Friday 23rd January The illusive irrawaddy dolphins
Left the hotel at 9 am this morning and arrived at our hotel just after 12. We have a new minibus now and it's a bit smaller than the other so bit more cramped if you're not lucky enough to get a good seat. 30mins to freshen up then all out to lunch. I feel a bit stuffed with all the food we've been having but on the plus side, mostly beer or cocktails at the bar so not too much alcohol for me just the odd 2 or 3 cocktails and couple of cokes! That explains the extra pounds then! Just had a crepe with lemon for lunch after a scoot round the market. Then a walk along the front. We're staying at the Santepheap hotel, Kartie,which is smaller than the others and not so grand but the shower is our best yet (while on this trip) They do seem to have a problem with plumbing. Cold showers, showers that flood the bathroom, no flush on the toilet - but in for a penny in for a pound. It certainly hasn't stopped us having a good time and up to now I would highly recommend G Adventures to anyone (well maybe not Ian, Susan or Lisa) but you know what I mean. Our group is aged between 21 and 70 and were all loving it.
After lunch we traveled about 40 minutes by Tuk-tuk to the river in search of the irrawaddy, freshwater dolphin. Don't know what it is about dolphins but everyone always seems pleases to see them (or look for them).
The Irrawaddy dolphin (and i quote) inhabits a 190km stretch of the mainstream Mekong River between Kratie, Cambodia and Khone Falls on the border with Lao. It symbolizes the magnificence of the Mekong River and its continued high biodiversity. The number of dolphin remaining in the Mekong River is estimated at only between 78 and 91 individuals. Even this low number would make the Mekong subpopulation the largest of only five remaining critically endangered freshwater populations of this species in the world. Bet you didn't know that!
It was a beautiful afternoon floating around on the river and we were all extatic that we saw quite a few, or maybe it was just the same 3 or 4 circling round and reappear here and there. Unfortunately although I must have taken over 100 photos there really isn't one good shot between them. Certainly if I hadn't taken the picture myself I wouldn't know it was a dolphin. But a lovely afternoon anyway. Tuk-tuk back to the hotel. A beer sitting on the wall looking over the river then 40 mins to get ready and be out for evening meal.
Pitza had been requested so we all went to a restaurant that sold Asian and western food which was a short walk from the hotel along the river front. Not too late back as leaving at 8am for 5hr drive to Phnom Penn.
Saturday 24th January - Phnom Penn
Phnom Penn (the pearl of Asia) is a French built city and the capital and largest city of Cambodia and is located on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong River. It's noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and there are still a number of surviving colonial French buildings scattered along the grand boulevards
Arrived at the Diamond hotel just before 1pm. Quick check in and off to lunch. Restaurant was teally nice. Roof top views over looking the river. Not really hungry so just soup and a roll for me and a fresh coconut. Don't think it was as fresh as it might have been so had a nice glass of white wine instead. Haven't had much wine so nice change
Sam and I walked back to the hotel and got a little lost but not too much and just had time to change before going out for a cyclo tour. A cyclo is a little like a Tuk-tuk which are powered by motorbike, but cyclo's are powered by push bike. It has a single bucket seat with a scooped footrest making it very comfortable. The roads are just mad in Cambodia and I was a little nervous to start with but found it really comfortable and relaxing which surprised me as the cars, bikes, Tuk-tuks and motorbikes come at you from all directions. There hardly seems a particular side they drive on! We went to see the independence monument, built in 1958 as a memorial to Cambodias was dead and to celebrate the independence from forign rule, and visired Wat Phnom the namesake and symbol of the city. The central market is just round the corner from the hotal so we may get chance to visit before we leave. If looks a beautiful building and is colonial style built in 1937. The area where the market is was once a swamp area and occupied by a lake. But today this beautiful building is a prominent landmark in the city.
There had been some talk of a bar or restaurant which sold tarantula and some had expressed an interest to visit. Unfortunately it was closed so Shane out leader, got some from a street cart. They were also deep frying locusts which looked even more disgusting than the spiders. He also got some dried or fried frogs. Yuk, yuk and yuk! Several people had a nibble and one of the girls ate a large piece of the spider but she didn't like it and kept referring to the hairs still plainly viable on its legs! Apparently the frogs were a bit like pork scratchings but Sam didn't agree with that one.
We then went to the FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) which has a bar and restaurant 3 floors up on the roof with lovely views. Lucky for us it was happy hour so I had a cocktail I haven't heard of before, passion fruit mojito.. It was delicious. So i had to have 2 which as it was happy hour stretched to 4!! Yes those pounds again!
Then more food. No spiders or frogs for me though. A sweet n sour pork with rice was just fine. So we were sitting at the table with a lamp behind us and Sam was getting a little uneasy with the mosquitos, as it was evening and we were by the river but he relaxed a little when he saw several geckos on the wall above us catching and eating the mozzies when a cat leapt up off the floor and in yhe blink of an eye got the gecko in its mouth, ran off with it and ate it!! We couldn't believe it.
Tuk-tuk back to the hotel for our 8am start in the morning.
A sad day tomorrow S21 torture, interrogation and execution centre/ prison camp and the killing fields
Sunday 25th January - S21 and the killing fields
Tuol Svay Pray High School sits on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered this particular site, only 7 survived.
There were 167 prisons and 300 killing fields in Cambodia, this one at Phnom Penn is just one of them
The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977 but were tuned into cells and interrogation centres. The spartan rooms are furnished with only a school desk and a chair that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are the grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January 1979. They found it by following the stench of decay!
In an attempt to socially engineer a classless peasant society, the Khmer Rouge took particular action against intellectuals, city residents, or if your skin was light, suggesting you worked in an office or similar and were therefore intelligent, or if you wore glasses - wouldn't have them If you were poor and worked in the fields, or if you could read. All executed. It goes without saying that if you were ill, disabled, old or young and unable to make the journey to the camps, you were executed on the spot. Seeing the atrocities they did to those who did make it, I'd say they had and lucky escape!
Pol Pots slogan "to spare you is no profit. To destroy you is no loss" just about sums it up really. Research shows that over 3 million people lost their lives in just 3 years.
Visiting the killing fields and S21 was a harrowing, educational experience. We asked our guide Ran, who was just a boy at the time and had to work in the fields, how the people of Cambodia manage to keep smiling after all that has happened. He said the only other alternative is to keep fighting. Fighting your neighbour, who is likely to be one of the Khmer Rouge, or your children fighting their children - where does it end. So they try to put the horrific past behind them, smile and rebuild their lives. I have to say they're doing a pretty good job. It's hard to Imagine that the atrocities and horror we witnessed is such a recent occurrence. While we complained about the price of beer or cigarettes going up, whether it was raining or our jobs, millions were being slaughtered!
We were also introduced to 2 of the survivors who are at the camp almost every day to sell their books so that people know what really went on. One was a painter and the other an engineer or mechanic. I have purchased both their books and I'm sure their will make interesting reading. We had our photographs taken with them and I even got and big hug ! A very moving experience.
So enough about the sad side of Cambodia. Let's get back to happy times.
We had lunch at a cafe where street children are given the opportunity to learn to cook and work in a restaurant. It's called Friends. Bit like Jamies 15, I guess. Our guide told us that Gordon Ramsey was doing doing a TV series where he went around restaurants including Asia and this was one of them. He was so impressed by the skills of 1 young man, he took him on board to prepare a meal for the royal family in Cambodia. Can you imagine being a street child and cooking for the Royal family? How brilliant would that be. He now works in a 5 star restaurant.
Then in the was off to Thai boxing by Tuk-tuk. After 20 minutes ride we arrived at the stadium only to discover the boxing wasn't on for several hours so off we went to another venue. It was packed and I think our group were the only Europeans there. There were seats, well, benches, all round and they were all so reserved. We saw 3 bouts and the last one seemed a big one as there were flashing lights, music and lots more clapping. The funny thing was, the sponsors were a german beer company and at the start of each bout, they presented each of the competitors with a crate of beer! It was an interesting afternoon and we were made to feel very welcome in their community. I even have a new Facebook friend!
Back to the hotel for a quick 30 min shower and change for a meal at our guide, Ran's house. It's amazing how they welcome you into their homes. The family prepared what I can only describe as a banquet and the table was all set for all of us when we arrived. Well I say table, they traditionally sit on the floor around brightly coloured mats put together to form a large one. Sam found this a little difficult as he's not very bendy, but he was lucky enough to get a wall to lean on.
We had curry, kebabs, vegetables, rice, a hot spicy dish, a noodle dish which was a little like spaghetti, spring rolls and fresh melon and pineapple for afters. They have beer or soft drinks which you can buy for a dollar. An excellent evening. Of course just like any good restaurant there was and complimentary drink and the the home end. Tarantula saki anyone? I think I'll pass but those who tried it said it was okay and Sam did have to remove a few of the hairs off It's legs from his tongue but still said, not bad!!!
Unbelievably, 30 people live in this house! The guide, Ran, has a wife and 3 children but the rest are nieces, nephews and their children and other members of the family. His daughter is hoping to become a tour guide and when I complimented her on her English and asked if she learned it at school, she said "no, I learn it here" I was was a little puzzled but then Shane explained that the guide keeps all his tips and pays for a teacher to come in and teach not just his children, but the street kids too. We went downstairs and there was a huge room under the house. At the back of this room was some living space and at the front, tables and chairs for the kids to sit and learn with the teacher.
His son is only 9 but wants to be a doctor and I can't remember what his other daughter wants to be, a solicitor i think. Education is expensive here and we can't comprehend the effort involved in, not just aspiring to these professions but actually achieving them.
After our meal we were all fit to burst but there was still plenty in the serving dishes. We had noticed a few eager faces appearing by the windows then we found out why. Not only does Ran supply education to the street kids, the family also give them food. They were very grateful for our full bellys! Dishes disappeared in the blink of an eye!
Back to the hotel then to get ready for our 8am start tomorrow.