Penang hill/Bukit Bendera

“If you haven’t been to Penang hill, you haven’t been to Penang!” The leaflet in our guest house made some bold promises and Hugh and I were keen to check them out. Penang hill or Bukit Bendera, was a one-time hill station and summertime retreat of the British during colonial rule. The weather had been unbearably humid since our arrival and we fancied some fresh air and a break from city life, up on the hill.

An hour’s bus ride from Georgetown and we arrived at Air Itam, the town at the bottom of Bukit Bendera. I had high hopes for this hill station and initially I wasn’t disappointed. The first sight that greeted me was the track for the funicular railway that cut in to the dense foliage. It was almost vertical. And long. The track seemed to stretch on forever. No problem. I’ve been up higher. Still. It was a long way up.

Funicular train


After purchasing our tickets we queued for the train for what seemed like forever. Reaching the front of the line I found out why; everyone had their picture taken theme park roller-coaster style before getting on the train. Now I was getting nervous. This was surely just a standard funicular rail ride to the top, right? Yes, I was right. Ten minutes later and we arrived safely at the top. The photograph turned out to be just the first of many visitor souvenir opportunities.

Penang from the funicular track

At the top it turned out this wasn’t like any other hill station we’d seen,  it was more like a children’s play park in the trees. Straight out of the train exit we were the focus of attention. Did we want drinks, ice creams, fruit juices, audio guides, plastic toys…? The smell of fried food was overwhelming. Hugh and I retreated to a corner with a fruit juice to get our bearings.

Owl museum


Strangely enough it seemed that the main attraction was an owl museum. That was a little too Alan Partridge for me so we headed out towards the trees to see what else was on offer. A Hindu temple, a mosque, several flower gardens that required an entry fee and bungalows-  Midsomer murders style country bungalows labelled as ‘convalescent’ that were occupied. Not too awkward. Moving away from the crowds, we went in search of a viewpoint. Despite the height, the hill was only marginally cooler than Georgetown but the air was remarkably fresher.

English post box PG hill

Rounding a corner, the noise quickly dissipated and we were surrounding only by trees. Following the path we found a viewpoint and it felt like the whole of Penang stretched out before us. We could see the skyscrapers, the bay and across to the mainland.

Foggy view of Penang

The path continued on for several kilometres through trees, zigzagging through the trees at ground and canopy Level. I looked carefully for monkeys, squirrels or any other animals that might be lurking in the trees but was out of luck. After a while we noticed there weren’t any other visitors around and it was getting dark so we wandered back towards the crowds.

Back at the visitor hub we had the opportunity to have our pictures taken with parrots, snakes and lizards but we declined. Instead we went back to the funicular railway and sped down to the bottom of the hill and back to the city. It wasn’t quite the hill station I was expecting and I wouldn’t say it was indicative of Penang but the view and canopy walk certainly made it worth the trip.


Kanchanaburi. To most people this place name won’t mean anything. It’s a little town three hours west of Bangkok and the Mae Khlong river runs through it. Still not sure? The Mae Khlong was renamed the Khwae Yai river – home to the bridge over the river Kwai.

Our journey began when we boarded the train in Bangkok. It was a typical stiflingly hot day and the train crawled from station to station. As soon as the train reached the city limits it sped up, the skyscrapers turned to endless rice paddys populated by water buffalo and we clickety-clacked past scenes of rural life in Thailand.

I was enjoying the cool breeze and open country when the train pulled up at Nong Pla Duk station. There I saw a wooden signboard near the platform. It stated simply that this station marked the beginning of the Thai-Burma railway otherwise known as the Death railway. From here on we would be riding the railway built by prisoners of war during World War Two.

Arriving in Kanchanaburi, I didn’t know what to expect. I had read POW memoirs that painted a vivid picture of dense jungle, unbearable humidity, mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions and many other creatures. What I found was a pretty little town with winding back streets, cafes and a bustling night life.

In the centre of town, the river Kwai was hidden from view by the shops and guesthouses. Hugh and I were fortunate enough to stay on a river raft. From there we had an unspoilt view down river of the Thai countryside and a fabulous wat.

Raft View

The next day we set out early and visited the railway museum. Walking under a section of the original bridge, I entered the inner exhibition rooms. Displayed on two floors were stories, pictures and artifacts from the death railway period.

Railway Museum

Two hours later and my vague notions of this area had been cemented into understanding of how the railway had been built and how the POWs were treated. With every new story I read or picture I saw, the railway seemed like a feat of human endurance. Many of the prisoners looked like walking skeletons and had diseases such as cholera yet they carried on until the end.

Stories I had read prior to visiting the museum told of how the prisoners had been transported in metal cargo containers on the railways. This is something that can’t be comprehended until you’ve experienced the heat of Asia and then stood inside a reconstructed container.

Despite the stories of hardship, the exhibitions displayed artifacts that displayed ingenuity and a desire to survive in spite of the horrific circumstances. Prisoners fashioned radios to get snippets of news that would bring hope; diaries were kept even with the knowledge that discovery by the captors would mean instant death; wood and bamboo were used by prisoners to make game boards such as chess or backgammon.

At the end of the exhibition was a cafe and we were gratefully provided with a free cup of tea. Hugh and I sat at the window which overlooked the war cemetery, reflecting on the museum and the stories we had read. Soon after, we made the five kilometre walk from the town centre to the bridge and Kwae Yai river.

Kanchanaburi POW cemetery

Seeing the bridge for then first time was breathtaking. I had read so much about it and seen so many pictures of this iconic structure. On one bank there were souvenir stalls and refreshment stands; on the river itself were floating restaurants.

Bridge over the Kwai Yai river

The opposite bank was home to a temple with an oversized statue of a deity that reached above the tree line and towered over the river. It then became clear that the heat was the only similarity between the current day and when the bridge was built.

Temple by the bridge

I felt this area was almost touristy to the point of ruin until I stepped on to the bridge. Then I remembered how it had been built. Walking across the bridge filled me with a sense of gravity and the further away I got from the tourist attractions, the more I could appreciate what the bridge stood for. I walked to the end and stared off down the line.  The dark history contrasted with the sunlit tracks, which curved away from me and into the jungle. I knew this place had more of its story to tell but for now it was time to part ways. I turned around and headed back to the crowds of Kanchanaburi.

Thai-Burma railway

Diving Koh Tao

I was looking forward to diving Koh Tao again, and our return to the island gave me time to complete my Advanced Open Water diving certification, which I was able to blast through in a very tiring three days.

The highlight of the dive for me was being able to take an elective underwater photography module, where I captured the following photos on an excellent dive site called South West Pinnacle.

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 10

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 1

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 9

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 16

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 17

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 18

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 15

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 13

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 5

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 11

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 12

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 6

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 7

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 8

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 2

Koh Tao - South West Pinnacle 3


Angkor Wat

Our rickshaw bowled along the smooth road and under a vast canopy of trees. We had left Siem Reap behind us and had entered the Angkor Park – home of the famous Angkor Wat and the many other ruined temples, which all together make up the largest religious site in the world. The forest was thick, and the road was effectively a speedway for the rickshaws that ferried tourists to and fro.

Built in the twelfth century, the Angkor settlements housed both the indigenous population and their living gods. Now however, the site stands in ruin. Conservation projects are slowly working to rebuild some of the temples, and we were anxious to explore for ourselves what we had heard so reverently described by other travellers.

As we continued on we would occasionally glimpse a stone tower or ancient wall between the trees, nothing of any serious size or substance though. Monkeys would stand sentinel on the side of the road, watching us pass with weary eyes. The monsoon rains had also begun to fall with force and the ground was turning into a deluge of mud. Not to be dissuaded our driver applied more throttle and ploughed on over the sliding ground.

Then, almost like the opening panning shot in a film, we broke out of the trees and ahead of us stood Ta Prom- the first of the main temples on our tour. We were struck with subtle awe as we climbed out of the rickshaw and approached the stone buildings. Trees and vines had exploded out of the structure and appeared to be dragging it back into the primordial. Getting closer we could see that the moss climbing across the walls had covered in part the intricate carvings which depicted the civilisation of the time.

Words cannot really explain the sense of awe that I felt as I explored the hidden temples, so I include a selection of photos that I hope do it justice.

Ta Prom 1 Ta Prom 4 Ta Prom 11

Ta Prom 9 Ta Prom 8 Ta Prom 5 Ta Prom 12

Ta Prom 10

Thankfully the rains began to subside, and hopping over puddles we made our way back to our driver and our next stop – The Bayon.

The Bayon was huge and by far one of the largest temples on site. As the rickshaw drew up by the entrance I felt more compelled to walk around the perimeter with my camera than immediately dive in. It was just that spectacular.

Bayon 1

Bayon 2 Bayon 3 Bayon 4 Bayon 5


Our final stop was to be the Angkor Wat, but on the way there, we passed alongside a long wall depicting a series of marching elephants. Where the wall met a staircase, elephant heads with long tusks were carved into the stone.

Elephant Wall 2 Elephant Wall 1

Leaving behind the elephants, we passed over a long bridge, flanked by stone men pulling on the tail of a snake. This bridge led under the elephant gate, which only a single rickshaw could traverse at a time.

Bridge 2

Up ahead the Angkor Wat appeared, a huge lake before it. Taking off on foot we crossed the causeway that led to the entrance, and into the huge complex.

Angkor Wat 1 Angkor Wat 2 Angkor Wat 3

Angkor Wat 4


Koh Rong

Our approach to the island was plain sailing. Bright sunshine brought out an emerald colour in the sea, and slowly the coast came into sight, making way for the white-sand beach and the long pier. Setting down on the beach we took a moment to appreciate our surroundings. The bay provided total shelter from the tide, and palms provided a little shelter from the intense heat. In each direction there were just a few bamboo huts and cottages, and the sound of surf filled in for any hint of civilisation.

Koh Rong Pier

We took a quick look at our map and then waved down a local to check we were headed in the right direction. Our map showed a rough track through the centre of the island which was heavy with jungle. On the other side lay our accommodation and hopefully a beach to be had all to ourselves.

We were headed to a cove set around the Robinson Bungalows, and a helpful native pointed to an obscure path just behind some nearby huts. Securing our heavy bags we began our trek, and were soon headed away from the sound of the waves and deep into the stilted cacophony of frogs and crickets, the frantic buzz-saw of the cicadas and the occasional horny shout of a gecko.

The further along the jungle path we moved, the more humid it became, until I called out to celebrate the heavy drops of rain falling all around me. To my dismay I realised that the rain was actually sweat dripping off my nose and face.

Deeper yet we travelled, and soon the path turned upwards onto a high ridge. We used trees for support and pulled ourselves along, the gloom ever increasing as we became more absorbed in the jungle. Soon mosquitos and large flies surrounded us, and we absently swiped as we stalked forwards. Up and up we climbed, stopping occasionally for a draw on our water reserves before continuing on.

At one point a Khmer man came up behind us. I tried to engage him in conversation, but speaking no English he quickly overtook and was lost in the foliage. Eventually, just as we were draining the last of our water, we made it to the top of the rise, and saw a long climb down ahead of us. The path was cut deep into the surrounding earth, but we thought little of it, keen to get to our destination.,

Finally we broke out of the jungle and emerged on a savage coast, waves beat against a rocky shore, and we paused in disbelief. We had been told that this side of the island was both much more unspoilt and much more enjoyable. The beach however was subject to vast amounts of detritus that had washed ashore, and the water was open to the elements and brutal to say the least. Slightly taken aback, we dragged ourselves up the beach and into the home of a Swiss couple who owned a set of rustic huts set just offshore, peeking out of the jungle.

Our lodgings were sparse, yet functional.  A basic hut on stilts faced onto the rough sea, its roof starting a foot above the wall. As we settled in, we began to take stock of just how wild the area really was. Spiders with huge black bodies and long dangling legs sat across webs that dominated the doorways. Lizards darted around in the peripheries of our vision, and the house cats stalked the giant jungle rats which came down to try their luck in the kitchen.

Snail Gecko

Near our room an active termite nest rose up to my chest and issued forth legions of black ant-like creatures. They moved in columns five-abreast and made for a nearby fence panel which was slowly being metamorphosed into mulch to add to their already huge volcano base.

Taking a midnight stroll down the beach we were intrigued to find an unusual track. We assumed a snake had left it on the sand, as it looked a little like a bicycle tire, but swooshing to the left and then right. Following it for some time we came across the culprit- a hermit crab. As we shone our torch on it, the creature retreated into its shell, but after a few moment came out and continued its pilgrimage down the sand.

Hermit Crab

It was around this time that the monsoon really started for us. A large peal of thunder would mark the arrival of some heavy rain drops- fair warning to get inside, and then moments later the sky would open and torrential rain started pouring down.

For several days we sat in the bungalow’s common room, playing chess and looking out at the rough sea and soaked beach. Our hosts seemed happy with the onslaught, assuring us that it was better to have water than none- as is often the case on the island, but we disagreed, longing for the sun.

When the rain broke one morning, we packed our bags and set-off for the sheltered side of the island, hoping that the journey across the jungle stretch would be easier a second time around. The previous paths that had been cut deep into the earth turned out to be rivers at this point, so we had to drag ourselves back up the ridge, this time against the flow of water!

The other side of the island was much less severe, and as the rains cleared up a little, we enjoyed another few days before heading back to the mainland. Koh Rong marked the closest we had come to real nature in our travels so far, and although we were stoic in the face of insect adversity, I don’t think either one of us in in a rush to get back into the jungle.

Aerial Bombardment

Today we emerged from our hotel expecting the typical downfall of heavy thunder-rain.

Amazingly the sun was out, and for the first time in a week, we left our jackets behind and enjoyed the sun-dappled roads of Siem Reap. Moving between coffee shops and restaurants, we ended up in a Japanese place for dinner.

As soon as the sun set however, we were struck from all sides by a plague of crickets. Green ones, black ones, tiny micro-crickets and ones the size of cockroaches launched themselves at us from all sides. They swooped down from above, and leapt up from below, pinging off our heads and climbing over our shoulders.

Thankfully there are worse creatures out here, and we took these in our stride. The way I saw it, if they were going to celebrate a nice day, then so was I.

A few beers later, and the only worry was keeping the little buggers out of my glass!

One of many

Kep and Minibus Madness

Feeling bored and a little disappointed with Phnom Penh, we booked a bus south to the coast with a firm called Giant Ibis. A roomy and pleasantly chilly bus collected us from our hotel, and after a few more pick ups, we were on the road toward the coast.

Many people had suggested Kep as a rustic chill out, and a little research recommended us a French-run lounge bar, to stay at for a few days. Unfortunately the businesses that are run by expatriates, seem – more often than not, to be there only to support their permanently stoned existence, rather than provide for the traveller.

Rooms were filthy and a problem with the plumbing meant we were stunk out early in the morning. Mozzie nets were torn, and for the price we expected a lot more. The staff seemed more intent on lounging around socialising, which we should have been doing, rather than having to hassle them.

Kep was nothing special, fairly grubby along the front we weren’t really taken with it. Even so, it still afforded some nice views out to sea. Disheartened with our accommodation we booked the first bus out of there, ignoring advice to avoid local buses in favour of foreign run firms.

Our driver turned out to be a lunatic. Twenty minutes out into the countryside, he took two calls on two different phones at the same time! This led him to use his elbows to steer the minibus which was screaming in second gear. The other passengers looked on in shock and silence, so Nicole and I shouted at him to put his phones away.

Our angry outburst shocked him into dropping his phones on the floor, and for the next ten minutes he ranted from the front seat, no doubt cursing us in Khmer.

Finally we jumped out at Sihanoukville, and strode away vowing not to take local buses again.

Five Days in Phnom Penh

Looking back on my time in Phnom Penh, I have very mixed feelings about the city. I think this reflects the experiences I had there.

After a comfortable and hassle-free six hour journey from Saigon (as advertised), we arrived in Phnom Penh. We hopped off the bus before its final stop because our guest house looked close on the map.

Walking down Norodom boulevard with the Independence monument behind us, we were initially impressed. The roads were clear the pavements wide and the area was generally clean.

Turning towards the river front, the next set of streets were a different story. Rubbish was piled high every few steps which resulted in an unholy smell and the area was generally dirty and run down. After reading that the river front had undergone renovation this came as a shock.

Our guesthouse was clean and functional but we felt it was overpriced. Vietnam had spoiled us! We decided to reserve judgment on this city until we had seen it in daylight and more detail.

Our first day in Phnom Penh we gathered up our laundry and headed off for breakfast. A helpful man sitting in reception told us that laundry could be done for $1.50 a kilo. After being told at several places laundry was $2 a kilo, we gave up and went to sit by the river to eat.

Satisfactorily fed and watered, our next task was to find a sim card. Some more helpful information pointed us in the direction of the Independence monument yet again. We set off at a brisk pace, keen to get on with some sight seeing.

Twenty minutes later in the 40 degree heat we were feeling delirious and like a mirage in the desert, an ice cream parlour appeared at the side of the road. A sign also claimed that it was 2-4-1 Friday. Feeling the cold blast of AC as we stepped through the glass doors confirmed we weren’t dreaming.

An hour later and slightly jittery from overly sweet ice-cream sundaes, we had purchased a sim card and could get to know Phnom Penh. All of this had been achieved while still carrying 3 kilos of dirty washing.

Day two was more enjoyable. After checking in to a nearby hotel (breakfast included, laundry done on-site) we walked along the river front towards Wat Phnom. At the southern end of the promenade, the Tonle Sap river meets the Mekong. There the confluence is so wide it is like looking at the sea. During our stay in Phnom Penh, Hugh and I spent hours by the river watching the boats bobbing about and the locals wading in to cast their fishing nets.

Reaching Wat Phnom was like finding the eye of the storm. At the top of the hill stood a brilliantly white stupa. The curving lines of the stupa and prayer flags gently flapping in the breeze created an air of calm. Choosing a bench under a tree, we sat and watched the world go by, appreciating the quiet of the temple grounds

On our walk about the city we happened across a mall. In need of some AC and a cold drink, we went in to investigate. In the middle of a capital city on a Saturday afternoon, the mall was empty.

On each level there were benches and on these benches, in groups, sat the shop workers. They were chatting, eating, texting and embroidering. It was a surreal experience and I suggested we move on.

Our tour of the city then took us to some eclectic little side streets filled with welcoming looking eateries. In one such place, we had the pleasure of watching a thunderstorm. They are occurring regularly now but sitting by an open door listening to the rain and watching the lightning draw patterns on the sky is relaxing.

Three days in, Hugh and I felt it was time to visit the genocide museums. First up was Tuol Sleng detention centre. This building was a school used by the Khmer Rouge to detain and torture people they thought were acting against their regime.

Former classrooms had been turned into cells or interrogation rooms and seemingly innocent objects had been turned into items of torture.  Other rooms contained make-shift cells, hastily constructed out of bricks or wooden planks.

In every room there was evidence of incarceration. Rows of numbers on walls to demarcate prisoners, marks on the floor showing where partitions had once stood and metal hoops cemented to the tiles that once held chains or shackles. Rusted, barbed wire mesh covered the open terraces; designed to stop prisoners jumping to their deaths.

An upstairs row of classrooms contained statements written under duress by prisoners and finally there were statements documenting what had happened in Tuol Sleng by the few people that had survived.

One block of classrooms contained seemingly endless boards of black and white photographs. Every person that passed through here was documented. They would all eventually be taken to the killing fields.

Further exploration of the city took us along the riverfront to the royal palace and then out to the killing fields. After several days of focusing on the country’s dark history coupled with our disappointment in Phnom Penh, we decided it was time to move on and discover what else Cambodia had to offer.