I am now in the grotty seaside town of Sihanoukville, but have two blogs to catch up with and a lot to tell about the last couple of days. Immediately after updating my last blog from Siem Reap, we set out on our afternoon excursion to the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake. We boarded one of the many tourist boats at a village built on stilts (many villages in Cambodia are so as to avoid flooding in the wet season). It was a pretty horrendous boat which through out an incredible amount of smoke and lent heavily to one side due to the weight of the engine, but we made it the short way to the village with only one short break for the engine to cool off. We docked at a "floating farm", which was basically a display of horrific animal cruelty. In just 2 small pens were crammed about 15 crocodiles and tourists were given the opportunity to feed the trapped beasts. It wasn't a pleasant sight, especially after I saw crocodiles in the wild just a few weeks ago. The whole village was a tad depressing due to the staggering level of poverty on display. The people there were desperate to make money from the tourists and many parents had sent their kids begging and were watching them as they came up to us and said "one dowar". Some kids were floating in small coracle type boats waving snakes about for the tourists to take pictures of them, and then they demanded money after they'd finished posing. It was an incredibly eye opening experience. Our tour guide explained that the villagers were all Vietnamese and not Cambodian. It puzzled me as to why they would leave Vietnam behind for such a life, but Sareth said they are keen to exploit the tourism industry here, and were also fine fisherman, so Tonle Sap lake suited them. We spent over half an hour at the farm, and then cruised back to our dock. On the return journey the sun came out for the first time that day, giving us a beautiful Asian sunset over the paddy fields. It was like something off a mystical Asia tourism advert and I look forward to many more over the coming weeks. On route back to Siem Reap we stopped for some refreshments in a hammock bar, where one person tasted snake eggs - a local delicacy. I didn't find the prospect especially appealing and nor did anyone else!
The next morning was our first taste of public transport in Cambodia as we set off on the 5 hour journey south west to the town of Kampong Cham. The coach was much more basic than those in South America but at least it had working air conditioning. The journey wasn't at all pleasant though due to the driver's obsession with blasting his horn at every opportunity. Every single time we overtook a motorbike, or whenever there was a pedestrian on the side of the road, he would sound it - and on Cambodian roads that meant blasting it about 15 times a minute. The motorcyclists rarely looked and never changed their direction - they weren't in the way anyway. I was sat at the front and fuming at the driver. It really was a stressful 5 hours, but at least we stopped twice for a toilet break. You do see some interesting things on Cambodian roads as well. Though the scenery we passed was bland and flat dry ground for as far as you could see, it is interesting to watch the crazy drivers and near miss crashes. Cambodian roads are narrow and very busy and there is a lot of dangerous overtaking. Even though they lack the drop offs of Andean roads, I suspect there are many more fatalities here than in Peru and Bolivia. Motorcyclists are everywhere and its not uncommon to see 4 people on 1 small bike. Up to 15 people also fit on minivan roofs, and many more in the back of lorries. With them and all the cows on the roads you have to be an alert driver here!
On arrival into the small town of Kampong Cham we took tuk-tuks to a local person's house to try some authentic Cambodian home cooking. It was a pleasant experience and the hosts were very welcoming. The food they prepared was also nice, but the main course was nothing we hadn't tried before. However, for desert they unveiled their speciality - freshly fried tarantulas on cucumber. It was an absolutely disgusting sight! You are meant to eat the whole thing, but only a few people were brave enough just to try a tiny bit of leg. I picked up a leg and played about with it, but I am sqeamish about spiders and there was no way I could put it in my mouth. Adventerous eater JY managed to eat the whole body though, stomach, eggs and all. It blew apart in his mouth and everybody flinched as he opened it to show off. They then brought out a live tarantula, which the young kid in the house was playing about with, but that didn't exactly entice anyone else to try the remaining spider! I will boast to being one of 3 people to try spider wine though, which was basically just rice wine with a load of tarantulas in the bottle. I had one shot, and it wasn't very nice.
After the lunch we set out in the beautiful and not too hot sunshine for a bike ride across to a rural island in the Mekong River. We rode across the rickety bamboo bridge which is rebuilt by the villagers every year after the wet season. It didn't feel like it could take a bike's weight, but there were even cars driving across! We cycled first to a Buddhist temple, where we called in on an English lesson being given by one of the monks. There were only a few kids present but they tested out their basic English on us and then got us to read passages to them. It was a lot of fun, but having experienced it I have no idea how anyone goes to teach English in places like Nepal and Korea when they don't have a basic knowlege of the native language. Communication was not easy. We then biked further into the village, by which time school was finished, and there were kids everywhere coming out to greet and high five us. Despite living in poverty houses they all looked so happy to see us, and would leap out saying hello as if it was the highlight of the day. It was pretty uplifting to see the look on their faces and I think the bike ride will rank as one of my favourite memories of Cambodia. Our last port of call was a local person's house where we were fed some local fruit, but we had to leave sharpish to get back before it got too dark. As we rode back into town hordes of people had gathered at the riverfront to do evening aerobics - not something I had expected to see in such a sleepy place.
We only had one night in Kampong Cham, as the next morning we were off bright and early bound for our homestay, which I'll cover in the next blog.