Through the Valley of the Kwai

Kanchanaburi, 3-6 Februari 2020

After the metropolitan Bangkok we are ready to fill our lungs with some fresh air at the countryside. Kanchanaburi near the Myanmar border seems a good place for it, as this will give us the opportunity to ride a train to the river Kwai.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415-km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Source: Wikipedia

During its construction, around 90,000 civilian labourers and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died of the effects of forced labour under harsh conditions and tropical diseases. The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later and is still in use today.

Our journey from Bangkok is quite easily put together. At one of the piers we get a ferry to drop us off at the other side of the river where we take the train to Kanchanaburi. The thing with Bangkok ferries is you have to get on and off them quickly because they don’t like to wait around. Even though we are aware of this, when we get to the pier only one passenger manages to jump off in time before the boat takes off again in a hurry, leaving him on the pier, baffled, and taking us and his friend who’s still on the boat with us, by surprise.

Luckily the next stop isn’t far away and we soon make it to the train station where we find the two friends, reunited.

At first it’s a bit of a strange idea to be riding on the tracks of the Death Railway, but the feeling soon fades. After all, it’s just a normal train we’re on. Or rather, normal for Asia, since the side doors are dangerously open and you can smoke there. Before long the scenery changes to a pleasant rural setting, with a few mountains in the background.

Kanchanaburi, a small city of around 32.000 people, lies 123 km west of Bangkok, where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers converge into the Mae Klong River. Though its location at the edge of a mountain range keeps it much cooler than the other provinces of central Thailand, winters here are dry, and very warm. Source: Wikipedia

In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POW’s constructed a railway bridge, an event most famously portrayed in 1957’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Once a year a carnival is set up in the area next to the bridge. At night a small pyrotechnics display is held to re-enacts the wartime bombing of the bridge. Throughout the rest of the year we find, there is a rather bizarre POW prison camp-themed food court located here instead..

The downtown area has part of a city wall, a governor’s mansion, and, surprisingly, a tiny heritage walk with a few buildings dating back to the 20’s and 30’s. One of these buildings is now a gun shop. In Ko Chang we learned that Muay Thai is taught in every school, so what on earth they need guns for? It’s a relief to know the Thai in truth are very friendly!

The riverfront area is mostly dedicated to tourism with restaurants, hotels, travel agents, scooter rental places. During the day it has a wealth of riverfront hangouts to choose from, while at night the place comes alive with an unbelievable amount of bars offering happy hour until midnight, that’s Thailand!

Following the Kwai Noi river upstream, we visit the Tha Krasae Bridge train station, one of the more scenic spots on the line towards Hellfire Pass, where tourists gather to catch one of six trains passing here daily.

While waiting for the train to arrive we hide from the blazing sun at Krasae Cave, which is carved into the rock right next to the track and has an interesting Buddhist shrine built inside it.

After a short while a guy shouts: “Train coming!”. People begin to clear the tracks and then comes the moment we have been waiting for: The train over Tha Krasae Bridge next to River Kwai, something to savour.

While this is the history Kanchanaburi is most famous for, we are delighted to find traces of the Khmer empire on our visit as well. Siem Reap was our favourite stop in Cambodia, and here, 600 km from Angkor Wat, we find an ancient outpost of the empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431.

When we try to get our next journey organised, two Australian guys from the local tourist police division (Slogan: “Your first friend”) advise us to allow ourselves enough time to get across Bangkok to the airport, so I guess we’ll be waking up early. Tomorrow we catch a flight down south where the plan is to cool off in the Andaman Sea.

So it’s one last sunset on the river Kwai for us, next stop Phuket.

BB Divers – PADI Open Water Diver course

Ko Chang, 26-29 January 2020

From the Thai border at Hat Lek a minivan takes us north to Trat, where we get the ferry to the island Ko Chang. The name means ‘Elephant Island’, deriving from its elephant-shaped headland. There are actual elephants on the island too, but these are not indigenous. Historically, Ko Chang is most known for the 1941 Battle of Ko Chang between the Thai and French Navy.

We’re staying at a guesthouse on White Sand beach, one of the more touristic places on the island. At high tide the water comes right up to the porch, can’t get better than that. The area attracts a somewhat older crowd and the restaurants seem to be a bit better down south, but even the most basic Thai food is already pretty good.

Over the last few months we have been doing a lot of snorkeling and while this was great and allowed us to see turtles, a dugong, whale sharks, and a whole lot of fish, we decide it’s time to take our skills to the next level and get our PADI Open Water Diver certificate. This course combines theory with practical diving experience and takes three days, so we have just enough time to complete it before moving on to Bangkok. It’s a bit costly, but we have been saving up for it while travelling, nice to see our efforts finally paying off.

On day 1 we meet our dive master Tam, who sits us down for a four hour long instruction video explaining the basics of diving, how to use the equipment, and colourful descriptions of every possible calamity; there are a lot! Then it’s into the pool to learn and practice different exercises, such as buoyancy, sign language, changing air supply, etc. It’s a ton of information to take in, and a lot of it is training for eventualities that don’t usually occur, but since we’ll be 18 meters under water it’s important to know the essentials that keep us alive.

For day 2 of the course we’re already on the open water. It’s a clear sunny day when we get on the boat, and the water temperature is a very pleasant 29 degrees Celcius, so, out of all possible hazards, at least there’s probably not much chance of hypothermia today. Before diving in, first we have our written exam (we both pass, phew!), then a swimming and floating test, and finally it’s time to suit up. After some last-minute equipment checks we jump in, nervous but excited!

The dive location is Hin Raab (meaning flat rock), where we descend to 12 meters. The sea is choppy, with poor visibility of a maximum 5 meters, which makes it a bit claustrophobic, but then again it’s probably good to learn how to dive in slightly difficult conditions. First there’s more exercises to be completed, and then we finish with a fun dive around the coral, where we catch a quick glimpse of a baby stingray!

It takes practice to stay buoyant, and after 45 minutes I see Lauren a bit above me, then a few seconds later she’s completely disappeared from sight. Tam turns around and gestures at me: “Where’s your buddy??” We look around us while he’s flashing his light, but Lauren is nowhere to be found! I’m starting to panic and want to go look for her, but we have to follow the plan. After staying put for one minute we head back to the surface. Thankfully Lauren is already there, alive and floating! When we check our oxygen levels it shows I’ve been flying through mine, clearly I’m a heavy breather.. I guess there’s a few things left to improve.

The second dive of the day is not far from Hin Raab, called Blueberry Hill. I’m breathing more steadily, Lauren’s not floating up as much and we enjoy ourselves a lot more this time.

So we’ve made it to day 3, the day of (w)reckoning. In the early morning we head out to the HTMS Chang, a 100 meters long former US warship, which was gifted to Thailand. After the ship was decommissioned the Thai sank it in 2012 to make it into the biggest shipwreck in the country, which has since become a paradise for underwater life.

First we descend to 20 meters about halfway down the ship before slowly making our way forward to salute the (imaginary) captain in the cabin on the front and circle our way up around the mast. Thankfully Tam has got a sharp eye for the dangerous scorpion fish around here and we find a large puffer fish looking at us angrily from its hiding place.

At the crows nest we make a safety stop to get rid of some of the nitrogen that’s been building up inside us and with that our third dive is completed, only one to go. We relax a bit on the boat while we’re heading back to Hin Raab. Visibility levels are just as bad as yesterday, but that’s alright because we’re mostly going through our exercises. We already know how to use the dive computer, now we’re navigating with a compass too. Then it’s back to the coral and one final test for me when my air supply gets knocked right out of my mouth by another diver. No panic as I calmly reinsert it; our drill sergeant has trained us well.

So that’s it, we’ve got our OWD, meaning we’re allowed to dive up to 18 meters! We’ve got log books to keep track of our progress and hopefully we’ll be adding to our experience later on in the Andaman Sea.

The next morning it’s already time to leave. We haven’t seen much of Ko Chang’s surface, but it seems a very nice place, lots of jungle and karst rock formations. Maybe some day we’ll come back here a bit more experienced and dive with whale sharks!

Cambodia: the verdict

Koh Kong, 25 January 2020

The bus from Sihanoukville leaves as arranged and five hours later we’re in the town of Koh Kong, 10km from the border crossing into Thailand. In Koh Kong we exchange all of our prize winning beer ring pulls and eat one of the best pizzas so far in Asia. The next morning we head to the border at Had Lek for our exit stamp and Thailand visa, a chaotic affair we’re glad is over and done with after two full hours.

Travel stats Cambodia. By land: 1,450 km. By water: 65 km. Stops: 7. Duration: 22 days.

Travel stats total. By land: 12,660 km. By water: 600 km. By air: 30,192 km. Duration: 179 days.

So with the paperwork completed we’ve officially left Cambodia and it’s time to crunch the numbers, starting with the price of a pint.

In Cambodia we tried Angkor, Cambodia and Ganzberg, which go for about 2,000-4,000 Riel (or £0.37-0.75) per small can. Most restaurants and pubs have Angkor on draft, a pint of which is as cheap as a can. The cans are better though, because they allow you to win cash prizes, a car, a scooter, or, more commonly, a free beer!

After 3 weeks we can now say the return rate on Cambodia beer has been dreadful, Angkor scores okay, but with Ganzberg we have found our golden goose, returning a winner in over 60% of the time! Most of smaller convenience stores exchange your winning ring pull for a full can at a nominal fee of 500 Riel. Evidently we drank a lot of Ganzberg, which wasn’t actually that bad. As they say, a free beer always tastes best!

Even for connoisseurs there is good news: a thriving craft beer scene exists in Cambodia and prices are a reasonable £1.50-£4 for a wide choice of micro brews.

Ring pulls returned, let’s look at how Cambodia has fared against the judgement of our equital referee Lauren!

First of all, the people score 8/10. A high score here is absolutely deserved. Dislikes include that, similar to most of Asia, Cambodians like to stay up late and make noise, which really doesn’t sit well when you have to catch a bus at 6am, but more importantly, Cambodians have been genuinely interested in talking with us and they smile a lot. I’ve got a lot of time for them.

Secondly, the food scores 7/10. There isn’t much variety in Khmer cooking, however the curry dishes are (slightly) better than those in the Philippines, and overall the food situation is a bit more manageable than in Sri Lanka with plenty of international restaurants. I’ve tried a beef and ant salad which wasn’t bad, but the best dish has got to be lok lak.

Lastly, the transport scores 7/10. Perhaps a little on the high side, given that it has caused us plenty hassle, but the redeeming quality of transport in Cambodia is that you always get to your destination, either by public transport or by local delivery van, plus the Khmer tuk-tuk is an extremely comfortable, stylish and cheap mode of transport.

So there you have it! It is my pleasure to hereby award our brothers and sisters in Cambodia Lauren’s Official Certificate of Excellence!

Sihanoukville in the Year of the Rat 2020

Sihanoukville, 24 January 2020

Our original plan was to get from Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia to Koh Chang in Thailand in one day, but although it’s technically possible, we rather play it safe and divide the travel up into bitesized chunks. This does however mean we’re spending the night in Sihanoukville, which is erm… an experience??

This coastal city, which was named after former king Norodom Sihanouk, was founded only after the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954 with the construction of the country’s first and only deep water port. As the entry point to the islands, and the most developed settlement on the coast, Sihanoukville was known for years as a relaxed beach area frequented by backpackers. These days it’s more known for crime, casinos and failing infrastructure.

Since 2011 Chinese investments have rapidly started changing Sihanoukville into what is supposed to become some sort of a new Las Vegas. Largely unchecked development has come at a cost of freezing out locals and completely altering the city’s character, not too mention some serious building collapses. Native Cambodians are paying the price for a government which has sold out to the Chinese.

Got to hand it to them though, the locals that haven’t left are pretty vocal about their distaste for some of their new neighbours. When we’re organizing the next part of our journey, the woman at the travel agency does little to hide her feelings about tomorrow’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The next morning she explains how she is one of the few people who have managed to hold on to property in Sihanoukville, the value of which has increased tenfold(!) over the past few years. For the average Cambodian person however, who earns about $200 a month, buying or even renting in town is no longer possible.

Walking along dusty streets through the building site that is Sihanoukville is a surreal experience. The maps I have been using are almost entirely useless here, since scores of restaurants and hotels have disappeared, and roads changed. I have to say I’m not displeased for one when at the end of the day we have bus tickets, a hotel for the night and dinner.

By the time the fire-crackers go off the next morning to mark the dawn of the Year of the Rat (traditionally a sign of wealth and surplus, and the beginnings of a new day) we are already on our way to Koh Kong, wondering what Sihanoukville will become for Cambodia.

Wedding season in Kampot’s melting pot

Kampot, 15-19 January 2020

Following the example of the French elites in the 1900’s, to escape the heat of the Phnom Penh plains, it’s off to the countryside we go. On paper today’s an easy 150km ride to Cambodia’s west coast, but no matter how long or short the distance, travel in this country always seems to end up being a full day’s affair. When we drive past a giant durian statue in the late afternoon we know we’ve ultimately arrived in Kampot.

Famed for its pepper plantations and the trade of durian fruit, Kampot used to hold Cambodia’s main seaport, attracting an international crowd. The town itself used to be half Cambodian, half Chinese, and the surrounding area had both a Vietnamese and a Malay village. With the arrival of the French in the 19th century Kampot’ melting pot became an administrative centre for the coastal region as well as a resort area, which it still is today.

For our first night we stay at one of the resorts along the Prek Tuek Chhou river, which flows through Kampot into the Gulf of Thailand. We rent a kayak and explore the backwaters, which are completely quiet except for birds and gibbons.

From across the river at the resort you can just about see the outlines of nearby Bokor mountain.

After visiting the genocide museum and the killing fields, it looks like we’ve found ourselves the ideal place to unwind in Kampot. And then there’s a mosque..

Though Cambodia is almost entirely Buddhist, there are roughly 600.000 Muslim Chams also living in the country. Right now in the cooler, dry season it’s the most popular time to get married, and nothing screams “party!” more than having your local holy man rage against the microphone non-stop from 7pm until midnight. Very interesting how little sound a bamboo hut blocks. When the call to prayer wakes us up at 5 the next day we’ve heard enough. Time to pack our bags and head to the village for some peace and quiet.

Kampot proper is a provincial town of roughly 50.000 people. It has some of the best kept French indochina architecture in Cambodia. Even though the Khmer Rouge dominated (and wrecked) the area during (and after) the civil war, a lot of the old buildings have been left standing. Some of the architecture has been beautifully restored, while yellow paint is flaking off on others, giving it a different kind of charm.

After the ultimate defeat of Khmer Rouge, since the mid-90’s, expats from Western countries have settled in Kampot and become part of the community. Given its chilled-out vibe, it’s not hard to see why this town attracts a lot of backpackers too. It’s the kind of place where you end up staying.

One cool customer in town is Joe, a white-maned, Australian hippy with an impressive moustache, who is in the middle of skinning up a fat joint when we meet him in front of his hotel. Joe’s happy to help out a couple sleep-deprived travellers, and while we’re waiting to check-in he entertains us with a couple crazy stories. When Lauren jokingly asks if the old stoner might be her dad, the panicky look on his face is just priceless! So we found ourself a new hotel, but ironically a big tent is being set up right in front of it for yet another wedding. ‘Tis the season after all..

Luckily this one’s a Buddhist ceremony, which means singing and dancing rather than a four hour single player shouting match, a big mercy. Having an actual room this time also helps a lot, so after a pretty decent rest we’re ready to explore some of the area surrounding Kampot.

Salt fields just outside town. Water is let in from the ocean and left to evaporate, leaving crystals.

Bokor National Park

It’s a hot day, so to cool off a bit we drive up 40km to the old French hill station on Bokor mountain, which is part of Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km area of rainforest home to the Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard and pig tailed macaque. Sadly the park is currently being threatened by poaching, illegal logging and development, so much so that in fact we’re probably lucky to see a lone macaque by the side of the freshly paved road leading up to the summit.

Once at the top it’s ten degrees cooler and we go check out the remains of the station the French built in the early 1900’s. Though most of it is no longer recognizable, the Old Palace was once re-used as a casino during the 50’s and 60’s. The old church is left mostly in one piece. While we’re there it’s being used as a backdrop in another wedding’s photoshoot.

Around the hill station there’s also a waterfall (mostly dry this time of year), some rice fields and an old temple complex on a cliff’s edge. On a clear day the views are supposed to be quite spectacular.

Between the old colonial ruins, a cliff-side temple, amazing wildlife and dramatic mist descending from the jungle on the side of the mountain, Bokor has a lot going for it, but sadly this may not last for much longer. In 2012 a 190-sq-km area within the national park was already granted to a Chinese investment group for a multi-million-dollar tourism development. Currently a gigantic casino and hotel have been completed, along with an entire ghost town of empty apartment buildings, and this is only the beginning. When you leave the park, a big sign reads: “Thank you for helping us maintain our national heritage.” Aye, right then.

During cocktail hour at RikiTikiTavi, the oldest bar in town, we meet Bjorn, an expat turned local boatman (though he prefers to call himself an immigrant), who is happy to answer a million questions we have about Cambodia, the country he fell in love with ten years ago. He has some great stories about what Kampot used to be like when he first arrived and how it’s changed over the years, and one very lively story about a former UN soldier he had on his boat, who came to Kampot to track down a former Khmer Rouge commander responsible for a massacre, gripping stuff. Together the three of us continue our way to a barbeque joint and end up at the market stalls for a few more beers afterwards.

Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple

The next day we head to Phnom Chhngok, to see a temple inside a cave complex set in limestone mountains. The ride alone is already worthwhile, when we cross rice fields, sleepy towns and a few giant temples appearing out of nowhere. Judging by how excited the local kids get when they see us my guess is not many people come out this way.

The main cave of Phnom Chhngok is home to a 7th century shrine to Shiva. Sheltered by the cave walls, the temple has been quite well-preserved. Local kids act as guides here and speak remarkably good English. They call it the elephant cave, because the rock formation next to the shrine resembles both an adult and baby elephant. Pretty dead on, isn’t it?

At the end of our time in Kampot we can say it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Cambodia. We found a welcoming community here, some good food, good vibes, nice people. Bye-bye Kampot, don’t ever change!

The Irrawaddys of Mekong River

Kratié, 9-11 January 2020

The travelling distance from Siem Reap in the northwest to Kratié in the east of Cambodia is 400km. We have purchased direct bus tickets the day before and begin our journey at 7AM. Around 1PM we reach Kampong Cham, a small town on the Mekong River about 100km from Kratie. It is here that the bus driver (who suddenly stops understanding English) decides to stop, eject us and our luggage, and turn back the way.

Not to worry though, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from travelling is that things always seem to work out just fine in the end (though often with the help of a good Samaritan).

Today’s good Samaritan is a sweet lady at a nearby drinks stand. After waiting an hour she manages to find us a vehicle heading to Kratié. This van service, operated by a husband and wife, makes stops at most villages along the way to either drop off or pick up packages/passengers. One of the tyres gets punctured along the way, but they’re not stopping. Around 4PM we’re their only remaining passengers, but luckily there are still deliveries to be made all the way to Kratié, where we finally arrive at 5PM.

When we pay the driver, his wife snatches the money out of his hand with a triumphant smile. Although we don’t speak the language, we did notice they’ve been playfully making fun of eachother the entire way, nice couple. The little bit of Khmer we learned in Siem Reap comes in handy to thank them for saving the day: Arkoun, Po! Arkoun, Ming!

Kratié is a medium sized town of 40.000 people on the banks of the Mekong river, the 7th longest river in Asia flowing from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and then Cambodia into Vietnam. The town sees a bit of tourism for one main reason: a local population of freshwater dolphins called Irrawaddy dolphins.

The Irrawaddy is an oceanic dolphin found near sea coasts and in rivers in parts of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. Their appearance is similar to that of a Beluga whale. As they are known to herd fish into a specific area for hunting, in some places fishermen work with the Irrawaddys to drive fish into their nets.

Cambodians believe the Irrawaddys are reincarnations of their ancestors, which has led them to live peacefully alongside one another. All the same, fishing practices involving gill nets and even explosives have led to a steady decline in the dolphin population worldwide. Though Kratié has seen a slight increase in numbers in recent years, the Irrawaddys are sadly still critically endangered.

Tourism in the dolphin habitat about 15km north of Kratié appears to be pretty ethical. There’s only a few boats and kayaks out in the water and engines aren’t being used near the deep pools in the middle of the river where the dolphins congregate. The Irrawaddys are quite shy by nature, so at first it’s hard to spot them, but after a while we see them come up to the surface constantly. When the sun sets on the Mekong, we’re lucky to see a small group of them hunting and one of them make a jump out of the water.

Although unfortunately we don’t spot any dolphins up close, it’s pretty nice to see so many of them swim around. We hope the population will keep growing, because it would be a shame to see these creatures disappear.

Just in front of Kratié, accessible by ferry, lays Koh Trong. We rent bicycles to explore this 6km long island in the middle of the Mekong. It’s a nice place with traditional houses, rice fields and sleepy scenes of cattle grazing quietly underneath the trees. Surprisingly, Koh Trong has no less than 3 temples, and on the far side of the island we find a little floating village just off the sand bank.

Driving around Kratié can be a bit of a challenge; it seems the further away you get from the town the worse the road becomes, but it’s worth the effort. Local children get super excited to see us and we find a small village on the water just north of the dolphin spot where everyone comes to swim.

Our hotel in Kratié is not the best, what with the chorus of roosters outside our window and being locked inside our room for two hours on our last day, so after exhausting all our sightseeing options here we’re happy to move on to the capital Phnom Penh.

Exploring the temples of Angkor

Siem Reap, 5-8 January 2020

The start to our trip around Cambodia couldn’t be better; when we land in Siem Reap around mid-afternoon a tuk-tuk is easily found to drive us to our hotel. Contrary to other countries we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks in Cambodia are spacious and comfortable and the driver offers us a fair price right away so there’s no need to haggle.

We’re booked in to a hotel/restaurant called The Tiney Fork, where we are greeted by Martin, one of the two owners. Martin immediately makes us feel welcome and we have time to rest up from a day of travelling and get a feel for the town.

Siem Reap has a population of about 140.000. The city has a cosy, well-balanced feel to it. It is touristic, but not to the point where this interferes too much with local life. Colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the old French Quarter and around Old Market on the river Tongle are mixed with wooden and metal shacks and tourist development. Siem Reap’s main attraction is the complex of Angkor, which was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, founded in the 9th century AD.

Our first evening we have dinner at a local eatery to try our first Khmer food: lok lak, which is a beef dish of French and Chinese influence. The local beer is cheap and cheerful at just $0.50 a pint.

The next morning we wake up early and refreshed, ready to start exploring the ancient Angkor temples. Martin and his wife Cheatta help us draw up a plan and we decide to start with the so-called small circuit by tuk-tuk.

Day 1: Small circuit

Han, our driver, first brings us to the ticket office before starting our explorations at Ta Prohm. Originally called Rajavihara, this temple was built in the late 12th century. The trees growing out of its ruins and the jungle surroundings make it one of the most popular temples.

Nearby we stop off at Ta Keo, a temple-mountain likely to be the first to be built entirely out of sandstone by the Khmers around the year 1000. The temple is believed to be dedicated to Shiva, and its central tower reaches a height of 45 meters.

Next we pass under an impressive entrance gate into Ankor Thom (lit: Great City), the last and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire, and, similar to Ta Prohm, established in the late 12th century. It covers an area of 9 square kilometers. Highlights of Angkor Thom include the ruins of The Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and most importantly The Bayon temple standing at its centre.

The Baphuon (established 11th century)

The Bayon’s most distinct feature is the collection of smiling stone faces on the towers clustered around its central peak. As one of the more richly decorated temples of Angkor, The Bayon is sometimes described as the baroque style of Khmer architecture. In our opinion it is definitely one of the most impressive structures at Angkor!

Got totally photobombed here!

The most famous site is saved for last when we visit Angkor Wat. A few other tourists seem to have the same idea.. Measuring 162 hectares, it’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. In fact, these days 97% of Cambodia’s population is said to follow Theravada Buddhism.

Hitting a near sensory overload at this point we’re happy to call it a day and retreat to the hotel to indulge in local draft beers and rice wine infused with bark, sold locally at the market in small plastic bottles.

Day 2: Big circuit

Today we’re back to renting a scooter. Yesterday, Han provided us with the perfect introduction to Angkor, so we’re ready to delve a bit deeper into the action at our own pace.

We make stops at Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Som and Neak Pean, each of which offers something unique.

Ta Som, recent addition to the restoration program (WMF)
Neak Pean, temple on the lake.

Before finishing the big circuit at Baksei Chamkrong and Phnom Bakheng, we make a stop off at Preah Khan. This structure was built in the 12th century for king Jayavarman VII to honour his father. It was the centre of organisation, with almost 100.000 officials and servants. Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, which means numerous trees grow among the ruins.

Not to get ‘templed out’ too much, we decide to mix things up a bit at this point and end the day at APOPO, a Belgian NGO, which trains southern giant pouched rats from Tanzania to detect landmines. These trained Hero-rats can sniff out anything from tuberculosis to narcotics, but the ones here are used to smell up to a trillionth of a gram of TNT. So far they have helped clear out over 45.000 landmines in Cambodia, great stuff!

When we get back to the hotel, Cheatta surprises us with palm wine and Khmer desserts she’s picked up from the market and we spend another another great evening with her and Martin a.k.a. the loveliest hosts in the world.

Day 3: Outlying area

Still feeling the effects of the night before a bit, we drive 40km north to Banteay Srei, another one of the older, 10th century temples, built largely out of red sandstone. The elaborate decorative wall-carvings are a sight to behold.

Driving outside the confines of Siem Reap gives us the chance to see a bit more of the countryside that makes up the larger part of Cambodia. We’re in the middle of the dry season and make regular stops to take in the surroundings.

On the way back we end up taking a wrong turn while trying to find Banteay Samre. After parking our scooter next to the dirt track we stumble into someone’s backyard where we’re given directions to the temple. Not long after we find what must have been the original entrance way to the temple. Then this appears:

Even more rickety than it looks.

All obstacles cleared, we arrive at the temple, where we’re the only visitors today. Banteay Samre is said to show similarities to some northeast Thai monuments. It was restored beautifully by Maurice Glaize during WW2.

To conclude our conquest of Angkor Wat I have one last trick up my sleeve: an arduous climb in the midday heat up to Phnom Bok. If this won’t finally sweat out the last of the palm wine, nothing will. Starting the ascent, I can see Lauren’s mind calculate: “You made me cross a dangerous bridge, now you’re making me climb a mountain..”. But we make it to the top, without any kind of fall-out, and the last temple is glorious(ly ruined), with some spectacular views over the surrounding area. Worth the effort, and this officially concludes our conquest of Angkor!

At its height over a million people lived in Angkor, while London at the same time only housed 50.000. Mind blowing stuff, one of the most amazing things we have seen on our travels!

The next morning we’re sad to have to say goodbye to Martin and Cheatta when we’re leaving for Kratie. Thank you both for an amazing stay, and we hope to see you again, in Siem Reap, Scotland or wherever!

Malaysia: the verdict

Siem Reap, 5 January 2020

Since Penang is only a small island, for a nice change we don’t need to check into an airport hotel before taking leave of Malaysia and travelling on to Cambodia. We’re transitting Kuala Lumpur Airport a third and final time before safely arriving in Siem Reap around mid-day.

Travel stats (Malaysia) By land: 230 km. By water: 120 km. Duration: 10 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 11,160 km. By water: 535 km. By air: 28,992. Duration: 159 days.

In Malaysia we consumed more than a few beers, yet all of them imported. Tiger, Skol, Carlsberg and Guinness are readily available just about anywhere, as is a white beer version of Kronenbourg. In Langkawi we were pleased to find Hoegaarden at £1 a bottle (duty free), and cans of Tiger and Skol go for about the same at Pantai Cenang’s beach bars. In Penang, prices are more or less double of those found in Langkawi.

Ten days in Malaysia have simply flown by, so let’s present the marks awarded by Lauren.

The people score 8/10. In the short time we were in Malaysia, we’ve only met a few local Malaysians, but they were all very nice, with a special shoutout to Sam in Langkawi, who was a very gracious host and cooked up a mean curry! Since Penang is so multi-cultural, we ended up meeting native Indian people more than anything else, but they were a good laugh too.

The food scores 9/10. My last laksa was a bit of a sloppy mess, which is the only thing keeping Malaysian food from a perfect score. Malay, Chinese, Singaporean, Western and Indian, is there any cuisine Malaysia doesn’t nail?

The transport scores 9/10. We did try to figure out the public bus system at one point, but it was a bit all over the place. Not a problem, however, as taxis are dirt cheap, fast and efficient, and scooter rental is available at low prices everywhere.

Nice and easy this one, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Malaysia has hereby earned itself Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence! Yam Seng!!

Penang: Malaysia’s melting pot

Penang, 31 December 2019 – 4 January 2020

On the final day of the year we take the ferry from Langkawi to Penang. The island of Penang is located just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait. Both are connected by the longest oversea bridge in Southeast Asia.

While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a giant melting pot of different cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of British colonialism (1867-1957).

Just around the corner: Leith Street!

To celebrate the new year we spend our first night bang in the middle of George Town, the capital of Penang. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The street of our hotel, Campbell street, used to be the red light district filled with Cantonese brothels, but now it is the centre of the Chinese jewellery trade. Just around the corner from us is the area dubbed Little India, which springs to life at dinnertime when the food stalls open for business.

We find a grimey, little bottle shop surrounded by low-budget hostels, which has a pop-up terrace compounding of plastic folding tables and chairs. It turns out to be quite a happening place, popular with locals, expats and tourists; the cheapest boozer in town. We plan to go here for just one drink but end up staying for most of the night chatting away to a group of Indian migrants.

We make it back to our hotel room’s balcony just in time to see the fireworks set off from nearby The Top tower. We’re pretty drunk at this point. Our travels in 2019 have been superb, so kick on 2020!

The next day, with sore heads, we relocate to another hotel a bit further away from George Town near Penang Hill. Once we have a scooter we revisit George Town for the daytime experience.

Famed for its art, architecture and diversity, George Town is a city that feels new and western, while preserving the eastern cultures that originally turned Penang into a world trading centre. It’s pretty hipster, a bit quirky, and quite photogenic. The street art walking tour is to be recommended.

The architecture is a mishmash of old style Chinese mansions, British colonial houses and lots of new development.

Some of the old building are beautifully restored, while others have been reduced to just an empty shell, and skyscrapers and condos pop up everywhere, yet George Town seems to retain plenty charm. By the docks you can visit the old Chinese clan jetties, stilt houses that have been passed on between generations.

Perhaps even more so than its art and architecture, Penang is world-famous for its food culture. Everything we eat here is pure gold. The Chinese and Indian tastes authentic, while Muslim food stalls offering Nasi Kandar are available everywhere. We return to our favourite place two nights in a row, a big tented drinking hall/foodie heaven consisting of over 10 food stalls, where we try more laksa, Singaporean classic koay teow soup, and all the food we miss from China. At night there’s lady boys performaning on a big stage for all the diners’ entertainment.

With much to see (and eat) in George Town, one would almost forget there is a completely different side to Penang. The northern shoreline has about ten public beaches, and the entire westside of the island is almost undeveloped, and designated forest reserved, complete with a national park, turtle breeding centre, butterfly sanctuary, tropical fruit and spice gardens and botanical gardens.

Even though we spent a good few days in Penang it feels like we haven’t yet seen all of it, which has to be a good sign! With that, our time in Malaysia has already come to an end again, now it’s off to Cambodia we go!

Langkawi: Paradise of cheap booze and cheese

Langkawi, Malaysia. 26-30 December 2019

Our journey brings us back to Kuala Lumpur where we fly on to the island of Langkawi, known as the Jewel of Kedah. An archipelago of 99 islands on Malaysia’s west coast bordering Thailand, Langkawi was once a hideout for pirates rampaging in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though these days the pristine beaches of Langkawi draw in a different type of traveller, the rum still flows cheap and plentiful since the island was declared a duty-free zone in 1987.

We’re staying near Pantai Cenang, the island’s most popular beach and tourist area. Fun fact about Langkawi is that their weekend falls on Thursday-Fridays, which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when we first arrive, since some of the places we want to go see are shut. Instead we meet up with a friend of a friend, who owns a backpackers hostel nearby and party the weekend away.

For Lauren’s birthday the mission is simple: Eat cheese, and lots of it. Our quest brings us to a deli selling vintage Gouda with a french bakery nextdoor, and to a buffalo farm in the middle of the island to collect fresh mozzarella.

Langkawi also has it’s very own cheddar manufacturer, so most restaurants are well-supplied. Mac’n’cheese? Check!

One of the cooler places to visit is the Black Sand Beach. No one seems to know what has turned the sand black, since it’s not volcanic. Some say it’s minerals washed down from nearby Mount Raya, others believe it’s iron oxide or even petroleum.

Besides the novelty sand, the ice-cold waters of Black Sand Beach are more than welcome after a hot day of driving around the island.

Like the Philippines, Langkawi has its own island hopping tour, visiting three spots off the southern coast: An island taken over by macaques, a place to spot fishing eagles, and a giant saltwater lake. At a mere £6 a head it’s no wonder the tour is extremely popular, but it’s worth going. Some of the scenery looks identical to the Philippines.

In terms of wildlife there is one animal that stands out: the dusky leaf-monkey. When we visit a waterfall in the north-west of the island we run into a whole group of these strange, googly-eyed little creatures.

Near the airport we find a string of food stalls serving local delicacies and try laksa, a rice-noodle soup with mixed vegetables, chillies and fish, and cendol, a strange but not entirely unpleasant dessert made of coconut milk, rice flour jelly noodles, sweetcorn, kidney beans and syrup. With a runway on one side and a beach on the other, it’s become our favourite place to hang out at sunset and enjoy a good meal.

We’ve enjoyed Langkawi a whole lot, and it’s ticked a lot of boxes: Good food, nice beaches, imported cheese, cheap drinks, great weather and better yet, monkeys that haven’t tried to attack Lauren, which is a first! We’re off to a great start in Malaysia, next up we’re headed south to Penang to celebrate newyears.