A Travellerspoint blog

Cairns & Cape Tribulation

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We should have read the fine print – our flight to Cairns included a 5 hour stopover at 2am in Darwin airport. Not the best place to spend the night but we amused ourselves watching TV, eating muffins and drinking coffee so not all bad.

It’s the small things that are best about being in Oz – you can drink water from the tap, you can buy stuff from the supermarket and cook your own dinner, if someone offers you help you can be reasonably sure they aren’t going to misdirect you to a market from which they receive a commission. The sun is shining, the pool & lagoon are shimmering, life is good.

Our first touristy trip is to Cape Tribulation – so called by Cook as this is where it all started to go wrong for him. This is a gorgeous area of rain forest surrounded by the lapping ocean which would be very inviting if it weren’t for the 20 foot salt water crocs and jelly fish that can pretty much kill you. In fact it seems that most of the water is a no go area.

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I thought in Australia that, as a rule of thumb, if it moves it can probably kill you. We weren’t long into our rainforest trip when our guide pointed out that the trees and plants, if they don’t actually kill you, can do you some serious harm too. Vines that grab you and won’t let go, plants that look the same as all the others but give you a sting that is painful for months afterwards and don’t get me started on the giant chickens that are related to the Velociraptor and will disembowel you the moment your back is turned – I exaggerate of course, as I’m sure did our tour guide but this is Australia so really who knows?

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Our second day in Cairns was spent on the water – a cruise out to the reef for a couple of dives. Good news – we’ve found Nemo. We also found sharks and dolphins and a few other interesting critters and fishes. Visibility compared to Cayman was pretty poor but perhaps we’ve been a bit spoilt in that department and it was nice to see a few new bits and pieces.

It was also time to say goodbye to our trusty SE Asia Lonely Planet which makes a surprising difference to the weight of our luggage. As long as you ignore most of the accomodation and restaurant reviews LP is brilliant especially for giving me plenty of scams to worry about.

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The following morning we take the Greyhound bus to Airlie Beach.

Posted by steve1000 21:31 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Singapore

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The train journey to Singapore was comfortable. We had a quick hop off to get stamped in and clear customs, fortunately Niamh didn’t get caught smuggling. My wife didn’t realise she was a smuggler as it didn’t occur to her that chewing gum importation was illegal. Many things in Singapore seem to be against the law so perhaps we should have guessed. The rules are plentiful and the punishments harsh but the city runs like clockwork.

We bought ourselves topless bus tickets and spent the next couple of days seeing the sights to the soundtrack of a 45 second jazz clip on repeat changing only to the music from your local curry house for the short stint through Little India. The only other respite from the jazz being the recorded tour guide voice that was that annoying, patronising sing song voice that is common on US tv which can make any subject matter sound like a children’s bed time story. The bus was really a good way to get around and see everything and we soon learnt to filter out the background noise.

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A highlight was the Botanic Gardens but we also enjoyed the high end shopping malls and associated underground networks along Orchard Road. We saw parts of the F1 track, the Singapore Flier (which they delight on telling you is 5 metres bigger than the London Eye) and the brand new Marina Sands Resort hotel complete with 150m inifinity pool on the roof. We visited the night zoo where I saw the flying squirrel fly.

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I was particularly excited when we found M&S where the presence of mince pies, Christmas puddings and festive tunes filled my heart with childlike joy as did the Singapore Slings served up where they were created in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel – a snip at $25 each. Niamh took me to Hooters for chicken wings and beer. We even got to the cinema to check in with Harry.

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Singapore is our last stop in Asia and with a slight twinge of both regret and relief we board our fight to Australia. Next stop Cairns.

Posted by steve1000 13:59 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

Malaysia

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After a short stop off at Kuala Lumpur airport we flew on to the UNESCO world heritage site of Penang. I’m not sure of the process for applying for UNESCO WHS status. Perhaps you fill in a form and send it along with a cheque and SAE and a few weeks later your new status is sent across to you. Whatever the process, I’m pretty sure nobody from UNESCO has ever been to Penang. It does have a few nice colonial style buildings but nothing to get too excited about. Much of the city of Georgetown is a rundown mess. Perhaps it has some charm which is beyond my cynical outlook on life. It certainly has the best chicken tikka and naan bread I have ever tasted although there was not a penang bite in sight.

Our first night was spent in the Hotel Mingood – as the name suggested it minged, it minged real good. Our first action upon checking in was a trip out to find somewhere else to stay for a few nights. As the Penang marathon was taking place over the weekend there wasn’t anywhere available in which we were keen to stay. We pulled the flashpackers emergency ripcord and checked ourselves into a proper hotel in the beach resort of Batu Ferrengi.

In fairness to Penang – once you leave Georgetown the area improves dramatically, probably helped by our beachfront hotel and our free upgrade to a suite with amazing views over the ocean. What’s more – the sun was shining. We spent a couple of days here sitting in the sun and having delicious curries for dinner.

Once the marathon had left town we found a room in a hostel in Georgetown and used that as our base to see some tourist spots such as the spice gardens and the national park. The latter really was lovely, being rainforest / jungle which stretches to the coast. We hiked the trails in the jungle for a couple of hours and then had our picnic on the beach.

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On our way back, the trail met a troop of monkeys which were happily swinging on vines and jumping into the water to cool off. So cute..... at least that’s what I thought as I crossed the bridge through the middle of them. Niamh was not so sure... She hesitated but finally when most of the monkeys had gone she bravely stepped onto the bridge.

I have never heard a scream quite like it, the volume and the implied terror made me spin around fearing the worst. The last remaining monkey on the bridge, one of the bigger ones, took at look at Niamh, bared his teeth, and with a hissing scream made a lunge for her. She ran, he missed and no one was hurt. It later transpired that the mistake had been to make eye contact with the blighter. This is the second run in we have had with monkeys since we have been away. As cute as they might look whilst they rip the windscreen wipers and trim off your car as you drive through a safari park, sorry Lisa, these bastards are cruel, vicious and mean, aren’t they Niamh?

Next we take a minibus to the Cameron Highlands where they grow tea and strawberries. The temperature was noticeably cooler here and we got to wear the jeans we have been carrying around for 3 months. We drank tea, ate strawberries and trekked in the jungle for a couple of days before our bus journey to Kuala Lumpur.

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Christmas has hit KL in a big way – I haven’t seen such enthusiastic representation of the Christmas spirit for some time. Complete with carol singers, snow machines and more lights per square foot than even I manage in my typical over excited festive decor. All the more impressive since this is a Muslim country.

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We took in the sights, tall towers, china town, little india, hit the shops, walked in the park and generally engaged in big city stuff. Upon the advice of the signs in our hostel, Niamh didn’t visit the “unprofessional massage services” that were available from the two scantily dressed ladies that flanked the steps at the entrance of our hostel. We say ladies as that was how they were dressed, it was the subject of some debate as to whether this was an accurate gender allocation so I too refrained from availing myself of their services.

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We had intended to spend a week or so in Malaysian Borneo to climb a mountain, see an orang-utan or two and perhaps have a dive but our fear was that it was the wet season in that part of the world and it would be pretty miserable doing those things in the driving rain. We’ll just have to come back next year. For now we boarded our train for Singapore.

Posted by steve1000 13:24 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Cambodia

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Cambodia is a worry for me – I have been more nervous about this country than perhaps anything else. I have been hoarding food and researching every possible scam (of which there are a great many) – forewarned is forearmed and all that but it didn’t help my nervous expectations.

Scam 1:

We arrived in Cambodia after a 2 day Mekong river cruise but I was ready for the first scam that everyone is subjected to on entering Cambodia – the visa processing fee. A visa for Cambodia costs $20, it’s very easy to complete the paper work and doesn’t take much time. Helpful individuals (in this case our tour guide) will tell you the complete opposite and charge you a $5 fee to process it for you which is wholly unnecessary. In our case she only wanted $2 per person to process the visa and since we didn’t have any change we gave her $2 for both of us. I would gladly pay $1 at every border to have my paperwork completed.

Scam 2:

I have nothing for you, sorry..... There were no more scams (at least that we were aware of). There are certainly lots of people begging for money or trying to sell you dodgy books and sunglasses (the book sellers are mostly children so obviously Niamh was buying) but there was no pressure, no hassle – a simple no thank you was plenty to be allowed on your way.
Phnom Penh turned out to be a lovely city although I suspect we spent most of our time in an area catering to tourism and the many NGOs that are present in Cambodia’s capital city. The food is excellent, the accommodation was some of the cleanest and most comfortable we have seen to date.

Cambodia has an extremely sad, turbulent and violent history and nowhere is this more apparent than at the two top tourist destinations in Phnom Penh. S21 is an old school converted into a prison that was used to house and torture opponents and members of the Pol Pot regime. The Killing Fields is where the residents of S21 and thousands of others were taken for execution. The Cambodian government is keen for people to visit and be made aware of the atrocities and genocide that occurred in Cambodia, not least, to try and prevent it occurring again.

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My experience was that even when surrounded by the torture instruments, the mass graves and the transparent stupa, being the final resting place for over 8000 human skulls, it was impossible to get a sense of the barbarity and scale of the genocide that occurred here. There was time for a moment of quiet reflection standing next to a gnarled old tree that had perhaps the saddest history of all.

On a more positive note we got the opportunity to visit more palaces and wats (we had missed a couple of days of wat-ing whilst boating on the Mekong) we tried the Cambodian chicken curry half and half that nearly matched up to Fidel’s own and a poutine that puts the Cayman efforts to shame.

Next stop the wat capital of the world – Siem Reap.

We arrived in Siem Reap and checked into our posh hotel, with a pool on the roof, ready for a swim. Naturally it rained so instead we rested up ready to once again hit the bicycles for a 3 day cycle tour of Angkor Wat and surrounding areas.

To say that we are a bit wat-ed out at this point would be an understatement but at least a cycle tour would provide some exercise to break up the seemingly endless supply of temples in this area. Once again Cambodia comes through with a surprising victory. Temples and wats here are brilliant – old ruins entangled with tree routes but with enough structure to climb up towers, creep through corridors and explore all sorts of nooks and crannies. As if that wasn’t enough our first temple was where parts of tomb raider were filmed – well if it’s good enough for Lara it’ll do me.

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The temples were just a small part of our tour, much of our journey was through small villages in the Cambodian countryside where you get a real insight into the Cambodian daily life. Children would come running out of the houses, schools and orphanages to scream out hello or bye bye and they seemed so happy to see us that even I got caught up in the infectious atmosphere and was waving and calling out greetings with the best of them.

The only downside to the trip was the sunset over the temples – it all started out well – a long climb up the hill, scrambling up near vertical staircases to reach the top level of the temple. Then the first few drops of rain were felt. Good news at first – it gave me a clear view over Angkor Wat and some nice rainbow photos. Then the rain got heavier and heavier. If it had taken 20 minutes to climb to the top with relatively small crowds and dry underfoot it took perhaps double that to get back when everyone was descending the treacherous, slippy stairs at once. The photo we have of us afterwards does not do our sodden wetness justice. Had we jumped in our hotel pool fully clothed we would not have been wetter than we were when we climbed on the bus to come home. On the bright side, the sunset, which was somehow not obscured by the rain, was spectacular.

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The final day of our cycle tour was ANOTHER boat trip to another floating market, give me strength......

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This one was actually pretty good, boats heading back and forth with all manner of vegetables and fruits. I was quite taken with the floating pig pen. The real highlight was having our packed lunches in one of the floating village houses. It was our boat driver’s father’s house with 3 generations living on the river in a one room structure (with a screened off area for the “marital couple” to sleep.) The patriarch was an old man who had lost his wife 10 years earlier when she was fishing and accidently hit upon some unexploded ordinance. Educated whilst the French were still very much in town he spoke francais along with Vietnamese. My french language skills which are have been unused for the best part of 20 years suddenly came in handy. I managed to thank him, tell him that he was very kind for allowing us to use his house for our lunch and that he had a lovely home. At least I think that was what I said – either way he seemed very happy about it all.

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Exhausted once again we made our way to the airport and made our way to Malaysia.

Posted by steve1000 01:29 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Hue to Saigon

Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang & Ho Chi Minh City

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We’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far. Only one day of rain up until the point we arrived in Hue. That was all about to change. We had one day of nice weather whilst we looked around the citadel but once we were onboard our boat tour the following day, the heavens opened and pretty much stayed like that until we hit reached Saigon.

Hue itself is a nice enough spot with the citadel and some quite impressive tombs but I’d be happy to skip it if I were coming again or was on a tight schedule.

Hoi An, is yet another UNESCO world heritage site (there are a lot of them about) and this one deservedly so. We had high expectations from reports of friends and other travellers and with the exception of the weather we were not disappointed. Our plan had been to spend a couple of days in town and then a few days at a beach resort but as it didn’t stop raining the entire time we were there, we spent all our time in the town.

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No 1 activity in Hoi An is having tailored clothing made and there are literally hundreds of tailors in town. It’s probably fair to say that in the old town the majority of buildings house a tailor shop. W visited a few. Niamh, who for a girl, was surprisingly disinterested in the process, had a few dresses made. I had a couple of suits and a tux knocked out. Upon showing her the picture of the tuxedo I wanted our helpful assistant was a little too quick to point out that the best tailoring in the world was not going to turn me into Daniel Craig – thanks for that.

The rest of our stay in Hoi An was spent between suit fittings and coffee shops which isn't too bad a way to kill a day.

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In a continuing search for good weather and the beach – we boarded our over night bus to Nha Trang. We arrived at our pre-booked hostel and found her so rude we walked out and got a place in a hotel around the corner for a fraction of the price.

Early indications were good. The sun was shining, the beach backdropped by the mountains looked spectacular. No fear though – it was raining again in no time. If the beach is not an option then Nha Trang has very little to do. We did have the option of an easy rider tour – on the back of a motorbike – but this didn’t seem like much fun in the rain so after one night we continued our journey south on another night bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it used to be known, and still is in the central district).

At last we found the sun but no beaches or pool to speak of. We contented ourselves with a walking tour of Saigon and immersed ourselves in, what I am sure must be biased if not without basis, history of Vietnam’s struggles for independence and the American war. This included playing with tanks and machine guns at the War Remnants Museum and crawling though the amazing Cu Chi tunnel network (made bigger for western tourists but pretty tight all the same.) Marvelling at how the VC lived their lives and fought their war. I couldn’t help think of the US guys that had to actually go into these tunnels, not knowing their way around, facing the risk of the pretty fierce traps in place to skewer those who take a wrong turn. Not to mention the Vietnamese that actually had to live in them.

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Much like Hanoi, crossing the road is perhaps the biggest adventure of all. The guidebooks tell you to put out your hand and walk across the road very, very slowly irrespective of what is heading towards you. It is one of the strangest experiences, walking out into moving traffic, the instinct is to stop or run in order to avoid all manner of cars, bike, scooters and trucks that are racing towards you. This is NOT the correct approach and will lead to your being seriously injured. The trick is to allow them to avoid you not vice versa – they see you and adjust their route accordingly – any variation on your part adds unpredictability and therefore increases risk. Walk slowly and we found it best to not even look at the traffic heading your way. I should have had an amazing piece of video to demonstrate the point, it even had balloons, however when I went to review it I realised I hadn’t taken the lens cap off.

We finished our Vietnam trip with a river tour to take us into Cambodia. At this stage we have seen quite a few rice paddies and a good bit of the Mekong River but it was still very pleasant to cruise along and watch the river communities going about their daily lives and was more than adequate to get us onto our next country.

Posted by steve1000 00:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged saigon hue hoi_an hcmc Comments (1)

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