Krabi: The higher they climb the bigger the phallus

Tonsai beach, Krabi. 16-18 February 2020.

Our next travel brings us back to the mainland to Krabi, home of rock climbers. Here we touch base on Tonsai beach, a quiet, idyllic bay surrounded by jungle and gigantic karst rock formations, which is accessible by long tail boat only. For our final three days on the Andaman Sea we look forward to mainly relaxing on the beach.

Krabi is a small city on the west coast of southern Thailand facing the Andaman. Just outside the city is the resort town of Ao Nang, which is an access points to the beaches of Railay and Tonsai. The limestone rock faces in this area attract climbers from all over the world and most of the climbs start from the beach itself.

When our ferry from Ko Lanta reaches the bay the whole boat empties into long boats heading for Railay beach, and we’re the only two passengers getting dropped off at Tonsai beach. There’s only a 500m jungle path separating the two beaches, but they are worlds apart. Railay is fully developed with hotels, bars, restaurants, swimming pools and shops and you can’t see the beach for the sun bathers, while Tonsai has just one beach bar, a handful of largely empty hotels, a yoga studio, a convenience store and the perfect empty stretch of golden sand lined by palm trees. Yup, we’re feeling pretty smug right now!

Tonsai has a bit of an alternative feel to it, some good vibes. Accommodation consists of mainly bamboo huts, with spacious seating areas inspired by opium dens and drenched in reggae flavourings. A concrete wall running alongside the only road in town is covered in some sweet and quirky graffiti.

The few visitors it gets are mostly rock climbers and others like us that have come looking for the good life. Daredevils scaling the huge cliffs around the beach are joined by the local climbers: crab-eating macaques and dusky leaf monkeys.

The jungle path to Railay beach offers some great views over the bay.

From Railay it’s a ten minute walk to get to Phra Nang beach. With its easy access, silky white sand, shallow blue water and limestone caves it is another place popular with tourists. On the edge of the beach, one of the caves has been dedicated to a myhtical sea princess named Phra Nang.

According to legend, Phra Nang was either killed in a shipwreck or the wife of a fisherman who was lost at sea who lived out the rest of her days in the cave, awaiting her husband’s return.

Today, local fisherman and boatmen leave offerings in Phra Nang cave to ensure safe travel on the sea. These offers take the form of male genitalia – the cave is covered in many “linga”, or phallic-shaped statues meant to represent the Hindu god Shiva. The offerings in Phra Nang cave are especially realistic – the penises have discernible ridges and heads and some are decorated with colorful cloth. Anyone can leave an offering to the goddess, but beware there is a rule that strictly prohibits statues with testicles. After all, there’s no need to be vulgar about it.. Source: Atlas Obscura

Another “offering” perhaps?

Other caves around Phra Nang beach contain different surprises, such as giant water monitor lizards, one of which comes suddenly popping out onto the beach beside us!

Three days at Tonsai beach have come and gone in a flash and just like that we’re preparing to travel from the west coast across to the east coast of Thailand where we’ll be stopping in the working class city Surat Thani, in search of more beaches, ancient ruins, bike-riding monkeys and some proper southern Thai food. For now it’s goodbye from Tonsai!

Ko Lanta’s coral: Look, it’s moving! It’s alive!

Ko Lanta, 13-15 February 2020

From Phi Phi we travel further south towards Malaysia and stop off at Ko Lanta. The district was established in 1901 and consists of four main island groups: Mu Ko Lanta, Mu Ko Klang, Mu Ko Rok and Mu Ko Ngai. Lanta is believed to be one of the oldest communities in Thailand, dating back to prehistoric times. Interesting about the area is its diversity. Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims and sea gypsies are all found together on the islands.

Mu Ko Lanta consists of 52 island, most of which are uninhabited. We stay on the largest, most populated island Ko Lanta Yai (commonly known as Ko Lanta), which has nine beaches running down the entire west coast, as well as forests and tropical jungle.

Since the Lanta district is known for its scuba diving we look into this first, but it turns out to be quite pricey at £125 per person for only two dives. Even besides the pricetag, or the fact the divemaster (a fellow Scot!) mistakes Lauren for being Irish, recent visibility hasn’t been good either, so we decide to forget about diving here and opt for snorkeling instead.

A speedboat brings us to Ko Rok Noi (part of Mu Ko Rok), roughly 60km from Ko Lanta. As we’ve come to expect in this part of the world, it’s paradise.

Ko Rok is an area supposedly frequented by Hawksbill turtles, but there doesn’t appear to be any seagrass for the turtles to feed on and at any rate we don’t find any. What we do find however is hands-down the best coral we have seen over the past 7 months!

With all the bright colours around it’s clear the coral is pretty healthy and that attracts a lot of fish and other sea creatures. The corals are littered with brightly coloured christmas tree worms.

Hiding on the bottom of the sea bed, we spot the biggest puffer fish we’ve ever seen, and observe a giant sea cucumber eating its lunch.

Our next stop Ko Haa is one of the tiniest island groups within Lanta, but probably the most photogenic with its jaggy rocks sticking out of the water.

There are a few baby reef sharks in amongst the coral, plus an enormous triggerfish I’m following at my own risk (they can pack a mean bite), and loads of angel fish and star fish. I was almost ready to give up on ever taking a good underwater photo, but Ko Lanta saves the day!

Out of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta, the latter has been our clear favourite. It’s been laid-back, easy to cross by scooter, not overly touristic and has the best coral. There is one last stop to go for us in the Andaman when we visit Krabi next.

Ko Phi Phi: Here there be sharks!

Ko Phi Phi, 10-12 February

The six islands that make up Phi Phi became world-famous when Maya Bay was chosen the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. Although the original story was actually inspired by Palawan Island in the Philippines, Maya Bay has drawn in more than 3,700 visitors on a daily ever since, decimating the marine life in the area. As of June 2018 the bay has been closed to the public while a coral rehabilitation project is ongoing.

Between this and nearby James Bond Island, which appeared in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, The Andaman attracts a lot of visitors chasing a Hollywood experience. While the scenery of clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and dramatic karst formations is beautiful, it’s no different to what we’ve seen before on Palawan, Coron, Langkawi and Ko Chang, just a bit more crowded. However, there’s another reason we are both excited to visit Ko Phi Phi: Sharks!

We’re staying on Long beach, the biggest beach on the island, which is 2-km walk away from the main town.

You can snorkel right off the beach here and it’s remarkable how many different types of fish are swimming super close to the shore.

Just 200 meters further out a big rock sticks out from the water: Shark Point. Here’s where you can find blacktip reef shark at all hours of the day. Careful not to collide with the heavy traffic of long tail boats passing along the beach we swim out in search of these giant fish.

First, nothing, but then a big shark appears out of nowhere right in front of us. Thankfully it’s pretty skittish. Reef sharks grow up to about 1.6 meters in length but pose no threat to humans. In total we spot about seven of them around the rocks. At the moment it’s birthing season and right enough one of the sharks looks like she could be pregnant.

The next day we’re heading out to dive. Now that we have our open water we want to build up some experience. The sites we visit are Bida Nok and Palong. Unfortunately, because of the recent full moon, visibility levels again are low, and, by some weird occurrence, the area is infested by tiny purple jelly fish stinging us in the arms, legs and face. Once we’re safely in the deep we spot some puffer fish, trigger fish, a moray eel, clown fish and a giant barracuda. Hopefully on our next dive we’ll finally be able to see further than 7 meters and swim with something big..

So that’s all for Ko Phi Phi. We swam with sharks, saw Maya Bay (from a distance) and got another two dives under our belt, can’t ask for more. While back home it’s snowing, storming and minus 4 degrees, we’re still baking in the sun. Only two more weeks to go before heading home to the cold..

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!

Koh Rong, but oh so right!

M’pai Bai, Koh Rong Sanloem. 19-23 January 2020.

No better way to end our travels in Cambodia than by laying low for a few days on the unspoilt, exotic Koh Rong Sanloem. Over the past few weeks we’ve gained a better understanding of the do’s and don’ts of local transport. Instead of involving the hotel, this time we book directly with a travel agent, a change in tactics that pays off in dividents: around mid-day a ferry lands us in the clear blue waters of M’pai Bai. Time to finally wash off all the dirt from the road!

Koh Rong Sanloem is the smaller of two inhabitated Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand, the larger being Koh Rong. The place we stay is called M’pai Bai (meaning 23 in Khmer), a little village of about 150 people on the northern tip of the island. There’s no banks here, no ATM’s, no broadband, no electricity, we’re literally off-grid.

After evading the traffic of carts loaded with island supplies running up and down the pier, once the initial excitement of landing in a little slice of heaven has worn off, it’s quite impossible not to notice a certain hard-hitting prevalence of VCSO boys and girls on the island. Gap year douchebaggery is strong in this place serviced mainly by western volunteers, but once you look past all the duck faces, ‘loner’ tattoos and man-buns bragging about how wasted they got on red wine the night before, what remains is an utter and complete paradise.

The interior of the island is almost entirely covered in dense jungle. Though there used to be a basic road system linking up the two villages, this now completely overgrown with vegetation. Taxi boats and ferries connect the island’s seven beaches, along with the occasional rocky footpath. We follow the so-called driftwood path along the sandstone rock coastline to Clearwater Bay on the east coast. It lives up to its name.

One possible translation of Sanloem is far out. Some of the island’s inhabitants, such as Lookout‘s owner Benny, take this catchphrase from The Dude to the extreme by takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to procure a good smoke here, at all. M’pai Bai appears to have just the one policeman, whom we see returning a grinder to the bartender at one of the beach bars..

Once you’re feeling totally relaxed, there are boats available to take you to marvel at the glowing plankton the two Koh Rongs are famous for. At nights, near the shores of the uninhabited island of Koh Koun just to north of Sanloem, when you stir the water the plankton flashes gold. Far out, man!

Another three beaches are accessible by taxi-boat. In the morning we’re brought to Saracen Bay, which got its name from a British survey brig, HMS Saracen, that charted the area in the late 19th century. This stretch of soft, white sand is the main tourist area on the island. From here we choose one of the paths that leads through the jungle to the other side of the island. A sign explains the wildlife we may encounter on the walk: Great hornbills, kingfishers, ospreys, macaques and various (poisonous) snakes. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) we encounter nothing of the sort, and soon arrive at stunning Sunset Beach.

We may not have seen any land animals on the way here, when we snorkel around in the clear water of Sunset Beach the marine life we find around the scattered rocks and corals makes more than up for it. We spot angel fish, parrot fish, leopard fish, and even a few we haven’t seen before: a puffer fish, sea cucumbers and a cuttlefish!

Originally we were thinking of heading to the bigger Koh Rong for a few days, but somehow never made it there.. The nice thing about a small village such as M’pai bai is that in just a few days you begin to get to know everyone. Inside the actual village behind the beachfront there are a few local food stalls. Niamh, one of the chefs there, was on Cambodian Masterchef and her food is delicious, best lok lak we’ve had so far.

We also meet ‘the Mexican on a horse’, who is a bit of an enigma around these parts. No one knows why or when exactly, but he just appeared here one day with his hat and his horse, offering horseback rides to tourists.

But then, there was a lot about it that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interestin’.

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.

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.