Inle Lake

This is a 2017 post and not a 2014 post like most of the others. Having run out of money and going home to be adults and work for a while we saved our pennies and came back to Myanmar. This time to catch the bits we missed and see some of the things that were under construction or renovation on the first trip through. And the big ticket item that we missed was Inle Lake.

Jill was looking for a bit of pampering on this leg so the accommodation was significantly more extravagant than we normally use. We stayed at the Novotel and to be fair…it was both very nice and well priced for what it was. As usual in a western hotel in Asia…the food sucked. The buffet breakfast was good but the a-la-carte fusion thing just never works and this was no exception.  But it had (as I have been told) the bathtub to die for, a swim up pool and views across the lake that really shone at around sunset.

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The lake itself is about 26 km long and 10 km wide at the widest point. And Dr Google tells me that there are about thirty species of snails and fish that can be found nowhere else in the world. But for most of us it is just pretty. The commuting by longboat water taxis makes for an interesting time and there is so much to see and do around the area. That said, it will cost you a lot of money to do it (especially by Myanmar standards).

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Everything here is more expensive. The taxis, the boats, the food, the beer…everything. And this is without even factoring in the Novotel factor (which adds extra onto the bill if  they find out where you are staying). But it is pretty and is certainly worth the  trip.

A major factor of interest around Inle Lake is the rolling markets. The markets alternate on a five day cycle between the little townships and villages along the shore (Heho, Nyaungshwe, Taunggyi, Minethauk, Shwenyaung). This means that every morning you can head off by boat to a new township and see a different market. There is the obvious tourist junk that is at every one of the markets, but there is also a local flavour to each of them and each one is just a little bit different.

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The other thing of note with the rolling markets is the sheer beauty of taking  the boat rides to get to them. Needless to say over the years we have been to any number of floating villages. For the most part these have  been tourist traps designed to part you from your dollars. But here on Inle lake, they are almost all floating villages. It is not a gimmick it is the lifestyle…and it is charming. So the boat rides to the various markets see you riding along past ramshackle residences and shops all perched on stumps above the water.

Another major attraction of coming to the lake is to meet with the Kayan people of Myanmar. For those  that do not know they are the group that place brass coils around their neck. Most often they have been seen on the Thailand border (having fled the former fighting) the Kayan people have largely migrated back closer to their original home base. They have been referred to in any number of ways, that not surprisingly they find  somewhat offensive. Names like giraffe women and long neck women are less than appreciated. They are however  more  than comfortable being referred to as the ladies with the long elegant necks.

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Another unique thing about the lake is the local fishermen and their rowing style. They perch on the edge of these insanely narrow and shallow boats while casting and retrieving  fishing nets and simultaneously rowing the boat using their legs. This is a sight not to be missed and for us mere mortals, a zen like demonstration of both concentration and balance. The fishermen come in two varieties…the actual fishermen who use modern nets and the touristy ones that use bamboo nets as perhaps was done once upon a time.  The second type just do it to pose for tourist photos and stage capturing fish by throwing them into their nets after the fact. Both types are highly entertaining.

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And lets not be silly…it is Myanmar so there is no shortage of stupas, pagodas, temples and monasteries to go to. The lake is littered with them. You can cruise the lake stopping at any one that you like.

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And other than this…almost everything that you can imagine happens on the water. The weeds are harvested manually and are used for fertiliser for crops. The lake itself is turned into a massive hydroponic tomato cropping area.  The lake bed is dredged manually for dirt and building materials, the banks are used to distil rice down into what passes for the local hooch. In short there are so very many things to see and do on Inle Lake.

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But the most impressive of all…is the people. This is as true for Inle Lake as it has been throughout Myanmar. It is impossible to walk down the street without being met with a huge smile and somebody greeting you with the local “Mingalabar”.  This is even more evident with the little ones. Shy kids (generally) under the age of 4 will be beaming and waving as you go past. They will try a ‘hello’ if they are old enough or they will merely beam a huge smile and wave.

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And lastly, as we always do…we eat local. We ignore the hotels and we find dodgy little shacks to eat at.  Our options this time around were a little limited as we were in an out of the way location. But a short 2km walk away was the long jetty at Maing Thauk. This is the location that you could come to to get a boat for the day if you did not want to add  the ‘Novotel’ premium to your price. But it is also the location of some local fare that is just delicious. The jetty itself is quite the tourist  attraction and makes for some stunning sunset photographs along with some very tense moments in the dark as you wander along in the pitch blackness hoping not to hear a big splash meaning that Jill or I has hit the water.

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But we didn’t…and we found about 4 different restaurants along the jetty serving local food, cold beer and heapings of smiles and hospitality. Plates give way to lily leaves and the local salads come to the fore. The local avocados are the smoothest and creamiest that I have ever tasted and the other offerings that they put forward are tough to beat. And needless to say, for a village on the lake…they know how to cook a really good fish. We tried many incantations of the fish and they were magnificent.

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So if you are a traveller looking for a place to come, Inle Lake should be high on a list. It is on the pricey side (activities) for those on a tight budget but it is definitely worth a look…if you can swing 5-6 days here you will get to sample each of the townships and the markets. The big hotels are well priced  by western standards (half to one third of back home) for the rooms but comparable on the food and drinks.

 

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We live in WA now…

So we are here…in Perth…it has been a monster journey and we have seen and done so very much along the way.  Before we get into the world of Perth we will have a little summary of what it is we have done in the preceding 18 months…

We both left well paying jobs in Canberra to share our adventure together.

Overseas – We ran away offshore and spent 433 days backpacking through Asia. Hit 13 different countries, slept in 121 different cities and visited many more. We saw sights, climbed mountains, and sampled the local foods, beverages and culture at every step of the way.

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Australia – We bought a new car, drove almost the full height north to south and did drive the full width east to west. We saw family and friends and even tried living in a tiny remote town. All up we drove over 14,000 kms in a 8-9 week window and that included a 3-5 week block of time in the middle where we went nowhere.

normanton to perth

We got back to Australia with nothing but each other and debts… within a reasonably short period of time…we both found well paying jobs again, have cleared our debts and have racked up a wide variety of experiences along the way. I guess the moral of this story, for us at least, is that it is very possible to run away, give up all semblance of our former lives and careers and leave everything behind. Then once you have sampled sections of the globe you can come back, settle in a new place, both start new careers, in different industries, earning collectively as much if not more than you were before…and not miss a beat.

And now life continues…

We left the last post with us having driven into Perth and with me job and house hunting. Jill’s new job was working for an aged care company and as we rolled into town they gave us bridging accommodation within one of their facilities while we found a place to live. In short…we were living in a retirement village.

To be fair I had no concept, knowledge or experience of what a retirement village was like and my knowledge was limited to TV shows that depicted depressing, institutionalised looking places that looked like hell on earth. Jill had long been interested in this area as the boom area of the future and over the last decade we had embarked upon numerous conversations about the future of aged care.

These conversations led to the facts that with the retirement of the baby boomers and the first real generation of self funded retirees coming through that the industry focus has been shifting from the stereotypical versions I had imagined to an almost hospitality model where the client is used to levels of service and value for money.

Clubhouse 2And this is what we found… We stayed in a manager’s unit that was centrally located within a retirement village above “the clubhouse”. They are not called retirement villages but rather they are independent living units but for my purposes retirement village works just fine. In reality it was a suburb of about 160 townhouses surrounding a centralised community area. Each townhouse was freestanding, fully independent and spectacularly maintained and the communal area had the clubhouse that contained a gym, library, pool, bowling green, putt putt course, pool table, art and craft rooms, an industrial kitchen and heaps of dining and recreation space.

Being independent units, the cooking was generally conducted in your own home but each Saturday they would hold an optional communal event for those that wished to attend. This was organised by the residents and rotated each week. There were raffles, drinks and pleasant company and for about $5 they organised various food option nights…things like fish and chips, chicken, pizza etc. On the odd night about once a month they held a special night when some of the ‘menfolk’ took over the kitchen and prepared a monster feast.

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Every afternoon at 3pm (just after the scratch lawn bowls game) the bar would open in the clubhouse and beer, wine and soft drink was available for the ridiculous prices of $1 for a wine and $2 for a beer can or bottle. Needless to say that after job and house hunting through the day, this became a regular home for me while Jill was still at work. And of course my beer sampling continued…including some uniquely  local brews.

While we were on average 15- 20 years younger than everyone else we found some great friends here and were inspired by what life in such a village was actually like. While having a beer one evening I casually inquired about golf. By noon the next day somebody had sourced a set of loaner clubs for me and a group of us headed out to the local course for 18 holes.

People there basically kept doing the things that they had done and enjoyed before moving in. But now they shared the activity for those that may be interested. We met a lady that was a fitness instructor before she retired and she became the host of water aerobic sessions each morning for those that wanted it. There was workshops and now men’s sheds for the wood and metal workers, sewing  and knitting rooms. It was all organised by the people there and they were all ‘opt in’.

In short it was great and led to the why wouldn’t you get into one of these joints as soon as you turn 55 (the eligibility for entry) conversations.

perth aerialAnyway…I found us a place to live a job for me. Our home is walking distance to everything the CBD has to offer and has a restaurant strip walking distance in the other direction. We are about 250 meters from the Swan River as the crow flies and half way across the the river is Heirisson Island (a landscaped nature reserve) that contains a mob of Western Grey Kangaroos. This is a favourite for tourists as it is a leisurely 2km circuit walk around the island and you are almost guaranteed to see the roos.

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Perth waterfront is lined with parkland and green space which means at most angles looking either in or out from the city the views are stunning.  On the city side is Langley Park, a 900m x 100m rectangular open park that was used as an airstrip in the 1920’s and is now used to host any number of riverside events. On the south Perth side is Sir James Mitchell Park which was named after the 13th Premier of WA and the park is similarly used. There are running and cycling tracks along the length of both sides and huge open areas that are full each weekend.

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On the western end of the city atop mount Eliza is Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre park on the fringe of the city that is made up of grassed parkland, botanical gardens and 2/3 of the grounds are conserved native bushland. From here you can see some of the best views of Perth and for a short period I got the opportunity to work closely with the CEO of the park and set up my makeshift office out of the boardroom of the park…with magnificent views overlooking the city and the distractions of random backpackers stripping down to bikinis to soak up the WA sunshine…right outside my window.

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So we settled in…started bashing our debts over the head and in less than a year we were back in the black and saving for our next adventure…We will keep blogging as we go… we have fallen in love with the beauty and variety that the West of our country has to offer…and rightfully so.

 

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Nullarbor to Perth

Well we left off the last post with us on the Nullarbor Plain doing the drive from east to west. We had just left South Australia and had entered what we found out was an entirely new time zone (The Central Western Time Zone) that we had never known existed. This differential messed with my mind more than anything before…I just could not work out what was going on. Having left the east coast during the end of summer daylight savings time applied in some states and had finished in others but none of this was the issue.

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Nullarbor Plain

The move to SA was a known 30 minutes difference and Perth was a known 2-3 hr time difference depending on the daylight savings component. We knew we were to be driving around 800kms, how long that would take and what time it would be in both SA where we had left and Perth where we were headed…we knew all times but in the middle there is this random 45 minute time zone… and none of the maths computed in my head.  Ignoring the time zone issues we kept heading west and eventually we found ourselves in a zone that allowed my tiny mind to operate again.

As you drive across the Nullarbor there are any number of random roads or dirt tracks that spill off to the left. These take you to the ocean and the Great Australian Bight which primarily is a really long cliff face around 60 meters tall ….randomly dotted along the road are surfing beaches and viewing platforms. These side roads are a good distraction to what can be a long drive and some of the scenery along the way is unrivaled.

The other major distraction on an almost 48 hour drive from east to west is The Nullarbor Links. This is an 18-hole par 72 golf course that exists between the WA town of Kalgoorlie and Ceduna in South Australia. This stretches a distance of 1,365 kilometres and the holes are located in the various towns and roadhouses that you hit along the way and equipment can be hired at each.

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The Nullarbor Links golf course

The concept was developed to give travelers a reason to stop and spend more time and money at towns and roadhouses that they may otherwise just blast past at 110kph. Some of the holes are at actual golf courses at either end while others have been designed to show off the local landscapes and wildlife. Some of these also provide degrees of difficulty for the golf game. Some of the highlights include:
  •  Hole 4 – Nundroo (the wombat hole) has the biggest population of the Southern hairy-nosed wombat in Australia.
  • Hole 5 – Nullarbor Roadhouse (Dingo’s Den) reinforced with dingo traps and scrap iron.
  • Hole 8 – Mundrabilla one of the world’s largest meteorite sites
  • Hole 10 – Cocklebiddy Motel a series of interesting cave systems

When you hit the border of SA and WA you come across a compulsory agricultural checkpoint and a little joint called border village. Just south of Border village is the Bunda Cliffs which at the right time of year (between May and October) provides views of the Southern Right Whales and in between times gives views of 90 metre tall perpendicular limestone cliffs alongside the Southern Ocean.

Having crossed into WA we then passed through a range of towns such as Mundrabila, Madura, Cocklebiddy, Caiguna, Balladonia, Fraser Range and Norseman. At Norseman you get to make a choice…head north to Kalgoorlie-Boulder or head south to Esperance. Having seen enough desert and barren landscapes we chose to head south and do the scenic coastal route into Perth.

This is a straight steal from the WA tourist website but it is about as accurate as it gets for the area around Esperance.

  • A beach and nature-lover’s dream, Esperance is blessed with squeaky-clean beaches, turquoise waters, untouched islands and colour-filled wildflower country. Among its most famous beauty spots is Australia’s whitest beach, Lucky Bay – set against a stunning seascape of 110 islands of the Recherche Archipelago, even the kangaroos can’t resist lounging here.
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Esperance Jetty Sunset

In 1979, the space station skylab fell to earth with pieces of it landing across WA and in the vicinity of Esperance. In typical Australian style the mayor of Esperance issued a $400 fine to NASA for littering. Leaving Esperance we headed along the coastline taking a series of relatively similar photographs as we came across bay after bay of white sand, crystal clear water  and stunning scenery.

From here we headed to Albany stopping along the way at the the Valley of the Giants Treetop Walk. This is a 600m walkway 40m in the air meandering through the canopy of some of the largest tress around. The Karri trees and forests of the southwest of WA are truly amazing.Huge trees with massive circumferences and even though you may be 40m up… the trees soar above you for almost as much again. To be honest even the drive to get to these giants is wonderful but getting out and wandering along gives an entirely different perspective. From here we were an overnight stay and a short drive from the place that would be our home for the next few weeks.

So we had a sleep and did the last 400kms into Perth. This leg involved :

  • Madura to Esperance – 730kms
  • Esperance to Albany – 480kms and
  • Albany to Perth 417kms

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So pulling into Perth we headed straight for the accommodation that Jill’s work had lined up for us during our transition. It was in the Southern suburbs 50km south of Perth. It hasn’t been mentioned yet but Jill’s new job was a high ranking position with an aged care company here in WA. So of course the accommodation provided was a manager’s unit at one of the facilities.

So for the next 3-4 weeks we became residents of an old folks home.

As Jill does she flew straight into work and I was tasked with the jobs of finding us a place to live and finding myself a job. So it started…we scoured the real estate websites and went to open homes…basically hunting for some semblance of area familiarity. We had a brunch with my cousin who has lived here her whole life. Met her husband and child and got some tips as to good areas to look.

Subiaco was the first port of call, close to town and full of cafes and restaurants…one attempt at finding a carpark and a wander down the street surrounded by wannabe hipsters and I decided that Subiaco would not be for us. If I continually saw  perfectly gelled hair, bowties, button up cardigans with skinny jeans, Ned Kelly beards and twirly moustaches…then I would likely as not punch one of them…martijn

The next port of call was Scarborough Beach…neither of us had lived by the beach and we thought it might be worth a try. So while Jill worked I bounced around the laziest and least interested real estate agents on the planet. Bearing in mind that we were 50km south in the suburbs…each day was quite the trek. As the mining boom had flooded the WA economy…prices were through the roof and demand had been so high that people were knocking each other over to pay over the asking price. As such the real estate agents got complacent and when the mining money dried up prices plummeted and the attitudes needed adjusting.

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We found a great place about 200 meters from the beach and put in our application…and waited…and waited…no word…so I rang and asked…no response…so we kept looking…we checked out other suburbs and got a sense of where would be good to live. We found a nice place, walking distance to town and signed up straight away…renting straight from the owners (more about this next post).

Three days later we got a phone call congratulating us that we had got the first place by the beach. This was almost 3 full weeks after we first saw the property. We declined and made comment about the lack of service provided. A month later on and this place was still on the market and the asking price for rent had dropped by about $25 a week. I wonder if the owner knows that if it had not been for the ineptitude and laziness of his estate agents that they would have had 12 months of guaranteed rent.

 

 

 

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Far North Queensland to South Australia

Well we left the last post with us living in Normanton having sprayed the job markets with applications… with a job for me back in Canberra in limbo. Normanton is a great town to visit and this part of the country is truly stunning. The wildlife was mentioned in the last post and the sunsets and summer storms are amazing things to experience. This ‘great place to visit’ concept didn’t really translate to ‘great place to live’ though. The gossiping nature of the town added to the lack of food options and work opportunities for me was becoming problematic and there really was not too much to do unless you became a recreational fisherman who battles the crocodiles in your own boat to fight for the Barramundi. This is great for a little while…but…

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At one point Jill had to travel to Perth to (in the Australian vernacular) ‘see a man about a dog’. So she asked if I could drop her off and pick her up from the airport. As the airport was about 2 kilometers from our house I saw no issue with this and on the Thursday I dropped her off with the collection to be on Saturday at 5pm. As she was getting out of the car she mentioned that collection was …in Cairns…For those that do not know Cairns is about 700km and 8 hours driving east of Normanton.

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So Jill had booked me accommodation in Cairns on Friday night and kept the room for us on the Saturday. I was to drive 8 hrs on Friday…put the car in to get cruise control fitted…pick the car up the next morning and pick Jill up at 5pm that afternoon before having a meal and a sleep then driving the 8 hrs back to Normanton. The upside to this driving was that I got to do the first section of the Savannah Way. This has been described as the ultimate road trip in in Australia. It starts in Cairns in Queensland and can be followed 3700 km all the way to Broome in Western Australia.  And the first section at least…is stunning.

As you drive around Australia you are met with a range of road signs. Most of these are benign, some are crucial to obey, others are amusing and the ones we saw between Gympie and Maryborough were just clever. In an attempt to combat driver fatigue the Qld Government had instigated roadside trivia to keep people alert. You come across a sign asking a question and about 5-10 kms later the sign with the answer appears. It is a great initiative that both gets the mind going and also makes you watch out while you seek the answer. Along the same theme…the drive into Cairns along the Savannah Way saw us pass a fatigue sign that unfortunately I did not photograph. But it read…

Tired – Take a break

Dopey – Just keep smiling

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While I had driven both legs of the Cairns run…Jill had flown back and forward to Perth and sat through an 8 hour drive…a pretty big few days by most peoples standards.  On the Monday morning I dropped Jill at work where she handed in her resignation notice which thankfully was able to be expedited. She rang me at 9:30am on the Monday saying that today was her last day and that we could go…I was to pack the house and we would be moving. On top of fully packing and cleaning the house, I got another call telling me that I had to mow the lawn at the loaner house so that there was nothing outstanding for her workmates to deal with upon our departure. So by the time I picked her up at 5pm the house was cleaned, lawn mowed, chuck the truck packed with every item we had brought or purchased and we were primed to leave first thing the next morning.

We were up and about and ready to leave by 6am…but the service station in town did not open until 9 am. The nearest town heading south is Cloncurry and it was 400km away and we had 1/4 of a tank of fuel and a fully laden truck…Half way between Normanton and Cloncurry is the Bourke and Wills Roadhouse. This is one of the most remote petrol stations in Australia. It was early, it was cool and we didn’t feel like treading water for the next 3 hrs. So we turned off the air conditioning on the truck and set off hoping that we could make it the 200kms to the roadhouse.

  

On a side note…as you drive around Australia you tend to find a large range of Australia’s fauna (generally on the side of the road as roadkill) and depending on where you are will depend upon the squished animals that you see. The experienced nomad could probably identify their location by the number type and frequency of the roadkill.

In the central stretch between Longreach to Cloncurry and a little further north you come across a large number of termite mounds. Long desolate drives and the Australian sense of humour has led to the practice of dressing up termite mounds. As you head north you will find any number of these mounds that have been dressed up with random items of clothing. There are hundreds of them…Bored drivers stop, raid their wardrobe and clothe lumps of dirt… and some of them are very funny. I believe a similar phenomenon takes place in the Northern Territory.

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Anyway…we made the roadhouse, refueled and kept driving. As we had stopped in Cloncurry on the way up we blasted past (pausing at the bakery for breakfast) and stopped in Winton where we visited the Walzing Matilda Centre (this burnt down about 3-4 months later) and then kept going until 910kms away from Normanton in we stopped in Longreach. After being robbed blind in Longreach with both accommodation and a meal at the local RSL (gone are the days of cheap meals at the RSL) we crashed and the next day I got to visit the bits I wanted to see on the way up. We started at the Stockmans Hall of Fame, which fittingly saw a kangaroo jumping in front of our truck as we drove in. From here we hopped over to the QANTAS Founders Outback Museum and once we had seen these we then got back on the road and ripped out almost 700kms back to Rockhampton.

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Outside Longreach is a little town called Ilfracombe that has a nice little display of old machinery. Trucks, tractors, tankers, cranes, firetrucks, graders…pretty much anything that you can think of. It has a population of under 200 people but is a pretty little town and is worth pausing in rather than just blasting past.
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So we arrived in Rockhampton and our preceding week looked like this:Map4

  • Thursday – Jill flies to Perth
  • Friday – Richard drives to Cairns – 700kms
  • Saturday – Jill flies back from Perth
  • Sunday – Both drive back to Normanton – 700 kms
  • Monday – Jill works – Richard packs and cleans the house
  • Tuesday – Both drive Normanton to Longreach – 910 kms
  • Wednesday – Visit sites and then drive to Rockhampton – 700 kms

We got to Rocky and crashed with our mates Boof and Bec and hung with the kids. Given the preceding week we thought we would stop for a couple of days and then keep moving… until I learned that there was a rugby trial game on the Saturday and that Boof was the president of the club. So we hung for a few extra days. Training days, function preparation Hangiand match day followed by a hangi (native NZ Maori pit cooking). For those that do not know the Hangi involves digging a pit in the ground, heating the stones in the pit with a large fire, placing baskets of meat and veg on top of the stones, and covering everything with earth for several hours before uncovering. Boof and I first did this together many years earlier when I stood next to him at their wedding. The reality is that his Kiwi mates have the skills and we were little more than labour…nothing has changed…however even the labour level reduced this time around.

When we finally left Rockhampton on the Sunday we headed south towards Brisbane stopping at the Walkabout Creek Hotel. This is the pub that was used in the movie Crocodile Dundee and is in the town of McKinlay about 120 kilometres southwest of Gladstone. We got to Brisbane that evening having put another 650 kms of driving under our belt. For the second time in a couple of months we said our goodbyes to family and friends and headed off to our next port of call. As it happens Jill had found employment in Perth in one of those spray the world with job applications things. Perth is a major city…so my job options immediately skyrocketed.

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So in an all too familiar pattern we headed to Canberra to collect more things that we would need for job hunting from our storage shed. Needless to say I did not grab suits and ties from the storage shed the first time around when I was headed to Normanton. My Canberra job option was crawling along so I kept rolling along with Jill.

As we were heading down the first time we stopped in a little town called Young where we stayed with Jills cousin Andrew and his family. The same night her other cousins Louise and Brett were headed to the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne. So we all descended on Andrew’s farm, surrounded by what seemed like about 7 families worth of kids. Together we had an evening of drinks, BBQ  and generally good company and conversation. As part of this we learned that another of  Jill’s many cousins, Ash, had  recently bought a pub in the town of Harden, not too far out of Canberra.

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As it turns out, Ash and I had played rugby against each other many years earlier as 19 year olds,  we have mutual friends through both school and rugby and when the Queensland Reds would play in Canberra he would come to town and we would head off  together to watch the footy. So stopping in was an obvious thing. What we found was a night of good company and a charming old
country hotel.

CBR to MilduraInto Canberra, a few more days catching up with friends, raiding the storage shed and planning our road trip to Perth. And then we were off. First day we did an 800 km hike to the lovely town of Mildura. I had been here before back when I was about 20 when Boof (from Rockhampton) and my cousin Andrew (the one we met in Beijing) went on a boys road trip. This was a 3 week rampage that had zero cultural elements to it…but some stories that endure to this day. One of these was when we pulled into Mildura and headed into the Working Mans Club. Our night started brilliantly as we learned that at the time it had the longest bar in the world which had 127 taps, and a $12 special on lobster (well river crayfish/fat yabby version…but close enough).

Being 20 and infinitely full of wisdom we decided that we would drink our way around the bar…fairly early on the three of us decided that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. Not willing to give up too early we reassessed and decided that if we each had one from a tap that we as a team could encircle the bar.  Drinking from every third tap still meant we would have to drink over 40 beers each…and we had all raided the first 6 or so taps…needless to say that we battled valiantly…and failed miserably.

CBR-SBBack on the road the next morning and we ripped out another 924 kms to the South Australian town of Streaky Bay. On the West Coast of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, Streaky Bay is a stunning spot with three stunning scenic drives covering this section of the Great Australian Bight: Westall Way Loop, Cape Bauer Loop and the Point Labatt Sea Lion Scenic Drive. So we stayed at the pub for a couple of nights. Overlooking the water and jetty, ate good food, relatively well priced,  wandered the streets, admired the old school stone buildings, did the tourist drives and had what was becoming an all too familiar conversation.

Streaky Bay 1 Streaky Bay 12 Streaky Bay Pier

We had fallen in love with yet another small charming Australian country town. So the conversation generally starts with us staring into a real estate agents window and pining for the comparative value to be had in what we have determined was a charming town. We look in the window and find great places, on great blocks, with great views for way less that you could buy the crappiest of places within a major city. At this point our bottom lips start to pout…for as great as the town is…there needs to be employment opportunities…and alas so few of these charming little places offer such things.

sb-madura

Anyway…Back on the road. We did 782 kms from Streaky Bay to Madura passing through famous towns like Ceduna and Bordertown and driving across the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor Plain is the section of land between Norseman in Western Australia and Ceduna in South Australia. “Crossing the Nullarbor”, is one of those quintessential experiences that every true Australian should do at some point. I had done it as a child with my parents but that doesn’t count.

The first thing that you realise when you do this drive is that everything that you had expected and imagined about the Nullarbor Plain is wrong. I expected to be driving through a dry, desolate and largely spartan wasteland…I expected hours of barren plains…what I found could not be further from the truth. It is a truly amazing drive. Sure there are sections of dry and desolate… most notably the treeless plain. But for the most part it is pretty, there is a roadhouse every 200 kms or so and a heap of tourist drives off to the south that drop you onto the stunning cliffs and inlets of the Great Australian Bight.

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normanton-madura

So this little section has seen the following run of driving…

  • Normanton to Cairns – 700kms
  • Cairns to Normanton – 700 kms
  • Normanton to Longreach – 910 kms
  • Longreach to Rockhampton – 700 kms
  • Rockhampton to Brisbane – 650 kms
  • Brisbane to Canberra – 1250 kms
  • Canberra to Mildura – 800 kms
  • Mildura to Streaky Bay -924 kms
  • Streaky Bay to Madura – 782 kms

And we are still not there yet…

 

 

Categories: Australia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back in Australia – Queensland – The first 2 months

This is a post that was not intended, however over dinner one evening Jill and I were reflecting on the year that we had experienced since our return to Australia. The first and most obvious issue was that of getting ourselves re-employed and all our debts paid off. This, as it happened, proved much easier than expected.  Other major issues were the change of mindset between travelling and staying put. Seeing family was great but the itchy feet after 4-8 days is something that took some serious adjustment.  But let’s do this systematically.

We arrived back in Australia in late December 2014 to find that our blog had already told everyone what we had been up to. This translated to a general pleasure that we were home but none of the fussing and storytelling that would normally accompany the return from such a journey. This was highly understandable and simultaneously both a blessing and a touch disappointing.  So we were a short term novelty and then life carried on.

FamilyBut we were in our home town, surrounded by family, just in time for the boy’s birthday and the family Christmas celebrations. We set up camp at my sister’s house and revelled in the Queensland summer with her pool as a get out of jail free card from the humidity.  We ate, we drank, we caught up with family and friends, and generally just got back in the swing of being in Australia.

We had some relatively minor bills (and of course a mortgage) when we landed home and no jobs to service them… Back to the real world I guess.  Having travelled for so long and not having had a home to speak of we were not fixed on any single location. So we did a deal, “First one to get a good job wins”.  So we both applied furiously for any job we could think of or that amused us. Jill of course won this…twice.

The first win was for her to obtain a job as a clinical team leader in the town of Normanton in far north Queensland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was an almost a six figure job that had the benefit of having a 4 bedroom house thrown into the package. I had a job offer back at my former employer (and back in Canberra) but my security clearance was going to take a while to get back. Her job was only for 6 months and mine would take a while to come through, so the initial plan was to stay together in the interim and potentially live apart for a little while as things settled themselves…. so off we went.

normantonBeing in the outback and in the Gulf of Carpentaria we figured Normanton would pose some logistical transportation problems so to overcome this we decided to buy ourselves the dreaded and long avoided 4WD vehicle. This is something that neither of us ever wanted and in fact both hated as we were used to seeing pristine versions of 4WDs that had never touched dirt and were solely used for dropping children off at schools and screwing up shopping centre carparks.

Anyway… the search was on…we looked around and googled furiously which allowed us to find out that almost every one of the vehicles on the market have very few if any 4WD credentials. The list of vehicles that could actually be used in an off road capacity was very short. The obvious Toyota versions were excellent; however the price was on average $6000 more than for any other vehicle on the credible list. So after some hunting, and some quite entertaining lessons being learned along the way we settled on a Ford Ranger.

Jill has always had a habit of naming her vehicles and as such the new 4WD needed a name. So we thought of famous Fords and famous rangers…Henry and Lone just weren’t cutting it…the obvious one came up as Walker Texas Ranger…but we felt that the concept of calling a mode of transport “Walker” was a poor omen. BUT…the character was played by the infamous and seemingly indestructible “Chuck Norris”. This was seen as a good omen…so the name took care of itself…Chuck the Truck.

Chuck the Truck   Map 10  Chuck the truck 1

This started what turned out to be a few months of marathon driving efforts. The first little leg was to head to Canberra to collect some clothes as all we had was dirty and grotty backpacker gear. Not really appropriate for job hunting and Jill starting work. So we headed down to raid the storage shed that held our stuff.

  • Brisbane to Narrabri – 570 kms
  • Narrabri to Canberra – 705 kms
  • Canberra to Brisbane – 1250 kms
  • And back – 1250 kms

So a 2500 km round trip just to pick up some stuff. We saw friends, had good meals and generally caught up with people we had been missing over the preceding 16 months. Cruising around the ACT did give us that overwhelming “groundhog day” sensation.

Anyway, back to Brisbane to say goodbye to the families and start the next leg of the journey. A stop in Rockhampton  on the way to see one of my oldest and best mates and his family (including my godson). Jill, being her father’s daughter, turns into a machine when she drives. So leaving Rockhampton we passed through some historic Australian outback towns Emerald, Barcaldine, Longreach (home to the QANTAS Founders Outback Museum and the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame), Winton (the home of the Australian dinosaur fossils including the Australovenator wintonensis known affectionately as Banjo).

Dino

Did I mention that Jill turns into a machine when its time to drive…all of these historic sites were blasted past at over 100km/h and stops were only allowed for fuel. So after 1215 kms of straight driving from Rockhampton saw us begrudgingly stopping at Cloncurry for a feed and a night at the pub. The next morning we were up, fed and on the road for the last 400km to Normanton.

  • Brisbane to Rockhampton – 650 kmsMap 2
  • Rockhampton to Cloncurry – 1215 kms
  • Cloncurry to Normanton – 400 kms

So lets set the Normanton scene…Normanton is a small country town of 1100 people 60% of who are indigenous. Being seasoned travelers, we hit the travel sites to see what to expect from the town of Normanton and found that it was to be an incredibly entertaining place. There was three major attractions

  • a concrete crocodile,
  • a train that runs once a week (in the right season) and
  • an aboriginal art shop

The number one restaurant in town was a take away shop called the “Gobble’N’Go” which along with the 3 pubs, saw the place fed.

croc  barramundi  GobbleNGo

So leaving Cloncurry in the morning we got into town around noon on the Friday and had a few days to get settled before Jill had to start work. We got the keys to our included house and unpacked in 42 degree temperatures before meeting some of Jill’s future workmates at one of the pubs for dinner (this was to become a regular Friday evening thing). A few chats about employment opportunities for me took place but jobs were scarce and my skill set was not exactly highly sought after. house

The next day I met some locals at the PCYC (opposite our house) and was told of a cricket game to take place the next day. So off I went on the Sunday to immerse myself into the town as quickly as I could. Before you could blink, it was 43 degrees on a Sunday morning and I was playing in a game of cricket in a strange town and losing bodily fluids at a pace that was previously thought impossible.

Jill started her job on the Monday and I spent the next few days arranging all of the logistical things that were needed. Little things that nobody who grew up in cities ever thought to consider. Things like a PO Box because the town was too small to have mail delivery, or internet dongles as there was no connections to anywhere in town. The main issue was to change my telco supplier to Telstra as no other carrier provided any service to the area. This meant that my bills went up and my service levels went down…but I did have coverage within the town.

IMG_4682  Krys  IMG_4652

Krys the Croc – Is the highlight of the town and is the replica of an 8.63 metre crocodile that was shot on the banks of the Norman River near the town. It was shot in July 1957 by Krys Pawlowski, a 30 year old Polish immigrant. There is much skepticism as to the legitimacy of the claim. But if it is to be true then this thing is truly a dinosaur.

Our time in Normanton was highly educational both in terms of country life and especially about the sort of characters that reside in such towns. The lack of activity and the seemingly innate need to gossip was something that did not sit well with me but gossip and petty squabbling did seem to be the main activity of the town. We tripped around a bit, headed up to  the Gulf of Carpentaria where the prawn trawlers come in (Karumba), had meals at the famous Sunset Tavern and discovered that in the far north…cows eat cars. We found out of the way little places like the aptly named ‘Pub in the Scrub’ and stood amazed by the sheer variety and diversity of the wildlife.

Cows eat Cars IMG_4668 Sunset Tavern Karumba

The town was full of birds of prey and the sight of wedge tailed eagles, falcons, harriers, hawks and kites was commonplace. But the drive north to Karumba introduced me to the Jabiru which when seen taking off in the wild with an 8 foot wing span is seriously impressive. So too is seeing a wedge tailed eagle launching away from whatever roadkill the trucks have left behind.

Wedge tailed eagle  Jabiru  1

The road kill comment is possibly an interesting time to mention the sheer size of some of the vehicles that we encountered in our journey throughout the outback of Australia. Wiki tells me that Australia has the largest and heaviest road-legal vehicles in the world,with some vehicles towing up to 200 tonnes. This means little to most of us however for the city folk out there seeing a semi-trailer is commonplace, a  BDouble too is fairly common but the double road train is less frequent but still not rare.

2Above this you start to see things like triples, AB-quads (B double with two additional trailers coupled behind) and full quads. These almost only operate on remote highways but do pose some serious overtaking challenges, particularly as the biggest trucks extend beyond the 50 metre mark or 174 feet. While these trucks are seriously long…they are nothing when compared to the trains that operate between Rockhampton and the coalfields. Trains of 100 wagons is commonplace and recently a record was set with one train having 136 wagons with a total length of 2.3 kilometres. Thankfully these run parallel to the roads and do not need to be passed or overtaken.

 

road train  Train  road train1

 

gulflander

 

Categories: Australia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Journey summarised

Well the initial adventure (the planned one at least) is over…As we have landed back in a country with no ties and a world of opportunities ahead of us…as such the adventure will continue. We will keep the BLOG going and will continue to push the boundaries of exploration but perhaps in a more localized manner…So before the Australian leg of our adventure begins it is timely to assess what we have achieved over the last little bit.

So here goes…

We left Australia on 13 October 2013 and returned on 20 December 2014…that is a 433 day Asian odyssey that saw us hit some spectacular highlights and tick off so many bucket list items that it was not funny. Some of these “Bucket List” items were the obvious ones that we all know about or have heard of like climbing Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal or walking the Great Wall of China. Others were ones that the travel channel or documentary watchers may have seen and added. And some were 100% unknown to us but in hindsight these things truly were that special. And there were others that we knew nothing about but have since learned of and now have extended our own lists.

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In total we technically visited 13 different countries…I say this because I remain jaded that Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong all just count as China. Further to this, while we zigzagged the India-Nepal border popping in and out numerous times, we cannot in all honesty claim Nepal…as much as I may want to.  We spent the night in 121 different cities while day tripping, transiting and sight seeing a great number of others. The countries and locations were:

Thailand – Bangkok and Phuket

Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Pursat and Battambang,

Laos –  Vientiane, Luang Prabang

Myanmar – Bago, Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, Manana, Penang and Georgetown

Brunei Darussalam – Bandar Seri Begawan

Vietnam – Danang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Phu Quoc and Can Tho

Sri Lanka – Mirissa, Galle, Colombo, Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Pinnawala and Sigiriya

South Korea – Seoul and the DMZ

China – Beijing, Shanhaiguan, Harbin, Dalian, Dandong, Jinan, TaiShan, Qingdao, Pingyao, MianShan, WuTaiShan, Taiyuan, Datong, Hohhot, Yinchuan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou, Xining, Xiahe, Mount Everest, Lhasa, Shigatse, Kashgar, Urumqi, Jiuzhaigou, Chengdu, Guiyang, Anshun, Dali, Shangri-La, LiJiang, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Kunming, Guangzhou, Yangshou, Guilin, Wuhan, Chongqing and Xian.

Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek

Philippines – Manila and Taal volcano

India – New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai (Bombay),Goa, Mangalore, Fort Cochin, Alleppy, Thiruvananthapuram, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Metupalaiyam, Ooty, Kolkata (Calcutta), Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Hampi, Aurungabad, Bagdogra, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Amritsar and Shimla.

 

We explored the natural wonders of Asia, saw architectural marvels, ornately carved churches, mosques and temples, checked out exotic landscapes, vibrant cultures, gastronomical delights, languages spoken, experienced fairs and festivals and generally immersed ourselves in a world of different cultures. We stopped in on traditional tourist spots as well as off the beaten path gems (and duds). We experienced both the best and the worst of humanity…often within minutes of each other.

Some of the trips to countries were merely teasers for future travel while others were fully fledged explorations of the countries visited. Some were so fantastical that we were left needing and craving more…whilst others were more than enough. As a general rule it must be said…the traditional tourist destinations were by far our least favourite spots. They tended to be trashy, commercialised, more expensive than everywhere else, painful, full of really pushy touts and generally just unpleasant to be in.

China was the place that we spent the most time, with about 215 days in China all up. Believe it or not…this was not enough. China is like Australia…it is huge and each region is unique. So while we saw more of China than most Chinese will ever see…we were still left wanting more and ruing the fact that we had run out of time and money.

TRAINS

It became clear very early on that my wife had developed a train obsession and loved almost all things train related. As such we did innumerable train journeys…especially if there was something a little unusual or quirky about the trip. So we rode the worlds fastest train (the Maglev in Shanghai which hit 433kph), we rode the worlds highest train (through the Himalayas which includes the Tanggula which at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) is the world’s highest railway station) and we rode some of the famous railways of the world (both steam and other). We hit the rail bridge over the river Quai, the destroyed train bridge between China and North Korea and the shot up train in the demilitarised zone between north and South Korea.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Some of these journeys were truly memorable possibly the greatest for me was the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. This was a 5 hour (50km) journey in a steam powered, rack and pin train through the blue mountains of India. The train stopped at tiny little stations to refill with water and when the mountains got too steep the rack and pin would kick in and literally crank the train up the hill. As it turns out this also happened to be my mother’s mode of transport to get to and from school as a teenager.

Another of the major highlights was the Sri Lankan rail journey between Colombo and Galle. Three hours of cruising along in air conditioned comfort parallel to the ocean was simply stunning.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a toy train that snakes its way through the Himalayan mountains as the train criss-crosses the road and runs through the heart of the towns. The train goes so close to the town buildings that you could honestly steal from the shops by merely reaching out the window and taking things off the shelves as the train goes by.

Myanmar gets the title for the worst trains in the world. The train started with an insect and arachnid riddled upper class sleeper cabin and got much worse once the wheels started to move. The train bumps, jumps and rattles its way through some beautiful countryside but will leave you beaten, bruised and bloodied.

ANIMALS

Along the journey we encountered any number of animals (at least partially due to my mini obsession with visiting zoos). We went to many different zoos in many different cities and had massively different experiences in each one. The positive experiences saw us marvelling at pandas in Chongqing and Chengdu and the negative ones saw Indian patrons abusing animals and huge tigers in tiny concrete cages.  We got to see a range of animals that we had not seen before both within the zoo setting and generally wandering about in our travels.

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We saw cobras in baskets being charmed by tourist hungry Indians, panda babies, rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffes, all manner of birdlife, yaks, more monkeys than you could poke a stick at, crocodiles, orang-utans in the wild on Borneo, lions, tigers, fat bottomed sheep, incredible convoys of ducks and the usual zoo type fare.

Not only did we get to see the animals but on occasions we got to ride on them too.

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TRANSPORT

If you can imagine it we used it…almost. We used just about every type of transport available to man. From hauling along at 433kph on the maglev train to putting along on steam locomotives, to riding elephants through the Laos jungle, rubber duckies along the waters off Borneo, Junks in Halong Bay in Vietnam, tuk tuks almost everywhere, camels through the Indian desert, longboats through Thailand’s canals and along the floating markets of the Mekong, rickshaws, trishaws, trams, motorbikes, jeepneys, horse carts, camel carts, ute backs, bamboo rafts and bamboo railways and every now and then we even rode in a car or flew in a plane.

IMG_4443 IMG_1058 IMG_3212 IMG_3226 IMG_3591 IMG_3654 IMG_20141101_114600 IMG_20141102_080604 IMG_20141102_081653 IMG_0256 Camel cart (2) IMG_0488 IMG_0489 IMG_20140111_172457 IMG_3146 IMG_20141107_071414 IMG_3015 IMG_20140706_133540

GASTRONOMY

Lets not be silly here…the food was spectacular. We had the amazing opportunity to travel through some of the culinary centres of the world and sampled the local fare every chance we got. The key meals throughout were meat on a stick and curry… whether it was Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian or Malaysian…curries were a staple. And for all the differences between them…they were magnificent…all of them.

China did not have a curry equivalent (that we found)…but we did have smorgasbords full of fantastic meals all the way throughout. Each region was different and this variety just ramped up the experience. For the ultimate foodie paradise then Penang is my choice…it has the best of all things…Tibet is by far the worst…serving up a terrible mix of yak jerky, two minute noodles and hot water.

IMG_4327 IMG_4329 IMG_3874 Hot Pot at Shancheng Hotpot King, Haymarket. IMG_0463 IMG_1524 IMG_1861 IMG_1920 IMG_2155 IMG_2298 IMG_2303 IMG_2346 IMG_2446 IMG_2448 IMG_2885 IMG_3651 IMG_20131229_123426 IMG_20140329_143759 IMG_20140421_121706

Highlights

Obviously the bucket list items were highlights…the great wall, Angkor Wat, the Terracotta warriors, Mount Everest, the hanging monastery, cruising Halong Bay etc…but there were so many more. They were the unknown (to us) gems such as Jiuzhaigou (China’s blue lakes) and panda breeding centres…further to that there were the human interactions and the unexpected artistic elements that we saw along the way. I cannot fully explain the joy we felt when we walked around the corner in Datong and saw the large naked fat man hanging from the wall of the city.

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The other of the great pleasures was catching up with our friends along the way…walking the great wall of China with my cousin, going to the Hong Kong Rugby 7’s with best friends from school or catching up with Canberra friends in Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Experiencing things with the wife was great…but sharing them with friends is even sweeter.

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The journey for us is continuing…but the next little bit will be here in Australia…so I hope you maintain interest and follow along the  rest of the way…

 

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Bangkok, Thailand

This post is well overdue for a number of reasons. reason number one is that it was written and cued on my Ipad…which died upon arrival back in Australia. This means that all of the witty quips and the contemporaneous comments are missing as I try and wrack my brain about what actually took place three weeks ago. Number two is obviously that we are at home now and have been immersed in the “real world” and have as such been busy.

 

The first thing that must be done is to add a minor amendment to the Phuket post. While we were in Phuket…we were staying at Patpong Beach which is the main tourist area…and it sucked…a lot. During our time there we made two forays to Phuket old town and they were both fantastic. The first time was on a weekend and we did the 17km tuk tuk ride to go and see the market. Now this place is a food lover’s heaven. Immediately we were overwhelmed with awesome food choices at incredibly reasonable prices.

While Thailand is generally considered cheap when compared to Australia, it is highly priced compared against most of Asia…and the tourist zones are comparable to Australian prices for most things (especially food and beers). The old town however was not. It was cheap, hectic, loud and fun. We ate, drank, cruised the rubbish tourist market stalls and generally had a ball…and paid more for the transport to get us to and fro.

Three days later we went back to try again, but a scheduling mixup meant the market wasn’t on so we wandered the streets. This time we paid about a dollar to catch the local bus there rather than the $16 that the tuk tuk drivers charged. It was hot so we stopped in for a refreshing beverage and immediately noticed the difference between this and where we were staying. Cocktails were $3-4 and beers were about $2 and the girl serving was both lovely and efficient…and a girl for that matter.

Upon ordering our second round she apologised that happy hour had kicked in and that alas our first round of drinks would be charged at the full rate of $2 per 600ml stubbie rather than the now discounted rate. As the sun set she directed us to the local street food stall area where we could get good local food. After a short walk we found this and settled in for an absolute feast. We just kept ordering from various stalls and eating and despite 5 attempts to get a bill from my little street vendor… the lady just kept saying “when you finish”. An hour or two later, the 4 of us were completely stuffed and I sheepishly headed for the bill.

As it turned out we were paying about $1 a plate for some of the most amazing food that we had eaten in Thailand thus far. In essence the entire meal for 4 of us in Phuket old town was about that which we would pay per head where we were staying. I guess the main point to be made in all of this is that Phuket does not actually suck…just the tourist beach areas do. If we had our time over again we would stay in Phuket old town and do the day trips to the beach. Had we done this we would have had a much better and cheaper time.

Bangkok

Upon arrival in Bangkok, we headed almost straight to Chinatown for dinner. Wandering the streets we found kerbside restaurants and market stalls that just could not be overlooked or bypassed. From here and on the recommendation of KAT (who spent much time living in Bangkok) we headed out to what he described was his favourite bar in BKK… Wongs Place. We arrived at about 9:30pm to find it still shut so we found another venue which charged us $10 for a little beer while we waited. At 10:30pm we returned to find it still not open so I grabbed some 600ml beer from the 7-11 (for $2) and we settled in for a foot massage across the road.

When it opened we entered this dark dingy little room with the walls lined with photographs of patrons from yesteryear. Our advice was to help yourself to the beer at the back in the fridge and they would just count up the empties at the end of the night. Alas the owner was not there to be able to pass on KAT’s regards and the beer prices had more than doubled to a ridiculous $4 for a beer. A hunt around the walls found some historical gems of photos that had to be captured and shared for posterity.

IMG_4583 IMG_4599 IMG_4600

Day 2 in BKK was the inevitable shopping expedition during the day, hitting the infamous MBK shopping centre which thankfully was a short walk from our accommodation. Add to this the late night show at Patpong Night Market and we effectively did the normal tourist run through BKK. For those that do not know…Patpong night market is where all the sleazy side of Thailand resides. So as we wandered the streets were met with the usual touts offering us the girlie shows including the firing of ping pong balls and darts from various parts of the anatomy and the offers of some unique forms of entertainment.

While cruising around we stopped into one of the venues for a beer and use of the toilets. There were girls “dancing” on stage where in actual fact they were leaning against the poles holding the roof up. The entertainment was so poor that we started to watch the fish tank as the fish were both better looking and more active than the girls on stage. This was fine for a while but eventually we had to leave when Jill (justifiably) tried to slip a tip into the fish tank thus offending the owner and the girls.

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The next day we were joined by long term friends of Brett’s (Annette and Peter) and we did the day trip out to the Bridge over the River Quai via the floating markets. This is quite a way out of town and for most people other than military buffs or veterans is probably not worth the time or expense to get there. I came here in about 1995 with my mate Nadim and the floating markets were quite the sight…today they are just filled with the same tourist trash you get everywhere else but at a greater price than elsewhere.

We took the long boat to the market which was a zig zag through the canals to get to the market…in reality we could drive right up to them and save 40 mins. It was once authentic…now it is a farce. The cemetery was interesting but the museum was a bunch of reproduction photos with little or no explanation…an hour of googling and a printer could get you the same result. In hindsight this trip was overpriced and really not worth the effort.

Our last day was spent at shopping centres eating, drinking and having overpriced coffee while we waited for our late night flights.

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Phuket, Thailand

Our introduction to Thailand was atrocious…the first impressions were that of money hungry, gouging prices. We went in with our eyes open and were expecting it to be more expensive than the places we had recently been…but this took things to another level. To use an ATM here…any ATM…you must pay between 150 and 180 baht to withdraw funds. This is between $6-8 to get your own money out…further to this they limit withdrawal sizes…so that you must pay this fee over and over.

We arrived at the Bangkok airport (not the main one) at lunchtime and had a 3 hour layover until we could fly on to Phuket. We cruised the food options to be shocked at the prices…a subway sub was over $13 (once converted), a McDonald’s meal was well over $10 as was Burger King, a latte was $9. Now I accept that airport prices almost everywhere are high…but these prices are almost double the Australian prices…and as we all know Australia is expensive. We settled on 2 Burger King whoppers and we shared a large fries and a coke for $26 Australian.

We thought that after 14 months away a 2 week break by the beach in Thailand was the perfect way to wind down before returning back to Australia. The beach time may have been awesome…but Thailand…at least Phuket…was not it. This place is the pits. Having been through the last few countries…any one of these would have been a much better choice than coming here to Phuket.

IMG_4558Thailand is the home of the girlie-boy…officially titled the Kathoey…they are much more visible and more accepted in Thailand than the transgender or transsexual communities in Western countries. As Thais generally believe in Karma they tend to believe that being a kathoey is the result of transgressions in past lives, therefore kathoey deserve pity rather than blame. They are everywhere…you can see them working in shops, movie theatres and clothing stores…but mostly you see them working at massage joints. And mostly they are grabbing tourists offering massages with happy endings.

We settled in to an ok hotel in the middle of the tourist area near Patong beach. This is the most famous beach resort on Phuket and is tourism hell. Thousands of foreigners (mostly Russians and Aussies), bars, restaurants, touts, trinket shops, tourist shops, tailors and massage joints. Add to this the constant cacophony created by people touting for tuk tuks, massages, the nightly Muay Thai martial arts bouts or the Ping pong shows and this place sucks.

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IMG_4553The main tourist strip is Soi Bangla or Bangla road. This is about a 500 metre long street running between the beach and the main shopping centre Jungceylon. The street is lined with bars that double as strip joints and knock shops. The road gets blocked off every evening at 6pm and the fun begins. Hookers spill out along the street, shake their asses (poorly) on poles, and sidle up to drunk, sunburnt tourists who are too under the weather to notice that 70% of the girls are blokes.

The prices reduced from the initial shock of the airport but are still about 400% higher than each of Thailand’s immediate neighbours. Jill, Cathy, Brett and I all went searching every evening on the hunt for the various culinary delights that were on offer…and there is a lot on offer. While the nightlife is scary the food scene certainly is not. We did find some incredibly good meals…but we also paid a lot of money for them.

The beach was nice…sort of…it is kinda tough to get excited about foreign beaches when you grow up in Australia. The last time I went to Hawaii I complained about crappy beaches…the beaches here are much nicer…but the water is dead flat so there is nothing surf related. As I mentioned earlier the main groups here in Phuket are Aussies and Russians. The Aussies that come tend to fit 2 categories…parents with kids… Or single blokes looking for the nightclubs, hookers, bar girls and the rub and tugs on offer everywhere.

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The Russians however fit into one category but 2 age brackets. There are the early 20’s Russians who wear tiny shorts and muscle shirts, while the girls are in bikinis or G-strings and topless on the beach. And then there are the Russians in their late 50’s who are also in bikinis or G-strings and topless on the beach. I will not say too much on this subject for fear of instilling mental images that may never leave. Needless to say…we have seen some things that cannot be unseen.

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One of the more amusing aspects is the oldies…they are to afraid to get amongst the action on Bangla Road so they take up position on the opposite side of the road and just watch the goings on. We stopped in at the tailors and got a cashmere wool suit made up each…we figured that upon our return we would have to be grownups and get jobs and things. And this would mean job interviews etc…Yucko.

While here…I found the perfect shirt for my father in law but my wife overruled its purchase for fear that we may offend my mother in law. Anyway…sorry Jim…no shirt for you.

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Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination and was voted internationally as the 4 th best city of travel in 2014. The Place is a cluster of small villages along the river all built in the vicinity of the evenly spaced Buddhist pagodas (Wat). In the area there are more than 1,000 Temples of Angkor which were built from the 9th to 13th centuries during a time when the Kingdom of Cambodia was one of the most powerful civilisations on the planet.

While Siem Reap is a nice little town, it really only exists as it is the town that supports the temples. They are exceptionally impressive…they are old, they are huge and there are TONS of them. I hadn’t realized in my reading just how many of these things there are. You really need a week to see everything, and even then it’d be a stretch. We had 3 days, so were going to make a go of it.

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We caught up with Brett and Cathy who had traveled from Canberra to join us here. Our first day was spent hitting the museum. miniatures display and dipping our toes into some of the many Siem reap restaurants and bars. This place gets between 2 and 3 million visitors a year and sadly the town reflects that…the prices are (generally) between 2 and 25 times more expensive than in the rest of Cambodia and the locals have all turned into pushy touts. Whether touting for tuk tuks, drinks, food, trinkets, paintings, clothing, batik or just attention.

Our first foray saw us getting ripped off by the Cambodian BBQ restaurant. They had the 50c draught sign out the front and we entered for an ale and some nibblies. Having had some spring rolls and an ale or two we called for the bill…it was $38. I checked the bill to find that they had charged us 4 times the quoted price on the beers. I started to argue the point and they claimed they had supplied us with the superior Tiger beer rather than the local drop. After a while it was clear we were not going to win so we paid the bill and used our technology to warn other travellers of the SCAM that these guys were running.

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Most importantly the Siem Reap area has been used extensively as the film site for a lot of adventure type movies and television shows…things like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones Temple of Doom were filmed here. And having been here it is obvious why…this is an ancient city literally being swallowed by the jungle. It was a huge civilisation that was, for unknown reasons, lost to the world. The modern re-discovery dates back to around 1901 when the French funded an expedition to Bayon thus re-finding the lost temples of Angkor. They took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site.

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The main attraction is Angkor Wat, the 500-acre site that is one of the world’s biggest religious monuments and the most elaborate of the Angkor’s temples. We had a 4am wake up…to hop our tuk tuk…to go to buy our 3 day pass…before heading to Angkor Wat (along with about 2000 other people) for sunrise. Alas it was an overcast morning and our sunrise shots were less than inspiring…but the experience was worth it.

From here we left the main attraction to avoid the hoards that were peak hour at Angkor Wat. Instead we headed to Angkor Thom which houses a myriad of temples such as Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Tep Pranam, the royal palace area, the terrace of the leper king and the terrace of the elephants along with a bunch of other ancient bits.

From Angkor Thom we hit Preah Khan before running away to hide from the heat of the day and returning late afternoon for the south gate, Paksei Chamkrong (the video of Jill climbing) and a schlepp up the hill to Phnom Bakheng for a sunset viewing (with the same 2000 people who were there for sunrise) with the same result as the overcast was still doing its thing making our mountain climb redundant. The video below should not give you epilepsy however it will give you a fair indication of why I have been whining about stairs. The stairs in Asia are a non-standard height and width and are a major effort even if there are only about 70 stairs as was the case here. So in my earlier posts where I complained of doing 1500 stairs…then just imagine this video 20 times over…and double it again for Jill’s ridiculous assault on Taishan.

That evening we headed into town for the night markets…our tuk tuk driver dropped us off underneath the fluorescent night market sign right next to another sign that read “foot massage $2”. I had sore feet after climbing up and down stairs all day….and for an extra $1, I could double the time. So I locked all 4 of us in for 30 minute foot massages. While they got settled I walked 2 stores down and organised for ice cold draught beer to be delivered to us for 50c a glass. When my beer was empty…I sat the empty glass atop my head which the astute man (rightly) took to mean that I needed more beer. Me which was delivered to me. For a ridiculous $4…I had a 30 minute foot and calf massage while drinking two ice cold beers…and so did the wife and mates.

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The next day we did Angkor Wat properly. On day one we checked out the non existent sunrise and then ran away from the hoards…on day two we went to the smaller temples early and timed our run to Angkor Wat to coincide with the tour busses going to lunch. This meant that we were not fighting the masses and we had a (relatively) unobstructed view of the place and a climb to the top with no queues. While the temperature was hotter, the experience was much better.

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The next day we headed out to the floating village…that we never made it to, as it was a massive tourist scam. It cost us $17 for a tuk tuk for the day and after a fantastic drive throughout the countryside and villages we got to a ticket booth that was charging $25 a head for the boat to the floating village. We rejected this and kept going to the Rolous group of temples instead. These are lesser temples to the main Angkor group but still a nice sight and a pleasant drive in the country.

As it turned out (according to the reviews of other travellers on trip advisor) our floating village tour would have seen us paying $50 to travel about 20 minutes to some bamboo/wooden shacks above the waterline. When you stop you have 20 mins being harangued in tourist shops or being pressured to buy bags of rice for the poor villagers (at $50 per bag). This journey is nothing but a scam…it costs $40 a head for a 3 day pass of all the great temples…so $25 for an hour tour plus a $17 tuk tuk fee…no thank you.

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So Jill, in her infinite wisdom, decided to spend the money we would have given to the scammers…on a spa day. We headed to town and she got down to negotiating for the required services…having never had a spa day I rolled with both the prices and the choice of services. What came was an hour long body scrub, followed by a one hour massage, followed by a one hour facial. This, she tells me, would cost between $250-700…each…in Australia and was $60 for both of us here. The scrub was good as was the massage…you can keep the facial…not a fan.

The next day we headed out to the land mine museum. This was a personal venture started by an individual named Aki Ra. The story goes…Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was conscripted to be a child soldier who’s role at some point became responsible for the laying of land mines on the Thai/Cambodian border. After the war he found work with the UN finding and disarming the land mines and when that work finished he continued to find and disarm mines…to do this he used a knife, a hoe, a Leatherman and a stick…he funded his activities by selling the scrap metal from the mines. He started storing deactivated mines at his house and giving talks and information sessions about mines…this was the precursor to the museum today.

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While doing his mine clearing he found many injured or orphaned children due to the land mines…which he subsequently took in or adopted. After a period he had brought home over two dozen boys and girls. This then morphed into an orphanage/school. Today the entry fee is a grand $5…$3 of this goes to feeding clothing and educating the children and the remaining $2 goes to fund ongoing land mine recovery and dismantling.

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This place is both tragic and uplifting at the same time. It is a story of a man repaying his karma…while he still can. It is an informative, confronting, uplifting and eye opening experience and if you are coming here you should factor in extra time as this bit was really worth it. On the way home we stopped at the butterfly garden for a rest and sat watching the butterflies flit about.

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Overall Siem Reap was a good trip and I would recommend it to anyone to go to…I would not rate it in the top 4 places to go…but it is nice. If you head here it really needs a minimum of 5 days in Siem Reap alone. But be warned…it is very touristy. The prices for everything are high (relatively), the touts are really pushy, and the scammers abound. It is exhausting walking the huge temples in the heat…but it is more tiring fighting off the constant onslaught of people trying to get you to part with your money.

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Pursat and Battambang, Cambodia

We stopped here in Pursat cos we had a little time to kill before we were due to meet friends who were joining us in Siem Reap. So we popped into Pursat for a couple of days to get a sense of what Cambodia was like away from the tourist hordes. This place is off the tourist route, so much so that when Jill asked the hotel in Phnom Penh to get us a bus ticket to Pursat…they asked…really, are you sure. And again afterwards when heading to the Battambang hotel they kept asking if we were coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh…when Jill said Pursat they said “no really, are you coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh”.

So we hopped a bus and did the 200kms to Pursat, which was quite a calm and uneventful journey. We got delivered at a rest stop about 2km from town and started to walk to our hotel but the heat of the day, and a vacant tuk tuk got the better of us (mainly me) and I paid a buck to get driven to the hotel rather than lugging the backpacks in high heat and high humidity.

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Jill had us booked into the flashiest joint in town…4 stars…had it actually been 4 stars. It was actually on a par with the 2 star place we stayed at in Phnom Penh. The main difference was that this place had a very nice swimming pool, a feature we used regularly over the 3 days. We went out on the first evening and poked around town (such as it is) and ended up eating at a little roadside joint. A nice meal and some Angkor beer for under $10 for both.

The next day we hit the tourist sites…20 minutes later we were finished. A temple, a market and a garden. We were back to the hotel for a swim and we found the only restaurant listed on trip advisor. It was a pizza joint of all things…and the pizza was good. Not Cambodian good…actually good. We have dipped our toes into the odd western dishes intermittently on this trip and have been disappointed every time…until now. This place served good pizza and the owner was lovely as she hung out chatting while we waited for our food. We found out she was a school teacher by morning and a restaurant owner in the afternoons and evenings. At the end of our meal she offered to give us rides back to our hotel on the back of her motorcycle…but we assured her we could make the 700m walk. In all honesty after a big feed the walk was welcomed.

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Our hotel managed to get Jill into a rage as she sought two bus tickets to Battambang…4 requests and 2 days later still no tickets. She ranted, she raved, she swore, she asked for the manager (who had conveniently gone home)…and we walked down to town (5mins) and got the tickets ourselves…from a woman who spoke zero English…but could still provide better service than the hotel. The next day we took our $3 bus ride to Battambang.

We were picked up from a dirt patch opposite the servo (which passes as the bus stop) by Bodan (pronounced Bowrain) who was to be our personal guide and tuk tuk driver for the next few days. He dropped us at our 2 star joint which was immediately better than our 4 star one (but minus a pool). The owner was waiting to greet us and could not do enough to help. We locked in a 4pm trip to the Bamboo train and dinner afterwards.

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The bamboo train is a series of small bamboo rafts, for want of a better term, that sit on two railway axles, powered by a law mower engine that run along the out of service railway tracks. Originally this was for transport and goods movement but is now almost entirely for the tourist. There is one track, so if a competing raft comes in the other direction one or other must cede the track. To do this, both drivers pick up the raft, dump it on the side of the tracks, move the wheels and after one has passed then ( hopefully) the other driver will help the raft that ceded back onto the tracks.

WARNING: Jill’s video may induce epilepsy

This was fun. Jill has developed a love for all things train and this was yet another experience for the train journal. As we left our hotel at 4pm this was designed to be a sunset trip with a 30 min tuk tuk ride followed by a 20 min bamboo train ride to a village manned solely by stores (grass huts more than stores) for tourists and a 20 minute bamboo train ride back (pausing for some sunset photos across the rice paddies). I repeat…this was fun.

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The next day we locked in with Bodan for a day exploring the southern areas around Battambang. This included the odd temple, fishing village, bat caves, winery and Wat Banan a run down group of 5 temples atop a hill with about 500 stairs that needed climbing. The best bit was cruising around the real Cambodia in the back of a tuk tuk. The day saw us heading about 50k out of town so we passed actual villages and villagers going about their daily business (not the tourist version at the end of the bamboo train).

The highlight of the day (other than the general immersion in the local lifestyle) was the visit to Phnom Sampeu. This is a series of hilltop temples, a monastery and two Buddhist stupas. The other thing of note was that it was the location of three Khmer Rouge killing caves, which is exactly what you might imagine (especially after reading the Phnom Penh post). These were deep crevasses where people were forced to kneel at the top, were killed and were kicked into the crevass. The one I went into was one where over 10,000 bodies were found.

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The next day Jill booked us into a local cooking class run by a young Cambodian guy, French trained, chef in his own business (Coconut) that was staffed by his family. A classically trained chef being aided/overseen by his mother (who at times takes the mortar and pestle off him) is funny to watch. He may have all the skills but mum still sometimes knows best. We made 3 different local dishes (spring rolls, Fish Amok and Beef Loklak) and a desert and they were all incredible.

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From here Bodan picked us up and we went touring the north of the city to Wat Ek Phnom an 11th century temple that is hanging on by its fingernails. This place will be rubble before too long. On the way we stopped at some local village businesses like the rice paper factory (underneath somebody’s house) and the fish sauce and fish paste factory. It is said you should never let people see how laws or sausages are made…this goes triple for fish sauce and fish paste.

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These items have distinctive smells…but at the factory (a shanty shed with no walls) watching the filthy conditions, the man kicking the fish into piles, the vats of compressed (by big rocks) salted fish, the 15-20kg catfish having their heads chopped off (to be sold to the crocodile farm down the road), the shrimp, the ass fish that were too small to be eaten. Some things you just never needed to know…this was one of them.

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