Visa’d up

Monument from a distance

Monument from a distance

No problems with my Myanmar visa at all. I popped over to get it this afternoon and coughed up the very reasonable $20. I believe the government will just try to screw me for cash in other ways when I’m there, but $20 for a visa isn’t bad in Southeast Asia.

For my cash, I’ve got a 28-day visitation period beginning any time from yesterday until the 4th of May – in other words a 28-day window within a 3-month period, single entry. The only thing mentioned when I went in to collect my passport was that fact that I was clean-shaven (other than my chin) on Wednesday and I haven’t shaved since so I pretty much have a full beard – which threw the guy slightly!

The plan currently is to get to Battambang tomorrow, stay a full day over Sunday, bus to Bangkok on Monday and fly out on Tuesday. Flight prices still haven’t changed. Unusually for Air Asia, it looks like the prices are fixed with Saturdays costing a few Baht more than other days of the week.

I had a look around for some mefloquine / Larian but the cost here is pretty high. $75 for 8 tablets, which is how many I’d need. Ouch. I’ll check in Bangkok instead as I’m sure they were far cheaper there.

The monument close up

The monument close up

I walked for an age to find an ATM that didn’t charge (see following post) to withdraw as many dollars commission-free as possible. No point in withdrawing Baht and exchanging it or paying credit card fees at the airport when I can get the cash from a hole in the wall in Cambodia. Myanmar has no ATMs, at least none that take foreign cards, and cash advances on cards are usually at prohibitive rates – I’ve seen 16% to 37% quoted. Ow.

KFC for dinner again (hey, it’s $3) and back to the hostel to type this lot up, watch some Drawn Together and drink the 50c beers I bought from Pencil – the 6% abv awesomely-named “Klang” seems good value. Early bus tomorrow and don’t know the state of the internet access in Battambong so it may be a couple of days, or even weeks, till my next post if I don’t get online before I get to Myanmar.

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No moto

As I suspected, I’m definitely going to be doing nothing until I depart on Saturday. I was hoping that either today or tomorrow I could hire a moto of my own and zip off out of the city for a trip around some temples and a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, this requires leaving your passport as a deposit… and mine’s at the Myanmar embassy awaiting a visa.

So my only mission was a quick trip to the post office to send those paintings home. At $13 I’d have been as well holding onto them and bringing them home in June, but there’s always the possibility that Australian immigration might have kicked off about them as they were painted on a wooden backboard.

Last night I got talking to a nice Israeli guy, Michael. He’s old for an Israeli backpacker – 32 – but enjoying himself a lot. Like me, he’s generally got no plan for anywhere until he arrives. I bumped into him again today, but I at first ignored his cries of “Hello! Hello!” as I thought he was one of the million moto drivers trying to get my attention!

Until this morning there was also a woman from the UK who’d cycled most of the way here, but was bussing out to Thailand as her visa was almost expired. In the past she’s cycled around most of India and has been put of Bhutan because of the price. I told her about the company that Hans and I went through and now she’s pencilling in a trip for next year.

The only other person in the dorm I’ve seen is an older gent, but I’m not sure where he’s from other than that English isn’t his first language and that he really, really, pretty please with sugar on top, shouldn’t sleep naked in the dorm. For the love of whatever deity you choose to worship. Unless you’re gorgeous and female (and don’t mind me taking photos), sleeping on top of the covers in a (shared, especially) dormitory is not really cool.

So I’m whiling the time away trying not to spend cash. This means buying grub (and insect repellant) from the supermarket and sitting around watching the final season of The Shield. Thankfully I’ve a load of films and TV shows on my laptop so I won’t run out.

A reminder to travellers to also shop around for stuff. In the supermarket alone, I found seven or eight different “manufacturers” of bottled water in the fridge. Prices varied from around $2 to 45c for 1.5l. Don’t pick up the first thing, especially in a new country when you don’t know what stuff should cost.

At least the weather’s good.

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Bleeding (in) Phnom Penh

One of the three children's hospitals in Phonm Penh

One of the three children's hospitals in Phonm Penh

Not a real lot to write about today, the first of three days’ forced residence here. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad place. There’s just little for me to see and do having been here twice before. The city is changing, though. At the end of Ph 258, where my guest house is, a cinema is being built. I’ve not seen or heard of one in Phnom Penh before.

Supermarkets also seem to be more common, and there’s the KFC I mentioned yesterday – where I confess I headed for dinner again tonight. It’s one of the cheapest options around here that doesn’t include rice!

I am currently passportless as I handed said document in to the Myanmar embassy. The form-filling was easy enough (first time I’ve been asked for my hair colour, eye colour, height and “complexion” though), and not an eyebrow was raised when I left the “Address in Myanmar” field empty. They even told me to pay the $20 on Friday at 4pm when I go to collect it than immediately.

As ever, I carry photos around and it’s a good job as I needed three for this application. I’m running low so that may be one of my jobs tomorrow. Another contact sheet would be useful.

To give a better idea of how to find the embassy – locate the Independence Monument on its roundabout along Norodom Boulevard. Head south from there until you reach the Pre-School Teacher Training Center on the right. You can’t miss this – it’s very big and had playground equipment visible through the bars. The Myanmar Embassy is the very unassuming and almost anonymous building just past it, set about 15m back from the street.

It was really quiet. A couple of guards, one clerk and a cleaner. A far cry from the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok with its constant flow of tourists.

I’m working on the assumption that I will get the visa, but I’m not booking anything for definite until I have it in my hands. Checking AirAsia‘s flights from Bangkok, prices don’t seem to fluctuate as you get closer to the chosen date so there’s no harm in leaving it. At the current rates, I can get there and back for around £130 depending on when I fly in and out. This is by far the cheapest route in other than perhaps the southern land border. However, that entry requires a boat and/or air trip to get north to the main part of the country as the road is closed to foreigners.

Once back in Bangkok, I’ll get the train to Kuala Lumpur. I was part-planning on stopping to go to Koh Tao as I hear the diving there is both top class and very cheap… but it looks like I won’t have time. Depending on when I return to Asia (and what route I use) from Australia, I may look at it then.

I have booked my bus to Battambang ($4) on Saturday morning. From there I can get a bus direct to Bangkok for around $10 which I will do on the Monday. This gives me a day to get a tour around the area which I hear is worth a look.

My only other major task was donate a pint of the red fluid at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital nearby. This is my third donation (the last two in Siem Reap) and as ever the staff were very grateful. The nurse spotted my ratehr sore feet from re-breaking in my sandals and insisted on putting iodine on the wounds. I’d already put eucalyptus oil on them but you can’t be too careful.

I’m donor number 132 this year according to the counter on the wall. So I’m urging anyone visiting Cambodia… please, if you’re able to give blood then do so! You get a can of Coke and a t-shirt afterwards! Also a goodie-bag of other stuff. I was gifted with a can of condensed milk, some crackers, a bag of sugar and a bottle of water. I need to find someone for whom the milk and sugar will be of use…

Apart from that, the KFC for dinner and some more munchies purchased from Pencil (what a strange name for a department store). I’ve sat and chilled, chatted to a couple of the residents of the dorm and read my Conan Doyle book. The Lost World is certainly a cracking read!

It’s 21:10 as I type this up and no sign of the flying ants as yet. The lizards (eight of them that I can see) are gathering by the ceiling light so I think it’s only a matter of time…

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Packing up for Pnomh Penh

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

I did opt for the Pnomh Penh bus, and booked it for 12:30. I had a few things to do around town before I headed off for the capital. First up was to walk to the Rainbow Foundation’s bookshop opposite Monkey Republic. This is one wing of a children’s charity and the small shop sells and part-exchanges second hand books amongst other things. It’s also “guarded” by one of the softest dogs I’ve ever met.

Catcher in the Rye and King of Torts gave way to Around the World in Eighty Days and a random crime novel. It’s a dollar to exchange a book, so I handed over 10,000 riel ($2.50). 50c makes no odds to me, but every little helps the charities around here – of which there are a substantial number.

Down nearer the beach I met up with Claire again for breakfast. We returned to the Sea View where I’d had a delicious – if tiny – crumble on our first night. This time I opted for the $3 muesli with fruit and yoghurt which was delicious and filling. The muesli was more like broken up cereal bars – very sticky in its own right. Definitely a good way to start the day.

Claire checked out their rooms for her sister arriving and wished she could book them as they were among the best we’d seen. However, it’s the only place in the area we know of that takes pre-bookings by internet so it’s pretty much filled up for a week in advance.

Next, and last errand, was a quick visit to the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project ( First of all I dropped off all our empty plastic bottles. The charity, I assume, takes them for recycling which is a source of income.

The aim of this little place is simple – to get children off the beach selling things and instead sat down and learning, devloping useful skills. In this case their artistic talents. The resulting paintings are put up for sale at $4 each. When sold, half of the money goes to the child’s family and the other half to the charity.

I picked two paintings – one of the Cambodian flag and the other a beautiful little piece of a sunset by an obviously talented 14 year old. These will be in the post homeward-bound in the morning.

We both finished packing and checked out of Thida’s. My tuk-tuk was waiting, as was a French chap going the same way I was. I said my goodbyes to Claire. It was a real pleasure to spend time with her – and saved us both some cash to boot! I hope her sister and her fiancé enjoy Sihanoukville, and have better luck sorting accommodation!

The bus trip was fairly uneventful. Four hours almost on the nose and dropped off in Phnom Penh somewhere along the Russian Confederation Boulevard. Some walking and a lot of ignoring of tuk-tuk and moto drivers later I finally made it to the Okay Guest House.

Which was full.

Well, it was when I got there and two Dutch (I think) girls stepped out of a tuk-tuk. The guy on the desk offered to let us share a room with 4 beds between us for $5 each which was fine with me but, understandably perhaps, the girls weren’t too keen. Once they walked off I asked if there was anywhere else to stay nearby and was told “no”.

I was all ready to hoik my stuff all the way to the lakeside area when he then asked if a dorm was OK. A dorm was what I had been looking for in the first place. He sent someone with me to show me up and I took it. It’s very basic, but at $2 a night I don’t mind. I can last 3-4 nights in that if I have to.

Douglas Adams strikes again

Douglas Adams strikes again

The bed’s passably comfortable but doesn’t have any covers, just a slip and a pillow. There’s a stand-up fan at the foot which works, but no lights over the bed – I have my headlamp, though. Both power points work, so I can power the fan and my other stuff. My only quibble about the room itself is the lack of secure storage. I’ll just bury my laptop in the corner under my bed or carry it around all day.

Most inconvenient, though, is the location of the toilet. Downstairs, outside, round the back through a corridor where the staff sleep, into a courtyard and along to the end. Definitely not convenient at 3am when you’ve had a few beers too many. Which means I’ll save some dosh by not drinking too much. It’s also home to the cold shower and is shared by quite a few people which could get awkward.

I dropped my stuff and set off to find the Myanmar embassy so I’d know what time it opened in the morning. For those looking for it, it’s on Norodom Boulevard, but far to the south. It’s locaton is roughly correct in the 14th edition Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – but on the other side of the road from that indicated. You need to look at the full city map, not the central area one.

Annoyinglyu it is at number 181 as I’d discovered online. However, the numbers down the Boulevard are not sequential! On the way down I passed numbers 269, 161 and 189 – in that order – before reaching 181. It’s also set back about 10m from the roadside so at night you can’t read the small sign to know what it is.

Either way, it opens at 8am Monday to Friday so I’ll aim to get there early in the morning and see how quickly they can turn a visa around in.

Dinner. Astoundingly despite this being my third visit to Cambodia it’s the first time I’ve seen a KFC! So – according to tradition – I strolled right in and picked a meal from the menu. This must rate as the cheapest KFC I’ve yet found at $3 for a burger meal (no large size available). I opted for the Special Meal – a lump of chicken, one of the bite-size burgers, chips and a drink – for $2.30. Chickeny bargain.

For those with a hankering, it’s also on Norodom Boulevard, somewhere near the junction with Ph 214. It’s built onto a “Pencil” supermarket which I visited. Groceries are also very cheap in Phnom Penh…

Back to the hostel for an internet check. I was going to have a beer in the bar but it was jammed with people watching The Killing Fields. Instead, I walked to a nearby sports bar and had a quick beer and a read of my book. Then back to my dorm to type this lot up on the balcony while beginning to feel very homocidal towards flying ants. I’ve not seen to many since I was in Laos. Stupid creatures.

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Diving off Koh Koun

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

We didn’t get a chance to grab breakfast as Simon was already waiting for us when we rose at 8:00. We hopped onto the awaiting tuk-tuk and sped off towards the dock on the far side of town.

Well, when I say “sped” I mean “crawled”. Simon reckoned he’d got the only slow driver in all of Sihanoukville. The 15-minute journey took us close to 25, but we munched oranges and waved at schoolchildren as we ambled past them. Or they ambled past us.

The dock’s in a much poorer part of town than where we’re staying. All of the houses are wooden, the streets dirty, the people… smiling, happy and busy with life. The streets here pretty much sum up what I love about areas like this in Asia. People are happier with what they have than many westerners who have consumer goods flowing out of their ears.

At the dock, we hopped on board the Aqua Age and set off on the two-hour journey to Koh Rung Samleom where Simon now lives. The journey wasn’t too bad as the sea was calm and the boat not too fast. We had some breakfast (more fresh fruit, a cuppa and – for Claire – some fresh boiled eggs) then settled down on the roof to catch up on sleep. I don’t think I slept as such, just dozed on and off as I was too tired to read. The sun wasn’t too strong so I don’t think I managed to add to my existing sunburn.

I'm outta here...

I'm outta here...

The only real thing of note we passed on the way was a small island crowded with what looked like Thai buildings. It (and two other as yet undeveloped islands nearby) have been bought by Russians and are used as “holiday homes”. At $800 per night. At the cheap up. The top rooms are $3000. Bear in mind there are no beaches or anything on these islands and you have to wonder why anyone would pay those sums to stay in a country known for being cheap. Can anyone say “money laundering“?

We pulled into the crystal clear waters of the jetty at the other end of our journey. The rickety wooden walkway took us onto the beach where children were being washed by a water pump. A short walk away was the House That Simon (and Martin) Built. One of the locals (imaginatively christened “One-Hand” by Simon – I’ll let you guess why) gave us a hand… erm… helped us with the stuff we had to carry. At the house we were introduced to “Cook” who… look, you can guess.

It’s an impressive building. The open forecourt is destined to be a restaurant but currently just houses a few hammocks and a basic chair/table setup. There’s a bar built, but which doesn’t have any beer at it as yet. Instead, the air compressor is situated there until they find a better home for it. The dive kit is stored in the outdoor loo as it’s the only lockable structure they currently have! Nice loo, though. Western style but with a manual flush (i.e. you throw a pan of water down it).

We were also introduced to the two kittens – Tiger and TigerTwo. Neither had realised that Tiger was a boy cat… they thought they’d inherited two sisters. Both are cute as buttons, though, and really well behaved.

Blue and yellow

Blue and yellow

Martin was to be my guide for the day. He’s from Holland, but has been here for several weeks on his second visit. He’s helped Simon build the bungalows they rent out and the restaurant we were stood in. I’d not be able to help. As they have no working freezer or fridge, they can’t keep food fresh for long so they have to eat what’s local – which means fish five nights out of seven. Ick.

Talking of fish, time to go and see some. As ever, excuse my naff descriptions as I still need to learn how to identify more species. Both dives were to be off the coast of the nearby Koh Koun island. Much smaller than the main one and completely uninhabited. We swam out, fully kitted, to the boat and climbed aboard then set out for the first dive site. This was to be a drift dive – as it happened with a nice slow current.

There were plenty of fish on this dive, including a large group of oversized zebra-patterned angel fish. Very thin, but about the size of your head and not at all shy. We encountered around a dozen of them shortly after entering the water and despite traveling some distance in the hour we were under, still had one hovering near us until the point when we surfaced.

Martin pointed out many nudibranches and interesting coral formations as we drifted along. After an hour, we surfaced as we had to fit in lunch and a second dive before heading back to the mainland before dark. I’d taken my new underwater housing down with me (sans camera) and I’m glad to say it didn’t leak at all.

A view of the island

A view of the island

Lunch was a healthy pork and stir-fried veg (and fish for those who wanted it). The cats happily accepted anything they were offered, including rice. Claire staggered up to the house overjoyed at having dived for the first time. She didn’t think she’d be able to manage it, but it seems that Simon can be rather persuasive. She only went down to about 3m, but was more than happy with this achievement.

We left them to go on to our second dive, this one at a shallower depth within a bay to look at smaller things. Again, a short ride out and into the water. The visibility here wasn’t so good, but this wasn’t an issue as we were looking for small things fairly close up. With Martin’s help, I managed to spot a few more nudibranches (nothing to top the beautiful near-white one we’d seen in the morning though – a shame I didn’t have the camera then), some sea-horses, a crab, some huge starfish and the best of the lot… a small octopus hiding inside a discarded shell.

It took all the strength in Martin’s hands to prise the shell open so I could take some photos of the octopus. Eventually, it gave up, released the shell and jetted off leaving three “clouds” of ink in its wake. I was expecting the ink to be… well… inky. The image you get when someone describes it is of pen ink forming a cloud. It’s not. It’s stringy and clumpy. Regardless, I was very lucky to be pressing the shutter just as the octopus began its run for freedom and caught it just as it “inflated” its head. The picture should be around here somewhere.

I hasten to add that we didn’t damage anything down there. We found some beautiful smooth shells – which were placed back where we found them. Anything we lifted so we could see around or under it was replaced. And the octopus will find another shell, I’m sure.

After the hour mark, we again surfaced and our captain picked us up. Enough time for a quick kit wash at the house, and back on the boat for our journey home. Martin accompanied us – his first trip to the mainland for over a week. He had to run back to get shoes as he forgot he’d need them!

Look at those colours

Look at those colours

I got some cracking shots of the sunset and we tuk-tuk’d back to the guest house for shortly before 19:00. I ran round to Scuba Nation to cancel my dives for tomorrow (and lost my deposit – hey-ho), had a shower and then we tootled off for dinner. Diving does give me an appetite and we decided to go for Monkey Republic again. After their promising show with the excellent breakfast, we reckoned their dinners would be OK. We weren’t wrong.

I had to finish Claire’s enormous chicken burger on top of my chicken strips and chips. And banana and chocolate shake. We each spent a paltry $5 including drinks on some ace grub. Two meals each, two full stomachs and two sets of taste buds saying “go to Monkey Republic if you’re in Sihanoukville and want superb food at a fantastic price”.

After some internet checkage, we went back to Thida’s where I checked on bus times. Think I’ll go direct to Phnom Penh tomorrow. If I’m really lucky I might make it there in time to get my Burmese visa application in early. Sooner the better. I’ve done Phnom Penh twice before so there’s not a lot there for me to see and do.

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