Stopover in Guangzhou (China)

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We land in Guangzhou after a long thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam. It’s 6:30am and we don’t depart until 9:30pm tonight. Fortunately, as Australian passport holders we are among the nationals of some fifty countries who can enter Guangzhou visa-free for up to 72 hours if he hold a boarding pass or ticket for an onward flight. Our baggage has been checked through so all we need to do is walk to the customs counter, handover our passports and boarding passes, and obtain the necessary entry stamp into China.

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I thought I would feel discombobulated at the sharp transition from Western Europe to China. Perhaps it’s a sign of the way I’ve adapted over the past few years of travel because I feel immediately at home. We easily navigate the metro into the city and find our way around without any hassles. It does help that Guangzhou is a tourist-friendly hub where signs are often written in both Chinese and English. But still, I would have anticipated some sense of momentary discomfort being in China. That said, we have now spent a lot of time in Asia and many things that we see, hear, smell and taste are consistent across Asia.

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We take the Metro to Yuexiu Park and turn right out of the station to walk to Liuhuahu Park with its massive lakes. It’s Saturday morning. The perfect time to watch local Guangzhou residents socialising and practicing their hobbies. Tai chi seems to be a favourite. It brings back memories of my previous visit to China in 2009 when I would sit and watch the locals practice tai chi in Shanghai.

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It’s not just tai chi that’s getting a run here though. Badminton and table tennis are also incredibly popular. Just as we have basketball courts, football fields and cricket pitches in Australia, Guangzhou has table tennis tables and badminton courts in the park. The matches look serious. Shuttlecocks and ping pong balls zoom through the air at barely perceptible speeds. No wonder the Chinese perform well in these sports at the Olympic Games given that this is just amateur hour on a Saturday morning.

There’s plenty of ballroom dancers in the park too. They cha cha, rumba and waltz to music blaring from boom boxes of all shapes and styles. I feel happy just watching them. It’s like going to a dance concert for free in the park. And the dancers all look happy.

The most captivating group, though, is the choir. It looks almost impromptu but obviously the group comes together here regularly. The choir mistress guides the singers through a long playlist written on large sheets of paper that she turns over as each song ends. Each time we pass the choir (for we do go back a few times), it grows in size and volume. One man near the back (off camera) is always the loudest. He has the biggest smile despite not having the most tuneful voice (to my ears).

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The park isn’t just for organised recreation. It’s also a place of relaxation and beauty. People walk, play with their children and sleep in the park’s different “rooms”. There’s open areas, bonsai gardens, tall tree lined paths and pagodas. You just need to chose what you feel like experiencing or walk through the whole lot.

Half the park is closed during our visit in preparation of the Lunar New Year celebrations later in the month but still there’s enough here to keep us occupied for about four hours.

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We retrace our steps to the Metro and travel into the heart of Guangzhou, changing lines to travel to Beijing Road Station. Beijing Road is the main shopping and pedestrian street in Guangzhou. It’s busy but calm. And it’s where life takes place. Tourist buses mingle with motorcyclists carrying heavy loads. Shoppers mingle with tourists. Traditional eateries meet Starbucks.

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We start with lunch at a small restaurant packed with Chinese people. It is just one of a small row of restaurants in a lane way of Beijing Road. We chose it because there’s not a seat nor white tourist in the house. That’s always a good sign. There’s a large menu but a small selection of items are described in English on a wall in the back of the shop. A table leaves as we order. The food is delicious. And at $3-4 a serve it’s also easy on the wallet. We eat and watch the goings on around us.

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Beijing Road turns out to be a good choice. We walk around just watching people, taking in the lanterns and posing for pictures with the statues. The Astro Boy is in front of a whole shop dedicated to the cartoon series. Children laugh and play in the mall. Parents talk together. Elderly men and women sit watching. There’s a few touts trying to sell tourists fake Rolex but for the most part we are left alone to wander.

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The Big Buddha Temple is a stark contrast to the city around it. It’s old (900CE from memory) and peaceful. We have arrived for a prayer festival but still can walk around to experience the grandeur. It’s different from the Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s less gaudy in decoration being mostly wood and stone, rather than bright gold and mosaics. That said, there’s still incense sticks (you may not light them in the temple though – they have to be burned in a specific area off to one side). We love temples so this is a good find.

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By the time we get to Gongyuanqian Station we are quite tired. We only manage a short foray into the People’s Park with it’s pretty flowers, tai chi, badminton, music and dancers. We decide to catch the Metro straight back to the airport.

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Poor Paul is so tired he sleeps standing up despite the crowds of people entering and exiting the carriage. Guangzhou’s Metro is the sixth most used Metro network in the world. Fortunately, today is Saturday so it’s probably relatively quiet compared with the weekday rush.

Our day in Guangzhou has made me hungry to explore more of China. I went there for five weeks in 2009 but I was younger and less experienced at travel back then. I still took group tours so would love to come back as an independent traveler.

Two lazy days in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

We wake to an eerily quiet day in Kuala Lumpur. The city has been shut down due to a political demonstration that will take place today. It’s a good excuse to avoid public places and take it easy. The online news reports that most locals will stay home and maybe catch a movie to avoid the rallies. We decide to do the same.

Housekeeping comes to our room at 12:30pm so that’s when we finally get up. We watch The Accountant at Gold Screen Cinemas Pavilion. 

Downstairs at Pavilion is a massive Christmas display. At home thise who are overly politically correct try to dissuade us from celebrating Christmas in schools and shopping centres for fear of discriminating against Muslims but here Muslim families are quite happy to take photos of the children with Santa and to ride the Christmas themed merry-go-round. I think perhaps we’re creating unnecessary division at home. Rather than minimise Christmas, why not add Ramadan to our calendar like we do with Lunar New Year. 

We wander through the covered walkway to Suria Mall at the Twin Towers for a massage and dinner before catching Hell Or High Water at the Suria TGV cinema. You’re not supposed to bring in outside food but I had a hankering for M&Ms so we smuggle a packet in our pocket. They’re checking bags and taking items off people so we are lucky. 

On our second day we take it easy again. Our flight will depart at 11:10pm. We check out about five minutes before the midday cut off. The monorail takes us to the NU Sentral Mall where we watch Shut In at the Gold Screen Cinema. That makes for movies in three days. 

We’re both traveled out so eat McDonald’s for lunch before catching the bus to the airport where we laze in the movie lounge until our flight. 

Here’s some random photos from our last two days in Kuala Lumpur. 

It’s been an awesome trip. We’re ready for home but are looking forward to our Holland and Belgium trip at Christmas, just five weeks away. 

Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

The tuk tuk driver rouses himself from his slumber. It’s the slightly rude man who took us to the market last night. He’s probably just worn down from his labours in a hot and hectic city. To him we’re probably rich foreigners who sleep in a bed rather than a hammock strung across a tuk tuk. We’re not a prospect for repeat business so he doesn’t have to care. It’s understandable but still unpleasant. I resent having to pay him at the end of my ride. If he’d been friendly I would have given him the last of my Riel as a tip (about $US1.50 on top of a $US7 fare). But I don’t. I take them home because I cannot bring myself to encourage his approach. 

The streets of Phnom Penh are now less alien than when we arrived. I no longer feel as anxious as I did just twelve days ago. I had read so much bad press about Cambodia and its people. So much that turned out to be so untrue. Our bag was not snatched. Our pockets were not picked. Our belongings were not stolen from our guesthouse rooms (we didn’t stay in dives though – we paid $12-$25 per night for places with excellent reviews). I don’t know why I read up so much. Usually I don’t. Perhaps I’d lost my touch being back on our large island continent for ten months. I wish I hadn’t and I won’t in future. 

We experience the last of our Cambodian snow. That’s what Tony called the dust kicked up by traffic on the gravel roads outside Battambang. Next time I see snow I hope it’s the real stuff in Belgium or Holland at Christmas.

Airport officials make us reprint our boarding passes. Ours have bar codes but don’t look like the airline ones. Flexibility will take a little while to ease into officialdom here. 

It’s a short flight to Kuala Lumpur. Forty minutes over Cambodia, forty minutes over the sea and forty minutes over Peninsular Malaysia. Our captain plays tour guide. He clearly loves his job and it passes the time for us. 

We’re both quite tired and have both picked up stomach bugs in Kampong Chhnang. So we have a lazy afternoon in our room then catch a movie.

We eat at a local restaurant.

And have a short walk around our hotel before calling it a night. 

Kampong Chhnang to Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Sitting behind the driver is no place for the feint of heart. So it’s a good thing that Paul and I long ago relinquished our Western sensibilities and accepted the realities of travel. We rattle and bounce down a road built for lighter loads and slower speeds. Overtaking means hurtling headlong into oncoming traffic at breakneck speed. It’s just now it’s done here. As a passenger you just hold on an watch the world approach.

Arriving in Phnom Penh is a shock to the senses. It’s loud, dirty, busy and obnoxious after our ten days in quieter towns. I can only imagine what a shock it would be to young men and women who have left a farming community in search of big city fortune. Dust fills the air. Horns blast. Rubbish litters the ground. Advertising signs visually holler. It’s no better or worse than other global capitals. It’s just that here the contrast between the rest of the country and its capital city is so stark.

The bus station is tucked into the centre of the city. How the bus driver gets us there without squashing smaller road users is a mystery to me. The bus station is everything I imagined it to be. There’s more people waiting than seats available. It’s exposed to the elements and city grime so I feel for the German couple who will wait five hours for their connection for travel to the beach. Tuk tuk and moto drivers swarm us as we step off the bus. They don’t believe we want to walk. It’s their daily battle to make money for food. I don’t ever begrudge them this. It’s just that it’s tiring after a while.

We drop our bags at Feliz Hostel and Cafe. We have returned because we like it here. A short tuk tuk ride takes us to the Russian Market just before closing to buy a few items. A second hammock so I can take a friend camping. Some more paintings. Two cross stitches for me to make because they are one tenth the price at home and I enjoy it as a form of meditation. We haggle hard now. The prices start far too high. The goal is to get close to half the asking price or walk away. We manage to spend a few dollars.

We eat dinner at the Chinese restaurant where they make fresh noodles. Paul loves the beans there and me the noodles. We’ve remembered where it is. A massage follows. It’s the best massage I think I’ve ever had. $20 for a 90 minutes full body oil massage followed by $8 for a 60 minute foot reflexology. It’s our last chance at a cheap massage for a while.

And so we end our trip to Cambodia. Tomorrow we fly back to Kuala Lumpur for another two day stop over. It’s been awesome.

Kampong Chhnang (Cambodia)

Channy joins us at the breakfast table at our guesthouse. He quietly makes conversation. His English is perfect and he makes the dance gently. A quarter hour later, after first making relationships, we reach the point where a price can be discussed. It’s a fair price to which we all agree so Channy’s tuk tuk will become our chariot for the day.

More prices need to be negotiated at the waterfront. The skipper starts at $US30 for two hours. I’ve read online that the going rate for this type of boat (for foreigners) is about $US10/hour so I start at $15 hoping to settle on $20. We reach agreement at $23. Some might haggle a harder bargain but, as my father says, we give money to beggars easily but when someone is actually working for their income we haggle down to the last cent. Where’s the incentive to work then? Do we value the beggar more highly than the working person?

Our skipper motors the boat upriver for half an hour against the wind and tide. The engine splutters away behind us as we pass a workshop building composite plastic river boats, houses on stilts and mechanic workshops lining the banks of Tonle Sap, which is no longer a lake; it’s now a river.

Floating villages come into view and the engine is cut. Poverty surrounds us at every turn. Tin shacks, huts made of bamboo and leaves, children who should be in school and hardworking people. That’s what comprises the floating villages. Like all communities some people have done better than others. But modern floating houses are the exception not the rule.

That said, smiles abound. Children wave and call “hello”. It’s the only English word they know (except “one dollar”). Young men wearing nothing but underwear seem to be having a swimming race, diving from one boat and stroking quickly towards another. A boy rows from one house to another down a watery “street”. It’s not idealic but humans are resilient and this is home to them.

Back on dry land we travel out of town to a pottery village. It’s interesting enough to see the pottery being made but it’s the landscape I enjoy most. Rice fields are dotted with tall sugar palms. Skinny cattle graze on what grass is available in the cultivated landscape. Gravel roads stretch into the distance creating a contrast of orange and green.

We visit a mountain temple with yet more steps to annoy Paul. It’s peaceful at the top, though perhaps we were meant to walk further than we did. The instructions about what we were to expect were lacking. We are happy though to experience the temple and walk back down.

It’s 3pm by the time we return to town. We eat lunch then take a rest in the aircon. Our chariot departs again at 5pm.

Sunset over the rice fields is the icing on our Cambodian cake. Channy knows a place. He enjoys taking photos there. Words are unnecessary.

All that’s left to do is take one last walk through town, eat dinner, return to the festival to listen to some more music then head home to bed. Tomorrow we return to Phnom Penh on our long journey home.

Channy is a good guide and driver. His contact details are above.

Battambang to Kampong Chhnang (Cambodia)

We sit at the bus station watching the goings on. Our bus is scheduled for 9:30am but it’s already 11am. We’ve watched as the bus to Siem Riep was loaded equally with rice and passengers. Yes, you read that correctly, the bus was loaded with heavy bags of rice. Probably a few hundred kilos of the stuff.

Almost an hour later our single backpack is loaded into the hold of the bus bound for Phnom Penh (Kampong Chhnang is on the same bus route). Then it is unloaded to make way for our bus’s load of rice. There’s so much that some passengers have to take their luggage on board (we are lucky that our backpack fit underneath). Bags of rice are even loaded into the door well at the front of the bus. It makes a good seat for the passengers whose seats have been taken up by the piles of mattresses wrapped in plastic being transported in the back few rows of the bus.

It’s midday when we pull out of the bus station. We pass some time making up stories to go with the karaoke videos playing at the front of the bus. There’s the usual woman slapping man scene all too common in Cambodian karaoke, the love lorn man, the parents whose son is going off to work in the city, and the dutiful son who returns home with cash earned on a construction site. Hours pass as the rural landscape slips by. My reading of a novel seems to fascinate the woman in front of us who keeps looking and giggling nervously. Her children stare wide-eyed at us.

At first Kampong Chhnang doesn’t seem like much. It’s dusty and quiet. We walk past a prison on our way to our guesthouse. Hmm. But the guesthouse is lovely with friendly staff. Our room set in a garden with a bench out the front and cold aircon inside.

Right on dusk we head out to explore the town and find some food. The hour out of the heat has given us a second wind (the bus had aircon but it was old and ineffective).

We eat diner at a Chinese restaurant where two meals and drinks cost us $US5.50 (everything is cheaper once you leave Phnom Penh and Siem Riep). We are charged in Cambodian Riel for the first time in this trip and the staff don’t look happy to be handed dollars (the unofficial official currency of Cambodia). We haven’t needed Riel until now so have given our small money as donations at temples along the way. It’s okay though because we will collect a few dollars worth here in town.

We sit in a big park eating coconut cake for desert watching people. There’s teenagers kicking a small soccer ball around. A group of men play hackey sack. Some children let off fire crackers. Groups of young people hang out on the grass talking or playing guitar. Children run around. Families eat picnic dinners on colourful straw mats. And we are asked whether we can be in peoples’ photos (or they just snap a shot if they think we’re not looking).

What we don’t know yet is that we’ve arrived in the middle of a big festival. On our way home we come across it and stop off.  We will later learn it’s a Cambodia-Thailand friendship festival. It lasts a full week. We wander the stalls.

I play a side show game (and lose). We try a sausage that ends up being randomly filled with some sort of mince and rice noodle mix that tastes awesome.

And we watch the concert. People walk past us gawking as though we are aliens. Street urchins beg for money (no we do not cave in even when they stand batting their eyes at us for half an hour).

It’s funny how we always seem to find festivals when we travel. And always in the places where we least expect it.

Kampong Chhnang is so local. The contrast with foreign-owned Siem Riep is vast, even this evening. I think I will like this town a lot.

The small Battambang circuit (Cambodia)

We have asked Tony to pick us up at 9:30am so that we can sleep in. We are on a holiday after all. We get into the tuk tuk with little idea of where we will end up – that’s part of the fun of traveling.
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We travel along the river following small roads. This is how the other half lives and it’s important to realise that while we haggle over every dollar many people living here would love to just earn even a dollar for their labours. Today we will learn more about how hard the Khmer people have to work just to earn their meagre wages.
 photo IMG_9073_zpsev6hyhps.jpgut first a sobering stop at the Well of Shadows. This is the place where over 10,008 Khmer people were killed during the Pol Pot regime. The memorial tells the story of those unimaginable years. A period of history that many Khmer people today still remember. I am struck by the kindness of Khmer people despite the trauma of war and torture. They could have chosen to be angry and bitter like some other cultural groups who have suffered but they haven’t. Rather, this is a peaceful country where people are friendly and helpful.
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We stop at a small shed. A machine that could have come out of the ark is pulverising rice and then smoothing it. This is the first stage in making rice noodles. The second is totake the pulverised and moistened rice flour and pushing it through a big metal noodle maker and boiling the noodles. Wood is expensive so rice husks are burned to boil the water. It’s labour intensive, hot and dirty work.

Our next stop is a guava vendor. She sits on a wooden platform with her fruit piled neatly in front of her. The guava is tasty so I buy a kilo. It’s all grown locally along this road, harvested and sold right here. This is hand to mouth living without any guarantee of income. I feel grateful to have been born in the West. The lottery of birth is something that travel makes clear.

The rice wine making shed is next but, not being drinkers, we don’t stay to taste it. The fermentation process takes place in buckets that serve as vats. Fruit, snake, scorpion and spices make up the brew that is said to make men very powerful (if you know what I mean).

Not much farther along is a row of rice paper shops. I made a video because the process is so simple yet effective. These ladies make 3,000 rice paper sheets every day during the dry season. During the wet work has to stop because there’s no sun to dry the papers. I buy some fresh spring rolls, which taste good.

I wonder what it would feel like to have tourists observing your work on a daily basis. To know people who earn more in a day than you might in a year are photographing you out of curiosity. Is it ethical or responsible? Does our purchase of food and drink at their store justify our gawking? Without us this family might remain in greater poverty but our money might make it possible for families to make headway. I know what I’d do for my family if it came to it. I’d let tourists take photos if it were the difference between a subsistence future or having food in our bellies.
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Wat Ek Phnom suddenly appears before our tuk tuk. The giant Buddha is impossible to ignore. It dominates the landscape. Behind it lie the 11th Century ruins of Wat Ek Phnom. There’s no steps to climb – just a rocky ruin to scramble over.
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An old lady and a young man’s without use of his legs ply their trade here. They try to encourage tourists to follow them then ask for 1,000 riel ($US0.25). The man crawls. The lady hobbles. For all our complaints about the social security system in Australia, at least this isn’t the lot of our elderly and disabled populations. At home this man would have a lightweight wheelchair, a disability pension, access to education and workplace training, and the protection of anti-discrimination legislation that requires potential employers to make reasonable adjustments to allow him access to employment and workplaces. Our system is not perfect but at least we have something in place.
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This is the end of the small tour and we are taken back to Battambong. We eat lunch, have a massage at the seeing hand massage and take a tuk tuk to our guesthouse.
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We have plans to go to the full moon festival at a temple but are delayed. We order chicken amok (Khmer curry) and don’t realise it has to be made from scratch. An hour and a half later our meals finally arrive. The taste is amazing and worth the wait. I just wish I’d known.
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We end up lazing by the pool (well, I sit in it) playing on social media and blogging. The super moon is bright above. At $US12 a night this place sure is great value.

Tomorrow we will take a bus to Kampong Chnneng. No doubt that will be an experience of its own merits.