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Monday, 30 January 2012

cambodia and onwards

Just completed our two weeks in cambodia and loved every second of it, temples, beaches and more crazy bus drivers!!!

Silver Pagoda
Gemma suitably dressed!
We crossed from Ho Chi Min city over to Phenom Phen where we frantically rushed around trying to see everything in the two days we had. For those who don't know, Cambodia had a civil war in 1975 which lead to the entire population of Phenom Phen being moved out of the city and into the coutryside for reeducation and forced manual labour for 16hours of every day. Those people deemed to be enemies of the state (anyone who was educated) were gradually captured and detained inside a terrible prison known as S21. Of the 20,000 people plus who entered the prison only 6 survived. The rest were tortured to death in the most horrific fashion. The prison has been pretty much left in the same state as it was then, blood stains still evident on floors and walls. The experience was pretty depressing as you can imagine but interesting non-the-less. It is always shocking to know quite how deep humanity can sink. The total number of people killed by the Kumer Rouge regime is still unkown but is estimated between one and three million. One statistic suggests that one in every five Cambodians were killed during this period. After this rather harrowing experience we required some entertainment of a slightly more light hearted nature, so we went to the cinema and watch 'The Imortals.' For those of you unaware of this film it is two hours of gratuitous violence and killing, although Gemma found solace in the rather limited wardrobe of the entire male cast! We took in some culture at the Silver Palace which contrary to its name it is in fact a whole complex of beautiful palaces and temples well worth seeing. Gemma was deemed to be under dressed for the occasion despite being almost entirely covered up and had to resort to wearing one of my t-shirts. On the way to lunch one day we decided to take a slightly different route and found ourselves walking down an alleyway, which unfortunately turned out to be 'dog meat alley' (our name not theirs). There were some dalmations in cages, even more on spits and some being prepared. Obviously its a cultural thing and I'll try most things while we're out here but I draw the line a dog. We both felt thoroughly sick.

First glimpse of Paradise
on our way to deserted beach
We jumped on a bus down to the south coast for some beach and party time. We spent a week here, soaking up the sun and meeting plenty of really cool people. We managed to get out to one of the secluded islands off the Cambodia coast for three days. We couldn't get any tickets and thought that we would be stuck on the mainland but in a last ditch attempt to find a agent with space, we ran into a Portuguese couple who had resorted to booking a four person bungalow and seemed more than happy to share having only met us for ten seconds. Thankfully they weren't crazy and we ended up having a really lovely time with them. We did some coasteering to reach a deserted 8km stretch of beach. We found out the next day that there was a jungle path that would have proven much easier but so much less fun! The sand was pure white and the sea was turquoise and crystal clear. The resort name was 'Paradise Beach Bungalows' a title we thought it richly deserved. We tried our hand at scuba diving which was good fun even if the water was slightly less clear further out to sea. In an attempt to make the most of the time on the island we left it a bit tight to get our bus that evening. This wasn't helped by the fact that when we turned up to leave our boat was broken and not going anywhere. In typical Cambodian fashion they cobbled together another plan and plonked us on the 'blue boat,' a notoriously slow and rickety old boat that none of the dive staff wanted to get onto.

The sea was choppy so we got absolutely soaked for the following three hours and there was more than one occassion when we thought the boat would simply capsize. We arrived back in port in the pitch black with only 25minutes to get back to our hostel. We did make it back with two minutes to spare and celebrated with a beer having been told to sit down and wait for our bus which was apparently running late and would be with us soon! Forty minutes later we were in a tuktuk speeding after the bus, which in fact wasn't late and had already left without us! The bus stopped to let us on and thus started the night bus grand prix!!!!!!!

as seen in tomb raider
angkor watt at a very early sunrise

some proper temple scrambling 
Angkor watt from afar
We arrived in Siem Reap having survived yet another night of being thrown around in our reclined seats. The last one for quite a while. The insane part of us is feeling quite sad, the other part massively relieved that we'd survived. Siem Reap was really lovely and our hotel was the cleanest we had stayed in for a long time. Our room did resemble a fish tank for everyone to see in but did have the most comfortable bed so far. The temples of Angkor absolutely blew our minds. Angkor Wat was truely astounding.

Now we are in Bangkok, taking in the sights sounds and smells of the city. The street food is proving to be very enjoyable and even more importantly extremely cheap. We made some new friends on our epic journey across the border and have already had some very silly and drunken nights out. We catch our flight to Borneo in two days and will be very sad to be leaving this part of Asia. We are however very much looking forward to another stay in Singapore airport and another part of our little adventure.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Vietnam Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City


smallest seats in the world
Having come from the glorious heat of Singapore (airport) enjoying free movies, outdoor pool, tropical gardens and an excellent night sleep on the airport floor, we arrived at Hanoi. Immigration staff were as friendly as ever but we managed to avoid most of the scams and arrived a mere 5 minutes walk from our hotel. Considering what we had been used to sleeping in this felt like 5* luxury. We immediately set out to explore the city which is a hub of energy, activity and tiny chairs. We visited the market which only enhanced gemma's vegetarianism. Live fish are cut in half and left flapping about, frogs are skinned alive and absolutely every part of a cow and goat is on display. On the subject of death we also saw the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minn in his maselium. This was a very strange experience only outdone by the Italian tourists nearly being arrested for thoroughly un-Vietnamese queing behaviour. The city is absolutely beautiful with lakes, temples, old town walls, and trees that emerged onto the busy street through building walls.

st Josephs cathedral
Beer had now gone down to 30p a pint so we enjoyed many bottles, on chairs suitable for 3 year olds, overlooking St Joseph's Cathedral. We were only due to spend a couple of days in Hanoi but loved it so much that we decided to stay longer and help them celebrate the new year. This was a brilliant decision as the Vietnamese really know how to organise a party (even if it's not actually their new year).

rowing with feet!!!
We set off for Nim Bhin on a rickety local bus on new years day to visit the lime stone hills that emerge from the surrounding rice paddies and rivers. A couple of motorbike drivers took us around the villages to show us the sites.

The area is beautiful although the dense fog did make it a little difficult to see very far. Gemma's motorbike drive was completely mad but she thoroughly enjoyed it and couldnt help but mention how lame my driver was. We met a lovely lady who rowed us up the river in a slightly unconventional manner, using only her feet! Although we had already payed for the service we did have to bribe her to take us back again.

motorbiking in the pouring rain, amazing!!
ben's sleeping den
We Booked ourselves onto an over night sleeper bus for the journey to Hue. Being picked up last meant that we got the left over seats which were barely long enough for a child. I was stuck between the most talkative Slovenian gardener and the toilet. Gemma managed to bag herself a better bed so had far less trouble sleeping. My morning mood was only made worse by the fact that someone had stolen my iPhone. On the up side we did book ourselves into an awesome back packer lodge and met some great people who became our intermitant travel buddies the whole way down Vietnam. One of the days brought a whole lot of rain so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to try out riding motorbikes. We got absolutely drenched but enjoyed every second of it, even the huge pot holes and the crazy night time traffic in the city centre (driving the wrong way down a one way street probably didn't help!).

ben happy with his sleeper seat
hoi ann, one of our favorites
Hoi An was our next stop and it is absolutely stunning. Quaint little streets overlooked by beautiful little yellow building and a river running through the centre. Full moon brings with it a spectical of hundreds of lanterns lighting the streets and floating candles all over the river. The rain put an end to the celebrations and didn't seem like it was going to let up so we decided to head further south to a glorious 30 degrees on the Mui Nei coast. This meant another sleeper bus but this time we got good seats/beds and enjoyed a much better night sleep. We did, of course get woken up on a number of occasions being almost thrown from our seats due to the seriously crazy driving of the coach driver. Good fun though.

attempting to sand board im the one 2nd from top,

We spent the next few days sitting on the beach or next to the pool and the evenings drinking with all the Russians that appear to consider Mui Nei a second home. We went quad biking over enormous sand dunes. My driving was slightly over enthusiastic leading to us taking off at one point a d throwing Gemma off the back on another. I was fine though.

We moved on to Siagon and have really enjoyed the hustle and bustle of this city. Crossing the road is almost as dangerous as in India, but at least the vietnamese seem to want to drive around you rather than straight through you which we appreciated. We have visited a very graphic museum explaining the attrocities of the war and also spent some time crawling through the Cui Chi tunnels. Our lack of height meant that we were able to crawl through one of the genuine tunnels used by the Vietnamese cong during the war. There wwas absolutely no light so we had to feel our way through. The opening was basically the size of an A4 piece of paper (proof that I've lost some weight!) and the tunnel was only 80cm high and 60cm wide. Some parts were definitely smaller though. Gemma took the lead and got attacked by bats half way along.

The tunnel that had been widened for the tourists was much easier to get through and linked to sleeping areas, meeting rooms and cooking spaces, giving us some idea of what it must have been like.

Our next stop is Cambodia. We leave tomorrow. Neither of us can wait but will be a little sad to be leaving Vietnam. We fully intend to come back.

Keep sending random emails as we enjoy hearing what is going on back at home. It looks pretty cold;)

Write soon

Ben and gem (xx)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Annapurna trek Nepal

Well we have been totally useless at writing our blog but at least we can use the excuse that we have been having far to much fun!!!! We shall en-devour to be much better for the next few months and actually try and put some photos up.

Having booked our trek we met our amazing group who we would spend the next three weeks with, one other Brit, 2 kiwis and 2 Australians. We set off the next day and were lulled into thinking we had booked a luxery excursion as our first night was spent in the "Old Inn" a beautiful old house full of wooden beams, wonky stairs and beautiful wood carving (along with tutor style paintings) and would have looked more suited to the Suffolk countryside.

We set off the next morning for our first proper day of walking. Nepal is amazing, we passed through tiny villages, field after field of rice paddies as far up the mountain as you could see. Rickety bridges over gorges with milky blue water running underneath. Our next nights accommodation wasn't quite as glamorous, as you can see. One of our group was woken in the middle of the night with a huge rat stealing her banana!!

As we climbed higher and came closer to the Tibetan border we began to see Tibetan prayer wheels at every village, yaks became more of a common sight and we all began to love the tables that had fire stoves underneath that we filled with yak dung but kept you so toasty as the temperatures outside plummeted at night time (i was also very glad to have the biggest down sleeping bag and jacket you could find!!). In some cases the walls were quite literally paper thin, showers very quickly became a thing of the past (unless you could brave a glacial wash down from a bucket and the baby wipes, carried all the way from England, were the most important thing i had in my rucksack. Although December is a bit cold, it  is an amazing time of the year to be trekking as often we didn't see any other westerners for days and felt like we had the Himalayas to our selves.

Newly engaged
We walked at a steady pace between 5-9 hours everyday in preparation for the Throng La pass which at 5416m was to be the highest point on our trek. We we woken at 4am and set off at 5, tiny head torches could be seen impossibly high on the mountain in the pitch black, we set off in -15 conditions with every single item of clothing we owned on. Was so cold our water froze in our bottles and you had to keep your head down against the biting cold wind. After 4 hours of trudging for me ( i couldn't breathe properly as the air was reduced to 50% of that at sea level), Ben was almost skipping up,  we reached the top. So freezing cold and windy but the views were amazing and hundreds of prayer flags covered the stupa at the top. Everyone in our group made it to the top although one was so badly affected  by the altitude that he was immediately carried down the other side. Ben wanted to do a little extra walking and managed to convince me to climb a little higher to get photos from another hill. I wasn't overly impressed and did spend most of the extra climb voicing my opinion! Once we got to the top I was slightly confused by his seeming lack of interest in actually taking any photos. It was so cold and windy I just wanted to get it over and done with, but Ben just seemed to be faffing around trying to remove his gloves. I had no idea what he was doing and still didn't understand when he got onto one knee (I just thought he was getting something from his bag!). It was only once he revealed a small paper box from his pocket that I twigged. We were engaged at just over 5430m. He had kept the ring in his day sack all the way through India without me finding it. Time for the descent and finally I  got my own back on Ben as I love the downhill and it would appear that Ben's knees don't!!

The downhill section took us through beautiful villages, sunny fields, Tibetan monasteries, seemingly the windiest valley in the world  (if it wasn't for the strong grasp of our Sherpa i would have been blown off the edge!! money well spent), the longest and hardest staircase I've ever climbed that went on and on and on and on (2000m worth of the buggers in a single day), and the best views of the Annapurna region from the top of Poon Hill. Unfortunately we couldn't charge our camera the night before but had to complete photo freeks at hand to take over 2000!!!

Three weeks after starting we found ourselves in Pokera where we bumped into one of Ben's Gurka friends who appeared to have done the same walk in about 5 minutes. Spent a few days in Kathmandu where we endured riots under hotel arrest and a slightly  bizarre Christmas. We have fallen totally in love with Nepal and can't wait to come back but now ready for some sunshine and off to Vietnam!!!