Thursday, September 7th

Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Yeah, did not sleep much. I managed to charge my phone using a battery pack combination travel adaptor I had purchased before our trip anticipating occasions like this were power was a bit at a premium (there were two outlets in the sleeping area and, as you might expect, both were being used) but I really couldn’t get comfortable. I ended up sleeping in my pyjamas on top of the mattress with only my feet covered by the sheet. There was no breeze really to speak of and to top it all off I was, as I do, worried about a long queue for showers in the morning. At 4:15 I gave up, packing up my shower things, and headed downstairs where Chris was sitting all by himself in the darkness. He has a bad back so, as you might expect, could not really sleep at all. I had my shower which was a bit tricky with the water going all over the room trying to keep my towel and clothing dry. One of the toilets you have to dump water into it to flush but other than that I did manage to get a bit clean. Once done with the shower and all packed up it was nice in the quiet of the morning to just sit and chat. It was just the two of us for some time but slowly but surely the others joined us around the table drinking green tea.

White Board with English Lessons

Family Relaxing

Breakfast was egg strips with pork, rice with vegetables and noodles. We also had some “loganberries” which look like a big raspberry and taste a bit like lychee (but not as perfumey).

There were a large number of dark clouds with the occasional flash of lightning so Rous was anxious to get going before it rained. Before we headed out we stopped for a group photo with the homestay family in front of the house while Rous used various people’s cameras for pictures.

The first stop of the day was a walk through the village to the local Buddhist temple. It was quite a walk - about 30 minutes - but we took the time to see the village and how people live. Passing by in the ox cart last night we did not really have time to take it all in.

Each compound is generally separated from its neighbours by simple wood fences. Most houses are on stilts and made of wood with most families having at least one cow. The area is very tidy with very little rubbish to be seen anywhere. They seem to have pride in their village and have made a bit of effort to make it look nice.

On occasion Teng would stop to show us something including a wooden fish trap (used to catch fish in the rice paddies) then later some snakehead fish in a bag that had been caught likely by the same type of trap.

Through the trees were lush and green we did not see a lot of fruit save the occasional mango or coconut.

When we arrived at the temple compound it was largely deserted with only a few monks, mostly children, walking around in their orange robes.

The large hall is painted in yellow and, of course, garishly decorated but was locked so we could not look in though Rous took us around the back to a long covered area under which was an ornately decorated, hand carved, long boat that is used in local boat races. It comes complete with a parasol at the one end for the coach.

While we examined the boat Rous was busy - She showed us a frog she had captured! Walking back we passed a small shrine before working our way around the temple building where there were large signs on either side of the doorway boasting of the generous donations that made it possible. The building was certainly very well built with tile walkways and concrete everywhere.

We stopped to thank Teng for his generosity before boarding the bus at about 9. He gave us all hugs and it was emotional considering we had only visited for such a short time.

It was now sunny with no signs of the rain it looked like earlier.

Once in the bus we stopped only a short time later at another homestay as several people now needed to use the facilities. Chris was also keen on getting some cigarettes ($2/pack) though he also got me a coke ($0.50 - cheapest yet!).

An hour later we stopped for another cultural visit - “Samnak” which is an area known for its stone carving. Elaborate and often massive pieces of carved sandstone were everywhere with the artisans using power tools to carve. Stone chips and carvings everywhere in a grey dusty tableaux. Areas had the carvings all lined up in order of size obviously ready for a passing tourist to purchase though no one for our group took them up on it.

Of course one of the things we have been doing is marvelling at what the local people are able to load onto their motorcycles. We were passed today by several that had dozens of (live) chickens hanging from their feet on long wooden poles that stuck out on either side behind the driver. We have been sitting on the wrong side of the bus to get decent pictures (two on the left, one on the right – I want to sit with Mel!). We are driving on the right side of the road so can’t get good pictures of the locals as we pass them…

The signs have been changing from “Cambodia” and “Angkor” beer to “Ganzberg” (“German Premium Beer”) now. I guess we must be leaving the rural world and entering the more urban…mile markers…butcher with cuts of dark red meat arrayed on a table…covered tables on the side of the road…high stacks of pineapples. A short stop at a petrol station for the toilets and to pick up something to snack on (the toilets were a bit interesting with the urinals out in the open…privacy obviously not being much of a concern). Mel picked up some crackers and ice cream (at 10,900 riel or £2.05 it was a bit of a splash out for us!). Petrol prices here: 3,400 riel for 95 octane (£0.64), 3,200 riel for 92 octane (£0.60) and 2,500 riel (£0.47).

Just after 11 we stopped at Skun to see the sight that many visiting the country obviously are interested to photograph. It was a large car park with a large number of stalls selling snacks including various deep-fried bugs (crickets, locusts, worms, scorpions, and others unrecognizable), tarantulas and other items slightly less unusual.

Rous went around to the back of one of the stalls to show us what each of them was and offered them up to us to taste. I was only “brave” enough to have part of a tarantula leg though Marilyn had a cricket which she said tasted a bit “meaty” (yeah, not sure what that means).

Mel and I picked up some banana chips and variously coloured sweet potato crisps (at a $1 for a good sized bag).

There were also some very hard dried seeds of the lotus flour that were coated with a slightly salty seasoning that I picked up and ate for the rest of the day (risking my teeth as they are like little rocks - Rous said you are supposed to suck on them for a long time to make them softer before eating but I am not so patient and have been crushing them in my molars).

Before we left Rous asked whether anyone would be interested in some cashews – She would show us where they were as they were hidden away. A few minutes after she left I realized it would be good to have some so went off to see if I could find her. After a few minutes running around we eventually found some for sale in an unmanned stall near the road and they were NOT cheap at $5 for a small bag (though they did taste very good, thank you). Given the amount of effort I know that goes into harvesting them (the nut grows at the end of a small plum-sized fruit and after picked us roasted to remove the toxic shell).

Rous purchased a bouquet of lotus seedpods at the ends of their stalks which are the large head of the flower and about 15 cm, or more, across. She tore apart the flesh to show us the seeds embedded within. Quite nice tasting.

Later she had the driver pull over beside a large flooded field just covered with lotus flowers. Quite pretty to see the while and light purple flowers amongst the green. In an adjacent field a farmer was tiling up to his waist in the water. In the distance we could see something not so pretty: The mining of a small hill.

As we approached our stop for the next two nights, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, Rous gave us a bit of a history lesson as a way of introduction to the next few days using the microphone in the bus. She explained that Pol Pot was an ambitious politician who was worried about maintaining his position particularly from the educated so entered the capital with his, generally admired, guerrilla army and forced the inhabitants out into the countryside with the idea of weeding out the educated. Those that were truly farmers and uneducated would obviously flourish but the educated would be incapable of farming so would be easy to pick off (kill). During this period the city was largely uninhabited and the famous Cambodian genocide was perpetrated.

Just outside the city we narrowly avoided an accident as a heavily laden tuk-tuk shed several boxes of beer out the back immediately in front of our bus (and the driver would not even have noticed had we not passed him and pointed back to the tins rolling all over the road…). Our driver was very quick in swerving to avoid the tins.

There is more garbage here than we have seen. A sure sign we are approaching the city but then there was a goat herder - the first we have seen in our trip - tending his herd alongside the road. The rain finally came for a few minutes swamping the bus and limiting visibility dramatically before leaving as suddenly as it came. The streets flooded almost instantly.

The city is, well, a city. There are a lot more potholes in the roads here and a lot more traffic. Pavements seem to be very much an exception rather than the rule. Two million people live in the capital now and most of them seem to be in vehicles on the street. We saw a bit of the city as we made our way in - The expected monuments to the ruling family, large green and well-tended parks, modern skyscrapers and hotels, the now-familiar spaghetti of black power cables strung from pole to pole…

The bus dropped us off at our hotel at shortly after 1 pm which is in the middle of the city “Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel” (http://www.mondulkiri.asia/) which is on a busy side street but seems quite clean and safe. We unloaded from the bus and stood around the small lobby for a few minutes deciding on what we wanted to do next and while we waited for our rooms. Eventually we decided that at 6 pm we are to meet in the lobby for a “cyclo tour” of the city then we will head out for dinner but we had the afternoon to use as we wished. After 4 hours and 15 minutes of driving it was nice to be out of the bus.

Our room is 502. All of the hallways are open to the outside so are quite warm. The room was warm as well with the window initially opened (though it was shut very soon thereafter and the air conditioning turned on). While opening the curtains to shut the window I surprised a gecko stuck to the wall behind though he quickly disappeared and we have not seen him since. Hoping we don't find him when we get back to London in the bottom of a suitcase…

The room is quite simple with tile floors, two double beds, a desk, fridge, wardrobe and television in the main room and a bathroom with corner shower in the other.

We have a view out the window largely of the buildings opposite so not so exciting there.

We have WIFI again but the signal is not all that great.

We had a shower to change out of our sweaty clothes (and to do a bit of laundry) then decided to get out to see a bit of the area. We are right in the middle of the city so a lot of the attractions appear to be close by though the city does also seem to be quite spread out.

The street outside of the hotel is quite narrow and crowded with cars and activity as does much of the city. There are pavements but most of the time they are blocked by cars or street vendors so you end up having to walk on the road which is fine as the traffic seems to just flow around whatever is there.

We were making our way to the central market which is only a few streets from the hotel but along the way we stopped in a small, modern shopping centre for something to drink from “Café Amazon” where I had a nice cool lychee frozen juice ($2) while Mel had a “Cappuccino Frappe” ($2.30). The modern air conditioned interior was very busy - Many people using their phones.

Continuing our way to the market the pavement vanished altogether and crossing the wide road surrounding the market was quite a challenge. The market is surrounded by large numbers of parked scooters but once we got past that we found it was quite enormous with a massive circular central atrium under a domed ceiling with four large halls leading out from it then all surrounded by an outer ring of more informal stalls.

Areas of the market specialize in certain things such as jewelry in the middle, clothing in each of the “spokes” and food in one of the outer sections. It was only when walking along the narrow clothing aisles near the middle of the market that we got any hassle from the vendors but we are pretty much oblivious to it now.

Of course, I was more interested in the food area so we spent a few minutes trying to find it. The area is surrounded by a market selling fresh produce, meat and fish with food stalls inside. It seems to be the heart of the market with a lot of local people here. I served as a distraction for the vendors as Mel took pictures discreetly as she followed close behind. I was particularly intrigued at the unusual fish, vegetables and fruit, stopping frequently to have a look. The salespeople largely left us alone as they probably suspected we would not be buyers.

We did pick up some rather tasty biscuits then later returning to the main part of the market I found a white cotton shirt like one I had purchased in Angkor Wat. Many of the t-shirts on offer were 2 for $7 but mine was a bit more expensive (though very nice).

I had noticed that the market was close to the train station so, after finding our bearings, we headed out to see if we could find it but a short distance later having walked through a busy receiving area with a number of vans unloading goods for the market we gave up and came back the way we came. Looking at the pictures on Google Maps it looks like we did not miss much (a boring concrete block of a building, it seems). In a small Chinese Supermarket we picked up some cold soft drinks ($0.50 each) that are fairly hard to find otherwise. Of course, I was looking around the shop to see what they had but it was nothing really that I could not get back home.

As we headed back in the general direction of the hotel we stopped in the same mall we had visited earlier for drinks where we wandered around a supermarket there again checking out the different things for sale here. Surprisingly even the exotic look quite familiar to me now. We had some ice cream here before heading out again onto the hot street. A short time later we met Marilyn, Steph and PJ in a restaurant drinking wine. Evidently they had spent most of their afternoon there enjoying the air conditioning.

Leaving the restaurant we headed back towards the hotel but I was interested in what looked to me like a temple next to the hotel so we decided to walk through and see what it was. Leaving the hectic street behind we passed through a gate and were immediately in an area with a number of religious paintings on a concrete wall under an overhang opposite to a series of elaborate, though mostly unpainted, stuppas. Definitely a working temple then with rubbish and other detris of many people strewn about.

As we approached the main temple buildings there were people watching a game of volleyball along with a number of pets including cats (yes, Marilyn patted these obviously unclean and diseased street animals despite being warned again…). We stopped a minute to take it in with no one taking any notice of us. A game of football was being played on the dusty concrete by a group of small children in bare feet off to the side.

More cats beckoned Marilyn off to the side of the gate of the temple nearest the hotel as we left. Sigh.

Back in our room we had to recharge not only our bodies as we collapsed on the beds but also my phone as I realized it was pretty much at minimum and I would need it for our tour this evening.

Just before six we were in the lobby waiting for Rous and the rest of our group. Once all of us were there we went outside where there were 10 “cyclos” were waiting for us. Oh? Yeah, I didn’t know what they were either: These are three-wheel bikes (trikes) where the passenger sits in the front while the driver sits on a high seat behind effectively pushing their charge ahead of them into the busy streets. Yeah, at times it was quite scary but a lot of fun too!

Mel

Steve selfie

I got to recognize my driver as he did me whenever I returned to the cyclo after stopping for Rous to talk to us about something.

Our tour started with heading back towards the central market and in the cyclo it was even scarier than on foot with the many scooters, motorcycles, buses, tuk tuks, cars and trucks vying for the same stretch of tarmac. Our little cyclos managed to nimbly pick their way through the mayhem on our journey. We were warned to make sure we held our bags and belongings tight in our laps as pickpockets often target cyclo riders.

As the sun set our small train of quiet cyclos eventually arrived at our first stop outside a gate beyond which was a large garden clock (I believe Rous said it was not working…) and a tall golden stupa beyond. After dropping us off our drivers took the cyclos away from the busy junction to allow Rous some time to talk to us about what we were looking at but, to be honest, I remember very little about it though Google informs me it was “Wat Phnom” (“Hill Temple”). We walked across the road to also look at the “Yeay Penh” (“Lady Penh”) statue who is the legendary founder of Phnom Penh who during a flood of the Mekong river spotted a hollow tree on which were four Buddha statues which she took to be a sign the Buddha wanted a new home so she built a temple here (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phnom_Penh_Legend). “Phnom” means “hill” so the city is literally the “Hill of the lady Penh”.

Wah Phnom

Lady Penh Statue

After taking some pictures we found our cyclos waiting for us and took off to our next tour stop. This one was a considerable distance down the road which was crawling with traffic. At one point on our trip a bus matched our speed so I waved at a lady aboard who laughed and waved back…then again and again for several miles as we kept pace alongside. We were obviously heading more into the central part of the city as we eventually came to a large roundabout with a large central section with a tall tower of a monument in the middle (“Independence Monument”) and long strips of green parkland stretching out for some distance in several directions.

Independence Monument

We stopped a short distance later on the side of one of the parks to have a look at another monument this one to “King Father Norodom Sihanouk” who stands serenely under another tall and ornate purple tower. “Norodom Sihanouk” was the King of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955 and 1993 to 2004 who campaigned for Cambodia’s independence from France. Our cyclos were waiting for us…

King Father Monument

We travelled along the Mekong river for our final stop of the evening which was the “Royal Palace” which is not very tall but very ornate with an impressive main gate in front of which is a large green public square. Here we stopped on a small street off to the side where we were invited to try pedalling the cyclos…Rous, Mel, and Marilyn took up the offer but I gave it a miss. It was fun to see Mel actually pedalling with one of our tireless drivers taking a seat in the front! These bikes are VERY high and quite difficult to stop (you have to pull up on a lever near your feet). I was not brave enough to give it a go particularly after Mel indicated how hard it was…it is still very hot outside too!

Dinner was in a place on the first floor right on the river: Touk restaurant and bar. Open to the outside it had great views of the river (as well as yet another tangle of black electricity cables just below us) and very good food but awful service. I had the “Khmer Amok with Chicken” ($6.75 - stick to a local dish!) while Mel tried the “Green Curry with Chicken” ($6.50) both of which were of a generous size.

Rous wanted to show us some of the not-so-nice parts of the city so that we could see the other side so we walked along a road where the “ladies (ish) of the night” hang out. It was rather depressing to see the young people seeing this as the only way to make money.

It was a long walk back to the hotel after Rous left us we arranged a tip at $40 each for her exceptional work as host. Chris offered to collect it from us over our final tour days.

Back in our room it was very hot so I played with the air conditioning. There are two separate beds so not sure how this will work out…Tomorrow is not so early as we are to meet in the front lobby at 8:00. I think it will be a difficult day as we are visiting the killing fields.

>> Friday, September 8th