E: Phi Phi Islands – Thailand, Still Paradise?

IMG_7717When the final exam paper came to a close on that glorious date the 28th of May I swiftly exited the exam hall, hit the button to the 21st floor and arrived back in the comfort of my 10 month orange walled apartment. I then began to fill my rather modestly small bag which would accompany me through the next 3295 miles or so of my final chapter of adventures in south-east Asia. The following two weeks would be the well deserved light at the end of the tunnel that everyone who studies at NUS should be entitled to. (Apart from those on pass/fail they deserve to sit some real exams)

Although excited I was slightly dubious about what my time in Thailand would be like. The comments me and Kate (my travel partner) had heard about the land formerly known as Siam formed a very mixed bag of speculations in our minds. Remarks stretched from ‘It’s the most beautiful coast you’ll ever see” to “It’s really cheap and tacky”. Expectations aside we arrived fresh and excited into Phuket International Airport. Phuket and Koh Phi Phi are often seen as the heart of the Thai tourism love story which went wrong. Phuket’s streets are messy and distasteful, cluttered with badly built bars and shops catering for a surprisingly older crowd. Lines of middle aged men desperately selling tickets to Thai Ping Pong shows prove quite the task to be overcome whilst making your way down the infamous Soi Bangla road.IMG_8220After escaping from the bombardment of people begging us to use their taxis, we were quietly approached by a duo of thai men offering us a ride. Before leaving we approached the tourist reception in hope for an estimate of a fair price for a taxi, the Thai women were not too keen to help and seemed to give us the first number that came to their head. We reluctantly agreed to take the duo’s taxi and were guided towards a shady car in an unlit parking lot. With no clue he gave us a price we got it down to half and after a few stops for food (for our driver) along the road we arrived at our hostel Sea Blue Guest House. The guy on reception was very friendly and helped us sort out transport for the next couple of days as well as kindly informing us that we had been ripped off. The room we had was clean and comfortable. Phuket gives off the vibe at one point it was a truly exciting town with a vivid night-life. Disappointingly it now carries a European package holiday vibe due to the many fast food chain restaurants that are scattered across the town. We were most surprised by the fact the main clientèle seemed to be an older crowd. We had a few beers at this one bar and a wandered around. There are still some decent street food stalls to be found for reasonable prices but quite simply we weren’t big on the feel of the place.

Boarding the boat to the Phi Phi Islands the next day, the limestone rocks which come into view near the end of the journey are truly captivating as you slowly approach them. I feel the limestone formations appear so majestic to us are because they less commonly appear in this form around Europe. Koh Phi Phi Don is the largest island of the Phi Phi’s and also houses the central ‘town’. The settlement has evolved over years into this intriguing, busy and complex backpackers maze. It is noticeable travellers have been coming here for a long period of time yet there is a definite remarkable difference between the tourists that come to Phi Phi and Phuket. Due to heavy rainfall during the first night, many of the streets flooded and this made for entertaining scenes of both tourists and locals overcoming obstacles throughout the following day. Despite that the area is slightly dated and a little uncared for, there’s a great deal of charm not only about the area but about the locals that live and work there. Many of whom have left their villages in search for a more prosperous life.IMG_8270

The town was actually badly damaged by a Tsunami that struck in 2004 but there has been rapid reconstruction work on the town and on the more badly damaged coasts. We managed to get a very decent price for a boat trip around Phi Phi Let and although bearing some resemblance to Ha Long Bay the smaller islands have a completely different atmosphere surrounding them. As we were there in low season it didn’t feel as touristy as we had prepared ourselves for. It was quiet and there was plenty of space to roam around Maya Bay without much disturbance. I think it’s wrong to look at the Phi Phi’s in the same way as Phuket, ruined by mass tourism, the islands have changed from the untouched heaven they once were, yet in it’s place there’s an incredibly exciting, fun and vibrant forum to meet other travellers and let your hair down. Paradise doesn’t have the same definition in every person’s book.

Favourite Sites to see:

  • Phi Phi Don viewpoint – A beautiful spot overlooking the two main coasts of the island. Requires climbing up a large number of stairs and a small entrance fee is charged (20 Baht)
  • A secret tucked away shore on the east of the island. Accessible on foot via a forested trail from the viewpoint. Hardly any tourists to be seen
  • The famous Phi Phi fire dancers available on the north facing coast of the main strip during most nights
  • The Lagoons around Phi Phi Let
  • The famous ‘Maya Bay’ (The beach)

Beware of:

  • Being ripped off by Taxi men at Phuket airport, even the tourist information office is on their side!

 

C: Days Not Forgotten

It’s strange how quickly it’s possible to settle back into familiar surroundings. All those memories which are relatively fresh feel like they’re being masked and covered very easily just by settling into a routine of mundane tasks. Below are a selection of photographs taken during my last few moments in SG, Apart from the selfies all photographs were taken by John And Ai Jia, thankfully I think between us we’ve taken enough photographs to rest easy about the concern of forgetting. Still miss these guys!


E: Cambodia, the real life temple run!

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Phnom Penh

Our journey in Cambodia spring bolted into action instantly upon arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport. After obtaining our visa and having our all of our fingerprints scanned and saved by the government, we hurried into a tuk tuk and within minutes were free to roam amongst the Khmer people. ‘Phnom Penh’ usually isn’t regarded as being the most interesting, beautiful or fascinating spot in the country, yet due to it’s capital status it tends to be much cheaper to fly into as opposed to Siam Reap. Upon setting foot into our first tuk tuk the first thing out driver did was warn us not to hold our phones out for photographs due to snatching theft, a great welcome.

The roads were somewhat reminiscent of Vietnam, crowded, messy and alive. The noise is always such a refreshment when visiting any town in south-east Asia that’s not Singapore. The locals on the street consistently seem to be happier in the poorer Asian countries. Unfortunately due to the lack of time, a quick walk and some lunch was all we could manage before proceeding to board our night bus.

The window frame beside me throughout the bus journey exhibited a soothing image of transition from city to countryside masked in the colours radiating from the sunset over the Mekong River. The underlying excitement of the atmosphere may have been slightly dampened by the Swedish girl two seats behind us violently throwing up. Thankfully she dozed off after a couple of hours had passed, allowing us to do the same once night fell. A few random stops later and allowing some questionable faces aboard our bus, we seemed to stop moving. Upon exiting the bus we were greeted with the information that we were apparently at Siam Reap, when all that was visible were some motor vehicles and a shabby building dimly lit by the street-lights.   After a rather unnecessary (and scammy) 10 minute drive to our hostel (The Mad Monkey) we checked in and got a good nights rest.

Siam Reap – Floating Villages and Angkor Watt

The following day we decided to let the anticipation of the temples build a little, so instead we opted to go see the nearby floating villages. It was an eye-opening day and a good thing to see but the whole thing seems like a bit of a scam. Firstly the government collects a huge amount of the money produced from selling the boat tickets to see the village and it doesn’t seem to benefit the local people at all. Secondly we got scammed into buying ‘rice for the orphanage’ only to find out later online that the rice we bought was simply shipped back to the store to fool more tourists. Everyone you speak to seems to be a volunteer or do gooder, but then it makes you think, why don’t they just give all the food they have in the store to the kids if it’s there?

Right around 4am the next day was when we woke to go catch a glimpse of the sunrise over Angkor Watt. Our next tuk tuk driver was named Mr.Roth (kruta.roth@yahoo.com) he was around twenty-two years old and definitely my favourite driver we had the pleasure of meeting from all of my trips. We met him the day before on a random street where we agreed on around 20 USD  for one day around the temples and that all seven of us (stingy students) would fit into one tuk tuk. As we all climbed into the back it was apparent that our combined weight was causing a bit of a strain on the tuk tuk and difficulty for Mr Roth driving. We made a quick stop to call for support which arrived in the form of Mr.Roth’s brother on a motorbike, two of us would take turns to ride on the motorbike. They were very kind as they didn’t charge us any extra for Mr.Roth’s brother to help out. I remember that morning quite clearly despite my brain being almost entirely non functional. Despite the head the air felt fresh and although the atmosphere seemed quiet at first, tuk tuks and cars would flash by intermittently all heading towards the same direction. Passing the outlines of buildings and trees carved by the moon to get to the legendary archaeological site was quite magical in itself. (Probably would have been even more magical if I didn’t have Lola and Philicia’s legs crammed into mine).

Upon finally arriving, in the dark Mr Roth pointed us towards the temple and we passed under silhouette after silhouette of ancient entry gates. The moat around the temples emitted a mesmerizing faint glow and whispers of the excited tourists occupied your ears . After fleeing from a man dressed in a starbucks T-shirt begging us to have breakfast at his stall we squeezed into place alongside numerous other Brits, Germans and Americans and lingered. We waited for a good half hour or so before we began to see the distinct figure of Angkor Watt. It was a beautiful moment, while bizarre to witness all the photographs being taken constantly by the tourists. We joked that if aliens were to study humans this would be a scene that would probably be used in a documentary on human behaviour. The sun rose and due to my stomach’s ability to override my brain for the majority of the daylight hours we gave in to breakfast served by the man in the starbucks shirt. All of the temples we got to see were incredible, especially since I had never laid eyes on anything like them.

Ta Prohm and Bayon were my two favourites of the larger temples. Unfortunately though the sad truth is that the mystical vibe is completely extinguished by the masses of tourists at these larger temples. I would recommend attempting to see them during early post sunrise hours when there is a good probability there will be less people. I’d definitely recommend the second larger temple route suggested by drivers for a second day of temple seeing as it takes you around the smaller temples which are equally as impressive in terms of detail. The key difference is they just feel so much more special due to the reduced crowds and you were pretty much free to adventure inside them at your own pace undisturbed. The main sunset spot was also a bit of a disappointment, again due to the mass tourists and I’d strongly advise finding your own spot for sunset, I imagine that the ‘Pre Rup’ temple would be a nice non crowded environment to see the sunset from. The people working in all of the restaurants and shop stalls at the temples were the friendliest I had met in Asia at this point, there was very little pressure to buy which felt quite nice and I was comfortable taking a look around. One of my favourite moments from the trip was sitting down for lunch with out tuk tuk drivers and attempting a bit of communication.

When the night falls on Siam Reap you can spend your time along Pub street and the market located right next to it, regrettably we ran out of time and energy to spend enough time here to write about it but the atmosphere seemed quite fun! (Much better than Phuket for example)

Sihanoukville and Koh Rong

One of my travel partners Kate, the most organised and efficient person I have ever met did some research previously on bus routes from Siam Reap to Sihanoukville. The majority of comments she found were horror stories on delays, stolen property and break downs and these were all related to the only bus company doing the route we wanted to undertake (Virak Buntham Bus Co). Collectively we agreed on getting tickets from our hostel instead of booking this ‘nightmare’ bus. As we exchanged our money for the tickets we opened the envelope to find that the tickets were from the same bus company. Keeping calm we reassured each other all would be fine and ultimately the road was not too bad. Apart from being in very close uncomfortable proximity to a sweaty Cambodian man for the duration of the trip we eventually arrived well. Be careful however as we had friends who took the same bus company the week after and there were stories of stolen phones and tablets from the front row passengers, it turns out we were simply lucky.

We enjoyed breakfast by the beach and took a small ferry over to Koh Rong which had been recommended to me by some Bulgarians back in Singapore. We stayed at the White Rose Guest House which was basic but filled with friendly western faces. We really enjoyed ourselves during breakfast there, completely disobeying our malaria pills instructions to avoid dairy and gorging on muesli smothered in fresh fruit and yoghurt. (Always follow the instructions provided on medication!). Howie left his glasses at the restaurant back in Sihanoukville meaning our group had to split up as him and Lola went back in an attempt to find them. The remainder of us began our hike up through a mountain/hill covered in dense tropical forest.

Usually when hearing about beaches in Asia, ‘Cambodia’ usually isn’t the first country that gets mentioned. After seeing the coast at Sihanoukville I wasn’t expecting anything special to appear past the dense foliage. Thankfully to my surprise as the sound of the waves came closer and gaps between the branches became larger we discovered the most superb five kilometres of the most beautiful pristine and untouched coastline that I had ever seen in my life. This beach was far better than the screen savers I gazed endlessly at as a child. Being there presented a task in itself, to actually process and believe the image in front of us. Even until now the memory seems to perfect to have been real. The water was so clear and glimmered bright turquoise. The best thing was, we only had to share it with roughly another thirty people!. Howie and Lola made it back from Sihanoukville in time for the most breathtaking sunset I’d witnessed in my life. It was confusing not being able to decide which direction was more beautiful to look to.

As the night fell we departed in pitch black on a hike through a patch of forest in an attempt to find a dark spot to observe luminescent plankton that we were told existed in waters nearby. This was a complete failure, firstly because all the way through I was terrified we would be attacked by snakes as we couldn’t see and being at the front of the line I would clearly get attacked first, and secondly because we didn’t know that we were required to swim in the plankton for it to fluoresce. It was fun nevertheless and we proceeded to eat at a small barbecue place which was a little overpriced and the food was slightly disappointing. Our time in Cambodia essentially came to a close with a very fun boozy night across the 4 bars on the beach and playing some drinking games with my beloved ‘herd’. As we came back to our room I passed out on the bed, Kate cut herself somehow and searched in the dark for a plaster and a mysterious puppy decided it wanted to sleep with us. I had some of the best times in my life on this trip and these memories will hopefully stay with me for a long time, thanks to my beautiful ‘herd’ who accompanied me, this trip would not have been the same without them!

E: Indonesian Retreat

72As it’s still fairly early on in our term here in Singapore, a few weekend trips to the coast are acceptable if you make up for the work during the week. Bintan is one of the Riau Islands, a lesser known Indonesian gem just underneath Singapore. Word has it that the government has big plans to transform it into the next Bali. The island already receives some form of tourist income, mainly from Singaporean locals searching for a decent beach. When boarding the ferry there were endless advertisements promoting the relatively new resort situated to the north of the island. Being students with a limited budget we headed further south into the part of the island actually inhabited by the locals.

We stayed in the modest but beautiful Mutiara Beach Guest-house which I can only recommend especially for a big group. They gave us a very good deal by renting out their largest room and allowing us extra mattresses. If we were still in the UK the cost of the mosquito nets and coils we were provided with would have cost more than the room for the duration we stayed. Breakfast was surprisingly included in the price. I thoroughly enjoyed waking up to complimentary Coconut and Lime pancakes by the beach.

Undoubtedly the best part of the trip was renting out some scooters and taking our time to pass through coconut plantations and untouched Indonesian countryside. We made various stops including a little seafood restaurant and had the most delicious marinated fresh fish (for £2 per person!) and by a little stretch of coast with a coral islet opposite. It was possible to walk across the sea from the beach and made for some great photo opportunities. Back at our guest house the beach was very beautiful by the time we arrived back, we had to share it with the presence of some local fishing villagers, whose floating houses became climbing frames and diving boards for our enjoyment. (No damage caused!) The following evening was spent drinking ridiculously cheap beer and relaxing on our porch to some tunes until the portable speakers ran out of battery. Simply a brilliant weekend!

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