Friday, 29 June 2007

Angkor Wat

Our next stop was Seam Riep, the nearest town to the temples at Angkor. These temples are 1000 year old remnants of the Angkorian Empire, which at it's height spanned parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Angkor was the heart of the Empire and every king in charge took it upon themselves to outdo their predecessors with big palaces and temples to their gods. The area became absolutely littered with these ancient buildings, some of them mind bogglingly massive but then it was all forgotten about until some French bloke on an elephant stumbled across one of them, and was then let into the secret by the local tribes. This discovery happened around a century ago, and since then UNESCO and other world heritage organisations have been slowly doing them up and making them safe for the hordes of tourists to trample over.

We bought a three day ticket and saw about a dozen temples, ranging in size from that of a small town to a couple of small towers. We hired a Tuc-Tuc which stayed with us for the three days and plied the roads that linked the temples together - our own personal chauffeur, and a bargain at $10 per day. Having said that, our driver was hopeless and we were constantly struggling to make him understand where we wanted to go next, often giving up in despair as he'd turn the Tuc-Tuc and head in the totally wrong direction. This meant that we saw a few extra temples that we hadn't planned though so it was all good.

The temples are quite breathtaking, the largest - Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge moat, and includes several swimming pools inside it. Other temples have Giant faces on each of the four sides of all their towers. A few of the temples had been so lost to the jungle that today there are massive centuries' old trees growing through them, weaving over and under and sitting atop the structures. These trees, which are so ancient themselves really give perspective to the age of the buildings they found root in as seeds. The whole reason we came to Cambodia at all was because of a picture we had seen of this in the Cameron Highlands. We did not leave disappointed.

Our weather showed the first signs of the approaching wet season while we were at Angkor. Although still stiflingly hot, there were a few showers. They were heavy but only lasted an hour or so. By the end of our few days the sky had settled into an even grey blanket, which brought a little relief from the heat. On one evening as we sat in a restaurant waiting for dinner (Cambodian table service is the slowest we have ever seen - 10 minutes after ordering, your drink will come, and a further 15 minutes later the first meal that's ready will arrive at the table, a replacement drink then taking a further 10 minutes to arrive) a lightning storm arrived above the tourist town and dropped a deluge upon the street, sending diners running from their street-side tables. In only 10 minutes, we watched the water level rise from zero to above the height of the kerbs, and wondered if would would come further still into the restaurants. It didn't, and an hour and a half later we could walk home without too much peril.

We spent a further day in Seam Riep to arrange our onward travel and see a little bit more of the town itself. That done, we headed to the Thai border the next day, a three hour car journey north on a dirt road, and re-entered Thailand where a bus to Bangkok and then straight onto a sleeper train would deliver us north to Chang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Phnom Phen

Our bus journey to Phnom Phen was not without incident. The bus stopped at a couple of stops for people to relieve themselves and pick up some locally prepared food, as is normal. Less normal for us though, were the woks of fried bugs, served by the bag load, and the girl selling fruit, with a tarantula hanging off her T-shirt which she would thrust in your face if your were caught looking at it. When we did arrive in the Capital we were immediately descended upon by an army of Tuc-Tuc drivers all eager to take us to hotels. It's important to look like you know what you're doing in these situations because any flicker of uncertainty - and they'll ask you questions to expose that flicker - will result in them telling you what 'you need to do' or 'where you need to go' rather than let you find out for yourself. Their intention being to introduce you to the hotel that gives them a commission, and is often more than a walk from town, so you need a Tuc-Tuc. It can be very pressured, but always friendly, and if you can convince them that your mind is not for persuading they always treat you on the level and will take you where you want to go, the problem with even this though, is that on day one you'll probably pay five times the going rate, as such our technique was to don our bags and walk in a fixed direction - the Surabaya technique.

The afternoon heat was starting to wear us down, but after a handful of hotels we settled on The Asia. It wasn't great but we thought it would do for a night - we could make a more thorough venture for hotels later without our bags. We later discovered a laminated menu in the room, which offered breakfast through to prostitutes and we were woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a body landing on the roof below us, though a look out the window with the torch revealed nothing, and if someone had jumped, they weren't making any more noise about it.

A quick departure in the morning, delayed only by the management being really officious and difficult because the room we stayed in didn't match the booking (as if that was our problem) and we got a Tuc-Tuc to take us to our next pre-arranged hotel. The driver said he was quite used to taking tourists to new hotels from that one, the management are not held in high regard.

Our new hotel was much nicer. There was no laminated menu, and no prostitutes and we were quite happy there until we blocked the toilet. We were rather embarrassed about this, because in Cambodia toilets can't deal with loo-roll, so you're supposed to put that in a wee bin beside you - something we have never got used to. Admitting we had blocked the loo would have admitted ignoring the big notices everywhere, with the uncertain consequence possibly of a fine. Two coat-hangers and a night later and we fessed up, resulting in our biggest tip yet going to the man with a plunger.

We visited the National Museum, unwittingly going backwards through it (starting with the most recent stuff) and remarked that they were very proud of achievements made at a time our ancestors were grappling with electricity. Then we found all the old stuff, which had been removed from their ancient temples at Angkor Wat and around. We went to another museum too, from a far more recent page in the Cambodian history books, the Genocide Museum.

In the 1970's, the Khmer Rouge, a growing communist party overthrew the government and took control of the country, under the leadership of Pol Pot. It's agenda was to turn Cambodians into 'new people' - isolated from the outside world. Their lunatic agenda closed all international links, and forcibly removed the urban population into agricultural labour in the countryside. Since everyone who had been relocated had no farming skills, they inevitably failed and famine spread across the country. Anyone caught picking wild berries to avoid starvation would be killed for engaging in 'independent endeavour'. All schools and institutions were closed. Religion, private property, even money was banned. The leadership became increasingly paranoid, executing anyone it suspected of being their enemy. This included intellectuals and professionals. One of the tests for intelligence was eyesight, because obviously, as everyone knows if you wear glasses you're brainy, so specs meant death. Also, anyone who was known to have had an education was not far from meeting their maker. Practitioners of religion, including monks were considered enemies. The odd westerner caught up in it all, enemy. The neighbour or family member (including babies) of a suspected enemy - also enemy. In the end, Pol Pot even considered his own family enemies and had them all executed.

These supposed enemies were taken to a former high school in the emptied capital and tortured to reveal their alleged secrets and plots. After weeks of torture, and ridiculous accusation, these people would then be taken to the countryside - the area now known as The Killing Fields - near the city and executed, mostly by a club to the head. When the Vietnamese finally succeeded in liberating the country from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge, the administrators of the prison (who were mostly teenage boys) executed the remaining victims and fled, leaving cupboards full of documents and photo's testifying to the atrocities committed. The school/prison, called S21, has been preserved, just as it was found and now serves as a memorial to the atrocities.

The equipment that was used to torture the victims, and the iron rods their legs were ceaselessly fastened to were grim enough but what was all the more vivid was the walls of photographs, taken of the people when they were first brought to the centre. These black and white faces ranged from defiance to terror, and depicted men, women and young children. In some of the photos of women, you could see a baby in their arms, which was certainly also considered an enemy of the state. Even the seat they sat in for the photos was a horrific contraption with a big spike against which they had to rest their head.

Since our visit to S21, it has left the thought in our minds that many of the people around us would have been victims of the atrocities committed not so long ago.

Monday, 25 June 2007

The funny thing about Cambodia...

There are a few things which took us by surprise as we settled in to Cambodia. Currency was one of the first things. The official currency is the Riel, but everything uses US Dollars. Even the ATMs deal in $. Riel is only used to make up the change as the smallest US denomination is a $1 note. There is 4000 Riel to a dollar, so when paying for something that costs so many dollars and so many cent, you have to quickly work out how many dollars and how many Riel you are due in change. It is quite normal for your change to be short by a few hundred Riel too, but any inquiry regarding this will be met with a shrug of the shoulders, though it is normally because they don't have enough change, rather than an agenda to rip you off.

The poverty of some of the people has also taken us aback. Since Indonesia, we have seen plenty of people who have been begging, or begging for a sale. In Cambodia though, this has taken a leap to a new height. What is especially sad to see is the number of children out, carrying a tray of trinkets, or a coat hanger draped in braclets and charms for you to buy. These kids are out well past 9 at night harrassing you relentlessly to buy something. This throws an ethical dillemma because you naturally want to give these kids something, but the aid agancies strongly discourage this as it encourages more children out to work if it proves fruitful. You feel thoroughly rotten for refusing - something you have to do quite forcifully, before they leave you alone. Any restbite, is then only minutes long too. The age of the kids ranges from about 5 upwards. Sometimes we have capitulated, as we keep shifting our opinion on the right thing to do. There are also a lot of amputees in Cambodia, due to it's landmine legacy. A typical day will see you pass probably about 30 indivduals, more in concentrated areas, who sit on the ground, usually right in the way begging for money. We are less resistant to these people, though knowing how much to give is still a difficult decision, as you then have to decide who is most deserving - you simply can't give to everyone.

Traders will also fight over your custom too, whether it's Tuc-Tuc drivers or Hawker (small semi-outdoor restaurant stall) owners. If you are not immediately certain who you want before you get to them they will both shout at you, pulling an arm each, the loser occasionally shouting abuse at you for your choice.

At first, all this was quite difficult to cope with (the children still are), but as we've got used to it, so we have found techniques for dealing with it all. Despite the new level of pressure that comes from some of the Cambodians, they are one of the friendliest and most helpful people we have met yet. Everyone is very smiley and the level of English spoken is remarkable. We hadn't expected there to be very many people who could speak the language, but it is widely understood, and generally to quite a high standard. Even the young children are quite capable of telling you all about their situation, and most can go off the prepared script with questioning too. Cambodians love their cable TV, which accounts for the level of English spoken by some of the people. Every hotel and guest house we have stayed at has had a bettter selection of movie channels and news than we have back home, most of them in English.

What has also been of surprise to us is the lack of development across the country, even in Phnom Phen. There are very few shops as you would recognise in the west - properties with glass fronts and shelves of products. Instead, most people sell a particular ware, that they might make themselves, and these sales happen either on the pavement, at a stall, or in openfronted roadside premises. We visited the country's only mall (opened 2003), with the first escalators in Cambodia but even this was more like an upmarket indoor market. There are no chains to recognise anywhere. 7eleven, which has Malaysia and Thailand tied up are no where to be seen, nor is McDonalds, though we did find a Chinese owned clone called Lucky Burger. Most petrol stations are a single oil barrell at the side of the road, with a giant optic on a stick above it and a flexi-hose. Motorbikes are the normal mode of transport here, with four adults riding on one scooter a normal sight. Toyota seems to be the car of choice with a straw survey on a walk home revealing they accounted for 62% of the market.

Aid agencies are very noticeable too, with Unicef and Red Cross and UN Land Rovers quite a familiar sight driving round. These agencies contribute to a large ex-pat community in Phnom Phen with lots of western style bars and restaurants catering to them. In Phnom Phen there certainly seemed to be more ex-pats than tourists though we managed to find plenty to do in our few days there.

Kong Island and Cow Roundabout

Having crossed the border, my nerves in Shatters and Nic just coming down from her mighty victory, we were in no mood to go scouring our stop over town for the best value place to stay. We were in Koh-Kong, which translates to Kong Island! Disappointingly, it was neither an island nor the home of a giant ape, it was in fact a simple non-touristy border town with a couple of tarmac'd roads and a scattering of guest houses. We would be getting a ferry the next morning at 9:30 and found the nearest hotel to the pier, checking in with little negotiation.

We boarded our ferry at 9.15 and at 9.45 another boat turned up full of boxes of fruit. They then proceeded to cross load the lot, a process that took an hour, and with a third of the emergency exits blocked, and an alarming list to the port side, we chugged out to sea. The state of the boat would terrify most people in the west, but as it was, this one looked probably-likely to make the journey, which is more than can be said for some of our previous marine excursions, despite the fact that the windows on our side were about 8 inches from the water level and the other side were about a good two foot. Thoughtfully, a plank of wood had been laid on top of some of the boxes allowing anyone who needed the toilet to climb up and walk the plank to the rear of the boat, stooping as they went. We didn't dare venture down to find what horrors awaited, instead we endured the noise of the TV down the front, turned to full volume, and pumping out of every speaker on the boat, as it distorted and pierced our brains for the best part of the 4 hour journey. We happily entered the beach resort of Sihanoukville in the afternoon and got a Tuc-Tuc from the port down to the beach where we found a suitable place to stay.

Although, considered Cambodia's premier beach resort, Sihanoukville, would be better considered Cambodia's best attempt at a beach resort. But don't take that as a criticism. Working from the water, and back to shore it can be succinctly described.

Water - Not as warm as Koh-Chang, but perfectly swimmable, possibly the clearest we have seen.

Sand - Beige coloured, grain score 3, where 1 is super fine and 10 is super coarse, probably about 10 to 20 meters between water and back of beach, depending on tide. Sadly, not combed, and there is a trickle of rubbish the length of the beach.

Development - No high-rises, no concrete, but the length of the beach is fringed with single storey wicker and cane restaurants and bars, all with loungers and chairs on their beach front, free to punters.

Food & Drink - The 50 or so bars all have similar menus offering, fried rice dishes, pizzas, BBQs, burgers etc. Cost are very reasonable, a meal for two and a couple of drinks each costing about US$7.

Patrons - Sihanoukville attracts a lot of Cambodians at the weekend, during the week it's almost all western backpackers. The beach has a lot of beggars doing laps of the sand, and young children trying to sell brick-a-brack souvenirs.

Behind the beach - grassy, bushy wasteland with the odd worn path leading up to the road which runs about 50 metres back from the beach with a string of 2 or 3 story hotels. There's no posh hotels here, with beach side pools, or 5 star restaurants, and no convenience stores.

There is a wonderful charm about Sihanoukville, as if it knows what it's more affluent competitors have, but that it is perfectly content with it's own style. It is very much not for the luxury resort dwellers, or those who want a pool to paddle in. It is for those who want to do nothing much and want to spend little doing it. There is a large roundabout a distance back from the beach, with two giant gold lions in the middle of it. It is an idiosyncracy given the size of the town it serves, but it meant that when we saw 7 or 8 cows take it upon themselves to go for a wander, against the trafficflow round the roundabout, there was plenty of space for everyone. The cows here aren't penned into fields. They are free to wander where they want, whether it be down the road, up to a restaurant (a dangerous endeavour if you ask me) or down to the beach, where we saw one bovine bather enjoying the scene as much as anyone else.

Three days in and having strolled the beach a few times, had a few meals and been made to feel really guilty as we drank our beers and got begged upon, we took a stroll to the town centre, an hour's walk away, and passed the golden lions. Mid stroll, we stopped in for relief from the sun and bought a couple of 'bubble-teas' to find out what they were and left none the wiser, both uncertain what exactly we had just drank (we think they were cold teas with marshmallows or jelly in them). With the town done in half the time it took to get there, we were ready to jump on a bus the following day and head up to Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Cambodian Immigration Incident

Crossing the border into Cambodia was always going to be a little stressful. It involved getting a minibus to the border, then walking over the border, declaring our departure to Thai immigration and then walking up to the Cambodian immigration, getting cleared and then getting a taxi to the nearest border town, at whatever cost the taxi driver chose. We had also prepared ourselves for crooked immigration workers, which we had read, tend to have mysterious surcharges added to the cost of the visa.

We were prepared. Nicola had done her research and knew we didn't need to pay anyone to carry our bags the short distance, or buy an immigration form off anyone. She also knew the cost of a Cambodian visa was $20US and that we didn't need to pay a penny more. We glided through all the initial stages without any hassle and then entered the Cambodian immigration office. It was a sparse room, with a window, bare walls, a door off the back and two desks. There was a man and a woman working, both probably in their mid 40's and in military uniform.

Everyone was smiles to start with and then we were told the visas has to be paid in Thai Baht, and the cost was equivalent to $40 each. I didn't think that seemed right, after what Nicki had read online, but my higher reasoning summed up that it was the lady saying this, so it was likely true (how has my naivety not got me into trouble before now?) I was going to mumble some line like I was sure it was supposed to be less, while digging out the money when I turned to Nicki, who with a calm manner replied, "no, it's $20 US for the visa, I checked this"- "no, it's 1400 Baht each that is what it costs". Further repetition of the facts from Nic, - "It is $20 if you arrange the visa in advance, it is 1400 Baht at the border". - "No it is not". Voices are starting to rise now, the man at the back, who has our passports is starting to listen more closely. "Okay, $30 each I do for you". - "No, the cost is $20 I checked this online, I know what it's supposed to cost. I spoke to your boss, It costs $20 and that's what I'm paying". The man takes an interest now and speaks up. "Why did you not do this on the internet, $20 is the cost for doing it online, and then you come here, you have piece of paper with number and is all free, but here you have to pay $30, that's the price". The whole time I have said nothing. The lady thinks I'm an idiot because I keep smiling with a slightly scared look on my face, but there is simply nothing I can add, Nic has all the lines, or rather the one line, repeated. A few more assertions from Nic, I try and nod and look assertive, from the shadows. "You cannot get visa here. You will have to leave passport and come back in three days. This needs to be sent away and processed". It occurs to me there is no further mention of $30 and I wonder if we should have just paid it and be done. I'm not going to dare suggest it though, Nic and the Lady have locked horns, there's going to be no capitulation here. "No. We can get the visas here, and you're going to do them for us just now and we're going to pay $20 each". - "You must wait outside". We stall a bit, he has our passports, and our $20 each. Outside that door wait a dozen taxi drivers who will prey on us like vultures, and will know exactly what our situation is and find it of much merriment. "Go, go. Go on, outside. You must fill out a form next door". Finally I have something useful to say, I hope my dumb smiling has won me at least one favour, "Can we leave our bags here?", "Yes, (exasperated) Go Go", waving of hand. We find the form but we need our passport numbers, this seems like a good excuse to get back into the room. We don't like being separated from those little books. They don't seem to notice that we have re-entered or they don't care. The man is sitting again, flicking through the passports, a form in front of him. The lady stands looking out the window. I approach and look over his shoulder. Like a school boy protecting his work from being copied he hunches over the paper and shouts at me "Why do you not do what I say? Wait outside, I am working". I state that I need my passport number. "No passport number, wait outside - go, go out now." He has become quite irate. "Take your bags", I remind him he said we could leave them, "No, take your bag, we're not responsible, now go outside and wait there". There's nothing else to do. We stand in the searing sun surrounded by drivers who have got the gist of the events from the lady who came out and clearly told them about us in Khmer. We can't go anywhere or do anything, we have our bags on our backs and an increasing sense of doom.

Then this very eccentric old lady appears and in a rather confused state wanders into the room. She is Swiss, and speaks in a very posh English teacher kind of a way. As the door closes behind her we hear her asking how to get to the town from where she is. Presumably the trail of drivers that have followed her have not given her a satisfactory answer. The other drivers hovering around us, rub their palms in anticipation. She is bundled out a moment later and the officious lady takes our completed forms off us and vanishes back inside. The mad old lady then starts asking us how she is supposed to get to the town. We weren't really needing this just at the moment. It was apparent we were going to be obliged to offer her a share of our taxi but we knew that she would seriously affect our bargaining position, as she had suitably chastised a couple of drivers already.

Now we're suddenly trying to stop an escalating taxi fare, while our passports are in uncertain hands. We've reached a stalemate with the drivers. We know the fare is too high, they know it is too, but they think the lady will accept it and we'll have to pay a share equivalent to the standard full rate anyway, and we'll have to accept because there's no alternative, and besides, it's what we would have paid. It turns out though, the mad old lady only has 100 Baht in notes. "This will be enough won't it?" she asks us in confidence, for everyone to hear. In a civil world it would be yes, but stuck at a remote border crossing, no chance! We're going to have to split the bill fair three ways for her to afford it, and that's now costing us more money.

We're still waiting for our passports at this point, it might all be academic if we get sent back anyway. The lady comes back out with our passports. The visa is a big sticker with a price printed on it, $20US. My moment of relief is short lived though when Nicki says, in no uncertain terms. "I am going to report you. What is your number? I am going to report you to the immigration department". There is a fumble and the lady turns back around and picks up our passports again to take them back into the room. "Oh, I see your badge has mysteriously vanished. What happened to your badge? What is your number?" My placating hand gestures are not doing the trick. We have missed a signature it turns out. We sign the cards and then the man calls us back in, "You have not completed the section on where you are staying". This is only a ploy though. He has changed desks, is smiley and more soft spoken than before. "Sir, (he's talking to me now) I am sorry that I got angry earlier, some times I get confused and I don't speak good English". In fact it has got noticeably worse since he last shouted at me. There follows a speech on Cambodia's struggle since the civil war ended only a decade ago. How many people in Cambodia are struggling to get by and how some people need a little extra money than there wages provide. He repeats, that he is telling us this so that should we encounter anyone like this, we know the reasons. "Don't have a cold heart sir". A few more assurances of good luck and 'thankyou very much'es and we were on our way in our over priced taxi, heading for Koh-Kong, where we would spend a night before moving on.

Sitting at dinner, with another couple we met in a restaurant, and keeping half an eye out to avoid the crazy lady, we discussed the incident and the apology of sorts. Nic and I had wondered if they picked the wrong couple of the day to try it on. How much do they earn, and do they try that scam very often? If they had made $20 off us each, would it have made any difference to their situation. We asked the other couple what they paid. 1,400 Baht each.

Koh-Chang and the Ferry of Doom

We wanted to get one more dive done while we had the chance, heeding the warning that people who don't dive soon after their qualification tend not to dive again. Koh-Chang, an Island off the South East coast of Thailand, just back from the Cambodian border seemed a good opportunity.

The bus from Bangkok terminated in a small town called Trat. It's name sums it up rather well. We spent a night and then got the ferry the next day to the Island. The ferry met expectations in terms of it's state but what exceeded expectations was the lacklustre attitude by the crew. It was a roll-on-roll-off style ferry, with a big door at the back where cars drive on and a big door at the front where they drive off (and pedestrians walk off between the moving cars). Anyone familiar with the Zebrugger ferry disaster will know the dangers inherent in this design of ship. This however didn't include the crew of our particular ferry who obviously considered it more hassle than it was worth to raise either of the doors for the 45 minute crossing. Having taken stock of the location of the life jackets (just a small climb on top of the tuck shop to reach them down from the roof), I then couldn't believe what I saw next. A passenger walked out to the end of the forward ramp, above the water to get his photo taken. Surprised at this, I wondered if any crewman had spotted this act of lunacy. A member of crew did approach, but I realised he did not share my concern, instead lowering the ramp till it was skiffing off the water to presumably help improve the photo. What can I say!

The Thai Tourist Board is trying to develop Koh-Chang into an upmarket resort choice and what was once the preserve of the backpacker has almost entirely been bought out from under them. There still remains a small offering for the restricted budget though and as it was off-season we were not short of accommodation options. We stayed at White-Sands, which is the largest town on the Island and has the most amenities. At first we wondered if we should have sought one of the more authentic, less developed beaches down the coast, but a conversation with another couple, later, who had done that very thing revealed that in their opinion we had made the right choice. There wasn't much to do here other than enjoy the beach and spend a day on a dive.

Again it was a two dive day but the boat this time was much smaller and the experience all round was much smaller too. The diving itself was still good though, albeit it was quite a different kind of environment. There was a lot more current in the water and visibility was a lot less but it was great to be out doing a dive as grown ups. The highlight was when we saw a turtle on the first dive, it was great to see it, chomping away on a plant and then it decided to give us the shake vanishing beyond our visibility. We popped up after the dive and no sooner did I get on board than I was sea-sick. Not wanting to look like a one hit wonder, I promptly repeated my performance after the second dive too. Still, the fish didn't seem to mind as they came up to try a bit of it for themselves. Waste not want not.

Despite being the rainy season, the weather in Koh-Chang could not have been better. It was super sunny and hot and the sea temperature was 31°C. It was truly like wading into a bath when we went for a swim on the beach. Incidentally, that was the sea temperature further out to sea where we went diving so it was probably a little hotter again at the beach. The hotels, all had little restaurants and bars opening onto the beach and you could have the pick of any venue, since being low season the whole place only seemed to be about a quarter full. We stayed there for four days before heading back to the mainland to make our connection for Cambodia.


Our Train chugged into Bangkok station around 10 o'clock in the morning. The station is a fabulous big old art-deco style, familiar to anyone who knows Glasgow's Queen Street Station. Basically a huge arched glass and steal roof, containing a big concourse with shops and eateries at the sides, seating and standing room in the middle and grand, though disused doors at one end and barriers leading to platforms at the other end. A massive TV screen showing whatever the station master seemed to fancy, from News, to WWF wrestling, provided ambiance to accompany the familiar station noise, and the occasional ringing of a big brass bell to announce the arrival of a train. It was a great venue for people watching, as there were two levels of shops, mostly with restaurants upstairs, from which you could watch the people sitting waiting for trains, or the harassed looking overladen westerners trying to convey their dilemma to mildly interested staff members. There were also plenty of Buddhist monks around, in their orange robes, waiting for trains, some in groups and others individually. My ignorant assumptions left me surprised to discover that not every monk knew every other one.

We decided to have brunch in the station, to enjoy the theatre and so that one of us could sit with the bags while the other stepped into the great unknown to find a hotel. We had read plenty about Bangkok being rife with bag slashers and decided to play it as safe as possible. The station sits in a peculiar part of the city, close to China Town, but nothing else. Finding accommodation was pretty difficult, and we each took a turn with the bags while the other went looking. By about 2pm we had a nice little guest house not far from the station, though at a little more than we wanted to spend. We checked in, planning to find cheaper later.

We were by now, familiar with roads that defy belief in their busyness, and size and Bangkok did not disappoint. But what was new to us was the readiness of motorbikes to use the pavement as an expressway, if the roads were too clogged for them to weave between - which was most of the time. It takes a bit of training to remember to look both ways to cross the pavement. Often, the quiet purring of a nearby engine would give the clue that a moped was lurking behind you, politely waiting to pass. They did at least generally appreciate that pedestrians had equal right of use to the space. The smog in the city was also eye catching. Looking across the 8 lanes or so and two pavements between buildings, it was apparent how much pollution was in the air, and this may have been a significant contribution to our perception that the temperature took a leap when we reached Bangkok.

Our first night, we took it easy and enjoyed the short walk into Chinatown to try and find dinner. Bangkok's China Town had quite a different feel to the others we have visited. It felt much more - Chinese, like a part of China, as opposed to an expatriate community. The streets were wider, the buildings bigger and the neon brighter. There were several markets that set up in the evening selling meat and fish (the flies came free), and other stalls cooking food. We found the least terrifying stall, made a safe order of veggies and rice and then sat and waited as every Chinese customer who sat down and ordered after us got served their food before us. We were close to walking out when finally they seemed to have no more orders and made our dinner. We suspect this could be a taste of what to expect in China.

Bangkok is home to the world's biggest gold Buddha image (image means statue, not 2d picture). It turns out, that it was made in the 13th century, but when the Burmese invaded, it was covered up in plaster to hide it from the invaders. It was then forgotten about and it wasn't until it was getting moved in the 1950's that someone bumped it and broke a bit off, revealing the shining smiling cross legged chap within. I found myself partly admiring the statue and partly contemplating the range of emotions that the clumsy worker must have gone through at the time he broke/discovered it.

We then stepped out from the temple (called a Wat) containing it and saw a very old and faded sign saying 'Gold Buddha' pointing to another Wat across the road. We duly investigated and found there was an identical gold Buddha. We suspect the second one was the genuine article because it had bits of plaster exhibited beside it but there were a lot fewer people at this one and it was much lower key. It seems even today, there is a decoy to full the invaders whoever they might be.

Getting around Bangkok is fun, with various methods of transport available. Buses, if you speak Thai and know where you're going, and for the rest of us there's tuc-tuc's, the underground, two monorails (called skytrains) and a fleet of ferryboats that shuttle up and down the river. The pilots of these boats are not the smoothest skippers in the world. The usual procedure for stopping at a pier is to race towards it, then turn at the last minute causing the aft of the boat to smack side-on to the pier. A boy then jumps off, while everyone on board lurches with the momentum, and he ties a rope round a peg, blows on his whistle and the captain puts engines on full, which then pulls against the rope and brings the boat back into the pier. You normally have about 15 seconds to get everyone off and on before the boat starts to drift again, and you have to jump. Then of course there were the times the pilots just rammed the piers dead on and scraped along till the ropes were deployed. It was mad but great fun. It was also the first place we saw signs that we would later see everywhere, marking seats as reserved for monks.

In the end, we didn't change accommodation. We took an excursion to Khao San Road which is the infamous neon-lit, thumping stay-over spot for your typical backpacker and decided that maybe we were a little more refined than we had first thought. Also, we had the advantage of a tube stop close to our guest house, meaning we didn't need to rely on the tuc-tucs to get out of the area, which usually means five minutes of hard bargaining, followed by five minutes of heart pumping adrenaline, as you are whisked between traffic, the wrong way, and down alleys to reach your destination. Again, great fun but the effort required to prevent us getting ripped off could sometimes be too much and was as difficult as the walk home.

Bangkok has a massive weekend market that has to be seen to fully grasp the size of it. To this day we don't really know how much of it we saw. It is well sorted out into individual sectors specialising in a certain thing, such as woman's clothing, gardening, pets (from dogs to scorpions), home interiors and so forth. It's big enough to support a scattering of restaurants and bars for the weary shopper or tourist and we spent about 5 hours before we decided we had seen enough. The scale of the market mirrored the size of Bangkok's malls. Like Singapore, Bangkok has streets of Malls all linked so you need never step outside, and if you do step out, there's elevated walkways that keep you well above the rushing roads. The malls though are very impressive, and anybody planning a mall in the west really needs to come to Bangkok and see how it should be done. Seven and eight stories high with Imax cinemas as standard and even car showrooms. Not just a car sitting on the ground floor vestibule, but five or six showrooms with half a dozen cars each, and just to make it all the more ridiculous, they are on the third floor. Of course these aren't your normal cars, were talking Porsche, Maserati and just for Miss Morgan, Ferrari's.

You don't need to go to the markets though to find what you want in Bangkok, on one of our walkabouts we found a road full of police surplus shops all selling genuine police uniforms and accessories, which seemed just a little peculiar. Perhaps not as peculiar as the giant swing that stood in the middle of a roundabout nearby though. Similar to a swing you would find in a play park this one is different in that it is 25 metres high. A bag of gold used to be suspended in front of it and every year people would kill themselves trying to reach it until the present king put a stop to it all. Today, the frame remains but they've removed the swing itself.

We also went along to the democracy monument. Thailand is still in a state of military rule after the army (you'll remember from the border crossing, 'the bedrock of sovereignty') took control of the state. We wandered along wondering if we would see anybody with a banner or a token protest but there was nothing at all. The monument itself was covered in stone relief depicting democracy in action. The images displayed the army with its guns above people labouring in fields and machines. There was no evidence of irony in it either, nor was their evidence of any unhappy protesters. Two days later, the very same monument hit the headlines when a rally of 4,000 demonstrators convened on the site. We were completely oblivious, instead perusing the Vimanmek Mansion, former royal residence and the biggest teak structure in the world, made, allegedly with out a single nail or screw. It was very nice, and I have been instructed to build one when we return home.

We expected Bangkok to be a seedy den of girly-bars and ladyboys but were surprised at the discretion of the vice industry. It certainly existed, but it was not rife across the city, instead confined to a particular corner, and even then only down the alleys. Apparently.

As for the ladyboys, fun was to be had picking them out from the crowds in the shops and on the trains. For all the make-up and implants they still bring attention to themselves by dressing far more provocatively than any of the girls, and for confirmation, you need look no further than their size 9 feet.

Bangkok is a great city, and in fact actually feels like two cities. There's your older lowrise city with little workshops and retailers, unserviced by underground or skytrain and home to your typical Thai resident. Then there is the afluent, Westernised city, full of hotels, malls and coffee shops, well serviced with transport and much more expensive too. The two seem to co-exist without problems either, though the transitional area lay somewhere between tube stops so we didn't see the point where they met. Like all the great cities though, Bangkok felt like no-where else. It is very much it's own place, and very much a worthy stop-over for anyone passing by.

We left Bangkok by bus, having spent eight days there and headed south-east for the Island of Koh Chang.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

We make it to Thailand

We boarded minibus 1 and headed off for a 12 hour roller coaster ride that would take us across the border into Thailand, briefly stopping to clear immigration, and with just enough time to regard the huge banner stretched across the border which read "ARMY - BEDROCK OF SOVEREIGNTY". Then we stopped at an office in a border town, to find our own lunch and then climb onto bus 2. Several hours later and we'd pull up at a restaurant in the middle of no-where. This lazy stop lasted about 45 minutes or so and just when we were boarding our bus to continue, a flurry of Thai and Malay shouting preceded our bags getting whisked across to another sitting minibus, full of locals. Before we could even get to the bottom of what was happening our previous bus had vanished into a cloud of dust and car horns and we got onto bus 3 hoping for the best. Our biggest concern wasn't where we were going but that we'd get there in one piece. The minibuses are small, top heavy and narrow Toyota vans, something like a souped up Bedford Rascal, and the drivers are maniacs. In the end though, all was fine and we toppled out at the end of the line in Phuket.

Phuket may not hold onto any sense of traditional Thailand, and if your looking for an authentic experience of the culture, you could probably go anywhere else in the country and see more of that, but it seemed as legitimate a part of the Thai experience as anything else and therefor worthy of a little detour. We also thought it might be a good place to check out Scuba Diving.

We settled into Patong, Phuket's biggest and loudest town. This is Thailand's Ibiza, with it's strip of pumping clubs and bars and drunk tourists falling over themselves in the street. Every inch of pavement and every second inch of road is occupied by a trader selling knocked off DVD's, T-Shirts, tacky souvenirs and bags for those people who have bought too much of the offerings. Every street corner has the sound of tattoo guns buzzing away and a walk down to the beach (which is just across the road) is impossible without the cries of people shouting at you to buy a suit or something. Crossing the road is then a job in itself, with the traffic trying to navigate it's way through the new one way system. Such a mess has been made of it that certain streets have cars passing each other on the wrong side and then they have to push back between each other at the junctions before returning to the other correct side of the road (left). Still, all this confusion means that the convoy of trucks with giant wooden boxes attached to them advertising their wares and booming out of speakers have all the more time to tell you about the "Thai boxing, tonight, tonight, tonight, Bangra Stadium tonight, tonight, tonight, real fighting tonight, tonight, tonight" or if that's not your cup of tea, there's always the Rock Cafe which promises to "Rock your ass off".

Once you've successfully crossed the street you then have the beach to negotiate. It pays not to take your eye off where you're going, though it's easy to do with people trying to sell you jet-ski rides and all. But for those people who have not been paying attention, they risk having a parachutist land on them. The image of people being pulled up into the sky on a parachute by a speed boat will be familiar to most people, but here they have to do things a little more dangerously. Any hope of having a tranquil moment of contemplation in the heavens can be dismissed as you will be accompanied the whole time by a bloke who stands on your shoulders, holding on to the parachute strings and steers you about leaping between the cords and jumping backwards off it, holding on to your harness to control your altitude. This chap, who flits about like a monkey has no harness but Merrily rides for the whole day, ride after ride after ride.

We of course had nothing to do with any of this nonsense and instead did something very sensible and self improving, found a dive shop and learned to dive. We found three shops offering the Padi Open Water Course, all for about the same cost and picked the one next door to our hotel with it's own little pool outside it. We didn't realise quite how small this pool was though until we got in, my estimate would place it at about 4 meters by 12 meters. Still, despite it's size, it was quite adequate for our two days of classroom theory and pool based procedures. Those two days done and it was out on the boat to repeat everything we had done on the sea floor for the next two days. The dive site we used was about an hour and half out on the boat, just off the coast of an island. It was quite a large boat that took us out, owned by the diving company - Scubacat - and carried us and a few other people, who were out doing either fun dives or other courses. Lunch was provided and tea and coffee and a merry day's cruise could happily have been had by anyone who didn't even get wet. There was plenty to see, even though we weren't really supposed to be down just to see stuff. There were plenty of clumps of reef, and between these were sandy sparse areas where we could kneel or lie down and go through procedures including removing our masks, then putting them back on and clearing them of water (how do you think you do that then?) or swapping air supplies with a buddie and other such things. Probably the hardest exercise was manging to make yourself float at a perfectly stable depth, neither going up or down and doing it with nothing other than your breath for regulation. Each day we made two dives, with lunch in between. At the end of four days, we sat an exam, (which we both got 100% on - he he!) and were then pronounced certified to dive up to a depth of 18 meters anywhere in the world.

We didn't hang around long in Phuket after that and headed off to the station on the mainland, where after a power cut in the station and a few hours delay we caught the sleeper train up to Bangkok. At first, on boarding the train though, we found one of our bunks had been pinched, obviously by a passenger who decided the train would never reach us. Rather than getting embroiled in a dual language argument we had a brief glance up and down the carriages for the conductor so he could deal with it on our behalf. But with no sign of the conductor, we took upon ourselves to wake the intruder up, only to discover that the reason we couldn't find the conductor was because he was sleeping on our bed. I've never seen someone jump as fast or as apologetically as he did, landing with both feet on the ground and the bed already re-made for us faster than you could say Boo!.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007


We landed on Penang and got a taxi to Georgetown. Mid route we thought we might be in for a bid of trouble when the driver pulled the taxi over at the side of the motorway next to a waiting man, having been on and off her mobile the whole way. Then she got out the car and he got in and we carried on our way as if nothing ever happened. Taking in our surroundings, we agreed we had found the seediest street in town and our travels so far, with music thumping, drunkards revelling and lady boys pouting as we wandered in the night looking for somewhere to stay. We settled on an Indian run hotel, as a departure to our Chinese favourites, and made do with an internal room with a window looking back into the corridor. Very definitely for one night only. Next day up we found a new hotel further back from the strip and back to old faithful - a Chinese hotel with a fabulous 50's air, although not too musty considering. It was a great mix of wooden panelling, linoleum flooring and metal framed windows with luxury of luxuries a bath, and less luxurious a toilet that exploded water across the room everytime you flushed. A quick mention to management and the loo was fixed by the time we came back from breakfast.

One of our walks across town led us to a big old lighthouse, which we took the chance to sneak up since, the stairs led all the way down to the ground, and it was unguarded. We got a great view from the top but thought we were going to get a row when making our escape we were shouted back by an attendant. As it was, he only wanted to give us a couple of posters for our experience and get us to sign the guest book. Malaysians seem to love guest books and free souvenirs. Despite being very tourist driven, Georgetown still has a lot of old charm about it if you only step one or two roads back off the main streets. There is a trail you can walk with the aid of a leaflet that takes you past people who are still working traditional crafts from their workshops on the roadside. These aren't people who have geared up for tourists but genuine tradesmen who have been doing these trades for the last forever. One man we found was an incense stick maker, who looked about fifty but was actually eighty and looked the top of health. His main buyers are people who buy the incense sticks to burn as offerings at the Chinese temples. He was the only one in the end we had the patience to walk to as the heat was unbearable and some of trades people didn't seem to be where they should be, the traditional coffee roaster being the most disappointing.

Having wandered the traditional lanes with ramshackle buildings, we headed into the town centre and got a lift to the top of the Komtar Tower. This is the tallest building on the Island, built in the 70's using the most hideous and unimaginative concrete design principles as is so common of the era. It looks like something that failed the audition for towering inferno, and proved impossible to find the lifts for, hidden in the heart of the darkest ugliest brown and yellowest mall you might imagine, filling it's ground floor. A slow lift to the top with a very unpleasant, and uninterested man who has the responsibility of pushing the buttons and all the self importance that goes with it and then you get spat out at the top to face a grossly unreasonable fee to see the view. It was 50/50 whether or not to go in, but in the end we did. The view was good everything else was dreadful. To try and compensate for the price, you get a couple of freebies. A cold drink so disgusting you can't even make yourself drink it to get your value, and two home made postcards which are so cheaply produced you wouldn't send them to your dog. Presumably, the Karaoke that was blaring out, exclusively for the use of the manager/prat that kept mincing around and bugging us was also to be considered free entertainment.

After all this excitement, there was nothing left in Georgetown for us but the rest of the Island lay waiting, and most tantalizingly, the snake temple. We hired a car for a day so we could see the most things as they were all spread across the island. Really, we mostly only wanted to see the snake temple but justified the hire by scheduling in a few other attractions. The snake temple was billed as being like something out of Indiana Jones. A temple with all the old stuff you'd expect and dripping with snakes off all the artifacts. The snakes, were allegedly, rendered safe by the burning incense in the temple. We turned up full of expectation but found that the temple was being done up and they had instead shifted a big gong and a couple of other artefacts into the attached office wing where a handful of snakes had clearly been plonked on top of the stuff. The best bit about the whole experience was when we first stepped through the door and before you could say 'oh look a snake' I had been wrapped in a python and a viper by a bloke wanting me to buy a photo of it from him. I explained the photo would only get crumpled in my bag and besides it was an outrageous price and then found myself negotiating the cost of Nicki taking a picture of me on my own camera while I stood there dripping with snakes and sweat. Other highlights of the day was the funicular railway that went up a hill side. It took about 20 minutes and we had to change trains half way up. The train, originally built in the early 1900's was originally a flop when on it's grand opening in front of the king, it was discovered that the engine wasn't strong enough to push it up the hill. You might have thought they'd have tested it first. A hundred years later and no such problems, it's all driven by cables now and it still serves as a necessary train service for the village at the top. We later visited a really impressive little aquarium which possibly turned out to be the highlight of the day, despite being a 'value-added extra' and being well hidden in the middle of the airport industrial estate. While there, looking at examples of local fish and corals we reflected on our scuba experience in the pool and remembered some people we met in Bako who had told us tales of their Diving exploits and their insistence we should try some in Thailand. We decided that maybe we would if we found the opportunity.

Another couple of days were spent around Georgetown before we arranged a 12 hour 3 minibus journey that would take us from Penang across the Thai border to Phuket.

Flight of Fancy

We arrived in Kuala Terrenganu and found a hotel. There was never going to be a lot to do here. It was really only a hub point from which we would cross to the island of Penang on the north west side of Malaysia, rather than heading back through KL for a third time. Between KT and Penang lay the now familiar Cameron Highlands and the idea of traversing them on a bus did not fill us with a lot of enthusiasm. We spent the best part of a morning searching for the world's best hidden tourist office, to ask for advice. It was lurking around the 5th floor of an office block with no signs out front alerting you of it's presence. In the end, they couldn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but they were keen to get us to sign the visitor's book and in return we got a goody bag with patches pens and badges. The guestbook hinted that we were the first tourists to set foot in the door in a fortnight. We added the collectibles to our growing collection, first begun at the tourist information desk in Kuching. We would enter one more tourist office again before the end of our time in Malaysia and get book marks and two packs of post cards which would round off our collection nicely. A visit to an internet cafe and we found a reasonable low cost airline who could fly us across the highlands for what turned out to be not much more than the bus. We booked the flights and then killed the next couple of days that sat between us and the west.

This is where we first encountered the internet cafe culture that has since plagued us ever after, and inhibited the opportunities to keep you lovely, and presumably rather bored people abreast of our exploits. The internet cafes are not really geared up for internet surfing so much as for online gaming. Rows of networked PC's are full of screaming boys about 10 years of age who shout at the top of their annoyingly piercing voices, and make all kinds of other noises, previously reserved for the animal kingdom. Every PC had got a decent sound setup too, after all the shops want to offer the best experience to attract the market. The result is every PC at full blast with the noise of machine guns, explosions, swords, screaming, helicopters, wizards and goblins and all else inpixilated. The onslaught tends to hit about 3:15 when the schools kick out and continues until around tea time when things generally quieten down a bit, though never completely. There is something rather insidious too about the sight of rows of boys, all with a slightly drawn looks on their faces as they stare, into the very close monitors, hunched over the keyboard and mouse which they move with the dexterity you might write with a pencil. It becomes absolutely impossible to think when descended into the noise and we have had to give up several times when we have timed things wrong. However, we couldn't give up until we had managed to book our e-tickets for our flight, we fought through the chaos and the system and eventually left, with a ticket outa town.

The next day was spent with a trip to the market, and a walk around town before the third day when we got a taxi to the airport only to discover that the flight hadn't sold enough seats so they had just cancelled it. In the end, we did fly out in the evening but it left us with another day to spend repeating the previous day and marvelling at the cyber-racket.

Back on the Road

We had returned to KL for a brief stopover before heading north again, this time up the East coast. We would be catching up with Mum and Dad one last time before they would be flying home. They were staying in a resort called Tangon Jara which lay about half way up the coast between KL and KT (Kuala Terrenganu). There wasn't really anything around here for a backpacker and as such this part of the country is not really on the circuit anymore, unless you are staying in one of these luxury resorts. I say anymore, because this was one of the handful of coasts where the giant leather back turtles would come to lay their eggs. Whether it's a direct result of the interest these turtles brought with them or simply their fast declining numbers, they don't come here anymore. There are ghosts of tourist towns who failed to offer enough besides this spectacle for tourists and who's skeletons remain with a ramshackle guest house here or there but nothing else. This can be a problem for a tourist who might at some point during their stay decide that food would be a good idea. For your luxury resort guest though, this isn't a problem as they would have little need to venture far from their pools and restaurants and private beaches, combed every morning at dawn.

Faced with these impending problems Nic and I boarded the bus in KL and headed north for the last town of any size before my parent's resort, hoping we could investigate any guest houses within our budget somewhere near Mum and Dad. The town was called Dungun and it did not often get tourists. From the minute we stepped off the bus, laden with our bags, and into the intense mid-day heat, we were the focus of attention. We spied a hotel just down the road and made a bee-line for it, at least just to catch our breath and wits. We happened to have found the only hotel in town, and had the bus stop not been within sight of it, I don't know what we would have done. The room was sub standard and grimy with bare wires poking out the wall but the door locked, it had a hot (well, off-cold) shower and it even had air conditioning so in some ways it was more than could have been expected. Mum and Dad had done a bit of detective work at their end too and had given me the number for a guest house which was next door to their resort. They had rooms, we negotiated a price and all was sorted to go there the next day. In the meantime we had the rest of an afternoon and a night to spend in Dungun, and lucky us, it was market night.

First up though, Lunch and we were feeling particularly in need of a beer after the ordeal of the last few hours. It was at this moment it started to occur to us that for the first time in our travels, the ethnic balance had tipped into a heavily Muslim majority. In fact it was not so much a majority as an entirety. There was a Pizza Hut in town - one of those signs that are like a beacon of comfort when the surroundings all get a bit too much - and we thought we'd just pay over the odds this once and get a pizza and a beer. Even Pizza Hut though, adhered to the town's dry state policy, there wasn't a drop to be had anywhere. The AC was as good as a beer in the end and as the skies turned dark and the heavens opened with a rush of rain, we stretched out the meal for a good while, watching as the windows steamed up - on the outside, and the passing adolescents demonstrated their grasp of the English language, scribbling various expletives onto the glass as they dashed past, much to the amusement of their inamoratas.

The evening came, eventually, and we wandered down to the Market, where Mum and Dad had also caught the resort's excursion bus into. The typical market fare was cloth, in particular sarongs or bed cloths, various house holds items, several stalls with Muslim religious stuff and a tape machine blaring out an Imam deep in prayer, mobile phones and cheap toys,and other stalls selling food, some to take home, other food hot and ready to eat. This hot food was first seen in the Cameron Highlands, and now, having tried a little before, Dad was emboldened to buy various assortments of deep fried things to see what they were like. Despite varying in size and shape, most things tasted the same - fish.

Having sorted out our guest house, we got a taxi who was kind enough to overcharge us by probably as much as ten times the rate to take us ten minutes up the road to the guest house. There was nothing else we could do though and reluctantly had to take his terms. As I've said before, the thing about being ripped off over here is that at the end of the day, it's never a lot of money anyway when you look at it in pounds.

We found the guest house and in the garden were three boys about 9 or 10 years old watering the garden and raking away some leaves. One of the boys promptly lead us to our room and then gave us the key with a short note, written by the owner confirming the rate and saying to ask the boys if we needed anything - not really an option as the boys didn't speak English and our Malaysian was still not really beyond ordering food. A little odd we thought, but we would be spending most of the time gate crashing Mum and Dad's resort so we weren't too worried.

Once again we found ourselves lying beside an infinite pool with a fantastic beach beyond and all the trappings of a five star resort. We would spend about 4 days enjoying these services and in return we ate in the resort for all our meals with one exception when we ventured out and found an open air Chinese restaurant on the roadside.

It was only a five minute stroll between the Resort and our guest house so it was nothing to nip back and change and shower after a day at the pool before popping back round for dinner. Our shower was not working though, and still with no sign of the owner, we had to write a note to give to the boys in the hope that the owner would get it. This seemed to work and the next day the shower was working. This would be the last contact we would have with anyone at our guest house as eerily we became the only people around.

By the end of the few days, we had been on a river safari up to a traditional village to see a last echo of the traditional lifestyle, we had spent plenty of time at the pool side and the beach and had eaten a few dinners. The unique feature about one of the restaurants on the resort was that there was no menu. The head chef would discuss with you what you wanted and would then prepare it to your request. On one of our poolside languishes, we were offered the chance of trying out a bit of scuba diving, just in the pool and with the intent of luring you out onto a diving trip. We accepted the free trial and declined the less free trip but we both thought that maybe we should keep our eyes open for another opportunity, perhaps in Thailand.

Then it was time for Mum and Dad to get driven to the airport and for us to pack our bags and get back onto the road again. But first we had to try and find someone at our guest house to pay so we could check out. There had been no sign of anyone for days now, and we could have quite easily left without paying for anything. The guest house's office block had remained firmly locked up for all the time we were there. And there was no deposit box or anything we could drop the key into. In the end there was nothing to do except to leave the money in the room and leave the room unlocked in the hope that eventually the owner would return. There was a sad event here too when we discovered that round the back of the office was a pen with a couple of chihuahuas. One of the dogs had died, recently it seemed and the other dog was less than happy though very quiet. We did what we could, covering the body over and fed the other dog with some of our food, we then threw out it's bowl of dirty water and replaced it, leaving the garden hose dripping into it all the time so it would hopefully keep refreshed. We found a big tub of dried dog food, left more of this out, and then had to leave, hoping that the owner would be back soon. We tried to phone but his number just rang out, from within the office. Left a bit shaken and quite sad, we donned our bags and caught the bus heading further north to Kuala Terrenganu.

Cameron Highlands

Next on the circuit came the Cameron Highlands. The Cameron Highlands are, unsurprisingly, the Mountainous region of Malaysia. It was the last part of the country to be opened up to tourists, finally being wrestled free from communist control as late as 1989. The slopes are host to hundreds of tea plantations and other fruit orchards which thrive on the cooler slopes, particularly strawberries. The place is strawberry daft. It seems every shop in the Highlands has a giant smiling strawberry painted on it and everyone has some form of processed strawberry to sell, whether its dried, glaced, smoothied, ice-creamed, syruped, jammed, lollipopped, chocolate coated, skewered or a combination of the above. It was even possible, if you looked deep enough to find strawberries that were fresh! Once you've eaten your way through the crop, and washed it down with a cup of strawberry tea, there's strawberry cushions and everything else you can imagine too, to take home with you afterwards.

There were plenty of tea plantations too, that were happy to let you stroll through the grounds, and if you did it discreetly, pick a leaf or two to sniff. They really smell like tea but don't quite match a good brew in the taste test - guess all that processing has some effect after all.

After taking in the local industry, the Cameron Highlands next main attraction is hiking. There are plenty of footpaths and trails that lead up slopes, through forests and around and about. We dutifully explored a few of these, taking as much care as possible to set off in the heat of day and get lost at times when it would maximise our exhaustion. For getting lost, we have the map to blame. There is a published map that every shop sells and every tourist buys and it is completely useless. What also contributed to the confusion was the fact that a lot of the paths actually lead you past the side of someone's house, and in more than one occasion through their back garden/allotment. This is probably because people's houses and farm land just sort of spread out and about without any real regard for permission or planning or land ownership so where a trail maybe once weaved through a field, it's now surrounded by shelters and hoses and plants and such like. As it was though, no one seemed to mind us pushing past their smalls as they hung out drying.

The Cameron Highlands, although a large area geographically, consists of just a couple of small towns really. The rest of the area is agricultural or jungle with farmers or peasants living in very rural villages, where the communities live together in a handful of largish wicker and rattan sheds. These community houses are usually built on stilts because of the monsoon rain that washes down the hill slopes. These villages are invisible to the tourist's eye as they do not lie on the road. The best clue to their existence is the occasional person who seems to be standing in the middle of nowhere waiting for a bus to come past. The poverty visible in these communities, who live by means of subsistence was all the more startling when taken into consideration that Kuala Lumpur was only two hours down the road, where people live almost entirely within Western Standards.

Nic and I stayed in a backpacking guest house in the town of Tanah Rata. This is the town where most people come to and as such is well prepared for tourists, comparatively. We had shared the hired car up the road with my parents who were staying in a much nicer hotel on the other side of town. As we had the car this meant there was no problem in getting around and spending time together. The car also meant it was much easier getting up to the Highlands as the buses, which are not comfortable, quiet or safe, race around the roads as though the driver is penalised for every minute it takes to make the trip. It took about four hours in the car driving from Lumut to get to the Highlands, a feet that would have been a nightmare on the bus. The roads, are of a decent standard in terms of being sealed tarmac but the route they ply is utterly horrific. At no point did our car reach more than 40kph as twist after bend kept your foot mostly over the break. Road kill was exotic, with big lizards about two foot long (more if you included the entrails) and snakes lying victim to the less than admiral driving standards of most of Malaysia.

We spent about a week in the Cameron Highlands before returning to KL briefly, to return the car and launch ourselves up the East coast of the country, where we would rendezvous once more with my parents for a few days before they would head home and we would continue our adventure solo.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Pangkor Laut

We should never have been there.

Our flirtation with the five star life in the KL Ritz could just about be excused as a brief respite from the less salubrious predecessors we were more familiar with. It was after all my parents fault we were in there, it's not like we chose it. But the backpacking jury is not going to let us off with Pangkor Laut. PL is an exclusive Island where you can only get onto if you are staying there. Backpackers are not supposed to stay on Pangkor Laut. We only managed to afford it because the customer service manager, another Scot called Ross was able to pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat. He gave us the maximum discount on their best rate, and since my parents had booked their trip last year, he gave us the discount on last year's price, and even though we paid for the cheapest villa, he put us in the one next door to my parents which was a little bit more upmarket. He also waved a few additional costs that would normally have bumped the prices up all the more. All in all, we got a ridiculously posh 2 days for about the same price as you'd pay for a reasonable room in London for a night.

Our bungalow, just next to the infinite pool had everything you could imagine. And was perfectly fitted out in a well balanced mix of stonework, woodwork and glass. If we couldn't be bothered walking to one of the five restaurants or so, our weary five star legs could rest while we got driven across the island. Of course, that meant you would miss a stroll along the boardwalk between the slightly dearer (yes we had limits) bungalows on stilts that sat out into the water. If you were one of those people who were supposed to be there, then you would almost certainly have thrown some money at the spa treatments which would then allow you to use the even exclusiver infinite pool round the coast slightly. Pavarotti, by all accounts likes this place particularly and has decked out one of the villas to his own liking should he nip by for a few vino's upon a weekend. As it was, the swimming pool was spared this time and the restaurants had enough food to cater for everyone. The restaurants were not cheap, but given that you were a captive market, and had to eat, they could have been a lot dearer. The prices, though ludicrous for Malaysia were pretty much on par with a nice dinner on the town back home. Feeling the first pangs of backpackers guilt though, we decided not to buy lunch but instead to pull out our pot noodles which were nestled deep in a carrier bag. The carrier bag which we had handed over to the bell boy back on the mainland along with our proper luggage, had dutifully turned up on the island in our room with a posh label neatly tied round one of it's handles. We were trying hard to maintain the backpacker's code.

We had a lovely two days, pretending to fit in and just hanging about with Mum and Dad. They had longer to stay on the Island but we would be sharing a hire car with them and driving up to the Cameron Highlands so we spent the following day back in Lumut enjoying what the town had to offer. That took about fifteen minutes and then we hung around till they came over the following day.