Cambodia - red roads and smiling people
Phnom Penh - markets and more markets
We arrived to Phnom Penh on a direct flight from KL and within half an hour obtained our visas on arrival (one photo, one form, 20 dollar and zero hassle). Immediately on exiting to the arrival area we were surrounded by multiple taxi drivers shoveling some papers into our hands. We managed to temporarily shake them off and went to get some money. The ATM gave us a real surprise when it ejected the whole amount in USD – it turned out that in Cambodia this currency works alongside the local riel, with dollar used for all the big amounts and the Cambodian riel serving the secondary role of “small change”. By the time we sorted out the money thing, the taxi drivers were back and one of them even claimed we “accepted his ticket” (as it turned out, Jordi inadvertently took one of their papers and wrinkled it to unrecognizable degree in his pocket – the paper turned out to be some kind of official bill they get issued by the airport to give to customers). After some negotiation we managed to give him his paper back (hopefully, he would be able to iron it or something) and took a cheaper tuk-tuk to go to the centre of Phnom Penh. On the way out of the airport we realized that we had done a mistake by contracting a tuk-tuk on the airport premises – those probably pay almost half of what they make to the airport. Immediately as we drove out of the airport, we saw a lot of tuk-tuk drivers waiting just outside the airport and probably offering much better prices. Well, what can we say: it’s so much easier to travel with LP which we didn’t have at that time for Cambodia.
We were pleasantly surprised by the level of budget hotels in Phnom Penh (and in general in Cambodia): for 5 dollar we got a spacious clean room with a hot shower and cable TV.
We spent our first day in Phnom Penh soaking in the flavours and colours of Cambodia at the local markets: Central market (Psar Thmei), Psar O Russei and the so called Russian market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong) which had nothing Russian about it. It was great to see that unlike in Thailand, people here still have the smiles and friendliness which definitely compensates for their lack of English. We spent the entire day wandering through labyrinths of stalls, watching people and trying the catchiest dishes of the local cuisine (our first dish and absolute favourite of the whole trip was the exquisite fresh spring roll – just lots of greens and a bit of baby shrimp wrapped in a rice sheet).
People at the market:
The next day we explored the cultural side of Phnom Penh by visiting the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. In all honesty, since it is so similar to the Royal Palace in Bangkok, it wasn’t exactly striking but we enjoyed all the small things about this visit, like watching the monks, or reading the whole history of Cambodia from the comic-like pictures on the walls of the palace, or playing some traditional instrument in duet with an old guy. We finished the day walking by the riverfront and doing more people watching at a square that looked like the yard of a kindergarten.
The Palace and the wall paintings:
Musicians and monks:
An old guy showed me how to play this instrument and then we played in duet some traditional melody:
People in the square with pigeons:
In this country some kids play and some work:
Later we stopped at a temple and as we were sitting there on the stairs two kids were trying to sell us some books. After a couple of marketing goes, they probably felt that they’ve done their best and it was time to reward themselves with some play time. Dropping their merchandise, they started running up the side of the high staircase and sliding down. Bursting with happiness, they even offered us to join them (“Come play with us!”). It was funny to watch them use the same books they were selling us a few minutes before as cushions in this sliding game. This was the first out of many occurrences we witnessed here in Cambodia of kids remaining kids despite the work they have to do.
These two were doing both (work and play), at some stage they were using the books they sell as the "sliding cushion":
Cambodian Wild West, first stop Ban Lung
Next day we left for Ban Lung – our first town in the “wild west” of Cambodia. The trip there was hundred percent what you could expect from a journey to a wild west, and a little more. Our bus broke down three times, each time at some picturesque location with plenty of curious things to look at. The last breakdown by some miraculous coincidence happened in the middle of nowhere exactly in front of a wedding! As we had used the spare wheel by that time, we had plenty of time to watch the ceremony while our bus driver took the wheel to be repaired to some nearby village.
Our bus to Ban Lung was an hour late so in the meantime we enjoyed the view of a gorgeous sunrise and playing with the kids who were waiting for their school bus:
This kid goes to school in this adorable red jumpsuit:
Jordi got a bad cold (probably from all the insane air-conditioning on the buses) so he had his healing sleep:
One of the three times that our bus broke down on the way to Ban Lung:
The first time we stopped at a village. This is how a typical Khmer house looks like (and there are always these huge water vessels):
That's a loving way to look at the world through your window:
The last time our bus broke down during the trip to ban Lung we were kind of "crashing a wedding", as well as enjoying the view of gorgeous sunset:
Boeng Yeak Lom - a perfectly round crater lake
After a 16 hours trip (due to a three-hour delay) we finally arrived at Ban Lung, walked to one of the hotels listed in LP and fell sound asleep. Next day Jordi who showed the first symptoms of heavy cold the day before, became even sicker so we spent the whole day in the hotel: Jordi recovering and me – doing the previous post on Malaysia. A day of rest was all we needed and next morning Jordi was completely recovered so went to see Boeng Yeak Lom – a perfectly round crater lake 5 km away from Ban Lung. It was a Sunday and the lake was full of picnicking locals. It was curious to see them swim in the lake completely dressed (jeans, shirts, even sweaters) and wearing the floating jackets. Not to shock them by our scantier swimming outfits, we walked away from the main action scene and found a quiet spot to swim. It was a really special experience and as we were swimming there almost in the middle of the lake, the lake had such an ancient and quiet feel that I was almost ready to encounter some peaceful monster a-la Loch Ness. After the swim, we walked the circle around the lake and came back to the action scene this time staying close to interact with the locals. We left the lake by the time the sun was starting to go down and on the way out tried some delicious local specialty - bamboo rice (sticky rice cooked inside a piece of bamboo, with beans and nuts added for extra flavour). What a lovely day!
One and a half men on a bike, and a dog:
Ice is the commodity in highest demand in Cambodia's wild west. In the morning the dealers saw it into smaller pieces and sell to all the multiple food and drinks stall owners:
In Ratanakiri everybody goes with a basket:
There is always plenty of clay available for kids to play with:
At the lake:
Jordi got some Cambodian frogs and bugs to try. But this was the last time we would buy any since it suddenly dawned on us that they probably cook them alive:
Kids on the road:
Voen Sai and Kachon - another day on red roads
Next day we had a bit more mileage to do so we rented a motorbike and went to see the ancient villages of Voen Sai and a striking chunchiet cemetery at Kachon. The drive itself was the day’s biggest experience as it’s impossible to imagine a more picturesque location than Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province for a motorbike adventure. Imagine a bright brick-red road, with all the vegetation around it caked in dust of the same red hue, throw in lovely wooden houses on stilts and a lot of smiling locals greeting you from the height of their houses with kids shouting at the top of their lungs “Hello! Bye-Bye! Hello! Bye-Bye!” and you will get a slight idea. By the time we reached Voen Sai (about 35 km far from ban Lung), with red circles around our eyes we looked like badly made-up theatre actors and were already so saturated with bright impressions that the visit to Voen Sai was more of a “we might as well do it now that we are here”.
Kids at the ferry point in Voen Sai:
We took a ferry across the river and a few minutes later were in Voen Sai – a collection of Lao, Chinese and Khmer villages, which all looked the same to us (except for a couple of modern Chinese houses which were very different from the rest). We spent a couple of hours walking through the very long street of Voen Sai all stretched along the river. All along this walk we had the usual warm greetings from locals and the especially sweet “Bye-bye!” welcome from kids. Our objective was to reach the Chinese part of the Voen Sai so when we reached some Buddhist temple in the Chinese style we knew we were there. On our way we ran into some teenage birthday party where they had super powerful loud speakers filling the whole street of Voen Sai with the low vibrations of some old western hits. It was broad daylight and all the stylishly dressed teenagers were dancing in the yard. As we walked further, we saw more teenagers in baggy jeans and dazzling white shirts (it’s definitely a skill to keep them so white for more than a few minutes in this never settling red dust) hurrying to the party. On the way back we were surprised to see that the party was over and loudspeakers disassembled – I wonder whether it was the kids who got tired of dancing or the parents of watching them do it!
Red red roads:
From Voen Sai we took the ferry back and drove to Kachon – another picturesque village on the riverside. Over there we wanted to visit the old chunchiet cemetery and as we were looking for it, we walked into a local health centre and were horrified to see two small kids playing with used needles and syringes completely unattended (they ran away on seeing us as probably we were the first foreigners they saw in their lifetime and looked a bit like aliens to them). Across the road from the health centre we saw a school and couldn’t help smiling as we watched an absolutely naked small girl crossing the long empty school yard and walking into a classroom with firm determination. Unfortunately, the teacher in that classroom didn’t encourage her early strive for knowledge, as a few seconds later she led the girl out of the classroom and left her on the porch, where the poor soul got ashamed of herself and hid behind the door.
The girl walking into a classroom with nothing on but her quest for knowledge:
We walked a few metres away from the school and recognized the cemetery by the intimidating wooden sculptures inside the forest and the board saying “Please respect our culture! Don’t take photographs inside the cemetery and keep silent!” The place itself was communicating the same message with the voodoo-like statues along the graves commanding respect for the spirits dwelling within them and the grim silence of the forest convincingly echoing the same message. The place was not inviting to stay so a few minutes later we left. We took our bike and drove all the way back to Ban Lung, collecting even more dust and impressions along the way. On arriving to our hotel, we both agreed that this without a doubt had been one of the best days on our whole long rtw trip.
Red dust all over us and 5 dollar for the motorbike was the unbeatable price of this unforgettable day:
Kratie - water instead of dolphins
Next day we took a bus to Kratie which is highlighted by LP for the few survivors of the fresh-water dolphin species living in the waters of Mekong. We didn’t see the dolphins (as the ticket turned out to be too expensive) but we had another lovely day, perfectly in line with our slogan of this trip that you can still have unforgettable experiences in this world free of charge.
On a stop between Ban Lung and Kratie. The father was teaching the kid not to be afraid of the chained (and therefore very mean due to frustration) monkey:
Kratie is very small - just this market and a street leading to it:
Sunset in Kratie is labeled by LP as one of the best in the whole country - we verified that this fame is well-deserved:
As we were driving the motorbike through lovely Khmer villages, we stopped at a hill temple. At the bottom of its multiple stairs Jordi uttered a routine complaint about having to climb them, totally oblivious of the fact that in less than half an hour he would repeat the journey multiple times. Here’s what happened: as we were exploring the temple grounds, we ran into two starved kittens and Jordi went to fetch some corn which we left at the bike. As he was going up, he overtook a woman carrying two packs of water up the stairs. He helped her with those two and in the meantime found out that she had to do the same with the other 200 bottles of the monastery’s long-term drinking water stock that had been delivered downstairs a few minutes before. As soon as we fed the kittens, we went downstairs and offered our help with all that water. We found a guy and a small girl fitting the packs into big bags. It turned out that amid the trees along those multiple stairs they had a very simple lever system to take the bags up. So for the next two hours we were busy filling the bags, spinning the wheel to take them up and manually carrying the packs to the storage space a couple hundred of metres away. During the time we were busy with all that water, we made friends with all the few nuns and monks of that monastery and learnt the word “thank you” in Khmer to the finest shades of pronunciation as we heard it so many times from all these people. Sweaty and happy, we celebrated the successful completion of this water delivery by eating the fruits and sweets that these people offered to us and communicating with them in a funny mixture of Khmer, English and gestures. As we were talking and eating, the macaques which didn’t really deserve any treats (as they didn’t bring a single bottle up), snatched a piece of our orange! Well, we didn’t really grudge it, as it was just another way of sharing on this lovely day… of sharing!
That day together with this small girl and a guy we helped transfer a huge supply of drinking water from the bottom of the stairs leading to the monastery to their storage facility:
Mondulkiri - another Wild West province
Next day we took a bus to another ‘wild west” province of Cambodia – Mondulkiri. This time we had a non-adventurous drive without any breakdowns and arrived in Sen Monorom in broad daylight. We left our things at the hotel and went to do the field research regarding jungle and elephant treks (this region’s tourist specialty). After talking to a few agents, we decided that we would hardly find a wild jungle here (of Borneo type) but the prices and program for the elephant treks on the other hand looked very appealing, so we signed in for a whole-day elephant trek. For the few hours that we had left after all this talking, we rented a bike and went to see the beginning of the sunset from the highest spot of the area – the so-called “Sea Forest” (the curious thing was that this spot turned out to be sponsored by some Spanish authority – it was really funny to see their lonely board on top of the hill).
Sea Forest - a nice viewpoint, funnily enough sponsored by Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y de Cooperacion (we found their name on the board on top of that hill):
Elephant trek - boring ride but fun bathing
Next day was yet another unforgettable adventure in this Cambodian series: we drove to a remote village of Putang and after some time our mahouts brought our elephants. Me and Jordi were sharing an elephant so we got into the bamboo basket and for the next couple of hours enjoyed the elevated view over the forest from this not exactly comfortable but authentic seat.
Kids in the village of Putang:
A basket and a baby is a common load for a woman in Cambodia's wild west - but this young woman was also carrying a puppy!
Kids take care of the younger ones:
The greatest highlight of the day was without a doubt bathing the elephants in the cold water of the rapids where we stopped for the lunch break. It was truly wonderful to watch these powerful animals fold themselves inside the water and patiently wait for the mahouts to scrub them clean. As the other people were a bit timid around the animals and hardly participated in the washing, I got my reward for all the conscientious scrubbing I did along the mahouts – they offered me to drive their elephants out of the water on the neck of the elephant!
Stopping for a lunch break at the rapids:
Waiting for the elephants (they took much longer than us to eat their lunch):
These two trees looked like a devoted married couple and the lizard called them its home:
Bathing the elephants was the best thing about this elephant trek:
They patiently wait through all the scrubbing:
My reward for scrubbing the elephants is a ride on the neck:
Washing our elephant:
Our elephant was quite young so not so well trained as the other ones - at some stage he moved all of a sudden and almost stepped on my foot!
Later we had another couple of hours drive back to the village (where Jordi also got his chance to ride on the elephant’s neck) and finally arrived at the village. Over there we waited for our motorbike driver to have a drink of heavy rice liquor and a snack of fried dry fish with his village friends. We also tried some as they welcomed us to the hut to participate in the drinking but we didn’t exactly fit in so for the rest of the time we stayed outside watching kids and domestic animals play together until our driver was done and drove us back to Sen Monorom. Another truly unforgettable day!
Back in the village:
He looked so wise, this small kid. Like Benjamin Button:
Sihanoukville - Serendipity beach during the day and National Geographic in the evening
We spent the whole next day on the bus, as we crossed the whole country from Sen Monorom in the west to a nice beach town Sihanoukville in the south. We spent the next couple of days swimming in the hot water at the Serendipity beach which at that time was full of local people (it was weekend). It was funny to see that almost all the locals without exception had a very similar agenda for their time at the beach: they would arrive, arrange the chairs, order a lot of food and buy even more seafood from the people selling it on the beach, have a feast, then lie on the chairs while having manicures, pedicures and massage performed on them. Most of them wouldn’t even attempt to swim and those few who would did it with all their clothes on.
At the market in Sihanoukville:
We loved her sugarcane juice!
And these fresh spring rolls on the beach:
The locals swim completely dressed - even some kids!
Another object of our attention on this beach were local kids collecting plastic bottles and cans – they would never beg, just methodically go from chair to chair looking for new contributions to recyclable waste, and sometimes they would just drop all their bags and go for a swim. One of these kids – a small boy who worked alone - simply stole our heart as he stopped by us one day, asked a numb but clear question whether we could watch his things for a while (precious 500 riel and a blanket among them), then dropped all his clothes in a split of second and ran to the water with that genuine excitement of a kid who finally has some play time. It was both joyful and heartbreaking to watch him play in the waves, and go build a sand castle, and run back to the water etc etc. And then he stopped playing and swimming just as sudden as he started, as if sobered by a sudden thought that he had work to do…
In the evening after a quick trip to the local market to get some fruit we would come back to our room and watch the National Geographic programs (somehow, watching programs about wildlife and national parks took a whole new meaning now that we are traveling all these places). It was a quiet couple of days, with nothing particularly notable happening to us, except for the fact that we obtained the Vietnamese visa in the fastest embassy in the world (it took us longer to fill in the forms than them to put the sticker in our passports)!
Another event out of the normal range was witnessing the local people helping a woman who lost consciousness due to excess drinking: we saw them performing chest compressions and a whole bunch of things (like massage and applying tiger balm) on her from across the street and immediately went to check what happened. We saw her breathing fine and the whole bunch of people around her not having a clear idea of what they were doing. One of them told us that she had drunk too much. By that time she had recovered her consciousness so we told the people not to do any compressions (so as not to stop her heart) and to take her to a doctor if possible. As we couldn’t do much more, we left and a short while later saw the woman recover. That was our first (but unfortunately not last) encounter with emergency response in this country.
Battambang - loud bamboo train and temples
After a few days at the beach it was time for us to leave for the last stretch of our itinerary in Cambodia – temples around the Angkor area. But first we made a stop at Battambang – a nice town with quite a few attractions, the main one for us being the bamboo train. So next day we rented a motorbike, got a simple map and first drove to the bamboo train “station”. It wasn’t a real station, as the bamboo train isn’t really a train, but we had a great time riding this noisy and super vibrating platform on 4 wheels along a short stretch of rails. In the short railway stretch to the next village our train had to be disassembled and re-assembled 2 times, and each time it took our driver together with the driver of the other train less than a couple of minutes!
On the way to bamboo train:
They win - since we are only two, it was always our train which got disassembled:
At the village we spent some time playing with local girls who tried (and managed) to make some money by showing us their python, “performing” with self-made balloons and making us rings and bracelets from grass blades. The trip back was even noisier and with even more violent vibrations, as our driver was probably going at the engine max capacity. And although it was still a lot of fun, it got a bit more challenging to enjoy it on the way back, as I got an innumerable amount of particles in my eyes (some of which were so huge I had sore eyes for a couple of days).
After the bamboo train we went to see two more temples - Phnom Banan which is claimed to have been the inspiration of Angkor Wat and Phnom Sampeau, both of them located on top of a hill and thus providing an excellent view over the surroundings area. On the way between the two we stopped at a fruit stall in one of the villages and for the first and last time of our stay in Cambodia managed to buy fruit (we got a whole huge jackfruit and soursop) at a local price which was really far from the best tourist price we had managed to get at markets with all the hard bargaining.
Phnom Banan - walking was only possible within a small temple area:
It was a normal day, until time stood still as we witnessed a cruel and irreversible loss for one Cambodian family. We were driving to our last destination for that day – Ek Phnom – when we saw a huge crowd of people doing a lot of scary things (like turning upside down, shaking, beating etc) to a very small kid. Afraid that it’s another case of not very skilful emergency response, we stopped to check if we could help. The kid was not breathing… As Jordi started on the resuscitation procedure, I was trying to make the people around understand (nobody spoke English) that they need to get an ambulance. There are no ambulances in Cambodia we were told, but they managed to stop a car and drove the boy to the nearest pharmacy where a “doctor” simply confirmed death by drowning… Only later we found out that they had found the kid in the river over an hour before we came…
Angkor Wat - stones, faces and trees
Next day we took a bus to Siem Reap (“Siamese Defeated”) city. The next day we rented bikes and went to see the immortal temples of Angkor. In one day we saw Angkor Wat (the biggest religious structure in the world) and two incredible temples inside the ancient Angkor Thom city – Bayon (the solemn ironic faces) and picturesque ruins of Tha Phrom (the roots of giant trees strangling the walls and turning gold at sunset).
Girls and guys in traditional Khmer attire:
At the Angkor Wat temple:
He was selling sugar palm juice:
One of the multiple structures of Angkor Wat:
Jordi wearing the traditional Khmer scarf (it's supposed to be the style signature of the locals but Jordi was almost the only one wearing it):
One of the gates of Angkor Thom:
We were waiting at the gate to Angkor Thom together with them:
The unbelievable Bayon:
Stone faces watching you:
Ironic and wise faces:
Smiling and watching:
Face to face:
On the way to Tha Phrom we couldn't resist paying one dollar for this instrument - it produces this really great frequency in the style of Manu Chao:
Tha Phrom - trees strangling walls and turning gold at sunset:
These kids were collecting plastic and playing on the legendary ruins of Tha Phrom - for them it's just a work/playground:
The three boys from the below picture were a real deal - as we were passing by them they kept calling to us "One dollar for all":
Kids on the river bank just outside Angkor Thom:Locals sell bamboo rice and grilled eggs to the multiple tourists of Angkor:
Siem Reap being our last stop in Cambodia, we used our last days to try some of the things we had wanted to try in this trip but hadn’t due to the price (Cambodia is definitely the cheapest place). So we tried Dr Fish massage (lots of small “piranha’s” nibbling at the dead skin of your feet which gives you a funny ticklish sensation) and massage by the blind. Both were a really great experience.
1) Dr Fish; 2) A girl in a ballerina dress (it's very common to see small girls in Asia dressed like that):
Locals - and we - love these rice desserts:
Khmer cooking class - know your spices!
And last but not least we went for our first cooking class! In half a day of this super intensive training we learnt to cook all of these dishes: fresh spring rolls, green mango salad, amok, Khmer curry, banana and pumpkin dessert! Most importantly, we learnt how to create that very special Asian curry paste from scratch (we figured out that the taste that we like so much comes mostly from an innocent looking Kaffir lime leaf). Ruud from Holland and Sven from Belgium added another curry, sour-sweet Khmer soup and fried spring rolls to our menu so all of us enjoyed a really big and truly delicious lunch. And we got a free T-shirt! If we are lucky to find all of the necessary ingredients when we are back home, we promise to invite you to an “Asian night” at our place and treat you to all or some of these dishes.
Cooking class with Temple:
The recipe book and our cooking places:
Chopping and churning:
Fresh spring rolls and fish amok:
"Before" and "after":
Leaving for Thailand - immigration queues and Thai transport mess
Next day we left for Thailand. We had an easy though messy border crossing at Poipet where they made us get off the bus, some guys took away our ticket and put tiny stickers on our T-shirts, then we queued for an exit stamp for Cambodia, then walked to the Thai side of immigration, then were greeted again by some guys who checked our stickers and put a number on them, then everybody forgot us so we started asking around and walked further to an area where we found a lot of minivans (instead of the promised VIP buses) waiting to take people to different cities in Thailand. A few hours later we were in Bangkok and had just enough time to catch the last bus to Koh Samui – to Lucky Mother and her cats!
It was the last kid we saw in Cambodia (he was sitting almost at the Friendship Bridge, all alone):
Closing notes on Cambodia
Everybody drives a motorbike in Cambodia:
Including Jordi:And me:
Those who don't drive, hire one:
Everybody in Cambodia has a hammock. You see Cambodians swaying in those beneath their wooden houses on stilts, at their stalls in the markets, in their gardens etc etc:
See - more hammocks:
The monks are no exception to this hammock obsession:
Some final notes on Cambodia – we definitely enjoyed every single day of our stay in this country. There is beautiful nature, picturesque villages, smiling locals, nice street food, decent budget hotels and our personal biggest highlight – truly amazing red roads. People in this country are very friendly, in a genuine way and one thing that we found particularly cute is that women and kids in this country wear pyjamas all day long (we are guessing it’s the current fashion). We left Cambodia with a lot of bright memories and photos, and the recipes of our favourite Khmer dishes.