Thursday, July 26, 2018

Crossing into Thailand

Our night in Anlong Veng, Cambodia was interesting.  It sees very few tourists passing through, much less staying overnight so there is very little in the way of infrastructure or comfort available.  We ended up in a cheap hotel where I could no longer keep brushing aside cockroaches and bugs before Sasha saw them.  It has been an ongoing thing that I keep distracting her or taking care of problems before she ever sees them and then telling her after the fact about her near misses. 
Not so this time.  There may have been some screaming in the bathroom as the walls came alive.... hahaha.
In the morning, Sasha, Bre and I got on the back of motorbikes again for the 15km ride to the Thai border at Choam.  This is a remote and rarely used crossing. Even though it seems there is a road going to it and it makes sense to use there is no regular transport to or through it.  In researching the routing I was able to find very little about this crossing online since it seems almost nobody does it.  I knew it existed and would be an interesting challenge and my gut told me an adventure was calling. 
The border post itself looked deserted.  On the Cambodian side there is a casino but at 9am there wasn't anything going on.  We had to search for someone at immigration to stamp us out (I'm pretty sure he was napping) and when we finally got through there were 2 guys with a taxi and no other sign of transport.  Since the first real city with buses to anywhere is still quite far, a taxi going to the nearest nowhere town at a high price wasn't really going to help us all that much.  And, well, it's a taxi.  We don't get along most of the time.  Therefore it should surprise no one that a few minutes later, the 3 of us were having a leisurely walk down a deserted road, destination anywhere... 
Bre was probably shaking her head about me up to my usual antics and Sasha was probably wondering why she still travels with a madman, but based on my past experiences in Thailand, my plan made perfect sense.

Sleepy Anlong Veng

Off to the border

It was a beautiful sunny morning, it is safe, the people are ridiculously friendly, within a few vehicles passing by we were bound to get a ride.  Sure enough, within a couple km, we started passing by some side roads and there was a bit more traffic and we were picked up quickly.  We hopped along on short rides, one following quickly after another.  I don't know where we were going but if we had lots more time we could have gone to people's homes, or thai boxing matches or any of a number of other things we were invited too.  This is what I love about Thailand and why it is still such a great country to visit.  Despite being one of the most visited countries in the world, it is still quite possible to safely and easily get away from everyone else, and the locals will still act happy to see you.  You don't have to worry about the language barrier when people are genuinely willing to help, the food is always good and there is always somewhere to stay.  I'm a fan of the unique architectural style too. After the touristy chaos of Angkor Wat, there was something very refreshing about riding down back roads in the back of someone's pickup truck just letting travel happen. 
We ended up in a small town, got some money, got some food and jumped on a random bus that was going to Khorat.  I knew where that was at least and it was a step in the right direction.  I don't know what kind of bus we ended up on but I feel like it took hours longer than it should have and we arrived in the evening, too late to continue further.  I had hoped to catch a train, but the lady at the ticket office was kind enough to point us in the direction of a cheap hotel for the night.

Hitchhiking in Thailand

Pad Thai dinner in Khorat after a long day

The following morning we caught a train to Ayutthaya where we stayed another night.  I'd been to Ayutthaya before as well but once again didn't recognize it.  I think I'd gone through it too quickly and was too tired back then for it to stick rather than it having changed as much as Siem Reap.  It is the site of a former capital of Thailand from the 14th to 18th centuries and has many ruined temples and palaces to see.  It is a popular day trip from Bangkok and if time permits, highly recommended for at least a quick visit. We wandered around well into the evening and must've pushed it too hard. I had pretty bad heat exhaustion by the end of the day. Remember to drink enough in the tropics!

Very well maintained and organized

Gotta share the road!

The next morning we took the train to Bangkok for what would amount to a day visit before flying out early the following morning.  With only a day in Bangkok the typical thing would be to visit the Royal Palace and Wat Pho.  Which we did, sort of.  After a quick ride on the river ferry from near the train station to the palace area we realized our mistake.  It was a day of funeral processions and mourning for the deceased King.  There were thousands of people dressed in black coming to pay their respects.  Streets were blocked off, security was crazy and only part of the Royal Palace was open.  This was all in addition to the usual heavy tourist traffic.  We went anyway since we'd come that far.
Wat Pho was a little less crazy but still very busy.  It sits in its own large walled off complex beside the Royal Palace area. It is the main temple in Bangkok now and is the home of Thai massage. The style and look are very similar to palace next door (it is hard to distinguish between them in a random photo) but with a lot more Buddhas, including a huge reclining one in the main temple section.
All this effectively killed most of the day.  I've never been a big fan of the touts and hassle in Bangkok though so I wasn't sorry to leave and head to the airport. Bre flew home while Sasha and I continued for a special next destination on our whirlwind trip.

Royal palace grounds

Wat Pho


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


Monday, July 02, 2018


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.