Tuk-Tuks, Light Sabres & Angkor What?!

Regular traveller and story teller extraordinaire, Ian Furbank travelled to Cambodia and then to Thailand to meet with family from other parts of the world, celebrating his wife's special birthday ... here is his hilarious account of the holiday!

So . . . off to Thailand to meet the Oompa Loompas and the Sydneysiders in Phuket. But first, birthday celebrations in Cambodia. It had been a very hard week prior to departure with my mother finally passing away after a protracted struggle, and “her indoors” becoming 60, as well as snow upsetting party plans – are we really getting that old??? In honour of her birthday we told the ‘kids’ (two 30+ daughters, one with Boyf in tow) to push off somewhere else, so we hit the Seafood Bar in LHR departures.

A rather delightful platter with a bottle of splendid NZ Sauvignon began to un-knot the tensions, but an hour waiting on the runway didn’t help – especially knowing there was a plane to catch at Doha. Some 17 hours of flying later, having fleetingly touched down in Ho Chi Minh City – not Saigon – even though the ground crew had jackets with ‘SGN Ground Crew’ on them, we were finally met in Phnom Penh airport by Sok our guide for the next two days.

That evening we walked in to Riverside in PP (don’t walk in PP: no-one does, as the pavements don’t exist, and when they do, mopeds and bikers use them just as much as pedestrians, and it’s too hot and sweaty, but after having been cooped up for so long it was good to get the legs moving). We enjoyed the poster promoting the World Toilet Association. I think you let us down a bit Jules, by not advising us that World Toilet Day was the 19th November, so we missed the celebrations! A tuk-tuk back to a local restaurant provided a bit of excitement. No-one seems to wear a helmet, but all seem to carry one on their mopeds. We discovered that they can be used as very good weapons, especially when beating up an attempted bag snatcher outside the restaurant!

The hotel in PP was delightful; on a main road but hidden behind foliage. There was a balcony but I have never sat on one that was sweatier or noisier, or more polluted with two-stroke fumes. Our very pretty bedroom even came with a separate massage bed which promised much, but sadly we just didn’t have time for any of the advertised treatments. La Rose Boutique Hotel and Spa is a curious little hotel. Very small and chic with lovely bedrooms, but a slightly strange entrance/restaurant/lounge/bar area. However the hotel does come with its own security guard with illuminated red stick, who will step out into the oncoming traffic blowing his whistle, looking like Darth Vader with his light sabre, to let us cross the road – tuk-tuks simply veer across the oncoming speeding traffic to do a U turn.

The advertised swimming pool was a 20 minute ride away in rush hour traffic, not that that bothered ‘her indoors’. The staff however were literally falling over themselves to offer any help, and I obviously caused huge concern, having got ready early for dinner on the first evening, and went down to the ‘bar’ for a beer with my book; every time I took a mouthful of Cambodia Beer they dashed forwards to check if there was any left in the bottle, and whether I might need some more beer. As the book I was trying to read was boring I started to play games, where I would raise the glass to my lips, see the staff beginning to shuffle forwards, then put the glass down again to the accompaniment of big sighs of disappointment from the staff. I had 30 minutes of fun: they must have been knackered from being ready to pounce at any given moment.

So next morning, and early pickup with Sok, who took us to the Royal Palace where apparently the king (a single man) was in residence. Lucy was all for knocking on his door and checking out his suitability, but Sok took a very dim view of this, suggesting that the king was very religious, and wouldn’t be tempted by her! On to Wat Phnom and thence to the museum: after the first few glass cases of exhibits, where Sok gave us all the dates and names in immense detail, I could feel my eyelids drooping, but despite all our best efforts he kept going. It was a bit like a telephone sales person. If you interrupted the script it just meant he went back to the last paragraph and started all over again!

We did manage to escape and were eventually taken to a typical tourist restaurant, where we avoided the burgers and chips. And so to the Killing Fields at Choueng Ek, and the Tuol Sleng High School concentration camp. I suppose if you are a professional guide and do the trip day in and day out, and have lived through the whole horrific period of the Khmer Rouge, you are probably not going to discuss feelings to any great degree. I wanted to know why it happened, but Sok would only give me the dates of when the French left, the weakness of the then king, and Pol Pot’s dates of birth and death. When asked about the International War Crimes Trials of the late 90s he would only say that although found guilty, only one of the then political leaders is in jail, the rest being under supervision, or dead of old age. So despite there being a huge chunk of the population missing – as in no middle aged men – the country seems to have closed ranks, admitted that it happened, but has brushed most of it under the carpet. Again, because of my ‘professional’ interest I was astounded by how few of the 8000 skulls on display in Choueng Ek (out of the 28,000 bodies discovered so far) had bullet holes. It appears that bullets were in very short supply, so people were killed by blows to the head from any implement that came to hand; axes, hoes, iron bars, swords and hammers. It affected me deeply because (a) I cannot understand man’s inhumanity to man, and (b) more worryingly, do we all still have that ability to kill inside each of us, given those dreadful circumstances?

Siem Reap - my life seems to be a collection of what I call “Oh My God” moments. Everyone knows what a pyramid looks like, but when I first saw The Pyramids, OMG! The first time coming face to face with a wild tiger – OMG. So seeing the four-faced Buddhas on 1000 year old buildings, and Angkor Wat, OMG! I absolutely loved the whole day we had mooching around the ruins of Angelina Jolies career. The joke is apparently that the Cambodians know she will be back because there are still some babies left.... Our guide in Siem Reap, Thy or Mr T, I never did know what his full name was, was efficient, jolly, clever, and great fun to be with. He was also an interesting person in himself having been a Buddhist monk, but apparently had had to return to the family farm to help out. He too had lost his elder brother and his father and grandfather to the Khmer Rouge, but gave me the impression that ‘shit happens’ and move on. Maybe it’s the only way. He introduced me to crickets and grubs from a road-side stall, and even a scorpion. (Imagine if you will, eating a large whole prawn, with all the tasty meat taken out, and the shell then barbecued to the point of being burnt. Easy enough to put in the mouth, but impossible to swallow).

An evening in the Night Market, Angkor What? Bar, and Pub Street was plenty for me, especially as we were up early the next morning to go to the Pink Temple, north of Siem Reap. ‘T’ advised us that we could have waited for sunset and/or get up at 4am for sunrise at Angkor Wat, but that 50,000 Chinese would also be there jostling for best photograph position. As it happened Banteay Srei was stunningly beautiful and empty and we spent a very happy couple of hours basking in the early morning light at this beautiful peaceful temple. After an afternoon being massaged by the pool, we went to a Cambodian Cultural Dance and Buffet Show. In a word; don’t! We should have known better.

A quick early morning transfer to Siem Reap airport, up and down into Phuket airport, then Nigel Mansell in a taxi to COMO at Point Yamu. I know that this bit was organised by the Oompa Loompas as a birthday present, but OMG!! Five star luxury, high on a promontory overlooking the Andaman Sea. All I would say is that the G&Ts were to die for, the Thai restaurant was so cold that we walked in and then straight out again, and so we had our first night there in an Italian Restaurant. Odd. Suffice to say I ordered a bottle of wine for 380THB (£10). Turned out to be the price for a glass. Ouch!

The next night we walked into Yamu village. Despite security trying to stop us we broke out of Camp COMO and had one of the best meals in a shack, besides the sea, with drinks, for £14 for the both of us. And there was some sort of festival going on. And there was a live band playing head-banging Thai rock. And I’m sure the Phuket version of Hells Angels were there. On their mopeds. Thence to Bang Tao.

I know I shouldn’t mention the words 'Air BnB' to you, and I’m sure you could have booked it for us (Jules - the Australian members of the party booked this!), but Serenity Villa was the most astonishing “villa” I have ever been in. It sleeps up to 19 people apparently but 16 would have been in considerable comfort and 18 easily. We had 15 of us like pigs in s***. There were two chefs and three housemaids (who also unofficially did our laundry) plus a rather inefficient co-ordinator who acted as agent for about 8 or 9 different sites. If you ever need a top end large villa I would thoroughly recommend this one. The only downside for me was the infinity pool: the infinity bit included a 30m straight down drop. The first rule of the swimming pool was “do not walk on the infinity wall”. No kidding!

As usual on this holiday the Travel With Jules organisation was superb. The hotels were perfect, the transfers happened, the tours were marvellous. Because I just KNOW that you have arranged everything perfectly, I am on holiday as soon as I lock my front door. The only problem is . . . . where to next?? Oh, and all 15 of us had a wonderful week together. Even the Oompa Loompas.