Posts Tagged With: palace

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.

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Mandalay

A short flight from Bagan to Mandalay and we were off on our next leg. Tiny airports really do add a whole new level of interest to a journey. We were on a baby prop plane that required the weighing of everything that went onto the plane. We were originally booked Air Bagan but were changed to Asian Wings airline…but still had to check in at Air Bagan. There was no assigned seating…just first on, first seated. Despite all of this it was a relatively uneventful flight. We arrived and ended up in a share taxi to town… And on to our accommodation which was really nice…and our taxi resembled a passenger vehicle…no ute taxi this time.

Mandalay is the second-largest city and was the last city used as the royal capital. The palace was originally the former royal palace of Amarapura which they dismantled and moved here by elephants. The palace is at the centre of a 1020-acre citadel surrounded by four 2,032 m long walls and a moat 64m wide, 4.6m deep (thanks wiki). The walls originally had three gates on each side, and five bridges to cross the moat…at present there is one bridge per side.

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We were staying about 2km South-west of the palace so decided on an early start to avoid the heat of the day. We walked the 2k to the corner, then the other 1k to the bridge…only to find the south gate was closed to foreigners. So we walked the 2k to the east gate, to find that they no longer accepted US$ but only the local kyat. So we walked one K to a big hotel, changed our money and walked the one k back to the gate. Having paid we walked another k to the palace where we poked around for a while.

Buddhism reigns supreme here and about 15km out of town in Amarapura Township is the Mandalay Swedaw pagoda celebrating the tooth of Buddha. Not the actual tooth because we saw that in Kandi, Sri Lanka…but a replica. This is one of four such temples in Myanmar…celebrating the replica of the tooth of Buddha and they are all high atop hills and mountains, this one was on Maha Dhammayanthi Hill. Needless to say we did not attend.

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Having seen the palace we headed back the 1k to the east gate and headed north for the 1k walk to the bottom of Mandalay Hill (anyone keeping count of our little amble…god knows I was). From the bottom of the hill we started the climb up the covered staircase (called saungdan). At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. The guide book told us that for those who are fit to make the climb, it is considered a rewarding experience and a meritorious deed at the same time. What it also told us…in fine print…was that it was a holy site so the shoes came off and we did a 45 minute stair climb barefoot.

For those that have been following…my darling (mountain goat) bride did the 1200 stairs to get to the Great Wall in Mutyanyu in 15 mins…this climb took 45…admittedly I am certain I slowed her pace…buy hey…just a bit of context here. Did I mention that it was barefoot. Any guesses as to what the local dogs do on the staircase…yep…a new degree of difficulty. Anyway up we went. We intermittently hit plateaus with pagodas or temples on them. The most impressive was the hermit U Khanti’s dazaung hall. This was about one third of the way up and was spectacular with views over the palace complex and the religious sites below. This hall once held three fragments of bone of the Gautama Buddha (a different Buddha to the toothless one) but they were moved in the 1940’s.

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The stairs went up…so…so did we. We climbed hitting the odd plateau of religious (or commercial) significance. As we neared the top we popped out onto a road as taxis ferried those tourists who were not interested in rewarding experiences or meritorious deeds in 37 degrees and 80+% humidity. We kept climbing and passed some Germans who were looking ragged but un-sweaty who warned us that there were many more steps and there was still a long way to go. On we went…as it turned out there was only about another 200 stairs and they weren’t that tough…these Germans were clearly not doing the meritorious deed.

Having reached the top we found that the view from the top was actually considerably worse than the really good one we had 1/3 of the way up. We later learned that the road dropped tourists off at an escalator which in turn had a lift to take you to the pagoda at the summit. Anyway…we took some pictures and headed back down the stairs.

When we hit the U Khanti’s dazaung hall, 1/3 of the way up we saw a shiny gold pagoda surrounded by hundreds of white stupas. We found at this was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and would be our first stop upon reaching the bottom of the hill. Upon reaching the bottom we found that this was the site of the worlds largest book. Surrounding the pagoda were 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves (not the stupas I thought that they were). Each of these contained a marble slab that was 5 foot tall, 4 foot wide and was inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Buddhist holy text…impressive.

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And our Mandalay visit was over…I was tired so we hopped a cab (back of a ute) back to the hotel for a shower and a crash before we woke for a day of killing time waiting for our train ride to take us to the next port of call…Bago.

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Brunei Darussalam

Leaving Labuan we hopped the ferry to go to Brunei Darussalam. The main reason for this was to tick up another country…we were only a 90 minute ferry ride away so why wouldn’t you. The first thing that must be said is that Brunei is strictly Muslim and is dry…the whole nation…no alcohol to be bought…anywhere. It would be a short visit. The next most important fact is that Brunei has the largest oilfields in Southeast Asia…so Brunei hasn’t turned its rainforests into palm plantations. Darussalam in Arabic apparently means ‘abode of peace’.

So we hopped a ferry and headed to the capital Bandar Seri Begawan or BSB for most. The ferry ride was fine and clearing customs and immigration was a relative breeze…other than the visa cost was 4 times that which was quoted in the travel guide…but hey it was about $20 each so no real damage done. We hopped off the ferry and headed to the bus stop for the shuttle to take us to town. We knew that this was an infrequent service but talking to the locals it had not run for the last 2 days. No reason given…it just didn’t turn up.

We decided to cut our losses and caught a black list taxi (the only guy nearby offering to take anyone even near town). And $35 later we arrived at our accommodation. This place was GOOD, VERY GOOD…and the staff were possibly the nicest we have encountered in all of our travels thus far…this is high praise after a year of hotels. For those planning a trip you honestly can not go better than the Capital Residence Suites which are a 300 metre walk from the Royal Regalia Museum and 700 metres from the mosque.

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As we arrived in the late afternoon we hit the road walking to the main tourist spots. Stopping at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque cruising along past the Kampong Ayer (the water village) and stopping for icy cold (non-alcoholic) beverages as this place is hot. January is Brunei’s coldest month when it gets down to a frigid 30.4 degrees. We zipped around and made it back to the hotel for its nighttime free shuttle to the Tamu Kianggeh (food night market). We cruised the market where almost everything cost a dollar. We ate, we looked and happily sampled the local delicacies.

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On the drive to the market we passed the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which is the largest in Brunei and was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. It is massive. On the way back we conned the shuttle driver into stopping for photos. Upon returning to the hotel we then got the hotel staff to tell the driver to take us to the Istana Nurul Iman which is the residential palace of the Sultan. Alas you can only really get decent aerial photos of the palace but the hotel was happy to allow us to use their driver and van as our own personal tour guides…at no cost.

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The next day we would leave but in the morning we headed to the Royal Regalia Museum (Bangunan Alat Kebesaran Diraja) which displays the royal accessories used during the coronation, and the various gifts received by the Sultan from all dignitaries etc from around the world. Now this is a fascinating concept…what do you give to the man who has (or can afford) everything. The entire museum is filled with gifts and trinkets from all over the world along with the carriages, uniforms, and regalia used during various official functions.

From here the hotel once again offered us the shuttle bus to take us back to the ferry terminal…at no cost. These guys were lovely, every staff member from the desk, driver, restaurant and the cleaners were incredibly nice and were genuinely interested that we had enjoyed our stay. Luckily I met with the general manager of the hotel over breakfast and was able to tell him how good his staff were. We have not previously recommended anywhere to stay as this trip is not about that…but these guys were so far and above everything else we had encountered that we had to give it the wraps.

Oh…and all this was for about $50 a night…breakfast included.

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