China11 Jan 2007 07:04 am

China. The big challenge. I knew that SE Asia would be tough, but also a well traveled route with plenty of English speaking travel agencies to use if need be.

China would be and was, a different story.

Entering by train.. through the border at DongDang the change was instantaneous. No-one (repeat…. NO-ONE) speaks English.

Your train tickets are now all in Chinese, the destination on the ticket and announcement boards = Chinese. The videos demonstrate below the difficulty.

Pictures and videos here are from Nanning, Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi Province as i moved north towards Central China.

Be sure to watch the ‘china entry’ video to give you an idea of task at hand and the school-boy mistakes that i made. The “Yangshou” video gives you an idea of the rewards that you get however.

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Title: China-Entry
Description: Train from Vietnam

Thailand11 Jan 2007 04:11 am
Northern Thailand.  Historic pilgramige for Thai people.   This area is THE destination of the locals from all over Thailand. 

You mention Chiang Mai to them and they glaze over and
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Russia10 Jan 2007 10:53 am

RUSSIA! After a long time in Asia, it was time to cross the Mongolian Border and enter Siberia and leave the Trans Mongolian and join the Siberian Express. Mongolia into Irkukst, Russia.

Leaving Ulan Battaar after all the passport issues was a little sad, as I really got to know the place after just under 1 month in Mongolia – and the state of my first Russian Train really woke me up to what was to come over the next few weeks as I travel East to West on the TSR (as you will see from the video below).

HOWEVER, what a way to go. There are common ways of traveling on the Trans Siberian. Buy your ticket and go the whole journey in one big jump (7 days and nights) and also most Westerners will fly to Moscow and travel to Vladivostock then fly home again.

Coming the way I did (East to West ) on smaller trains and stopping off at towns meant I met the REAL people on REAL trains – ie, the REAL experience.

 

Russia is still a hard place to get into as you would have seen from my Mongolian posting. However, at the border – it was perhaps also the most stringent search and review of documents I have ever seen. The beds were taken up and searched, luggage opened, people on the roof of the train, under the train and the train sides being ‘tapped’ on for hidden compartments. Daunting stuff.

IF i was a spy back in the old days, I would have crapped myself. And the racial difference was…. well stark. Cross the border and suddenly, the new town is full of Westerners. Not Asians. After so long, it was strange.

Irkukst. Found a great hostel in Irkukst, wifi cafe etc. to refresh after the journey and then found the wonder of speaking English in Russia. How people SMILE when you address them in English and how it also makes no difference to them that you can’t understand Russian. If they dont speak English in China, or in Vietnam etc… that’s the end of the conversation. Not here… they will just carry on in Russian as though you understand everything – I loved it.

One night, a bar maid at a cafe I had been in told me of a discotech that I should go to. So, I invited some great lads from NZ and Au that I had met at the hostel that morning and we all went to the club mentioned. From what the doorman was saying (reading hand gestures here), we could not come in without tickets – but we couldnt buy tickets there; and LUCKILY (as the club was a fair way out of the city) a young lady came and sold us tickets to get in that she had spare.

What we didnt know and it slowy dawned on us through the night as young russian after young russian danced passed, was that we had crashed a Student Union party at the club and the hopsitality they showed us when they saw we were tourists was beyond belief. I would not be surprised if we were let in because of our status and ONLY because of our status. Lovely people.

Photos below are of Lake Baykal.

That was the main attraction in that area.

The largest freshwater lake in the world (and frozen when I was there)

I wanted to go Ice Diving under it, but unfortunatly I had damaged my ankle in Mongolia so will do it another time.

More of Baykal (including the snow storm that hit me) in the videos below.

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Title: Mongolia-to-Russia
Description: Meet some locals on the way to Irkukst, Russia

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Title: Lake-Baykal
Description: Siberian Frozen Lake

Russia09 Jan 2007 09:58 am

As with most of my journey (actualy, any big journey) I left it flexible.

IE – Had not pre-bought tickets or hotels or fixed dates etc..

Which is just as well for this part of the trip as you will see from the video of my train journey from Irkukst to Omsk in Russia (great video – bottom of page).

Give your self 15 mins to watch the train video – I made it this long to give an idea of what traveling on the trans-siberian is like.

This particular leg of the journey was one of those crazy trips where you’re not sure WHAT would happen.

I’d PLANNED (well kind of drew on a map) to go to a certain destination called Krasnoyarsk, to help break up my journey and potter around for a few days.

However – in my excitement at learning how to order a ticket in Russian – I got my ticket back to the hostel and found that I had booked to a town called Novosibirsk.

Not a major problem, unless you take into the fact that the size of Russia made this 24 hour’s extra on the train in one pop.

SO – I thought go with it. Until, Im sitting on the train and have read that truly; there’s not much IN Novosibirsk.

I’ve not written too much on this specific part – as the video, is 15 mins long, and I want you to watch all of it. It’s just a comedy of errors.

It shows me trying to negotiate in Russian with a babushka train attendent who could have mothered James Bond’s nemesis/friend “Jaws” whilst she tells me she has a single daughter in Minsk.

When it gets to her doing deals with some mafioso looking guy (who takes the money for people wanting to ‘travel further’);Im getting decidedly concerned as Im locked up in a small dark room wondering what’s going to happen! Very funny watching it now.

Throw in a kebab that Im sure is made with Bear Meat and some russian kids who share my compartment – you’ve got a whole-round experience of planning your own trip on the East to West Trans Siberian express.

I wouldnt change it for the world however.

The people I met on this trip (as other legs) were genuine, amazing, kind friendly people.

Most, labor workers traveling home etc.. have never met a foreigner before and amazed that Im on THEIR train and not a non-stop tourist train.

Omsk itself? Not a tourist destination – so again, you are a minor celebrity if you speak only English. I met a wonderful person here called Luda who showed me around the ‘real Russia’ for a few days.

The video below is 18 mins long. But gives you a real idea of what these journeys are like. Advise you to press play, PAUSE, let it load for a while and then resume.

Cambodia08 Jan 2007 04:09 am

Have i cried on this journey? Yes.    Have i cried for non-selfish reasons… i have now.  

Phnom Penh. The empty city.   Brief history for you –  You have heard of Pol Pot. If you have seen the film “Killing Fields” you would have an idea. 
Continue Reading »

Thailand08 Jan 2007 01:51 am

SCUBA diving. I have been a few times on introductory dives, but thought that whilst near Koh Tao, Thailands Dive School mecca – why not get qualified for life. Koh Tao, means Turtle Island. They now say that it is because the island looks like a turtle rising out of the water (don’t all then??) The real reason i tht there used to be many many turtles – but they are now all dissapearing and rare to see (i saw one… sleeping, in a hole in the coral. It yawned like a grandaddy turtle would in a Disney Movie)

The journey over was hectic. What you expect to be a smooth ride over the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.. well, watch the video below.

I took my SSA Open Water certificate which is training over 3 days and exam and then went back to Koh Phangan. however, i enjoyed it so much, i went back for a further 9 days to Koh Tao and furthered my qualification to Advanced. This includes the ability to now dive to 30 meters (saw sharks), night diving, bouyancy skills, underwater navigation etc.. well worth doing and puts miles of confidence in you. (See video below for first stage)

The night dive alone is fantastic. Wave your hand and the Phosphorescence sparkles like blue fire on your hands. Spin round and your body is in flames. NOTE: – i looked this up, and the true term is bioluminescent plankton (some of you i know will like that link). The last time i saw similar was when taking a leak off the back of a sailing boat at 2am on the Great Barrier Reef – i nearly had a heart attack when my piss started glowing when it hit the water.

One point of interest to note, was how casual things have become and how the extrordinary seems so ‘ordinary’. On this island, i helped organise a bucket chain from the beach, to put out our local bar (lotus bar) that was on fire. Everyone was staring at the smoke up the beach watching two local thai guys run to the ocean with small buckets. One shout of ‘come on guys – GET BUCKETS’ and everyone joined in.

By the evening i forgot it had even happened – and so had the bar, open as usual minus half its roof and storeroom. Photos are clearly from someone without a bucket of water in their hand.

Sorely tempted to live on this tropical paradise for the next 9 months and become a qualified dive instructor for a living, but left for Bangkok and am hoping New York has some great crystal clear dive sites to explore (?!?!?)

The photo above… is that of the view from my coffee in the mornings. Now my wallpaper. Bangkok next stop – how will i cope?

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Title: Rough-Sea
Description: Journey to Koh Tao goes wrong

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Title: SCUBA-course
Description: Learnng officialy to dive.

Thailand06 Jan 2007 03:35 am

My plan: Leave Samui, stop at Koh Phangan to see what the fuss is about for one night – then on to Koh Tao to obtain my Open Water dive liscene and then up to .

Bangkok to meet Michael who had left Samui for Phuket. All this in a week. From there, enter Cambodia and start the travels again. Not so

Koh Phangan. World famous for it’s Full Moon Parties. A pilgrimage for some, where the main beach in Had Rin becomes one heaving sandy nightclub and the waterline becomes the gents toilets littered with plastic bottles, buckets, cups and flip-flops.

I arrived on a boat full of westerners, expecting the worse. There was still 3 weeks until the next full moon party and the town was quiet. Little did I know that it was quiet, because people were still sleeping from what is one CONSTANT party on this island. Every night, parties on the beach. People don’t even head out till 10pm, stay up all night on the redbull and go to bed around 4 to 6 am.

I hired a moped and went outside the main area that first day – and was pleasantly surprised. The hills and roads surrounding the main party town of Had Rin were so treacherous, that many people would not dare take a moped too far.

This is in fact Thailands most dangerous and fatal road. I saw a twisted moped surrounded by at least 2 litres of sticky blood on one day. Later that week, on a minibus to the ferry, I was to meet one of the riders, an Aussie, covered in scrapes and bandages. He was one of 3 people drunk and drugged on that moped when it crashed midday after Full Moon party. The English passenger was in hospital still with head injuries and the Swedish driver, dead.

So – the road, a perfect barrier to keep the unwashed at bay and the glam tourist industry at a minimum in most areas. This island is BEAUTIFUL. I found numerous little fishing villages, untouched by the tourism. Pristine beaches, palm tree forests and food stalls for the locals. Koh Phangan was not what I had imagined it to be.

I headed out that night on the main beach and found the party. Dumbfounded by the beauties of Israel, Sweden etc… drinking in their bikinis – what man would not want to stay out longer. Bed at 6am. Three days later, I realised I had been on that beach 3 times and not yet seen it in daylight. I had to change plans. Michael kindly was not too perturbed about me not coming to Bangkok on time as agreed and headed home to Australia. I went to Koh Tao to have a break for 5 days for my diving and arranged with travel friends from Malaysia, Laos etc.. to spend Xmas and New Year on Koh Phangan. What to write? Party, sleep, lay on the beach, Party, sleep, lay on the beach. No matter how sensible a person you are, Phangan sucks you in and turns you into your devil twin. Mother Theresa could turn up here and be seen with her habit over her shoulders dancing with a bucket in hand.

3 weeks on this Island and time to go, before my liver and kidneys run away without me. BUT – why not stay a few days more for the full moon party on the 3rd Jan? Because my visa runs out that day. So? Do – a ‘visa run’. (see seperate blog post) Where you leave the country and get a stamp again on entry that gives you another month in Thailand. All in a 24 hour period, you are back on the island the next evening feeling dead. That’s where the Redbull helps. Back to the beach to gyrate with Mother Theresa and, hell, why NOT jump through that suspended hula-hoop thats flaming with kerosene, you and your brain are on holiday.

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Title: To-Phangan
Description: Journey to Party Island

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Title: Real-Deal
Description: Koh Phangan’s other side

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Title: Beach-Life
Description: An afternoon on the beach

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Title: Fire
Description: They made me do it

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Title: xmas-day
Description: xmas on a Thai island

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Title: New-Year
Description: 40k+ bodies on a beach

Cambodia04 Jan 2007 01:12 pm

Battambang is a small town outpost between Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia and phnom Phenn in the south.

I opted to travel by boat, along the TonneLeSapp river, which runs off of south East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. The journey would take 5 hours in wet season and the river would be 6 meters deep.

It took 10 hours, along a 2 meter deep river, sometimes shallower where we get stuck in the mud and most times, enough room for one boat only.

The journey, takes you through true rural Cambodia, past floating markets and villages where pigs and chickens grow on floating platforms outside the floating house.

You boat past hundreds of fishermen guarding their nets, looking for the smallest fish to enter, which they will take back and grow in their fish garden or feed to the crocodiles they are growing for the leather trade.

You DO get tired, like many of these journeys, but are rewarded by that glimpse back in time to pre-elecrticity, pre-industrial era where people live off the land with none of the modern day comforts.

The town of Battambang itself is a beautiful example of french colonial architechture, nestled along the river – but oh so dusty.

You can take a moped out on some tours, but by now – like me, you are templed out. (See video below where Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared at one remote temple)

Out of everything there, the best and most interesting point for me was a “Bamboo Train”.

There ARE the killing caves, where the Khmer Rouge held monks, teachers, people who spoke another language etc in a temple and then bludgeoned them to death or impaled them on bamboo stakes before stacking them in a cave. BUT, to truly understand why this to me was not interesting – you need to read my Phnom Phenn update.

Bamboo Train: There is one railway, that runs across Cambodia. Because the main roads are now tarmac arteries between the cities and bus prices so low – there is only one passenger train. It runs on a Saturday and a Sunday. The rest of the time, there is a large stretch of railway unused by trains – that cuts through rural cambodia. The locals, have devised an ingeniuous travel device. Made of two small sets of train wheels on which a flat bamboo platform sits – locals origionaly used to push themselves and maket produce through the countryside on the railtrack by using bamboo poles. Now, they are powered by small motorbike-like engines. IF you happen to come across a bamboo train coming the opposite direction (there is only one track), the rule is, that the heavier platform stays put – and the lighter platform must be dismantled and moved PAST the train and reassembled. I used the train to cut some time between roads – and it is fascinating. See the video for action footage.

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Title: Cambodia-By-Boat
Description: Great rural boat journey

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Title: Bamboo-Train
Description: How locals travelin Cambodia

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Title: Jehovah's-Witnesses,
Description: Looked like Mormons to me…

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Title: Killing-Caves
Description: Death in caves- battambong

Cambodia02 Jan 2007 02:48 am

When rain it nightime, i come and collect many – they very good taste… was Cheer, my Cambodian moped driver/guide’s comment.

It was related to the fact that we were flying along a track lined by rice paddies at 2am, the green just showing through the edge of the dusty red beam of light from our headlamp..

A frog, quite happily crossing the track had the unlucky shock of being caught mid-hop by my shin, traveling at 60km on the back of a moped and richoched up to my shoulder where he dazedly saw my very confused face staring back at him. My driver thought it was the most common thing in the world.

We were driving back to Siem Reap which, translated, means Dead Thai’s – due to a war a few hundred years ago (… can’t see a town called Dead French lasting long in Britain).

Siem Reap had the lucky hapstance to be right next door to the world’s best temples collectively known as Angor Watt and has thousands of tourists daily spending their dollars in the area.

We had just left a festival in a village in rural Cambodia outside of town, where many uneducated cambodians take their bicycle 20km to work and back everyday to earn: Women 75cents USD and Men 1-3 dollars; in the building trade. If you want to know why there are 2 million less educated people in Cambodia – google “Pol Pott” or check my Phnom Phenn / Battambang posts when published.

I cannot stress enough the benefit of getting out of cities when doing these journeys. You will see pictures and videos here of many temples. Cambodia, namely Siem Reap is a destination specifically for these massive old temples.

But, with tourism comes tourists. You will note some of my pictures focus on them – rather than the temples – as it just seemed so strange.

I decided to head out 70km on a bike with Cheer, to see other sites – and was rewarded with ancient temples overgrown with jungle – to myself.

I was rewarded with sitting on a roadside eating catfish whilst drinking bootleg ‘palm-wine’ made from palm trees with locals – whilst one horse, our moped and a cart hooked up to bullocks were parked next to us waiting to take us home.

Ordinarily, if i had a line of young men waiting to dance with me on a dancefloor, full of just men – i would not mention it… But the festival is worth painting for you. It was running in a vast dry paddi acerage to celebrate the completion of a new Pagoda in the village.

Picture a fun-fair in the 1930’s and you are close to the truth. Hoops over beer bottles, darts in ballons, a pantomime and a 15 foot high ferris wheel.

I was the only non-cambodian out of about 5 thousand and to my surprise a minor celebrity. These people rarely go into town, so never see a foreigner.

You will notice a distinct lack of photographs and video from this event, as i held the only camera there. To buy my camera, these people would work on average 800 days and not spend a penny on food etc.. The one time i used it, on a dancefloor – the flash caused a sensation of cheers and murmours that i put it safely out of view after realising my faux par.

Truly, i have much to write about but cannot explain in short enough prose to hold your attention here. I am lucky enough to have been taken into a shack house of my drivers family and lucky enough to be taken to party with the people who want to hold your hand dancing in a field just out of sheer genuine happiness; with no stigma attached and no language needed.

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Title: Cambodian-Style
Description: Country parties and eating chicken foetus

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Title: Tourist-Overload
Description: Why i like off the beaten track

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Title: Indina-Jones
Description: Exploring an empty jungle temple

Thailand01 Jan 2007 07:01 am

I watched as the world unfolded in a reversed fish eye warp . Temples, skyscrapers, Starbucks, trucks, powerlines – all slipped in and out of an angled view similar to that of a shiny round kettle, or a polished spoon where your eye is the largest feature of your face when you look close enough. The back of my motorbike-taxi drivers helmet was so reflective it had taken my thoughts away from the chaos that we screamed through; nudging over 80 kmph at times

.

My attention suddenly came to, as our back wheel and I narrowly avoided being crushed – as we snake between a two second gap that two oil belching buses were closing.

Bangkok. My only regret about this town, is that i needed both hands to hold onto the back of the taxi-bikes and could not video the experience. Tuk-Tuks may be a ‘must do’ in Thailand, but for clear time effiency and adrenalin factor – get yourself on one of those bikes and experience the terror, smells, sights and sounds of the Bangkok Streets and you will never feel so alive as you do in those 10 minutes.

To get out there amongst the smog, people,cars and suddenly find yourselfin serene quiet ancient temples – bikes here isuggest are the only way to enhance the experience.

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Title: Bangkok
Description: A day out in BK

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