Monday, December 20, 2010

Blissed Out in Cambodia

Evening ladies and gents, tonight I'm writing from my guest house in Siem Reap in the northern part of Cambodia, the gateway-city to Angkor Wat!

After our rest day in Sihanoukville, we decided to head to Krong Koh Kong, a city on the far west end of Cambodia, near the boarder with Thailand. We woke up at about 7am, got breakfast at our favorite noodle soup lady, and rode a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Unfortunatly, we had missed the early bus, and had to wait a few hours for the next one. We were a bit annoyed about this, but we ended up just going back to the beach, laying in the sun, eating fruit and fried shrimp, and swimming. There are worse ways to wait for the bus. Anyways, in the afternoon we caught the bus from Sihanoukville to Krong Koh Kong, a 5 hour ride I think? Koh Krong is a pretty small little town without a whole lot to do, other being a gateway to the Cardamom Mountains, 'the second largest virgin rainforest on mainland southeast Asia' and home to threatened species such as Asian elephants, tigers, bears, but more on that later.

This van is in Koh Kong, and is not an uncommon sight anywhere in southeast Asia. Rather hilariously, despite totally uncontrolled intersections, getting to drive on the wrong side of the road, cutting through gas stations at corners, and so on, I've seen a rather large number of driving schools! It would seem one of the first rules to driving in southeast Asia, weather you are on a bike, moto, tuk-tuk, car, truck, or van, rule number one is to shove it so full of stuff the frame is nearly dragging on the road and the whole thing is tied together with twine and granny knots, haha.

In the morning the first thing we did was woke up and moved to a different guest house because we didn't really like the guy running it and it simply wasn't very nice. We did however have an interesting evening talking to (or rather being talked at) him and another ex-pat woman who ran a tour business in the town, and all their complaints...

After that, we walked to the dock and hired a local guy to take us on a little boat tour through the mangrove forests that are just outside town. We climbed onto a rather small dinghy with a 15hp engine, Nick got a laugh when he asked about life jackets, and we sped off. Beginning on the main waterway out to sea, we passed fishing villages built on stilts, and rows upon rows of identical fishing boats that look 100 years old. After the villages we went through the mangroves and out into where the mouth of the river met the sea.

In this brackish water, lived dolphins, and we sat and watched the dolphins for 20 minutes or so. We didn't see any jumping out of the water, or anything spectacular like that, but we saw plenty of them, and many fins and tails as them would come to the surface.

After watching the dolphins, the driver took us to this little beach island. He really didn't speak English, so we got there and didn't really know what we were supposed to do. All that was on this island was a rundown cabana with even more rundown toilets, a stack of tires, and for some reason, some tire swings. He pointed to the stacks of tires, which turned out to be attached to each other, and pointed out to the water. Totally confused, we pushed the tire things to the water, knowing they wouldn't float or anything like that. I pushed mine into the water and sat on it, causing our guide to laugh at us I guess. This particular beach was really lousy honestly. The water smelled pretty bad, it had lots of biting sand fleas, washed up dead squid and the weird thing with the tires... we left shortly afterwords. It was pretty funny though.

Our next stop was the boardwalk through the mangroves. It cost about a dollar I think, but was quite nice. From the boardwalk you could stop at lots of little huts, see fish, frogs and snails in the water, and of course climb onto the trees. Having never seen trees like this, I of course had to get onto them and climb around. Sure, flip flops aren't ideal, and I dropped one, but the trees are amazing things, woven into some hugely tangled structure of roots.

Farther down the boardwalk, in addition to rooms you can stay at, is a restaurant. I think we all ordered the seafood fried rice (or maybe that is what the girl told us she had, I forget how it went actually) and we got to eat lunch on a bamboo mat in the mangrove forest for $1.25 I think it was. It was a lovely place to sit and relax, and we could have spent all day laying out in the trees. Personally I've taken a liking to squid while out here, tentacles and all!

The next morning, the three of us hopped on motos for what was a rather long ride, and headed out for a bit of a jungle trek and overnight. We had three 'guides', who took us out of the town and into the 'conservation area' where we would hike around.

We headed off in some random little trail, that was really not established at all, and our guides walked around with us for a while in what I assume was a search for wildlife. Only one of the guys spoke English, and it was not excellent (not that it was really a problem, and he was really funny) so we mostly just walked around with them leading us off on random little explorations to look for... I'm not sure. I did see a big black and white bird, and lots of insects, but nothing else on that little walk. It wasn't exciting, but it was fun to just see what it all looks like

Let me just make mention of the Cambodian dry-land leach (no idea what it's real name is). They are a little terror! We were told to expect leaches, and neither Nick or I had shoes nor were we willing to buy any. Honestly it wouldn't have made much of a difference. These things can be as small as a 1/4” long piece of spaghetti, up to the size of a large inch-worm. They stand on their back and look up and around like a periscope, in search of blood. I teased one with my foot actually, and they track with incredible speed and accuracy. They attach and you don't even feel it, and even Ellen who was wearing hiking boots, had leaches get inside of the boots and attach to the top of her feet. One guide was wearing tall rubber boots, and he got them, and of course Nick and I got them as well. When we stopped, we pulled off our socks, and found a bloody mess!

Around lunch time, we walked through the jungle and along a river, where we saw a bright green snake, and had lunch on the rocks. After lunch, we went swimming in the stream, and it felt really nice to be in cool, fresh-water instead of the warm ocean for a change! (but I still love the beach) After a lunch of rice, beer, and fried fish, the guides did the classic 'burn all the Styrofoam garbage maneuver' which we got a kick out of. Oh well, I guess it's better than just littering, like everywhere else in the country, haha. We saw one other interesting bit of wildlife here, a fresh-water river crab with bright blue stripes on it's underside.

This is a sign that unfortunately is all to real in the nation of Cambodia, as huge numbers of landmines have been buried in the nation during various wars, and the victims of landmines can be seen on the streets of Cambodia nearly every day. These signs however, were not real. Our guides told us a Cambodian guy put them up to scare the Chinese who are working in the area, so they would pay him to 'clean up the mines' and make it safe for them to work, hahaha!

Just beyond the fake minefield, we set up camp. It was mostly setup when we arrived, but the guides did go chop down a small tree, and then literally use a vine to tie it to another tree to set up our hammocks on. Authentic!

The food (meat and veggies in a baguette roll (a very popular type of bread in Cambodia, a result of the french occupation of the nation) and was cooked on a rack made of sticks over a fire. The food was simple, but the taste was fantastic. I had three. That night we hung around the fire, talked to Mooney (in white, the one who spoke English) and tried to talk with the others, mostly just laughing. The evening was a ton of fun.

Sleep was another story. All three of us got a bit cold, and none of us found the hammocks comfortable. I got maybe 4 hours of sleep? The funny thing is, it really wasn't that bad. Sure I was cold and uncomfortable, and didn't sleep, but in the morning I felt amazingly ok with it, and it really didn't sour the experience at all.

In the morning after a breakfast of instant noodles and coffee, we played a game with the guides, and had a blast. I can't remember what they called it, and I've seen it in other nations, but it's the hackey-sack like game with the disks on the feathers. I ended up buying one in the market later on for $1, because I' want to play more of it! Since playing with the guides, I've noticed Khamer people playing it every day.

On the way back to town, we stopped on the side of the road to check out this view. That sign indicates something like beyond it is a protected wilderness area where you can't cut trees. The Cardamom Mountains, however are anything but protected. Every single person we talked to, from the guides, to the guest house/restaurant/tour people, as well as locals and other tourists talked about how the Chinese have sent 3000 workers into the jungle, are building a large hydroelectric damn, are killing the local wildlife, either to eat themselves or to send back to China. On top of this, sand is being dredged from the rivers and sent to Singapore, and in recent years illegal logging has increased drastically. People talk about how the politicians and generals own the companies stripping the jungle, that fish stocks are being completely ruined, and no one seems very hopeful. A sad sight to see.

The same day we returned from our little jungle adventure, we hopped an afternoon bus to head off to Siem Reap. The ride began with a 6-ish hour ride from Ko Kong to Phnom Penh, where we had to transfer buses with much confusion as to if we were being ripped off or not. We got some noodle soup for dinner, and hopped the second bus to Siem Reap, which arrived in town at something like 1:40am, hardly an ideal time to arrive in a new city. The fact is, we were hoping to get an overnight bus that we could sleep on and not have to buy a room for the night, but naturally it did not go exactly as planned, but however, worked out just fine.

This photo is from the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the textile factories are located. From our bus, we saw dozens upon dozens of trucks drive by, all filled with women I presume were all going to work (or coming from work, it was around 5pm. Shift switch?) in the clothing factories. We passed buildings with names on them such as Tairong (Cambodian) Knitting Co Ldt, (Chinese), New Orchard Garment Factory Limited (signs also in Chinese), and many others I didn't catch. I have no idea the conditions of these factories (though I'm curious to know) are what we would describe as 'sweat shops' but from the outside at least, they did not look like pleasant places to work.

Because we had a long quasi-night bus ride into Siem Reap, we were naturally exhausted. This being southeast Asia however, the city gave us no breaks! At 8am, a wedding party on the street below began blasting music which came in quite clearly through our open window. We however persevered, me putting in my ear plugs, and going back to sleep until 11am. Upon waking, we found a place where we got our usual noodle/rice/soup meals for $1.25, and explored the town a bit. At the local market, Nick looked at some crocodile skin wallets, Ellen bought some Cambodian silk scars, and I acquired some new flip flops.

Now this is a tip the Lonely Planet wont share with you. Cambodia in particular, is chock full of counterfeit copies of books, and the Lonely Planet guides are perennial favorites. Even the National Museum sold counterfeit copies in the gift shop! This picture comes from one of the used book stores, where you can buy a pirated copy of the Laos guide for $2, and a real copy for $5. I needed a copy of the Thailand book for my time in Thailand, and ended up buying one from one of the many kids on the street selling books. The kid I purchased my pirated copy from, according to his sign at least, goes to school every day, had his leg amputated (this part I can attest to) at age 9, and uses the money to pay for school. The book was $5, and was the latest edition, only two months old! Maybe I should buy the India book while I'm here...

In the afternoon, we decided to treat ourselves to a massage. We walked around and looked a our options, and ended up with the three of us getting an hour long full body massage for just $5 each! We walked in to a pretty nice looking place, they washed our feet (I felt pretty guilty because I hadn't showered for 2 or 3 days....) and took the three of us to a room where we were all treated to a sort of synchronized massage. It was my first ever massage, and it was a pretty funny experience. I had a very hard time trying not to laugh, despite the fact it felt wonderful, and I ended up with the most feisty and talkative of our three masseuses. Among the things she said, was that I'd look like an Arab if I grew a beard, she wanted to see me cry (from laughing) and and that I had to promise I'd clip my fingernails! After the massage the three of us were all amazingly blissed out, and wondered aloud why we had waited so long to do this. From there, we had an amazing $1.25 dinner and equally amazing $.75 fruit shakes, going to bed fat and happy. One of the highlights of the trip for sure!

This picture is a day out of chronological order, but I NEED to post it.

I was having trouble getting this blog uploaded at dinner, so Nick and I headed out to Pub Street to get online and grab another beer. We walked into a restaurant purely at random, and as I walked past a table I saw a familiar face. It took both of us about three seconds to realize what was going on, but somehow, at about 9:50pm, with no prior knowledge, I walked into the same restaurant, on the same street, in the same city in Cambodia as Aunt Kathrine, Uncle Steve and my cousin Erik! I knew they would be in Cambodia around Christmas but I expected to be in Thailand around then, and had no knowledge of their travel itinerary. To see them on the other side of the world was an amazing and unexpected surprise!

Next on the to-do list, is visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, so stay tuned!