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Learning how to slow down… the hard way

Posted July 27th, 2008

165km Phnom Penh to Kampot

dsc_2810.jpgdsc_2790.jpgOne of our goals when we started this trip was learning how to slow down a bit and not be driven by schedules. Maybe we should have remembered that when we set off from Phnom Penh two days ago. Friedel wasn’t feeling entirely well – a small headache and a little nauseous – but decided to push on nonetheless. After three days in the capital, neither of us really wanted to linger any longer and we’d already mapped out a route towards Cambodia’s seaside. We wanted to get going and more to the point we’d made hotel reservations for our return to Phnom Penh (we have to come back to get our Thai visa and head north to Laos) and didn’t want to change our plans. This turned out to be the wrong decision. The ride to Takeo, the first town with guesthouses on our route, was just 80km but the toughest day we’ve had in a while. Less than halfway in, Friedel had lost all her appetite and was craving a bed to rest an increasingly aching body. With no hotels around, we took refuge instead in the tiny thatched wooden huts that often serve as restaurants or barber shops along the road. Their plain wooden slats never felt so good to Friedel, who took quite a few half hour naps, gathering up the energy to jump on the bike again. The gusty headwind that blew up in the afternoon just about finished us off altogether. Late in the day we finally reached Takeo and collapsed into the first guesthouse we found.

Happily a good night’s rest seemed to get rid of the bugs and we were off and running the next morning towards Kampot. Like so many of Cambodia’s roads, we found a flat landscape surrounded almost constantly by villages and a string of stalls selling everything from fresh sugar cane juice to motorbike parts. Mostly these villages all look very much alike but we noticed coming into one that the dress of the people had changed. Gone were the traditional krama scarves worn by many Cambodians, replaced by colourful headscarves for the women and white caps for the men. A few moments later a mosque confirmed our suspicions that we had entered a Muslim community. Because we’ve had such overwhelmingly good experiencies in Islamic countries, we felt instantly at home and enjoyed shouting ‘salam alaykum’ to all the local children who cried ‘hello’ as we passed. This raised big smiles of surprise from the families before they returned our greeting with ‘alaykum salam’. After just a few kilometers we were back amongst Buddhist temples. We read somewhere that Muslims make up about 5 percent of the population in Cambodia. So far we’ve only seen two Muslim communities.

Now we’re in Kampot, enjoying a beer on the riverfront before heading out the next day to Sihanoukville, the most developed beach resort on Cambodia’s southern coast. Because it’s the rainy season, the whole area is a bit quiet, waiting for the tourists to start returning in a few months time.

The depths humanity can sink to

Posted July 25th, 2008

S21 or Tuol Sleng seen through barbed wireJust a few of the many who died hereWe’ve said so often on our trip that we are genuinely surprised what a wonderful place the world is. So many kind people who have opened their homes and hearts to us, two complete strangers passing on a bicycle. Happily most of our memorable experiences fit into this category but any amount of travel inevitably brings you to the other end of the spectrum. The shocking, horrifying, deeply saddening end of humanity. In Cambodia, this can be found at Tuol Sleng or S21, the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed so many during their time in power. It’s a hard place to find words for. The photos of those imprisoned here, the blood stained floors, the descriptions of the punishments imposed here leave you speechless. It’s hard to leave Tuol Sleng without a tear in your eye.

Roast spider with your rice?

Posted July 23rd, 2008

322km Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

Ice blocks being delivered by cartRoast spider, anyone? At couple inches across, they weren’t small. Their little black bodies and furry legs had been nicely grilled. The perfect snack food to go along with a cold beer? Tastes like chicken, or so they say.

At the risk of being oh so boring and disappointing, we didn’t try the roast spiders the ladies were selling in the market just north of Phnom Penh. They seemed a popular munching option though, judging by the huge baskets of the critters on offer in Skun.

We did think about it for a fraction of a second before deciding that supper was very unlikely to stay down if we tried a spider. Better not to risk these things after a long day on the road. Maybe next time….

When we were confronted with the spiders we’d just finished our longest day of the trip so far – a full 144km on a silky smooth road under rare cloudy skies. (more…)

Siem Reap: more than Angkor

Posted July 21st, 2008

Yes, more faces of BayonA buddah adorned in saffronSiem Reap is a more than a little like Disney World. In a country with so much poverty, here there’s a boom on. A guesthouse and a tuk tuk driver around every corner. More massage salons than you can shake a stick at. Swish art galleries. Restaurants serving all the world’s cuisines.

It’s hardly surprising that a few people are trying to cash in and in a way it’s quite nice to see when you think that many Cambodians try and raise their families on less than the average backpacker’s beer budget.

Of course all this exists because of the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, just a few kilometers north of the town. It’s a pilgrimage site for Cambodians and hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world every year. The South Koreans take top spot in the visitor stakes – so much so that the landmine victims performing music near the temples play Korean songs to elicit donations. Then come the hordes of Japanese, Europeans and Americans.

Face and skyThe guidebooks say you should devote at least three days to the Angkor park and most tourists follow that advice. A one-day ticket is ‘a crime’ according to the Lonely Planet but we shamelessly went for the criminal option, knowing that we get worn out quickly by temples and ruins. We guessed our threshold correctly. After a day of pushing our way through the crowds to take in the wonders of six different temples and past the patter of the souvenir sellers – “You want water lady? Lady, you buy my water. Lady, over here. Lady…” – we’d seen enough ancient glories.

She is selling lots of fruitAnd now we’ll commit an even greater crime than buying the one-day ticket and say that Angkor was not our favourite experience of the past few days! While other tourists spent three days or more roaming around the temples, we split our budget and devoted the other half to a trip around the Tonle Sap lake. This lake – the largest in Southeast Asia – swells dramatically in the rainy season, so much so that all the houses are built on stilts and the road to the towns on the lake’s edge disappears under a meter of water when the monsoons come.

With the rainy season only recently started, we were able to go by tuk tuk to Kampong Khleang and then on by boat down a waterway leading to the lake. The day was beautiful and our camera clicked over and over as we watched families on the water, all of them waving, smiling and friendly. At the moment, few tourists take the time to see Kampong Khleang.

FishermenSmall girl, big bicycle!The families who don’t have a house raised several meters in the air make their home instead in houseboats. They run TVs off generators, keep their chickens and pigs on floating rafts and are served by floating shops that come by selling everything from household goods to freshly mixed iced coffee.

It was a fascinating trip and one we’ll remember for quite some time, even more fondly than the temples of Angkor. So too with the charity we visited on another morning, set up to provide landmine victims with prosthetic limbs. We were truly touched by the work they were doing as well as by the information they provided on the landmine problem in Cambodia and the problems faced by amputees. We spent the rest of our days wandering through the markets and leading a hunt for the best street food. Both fun ways to spend a few hours.

Although we only spent one day at Angkor, our five days in Siem Reap were quickly over and now it’s time to head for Phnom Penh, three to four days away. The roads are apparently in good condition so the daily showers shouldn’t hamper us too much. Actually they feel quite nice at the end of a long day! So, next time from Cambodia’s capital, where we’ll go on a visa hunt (should be much easier than Central Asia) and explore some tragic Khmer Rouge sites.

The long run to Angkor Wat

Posted July 16th, 2008

129km Anlong Veng to Siem Reap

A cheery Cambodian teenagerIt’s been a long day on mostly dirt roads. We started out in the early morning hours from Anlong Veng and now we are covered in a fine layer of red dust, sweat and sunscreen, struggling to pull off the final few kilometers and wondering if a hotel will ever take us in this state. We watch the darkening sky in anticipation and then cheer out loud when the heavens finally open, dropping buckets of monsoon rain over our heads.

At first we rejoice in the rain. The torrents of water wash away all the heat our bodies built up over the day. We don’t care that all our clothes and our shoes are saturated. Every time we spin the pedals around there’s a squishing sound from the puddles around our toes but we are happy to feel so refreshed and the Cambodians are also amused to see two foreign visitors as soaked as they are, going home on bicycles in the opposite direction. We start to rue the rain a little though when the water drips into our eyes. All the grit from the day that’s plastered on our faces flows in along with the water and soon our eyes are stinging so badly we can’t see a thing. We pull over, rub our faces with our shirts and start off again. We have to do this at least five times. (more…)