Well - here is the story from Cambodia.
We flew into Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia and checked into a great little hotel a few blocks off the main street. Tourism for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples has taken off in a big way and there were several higher end hotels evident.Ours was a very reasonable, great quality place a few blocks off the main street which catered to the backpacker crowd rather than the package tourist.
The tourist core of Siam Reap is very lively, with older buildings and great bars and restaurants all just off a busy night market.The high point for Sue and I one night was getting a "fish massage". This involved sitting on the edge of a large tank while hundreds of small (and a few not so small) fish nibbled away at the dead skin on our feet. It took Sue a huge mental effort not to go into hysterics - but she managed OK and we lasted 45 mins or so before following up with a foot massage.The price was incredibly low - and included free beer.
The main objective of visiting Siem Reap was to see the temples. The first day we drove for an hour to Beng Melea - one of the temples that is only very partially reclaimed from the jungle. It is in rough shape but very interesting to roam around - at least for a while. Sue and Jess were finding the heat really oppressive - and I believe I heard them mutter something along the lines of "when you've seen one big pile of collapsed temple walls you've seen them all", when Kris and I separately found our way down into the insides of the mainly collapsed temple. I was led by an old official guide who just suddenly appeared and kept telling me to check out one more thing.It was a labyrinth of massive fallen slabs of rock and still standing gateways, interspersed with cloister-like tunnels, moats and courtyards - with large trees and vines protruding everywhere. The atmosphere was great - especially when you thought that the temple area was built 1000 years ago and once was lived in by a large population of the Khmer empire - over a million people apparently living in the combined main Wat areas.
There was hardly anyone around - just a handful of tourists and the occasional local young boys who hid out hoping to act as unofficial guides, but who usually scampered away after they pointed out a new place to explore, as they were nervous about the official guides who wandered around.
The next day we took a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples. Angkor Wat is amazing - though I preferred the nearby Bayon in Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. The former has several levels of many towers each with multiple faces carved around them. The latter has a maze of passageways and courtyards with huge trees and root systems growing out of and around the temple remains. Angkor Wat itself is visited by huge numbers of package tourists every day - and, relative to the other temples, made me think a little bit of going to St Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican compared to some of the smaller old and very atmosphericchurches that can be found all over Rome. We finished our day watching the setting sun reflect off the towers of Angkor Wat and the large water-filled moat in front.
Siem Reap is up in the North of Cambodia and the next day we set off in a car with a driver to take us to the extreme South of Cambodia to Kampot. We changed cars in the centre of Phnom Penh - the capital city- and got a bit of a feel for the place before driving on to the coast.
The overall drive South was very interesting, crossing the heart of very poor rural Cambodia.The road was a main trunk road, but narrow and rough. I had a few heart-stopping moments when our driver overtook a few trucks that were overtaking a buffalo drawn cart and a few bicycles, right in the face of oncoming traffic. Fortunately,there are usually wide dirt verges, so vehicles tend to swerve off the paved road to avoid something nasty.
The drive to Phnom Penh is almost completely flat with identical scenery in all directions. It looks like one enormous flood plain covered in rice fields and apparently one of the prime reasons the Khmer Empire was so successful, as they could grow an enormous quantity of rice. The scenery and the little villages in the rural areas were great - with lots of vistas of rural Cambodian life, relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
We made it to Kampot on the South Coast, a town with what used to be an old colonial French resort area on the river - fairly run down now, with a small strip of restaurants and bars overlooking the river and mainly frequented by French and German backpackers.We checked into our rooms at a guesthouse vaguely associated with a local orphanage where Sue had arranged for us to visit and help out at, if possible. Sue had also arranged for us to assist English teachers in a local school for 3-4 days.The place we were staying in was grungy and our rooms very run-down. I think we could maybe have survived there if all had gone to plan with spending our time in the orphanage and school. Unfortunately, after visiting the school and all seeming to be on track, Sue realised we had got the days wrong and the school would not be open while we were there. Sue and the girls bought some badminton equipment and took it to the orphanage and played with the kids for a while - but we were disappointed that helping out in the school was not going to happen.The kids were apparently very friendly and excited to have English-speaking visitors.
In the meantime, I had come down with gut rot and a mean fever that left me sick, exhausted and bedridden for several days. So, as there is very little to do in Kampot and 4 nights in our less than delightful place was far from appealing, Sue found out about an attractive looking place in the hills above Kep - a seaside town about 20 miles away.We arrived and checked into our 2 very pleasant thatched and airy khmer-style bungalows up on the edge of a jungle-covered mountain, overlooking Kep and the ocean. The bungalows were tastefully finished and furnished with French colonial antiques and open verandas that caught the breeze.Kampot had been unbearably hot and humid - so this was welcome relief.I began to recover - attributable in large part, I suspect, to being in the fresh air, in a beautiful environment and well away from our fetid room and the extremely smelly bathroom in our Kampot place. I was also helped by the large selection of pharmaceuticals that Sue had brought with us. My initial reaction back in Vancouver had been a bit of internal eye-rolling as I wondered "why are we bringing all this stuff?". This view changed quite rapidly when I considered the extremely limited medical options in southern Cambodia and realised that we probably carried with us one of the better stocked pharmacies in the area. Anyway, after starting to take one of a range of antibiotics we had with us, I began to feel almost human again.
Kep used to be a fashionable resort town decades ago - Prince Sihanouk having a villa there. During the Cambodian civil wars in the 70's and 80's much of Kep was damaged or destroyed. There are still many burned out shells of what were probably once very nice buildings.Its only real claim to fame now is apparently for its pepper-spiced crabs, served in small waterfront restaurants, frequented mainly by Cambodians and a few foreign tourists.
The crabs were actually very disappointing, primarily because they are so small - far below minimum catch size in Canada. The problem is apparently very similar to that in Vietnam. As one ex-pat hotel owner in Vietnam told us, there are huge fishing fleets that have fished without any controls for decades. There are now virtually no fish left and the fleets are becoming derelict. The fishermen - once the rich people - are now becoming the poor, with no social safety net to bail them out.In Kep, we saw a handful of fishing boats and several women who cast crab-pots from the shore. There were a fair number of crab in the market, but all apparently so immature that it is hard to imagine anything fishable will be left soon.
We had commented earlier that we had seen little wild-life in much of South East Asia - hardly any birds, or small mammals. The explanation had been that the locals starved during the various war periods and killed whatever they could for food. Things seemed a little different in our jungle-covered mountain bungalows above Kep, right on the edge of a national park. As we discovered, the bungalows contained very large spiders, enormous grass-hoppers and toxin-spraying frogs - to the concern of Jess and even Kris, who is more used to dealing with tropical creatures. One frog, previously removed by Krista from their bungalow, decided to return and made an amazing jump to land on her chest , spraying her quite liberally. It may have been the same one that subsequently set up camp inside the girls' toilet bowl. They were reluctant to flush it (it was quite attractive), so they ended up using our toilet until they were sure the frog had gone.
There was an impressive dawn chorus in the national park area next to where we stayed, with roosters, cicadas, birds, frogs, dogs and geckos all chiming in. Although there seemed to plenty of birds to be heard high up in the trees - virtually none could be seen. During one walk back to our bungalow, the girls noticed a pretty red squirrel running around. Within seconds, a nearby worker ran out with a shovel and bludgeoned the squirrel, proudly showing his handiwork to us. I hoped that he was at least planning to eat it- though I had the sense that his natural reaction was just to kill any wild creature he came across. We assumed this accounted for the general lack of visible wildlife.
Overall though, the Cambodians have been among the nicest and friendliest people we have met so far in our travels. This seemed almost surprising given that just a few decades ago,over 2 million Cambodians died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge - either from starvation or in the concentration and death camps. The entire population of Phnom Penh, along with all other significant cities and towns, were force marched out of the city and into the countryside for indoctrination by Pol Pot's regime, to perform forced labour or to be executed.
On the way back to Phnom Penh airport, we stopped for a while at the Cheong Ep Killing Fields genocide memorial.It is just one of many locations across the country where captives were taken to be killed and buried.This one has been turned into a memorial with a large glass-fronted monument built, containing the skulls of thousands of those killed, including many children.
Riding on and seeing all the various forms of transportation throughout our trip has been a central part of our adventure. There seems to be a distinct correlation between the economic poverty of the country and the innovative use of transportation. Motor-bikes are easily the most common form of transport and in Cambodia I suspect they could be the most efficient transportation method in the world. The good news is that, unlike some countries, all are 4-stroke and smoke free. The engines are small - from 50 to 150cc - and are used to haul amazing loads. Some examples we noticed on a single motor-bike : countless families of 4; a group of 5 teenage boys; about 30 live hens; about 50 dead hens; 3 queen size mattresses; 5 enormous bales of cloth (not counting the fridge we saw in Vietnam). If used to tow a trailer or as part of a tuk-tuk then bikes become even greater load carriers - including 4 Ververs and all of our luggage.
In Laos we took a minivan on several of our long trips of our drives, shared with 8 other back-packers and a driver, along with 12 sets of backpacks. We found this pretty cramped - but realised that this was nothing compared to some of the minivans we saw in Cambodia. We saw the same size vans typically packed with 20-25 people, along with huge loads of baggage and the most unusual cargo. There was virtually no public transportation system in Cambodia, so bikes and privately-owned minivans were the answer.
So that's it from Cambodia. Another leg in our adventure is over and we are now more than half way through our trip - at least for Sue and I. We will post some photos when we get a chance. Off to India now. Hi from all of us ……..