Wednesday 21 November 2007

Siem Reap

We've had a really good week here in Siem Reap. First, its a bit of a luxury trip for us. We're in a decent four star hotel rather than our usual three star or less. It's called the Angkor Holiday Hotel. It's a rather soulless design catering to tour groups but it's very clean and comfortable with aircon, a pool, a good breakfast buffet and our own safe in the room. The place is only two years old. The service from the staff is outstanding - friendly, prompt and eager.

After a week here, one of my strongest impressions is just how nice the people of Cambodia are. They're very polite and courteous but friendly too. Always quick to smile and laugh. Vendors aren't pushy except for a few around the temples. They regularly go out of their way to help you. Out of all the places I've been, no country has a nicer people.

We've had our own private van with driver as well as an English speaking guide to take us everywhere and look after us every day. This has made it a dead easy trip. Of course, we've done dozens of temples but there's hundreds in the area. I have to admit I wasn't overly impressed with Angkor Wat. It's interesting with some fabulous base reliefs but not awe inspiring - even when we saw the sunrise over it. However, Angkor Thom (aka the Tomb Raider temple) definitely lived up to its reputation. Fantastic. We also saw the temple at Beng Mealea which is in a state of total ruin and covered by overgrowth. Very atmospheric with few tourists. Overall, the temples were well worth coming here too see.

We also managed a few excursions further afield. The floating villages of Tonle Sap were interesting. The one at Chong Kneas is too touristy but Kompong Phluk was worth seeing. We even got paddled about a flooded forest. The whole pace of life centered around the ebb and flow of the massive Tonle Sap lake is fascinating.

We also visited the reclining Buddha at Kulen National Park. It's the only place I've seen beggars so far. The Thousand Linga was interesting. Basically a thousand phallic symbols turn the river holy. Ok, there's a lot more explanation needed but I've learned Hinduism is very complicated and I certainly can't explain all this penis envy. We had lunch at a beautiful waterfall downstream where there were few tourists and plenty of Cambodians splash about.

The best part of traveling Cambodia is just watching people go about their daily life. Jenny describes it as being very much like rural Malaysia 30 years ago. There are still bullock carts but motorscooters provide the main form of transportation. They're used for everything from transporting pigs to stacks of mattresses to families of five. It's a very poor country with few modern conveniences and not even simple machinery. It's a simple life and a hard life but I'm sure they have much stronger communities than what we have in the West.

We spent a day teaching at a local primary school. It was a great experience that I'll write up in more detail later. The school didn't even have electricity or running water. It was fabulous meeting the children and our kids had a chance to help teach them English.

Today is our last day here. Jenny managed to take a cooking course at a local cooking school while the kids and I went to see the Land Mine Museum. Land mines are still an horrendous problem here. In fact, there seem to be hundreds of good causes and we've felt compelled to donate to quite a few. It feels wrong that such a nice people have so many troubles.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Off to Cambodia

Tomorrow we're on the road again. We have a two week tour of Cambodia that I arranged with Sage Insights (update: Sage Insights is now called AboutAsia Travel). This is a complete change as usually we do everything ourselves but Sage put together a compelling itinerary for a reasonable price and the profits go to a good cause. One of the highlights of the trip will be volunteering as a family at a local primary school. It should be a great eye-opener for the kids (and us!). We're also spending four days in Bangkok since Jenny's never been there. It was a horrid city twenty years ago when I last went but maybe its got better.

Monday 12 November 2007

Diving Bali

Recently got back from ten days in Bali with Jenny and her brother John. It's the least I've ever been prepared for a trip. I didn't even have a guidebook or a map! But my focus was on diving rather than culture so my only preparation was reading about the various diving locations.

We arrived and immediately jumped into a taxi for a two hour drive up to Amed. Along the way, I realised to my horror that I had left my Samsung T9 MP3 player on the airplane. Doh! I'm pretty good at losing small things and now tend to avoid buying expensive mobile high tech gadgets. The T9 was an excellent little device but I ought to get something bigger so I'm less likely to lose it. On the return trip, I filed a lost report with AirAsia but I doubt I'll see it again.

I expected Bali to be a lot more "developed" than what I saw on that taxi ride. I was quite pleased that it wasn't. Amed is primarily a fishing village and most people go about their daily struggle to earn a living amid a few tourists. We checked in to the Three Brothers guest house. John had a small bungalow right on the beach front to himself while Jenny and I took a larger one just one row back. Clean and comfortable and we got them both for 200,000 rupiah. That's $23 US a night! No aircon but we had a fan and an occasional breeze. We also quickly arranged four days of diving with Ecodivers. Diving was $60 US per person per day with full equipment hire but John negotiated a 15% discount since it was low season.

The diving was absolutely superb; better than the Red Sea. The wreck of the USS Liberty in Tulamben was excellent but there are even better and much less crowded sites in the area. There's a huge variety of sea life and healthy soft and hard corals abound. Some of the highlights were bumhead fish, three octopusses and a pygmy sea horse. Saw my first shark. It was just a small white tip about 2m long. Plenty of anthias, jack, parrot, scorpion, lion, angel and a billion other fish I can't identify. Suffice it to say, there's lots of look at.

The best dive was a Gili Silang - greatest profusion of corals I've ever seen. They just carpet the sea floor. It was a very worrisome dive though as it can potentially become a toilet bowl with bubbles going down rather than up. That's freaky. You have to respect the currents. We also hit a thermocline where the temperature dropped from 29C to 21C.

Ecodivers was ok but they were a bit lacking on checks and some of their equipment is rather old. But their service was fine. We had a mix of shore drives and jukung dives. Jukungs are small outrigger fishing boats that can only hold three people. You have to put your kit on and take it off while in the water. I was a bit dubious about this at first but it works well and the trips were short. The diving is very easy with little swell and gentle drifts. Visibility was generally about 15m. Diving heaven!

After four days and eight dives, we decided to take a break. Ubud caught our interest as offering a bit of culture so we took a taxi there and settled into Gusti's Guesthouse. Two clean and simple rooms cost us 280,000 rupiah ($32 USD) each night but again, there's no aircon; just a fan. Gusti's is built on a ravine going down to a river and has a beautiful garden setting. Across from Gusti's is Roda's restaurant which has excellent food at great prices.

At first we were only going to stay two nights but we extended it to three nights. John and Jenny were keen to do some shopping so I relented. There's tons of art and handicrafts and none of it is very expensive. We also took in a couple of cultural dance performances. I'm a bit cynical about performances for tourists but actually they were very good and I quite enjoyed them. Best of all, I fulfilled a minor ambition to watch a live gamelan performance. I love the sound of a gamelan when it's played slow and meditatively.

We spent our last two nights on Nusa Lembongan which is a tiny island just north of Nusa Penida. We got there on the public ferry which turns out to be just an oversized jukung. There's no dock; you have to wade through the water to get onboard. We stayed at Tetuk's Lonsoms gettings two rooms for 300,000 rupiah a night. Ours was on the first floor with a veranda overlooking the beach. Fantastic!

We managed a day of diving with World Diving which is owned by some Australians and run very professionally. They have a large jukung fitted out as a dive boat. Altogether, there were 12 of us diving the day we went out and we soon made friends with a few of them.

The islands have a wicked reputation for strong currents and cold water so we donned 5mm full length wetsuits with hoods. However, it turned out that the water was a warm 28C and the drift was gentle. On the first dive, we saw two massive mola mola. Unbelievable! It's a rare sighting especially given the conditions and season. It was a great thrill to watch these gentle giants. The second dive wasn't eventful but the extensive corals and sea life was still very rewarding.

While onshore, we wandered around the broad sandy beach watching the locals farm seaweed and sat around some of the beachside restaurants. We also wached some cockfighting which is barbaric as you might imagine. We also rented some motorscooters and spent a couple of hours exploring the coast eventually finding a placed called Dream Beach to have a cold beer.

The last day, we got back to the mainland and hired a taxi for 400,000 rupiah for the entire day. He drove us all over the southern part of the island with us getting him to stop at a variety of shops and temples. We checked out Kuta Beach and the more developed parts of Bali which cater much more extensively to the western ideal of a beach holiday.

This has been one of the nicest trips I've ever done. You get fabulous diving, an interesting culture and beautiful scenerey with excellent value for money. On the downside, it's very hot and humid and you regularly get bitten. The food gets a bit monotonous too. I'd certainly consider going back.