Posts Tagged With: museum

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.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I came to Phnom Penh on a work trip about 8 years ago and hated it. It was hot, smelly, dirty, neglected and mosquito infested…the two main tourist attractions were the Pol Pot killing fields and the Genocidal museum… add to this the fact that the Mosquitos carried dengue fever and it just capped off an ordinary trip. I am happy to say that things have changed significantly for the better. The streets are clean, the place has been developed and there are much more interesting things to see and do here.

Phnom Penh is on the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers and is the capital of Cambodia. It is interesting to note that while they have their own currency (the real) it is basically not used and all things are priced and sold in $US…to the point that ATM’s dispense $US. The only time the local currency comes into play is as change for an item that requires coins (one $US being worth 4000 real). The other thing of note is that the streets are numbered, however not numerically. The streets running N-S are (notionally) odd numbered and the ones E-W are (sort of) even…but once again…not numerically. This makes navigation a touch difficult at times.

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Quick history lesson – Back in the 1920s it was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was one of the loveliest French-built cities in the region. During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong used Cambodia as a base and Phnom Penh became a refuge for almost 3 million people trying to flee the fighting. In 1974 the Khmer Rouge cut off supplies to the city and on April 17, 1975 the city fell and the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Their first order of business was to revert to an agrarian society, classifying city dwellers as “new people” and country folk as “old people”.

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a program that led to isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all privately held property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms. By 1976 it was estimated that 80% of the population suffered from malaria. One of the Khmer Rouge mottos about the new people was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism (as Pol Pot envisioned it) a reality.

Over the next three years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors. Nobody knows how many people were killed by the regime but various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000.

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So anyway…as part of our tourist run we hit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was a former high school that was turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21) where most of the torturing took place. Out of around 17,000 people imprisoned at S21, there were only twelve known survivors. The first bit was pretty lame with an entire building full of rooms with a single metal bed in them. From here the world got very real with photos of the prisoners, the cells, images of the torture machines and a room full of human skulls and bones.

The rest of the day was comparatively uplifting after the genocide museum. We went to the Palace, the silver pagoda, the Russian markets, Independence and Liberation Memorials, the museum and Wat Botum.

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The next day we got up early and grabbed a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek which are about 17 km south of the city and were about as uplifting as the genocide museum. This is just one of over 300 such fields scattered throughout Cambodia. I came here on my first trip and it was a sobering experience with human bones and clothing protruding from pits in the ground. If possible it has become even more confronting.

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The roads on the way to the killing fields have been fixed and paved (largely) and the insides have benefitted from the tourist dollars. Your six dollar entrance fee includes an audio guide and people wander the grounds silently listening to the commentary as they reach certain key points and pits along the way. This commentary includes victims and soldiers stories and recollections of what went on there and how it happened. Key stops along the way included the killing point, the torture shed, pits of perceived traitors remains, pits full of women and children’s bodies and the tree used to smash the children’s skulls before they were thrown into the pit.

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This was by any standards a confronting place to visit… the addition of stories, facts and commentary on the audio guide has just added to the experience. Generally everyone was silent throughout the couple of hours it takes to get around and listen to the commentary. The images, stories and sights that you see in this place are incredibly sobering and don’t really lend themselves to chatting, laughing or joking. You could hear the occasional sobbing as people listened along, one woman started wailing at the child pit and the tree otherwise everyone was silently absorbing what was going on…except for the French and Russian tourists…they were the only voices that we heard in over 2 hrs… And we heard them consistently.

From here our tuk tuk driver dropped us at the Wat Phnom temple (which was right next to where I stayed last time) then we headed off to the central markets for a quick shop to replace some festy items. Dinner at a local joint that cost under $US5 for both of us (including a beer each). And our Phnom Penh visit was at an end.

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While by no means was this an uplifting experience…it was enlightening…the city, the people and the infrastructure have improved considerably and both Jill and I agreed that we preferred this to Vietnam (with the exception of Halong bay). This is quite a turnaround from my last trip where I named Phnom Penh as the worst place I had been. I would come back here without hesitation now

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Luang Prabang, Laos

We hopped a flight from the capital to Luang Prabang, the former capital and a UNESCO listed town at the junction of the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers. Our first impressions were quite similar to those we had in Vientiane…it was a tourist centre filled with foreigners and with very little to see or recommend it. Add to this the fact that prices were jacked up high for the tourists and I was expecting to not enjoy the experience…I am happy to say that my initial impressions while technically accurate…were wrong.

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On day two we toured the local sights and saw everything that there was to see in town in about 3-4 hrs. This tour included Haw Kham, the former royal palace and now national museum, Vat Xieng Toung, the oldest monastery in town which was a stunning wooden temple with inlaid mosaics everywhere you look, a few of the minor temples and finally a trip up Phou Si/Chomsy Hill the main hill in the city. Thankfully we climbed this hill from the palace side which meant we only had to climb about 250-300 stairs. We went down on the other side which was about 900 very steep stairs.

Once at the top you had a nice view of the town and surrounds. We wandered along the river banks to get back to the other side of the hill passing expensive shops, hotels, restaurants and what appeared to be some very impressive cooking classes set up for the tourists. That evening we visited the Main Street which turns into night markets each evening. They sell the usual tourist trinkets, handicrafts and snake and scorpion infused booze.

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Still fairly unimpressed, we booked a day trip into the surrounding areas and all of a sudden Luang Prabang was incredible. We were picked up at the hotel and driven to a local traditional village (highly focused on the tourist dollar) where you can watch them distilling the local hooch and weaving the clothes and materials that are sold in the night markets. You get to see and buy bottles of local whiskey with snakes, scorpions, bears feet, geckos, lizards and just about any other critter you can imagine inside the bottles. I thought about buying these for the nieces and nephews etc but there is no way Australian customs or quarantine would let them in the country. From here you set off to the Nam Ou Elephant Farm which is a Sanctuary for Asian elephants. And the day got fun as went for a one hour elephant ride through the jungle.

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There were 5 elephants and 4 of them were perfectly behaved while our one on the other hand had personality. It started with going bush to retrieve food by pulling leaves and branches off trees mid way along the trail, intensified when it stopped at a stream for a drink and sprayed Jill with the trunk/water thing you see in all the nature shows. The poor little mahout was pulling on the flimsy string but our flump had his own thoughts. At one point he stopped and held trunks with the girl elephant behind then they entered into a trumpeting session with their trunks in each other’s ears. We were having visions of two horny elephants going for it…all of this with us seated on their back.

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A bit later on our flump spied the banana trees and decided a snack was in order. So off the track, up the hill and into the banana trees he went…out little mahout was doing his best but had no chance. The flump started with a couple of banana leaves but they would not rip off the tree…so he took the whole tree…ripped it out of the ground…and carted it along behind us, munching away, while he walked along…all of this with us seated on his back. From here we popped out to the Pak Ou and Tham Ting caves and back to the elephant joint for lunch.

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It was not included in the package we paid for…but the elephants were due a bath in the river and we happened to be there at the time…so they offered us to wash the elephants. We all got changed into out swimmers (a waterfall and swim were planned for later in the day) and climbed aboard the flumps. At this point I need to confess that bareback riding of an elephant is not for me. On my first attempt I had my legs in front of his ears, so when he flipped his ears forward (as they do to cool themselves) my legs flew forward and I started sliding off his neck. The second attempt he decided to put his head down to grab some sugar cane and a-sliding I went again…I gave up and walked along beside him instead.

Jill on the other hand was in her bikini, mounted on her flump, and off. Down the hill, into the brown murky waters of the Mekong and splashing around in the water with her flump… she was grinning the entire time. I and the others in the group who were not mounted upon a flump had an awesome time watching, photographing, and laughing as the elephants dropped water mines that floated downstream towards the others who were frantically trying to splash the huge piles of elephant dung away from themselves. A good time was had by all.

From here we headed to the Kuang Si Waterfall park and the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which is contained within the waterfall park. The park is a series of waterfalls and rock pools, the water is cool (cold), clean, and full of tourists dipping in the ponds. Most of the tourists were great but the usual suspects, as identified in the earlier post! Decided that their enjoyment would occur at the expense of the others who were there. After an hour here our time was up.

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If we had our time over and knew a little more about this place…the waterfall park really deserved a full day…and the elephants did too. There are longer tours you can do and, if it suits you, you can do a one, three or five day mahout course where you get to learn to be a mahout and hang with the flumps for your chosen period. This includes the washing, feeding, riding and general care and maintenance of the elephants. My bareback elephant riding skills deficit considered… this would be awesome.

While Luang Prabang has very little to see, is full of tourists, is about twice the price of Vientiane and my initial thoughts were accurate…we ended up loving the place. It is set amid the mountains (hills really), is pretty, the people don’t hassle you and it is generally a nice place to be. You will be overcharged for everything you see, do, eat or try to buy…but by home standards it is still cheap. And the elephant experience is not to be missed.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vientiane, Laos

I had very little knowledge about Laos prior to this trip…the little that I did know left me uninspired but hey…it was right next door and we would be crazy not to go. We hopped off the plane and cabbed it to a really nice hotel where we settled in for he next few days. Now Laos was a former French colony and (at least in Vientiane) it has benefitted from this in the usual manner. Waterfront esplanades, cafés, coffee shops, baguettes, cheese and some pretty damn fine architecture.

Possibly one of the first things we should mention is that Laos has more western tourists than almost anywhere else we have been so far. Everywhere you look. Vientiane has a small town feel about it rather than that of most of the other Asian capitals. We relaxed through the heat of the day and headed out to the Mekong riverfront esplanade and markets for a lovely stroll followed by the hunt for a local restaurant for dinner. A few beer Lao’s, a bowl of soup and some spring rolls, all for next to nothing, our introduction to Laos had begun.

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So the next day we plotted our course on the map and set off on the journey to hit the usual tourist haunts. The heat was high…about 38 degrees… but unlike the last few places, the humidity was low. So despite high temperatures it was quite pleasant walking around doing the tourist schlepp. We hit the usual haunts, temples, monasteries, museums, markets, stupas and yet some more temples. Possibly the most impressive was the Laos version of the Champs Elysees on the street leading up to the Palace. Having blitzed the town we found we had done 90% of the tourist thing in about 4 hrs…there really isn’t too much here.

The things they call museums are really just old things…the actual museum was saved for the next day. We found the local delicacy on day one and went back the next two days for more. It was a baguette filled with pate, cheese, vegetables, mystery meat and mystery sauce and cost a total of 10,000 kip (about $1.30). The next day we hit the actual museum which enlightened us to the war history of Laos…something that I at least was unaware of. These guys have been systematically smacked by almost everybody. Starting with the Chinese, then the Thai’s, the French, the Brits, the Japanese and then the French once again.

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While there was not massive amounts to see or do, there was a relaxing atmosphere about the place. The traffic was calm, there was no honking, the esplanade alongside the Mekong river was nice, the food was pretty good and was cheap. We hit the esplanade for a sunset walk along the banks of the Mekong river and just generally relaxed taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new country.

Vientiane did spark the conversation of who was the rudest nationality when it came to tourists. It came down to a split decision between three different nationalities and this varied entirely depending upon the circumstances. What we did determine was the factors that made a rude tourist…this was essentially those that are ignorant and arrogant, ignoring those around them at all costs. I am sure that using this criteria the First Nation that pops to mind for most of you will be he USA…but they do not rate in out top three as there are many worse examples of ignorant and arrogant tourists, ignoring those around them.

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Our pick of the worst three tourist nationalities that we have come across are… The French, the Russians and the Israelis. The French seem to have a sense of colonialism to them where they seem to think that this is still a colony and the locals are here entirely for their subjugation, and that other tourists are irrelevant to their particular needs and wants. The Russians have had their tourist doors closed for too long so a Russian tourist is (generally) either oblivious or totally disregarding of other people trying to experience the same things.

The Israeli tourists you tend to meet are all around 25 years old and have just finished their national service. They are young, brash, fit and cashed up. They will drink, dance, party and listen to their doof doof at any volume they see fit, at any time and to hell with anyone around them.

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Our three favourites would have to be the Dutch, the Germans and Canadians. These three are generally quiet, reserved, respectful and genuinely interested to learn about and experience other countries and cultures.

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Colombo – Sri Lanka

While travelling through China we met a lovely Sri Lankan couple who spoke highly of the place and our visiting. We had kept in touch through Facebook and when we decided to come they could not have been more helpful.even to the point of getting cricket tickets for us for the second day in town. Alas our journey to Sri Lanka started with disappointment before we even arrived. The original plan was to attend a ODI cricket match in Colombo between Sri Lanka and Pakistan but weather set in and they moved the date forward and changed the venue meaning that we missed out.

We arrived in Colombo after a 22 hour transit from Beijing via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Air Asia X provided a good cheap flight option that was very enjoyable but sadly was ruined by Jill’s bag being all but destroyed, when she went to complain she was told it was minor damage that they would not even take a report for…and that she should claim it on travel insurance. After a rant about customer service she left unsatisfied and ignored.

We got in to Sri Lanka and were immediately struck by how unlike India this place is. It is clean, tidy and people have pride in their surroundings and the environment in general. We were picked up, driven to the hotel, got our local phone, had a meal and some local beers and met up with Ruwan (our Sri Lankan mate from China) all within 90 minutes of being in country. A bunch of tuk tuk rides later and a foray into local street food (shrimp including the shells and heads etc mashed into a paste, made into a rissole, deep fried, smothered in chilli, topped with onion) we had seen Colombo by night and plans were made for the next day.

The day started with meeting up with Ruhan outside Town Hall near the Buddha statue and a walk through Viharamahadevi park which is opposite. This was a really pleasant walk in the shade. Sri Lanka is hot but not excessively so…Colombo is blessed by awesome sea breezes almost all day so the heat is immediately bearable. We hit the National museum which was ok content wise by museum standards but the building and the grounds were spectacular. There were massive Banyan trees throughout the grounds that must have been many centuries old and even for a botanical heathen like myself they were the highlight.

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Having headed out we did the tourist schlepp chauffeured by our mate and hit Independence Square, Beira Lake, slave island, the lighthouse, Sambodhi Chaitiya dagoba, a market for some shopping and a massive lunch, Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, old Dutch hospital, Hindu temple, grand mosque, Parliament House. We stopped for cold drinks and fresh juices throughout the day and generally had a really pleasant time. No harassment, no filth, no drama.

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At sunset we headed to Galle face green which is a magnificent stretch of green lawn directly fronting onto the beach, with sea breezes and throngs of people day or night. The place has the Sri Lankan flagpole and at sunset the military ceremony of the flag lowering, combined with the sun going down over the Indian Ocean is not to be missed. As the breeze blows permanently off the ocean the area is full of parents flying kites of all varieties with their kids.

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On the food front we have been absolutely spoilt. The main dish is Kottu or “Koththu Roti” which is a Sri Lankan version of left overs in a fried rice. While notionally leftovers it is made fresh almost everywhere with your choices of fillings but vegetables, egg, shredded roti, onions and rice are the staples and you pick and add the bits you want added. This is generally done on a flat BBQ plate and the clatter of flying metal scrapers as they chop and mix the concoction is both mesmerising and deafening.

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My favourite both before I came and since being here is the egg hoppers. Wiki tells me that “hoppers are made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and a dash of palm toddy”. The unique part is that hoppers are cooked in small “wok” like rounded pans so the dough cooks thick and soft on the bottom, and thin and crunchy around the edges. Add to this the string hoppers and the plain hoppers with some of the ever present pickles, chutneys and sambol and you have for yourself a great feed.

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We headed out to Livinia Beach for a flash feed with Ruwan and his wife. It was a Chinese restaurant (of all things) right on the sand. The setting was spectacular with the lapping of the waves but the food was trash. This may be an ongoing issue for us as we cannot go to Chinese restaurants anymore as they will not be authentic. We already have our doubts about how authentic the Australian version of Indian is…we are now adding Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to the mix…we may be screwed on future take out options. Now the food at this restaurant was tasty enough but nothing like what we expected when we ordered.

 

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Hohhot – Inner Mongolia

Hohhot

The original plan for Hohhot was to look around while we got our visas to go to Mongolia proper…then head in to Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival this proved to be incredibly cost prohibitive with the visa and transport options adding up to a ridiculous amount. We would have had to get a train to the border (8hrs), hire a private jeep to cross the border then 10-11 hours on local train or busses on the other side to get to the capital.

Wiki travel tells us that “Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day”. Otherwise the flight would have been $700 each plus the visa costs. We both have the trans-Siberian railway on our bucket lists (Beijing to Moscow) which goes through and stops in Mongolia several times so we decided to skip it. We tried to arrange the trans-Siberian train on this trip but not having Russian visas we would have had to use a broker and the bill got over $10,000 very quickly.

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Having decided that Mongolia was out we had time to kill and plans to make. The hostel we stayed at had organised private tours of the desert, grasslands, Great Wall etc…but they were all very expensive. The Great Wall in this section is really just a mud heap, the desert involved camels which was an immediate no vote from me, and the grassland was just too dear.

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So we stayed in town and checked out the local sights. Firstly, this part of China is very different to the rest and is a little more like our Indian experiences. The street is often used as a toilet here and the sights and smells in certain areas of town reflect this. The development that is in the heart of town has not spread to the inner ring so the drainage, toilets, footpaths and the normal Chinese efficiency did not exist. There was a lot of construction underway to remedy this but alas we were not there yet.

The local busses were their usual cheap and efficient selves with a ride costing 1 yuan each and busses coming regularly enough that only peak times had the sardine squash. Our first ride took us to the museum which was in a complex of four of the largest buildings I had ever seen. The museum was built to resemble the Mongolian steppes so in a way was quite similar to Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra with the building and mountain merging into one.

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It was spectacularly huge with one of the greatest dinosaur exhibits…bear in mind that this part of China is dinosaur alley with lots of fossils etc located in the Gobi desert nearby. We normally don’t take photos in museums, as they tend to be dioramas, but here we found ourselves snapping away. Add to this the local culture exhibits and possibly most impressive of all was the China space program exhibit (with actual space suits and capsules) as well as the mock ups and back stories behind the evolution of the space program and its participants.

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After this we were off to the usual, temple and mosque run and of course our adventures in food land. My first find was the breakfast bao zi shop, then the supermarket where Jill found a semi reasonable muesli, and then GOLD…an imported food shop…with NZ tasty cheese, smoked oysters, pate, prosciutto…there is a god. The next night we hit the restaurant strip after a long day’s hiking in the heat and settled in for some cool ales.

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While drinking our refreshing beverages we watched the next table be delivered an entire leg of lamb on a spit…I went over and asked what it was and to point to it on the menu…being Chinese they immediately offered me some and the deal was done…we had to order this. The menu said it was 48 yuan ($8.23) so we ordered this, some mushrooms and some tofu and a mystery menu item that I randomly pointed at.

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Our lamb came and it was spectacular…alas we later found out it was 48 yuan per half kilo…so our leg was almost 4 times more expensive than we thought…but it was good. The mushrooms and tofu were fine but the mystery item I pointed at turned out being a toasted jam sandwich…don’t ask. This was now our most expensive meal in China at 304 yuan ($52.12) but we had a huge leg of lamb, 6 beers (600ml each) and some small nibbly bits.

Back to the hostel the next day for beers with the others and to watch the World Cup game between Germany and France washed down with many more ales and some pizza from the joint across the road…which actually wasn’t too bad. We met up with the guys we had met on our first day who had disappeared on the overpriced grassland tour and having chatted with them upon their return…we made the right choice as they claim that the tours were not worth the expense.

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It is quite interesting to see how our idea of value has changed during our time away…we always knew that Australia was expensive however the last 10 months has crystallised just how obscene the prices in Australia have gotten. Of course you can have fine dining here and pay through the nose for it…but within a 5 minute walk you can have a huge meal for two, with beverages, for under $20 and more often than not under $15. A single beer can be bought at the local store for between 50 cents and a dollar…everywhere…this will be hiked through the roof to about $2-4 in a restaurant and most main meals will cost about $2-8 depending on the venue.

Long story short is that we will suffer a huge culture shock when we finally decide to return…

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Yinchuan

After leaving the desert of Dunhuang on an overnight train we landed in Yinchuan having slept very little and checked into a cheapie hotel (which was about five times better than our supposed 4 star number a few towns back). On the way in we spotted the wet market directly opposite and food stalls aplenty along the way…we were clearly in the right part of town.

The place is close to the Ningxia section of the Great Wall and is yet another of our stops along the Great Wall of China. In addition to the wall, there are mosques, drum towers, monasteries, pagodas and the normal Chinese parks and gardens etc. The real reason for the stop was to break the journey as we head to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to get our visas to go to Mongolia proper.

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We basically did not see any westerners the whole time here but the place was great. On our first night we headed out for a meal and on our walk back we came across about 1000 locals dancing in the park and guys giving shoulder massages in the park near the drum tower…a 20 minute massage for $3.40…bring it on…walking about 100 metres further we came across a free Chinese acrobatic show with all the flipping, jumping, human towers and pyramids that you would expect from a highly priced show. Watch this with a gelato from across the road and a good evening was had by all. Two days later and our Acrobatic show was replaced with free Chinese opera and all the squawking and discordant noise your ears could handle.

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The next day we were off…we had been fairly sedentary post Tibet…but apparently we needed to get moving and make up for our lazy days in one hit. So it started…a wander to the bell and drum towers, past the old gate, to the monastery and pagoda…up the pagoda…because all things with stairs must be climbed (the gospel according to Jill). The pagoda was 11 tiers high but each tier was about 2 storeys high…so we basically climbed the stairs of a 18-22 storey building…both ways…but the staircase was only one person wide, dodgy wood and the head height meant that you sconned yourself at every turn if you were not careful.

Having emerged from the pagoda we found the rain had started…so we embarked on an 8 kilometre walk in the rain to get to the museum. Needless to say I did not know that it was that far or I would have boycotted or at least got a bus or a taxi. Walking past the parks and squares was quite nice (if a little long) but the museum at the other end was worth the hike. I had never really gotten into museums etc before this trip but I am a convert…the information, displays, exhibits and histories are fascinating.

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Sanity (Richard) prevailed and we caught a bus back most of the way to our hotel. A fantastic lucky dip meal down the road next to the park…followed by another $3.40 massage (for me) and home to bed. We found possibly the best coffee shop in all of China… it is called ego coffee and has good coffee at (relatively) reasonable prices and has an awesome menu…we have slotted into a morning ritual of bao zi (pronounced bowser…which are steamed bready meat buns…dipped in chilli and vinegar) and followed by our coffee at ego. Sadly we get 20 bao zi for 12 yuan ($2) and 2 coffees for 58 yuan ($10). In fact the food that we have encountered the entire time we have been in Yinchuan has been incredible. The pick had to be the Duck Pancakes…which we have always loved…but there was a mushroom and chilli salad, that was too heavy on the coriander for my tastes, but Jill just simply inhaled while I picked around the evil weed that is coriander.

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Bao zi and Jiao zi (bowser and jowzer) are our staple breakfast foods since arriving in China…the bao zi is the bready one and the Jiao zi is the dumpling (pastaish) one…every now and then you can find these both done on a sizzling plate with beaten (scrambled) egg poured in between them…these are awesome. The bao zi in Shanghai are filled with soup so add a whole new level of difficulty to the uninitiated (as Jill found out when I bit into one sending a stream of hot soup shooting across the table and onto her…she was very happy). Each area has their own versions of both of these…but so far they have all been excellent… and are cheap. Add to this the occasional Gem Bean (Phonetic) which is an eggy thing.

We have actually found our feet when it comes to most of the foods in China…however ordering still poses the various “lucky dip” problems that it did in the beginning. Jill downloaded a child’s game that gives you the name and symbols of various meats so we can sometimes make sense of those. Add to this the rice and noodle symbols and we at least wont starve…nirvana is still a picture menu… Street food is king…it is cheap as chips and awesome tasting…we have progressed from our early meat on a stick forays to being educated pointers…Alas the key issue with china and its provinces…is that the yummy local delicacy may never be seen again which sadly has happened more than once.

The next day we found ourselves (after our breakfast ritual) riding the short bus…we hopped bus #1 and followed it to the end…then got back on and followed it to the other end…then we got on #3 and did pretty much the same thing…after arriving at the largest while elephant of a shopping centre on the planet we decided that we were feeling like special school kids…no more licking of bus windows and off we got…a cold beer and a coffee then back for a cheapie dinner. The last day was spent wiling away our time in the coffee shop as we waited for our 8pm departure on a 10 hr overnight train to Hohhot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Calcutta-Kolkata

IMG_20140128_164603Having had a terrible night in transit here prior to heading to China we were kinda dreading coming back to Kolkata. The hotel near the airport was 100% uninhabitable (this was the ring of urine around the base of the toilet as some were not convinced). Landing at midnight and being unable to check into our hotel until after noon we decided to stay at the airport for another 7 hours yet again. The sun came up and we hopped a cab to the accommodation a little concerned after our first effort.

The journey there took us past some of the filthiest most atrocious slums and poverty I have ever seen. Needless to say we tend not to take photos of such things. We arrived at our very nice guest house and the staff let us into an absolutely great room…early. A sleep got us good again and off we went. Kolkata is simultaneously one of the richest and poorest cities in all of India. The divide between the two is palpable and depending upon which suburb you are in the poverty and filth is entirely in your face or the lavishness of colonial times reign supreme.

We walked through a slum area to find that they were using a bulldozer to clear the trash so that new construction could happen. This resulted in about 500 crows and 20 or so dogs picking through the freshly moved trash for any food morsels that may exist. Added to this there were about 25 Kites (birds of prey) circling and swooping on the dislodged and displaced rats as the bulldozer did its work. Fascinating to watch until we got set upon by beggars and had to move on.

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The British sectors of Calcutta are magnificent. The shops, restaurants and market stalls are good too. There are segments of the city where the is an active effort to keep things clean and tidy which is really encouraging to see. The rest of the place is filthy and dirty and the rubbish bin and toilet for all Indians. We hit the museum, the Victoria memorial, St Paul’s cathedral, the clock tower, South Park cemetery, Eden gardens cricket ground and a bunch of mosques and old buildings etc…

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The metro is efficient and cheap, we came across our first western style shopping mall that would put most westfields to shame as it was so nice. The most fun bit is watching some of the Indians trying to traverse an escalator for what, I had to guess, was for their first time. The modern guys were normal but the old, young and the less educated caused massive backlogs as they freaked getting on…and did not clear the other end causing pile ups and all sorts of dramas.

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The introduction of trams and the man pulled tana rickshaws into the normal traffic chaos added a whole new element of complexity which I am sure Jill will elaborate on in her planes trains section.

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