Saturday, 22 March 2014

19/12/2013 - Skun to Kampong Thom

90km planned for today, from Skun to a place called Kampong Thom. There was no other way around it, this left us 150km into Siam Reap the next day but there really were not any other places where we might find a half decent guesthouse so we had to split it up like this. It had been raining heavily overnight so at least the dust was less today. It was a very nice cycle, through the real countryside of Cambodia, full of waving people and kids ambitiously screaming hello at us from every direction even from hundreds of metres away. The road is lined with stilted houses which all seem to have a small pond in front, however small was always filled with fish and lots of kids fishing with rudimentary cane poles. The greenery was lush and the striking white Cambodian cows that are very elegant and look like a small skinny horse with a cows head were everywhere. They are quite tall and sometimes they even wear necklaces. At ech temple (wat) or school entrance along the road there is an ornate gate leading into the road of the grounds. There were many of these which we could have visited, but we didn't bother as the experience would have been a repetition. Maybe we should have taken more time in these places for photos.

Along the way we passed and turned round to meet another cyclist coming the other way. An old guy called Frank Van Rijn ( I recognised him from blogs I had read on the internet. He is an eccentric guy who has quite literally cycled the world. He started when he left school with a cycle of 30,000km in one year and just kept going, only going back to his native Holland to work as a teacher of science before he can save enough money to set off again, these days also making money from books he has written and speaking at cycling conventions. In his time he has done all of South America, Africa and Asia. He was last in Cambodia 11 years ago. We had a coke with him and chatted for a while. He really wanted us to stop for the day and find a hotel so we could continue swapping stories at a guesthouse (we told him about a good one we passed about 20km before) but we had to decline due to the distance we had planned for tomorrow, and we had already booked a hotel in Siam Reap. Before we went our ways he asked for one last favour - could I show him how to read a text on his first ever mobile phone! He had bought it in Mongolia a few months earlier and could make calls but could not read or write a text! He got it after a few attempts and wrote down all the steps in his little notebook. It was a very old Nokia phone and not entirely intuitive to his defence but still surpising he does all this without using a phone, GPS and very rarely the internet.

The last few KM into Kampong Thom we passed a few hundred metres of stone carving workshops who were carving Buddha's and other statues by hand, well mostly using grinders. They were real artists though. The finished big Buddah's were quite impressive.

The hotel was the only main one in town and we were surprised by the size and quality. It turned out that almost all the tourist buses stopped by here so they had a good trade. It must have been 5 stories though and 250 rooms. They also had a restaurant on the bottom floor which was good if a little expensive. After a shower and a change we had some lunch there and watched the tourists coming in and out looking bemused and commenting on how different the place was - this would have been their story from their bus travelling about how Cambodia was really adventurous. They obviously were not planning to stay in Skun as well!

Later we went for a Pizza in a place that was run by a Kiwi bloke and his Cambodian partner. It was a nice change of food, but we didn't socialise too much as the bar seats had already been taken up by self infatuated tattooed traveller types whose every sentence starts with "Oh yeah, well when I was there..." who we generally try to avoid.

Route Link

Cambodian cows look more like horses

By jove - He's got it!

Ahhh, very dusty this one...

18/12/2013 - Phnom Penh to Skun

It was a hot and sweaty morning. The first time we had started realising that the temperature and humidity were taking the next step up. Not a long day planned but we were concerned about the road surfaces again. I had asked anyone who was listening in Phnom Penh if they could tell me the state of the roads but I got conflicting information. In the end they were OK, as at most times the centre section of tarmac (the old road) still remained. So the team that were doing the work on this side of PP did it the right way. It was still a very dusty road though even though they had water trucks spraying the dust down at the worst junctions. The air was thick with dragonflies today. You have to dodge them if you can as they weigh quite a few grams and one on the lip or nose can hurt! It was quite atmospheric though - hot and hazy and dusty with the thick air full with the little biplanes and buzzing with cicadas.

We were headed for a place called Skun - famous for the fried or baked Tarantula spiders that get sold at the local market at the roundabout in the centre of town. Apparently the locals run up to each tourist bus as it stops trying to sell a few. I was looking forward to a taste of them! When we got there though there was none available. Lots of stalls but no spiders, only the usual crickets and giant water beetles. Apparently they have hunted them to extinction - no doubt as soon as they found out that tourists could be sold a few for about $5 or something they suddenly became hot potatoes. Sad there are none left.

We went and checked in to the guesthouse we had loosely planned to find (not even sure if it was the same one). Johanna got shown in to the room which was an end bungalow in the back yard in a row of about six and quite run down. She had seen this type of accommodation before so said OK after just a quick glance. After we have unpacked the bikes and taken a closer look at the room though - it was terrible. Bugs and flies, live and dead cockroaches under the bed and wardrobe, broken sink, no hot water and only a fan as the A/C was also not working. The front door did not lock properly and the ceiling had a huge hole to the outside roof space. No good. I had a cold shower then asked the team of teenagers running the place to find another room for us. The second room had just been vacated and was inside the main hotel building. Much cleaner/newer room and at least on the 3rd floor the bugs are less. Still one of the worst places we have had yet though, but not really bad. Just another night where we used our sleeping bag in-liners and our own emergency pillows!

We headed out to try and find the spiders again, and also a Spider-Sanctuary that we had stumbled upon online hoping it was still open. We couldn't find it and noone had heard of it. We stopped and had a drink at a truck-stop restaurant place and I tried the next best thing - fried crickets. Pull the legs and wings off and they went well with a cold beer. I must admit though that place was not the cleanest and there were flies everywhere so we didn't stay for dinner. Still no spiders we cycled the few KM back into Skun 'town' and found a small restaurant that had some pictures on the menu and had the usual type of rice and fried chicken or beef with some morning glory. Not the best ever, but OK and pretty cheap. We found a phone number for the Spider Sanctuary and actually spoke to a bloke who answered in Cambodian but then spoke English with a English or Australian accent. He was not friendly or chatty though and just told me that he had closed the place to work on other projects. Seemed a bit paranoid or something...

Route Link

Packed up ready to go

Mostly like this all day

The houses alongside the road

Hard to see but he air is full of Dragon flies.

Seeds from water lilies taste like acorns


Skun main square (roundabout)

The roadside food place

Sweet and crispy

Higher up the food chain - in my belly ect.

Our Nha Nghi accommodation - second upgraded room!

Typical bathroom

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh. Not what we were expecting. The tourist clientèle of the city was a departure from the other cities of SE Asia. There was a definite undercurrent of something seedy, the predominant demographic now seeming to be a single 45-55 year old male with a fat wallet. Our hotel was right in the middle of the 'interesting' area of town and we honestly couldn't believe what we were seeing at night. There would be old fat and ill looking guys casually walking up and down the street from bar to bar with a teenage Cambodian girl wearing a mini-skirt heels and too much make-up hand in hand. Of course some of them were legitimately aged ladies but I am sure they were not the most popular ones. These guys seemed to almost be comparing their 'purchases' with each other. Apparently the girls are paid for to their madam for a certain period and the guys can take them wherever they want.

It made us feel slightly uncomfortable, but the best solution was to just look away. The rest of the tourist areas were just like any other Asian city with hawker stalls, a big night market, loads of local food stalls, shops full of t-shirts, sunglasses, flip-flops, Irish bars, motorbike rental and coffee shops. It was just that every now and again in the evening there was another WTF moment as someone casually strolled by the stalls with a girl a fifth of their age. In the evenings almost every other building on our road opened up a small bar at the bottom floor, positioned maybe 5 or 6 girls outside and switched on some neon signs. The single guys would come and get chatted up by the girls and we assume eventually go inside and make a 'purchase' for the evening. This activity was obviously not unnoticed as there were leaflets and posters in the hotel and around, plus TV adverts all showing a helpline number to call to report any under age prostitution (we assume that legally aged prostitution is completely condoned however blatant).

Anyway, we had some things we wanted to see. The most popular sights were those connected to the genocide atrocities committed my Pol Pot and other nastiness during the Khmer Rouge era. The killing fields and other genocide museums promised moving displays and reminders of these events. Piled up human skulls or photos of each person minutes before they were executed were the top attractions. To be honest we would have gone to see it if not for the even sadder way that we heard the twatpacker tourists talking about it as if it was a rite of passage, and also the relentless touting from the Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers. This is especially sad as they are making money out of the deaths of their grandparents somehow.

We decided to keep our money and not get herded off to the atrocities with all the other tourist numbskulls. Maybe we should have seen it but we decided it was too much like 'Tourisme Noir" and so we went to see the palace instead. We even got a guide which I do not normally pay for as I am too stingy and usually you can listen to someone else’s guide for free! It was really good and the guide took the time to explain all the small things that we would have otherwise been guessing about. For instance the unpainted tombs are for the cremated ash (we would have thought they were just unfinished), the King of Cambodia is not allowed to be educated in any political or philosophical arts and he is not allowed into the politics of the country at all. The current king is a tiny little guy who studied ballet in France and is generally known to be a more than a little camp. The politicians find him perfect for the role!

We had some very nice meals in Phnom Penh. We got addicted to one noodle place that was a well executed joint, very clean and tidy not a plastic chair place but still cheap. I think in three days we ate there 4 or 5 times, it was conveniently just across the road from the hotel. This was good for nipping over to when the rain was pouring down which it did for a couple of the evenings there.

We watched pensively from the balcony of the hotel one day as a loud protest march spilled up the main street for about 40 mins. The protests here are against the current elections (same story as usual - corrupt government not allowing any other parties to form or have a chance at election). They have been known to turn violent and the Cambodians certainly have some pent up emotions they could let out.

All in all we felt that it was a great city full of very honest and helpful people that are sadly being stepped on by the current generation of Cambodian rich and the international tourists who come to gawp at the atrocities and take advantage of the poor in the sex trade. I am sure it will change but until the Cambodian people themselves can be heard then they still have to make money somehow. The division of wealth in Cambodia is much starker than in Vietnam. In Vietnam everyone had a motorbike. Here there are more people sharing each motorbike. Many more people are on bicycles or walking with their heavy loads but at the same time many more cars also. And not just cheap old Toyotas like in Vietnam, big fancy European brand cars. This suggests to me a simple economic theory - a model of a country that still exploits its poorer classes for the benefit of a few very rich ones. Maybe a little dose of well managed communism wouldn’t hurt here like in Vietnam? Of course it would though as the corruption would just take advantage of that also. Difficult.

We spoke to this guy every day and eventually took a ride

Our bikes

Here in the city there is more money for everyone

Sugarcane juice guy

There was one of the night bars next door to hotel

From the other side for the screen

Loads of bike rental shops

Johanna sat one day in front of hotel and took long lens snaps

Opposite from the hotel

Square in front of palace

Coconut protector

Where the little king has his ceremonies

Buddha tree or Bohdi tree has flowers...

That open and fall off in one day only

The unpainted grey tombs are for cremated ashes

Protest starts and closes road

Watching from the top

A mix of protesters and stuck commuters

More spectators

Good views

Happy scene

The rubbish gets dumped in the street here.

Us too...

Royal hands have to wear a different colour each day.  Cambodian days of the week are sometimes named after these colours.