New Zealand road trip: part two.

Queenstown and Wanaka. Two similar but wildly different places. Like they’d say in SE Asia, same same but different.

Legendary Queenstown. Home of everything adrenaline. Home to everything big. Big burgers, big mountains, big shots and big hangovers. In your face, busy and bustling.

Wanaka. Laid back, chilled and understated. A place to relax and enjoy and eat fresh cookies at the cinema.

In Queenstown I met up with Marsha again, who I’d first met in Christchurch through a mutual friend. What followed was a fuzzy week of friendship forming, non-stop alcohol, shots, hangovers, lots of laughter, hill climbing, grass sitting, food eating, film watching, sandwich cooking, men watching, life-sorting-out stuff. We met the delightful V from California too, who made us crack up laughing almost every minute with her crazy stories and theories.

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We made the rather fantastic bar Cowboys our local. It’s like the Wild West. The bar stools are saddles, there’s other table stools that have sides (perfect for me), the pumps are guns, there’s a good supply of cowboy hats to wear, a full size grizzly bear to meet you at the door and even a mechanical bull. Yep, a mechanical bull. I didn’t ride it because of my rib, but I spent many a time watching all the other drunkards have a go (when I say have a go, I mean spend ages trying to get ON the thing, only to be promptly bucked off in half a second. Especially if the guys controlling it were feeling mischievous – that happened a lot to cocky blokes who thought they’d be the one to give a good show. Fail.). It also played the same music all the time, although I only clocked onto this after a good few visits, when I realised there was only so many times I could watch Jessica Simpson strut around singing about boots made for walking and wondering what the relevance of her washing a car in a bikini was to the song.

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We drank a lot of shots and met a lot of people. Nearly every night in our hostel someone was drinking, pre-drinking or going out. Most of the nights just started innocently with a drink or two. None of our nights out were planned. The best way. An average bedtime was around 3am, after a legendary Fergburger, which, after a night out, is the BEST THING EVER. I’m sure it’s good sober too, but I never really experienced that. My hangover food of choice was Noodle Canteen.  They did wicked chicken fried rice in a little cardboard noodle takeaway box, great when eaten in the sun on the grass near the lake, chatting about life, the world and the size of men’s appendages.

I rediscovered jager bombs and tequila slammers, mainly thanks to Damien who would always buy a round of shots quite early on. And well, from then on, you’re committed.*

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It was in Queenstown (well firstly in Wanaka but again in QT) where I also met Johnny, an Irish guy I went on to travel with for a week. We all went out for a ‘few drinks’. Ended in a Big Night Out, lots of shots and not a lot of sleep. We all slept in hammocks in the garden in the sun the next day. He did the Nevis bungy jump. Poor bloke.

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But Queenstown wasn’t all about the drinking or nightlife (although, that’s a huge part of it for all travellers, and it sucks you in). I couldn’t do any of the adrenaline stuff (and you can do pretty much anything here. Bungy jumping, jet boats, paragliding, skydives, etc, etc) but I could appreciate the natural beauty of the place. It’s often described as one of the prettiest places to visit, and they’d be right. It’s in a great setting, on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables and other mountain ranges surrounding it and the Queenstown Gardens jut out in the middle, full of trees. In autumn, they are all a glorious mix of red, yellows and greens and well, my eyes had a treat every day I was here. As anywhere in New Zealand, there’s a few walks dotted about, and the views from the top of Queenstown Hill and Bob’s Peak are pretty special, and worth the walk/climb (also helps sweat out the alcohol and burger from the previous night).

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Queenstown was also the place where I used a hairdryer for the first time in months. This might not sound a lot but, oh my, this was a Big Deal. Such a treat! Smooth straight hair for once. It’s the little things in life you know.

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Marsha and I also hopped across to Wanaka for a few days (pretty nice drive in/over the Crown Ranges) to have a bit of a chill out from the madness. Wanaka is like Queenstown’s more laid back cousin (and apparently is what QT was like 20 or so years ago). Just as pretty, just as many hills and mountains to climb but much less busy, less frenetic and much less drinking.

We both loved Wanaka. It was really nice and chilled and we spent a great few days walking, trundling around, eating, drinking $12 cider (Marsha), shopping (Marsha), being propositioned in the supermarket (Marsha) watching very random open mic/karaoke nights (Swedish/english rap anyone?) and visiting what is possibly the best cinema in the world (but possibly not the best film in the world – Pompeii). Cinema Paradiso is a small independent cinema, that has all kinds of seats. Couches, cinema seats, cars (yes, you can sit in a car), bus seats etc. They also sell homemade ice cream and bake cookies in the first half of the film, so at the intermission you can buy warm cookies (whose smell wafts into the cinema near to half time. Mmm freshly baked cookie smell.) for that cookie-induced sugar coma for the second half of the film. Oh, and they’re also licensed so you can buy wine and beer to take in with you, although at nearly $10 a glass it;s not cheap. Lincolnshire people, it’s like the Kinema in the Woods on steroids.

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If you’re visiting Wanaka and only do one walk, do Roy’s Peak. It’s 1578m, so just over 200m higher than Ben Nevis (1344m), the highest mountain in the British Isles. It’s a hard climb, very steep and tough, but, well, well worth it for the view. It’s just incredible. I did gasp when I saw THIS in front of me:

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Definitely a “f**k me” moment. It didn’t look real. The colours, the texture, the view. It was like a painting, stretched out in a technicolour 360 degree view. It’s the middle peak in this picture, by the way:

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We also walked to the Rob Roy Glacier (after a near miss with a cow on the way) and Mount Iron, as well as around the lake. Pretty active yet chilled out few days.

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Then of course we went back to Queenstown and hit it hard that night.

 

 

 

*Disclaimer/note to the parents, I was quite sensible and never got completely rip roaring drunk or put myself in dodgy situations. My rib is still intact and I didn’t fall over once. I think.

 

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Captivating Cambodia.

Cambodia. A country full of character, history, scenery, lively people and good food. We had about 2 and a half weeks in this amazing country. The first and main thing for anyone going to Cambodia is to go and see Angkor Wat. Obviously a must. But. There’s much more to it than that. It could be said that Cambodia got a bit of a bum deal from us in terms of travelling time. We spent 10 days at the beach in Sihanoukville not doing anything. Not seeing anything, not exploring, not taking any pictures. Because, after all the other SE Asia travelling, we were worn out and ready for a holiday. So, yep, we ate into our Cambodia exploring time to be beach bums. But, it was worth it. I don’t feel like we missed anything, or sacrificed anything. In fact, those 10 days gave us some great times, great fun, new friends and even though Sihanoukville doesn’t feel like the real Cambodia, we met some of the loveliest Cambodian people going. And still had plenty of time to go visit those Angkor temples and to find out more about the Khmer history, include the Khmer Rouge regime.

From Sihanoukville, feeling more relaxed than someone who’s spent a whole year in a spa, we made our way to Siem Reap on a hotel bus. What’s a hotel bus I hear you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a posh sleeper bus. Little compartments for two, with completely flat beds and pillows/blankets, separated to the rest of the bus by curtains with headphones and music (Dr Dre beats no less, although of course they are the fake ones you can get out here). Normally you have to pay extra for this compared to the normal sleeper bus but we ended up being upgraded onto this one for free. Bonus. A pretty decent night’s sleep followed, and we wound up in SR in the morning surprisingly fresh and sprightly. When we originally booked our ticket the woman said she would organise a tuk tuk to take us from the station to the middle of town for free as part of our ticket. We were a bit sceptical, as you learn to take what people say about transport with a pinch of salt as it’s often not quite the case. So, we gave the name James Bond as a bit of a joke. But, sure enough, there was our tuk tuk driver holding up the sign JAMES BOND. I so wish I’d taken a picture but I was too busy fending off other tuk tuk drivers. Honestly, they’re like wasps round a jam jar as soon.as.you.get.off.the.bus. In your face. Literally. I’ve had to push some of them away before. They ignore what you say most of the time too.

The usual routine followed. I’m sure you know it by now. Find a guesthouse. Haggle for a good price. Dump bags. Get food if not eaten. Go for a wander. Find cheap beer. Drink beer. And that’s pretty much what we did the first day. We had our first beer at 11.40am. I don’t remember going to bed but Nick says I collapsed on my bed at about 9pm. We found a great bar on Pub Street doing cheap 50c beer where we sat for around 7 hours. We made some new friends from the USA, Doncaster and Ireland, and all sat there getting drunk. It was a most fabulous day, even if I don’t remember all of it. I do remember my foot bleeding a lot (I’d ripped part of my big toenail off somehow) and falling asleep in the hotel restaurant while waiting for a burger though. Just a usual drunken night out. Only this one cost us $7 each. That’s less than a fiver. For a 7 hour, 14 beer, drinking session. The next day was fairly relaxed, and I didn’t have a hangover. Extremely surprised at this. Either my tolerance level is back up or I was still drunk for most of the day. I suspect the former, the latter would just be scary. Walked lots. Suspect this helped.

The day after was Angkor Temple day. Whoop! You must have heard of Angkor Wat? Or the Temples of Angkor? If not, learn more here. It’s somewhere I’ve always fancied visiting if I ever got the chance, so I kind of woke up a bit excited. There’s bloody loads of temples in the whole complex, but there was three I really wanted to see: Angkor Wat (the main and most famous temple complex), Angkor Thom (the huge city, including Bayon which is the temple with the faces) and Ta Phrom (the one that’s overgrown with trees, as seen in the Tomb Raider films). So, after negotiating hard for a tuk tuk, we ended up with a sparky young lad as our driver for the day. For $6 he took us round. Little star!

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The temples were beautiful. All different in their own way. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, that iconic view that I’d seen so often in other pictures, was mesmerising. Made even the more better by bumping into some old friends we first met in Laos. What a spot for a final goodbye, as they’re off to Indonesia, Nick’s off back to Thailand and I’m off to Australia, so no more chances to bump into them. I’m hoping to meet up with them in Oz or NZ though, if the universe plays ball and dates and places collide. Angkor Wat is huge. Really, really massive. Loads of rooms, courtyards, corridors, nooks and crannies. It was also crammed with people, no surprise there. Lots of tour groups. Especially from Japan and China. Who always seemed to be going the opposite direction to me. Especially where there were steps or small doorways. One chap from a tour group even decided to use my leg as support when he fell up some steps. And I didn’t even get a thank you.

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In a way it reminded me of the Taj Mahal, although it’s not really similar in the slightest. I can’t quite explain why, it just does. Maybe the size and scale and, well, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. It was also lovely to bump into some friends we made on our very first night in Laos, all those weeks ago. Ross and Emma, a permanently cheery, lovely couple have been a bit of a permanent fixture in Laos and Vietnam. We kept bumping into each other all the way round, in different places, which was lovely. But we all realised that this would be the last time, as we were all heading off in different directions after Siem Reap. Although, I hopefully might be able to meet up with them in New Zealand, if dates and schedules line up. It was a sad day, a realisation that the next adventure was soon upon us, which, of course while exciting, also means the current one has to come to an end.

Angkor Thom and Bayon were next. I liked these. They weren’t as restored as Angkor Wat, and were a lot less crowded. I didn’t get pushed or grabbed, or fallen on. Oh, although I did get rudely told to move out of the way while I was taking a photo, so someone else could take on. I may have taken longer to finish my photo after that. Well. How rude.

I liked the faces of Bayon, they all seemed to have a bit of a self-satisfied dreamy smile. It made me wonder what they were thinking of. Yes, I know they’re not real but you know what I mean. Or, they could be magical mystical things that come alive at night when no-ones watching. You never know.  Travelling means keeping an open mind, so, who knows?

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But it was Ta Phrom that I think I was most looking forward to. This is the one that’s all overgrown with trees. Where nature has been left to do it’s thing, and you can see how destructive and powerful it can be. Huge trees have grown into, over and through the bricks. The one that was used in the Tomb Raider films (apparently, I’ve never seen them). It was beautiful. Eerily beautiful. Amazing to see all the roots and how they spread. The trees were huge. Really, really huge. It does just remind me how we can be at the mercy of nature. Ok, so there’s no immediate danger to us from these trees (as far as I know they’re not killer trees), but it just shows how things you think are strong can be reduced to a crumbling heap by nature. It’s powerful. We should never forget that, and give it the respect it deserves.

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There’s so many more temples to visit, but these are the ones I wanted to see. I think any more and I would have been templed out. (This can be a common affliction while in Asia). It’s funny, the complex reminded me of Clumber Park (England), India and Mexico in different ways at different times. The more places I go to, the more triggers of memories I seem to get. The joy of travel, eh?

Siem Reap was a great place to hang out. It had a great little vibe. It’s only really a tourist destination because of the temples, but there’s actually lots of other stuff to do too. We hired bikes one day and went out to a couple of the rural villages on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake. It was awesome. The villages were very rural, and it was clear the people who lived there didn’t have a lot of money. But, the people we saw, especially the children, we just lovely. Shouting and waving to us as we biked past.

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We also went and gave blood at Angkor Children’s Hospital. I wanted to do something to help, and I haven’t been able to give blood in the UK last year and of course when I’ve been away, so this seemed perfect. Everyone who can give blood, should. It saves lives, and is vital. I started as soon as I was old enough at 17 and have given as often as I can since then. It’s such as easy thing to do but so important. Seeing and hearing the children at the hospital when we went was heartbreaking, and so I’m so pleased I got this chance to help, just a little bit.

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After Siem Reap, I took my last bus journey to Phnom Penh. A long, bumpy ride, I was so over Asian bus rides by the time we got there. I’m glad it was my last. They’ve been fun, and an adventure, but, well, think yourself lucky with the potholes in England. There’s craters over here, and they don’t get filled in. I’m surprised my spine isn’t shattered and that my brain is still in my head.

Phnom Penh is the capital city. We’d already been there once but only for an hour on a bus changeover. We arrived here in the evening, and headed to the South of the city to try and find a place to stay. It was harder here; places were either full or really expensive (well, expensive in the context of Cambodia/SE Asia). As we were wandering around after having no luck for a while, a guy on a scooter stopped us on a street corner, introduced himself as Greg and offered us his spare room. Of course we said yes, hopped onto a tuk tuk and followed him to his house. Why wouldn’t you?

We stayed with him and his two house mates (Cass and Kip) for our last 3 days of the SE Asia adventure, and it was great. No checking in and checking out, they gave us free reign of the apartment and even fed us pizza. Man, it was awesome pizza.

That’s one the beautiful things about travelling. You meet people and you just know. There’s mutual trust. People offer things, you know it’s genuine. No half-arsed offers. I had a 10 minute conversation with someone in Thailand and now have somewhere to stay in Tasmania next month. And I will stay there. It wasn’t just a polite offer.  You get to meet all kinds of interesting people.  A wonderful thing. The world is small and people are lovely.

The real reason for going to Phnom Penh though (apart from me having a flight to Singapore) was to learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime. I’d heard of Pol Pot, but didn’t really know much about him. Now I do.  We visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum which was originally a school, and then the S21 prison, where people were taken to be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. It was a haunting place, where blood stains on the floors and photos of the prisoners made it even more impactive. We also visited the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh, where huge numbers of people were killed. Both were moving experiences, although the overwhelming feeling I had was anger. Such hypocrisy, power, greed and insanity. Such a complex and twisted history. And these weren’t the only prisons and killing fields; there were hundreds all across Cambodia. In total, more than 2 million Cambodian people died. For wearing glasses, for being a teacher, for being educated, for being able to speak a foreign language. All under the direction of a professor and educated man himself who studied abroad. Go figure.

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I know a lot more now, and the more I learn about atrocities like these, the more I struggle to get my head around it. But the more I hope that things like this are in the past. That they will never happen again. That countries around the world will not let it happen. We must educate people so they are aware, raising future generations to stop this.

Cambodia has been a mix of experiences, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s captured my heart and there’s just something about the country that is special. I can’t quite narrow it down to one thing; it’s everything. Everything that I experienced there.

So thank you Cambodia. You were wonderful.