Sunday, July 08, 2018

A return Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear

From Mauritius we flew back to Kuala Lumpur, this time staying for 2 nights with a nice couchsurfing couple.  It was just enough time to have some laughs and to give Sasha the whirlwind tour of the Petronas towers, Merdeka square and the city centre.  It still feels so familiar after multiple visits over the years and is somewhere I really don't mind going back to.  Kuala Lumpur is a much more manageable and pleasant capital than most in Southeast Asia, feels safer and has a great variety of yummy food.  Sasha agrees.


Merdeka square


Why not stay longer in Malaysia?  Like Mauritius, our next destination was also determined by a flight price I couldn't ignore.  We flew one-way from KL to Siem Reap in Cambodia for $10 each.  Siem Reap is the city beside the amazing Angkor Wat ruins and I was looking forward to a revisit and for Sasha to finally see them.  We also met up with Bre who flew in to join us for a week. 
We flew in, got our visa at the airport and a tuktuk to our hotel.  I know I didn't arrive by air last time I was here, back in 2003 (it was a long, dusty, bumpy ride in from Thailand), but when we got into town I had no idea where I was.  Nothing looked familiar.  I've returned to many places over all my travels.  Lots of places change (including back home in North Vancouver) but this was night and day.  No, that metaphor doesn't even begin to do it justice.  Nothing was the same.  I began to question where I was.  In 14 years they'd developed the place from a quiet backwater with dusty streets, where you hung out in a run down hostel and rode around on the back of a motorbike taxi, to a noisy, bustling, city of wide boulevards lined with upscale hotels.  I think this was one of the biggest culture shock moments of my life and it was to continue in the days ahead.
We met up with Bre and the next morning hired a driver to head out to the ruins of Angkor Wat.  There are now so many busloads of tourists visiting (especially from China) that they've had to build a huge ticket processing centre on the edge of  town to deal with everyone (and try to sell them souvenirs).  They still have single and multi-day entry tickets.  I think the 3-day pass is the best option and we used ours for just 2 days though there was still a lot we didn't visit this time.  1 day is simply not enough, especially with the crowds. 
I hate to say it.  It pains me greatly to say it.  Angkor Wat is now the textbook example of how mass tourism can ruin an experience.  I've been raving for years about how it was one of the best experiences I've ever had but it simply isn't that place anymore.  From the big parking lots to numerous areas within the ruins now off-limits or under construction, to boarded walkways and new stairs and paths to climb the ruins and the hills, there were huge sections I didn't recognize anymore or were not as intimate and exciting.  We had to wait in line for 45 minutes to get to the uppermost level of the main Angkor Wat temple because they limit the numbers.  Also, for the sunset view from the ruins at the top of the hill at Phnom Bakheng, the numbers allowed are so limited and the demand so high that unless you are up there at least 2 hours early you have no hope.  We got to the top way early to have a look because we were in the area.  Noticing that it wasn't going to be a great sunset that night we opted to head back down.  The line waiting below hoping to get up was soul-crushing.  I understand why it has been done.  I don't blame them.  Mass tourism requires a different kind of management and preservation and some places simply become too popular for their own good.  There is also a significant amount of work required to combat the destructive effects of nature as well. I have seen the future of global tourism and it doesn't always look good. 
But I was in shock.  Sasha and Bre loved it and there is no denying that Angkor Wat is still one of the most impressive ruins on the planet and something every traveler should hope to see.  We spent two full days at the site, checking out the big and little loops on different days, stopping off to explore the different ruins, trying our best to capture that Indiana Jones atmosphere.  There is something special about those massive trees and roots engulfing the ruins.  Our best results were at some of the smaller ruins and my favourite for scrambling this time was the Preah Khan temple.  It is large enough that you could still get away from most of the crowds.  The multitude of stone faces staring back at you at Bayon will always be a highlight too.
















Unfortunately due to the nature of our trip and the short timeline on our next flight out from Bangkok we had to keep moving.  If there is one place in Cambodia I don't long to revisit it is the border with Thailand at Poipet so I planned a more roundabout route that would get us off the main tourist route a little bit. 
A site in Cambodia I'd always wanted to see was the temple of Preah Vihear in the north on the border with Thailand.  This temple has been the subject of disputed ownership between the two countries to the point of soldiers shooting at each other and the temple being off-limits to visitors.  Things seem to be settled now but most tourists still haven't ventured up that far yet.  Public transportation options are limited or would take too long so we ended up hiring a car and driver to take us to the temple a few hours away and on the way back drop us off in Anlong Veng instead of the full return.  This would enable us to cross into Thailand the next day at the northern border of Choam. 
Preah Vihear is not a huge complex.  It is all about the dramatic location as it sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the plains below.  A car can only get you so far.  Then you have to get a second ride up the steep and windy road to the temple.  Choices are either on the back of a motorbike or in a 4WD.  We chose the motorbikes, a choice Sasha was not fond of and is not for the faint of heart. 
As a result of the border disputes, there are still soldiers from both sides stationed at the temple and/or nearby.  It wasn't intimidating, but quite awesome that the handful of Cambodian soldiers managed to outnumber the tourists and we were able to leisurely wander and explore to our hearts content without the crowds.  I loved it.

Heading up to Preah Vihear





Ammon

Monday, July 02, 2018

Mauritius

Mauritius is a small African island nation just east of Madagascar.  Not the typical destination for a trip around southeast Asia. I mentioned before that our strategy was to just connect the dots on good deals on some flights around southeast Asia and while I was searching around I saw a promo for a new flight route on Air Asia to Mauritius with some prices I couldn't ignore ($300 return for a 7hr flight).  In my excitement I literally drove straight over to bother Sasha at work so I could get her credit card and book it immediately.  She was just a little shocked to see me but wasn't about to complain.  And thus was born our little 5-day side trip to Mauritius.  Sometimes it pays to be flexible while on a trip, sometimes you have to be flexible while still planning it.  As it turns out that route was cancelled about 6 months later so you also need to know when to jump on these things right away.
As a personal rough rule of thumb if I'm just passing through an island to take a look (as we were in this instance) then 4-5 days seems about right to me.  If it is the destination and purpose, well, that's different.
Mauritius is an island, and African, but it isn't mainland Africa and it has a whole lot of cultural fusion.  Both the French and British controlled the island and both languages are still used today though creole is the most common.  The British brought in a lot of indentured workers from India to work the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery.  In fact, Mauritius is considered to have been the model and testing ground for the system of indentured labourers from India which was later spread globally to such far flung places as Trinidad and Fiji.  A huge percentage of the population now is of Indian descent from these labourers. Hinduism is the dominant religion (lots of temples) and Indian snacks are the most common street food (yum).  It's a weird mix but nice as well.
We couchsurfed with a lovely African lady and her family in the capital Port Louis and used it as our base to explore other areas. We had perfect warm and sunny weather so a short walk through town to the bus station (grabbing some dhalpuri takeaway for the road) and riding bus to a different corner of the island for a visit and back made for a great day.
Of course we had to start with exploring Port Louis first.  It is the capital and largest city, located in the northwest which is by far the most developed section of the island.  It isn't huge, but it feels cramped, a little hectic and run down, but still very manageable and not unsafe.  There is a small but nice new-looking development area at the Caudan waterfront where you can stroll, shop or find a trendy new restaurant.  A little further north along the water is the Aapravasi Ghat, a relatively recently-listed Unesco site that preserves in a small free museum, the remains of the original wharf where indentured labourers first arrived and were processed.  Also nearby is the small central market.  Although there wasn't much to see, it was a good spot to get cheap local snacks and drinks.  Behind Port Louis is a green mountain backdrop with a handful of trails good for an afternoon walk with our host.

Central Port Louis

The new Caudan waterfront area


A residential area and the hikeable hills behind Port Louis


North of Port Louis is the primary tourist resort area so we avoided that and spent most of our days headed southwest instead.  Savannah had been to Mauritius a few years before, loved it and recommended we visit the Casela wildlife adventure park.  It is something of a cross between a zoo and a safari park.  You can see quite a few different animals (mostly African ones), some in cages and some wandering around. I don't think I'll ever forget the moment when the "rock" Sasha was staring at moved and she realize it was a giant tortoise!  You can go on a short safari ride and for a little extra even pet or walk with lions.  Of course we had to do that and I think the risk of Sasha spontaneously exploding out of sheer joy was much higher than and risk of a lion attack...  Of course there is always some controversy with these types of things and talk of drugged animals, but the place comes across as very well run and maintained and definitely worth a visit if you can't get to the African mainland for the real deal.

Countryside outside Casela






Near Casela is Flic en Flac beach.  A great name for a great beach.  It is popular but long and very relaxed with white sand and warm clear water.  We were there mid-week so it was pretty quiet with a few locals lounging about.

Flic en Flac beach with Le Morne in the distance.

In the southwest corner of the island is Le Morne, a small mountain that was a popular hiding spot for runaway slaves who hid out in its caves.  We took the long bus ride down (~2hrs) and then did a partial climb up the mountain.  We were a little unsure about whether or not you can get to the top.  It is fenced off though there are reports of guides and/or people getting around the fences that are at the upper sections.  In any case, you have to register at the bottom with a little guard booth before you start up the trail.  The view of the lagoon and all the windsurfers was fantastic from the height we got to anyway so we were more than satisfied with our efforts.  


Windsurfers below Le Morne

Very rewarding hike
Our last day in Mauritius we visited the town of  Mahebourg and Blue Bay in the southeast to kill time before going to the airport nearby.  It is also a very pretty area and if I visit again I would like to explore it more.  It had a more relaxed and quieter atmosphere to it, though Blue Bay can get busy and has the odd tout for snorkelling tours.

Mahebourg bus station is right beside this view

Views from Mahebourg

Blue Bay


Overall, it was a great visit, people were nice, and it was easy to get help and get around though not always fast and efficient.  Too bad it is too far away to go again easily.
Ammon

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Shanghai and Singapore

The only way I could hope to go to Micronesia without Sasha was to promise her an even bigger trip right after.  We have been lucky the last few years because flights from Vancouver to Asia have been ridiculously cheap.  If you are ready and waiting for them there have been flights all over the place for less than a flight to Toronto.  It's no wonder I still haven't visited the rest of Canada.
Knowing this was the case and with it being Sasha's first trip to Asia, my strategy was simple.  Book another 5 weeks off work (Jan/Feb 2017) and wait for a cheap flight to come up.  It didn't matter to me where we started because regional flights can also be very cheap on airlines like Air Asia and there is so much to see and do wherever you go.
If you give me this much room to play with, I can come up with some pretty crazy ideas...  So another deal came up and again we were flying to Manila, this time via a long stopover in Shanghai.  Then I waited some more.  In my experience the best flight sales and deals around Asia happen about 2-3 months before you want to go so in that window of time I started booking one way flights around to tie in an exciting route.  But we'll get to that.  An important thing to remember when booking a bunch of separate flights is to always give yourself lots of wiggle room because you are on your own if you get delayed and miss one.  I always give myself lots of layover space (good if you want to visit a city for a day anyway) and this happened to us when our flight time from Vancouver to Shanghai was changed to a full day later.
China has become really good for stopovers as almost all the major international flight hub cities allow visa-free stopovers of 72 hours (or more in the case of Shanghai), provided you have your onward ticket already.  We arrived in Shanghai in the morning with a 16-hour layover to kill so jumped on the metro to head into town.  Although the train was empty when we first got on, it got progressively busier until we were completely squished and having to push back with all our strength to keep from getting crushed against the walls and bars.  Being out on the streets at times didn't feel a whole lot better.  There are a lot of people over there.  It being over 10 years since I was last in China I couldn't be sure if it was just Shanghai that felt so new and modern or if China itself is advancing so rapidly but I suspect Shanghai is leading the way.  We wandered around the modern centre and along the waterfront (the Bund) for its most famous views.  One side of the river is ultra-modern looking and impressively lit up at night.  The other side is still lined with the old colonial trade buildings set up by the Europeans in the mid 19th century. It makes for an interesting mix.
Knowing we were going to be in tropical weather for pretty much the whole trip we didn't bring coats.  Shanghai was a cold and windy 9C and we toughed it out, trying to stay warm as best we could.  We spent quite a bit of time ducking into shopping malls and visiting the very good Shanghai Museum to warm up.  We lasted until shortly after sunset, wanting to see the Bund lit up before retreating to the airport.  In all, a modern Chinese city doesn't feel that far different from Vancouver....

The Bund

Great views across the river

The historical side

Even better at night

We had a midnight flight to Manila, arriving at some ridiculously early pre-dawn hour.  Because we were delayed a day, we lost our day of stopover in Manila so a few hours later had to catch our next flight to Singapore, arriving in the afternoon.  We met up right away with my good friend, Francis.  By this time we'd had almost no sleep for 48 hours and were feeling a little wrecked.  So much so that Sasha fell asleep mid conversation at dinner :)
Francis met up with us a couple times during our couple day stay, but for the most part I was playing tour guide wandering down memory lane though downtown Singapore, the botanical gardens and other historical neighbourhoods.  It is still as clean, safe and organized as ever, and the food is excellent.
The Merlion


The very famous and historic Raffles hotel

Wandering the botanical gardens

Another great meal with Francis

From Singapore we caught a bus across the border (a very busy and slow crossing these days) and then directly to the Kuala Lumpur airport where we stayed overnight before catching a flight the next morning to Mauritius.
Ammon

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Micronesia and the Marshall Islands

A diving dream of mine came true way earlier than expected in Nov 2016.  Anyone serious about scuba diving will have heard of the wreck diving in Truk (now known as Chuuk) in Micronesia.
Despite being a group of tropical islands in the middle of the pacific, Micronesia has very little tourism to speak of.  It is difficult and very expensive to get to and has surprisingly little infrastructure or economy, tourism or otherwise.  There are 4 states in Micronesia, comprising the 4 biggest island groups but they are pretty small and widely flung across the pacific.  Chuuk is one of these.
Pretty much the only commercial option to the islands is via United airlines on their island hopper service which hops from Hawaii to Guam and back a couple times a week stopping in multiple parts of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.  With a monopoly on the flights, prices are brutal so my strategy was always to accumulate enough points on airline miles to get there on a reward flight.  I expected it to be a very long project but through a couple of credit card bonuses and a creative use of all the options, I was able to make it happen.
My strategy ended up being to catch a cheap flight to Asia (anywhere would do, but Manila worked out best) from where I would get a return rewards flight to the Marshall Islands with a stopover in Truk, Micronesia along the way.  This roundabout route cost fewer than half the points needed for the trip from north america and still saved me thousands of dollars on the flights.
Sasha wouldn't be going because of the cost and she is not a scuba diver so I talked Bre into going.  Bre's always up for anything adventurous, even if she has no idea what is going on.  She has only a little experience and a scuba license so she was like a baby in these waters and was quickly adopted by everyone else.  By far the majority of divers showing up at Chuuk have hundreds if not thousands of dives under their belt and even I at 200 felt like a newbie there. I think many of them were quite jealous that Bre got to dive "the dream" so quickly.
Chuuk is a lagoon.  The view from the air coming in is nothing short of stunning  with the outline of the lagoon and a handful of small islands and crystal clear water.  During WW2 the Japanese used it as a forward naval base for their pacific fleet and it was for a time their largest base outside of Japan.  In 1944 the Americans attacked Chuuk and in a 3-day aerial bombardment, essentially destroyed the Japanese garrison and sunk dozens of Japanese ships and a huge number of aircraft.  To this day it is considered the best concentration of wreck dives in the world and though they are very well preserved and very accessible, many are starting to disintegrate after 70 years underwater.

One of many amazing views coming into Chuuk
Not the best initial impression in Chuuk

Much better looking at the resort

We stayed in Chuuk for a week and dove 3 times a day each day which is pretty standard.  There are only 2 resorts on Chuuk and both cater to divers.  Blue Lagoon Resort, where we were, is by far the biggest and most organized, though still quite small.  After WW2, Micronesia became a US colony until the 80's and it is obvious nothing has been rebuilt or maintained.  The streets are in terrible shape and the homes, buildings and cars look like they just finished the war.  I don't say this to be mean to but illustrate that aside from diving, nobody goes there because there is nothing else to do and it isn't considered particularly safe either. It took us 30 minutes just to drive the couple of km from the airport to the resort, not because of traffic but because of the size of the potholes...
The resorts are small and pretty basic but well set up for people who just want to dive and dive some more.  There are also a couple liveaboards that operate in the area but I don't really see the point when the resort good enough and the sites are so close.
Of our dives, only 1 was a repeat dive onto the same ship (though a different part of it) so there is plenty of stuff to see giving great revisit value.  Our typical day was get up, have breakfast, dive, rest on a different island beach or maybe go back to the resort (dive sites were anywhere from 10-30 minutes away), dive again, have lunch, dive again, come back to relax and socialise with the other guests.  It wasn't the busiest season so there weren't many of us overall , maybe a dozen at the resort at most, and our little dive group was typically 5-6 of us and our guide. Flight days were the busiest because guests would typically stay for a night between flights and the liveaboard arrival/departure.  But when the total annual tourist numbers are only a few thousand, you don't worry about crowds :)

Relaxing at our resort

We had it all to ourselves

Dives were generally pretty short because of the depths involved.  The amazing thing is that because these ships were sunk in battle there is not only damage to the ships but the material inside is still intact too.  I had done some great WW2 wreck dives previously in Coron, Philippines (still recommended) but because this is in a lagoon, the better visibility and general lack of current made it so much nicer.  With the only real difficulty being the depths, and with such a variety of sites to choose from, a relatively new diver can still have a great experience. 
We dove a destroyer and on an airplane, but most of the ships were transport ships with cargo holds full of anything from medical supplies to bullets and aircraft parts.  On the deck of one there were still jeeps and a tank.  Amazing! Most dives involved some small penetrations into the hold or along hallways.  It's always a little disorienting swimming sideways down a hallway of a ship laying on its side.  Once we were all feeling confident, on the last day we did a penetration into the pitch black engine rooms at 45m down.  Not going to lie, that freaked me out.  The shallower dives have more coral growth and fish and are decaying faster as a result.  I'd love to go back and do more as there was still a lot we didn't see.
The dive boats await

Bre is ready




The week there went by quickly and we made some good friends.  We then jumped back on the island hopper flight to get to Majuro, 4 stops down the line.  The flight, in a 737, takes around an hour between stops and then stops for 30-45 minutes before continuing.  Luckily we were often allowed to get out and of course the islands themselves looked amazing from the air.  The exception was at Kwajalein, a US military base and missile testing facility and probably the only stop on the flight route that keeps it in business.
If you've heard of the nuclear testing done at bikini atoll, that's a remote part of the Marshall Islands.  Like Micronesia, the Marshalls became a US colony after WW2, gaining independence at the same time.  They are still heavily influenced (or dictated to) by US foreign policy and the presence of the military base there. Both countries still us the US dollar and are still basically entirely dependent on the US economically.  Overall the Marshall Islands probably gets more visitors but not tourists. The only other foreigners we met were either military contractors on their way to Kwajalein for work, or guys sailing across the pacific.
Unlike Micronesia which is mountainous and green, the Marshall Islands are totally flat, sandy coral atolls surrounding their lagoons.  Apart from landing on Kwajalein, we only stayed on Majuro, the capital. The land part that people live on is a long strip about 50km long that doesn't quite make a half circle around the lagoon and in many places is no wider than the distance you could throw a frisbee.  They somehow managed to find a straight enough stretch of land to put the runway for an airport, though the runway and the road going beside it took the entire width of the land available.
For the most part there is only one long street and no traffic lights at all, with everything build on either side.  One side faces the calm lagoon waters and the other faces the open ocean.  The widest part at one end is where most of the "city" is built, though it is all very basic homes and shops.  I can't speak for the rest of Micronesia but Majuro seemed a little more developed and organized than Chuuk.  Like Micronesia, there are only a couple small hotels and guesthouses.
Because of the way the flights worked out we had to stay 4 days but got lucky in staying at the only airbnb place on the island, a small apartment made out of shipping containers.  There really wasn't much to do but wander along the road at our end of town and stare out to sea when we could get to the water or poke our heads into the little shops.  Surprisingly there was very little beach area and almost nowhere to just sit out and relax.  We also found a lot of litter accumulating in the few free spaces around. As expected in such a remote place, their selection of fresh produce was very depressing and prices heavily inflated.

Not much space to live on
Our Airbnb
Wandering the streets of Majuro

Looking into the calm lagoon

Looking out to sea


One day we took a public minivan to the far end of the road where we found a smaller community and the only real beach and park area on the island at Laura.  It was pretty much deserted so we splashed around in the shallow water and watched the tide come in.  At low tide it looks like you could actually walk to the other small islands dotting around the other half of the lagoon as the perimeter is quite shallow in most places with just a few channels to allow for shipping.  It was funny to see posters of diving at the airport and on the country tourism website and yet it was almost impossible to find any.  The water is supposed to be great and I would've liked to give it a try.  When I finally tracked down the only dive operator in town it turned out it was closed because the one guy that ran it was on holidays in the US for a month!  We also kept coming across nuclear compensation advertisements for people suffering from the testing on bikini... People were friendly enough though and we didn't run into any problems.

Perfect water

Finally found a beach at Laura

There are small planes flying to further outlying island chains but without a lot more time and money it just isn't going to happen.  There may be some possibility of finding someone with a boat to take you to other parts of the lagoon on a day trip but we didn't bother with that either. Overall a great trip but definitely a specialized one, not for the casual traveller.
Ammon