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Cambodia

Cambodia: Siem Reap

sunny 40 °C
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Knowing our bus to Siem Reap from Battambang was at 7:30am, we got up nice and early. We hung around in the massive hostel foyer for almost an hour before anyone showed up to check us out. Luckily the bus company hadn't come to collect us yet. The American man who bought the hostel 4 months ago who we'd had friendly conversations with throughout our stay, eventually came over to deal with us. He was in a terrible mood and barely made eye contact with us, sighing away at the inconvenience of us checking out. He eventually got the paperwork together and took our payment and checked us out. We then tried to give him back the towels we'd loaned in order to have our $10 deposit returned. Upon looking at the towels he said "these aren't our towels, I don't recognise them". Obviously we asserted that we'd been given them by one of his employees when we checked in. It took a bit of tugging for him to hand over the money but we got there in the end. As we left with our bus driver we saw the little puppy pooing on the floor. We were glad to be gone.

We climbed onto our mini bus and the German lady who had been on our sick-drenched journey from Phnom Penh to Battambang looked up and smiled at us. Lauren immediately felt the need to assert "I'm much better now!" just in case the woman thought she was in for another projectile show.
The ride was only 4 hours or so, which felt like a mere eyelash flutter compared to some of our recent journeys. We were dropped very close to our guesthouse so found a nice tuk tuk man (Mr. Lin) who took us the few blocks to Siem Reap Holiday Garden for only $1.
The owner, Pia, gave us a very warm welcome, along with her 3 incredibly cuddly cats. The hotel is an old fashioned colonial building with some interesting replica Italian renaissance furniture. After our hostel experience in Battambang we were hugely relieved and excited to have our own double bedroom, with en suite AND its very own key! The guesthouse is in a quiet Muslim community and a short walk to the hotspots with plenty of restaurants and shops around.

For dinner we walked through the town to Artillery; another wholefood healthy hippie joint. We both remarked on how much the town reminded us of both Chiang Mai and Hội An. I think it's the mixture of the canals, trees, sprawling markets and decorative lights.

We booked our Angkor temples 'mini tour' through our hostel which meant we were up at 4am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Mr. Yon, our tuk tuk driver dropped us at the ticket office first which was already teeming with tourists desperate to get a sniff of the largest religious monument in the world. We arrived at the site, had our tickets checked and entered, joined by thousands of travelling contemporaries.
We weren't blown away at first; it was still dark and we hadn't woken up yet. We were also nosing on the other tourists and pitying the Cambodian children trying to sell tat to us while obviously still half asleep. Due to a lack of chairs (pffffft) we sat on the dusty ground beside a large pond, watching the sun rise over the tower. Steadily more and more people gathered in front of us taking selfies with the Wat and obscuring our view. We didn't mind too much; we couldn't be bothered getting up and we enjoy people-watching anyway.

There's no denying that the Wat is damn impressive to look at, especially against the azure twilight. The interior of the complex is just as, if not more astounding than the exterior. Endless labyrinths covered in intricate carvings, a wealth of towers, galleries and impossibly steep stone staircases. We opted to not pay for a guide (we're most definitely on the penny pinch wagon now) so we didn't spend an awfully long time wandering around. We were both a little underwhelmed by the whole experience; we're not sure whether this is down to tiredness, ignorance, tourists or too much hype. However we did really enjoy ourselves and were glad we did it. Perhaps a bit of time will solidify the greatness better.

Mr. Yon took us through the south gateway to Angkor Thom (the ancient capital city of Angkor). Along either side of the gateway bridge are old stone sculptures of Khmer gods, all with very different, incredibly expressive faces. We then moved onto the Bayon temple. We were glad to find that because it was still very early in the morning there were hardly any other tourists there; in fact we only saw a handful in the hour we were there. Within the complex are many temples covered in large, softly smiling faces that radiate serenity. There are plenty of other carvings too throughout the site. We even managed to find the resident kitty, who we of course bestowed with many strokes.

The next stop was Ta Prohm; another temple site but one that hasn't been painstakingly renovated or rebuilt over the hundreds of years since it was neglected. This means that nature has reclaimed much of the area; there are gigantic trees growing in and around the ruins, with huge twirling roots making the biggest impact. The other fact I find very interesting is portions of the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were shot here. This means that my footprint could have stood on Angelina Jolie's footprint; the closest I'll ever get to having sex with her.

Our last stop on the 'mini tour' was Banteay Kdei aka The Citadel. Not much to note about this one; it's built in the same style as the Bayon and Ta Prohm and from around the same time, it's just a little smaller.
Opposite Banteay Kdei is Srah Srang reservoir; a huge body of water with an ancient stone platform and staircase. There we saw water buffalo, cows, children, and a group of workers chopping seaweed underwater with machete type tools. There were stood knee-deep in the water, bent awkwardly over, swinging their knifes over and over. Certainly not easy work; especially in the 40° heat. Here they are;

We got back on Mr. Yon's tuk tuk ready to return to our guesthouse at around 9:30am. Apparently the 'mini tour' normally takes a minimum of 6 hours. We were finished in 3 and a half. We got the feeling that Mr. Yon was a little disheartened by our rapid touring of Angkor city, but we were actually very pleased with ourselves that we'd largely avoided the crowds AND the midday sun! Obviously every traveller is different but there's only so much ancient stone you can take in before it all becomes a bit of a blur. But again perhaps this is emblematic of our ignorance or 'Generation X' desensitisation.

We fit in a cheeky cat nap back at 'home' and then spent a few hours trying desperately to find a travel agent that sells Nattakan bus tickets. We'd read that the only bus company that goes straight through from Cambodia into Thailand without having to change buses and carry your bags for a mile or two. However after giving up and speaking to Pia on our reception we discovered that Nattakan don't sell to third parties and so you can only buy online. We weren't too trusting of this option so we instead decided to be brave and booked the cheapest bus option we could.
We then had a rushed lunch where I had the most delicious char sui pork soup I've ever had and popped into the cinema to watch the sci-fi horror 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The film was pretty good and we enjoyed the feeling of dryness for a couple of hours.

That night we walked to the famous Pub street to have a nose and get some cheap street food. We got some tasty $1 noodles and treated ourselves to some Nom Kruok; crispy little spherical shells with sweet glutinous coconut rice and sweetcorn inside.
Pub street isn't one street but an area; filled with, as expected, lots of pubs and bars, along with loads of street food vendors, clothes shops, newsagents and restaurants. Naturally, tourists flock to this area for cheap food and drinks and familiar music. The vibe was actually quite cool; not too crazy, aggro or seedy, but an infectious buzz.

For our final day in Siem Reap we visited Artisans D'Angkor which was only a short walk from our guesthouse. It's an arts and crafts centre with lot of workshops and of course a gift shop, set in picturesque leafy surroundings set back from the town. We were given a tour around the centre and were shown all of the different crafts in-process including wood, ceramic and stone carving, lacquerware, silk and tile painting. We met with the artists, many of whom are profoundly or partially deaf and come from poor backgrounds. It was fascinating to see the work behind the sorts of things we would always overlook in shops. A lot of hard work, time and skill goes into the creation of small and big souvenirs, art pieces and furniture.
I did try out a bit of British Sign Language with some of the girls but it turns out Khmer Sign Language is actually very different. Who'd've guessed it!?

After our tour we then hopped on our free shuttle bus to the Angkor silk farm 10km away. There we were shown exactly how silk is harvested, processed and turned into all sorts of items. We saw the mulberry farm where the silk worms feed, the flat, circular baskets where they form their silky cocoons and the whole factory where the silk is refined. On this site there were only women workers, again from underprivileged backgrounds.
The experience actually made us feel ok about silk as an animal by-product. Neither of us knew how silk was produced, we knew it came from silk worms but we'd both guessed that they just shoot thread out of their bums. We were happy to hear that the silk actually comes from the empty cocoon of the worms and that they themselves aren't hurt or killed of messed with at all.

Later on in the afternoon we sat in our guesthouse's communal area and watched a counterfeit copy of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. We really are living the dream. The sounds of uzis and big boobs bouncing around clearly vibrated through the guesthouse as soon enough, 2 other British backpackers joined us on the sofas. While occasionally ogling Angelina, we all swapped travelling stories and tips and Lauren and I picked up some good ideas for South Thailand, our next destination.

That's it for Cambodia; we've loved every bit of it (except for the prevalence of the American dollar) and can't believe we're already halfway through our trip. Onto our third and final sojourn in bastard Bangkok.

Posted by advensha 06:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia siem_reap angkor_wat bayon khmer cinema night_market ta_phrom tomb_raider 10_cloverfield_lane Comments (0)

Cambodia: Battambang

sunny 37 °C
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Our journey from Sihanoukville to Battambang was not a smooth one, in any sense of the word. The first leg of the journey wasn't too bad; 5 hours on a comfortable mini bus to Phnom Penh. We were among another 8ish Western travellers and at one point, one young German woman leant over and told the driver to speed up. Considering most South East Asian bus drivers we've had so far have driven like maniacs we were quite satisfied with this driver's ability to follow speed limits and basic road rules. Evidently said German lady was a bit of a F1 enthusiast.
As we approached Phnom Penh the traffic came to a standstill as a result of ongoing roadworks but luckily, we still arrived in time for our connection.

As we waited in the Mekong Express terminal for our next minibus, Lauren started to feel very sick. This isn't an infrequent occurrence, what with the crazy heat and humidity and travelling around we often have bouts of feeling dodgy. We wrote it off as just one of those fleeting moments and boarded the next minibus bound for Battambang.
This bus wasn't full and the 4 seats at the back were free. We eyed them up for later in the journey when we fancied a nap and got on our way.

Unfortunately, Lauren's nausea didn't let up and after about an hour on the road I awoke from a little snooze to find Lauren vomiting in one of the metal dustbins. At first we thought it was the hot and spicy crisps she had eaten for 'breakfast' but she continued to be sick every 40 minutes or so, even after there was nothing left in her stomach. Needless to say the 7 hour bus journey wasn't pleasant for anyone on the bus, least not poor Lauren. It didn't help that this driver enjoyed winding in and out traffic at 100 k/h; shame the German lady had gotten off at Phnom Penh.

At our rest-stop we were confronted with a surreal plastic safari complete with zebras, giraffes, elephants, monkeys and rhinos, just stood there beside the block of toilets. Upon entering the toilets we then saw a live turkey just wandering around. At this point we were trying to remember if we HAD in fact eaten a Happy Pizza the night before and we were hallucinating.
Unlike Lauren, I was starving so I wolfed down an amazing plate of fried noodles and vegetables - the best I've ever had.

For the next 4 hours of the journey I watched excitedly out of the window at the lightening that was illuminating the sky. Weirdly though we didn't hear any thunder. Lauren continued to be ill and would throw up every sip of water she'd managed to swallow. Luckily our drop-off point was round the corner from our hostel so we hopped in a tuk tuk for $1 and checked-in.

BTB hostel (actually sign-posted Cambodia hostel) is, to be frank, a bit of a shit hole. When you walk through the front entrance of the hostel it feels like you're in an old function room; a very large, open-plan scruffy hall with little areas sectioned off by low brick walls. These sections were communal spaces with tatty rugs and cushions on the floor and a TV with a dusty PS2 attached. There is also a small bar and a café on one side. The floor was bare concrete and only 2 of the ceiling fans were working.
We were welcomed and 'checked-in' by a friendly but incompetent Swedish lady who struggled to answer any of our questions. We were walked to our dorm room off a large, dirty corridor and told that the rooms didn't have keys and didn't lock; anyone could just come in and out as they please. This posed an obvious security risk, especially considering the corridor the room was on opened onto the street; anyone wandering past could just walk though. So really the corridor was more like an alley; under cover but technically outside. To top it off, there were no lockers in the rooms and the few set of lockers available in 'reception' were tiny and all in use already.
As much as we were justifiably concerned that there was a good chance our belongings were going to get stolen, poor Lauren was desperate to just lie down so we accepted our fate and got into bed.

The beds were pretty hard (as are 99% of the beds we've had in SE Asia) but we both slept well; we clearly needed it. Lauren had managed to sleep through for a good 7 hours without vomiting but she was understandably weak and very dehydrated. I wasn't feeling entirely tip top either so we decided to stay in for the day. We figured the four young boys we were sharing a dorm with would be out all day so we'd have the room to ourselves to play on the internet and recuperate.
At lunch time I stepped out to get some plain food for us. I stumbled across a corner caf with sandwiches advertised on a chalkboard. I got some plain boiled rice for Loz and somehow managed to order myself an onion, egg ad potato baguette. In typical Lauren style as soon as I returned she shunned the rice and drooled enviously over my sandwich. She had a few bites and I forced her to eat a few spoonfuls of rice too but her appetite didn't last long. We had an early-ish night in the hopes that by the morning Lauren would feel refreshed and hungry ready for our tuk tuk tour.

We left at 8am for our tour. Lauren did feel better enough to have some BJ toast (butter and jam) but was still weak. Our first stop was the bamboo train; known as norry in Khmer, these warped old tracks with their flat bamboo 'carriages' and lawnmower engine take you on a windswept, rickety 50 k/h ride. There aren't any brakes or guard rails but there are plenty of spiky trees and plants to cut you along the way. We enjoyed the enlivening ride for half an hour with only a few minor skin injuries and got off at what looked like a small village with lots of cute naked children running around and a few clothes and drinks stalls. as we browsed and pulled faces at the unimpressed kids, we watched the railway men lift the 'mats on wheels' off the tracks to make way for other carriages to go past and to also re-orientate them to head back to where we got on. Here are some audiovisual accompaniments for you;

Our next stop was a winery. Yes, a Cambodian winery. The place was pretty underwhelming, we didn't have a tour as all we could see was essentially a bit of trellis with some trees on it (although in fairness we weren't shown the vineyard). Lauren and I were most interested in using the toilet shack and playing with the cute puppy. We decided not to spend any money on trying the wines; we're not exactly connoisseurs and it also wasn't the best way for Lauren to get over her bug. A nice French man who was visiting got a selection of everything and offered me sips of it all. As expected, most of the wine tasted like vinegar; not tasty at all. There was one ginger wine though that was 20-something percent proof that was actually pretty nice; I'd certainly enjoy a swig if I had a cold.
The winery was clearly just a bit of a sales trap; perhaps the tuk tuk driver knew the owners.

We moved on fairly quickly to Battambang's swing bridge that hangs above Sangker river. The bridge is known as the 'Indiana Jones bridge' but I can find no evidence that it was actually used in any of the films. The novelty is that when you walk along the bridge it, quite rightly, swings from side to side. Our group (of 14 white tourists) hopped, skipped and jumped excitedly across the bridge while frustrated locals on motorbikes and bicycles tried to manoeuvre past us.

On the other side of the bridge was a small village where there were rats being barbecued for dinner. I must say they looked pretty tasty. We travelled back over the bridge and tuk tuk'd to our next destination; Banan temple.

Wat Banan is a very old temple (built somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries) that can only be reached by climbing 360 steep steps. It was once thought to be a prototype for Angkor Wat but I'm pretty sure this has now been discredited. It was now midday and the sun was blazing down on us. Lauren did try a few flights but just wasn't strong enough to do it all so she waited for me at the bottom. I huffed and puffed my way up and at one point, a young boy who was missing one of his lower legs started fanning me as I approached the summit.
I finally made it and stood still for a few seconds catching my breath and looking at the central tower. There were a number of buildings, all in a state of disrepair. The old stones looked as though they had just been precariously placed on top of each other, kind of like an old game of Jenga. Any minute I expected the temples to just cave in - crushing whoever was inside plus all of the bats that live in there. There were a few DANGER signs and some crude wooden reinforced doorways but not much else. As much as it's probably unsafe it was actually refreshing to see them in their more 'natural' sorry state, as opposed to a lot of the meticulously renovated sites we've seen.
There were some amazing stone carvings of intricate patterns, Buddhas and goddesses as well as a stunning view over rural Battambang.

Once we'd all made our way down we then head off to Koh 1000 (aka 1000 islands). The 30 min journey was a VERY bumpy ride in motorbike tuk tuk. We all felt a little battered and bruised by the time we'd arrived and then were confronted with a traumatised macaque monkey chained up to a tree. Our guide told us he gets chained up for the day so that he doesn't bite anyone and then he's freed in the evening. We obviously didn't believe a word of it.
We selfishy put the monkey situation to the back of our minds and climbed onto a narrow speedboat that took us to our very own little floating shack where we could hang out and get to know each other better. After gearing each other up we all jumped into the warm lake surrounding us - a little gutted the water wasn't colder. After an hour or so of frolicking a boat brought us beers and the hot food we'd ordered earlier. this was the life. The group was a good mix of people; ages between 18 and 35 and a mix of European nationalities (English, Scottish, Dutch and German). We all shared our travelling stories and tips and asked each other lots of questions. It was nice.

After eating and sufficiently drying off we moved onto the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The caves are on top of a mountain (Phnom Sampeau) and are pretty self explanatory. They acted as a mass murder site for the Khmer Rouge; people would be thrown through the 'skylight' at the top of one of the caves and then their bodies would be chucked into the connecting underground cave. Once such an awful place has now become rather beautiful; green vegetation flanks the caves and surrounding area along with golden Buddha statues.
As we waked down the steep slope back into the village to watch the nightly flight of the millions of fruit bats, we stopped and gazed across the panoramic Cambodian landscape.

At the bottom we sat and had a drink with our driver Rit as we watched the fruit bats head out to find food. Rit was a Cambodian refugee in California who moved over to the US with his family when he was a young boy. He was incredibly tall for a Cambodian and covered with tattoos. He also had a broad California accent when speaking English but spoke Khmer, which was an unusual thing to see and hear. He told us that his father was in the army and had been warned of the Khmer Rouge's uprising and so had enough time to flee with his family. He had lots of scars on his face and body and I had a feeling he'd been through some shit.

We had 5 minutes to freshen up back at the hostel before heading out again to the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. The circus was started in 1986 as a non-for-profit organisation using the arts to help vulnerable young people. The circus was such fun, filled with amazing gymnastic and acrobatic talent along with traditional dance and costumes. There was also plenty of comedy and a great little band that provided all of the music.
We scoffed popcorn and watched in awe at these amazing teenagers.

It was a wonderful day; stuffed to the brim with unique experiences and sights. Lauren made it through, in spite of the heat, constant moving around and not a lot of food. We both slept very well that evening, contemplating our 5 hour bus ride to Siem Reap.

Posted by advensha 20:34 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia bamboo travelling mini_bus sickness battambang mekong_express tuk_tuk_tour phnom_sampeau vomit fruit_bats 13hr_journey killing_caves Comments (0)

Cambodia: Sihanoukville - Serendipity & Otres

sunny 38 °C
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On a cloudy Monday morning in Phnom Penh we got on our mini-bus to Sihanoukville; a province in Southwest Cambodia. For the whole 5 hour journey the bus played a wildlife documentary on a fold-down screen up front based on Cambodian's native wildlife; specifically the Giant Ibis bird. It was odd but quite interesting and we found ourselves watching it on a loop at times.
Half-way through the journey we had our usual rest-stop where I picked up some BBQd bananas and Lauren managed to wangle some stir fried veg and tofu.

We arrived mid-afternoon and walked from our drop-off stop to our hostel which was only a few hundred metres across the infamous Golden Lion roundabout. One Stop hostel was down a little alleyway and the staff were incredibly welcoming and helpful. We shared our dorm with 3 German girls and one other Welsh girl called Sammy. The hotel was clean and well-maintained with a pool in the middle (that we never used because it was always full and we're anti-social like that).

We took a short orientation walk to Serendipity beach which was only 10 minutes away. Sihanoukville is just like any touristy cheap beach town. There are endless bars, pubs, cafés, clothes shops and travel agents. There are also a few curious digital-based establishments such as a shop that puts illegally downloaded films, TV series and music on your device (phone, tablet, iPod etc) for a price as well as a 'cinema' that I'll mention shortly.

The first noticeable feature of the beach front itself is the depth of it. It was probably nearing high tide while we were there but there must have only been 30 feet between the sea and the shop fronts. Walking along the boardwalk we came across some affronting sights. There were, as we'd expected, plenty of beggars, many of which were disabled (amputee predominantly) but a few were very young children. We managed to weave our way through being as polite but firm as we could. As it was getting into early evening there were also a few mildly annoying bar/club touts (European) sniffing around. The next disheartening view was a chained-up monkey on a little platform whose eyes screamed "kill me now". The element that made us squirm with most fervour though was the presence of many Caucasian, middle-aged single men sat in bars, chain-smoking and drinking beer. It was difficult not to judge these men as sex-tourists; why else would they have chosen a Benidorm-style beach as far away as Cambodia? Maybe we've read too much about the rife, exploitative and downright inhuman sex-trade of the country that both natives and barangs (foreigners) take full advantage of.

After a 15 minute stroll we'd seen enough and so wandered back to the Lion roundabout to have dinner in Samdan restaurant; a non-for-profit centre that trains up young, underprivileged Cambodians in cooking and serving. I went for the local dish Lok Lak which is usually made with beef but this one used buffalo meat (I was craving animal). It was absolutely delicious and also incorporated a good portion of Kampot pepper; another famous local ingredient. Lauren had a lovely bean curry (oh how we've craved legumes!).

We had an early-ish night as I was still really run-down and had broken out in nose-herpes (typical). We chatted to Sammy for a while who, similar to us, had quit her job (as a high-school teacher) to go travelling. She was very athletic (which only emphasised our laziness by comparison) and had just completed some diving training in the town.

The following day we both felt a bit fed-up. Whether it was the lack of privacy, tiredness, vitamin-deficiency or just the usual ungrateful, entitled Western attitude, we just couldn't help feeling a little down. We tried our best not to dwell in the blue but we both knew that realistically, we weren't going to be 'up' and enthusiastic every single day and that we shouldn't criticise ourselves for that.
We did the only thing we know what to do when we're feeling a bit depressed; eat. After a beige brekkie at the hostel we chose the only veggie/vegan place in the town called Dao of life. While waiting for our oh-so-trendy raw, vegan, organic, fair-trade, rip-off dishes we made the most of the games shelf and played some strip Jack naked. Lauren also did a book-swap and got hold of a counterfeit copy of First They Killed My Father.

Not in the mood for Serendipity beach we then slid over to Top Cat cinema; basically a load of private little living rooms equipped with sofas, fans a large TV and a database filled with thousands of downloaded films and TV shows. You pay for a two hour 'slot' and basically watch whatever the hell you want in your own little cave. Yes it's a bit seedy and yes it's highly illegal but fuck me I think I've found my happy-place. If I could find myself a small office building and set one of these up I'm sure it'd go down a treat. Nobody wants to pay the extortionate cinema prices these days. I'd just have to think of a way to keep the police and the piracy ninjas away...
We were shown to our room by a girl whose pupils were bigger than her boobs. She gave us all the info and then told us we were more than welcome to smoke "whatever we wanted" and pointed to the Happy Pizza menu adhered to the wall. On top of everything you could also order pizza to be delivered, to your room AND they'd make it 'happy' for free. In case you're not sure what this definition of pizza happiness is I'll break it down for you; it's chunks of marijuana and potentially a sprinkling of shrooms. Unfortunately for you dear reader, we didn't order a pizza (we'd just eaten).

For our last day in Sleaze-anoukville we braved the beach. As we didn't bring beach towels we grabbed a pair of sticky sunbeds and stripped off to our bikinis. I haven't hair-removed for a good few weeks now and, so those of you that don't know me, I can grow a pretty impressive layer of fur on most parts of my body in record time. At this point I had quite noticeable hair all over my legs and substantial pittens (armpit kittens). The young Russian boys lay quite close to us tried their best to surreptitiously peek at our hairy-bits. I appreciated their diplomacy.
We hopped over the white sand littered with cigarette butts and plastic things and jumped into the body of water known as the Gulf of Thailand; an arm of the South China sea. To our delight and dismay the water was warm, in fact almost hot. Not a great relief from the sweltering heat but at least we had a sea-breeze. The water too was very salty; it made our skin sting and itch a little after a while. But, unlike the beach-front, the sea was lovely.
As we were leaving, Lauren went over to the bar to pay the $1 for our drinks. The waiter then tried to hand the dollar back and said he couldn't take it as it was damaged. I am really not exaggerating here when I say there was a 10mm tear in the note at the top. Lauren dismissed his protestations and that she didn't have any more notes but that it was fine anyway. As we were walking away the Russian bar-owner then came over and started shouting at us and saying that we needed to give them another dollar as the note was no good. Lauren told him it was the only dollar we had (it was) and pulled me away as he shouted "if you've got no money you should go home, we don't want you here!". We had heard a bit about some places being funny about less than perfect currency but this was ridiculous! I actually felt a little intimidated - the bastard.

For lunch we found out way to another non-for-profit café called Starfish. The food was pretty ordinary (we had sandwiches), but we sat outside in their plush, quiet garden under the shade of trees and next to an old fountain and stayed a little while to Skype my mum.
Upon returning to our hostel and doing some research we found out that to get to our next destination, Battambang, we had to get a TWO buses and go BACK to Phnom Penh where we'd just been which was geographically going back on ourselves. And of course, we had to pay a premium for this long journey. We just hadn't realised that there was no direct rout straight up to Battambang from Sihanoukville. What a fucking pain. But we had no choice so we booked and just thought of it as another essential journey.

We checked out the next morning and took a brief tuk-tuk ride to Otres; a region only 6km from Serendipity (still within Sihanoukville) but apparently much quieter, more picturesque and less trashy. The tuk tuk ride was reinvigorating; we drove along rudimentary dirt roads with a cooling wind rushing through us as we watched the landscape turn more rural and striking.
We arrived at Family Guesthouse Ubuntu and were shown to our hut-style room up on a wooden mezzanine. We had two fans and a mosquito net which was all we needed. The one downside was that the bathroom was down the outdoor wooden stairs (tricky in the evening) and was pretty much a campground bathroom (drippy cold shower and industrial metal sink).

Soon after arriving we rushed out to Otres beach; a 15 minute walk away. We were desperate to feel redeemed for picking Sihanoukville as so far it hadn't impressed us. After walking through a small high street with some shops and restaurants dotted around, we arrived at an orange track that lead onto the sand. A very old Ford drove by and for a moment we felt like it was the 1970s. The combination of the barren yet wonderfully colourful landscape made us believe we were in 70s Malibu for a second, about to play volleyball while wearing slightly conical-busted bikinis. But 1970s Cambodia was not comparable to California, and coastal areas like Sihanoukville were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge.

We had two options, turn left or turn right. Both ways appeared to be just long stretches of unbelievable white sand, palm trees and only a handful of people, mostly Cambodian. It really did seem like paradise. Because we didn't have towels we didn't want to just lie on the scorching sand, so we decided to turn right and walk along until we hopefully saw some sunbeds. We ended up on Otres 1 beach which had a few bars and hostels and a number of tourists about - but nowhere near as many as in Serendipity. We settled on some sunbeds and expected a barman from the bar they were attached to to come over and make us buy a drink, but to our delight, no one did.
Lauren skipped into the sea for a swim like a puppy off the lead. As before the water was very warm but not too salty this time around. Here's a video of our first look around the beach:

After a few minutes of complete serenity a young girl (approx. 10 years old) came over and offered us bracelets. We declined as always but, being the enterprising type, she then spotted my luxurious body hair and started ferociously selling her Mum's threading. We explained that we were happy being hairy and didn't want to be threaded but she just didn't understand. She said I looked like a boy and a monkey and that I should let her Mum get to work asap. In all fairness, with my level of hair growth, my legs would have been a goldmine for them. They would have been dining out on Lok Lak all week.
Of course it's a bit of a shame that the nonsensical (imho) and entirely constructed beauty ideal of hairlessness for women pervades many cultures outside of the West. But of course it's personal choice. I would like to think that our outward flouting of this particular societal 'rule' might pop into her mind when puberty hits and act as an example of difference.

After a couple of hours we walked to a restaurant near to our hostel; Pachamama. It's the only veggie/vegan place in Otres and run by a family from Somerset. They haven't been open for very long and they only have one chef (the daughter) so the service was a bit slow but this is consistent with Cambodia as a whole. The restaurant sits right on a river backing onto the Koh Kong mangroves. We sat overlooking the river listening to the wonderful sounds of all the unknown creatures. There were also plenty of creatures roaming around; a little kitten called Nugget, two dogs and 3 chickens.
The food was surprisingly stodgy (in a good way) with lots of veggies and potatoes (oh how we've missed it). We also had a try of the home-made coconut milk ice cream; the chai tea flavour was particularly yummy.
We retired to bed but it took me hours to get to sleep as there were little geckos crawling on our mosquito sheet and I got myself into a bit of panic. Somewhere in my half-asleep brain I thought one was going to end up in my mouth - a fate worse than Lauren's morning breath. At around 11pm the group of girls who were sleeping in the hut next door started screaming and saying something about cockroaches or beetles. This didn't scare me more, it actually made me laugh and have a bit of a word with myself - I'm not a big sissy girl like them...

For breakfast the next morning we went back to Pachamama and had an interesting Mangosteen tea; a fruit that grows extensively across Cambodia and is pretty much a mix between a lychee and an dragon fruit.
This time we turned left at the mid-point to head to Otres 2 beach. There were even less people and only a handful of bars and guesthouses on this side. again we picked some sunbeds and coaxed a gorgeous little puppy over for a play. A bit later on, two adult male dogs appeared a few hundred yards in front of us on the sand and the puppy went curiously bounding over. Something obviously went array as suddenly the two adult dogs started attacking the little puppy. Some brave people who were swimming in the sea and lay on the beach ran over and grabbed the puppy away - but the big dogs were still jumping up and biting his little legs. the lady from the bar we were lay at (who we presumed was the owner) was handed the injured puppy and took him away, yelping. We didn't see him again but we hope he made a recovery. One of the men who got in the middle was bitten on the hand and we later saw him walking with the main attacker dog - perhaps in an attempt to keep an eye on him or perhaps he was connected to it somehow.

Brushing the dog fight aside (and after ensuring there weren't any scary dogs still around), we had a swim and relax for an hour or so. We then walked half an hour back to Otres 1 to get a cheap massage. The massage was pretty good but what we didn't think about was the oil rubbing off our suncream. Needless to say on the 30 minute walk back to our hostel we both got some decent sunburn - I managed to cook my whole back (I only had my bikini top on) which caused me a fair bit of pain over the following days.

To get out of the sun we walked over to a newly-opened art studio run by a lovely Belgian woman called Anastasia. She was a scruffy arty type but wasn't remotely floating - she was incredibly passionate about arts and crafts and a no-bullshit type of chick. Over the next 3 hours we chatted and made our very own macramé anklets complete with little bells. We later learned that the bells are actually quite useful for keeping the snakes away. This helped loads with my night-time creature-fear... ahem.
I now wish I was interested in getting married so I could macramé my own wedding dress. I'll just have to make one of those owls from the 70s instead.

Our final meal in Otres was at a small bar come kitchen come guesthouse called Green Lantern, where we had a cheap pad thai and sweet and sour. We were satisfied with our $5 sustenance - a bargain for expensive Cambodia. It wasn't until our journey to Battambang early the next morning that we realised the shortcomings of said cheap pad thai...

Posted by advensha 22:35 Archived in Cambodia Tagged children beach monkey cambodia puppy tourists hot sihanoukville vegetarian vegan beggars serendipity_beach trashy samdan arts_and_crafts macrame art_studio dog_fight Comments (0)

Cambodia: Phnom Penh

sunny 38 °C
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As per usual we get to the travel agent where we're being picked up super early (Lauren's fault). We nip up to the shop to buy some travelling snacks and I inadvertently purchase cuttlefish flavoured peas (that I thought were wasabi peas). Needless to say I didn't eat the fishy peas.

We got on our Kumho Samco coach and were happy at how cold it felt compared to Hồ Chí Minh's molten streets. The bus was modern and clean and even had WiFi (which only worked for an hour but still). After half an hour one of the attendants came round and asked for our passports and $70. This was obviously for getting through the border and paying our visas but we were naturally uncomfortable with the idea of handing our very important little books over. Lauren initially refused saying that we'd sort it all our ourselves but after reading a testimonial on the Seat61 website that explained the bus companies use your passports to fill in all the forms for you, we relented and handed them over. The poor attendant didn't speak very good English and had to stand beside us while we jostled with the decision. His face read "fucking awkward tourists" and of course he was right.

When we arrived at the Vietnamese border we waited around for quite some time while a Vietnamese family tried and failed to surreptitiously talk about us. They pointed at Lauren's tattoos, our clothes and our shoes. I don't mind being the novelty every once in a while. The bus had given everyone's visa forms, passports and money to the fellas at the desks and one by one they called us up to go through. There was another British couple (male and female) on the bus and when the girl was called up one of the bus staff looked at the photo and gestured to me and then looked perplexed when I shook my head. Us whiteys do all look the same.

On the Cambodian side things were a swifter and smiley-er. We were a little miffed at the $35 pp visa fee as our Lonely Planet Guide said $20 and it was only 1 year old, but this set the precedent for the rest of Cambodia's prices - which were A LOT more expensive than anticipated.
We had our usual truck-stop where we voided our bladders and got some rice and veggies for a couple of dollars each.

We then spent the rest of the journey to Phnom Penh (another 5 hours) watching the outside temperature gauge at the front of the bus go up and up. At one point it said 39 degrees. We cried into our air-conditioned laps. Maybe Hồ Chí Minh wasn't the hottest place after all.
The further we got in to Cambodia the more we felt reminded of India; the landscape seemed to have a bit of an orange tinge and there was sandy dust everywhere. The roads were barely roads; mostly wide dirt tracks with a bit of concrete still remaining and plenty of potholes.

The bus took 7 and a half hours instead of the supposed 6. Becky and Kate were meeting us but we had no way of contacting them to tell them we were late so we hoped they weren't worried. As we parked up we immediately saw Becky's frantic waving through the window; they'd waited for us. Despite the blistering wall of heat that hit us when we stepped off the bus we were joyful and relieved to see their welcoming and familiar faces, and they even had a beer for us!
We hopped into their friend Heng's tuk tuk and set off on our way to our digs for the next 8 days.

Of course Becky and Kate's home was lovely, and massive. We had a whole room to ourselves with an en suite bathroom and Becky had even cleared some space in the wardrobe for us. We both enjoyed a figurative exhale as we settled in to what felt like a home from home.

We all went for dinner at a Khmer restaurant called Eleven One Kitchen where we enjoyed some delicious ricey/noodley dishes packed with flavour. Lauren approved of both the Angkor and Cambodia beer (which in many instances was cheaper than water).

That night we slept like babies; relaxed in the knowledge that we didn't have to do any forward planning for at least a few days. Becky and Kate were in work during the week so they'd leave before we got up in the mornings. I woke up hot and bothered and in pain only to discover that mother nature had decided now was the time to rid me of my useless uterine lining. Let me tell you, 39° heat + 60% humidity + period doesn't make for a happy Aisha.

The girls' cleaner turned up at 9:30am and we tried our best to politely stay out of her way whilst simultaneously trying not to flash her any of our bits by accident.
After lazing around for a few hours watching telly and trying not to sweat our organs out, we decided to brave the outdoors and walk to the Russian market which was only 15 minutes away. As soon as we left the apartment we regretted moaning about the heat in Hồ Chí Minh city; an igloo compared to Phnom Penh.

After a while we got used to the back and forth with the never-ending tuk tuk (remork) drivers; "hey lady, tuk tuk?", "no thank you, we're walking", and repeat. We made to the market with a few electrolytes left and entered under the corrugated roof. We then remembered the book mentioning that the market wasn't air-conditioned and so got incredibly hot in the day. Marvellous. We did our best to take in as many stalls as possible. There was an interesting mechanical section filled with hundreds of metal thingamabobs for cars and motorbikes and god knows what else. I couldn't help thinking that Guy Martin would've felt like a kid in a sweet shop.
Desperate to get out of the heat and humidity we ran into the nearest restaurant we could for some sweet sweet air-con relief. The restaurant was Cafe Yejj, where we had an unfortunately underwhelming meal, but didn't mind too much as it's a place where disadvantaged Cambodians, particularly women, are trained up in the hospitality trade. We were mostly just happy to cool down.
That evening when Becky and Kate had returned from work we ordered a delicious Khmer takeaway and chatted the night away; putting the world to rights while filling our faces.

The following day was the big one; visits to the two key Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh. The honourable Heng picked us up nice and early and first took us to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 11 miles south of PP. Here's some of the journey;

For those of you that don't know, Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields during the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975-79. Thousands of Cambodian civilians (men, women and children) were brought to Choeung Ek from S-21 prison (where we visited afterwards) to be killed.
The audio-guide tour at Choeung Ek was honestly the best audio-guide we have ever had. Voiced by a Khmer Rouge survivor, it was incredibly informative, sensitive yet frank and just very well done. We spent over 2 hours walking around the fairly small site, taking in every last nugget of information on the guide. It goes without saying that the experience affected us both greatly; harrowing barely covers it. We would highly recommend that everyone visit if they're in Cambodia.

As if one horrifying expedition wasn't enough we then went to Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes (aka S-21 prison which used to be a high school). Once again, we were incredibly moved by what we saw and would urge anyone to go. A lot of people say to split the two sights up, but we wanted to do it all in one day to not only save time but to also try and get as much of a well-rounded appreciation of the overwhelming atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide as we could.

We were pretty quiet for the next few hours; letting all of the stories and images sink in. When B and K got home we chatted for a bit and went out for dinner at Sesame Noodle where we got three courses of SE Asian yumminess (including Japanese mochi for pudding). Just before we left a gecko decided to jump onto Emma (a friend of Becky and Kate's) and crawl up her back and arm. This turned us all into screaming idiots until the thing managed to find its way back onto a wall.

The next day Lauren and I did next to nothing other than a bit of onward planning. In the evening we had Mexican food (weird in Cambodia I know) and then went to a cute little hair salon that doubles as a gay bar at night. There were lots of buff Cambodian men coming in and out with dental-floss-straps vest tops that showed both nipples. Everyone's hair was impeccably coiffed (it is a salon after all) and for a while we were the only women in there. Later on though a few of our kind appeared (albeit Western) and we all sipped on strong cocktails and did what gays do; sang along to Britney Spears. The guys working there (who I'm presuming are also the hairdressers) were incredibly attentive and friendly and just generally the vibe was so welcoming and positive. It made me smile.

The following day, still appalled by the heat, we decided to have a swim in the apartment block's pool (on the 4th floor weirdly enough). The water was cold, which was perfect, and even though there was snot coming out of almost every one of my orifices, I managed to do 10 lengths (which for someone who can barely swim is a bit of a feat).

Sufficiently cooled off we then jumped in a tuk tuk to the Central Market, which is in and around a massive impressive colonial building (with some air-con). Lauren managed to pick up an Angkor Beer vest top for a couple of dollars and I managed to do what I do best, pull faces at cute babies.

We then walked to Wat Ounalom, where apparently one of Buddha's eyebrow hairs is kept. We mainly picked this holy site because Lauren seems to have developed a weird obsession with visiting Buddha's bodily parts. So far we've done a head hair (Yangon, Myanmar) and a footprint (Luang Prabang, Laos). Also, it was free to get in so that scored it a few points. Once we entered the grounds we were approached by an old man who opened up the little door of the Wat and invited us to climb in. We then all sat in front of the Buddha shrine while he blessed us with some water, oil and incense. It was a really lovely peaceful moment that made us feel a little closer to Cambodia than we did before.

We wandered around the rest of the grounds looking at the many old and new stupas alongside huts and washing lines of the local people. We also had a skinny black kitten latch itself onto us (my fault for stroking it).
A little walk away was Tonlé Sap riverside where we stopped in a few non-for-profit community shops; Daughter's of Cambodia and Friends 'N Stuff.

Next stop was The Flicks; an ex-pat, community-run cinema that shows new and old films for a few dollars in small, air conditioned viewing theatres. Following our education at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng we were keen to see the 1985 film The Killing Fields which was showing at The Flicks 2. Unfortunately, we'd walked to The Flicks 3 and so had to get a tuk tuk over to the right cinema. Luckily, we just made it and we happily reclined on the wicker sofas in the cold, dark room ready to cry all over again. During the film I needed the loo but because we'd taken our shoes off to enter the cinema (a requirement) I didn't want to walk barefoot in the toilet. Lauren kindly pointed out that there were a pair of flip flops in the aisle for the toilet. I didn't think anything of this as everywhere else we've been (restaurants, theatres, truck-stops, spas etc) have a special pair of toilet flip flops usually outside the doors so you don't have to stand in piss. So I put them on and went on my merry way. It was only when the film ended that we noticed a man putting on said flip flops and leaving that I realised they weren't communal toilet flip flops, but just some poor cinema-goers shoes that I'd borrowed. He must have watched me put them on and thought "why the fuck is that girl putting my flip flops on and leaving the cinema!?" Well he must have been British because he didn't say a word to me, he didn't even look at me when I returned and put them back beside him.
That evening we introduced Becky and Kate to the brilliant Channel 4 programme First Dates (they're now hooked).

The next day my cold had taken an ugly turn; I was sneezing fluorescent snot every 10 minutes and so wasn't feeling up for public interaction. By the afternoon poor Lauren was beyond bored so I agreed to go to the Angkor Market with her (a mini supermarket) where we managed to spend $25, yes 25 fucking US dollars on next to nothing. We then found a little disabled-run craft shop where I bought a bracelet made from magazines and did my best not to thank the lovely lady who served me by presenting her with a load of phlegm.

For the rest of the day we watched scary wildlife programmes on king cobras and cougars killing people. As you do.
I was feeling really awful so I stayed in bed while Becky, Kate and Lauren went to The Secret Garden to drink $2 beer jugs. Unfortunately I didn't manage to nap as I'd taken two Sno Kuff tablets (the infamous cold tablets from India) which gave me nothing but heart palpitations for an hour. We all went for tea (along with three of B an K's friends) at the French-owned L'Orchidee where I mustered up the strength to stroke the resident dogs and eat some sweet and sour tofu. It being Friday we followed our meals with drinks on the trendy Bassac Lane in a bar called Cicada. The cocktails and conversations flowed (although I stuck to water in an attempt to prevent the cold worsening) and Kate and Lauren got chatting to a guy that turned out to be a bit of a film star. He showed them a picture of him with my fantasy wife Angelina Jolie whose upcoming film adaptation First they killed my Father he was cast in. They can't remember his name though...

On Saturday Becky, Lauren and I ventured to the palace only to find it was closed. Nowhere did it say why it was closed or for how long but we took it on the chin and went to the National Museum instead. The museum was average; there were some vaguely interesting old busts and sculptures mostly of Hindu gods and Buddha and a few bits of wood and weaving work.
Then, after half an hour in a tuk tuk and plenty of stopping and starting to check maps and forums, we managed to find the street-art area just beside the gorgeous Alserkal mosque. The graffiti was plastered along the walls of a narrow, mostly residential street with a few little house-shops and cafés. Reminiscent of the likes of Nelson street in Bristol but on a much smaller and less out-there sort of way. And weirdly enough, underneath one of the tags was the text 'Bristol to Cambodia'!
Ever a capitalist-pig (I can't help it, it's in my conditioning), I couldn't help but think that it's the sort of area that would be an excellent pace to invest in. There are already little coffee-houses, art and vintage shops and alternative bars starting up. It'll turn into Beijing's 798 in no time.
It really felt wonderful wandering around and dissecting the art; as expected it had elements of satire and social commentary on both Cambodia and the rest of the world. The only dampener was the fact that my camera decided to break AGAIN! As our money is running low and there's no guaranteeing it won't break again, I've decided not to get it fixed again and to just try and pick up a cheap compact digi camera if and when I come across one.

On the way back 'home' we stopped at a popular Chinese eatery - Chinese Noodle, where you can watch the thick noodles being made out the front. We all had soup and I chucked as much chilli in as I could to try and de-congest. It was ice cream and pastries at Posh Nosh for pudding followed by a swim in the pool with two cute Kiwi kids who were neighbours.

That evening we were supposed to be going to see a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by the Phnom Penh Players Company. Last minute the show was cancelled because of a power cut. Gutted, we instead invited some friends over and drank home-made espresso Martinis and played Cards Against Humanity. At around midnight the girls then decided it was time to go out. I, being the boring old ill bastard that I am decided to instead go to bed. At around 3am Lauren and the girls rolled in after having spent 3 hours singing karaoke at a KTV centre. Bloody ex-pats.

Our last day in Cambodia, Sunday, consisted of us all nursing hangovers (or a head-cold in my case) and lazing around for most of the morning fantasising about what type of food we all wanted. We settled on pizza and toddled down to Brooklyn Pizza where we gorged ourselves silly. To top off the indulgence we then got pedicures and exhaustedly giggled at each other for a couple of hours. We bought shit loads of sugar and fat-laden treats from the rip-off supermarket nearby (called Super-Duper) and spent our last evening trying to bring on diabetes while watching more First Dates.

Yes our time in Phnom Penh was a little more Western-focused than jaunts in previous locations but what can I say, after almost 3 months of all things foreign I think we deserved a bit of home-comfort. Becky and Kate were such generous and fun hosts and how lucky we are to have called their home ours for a week. And thank god I was ill there and not in some grotty dorm room in Vietnam. Speaking of grotty dorms, Sihanoukvile is next...

Posted by advensha 05:53 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh snails pizza karaoke tuk_tuk s21 genocide angelina_jolie ex-pats killing_fields khmer_rouge central_market wat_ounalom super_duper sesame_noodle espresso_martinis Comments (0)

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