Phnom Penh

Trip Start Sep 21, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2009

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sua s'dei!

It's been a long time since my last entry in my travelogue and in the meantime I am already quite a while in a different country, so it's about time for a new update.

Since Hat Yai I've slowly been travelling back to Bangkok, mainly in the third class of local trains. Third class is not all that bad and is very cheap: Hat Yai to Chumphon, a trip of about 10 hours cost me the equivalent of less than €1,50. It's also a great way to meet locals (and cute twentysomethings who feed you local snacks). I stopped in Chumphon - where I stayed an extra day because I discovered that I could receive free wifi internet here - and again in Hua Hin.

In Bangkok I did pretty much the same as the first time this trip, that means not much at all, although one day I did some touristy things. For the rest of the time I just relaxed. Also in Bangkok I met Sabrina (who I know from back home)  and her boyfriend Ronald. Two nights we hang out together and had a great time. I was very nice to see a familiar face.

After too many nights in Bangkok it was time to move on, and to go to another country. And this new country was going to be Cambodia. Not altogether new to me (I raced through this country once in 2003), but at least new in this trip. I was thinking do it a bit slower than in 2003, when I basically only saw the temples of Angkor Wat. I took the bus to Aranya Prathet on the Cambodian border and walked to the Cambodian side. It was a bit of a hassle to get a visa on arrival here. Not that it was difficult per se, but it was just very hard to avoid any corrupt custom official here. After bargaining a bit I could get a one month visa for US$25, although I think US$20 would've been the correct price. What a welcome to Cambodia! And after the border I entered dusty and ugly Poipet, famous for casino's and cheap prostitutes. Indeed a place to get away from as quickly as possible. This was also the problem. My shared taxi driver couldn't find any other customers, but luckily - after waiting for almost two hours - he found a few and we were off to Battambang, where I arrived at around 19u00 that evening. Here I was welcomed by four guesthouses without any vacancy. Luckily enough, the fifth one had one decent room left.

The next day I hired a motorbike taxi to take me to sights around Battambang for US$10. First we went to Ek Phnom, an old Angkor style temple, which was completely without any other tourists. After Ek Phnom we continued to Phnom Sampeau, where there was a temple on a hill with great views. There was also some caves and a big freshly carved Buddha head. Last but not least, we went to Wat Banan, a beautiful temple on a hill. Here I met some local school boys who showed me a cave nearby: the entrance was like a manhole but inside there was a huge cave chamber. After Wat Banan I headed back to Battambang. That evening as I was strolling to the restaurant I ate the day before I suddenly recognised Floor, a Dutch guy who I've met on several occasions before on this trip: the first time on a train in Mongolia, the second time in Hua Shan in China and the third time in Chengdu, also in China. He was also going to eat at the same restaurant, together with the Finnish girl Anna - who I met at that particular restaurant and another Finnish guy. Later that evening we also met three Israeli girls who were with two locals and they suggested to go out somewhere. We said why not and we went to some dance hall, with Cambodian loud music. There were also some cute small girls we played and danced with. However after one of the Israeli girls was offered to sleep with one of them - a three-year old girl! - we were disgusted and realised we were definitely not at the right place..... and went back to our guesthouses.

Very early in the next morning I left for Siem Reap by boat. Well, not completely, because the first two hours to the dock I travelled in the back of a 4wd pick-up truck which took an interesting route (I specifically do not mention the word road because a road in my opinion doesn't have meter-deep potholes and paths across freshly cut tree branches) to the dock where the boat would leave. The first and largest of the boat trip was on the Stung Sangker river. From the boat life along the river passed by: people living on houseboats or small houses on high stilts, floating markets, different types of fishing nets and friendly people. The last bit was across the huge and shallow Tonlé Sap lake where there were a lot of fishing nets and also a floating village. Then the boat docked at the dock south of Siem Reap. I got a ride which the Dutch couple Hannah and Jannes to a guesthouse in Siem Reap and went out for a nice dinner that night.

The next few days I didn't do much at all in Siem Reap until I decided to see the temples of Angkor Wat one more time. That day I woke up really early, just to miss the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I explored Angkor Wat itself and did pretty much the same route that I did 5 years ago. So after Angkor Wat I went to Angkor Thom and the beautiful Bayon with all the faces, to Preah Khan and Ta Prohm amongst others. Sunset was a disappointment and I went back to Siem Reap. Later that evening I met Floor again, and also Hannah and Jannes. That night Floor and I (and a few others) went out and had fun but I also had basically too much drink, so the next day I was a complete wreck.

From Siem Reap I moved on to Tbeng Meanchey via Kompong Thom. From Tbeng Meanchey I hired a motorbike taxi for US$10 to take me to the ruins of Koh Ker - about 75 kms away - and back. I was a nice ride, all on unpaved red dirt roads. Koh Ker was almost without tourists and especially the two overgrown temples at Prasat Bram I enjoyed very much. On the way back we were soaked by a sudden tropical downpour. That night (as the night before) I didn't sleep too well because of a loud all day all night for two days wedding about 50 meters away.

The next day I went back to Kompong Thom, bus the bus (unlike the shared taxi I took from Kompong Thom) took a very indirect route and I was almost back in Siem Reap and the trip lasted 6 instead of 3 hours. That afternoon I hired another motorbike taxi for US$7 for a trip to the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, where the overgrown ruins were even better than in Koh Ker.

The following morning I left Kompong Thom for Phnom Penh in a crowded minibus. I was seated on the last bench and there were only 3 men including me. Some had 5 and the whole minibus had at its most 21 people inside (and some outside). It was quite an experience. Halfway we stopped for lunch and a cute girl who studied English in Phnom Penh invited me for lunch, which I didn't recline (and paid the US$1,50 the lunch cost for both of us). In Phnom Penh I changed to a bus to Sihanoukville and waited the layover time in an internet café. I arrived in the early evening in Sihanoukville.

In Sihanoukville there is basically only beaches and the most famous is Occheuteal Beach, which turned out the be rather disappointing because it was small (although long) and dirty. Cambodians haven't really grasped the idea of cleaning up after you leave yet and seem quite happy to picnic in the midst of garbage. The whole beach was littered with plastic bags, cartons, food leftovers, et cetera. I did manage to find a relatively clean spot though and sunbathed for a few hours, without getting burnt this time!

From Sihanoukville I took a shared taxi to Kampot, where the next day I hired a motorbike taxi (after my cheap Bokor Hill tour was cancelled at the last moment) to Bokor Hill, again for US$10. The road up Bokor Hill (which is actually quite a high mountain) was scenic and not as bad as I expected after hearing different stories. There was also some major road construction going on, which might be the reason why the road was in a better condition now. For the last part we had a flat front tire but continued anyway. On the top we tried to fix the tire unsuccessfully. I walked around the ruins (grand casino, church, other buildings) of the ghost town of Bokor Hill (a former French hill station) for a while, and realised in time that some parts where still mined..... With the flat tire we drove all the way back down the mountain and got it fixed once we were back at the main road. My driver Dara was also an English teacher and invited me to help him tonight at his class, which I agreed to. Before that we went to the cave of Phnom Chhnork, which wasn't all that interesting. I was introduced to Dara's family and I got diner (frogs, fish and rice). And from 6 till 7 that night I taught English for the first time to 13 to 18 year olds. Although it was more like doing small talk than teaching it was fun.

From Kampot I took a bus to Phnom Penh. Here I arranged a visa for Vietnam and visited the infamous killing fields of Choeung Ek, which was quite impressive, especially the memorial stupa with thousands of skulls of the victims inside. After Choeung Ek I went back to Phnom Penh and paid a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former prison where the victims from Choeung Ek came from. I saw the torture chambers and lots of shocking pictures. After this museum I had a drink opposite the museum and the lady here told me her personal story of life, struggle and survival during the Pol Pot regime, which was very impressive.

Today I visited the Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh which was more rewarding than I expected. The buildings were very elegant and beautiful. After the Royal Palace I went to the National Museum next door, which was also housed in a beautiful building. Although the collection wasn't all that big, there were some really nice exhibits, especially stone statues. The next thing I did was to get a haircut for US$1. Back near the guesthouse I bought a ticket for a bus and boat to Chau Doc in Vietnam were I'll go tomorrow. I also bought Vietnamese dong: I changed US$21 and got 330.000 dong!

So tomorrow I'll go to Vietnam. I hope and think I'll give an update a bit sooner than this one - it also saves me on a lot of writing..... ;-)

So goodbye from me from Cambodia and take care!

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