An Accidental Trip to a World Wonder

Thai visas last for 30 days from the time you enter the country. Upon arrival you are supposed to provide proof of onward travel within the visa period. So, a few days before leaving New Zealand Sarah and I sat in a pub and booked two tickets out of Thailand for 29 days after the date that Sarah was to arrive. There were two requirements for these tickets – they had to have a destination that was somewhere outside Thailand, and they had to be cheap. We had no real intention of using them, so we didn’t care where that destination was. They cost us $12 each.

Fast-forward a few weeks. Sarah’s visa was due to expire shorty, so we started to explore our options. Visa extensions are available in Bangkok for $60. But what about those tickets? Where did they go again? Cambodia? Cool. Where in Cambodia? Some place called Siem Reap…………………………….

A quick Google search revealed that purely by chance we had booked minibus tickets to the site of some of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world, including the largest religious site in the world – the world famous temple of Angkor Wat. (I had at least heard of Angkor Wat, even if I didn’t know where it was precisely)

“Well, that sounds kind of cool. Should we actually use these tickets?”

“Sure! Why not?”

It turned out to be a superb decision. Getting there was a great laugh – 14 people literally stuffed into a minivan along with all their stuff for 12 hours. Whenever anyone from the back wanted to get out we had to unload the whole van. You couldn’t see them the rest of the time as they were obscured by a wall of rucksacks. By chance I was allotted a plum seat – the one just behind the door on the port side by itself – and I was even able to stretch my legs through a wall of bags and lay them up against a window. Sarah wasn’t so lucky – she was stuffed in the back.

When I said it was a great laugh I wasn’t joking (har har) – it was genuinely great. We met some great people (REALLY met them! At close quarters!) and had a good time playing a game called ‘spot the scam’.

Cambodians are master scammers, and we weren’t quite ready for just how masterful they are. The bus was supposed to take 6 hours, but we stopped fairly frequently including quite a few hours at a restaurant about 20 kilometres from the border. We were offloaded, told that we would be changing buses, and also told that we were to arrange our border crossing documents here rather than at the border itself. Fortunately Sarah and I had arranged our visas online already but we still forked out 100 baht each (about $3) for ‘immigration fees’. One Swedish couple were really savvy and refused everything, but everyone else organised their visas with these guys and ended up paying about $10 more than they needed to. The whole service, as it turned out, was available at the border fee-free. In the meantime we were encouraged to eat and drink at the restaurant, and they took their time about things so that we’d eventually give in out of sheer boredom and buy stuff. The whole restaurant deal was a scam – it was owned by friends of the people who run the bus service and they were all getting a cut of the ‘fees’.

Next was the money-changing scam – telling us that we’d get a better rate of conversion if we changed our money to local Cambodian currency (Rials) at the border rather than in the city, another friend-shop-scam, and finally a tuktuk scam whereby the bus skirted around the edge of the city (so that we couldn’t see ourselves being deliberately driven through and then away from our destination) and then dropped us off at the far Eastern outskirts. Conveniently (and miraculously) there happened to be a host of tuktuk (a tuktuk in Cambodia consists of a 4-seater trailer attached to a motorcycle and driven by a madman) drivers waiting at our destination. Since it was now 9pm and many people had yet to arrange accommodation we were willing to pay the vastly-inflated fee of $4 for a ride into the city – a ride that should only cost $1. Oh, and they’d be happy to arrange accommodation at the very bestest and cheapest place in the town (“Same same as others, but different”). Any guesses who owned those establishments?

I’m making it sound like the whole experience was horrible but it really wasn’t. We were having a great time trying to identify which parts of what we were being told were true, which were embellishments and which were outright lies. Besides, it didn’t cost us all that much by our standards. We thought of it as paying a fair fee for life experiences.

We went out for a meal ($3 each including drinks) with some backpackers we’d met on the bus, checked into our hotel and lay down our heads for a long, peaceful sleep in our nice big comfy bed at Bliss Villas. Heaven on earth. ‘A calm, tranquil environment to relax and enjoy your surroundings’, said the marketing brochure. Well, at least we were spared the necessity of setting an alarm clock. We were awakened bright and early by this (note: in order to replicate the authenticity of the experience, I recommend you turn the volume on your speakers to maximum before playing this video):

 

We still have no idea what the festive occasion was, but the sound you can hear is that of monks chanting. They’d set up a pavilion just outside our window and had HUGE speakers angled outwards – directly at our bedroom – blasting out the chant (interspersed with occasional horrendous ‘music’ produced by what I can only assume was 10,000 cats being tortured) for most of the day. Fortunately our fears that this would be the modus operandi on subsequent mornings were unfounded. We chalked it down as another fascinating cultural experience.

Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent loafing. The food was excellent and very inexpensive. There’s an appropriately-named street called Pub Street where we spent a couple of enjoyable evenings and a night-market where we were able to haggle for some new clothing and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the place. We spent a day just wandering around to see what we could see and discovered another market, a beautiful temple and had a remarkable conversation with a Cambodian gentleman who approached us on the street and then, instead of asking us for money as we were expecting, astounded us by asking us to explain why the UK wanted to leave the EU. We were more than happy to spend a while exchanging cultural, political and economic comparisons between our countries and thoroughly enjoyed chatting to him. Then came the shift. He did want money after all. He claimed to be the headmaster of a school for impoverished children in one of the rural villages and he put on a very convincing show, with various pictures and publications to show us. He did such a good job in fact that we gave him $10 despite being on-guard for scams. Either he was genuine or he was the best actor I’ve ever met. We looked his school up on facebook when we got to the hotel and found pictures of him with the children. Even that, though, is no guarantee. They will go to enormous lengths to scam people – mothers will rent out their children to ‘orphanages’ for the purpose of extracting money from tourists. See what I mean about the mastery of the scamming? It’s quite admirably resourceful in a way.

Of course, we also visited the temples. After all, they are the main attraction of Siem Reap; and for good reason.

The temple of Angkor Wat and the surrounding structures constitute the largest religious site in the world. The whole site is surrounded by a huge moat, and it boggles my mind to try to comprehend the amount of manpower that went into the construction of that moat alone – never even mind the temple itself, which is truly spectacular. But Angkor Wat is only one of a score or so of similar buildings, many equally spectacular in their own ways. Prasat Bayon at Angkor Thom houses huge arrays of stone faces looming from the sides of a collection of grand towers. Beautiful bas-relief scenes are carved into the walls of every temple depicting intricate scenes of the daily lives of ancient Khmer people as well as recording great battles and scenes of spiritual significance. The area as a whole – the ancient Khmer city of Angkor – was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It’s a truly amazing place, with a fascinating history spanning over the last 1,000 years or so, in an area of the world that has frequently been subjected to large-scale warfare and great social, political and religious unrest. The sites have not survived unscathed. Khmer Rouge forces (led by the infamous dictator Pol Pot, under whose brutal regime a staggering 25% of the population of Cambodia died as recently as the 1970s) occupied the site during the Cambidian-Vietnamese War, burning any remaining wooden structures for firewood. A US shell destroyed one of the pavilions, and a bas-relief was subjected to a barrage of bullets during an exchange of fire with Vietnamese forces. Subsequently the majority of statues were decapitated by thieves, who sold the heads to black-market collectors. Presumably these relics are still to be found scattered around the planet in the living rooms of affluent (and unscrupulous) persons. This alarming thievery led to the site being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Fortunately this put a stop to the destruction, and the site has been well-managed since then. With about 2.1 million visitors every year and an average ticket price of about $55 the site generates a massive $115M annually, and that doesn’t include the income generated from the accommodation, food and transport that all those tourists require. Not inconsiderable in a country where the average wage is $120 per month.

Our trip back to Bangkok was relatively uneventful. We’d paid a little more for our bus tickets and we’re going with a different company. There was no changing buses or scamming along the way. I did have one small problem though. My stomach was feeling decidedly delicate on the morning of our departure so I paid a visit to a pharmacy and asked for some Imodium. “We don’t have any”, said the pharmacist, “but this is the same thing”. He handed me a packet of pills. I paid him, pushed a couple of pills through the foil and popped them in my mouth. I didn’t have any problems on the bus, and the whole trip back was remarkably relaxing and enjoyable. It wasn’t until I looked at the pill packet much later and saw what I’d been given that I understood why. It was Diazepam, better known as Valium 🙂

 

It’s a good thing the Valium did the job that I hoped for. As it turned out the bus was so luxurious that it had a toilet on board, but this sign makes clear certain restrictions associated with it’s use:

 

Now for some photos of nicer stuff:

The appropriately-named ‘Pub Street’, where we spent a very enjoyable few evenings, including one at a reggae bar (not something we expected to find in Cambodia!):

 

The temple of Angkor Wat, displaying typical characteristics of Khmer architcture:

Because of the lighting at the time of day we were there and also the shear number of tourists getting in the way of the shots it was really tough to get a good picture of Angkor Wat (despite Sarah’s top-notch photographic skills). It’s worth googling an image of it to get a better idea of the scale, taken from an angle that we didn’t have access to.

 

Another view of Angkor Wat with me standing in the doorway to give an idea of scale. The steps, as you can probably tell, are very steep. We wondered if this was meant to make the site defensible. Certainly the moat and the general construction of the place would tend to suggest a construction with fortification in mind as well as religious practicality.

 

Water features are a predominant feature among the ruins of Angkor. This one is within the temple of Angkor Wat, but others are huge. The largest is a full 8Km by 2Km, all dug by hand 1,000 years ago. The purpose of these reservoirs, basins and pools is not known and is disputed by historians and archaeologists.

 

One of the huge faces carved into the sides of Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom. Whose face is depicted is another subject of dispute. Some say it is Buddha, some say it is the face of the Khmer king of the day, and still others say it is an amalgamation of the two.

 

Sarah standing beneath the ancient archway of a viaduct or aqueduct (we’re not sure which). The trees in and around the temples have grown into the structure of the stones such that the trees and stones are now often mutually dependent on one another for support.

 

Last but not least, a bas-relief depicting some sort of nautical war theme. It’s amazing to think that this level of intricacy was achieved by hand and chisel. There are several miles of these to be found on the walls of the various temples of Angkor.

Alex’s Photo Picks from the Last Two Years

As you are probably aware Sarah and I have been in Thailand for the last 6 weeks or so, bar a one-week side-trip to Cambodia for the sake of getting our Thai visas renewed inexpensively. It’s been wonderful spending time with Sarah’s parents and exploring places by land. There have also been moments of nostalgia. I’ve spent this morning looking through our photographs for the last two years and there are a few that really stand out for one reason or another, so I thought I’d share them with you here. Many of them you will have seen before but there are a few that we either didn’t have (because they were taken by someone else and we only acquired them later on) or which didn’t fit in with the subject matter of whatever blog post we were writing at the time.

We’ve had so many incredible experiences that it was hard to cut down my selection (it’s probably still a little long- sorry about that). There are also one or two that I would have liked to have included here – some videos from the first passage from Bermuda to St. Maarten – but which I don’t have access to at the moment because they are on an ipod that I left in New Zealand. I will post these later; they give some insight into my mental state during that passage and why I don’t think I’m well-suited to single-handed sailing.

So, without further ado, in chronological order:

 

 

Leaving the Las Perlas Islands on the way to Galapagos we caught our first fish of the voyage! Unfortunately, something else got there before I could pull it in…………….

 

 

This view was a welcome one –  making landfall at Pitcairn Island after three weeks at sea. At the time we assumed that this view heralded an opportunity for a rest. Little did we know we’d soon be trundling off to Mangareva at full tilt on an emergency medical evacuation!

 

 

Pitcairn’s reputation for less-than-ideal anchorage conditions is not ill-deserved. We woke up one morning during our second visit to the island and were excited to see another yacht in the vicinity. AIS identified them as S/V Maya. We hailed them on the radio but for some reason they seemed reluctant to stop by for a visit, so they sailed on without anchoring. These pictures of Bob taken by Asma give some inkling as to why they may have decided on that course of action, and why they sounded so baffled on the radio when we told them that we were comfortably re-anchored at Bounty Bay. We have since become very good friends with Herbert and Asma and have laughed merrily over our first encounter with one another. Apparently Asma turned to Herbert and said “I’m sure they were very nice people but now they must be dead, so we’ll never know!”

You can just see Bob’s mast beyond the breaking wave 🙂

 

And here we are nonchalantly raising the anchor:

OK, that was a lie. It wasn’t nonchalant at all. I couldn’t actually stand on the foredeck so I had to do everything braced against the pulpit railing and supported on one knee. Despite my best efforts to control things, the windlass and bow roller came under tremendous load as the anchor was torn from the sand by the rise of a particularly large swell. There are other pictures of the situation above where you can only see the boom and the tops of our heads, but I like this one because you can at least see that there is a boat in there somewhere!

 

 

Now we move on to the Gambier Islands. Below is the stunning view from the peak of Mount Duff. You can see the capital town of Rikitea in the bottom left. The tiny strip of land in the upper right of the photograph is the airport island. The Gambier Islands were truly spectacular. Sarah and I have already discussed that if we were to do a similar trip again we would prefer to sail direct to Marquesas from the Galapagos Islands and then head South to spend the bulk of the cyclone season here in the Gambiers instead of the other way around.

 

 

 

Provisioning in the Gambier Islands was sparse. Being Bermudian, I have a physiological NEED for mayonnaise. So, we decided to try to make it. Below is one of the earlier attempts. Since it wasn’t working by hand-power alone I decided to try an electric whisk………. which we don’t have. So, we improvised!

Note the not-remotely-mayonnaisish gloop in the jar in my left hand. I was not a happy bunny, as you may be able to tell. Fortunately, later attempts were much more successful.

 

 

A typical afternoon scene from the island of Taravai, where we ended up spending the majority of our time in the Gambiers. Complete with grumpy, sneaky horse who attempted to steal lunch, dinner, or rum whenever possible. The problem with being a horse is that one struggles to be inconspicuous, but Dior put in a good effort and was sometimes successful.

 

 

 

We spent a day clearing away the brush from beneath the coconut palms, and made several big fires to dispose of it:

 

 

Unfortunately the heat of the fires produced an unforeseen hazard – spider rain. It literally began raining spiders as they leapt from the trees to the ground. This one landed on Jesse, and Sarah somehow managed to convince him to remain motionless for long enough to snap this shot. He wasn’t taking his eyes off it though, and was poised for some quick action in the event that it should have decided to make a run for it upwards!

 

 

During a sail from Taravai to Rikitea to pick up some supplies, David from S/V El Nido got this shot of Bob. Sarah particularly likes it because if you zoom in on us in the cockpit you can see a lovely bit of impromptu romance 🙂

 

 

Finally for the Gambier Islands, a beautiful shot of Bob lying to a home-made mooring on the South Coast of Taravai, on a wonderfully calm evening.

 

 

 

We both love this shot, taken during a hike in Marquesas. We are on the island of Tahuata. In the distance is the big island of Hiva ‘Oa, and between the two runs the Ha’ava, or Bordelais Channel.

 

 

In Nuku Hiva Sarah took a few dance classes in the local style, and was honoured to be invited (well…… to be honest it was more of an instruction than an invitation!) to perform with the dance troupe in front of a crowd of a couple of hundred people. Here she is in her dance regalia.

 

 

Better yet, for the first time we are now able to offer you a video from one of the performances (yay for fast internet!). Along with some other cruisers and the troupe of local girls she performed two dances, of which this was the final section of the second. I apologise for the shoddy standard of the work on this one. The reason for it is that Sarah is dancing and I have been tasked with capturing the moment. The sound is particularly poor, because it seems I had my finger over the microphone for most of the performance.

Sarah has stipulated that I must make it clear to you here that she only had two days to learn both of the dances, and wishes it to be formally noted that she is opposed to the publishing of this movie in the first place. Ah well, win some lose some. For the greater good, here it is:

 

 

This spectacular waterfall is located on the island of Fatu Hiva. We were fortunate that it hadn’t rained for a little while when we visited. If it had we would not have been able to get anywhere near it. It was a beautifully refreshing swim after a hot hike.

 

 

 

Down to the Tuamotu Archipelago now, to the uninhabited atoll of Tahanea. Sarah snapped this beautiful shot of a yacht that was anchored astern of us as a small squall came through. I love the misty effect caused by the rain pelting down onto the surface of the sea, and the yawing and slight heeling of the boat as the first gust of wind hits.

 

 

 

The squalls soon passed, and we sailed across the lagoon accompanied by a pod of dolphins to a spot known as ‘7 reef’. It was probably the most spectacular spot that Bob has ever anchored. When this shot was taken we had nipped over to a motu about a mile from the anchorage to collect coconuts, and stopped off on this spit of sand for a snorkel. Bob is just out of frame to the right.

 

 

The diving at the South Pass of the atoll of Fakarava was the most spectacular we have done. The site is famous for having a particularly high density of sharks – a sign of a healthy reef ecosystem.

 

 

This shot of a friendly rooster in Rarotonga cracks me up every time. Doesn’t it look photo-shopped? I promise it’s not!

 

 

Leaving Niue we were a little nervous, as the rigging had just broken and been repaired for the second time. As we came out from behind the island we were greeted by a large black cloud. Fortunately we managed to outrun the worst of it and were treated to this beautiful backdrop:

 

 

A day of ‘racing’ with our friends Rick and Jasna aboard their boat ‘Calypso’. At the pre-race skipper’s meeting Rick warned the other skippers that anyone overhauling Calypso was liable to be mooned. One skipper complained and implied that his children would be psychologically damaged by such an experience. Rick responded that he was terribly sorry but he could not afford to be discriminatory and that for moral reasons he was obliged to treat everyone equally. Fortunately for the family with the delicately-dispositioned children they were out of range, but these guys, one of whom was our friend Asma, ended up in an unfortunate tacking battle with us and were subjected to the view not once, but several times. We were dubbed ‘Team Los Culos Blancos’ (why Spanish I have no idea – we were in Tonga!) and awarded a special prize at the prizegiving! Let’s face it though, we weren’t going to win prizes for anything else……….

 

 

At the ‘Coral Garden’ in Tonga we met this incredibly brazen anemonefish. Perhaps a male guarding the eggs, it had no qualms about challenging a creature many, many times it’s own size. I was not intimidated……….. but then I did swim away, so I’m pretty sure he’ll chalk that up as anemonefish 1, biguglyungainlything 0. Fair enough.

 

 

Also in Tonga: Sarah must have taken a hundred shots of the fruit bats trying to get a really good one. I think she managed it with this:

 

 

And finally! Videos can never do justice to actual, real-life experiences but I really like this one. It is a short video of a swim-through at a reef in South Minerva. We spent hours exploring these channels and caves. It was the best snorkelling either of us have ever done. Here’s a small taster of why:

 

Finally, just a quick note to say that we will (I promise!) do one or two blogs soon about our travels in Thailand and Cambodia. Until then, stay warm and enjoy yourselves!

New Zealand Arrival

Hello everyone,

I’m just posting a quick one now to let you all know that we had a stonking run into New Zealand -155 miles in the final 24 hours – and arrived just before dark on the 28th. Sarah has some wonderful pictures and we intend to do a proper blog in the near future. South Minerva Reef was particularly spectacular.

 

Since we arrived we have spent far, far too much money buying all sorts of boat bits that we have been denied for the last couple of years. We even invested in a major luxury -a water heater! (It’s freezing here. Well………. 16 celcius really, but it might as well be freezing after two years in the tropics. We’re bundled up like the Michelin Man)

 

Bob is tucked away on a pile mooring up the Kerikeri river. The anchor has been removed, the chain reversed, the water maker ‘pickled’ for storage, the main engine flushed with fresh water, a float switch installed on the bilge pump and over the next week or so we’ll remove the sails and put her to bed. We have picked up our camper van, Jacangi, but even she will be abandoned for the next two months as we fly (shock/horror! Flying is cheating!) to Thailand to visit Sarah’s family.

Nearly There

As of noon today, Sunday November 26th, we are 200 miles from Opua, the most northerly customs port in New Zealand and our destination. It’s a lovely day – the sun is shining for the first time since we left Minerva. We shook out the 2nd Reef this morning and are plowing along at nearly 6 knots under a single-reefed mainsail and full 110% working jib on a lovely beam reach. The seas are considerably diminished compared to what they were a few days ago and the motion is gentle and agreeable. Despite Sarah’s scopoderm anti-seasickness patch having expired beyond it’s 3-day lifespan two days ago she’s bounding around the cabin doing such productive things as making bread with the last of our flour and has even hidden the last of our olives in the dough. We’re down to our last half a courgette, a third of a cabbage, two small potatoes and two small onions as far as ‘fresh’ provisions go, so it looks like we got it just about right and won’t have to relinquish too much to the New
Zealand biosecurity officers upon our arrival. Maybe a coconut or two. Then again maybe we should make the effort to eat them before we arrive. After all, we might not see coconuts again for quite a while.

We’re looking at a night-time arrival in Opua, perhaps some time around midnight tomorrow (Monday) night. Subject to the winds of course. We have been exceptionally lucky on this passage not to have needed to motor at all. The mast is still pointing up. Spirits are high. It’s been almost three weeks since we saw land and we can almost smell it.

Bob’s Progress Report

As of 1000, Friday morning, November 24 (UTC+13) Bob is at 28 17 S, 177 37E heading SSW at about 4.5 knots under deep-reefed mainsail and a sliver of jib. Conditions have been considerably rougher and windier than forecast. Our friends aboard ‘Local Talent’ to the South reported sustained winds in the high 20s and ‘Serengeti’ to our North reported high 30s gusting into the mid-40s two nights ago. We are somewhere in the middle of those two – I was estimating about 30 knots sustained. Bob has taken a bit of a beating from having to crash her way through Southerly swells but is performing admirably. Spirits are good on board. The motion is much better today with the swells diminished and on the beam, and the wind is showing signs of reducing permanently rather than coming in fits and lulls as it is at the moment. We’ll be able to shake out a reef then and speed up a bit. Sarah is making bacon and eggs for breakfast, with chips and beans. Yum 🙂