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Published: July 26th 2013
It's been near impossible to update the blog over the last week or so. I now write from the breezy Thai island of Ko Pha-Ngan, the bright turquoise surf splashing just past the restaurant to my right. I'm here with 7 mates from home who are here for the Full Moon Party, which took place a couple of nights ago. In between drinking, hangovers, beach walks and general indulgence in the Thai island lifestyle, I've finally found time to run this one off now.
Back to Cambodia, where I believe I left off with a report of Phnom Penh's Killing Fields. Marc and I decided we'd like to spend some more time in Cambodia, while the others decided to rush off to Bangkok to meet Hodgey and Jordan off their flights from the UK. This proved to be a excellent decision; our next destination, Battambang, had exactly the unassuming Khmer charm, French colonial twists and laid-back ideals we were looking for. We arrived there off a typically delayed and uncomfortable 6-hour bus, and found a double room for $3. We then sat with an Angkor beer and ticked off the sights we expected to see in our 2-day stay.
Marc was keen to try motorbiking after seeing plenty of photos of the rest of us on the Hai Van Pass (see previous blog entry). So, with a little trepidation on my part (Marc will admit himself he isn't the best car driver in the UK) I hired one automatic bike for $8 and took Marc to an empty stretch of tarmac for 30 minutes of patronising tuition. I went and chatted with a monk in a small temple as Marc zipped up and down the road outside. He took to it remarkably well, and I soon took my own manual bike out onto the roads of Battambang, and we began our sweeping and serene journey through rice paddies and little towns that relied on road-side custom. Our target for the day was to visit 3 of the best temples around Battambang. It involved driving on dead-straight roads through a sea of stiff green rice shoots, the blue sky and puffy white clouds reflecting in the paddies' water. We drove round snaking roads, and across a pot-holed and treacherous dirt track, overtaking tuk-tuks laden with tourists. Our favourite temple was the second, which afforded us mind-boggling views of the dead flat terrain, the rich green carpet of Cambodia. I really think my definition of "green" has changed since witnessing the greenery of Asia in the wet season. At this temple was also a brilliant jagged and Indiana Jones-esque cavern, and a "Killing Cave" where, reportedly, 10,000 people were thrown down a sinkhole. More skulls and bones on display, and more sombre notes.
After a lunch of noodle soup which contained parts of animal bodies best not mentioned, we ended our day on the bikes by visiting an abandoned Pepsi factory, out of action since the Khmer Rouge renounced multi-nationals. The eerie grey building had a rotting red and blue logo on the front, green with years of neglect. Inside were ruined distilleries and various rooms with large vats, but my goal of finding a 1970s Pepsi bottle as a souvenir was not fulfilled. We then negotiated through the tame Battambang rush hour to return our bikes, heading out for a fantastic Khmer curry to round off the day.
The following morning, Marc and I did our own little walking tour in the searing heat of the morning, taking in colonial offices, abandoned railway stations and a spattering of mediocre temples. The real highlight of the day was the "Bamboo Train" which uses a stretch of old narrow-gauge track through lush glowing fields. You ride on a bamboo mat, inches above the rails as a motor spins tiny wheels up to 30kph! If you meet someone coming the other way, you have to pick your train off the lines to let them through! The screeching of metal on metal, clunk of dodgy lines below and rush of wind as we accelerated all made it one of the most unique experiences in SE Asia. There was still one more treat in store that evening though - a Cambodian street children's circus that has developed to become world renowned. I couldn't stop shouting "wow" the whole way through the 90-minute festival of skill, and annoyed Marc with my excited jabbering after the performance, discussing the various tricks and stunts.
From Battambang, we returned to Phnom Penh briefly to collect our Thai visas, heading straight from there to Siem Reap and the glorious ruins of Angkor Wat, on a night bus. Here, we did a brilliant cooking course; we cooked a huge 3-course meal which despite our best efforts was impossible to finish. Unfortunately later it appeared that Marc had (rather hilariously) given himself food poisoning from his pork dish. He stayed in our $1 beds ("Khmer-style" open-air slats with a mosquito net and no fan) as I conquered "Pub Street" with Dave and Ronan - the friends I stayed with in Goa who I'd been looking forward to meeting up with. They had done 3 months in India and had some great stories to tell over happy hour beers and Mekong buckets. Naturally, we got far too drunk as innumerable tales were exchanged. I returned to my own Khmer bed at 3am, only to be drowned with water at 430am as Dave and Ronan woke us up for sun-rise at the temples.
The temples are superb and deserve every superlative possible, but Dave, Ronan and I couldn't help being a tad critical - the main building of Angkor Wat is supposedly the biggest religious building in the world, but we'd seen bigger in places like Delhi's Jama Masjid. Though the ruins are ludicrously picturesque, after so many temples in India, I didn't get that "wow" moment that I did when I saw the Taj Mahal. All that said, though we were very hungover, tired and baking in the 40 degree sun, we had a great 5 hours of traipsing around various other temple complexes. Bayon was my favourite; the towers of the temples all have 4 huge stone faces staring out intimidatingly over the plains. There are around 200 of these 10ft faces! Another interesting stop was the "Lara Croft" temple - used in her Tomb Raider film - which has been mind-blowingly engulfed by creeping vines, drooping roots and huge curling tree trunks that combine to grip the old stones in place, while ruined towers give way for gigantic tree trunks. My overall impressions of Angkor Wat are excellent. The architecture is unique and varied from ancient temple to ancient temple, and the richness of decoration of each available piece of stone is up there with the best ruins in the world. Being there for sunrise, and later sunset, will rank in my best experiences of the trip.
Enjoying the company of Dave and Ronan, Marc and I joined them on a bus down to the beach resort of Sihanoukville, where we largely spent our time sharing yet more stories, socialising with the "flashpacker" community, and barely covering more than a kilometer in walking during the day. We spent 5 days in our friends' company, before we realised we really had to make a shift for Thailand, or we'd miss the Full Moon!
To make our rendezvous with the others, we had to embark on the mother of all journeys. It was horrific. I was ill with some sort of fever when we boarded our first bus to the border with Thailand, at 8pm. I was seeing faces on the floor and was seriously overheated. I thought I'd just have to batten down the hatches and get through it. 5 minutes later, our bus crashed off the road. It went over a pavement and into a bush and sign to a bar. Marc and I had front seats and were worried that our driver was drunk - we'd seen him being sick outside the bus and he spent his time either cackling loudly or slumped on the wheel. The travelers on the bus agreed that we'd need a new driver, and we spent 2 hours angrily negotiating with the company owner. Finally we set off at around 10pm and I attempted to sleep, with little success. The bus' gear cable kept snapping and forcing us to stop for 30 minutes on end. We also had a flat tire. We arrived in Siem Reap once more to drop passengers off, 5 hours later than predicted. We drowsily got off the bus, and while we waited, Marc's iPhone was stolen. We think a tuk-tuk driver sneaked onto the bus and went through his bag. We couldn't dwell on this misfortune as we were shepherded to another minibus, which spend us to the border. After another hour of border nonsense, we came through to Thailand without a minibus waiting for us. We spent another hour with our group trying to get a seat on a bus to Bangkok. We eventually succeeded, and we were in Bangkok by 7pm, after 24 hours of our initial journey. Straight off the bus, we booked another 8pm bus down to a port near the islands. This arrived at 8am, and we took the ferry at 10am, arriving at our destination of Ko Pha-Ngan at 1pm. We finally met the others in their hotel at around 4 - after 45 hours of door-to-door travelling.
The Full Moon was a massive and mad party which I didn't quite enjoy as much as I'd hoped. My travels have become rather alcohol-orientated in these final stages; it's fun but as is proven by the lack of substance in my blogs, my real travels
ended a couple of weeks ago. Now I am on holiday, soaking up some sun before I fly home.
The next entry will be from Bangkok and will likely be my last!
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