58. South East Asia, Feb/March 2016


‘Boding badly’ time – our flight from Heathrow was delayed as the incoming flight had had a death on board. Apparently, there is a procedure which involves a lot of paperwork and simply lobbing the cadaver out of the plane into the ocean is not an option.

We came to Bangkok purely as we’d never been before. The first surprising thing about this place hits you on the way from the airport to the city centre: it’s almost entirely full of roads on stilts. It’s quite a rich place with the usual nightmarish traffic problems. Also interesting was the fact that driving is on the left as in Britain and the surprisingly low number of bikes/motorbikes (in contrast to its neighbour, Cambodia).



“Scorpion on a stick, anyone?”

Many people said this city was a s**thole but I liked Bangkok, particularly the bustle around the backpacker boozing district of Khao San Road where it’s important to have street cred; we saw the four external tables of one bar occupied by archetypal hippies who were staring out with: ponytails, beards, joints and thousand-yard stares. The street sellers are also a hoot: I often had to choose between a selfie stick or a scorpion on a stick. The agony of choice…

What is it with selfie sticks? I know this is going to upset some people but, the Japanese and Koreans, particularly, seem to be utterly unaware of the ‘I-look-like-a-total-knobhead’ factor when, with all of the grandeur of Asia around them, they insist in putting themselves in the central 95% of the photograph, usually with a sickly grin and reverse Churchillian ‘V’ sign. Aaargh!!


Here it’s full of westerners, which, of course, would be a good reason to avoid it. Annoyances time again: who else can’t stand it when you overhear something like: ‘Oh yeah, we did Vietnam last week, we’re going to do Laos on Friday’? Usually, this is from other, so-called, travellers.



Charlotte and Helen

We met our lovely friend and proper traveller, Charlotte, from Canada, who we taught with in Bratislava, and she reminded us of the quote: ‘A tourist is someone who doesn’t know where they were yesterday and a traveller is someone who doesn’t know where they’re going tomorrow’. Splendid.

A must-do here is to take the canal taxi along the Klong Saen Saeb from the old town to the smart new town. It breaks every rule of UK Health and Safety legislation: getting on and off is hit-and-miss, the fare collector hangs on to the side to collect the fixed fare of a few pence and the ‘craft’ hurtles along the stinking canal with breathless insouciance – you hold on for dear life keeping your mouth closed lest you inhale the toxic spray. We wondered how many tourists they lose yearly to the drink.

There is always that underlying, lingering smell of sewage and a sweet, donut-like aroma which is often overtaken by the gorgeous fragrance of jasmine.

Crossing the road is the usual dice with death. I found that the safest time to cross is either when the red man is displayed or you find a fat guy to cross with down-flow of him.

7/11 shops and massage parlours are everywhere. The people here were generally very friendly although we were amused when we reached the terminus of the river boat one day and, hoping we could stay on for the return journey, were told, in no uncertain terms by the fare collector, to ‘GET OFF!’ You don’t argue with that.


 2. Phnom Penh


First impressions – much poorer than Thailand; the roads are clogged with motorbikes. Oddly, although most of the cars are Toyotas, there seems to have been a job lot of Lexus RX300s delivered to Cambodia! What’s that all about?!


We met up with another couple of friends: Nick and Maire who we taught with in Moscow, and they showed us around. We had an Indian curry one night and fish and chips another. Well, when in Rome…

The currency here is the Riel – about five and a half thousand to the pound. So, as is often the case with a weak currency, the US dollar is king.

The people here are lovely. One night after returning from the bar, we stopped to look at the stars and Jupiter (well, we’ve all done that!) and a lady running a street stall was fascinated and introduced us to her son and we spent the next 15 minutes chatting away about space – a subject that I‘m vaguely interested in! We ended up singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle…’ with them both. There was no hidden motive – so refreshing.


One place I’d always wanted to see was the Killing Fields. Well, I’d already ‘done’ Auschwitz…


Killing Fields

This is a few miles out of PP but is remarkably, tastefully presented. You’re likely to lose your breakfast in the tuktuk getting there over the not-too-smooth roads but the trip is well worth it. Another example (if we needed it) of man’s inhumanity to his fellow primate. Follow this up with a visit to the Tuol Sleng museum, previously a school that was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a prison camp where unimaginable atrocities were committed.


We looked for a pub where we could find Premier League football and we found a group of locals shouting and screaming at the box. “Hurrah! At last” we thought. But no, in a classic ‘aubergine moment’ we realised it was the national sport of Thai boxing.


Traffic nightmare again. The only rule we could ascertain was ‘biggest vehicle wins’.


We saw a lot of typical Vietnamese ‘squeezy bottle ladies’. See my blog of Da Lat where I describe these women who are the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Rag and Bone’ men and herald their arrival with a Fairy Liquid bottle adapted into a pseudo-kazoo.


I bought a newspaper: ‘The Phnom Penh Times’ and found that the pages were stapled together. Clearly, they didn’t want anyone reading the thing without paying.



Unable to breathe

Our friendly hotel tuktuk man suggested one day that we visit the temple at Udong. ‘OK’ we said. Well, it should be renamed ‘You’ve been done’. Don’t take this trip. It takes forever to get there over awful, dusty roads and you finally reach a hill (rare in Cambodia!) where, in the baking heat, you climb innumerable steps to reach yet another temple, all the time being fleeced by doe-eyed pleading locals with missing limbs demanding your easy-gotten, western cash. When we got back to the hotel we were unrecognisable in our new, dust-covered personas.


3. Siem Reap

We took a coach to the second city in Cambodia which is somewhat more pleasant in most respects than the capital. It’s greener and less chaotic. There are also some interesting temples nearby.

Of course, this place is famous for the home of the world’s largest religious site: Angkor Wat, a must-see regardless of your religious convictions. We went on a dawn visit and were astounded to find thousands of other tourists doing the same thing. It was, however, quite magnificent.


Angkor Wat at dawn


We had another couple of days visiting this site. We don’t normally ‘do’ temples but this area is quite spectacular. One place we did like was described by our tuktuk driver as: ‘Temple with a tree’. It did exactly what it said on the tin: a huge tree growing inside the temple!


I bought a T-shirt after being hounded by a lady calling herself ‘Angelina Jolie’.

OK, just to get you off my back, I’ll buy one of your damn T-shirts. What does it cost?

20dollars”, came the reply.

Stuff that” or something similar, I replied. Anyway, I got it for 5 dollars. Another one of my personal gripes is haggling, mainly because I’m so crap at it! Just give me the price – I’ll pay any reasonable price, just don’t let the best price go the meanest son-of-a-bitch who’s got all day to argue about it.

You get the stall holder who grabs you with, “ Do you want to buy a scarf?

“No, thank you”

It’s a good price

“No, thanks”

It’s very nice

“No, thanks”

It’s made in Cambodia

“What part of ‘No thanks’ do you have a problem with?”


If you like temples, then this place is surely the place for you.

One good thing about Cambodia is the prevalence of laundry services everywhere – one kilogram, one dollar. Our good friends will know that we have the impossible choice to make in hotels around the world when faced with the laundry problem: the cost of doing the laundry is greater than the purchase price of our clothes – if only there was an Asda nearby (US readers, read ‘Walmart’).

Siem Reap itself is a good place to stay. There is the unambiguously-named ‘Pub Street’ which is where most tourists head for. I fancied a Guinness so we finally found ‘Molly Malone’s Bar’. In another ‘aubergine moment’, the place not only didn’t have air-con, but, unfathomably, didn’t have Guinness!! Is it possible to envisage a greater disappointment?!

Favourite slogan: ‘Have a break, have a Tuk Tuk’.

 Prek Toal Nature Reserve.


We splashed out on a day to this difficult-to-get-to reserve. The tour starts at 5.30: a taxi ride to the river and then a boat through the river and across the Tonle Sap lake (the largest in S.E. Asia). Strangely unnerving on the lake is when you can’t see anything but water and then suddenly you go past what appears to be a guy’s head bobbing up and down in the middle of the lake. People wade out miles to fish in this deceptively shallow body of water. The boat takes us up another river and drops us at a riverside hut where we get into a smaller boat, little bigger than a canoe. This then takes us along a narrow river, seemingly unpassable with floating vegetation, to the reserve. Our guide spoke no English but kept enthusiastically grabbing his bird card and pointing out the interesting birds. At one point, we came to what we thought was the end of the river. The guide dumped us out onto a mud bank then he floated away! ‘Uh, what’s this?!’ we thought. What do we do now? We started to walk off into the woods when we noticed that the guy had repositioned the boat facing the dyke and then charged into the bank and rode over it! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing as he manoeuvred over the dyke and dropped into the river on the other side whereupon we re-entered the boat. Getting into and out of these boats requires considerable care and was undoubtedly the scariest part of our month away.

Anyway, we had a great day birding. See the full list at the end of the blog.

 4. Hong Kong

First impressions of this place is a place much larger than I expected. I had a vision of a tiny, packed island with skyscrapers and no room to move around. It is, however, rather large with great swathes of greenery, hills, ship yards, etc. Some great bridges and other structures.


Whiskered Bulbul

We chose a hotel in the northern, New Territories suburb of Shatin (“Stop shaatin’!”) as it is close to a wildlife reserve. We spent a day at the Tai Po reserve and managed to see a number of Whiskered Bulbuls, which was nice.

A must-do is to take a trip across the bay from Kowloon to Hong Kong island on the Star Ferry. You’ll see Black Kites flying around the skyscrapers and over the bay.


As everywhere else, the place is full of ‘Smombies’. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the inexorable pace of English neologisms, a ‘smombie’ is a ‘smartphone zombie’ – you know the type: walking obliviously into oncoming traffic etc. while concentrating on some mind-numbing Facebook photo of a cat or meal. Thankfully, these people are steadily removing themselves from the gene pool.


I quite like the place; it’s easy to get around: the metro and buses are easy to understand. But, I couldn’t live there, it’s SO EXPENSIVE! Our first night we decided to stay in the hotel and have a pizza and a bottle of wine. Small pizzas, 12 quid each, house wine 33 quid a bottle. Yikes!!

P1100827.JPGWe roamed around and found ‘Madrid café’ in Kowloon. I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu: ‘Baked potato and tomato sauce’. The baked potato was uncooked and the tomato sauce was full of mincemeat! Still, I only had to pay a tenner… In another example of this madness, I bought a cheesy-topped bread roll at a 7/11 then, in a Pavlovian lip-smacking moment back at the hotel, I unwrapped my evening delight to discover it was filled with… yes, you’ve guessed it… mincemeat!! WTF is wrong with these people?!?!







1. Large-billed crow
2. Spot-billed pelican
3. Grey heron
4. Purple heron
5. Chinese pond heron
6. Oriental darter
7. Barn swallow
8. Great egret
9. Little egret
10. Martin
11. Blue tailed bee-eater
12. Common myna
13. Brahminy kite
14. White-headed eagle
15. Greater adjutant
16. Lesser adjutant
17. Whiskered tern
18. Tree sparrow
19. Stork-billed kingfisher
20. Common gallinule
21. Common coot
22. Little cormorant
23. Spotted dove
24. Zebra dove
25. House swift