Cambodia travels

After more than 18 months living in China, I decided it was about time I visited a bit more of Asia. I’ve visited quite a few places in China, and in East Asia I’ve been to HK, Macao, Taiwan and Japan (my friend pointed out that some people may see this as not having been anywhere other than China…). But I’d never been to Southeast Asia, and after working like a dog throughout summer I finally had some time to myself.

I opened up tabs on my computer: maps of Asia, ctrip flights, wikitravel visa requirements. I faffed about for a while but in the end decided on Cambodia. It then took me ages to actually book the flights, because the thought of booking the wrong date stresses me out so much. I ended up booking my hotels in a rush and booked the wrong date! I felt really stupid.

I really wanted to fly from Hongqiao Airport but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to try to get into the holiday swing of things by taking the Maglev to Pudong Airport. Big mistake, the Maglev was terrifying and I spent the whole journey thinking the train would fall off the tracks, except it wouldn’t even be falling off because it’s not bloody touching the rails. I was relieved to get to Pudong Airport, which was an unfamiliar feeling as I absolutely hate that airport. I’ve made lists of airports I’d rather go to, and London Southend beats Pudong. This time the Starbucks was closed. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I thought the flight was only 2 hours, I’m not sure why, but anyway, after 4.5 hours I was quite sick of the amount of leg room I had on the budget airline I had optimistically booked.

My first task when I landed was to get a visa to enter the country. I got some $$$ (as in, literally $$$) out of the ATM in the immigration hall, then pushed my way past the hordes of tourists to get a visa application form, then pushed my way past yet more people to hand over my application and passport. I didn’t have a spare photo so I got charged an additional $3, but otherwise the visa cost $30 and took 5 minutes, during which time I trampled yet more tourists like the boor that I am. Living in China has taught me to use my size as weapon, coupled with a dead eyed stare when people complain about it (no one ever says anything, they just passive aggressively squeal – like that’s going to stop me).

Finally through immigration, I got a sim card for my phone and took a tuktuk into town. This got off to a great start as the driver pulled out across six lanes of traffic and started off towards town on the wrong side of the road. About 1km later we swung back across and continued on our way on the correct side, so presumably the experience was designed to make me value my life. At the hotel, he asked for a tip and I laughed at him (see above: living in China kills your soul).

I won’t go into the boring details of trying to sort out my incorrectly booked dates (screw you, ctrip) but the hotel was super nice. My room was huge and calm and pretty, though there was a gravel path to the bathroom with small boulders on it that I inevitably fell over every time I went to the bathroom. Design flaw or user error, I don’t know. I went for a curry at the restaurant next door and then flopped into bed.

The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before walking over to the Royal Palace. Walking in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, I think I saw two pavements all day. I walked in the road, dodging the motorbikes and cars and wondering what I was doing. It was hot, really hot. Eventually I got to the Royal Palace and it was closed, of course, because it was lunchtime. A couple were having their photos taken outside and a man chased me across a small park to hand me a worried-looking pigeon. I retreated to Sisowath Quay, an embankment along the river with some slightly shaded benches. An icecream later, I felt slightly more ready to take on the city (again) and after lunch, I went back to the Royal Palace. It was pretty cool, very royal, much gold, such shiny.

I set off again for the Genocide Museum, in a school-cum-torture prison-cum-museum. This was where the Khmer Rouge tortured people before sending them off to the Killing Fields, so it wasn’t at all uplifting, but it was extremely thought provoking. I had no idea that the Khmer Rouge had emptied Cambodia’s cities, or that 25% of the overall population died. It felt particularly pertinent given the UN trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials (abandoned since my trip…).

The next day I was up bright and early on another tuktuk, heading for the airport. I was extremely worried that I didn’t have enough time, but once I’d checked in, I realised that the boarding gate was literally up a flight of stairs and past a shop, so I had enough time to browse the not-that-bad bookshop (until I saw the prices, LOLS!). I was probably the youngest person on the flight, everyone else being retired British people from Cumbria and retired Chinese people from Guangzhou. I sat next to a man who was fascinated that I was reading a book in Chinese and told me that he could read Chinese too. I smiled along with him but given that he was from China I wasn’t really that impressed at his advanced reading skills.

The flight to Siem Reap took a whole 30 minutes, and we landed at the domestic terminal, which is basically a room with a baggage carousel. There’s no bus to take you from the plane to the terminal (which is good as I hate those buses), you just walk across the tarmac. I felt like a hero in a film, or a 1950s movie star. I took a tuktuk into town, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Angkor History Museum. He insisted that we needed to buy a ticket from a ticketseller in town and we had a bit of a row about it. I still don’t know who was right but he’d told me about hordes of chinese tourists at the museum clogging up the ticket office (little did he know that that’s my bread-and-butter) and in the end said hordes did not exist. The museum was pretty cool, lots of statues and buddhas and hindu/buddhist mashup figurines.

Afterwards I went to check out my hotel, a 10 minute walk up the road. 20 minutes later I realised I was lost, but didn’t want all the tuktuk drivers to realise, so I carried on walking until there was something I could pretend to be heading for… then of course I had to walk back past the drivers, who could see straight through my sham. Finally, finally, I found my hotel, and the hotel staff all very sweetly commented on how sweaty I was. My room was spacious and clean, with another gravel installation in the bathroom (only the shower this time). I was meant to be having an online class but my student didn’t show up, so I called my friend and ranted at him about it for a while, before realising that actually, it was a great thing and I should enjoy my freeeeeeeedom. I went to check out the rooftop pool and swam about in the pool, laughing to myself. Later on I changed into slightly less sweaty clothes and went to a fairtrade khmer restaurant, even finding the odd bit of pavement to walk on on the way.

The next morning I spent some quality time washing my (aforementioned sweaty) clothes, before heading out to explore Siem Reap. It’s a small city, based almost entirely on tourism thanks to the proximity of Angkor Wat. I’d read about art gallery, but the whole street was closed for renovations, so I wandered along the river, sipping on iced Khmer coffee and trying to write my diary, before shopping and lunch. While having lunch, it started absolutely chucking down so I sat under a large shelter by the restaurant pool and read a book about Tony Blair (light holiday reading). Later I walked to the ticket office for Angkor Wat… Some facts:

  • The site is about 7km north of town and there is no ticket office on site
  • The ticket office is about 4km out of town, though of course not on the road to Angkor Wat
  • The ticket office is open from 5am-5.30pm
  • You must buy your ticket in person, as they take a photo to go on the ticket
  • You can only buy tickets for that day, unless you go after 5pm, when you can buy tickets for the next day
  • Sunrise is at 5.30am

This all seemed like an overly complicated ticket buying system, and presumably designed so that you have to hire a tuktuk for the day, from 5am. I decided against that and hired a bike instead.

I woke up at 4.30am, got dressed and went down to the reception desk to pick up my bike… only to find no one was there. Eventually a receptionist showed up, and I had to restrain myself from being too impatient about it all, particuarly when he couldn’t find the bike lock key. I really wanted to make sure I was at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. It would be stupid to go to all this hassle and then miss it. Finally my bike was unlocked and I set off at full pelt up the road. At first there were streetlights, but then there weren’t, and I didn’t have lights, so I had to try to see ahead as far as possible whenever a tuktuk passed (luckily quite often). I was quite glad that I didn’t know about all the stray dogs and monkeys on this road at the time. I ditched the bike by a tree and walked over a pontoon bridge to the main Angkor Wat temple site.

By this point it was edging towards sunrise, and I jostled into position by a lake in front of the temple. And wow, just wow. What an amazing sunrise.

Afterwards I wandered about the temple, checking out the frescoes and looking at the carvings. I wasn’t aware before I got to Siem Reap that the famous Angkor Wat temple is only one of about 20 temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Site, but having a bike meant I could go and explore them at my own pace. The next temple had lots of faces – hundreds of them.

Shortly after this, I got chatting to another cyclist and we decided to look at the rest of the temples together. Some of them were very small and in need of restoration, others were much larger. A few involved very precarious stairs! It was really great to have company, and Christian was the best kind of company – smart, funny and a cyclist to boot!

By about midday it was getting very warm and I was also pretty tired from such an early start, so we cycled back to town (much easier in the daylight) and I went back to my hotel. After some lunch (well, breakfast really) I planned to read by the pool but I fell asleep. In the evening Christian and I went for dinner and beers near Pub Street, which is a street full of bars. I found Pub Street really weird, actually, so many tourists, and while it didn’t feel sketchy, it just highlighted the massive gulf between Cambodians and tourists.

The following morning I flew back to Phnom Penh. I decided against taking a tuktuk into town and followed the signs for the Airport Express. The signage was of a high speed train and I was intrigued, as (terrible experience with the Maglev notwithstanding) I do love a train. I got to a small waiting room and paid my $2 and sat down. Suddenly I heard a terrible noise, the blaring of horns and metallic scraping. I looked out the window, and a small diesel engine was honking its way past the waiting traffic and pulling into the station. I got onto the train – an engine and a single carriage – and after sitting for a while, we started off towards the city. The train track, a single track, ran through some dusty roads and delapidated, temporary-looking housing, at slightly faster than walking pace. It was quite an experience, and took longer than a tuktuk but was possibly more interesting.

I hadn’t really liked Phnom Penh earlier in the week but I was feeling much more relaxed and had spent a lot of time thinking and being by myself, so had a much better experience. I went to a temple on a hill, the Central Market, a river boat along the Mekong at sunset, and finally a huge firework display outside the Royal Palace to mark Cambodian independence day. After all that, I headed back to my hotel and hung out by the pool (where I met a Scouse girl who asked me whether it was true that Chinese men have small penises).

My trip ended with a final tuktuk ride to the airport, which I can’t remember at all, and an entirely uneventful flight, which I slept through, so I can’t write about either but I know happened because I ended up in Hong Kong…

Moscow morning

7am. Moscow. Midday at home and 4am at my other home, the home I’m going back to. Another hour until my connecting flight, a long hour stretching ahead staring at planes taxiing about in the darkness.

No internet because my Chinese SIM only works in China and my UK SIM hasn’t worked for 11 months (although I am hoping that it will work when I land) and you need to enter a phone number to access the wifi. Just me, the darkness outside and the overbright light inside. People keep talking to me in Russian, and I don’t even look that Russian anymore. I don’t think it’s a compliment.

I managed a few short sleeps on the ten hour flight between Shanghai and Moscow, mainly when I was watching films. Aeroflot’s film selection is pretty good but I went for films I’ve seen before – first Interstellar, which made me cry (and then sleep), and The Dark Knight – because I didn’t want to be challenged. I wish planes still showed Glee. I used to love spending 11 hours watching Glee.

During The Dark Knight, in the scene where Harvey Dent has his face half burnt off, a stewardess dropped a jug of coffee on my leg, so we had a surreal moment where I watched someone’s face on fire while my leg steamed itself, a woman dabbing at my leg with a wad of tissues, apologising in Russian. Welcome to Russia, have some third degree burns.

I hate aisle seats, and my hatred was magnified by the couple beside me each getting up four times in the flight. At one point they must have been trying to wake me up and I must have been fighting it because I realised I was saying “nooooo, no more, sit down, I hate you”, to which they paid absolutely no mind and continued their hourly climbs over my reluctant lap.

About halfway through the flight I woke up feeling like I might throw up everywhere – that’ll be chips and a hot chocolate for dinner I suppose – and went to the bathroom. I thought about a short story I’d been working on with one of my writing students, a story about a girl on a flight who suddenly felt awful, went to the bathroom and shed several kilograms, then looked in the mirror and realised she’d gone back in time and spent the rest of the flight in a silent scream. Please no please no. I couldn’t brave looking in the mirror just in case, the story and Interstellar and feeling sick were too much for me and I eventually dragged myself back to my seat, where I for some reason stripped out of most of my clothes and attempted to get as foetal as possible – which is not all that comfortable when you’re in the aisle seat of economy class, you’re half naked and you have a middle aged chinese couple keen to use your sweating body as steeplejump practice.

I packed two days early and spent some time worrying that I’d forgotten something, then realised it was probably remembering to order vegetarian food for the flight. In the end I had a Cornetto and a bread roll. I can’t wait to get to Heathrow and spend my emergency tenner at M&S.

Arrived in Shanghai

I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’m here! After so many years thinking about it, and so many months planning it. And I’m in a Holiday Inn Express, so it feels like I could be anywhere…

Yesterday, several time zones away, Matt took me to Heathrow Airport. Originally he wasn’t going to take me the whole way but he took pity on me and my incredibly heavy bags (in total, 50kg luggage…). It was really strange to wave him off and I can’t wait until he gets here next week.

I called China Eastern a few days ago to reserve a vegetarian meal but was told they couldn’t promise anything. But at check in they said I had a special meal, and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss about my visa (a non-standard port visa).

I went for dinner and then wandered over to my gate, where they were keen for everyone to board immediately. With half an hour to go I was in my seat and felt quite teary.

The flight itself was uneventful. Long. The in-flight entertainment didn’t work very well. I tried to sleep but couldn’t sleep properly. I had both of my special meals. For the final hour I stared out of the window as we flew over China. This is it! I wanted to take one of those clichéd “wings of a plane” photos but the cabin crew had already made me put my Kindle away, so I didn’t think they’d take kindly to me taking out my phone.

On landing, I went to get my visa. First I had to get some passport photos, as I hadn’t got any before leaving. This is why you don’t get passport photos taken after a 12 hour flight:

 There was a lot of activity behind the desk but eventually I was asked to pay 168 RMB (less than £20) and was handed back my passport. The last time I got a Chinese visa it cost £55, and Matt’s recent one cost £151!

As I walked over to border control, I was stopped by two guards who said my temperature was too high. They made me stick a thermometer in my mouth and write down my address and phone number. I don’t actually feel totally well but I think I was overheating due to all the clothes I was wearing.

Finally, passport stamped, I picked up my bags and went out into arrivals to look for my driver (yes, second time this year I’ve had a driver pick me up at the airport!). We missed each other initially, and when I found him he dragged me over to the other terminal to collect two other teachers, then on a long walk to the carpark, where we waited for another driver to atcually take us to the hotel.

The two other teachers are very nice (one South African, one Canadian) but after waiting around for the driver and then sitting in traffic for nearly an hour I could feel myself flagging.

We drove past the railway station and then did a casual U-turn in the road to get to our hotel. My room may be a little faceless but it’s huge, clean, quiet and comfy. I’m off to shower!