Cambodia Part 2 – Peppercorns, Royal Palaces and Movie Binges

There are times when travelling solo that you relish time alone, times when you have spent days or weeks in others company and long for the freedom to do what you want when you want. And yet there are equally times when the complete opposite is true. After a break from the non-stop, fast paced bus travel of the last few weeks I was looking forward to some downtime but as my stay on Koh Rong drew to a close I found myself looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus. I was ready to move on, to see what more Cambodia had to offer.
Day 115 – For my last day on Koh Rong I decided to explore the Khmer village I had been staying in at my Inn The Village hostel. The hostel was set up as a place to stay for volunteers helping out in the village and building articulate reefs in the local waters. I meandered through the streets, that were little more than dirt paths, that led from one house to another, small shops or food stalls set up inside their homes. Rural Cambodian houses tend to be on stilts with the bedrooms upstairs and the main living area downstairs between the pillars, usually with a few hammocks hung between them. This village was no different. As I went down towards the water I spotted some children playing with something in a pile of blankets, half buried, behind the back of the house. When they noticed my interest they turned towards me brandishing their find. Three tiny puppies held in their small outstretched hands. They were more than happy for me to hold them as they were more interested in my camera. Being a little rough with it I was reluctant to let it go entirely and I don’t think they paid much attention to what they were taking a picture of but they liked the clicking of the shutter. I had some interesting snaps to say the least!


I spent the rest of my morning and early afternoon on the beach, making the most of the sun and the beautiful sands. Felt so relaxed after my crazy run around the day before! 

Eventually though it was time to get the ferry back and check in to Big Easy hostel, which did the best western food around. I spent the rest of the evening devouring both sweet and sour chicken dish with mango and the rest of my book.
Day 116 – I had planned another day on the beach but when I woke up the weather had other ideas. An overcast day didn’t give me much hope for topping up my tan so instead I shopped and bought souvenirs, stopping for lunch at a great Mexican place called Stay Later, which tempted me in with their sign that proclaimed “Mexican food so good Trump wants to build a wall around it!” They weren’t lying!


I managed to meet up with Team Norway in the evening for some drinks and an embarrassingly bad game of pool!


Day 117 – I had enjoyed my time to myself on Koh Rong and felt refreshed after a break from the constant travel but I was also ready to be moving on and exploring new places again. Danielle, a fun loving girl with ambitions to run her own animal sanctuary one day, and Annika, the ever elegant German girl with an unexpected giggle that bursts out of her, had hopped back on too after their own adventures on Koh Rong. There were also four new guys, only two of which were travelling together but they all seemed to have been on Stray together for a while. 
From Sihanoukeville we travelled to Kampot, which is famous for its salt fields and pepper farms. We took a tuk tuk tour around the rural back roads, stopping at the salt fields first to see how they flattened the land and filled it with salt water. The water would eventually evaporate leaving the salt behind to be raked up and collected. The pepper is apparently the best in the world. I was surprised to learn that green peppercorns are dried to become black and the red peppercorns simply have their skins taken off to become white peppercorns. 


In the evening we relaxed on a river boat cruise to see tiny fireflies flickering on the nearby trees. I also got to see the phosphorescent plankton again when we realised their was some in the bucket of water in the toilet! We took turns queueing not to use the facilities but to shut the door, making the room really dark so as better to see them, then swirling our finger and sending them sparkling in the water.
Day 118 – Leaving Kampot we headed to the island of Koh Tunsay, also known as Rabbit Island. I was disapointed to discover the name did not indicate an abundance of fluffy creatures on the island. There was nothing to do here but relax, read and watch the sunset from my hammock and that was fine by me. 


Day 119 – Today was a less fun day seeing as we were heading to the killing fields and S21 prison in Pnom Penh. Couldn’t be described as fun but it was definitely an interesting day and worth seeing. There is not much left to see at the Killing Fields. The grass has grown over the mass graves and the few buildings there were are gone. The audio guide described what used to be there and we heard the voices of those who had survived this traumatic place. People were corralled and kept under horrendous conditions before having their throats cut or being bludgeoned to death with various tools. More disgusting than that was the killing tree where they took babies by the legs and whacked them against the tree before throwing their broken bodies down to lie with the corpses of their mothers, already in the pits below. They believed in stopping future generations from coming back for revenge. It was probably the most harrowing part of this tour.


Sleng Prison, S21, was almost as bad. Standing in the rooms where people were chained to their beds, starved, tortured and left to die, was chilling. Sleng Prison used to be a school but was converted to a prison to hold people, everyday people, people who were intelligent and educated and didn’t conform to Pol Pots ideals for a nation of farmers. Sitting near the exit were two survivors of these atrocities, selling books and art inspired by their experiences, but I couldn’t understand how they could bare to watch tourist mill around a place that held such nightmares for them.


To make sure the day ended on a high note we went out for a few drinks and a karaoke session! 
Day 120 – Most of our group were hanging in the morning but I wanted to make the most of my time there, even though I had some extra days waiting on my Vietnam visa (I could only enter the country after the 9th). I headed first to the Royal Palace. It turned out to be a very peaceful place, the royal buildings scattered amongst a simple garden, their elegant yellow roofs sparkling in the sunshine. My favourite spot was a small temple on a hill in the middle of a large courtyard. The hill was made up of a small jungle, leaves half obscuring the winding staircase to the top where you could sit amongst the plants and feel a million miles away from the dirty, busy city. My one disappointment was the Silver Pagoda. Despite being warned that it was not silver I had expected something at least to make it stand out but when I reached the end I wondered if I had missed it altogether. I used Maps.me to back track and find it only to discover I had already been inside and viewed the bronze, gold and silver Buddha statues that were housed there. 


As the afternoon stretched into early evening I walked across town to an interesting temple called Wat Langka I had heard about. Here, on Monday evenings, they held a free meditation session for any who want to join in. I looked around the simple but pretty temple, unsure how this worked, and eventually followed everyone else’s lead in getting comfortable on the round cushions spread evenly accross the floor. I attempted to meditate on my own, at first trying to keep my mind clear and then letting it wander, picking up and turning each thought that came to my mind as if it were an interesting pebble on the beach. I had been doing this for 20-30 minutes when a monk softly called any beginners to meet with him outside. He spoke quietly and haltingly as if his mind was on other things, pausing for a time before he came back to explaining to us how to sit and focus on our breathing. We rutrned to the cushions and I tried again. I couldn’t keep my eyes closed without feeling like I would nod off so I focused in front of me and found I enjoyed letting the distant sounds of traffic, the twittering bird calls and the soft movement of monks and the people around me shifting. I left feeling still. I think I’d like to start meditating more often.


Day 121 – Second on my list to visit was the National Museum. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought but that was good as I was still feeling weary after walking around it for an hour or so. I liked the paintings depicting stories of the Hindu Gods best, including the one I had heard in India about Diwali. I was glad that there was information describing them so I could understand the detailed artwork. 

In the evening I returned to the museum to watch the Cultural Show they perform there. This is so important in Cambodia as it is a way to revive arts and skills that were almost lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was beautifully done too, singers and musicians at the side of the stage and the dancers in bright, sparkling costumes. There was a dance where a man and a woman were dressed as peacocks, with big paper tails fanned out behind them, moving as they moved their arms. There was even a dance full of acrobatics as the group pretended to be a giant praying mantis. My favourite though was a dance about everyday life. It showed the importance of fishing and told s story of a shy boy teasing a fisher girl to gain her attention. To begin with she is annoyed with him always stealing her net but eventually she softens and the two end up blushing as their fisher friends notice their hesitant courting. It was very cute! 
 Day 122 – For my last day in Cambodia I did something quite opposite from the cultural experiences of the last couple of days: I went to the cinema. In my hostel, Happy Backpackers 11, there was a cheap and low key cinema called The Flicks 2. I had wanted to watch Dr Strang but as it clashed with the Cultural Show I decided to go to the Flicks 1 and pay $3.50 to be able to watch unlimited films all day. On the way I made a brief stop to Wat Pnom, which was not much different to any other temple I had visited but I felt I should at least try and see it. The cinema was what I really enjoyed though. I saw by the bar, receiving cuddles from the cinema’s very needy cat before finding a spot on the rattan sofas a the back. I watched Moana, Hacksaw Ridge and Dr Strange, one after the other. It was intense but one of my favourite ways to spend the day. In between I ordered popcorn and regretted not ordering one of the huge pizzas, or any other kind of food from the menu, that they bring in to you to munch on while you enjoy the film. As much as I love doing Cultural stuff, sometimes it’s good to just take a “me day” and do whatever you want, regardless of what it is.
My last task of the day was to sort out my bag, easy to cross the border into Vietnam. It seemed bizarre that after so much traveling I was about to visit my last country of the trip. I had heard a lot of good things about Vietnam though and was excited to see how it differed from Cambodia. It didn’t feel like my trip was drawing to an end yet, it felt like I still had all the time in the world.

Advertisements

Singapore – A Perfect Respite from India

This post is a bit delayed and I’ve done so much in between but I can’t miss out a part of my trip (a post on Kuala Lumpur will come soon too) so here is what I got up to in Singapore.
So far in this trip I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some wonderful people who have kept me going, helped me find cool things to do and generally kept any loneliness at bay. After spending two weeks with the same group of friends and feeling like I had made some true connections I was nervous about being on my own again, after all, the few times I had been by myself so far it hadn’t gone very well. Yet Singapore surprised me. I hadn’t expected to find much to interest me and in the end I felt like I moved on too soon. It turned out that Singapore was the perfect respite from India. There wasn’t a scrap of rubbish in sight, the metro was quick and easy and rarely very crowded, in fact there were no real crowds – not by Indian standards anyway – anywhere and best of all, not once did I see someone pissing by the side of the street. The real thing I loved about Singapore though, was that for the first time I felt like I could do this travelling thing on my own.

Day 29 – I actually arrived in Singapore at a reasonable time and instead of getting ripped off by some taxi driver I managed to get a dirt cheap shuttle bus directly to my hostel. I’d booked myself into a capsule hostel, which essentially meant a narrow room with lots of curtained nooks with beds in with a little fold down table/shelf. Cosy!

Eager to make the most of what was left of the day I quickly made a plan to see the light show by the bay and see the famous Marina Bay Sands up close. On my way out I noticed it had started to rain and when I went back to get my raincoat I invited Kyle, the only other person I had seen in my room, to come with me. He happily agreed since the problem with capsule beds was that as cosy as they were, they aren’t very sociable, in fact, other than hearing the occasional snore, its hard to tell who is actually in the room at any time. He said I was the only other person he’d really spoken to here and was happy for the company too. We made our way to the Marina Bay Sands Mall, which is probably more expensive than other malls in Singapore, but offered some delicious, cheap food. Afterwards we wandered outside and watched a very confusing but quite pretty fountain and light show on the waterfront. Images were projected onto a fan of water and from what I could tell, told the story of a boy and girl growing up, falling in love, having children and joining an orchestra…? Even better was the Gardens by the Bay light show, where the huge sci-fi looking trees flashed multi-coloured to various popular songs, mostly from musicals.

Seeing the amazing “boat balanced on three towers”, a.k.a Marina Bay Sands, from the bottom just wasn’t close enough so me and Kyle rushed back to the hotel to smarten up and came back, whizzing up the towers, straight to the top. The view was spectacular – as were the drinks prices! We sipped Bellinis and admired the twinkling lights of the city spread out before us. Yesterday I had been in India, sitting by a pool in Goa, today I was on the top of a world famous building drinking cocktails. We might have been dressed the part but we were still obviously out of our league. The table next to us ordered another round and a bottle of champagne to celebrate a birthday. Me and Kyle ordered a Pimms to share. We left before we were tempted to buy any more drinks and before I knew it we were at the bottom and I had completely forgotten to take a peak at the famous swimming pool! Put it on the list for next time.

Day 30 – When I woke up Kyle wasn’t around so I made a plan for the day by myself and set off to explore. Though I would have welcomed the company I was also sort of excited about finding my own way around. On Kyle’s suggestion I checked out China town. I visited my second Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic temple of this trip and a Hindu temple called Sri Marriamman. I saw Chinese men playing chequers in the square and browsed the market stalls full of good luck tokens, little bowls with chopsticks and cut out paper art. 

From China town I headed back to Sentosa. Here I visited the Art Science Museum, the lotus shaped building by Marina Bay Sands Mall. I wasn’t sure whether this would be worth it or not but it was something to do and in the end I really enjoyed it. I ended up going to an exhibit on how art and technology have joined together to showcase environmental issues. There were interactive maps and boards and all sorts. My favourite though was a project where you could colour in an animal, scan it in and then watch it appear on the floor beneath your feet. I chased my flower-shelled turtle as it swam across the dark floor, flowers and other animal projections floating alongside it. Finally I couldn’t end my day without posing by the Merlion Statue and I made a great fool of myself trying to use my phone to position my go pro to get a classic “catching the water in my mouth pose” until a kind woman came and offered to take the photo for me, putting me out of my misery. Selfies can apparently be both a joy and a pain when travelling alone.



Day 31 – One of my favourite days in Singapore and possibly the trip as a whole. I spent the day at Singapore Zoo and two other nearby parks, the Night Safari and River Safari parks. I love zoos! The highlight of this one was getting to watch the tigers being fed. The two white tigers swam in the water, waiting for tasty morsels of meat to be thrown down to them and occasionally snapping at each other in anticipation. When the food came towards them they leaped out of the water, paws spread, claws ready and teeth bared. 


In the end I was too late to properly appreciate the River Safari park and only got a glimpse of the pandas it is known for before they headed into their enclosures for bed time. The Night Safari was a whole new experience though. Sitting on the tram and peering into the dark, trying to catch a glimpse of lions and zebras in the gloom reminded me of being on safari for real in Tanzania. The night noises of creatures howling, grunting and roaring was just the same. It was also nice to just spend a quiet moment enjoying being so close to some amazing animals, standing less than a metre away in the semi-darkness of the bat house as one of the furry, winged creatures swooped down to hang upside down and munch on a bunch of bananas. 

 I loved every minute of the zoo and you can read more about my tips on visiting the zoo in my How to Make the Most of Singapore Zoo post.
Day 32 – Another visit to Gardens by the Bay, this time to see the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest Dome. The first was not really worth the visit. Unless you’re into botanicals its a pretty place to wander around but not much more than a glorified garden centre. I did enjoy a hefty dose of Christmas spirit though, listening to carols being played as I admired tropical plants and posing by the snow globe in the Christmas display for an early x-mas message to my Mum. 

The Cloud Forest Dome was more interesting. Again it had a kind of sci-i/futuristic feel. In fact it was almost as if I had stepped onto a set from Avatar. Above me towered a massive mountain of foliage, water cascading down its sides and walk ways spiralling out from amongs the leafy walls. You take a lift to the top and then wind your way down. There is a little information on cloud forests and not much to see other than this impressive structure, but, like I did, you’ll find yourself drawn in, spotting the different coloured, shaped and patterned leaves that make up the forest. The whole way down I was getting inspiration for sci-fi/fantasy stories!

Day 33 – Perhaps my least favourite day in Singapore. It started out well with my trip to Jurong Bird park. As soon as I arrived I went straight to watch the show and was impressed by the well-trained birds. Parrots flew through hoops, parakeets took dollar notes from the audience and returned it, toucans closed doors to their little shelters and a white peacock ended the show with his impressive tail feathers. 

However, after a little while of walking around the park I began to realise something; when they aren’t performing, birds are pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful and interesting animals but a whole day of birds was a bit of a bird-overload. Half-way through the day I was dragging my heels but still trying to make the most of it. I pulled out my camera to capture some pelicans preening themselves on their island in the lake when the camera slipped from my grasp and skittered across the floor. Please don’t be broken, please dont’ be broken. I thought desperately as I first pressed and then jammed my finger at the on/off button. The screen remained blank. The lens stayed in its retracted position. I could have cried. My lovely camera that had survived so much and been with me since my gap year trip four years ago had finally given up the ghost. As if I was in a movie (and something more dramatic than a broken camera had happened) it began to rain. I trudged back to the entrance and sat out the storm eating a disgusting dry chicken burger and feeling disappointed not with myself but with Singapore. I completely blamed the whole country for my unfortunate day and was actually a little glad I was moving on to Kuala Lumpur the next day.

Except I didn’t really mean it. One bad day couldn’t over-rule the fantastic time I had in Singapore and we quickly kissed and made up. My first night on top of Marina Bay Sands with another new friend from my trip was great but what was even better was the sense of accomplishment I had from having done so much by myself and having had a great time doing it! I didn’t get lost, I didn’t waste my time not finding anything to do and I loved being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. It didn’t matter that I spent around 8 hours in a zoo because I was enjoying it whereas someone else might have gotten bored or restless. If I wanted to stop and have a frozen yoghurt looking out over the bay, there was no one there to moan that we needed to be getting on to the next thing. Singapore was easy to navigate, full of fun and interesting things to do and I can’t emphasise enough how nice it was to be somewhere clean after India. Not only was it the perfect respite from the chaos of India but it was a great way to get me back on my feet after spending so long in the company of amazing people. I left Singapore with great memories, some things left to come back for and, best of all, a massive sense of achievement – pretty much the best way to leave any place.

My Epic South East Asia Trip

Ever since my 7 week gap year trip around Australia and New Zealand I have been dying to  go on a bigger, longer, even more awesome trip. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my gap year trip but when I kept running into people who were travelling for three months minimum I started to feel like mine was a little more like an extended holiday. I shouldn’t have put myself down so much because I’ve come to realise it doesn’t matter the length of the trip but the experiences you have along the way. I crammed a lot into Australia and New Zealand and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. That being said, I’ve still always wanted to go on a longer trip for the simple reason that I can fit in even more great experiences!

One day I drop into an STA travel shop and tell them my budget and my ideas, now a couple of months on I have an epic itinerary planned! STA have been so helpful with putting together something really cool and also kind of complicated; I’d definitely recommend using them. Asian culture is so different from anything I have ever experienced before so it’s been a long time dream to visit Thailand and we built the trip from there. In the end I booked a 5 month trip around South East Asia!

My big trip starts ten days after my last MA assignment and I can’t wait. Here it is:

10th Oct – I’ll fly to Dubai to catch up with my friend Taylor. I’ll be spending four days here with Taylor showing me the best local places, doing some shopping (well maybe window shopping – I have got to save some money for the rest of my trip) and visiting swanky bars.

14th Oct – After this short stop over I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka for a week. I don’t know what I’ll be getting up to in Sri Lanka yet but I’m excited to start planning!da7bcabad41cdf7778311fbaf44d70f8

21st Oct – Next up is India. I’ll be on the Uncover India tour which will take me from Dehli
to Goa. Along the way I’ll be checking out the Taj Mahal, learning henna painting, bathing in Pushkar lake and visiting many temples.

6th Nov – Once I’ve lazed around on the beach in Goa for a few days I’ll be flying to Singapore where I’ll make my own way to Kuala Lumpa. I’m looking forward to this bit; a little taste of freedom to travel where I want, when I want and some independance to figure out how I’m actually going to do that!

16th Nov – I’ll be flying to Manila to explore the Philippines next. This is another leg of the journey I’m doing solo and also where I’ll be celebrating my birthday! I’m hoping here I’ll be able to do some diving as I island hop around Philippines’ 7,000+ islands! Swimming with whale sharks, visiting the chocolate mountains and the hanging tombs are also on my list of things to do.

28th Nov – From there I head over to Borneo for almost three weeks. I’ll fly into Kota Kinabalu and have five days to explore there, perhaps hiking Mount Kinabalu and visiting Turtle Island. Then it’s on to Kuching and my first volunteering experience: Orangutang conservation. I’m sure it will involve some hard work at times but will also be a lot of fun and gives me a chance to explore the rainforest and even stay in a traditional longhouse.

16th Dec – Finally it will be time to head over to the long-awaited Thailand. For this section of the trip I’ll be meeting up with my travel buddy Joey. You’ll hear more about a previous trip we’ve been on together in the next post but in the meantime check out his blog https://themichaeljoseph.com. We’ll spend a day or two in Bangkok before heading up to Chaing Mai where we will do one week of elephant conservation. Elephants are my favourite animal and one I’m currently writing my novel about so I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. Being up close and personal to an elephant will be a dream come true! We finish just in time for Christmas and hopefully for a couple of other friends to come and join us; Ed and his girlfriend Becky. From there the four of us will head South to explore Thailand’s islands and celebrate the New Year.

IMG_23289 Jan – After I’ve said goodbye to my friends I’ll be joining the Stray Asia bus. This is a flexible hop-on hop-off service that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and end my trip in Vietnam. I chose to travel this way because I did a similar pass with the Oz Experience and New Zealand Experience, both of which were great. It’s a fun way to meet new people and do a wide range of activities with the ease of having a tour guide to help book them for you. They also offer unique experiences like remote homestays I might not otherwise be able to do if I were organising it on my own. This will be the most flexible part of my trip and I’ll be able move on when I like or stick around for a few extra days somewhere if I feel like it- as long as I’m back in Bangkok to catch my flight home on the 1st March that is!

So that’s it! This is my epic jam-packed trip and everything I’ll be doing along the way – or at least what I have planned so far. This will be the longest I’ve ever been away from home and the first time I’ll be travelling completely on my own. I am equal parts terrified and excited. Bring on October. Bring on South East Asia!