Sunday, 23 March 2014


 The Book of the Blog:

Like millions of other people I’ve flown to Australia, and been bored stiff, but this time I went overland by train.

I was able to connect up with a whole series of trains, which took me all the way from London to Sydney and beyond. It wasn’t a made up TV ‘adventure’ trip with a dozen hidden fixers, nor was it a series of crackpot antics or dangerous pastimes nor was it a way of piggy backing on some fund raising scam.

This was an everyman story that anyone could do and was the most brilliant way to travel around the world. I could potentially have made the journey in 3 weeks but that would have made nonsense of travelling overland - so I spent 3 months stopping off whenever and wherever I felt like it.


 
Starting from London my route crossed Europe into Russia, east across Siberia, south through Mongolia and into China. From Beijing I trained it to Hanoi and then took the Reunification Express to Saigon, with a few stops on the way. I followed the Mekong north through Cambodia, onwards to Bangkok in Thailand and down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. My only flight was from Singapore to Darwin and then it was trains all the way to Sydney and Perth.

Buy the book for just £3: London to Sydney by Train


Monday, 21 November 2011

Perth to London

So this is the end of my big overland rail trip from London to Australia & its lived up to everything I expected.

Would I do it again: - absolutely.

Is there anything I would change: - in the grand scheme no, except maybe crossing into Laos while I was so close. I would probably do some more pre-planning for Australia & be prepared for it being much more expensive than on my previous visits.

The best bits: - meeting the Grannies film crew in Russia, drinking good 12p beer in Hoi An, I loved Mongolia & Cambodia, they both deserved more time. My favourate part of Australia on this trip has to be Broken Hill - a real insight into non-indigenous outback Australia & I could easily have spent another week there.

The worst bits: - the almost impossible last minute accommodation search in Perth where I seriously contemplated sleeping in the car.

Getting a one-way flight back to London wasnt easy as most airlines wanted to charge the same price as a return ticket, which is outrageous. Emirates had the best price for a quality airline & they had the best entertainment system I've ever seen - endless brilliant music to build into a persoanl playlist that lasted most of the journey. And loads of current & old movies that I actually wanted to watch as opposed to staring at out of boredom. And, unbelievably the food was actually good. This is a bit annoying really as I'll never be able to cast blanket aspersions about airline food again - but how come so many airlines still serve slop when its clearly possible to serve decent food?

London is wonderfully cold & misty - its great to be home.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Southern West Australia

Having previously travelled the northern part of West Australia from Broom to the Mitchell Plateau, this time I thought I'd explore the lush south-west. I hired a car in Perth & drove down to Mandurah which was a bit too many boardwalks & marinas for my liking so I carried on to Bussleton. I spent a couple of nights at the Paradise Motel - a bit of a mis-use of the English language, but it was still better than my Sydney hotel & half the price.

Its late spring here (November) & the weather is surprisingly blustery with occasional short showers but its pleasantly warm & much nicer than the scorching heat of high summer.

Bussleton has the look of a wonderfully old fashioned seaside town, all low-rise buildings, a high street without boring multinational chain stores & a beautifully uncluttered beach. The beach front has a cafe, bar, ice cream parlour & a children's playground but none of the tat & commercialism that sadly litter every seaside town in the UK.


Well back from the beach front there are several motels, taverns, supermarkets, caravan & camping areas & a row of the usual fast food joints.

Bussleton is in Geographe Bay which is a good whale watching location, especially from the end of the unbelievably mile long jetty. Its so long that a little train runs to the end where an underwater observatory is the year round attraction.

I made a daytrip down to Margaret River, passing many of the 120 vineyards of the region but the town was just a disappointing tourist shopping street, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasnt that. A few other people I met also said how disappointed they were with the town. Maybe its because the wine has made Margaret River such a famous name that visitors expect something special.


I went out to Surfers Point at the end of the actual Margaret River where there were good breakers & some enthusiastic surfers. The tiny village of Prevelly sounded so Cornish that I had to take a look & it did have a Cornish air - a sweeping bay, lovely sand, backed with large dunes, rolling surf & rocky headlands.

I headed on further south to Walpole a coastal town on the Southern Ocean to see the giant Red Tingle forests, some of the trees are 450 years old! It was a glorious drive through seemingly endless forest & I only passed 1 vehicle all the way.

The southern landscape is rich & green, heavily wooded in places & well tended in others with wheat, cattle, vines & orchards. The landscape has a familar look to a European eye, until closer inspection shows that trees, bushes & grasses are all completely different species.

Walpole looks to be a significant town on the map but its incredibly tiny with just 2 motels & a dozen very practical shops - hardware, agricultural supplies, grocers etc but it manages to have a well staffed tourist office. There's no pub just bars & restaurants in the motels but at doesnt matter as all the charms of the area are along the coast or the inland forests.


A few miles east of Walpole is the famous tree top walk - The Valley of the Giants. The Red Tingle trees are said to be the largest & the most ancient of the Eucalyptus tree family. The walk through the grove of gnarled veteran trees is rather haunting when its deserted & the 40m high canopy walk is a novel experience - looking down onto a woodland. Unfortunately, noisy visitors ensure that any interesting wildlife are kept well away.


My final destination was Albany which is a charming small town (officially its a city) & West Australia's first European settlement. The towns tourist information office directed me to the Albany View B&B which was a spacious suite - the nicest & the best value accommodation I've had in Australia. Strangely all 3 sets of fellow guests were visitors from the UK.

Albany is an excellent base for exploring the region as its got plenty of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, general stores & what a treat to be able to freely park in the attractive High street. The rugged coastline has lots of scenic drives, some leading to fabulous deserted beaches & others to the well known Mount Barker vineyards.


In 1914 Albany's vast King George Sound was filled with a fleet of 40 transport ships & five naval escort vessels waiting to transport 30,000 men to Gallipoli; most were never to return. Because Albany was their last sight of Australia the city has become Australia's ANZAC memorial capital.

Albany is a great whale watching location from June to October & it used to be a busy whaling port but now the old whaling station has been turned into a museum that graphically shows exactly what whaling was all about.

I returned to Perth on the 16th & had my worst day of the whole trip. A friendly cop from Williams gave me a speeding ticket for exceeding the limit by a few mph on a deserted, arrow straight stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Then, when I arrived in Perth I couldnt find any accommodation - everywhere was full. I tried every hotel in Fremantle & Cottesloe & then circled Perth looking for non-existant motels.

Eventually I drove into a motel on the Great Eastern Highway that declared it had No Vacancies. In desperation at 9.30pm I was going to ask for suggestions but the receptionist was in the mist of a telephone argument with a pending guest & luckily for me he swore at her - so she gave me his room - thank heavens for gormless halfwits!

I couldnt stir up much enthusiasm for exploring Perth, I was put off by the street parking fee requirements & being stopped & breathalysed for no apparent reason. But its probably that I'm just about travelled out & want to go home.

Sydney to Perth

I finally made it from London to Sydney & with no significant hitches; but its not the absolute end of my trip as I decided to travel the entire length the Indian-Pacific from Sydney to Perth.


The train is full to capacity although shorter than usual & many of the passengers are groups that have been on a ocean cruise around Australia & are now on route back to Perth by train.

The Indian-Pacific is one of the world's great train journeys, crossing the Australian continent from east to west, from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. I'm backtracking my route to Adelaide but this time in the greater comfort of Gold class.

The difference between Gold & Red sleeper/seat is enormous a bit like staying in a nice hotel verses camping. Red service has not frills - communal showers & toilets are at the end of the carriage & a canteen style carriage sells drinks, snacks or ready meals although some people bring a picnic.

Gold passengers on the other hand have private cabins which convert from daytime seats into nightime beds, twin shares have ensuite shower & toilet although single cabins have to share shower & toilets with other passengers in their carriage. There is a comfortable lounge & bar as well as a separate restaurant quality dining carriage for breakfast, lunch & dinner which is inclusive with a Gold ticket.

An interesting half way house is a Red Sleeper cabin which has all the benefits of a small private cabin with proper bunk beds but none of the ensuite or dining frills.

I opted for the early dining sitting which were 7am, noon & 7pm. The food was consistently good with a excellent choice including fish, kangaroo & vegetarian options, all of which are freshly prepared onboard & served at tables for 4.

Breakfast was comprehensive & lunch excellent but they pull out the stops in the evening. A typical dinner menu starts with regional wines - Hunter Valley & Adelaide Hills from Sydney to Adelaide & then Margaret River & Swan Valley selections on the run into Perth. Starters included smoked salmon or Lentil soup, mains included pepper steak on sliced potatoes, various vegetables followed by a sticky or chocolaty desert or a regional cheese plate.

I took the Whistlestop tour at Adelaide but I'm afraid it was a dull & uninspiring script delivered by a bored driver. Nothing like the the interesting characters running the tours at Broken Hill who were chatty, enthusiastic & full of stories about people & sprinkled with fascinating little snippets of history.

We entered the formidable Nullarbor Plain around 8.30 next morning. This ancient seafloor is pancake flat in every direction, limestone rocks lay scattered like discarded builders rubble & only the grey/green tufts of saltbush & spinifex seem able to withstand the searing heat. I was thinking what a bleak & barren landscape it was until the train made an emergency stop as we hit a herd of camels. I saw at least a dozen camels making off at speed on either side of the train but at least one never made it. Camels released after the railroad was built unexpectedly thrived in Australia's harsh interior, they have multiplied & are now numbered in the 10's of thousand. Wedge tailed eagles soar & swoop in the sky, which suggests there must be plenty of small creatures for them to eat - so its just bleak & barren to us humans.


The ghost town of Cook is in the middle of the Nullarbor, now with just 2 residents to help refuel & re-water the train & provide accommodation for change-over drivers. It used to be a thriving railway town & still has the remnants of small town life - rows of houses, rusted vehicles, a school, hospital, a sand filled swimming pool & a 9 hole golf course without a blade of grass. Now its home to migrating sparrows & swallows although the real owners are flys.

Looking south just after Cook its possible to see little specks of traffic moving east & west, crossing Australia on the Eyre Highway - a formidable road trip.


We arrive in Kalgoolie around 7pm, some people take a trip to the Big Pit, one of the most productive gold mines in the world, some of us visit one of the many pubs in town but no one admits visiting the famous Kalgoolie whore house. Back on the train the bar closed just after 9pm, bringing an abrupt end to the simmering party mood of the cruise crowd who had been travelling together for the past 2 weeks.

Next morning we wake to the rolling farmland of southern West Australia, an amazing contrast to the Nullarbor & the train arrives at East Perth station spot on time.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Sydney to Perth

I am now on my last great train journey on the Indian-Pacific from Sydney to Perth & have stopped off at Adelaide & found that the station has free WiFi - well done Adelaide - catch up Sydney !

Sydney

Sydney is outrageously expensive, it took hours of internet searching to find a 2 star hotel that averaged $150/night, anything slightly better jumped to $300.


Sydney pubs routinely charge $5 -7 for a small local beer (half pint) unless you opt for one of the seriously dingy drinking dens & then its $4.50. I realise that beer is not a typical family guide to the weekly supermarket shop but I'm sure its a guide to general costs (in my mind). No wonder Aussies flock to Indochina where similar beer costs from 15 - 50 cents & a good quality side-street restaurant meal costs around $4.

Its amazing to find that generally it seems cheaper to live in the UK, where wages are higher, than Australia - what's happened to the Australian dream?

Incredibly the city seems to be in the dark ages for WiFi, the few places that do have it want $10/day to use it whereas supposedly backwards countries like Vietnam & Cambodia have free WiFi available in every little corner bar & cafe.

I'm doing all the usual touristy things - the Rocks, the Bridge, the Opera House, Harbour ferries, Bondi Beach - interestingly, browsing through the mountains of tourist literature they all seem to be selling the city primarily on opportunities for shopping & eating. No matter what the destination or activity, its about what you can buy & eat there - how weird is that - or is it just me?


My best eating experience was at Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Woolamaloo where I had a hot dog but it came with chilli-con-carne, mushy peas, garlic, onions, cheese & chilli sauce - an absolute mess to eat, but oh so tasty for $5.90.

Sydney seems to be a schitzophrenic place, I've not seen so many grossly over-weight people since my last visit to America's Mid West. Then, as I walked along the harbour path at Farm Cove I'd never seen so many joggers - so many that they were a serious pedestrian hazzard. From my hotel in China Town I was able to enjoy the company of Sydney's rough sleepers, many behaving very oddly - shouting & talking to invisible people, so they might be clinically schitzophrenic, but what about all the rest?

I climbed aboard a 333 bus from the city to Bondi Beach & was promptly thrown off, with some glee, by the bus driver. None of the useless tourist literature tells visitors they have to buy a ticket from somewhere else before boarding a bus. After trying 3 shops I eventually bought a $3.50 ticket & boarded the next bus to Bondi which was a 380 - that did bloody well sell tickets - what a shambles for visitors! I've got leaflets of where I can buy or eat anything under the sun but nothing about how to use the impressive but mysterious city transport system.

What a fabulous beach Bondi is - pristine pale yellow sand, modest sized breakers although surf boards seemed more for posing than riding the waves. There was plenty of lifeguard activity - helicopter, beach buggy & jet-ski patrols as well as training & I saw the first ambulatory policeman seen since landing in Oz. Bondi is pretty busy midweek, mostly girls sunbathing & retirees stolling the promenade.


After a beer & a paddle I caught the 380 onwards to Watson's Bay for some of Doyles famous Barramundi & chips beside a lovely little sandy bay that is perfect for small childten as its on the harbour side (not the Pacific) so has no breakers. Actually I had better Baramundi in Darwin but Doyles has possibly the best restuarant views in town.


The regular ferry service ($5) took me back to Circular Quay, with fantastic views of the Opera House & the Bridge - completing a nice circular tour at a fraction of the price of an organised tour. I had planned to take the free city circular bus (555) but instead walked down Pitt Street to look at what turned out to be insanely overpriced opals -$4-6,500 for something quite nice!

So that's Sydney.

Broken Hill to Sydney

My 3 days in Broken Hill went like lightening, it wasnt really enough & I wanted to stay on for a few more days but I've got a train ticket & pre-booked accommodation in Sydney.

The 4.30pm train didnt arrive until 5.40 but still left at 6.30 so buggered anyone with a planned whistlestop tour of Broken Hill. This will be a tougher test of the day/nighter seat comfort as the train is due into Sydney at 10am tomorrow morning so I have to sleep in what amounts to a 48 bed dorm; mind you most flights are 300 bed dorms.

10 years ago my day/nighter seat carriage was full of backpackers & Korean & Japanese tour groups but this one is almost 90% domestic travellers & most in the upper age bracket - a sign of the times I guess. There are far fewer staff in Red class & they always seem to be rushing from carriage to carriage but they're friendly, if you can catch their attention.

I went down to the dining car around 8pm but the cupboard was bare - no meals, pies, pasties or anything except a bag of crisps, I should have bought some backup food!

It wasnt a bad nights sleep, much better than last time, the seats are probably as good as a seat can be; there's masses of leg room & they recline almost to 45 degrees but I twist & turn & fidget a lot & you just can't do that in a seat.

I woke up to a raising sun with rolling wheat fields, scattered clumps of unfamilar trees & cattle sitting or grazing. Its very misty & there were lots of low laying artificial ponds to collect any run-off. Its a well farmed area with occasional farm houses, neatly planted orchards & a few small vineyards.

There are a some sprawling bungalow towns before the Blue Mountains, which are about 3 hours west of Sydney. A train announcement tells passengers that the Blue Mountains are a raised plateau with deep valleys rather than actual mountains. Eucalytus & blue gum trees (same thing I thought?) clad hills disappear into the distance in every direction; grasses & an under story of shrubs appear to grow dirctly out of bare rock. The Eucalytus trees give off a fine oil vapour that mix with moisture in the atmosphere to form classic blue haze that is unique to the Blue Mountains.

The train is very slow & stops constantly as there is lots of track work & we eventually arrive in Sydney 3 hours late.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Broken Hill

I took a Red class seat on the Indian-Pacific from Adelaide to Broken Hill, a 7 hour journey that was the most comfortable standard train ride I've ever made - few frills but more space & comfort than a first class seat anywhere in Europe.

Broken Hill is a quintessential outback town in the far west of NSW, near the South Australia border. Its a major stop on the Indian-Pacific rail route between Sydney & Perth; I had a brief wander around town 10 years ago & liked the place so much I was determined to come back one day & explore it in more depth - & here I am.

The next train doesnt come through for another 3 days & I've booked into the Palace Hotel which is famous as one of the film locations for Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). The Palace was built in 1889 but locally its more famous for its food which is excellent & evenings often get completely booked out. It has a fabulous 20 foot wide cast iron balcony overhanging the wide pavement & it wraps around the hotel. All the first floor rooms open onto the balcony which is perfect for watching the world go by as the sun goes down.
The interior is so kitch its hard to believe, until you see it - thanks to Mario Celotto who owned the Palace from 1974 & obviously loved 50's & 60's furniture & decor. For style it was like stepping back into my childhood house but I must admit I couldnt chuck the furniture & garish carpets away quick enough when I left home. I've seen some of the furnishings as collectors items on recent antique shows, I still wouldnt want it at home but its an absolutely one-off hoot.

Mario also painted a copy of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on the hallway ceiling after replacing the roof that blew off in a storm. It took him 6 months to paint & he became so obsessed he offered a $1,000 for anyone who would continue his watery theme - local aboriginal painter Gordon Whey was commissioned to cover the interior with dozens of extravagant wall murals that now smoother every inch of wall space in the public areas. It may not be high artistry but its an absolutely mind blowing sight.

Broken Hill grew up as a mining town after Charles Rasp stumbled across the world's largest silver, lead & zinc deposit in the early 1880s. By 1888 it had become a boom town & by 1907 it was the second largest town in NSW after Sydney. Mining is still a big part of Broken Hill life, its full of mining history & the unionisation of labour to combat the appalling conditions that miners had to endure.

I don't usually go on organised tours but the local Silver City Tours are exceptional because of the driver/guides - they are real local characters, have a host of fascinating stories & local insights that lift a routine 'tour' into the realms of an enthralling insiders track on the city & its people.

It was a surprise to me to find that Broken Hill has so many famous artists, well known in art circles around the world. I asked artist Ian Lewis why this small outback town (actually its much bigger than I originally thought & is officially a city) had developed & attracted so many Australian artists. He was quite certain about the reason - its the light, its so clear, pollution free, the big open spaces & the way the intense heat causes the land to glow & shimmer. Jack Absalomb, Howard Steer & Pro Hart are probably the most well known Broken Hill painters. Some are landscape painters, some focus on humor, others tell stories in paint, often raising significant political or historic issues; but always they are set in the great Australian outback.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Broken Hill to Sydney

My 3 days in Broken Hill went like lightening, it wasnt really enough & I wanted to stay on for a few more days but I've got a train ticket & pre-booked accommodation in Sydney.

The 4.30pm train didnt arrive until 5.40 but still left at 6.30 so buggered anyone with a planned whistlestop tour of Broken Hill. This will be a tougher test of the day/nighter seat comfort as the train is due into Sydney at 10am tomorrow morning so I have to sleep in what amounts to a 48 bed dorm; mind you most flights are 300 bed dorms.

10 years ago my day/nighter seat carriage was full of backpackers & Korean & Japanese tour groups but this one is almost 90% domestic travellers & most in the upper age bracket - a sign of the times I guess. There are far fewer staff in Red class & they always seem to be rushing from carriage to carriage but they're friendly, if you can catch their attention.

I went down to the dining car around 8pm but the cupboard was bare - no meals, pies, pasties or anything except a bag of crisps, I should have bought some backup food!

It wasnt a bad nights sleep, much better than last time, the seats are probably as good as a seat can be; there's masses of leg room & they recline almost to 45 degrees but I twist & turn & fidget a lot & you just can't do that in a seat.

I woke up to a raising sun with rolling wheat fields, scattered clumps of unfamilar trees & cattle sitting or grazing. Its very misty & there were lots of low laying artificial ponds to collect any run-off. Its a well farmed area with occasional farm houses, neatly planted orchards & a few small vineyards.

There are a some sprawling bungalow towns before the Blue Mountains, which are about 3 hours west of Sydney. A train announcement tells passengers that the Blue Mountains are a raised plateau with deep valleys rather than actual mountains. Eucalytus & blue gum trees (same thing I thought?) clad hills disappear into the distance in every direction; grasses & an under story of shrubs appear to grow dirctly out of bare rock. The Eucalytus trees give off a fine oil vapour that mix with moisture in the atmosphere to form classic blue haze that is unique to the Blue Mountains.

The train is very slow & stops constantly as there is lots of track work & we eventually arrive in Sydney 3 hours late.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Around Broken Hill

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is only one of many films & iconic XXXX beer ads made in & around Broken Hill. Many of the big action scenes from Mad Max II were filmed here & out at Silverton there's a Mad Englishman who is a Mad Max fanatic & has set up a museum that's a dream for any Mad Max fans.
Adrian Bennett saw Mad Max 1 when he was a teenager in 1982 & became enthralled by the style, the characters & the setting of the film. He used to travel all over Yorkshire to watch the film wherever it was being screened & in 2004 made his first pilgrimage to Australia. He exploring the area around Melbourne where Mad Max 1 was filmed & fell in love with Australia & promptly migrated with his wife Linda & 3 of their children.
Adrian settled in Silverton & built up the Mad Max museum starting with a V8 Interceptor he built himself, then adding Creek buggies used in the film & a host of left over props & memoribilia. Many Broken Hill residents worked as extras on the film so he also has a dozens of insider stories about the film & heaps of unique behind the scenes photographs of the film production. The question he gets asked most is 'what happened to the dog?' - if you're interested, you'll have to go & ask Adrian yourself.

Silverton was the first big mining town in the area but the Day Dream mine was short lived & Silverton became a ghost town for decades - now the population is back up to 50. The Silverton Hotel is the local pub & has featured in over 100 films & commercials especially those requiring authentic outback pub scenes.
But for anyone who wants to get a real feel for the outback you have to do more than look at it from a train window & you need to get out of even the smallest of towns. So I arranged a stay at the Eldee outback station (www.eldeeststion.com), 56km northwest of Broken Hill. Stephen Schmidt' family has been at the station for generations & with his wife Naomi they run sheep & cattle.
Stephen calls it a hobby farm as it only covers 40 sq km but its classic outback including the rolling Mundi Mundi plain & the formidable Barrier Range that limited earley explorers. It seems vast & endless with big skies, amazing sunsets & little rocky oasis' that bring countless kangaroo, emu, wild pig (Razorback was filmed locally) & thousands of wild goats.

Guests can camp at Eldee but they also have beautifully presented rooms where you can be self-contained or have Naomi cook great home-cooked meals. Visitors can do their own thing, explore a working sheep & cattle station or join Stephen on rugged 4x4 excursions or take a romantic sunset picnic at the Lookout on the top of the Barrier Range.
The Broken Hill area is surrounded by spectacular national parks, I visited Kinchiga National Park with the Minindee lake system which for years has been relatively dry but now are briming over with more than 3 & half times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour. People were camping in isolated spots along the Darling river, some with simple tents & others in impressive mobile homes. There are also shearers quarters where visitors can bunk down & use kitchen & lounge facilities but you have to bring all your own food & equipment.
Menindee is the nearest town for supplies or for a drink in NSW's second oldest pub where Burke & Wills stopped off before continuing on their ill-fated expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

For a unique Menindee accommodation experience, that's also in a good cause, its possible to stay at the Minintitja accommodation which are 1945 & 1923 refurbished railway carriages. Its an initiative set up by Menindee Central School as a training experience for local kids - building, maintenance, business development & hospitality. It is a novel experience, clean & comfortable & all meals can be provided.

Broken Hill

I took a Red class seat on the Indian-Pacific from Adelaide to Broken Hill, a 7 hour journey that was the most comfortable standard train ride I've ever made - few frills but more space & comfort than a first class seat anywhere in Europe.

Broken Hill is a quintessential outback town in the far west of NSW, near the South Australia border. Its a major stop on the Indian-Pacific rail route between Sydney & Perth; I had a brief wander around town 10 years ago & liked the place so much I was determined to come back one day & explore it in more depth - & here I am.

The next train doesnt come through for another 3 days & I've booked into the Palace Hotel which is famous as one of the film locations for Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). The Palace was built in 1889 but locally its more famous for its food which is excellent & evenings often get completely booked out. It has a fabulous 20 foot wide cast iron balcony overhanging the wide pavement & it wraps around the hotel. All the first floor rooms open onto the balcony which is perfect for watching the world go by as the sun goes down.

The interior is so kitch its hard to believe, until you see it - thanks to Mario Celotto who owned the Palace from 1974 & obviously loved 50's & 60's furniture & decor. For style it was like stepping back into my childhood house but I must admit I couldnt chuck the furniture & garish carpets away quick enough when I left home. I've seen some of the furnishings as collectors items on recent antique shows, I still wouldnt want it at home but its an absolutely one-off hoot.

Mario also painted a copy of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on the hallway ceiling after replacing the roof that blew off in a storm. It took him 6 months to paint & he became so obsessed he offered a $1,000 for anyone who would continue his watery theme - local aboriginal painter Gordon Whey was commissioned to cover the interior with dozens of extravagant wall murals that now smoother every inch of wall space in the public areas. It may not be high artistry but its an absolutely mind blowing sight.

Broken Hill grew up as a mining town after Charles Rasp stumbled across the world's largest silver, lead & zinc deposit in the early 1880s. By 1888 it had become a boom town & by 1907 it was the second largest town in NSW after Sydney. Mining is still a big part of Broken Hill life, its full of mining history & the unionisation of labour to combat the appalling conditions that miners had to endure.

I don't usually go on organised tours but the local Silver City Tours are exceptional because of the driver/guides - they are real local characters, have a host of fascinating stories & local insights that lift a routine 'tour' into the realms of an enthralling insiders track on the city & its people.

It was a surprise to me to find that Broken Hill has so many famous artists, well known in art circles around the world. I asked artist Ian Lewis why this small outback town (actually its much bigger than I originally thought & is officially a city) had developed & attracted so many Australian artists. He was quite certain about the reason - its the light, its so clear, pollution free, the big open spaces & the way the intense heat causes the land to glow & shimmer. Jack Absalomb, Howard Steer & Pro Hart are probably the most well known Broken Hill painters. Some are landscape painters, some focus on humor, others tell stories in paint, often raising significant political or historic issues; but always they are set in the great Australian outback.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide

Last time I travelled on the Ghan it only ran from Adelaide to Alice Springs but since 2004 the track has been extended 1,420km all the way to Darwin in the tropical north of Australia.
I boarded the 9am train at Darwin station which is 20km outside the city centre. Some people were still buying tickets but my internet booking waved me straight to my cabin. Checked in luggage is weighed & bags over 20kg have to be unpacked until they meet the weight restrictions; because this is lower than many airlines it can be a hassle for some passengers who pack to the airline limit.

There are plenty of travel options on the Ghan from Platinum service with a champagne welcome, Gold service with a tea/coffee welcome & Red service with a - snack bar will be open shortly - welcome. Sleeping is equally varied with a spacious cabin & double bed in Platinum class, modest space with easy access bunk beds in Gold class, almost acrobatic manouvers to access the upper bunk in Red sleeper & finally the chair sleeper option - this is the cheapest but it still beats the space usually provided by most business class airlines. These Red class day/nighter seats have greatly improved since I last used them, they're softer & recline further - to about 45 degrees.
Gold service is slick & efficient from the comfortable & cleverly designed cabins to my wake-up morning tea in bed as I had opted for an early breakfast. The cabins in my carriage had been modernised but some still had the interesting pull down toilet & sink which are a way of providing more space whilst showering.

Breakfast, lunch & dinner are served in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car & tea/coffee are available all day. There is a definite sense of luxury in Gold class compared to the Red class I travelled in from Adelaide to Sydney.

We had a formal 'champagne' welcome to Australia & more specifically the Ghan after our 3 course dinner. Staff were almost apologetic that the landscape was exceptionally green due to the recent heavy rains as the continual references to the 'red centre' seemed slightly misplaced.

I saw my first kangaroo of the trip before we made our first stop at Katherine. The temperture was a blistering 38 degrees C but most passengers were still game for the whistlestop tours to the spectacular Katherine Gorge or into town for some shopping & one couple took a helicopter from the station for a ride over the gorge.

We arrived in Alice Springs on Sunday & as I had spent a week here on my last visit I just walked to the Sunday market in Todd Mall & had a couple of beers. I checked out that the Todd River was still dry & sent some emails from the public library that was open on a Sunday!
One of the train staff who also works for Penfolds on her days off hosted a little wine & cheese tasting session, that gave a good introduction to some of the pending charms of Adelaide's Barossa Valley.

Crossing the South Australia border the landscape is raw & intimidating but still spectacular. There are isolated Mulga trees, lots of scrub & spinifex, then an occasional sinuous line of trees following the line of a part-time river. Sometimes its as flat as a pancake & then suddenly the landscape folds up with deep crevices & rolling hills a popular spot for kangaroo & emu.

After passing the Flinders range South Australia's rich farmland begins with miles of wheat fields, then orchards & distant vineyards before finally rolling into Adelaide's Parklands (previously Keswick) station.

A sad feature of the journey is that smokers no longer feel welcome on the Ghan or the Indian-Pacific since they removed the entertaining & inoffensive tailend smoking capsule. That's where I met some of the most fascinating & oddball people on my last trip but Big Brother anti-smoking fanatics seems to be even more rife in present day Australia than almost anywhere else.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Raffles Singapore

Just about every visitor to Singapore stops by at Raffles Hotel - some just to take photographs of the dazzing white colonial facade or the famous 6'6'' Sikh 'doorman'. Even more people come to shop at the 44 exclusive shops in the Raffles arcade or dine in some of the 15 different bars & restaurants.
Few people pass up the chance of a genuine Singapore Sling, created by Raffles bartender Mr Ngiam Tong Boon in the early 1900's. It was originally conceived as a 'lady's punch, with a kick' at a time when it was considered unseemly for women to drink alcohol in public. For years it was a closely guarded secret, securely locked in the hotel safe, but now the secret is out:
30ml Gin
15ml Herring Cherry liqueur
120ml Pineapple juice
15ml Lime juice
7.5ml Cointreau
7.5ml Dom Benedictine
10ml Grenadine
A dash of Angostura Bitters & garnished with pineapple & cherry

But beware drinks, like holiday romances, are never the same at home so it really needs to be drunk in the ambience of Raffles Long Bar. The Long Bar is a 'peanut bar' & it takes a considerable effort for a litter conscious Brit to throw peanut debris on the floor. Apparently this is a hangover from the early days when rough & ready Planters frequented Raffles.
As Singapore's most famous landmark & an emblem of style & luxury Raffles has been designated a National Monument, to safeguard it from developers for future generations.

'Do you go to Raffles & perhaps visit Singapore or do you go to Singapore & perhaps stay at Raffles'.
Quips like this often embody half truths but for Raffles it is actually genuine comment because as the most historic institution in Singapore royalty, celebrities, politicians & literary luminaries have stopped off in Singapore just to stay at Raffles.

In fact during my short stay at Raffles I never made it onto the Singapore streets. Admittedly I've previously done the rounds of the usual touristy things but Raffles has an internal life of its own.
The all-suite accommodation is spectacular & I've never felt so at home in a hotel before. The large front door leading off the wide wooden balcony (with comfortable chairs & table for outdoor refreshments) leads in to a high ceilinged parlour with dining table, armchairs & discreet TV. This leads into the vast main room with an antique desk, King sized bed, more armchairs & all the usual facilities. After that comes a large double sinked washing come dressing room which has a separate bathroom & shower room off of it.

Personal butlers are standard and frequently enquire if there is anything you need. Sitting out on the balcony I had my mind read as the lady butler appeared with trays of tea & coffee just as I was thinking, 'humm, I fancy ....' - absolute genius!

Raffles covers an entire city block & 25% of the grounds are given over to nature & greenery. Outside my rooms were towering Livingstonia palms, fragrant frangipani trees, innumerable flowers and an immaculate lawn.
Breakfast, lunchtime curry buffet & afternoon tea are not be missed events of regal elegance in the Tiffin room. I never found the time or made the effort to use the rooftop swimming pool, theatre, spa or the gym.

The famous Bar & Billiard room has 2 full-sized tables although neither was set up for the out of vogue game of billiards. Someone had earlier told me the story of the tiger that had been shot under one of the billiard tables - which I found hard to believe. However, I managed to see a copy of the original Straights Times newspaper dated August 13th 1902 with an inside story headlined - A Tiger in Town'.

A tiger was shot by ....... but it was an escaped tiger from a travelling circus & it had sought shelter in the undercroft beneath the Bar & Billiard room building - not quite as exotic as the story has been re-told for generations. But its a good example of a half truth growing into a better story, no doubt with the aid of several stiff drinks.

Everything about Raffles Singapore is a one-off & no visitor to the city should dream of missing Raffles off their itinerary regardless of whether its for an iconic drink, an elegant meal, a luxurious stay or a simple photographic momento.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Singapore to Darwin

This is my first & only flight since leaving London 2 months ago. I spent ages trying to get a sea crossing but its absolutely impossible. There are no ferries, freighters or any cruise ships that are not on route to half a dozen destinations before returning to Australia.

Changi airport in Singapore is still the best airport in the world. Free internet, free gadget charging & a grand piano player surrounded by fresh orchids! Its clean & spacious, nothing is out of place & the toilets are clean & fragrant. All around the airport there's a surfeit of comfortable chairs, tables & sofas & its still civilised enough to have a clean & tidy smoking area.
Duty free is genuinely duty free with prices around half to a quarter of that charged at the bogus UK 'duty free' prices - for the same products. There are dozens of places to eat & drink, again at standard street prices rather than the UK standard 'trapped mug prices'. Many are open 24 hours unlike some UK airports that close up shop around 9pm.

The Darwin flight arrived at the un-Godly hour of 4.30am but there was no shortage of shuttle buses & taxis. I didnt manage a wink of sleep as the Jetstar flight which was so cramped I think people were going to the toilet - just for the extra space!

The Holiday Inn on the Esplande were good enough to look after my bag & check me in 3 hours early or maybe they just glad to get my untidy dozing presence out of the lobby. The town is a bit of a WiFi desert, couldnt find a single free WiFi point - even in the middle of Cambodia there were far better & more widespread internet facilities - how absolutely bizarre. My hotel only allowed 20 minutes free Wifi connection & then it was restricted to the lobby & bar.

Darwin is a bit of a 9-5 town for shopping but the bars are already packed by 4 o'clock. Rorkes Drift was my favourate Darwin pub but its transformed into Monssoons - a hidious party themed pub. Gone are the comfortable raised booths & the relaxing basket chairs on the front veranda, now its packed with pokey tables that cram more drinkers in, for the blaring music, the giant TVs & the occasional live music session.

Eastern & Oriental Express excursions

The E&O excursions were well choosen as unique places to visit on route; the first days trip was to 'the Death Railway' a major pilgrimage site for many people from Europe & Australia. Initially there's nothing special to see if you don't already know the story.
After crossing a wooden trestle bridge clinging precariously to the limestone cliff face we arrive in Kanchanaburi - location of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, a key part of the Thailand to Burma railway line. The famous wood & bamboo bridge featured in the film was only a temporary bridge & the existing steel bridge was always intended to be the final bridge.
The 415 km railway route had to be carved out of rock & jungle as well as bridging fast flowing rivers - formidable terrain even by todays construction standards. The Japanese amassed 250,000 local labourers & 68,000 prisoners of war to work as forced labour. This included 30,000 British & 13,000 Australian prisoners & not many of them made it back home.

We took a river raft under the bridge down to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre opposite a poignant war grave site, one of six that are still maintained in pristine condition. The museum & research centre is well organised but is horrific & records in great detail this infamous event.

Explanations for the unbelievably barbaric behaviour of the Japanese were that the railway builders themselves were under threat of death if they did not complete the railway construction within 12 months because of Japan's desperate need to get supplies to their troops in Burma. A POW was considered to have disgraced themselves by surrendering & the Japanese cared nothing for their own sick or injured troops - so why would they care about foreigners whom they despised.

The museum itself is a detailed record of everything that is known to have happened, names of POWs, research facilities, living conditions & what happened to the guards after the war.

The second excursion was to Penang Island & the adjacent mainland area of Butterworth in Malaysia. This was acquired by the British in 1786 as an East India possession. They brought Indian traders & labourers, Chinese came as did Arab traders so along with the British colonials it beccame very multicultural & today there are large, vibrant Indian, Chinese as well as Malay quarters of the city.

A ferry & the longest bridge in southeast asia (13.5km) connect the island to the mainland. Half of the island is still tropical forest & there are some impressive beach resorts but we only had time to visit historic George Town, Penang's capitol.

Exploration of the old town was by trishaw - something I had resisted on my tip across SE Asia as to me passengers always looked like invalids being wheeled around in ancient bathchairs. We arrived just in time for a tropical downpour so it was not as enjoyable as it might have been. The trip ended with a Pimms at the very grand colonial Eastern & Oriental hotel on the sea front - clearly the most prestigeous place to stay in Georgetown.

Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore

This is one of the highlights I've been looking forward to - the luxurious Orient Express train from Bangkok to Singapore. Yet again the rising flood waters were making themselves felt so after gathering at the private lounge on platform 12 at Hualampong station passengers had to transfer by bus out of Bangkok to meet up with the train that had been parked several miles west of the city, at Ngew Rai station, as a safety precaution.
The trains green & cream livery & its gold lettering gleamed in the sunset but not as brightly as the ever-smiling carriage stewards who quickly settled passengers into their compartments which will be home for the next 3 days.
The Orient Express has a grand history dating back to the early days of steam. From 1883 it routinely carried passengers from London to Venice & on to Istanbul but the increase in air travel in the second half of the twentieth century brought these haydays to an end. But it never completely died & the Venice Simplon Orient Express continues to run from London to Venice but its no longer a scheduled service.

Fortunately not everyone sees travel as just a practical necessity for getting from A to B, there was still a demand for stylish travel & 1993 saw the launch of the Eastern & Oriental Express. Its the only true luxury train in Asia & the first to carry passengers seemlessly from Bangkok to Singapore. Its concept & design is modelled on the style & luxurious traditions of its older European sister but with some added asian flair.

Although it connects 2 of Asia's great city destinations the E&O is all about the experience of the journey rather than where it goes. Your personal compartment steward has learnt your name before you've settled into your cabin & he's more butler than train official as the handy bedside bell indicates.
He serves breakfast & afternoon tea in your cabin, updates you on the days activities, deals with all the border formalities on route & reconfigures your compartment for day & night use - invariably when you are occupied elsewhere on the train.

There is a sumptious feel, even to the smallest cabins, with their elm & cherrywood diamond marquetry, thick carpeting, hand embroidered window pelmets & stylish brass lamps & fitments. The en-suite has Bulgari toiletries & dressing gowns, its obviously limited in size although the shower cubical was sufficiently spacious & delivers a good shower. Luggage space is limited & big items need to be stored in the luggage car

In the daytime the bar & the open-sided observation car are the hub of activity but in the evening this generally transfers to the larger Piano bar that stays open until the last guest retires, which for us was occasionally 4am. Passengers who want a less exuberant evening can opt for the peace & quiet of the second bar or the Saloon car.

The rotating seating plans in the restaurant car were a great way of breaking the ice & enabled guests to get to know each other. There was a good mix of honeymooners, businessmen & wives taking a break and young retirees taking a trip of a life-time. After the first excursion people began to relax & the observation car was the real social hub.
Dining is an elegant affair, people dressed up for the occasion & tables were laid for fine dining with silverware galore, fine crockery & hand cut crystal glasses.

It is hard to image a consistent stream of 5 star gourmet fare being produced from the limited space of a railway kitchen but that's just what French chef Yannis Martineau managed day after day.

Menus are are based on years of experience & Chef Yannis has been the E&O chef for past 4 years & previously worked on the European Venice Simplon Orient Express. Menus are designed for a broad range of tastes & in essence are a subtle blend of European styles combined with Asian spices, so there's always an asian theme but its also familiar.

Chef Yannis has 14 kitchen staff (7 Thai & 7 Malay) but has also cleverly trained local pastry chefs from Chang Mai to Singapore so is able to collect fresh bread & pastries, to his own recipe, every day as the train passes through.

Private cabins are a retreat for some quiet time but there is nearly always something going on in the public carriages. Apart from the evening pianist we were entertained with an afternoon recital of Thai music played on the stringed Kim; an exotic fruit tasting session; a Malay dance troop & excursions to the Bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand & Penang Island in Malaya.
The average train speed is 60kmh & it runs on a narrow gauge track but the train itself is a normal width so there's a good bit of rock & rolling especially in southern Thailand where the track is in poorer condition. I was jolted awake on several occasions as the train lurched across warped points or sections of wonky track. This is not a suitable trip for wheelchair users or anyone unsteady on their feet.
I loved the landscape, it was a mixed bag of tropical jungle, rice paddy fields, sugarcane, banana, coconut, rubber trees & palm oil plantations along with all manner of exotic fruits. In between nature there are rural house, sizable cities, some scruffy villages & during 2011 there was construction of a new rail track through Malaysia. So all life is there & its undoubtedly the perfect way to explore some of the most iconic Far Eastern destinations in a unique style that really is a leisurely step back into the way travel used to be

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bangkok

Its 10 years since I was last in the old backpacker hangout of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. I found it a great fun & really useful as backpackers were coming from & going to a whole range a places in the Far East, so it was an invaluable source of tips & insider knowledge. The road was full of good cheap bars, or at least my recollection tells me that, along with stalls, street traders, food vendors, hair braiders, street entertainers, henna tatoo artists & rip off merchants - all having grown up around this travellers haunt.
Today was one of those great revisiting disappointments as it seems to have lost all its originality & colour. This sadly happens to places of renown that become popular. The crazy illuminations, huge crowds & wandering vendors are still there but its now turned into a highly commercialised Asian tourist street market with little or no uniqueness.

Its full of holiday makers & shoppers & I couldnt find one decent bar to just sit in; they've all become more profitable restaurants with uncomfortable plastic seats so customers don't dally too long. And the beer was really expensive, almost 4 times what I paid yesterday in Cambodia. The banana pancake & noodle vendors have given way to Kebabs & popcorn sellers & down one end of the street there's a Subway, KFC, Burger King & MacDonald's - that must surely say it all.
Interestingly the place I remember as a bit of a backwater, the parallel Rambuttri Road, is now buzzing with life, there are plenty of bars to lounge in & street vendors still sell local food. The beer is almost half the price of the KSR & music is less monotonous, although bars still try to out play each other. There were a couple of musicians while I was there & local people havnt been driven away.
There are of course plenty of backpackers on the KSR but they're a minority & I suspect they're disappointed at being mislead by up-to-date but out-moded guide books as well as seriously dated web information. I'm sure the insider grapevine suggests there is somewhere else for the real cool dudes to hang out & I bet its somewhere in Cambodia or Laos.

After one misrable night I moved across town to the almost brand new Siam Kempinski hotel beside the Siam Paragon shopping Mall (Siem Square area). The Siam Paragon is like another world from the Khao San area of town - 7 stories of retail outlets and there are another dozen similar Malls within a 10 minute walk on the Ratchaprasong Skywalk.

The Skywalk is not quite as wonderful as it sounds as it runs underneath the skyrail system but compared to the turmoil at street level its pretty good walking.

The malls aare pristine in every way, neat little shops and neatly dressed shoppers; everyone looked smarter than me, even the cleaners, but it did remind me of the Stepford Wives. It was very American in style & seemed to be a place for a family day out - instead of the park. But I must admit that its bliss to walk into the cool mall from the hot & muggey streets that are often fume filled.

The basement of the Paragon had a food hall that was so vast that I lost count of the number of outlets but they ran into the hundreds. There were virtually no tourists & almost no English signage so I settled for the Curry House until I realised there were more than a dozen people standing outside waiting for a table.

The food hall reminded me of childhood days at Battersea Fun Fair - there was a heaving press of people, an almost deafening hub-bub of noise with the occasional shriek. Pans & crockery clanked & clattered, intermmitant music throbbing and there were regular megaphone calls for 'Mr Jumsai & family to please come to their table' - I'm guessing this last bit.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Siem Reap to Bangkok

With all my hoped for river plans having fallen through due to the floods in Cambodia I'm resorting to taking a bus to Bangkok. It costs $7 including a tuk-tuk pick-up to the bus station (a shop on a back street with the worst potholes in town) & a guide to get passengers on the right bus at the other side of the border. It takes most of the day but so does a flight which costs at least $200.

I was picked up at 7.50 & the bus left at 08.10 to rendezvous with the Phnom Penh bus & pick up more passengers but I was asleep before we were out of town. Some people were using this as a 'visa run' - having renewed their visa the maximum number of times its cheaper, easier & quicker to go to Bangkok for the weekend & come back than go through the bureaucracy of Phnom Penh.

At 9.30 we stopped for a 20 minute rest break at a roadside shop with a pull-in, that charged twice the price for everything - pretty much to be expected. There were hoards of cheeky kids scrounging, they know there's a trapped audience with nowhere to go.

The standard opening line for kids & tuk-tuk drivers is 'where you from?' which almost forces a curtious reply (until you learn) but then you're hooked into a dialogue & there's a chance of a sale or a begging opportunity. Kids often follow up a straight 'No' with 'take me for a meal?' They probably follow this up with an 'I know a cheap place' which gives them a commission. Cambodian kids are so street smart & cheeky.

In Phnom Penh locals told me much of the begging is an oraganised activity by rural people that bring their kids into town to beg. There's also a woman who sells small ready-made bags of glue for a few cents - which may be where many generous donations end up.

At 11.20 we stopped for another 20 minute break at the border town of Poipet where tickets were collected & coloured stickers were put on us, like a group of school children, to indication our final destination - mine was red for central Bangkok, the Khao San Road.

The Cambodian border control is little more than a shed with a couple of windows & a table for local people but they repeat their digital finger printing & facial recognitional photography.

Then its a 2 hundred yard walk through no-mans land, across a little river, past last ditch begger kids, dozens of food & drink shops & surprisingly a massive new building - the Poipet Casino Resort. Make sure you take the left hand route to passport control otherswise you just get sent back. The Thai immigration control is more the usual international format of desks & queues; also beware that arrival cards have two sections that must be completed or you get sent back, like me.

Then around 1pm we load our baggage & climb aboard a pickup truck that took us a quarter of a mile where we unloaded again, waiting at a cafe & then reloaded onto a modern minibus. Then the final 4 hour run into Bangkok.

The landscape is identical but there's a different feel to Thailand. The driver is doing 70 mph instead of 40 mph in Cambodia, the roads are bigger, there are 4 lane super highways with lots of large scale construction & all the begger kids have disappeared. The flooding however is just as apparent beside rivers.

There's another 15 minute refueling stop & we fianally arrive in Bangkok around 5.30pm. It took just over 9 hours in total but this included at least 2 hours of stops as well as the border crossing. It can't have taken more than a couple of hours longer from city centre to city centre & the bus was $200 cheaper than the cheapest flight.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

More Siem Reap

The flooding is so bad that I've abandoned plans to travel to Battambang on route to Bangkok, I'm staying put & it feels good not to be moving on. The ferry dock is under water so no boats are moving on the river or across Tonle Sap lake to Battambang & the bus takes much longer than going directly to the Thai border.

Like everywhere I've been in Vietnam & Cambodia the longer I stay in each place the more I grow to like it & Siem Reap has a great laid back feel but also buzzes with activity.

The town is awash with little Khmer restaurants where beer is half a US dollar & the food is fabulous. Khmer food is subtly delicious rather than in-your-face with spices & powerful flavours.

The Khmer Soup Restaurant served me a Khmer Amok with chicken (but it could have been fish or pork) that was cooked in fresh coconut cream with onions, shredded cauliflower leaves, eggs & a mixture of local spices. It was served in a cleverly shaped banana leaf bowl & came with jasmine rice - all for $3.25, including a free beer.
Their traditional Khmer Soup is based on pork ribs, although they were more like bits of pork knuckle. The pork is cooked with morning glory, green beans, garlic, tamarind, basil & a secret mixture of Khmer herbs. It has a fabulous tangy tomato-like flavour which I guess is from the tamarind. It was served in a strange stainless steel bowl with under heating to keep it hot & the usual dish of jasmine rice.

A desert of steamed banana & rice wrapped in banana leaves was wonderfully sweet & sticky, really tasty, but as filling as a main course.

On Monday it was a surprise to see rain at 2pm & then it got heavier & heavier until it became a torrent that was more waterfall than mere storm. At home we would begin to panic at such a downpour but here people merely stood passively under shelter or just continued on (dripping wet) as if nothing was happening.
I'm on raised decking, the water level is visibly rising & starting to lap my feet - I'm beginning to panic! Oh, its all over in half an hour, so I paddle back to my hotel, knee deep in warm water - panic over.

There are dozens of fish pedicure tanks around the town, great aquariums for dipping your feet in & having them nibbled by little Garra Ruffa fish. Every city in the UK now offers a version of this fish pedicure for around £25 a go - here it cost $1. I still didn't fancy it.
There's both a day market & a night market. The Old Market of Phsar Chas is by the river, its a huge covered marketplace that spills out onto the surrounding streets & alleyways. There are hundreds of market sellers offering everything that locals & tourists might want to buy.

The Old Market was flooded while I was there & was pretty unpleasant wading through water floating with all manner of market debris, but it didnt stop buyers & sellers who carried on regardless. Its a dingy cramped space, often with no more than 5 feet between opposing stalls, reminiscent of a souk but without the hounding & hard-sell.

Everything imaginable is available - exotic fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, shoes, hats, silks, kitchenware, clothes, T-shirts, silver, paintings, carvings, handicrafts & of course bootlegged DVDs & books. Surrounding the market are more upmarket souvenir shops.

The night market is aimed at tourists & is probably the best place if you're looking to buy - jewellery, silver, silks, clothes, carvings (more likely plaster casts), Angkor Bas releif rice paper rubbings, knock off guide books & lots more. There are dozens of foot massage chairs that were pretty popular & artists were producing painting but they were rather poor stylised efforts.

Along with the surrounding shops, bars & restaurants the night market is a good way to spend a Siem Reap evening.

Angkor Wat

Charming though Siem Reap might be, its Angkor Wat that everybody comes to visit. The perennial danger with all such world famous icons is that they may fail to live up to all their hype. Fortunately there's no worry with Angkor Wat, it easily matched my expectations & even exceeded them.
It costs $20US for a fancy day pass with your photograph, which is checked at every temple site. But you really do need a guide to effectively explore the sprawling complex of temples. Every tuk-tuk driver in town offers a tour of Angkor Wat but you often get a garbled & incoherant account so its best to have a professional guide like the one I booked with Travel IndoChina. I was picked up & returned to my hotel, there were just 5 of us, tickets were included, so no queuing, the guide was cleverly able to get us away from the big crowds & he took us to a decent place for lunch.
At its height the city of Angkor Thom was the Khmer Empire capital but they ruled over most of Thailand, Laos & Vietnam. Chinese & Indian traders originally brought Buddhism, Hinduism, writing & science to the region so the Khmer culture developed along the lines of an Indianised princedom. Both religions appear in the temples at different periods under different rulers.
Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Archaeological Park is located within a 400 square kilometer national park & has 40 temples - Angkor Wat is just the most famous temple.

Its still a jungle location but its been cleared from most temples because of the damage the tree roots do. But there's still a jungle ambience with swarms with butterflys, dragonflys, the constant squawk of parrots, troops of baboons & there are even (domesticated) elephants that ferry people on the traditional routes between different temple gates.
The Tx Prohn temple has been left with the classic strangler figs which seem to crawl all over the buildings so is the most atmospheric of all the sites, when its not too busy.

Its too amazing to decribe effectively so I'll rely of images. Over 2 million people visit Angkor every year so a good tip is to visit towards the end of the low/rainy season (October) as the crowds are much smaller, or try to arrange a 6 am dawn arrival.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a modest sized provincial town whose main source of income is from servicing visitors to Angkor Wat. But what a joy to be away from the big cities & be able to walk the streets again without constantly swivelling in search of ever-present approaching traffic.
Of course the tuk-tuk drivers still hassle every European, the big come-on here is 'I know a place' - what the hell is that supposed to mean? I don't think its a veiled sleezy offer because that usually comes with a gentle touch on the arm & a conspiritorial whisper of 'want a girl?' or 'want to smoke marijuana?' So they cater for everyone, not just the culture vultures visiting Angkor Wat

The area around the Old Market & Pub Street, with its associated alleyways, is not as grim as it might sound; its the lively bar, restaurant, cafe, guest house & general touristy area in the heart of Siem Reap. The really cheap & the really expensive places to eat & sleep are mostly further out from the town centre.
The town is surrounded by rice paddies & buildings ramble along the Siem Reap River which has regularly overflowed into the town during the past few weeks. I've been lucky with missing much of the heavy rain, which has been deluging the region, but its caught up with me now in Siem Reap. Its been pouring on & off for days & water is lapping the steps of the place I'm staying at.
According to locals Siem Reap is totally unrecognisable from 10 years ago when the first tourist styled pub (Angkor What? - probably funny after a few beers) opened in 1998.

The tourism crash of 2008 has hit them hard as its the main business in town. Molly Malone's Irish pub used to have streams of travellers passing through, often on-route to Australia, but now its just a steady trickle. There's quite a bit of construction going on in the French Quarter & many of the old French colonial building are being torn down & replaced by the locally popular modern glass & concrete. But the place has a laid back style all of its own.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap

This is without doubt the most romantic place to stay in Siem Reap - French colonial style, with hints of 1920's art deco, suffused with Khmer charm but with all the frills of modernity.
The rooms of course are superb, full of home comforts but with extra treats like a bowl of very exotic fruits, elephant chocolates & toiletaries from the Amtita spa range. The breakfast buffet has a lazy colonial feel with table service of fresh squeezed juices, cappucchino coffee, eggs cooked to order & a daily newspaper.

There's fine dining or informal dining but the thrice weekly evening BBQ on the Apsara terrace, under the stars or sheltered from the warm tropical rain, is hard to beat. Its a travesty to call it a BBQ when there are nine separate buffet options - straight-up BBQ, Tandoori, Noodle bar, Stirfry, Amok, a Khmer kitchen, a Salad bar, Deserts & an exotic Flambe station. But the highlight of this gourmet BBQ is a spectacular performance by a young Khmer classical dance troop - stunning costumes, beautiful dances & the genuine pride in their culture added a real sense of authenticity.
There's an exceptionally large pool surrounded by flowering Frangipani trees with coconut palms waving majestically behind them. There are lotus pools, towering betelnut & sugar palms, ginger, orchids, lillies after which I gave up trying to count the exotics in this manicured slice of tropical jungle.

Lion fountains tinkle in the background to the accommpaniment of bird song & for those that still need help unwinding there's the Amrita Spa for a Khmer style massage & an array of natural treatments But for those who have already unwound the poolside bar has an extensive selection of cocktails, champagne & the great local beer.
After dinner the resident pianist entertains in the conservatory bar or wafts guests to bed if they're planning an early start to the magnificnt Angkor Wat.