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Phnom Penh – the closed capital!

April 20, 2010
15th-17th April 2010,

We had driven through Phnom Penh once before and it seemed a lively and bustling city. However, Khmer New Year is 3 days long (14th-16th April), so upon our arrival lots of the city was closed. Recommended restaurants were closed (some Western ones were open), shops and even the Royal Palace (although you were still able to pay $6.25 for just the Silver Pagoda).

Feeling slightly perplexed at the sudden ghost town and having checked into our lovely hotel (Fancy Guest House), we went to find something to eat. Luckily we found one restaurant that seved a mixture of Cambodian and Western food open by the Tonle Sap River. I had a tasty chicken, mango and cashew nut dish for $3.50, but in general the food was a little pricier than normal.

After we found the closed Royal Palace, we decided to visit the National Museum instead (linking well with having seen Angkor Wat earlier in the trip). The museum was actually really interesting, especially religiously if you do not know too much about Hinduism.

In the evening we discovered that the FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club) has a beautiful view of the river and is a great place to watch the chaotic traffic! Plus, they have happy hour between 5pm and 7pm with all of their delicious drinks half price. If you do not feel like having an alcoholic drink, the smoothies are brilliant.

The next day we woke up early to go to the Killing Fields and S-21. We actually went to the Killing Fields first because of the excruciating heat, which worked out quite well. We took a tuktuk and for 4 people it cost $4 each (including tip). Do bargain the price down as much as possible! The tuktuk driver should take you, wait between locations and take you home.

Hint: We asked our tuktuk driver to stop at a bakery so we could buy some breakfast.
It was much cheaper than going to a restaurant and tastier.

The Killing Fields and S-21 are pretty harrowing. I would be wary of taking children as S-21 has photographs of torture victims and the Killing Field is quite descriptive when it comes to the people being killed. Also the stupa, filled with a 17 storey display cabinet filled with skulls and bones, could be a little scarring.

However, I quite liked the barbaric and honest descriptions. There is something raw about the genocide. It was only 35 years ago and as much as the world pretends the last genocide was commited by the Nazis, it wasn’t. The brutality of the displays really makes you question the nature of humanity and teaches you so much. I really recommend going for a visit.

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Sihanouk Ville – a beachy haven!

April 20, 2010
12th-14th April 2010
 

So we took a private bus from the homestay to Sihanouk Ville and, as irritated as I am at myself for feeling this way, it was lovely to be relaxing on a beach. Of course parts of it seem to be turning into British package holiday territory, with free drinks and flyers from many of the area’s bars. But if you can get to one of the nearby islands by boat during the day, the beaches are as perfect as could be imagined and quite empty.

The main beaches are not quite as idyllic – the sand is soft and the water is relatively trash free, but children selling bracelets and women selling pedicures literally swarm you. Do not get me wrong, I really do pity the children, but they do lie about their lives in order to guilt you into buying things and many use pretty violent language if you say no.

Hint: PLEASE wear a LOT of sunscreen. My burns are just beginning to disappear now.
Most of my group spent the majority of the second day out of the sun due to their painful sunburn.

The food can also be pretty good. I had BBQ shrimp (really fresh and delicious) with potatoes and vegetables for $3! If you get a chance, try the Cambodian Kampot pepper. It is delicious!

Oh –  we were at the beach for some of Khmer New Year, so the night life was probably a little livelier than usual, but really not too loud at all! We could not find any Western-style club dancing, so if you want discos, this is probably not the place to be. On the other hand, if you want a beautiful and tranquil relaxing beach break, it is most definitely recommended.

Cambodian Homestay!

April 17, 2010
11th April 2010,

So, many people on the tour were dreading this part as, bottled water and mosquito repellent in hand, we boarded our bus from Kampong Cham to Chambok Village and Ecotourism centre. We arrived at about 4pm, with my foot swollen and forced into my hiking boot, 4 of us began the 3kn walk to the waterfall in the national park. We had a lovely local guide from the community called T – apparently only 5 out of 3,500 inhabitant speak English! Visiting the waterfall at the peak of dry season was probably not the most intelligent decision, as it is known for being pretty majestic in wet season. However, it is still more impressive than the non-existent waterfalls in London! And the greenery made it different to the ones I had seen in Australia. On top of that, it was brilliant to actually get out and have some exercise after sitting in a bus for hours!

After our guided walk (and a couple of waterfall slips!) we were served dinner by the women of the community. It was tasty, traditional food, eaten outside by a light powered by a car-battery. which made the experience more authentic than the restaurant atmosphere in most cities! Dessert was quite a yummy, if oddly textured, tapioca style dessert with sticky rice and coconut milk. Different to anything I have eaten before!

Then we hopped back onto our bus to the house of the family we were staying with. The father was the village vet and him and his wife had four children. They quickly gave us a tour of their house, with no running water and one light upstairs again powered by a car battery. As basic as it sounds and as daunting as this may seem to some, the rooms we stayed in were actually very nice, despite the heat. The family had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel comfortable, putting up mosquito nets and providing us with matresses and blankets. They also seemed so happy with what they had and seeing them made me reflect on what we actually need. The father admitted that he could have made more money working in an urban area, buthere he had family, community, rice, his home. The rest just seems a bit insignificant.

Most groups go straight to sleep after dinner to prepare for being roused by animal noises between 4 and 5am. But we could hear music; the village was celebrating in preparation for Khmer New Year a couple of days later, so was having an open air party underneath the most magnificent stars. The local people taught us to do the very modest Khmer dancing, which restricts the movement of women far more than men. Everyone was smiling and the message was “if you are happy, you dance”!

We also spent time dancing with the children, whose movements were a lot more Western in style! I gave out some balloons and made friends for life! The whole community had such a feeling of family that you could not help but be charmed by the simplicity of the lifestyle.

We returned to our house to sleep and I was woken by the animals at about 4.15am. I dressed and went downstairs to find our host chopping fresh coconuts for us to drink before breakfast. They were delicious but huge! I was trying to explain in basic Khmer and sign language why I could not finish all the milk! Before we left we said our goodbyes and the local women had prepared us an omlette, bread, coffee and tea breakfast. It was delicious. After a copious amount of “thank yous” we got back on the bus to head to Sihanouk Ville.

Thus far, the homestay night was definitely my favourite. As inspirationally beautiful as Angkor Wat is, the smiles and generousity of the community at the homestay was far more touching and taught me so much about modern Cambodian life. 

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap and my entry into “The Kingdom of Wonder” (as my tour guide refers to it)!

April 9, 2010
8th-10th April 2010

So, for the last couple of days I have been in Siem Reap, the tourism capital of Cambodia! It attracts thousands of visitors, largely as it is home to the 7th wonder of the world, Angkor Wat, a mere 7km away. The city is very safe, easy to navigate and, at the moment, incredibly hot. Food and drink is very cheap – you can get beer for $0.50 in restuarants! There are markets to distract yourself with after a busy day of temple-viewing and the city itself has roughly an extra 300 temples. This afternoon we are visiting the floating village of Tonle Sap, which should be quite picturesque.

But, as idyllic as it all sounds, there is something missing at its heart. The overwhelming majority of hotels are owned by foreigners, even most of the money from Angkor Wat goes to the government and privately owned companies. The number of hawkers desperately trying to sell you clothes, models, a massage or get you to ride a tuktuk is overwhelming. As wonderful as the cocoon of Siem Reap is, the reality is that the Khmer people are those serving you in restaurants and struggling to sell services to tourists. These are the lucky ones. The reality for Cambodians is obviously nowhere near the 5* hotels. Over a third of Cambodians live on less than $1 a day (according to the UN). The glistening shops and readily available Western comforts do their best to mask the reality of the situation. If a tourist has simply visited Siem Reap it would be dishonest to say that they have seen Cambodia – they have seen Angkor Wat which, as beautiful as it is, is a world heritage sight, a historical monument, not current reality.

My recommendation for visiting Siem Reap is to visit the Angkor Children’s Hospital. Over 400 children are treated there everyday, having queued outside. And those are the lucky ones. Amongst the copious massages, it is easy to forget that this is not what life in the country as a whole is like.

PS – I do have a foot infection, so maybe this is the antibiotics speaking!

Hint: Do visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. They are incredibly intricate and beautiful and historically very interesting.

Bangkok! And the beginning of my Asian adventure…

April 6, 2010
5th-7th April 2010

So I am writing to you from the reception of a rather lovely hotel in Bangkok. It is a far cry from last night’s digs on Khao San Road, which was bareable but was tiny with a shared bathroom. However, if you want something cheap and easy to find from the airport, it was pretty ideal (Shambara boutique hostel).

So, Bangkok. It is definitely a bustling city, just teaming with life. I could not walk for 5 minutes without being pestered by either a taxi or tuktuk driver or someone trying to sell something! But, once you get down to it, it is definitely possible to walk to most places and lots of people are very friendly.

Khao San Road, like most other backpackers, was my first port of call. The street is surprisingly short for how famous it is. However, it is filled with stalls of music and clothes. Although there is an abundance of clothing items (and I did buy quite a lot), I think that if you have the patience to explore the area a little and get off the road itself, there are better bargains to be found. What could not be beaten in a tourist area is the food being sold on carts in the street. I had pad thai, a vegetarian spring roll and a mango crush all for 65 baht (translates to about $2). On top of the price , it was delicious and did not make me ill! Be sensible about foos purchased off the street, if the fruit looks really chilled and fresh, then go for it. The pad thai was prepared right in front of me, with fresh lemongrass. Definitely worth the small risk.

Today I visited a couple of temples (names to come later)… And had a very last-minute rush around the Grand Palace and the temple there. I was blown away by the architecture. Everything glistens and has obviously been done with pain-staking attention to detail. Individual mirror mosaic pieces covering a temple, arranged in colourful patterns. It is ludicrously pretty. Try to take the time to wonder around the temples and watch people.

Hint: Remember to be respectful.
They are places of worship - dress conservatively and be quiet!

I arrived at the Grand Palace at 3.25pm and last ticket sales are at 3.30pm for a 4pm close. I did need more time. I felt like slightly too rushed and like I missed some of the wonder. It is such a beautiful place… If you can get there for about 2pm, it is a great way to end a day, as anything afterwards cannot be as impressive!

Whilst you’re here, you really should experiment with food. Most of it tastes brilliant, is very cheap and there are vendors everywhere.

Also, get the bus from the airport if travelling solo. It is much cheaper than a taxi and takes the same amount of time. There is air-con and you still get to see a lot of the city.

Must be off to try a deep fried cricket!

Bye….

PS – The protests were everywhere and impossible to avoid. Just smile! The people all seemed very nice!

Hint: It is when you slow down that the most amazing things happen. 
On my first night I ended up playing hackey-sack with some Canadian girls that 
I had just met and some Thai children on the corner of Khao San Road. 
Relax and actually see the wonderful things around you.

Carnival in Luxembourg!

February 25, 2010
Sunday 14th February 2010

So, finding myself in Luxembourg with ill parents, a bored brother and away from my (wonderful) boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, I decided to immerse myself in some local culture! Carnival in Luxembourg is a more European version of the Carnival celebration in Brazil. It is also celebrated in Germany and the Netherlands with bright colours, costumes and alcohol. There are parades, streamers and confetti which, despite the cold, makes being outside rather exciting!

Food

The lead-up to Carnival lasts about a month, during which sweet treats are readily available in supermarkets and bakeries. Not for the diet conscious! The most popular treats are a variety of doughnuts – there are suger-coated jam-filled ones, sugar-coated ones filled with vanilla custard cream, tasty chocolate and hazelnut filled ones (which taste as though Nutella has been injected into them!). There are also sugar-covered dough twists and the above is only for breakfast!!!

Food also features strongly at the parades! Children hold open plastic bags as the floats pass and sweets are thrown into them from the floats. The most common are chewy, fruity sweets, but lollypops (in the shape of hearts this year!), chocolate and popcorn were also on offer!

But for adults, there was a flowing supply of alcohol freely available (yes, FREEly) offered by most of the passing floats. Initially, plastic cups of Diekirch beer were handed out (the brewery was incredibly close by). Once your cup is empty, or not if you want (!), costume-adorned people dancing by the floats top-up your cup from bottles of their own home-made concoctions! The brightly-coloured liquids, varying from orange to pink, are generally mixtures of fruit juice, beer and vodka or gin. Considering the price of alcohol in Luxembourg, this is actually a very generous festival! However, the silly string and confetti often end up in your drinks, meaning that only the brave or very drunk tend to finish them!

Location

Luxembourg’s main parade is in Diekirch, which is about half an hour by train from the main station in Luxembourg city. The town is obviously the home to the brewery and its industrial nature means that it is not normally a spot on a visitor’s map! There is a special train that runs from Diekirch to Ettelbruck on parade day (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras), which takes roughly ten minutes. Luxembourg City is then about a 20 minute train journey from Ettelbruck.

Hint: The trains will be crowded, so try to arrive early at the platform
to make sure that you get a seat.

The parade is around the town of Diekirch itself and you can walk the route within about 40 minutes (the crowds make it quite difficult to walk quickly). There are about 60 floats, so there are a lot of baffling costumes to take in! The cafes on the streets next to the parade are crowded as they offer warm, safe-havens from which to watch the colours pass. It is also lovely to see people watching the parade from balconies and their windows; they very kindly wave back if you wave first!

Atmosphere

One of the shocking things is how organised and stoic people watching the parade seem. You would expect someone dressed as an ape, banana or even  as a Muslim man (I know – that really isn’t an acceptable costume in the UK!) to be a little cheery. But they, generally, do not smile very much, dance even less and stand still in line watching the parade pass. My brother and I did not quite fit into that role! We were the only people not in costume dancing in the parade! We danced with pirates at the pirate float, pulled along men dressed as babies on sleds and marched with the conductor of a marching band. We were frequently covered with silly string and confetti and people, although a tad baffled, saw that we were merely having some fun!

Hint: To fit in, purchase a nun or monk costume. Honestly, it was ridiculous how many people
thought dressing up as religious figures was funny or normal! Completely alien!

Overall

In all honesty, I would not recommend travelling to Luxembourg for the Carnival. If you want exciting celebrations; go to Brazil! The atmosphere was not brilliant – the only people who seemed to echo my brother and my dancing sentiment were young men, simply excited by a smiling, dancing woman!

If you happen to be in Luxembourg and at a loose end, as I was, then Diekirch for the Carnival is definitely a great distraction from boredom! But if you have more time, apparently the Carnivals in Cologne and Frankfurt are much more exciting!

All in all, an amusing and nice day out. Oh! And a bit of a culture shock!

Luxembourg becomes "Party" country for a day!

I am not quite sure what this float was intended to promote...

The symbols and stuffed hawk on the front really made this float rather interesting!

But making a crucifix out of beer cans and having women dressed up as nuns walking beside it was a little strange!

Making the most of a truncated weekend in Frankfurt…

February 1, 2010

29th-31st January

Frankfurt is mainly famous for banking, hot dogs and von Goethe. The British are terrified that it will replace London as the banking capital of the world (alongside New York of course)… Apart from being aware that a friend of mine lived in the suburbs, that was the sum total of my knowledge of the city as I set off on the coach from Luxembourg!

Transport

Having read another blog on transport between Luxembourg and Frankfurt, I had intended to travel by train. I had read that this would take roughly three hours and cost €29 each way. That was not the case! Checking train prices was definitely a shock – 24 hours in advance transport by train to Frankfurt cost €59 and my return trip was around €130! Manically searching for an alternative, I checked airline ticket prices with Luxair ( http://www.luxair.lu ) – sadly this was also an unaffordable option, totalling about €160…

So, feeling incredibly poor and disorganised (Luxembourg often has that effect!) I desperately turned to coach travel. I am well aware that coach travel either conjures up images of the young, dirty backpacker or elderly day-trip, but can surely inform you that that was not the Luxembourg to Frankfurt reality! The trip takes slightly longer than the train and has to be completed in two legs; Luxembourg Station to Frankfurt Hahn airport and then continued on a different coach to Frankfurt. The first part of the trip takes 1 hour 45 minutes and the second takes about two hours, but both were a little shorter on the return journey. Another problem is that you need to leave time to make your connection, so if well-timed, the journey can take four and a half hours. But, the price is most definitely right! Booking in advance with ( http://www.flibco.com ) cost €34 return on a spacious, clean and comortable coach. The price rises to €22 each way if you pay on board.

HINT: When booking online the website asks for your flight number,
type in any destination from the drop-down list and make up a number to book.

The coach from Frankfurt Hahn to Frankfurt was not quite as pleasant. You cannot book in advance (apparently you are able to reserve a place, but there seemed to be no recognition of my having done so) and there was not enough space on the coach for all those queuing, which meant that some people had to get off the coach, causing both delays and disagreements…

Hint: Queue and get on the coach early!

Each way cost €12 and the journey is often longer than the advertised hour and 45 minutes.

My Friday evening journey actually took five hours due to extensive snow storms and crawling traffic. I was thrilled to arrive at all! On top of that, the wait between the coaches was freezing – I was standing outside Frankfurt Hahn airport’s arrivals terminal in the snow for 15 minutes, with hands that were too cold to put my gloves on!

But, the coach ride from Luxembourg to Frankfurt Hahn was incredibly pretty; snow-topped fir trees lined the road, the coach crossed bridges over rivers and drove past quaint towns. I was so enchanted that I could not bring myself to sleep!

Hint: Be wary of speaking to people on the coaches...
It is not dangerous, but often means that you are trapped with someone
talking at you for two hours.
I resorted to feigning sleep!

I arrived in Frankfurt Main Train Station about half an hour later than expected, to be met by a close friend of mine who lives in the suburbs (about a half hour journey on the S6 train from the Main Train Station).

All in all, the journey to Frankfurt was quite long and slightly treacherous. The return journey was much quicker and I actually arrived in Luxembourg half an hour early! The price difference made the transport worthwhile and the beauty of the German country-side is not to be missed. But if you are in a hurry, then spending slightly more recommended.

Staying with a German family!

Don’t mention the war! I only mentioned it once but I think I got away with it

Basil Fawlty

I arrived, feeling incredibly guilty for keeping everyone waiting, at about 10pm, to find an array of cold meats, cheese, German bread and fresh fruit laid out for dinner. Having never met my friend’s family before (and only having met him twice!), I was slightly nervous. But the weekend was the most pleasant surprise. All the British stereotypes of the Germans were proven wrong – his family was funny, caring, utterly charming and really went out of their way to speak English and make me feel at home. My friend’s mother even put heart-shaped chocolates on my pillow – just wonderful! We stayed up speaking and joking until 1am and I completely forgot my travel exhaustion!

Sight-seeing Saturday

After a hearty breakfast, consisting of tasty bread and sweet German pastries (and having happily discovered my friend’s father’s secret passion for good tea!), we set off to spend the day in Frankfurt. I had no preconceptions of the city and luckily had a knowledgable guide in my friend. We caught the train into the city and got off at Hauptwache. My tour started with a walk to the top of a cinema/shopping centre on the main shopping street; there was a roof garden from which you could view the entire of Frankfurt. What was astonishing was the clearly divided sectors – the new, shiny, glass banking and business area to my right and the sheer variety of church spires across the city in the more tourist-frequented old section. Seeing the city like this immediately instilled a want to explore and I recommend that everyone who visits does so.

We then went into MyZiel shopping centre, which was quirkily designed, with a glass tube throughout and pebbles as seats!

From there we walked to St. Paul’s Church (sadly closed), which was the first seat of German Parliament in 1884 and is decorated with statues of politicians. The architecture in Frankfurt is incredibly beautiful and varied; not to be over-looked. Another treat was the Roemerberg (city hall square), with the city hall and other buildings rebuilt after the Second World War. There was a Thai man outside the Roemer doing fascinating tricks! He was dressed in traditional costume and put the large end of a wooden spoon in his mouth, balanced an empty bottle of wine on the thin end and flipped the bottle in the air and caught it by balancing it on the spoon again! I have never seen such an hard-working busker!

Hint: Some Frankfurt museums are free to enter on the last Saturday of the month, so try to time your visits correctly!

The Historisches Museum, very close to the Romerberg, was an eye-opener. It explained a lot of the history of the city and the mixture of races and religions. However, the really shocking aspect was the model of Frankfurt after WWII. The extent of the bombing was tremendous, with very few buildings apart from St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral surviving. The charming city I had visited in the morning, which had seemed so historically authentic, was altered by the reality of rubble.

I really do recommend visiting St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral and going inside. If you like architectural contrast, you can walk through the Museum of Applied Arts (Museum für angewandte Kunst) designed by Richard Meier. Inside (remember to dress modestly) the cathedral is huge and utterly magnificent.

From there, if you like exploring by foot, a walk along the River Main is not to be missed. Apparently in September there is a canoe festival along the river with home-made lanterns and about 120 people, which sounds exciting! Also, there are many museums along the bank of the South side of the river. The snow forced us to seek refuge in the architectural museum!

From there, we walked to the new opera house, past the European Central Bank and even ran into a student protest. There were supposed to be 3,000 students taking part, so 1,500 police, in riot gear, took over the city. Although disagreeing in principle, I could not help but be amused by the clowns on the steps of the Commerzbank building!

It was a wonderful walk through the city, past the intricate Old Opera House, and a snow-blanketed park (where we were given hot chocolate with whiskey by some men celebrating their birthday) to the new university campus. The campus main building used to be owned by the company creating Zyclon B, which was used as gas in the concentration camps, was taken over by the American army after the war and then lay destitute for a while. The grounds are quite lovely to walk around and it is incredibly peaceful.

That concludes my Frankfurt sight-seeing – an unexpected gem of a city!

Dinner in Friedberg (Elvis!)

Friedberg (26km North of Frankfurt) can be seen as a quintessential German suburb, apart from their number 1 marketing strategy – Elvis was stationed here for two years with the US army! They have a statue of the man himself on the roundabout as your enter the city. Apparently though, and only apparently, he would drive a pink Cadillac away from the barracks every night to his hotel in a nearby village- life was tough! The town really loves this musical history and has named the main shopping area “Elvis Presley Platz”!

On top of this, there is a great Asian food restaurant (Chinese, Thai and Mongolese), with an extensive buffet selection and the opportunity to choose exactly which meat you eat, which vegetables and sauce accompany it and how it is cooked. Perfect after a day of sight-seeing! Also try the lychee sparkling wine if you every get the chance – delicious! If you would prefer something more authentically German, apparently there is an array of restaurants nearby to suit your every need!

Leaving

Saying goodbye was very sad – my whirlwind tour allowed me to see quite a lot of the small city of Frankfurt, but nowhere near enough time with my friend and his family. I really do recommend staying with friends if possible, rather than in a hotel. I really enjoyed my evenings and it really is possible to catch up on sleep when you have arrived home!

If you can get to Frankfurt quite easily and have a spare weekend, then go! The city is honest and charming and the people are wonderful.