Sun / Mon – 5th/6th February: Chardstock – Heathrow – Bangkok

Miss the last 10 minutes of a very exciting Scotland v France rugby match, as taxi arrives at 4.30 to take us to Heathrow. All sounds a bit luxurious, but thanks to Railtrack digging up the line over the weekend, ends up cheaper and far more convenient than going by train.

Hassle free check-in and plane leaves on time. I have cleverly managed to book the seats with the least legroom, but plane arrives on time. 15 mile journey to the centre of Bangkok, but even by metered taxi it only costs £4. The Khoa San road is where all the backpackers hang out and it’s lively, and despite being early evening, still very warm at +30’C. Walk, window shop and have two Thai curry dishes for supper. “Not hot” says the waitress. Who’s she kidding. Back to our nice air conditioned bedroom in The Buddy Lodge Hotel and flick on the telly. Scotland won!

[The Khoa San Road ]

Tuesday – 7th February: Bangkok

I slept on the plane, so my clock did not adjust. Merrie didn’t, so she had the good night’s sleep. Good breakfast.

The Rough Guide warns you about all the con artists, it therefore comes as a great surprise (which perhaps it shouldn’t) when you meet just nice local people who are proud of their city and just want to help you. We met two such people and end up taking a tuk-tuk for the morning (a kind of motorised rickshaw) and tour the temples and Buddahs of the city, before being finally dropped of at the Grand Palace in the early afternoon. There are plently of Buddahs to see. The sitting Buddah, the reclining Buddah, the standing Buddah and the *Golden Buddah (see below), to name just four. The tuk-tuk drivers may well take you to one or two of their friends’ jewellery or silk shops on their way around the city, but so what. They take you around one of the most crowded cities in the world when it comes to traffic, and for their mornings work charge you just £1. They always seem to be smiling and when you give them a 20p tip the smile gets even broader.

The Grand Palace is stunning. Beautiful and large and nearing the end of a period of meticulous restoration. A tip; get an audio guide each. We had one audio guide with 2 sets of headphones attached. I defy any couple to walk around without regularly pulling the earlobes off one’s partner. Excuse the pun, but the only people they are likely to work for are Siamese twins.

[The Grand Palace ]

More ice cold beers to cool down, and then back to the hotel and its roof top pool. Bliss.

Toured all the back streets in the evening and had a delicious meal of asparagus with prawns and sweet and sour chicken.

Wednesday 8th February: Bangkok

A day on the river. Eventually make it to the Thai version of the Vaporettos of Venice. There are basically two kinds of boats on the river. The longtail boats with their amazing outboard engines. These are basically car engines mounted on the back with a straight drive shaft (about 12ft long) to the propeller blade. And do they shift! These machines will take you for an hour’s ride for a fiver. The express boat will take you the whole length of the Chao Phraya river for just 8p. At the end of the express boat line we meet a sweet little Dutch girl, who has just started her 4 month trek through all of SE Asia , alone. And I thought we were being brave.

Stop for a drink and get funny looks when I ask for a beer. The penny drops when we are given the menu for the day… Muslim. But like so many eateries in this part of the world, cheap, very basic, but meticulously clean.

Explore Chinatown in the afternoon and exactly what you would expect. Odd sites, even odder smells and very noisy.

Over the two days in Bangkok we visited many temples and Pagodas, but perhaps the following one was the most interesting.

*THE GOLDEN BUDDAH - This one will certainly go down as a missed opportunity in the Thai underworld. Just 10 foot high, this beautiful little Buddah did not really come to notice until 1955, when someone accidentally knocked it over. The stucco exterior cracked, exposing a gold interior. Not gold leaf, just 5½ tons of solid gold!! Just assessing its value at the current gold price, this little Buddah comes in at about $14m. We coolly walk around this Buddah, in its small and simply built wooden temple, under the careful watch of two Buddhist monks. Amazingly there appears to be no alarm system and at 5 o’clock they apparently just lock the front door and go home for the evening. What makes me think they do not have an up to date insurance policy?

Another swim back at the hotel. More cold beer and good food. Tomorrow Cambodia .

Thursday 9th February: Bangkok – Siem Reap ( Cambodia)

It’s been a long time since we have flown by an old propeller plane, but this is what has been laid on for our flight to Cambodia . However, comfy and smooth flight and despite being only an hour’s flight a full meal is served by the delightful cabin staff.

I regularly report on the miserable passport controllers around the world, it is therefore with great delight that I can advise that those who train passport controllers in the techniques of being miserable and unhelpful to tourists have not yet arrived in Cambodia . The plane unloads, you give your passports, visa applications and photographs to one person. These are duly passed along a line of passport personnel, who process the visa application, ending up at the controller at the other end of the line. He then holds up the passports, laughs at the photographs attached to the visa, waves it around until someone recognises their photo, then passes it the person concerned. The entire plane had their visas processed and passports back within 15 minutes of landing. 

Tell the taxi driver what kind of hotel we are looking for and 10 minutes later arrive at The Mekong Palace. Merrie suggests I look at the view from the bedroom window. I, from the other side of the room, see the tops of palm trees, all very nice. Unfortunately what Merrie was looking at was at ground level, a mosquito swamp. Too late, I’ve fallen for the swimming pool at the front of the hotel. Fortunately with a/c there is no need to open the bedroom window.

Cambodia is even hotter than Thailand . Siem Reap is an extraordinary place. Chic west meets Dodge City . The attractive old French colonial buildings are being renovated to accommodate the influx of western tourists. The streets themselves are just mud and dust and away from the old quarter the city is clearly still subject to extreme poverty. Children beg in the streets and you do not have to look far to see evidence of Cambodia being the most mined country in the world. There are many people with limbs missing, including a six piece band that played in front of our restaurant that evening. They played their instruments with whatever limbs they had left. It may be tragic but it was also encouraging to see these young men trying to make a life without begging.

[ Siem Reap – The old and the new]

Back to the hotel. Lovely old rattan settee on the balcony (at the front!). More cold beers and chat about the day before retiring to our room with a view.

Friday 10th February: Angkor

I have never met anyone who has been to Cambodia , let alone to the ancient kingdom of Angkor in the north of the country. I therefore expected to meet just one or two other intrepid explorers like ourselves. We met the rest of the world.

*ANGKOR: The most amazing thing about this ancient Khmer kingdom is its size. Around a thousand years ago Angkor was inhabited by 1 million people and was the largest kingdom in South East Asia. There was a succession of 39 kings from the 9th century and over the years they built amazing temples and palaces, magnificent walled cities and a complex irrigation system. Unfortunately they didn’t keep an eye on their defences and it finally got sacked by the Siamese in the 15th century. Everyone left and the kingdom was lost to the jungle until rediscovered again in the mid 19th century. There is a lot to see, the ancient kingdom covers nearly 1,500 sq miles.

We have a driver for the day as this is certainly not a place you can do by foot. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Angkor is that the boffins from the Heritage committees and Health & Safety Execs have not got to it yet. You can therefore clamber all over everything and really explore. No doubt in years to come everything will be carefully roped off and all tourists will have to reverently file past to view (like Stonehenge!!), but at this moment in time it is still there to be enjoyed and explored.

There are simply far too many sites to list and talk about. We took nearly 200 photographs and could have taken a thousand. There are around 45 major sites alone, we’ll mention just 5 of them.

The first one you normally see is Angkor Wat , this is the largest religious monument in the world and is a complete microcosm of the Hindu universe. The bas relief murals all around the building are so beautiful and detailed.

Angkor Thom is arguably the most spectacular site, being one of the largest walled cities of the old Khmer Kingdom , covering 9 sq/km. At the heart of Angkor Thom is the elephant terrace, a spectacular wall of carved elephants. Within Angkor Thom is The Bayon Temple, a complex of face towers and also Phimeanakas and The Royal Palace with its wonderful sandstone carvings.

One of the most enjoyable sites is Ta Prohm. It has an extraordinarily romantic atmosphere, created by the fact that the jungle has become very much a part of this place. Strangler figs and silk cotton trees have entwined themselves with the walls and the buildings, creating some spectacular sites.   

[The Bayon]

[The Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom]

[Ta Prohm – invaded by the forest]

Recognise this? Lara Croft came running out of this door in Tomb Raiders!!

[Ta Prohm]

[ Angkor Wat]

[Entrance to Angkor Thom]

[ Angkor Wat]

The opening up of Cambodia, and especially Angkor has resulted in all the residents of Siem Reap and around taking up stalls at every conceivable point in Angkor, to sell you postcards, drinks, hats, etc, etc. It’s easy to get annoyed (and some do) as you get harangued by the locals, but when the residents from the world’s richest countries meet up with the residents from one of the world’s poorest, then perhaps the consequences are inevitable.

We might have a driver for the day, but after 8 hours of exploring palaces, temples, monasteries, houses in temperatures still around 35’C we’re knackered. Back to the hotel for a swim, tuk-tuk into town and a delicious Khmer supper.

Saturday 11th February: Angkor

Early start again with our man and his taxi.

* A TRAVEL TIP – If you decide to visit Angkor (and we would certainly recommend it) then do give some thought as to how you are going to get around. It gets very hot, you cannot walk it, the best time for viewing and especially photography is sunrise and sunset, and all the coach parties arrive at 9.00 am and take their customers back to the hotel for lunch. If you are fit hire a bike, but best of all hire a tuk-tuk or a taxi each day (the tuk-tuk will be much cheaper). Arrange to be at the entrance at around 6.00 am (it opens at 5.00) and depending how fit you feel, either leave mid-morning or about 2.00 pm, when all the posh hotel guests are coming back after lunch. Spend the late morning / afternoon back at your hotel cooling off by the pool, then get your driver to take you back around 5.00 – 6.00 pm for the sunset over Angkor .

In the evening we make our way to the Red Piano Bar again for pre dinner drinks. Supper at The Soup Dragon tonight, not exactly the best meal of the holiday. Whilst Angkor is amazing, I would have to say that Siem Reap is not the nicest town in the world. Perhaps typical of a poor town that finds itself next door to a major global tourist attraction. There are a staggering number of hotels, all Cambodian owned. The prestigious Angkor Wat Hotel charges you anything from $300 to $1600 a night for a room. So there are clearly some very rich Cambodians around. Unfortunately the rest of the population fall into two categories, i.e. extremely poor people and extremely poor people with limbs missing.

*LANDMINES – As previously stated , Cambodia is the most mined country in the world, despite the fact that the internal wars finished nearly 10 years ago when Pol Pot died. The mines themselves were not designed to kill, they were designed to dismember. The military strategy here was that it took two soldiers out of action to care for a soldier that was dismembered. Dead soldiers needed no assistance. (I think you have got to be of a certain mind set to come up with a strategy like that). The reason the problem with landmines has not gone away after the war is because the mines were made of plastic. They cannot be detected by conventional mine detectors. Even if an area of land is cleared of mines, when the rains come in the long monsoon season, the mines float up and they all get redistributed again over the countryside. This is why 2,000 people a year are still blown up by mines in Cambodia, despite the fact that the population of the entire country is no bigger than that of Greater London .

Sunday 12th February: Siem Reap – Phnom Penh

Up at 5.15 to get our 6.00 bus to take us to the boat. Bus driver says we have the wrong tickets and leaves without us. Panic phone call from the hotel night porter and 30 minutes later he is back to pick us up.

Journey to the boat was interesting from beginning to end. There are about 20 of us crammed into a 10 seater minibus. The road to the water’s edge is virtually undrivable. We pass the poorest housing that we have ever seen in our lives. In the bleak dawn light we see one room “huts” jammed between the dirt track road and the sides of the swamps. The huts being roughly made from palm leaves, old bits of metal and wood and anything these people could lay their hands on. The dust from our minibus bellows up into their open sided and barren rooms. It was like an exert from a humanitarian disaster documentary. I have never seen such poverty.

We eventually get to the edge of the river and clamber aboard our boat. Being the dry season the water level is quite low and the crew of two struggle to push the boat with their poles off the ram shackle houses and into the deeper part of the river. The boat is full inside but Merrie finds a seat. I go on deck and then suggest she joins me. I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me for that suggestion. By the time we leave not only is the boat full up inside, but the whole of the roof space has backpackers sprawled all over it with their rucksacks and then there is about 10 more of us on the small deck to the rear.

The boat slowly meanders along the river, finally arriving at the lake of Tonle Sap . Once on the lake, the skipper opens up the throttle, and what happened next took us all by surprise. The boat roared up to a speed of between 40 to 50 mph. The lake was choppy, the boat bounced through the water, resulting in enormous amounts of spray coming over the entire boat. Everybody on top was getting drenched. The backpackers on top were either clinging on for dear life or trying to get off the top and into the over-crowded cabin below. At the back we managed to get the girls inside the small luggage hold, the rest of us just got drenched. The real problem was this was no 30 minute hop, the journey to Phnom Penh took 5 hours! Now some may say I missed a blindingly obvious clue as to what was going to happen. The lake of Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia , the journey from Siem Reap at the top of the lake, to Phnom Penh at the bottom, is around 160 miles. The scheduled time to complete this journey is 5 hours.

Fortunately, after about 2 hours we enter the river some 50 miles north of Phnom Penh . The boat slows down to about warp factor 3, just about slow enough to stop the water coming over the top. I have to say that the remainder of the journey was lovely, as we cruised the Cambodian countryside, passed the waterside villages, the houses built on stilts in the water and the numerous vessels that people either worked from or lived in.

When we finally arrived at Phnom Penh , thanks to the continuing 35’C heat, I was dry as a bone, excepting our new passports that were in my back pocket, they looked as though they had just been through the washing machine. Before disembarking I thought I would examine the boat.

*THE SIEM REAP TO PHNOM PENH FERRY – The boat is actually a domestic river cruiser designed for tourism. Exactly the kind of thing you will see on the Thames ferrying American tourists around………….at 3 mph!  The cabin had a false wall fitted about two thirds of the way down. Behind this false wall all the seats have been removed and a massive engine block installed. When I say massive, I mean a 1200 bhp engine block! The windows have been removed to allow the exhausts through and the little space that is left is used as the luggage hold. The resulting power from this home made conversion is dangerously disproportionate to the style and strength of the boat frame itself. Due to the novel housing position of the engine there is only one small exit from the inside of the boat and all the internal windows had been sealed off. There is not a single life jacket on board, there are no hand rails whatsoever on the exterior (despite there being around 60 passengers outside). The boat must have been accommodating double its permitted load. The crew consisted of the skipper and a young lad. The young lad in the engine room could not communicate with the skipper up front. If the boat had capsized everyone inside would have definitely died, and as the centre of the lake is some 30 miles from the nearest shore (with no other shipping on the lake) then it is almost certain that all would die. The boat is a complete death trap. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the trip (at the time in ignorance to the above facts) I would strongly recommend anyone reading this travelogue NOT to take this boat. There is a regular coach from Siem Reap to the capital. Take it . Saga fly their customers to Phnom Penh, I wonder why?

[Picture taken after boat had finally slowed down to enter river]

After disembarking we stagger along the riverside up to a small hotel called the Indochine, recommended in the Rough Guide. All the rooms are taken except one. An internal room with no window, but as it’s got a/c, is en-suite and only costs £6, that’s fine. Late afternoon and early evening we stroll the riverside and the narrow streets just off it. Despite its troubled past and still a lot of poverty, Phnom Penh clearly oozes its French colonial past, and is all the better for it.

Monday 13th February: Phnom Penh

Breakfast by the riverside and surprisingly Cambodia serves up the best breakfasts in SE Asia , thanks again to its French past. We sit in an attractive open air café by the river and enjoy proper French bread and croissants, fresh orange juice and really good coffee.

After breakfast we walk around the street markets before heading up to the indoor market, housed in massive domed art deco building, which I would guess was built by the French in the 30’s. In their markets you can buy anything. Every kind of food (including one stall that just sold fish heads), clothes ,fabrics, watches and jewellery. Apparently Cambodia , and this market in particular, is renowned for its top quality and inexpensive rubies (so we were informed when we got to Vietnam ). There are numerous bookstalls, selling vast tomes in English on Pathology, Biology and any other subject you can think of. Food stalls abound and you can stop and get a really tasty lunch for less than 50p. Most markets nowadays are just filled with cheap crap and pirated designer gear, Phnom Penh central market has a little of this, but basically it is a true city market where everyone from the city and the surrounding countryside comes to buy or sell. It’s wonderful.

[ Phnom Penh market]

We then visit another large art deco building in the capital. This building perhaps more than any other sums up Cambodia and also confirms my view that railway station architecture is the most interesting and diverse of all public buildings.

*PHNOM PENH RAILWAY STATION – Phnom Penh is perhaps not unique in being a capital city with just one railway station. However, it must be unique in the fact that there is only one train a day that leaves it………….sometimes. The one railway line runs from the capital up to the old city of Battambang. The train leaves at 7.00 each morning, but only if the train arrives from Battambang the night before. You can only buy tickets on the morning prior to it leaving and therefore the city’s residents who wish to take the train have to visit the station the night before, in order to establish that it has actually arrived. The train journey to Battambang takes (according to the official timetable) between 12 and 15 hours. The distance to Battambang is the same as that to Siem Reap, a journey that took us 5 hours by boat. There is only one stop (indeed there is only one other station in Cambodia) so clearly the rail authorities are not too confident about the reliability of the train. When the train does break down, and this is a regular occurrence, the passengers have to disembark. Being the most mined country in the world, making your way across the fields to the road must be quite an exciting experience.

It is now baking hot so it’s back to the waters edge for cold drinks and a rest before setting off to visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Another relaxing and enjoyable dinner, on the roof top terrace of an excellent restaurant, on the riverside.

[The Royal Palace ]

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Tuesday 14th February: Phnom Penh – Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City)