I last left you in Siem Reap and we were about to get our 7 hour bus to our next stop in Cambodia - Phnom Penh. Our lovely tour guide from Angkor had booked our bus tickets for us and had promised us VIP seats, which as Kav described from experience, would be comfy seats at the front of a nice modern bus, complete with air conditioning, toilet and a smooth ride due to the improved roads. But surprise surprise, when we got to the bus station the bus we were directed to, was not the modern luxury cruiser I had been promised, but a vehicle I'm guessing was built before the first world war. It literally was the epitome of what you wouldn't want to travel 6 hours in, but I didn't scoff or moan, I just swallowed my shock and panic and stepped on board. The first thing I noticed was that there were barely any tourists getting on board and a lot of seats were filling up with locals, which quickly explained to me why the bus wasn't luxury. As I made my way to the front of the bus (at least our guide got one thing right!) with Kav following, I knew this wasn't going to be an easy journey; however, I was pleasantly surprised by their comfort, although not their cleanliness! The journey went relatively quick and even though I had a very interesting on-coach toilet experience, (which I don't care to share) and travel sickness due to the lack of air, it actually wasn't as bad as I had first imagined.
At this point I'm going to tell you what it's like being on the roads in Cambodia and Vietnam. We thought Thailand drivers were bad, but these guys are on another level! There are no road rules in these countries, just roads and vehicles, and people pretty much drive how they want, where they want and when they want, and strangely enough it works. And it works better than our rules do in England, although I can safely say that if we did drive like this at home, there would be multiple murders every day! Basically it's every man for themselves. There are no junctions, no traffic lights, no road signs and no politeness, but this doesn't mean the roads are fraught with road rage, it just means that it makes things a bit more complicated than we would be used to. At a roundabout, you don't stop, you just keep driving and weave in and around anyone in your way. And apparently if you want to drive on the other side of the road you can. You can even have 4 people on your moped if you can fit them or 5 tons of boxes, or drive on the pavement, which becomes insanely irritating for pedestrians. And talking of being a pedestrian, try crossing the road in Vietnam! For some unknown reason, they bothered to paint crossroads on the roads, but they don't mean anything - they might as well have written, "DO NOT CROSS HERE". You basically have to hold your breath and start walking, hoping that the hundreds of mopeds and cars weave around you and you make it to the other side. The first time we tried to cross at a crossroad, we waited and waited, and waited for people to stop, but after about 5 minutes realized that wasn't going to happen and crossed in sheer panic. Needless to say, we are pro's now and take no prisoners!
Vietnam vans are hilarious. Each one has a tune that it plays when it's reversing and so far we've heard The Lambada, Jingles Bells and even It's A Small World from the ride in DisneyWorld! And you know those silly emails that you get with pictures of people doing daft things like driving with a horse on their bike or 50 people on the back of a truck which you thought were all fake? So did I, but I can now categorically tell you that they are all real! Some of the things I've seen I've hardly been able to believe. From 10 people in a tuk-tuk to one push bike transporting what looked like a whole tree cut into logs, and even a 7 seater vehicle with the boot open and another man made row of seats hanging out the back to make it hold 10!! We have photos so will upload them soon.
So arriving in Phnom Penh, it wasn't what we were expecting at all but very quickly fell in love with it. Our hotel that we had booked was really nice and the afternoon we arrived we took a tuk-tuk to the Russian Market which sold everything from household products to souvenirs, fake bags and scarves to all kinds of weird and wonderful foods. Kav was in heaven and took a million photos while I eyed up the scarves and eventually came home with 2 beautiful pashminas for about £5. That's not the only shopping I've done and have already purchased 2 fabulous fake designer bags, a funky wooden table thing, bottles of wine from Dalat (Vietnam) and Kav's even bought 60% proof Dalat rice wine for his Dad! The shopping is unreal and we've already doubled the amount of bags we started with and after trips back to Saigon and Bangkok I'm willing to bet we'll be over our luggage limit on our flight home! (Again Dad, this is where flying Business Class is better!!!).
After the Russian Market we headed to the Night Market which was much smaller than we had expected but turned out to be one of our favourite nights so far. The stalls weren't that great and actually catered more towards the locals than the tourists selling clothes, personal items and even mobile phones, but what took our fancy were the incredible food stalls. There must have been around 5 or 6 all selling similar things like fish balls on skewers, squid, pork balls, tofu, fresh vegetable spring rolls and other Asian delights plus a few stalls selling drinks, fresh made potato chips and desserts. But what was so brilliant about this market was that in the middle of all these food stalls was a big square of empty paved land with lots of brightly coloured rugs which you sit on to eat your food. In the middle of each group of 4 mats were baskets of condiments and napkins and once you've found your spot, after taking off your shoes, your chosen stall would bring over your freshly cooked food. Needless to say Kav took quite a few trips up to the stalls to try lots of different things, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. We were totally in amongst the locals and only saw 1 or 2 other tourists making it even more special and unique. We sat for around an hour or so and took in our surroundings and made our way home in our tuk-tuk.
The next day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to all the places we wanted to see which is both an economical and easy way of travelling around and our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum, otherwise known as S-21, the school turned prison which housed and tortured Cambodian prisoners between 1975 and 1978 by the Khmer Rouge. We got there early in the morning so that it wasn't heaving with tourists which seemed to make it all the more raw and real. There were horrific photos on the walls of prisoners after they had been tortured and killed and a photo of each and every person that was imprisoned during its operation. Walking through the rooms that they turned into cells, you could still see blood on the floors and walls and how some rooms were made into multiple cells only big enough for one but that held 5 or 6. The stories from prisoners who were rescued or escaped or from letters donated by family members told of barbaric treatment and unnecessary violence and death. After S-21 we were driven 10km outside the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the camp where nearly nine thousands Cambodians were killed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge. Most of the graves have been exhumed and the bones of the dead examined to determine sex and age, but some graves still lay untouched. The bones and skulls of the victims have all been placed in a memorial in the grounds as a mark of respect and although the whole place has an eerie calm and atmosphere, it's ruined by the tourists and doesn't seem to convey the disgusting history as well as S-21.
I must say that I have been appalled by my lack of world history and knowledge while travelling in the last couple of years. I was so content in my own life, living day to day and enjoying my holidays in Spain that I was blind to what else was out there and what has happened to other countries and other people. We take life for granted every day and when you're suddenly confronted by totally different cultures and lives, you realise how easy we have it. Yet we b**** and moan about our economy, the price of petrol, taxes and even traffic on a daily basis, but try living in a hut in the middle of Cambodia earning pennies a day with no electricity or even a day off and it will suddenly and totally hit home. Living in these countries doesn't come close to anything we have known. And what staggers Kav and I more than anything is how they never complain. Their work ethic and family values are unbelievable, and the way they treat us is even more staggering. Cambodia for me really was an eye opener, even more so than Thailand, and I absolutely fell in love with the country and hope to return very soon to discover even more of it and its people.
The rest of our visit in Phnom Penh took us to the Royal Palace where the King of Cambodia and the Royal Family live, although you're not allowed near the Palace but just in some of the surrounding buildings within the grounds. We also a walk and dinner down on the riverfront and a trip to the Central Market which was another great market, this time mostly inside where Kav successfully haggled for my 2 fake bags for the grand price of £15.
One other great thing about Cambodia is that their primary currency is US Dollars which make converting a hell of a lot easier than Vietnam dong! Vietnam Dong go into the millions and billions and so trying to convert 1,450,000 dong into sterling can take you a while, which makes haggling very long and very difficult!
Unfortunately, Phnom Penh was the end of our time in Cambodia and it was time to fly off to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam for the third and final country during this trip. But fear not, I'm sure there will be plenty of stories to keep you amused!
Much love to all xxx