Thursday, February 26, 2009

Life really is a beach!!

The wonderful thing about being home after six and a half months is the appreciation for where I live. Many people I've met whilst travelling had been amazed that I'd avoided spending any time at all chilling out on a beach. As I'd proudly explained to them, I live on a beach.

Hazel was very happy to see me, despite being looked after extremely well by Cate my house sitter. There have been no recriminations so far, just lots of hugs and cuddles. Going out and leaving her at home does cause her considerable anxiety however, so I'm not returning to work for a couple of weeks to get her back into the swing of things.

True to form, the wind kicked up by 11 am, and within a few hours of flying in to Geraldton I'd loaded the car and was off to Coros for a windsurf. Only a small swell but perfect 4.5m weather for me to get out and have some fun. I'm a bit weak in the upper body though, so only lasted a couple of hours. All the gang were down there so there was lots of socialising as well. Hazel of course was in her element, Coros being a second home for her.Monday was hot with no wind, so a leisurely walk along the beach and a swim in the turquoise waters was in order. Aaah, this is the life.

Then it was just a matter of slipping into the hammock with a glass of wine in time to watch the sun set over the water....

Yep, life really is a beach.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Singapore fling

This time I've actually stayed long enough to have a little look around. There's a lot to do, some great museums and galleries, lots of modern buildings interspersed with old ones that reflect the past, and an interesting ethnic mix of people. I've been sampling the food again, in particular Singapore chilli crab at one of the Hawker Centres. It's a very big meal for just one person, with a big price tag to match. I'll reserve my judgement and go to a better restaurant next time and try it again.I spent a few hours at the Peranakan Museum, which talks about the culture of the mixed race people of Singapore. Most importantly, the gift shop had some Nonya food recipe books, Yummmmm......

I also went to a tailor, or rather one took advantage of me and convinced me to buy some new clothes. The idea of having properly tailored trousers that fit my butt and big thighs appeals greatly. My final fitting is 3 hours before I fly out!!Singapore's a strange place, it's modern yet is quintessentially Asian, despite the ordered sterility on display. Yes, Singaporeans do jaywalk and take shortcuts across grass!!
There are more photos of Singapore here.
Now it's time to jump on a plane and go home. Three weeks ago I wasn't ready, I still wanted to travel more, but now I'm so keen to get home that the last few days have been almost torture. I'm looking forward to seeing friends again, chatting to mum on the phone, and giving my girl a big hug - if she's not sulking that is!!

And load the car up with the windsurfing gear and get out on those waves!!!!!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guns, jungles and altered time zones

With six days to kill I decided to do a mammoth train trip down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. But rather than going the traditional west coast route I planned to pass through an area in the middle of a separatist fight with the Thai government, cross a border by foot then catch a train through the jungle just after the end of the monsoons. Yeah I make it sound exciting, and most people won't even venture through Southern Thailand because of the regular bombings, but really, it was a piece of cake.

First step was an overnight train from Bangkok to Hat Yai in Southern Thailand. Here the line splits, with most people taking the western line south to Butterworth in Malaysia. This was the way I'd come from Penang four months previously. The sleepers are great, there's meals and beer to be purchased en route, you just sit there and enjoy the view. As the evening wears on the conductor makes the beds and then it's goodnight till the next morning.I arrived at Hat Yai at a little after 6:30 am, just in time to jump on a local rattler heading east to the border town of Sungai Kolok. The train is heavily patrolled by cute Thai army boys, carrying big guns, who check all the bags to make sure they have owners. At each stop they monitor the comings and goings, and continue to walk up and down the train keeping an eye on things. The railway stations are surrounded by razor wire, with lots of sandbags as well. The Thai Army were certainly taking the separatist threat seriously, I felt slightly comforted by this show of force but also somewhat disturbed at my foolhardiness. Of course no bombs went off and I arrived perfectly safely at my destination.From the train station it's a short ride on the back of a moto to the border where, after the usual formalities, I walk over a bridge to Malaysia. It's then a thirty minute taxi ride to Whakaf Bahru station, for my next train trip. I buy my ticket for the 2pm local, have a plate of Nasi Campur at the restaurant across the road and settle down to wait.

At 1 pm a train arrives and everyone boards except me. The train can't be an hour early surely? Well Shirley was right yet again, and after me waiting another 3 hours I actually went and asked someone. Oh yes, I missed the train all right. There is a one hour time difference between Thailand and Malaysia and I'd forgotten to put my watch forward. Groan, that's what sleep deprivation and coping with armed guards does to you!! I went and booked into a guesthouse for the night.

Although there were more trains that day, the reason for travelling along this line is that it travels through jungle, skirting the large Taman Negara National Park (that always makes me laugh, Taman Negara actually means "national park" in Malay language) before descending the mountains to Gemas. There was no point doing it in the dark, so the 6:30 am train the next day was my best option.

The monsoon has just finished so the land is luscious green. It's a tangle of creepers and ferns, with vast rubber plantations marching over the hills into the distance. That and those ugly palm oil plantations. But there's lots of patches of jungle amongst it too, not to mention my favourite, wooded limestone karst peaks. Enough already!!Halfway we stop for two hours in a small town. This gives the northbound train time to pass as it's a single track ahead. It's also lunch time, and I enjoy a delicious nasi campur in a local Indian restaurant. The town is very quaint, a street lined on both sides by Chinese shop houses built in the 1920s, and painted in wonderful colours, with a river passing by. The next bit is a wild rush downhill through more jungle to Jeruntut, where the other westerners leave the train to visit the NP but I continue on to the town of Gemas. It's a 13 hour day for me, and I'm hot and tired, but nothing that a nice shower and change of clothes can't remedy. And a plate of chicken biryani.My next train leaves at 5:10 am, not a pleasant time for waking up - am I supposed to be on holiday? This one will take me all the way to Singapore arriving late morning, a very civilised time indeed. So for the third day in a row I watch the sun rise through a train window.
More photos here

I'm now in Singapore, paying 18SGD a night for a dormitory room, and I've just been coerced into buying some new clothes from a local tailor. He didn't have to try too hard, and the concept of having properly tailored trousers after living in trekking pants for six months is very appealing. And it's only money right??

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dancing midgets anyone?

In Bangkok just about anything goes. Soi Cowbow is an alley off Sukhimvit Road where a whole lot of girlie bars are. Scantily clad women grope at men as they walk past, and if you venture inside you get to see half naked women dancing distractedly around poles on a raised dance floor. Apparently men enjoy this...

I went for a girls night out with a Kiwi lass I'd met in Vientiane. She's one of a legion of English teachers in Thailand where your only qualification is a one month certificate in ESL and an ability to speak English. Many non-native English speakers also teach it, go figure! I've heard the pay is low, but it's good enough to live on in a cheap place like Thailand. Anyway, my friend has been teaching kindergarten kids for four years, and apparently it's a doddle.

I'd found this lass just a little out there, so I wasn't keen for a big night out, but Warren had tagged along and after a few beers we headed off to another bar to meet two of her friends. Now my friend was awfully straight compared with these two girls, they were total psychos!!

The first was an American lady in her late fourties, with 5 grandchildren and a serious drug habit that apparently she had recovered from. She confided in me that she would love to be one of those girls up on stage dancing half naked, and she did have the body for it too, lucky girl. So I encouraged her in acting out her fantasy, joining her on the dance floor, fully clothed I might assure you, whilst I helped my friend get over her inhibitions regarding exposing her body to a crass market in a girly bar. They were drinking more than me, but I do hope it helped her self esteem a little....

Meanwhile, our large busted English friend was explaining her business proposition, and the reason we were in this particular girlie bar in the first place. "Double F" was in the "security" business, having recently settled in Bangkok after six years travelling the world. There was a dark past involving an ex-husband and domestic violence, but she'd done well financially out of the divorce and now had a bit of money to spend.

Apparently the upstairs premises of most of these bars are empty - seems not everyone finds watching these girls gyrate all that sexy - so my new friend came up with a brilliant idea. A one off!! Indeed it is...

Advertise for midgets (note we are already using a derogatory term for "small people") who would like to work in a bar and do all that dancing shit. Oh, and there'll be a cage in one corner with a couple of midgets in there so we can really enjoy them like a zoo exhibit. They can dance on the tables without any OH&S issues regarding the ceiling, I mean it's brilliant!!!

My questions regarding exploitation were knocked down in flames. Apparently this is about respect, it's a unique opportunity for midgets to strut their stuff and be proud of their little bodies. And there's free health insurance thrown in as well. And they only have to dance and take their clothes off if they want to - of course they'll get more money if they do...

I didn't broach the subject of just who the target audience for this show was going to be. I'm not sure the average hot blooded male on a twirl through the go-go bars is going to find dancing midgets sexually attractive. Seems to me it's more a freak show, which is hardly about empowerment is it?

It was now 4am. We'd discussed the midget go-go girls, we'd got the grannie down to her bra and nickers, and we'd laughed silly on happy gas supplied by the bar owner, my friend's business partner. There was an offer to do a few lines of coke back at someone's flat, but it was time for me to call it a night and get out of The Twilight Zone!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Back in Bangers

This time the weather is quite pleasant in Bangkok, it's actually bearable. I've been running around buying gifts for people and getting some more massages. For some crazy reason I think it's OK to go through absolute physical torture for an hour (I couldn't bear a 2 hour session after my Cambodian experience) in order to feel better later. In fact I'm going back tomorrow for another session. I believe there is such a thing as pain free massages, but it's a rare occurrence for me. I knew I should have kept up the yoga.....

My next adventure is an attempt to travel overland to Singapore, but not by the usual route along the west coast of Malaysia. I'm going to go by train through southern Thailand, the bit that isn't too safe to be in, cross the border by foot then take another train on the "jungle line" through the mountains and along the eastern side to Gemas. There I might detour back up to Malacca, or else head on to Singapore for a couple of days of feasting. Singapore chilli crab is definitely on the list of must eats!

Off partying tonight, might even put on a pair of heels!!

Monday, February 9, 2009

A day in the country

Cambodia hasn't sat well with me. It's a pretty harsh judgement given that I've only been in tourist city Siem Reap and travelled by boat to Battambang so I've hardly been anywhere to get an authentic feel for the country. But today I headed out into the countryside on a beat up Honda 100cc motorbike to try and get some sort of taste for the place.I travelled the route around to the temples, but didn't actually visit them, merely using the circular route as an entre to the countryside. I took lots of detours down deadend tracks along the river, blew bubbles for lots of kids and enjoyed lots of hellos from the locals. But the people are reserved, perhaps the trauma of the recent past has made it difficult for them to be warm and inviting the way the people of their neighbouring countries are. Which gets me onto a few other impressions.I've met a couple of people during my stay who have links to the various NGOs working in Cambodia and their comments reinforced my suspicions. There are alot of NGOs here, and alot of people asking for help for their projects, usually relating to child welfare issues. There are also signs outside people's houses acknowledging the individual donor who has provided money towards a clean water project for that house. Now this is ridiculous!! Firstly, what an appalling waste of money putting signs up in front of each house, and secondly, because of this profligate giving, the Cambodian government just isn't bothering to improve things for its people. This is creating a culture of dependence (I've seen it somewhere else, yes my country!!) where children stand outside temples with sheets of paper explaining that their project needs more money to feed the children etc. Now if an organisation has to beg for money for food then that organisation is completely unsustainable. And it doesn't get my support.

Another acquaintance found the attitude of the NGO workers to be paternalistic and victim blaming - similar to what we see in Australia amongst many working with Aboriginals. Doesn't bode well for the future of Cambodians does it?

But it's not all bad, there are some great projects out there doing wonderful work and providing opportunities for many Cambodians to have a better life. I guess I'd just like to warn anyone thinking of "helping those poor Cambodians" to think very carefully about whether the project they wish to support is providing real opportunities or whether it's just creating dependence and the continuation of a victim mentality.

Well that's my piece, yep I think I'm fighting fit and ready to go back to work!!! Ha Ha, watch out guys....

Photos of the boat trip to Battambang and my day in the country here

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The feasting is over

After a day off and a haircut, it was back to the dreary task of visiting more temples! No it wasn't too bad, as this time I jumped on the back of a motorbike and headed out to some of the further off places, including a river which has carved lingas along the rocky riverbed. Linga worship was big in Angkor times - a linga being a phallic symbol and signifier of virility and fertility. Apparently the water from this river was imbued with high fertility by flowing across all those lingas!There were also temples with intricate carvings and numerous encounters with the huge Chinese tour groups who drape themselves on anything for the purpose of a picture. Very funny! With a bit of patience they soon move on and the place is peaceful again.Photos of Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Banteay Samre

My final day in Siem Reap I visited the Bakhong in the Roluos group, 13km east of town. This was where the first city was built before being relocated to Angkor Wat, and it was a fitting place to enjoy a sunrise without any crowds. In fact there was only me and two others. I'm sure Angkor Wat makes a good sunrise shot too, but it's nice to try somewhere different.Photos of Roluos group

The rest of my day in Siem Reap was spent shopping and getting myself a massage. My back has been a bit sore lately so I went for a two hour torture session. Yes it feels a bit looser, but I swear I've got bruises! Can't wait to get back to Geraldton and get Brad back on the job again.

Today I took an eight and a half hour boat ride along the Sangker River to Battambang. Here I'll rent a bike for a day and see some sights and then it's back to Bangkok and onward south down to Singapore. Two weeks ago I wasn't ready to come home, but now I've completed everything on the wish list (Angkor being the last one) I can't wait. I've even started checking out the seabreeze website to keep an eye on the wind and waves! If there's wind on the 22nd, expect to see me at Coros!!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Haircut day

My hair is thick and coarse, so it needs a regular cut in order for me to avoid looking like a toilet brush. After a while no amount of hair product can stop it defying gravity. I mean a girl has to keep some semblance of respectability whilst on the road!

As my dear friend Odette advised me before I left, most SE Asians also have thick coarse hair, so the average hairdresser is an expert at razor cutting. This is a scissor free technique, only just coming back into fashion again in the west, where a razor is used to thin and texturise.

My first go at getting a haircut was in Bangkok, where I asked Warren to ask one of his western girlfriends where to get a decent cut and colour. This was a bad move, as either his friend had never been there or was approaching her mid 60s. It was a salon full of aging matrons getting bouffant type hairstyles and it was expensive. They did know how to do foils but unfortunately we had a language barrier and it had to be redone in the correct colours. The cut was adequate, and I escaped with a price tag not dissimilar to what I'd pay back home. Next time I'll take Odette's advice.

My second go was in Hanoi. This time I wandered around town, found a little salon and asked to get my haircut. I was offered the option of scissors or razor - very little English being spoken - and for 10 AUD I got a cut I was very happy with. Thanks for the advice Odette!

Two days ago I had my third haircut. The grey is showing through apallingly, but I've been advised that colouring isn't a forte in this town, so I ended up finding another little hole in the wall salon and ordering up another razor cut. This time I asked for a hairwash as well. First they cut my hair - I wouldn't say it's a good cut but it's thinned out and manageable again with a bit of hair product - and then they washed it. Now that was the highlight! Not only do you get nice clean hair, there's a head and shoulder massage thrown in as well. Total price: 3 USD!!

It's only 2 weeks till I get home so first thing I'll be doing on my return is booking in for a colour treatment. I'm too young to look old yet!!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Temple feast extraordinaire

Here I am at last in Siem Reap, a rather modern little town in Northern Cambodia which is right next door to one of the great wonders of the world - The Angkor temples.

Most famous are Angkor Wat and the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, but the complex of temples is much bigger, spanning 3 countries, 5 centuries of construction, numerous wars and rebuilding of cities and differing religious beliefs that saw Hindu images being replaced with Buddhism, and vice versa. At its height of power the Angkor Kingdom spread east through Thailand almost as far as Burma, and north into Laos. It was defeated by the Chams from central Vietnam and then retaken, before eventually succumbing to Thai invasion when the capital moved to present day Phnom Penh and the temples slowly got lost into the jungle before their "rediscovery" by the French in the late 19th century. Phew!!!!

I flew from Pakse, as I'm running out of time before my return home and the road trip from southern Laos would take at least 2 days. Arriving at the modern international terminal and driving by tuk-tuk into town is a shock after the modest poverty evident in even the larger cities of Laos. Welcome to Cambodia, or at least Siem Reap, where the millions of visitors to the temples have created an enormous tourist infrastructure to support them, from luxury resorts and spas to designer label shops. They even banned the beggars from the streets to clean up things a little, bad luck that the kids just have to find some other way to feed themselves and family now. But that's another story...

I decided that since I was in tourist central, I'd posh it up for my stay and so booked into a nice resort with jungle pool, veranda, bar, restaurant, all the mod cons. It costs less than a night in a donga in Mount Magnet so can't complain, and it's about time I treated myself to a bit of luxury. It's now 6 months since I left Oz and I've rarely paid more than 10 USD a night for a room in all that time, so I reckon I may well have earned it!!

But that didn't mean I was going the whole hog. Armed with a seven day temple pass I mounted my trusty treadly (2 USD per day, money goes to a school for disadvantaged kids) and headed out to visit those temples. I was giving myself lots of time for exploring and taking photos and anyway, I needed the exercise. The tuk-tuk drivers continue to pester me, in a jovial way, about my plans for the following day, but they also begrudgingly respect someone who travels the way the locals do, on a bicycle.First stop Angkor Wat. I won't bore you with the history, and I'm sure everyone has seen stunning photos of the temples reflected in the water at sunset. But what I didn't know about Angkor Wat is that it is famous for a series of intricately carved bas-reliefs which encircle the entire inner enclosure. Some are of famous battles between the kings and the Cham, others are from Hindu mythology. I do apologise if some photos aren't so easy to make out, the stone is polished in places from numerous hands touching them over centuries, a practice now prohibited.What struck me also is the amount of birds! It's like an ancient porn magazine!! Hundreds of carvings of semi-naked women, called devatas, and dancing chicks called apsaras, adorn the walls inside and out. And lots of polished tits suggests they've been well appreciated too!I spent an entire day just at Angkor Wat, soaking up the atmosphere, admiring the carvings and not being bothered at all by the hordes of other tourists that pass through on their jam packed one to three day tours. Me and my camera mounted on its trusty tripod took a lengthy lunch break at the nearby food stands then continued the tour through the afternoon. Even managed to get some OK sunset shots.For all the photos of Angkor Wat

Next day I ventured further north to the walled city of Angkor Thom, rebuilt by one of the kings after defeating the Chams who had destroyed the earlier city. It has five gates in the walls, adorned by the face towers that are the signature feature of the main temple in the city, the Bayon. You can't help but be mesmerised by the enigmatic faces, and take oodles of photos to boot!There's also lots of those apsaras, and the Bayon has some excellent bas reliefs, carved in a completely different fashion to those at Angkor Wat. Often more interesting than the battle scenes are the scenes of daily life which flesh out the greater tale being told.For photos of Angkor Thom including the Bayon faces click here

Angkor Thom can easily take up a day or more, including visiting the temple Baphuon, which has a huge reclining Buddha made of blocks of stone in its western wall. There's a reconstruction project in progress, as the weight of the stones has weakened the walls and collapse is imminent. It's actually a huge jigsaw puzzle, as much of the temple had been disassembled and catalogued in the 1950s and 60s, but with the takeover by the Khmer Rouge the work stopped. In the mayhem that followed, the records of where all the blocks fit together (which were kept in Phnom Penh) was lost or destroyed so imagine the difficulty now involved in putting it all back together again!Further north is the old monastery of Preah Khan. Here the restoration work is less advanced, so you get a feel for what the place was like when "discovered", but for real atmosphere the temples of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm are the stars. Here the roots of enormous trees have penetrated the masonry, creating more photo opportunities than I've had hot dinners! A bit of patience is required to wait out the hordes of tour groups on their whistle stop visit to this famous temple (it's the one featured in Tomb Raider) then all is quiet again.Photos of Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm and others

After four days cycling in the heat and humidity it was time for a day off. And it's time to get another haircut!