Monday, 31 March 2014

Vietnam: Volunteering with Go East

While travelling in Vietnam I had come across the beautiful Cat Tiien national park and was particularly impressed with the work that the organisation Go East were doing there. The project was one of a kind in Vietnam, one whose aim is both to act as a rescue centre for four types of endangered primates but also to work to rehabilitate them as well. As such I decided that it was well worth returning to in order to volunteer there.

The island itself was exceptionally green and lush and was surrounded on all sides by a river that splits to form on one side calmly flowing water and on the other rocks and rapids. I spent the afternoon getting to know the island team, seeing the gibbons in their enclosures and familiarising myself with material on the nature of the project.

I woke to the lovely but very loud song of the gibbons, which is used primarily as a means of declaring that this is in fact their territory and that any other gibbons in the area should immediately clear off. My first week was mainly spent following staff members around on tour (with the eventual aim of giving them myself), learning how to make enrichment packages with the aim of keeping the gibbons busy while staff cleaned their cages and working on photographing the island. Oh and since it was right after tet occasionally drinking copious amounts of rice wine and beer (boy the Vietnamese know how to party).

Unfortunately due to the sensitive nature of rehabilitating the gibbons (and the fact I didn't have the right photographic equipment) I wasn't able to take a great many pictures of them, but the island proved to be a stunning enough subject in its own right.

Overall my first week of volunteering proved to be interesting, informative and hugely enjoyable.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cambodia: Battamberg

Battamberg turned out to be a nice enough town in and of itself but what really made the place special was the incredibly beautiful temple nearby. I spent my first day there exploring the town, enjoying the food at the local gecko bar and hiring a bicycle to mozy around the surrounding countryside.

While navigating pleasant countryside lanes I came across a group a group of Cambodians that were chilling out, drinking and enjoying snacks and although we couldn't understand a word of what the other party was saying we were able to actually have a rather enjoyable afternoon.

I cycled back and took a tuk tuk to the town's spectacular local temples. They were set high on a nearby hill and as I climbed the many steps up to the top I got to enjoy a spectacular view over the town and the surrounding plains. Hoping down the steps I walked over to my main reason for visiting the site, for as the sun began to set a cavern high in the cliff face began to release a swarm of bats.

What started as a trickle soon became a flood as  thousands of winged bodies took to the evening skies. I watched them until the sun began to slip below the horizon, then I took the waiting tuk tuk back to town. As night fell I hung out and drank in a local bar as I enjoyed the company of my fellow backpackers. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Cambodia: The floating villages of Kampong Lounge

 After my adventure in Siem Reap I needed some time to relax so I travelled by boat to the city of Battamberg (i'll talk more on that later). We travelled by boat down the Mekong River, one of the largest lakes in South East Asia. We past brightly coloured house boats filled with people trading, washing, fishing and relaxing.

I took a bus to the nearby floating village of Kampong Lounge and after arriving by motor bike I was soon traversing the waters of the lake. The houses were ingeniously set up to be homes, businesses and fully floating boats. My overnight home turned out to be a mixture of hotel, barbers and local store. It was also the home to many dogs and two deeply mischievous Macques.

Now as reinforced by my time at Cat Tien I had come to the conclusion that monkeys should not be kept as pets and these little bastards confirmed this suspicion by proceeding to steal my glasses (and get aggressive when I made to get them back). After some bribery involving banana however we managed to successfully retrieve them. Even though they didn't look that badly treated it was still heart breaking to see them put on such short chains, unable to get the exercise they needed (or probably even the correct diet that would be good for them).

I spend my day relaxing, reading, people watching and taking a tour of the lake that took me past a rather impressive floating cathedral and allowed me the opportunity to stop to take tea with a group of wedding guest waiting for a service.

By night I sat out on the prow of the house and watched the lake become a sea of lights, floating serenely in the night.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ankor Wat and Siem Reap

The temples of Ankor Wat were as impressive as I had hoped for. Magnificent ruins that were a testament to both the highest ideals of man and more solemnly the power of time to wash everything away.

It was for me a strange place mixture of inspiring, peaceful, sad and deep spirituality, oh and also massively stress. Did I mention the crowds? Holy heck if the Cambodian government want anything to be left of the ruins by the end of the next hundred years they really need to sort out some sort of crowd control (and yes i'm well aware of the irony of me visiting it and saying that).

I ended up renting a bicycle for my days in Siem Reap and it turned out to be a rewarding (and exhausting) way to explore the beautiful ruins close by. I wandered through exquisitely sculptured spires, crumbling parapets, nature tore temples and intricately carved faces peering out from the stonework.

By evening I chilled out with friends, enjoyed drinks and relaxed by  the swimming pool of my rather nice hostel. Overall it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable place to stay.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Cambodia: Prasat Preah Vihear

After life in the hectic city I decided that a trip into the unknown would be just the thing to get my travel juices flowing. I therefore set my sights on the far flung mountain top temple of Prasat Preah Vihear.

This beautiful ruin is set on a disputed region high on the border of Thailand and getting there proved to be by turns fun, frustrating and and adventure in its own right. At first I thought my journey would be relatively simple, I booked a bus from Phonm Penh directly to Preah Vihear, only to discover that this was the name of another close by town and that I would need to make another journey to get near to the mountain top temple in question.

Still the town I stopped in over night was lovely, with great food and some lovely surrounding countryside. So much so that I decided to stop and relax there for a night. Well rested I head off the next day for a military town right ext to the temple. I took what I felt was a rather overpriced moto up to the temple itself and was soon glad I had made the effort. The temple ruins were large, beautiful, peaceful and relatively quiet (I was the only white person there). The views over the nearby plains were also absolutely stunning. After exploring decaying stone hallways, overgrown wats and pocket marked causeways I found to my delight that large areas of the temple were still being actively used as places of worship, complete with buddhist monks and colourfully wrapped statues.

The best was saved for last however as just underneath an overhang which showed off the view to its best extend I found a shrine complete with people meditating inside. After leaving an offering of incense I joined in and let the serene and intensely spiritual atmosphere of the place drift over me.

I left refreshed and ready for the next leg of my journey, Ankor wat.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Phnom Penh part 2: temples and buddhas

I decided to spend the next day or two exploring the beautiful temples of Phnom Penh. I was not disappointed as everywhere I went there were clouds of sweet smelling incense, beautiful golden statues and lovingly crafted pagodas.

My first stop was a centrally placed Wat located near my hostel. I was greeted with a steep white stone spire, crowds of people praying, singing and making offerings and a mulititude of beautifully crafted gold buddhas. After sitting to absorb the calming atmosphere of the place, I carried on wandering the streets of Phnom Penh.

My next stop was the beautiful royal palace grounds, filled with ornate buildings, michivious Macques and possibly one of the grumpiest guards I've had the pleasure of meeting in all of Asia. The most impressive building was saved for last, The Silver Pagoda more then lived up to its name (the floor tiles are all made of solid silver) and collectively it contained more wealth and diamonds then i'm ever likely to see again in my lifetime.

I finished my evening in Phnom Penh socialising and enjoying the sights of the city, all the while playing games of spot (and avoid) the prositute den.

Overall Phnom Penh proved to be a city filled with wonder, beauty, horror and an extrodinary history that I won't soon forget.