A Travellerspoint blog

Fiji

SO, we're now in Fiji having whizzed through Australia and New Zealand. I want to do a retrospective post on Australia since I think it's an amazing and often misunderstood country but, for now...

Fiji has been absolutely wonderful. We've been hopping between the islands and everything has looked like a digitally enhanced picture postcard. The people have been lovely, both natives and fellow travellers. Bizarrely we've been travelling around the islands with a girl who was at Oriel with me! I don't think other people quite got how much of a coincidence it is to coincide with someone not just from your uni, but from your college! I've also managed to achieve two fantastically glowing pink, sunburnt legs, totally by accident (I didn't have any notions that I might actually be able to tan) so I'm quite glad that we're now back on the mainland and have a bit of access to air conditioning.

The islands are full of atmosphere and a vital part of any visit to Fiji. Sleeping in a tiny little thatched hut called a bure we were saved from totally shrivelling up in the heat by a mosquito laden sea breeze.
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We went on a visit to one of the villages on another island where we chatted with the school kids, who apparently have one of the best educations in Fiji. village school.jpg

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Then we went to the crafts hall where the village women showed us all of the jewellery and sarongs they make and taught us how to weave.
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Each night on the islands we were welcomed with a 'Bula' dance, which turned out to be compulsory for everyone! Although the fire dances were left to the "experts". A second after snapping this photo the top man came tumbling down. Fijian fire dance.jpg

We were also invited around the kava bowl to join in singing a mixture of Fijian and poorly recollected Western songs from us. Kava is a bitter, murky drink made from roots that turns your mouth and tongue numb and has sedative-like effects. So it's a great tactic for resort owners who want an early night.

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A strange element of the set-up was that meals were served at set times school-dinner style and there was nowhere to buy food if you missed the slot. It made for a very communal atmosphere and most of the time was spent chatting or lazing on the beach.hammock.jpg

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I've put loads of new photos up in my gallery so be sure to take a look and tell me what you think of them.

We're off to L.A. on Monday so the American chapter of our holidays begins...it's sad as it very much seems the beginning of the end!

Posted by CTH 01:31 Archived in Fiji Comments (1)

Return of the Tab...

New Year in Brisbane

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I have been very lazy lately but a few weeks have elapsed and we have seen Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. We were in Malaysia for Christmas. It was a really lovely resort and we had a delicious Christmas meal in a restaurant on Christmas eve. We tried to top it on Christmas day with the well-publicised Xmas day dinner at the hotel but, oddly, it turned out to be an Oriental buffet. So I had festive sushi instead.
We're in Australia now - we got here on the 30th, just in time to see the new year in. We went to the big fire works display in Brisbane and had a great time, although the place is seething with English people so we feel very predictable. There are enough of them (ahem...us) about to prompt the rather harsh advert for sun cream I saw in a magazine Rob was reading - "Avoid looking like a Pom in an oven". I've managed to elude the latter half of this dreadful fate so far; as a Cambodian woman was able to point out to me, "You are extremely white". Thanks, I know. I was wondering how "You are extremely black" would go down in England. She had obviously failed to notice that spending two months in sunny countries has actually turned my skin veritably off-white. And in the boiling weather of Brisbane at the moment I have a lot of chances to show off the new grey me - those lucky Brisbanites!

So, we have moved from an area of the world where the shelves are stacked with hundreds of skin-whitening products to an area where the inability to tan is apparently as laughable as being English. The teenagers are so sun damaged here that even us crusty twenty-somethings were suspected of being underage at the New Years celebrations. One thing is clear from this contrast between countries; people always want whatever is hardest to get.

Posted by CTH 05:32 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Angkor Wat and the sights of Phnom Penh

Because of the magnificant tourist-pulling power of the temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has spawned guesthouses at a constantly increasing pace after the crippling years under the Khmer Rouge regime just decades ago. It still remains very much a provincial town, with relatively small shops spanning a fairly small area, but the enormous hotel mansions dotted about mean that those with money can stay in the utmost of luxury and promise that the future of Siem Reap is only going to be bigger and pricier.

Angkor Wat attracts tourists for good reason. The vast stretch of temple ruins whisper memories of an ancient Empire running from Burma to Vietnam, steeped in grandeur and sacred reverence for their god-kings. The opulence of days long gone jars discordantly when reflected through the postcard of an impoverished beggar child, desperate to sell you ten such images for a dollar. Bands of monkeys irreverently scale the crumbling facades and the majestic structures struggle for recognition through strangling tree roots as the jungle strives to suffocate its ancient legacy. Although the Khmer people used to believe their temples had been created by supernatural creatures, French historians from the colonial era largely crushed that myth, deciphering ancient script and images to place the buildings in a precise chronology, dating back to the early ninth century A.D. Mystery still surrounds many of the temples, but I have to admit that the romantic edge is sucked out by the hoards of other visitors blocking your view. Climbing the steepest hill for a sunset scene, it was impossible to photograph anything without someone's cap and sunglasses shifting into view. The hill was actually crawling with tourists; apparently there can be up to 1000 people all clambering up there to teeter on a free bit of rock, trying to catch a glimpse of the sunset sky.
The more remote temples still manage to retain an eerie atmosphere however and - when your fellow tourist isn't in the way - the buildings in themselves are undeniably amazing (photos to come).

Ta Prohm is one of the more popular temple sites because the hulking great tree roots spilling over the top of its walls and winding irreverently round its statues look like shots straight out of Indiana Jones. In fact, I think I'm a prime example of the deterioration of society when I say that these impressive and oh-SO-ancient structures were not only reminiscent of the sets in action films but also reminded me of Chessington World of Adventures. Perhaps the day you realise that Angkor Wat reminds you of a theme park is the day you realise your soul is made of plastic and actually has Ty Warner TM stamped on its side, but I prefer to think that it highlights how incredibly unfamilar and exotic these buildings were. If we respond to new things by attempting to associate them with the familiar then the nearest I could get was the Tomb Raider ride. Connecting the genuine with the fake in this way made for a seriously surreal experience. (It also showed me that the good people at Chessington do a surprisingly good job.)

Yet even the handiwork of age-old craftsmen is too contrived for nature's liking at Ta Prohm. Abandoned to the jungle, the battle between man-made construction and natural destruction makes for some impressive photos (still to come..). This off-beat ambience is enhanced by what has been a constant feature of South Eastern Asia; cicadas. Their constant high-pitched droning, which at times sound like a chorus of angels, at others like a kettle at boiling point, constitutes a rather tense soundtrack and injects a sense of drama and importance into every activity.

Whilst, for the imaginatively inclined, this can seem to colour the experience of one sight with the sepia glaze of cinematic epic (ambling up to snap another temple becomes a slow motion advancement towards judgement day, etc.), it can also resonate with the horror of another. Our cicada-borne soundtrack dropped a note at the landmine museum, where the careless piles of old grenades and bouncing betty landmines were chilling in the utter casualness of their display. Weapons of war aren't hard to get hold of in Cambodia. There's no distance to dust them with the curious glamour of old battle relics. Rather, our guide could point out the mine style which blew his own leg off, the type which killed his brother and sister. Land mines still scatter the landscape long after the original reason for them has been resolved and people are being killed or injured by them every day. Once the pointlessness of this ongoing terror hit home I found it almost unbelievable that countries still continue to manufacture these things. Although most of Europe has agreed not to, the usual suspects refuse to let go of this weapon which has proved so successful at maiming the innocent.

The soundtrack deserted us altogether in Phnom Penh at the S21 museum and the killing fields, which make for an experience so depressing that it seems not even cicadas go near them. The S21 museum is an old high school that was converted into a Khmer Rouge prison where "dangerous" people like doctors, teachers, students or members of the previous regime were brought to be questioned and then exterminated. Apparently the statistics show that the Khmer Rouge managed to slaughter 1 in 7 Cambodian people either through direct murder or starvation. The makeshift cells of the prison have all been left in place and weapons of torture mingle with an artist's impression of their uses (the painter was a prisoner himself and one of the 7 people found still alive at the prison when the Khmer Rouge fell). The comprehension that such a radical and barbaric regime could take hold so recently is shocking. And, while I've been taught all the ins and outs of the Nazi crimes, I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never really heard of the Khmer Rouge, let alone understood the extent of their deeds until I visited Phnom Penh. Photos of ex Khmer Rouge soldiers and fighters in their present day status as smiling rice farmers, gazing fishermen and grateful grandmothers line the walls of the rooms in which they or their superiors used to bludgeon whole families to death. But those are the braver ones. Admitting their involvement means they could be next in the long and ongoing trial of perpetrators of Khmer Rouge crimes and there must be hundreds of guilty ex-soldiers roaming utterly unpunished today.

In the killing fields a giant glass case filled with skulls stands in memory of those killed. A musky smell of human bone seeps from the memorial as, by the King's request, parts of the casing lies open to the air so that the spirits of the dead may come and go.
The fields themselves have sprouted new grass, but fragments of tooth, bone and clothing emerge from the pathways as frequent visitors pummel the earth of mass graves not yet excavated. I suppose, as always, the point of putting yourself through such hideously morbid experiences is to learn from them. It certainly puts the characteristically cheerful disposition of the Cambodian people into admirable perspective. And it is amazing to see how far the country has come in only 20 years - plush hotels stand in a city that used to be deserted of citizens let alone tourists and hospitals care for the weak in a country where all forms of study were forbidden and all doctors were killed. So it felt a little bit unsavoury when on the bumpy ride back from the killing fields our driver asked, "You go shooting range now?" Playing with guns couldn't be further from our minds.

Posted by CTH 05:23 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap

What's a destination without the journey?

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We arrived in Cambodia after a ludicrously awful journey in which we fell victim to one of the commonest scams around. We bought a coach ticket in Thailand promising to take us across the border and over into Siem Reap for about 6 in the evening. Although the Thai side of the journey did vaguely stick to the anticipated itinerary, it was made fairly tense by Rob's extreme travel sickness and a certain animosity I had managed to strike up between myself and the German woman sitting in front of me. She clearly felt some sort of ownership over the minivan and saw my presence as particularly offensive because my god she didn't half hurl her seat back as far as it could go. She was obviously hard of hearing aswell since my screams of despair were merely echoes on the wind as her super-speed-seat-thrust trapped my knees in its vice-like grip and endeavoured to crush my legs into my chest with every advancing lunge of her back.

Our frequent travelling has given me time to cultivate rather an intense hatred for reclining seats. I really can't understand why some people find it necessary to spend an entire journey horizontal. Are their spines so weak? Is the ceiling SUCH a great view?? Do they really just not give a damn about screwing up the whole journey of anyone cursed enough to be sitting behind them??? And I'm not even that tall so it must actually be crippling for people of over average height (by the way, this woman was short). Perhaps, I hear you rational readers ask, it is the seat manufacturer's fault for allowing such steep angles of repose? No - I've had a lot of time and inclination to stew on this one and have concluded that they would have expected people to engage a bit of discretion and only employ the full whack when the seat behind is empty. With that reliable sense of humour, the gods have ensured that I have been subject to an unusually large and constant supply of pigheaded-reclining-seat-indulgers and I have been gobsmacked at how inconsiderate people can be.

So, when, after a two hour queue to get through the border into Cambodia, we were presented with a clapped out old bus covered in dust with rickety wheels, no luggage trunk and (gasp!) fixed seats, I was somewhat more impressed than the rest of our tour. The novelty began to wear off though after we were hit with the news that the 60 mile journey to Siem Reap was likely to take 8 hours. Whilst the roads in Cambodia are bad, they aren't THAT bad. I think our guide was left rather bemused as his blame-shifting apologies ("I sorry if Thailand cheat you...") were greeted with gigantic bellows of laughter from everyone in the tour bus as we became aware that we had all been well and truly "had". As anyone with a guide book should know, the "great bus scam" between Thailand and Cambodia is so notorious it's practically a cliche. The coach driver takes pains to ensure that the journey passes as slowly as possible so that you arrive dogtired in the black of night at a backstreet guesthouse of their choice. The question was, which guesthouse were we going to be taken to and how much were they going to charge?

Things didn't bode well as the guide began his speech on how expensive hotels have become in Siem Reap, "in fact" he helpfully informed us, "nowaday is ranging from some 100 dollar US to some 1000 dollar". Once again, chuckling hysteria was his reply (the patience of some travellers has also been pretty gobsmacking). As we'd budgeted on Cambodia being our cheapest country at roughly $4 per person per night, it didn't look like things were going to go to plan. Things took an even more ominous turn when the fact that it was raining a little bit apparently made it necessary for us not to move for ages and people decided to step outside for some hot, treacly night air. Those daring few were left behind as the bus driver suddenly hit the accelerator and ended the inexplicable stalemate with one flick of his foot. Cries of objection from inside the bus were met with a sudden jamming of the brakes, followed by a surge of gas as we were shunted and jolted bit by bit, totally dumbfounding the abandoned passengers attempting to re-enter the bus. That would teach them to try and escape...

As we reached a roadsign reading "Siem Reap - 5" it was announced that we would be stopping for dinner in about an hour and we were swerved off the lit up roads into muddy tracks and plunged into darkness. Trundling over creaking bridge after creaking bridge we finally pulled up at a (surprise surprise) totally deserted restaurant in the middle of nowhere for generic plates of noodles at a nicely inflated price. After our obligatory feed we were piled back onto our snail of a bus, which miraculously seemed to pick up speed as we returned over the very same stretch of flimsy bridges, retracing our steps all the way back to the roadsign. Relieved at the more populated surroundings, we were finally dropped off at a guesthouse just a little out of the centre of town. As predicted, we were too tired and suspicious to even bother trying to find somewhere else and so were shown into a perfectly adequate room at the rate of $10 per night - only $1 each more than we'd hoped for. Since we rather daringly hadn't actually booked anywhere else, this element of the scam had a useful side to it and, as scams go, this one is pretty harmless. Nevertheless, we're a little untrusting of the kind of people who would pay for somebody to practically kidnap a group of tourists to bring to their guesthouse!

Posted by CTH 07:59 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Last day of Ko Chang and I am 21 no more!

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Apparently my entries have left people with the impression that we are having a terrible time. Please be assured that this is not the case, I'm just at my best when I am complaining (as Rob will vouchsafe, I'm sure...). I suppose I've saved up anything slightly out of the ordinary to write on here, which might make it seem like extraordinarily annoying things are happening all the time but they really aren't. And I've had an especially brilliant day today; awarded total rule over our activities, I bizarrely chose to go quad biking. In hindsight I realise that quad biking can be described as an extreme sport and really I should have considered that anything that falls vaguely within the terms "extreme" or "sport" doesn't have anything to do with me (unless it were the sentence "extremely unsporty") and so the whole experience came as something of a shock. Where I was expecting a pleasant bumper cars sort of merry-go-round route I was given a deathly track peppered with hulking tree roots, massive great boulders, tight corners and sheer drops. I've never felt so in control of my immediate destiny (or lack thereof). In many ways it was a success in terms of what a birthday should achieve. It drummed home that despite the fact I am getting older, I still feel like I'm much too young to die. Veering off uncontrollably to get stuck in a mound of rocks wasn't the best start, but by the end of it I actually really enjoyed it (did you hear that? I REALLY ENJOYED IT) and, barring hair colour, I was practically Lara Croft.

Returning to base with our battle wounds (scraped thumbs all round) we got a Thai massage to wind down. It was the first Thai style massage I've had and so the forcible limb contortions were a bit of a surprise but left the muscle aches we've had since the jungle trek soothed. We've topped off the day with a delicious meal at an excellent Italian restaurant and I've just got Rob to buy me a mini cake from 7-11, so I couldn't ask for much more really!

Posted by CTH 07:41 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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