Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia

We travelled by bus for an uneventful, but uncomfortable seven-hour journey from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The lady sat in front of me fully reclined her chair and kept dangling her hands over the back. No concept of personal space, argh! During the journey we realised that the majority of Cambodia really isn't that beautiful or well kept. There's rubbish piled up just about everywhere, on country roads and in cities and the country is generally pretty dirty. This is a world about from Thailand, which is very pretty and feels very well looked after as a whole. The drive from the outskirts of Phnom Penh took ages in the heavy traffic, so we thought we were really close to our destination for well over an hour before we eventually pulled up at a tiny bus station.

We arranged a tuk tuk ride at the bus station, with the driver giving us a low price of 3 USD for what was quite a long distance. We told the driver we'd like to head to the 'Street 172' area of the city, as the Lonely Planet guide book suggests this is a good place to start if you don't have a booking. He took us straight to a pleasant guest house called Golden Boat 2, which had a lovely looking swimming pool and a pool table in the large lobby area. I thought this would cost more than we are used to, but we were amazed when they offered us a double room with a fan for 10 USD a night [around 6 GBP]! We later rebooked for two more nights and there seemed to be some confusion from the staff about the low price, so perhaps we got lucky somehow when we arrived on the first night. Whatever happened, the room was small, but nice, the bed was comfy and we enjoyed the extra facilities!

It was clear that the low tuk tuk journey fee from the bus station was so that we would book a tour with the driver the next day. This worked out fine, as his price was good, he was very friendly and spoke exceptionally good English. We arranged for him to pick us up from our guest house at 10am the next day, to take us first to the Tuol Sleng S-21 prison, followed by Choeung Ek aka The Killing Fields. This was to be a day of learning about the brutal history of Cambodia, which I have to admit I knew fairly little about. An estimated three-million Cambodian people died during the horrendous Pol Pot era, which is hard to believe happened in such recent history, in the late 1970s. Well worth reading up on.

The S-21 prison was formerly a school, before being hastily converted into a place of enprisonment and torture by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Most of the people were taken from here to Choeng Ek, a few miles away, where they were savagely beaten to death in what is now most commonly known at the Killing Fields,

The S-21 prison is a very sad place to visit, but it is also very interesting. The Killing Fields are also very sad, but a very beautiful memorial to the millions of people killed during this awful period of history. Both are definitely worth a visit if you can. I only took the one photo of the Killing Fields that you can see below, which is of a tree covered in friendship bracelets. I won't write about the specific history of this tree, but it was particularly harrowing. I didn't want to take or share any more photos of the Killing Fields, so that you can choose to look them up yourself if you would like, or perhaps visit here yourself one day, if you haven't already.

As with much of the rest of Cambodia, we found the centre of Phnom Penh to be chaotic and dirty and didn't particularly enjoy it. We ventured out a bit, but many of the places to eat were very samey and practically every restaurant or bar was heavily branded with giant, brighly lit Angkor Beer signs. which seemed to dominate the city.

After a sombre day of history, we headed to the Friends International Restaurant, which was only a short walk from our hotel. Or at least we discovered it was only a short walk away after spending hours trying to find it and ending up practically where we had started! This was recommended by our friend Jess and also by good old Lonely Planet. It's a tapas restaurant which trains disadvantaged youth, giving them a headstart in the local hospitality industry. The food was incredible and very reasonable priced too. An essential place to eat for any visitor to this city. The Friends shop next door sells great handmade stuff too, which also helps good causes.

The following day we explored the city a bit more and walked to the Royal Palace. After getting a bit lost, we finally found it, only to discover it was closed until 2pm! While we waited for the Royal Palace to open, we spent an hour or so enjoying Costa Coffee. Don't judge us - it was delicious and oh so air conditioned!

The Royal Palace had many similarities to the extravagant Royal Thai Palace in Bangkok. It was nice to walk around, but nowhere near as grand as the Thai one and quite a bit smaller. Some areas are closed to the public as the King still resides here permanently. A nice place to spend a couple of hours.

We did a bit of window shopping, before heading back out for dinner later in the evening. Emily was absolutely delighted to ride in a tuk tuk that looked like a jelly bean! We planned to go to the night market, but only discovered when asking for directions that it was shut, as it only opens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We checked ourselves, as often people say this for an alterior sales motive, but alas our market browsing plans were scuppered by our bad timing.

Phnom Penh was a good place to visit for the history aspect, but we could have squeezed everything we did and wanted to do into one day, which I would recommend.

We booked a bus through our guest house to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which cost 13 USD each. We already had visas for Vietnam, which you are required to arrange in advance. For this reason. we hoped this would make our border crossing much easier than the Thailand to Cambodia border crossing at Poi Pet, which you can read about here.

My next blog post will be about Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] in Vietnam.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Koh Rong in Cambodia

After a twelve and a half hour overnight bus from Siem Reap, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We travelled in a 'hotel bus', which was a lot nice than other buses we have travelled on in Asia, despite not having the light, TV, WiFi or free bottle of water that we were promised when we booked. Standard. The driver also refused to stop for long enough at one particular designated stop for everyone to use the toilet and started to drive off while Emily, myself and others were still queuing! There was someone actually still inside the loo and we briefly thought the driver wasn't actually going to wait for them!

You can read about our visits to the Temple of Angkor and Siem Reap in a previous blog post here.  

As we've come to expect, we were greeted by a noisy crowd of tuk tuk drivers at the Sihanoukville bus station. We were pleased that there was actually an official looking board with the tuk tuk prices on it, rather than trying to negotiate a fee without knowing distance etc. For 6 USD we were driven in a tuk tuk to the Koh Rong Diving Center ferry booking office, where we booked round trip tickets to the island of Koh Rong for 20 USD each, before being driven further to the ferry port.

We had heard great things about Koh Rong from our friend Jess who had visited previously and it sounded great in the Lonely Planet guide book too.

We were pleased to only have a short wait and enough time for breakfast, before boarding the late-running ferry to Koh Rong. The crossing was only around 45-minutes as advertised and we were so relieved to get off, as it was super choppy! Emily and I both had to concentrate on not throwing up, even though neither of us usually get travel sick. Turns out if you sit too near the back, you get really wet from waves coming over the side of the boat, so lots of people had to huddle towards the front of the boat after finding out the hard way, which was quite funny.

After the scrum to find our bags when getting off the boat, we instantly knew that we would love our stay on Koh Rong. The island was beautiful and the water was crystal clear, even in the area where all the boats dock. We walked off the jetty onto the beach and were greeted by a couple of guys who asked us if we needed a room. We thought they would do the usual sales patter for a specific guest house, but it turns out they were just people that had been staying on the island for a long time and wanted to help new arrivals! They suggested a few options of places to stay and we booked into Ty Ty guest house, for an incredibly cheap 5 USD a night [around 3 GBP!] The room was pretty basic, in fact the whole guest house was kind of like a wooden shed! But it was fairly clean, there was a mozzy net and clean bedding and free WiFi to use on a nice communual balcony at the front. It was exceptionally great value all in all!

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

We spent most of our time relaxing and reading on Four Thousand Beach, which was a short walk from our guest house on the main strip. When I say main strip, I mean a small collections of bars and restaurants, with really low prices [especially compared to all the Thai islands we've been to] and without people trying to give you the hard sell outside. Such a refreshing change. We ate loads of great food and enjoyed lots of lovely cold beer. There were other beaches further away that we could have visited, but we had such a nice time relaxing under a big tree on the 4k Beach that we didn't want to wander any further. Emily and I both spend most of our time at the beach in the shade to avoid burning and always wander how people manage to sunbathe for so long and get good tans without seeming to put on any suncreen!

On our travels around Asia, we've encountered lots of very bad looked after and/or stray dogs, with visibly poor health. It was so lovely to see so many adorable dogs being well looked after in Koh Rong, including one cute puppy with 'BETTY' written in sparkly material on her collar. This cheeky chappy had a good nibble on Emily's bag during breakfast one morning, but we let him off as he was so cute!

The power on the island is switched off between midday-1pm and 2am-8am every day, which doesn't really cause any inconvenience. The whole island was just so relaxed and not a party island at all, which was what we had wanted. We read in the guide book that plans to build a ring road and airport and turn the island into somewhere similar to Koh Samui in Thailand have stalled, which is great news as this would very quickly ruin the relaxed island vibe. I don't think many regular holidaymakers would head to Koh Rong as it's not so easy to get to as lots of resorts in Asia, so it's mainly just backpackers enjoying this island paradise.

We stayed in Koh Rong for three nights in total, before heading back to the mainland. We then jumped on a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which my next blog post is about.

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia

After a long and frustrating border crossing, which you can read about here, we had a great nights sleep at the Dancing Frog guest house in Siem Reap. We booked a tuk tuk driver through our guest house, to take us to the Temples of Angkor, which we'd been looking forward to visiting for weeks, while planning our travels. 

The Temples of Angkor is the largest religious site in the World, spanning a huge area which is only really explorable by motor, due to the large distance between the temples. It took around half an hour to get to the Angkor area from Siem Reap, where we stopped at a big ticket booth area to buy entry passes. There are one-day, three-day and one-week passes available, so we opted for the 40 USD each, three-day option, as we planned to visit for sunrise the following day. When driving further into the area we were really excited to see wild monkeys as the side of the road!

The temples certainly didn't disappoint, with each area being quite different from the other. We found ourselves constantly being amazed by the intricately built and carved temples, many of which are partly ruined. We were caught out by a guy who we think was actually employed a steward or guard in the first temple, as he had a uniform. He lead us to a couple of areas that were pretty cool and we wouldn't have otherwise found and insisted on taking a few photos of us. He then obviously wanted a tip, but I realised all I had was a couple of 1000 riel [0.15 GBP] notes and then quite large denominations of USD. He clearly wasn't impressed by the tiny tip I gave him and asked for more, but we made our apologies and scurried away quickly! 

After some more enjoyable wandering through this first temple, we passed a group of around eight people, mostly children, who were trying to sell us various items. We politely refused, but the whole group surrounded us and followed us for a fair few metres. We were a bit worried about being pickpocketed so tried to walk away quickly. One girl followed us for a full ten-minutes, repeatedly telling us that if we didn't buy something, she wouldn't be able to go to school. I would have paid her something to go away, as it was seriously annoying, but again I only had the larger notes. We also know from guide books and other literature, that handing out money or buying stuff in this situation only worsens the problem, so we are trying to buy food and souvenirs from charitable organisations on our trip where we can. This includes the amazing Friends restaurant in Phnom Penh, which I'll write about in another blog post soon. We were offered many other items for sale during our exploration of the Temples of Angkor, but thankfully that first situation was a one-off, as everyone else backed off almost immediately when we politely said no thank you.

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

Our tuk tuk driver was waiting for us as we walked out of the first temple area and drove us to the next, which was a few minute journey away. We had to walk over a long wooden pontoon to get to one of the areas, and saw a huge snake in the water! After lunch at a pretty nice local restaurant [which the tuk tuk driver is clearly paid a commission to take us to, as with everything else in Asia], we were particularly excited to visit Wat Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider Temple. This area was huge and has extensive ruins, with large trees intertwined in it. It was amazing to walk around and no photos can do it justice.

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

We arranged with our driver to pick us up at 4.30am the next day, which is considerably earlier that I've been up and about in a very long time. I'm used to going to bed at that time after my recent Freshers tour! I hadn't slept well at all and was very blearly eyed during the journey to the main temple, Angkor Wat. It was still dark when we arrived and we headed straight into the temple, where we were greeted at the door by a man who gave us incense sticks. Not knowing the protocol, we were then told to touch the foot of a Buddha statue and put the incense stick into the sand next to it, which seemed normal enough. We were then told to give him 10 USD each, which goes to the monks. We couldn't believe the cheek of it! So many people must hand over this money, which is clearly nothing official. We gave him a dollar and walked off quickly, with him shouting after us. There are little [and bigger] tourist scams EVERYWHERE in Asia.

A photo posted by Josh Kinnersley (@joshkinnersley) on

We had some food at a little cafe on site and waited for around an hour for the sun to come fully up. It was quite nice to watch, although it was quite cloudy, so when the sun was fully up, it was obscured by cloud, which was a bit of a shame. We then spent some time exploring Angkor Wat itself, which we found nowhere near as interesting as the other temples. It's strange that this temple is the most popular, as some of the others we saw the day before were way more impressive. It's still great to explore, just certainly not as exciting as the other temples, which far less people seem to go and see. By this time we were already shattered, so we headed back to our guest house and slept for the rest of the morning.

We didn't particularly like Siem Reap in general and found it to be quite chaotic and dirty. We found a couple of pleasant enough places to eat and visited the Night Market, which we thought was very boring, offering standard, factory made tourist fodder. We spent a bit of time exploring the city, but we weren't overly impressed with the area at all. After two and a bit days in Siem Reap, we boarded a 'hotel bus' with beds in it and travelled through the night, arriving at the coast in Sihanoukville twelve and a half hour later. We then went on a short boat journey to the beautiful island of Koh Rong, which I'll write about in my next blog post.

Arriving in Thailand and heading to Cambodia via the Poi Pet border crossing

We arrived in Thailand nearly two weeks ago, to start the next chapter of our year of adventure! I've been wanting to write a blog post for a while, but we couldn't find an internet cafe in Cambodia despite looking for ages in Phnom Penh, the capital.

We flew with Emirates and this time they didn't lose our bags, hooray! Last time we flew into Bangkok, Emirates lost our bags, along with the bags of dozens of other passengers, as they didn't make the connection at Dubai. We eventually got them back after five days. We were worried that the same thing would happen again, as we were nearly an hour late taking off due to 'baggage issues', which is what happened last time. Turns out someone didn't board the plane, so they had to find and remove his bag from the plane.

We had a nice enough time reaclimatising to the weather in the Khao San Road [backpacker central] of Bangkok. We've been here so many times now on the way to and from places that it's all too familiar and super tacky. We stayed at Lucky House which was very noisey all hours on the first night and then moved to a much quietier and nicer guest house called My House for the second night. We had an enjoyable foot massage while we sheltered from an epic rain downpour - it's the end of rainy season at the moment. We booked an early bus from our guest house to take us to Cambodia, booking with a local tour company, against the advice of our trusty Lonely Planet book, which suggests only booking from the bus station. This was the start of a long, hectic and frustrating journey into Cambodia...

The bus price was 350 THB [around 7 GBP]. We really should have known better than to trust a bus price that low, especially when crossing a border. The visa price should be around 20 USD and general advice seems to be to arrange the visa on arrival, just bringing one passport sized photo with you. When we boarded our minivan in Bangkok, we got chatting to Owen and Nanna, a lovely couple who live in London who were doing a similar trip to us. 

We got what we thought was fairly near to the Poi Pet border, when Emily and I were told we had to get off, as we were booked through a different company, so the process would be different. We were dropped at a cafe and didn't have a clue where we were. We took solace in the fact that there were plenty of other tourists there, so it didn't seem too dodgy. That's when they asked us to hand over our passports, which is obviously something anyone is very reluctant to do when travelling, unless an official asks. We were told to pay 1300 THB each [around 26 GBP] which is a fair bit more than the official price of around 18 GBP. We said that this seemed a lot and asked why we couldn't just go and do all this at the actual border, The man immediately got very angry and came up with excuses of why it cost more. We had no idea where we were, and were worried about missing our connecting bus, so we had no choice but to do what he said. 

Thankfully within a few minutes the same man came back with what looked like a legit visa in both our passports. We were then taken by bus, then paraded further to another area with some other tourists, where the same guy did a 10-minute long speech about how it's best to have lots of THB with you, as USD means you get a bad exchange rate in the shops in Cambodia. He was really going on about this for ages, so something seemed fishy. He then instructed everyone to withdraw a large amount of cash from the cash point we were stood near [can't remember that amount but it was a lot]. Emily and I refused to do so, as we had enough money with us to keep us going for a couple of days and we knew that there were ATMs everywhere in Siem Reap, where we were headed. We waited to see what the scam here would be, which we assumed would be that they would then pressure sell you into changing the money for bad exchange rates at some point in the near future. We never saw this, but then again the guy knew who did and didn't have the cash as he watched them withdraw it, and we got split up from the other guys shortly after.

We then walked to the actual Poi Pet border, which was very chaotic, noisy and dirty. The queue was short to get our passports stamped to leave Thailand, then we joined a long queue to enter Cambodia. During this time we also got 'health screened' [I think due to Ebola fears], which involved us having what looked like a handheld supermarket scanner with a laser coming out of it pointed at our necks and filling out a sheet to declare that we didn't have any serious diseases. Shortly after, we bumped into Owen and Nanna again, who had a different border experience and didn't pay as much as us. They were able to pay at the actual office and not lose sight of their passports at any time. They also didn't have the token health screening. 

We queued for ages in stifling heat, before giving fingerprint scans and having our passports stamped by Cambodian authorities. We then finally walked into Cambodia - hoorah! Gambling is banned in Thailand and Vietnam, so there are dozens of shadey looking Casinos as soon as you cross the border, What a pleasant welcome! We saw one of the people who we think was involved in the dodgy company we booked with, who told us to sit and wait for the other passengers, so we could board a big bus. We were told this bus would take four and a half hours, whereas a taxi would take two. This is info we had already read up on before, so it seemed legit [the big bus goes slower on the pot holed roads and stops more]. It was pretty cheap [around 9 GBP each] to go in the taxi, which we shared with Owen and Nanna. 

The taxi ride was quite pleasant, taking in the scenery and chatting to our new friends. By chance I worked out that Nanna knew our friend Rosie, as they went to acting school together. Small world! It was also interesting to listen to Nanna tell us a bit about her native Iceland. We arrived in Siem Reap in around two hours as promised and were taken to a garage in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We were promised that the taxi would take us to the guest house we had booked, so were annoyed to see two tuk tuks wait for us. The tuk tuk drivers said they would take us for free to our guest house, but were really very persistent that we should book a tour of the Temples of Angkor with them the next day, as if it was our duty to them for being so kind to them! Turns out we had passed our guest house on the way, so we had been driven out of our way to be pressured sold something again! Owen and Nanna booked a tour and said their tuk tuk driver was great, but we didn't book with the other guy. I spoke to him for ages about details and price, but he really gave me the creeps and I didn't fancy spending the day being driven around by him. 

We booked a tuk tuk driver through our guest house to head to the Temples of Angkor the next day. I'll write more about that in my next blog post. 

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Our next adventure begins today

Emily and I are heading to the airport in just over an hour, to begin our next adventure. You may have read my previous blog posts about ten weeks spent in the Alps at the start of the year, eight weeks in Thailand in February and March and a visit to Boston in May. This time we're flying back into Bangkok, then planning to visit Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, before heading to Malaysia. We fly from Kuala Lumpur to New Zealand for a three-week bus tour with Kiwi Experience, followed by two weeks split between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia. We're so excited for lots of new experiences and sights and for meeting lots of interesting people from all over the world.

We had a last minute visa panic last night, when we realised that we needed proof of onward travel to be able to get our 30-day visa on arrival in Thailand. Last time we arranged a 90-day tourist visa in advance as we were stayed in Thailand only for eight weeks. The panic is owed to bad advice from STA Travel, who said it would be fine to get a visa on arrival as we won't be there for more than 30 days. In reality, the only proof we had that we'd be out of the country at all, is a flight booked from Kuala Lumpur, 38 days after arriving in Thailand, which clearly wouldn't suffice. So last night we booked a flight from Chiang Mai [Thailand's 'second city'] to Kuala Lumpur for 29 days after we enter Thailand. This actually works out really nicely, a we wanted to visit Chiang Mai again briefly after visiting Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and avoids any astronomically long bus journeys! I'm glad I had a final last minute check of all our documents last night, which may have saved a big headache at the airport.

I'll be trying to post here at regular intervals, to update my friends and also share my experiences with the world. My blog stats tell me that lots of people regularly read my travelling blog posts even now, several months after they've been written, so it's nice to know people are stumbling across them through the power of the world wide web.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Headphone Disco UK Freshers Tour 2014

I've just finished a three-week UK tour of Students' Unions and other venues, entertaining the nation with Headphone Disco. This is a busy time of year for us, touring our two deejay super-show around the country. My girlfriend Emily toured with me this year, taking on the role of Headphone Distribution Manager. Having Emily tour with me definitely made this tiring three-week tour more enjoyable! Sadly Emily isn't over the age of 25, so couldn't share the driving of our rental van, so I drove all 3,500 miles myself. There probably isn't a motorway service station in the UK that we haven't visited!

Lots of different DJs from our roster performed alongside me and it's great to catch up with different people along the way. Some of the venues we performed at this year we've been to many times before and some we visited for the first time. Over the last four years of working with Headphone Disco, I've performed in practically every major city across the UK and played in dozens of Students' Union venues. These venues vary in size hugely, but no matter how many people head out to our shows, they're always singing loudly and dancing away, enjoying the show that we're very proud of.

Take a look at a selection of photos from this years' Freshers tour below.