Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Kingdom of Cambodia

The day had arrived that I would be starting a new series of adventures in a new country, Cambodia. Fai came to pick me up from the guesthouse to take me to the Poipet border, a place that I very much despise. It was here we had to say our goodbyes and I told her I would see her in a months time, I was now on my own about to embark on the unknown yet again. No sooner had I said my goodbyes that I was approached by someone saying "hello sir you going Cambodia today sir" I just gave a big smile and ignored him wondering how many more times I would be asked similar questions by these con men, to my huge suprise though this was the only one. As you know I have been to this border once before and had a nightmare sorting everything as well as getting ripped off but as I knew now exactly where to go it was a very smooth process. I went to the offcial place to buy my visa and paid the correct fee of $20. The official then pointed to a bit of paper that said $20 + 100 baht, I smiled and politely lauged with him that I wasnt going to pay the addtional money (that was only going to go in his pocket) and it worked. He looked a bit grumpy and I thought this might mean I'd have to wait longer but within 10 minutes I got my passport back, visa in place. I now just had to que for an hour at the gate to cross and there I was officially in Cambodia. From the Poipet border I took the free shuttle bus to the bus staion and shared a taxi with some Russians I'd met in the que,  it was $12 each for the three hour journey and jesus was it sketchy. I cant even count how many times he used the horn but it was several dozen times at least. After surving the taxi to Siem Reap I had to then take a tuk tuk to my pre booked guesthouse "Tropical Breeze" which had a huge very clean room, more like a hotel.

My first impression of Cambodia is that it is very diffrent to Thailand. It is very dirty and dusty, the traffic is chaotic, the streets are poorly lit and there are a lot of street kids here begging. What would you expect though from a country which has suffered such a horrible history including genocide only three decades ago, I am not complaining by any means but it is a lot take in. Not only do I have to adapt to this but I now have to get to grips with a new currency, to make things trickier they use both thier own Riel but more commonly the USD and as there are no cents in circulation if you need change from a dollar its given in Riel, it requires a good mental arithmetic to make sure you're not being fobbed off. My brain has been wired to Baht over the past few months so I have to do many calulations to work out what the price of something is in Baht then I know if its a good deal or not.

The first evening in Siem Reap I just stayed at the guesthouse, I arrived after dark and I wasnt up for taking to the streets on my own just yet. By staying at the guesthouse I ended up meeting a French guy and two German guys which was a bit of a weight of my shoulders, the following morning they headed out on the trips they had booked while I took myself for a walk to explore. The location of where im staying is just 5-10 minutes from the old market and pub street so it was easy to find, whilst walking through the market I couldn't belive it when I bumped into a Japanese group I had met one night in Streetlamp (Ayutthaya),  we went for some beers and they came back to my guesthouse to play pool. Come five or six pm the french guy and the german guys were back and the Japanese guys had to leave to watch the sunset at Angkor Wat. They started on the Angkor beer with me and before we knew it we were all drunk and ready to head to pub street which as the name suggests is full of bars. We stopped off at a restaurant first for something to eat and I noticed frog and crocodile on the menu, of course I decided on the frog BBQ for my tea. If you want to know what it tastes like (without trying to sound cliché) it did taste like chicken, seriously,  it was kind of a mix between chicken and steak as it had quite a chewy texture,  it was delicious. When we got to pub street it was very busy and very well lit up,  we ended up choosing a cool bar with swinging seats where we got truly hammered and I got up to sing with the three girls who were there singing to backing tracks, it went down well and one of the customers put a request in for me to sing Robbies "Angels" so of course not to be rude I did, it was great fun. The bar was closing and my friends wanted to head back but I was keen to stay on and find another place that was still open, afterwards though I thought it probably wasnt a good idea but they'd already gone so I got in a tuk tuk and asked him to take me to my guesthouse, at this point though I had very little money on me just a few thousand Riel (about a dollar) and he said it was enough, problem was though he didnt take me to the guesthouse...

Now the following story is about how I narrowly avoided being robbed on my first night out in Cambodia. Instead of the driver taking me back we ended up at one of his friends house's for which I was now very worried.  I asked him what he was doing and he told me to come inside quickly, he just needed to get something and then he would drive me back, I knew the driver knew I had no money so I thought it was quite possible he did just need to see someone quickly. It was strange though when he told me to come with him, I declined but he insisted so we ended up on the porch of a house where his friend was very drunk.  We talked for about 10 minutes and all seemed ok until his friend asked for some money, I told him I didnt have any and then he started to get angry, I asked my driver to please take me home and I walked back over to the tuk tuk, the driver followed but his friend wasnt happy for me to leave,  he demanded some money and whilst following us he threw a glass bottle in my direction, all of a sudden I knew I was in real danger.  I had no idea where I was, the road to his house had no streetlights and if I was to run I would have to deal with the dog who was guarding the gate to his house so running was not an option. It was then I came up with my life saving story, I reminded the driver I only had little money on me and if he drives off quickly now I would pick him as my guide for Ankgor Wat and would offer him $40 for it, this of course was highly appealing to him so it was now in his interest to keep me safe to get my business later. Now of course I had no intention of doing this but he didnt know that, we passed the gate with the dog and got on the main road, problem was though his friend who also owned a tuk tuk got into his to try and chase, luckily as he was so drunk he was not able to catch us. When I recognised where I was I gave the driver a fictitious guesthouse name and just told him to drop me a few places down so he did not know where I stayed. I gave him what money I had and made it back to my guesthouse alive, you can not even imagine the relief running through my body. What did suck though was that when I got to my room I realised I had lost my key and reception was closed so I found some cushions on the balcony and made up a bed in the corridor. It was a good laugh for the other guests who discovered me in the morning but I felt like death when I woke.

So there you have it, on just one night out I realised that Cambodia is a very poor country and contains some desperate people. The lesson of the story is to ensure I do not go out on my own again, I'm sure not everyone is out to rob you but there obviously are people here that will.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Valentines in Kanchanaburi

The day had arrived that Fai and I were to head to Kanchanaburi, she had booked us a room at the Monsane Resort and it was perfect. Before we checked in we first went to see the "Bridge over the River Kwai' (pronounced Kwair) the number one reason most people visit the provence. For those that don't know the bridge/railway also known as "Death Railway" was built during WW2 under the power of the Japanese, over 100,000 people lost their lives in the building of it due to the very extreme forced working conditions that the people had to face. Upon arrival it was strange to think that such a beautiful location and setting was once the home to such horror.

After seeing the bridge we headed for the resort to check in, shortly after we headed for Soiyak Noi waterfall which was beautiful, there were a lot of farang there splashing around but it was still a great little spot. We then headed to the the Soiyak National Park where we blagged local pricing to enter (Thailand is notorious for having one price for Thai and a much higher price for farang) The park was beautiful and we were basically the only ones in the whole place. Day two we decided to head to the Safari Park we had seen signposted, now I'd been to a Safari Park before but when I was much younger and don't really remember it much but this was awesome. We saw many an animal from gazelles to bears, lions, tigers and zebras but my favourite had to be the giraffes which came over to the bus sticking their long necks in to munch on the food we had for them; it was was quality. After the safari ride we went to see the elephant and crocodile show that was included. For the elephant show I was the only farang there so by default I was not able to refuse when I was summoned up to have a full size elephant stamp on my nuts. Seriously, I had to lie underneath while the monster of a thing gave numerous stamps over my private region, it was obviously trained to do it softly but even so its pretty dam scary. The crocodile show was pretty dam scary too, we watched as two guys narrowly avoided potentially fatal chomps by the powerful creatures, sticking their arms and heads between the massive jaws. In the evening we rented a kayak from the resort and headed out onto the river, it was Fai's first time in such a thing and when I wasn't purposely rocking it she enjoyed it, and of course so did I.

We had only booked two nights in Kanchanaburi so checked out the next day but instead of going straight back to Ayutthaya we decided to head to "Erawan National Park" to check out another natural wonder of thailand. With my foot being almost healed I manned up and we climbed the full 1.5KM to the 7th tier. I was boiling hot to say the least and by the time we got to the top I was absolutely covered in sweat so I stripped down to my boxers to get in and cool off, I just had to watch out for the fish that every now and then would charge in and nip me. Having cooled down it was time to head back down to the bottom to head to the dam. When we got there we discovered a Valantines festival being held where we had a drink and I won us two toys but shooting them off the shelf. It was then time to head home.

I have decided to stay a further week in Ayutthaya before I head to Cambodia, I have moved rooms in the guesthouse as I just could not cope with the noise the dogs in the house next door, there are over a dozen of them and every night and very early every morning it sounds like they are murdering each other or worse, the room I'm in now is much better although the mattress needed replacing several years ago so its not great for my back but hey ho.

Yesterday Fai went to the market to buy me some fish to release into the river by the temple. As it was my birthday just gone, releasing fish is done for good luck and it was quite special, oddly though it was more expensive to buy the fish live from the market than it was to buy them and have them killed there.

For anyone that is in or is going to Thailand I strongly recommend you check out Kanchanaburi, ideally you will need to rent a car as a lot of the attractions are a significant distance apart but of course you could also go on an organized tour. It truly is a magnificent provence.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Immigration and Birthday Celebration

Upon arrival to Ayutthaya Dave and I checked into the Ayutthaya Guesthouse, this guesthouse is also owned by Streetlamp so it was the obvious choice and I'd not stayed here yet either. Now as soon as we put our bags down my first critical mission was to get to the immigration office to extend my Visa that expired the very next day. Overstaying is not really a problem its just subject to a fine (500 Baht a day up to a maximum 20,000 Baht) but I didn't want to overstay by even a single day incase the US deemed it a problem when I apply for my working visa there.

Off to immigration I went not really knowing what the process was, all I knew was that a 30 day extension was 1900 Baht.  It's only a short distance from Soi Farang (the street with all the guesthouses and farang bars including my very favourite Streetlamp) and Dave and I found it eventually.  When I got there she told me I need a form completed by my guesthouse owner so she gave me the papers and I headed back to have it filled out. When I returned to the immigration office she then told me she needs a copy of his ID. Erghh! So back to the guesthouse I went to obtain it, thankfully on my return this time the guesthouse owner let me borrow his bike to get there. Once I had the correct paper work it was simple, I grabbed a ticket number for the que and within 10 minutes I was being seen to, I then just had to sit there while they entered some data into the computer, I moved around to four different people for different levels of processing and didn't need to say anything much at all, 30 minutes later it was done and I walked out with my extension. Sorted!

That evening we planned to have a quiet one so not to be too hanging for my birthday but of course that didn't happen. We stayed out till well past 12 therefore it was my birthday before i went to bed and I got a few free drinks at the various bars on the road, it was a good night. I hadn't really planned much for my birthday only that I would probably get very intoxicated and that I wanted to get hold of some fireworks. Both ended up happening and I even got hold of some skylaterns too. We started at Coffee Bar, one of my favourite all Thai places, it was here that Fai presented me with a wonderful birthday card, an amazing homemade cake and a new speaker to replace the one that had fallen from the hotel balcony in Surin. She really is a top girl; she is jai dee mak! After Coffee Bar we headed back to Soi Farang where we drunk copious amounts more whiskey setting of the fireworks in the street then the very special birthday sky lantern. It was coming up to around 1 or 2AM which meant it was time to head to mam-mam, the only place in Ayutthaya open until 6 in the morning. I love this place, it is so welcoming, I managed to get up on stage with the DJ and sung one of Thailands favourite western songs 'Zombie' coupled with some improv freestyle in Thai telling the people that I loved them and their country; of course it went down well. I couldn't tell you what time I got in but man it was one hell of a night.

The following day we had to wake up as Dave had to get to Suwanapoom airport to catch his flight to Sydney, Australia; a country where he would be starting his new life. Fai being the best person ever offered to drive and I was in the car hanging to say the least and in fact I was probably still a little drunk, all I knew is that I would not want to be him right then, I know how daunting it is to start life in a new country but I knew he'd be ok. We arrived and we said goodbye, I wished him chok dee and off he went. Fai and I then headed back to Ayutthaya where I plan to stay for around a week to get all my paper work in order for my US Visa. There is nothing really on the agenda as I've seen pretty much all of the city now but Fai has mentioned going to Kanchanaburi which was on my list so we will be heading there for Valentines weekend. I cant wait, I heard it is a beautiful place.

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Islands!

Firstly I should explain the current update on my foot from when I fell in Lop Buri. I have not really mentioned it that much but it has hindered my mobility somewhat (walking takes a lot longer and has been pretty painful) I've been soldiering on but it really has been me pissing me off for nearly three weeks! I figured there must be a small fracture so I took to the internet for some self diagnosis and saw foot fractures, especially where mine is, are very common and it will heal by itself so long as I keep it rested. I debated, but resisted going to the Doctor as I know the advice given would have been not walk on it and they would have given me a prescription for pain killers I can already obtain without one. I would then have the hassle of paying excess on my insurance and going to claim it all back so in the end I didn't bother. I have waited it out, making sure I wear my sports sandals instead of flip flops for the support and that has definitely been helping as I can almost walk normal with those on. The plan for the first three days on Samui (based around my foot) would be to not do very much to give my foot a full fighting chance of surviving Koh Phagnan; the most notorious party island in the world.

Having not pre booked any accommodation on Samui this was our first port of call. We had to take a mini van to the opposite end of the island as thats where everything is, the guy dropped us off in Lamai, a quiter place to that of the more popular Cha-Weng. It was a steaming hot day and we had all our stuff with so instead of walking around we grabbed some motobikes and found accommodation that way. It didnt take us long to find a cool little guesthouse "Kaoeng Bungalows"with an amazing view of the sea, It was a very reasonable price at just 350 Baht a night, I figured we would pay a lot more on the islands but this was perfect, especially considering the view.

Our days on Samui were spent riding around on our bikes exploring, along with laying on the beach and of course sinking a few beers and whiskeys. On one of the days we headed for a waterfall, now obviously I was not ready to climb but I saw they offered an off road 4x4 lift (part of the way anyway), Dave said he would walk and I should get in this and meet him at the top. The ride was fun, I thought it was just a lift for lazy and elderly people but it was actually more like a roller coaster where we had to hold on for dear life while he flew this mini monster truck around. At the destination Dave was nowhere in sight and if I was to see the actual waterfall I did indeed need to climb some rocky stairs. I kinda wished I hadn't as it didn't help my foot, but the waterfall was cool and I found a quiet spot where I could have a dip as it was sweltering. A little while later I still could not find Dave and had no phone on me so I headed back the guesthouse where I bumped into him on his bike on the street.

Now I must say that the nightlife on Samui disappointed me somewhat, I had a preconceived idea about what it would be like but basically it was dead pretty much everywhere (this may well have been down to everyone being on Koh Phangan for the Black Moon Party I'm not sure). It was a good thing in a way that there wasn't much going on because the whole point was to rest my foot. On one of the evenings while searching for a party we randomly came across a Thai bar called 'Camp Beer' I think. Pretty much everyone on Samui are farang holiday makers so it was a surprise to find this, I was really pleased, it was a great night. After relaxing on Samui my foot was feeling better and it was time for us to head off on the three hour boat ride to the infamous island that is Koh Phangan, home of the Full Moon Party!

We had checked the dates prior and realized we would miss both the full moon and half moon but none the less we heard this places goes off whatever the lunar cycle may be. As we were waiting at the pier for the people who had just come from Pangan to get off we got a glimpse of what we were in for, the amount of people coming off with cuts and bandages was ridiculous, after they had all hobbled off we got on and set sail the three hour journey. We had not pre booked here either but started talking to a guy at thier pier who was trying to get us to go to his 'Coral Bungalows' it was just 5-10 minutes walking distance from the one and only Haad Rin beach and had a pool so we thought it was definitely worth a look, it was also offered at a discounted price (500 baht for aircon room instead of 1500) because of the moon so we went for it. It turned out to be a super cool place with super nice staff, it was the perfect pick. What did make me laugh when we got there was the amount of signs specifying the amount of money you would have to pay if you broke/lost anything in the room/resort. They had literally covered everything, it was obvious that this place gets pretty looney on the full moon.

After checking in we rented bikes to go exploring, now oh my god did we have to check these bikes over throughly before we took them. We had to sign off absolutely everything and if anything was broken afterwards the fines were extortionate. I have never encountered this in Thailand before, you here the stories of people getting scammed when renting bikes but in reality thats not the case they normally just chuck you the key and off you go, but no this was very very different so we had to be thorough. I'm sure we wern't going to be scammed but should we actually have broken or scratched it it was going to be expensive. With the bikes being fully checked off we went on exploring and oh my days these were the sketchiest roads I have ever been on, it was up and down and up and down, with very steep hills that on a few Dave had to push himself up on full throttle. After checking out some awesome views we came across a man and his monkey getting coconuts from the palm trees. He had this thing tamed pretty well, it was on a long leash and was high up in the tree, the man warned us to watch our heads and he shouted some commands for the monkey to twist the coconut and drop it down to the ground. We spoke to the guy after and he told us the monkey doesn't eat much food but runs off whiskey and red bull (sounds a bit like me)

After a few hours our exploring was done now all that was on the agenda for the rest of our time was partying, after all we were on Koh Phangan. We met some wicked people here including two guys from England, Emily and Matt who we spent all of our time with. The first night was a pool party at our resort which I have a vague recollection of it being crazy as hell. The second day we woke up around noon and got straight on the buckets playing cards all day until it was time to head to the clubs on Haad Rin beach. This night was even crazier than the last, it was full of fire dancers, nos baloons and many more buckets. I'm not sure what time I got in but in the morning Dave woke up with a tattoo, yes a tattoo, he'd decided at 5AM it was a good idea to get the Hong Thong (Golden Phoenix) logo on his leg, I was actually gonna get this a while back but have decided against now even though it does look pretty cool. It was super funny in the morning when we found out.

The third day we decided to give the booze a break (at least for the afternoon anyway) and our plan was to head to mushroom mountain to get a round of milkshakes, after chilling for a while we went on a mission to find some baloons, the bar told us they had them but to come back around 8PM so we ended up on a diffrent mission involving the maddest bridge you have ever come across. I mean this thing was seriously dangerous so we trod very lightly all the while I was laughing so hard I actually got stomach cramps and was sick; I dont know why it was so funny but it was. When we got around the corner along the rocks we realized it was the way to some quaint little bungalows that looked pretty smart, you got a really good view of the beach and the island from there. We sat for a while and contemplated the journey back as we needed to get back before it got dark as that would not have been fun at all. By the time we got back we decided it was time to start on the buckets and it went on from there, in the evening there was a foam party on the beach where we partied all night long, there were again fire dancers, people jumping over a giant flaming skipping rope and human fireworks in the sea. It was a guy stood on a table in the sea with fireworks attached to him almost like a human catherine wheel. How he didn't get burnt to bits i don't know, then again he probably did, he must have.

The following morning we had to pack up leave, it was time to head back up to Bangkok and then to Ayutthaya, we didn't fly but took the boat (of course) and then another sleeper train to Bangkok where we got a different train up to Ayutthaya. Its my birthday in two days and Dave leaves in two so we are spending his last few days here.

Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are spectacular, there are many more islands to explore but for now thats all time allowed for. I'm not sure I need to return to Samui but will certainly be going back to Koh Phangan for a full moon party. That was place will be going off!!