May 24, 2009
After 2 weeks of island living in Ko Chang, Thailand we decided to make the journey to the land of the Khmer. A journey plagued with rip off merchants, laborious, sweaty buses and some of the most crazy over taking I’ve had the misfortune to be a part of. Some say that Cambodia is, as Thailand was, 10 years ago: underdeveloped, poverty ridden and with some of the most untouched beauty you can see. I cant make the comparison myself but we met some of the warmest, most welcoming people so far, accompanied by the most idyllic of backdrops. Seim Reap was a perfect example of this and walking around the old Angkorian temples of Angkor Wat, built for the King Suryavarman in the 16th century, you can hardly stop you’re from jaw from dragging for the whole duration of your visit. The $1 kids that hang around the temples, for me, encapsulate the general mentality of Cambodia at present; a country that’s hungry to learn and develop itself to a level of living that is on par with its neighbouring country’s. The kids are eager to practice their newly learnt English on you, more with the intention to make you smile than to make you pay! The eateries are pretty impressive too, due to the Tonle Sap lakes supply of fresh water fish most restaurants serve super good fish dishes. One place, Dead Fish, is a converted crocodile farm that gives you the added experience of feeding the in house croc pit at the end of you’re meal.
We decided to try and step off the beaten track after Seim Reap. We’d heard about a place called Preah Vhear, its listed in the lonely planet as the Indiana Jones styled experience and talks of discovering temples in the wild west. The more we learnt about this place and its part in Cambodian history the more we wanted to go. An old hiding ground for the Khmer Rouge when they were chased out of the capital Pnom Penh by the Vietnamese, it now holds host to more country disputes between Cambodia and Thailand. Sitting on the border between the two countries both want to lay claim to the land and fighting has broken out over the past few years. Talk of a 4 hour War between the countries is becoming ever prominent and and it eventually detured us from making the journey. Another reason to return in later years, for sure!!
Instead of the Wild West of Preah Vhear we headed for the more remote wild East of the Rhakinitink Province. We set our sites on the Ban lung area and after an alchol fueled night of arm wrestling with the local street sellers in Pnom Penh, we began on our travels. As Cities turned into towns, towns turned into villages, villages to hamlets and hamlets into Huts. The Tarmaced roads turned into red dust tracks, full of bumps and pot holes. We drove past a man covered in the claret of blood, wielding a meat cleaver and then we arrived. A small market town connected by concrete roundabouts made from 4 Cobra’s and red dust tracks. The next few days are plagued by the price increase of New year but we manage to arrange a trek through the jungle.
The trek we choose was called the ‘gibbon trek’ and due to our closeness to the local national park we all had far off delusion of the possibility of seeing one of Cambodia’s few remaining Tigers. We begin with a 4 hour trek through thick jungle, small villages and banana and lime plantations. We stopped by a river where are ranger and guide cooked up a feast whilst we attempted to fight off the swarms of insects. We carried on for a few more hours before we set up camp next to a river. Surrounded by nothing but jungle we helped set up the fire and began cooking, after, we hitched our hammocks up to grab a nights sleep under the stars. The next day was harder due to minimal water supplies and crazy heats but we made it back and ate the feast of all feasts in a local bar… All in, there were no signs of anything more wild than the rangers dog on the whole trek, but it was still a wicked experience, even if slightly miss-named!
On the way back to Pnom Penh we made a stop at Kratie, to break up the mammoth journey up and to see the fresh water dolphins that reside in this part of the Mekong. Kratie is a small market town, slightly more civilised than the last but still with a wealth of charm and character. Whilst there we got invited to a Cambodian wedding reception. An ‘all out’ affair where they celebrate for 3 whole days, inviting every man and there dog to the grand finale. A colourful event full of music dancing and the most amount of ‘cheers’ (or as the locals call it.. YO) I’ve ever experienced. Another perfect example of the Cambodians warm and accommodating manner that draws you to them and their country.
Once we arrived in Pnom Penh we organised the done tourist thing and arranged vistits to the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng or s21, the torture chambers used under the Khmer rouge. S21 can be found in the grounds of an old abandoned school and was home to some of the most horrific cases of imposed ‘justice’ by the Khmer Rouge. Within 1 month of the Vietnamese liberating Cambodia from one of the most oppressive and brutal genocides of the last century, Tuel sleng, with the stench of death still lingering, was opened to the public. This allowed for folk to come and view the make shift prison cells and torture chambers, which were used to drag out false confessions from people who were believed to hold opinions that went against the ethos of the Khmer Rouge and their quest for year zero. For me this was more erie than the Killing Fields. The rows upon rows of mugshots taken by the in-house photographers at the time to document the “criminals” sits heavy in your perception of events. Young, bewildered faces, hollow with thoughts of the future stare back, empty, as you walk around this cold concrete abyss. The killing feilds, at least, has a sense of times passed and a real feeling of life progressing. Although the shallow graves, with jagged bones and clothes sticking up through the ground, and the ivory tower, filled with skulls of the dead are a cold reminder of what happened. The laughter of school children from the neighbouring schools that guides you around your visit and the tranquility of the farmers working the neighbouring Fields gives you a feeling a country on the mend. A generation of people deeply scared by the past making the most of the present. Cambodians have a real compassion for each other and for life and this sure rubs off on you whilst visiting the country. Every warm and welcoming smile taking claim to another part in your compassion…
April 7, 2009
Standing on the deck of the Chin Jif ferry as we entered the Shanghai harbour, watching the cargo destined for ports and shop shelves all around the world we were greeted by a thick, gritty feeling air. An air which made the pours of your face ache. The air resembled the type you may experience when standing on one of the more pollution ridden platforms of the London Underground. The kind of air you can see and touch and that makes you want to shower and stop breathing in. Once we arrived in port we attempted to orientate ourselves away from the ques of people to find a cash point and to the nearest internet cafe, as we’d forgotten where we had booked the hostel. We kinda got lost, as you would in a place where no one stopped when you asked for directions and even the kind front of house staff ushered you away from their expensive looking buildings in a less than polite (bordering on man handling) manner, only adding to the hostile welcome and confusion. We found ourselves wondering through what seemed like demolition sites. They looked as though bombs had hit them and someone had tried to glue them back together. The jarring thing was that they were all thriving with people hanging up washing and kids playing. One of the buildings was surrounded by bamboo scaffolding and the ground floor was filled with rubble and rubbish, there was no sign of life. On the second floor however, was an old women who must of been in her late 80’s just sitting their, chilling, looking out of the window. This was the first smile we got and maybe one of only a handful on our short stay in Shanghai.
The hostel was a haven of good food and friendly people who helped us plan what to do, and the next day we set out to the Electrics market. This place was amazing although it did have the potential of bringing our trip to a financial end. It was full of cheap, rip off and genuine, electrical goods. Probably everything that is made in China and ends up on our shelves was here, maybe not in the best condition or the correct brand but never the less it was at a more than tempting price. There were shelves upon shelves of speakers, stereos, televisions, watches etc etc. All of which were considered but quickly eradicated as possible souvenirs for traveling. The most eye opening thing however was when we got to the end of the market and decided to take a detour down some quite side street. It was like walking into another world. It was, what seemed to me to be a maze of slums with small streets and back alleys adding to the mass of confusion, with a back drop of some of the most affluent looking buildings you could imagine.
Along each side were market stall traders, some cooking and selling noodles, some selling veg and raw meat, and all with raw chickens hanging everywhere, mixed with dirt and spit of passers by. There were fish which were alive the first time we walked round but by the second they were nothing more than a bowl of de-oxygenated bloody water and upturned belly’s. Some people were selling rabbits in cages no bigger than themselves and terrapins in little pots. There were kids dancing to techno work out videos that were strapped to televisions on the back of mo-peds and the whole time you were being forced along by a mass of people and traffic. Angry men on bikes and even angrier men in cars honked and yelled there way through the single lane street which you kinda would of though might of been sectioned off from traffic on market day…. It wasn’t so much the market that was the mind fuck (as crazy as it was) but more the sudden jarring, juxtaposition in wealth and lifestyle. This prevailing poverty contrasted against the dizzying wealth was a recurring unease throughout the stay in Shanghai. It was something that became even more of an issue when the first bit of western news we had watched of the trip so far was commenting on how the western recession is thought to be strengthening China’s economic power, and, that within the next 5 to 10 years they predict the world economic strength (and thereon currency) to lie in the hands of China and the Yuan. This is a country that cant even distribute its wealth evenly enough to allow its people to have clean drinking water and that is so bad at managing society that they seem fit to impose an almost genocidal law that prevents parents from baring more than one child in the more developed areas… there is something really uneasy about the power China stand to gain and the methods in which they may begin to share with world……
Apart from that there were some areas of beauty in Shanghai, lots of interesting markets, pretty parks and the areas that were clean and well kept were quite impressive. In every park we found ourselves in there seemed to be a group of people ballroom dancing to live bands. There was one fascinating market that was full of old propaganda from the beginning of Mao’s reign. lots of little porcelain (china) dolls of himself in the same pose in different clothes and lots of old poster with his promise to bring the power back to the workers and make them “happy”… All in we were happy to see the back of Shanghai however and the less than welcoming people within it. After a night sleeper train we arrived in Hong Kong at 6am in the morning. We were greeted with the news of jade goody’s death being broadcasted on the televisions in the subway trains. Im not sure which i was more bewildered by, the fact that they had televisions on there subways or at just what people consider to be worthy for international news content?! However, the English sign posts and super friendly nature of Hong Kong was more than welcoming and we soon felt at home. You spend more time looking up in this city than straight ahead. Piles upon piles of neon lights everywhere and old advertisement on the outside of the 15th floor for ivory factory’s make for some interesting viewing. We visited Temple night market, Stanley market and some old fishing village and the unforgettable floating Jumbo Restaurant… One of the grandest ‘boats’ i’ve ever seen, draped in marble, silk and gold. We sampled much dimsum in Hong Kong, a local delacessy, which was found in an aray of eateries and were sorry to leave. We were greeted by a warm blanket of moist, humid air however on our arrival to Thailand and our loss was short lived as we began to plan our stay…
March 21, 2009
Kyoto is famed for being the slice of Japan that every traveller longs for when they visit the country. Its narrow old streets and even older tea houses litter the area that we stayed in, called Gionza, or as the locals know it the traditionally named “area of pleasure”. This is home to the infamous Geisha who flavour Japan with their traditional dress and unspoken acts. For those of you who know little about the Geisha, they’re white faced, red lipped, kimono clad women who are versed in array of ancient visual and performing arts. Nowadays they play the role of being pretty much any big business men’s executive toy and are used to accompany and ‘entertain’ at meetings. Their shadows are filled by their understudies or Maikos who watch tentatively, hoping to learn the ropes and obtain the kudos that all illusive Geisha carry. Its a dying tradition in Japan with only an estimated 1000 Maikos and Geishas in the whole of Japan. This niche market may explain why they charge around $3000 per night for their services. We spent a few nights on the Geisha hunt after we’d finished our cheap sushi and in all our vein attempts we managed to see a total of 6 Geisha. This isn’t too bad considering there are only an estimated 100 in the whole of Kyoto.
When we weren’t stalking Geisha we wondered around markets and browsed through some of the 2000 temples and shrines that Kyoto boasts. We saw more of the Pachinko gambling culture and clocked people pulling 8 hour shifts at these hyper gambling machines. It seemed they sat in front of these machines for the same time most would sit in front of desks and equating roughly the same in winnings as some do in wages. A very Asian obsession with gambling or so we have been led to believe. We also met a lad in our hostel who had been living in Japan, teaching. He explained a bit more about the Japanese culture and their traditions of uniformity. He told me an old saying that’s in common use within the schools in Japan, that “if a nail sticks up, hit it back in”. This gives light as to why folk are so law abiding and respectful and why no one crosses the crossing on red, even when there is no traffic, in the dead of night with no one around to witness.
Kyoto was home to many firsts whilst in Japan; our first waterfall experience, our first sushi belt, our first taste of the japanese delicacy, eel and our first drunken karaoke night. All of which were numerous amounts of fun. The waterfall experience came when we took a walk down the path of philosophy. This runs down the east side of Kyoto at the base of the mountains and starts at the canal basin. It’s a beautifully scenic walk that takes you through the breath taking Japanese country side, stopping off at secluded temples and shrines along the way. The first bout of temples and shrines were accompanied by a waterfall that was surrounded by lanterns and inscent burners. We sat, took in our surroundings for a while and realised that the waterfall was turned into a kind of shower room, which i presume blesses you in some way. So, despite the mid spring breeze i decided to make the most and get stuck in. Probably the coldest outdoor shower ive ever taken but well worth it. the sushi belt and karaoke on the other hand kind of blended into one, as the karaoke deal was sweetened by free drinks resulting in a dick load of fun and new friendships.
The last stop was the ferry port of Osaka… Oh Osaka, Osaka, Osaka.. Flattened in world war 2… little bit like Blackpool…. Sold whale… that’s about it! Oh and almost the polar opposite to anything that we had experienced in Japan to date. We stayed in an area full of drunks and rubbish and people who had no regard or respect. A real shock to the system after the clean, proud and respectful culture we’d seen on the rest of our trip. The Ferry Journey however was fun but quite the endurance test. I’ve never done 48 hours on a boat before but it wasn’t as bad as we first thought… Pulling into Shanghai harbour however, was. First we were met by a pollution ridden mist that filed your pours with dirt and hindered your view to just past the closest harbour. Then the barrage of boats and fog horns abused the ears before we looked down and saw that we were floating on a rubbish dump. Not the best of first impressions but i’ll explain more on next post.
March 13, 2009
We arrived into our apartment in Tokyo with 36 hours of sleep deprivation, 3 in-flight movies and copious amounts of free complimentary`s (courtesy of BA) under our belts. Our first hostel was based in one of the old parts of Tokyo, called Asakusa. Asakusa sits on the Sumidagawa River, which runs through Tokyo and gave the city its original name of Edo, which means “gate of the river” (creative hey!?). Tokyo got its current title after the Tokugawa shotgunate (military government) were established there and became so big and hard that they governed the whole of japan. Taking the title of capital from Kyoto and kindly using it as an anagram to create the now termed Tokyo, with its Japanese meaning of “Eastern Capital”…..
After we checked our bags in and had the all mightiest of power naps we began to nose around Asakusa. Home to one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, the Senso-ji temple with 1,500 years of History. We saw traditions of paper burning and praying in the form small pieces of paper, tied in a knot and left on frames of wire. We wandered for a bit longer, through the old streets, covered in Japanese symbols and drawings draping from awnings, getting more and more complexed by the menus and advertisements. We ended up settling on a small, smoke filled restaurant which was full of Japanese men dinning alone. We sat down surrounded by Japanese symbols, Japanese people, in Japan whilst trying to talk Japanese and the whole time listening to Beastie Boys, ill communication being played throughout the whole restaurant. Its been a re-occuring theme throughout the whole stay in Tokyo, you can be in the most traditional of Komodo shops for example, being served in broken English whilst gangster rap is being played and lyrics of guns, bitches and bling are being yelp whilst no-one blinks an eye.
After the first day we rented bikes to get around the city and take in as much as possible. We came across the Imperial palace and gardens in Hibya, then Tokyo business area, Electric City and Ueno Market. All of which could quite easily take a page to explain but i`ll try to dwell on the best bits… Electric city is, believe it or not, where you get all you`re electrical goods from. This place is crazy, typical Tokyo: futuristic, advertisement laden and busy, busy as hell. If you’ve seen the channel 4 advert where they`re walking though the backstreets of Japan and the neon lit channel 4 symbol is made as the parts pass, then you get the idea of this place. You could quite easily spend all you`re finances a thousand times over here and still find something new and fascinating. Ueno market however was a bit cheaper, it was a bit like Cambden market, as far as being under a train line and eclectic but Ueno was like its older, bigger brother that was built on acid and steroids. Very crazy and overpowering but beautiful at the same time, you got a real feel for Japan here. Super friendly people who are willing to share and smile and a window into where many film directors may have got inspiration for many scenes in many films.
Since then we had a rainy day in Shibuya, the shopping capital of Tokyo, full of young, uber trendy girls who all wear high heels as a religion。The only thing is a very small minority can walk in them and this makes for some very funny viewing, as you see their attempts at class tarnished by stumbles and trips. This was also our first introduction to Japanese gaming culture and there multi story arcades full of the most bizarre machines. Just walking into some of the areas spins you out, with the amount of whirling noises and flashing lights, an epileptics nightmare for sure. The next day started with sun however, so we were back on our bikes and back to Ueno to take more in. This time we discovered a huge park full of temples, performing arts and chocolate coated bananas. We met one of the most curious and sweet men so far. He seemed like he was homeless yet spoke the best English of all the folk we`ve met. He was like any old man you`d meet anywhere in the world, trying to right the wrongs of the world with anyone that would listen. He avoided answering many of the questions that we asked him, which made us more intrigued into his story. He passed many judgments on the youth of Japan saying that the girls were all looks with no mind or feeling and that boys were a little better but still not 100% ok, “in his opinion”.
The last full day in Tokyo took us to harajuku. A super cool area of Japan full of expensive vintage boutiques and such like. This area made you realise why everyone works so hard and looks so good! The main aim of the trip to Harajuku however, was to find this spot where goths and dress up girls met and paraded theselves round. It was listed in the guide books as “a must see for photo opportunities”. They seemed in low attendance today though and as we walked around the park we realised why. Just around the corner to their normal hang out spot, a fashion label were doing a 2day viewing of their new line and all the glamorous girls in their high heels were out in force, trying to get filmed by the local media ａｎｄ ｓｔｅａｌｉｎｇ ｔｈｅ ａｔｔｅｎｔｉｏｎ． This didn’t deter the Tokyo Rockabilly Club though and ａ ｇｒｏｕｐ ｏｆ ｍｉｄｄｌｅ ａｇｅｄ ａｎｄ ｏｌｄｅｒ ｍｅｎ ｍｅｔ ｗｉｔｈ ｔｈｅｉｒ ｑｕｉｆｆｓ ａｎｄ ｈｉｇｈ ｋｉｃｋｓ ａｎｄ ｄａｎｃｅｄ ｔｈｅ ａｆｔｅｒｎｏｏｎ ａｗａｙ ｔｏ ａ ｃｒａｃｋｌｙ ＰＡ ｂｌａｓｔｉｎｇ ｏｕｔ ｏｌｄ ａｍｅｒｉｃａｎ ｒｏｃｋａｂｉｌｌｙ． Ｉｔ ｇａｖｅ ｌｉｇｈｔ ｔｏ ｗｈｙ ｔｈｅｒｅ ａｒｅ ｓｏ ｍａｎｙ ｃｉｇｇａｒｅｔｔｅ ｖｅｎｄｉｎｇ ｍａｃｈｉｎｅｓ ｏｎ ｓｔｒｅｅｔ ｃｏｒｎｅｒｓ ｉｎ Ｔｏｋｙｏ ａｓ ｎｏｔ ｏｎｅ ｏｆ ｔｈｅｍ ｗｅｒｅ ｗｉｔｈｏｕｔ ａ ｓｔｙｌｉｓｈｌｙ ｐｌａｃｅｄ ｃｉｇａｒｒｅｔｅ ｆｏｒ ａｎｙ ｐｏｉｎｔ ｏｆ ｔｈｅ ａｆｔｅｒｎｏｏｎ． Ｗｅ ｌｅａｖｅ ｆｏｒ ｋｙｏｔｏ ｔｏｍｍｏｒｏｗ， ａ ｍｏｒｅ ｔｒａｄｉｔｉｏｎａｌ ｔｏｗｎ ｉｎ ｊａｐａｎ ｗｈｅｒｅ ｗｅ ｈｏｐｅ ｔｏ ｆｉｎｄ Ｇｅｉｓｈａｓ， ｆｉｎｇｅｒｓ ｃｒｏｓｓｅｄ！！