14th February to 18th February 2014
14.02.2014 - 18.02.2014
14th to 16th February:
We were sad to say goodbye to the 4,000 islands in Laos as we had a great time relaxing and could have easily spent several more days (or weeks!) there. We got our boat over to the main port and were then walked along like cattle to the ‘bus stop’ which was really just an office. The guy leading us all said that he would take our passports and asked us to do all the visa paperwork before getting on the bus. We and a few others said no we’d rather do the whole passport control ourselves, which he didn’t like but it did end up saving us a few bucks. Despite bad reviews online about this journey, the bus was actually quite nice particularly compared to the ones in Laos. When we reached the border we were charged to leave the country (they’ll try any trick!) which we had no choice but to pay and then they tried to get you to pay a ‘medical check’ before entering Cambodia. We had already heard it was a scam, so we just walked on pretending we didn’t understand what they were asking us!
The way to the capital was scattered with lovely villages, dried rice fields and beautiful white cows grazing on huge bales of hay. We also saw a wedding at the petrol station, which clearly looked romantic with posh chairs and tables scattered around the pumps. If that is what takes their fancy, we still preferred our manor. Cambodia names their petrol station ‘lube station’, which gives the wedding a whole different meaning…We arrived into Phnom Penh around 8ish and were struck by the size of it. Having been over three weeks in Laos, a city of 1.7million people came as a bit of a shock. It was crazy, the roads were chaotic and it was big and smelly. But it was really exciting and had a great atmosphere. We braved crossing the busy roads (it’s a case of walk across and let the cars/bikes dodge around you – they don’t go too fast so it’s fine and just takes a bit of balls!) and then found a cheap hotel. Matt then had a try of the famous amok fish curry which was simply divine!
The next day we were woken up at about 6ish to traditional music being played very loud in the street below. We tried to get back to sleep but it was too loud and going on for too long. So ethno Matt headed down to the street to have a look – turns out it was a three-yearly ceremony where people celebrate the death of loved ones. After a local noodle breakfast (which turned out to be slightly unfriendly on our bellies!), we negotiated with a young tuk tuk driver (who spoke great English) to do a tour of the main Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh. We started in the genocide centre often known as ‘The Killing Fields’. This was where thousands of prisoners were taken to be killed and thrown into pits by the regime (between 1975 and 1978). The place is now essentially a peaceful orchard area with a lake and has a large memorial in the centre with the skulls and bones of the victims found in the soil. The whole museum is very well set up with an informative audio tour that reveals the shocking and traumatic truth of what went on in this place. During the regime 1.7 million were believed to have died and 8000 were killed at this place. After hearing how victims were hacked to death, we thought it could not get any worse, but then found the killing tree, against which babies were smashed. The whole story is too horrendous to write here, but it is somewhere that anyone who comes to Cambodia should visit. After the Killing Fields we headed onto Tal Sueng which used to be a school before it was turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge. Once again it was a traumatic experience, seeing the photographs of all the victims and the torture they were subjected too. The gruesome history of the place was hit home when we entered the cell block where there were rows of brick and wooden cells with next-to-no space. It was quite a traumatic day. However, when we went out for dinner and drinks later that night and ate at the night market, it was amazing to see how Cambodia has rebuilt itself. Phnom Penh was practically emptied during the regime as the population was forced out to work in the fields. Now it is one of the biggest metropolises in Southeast Asia – an amazing transformation.
16th to 18th February:
The next day we made our way to Battambang, which was recommended to us by a few travellers we have met. The bus experience was very good – there was a choice of different companies, proper tickets, seat numbers etc – completely different to Laos! We arrived into town and were bombarded by tuk tuk drivers. One guy (Tra Tra) offered to take us to a hotel we had eyed up in the Lonely Planet guide for free, even if we didn’t like it. The idea was that we would book a tour with him when staying in town. The thing is, he was really nice about it and not pushy – so we decided that if we did book a tour, we would go with him. Battambang itself is a nice old colonial town, with many well-preserved shophouses and buildings that remind you of the French presence here. It was a busy place, but small enough to be quite charming and chilled out. There were some very nice bars and restaurants, and some very chic boutique shops some of which reminded us of Bristol! We found another Lonely Planet suggestion called Café Eden which was a great place to unwind. At the hotel we met a inspirational (and maybe crazy) British couple who were cycling around the world for two years - and of course they were from Bristol!
In the morning Matt went off to a cooking course for three hours, while Susanne stayed in bed as she wasn’t feeling well (probably those noodles in Phnom Penh!). The cooking course was great and fantastic value at only 10$. In the first hour Matt and the four other people went off to the local market to look around and buy some ingredients, our guide/chef stopping to explain all the weird and wonderful (and some not-so wonderful) foods to us. There is a whole new meaning to the term ‘fresh fish’ in Cambodian markets – many of the fish were still alive and people often bought them alive. We then went back to the restaurant to do the cooking. We did fish amok curry (steamed in a banana leaf), beef lok lak (which is like a stir fry) and spring rolls. We had to make all the pastes and spring roll fillings from scratch and the result was a very tasty lunch! Matt will try these out at one of his ‘dinner parties’ when we get back! The rest of the day was spent milling around the town and Susanne had an awesome banana flower salad for her lunch at a great place called Bamboo Train Café. In the evening, Matt went for the local river fish – but never again, he thinks he saw it move before it went into a wok of boiling hot oil and was served completely ‘whole’ – i.e. with nothing removed! Some street children begging for food were delighted that Matt was ‘unable’ to eat the whole fish.
Our final day in Battambang was spent doing a whole day trip with Tra Tra the tuk tuk driver around the famous sites of the province. The trip was a bargain at 20$ for the both of us which basically paid for our private tuk tuk and an English-speaking guide who stopped to explain everything and let us take photos. The first stop we stopped scarily on the middle of a busy roundabout, where a statue depicted the legendary founder of Battambang who lost his magic stick and apparently made the area fruitful. The next stop was the bamboo train which used to be a French railway but which was later used by locals using bamboo platforms on the tracks transporting local goods. It was a bit of a touristy scam, costing 10$ to be hurtled down the tracks and then to be bombarded by people selling you stuff at the end. But it was fun to have to ‘unpack’ the platform for oncoming traffic as there was only one track. We then went to the only winery in Cambodia and tried some of the red wine and brandy – it wasn’t very good quality at all (tasted a bit like the £3 bottles in Londis) but it was great to see the business having been set up by two people who essentially had nothing. On the way to our next stop we saw some fruit bats hanging in the trees which locals used to kill and eat, but which are now protected by the government for tourism. On the way to the next attraction, our driver took us down a very bumpy dirt track, that he explained Cambodian’s call it a free massage, while being rattled from side to side and up and down. When the dust started to blur our vision, the driver turned around and affectionately called the dust ‘Cambodian snow’. We then went to some beautiful and mysterious temple ruins (dating to pre-Angkor Wat) which required us to climb a load of very steep steps in the blistering heat – it was worth the climb though. Once back down the bottom Susanne kindly asked a seller if she could bathe her head in the ice box! After the temple, we were taken to the bottom of a mountain where there was a large temple complex at the top with a cave/gorge in the middle, and the whole area was home to some seriously moody monkeys who probably had rabies (so we stayed well away!). Half way up the mountain was a ‘killing cave’, another remnant of the Khmer Rouge where prisoners were killed and thrown through the cave. The evening was spent chilling at the bamboo café again and deciding our onward travel. Tomorrow we are heading to Siem Reap but we couldn’t decide whether to take the long boat or the bus. The boat journey has really mixed reviews, some people saying it is beautiful others saying it was crammed, no fun at all and really long (up to 12hours). It’s also quite expensive at 20$ a person. But in the end we made a decision at around half 10 at night to take the boat which means getting up at 6! Wait till the next blog to find out whether we made the right decision!