We’ve certainly managed to cram a lot into the first month of the new year. In January we spent time in five countries. Yes, technically we were already in Cambodia in December and we only spent two days in Singapore and one day in the UAE but hey, they still count!
Along the way we:
- toured some amazing ancient archaeological sites
- visited one of the most incredible mosques we’ve ever seen
- floated in the dead sea
- took a safari in the desert
- gorged ourself on falafels
- saw endangered white rhinos, African elephants, giraffes, hippos, baboons and a whole host of other wildlife.
So all things considered, it was a pretty incredible month. On the downside though we saw how overdevelopment is really ruining parts of Cambodia and we had a bit of a shock to the system in Singapore.
Finishing up in Cambodia
Overdevelopment on a grand scale
Originally we’d planned to spend seven nights in Otres beach but fortunately we discovered just in the nick of time that most of Otres beach had become awful due to overdevelopment.
So we changed our stay there to be two nights only and booked the remainder on the island of Koh Rong Saloem. It turned out to be the correct decision, although in hind sight we should have just gone straight to the island and avoided Otres altogether. While some parts of it are still reasonably untouched, it’s no longer the little hippie village that it apparently once was.
The Cambodian government has allowed Chinese property developers to buy up land all around the waterfront and they are building massive numbers of high-rise hotels and casinos. This has already ruined Sihanoukville and now it’s spreading further down the coast and onto some of the islands.
This overdevelopment is a real shame not just because it’s creating a huge eyesore but because of the impact that it’s having on the local people. Many have been kicked off land they were renting and others are being forced out because less tourists are visiting.
Chinese companies are using predominantly imported Chinese labour to build and run the hotels and casinos. So, short of some infrastructure improvements, the Cambodian people don’t seem to be benefitting much at all.
Is Koh Rong Saloem next?
Although Koh Rong Saloem is not yet ruined there are some warning signs there as well. At one end of our beach there was a hideous Chinese casino that had been recently built. It stood out like a sore thumb compared to the resorts around it that had at least tried to blend into the island.
As we went for our morning walk along the beach, we looked in through the windows of the casino and there were several people with their heads on the tables, asleep after gambling all night. Who goes to a tropical paradise to gamble?!
On to Battambang
After Koh Rong Saloem, we took a minivan up to Battambang, stopping off in Phnom Penh again for one night to break up the journey. The minivan itself was really comfortable and it even had working seatbelts and bottles of water provided. We certainly weren’t expecting that!
The company we chose has a reputation for beating the traffic and getting you there on time. They certainly delivered on that promise. However, to do that our driver drove at high speed, like a man possessed. He would frequently overtake other traffic with not much of a gap between us and oncoming traffic. The piece de resistance was on the final approach to Phnom Penh where he tailgated an ambulance at high speed for about half an hour, often on the wrong side of the road.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city. While there are not a lot of touristy things to do, we did enjoy our time there. One fun thing that we did was to ride the bamboo train. You can read more about that in our post.
Dodging the crowds at Siem Reap
We changed bus companies for our trip from Battambang to Siem Reap and it was not a great decision. The ride was fairly quick and uneventful, except for the fact that the bus was so old that the air-conditioning unit leaked all over us. Fortunately the bus was empty enough that we could change to a dry seat.
We were visiting Siem Reap mainly to see Ankor Wat. We visited the archaeological park for sunset on the first night and then went for sunrise at Ankor Wat the following morning. While it was nice, it is a bit of a circus and again highlighted how inconsiderate some people are.
I mean, who walks out in front of several hundred people trying to take a photo of Ankor Wat and the reflection pond so that they can have a photo of themselves doing yoga in front of the temple? There was also the guy who turned up an hour later than everyone else in the front row and tried to force himself through with his two metre high tripod, blocking several people’s view.
A Shock in Singapore
We’re big fans of Singapore. In fact, one of our most popular posts is about all the colourful places you can visit there. So we were pretty happy to be heading back there, albeit for just a couple of days.
We’d kept our visit short because while Singapore is awesome it’s a whole lot more expensive than most of Southeast Asia, at least the parts we’d just been in. It was certainly a shock going from $0.50 happy hour beers in Cambodia to $9 ones in Singapore!
But we were expecting that, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. However one thing we had not anticipated was how downsizing on the accommodation would tarnish our experience. Let’s just say that $30 in Siem Reap got us a pretty large and decent room while $100 in Singapore got us a shoebox with horrible acoustics.
In all our years of travelling I’ve never had to ask a fellow guest to be quiet but in this place I had to ask two separate groups to keep it down at midnight on consecutive nights. Most of this was because the hallways weren’t carpeted and sound travelled all the way from the other side of the floor into our room.
After all those annoying disturbances I can safely say that we won’t be staying budget in Singapore next time around!
Our UAE Pitstop
That was the end of South East Asia. On the way to Jordan we decided to have a quick pitstop in Abu Dabhi in the United Arab Emirates. The main reason for going there was to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque.
We were lucky to have almost perfect weather for the single day we had in Abu Dabhi. We spent some time walking around the waterfront which wasn’t terribly exciting and we made a quick visit to check out the very grand Emirates Palace hotel.
After that we took a taxi over to the mosque. This was definitely worth the visit and that’s coming from someone who’s not religious and who is not a big fan of temples or mosques. Just the sheer size and attention to detail that had been put into it was impressive.
The only annoying thing about the mosque visit was the people who couldn’t be bothered to read the rules and be respectful. Even if you don’t agree with them, it’s really not hard to behave appropriately when you’re on someone else’s property. Either follow their rules or don’t bother going.
Read more about Abu Dhabi here.
A Quick Taste of Jordan
Because we only had six days to spend in Jordan, we’d organised a driver to take us on a whistle stop tour. This turned out to be a great decision as the tour company was super professional and our driver Allah was awesome.
When we’d booked the tour we had realised that Jordan at that time of the year would be quite cold. But it was still rather a shock to the system to fly into Amman and have to quickly put on a jumper. Amman is higher up than other parts of Jordan and although our first day there wasn’t too bad, our last day before we flew out was raining and freezing cold.
What we hadn’t appreciated was how much the temperature would vary throughout Jordan, mainly due to the elevation changes. For example when we reached the dead sea which is 400 metres below sea level, the weather was lovely and warm.
Another thing we loved about Jordan was how the scenery varied so much as we drove around. The colours and composition of the mountains changed constantly.
It was somewhat strange being at one point only 40km from Syria and being bordered by so many countries that are struggling to find peace. But we always felt safe within Jordan. Security is top notch, as evidenced by the fact that our backpack containing all our chargers and cables was searched and explosives swabbed at both security checkpoints on our way out of the country!
For me the highlights of Jordan were driving the Kings Road, walking around Petra and floating in the Dead Sea.
While floating in the Dead Sea was a pretty cool experience, the fun didn’t stop there. Because the high salt content dries out your skin, our hotel provided a mud bath using the famous Dead Sea mud to rehydrate us. Of course we couldn’t resist thoroughly covering ourselves in it so that it took us about twenty minutes to shower off all the mud!
The Kings Road is a beautiful stretch of winding road that has some breathtaking scenery. I’ve never seen anything like it, the sandy colours of the mountains are amazing.
We spent over seven hours walking around Petra which is one of the modern wonders of the world. This included climbing over 1300 steps to get to both the Monastery and to a viewpoint that gave us an amazing birds eye view of the Treasury.
We were pretty knackered at the end of the day but it was well worth it. Although we visited most of the well known sites in Petra, we’d love to go back and really do it properly. There are some hikes through the surrounding mountains that sound amazing and there’s also Little Petra that we didn’t have time to see.
As much as we loved Jordan, it was really nice to get back to the warmth when we landed in Entebbe, Uganda.
Our first stop was in Murchison Falls National Park where we saw oodles of wildlife, such as hundreds of elephants and hippos, plenty of giraffes, a lion cub poking his head out through the bushes and lots of baboons, monkeys and various kinds of bucks and deer.
One thing that we did find concerning was that they are about to start drilling for oil in the national park. They are also building a modern road through the park and much of the country to transport the oil. This is being done by a Chinese company and is part of China’s One Belt, One Road policy.
Hopefully the impact of this on the park will be minimised but time will tell. At least it seems to be providing work for some Ugandans and we can only wish that they don’t see the kind of overdevelopment that we saw happening in Cambodia.
More of Uganda and Africa
At the end of January we still had much more of Uganda to see. Stay tuned of next month’s update to see how we fared!