Sunday, August 12, 2007

Slumming it

Saturday, August 11, 2007


After all the walking, climbing and hassle, a chill out sessoin was in need. So we hopped on a "Luxury VIP" bus to Phnom Penh on which they seem to have invented a new form of torture, an extremely loud and repeatative music videos blaring through the bus. No relaxing going here.

As soon as we got to Phnom Penh we jumped straight into a shared taxi heading south. We had negotiated a fair price for us to take all the seats in the car and to leave straight away, but the driver seemingly had other ideas. He sneaked in 2 other passengers on the front seat before we could say no, and so left the back seat free for us to feel guilty on for the 2.5 hrs of our journey. He drove like a maniac spending most of those two and a half hours on the wrong side of the road playing chicken with anything that had the audacity to be coming the other way. Just look sideways was our mantra as looking forward was way too scary. By the grace of God, Buddha or who knows who we made it in one peace, and so we checked into the best hotel in town (ie. the only one with hot water).

Kampot, which was our destination, was a similar town to Battambang, albeit a smaller version, and so we immediately liked it, even though it did insist on raining for almost the entire time we were there. There was not much to do in the town itself, so when we met Sam, a friendly and smiley moto driver, we got him to show us the local sites. These involved riding through the countryside and walking barefoot across padi fields chatting with a dozen local kids showing us the way to a temple hidden in a limestone cave. It also included a trip to the old resort town of Kep, filled with atmospheric empty buildings slowly being recolonised as the town recovers from being one of the last stongholds of the Khmer Rouge. The highlight though was probably a trip to a monastary where the monks could speak great english and took the time to explain to us the story of Buddha, and to let us quiz them on the life of a monk. They day ended with Sam taking us to a local restaurant where we had Khmer soup. At first we asked what some of the ingredients were, but soon we learnt that ignorance is bliss.

There is another "ghost town" near Kampot, an old hill station called Bokor. It was a bit of a pointless trip as we did not see much, but the 2.5 hours trip up (& back down) on the worst road in the world on the back of a 4x4 pick up truck was a great fun, if a bit painful and the old casino hotel where we stopped for lunch was amasingly atmospheric. Misty rain being blown through old windows into the carcus of rooms. We took lots of photos. The evening was spent with a couple ot American Peace Corps volunteers stationed in China who had run away to the relative comfort of Cambodia for a week.

We really did enjoy Cambodia but it was time to say good bye. We packed up and via one night in Phnom Penh we headed back to the luxury of Saigon.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

What Wat?

The land of a 1000 Wats where King Jayavarman VII or Jaskerlinen as we like to call him has a lot to answer for. For two days Mao, the tuk tuk driver, took us to so many temples we couldn't name now, we climbed more steep slippery steps then we care to remember and we saw some absolutely stunning things. We marveled at the sheer size of Angkor Wat, we played Tomb Raider at the tree encrusted Ta Prohm and finding solitude and Indiana Jones moments at Preah Khan. Preah Khan was exactly like we imagined the Wats would be like, a crumbling palace lost in a jungle covered by moss and giant trees.

Angkor Wat and the other temples are definitely worth a visit even though they are plagued by the same problems that Phnom Penh has. At each temple you get swamped by dozens of kids selling $1 items, "one dollar, one dollar, you buy or I cry" is what they were yelling at us. And sometimes their English extends to "Where are you from?", England we reply. "oh London capital city - lovely jubley".

On a boat again

bored of bus journeys we took the fast boat to Siem Reep. That took only 8 hours - good thing we didn't take the slow boat. The journey was just gorgeous. As it was quite full we sat on the roof watching the floating villages and other river life go by. The river size was oscillating from huge to tiny, sometimes almost to the size of the boat itself. We did have few doubts that we would make it but make it we did, with only mild sun burn and few scratches from some low lying branches. The last part of the journey was across the Tonle Sap lake, a huge brown lake in the centre of Cambodia.

BattaBing Battambang

We encountered our first tropical storm on our first afternoon walk though Battambang. We hid under the awnings of a CD shop where the kind shopkeeper took pity on us and brought out a couple of chairs for us to rest while we watched nature's handy work. Battambang is almost a world away from Phnom Penh. It is a small, quiet, sleepy colonial town with friendly locals and hardly any hassling. We met a couple of moto drivers who drove us through picture perfect countryside to see a couple of Wats and to ride the so called Bamboo train. The bamboo train is literally a home made bamboo mat attached on top of 4 small train wheels powered by a small moped motor and using a big stick as a break, riding over hardly connected uneven train tracks. Great fun until you meet the one going the other way. The train with the lighter load dismantles to the side to give way. Comfortable? No! Safe? Probably not! Fun? Definitely!! Popular? Considering the amount of locals that jumped on our mat - very much so!

As we wandered through the town we met a local English teacher who invited us to attend his English class which he runs free for the poor kids from his village. As 3 of us hopped onto his little motorbike we cosily rode for 20 mins into the countryside. It was only when we arrived we realised the scale of what he was doing as there were about 200 kids divided into 12 or so classes. All those classes were run by his former students. We visited all the classes and chatted to some of the most eager to learn kids that we have ever met. It was a humbling experience which we'll never forget.

Phnom Penh

So good they made it unspellable. It is more of a town then a capital city. There is a taste of the French colonial about the riverside where many of the hotels are. You can wile away the time sipping cocktails in open air bars sitting in big wicker chairs, although the constant stream of sellers and beggars (particularly victims of land mines that litter this country as well as the victims of this country's brutal past) make it impossible to be completely comfortable.

The city is littered with examples of old colonial buildings fallen into disrepair but surrounding them is a hodge-podge of pagodas, markets, shops and apartments. Considering we were not up to visiting the harrowing killing fields and the torture palace from the Khmer Rouge days it didn't leave that much to see in Phnom Penh, a couple of Wats (temples), the Royal Palace and the not so silver silver pagoda so with the clock ticking we boarded a "local" bus to Battambang.

Monday, August 06, 2007

and relax...

after all that adrenalin rush we were ready for some chill out time so we headed (or at least limped) north east to the cost town Nah Trang. The first 30km of travel was absolutely amazing as we went down the small winding road through the pine forest.
Nah Trang is the Club Med of Vietnam, or at lest on it's way to become it. We didn't do much there, had a swim in tea like water, took a cruise to the islands, snorkeled around the coral reef and drank some wine while floating in rubber tyres. Rob even did the karaoke version of yellow submarine (he was not very good).
Two days were enough for our restless souls and so, via a night in Ho Chi Minh City we headed to Phnom Penh and mysteries of Cambodia.