A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia

Phnom Pehn

sunny 28 °C

It was Monday morning and I was finally feeling human again – the previous two days had been painful sitting in the room all day long as I physically couldn’t go anywhere. My recovery was well timed as we were heading off to our next stop, Phnom Penh. This is the capital of Cambodia and located on the Eastern side of the country.

We were picked up at 10.30am and once again it was another six hour journey. This one was far easier as it involved no border changing. The only annoyance was the bus driver who was rather fond of his horn and beeped incessantly for the whole trip. Please stop? Once again we stopped off at a baron location for a dodgy restaurant with lots of mosquitoes and locals about – a trip to the toilet resulted in me running straight back out much to the amusement of the Khmer people. The smell was unmerciful.

It was obvious we were near our stop when large buildings and traffic began to re-appear. We had just gotten used to a more quiet and simple town only for the chaotic world of Bangkok to revisit us. Roads were choc-a-bloc with cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes (known as motos here and an alternative lift to the tuk tuk that drivers are only too happy to offer for half the price and double the danger).

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Khmer people started to wave at us while stuck in traffic – we waved back but when we stated to move again so did they. It was then I realised they were drivers trying to get us into a tuk tuk or moto with them. We soon pulled up at our destination and the front doors opened. The drivers sprinted to the door and feverishly waited outside waving their hands in the air like zombies would for fresh human flesh. We waited until the end letting the other Western passengers go ahead so they could get the brunt of it – only that didn’t really seem to work. Coming off the bus we felt like celebrities with a group of ten drivers screaming for our attention. Thank god I’m not famous as this was just pure brain damage. After picking up our bags myself and Carly were separated by the crowd. At one point I had no personal space at all so I couldn’t help but point at Carly and shout “talk to the wife she makes all the decisions!” in order to send some her way. Woops sorry Carly. A few minutes later we picked the most desperate of the drivers and went with him. To be fair to the tuk tuks here, they are in slightly better condition than their Thai counterparts. The carriages are a little bit more attached and it feels a little bit safer. When we arrived at our hotel the driver was trying to sell us a trip to the killing field, museums or even a random orphanage. I hate booking tuk tuk drivers in advance as I have no idea what time or day we’ll be going so this was an ‘absolutely not’. Only I had to spend another 5 minutes explaining this. He automatically came down 50% in price before finally giving up. Of course, the same driver would appear the following morning having camped outside overnight for a possible fare with us.

Our hotel in Phnom Penh is very much a city centre residence as opposed to the holiday resort feel of the Central Boutique in Siem Reap. The pool is gone, the staff are far less personal and there is a lot less space in comparison. On the other hand it has the most comfortable beds we’ve had yet as well as the shower. Internet connection is much better too! First impressions of the city were not so good. The streets are filthy in comparison to Siem Reap. Traffic is a nightmare, it’s impossible to walk on footpaths due to the stalls/vehicles and walking on the road does not feel like a safe experience given that there are constant motorbikes coming up from behind at all times. Smells ranging from ‘ok I can handle this one’ to ‘what just died?’ fill the streets in the main central location. Cows hanging on spits roasting over flames are a regular street sight. It even led to the purchase of a cheap surgical mask which you can see me in later on! Drivers are much more aggressive than our previous two locations so ‘no’, ‘we’re walking’, ‘dei ar kun’ and ‘no thanks’ are our most frequently used words here.

So what have we been up to over the past few days? On Tuesday we paid a visit to the Royal Palace. This was similar to the one in Bangkok but on a much smaller scale. The grounds themselves are stunning with some beautiful architecture that was built over 100 years ago. After that we had a wander around the town before finding a modern shopping mall – the thrills of in-door air conditioning. We were far too easily pleased with some familiar Western sights. A trip to the arcade resulted in humiliation for me as I decided to have a go on one of the Japanese arcade dancing machines. Unfortunately a local crowd quickly gathered behind me only to point and laugh loudly at my inability to dance. Carly found it hilarious of course.

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On Wednesday I decided I needed work out time badly and headed off to a local gym down the road while Carly caught up on more Gossip Girl (she’s watched over 20 episodes - I just refuse) and Wot Phnom, another Temple which apparently has the most bling ever. Anyway, on arrival I quickly discovered this was no ordinary gym as I was greeted by no less than 10 female staff at the front reception (I’m not exaggerating either this time). 6 were behind the counter with the other four split into two groups on both sides. Walking up to the reception the ten of them quickly closed in on me smiling like they had coat hangers stuck in their mouths. They were far too thrilled and it was all too much. Why does Asia insist on having so many staff in their establishments? Is labour THAT cheap? For the record they were all stunning and if I was that way inclined I would have been happy to stay and chat to them all day.

Paying 15 dollars in (well I could hardly bargain with 10 Khmer models starting at me like that could I?) I was expecting it to be good and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Only six months old the gym has fantastic equipment and many more bored staff on every floor looking for something to do – one in particular just stared at me while I did weights so I decided to turn him into a free personal trainer for the afternoon. I took a swim afterwards in the outdoor pool and it was like swimming in a bottle of Evian. It was that fresh. The whole complex was like an extension of a six star hotel. I found out that afternoon that a 1 year membership is 600 US dollars – this is three times the price of most gyms in Ireland and just shows there is a filthy rich market somewhere in Cambodia! Speaking of which, in the middle of all the tuk tuks and 1970s lada rivas are random hummers and executive range rovers – I’d be scarlet driving one in Ireland, never mind here!

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Today we visited two of the most infamous sites in Cambodia, the killing fields at Choeung Ek and the genocide prison museum, Tuol Sleng. I had spoken briefly about this in my previous post. The Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia in 1975 in a similar way to the Nazi party and committed genocide on more than 2 million of its own citizens in a bizarre attempt to introduce communism i.e. just under 30% of their entire population. Both sites were terribly upsetting but a must visit as these events cannot be forgotten. We saw the mass graves of the victims at the killing fields where they were slaughtered in the most inhumane ways. Pieces of clothing and cartilage remain stuck in the ground and a monument dedicated to these people house hundreds of skulls and bones. We also saw at Tuol Sleng how the prisoners were kept alive and tortured for false confessions before being taking to Choeung Ek for execution. I took many photos but on reflection feel it’s not appropriate to post on my facebook page. Below I’ve put just a few pictures to give you some sort of idea of what we saw. I would highly recommend researching this tragedy further online via Google or Wikipedia. A documentary DVD also worth watching is ‘Khmer Rouge: S21’.

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Tomorrow we leave Phnom Penh and head to Vietnam for our first stop which is Ho Chi Minh. We’re expecting another chaotic city so it’ll be interesting to see how it differs from Cambodia. We’ve very much enjoyed our time and experience in this country – with the exception of the drivers who drove me nuts at times, the people have been so polite and friendly. Most of them will never get the chance to leave their own country never mind South East Asia. Therefore they are always curious to interact with foreigners and ask questions in order to find out more about where we live. Children too will always wave and smile on the street which is so cute. All in all Cambodia is highly worth visiting.

Random Observations
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It seems there's something about Carly. Khmer people like to stare at my friend - even when there are monkeys getting it on beside her.

Dolls look like something from Child's Play. It's the Christmas gift from hell.

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It seems a popular stop after the Killing Fields is to be taken to the local Shooting Range to fire some rifles. In fact our Tuk Tuk driver nearly insisted on it. We politely declined.

La Dolce Vita on street 172 is the best restaurant in the world... EVER. Cheap as chips and they have everything from Khmer cuisine to Italian, Mexican, Western and Vegetarian. I ate there 4 times, Carly 5! We practically put the owner’s kids through school.

People missing limbs like to jump or leap out at you from around corners and scream for money. I've had more shocks in Cambodia than any horror film I've seen recently.

Lost in Translation this week comes courtesy of Carly:

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Posted by mattld 07:11 Archived in Cambodia Comments (4)

Crossing the border into Cambodia - Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

sunny 28 °C

At the time of writing this (Saturday evening), I'm sitting here in bed, sick as a dog. A very late night with far too much alcohol has confined me to my room for almost the whole day - the hangover is not so much the problem. The stomach pains I've been having for the last few hours however are. Carly is not much better than me and after watching Astro Boy on TV for the first time (it was ok); I thought I'd take time to give an update on the past week. This entry is even longer than the last one so feel free to skim through I won't be offended!

We had intended to depart for Cambodia on Tuesday. Unfortunately on Monday when we went to the Vietnamese embassy we were told we would have to wait 24 hours for our Visa. We really wanted to get this sorted in Thailand rather than leave it until the last minute a week later so we opted to stay an additional day. As we were both in Bangkok before, we were starting to get fed up with the city and just wanted to get a move on - there's a lot of South East Asia to be seen over the next 7+ weeks that are left.

We decided to kill some time by heading out for drinks on Monday night and on Tuesday by heading to the Grand Palace - this is a must see attraction in Thailand but as we both had been before we decided to instead take a wander around the outskirts. The whole area was packed with tourists and people trying to sell you stuff. On arrival one guy pretended to be an 'official rep' giving us lots of information (which we already knew). He then proceeded to try and get us into a Tuk Tuk and off for a tour of other 'free attractions'. No doubt with a few oul jewellery stops on the way! After saying no 51 times we moved on and found a really good temple down the road that neither of us had been to before and was very cheap in - Angkor Thom. The highlight here was without a doubt the 25 metre reclining Buddha which you can see below. These Buddha’s just keep on getting bigger! Later that afternoon we were delighted to pick up our Visas which were approved. We were both feeling a bit anxious about the whole trip the following day. That evening we had our final meal in Bangkok and an early night.

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Wednesday morning arrived and we were finally leaving hurrah! Carly told me about one of her friends who had all her luggage robbed on a similar journey in Peru and had to end her vacation early. Not exactly what I wanted to hear so this made me even more worried. Bold Carly. We read online about one bus company who were highly dodgy, forcing passengers into staying overnight at the border which is something we really didn't want to do. We got a taxi to the bus station and picked our bus company carefully. A 'VIP' bus with air conditioning and more comfortable seats was about 1 Euro extra - we'll take that one thanks. There were only four other Westerners on our bus which alarmed me a little. I expected more. The rest were made up mainly of Thai and Khmer (the official term for the Cambodian people). I kept staring out the window in a paranoid frenzy to ensure nobody was running away with our luggage.

The journey itself was smooth and the six hours that it took went by quickly thanks to my iPod. We knew we were getting close to the border when police started to get onto the bus to check nationalities for the Asian people. They ignored us completely but it was alarming to see a number of people thrown off the bus for not having proper ID with them, including one man and his son who were sat next to us. After two police checks the army then took their turn of checking over everyone and it was then we arrived at our first stop. We knew we would have to get a Tuk Tuk to the border - we were pretty much shoved onto one as soon as we got off our bus. The driver was female - a nice change and she was happy for us to travel together with our luggage.

The Tuk Tuk arrived at what appeared to be a government entry where you could purchase your Cambodian Visa. However it was double the price of what the guidebook had advised and on closer inspection the empty white room and lack of any official security gave the impression all was not what it seemed. An American woman travelling alone didn't take long to kick up a well timed hissy fit and refused to pay the 1,000 baht they were asking for. The other Westerners and we then agreed that we would walk across to the border and try to do it there. The man was not happy and shouted that we would have to pay an additional amount on top of the 1,000 baht when we would inevitably return. Charming! It wasn't long before we found out that these guys were scam artists trying to overcharge us for what could have been a false Visa.

The six of us walked closely together towards the border and it was completely straight forward. Conjured up images of angry soldiers pointing rifles in our faces and over the top religious obsessives shouting foreign obscurities were thankfully untrue and a bit dramatic on my behalf. Once through we were in 'no mans' land between both borders. It was here we were greeted by our first Khmer who was only too happy to inform us on everything we needed to know. Aww how lovely. He was a government official who was not out to sell us anything or make money. It wasn't long before he started to irritate as he clung on to both of us like a parasite would on a tree. He directed us towards the border entry tunnel and told he would see us on the other side. I wasn't happy about this. We had read about the free government bus that would bring us to the Cambodian bus depot where we could get a taxi to Siem Reap. Therefore we agreed to get on the bus when it arrived along with a larger group of Western tourists. I was starting to feel better about the situation.

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Our Khmer friend joined us on the bus and used this time on the microphone to welcome us to Cambodia and explain how important tourists are for the country etc. etc. He certainly had charm but god was he annoying. Our options were given to us as follows at the depot - take a taxi, mini van or bus into Siem Reap. At first the Khmer man had insisted that any of the three options were good and acted quite neutral. When we arrived he changed tactic, informing us the mini van had already left (grand as we had heard the worst stories about them) and that taxis would cost 500 baht each and would require four of us including our luggage! He was clearly pushing the bus at this stage. There was no way we were paying 2,000 baht for a taxi between four of us squashed in for a three hour journey. Unfortunately all the taxi drivers decided to disappear so we were unable to try and bargain or get a second opinion. Instead we opted for the bus.

The Khmer 'government official' was only too thrilled and once everyone was on the bus he joined us again for this journey. Argghh! At this stage I lost all interest and was completely rude to him for the remainder of the journey - he even told me to shut up when I laughed out loud at how every hotel in Cambodia was full and the one he was bringing us to was the only one with a room available. Thankfully we had booked ours in advance. Likewise we were told how we must get our Riel (the currency) at the border as US dollars would not be accepted in Siem Reap. This was a load of rubbish too - the US currency is bizarrely their main currency in an unofficial capacity. Even the ATMS will give you it. The Riel is accepted but as no other country outside of Cambodia offer or take it (we tried on several occasions to get it in Ireland, Australia and Thailand), we decided we would use dollars as much as possible. At least that way we wouldn't be stuck with useless currency at the end. It's 5,000 Riel to one Euro and the paper notes practically disintegrate in your hands.

Arriving into Siem Reap we were knackered, hungry and grumpy. The food stop on the way did little to help as we were stranded at a remote outdoors restaurant with mosquitoes everywhere and Khmer children trying to put 'free' bracelets into your hand as a gift. Getting off our bus all we wanted was to get to our hotel. Immediately a Khmer man clung on to us trying to get us into a Tuk. Even though that's what we were looking for, I was fed up of being sold to and was admittedly quite rude. Having lost him I was then happy to pick a Tuk Tuk for ourselves. I couldn't have been happier arriving at our hotel - it was far nicer than the one in Bangkok. I would highly recommend a stay here - it's called the Angkor Wat Central Boutique Hotel. The rooms are spacious, clean, with air con and it has a nice balcony outside. The pool area is very nice and with only 30 odd rooms the staff are personal and friendly.

Cambodia itself is far better than what myself or Carly had been expecting. It reminds me very much of the Thai countryside in Chiang Mai. The main town itself was a bit like going back in time. The roads are dusty, basic and everyone is driving motorcycles with only a few cars to be seen. But there’s a real charm to it that Bangkok and all its mentalness lacked. Numerous stalls populate most streets selling everything from popular meat dishes to grilled banana. Restaurants, massage parlours and tuk tuks are plentiful. There's a KFC around the corner from our hotel and I shamefully admit to paying a visit today when hungover for some familiar food for lunch.

Thursday morning was a very early start at 4.30am. We booked ourselves to do the tour of Angkor Wat the night before. Not many people know about this ancient wonder of the world, including myself. It's billed as one of the highlights of South East Asia and I can now understand why. The temples themselves are almost 1,000 years old - the easiest way to describe them would be the Asian version of the pyramids. Scriptures/carvings on the main temple walls depict the Khmer way of life during those times. Images included soldiers at battle; everyday life and heaven versus hell were presented. One small temple near the grounds even had images of dinosaurs which I found really surprising. Watching the sunrise over the main ground at 6am was simply beautiful and a must do if you're visiting.

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After a long 12 hour day we enjoyed a well earned three hour powernap before heading into the town centre for dinner, a wander around the night market and a foot massage for 1 dollar! In terms of money, it can't get much cheaper than Cambodia. It even makes Thailand look expensive. Almost everything is set around the 1 dollar mark with only luxury dinners like steaks etc. costing up to 10 dollars in certain places. Accommodation aside, you could live comfortably on 1 dollar per day if you needed to providing your hotel includes breakfast. In fact, Carly will be taking up this challenge on Sunday and I look forward to reporting back on how she gets on.

Friday morning was spent by the pool (I did 50 laps go me) before taking in an afternoon trip to three different sites. The first one brought us to an old school that had been used as a killing ground after the Vietnam War. The Khmer leader at the time wanted to introduce communism. Naturally, the well educated were none too happy and tried to oppose it. Sadly 2 million Khmer citizens were slaughtered in the 70s/80s before the UN finally intervened. The picture bellows shows some of the skulls of the dead - it was quite eerie seeing it.

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The second stop was a complete sham - what started out as a trip to the handicraft centre to see how Cambodian statues are made turned quickly into a badly disguised sales pitch. Already annoyed that we had been forced into this 'attraction', I upset our sales man by not tipping at the very end... despite being asked for some 'appreciation' and being told goodbye about 10 times. The highlight was the pink toilet roll I managed to steal for Carly.

The final attraction however more than made up for it. We were taken out by boat to the floating markets to watch the sunset. This was stunning. It was fascinating to see the Khmer who live out here. It brought a few tears to the eye in fact when considering how little they have, living on what is essentially a floating shack in the middle of nowhere with only the most basic of things. Especially when you think how shallow the Western world is with its obsession of celebrities, image, money etc. These people have very little but each other and seemed so happy and content with their lives. We could learn a lot from them..

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That evening myself and Carly decided to head on what I'll admit was essentially a drinking binge in bars where drinks were $1.50 or less. A long night of various cheap cocktails and vodka & red bulls led to the worst hangover today that I can recall. The night itself was great - we ended up at Club Temple which had all the modern chart classics and a good mix of Western tourists and Khmer locals alike. By 3am everyone was dancing on the tables. I ran into two groups of Irish which put an end to my streak of 7 days without seeing another person from my own country. Maybe I can beat this in Vietnam? As informed at the beginning of this entry, today has been spent in bed with very painful stomach cramps. I won't be mixing my drinks like that again for a while that's for sure.

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Sunday was more of the same to begin with but finally this evening I have started to feel a lot better and am hoping by tomorrow I will be more or less better and able to do the trip in good health to our next destination on the Eastern side of Cambodia, Phnom Phen.

Random Observations
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Hello = Suas Dei
Thank you = Ar Kun
No Thank you = Dei Ar Kun (unfortunately this one doesn't seem to work at all)

Khmer people do not like you to walk ANYWHERE. In fact, one evening we were offered 28 different tuk tuks on the way to dinner (we counted).

KFC Cambodia has some interesting differences e.g. the meal portions are less than half the size (greedy Westerners!), rice is served instead of chips for most of the meals (love that), they offer sausage burgers and the staff have better English than the ones on Ireland. I've never been treated so well in a fast food restaurant. However I think this is where I got food poisoning from so I wouldn't recommend!

Khmer cuisine is very tasty and not too dissimilar to Thai food.

Lost in translation continue this week...

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Posted by mattld 03:11 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

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