It is official: I am terrible at keeping a blog. So terrible, in fact, that it is now a month since my last update. Unfortunately, I am equally as terrible at keeping a diary, which I have also failed to update since Vietnam. So I will endeavour to remember what I can from the last four weeks of the trip, and hope that I do not have to resort to simply making stuff up to fill gaps of time in my memory.
So where were we? The day after my last entry I took a bus from Phnom Penh headed west to Siem Reap, and the home of one of the most famous landmarks in the world, and the national pride of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor. I still had the luxury of nearly two weeks before I had to be in Sihanoukville for my volunteering, so could afford to take my time on my jaunt west, spending two days in the town itself and taking three days to explore the temples. Siem Reap is nothing more than a tourist town designed to accomodate the hourdes of people coming to see the temples, and there is therefore not an awful lot to do. The highlight is undoubtedly the aptly named 'Pub Street', where there are lots of pubs, and aside from this and a number of decent little restaurants there is nothing much else. The first day there I managed to bump into Benjamin (the agreeable Frenchman from the last instalment), and so we decided to check out the temples together over the course of the next three days.
The first day we decided to take a bicycle to explore a group of temples close together. The main temple site is about 8km from Siem Reap, and so we decided to make an early start (7am) to try and take advantage of the cooler weather. Little did we realise that in Siem Reap the whole concept of cooler weather is a myth, and the two of us arrived at the temples as what must surely have been the two sweatiest people in the history of the world.
We spent the rest of the day on the bikes exploring both Angor Thom, a walled city full of a variety of big and small temples the highlight of which is Bayon, famous for the faces carved into the rock, and Angkor Wat, the daddy of all the temples and the national symbol of Cambodia. It is pretty difficult to put into words how it feels to actually be there so I'm not even going to try. I have previously uploaded a very small selection of the ridiculous number of photos I took over the whole three days, and even those don't nearly do justice to what we saw, but will nevertheless have to do.
The other highlight of the day was the inevitable me falling off my bike in front of lots of locals, who of course found it hilarious. Trying to be too clever I attempted to negotiate a tricky descent over tree roots, didn't see a big drop and stacked it straight over the handlebars. Naturally, no one came over to see if I was OK, as most were far too busy laughing at the stupid white man lying in a crumpled mass over the remains of his rental bike. Luckily I had damaged nothing more than my pride and my bicycle, which after some DIY bending was soon as good as new.
The second day at the temples, with arses still sore from the 30km or so we had cycled the previous day, we wisely commandeered a tuk-tuk for the day. Not so wise was the fact that we would be picked up at 5am for the must-see sunrise at Angkor Wat. Despite the cloudy weather and early start, it was still as spectacular a sight as I had ever seen, and well worth the effort. The rest of the afternoon we spent ordering our poor tuk-tuk man around the more distant temples, some up to 40km from town, all of which were beautiful and interesting in their own right, and far too many to go into any more detail here without writing a thesis. The day ended with us meeting some friends we met in Vietnam, an English couple named Will and Bonnie, with whom we spent the night enjoying buckets at the infamous Angkor What? bar.
The third day, exhausted from the two previous days and hungover from the night before, I treated myself to a lie in before jumping on a moto to see a few of the temples I hadn't made it to yet and return to my favourite, Ta Prohm. This is where they filmed some of the scenes from the Tomb Raider film, and is more interesting than many of the others as it has been largely taken over by nature, with trees and roots growing through the stone and over walls. Unlike Angkor Wat, which seems to be undergoing a neverending period of rebuilding and renovation, it is also completely free to explore, which certainly makes it a more interesting a place to spend a few hours than its otherwise bigger and more spectacular cousin.
Overall the three days I spent around the temples had been incredible. You hear so much about them before you get there that you worry you will be disappointed, but I am yet to meet anyone who actually came away feeling let down, despite the inevitable 'temple fatigue' that sets in after a few days of seeing nothing but. I find it difficult to comprehend that anything else on the rest of my trip will beat it, and am very glad to be able to tick it off my list of ''things to see before you die''.
After one more day relaxing in Siem Reap, including a very well deserved massage (completely legitimate), I headed back to Phnom Penh. I still had five days to kill before making the journey south for the volunteering. I thought I had timed this particularly well as my trip back to the capital coincided with Khmer New Year, and I had been promised three days of drinking, street parties and water fights to mark the occasion. What I hadn't been told was that this would not be happening in Phnom Penh itself, as everyone that lived there would leave to go back to see their families in the provinces. Moreover, this exodus also meant that everything would be closed, which is not what you want in a city where you have 5 days to kill and where you have already seen everything there is to see.
On the advice of the guy at the hotel at which me and Benjamin were staying (we had again agreed to meet in Phnom Penh to save a bit of cash on accommodation), our first night back we ventured out to a bar which he had highly recommended. Looking back I am quite concerned as to what this guy actually thought of us, as when we arrived we found that the bar was split exactly 50-50 between middle aged Western guys and teenage Cambodian girls. This brand of sex tourism remains a big problem in Cambodia, a country where money talks and where you can get anything if you have enough cash. We quickly departed and headed back.
On the much more appropriate advice of a different guy at the hotel, the next day I found the only New Year's party that seemed to be happening up at Wat Phnom, the only hill in Phnom Penh and where the city was said to be founded. There were weird Cambodian party games including something similar to spin the bottle, water balloons being thrown at passing moto drivers (Cambodia is not big on health and safety) and food and drink aplenty. Aside from the happy few hours I spent here, however, I felt that I was very much done with Phnom Penh, and decided to spend the last few days of the New Year somewhere new.
I eventually settled on spending a few days in Kampot, a small, colonial French town on the south coast not far from Sihanoukville. Although there is not an abundance of things to do, it is a place best described as being 'lovely', with a great riverfront and the friendliest people I have met so far. The big attraction is the Bokor National Park, which is unfortunately closed most of the year as they are relaying the road up to it. Luckily for me, my visit coincided with the first time it had opened in 12 months or so. I did a day tour in the park including the derelict former holiday home of King Sihanouk, a waterfall and the Bokor Hill Station, a French colonial ghost-town that was abandoned after the French left Cambodia and has remained empty ever since. The rest of the time in Kampot I spent largely relaxing, although the last night I met a cool American couple from Washington DC who were moving to Cambodia. Drinks flowed, and the upshot was that on my last night before I started my volunteering I was up til 5am playing poker, swimming in the river and listening to Bob Dylan. Hungover, tired and camera-less (I had left it at the bar from the previous night but luckily managed to retrieve it before I left), I awoke the next morning finally ready to head to Sihanoukville to start my volunteering.
The Cambodian Children's Painting Project is an NGO whose primary aim is to get local kids who sell stuff on the beaches off the beach and into school through creativity and education. It was started by an English artist three years ago on the beach, but was soon taken over by the guy that runs it today, a very un-American American named Felix. He took the project off the beach and into the building where it is today, where volunteers, along with two paid Khmer staff, help kids to paint, teach them English, feed them lunch every day, provide them with medical and dental care, pay for their schooling, provide some families with rice and clothing and generally try to provide a fun and happy atmosphere for the 60 or so children that come every day. It is funded through donations and the selling of the paintings themselves, the profits from which are divided equally between the kid who painted the picture and the project itself. It is impossible to underestimate the impact that the work CCPP does has on these kids' lives, many of whom come from abusive homes where their parents force them into selling or can-picking on the beach. Whilst they attend CCPP they are forbidden from being on the beach at dark, and we keep regular tabs on who is and who is not attending school. The whole place is a safe haven where, as well as the above, kids can simply be kids- football, games and of course fighting are all daily activities, something that we at home take for granted but which here, in the lives that some of these kids are forced to lead, comes at a premium. Sometimes I feel that my main function at CCPP is as a punchbag/climbing frame.
My arrival on Saturday 18/04/09 coincided with the end of the New Year, with the project being closed until the following Tuesday. This gave me some time to acquaint myself with the town and the volunteers. The town itself is one of my least favourite places I have been. It has nice beaches but is catered solely for tourists, as well as being plagued with a sex tourism problem the extent of which I had not seen before. Luckily for us this particular local attraction is concentrated largely in a different part of town, and although we have been witnesses to some such behaviour, our location is certainly in a part of town more geared towards partying travellers and NGO workers. The volunteers, and other local expats doing various charity work and running local businesses, are a completely different proposition, and I have never made so many good friends in such a short time before, and I am sure that I will stay in contact with all of them. Indeed, plans are already in motion for reunions in Bangkok, Amsterdam, London and even Africa.
Aside from the daily volunteering itself, there have been several other highlights of my time here. Firstly, the nightly open mic session down on the beach which have become a weekly ritual of music and Mekong buckets. Secondly, a visit from Miss Rowan Chambers and friends that resulted in two very messy nights, the first of which ended at 5am with us having spent several hours swimming fully clothed in the Gulf of Thailand. Thirdly, an annual fundraising exhibition of paintings at a local hotel, a fantastic night soured only by the fact that a very inconvenient monsoon downpour severely limited the people in attendance and the money actually raised. Lastly, me going to the casino and winning $100. That wasn't really a highlight, I was just really happy about it.
So I officially have 5 more days here before I am supposed to leave, but am planning on staying probably until the following Wednesday. I am in the process of uploading some photos from the project that represents an average day, photos from the exhibition and other nights of debauchery are on other peoples' cameras and will probably be uploaded onto Facebook in due course for anyone that is interested. There has also been significant change in my travel plans. I have cancelled my tour in Thailand and am going it alone. I will first grab a cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur before making my way north through Malaysia and into South Thailand, working my way north through Chang Mai and then into Laos, before heading south through Laos and back down to Bangkok. I will try and be more efficient in my blog entries during this time.