Susa’Dei from Cambodia
Well another 2 weeks have passed and I am currently in Phnom Penh, heading to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam tomorrow on the bus!
It’s not the first time I have been to Cambodia, I came alone in 2009 to see the glorious Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Phrom. Much has changed in those 8 years, a lot of it technology! There was no wifi last time, no 3G, not many mobile phones and a lot less development! Now Cambodia has all of these things and more…even the latest music releases pump out from bar speakers!
My time started here in Phnom Penh, the capital, which is a bustling, sprawling city which is certain areas has a wonderful aroma of warm sewage!
My time here started off very chilled out. I flew from Vientiane in Laos with Vietnam Airlines, who were ok and got me here in one piece, however I do believe their pilots are trained at the same school as Garuda Indonesia pilots where they are taught to land by plunging the plane and passengers at breakneck speed in a descent to the runway before slamming the plane down on the runway and attempting an emergency stop! Something to be said when you disembark the plane feeling like you have been participating in an adrenalin sport! All that was missing was a loop the loop!
Anyway, I had 1.5 days to chill out before starting the next trip around Cambodia. Which, let me tell you was well needed….all this travelling malarky is quite tiring you know!
So I spent that time at a wonderful boutique eco hotel with a lovely pool, sun beds, pool bar and restaurant.
After a few days relaxation I met my next group of travel buddies, we are 11!
4 from Oz made up of 3 sisters (Glenda, Jenny & Lyndall) and one of the sisters husbands (Robin), 2 from USA (they can’t help it bless them!) Alison & Carly, 1 guy from The Netherlands (John), Richard from Up North, and 2 Uni graduates Fiona & Hattie.
The first day we had a free morning, so a few of us went out on a cyclotour of the city. This used to be the only way to get around but sadly its a dying breed of transportation with only a few guys still working the trade. Locals don’t use cyclos anymore so they are really only used by tourists who help to try and preserve this traditional transportation.
Travelling by cyclo involves sitting on a cushion in a metal bucket attached to the front of a simple bicycle which is pedalled by an old man who is adept at weaving you in and out of the city’s traffic!
Our tour took in Wat Phnom, a temple which the city was named after, the independence monument before finishing up at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.
The Royal Palace is home to the King and has some amazing Khmer architecture going on.
The Silver Pagoda is not silver on the outside but has a floor made entirely of silver floor tiles! Pretty impressive without taking into account all the gold and silver buddhas and artifacts held inside including a large buddha made entirely of one piece of emerald covered in 9584 diamonds, the largest being 25 carats!
As far as I see it, followers of the religion are poor and hungry and inside the temple is all this gold, silver, emerald and diamonds! Glad to see even in Asia religion has its priorities right!
After our cyclotour we met up with the rest of the group for lunch at a local restaurant which had such dishes as stir fried red ants and deep-fried tarantulas in lime juice!
Cambodians pretty much eat anything….I mean anything……if you can cook it then its fair game!
After lunch we headed out to the Killing Field, Choeung Ek. This site was used as a mass grave during the time of the Khmer Rouge which saw at least 8,895 people dumped in pits after brutal deaths.
Very sad and humbling place which goes onto explain who was murdered there and how, grim reading really….any method of brutal murder that didn’t need bullets was utilised. The weapons were mainly farm tools such as knives, hammers, sickles, scythes, forks etc.
There is a large tree at the centre of Choeung Ek where babies and children used to be swung and beaten against, the tree at one time had hair and brain matter all over it although this has now been disguised by hoards of bracelets left by travellers in memory of what happened there.
After completing a circuit of the mass graves you come across a stupa containing the skulls, bones and clothes of 5000 people. The skulls are stacked up with stickers identifying the sex and approximate age of the victims along with method of death if that can be determined by the bones!
Very, very sad place and such a shame that humankind does not appear to have learned from these genocidal incidences across the world. I have also visited the genocide centre in Kigali, Rwanda and Auschwitz in Poland and boTh these also clearly demonstrate how hideous humans can be to each other!
We left the killing fields and headed to Tuol Sleng S21 which is now a genocide museum but used to be a torture centre for the Khmer Rouge.
The museum is a testament to all those who were tortured there and then taken to Choeung Ek to be killed. Although there were many who died at Tuol Sleng during torture.
The buildings are grim and filled with black and white photos of all the victims. They were logged and photographed by the Khmer Rouge before being sent to the killing fields, all have a hauntingly sad and desperate look in their eyes. There are sadly photographs of captives who were killed during torture or died shortly after in their cells, these photos make for very unpleasant viewing but its important to make sure their legacy lives on and brings an end to this kind of behaviour! Shame America, Putin and Assad haven’t visited although sadly I doubt it would make any difference to their lack of humanity and people slaughtering pastimes!
Not all days spent travelling are cheery as some are educational and speak of the importance of learning and education through travel.
Anyway, upon completion of our stroll round Tuol Sleng we found Rous, our leader, and Reya, our local guide, sitting on a bench tucking in to spicy BBQd frogs! Another delicacy and personal favourite of the Cambodian people! I did tell you they eat anything they can cook!
So I stole a leg and tucked in myself, much nicer than the old Grenouilles in France (frogs legs!) and yep…..tastes like chicken!
The following day we left for Battambang which was a 7 hour drive along the Mekong which changes into Tonle Sap which I am assured is the largest ‘lake’ in Asia. It also has a very interesting fact…in the dry season the Mekong flows into Tonle Sap, in the wet season the water course changes direction and water flows the other way from Tonle Sap into the Mekong!
The drive was an interesting one where we could take in the local villages. One thing I did spot was a bizarre trend for demonic looking scarecrows attached to people’s front gates! The scarecrows’ clothes were bursting at the seams with straw and looked like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and a ghetto gangster from the 1980s!
Apparently these scarecrows are to scare away ghosts that wander the road outside due to car crashes!
We stopped for lunch in a restaurant that served stir fried cow penis, I kid you not! One of the dishes with ants eggs! I mean……really!
The rest of the day consisted of an orientation walk around the town and a rest before we headed out late afternoon to ride ‘the bamboo train’. We all rock up to the ‘station’ (an area where the train leaves surrounded by locals selling snacks and an array of chickens and dogs saunter round) expecting to see a train made of bamboo only to find a metal platform on wheels with a bamboo panel on top to sit on! The driver then attached the rubber belt to the wheels and engine and then starts the engine!
We belted along bent uneven railway tracks at a rapid speed, almost disappearing down the crevices between each length of rail! We weaved through stunning countryside and rice paddies before arriving at a small village that used to make bricks. Had a quick tour round, crashed a local wedding by accident and then headed back to watch the sunset over the rice fields which was marred by clouds.
Now one thing I haven’t yet explained is that there is only one track and two-way traffic! So what happens when a train comes towards you I hear you cry….well whichever direction has the least trains coming has to dismantle the train, throw it on the floor alongside the track, step out the way, let the trains pass then pick up the wheels, throw the back on the track, shove the metal framed bamboo panel on top, stick the engine down the gap, attach the belt and off you go!
The following day we took a tour of the surrounding countryside taking in local cottage industries such as rice paper, rice wine and dried banana.
We also stopped at a local market before driving round to the fish market where they produce the famous dried fish paste used in all Cambodian dishes.
On route we passed 2 pigs in baskets on their way somewhere?!
Monday saw us up early and out on a drive to Siem Reap which is the home to key temples in Cambodia. I came here in 2009 and loved it!
On route we stopped at a silk farm to learn how silk is produced….if you don’t already know here is a brief 60 seconds synopsis…silk worms bred at farm, mulberry trees grown at farm, mulberry leaves fed to worms as that is all they eat, worms fed until they spin a silk cocoon and wrap themselves up in it. The cocoon is then taken quickly before a moth can form and shoved in boiling water to kill the worm and keep the silk intact (if moth left to form it eats through the silk to get out, thus destroying the length of silk which can be 300-900m in length and one continuous length), the silk is then pulled into one length and put on spools, bleached and spun back into spools then used on traditional looms to make the silk we buy!
So all you vegans out there…you best knock silk off your list as well as Leather!
Todays snack on route was spicy BBQd rat! Tucked into a rat leg…tastes like gamey pork for those who need to know.
That night we headed out to a traditional Khmer dance show, which was brilliant. The dancers practice the traditional dance of the Apsara’s (heavenly beauties) from the time of the temples! Always wanted to see a dance and didn’t manage it last time, so was glad to have got a second chance.
The next 2 days were taken up with temple spotting, food, cocktails, ice cream and a very good foot scrub and foot massage!
We visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple), Bantaey Srey and Pre Rup.
All absolutely stunning marvels of architecture, we hit Angkor Wat for sunrise which was cool. Walking through jungle in the dark and silence and seeing the peaks of Angkor rise out of the darkness! Nothing like it!
I won’t bore you with intricate details about the temples, if you google them you will find out everything you need to know. They were built in the 12th century some into the early 13th and was the centre of the Khmer empire.
Then we headed to the temple featured in Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm, this has been restored heavily from when I last came, I almost had to hack away the jungle to get to it…now its all walkways, timber stairways and tourists.
Bantaey Srey, or the pink temple, was a temple for women. Again, last time I came there were signs everywhere saying ‘beware of land mines’, all these have gone as have the landmines which is good news.
We visited was the lesser known Pre Rup, its an old brick temple pre-dating the others but doesn’t appear on the top 5 list normally.
You can embark on a steep climb to the top and wander around the top level which is devoid of any rails or fall protection systems! The climb up is on all fours and the climb down is like an adrenalin sport due to the lack of handrails and hugely steep steps!
Swung by this lesser visited temple on the way back, but its name eludes me!
Thursday it was sadly time to leave Siem Reap and head out on the Tonle Sap lake to see the stilted villages of Chong Prolay before heading down to Sambo Preikuk.
Our original captain was a 10-year-old boy and his younger brother! Between them they managed to get us out onto the lake, drop the propeller full speed into the shallow waters and snap the blades!
So after floating around for a few minutes we were rescued by another boat, captained by an adult! We then had to climb from the broken boat to the new one mid lake which was fun!
After the boat trip we headed to the old capital of the Khmer Empire, pre-dating Angkor and wandered around the old brick forest temple complex of Sambo Preikuk.
I think in the whole time we wandered around we saw 2 other tourists, it was great.
That night we stayed in a local home for a homestay experience and what an experience it was! The family were lovely and their home was a traditional wooden house on stilts. Under the house was the dining and cooking area, outside was a toilet and bucket and jug shower and upstairs in the house, the sleeping quarters.
We sat around chatting whilst the family prepared us some traditional khmer food, Rous even chipped in with her own dish…pumpkin amok! Dinner was an interesting affair as the dining table was directly underneath the light so we were bombarded with flying insects of all sorts…I am surprised we weren’t catching them to eat later! Halfway through dinner a local lad had a motorbike accident right outside the house when a dog ran out in front of him and he swerved to avoid it, unsuccessfully! The dog got hit, yelped and ran off which then prompted every dog in the village to start barking. The lads bike hit the road and slid right past us with sparks flying everywhere and the loud crunch of bike on tarmac! Everyone leapt into action with torches to see if they could help. The guy was ok but had a huge hole in his knee that clearly needed stitches, the dog we couldn’t find however!
Rous went out with a first aid kit, ambulance was called and the excitement waned.
It was at that point we decided to all go to bed…9pm at the latest! Families traditionally go to bed early as its dark and they are required to get up at 4am to carry out duties such as cooking, cleaning, farming and seeing to the animals.
By 9pm even the families cows, calves, dogs, puppies, chickens, roosters, chicks and token cat had settled in for the night.
So we all traipsed upstairs to the communal sleeping area to our respective mat on the floor and proceeded to arrange our mosquito nets and remove the barrage of insects and arachnids populating them!
Sleep didn’t come to all of us what with Noah’s ark downstairs keep making noises, the heat and constant trips downstairs and outside to the toilet.
Still it was an experience and an opportunity to engage with a local community and family and see how they live.
Friday was along day, after the poor nights’ sleep and lack of shower we all piled in the minibus for a 10 hour drive to Kampot down on the south coast.
We were glad to finally arrive in the evening and have a shower and a good nights sleep without dogs barking at all hours and the cows moo-ing in response.
The following day we had a great day visiting the countryside around Kampot, we went to the salt fields to see how salt is produced, then to a cave temple followed by a pepper farm to see how Kampot pepper is grown.
We had lunch in the seaside town of Kep which is famous for its crabs!
That evening a few of us headed out to an italian restaurant, run by Italians, to have a break from rice and asian cuisine. I had 5 cheese gnocchi and it was the best gnocchi I have eaten outside of italy…the cheese is imported from italy too! Heaven on a plate
Sunday saw us leave Kampot and head to Sihanoukville which is Cambodia’s beach resort! We stopped for a snack…this time a slightly more edible option…fresh baked bread with evaporated milk poured on it! Right up my Nan’s street as she loves a can of carnation milk!
Sadly the weather had taken a turn and upon arrival into Sihanoukville we had torrential rain, so the afternoon was spent holed up in the dry. I put the time to good use catching up on tv that I had missed. So watched a good 2 episodes of The Night Manager, which is excellent if you missed it. I can highly recommend it.
Monday the weather cleared in the morning which was perfect for our snorkelling boat trip to Bamboo Island. We spent a good few hours swimming in the clear, warm sea (like salty bath water!), laying in the beach under the sun and having a bbq lunch.
Come 2pm, however, the clouds rolled over, the rain came and we headed back to shore amid a small storm! The wind was fierce, the rain torrential and we ended up with our bags in tarpaulin in the middle of the boat whilst we all huddled together wet and cold under the small canopy!
The ride was proper choppy too which was brilliant fun, love a choppy boat ride!
We all climbed up out of the boat and ran to find tuktuks to take us back, the drivers stuck ponchos on and zipped the sides down to try and stay dry!
Again we holed up for a few hours to escape the rain, more Night Manager for me! Then we headed out for dinner on the beach. We almost finished when the rain came again, so we headed inside to finish then waited out the rain before walking along the beach spotting some spontaneous fire dancing going on!
The rain came again so we all jumped in tuktuks with poncho clad drivers and headed back to sanctuary at the hotel!
The following day we picked up a public bus back to Phnom Penh which took about 6 hours, arrived back to the same hotel we all met in.
That night we headed out to our final dinner as a group.
Wednesday came around too soon and everyone started leaving…Carly and Alison back to the US, John back to The Netherlands, Richard up north.
I met up with Hattie and Fiona in the evening for a bite to eat opposite a delightful place called The Play Penh! A hoard of sex workers sitting outside waiting for male clientele to arrive! Made an interesting people spotting spot!
Then we swung by the hotel to say goodbye to the Antipodean conglomerate who were heading back home the following day.
Hattie and Fiona also headed off yesterday…Hattie to NZ and Fiona to Vietnam so it’s just me left…in Phnom Penh waiting for the bus tomorrow to take me to Vietnam.
Anyway I shall sign off now as this has been a long one! Well done if you are still reading!
Anyway to finish…..after nearly 3 weeks in Cambodia I can summarise as thus:-
Number of steps done – 127,000 but I reckon a good 27,000 of those are on minibuses!!! Apparently the bumping mimics walking!
Number of times eaten rice – 19
Number of croissants consumed – 1, slacking a bit here really! Steve Sutton would be ashamed!
Number of animals consumed – 7, I believe….chicken, beef, pork, fish, lamb, frog & rat
Favourite Dish – Rous’s Pumpkin Amok….bloody lovely! However, the 5 cheese gnocchi comes a close second!
Number of places offering the best foot massage – 37