Whistle Stop Tour of Cambodia


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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
November 15th 2009
Published: November 29th 2009
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Rather than the usual blogs on small weekend breaks and shopping trips to Tesco's which we have been boring you with since being back in the real world we have finally been somewhere of note to warrant a "Travel Blog", I hope.


Whilst the destination is far flung our traditional methods of traveling are evolving somewhat and we appear to have grown out of "backpacking" in its truest form and are now experiencing places in a bit more luxury than on previous longer trips - well almost anyway.


So what to do with only 4 weeks holiday a year? Numerous options were on the table for our "proper" holiday this year but we finally settled on Cambodia as we'd heard lots of good things about the place. True to form we left the detailed planning to the last minute and having bought a return flight to Bangkok as the cheapest option!


Leaving work on a Friday evening with Backpack in tow we flew from Heathrow to Bangkok with a short stop over in Bahrain (blog to follow) and arrived the following evening. Not having booked anywhere or having a clue what the exchange rate was we took £10 out of the ATM in the airport and shared a cab into town with the girl Sally had sat next to on the flight.


45 minutes later and having endured the "wacky races" en route into town we had a nice enough hotel room in the heart of the back packing area of Bangkok. Neither of us having been back since 1998 it was no surprise to see change. The place was teaming with tourists and looked something like the "Costa Del Sol" with Asian food instead of Fish and Chips. Music playing from everywhere, massage parlors vying with bars for space along the strip, and hawkers pushing useless items everywhere you went.


We ate and then went straight to bed rather than enjoy a night out in town - we are too old for that now.


The next day we got up late (ish) and went to the bus station to take us to the border. The taxi driver nearly convinced us that he could take us there (which he could) but it would have been $50 instead of $10 on the bus. Our travel conscious/budget conscious head told us no but our hearts we saying yes. Decided to stay with the bus option as the roads were deemed to be good all the way and actually it was a fairly easy ride.


Arriving at the border crossing evoked memories of all the times in South America where you anticipate being ripped off by all and sundry (we never were though). Needless to say we did have to pay a "processing fee" over and above the published rate but managed to get through pretty quickly and into Cambodia with ease. When it is only a £1 and you haven't been ripped off for ages it doesn't really seem to annoy you as much as opposed to every day in India for 3 months!


Once on the other side we very quickly decided that buses were not for us and hired a private taxi with a German guy for the trip to Siem Reap. This used to take a whole day and was renowned as one of the worst roads in Asia but is now sealed all the way and only took a couple of hours. We arrived and were taken to the place we had anticipated staying only to find it was fully booked. No matter as there were plenty of places to choose from and we found a great little hotel called "Momma's Guest House" which was the bargain price of $10 a night including an en suite and balcony! Bargain! We explored the bustling town which was full of bars/restaurants and even a street called "Pub Street". Clearly it is developing into a massive tourist destination with 2 million visitors each year due to the proximity of the temples. There are loads of smart hotels on the outskirts ready to take the influx of visitors from all over the world and the airport takes international flights direct so the package tour market will be taking its toll on the once sleepy little town.


One of the things we had been looking forward to most was the food. It would be difficult to better India but wouldn't be hard to beat South America. With Thailand and Vietnam as neighbours we were expecting a real treat of tasty/spicy/fresh food. I went for Cambodia’s signature dish "Fish Amok", fresh fish from the Tonle Sap Lake cooked in banana leave with coconut sauce and Sally had a soup of some description. The portions were huge and the very tasty but not as spicy as we had expected but nice all the same. The spring rolls were really good though so not a bad start.


The next day two days were dedicated to Angkor Wat. We were up at to see sunrise (along with the rest of Siem Reap) at Angkor Wat which gives you the classic view we are all familiar with. What we were not expecting was the sheer size/scale of the temples. The sunrise was great and to be honest there weren't that many people there so we could explore the temples without too many crowds. You are allowed to roam wherever you want which is refreshing, although not sure how much longer they will stay standing with thousands of feet all over them every day. It isn't right to compare with other famous landmarks but Angkor is certainly up there with Machu Picchu, Tikal and I think a bit more impressive due to the sheer scale and number of temples constructed.


Day two was spent mainly in a Tuk Tuk. We had seen enough on day one but had
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Phnom Penh
bought a two day pass so couldn't let it go to waste. We also felt sorry for our Tuk Tuk driver who didn't have any work to do either! We drove to the outlying temples, one of which was 50km away. It was raining and quite cold. Sally said I would be too hot in my jumper so I spent the day journey freezing in the Tuk Tuk while she was warm!
We trekked up for an hour through jungle to a river with carvings which was quite nice and then toured through more temples around Angkor on the way back. The countryside scenery was the best part of the day for me. The large proportion of the population must be subsistence farmers. Every piece of land we had passed to date was being cultivated for rice which must be an easy crop to grow as all the farmers we saw were lying in hammocks on their porches - not a bad life!


Back in Siem Reap we spent the evening wondering around town and had a delicious meal. The highlight of which was Sally going to the toilet without opening the glass door and banging her head - it was so loud the whole of Pub Street turned around to see what had happened. I obviously laughed - she laughed and then cried and once the bump had gone down we enjoyed the rest of our meal. Another classic was the “fish massage” which was so ticklish Sally couldn’t stand it for more than a few seconds t a time!


Fish Massage


Not wanting to relax on the holiday at all we decided to take a boat to our next destination which we had to leave for at 0600hrs! The journey would take us across the Tonle Sap and up river to Battambang which isn't quite yet on the main tourist trail.


The boat trip was stunning and took us through floating villages in the middle of the lake. They have floating everything and get around in boats (obviously) but there are dogs, chickens, temples, shops, football pitches, just about everything!


The weather was hot and the journey long - 6 hours but interesting for the majority - especially when a wave from another boat soaked the Dutchman in front of us!


On arrival in Battambang we
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Phnom Penh
had decided to treat ourselves to one of Cambodia’s top rated boutique hotels. A former French colonial villa it has recently been restored to its former glory and was a real treat for us - a snip at $60 for the night! Historically it had also been occupied by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese too following their invasion.


La Villa


The main reason for visiting Battambang was to ride the famous Bamboo train. Sally was under the impression that it was a full size steam locomotive made from Bamboo. All the more amazing as with only one track when it meets another train one has to be taken apart and off the tracks to let the other pass! In actual fact it is a single board of bamboo strips on two axels and powered by a 2 stroke lawnmower motor! Great fun all the same as it was like being on an old fashioned wooden roller coaster!


Back to town for a wander and some silk shopping before dining in style with a French Onion soup and Steak for supper with our Dutch friends from the boat who were staying in the same place.


The next days plans were to stay (if there was space) in the hotel and relax by the pool or head to Phnom Penh by bus.


Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked so after breakfast we took a tuk tuk to the bus station via an old Pepsi factory. Stranded in time since 1975, when it was closed after the Khmer Rouge over ran the country; it has been maintained (though not working) in its original form. An old man looks after the grounds and whilst all of the machinery has been stripped there are thousands of old glass Pepsi bottles inside which were last used in 1975! We liberated a couple for a dollar a piece and will pass one on to Tony for his desk at work.


On to Phnom Penh by bus and another nice hotel, the budget is creeping up a fair bit - but we did take the bus.


Villa Langka


Arriving fairly late we didn’t have time to look around much or get our bearings. We walked to a Chinese restaurant and had dim sum which was good but took a tuk tuk home
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Mousey Headboards
as the walk wasn’t completely pleasant. All the cars park on the pavements so you have to walk on the road and compete with the millions of scooters coming in all directions! Safely tucked up back in the hotel we watched the “Killing Fields” which we’d read and heard so much about and thus prepared ourselves for the days activities.


S21 and The Killing Fields are must see attractions in PP. The first is the infamous prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed thousands during their reign of terror. There are hundreds of photographs documenting people who were killed and they included all sorts, women, children, westerners etc. A pretty grim place with some haunting memories and not so long ago either, the Khmer Rouge leader in charge of this prison is currently on trial for his role in the numerous murders.


The next stop on the uplifting tour was to the killing fields. Just outside of PP this was one of hundreds of places throughout the country where the Khmer Rouge killed and buried people. Killing usually followed torture and was carried out by bludgeoning with bamboo sticks (to save on costs of bullets), children were merely held by the legs and swung against tree trunks.


A pretty morbid day but important to visit and appreciate what people went through and all the more remarkable as to what has been achieved since.


That night we headed to the riverside for an Italian supper followed by drinks in the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), a must for every visit to PP. It was featured in the Killing Fields movie (although not filmed in the actual building) and has some great pictures of the troubles. Also a good view over the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.


The F


Knowing we’d be back in PP to fly home we headed south on the bus to the coast and what was planned to be the relaxing part of the holiday.


We went to Sihanoukville and took our first moto taxis to a hotel for the night prior to going out to Ko Rong Saloem Island and Lazy Beach.


Lazy Beach


Getting away from the main land was the best option as the weather was not so good, the beach pretty rubbish, the hawkers non-stop, and the party atmosphere far too sophisticated for us!


We met the boat which would take two hours to get out to our own private island/beach/hut/bar/restaurant etc. I almost managed to catch a fish en route but lost it whilst reeling in whilst most others were being sick on the boat!


Lazy Beach is a fantastic place, run by a couple of English guys and a Cambodian family they have everything right. The food was excellent and it was the perfect place to relax and we did just that. The most we did in 3 days was a 30 minute walk, some beach football, snorkeling and a game of badminton!


We had some unexpected room mates in the form of mice and a family of Geckoes which were the biggest we had ever seen!


Leaving Lazy Beach was hard but we had completely unwound and still had several days left. I wonder how long it will be before the isolation of the island is lost and unplanned development ruins it as has been done along the coast and in much of Thailand!


Back on the mainland we had had enough of buses and decided taxis were the way forward. We headed east toward Vietnam and stopped in Kampot for lunch, a nice spot with a view over the river and delicious food.


Rikitikitavi


Our final stop before PP and flying home was Kep. The old colonial sea side resort, which has seen better times, has a really nice feel about it. We stayed at another nice place with spectacular views over the coast and to the West Kampot and the Elephant mountains.


At the front we ate fresh prawns and crab and walked past old villas long since abandoned and in need of serious renovation. All of them have been bought up and there is steady redevelopment along the front. No doubt it will soon be bustling and firmly on the tourist trail but hopefully not on the same rushed and unplanned scale as Sihanoukville.


Veranda Hotel


Finally back to PP - in a taxi which was a god send as the road was terrible, we had a couple of evenings of average food and a day visiting the Royal Palace and a few markets for a bit of shopping.
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The way home


All in all a great break, it seemed a lot longer than it was and lived up to expectations. Still plenty to see in the North East which is far more remote than anywhere we went but that will have to wait.


Hope you enjoyed reading - or at least the pictures. These are few and far between these days which is probably a good thing for some of you!


Cheers






Additional photos below
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Kampot

Lunch stop
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Fishing

I got a bite but then lost it!


30th November 2009

Small world!
Hi guys, I can't believe you've just been in Cambodia - so have I - we should have coordinated something! Awesome place huh, sounds like you had a great trip! (and that's a tukae by the way, not a gecko - geek alert!!). Nick, hope to catch up with you at some stage, and Sally, I hope that one day I'll actually get to meet you! Take care and thanks for the update - fantastic! Charlie x
30th November 2009

Hey
I think the Angkor civilization is up there with even Egypt, Rome, etc! If you take a look at the Engineering scale and complexity of it's Hydraulic system and the amount of Earth these people moved it can easily beat any civilization in human history! I heard it's the largest Pre-industrial civilization in human history as well as a Marvel of human architecture! Wish you luck on everything!
1st December 2009

Another wonderful trip
Always interested in your travels - this sounds right up there with your other highlights.
15th October 2010
Kep Crabs

This one is on the Front Page now. :)

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