Good news! The place we stayed in Bangkok looks after luggage for you, so the cold weather clothes, sleeping bag, etc. have been left behind for the 2 week trip to Cambodia. Now the backpack only weighs as much as a few t-shirts, one guide book, and a different pair of thong speedos for each day of the week (now THERE is a pleasant mental image for you!) instead of half a ton. The flight over on Plummet Airways was fine (apart from the fat woman sitting next to us with overactive elbows). She was sitting in the aisle seat when we got onto the plane, and rather than getting up to let us in, she insisted we climb over her. I think that having me clamber over her was the most exciting thing to happen to her for several decades!
You also need a visa to get into Cambodia, although they never refuse anyone entry so it's just their way of getting $20 off foreigners. Their process is impressive though - there is a line of seven people, and you hand over your application, passport and cash to the first person. By the time you have walked to the last person, each one of them has performed some task (checking, reading, stamping, writing, laughing at passport photo) and you get your passport back with the visa in it. Cool!
Cambodia does now have it's own currency again (the riel) after Pol Pot and his merry men abolished everything and everybody in the 70s, but everything is priced in U.S. dollars and everybody uses them instead. Good job really, as there are around 4,000 riel to the dollar and dividing everything by 4,000 would be a real pain. Having everything priced in dollars also gives you a better idea how much the rob dog Cambodian airport authorities are fleecing you for! As well as the $20 visa fee, you also pay taxes on the cost of your fight, a $6 domestic airport departure fee per departing flight, then a $25 departure fee when you leave the country. In a place where the average annual income is somewhere around a couple of hundred dollars, that seems like a lot!
Took a bumpy ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep on an old prop plane (last one aboard close the door behind you, and you can fly it as well if you like!) then got a taxi to the dwelling of choice for the evening, 'Smiley Guest House' (because that sums me up really, doesn't it???). All through the journey the taxi driver was trying to get us to go to a different hotel (obviously one he would get commission for bringing punters to), and was also offering to drive us around temples, wash our clothes, polish my head, etc. If he had been within 10 feet of some of the clothes I have been wearing during the past few sweaty days then he may have reconsidered. The temperature doesn't drop below 30 degrees (90 yankee degrees), and as the song says, "Right Guard will not help you here"!
Now, according to the guide book, National Highway 6 runs from the airport
to Siem Riep. Initially I thought that the taxi driver knew a short cut down
a dusty clay track, until it dawned on me that we WERE on National Highway
6! It is rumoured that in the centre of the 'city' there are some parts where
the road is tarmac, but I will believe that when I see it! Road maintenance
consists of a truck that comes along and sprays water onto the road to stop
it becoming too dusty (exactly as they do with the warning track and between
the bases in baseball). Scoffed some more extremely nice and ridiculously
cheap food (plus beer of course, sending the bill skyrocketing to a whopping
$5!) and retired to Smiley's to witness the unfortunate spectacle of Man Utd
winning in the footy and to find out that the rugby doesn't start until 2am
local time. Boooo! It's a weird situation where the hotel is a few yards off
the dirt road where people live, work and beg, but we get cable TV.
Day Twenty One - Siem Riep, Cambodia
Another typical stinking hot day in south-east Asia. According to some of the locals, our hotel is in the "boom boom" part of town. I did spot a couple of elderly women sitting by the side of the road earlier, so maybe they provide the "boom boom"?
As you're walking the streets, you are asked to give money or buy something
every five seconds. And even more annoying are the hordes of locals offering
to take you somewhere in their taxi, pickup truck, minibus, motorbike, or
tuk-tuk. Now a tuk-tuk is a motorbike
with a glorified 2-seater pram attached to the back of it. The plan for the
day was to head 15 miles out of the city to visit a floating village, so we
flagged down a tuk-tuk (not a very difficult task!) and bargained him down
to $5 to take us there and back and to hang around while we looked at the
village. The trip started off fine as we cruised along the tarmac road (it
DOES exist!), but after a couple of minutes it gave way to dirt track again.
Still, it was fairly flat and we moved along without any problems, just a
little bit bouncier from time to time. As we left the 'metropolis' and entered
the countryside (okay, so the two are pretty much the same!) we passed through
small villages with the locals cooking, sitting around (very poopular), and
we also saw a few children leading very scrawny cattle and water buffalo through
fields. The houses were tumbledown wooden shacks and it seemed that whatever
food they got out of the field/river that day was what they ate, then they
would repeat the process the next day. Also noticeable was that the road appeared
to worsen with each village we passed. By this point, the 'quaint rural charm'
of being bounced around in the back of the tuk-tuk was beginning to wear a
little thin, but fortunately it looked like the bad road was coming to an
end. So we turned off the bad road onto ... a really bad road!
There were rocks and ruts every few feet, and our tuk-tuk driver skilfully managed to hit every single one of them. He would avoid the rock/rut with the wheels of his motorbike (in the centre), but then either of the two rear wheels (that we were sitting directly above) would bear the brunt of the terrain. The fact that tuk-tuks appear to have no suspension and solid tyres only added to the pain!
Relief was soon at hand though, as we stopped at an 'official' tourist police checkpoint. A few men in official looking uniforms (available at any good costume of army surplus shop) were sitting at a desk selling boat tickets, and in order to see the floating village we had to buy a ticket from them - they were not available at the docks. Cleverly this checkpoint was some 10km from the docks (an hours tuk-tuk along more nightmare roads), so there was no way we could walk around the corner and see if we could get a boat at a cheaper price. So another $15 was handed over. Which brings me to the next rant ...
Cambodia is such a poor country and everything is dirt cheap for decadent westerner pigdogs like myself, that all the stuff to see and do here is such good value for money. But the tourist system here is set up so that there are hidden extras everywhere that you have to pay, and then you feel cheated. So if I had been told that it was $25 to see the floating village then that would have been fine, it's a really cool thing to see, but what happens is that you're told it costs $5 to get to the floating village, then you're told you cannot see it from the shore and you have to take a boat, then the 'official' boat fee is sprung on you, then add a tip for the boat guide, then add a tip for the boat driver, and so on. The same thing happens in the civilized world as well. For example if tickets to a baseball game in Oakland are sold for $15 including parking, I would probably go a dozen times a year. But the tickets are sold for $5, then when you get there you are charged $10 for parking. I know the total cost is still $15 but the thought of being ripped off for parking meant that two years ago I only went twice and last year I didn't go at all. Moan, moan, moan!
Anyway, during the bone-jarring ride from the tourist police exploitation checkpoint to the dock, we had to stop for 'road maintenance', Cambodian style. This begins with half a dozen men sitting on lumps of sandstone in the back of a pickup truck. The truck stops, the men get out, and pull all the rocks off the truck and onto the road. They then grab whatever tools are handy and smash the sandstone up until it makes ... sand! And that's about it! The rut in the road is now filled with sand (totally useless for tuk-tuks because the motorbike just gets stuck) and the road is repaired. I do have to question the longeivity of these repairs however, because the monsoon season is just around the corner and washing away loose sand is probably number one on the monsoon's list of things to do!
Just as we were about to set off once the road maintenance had finished, out tuk-tuk driver, totally unprompted, said "Lovely Jubbly". I was astounded! I can't get to see Only Fools & Horses (that's a popular British TV show to the colonials out there!) on any of the ten thousand American TV channels, but the Cambodian tuk-tuk driver gets to see it. He also has a book where you can write comments about him (glowing praise from other tourists - that kind of thing), and one English couple had written "Please do not teach him any more phrases from Only Fools & Horses". If I get my way he will be fully trained in the fine art of using the word 'plonker' by the end of the week!
So we finally made it to the floating village, which is exactly as it is named, A few hundred of the shack-type houses, plus everything else they need, scattered around the river/lake (a few miles wide at this point). So you would see a floating shack, a boat tied to it, maybe some firewood on a platform on stilts (to keep it out of the water), then a school, a shop, a church, etc. Some places had small stilted platforms with flowers on them acting as a garden! Some of the more bizarre sights were a floating pasture (a wooden cage on stilts with some cows in it), the floating pig sty (same as the pasture but with pork), floating fish farm, floating crocodile farm, etc. And of course the obligatory gift shop! It really is a fascinating place, and the water level was so low in some places that we saw some people moving house, which involved their shack being pulled into deeper water by a boat while people waded by the side of it.
Got back to Smileys Guest House and decided to find a different place to stay for the remainder of our time here. We had chosen a hotel that has a pet rooster. Great! We decided to move not because of the 'chicken flu' scare but because I thought the owners might get a bit upset when I throttled it the next time it went "cock-a-doodle-doo" in the early hours of the morning. The first new place we were shown wasn't too impressive. Run by a couple of teenagers, the first one didn't have a key so he went to his friend (who was sleeping on the floor of the reception area) and kicked him until he was awake enough to show us around. After Laurel & Hardy's performance there really wasn't a chance of us staying there so we moved into the more poncey ($7 per night instead of $5) European Guest House. Sounds much nicer, doesn't it!
Spent the evening strolling around a local market avoiding most of the offers to buy cheap tat. Worst offer of the night was for a pair of trousers. Advertised for $6, the seller came down to a final price of $3, suspiciously ignoring all requests to try them on. Not surprising really, because they would only fit someone with a 12 inch waist and 72 inch inside leg, or maybe a pair of fat siamese twin pythons!
Day Twenty Two - Siem Riep, Cambodia
Ponied up another $40 to the tourist police for a three-day pass to see the temples of Angkor. Built around a thousand years ago they are the major tourist attraction in Cambodia (of course everything is relative over here and they only get a few thousand visitors per day). I had never heard of them before, but then again I had always thought that Cambodia was in Africa, so what do I know! The temples are all stone, incredible ornately carved, and all massive, Some of the buildings themselves cover the area of 15 football pitches, and these buildings took millions of slaves decades to build. It is estimated that some of the temples needed hundreds of thousands of people just to maintain them once they were built. Cambodia is bordered by Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west, and during the time these temples were built, the Khmer (Cambodia) were always at war with the Chams (Vietnam). Then the Khmer had a bit of a set-to with Siam (Thailand) and received a bit of a kicking! So all these temples were either smashed up by the opposition or abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle. Anyway, we spent the entire day strolling around in the sunshine and only managed to get around two of these places.
On our way to the first temple we were stopped by the t-shirt police. Honestly! Our tuk-tuk driver picked us up and we were cruising along happily until we encountered a roadblock. Apparently our tuk-tuk driver wasn't wearing the correct t-shirt! They give the drivers a shirt with a number on the back to identify them (although I had never seen any before and have never seen any since we were stopped) which looks a bit like a prison uniform. Our driver tried to explain that his was in the wash but the t-shirt police weren't having any of his excuses. So we had to drive to his house, grab his wet t-shirt and take it with us to the roadblock. There was another angry exchange at the roadblock (I think the t-shirt police were trying to get our driver to wear this dripping wet t-shirt as he drove through the checkpoint!). We finally made it through, and our driver used his knowledge of English slang and swearing to tell us exactly what he thought of the police!
By the side of the road are stalls selling orangeade, lemonade, limeade and cherryade in two-litre bottles. Our tuk-tuk driver stopped at one of these and bought one (cherryade I thought it was), but it was in a glass whisky bottle. This didn't seem to be too hygienic until he poured the contents into his tuk-tuk. These roadside soda stalls are actually gas stations, and the 'cherryade' was diesel!
Inbetween temples there is always the assault course that is the small children trying to sell you stuff. One time a particularly large group of seven or eight went for us, so I did the gallant thing - and ran for it, leaving Sharon to deal with the urchins. When one girl (around 6 or 7 years old) tried to sell some bracelets, Sharon pointed at my disappearing figure and said "What about him?". Quick as a flash the little girl replied "No, if he buy these then he ladyboy" !!!
And inside the temples you're not safe from being pestered. After several fast marches up and down steep temple steps, I was approached by a young Buddhist monk in his orange gear while I was sitting with my feet up. He proceeded to tell me his life story - blah blah learning English, blah blah going to school, blah blah poor parents, blah blah school expensive, etc. At the end of this he asked me if I wanted to pay for him to go to school for a year. What ??? He wasn't much of a negotiator though, because as soon as I said "What???" his asking price came straight down to 2 days. By some miracle, and even allowing for the fluctuating exchange rate, the price of 2 days schooling came to exactly one dollar! I gave him the cash just for some peace and quiet. And during the next hour we saw him at least another half a dozen times with different victims. I reckon he scrounges enough each day to pay for a year at school!
Far be it for me to question the wisdom of the gods, but one of the stone carvings in Angkor Wat depicts a great battle between gods and demons. All the gods were battling their chosen mounts, so a few were on horseback, some on elephants, others on chariots, etc. But not Shiva. Oh no, horses and elephants are too traditional for old Shiva. She goes into battle riding ... a sacred goose! What good is that going to do her? At least horses can run fast and elephants can squash things (or poop on them from what we saw later), but what is the sacred goose going to do when confronted by a fierce demon? Honk noisily and maybe ruffle it's feathers a bit? Maybe lay an egg or two that Shiva can chuck at the demon to incapacitate it? And to think that thousands of slaves gave their lives building these great temples to worship the goose-riding Shiva!
Outside Angkor Wat was a young girl standing next to a horse, which you could
pay to sit on while somebody takes your picture. Whoopedy-doo! Anyway, this
horse kept trying to eat the grass around it, and each time it did this the
young girl would smack it around the head. Not surprisingly, Mr. Horsey got
a bit fed up with this and, realising he wasn't tied up, legged it. We were
at the lake outside the temple to watch the sunset, and the sight of the horse
disappearing onto the horizon with the young girl chasing after it capped
Day Twenty Three - Siem Riep, Cambodia
More temples today, the highlight of which was one that has not been maintained at all since it was abandoned, so over the past few centuries the jungle had started to take hold again. A lot of the temple was ruins but it was fascinating to see these enormous buildings with hundred-foot trees growing through and around them.
Souvenir of the day for today is a joint winner. Bamboo flutes (2 for a dollar) are sold by people who only seem to know one tune - 'Auld Lang Syne'! And the police are selling police badges for $5. I reckon for $10 you could get his uniform then get his motorbike for another $20.
And another high pint was reached today for ridiculous transportation. The previous record for number of people on a single motorbike was five, but that was easily defeated today. There was only one person on the bike, but strapped to the back, lying sideways on their backs, were three live pigs. And they weren't little piglets either, these were full-sized pigs! They didn't look too happy about is though, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere near their piggy wrath when he unties them!
Saw some wildlife on the way back as well, including monkeys roaming up in
the trees (who were happy to come down and have their picture taken with me
once they realised I had some food!), and elephants that you could ride to
the top of a hill. As we passed one of these elephants, the people on top
asked if it was male or female. So I had a good look, but I still didn't know.
You would think that distinguishing between male and female elephants would
be easy, but unless the elephant is male and frisky (when it's obvious to
everyone within half a mile!), it's difficult.
Just you try it next time you get the chance!
Had to turn down a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity tonight. For only $55 it is possible to fly the couple of hundred mile from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh in a decommissioned Cambodian army helicopter. You must be joking! You do have to admire their honesty though - if you did survive the fall from the sky, clamber from the burning wreckage, then manage to find your way out of the jungle, why would you want to do that again in your lifetime?
Day Twenty Four - Siem Riep, Cambodia
I am thinking of changing my name to 'Betty Swollocks'! Another sweltering day was spent wandering around temples, drinking gallons of water, getting pestered by hundreds more small children, and making it back to the hotel to lie knackered underneath the full-blast fan for a few hours. Also managed to upset the tuk-tuk driver by not agreeing to let him take us to see the dancing girls tonight. He gets commission for everyone he brings along and lost out on 2 litres of fuel because of us!
After three days walking around huge temples in conditions hotter then a medieval witch and twice as sweaty, a relaxing day lay ahead getting from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh. A simple half-hour flight, so nothing could go wrong, right? Wrong! Problem number one occurs a hundred yards from the hotel in the form of a large sign saying "Airport Road Closed". If you imagine a tiny isolated town in the plains of America where elderly folk sit chewing tobacco, and down the road is an abandoned airfield with tumbleweed blowing across it and a motheaten windsock, then you have a good idea of 'Siem Riep International Airport'! There are only two roads going there and because the one we wanted to use was closed, we had to do a 15-mile detour loop around the temples to get to the airport from the other side. But we had plenty of time to spare so it was fine sitting in the tuk-tuk being cooled by the breeze.
So we got to the airport, and I found it highly amusing that our tuk-tuk
driver asked us if we wanted the domestic or the international terminal. The
entrance doors to the two 'terminals' are about 10 feet apart, and of course
lead into the same room! So we got dropped off at the domestic terminal, grabbed
our bags and tickets, and headed for the door. Before we could get there we
were intercepted by a security guard asking us what we were doing there. I
don't think he quite understood the phrase "Well Sherlock, haven't you
managed to piece together all the clues yet?",
so we showed our plane tickets - only to be told that our flight did not exist. Cool! Great news! He had stopped us because the airport was closed (it only opens for a couple of flights each day) so it looked like we were going to be stranded. We managed to glean from him that there was another plane in three hours so maybe we should come back then. With no way of contacting the airline or ticket agency we bought the tickets from, we wandered across the road (dirt track) to a shack where at least we could sit in the shade. As long as we could avoid the mad chickens running around everywhere we would be fine!
We had bought the tickets in Bangkok from a place called the 'Tourist Information Thailand'. The people working there must have been saying "here comes another one" as I walked through their door under a large sign with "TIT" written on it! A couple of hours was spent in this roadside shack devising gruesome tortures to inflict on the TITs when (if?) I ever got back to Bangkok, then we strolled back to the airport. It was still officially closed, but at least the bloke with the key was there to open up so we could sit inside in the cool. Another age passed while we waited for the airline staff to turn up, but the good news was that our original flight did exist, but it appeared to have been cancelled. So the TITs were safe for now! Checked in, waited for the person selling departure tax tickets to turn up for work, got those, waited for the person collecting departure tax tickets to turn up for work, gave them up, and finally got onto the plane and made it to Phnom Penh. Next time I'm going to fly Cambodian Army Helicopters and take my chances!
Day Twenty Six - Phnom Penh to Kratie, Cambodia
First impression of Phnom Penh is that is is dirty, noisy, and generally unpleasant. The peasants touting things on the streets are way more persistent than in Siem Riep (something I didn't believe was possible), and the general atmosphere mixes all the bad features of big cities and third world countries with few of the advantages. Fortunately we are only using it as a base to get to Eastern Cambodia, so it was a case of 'in and out' as quickly as possible.
Up bright and early to attempt to do the impossible - understand the bus
system and manage to get from one place to another. We were heading to a place
called Kratie, and had been given wildly differing information on how to get
there. The problem here is that everyone has their finger in some kind of
pie, so depending on who you ask you will get a different answer. So someone
at the bus station says the ONLY way to get there is by bus, there is no boat,
no taxi and no minibus. Walk around the corner and ask a taxi driver and he
will tell you that all the buses are sold out
days in advance, and the ONLY way to get there is by taxi. This is despite the bus station offering us tickets two minutes earlier. And this goes on with everything, all the time, and even once you get a bit wise to it, it is still extremely annoying. Impartial tourist information places are still a number of years away in Cambodia. So we went for the bus option, and although the bus station was only a 20 minute walk away from the hotel, we had all our stuff so we decided to get a tuk-tuk. Even after only spending 4 days in Cambodia, the total number of tuk-tuk drivers asking if we want a ride must be approaching a thousand. And how many did we see this morning when we actually needed one? None! Bloody typical! You could walk that same stretch of main road a million times and NEVER come across zero tuk-tuk drivers. The previous world record for yards travelled withough seeing a tuk-tuk driver touting for business was thirty-seven yards (Ray Charles, USA, 1996), but I will be calling the Guinness Book of Records as soon as possible.
So we get on the bus (the correct bus as well!), which was a standard 12-seater
minibus. What you don't realise from the outside is that this standard 12-seater
minibus has 20 seats in it. I could barely get my knees into my seat whilst
standing up, and sitting down was an imnpossibility. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins
would have struggled to fit, and the fat hobbit would have had to sit on the
roof. So I spent a particularly uncomfortable three hours (for the 2 hour
scheduled trip) perched on the edge of this seat with my legs dangling in
the aisle and the amused locals trying to
navigate their way past me as they got on and off.
Got as far as the Hobbit Express would take us and then had to find a way
to go on from there. We had been told, of course, that the ONLY method of
transport available was boat/bus/taxi/minibus (depending on who we asked),
and eventually went for the minibus option with five other tourists who were
going to the same place. As soon as the Hobbit Express arrived, there were
a line of locals with motorbikes pointing to the tourist they were going to
claim as their own. Apparently it was "impossible, much too far"
to walk from the bus stop to where the minibus left from,
although on the map it seemed like it was only a few hundred yards. So everybody forked out their 500 riel (12 cents) and loaded up onto motorbikes. And sure enough 20 seconds later here we are at the minibus. Surprise!
The minibus made pretty good time over a dusty dirt road, and 3 filthy hours later we grabbed Hotel Cheapo and started working out how to get to the next place without being fleeced!
Watched the sun set over the Mekong River, all the time providing entertainment for the local children who were wondering which planet this strange looking couple came from. And the biggest shock of the night came when, for the first time in Cambodia, somebody talked to us because he wanted to practice English. He remains the only person to approach either of us without trying to get money one way or another - they should put him in a museum!
In the same way that bottles sold by the side of the road are the Cambodian equivalent of gas stations, tonight I discovered the Cambodian equivalent of cinemas. Any place with a T.V. will scatter a few chairs around, turn up the volume to maximum so that is distorts completely, then leave it like that for people to wander in and out as they please. By a strange twist of fate, and completely in keeping with the rest of the day, we had one right next to our hotel room. Oh joy! I'm not sure what the film was, but the soundtrack contained a dodgy version of 'Copacabana' by Barry Manilow (as if there's a version that ISN'T dodgy!) - just what you need after a hard day on the road. But the bloke downstairs said it would stop by 10pm. We shall see!
Day Twenty Seven - Kratie to Sen Monorom, Cambodia
The nightmare continues! Woke up in plenty of time for the early morning taxi to Sen Monorom, which is a couple of hundred miles away towards the Vietnamese border. In fact woke up earlier than planned, because although chummy in the hotel was true to his word and the 'cinema' stopped at 10pm, he neglected to mention that is starts again at 6am. I mean who wants to watch a movie with a distorted Barry Manilow soundtrack at 6 in the morning? But that was just the first piece of information that our little helper conveniently forgot to mention about the day.
We booked, and foolishly paid for, a taxi that would take us (and our luggage)
all the way from Kratie to Sen Monoram. After doing this and then chatting
to another tourist in a nearby eaterie, we discovered that the hidden 'extra'
with the taxi is that they squeeze (literally) as many people as possible
into the car. So we confronted our lying little toe-rag at the hotel with
this information and he said that there would be 6 people in our taxi. He
also confirmed that the taxi would take us all the way to Sen Monorom, there
would be no stops along the way, and that the driver would speak English.
So we got into the back alongside a woman with a child on her knee and three
blokes in the front including the driver (who did not speak a word of English,
apparently that one was 'busy'). So there were seven instead of six, but the
sprog didn't make any difference. After a few hundred yards we stopped. I
assumed one of the lazy boys in the front was getting a quick lift, but no
- another woman joined us in the back. Luckily she was pretty
scrawny, but it was still a real squeeze. And another few hundred yards down the road we stopped again - and a fourth bloke squeezed into the front, sitting underneath the driver (whose face was now pressed against the windscreen). This setup continuted along dodgy roads for a couple of hours until the nine of us (!) arrived in some pitstop kind of town called Scrote (or simething similar, but as far as I am concerned it will always be called 'Scrote'!). This was the end of the line for our taxi driver, despite us being only one-third of the way to our destination.
Scrote really is the back-end of beyond,
and while we were wondering what was going on and what to do, another pair
of tourists were arguing with their driver. They also thought they had paid
to go from Kratie to Sen Monorom, but the pickup driver (that we were apparently
supposed to transfer to) didn't know anything about that and was demanding
more cash. Just as their bags were about to be unloaded and sold on the street,
they agreed to pay. At the same time our taxi driver was slinking off into
the distance (we had given him our tickets), so we grabbed him quick and made
him show the tickets to the pickup driver to prove we had already paid. Maybe
the other tourists
experience was a breakdown in communications, but my money is on yet another case of daylight robbery!
So despite our hotels guarantee that we would be taken all the way in the taxi with no stops, we were stuck in this awful place. And of course the pickup was not leaving for another two hours. Great! So we grabbed some drinks and a grilled portion of whatever unfortunate creature had been walking past the grill earlier that morning, and waited for a couple of hours.
Departure time came. And went! Just at the time we were due to leave, the
pickup people started to decide how they were going to load all the people,
luggage, food, etc. that they were going to trake. This process carried on
for an hour while we stood outside wilting in the heat. Eventually, and with
the help of a lot of pieces of string, everything was ready to go. We were
stuffed into the bench seat of the pickup with another bloke, and a couple
& their sprog & the driver were in the front. Plus around a dozen
other poor souls were on the outside clinging on for dear life. The
conditions were far worse than in the taxi despite there only being three of us in the back, because there was absolutely no legroom. Both cheeks went to sleep within a few minutes, and during the two rest stops I would stagger about like a drunken giraffe trying to get some feeling back into my legs. Finally made it to Sen Monorom after the two most uncomfortable days of my entire life. I think only the pickup truck we were in arrived in worse condition than I did
(although that has been the subject of some debate!). As well as being ridiculously overloaded and bottoming out regularly on the rutted roads, we had to made several unscheduled stops. As we were driving through the mountains we would get to the top of a slope, go down the other side, then cross a bridge going over one of the many rivers, before starting the next climb. At pretty much every bridge we would stop, and a man would jump out of the truck, fill a couple of plastic carriers with water, then pour the contents into the radiator to change the engine temperature
from being off the thermometer gauge to just 'overheating'.
Late night addition: Just spoke to an English couple who
have been in Cambodia for a while, and they told me about a taxi that can
get you all the way from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom and takes 6-7 hours, so
the trials and tribulations of the past two days were completely unneccessary!
The only thing that stopped me weeping into my beer was the news that there
is a return journey along the same route, that we will definitely be taking
in a couple of days.
Day Twenty Eight - Sen Monorom, Cambodia
Despite going to bed at the ridiculously early time of 10pm (partly because
of the 6am wake-up broadcasting and partly because the electricity here is
only available from 6pm to 10pm and it's impossible to see your hand in front
of your face after that), the local wildlife made sure that I got hardly any
sleep. This part of Cambodia is known for it's elephants, tigers and leopards,
but nothing so exotic kept me awake - tonight it was a combination of rodent
and insect that caused the problems. The rodent was at least acouple of feet
long, with big claws and big, sharp, pointy teeth. Probably. Because it didn't
start scurrying around the room until after dark so I didn't actually see
it. And despite me chasing around after the scratching noises it was making,
and also taking into account my previous success in catching vicious vermin,
I never managed to get hold of it. But Basil the Siberian Hamster (only one
left in shop!) was nothing compared to the insect. Until later today, when
I recreated (badly) the sound that this thing makes and a local told us
what it was, I was convinced that this thing was either some large frog/toad/reptile with big, sharp, pointy teeth or some kind of bird. With big, sharp, pointy teeth of course! The noise starts off with a loud clicking similar to hitting a small hammer on a piece of metal. After half a dozen of these loud clicks you're wide awake to hear a kind of hee-haw sound a bit like an asthmatic donkey. The volume is amazing and it happens regularly every thirty minutes or so. The
first couple of times it happened, it sounded like the loud, distorted noise you get at 6am over the dodgy loudspeakers, but then there started to be slight variations so we knew it wasn't recorded. An inspection of the inside of the room didn't reveal any large birds or reptiles, and neither did a look outside (not surprising in the dark!). At each occurrence of this noise, new and increasingly complex and profane phrases were used to describe the phenomenon and further
attempts were made to track it down. All of these, including trying to drown it using the low-power shower, met with varying degrees of complete failure. At around 4am this thing finally shut up (probably giving itself plenty of time to get away from the 6am broadcast!) and it's identity remained a mystery until we were told that it's a ug, about 2 inches long, that burrows into the walls of buildings, therefore amplifying the noise it makes several times. I have to see one of these before I leave, not for educational purposes but because I feel compelled to crush the life out of it!
After the trials and tribulations of the past two days and nights, the rest of the day was refreshingly straightforward. After checking out and walking to the new guest house (we had been promised a ride, but of course that never materialised!), the owner there had arranged our day elephant trekking. He is the local wheeler-dealer, and as well as running an ever-expanding guest house he is also the local dentist, red cross worker, tour guide, and (above all) speaks English. He drove us down to a local village and dropped us off 10 feet from the wooden stand where you jump on the elephants. None of this 'leave you to a pack of slavering motorbike drivers'. Later on he also picked us up as promised, on time, and dropped us off at our room. I am thinking of having him cloned!
The elephant trek was really cool - sitting on a wooden bench on top of this huge animal while our 'driver' (who had his sleeping child strapped to the front of him) manoueuvred it through trails in the jungle. Occasionally it was a bit dangerous, being poked by overhanging branches (of course they're only 'overhanging' when you're 15 feet up in the air!), and from time to time there were natural obstacles to overcome, such as elephant flatulence (not too bad as long as you're on the elephant and not behind or underneath it), elephant snot (most of the way back it kept snorting until we were evenly coated in the stuff - it was either that the elephant had a cold or it was telling us what it thought of carrying us around on it's back for four hours), and elephant tantrums. A few times the beast would stomp it's feet and rock from side to side in an attempt to make us fall off until our driver got hold of a big stick and smacked it on the head until it stopped.
Had some lunch at a nearby waterfall, where we also got to see the impressive sight of our chap giving his elephant a bath. By a combination of poking, prodding and shouting he got this thing into the river (which was about 6 feet deep), made it kneel down on each side, and even completely submerge itself - all while he stayed on top of it scrubbing away. One second it looked like he was standing on a rock just under the surface of the river, then within a few seconds the top half of the elephant had appeared underneath him - cool!
Day Twenty Nine - Sen Monorom, Cambodia
Now THIS is more like a holiday. Got up after noon, strolled in the sun to
a nearby waterfall,
swam around a bit, strolled back, had some food, and went to bed. Nice!
Day Thirty - Sen Monorom to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Once again our 'Mr. Fixit' comes through for us big time. Left with the task
of arranging our travel direct back to Phnom Penh, right on time this morning
arrives a new pickup, complete with silly-sized tires to cope with all the
holes in the road. This seemingly straightforward task had so far defeated
everyone else we have spoken to in this place so, fearing the worst, I was
pleasantly surprised when our boy did us proud! The only down side of the
trip was a dose of the 'squirts' caught from eating in one of the not-so-hygeinic
no-star cockroach breeding academies over the past couple of days. But the
wise decision not to risk breakfast, coupled with a grim resolve to clench
tightly whenever necessary, was us all the way through to Phnom Penh in around
six hours and in relative comfort. Even felt cheerful and confident enough
to line the stomach with some beer and a curry! Then logged onto the internet
to find out that England had won the cricket and Man U have been knocked out
of Eurpoe. Sweet!
Day Thirty One - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Best nights sleep in a month. No small children, no bugs, no rodents, no construction work, no 6am loudspeakers, and no ridiculous 2-day road trips to go on. The combination of all this, plus the fact that I was knackered, led me to finally crawl out of my pit at 1pm. Still early for me, but definitely helped to make me feel at lest semi-human again. Not much planned for the day today apart from wandering around town. Sent out some more offensive postcards, bought another notebook to write all this drivel down in, and as usual sweated a lot!
Spent the afternoon visiting S-21. In mid-1975 it was a high school, then when Phniom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge it was converted into a prison/interrogation/torture/execution camp. Up until 1978, almost 10,000 people passed through here, and when the compound was liberated by the Vietnamese army there were only seven survivors - everyone else was dead. The Khmer Rouge were sticklers for documenting their atrocities, so there are rooms containing thousands of mugshots of everyone who was sent to this place. You can walk around the cells, interrogation rooms, etc. and also look at photographs of the scene that was discovered when the Vietnamese arrived. All of the old methods and instruments of torture and execution are explained and there are the instruments themselves still lying around, and the fact that this museum does not have enough funding to maintain itself only adds to the desperation of the place.
Had some more food in the guest house due to being too lazy to walk outside and find anywhere else to eat. Even at night here it is extremely hot and humid, and after a nice freezing cold shower I can't be bothered walking outside and getting all sweaty again. Especially if I am going to get robbed at knifepoint - the streets of Phnom Penh are not somewhere to be wandering around after dark. And the guest house plays movies while you eat. Last night it was 'The Killing Fields' (which is probably appropriate as a historical look at the mid-1970s), and tonight it is 'Apocalypse Now'. In recent times Cambodia has fought (and mainly lost) wars against all it's neighbours and against itself more than once, so I'm not really sure which side the locals would be cheering for in a Vietnam war film. Maybe they don't care about the history and just enjoy a cool film, but I can't help thinking that the reason 'Charlie don't surf' is because he is busy cooking my fried rice!
Tuesday nights are always an adventure, because Tuesday is the day I have
to take the weekly anti-malaria tablet. As well as the usual side-effects
that those type of pills have (upset stomach, nausea, headaches, etc. - sounds
almost tempting to just catch malaria!), it has the advantage of significantly
increasing and enhancing the number, content and clarity of dreams and nightmares.
It's like having a personal home entertainment system inside yor head with
DVD changer - you have absolutely no idea what is going to come up next. The dreams usually involve the things you last experience before going to sleep, so I will definitely take that into account when saying 'goodnight' to the hairy, sweaty man who works in reception in the hotel!
Day Thirty Two - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Good news! Didn't have any weird dreams about hairy sweaty men last night. I did dream about piloting the space shuttle though, and arguing with the people on the ground because I wanted to fly the nice shiny one and not the rusty old one they had given me. Sometimes I worry about myself!
Spent the morning at the Killing Fields, following on from yesterday's visit
to S-21. When this site (only really one field, about the size of a football
pitch) was excavated after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, over 8,000 bodies
were discovered in around 80 mass graves, and to this day there are still
some 40 mass graves that are known of (through Khmer Rouge documentation)
that have not yet been excavated. A large monument has been created which
houses all the skulls of the 8,000+ exhumed bodies, in glass cases stretching
50 feet into the air. It only takes around half an hour
to wander around the entire place - basically a lot of excavation holes between 10 & 20 feet wide and up to 6 feet deep. As with S-21, there is no proper tourism here, despite it being one of the most reknowned and interesting places in the country. Just one old man in a wooden shack at the entrance to the field collecting a couple of dollars off everyone as they go in, and the usual collection of small children and landmine victims begging for money. Without the drive or resources to exploit (for their own benefit) the attractions that are available to them, Cambodia will remain off the radar as far as the vast majority of tourists are concerned, which is a great shame.
Spent the afternoon wandering in the near-unbearable heat and humidity around
the other 'attractions' in Phnom Penh. 'Wat Budgie' is a temple on a small
hill that had the barefaced cheek to ask for an entrance fee (they didn't
get it!). The only difference between Wat Budgie and all the other temples
scattered around the place is that as well as the standard hawkers and beggars
you also have to contend with peasants offering to 'free a bird' on your behalf.
After you give
them money, of course! They are walking around with these scraggy looking birds in cages, and they will give one it's freedom in return for cash. Of course they will scatter some breadcrumbs on the ground and catch it again within a few minutes, but this did seem like one of the most ridiculous methods of begging so far (and up against quite a bit of competition!).
Day Thirty Three - Phnom Penh to Bangkok
I am actually writing this entry the day before it happens, as I no longer
have the will or
patience to write anything more about this miserable country! So, on to the scores for Cambodia
Temples: 10/10. Incredible, and rightly one of the seven wonders of the world.
Beer: 5/10. Cheap, tastes okay, and big bottles!
Food: 4/10. Same as Thai food but without the hygeine. Best to stay in Thailand.
Girls in short skirts & boots: 0/10. Not here. Nope!
Weather: 4/10. Hot, hot, hot. Nice tan though.
Macabre museums: 6/10. Really interesting, but probably won't be here in 10 years time due to lack of funds.
Roads: 1/10. Apparently the third worst roads in the world.
Elephants: 8/10. Cool! Especially at bath-time.
Sport: 2/10. Nothing local, and too busy with war films to put any footy on TV.
Irritations: -30/100. See additional complaining below.
Oh dear! Although there are some amazing things to see here (basically the ten points for the temples), the constant hassling, begging, bickering, lying, hidden charges, and complete lack of infrastructure makes visiting the place a complete nightmare. The only way to see Cambodia is to fly to Siem Riep for 3 days of temples, fly to Phnom Penh the next morning, see S-21 and the Killing Fields in a couple of hours, then fly out the same afternoon.