Thursday, 6 December 2018

How to spend a week in SIEM REAP, Cambodia.

Once a dangerous dictatorship, closed off to the outside world, Cambodia is now fast emerging as one of the big players in Southeast Asian travel.  A vibrantly colourful land of smiling faces, extraordinary temples, bustling markets and crazy nightlife - it’s not hard to see why backpackers flock here en-masse.




It’s an ideal place for newbie adventure travellers to experience the grit, the colours and the chaos of the developing world in a safe, open-minded and welcoming culture.  Travel here gives a real buzz – Cambodia’s lust for life is infectious and uplifting!

There’s an endless list of things to see and do whilst in Cambodia, but this post will focus on those within easy reach of Siem Reap.  To comfortably cover all the sights in this post, I’d recommend a stay of around five days.


Angkor Wat អង្គរវត្ត


The jewel in Cambodia’s crown is undoubtedly the colossal and hugely iconic temple of Angkor Wat.  This spectacular 12th century masterpiece is the largest religious structure on this planet.  Originally built as a Hindu shrine, Angkor Wat quickly shifted toward Buddhism.  Now there’s always a worry when visiting such iconic sights that they won’t live up to the hype – I’d dreamed about visiting this place for years and had high expectations!  Well, I can safely say it didn’t disappoint.  It’s so beautiful it literally gave me goose bumps!  It’s an absolute masterpiece of human ingenuity, standing tall and proud above the jungle.  

Angkor Wat

Whilst Angkor Wat gets all the glory, it’s not the end of the story.  The rainforest to the north of Siem Reap withholds the ruins of an ancient megacity.  Upwards of fifty ruined temples, along with moats and citadels nestle amongst the trees.  For the more committed culture buffs, there’s quite literally weeks’ worth of sightseeing to be had in this part of Cambodia!  But for those limited to a one-day pass I’d recommend visiting Bayon (the well-preserved centrepiece of the ruined walled city of Angkor Thom) and the stunning vine-tangled temple of Ta Prohm.  Exploring Ta Prohm made me feel like Indiana Jones!

Ta Prohm 
Ta Prohm

Those who wish to visit the Angkor temples have the option of purchasing a one-day pass ($37 USD), a three-day pass ($40 USD) or for the more fanatical explorers a seven day pass costs $72 USD.  There’s no need to book tickets in advance.  You will also need to hire a driver in Siem Reap – a tuk-tuk will generally cost around $15-25 per day and drivers will wait whilst you visit the temples.  These prices are rather high by Cambodian standards, but it’s absolutely worth every penny.  


Tonle Sap ទន្លេសាប


The huge freshwater lake of Tonle Sap lies a short ride to the south of Siem Reap.  These murky waters are Cambodia’s beating heart - fishing provides food and income to many thousands of people along its shores.  The lake expands massively during the rainy season, flooding the surrounding countryside and villages.  But villagers have adapted to the dramatically shifting water levels by building their houses on stilts!  

There are several of these so-called ‘floating villages’ relatively close to Siem Reap – most notably Chong Kneas, Kompong Pluk and Kompong Khleang. A daytrip gives a fascinating insight into this intriguing and unusual way of life – you may even see some crocodiles!  Chong Kneas is the easiest to reach from Siem Reap and as such receives the highest number of visitors.  It’s generally preferable to visit the floating villages as part of an organised tour from Siem Reap, as boat companies in the area have a reputation for overcharging independent travellers!

Chong Kneas harbour - Tonle Sap
Stilted fishermens' houses along the Siem Reap River


Siem Reap ក្រុងសៀមរាប


So many people simply use Siem Reap as a base to explore the temples of Angkor.  But the town itself has a laid-back charm of its own.  

If you’re not ‘templed-out’ after exploring Angkor Wat, then there are a scattering of cute and colourful temples and pagodas in the town itself.  I found Wat Phreah Prom Rath and Wat Bo particularly interesting.  These functioning temples taught me so much about Cambodian Buddhism.  And don’t be afraid to ask questions in the temples – I was always made to feel so welcome as a visitor and locals were always willing and enthusiastic in sharing and explaining Buddhist tradition with me! 

Gold obelisks outside Wat Bo temple - Siem Reap

Bustling night market in Siem Reap
Crossing the Siem Reap River

Siem Reap truly comes to life when darkness descends – no article on this town would be complete without mentioning the legendary Pub Street.  The town is a magnet for backpackers from every corner of the globe – combine this with cheap beer and you have yourself a pretty awesome party!  This continuous strip of booze-filled bars and clubs is easily one of the craziest parties in Southeast Asia.  Dancing ‘til the early hours, making friends for life and nursing hangovers in 40-degree heat is all part of the fun of visiting Siem Reap!

Pub Street - Siem Reap


Practicalities


Before I mention costs, it’s worth noting that the US Dollar is the most widely used currency in Cambodia. 

There’s an abundance of amazing hostels in the town and dorm beds can be as cheap as $3 USD per night.  A main course in a mid-range restaurant will typically cost around $5 USD, but it’s easy to find good food for as little as $2.  Beer is phenomenally cheap – don’t be surprised to pay as little as $0.50 USD for a pint of local lager.  Wherever you need to go – tuk-tuks are your answer!  Short trips around town should cost no more than $1.50 USD (although bargaining skills are sometimes necessary!).  

Khmer food is irresistible - and cheap!

Most visitors will require a visa to enter Cambodia and citizens of most countries can purchase this on arrival at Siem Reap Airport and most land borders.  For the visa, you’ll need to provide a passport-size photograph of yourself along with $30 USD in cash (Cambodian Riel is not usually accepted).  The visa will be attached to a blank page in your passport.


When budgeting for Siem Reap, be sure to account for entrance fees for Angkor Wat.

Rural infrastructure can be rather rustic!



Put simply, Siem Reap is a backpackers’ paradise.  It’s cheap, fun, friendly and bursting at the seams with culture.  Whilst most people are drawn here by Angkor Wat, there’s plenty more to keep you busy in and around Siem Reap.  It’s the grit and grime, colour, chaos and excitement of a developing Asian nation, in a safe and welcoming environment.  It’s the kind of place that will stick in your mind long after you leave – for all the right reasons.

I hope you find this helpful and thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x

Friday, 9 November 2018

Exploring KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia.

‘To truly understand what makes Malaysia tick, visit a mosque, a Chinese temple and a Hindu temple’ – this was perhaps the best advice I was given before my trip to Kuala Lumpur.  If I had to sum up this incredible city in one word, it would have to be ‘diversity’.  It’s a colourful, exciting and intriguing fusion of cultural and culinary influences from around the world.



The marvellous melting-pot which exists today is a product of Malaysia’s past.  Ethnic Malays have been predominantly Muslim since Islam was brought to the region by Arab merchants between the 12th and 16th centuries. However, the country’s cultural fabric would change forever when Malaysia came under the rule of the British Empire.  Colonial leaders encouraged mass immigration from mainly China and India to meet a demand for labour.  To this day, just under half of the city’s population are ethnically Malay.  Of the remaining population, 43% are ethnic Chinese and 10% are ethnic Indian.

Since gaining independence from the British, Malaysia has moved from strength to strength.  This growing prosperity is flaunted in Kuala Lumpur’s ultra-modern business district.  An ever-increasing number of glass and steel towers punch toward the clouds.  Whilst futuristic city skylines don’t usually float my boat, the glistening Petronas twin towers are quite a sight to see.  These identical 451-meter giants are masterpieces of modern Islamic architecture; the five tiers represent the five pillars of Islam and the masts are inspired by minarets.  The shiver-inducing ‘Sky Bridge’ links the towers at the 41st floors.  

Iconic Petronas Twin Towers

Visitors are granted access to the Sky Bridge as well as a viewing platform on the 86th floor for a rather steep price of MYR 80 (at the time of writing).  However, for those (like myself) who travel on a budget, the nearby KL Telecom tower has a public observation deck at 276 meters for a fraction of the price.  From this height, the views over the city are spectacular. 

View of the Business District from KL Telecom Tower

A far cry from the busy city are the Batu Caves – an impressive subterranean system of cliffs and caverns which house some of the most stunning Hindu shrines in the world outside of India.  Having never visited a Hindu temple before, I enjoyed exploring Batu so much!  An enormous gold statue of Hindu deity Murugan towers over the back-breaking 272-step climb to the caves.  It’s a hard climb in the stifling tropical humidity, but it’s completely worth it. To reach the caves, take the commuter train from KL Sentral.
Batu Caves
Legendary wild macaques at Batu Caves
One of my favourite neighbourhoods is China Town, which is centred around Jalan Petaling.  These colourful streets buzz with such an upbeat energy.  The oriental shrines, crimson lanterns and sizzling, smoky street food stalls wouldn’t be out of place in Beijing or Hong Kong!

A Chinese temple 
Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple

To explore the city’s Islamic heritage, the best places to visit are the huge, modern National Mosque and the more traditional Masjid Jamek.  Both are open to visitors and give a fascinating insight into the religion!

Masjid Jamek mosque

Now any article on Kuala Lumpur which doesn’t mention food is doing the place an injustice!  Just as the city is a melting pot of cultures, the Malaysian kitchen is a melting pot of flavours.  It’s been said that Malaysian food takes the best parts of Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines and mixes them together, creating an exciting whirlwind of flavours.  With its abundance of great street food, I was excited to stumble across Jalan Alor night market in the Bukit Bintang neighbourhood.  Dedicated foodies may be interested in joining of the many ‘food tours’ which are abundant in the city.

Street food at Jalan Alor

Whilst Malaysia doesn’t always share the ultra-liberal mindset of neighbouring Thailand, Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan and forward-thinking city with a thriving backpackers’ scene.  I was made to feel so welcome by local people.

Visitors from Western countries will find the city extremely affordable - it’s possible to live very well here on a really low budget.  A main course in a mid-range restaurant will typically cost around MYR 30, but it’s easy to find good food considerably cheaper.  Street food is very good and extremely cheap.  Hostel dorms are abundant, and will typically cost between MYR 25-55 per night, whereas a single room in a budget hotel can be as cheap as MYR 50.  

Transportation within Kuala Lumpur is amongst the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world – getting around the city is a breeze.  Almost anywhere in the city and surrounding area can be reached easily by metro, monorail, commuter trains or buses.  The main tourist sights are linked by a network of free public bus routes – a dream come true for the budget traveller!


My visit to the Malaysian capital was so memorable.  I found the rich diversity of cultures captivating and the spices and aromas of the Malaysian kitchen were irresistible.  Kuala Lumpur is a unique and intriguing city which deserves to feature in any Southeast Asian itinerary.

Have you been to Kuala Lumpur or thinking of visiting? Let me know in the comments!  Thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x

Thursday, 30 August 2018

KOH PHI PHI, Thailand. Trouble in Paradise?


Thailand’s Phi Phi islands (pronounced ‘PEE PEE’) have all the essential attributes of a stereotypical tropical Paradise -  crystal clear bathtub-warm waters, palm-fringed white sand beaches and technicolour coral reefs.  Vertical jungle-clad limestone cliffs soar dramatically skyward from the turquoise waters as colonies of macaques cling on for dear life.   I must admit, when I stepped off the ferry at Tonsai pier (the islands’ only portal to the outside world), it felt like I had died and gone to Heaven.  It was just like places I’d dreamed of all my life - I was in awe.




My time in Phi Phi was limited and I was eager to pack in as much sightseeing as possible, so as soon as I arrived I booked on to a full-day boat tour with a bunch of other travellers.  My relationship with the islands was in its honeymoon phase and my love for the place only grew.  I visited picture-perfect Maya Bay (the setting for Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Beach’), went snorkelling with young reef sharks and explored the hidden nooks and crannies of Phi Phi’s spectacular coastline.  I witnessed some of the most awe-inspiring nature I’ve ever encountered and was in my element!



However, as the sun topples over the horizon and darkness descends over Phi Phi, the islands reveal a completely different face.  Hoards of tanked-up British, American and Australian twenty-something-year-olds emerge from hibernation, bound for the islands’ infamous booze-filled bars and clubs.  Local bylaws set partying limits at 2am, but in reality festivities rock on until dawn.  It’s like Ibiza on steroids. 

On a typical night out here, you’ll be served over-priced beers from a British waiter, before watching Aussies fight it out in a ‘Thai’ boxing ring, then grab American-style fast food on your walk back to the hostel (which in my case was also run by a European guy).  Don’t get me wrong, spirits here run high and I had a lot of fun, but it’s a far cry from the Thailand I’d grown to love so much on previous legs of this Asian adventure.  In fact, it didn’t really feel like Thailand at all.  Was it just my blistering sunburn pulling wool over my eyes or could there actually be trouble in Paradise?!





I strongly believe tourism brings with it great advantages when controlled responsibly.  It can bring life-improving wealth to local and national economies and promote open-mindedness.  And whilst this has certainly been the case in Phi Phi, it felt to me like the islands are becoming a victim of their own success.  Mass tourism seems to be stifling the local culture and destroying the stunning natural environments which made it so popular in the first place.
It would be short-sighted to write an article on the Phi Phi without acknowledging the tragic events of December 2004.  A magnitude 9.3 earthquake followed by a devastating series of huge tsunami waves left the islands in tatters.  It was a scene of utter devastation, with 70% of buildings destroyed beyond repair and an estimated 4,000 people dead on Phi Phi alone.  A touching memorial on Phi Phi Don commemorates the victims of the disaster.


It's remarkable to see the recovery the islands have made since that fateful day.  After years of reconstruction, there is barely a trace of the devastation which came before; buildings have sprung up from rubble, tourists have returned and islanders' lust for life is incredible.  Nowadays, thorough evacuation procedures are in place in all low-lying coastal areas and there are signs everywhere pointing to the nearest tsunami shelter.



I stayed in Phi Phi for a total of two and a half days, before returning to mainland Thailand to continue my adventure southward.  I had a lot of fun in Phi Phi – I saw spectacular landscapes and exotic wildlife, met some lovely people and had some wicked nights out.  But my feelings toward the place are bittersweet.  Tourism was once a lifeline here, bringing relative wealth to once poor communities (particularly following the tragic events of the tsunami), but that very lifeline itself is now destroying Phi Phi’s heart and soul.  And how long will the islands be able to sustain this destruction? 



Koh Phi Phi is a tropical paradise.  But if the way visitors treat the place does not change, I worry for the islands’ future.

Have you visited Phi Phi? I’d love to know your thoughts! Thanks for reading!


Elis Griffiths. x

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Celebrating SONGKRAN in Bangkok, Thailand.


In April of this year, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the beautiful country of Thailand.  By pure and rather lucky coincidence, my trip would coincide with one of the biggest, wildest and most colourful national holidays in the Thai calendar – Songkran!  For those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian culture (as I was), Songkran festivities mark the start of the Buddhist year.  



Songkran is celebrated in mid-April, which is typically the hottest month of the year in Thailand.  Extreme humidity and stifling temperatures nudging 40°C can zap your energy, so Thai people have come up with an ingenious way of dealing with this – huge public water fights!!  Over three days of national holiday, thousands upon thousands of locals and tourists alike take to the streets dressed in the most colourful clothes and armed with water pistols and clay body paints. 

The feel-good atmosphere in the streets of Bangkok is something I’ll never forget.  Thai culture seems to put a lot of emphasis on enjoyment, happiness and togetherness – all of which shine through during Songkran celebrations.  Folk here certainly know how to have fun!  People of all ages and all walks of life join in the water fights and the party lasts well into the night!  I found Bangkok to be the friendliest, most welcoming city I’ve visited; local people encourage foreign visitors to join in the celebrations – nobody goes home dry during Songkran!!



Given the popularity of Songkran, hostel beds and hotel rooms can sell out quickly, so it’s a good idea to book accommodation well in advance.  Don’t worry about packing a water pistol – every street stall in Bangkok sells them for pennies.  Whilst there are water fights all over Bangkok, the biggest and most famous is always in the vicinity of Khao San Road. 

The fun and energy of this holiday are so invigorating –  I had the biggest smile from cheek to cheek throughout my time in this awesome city.  This was my first time in Thailand and my first time in Southeast Asia and it was better than I could have ever hoped for.  Without doubt, the Songkran water fights in Bangkok are my absolute favourite travel memory to date. 



Bangkok is AWESOME - I'll post a more detailed guide to the city in a future post!  Have you experienced this colourful holiday or are you planning to visit the Thai capital?  Let me know in the comments section!
Thanks for reading!


Elis Griffiths. x

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Highlights of HONG KONG 香港


The world-class city and territory of Hong Kong barely needs an introduction.  It was everything I thought it would be and more; colourful, hectic, crowded, overwhelming, exotic and above all insanely exciting.  It’s a place where a bustling metropolis rubs shoulders with rural fishing communities, where glistening skyscrapers sit next to forest-clad mountainsides.  Formerly a part of the British Empire, Hong Kong is now a self-governing region of the People’s Republic of China.  There’s such an abundance of things to see and do in Hong Kong that it would take months to tick them all off.  But as most travellers don’t have months to spare, I’ve narrowed it down to this list of my personal highlights, to help you get the most out of your time.  I’ve also included some budgeting tips at the end of the article.



Night markets in Mong Kok


I’ll start with my absolute favourite place on this list – Mong Kok.  These densely packed streets have an energy like I’ve never seen before.  Whatever the time – day or night – these streets are buzzing.  This is the Hong Kong I’d dreamed of; colourful, crowded and bursting with life.  Bright neon signs almost obscure daylight and smells of Cantonese street food fill the air.  Mong Kok is a circus for the senses.  It’s both overwhelming and wonderful at the same time.  Visit Mong Kok for its bustling night markets and excellent array of culinary delights.




Chi Linn Nunnery


I was particularly excited to visit Chi Linn, as it’s the first Buddhist temple I’ve been to.  I was taken back by the vibrant colours and tranquillity.  This pretty, intricately decorated spiritual shrine is built almost entirely from wood, reflective of residents’ desire for harmony with the natural world.  The main hall houses a large, gold statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha alongside other Buddhist treasures.  The complex is surrounded by beautiful oriental gardens and lotus ponds; it’s a peaceful oasis in the busy city.  Chi Linn is a short walk from Diamond Hill MTR station and entry is free.



Hong Kong Night Skyline


Flat land is difficult to come by in Hong Kong, so the only way to build is skyward!  With more than 1300 skyscrapers above hundred meters in height, Hong Kong has more tall buildings than any other city in the world.  And this makes for a pretty dramatic cityscape!  The view is great by day, but it’s particularly spectacular by night.  In the hours of darkness, the city transforms into a dazzling spectacle of lights.  Some of the best views to be had are from the promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui (by the clock tower) or from the Star Ferry.




Star Ferry


The hugely iconic Star Ferry crosses the harbour between Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong Island.  Two different routes run regularly from Tsim Sha Tsui pier; one to Wan Chai and the other to Central.  At just $3.30 HKD (£0.30 GBP) per trip, it’s the cheapest and one of the easiest ways to cross the harbour.  There are fantastic views of the city, and the experience certainly has a novelty factor.  The Star Ferry has been in operation since 1888 and holds a special place in the hearts of Hong Kongers!


Wong Tai Sin


For such a seemingly ultra-modern city, Hong Kong has done a fantastic job of preserving traditional culture and traditions.  To get an authentic flavour of the Far East, there’s no better place than the temple of Wong Tai Sin.  This intricately decorated, and vividly colourful temple is a spiritual sanctuary for both Buddhists and Taoists.  This temple is really easy to reach from Wong Tai Sin MTR station, so it can become a bit crowded - particularly on weekends.  But its popularity is well-justified – it’s stunning!




Tian Tan Buddha


The huge Tian Tan Buddha sits tall above Lantau Island.  This stunning bronze statue is amongst the biggest of its kind in the world and the rugged natural setting really adds to the appeal.  The strenuous climb of 268 steps from Ngong Ping village is worth it for the fabulous views over the Po Linn temple and the surrounding countryside.  A scenic, but quite pricey cable car ride links the site with Tung Chung MTR station or alternatively you can take the bus.




Tai O fishing village


A short bus ride from the Tian Tan Buddha is the cute ‘floating’ fishing village of Tai O, known for its traditional stilt houses and slow pace of life.  It’s such a unique little place and it’s so beautiful.  Tai O feels a million miles away from the bright lights and busy streets of Hong Kong or Kowloon.  Traditions here have stood the test of time and it’s a delight to explore.  Wander through the maze of little alleys and fish markets, soaking in the atmosphere, then take a boat ride through the labyrinth of canals and stilt houses.  You really get a unique perspective from the water.  Boats leave frequently from the village’s main pier and should only cost around $30 HKD (about £3 GBP).



Peak Tram


This much-loved and near-vertical historic funicular carries passengers high above the skyscrapers to the summit of Victoria Peak.  From here, there are spectacular panoramic views over Hong Kong and on towards Mainland China.  Be sure to visit on a clear day, as views are often obscured by mist and be prepared for long queues!


Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas


Of all the temples in Hong Kong, the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas is probably my favourite.  I love the vivid colours and secluded location - this temple feels so peaceful.  A winding path, lined with gold-coated Buddhist statues, zig zags up a hillside from Sha Tin MTR station to the main temple and iconic red pagoda.  It feels very authentically ‘oriental’.  And I know what you’re thinking; are there really ten thousand Buddhas??  There’s actually a little under 13 thousand!  Entry is free and there’s a vegetarian restaurant on the site.




Practicalities


Hong Kong is a safe and incredibly exciting place to visit and is very tourist-friendly.  Countless airlines run daily flights to HKG from every continent and passport holders from most countries can enter the territory visa-free. 

Unfortunately, the city has a reputation for high prices, and this is likely to be the biggest obstacle for budget travellers.  Accommodation will almost certainly be your biggest expense.  Expect to pay around $180 HKD per night for a shared dorm in a decent backpackers’ hostel.  There are lots of fantastic hostels in the city, mostly in Tsim Sha Tsui or Central.  I stayed at Hopp Inn Hostel and it was great.  Hotels are tear-inducingly expensive – expect to pay upwards of $600 HKD per night in a single room in a low-end hotel.  Be wary of the cheapest deals.



Food prices are comparable to those in Western Europe, but it’s actually relatively easy to eat well on a low budget.  Local dishes in mid-range restaurants should cost between $80 and $120 HKD, but street food and simple noodle dishes can be as cheap as $30 HKD.  Western food is widely available, but tends to cost more.  Despite the city’s thriving party scene, drinking tends to be a pricey hobby in Hong Kong; expect to pay about $50 HKD for a Chinese beer at a bar, or around $70 HKD for a glass of wine.  Supermarkets are considerably cheaper.  In contrast, transport is extremely cheap, efficient and easy to use. 



Hong Kong is quite frankly stunning.  For me, it was love at first sight and I’d urge anyone and everyone to visit!  I hope this article is helpful – thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x