Cambodia

Trip Start Nov 01, 2005
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11
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Trip End Jul 28, 2006


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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cambodia

Well our quick exit from Bangkok took us to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and what a difference we found. The airport for starters was small, newly built and very efficient a bit like being at East Midlands rather than Gatwick. There were plenty of staff on hand to process our visa applications and relieve us of $25 each and we were soon in an air-conditioned taxi on the way to our hotel. The roads were busy but some how it was all far more peaceful and gentile. There was litter about but everywhere looked cleaner, it was quieter too. Plenty of tuk tuks around, but not the noisy brash things of Bangkok these were far more sedate and leisurely. Loads of motorbikes carrying all sorts of everything, female passengers were riding "side saddle". The funniest (sorry if you are a pig lover) was seeing two fully grown live pigs lying quietly side by side on their backs, strapped to the back of the seat. We only realised they were alive when they squealed as the driver went over a speed bump.

As we had only allocated a week to Cambodia our visit in Phnom Penh was brief but worth a mention was the Shiatsu massage we subjected ourselves to performed by blind masseuses, (is it really meant to be so painful????) the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda were awesome and dinner at Friends restaurant with their excellent tapas menu. (Jamie Oliver style, training for street kids).

So on to Seim Reap the main purpose of our visit to see the Temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, made famous by the likes of Dan Cruikshank and Tomb Raider. We travelled by bus, a 6-hour journey for US$9 each, which included breakfast and lunch on route along with a guide who gave a running commentary, including little snippets like some Cambodians like to eat fried............spiders! It's worth mentioning just in case you decided to drop in on Cambodia, don't bother getting any local currency, the Riel, everyone deals in US dollars. We changed $200 dollars and ended up as almost millionaires, 4000 Riel to the dollar, that's almost 8000 to the pound, my bag wasn't big enough to put it all in, no wonder the bank were rubbing their hands together.

Arrival at Siem Reap is pandemonium; tuk tuk drivers trying, in a good-natured way to get you to go to their preferred guesthouse swamp the bus. Fortunately we'd booked ahead from the Lonely Planet guide at Moon Inn, (Cambodian name Damnak Chan, email: damnakchan@yahoo.com). Yet again we found we'd fallen on our feet and ended up in a quiet street in a well-maintained, friendly guesthouse with excellent food, service, spacious rooms, tv, air conditioning, balcony, en-suite shower room, which were very clean and comfy and all for 10 a night for bed and breakfast for us both. Brill or what? Of course if you want you could stay at the 6 star Raffles Hotel or one of the other big names, they're all there catering I guess for those travelling in style who don't mind paying first world prices.

We could rave on and on about the Temples they are so stunning and once there you realise that there is more to see than the 2 famous ones. We brought a 3 day pass, hired a local tuk tuk driver and off we went. Of course the main sites are packed, mainly with Koreans dashing around like maniacs but with a bit of patience it is possible to find quiet spots and get good photo's. Of course there are plenty of stalls selling stuff you never knew you needed plus cold drinks, always at the magic price of "one dollar". It's worth going further a field too; our favourite was Beng Mealea, a 2-hour tuk tuk drive from Siem Reap. A guide led us clambering up, over and through the most amazing jumble of tumbled stones, we'd find ourselves in hidden passage ways, squeezing through virtually blocked doorways, it was like being in our own Indiana Jones movie. Enough said, browse through some of our pics if old stone temples are your bag.

Temples apart we also spent a brilliant day visiting a village called Kompong Phhluk, located alongside a river, the houses are built on stilts, up to 3 storeys high. Getting there was such fun; it depends on what season it is as to how much travel is by land and how much by river. We set off with our favourite tuk tuk driver Mr Chea, stopping on route to fill up with petrol from a road side stall, which dispensed petrol from either a 2 litre plastic bottle or 1 litre whisky bottle. We were a bit disconcerted when one of the locals lit up his fag as we were being topped up. None the worse we continued passing by houses of varying styles, some quite poor made from flimsy wood and leaves others quite substantial made of bricks and concrete painted in subtle shades of blue and pink. After travelling on decent roads for around an hour and a half, Mr Chea then explained that we couldn't go any further by tuk tuk as the road was too bad. The tuk tuk is actually a motorbike pulling a 2-seat carriage, so he unhooked the motorbike, negotiated with a local man for another motorbike and driver and off we went. Well the last and only time Chris was ever on the back of a motorbike it was a Honda 50 when she was 16. Forty-five thrilling minutes later after surviving the motocross dirt track, without falling off we arrived at the "boatyard" It's not really a boatyard it's where the barges load up with stakes used in the fishing trade and one or two boat owners take tourists down the river to the village. So on to the first boat, which was actually one of the barges with a rug thrown on the deck for our comfort. As it transpired we only stayed on this boat for a short while to negotiate the laden barges before transferring mid river to a narrow passenger "boat" complete with wooden plank seats and a canopy. The trip down river took about 30 minutes and soon the stilted houses were in view. We alighted amongst the cages of live pigs and general chaos of riverside living to stroll along the main street. Much to our surprise we weren't pestered by anyone trying to sell us anything, this was just a village by the river with people getting on with their lives. Fresh water prawns out drying in the sun, people buying their vegetables and groceries from small temporary stalls at ground level. We stopped at a small shop to buy canned drinks and were invited to sit a while. We realised we'd made the fight decision about the ice when we saw one of the shop girls, shaving the ice for the drinks. We had to laugh as three of the village children took turns chewing one piece of chewing gum!! (but no wonder so many have TB) The Buddhist Temple was the smartest building in town, whilst the most surprising thing was probably the village boat, which looked like it would accommodate around 70 oarsmen. Used purely for fun the boat is used in races between villages. We continued our journey by boat travelling for around another 10 minutes to reach the lake shore of Tonle Sap. A huge lake, which in the rainy season swells to 4 times the size, it looks like a sea now and it's the dry season. We were relieved when the boatman only took us a short distance on to the "lake" with its sea like qualities due to the distinct lack of any sort of safety equipment. Returning along the river we noticed fishing cages high up in the trees, placed ready for the rainy season, a slaughtered pig by a funereal pyre and crocodiles being farmed in wooden crates, alongside cages of fish being kept fresh ready for sale. Of course we still had the motorbike scramble back to the tuk tuk and journey back to Siem Reap to come.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours at a cello recital at the local children's hospital. A Swiss born paediatrician performs free of charge every Saturday night. Of course it's not free because when you get there the good doctor appeals for blood from the young people, money from the old people and both from those in between!! He unashamedly asks for money and in between the music he lectures on the health issues faced by Cambodians, virtually everyone carries TB, children are dying daily from Japanese Encephalitis, hence the desperate need for blood and money. He tells us about the terror reign of Khmer Rouge and how at the start of their rule there were around 7000 doctors, by the end there were only 50 left alive, the rest tortured or bludgeoned to death in "the killing fields"

Cambodia has so much more to offer, we only scratched the surface, well worth a return journey at some point.
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