03.02.2009 -17 °C
Phnom Penh - City Time
Arriving into Phnom Penh we were really quite excited to be in a new country and we had high hopes for not just being seen as walking $'s. Phnom Penh is actually quite a nice city on the river and we spent a few days doing the local sights - albeit mostly related to the Pol Pot genocide years. We were also dead excited at getting our first tuk-tuk of the journey...
We visited Security Prison 21 which used to be a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge came to town. It was really spine chilling....a totally normal school turned into the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. The exhibitions were hugely informative and gave us a start at understanding these years......such as trying to understand why on earth the UN let the Khmer Rouge genocide perpetrators keep their seat on the UN general assembly until a staggering 1991.
The Khmer Rouge like the Nazis kept detailled records of their victims and it was sad to see the faces and their expressions of the S21 detainees staring out at us....some of sheer horror, saddness, resignation and defiance....
We also visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek - the extermination camp where the detainees from S21 were transported. Sobering stuff.
And of course we had a drink in the Foreign Correspondent's Club where the journalists hung out back in the 70's and now tourists pay lots of money for smoothies
Sihanoukville - Beach Time
We were then delighted to head off to Sihanoukville where the beach was beckoning us. We stayed in a lovely stilt bungalow looking down on Otres Beach (away from the oykes in the seedy main town). The water was blue, clear and calm, with the temperature of bath water and we loved swimming and sipping fruit shakes It was sad to see the darker side of tourism in SE Asia of the Gary Glitter variety and we picked our bars carefully after day 1.
Bokor Hill Station
We travelled down the coast to the peaceful river town of Kampot where we found the Sisters cafe run by an inspiring lady who was sold by her family as a child, lost a leg and now also runs an orphanage. The cafe provides jobs for the orphans when they grow up. We were able to help fund her good works by eating large portions of her lemon meringue pie and apple pie with ice cream (taught by the US NGO that rescued her - trust me a real treat in Cambodia! Yum-yum
However, we were glad of having eaten so much pie as we set off on our 2 day hike to the Bokor Hill Station in the National Park. Bokor is at approx 1000m and was where the French colonials holidayed to escape from the heat. It's now a ghost town as it got caught in the battle between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. This was our first group walk and not wishing to let the side down we duely turned up in full hiking gear and our matching Deuter rucksacs. At the other end of the scale were a couple of girls in summer dresses, flip flops and handbags.
However, setting off it became clear that we'd dressed appropriately as we staggered up through the jungle in the stifling humid heat.
At the top we were treated to the run down buildings such as the king's old palace...
The catholic church
We loved exploring the old casino and hotel...
Before settling into our basic accomodation for the night. There was uproar in the group the following day when it became apparent that the guides hadn't brought enough food for breakfast let alone lunch! We'd of course brought loads of snacks and goodies with us....but they didn't stretch too far in our group of 12.
Back in Kampot we met up with the group at an expat bar called the Rusty Keyhole (run by a mancunian bricklayer who serves the best sticky ribs and mash in SE Asia - a whole piglet's back apparently) and played cards late into the night - too late! Fi and Max gave Bryn and Ryhs a tough time...
And of course there was the post-game analysis
But Bryn was happy when he realised that despite losing he could still keep drinking beer....
Then we were off to Sian Reap and our 3 day temple tour. Bryn could scarely believe that we had to pay $40 each for our 3 day passes but amazingly we both totally enjoyed the entire 3 days worth of temples (well Fi a little more than Bryn)! We hired a tuk-tuk to take us round each day as the baking heat wasn't conducive to our bicycle touring ideas.
Our first stop was Banteay Srei where the tourist hoarded worried us somewhat...
But thankfully after a Red Bull to keep Bryn going we were able to view most the other temples without the tourist circus
We visited the Tombraider temple where the jungle has encroached somewhat....
And we saved the spectacular Angkor Wat for day 2.....we really were impressed at the sheer scale of it. Fi went for the burka look to ensure she kept cool!
Our tuk tuk driver working hard for his tip.....!
And we had to love the huge faces staring down at us from everywhere at The Bayon
We arrived at the sleepy Mekong town of Kompong Cham to try and get a better insight into rural Cambodian life.....but not before a nice bit of refreshment,......
We organised a homestay with Don (a 65 yr old American guy), his Cambodian wife Kyeung and their son and daughter Na and Ra. Their dog Mreck, had just had a puppy and therefore saw Bryn as a threat (?) and decided to savagely bark at every move I made - I am sure they can just sense our fear and play on it! We even saw our first wild snake which slithered in one morning whilst we were eating breakfast - apparantly it was not one of the cobras and just eats frogs!
Despite the basic accomodation, we experienced amazing home cooking for a couple of days - all rural delicacies and were treated very well.......although Fi wasnt convinced about the field snails for a light snack.....
We went on bike rides....
Mind the cows!
And walks to speak with locals working the rice paddies....
Go on, have a go Fi.........!
Pathetic! This lad was much better!
And extracting palm sap to then turn into palm sugar...
We even had a guest speaker each night (well family actually) who we could ask about anything including the Pol Pot era. During those years despite her mother's protestations Kyeung had 'volunteered' for school and had instead been sent to the children's work camp to build a dam. We learnt a lot from them all about Cambodia today and it helped us understand why it's only now that the first trial of the Khmer Rouge is starting in Phnom Penh.
Kyeung also runs an English school and one afternoon we were able to join in and be their guest speakers for the lesson. It was funny though how their simplest of questions could launch us into the longest of explanations...I'm still not sure that they really understood what I was going on about when I explained the concept of eBay to them.
Life in rural Cambodia is often a life without electricity. To keep anything cool the entire country depends on icemaking centres and then the big ice blocks are distributed on the back of motorcycles to everyone's cool boxes. Bryn caused chaos one morning when he didn't see the candle in the bathroom and put his synthetic top down on it causing it to melt somewhat....
Kratie - dolphins
We stopped at another Mekong Riverside town to see the legendary freshwater irrawaddy dolphins! There are now only 100 or so left after little conservation. It was a baking hot day so we rented a moto and headed off to the river. We quickly saw the dolphins coming up for air - but they disappeared so quickly again it was a case of watch and enjoy or try and take impossible photos (Bryn did the latter!)
Banlung - into the jungle!!
After some internet research, Banlung seemed ideal for our first lengthy jungle trek - an organised government trekking facility in the National Park and not ridiculously priced. We felt pretty hardy after outperforming many of the others at Bokor, so signed up for the longest trek (8 days) deep into the jungle and to the wilderness grasslands of Virachey National Park.
But before our trek we had a day on a moto round the local sites such as crater lake where we had had great fun swimming and jumping in
And numerous waterfalls
On the way back into town Bryn had to take evasive action on the bike from a mini tornado that was gathering steam ahead of us on the road!! No, unfortunately there wasn't time to take a picture
And after a last Western meal involving a huge pizza we were off into the jungle! It was just the two of us and a Ranger, assistant ranger and local minority guide and despite carrying all our own stuff, the other people had to take the food and had double our loads! We really felt like Bruce Parry on our way to the village on our tiny little boat heading along the river....
We spent the first night in a minority village where we were definitely the local attraction for the night. But we did get to try some rice wine...
Unfortunately our guides didn't decide to translate for us so we were left with most the village watching our every move. They were fascinated by our card games
Ducking and diving in the jungle was tough work with a big pack - Bryn managed to saturate his top with sweat after 3 minutes and was wet through from then on!
Did some great river swimming and slept in hammocks out in the open at a different camp each night.
Food was suprisingly good considering - there was always enough which is our key criteria - although the tinned pilchard and rice 4 day home streach did start to grate! For water we drank boiled river water - don't know how we didnt get sick as some of the streams were more muddy stagnant pools! The water also tasted of bbq pork from the saucepan and had sediment floaters - oh well, when you are thirsty, you are thirsty!
We reached the grassland on day 3 after having insisted on walking a double day as we'd been surprised at reaching our camp on day 2 after only 4 hours walking. The grasslands are Cambodia's own mini African savannah. As it was the dry season there weren't any animals at the watering hole sadly. But we did have a great couple of days wandering around the top spotting a selection of poos....leopard, wildcat, deer etc
We also went to a bat cave where Bryn bravely wriggled in to take some fantastic photos...emerging covered and stiking of bat poo later....
We had to chuckle one day when we pitched camp and then went off for a swim in the river only to find that the river was dry....so everything got packed up again and off we went to find a camp near some water!
After the grasslands we started to look forward to getting back to Banlung....the way down was easy until we reached the river where we spent half a day slithering and sliding along. There wasn't a set route and we would be on land forging a way through the jungle with a machete and the next second wading through water up to our waists. The key thing in our minds was to not fall over and ruin our cameras and also our beloved goose down sleeping bags!
We reached another minority village on day 7 and found out that we, or rather the rangers, weren't welcome there. Some men from the village had been caught illegally hunting by the park rangers a few days previously. No one would sell us any food!! So it was an easy decision to endure the crampt 2 hour boat ride back to town for a celebratory beer!!
Woohoo - 7 days survived in the jungle!! But slightly concerned that we've spent yet another month in a country when Bryn's planning spreadsheet had only allocated 12 days....but anyways Laos here we come!!!