Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Balloon trip.

Due to network problems, I haven't been able to post as much as I would have liked. The sequence is also shot to pieces, so any sort of chronological order has gone out of the window.

Having arrived in Siem Reap, we were wandering down the street, when we saw an ad in a tourist office offering balloon trips. We decided it was a must.

We took a minibus out of town with a mixed group of mainly Chinese tourists and a very upbeat Canadian guy, about my age, but with eyes which suggested a prediliction to happy pizzas. Two trucks loaded with gear were waiting for us in a field. I was amazed how quickly they got the balloon set up. From unloading to let's go was no more than about twenty minutes.

Like the time I had a go at scuba diving, there are always factors which you don't take into account. With scuba diving it was the weight of the tank, which felt like a couple of sacks of potatoes strapped around you. Here the problem was slightly different, the hot-air part of hot air balloon was very hot indeed, bearing in mind that we are in the tropics.

Our pilot was a Chinese guy with a good sense of humour. On take off, he quite deliberately let the balloon brush the top of some trees, just to gauge the reaction. It was absolutely fantastic, apart from the noise of the burner from time to time, we drifted silently for several miles above the countryside.

There were lots of kids hanging around the whole time. We found out that tourists often throw sweets to them from the balloon, but we were unprepared. Instead, Millie chucked a dollar bill out. We watched it flutter to Earth where the fastest and biggest kid grabbed it. He's probably still talking about it.

The flight lasted about 30 minutes. We never went very high, but the view was great. This part of Cambodia is very, very flat, so you could see for miles. It wasn't so much the view as the experience of being in a balloon that we enjoyed. It was also a great preface for the main event the next day: Angkor Wat.



Elephants and Happy Pizza.

The Elephant des Terrasses hotel. Recommended.

When it comes to hotels, neither of us are too bothered. As long as the place is clean and not too noisy, and doesn't cost a fortune we're happy. It's just a place to sleep after all. After the fiasco in Langkawi, where we did book into a relatively expensive place, we decided to revert to type and get basic accomodation in fantastic Siem Reap, which is the town next to Angkor Wat. The room was fine and cheap, although somewhat dark. The main problem was that it was very difficult to charge up our large collection of electronics: 2 ipads, Millie's iphone and my two cameras.

We had a look on the internet and discovered that the five star hotel in the centre of town was offering rooms at 31$. For those of you unfamiliar with Cambodia, the official currency here is the Riel, but the American dollar is what everyone uses. The Riel has the same sort of role as little bonbons used to in Italy in the time of the Lire: (Dennis Pennis to Joan Collins, 'Joan, you look a million lira.)'

Anyway, we wandered over to the place and tried to book a room. 71$. Went through the booking site and sure enough, 31$.

The hotel has a colonial look to it. Millie pointed out that it looks like it was designed by MC Escher.

In fact the interior is amazing. Very much a themed place, each room has a huge tower from the Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat. The shower and wash basin are suspended above a lily-pool and the private terrace is huge.

Bathroom facilities.

The terrace.


We're getting to the end of our stay and fly to Bangkok this afternoon, so our last night in wonderful Siem Reap was one to remember.

Cambodia has become my favourite country in the region; it's much funkier than the others, with a sort of gloriously anarchic madness. We found a street the other day where they sell the legendary 'Happy Pizza.' Strangely enough we'd read an article about this exotic comestible in an in-flight magazine. It seems that traditionally, marijuana is considered a herb for flavouring by the Khmer. We ordered our pizza, but then decided that they couldn't possibly just be randomly serving 'spiked' pizza. One had visions of nice families suddenly going berserk. There had to be a way of asking.

We started out with: 'Is the pizza really, er happy, nudge nudge,' a strategy which was met with blank stares. In the end we went for: 'does it really have weed in it?'

'2$ extra.'

Roof terrace.

Rooftop pool.

Yes, we did have a massage and verygood it was.


The evening ended in a riot of colour in this already hugely colouful part of the World


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Here I am on the bridge. Here I am at the Twin Towers. Here I am......

The Sky Bridge.

Spent a day looking round the beautiful island of Langkawi during our brief stay in Malaysia. Headed for the Skywalk bridge, atop a mountain near the coast. The bridge is reached by what claims to be the steepest cable car ride in the World, which takes you up the mountain above the canopy of the jungle. The starting point for the cablecar ride was in a sort of shopping village, which looked not unlike Mauschwitz Disneyland. To give the queuing crowd something to do, we were led into a small E-max cinema, where we were treated to a virtual roller-coaster ride.The crowd made the event with lots of squeals and shrieks, even the woman in black burquas joined in. According to the blurb at the ticket office, you pass over hornbills, monkeys and all manner of fauna hurtling about in the trees, but in fact all we saw was treetops. At the summit is a structure which is about 150 metres long and which spans the mountain top, a modern pedestrian bridge with an impressive drop below it.

Giant virtual roller coaster through Mordor.

The cable car.



Most of the people there, whether in baseball hats of Hijabs, didn't seem particularly interested in the fantastic surroundings, they just took selfie after selfie, always posing in exactly the same way. Call me a grumpy old bastard, but this narcissistic and moronic behaviour really rubs me up the wrong way. To anyone wishing to bore me with a a photo of themselves: I'M NOT INTERESTED. I know what you look like and if I've never met you, I don't want to. I'm perfectly capable of being bored on my own without your assistance, thank you.

Not that I have anything against a good portrait. Einstein poking his tongue out, Churchill giving his bulldog-chewing-a-nettle look to Karsh of Ottawa or, my personal favourite, the Snowden portrait of Margaret Thatcher showing her true colours through caked on makeup. All great iconic images. Sorry, but I've seen two rabbity fingers behind someone's head enough times now, ie more than once, that I feel queasy just thinking about it.

Good. Got that off my chest. Feeling better already.

The charming fake bridge.

Some of Langkawi's famed 99 islands.

Back to Earth, I decided I needed a snack, so went for the traditional Malay dish of Bratwurst, (mit senf, obviously), at the mind bogglingly cosmopolitan restaurant area built around an impressive fake Asian bridge.

We returned to the hotel to find that they had caved into the barrage of complaints which we'd launched at them. A letter was pushed under our door informing us that we would only be charged for one night. That took some pressure off our drawings at the ATM: Automatic Temple of Mammon, according to Millie.

Next day, we took a flight to Kuala Lumpur, a city we visited 19 years ago. It had changed a lot. The first time we went to KL, we took the bus in from the airport. I asked someone what the tall buildings on the skyline were. They turned out to be the Petronus Twin Towers, which were still being fitted out, and at the time were the tallest building in the World. Nowadays, although down to 7th, they really are magnificent. We managed to get tickets which took us firstly to the bridge between the towers, then to the 86th floor.

Still pretty tall.

The lobby. If ya got it, flaunt it.

From the bridge.

Back at ground level, we were able to admire it some more, as our hotel was just next door. We only went to KL to get a connecting flight, but found it a very agreeable place indeed: a real high energy, modern city.

And so it was that we arrived in my favourite SE Asian country: Cambodia. But more of that later.


Friday, 8 January 2016

Sunsets and Ladyboys.

The beach.


Have been on the island of Koh Lipe for three days now. I haven't written about it yet as there are a lot of lotuses to be eaten here. Koh Lipe is miles out in the Andaman Sea and is the largest isle of an archipelago of small, one palm-tree type islands. Back home, everyone has adopted the habit of leaving unwanted books on the windowsills of their houses. A couple of days before we left, we went out and found a selection of books, in both English and French sitting outside our neighbour, Emma's house. Like magic, there were two copies of the 'Guide Routard,' Millie's tour guide of choice. One was for Thailand, the other for Cambodia. They were from 2013.

On the way to Koh Lipe

Snorkelling from a boat.



Things change fast in this part of the World, but we figured they would be new enough to find useful addresses of guest houses, local attractions and restaurants. Only up to a point, it transpired. Earlier in the year, I met a German lady, Francesca, in Pi in Northern Thailand. She had been there the previous year and was somewhat taken aback by how much it had already changed. The same proved to be the case here. According to the Guide Routard, the island had no cash machines and electricity was limited to a few hours per day, with one or two bars with wifi. After a seven hour boat trip, we arrived in the evening with pocketfuls of cash, to find that one of the main beaches had restaurants and bars all along it. Strolling through the main thoroughfare, 'Walking Street,' we were slightly disappointed to find that the place was heaving with tourists, with rather awful musicians (unless 'Hotel California' is one's cup of tea) and the usual tee shirt shops and tattoo parlours in abundance.

The tiny islands.



To make matter worse, we headed for the nearest restaurant, next door to where we're staying in a beautiful bamboo bungalow. The setting was lovely, with bamboo lanterns hanging from the trees in a jungle setting. The teenage waitress, as usual, was smily and friendly, but had a limited grasp of English, or any other European language for that matter. We were very hungry and the food on offer sounded great. I ordered a pork stir-fry. Maybe it was just a bad stir fry day, but I was served something which consisted of brown discs of meat with a bit of salad. If you dropped these discs onto the plate they made a sound like someone hitting the crockery with a hammer; sort of dry, heavy pork scratchings. Admittedly, Millie's choice was fine and quite copious, so I helped her out when she was unable to finish it. It wasn't the best of introductions to Koh Lipe.


The chosen breakfast bar.



The next morning, we got up early and went to look at the beach. It was absolutely fantastic. Going in the turquoise water, there were exotic coloured fish even in the shallows. Things started to look brighter. Having no choice, we breakfasted in the main touristy area and found that the food was in fact very good: wonderful seafood restaurants in abundance, displaying gigantic prawns, lobsters and fresh fish on ice. You can even get good coffee.


Millie has developed a fascination for lady-boys. She seems to be able to spot them from a distance. I'd come across them on my previous travels, but didn't realise how many there were. Most of them just look like women to me. Women, it seems are better at that sort of thing. We did some googling. It seems that the Thais, (and Cambodians), have always been more tolerant of sexual ambiguity, to the point where they are considered bringers of good luck. So, if you feel that life is giving you a raw deal, what you need is a ladyboy around to steady your Karma.


There are also a lot of Russians about. The younger ones seem no different to tourists from elsewhere, apart from their penchant for particularly hideous tattoos, but the older ones, of forty years plus are a whole different matter. Loud, obese, vulgar and with an arrogance which can only stem from a sense of insecurity. They are everything that the Thais are not. Maybe it's the Thai charm which seems to highlight their shortcomings. In a word, the South Africans of Europe.

I'm writing this at a place called 'Sunset Beach.' Every evening at a bout six the beach fills up with people armed with phones, cameras and of course, selfie sticks to watch the sunset. The normally not overpopulated beach suddenly fills up with spectators who look like adherents of some weird cult. As the sun sinks below the horizon, they frantically shoot or film every second. An American guy in one of the bars confirmed my suspicions of this phenomenon: many of the people are from large polluted cities like Beijing or Moscow. They've quite likely never seen the sunset before.


Quick. Get the selfie-stick.


Monday, 4 January 2016

Koh Lanta.


Went and had a shave this morning. I've had a beard for about six weeks, something I tend to do around Christmas. This time, the beard was just to keep some sort of balance as I grew a moustache, having decided that a Daliesque job might be interesting for a while. Everything had to go however, when I tried out my new diving mask the other day. The minute I put my head underwater, it filled up, as the face fungus was preventing it becoming airtight. Had a general hair trim and a shave which took about ten minutes. I've never been so clean-shaven in my life.


Millie and I love snorkelling and tomorrow, we're off to a tiny island called Koh Lipe, which sounds very exotic indeed. Unlike here, on the large island of Koh Lanta, there are plenty of colourful fish to chase in the coral. We booked the longish boat trip, (sounds like some approximative Viking craft), the other day in one of the local tourist offices, run by a cheery Aussie guy and his charming Thai wife.* The guy bore an uncanny resemblance to comedian Bill Bailey, albeit a more svelte, tidied-up version. We booked our tickets and wandering down the street Millie asked if he reminded me of someone we knew. As soon as I mentioned BB, she had an 'Oh yes' moment.

The main strip.


Koh Lanta is an interesting place itself. For one thing, it is 95% Muslim, an unusual state of affairs for Thailand. The only difference this seems to make is that some of the smily women wear headscarfs and that the local mosque, about 200 metres from where we're staying, tends to wake you up at 5am every day with the amplified call to prayer. Strangely enough, for someone with such non-religious sentiments, I really like the rather eerie morning waily melody. The only small problem is the mosquito net hanging from the ceiling, which, upon being woken by the muezzin, can give the disconcerting feeling of being attacked by a giant jellyfish which is plunging towards you from the wine-dark linoleum ceiling.

Attack of the JF

The nearby Mosque.

Koh Lanta was totally wrecked in the tsunami of 2004. A lot of people were killed and others moved away afterwards, so you get the impression that the place has changed a lot in recent years. Whilst it is fairly touristy, it isn't as developed as some of the other large islands and there are still one or two areas near the beach which are still in a state of abandonment.

Derelict buildings by the beach.





*Nearly all Thais are extremely charming, so to save time and avoid repetition, from here on in, you can assume that everyone mentioned is delightful unless otherwise stated


Saturday, 2 January 2016

I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens - David Byrne.



Can't speak for the honky tonks, but the Thais really like the other aforementioned American institutions which abound in Bangkok where we spent the first two nights. There's a 7-Eleven every hundred metres or so. Got here with Millie on Tuesday after what seemed like forever on a plane. We had to change in Hong Kong, so now we can say that we've set foot on Chinese soil. It was great getting out of the airport taxi at our hotel in the evening and taking a first lungful of local air. The whole region has a very specific smell. It was great to be back.

Spent the first day going up and down the Chao Phraya river, exploring the flower market and trying to avoid the American chains such as the the golden locked arches, (excuse my German), and the place that sells dish-water under the name of coffee. What is the obsession here with 'Dunkin Doughnuts?'



Decided to get out of the city for the New Year, so took an Air Asia, (the Oriental and superior version of the Irish airline), down to Krabi, which turned out to be a slightly faded but charming place from which to set out to the islands in the Andaman Sea. The celebratory fireworks stopped just after midnight, and the guesthouse was comfortable. Only problem was the tourist in the next room, who seemed to be determined to get his money's worth out of the prostitute who was with him. It was a a very noisy night. Had to hand it to him though, the man had staying-power. Either that, or a catering pack of Viagra. Or both.

Millie seems to be attracting a lot of attention. Women keep telling her how beautiful she is. It's her skin. What to us Westerners is a pale Celtic pallor is the dream colour to the people of the region. There are posters everywhere for a product with the bizarre name of 'Snail White.' This Franco/Disney sounding product claims to lighten the skin, so that SE Asians can look like westerners, who in turn, want to look like bronzed SE Asians. Roll on skin exchange surgery.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

Step in my spring.

Hitched a ride on a motorbike to the hot spring outside town. The touristy one is expensive to visit and well, touristy. Drove about 20 km from Pai in the rain, which was light and refreshing. The hills were incredible; not the spectacular countryside, but the roads. We were on a pretty old hired bike, which wasn't fast at the best of times, but going up some of the hills, we had to push with our feet to keep going.

The gradient of the road was such that as you reached the top of a hill, you got the feeling that you were going to drop off a precipice. Never seen such steep roads. Of course the descent was quite impressive too; like going down a moderate blue piste at a ski resort.

Got to the the river, just off the road in the middle of a forest. There were bamboo seats and a smallish river. It was hot. Not boiling, but as hot as a comfortable bath and very clear. Sitting down, the water came up to your chin. It was extremely relaxing, so much so that we spent about three hours just sitting about, watching lots of beautiful red insects, which looked like small helicopters hovering above the water. We had been told that the mud in the river was good for the skin, so we improvised mud-packs. After washing it off, felt cleaner than after a dozen showers.

Glorious mud: Cecilia and Peter.


I was with Peter who is Polish, Robert, Dutch and Cecilia, French and we were the only ones there. After a while a guy arrived with his young daughter, so Robert gave her his Dutch tulip to play with, which she loved. People came and went and finally, after sitting out a downpour, we headed back into town for a late and delicious lunch.

I know, I've already put another version on Facebook, but I like it.

Getting installed

By the time we left, everybody was in a rather shrivelled state. As I was sitting on the bank, I felt something on my leg. It was a largish spider. I've managed to get over my childhood arachnophobia to a certain extent, but this was a bit close to my limits. As a reflex, there was a strangulated cry accompanied by a sweeping motion to rid myself of the monster.

The red insects were interesting. I'll try to find out what they are. The wildlife since I've been in Asia is a little disappointing. I was expecting giant monitor lizards which were everywhere the only other time I've been to this part of the World, but haven't seen any, although someone told me that he'd seen one in the centre of Bangkok; Asia's equivalent of the fox perhaps.

Dogs are everywhere. They have their own community in the town centre and seem to enjoy themselves, especially the professionals, who can do doggy eyes and thus get a snack from the tourists. I was walking through town last night, wearing walking boots, when a blur shot out from under a street trader's awning. It was a small, white puppy, who immediately went for my laces and seemed to be enjoying himself. I suddenly became the centre of attention as the dog heaved and growled and tugged, with his back legs straining for more traction, while tourists gathered and took pictures on their phones. Maybe I'll go viral.

The fireflies at night are great: pure white lights which drift in front of you. When I was walking without my torch the other night, they were eerie, but pleasing company on the way home.