Travel Blog: Week 26

Bangkok and Cambodia

Week 26: 06.05.2013 – 12.05.2013

Monday:-

My hostel pick up was at 7:30 which for me is an early start. I packed up my bags, and left the dorm as quietly as possible. Just enough time to grab a cheese and ham toastie before the mini van arrived. I was starting to get worried about the validity of my ticket when the van arrived – around 7:50! There were 7 of us in a van designed for 10 so there was plenty of room and my seat was placed so that I could stretch my legs out. It had air conditioning of a sort so overall I was happy with the deal. The driver drove like a maniac but that’s the norm here and we always got where we needed to be safely.

It was interesting watching life go by from the comfort of my seat, although I did doze on and off. We stopped about 2 hours in to use the toilet and get some snacks. It was here I first got the chance to speak with a fellow passenger – Fred, from France. Also travelling alone and doing a similar random trip to me.

  

It wasn’t long before the next stop which was actually where we needed to leave our Thai bus and driver and become Cambodian. I was looked after well as I’d booked accommodation already – so glad I did. Just like in Thailand I was given the all important sticker to put on my t-shirt to prove I had a room booked. They did try and tell me how difficult and drawn out getting a visa at the border would be and that they could help me with all that and for cheaper. I’d actually done some research on this on the Internet (Tammy – don’t faint – I did!) and knew this was coming so told them I would take my chances at the border. I wouldn’t say it was easy but it took a third of the time and saved me 500thb. I was taken from the mini van drop off point, by tuk tuk, to the border. There, with all my bags!!!!!!, I walked to the Thailand immigration departure office. Luckily the locals knew which line I needed to be in and all pointed out my direction – bless them. After a slightly frantic search for my departure voucher (which I had forgotten I completed when I arrived and had put somewhere ‘safe’) I was through. I walked to the Cambodian visa office, completed the flimsy form, which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you’re sweating buckets, and paid my dues. Not the friendliest of men but they helped me along and I only waited 5 minutes if that. Then to get my passport stamped. Onto the next office and queue – still sweating! There was nowhere to put my bags so I kept them on me. More sweating and queuing. Eventually I made it through and was met on the other side with another mini van to take me to Siem Reap and my accommodation. My sticker, which I’d forgotten all about, hadn’t faired too well what with the putting on and taking off of my ruck sack, but the last sticky remnants were just enough to get me onto the minivan. There were 5 of us in the van – me, 3 French guys and a Spanish guy. The French were really sweet and helped me with my bags. On the way i changed the few THB i had left for local currency – apparently its better to use this if you want a good deal. After 2 hours we arrived. The hostel was full after the French guys checked in so I was put in another tuk tuk, taken to another hostel and at last checked in. What a room! A huge iron door with no lock, no window, 4 beds, a shower, toilet but no sink. Oh, and most importantly a fan. I paid over the odds for this room, relatively speaking, but it was worth it for the ease of my journey here. I had been looked after.

I showered , changed and headed out for an ATM and food. Just as I started out the rain began but thankfully it never made it past a few drops and that stopped whilst I was in the little ATM booth. Free cash withdrawals – I like this place already. I got US dollars which I would change for the local currency. Now food. I know it sounds crap but I wanted comfort food. I found a Mexican restaurant and had tortilla chips with salsa and cheese. There’s a random selection of food here – the street food isn’t quite so appealing as there’s a lot of fish and shellfish. Not really my thing. However, I guess anything tastes good with a beer to wash it down and that’s cheap here. I had a bit of a wander round before heading back for water, check on other accommodation and a snooze.

The evening was cooler but not much. I wanted to go to Angkor Wat tomorrow so needed to sort out transport. I met Rambo! A tuk tuk driver at the hostel but before agreeing to any price I wanted to get a feel for the competition. I would meet him around 8:30 to say yay or nay. It’s always weird stepping out into a new place. Where do you start. I headed back into town. The roads were busier, or maybe it just seemed like that in the dark. There was a kind of order to the road rules but as a pedestrian you could wait all day for a gap in the traffic to cross. You just have to be brave and go for it – everyone else will avoid you. It works. Avoiding the requests for a tuk tuk, motorbike, massage, food is less easy. That’s exhausting.

Supper was a banana pancake, but all I wanted. The streets were bustling and full of side markets, street vendors, tuk tuks but not many dogs and cats. I spent an interesting evening just taking it all in and popping into a few places. I realised dollars is the easiest currency and you can barter a good deal. The local currency is tricky to handle as you need a satchel just to carry a few dollars worth. 5000KHR (riels) to the dollar.

Before I knew it 8:30 had been and gone. I went back to the hostel. Agreed to another night in my strange but cheap room and met Rambo. I also met the 3 French guys and between us we negotiated a good deal on 2 tuk tuks. I was glad to be doing the trip with company. We signed up for the sunrise trip to Angkor Wat which meant we’d set off at 5, yes 5. I decided to call it a night now. Stupidly I pottered around in my room, amongst other things trying to figure out what to do with all the KHRs – they didn’t fit in my wallet and it took me a while to get my head around the notes and their true values.

Tuesday:-

The alarm went off and I was in the dizzy state of awake but still asleep. A cold shower helped bring me round but not much. I gathered up my stuff which I had sensibly (now my brain wasn’t entirely working) organised the night before. I waited for Rambo. I bloody hope he will turn up now I’ve bothered to get up at this hour. After 5 minutes he arrived but with another tuk tuk driver – Rambo was busy today!!!! Get him! I met the 3 guys – their tuk tuk driver had not turned up but after a bit of scrambling around we found another. We were off.

  

It was so much cooler and I loved whizzing along in the rickety tuk tuk. We stopped at the park border – I hadn’t prepared myself for the $20 park fee but luckily I had it. Very official. You get a pass with your photo on. Back in the tuk tuk and the race against the sun. Sadly, the sun won. We did see it rise but not over the temples. So amazing anyway. It really was spectacular.

  

  

    

    

I have no words for the place itself – I was speechless. Much of the area has been badly worn away and there is a lot of restoration work going on, but that aside my imagination took me back to a time when this would have been in its prime. What a place. Back in the present you could see the wear on the stone steps from years of use from….who knows who. I loved it and took way to many photos. None of which would ever do it justice. From time to time I bumped into the French guys but we always managed to re group before heading to the next temple. They kept me supplied with Oreos too.

  

    

  

    

    

  

  

    

  

  

  

  

    

  
After the main temple we jumped back in our trusty tuk tuks which materialise out of nowhere each time we need them.

  

On to Bayon with the many face sided temples. This is in quite a state but still beautiful and with elephants doing circuit tours it was magical. I came across a buddha sculpture in a quiet dark corner of one of the passageways – a local women appeared and offered me a lit stick of incense and sincerely wished me good luck and a healthy life. She then proceeded to tie a red string bracelet around my wrist. i was particularly touched by this small moment as at no time did she ask for money – a rare thing indeed. Sadly, we couldn’t get into one temple as none of us were appropriately dressed – a little frustrating as a checked the dress code the night before. We were flagging by now and it was only 10:30. The early morning coupled with the relentless heat was taking its toll.

  

    

    

    

    

One more temple to go. The big tree temple, apparently used in Tomb Raider. This too was in ruins and this was down in part to the trees growing in the area. Their roots were curled around the temple and had invaded the joins between the stones. It just gave the place more mystery.

  

    

  

Despite the number of tourists and sellers constantly asking “$1 for col drin” it was peaceful and well worth the early rise. I was ready to head back though. We got back around midday so a full 7 hours of temple trekking.

I was hot and tired, but mostly wanted food. I found a little restaurant and plumped for pumpkin soup. A strange thing to have on a hot day but it was Cambodian and delicious and filled a gap. Well almost just enough room for a chocolate ice cream. It took me a while to find the restaurant but I stumbled across many others along the way which would be candidates for breakfast or dinner.

I went back to the room to shower and sleep. I got as far as showering when I was told I had to change rooms. Damn – just when I’d unpacked everything!!! Before I agreed I dressed and wanted to see the other room. Same price but on the third floor, rather than around the back by the kitchen. It was lovely, so the inconvenience of repacking was worth it. If only they could find the key. Another couple had picked it up by mistake. After some searching a spare key was found and I could at last get some sleep. Wonderful!

  

It was dark when I woke up and surprise surprise I was hungry. I ventured down new streets, although much is the same. I found a busy restaurant and ordered a beer and Lok Lak – a beef and rice dish. All the food has been great. I ate slowly, my stomach has shrunk so much here (little and often – although I don’t even eat that often it so hot, and I’m not exercising) and enjoyed watching the street life. It is a busy, vibrant place here. Begging is more prominent here and you are advised to ignore them – not so easy with the children!)

Time flies when you have it and can enjoy the moment.

Wednesday:-

I slept the best in many a night. I wanted to head out early ish while it was still cool to enjoy an outdoor breakfast – as usual tuk tuk drivers waiting the moment you step foot outside.

  

I found the little cafe I discovered yesterday – things are never quite where I remember them though as the streets look similar. I had a healthy breakfast and juice and watched while a lady across the street prepared fresh coconut. The skill she had, probably from years of practice, in de husking, splitting and them grating was impressive to say the least.

  

  

Time to go into the town. I found a new grocery store and stocked up on snacks (always handy) then hit the pub street and found a restaurant opposite the happening club so I could listen to great music without being deafened whilst I ate a Cambodian meal of mango salad and shrimp wraps. It was a relaxing evening washed down with a couple of beers. After about 11 is gets much more quiet – apart from pub street – as most of the markets and stalls shut up shop. Via email, I had arranged with Fouad to go to the floating village the next day so I headed back for sleep.

  

Thursday:-

I woke to the usual sound of building work – there’s so much development going on here, but what’s great about this travelling lark is you can just lie in bed. Bliss. I actually got up around 8 and dropped into the little backpackers mini mart for yoghurt. Back to my room for a little picnic breakfast spread out on the bed, shower, change, mediation and back out. I met Fouad at a restaurant which had a pool – hmmm, note to self!
Where he was just finishing a large petit dejeuner. Whilst he finish a arranged a $10 tuk tuk with Rambo, then we were off. The road took us a different way out of town and along dirt tracks with stilted wooden shacks all along the route.

  

  

It’s dry season so the stilts aren’t needed but in the wet season the water levels are meters high. The area where we dropped off to catch the boat wasn’t attractive at all – desolate waste land with a few huts selling food. Rambo got us tickets (when the locals offer to buy you tickets it usually means they can make a profit!!) and then we were ushered down the gangplank to the waiting boats. A local snapped a photo of each of us as we were whisked past – seemed strange, I’m sure there’s a reason. This was not a beautiful area but interesting. Water levels were so low that the water was thick and orangey brown and so shallow in places that it was almost impassable but the drivers were skilled and knew when to give the engines extra rev to get us through.

It seemed that the locals were very poor here and we regularly had small boats pull up to us begging for money. There are posters all around town with the slogan “children are not tourist attractions” and here it was obvious what it meant. The children were used by their parents to pull on the heart strings of tourists to get money. One child had a large snake wrapped around its neck – a photo opportunity. We were asked if we wanted to go to the floating school. The deal was we would buy food to take there and also make a donation. This whole trip seemed like a tourist trap. Even the complimentary trip to a crocodile farm (an enclosure where a few unfortunate crocs were trapped) was an opportunity to bring us in contact with children to give money. As I said it was interesting but, particularly during this dry season, an overpriced trip with a very definite ulterior motive. As we disembarked the reason for the photo became clear. A commemorative plate with our picture slap bang in the middle – no thanks!!

  

    

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

We found Rambo and made our way back to the town – Fouad managing to lose his hat along the way. Luckily the traffic avoided it so when we turned around to collect it, it was still in one piece.

  

We had lunch at a tiny restaurant full of local school children. A very basic and cheap meal but enough to get us through the afternoon. They even sold these donut type cakes – had to try one which was surprisingly good. Just as we left the cafe I found a wedge of cash – this many notes could be anything up to $2! Maybe dropped by the school kids – I handed it to the restaurant owner who actually seemed above board.

  

It was hot and sticky as usual, and after the ride out of town we were dusty too. Time for a dip in hat pool. 2 hours for $3 – with a free drink. Bargain. The water was oh so good and I chatted to a couple of girls who’d had the same idea – Makensie and Emily. The weather changed and there was a short storm. Where better to be but in the pool.

Fouad and I spent the evening together. There was traditional Cambodian dancing at one restaurant, and they did a mean pizza.

  

It was a really good show and the dancers seemed to enjoy themselves.

  

  

  

  

A quick stroll down pub street and around the markets then back. We were leaving tomorrow and I needed to pack. At the hotel reception Essai (possibly the hotel manager???) was swatting mosquitoes with a electric fly swat. Zzzzz zzzzz – each time a mosquito bit the dust. I HAD to have a go. Those little buggers had not left me alone since Belize and I wanted a few moments of revenge. Sweet!!

Friday:-

Pick up was at 7:40 which is still early in my book. So glad a packed last night. Breakfast was marmite of crackers and 2 slices on leftover pizza.

As is the norm the bus was late but it did turn up. It was whilst we were waiting that Fouad realised he had had money stolen – the hotel denied anything and had no interest in helping!!! We’d paid extra for the comfort of a minivan with wifi, with free drink and snacks. Well, the minivan was tiny and full so really cramped.

  

Fouad is 6ft something so not great for him. We had 1 bit of luck though – 1 person didn’t turn up and they were due to sit in the back row with us so we had a little extra space. There was wifi but so slow nothing would load. One small bottle of water and no food. I grabbed a noodle soup at one of the stops – quickest I’ve ever eaten soup that hot. Next time we’ll get the bus!!!

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

The 5 hour journey turned out to be 6 but we did meet Pierre. He was a lawyer here visiting a friend, Patrick, who was setting up a bar in Phnom Penh. We shared a tuk tuk to Pierre’s hotel and got a good deal on a room with aircon. We could have spent ages trying to find a hostel only to save ourselves a few bucks. We shared so the cost was split.

Time for a snack at a nearby cafe, a beer at the hotel bar and a welcome shower. The tiniest of showers ever I think!

  

Phnom Penh is not the safest place at night so I was glad of Fouad’s company. We walked to the riverside and visited the night market. Most of these markets are full of cheap clothing and tacky souvenirs. It’s watching the people that makes it worth a visit. We found a popular restaurant on our way back – the Laughing Fat Man – and had the best burger.

  

We’d done hardly anything today but I was exhausted. The heat is overwhelming at times and I think this drains me. Anyway the hotel room was cool, clean, comfortable and quiet – although it did have a weird “door gym” at the room opposite. I slept well.

  

Saturday:-

I was only having one full day in the city so wanted to fill it with sightseeing. Up relatively early with a quick breakfast at the hotel. Then we negotiated a tuk tuk (number 3) for the day and set off for The Killing Fields.

  

    

The road out of the city was hot, dusty, very polluted and unbelievably busy. I may have said already, but there are no road rules here. There is no such thing as one way, right of way or pavements just for people. The pavement just becomes another lane. It’s madness! Today was the first time I saw the reasoning behind wearing a mask. I had to make do with breathing through a few layers of tissue. Uncomfortable as it is, I love to be immersed in these experiences. It took us a long time just to get out of the city, but once we’d made it the roads became quieter and the landscape more beautiful. We arrived.

There’s not much to see at the killing fields. It’s actually a rather lovely area with trees and flowers, plenty of shade so you can stop and contemplate what went on here.

    

  

It’s the audio tour which brings the history alive…….or should I say dead. The Khmer Rouge turned on their on people in a 3+ year genocide which took the lives of around 30% of the population. That’s nearly 3 million men women and children. All that remains here now are shallow pits in the ground, the occasional appearance of bone, teeth or clothing pushed up through the earth, a commemorative Buddhist stupa, and memories.

  

  

    

  

The stupa is a kind of temple which has been filled with the skulls and large bones of the victims found here in the 80’s. On entering a bought a small bunch of white chrysanthemums and incense to show my respects.

    

  

I found the whole experience very moving and the personal accounts included in the audio extremely moving. There is a tiny museum too which displayed artifacts, facts and uniforms.

    

If ever you go to Phnom Penh this is a must do tour.

Back in the tuk tuk and onto the Grand Palace where we did a quick turnaround as, in our opinion, the entrance cost outweighed the experience.

  

We asked our driver to take us somewhere to eat. A great little place on the riverside which offered Khymer and western food. Local food for me and western for Fouad. Another strange thing happened here. The walls of the restaurant were covered in A4 pictures drawn by customers. The one right next to our table had the word ‘Louise’ with an arrow pointing to the chair I was sitting on. Bizarre!

  

Next we were off to the Museum.

  

    

A small place jam packed with artefacts saved from temples all over Cambodia. The exhibition was in a square building with a central open area of 4 square fish ponds. The fish were obviously used to being fed as they rushed over as soon as your shadow hit the water.

    

  

So tranquil and with orange robe clad monks wandering around and…..feeding the fish. Talking of monks – they are everywhere in the city. It’s strange to see them on the back of motorbikes, smoking cigarettes, or on their mobile phones. Not quite how I imagined them. They also make daily rounds to the city hotels. They just turn up, stand silently in front of the hotel, and wait for free food to be bought to them for them to take back to the temple to share with the other monks. This includes female monks who are not allowed to leave the temple.

Lastly, as time was against us we visited the central market.

Mostly full of the same tat, but there were a few interesting things. I bought a cheap pair of fake Dr beats earphones!!!! We walked back to the hotel. Well almost – a tuk tuk driver recognised us and gave us a free ride for the last 1/2 km.

Exhausted I showered and snoozed for a bit. Which turned out to mean, waking at 9:30 then again at midnight (which is when Fouad went out) and then at 6:30. I’d slept on and off for 12 hours. And felt pants!

Sunday:-

Today we were leaving for the coast – Sihanoukville. I took a walk around the block, which in usual Louise style turned out to be some strange route completely out of the way, to find water, a free ATM and a travel office to book our bus. It was Sunday and much was closed. I found water – no free ATMs or bus ticket. I had breakfast at the hotel and tried booking a ticket via them. Everything was booked.

We checked out and got a tuk tuk to the local bus station. The next bus was 2:30 – two and a half hours. We spent some of the time at the riverside.

  

    

We split up and did our own thing. I walked through markets (not a tourist in sight), the back streets and found a jewellers where I found silver beads for my bracelet. I had very little cash at this stage so my credit card got a dusting off. The bus eventually arrived and we got on – plenty of room. Or so we thought!!! There were 4 pick up across the city – which took over 2 hours. The bus groaned under the weight of the passengers, some of whom were given plastic stools to sit in the aisles, and the motorbike (I kid you not) that was squeezes into the luggage space under the bus.

I found this part of the journey particularly frustrating. The journey was supposed to take 4 hours and we’d already taken over 2 just within the city. Many duplicate seat tickets had been issued, including for seat number 41, which was mine. I was ready to get off the bus, go back to the hotel and start again tomorrow. Which actually had been my first instinct this morning when we first found out the tourist buses were full. You live and learn. The only thing to keep me sane was watching a street vendor fry up insects and frogs – carefully blended with just the right amount of garlic, chilly and MSG!

  

The journey then started in earnest and didn’t take 4 hours but 5. That didn’t include the city part. So we left around 2:30 and arrived in Sihanoukville after 9. The journey had been eventful – the driver not stopping for people who desperately needed a toilet stop or for children being sick. As you can imagine the smells within the bus were quite something. The sounds too! You’ve heard of Chinese water torture – well in Cambodia it’s Cambodian Karaoke torture. The TV was on, with sound blaring, with a karaoke show. Complete with words, in Cambodian obviously, flicking across the screen. Their music can be beautiful but not these screeches. I tried listening to my own music with my new earphones but they were less than useless and were left on the bus when i eventually got up. What a journey!!!!!

When we arrived it became apparent that it was a national holiday – their new year. Every hotel was booked! After 30 minutes of looking their were 7 of us standing on a street corner sharing details of which hotels we had each tried, only to be told they were full. Now what? A Swedish girl suggested a place out of town and the 7 of us and our bags bundled into 2 tuk tuks on a mission to find a bed. The place was really out of town down some very dark, rough roads, but, and here’s the good part, there were rooms for us all. Clean, cool and with a bathroom. I was hungry but more tired so I went straight to bed. Ahhhhhhh, peace and sleep.

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