Mar 28 11

Hurray for Rabbit Island!

by Emily Benjamin

After only a few hours sleep overnight on Rabbit Island, I was very happy to wake to birds chirping, roosters crowing and the sun shining, on what was a glorious Monday morning. Actually, I only just realised it was Monday yesterday, so I’ve clearly lost track of the days finally. And to forget that it was a Monday, of all days, as I slept in, read a book, and enjoyed a late breakfast – my, what a better way to spend a Monday opposed to working!

We eventually got up at about 9am, and decided to make the three hour trek around the entire island. It was considered the day before, but as I wasn’t feeling too well it was postponed in the hope that the weather would be kind to us the next day as well. And it was. So first up, we filled our bellies with the only breakfast option available – pancakes! Nutella pancakes! Thank you, Monday!

Setting off at about 10am, we circled Koh Tonsay through mini jungles, across rocks and seaweed, and along empty beaches. The weather was sublime, the breeze was cool, the few locals we met along the way were charming. As we walked, we discussed how easy it would be to arrive on Rabbit Island and go undetected for as long as you wished – either pay upfront for a month in a bungalow, never to be disturbed, or rough it in the jungle, and no one would know you were there. There’s no internet, no hot water, and only limited electricity. If you are happy with Nutella or banana pancakes, then you’ll be satisfied with the breakfast options. There was also a shortage of crabs while we were there, so sometimes you might have to have fish instead. But really, you could escape to Rabbit Island and never be found again.

But I digress. The walk only took 90 minutes, so we were back before lunch. Maybe we walk very quickly, or maybe it’s just the skewed perception of time and distance that people have in these parts of the world. Either way, it was time for a cold drink, a cool swim, a brief sun bake, and a quick massage. We sat at one of the small bamboo shacks on the beach and had banana shakes, and pulled faces at a 5 year old local boy (photo included). A quick dip in the cool water got the sweat off our backs, before we air dried ourselves on the sun lounges under the palm trees. Then right there on the beach, there are a few options for massage – coconut oil, Thai massage, Khmer style – but we went for the coconut oil option. An hour later, my brow was un-furrowed, the knots in my shoulders were gone, and I could walk without leg cramps again. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

Then onto lunch, with the freshest ingredients you could imagine. I had a fish curry with ‘fresh coconut milk’ – and the cook went over to a pile of coconuts sitting at the base of a tree and selected the ripest one for my curry. Amazing. Jamie ordered crabs with lemon pepper, and a moment afterwards we saw a woman wading out to get the crab bucket from the water. They pulled out 6 or 7 small local crabs and carried them into the kitchen for cooking. Minutes later, a fresh and very tasty lunch was delivered to our table – absolutely awesome. My curry was delicious, perfectly seasoned with the local pepper, and Jamie devoured his crabs. Slowly, I might mention, because neither of us have extensive experience with prying meat from a tiny crab shell!

By 2.30pm it was back to the sun lounges for a post-lunch rest before the boat whisked us back to the mainland. It was a brief, energetic yet relaxing time on Rabbit Island, which may not stay so untouched for much longer. If you’re ever in the south of Cambodia, do stop by for a swim, a walk, a massage and some fresh crab. Simply divine.

Once back on the mainland, we decided to hang around in Kep to watch the sunset with a couple of local Angkor beers before heading back to our bungalow at Botanica. But more on that in the next post!

– Em :)

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Mar 7 11

Birthday Blog!

by Emily Benjamin

I celebrated my first overseas, away from home birthday on Monday, and although I didn’t do ‘much’, I had a truly fantastic day. Here’s how I spent it.

Woken by Monkey, he greeted me with the expected HAPPY BIRTHDAY, THE BENJ!  but fortunately didn’t sing to me, which was a relief. Breakfast  was upstairs at 9am and what was on the buffet? PORK RIBS! This was going to be a good day :)

At 10.30am I was greeted by staff offering me flowers, a big bunch just for me. I’ll admit I specifically chose our accommodation because they mentioned special birthday treatment – and they stayed true to their online promise. As well as the flowers, they are getting me a cake for the afternoon! Huzzah!

Before 11am, we set off for a Wonderful Package at SF Spa – which included a sauna/steam room, thai massage, hot body wrap, facial and foot treatment. The expected time was 4 hours for all of this, so the wonderful staff said ‘because you are with us for so long, we will get you some lunch.’  Woohoo! It was at about lunch time that we realised this 4 hour treatment was already 3 hours of the way through, and we still had at least 2 hours of treatments to go. Granted, they’d up-sold us to include a salt scrub as well (which was a-maz-ing, by the way!) so we were ok about the extra time. A facial and foot treatment to come after lunch, and to be honest, I was exhausted. The overall treatment time, including a 15minute break for lunch, was over 6 hours. SIX. HOURS. And I love special treatment, but my attention span was truly tested there. Yes, my skin is as soft as I’ve ever felt it, my feet are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and I feel many months younger.  But there is only so much pampering a girl can take, especially when she has family skype dates to attend!

We made it back to the hotel at about 5.30pm and I rushed upstairs to get online for Skype. Dad and Lauren greeted me with balloons and ice-cream which was awesome, and even Benny made an appearance, albeit a brief one. Then I spoke to Mum, and quickly to Mak, and when we wished them goodnight it was time for our dinner.

Dinner was just what I needed. A 350gm rib fillet steak, medium, with a side of mashed potato with truffle oil, and green beans. A number of times during dinner I just couldn’t help myself, and would roll into fits of giddy laughter, overstimulated by the yummy intake of iron and carbs again. Yes, I’m a massive carnivore. I know it, everyone I know knows it, and I have no shame in admitting it! So, so good to eat a tender piece of steak after 3 weeks of chicken and pork dishes where they would use only about 50gm of meat each time. The steak was amazing. The mashed potato, epic. So creamy and perfect with the steak and beans. Oh and I should mention the entrees as well – Chicken Bastille with roast chicken cooked in pastry with paprika, tomato and some other vegies, and divine slow roasted blackberry duck with pumpkin gnocchi. All served with a bottle of Oyster Bay Pinot Noir. An amazing food fest – Happy birthday to me!

This took us all the way to 11pm, and we were knackered. It’s not every day that you spend only eating and relaxing, and the combination of the two was exhausting. I know, I know – you’re probably reading this at work, and hating me more every minute. BUT I have birthday immunity so don’t be mad! It was a lovely first birthday away from home (my 26th, unless you remove the few months of wrinkles erased from my face during the spa treatment!) and I felt perfectly spoiled the whole day, as anyone should.

But I’ve forgotten – my presents! I got some money from home, to put towards the steak and wine dinner, and a nice hotel for the night. I didn’t think I needed it, but it was so nice to have a comfy home base for 3 days, with good hot water, a soft bed and a mini bar, hehe. I’ll also get to replace my lost phone and perhaps get an iPod Shuffle or Nano to last me through the next 6 months. And finally, Jamie has treated me to a luxurious 2 night, 3 days cruise on Halong Bay, aboard the Halong Phoenix Cruiser. Oh. La. La!

Enough birthday jibberish, but I thought I would let everyone know the ideal way to spend a birthday overseas. Don’t be on transport, make your favourite things readily available, and try to spend it with either someone you love, or someone that keeps you distracted. I was lucky enough to spend it with my awesome boyfriend and best-boy-friend, Jamie Talbot, and he helped make it awesome. Twenty six doesn’t feel so painful, right now :)

– Em :)

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Mar 1 11

A Day in Nong Khiaw

by Emily Benjamin

When Jamie suggested we make time in Laos for a tiny village called Nong Khiaw, 140km north of Luang Prabang, I was a little skeptical. The trusty interwebs told him it was remote but beautiful, set amongst huge limestone mountains but without the commodities of everyday living we’re used to. No internet, limited electricity and it would take more than 6 hours to reach by car – I wasn’t so sure. I was even less sure when I checked on Google Maps and the search for Nong Khiaw returned no results, offering the worrying claim that ‘no directions were available for this location’. But I was tired and recovering from the flu, so I put myself and my luggage in Jamie’s trustworthy hands, and when we finally stopped moving and arrived weary, sore and exhausted from the journey here, my eyes lit up.

This place is gorgeous. The interwebs (Travelfish, again) have it spot on, I think – this secluded spot in northern Laos would be just a dusty road with a modern bridge, if it weren’t for the two hundred kind and warm locals and the giant limestone cliffs surrounding their homes. It is an absolutely spectacular view, so I’ve attached some photos below, but I assure you that they’ll never do it justice. Nong Khiaw comes very very close to being breathtaking.

To make sure we weren’t being ripped off, we promised each other that we wouldn’t take the first accommodation we were offered, and I’m proud to say that we stuck to that. Our third stop, Sunrise Bungalows, was our choice in the end, for a very affordable 100,000 kip per night. By the way, that’s only about $11, and considered ‘mid-range’ for tourists in Nong Khiaw. For that price, we have a double bed with a mosquito net, an ensuite (I use that term loosely, though) and a spectacular view of the mountains. No air con or fan, but we haven’t needed it. It’s warm during the day but cool at night, and we’ve both slept soundly here so far.

Within the hour, we decided to stretch our time here from 2 nights to three, and committed to forking out for a flight for our next travel leg. All this moving around by bus/taxi/minivan is tiring and doesn’t allow any time to see the sights, so on Sunday we’ll fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, rather than a 2 day overland adventure. But before all that, we’re spending our time in Nong Khiaw relaxing. Here’s how we spent our first day here…

8.30am Wake up and settle into the hammock for an hour or two of reading

9.30am Stomachs grumbling, head out for ice cold chocolate and strawberry milkshakes for only $1.50 each (still, considered a splurge!)

12noon Lunch time! A very yummy chicken & vegetable stir-fry and beef & morning glory stir-fry with two soda waters for $5. Huge servings and very delicious.

1pm Traditional Laos massages… we think. The woman in charge made a quick phone call and two smiling teenagers arrived to massage us. And by massage I mean knead, pummel, fold and rock us back and forth for an hour in the name of ‘relaxation.’ Very odd experience but if they meant to put us to sleep, they almost succeeded. 50,000 kip each – $5.50!

3pm Cocktail in a local bar overlooking the river. The seem not to use mixers here so the drinks were very strong, lulling us in to sleep after such an ‘exhausting’ day.

5pm Early dinner while I skype’d my Dad for his birthday. Yes, the town now has internet and it’s free between 5pm-9pm at a small indian restaurant, which also serves very nice and very cheap food. We ate here for a second night in a row because it was really good, and it only cost us 66,000 kip. Rounded up to maybe $8 – bargain!

8pm Sleep. Can you believe it? I think the afternoon cocktail was even stronger than it looked…

That’s how we spent a day in Nong Khiaw. Although it’s tough to find, and even more difficult to get here, if you’re ever in Laos you should absolutely check it out.

– Em :)

* Ps. If we look a little weary in the cocktail photos, it’s because they were taken immediately following the intense Laotian massages. We were pretty knackered!

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