Floating Village Siem Reap, Cambodia – VIDEO

Wow, what an amazing experience!

There were various package deals going out to the Chong Khneas floating village near Siem Reap but we decided to do it alone.  We booked a tuk tuk for the return journey for $8.  It’s about 15kms out to the village along a quaint road with lots of sights along the way: lotus crops, huts, stores and people going about their daily activities.  Our private boat was another $15 each for about 2 hours.  We would have happily shared our boat and private guide (Shopal) with others because it had enough seats for about 16!  With water levels low, (less than 2 metres when it can be over 10 metres) our first sight of the rather dirty canal was somewhat disappointing.  But it got better!

At the end of the canal, when we hit the Tonle Sap Lake, the water quality improved, as did the views.  There were many hand-built floating homes and other buildings.  Shopal explained that most people would rather live on the land, but living in a floating home is free.  He had grown up in one of the villages and while it’s great when it’s calm, he said that at times it was quite scary when storms and torrential rain hit.  Shopal had lost an uncle and two cousins in a boating accident.  Many lives are lost over time.

There was a Vitnamese section and a Cambodian section.  Also in the mix was a store with lots of supplies, a school/orphanage, a floating basketball court, a mosque and a Catholic church.  Some of the homes were quite flash while others were dangerously flimsy.  The ones with kids all seemed to have protective wire mesh surrounding them to prevent them (hopefully!) from falling into the water, but the villagers seemed more than happy to let extremely young kids out on the water in boats.  We saw kids as young as four paddling boats with their two year-old siblings on board!!

We stopped off three times on our tour: at two stores and at the school/orphanage.  When we arrived at the first store we were met by a flotilla of small boats, many carrying small kids with gigantic snakes wrapped around their necks!  They were seeking, and often getting, $1 for photo opportunities.  The whingy “one dollar, one dollar” cry grated after a while, but we donated.  At the store, as well as  the usual basic supplies and souvenirs for the tourists, there were two enclosures.  One was teaming with catfish and the other was packed with crocodiles, which became a bit willing when the fish were thrown in.  One Japanese lady freaked out at the crocodile enclosure when one of the snake-wielding children crept up behind her!

At the second store you had the option of buying food supplies to donate to the school/orphanage. The store was staffed by one of the teachers, even though it was school holidays.  We donated a carton of noodles from the store and a bag of pens we had bought back in Siem Reap.  The school visit was great.  The building was partially enclosed to avoid losing kids in the water.  However, they had to jump half a metre from one boat to another and many hung over the edge playing in the water.   Of the 316 kids, over 50 are orphans.  They were all pleased to see us!  In spite of all the visitors and donors the school seemed genuinely in need of more support.

We returned along the canal to our tuk tuk.  The kids washing, people fishing or shrimp-harvesting, seemed unfazed by the water quality.

We saw some awe-inspiring sights.  Highly recommended.

Angkor Wat and the Temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia by Tuk Tuk

Yesterday we visited Angkor Wat and many of the other temples of Siem Reap by tuk tuk.  If you are seeking historical details, spiritual meanings or analytical details, read no further.  Consult your guide book or any of the many sources available on the subject.  If you want to know the more practical kind of stuff, read on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can negotiate a tuk tuk for the entire day for about $12.  If you want to include a sunrise or sunset, expect to pay around $15.  We went for the sunset option.  Unfortunately there were so many seeking the same view at the same time from the same lofty temple (Phnom Bakheng) that we pulled the pin on it. The queue was so massive that we clearly weren’t going to get in.  But we did get some great views going up and down the steep hill.  We experienced no problems with crowds at any of the other temples.  In the intense heat of the middle of the day some were actually quiet.  Taxis are available for approximately $25 for the day, if you like the respite of air-conditioning and some people hire bicycles for approximately $3 for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are lots of temples in the area.  Most date back around 1000 years, which gives you an amazing sense of being a part of history.  The tuk tuk tour takes in only the main ones.  The archaeological park admission charge is $20 for one day, or you can buy a 3-day pass for $40.  If you are right into it, or want to do it at a slower pace, you can buy a 7-day pass for $60.  The days do not need to be consecutive.  Your pass contains a photo and is therefore non-transferable.  Perhaps you could test the theory that all foreigners look the same!?

If you had visited Siem Reap 1000 years ago you would have been even more amazed by the sight of all the temples in their full glory.  Apparently this was before internet!  The number and scale of them is simply staggering.  Many nations are supporting their restoration, particularly India, France and Germany.  The area is of course World Heritage listed and is all part of a massive park with some very old and beautiful trees and lakes.  We were pleasantly surprised to be under shade for much of the day, which certainly heightens the experience.  But the humidity in April is still draining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most visited temples is Ta Prohm, also known as ‘Angelina Jolie Temple.’  Some scenes for her movie: ‘Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’ were filmed here in 2000.  Built in the 12th century, the jungle has recliamed much of it.  There are now huge trees growing out of the roof and some sections are entwined by massive tree roots.

There are many salespeople in the park.  Some will pester you relentlessly, but mainly as you enter or leave the temples.  Aaah, tourism!  At less popular temples they will even hassle you inside.  Enjoy the experience.  There are also many ‘guides’ around the place who will happily latch onto you.  I prefer not to use them (doesn’t suit my learning style!) but we did have one tag along for a while at Bayon.  He claimed to have lost a leg to the land-mines (tapped his wooden one for effect) and sought an outrageous tip at the end.  He was more than happy to accept a range of currencies.  (The land-mine victim band, which busks in the park, proudly have prosthetic arms and legs on display to encourage bigger donations.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are plenty of food and drink options around the park, particularly near Angkor Wat.  We had a nice cheap lunch there.  While we were eating we had a great chat to a young boy and a teenage girl.  Their English has developed really well simply from chatting to the tourists and they have developed a solid knowledge of Australia.  Sambo’s school has over 5000 students, with 2 sessions and 58 in his class.  Half attend mornings and the other half afternoons.  An unexpected bonus to our day was seeing all the local families that rely on the park for their livelihood.  With their young kids, their stalls and assorted animals, there is no shortage of side-shows to supplement the temple tours.

A looong, but enjoyable day ended around 6:30, 8 hours in and out of the tuk tuk.

Visit to a Cambodian Orphanage in Siem Reap

During our stay in Siem Reap, we were invited to visit the ACODO Orphanage.  The children from the orphanage perform a concert at 6:30 pm most nights.  We were asked to arrive an hour early to check out their programmes and facilities.  Chris and Natalie, two of their current volunteers, showed us around.  Lots of the kids came up and spoke to us during our tour.  Although extremely basic, it seemed a wonderful environment for them, with dormitories, school room, stage area, library and music room.  Several other rooms are ‘works in progress.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The staggering thing is how they provide a safe, nurturing environment for 76 kids on a shoe-string budget and no government support.  They are entirely funded by donations, which is where the concerts come in: to attract exposure and possible donors.  We were surprised to see that one of the prominent contributors  is Goodwood Primary School from our home city of Adelaide in South Australia.  Hengchhea Chheav, the Cambodian founding president, set it up in 2008 by selling his house and car.  He rose from poverty to become a university lecturer.  They rely on volunteers to run the programmes and have great plans for the future, including a school for up to 800 and a self-sufficient farm out in the country.  The current group of kids are among Cambodian society’s most vulnerable: from impoverished families, single or no parents, disabled, victims of AIDS/HIV etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The concert was brilliant.  You could tell by the intensity of their movements and joy on their faces that the kids were right into it.  They were clearly enjoying their chance to perform.  Backed by a band of fellow students, children performed a range of items, based on Cambodian culture.  They did a wonderful job!  After the show they happily mingled with the audience.  Donations were sought but there was certainly no pressure or hard sell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a highly deserving organisation!!  Any money received is put to extremely good use.  For example, they can feed the entire school community of over 80 for just  $160 a day.  The school for 800 that is planned could be completed for less than $100 000.  The money spent just to improve my school in Australia could fund 50 new schools here!!  The number of volunteers passing through, and the fact that many return, is testimony to the wonderful job they are doing.  We were amazed by the lovely feel and sense of community there.

1.  If you would like to volunteer there, we highly recommend it.

2.  If you have any spare money, donate it through their website.  (For example if you could spare $1 per day you could fully sponsor a child, receive their school reports, emails, updates and so on.)

3.  If you have a spare $89k you could buy a whole school!!  Now wouldn’t that make you feel good!

See their website for further details: it will warm your heart!  www.acodo.org

 

Bangkok Thailand to Siem Reap Cambodia

Yeterday we took on the infamous Bangkok to Siem Reap border challenge.  You cross the border at Poipet.  There are various options available to the budget traveller.  Cheapest of all is to take the 3rd class train (the ONLY train option) from Bangkok Railway Station to the border for less than $2, purchase a ‘visa on arrival’ for $20US and then bus it (no trains in Cambodia at the moment) to Siem Reap for  a couple of extra dollars.  This is the cheapest way, but it will take you ALL day and means you must also be at the railway station in time for a 5:55am departure!  If you are staying away from the railway staion, particularly in the Khaosan Rd area, there are better options.

The option we decided on was the 700 baht (approximately $23) package.  Rather than rise at an unearthly hour, you can be picked up in a mini-van at 7am directly from your hotel.  You then are driven to the border in air-conditioned comfort, process your own visa and then share an air-conditioned taxi with 3 others all the way to your hotel door in Siem Reap.  In the oppressive April heat, door-to-door air-conditioned comfort for 20 odd bucks, plus visa, had great appeal!

However, not even the simple is simple in South East Asia.  As we found out during the day, people were charged all sorts of different prices for their packages.  You CAN bargain the 700 baht downwards!  One young guy in our group paid 900 baht and was only getting a bus instead of a taxi.  He was angry for allowing himself to be scammed so badly.  We tried to reassure him that being scammed for $7 was not such a bad thing when fellow tourists had been scammed as much as $7000 in the infamous Timeshare scam!

Wherever there is a border crossing, people are out to make a buck.  When we stopped at our lunch spot, right near the border, we were met by our Cambodian guide, who had us fill in visa application forms.  He requested our passports and 1300 baht (over $40) to process our visas.  Knowing that the visa cost was $20, we refused to pass ours over.  He became quite angry and suggested we wouldn’t have a pass to get across the border and may be left behind, as the others in our group had all paid him.  We made one further stop at the ‘Cambodian Consul General’s Office,’ where our guide disappeared for a while with the rest of the passports.

The actual border crossing was quite chaotic.  There are a few useful signs here and there, but at times you may have to walk up to 100 metres without any signage at all and you wonder whether you are still going the right way!  Some official looking people, and other randoms, reassure you that you are.  First we passed through the Thai section, to be allowed out.  Then we headed for the Cambodian section, some distance away.  At the Cambodian section we payed our $20 and handed in our visa form.  The one we filled in for our guide had to be re-done on the official form.  We also had to fill in a Cambodian Entry Card.  A policeman helped us with ours, which cost us an extra $3.  Apparently this doesn’t happen at other border crossings.  But other things do!  One guy we spoke to was charged 40 baht for a fake medical check by a guy in a white coat and stethoscope.  Then, armed with our passport (now with visa) and our entry card, we queued up again in another building, for official entry into Cambodia.  One poor guy, after 20 minutes in the line, was sent back because he didn’t have the entry card.

The whole process took such a long time, maybe two hours, that we were sure we would be ‘stranded’ once we emerged.  In reality we were the first of our group to make it through!  We then endured another lengthy wait  for the others in our group.  It was here that all the conflicting stories started to emerge.  Who paid what for what.  Probably the MOST scammed remained silent.  The long wait gave us an opportunity to absorb our first sights of Cambodia: noise, dirt, litter, modern casino and the many women pulling heavy hand-carts.  But we weren’t done yet.  All taxis have been removed from the border!  Everybody had to board buses to a terminal several kilometres up the road, and THEN you were placed in taxis, or onto another bus.  The removal of the taxis is probably a good thing.  It removes more chaos and more potential scams from the border.  Do not change money near the border: they rip you off!

The final leg of our journey was the three hour taxi trip to Siem Reap.  We shared our taxi with an American mum and daughter from North Carolina, part of a group of five.  They are travelling together for 7 months and had some great stories.  Our taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was.  We gave him the full address but that didn’t seem to help much.  I offered the phone number but he said he had no credit left on his phone.  Remarkably, we chanced upon it, so our adventure had finally ended: 10 hours, door to door!  We spared a thought for the train/bus commuters.

In summary, no matter how you travel, DO NOT pay for your Cambodian visa until you are in Cambodia.

Tiger Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

You can never see enough tigers (or elephants?) in Thailand!  Having recovered from our encounters with the tigers at Tiger Kingdom, out of Chiang Mai, we were back for another dose recently.  This time we travelled out to the famous ‘Tiger Temple’ a few hours out of Bangkok.  The Tiger Temple is a sanctuary for tigers and other animals.  You can go in the morning or afternoon and they even run extra bonus sessions for extra money in the late afternoon.  We took the standard afternoon entry which included unlimited strolling around the grounds and the temple and approximately five minute photo session with a range of tigers.

As at Tiger Kingdom, the tigers are hand-reared.  The tiger population has grown from 4 to over 100 in the last 13 years.  There is no shortage of helpers who care for them, including a number of foreign workers, both paid and volunteers, who clearly adore them.  Most of our interaction with the tigers occured at ‘Tiger Canyon,’ which was our first port of call in the extensive grounds.  Every visitor is led by the hand or wrist by one of the helpers and is able to pose for photographs with a range of the big cats.  They are chained up, but clearly no chains were necessary.  You can cuddle up to them but generally park yourself away from their mouths!  Fantastic!  After leaving the canyon we strolled around the rest of the complex.  There we saw a range of other animals, which were of less interest, including deer, hogs, horses and cattle.  We checked out the actual temple, where some of the tigers are on show in the mornings.  During our stroll we were able to interact with a couple of tiger cubs being led on leashes and saw a huge tiger being bottle-fed.

If you would like a once in a life time opportunity to get up close and personal with some massive striped beasts, we would highly recommend the Tiger Temple!

For more information, visit their official website:   http://www.tigertemple.org/

 

Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

It’s been a long time since I saw that great Hollywood movie, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ but it has always stayed with me!  Especially the final scenes when that wonderful bridge, created by prisoner-of -war labour, is about to be destroyed!  In the movie, the explosion takes out not just the bridge, but a trainload of Japanese soldiers as well.  Proving that truth is always stranger than fiction, what REALLY happened was quite different!  The bridge was destroyed by an allied bomber.  Unfortunately, rather than a train full of Japanese on the bridge, as portrayed in the movie, there were hundreds of allied prisoners STANDING on the bridge, waving to the pilot.  Of course they were placed there by the Japanese in a futile attempt to save the bridge.

Jenny and I enyoyed our visit to the Bridge on the River Kwai.  Rebuilt since WWII by the Japanese and Thais, it was great to finally see this famous site.  Also enjoying a visit on the same day were a lot of Thai soldiers, no doubt visiting for historical and motivational reasons.  Jenny and I liked strolling across the bridge.  There is also a train option, local accommodation and a great looking floating restaurant beside the bridge. But for me, the highlight was the memorial museum situated nearby.  Set up by a local family, it has five levels.  There are many historical photos and interesting information about the bridge and the work by the allied prisoners-of-war.  But the museum has much, much more and anyone vaguely interested in war history could spend a great deal of time looking at all of the exhibits.

Some of the highlights for me included the Japanese war vehicles, dioramas and weapons from WWII.  In amongst the photo exhibits there are photos of Hitler with Eva Braun, Mussolini, McArthur and so on.  Highly recommended.

Bangkok Floating Markets

Ever since we were kids we had wanted to visit the floating markets of Bangkok.  We both remember seeing pictures of them at school and they seemed so appealing.  So we headed off in a mini-van early one morning, bound for Damnoen Saduak, 100 kms southwest of the capital.  From the van we boarded a long-tail boat to explore the surrounding canals.  We then transferred into a smaller rowboat to check out all the narrow canals of the market.

The markets were soon teeming with tourists, in spite of the early hour.  What was once no doubt a bustling, authentic floating market has now become very touristy.  The market, especially after 9 am, is more about selling T-shirts and other Thai souvenirs than what it once was.  There are still the boats, the canals, the local fruit and veg, the Thai food and lots of local people.  And it still has a great floating market look and feel about it.  You can still imagine what it once was, but I guess any place like this, only two hours from Bangkok, was never going to stay totally true to itself!

Lots of great photo opportunities still exist.  They make great iced coffees and the locally made coconut icecream, served in coconut shells, is a refreshing escape from the intense humid heat that pervades Thailand at this time of the year.  Many of the market people, especially the boat operators are quite elderly, making us think many of the younger generation have headed elsewhere to make their livings.  In summary, well worth a visit, but if you are averse to hordes of tourists, you may prefer Talat Khun Phitak, also south of Bangkok.

 

VIDEO Tiger Kingdom – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Jon and I had lots of fun playing with the baby tigers. It took us about 40 minutes from the old walled section of Chiang Mai in the open air taxi to get to Tiger Kingdom. We were glad that we hadn’t chosen one of the smaller tuk tuks for the same price as we were out on the open road for much of the trip. It cost us 300 baht ( $10 AUS ) return in the taxi, including the driver waiting for us for 2 hours.

There are heaps of  tame tigers at Tiger Kingdom, each with their own handler. There are no chains. The entrance fee is $17 a person and for that you can see all the tigers and  choose  to go in the cage with either the baby tigers, medium tigers or the big cats. You can pay a bit more to go in with all 3 groups.

While eating lunch in the restaurant you are entertained by watching others having their photos taken interacting with the large tigers which could be quite lively at times. However their handlers seemed to have things under control.

We had a great time and felt it was too good an opportunity to miss.

 

Best Australian Blogs Nominee

     Hi readers.

We have been nominated for the Best Australian Blogs 2012.

Voting takes place after Friday April 13th (lucky for some!)

We have decided not to enter the ‘most popular’ section as that would involve hassling all of you for votes.

 

 

Jon and Jenny

Phi Phi Island Trip, Phuket, Thailand

Part of our resort package was a day trip to the Phi Phi Islands.  They are stunningly beautiful islands that were made famous in the film ‘The Beach.’  There are actually two main islands, ‘Phi Phi Le’ and ‘Phi Phi Don.’  Our trip included a bit of a cruise/photo opportunity around Phi Phi Le, an hour’s snorkelling off ‘Phi Phi Don’ and then lunch and sightseeing opportunities on Phi Phi Don.

 

 

 

 

Our hotel pickup was at 7:30 am, straight after breakfast.  It was the standard Thai Toyota mini-van with lowered suspension, flash sound system and 10 lucky objects glued across the dashboard: in this case a Harley, F1 cars, a Buddha, animals etc.  We picked up our other passengers and then headed for the wharf in Phuket town for our departure.  Our boat was a massive 3-deck ferry for maybe 300 passengers.  And it was full!  The sun was intense so you needed to get on quickly to score a seat in the shade, or pre-book VIP, which is air-conditioned.  The stragglers didn’t even get a seat for the two and a half hour trip.  Two attractive Russian model wannabes kept the male passengers entertained with their scanty clothes, posing and posturing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phi Phi Le looked great, rising like a green/grey mountain from the surrounding sea .  The snorkelling was great fun, once they sorted out the crowd control aspects: who is, who isn’t, who wants to hire fins, who needs to change onto another boat and so on.  The water, as always, was really warm and a stunning aqua colour.  There were HEAPS of fish: probably only saw 4 or 5 species, but they were all around us.  A tip: take some bread or some kind of food – they will swarm to you!  And another tip: you don’t need to hire the fins, because you are swimming off the boat!  An entrepreneurial host on board shows photos of people with cut feet from the coral, then proceeds to make a fortune hiring out fins @ 80 baht a pair.  100 pairs equals 8000 baht equals $260, every day. (The masks and snorkels are free.)

After the snorkelling a nice lunch was provided and then we had until 2:30 to explore the island before departure.  We couldn’t believe the number of tourists.  It’s not even high season but it seemed at saturation point.  There were boats of all sizes moored at both islands, taking up a lot of the beach space.  The sea was a little rough, which made no difference in our massive craft, but a few of the speed-boat and long-tail passengers suffered from sea-sickness during the crossing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We checked out the tourist shops, a few of the accommodation options and had another swim just to cool off.  Some people stay on for a day or more, which is fine, but as with any island you are somewhat isolated and don’t have as many options as you do on the mainland.  Prices also seemed a lot higher.

By the time we were dropped off at our hotel it was 6 pm, which was fine by those of us on permanent holidays.  Some passengers on our bus thought it was a huge investment of time from their limited holiday hours.  But it was certainly worth a look.

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