Rushing back to Singapore
16.07.2010 - 30.07.2010 33 °C
After saying a sad farewell to Lee and his motorbike, I spent a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City (I have to say Saigon as it's so much easier to spell!). The huge Ben Thanh Market was really humming as it was Saturday. Women in the toilets were completely bare-arsed whilst washing themselves in the communal area - a bit weird. Notre Dame Cathedral was not quite up to Paris standards but lovely nevertheless. Again, because it was Saturday, loads of couples were having pictures taken around the Cathedral - not actually getting married there. Much more sobering was the War Remnants Museum which is the Vietnamese account of the American War - very chilling. The most beautiful building in my opinion was the Central Post Office, right by Notre Dame. The heavens opened as I walked back to the hotel after a great curry lunch.
I spent the next day in the Mekong Delta with two Vietnamese sisters and the Belgiun husband of one. We had a great day, dodging in and out of showers and hopping into different boats to travel to various islands where we sampled honey, snake whiskey, local fruit and local singing - very plaintive. A small row boat took us through the narrow channels to lunch on Tortoise Island where a tropical storm shifted one of the rafters from the roof of the restaurant - quite a hairy experience. We then travelled by high speed jet boat for two hours back to Saigon up through the delta and the very wide river - a lovely day with great company.
The taxi to Saigon airport was my last experience of Vietnamese traffic and was just as hair-raising as central Hanoi. I flew straight to Siem Reap, bypassing Phnom Penh as I wanted to spend as much time as possible at the temples. As we approached Siem Reap, I had a fabulous view of the huge Tonle Sap Lake but was not able to see the temples. Met Bev from Canada at the airport and we shared a tuk-tuk to our hotel. As it was only lunchtime, we decided to make the most of our time and hire the same tuk-tuk (Mr. Van) to take us to Angkor Thom and Bayon. We earwigged on a tour guide who was taking a newly married couple around - they didn't mind! We then walked through along the Terrace of the Elephants, past the royal swimming pool and the Terrace of the Leper King - so many ruins but all so beautiful in their various ways. Mr Van recommended that we climb Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. The summit was crowded but there was no sunset as the rains came. Bev and I were nearly the last to leave as we were sharing her poncho, hoping that the rains would clear but no! Mr Van met us coming up the hill with umbrellas for us then, very soggy, we got back in the tuk-tuk for the drive back to the hotel through the flooded streets of Siem Reap.
I 'reserved' Mr Van for the next day as Bev and her friends were off further afield. We visited the temple where Indiana Jones was filmed and the temple with the trees growing out of it. After a lovely lunch, we finished the day at Angkor Wat - what a fantastic structure - unfortunately in the process of renovation so the usual image was not available to me but never mind - another great day and now I'm all templed out! We had a lovely buffet supper with Apsara dancing as an extra and finished off by walking through the night market.
Next day, I took a taxi 160Km to the Thai border - great roads but I witnessed a collision between a cow and a car. The car was a write-off and unfortunately, so was the cow! Crossing the border to Thailand was fine, rather as one imagines walking across no-man's-land to East Germany, then a lovely train ride (clean and peaceful) to Bangkok. Strangely, it felt as if I was coming home when I arrived at The Atlanta Hotel for a great dinner and wine shared with Roly, the man from Brisbane who had been at the hotel on my last visit!
Banana pancakes for breakfast then off for the sleeper train south to the Malaysian border. South Thailand has quite a bit of unrest and we had armed police on the train in the early morning. Again, I walked alone across the border into Malaysia, this time about a mile in the sun but I needed the exercise! Then bargained with a taxi-driver to take me to Kota Bharu which, because it was Friday and this area of Malaysia is VERY muslin, the place was just about closed. Hotel was crappy but had to get up at 4:00 am anyway to take the Jungle Line train south to the Taman Negara Rainforest. Frankly, after all my train travel through South East Asia over the past two months, I was a little disappointed in the scenery - there was some great stuff but not as spectacular as I had hoped. The train was crowded with Muslim girls on their way to school at Gua Musang so when we arrived, the train was then nearly deserted for my last few miles to Merapoh. Then I had the challenge of how to get into the National Park. As Zucini, the Merapoh Station Master, did not have another train to deal with for a few hours, he drove me to the park entrance. It then turns out that I cannot do any cave trips alone AND I have no real money to pay for my jungle bungalow so Zucini then took me back to Gua Musang to get money and food for my two day stay - all for a fee of course but worth every penny. He insisted on stopping at a cafe on the way home so that he could show off his Western friend. During my first night, we had a terrible storm and lost all electricity - the Park Ranger came with an emergency light for me which was very thoughtful as it kept the cockroaches hiding in their crannies.
As it was considered too dangerous to tackle the jungle walks on my own, I just walked about 10Km along the only track, listening to the gibbon and bird noises of the jungle and hoping an elephant or tiger (!) may appear but no such luck. The Ranger took me to an outpost station in the afternoon where he caught fish with his bare hands after ringing a bell to attract them. We then stopped at a lookout tower where I could survey the whole jungle and the peak of Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain on the Malaysian peninsular. On the way back to my bungalow, we stopped to watch a snake sunning itself on the road - close enough!
The Park Ranger drove me back to Merapoh station next morning where Zucini was organising a couple of guys with a huge caterpillar crane to climb the jib and collect rambutan fruit (like lychees) from a nearby tree and delivered the fruit to me. They then tried to knock down some coconuts but were not successful. The train finally arrived and I said goodbye to Zucini, promising to send him photos! We finally arrived at Singapore and I treated myself to a luxury hotel as I was too tired to search for an alternative - pretentious and not worth the money.
After making the most of all the hotel's amenities (sunken bath etc) I took the train to the Singapore Flyer - just like the London Eye but bigger I suspect. There were fantastic views of all Singapore laid out before me, including the course for the upcoming Formula One Grand Prix. I then went to the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel and had the required Singapore Sling - well, you just have to don't you! I spent the next two nights with friends of friends who have a fabulous house in the hills just north of The Botanical Gardens where I spent another very enjoyable day with more wedding couples being photographed by the Lake and Bandstand. Of course I also had to shop in Orchard Road but bought nothing more exciting than a sweater and slacks as I understand that Australia is going to be a bit colder!
My last day in South East Asia was a very lazy affair, getting to my airport hotel and vegging, ready for the flight to Oz first thing tomorrow, the last but one day of July. Two months into my travels and I have had the most fantastic time - met some brilliant people and seen some of the most breathtaking sights I could ever hope to experience. What a start to my year of travel.