Happy New Year from Cambodia!

Trip Start Aug 30, 2009
Trip End Mar 01, 2010

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Chapter 1: Over the borderline

In actual fact the tour group for SE Asia met in Bangkok still but as this was just a quick briefing and an overnight stay in a hotel this is now a part of the Cambodia blog. Apologies to anyone who has OCD.

The merry group got up at 5am and jumped onto two minibuses which were taking them over to the Cambodian border. The buses reached the border around lunchtime and deposited the group with their luggage at a large market which seemed to sell exclusively fake Louis Vuitton handbags. After some lunch, some sturdy looking chaps appeared and started wheeling the group's luggage over the borderline on 2 large wooden carts. No such luck for the tourists themselves, who had to stand in a queue for a couple of hours to cross, past No-man’s-land and an interesting array of casinos and other gambling  halls, into Vietnam.

There was a diverse group of people on the GAP tour – this part of it called Roam Cambodia. There were three Australians (Rachel, Reals and Mel), one New Zealander (Jennifer), two Americans (Pete and Joan), two Scots (Martin and Laura), one Latvian (Olga) and one Romanian (Gabriel) but who both lived in Ireland and then one other English couple (Adam and Laura) plus Duncan and Nadine of course. It was a happy group but then I’m not going to write anything offensive about any of them as they have my Facebook details and may well read this blog. Except Martin, the Scottish bloke. God he was a fool I hope I never run into him again. Always drinking and talking about Rangers. Or was it Celtic.

Out the other side of the border the group was met by another bus – a little bigger this time so they could all fit on together. The next stop was Siem Reap, which is where Angkor Wat is.

Arrival at the hotel was around 7pm and so everyone headed off for some food. Sharim, the tour leader, had organised a table at a place which had traditional Cambodian dancing. One of the main constituents of Cambodian dance for some reason is for both a boy and a girl to dress up as peacocks and then start rutting. This makes for excellent entertainment as you might imagine.

A number of the group stayed out after dinner for some further entertainment: it was 4 couples and so whilst the girls had a foot massage, the blokes sat in the restaurant next door and had a beer. Nadine managed to talk her way into a free fish massage after she had finished and sat happily for 10 minutes whilst a bunch of fish nibbled on her feet. These 'Doctor Fish’ things are all over the place – basically they’re tanks of fish that feed off dead skin on your feet. Have a look at the photos to see Nadine’s feet!

 Chapter 2: Wat time did you say we need to get up??

As was to become customary on this trip, everyone got up at 4am the next morning to get over to Angkor Wat to see the sun rising. Duncan and Nadine got some nice photos but you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth getting up at 4am on holiday. Probably not.  Anyhow, they all returned to the hotel for breakfast after the sunrise show, just in time to head over to Angkor Wat again to see all the temples in daylight.

Angkor Wat is just one of a whole bunch of temples in the Siem Reap area. As Duncan and Nadine were on an organised tour they had a bus to ferry the group between the various sites, complete with a local guide called Sambath. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple (except from  the one which the Lara Croft movie was based in and around perhaps)  and also pretty impressive, particularly at sunrise. It turned out to be covered in scaffolding when the group there as there were major renovations going on so it was just as well they arrived for sunrise as the scaffolding wasn’t visible in the dark…

The other temples are similarly impressive, one of the most striking features being the number of Buddha faces everywhere – have a look on the photos to see them all. There was a detailed explanation from the tour guide as to why this was but unfortunately both Duncan and Nadine were looking elsewhere at the time and so still unaware as to why there are all these faces around.

Angkor Wat was being renovated by the Germans (all the renovations on the temples here are sponsored by somebody as the government doesn’t have any money) and as might be expected there was a spectacular piece of German engineering in the form of a huge contraption on rails being used to roll over the roof of the temple. Difficult to explain so perhaps take a look at the photo.

The day ended with a trek up a small mountain to see the sun setting over Angkor Wat. Oddly when the few people who had endeavoured to make the trip got up to the top there wasn’t really any view of Angkor Wat. Or sunset.  Luckily Duncan employed the sunset mode on his Panasonic Lumix TZ7 camera which turned everything orange so on the photo it looks SPECTACULAR!

There was an option to go up and down the hill by elephant which looked like fun. Nadine and Duncan took the elephant track on foot on the way back down and were nearly squashed by a number of the beasts.

As the group was sitting on the bus that would take them back to the hotel after a full day of hardcore temple-seeing a small girl appeared at the door and shouted at Scottish Laura (to distinguish her from English Laura): "Scottish Lady, please buy some postcards." To which Nadine politely responded: “No, thanks, we already bought some earlier. We don’t need any more post cards.” But the little girl wouldn’t relent and kept glowering at Laura who starting to look increasingly upset. Another little girl came over trying to get one of us to change a five Australian dollar note into local currency or USD. When Nadine pointed out that she couldn’t use Ozzie dollars since she lived in England the little girl, rather cleverly, said: “But you have the same Queen on your notes!” In the meantime the other little was not giving up quite yet and came back to shout, once more, through the bus door at Laura: “You mean Scottish woman, why you make other small girl happy and not me??!”  After some confusion as to why this little girl would be so outraged it turned out Martin and Laura bought some water from another little girl on their way to the bus and amidst some confusion and because of lack of change ended up paying $5 for a small bottle of water. This was quite a steep price to pay for a small bottle but especially by local standards given that a teacher earns about $50 a month! 

 Chapter 3: Phnom Penh and the inside of a hotel room

Next stop on the tour was the capital, Phnom Penh. After some delicious Thai food, Duncan got very ill and wasn’t able to wander far enough away from the hotel to take part in the city tour or tour of the killing fields and Khmer Rouge prison and so Nadine went alone and relayed what had happened each day with the support of photos and videos taken on the camera!

It seemed as though the highlight of the tours was the monkeys that wander around Phnom Penh. Sharim was paranoid about any of the group getting too close to the monkeys as they’re full of all sorts of diseases but Nadine was able to employ the 12x zoom on the camera and maintain a safe distance from the monkeys. And the women who sit with them in fact.

It was now December 30th and time for the next stop which was to be where the group would spend New Year’s eve. Duncan got up and ate an excessive amount of Imodium before venturing downstairs for the bus down the coast.

“How are you feeling?” asked what seemed like the whole group in unison as Duncan appeared down the stairs. “Yep, OK” replied Duncan, deciding on this occasion to leave out any further details on his exact condition. Sharim came over to see Duncan.

“You can stay here if you like” he said. “Ah right, why’s that then?” replied Duncan. “Well another member of the group has got ill on the food as well and so we’ve booked her a private car to come down after the bus this afternoon”. Duncan considered this for a while, working through the timings in his head. Either he could brave the 6 hour bus immediately, knowing he had taken vast amounts of Imodium, or he could wait until the afternoon and come down in the car.

“I think the timings of my intestines post-ingestion of Imodium will be more conducive to an immediate departure” he loudly concluded, and lifted his rucksack onto his shoulder to take onto the bus.

 Chapter 4: New Year on the beach!

The group arrived in Sihanoukville without incident, much to Duncan’s relief. They checked into their hotel, a set of beach huts near the sea, and went down to a restaurant for some lunch.

Duncan thought he’d test his new found freedom out and so ordered a huge burger and chips. This went down very nicely after 3 days of fasting but just to be on the safe side Duncan headed back for an afternoon nap before the evening kicked off.

Sihanoukville beach is the main touristy beach in Cambodia and so for New Year’s Eve there was plenty going on. Some clubs were even handing out free beer to tourists arriving at the bus station in the hope of winning their trade later in the evening – a sound business plan, much like the beer-themed girls in Bangkok.

Amongst the many young guys handing out flyers on the beachfront, there were also locals offering fruits, lobsters, manicures, massages and pirate DVDs! Nadine made the mistake of sitting on the beach with unshaven legs and attracted the attentions of every single lady offering manicures, as they were also highly skilled at threading hairs off legs. It all looked extremely painful and so Nadine declined the offer but disappeared off back to the hotel to shave before getting back onto the beach.

On her return to the beach she was however again accosted by a manicure lady who this time was offering a pedicure. “Later” said Nadine, and sent the lady on her way.

Later that day whilst Duncan was resting back in the hotel, Martin the Scot was also resting at the hotel, having experienced some similar symptoms to Duncan and so their esteemed lady wives headed to the beach with the Ozzies for some lady time.

“You want pedicure?” asked yet another manicure lady of Nadine. By this time Nadine realised that the only way to avoid the constant pestering was to engage the services of one of the manicurists and so agreed to a manicure and pedicure. As she and the other girls were enjoying their treatments, the lady with whom Nadine had spoken earlier in the day stormed up to Nadine.

“You pinkie promised you would have a manicure with me” she shouted in Nadine’s face, brandishing her make-up bag as a makeshift weapon. “But you weren’t here” explained Nadine, but this did nothing to abate the crazy woman’s ranting.

Rachel, one of the Australian girls bravely offered to take a manicure from the crazed loon in order to pacify her. This was an exceptionally dangerous move, as the lady was so furious with Nadine that she wasn’t really looking at Rachel’s hands when cutting them with her nail scissors, she was concentrating on sending Nadine some evils.

“Don’t go giving me evils” said Nadine, but the woman had either not seen Little Britain or was deliberately ignoring the joke. Rachel escaped with all digits intact however and was able to hold her drink at dinner later that night.

The group, or what little of the group remained after practically half of them had been bedridden with various bugs, met for dinner and made plans for the evening – it was after all New Year’s eve! The plan was eventually agreed; it consisted of getting drunk on the beach. This agreed, Duncan and Martin went back to bed with the aim of getting back down onto the beach just before midnight.

Duncan’s alarm went off at 11.30pm. He looked at it in dismay and stumbled out of bed to knock on Martin’s door. Surprisingly, they both made it back down the beach and even more surprisingly managed to meet the rest of the group, most of whom were by now drinking out of buckets – in Laura and Adam’s case something that looked more akin to a washing up bowl than a bucket since the bar had run out of the bucket type buckets at this stage -  and surrounded by people letting off fireworks willy nilly. Duncan and Martin posed for a few photos and then went back to bed, accompanied by their better halves.

Chapter 5: New Year’s day

New Year’s day was spent again on the beach. By this time, Duncan was pretty much recovered and so complained a little less prolifically than previously. The beach they were using belonged to a private hotel and so was rather nice and noticeably lacked the hordes of street sellers encountered the previous day. There was somebody picking up litter from the sand all day and there were toilets in close proximity. There was also a shanty town in close proximity and Duncan was struck by the juxtaposition of rich and poor and the great injustices of the world. His thoughts were however interrupted by a waiter arriving with a cocktail and so he lost his train of thought.

It was back on the road again the next day and to another border crossing into Vietnam so the chaps were all making the most of their beach time, Duncan managed to get a red nose from the sun which was a bonus.

On the next day the bus to the border with Vietnam went through some very rural areas. In practically every village there was rice drying at the sides of the road and lots of elongated motorbike trailers filled with locals (see photo). The group reached the border again at lunchtime but the crossing was much more relaxed than in Cambodia as they all had visas prepared.

A highlight of the crossing was watching Nadine go to the toilet in a shed on stilts. The spot where the bus had parked afforded an excellent view of the building and so the men had a humorous 10 minutes of entertainment as all the women made their way over a rickety bridge and past barking dogs to the toilet on stilts. The hilarity was topped off by Martin dropping his cowboy hat down the rickety platform that housed the toilet hut and, bizarrely, no-one volunteered to go and retrieve it for him from below the toilets. 

There was a shaky moment as Sharim realised the group needed to go through a body thermometer to check for swine flu, the main symptoms of course being fever, headache, coughs, etc, all of which both Duncan and Martin were still displaying from their bugs. For some reason the thermometer was never poked at either of the two and so they escaped into Vietnam by the afternoon.
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