gah! and like a little fish…i’m hooked!

it’s true, i knew it would happen…pete i think you did too, sarah, you certainly did…i’ve been bitten by the very same bug as you. i’ve found another expensive sport to become addicted to. diving is just something else. there really is no other way that you can defy nature so completely than to breathe underwater. i was a little surprised by how natural it feels; there wasn’t one point where i felt panicked or uncomfortable, even at 28m in less than 1 meter visibility on our deepest dive where to surface immediately would had meant time in a decompression chamber or serious injury. it was fine tho, i remember my breathing being calm and i can remember thinking ‘i wish i could see a little more, i wonder what there is out there just out of sight’.

i really sorry to have to leave the island today, it’s been an amazing 10 days, i’ve got my advanced open water card, certainly going to use it again on this trip even if it is only for doing a little fun diving. the next part of the trip is going to awesome tho,jen arrives on tuesday for 10 days, we’re going to hang about in bangkok for a night or two, then come down to the islands and relax, give her some time to work on the tan before heading off to vegas (jealous!)

this will now be the fifth time i will have been back into bangkok, i can’t say that i hate the place, that would be totally untrue, it’s really quite a wonderful city, but i have been to so many other better areas that it seems a shame to have to leave one of the better ones even if it is for only a few days in order to meetjen and show her around. jen’s arrival will be exactly 2/3 of the way through the trip. i will be home exactly a month after she arrives…wow, how time flies. i’m in no mood to start thinking about coming home just yet, just thought i’d mention it.

hope you enjoy the underwater photos, i had so much fun taking them…in need of a little practice at both the diving (buoyancy in particular) and the underwater shooting skills. can’t wait to give it another go sometime soon.

now even the lows are highs

firstly: massive apologies for taking so long to post anything up here, it has been a while but my last few days have been proper hectic and massively rewarding.

my luck was truely in on the trip out of cambodia, i checked out of the angkor international at 6am to be greeted by the tuk-tuk driver who’d been showing me about for the previous few days and he got me to the airport in seemingly record time, essential as the queue at the airport meant that i was in the departure longue for only 10 minutes before the flight was called. the very easy flight to bangkok got me there with enought time to spare before catching another plane down to koh samui where i landed 30 mins before the final boat to koh tao (where i was provisionally enrolled in the diving course for the following day). i got to the island, found the diving school and was lucky enough again to be the last person they were going to sign on that day due to a lack of instructors (they were all off in myanmar doing visa runs). so i got here, signed on the the course and checked into a sweeting little bungalow 50 yards from the beach and the diving school.

the first afternoon was spent in the classroom. they get us a fairly chunky book, the first two chapters of which we were to have studied and answered the questions on before the class. no problem at all. the class explaind the function of the variuos pieces of equipment and the safety proceedures and structure of the rest of the course. day 2 and we get to dive! that first evening i wondered up the beach to sai ree and bumped into some people i met in bangkok the night before going to cambodia. very small world over here.

so, day 2. we get fitted up for wetsuits and buoyancy controlls and straight out to the boat and off to the ‘japanese gardens’ dive site. we started in shallow water learining to snorkel and clear the masks before we were let loose with the air tanks. there’s nothing more surreal that defying nature and breathing normally underwater! it’s so exciting. that first day we got down to about 7.5 meters for about a half hour and got to see trigger fish, moray eels and a school of barracuda deeper below us. i’m hooked!

the third day and we were back in the classroom after more studying to learn how to execute some of the emergency techniques and to use dive tables to calculate the amount of time you can safely dive before you start getting high for the saturated nitrogen in your system. so much more to think about that i first thought. that afternoon’s dives took us a little deeper and we practiced more buoyancy techniques and safety tips.

day four and we were back in class for the exam. no problem, passed with flying colors and celebrated suitably afterwards. this was last night, i’m feeling the effects a little now, but we have the morning off anyway. this afternoon we have two dives at different locations where we can practice a little underwater navigation and get to dive a little deeper, to 12 meters i think.

as i say, i’m hooked and as such i’m going to stay on for a few more days to get the advanced course done. deeper still, more advance ‘peak performance buoyancy’ skills, another night dive and the finale for me…underwater photography! oh yes!

time to go and get ready for the afternoon, there will be photos going up very soon, hopefully later today now that i have found a decent internet cafe and the phone lines are up again.

finally an internet connection

and so much to say!

so, upon getting to cambodia y the worst means possible, i got washed and rested at the guesthouse i was dropped off at (not a chance in hell i was going to venture out to find anywhere else the state i was in) and the following day i did what everyone in siam reap does, go to angkor wat.

you hear people’s stories about how vast the site is and how the sight of it is breathtaking and will blow you away, well our guide showed us the site in the perfect fashion: little at a time and building up to the grand finale.

we started with the out lying temples, all wonderful: every square inch covered in intricate carvings and murals and all in various states of ruined disrepair. the $20 entrance fee evidently in use as there was restoration work going on in most of the buildings we visited. the site of the site became apparent when we spend about a 1/2 driving from the penultimate building to the main wat, a distance that didn;t look very far on the map.

i walked down the long central walkway to the courtyard at the perfect time of day; the sun setting behind me casting a wonderful orange light over the stone. once you pass through the carved archway you see the magnificent five towered temple and fell very small indeed. i must have spent about an hour just walking around the perimeter, admittedly stopping to take the odd photo along the way until i found the perfect spot to get the famous evening photo of the temple. i was truly done by this point, the heat and the distance having worn me out.

that evening the irish lads that i met on the bus took me out for a few drinks and a few games of cards. i taught them sh*thead, they taught me an irish game, 45 which i’ve now totally forgotten, the rules being totally absurd and even by there admittance hard to master. i’ll stick to sh*thead. pete, by the way, got a few more rule to add to our game. you’ll like ’em.

that’s really all there is to do in siam reap, so i booked a bus on a much easier road to the capitol, phnom pehn.

from the description in the guidebook this place sounds ace. “a collection of broad tree lined boulevards and colonial buildings, traditional architecture and traditional heritage” all that is there, no doubt, but they fail to mention the enormous collection of terrible smells. maybe it was just the part of town i was in with it’s open sewers and market selling meat in the hottest parts of the day. don’t get me wrong, i ‘do like the place, the people are incredibly friendly in a way that makes you feel like you aren’t getting shafted everytime you get a tuk tuk or go see one of the sites and it is very picturesque.

cambodia does of course have a very dark recent history, something that i was very keen to find out more about while here. it all starts with angkor wat, more specifically the enormous barrets surrounding the temple grounds. the barrets are large reservoirs, some 17000 olympic sized swimming pools originally thought to be the hub of an irrigation system for the area (that has since been disproved as there are no channels leading away from it. they have seemingly no purpose whatsoever!). pol pot took this first theory to heart and proclaimed that the great civilisation of angkor was founded on it’s ability to produce vast quantities of rice.

after the end of the vietnam war, cambodia’s western supporting government was too weak to withstand a revolution by pol pot’s kymer rouge army and within a week, he took power and forced everyone to leave the cities, telling them that the americans would return, and put them to work in the fields. to stop any overthrowing of his power he immediately arrested, interrogated and killed any teacher, doctor, intellectual, minister, monk, anyone who had any possibly way of refuting his power. in addition to this anyone who stood up to the strict rule of his dictatorship also faced the same. (rules like ýou cannot look left or right, only forward’ the guy was insane!). some 2 million cambodians were killed by fellow cambodians in 4 years. one other horrible fact, pol pot saw that the best soldiers for his private army must also be the most obedient…children, some as young as 10 (children younger than that faced the same fate as their parents).

i first went to see the killing fields, a site about 10km south of the city. set in idillic surroundings it’s theplace where the victims of the interrogations came to be killed, if they had not as a result of the torture at S21 (coming next). it’s dominated by a glass stupa containing 8689 skulls from the fraction of the bodies exhumed so far. this temple is surrounded by 84 mass graves. disturbingly you can still see clothing and boned protruding from the ground. the site was only discovered due to the terrible smell it gave off else it would still be a mystery.

the following day i visited S12, a high school turned prison through which everyone passed on the way to the killing field. it’s like something from a horror film: long narrow corridors with classrooms divided into cells 0.8×1.2m in size. some of the rooms have metal beds with the electrocution wires still on show.

every victim had their photo taken, name recorded and biography taken. all these records are still on show as if they are something to pride. i was truely sickened by the whole thing.

today i escaped. i’m on the beach at sihanoukville, only for one day before i return to phnom pehn to catch an early flight back to bangkok and on to the diving course on koh tao. some light relief from the past few days.

sorry to have not written anything for a while, internet connections are something of a rarety here. hope everyone is happy and well.

nate, roger, i’m so sorry…

you gave me sound advise and i chose, very unwisely not to follow it…i took the bus from bangkok to siam reap!

the day didn’t start off too badly, the large air conditioned bus pulled up just down the street from the hostel just as i had been told it would do by the young woman at the travel agents. ‘getting to cambodia in this will be no problem’ i thought. well the jouney as far as the border in this bus was great. at the border we got out, had some food, a few people got there visas sorted out and we made our way through immigration. not a difficult process but it was getting really hot by this point and a little sticky and uncomfortable. that was where the fun ended.

the continuation of the journey would still be by bus, but not the super-comfortable big ‘vip’ bus. no no. by a small, rattling, air-conless ‘local’ bus (for local people) . then it got worse. you see there was a rumor, one which has since been confirmed that a nameless airline company in this part of the world has paid off the government NOT to tarmac the road from the border to siam reap, know fullwell that the nightmare of the journey by road will become infamous and people will fly. not i. i sat on this local bus for 7 hours while the very skillful driver negotiated potholes the size of lunar craters not on a road but a dirt track. rocks the size of footballs, huge artic lorries, bikes, cars, no ‘drive on the left’: drive wherever the hell you can. the lack of air con meant that the windows had to be opened letting what nate coined ”cambodian snow” (the orangy-red dust that part of the country is made from) to cover us all from head to toe. joking aside, i’m still coughing up mud. guys, i know you warned me, but i am glad i’ve done it. something of an experience that will make any journey from here on in blissfully easy by comparison.

but it’s not all bad. i’m in a nice little guesthouse, possibly the poshest i’ve stayed in so far, for $5 a night. today i’m going to see one of the sever wonders of the world: angkor wat. going to see it by day and the sunset today, then the sunrise and the early light tomorrow. hoping to get some killer shots and learn more about this countries early history. on saturday i’m going to travel to phnom pehn to the killing fields and get more insight into the more recent and tragic history. we had a short lesson in rather broken english from a tuk-tuk driver last night, more to come on that one.

tubing (pron. tyoobing) – to float down the nam song, in a tube

to be totally honest, if you’re not into friends/simpsons/movies (there are movie bars everywhere with people sitting inside all day drinking and staring at the tv) and you spend more than one day in vangvieng, after seeing the countryside on the first day, you’re going to have to go tubing.

you start about 3km upstream from the town, you get a large rubbing ring, presumably from a tractor as there are plenty around here and then they let you float off back to the town. how interesting is that?! you might ask. well dotted along the river bank are numerous bars all of which have some sort of life-expectancy-shortening, injury-inevitable, high-as-can-be rope swing or platform to leap from. i know my mum’s going to gasp at the idea of me hurling myself into a river after a few drinks in the sun, i’ll put the cherry on top by saying we were taught how to backflip from the end of the swing, the highest being about 40ft from the water 🙂

but that’s all done with now, no injuries, not even a hangover. i’m now in viantiene, the laos capital i’m i’m not staying any longer than it takes to get a bus ride to cambodia. there’s mot really anything here. there’s no amazing scenery,no incredible cultural significance, just a way to get to another country for me. 5pm today i’ll be on a bus to bangkok and then straight on another to siem riep in cambodia, the home of ankor wat. my current travelling buddies are off to vietnam, something i really want to do but have no time before the diving and jen’s visit so i shall have to say farewell to them today and maybe catch up with them in a few weeks.

the internet is a little patchy here sometimes hence no recent photos. i will have some time in bangkok so another post from there and some pics then more from cambodia when i’m there.

smile :) bar bungalows

luang phrabang was beautiful; the french influence, the great food and the relaxed atmosphere were just what the doctor ordered. but then it was time to get on yet another bus and go somewhere else…i’m not in vangvieng

the bus ride was not so bad, abot 6 hours in total including a few stops along the way to get more water and take on some food. the first of these stops wasn;t so great. as soon as we’d all bought food it was like the flood gates had been opened: about 20 young children swarmed aroung us begging for food. we all felt obliged to give them what we had and then had to go back and get some more for ourselves. but these kids were proper poor, or so they seemed (na this is laos, not thailand, i’m sure these were genuinely very poor). but we made it to  vangvieng as i said

it’s a strange place. it’s in the middle of nowhere and all it really has going for it apart from the incredible scenery is the river on which you can go ‘tubing’. more about than in a moment, i’ve not done it yet, we’re all going tomorrow. so aside from the many young tourist who come for the tubing, there’s a large handfull of older gnarlier hippies who must have come here, discovered the opium on sale at the bars and just got lost here. you see people walking down the middle of the road wearing sheets playing recorders totally oblivious to all around them. look another direction and there’s a group of young europeans with great suntans wearing prada swimming shorts.

on the plus side, and a major plus at that, i’m staying in a bamboo hut right by the river and the best and most chilled out bar in town and it’s only costing $2 a night! i had the best night’s sleep here last night, feel totally refreshed today. i got out on a motorbike today to see the coutryside around the town, saw some caves, went swimming in a fresh water lagoon after launching myself from the rope swing some 30 feet into the water. going to go now and do the same from the bar by my room. more about the tubing tomorrow. 🙂

…and now two days sat in a boat

but i’m not complaining, not one bit. the two day trip from chiang khong to luang phrabang via pat beng is just stunning. i didn;t realise that there was an over night stay half way down the river, i should have guessed it tho, 472km in one day is far too much…and they don’t call it a slow boat for nothing.

first off was getting up and out of bed in time for the boat of the river to the border control in loas. in the bleary-eyed haze that is my normal wake up i managed, after using it as an alarmclock, to leave my mobile under the pillow in the guest house. of course i realise this after i’ve made the border crossing and have set off in the boat. no luck in this story folks, the guest house can’t find my phone. i have a new one, no idea what the dialing code is but the number is 5547 950. use it wisely. oh, and i can’t receive txt either :s

anyway. the scenery was almost prehistoric; endless miles of unspoilt jungle covered mountains dotted occasionally by collections of huts or parties of fishermen along the bank. every few hours we would stop either to let people off to wander seemingly straight into wild jungle or to pick up children selling food, drinks and woven bracelets and cloth. it was a very uncomfortable trip tho. the benches, barely big enough for two people were over crowded and there was very little room to stand up and stretch legs.

when we finally got to pat beng there had been a problem, the guest house was over booked and there was nowhere in town for us to stay as a new hotel had opened (more places to stay surely) and they were having a party with many, many people invited from all over norther laos. ok. no problem.

as it turned out it wasn’t a problem at all. the owner of the guest house we’d all booked in at also had a restaurant with a stunning view over the river. in about 20 mins we’d moved tables and erected mozzie nets and turned his humble but comfortable dining area into our very own dorm. and a great night’s sleep i had too. to wake up fresh as a daisy at 6:30am as the sun is coming jup over the hillside (check the photos) is a superb start. may have to get into the habit more often (hmm, yeah, right)

the second day on the river was much the same as the first. got chatting to a fair few people, mostly french travellers visiting one of their former colonies and within 7 hours we were at the very modest town of luang phrabang.

the french influence in the place is everywhere. for starters the architecture is more like a sleepy village in the south of france than a town in south east asia. some of the food is very european, the coffee is great (they don’t use nescafe :)) and it’s altogether more modest than thailand. i prefer it wholeheartedly. i’ve never felt like someone’s trying to get money from me, something that always seems to be a point of conversation with people in thailand. it’s cleaner, more traditional and strangely more sophisticated than it’s more affluent neighbor. i like it here. i’m going to visit vang vieng and vientiane. from there i think (although it changes regularly) south to do ‘the loop’ by bike and then on to cambodia. but now as it’s getting late, i’m going to wander about the night market, pick up a few gifts and take a few more photos and have an easy night of it.