Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It's A Holiday In Cambodia

Welcome back everyone! As I write today, I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Nick and Ellen!

The last time I wrote, Chris and I were deciding our plan of action for the Chocolate Hills, and since we quickly realized there was absolutely no reason to stick around Tagbilaran because it was a boring little town, we decided to spend the night by Carmen and the Chocolate Hills. In the morning, we hopped a bus (for only 50 pesos) and rode what was maybe 100km to Carmen. Getting out of the towns and going through the wooded areas was a wonderful change of pace and scenery. I enjoyed the ride quite a bit.

This is just one of the many old churches we passed on our way to Carmen. We also passed through a lot of rice fields, but not much else. Not about to change our method of zero-planning and research, I had expected Carmen to be a more substantial town that it was, seeing as it was the biggest town on the map around the Hills, which are supposed to be such a big tourist draw. Instead, it consisted of a decent size public market, a ring of shops around that market, and nothing else really. We walked about 3km back the way we had come via the bus, and found a place called the Banlasan Lodge, which was a funky place with giant concrete mushrooms, two pools, water falls into the pools and a garden and pond. It was however, totally empty besides us, nothing was up and running, and we wondered how it stayed open in times like this. It may have been nice, and full of customers, but it was probably 30+ years ago judging by the looks of things. Oh well, it was kind of fun anyways.

That afternoon we went to the Chocolate Hills. They were formed millions of years by coral deposits, then the surrounding land eroded away. The name comes from the season when the grass that covers the hills turns brown, and they are supposed to look like chocolate drops among the green that surrounds them. While not exactly thrilling like caves or waterfalls, they were quite nice to look at and I am glad we took the trip to see them.

So our plan was to come up and hang out for the afternoon, watch the sunset from the top of this tallest hill that had the hotel and restaurant on it, have dinner and hopeful meet some other travelers to hang out with. Instead, like our hotel the place was totally empty and a fair bit run down. There were a decent number of Filipino tourists when we first arrived, but no one stuck around for the sunset (which turned out to be pretty underwhelming as far as the sky was concerned, but the light on the hills was nice) and by 5:30 or 6, we were the only people around, so we ate dinner by ourselves and walked back to our hotel.

In the morning, we went into Carmen, wandered the market, ate some breakfast and hopped a bus back to Tagbilaran. This time instead of riding inside of the bus, we decided to ride on the roof. This turned out to be a huge improvement. Other than the occasional low wire or tree branch to watch for, we just laid back on some big sacks of rice, closed our eyes, enjoyed the fresh air and both of us even almost fell asleep! I'll probably be doing more of this in the future.

Back in Tagbilaran, Chris and I mostly just had time to kill. It was early afternoon, and the next day Chris was taking a boat back to Cebu to do a month j-jutsu training with a local club, and I was headed to the airport to fly to Manila. To kill time and to actually get some work done as well, I headed off to Jollibee to get a taste of how the Filipinos do American-style burgers and fries (not bad actually) and to use their free wifi. As my regular blog posts indicated, internet access has not been a problem at any stage of my trip, at least not in the Philippines. Internet cafes are literally everywhere, sometimes just 200 feet from each other, and many hotels and fast food places have free wifi.

Being our last night traveling together, Chris and I went out for drinks and ended up at another club. Again, not my usual scene, but after a while I got into it, and danced the night away. At one point, a local dude 'called me out' and we had a dance-off at the base of the stage, twice! The night turned out to be a ton of fun, and I'm the kind of guy who almost never dances. (and I only had a few beers, by the way!)

The next morning, Chris and I parted ways, as all travel companions do at some point. There is a chance we may end up seeing each other in Thailand, but if not, our respective homes in Seattle and Cape Town are always open. Like Sandy and Kathryne, Chirs was a wonderful travel companion and I can't imagine having nearly as much fun without his company. Oh, and here is his blog since I'd forgotten to post it before: www.nomadmansnomansland.blogspot.com

Later that day, I took a short, 1:20, flight from the island of Bahol back to Manila. While I warmed up to Manila a little more as I was leaving it the last time, I still don't like the city. The only reason I headed back was for my flight to Cambodia. I ended up staying at the same Townhouse Hotel as when I first arrived in the Philippines, because it's cheap and close to the airport, but otherwise completely unremarkable and generally uninteresting. The evening was spent generally wasting time on the internet while sitting in the lobby hoping to meet someone to hang out with for the evening, but nothing came of it.

In the morning, I took a taxi to the airport, and flew to Singapore where I had a 4-hour layover. In Singapore, I was not told I needed to get my bag and go through immigration just to transfer flights, but I had enough time to do so. It was funny to have to get a visa for a 4-hour layover. Also, like the city, the airport is very strict. While I never even left the airport, I think my bag was x-rayed 4 different times, after already been done in the Philippines.

Upon arriving in Phenom Phen and paying $20 for my tourist visa, I was greeted by Nick on a scooter outside the airport! While we had discussed this, I was prepared for it to not work out for some reason, but it all went perfectly. On the way to the hotel we encountered some pretty heavy rain showers, but it all turned out OK. Upon arriving at the hotel, I got to see Ellen and we had a fun evening eating, drinking Angkor beer, looking at each others pictures and telling stories from our travels thus far. It was great to see some of my good friends from home half way around the world, and I certainly look forward to traveling with them.

In the morning after breakfast the three of us rented bikes for 5000 riel (~$1.25) and headed out for the day. One of the first things on our agenda was to go to the Thai embassy and get get visas to enter the country. You get a 2-week if you enter by land, 4-week if you enter by sea, but if you go ahead to the embassy you can get a 2-month for free, which allows for a lot more flexibility. Ours were not free however, because we ended up paying a $10 “fee” (aka a bribe I suppose) to have them rushed to us in two days.

Biking, like driving in most of southeast Asia is ridiculous. The roads are pretty much uncontrolled madness, but somehow it all works. Most all intersections are uncontrolled, so you just sort of push your way through in packs, hopefully using a bigger vehicle as a shield, you can ride/drive on the wrong side of the road if you feel like it, and generally, it's a blast!

Our next stop was the “Russian Market” which is a market of cheap clothing, tourist trinkets, counterfeit goods and food. They may actually be real, I'm not sure, but there are perfect looking and feeling fancy North Face backpacks for example that would normally cost $150+ for $8. We bought a few small items, and went about our way.

The next major stop for the day was the Royal Palace Complex, which cost a whopping $6.25 to enter, but I would say was worth it. Inside we were treated to countless amazing looking buildings of the wonderful Buddhist architecture that is everywhere in this city, and the country.

Only portions of the complex are open to the public, as it is the actual royal palace, but there was plenty to see, including these monks feeding the fish in the moat around a model of Angkor Wat.

From there, we continued on our bike adventure and got a very late lunch on the waterfront. After food, we headed to another religious site, Wat Phnom. This area is neat because it has a ton of monkeys running around that everyone feeds, and it was fun to watch them for a while.

We then went home, watched a Chuck Norris movie on TV (this is the first room I've had with a TV, it is quite amazing) and went out to dinner, which cost $8 between the three of us.

Tomorrow we will head to the National Museum and the Killing Fields, and once we get our visas for Thailand, will probably head out of the city here and see where that takes us. Should be fun!