Phi Phi Island, Thailand

Well, winter is coming here in Europe, so I guess it’s time to write up some more of my travels in South-East Asia and bask in remembered warmth.

From Cambodia, we flew to Thailand, taking a Bangkok Air plane from Siem Reap to Bangkok, where we were treated to quite an amusing flight safety awareness video:

Unfortunately, later on during the flight the monitors stayed on, and were showing (without sound) some kind of a local “practical jokes played on unsuspecting audience” TV programme. I could feel my IQ dropping with each minute, and yet my eyes were drawn to the screen, eerily fascinated.

Strucja w Krakowia

A weird Polish accent at the Bankgok airport – on of the pieces of art on display was entitled “Strucja w Krakowia”.

Due to good relations between Thailand and Poland you actually don’t need a visa to enter Thailand, which is nice, but we still got fingerprinted and had to fill out forms. On Phuket, we’ve stayed at an excellent motel with a very nice owner, but really had no time to do anything – our flight from Bangkok was delayed about an hour, and we had a ferry to catch the next morning.

Travelling by ferry from Phuket to the Phi Phi island was, well, leisurely, and the views when we approached the island were breathtaking. Steep rocks climbing out of azure water, and everything covered by lush green vegetation. Colours dialed up to 11.

Koh Phi Phi from afar 3.6_Approach_2 3.7_Approach_3 3.8_Approach

The Phi Phi harbour and the village were definitively another tourist trap, but we were staying at a resort on the other side of the mountain range, at Rantee Bay, and hoped there would be fewer people there.

Food! Onna stick!

Food! Onna stick!

There were fewer people indeed, although calling the place “a resort” was a bit of an exaggeration – the toilet and shower facilities were rather crude, there was only cold water (which is quite normal in Asia, as it turns out), and electricity was only available when the local generator was turned on, that is, during the evenings, when the bar was working.

The accomodations were spartan

The accomodations were spartan

When using the bathroom, one had to watch out for giant bugs and/or frogs

When using the bathroom, one had to watch out for giant bugs and/or frogs

One thing that struck me in Thailand was the plenitude of cats.

Local cat guarding our bungalow

Local cat guarding our bungalow



Felines were everywhere, and they were obviously cared for and liked, because they had no qualms about approaching strangers and demanding attention. In a restaurant in Phi Phi Village the menu included pictures of the restaurant’s three cats, and in the Rantee Bay resort there were at least three cats that vied for our attention (including one grizzled veteran of many battles, with only one working eye, who always tried to get into the beach hut and then onto a bed) and for scraps from our table (unsurprisingly, cats like shrimp tails very much).

A great little place with excellent food and lots of cats

A great little place with excellent food and lots of cats

As I've said, plenty of felines.

As I’ve said, plenty of felines.

Demon Hare guarding the cat :-)

Demon Hare guarding the cat :-)

We lazied about, did some snorkeling, some sunbathing and drank pina coladas on the beach while playing Gloom, and I started getting restless, with nothing to do except read. I’ve read four books in two days, and getting an e-reader for the trip turned out to be an excellent decision.

My demon hare had a good time, reading ebooks and sunbathing :-)

My demon hare had a good time, reading ebooks and sunbathing :-)

Obligatory cute drink - although not a pina colada

Obligatory cute drink – although not a pina colada



Then we went to do some climbing.

To get to the village we had to trek back through a mountain and a jungle, full of cute critters like that one

To get to the village we had to trek back through a mountain and a jungle, full of cute critters like that one

The view from the mountain was pretty spectacular, I have to admit

The view from the mountain was pretty spectacular, I have to admit

On our way down to the village we encoutered a biologaical waste treatment plant - basically a giant garden :-)

On our way down to the village we encountered a biological waste treatment plant – basically a giant garden :-)

First we tried Ibex Climbing and Spider Monkey, two climbing franchises most popular on the island, but both told us that “fun climbing” (a guide, equipment and just top-roping, with the guide leading the route to place the top-rope) is 1000 baht per person and there’s no discount for having our own gear, which really made no sense. And then a nice lady in one of Ibex climbing shops told us that she can just lend us a book with a map of climbing routes on the Tonsai Tower so we can make a photocopy of the map, and we can rent a rope and some quickdraws in a climbing shop nearby, Deaf Gecko, which we did.

Base of the Tonsai Tower - quite a few nice routes

Base of the Tonsai Tower – quite a few nice routes

Climbing on Phi Phi was phenomenal. Thai limestone provides nice grip and the routes well well bolted, and at the top of the route one could wait for a while and soak in the view – the azure water of the bay with moored boats, the jungle and the mountains. There were also some nice, long multi-pitch routes up to the top of the Tower, but the far-reaching plans we’ve made to climb one of them had to be shelved due to our complete lack of stamina. The fact that route maps used French difficulty grading, different to the one we use didn’t help. We’ve also planned on trying some deep water solo, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. Maybe next time. ­čÖé

Before top-roping someone had to lead the route. Me, in this case :-)

Before top-roping someone had to lead the route. Me, in this case :-)



... the climbing was pretty easy, but it did tax my almost non-existent endurance

… the climbing was pretty easy, but it did tax my almost non-existent endurance

Unfortunately, we couldn't really get a good photo of the sunset, because of the second mountain directly to the West

Unfortunately, we couldn’t really get a good photo of the sunset, because of the second mountain directly to the West

We’ve spent the New Year’s Eve on the beach, drinking pina coladas and sharing some champagne with some people from Ukraine, who also stayed at our resort, and then we had to get to Phi Phi Village before 9, when our ferry left, so that we’d make the flight to Thakhek, from where we planned to ride to Vientiane in Laos. The trouble was that the weather was getting worse, wind was getting faster and thus waves were higher and there was no guarantee that the boat would make it in the morning, against the tide.

There were a lot of signs showing the tsunami escape routes. This is an area that was devastated in the 2004 tsunami

There were a lot of signs showing the tsunami escape routes. This is an area that was devastated in the 2004 tsunami

So we had to hike up the mountain, through the jungle, and then down the stairs to the town, with all our luggage. This was slightly strenuous, but we’ve made it with half an hour to spare, and were easily able to make it to our flight. Next stop – Laos.

And one more view of the island.

And one more view of the island.

When we were leaving on a ferry, a helicopter hovered for some time above the local hospital, then flew away, without landing there.

When we were leaving on a ferry, a helicopter hovered for some time above the local hospital, then flew away, without landing there.

Last glance on the island. Tonsai Tower is on the left.

Last glance at the island. Tonsai Tower is on the left.

Siem Reap and Angkor

We have planned to spend Christmas in Cambodia, visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex around Siem Reap and generally relaxing in the sun. We flew to Siem Reap (the city named “We really kicked some Thai asses”) with Cambodia Angkor Air. At first, it was quite fun, they had a dancing and singing Plane Safety Awareness video but then we were treated to almost an hour of “reality TV” with no sound on. Luckily, the flight was a bit under an hour long, but when I went out of the plane, I had a distinct impression my IQ dropped by at least 10 points.
And then we rode to our hotel by a tuk-tuk,┬áa scooter with an attached trailer for the transport of passengers. Not very safe and not very fast, but convenient – passengers have effective air-cooling and can look around freely. Taxis in Asia usually have overactive and not well maintained air-conditioning, so riding in an auto rickshaw is simply nicer.┬áThe hotel was nothing to write home about, but it had WiFi (and,┬áoccasionally, you could access the Internet through it, although that was by no means guaranteed – a typical problem of SE Asia, in my experience) and a pool.
There's nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

There’s nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

On the first day, we went to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex, buying a three day ticket. The tourist industry is evidently a cash cow for Cambodia and is rather well organised. We were directed to a booth selling three-day tickets, where our photos were taken (tickets contain photos of their owners, to prevent second hand sales of tickets and other such shenanigans). The three day ticket can be used during any three days of a seven day period, which is nice, because after some time, walking among various temple ruins can get a bit tiring. I only uploaded a few of the countless photos of ruins, reliefs and such that we’ve taken, to give a general idea of how it felt like. The smaller temples were nice, because there wasn’t a lot of people, but visiting the main Angkor Wat temple I felt like I was caught in a tourist trap.
My first encounter with Angor temples.

My first encounter with Angor temples.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it's the world's biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it’s the world’s biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

For the evening, we’ve went to Pub Street, which as the name implies is the street where most of Siem Reap pubs are located. Local fish massage was an interesting experience, definitively not for the ticklish. Local pub with a live band doing covers of various pop songs was also, khm, interesting. Generally, Siem Reap isn’t something to write home about unless you’re into cheap drinks and loud music.
Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I'll stick my feet in there.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I’ll stick my feet in there.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

On the second day, we’ve hired a bus and went to the Phnom Kulen mountain and it’s temple and waterfalls. This is a trip that takes an entire day, because it takes about an hour to reach the base of the mountain, and then more than an hour to reach the temple, on a narrow, unpaved and rather steep road. It also wasn’t covered by the Angkor Wat temple complex ticket and we had to buy special tickets the day before. However, the trip itself was interesting, since we had many good views of the Cambodian countryside on the way to the mountain, and riding up the mountain through dense jungle was a great experience. We’ve visited the temple and then went to the river, where we were shown the industrial sanctification devices – stone lingams carved into the river floor. Since Buddhists believed that water flowing around a lingam became sacred, the entire river was sanctified, efficiently ridding the entire area supplied by water flowing down from Phnom Kulen mountain from vampire infestation. ­čÖé I also saw quicksand for the first time in my life, and then we went for a swim in the waterfalls.
Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

... but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

… but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

And then I did something that was not very smart – I drowned my waterproof smartphone. My diving casing for the HD camera worked just fine, because it can be submerged up to 5 meters. However, the casing only allows starting and stopping filming, when the camera is protected against water I couldn’t use it to make still photos, so I’ve decided to take my waterproof Motorola Defy and make some photos from directly under the falling water. The Defy can only be submerged down to 1 meter, and I simply held it in my hand and swam to the waterfall, using crawl instead of breaststroke. Well, the hydrodynamic pressure acting on the phone definitively exceeded 1 atmosphere and water got inside, which I only noticed after swimming up to the falls. After I swum back, took out the battery and left the phone open to dry out I decided to leave it for a few days, to check whether it will start again.
It didn’t. ­čÖé
Still, at the time I didn’t know that. We still had 2 days of visiting temples, so we visited the Ta Prohm temple, known from the Tomb Rider film, and Banteay Srey, excellently preserved with amazing level of detail on the reliefs, as well as viewing the sunset from a temple, an event that drew crowds of tourists the closer it was to sundown. And in the evenings, instead of relaxing and taking advantage of cheap drinks, I took out my laptop and prayed to His Noodliness that the Internet connection at the hotel would work, because I had a translation I had to finish before the end of the year, and I knew that in Thailand we would be staying at a beach resort where there was no Internet and where even electricity was provided only when the generator was on, so only in the evenings.
Banteay Srei temple.

Banteay Srei temple.

Sun worshippers come out.

Sun worshippers come out.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

It was time to leave Cambodia and fly to Bangkok, then to Phuket and from there go to Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.

Vietnamese Food and Museums

The plan was to spend a few days in Vietnam, then fly out for a tour of South-East Asia, starting with Cambodia and Angkor Wat for Christmas, then Thailand and Phi Phi Island for New Year’s Eve and then trekking in Laos, and back to Vietnam. So, I spent the first few days recovering from jetlag and soaking up the warmth and sun. Oh, and eating. The food, the food! We went to a Korean barbecue, we ate a lot of seafood, spring rolls, pho soup and so on. The food was really great, and the fruit that one could purchase at the local supermarket were great: mini-bananas, rambutan, mangosteen and dragon fruit are excellent. Also, I’ve found out that I actually really like ripe mango, it’s just the unripe stuff that tastes like soap that I don’t like (unfortunately, that’s the stuff you usually can buy in Poland).

I don't even know the names of half of these :-)

I don’t even know the names of half of these :-)

Of course it turned out that Vietnamese food has one weak point – desserts. There are some desserts that are quite nice, but when we went out to lunch with M’s coworkers we were treated to THE MOST VILE DESSERT IN THE WHOLE WORLD (probably) – Evil Black Jelly. It tasted like, well, jelly made from an industrial solvent (I guess, I never drank industrial solvent, but it would probably taste like this jelly). I don’t know how they manage to eat that stuff.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

We also went to a restaurant that specialised in frogs. The fried frog were quite tasty, but there wasn’t really a lot of meat on their bones, but the restaurant was somewhat funny, because it was festooned with pictures and paintings of cute happy froggies.

I'm a happy happy frog! :-)

I’m a happy happy frog! :-)

We're so cute and adorable! EAT US!

We’re so cute and adorable! EAT US!

Well, except for the one frog which obviously knew what was coming. ­čÖé

OH SHIT THEY"RE GOING TO EAT ME

OH SHIT THEY’RE GOING TO EAT ME

And another fun fact – they love Christmas here in Asia. Unfortunately. I hoped I’ll escape the whole Christmas hooplah by jetting halfway around the globe, but my hopes were quickly dashed. Christmas decorations were present everywhere, in supermarkets, on the streets, in front of our apartment block… (and, as a matter of fact, they are still present in front of our apartment block nearing the end of January, although the Christmas tree was removed. The rest of the decorations are still there, though, and I wonder when they’ll take them off. :-))

You can't run

You can’t run

Who cares about global warming, let's have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

Who cares about global warming, let’s have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

They'll probably keep it until February. Or March.

They’ll probably keep it until February. Or March.

Crossing off the list of “fun” stuff to see in Ho Chi Minh City, we have visited the HCMC City Museum (tanks, Hueys and dioramas of Glorious Workers Revolution and fight against the French opressor and American invader) and the Reunification Palace, with NVA tanks on the lawn (not the original tanks which crashed the palace’s gates during the Fall of Saigon, but the same models). It felt, well, a bit like visiting something out of communist Poland. No wonder.

At the HCMC City Museum

At the HCMC City Museum

We're plastic comrades!

We’re plastic comrades!

"The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son". Hm.

“The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son”. Hm.

Get to the chopper!

Get to the chopper!

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

"Please remember who pwnd whom"

“Please remember who pwnd whom”

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Visiting the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, later “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”, now War Remnants Museum) was deferred for later, since visiting two museums in one day overloaded my propaganda fuses severely.

Arrival in Vietnam

The general background for this series of entries is that somewhere in the late spring I was approached by a friend, who shall heretofore be referred as M., with an offer to join her in Vietnam for the duration of the winter. Her company intended to send her over to Ho Chi Minh City (the City Formerly Known As Saigon) for a few months and maybe I’d care to join her and her friend, Z.?

Hell yes I would, it’s sunshine and warmth instead of darkness and cold. So I’ve found a flatmate to cater to my cats’ whims for the period I would be gone and awaited news on when we would go.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and the planned 4 months underwent sudden attrition to one and a half, leaving on 17th of December and returning, provisionally, on the 30th of January.

Still, I’ve packed my bags: laptop, waterproof smartphone, HD camera with a diving enclosure, rooted e-ink reader with Android, assorted cables and power supplies, sunscreen and DEET. Also, some clothes and melatonin pills for jetlag.

We booked a flight with Vietnam Airlines, from Frankfurt, with a connecting LOT flight from Warsaw Ok─Öcie. Our connecting flight was scheduled to leave at 6 in the morning, so I’ve decided not to go to sleep at all, in order to be tired and sleep in the plane, to facilitate adjustment to the new time zone.

Ten hours in a plane, even in deluxe economy class, with slightly more space for legs were not exactly fun, but the service was good┬áand for in-flight entertainment we had an earphone splitter and M’s earphones had a socket for daisy-chaining, so we managed to watch Page Eight on my laptop. It’s quite a nice spy movie and I recommend it to anyone who likes the genre. I even managed to get some sleep, which is recommended on eastbound flights to minimise jetlag (with a 6 hours time zone change it is difficult to avoid jetlag altogether).┬áWe’ve finally arrived at 8 AM, local time (2 AM in Poland).

Saigon from the air

Saigon from the air

When the plane was taxiing from the runway the first things I’ve noticed were Mi-8 helicopters and prefabricated concrete walls which look exactly like the ones around old communist structures in Poland. I guess the design in both cases came from the same place.

Buying a visa took us over half an hour, because the immigration officers were obviously not in a hurry, and as a matter of of fact waiting for the visas made me think fondly of the Polish Post Office. Nobody looked through our luggage, which was probably a good thing, since the melatonin pills I bought (small, nondescript white pills) came in a giant plastic container which was mostly empty, so I transferred them to a small plastic baggie. In retrospect, that might not be the smartest move, I decided while waiting at the customs.

At the airport, we were greeted by sunshine and palms! Sunshine! And palms! Adding some more exclamation points would even better reflect my mood at the moment – it was warm and sunny, and it was December! I was grinning like a slightly sleep-deprived madman.

Warmth, palms and sun

Warmth, palms and sun

I should have done this a long time ago, I’ve decided.

We were met by two girls from the local branch of the company M. works at, Mio and Nat, and they drove us (well, a taxi driver drove us) to our apartment in the 7th district of HCMC, which was like half an hour drive. There were swarms of scooters flocking on the streets, and communist propaganda posters everywhere, but also markets, boutiques, KFC and McDonalds, and of course, billboards and advertisements were everywhere. Poland is marred by an exceedingly large amount of billboards and outdoor advertising, but in comparison to Vietnam, we’re toned down and stately.

In .vn, scooters flock

In .vn, scooters flock

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Our apartment at the 5th floor turned out to be more like on the 10th floor, since all apartments in the block are two story high. There was, of course, no elevator. Walking up the stairs is healthy. There was wifi in our apartment, although with time, it turned out that the connection is… slightly buggy at times.

And it turned out the air conditioning unit in my room does not work. Which I completely didn’t mind. Some remarks were made concerning my lizard heritage, but I ignored them as the low-brow comments they were. It was warm! Thirty degrees and sunny – I was in heaven.

So we went out to eat some phood. I mean, food. Pho24 is the local more or less fast-food chains which serves pho soup and it was excellent. And the complimentary desserts were also quite nice, which, as it turned out later, we should not have taken for granted.

Oh, and we all went to sleep somewhere past noon. Just to catch a nap, you understand.

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