Hi to everyone.
Hot on the heels of Zoe's blog uploaded 2 nights ago here I am bringing you up to date in Cambodia.
Last you heard we were in no-man's land between Laos and Cambodia. Well, as we walked towards the barrier to enter Cambodia we were shepherded over to a medical check point and asked to produce our proof of yellow fever vaccination - Zoe and I had our booklets so we were waved through, but the others didn't. Not to worry, a corruption tax of $1 fixed their yellow fever dilemma and they were let through. A final corruption tax of $1 each for Zoe and I saw us enter Cambodia with passports stamped up to date.
The first port of call is the border town of Stung Treng which reminded me of Bartertown from Mad Max III (however, we've since found that every Cambodian town is the same!). We found a place to stay, got some local currency ($US or Cambodian riel which are 4000 to the dollar), and sorted out our onward journey to the town of Banlung in the Ratanakiri district. After a bite to eat we retired to the guest house to find the 3 Swiss guys that we had been travelling with were booked in also. When we first met them we saw that one of them had an exhaust system burn wound on the inside of his right leg and it looked like it was turning bad. We watched red lines grow up and down from the wound over the following day but he insisted it was alright until we convinced him to see a doctor on this first night in Cambodia. The accident was 4 days before and the leg was so infected that the doctors could only clean it up as best they could and tell him to get to hospital in Siem Reap ASAP. The crazy thing is that this guy is part way through a degree in medicine! As a brief asisde, we checked out the Guest House rules that are always pasted to the wall of the room, the translations are brilliant. See the Banlung photos and check out #9 - "Must respect the others, rights without causing anarchy or all kinds of bother".
Well, Friday was our first full day in Cambodia and we started it with a minivan journey out to Banlung. As requested we were at the bus station at 8am and we were the only ones in the minivan, this was unusual as they are usually crammed. After the driver had his breakfast and a beer we set off at 8.10am. Unfortunately we had only set off on the hour long drive round town to pick up everyone else. When we were full of people we returned to the bus station to get MORE people along with 12 car wheels and tyres and a dozen trailer axles. Still, with all that weight on board the suspension stopped squeaking!
The journey was 4 hours along a none too smooth dirt track and we were sharing the road with other buses, trucks, mopeds and cars all intent on occupying the same road space as each other at the same time. It was chaos and more than a little nerve wracking at times. On arrival at the bus station we were met by the owner of Lake View Guest house - he had been told by the guy we bought the bus ticket off that we were on our way. We each got on the back of 100cc mopeds for the journey back to the guest house - my pilot obviously hadn't realised how an extra 115kg of me and backpack would affect his handling and he set off like Rossi but we arrived without incident. The guest house was an old Colonial Mansion on the shores of a lake on the outskirts of town and the best room in the place had been reserved for us for $5 per night - and it was pretty good. The manager spoke great English and seemed to be really friendly until we told him that we didn't want to do any tours with his company! From that moment on we were on our own and we hardly saw him again.
We had been told about a lake in a volcanic crater which was supposedly 7km from the town so we headed out to rent some bikes and go for a swim to wash away the grime from the journey - bicycles are all $1 per day in the town so you can imagine the quality. As a result of this quality my rear tyre blew out when we were about 6km from the town meaning that I had to walk/run the rest of the way to the lake and then back to the shop afterwards. The lake was beautiful and almost blood warm so it was a great place to spend the afternoon relaxing. Back at the bike shop they were a bit miffed when I told them I would only pay for the good bike and not the s***ter that I had been given. It was at this point that we first encountered the Cambodian mentality when the shop girl said - "It's only a dollar, you can afford it". I relented and gave her 50 cents but from then until now we have constantly encountered people trying to get us to part with money for seriously sub-standard goods and services because "we can afford it!". Having said that we had dinner at a restaurant that night and a local invited us to drink with him so that he could speak English to us. He bought various different bottles of rice wine and wouldn't let us pay him back - turns out he had a load of anger to get off his chest regarding his arranged marriage wife (he called her Tiger Wife) and the only way he could do that was to talk to us in English so she couldn't understand.
The next day we rented a moped to go out and see some sights further afield and this didn't go according to plan. The first trip to a 7 tiered waterfall was down a muddy rutted track and rain stopped that as the track dissolved. The second waterfall was singularly underwelming in its lack of granduer. The third stop was for lunch and that was good. Trip four was to another lake 70km or so out of town and 5km down the road our front tyre went flat (due to the road having no tarmac on it I reckon!) so we had to go back to the shop. They repaired the tyre FOC but the delay meant that there wasn't enough daylight left to reach the lake. We rode most of the way there but turned back at 4.30 with 23km to go. Trip six was on the way back from trip 5 when we went to the same lake as the previous day. It was just as refreshing and this time we walked round its perimeter. After returning the bike we got back to the Guest House and asked whether thay had arranged our bus to Kratie for the following morning. Unfortunately our fluent friend from the first day was still being petulent so our conversation was not completely reassuring.
Sunday morning we were up and out the door and went to the bus station on the back of the same 2 mopeds and once again it was Rossi vs Stoner. When we got to the bus station surprise, surprise. The $12.50 ticket that we had each paid for had bought us a seat on a $6 per seat bus and somebody somewhere has pocketed the two lots of $6.50 difference. There was nothing we could do, so we boarded the "OK Condom" sponsored bus and set off for Kratie where we has plans to see the rare Irawaddy dolphins. The Mekong River is the only place you can find these animals and the stretch of river at Kampie (20km north of Kratie) is where the biggest concentration of them lives.
As we disembarked at Kratie there was the usual rabble of guest house touts looking for business but we made a beeline for a one-time Kiwi called Andrew who ran a new guest house in town. This proved to be a good choice as he could tell us (in real English) what our options were and what we were best doing with our time. On his advice we decided we would rent a moped the following day to go to the dolphins and just stroll the town and the riverbank to see out the rest of Saturday. The walk was pleasant and took us along a 400m stretch of riverbank lined with shanty houses. All the kids were shouting hello and wanting to hi-five us as we passed, at the same time as being fun it was also a little wierd.
Back at the Guest House we sat for dinner and chatted with Andrew. Turns out he could talk for his country, smokes like a chimney and seems to be a fan of steady drinking all day every day. All told a bit of an odd character but friendly and nice enough.
The next morning we got an early breakfast ready to set off for the dolphin viewing at 7am. We shared a boat with two Spanish sisters and headed off up the river. Ususally the boats have to search the river for a good while to find the dolphins but on this day we found them after just 5mins motoring up river. We moored up for about an hour and watched them feeding, all we saw was their head and back as they surfaced to breath but there was the occasional fin and tail as well. The view on the water was great and so early in the morning it was cool(ish) and the low sun gave great reflections of landscape and sky.
After the dolphin viewing we carried on up the road to visit a number of temples. One, called the 100 Column Temple, has 116 columns supporting the roof (I could have thought of a better name) and the inside is painted really intricately with bright coloured murals. Another has scenes depicting Buddhist Hell where bad people are getting heads cut off, spikes stuck up them and all sorts of other stuff happening. Pretty gruesome really but at least it is all in the imaginations of the Buddhist artists, the truly gruesome was still to come in Pnom Penh! In the afternoon we took a ferry across to an island in the Mekong. There is a 9km track around its perimeter and so we passed a couple of hours strolling round checking the place out. Back at the hostel we were subjected to another Andrew talking to in the early evening until a gecko fell off the ceiling and landed on my leg. In the ensuing laughter Zoe and I made good our escape and went for dinner in town.
As we left Kratie on Tuesday morning, Andrew advised us of a hostel to stay at in Pnom Penh and also told us where we definately did not want to be staying. When we arrived we spotted a tuk-tuk driver with a plaque for the Okay Guest House that Andrew had recommended to us and so we got a lif tthere and checked in. Pnom Penh is the capital on Cambodia and it is busy, hectic and busy as well as being very dirty in places, very clean in others and very busy and hectic everywhere. This we established on our afternoon walkaround while we devised our plan for the following day.
We booked a half day tuk-tuk trip around the city to see a few of the sights that really interested us. These were S21 Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields and the Russian Market. I'm not going to go into detail on the first two, but if you Google them you will learn that Pol Pot was not a very nice man and when he died in 1998 he did so with the blood of millions of innocent people on his hands. At the Russian Market we were able to purchase a very authentic looking copy of the Nepal Lonely Planey - 25 quid in England for the real thing, $4 in Cambodia for the copy! In the afternoon we planned to go to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda but neither of us were really in the mood. A combination of what we had seen in the morning on the tour, seeing maimed and crippled people begging in the streets, tuk-tuk drivers and moped riders constantly asking to give us lifts everywhere and generally being drained by the city meant that we just wanted some peace and quiet to contemplate. We spent the evening strolling through one of the nicest park type areas of the city before dinner, beers and bed.
Yesterday we got a bus from Pnom Penh down to Kampot. The main reason for coming here was the description in our guide book of renting a dirt bike and riding up to the Bokor Hill station in the National Park. Unfortunately, since the guide book was written the road has been closed to public traffic and so that put the stoppers on that. Instead of hard-core dirt biking we rented a 125cc moped and spent the afternoon and today touring the sights of the area. Nothing too spectacular but we swam at the beach, rode around a reservoir and got a tour of a temple in a cave by a group of teenage boys!
Tomorrow we board a bus for Siem Reap ready to see the amazing sight that is Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Zoe will take her turn at the keyboard again to tell you about this.
For now I will sign off and contemplate the 35 days that remain of our 10 1/2 month round the world oddysey.
See you in October.