Day 19 / 20 – Bangkok to home

A very relaxed morning, waking up at 8 for the first time since leaving home. A leisurely breakfast, a swim, check out, and wait for our transfer to the airport. At the airport we were through formalities in record time… 27 minutes after pulling up we were checked in (no queue at all), through security and through emigration. Time for a coffee and relax till boarding. ETA in Sydney: 11:50am Friday.

Thanks to everybody who shared this adventure with us. We’ve made some friends for life. Thanks to Bruce and Theavy – both professional, fun and highly capable group leaders. And thanks to Intrepid Travel. I’ll definitely be using you again. Such a well run trip.

And thanks to dad, for ‘inviting’ me to join him on this trip. It’s been a blast.

Day 18 – Bangkok

With the official tour over we had to act a bit like adults and organise ourselves. We managed to find breakfast in a place where the food was OK but the service was abysmal. We (the 7 of the group of 11) then headed on foot toward the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha, with the standard Bangkok touts telling us that the Palace was closed because of a religious holiday and that we could go instead to a ‘free’ temple nearby. Yeah right. Upon arriving at the palace it was totally open and ready to take our money – with Niamh and Jen having to buy a T shirt because the scarf they had taken to cover their shoulders apparently wasn’t conservative enough.

The temples within the complex are simply stunning. Words and even phots can not do it justice. I’d warned the others who hadn’t been here before that they were in for a surprise when they saw the size of the Emerald Buddha – the most revered Buddha in Thailand. They were. It is only about 45cm high!

After leaving the Grand Palace we headed back to the hotel (by cab – it’s getting hot!) for a swim. Dad then had a massage, we took a walk to the river and met the rest of the group for drinks at Cha’s Bar, right opposite the hotel. The bar was the most down to earth place you could imagine, with Cha being a comedy act and entertainer as well as a barman with the coldest beers in Thailand. We then wandered the local streets and found Mr Lok’s restaurant – another great local find – best food we’ve had in Thailand and cheaper than anything we’ve seen. After dinner we headed back to Cha’s for a few more drinks before saying goodbye to Peter, Jen and Carmen, and Joe. Breakfast tomorrow will be down to the last 3 of us, before we jet off in the afternoon toward home.

Day 17 – Bangkok

Not much to report and no photos during the day as we were on the bus headed from Siem Reap to Bangkok most of the day. Quite a wait at the border but once into Thailand the difference in wealth was apparent. Upon arriving in Bamgkok I couldn’t believe the different in the city compared to the last time I was here in 1997. Back then it was dirty, smelly and congested. It’s now a much cleaner city, fewer motorbikes and much less air pollution.

After check in at the Nuovo City Hotel, just a few hundred metres from Khao San Road, we headed off for our final group dinner with Theavy, and then to Khao San Road for a look around and a few drinks. We ended up at a bar with live acoustic guitar music which was fantastic!

Deb and Brigitte had to leave us to catch their plane, but we continued till the wee hours – a top night!

Day 16 – Siem Reap

Up at 4:30 for a 5:00 trip to Angkor Wot for sunrise. The crowds were building even at that time of day, but well worth the effort. As it turned out we didn’t have an overly spectacular sunrise, but Wow!

Once the sun was up – about 6:15 we headed into the wot. It’s hard to say what is most impressive about the place – the scale of it all or the fine detail. Every surface is covered in intricate, fine carving. Every surface.

We then headed back for breakfast, followed by a Khmer cooking class with 5 others in the group. Just like the cooking class in Vietnam, it involved a market tour, and just like in Vietnam it was lots of fun and delicious.

It was then back to the hotel for a short rest before heading off for drinks and dinner at another small local restaurant. Another $7 meal, including drinks.

Lastly we hit a sky bar for a nightcap,  before heading back to pack for the bus trip to Bangkok tomorrow.

Day 15 – Siem Reap

[More photos to come later]

Big photo day… Day 1 of the Temples of Siem Reap. We started with the oldest of the temples, Banteay Srey, a 10th century temple 40 minutes drive out of town. The intricate carvings on the rocks was incredible.

Next temple was Ta Prohm, the temple made famous in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with tree roots growing down through the temple. I’ll need to do some fact checking, but these temples were abandoned for 400 years, as the Cambodian empire declined, before being ‘rediscovered’ (the locals always knew about them) in the early 20th century by the French. During the years of abandonment seeds deposited in bird droppings germinated, becoming the huge trees we see today.

Our last temple stop for the day was Angkor Thom (We all thought Teavy was saying ‘Uncle Tom’. Seemed like a strange name for a temple complex.) This complex was huge, with at least four discrete areas within the bounds of the temple.

After returning to the hotel we had a refreshing swim (it was seriously hot and humid today – just like every other day) before a small group of us headed out to find ourselves dinner, and what a find we made… Entrée of spring rolls, main course of a curry and 2 beers for $US7. They use 2 currencies here. They use $US for notes greater than $1 and Cambodian Riel for smaller amounts. $US1=4000 Riel, with notes of 500, 1000 and 5000 riel. Often you’ll pay for something in a combination of currencies, or pay in $US and get change in Riel.

Last stop was a wander around the markets on town. Siem Reap is a lively, friendly town.

Day 14 – Battambang to Siem Reap

The day started with a bike ride to the semi rural areas north of Battambang, including visits to rice paper makers, a rice wine distillery, a stop for fruit, a stop for sticky rice in bamboo and a banana drying stop. Each of the stops were at the homes of Cambodian families making a small living from their various enterprises. At the rice paper house the lady makes up to 1200 rice papers a day for a profit of around $5. And when its wet production stops.

After the ride and lunch we headed for Siem Reap by bus. The first half of the journey was roadworks, but as we got closer to Siem Reap the landscape changed to extensive rice fields and the roadside was cleaner, houses larger and generally felt much more affluent.

Siem Reap is a thriving, lively town, totally dependant on tourism – Angkor Wat is just a few kilometres away. The town has a population of about 30000, and about 20000 tourist beds!

Day 13 – Battambang

Another long day in the bus, but with some fantastic stops along the way and after we arrived in Battombang (pronounced Battambong). First stop was a floating village. Access was via a dirt road that probably gets washed away every wet season, and appeared to never get repaired. Upon arriving near the lake we jumped on a boat and toured the village, complete with a police station, a health centre, shops, mechanics workshops and houses.

Typical house

Back on shore dad priced a motor, shaft and propeller – the type used on the Thai style longboats. It was only $300 for the whole 18hp setup. Pity it wouldn’t fit in the luggage.

We then continued on for lunch, arriving in Battambang late afternoon. The town is in the midst of a full blown festival, with street stalls, music, dragon boat races, and a fantastic atmosphere.

After a short break we headed out to the ‘bamboo train’. Having no idea what to expect, it was still a surprise. Very unusual and lots of fun. The photos tell the story.

We then headed off for dinner in a local home, then back to the hotel for a quick drink and bed – with the festival thumping below us.

Day 12 Phnom Penh

Another confronting day with a trip to the killing fields and to the genocide museum. Although the history is a little complex, nothing you hear makes it make sense.

The afternoon was a little more relaxing, with a walk around town, getting lost in the back streets and seeing the real deal, instead of staying on the tourist route. This was followed by a short break, then a tuk tuk tour of the significant memorials and stupas, with the obligatory market thrown in and a nice dinner.

Day 11 – Phnom Penh

Most of the day was spent on the bus driving from Saigin to Phnom Penh. After crossing the border (I think my first ever land border crossing?) into Cambodia the differences between the two countries were immediately obvious. Cambodia has a much lower rural population density, has a lot more plastic litter, worse roads, fewer motor bikes, but an interesting twist – motorbikes with trailers, articulated like a semi-trailer, sometimes carrying huge loads.

After arrival we did a Mekong River cruise (with $2.50 cocktails – $US dollars are generally accepted here), then dinner where I had the Amok- the traditional dish of Cambodia – somewhat like and indian curry but not spicy and very lemon grassy. Yum.

We then wandered home, stopping at another bar along the way. Seems like the new group will (mostly) bond quite well.

New to the group is Jen and Carmen from Canada, Joe from Australia and Donna and Robert from Gosford – who know some of the same people dad knows. From the Vietnam group is Niahm, Peter, Debbie, Bigitte, Dad and I.

Our group leader Sotheavy

Day 10 – Saigon

Our Vietnam tour officially finished today and our Cambodia tour officially begins. With 11 others from the Vietnam group we booked a tour to Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour out of Saigon. Incredible stories of ingenuity and survival by the Viet Cong in a network of 280km of tunnels, totally surrounded by French then American forces. Our tour guide ‘Tan’ was superb. He explained everything so clearly and with great humour.

We stopped in at a house where the woman of the house makes 1400 rice paper sheets a day, for payment of about $US10 a day. We also learnt that police make about $US400 per month!

After returning to Saigon the 6 of us continuing on to Cambodia went for a walk to the local tourist markets where we made a few last minute purchases to use up the last of our Dong.

We then met with our new group leader and the people joining us for the rest of the journey. Our group leader is Sotheavy – pronounced something like Tee-a-vee, a young Cambodian woman from Siem Reap. Tomorrow we cross the border into Cambodia and head for Phnom Penh.

As we disband, I realise I never introduced our group… Collin, Kerryn and Nicholas from Sydney, Belinda and Darrell from Perth, Debbie and Brigitte from Boston, Mark and Emma from Dublin, Elena and Vitali from Germany, , Peter from London, Niahm from out of Dublin and Dad and I.