Category Archives: Around the World

Travel reviews and notes

Cambodia 2010 Day 4, Battambang

Our day started with a trip on the ‘Bamboo Train’, known locally as a ‘Norry’.  It is pure Cambodian ingenuity and constructed from bamboo planks, with a “safety rail” on the tourist version, a 4 stroke Honda upright motorbike engine and ex military tank wheels and axles.
The drive unit is a v-belt and pulley!

These travel up and down the single track railway and, as there is nowhere to pass, the train with least number of passangers or goods is dismantled and lifted off the line to allow the other on its journey!  It is an amazing ride and you feel every bump, of which there are innumerable, in the tracks. Still it is a experience not to be missed!

We rested our battered posteriors in the minibus on route to the next stop which was the Ptea Tuek Dong project which takes street  families and teaches them English and a trade for a year and reintegrates them into the local society.

We met a group of 13/14 year olds in their classroom and their standard of writing and fluency would leave many schools in the UK lagging far behind. They live in dormitories and the older members are taught furniture making, weaving, crafts and sewing. Although there is a small fulltime manager most of the staff and teachers are volunteers.

Following this we moved on to another project, this one a co-operative to bring wood carvers works to the market place.  Some of the work in progress was exceptional and the finished articles beautifully executed, but they were not really suited to the western environment.

We then moved on along past the govenors residence to the white elephant pagoda. 
This is a mix of hindu/buddhism that ends up a bit like Disney World.  I can find very little of its history but it houses a wide variety of stupas (burial buildings) many of which have the most ornate statuary. There is also a largish bhuddist monestary in the grounds.

Following this we visited the local market which, as in all towns in Cambodia, is the hub of activity selling everything from statues to sausages, food to some fairly high class jewellery, not to mention clothes.

We took a break for lunch before setting out once again for another hill top pagoda.  This one was built in the 10th century and rises to 400 metres, but unfortunately has been badly despoiled by the Khmer Rouge. 

The view up the 359 steps to the top was somewhat daunting and I fortified myself with a glass of iced sugar cane juice.  There are always a group of locals who offer assistance by way of fanning etc. to help one on ones way in the 30° heat. 

The lady who escorted me safely up included leg and shoulder massage as well as the fan.  I’m certain I wouldn’t have made it without her.  At the end she explained that whe made the ascent between three and five times a day and that she had had he 7th baby 12 days before!! Maternity leave?? It was worth the effort for the views if not the monument itself but there were plenty of Cambodians praying at the altar.

We wound our way down and then it was back to the hotel to recuperate and get a nights sleep before our next adventure – the river trip to Siam Reap!

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Cambodia 2010 – Day 3, Route 5 to Battambang

Monday. We left the hotel at 8.00 for the 290km drive along national Route 5 to Battambang.

Our first stop was at Kampong Lung, a village of silversmiths, about 40 minutes drive from Phnom Phen. The kampong, which lies along the river bank,houses a number of family concerns each having up to three generations all involved.

From there we moved on to the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Centre and the pagoda at Udong Mountain. According to our guide,Sam, there were 136 steps to the top but it certainly felt like double.
The Buddhist centre houses the mausoleum for one of the leaders who was shot in 2002 and also is the centre of learning for both monks and nuns of the faith. There was much climbing of steps and removing of hats and shoes along the way.

Next stop lunch at the Sovannphum hotel. The “restaurant” runs down one side and is inhabited by quite a number of sparrows or their ilk. The other rather basic omission is toilets, though they did open a bedroom for the ladies and there was an outside footplate loo for the gents.
The meal consisted of rice, mushrooms, a broccoli substitute and a couple of other vegetables I couldn’t pin down all in a very nice sauce of indeterminate composition, a fish and cabbage stew in a coconut sauce and sweet and sour chicken, (none of your battered balls here), what you saw was what you got, with green and red sweet peppers, onion etc. I washed mine down with a large Angkor beer whilst the others chose iced lemon tea.
Fresh pineapple, dragon fruit and lychees followed for dessert.
All things considered you couldn’t complain.

From here we moved on to the Pottery co-operative where clay pots are made in the traditional Cambodian way, not a wheel in sight all hand formed and fired in charcoal ovens.
Then back onto the road for the 2.5 hour drive to Battambang.
Our hotel here was the Stung Sangke. This is definitely not the standard of the Sunway. Had to send down to reception for a hair dryer and the bellboy appeared with an armful of Philips dryers still in their boxes. Having said this I find that there is free wi-fi.
We have a local resident in the form of a large chit chat who took up position on the en trance wall. At least this means there will be no mosquitoes!
Dinner was arranged for 7pm and our guide duly collected us and we were transported to “La Villa” about ten minutes from the hotel.
La Villa is a most unprepossessing looking place alongside the river, no apparent sign and a very dimly lit entrance through the garden. Nor does it give the impression of being anything special once one is inside. Although not noticeable at first there are also a number of tables on the patio to the rear.
The menu is fairly short having about five starters including French onion soup and spring rolls. We decided to split a salad and the spring rolls, following with a prawn soup (we didn’t know it was a soup until it arrived) and a beef fried rice. I know I complain about them putting carrots in Chinese menus at home; I had not realised that it is de rigueur in Asia!

See the next installment – The Bamboo train

Cambodia Overland 2010 – Day 2

The day started with a tour of Tuoi Sleng, the infamous S21 prison, where the Khymer Rouge interred around 17,000  men women and children, between 1975 & ’79, before shipping them off to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. The prison was originally a secondary school and the 4 classroom blocks were used, Block A was for VIP prisoners. In the other blocks the rooms were divided into cells 2 metres by 1. There were no doors on the ground floor cells as the inmates were too terrified to move. The outside of the buildings were covered in wire mesh after one prisoner managed to commit suicide by jumping from the balcony. We were introduced to a 78 year old who was one of the few people to escape execution and now spends some of his time in his old cell explaining what it was like to visitors.

We folllowed this somewhat harrowing experience with a vist to another of Phnom Penh’s temples before moving on to the Bopha Restaurant,

which is located on the riverbank and opposite the night market, for lunch. It is quite a plush venue with big comfortable chairs and plenty of room. As is standard on these tours a set meal is organised and one pays for ones own drinks. The starters were “riverfish” skewers, a kebab of freshwater fish, onions and peppers with lemongrass glaze. The main course consisted of Khmer Chicken curry with potatoes and carrots accompanied by fried mixed vegetables with cashew nuts and the inevitable boiled rice. All extremely tasty when washed down with a bottle of Angkor beer. The sweets, which were billed as Bhopa pastries, turned out to be a sort of varicoloured solidified custard served with cane sugar syrup.  Disappointing compared with the rest of the meal.

Following on we visited the National Museum, which, if one does not have at least a passing interest in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, would be quite hard going to say the least.  Luckily they are subjects with which I have become quite enamoured during our travels and the museum guide was a fount of knowledge on these and Khmer history.

Officially this ended our day, however, I felt that having come this far it would be remiss not to go out to Choeung Ek.

This is now the national memorial centre for all those slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the various killing fields. There are over 120 mass graves there of which so far they have excavated only 89. The horror of people butchering their own countrymen, women and children en masse and by hand is something that one is unlikely to forget. It is estimated that 20,000 were killed in Choeung Ek alone.

Having paid our respects we returned to the hotel for a much needed beer.  It actually turned into two beers as they run a BOGOF from 4 – 8!

We engaged a tuk-tuk to take us back to the Bhopa for dinner. I had assumed that not only did the driver know the name of the restaurant but he knew where it was, having shown him the menu card with the name on it for good measure.  I became a little perturbed when we reached one of the boulevards which I knew was on the far side of town! He then stopped at a restaurant I had never heard of.  There was a tourist policeman outside to whom I showed the directions and he redirected our driver.  Finally reaching our destination he was most put out when I paid him for the direct route!!

Dinner was fine and there was a floor show with a traditional trio and Khmer dancer.

After that we wandered around the night market.  The only troublesome thing here was the flies which , seeing as they are no trouble at all anywhere else, was realy surprising.

We picked up a tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel and awared ourselves a wee whiskey!

Click here for day 3

Cambodia Overland 2010 – Day 1

After an uneventful journey to Phnom Penh, via Belfast City, Heathrow Terminals 1 and 3 and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh at 9.30 on Saturday morning, local time and approximately 24 hours after leaving home.

There was our courier and a minibus waiting to whisk us off to the
Sunway Hotel which lived up to its 4* rating for getting us booked in and up to our room and a much needed shower.  As we were not expected to do anything until 2.30 we grabbed a couple of hours sleep as well.

Our “group” turned out to be a couple from London, the other 7 apparently having foregone their deposits at some time long before departure.

We started out at Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple built on a manmade hill adjacent to the hotel .  There is park around the base which caters for all the locals, including the monkeys, and a year old elephant called Mr Sammy.

Following this we moved on to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor consists of 5000 solid silver tiles each weighing 1kilo. Another interesting exhibit was that of women wearing the colours of the days.  Dressing in the correct colour is extremely important as bad luck can follow if one gets it wrong!

We retired to our hotel for a welcome beer and to recover from jet lag and a fairly exhausting days touring.

The speciality of the evening in the hotel was a “European Buffet” which couldn’t be faulted on any count although some of the eastern interpretations of western food were interesting.

Click here for the next installment

The Golden Triangle – India ’07

I had no real intentions of starting a travel side to the website back in 2007 so am unable to remember all that happened.  This will, therefore, be more of a photographic trip than a travelogue. What I have tried to do is link places to what I hope will be informative websites and let the reader pick up whatever interests them. as usual you can miss all the the rest and just see the photos.

It was Kuoni 7 day conducted tour starting in Delhi in mid February 2007. The group, 24 strong, assembled at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and we took off from there on what turned out to be a fairly hectic itinerary.

We started off at the Qutub Minar complex.  This is of Islamic origin and was built in the 13th century. The central tower of which was built in 1209 and is almost 73 metres high.

From there we moved across the city to the the wide boulevards of the administrative area in New Delhi designed in the main by the British architect Edward Lutyens.  This is the India of the Raj with none of the bustle and squalor of the old city.

The next stop was the old city, full of life, noise and the unmistakeable smells of India.  Rickshaws, tuk-tuks and mopeds everywhere.  One gets carried away with sheer exuberance of it.  All this following an eleven hour flight left us all ready for an early night.

Next morning we started off at the Jama Masjid, the great Mosque, the courtyard of which can hold 25 thousand.  It commands a striking view down into the city. From there we went to see the Red Fort which stands opposite the Jama Masjid.  Due to camera problems I have no shots of this myself.

The next stop was Gandhi Smriti, the house where Mahatma Gandhi lived and where he was assassinated in 1948.  This is  now a memorial garden and the footsteps of his last walk are set in stone to the point of his death.

We then embussed, to use an old military phrase, and set out on the road to Agra, city of the Taj Mahal.  This was a 250 kilometre plus journey at an

average speed of about 55 km per hour, nothing travels very fast in India.  Do not think motorways. At one stop we encountered a Hindu wedding, which involves the whole community. Amazingly loud and colourful. The bridegroom looked totally bemused.  Of course the bride was hidden away somewhere else.

We duly arrived at Agra and the Jaypee Palace hotel.  Quite a complex, but it is not recommended to leave ones windows open due to the monkeys which abound in the gardens.

And so to the Taj Mahal. No pictures can capture the stunning beauty of it. It exudes an aura of magnificence that is almost tangible.  Make it a “must go there” on your life’s journey. As a mausoleum it is unsurpassed.

From here we went to a smaller but still mightily impressive construction, the Itmad ud Daulah, the Baby Taj. The grounds were inhabited by chipmunks and a troupe of fairly agressive monkeys, who carried out a running battle amongst themselves.

Our next stop was the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri which was built in the 16th century but abandoned only 15 years after it’s completion due to an inadequate water supply.  It is now a world heritage site and was being renovated at the time we visited.  The Indian government is trying to improve its record of conservation of historic sites but is struggling against thoughtless vandalism.

Back on the road again en route for Jaipur. About an hour outside Agra we stopped at a village just off the main road. It was connected with the drivers family and intended to give us a little more insight into rural life in India. The amazing thing was that children of ten and eleven could speak quite passable English in surroundings that really did not seem to be conducive to needing a second language.  But that’s India for you.  Speaking, and writing, English is seen as the gateway to prosperity.

We then wended our way on to Jaipur, the Pink City. Another bustling metropolis with amazing architectural edifices that seemed to appear willy nilly round evey other corner.  Of course the traffic was as mad as ever. There are definately rules of the road here, but deciphering them is totally beyond me. After a city tour we moved out to the Amber Fortan amazing construction about 7 miles outside the city.  Unfortunately the lake, which used to be at the entrance and reflected the facade, has all but dried up.  Within the walls it is like a small scale town, with temples, garadens and halls of various types.
It boasts some obscene frescoes, taken from the Kama Sutra, under the eaves and one of the earliest air conditioning systems which is reliant on air flow rather than electricity. One could spend a day or more exploring.

We returned to our hotel, the Country Inn, definitely not in the Country, and up to the usual Indian standards of service. This was where we found the real lifestyle contrast of rich and poor as, from our window, we could see the street families living on the pavement on the opposite side of the road

Our next port of call next morning was the Jantar Mantar, Astronomical Observatory, with a huge sundial, accurate to seconds, and constructions of the signs of the zodiac.  An architectural masterpiece.It says something that, built in the early18th century, it can still be used today.

Our last stop in Jaipur and for that matter the end of the tour, before returning to Delhi for the flight home, was the City Palace which houses  museums and galleries, halls of audience etc.  Part of it is still occupied by the Maharaja. The silver water transporters were used to carry water from the Ganges river so that the maharajas and their entourage would have “pure” water to drink  on foreign journeys!

Then it was back on the road.  The journey had its moments.  The stop off for lunch was on the opposite side of the dual carriageway.  No problem; just switch into the opposite carriageway and drive up the road against the flow for half a mile. Afterwards carry on until one comes to a convenient gap in the centre reservation to get back on the right side.

A great trip, cramming a lot of culture into a few days.  If I were doing it again I would certainly add a few days on at the end to chill out somewhere  quiet.

Rhine Cruise, New Year ’09/10

We considered that sitting in Newtownabbey from 27 December to the New Year was not a top priority objective so decided that, after feeding the family on Boxing day, a river cruise from Düsseldorf to Rüdesheim and then to Köln for Old Years Night would fit the bill.

Miss the bumf – click on the picture for the photos

Getting the dogs to kennels through the snow proved an adventure but having achieved this we set off.  The flight to Heathrow was mundane.  The Hotel Hopper buses are a godsend and we spent the night at the Quality Inn by Terminal (T5). The rooms are fine (They put the radiators under the window and behind full length curtains!) but do not eat there!  Hoppered back to T5 in the morning for the BA flight to Amsterdam. T5 is fully automated and works a treat but  no cheap shopping,  Harrods were offering a handbags reduced from £950 to £648!  Gave it a miss!

Our plane was parked at gate 10. There is a big sign above the lift saying “time to Gate 10, 10 minutes” . One gets in the lift goes down one floor and ,Lo, we’re at Gate 10!! Flight on time, no strikes: they’ve cut out meals but one gets a free drink (wine naturally) and a packet of nibbles.  Also lots more leg room that Aer Lingus or squeezy jet.

Weather on arrival 10° and sun shining. The tour rep at Schipol had taken off to chat with her mate,and it took two phone calls to the tour helpline before she turned up and asked us where we’d been!

After an uneventful 2 1/2 hour drive to Düsseldorf  (It was great to see near empty outside lanes on the Autobhan  and cars overtaking and returning to the inside) we finally arrived on the Serenade 1 about 6pm and I had my first Bitburger Pils for a few years!  Our cabin was superb with separate bath & shower and a balcony over the stern. Amazing how much storage they can build into a small space. We had time to shower and change in time for dinner at 7.45.

Our last exprience of “on board” cuisine was on the Nile where buffets were the order of the day.  Not on the Serenade.  Four course international dinner menu  plus coffee.   The John Dory was perfect.  So was the bottle of Riesling that went with it.  We were paired with couple from Shropshire, Margaret (whose brother, in another of those small world coincidences,  had trained at Constance Spry and had been the Queen Mother’s florist, my cousin having also trained there and been a royal florist) and  Charles, who made excellent companions and with whom we sat over port and brandy until sometime after midnight.

The air conditioning in the cabin worked a treat so we slept well.  Coffee is served from 7 am and breakfast from 7.30 -9am.  The breakfast spread was superb.  Great selection of fruit and cereals, cold buffet with German wursten, cheese and a selection of smoked or pickled fish, or a good old fry.

Went up on deck, to watch the world go by as we chugged upstream past Koblenz and Boppard. Wind chill factor pushed temperature well below zero.

There was a compulsory safety briefing at 10.30 which finished just in time to  go out on deck again as we passed the famous, or infamous, Loreley massif.

The link will take you to the history but  the S bend on the river is scary.  You have huge barges coming down stream and doing a sort of handbrake turn into the bend. as it there is a  huge blind spot going up river into the turn they have a set of  “traffic lights” that lets the captain know what is coming and roughly where it is!

Having negotiated this it was time for a three (or four) course lunch, to the standard that we had already become accustomed.  The chefs salad, as a starter, was fit for a king.  Soup, main course, sweet and coffee. Forewent wine with lunch and stuck to pils.

We docked at Rüdesheim, the furthest point of our trip upriver about 2.30. The weather was unfortunately inclement.  Not particularly cold but a steady downpour attempted to put a dampener on proceedings. I wanted to visit Mechanical Music Cabinet museum but the conducted tour, in English, was an hour away so we hied it into the “famous” Drosselgasse to find a Rüdesheimer coffee. This is made at the table: put 2 tsps sugar and a very large Asbach brandy in a coffee mug and flambé to caramelise the sugar.  Add filter coffee and top with fresh cream. Mmmmmm!!!  The subsequent visit to the museum was money well spent and the detail in the small bird musical boxes was amazing. A snip at a starting price of €1,200.

After returning to our boat we dressed, posh frock/suit and bow tie, for the gala welcome dinner; a five course extravaganza including asparagus soup, veal schnitzel and apfel strudel and cream. There was supposedly a dance following but the “entertainment” consisted of a guitarist called Chris with a rhythm box  and a singer called Kirsty. He was pretty inept and their repertoire was extremely limited.  They were patronising and played only that whih they considered  we would want to hear. When asked for a Status  Quo number they said they had never heard of them!! A request to play a Queen track elicited ” we’re not allowed to play Queen on this cruise”.  At 10.30 they wrapped up and left!  Needless to say our group, now 16 strong and a pretty eclectic crowd, were still keeping the bar staff busy after midnight.

On waking on Wednesday morning I forgot that I had not reset my mobile to European time so we very nearly missed the wine tasting trip starting at 9.00am.  Yes, a wine tasting at nine in the morning.  I will say no more than that the Rhine whites were excellent, we were nearly late back on board as I had forgotten there was a change of embarkation time, and the rest of day sailed by.

We reached Koblenz about 3.30 and took off for a wander about.  It is lovely little medieval city and as enchanting as I remembered it.

Usual evening, dinner and bar.  Four of the group had spent last New year at the Regency in Drumcondra (just down the road from Dublin Airport).   Reckoned it was a complete disaster: entertainment even worse than ours and drinks even more expensive.

There was a musical quiz organised, which was quite good fun, but as nobody had one set of questions answered  we were informed that we should really know what the “in” entertainment in London was. More condescension.  We had no intention of letting it get us down and partied on.

Was up early on Old Years Night but, due to lack of information from our cruise manager, missed the bridge at Remagen, a WW2 landmark and now a peace museum.

Went up on deck and chatted to an ex RAF radar engineer for a couple of hours, Josephine having stayed in bed. We docked in Cologne at about 11 but we decided to stay on board for lunch before braving the elements. We  finally ventured off, having been lent the captains umbrella from the bridge and made our way up to the Dom.  The cathedral is another of those structures that impresses no matter how many times you see it. The crib is the size of a small room.

Having seen the amazing stained  glass windows and crypt we wandered through the shopping area to the Alt Stadt to find a Schnell Imbiss stall, the German equivalent of a chippy. Finally found one and bought a curry wurst (not really anything to do with curry),  “frites mit mayonnaise” (you work it out) and a pils with schnapps chaser.

Back to the ship to prepare for the New Years Eve gala dinner and subsequent “entertainment”. Champagne cocktails on deck at 11.45 and then the ad hoc Cologne New Year firework display.  Back down to the bar for an hour until we could celebrate the UK New Year.  The “combo” played their interpretation of what what we wanted to hear and we drank and enjoyed ourselves.  One of the Page & Moy management team performed a strange introvert exhibition on the floor!  (I’d worry about that girl).  Think we left about 3am.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful.  I spent a lot of time on the deck taking photos of the industrial north, an area I know from my stay in the area at various times through the ’60s, 70s and ’80s, and  chatting to anybody else brave enough to face the elements.

We ended the cruise at Arnhem, passing under the John Frost Bridge of “A Bridge Too Far” fame,  in the evening of New Years Day but, as there is nothing of any interest in the city we stayed on board.

Saturday morning we transferred back to Schipol, through snow and ice, for flights back to the UK.

All things considered it was a great holiday.  The company was scintillating, the accommodation and food unsurpassable, and the entertainment so awful as to be noteworthy.

If you are wondering what to do for New Year go on a river cruise.

Rhine Cruise New Year ’09/’10