Thursday, 31 May 2012

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We are on the bus heading for Vietnam after our week long sprint across Cambodia. We have got just four weeks left in our trip so decided to spend one week in Cambodia then three in Vietnam. We are desperately craving the sea so travelling along the coast of Vietnam is all to appealing to us right now!

Because of our short stay in Cambodia our visit was confined to the tourist hubs of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Siem Reap was our first stop. We were in shock as we arrived in the town as there were tourists EVERYWHERE! They even have a long road called Pub street which is dedicated to western restaurants and well, pubs! It was a huge contrast to India where we had been just a few days earlier when you could literally go for days without seeing one westerner.

Our main reason for visiting Siemp Reap was to see Angkor Wat. Dubbed the 8th wonder of the world, the Wat is one of the most iconic structures in S.E Asia. We left in our tuktuk at 4.45am to catch the sunrise. After a half our drive we arrived in the grounds where our tickets were issued (a hefty $20 each!).

The grounds are huge so after another drive of about 15mins we reached the entrance to Angkor. We joined our fellow early risers and walked up a long path towards the entrance gate. Like the Taj, the building hides behind a huge gated wall, allowing the suspense to escalate as you walk towards it, eager for a glimpse beyond.

We walked through the gate and were met with an enormous black silhouette in the navy blue sky. We walked up another long path towards it, stopping at the lake in front to watch the sky change. First it cracked a warm orange, then pink with unearthly vibrant aqua hues. It was an unbelievable sight to behold.

There were hundreds of people there snapping away so we decided to sneak off into the temple before the crowd dispersed. We walked a little further and found ourselves to be the only people in the Wat. It was surreal. So quiet and still a little dark as the sun slowly crept into the sky. Long corridors with high pillars and decorative stonework stretched as far as my eye could see. Iconic turrets stretching into the sky.

We spent about two hours exploring Angkor in awe of the colossal work accomplished so long ago. We stood outside and watched the dark stone gradually and miraculously turn gold as the sun worked its magic across the temple.


I especially loved the ancient carvings of women in the stone, the bodies crumbling but unwilling to be forgotten forever.

There are lots of temples in the park. Next we went to Angkor Thom where we explored the Bayon and Baphuon temples, the terrace of elephants and the terrace of the leper king. All individual in style and design and offering their own little quirks.

After three hours of exploring we were starting to bake in the heat and temple fatigue was beginning to set in! We stopped for a terribly overpriced breakfast before setting off to see the final temple Ta Prohm. This is the most iconic temple after Angkor Wat and I was incredibly excited to see it. As we walked towards the temple we met some of the tallest trees I have ever seen in my life. I hadn't even seen the temple yet and was in awe!

As we approached and went into the Wat we were greeted with a marvellous stone structure which twists and turns in many different passages. Most importantly, it also houses the gigantic trees which have managed to become one with their neighbours! The trees have grown through the buildings, their roots delicately sprawling along the outside walls guarding the monument from intruders.

We have seen our fair share of temples throughout Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal and India so it takes a lot to really be impressed by any structure now. I know it probably sounds really ignorant to say that but they just become a bit common?! I have to say, Angkor Wat was one of the best, it was just pure magic!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Surviving the Cambodian Border crossing!

We got the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet the morning we left for Cambodia. From the station we got an onward tuktuk to the border town of Poipet. Very aware of the massive corruption at this border crossing we were on high alert! We were delighted when the seemingly lovely lady driver dropped us off at a very official looking office, avoiding the dreaded touts/con men. So we went in and began filling out the usual forms.

After we had finished the agent then asked for our fee which he quoted in baht. I was completely confused as I expected to pay in dollars and was unsure of the conversion. Something told me this guy wasn't genuine so I stopped him and waited until I dug my phone out of my bag and checked the currency conversion. The bugger was charging us twice the price!! Even though we were sitting in a legitimate looking government office it was indeed a scam! Disgusted, I grabbed back our documents and passports and we left. I felt bad for a Japanese girl sitting at the other end of the room, who with little english, had just handed over her money and was issued the false visa.

Walking back onto the road one locals realised we had sussed out what was happening in there. He directed us to the official office at the end of the road. We found the office, filled in new forms and went to the guard to pay our fee. The visa costs $20 per person and he also asked for an extra 100baht pp as an unexplained fee that we just had to pay. I knew this was bullshit so I explained to him very nicely (after all he decides if you enter the country!) that I knew the correct fee for us should be $40. I presented him the money with both hands (the polite way to give and receive things in Cambodia.) He said nothing more and gave our passports to another official to be stamped.

Even the actual officials are corrupt! I know 100 baht isn't much but I just didn't want to give it up as a matter of principle. The couple before us and after us all gave him the extra money, he must make an absolute fortune every day!

Anyway, we were both very pleased to have survived one of the most notoriously corrupt border crossings of S.E Asia!!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

India in perspective - tips for future travellers

We arrived in Bangkok yesterday morning and I feel like we have come home. It was so nice landing somewhere and being familiar with where you are, what the people are like, how much things cost, where to go etc. When you are travelling you generally have no idea of these things and your brain is in overload trying to get from a to b for the first few days. It was an absolute pleasure coming back to beautiful Thailand.

We spent 15 hours waiting for our flight yesterday. Rather than spending the day in New Delhi we headed straight for the airport, a much safer and happier environment! As we sat over the first real cup of coffee for eight weeks Luke and myself talked about our time in India. It ended up turning into a prime time style debate, me fighting for India and Luke against!!

I will not deny that India is an extremely difficult place to travel in every sense of the word. It was a funny debate because as I listened to Luke I agreed with everything he said. Things like:

- how it is near impossible to get information from anyoneeveryone wants to sell you something or make money from you somehow. As a white person, regardless of your income, you ARE rich to these people and they will exploit that.

-the place is filthy

-there are far too many people

-getting from one point to another is unbelievably stressful and chaotic

-the awful treatment of women and the horrendous trend of foeticide

And there are plenty more cons of travel in India, believe me! However, if you are willing to work through this I believe what you get in return far surpasses any other country we have been. You can spend days without seeing a single tourist and so you really do get a true feel for the country, unlike in South East Asia. Although there are plenty of cons there are also positives and these positives paint images in your mind that will last a life time.

Moments like watching groups of homeless people sitting on the street around a brewing pot of chai, laughing and sharing stories. Groups of men gossipping outside their shops and playing cards sitting by the rivers edge in Udaipur. The beautiful women dressed in decorative saris, ordained with lots of gold jewelry, their hands elegantly displaying intricate henna ink work. Joking with street kids and sharing chocolate with them. Travelling by train through barren desert land, waking up to see the sun rise and a lady in an illuminous orange sari walking through the barren land. Discovering ruined castles and run down temples decorated with the most intricate and imaginative artwork I have ever seen. Brightly painted houses with vibrant washing hanging outside. Tantalising spicy food and my vice....chai!!

Travel in India isn't for everyone but I think everyone should experience it just once. If I had to give some future travellers tips they would be as follows:
Be tough! With regards to people selling you things you have to be assertive and stand up for yourself or your money will be gone within a week.

Never tell a tuktuk driver or anyone else providing a service that it's your first time in India, they will rip you off.

If you are travelling with a boyfriend/girlfriend they are how your husband/wife. It makes things a lot easier and is more acceptable to their culture.

Have a sense of humour. You will be annoyed by people/transport, it makes it easier if you can joke about it and not let the moment ruin your day!

Drink lots of water and stay out of the sun. India is bloody hot!

Don't be scared about getting sick. I was terrified I would end up vomiting for days but I was fine, my stomach was actually worse in Thailand! Be sensible about where you eat, don't eat pealed fruit/salad and always check the seal on your water bottle hasn't been broken and filled with contaminated tap water.

Speak to the Indian people. You can meet many lovely people here so take this opportunity to get to know how they live.

Don't spend too long in New Delhi, it will kill your soul.

We usually avoid the Lonely Planet guide book but I have to say it was our bible in India. Especially with regards to prices for travel and entry fees to tourist attractions, it's great in the fight against people trying to fleece you!

Go, book that flight, and explore it for yourself :)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Agra - Taj Mahal

We decided that Agra would be a good spot to end our jaunt around Rajasthan. The Taj Mahal is one of the most inconic structures in the world and we definitely needed to see it!! We got the sleeper train from Bundi to Agra, not the greatest sleep in the world but we got to meet some nice India people without the fear of being killed in a road accident!

Agra is not a nice city at all. It baffles me that it is home to one of the seven wonders of the world and yet the city and the area surrounding the Taj is one of the filthiest places we have seen during our time in India. There is huge concern for the future of the Taj as pollution is taking it's toll on the structure, but with 5 million people in this city, you can imagine the smog and pollutants in the air.

Anyway, we battled our way through the hordes of vendors trying to sell us their tack and entered the Taj grounds. As we were approaching the gate a family stopped me and asked if they could have their picture taken with me. I agreed and as they walked away another family was already queing up. After standing with five different families I told the group waiting before me that I had to leave now! The Indian's are hilarious! They LOVE having their photo taken with westerners....even if they are by one of the seven wonders of the world!!

As we walked to the gate we caught our first glimpse of the Taj. It was pure magic...

The size of the building is colossal and the symmetry is so perfect it gave me the creeps!!!! It was definitely a special experience standing before the giant marble structure.

people like ants they were, look at the size of the thing!!!!

LOTS of people/ants!
verses from the Koran inscribed beautifully into the marble work

We tried to get a picture of us together, not really one for the cheesy tourist snaps but it had to be done here. Anyway, it was a massive FAIL!

Attempt 1
yes of course we want you in our picture too oh random Indian man!

Attempt 2

yes, we are blocking the entire Taj!...

Taking matters into our own hands then...


                                                                                  Luke doing push ups!
We spent about two hours walking around checking out the intricate decoration in the marble work and marevlling at the sheer size of the monument.

                                                                    hundreds of pairs of shoes left outside
We ended the day by going to a near by roof top resteraunt for a beer and watched kids on different roof tops battling with their kites high in the sky. India, you really are incredible :)

                                              kites dotted around the Taj...and one unfortunate stuck in the tree!

A little more Udaipur

As it happens Udaipur became one of those cities we lost ourselves to. Originally staying for three days we have now been here seven! The picturesque city with its cooler climate has wooed us to the point where it is difficult to leave!

Each day offers a new adventure. One afternoon we went to the top of a near by hilltop via cable car and watched the sunset. It was one of the most epic transitions from day to night that I have ever seen. With its rambling hills, proud palace and infamous lake, Udaipur is the dreamiest location to observe such a show.

the city palace in the distance

We walked back towards Lal Ghat when night fell and were astonished by the amount of bats flying overhead, exiting from the Palace grounds.They were HUGE and there must have been thousands. Luke was in his element! The stream of bats continued to flow and we followed it in the direction of the City Palace. We reached the back entrance to the Palace and to our surprise we realised we could walk all the way through to the other side, without using the tourist entrance. We payed the guard 50rupees and entered the grounds to observe the building graciously illuminated. There was not a single person there and we were free to walk alongside the Lake in peace, our only company being the swarms of bats overhead and the odd royal guard. It was by far the nicest walk we have had in India, a magical evening.

the bats were so hard to capture, this does their size no justice but gives you an idea..

Another great evening was spent at the Bharatiya Lok Kala traditional music and dance show. We sat al fresco in a magnificent open air theatre accompanied by a handful of tourists, again this is the pro to travelling in the hot monsoon. The show was divided up into many segments showcasing different styles of dance and music, there was even a puppet show midway! The dancers were incredible and we sat transfixed by their swirling dresses and graceful movements. Most were young girls but there was one veteran who far surpassed the minors. She appeared often during the show but the highlight was definitely the end when she danced with a tower of pots on her head! It began with one pot, then two and she continued to add more until she effortlessly moved around the stage with nine pots nestled on her head and stacked high into the air! It was incredible!! She ended the show with the applause she well deserved.

After the show we went to the Jheel Restaurant where we have spent most evenings. The Indian food there is beyond delicious and we are always the only guests in there. Roopa, the chef, takes us into the kitchen each evening, asks us what we fancy and we just tell him to surprise us. Each day is better than the last, we are considering taking him home with us!

For the best part of our time here we have just spent it wondering the streets and checking out how the locals live. That is the beauty of India, everywhere you go you see something that takes your breath away..both good and bad mind you, but I think that is where the magic of this country lies. You do not need to partake in lots of tourist activities to get a feel for where you are, the culture lies right in front of you on every street and in every door way.

We leave here tonight to take the sleeper train to Agra, we couldn't come to India and not see the Taj Mahal after all! We are staying just one night then heading to Delhi where we will fly to Bangkok and then travel by train to Cambodia. I could definitely explore India for a few more months but alas our money is starting to run low. We are still optimistic that we will see Cambodia and Vietnam so hopefully we will get at least six weeks between the two before leaving for Australia. The Australia word strikes fear in me every time it is mentioned in conversation, which is happening more and more often these days! I think it is going to be very difficult to adjust back to the real world.......

Anyway, for now there is still lots to see and do, so real life can return to the back of my mind for a little longer :)