're staying on has numerous food stalls with 20 baht fruit shakes and 30 baht fruit yogurt - an instant hit! They make it well too - the muesli drenched in sweet yogurt, laced with mango, bananas and papaya. The fruit shakes are the real thing too - not the usual concoction of sugar, heaps of sweet condensed milk and just the smitten token of fruit. Being our first walk and explore day we end up at one of the numerous Wats in town (Wat Bononiwes). Religious temple complexes that are the center of Buddhist worship, featuring many gilded buildings, giant stupas and the viharn - which houses the principal Buddha statue. The place is teeming with Thai people, today being one of their monthly prayer days. In true form amongst the Thais, Alana gets blessed by the monk with holy water.

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Later in the day we end up at the Golden Mount just around the corner from Phra Mahaka fortress. A gleaming golden chedi sitting on top of a terraced base several stories high that looks out over town, a circular staircase snakes its way up around it. To our astonishment they sell monk ordination kits in the chedi, containing everything a starting monk might need for his 3 months time spent in meditation - cookies, drinks, robes, amulets etc... You can buy one and have it blessed but you can't take it home (we haven't quite figured this one out yet). Getting down from the chedi is a very slow affair, shuffling in a queue that winds around the stupa 360 degrees, people worshiping the Buddha's teeth that are said to be kept inside. Numerous bells adorn the stairways down and in tune with the Thai, we chime every single one of them to help disturb the peace.

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Next day a rickety bus takes us to Chatuchak weekend market. No hurry getting that dying gearbox replaced with 20 baht fares it seems. The market is a true gem of a market and so huge its an experience in itself - 8000 stalls of it! The usual stuff is on sale with two dollar shirts and fake nike's shorts vendors thrown in for good measure. Police officers on buggies slowly patrol the streets, shooing away everyone that hasn't paid their stall fee, not because of their illegal wares. There's even a section of shops devoted to the latest pet fashion, owners and poodles alike parading around in low cut jeans and swanky tops - the weirdest thing. All good fun, we bought up a storm.

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Powered by Thai fruit yogurt we wander over to Bangkok's national museum - which sets us back a whopping 200 baht each, and you're not even allowed to take the odd photo! The place keeps a range of sophisticated sculptures of the Buddha down to Alexander the Great. Best by far however, is the wing that houses the Royal funeral chariots - golden painted and weighing around 40 tons each they require the pulling power of some 300 men. Standing at 13 meters high, it represents heaven on Mount Meru. Delicate carvings of divinities and dragons set in flames decorate its sides - an expression of crematory rituals. Something wholly else is the ivory gallery, with huge elephant tusks carved out in minute detail. The irony not lost , one of the mahoot's elephant suits is carved entirely from ivory. Intrigued and keen to take a photo of these treasures of old, Guido puts on his "stupid tourist hat" but he doesn't get far.

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Bussed to Siam square; a massive shopping complex that sprawls over several blocks. Interconnected by overbridges you can walk from mall to mall without being run over by suicidal traffic - brilliant. Although we're not there to buy anything in particular it maintains a certain pulling factor because of its superbly sanitary environment which the rest of Bangkok overall lacks. Exploring Siam Discovery Center we run into a tv show in the midst of interviewing a popular boy band on air, loads of Thai school girls screaming their lungs out - universal it seems. We also hunt out the Paragon Cineplex theater, one of the most insanely plush cinemas in South East Asia. The movie selection is rather poor so we mill around a private function where people are gathering. Sampling the free drinks and fruit tarts on display we weasel our way into a true movie premier "Bal Ganesh", an animation flick about the Hindu god Ganesh - Shiva & Parvati's elephant-headed son - crazy! Cheesy, disjointed and culturally enriched it is for sure one of the easiest ways to learn about Hindu religion not to mention a cheap night out.

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Time for the Grand palace and Wat Pho, the figurative icing on the cake. However, with the entry fee to the royal palace an extortionate 350 baht we just take photos of the temple's tantalizing glittering spheres outside. Maybe next time when we feel we have money to burn.

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Wat Pho however is on and not yet touched by the divine hand of commercialization. The oldest temple in Bangkok adorned by inscriptions and diagrams, the Wat today remains an important center for traditional medicine. The resident reclining Buddha particularly imposing - a 45 meter long gilded statue of plaster covered brick depicting the Buddha entering Nirvana.

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Making our way back to base camp, an endless stretch of vendors sprawl along the water front selling indeterminate species of pungent smelling dried fish and masses of Buddha amulets. Monks bent over with their eyepieces inspecting potential buys. We drop in at one of the river piers admiring Wat Arun across the river otherwise known as the temple of Dawn. As we take in the sunset a fisherman nearby mends his nets for the next day of fishing.

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With the clock ticking we move on East towards the Cambodian border at Hat Lek, with an overnight stay in Trat. A quaint little town with old riverside shacks that radiate a homely feeling. Browsing the market we finally stumble upon the legendary pumpkin custard pie - a hollowed out pumpkin entirely filled with coconut custard! A caloric time bomb we set out to inhale the whole thing, locals poking fun at us. All in all, a nice place to chill out before our dash across the border.

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Posted by beefnlamb 16:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Concrete and Cocktails on Ko Tao - Thailand

Ko Tao, 28 - 1 January

sunny 30 °C
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With Guido's Birthday (28th) and New Years coming up we decide to go undercover on one of the paradisal islands on the Gulf Coast before making our way to Bangkok. Infamous the world over - Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan - we opt to avoid the stampede crowds and set sail for their lesser known sibling Ko Tao - the smallest and most remote islet of the Samui archipelago. A peaceful 6 hour overnight journey by local freight ferry from Chumphon sees us stranded on Ko Tao, a supposedly illustrious tropical island named after the once resident turtles which, ironically, have long since packed up their shells and left behind this concrete wasteland that once was jungle. Beach front development in overdrive, wooden shacks and concrete blocks fight for space in haphazard fashion amongst the few palm trees that are left standing, for a beach that disappears under high tide.

Optimistically we set off to find a place to stay at Hat Sai Ree beach but that proves to be a tough task with most places either booked out, complete crap or converted into a temporary construction yard to feed the ongoing frenzy for expansion. Adding insult to injury, the transport hawkers charge 90 baht to get there - an astronomical amount for only a 3km drive. Intriguingly, local lore has it that the islanders highly value the 3 S's: Suay (beautiful surroundings), Sa-nook (pleasant life) & Sabay (happyness) but amidst the cacophony of grinding power tools, honking horns of mopeds beeming past, and the crackling of dodgy power lines overhead we are yet to discover these first two values for ourselves. The third will have to wait too as Thai people seem to be particularly hard to find amongst the crowds of pasty, tattooed pommies that flutter around. Stuck in limbo, Guido takes the privilege of moving his birthday until further notice - a good excuse to relive the festivities.

Things however soon start to live up. With a bit of imagination one can see the beauty of the island which once must have looked like the Similan Islands. After searching long and wide we actually find an unusually cheap guesthouse on Ao Chaloke Bankao that looks out over a lush garden lapping the beach - perfect! It even comes with its own unique betelnut chewing manager who irrigates the gardens generously with his saliva.

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Having dealt with the formalities of finding a roof over our heads, we walk to the end of the road to have a look at Ko Nang Yuan, a beautiful Y-shaped cluster of granite islands connected by a crescent beach just offshore - with a huge dive resort plonked right in the middle of it. Apparently a world class snorkeling site surrounds it known as the Japanese Gardens, but unfortunately the seas are way too choppy so no go.

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Had birthday drinks at the fancy pants resort "Thipwimaru", while admiring the gorgeous views. Wishing we could stay here but with 3000-9000 baht per night rooms probably a bit out of our budget. Further up the hill we walk to Sairee View Resort to check out the whale skeleton which is laid out in their sea shell garden, enjoying the meanest Pad Thai so far. Walking back, hoons on quad bikes tear up and down the main road which measures only 8km - desperately doing burn-outs in the coconut groves, looking for off road action where there is little to be had. Ended the day on a high note with a weird Indian chicken penne pasta fusion meal and birthday sparkles on the beach - all good!

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Next day we buzz on our bike to secluded Aow Leuk beach for some snorkeling at the sheltered side of the island. The dirt track is steep with lots of potholes but we make it through in one piece, which is not to say for the couple that comes out behind us from nowhere, skidding out on the dirt. Snorkeling is great though with reasonable visibility and heaps of tame well-fed fish swarming around us, performing kamikaze on our masks. With G's birthday going into its second day we have dinner at the Chinese BBQ Golden buffet. Unlimited varieties of seafood, meat and vege which you fry up over your own charcoal barbecue and steamboat - sweet! Next day we have yet another indulgence - one full hour of oil massage and back, neck and shoulder kneading lulls us into a dream while the waves crash onto the beach and the cold sea breeze keeps the heat bearable. The masseuses are even so kind to apply Aloe Vera on Guido's eye which has swollen up considerably over the last couple of days, courtesy of an exotic fungal infection which makes it look like you've been punched in the face.

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We walk our way back past the pier via a walking trail that takes you around the back and more remote part of the island. Some nice bouldery beaches and a string of resorts we come along - all under construction, eagerly beavering away to make more bungalows. 31st December 2008 - it pisses down in the morning and proceeds into a dull grey afternoon with the occasional shower. Not the most inspiring weather so we put our snorkeling plans on hold and lazily read books instead - a relaxing day of eating and drinking to mark the end of 2008. No NY resolutions planned but we spontaneously book a ride to Bangkok - enough with the beach bumming, time for a change. We have no plans for the evening either so we hire a moped and cruise to the main beach area, see what the night has in store for us. Wandering around we stumble upon a "free buffet" sign with throngs of people lining up - score! Not just any buffet either but some of the most delectable food imaginable - Thai food, shoarma, mediterranean, ricotta, prawns, lasagna..salivating...

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On the beach an Aussie guy plays his acoustic set with all the usual classics, Thai families send off lucky lanterns into the night, fire shows, people jumping through fire hoops, fireworks blast over the beach, kiddies dancing on the beach with their sparkles - the place goes off. Slowly, the DJ's take over and let loose their beats on the beach crowds: Ko Tao's own New Year's Eve full moon party - the island has redeemed itself.

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We're not off the hook that easily however. New Year's day begins with a front, dropped on the island overnight. A three hour boat ride from hell back to Chumphon follows with huge swells hitting us side on, tilting the boat 40 degrees repeatedly while the engine cuts out. We probably shouldn't be here but Bangkok awaits.

Posted by beefnlamb 08:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Border politics in Ranong - Thailand

overcast 28 °C
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Back in the provincial capital that is Ranong. Populated by a rich mixture of Burmese, Thai and Malay people and a flourishing trade in all things illegal this funky little frontier oozes the kind of charm that is unique to such border towns. With precious little to do we soak up the the lively atmosphere in one long R & R session, and scheme our visa run for the next day. No need it appears, as such tedious formalities can be dealt with in one cheap pre-arranged package tour - a tell-tale sign of the sophisticated entrepeneurship that rules Thailand (and that money can literally be squeezed out of thin air). Having chosen the hassle-free way we jump on a songthaew followed by a longtail boat to the Burmese border town of Kaw Thuang that awaits on the other side of the Chan estuary. Bureaucracy however is not that easily triffled with and several hours and seven military check points later we find ourselves back on Thai soil again with a fresh stamp, giving us another two weeks of grace in Thailand. Pity we didn't have time to hunt out that 30 Baht Burmese rum!

Posted by beefnlamb 07:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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