July 31, 2010

Horrific crossing & Intro to Koh Pha-ngan

Well, where do I begin? I immediately felt uneasy after stepping on board our ferry to Koh Phangan. People were crammed inside and already looking a bit seasick. We were locked in and piles of suitcases blocked the main exit doors…not a great sign! Within 1 minute of leaving the port people started screaming as we pummelled through giant waves, the water crashing against the windows and vigorously rocking the boat. A sheet of tarpaulin which was covering mounds of luggage on the front deck suddenly came loose and whipped around the side, cracking a window with a tremendos amount of force. More screaming ensued of course, as people burried their faces in seasickness bags.
To say this whole scene made me feel slightly uneasy is an understatement. I joked to the girls that if the boat were to sink we would have to swim to the island together using our 20 Longchamp bags between us as floatation devices…that suddenly seemed like a great idea!
We hit the top deck hoping to get some fresh air, only to be met by sheets of rain and the stench of vomit as people clung on to the railings for dear life. Rachel and I found ourselves a corner and chilled out, getting soaked as we stuck our heads out into the wind and counted down the minutes until we hit dry land. Every 30 seconds another green faced victim would leg it outside and almost fall overboard as they were sick. It was the most digusting boat journey of my life!
Finally, finalllyyyyy we made it to Koh Phangan! At the port we bartered a price with a hotel rep and a taxi driver and all piled into a jeep. My enormous bag fell off of the back of the truck after we hit a speed bump and I demanded a full refund (at which point the driver suddenly didn’t understand English…) We made it to our designated hotel and looked around, only to be told that the price we were promised was not for a bungalow but for the computer room! (“Same same as bungalow, A/C and we put 5 mattress just for you!) Because of the Full Moon party rooms were really expensive and it seemed like a lost cause. We cursed, we called them liars, we told them we were going to write a letter of complaint to the Lonely Planet and eventually stormed across the beach in search of somewhere else.
We finally found somewhere decent and came back to the original hotel to get our bags. The girls said the new hotel was just around the corner so we could walk along the beach instead of on the road. This daunting task seemed impossible to me (I can’t stress enough the ridiculous size of my bag!) But I stupidly dragged my bag onto the beach as the girls loaded their bags onto their backs. And of course no long walk on the beach would be complete without a thunderstorm, which happily rolled in and soaked us to the core within seconds. The girls marched ahead, leaving me behind with my bag and a very dark cloud looming above me. I eventually got so fed up that I dragged my bag to shelter under a tree and stood there shivering, trying to keep my hand bag from getting soaked too! Eventually Rachel the Angel came running down the beach to help me and she didn’t really know what to make of me standing under a tree, crying and looking rather pathetic. “Don’t worry, I did Duke of Edinborough”, she said as she flung my bag over her shoulder and marched halfway to the hotel, taking little notice of the fact that I was in awe of her strength (and generosity!) I still think she’s one of the coolest people in the world for helping me! Soaked, shivering and in desperate need of a warm shower, we finally made it to the resort which was to be our home for the next week. Bring on Koh Phangan!
Once the grey clouds cleared up, it wasn’t too shabby…

July 24, 2010

Easy like Sunday morning...

Currently squished up against the wall, trying to make myself as small as possible. There are bodies and bags taking up every cubic inch of airspace and the air smells of sweat and stale alcohol. What an amazing way to spend a Sunday morning! We’re currently at the port waiting for our ferry to Koh Phangan, which is already delayed by 45 minutes…thank god for technology as a distraction, or else I’d be swearing at all of the obnoxious French and Germans who insist on pummeling through the crowd, shoving past everyone with their massive backpacks, as though it’s their god given right to be at the front of the non existant queue…As you can tell, I’m really not a morning person. 

Ps: times like this make me cringe at even having a slight affiliation with Dutch people. Who forgot to tell them it’s not OK to wear sandals, a sarong, a Koh Tao T-shirt AND a head scarf? I used to jump at the opportunity to speak Dutch with randomers but right now I’m keeping my mouth shut.. 


July 20, 2010

PADI Open Water

Our first introduction to diving was a brief chat with our instructors Tim and Jonas, followed by an instructional video. Our instructors are upbeat, excited (a whale shark had been spotted off of the island and they were keen to tag it!), professional and incredibly good looking. Both of our instructors are actually Directors of the Resort and don’t usually teach anyone but instructors. They’re both rated top in the world as Dive Masters and so it was a real honour to be taught by them, according to the over excited dive assistants! We left the classroom itching to get in the water!
By the second day we went on our first two dives, in an area called Mango Bay which is in the north of the island. The water is as warm as a bath tub and the bay was beautifully clear. Rachael was my partner and we work well as a team, though both of us are very curious and get in trouble for swimming off after fish! Immediately after taking my first breath through the regulator I knew this was it. I felt at total peace with the water and loved the feeling of total weightlessness and the soothing rhythm of the bubbles. Sounds like a load of nonsense but its difficult to describe the feeling to someone who’s never experienced it themselves. The water wasn’t very clear on any of our dives (We’re so spoilt at home!) But it was better at the bottom and we saw so many different fish, corals, sponges and even sea anenimies with families of clown fish! Our instructors were all great guys and you could tell they just loved every minute of their jobs. It was a really positive environment to be in and we left the course on a high every day, grinning from ear to ear! Be happy, Dive PADI! Can’t wait to go home and dive with my Dad, Josh and Bas! :)
Girls after our last dive :)
Jonas and Tim - our instructors
Sunset in Koh Tao

July 19, 2010

Koh Tao

After an 8 hour bus journey from Bangkok we were dumped at the harbour at 2 am. 4 hours sleeping on a bench later and we were woken up by a mad scramble to get on the ferry. Off to Koh Tao!
 After 3 nauseating hours on a vibrating vessel, we made it to the island. The water is crystal clear, the beaches pearly white and the hills green and fertile. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?
We met up with our English girls (Emma, Phoebe and Rachael) at the Ban Dive Resort. Because there were 5 of us together, we got 6 nights free accommodation! Our “room” turned out to be the converted Spa/Massage room, complete with a pond filled with turtles and giant goldfish and a waterfall! Our mattresses are strewn all over the place, making it our own little cave :) we love it! The island seems to have little to offer besides diving, tanning and partying. We were up for all 3!
fire dancers @ a beach bar
Most awesome sweet and savoury pancakes ever!

The things we do for a good photo!

To make sure we got the most out of our time in Siem Reap, we bought a two day Temple Pass which costed US$40! Definitely our most expensive stop so far but we balanced it out by paying US$2 for our bed!
Christina is a 5th year architecture student, so visiting Angkor Wat made her as excited as a child in a sweet shop. She scoured her book on Angkor Wat with way too much enthusiasm, spitting out random facts every few minutes and shrieking at the sight of each new one.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world! We spent our first afternoon visiting some of the smaller temples, finishing off with Angor Wat, hoping to catch a nice sunset. Unfortunately it was cloudy so we arranged to come again at sunrise, much to my dismay. My mum calls me a “stunned banana” in the morning and waking up at 4am to take pictures was no exception. I could barely focus my eyes,far less my lens, to snap away at the amazing silhouette of the temples. It was definitely one of those breathtaking scenes which don’t seem real; what I was witnessing was on postcards! I fell asleep on the way to our last few temples; the novelty of the temples definitely wore off for me. A temple is a temple is a temple…
It was also disapointing to be so harrassed at every temple we went to. Children from 4 to 18 years old would hound the tuk tuks as they drove in, “Madaaaaaam, you want cold water? You want braceleettt??” I thought it was really sweet that they asked my name and introduced themselves, striking up conversation once I had declined to buy anything. “You come from Landannn? Ooh, how long you stay in Siem Reap?” Etc. Little did I realise it would be used against me when I came back out of the temples, as I heard my name being called: “Malouuuu, you said you would buy something when you came back out!!”
 Me: “I never said such a thing!”
Them: “Yes you diddddd, you a liarr!”
Malou: “That’s not true, don’t make things up and make me feel guilty!”
 Them: “You a liarrr lady, you no English, you no keep your word!”
 At which point I would question why such smart kids who could speak English so well were selling trinkets and snacks outside of tourist traps instead of bettering themselves at school!

Angkor What?


Cambodian farmer tending to his water buffalo on the way to Siem Reap 

Siem Reap is a small town outside of the official Angkor Wat City and it seems as though Siem Reap’s lifeline is the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the temples every year. 

There are hotels to suit every budget; luxurious chains, boutique hotels, guest houses, etc. and then there’s where we stayed. The Garden Village was Lonely Planet’s “Top Pick” for Siem Reap and with beds starting at US$1 we figured we’d give it a try!

We soon discovered that by beds they meant just that. You can opt to sleep in an outside area with a roof, mattresses spread out over a bamboo structure with a pillow, a sheet and a mosquito net. There was actually an old, emaciated French man sleeping there who looked like he’d been there for months without a bath. A week after the World Cup Final he stumbled into the reception area and demanded to know who won the Cup and was shocked to hear that France didn’t do very well. He was obviously making the most of his $1 bed all that time… We decided to treat ourselves to a US$4 room instead which had a double bed, shared shower/toilet and free bed bugs. It was disgusting but I was told off for being a “flash packer” and too fussy so I grinned and bared it. The room was on the top floor of a three story building which had divided the floors into individual ‘rooms’ using sheets of palm raffia. So it was like being in a hut but inside! The hostel itself was great though and the food is what kept me there for 3 days :) US$0.75 for a warm baguette with nutella and amazing local dishes like “Amok” - a curry with shrimp!

The temples themselves were incredible, not as big as I imagine (usually the case!) But amazing none the less! To think that they were built hundreds of years ago is mind blowing and the attention to detail is exquisite. I think the pictures speak for themselves this time, I can’t really go on the describe buildings without sounding boring but I’ll give it a try…

The Angkor Temples were built by the Cambodian people between the 9th and 15th century. The temples were the centres of individual cities and the majority were Buddhist with a few Hindu temples in between. Angkor Thom was the capital during this time but this changed to the current day capital of Phom Penh. The Angkor Temples were abandoned by the Cambodians when this happened and some ran to ruin. They were later discovered by the French (so they claim) and some have been left as they were when discovered; covered in foliage with massive trees dominating the structures. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge/ Pol Pot regime, the heads of every Buddha and statue were broken off as a sign of disrespect, to be sold on the black market in Thailand. 

That’s the history in a nutshell, there’s so much more to it. 

Besides being one of the Wonders of the World, the Temples of Angkor were stunningly beautiful and a jungle book playground. 

Speaking of which, apparently the original Jungle Book was inspired by the Angkor Wat buildings and Lara Croft : Tomb Raider was also filmed here.

Little boy playing with a tarantula @ a market!


July 18, 2010

Asian Face Masks

1 in 4 people in South East Asia rides around wearing a suspicious looking face mask. We can’t figure out if it’s because of disease or dirt as they even wear them around the house. Little babies and children have custom made masks. Unnerving? Slightly! We couldn’t bring ourselves to join in the trend…yet on the bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok there was a really foul smell coming from the toilets. The putrid stink of urine, which makes you want to throw up. We didn’t want to tell the driver because that would result in a bus change and a 6 hour delay on our already delayed journey.
So what does one do in these dire situations? We rubbed some shampoo under our nostrils to hide the smell, stuck tissue up our nose and used our eye-sleeper masks over our nose and mouths! We looked ridiculous, if not shockingly Asian for the day!

July 14, 2010

Killing Fields & S21

Another sad day. We took a tuk tuk (our driver was named was James) to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. $2 got us into the most surreal historical site I’ve ever visited. Before us stood a 50 m high monument, a memorial ‘supa’ with 17 floors full of human bones. It displays more than 8000 human skulls of victims and their ragged clothes. These were the bones exhumed a few years after the Khmer Rouge regime fell and the fields were discovered. Prisoners came to this former orchard to be ‘liquidated’, having spent time at the S21 prison in Phom Penh. Prisoners were peasants, workers, intellectuals, ministers, khmer diplomats, foreigners, women and children; all believed to be ‘unpure’ and not representative of the Khmer Rouge ideal. Historians believe that between 1.8 and 3 million people were murdered during the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot regime.(Thousands of mass graves have not been exhumed yet and therefore the death toll varies considerably according to different historians). After seeing the monument we walked along a path through the fields. The area is very overgrown and actually quite peaceful, with wild flowers growing around a lake and butterflies fluttering by. Its hard to imagine that over 40 years ago up to 100 people were being bludgeoned, beheaded, shot and beaten to death daily where we stood. There were large potholes and craters in the earth around the path; just some of the exhumed mass graves. Over 8000 bodies have been officially exhumed, with new ones literally popping up daily out of the earth. With each new rain bones and articles of clothing resurrect themselves out of the soil, sporadically appearing around the fields. The museum has let these things be and we walked over many bones and teeth as we made our way around. There were specifically labelled areas such as “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”, “Mass grave of more than 100 victims, women and children whose majority were naked” and “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.” At this one I broke down, I just couldn’t bear to imagine the brutality that unfolded here. It didn’t help that there was a school nearby and we could hear children laughing and playing during their lunch break. What kind of noises were coming from this place all those years ago? We walked along the lake and were met by a little boy who was begging from the other side of the fence. “Please mam, some money?” I couldn’t help myself and offered some cookies instead, which he happily wolfed down. Further along we were met by some more children who all begged in unison, repeating lines they had obviously recited a million times to other tourists. “Please mam, some money so that we can go to school? We just need $1 each!” Instead I offered them cookies too and they accepted those less willingly. One of the girls asked for a pen, so we gave her that and her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets! She was so excited! The other girl eyed up Chris’s beaded bracelet and so we gave her that too. She was jumping up and down with excitement, which was further escalated by me giving her my hair tie as well. We felt guilty for not bringing along more pens and simple things like that, these kids were so happy! I would have given them $100 each if I knew it would go directly to their education. The guide books warned us against giving money to begging children as it was usually a scam and they would never reap the benefits of it. Thankfully we could give what little we had and know it put a smile on their adorable little sad faces. It was a brief period of happiness in our otherwise upsetting day!
We then rode to the S21 Prison, officially called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was in operation between 1975-1979. Originally a high school, the building was converted into a prison designed for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing of detainees after confessions (often faked) were taken. As if on cue, dark clouds rolled over the compound as we walked in and a thunder storm ensued. It gave it an even more terrifying atmosphere as everything became dark and spooky. We watched an hour long film on the Khmer Rouge regime and the personal experiences of a few of the victims. There was even a filmed interview with a former Khmer Rouge ‘security assistant’ who told of beatings and executions with a strange grin on his face, as if he had completely detached himself from the things he was talking about. As we walked out of the movie room we noticed the floor was stained with blood and the walls blemished with scratches and marks. Everything has been left as it was, nothing cleaned away or sugar coated. It was still raining as we walked towards the blocks with the holding cells. Each classroom was divided into small cells by brick walls; the first floor and upper floors were used for large cells where many prisoners were crowded together (the images made me compare it to the pictures of African slaves packed onto the ships) Some of the windows were panelled with glass to minimise the sound of prisoner’s screams heard outside the facility in times of torture. The balcony along the building was closed off with barbed wire, so that prisoners couldn’t commit suicide by jumping off. I was really on edge the whole time, jumping every time someone appeared from around a dark corner or out of a cell. There were no lights in the prison and it stank of stale blood and wood. Each cell was really tiny and many had no windows, just a peek hole and thick chains on the floor to which prisoners were permanently attached by the foot. There was another room which displayed mug shots of each prisoner who had passed through S21; men and women of all ages and children who didn’t look a day over 7. They usually spent between 2-4 months in the prison before being executed at the Killing Fields. We took a few photos but it felt immoral somehow, like we shouldn’t be there in the first place. It felt so real, like the prisoners were still living there and had just been taken away for a little while so that we could have a look around; a peek into their abysmal lives. Only 7 prisoners were found alive on Liberation Day in 1979 and all of these people had used their skills- such as painting or photography- to stay alive. It was a truly harrowing experience but I’m glad that we decided to see it. It gave us a more rounded understanding of the history of Cambodia, even if that meant feeling really down for a day. It sure makes me appreciate my little peaceful rock in the Caribbean sea that much more.

July 12, 2010

From blue to Orange to blue again!

So to top off a very blue day I decked myself in Orange for the World Cup Final! :) I met up with a group of Dutchies and we made our way over to a Dutch owned bar in Saigon. It was decked in streamers, balloons and flags- we even got free ‘bitter ballen’!! It was a great atmosphere, Heineken was flowing! We all know what happened in the end and when Spain scored everyone started crying. I’ve never seen grown men so upset…they were shaking from crying so much. Either they were really patriotic or they had just lost wayyy too much money! On our way home, while slamming the Spanish and cursing the referee, one of the girls had her shoulder bag stolen by a ‘motorcycle cowboy’! They’re infamous in Vietnam and one tried to steal Chris’s bag in Nha Trang too! They zip by and either snatch or cut women’s bags from their shoulders! A dramatic end to a very emotional, upsetting and disheartening day. I’m still very proud of the Dutch team and wore my $1 fake market-bought jersey with pride! HUPP HOLLAND HUPPPP!!! Next time we will be the wereldchampioen :) !!!

July 11, 2010

So sad in Saigon

July 11th will be remembered as one of the saddest days of this trip. We visited the War Remnants Museum. This is described as a unique museum in Vietnam who’s role is to systematically study, collect, preserve and display exhibits on war crimes and aftermaths foreign aggressive forces caused for the Vietnamese people.
 It was the most sensational, emotional and gut wrenching museum visit in my life! There is a collection of air planes, tanks, guns and weaponry in the front court yard and to the right of that is a hidden exhibit on Imprisonment Systems called “Tiger Cages”. This section describes in vivid detail the torture methods used on POWS and “patriotic soldiers” and even has an original set of holding cells, equipped with torture equipment. The prisons were built to exterminate prisoners physically and psychologically. “Tiger cages” were barbed wired chicken coops, about the size of a coffin. Three to five men were stuffed in these cages and forced to stoop for days on end. As the museum was obviously used as a propaganda tool, there were disturbing photos of surviving (and shot) prisoners along the walls and paragraphs beneath explaining what had happened to each. “The enemy” was never named but there was a very anti-american atmosphere to the place.
I walked out of there in tears, shocked at how people were treated just over 40 years ago. Without thinking, I walked straight into the main exhibit, which was split into different sections across 3 floors ;”Vestiges of war crimes and aftermaths (In military, economical, cultural, social fields, consequences on men, nature, environment” was by far the most graphic and upsetting. There were so many photos of men, women and children who had been gunned down, tortured and injured. During the Vietnam War 3 million Vietnamese were killed (2 million of them were civilians), 2 million people injured and 300,000 missing.
During the war Americans used thousands of gallons of a chemical named “Agent Orange”, the effects of which are still seen today. Agent Orange cleared hectares of forests and fertile lands, contaminating the water supplies and poisoning hundreds of thousands of people. Each person who came into contact with this chemical was affected by it (skin burns, cancers, blindness, to name a few of the side affects) and the person carrying the chemical passed it down one generation. This Agent Orange generation of Vietnamese people is my generation. There are still deformed babies born every day, and one in 4 Vietnamese people are affected by it. This struck a chord with me as I have never seen so many disabled, disfigured and handicapped people in one area and suddenly it all made sense. The shrunken boy begging near our hotel, the strange marks on the men I saw this morning, the arm less girl peddling by on a custom made bike. There were hundreds of photos of people living with such unimaginable difficulty and pain because of the Vietnam War. Poor people who worked all day in the field and had to come home to a whole family of disabled children. Even writing this two days later is bringing tears to my eyes as I’ve never seen anything so sad and unfair. Chris and I left the museum feeling really low. It didn’t help that we passed a few disfigured people on our way home, making this war feel very real to us.

July 10, 2010

Saigon: Same Same but Different!

Saigon seems like a cleaner, greener Bangkok! There are over 10 million people in this city and 4 million motorbikes!!! The rules of survival apply here…no one follows road signs, zebra crossings or lights! Just go for it, hold your breath and hope for the best!!! I’ve clipped a few wing mirrors…all the wiser for it! We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels today! The network of tunnels was built during the war and completed around 1965. There’s over 200 km of tunnels and they go three layers deep! The third layer of tunnels as far down as 12 m! We toured the entrances to some of the networks and poked around boobie traps. It was very surreal and scary as I’m very claustrophobic and can’t imagine anything worse than being in a small tunnel underground! Visited a night market tonight and got told off by lots of grumpy locals for taking pictures of the weird food they were selling! Frog, snake, lizard, snail…whatever your fancy, you can have it boiled,fried, steamed or in a soup! The putrid smell of stale grease hung in the air and stopped me from trying any of these enticing delicacies…
1.In one of the tunnels!


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