Back (again!) to Bangkok

You know, I really have to go through this blog sometime and figure out how many times I’ve passed through Bangkok in the course of this journey. If I was to hazard a guess, I’d say ten times. Not bad given I’d not even set foot in Asia before March 14th 2006. Is it really almost three year?

The trip was pretty smooth. As agreed, I crawled down the stairs to reception before 7am to await the share taxi. He arrived around 15 minutes later and I was told to take one of the back seats. “Three people, back seat”. No problem. We then drove around Battambong to pick up those three people, and one more for the front seat – a businessman with a laptop who’d paid extra to be the only non-sardine other than the driver. Yeah, when they said “three”, I thought they’d meant three including me.

We made it to the border in good time, and our driver obviously knew what he was doing. If ever there was a hint of a police presence at the roadside, he’d wait for a bus to overtake then sit very close behind it. By the time the police saw the taxi, we were way past them. Not that the driver was dong anything wrong but the police in Cambodia can be somewhat… “inventive” with the offences they charge fines for.

I was dropped right at the border point at Poipet around 10:10 – much better than catching the bus which wouldn’t even leave Battambang until after midday. If I could get a seat.

Getting stamped out of Cambodia and into Thailand was a cinch. Join a queue at one side to exit Cambodia. Pass through the “no man’s land” using the left-hand path and into immigration. Grab a form sat on counter number 6, fill it in, go through the routine passport check and exit from the other side. Doddle.

Once in Aranyaprathet, a short walk leads to a sign telling all tourists and foreigners to turn right. Within 20m of this point, I’d already has one person approach me with an offer of a bus ticket to Bangkok. As it worked out, it was a good deal. 300 baht, double decker, air-con, express (4 hours), free water and leaving soon. As a bonus, it would stop opposite Hualamphong saving me getting there from Mo Chit.

There are cheaper, indirect, buses from the station in town but by the time I’d have paid for a motorcycle to get there it simply wouldn’t have been worth it. There is also a train for around 70 baht, but it’s 6 hours and there are only two a day. If you’re looking, the company is the first on the left after you pass the baggage check area.

As an aside, the toasties from the sandwich stand aren’t bad (and are cheap) and the large bank on the corner does a good exchange rate.

A little over four hours later – just after 3pm, and I was disembarking at the central train station. As the advance ticket office closes at 4pm and certain routes book up early, I had to be here to ensure I could organise my ticket for the first leg to Kuala Lumpur so I knew I’d be able to get down there once I got back from Myanmar.

The helpful staff at the information desk escorted me to the right queue and ensured I booked the ticket correctly. 1120 baht gets me from Bangkok to Butterworth, overnight in an air-con bunk with meals (I think – I’ll check that!). For 90 baht more you can have a lower bunk which I think just gives you a little more space.

All sorted, I got the MRT to Silom and walked down the road. Lunch in McDs and then into the Duke of Wellington to use the free wi-fi. I’m sat here now, typing this up. On my 2-and-a-half’th Tiger and with some very good potato skins with cheese and bacon in my belly. Frankly, I’m stuffed. The “free” wi-fi has cost me about a tenner, but I’ve caught up on a lot and the live music’s superb.

And with that, I shall sign off. I’m intending to catch the 10pm-ish airport express. I’ll sleep at the airport itself as my check-in is at 5:15am. The first bus from Bangkok leaves at 5am so there’s no point in even trying to catch that.

There may be a delay in posts as I gather that the internet in Myanmar is not that good. Normal posting will be resumed once I get to Kuala Lumpur around the 24th or 25th!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Well-massaged bottom

Guarding a wat

Guarding a wat

No, this isn’t that rude. It just describes my back end after many hours on the back of a motorbike along the rather bumpy local roads. I met up with my driver, who’s name sounds like “Cheers” and I couldn’t write it in Khmer anyway, at the hotel at 8:30. Before I start, I’d recommend him completely. I had a great day. Just find the Royal Hotel and ask for “Cheers”, the guide/guy with motorbike. He charged me $12 for the whole day – 8:30 till around 17:00. I gave him $13 and bought his drinks while we were out.

Ideally, I wanted to go to Wat Ek Phnom, Phnom Sampeu and Wat Banan. However, the latter two are off to the south west and the first 13 km from the town in the north east. As a result, it’s a lot of driving and would mean missing out on some of the sidetracking we did.

I smeared on some suncream, mounted up and we buzzed off in the direction of Phnom Sampeu. On the way we stopped at a small wat with a curious collection of plaster animals around it. Curious as none of them are native to Cambodia – giraffe, kangaroo and so forth. Very strange.

Our next stop was a fuel station where I got talking to a couple – I think Dutch. You could tell it was their first time on bikes in such conditions as they were clinging tightly to the backs of their respective bike seats. Around the corner from fuel stop was another temple, this one very beautifully painted. Unfortunately, as is common round here, the interiors are locked. Too many Buddha statues have been stolen for them to leave the buildings open at all time.

Kim Bunleang and one of his classrooms

Kim Bunleang and one of his classrooms

I got talking to a monk while I was there – Kim Bunleang. He is the branch director of the Sochiveak Thor Organisation based at the temple. They have a school there, in a hand-built building, in which they teach around 150 children. Class sizes are large and facilities rather rough and ready. They’re also short of teachers, but their current big target is to get a roof onto a second building to expand the number of classrooms.

Of course, he was after donations but I do tend to put all my efforts towards the Blue Dragon charity in Hanoi. However, I was really impressed with what they were doing and quite satisfied that this is genuine endeavour. I don’t mean any disrespect to him, but there are many dodgy “charities” in Cambodia. I don’t believe this is one.

As such, I’ve offered to help him spread the word about the school. Money’s not the only thing they’re after. If you can spend a couple of months teaching English – any native speaker is welcome to apply – then get in touch with him. I’m sure he’d be happy to split some class sizes down!

His telephone number is +855 (0) 12 73 98 89 and if you want to donate some cash their way, then they have an account with the ANZ Royal Bank:

Sochiveak Thor Organisation 784324

I gave him my card so hopefully I will be able to get some more information to you later.

"Hello!"

“Hello!”

OK, on to the next sight – Phnom Sampeau. This is a tall hill sticking out of the surrounding jungle. This being southeast Asia, it means that stupa and other religious buildings have been constructed on the summit. Cheers told me to walk further down the road and do the walk “backwards” which I did. 100m or so from the main steps is a road leading up. The view on the ascent is fantastic with jungle one one side and plains on the other.

Partway up there are some caved and a small monastic residence with an enormous Buddha outside. As you ascend, more buildings (and more Buddha) can be seen until you reach the summit where there are two temples – one Hindu and one Buddhist. There are other structures as well, including one that’s undergoing repairs or construction. Apparently the Khmer Rouge used caves here for torture and imprisonment, but I couldn’t find these – I could have done with a guide, but there were none at the bottom volunteering.

One thing I noticed as I walk walking around was that weddings are very loud in Cambodia. I could hear the music from at least two even though I was all the way up there. Also that Cambodian dogs need to be neutered – there are far too many swollen females walking around.

Hmm. Loud, annoying music and a pregnant bitch. Sounds like my old chav scum neighbour and his girlfriend.

A good walk, though. It took me about ninety minutes including all the photo-taking and video-ing. Back at the bottom, I talked to an English chap over lunch and very much enjoyed the cheapest Coke I think I’ve seen in ages – 2000 riel (50c, 35p). The locals here haven’t figured out how to rip off tourists, either, as most of the dishes were a bargain $1.50.

So many steps!

So many steps!

I did get guides at the Wat Banan, though – originally one and then somehow a second joined us. At the bottom a couple of young girls approaches me offering their services as guides. I picked the first who’d approached and we “haggled” a price of 3000 riel. There are over 300 steps up to the small temple complex on the top and I raced my young guide up the last 50 or so. I won! Mind, she was only 10.

Another little girl started following us around at the top, and between the two of them they pointed out a few things. To be honest, there’s no real need for a guide at this site, but the kids were cute and very eager. They swapped words in English and Khmer and whenever I stopped for more than a couple of seconds, they began to fan me! Back at the bottom I gave my original guide a dollar and the other girl around 2500 reil – most of my small change, really.

I sat and talked with Cheers for some time. He was really good company and the time flew before we left for a trip around the Battambang countryside. We passed rivers, villages, bridges, trees full of bats and lots and lots of children who loved to wave and shout “hello!”.

Bamboo train

Bamboo train

We stopped at the bamboo railway which has become a tourist favourite. It’s basically some small, flat “cars” that run on the old railway system. It reminds me of the scenes in Punta Mita where I stayed once. The current cargo trains only plough up and down 1-2 days a week, so the rest of the time the folk here use the rails to collect firewood and the like from around 15km away. And charge tourists $6 or so for a ride along the line.

Way back when, the carriages were “powered” by two guys with poles. Kind of like punting on rails. Nowadays they’ve attached motors to them which gives them a top speed of 60 km/h. Much more fun for the paying punters than the powering ones. I didn’t bother with a shot as I didn’t want to spend that much, and the whole trip is around an hour to the Sunset Bridge and back.

Instead we put-putted into a nearby village to see one of the historic houses there. I saw more than one sign, but Cheers took me to a particular one so I guess he knows the owner. It was very reminiscent of the Tan Ky House Leah and I walked around in Hoi An. Similarly, the owner asked for a small donation when I had finished – I gave her around $2 in small change and signed the visitor book.

She was the first person in Cambodia who I’ve conversed with in French. I always thought the language would be more pervasive given the country’s history but English is now by far and away the most popular second language. She told me the ages of parts of the house and how their furniture was lucky to survive the Khmer Rouge – most classical and non-Khmer pieces were seized and smashed. She has pieces over 100 years old.

And finally, back to the hotel. I’d have struggled to find most of the sights had I been on the bike by myself. It’s easy enough to get to the main monuments, but there is a wealth of stuff to see down the maze of country roads. Given how little it costs to hire a guide for a day out, I’d heartily recommend it – and get “Cheers” is you can!

Not a PlayStation in sight

Not a PlayStation in sight

Back at the hotel, I showered (the water was red with the dust) then sorted a share taxi to the border in the morning at $8. With luck, I can make it to Hualamphong in Bangkok before 4pm so I can book my train ticket for later this month. If not, then I will have to stay overnight – so I still can’t book my Yangon flight.

I checked out the Riverside Balcony Bar for dinner as it’s recommended for western food and it lives up to the reputation. At least the “Miami” toasted baguette (spiced chicken, bacon and mayo) was very tasty indeed. Not cheap, though, and not busy for what Lonely Planet claims is the “best bar” in the area. Directly over the street is the bar I mentioned yesterday which was again heaving with locals enthralled with the kickboxing. Had I more time, I’d have popped in and joined them – but I have botty problems of a non-motorcycle related fashion so I preferred to be near a lavatory I know and trust.

For internet I had to pop down to a neighbouring hotel, The Star. It’s a dollar an hour, the most expensive I’ve seen since I got here, and one of the PCs is just riddled with viruses. The other just wasn’t that great. To add insult, there’s a half-full fountain or something just behind them so when darkness falls there are hordes of mosquitoes flying in your face while you try to check your email.

Hence why this blog update finally appears when it appears and not on the evening of the day in question. Sorry about that.

This was a great day with a ton of good snaps, and a video. So here’s a gallery, and the embedded YouTube video:

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Bus trip to Battambang

Wat Damrey Sar

Wat Damrey Sar

Battambang is pronounced Battambong. The way the locals say it, it’s more like “butterball”, in fact. Amazingly, it’s the second-largest city in Cambodia. I say “amazing” as you can walk from end to end in around twenty minutes.

The bus trip was fairly uneventful – around five hours with one toilet break in a layby and a lunch stop roughly three hours into the journey. The aircon was on “chill” but at least that was keeping the mosquitoes in check.

I’d pre-booked a $4 room at the Chaaya Hotel and they’d even offered to send me a motorbike to take me there when I arrived. However, the bike wasn’t there. I waited a while then walked to the hotel… where I was told the cheapest room was $8. Then $6. Then $5. Sorry, I don’t “do” being screwed around by hotels so I walked out and tried one of the others recommended in Lonely Planet.

Royal Hotel could only go as low as $7, but their sister hotel around the corner – Hotel Asia – had one for $5. Yes, I know I could have got this from the first place but they’d promised and failed to deliver once, then tried to diddle me. Their loss.

Wat Kampheng

Wat Kampheng

After settling in, I decided to take a walk around the town. Which wouldn’t take long. I did a circuit taking in the five Wats (Damrey Sar, Kampheng, Sangker, Kandal and Phiphetaram), the Governor’s Residence and the riverside. I also passed an outdoor sports area that was teaming with volleyball players and spectators; and a bar filled to the rafters with screaming Cambodians gambling on the boxing.

The temples are in varous states, two of them definitely having some work done. They’re all similar in appearance with different decor – close to the Thai style which isn’t surprising given the proximity to the border.

For lunch I checked out the White Rose, as recommended by LP. he fruit shake I tried – banana and orange – certainly lived up to the press, but is 1000 riel more expensive now. Mind, the book is about 2-3 years out of date. No real faulting the rice, chicken and peppercorn either. Pretty tasty for $2.50.

Lion guarding the Stung Sangker

Lion guarding the Stung Sangker

While wandering, I checked one of the bus companies that Lonely Planet reckons does a direct bus to Bangkok for $10. They don’t any more. In fact, the chap there says that nobody does. The closest is one bus to Poipet and from there to the regular buses in Aranyaprathet. I was hoping to exit the country by the border near Pailin just so I could use a different chackpoint, but it’s looking more and more inconvenient.

I’ll check tomorrow on the time of the Poipet bus. Given the 4-hour journey from the border to Bangkok, I want to be setting off very early on Monday morning. I’ve been told by the hotel staff that there is indeed a direct bus to Bangkok, but it doesn’t leave until midday which would get me to the capital far too late to be of any use.

The third alternative is to head in one direction or the other using share taxis. And the issue there is cost and lack of regular services, plus the argie-bargie of haggling. Then there’s the fact that I have no Thai baht so I’m going to have to buy some – obviously at a bad rate – to ensure I can pay the bus fare.

All fun and games!

So I’m currently in my room with cold shower, western loo, two double beds and cable telly. Not bad for less than £4. Which is far less than Manchester City paid for Shay Given, who I am now watching debut for his new team.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tip: avoid ANZ cashpoints

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited

Preying on backpackers?

This one’s for people visiting Cambodia. ANZ, an Aussie/Kiwi bank, is by far the most pervasive here. There are more ATMs belonging to them, and they’re in more convenient locations, than any other bank. Thing is, of the ones which accept foreign cash cards they’re also the only ones that charge a fee on them.

$2 may not seem a lot. but think of the number of tourists going through here. ANZ are targetting YOU, the backpacker. My advice is simple – don’t use them.

I swear they’ve even taken over a few hole-in-the-wall locations that were home to other machines last time I visited. If at all possible, walk a little further and find a different bank. The vast majority of you will be paying your bank back home each time you withdraw. If you’re an ANZ customer you’ll be paying the greedy buggers TWICE. Save your cash, use someone else.

If every other bank in Cambodia can give you money without charging, what makes ANZ so special? Maybe they’re profiteering, maybe they’re teetering on the brink and need all the income they can get? If it’s the latter then ANZ customers may want to think about moving their accounts elsewhere for safety – or in protest.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]