March 15, 2013 by 2sorefeet
Maybe it was in ours heads, but it was almost as if the moment we passed the Laos-Cambodia border the temperature went up another 10 painful degrees – although maybe it was just the fact that we were stuck in the middle isle of a crammed 52 seater bus on a little plastic stool. It was hot & long.
We eventually arrived in Kratie, a little riverside town in the north east of the country after a day of late & crowded buses and general pointless hanging around the border crossing for an hour or two. One of the first things that struck us was that most of the women seemed to be wearing pyjamas around the town- a full two piece PJs, just like that, going about their business around town. Even the mannequins on shop windows were wearing PJs. A strange sight, but who knows –maybe it will be seen in Milan fashion week in the coming years. Watch this space.
Kratie was a nice introduction to Cambodia. Even if it was a small town, it was so much more hectic and busier than Laos… it actually required a bit of attention crossing the road again! The city is a bit unspectacular but not entirely without charm. The huge Mekong runs through the city, forming an island in the centre of the river, which we visited by bicycle one day. The people on the island were amazing, so happy to see foreigners. Every child we passed we had to stop and play with them for a few minutes, one little girl even getting her homework to show us how good she was at school. So adorable.
The pictures below are taken from the island. The first is of a Vietnamese floating village on the Mekong and the second are two monks we were speaking to on the island.
After enjoying 2 fantastic sunsets in Kratie, it was time to head to the capital.
Phnom Phen is a cool city with a dark past. 35 years ago the city was more or less abandoned, Pol Pot the dictator sent everyone from the city to the countryside into forced labour camps. The ones who were left behind were not so lucky. We visited S-21, which was a secondary school in the city that was transformed into an interrogation, torture and execution centre where thousands were murdered. In total, 25% of Cambodia’s population diminished during Pol Pots reign. It was a particularly grim visit, where pictures of all the people who entered the school were hung everywhere- thousands of pictures of men, women and even children. The good news is that the city has reinvented itself, it is modern, the people are amazing and there is lots of construction, so hopefully the city is on the road to recovery.
We spent 6 days in Phnom Phen – not because we loved it so much, but because I was sick – AGAIN! So the curse of the capital continues!
After slowly getting over another bout of sickness the beach was calling! So we headed to Kep, a small seaside town complete with much needed sand and saltwater – there was even the added bonus of a famous crab market where fisherman come and sell their days catch to nearby restaurants. The restaurants keep the crabs alive in water tanks in the restaurant before preparing it with the local speciality- pepper. Words cannot describe how good it was. Even Marie, who is only slowly coming around to fish was hugely impressed.
Two joyful days of crab eating and swimming passed quickly before we headed to Kampot, a short bus journey along the coast to an old French colonial town. (I’ve said that before haven’t I) The town was nice but badly in need of some renovation work. We headed to a quiz in the town the night we were there with a kiwi traveller we met during the day – a good night was had by all!
On the road we had heard great things about some of Cambodians so called paradise islands, which lie two hours off of Cambodia’s southern coast line. Lonely Planet describes them as blissful and says “they offer an insight into what Thailand was like 20 years ago”. We took this an invitation to explore. So we headed to Sikhanoukville, a booming seaside town full of aussie backpackers and middle aged men. Unfortunately we had missed the ferry so stayed there a night and caught the ferry the day after. Now, believe it or not, this was the first ferry I’ve ever taken – Marie had taken them before. So, I cannot say whether it was normal or not how much the boat moved, but it was rockin’! Maybe it was something got to do with the full moon the night before- who knows.
We’ve all seen those postcards or pictures of deserted white sandy beaches with turquoise, transparent water… so I’m not going to rub it in how beautiful Koh Rong is. You can just have a look at some of these photos. If these pictures inspire you to visit, you better go soon because the Cambodian government have apparently sold the rights of the island to a huge multinational investment & development company. Which is a shame as I imagine the few wooden guesthouses & bungalows will be torn down and replaced with huge hotels. Every evening the locals come on to the beach and cook fish on the barbeque for the few backpackers/tourists that are on the island which adds a friendly vibe to the place. Interestingly enough, the island is actually where the French version of ‘Survivor’ was filmed last year.
Conscious of the fact we would soon be surrounded by islands and beaches for 2 weeks in the south of Thailand, we headed back to the mainland after 3 days which resulted in another forced night in Sikhanoukville before getting a night “sleeper” bus to Battambang. We were quite impressed when the bus was actually the nice bus we saw on the picture; however we were considerably less impressed when the bus stopped at midnight and we had to change into an old, rusting bus with 2 seats for the remaining 6 hours, invoking memories of India.
Battambang is the second most populous city in Cambodia, but still quite chilled out. The city was nice, not unfamiliar to Kratie or Kampot, so it was a little bit a case of “we’ve seen this before”. Where Battambang is different to the other places however is that there is an abundance of activities/sights in its surroundings. So we splashed the cash and hired a tuk tuk for the day ($20) and headed to the countryside.
First attraction of the day, and it really was like an attraction was a ‘bamboo train’. Basically an old abandoned railway line with a manmade engine and a “carriage” made of bamboo. A terrifying experience that we were happy was over – with all our limbs intact.
Then it was time to tackle 358 steps to an ancient temple on top of a hill. A task made all the more difficult given that it was 38c degrees. After that it was time for a quick stop-off at Cambodia’s only winery for a sample of some locally brewed cognac, wine, grape juice and honey & ginger juice. The cognac was good, the honey & ginger juice was drinkable, the grape juice was the best of the lot and the wine, let’s just say the Cambodians have a bit of work to do 🙂
Heads slightly spinning it was time for our last stop of the day – 3points of interest all at the same location, which is actually quite difficult to explain. A climb up a hill presented us with a temple complex with huge Buddha’s scattered around the place. The site is also home to a large cave, where 10,000 people were killed during Pol Pot’s reign in the 70s. A large collection of skulls mark the spot at the bottom of the steep cave, where Pol Pot’s men pushed the bodies into the cave to meet their end. Another reminder of the recent troubles the country has experienced and again another thoroughly depressing experience. After looking at the destruction of mankind, it was then time to switch to national geographic mood. At the other end of the cave, at the bottom of the hill we had climbed it was time to see “Bat leave cave” as our tuk tuk driver explained us. So, that’s exactly what we were expecting. What our lovely tuk tuk driver failed to inform us was the sheer scale of “bat leave cave”. Marie and I were mind blown. It was an unbelievable sight. Every day at 3am the bats enter the cave and then at approximately 6pm the bats leave again. They fly 100kms away to a lake. One million bats, a steady stream of bats for 40 minute that looks like a black line across the sky. Have a look at the pictures; I hope they do it justice.
For the picture below- we drove around 1km away from the cave to get this view.
Anyways, this post is getting a bit long so I guess we’ll cover the amazing Angkor temples in the next post!
Talk to you soon,
John & Marie