Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

From the jungle we moved to a spot with a jungle shower. Sihanoukville lies on the southern coast of Cambodia and was only established as a city (and deep water port) in the 1960s. In the 1970s through to the mid-90s nothing happened there due to the civil war and then it was a slow road back to becoming a safe tourist destination again.

Map_thumb[1]

Our taxi driver was arranged by the eco-lodge through to Sihanoukville ($60), but actually we wanted to go to Otres Beach 8km outside the town. The driver took us to the centre of the tourist precinct, to a hotel he obviously gets a kick-back from and refused to take us to our destination unless we paid him $5 more. A little annoyed we refused to pay him any more and he wasn’t budging so we talked to a tuk-tuk driver who would take us to our destination for $5. Same difference to us, but it meant our driver, who already had a good price wasn't getting another cent from us!

And looking at the town of Sihanoukville was really unappealing to us and we didn’t venture back there until we drove through on our return to Phnom Penh.

The road out to Otres Beach and the secret garden turned out to be a bit of a route that would have been much more comfortable in a 4x4 vehicle, but we were fine bouncing along with the wind in our hair. Our driver turned out to be a gem and braved construction roads and even waded through a large puddle to see how deep it was (only mid-calf) before he gunned the tuk-tuk through. Yee-har!

otres_thumb[1]

Then we arrived at the Secret Garden and for 5 days all our cares and aggravations disappeared. Secret Garden is a new boutique establishment that has only been open since March this year. Being rainy season we knew we wanted somewhere where we could retreat indoors when it did rain. All the other establishment on Otres were at the more backpacker end of the spectrum, but we wanted to be at Otres because it was less touristy than the other areas and there was a nice white beach.

secret garden view_thumb[1]

The bungalow was wonderful. The bedroom was large and opened into a toilet and washbasin, which in turn opened out to a jungle shower. Open to the sky, but with a large privacy wall around it. One really nice feature was the lock box under the bed. It sounds a silly thing to mention, but the box was a locker on wheels 1m x 2m with a padlock. We could put in the computer, the camera and everything else; lock it and stow it back under the bed – no-one would lift it an wander away with it and our things were safe. We could wander down to the beach and no worry about locking the front door.

secret gsrden room_thumb[1]

The beach was great. It wasn’t clear, flat water as we have had in other places but it was beautifully warm and had wonderful waves. It was like the waves at Waikanae beach, but warm! The weather was quite good. Although it rained, that tended to be in the evenings, the temperature was warm but comfortable (early 30’s). The only minor negative was that it was a little windy – but with windy comes waves.

beach_thumb[1]
waves otres_thumb[1]

And we ate so well when there. The kitchen was staffed by a professional Australian chef, and they produced an excellent menu of western and Cambodian dishes. And all the staff were simply fantastic, nothing was too much trouble. They had to install a generator to cope with the variable power supply and said they had to use it most evenings. Costing about $7200 it gobbled 9 litres of diesel an hour. We did bike around to one of the other beaches, but the mass tourist establishments told us we were in the right spot for us.

Really there was nothing we disliked about these 5 days.

sunset_thumb[1]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cambodia–Koh Kong Eco Lodge

Before returning to NZ we decided to have 10 days in Cambodia. Having heard good things from our Wellington neighbours who had been there in January, we headed to Rainbow Eco Lodge. It is located in the Cardamom mountains in south-western Cambodia, not far from the Thai border.

rainbow lodge map
Tatai, in Koh Kong province on the left hand side





A taxi picked us up from our hotel in Phnom Penh and it was a four and a half hour drive on good roads (and $70). The initial period getting out of PP was exceedingly slow as we passed minivan after minivan full of people, convoys of trucks servicing the many factories on the city outskirts and plenty of other cars.

One thing we had not known before we arrived in Cambodia was that this weekend was a general election. So everywhere there were people on trucks campaigning. Although it was an election the Prime Minister Hun Sen Cambodian People’s Party dominates the scene and we are told many people are required by their employers to vote that way. There was a report in the newspaper that advised there was an alcohol ban for the weekend voting period – to avoid inflaming violence. However because we were staying off the grid, so to speak, this didn’t affect us.

We were met at the river by the boat and one of the new operators of the lodge. Neil and Lois are learning the ropes to take over from the lodge owner Janet & Gee on the 1st of July. http://www.rainbowlodgecambodia.com/

rainbow lodge


For two of our three nights there we were the only guests, so we had the run of the place. All our meals were included in the room rate and the food was very good. Each evening we were given a choice of three starters and three mains to choose from, so it worked very well for us.

We spent time on the river in one the lodge’s 2-man kayaks. The 1st day presented numerous challenges for us to work as a team in the kayak, but we got back into the swing of things.

teamwork


The 2nd day we headed to the nearby Tatai waterfall, world famous in Cambodia, to the Cambodians. When we arrived we had some trouble finding a suitable spot to park up because of other people there. We stopped and a tourist offered to hold our kayak steady while we got out, but he was a bit useless and the kayak overturned and we took a dunk in the river shallows. Not so bad, except in the manoeuvre Andrew lost his sunglasses, one sock and his camera got wet. Not ideal. We were wearing socks to walk on the rocks and it was amazing how much grip they gave.

tatai and wet
Wet and less than happy at the waterfall

Having looked at the waterfall we decided to head home as rain was threatening. Of course we got drenched, but we were already wet and one doesn’t exactly stay dry when kayaking anyway.

In the time we were at the lodge it rained each day. It is the rainy season here, so it was not unexpected. The thing we noticed most in contrast to Vientiane was how humid and moist everything was. It was really hard to get things dry. Even a thin silk scarf hanging in the breeze (after the dunking) did not dry in 18 hours.

on the river


The area is lovely and it was a nice break. We did not do any trekking through the jungle proper mainly due to the weather and our lack of proper clothing. We did do the walk around the lodge grounds where I acquired 2 leeches – one I noticed immediately and knocked it off, the other unnoticed under a toe swelled to a size 10 times it’s original as it got it’s fill of blood before I felt it squishing under my toe. And there were plenty of mosquitoes. 2 years in Laos and no mosquitoes bit me, they bite Andrew and avoid me, 2 days at Rainbow lodge and they have a go at me. The river was good for swimming and Andrew did so each day.

Back out on the boat to catch another taxi for our next leg.



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Packing up in Vientiane

The final week in Vientiane was a time of rationalisation of the bits we had acquired since arriving in September 2010. For being here for nearly 2 years we had not actually accumulated too many possessions, but it was still a daunting thought trying to imagine how it was all going to fit in the suitcase. Andrew actually spent a sleepless night contemplating this.

vegetable lady
Andrew and the lady we buy our vegetables from

But when it came down to the line our Kathmandu suitcases were chocker, our two 38 litre day packs were full and a couple of other small bags represented our goods to take back to NZ.


Having not moved houses very often, Andrew found it difficult to make the hard decisions when things needed to be thrown in the rubbish bin. And lacking a shredder, and not wanting some of our work documents to become public property, we spent plenty of time hand shredding papers.


vte apartment
We had arranged with a neighbour in the apartment to take our printer, electric kettle, wine glasses etc. so it was good to have found a nice home for these. Andrew had asked one of the guest houses if they wanted our bikes and made 2,000 baht (about NZ$80) for those. When we threw in helmets and cargo nets for the baskets they were onto such a good bargain.

We made a point of eating at all out favourite restaurants and were even taken out by our landlords to a new spot (to us) to watch the sunset on the Vientiane and had a lovely meal. But the best meal of all was the final night at our all time favourite restaurant in the city L’addresse de Tinay – their deconstructed Cassuolet is divine!

staff office
The Staff Office
 

As we prepared to go to the taxi in the car park our housekeeper and another housekeeper appeared wanting to wheel our bags out, and then there we unexpected hugs from the staff in the car park.

We are sad to be leaving, we have enjoyed our time here and have learned a lot in the process.

 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Burma Impressions

Some final random notes relating to our time in Burma which we didn't cover anywhere else…

Thanakha:
The pale yellow face paint. I had seen pictures of Burmese women and children with painted circles before we left and had looked it up. A couple of sources had said it was a tradition that was dying out or just done for tourists. However everywhere we went we saw it as a normal activity. Thanakha is a paste from a tree that is rubbed on the face for a multitude of reasons as it is a sunscreen, it makes the skin feel cool, it helps heal acne etc and is supposed to have a lovely fragrance - but as Andrew mentioned at the time we didn't get close enough to anyone to sniff it.
Thanakha


Flights:
We had booked our flights through the travel agent and we received our paper tickets and all were on Air Bagan. Every flight however was changed from the itinerary. We would receive a call from the travel agent to say the flight had been cancelled, but we had been rebooked on another airline, but at the same time (give or take 10 minutes). Therefore it makes a lot of sense to book both your flights and hotels through a travel agent so they know where you are and can always contact you to advise changes.

Although we were booked on Air Bagan we flew Air KBZ , Asian Wings and Bagan airways. All the planes were tidy and the staff very nice. The amazing thing about these flights was the airline food was really good. I repeat – really good. Initially when I saw the boxes we immediately thought of the marginal food we get on Lao Airlines, but this was yummy. Chicken sandwiches on white bread, tasty little cakes....

airlines


Roads:
There are some mighty shiny new highways out there and not a lot of cars using them. The cars that exist are mainly old and run down, but there are a number of new vehicles. The cars are a mix of left and right hand drive and the government has recently loosened the regulations for bringing cars into Burma - but still allows either left or right - so no improvement in general road safety in the near future. This is one country where we have seen large numbers of rural people still commonly using ox & cart for work and transport.

ox carts


People:
Due to isolation the country has not been dramatically affected by tourists. The people we encountered we're amongst the friendliest anywhere. Tourist overcharging & widespread scams seem almost non-existent yet.

Generators:
Everywhere there are private generators on the streets as the electricity supply struggles to keep up with demand. Electricity is controlled and there are compulsory black out periods.


Betel Nut:
Chewing Betel nut and spitting the red residue out is a national obsession. Everywhere there are mobile sellers preparing the leaf parcels, and plenty of willing buyers. Andrew had a short demonstration from a seller at the Scott market, but didn’t try any. No need to have teeth that are further stained. It is somewhat frowned upon but the nation is addicted to the stimulant and sometimes further stimulants such as nicotine are added to the mix to make it even more addictive.


Betel



A good summary of the process can be found here Betel recipe or here Betelmania


Fragrant Temple Flowers:
Everywhere that people walked and cars stopped there were flower sellers with threaded fragrant flowers. These were hung on car mirrors and taken to temple, they were lovely.
flowers




Monday, June 11, 2012

Finale in Bangkok

It feels like we have spent a lot of time in Bangkok over the last few months, but it has been a good practical transit point for us.

This trip, before heading to Burma, I had a filling and Andrew was supposed to have the last of his dental work. Sadly since his implant post had been inserted 3 months ago, his teeth had moved slightly and the tooth impression created then, no longer fitted into the gap it was made for. So they stuck on a temporary tooth, and we had to go back again when we returned from Burma.

Finally the permanent tooth was screwed onto the implant post and the permanent crown was put on the tooth beside it. Lower left hand jaw reconstruction work has been completed! Apparently he can eat steak now - as if deteriorating teeth had stopped him in the last few year.

We spent most of our time around our hotel in Sukhumvit area- Bangkok is an OK city, but not filled with lots of places we felt we had to see each trip. The new mall Terminal 21is a good space. There are a handful of chain stores, but the majority are smaller shops; many are traders from Chatuchak market but stepping up to a glossy air conditioned space. So if you want something different, this is the place to come. The entire mall is themed as an airport and each floor has a country theme, Tokyo, Paris, London and there are accompanying decorations. So many people pose in front of these and get their photo taken. Strangely neither of us felt we ever needed to do this.

The top floors have very good food halls and we ended up eating there a couple of times. Most of the diners were locals rather than tourists.
terminal 21

Until this trip my favourite aspect of this mall was the express escalator. No puny one floor, walk to next escalator, another floor, walk to next escalator etc. This one whips you up 4 floors in one go – yes! But this joy has been superseded by the discovery that the toilets are state of the art with heated seats, a control panel of options and are scrupulously clean.

t21 heated toilets

The other eatery we 'discovered' this time was the old Dutch Inn. We had walked past it countless times and seen it well frequented. But we had assumed because it was on the edge of Soi Cowboy, it might be a bit seedy, but the food and atmosphere were fantastic. The original owner was Dutch and we even had kroketten for appetizer before superb Thai dishes for mains.



Sunday, June 10, 2012

Off Inle and Back to Rangoon

Having had an interesting time on Inle we decided to head into the lake town of Nyaungshwe for a look around before our 2:30 flight back to Rangoon.

lake inle 1lake inle 2

The lake was beautifully calm and sunny and it was a nice trip back.

inle 4inle monks

At about 11:30am the sun was beating down and we were wilting under the protective shade of our umbrellas. By chance only we found the cafe we had been looking for as it had been highly recommended in the lonely planet - there was no way we were spending time searching streets in this heat!

Lin Htett Traditional food was a local place with a good picture menu so we could order easily. Having selected our curries Andrew was most distressed to hear there were NO cold beers - they had just arrived and had only just gone on ice. Breathing deeply to manage his panic and distress he order a nice cool lime drink.

Myaungshwe

We watched people come and go and still our meals had not arrived. Eventually we asked the waitress and she said the chicken and potato curry took longer as the potatoes had to be cooked from scratch. When the meals arrived they were really good and totally authentic - no tourist modifications here. (and note the Aung Sang Suu Khi calendar on the pole of the cafe)

We left and before getting back to our minibus transport stopped for a cold beer for Andrew. Which he subsequently spilt half of across the table - a very sad look when that happened.

Our return to Rangoon was via Mandalay. So a 30 minute hop back to Mandalay then we sat 25 minutes on the Tarmac while passengers got on and off. This wait just about killed us as they also stopped the air-con and we sat fanning ourselves with the emergency briefing laminated cards. It was so go to be back in the air and cool.

A slow ride back into Rangoon centre, rush hour again, before we headed back to the lovely Monsoon restaurant for another tasty meal to finish our Burmese trip.

Sule Pagoda

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What’s new Pussy Cat?

Lunch was a cafe with a difference. The Inthar Heritage House has been built in the traditional style of the local Inthar people. It was built from re-claimed materials from another demolished house and used traditional crafts people in the construction. The resulting house is gorgeous.

Inthar Heritage House


There is also a specially commissioned altar, which the owner said was they most expensive piece of furniture they had ever purchased - but it is stunning

But there is one very special aspect of this house – it is a Burmese cat sanctuary. The Burmese cat breed became extinct in it’s own country, and the only pure strains of the breed were in Australia and the UK.

With 7 cats from these countries a breeding program was established on Lake Inle at the Inle Princess resort. The program has started to be successful and they are trying to re-establish the breed.
One of the outposts of the program is the Inthar Heritage House.

Currently they have 32 Burmese cats.

We walked in and were shown the large purpose built cat areas. 1st up is an enclosed night area where the cats spend the night. This opens onto the day area...
day cats

The area is enclosed but open air and scrupulously clean, and there are sleeping mats, scratching posts and it looks like kitty heaven. That is until you see the outdoor area. A small bridge leads to a water moated ‘island’ where the cats can play outside while the moat stops them from straying.

cat island

On the island are cat houses with blankets where the cats can lie down in comfort away from the blazing sun.  The cats were in lovely condition, they were friendly happy and healthy. This is indeed cat heaven. Andrew looked like he was in heaven too.

outdoor cat

Upstairs we have a superb lunch of local food, finished off with French chocolate cake.

Lunch Cat Cafe


This place was probably the highlight of Andrew’s time on Inle Lake :-)

Andrew Cat

Friday, June 8, 2012

Actually on the Inle Lake

The day starts about 5:30am when the noise of the boats also begins.  Today we had a half day trip booked to visit a market, some cottage industry on the lake shores and to finish with lunch at a special destination. This trip cost us 15k

As we came down yesterday we had seen the floating islands where people were tending crops of tomatoes and other crops. 

Market Parking and Fresh Fish

Local shopping is down at the 5 day market.  Each day the market moves location on a 5 day schedule.  Today the market was nearby so it was our 1st stop of the day.  We walked around the many stalls looking at the fresh fish, vegetables and rice cakes. 

5 day market

The drug stall was a new one for us.  Amoxicillan or Ciprofloxacin anyone?

We also picked up a number of cans of beer at least half the cost of those at the hotel.

Eventually we returned to our boat and were ferried firstly to a blacksmith.  There are a lot of local knives for sale and this village is one of the sources of these items.  The coals where brought to temperature by a hand pump bellows arrangement and 3 men with sledgehammers beat the metal while still hot enough.

blacksmith
From there we went to a lotus weaving workshop.  It was interesting seeing the strands of the lotus stalk being extracted and spun into lotus silk thread.  This is only done around the Inle Lake area and given the time consuming nature it is 7 times more expensive than silk.  It was however not pleasant being given the hard-sell on buying woven items from the workshop.

lotus weaving

We have said we did not want to visit the cheroot village but we were too early for lunch so our boatman was searching for places to take us to fill in time.  In the end it was interesting seeing the process, even if we didn’t like the actual product.

Cheroots

Our last stop was the boat building village.  Again the level of hard-sell on their little wooden items for sale was unpleasant but the actual boats being built were very interesting.  It takes 5 men 1 calendar month to build a boat and these cost between US$2,000 – $3,000 each.  There are now power tools instead just simple saws, drills & bits, planes etc.

Boat Building

The path through the houses and the people washing and living on the lake were fascinating.

houses 2houses

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Heho, Heho, off to Lake Inle

Back out to the huge new airport at Mandalay – a white elephant project initiated by the military government costing $150 million and opened in 2000 – we are off to Heho, only a 30 minute flight.

The transfer from the Heho to the town of Nyaung Shwe took just over half an hour. We were transferred to our longboat and headed off to our hotel which was an hour boat ride down the lake. The hotel was established by a collective the local Pa-O people with funds/business concessions they received in return for signing a cease-fire with the government back in 1991. The profits go back to the Pa-O Community.

Golden Island Cottages_thumb[2]

Arriving at the steps of our hotel we were greeted by staff banging drums and cymbals as we glided in. We appeared to be the only guests there at that time, (by evening 2 other couples were at dinner) and the staff moved a dining table out of the dining room and we had lunch (Lemon chicken & fried rice 15k)on the deck of the reception area.

Food at the hotel was very good and tasty. This was good as we were in the middle of the lake we couldn’t just walk off and have meals anywhere else. The food, while not cheap, was reasonably priced. Beer on the other hand was outrageous at nearly NZD$ 5 per bottle.

In the afternoon we sat on our verandah and watched the boats and people go by and there was no shortage of passing traffic. Large motorised long boats transported people and produce to markets and other destinations. Fishermen propelled light flat boats silently past.

inle_thumb[1]

The fishermen on Inle Lake have unique technique of leg rowing. Balanced on one leg the fisherman wraps the other leg around an oar and uses a circular movement to propel the boat. By doing this he has a better view and his hands are free to deal with the nets.

fisher

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pyin oo Lwin

Our day was dedicated to driving to the Hill Station of Pyin oo Lwin about 70km outside Mandalay.  It was popular in colonial times to get away from the heat of the valley below. At $88 for a driver for the day it was an expensive day, but something we wanted to see as a contrast to rest of Burma.

The road was good and the road for each direction was separated by land/trees in between. This worked well given the need for people to overtake and this meant they weren't crossing into the opposing traffic as per normal. Our driver said it was "China road" and we haven't yet determined if it is merely the road to China or it is Chinese funded. There was certainly plenty of trade by ferried up and down the road.

The vehicle had natural air-con i.e. we drove with the windows down. And as we climbed into the hills we could feel the air getting cooler as we went.

Our first stop was the Kandawgyi National Gardens. Started in 1924 they had a good layout and collection of plants. There was still some room for further improvement of facilities, but we enjoyed the swamp walk, the pine gardens, and generally the whole establishment.

Botanic Gardens

The walk in aviary was good, except for the large billed bird that hopped along the railing and got rather too close for my liking. I believe the Burmese family in there at the same time understood my "No, no, no, no, no" as he hopped closer, without any need for translation.

birds

The orchid collection would have been lovely, except 99% of the were bare rootstock, it isn't the flowering season.

orchids2

Lunch was at the lakeside Feel cafe. We had a nice meal at a reasonable price. In the ladies toilet there was a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his body building pose circa 1980s and in the men's there was a few pictures of pin-up girls. Burma always has a little surprise for us.

In the guidebook it had said Pyin oo Lwin was experiencing a renaissance with Nouveau Riche returning to it's cooler temps as a holiday destination. However walking around the city centre there was little evidence of much catering to this. There were a number of British Colonial style buildings but all in all not overly atmospheric.

buildings

The military have training facilities here and certainly the entrance signs were impressive. We had read about industrial facilities being set up here, but that they were still just shells and facades, awaiting the lifting of economic sanctions they want to become cyber industrial estates.

military

Back in Mandalay we wandered down 84th street to find a supposed gaggle of restaurants around 23rd street. We ended up at a BBQ restaurant as we could sit outside and watch the world go by. In the couple of hours we sat there were 2 motorbike collisions (no major damage or injury) and general intersection chaos. We had BBQ garlic, BBQ Chicken and BBQ potatoes for dinner. The potatoes were so good we had a 2nd plate. Numerous Beers and food totalled 12,000 ky