We got a ferry and two buses to the Thai-Cambodian border of Poipet and the Government buses were amazing, really quick, no one tried to steal from us, no dodgy stops or being dropped in the middle of nowhere and we got water, breakfast and lunch. We crossed the border at what is known as one of the seediest border crossing with loads and loads of scams. We did pretty well and managed to avoid all of them but when you pay for your visa its meant to be US$20 per person, but a hand written sign on the desk lets you know that you also have to pay an extra 100 Baht per person that goes straight into the immigration officers pocket. We could have argued but we just paid and tried to get through the border as quick as possible. As soon as we got to the Cambodian side of the border the roads turned to dirt roads and we started bouncing all over the place. But we finally got to Siem Reap about 20 hours after leaving Koh Phangan.
We found Pub Street and realised beer was about 25p and cheaper than water so the idea of an early night went out of the window. We had a Cambodian BBQ which consisted of cooking your own meat on a hot plate at the table. We had crocodile, kangaroo, beef, frog legs and pork, there was an option to try snake but they were out of them that night. What a shame! The crocodile and frog legs were surprisingly tasty!
We woke up pretty late the next day (not sure why) and went out to the National Museum which was pretty expensive but had a lot of information about the stories behind Buddhism and Hinduism which are actually quite similar, as well as ancient Khmer art and information about the Angkor Wat temples. We went to watch the sunset at Angkor Wat but clouds and rain meant we didn't actually see anything, but we came back and wondered around the night market picking up a couple of bargains.
After being in NZ for so long we keep finding it hard to think of how much things cost in pounds so we keep converting things back into NZ dollars. But here that means seeing a price in US Dollars, converting it to NZ dollars in our heads, then paying and getting some US Dollars back and small amounts of money back in Riel the local currency which is about 6000 to the pound, so trying to make sure you have your correct change involves a bit more mental arithmetic than usual.
Next on our list was to see the temples of Angkor properly. We got picked up at 4.30 in the morning so we could go and watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, again because of clouds it wasn't the spectacular view we were hoping for. But we were the first two people there so for a while we had the whole site to ourselves which was amazing. After seeing Angkor Wat we went to Ta Prohm the temple that was left to the elements, or the Tomb Raider temple as it's called. It was spectacular to see the effect time and nature had had on this temple and it was really quiet so we got some great photos. We finished our time at the temples of Angkor by seeing the Anchor Thom and; Bayon, Terrace of Elephants, Preah Palilay and Phimeanakas Temple. Some people spend a whole week just exploring the temples here but we found one day was enough for us, some of the temples were incredible and well worth seeing.
We followed up by going to the Butterfly park which was really interesting as they showed us how they bred the caterpillars and then on to the landmine museum. The landmine museum was founded by Aki Ra a former Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier who was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge and later defected to the Vietnamese army. As a soldier he laid hundreds of landmines across the country and later focused on finding them and deactivating them just using a hoe or a stick. He has set up this museum of all the defused ordnance and taken in children who were abandoned or injured while he was in villages defusing mines. After some funding and training to comply with safety standards, he has trained numerous people to dismantle landmines. He reckons it will be another 20-30 years before Cambodia is completely landmine free.
We also saw Phare in Siem Reap. It is an organisation that trains underprivileged kids in circus skills and takes them around the world touring. It was a very good show and a great organisation.
We moved on to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We thought that Tuk Tuk drivers were crazy in Bangkok but it is nothing compared to here. We only stopped here briefly and visited the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleong S-21 (a former school used as a prison used during the Pol Pot regime). Both were very moving and still quite raw for Cambodians. Almost a quarter of the population was killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and we definitely saw and read some horrific things that really help explain where this amazing country has come from. The Killing Fields were mass graves based all around Cambodia. We had an audio book as we walked around and heard some accounts of local stories. The Khmer Rouge party ruled from 1975 to 1979 led by Pol Pot and killed off doctors, nurses, teachers, monks, anyone who spoke a second language and anyone who wore glasses. He ordered evacuation of all towns, sending the whole population to rural countryside areas to work as farmers. Pol Pot was trying to reshape society into a model he had imagined. They have built a monument of remembrance where the skulls of the deceased rest (from children to older people). They also have the weapons on display that the soldiers used to kill victims. They would rarely use guns as the bullets were too expensive and would always play music over a loud speaker when victims were being executed. There is also a huge tree which was used to kill babies and children. A lot of the soldiers where kids themselves and they were doing this to their own people. When victims were taken to S-21 they were told they were going to a better place but actually they were being kept prisoner here by being tortured, interrogated and shackled to hundreds of other people when later to be brought to the killing fields. There were 6 survivors of S-21, they had skills such as cooking and drawing and were needed by the Khmer rouge. There are numerous works of art displayed around of torture scenes that these particular artists were instructed to draw. This was a very sad day, but when you speak to locals they are full of life and optimism. It has only been 40 years since the war but the people are so positive, accommodating and willing to help you. The whole country had to rebuild itself from nothing and it has done one incredible job.
We found an incredible Lebanese restaurant and met some friends where the waiter practised his magic tricks on us, he was pretty impressive and then he pricked his finger with a cocktail stick and spread blood all over a coin we weren't really sure what he was doing (I'm not sure he did) but he entertained us for the evening.
With a change of scenery we arrived in Sihanoukville, we had lunch and a beer on the beach while Jeff played noughts and crosses with a child selling bracelets. After refusing to buy anything from him, the boy beat Jeff and he had to buy something. We think he was a professional naught and crosses player.
We booked a 3 island boat tour for the next day. We arrived at the pier and had a second breakfast (we forgot our tour included breakfast so had one at the hotel). After climbing onto a tyre, jumping across 3 boats in quite rough water we found a seat on our boat. We snorkelled and swam and San kept away from the giant black sea urchins. Due to it being monsoon season the water was quite muddy so we didn't see many fish, but the water felt so good and warm. Once back on the boat the crew had prepared lunch (fresh marinated barracuda with rice, baguette, salad and fresh fruit). The fish was very tasty, even San liked it but did give most to Jeff. We arrived at an island which we walked to the other side and found a very remote beach. We swam here and took a walk along the beach trying hard not to step on the crabs as they ran around us and in front of us. After another swim at the next island we headed back and had some dinner. We had cocktails on the beach and had perfect seats overlooking the water and listening to the waves, when out of nowhere it started to monsoon. We grabbed our drinks and helped staff bring some cushions in and met a couple who were playing pool and had a deal with the young kid (he was about 9 or 10 and incredible at pool). Unfortunately he lost but not by much. We stayed and had a few more mojito's with the couple and then found some buckets for $1!
A short bus tour later the next morning, we arrived in Kampot. A beautiful town along the Mekong River, its best known for its pepper plantations, gateway to Bokor National Park and famous ribs! Kampot retains many of its colonial buildings and there are lots of old structures around the town that are in different states of repair. We took a tour to Bokor National Park which is being destroyed by a huge resort, we saw the show room for future developments and it's terrible. It puts guides like ours out of a job and they aren't putting any money into the town itself. Apparently the foreigner who owns Bokor National Park also owns the town Siem Reap. The plans are to make it into a 5 star casino resort. At the moment it has an eerie charm of an abandoned French station with a church and a casino. We had lunch in a temple with some locals; the temple had beautiful pictures on the ceilings and the walls depicting lots of Hindu and Buddhism tales. It was raining pretty much all day and the driver of our mini bus didn't have a window so he hung a poncho up to stop himself getting wet. We also visited a beautiful waterfall, one that is only prominent during the rainy season. We ended the day by doing a river cruise and watching the sunset set over the Mekong and having dinner on a restaurant with stilts over the water(Jeff had fresh crab with Kampot pepper and San had beef with Kampot pepper which was tasty but very spicy!)
The day after we did a Grand tour of Kampot on a tuk tuk. We had breakfast in a café that is run by the deaf. To order you get a form and you tick what you would like and the quantity. San enjoyed amazing fluffy banana pancakes. A very bumpy, muddy tuk tuk ride later we arrived at a cave and explored with our guide. There were incredible animal like formations in the cave from elephants to turtles. We climbed 230 steps; it got pretty hot with a coat and a poncho on. Yes it was raining again! Once we set off again we got stuck a few times, Jeff had to get out and push. We passed through villages and paddy fields, where we could see people planting rice. San held onto Jeff for dear life at some points in the ride as she thought she was going head first into some of the fields. We finally arrived at the secret lake (not sure why called this) after an extremely bumpy ride (we wish we filmed it but we just had to hold on for dear life). There was another tuk tuk behind us and the other guide's was telling us that his mother was a cook for the Khmer rouge and she would steal food and bring food to her family. He said how lucky it was that she was never caught because they all would have been killed. It was nice to hear a positive story. Following the caves we arrived at a pepper plantation, black, red and green peppercorns grow on trees, red and green are the strongest or spiciest. Kampot pepper is very famous across the world, we tried some and noticed the skin around the pepper is very sweet and the actual peppercorn is incredibly spicy as we experienced last night. Next we drove to the seaside town of Kep, this used to be the top town to go for locals until Sihanoukville took over. The town is still full of ruined buildings and shells from Khmer rouge days. It is slowly being discovered by locals and travellers. The beach was beautiful with white sand and clear water; unfortunately it was raining again so we didn't swim. Kep is also famous for its crab market, you can see fresh crabs being caught, tied up and sold or cooked. We stopped at a Muslim floating fishing village on our way back to Kampot, the fishermen leave in their boats just before dusk to go fishing at night. Apparently there are much more fish near the surface at night than during the day because they are attracted to lights. We met up with our friends who have been a few days ahead of us throughout Cambodia and ate at a restaurant where you get a beer for every dollar you spend, between us we had 19!
An extremely bumpy bus ride later (San thought the bus was going to fall apart at one stage) we arrived in Kampong Cham, one of the poorer areas of Cambodia. There are few modern buildings but still some old French colonial architecture around. Our hotel which is one of the priciest hotels in the area, the Mekong Hotel (only $10 a night) looks quite derelict from one side of the building. As Jeff pointed out when we arrived here it looks like it used to be a very wealthy establishment. The town is slowly recovering from decades of decline and has just built the first $56 million (from Japan) bridge across the Mekong. There is also a bamboo bridge that is built across the Mekong every dry season but it gets washed away in the wet season. This bridge goes to Ko Pean an island off Kampong Cham. We rented some bikes and took a ferry over to Ko Pean to check out the locals and real Khmer style houses on stilts (I say ferry it was a plank of wood with some benches and a motor)! We cycled along a concrete road initially and then onto a muddy dirt road, slipping and sliding everywhere. We passed temples, schools, food stalls and children ran out and waved hello, some approached us and we gave them sweets. The cycle is usually about 28km but a huge part of the island is underwater because it's rainy season so we had to turn back. It was the hottest day we have had yet in Cambodia. On the ferry back, San was chatting to a local girl who was on her way to school (children go to school every day either in the morning or afternoon). She was practising her English and teaching San how to write in Chinese.
Cambodia has been a lot of fun. We have met some cool people and really enjoyed the country and the culture, although it's only a few hundred kilometres away, Cambodia feels like a world away from Thailand.