Cambodia – East (2/2)

Wat Hanchey
January 22nd, 2015
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I’ve just returned from spending two weeks exploring Cambodia. Overall, I had an amazing time, seeing a pretty decent swath of the country. I spent the first half based in and around Siem Reap, and the second half gradually travelling overland to a few small cities northeast of the capital, Phnom Penh. What follows is a trip report for the second half of the trip (from Phnom Penh to Kratie). You can go back to the first half of the trip HERE.

   

Day 10
I got checked out of the hotel, and walked about a block to the kayak place. I had banana bread and an omelette with tea for breakfast while i waited for others to arrive. In the end, there was a German couple from Cologne, and three British, however all of them were only doing a half day outing. We put our stuff into dry bags, and then got into the back of an old Korean pickup truck for a bone jarring drive down a dirt road which ran north along the river. After about 20 minutes we pulled off the road, and we all walked down a hill to the river bank. As we waited for the kayaks to get unloaded from the truck, a ferry docked from the other side of the river. It was primarily people on motorbikes, with 1 car, and a few pedestrians. One of the motorbikes caught my eye, as it had a rectangular cage strapped to the back, full of about 8 live cats. they were definitely not pets. I mentioned The cats to our guide, and she commented that Cambodians will occasionally eat dog or cat if other meats are unavailable or too expensive. All of the kayaks were 2 person, and i ended up sharing with the guide, since she would be with me for the full day anyway. The river up here is incredibly broad, over a mile. Even more impressive is that this is the dry season, and the river is typically 30+ feet higher, and up to a half mile wider at the peak of the wet season. First, we headed down the river towards an area with several small sandy islands. there were a number of flowery bushes growing, and the guide told us that the flower buds were actually edible, and considered a delicacy, as they tend to spoil within a few hours of being picked. I tried a few, and they were actually quite sweet. We explored the island for a little bit, and had bamboo sticky rice as a snack. next we got back in the kayaks and continued south. We passed through a sunken forest, where huge trees had their massive root systems exposed above the water line. Afterwards we entered very open water, and started to spot dolphins. We likely spotted at least a dozen of them over the course of an hour, at varying distances. at that point all of the others headed back to the river bank, and i continued with the guide south. We docked at the base of a steep hill, which had a large temple at the top. Once we reached the top, we stopped for lunch. we had rice with scrambled egg and pork, with some pickled vegetables. afterwards, we explored the temple grounds a bit more, and then headed back down the hill to kayaks. There was a surprising lack of river traffic. I saw less than a dozen boats over the 6hours that we were on the water. It was about another 2 hours of kayaking on the open river, before we reached koh trung island. Then island is about 6km long and 2km wide, and sits in the middle of the river directly across from Kratie, with a ferry connecting them. the ground where we docked with this thick, horrible sucking mud. My feet sank in up to my ankles immediately, and it was difficult to pull my feet out. As i was gathering my belongings out of the kayak, a small wave knocked the kayak into my leg, and i lost my balance. I tried to reposition my leg to catch myself, but the mud wouldn’t let go fast enough, and i fell backwards into the muck. basically my butt and the lower half of my back ended up soaked and covered in mud. I tried to clean off as much as possible, but it was a lost cause. We walked up the bank to the island, and sat down for a bit to rest. I got some sugar cane juice with orange added, which was decent but a bit too sweet for my taste. After that i rented a bike to navigate the island, met with the chief of the island, and he escorted me to the home where i’d be sleeping that night, plus have dinner and breakfast. My room actually had a real bed with pillows and a foam mattress. After that the chief led me on the bike to one of the farms on the island, where they grew a number of vegetables. Following the tour, i set off on the bike to explore the rest off he island. It has a loop path about 9km long. I passed a school, a few temples, and countless homes with large gardens and farm land behind them. I also passed a bunch of guys playing volleyball (for some reason, its quite popular all over the country), lots of super friendly kids, and many chickens and cows wandering around the path. I returned to the home just after 4pm, and got myself settled in for the afternoon. When i first arrived, they seemed to suggest that i’d be eating at a table in front of their house, so i sat down there to read for a while. as the sun started to set, they fired up a loud generator, and turned on a bunch of lights. then this group of French tourists arrived, and i assumed that we’d all eat dinner together shortly. However, a bit later a girl carrying a tray of food came out, and motioned for me to follow her. She walked up the steps to the house, where I found a straw mat on the floor of the balcony, with dinner set out. It was odd that i was sitting on the floor eating alone. The food itself was quite good, and the quantity of food was ridiculous. They put out a plate with stir fried vegetables with chicken, a plate of a fried fish with freshly sliced tomatoes, a large bowl of soup with chicken, potatoes, cabbage & carrots, a large pot of rice, and drinks (water, beer & coke). There was easily enough food there for 3 people to eat dinner. I was rather confused. Was i supposed to leave food for others? Would they be offended if I didn’t eat all of the food? I could see the French people already sitting at the table where i was earlier, so they were definitely not going to be joining me. I ended up eating nearly everything, figuring that was the safest option. Within minutes of finishing, they cleared away all the dishes, and i went to brush my teeth, and get settled in for the evening. The house actually had a primitive bathroom, with a toilet and water bucket. almost as soon as i returned to my bed, they shut off all the lights in the house, and i was left in the dark for the rest of the night. It was all so bizarre, as they seemed to have no interest in interacting with me at all. I went to sleep for the night just after 9pm, as i was exhausted from all the day’s activities.

   

Day 11
I had a rough night at the homestay/guesthouse. The foam mattress was rather thin, so it felt as if i was sleeping on the ground. On top of that the blankets that were provided were all really small, and even with 2 spread across my body, i had difficulty keeping comfortable. Additionally, the stupid roosters were doing their thing at 2am and 3:30am. Then at 4am, the monks started chanting, which continued until after 5am. At that point i gave for the day, and got up. I packed up my stuff, and sat out side on the balcony, awaiting breakfast. After a bit the girl with the tray started to bring food up to my straw mat. After the dinner the previous night, i was expecting some crazy amount of food, but instead they went the opposite direction. All i was served was tea & coffee, and some french bread. I kept thinking that surely they were going to bring more, but it never happened. I ate what they provided, and paid the woman who seemed to run the place $10 for the food+bed. I rode my rented bike back to the center of town, dropped it off, and walked across the sand flats to the ferry dock. I missed the departing ferry by about 5 minutes, and ended up standing around for nearly 30 minutes waiting for it to return. The ride across the river only took about 10 minutes, and then i walked back to the kayaking place to return the dry bags, and get my own bags back. I mentioned to the owner the odd behavior of the family, and she agreed that it was quite weird. The kayaking place also runs a small cafe, so i ordered an omelette to compensate for the tiny breakfast earlier. I hung out there for a while, doing email,and killing time before my 11am bus to Kampong Cham. About an hour in advance, i hauled my stuff to the bus station (about a half mile away) and waited for the bus to arrive. Surprisingly the bus pulled up on time, and when i boarded the front 2 seats behind the driver were empty. I must have some good bus karma to get two bus rides in a row with 2 seats to myself. The driver took a very different route back down to Kampong Cham than was taken on the way up, and we arrived in just over 2 hours (it took nearly 4 hours in the opposite direction). As soon as i got off the bus, i purchased my ticket for 2 days from now to return to Phnom Penh, and then walked 2 blocks to the hotel where i’d be staying for the next 2 nights. The hotel is in a quiet neighborhood, and looks quite new.
After getting settled into my room, i decided to go out and explore the town a bit. I walked down to the waterfront, and looked at a few restaurant menus, and ended up ordering a lime mint juice (i still miss those from Oman), and relaxed for a bit. I wandered a bit more, then headed back to the hotel to cool off. Around dinner i headed back to the same area. I ended up getting spring rolls, a stir spicy fry with pork, lemongrass & vegetables and another lime mint drink all for $7.50. Then i went to a drink place next door and got a cashew milkshake (a milk shake with ground up cashews, not made with cashew milk) for $1.50.
Apparently the cool thing for teenagers to do here on Saturday nights is to ride around on their motorbikes in packs, giggling and screaming. Speaking of motorbikes, the number of kids that looked to be under 14 driving motorbikes is super scary.

   

Day 12
I woke up early, and wandered a few blocks to the waterfront area to get breakfast. I ended up getting a vegetable omelette with a baguette for $1.75. Then i walked a bit more and rented a bike. The temple that i planned to visit (Wat Maha Leap) was about 20 miles south west of the city, mostly on windy back roads. I had it fully mapped out on my phone, so even though it was not easy to find, I felt fairly confident that I would get there or at least not get lost. The first couple miles were paved, but then the road quickly turned to dirt and gravel, and I was in the midst of nothing but farmland in all directions. I swear Cambodian kids are the friendliest people on Earth. I must have heard ‘Hello!’ and “what is your name?’ over a hundred times today. Some kids tried to chase after me, one kid on a bike started racing me for a bit. For the most part the route wasn’t too difficult to follow. I think i only made 2 wrong turns, one i figured out pretty quickly when the road narrowed to more of a dirt path behind people’s homes, and the other i did need gps assistance, as a turn that the map claimed existed definitely did not exist in reality. A bit past the half way point, I noticed that the bike seemed to be riding weird. I stopped to investigate, and realized that the left foot pedal was wiggling and loose, and felt like it was going to fall off. i rode a bit further, and off it fell. I was literally in the midst of farm land, with no people in sight. Not far down the road i could see the top of a temple and hoped that i’d find someone there who could help. I found a few people on the temple grounds, and held up the bike pedal in the air. They all got a good laugh, and started talking in Khmer. Eventually they realized that i had absolutely no clue what they were saying, and they started pointing and gesturing in a specific direction. I assumed that someone might be able to help in that direction, so i walked onward. I came upon a few more people, and repeated the same process. As I exited the temple grounds, i saw a small village just down the road, and headed that way. Pretty quickly i saw what looked like a bike repair shop (really more of a shack), with tire tubes hanging from the ceiling. There was a rather old man, and i held up the pedal, and immediately, he seemed to know what needed to be done. He dug around in a tool box, pulled out a wrench, and got the pedal back on tight. I thanked him repeatedly, and gave him $1 (which i assume was way more than he expected for 60 seconds of work), and he let me take his picture too. After that it was smooth sailing the rest of the way to the temple, and even with the bike pedal mishap, it took me about 2 hours to get there.
the temple grounds were quite large, with a number of buildings and statues of varying ages and sizes. The one that i was most interested in seeing was the original temple constructed completely out of wood, as its the oldest all wood temple remaining in Cambodia. Nearly all the more modern temples are primarily concrete & brick. After exploring the grounds for a bit, i found the old original building in the center of the complex. The exterior didn’t look all that special, but the inside was gorgeous. There were dozens of wooden pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. Each pillar was hand painted its entire length in navy & gold with a variety of decorative images. In addition the ceiling had huge murals painted in many colors. The only disappointing part was that the temple grounds were not well maintained. There was trash accumulating everywhere. Weeds were growing in many places. Also the old temple itself was not in the best condition. The floor was covered in dirt, ashes from offering plates and bird droppings. Its a pity that they’re not caring for it.
Once i finished up at the temple, i started retracing my route back towards town. Maybe 3 or 4 miles from the temple, i noticed that the same left bike pedal was getting wobbly again. Sure enough, it was going to fall off again, and a few seconds later, it dropped to the ground. At this point i started to freak out a bit, as i was over 15 miles from town, and if the pedal was going to keep falling off even after being repaired then this wouldn’t be a simple fix. After walking the bike for a few minutes, i came upon a random guy by the side of the (dirt) road, and repeated the process from earlier, waving the pedal in the air. He didn’t seem to know where a bike shop was, or if he did, he wasn’t pointing anywhere obvious. However, he did seem to know how to manually reattach the bike pedal without any tools, and i watched him closely this time. It was pretty simple, and i felt dumb not being able to figure it out myself. However, there’s only so tight you can turn a bolt with your bare fingers, so i know it wasn’t going to last long. Despite that, i thanked the man for his help, and set off down the road again. Less than 5 minutes lager, the pedal got wobbly, and popped off yet again. I reattached it myself this time, but i knew i was pretty well screwed at this point, as manually reattaching the pedal every few minutes was not a sustainable solution. After several more rounds of this process, and maybe a mile covered, i encountered a boy on a bike. I resumed the pedal waving exercise, hoping that he’d point me towards a bike shop, but again, he either didn’t know where one was, or was failing to point me in the right direction. He insisted on trying to fix it with his hands, which i knew was a lost cause. However, i still thanked him and continued on my way. At this point the plastic cap that covered the bolt somehow broke off. What this meant was that there was no longer anything preventing the bolt itself from falling off the next time it unscrewed itself. Sure enough the pedal got wobbly within a few minutes, and by the time i went to check on it, the bolt had already fallen of somewhere on the road behind me. I was now completely screwed as i now had no way to reattach the pedal at all, with still at least 10 miles to go. I started walking the bike, and pondering my options. I knew that i definitely couldn’t walk all the way back to town. The ride out was fairly exhausting, and i only had enough energy to ride back. On top of that it was now after 10am, the sun was getting high in the sky, and it was getting quite warm. While i did bring more than enough water, i neglected to bring any food. I wouldn’t have enough energy to walk 10+ miles in the heat, without any more to eat. I debated ditching the bike, and trying (somehow) to convince one of the periodic motorbike people to give me a ride. However, i ruled that out because i wasn’t sure how to even explain to the bike place where i left their bike. I thought maybe i could hire a tuk-tuk to drive me and the bike back, but i realized that in the entire time that i was out, i hadn’t seen a single tuk-tuk since maybe a mile outside the city. Maybe i’d get lucky, but i knew it wasn’t going to be a reliable solution. i continued walking, and eventually came upon a small village. Some more super friendly kids started the Hello game. I resumed my pedal waving, and eventually two boys, maybe 8 or 9, started pointing further up the road. Finally, there was some hope. The 2 boys actually walked with me the entire way through the village (maybe over a mile), and of course they attracted enough attention that eventually i had maybe a dozen kids trailing behind me. We finally reached a bike shop, and even more amazing, the guy there spoke decent enough broken English that i was able to explain what had happened. He told me not to worry, that he knew how to fix it correctly. He explained that most likely what happened was the bolt that originally came with the bike broke or fell off, and it was replaced with a cheap, smaller bolt. That cheap, smaller bolt wasn’t strong enough to hold the pedal on, and that’s what happened today. I saw him put on a visibly larger, thicker bolt, and then he used crazy gorilla strength to tighten it. I thanked him repeatedly, paid him $1, and headed off. Thankfully the remaining 8 miles back were uneventful. When i got to the bike store where i rented the bike, i explained what happened. They apologized, and refunded me the $2 that i spent to fix the bike earlier.
At this point, it was just about noon (nearly 5 hours since I started). I was exhausted, very hungry, and drenched in sweat. I just wanted something that i knew (or at least, hoped) would be yummy and comforting for lunch. i ended up getting a pizza with a coconut milkshake for lunch. Yes, i realize its a super lame choice, but more rice was the last thing i wanted. the pizza itself was thankfully decent. Definitely not great, but just above little cesar’s quality.
After lunch i found a tuk-tuk to take me to the other 2 temples that i had planned to explore today. The first was Wat Heanchey, and was about 25 miles north of the city. The temple is at the top of a steep hill overlooking the river. In addition to the awesome 180 degree views, this temple had giant fruit statues. Like 6 ft tall concrete statues of nearly every type of fruit you could possibly imagine. They also had 5ft concrete animal statues, which were equally bizarre. In addition to all the bizarre statues, they also had the usual assortment of modern temple buildings, and 1 Angkor era tower there. Also, while i was wandering around, this girl who looked to be maybe 4 or 5 decided that i was her new best friend. She started off with the normal ‘Hello!’ & ‘what is your name’ routine, but then she kept grabbing my hand, and leading me about, as she babbled away in Khmer. Then she let go of my hand, said ‘bye bye’, and ran off. She repeated this 3 separate times, and it was super adorable.
Once i finished at fruit & animal land, we drove back to the city, and headed a couple miles west to Wat Nokor. During the drive, the tuk-tuk driver asked me if i wanted food. I assumed that he was either trying to sell me something, or stop somewhere to buy food. However he just handed me these large brown pods, which turned out to be fresh tamarind. Apparently they can be eaten raw. You basically crack open the pod, and then suck on the pulpy seeds inside, then spit out the seeds. they were so good and nice and tart. What made this temple special was that it was a blending of both an ancient Angkor era temple, and a modern temple. It had the ancient stone walls, and ornately carved art on the towers, but then there was this super colorful modern temple, right in the center of it all. It was a fairly small site, but was quite pretty, and very few other tourists.
Apparently Cambodian women like to wear their pajamas out in public. Its this weird status symbol thing, basically showing that you have enough money to own pajamas.

   

Day 13
I woke up extra early thanks to some stupid retarded rooster and then a temple blasting what sounded like bizarre steel drum jungle music starting at 4am. I walked 2 blocked to a cafe that claimed to open at 6am. While they were technically open, their idea of opening at 6am really meant that no one shows up for work until that time, and therefore, they weren’t at all ready for customers yet. I ordered a noodle bowl with fish balls and an orange juice, and then sat and waited nearly 30 minutes for my food. The OJ was actually freshly squeezed, and the soup was decent. They actually gave me 10% off as an apology for taking so long, so my entire breakfast came to $3.75. After that i went back to the hotel, got checked out and walked the 4 blocks to the bus station. Amazingly enough the bus was already waiting, nearly 40 minutes early. I boarded, and managed to yet again get 2 seats to myself for the entire trip to Phnom Penh. The trip itself was kinda miserable. There was this group of 7 French people in the rows in front of mine who didn’t know how to speak with an inside voice. So i heard loud French screaming for much of the trip. Then this Cambodian family with 2 kids (all sharing 2 bus seats) had severe motion sickness, and the kids were violently vomiting for much of the trip. And then there was the traffic & construction which turned what should have been a 115km, two hour trip into 4 hours of hell. We only covered 75 miles for the last 3 hours of the trip. We arrived in Phnom Penh just before noon, and then i had a miserable 5 block walk to the hotel. I really am not enjoying Phnom Penh at all. Most of the sidewalks are completely occupied by cars & trucks, or random stuff for sale, making it impossible to actually walk on them. Its ridiculously loud, crowded and dirty most everywhere that I went. The amount of garbage that I’ve seen everywhere is beyond disgusting. Anyway, i got lunch, and then hired a tuk-tuk to take me out for the afternoon.
First we went to the killing fields site, which is about 25 miles south of the city center. While i’m sure this was the middle of rice fields 30+ years ago, the city has grown a lot, and today its surrounded by lots of development. Despite that, it was a really well put together experience. Everyone received an audio guide with their admission. The guide had 19 different stopping points, each explaining what took place there during the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s. Obviously the entire site was morbid and grim. The guide mentioned that during the wet season, human remains still float to the surface of some of the mass grave sites.
Next i headed back up into the city to S-21, the ex-school, turned torture prison. The site is comprised of 4 three story buildings. My biggest gripe is that there were not very many interpretive signs, and those signs which did exist were not well written. It was still interesting, but it could have been so much better. After that i returned to the hotel.

   

Day 14
This was the day that never ended. I woke up, got some breakfast and walked 2 blocks to the National Museum. The grounds were pretty with ponds and gardens. The exhibits were almost entirely artifacts from assorted Ankgor sites. Basically anything that wasn’t still standing or attached ended up in the museum. It wasn’t terribly well organized, but some of the pieces were quite impressive. Of course they ruined it by having an old woman in nearly every gallery selling flowers which could be used as offerings to one of the random Buddha statues. If the museum was free to enter, then I wouldn’t have cared, but the fact that they were charging people to enter, and then had what were effectively beggars inside felt very wrong. After I finished up at the museum, I went wandering looking for somewhere decent for lunch. I was quite tired of the generic “Western, Asian & Cambodian” restaurants. All of them had basically the same menus, with the same mediocre food. Eventually I found a place which was just Cambodian food, and a real menu in English. It was slightly more expensive than others, but still reasonable. The food was pretty tasty.
After lunch, I walked over to the Royal Palace. They had a fairly strict, ridiculous dress code, which was completely hypocritical once I got inside. Anyone who had their shoulders or even upper arms exposed was forced to buy a t-shirt to cover up. No one was permitted to wear hats of any kind. Shorts had to be knee length, or they forced people to purchase these horrific purple one size-fits-all pants. Other than my hat, I passed the dress code, and got in. Most of the complex was closed off to visitors. The parts that were open were not terribly impressive, and looked like very gaudy Vegas-style copies of actual Cambodian temples. I saw some of the grounds keepers, all of which were wearing hats. Why are the staff permitted to wear hats, but the tourists had to bake in the heat? Anyway, some of the buildings towards the latter half of the complex were really boring museums, with cases full of random ‘treasures’ that the king owned. Like a case with several hundred gold & silver miniature elephants.
After the palace, I walked along the river for quite a distance. They actually have a real walkway along the river which wasn’t littered with cars or people selling junk, and it was nice to be able to stroll without having to dodge traffic. I eventually found dinner, and then walked back to the hotel. I picked up my bags and took a tuk-tuk back to the airport. My flight back to Seoul left a few minutes late, but I somehow got an entire row to myself. I then had nearly 10 hours to kill in Seoul (ICN). Incheon is an amazing airport. They have ‘rest & relax’ areas, which have lounge chairs, free hot showers, and are on a separate level from all the gates, where its relatively peaceful. I slept for a couple hours, then got a great shower. I spent much of the rest of the time surfing the internet. My flight from Seoul was long, but otherwise uneventful.

   

All of the 800+ photos that I took are posted HERE. Note this is the first trip with a brand new camera (Canon SX280), which auto tags photos with the GPS coordinates of their location. If you click the ‘Info’ link for any picture, you can see the coordinates.

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