Friday, July 21, 2017

Discovering Angkor Wat

If it was good enough for Angelina Jolie then it is good enough for us. So off we set to the Hindu/Buddhist temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Used in the first Tomb Raider movie and stretching over 400 square kilometres, this sprawling ancient city is too big to cover in a day. But then again a lot of it is very similar so you just need to focus on a few of the most well preserved or special interest temples.

Churning the ocean of milk

First up was the Angkor Wat temple itself, the most famous of the complex. Adorned with numerous bas relief sculptures, one complete wall was devoted to the 'churning of the ocean of milk' Hindu epic. Roughly the story is about the gods and devils fighting over obtaining an elixir that gives you immortality and peace (yes, very ironic). It ain't working so one of the supreme gods Vishnu tells them if they work together by churning the ocean of milk they are more likely to obtain it. You would think this is the moral of the story but no, once the elixir appears they start fighting over it again. To make a long story short the devils grab it first but the gods cheat by getting Vishnu to intervene again and they have had it ever since. The bas relief is impressive and very long.

After Angkor Wat we went to Bayon Temple. This temple is a bit like wandering into the twilight zone as everywhere you look you see the same serene and smiling face in varying sizes. The faces are thought to be of King Jayavarman VII. Probably likely since he built it and vanity is normally a king's strong suit.

We also visited the temple called Ta Prohm. My favourite, this temple was left as it was found, with nature taking over. Trees were growing through walls with roots pushing up and snaking around structures. It was actually pretty cool and eerily beautiful. Surrounded by lush forests and fields where cows chew contentedly, the atmosphere is romantic and calm as nature reclaims what we abandon.

As the area is so spread out we took a friend's advice and hired a remork (tuk tuk) for the day, basically a motorbike with a carriage. Our friendly driver Li Hong looked after us by picking us up from the hotel, taking us to the ticket office (which is not where the temples are) and going around from temple to temple. When we were all templed out (about 4pm) he took us back to the hotel for a freshen up and then we concluded the day by going to the Phare Circus.

Ordering a fresh coconut juice
means cutting the top of a coconut
and putting a straw in it
This is a show performed under the big top, without animals, and with students from a school in Battambang that caters for disadvantaged and abused youth, teaching them skills in many artistic disciplines. The show has a social message and an artistic flair to it as well as producing some great acrobatics and juggling performances. A bit of a cross between a play and Cirque du Soleil, the show had a theme of ordinary Cambodians and tourists in the street coming together to help each other when problems arise. The school runs mainly on donations and the proceeds from these shows. A great night out, a great day out, and thanks to our fabulous remork driver, safely delivered back to a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep
Dinner before the show.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ties to Thailand

If you read my previous blog post you would know that we were here mainly for the dental work. But no point staying in a place for a month and not having a look around. So in between dental visits and recovery time we ventured around and beyond Bangkok.

In Bangkok our trips included a ferry ride on the Chao Phraya River, Ko Kret Island, Wat Arun  (or Temple of the Dawn), The Grand Palace, Nonthaburi, numerous shopping explorations and tiny art galleries and an afternoon at the cinema seeing Wonder Woman. Hey, it was good and in English. We learned the subway, skytrain and bus systems and how to say hello, good morning and thank you (the great multi linguists that we are). Elizabeth even spent some time at a local cat haven to get a much needed cat fix.

We also visited Lumpini Park, and Benchasiri Park multiple times. Benchasiri is a fantastic  park for people watching. Any evening of the week you can see masses of people doing aerobics at the motivation of an energetic instructor yelling over a loud PA system. There are two outdoor gyms with facilities including weights, two children's playgrounds, a skate park, volleyball and soccer courts, friendly cats (and not so friendly), a jogging track encircling the whole park, and more. Once we even found a group doing a form of Tai Chi with swords. It also has a beautiful lake in the middle and lovely views of the surrounding buildings, especially speccy in the evening.

We did a wonderful day trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai. You can take a train from Hua Lumphong Train Station that runs on weekends, which stops briefly at the bridge for you to look around and take pictures, and then goes over the bridge and on to Nam Tok and the Sai Yok Noi waterfall near the Myanmar border. You are given several hours to look around and walk up to the hilltop national park, and then taken back to Bangkok. At about $20AU, a bargain!

At one point we had a week between appointments since I needed to recover from a tooth extraction. We took that opportunity to go to Chiang Mai for a few days to visit our friend Dianne. One of the best things we did here was go to the Elephant Nature Park. No elephant rides or circus tricks here; this place is a sanctuary for elephants rescued from those types of activities as well as elephants injured by stepping on land mines while being used as beasts of burden by loggers. You see them relaxing and enjoying themselves along with buffaloes in a beautiful valley encircled by soft hills and tropical greenery. There are also sanctuaries there for abandoned dogs and cats. We learned that elephants experience terrible pain and trauma being 'broken' by beatings to make them docile for riding and circus performances. Please avoid the places that use elephants as performers and support wonderful sanctuaries like this one.

*** A note of warning from Elizabeth - other companies in Chiang Mai have chosen similar names to Elephant Nature Park but use unethical methods of discipline such as prodding the elephants with nails hidden in their hands. One of the most joyous experiences at Elephant Nature Park was watching from the bank as the elephants bathed themselves in the river and then clambered out and snorted themselves with their favourite sunscreen - dust - without any prodding. And it's far more comfortable to walk alongside elephants than to ride on them. You can observe them so much more intently by gving them their space and be happy knowing that they're happy. So make sure you choose the correct company (website above). Ok, here endeth the lecture. Love and pleadings, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Dianne grossed me out while we were exploring the old town by eating that horrible, foul smelling, banned in most places, Durian fruit. I pretended not to know them and sat on a bench by myself watching community aerobics. A nice activity that happens in many public parks in Asia. Eventually Elizabeth finished her fruit and joined the aerobics.

From here we took a day trip to Chiang Rai, including a boat ride to the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong River banks. It also included a visitor's pass to Donesao Island in Laos, bonus! In reality this is just a marketing opportunity as you were only there long enough to run the gauntlet of market stalls selling clothing, jewellery and whisky containing various animal parts. Being vegetarian we do not agree with treating animals this way, so did not sample or buy. I will take my whisky clear and with ice thank you.

We also saw the White Temple which was one of the most beautiful temples I have seen since the Taj Mahal, and dropped in to see the Kayan people with the long necks. They believe that the long necks make them beautiful, they certainly look fragile, but we were assured it is mostly an illusion. Their necks are the same length as ours, it is the shoulders that droop. They come over from Myanmar to earn more money than they can there and send it home and return for family visits. There are conflicting stories in this region about their treatment and freedoms but I can only go on what we were told by asking them questions with the answers translated by our guide.

Although we were in Thailand for medical reasons, we really enjoyed our time there and getting to know an area in a bit more depth than would normally be the case when travelling. Whether it is for dental work, catching up with old and new friends or visiting the cats and elephants, our ties to Thailand will see us returning soon.

The White Temple



Elephants at Play

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Bangkok and the one about the dentist

In our other life as full time housesitters we came across a couple who have all their dental work done in Bangkok. At a third of the price in Australia and with a recommendation on which company to use, we decided to give this medical tourism thing a go. Without medical cover since the late 80's I hadn't been for a proper dental checkup in nearly 30 years.

First impressions were: very thorough, very professional, super attentive and caring. They had different specialists for basically every type of treatment. There was the normal fillings and cleaning dentist, the crowns expert, a surgeon for the big stuff like implants, and a root canal professional. Most work would commence within minutes of the appointment time, after a blood pressure check due to the fact you're normally hot and sweaty coming in from the Bangkok tropical heat. A nice assistant would come down to the extensive hotel lobby style waiting area, escort you into the lift and deliver you to the appropriate specialist.

My dentist was impressed with the state of my teeth considering the lack of ongoing care, genetic deficiencies, extensive overcrowding and age. Thankfully I am not TOTALLY irresponsible and HAVE ALWAYS brushed twice a day and regularly floss. That being said there were numerous issues, a lot due to the overcrowding which has seen the loss of teeth and resultant gaps over the years. A treatment plan was put into place with my first appointment for a couple of fillings that very afternoon. They are geared to getting to work straight away and work weekends and into the early evenings, as travellers often have limited time.

The work progressed with a couple of hiccups. They tried to rearrange my appointments in ways that were not convenient or did not make sense to me, but when I expressed concern they agreed to stick to the original plan. Also, and I don't know if this is just me, but whenever they would remove an old filling (and we're talking 30 years plus) there always seemed to be an unknown disaster underneath waiting to surface. Cracked tooth, infected root, why is it never good news? To their credit they would always give me a mirror and explain ad nauseum what was going wrong, like the distorted mangled mess reflected back made any sense to me.

Dental work has progressed a lot since my last appointment - the work was much less painful with quicker recovery than I expected (or is it just that these guys are so good). I was particularly worried about implant preparation surgery where they put a post into my jaw. There was cutting, drilling, pushing, screwing to the point that I swear they were creating miniature furniture in there. But the pain was surprisingly small and I was able to eat within hours with my mouth feeling quite normal the next day. Any medication necessary is dispensed directly by the staff: no scripts, no pharmacies and exactly the amount you need.

One major advantage to having it done in Thailand is massages!!! After one  particularly gruelling 5 hour session (my choice, I just wanted to get it over with rather than multiple appointments) with aching shoulders, neck and jaw, I dropped into one of the 3 billion massage joints between our hotel and the dentist and had a 60 minute neck and shoulder massage for $14 AU. Problem solved :-) Obviously the other advantage is that you can get your teeth done, have a holiday with trips to the Bangkok tourist spots between appointments, and still come back in front on the cost at home.

I came away from Bangkok feeling well cared for and that I had been treated by professionals, with respect and at a fair cost. There were never any issues with billing as the initial consultation was free and they would bill you as the work was done and, even with the extra jobs, the final cost was within the initial range of estimates. I would thoroughly recommend getting your dental work done this way. While there we stayed at the S Box Sukhumvit Hotel which was a half hour walk to the dentist, quite comfortable and reasonably priced. If you're in my situation don't be afraid to investigate this option.


For things to do in Thailand between appointments you will need to wait until my next post... 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Singapore: 50 Shades of Green

Singapore was a surprise: clean, green, safe and friendly. Full of fabulous parks and green areas, an awesome public transport system and amazing zoos. Over a very short space of time this tiny country, barely bigger than most cities, has shown how you can take a high population density (3rd globally) and still have a very healthy, liveable, green and happy country/city. Called the greenest city in Asia, with a total green cover at 47%, a country barely the size of half of London accommodates over 5 million people. It does not feel that way, with the amount of greenery giving the impression of space and size. This has been by design with laws mandating that new developments replace greenery lost by installing roof gardens and cascading vertical gardens on the new buildings.

One of the highlights was the Gardens by the Bay. This is a large botanical complex with a wide variety of themed gardens and two huge specialty buildings, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. On top of all that it has these huge artificial structures they call Supertrees. Apart from looking amazing and being part of a twice nightly sound and light show they are also solar collectors and vertical gardens. The sound and light show was a 12 minute extravaganza on a Star Wars theme. You might well ask, 'But what about the power use?' Well, the park has its own biofuels power plant powered by its own waste, the domes are water collectors and as mentioned the supertrees produce power from the sun.

At 7 Tons this sculpture called 'Planet'
looks like it is floating.

We also bought a 4 park pass for the zoos: Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, Zoo's Night Safari and River Safari. All of them had a focus on education, conservation and species protection. Do not like to see animals behind bars but there was a large number of big unfenced bushland enclosures using other methods such as moats to ensure safety. So many beautiful animals in beautiful surroundings. With the help of the subway and bus system we trundled from park to park to park over a 3 day period. The 3 day tourist pass allowing unlimited use of public transport is very convenient and excellent value.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The final voyage of the Dawn Princess

Cruising is one of the most relaxing ways to travel. So when we decided to explore South East Asia and found out a ship from Fremantle can get us there, the decision was made. Then came the cat and mouse game of constantly checking prices to find the price sweet spot. When tickets got to nearly half their initial price (coming down to less than $100 each per day) we snapped them up. Never saw them go any lower.

A typical day for us started in the well stocked gym, trying every different machine and making muscles I did not know I had sore. Then a buffet breakfast with lots of gluten free choices, including amazing bread. The day was then filled with trivia games, Spanish lessons, dance lessons, gameshow challenges, amazing shows and solo performances, dancing and lots of food. Those not your cup of tea? Then there were pools, bars, casino, massages, outdoor games, bingo, cinemas or just go to the library and read a book or lie on deck and watch the ocean go by. It's up to you. It's like an alternate reality where the outside world does not exist.

One evening's dessert haul
As gluten free vegetarians we were incredibly well looked after. At dinner each night the waiters were always worried we were not eating enough and kept offering us extra salads and soups and would give us every gluten free dessert from creme brulee and apple crumble to flourless chocolate cake. We put on weight and had to cut back when we started feeling ill. They were killing us with kindness.

The ship stopped in five ports to allow day trip exploration. We left the ship twice, checking out Kuta beach in Bali and doing a tour in Penang. Bali was a pain getting out of the port as we were told to only use the blue bird taxis with meter on. But they are not allowed into the port area by non marked operators trying to push for fixed prices. If they come in they get chased out. This bit was not explained and we worked it out when we saw a taxi and tried to hail it but it drove off when a guy pressuring us for a deal made gestures at him. Eventually we realised we could get one by heading out of the port area and turning right (initially we turned left).

In Penang the highlight was the Entopia Butterfly Farm, where we got to release young butterflies that have never flown free before. One big fella hopped on Elizabeth and wouldn't get off. I used a piece of paper to gently prise him off her but he flew straight back on. I had to prise him off again and then shield Elizabeth so she could get out of the farm.

Batik Factory

During the other port days we stayed on board to enjoy the ship. These days were our best chances of winning at trivia as most of the passengers would go ashore (hopefully all of the smart ones). We also got to play table tennis and enjoy other normally busy activities. We did win once (a bottle of champagne) in a liar liar gameshow as it seems we are very good at picking the one person telling the truth.

There were a few special days. Elizabeth had her birthday on board. I had previously alerted the authorities to this occasion :-) so they were ready. It also happened to be the day of the Captain's address so everyone was treated to the sight of a huge champagne fountain on a tower of individually placed glasses. At dinner four waiters came over and sang happy birthday  and presented her with an individual birthday cake. They had a ceremony when we crossed the Equator; Neptune arrived and set upon some unsuspecting volunteers who've never crossed the Equator before and covered them in all manner of sticky and fluidy substances.

Champagne Fountain
Neptune in action

This was the last voyage of the ship as the Dawn Princess as it has been sold and will be re-named. So there was a special nostalgic feel about the trip and that came through from the crew. The ship had 2000 passengers and 1000 crew so it was like a mini city and chatting to so many new people brought out many stories: Eddie our cruise staffer (dancing and language instructor) from Venezuela who only a short while ago was skipping food queues to avoid starvation; the Philipino singer who put on a benefit concert last year to raise money for her mother's cancer operation; a trivia partner who met her cruise buddy on a Princess cruise one year ago; and a surprising number of staff from Peru who would query me about my Peru Hop T-shirt. How many stories has this ship seen? It was an interesting and very relaxing cruise.

Bon Voyage Dawn Princess

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Exploring the Kimberley

Kimberley trip 2016

Sorry this is under construction as I have not had time but want the order of trips preserved.

Coming soon...

Monday, April 17, 2017

Peru again.....and a bit of Bolivia too

I was worried Cusco and Machu Picchu might not seem as special second time around but Cusco was just as charming as on first inspection. And Machu Picchu was even better cos there was no rain and no rush. We got to spend a whole beautiful blue day there and saw the sun gate and lots of llamas ‘mowing’ the lawns. It’s been renovated but in a sensitive way that blends in with the original site - just more walls and more gardens and smoother paths to prevent injury.

Aguas Calientes has grown a bit with more hotels but is still as beautiful as ever.

The rest was new territory. Ollantaytambo turned out to be our favourite town. It's a living Inca town where people live in the original Inca houses on tiny cobbled streets and small canals run down every street carrying fresh water.  We stayed at Casa de Mama hostel which had a very friendly manager Victor and endless hot water, yay! (finally got to wash my hair). We visited the main ruins on the hill overlooking Ollantaytambo, which were very simple ancient walls but gave fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and farms in the Sacred Valley and the colourful native flowers growing all over the hillsides. Next day we trekked to some ruins on the other side of the valley just above Ollantaytambo which cost nothing and gave fabulous views over the old Inca houses in town and their lovely gardens and mini orchards.   

Practically all of Peru was perfect. Highlights were the Nazca Lines, Huacachina sand dunes (highest dunes in South America) and the islands on Lake Titicaca (highest altitude navigable lake in the world). The reed islands were the most interesting because they were so different but sadly we didn't get to stay on a reed island. But the island we did stay on overnight was beautiful - we felt as though we were on an island in the Mediterranean with the calm blue lake so huge it felt like an ocean and all the colourful flowers and buildings very Mediterranean as well.  We were billeted in a large hostel built by a middle-aged couple as their income source. After getting totally soaked on our rainy trek to the top of the island to watch the sunset, we were fed and dressed in warm traditional clothing and taken to the community hall to dance to music by a local band.  Next day we toured another 'Greek' island where a man gave us a great feed in his garden and demonstrated how they make shampoo from a plant that grows there.

Bolivia was all about Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert – which took us two days of bus rides to get to. We set off from Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca through beautiful high altitude hills with great views down over the lake on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. We could tell straightaway when we saw our first Bolivian town that this was a poorer country than Peru. When we finally reached Uyuni it was amazing. A friend in Australia had said to me when I told her I wanted to travel miles from anywhere to see the world's largest salt flats and Michael couldn't understand why, 'Well, think about it Elizabeth - salt flats!'

But what salt flats. They were endless and as it got nearer to sunset the textures and colours revealed themselves more strongly. By the time we got to the cactus island, our final stop on the tour, it was late afternoon and the walk around the island in the early evening sunshine was breathtaking. It's hard to describe the vast sparkling immenseness of it, you had to be there. But the photos certainly help!

We left so late - it was hard to drag ourselves away when the full sunset hit - we thought we were in danger of missing our overnight bus back to La Paz, Bolivia’s highest altitude city. But these tour operators obviously know what they're doing. They got us back just in time to grab a snack bar and jump on the bus (luckily they'd fed us well at lunch in a cave-like restaurant built entirely from salt).

We arrived at La Paz central bus station at 4am so we had a long wait before we could respectably arrive at our hostel. Stay in La Paz for a day to check out the views of the snow-capped mountains overlooking this highest altitude city in the world, eat at the 'vegetarian' restaurant Tierra Sana (Healthy Earth) which has non-vegetarian versions of all its vegetarian fare, then go. (And be prepared for taxes on everything, from the few metres trip from the bus station to the bus stop, to the tax at Cactus Island that you weren't told about in the tour itinerary.)
We stayed an extra 'unnecessary' day in La Paz: unnecessary for sight-seeing but necessary for recovery from our Uyuni trip - day and night on bus to get there, day there, whole night to get back. Yours truly then picked up a brochure at the hostel about the Peru/Bolivia Hop bus just as her long-suffering Michael was about to book us a plane to Lima for a few days' rest & a day trip to the Nazca lines, before flying home. 
So the last week of our trip was spent cramming in as many of the sights of Peru as we could by Hop bus. We went straight to Copacabana just before the border on the Bolivian side. It was in glorious sunshine so we planned to spend the day on Isla del Sol, a Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca, but there was an argument between the tour boats and the Islanders about money so they were on strike. Our consolation prize was to climb to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and enjoy the 'Mediterranean' scenery again. Onward to Arequipa which was supposed to be one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Peru. We were a little bit underwhelmed because the colonial part of the town was fairly small but our free walking tour explored the local market which sold interesting things like llama foetuses and cactus fruit. And ended at a restaurant which gave us free Pisco sours, our first Pisco sours since arriving in South America.

Next day we did a long day tour to Colca Canyon, the world's second deepest canyon - scenery was beautiful, sweet cactus fruit tasted like kiwifruit, sour cactus fruit was so sour it made my eyes water but the most amazing part was watching the condors gliding overhead. The canyon was pretty but not a patch on the Grand Canyon or any of the other canyons we've seen like the one on Kauai or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Fun trip though with a nice bunch of travellers, a great buffet lunch and got to 5000 metres on a plateau where we saw lots of llamas.

Bussed to Nazca, which was a nice little town with the typical family-oriented central square like in most other Central and South American towns. The trip to Nazca passed through some beautiful desert hills winding right down to the Pacific Ocean. The very high and dry rocky dunes reminded me of the beautiful rockscapes in Morocco. Next day we did the light plane flight over the Nazca lines which was as much fun for the dipping and swerving plane ride as for the huge figures of birds, monkey etc..

By early afternoon we were back on the bus for a lightning trip to Huacachina which has the highest sand dunes in South America. Shame we could only stay an hour but we got the best hour of the day - sunset hour. Just had enough time to climb up one of the dunes and get a view of all the other surrounding dunes and the oasis below in the tiny town. Then on to Lima where we arrived late at night to crash in a comfortable hostel room right opposite Kennedy Park. So we got to say a brief hello to the cats of Kennedy Park next morning on our way to pick up our bright red Peru Hop T-shirts and zip in a taxi to the airport.
The cats of Lima

videoThe reed islands of Lake Titicaca