Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A few days in Phnom Penh

After leaving Siem Reap, we took a bus down to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Humid, dusty and full of racing motobikes swerving around everywhere, it is not an attractive city, but still has charm.

We explored some of the temples in and around the city centre, finding both peaceful views of the river and also monks chain smoking on the balconies. The rain fell thick and fast in the afternoons, completely drenching us on the couple of occasions that we we caught short. But between the rain were blue skies and the most amazing rainbow I think I've ever seen, not arching across the sky but forming a complete circle around the sun, the rings forming a multi-coloured halo. The people were helpful and funny, and the traffic aggressive and filling the air with the constant sound of horns. A real city of opposites.

Whilst there we visited the major remenants of the Khmer Rouge regime - the .... prision known as S21 - a former school in the centre of the city where around 20000 people were torchered before being executed. A stark and constant reminder of the autrociites which took place, the barbed wire-surrounded collection of buioldings and the preserved cells inside were a horrid visual image. The photographs of inmates posted up in their hundreds along walls, staring blankly at the camera upon incarceration were particularly touching, as was the video focusing on two victims and how they came to be in the prison. We followed the visit with a trip to the 'Killing fields' where prisoners were transported before execution. Mass graves displayed signs explaining how many bodies had been exhumed within, one having held over 450 men, women and children. The scale was incredible, and looking out over grave upon grave very sobering. Again, an informative little museum gave details of the finds as well as explaining the systems for the conduct and covering up of the mass executions. Not a pleasant or joyful experience, but one very much worth doing.

To round off our time in the city, we also wandered down to the Palace and Silver Pagoda, a beautiful temple complex alongside the river side. Similar in design to the palace and temples of Bangkok, it was set in lovely grounds and made for a very nice stroll to escape the heat and pollution of the roads.

Phnom Penh is an interesting city and definitely worth a visit if in Cambodia. Whilst not having the same small-town feeling of Siem Reap, it is nevertheless a diverse place, with plenty to do and see.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The most expensive 15 minutes of my life so far...

Sometimes, when browsing the relevant Lonely Planet guide for a trip, I stumble across something interesting to do or see and become completely fixated. Come hell or high water, I will do/see that thing. Even if it is going to bankrupt me. Call it a minor stubborn streak in my nature...

So it was with the third main way to see the temples of Angkor. We'd done the exploring at ground level, then the fixed line balloon. The last option was to take to the skies for a helicopter ride, and it was this that had caught my eye before we'd even left home. We'd never been in a helicopter. It would allow us a new perspective over the site. It was obviously fate.

So, after our three days of temple-hopping, we got up early the following morning and pottered along to the airfield. It almost didn't happen - the helicopters only fly with a minimum of three people, and during the wet season, less people sign up. We popped into the booking centre a couple of times before getting lucky. Thankfully, the sky was clear and blue, and the rain was holding off, allowing us to get up into the air.

The experience was ridiculously expensive for the amount of time we actually had over the site, but was completely worth it. Flying in a helicopter was a new and exciting adventure, and nothing at all like the stomach-turning light aircraft flight over Nazca last year. Our pilot took us in close to Angkor Wat and a few of the smaller temples, and it was also interesting to see all the fields and paddies stretching out in front of us. The time flew by, and we were soon back on the ground. A bit of a treat, but hey, that's what holidays are for, right?!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Temples, waterfalls and a big balloon

After doing the main central circuit on the first day, we spent the next couple exploring the more remote monuments and temples of Angkor. Before setting off, we took half an hour out to take a ride on the Angkor balloon - a fixed line ascent that gives a bird's eye view of Angkor Wat and really allowed us to appreciate the size of the complex.

Moving further into the jungle and away from the major roads and restoration projects resulted in a higher concentration of tree-entangled ruins and moat-surrounded temples. The sites were emptier of visitors, and the soft green of lichen contrasted beautifully with the clearer blue sky that a heavy downpour the previous night had enabled. The number of sites seemed endless - every time we thought we couldn't see anything better, we stopped off and there were root system winding their way through detailed carvings, or monumental towers reaching up into the sky.

Another real highlight for me was the area of Kbal Spean. Although not containing a monument at all, it is home to a number of rock carvings chiselled into a river bed leading to a waterfall. The carvings are reached by a 2km hike through a forest, scrambling at times up rock formations and along paths dappled by bright sunlight piercing the leaves overhead. The hike wasn't very difficult, and much of it shaded from the intense sun, resulting in a relaxing build up to the carvings. There were occasional view points as we climbed higher, and the concentration of butterflies was incredible - so many different colours and sizes fluttering around and on us. The carvings themselves were fantastic, particularly with water gushing over them, and the waterfall allowed us to cool off at the top as we paddled in the cold water.

Back at the bottom, we spent some time visiting the wildlife conservation centre nearby. Built to rehabilitate local animals and birds rescued from captivity or accidents, a very nice guide took us around and showed us some of the residents, and the new larger enclosure for gibbons. Although many of the animals can't ever be re-released, as they are too tame, the breeding programs aim to release young into the wild. What was a real shame was the visitor numbers to the centre. Although there must have been at least 40 people we came across when doing the hike, just in an hour and a half, so many more over the course of just one day, the visitor book showed only a small handful went on to take a tour through the wildlife centre. For a place that relies on donations, it is a tragedy that more people do not make it there.

Driving through the small villages on the way to some of the temples was also a great experience, watching locals working in the rice paddies and cooking palm sugar at the side of the road, and we were really pleased to have taken a couple more days out to make the journey to the outlying sites.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Exploring Angkor

A taste of temples in and around Bangkok had us yearning for more, so we bid a (temporary!) farewell to Thailand and jumped on a plane to Cambodia.

The journey itself was a bit of an adventure – our plane was of the tiny, propeller type, and we spent an hour being thrown about a bit passing through plenty of turbulence on the way. Arriving in Siem Reap, we made it out of the airport just before the skies opened and had our first taste of the Cambodian wet season, rain lashing down on our tuk tuk and flooding the roads as we struggled to get our bags inside the hostel before everything got soaked. These flash floods help to keep the temperature lower than it had been in Bangkok, but the humidity was much higher and at times quite literally breathtaking!

The following morning we were up at 4am ready to head into the Angkor temple area for sunrise. The wet season, although reducing the visitor numbers, doesn’t make for the most exciting sunrises, but it was still wonderful to see Angkor Wat emerge from the reducing gloom and cast its famous reflection on the moat in front of us. Soon after the sun had risen many of the tour groups retreated back into town for breakfast, and we were able to explore the temple in relative peace. There was some construction work taking place on the main building, and bits of scaffolding dotted around, but it didn’t detract much from the scale and grandeur of the place, and we spent time happily exploring its nooks and crannies.

We moved onto Angkor Thom, a huge area dotted with structures, with every corner bringing a new epic building or temple to gawp at. The moss and grass growing around the sites glowed emerald green and enhanced the dark, wet stone it covered, beginning to reclaim the buildings for the land. Many of the steep, narrow staircases winding through and around the complex are climbable, although the humidity, particularly in the morning, makes it hard going at times. We marvelled at the beautiful carvings along walls, and the famous faces of the Bayon smiling down upon us from every conceivable angle, hundreds of identical heads looming large and dominant yet utterly cheerful. Many of the temples look impressive at a distance but it is only once up close that the scale and intricacy can be appreciated and the layout apparent.

Although I understand the fascination with Angkor Wat, I was most looking forward to the ruins of Ta Prohm, its monuments already in the firm grasp of the surrounding jungle. It didn’t disappoint – the huge trees breaking through the crumbling walls seemed entirely natural, their long, thick roots slithering across the forest floor and reaching out. The atmospheric remains hid reliefs carved into crevices and everywhere a mossy green light fell across the stones.

We took the typical tomb raider pictures of the great stark white tree roots enfolding the wall and doorway of the inside of the eastern entrance, nipping in between tour groups and their impressively professional-looking tripod arrangements, before reluctantly moving on.

We hit a few more smaller monuments before finishing for the day, seeing some of the most well-preserved and detailed interior carvings of Vishnu and Lakshmi at Prasat Kravan before hopping back into the tuk tuk before the afternoon rain descended once more. The central buildings visited, we looked forward to exploring more of the surrounding monuments over the next couple of days.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

An hour from the city; a world away

One of the biggest highlights of our time in Bangkok was a day trip to the old capital, Ayuthaya, not far from its modern counterpart. Even though the temples and Grand Palace had been impressive, the crowds and heavy air of the city had left us a little fatigued and it was great to get outside and explore the ancient temples and buildings close by. Although still extremely humid, Ayuthaya was far less crowded and beautifully situated upon an island inside the river.

The temples at Ayuthaya were very different from those in Bangkok – huge stone and brick pillars and towers more reminiscent of SE Asian architecture, almost giving a sense of belonging in the landscape. The smell of incense wafting around us, we had by chance come on a day new monks are ordained, and were thrilled to see the famous orange robes around every corner. Some of the detailed stonework remained on the structures, and the dominating multiple Buddha statues loomed large.

We drifted around the main sites, clambering around the ruins and taking shade where possible under large trees to admire the views. Lunch was at a great restaurant right on the edge of the river, where I had some gorgeous Thai fishcakes whilst gazing into the muddy brown water below. For a place only an hour outside of Bangkok, it felt like a world away, and was a pleasant temporary relief from city life.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Temples and tourists in Bangkok

Bangkok is a city of opposites. A modern centre with an older heart, bursting with smells, music and life, whilst retaining the grandeur of its past. A tourist mecca, it attracts a range of visitors, from people passing through it's major hub into Asia, to groups of young backpackers heading south to the beaches, and those for whom the city is the main attraction. It is lively, brash and extremely welcoming, and the perfect first stop on this summer's trip.

With 5 days to spare, we had plenty of time to see what Bangkok had to offer. I was most looking forward to the street food stalls, and they didn't disappoint. Spicy fresh Pat Tai, thick grilled sweetcorn, fried meat and juicy hot bananas filled a hole, and the crunchy fried bugs served up like sweets made for an interesting experience - tasting of little, with the texture of a crunchy topping you might get on a salad or pasta (well, with the exception of the bigger black beetles. They were disgusting). Washed down with icy fruit shakes, we couldn't get enough of it all. Although I could happily have settled myself in the middle of the stalls and gorged solidly for the whole time, Bangkok also has some rather nice things to do and see, so we managed to tear ourselves from food every now and then...

The main draws in central Bangkok are Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and Wat Pho, both conveniently located next to each other in Ko Ratanakosin. The former is the home of the emerald Buddha - a small but famous statue, and the main royal palace, a ceremonial centre. Although an impressive complex, with multiple smaller temples and crevices hiding elaborately detailed statues, nearly everything covered in a sheen of gold and colourful mosaic sequins shimmering in the light, the atmosphere is somewhat reduced by the sheer number of visitors. I'm still glad I saw it, but the combination of the intense humidity, combined with the packed temples and long queues just to walk around, deflated the experience a little. Maybe we picked a bad day, but the whole time we were there we were never more than an inch or two away from someone else.

The next stop was Wat Pho, which despite being barely a few minutes walk away, was considerably less crowded. Immediately I got a better sense of atmosphere, and marveled at the rows of gold Buddhas standing alertly under beautiful roofs, and quiet courtyards tucked away and free from other visitors. The real highlight was the reclining Buddha, a huge 46m statue inside a building it seems to be growing out of, a massive benevolent golden face smiling down. Everywhere is unexpected detail, from the facial features to the ornate mother of pearl soles of feet, complete with whorls.

Another exciting aspect of the city are its many markets. The amulet market next to the river is filled with miniature charms for a range of uses. Food, clothing and traditional medicine markets spring up everywhere, although we did hurry through the dried fish sections with their distinctive odors...

Everywhere the crowds soar, the traffic looms and the air is thick with heat and moisture. Yet it all seems to fit together, making Bangkok an exciting place to be. Although if you've come for some spiritual relief, it might be best found somewhere a little quieter.

Anyway, back to my stomach and a bit of reclining of my own...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Jordan: Do's and Don'ts!

Jordan has swiftly jumped up the list to near of my favourite countries. With its friendly atmosphere, dramatic scenery and amazing sights, it really is a 'must-see' place. Here are the usual do's and don'ts...


- Hire a car. Driving in Jordan is the ideal way to see as much as possible, from off-the-track ancient sites, to the beauty of the surrounding landscape at your own pace. The roads are easily navigable (and this from someone who regularly walks into a shop, and when coming out can’t remember which way to go on, and quite often ends up walking backwards…), and well-maintained. Driving allowed us to stop where we liked for photos, leave and arrive at places when we wanted, and spend the maximum amount of time without rushing for public buses. Although I generally love using local transport for getting around, in a small country like Jordan, with a relatively short amount of time to see a lot, hiring a car was perfect in this instance.

- Get talking to the locals. Although I’ve been to some very hospitable places in the past, Jordan was hands-down the friendliest country I’ve ever visited (so far!). Whether it was giving us directions, a free bit of advice at the sights or just friendly waves and light conversation walking down the street, everything was for free and offered generously. When they themselves didn’t have the answer, many people we met offered to phone friends (even despite our protests), and even a vague confused look on our faces in a public place prompted an onslaught of offers of assistance. At no point did we experience any hassle at all, not even from taxi drivers, and shopkeepers and stallholders allowed us to browse completely in peace. It was fantastic.

- Cough up the money for Petra and the dead sea. Although very pricey (both in terms of fees and nearby accommodation), both places are unique and well-worth every penny. If visiting Petra over a couple of days, the multi-day ticket is much better value than buying fresh each morning - for the sake of a few extra dollars I’d recommend it even if you are undecided. The resorts framing the dead sea are top-end and room rates reflect this, but even then we were able to get a good deal and the proximity to the water is unbeatable.

- Be an early bird! Getting up and out early ensures missing the crowds at the sights, having near-empty roads to drive along and misses the intense heat of the middle of the day. When driving, heading out in the morning leaves plenty of time for detours on the way to your next destination (and getting lost…), without having to drive unfamiliar roads in the dark.


- Underestimate the cost of a trip to Jordan. although accommodation can be found for a reasonable price, if you want to be close to the main sites and activities you'll have to pay for it. Similarly, entrance fees can be steeper than in many other countries. Petra is extremely pricey, as are some of the holy sites. Amman was good value, but as the days progressed, the spending racked up.

- Feel the need to take any tours. Wadi Rum is an exception, as unless you have your own 4x4 you must hire one, along with a driver, at the entrance, but everywhere else is easy to get around independently, and allows you to set your own schedule. The tourist office produces some great little leaflets with incorporated maps for most major sights, and some reading beforehand prepared us for what we hoped to see.

- Expect an exciting culinary experience. Jordan was an incredible place in nearly every way, but unfortunately the food was the exception. Although perfectly edible, it was bland and without much variety, and soon we were craving alternatives. Luckily, there are some great little restaurants everywhere! Tea is the main drink, and is often served free by stallholders and hostels socially.

Hopefully I'll get the chance to return to Jordan one day and explore some of the places we missed this time around. Meanwhile, it's almost time for this summer's adventure...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Castles in the desert

When we began researching Jordan and setting our rough itinerary, there was one area that really fascinated us, particularly as we’d heard next to nothing about it before. Many of Jordan’s attractions are world famous, and for such a small country, we imagined that the main tourist trail would hit most of the sites. Yet when researching the Eastern desert, we found very little information, even though it holds numerous desert castles. These odd structures, scattered from Amman right across to the Iraqi border, promised a bit of out-of-the-way adventure, so after leaving Jerash, we drove across for a couple of days of castle-spotting.

The term ‘castle’ is a bit misleading – the buildings are much smaller, and more forts than anything that resembles a traditional castle. We began with Umm al-Jimal, a ruined town of black basalt to the north of Jordan near the Syrian border. Many of the buildings are unfortunately crumbling and destroyed, but the scattered rocks are a playground to explore and made the remaining structures even more impressive against the background. The black rocks soaks up the heat, so care is needed when walking around the site as they can become very hot, but it is well worth seeking out the standing archways, wells and churches.

We spent the night in Azraq, a crossroad town in the east. Although the place itself is pretty unattractive, with huge trucks rolling through and exhaust filling the air, it is a convenient stopping point and home of one of the more famous castles, Qasr al-Azraq, TE Lawrence’s base during the Arab revolt. After a decent (but expensive – we tried out several accommodation options in the area and couldn’t haggle a decent price) night’s sleep, we were ready to seek out some more castles the following day. Although there are many off the main route from Azraq to Amman, a number require a 4x4 to reach, so we stuck to the closest; Qusayr Amra, Qasr Kharana and Qasr al-Mushatta. The last was the most difficult – located around the back of the airport, the directions Lonely Planet gave are no longer usable due to police blocks, and we couldn’t find any road signs or directions on our driving map. After drifting around for ages, and accidentally driving into farms, construction sites and factories, we asked a parked lorry driver if they recognised the name. He didn’t, but immediately grabbed a friend and they both whipped out their mobile phones and began phoning around, seeing if anyone knew. It was yet another example of the helpful and friendliness of all the Jordanians we met. Still getting no luck, we thanked them and drove off, deciding to have one last try before finding a hotel.

Turning down a dirt road, we found ourselves driving through airport supply buildings, and after ten minutes and worries of trespassing laws, suddenly the castle was there, in the middle of it all. We jumped out, and began to explore. Wandering around, I turned a corner and sitting there in front of me was a baby owl. Lizards scurried to and fro as I sat and watch the tiny bird, completely unafraid of me and happily perched in the sun. After taking a few pictures we carefully left it in peace, and returned to find the car surrounded by sheep as they were herded around by their owner. Our path eventually cleared, we drove back out again, glad we’d held on that bit longer and found the final castle.

The desert castles were a wonderful ending to our trip. We were completely alone at all of them, as they seemed rarely visited (in fact, we had expected to pay an entrance fee to each but every time the lone wardens waved us through despite our protests. One even passed us the key to the castle and asked us just to lock up again afterwards!) and the remaining paintings and rooms inside were beautiful. Well worth a couple of days of exploration if possible.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Ruins, gladiators and chariots

Our next stop was the Roman city of Jerash, one of the better preserved Roman sites outside of Italy. Getting there was a bit of an adventure, as we took a wrong turning outside of Amman and ended up driving through the capital, desperately attempting to understand the road signs in heavy traffic and get back on track. As usual, some helpful and kind locals tried to show us the way, and after an unexpected half hour detour we were heading in the right direction.

Jerash is an incredibly interesting place, and well worth a day trip. Located right smack in the middle of a busy town, it really highlights the juxtaposition between the old and new, and the buildings, temples and theatres are in excellent condition. Yet again, because of the on-going neighbouring troubles, the site was quiet, and we wandered happily amongst the white structures. The whole site can easily be explored in a day, and the free guide leaflet available contained a clear map and snippets of information about each major area.

The real highlight of the day, I have to admit, was the wonderful Roman army and gladiator demonstration, complete with chariot racing, performed twice a day. Members of the Jordanian army, fully dressed in Roman uniforms and gladiator garb, marched and fought for us, as a distant loudspeaker voice explained tactics. The chariot race was fantastic – dust and dirt kicked up in the chariots’ wake, and yells echoed from the drivers. The children in the audience enjoyed it the most; it was an excellent basic educational experience for kids, and a second dose of cheesy entertainment for us! Being able to have my photo taken in the chariot afterwards was just the icing on the cake…

Friday, 8 July 2011

bob, bob, bobbing along...

After days in and around the desert, as we drove back up north along the west of the country there was a shift in the environment. The mountainous terrain remained, but it was now joined by a sharp smell of salt wafting on the breezes as the Dead Sea gradually appeared before us. Calm and still, a deep bluey-grey, it looked like thick oil stretching out ahead and across to Israel.

Aiming for the closest proximity to the water that we could manage, we had decided to go all out and treat ourselves for this part of the trip. For the last few years luxury had meant the occasional airport hotel when we were too tired or tight on time at the end of a holiday, so driving into the Movenpick, with it's complimentary fresh lemonade upon arrival and a room bigger than my entire flat, was a shock to the system. We soon got over it though as we explored the luxury bathroom, free minibar and incredible complex. Blowing all our money never tasted so sweet.

After a lovely dinner and restful sleep, we were ready to experience some of the therapeutic properties of the area the next morning. Luckily, many hotel residents seemed to rise late, or spend the morning around one of the multiple swimming pools, so the actual 'beach' and dead sea was pretty quiet. Although we'd been warned about the sensation of being in the water, nothing can really prepare you. Getting in and out is difficult enough - your body wants to do one thing, the water another, and it all results in being flipped over ungracefully again and again.

Once we'd got our balance and figured out that laying on our backs was the safest position, we started to enjoy ourselves. The water rippled thickly around us, viscose and shiny, as we lay back and bobbed around. Another quick tip - don't open your mouth when trying out water acrobatics. It's not pleasant...

After a while, we crawled our way out of the sea and got down to the business of slapping the silky dead sea mud all over us, and baking in the sun for the while. Washing it all off once more in the sea (to reveal soft, smooth new skin...well, sort of...), we floated around for a while more, drifting out to avoid the sharp, salt-encrusted rocks before eventually, and literally, dragging ourselves back in and plonking down by a pool.

Presently our feet started to get itchy to get out and do something, and we hopped into the car for the short drive to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the alleged site of Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan. There is a compulsory tour, and we were led through some lovely groves to the baptism area, now dried up due to over-use of the river water and a little sad, a dry and cracked pool. We walked further to where the river still runs, and for me the most interesting part of the excursion - a border to Israel just a metre away across the narrow river.

Afterwards it was back to the Movenpick, and another lovely evening and morning before heading off once more. Although I am a big advocate of cheap and cheerful accommodation when abroad, saving money for activities and sights, I have to admit that I was impressed with the hotel. Getting what you pay for and much more, it was a relaxing mini-break, and the location, right on the shore, couldn't be beat (although our beaten up rucksacks probably revealed us to be frauds!). Anyway, back to hostels...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Night visitors and into the desert

After a rest and some food (quick tip - if you plan on spending any extensive amount of time at Petra, bring a picnic!), we found ourselves back at the entrance once more, this time as the light began to fade, with tickets to 'Petra at night'.

After the frantic nature of the morning, we were more than happy to hang back at the end of the large crowd making their way in. The entrance walk and Siq was lit with thousands of candles, shadows settling on the rocks and lighting our way. Although advertised as a peaceful, quiet experience, the reality is rather different (as you might expect when over a hundred people are walking along in the dark!). Limited vision only enhances the talking, shouting and various other bodily noises, but it's still an unique opportunity and really quite fun.

The treasury area was by far the most impressive, with rows and rows of candles glowing in front of the main attraction, bringing out the deep red of the rock. Seated on carpets, we listened to traditional music and storytelling whilst being served tea. At the end, there was time to wander amongst the candles and take some really blurry pictures before the walk back.

Yes, it's a bit cheesy, not unlike the sound and light shows of a number of ancient monuments. But the chance to see the treasury and Siq at night, lit so beautifully, is well worth the price.

After leaving Wadi Musa, we drove further south and found ourselves at the entrance to Wadi Rum, another of Jordan's famous spots. The heat was pounding as we hired a 4x4 and driver to take us into the desert.

Vast and overwhelming perhaps, Wadi Rum is anything but the endless yellow sands of many deserts. The colours were incredible - yellows and oranges mixing with brick reds giving a layered effect to the landscape. Huge towering rocks cut through, eroded shapes lending height and shade. Camels lazed around, and gorgeous large dragonflies hovered around us, their iridescent wings shimmering in the light. We saw rock paintings tucked inside canyons, and once our driver knew we were okay with it, were thrown around a few sand banks in his completely beat-up, windowless vehicle.

Wadi Rum is an incredibly beautiful place, with so much to explore. A week there probably still wouldn't have been enough time to get a real feel for it. However, time wasn't on our side, and we reluctantly left, off to the opposite extreme environment.