50 things we’ve learnt during our 25 days in Cambodia. 

1. The border crossing of Thailand and Cambodia is not as scary as it is made out to be on Internet forums. 2. The staff at immigration won’t let you use their toilet if you don’t pay the ‘administration’ fee. 

3. Always have a pen!!!

4. Everyone at Poipet that has a motor on a set of wheels will offer you a taxi service to where ever you want. They will even drive on the wrong side of the road to offer this, for several hundred metres. 

5. They drive on the right hand side of the road. (Opposite side to Thailand, even though they share such similarities in other areas.)

6. There are several casinos in no-mans land. Apparently, one does not need a visa to visit them. 

7. The ATMs at Poipet don’t accept foreign cards. Bring extra dollars for your onwards journeys that day. 

8. Sparrows are sold as pets. At least we hope they were for pets. So too are pigeons. Swifts are trained to return to their cages once set free. 

9. Credit card machines produce three receipts. Two need to be signed, even though it was written not to sign them. 

10. Cantonese for ‘shit’ is the same word for ‘colour’ in Khmer. 

11. There are about 40 species of frog in Cambodia. Supposedly, all of them are edible, but the spawn of one of them is poisonous. 

12. There is an edible leaf in the jungle that tastes exactly like a Granny Smith apple. 

13. The prices are nearly exclusively in dollars. To pay in Riels you may lose some money on the exchange. However, if you buy local you save a fortune as they typically only deal in their own currency. 

14. Teak trees have a hole gouged in to them and a fire lit. Sap will gather in the hole for 24hrs for collection, to be used for a variety of purposes including lighter fuel and sealing boats. 

15. The traditional greeting is the Sompiah, a slight bow with hands together in front of your chest, fingers pointed up. It is the equivalent of a handshake in western society. 

16. It would appear that dog shit is set on fire with several combustibles added, rather than move it away from their shop premises. 

17. You feel like a hostage because of rain. It’s remarkable and scary all at the same time. 

18. There is a powder that the Cambodians use, apparently, that helps to make ice quicker. It is visible in the bottom of a glass when the ice melts. We have never seen it, but have been told about it. Can’t find it online either. 

19. 1 in 300 Cambodians are victim to a landmine. 

20.  It costs $5 to lay a mine and $500 to remove it. The old way to find and dismantle a land mine was with a stick and a pliers. 

21. The Falklands Islands have several mine fields after the war. They are now popular places for penguins (too light to trigger the mines) and this has led to ecotourism. Efforts are ongoing to prevent the removal of these mines. 

22. When exchanging money, it is courteous to use both hands. If that is not possible, then your left hand should be touching your right elbow as the transfer is made.

23. Cambodian drivers manoeuvre first, look second. 

24. HiSo (High Society) is a term used to describe the upper class women of Thailand. I think other SE Asian countries are trying to adopt this status. 

25. Prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste (usually of mudfish) that is used in cuisine as a seasoning or a condiment. If someone at your table orders it, do yourself a favour and don’t try it. It’s disgusting. 

26. Kralan is a typical Cambodia savoury snack. It consists of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk, with black eyed peas or beans stuffed inside a bamboo cane. The cooking of it is a long and fuel consuming process. It is one of the few guaranteed safe foods to eat from the side of the road. 

27. We saw several locals counting money on blood stained chopping boards. Use your hand sanitizer whenever you touch the notes! 

28. Lilly pads are sometimes used as an extra layer for a chopping board. Genius!

29. Luggage doesn’t need to fit in the mini van/bus! Strap a few ropes around the back door (open or closed) and stack up your motorbike and boxes on the back. It gives you more room for passengers inside.

30. You can fire a rocket launcher for $350, or machine guns for $1 a bullet. 

31. There are very few pigeons in Cambodia. In fact we only saw them outside the royal palace where locals feed them and take selfies. 

32. Apparently (hearsay and only 1 article on Google that remotely reference it), if a pig has 5 toes it isn’t killed and is sent to live with the monks at the temple. 

33. We reckon the schools along the Mekong teach swimming for half the year and soccer for the other half. The pitch was flooded to just below the goalpost crossbars.

34. We overheard a guide at the royal palace, Phnom Penh say that the colours of temple roof reflect the seasons of the year. I cannot, after extensive research, confirm this architectural feature. But, the colours are beautiful. 

35. ATMs can dispense fake money (US Dollars). Hold up your money to the camera when you make a withdrawal and go through them to check. 

36. There are two types of medicine in a pharmacy. Tourists should request the western medicine and not the Chinese medicine/brands.

37. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people. 

38. The bamboo train (called a norry/nori) was designed to be dismantled and moved if another bamboo train was on the line. The train with less goods and easier to dismantle had to give right of way. The process is really cool to see. 

39. Katherine is loving Cambodian cuisine – there is shed loads of ginger in every dish. 

40. The smoothies in this country are by far the worst we’ve ever had. 

41. The female toilets at the bus station in Phnom Penh were past the men’s urinals. This info is crucial to the next statement. We saw that they use pineapple chunks in the urinals instead of little blue sanitizer blocks. 

42. There’s a clear problem with tuk tuk drivers at the Sorya bus station (PP), as they have 2x staff and a barrier when buses arrive. People beware!

43. They sensibly use sticky ice packs on their babies to help keep them cool. 

44. In the Khmer alphabet, there are 23 dependent vowels, 13 independent vowels and 33 consonants. It takes children 3 years to leant it as it’s so complicated. There is also no breaks in the written sentences. 

45. Comedian Charlie Chaplin visited Cambodia in 1936. To this day, comedians in the country wear a fake or drawn on moustache like Charlot had. 

46. Weddings are a three day event. Yikes!

47. The higher the house is on stilts (or built higher) means you have more money. There is a funny story about a German man and a high storey house in the Mondulkiri region if anyone is ever interested. 

48. It is estimated that approximately 37.5 kg of fish is consumed annually per person. The figure is as high as 67 kg/person for those who reside around Tonle Sap Great Lake and Mekong River. 

49. The majority of rubbish bins around the country are made from old tyres. 

50. We saw a poster for blueberry Fanta at the beginning of our adventure in Cambodia. At the end of the trip I checked the internet. It looks like Coca-Cola don’t make it anymore. Sob!

Travelling – day 372

We’re notorious for getting up early on a day of travelling. Nervous of sleeping in and missing a bus/train/ferry/flight we prefer to be up and chatting or surfing Facebook than stressing about packing and running late. But, after a year of travelling, we should give ourselves a bit more credit. Washed, dressed and packed within the hour, we hit the street at 7bells to look for breakfast. We say look loosely, cause we knew we were going to make a beeline directly across the road to the bakery. Some pastries, donuts and cakes for the day (not just brekkie) and a wander through the market to look for loo roll (just in case) we were back in the room with plenty of time to kick back, relax and wait for the bus. The mini van turned up just as we were leaving the hotel lobby. Perfect timing! We were at the ticket office only a few minutes later to transfer to another bus. Well, they called it a bus because they fit 5 foreign adults in to the vehicle, but it was a small jeep. Katherine luckily had the front seat – advantages of being polite to the ticket office staff – and 4 of us got ‘familiar’ in the beak seat. The 40mins, typical Cambodian time, took 1hr20 to arrive at Sisophon. Half way to Siem Reap in a fraction of the time as he drove like a lunatic, we were now only 57km from Poipet. But, we had to wait for the main bus to arrive first. Almost an hour later we jumped on the bus, nestled our ass in the air-conditioned seats and chugged along to the border. We got through passport control and immigration without a hitch, but we did sigh a lot at the people taking photos and videos in areas where it said not to, and people managing to get to the front of the queue after 45mins waiting, to then stand aside and fill in their immigration form that they were presented before entering the building. WTF!!??

A small bit of a wait in the car park for everyone to get back on the bus, we had now safely traversed the notorious Poipet border crossing twice without hassle. A weird moment when military got on the bus and demanded to see passports was about the only bit of drama before we stopped at a nice garage with a 7 Eleven, shops, restaurants and sparkly clean bathrooms. Oh to be back in Thailand. We got off at the railway station, a more convenient stop than Khao San Rd where we were destined. As such, we built up an appetite by walking to our hostel. Dumped the bags and enjoyed noodles, curry and salad at our usual restaurant. We tried to watch a bit of telly, but every channel was showing the same piece on the Thai King. An unusual thing to do on tv, we were unable to check what that meant with the poor wifi in the room so we turned off the lights and passed out. Thursday 13th October 2016

Battambang – day 371

We woke up early and transferred to our original hotel. We both felt much better after some sleep and as the guesthouse owner himself came to meet us at our replacement lodgings and walked us back to the guesthouse, apologising en route. Dropping our bags in the room, we rented a scooter and headed out for the day. First stop – the travel agents to buy bus tickets to Bangkok. Having learnt our lesson from Kratie, we went to four different places before making a purchase! Turns out that only 2 places sell tickets to Bangkok so we chose the cheapest! Got back onto the scooter and, I’m blaming the tiredness, I drove atrociously! So much so that Jayne told me off!!! Deciding it was going to be one of those days, I drove us straight to Gloria Jeans for a cup of coffee and a danish – or, as it turns out, a fruit smoothie, a coffee frappuchino, an almond croissant and an piece of Oreo cheesecake. Feeling more human (and less likely to kill each other), we jumped back on the bike and made our way to the bamboo train when it started raining. It rained so hard that we had to take shelter in the petrol station. The attendants brought us chairs to sit on as we watched the rain pound down, frogs frolick in the puddles and drivers swerve to dodge the water filled potholes. When the rain slowed down enough, we waved goodbye to our new friends and kept driving down the road to one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys!The 7km bumpy train journey goes from Battambang’s old French bridge (Wat Kor Bridge) to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. The journey takes 20 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop at O Sra Lav in between (for the obligatory gaggle of souvenir shops!).

Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like bogies, the one at the rear is connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people, or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.Sitting on straw mats that have been laid over the bamboo platform, we held onto whatever we could and the contraption quickly began to pick up speed!! Peeking down through the cracks at the rail tracks below was simply a blur and the long grass kept whipping our arms as the scenery shot past. We tried to talk to each other but we had to yell to be heard and, even then, the wind carried half our conversation away. The genius of the bamboo railway system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the most ineluctable problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going in opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so that the other can pass. The rule is that the car with the fewest passengers has to cede priority. We got to see this in action as the oncoming train was dismantled, removed and reassembled in front of our eyes in less than a couple of minutes. With the wind blowing in our hair, it was impossible not to smile (mainly because the speed was forcing my mouth apart) as we chugged past fields, across rickety bridges, and through stretches of bush. Locals walked on the tracks and only hopped off when the train was almost upon them. We also picked up a little girl and her mum halfway down the track. 

Arriving at the souvenir station, we did the rounds of each stall to pass the time but found the begging to buy something a little bit intense. Fortunately, by the time we got back to our train it was ready to go so we headed back to the start. Got about a minute down the track when it started raining again and we were completely soaked within 10 seconds. We were asked to tip the driver when we had finished, which always annoys me. If you ask for a tip then it is no longer a tip! One of the only times we have done it because the poor boy looked as much of a drowned rat as we did!! Jumping on our bike again before we got more demands to part with money, we had to take shelter in another petrol station as the rain made it difficult to see the road. 

Used the time to work out our route to the winery (yes, a winery!) while we waited for the rain to subside. Ended up driving down a little road where we got stuck in the mud. It was slightly tough dragging the scooter out of the mud without falling over ourselves – I ended up taking off my shoes and Jayne got covered head to toe in mud after I revved the engine at the wrong time… Emerging from the mud bath onto the main road, we spent some time declogging the tyre of mud to make it safe for us to drive again as locals watched us (and were laughing, I’m sure!). 14 kilometres out of town is Cambodia’s first and only winery, the Chan Thai Choeung (or Banan) Winery, which is open for visits and tastings. Known for its production of chilli peppers (harvested from October to January), Cambodia’s only winery grows shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes to make reds, and tropics-resistant Black Queen and Black Opal grapes to make rosés. Both taste completely unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in a bottle with the word ‘wine’ on the label. Putting it politely, the wine is not exactly to Western tastes – it tasted like vinegar!!! We also tasted their ‘cognac’ which isn’t as bad as the wine, and their juices — grape and ginger — are pretty good. Chatting to a French couple, who we had convinced not to try the wine, we organised to meet up with them for dinner before heading back into town. Dropped off our bike and headed up to our room to remove our slightly damp clothes! Chilled out for a while before going for a walk around the night market. A slightly odd experience as the market was a mixture between food stalls and shops selling random assortments of products, all with music blaring out and drowning out its neighbour. It was intense. The fairground section was also fun with its rides hanging halfway off the pavement or being run by fans!Met Francois and Veronica (I hope I’ve spelt their names right!) at the White Rose for dinner. It was a really nice evening, chatting about our respective travels. They had started with the Trans-Siberian railway and spent time in Mongolia – it sounds incredible and is now on my list (as is a million different other places!). We all went back to the night market for ice cream before heading back to our guesthouses. 

Wednesday 12th October 2016

Travelling – day 370

We had a 6.30am pick up from the guesthouse to take us to the bus station. Fortunately, it had stopped raining for long enough for us to make it from reception to the minibus without getting soaking wet! A rather uneventful almost 6 hour bus journey to get us from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh took us past flooded roads. We even drive past a TukTuk that was almost submerged in a ditch at the side of the road. I reckon the road was so flooded that he just drove straight off the road…

Ate a packet of crackers for breakfast, the only food items we could find in the shop last night, before stopping for ‘breakfast’. A rather disappointing stop as the food looked a. disgusting; b. like it was cooked a week ago; and c. totally overpriced. Giving it a miss, the only thing Jayne really wanted was the super cute fluffy puppy with an amputated front paw. Arriving at the bus station in Phnom Penh, we had the usual performance from the TukTuk drivers who didn’t quite seem to understand that we were staying at the bus station to transfer to another bus – although they could all regurgitate a string of Cockney rhyming slang! We even had the same driver approach us three times using exactly the same speech each time. 

Popped into the nearby supermarket to stretch our legs and buy some snacks for the next bus journey. Tried to find this elusive blueberry Fanta that we saw advertised back in Siem Reap to no avail. We tried to find somewhere to eat on the way back to the bus station but with every restaurant looking worryingly empty (eat where the locals eat after all), we decided to buy a pork sandwich from the kiosk at the station instead – it was delicious!
Back on another bus for our 7 hour journey to Battambang. Chatted to the man in front of us who lives and works in Siem Reap as a professor of agricultural. It was really interesting listening to him talk about how he trains Cambodians to double their earnings through their crops. It was slightly difficult to hear him at times over the Cambodian karaoke music blaring out. He left the bus halfway and we watched some ‘Dexter’ to pass the time. The bus did the typical ‘India’ thing of driving around the outside of the town and then dropping us a couple of kms away from everything. When we got off the bus, there were only motorbike taxis that wanted to charge us $2 each to go 3km… Neither of us wanted to get on a motorbike again after the Preah Vihear experience so we started walking. At which point, a TukTuk turned up. Since it was late and it was dark, we asked him ‘how much?’ At this point, he started with ‘free today but you take me tomorrow’. Knowing that we didn’t want to hire a TukTuk tomorrow we asked him again. Despite explaining that we didn’t want a TukTuk tomorrow but we were happy to pay a good (the right!) price tonight, he didn’t seem to notice. Decided to cut our losses and walk anyway, we then got the speech about Battambang being full of gangsters and murderers so it wasn’t safe to walk. If only he could have seen us roll our eyes in the dark…

The walk, where we weren’t raped or murdered, was easy enough and we were soon enough at our guesthouse only to find out that we had no room despite pre paying through Agoda. A slight disagreement where they wanted to put us in a male dorm room and we refused resulted in us being sent to another hotel for the night. At this point, we were more than slightly pissed off, so when the guy who showed us to our room started asking if we wanted a TukTuk tomorrow, we closed the door in his face and then blocked it with a chair. Climbing into twin beds, we fell into an uneasy sleep from the adrenaline rush. 
Tuesday 11th October 2016

Sihanoukville – day 369

Since we had an early bus, we had to get up early to pack away the clothes that we had hung up around our room last night. Most things had dried, I think – or maybe they still have some moisture in them… I’m sure we will smell delightful in a few days!! We had waited to do Jayne’s injection until we could find a safe place to dispose of the needle – fortunately, the pharmacy attached to the guesthouse had a sharps box so I was good to stab her with sharp needles!!! Managed to get everything sorted and we were ready with enough time to eat our slightly stale generic brand cornflakes with Milo chocolate milk. 
The mini bus drive to Sihanoukville was easy except for the three irritating Australians sat behind us. Even our headphones and loud music could barely drown out their ridiculous conversation and frustrating travel bragging. It was made even worse by the metre by metre run down of how close they were getting to their hostel only to then be subjected to repeats of ‘where are we going?’, ‘It’s too far away!’ and ‘Oh no, we’ll have to get a TukTuk’ for the last ten minutes of the journey as we drove further away from it. When we arrived, they even refused to get out of the minibus as we weren’t at the bus station. Had to point out that we weren’t on a BUS and that’s why we weren’t at the BUS station. We chucked our bags on our backs and walked quickly away from them and up the hill to our guesthouse. Must have been there for all of two minutes when it began raining – and it wasn’t light rain. It was full-on typhoon type rain, so relentless that with the pounding of raindrops on the roof we could barely hear each other speak! From previous experience, the rain in SE Asia usually stops after a while. However, this was clearly no usual SE Asian rain storm – it went on all afternoon! Just when we thought it was slowing down a bit, it would pick up again with incredible gusto! Even the guesthouse staff seemed surprised at how long it was lasting. Fortunately, the guesthouse has a bar, restaurant, pool table and decent wifi so we were able to entertain ourselves for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. The guesthouse manager was apologetic about the rain but, actually, it suited us fine. There isn’t much to do in Sihanoukville apart from go to the beach or get wasted. We had come so we could see the beach in Cambodia and to visit Narae’s friends vegan cafe (which was closed on Mondays) but we weren’t too disappointed that we couldn’t even get there. We are both tired and could definitely do with taking it slower than we have done in the past.A little bit of google searching and we found a cinema just opposite our guesthouse. I say a cinema but it was a place where you rented a private room full of sofas and a huge screen to watch any film from their collection. It was actually kind of amazing and makes me really tempted to turn our spare room into a cinema when we get home…We choose to watch ‘Mike and Dave need wedding dates’ and ordered a four cheese pizza too, although we declined the offer to make it a ‘happy’ pizza. 

The film was funnier than either of us expected and it was a great way to waste away a wet afternoon. 
When we left the cinema, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle so we headed to the beach to have a look. The people stood outside each restaurant and bar trying to entice people in as they walked past with special food or drink offers seemed more in keeping with Magaluf than with Cambodia but I guess it is known for being a bit of a party place in the high season. 

Back to the guesthouse for a couple of games of pool – Jayne beat me both times. In fact, on the first game, she had managed to pot all her balls and the black before I even got a chance to pot one of mine! An episode of ‘Quantico’ before snuggling down in our bed with comfy mattresses – it must be a southern Cambodia thing. 
Monday 10th October 2016

Kampot – day 368

With a little confusion over what time we needed to be down in reception for our tour, we got up early. The sleepiness and general haze lifted instantly when our breakfast – consisting of frosted corn flakes bathing in milo – hit our tongues. Raring to go, we were full of energy from the sugar, in hotel reception, at 07:40. The bus didn’t turn up until 08:50. We came down from our high chatting to the girls in reception. The daughters and cousins of the owner were all milling about, practicing their English and asking as many questions as they could before we left for the day. I somehow managed to swap my phone case with one of them for theirs – very artistic. The bus arrived, Corinna was already in the passenger seat next to the driver and we swung around the town to collect Sharyn from Mad Monkey and packed lunches from a quiet stall down a side street (maybe the drivers wife?). 
The drive up the mountain was longer than expected. We felt relieved that we had opted for a tour instead of riding up the long, windy road in slippery conditions. Plus, there was nowhere visible to purchase petrol so that would have proved a dilemma. 
We stopped at the old King’s residence under the Sitting Lok Yeay Mao Statue. I don’t think either the residence or dining area down the trail were the Bokor Palace referred to in the guide book. The derelict buildings were abandoned in 1926 (if memory serves me well) and the views are supposed to be spectacular. Except the clouds that we drove through earlier obscured the picturesque landscape 1km down. We carried on to the old temple, Wat Sampeau Moi Roi (Five Boats Temple), passing the new casino en route. The blight on the hillside provided the funding for the road (which is amazing), but have shot themselves in the foot by charging too much for their rooms and have never gained the business they hoped for. They also contributed to the fact that trekking is now banned in the national park due to all the development in the area. Anyway, we wandered around the temple, saw none of the monkeys that normally hang on the cliff railings, but enjoyed the mist rolling over the roof of the temple, the decorative interior and the rocks and boulders painted into the likeness of crocodiles. It was a short jaunt around the corner to the Catholic Church where we got a bit of a history lesson about Bokor. I regrettably don’t remember all the facts he gave about the place, but it was more informative than the guide book and explained ‘why’ the civil war and genocide began. The key facts followed the ownership of the hill top, with the French originally occupying and managing the area. They left for WW2 and returned again afterwards. Then there was the Khmer Rouge, then the Vietnamese. There was then independence from Vietnam sometime in the ’80s (I think, should look it up, but I’m not going to) and with the hill station by then a ghost town it took some time before investment and attention brought tourists to the area trekking and staying overnight. The double edged sword of the new casino has killed the trekking industry, but perhaps it brings more tourists to the area. Maybe the quieter jungle is helping protect the threatened leopard, Indian elephant, Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, pileated gibbon, pig-tailed macaque, slow loris and pangolin. Probably not!

Back to the Catholic Church… the Khmer Rouge held out here during the fighting against the Vietnamese in 1979. There was no sign of the bullet holes that were shot from 500m away at the Bokor Palace. There was no sign of the fragments of glass at the nave windows. It was covered in the brightest orange lichen and the altar was vibrant with fresh bouquets of flowers. A little up the hill behind the church, one is supposed to have stunning views of the rainforest. We didn’t have any luck in that direction, but looking back at the church, the cross on the tower was striking against the rest of the hill. The old casino was quite impressive. Especially for a derelict building, flooded with water and covered in algae. There was an idea of the grandeur of the place and walking around the bare rooms it was obvious that more time was spent gambling than sleeping. We even got some rare glimpses of the sea and forests below, a break in the clouds showing how beautiful it must be on a clear day. Not included in the tour price (always something) was the entrance to the Popokvil Falls that are privately owned and maintained. To enter, you must buy a water, fair enough. Except they were out of water and we had to buy sugar cane juice for slightly more. When we got in to the restaurant to claim said drinks and enjoy them with our packed lunch of fried rice, there was a counter full of hundreds of water bottles. Ugh! The water was flowing incredibly fast and the ugly brown colour didn’t lend any favours to a nice photo. We watched as people jumped across the rocks to areas where they could get better photos. Slipping and posing on the edge of a sheer drop wasn’t fun to watch so we left. Kamikaze selfie photo takers should be given the Darwin Award. Back in Kampot I may have had a bit of a snooze. I think 40minutes is allowable. I may have been hit several times to wake up… apparently. So we strolled down to the water front, chilled out for a bit with the weather being nice and mild and then hopped on board a boat for a sunset and fireflies cruise.  There was no sunset, but we went upriver a bit enjoying the scenery, the changing landscape around ever bend in the river and we searched for fireflies in the hope of seeing a few even in the drizzling rain. We found a few and it was like a mini Christmas. A nice meal in the Rusty Keyhole of baked potatoes for moi and fish for Katherine was accompanied by an incredibly sour lime soda. Walked Corinna back to her guesthouse after saying goodbye to Sharyn. We struck it rich when the guesthouse next to Corinna’s had mini golf. For paying customers use, it was like we were meant to have ice cream. A ridiculously fun game of golf in the flooded course followed by chilli chocolate and ginger & lemongrass ice cream had a perfect end to a lovely day. Sunday 9th October 2016

Travelling – day 367

Now, we weren’t expecting good things from today. The guy who sold us our tickets was clearly a scam artist and we had kicked up a bit of a fuss yesterday when we went back to confront him. We weren’t expecting the day to go without incident and we were right! 

Leaving out guesthouse at 6am to make sure we were at the pick up point early enough so it couldn’t be claimed we weren’t there, we waited… And waited… And waited. Jayne called the number he gave us for ‘any problems’ but it was turned off (or disconnected!!). Fortunately, a staff member used a different number and within five minutes, a mini bus had picked us up and was driving us towards Phnom Penh. We were waiting to see if the other rows of seats got crowded since we had ‘paid extra to not share our seats’… Clearly wasn’t going to happen as everyone had their own seat the entire journey. Stopped at a rest stop after about 2 hours for a late breakfast / early lunch. We ordered a bowl of noodle soup although I ate most of Jaynes meat – it was either beef liver or tongue. I loved it! It reminded me of being back in France. Back on the minibus for a couple of hours, we arrived in Phnom Penh – in the middle of nowhere. I made Jayne stay on the minibus whilst I sorted things out. We were supposed to have bus tickets in our hands for Kampot at this point and a transfer to the bus station. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand my hand gestures and I was pushed back into the minibus and I was given a mobile phone. I ended up speaking to the boss of the travel agency we had used who said we had bus tickets to Kampot but needed to pay another $15. For those who don’t know me, I rarely get angry, but at this demand I lost it! I could see the driver look at me in the mirror as he negotiated the busy streets as Jayne rubbed my leg telling me to calm down. Turns out the boss didn’t realise that not only had we paid for the entire journey but also that Map had taken so much money off us – even he was shocked at how much we had been charged. He agreed we didn’t have to pay any extra but ‘conveniently’ couldn’t get hold of Map to confirm our overpayment for a refund… At least we had bus tickets in our hand at this point and were at the bus station. In the grand scheme of things, it was only $20 but it is the principal of the situation. Consoled ourselves with the fact that this is the first time it had happened during our year of travelling and it was a lesson learnt not to pay for anything when we are tired!!!

Got a pork baguette sandwich and some crisps at the bus station before boarding a second mini bus to Kampot. It wasn’t very busy. In fact, there was more parcels and packages to be dropped off en route than passengers! Passed the time watching ‘Game of Thrones’ and watching the countryside pass by. Dropped off the other two passengers in the seaside town of Kep before continuing the last thirty minutes to Kampot. Turns out our cheapest guesthouse of the trip is one of the nicest!!! Amazing beds and a lovely bathroom, we are both a bit gutted that we are only here for two nights. Headed to the waterfront and walked past the colonial buildings decorated with hundreds of fairy lights. Made our way slowly to the night markets where we had fried noodles and fried rice sat in the middle section with the funfair rides for children. The merry-go-round looked particularly fun as each horse was held on with ropes which meant you could swing them even more… And the kids did! So much so that one almost fell off. Walked to the supermarket to grab some breakfast supplies and an ice cream before heading up to the softest and thickest mattresses we have had in SE Asia. Saturday 8th October 2016

Kratie – day 366

We had a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and baguette (sorry Kat, no HP brown sauce) at a cafe down the street. Unfortunately, behind us on the wall was a price list for buses to various places in the country, and they were all considerably cheaper than what we had paid. Something that we would try and rectify later. 
Easy haggling for a tuk tuk meant we chugged and bumped out along the road to the dolphin cruise terminal on the river. I say terminal, but we might as well admit it was a hastily constructed concrete cubical to collect money, a muddy field to walk across and slippery steps down to the river. The boat was bigger than we had anticipated and it slowly made head way against the downstream current. It was one of the weirdest optical illusions we’ve ever had. We could feel ourselves moving in the direction we wanted, the swirls and eddies in the river suggested dangerous fast moving water around us and neither bank of the river or the sandy islands got closer or further away. But, we slowly started making our way through trees and islands to then slowly drift into place next to other boats. Tying up to a bush, almost completely submerged in the rainy season, there were dolphins swimming around the area. It took us a while to see where they all were, with their blow being a short affair and they submerge again soon afterward. There must have been about a dozen when we arrived. A few big males were obvious to the left of the boat and a small pod directly off the stern suggested about 5/6 with one pair definitely being a mum and calf. We tried desperately to take a classy shot of the dolphins, a clear photo of a fin or a nicely framed picture with some of the landscape in the background. It was very much a futile effort so we gave up which meant we were able to enjoy them and not live the moment through a lens. Back to our jetty, collecting our tuk tuk driver (who was enjoying some fishing), we discussed what to say to the gentleman about our bus tickets on the way back into town. We appreciate the idea was a bit ludicrous – trying to ask for money back or a refund, when we have already purchased something. But, we made a silly, impulsive purchase the night before and were now hoping to relieve some of the stress of the situation. Needless to say, Mr. Map finally turned up and wasn’t best pleased. Staying calm and factual was pointless with the man. He was loud, angry and generally trying to blag his way out of the whole thing by saying so much that no one else could speak. I should have just reached over and banged his head against the table like an interrogator in a cop film. Sleezy grease ball of a man has made a fool of us and karma will get him for being such a con artist. 

Fuming and giving out to ourselves on the walk into town, we tried to console each other that in a year of travelling we can count on one hand the amount of times we have been properly scammed and that this was the worst, but not much in the grand schemes of things. We were being all mafia-like with our threats, completely in a world of our own, when Tom & Linda (the American couple from last night) shouted out to us from across the road. Quick change of plans, we had an impromptu lunch instead of trying to organise dinner as discussed the night before. 2hrs of chatting melted away the afternoon, with the occasional blast of heat from the street when the electricity power cut out and the fan above us whirred to a stand still. Those brief moments were also the noisiest and smelliest with the diesel generator making an effort to light up the inside of the restaurant. 
Despite my protests, we were back on another boat, this one not leaking, and heading across the river to Koh Trong. An island in the middle of the Mekong River we have heard that is has a nice cycling route around the island – hence my reluctance to visit. We opted for the cheaper $1 bikes, going against earlier advice, to see if we could make it around and save a measly $2. Oh the joys! The wheels were a bit wobbly from being a bit bent and while I had only one flat tyre, Katherine had two. But, perhaps this is to give more grip and surface area on the mud. And there was lots of mud. Shouting to the kids to move, high-fiving the ones that were paying attention and ignoring the barking dogs, we did the circuit. The Vietnamese temple was being renovated and the floating village very quaint. The moment Kat toppled a bit in the trail and had mud up to her ankle was perhaps the best bit of the adventure. I was expecting it to be me, but I escaped with only a numb bum and stiff back. Well, I escaped the treachery of cycling. I slipped when getting on the ferry. Me, slipping on a boat… unheard of! A sore knee and a few small cuts were all there was to show of the drama.  We thought we’d try the other recommended restaurant in town for dinner. But, nothing on the menu was appealing, so we tried a smoothie. Lumpy, sugary and probably adding to my cholesterol levels we were glad that we didn’t opt for food as well. Back to our restaurant I ordered the same stir-fried veg with sesame and honey and it was divine. It went well with a bit of fried ginger from another plate. 🙂 We watched an episode of GoT and tired to get some sleep on the sponge thin mattress in the stuffy hot room. 

Friday 7th October 2016

Travelling – day 365

We had an early-ish bus to get us to Kratie but not too early so we were able to have breakfast at the guesthouse before we left. Walking down to our pick up point, the usual gaggle of TukTuk drivers were there with one even offering to drive us if the bus didn’t show up! Fortunately, the transfer mini van showed up and we jumped in. Headed off to a couple of other guesthouses and hostels to pick up other passengers. Before we knew it, the minibus was so full that the company porter had to sit in the boot with all our backpacks. It wasn’t a long drive to the bus station where we then all transferred to different buses. Getting on our Sorya bus was easy enough – the destination was printed in large on the window. Sat behind 2 women – an Irish and an Australian – who had met in Vietnam and were now travelling together. Chatted a little to them until, as we started driving, the music video was turned up to such a loud volume that nothing could be heard between us so we settled in for eight hours of dodgy and loud Cambodian music. 

Stopped a couple of times en route for toilet stops and food breaks but we stuck to the safe food options… Mainly because the lunch stop had massive piles of fried insects, including cockroaches and tarantulas! We ate a very sickly bread roll muffin type thing. I think it had been made with condensed milk which is why it was so sweet. We also managed to find some Kralan which is a traditional Cambodian savoury snack. It consists of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk, with black eyed peas or beans stuffed inside a bamboo cane. It is then steamed for hours. It was actually surprisingly nice. We shared one cane which worked out well – it is incredibly filling! The rest of the journey was spent watching episodes of ‘The Inbetweeners’. We had tried to watch ‘Dexter’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ but the music on the bus made it too difficult to concentrate on the complicated story lines. 
Arriving in Kratie, we had the usual routine of TukTuk drivers running next to the bus to get the tourists business. Our guesthouse was just around the corner from the bus stop but it didn’t stop one TukTuk driver from following us there in an attempt to get business from us for tomorrow. It might have worked except, as we tried to check in, he kept hassling us and became a bit creepy. The young man in the guesthouse kept telling us that ‘it wasn’t open until next year’ at which point I started getting annoyed, especially as I had been emailing back and forth with someone as I had originally booked the wrong dates. I have a feeling he was trying to get us to change to a family or friends guesthouse rather than the one he worked in. After a quick phone call to his boss it finally got sorted and we had a room – dropped our bags inside and went for a walk, to be followed by the fore-mentioned TukTuk driver… Losing all patience, Jayne told him to stop following us and we continued walking up the riverside watching the sunset in peace. We went and bought bus tickets to Kampot for two days time (which, we realised later, we had been overcharged for… Scambodia indeed!!). Headed back to our guesthouse restaurant for dinner and met an American couple who are doing a similar trip to us for just under 6 months. We swapped tips and travel destinations over dinner and agreed to met up again tomorrow for dinner. After a small walk down to the river, we saw energetic aerobic classes next to the ice cream trucks. We skipped the exercise and went straight for the ice cream! Back at base we had a shower and climbed into bed to find that the mattress was so thin it was practically non existent! I was so tired that I pretty much passed out immediately although it took Jayne a lot longer to fall asleep. Thursday 6th October 2016

Phnom Penh – day 364

First off… An apology! There aren’t many photos today as the places we visited didn’t feel like places we wanted or could take photos of. As you read today’s blog, you will understand why. As a side note – I have truly traumatised Jayne today by taking her to these places and I’m not sure she has forgiven me just yet. 

Having had a cake induced coma, we woke up and had some breakfast before heading out onto the street. Avoiding the gaggle of TukTuk drivers on the street outside the guesthouse who had all, apparently, become our best friends over night, we walked the 2km to first museum of the day to learn about the darker side of Cambodia’s history. Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school that was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. 

The audio guides that were included in our admission fee were really good. The information they provided was detailed and harrowing as it took us through the four building complex. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarianism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of harrowing black & white photographs; virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed. You could tell which year a picture was taken by the style of number-board that appears on the prisoner’s chest. Several foreigners from Australia, New Zealand and the USA were also held at S-21 before being murdered.When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21, all of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography, to stay alive. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing bodies were found. There are fourteen whites grave markers in the courtyard to commemorate them. 

The visit to Tuol Sleng was a profoundly depressing experience, especially for Jayne who teared up a couple of times. I maintain that it was still not as disturbing as the war remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city but it was the sheer ordinariness of the place that made it even more horrific: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where children would have played… decorated with rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of black and white disturbing portraits staring back at you. 

Returning our audio guides, we went and had a fruit smoothie in the cafe opposite the museum, barely saying a word to each other as we took what we had seen and heard over the past 2 hours. Walking down the street a bit to avoid the highly overpriced TukTuks hovering at the museum entrance we managed to flag down a lovely gentleman who agreed to take us to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. It must have taken us nearly 40 minutes to get out of town but the breeze was nice on our faces and it was good to see the world go by. Arriving at the killing fields, we were given another audio guide – I think Jayne was seriously distraught at this point at the thought of listening to more graphic stories as we found a quiet bench in the shade to begin our tour. The audio tour includes stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge, plus a chilling account by Him Huy, a Choeung Ek guard and executioner, about some of the techniques they used to kill innocent and defenceless prisoners, including women and children. Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek (otherwise known as the killing fields). The prisoners were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious and expensive bullets. 

The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time longan (similar to lychees) orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. One tree was covered in friendship bracelets as the audio guide explained how guards used to hold babies by their ankles and hit their heads against the tree before throwing them into the pit – I’m not sure how people managed to take photos of it. That tree will haunt me forever. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.Returning our audio guide and both emotionally drained from the day, we got back to our TukTuk just as the heavens opened. It took us over an hour to get back into town as we clearly hit rush hour and as the roads became more and more flooded. At one intersection, the police were trying to direct traffic but we’re almost getting hit themselves as motorbikes swerved around them to go wherever they wanted!

Back at the guesthouse, we had a drink as I completed my teaching job application so I could submit it. It began raining again so we decided to eat at the guesthouse instead of venturing out. The fried rice and noodles were surprisingly nice and it was great to be able to just walk down the hallway to our room to go to bed!
Wednesday 5th October 2016