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June 4, 2007

Ancient temples and butt aching travels

On March 7th I took the bus to the Cambodian border. Well, almost to the border. Had to take a short tuk tuk ride the rest of the way. I crossed the border on foot into the tacky gambling town, Poipet, pausing only to pick up a few other foreigners along the way. For the next 6 or so hours, we were the best of friends. We bonded together to help each other through customs and to negotiate a taxi to Siem Reap. We made sure we all had a place to sleep that night and had enough to eat. I've had some amazing experiences with perfect strangers. Everyone I met in my South East Asia travels had stories of instant friends doing things that old friends might hesitate to do. One person I spoke to had all of his money stolen from the hotel safe in Myanmar. Since there were no bank machines, he realized his travels in the country were immediately over, but he didn't even have enough money to get himself out of the country. Four people he had met the night before pooled their money and donated enough cash to keep his travels going a while longer. In the spirit of the same instant comradery I was able to get myself safely and cheaply to my destination.

Initially, The drivers wanted insane amounts of money to get us to our destination. We had to hang around for about 2 hours before a reasonable rate was offered and a driver was agreed upon. The road to Siem Reap is dirt road with potholes so big you could hide a small car in them. The road veers in all sorts of interesting directions to avoid the giant crater-like holes and sometimes the lane the you were driving in suddenly doesn't exist anymore. To make things a little more interesting, our driver was driving a Thai car, so the driver's seat was on the wrong side of the road for the country we were in.

It was an insane trip. Word on the street is that the road has been kept in disrepair for so long because a certain airline was paying off the Cambodian government not to seal it. That way more tourists would be forced to fly. Not this tourist though! I took the bum aching journey and lived to tell the tail (oops, I mean tale). No thanks to the police officer who wouldn't let us go without getting a cut from the driver, or our driver who started falling asleep behind the wheel. Luckily we found an outdoor eatery and jacked our driver up on caffeine for the rest of the journey.

FYI: There is a highway currently in the process of being sealed from the border to Siem Reap thanks to the Thai government's contributions. The Thais are hoping to increase tourism and trade between the countries.

The purpose of going to Siem Reap was to visit Angkor Wat, which I did get up early the next morning to go and visit. I'm not going to explain the significance of the ruins. There are enough websites dedicated to the topic already, but if you want to do a little research there is some good info here, here and here.


April 2, 2007

Same Same but Different - Part 2

This is Red, who came to meet my bus in Phenom Phen and took me back to my hotel.

Back in Canada soon. I'm getting very excited.

March 6, 2007

Same Same (but different)

The boy behind the desk at reception held up a piece of paper that said "Paeder". "Same same?", he enquired. I looked at the paper nodded and repeated the mantra, "Same same." (... only different...) I took a pen and wrote out "Heather". The paper was taken back for inspection and passed around to other hotel staff who had gathered to watch the farang (foreigners) attempting to check-in. The paper was frowned at and I began to wonder why I was even mentioning the difference of a few letters when it might put my ability to check-in at risk. It was 7:30 am and Kelly and I had been in Bangkok for over an hour and a half trying to find a hotel or guest house that had space for us. We were exhausted after taking the excessively air-conditioned overnight bus from Sukothai to Bangkok. This hotel told me on the phone they had one room available (with hot shower and air con!!) and if Paeder isn't me then he (or she) is about to lose his (or her) reservation because there is no way I'm giving this room up after trekking all the way over here with our bags. The boy held up Paeder's name again and I smiled as reassuringly as I could manage and repeated, "Same same". The magic words worked. Overjoyed I took the key from an outstretched hand. Soon we were blissfully dragging our exhausted bodies and belongings up the stairs to our room for some well-earned napping.

That was Thursday Feb. 22nd. Today is March 6th and it is my last night in Bangkok (for now). Tomorrow I wake up early and hop on a bus to Cambodia, but before I leave Thailand I wanted to catch you up on the adventures of the past month.

Let's see, when I wrote last, Kelly and I were enjoying island life on Koh Tao. Definitely my favourite Thailand island so far. Kelly did her Open Water and Advanced dive courses and I finished my Advanced and did some fun dives (what they call a dive when you're not training).

In between dives we also took some time to explore the island and do some snorkeling. Sadly my under water camera is an actual film camera (unfinished and undeveloped), so I'll have to wait to post those photos, but here's some shots of the island.

Koh Tao's yearly World Underwater Festival got underway on our last day in Koh Tao. It was well worth sticking around for.

On Feb. 10th Kelly and I boarded the ferry to Ko Pha-Ngan for a couple of nights. For those of you wondering, yes that is the home of the infamous Full Moon parties which Kelly and I were more than happy to give a skip after hearing very few positive things about. But the island itself is well worth a visit.

If I lived in Thailand I think I'd have a ridiculous number of pets within a matter of days. When the strays look like this, I don't know how anyone could resist.

Of course some strays would be quite easy to resist.

While we in the mood to island hop, Kelly and I hopped on another boat (high speed this time) for a tour of Ang Thong Marine Park. Which was beautiful but not quite as wonderful as the pictures led us to believe. All the same, it was worth the 2000 Baht (60 CDN) for the adventure, some snorkeling, and the kayaking.

On Feb 14th Kelly and got on yet another ferry and hopped back to Koh Samui (my least favourite island) to kill time until our very early morning flight (6 am) to Chiang Mai. This is the island we started our Thailand adventures on, and really for a least favourite, its not all that bad.

This last photo is thee only one I'm posting from our last day on the islands. This boy was meant to be selling me flowers, but instead we hung out and played with my various gadgets for awhile.

In between Koh Samui and Chiang Mai, was a brief stop at Bangkok's new international airport. A lovely piece of architecture. Too bad its has proved to be a very disorganized airport for travellers.

Chiang Mai is a treasure trove of markets, restaurants and Wats (Temples). We spent 5 days there but it went by very very quickly. Partly because I slept through about 2 and a half days before Kelly dragged me to the hospital. I had gotten the Thailand special... Parasites... Not fun. Picked it up on that island that I don't much like. Kelly had all the same symptoms but was able to recover from it more quickly than me. I've been informed by the Doctor that I am not allowed to eat fresh vegetables for the rest of the time that I am here. If I was a kid and a Doctor told me that, I likely would've hugged him. As an adult and a serious vegetable lover, I wasn't so pleased to hear the news. But I did recover. The doctor was great and should you ever get sick in Chaing Mai I highly recommend the Ram Hospital. Very nice and clean with English-speaking staff and likely the cheapest doctors bill I'm ever likely to receive. 780 Baht, including prescriptions! That's about $26 CDN. I was impressed.

The photo below was taken on Kelly's first Tuk Tuk ride. An initially terrifying experience that quickly becomes more fun than you ever thought possible.

A 20 minute drive out of Chaing Mai can bring you to the beautiful Wat Suan (originally built 1373 and restored in 1932).

On Feb 20th, not entirely ready to leave but wanting to see more of Thailand before Kelly's time ran out, we boarded a bus headed south. We were in the direction of Sukothai to see the ruins of the old capital of Thailand but along the way we stopped to meet some of Thailand's "wildlife".

Elephant Home is a government sponsored park for out of work elephants. Really. They don't do logging in the same way anymore and so they have to find new work for the elephants, like entertaining tourists.

Yes that is an elephant painting. And the one below is the finished work. They also play musical instruments, in case you were wondering.

A not so subtle request for a tip after taking Kelly and I for a ride.

After that is was taxis and buses to our guest house in Sukothai. The next morning Kelly and I rented bicycles to explore the ancient city.

Another day later takes us back to where this entry began, napping in Bangkok. And after the nap Kelly and I headed off the the Grand Palace, one of Bangkok's top tourist attractions and one that I managed to miss my first time in Bangkok just over a year ago.

Below is a mini version of Ankor Wat, which I should be seeing in its full-sized glory tomorrow or the next day!

Not ones to stay in one spot for too long, on the 25th Kelly and boarded a bus to Kanchanaburi. Home of famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

This is the Thailand-Burma Railway built by the POWs (Allied prisoners of war) and Asian labourers in WWII is nicknamed Death Railroad due to the incredible number of workers who died during its construction (90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs). This section is called Hellfire Pass. Not only was it incredibly difficult to cut through the rock, but the workers had to work all night with torches lighting up the area.

It is incredibly hot here. 2 degrees hotter than anywhere else in Thailand. I could barely walk up the steps to take this photo of the view, I have no idea how anyone did intense labour in this kind of heat. It was about 39 degrees on this day. In April it sores into the 40s.

It felt quite strange to get on a train to have a ride along a length of track when you know what kind of hell it was to build, but we got on for a ride all the same.

On a lighter note, there is also a beautiful 7 tiered waterfall that 's an incredible spot to visit. You can swim in several different spots, but weirdly enough the fish will try and eat you. A very freaky feeling.

The next day it was back to Bangkok for some over-priced drinks and a stunning sunset.

Some open shutter photos from a tuk tuk.

On March 1st I was sadly parted from my travelling partner. I was going to head straight off to Cambodia, but instead I extended my visa for a week and spent some time relaxing and catching up with some friends from New Zealand. Of course we had to do a day trip and so went to Damnoen Saduak home of the famous floating market, yummy cake shops ...

and my all time favourite hotel bathroom.

The name of the hotel is Noknoi, meaning little bird. And yes, there were always birds chirping around the hotel. They wrote down my reservation as "Seather", which is really pretty good when you think about it. Same Same. The hotel was also good enough to arrange our own private boat to for visiting the market.

February 6, 2007

Island life

I could get used to this.

I got up very early this morning so I could be out on the dive boat for my first fun dives as a licensed Adventure Diver! Yesterday I finished my Adventure courses and although I'm happy not to have homework, part of me wants to take more courses since its so cheap here. The courses are quite fun. For my peak performance course I got to behave a bit like a trained dolphin, swimming upside down and touching a knife (the handle end) with my nose and swimming through hoops back up then belly up. More difficult than it sound with a tank strapped to your back and weights around your waist). My last course to complete my advanced level was navigation. For this one I had to learn how to use a compass and not get lost!

The visibility underwater isn't so good at the moment. My last dive was a bit like diving in pea soup. My Dive Master (the person who leads the dive) was trying to point out a triggerfish, but all I could see was a shadow. I did see some other beautiful aquatic life though. Angelfish, butterfly fish, moray eel, stingrays, clown fish (Nemo-like fish), and lots of others. If the wind dies down the diving will incredible.

And speaking of Island Life, Australia is the biggest island that is also a continent. (Okay, it was a weak segue, but I needed something.) So I left off in Melbourne... I got to do a couple of trips into the state of Victoria while I was living there. The first was November 25. My friend Jayne and I rented a car and headed north towards the top of the state for a music festival. On the way we stopped in the very pretty town of Bendigo home of a historical Chinese temple and some great murals.

Looking at the below photo its easy to see why Victoria is so prone to fires.

Jayne and I at Earthcore. I'm in my last functioning party dress.

On Dec. 9th myself and a couple of friends got up far too early to do a bus tour of Great Ocean Rd. Its said to be one of the most beautiful drives in Australia and heads west from Melbourne almost halfway to Adelaide.

The main tourist destination for this trip is the 12 Apostles.

I kept hearing how spectacular they are from a helicopter flight, so I bowed to temptation and took the tour.

The 12 Apostles are no longer 12. I think about 6 of the originally named still stand at this point. You can see in this photo where one has fallen.

This is my friend Cindy and I blocking the view.

The last stop on this tour was London Bridge, which as you can see, did fall down.

After spending way too much time sitting on a bus, Cindy and I thought it would be a good idea to sit ourselves on some rides at Luna Park.

Luna Park is a staple tourist attraction for both Sydney and Melbourne. I missed the one in Sydney, but luckily Melbourne's was just a short walk from my flat.

A few more photos from around the different neighbourhoods in Melbourne.

P.S. I've added a couple of photos to the last two entries. Just to keep things pretty.

P.P.S. I didn't make it very clear what the Apostles are. The are the Pinnacles coming out of the ocean. Not the curved shore.

February 4, 2007

Thailand

I couldn't be writing this entry in a better spot. I am sitting in an internet cafe, looking out onto the ocean. I am on a beach on Ko Tao island in Thailand. Kelly and I are here so that Kelly can learn to dive and I can do a few more courses to finish up my Adventure certification. We are staying in a lovely little bungalow, that we luckily got for free as part of Kelly's course package. She is watching a video for the course as I write this. I had second thoughts about my plans to come to Thailand after I heard about the New Years' bombings in Bangkok. I wondered if it would be safe. Since then I have spoken to so many other travellers who have been through Thailand since Christmas (some were even in Bangkok at the time of the bombings) and no one felt unsafe. Sadly we are living in a world where terrorist attacks can happen anywhere at anytime, but allowing fears of what might happen control my decisions seems to me to be no way to live. Of course I'm not going to throw all caution to the wind. I will stay away from the south where most of the unrest seems to be and I will keep track of the news as much as I can.

Its funny how perspective affects us. Another Canadian I spoke to travelling through Thailand mentioned that her family is a bit worried about her too but Brits that are over here say that there families aren't worried at all. When I asked a man last night if his family was worried, he gave me a funny look and asked "Why?" "Because of the bombings over New Year's", I said. (He just came to this island from Bangkok, by the way.) He gave a little chuckle and said, "Oh that! No. I'm in more danger taking the tube in London than travelling here. I guess we are a little more used to terrorism where I'm from." I honestly think I'm in more danger of falling out of the back of a truck (the taxi service on the islands) than getting in the way of a bomb.

I have a bunch of photos cued up to post, but I've run out of time again. I should have more down time on this island, so hopefully I'll be able to get this blog up to date.