Cambodia

11 11 2012

After a short stopover and a very nice evening with some friends and delicious food in Singapore, the next destination was Siem Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap itself is a bit touristy, with night markets where one gets blind due to the blinking lights and numerous shops selling the same stuff one doesn’t need 🙂 they even sell T-Shirts with prints like „No Tuk-Tuki“ and „Don’t Need Anything“ which would also have been helpful in India… The weirdest area in Siem Reap is around a street called „Pub Street“, where millions of tourists sit in numerous bars playing all different music so that it is impossible to chat or not get crazy after 10 minutes. I didn’t expected to see something like that, but with a monument like the Angkor Wat temples only a few kilometers away I think one cannot expect a rural and still unchanged area. Another fact that is disturbing is, that the preferred currency is not the local Riel but the American Dollar. This destroys a big part of the experience of beinig in a foreign country and makes haggling impossible and therefore everything more expensive. The sentence you hear on every corner, even in the area around the temples of Angkor Wat, is „One dollar…“, announcing the price of almost everything… A whole pinapple, fresh and nicely cut: „One dollar!“… a small mango: „One dollar!“… a coke: „One dollar!“… Even most of the restaurants provide the prices in Dollar although there is a law that these must be given in Riel and the ATMs provide only dollars… hopefully Cambodia is able to ban the dollar at some point in the future!

Exploring Angkor Wat on bikes.

Exploring Angkor Wat on bikes.

On the next morning we rented bikes („One dollar!“… but at least, this was good value!) and cycled the 6km to the entrance of the Angkor Wat Park. The admission is exorbitantly overpriced with 20$ per day or 40$ for a 3-day-ticket. For the first day we planned to see the eastern side of the park and it turned out, that, due to the distances, it is impossible to see everything on one day. We cycled the whole day for 8 hours and almost 40km and just managed to see 4-5 temples in detail. Right now, reconstruction work and excarvations are done at many temples. If you are and archeologist there are a lot of cooperations between the Cambodians and many other countries and this might be a cool workplace 🙂

Bateay Kdei temple.

Banteay Kdei temple.

Most of the temples are impressive and simply breathtaking. It is unimaginable how the ancient people were able to build up such complex and huge temples, everyone with beautiful carvings and more a piece of art than a building. Often one ends up marvelling in front of any of these temples. The different temple complexes are spread over a wide area of several kilometers in length and width. Often one has to drive or cycle a few kilometers to get to the next complex. Walking through the park is almost impossible if you want to see more than 1 or 2 temples a day.

The most impressive temples are Bayon, Ta Phrom and the well known Angkor Wat. If you have only one day try to see at least these ones!

The amazing temple of Ta Phrom - all the documentaries of earth without humas were probably filmed here.

The amazing temple of Ta Phrom – all the documentaries of earth without humas were probably filmed here.

The Ta Phrom temple area itself is so big that one could spend half a day only at this site. Some of the temple’s structures and buildings have collapsed and were taken back by nature over time. This adds to the charme of the complex because everywhere huge trees are growing out of walls and even on top of some buildings.

Bayon - maybe the facebook of the early days :-)

Bayon – maybe the facebook of the early days 🙂

The features of the Bayon temple are also well known and became a synonyme for the park almost as known as Ankor Wat itself. It is one impressively huge temple with multiple levels and numerous little towers with faces carved into the stone blocks. In total there are 216 faces smiling at you from every direction.

Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat complex.

The Angkor Wat temple itself is surrounded by an artifical water pond and a wall right behind it. Inside the wall is a immense garden and in the back the black and grey Angkor Wat with its iconic 3 (5 in total) visible towers. One can walk around inside the building, watching the beautiful carvings on lamost every wall and piece of stone, and even go to the top level of the temple with nice views of the surrounding. Make sure to wear cloths that, at least, cover your shoulders and everything down to the knees (maybe not a dress). They are very strict if you want to climb the top level of Angkor Wat and Baphuon temple. It might be because of religious matters but in my opinion it could be also because of the very steep steps and to avoid that people can look under the women’s dresses.

After two days of exploring the temple park by bike, which is highly recommended not only because it is so much cheaper than a Tuk-Tuk but also the better experience to get a feel for the size and the distances, we tool a mini bus to Phnom Phen the next morning. The „highway“ connecting Siem Reap and Phnom Phen is less than a small road connecting villages in Europe. But still, everyone is driving as if on a highway with 3 lanes… in each direction 🙂 our driver was the most reckless this day and so we managed to get to Phnom Phen in less than 5 hours (considering the state of the road this was almost the speed of light) with not a single car that was able to overtake us…

In Phnom Phen we only had 1 1/2 days so we saw the temples and riverfront around our lovely hotel on the afternoon and went to the Genocide museum and the central market in the morning and did some shopping in the afternoon. Many boutiques are found in the area where most hotels are situated but most of them are exorbitantly overpriced. I really can’t understand that these „french designers“ dare to offer their (mostly similar) stuff in one of the poorest countries at prices that are higher than in Paris! If you wanna be impudent, be it in your own country!!

A must-see in Phnom Phen is the Genocide museum. It was a former school but as schools where unnecessary during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 it was transformed to the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. There is a very good but also depressing exhibition about the inmates and the few survivors of the facility.

Head to the Central Market but not for the touristy shopping options rather than the local food stalls on the outskirts of the market. Be brave and taste some of the delicious dishes although you’ll seldom know exactly what you are eating 🙂

On the last day of our short stay in Cambodia we chose the more cumbersome otion to get to Vietnam: by boat from Phnom Phen to Chau Doc and then further on to Ho Chi Min City by bus. The boat trip takes 4-5 hours is not very spectecular but at least I can say that I was on the Mekong river 🙂 be sure to know a bus company, their departure times and, most important, their address if you want to travel to HCMC the same day. There are some „fast buses“ that should take 5 hours for the trip, but our fast bus needed 8 hours and was definitely not worth the price that was double of the „normal“ bus (which officially should take 6 hours)! The easy option is to take the bus from Phnom Phen directly to HCMC.

Julia at Cambodias Mekong border post...

Julia at Cambodias Mekong border post…





India – Land of extremes

3 11 2012

It’s time to sum up my experiences as impressions of India. First of all: I am positively suprised! When I talked to someone about my little trip before I was leaving and we came to India thereaction was often the same: „India? Aren’t you afraid of the hygiene and the poverty? Everywhere is waste and you’ll have serious diarrhea at least a couple of times“… These were my concerns, too but I soon realized that it’s not that bad or at leat one adjusts to it. From my third day I even went to the smallest street kitchens mounted on a bicycle. Especially these made the trip the amazing experience it was for me: the curious street workers that couldn’t believe that a foreigner is eating with them at their street stall. Even the annoyances, especially the people from tourist agencies, shop owners in tourity areas and the permantent hooting and inquiring tuk-tuk drivers. After some bad experiences during the first few days I got into the haggling mood and soon I was able to distinguish between a serious offer and a rip-off. In Cochin I met the only tuk-tuk driver asking me „you are not going to haggle about 10 rupees with me?“ 🙂

I think I griped enough about the attitudes of people involved in the tourist business and Indias middle class. I think because of all the touts and the general interaction with tourists, India won’t become a major destination in the near future and remain it’s exotic status, attraction mostly adventurers and backpackers. Talking about exotic, a friend in Goa told me, that she was attracted because of the stories from other travellers telling from exotic smells and colors. Yup, there are exotic smells and colors, but very often it will be the smell of urine, shit, and other waste burning besides the road. I was suprised on the one side, that it was less than expected (still, too many places are too dirty), and on the other side how fast one can even adjust to these smells. I remember that I was trying to avoid smelly places the first days in Mumbai and in Agra, less than 3 weeks later, I was barely shocked when I passed someone on the street at night and I saw he was just taking a shit over some kind of small canal… and he wasn’t the only one! Sometimes the smell is still overwhelming, in a positive way near some food places and markets, and negative, which might happen around every corner.

India also suprised me with having stunning, diverse landscapes everywhere, from the Himalayan mountains, over desert areas with sand dunes, green fields with any kind of crops, to tropical areas with beautiful beaches, palm and lovely rivers. Breathtaking monuments like forts, temples, and other architectural highlights are literaly around every corner with more things to explore in the immediate proximity. Until now, for me India is the most interesting and diverse country I have been to! It is even easy to travel despite the sheer size of the country! Driving with local buses and trains was always one of the most exciting but also annoying experiences.

So India is really a land of extremes. Not only positive, but everything seems to have it’s counterpart here. In one way it is very easy to travel and explore all the great things India has to offer, on the other side, identified as a tourist, you are always only half a step from being riped-off. If one gets in touch with the local people one will feel the warmth and friendliness immediately, but it is hard to meet them because of the language barrier and the general suspicion against everybody a tourist will soon build up, because of the touts. Last but not least, around the stunning sites, no matter where you go, is always a lot of waste and pollution. Even in the Himalayas at a height of over 4000m it was hard to find a spot without plastic bottles. The backwaters of Kerala would be so much nicer if the water wouldn’t look soapy! Why the hell aren’t the Indians follow the signs above their head to use the dustbin! And why are there so few signs resp. dustbins? And it’s not all about waste, they even have problem with sound pollution. More than one week in a major city will drive you crazy because of all the noise from cars, bikes, and buses using the horn constantly. What about sticking to the traffic rules (at least a bit)? That woul make most of it unneccessary! Different shops and even temples try to drown the sounds of their neigborhs with louder sounds.

Still, I would everyone asking give the same advice: Come to India!





Kerala

3 11 2012

My last days in India I spent in the state of Kerala in the south-west. In Kerala, everything is a bit more quiet, laid-back, and clean. Somebody told me it is the richest state of India and if you see suburban-like middle-class houses of Alleppey and Fort Cochin you won’t belive anyone telling something else. The streets are not exactly clean and still the Indians burn their waste on every corner, but in comparison to all the other places I’ve seen in India this is the closest you get. Like in Goa the weather is hot and humid.

River through Alleppey

River through Alleppey

Because my flight to Singapore is from Cochin I chose to go directly to Allepey, the hub for tours on Kerala’s backwaters. As always I preferred the local transport options and instead of paying a fortune for a tuk-tuk or taxi to Alleppey I had the fun of experiencing the fight with sturdy Indian grannys who wanted to jump the queue. Ha! not with the German… I’m long enough in India to have no restraint to use my elbows even against them. Otherwise one always ends up having to stand with a 15kg backpack in the aisle of a bus that is driven by somebody who must be convinced driving a Ferrari, having to give way to boarding and unboarding people every few seconds with no space to move at all.

 

In Alleppey all the touts seem to wait for foreigners at the bus station. They give you fancy business cards of guest houses resp. homestays (if every dump was a resort in Goa, every house with a free chamber is a homestay in Kerala) or backwater tour operators. I ended up in the KTC Guest House that offers rooms from 500 rupees. I think there are a lot of better options but I was too tired to search any longer. And the grandfather that lived in the premises as well seemed to be very nice and helpful. On request, the owners offered me backwater tours and other options as well, but to me they seemed a bit overpriced. I was really glad that I didn’t accepted any of their offers because a quick comparison with the tours other guest houses were offering confirmed my assumption. By chance I met some other Germans just in front of my guest house searching for a place to have dinner. I joined them and it turned out, that they just came back from a lovely backwater tour and so I booked my tour at their homestay. The group was on a gap year, working with children and disabled people in and around Banagalore for one year and they traveld a bit because of some school holidays. I’m not sure if I would have been prepared/strong enough to work for one year in an Indian village without water in the house at the age of 18 or 19.

Local ferry

Local ferry

Backwater houseboats... fortunately I had a small, manpowered kayak

Backwater houseboats… fortunately I had a small, manpowered kayak

The next day my backwater tour started at 8 in the morning. Somebody catched up with me to drive me with his Honda Hero the 300m to the ferry terminal. There I saw one guy that could have been a Berlin or Hamburg hipster, with a moustach that absolutely didn’t fit to the rest of his appearance: small and skinny, more like a 18-years old. It turned out that he and his girlfriend were going with the same operator as me and so I sat with them on the table at the family’s house of our boatsmen for breakfast half an hour later. It turned out that he only had a special kind of humor and he grew the moustache to look like 95% of the Indians. Seriously, „all“ Indians who are able to grow a moustache have one and they look like from the 80’s 🙂

My funny baotsman

My funny baotsman

I had my own boat and boatsman, who didn’t speak more than 20 word English and was missing his front teeth but still was so funny in his appearance and manner. The boat tour was at first very interesting, seeing all the other boats on the canals and lakes, the houses, some of them flooded, the people doing laundry in one or the other way, washing the cloths on a stone in front of their houses or washing themself fully dressed (at least the women), and observing their daily routine.

One of the many backwater laundries...

One of the many backwater laundries…

After a while, when I had seen the same routine in many houses, it got more and more relaxing 🙂 The highlight of the tour was the stop at a local bar for having a glass of coconut beer. I have to admit that it was really disgusting but the locals seemed to love it, having red eyes from the alcohol at 11AM…

Having a coconut beer

Having a coconut beer

After the beer, we all (Jonas, Celine and me) were brought to a strange catholic church were they build a big house around a small one that was the birthplace of some curch dude. In the canals we often saw boatsmen calling something that sounded like a longstreched „heeeeeyy“, sometimes in a high voice, other times in a low. They are selling fish and „heeeyyy“ in a high voice means that they offer small fish, in a low voice big fish 🙂

Delicious lunch at a local family's home

Delicious lunch at a local family’s home

The tour ended with lunch at around 3PM back at the family’s house. On the menu were roasted „heeeeyy“ (high voice), some curries and prickles and rice, served on a banana leaf. It was one of the most delicious meals I had in India, attesting that the locals and small stalls with their simple dishes are often better that the sophisticated and high priced restaurants.

Indian "Spice Girls" :-)

Indian „Spice Girls“ 🙂

After lunch we could also enjoy a performance of the family’s daughters, presenting several Indian-style group dances, giggeling all the time. Although we hardly did anything over the day we were all really tired on the ferry ride back to Alleppey but agreed to meet upon dinner in a small local food stall.

 

The next day I drove back to Cochin. This time everyone was already seated when I came to the bus, so I had to stand in the aisle all the way back. I had no time to complain about the weight of the backpack on my back, being busy to grab a hold and not showing any fear on my face. I was able to look out of the front window, seeing the maneuvers the bus driver made. Now I know why I have never seen a bus driver older than 45-50!

Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin

Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin

Fort Cochin is situated on a little island off the coast from Eranakulam, the city on the mainland. In Fort Cochin one can see several catholic churches (due to the portuguese era), a Dutch palace, and even a jewish district. The main attraction are the chinese fishing nets on the northern coast. I read somewhere that this is the last place were this kind of nets is still used for fishing. It takes 5 people to operate one net. Unfortunately there were a lot of plants in the water under the nets due to the tides so that nobody was able to fish. Another must-do in Cochin/Karala is the Kathakali theater. Ancient stories featuring Indian gods are told, using extensive makeup. The characters itself aren’t speaking or singing, everything is expressed via facial expressions, hand signs and a little bit of dance. Unfortunately the admission was so high that they can afford A/C and as always, the higher the temperatures outside, the more they freeze it inside.

Kathakali theater

Kathakali theater

On my last night in Cochin I took another cooking class, this time South Indian food: fresh, spicy, NOT fried 🙂 The family with whom I cooked was really friendly but also mostly distracted by TV shows like India’s got talent and various soaps 😦 The food was really delicious but the fun we had at our cooking class with Shashi in Udaipur would not come up. Now it’s time to say goodbye to India. Therefore I will go to Sri Krishna Cafe, a very laid-back, tasty, and cheap local canteen, with my favorite Cochin lassi man, Ramesh, only 100m away. Note: No lassi for me that day… it was closed 😦