01.02.2014 - 21.02.2014 35 °C
We took a bus from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal Mo Chit to the Cambodian border without much hassle (turn up, buy ticket, buy snacks, get on next departing bus, off we go). Rather than take yet another 3 hour bus after crossing the border, we planned to spend the night at the border to get going first thing next morning. We used the most ‘popular’ border crossing at Aranyaprathet/Poipet and had heard and read lots about the numerous scams designed to fleece cash out of unwary tourists for visa services etc and were careful to avoid these, making our own way through the border and getting the visa on arrival without issue. Next obstacle was by-passing the touts and police on the Cambodian side who try to force you on to ‘official’ shuttle buses, which then take you miles out of town to a bus depot where you have to buy overpriced tickets for buses that take hours to your destination stopping at numerous restaurants, all owned by people in on this monopoly transport scam. The fact that the police are in on this mafia business is a pretty bad business, many people believe they do have to take the bus as uniformed guys tell them so, but not the case, you can enter Poipet on foot, stay there if you like, wherever you choose and book a bus with any other company, for half the price.
Anyone heading to this border – beware of this, you can’t even flag a tuk-tuk near the border as the police shoo them away, you need to get away from that area. However, having successfully by-passed all these con-artists, we saw the dark side of the (already dark and grotty) border town, Rach took her phone out to check where we were on the GPS map and had her handset snatched out of her hand, it was off down a dark alley before we knew what was going on. Two local men chased the fellow but didn’t catch him, so lesson learned there, be extra vigilant in rough border towns and do not get a phone out on a dark street – you’d think we hadn’t lived in Manchester all these years!
As a result the next morning was spent finding some police to allow us to report this, we were a little apprehensive given the police being involved in the local mafia but in the end we were taken to the station by two fairly pleasant police officers who sorted a report for us and took contact details in case they catch the guy with the phone, we’re not holding our breath though.
Enough of the horror stories, onto Siam Reap and the Angkor Ruins, the primary reason for any visit to Cambodia really. We found a fairly nice room in a chilled out wooden-paneled guest house for $6 and next morning hired decent mountain bikes and set off after breakfast to get our 3-day tickets and got the most famous Angkor Wat temple complex ticked off first. This reminded us rather a lot of the Taj Mahal, especially with the numbers of visitors walking the long path towards the ‘main event’. There were impressive carvings but the whole thing was a little too touristy and less awe-imspiring than we had hoped…
After here we cycled further towards Angkor Thom, the largest complex of ruins, en route we stopped at a small temple set just back from the road with no people, there we climbed one of the steepest (also uneven and crumbling) set of stairs imaginable to the temple. There was nothing remarkable about this one but it was nice and quiet and back at the bottom we got chatting to a French chap named David (he had asked if the temple was worth the obviously difficult steps, we said not really). As David was also cycling the ruins we decided to continue on together. The three of us went on to Angkor Thom and were much more wowed with this than the first, especially the Bayon, with its stone-carved faces looking out from every angle. We had lunch at a stall near there, after some impressive haggling from David got us some veg noodles for $1.50 rather than the listed $4.50 which was just extortionate!
Note on money, Cambodia uses a duel currency system with all but small items quoted in USD, a dollar is worth 1000 Cambodian Riel and the two can be used interchangeably. The Riel is given as change for anything less than £1 and used for small purchases, though in practice most items are rounded up to £1, especially for foreigners, we soon tired of asking "How much for a pineapple?", "how much for a coconut?" "how much for a beer?" - pretty much everything small item is $1!. Also, there are no coins in use in the country (that’s your pub-quiz trivia for the day).
We went on to further temples with David before parting ways. The following morning we got up and out on the bikes early to catch the morning light, and cooler temperatures, although it still got extremely hot and sweaty even by 9.30am. Then we visited what was to be Rachel’s favourite of all the Angkor temples (Tess prefers the Bayon), Ta Phrom, very gothic ruins with spectacular trees growing through the stone ruins, (it was used as set for Tomb Raider). In all we cycled over 50km over the two days around the Angkor ruins. Even though this was an extremely sweaty business, it was brilliant and definitely one of our top ten experiences so far.
Luckily, on account of the stifling heat and humidity, we were staying near a hotel with a pool which allowed anyone to use it if you bought something, so we went for much deserved (after the cycling) cool down swims. To keep our fitness regime going we also utilized a nearby gym which had decentt equipment (Tess having worked and trained in gyms for many, many years was quite impressed with the stuff), although the lack of air conditioning made the workout very sweaty too! We also visited the famous ‘Pub Street’ – so named because, funnily enough, it is full of pubs, still including its very first established 1998 - ‘Angkor What?’; however, we didn’t ruin our gym/cycling healthiness this time around and only had some food and tonic water (!) The market close by to Pub Street was fairly good, T bought two T-shirts for $5 as her clothes are starting to either fall apart or become so ingrained with dirt as to be un-washable. Mothers note: we are staying as clean and acceptable looking as possible, even though this is a challenge in some places!
Before leaving Siem Reap we took a tuk-tuk (we’d done enough cycling!) out to the ancient Hindu temples at Phnom Krom, 12 Kms from Siam Reap on a hill looking out to the Tonle Sap lake. We went there for sunset and these ruins were a real surprise. Unlike any other Hindu temples we have seen (and that is many by now), these were ageing, greening-yellow towers, really spooky and looking more like Count Duckula’s house than anything else. Very cool though especially in the late afternoon light. We also enjoyed seeing out to Tonle Sap Lake; in wet season the lake swells to 5 times its dry season area, because of this the villages surrounding the hill are all stilted. The views were great, but we made our way down from there before the sun got too low, it was just a bit too creepy, and there were no other people, just a lone black cat that Rach decided was definitely man-eating. This was a good trip to end on though, especially as the road to the hill temples travels past local villages that felt more like real Cambodia than touristy Siam Reap, a really interesting journey.
After Siem Reap we headed to the capital city, Phnom Penh. The primary things to visit here are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured prisoners, and the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek where prisoners were executed and buried in mass graves. What struck us most about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide was how recent it was. Of course in Europe WWII happened in living memory, but here we were reading about horrendous mass genocide in 1977, the year Tess was born, and later, really difficult to imagine for us. To cheer ourselves up after a day in the history of the Khmer Rouge, we strolled the streets of Phnom Penh and along the promenade-like riverside. We had fun sitting in a park watching large groups take part in open-air dance workout classes in the evening and got very excited (especially Rachel) at finding HP sauce in our guest house (first time we had seen this since leaving UK), this necessitated ordering some chips just so we could smother them in it, yum.
Onwards and south-wards we took a bus to the seaside town of Kep, famed for its French colonial buildings and seafood stalls. Well, there really isn’t much to say about the place, while it looked good on paper it was very small and there is really not much there, we did meet a really nice British/Brazilian guy named Andy who made the evening and daytime spent there much more enjoyable. We took a 20 minute boat trip to nearby Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) and spend the night there, which was the best thing to do in Kep. The island is nothing spectacular compared to some in SE Asia, but its small size and un-developed state made it peaceful and relaxing, we did snorkeling and saw lots of colourful fish, some coral and even a seahorse. This place was a good time to sample our first (can you believe it) Cambodian beer, so a couple of Angkor beers were had as we lounged in hammocks and swam in the lovely green sea, good stuff. Tess also got chatting to a young Polish family, a couple who were traveling around the world with their 3-year old daughter, wow!
We soon got on the road again to the riverside town of Kampot. The town itself was nothing special but staying in stilted bungalows by the riverside with lots of river diving and swimming was a fun way to spend a couple of days. Rachel ‘cruelly’ made Tess ‘walk the plank’ each morning into the river (T is soft when it comes to entering water and likes to do so an inch at a time, this is not how one enters a river!) We met fellow travelers in the (loud) bar of the place next to ours and fascinated everyone by again adding HP Sauce to some chips. Despite it being behind the bar even the (really bonkers but fun) Cambodian bar girl didn’t know what it was, so we let her, some Americans, a French girl, and whoever else was sat nearby sample chips and HP, they were converted. Later an American guy asked if there was any sour cream for his burrito, the lady behind the bar scoffed and handed him HP, he took it, our work here was done.
Another day, another bus journey, this time to the seaside resort of Silhanoukville, the trip there was a breeze as bus journeys on our travels go, only 2 hours and passed really quickly talking to a British traveler about places, people, photography and food. Sihanoukville itself is nothing to write home about, there are some cool backpacker places and a clean enough but too cluttered beach. The place is full of old fat western men there for the ‘sex tourism’, we noticed bars run by blokes who were obviously pimps, and the aggressive treatment of ‘their girls’, not good. In some of the more pleasant bars we passed a couple of days enjoying some beers, games of pool and live music while we made arrangements to go to the nearby island of Koh Rong Samloem.
The island and the larger Koh Rong next door are Cambodia’s answer to the tropical islands of Thailand and are touted as being the ‘next big thing’ in SE Asia, so we each can say to our young nephews in 15 years when they are going there partying that “I was there when there was nothing my lad…”. We stayed in two different places on KRS, two nights on the west-facing ‘sunset beach’ and another two on the, more lively long white beach on the Saracen Bay side. It was a real tropical island experience, lush turquoise waters, coral and surf (on one side), powder-white sand, hammock lounging and partying on the other. We even attended our first Full Moon Party, it wasn’t all that to be honest and not really our thing… Maybe a bigger one in Thailand would be more enjoyable, or maybe we’re just too old for these things!
So as not to end this entry on tales of tropical islands that might make our beloved friends and family back home hate us, you should hear about the less fun side of spending time on a jungle island. We were tormented by bugs. We found the bed in our stilted shack on the sunset beach side of the island was crawling with ants (only at bedtime, it was clear with clean sheets when we'd arrived), we tried to divert them and thought we had done so but were woken by 6am itching with ants in our pants and everywhere else, it felt like we were about to be carried off like Gulliver on his travels! Despite no identifiable attraction in the bed (no food, nothing) the ants returned the second night, we didn’t bother going to bed, Rachel slept in the hammock on the porch and Tess made a bed on the lounge chairs by the beach – driven from our bed by tiny ants! Then there were the ‘jungle mice’ (everything here is given the prefix jungle to make it sound more exotic, but really, we’re talking about big mice), that climbed along the rope from which Tess had hung our only food item in the room, a bag of shelled-peanuts, and helped themselves, tossing some nuts to the floor where they could merrily and noisily munch through them. Away from the hut we were almost bitten to death by mosquitos and other beasties, especially on the feet and ankles during the trek through the jungle to cross the island. They are the most incredibly itchy bites and in really horrid places like the soles of the feet and between toes, aaaargh. These are the perils of living on a beautiful jungle-forested, tropical island – you do not get much sleep and spend the days itching like crazy, we needed a quiet night back in Sihanoukville for a good long sleep to recover.
So our last day in Cambodia was spent back in Sihanoukville, resting, eating cheap but very yummy hummus wraps and trying unsuccessfully to withdraw dollars for our next trip to Myanmar (you have to go to Myanmar with all your spending money in cash as there are very few ATMs and no other access to your money in most parts). We decided to go to a small local cinema in the evening to watch the very recent Wolf of Wallstreet, film which was very entertaining,, it turned out to be an excellent experience – a room with about 8 sofas, comfy cushions and sweet and savoury snacks made it feel like we were sat in our living room at home – there was even a cat sat on the sofa next to us.
In summary, our overall impressions of Cambodia were very good – we liked the people, the food was good (but not as flavoursome as Thai and most of the places were very catered very much to Western tastes, hence the chips and hummus wraps!) and the beaches were lovely. We do have some concerns though about the speed of development in the country which is in danger of spoiling some lovely places, and along with this the boom in the sex tourism trade. We recommend visiting Cambodia soon, before things change too much in some parts...
Making our way back to Bangkok from where we have a flight book to Yangon in Myanmar, we broke the journey by spending a night in the small but pleasant town of Trat (we took a different border crossing on the return, not wanting to re-visit the grim Poipet and having heard Trat was worth a look). From here we zoomed back to Bangkok in a v speedy minibus, back to the place we had previously stayed, rearranged our luggage (we have left one of the big bags with them so we have less to carry for a while, since we are returning to BK yet again) and got set for Myanmar the next day and the new adventures it would bring.