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Monday, 30 August 2010

Not Another Top 5 List: How to get the right day tour

1. For "visit a local village" READ "endure handicraft hard-sell"
Every tour has one. Promises of deeper cultural understanding give way to this unique sales technique. For every item you see being made by a locals' hand, you'll see 10 more thrust infront of you at a "special" price available only today...

2. Time is money
When the tour operator says it's 8:30 - 5 expect to be collected at closer to 9 and returned by 4

3. Make friends
The icing on any day tour cake is the new friends that you can make. Get in there early with some kind words or risk being paired in your kayak/camel/horse-drawn carriage with that crazy middle-aged American woman who keeps talking about her recent boob reduction

4. Lunch is a lottery bring along something of your own. It will either serve as necessary sustenance or a tasty snack once the day tour is done

5. Shop around
No matter which tour operator you book with you will get exactly the same tour; so go cheap and bargain hard. No-one wants to make a new friend (see #3) and find that they paid less that you

Like this? why not check out How to cook authentic Vietnamese cuisine or Things not to say in India

Three Six Five with No Place To Be

Just a quick shout-out to those lovely bloggers at No Place To Be who have featured Three Six Five in their "Meet a Random Traveller" section...

If you can't get enough of Rob and I on this site, please check it out HERE - also an awesome place for all sorts of travel-based advise, musings and where one can get incredibly jealous about another couples' year-long trip around the world.

Good times :)

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Day 123 - 128: Sabaydee!

Sabaydee! - or hello! from Laos. So relaxed have we been since entering our fourth country on this trip - that it has taken 5 days to get round to this post, and I get the feeling there is plenty more chilling to come...

Our first stop in Laos was in Don Det - a pretty little island in the Mekong River that makes up just a tiny part of Si Phon Don or Four Thousand Islands. Aside from the occasional walk around the island, or over the bridge to the neighbouring island, it's safe to say that our first four days in Laos were spent sitting, eating, lying in our river-side hostel's hammocks and reading. It was bliss.
We made some lovely new friends and even found a bakery that sold cinnamon and banana doughnuts and cinnamon whirls buns that were to die for. Not overtly Laos, I'll give you that - but delicious all the same.
We've got stuck in with the local cuisine also and I am (perhaps prematurely) predicting an absolute stormer of a Food for Thought for Laos; coconut curry with vegetable? Finally! An Asian country with an appreciation for the humble potato! Hurray!

Today I am writing from a rather rainy Champasak, where we have visited the Wat Phu Champasak (think: beautiful ruins smaller than Angkor Wat but bigger than My Son) and, in the spirit of Laos, taken everything in a very, very, relaxed manner. [pics to follow when broadband speed catches up with us]

Tomorrow we head further upstream to Pakse where Team 365 will be joining forces with our good friend, Jeff, and together we will aim to bring you a wide and varied look at Laos.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Sex, drugs and karaoke

Throughout my travels in India I was offered drugs - excluding marijuana - only once. Ironically the magic mushrooms sales pitch came in Hampi, a site considered so sacred to the Hindu faith that alcohol and even that well known trouble-maker meat was, in the entire city, contraband.
The heroin-hills of Indochina, I have learned, have not followed in these conservative footsteps. Here in Cambodia drugs share the streets with hookers and wanna-be pop starlets in intimate proximity.

Sitting in a pub in Phnom Penh a young boy, maybe 12 years old, approaches our table. He's selling books. All the backpacker essentials; Lonely Planet Guide Books, war biographies and recent best-sellers. All the books in shiny polythene wrappers are photocopies of good quality, they're sold at a fraction of the retail price by hordes of children that roam the streets, day and night.
"Guide book?", he nears the table; his basket slung around his thin neck with fabric hangs at waist height in front of him.
We shake our heads, "No thank you"
"You want" he begins, pulling a book half-way above the rest and lowering his tone " book?" His eyebrows are raised and his glistening young eyes dart from the table to the small white wrap tucked into the plastic wrapper. I must have looked shocked enough to deserve an explanation.
"Opium" he whispers "I give you good price." I'm amazed. I falter. His quick fingers have already selected another book, he plays the next card in his illicit hand. "Cocaine? you want cocaine, lady?"

Geographically, this makes no sense; opium? yes, but cocaine - from Latin America? - definitely not. In truth, most drugs, whatever they are sold as here in Cambodia, are heroin of some description. Every year a small number of thrill-seeking travellers will overdose in Cambodia's capital when they snort a sensible line of coke that turns out to be a deadly line of smack.
Does the child know this? Should a child know this? It doesn't matter - he's onto the next table. He looks like a bright kid, maybe he'll get enough money to go to school and eventually go far, or maybe he'll end up, bookless, hanging around hostels.

Many hostel employees, or at least the young local men that frequent accommodation options, will happily double-up as your dealer. "We have happy hour" I was recently told "and we have happy time - happy time, all the time."
All wanna-be dealers need know is that innocently insert the word "happy" in front of their offerings and they have satisfactorily signified the inclusion of marijuana. Happy shake, anyone? So lax is the law in this area that a chain of restaurants called Happy Herbs Pizza can operate, and with wide-spread success.

But let's not suggest that the police aren't playing their part in this troubling charade. I've heard; and call it vicious rumours if you will for I have not seen it in action myself, that in some towns rickshaw drivers will sell heroin (calling it what they will) to travellers and then drive to a preordained spot for a "random" stop-and-search. The traveller will pay a hefty fine (upward of US$500) directly to the policeman's pocket or give the officer the honour of bumping up the drug-related arrest statistics (great for tourism, don't you know?) and spend 3 months (minimum) in jail.
The driver's pocket, meanwhile, still hot from the travellers' notes will be reunited with the untouched wrap of smack ready for the next round.

There is nothing in Cambodia if not the desire to support one-anothers' enterprises.

Which is why, when a friend in search of a beer one evening in Battambang heard music and saw a dimly-lit venue with doors to booths lining the left side and girls lining the right side of the space; he was sure it was a bar-come-brothel.
"No, sir" a bartender in a well-lit, prostituteless bar assured him later that evening "it's karaoke."
And herein lies the one Cambodian vice I can happily say I wish I had purchased. This is a nation that loves to sing - the men, especially, will show no restrain in public renditions of khmer hits.
There even seems to be an entire TV channel dedicated to this national obsession. As with drugs, though the presentation varies; the substance is the same.

There are only two types of karaoke videos. The first is in the studio; in the background a stage is full of beautiful women and aging men will "dance" - I have used inverted commas here because the "moves" only require rhythmic shifting of the feet and slow twirling of the wrists from one side to the other, at hip height. In the foreground a man (old) and a woman (exquisite) will take it in turns to mime at eachother.
The second type is outdoors; a beautiful woman in a long dress will be dragged into woodland by men with swords and sashes while another man (in a different coloured shirt from the kidnappers') will hide behind trees and look longingly over logs at his lost lover. Miming, in this scenario, is optional.
All the while the khmer text is appearing at the bottom of the screen and filling from left to right in either blue or red in time with the song so that everyone at home can sing-along. And, boy, do they sing along.

It seems that it is young girls from relatively well-off families that can frequent proper karaoke bars, like the one in Battambang. It is a very different past-time to those who are born into less affluence.

Giggling and scantily-clad, Cambodia's alarmingly young-looking prostitutes can be found adorning the lap of any male westerner in bars across the country regardless of his intention to sleep with them or not.
"They're persistent" a friend (and solo-male traveller) told us, "they want to sleep with you, they need the money but what they really want is a rich European boyfriend who'll treat them well, support their children and pay the way out of this mess."
The money, in this case, is anything between US$20 and US$40. Though this may sound like a pittance, to put this into perspective, a waitress can hope to earn US$40 per month - at best. Often, much less.

Sex in Cambodia, as with any commodity, is controlled by supply and demand. And it is the high level of the former and the (seemingly) lower level of the latter that is keeping prices down. Still, when faced with toiling long and back-breaking hours in rice paddies or restaurants for the same reward as one night's work, one can begin to understand those who opt for the latter.

This is a generation of Cambodians that have grown up without parents or intellectual guidance since the Khmer Rouge, beginning with the 'soft-handed' population, wiped out almost every adult just 30 years ago. The average age in Cambodia today is 22; the young population are enjoying freedom and living - for the first time in a long time - in relative peace.

Still wounded from the war Pol Pot waged on Cambodia, she has turned to tourism to regain her strength. But at what cost in the long run? For two of these vices, I fear, the long-term price may be much higher than the short-term. Both for individuals and for society as a whole.
For my part, I won't be spending a single cent on sex or drugs while I'm in this recovering and beautiful country. What I must do before I leave is find a karaoke bar with some Journey on the playlist. How hard can it be?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Food for thought

Although it may not be well-known for it's cullinary delights, Cambodia's food has been amazing - lucky, seeing as we're probably bound to making these lists from now on. It's perhaps easier to vary your diet here than in neighbouring Vietnam, as Cambodians seem fans of Indian style curry sauces, as well as 'traditional' Asian noodle, rice and stir fry dishes. Below are the foods and meals that got the nod for best we've had during our stay.

Rob's Menu

Baguette and omlette. Standard, but this restaurant had peanut butter, jam and nuttela for free in the condiment basket.
Iced Coconut
Cookery class sea food Amok and rice
Mochi rice cake
Beef Lok-Lak from Chim's, Kampot
Banana and vanilla milkshake, from Battambang
$1 a bottle whiskey and flat coke

Kat's Menu
Pancake and honey
Ice Coffee and milk
$1 yellow noodle and rice, from Siem Reap
Mango, pineapple and sapodilla milkshake, from Battambang
Cookery class veg Amok
Banana and chocolate milkshake, from Battambang
Angkor Draft

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Day 113-114: Boat trippin and Smokin' Pot

It's become something of a recurring theme on this trip that the unplanned things, the spur-of-the-moment decisions, the yeah - let's just go for it 's that provide some of the most magical times.

This was the case when we decided we'd been on enough buses for a while and opted to take the long way round from Siem Reap to Battambang; by boat.

On purchasing the tickets we'd received a number of different estimates regarding the trip time. Some came in at a speedy 4 hours while others pitched in at closer to 8; everyone agreed it depended on the season, no-one was able to confirm whether travelling the route in the rainy season (as we were) actually made it faster or slower.
None the less we set off early and made ourselves comfortable on the roof of the boat (as you do) with the luggage in the morning sun. We quickly met some fellow travelers and shortly after introductions we were all happily sweating profusely together as we sailed through whole communities floating on the banks of the river under the clearest blue sky we had seen since Vietnam.

Nine hours (and for 365's new best friend, Steve, a t-shirt tan to end all t-shirt tans) later with sore arms from waving to children on the bank and shouting 'hello!' we were still none the wiser as to whether that was faster or slower than it was meant to be. What we did know was that tomorrow our extended group of friends would be taking a cooking class together at the fantastically named Smokin' Pot restaurant.
The day began with a trip to the market to buy our supplies with our knowledgeable and super-chilled out host, Vannak. First we made the traditional Khmer dish, Amok; a creamy coconut and chili dish served with big chunks of veg and rice. Please note, how happy Rob (above, far right) looks at the consumption of this dish.

Then, when I was definitely too full to eat any more, we made the spicy beef [tofu for me] stir-fry with basil and chili. This was a simple 4-minute frying wonder of a dish that was based around the same paste we'd made for the Amok, but with a few added extras. Here Rob decided to "do it like to locals"and on ascertaining that Vannak would usually add 10 chilis to his, decided to follow suit. Please note how Rob looked after finishing this dish (below).

Definitely, definitely too full to possibly continue we moved onto the final dish of the day; a chicken [veg] soup. A simple soup with a fresh citrus flavour that, it's safe to say; finished us off.
Vannak gave us a great recipe booklet - so expect a re-run of the above events when we return home - and we slumped helplessly into afternoon naps.

Day 112: Temple wow, temple WOW

So here we were, Cambodia's premier tourist attraction. The big one. In many traveler's cases (however wrong 365 feels this may be) the only reason to come to this wonderful country.
Built over what would eventually span a 400 km² , Angkorian kings started in AD802 to build what would be known as Angkor Wat.

In fact Angkor Wat is but one of the thousands of temples that have survived wars, the force of nature and repeatedly being forgotten by their protectors only to be 'rediscovered' again; safe to say, this will not happen again.

With much to see, we left early so as to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, a grand entrance to this holy site. In the darkness we followed the crowds over a rocky path that we'd later discover was a beautiful walkway surrounded by a lily-pad strewn lake and into an opening lined with more Japanese tourists and protruding optical zoom lenses than I've ever seen in one place at one time. Ever.

The sunrise, as you can see, was stunning. There were points at which it was difficult to distinguish tree-tops from the temple turrets but as the sun shone bright and clear it was obvious, but none the less breath taking, to see the fullness of the temple.

All the more satisfying was the ability to climb all over the intricately carved stones. If the temples had been built in England, health and safety would have lost their tiny risk assessment minds and cordoned the whole thing off; but thankfully, not here.

The temples here are much more spaced out than at My Son so we had arranged for a tuk tuk driver to take us round (elephants, helicopters and even a hot air balloon are available but, of course, not budget friendly.)

We were sped onto the Bayon group of temples, which were my favourite. The main temple, built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century comprises of 54 gothic towers with no less than 216 faces carved into them, which apparently (though unofficially) look rather like the king himself. Should anyone at the time have had any doubt about his all-seeing but gracious power as leader, they need look no further than the gently smiling faces that adorn this magnificent structure.

Our final stop was at Ta Prohm, which has affectionately come to be known as "the tomb raider temple" since it's appearance alongside Angelina Jolie in the hit movie.
There the trees that once surrounded the temple have completely integrated themselves into the structure. Huge roots curl like fingers around the stone, holding walls in place and giving the site an organic and other-worldly feel. One cannot help but feel tiny, passing under trees and temples (here beautifully indistinguishable from one another) into this larger-than-life snippet of years gone by.

Since we had opted for the 1 day pass our time was up, real temple fanatics can purchase 3 day and even 7 day passes. There was much that we didn't see, but more than happy with what we had seen we called it a day and retreated back to Siem Reap for a cool Angkor beer while 'Dr.Fish' removed 3-months worth of bad skin from our feet (please see photos for further explanation of this.)
Another incredible day.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Lomographic Photos: Take One

So just before I departed on this wild adventure some of my nearest and dearest bought me a gift; a 35mm Diana Lomographic Camera. I'd been moaning about the impracticalities of carrying my 120 Fx with me on the trip when nowhere would sell the 120mm film and certainly nowhere would develop it bla bla bla...

Problem solved. Almost. With no time to get used to the new model I managed to (unfortunately) mess up a few films altogether and only get a small number of printable photos. And even less that are post-worthy.

But here goes nothing; scraping the photographic barrel here are two shots that I found vaguely interesting.

This one (r) was taken through the windscreen of a bus in Hampi, India just as some intense monsooning kicked in. I think it kind of looks like an oil painting.

This one (l) is of a gorgeous little statue that sat in front of a rather dilapidated fountain at a park in Bangalore. The black panel on the right is a by-product of my inaccurate winding-on, but I like how it sits against the blues and creamy textures of the figures anyway.

Massive apologies for the quality of these images; getting real film developed hasn't (thus far) allowed for the luxury of digital versions so these are photos-of-photos - I'm hoping to rectify this next time too.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Day 109: A walk in the woods

From Phnom Penh we traveled to Kampot, a comparatively small town that spends most of it's time chilling out near the coast of Cambodia. Come the wet season, however, the main draw of the town moves away from the sun and sand and towards Bokor National Park, situated in the jungle coated hill side that loom over the sleepy town's shoulder.

This is exactly the reason we were here, and although slightly worried by combining a day long trek up a mountain with Asian monsoons and over three months of no exercise, our concerns were soon put to rest by Brett; an American anthropology teacher and part owner of the restaurant we stopped in for lunch. We booked the trek for the following morning, only to delay it a day following Brett's offer to watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view (he and the locals go wild for professional fighting) and take a cycling trip to the Kompong Traach caves on the same day over far too many 'Klang' (literally meaning 'strong' in Khmer) beers.

The day began early, being transported to the foot of the hill in the back of a flat bed pick-up truck. We checked we had enough water and insect repellent on us and off we went. Climbing over fallen trees, clinging onto hanging vines whilst navigating steep slippery slopes, squeezing through narrow gaps in trees and hearing gibbon calls layered over the sound of free flowing water... we really were trekking in a Cambodian jungle and it was truly magical. We would stop for water and our guide told us about how he was forced to escape imprisonment from the Khmer Rouge after witnessing his whole family be killed. He spent the following two years living in the jungle alone, not seeing another soul for the duration. Our insect defenses turned out to be a trifle underestimating too, the guide completing the trek with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

The remnants of old French colonial buildings lay scattered on the summit of Bokor. The buildings have not been used for years and just the shells survive now. The thick fog of the clouds swirling in and out of the remaining weathered concrete structures create an incredible atmosphere. It's as if it's straight out of a horror film. As we approached the ruins - including a particularly eery Catholic Church - they would just appear from the fog, only visible from 10 meters or so.

We walked/slid our way down after exploring the summit and finished our day with a relaxing boat ride down the Kampot River. We had dinner at our new favourite restaurant with some new friends; pretty much soaking wet from a day in the clouds. No beers and pledges to watch people knock each other out this evening, it was early to bed and early to rise for a whole day of travelling to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Not another 'Top 5' list: How to cook authentic Vietnamese

1. Keep it on the down-low
Remember that nothing above knee-height will be of any interest to anyone. Ensure your food is slaughtered, stir-fried and served curb-side in close proximity to a busy street.

2. Pick a speciality and stick with it
Why offer any choice at all? Decide on your dish and do not deviate from it. Everyone's happy.

3. Keep ém guessing
Make sure your menu represents in only the vuagest way what diners will actually receive upon ordering. Especially when this means making incredible dishes sound bland and boring (see Kat's pho en chay)

4. It's oil good
If you cannot see a shiny reflection of yourself in the grease that clings to the plates and lips after finishing a dish; you haven't used enough oil.

5. Make a meal to remember - even half way down the street
Feel free to sneak the hottest of chilis into every dish for the unsuspecting tourist and watch with pleasure as their eyes water at your creative cuisine.

**List lovers may also enjoy: Top 5 Things not to say in India

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Day 105: Keeping it Riel

You have read correctly; without any sort of visa-based disaster on this border-crossing we have made it into Cambodia! Hurrah! We weren't even ripped off, what a bonus...

We have been very busy since arriving on Phnom Penh indeed; visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek straight off the night bus which was something of a sombre awakening in many respects. This blog isn't about regurgitating history, but it was harrowing to see the skulls of thousands of Cambodians who were killed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge recently as the 70's.

Following their reign of terror, which deliberately wiped out the intellectual population of Cambodia - a tally that reaches around 2 million of Cambodia's then-total population of 7 million - the nation now has an average age of 22. Twenty two. It's a young country, a war-torn country - and you can see this walking the streets.

But what I've also enjoyed seeing is that this is a proud nation; the architecture is the most beautiful I've seen. Ornate Pagodas sit aside ultra modern hotel complexes and tarpaulin market stalls with ease. And everyone is smiling.

As well as sampling the local specialty - specialty beer that is - Angkor, at around 2000 Riel (ahh yes, that's the reason for the obscure title spelling) or 30p a pop, we've been exploring the city at large, and loving every moment.

First impressions of Cambodia are more than favourable; they're bloody fantastic. The photos are up so why not have a browse yourself and see what we mean?

Monday, 2 August 2010

Food for Thought

There are, of course, many ways in which Vietnam differed from India but none so much as the cuisine. Here we have a nation of meat-lovers and no animal is sacred. No land-dwelling, sea-dwelling or sky-dwelling creature is safe from the butchers' knife or a guest-appearance (often un-named) in a bowl, on a plate or on a skewer. But the French have left their mark too and (thank you French invasion!) freshly baked baguettes and delicious pastries are also readily available - if often stuffed with the afore mentioned mystery meat stuffs.

With restaurants, cafes and streeet stalls open on every inch of pavement it is impossible to go hungry in Vietnam, so here is our Vietnamese all-star menus.

Rob's Menu

Baguette with omlette & cheese (from Hoi An)
Dragon Fruit
Veg & egg fried rice with aubergine fry (from Ninh Binh & Hue)
Duck Skewer (from Ninh Binh)
Cao Lau (pork with noodle and veg) with veg spring roll (from Hoi An & Cat Ba Island)
Vitamilk frozen yoghurt
4000 dong Bia Hoi

Kat's Menu
Pho en chay (noodle soup with tofu, tomato, spinach topped with peanuts served with fresh lime and chilis - from Hoi An)
Ca Phe (Vietnamese-style super strong coffee filtered into super sweet condensed milk)
Fried tofu in tomato sauce, spinach, green salad (boat lunch in Halong Bay)
Blueberry & Almond pastry (from Saigon - better than any I've had in France)
Veg fried noodle with roast pumpkin topped with peanuts
Same yoghurt as Rob, because it tastes like a dutch dessert; fla
Saigon Green (Saigon's own Bia Hoi)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Day 100: A hundred days in Asia

We're in triple figures! We've hit the century-mark and we're VERY excited!

To mark the occasion - and because we had to get some more passport photos done for the impending Cambodia boarder crossing (we're making sure nothing can go wrong this time) - here for your viewing pleasure is the effect that 100 days has had on us:


A hundred kisses to all xx