Wadis, Desert and Mountains

Greetings from a (still) warm and sunny Muscat – if the sight of blue skies and sun is upsetting any of you then I suggest you stop reading now!

We left Sur on Tuesday morning heading for a night of camping in the desert with a detour to beautiful Wadi Bani Khalid on the way.  The drive to the Wadi was pretty spectacular:

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and the Wadi itself didn’t disappoint either:

although it still astonishes us how many of our European cousins (French and Italian mainly) blatantly ignore the signs requesting modest clothing and swan around in skimpy bikinis, in very sharp contrast to the Omani men in their dishdashas and women in their full length abayas.

During our visit the Wadi was enjoying a visit from a large gathering of Middle Eastern Hell’s Angels on the most fantastic bikes – they had come from all over including Bahrain and Kuwait and were quite a sight:

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That night we found ourselves a quiet spot on the edge of the Wahiba Sands, tucked behind a sand dune next to what is now one of the most photographed trees in Oman:

In the morning we had a visit from a group of camels:

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On Wednesday we visited Ibra Souq which, only on Wednesdays, has a women only souq (strictly no photographs).  Carol and I were rather disappointed as it seemed to mainly consist of manufactured cheap clothes and cooking utensils and pots.  We did, however, spend some time (and a bit of money!) in a nice jeweler’s shop and got chatting to the very friendly owner.  He was originally from Pakistan and arrived in Oman in 1974 to work as a labourer at the port.  He was very proud of his son and daughter-in-law who now live and work in Essex and send him 200OMR (about £400) every month – take note, boys!!  He and his wife are planning to visit their son in November – he was very excited about this and Carol and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Essex in November will be cold, dark and probably wet – what a shock after hot and sunny Oman!

That night we camped next to another Wadi (having first checked with a local man that a) it was OK to camp there and b) no rain was expected) – we were assured it would be fine – and it was:

I think two nights consecutive wild camping is about right here – after that the dust/sand becomes unbearable and there is definite need of a shower!

Last time we were here we shot through the historic old town of Nizwa en route to the coast and so visiting the 17th century fort (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was most definitely on the agenda this time:

climbing to the top of the ramparts and looking over the top gave the most extraordinary view of the date plantations and houses behind with the wonderful Hajar mountains behind:

And after that we headed up into those mountains for our night of “luxury” at Sunrise Camp. The road is strictly 4 wheel drive only which led Carol to muse why anybody would build a “resort” there and, furthermore, why anyone would book a night sleeping there!  When we (finally) got there the “villa” was great and the location was simply stunning:

although the interior decor was decidedly middle Eastern – can you imagine facing this bathroom with a hangover?:

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or spending a nice relaxing evening watching telly in here:

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Decor aside, we liked it so much we immediately booked a second night with the delightful Filipino manageress (I wonder what she made of this place when she first arrived!).  At just over 6,600 feet above sea level (that’s getting on for twice the height of Ben Nevis) it was decidedly chilly when the sun went down and we were all in jackets and warm socks for the first time since leaving the UK.

The next day Matt and I went off for one of the most stupendous walks we have ever done – 4 hours around the edge of Little Grand Canyon.  It’s hard to describe the sheer scale and magnificence of this place but hopefully some of our photos will give you an idea:

It was absolutely breathtaking and made even more magical by the fact that we were the only people there.  We shared the entire walk with a few goats and birds of prey:

Happily Tom was able to join us for our second night in the villa and the next day (yesterday) we completed a magnificent circuit of the mountains (dirt roads, steep drops) to the main “Grand Canyon” at Jebel Shams:

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with its terrifying drops and dizzying height:

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where the boys took the obligatory selfies:

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and Tom made the most of the photo opportunity:

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which gave the rest of us the heeby jeebies!!

We are now back in Muscat in our rather lovely apartment hotel:

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Have been to the souq and done our final shopping:

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and have visited Tom’s happy place!:

We fly home tomorrow and we are sad to be leaving – the sun, the sea, the beaches and the mountains but most of all the wonderfully welcoming, kind people.  (We won’t miss some of the crazy driving, though!).  We are already planning what we want to do next time, for there will definitely be a next time … insha’allah.

And then there were four …

And so, today, our merry band of 9 was reduced to 4 as Richard and family returned to Muscat for their flight home tomorrow and Tom returned to “the box” in Muscat (what is this thing called “work” of which they speak?)!  Guy is somewhat bereft, being now left with his middle aged parents and Gunny!

We explored Sur and crossed the only suspension bridge in Oman:

to the little village of Ayjah, with its dominant lighthouse and ancient fort:

very beautiful and, once again, non-stop blue skies and blue sea …

We have been entertained by some of the sign writing here -sometimes all the right letters but not necessarily in the right order:

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sometimes just one letter out makes all the difference:

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but don’t you just love the old doorways?:

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Tomorrow we head off to the desert and mountains for more wild camping and a night at altitude where at this time of year we are not allowed to camp as it’s “too cold” so we have booked a bungalow with open fire – we shall report back in due course when we return to the civilization of Muscat on Saturday.

In the meantime I leave you with a cultural observation … hotels in this part of the world rarely (if ever) supply kettles but do (perhaps not surprisingly) supply fridges to chill your (non-alcoholic) drinks.  They also, without fail, have a little sticker on the ceiling to point you in the direction of Mecca:

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Happy New Year!

Greetings from Sur, 3 hours south-east from Muscat on the Gulf of Oman where the day time temperature has been a very pleasant 27 degrees – we hear it’s about 5 degrees in London – sorry about that – ha ha!!

As I think you know, this is our second time in Oman (first for my brother and his family) and, as ever, it doesn’t disappoint.  In Muscat we visited the very fine Grand Mosque (built by Sultan Qaboos as a gift to the nation on the 30th anniversary of his reign):

and the souq (where Carol found the 1 Riel shop, Poundland eat your heart out!):

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and thence to the Corniche where Guy is admiring the Sultan’s latest toy:

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and we all went to admire his rather fabulous palace:

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If the pictures of wall to wall sunshine and endless blue sky and sea are starting to grate somewhat then brace yourselves – there are plenty more pics of the same to come …..

To say that navigating in Muscat is a nightmare and the traffic is horrendous would be the understatement of the year.  We collected our hire cars (Toyota Land Cruisers because, frankly, round here it’s good to be in quite a large car) from the airport and were slightly concerned that we’d used the majority of our daily mileage allowance (150 kms) just getting back to our hotel.  “Lost” doesn’t begin to describe it.  We ended up on roads that don’t exist on the map and we got separated from each other and Richard and Sharon ended up back at the airport in order to start again from point zero and ended up in a car park and had to pay to get out!  We ended up approaching our hotel from the opposite direction we were supposed to be going!

Despite all of that we managed to navigate ourselves to the coast for our first night under canvas:

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I’m not sure how well any of us slept – I regret to say that we now know that Matt inherited some of the snoring gene from his Mother and even the gentle lapping of waves on the beach failed to drown out their combined efforts.  I, once again, resorted to sleeping in the car, as did Richard!

The following morning a much needed refreshing swim was taken at the nearby famous sinkhole:

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and then 6 of us headed up the spectacular Wadi Shab whilst Matt and Guy found a camping spot for night 2.  (For those of you not in the loop, Guy broke his leg playing rugby last term and, although out of plaster, is still on crutches for much of the time as his screws don’t come out until later this month.)  Here is Wadi Shab:

(the watercourse you see in the third picture is called a falaj and is the ancient irrigation system still in use today which, as Sharon said, really is biblical).

And here is campsite number 2:

We knew it could be  noisy, being a Friday night, but nothing had prepared us for the latest Omani camping “must have” – spotlights on poles which run off car batteries – that and the loud music kept some of our number awake for quite a while!

Yesterday morning dawned bright and sunny (for a change) and after a morning dip in the sea we headed up a mountain road described in the Lonely Planet as “not for the faint-hearted”.  I’m pleased to say we were not faint-hearted and once at the top took a team photo:

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Far, far below you can see the beach where we spent the night:

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and here you can make out some of the road we came up (and later went down):

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The plain on the top is simply spectacular:

and, so, after all that excitement we made our way to Sur and our hotel rooms and much needed showers and a good meal and most of us saw the new year in in our sleep which others (Hoppy and Guy) photographed for posterity (I tried to stay awake, I really did!):

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Today has mostly been spent lying by the pool – it’s a tough life!

 

Happy Christmas!

Briefly from Muscat, Oman ….

We flew out on Christmas Day from a very quiet Heathrow and landed on Boxing Day to 28 degrees and non stop sun (in fact, it hasn’t rained in Muscat for 4 years which is not good for the Omanis). Tom is out here learning Arabic and teaching cross fit and is having a blast – he appears to be enjoying the expat life style! – so we have popped out for a couple of weeks winter sun.

Tomorrow we pick up our hire cars and head off to the beach for a couple of nights wild camping before moving on to Sur for New Year, so here we all are with Sultan Qaboos

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From left to right we are: Matt (obviously! Although somewhat thinner and less hairy than a few months ago), Guy, my brother Richard, our niece Grace, my sister-in-law Sharon, me, Tom and finally our nephew Rowan.

We’ve had a fantastic couple of days in Muscat seeing the sights and shopping in the souq, of which more in a few days when we get to Sur. Now I have to go and pack ….. again …..

PS: Matt’s Mum, Carol, aka Gunny, is also with us but didn’t want to appear in the family photo but don’t worry, we’ll make sure she features in the next post!!

And finally …

So … here we are … the final post of this adventure as life returns to “normal” and we go back to work tomorrow.

So, what would we have done differently?, what was good?, what was bad?

I think we both agree that our route was pretty damned near perfect:

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Once we’d arrived in Cambodia we wanted to travel entirely overland and we did.  Had we had more time (1 month) we would have been able to use up the whole of our Chinese and Laos visas, which would have been nice.  2 more months and we could have gone to Myanmar as well.  3 more months and we could have gone overland from Myanmar to Singapore.  So, ideally, 6 months would have been even better!!  Of such things are dreams made – next time?!!

What not to take?  When unpacking we realised that we’d both packed a lightweight sleeping bag and sheet sleeping bag neither of which we’d used so we probably wouldn’t bother next time.  We also had lightweight towels which we only used once in Asia (in the rice paddies in China) and, bizarrely, in our holiday cottage in Blair Atholl, which didn’t supply towels!

I would probably take 1 less pair of shoes than I did (we never really went anywhere that required slightly smarter shoes!) and I definitely wouldn’t take lace ups again.  We had forgotten how often you take shoes on and off in Asia – most guest houses ask you to take shoes off when you arrive and all temples etc do – velcro would have been so much easier!

Ditto on clothes – my 2 skirts were perfect plus 1 pair of cropped trousers and 1 pair of running trousers (worn under skirts when it was cold) but the smarter evening pair of trousers were definitely surplus to requirements.

The short wave radio (which we loved when backpacking in the past) was completely surplus to requirements as the BBC World Service, sadly, hardly exists any more and everyone just uses the internet.

Our small bedside fans (which I carried in my pack for almost 2 months) were eventually sent home as guest houses either had air con or fans – or, indeed, both!

Best equipment?  The rucksacks on wheels were BRILLIANT and we’d definitely recommend them – we only used the carrying straps when guest houses or stations didn’t have lifts – 99% of the time we pulled them on their wheels.  Mine (the Kathmandu on the right below) seemed to be bigger and I ended up carrying most of the souvenirs/presents we bought.  Matt liked his extra zip on pack (which he never unzipped except when trying to stow it in trains) although it did have a tendency to fall over when full!

I am absolutely loathe to say this as I berated Matt for packing it and then ended up carrying it in my pack for the entire trip – but the 4 point plug extension was a God send:

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seen here in action right at the beginning in Singapore.  Many guest houses only had one plug so this was used almost daily – we’d definitely take it again.

Other “best buys”? –

Swiss Army knife (obviously)

Duck Tape (obviously)

Kindle (for me – I read about 50 books, Matt read 1!)

The two computers – 1 Applie ipad, 1 mini Windows laptop.  Due to the various access problems in our “communist” countries having the 2 systems was another God send.  Very often when one wouldn’t work the other would.  Also, when the laptop was attacked by a virus in Vietnam and crashed completely we used the Apple to find instructions on how to re-boot the whole thing (which we did – which I still list as one of the major accomplishments of the trip!).

Bulb on a rope:

absolutely brilliant!  Used almost daily (most guest houses don’t have bedside lights) – and we only changed the batteries once.  Also, great in the jungle tree house when going to the loo in the night as you can hang it round your neck!

Flasks – we had a flask each – brilliant for keeping water cold when it’s 40 degrees outside and coffee warm when it’s only 10 degrees – would definitely recommend.

Best bits?

Cambodia, as before, was delightful – we still haven’t been trekking or camped in a temple though !

Vietnam was fascinating – we loved Phu Quoc and Saigon – but due to time constraints there is much more to see in the North which is more Communistic in feel – a return trip is definitely required!

Yunnan province in China was a revelation – China has probably changed more than any other country in the world since our last trip 25 years ago and the mass tourism of the huge Chinese middle class has made the infrastructure of travelling so much easier although, as Westerners, we were still a major source of fascination!  I found myself, unexpectedly, rather falling in love with this part of China and (again!) definitely want to go back.

Laos was a joy for us both – the people are very reserved and appear almost rude in the first instance but beneath the surface they are delightful and kind and incredibly laid back and peaceful.  We will never forget our lovely Mekong guide, Choy or the joy (and fear!) of The Gibbon Experience: (from the top left going anti-clockwise: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, The Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam, The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China and the Mekong (and Beer lao!), Laos:

Wherever we have gone the people have been delightful (with the exception of taxi drivers in bus and train stations who are – universally – out to rip you off!):

Budget?!  Well, we probably went slightly over budget but we haven’t actually calculated it yet (and probably won’t!) mostly because we went slightly over on our accommodation.  £10 a night is definitely “doable” – especially if you hold your nerve and book the night before you travel but we reckon we crept up to an average of £14 -£15 – which is still damned cheap compared with the UK!

All in all – as you’ve probably gathered – we had an amazing time (which went incredibly quickly) and I don’t think there’s any part of it we’d have changed (except the toilets on the Vietnamese trains and, oh yes, the Chinese toilets at the bus stops and ….. OK – so we’d have changed some of the toilets !!!).

For those of you who are “following” us you’ll automatically get email notifications when we next blog with plans for our next adventure – the trouble with travelling is that the more you see, the more you realise there is to see and the more you want to see it – so, yes, there’ll definitely be more at some point.

Watch this space ……

Over and out – for now. xx

Scotland – again …

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Firstly, apologies for the delay in this post – due entirely to computer problems – again. After the last post my new laptop decided not to recognise anything in any USB port and Bluetooth disappeared as well so it was impossible to upload any photos – very frustrating but, looking on the bright side, good that it happened at the end of the trip and not the beginning!  Having spoken to PC World today they think it might be the motherboard so thank the Lord we’d backed all the photos up on a memory stick as otherwise we’d be emailing all 3,000 photos from the laptop to our main computer at home which would probably take over a week given the speed of our internet connection!

Despite this irritation we had a wonderful week in Blair Atholl and were unbelievably lucky with the weather.  The first photos we uploaded elicited a raft of responses about how beautiful this part of the world is (and goes to show that you don’t have to travel half way round the world for the “wow” factor) so here are a few more for your delight and delectation:

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Obviously there had to be some selfies (spot the new pink and orange reading glasses!):

and, as ever, Blair Castle was the star of the show:

but there were some small red stars as well, recently out of hibernation:

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My parents came up half way through the week and Guy took us to some pretty spectacular spots:

one of us went for a paddle and it was cold!:

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After Blair Atholl we headed off to St Andrews where we found the wonderful Lade Braes walk which runs from the centre to the edge of town and were slightly amazed that we’d never found it before:

A real hidden gem.

We are now home which still feels very strange!  It’s all too easy to get sucked straight back into all the “stuff” that needs doing at home (thank goodness we had access to emails en route so we didn’t come home to 6,000 junk messages but we did have a small mountain of post) and we almost have to remind ourselves of where we’ve been and what we’ve done and we’re very conscious that we could bore people to death very easily!

We’re still assimilating everything so there will be one more post of our final thoughts – and then there’ll be a pause before our next adventure …….

 

 

 

Scotland – Blair Atholl

So, the flight home was long (13 hours) and fairly tedious but Singapore Airlines did their very best with excellent food and lots of good films – I managed to catch the Steve Jobs film, The Danish Girl, something else I can’t remember and the last series of Big Bang Theory!

When we’d arrived in Singapore on Monday evening the pilot had announced it was 29 degrees and raining.  At Heathrow it was also raining but just 10 degrees – yikes!

After a lovely supper with Matt’s sister at Gino D’Acampo’s restaurant at Euston station (we knew we were in London when the bill came to £90 per couple!!) we caught the Caledonian Sleeper to Edinburgh which was fantastic!  Our cabin was a little tiny so we had to clamber over our bags but the beds were the most comfortable sleeper beds we’ve ever had anywhere and the toilets were immaculate – hoorah!!!  (Separate ladies and gents too – double hoorah!).  I was pretty whacked!:

We are now in Blair Atholl, which is where Guy is working for his placement year at Uni – he drives/walks past the castle every day on his way to the office – it’s a pretty nice place to be! and after the haze of south-east Asia it’s a joy to see blue skies:

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Blair Castle

We are staying in a lovely little cottage in the village, which – literally – backs onto the railway line! – luckily there aren’t too many trains and the last one is the 10.30pm sleeper and the first one is the 6.30am sleeper – we seem to have learnt to ignore them pretty quickly!:

We have slept a lot and walked a bit – it really is the most beautiful spot:

The only slight problem we have is with the wifi, which is somewhat ironic given the problems (and successes) we’ve had with wifi all over Asia!  Luckily we’ve found a BT hotspot so can still communicate but only on my little laptop, not Matt’s ipad, and it’s a tad slow!

It’s still slightly surreal to be back here and I think it’s going to take us a few days, or even weeks, to re-adjust but it’s really great to catch up with Guy and we’ll see Tom this weekend and my parents are coming up tomorrow so it’s lovely family time and, so far, the weather has been kind although our tans are fading fast!

 

Singapore

When we started looking for a hotel in Singapore about 2 weeks ago we discovered – to our horror – that prices have sky-rocketed :-(.  The Strand hotel, where we stayed in January for £40 a night is currently over £100 and anything under £100 either had no window (because, hey, who wants to actually see where they are?) or no en suite, or both and in all cases the rooms were described as tiny.  We spent hours trawling all the hotel sites online and getting more and more depressed and cheesed off.

Over a beer one evening on the islands in Laos we agreed to have a change of plan – find somewhere out of the city where, hopefully, the price would be lower and the rooms would be bigger.  So – here we are out in Changi at the Village Hotel – with a bigger room and a better view:

although the window between the bathroom and bedroom (which we’ve also seen in hotels in Cape Verde and Bangkok) remains a mystery – which designer thought that was such a great idea?  (Yes, there is a blind but, still, good idea?).  Also, who thought it was a good idea to have a glass sided swimming pool where everything is magnified and everyone in the restaurant and bar can see everything under water – perhaps not surprisingly we’ve never seen anyone in it:

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although Matt did take the opportunity of testing the waterproofness of our “Tough” camera:

So, instead of walking on pavements and in shopping malls we have been walking here:

We still haven’t quite rid ourselves of our backpacking heads though and can’t bring ourselves to pay hotel prices for food so we’re eating in the excellent Changi village food hall:

although I am wondering if Singapore is the only place in the world where Teriyaki chicken comes under “Western food”!

Yesterday was the old man’s birthday so we got on a bum boat – yes, they really are called that – see:

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to Pulau Ubin – the island we can see from our room.  The name Pulau Ubin means “granite island” and was where granite was originally quarried from to build Singapore.  The island is now a nature reserve and the old quarries are reservoirs and bikes can be hired so off we went:

It was really beautiful and, yes, very hot and so different from the idea most people have of Singapore.  The land you can see in the distance in the reservoir photos is Malaysia.  We even saw two huge monitor lizards and wild boar but they were too quick to photograph unfortunately.  Afterwards we came back and had a birthday beer and cake (that’s chocolate fudge brownie cake, in case you’re wondering) whilst watching a pretty spectacular thunderstorm and planes coming into land:

Obviously there was selfie of the day:

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Birthday selfie!

There has been some concern in the comments about the lack of smiling by Hoppy in the selfies and I have explained that, because he’s a man, he can’t multi-task so taking a photo and smiling is rather tricky!  Well, yesterday he surpassed himself – selfie on a bike! – which proves that he can ride a bike and take a photo but smiling as well is a step too far:

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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our hotel is pretty close to Changi airport so today we walked along Changi beach and watched planes coming in – who knew watching planes coming into land could be so exciting!

We have both agreed that whenever we come back to Singapore we’ll definitely come back here.  The beach is beautiful:

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Changi Beach

but, as so often, hides a tragic past as it was here that the Japanese invaders murdered over 1,000 Chinese men who were suspected of being anti-Japanese in February 1942.

We have really enjoyed seeing this completely different side of Singapore and neither of us can quite believe it’s the end of our trip – 3 months, 5 different countries and a thousand new experiences.

We fly home tomorrow (2am your time) and, after supper with Matt’s sister, we are catching the night train to Scotland to see the boys so – in fact – it’s not quite over.

See you in Scotland!

 

It’s not all bad …

After the seriousness of my last post I thought it was time to bring you a few more lighthearted moments of the last few days and weeks.

So, I’ve been banging on about how damned hot it is here and we (finally) actually checked out exactly how hot it is ………… 41 degrees in the shade ……………… 41!!  That’s ridiculously hot and explains why we’re drenched with sweat the moment we leave the hotel.  The hotel which is, thank goodness, very nice and – most importantly – has air con – which is battling against the 41 degree heat outside:

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It’s the low season here (due to the heat, most likely) so we got this room for just £12 a night – bargain!

We’ve met up with an old work colleague of Matt’s whilst we’ve been here – who we didn’t even know was living out here until our travels started – so have seen a glimpse of expat life which largely seems to consist of drinking in bars owned by other expat friends!!  As Matt said, the money seems to slosh around from one bar to the next!

We leave Siem Reap tonight for Singapore and perhaps it’s time as we are now greeted in some bars like long lost friends and the lovely manageress says to you (me) – “you are really sweating tonight”!!! – yeah, thanks for pointing that out – as if I hadn’t noticed!!!!

In the “you know you’re middle aged when ….” theme – which has been  woefully absent of late – you know you’re middle aged when the youngsters are lounging and sitting cross legged at low tables looking cool and casual:

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and you choose to sit at a proper table and chairs because you know you’re going to struggle to get up again once you’re down there and, in any event, you can’t sit cross legged any more because your knees just won’t do that any more:

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You also know you’re middle aged when the youngsters (particularly the young men) are complaining about all the hassle they’re getting on the street – “you want boom boom …. you want marijuana …..” and you’re not getting offered anything!!!

In other news, Matt has now lost all 3 pairs of his pink and flowery reading glasses from Poundland and is relying on emergency pairs from China:

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The Laos to Cambodia border scams

We are now in Siem Reap having had the worst scam/border crossing corruption/unpleasant experience of our trip so far – and pretty close to being the worst ever.

As many of you will know, Matt and I are not naive or inexperienced travellers – our infamous, and I think still worst border crossing ever, was between Tanzania and Kenya some 25 years ago.  The bus was so late (it was the rainy season and the road was a disaster) that we crossed at about 2am in the dark (Number 1 rule of travelling: never give your Passport to anyone, Number 2 rule of travelling: never cross borders in the dark!) and it was when the Kenyan official asked how much money we were carrying that we started to get worried.  Somehow (Matt’s charm and the fact that he was born in Tanzania definitely helped) we got through without paying a bribe – but we’ve never forgotten it.

Incidentally, Number 3 rule of travelling is to try and always arrive at your destination in daylight and Number 4 is that if armed guards or police get on your bus pretend to be asleep and never, ever, ever look them in the eye.

Other bad border crossings include an equally infamous one between India and Nepal (the bus had bullet holes and the “hotel” had rats and cockroaches the size of rats) and another Kenya-Tanzanian one where the production of fresh dollar bills saved the day …. but I digress – the point being that we like to think we know what we’re doing!

We had booked a ticket from the islands all the way to Siem Reap and had checked what bus company we would be travelling with in Cambodia because a) our hotel in Siem Reap had offered to come and pick us up from the bus station and b) we avoid minivans at all costs and wanted to be sure we would be on a big bus.  We were assured we’d be on a Sorya bus and as we’ve used them before in Cambodia we were happy.

From the moment we got off the boat from the islands the scam started.  As we were walking up to the bus station we were called into a cafe where we were issued with new tickets and Cambodian visa papers to complete.  In retrospect – and from reading other people’s experiences (including our friends Richard and Annie who are currently in Vietnam)  – from this moment on we were in their scam and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.  They had taken our original bus ticket and replaced it with theirs. **  We waited there for half an hour or so and some people were told to hand their passports over here – we didn’t (Rule number 1). Then we were told to walk up to the bus station and had another half an hour wait where we chatted to a French couple and all agreed that the scam had started. Then the bus arrived and we were told to get on board “quick, we are late”, as if it was our fault!

** Since we arrived here and have mulled all this over we have wondered what would have happened if we hadn’t gone into that cafe and just carried on to the bus station.

On the bus the fix it guy said he needed all our passports and $40 each. We refused and pointed out that a Cambodian visa is $30. He, quite openly, said that this border is “corrupt” and it’s $35 here, plus $2 for Laos departure stamp plus money for “quarantine/health check”. We refused to hand over our passports and he said we’re going to delay the whole bus – divide and rule?!  There were 5 of us who refused, including the French couple.

At the border we 5 got off the bus and the others stayed on it and were whisked through to Cambodia where we met up with them about half an hour later in (another) cafe.  This is a major breach of border security – how do the Laotians know who’s leaving their country and Cambodians know who is arriving when they don’t even see them – a security joke! We had to pay $2 for our departure stamp – this was scam 1  – officially there is no exit fee in Laos but we had no alternative. The French couple refused to pay and tried to get into Cambodia without the stamp but they’re obviously in cahoots as the Cambodians checked for their departure stamp and wouldn’t give them a visa without it.

Then we came to Scam 2 – the quarantine desk – we have seen this before – we are asked to complete a form stating where we’ve been in the last 21 days and whether we’ve had various medical conditions and then we’re “scanned” with a thermometer and charged $1.  We filled in the forms but said, from the start, we had no money. We had our ‘temperature’ scanned and left without paying. The French couple just said they had all their vaccinations and walked on!

Then came Scam 3 – a Cambodian visa costs $30 but here it was $30 for the visa and $5 for the “stamp”. I argued at length with the officials and even showed them my visa from Siem Reap airport in January which clearly says $30 and they just kept repeating $30 for the visa and $5 for the stamp. We only had $60 so ended up paying the stamp fee in kip – they wanted 100,000 (well over $10) but accepted 85,000 which was all we had. It went straight into their top drawer. Then got the “stamp” but the visa doesn’t say how much we paid for it!! The French couple managed to get away with only paying $3 each for the stamp by simply saying they had no more money.  At the “stamp” booth you can’t even see the officials – passports are just passed through a little slot.

We then joined our fellow bus passengers in their cafe by the road – the Cambodians hadn’t verified any of them against their passports – security, what security? We got in our bus and waited and were then told that everyone going to Siem Reap should get in another bus – clearly some kind of deal was being done by the drivers.

We were then taken to Stung Treng and yet another “cafe” behind someone’s house – definitely not an official bus station. Again, we were told it would be about an hour and many people bought food – they even had the nerve to charge for the toilets! After about an hour our tickets were changed (again) and we were all piled into 2 mini vans which had been sitting there all along.  Here we are sitting in this latest “cafe”:

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At this point quite a few of us complained (loudly) that we hadn’t paid to go in minivans but had paid for big buses.  We were basically told that there were no big buses now because we were so “late”.  In retrospect I would say that at this point we had been commercially kidnapped.

Both minivans were overloaded and the drivers picked up more locals off the roadside, which we all kicked off about.

About 2 hours in we stopped at yet another “cafe” which, as you can see, is a thoroughly salubrious spot and we are all looking thoroughly fed up:

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Shortly after leaving that “cafe” our van broke a suspension pin with a hell of a bang, at speed.  We all initially thought it was a puncture but it was rather more serious than that and clearly caused by a combination of lack of maintenance and over-loading.  Perhaps not surprisingly given what happened to us 18 months ago I was completely hysterical at this point and our fellow travelers were all incredibly kind once Matt had explained why! The two minivan drivers then “fixed” the suspension on the roadside using a bolt they found and a nut they bought off a passing farmer and then we carried on.  I was absolutely terrified, especially when our driver increased in confidence and was roaring along seemingly without a care in the world:

By the time we arrived in Siem Reap it was dark and we were dropped in some dark back street area – definitely not a bus station.  One thing we had noticed as we were standing at the roadside waiting for the van to be fixed was that no buses passed us all day.  It’s hard to know which route these minivans are taking but it definitely isn’t the new road they advertise – we suspect they are using a circuitous route to reduce the chances of being stopped at police road blocks.

In retrospect we think these scams are carefully co-ordinated and planned from Laos to Cambodia. We were all told we would be on big buses in Cambodia and we think they’re taking the money for the big buses and then putting us in their unlicensed and, most probably, uninsured minivans. The border officials and the bus drivers etc are all in cahoots and obviously sharing the loot. I saw paper folded over and stapled to make an envelope and full of dollars on the desk of the “stamp” desk, clearly someone’s share.  If 100 people are passing through this border daily and most are paying out $40 then the profit on top of the visa fee is $10 per person – that’s $1,000 per day.  A nice little earner, as they say!

We have now got the bit between our teeth on this one and have already contacted a couple of blog sites who have recently given their experiences and added ours.  In addition we are in the process of contacting the British Embassies in both Cambodia and Laos as they ask for scams and corruption to be reported.  We will also contact the Cambodian and Laos embassies in the UK.  There are a couple of other sites here in Cambodia which we’ve been advised to contact by expats living here.

Interestingly, the Cambodian ambassador to Seoul was arrested 2 days ago for, amongst other things, embezzling over $100,000 by selling visa stamps!!

Our main concerns are:

  • the lack of security at this border;
  • the blatant corruption by the border guards; and
  • the dangers posed by travelling in these un-maintained, unlicenced and, presumably uninsured, minivans.

One day some backpackers will be killed in these vans, of that we have no doubt.

The problem is that once you’re a piece of kidnapped cargo in their scam it’s impossible to get out unless you’re happy to be left at the roadside and pay twice – and they know this.

I know that this is rather a serious post for a supposedly light-hearted travelling blog and it’s ironic that this happened just a few days after I’d posted about the joys (and otherwise) of journeys in this part of the world but these scams need to be addressed so I’m going to do my best to get this known to the powers that be.  If nothing comes if it then so be it but if we can warn just one more backpacker of this scam then that’s OK.

If anyone is reading this prior to starting this journey the only way round the minibus part that we can see is to just buy a ticket to Stung Treng.  You’ll then be taken to the bus station from where you can buy a ticket from a reputable seller for your choice of onward transportation.  At the moment we can’t see any way of avoiding the border corruption but you can certainly save some money by going through the border post yourself and not handing your Passport and $40 to the (very persuasive) man in the bus.  We have also been advised that you should ask for a receipt and take down the name and number of the guard(s) on duty and tell them you will be reporting them to your country’s embassy. I appreciate, though, that this is easier said than done when you’re feeling flustered and intimidated.  Good luck!

If you do get scammed then please do report it to your country’s embassies in Laos and Cambodia.