Monday, 31 October 2011

Raffles Singapore

Just about every visitor to Singapore stops by at Raffles Hotel - some just to take photographs of the dazzing white colonial facade or the famous 6'6'' Sikh 'doorman'. Even more people come to shop at the 44 exclusive shops in the Raffles arcade or dine in some of the 15 different bars & restaurants.
Few people pass up the chance of a genuine Singapore Sling, created by Raffles bartender Mr Ngiam Tong Boon in the early 1900's. It was originally conceived as a 'lady's punch, with a kick' at a time when it was considered unseemly for women to drink alcohol in public. For years it was a closely guarded secret, securely locked in the hotel safe, but now the secret is out:
30ml Gin
15ml Herring Cherry liqueur
120ml Pineapple juice
15ml Lime juice
7.5ml Cointreau
7.5ml Dom Benedictine
10ml Grenadine
A dash of Angostura Bitters & garnished with pineapple & cherry

But beware drinks, like holiday romances, are never the same at home so it really needs to be drunk in the ambience of Raffles Long Bar. The Long Bar is a 'peanut bar' & it takes a considerable effort for a litter conscious Brit to throw peanut debris on the floor. Apparently this is a hangover from the early days when rough & ready Planters frequented Raffles.
As Singapore's most famous landmark & an emblem of style & luxury Raffles has been designated a National Monument, to safeguard it from developers for future generations.

'Do you go to Raffles & perhaps visit Singapore or do you go to Singapore & perhaps stay at Raffles'.
Quips like this often embody half truths but for Raffles it is actually genuine comment because as the most historic institution in Singapore royalty, celebrities, politicians & literary luminaries have stopped off in Singapore just to stay at Raffles.

In fact during my short stay at Raffles I never made it onto the Singapore streets. Admittedly I've previously done the rounds of the usual touristy things but Raffles has an internal life of its own.
The all-suite accommodation is spectacular & I've never felt so at home in a hotel before. The large front door leading off the wide wooden balcony (with comfortable chairs & table for outdoor refreshments) leads in to a high ceilinged parlour with dining table, armchairs & discreet TV. This leads into the vast main room with an antique desk, King sized bed, more armchairs & all the usual facilities. After that comes a large double sinked washing come dressing room which has a separate bathroom & shower room off of it.

Personal butlers are standard and frequently enquire if there is anything you need. Sitting out on the balcony I had my mind read as the lady butler appeared with trays of tea & coffee just as I was thinking, 'humm, I fancy ....' - absolute genius!

Raffles covers an entire city block & 25% of the grounds are given over to nature & greenery. Outside my rooms were towering Livingstonia palms, fragrant frangipani trees, innumerable flowers and an immaculate lawn.
Breakfast, lunchtime curry buffet & afternoon tea are not be missed events of regal elegance in the Tiffin room. I never found the time or made the effort to use the rooftop swimming pool, theatre, spa or the gym.

The famous Bar & Billiard room has 2 full-sized tables although neither was set up for the out of vogue game of billiards. Someone had earlier told me the story of the tiger that had been shot under one of the billiard tables - which I found hard to believe. However, I managed to see a copy of the original Straights Times newspaper dated August 13th 1902 with an inside story headlined - A Tiger in Town'.

A tiger was shot by ....... but it was an escaped tiger from a travelling circus & it had sought shelter in the undercroft beneath the Bar & Billiard room building - not quite as exotic as the story has been re-told for generations. But its a good example of a half truth growing into a better story, no doubt with the aid of several stiff drinks.

Everything about Raffles Singapore is a one-off & no visitor to the city should dream of missing Raffles off their itinerary regardless of whether its for an iconic drink, an elegant meal, a luxurious stay or a simple photographic momento.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Singapore to Darwin

This is my first & only flight since leaving London 2 months ago. I spent ages trying to get a sea crossing but its absolutely impossible. There are no ferries, freighters or any cruise ships that are not on route to half a dozen destinations before returning to Australia.

Changi airport in Singapore is still the best airport in the world. Free internet, free gadget charging & a grand piano player surrounded by fresh orchids! Its clean & spacious, nothing is out of place & the toilets are clean & fragrant. All around the airport there's a surfeit of comfortable chairs, tables & sofas & its still civilised enough to have a clean & tidy smoking area.
Duty free is genuinely duty free with prices around half to a quarter of that charged at the bogus UK 'duty free' prices - for the same products. There are dozens of places to eat & drink, again at standard street prices rather than the UK standard 'trapped mug prices'. Many are open 24 hours unlike some UK airports that close up shop around 9pm.

The Darwin flight arrived at the un-Godly hour of 4.30am but there was no shortage of shuttle buses & taxis. I didnt manage a wink of sleep as the Jetstar flight which was so cramped I think people were going to the toilet - just for the extra space!

The Holiday Inn on the Esplande were good enough to look after my bag & check me in 3 hours early or maybe they just glad to get my untidy dozing presence out of the lobby. The town is a bit of a WiFi desert, couldnt find a single free WiFi point - even in the middle of Cambodia there were far better & more widespread internet facilities - how absolutely bizarre. My hotel only allowed 20 minutes free Wifi connection & then it was restricted to the lobby & bar.

Darwin is a bit of a 9-5 town for shopping but the bars are already packed by 4 o'clock. Rorkes Drift was my favourate Darwin pub but its transformed into Monssoons - a hidious party themed pub. Gone are the comfortable raised booths & the relaxing basket chairs on the front veranda, now its packed with pokey tables that cram more drinkers in, for the blaring music, the giant TVs & the occasional live music session.

Eastern & Oriental Express excursions

The E&O excursions were well choosen as unique places to visit on route; the first days trip was to 'the Death Railway' a major pilgrimage site for many people from Europe & Australia. Initially there's nothing special to see if you don't already know the story.
After crossing a wooden trestle bridge clinging precariously to the limestone cliff face we arrive in Kanchanaburi - location of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, a key part of the Thailand to Burma railway line. The famous wood & bamboo bridge featured in the film was only a temporary bridge & the existing steel bridge was always intended to be the final bridge.
The 415 km railway route had to be carved out of rock & jungle as well as bridging fast flowing rivers - formidable terrain even by todays construction standards. The Japanese amassed 250,000 local labourers & 68,000 prisoners of war to work as forced labour. This included 30,000 British & 13,000 Australian prisoners & not many of them made it back home.

We took a river raft under the bridge down to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre opposite a poignant war grave site, one of six that are still maintained in pristine condition. The museum & research centre is well organised but is horrific & records in great detail this infamous event.

Explanations for the unbelievably barbaric behaviour of the Japanese were that the railway builders themselves were under threat of death if they did not complete the railway construction within 12 months because of Japan's desperate need to get supplies to their troops in Burma. A POW was considered to have disgraced themselves by surrendering & the Japanese cared nothing for their own sick or injured troops - so why would they care about foreigners whom they despised.

The museum itself is a detailed record of everything that is known to have happened, names of POWs, research facilities, living conditions & what happened to the guards after the war.

The second excursion was to Penang Island & the adjacent mainland area of Butterworth in Malaysia. This was acquired by the British in 1786 as an East India possession. They brought Indian traders & labourers, Chinese came as did Arab traders so along with the British colonials it beccame very multicultural & today there are large, vibrant Indian, Chinese as well as Malay quarters of the city.

A ferry & the longest bridge in southeast asia (13.5km) connect the island to the mainland. Half of the island is still tropical forest & there are some impressive beach resorts but we only had time to visit historic George Town, Penang's capitol.

Exploration of the old town was by trishaw - something I had resisted on my tip across SE Asia as to me passengers always looked like invalids being wheeled around in ancient bathchairs. We arrived just in time for a tropical downpour so it was not as enjoyable as it might have been. The trip ended with a Pimms at the very grand colonial Eastern & Oriental hotel on the sea front - clearly the most prestigeous place to stay in Georgetown.

Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore

This is one of the highlights I've been looking forward to - the luxurious Orient Express train from Bangkok to Singapore. Yet again the rising flood waters were making themselves felt so after gathering at the private lounge on platform 12 at Hualampong station passengers had to transfer by bus out of Bangkok to meet up with the train that had been parked several miles west of the city, at Ngew Rai station, as a safety precaution.
The trains green & cream livery & its gold lettering gleamed in the sunset but not as brightly as the ever-smiling carriage stewards who quickly settled passengers into their compartments which will be home for the next 3 days.
The Orient Express has a grand history dating back to the early days of steam. From 1883 it routinely carried passengers from London to Venice & on to Istanbul but the increase in air travel in the second half of the twentieth century brought these haydays to an end. But it never completely died & the Venice Simplon Orient Express continues to run from London to Venice but its no longer a scheduled service.

Fortunately not everyone sees travel as just a practical necessity for getting from A to B, there was still a demand for stylish travel & 1993 saw the launch of the Eastern & Oriental Express. Its the only true luxury train in Asia & the first to carry passengers seemlessly from Bangkok to Singapore. Its concept & design is modelled on the style & luxurious traditions of its older European sister but with some added asian flair.

Although it connects 2 of Asia's great city destinations the E&O is all about the experience of the journey rather than where it goes. Your personal compartment steward has learnt your name before you've settled into your cabin & he's more butler than train official as the handy bedside bell indicates.
He serves breakfast & afternoon tea in your cabin, updates you on the days activities, deals with all the border formalities on route & reconfigures your compartment for day & night use - invariably when you are occupied elsewhere on the train.

There is a sumptious feel, even to the smallest cabins, with their elm & cherrywood diamond marquetry, thick carpeting, hand embroidered window pelmets & stylish brass lamps & fitments. The en-suite has Bulgari toiletries & dressing gowns, its obviously limited in size although the shower cubical was sufficiently spacious & delivers a good shower. Luggage space is limited & big items need to be stored in the luggage car

In the daytime the bar & the open-sided observation car are the hub of activity but in the evening this generally transfers to the larger Piano bar that stays open until the last guest retires, which for us was occasionally 4am. Passengers who want a less exuberant evening can opt for the peace & quiet of the second bar or the Saloon car.

The rotating seating plans in the restaurant car were a great way of breaking the ice & enabled guests to get to know each other. There was a good mix of honeymooners, businessmen & wives taking a break and young retirees taking a trip of a life-time. After the first excursion people began to relax & the observation car was the real social hub.
Dining is an elegant affair, people dressed up for the occasion & tables were laid for fine dining with silverware galore, fine crockery & hand cut crystal glasses.

It is hard to image a consistent stream of 5 star gourmet fare being produced from the limited space of a railway kitchen but that's just what French chef Yannis Martineau managed day after day.

Menus are are based on years of experience & Chef Yannis has been the E&O chef for past 4 years & previously worked on the European Venice Simplon Orient Express. Menus are designed for a broad range of tastes & in essence are a subtle blend of European styles combined with Asian spices, so there's always an asian theme but its also familiar.

Chef Yannis has 14 kitchen staff (7 Thai & 7 Malay) but has also cleverly trained local pastry chefs from Chang Mai to Singapore so is able to collect fresh bread & pastries, to his own recipe, every day as the train passes through.

Private cabins are a retreat for some quiet time but there is nearly always something going on in the public carriages. Apart from the evening pianist we were entertained with an afternoon recital of Thai music played on the stringed Kim; an exotic fruit tasting session; a Malay dance troop & excursions to the Bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand & Penang Island in Malaya.
The average train speed is 60kmh & it runs on a narrow gauge track but the train itself is a normal width so there's a good bit of rock & rolling especially in southern Thailand where the track is in poorer condition. I was jolted awake on several occasions as the train lurched across warped points or sections of wonky track. This is not a suitable trip for wheelchair users or anyone unsteady on their feet.
I loved the landscape, it was a mixed bag of tropical jungle, rice paddy fields, sugarcane, banana, coconut, rubber trees & palm oil plantations along with all manner of exotic fruits. In between nature there are rural house, sizable cities, some scruffy villages & during 2011 there was construction of a new rail track through Malaysia. So all life is there & its undoubtedly the perfect way to explore some of the most iconic Far Eastern destinations in a unique style that really is a leisurely step back into the way travel used to be

Thursday, 27 October 2011


Its 10 years since I was last in the old backpacker hangout of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. I found it a great fun & really useful as backpackers were coming from & going to a whole range a places in the Far East, so it was an invaluable source of tips & insider knowledge. The road was full of good cheap bars, or at least my recollection tells me that, along with stalls, street traders, food vendors, hair braiders, street entertainers, henna tatoo artists & rip off merchants - all having grown up around this travellers haunt.
Today was one of those great revisiting disappointments as it seems to have lost all its originality & colour. This sadly happens to places of renown that become popular. The crazy illuminations, huge crowds & wandering vendors are still there but its now turned into a highly commercialised Asian tourist street market with little or no uniqueness.

Its full of holiday makers & shoppers & I couldnt find one decent bar to just sit in; they've all become more profitable restaurants with uncomfortable plastic seats so customers don't dally too long. And the beer was really expensive, almost 4 times what I paid yesterday in Cambodia. The banana pancake & noodle vendors have given way to Kebabs & popcorn sellers & down one end of the street there's a Subway, KFC, Burger King & MacDonald's - that must surely say it all.
Interestingly the place I remember as a bit of a backwater, the parallel Rambuttri Road, is now buzzing with life, there are plenty of bars to lounge in & street vendors still sell local food. The beer is almost half the price of the KSR & music is less monotonous, although bars still try to out play each other. There were a couple of musicians while I was there & local people havnt been driven away.
There are of course plenty of backpackers on the KSR but they're a minority & I suspect they're disappointed at being mislead by up-to-date but out-moded guide books as well as seriously dated web information. I'm sure the insider grapevine suggests there is somewhere else for the real cool dudes to hang out & I bet its somewhere in Cambodia or Laos.

After one misrable night I moved across town to the almost brand new Siam Kempinski hotel beside the Siam Paragon shopping Mall (Siem Square area). The Siam Paragon is like another world from the Khao San area of town - 7 stories of retail outlets and there are another dozen similar Malls within a 10 minute walk on the Ratchaprasong Skywalk.

The Skywalk is not quite as wonderful as it sounds as it runs underneath the skyrail system but compared to the turmoil at street level its pretty good walking.

The malls aare pristine in every way, neat little shops and neatly dressed shoppers; everyone looked smarter than me, even the cleaners, but it did remind me of the Stepford Wives. It was very American in style & seemed to be a place for a family day out - instead of the park. But I must admit that its bliss to walk into the cool mall from the hot & muggey streets that are often fume filled.

The basement of the Paragon had a food hall that was so vast that I lost count of the number of outlets but they ran into the hundreds. There were virtually no tourists & almost no English signage so I settled for the Curry House until I realised there were more than a dozen people standing outside waiting for a table.

The food hall reminded me of childhood days at Battersea Fun Fair - there was a heaving press of people, an almost deafening hub-bub of noise with the occasional shriek. Pans & crockery clanked & clattered, intermmitant music throbbing and there were regular megaphone calls for 'Mr Jumsai & family to please come to their table' - I'm guessing this last bit.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Siem Reap to Bangkok

With all my hoped for river plans having fallen through due to the floods in Cambodia I'm resorting to taking a bus to Bangkok. It costs $7 including a tuk-tuk pick-up to the bus station (a shop on a back street with the worst potholes in town) & a guide to get passengers on the right bus at the other side of the border. It takes most of the day but so does a flight which costs at least $200.

I was picked up at 7.50 & the bus left at 08.10 to rendezvous with the Phnom Penh bus & pick up more passengers but I was asleep before we were out of town. Some people were using this as a 'visa run' - having renewed their visa the maximum number of times its cheaper, easier & quicker to go to Bangkok for the weekend & come back than go through the bureaucracy of Phnom Penh.

At 9.30 we stopped for a 20 minute rest break at a roadside shop with a pull-in, that charged twice the price for everything - pretty much to be expected. There were hoards of cheeky kids scrounging, they know there's a trapped audience with nowhere to go.

The standard opening line for kids & tuk-tuk drivers is 'where you from?' which almost forces a curtious reply (until you learn) but then you're hooked into a dialogue & there's a chance of a sale or a begging opportunity. Kids often follow up a straight 'No' with 'take me for a meal?' They probably follow this up with an 'I know a cheap place' which gives them a commission. Cambodian kids are so street smart & cheeky.

In Phnom Penh locals told me much of the begging is an oraganised activity by rural people that bring their kids into town to beg. There's also a woman who sells small ready-made bags of glue for a few cents - which may be where many generous donations end up.

At 11.20 we stopped for another 20 minute break at the border town of Poipet where tickets were collected & coloured stickers were put on us, like a group of school children, to indication our final destination - mine was red for central Bangkok, the Khao San Road.

The Cambodian border control is little more than a shed with a couple of windows & a table for local people but they repeat their digital finger printing & facial recognitional photography.

Then its a 2 hundred yard walk through no-mans land, across a little river, past last ditch begger kids, dozens of food & drink shops & surprisingly a massive new building - the Poipet Casino Resort. Make sure you take the left hand route to passport control otherswise you just get sent back. The Thai immigration control is more the usual international format of desks & queues; also beware that arrival cards have two sections that must be completed or you get sent back, like me.

Then around 1pm we load our baggage & climb aboard a pickup truck that took us a quarter of a mile where we unloaded again, waiting at a cafe & then reloaded onto a modern minibus. Then the final 4 hour run into Bangkok.

The landscape is identical but there's a different feel to Thailand. The driver is doing 70 mph instead of 40 mph in Cambodia, the roads are bigger, there are 4 lane super highways with lots of large scale construction & all the begger kids have disappeared. The flooding however is just as apparent beside rivers.

There's another 15 minute refueling stop & we fianally arrive in Bangkok around 5.30pm. It took just over 9 hours in total but this included at least 2 hours of stops as well as the border crossing. It can't have taken more than a couple of hours longer from city centre to city centre & the bus was $200 cheaper than the cheapest flight.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

More Siem Reap

The flooding is so bad that I've abandoned plans to travel to Battambang on route to Bangkok, I'm staying put & it feels good not to be moving on. The ferry dock is under water so no boats are moving on the river or across Tonle Sap lake to Battambang & the bus takes much longer than going directly to the Thai border.

Like everywhere I've been in Vietnam & Cambodia the longer I stay in each place the more I grow to like it & Siem Reap has a great laid back feel but also buzzes with activity.

The town is awash with little Khmer restaurants where beer is half a US dollar & the food is fabulous. Khmer food is subtly delicious rather than in-your-face with spices & powerful flavours.

The Khmer Soup Restaurant served me a Khmer Amok with chicken (but it could have been fish or pork) that was cooked in fresh coconut cream with onions, shredded cauliflower leaves, eggs & a mixture of local spices. It was served in a cleverly shaped banana leaf bowl & came with jasmine rice - all for $3.25, including a free beer.
Their traditional Khmer Soup is based on pork ribs, although they were more like bits of pork knuckle. The pork is cooked with morning glory, green beans, garlic, tamarind, basil & a secret mixture of Khmer herbs. It has a fabulous tangy tomato-like flavour which I guess is from the tamarind. It was served in a strange stainless steel bowl with under heating to keep it hot & the usual dish of jasmine rice.

A desert of steamed banana & rice wrapped in banana leaves was wonderfully sweet & sticky, really tasty, but as filling as a main course.

On Monday it was a surprise to see rain at 2pm & then it got heavier & heavier until it became a torrent that was more waterfall than mere storm. At home we would begin to panic at such a downpour but here people merely stood passively under shelter or just continued on (dripping wet) as if nothing was happening.
I'm on raised decking, the water level is visibly rising & starting to lap my feet - I'm beginning to panic! Oh, its all over in half an hour, so I paddle back to my hotel, knee deep in warm water - panic over.

There are dozens of fish pedicure tanks around the town, great aquariums for dipping your feet in & having them nibbled by little Garra Ruffa fish. Every city in the UK now offers a version of this fish pedicure for around £25 a go - here it cost $1. I still didn't fancy it.
There's both a day market & a night market. The Old Market of Phsar Chas is by the river, its a huge covered marketplace that spills out onto the surrounding streets & alleyways. There are hundreds of market sellers offering everything that locals & tourists might want to buy.

The Old Market was flooded while I was there & was pretty unpleasant wading through water floating with all manner of market debris, but it didnt stop buyers & sellers who carried on regardless. Its a dingy cramped space, often with no more than 5 feet between opposing stalls, reminiscent of a souk but without the hounding & hard-sell.

Everything imaginable is available - exotic fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, shoes, hats, silks, kitchenware, clothes, T-shirts, silver, paintings, carvings, handicrafts & of course bootlegged DVDs & books. Surrounding the market are more upmarket souvenir shops.

The night market is aimed at tourists & is probably the best place if you're looking to buy - jewellery, silver, silks, clothes, carvings (more likely plaster casts), Angkor Bas releif rice paper rubbings, knock off guide books & lots more. There are dozens of foot massage chairs that were pretty popular & artists were producing painting but they were rather poor stylised efforts.

Along with the surrounding shops, bars & restaurants the night market is a good way to spend a Siem Reap evening.

Angkor Wat

Charming though Siem Reap might be, its Angkor Wat that everybody comes to visit. The perennial danger with all such world famous icons is that they may fail to live up to all their hype. Fortunately there's no worry with Angkor Wat, it easily matched my expectations & even exceeded them.
It costs $20US for a fancy day pass with your photograph, which is checked at every temple site. But you really do need a guide to effectively explore the sprawling complex of temples. Every tuk-tuk driver in town offers a tour of Angkor Wat but you often get a garbled & incoherant account so its best to have a professional guide like the one I booked with Travel IndoChina. I was picked up & returned to my hotel, there were just 5 of us, tickets were included, so no queuing, the guide was cleverly able to get us away from the big crowds & he took us to a decent place for lunch.
At its height the city of Angkor Thom was the Khmer Empire capital but they ruled over most of Thailand, Laos & Vietnam. Chinese & Indian traders originally brought Buddhism, Hinduism, writing & science to the region so the Khmer culture developed along the lines of an Indianised princedom. Both religions appear in the temples at different periods under different rulers.
Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Archaeological Park is located within a 400 square kilometer national park & has 40 temples - Angkor Wat is just the most famous temple.

Its still a jungle location but its been cleared from most temples because of the damage the tree roots do. But there's still a jungle ambience with swarms with butterflys, dragonflys, the constant squawk of parrots, troops of baboons & there are even (domesticated) elephants that ferry people on the traditional routes between different temple gates.
The Tx Prohn temple has been left with the classic strangler figs which seem to crawl all over the buildings so is the most atmospheric of all the sites, when its not too busy.

Its too amazing to decribe effectively so I'll rely of images. Over 2 million people visit Angkor every year so a good tip is to visit towards the end of the low/rainy season (October) as the crowds are much smaller, or try to arrange a 6 am dawn arrival.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a modest sized provincial town whose main source of income is from servicing visitors to Angkor Wat. But what a joy to be away from the big cities & be able to walk the streets again without constantly swivelling in search of ever-present approaching traffic.
Of course the tuk-tuk drivers still hassle every European, the big come-on here is 'I know a place' - what the hell is that supposed to mean? I don't think its a veiled sleezy offer because that usually comes with a gentle touch on the arm & a conspiritorial whisper of 'want a girl?' or 'want to smoke marijuana?' So they cater for everyone, not just the culture vultures visiting Angkor Wat

The area around the Old Market & Pub Street, with its associated alleyways, is not as grim as it might sound; its the lively bar, restaurant, cafe, guest house & general touristy area in the heart of Siem Reap. The really cheap & the really expensive places to eat & sleep are mostly further out from the town centre.
The town is surrounded by rice paddies & buildings ramble along the Siem Reap River which has regularly overflowed into the town during the past few weeks. I've been lucky with missing much of the heavy rain, which has been deluging the region, but its caught up with me now in Siem Reap. Its been pouring on & off for days & water is lapping the steps of the place I'm staying at.
According to locals Siem Reap is totally unrecognisable from 10 years ago when the first tourist styled pub (Angkor What? - probably funny after a few beers) opened in 1998.

The tourism crash of 2008 has hit them hard as its the main business in town. Molly Malone's Irish pub used to have streams of travellers passing through, often on-route to Australia, but now its just a steady trickle. There's quite a bit of construction going on in the French Quarter & many of the old French colonial building are being torn down & replaced by the locally popular modern glass & concrete. But the place has a laid back style all of its own.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap

This is without doubt the most romantic place to stay in Siem Reap - French colonial style, with hints of 1920's art deco, suffused with Khmer charm but with all the frills of modernity.
The rooms of course are superb, full of home comforts but with extra treats like a bowl of very exotic fruits, elephant chocolates & toiletaries from the Amtita spa range. The breakfast buffet has a lazy colonial feel with table service of fresh squeezed juices, cappucchino coffee, eggs cooked to order & a daily newspaper.

There's fine dining or informal dining but the thrice weekly evening BBQ on the Apsara terrace, under the stars or sheltered from the warm tropical rain, is hard to beat. Its a travesty to call it a BBQ when there are nine separate buffet options - straight-up BBQ, Tandoori, Noodle bar, Stirfry, Amok, a Khmer kitchen, a Salad bar, Deserts & an exotic Flambe station. But the highlight of this gourmet BBQ is a spectacular performance by a young Khmer classical dance troop - stunning costumes, beautiful dances & the genuine pride in their culture added a real sense of authenticity.
There's an exceptionally large pool surrounded by flowering Frangipani trees with coconut palms waving majestically behind them. There are lotus pools, towering betelnut & sugar palms, ginger, orchids, lillies after which I gave up trying to count the exotics in this manicured slice of tropical jungle.

Lion fountains tinkle in the background to the accommpaniment of bird song & for those that still need help unwinding there's the Amrita Spa for a Khmer style massage & an array of natural treatments But for those who have already unwound the poolside bar has an extensive selection of cocktails, champagne & the great local beer.
After dinner the resident pianist entertains in the conservatory bar or wafts guests to bed if they're planning an early start to the magnificnt Angkor Wat.

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

My planned route to Siem Reap went down the pan with the floods because all the Mekong boats were confined to the dock as the river was too high & too fast. So yet again I'm having to make another dull 6 hour bus trip.

Once again I just asked at my guest house & they got me a $10 bus ticket which included a transfer to the central bus station for a 10.00 departure. Bus destination were in Khmer & English. It was a decent bus with good air con & was pretty full. We stopped at 12.00 for rest & refreshment, plenty of locals had sit down meals in the open-sided cafe but only the tourists bought the huge roast spiders & fried bugs.

Simple wood & thatch houses, those near the river often on stilts, lined most of the road to Siem Reap; there were hundreds of cows thethered & grazing beside of the road. The countryside was beautiful with rice paddies, coconut palms & large lotus ponds but the flooding river was causing havoc in some places.

The bus had to cross the Mekong by ferry so at least I've managed to get a 5 minute Mekong river trip.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

More Phnom Penh

Like many cities PP needs to be eased into but its also a city that seems to fit some people like a glove & they never leave. So far I've met 8 people who arrived in Cambodia on a variety of pretexts & all decided to say & half of them now have Cambodian wives.

Its just as well I didn't bring any Cambodian riels from the UK because nobody in Cambodia wants them. Virtually all transactions are in US dollars although you might get some riels in change.

There seem to be fewer begger children around in the day, some are busy collecting stuff (no idea what) in sacks & others are hopefully at school. But there's no peace for bar-flys along the riverside - touts are busy selling sunglasses, books, maps & guides, trinkets, & wheeled carts hawk drinks, fruit, popcorn, candyfloss & much else.

Compared to Vietnam the streets are relatively easy to walk around, its a busy place, just not insanely frantic. All over the place there are street market stalls, mainly catering for the practical needs of local people but the Central Market is an amazing place, more reminiscent of a great domed mosque rather than a down to earth market place. At its centre all the stalls seem to be selling gem stones or maybe they're paste, I wouldn't know. The four arms radiating from the central area are full of more typical stalls selling everything a tourist might want to buy.
There is no city public transport system, proper taxis are rare, motorbike taxis (motodup) are ubiquious, cheap & hazardous; the humble rickshaw (cyclo) is common in tourist areas but the tuk-tuk (moto-romauks) is king of the road.
Cambodian tuk-tuks are not purpose built as elsewhere but are motorbikes with a towbar welded to the back & a passenger or cargo trailer attached. Tuk-tuk drivers are perennially optimistic folk - if 10 tuk-tuks are lined up next to each other then you'll be asked 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir - with no sense of irony - & if the tenth one ignores you - you think - yes, result, someone listened to me.

PP is a relatively new city & little existed before 1863. The Royal Palace is the grandest place in town, the grounds are peaceful, if its not too busy, its full of classic multi-tiered Khmer style buildings & lovely gardens that you're not allowed into. The entrance fee of $6.50 is a bit pricy by local standards but it would be foolish to miss it.
A far more important place to visit is Toul Sleng Genocide museum or S-21 as the Kymer Rouge called it or Toul Svay High School as it originally was. It became the Pol Pot regimes sadistic torture centre from 1975-78 & tortured & murdered more & more people every year of its existence. Like the Nazis the guards kept meticulous records of their victims including death counts roughly scratched on the wall.
Nothing is held back, the torture equipment is still there, photographic evidence & illustrations by one of the few survivors are on display. Its absolutely horrific but important to know about. The realisation that previously ordinary people (neighbours & friends) are capable of becoming monsters - is a chilling facet of human nature.

Raffles Phnom Penh

Having been slumming it for a bit in Vietnam I thought it was time to wallow in a bit of luxury & in Phnom Penh that has to be Raffles - Le Royal hotel.
My $2 tuk-tuk ride deposited me on the sweeping drive of Raffles, just behind a gleaming black limo but the liveried door staff unloaded my bag with the same grace & welcome as they had shown to the limo occupant. Looking scruffy & unkempt after my 6 hour bus ride from Saigon I was ushered to a comfortable lounge chair, given a welcome drink & a cool flannel, whilst someone else took care of all the bothersome check-in details for me.
Escorted to my room & informed about the pool, the spa, the dining rooms & the bars I just had enough time to shave & change into some cleaner clothes for lunch.

Opened in 1929 the French colonial Le Royal has always been THE place to stay in Phnom Penh & suites are named after notable guests including Somerset Maughan, Jacqueline Kennedy & Charles de Gaulle.

It saw some rough times during the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970's but has been returned to its former glory with new extentions & renovations that update facilities but reatain as much original restoration as has been possible.

Cambodia is the true land of smiles, regardless of what the Thai Tourist Boards says, & at Raffles there's a real pride in their country & culture which comes through as the most genuinely friendly & hospitable welcome you could imagine.

Rooms are of course a dream & I feel quite rejuvenated after just one night & ready to continue my travels. The secluded outdoor pool has one of the most attractive setting I've seen & you don't need to leave your lounger for a drink as staff are always close by.

Breakfast was on the verandah, with whirling ceiling fans, birds chripping in the tropical trees & staff buzzing around to ensure that everything was perfect - which it was.

Its a haven of lazy charm, reminiscent of days gone by, but with just the right level of pampering that I needed after some very basic travelling.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Phnom Penh

What a bloody scrum on arrival. The bus terminates on a busy street corner where tuk-tuk & motorbike taxi drivers all but climb over exiting passengers to get to me. All shouting & implying I have already agreed to go with them - I have to physically barge them out of the way just to get off the bus & hands everywhere try to grab my bag. Six to 8 people talk to me at the same time, I say nothing & look around for a taxi but see none. After a few minutes one guy says 'perhaps he doesnt speak English, maybe he's German?' I go into a nearby cafe but realise I have no Cambodian currency but this at least dissapates some of the mob.

I realise I've no option so walk out & accept a tuk-tuk offer. His eyes light up when I say I'm going to Raffles - 'Oh very long way, at least $5'. Sensibly I've checked it on the map & know its just a few blocks away, so I say $2 or I get off, making to stand up. He laughs & I think he gives me a congratulatory smile & says 'OK'.
There's a clear focal area for Phnom Penh's bar & restaurant area - along by the riverside & its less frantic than Saigon. But its a creepy walk from Raffles & I should have taken a tuk-tuk. Its pitch dark at 7 in the evening & street lighting, like the pavements, is intermittent. Suddenly a 6 year old child looms out of the dark & follows me for a hundred yards jabbering away & obviously begging - I speed up. There are quite a few other youngsters hanging around in the shadows & what I take to be hookers. The rain picks up but its fresh & cooling & I'm glad to get to the bright lights of the riverside.

There are some nice comfy bars along the riverside & a couple of beers ($1 each) soon cheer me up. The city is awash with tuk-tuks whereas there were none in Vietnam. Quite a few hippy type Europeans are milling around but the number of Americans easily outnumber all other visitors.

The big hassle is begging, its relentless. If you sit still for a moment beggers approach & a different one comes along every 5 minutes or so - unless you're foolish enough to give some money - then you're surrounded by a clammering hands until you're hounded away. A couple of handicapped beggers are constantly wheeled back & forth along the river front bars. Its not an easy place to be.

I'm hearing constant reports of flooding along my proposed route. Internet reports say Siem Reap is flooded & a group of visitors to Angkor Wat had to be airlifted out. Local TV news says Bangkok is bracing itself for flooding as river water arrives from the heavily flooded northern regions. Not sure whether to stay put or move on - the FCO website is not very informative.

Saigon to Phnom Penh

My plan was to travel up the Mekong from Siagon to Phnom Penh by boat, unfortunately all the traditional ferry routes have closed down as most people now travel by road. Apart from local boats the only significant river traffic are the expensive cruise boats, usually costing well over $2000. Its possible to get a boat to PP from Chau Doc but its an 8 hour bus journey from Siagon & then another 6 on the boat, whereas PP is only 6 hours directly from Saigon - so it would be crazy.

The only sensible option is to travel by bus which I booked at my hotel for $15, it included a transfer to the bus station by taxi & being seen onto the correct bus. The international buses are smart with air con, toilets, free bottled water & wet wipes - as good as bus travel gets & they're pretty full.

One of the bus conductors collects everyone's passport & fills out Cambodian entry forms. It takes almost an hour to get clear of Siagon but within minutes we're in another lowrise urban area. There are clear signs of heavy rain & local flooding which is strange because Siagon has had virtually none for the week I was there.

The border is about 2 hours away. Passengers get their passports back with filled in entry forms & exit the bus with luggage to pass through Vietnamese border control - & then get back on the bus. 100 yards later its off the bus again sans luggage & through Cambodian border control. They take all 10 fingerprints electronically plus an iris scan; then its on to quarentine where a heat sensor is pointed at your head to detect signs of sickness. Back on the bus for 50 yards & off again for a half hour rest break. Lots of people eat & the women selling fruit & cooked sweetcorn do a roaring trade.

I'm the only European on the bus but there are a couple of English speaking travellers from Malaysia who are on holiday. Quite a few money changers busily work the border crossing (presumably black market) but the officials don't seem to mind. I said no but regret not off loading my surplus Dong. People were also selling Cambodian SIM cards, which presumably work.

There's an instantaneous change after crossing the border. There's much less commerce, there are loads of dogs, wandering hump backed white cows & the driver speeds up, even though the roads are smaller. The architecture is noticably Khmer, saffron robed monks can be seen collecting arms & the landscape is distinctly more pastoral.
A Bollywood style DVD gets put on the TV & then an awful crooning DVD about idylic Indian couples falling in love in different situations.

Every mile north the flooding seems to get worse & rivers, ponds & paddy fields are overflowing but fortunately the road is raised & free from water. About 4 hours north of Saigon the bus takes a ferry across the Mekong at Neak Loeung. A woman brings on board a huge tray full of roasted small birds on her head & unsucessfully hawks them to ferry passengers - the crawling flies might have put some people off.
Towns look really poor, often with dirt roads off the main road & a continuous ribbon of ramshackle buildings beside the road; & then a surprising large group of well dress school children in one small town.

There's a noticable improvement in infrastructure on entering the precincts of Phnom Penh, police pull over traffic & check it & three-wheeled tuk-tuks swarm everywhere.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Saigon - Pearl of the Far East (according to the French colonalists

Sadly this label is well past its sell-by-date & its hard to conceive, in modern Saigon, exactly what prompted this label.

Saigon has baffled my sense of orientation as I regularly get lost while wandering, I think its the hard to remember Vietnamese street names, many of which seem very similar. Its also probably the heightened level of concentration needed when crossing roads, so less information about the surroundings gets taken on board.

Just about every motorbike rider wears a safety helmet but that's as far as safety goes - I've seen mums with a toddler in front & one behind, riders using their phone & smoking, even a pillion passenger eating a meal with chopsticks. I've seen everything being carried on a bike from a fridge to a dozen chickens but the most disconcerting was a guy belting along with his passenger holding four large sheets of plate glass.

Not many Europeans stop off for a street coffee which is not unreasonable as coffee has come to mean a comfy relaxing place as much as the coffee itself. But if you do just want a coffee hit, a pavement shot will cost about 30p whereas one of the many new coffee shops will set you back £1.50 - 2.

I found a great place for lunch, its not a smart restaurant where lone diners feel like 'billy no-mates' yet is a significant step up from crouching on the pavement. Its called Pho 2000 & its great claim to fame is that President Clinton, the first US President to visit Vietnam after the war, stopped by to have some chicken noodle soup.

Its a basic caff style rather than a smart cafe, the menu is limited but that means what they do is really good & its all fresh & reassuringly too hot to eat immediately. My favourite meal was chicken noodle soup, which is a rich broth with various herbs & large slices of white chicken breast. It comes with some salad, a plate of mung beans, fresh limes, basil along with chilli & soy sauces to add to taste. All for £1.50 - an amazing price for a superb meal.

A lot of local bars seem to be dingy or nightclub style places whereas I prefer open bars overlooking the beach or street life, failing that a nice old fashioned pub. So in cities I often try out Irish bars, I'd try English pubs but they're not a universal brand like the ubiquitous Irish pub. However they're pretty disappointing places in Vietnam (there was a great one in Beijing), the Hanoi Irish pub's only Irishness was a pretend Guinness pump on the bar.

In Saigon I found Sheridan's & O'Brien's, neither had Guinness on draft & a tin was four times the price of any other beer & whose ever had a decent tin of Guinness? O'Brien's was actually set up by a Frenchman who presumably thought a French bar would not be so popular in its old colony.

The central Ben Thanh market is very much a tourist market & is not very impressive but is a useful place to find a collection of every knock-off branded product on the planet.

A strange thing about Saigon is that there are virtually no cats & I've only seen half a dozen little lap-dogs in the city. This is extra strange as so much food is eaten directly on the street so there's plenty of litter to keep a legion of scavengers well fed.

I've just read in the Vietnam News that a car ploughed into a group of motorcyclists in Siagon yesterday - killing 3 & seriously injuring 13 more. It was a page 5 low priority news item, the sort of location where a UK newspaper might run a story about - bus wobbles & frightens passengers.
So maybe the Siagon roads are as dangerous as they look, even if you're a local - beware.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Cu Chi Tunnels

Another Travel Indochina trip I pre-booked was to the Cu Chi tunnels about 65km northwest up highway 22 from central Saigon. The 250km network of tunnels at Cu Chi are an unbelievable feat of bucket & spade engineering - so unbelievable that the Americans never really understood how just how vast & complex they were.

They're not simply tunnels, its more like an underground town on three levels - 3 metres, 9m & the deepest at 18m. There are bunkers, kitchens, storerooms, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters & armouries, all interconnected into a vast warren. There are lots of ventilation shafts & disguised smoke outlets as well as many sealed doors to prevent gas & water entering the system.

VC soliders in the tunnels were kept supplied via the Ho Chin Minh trail & would regularly launch attacks on Saigon. Dozens of US military Operations tried to clear the tunnels using CS-type gases, flooding them, setting mines & sending in dogs but because there were endless escape routes & doors to seal off separate sections, they were never more than marginally successful.

The area around Cu Chi was also riddled with horrific & deadly bamboo mantraps & it became notorious as Deadly Ground. After using bulldozers to ineffectively dig up some of the tunnels the Americans resorted to widespread bombing & there are still B52 bomb craters at the site.

Not surprisingly the Cu Chi tunnels have become a bit of a theme park with tour groups, a shooting range & souvenir shops - except its not imaginary, its a real place & a key part of Vietnam's history & one they are very proud of. There is also an old black & white propaganda film that visitors are shown that includes a 'hero school girl'. She is commemorated for being an 'American killer' because of her bravery in blowing up tanks helping the farmers who were battling the military power of the 'American invaders'.

The tunnels themselves are terrifyingly small and entry routes are no more than 12 x 18 inches - way too small for the average American to access. Some tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors to get a feel for what they were like but even these brush your shoulders & require you to walk bent double. Just a little way in I decided to settle for the concept rather then the claustrophobic reality.

On the Streets of Saigon

One of the most sensible things I've done on this trip is book a Street Walking Tour of Saigon with Travel IndoChina - before I left home. A sightseeing bus tour would be a useless experience, you've got to learn about the streets. Its also a great way of getting your bearings without being bothered by touts, because you're with a local.

No matter how old you are, on the frantic streets of Siagon all overseas visitors start out as children & need to learn afresh how to cross the roads safely - all the rules are different. Forget everything your mother ever taught you about road safety and learn from a Siagon resident & you should be OK.

There are around 6 million motorbikes in Saigon for a population of 7 million & they go where they like when they like - they often jump red lights, ride along pavements, the opposite way up traffic lanes & even the wrong way around roundabouts. There are no giveway lines on junctions or roundabouts, so vehicles just barrel on through & the only rule seems to be to give way to anything bigger & faster than you.

The flow of traffic never ceases so there's no option except to walk into oncoming traffic, make sure they can see you & trust they ride around you - which they usually do.
Locals walk into fast moving traffic without looking - delibrately - trusting that it will flow around them, & it does seem to work, but that'll take more than a few days to grow the balls to try that.

Except on a few major throughfares the pavements are cluttered with food stalls or parked bikes & are so broken & uneven its often like tramping across a ploughed field, so good walking shoes or strong ankles are essential.

Saigon is twice the size of Hanoi but its not the capital even though it acts the part. Its the major centre for international commerce with lots of highrise buildings, a port, major luxury hotels, huge shopping malls & at night its a bright & glitzy party town with many more overseas visitors & residents than Hanoi.

There are a host of iconic building - the Continential hotel where Grahame Green was a long term resident & drafted ideas for his Vietnam novel The Quiet American. Some of the film was shot locally as well as many scenes back in the more atmospheric Hoi An.

The grand Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel at the height of French colonial rule, which is opposite the rather unimpressive Notre Dame Cathedral. French colonial rule ended in 1955 but the Americans immediately moved in to replace them, bringing military advisors with their alternative brand of cultural & commercial imperialism. What started with a few hundred advisors eventually grew to half a million personel by 1968.

But for anyone alive during the Vietnam war - there are many images that still seem sharp today. The Rex hotel is still thriving, where the Americans gave their daily press briefings to the rest of the world - many of them far from accurate about their success - 'just send a few more troops & we'll have the job done'.

The rooftop place where the last helicopers evacuated people after Saigon fell, its still there - exactly the same. I had always thought that photograph was of the American Embassy building but its just a local apartment block around the corner from the Post Office. The American Embassy is long gone & has been relocated further out of town.

I stopped at the crossroad site where Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death (cf Hue blog), is comemorated - fresh fruit & flowers are still left every day.

Thank you Ngoc Vu for being a good companion, teaching me how to cross the road & giving me a great introduction to your city.

Google has gone bonkers

My google location link has just gone bonkers.

I've just arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia & it thinks I'm in Miami USA.

I suspose the good people at google have never heard of Phnom Penh so it doesnt exist or they think most of the world is in the USA - so it must be there somewhere.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The train South to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

The Sunday lunchtime trains to Siagon were all full so I had to settle for the 21.56 train (SE7) from DaNang arriving the following day around 15.00, which actually is more sensible than the lunchtime trains that arrive at 04.00 in the morning. The soft sleeper ticket cost $50US & I decided on a $13 taxi ride from Hoi An to the station rather than the bus.

This train is also full, good job I bought my ticket the day before. When I throw open the door of my cabin a Vietnamese family look horrified as I squeeze in & climb onto the top bunk, there's no room for my bag so it goes on the bunk with me.

They're a young couple with a baby and someone's brother of about 16. The boy plays his MP3 phone, the baby is grizzling, the wife is curled up & seems unwell as the husband is fanning her while crooning a song.

We all settle down around 23.00 & I sleep OK, surrounded by luggage, but the family are up & about at 05.30 (dawn). Outside the window are fields & fields of rice & on higher ground there are banana, mango, coconut palms & a host of other fruit trees.

An old granny comes in & out, occasionally throwing annoyed glances at me but my usual multilingual smiling tactic doesnt seem to work. Various attempts to communicate fail but the one success is the boy writing down - How Old Are You? Thinking age must be important I try to find out how old each of them are, but that disintegrates into endless confusion.

I'm offered some crackers & peanut brittle waffers, fortunately I bought some very tasty sesame seed jelly-type nibbles, so was able to offer those around.

We arrive at NhaTrang at 07.50 & quite a few European backpackers get off. I gave serious thought to stopping off here but was put off by the high-rise hotels on the sea front & the Lonely Planet intriguing warning about 'kamikaze hookers'.

The countryside is spectacular, 6 hours north of Siagon we're in a wide almost flooded valley with steep mountains on both sides. The valley floor is full of paddy fields with lots of people working in them - some with hand tools & water buffalo, others with old fashioned looking machinery. There are egarets everywhere and great flocks of white ducks - presumably domesticated.

A regular stream of food sellers ply the corridors, some of the options are hard to fathom but when I see rice, chicken satay, vegetables & something else I jump at it for £1.50. It was served in a polystyrene box with a spoon & was OK as train food goes although I never worked out what the something else was.

The Vietnamese family want a photograph of me & the boy so he puts his arm around me like an old friend & they all screech with laughter. I'll probably figure in many funny family stories in years to come - 'do you remember that strange foreigner who couldnt speak properly....'.
3 hours north of Siagon there are miles & miles of broad leaved forest stretching from the edge of the track back up & across a series of rolling hills. Then there are miles of cleared forest with miles of crops that look suspiciously like marijuana - but it can't be, surely?

Ho Chi Minh station is quite posh, with escalators & a smart but pricy coffee shop. Its the usual bunfight of excited taxi-bike operators & touts who know someone with a taxi but the police keep them out of the station concourse except you have to face them eventually. I sit out the main scrum with an overpriced coffee & then take a surprisingly cheap taxi (£2.20) to my hotel the Indochine in District 1.

I just plucked the Indochine off the web as looking reasonable & in a good location. It is in fact very nice - a decent 2 - 3 star quality for $36US including a small but fresh cooked breakfast. Its clean, spacious with a desk, air con, a good shower & WiFi - I'm happy.

More Hoi An

The waterfront is a hive of activity & there are plenty of boat trips & places to just sit & watch life unfold. Down one end of the waterfront is a huge street market, mostly for local people but plenty for tourists as well. Side streets are awash with little bars, cafes & restaurants, all serving food - Vietnamese, western, Italian pasta & pizza is popular & there's even a curry house.

Its not a major backpackers haunt although the cheap end is definitely backpacker prices, a large Siagon beer is 25,000d (80p) in a smart bar but 'fresh brewed' local beer on the waterfront is 4,000d (12p) a glass!

One of the great features is that streets in the old town are often closed off to all traffic except bicycles, although if the policeman disappears motorbikes suddenly appear; nevertheless its a rare place where strolling around is a joy.

The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & no buildings are bigger than two storeys, mainly in old Chinese, or French colonial styles & the most famous landmark is the Japanese Bridge.

All Hoi An's traditional shipping trade has now passed to DaNang so their main business is tourism (except the bridal gown & mobile phone shops). There are dozens of tailors shops & I've met a few people having suits made for around £50. Tourism means there are plenty of touts who can get on your nerves when ten boat owners in a row call you offering the same boat ride - all within earshot of each other. There are also the perennial motorbike taxis, trinket sellers & a couple of simple looking beggers who do the rounds of the bars.

Now I've some decent accommodation I'm really enjoying Hoi An & I don't really mind the touts, you just get used to them. There's so many things I havnt done - I never got to the beach or visited My Son - Vietnam's Angkor Wat, smaller but older & less touristy. Unfortunately many of the temples were destroyed by American bombing raids in the 1960's.

I really want to stay longer but I've tied myself into some trips in Saigon on the 4th & 5th so I've got to leave.