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Roger Waters - Momenty of Clarity
My dad picked me up and brought me to the train station where I bought a ticket to Schiphol. I was amazed how many people got on the train in Den Bosch at this time of the day. The smell of alcohol surrounding them explained where they came from. After an uneventful train ride I got my dollars at the GWK office and headed for the Malaysia Airlines desk to get my ticket. I met Marcel, one of my travel companions, there and we chatted while we checked in (which took almost an hour). After getting ourselves some liquor at the tax free shop (two bottles of Drambuie for me) we were ready for take off !
The flight had good food (Chicken Korma and a nice breakfast) and I watched the movie The Jacket. Interesting but not all that original, a bit too much like The Butterfly Effect. In order to get some sleep I took three Melatomatine pills and before long I was dozing off. I must have snoozed for an hour or two, never really getting into deep sleep mode. Eventually I decided to listen to some music (Michael Hunter's River got me relaxed) and do some reading. I finished the booklet on the Ramayana myth (the Asian myth about Sita, Rama, Ravana and Hanuman which is depicted on so many temple walls) and read about Cambodia's f*cked up history in the Lonely Planet. At half past 5 we arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Buddha - Dhammapada verse 9
At Kuala Lumpur airport we met a whole bunch of Djoser travellers. When some disagreement occurred while checking the correct gate we found out that most of them were going to Indonesia, not Cambodia. So we split up and it was just me, Marcel, Rene and Angela again. We found the gate, but since the place was absolutely deserted and it would take another couple of hours before boarding would start we took the train back to the main hall, where we grabbed a coffee at Starbuck's and were soon joined by Ad and Mieke.
When we boarded we were handed several documents we had to fill out with all kinds of details about ourselves and the trip. The flight to Phnom Penh was uneventful but had a nice brunch with fish and noodles. Arriving at Phnom Penh airport found us filling out more paperwork, handing it over for visa and even getting our picture taken with a webcam (!) at passport control. Leaving the airport the weather proved to be warm and humid. Earlier that day it had rained heavily. It's the end of the rain season so there are occasional showers, which isn't bad because it keeps the country from getting too dusty. We met Sandra, the rep of the travel agency, and Sophie, our Cambodian guide.
It turned out to be rush hour in Phnom Penh, which basically means that you've got motorbikes coming at you from all directions, closely followed by honking cars. In the Lucky Star hotel we were given ours keys and there was this Khmer guy who came up to me for a chat. He was very kind and told me how he recognised me from the airport, where he had picked up his brother. I think his name was Mondo or something. I wasn't quite sure though what to make of his final remark ('You're pretty handsome'). Flattering, but I prefer to hear it from the other gender.
After Sandra had told us some more about the days to come, Angela and I took a stroll though the
neighbourhood, chatting about Buddhism and dodging motos (motorbikes). It's amazing how many people or goods they can fit on those things. And they're everywhere, it's like being in an ants nest. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be any structural way of regulating the traffic. You'll find cars and motos just going anywhere they want to go with the bravest ones getting the first turn.
The streets are surprising as well. One minute you're walking a relatively decent concrete road and they you turn a corner and you're shoe-deep in dirt and mud. It's also easy to lose your way, as we noticed. Not only do the streets lack names (they only have numbers) but they also all look the same.
At half past 2 the group gathered and a bus brought us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Just 15 minutes outside the city, but more than half an hour driving, while concrete roads turned into dirt trails and houses into rickety sheds. These Killing Fields, named after the small town they lie near to, are just one of many to be found throughout Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge - the communist regime that dictated Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and led by Pol Pot tried to turn it into a Maoist society of agricultural working camps - used these killing fields to rid themselves of people who had been detained and tortured in prisons. This specific one was used in combination with Phnom Penh's S-21 prison (more about that tomorrow) and 17.000 were murdered in that specific place. Now, that might be shocking but it's only a fraction of the 2 million people (almost 1/3rd of the population) that died during the Khmer Rouge regime, half of which was murdered and half of which died of starvation and illness in the camps.
What awaited us was heart-wrenching and stomach-turning. A large field riddled with holes, all of which represented mass graves. No less than 129 mass graves had been found, 49 of which have not been uncovered. Well, at least not intentionally by man that is, because the rain seasons often washes away the dirt to reveal pieces of clothing and white bones. And you could indeed see those lying all around, leaving little to the imagination. Some of the mass graves had signs explaining how many bodies had been found there, and in what state. There was also a tree with a sign informing visitors that executioners had used it to beat children to death before throwing them in the mass graves.
The unspeakable horror of the place was further emphasized by a big Memorial Stupa. Imagine this large tower with shelves on which 8000 skulls are stacked, neatly sorted by gender and age. Words cannot describe the feeling and it left me speechless for hours. There was also a small exposition featuring a map that showed the locations of the mass graves and actually made clear how many there were to be found. It just goes to show how horrible a species mankind can really be.
And it didn't make sense either. A place like this is supposed to be desolate, dark and overshadowed by rain clouds. Not bathing in sunshine with cows grazing and beautiful butterflies all around, or smiling children posing for the camera and asking for money or candy, as we found it. It's a strange world sometimes.
After arriving back at the hotel we had some time to ourselves. I was feeling to tired to go out into the streets, as a matter of fact I had fallen asleep in the bus back to the hotel several times. And of course I knew that sleeping 2 hours in 2 days is not one of my biggest strengths. So I decided to update this travel log and grab a shower. Back down in the lobby I was sweaty again after 5 minutes. ;-)
Checked my e-mail and at a quarter past 7 we left for a restaurant called Friends. Quite an interesting place because they helped out street youth by teaching them how to cook and serve. And they were doing quite a nice job at it. You could order lots of tapas-sized dishes or a normal meal, which I did (Chicken with Soya sauce). The beers were good as well: huge bottles of Angkor Beer.
Everybody was obviously quite dead-tired by the time we finished dinner so 6 of us took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. As was to be expected it turned out to be quite a ride, with the driver going in against normal traffic in order to make the right turns. Anyway, we survived. Tomorrow well have another full day at Phnom Penh before departing to the north-east on Wednesday morning.
Buddha - Dhammapada verse 10
This was a day of extremes in many ways. A morning of horror never seen before was followed by a day of splendour and fun. I started the day with a nice breakfast of rice, chicken and coffee with an extremely sweet milky sirup. By the time I found out how sweet it was I had already put two extra spoons of sugar in. I seemed to be the early bird today but soon others joined me and we even practiced some Khmer language. Back at the hotel I had a small chat with two monks, which turned out to be a very different brand than the Thai ones because they even asked me for money (which they aren't normally allowed to do according to the 227 rules they have to follow).
And then it was off to the Tuol Sleng Museum, or Security Prison 21 (S21) where the Khmer Rouge had detained and tortured 17.000 people before ending their lives at the Killing Fields we visited yesterday. You might think that seeing the Killing Fields would prepare you for S21. Well, think again. Nothing can prepare you for such absolute inhumanity and terror and I can easily say that this was the most shocking thing I have ever seen in my life. I've was walking around feeling fits of nausea and utter despair at what people are seemingly capable of.
The Khmer Rouge had a very efficient way of administrating their doings at S21. Every prisoner got a number when he or she came in and was photographed with the date on which they were brought to the Killing Fields. People who died at S21 during torture were also photographed. One of the building sections is filled with row upon row of photo's of the prisoners deported. Thousands of people. Innocent people who were killed just because they were (thought to be) intellectuals (e.g. if they wore glasses) or opponents of the regime. Man, women and children.
And if this wasn't enough madness, another section of the buildings was reserved as 'VIP rooms' (as Sophie called them). This is where high ranking Khmer Rouge officials that had been detained and tortured in the 'privacy of their own room'. Seemingly nobody was save from the Khmer Rouge, not even their own people. When Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 the liberators took pictures which are displayed in these VIP rooms. It shows the people being horribly tortured while chained to the beds. The only other object in the room besides the matressless bed was a small metal box which proved to be a toilet. As if all of this wasn't horrible enough, the walls and ceilings (!) still showed traces of blood.
Another building was filled with tiny little cells of brick or wood. The balconies of this building were blocked by barbed wire to ensure that the prisoners couldn't commit suicide by jumping off. The cells themselves measured one by two meters. The two most moving moments for me where a big picture of a woman with a baby and the 'guestbook'. The woman in the picture had been the wife of a high ranking Khmer Rouge official, but for some reason she and her baby had been killed in S21 anyway. A tear was rolling down her cheek.
I almost didn't notice the guestbook. It was lying on a chair on one of the floors of a building where paintings of the horrible tortures were on exhibition. I opened it and it turned out to be filled with remarks of visitors of the museum, in many different languages. As you can imagine these remarks were very, very emotional. They echoed and strengthened my own feelings and filled my eyes with tears.
I'll not go into all of the gruesome ways of torture that the Khmer Rouge had invented and which were displayed in the pictures and paintings. Suffice it to say that it's beyond my understanding that a human being can think of something like that and actually bring it into practice. The biggest mystery is perhaps the question 'why ?'. What on earth did they have to gain from these unspeakable acts ? Again I left another 'highlight' of the journey in a state of shock.
Fortunately the rest of the day was much less depressing. First we visited Psar Tuol Tom Pong, aka the Russian Market. A very nice place of authentic Khmer handicrafts combined with lots of freshly prepared food like fruits, fish and meat. A sheer attack of colour and smell on the senses. I bought my first krama - a traditional Cambodian scarf used in many different ways - here for one dollar and had the sales woman show me how to wrap it around my head. It turned out to be a good buy because not only did it result in many enthusiastic responses from the Cambodians themselves, it also served quite well as a bandana against the sweat which again was pouring down my face.
Next up was Wat Phnom, a small temple on a 27 meter high hill where many people come to pray for good luck; something I completely forgot, though I did spend a couple of minutes in meditation at the temple hall. If I had remembered I would definitely have known what to wish for. The temple could be reached by climbing a stair with Naga snake heads and I bought two small birds from a woman to release for good karma. There were quite a few monkeys which were amazingly well-behaving running around the hillside, as well as many stray cats. Compared to some Thai temples I have seen this one was rather basic and felt like a poor men's version of Doi Suthep, but it was a nice visit nevertheless.
Before lunch we visited the National Museum, which was filled to the rim with statues and other examples of (mostly Angkorian) Khmer art. Interesting to walk through and see the remarkable mixture of Hinduism, Ramayana and Buddhism on display, but not something I'd personally spend hours exploring. The building itself and it's central garden were though. A nice moment of rest in a moving day.
We lunched at a small restaurant along the Sisowat boulevard which runs along the Tonle Sap river. You guessed it, another big Angkor Beer and a nice plate of Chicken and Cashew nuts. The group is also really starting to get loosened up by now, even though half of the 20 had decided to explore the town on their own today.
After lunch we visited the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Our guide, who had a name that translated as 'Moonflower' and was much easier to remember that the Khmer original, told us about all of the ins and out of the place. Again I was amazed how Hinduism and Buddhism were combined in all of the architecture, where every little corner and layer of the roof seemed to have a symbolic meaning. We were allowed to go inside the Throne Hall and the Silver Pagoda (after taking of our shoes and not being allowed to take pictures). The Silver Pagoda, named because of its floor of 5000 silver tiles (most of which were hidden beneath carpets by the way) is officially called Wat Preah Keo (Tempel of the Emerald Buddha) and was clearly inspired by the temple with the same name in Bangkok, with emerald Buddha and all. Again, it could be considered a bit of a poor man's version of the Thai one. Nevertheless, the many statues, among which a most impressive life-sized gold Buddha with 9584 diamonds, were something to feast the eyes on.
One of the reasons why I had been reading the Ramayana myth was because the outer walls of the temple grounds features a surrounding wall depicting the Ramayana story, as in Bangkok's Wat Preah Keo. Since I hadn't been able to make any sense of the mural paintings last year I wasn't going to let that happen again. Unfortunately the lower half of the paintings had been eroded by weather and micro-organisms over the year, so there really wasn't that much to see. Seemingly Cambodia is planning to restore the paintings over the coming years. Ah well, it still was a nice read anyway. ;-)
While it started to rain a bit 'Moonflower' showed us the final bits of the temple, featuring several 'coaches' for elephant riding and a 'cannonball tree' like the one under which the Buddha was seemingly born. Leaving the palace grounds we got some tuk-tuks to the central market (Psar Thmei), which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment after the colourfulness of the Russian market earlier today. We therefore decided to head back for the hotel to get some rest before having dinner later the evening.
In the evening, 14 out of 20 went to the Frizz Restaurant near the river. Again, it was one of these moments where the group got loosened up. People practiced the names of their companions and got to know more about each other. The restaurant itself had great food ... but ... they seemed to be out of half the things on the menu, which of course became the running joke of the evening. I myself had some Cambodian sausages (recommended to me because they were out of spring rolls) and a splendid local specialty called Amok (spicy fish with coconut milk). Not to mention several bottles of that fine Angkor Beer (0,75 l per bottle). ;-)
Somewhere around 8 o' clock it started to rain, and this was no ordinary rain. It was coming down in buckets. Amazingly, the tuk-tuk drivers that had brought us to the restaurant continued to wait for us outside. Seemingly they had more chance of catching a buck if they waited for us than if they went back into the city to find other passengers.
Things are starting to get more laid back now and after the first days of uneasiness I'm now really starting to get that holiday feeling. With a glass of Drambuie I'm finishing todays report to upload it before bedtime. Tomorrow we leave Phnom Penh and fly to the north-eastern province of Ratanakiri. I almost feel sorry about leaving this city and it's friendly people. As said, it does feel like a poor men's Bangkok, but with a whole lot more kindness and style and less dirtier.
New Order - Waiting for the Siren's Call
I was planning to stay in bed a bit longer this morning and grab something to eat at the airport. Unfortunately this was not to be. First my mobile phone rang in the middle of the night. For some reason my insurance agency - who never call me - found it necessary to ring me up. I told them they'd better try again in two weeks when I was back in Holland. Then at 6 o'clock the traffic in the streets woke me up again. I decided to pack my stuff, say high to my roommate (a huge cockroach that was camping in my bathroom) and hit the shower.
When I walked to the restaurant across the street I noticed that there was a wedding going on in our hotel. They had put out a big arch in front of the hotel and people were going in and out in processions. I ordered some extra bread this morning which I gave to a monk who was doing his alms round. Then, after a quick check of my e-mails we were off to the airport.
After check-in we had a cup of coffee, for which they charged an amount of money that would buy you two full breakfasts in Phnom Penh. Ah well, seemingly airports are the same all over the world. A small 50-seater plane flew us to Ban Lung in the Ratanakiri Province in approximately an hour. Remarkable was the fact that they did not give any safety instructions. Not that I normally listen to those ... I wasn't quite sure about the cold steam coming from the luggage compartments either, but fortunately we survived the trip to Ratanakiri. The airport of Ban Lung was a real treat. Imagine a long dirt track for landing and take-off and a rickety old building as the airport. Cows, motos, kids on bikes, the works. ;-)
Pickup trucks took us to our hotel, which turned out to be a 2 minute drive to the other side (!) of Ban Lung. Indeed, Ban Lung turned out to be little more than a handful of brown dusty roads, great for people with contact lenses like me. Unexpectedly for a town like this, the hotel was a very decent place with nice, spacey rooms.
After dropping our stuff in our rooms Mieke, Ad, Angela, Marcel, Gijs and me decided to explore the surrounding by foot. First we walked up a hill past something which must have once been a local temple to a rather ugly statue of a reclining Buddha. The view over the surrounding hills and valleys was marvellous though. Walking back to town we first treated ourselves to some beer (Anchor this time, not to be confused with Angkor beer) and some fine spring rolls.
Our travel guides were mentioning that the volcanic crater lake of Boeng Yeak Lom was some 5 kilometres out of town. A bit too far to walk, so in our all-knowing wisdom we rented a couple of bikes for one dollar per bike. After a quick tour around the local market, were we ourselves suddenly seemed to be the main attraction, we headed eastwards. My mountain bike had several problems, like the saddle suddenly tilting upwards and gear that made strange noises. We cycled around holes in the road and through small highs and lows but when the biggest of these came it happened. The chain of my bike broke, to the amusement of the local kids. Fortunately we weren't to far from the lake and most of it was downhill. That's when I noticed the quality of the brakes wasn't something to write home about either. With enormous speed I went down the road, trying to avoid ditches and slowing down by using my feet as brakes. I suddenly past Sandra, who was on her way to the lake as well and she shouted 'use the brakes' ... as if I wasn't. When I finally came to a halt and Sandra came walking down the road she informed us that a pickup truck was coming towards us with a broken moto in the back. A perfect way to get rid of my broken bike as well and I continued towards the lake on the back of Mieke's bike and walking the last bit.
It was more than worth it. A beautiful large lake surrounded by forest awaited us. There was a small stand selling drinks (more beer !) and the water was nice and warm. Perfect for a couple of hours of swimming and washing the brown dirt off. We commenced with diving and a competition of 'bommetje' with some of the local youth, who were also delighted with some of the balloons Mieke had brought. Eventually most of the group arrived by various means of transportation and half of us took a dive in the warm lake. When it got dark my original companions went back on the rented bikes but I got to ride in the back of a pickup truck. Lucky me. ;-)
In the hotel I took a shower and changed for the evening's dinner. I'm not quite sure what the place was called where we had dinner but it was quite a change from the Phnom Penh restaurants with their artificial lighting. This place was basically an restaurant without walls, which was good because the temperature in Ratanakiri in the evening is much more comfortable than in Phnom Penh. I did have some problems with my meal though. Having had a chicken meal a couple of times I've noticed that the Khmer do not remove any bones from the chicken before frying it. The simply cut the bird in pieces, bones and all. The resulting dish makes you chew, cringe and take out the bones of every bite you take. Quite uncomfortable eating, comparable to a fish riddled with grates. Maybe I should have gone for the Fish Amok again, especially since the hotel has a bidet which really helps if that spicy meal leaves the body.
Anyway, it was a fun evening. Besides the running joke of the small dog with pony tails that was wondering about (we decided to call him 'Swiffer') it turned out that our table (Angela, Peter, Rimke, Rene, Sandra and me) were fascinated by psychology and personality tests. This resulted in some very 'deep' conversations which again brought the group closer together. At half past 10 it was time to go back to the hotel and get some rest from today's ordeals. And a good rest it should be because tomorrow would bring an early rise.
RPWL - Sleep
I'm not sure why, but I always seem to be waking early in this country. Perhaps it's because the sun is already brightly shining at 6 in the morning and goes down at 6 in the evening. After a quick breakfast at the hotel (very simple and only one choice: bread with bananas and honey) we headed north to Voen Sai in four rented four-wheel-drive trucks. Although there was space enough inside, Mieke, Ad and I agreed that it would be much more fun to ride in the back of a pick-up and catch some fresh morning air. First we did some quick shopping at the local market and then we were off.
The first bit was no problem whatsoever, not counting the roads with red-brownish dust. Then big holes began to appear in the road, but with the right amount of caution these were easily concurred as well. When we finally entered the denser parts of the jungle where few rays of sunlight could penetrate we found out how bad the roads in Cambodia could actually be. Again, huge holes, but this time filled with clay-like mud. Still, the trucks did not have to much trouble with these. Until the 'hole from hell' appeared. A huge motherf*cker with edges of at least a meter high. And that's also when we found out that our pick-up truck was not really a four-wheel drive. You guessed it, it got terribly stuck in the mud. It took at least a quarter of an hour and much going to-and-fro, pushing an shoving by the drivers to free the damn thing. Time that Sandra used to treat the group to some fried grasshoppers (not for me though, insects is where I draw the line).
When the truck was free again we continued our 2 hour journey to Voen Sai, passing more holes in the road but also some warthogs and water buffalo's. Voen Sai turned out to be a tiny little town. We got into speedboats (2-4 persons per boat) and headed eastwards over the Tonle San river. What a marvellous experience sitting and lying in that boat, watching the jungle shoot by and even seeing some bathing water buffalo's. I had brought my MP3 player and RPWL World Through My Eyes with it's Asian influences was the perfect soundtrack for this sight.
After an hour we arrived in the small village of Kachon, where a minority group called the Tampuon lived. As with all small villages in Cambodia this one was made up of simple wooden houses on poles, high above the ground. Below one of these houses lay a wooden coffin. Seemingly it had been made by a old man who didn't have any family left in the village and therefore had to make his own coffin.
The main purpose for our visit was the Tompuon Cemetery. After a lengthy period of mourning (3 days) the Tompuon bury their dead under a small wooden house and after a buffalo is sacrificed they also add elephant tusks of wood and a wooden statue of the deceased. If this person was a military man the statue would even wear a uniform and gun. Each 'grave' had place for two people since man and wife were buried next to each other. Quite an interesting location !
Back in the village some of the ladies in the group started handing out clothing, toys and stickers they had brought for the children. As you can imagine, the locals were delighted. There were so many children in the village that we actually wondered if we shouldn't be handing out condoms to the male population instead. ;-)
Than it was back to Voen Sai for lunch with rice or noodles and the boats brought us to two other small villages with Chinese and Lao people. Nothing impressive and really a bit of a waste of time. So back to Voen Sai and back in the trucks.
The road was much dustier than that morning but we were able to get around the 'hole from hell' this time. It wasn't easy though because Ad, Mieke and myself actually had to counterbalance the truck which was tilting at a dangerous 45 degrees. But we made it .... only to get stuck in the next one. Fortunately it didn't take much time to get going again from this one and we continued our journey, passing some Cambodians that had living pigs, lying on their backs, tied to their motos. A weird sight.
Another weird sight were Ad and myself. We had been standing in the truck most of the journey and we found out how dusty the roads really were. When we got out of the trucks we were covered in thick layers of dirt, to the amusement of the rest of the group. They weren't able to come to a consensus though if we were looking like Indians or mine workers. ;-)
Back in Ban Lung the local population considered us a funny pair as well, judging from their laughs. After doing some quick groceries for tomorrow's long day of travel we arrived back at the hotel. Time for a well deserved shower !
This evening we had dinner with 10 out of 21 at one of the restaurants in town. A nice, relaxed evening which didn't last too long because we had to get up at 4 in the morning for a long day of travelling.
Peter Gabriel - Sky Blue
Today we got up at four in the morning with a long day of travelling ahead of us. The previous evening I had made desperate attempts to make a phone call to Holland with my mobile phone, but to no avail. When I checked the reception area I found all of the personnel fast asleep on the benches and behind the desk ! I tried again this morning. The mobile wasn't working and after trying to explain that I wanted to call Holland to one of the hotel employees (which took about 5 minutes before he had a faint idea what I meant) I was told that it wasn't possible to call from the hotel. Fortunately SMS-ing turned out to work quite well.
After a quick breakfast (more bread, banana and honey) which strange enough was more expensive than the morning before, we stepped into the two air conditioned busses. The journey ahead would take us towards Stung Treng but would then take the junction towards Kratie. This was a bit of a deviation from the original program, which was supposed to take us to Stung Treng and with boats to Kratie the next morning. However, because the boats seemingly were no longer operating and based on the experience with the previous Cambodia trip by Djoser it seemed more sensible to head for Kratie straight away. This would result in a long day of travelling though. Reports from the previous group had told us that they had taken 18 hours for the 250 km trip. Then again, they were travelling in the rain season and their busses got stuck countless times. Anyway, we were prepared for the worst.
It all started quite well, we rolled out of Ban Lung in the dark at 5 and by the time the sun rose at 6 we hadn't had any real problems yet. There was one spot where there were deep muddy trenches in the road but we conquered these easily. After an hour or two we arrived at a food stop where I took some rice and fish, against the advise of some in the group who had seen the kitchen. My reply: "All of these restaurants buy their stuff at the markets and there you've got flies everywhere as well. What's more, you haven't seen the kitchens of the other places we dined at, have you ?" And bravely I dug into my fish.
Since the trip had gone quite well so far and since the guide told us that the worst was behind us we were all in a state of euphoria, thinking we'd be in Kratie in 4 or 5 hours. Well, not quite because soon the first problems started. Like yesterday, the denser parts of the jungle contained huge holes filled with mud. But these boys made yesterday's holes look like golf holes. It didn't take long before we were stuck in the brown-red mud with one of the busses. What followed was a long day of getting stuck, getting out of the buss, gathering wood, putting it in front of the wheels, pushing the busses out of trenches, you name it. To be honest, it's quite fun the first couple of times, but it starts getting slightly annoying after five times.
Nevertheless, we shouldn't complain to much because on our way we passed two trucks loaded with heavy cargo that, side by side, blocking the complete road, had been stuck there for 3 days (!) already. At this specific (seemingly notorious) spot there was a secondary road going around the muddy trenches. So after the drivers had cut down some trees that were in the way we were on out way again. At another spot we had to fill up the holes with bricks which had fallen off a truck, while water buffalo's watched us.
After eleven hours we finally reached the junction to Kratie. At that point we had only driven 120 kilometres. The same distance to Kratie would be crossed in another three hours while the sun was going down. Road #7 was supposed to be one of the countries 'highways' but was actually just another dusty road, just wider and harder than the ones we had been crossing so far. Other vehicles were rare on this road, but small hordes of cows wandering on the highway were all the more common. If you could see them, that is, because most of the time all we could see was the huge cloud of dust of the other buss driving in front of us.
Just before the sun went down the highway ended and there was a detour to a road that passed several villages towards Kratie. Suddenly we saw the wide Mekong river on our right, quite an amazing sight in the sunset. At seven we finally arrived in Kratie. A 250 km journey in 14 hours and everybody was knackered. We freshened up and had a couple of beers and a fine dinner in one of the restaurants in Kratie (I had a particularly nice coconut curry with chicken and potatoes) and decided to call it an early night around ten.
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be.
The Beatles - Let it Be
I got up at 7:15, packed my stuff and headed out in search for an Internet cafe. Unfortunately the one that was pointed out to us by the restaurant employee yesterday did not have any connection today. So I decided to kill some time by exploring the surroundings. On the local market I bought my third krama scarf (a black one). It seemed to be easier to buy a new one than to clean my old one every day. For some reason the locals were highly amused by my two earrings.
After buying a new pack of 555 siggies (I should really start being careful not to start smoking full time again) I decided to pay a short visit to the local Wat (temple). I didn't really get a chance to enter the temple hall though because I was immediately surrounded by monks. They turned out to be a curious lot who spoke English quite well. Well, there was one with a large vocabulary but a thick accent and one with a perfect accent but a small vocabulary, so it took some work to understand them. They wanted to know where I lived, what my name was, what kind of study I'd done, if I had a girlfriend. Since I couldn't point them out to my website I gave 'em all of the gory details. In return they told me about their daily life in the wat; getting up at 4, paying respect to the Buddha at 6, going for the alms round at 8, eating before 12 and spending the rest of the day in meditation and study. I was so fascinated by this bunch that I completely forgot to take their picture.
After having breakfast in yesterday's restaurant I found an Internet cafe near our hotel and did a quick upload of my travel log and checked my mail. Than it was back to the hotel where we celebrated Ludo's birthday by singing for him. They had also bought him his own krama and asked me to tell him how to wear it.
We took the bus to Klampi, a small village north of Kratie, to watch the Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins. Unlike the more common dolphins this endangered species have no snouts, so they look more like Orca's than dolphins. The number of Irrawaddy has decreased dramatically in the last four decades because they were hunted for their oil during the Pol Pot regime and locals used dynamite fishing (throwing grenades in the water) to catch them. We went out to the middle of the mighty Mekong river where the motors of the boats turned off. Before long the dolphins appeared on the surface. Now, these dolphins were not the kind that jumped out of the water in high loops. They simply came up every now and then for some air. Too short and far away to take good pictures, but long and close enough to clearly see them. The closest ones were probably 10 meters from the boat. Even though their visibility was limited the boat trip on the river in the rising sun was a real treat !
Back to the hotel and to a local restaurant for a fine lunch (fried noodles with chicken), where Peter and I discovered a mutual interest (Pink Floyd), to the annoyance of his girlfriend Rimke. You can imagine the conversation which followed.
And then it was back in the bus for a couple of hours of travelling towards Kompong Cham. Spirits were high (if not silly) and accompanied by loud singing we discovered today's biggest surprise. Tarmac !! They actually had tarmac roads in Cambodia !
Along the way we stopped shortly to check out a rubber plantation. Diagonal cuts in the trees were used to let the rubber seep into bowls nailed below the cuts. Another stop involved a small village by the side of the highway where the drivers had to stop for gas and while we walked around we turned into the talk of the town again. The most interesting stop was by the Moat Khmong bridge which was donated to the Khmer by the Japanese. Here we witnessed an interesting way of fishing. Along the river small boats, complete with houses were lined up. These boats were equipped with huge fishing nets which were lowered in the water and hauled up after a few minutes. Any fish caught in the net was then removed and (so it seemed) immediately sold by the side of the road. A fascinating sight !
We arrived in Kompong Chom, Cambodia's third largest city around 6 o'clock, when the sun had already set. The hotel room was okay besides the fact that there was no toilet paper, remote control for the airco (and the temperature was immense) and light in the bathroom. The first two were finished quickly, but the hotel employee wasn't able to fix the light after trying several bulbs and demolishing most of the fiiting. I told him it was okay since it seemed safer to shower in the dark than with a broken piece of electric equipment.
After a fun dinner in a local restaurant (Beef in Soya with rice and some cashew nuts and fried shrimps which Petra and I shared with the group) we went back to the hotel. Talking about Petra, this seemed to be the 'day of discovering shared interests' because we found out that we both loved Anathema's A Natural Disaster CD. When the hotel's nightclub turned out to be closed we headed for the hotel's Karaoke bar. We got our own Tiger Beer girl, who seemed to be assigned to fill out glasses but seemingly could not keep up with our tendency to make it a late night and left well before we did. We also got a whole stack of CDs, most of which were Khmer and no use whatsoever. We found some CDs with a couple of good track and loads of cheesy ones. What followed was an 'okay' night. Lots of fun tunes to sing along to but also a woman operating the machine who didn't seem to get what we liked and didn't like. There were several highlights, among which Jaap, Petra and Mark performing Barbie Girl, my duet with Sandra for Let it Be, Jaap (who had received 'love lessons 1-8' from the group that night) doing Like a Virgin. Also, several songs which we didn't know were immediately turned into 'Elvis renditions'. Other songs I performed were Huey Lewis' The Power of Love, Papa was a Rolling Stone (with Mark) and Knocking on Heaven's Door. At midnight we decided to call it a day. Tomorrow would bring another long day of travelling and sight-seeing.
Marillion - Brief Encounter
Another relatively early day at 6. Packing my stuff an heading down to have breakfast, where the usual confusion occurred as to what was an what wasn't available ('We don't have', 'You don't have this?', 'Yes'). We then changed our two busses for a bigger one and left the hotel at half past seven for a journey to Kompong Thom.
First stop was Wat Nakor, just outside Kompong Cham. Quite a remarkable site because an old 11 century Mahayana/Hinduism temple had been incorporated in a newer Therevada temple, resulting in a weird combination of symbolism. It's interesting that a Mahayana temple ended up here anyway since it normally is not the Buddhist leaning you come across in this part of Asia. The old sandstone walls and shrines, reminding me of Prasat Hin Phimai in Thailand, were still standing, but in the middle a new Viharna temple hall had been constructed with paintings depicting the Buddha's live on walls and ceiling.
Next stop was Phnom Pros, one of the two hills near Kompong Cham, the other one being Phnom Prei, a higher hill that could be seen from the top of Phnom Pros. The names of these hills mean 'Man Hill' and 'Woman Hill' According to local legends two teams, women against men, had held a competition once to build stupas on their two hills. The team that would have progressed the most by daybreak would win. The women however tricked the man into believing that the sun was coming up by building a large fire on their hill. They stopped working and the women won. As a result the women no longer had to ask for a man's hand for marriage, as had previously been the tradition.
There was another temple on Phnom Pros that combined Hinduism and Buddhism and there were quite a few monkeys wandering around. These turned out to be a lot more cheeky than the ones at Wat Phnom; after Rene had fed them banana's they actually stole Chantal's bottle of water right from here hands.
When we wanted to continue our journey the bus proved to have an empty battery, so you guessed it ...
We pushed the bus, which had a red hot backside, until the motor started, being treated to thick black clouds of smoke from the exhaust pipe by way of saying 'thank you'. But the damn thing was working again, so we quickly got in, went down the hill and up the road ... where the bus broke down completely after a few hundred meters !
The driver hiked back to Kompong Cham to arrange new transport and since there was nothing else to do I grabbed my laptop to work on this log. The owner of the house in front of which the bus had stopped was highly fascinated by my computer and we had a bit of a chat. His English wasn't bad (he was a teacher) and he was very interested to learn where I came from and where we had been. So I showed him the pictures in the travel log and told him some things about Holland. He even asked for my e-mail address, so I'm curious if he's ever going to use it.
After about an hour two new busses arrived, arranged by Marvel Tours (the local operator). While we already shifting baggage another big, air conditioned bus arrived. Seemingly the driver had heard of our breakdown. After some haggling and negotiating by Sandra we got into this more comfortable bus and continued our way north-west.
Next stop, around 11 o'clock was the small town of Skuon, aka Spiderville. You guessed it, the local delicacy in this village: spiders. As soon as we left the bus we were met by a woman holding a big plate of deep-fried spiders. These little critters are bred underground near the town and had to be eaten like crabs by cracking open the backside and peeling out the flesh, which seemingly tastes a lot like crab as well. I said 'seemingly' because I certainly wasn't among half of the group that tried them ! Even the thought of holding one was enough to make my skin crawl. Sorry, not a day for heroic deeds on my part.
We arrived in Kompong Thom early in the afternoon. After having lunch at the big restaurant that was operated by the hotel we got back in the bus and drove 45 minutes to Sambor Prei Kuk, the remains of a 7th century temple complex. These pre-Angkorian structures are some of the oldest buildings in the country and were all dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva (in several different forms) and were part of the old Chenla empire. They were located in a remote piece of forests which gave them a real peaceful and serene atmosphere.
There were three main groups of buildings (Prasat Sambor, Prasat Tao and Prasat Yeay Peau) we visited, while Sam, our guide explained their backgrounds. All of these groups were basically a number of towerlike edifices build of brick with an opening in the roof that made them feel like chimneys when you were inside. Some of the highlights of this visit included the tower with the lion (Tao) statues, the entrance of Prasat Yeay Peau, overgrown by a big tree and several of the mural carvings.
Another thing worth mentioning are the children. When we got out of the bus we were surrounded by a huge group of kids, all selling scarves. Even though we told them that we would buy something when we got back to the bus they kept following us around. This resulted in a rather hilarious scene. Imagine a group of tourists walking through a forest with a horde of grasshoppers fleeing in front of them and a horde or kids trailing behind them. Before long we noticed that every kid had picked a person in the group and remained with this person. I was amazed about their English skills and they even acted as little guides, telling us what was up next and pointing out holes created by American bombs. As you can imagine I bought one of the scarves before getting back in the bus.
Back in Kompong Thom I found an Internet cafe to check e-mails, have a couple of chats and upload the travel log. Than it was back to the hotel's restaurant at half past 7 for a meal (Chicken Sweet and Sour) and more than a few bottles of Angkor beer. After playing a bit with the restaurant's two cats it was time to catch some sleep in preparation for one of the highlights of the journey: Angkor itself !
Another failed attempt to sleep late. Partially because of another weird nightmare (is it the temperature or something else causing these ?) partially because of local street life. Packed my stuff and went downstairs for breakfast. Since I had some time left before we left I went down the local market down the street. I can't get enough of these markets, the colourfulness and chaotic activity are fascinating. What's more, you immediately turn into the local attraction yourself with children yelling 'hello !' and adults staring and laughing.
Back into the bus for another couple of hours driving towards Siem Reap. Along the way we made a short stop at an Angkorian bridge but we still arrived much earlier than expected in Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor temples. First we needed to get our entrance passes we needed for the coming three days at the 'Tourist Police Station', after which we continued to our hotel. Siem Reap was quite a culture shock after the remote villages of the past days. Whereas we had hardly seen any western people since Phnom Penh the streets were crawling with them over here. And everything that seemed to be a shortage in those village was available here in full blown redundancy. Hotels, Internet cafes, tuk-tuks, massage parlours. And everywhere you look more fancy hotels are being build. It must be a matter of years before Siem Reap will be the new Las Vegas. Good to visit it before that stage has been reached.
After saying thanks and goodbye to our guide Sam and throwing my stuff in my room and sorting out some laundry I went to the hotel's cafe for a cold Angkor. Soon I was joined by the always oversexed Jaap and his roommate Marcel and we decided to grab a bite first. After another splendid lunch we were of to the local market (a mixture of Phnom Penh's Russian Market and Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar) and Internet cafes. Back at the hotel at half past 4 we all got into tuk-tuks for a sunset trip. After being practically pulled in a tuk-tuk by Sandra we were off to our first temple of Angkor; Phnom Bakheng.
While the sun was setting we first climbed the steep hill path made up of rocks and then the narrow stairs of the temple gate to arrive at the terrace filled with hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Phnom Bakheng is a typical Angkorian temple full of symbolism; seven levels (including base and summit) for the seven Hindu heavens. While we caught our breaths and passed around my bottle of Drambuie we watched the sunset on the Tonle Sap lake. For some, the multitude of people might have spoiled the fun but I thought the sunset was truely magical nevertheless.
We made our way back down the stairs and slope in the twilight before it got really dark. Although I really needed a shower to wash off the sunscreen and sweat Ad convinced me that we needed to grab a cold beer first. This eventually turned into a bit of a party night with several more rounds and a trip of the 'terrible ten' (Ad, Mieke, Marcel, Jaap, Ludo, Mia, Peter, Rimke, Angela & Ed) to the Chinese restaurant. Ad had the brilliant idea to order 7 different plates (twice each) and share them between us, which turned into a splendid sort of Chinese tapas dinner with lots of tasty bites. The beer and cocktails were consumed in high tempo again tonight and even though most of us needed their bed (or shower !) desperately around ten it was another great night. Conversations are getting more personal and hilarious at the same time with people sharing secrets and jokes. What fine company !
RPWL - Sleep
You guessed it, I woke up around 6 o'clock again. Got dressed and went downstairs and found some of the group members having breakfast already. They didn't plan to join the guided tour and were leaving earlier. I joined them for an American Breakfast, after which I went to an Internet cafe down the street to upload the travel log and check on e-mails.
At 9 o'clock a group of 12 got into tuk-tuks and lead by guide Aki we visited 5 of the temples of Angkor. Angkor was the mighty Khmer kingdom that ruled over a large part of South-East Asia from the 9th to the 14th century, with it's centre in current Cambodia. The Khmer are still incredibly proud of the temples of Angkor, naming a wide variety of commercial services and products after the former kingdom. And rightfully so because Angkor is one of the biggest architectural wonders of the world, with approximately 100 different buildings, most of which are situated near Siem Reap.
The most efficient thing seemed to be to ride straight to the furthest temple on the program (32 km fro Siem Reap) and work our way back to Siem Reap. During this 1,5 hours trip in tuk-tuks we had one small accident where a tuk-tuk driver couldn't stop in time and crashed into the back of a small truck. Fortunately the only thing he hurt was his sense of dignity, so we continued quickly towards the first temple, Bantey Srei. When we arrived we were met by several women and men selling souvenirs. One of the men was selling a rather nice guide book on the temples of Angkor and since the Lonely Planet had few pictures I was quite interested. He asked 12 dollar but I told him I could get the same book in Siem Riep for 4 dollars (just a wild guess). 'Okay, 8 dollars.' 'Nope, four'. 'Eight !'. 'Forget it', I said while I walked away. ' Okay, okay !', he yelled. However, after counting the change I got I noticed that he had still charged me 5 dollars. I decided not to bother. Later I would also buy a sleeveless T-shirt from a saleswoman.
Bantey Srei (Citadel of the Woman) turned out to be a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It had clearest mural carvings and bas-reliefs we'd get to see during our visits to Angkor.The detail and how well it had been preserved were amazing. Of course, this temple had been the first major restorations project in 1930. Our guide Aki told us a lot about the stories behind all the carvings.
At the next temple, Bantey Samre, we got assaulted again by a horde of kids. At that time I still found it quite amusing and I got into a conversation with this little girl callede Pietra. I promised to buy a cold can of Angkor from her when we would get back from the temple, after haggling it down from 2 to 1 dollar.
Bantey Samre was a nice an peaceful place with hardly any other people around. A fine moment of tranquility. Aki told us all about the styles of the lions used in different periods of Angkor and how the tails of the lions at this temple were missing since they had originally been equipped with wooden tails. The central building had many impressive squares with different levels of height and all seemed to be build in a perfect symmetrical way.
Before we visited East Mebon, we had lunch at one of the food stalls in front of it. Again we were assaulted by kids selling anything from postcards to wooden cowbells. At first I was a bit annoyed by the constant high pitched nagging around me but I then met this little boy who knew the capital city of Holland to be Amsterdam. I had him tell me all of the capital cities of Western Europe, which he could without a mistake. I did not buy anything from him but gave him some change for this remarkable accomplishment.
After downing a full coconut and fried pineapple with chicken and rice we went to the temple of East Mebon. It had originally been an islet in a huge reservoir called the Eastern Baray but this had now dried up. The lack of stone stairs at the front of the temple still showed that boats had been able to get straight to the temple gateway. This temple was covered with small holes which were ones used to hold the plaster that had originally covered the shrines.
Prasat Neak Pean (Intertwined Naga) was quite different from the temples we had seen so far. A central tower stood in a big pond with two intercoiled naga snakes around its base. These snakes symbolised the combination of Hindu and Buddhist religions. Around the central point lay four square reservoirs, each of which held an alcove with a stone head. You'd find a man's head, a lion's head, a horses head and an elephant's head. The holes in their mouths were connected to the central point, so water could flow from the central pool to the other four pools during purification rituals. Quite a clever design !
According to most, Praeh Kham (Sacred Sword) was today's highlight. Being one of the largest buildings in Angkor it featured an extensive maze of corridors, all leading to a central point where a stupa had been erected. This seemed like hike-and-seek heavens and walking around the corridors you almost had the feeling that you were in some weird house of mirrors. This building had been made as a place for worship and teaching. Some of the corridors featured Buddhist carvings on the left and Hindu carvings on the right. Unfortunately, during one of the shifts of religion in Khmer history the Hindus had removed all the Buddhist images from the temple, leaving only empty spots in otherwise impressive carvings.
Other features of interest were the causeway with demons and gods on the left and right using a snake for a thug of war (a depiction of the legend of the Churning of the Ocean of milk) and the Eastern entrance where the walls were under attack by a huge jungle tree.
Back in the hotel we grabbed a well deserved Angkor beer before going to our rooms to wash of todays sweat and dirt. Back down in the lobby the Terrible Ten had gathered for another night on the town. First we grabbed a couple of beers and cocktails at the Buddha Lounge Bar and when the time came to look for a place to eat it didn't take long for the group to come to the conclusion that we could just go to the Chinese restaurant again where we had such a splendid night yesterday. And so it was. The Return of the Terrible Ten. We again ordered various plates of our favourite dishes and besides a minor incident of me knocking a large glass of beer in my own lap, it was another top-notch night. Ad, Mieke, Jaap, Peter and me went for a final glass in the atmospheric Dead Fish restaurant, where they even hold a large number of baby crocodiles, before calling it a night. After a quick check of e-mails in one of the many Internet Cafes I slipped into bed around midnight. Tomorrow would bring an early rise and shine ...
Yes - Angkor Wat
This must have been one of the few times that my alarm clock went off before I was awake. Then again, it was half past 4 in the morning ! In a state of sleep drunkenness (or was it the lingering traces of last night's Angkor beer ?) I washed up and got dressed. At 5 o' clock I met Ad, Mieke, Jaap and Marcel with the two tuk-tuk drivers we had arranged the previous day. Our destination: sunrise over Angkor Wat !
The tuk-tuks made their way through the dark outskirts of Siem Reap to Angkor Wat, where our tuk-tuk driver (Mr. How) explained what the best place was to view the sunrise. We then made our way over the huge causeway to the temple, carefully checking for holes in the road with my flashlight. We went through Angkor Wat's outer wall and saw the temple lying their in the shady twilight, shrouded in mystery. Quite a sight already. While walking around I discovered the two ponds in front of the temple in which the towers are so magnificently reflected at dawn. I got the other four and we found a nice spot to view the spectacle. Fortunately, even though there were certainly hundreds of people around, it didn't feel as massive as the sunset we watched on Phnom Bakheng two days earlier. And it was definitely worth getting out of bed early for. Seeing the sky painted purple, pink and red over the dark Angkor Wat was a sight never to forget.
When the people started to clear out and there was enough daylight we decided to visit Angkor Wat now that there was few people around and the weather was still comfortable. We continued our way along the causeways and first checked out the 800 meters long series of bas-reliefs in the outer corridors of the temples. These depicted various battles between gods in the Hindu religion, as well as the armed forces of the King that had build Angkor Wat.
Through a rather disappointing "Gallery of a Thousand Buddha's" (Gallery of a Handful of Buddha's would have been more appropriate) we came to the temples section that holds the huge central tower and four surrounding smaller towers. We discovered that it was possible to climb into the smaller towers via steep stairs on their outside walls. Entering the towers we found a big courtyard made up of four quadrants and a niche with a Buddha statue in each side of the central tower.
To be perfectly honest, Angkor Wat is a most impressive sight with it's towers, carvings and courtyards. The most impressive things however is seeing it from the outside; the long columned corridors behind the lakes and the five towers above those. Nothing you'll see inside the temple can compete with that.
We continued our journey to Angkor Thom, which isn't a temple but a huge fortified city of roughly 10 square km. This Great City (as the name translates) is enclosed by a wall of 8 meter high and 12 km long and a 100 meter wide moat (as the oceans surrounded mythical Mount Meru). We entered the 'city' by the South Gate (one out of 5 gates) which was decorated with the face of the Boddhisatva Avalokitheshvara looking out on a bridge where on each side 54 gods and 54 demons were pulling a Naga snake, a scene from the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
Before visiting the many sites of interest in Angkor Thom we first had breakfast at a food stall Mr. How had recommended. I opted for coffee with sweet milk and a cheese omelette today. This was a very welcome meal since we'd been up for more than 3 hours already and my empty stomach was giving me nausea.
We then started our exploration of Angkor Thom in the north part of the area, where we first visited a big cruciform Buddhist terrace with a 4,5 meter high statue of the Buddha (Tep Pranam). Behind Tep Pranam we found a rather deteriorated small temple called Preah Palilay. We prided ourselves in climbing all the way up to the collapsed roof.
Walking back towards the main road we found the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants. The first was a 7 meter high platform of which the front was decorated with five tiers of carvings of seated aspara (celestial dancers). Behind this front wall there was a corridor which followed the contours of the outer wall and contained even more stunning carvings.
In the 12th century the Terrace of the Elephants was used to review public ceremonies. Over this terrace we reached the entrance to the Phimeanakas where we bumped into Rimke, Peter, Ludo and Mia. After catching our breaths and seeking shelter from the increasingly more burning sun, while enjoying our first Angkor beer, we continued towards the Phimeanakas, or 'Celestial Palace'. This temple was another pyramidal representation of Mount Meru with three levels, which we climbed via the stairs at the back to enjoy the view.
Via the Baphuom (another pyramidal representation of ... you guessed it), which was closed to the public because of restorations (and rightfully so because the thing was in shambles) we continued our way to the highlight of Angkor Thom: The Bayon. From afar this enormous temple looks like a pile of rubble, but when coming closer one can make out 54 gothic towers carrying 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshrava. The Bayon stands in the exact middle of Angkor Thom and it's exact function and symbolism remain unclear. Under the burning sun we explored the three levels of the temple, the first holding an impressive 1.2 km of bass-reliefs (but since we'd seen to many of these by now we decided not to see them all), the second consisted of dark corridors, not unlike those in Praeh Kahm. The third and most impressive level held the central sanctuary and it was in this level that you became aware of the multitude of stone faces staring and smiling at you. An impressive experience.
Last but certainly not the least on our agenda was Ta Prohm, which was quite a difference from the temples we had seen so far. Whereas the other ones were standing clear of the jungle and had been (partially) restored, this one clearly showed the destructive force on nature. Imagine huge trees wrapping themselves around walls or pushing over towers, with huge bricks of stone tumbling down in the courtyards. It was this combination of the power of man and jungle that made this one of the most fascinating highlights of our temple tours.
While we joined several others of the group at one of the food stalls and got ourselves another cold one I was getting so knackered I almost fell asleep on the table. It was a good thing therefore that upon returning to the hotel and quickly freshing up, we got ourselves some nice food in a nearby restaurant (Irish pub Molley Malone). While Mieke opted for a club sandwhich, Ad, Marcel and I tried a fine bowl of Chicken Amok.
At the central market of Siem Reap I bought a miniature model of the central towers of Angkor Wat and an illegal copy of the DVD of the Killing Fields. We then went to get some groceries for tomorrow's boat journey, got a final cold beer at the Dead Fish restaurant, checked out e-mails in an Internet cafe and went back to the hotel for some rest. After all, we'd been up for 12 hours already.
At half past 8 a selection of the Terrible Ten gathered in front of the hotel to have dinner at the Dead Fish restaurant. This did not turn into the best evening of the vacation though. Jaap was dead tired so he left after a couple of drinks, Mieke had caught diarrhoea sometime during the day and some of our choices for meals were (again) not available. My Amok Fish was okay but the others weren't quite satisfied with their dishes. This perfect example of Khmer chaos climaxed when we tried to buy two T-shirts that were on display but they did not have the actual shirts available in various sizes. Still, we had some fun feeding the crocodiles (there were in total 64 in the restaurant). And then it was back to bed for an early morning rise again.
New Order - Waiting for the Siren's Call
My alarm clock woke me up at 5 and I was feeling far from good. Made my way to the bathroom to find out that Mieke wasn't the only one with intestinal problems. I quickly took some medicine and packed my last stuff, hauling the bags down the stairs feeling more dead than alive. The next couple of hours were filled with attacks of heavy sweating and fits of pain in my stomach. Fortunately I was able to 'keep it inside' and around 9 I was feeling a bit better, being able to eat and drink again around 10.
Today we took the boat from Siem Reap, across the immense Tonle Sap lake, back to good old Phnom Penh, were we would continue our journey by bus to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Quite a bit of chaos erupted in the boat since the boat owners had given out double tickets for seat numbers (seemingly this happens every day). Some really nasty discussions with a couple of French followed but eventually we decided to let them have their way (after all those 'sympathetic' people never give in, do they ?). BJ had warned me about the boat, which always sells more tickets than seats so the last passengers have to ride on the boat's roof for several hours. We were lucky though as we all had reserved seat (not counting the French incident) and had a rather comfortable trip to Phnom Penh in the boat's air conditioned front cabin. I even went outside when the nausea had subsided to catch a bit of wind in my hair. Strange enough, the trip to Phnom Penh actually takes longer by boat than by bus, as we found out because the busses that had dropped us off at the boat were already waiting for us in Phnom Penh.
Back in the busses we first went for lunch, which I skipped because I still wasn't feeling 100%. Than we continued our journey to Sihanoukville, Cambodia's leading beach resort. This destination has been popular with the Cambodians for some time, with people coming down from Phnom Penh in the weekend, but more recently has also drawn in a lot of foreign tourists. We arrived here around half past 6 in the evening. A beautiful hotel with swimming pool and all, and just a few hundred meters from one of the towns four beaches.
I arrived in my room just in time for today's second toilet experience, only to find out afterwards that the bathroom didn't have any toilet paper. Fortunately there was a bidet and a box of tissues on the desk of the room. At 8 o' clock our new guide So Dara walked us to the Serendipity beach where several restaurants were located. We picked on (The Bayon) and most of the group of 11 people decided to try something different for a change, resulting in lots of plates with pizza's and pasta. In the afternoon Ad had also gotten sick, so we traced back our problems to yesterday morning's omelette, since we'd all eaten that.
Since we were all tired from today's long journey and the mentioned health problems, we decided not to make it a late night and returned to the hotel for some highly necessary sleep at half past 10.
During breakfast we discussed what we'd all be doing this morning. I suggested that whatever we'd do, we should definitely check out Chiva's Shack, which had been recommended to us by an Englishman we kept bumping into the last couple of weeks. Peter than suggested we'd check it out before doing anything else today. And so it was that a small procession (Ad, Mieke, Rimke, Peter, Angela and me) marched down the beach to the east, feet in the warm water.
Chiva's Shack turned out to be a cool place. It had beach chairs, a large terrace, a pool table, Internet (half the price of the hotel) and the 'Boom Boom Room'. The latter was a service not only providing a DJ but also the possibility of copying or burning MP3 or audio tracks to CD-Roms or you MP3-player or I-Pod. They had a huge selection from which Peter and I decided to choose some albums to add to our collection. 75 cents for an MP3 album, 1,25 dollars for an audio CD.
We hadn't quite seated ourselves in the beach chairs yet when we were approached by numerous different sales people selling all kinds of things and services. So we spend the full day at Chiva's shooting pool, drinking Angkor, having a fine lunch, getting massages, the ladies and Jaap (who later joined us) having their legs de-haired (using a strange method involving strings) and having their nails done, buying fresh fruit and bracelets, swimming in the Gulf of Thailand and generally relaxing and having a good time. What an enormous contrast with the tiring travelling, dust, temples and other physical and emotional exhausting experiences of the previous week. I also made a new friend: Chiva's housecat Chivila. Oh, and of course I had a minor mishap again when falling straight through one of the beach chairs.
Just when we were about to leave to get back to the hotel an enormous rain storm drifted over the beach, so we decided to wait until it had blown over. A bit after 6 o'clock rain had gotten lighter so we walked down the road only to find the rain picking up again. We arrived back in the hotel quite soaked but in extremely good spirits.
After a shower and some rest we went back to Chiva's Shack at eight for dinner and more Angkor. The owner asked Peter and me to make a selection of music from the PC in his living room. So we took our shoes of and went into his house, where he lived with his family. His PC was a mess. All MP3 files were spread over countless directories on his computer. Easiest thing was to search for MP3s on his full system and make a selection from the search results. This proved difficult enough since lots of songs didn't even have titles ! We managed to select 2 hours of good stuff, an hour of which was actually played.
After dinner we were joined by some of the others of the group that had spent the day elsewhere. We had some more Angkors and then we called it a day at midnight. And that's where a nasty aspect of Cambodian hospitality became apparent. We had given the people at Chiva's a generous tip earlier that day and I had even given one of the guys one of my earrings. Still, when Peter asked for the bill he noticed that they spontaneously added 5 dollars to the bill ! As you can imagine we didn't agree on paying that. So far for Buddhist's Right Intentions and 'friendship'. :-(
A bus and car took us to the boat, which ridiculously enough was only a few hundred meters away. We all climbed aboard but just when we were about to go we noticed that they didn't have any Angkor beer in the coolbox. Mutiny ! One of the boatsmen was sent out to arrange some cold cans and after his return we were off.
We visited three islands. The first one, uninhabited, did not have a beach but we could jump out of the boat and do some swimming and snorkeling. Like on the beach, the water was amazingly warm out there. Not feeling comfortable with snorkeling equipment I just took a swim, while the others tried to see something beneath the surface, which turned out to be rather difficult in this time of year. Back in the boat I decided to sit at the very front for some rest and contemplation (or should I say worrying ?). It was a nice quite moment with the wind rushing around me.
The second island was inhibited by some people, among whom an owner of a beach terrace. This person was quite an entrepreneur since he charged money for almost everything, from using the beach chairs to the rubber tires you could use to float in. As you can imagine this attitude did not result in the will to spend a lot of money here. We had some drinks, walked on the beach, did some swimming, you name it. I took the opportunity to listen to some music (I was getting cold turkey syndromes).
The third and last island was probably the most fun. Uninhabited and with a huge beach of .... 2 meters wide. Since there wasn't a lot to do on the beach and the sea shore had a very slight slope, making it possible to walk a long way into the sea and still be able to stand, we just ended up doing some silly water games. Limbo dancing beneath the rope of the anker, throwing a coconut around, or swimming beneath our travel guide Sandra and torpedoing her in the air like I did (and she tried to do with me). ;-)
Around 3 o'clock we had as much beach and swimming as we could take and we were off again back to Sihanoukville. Arriving at the hotel we decided to stay at the pool and do some more relaxing, drinking Angkor and swimming. Eventually we were joined by Sandra in an extremely pissed off mood. It turned out the hotel had screwed up her laundry. I think we were able to cheer her up a bit though.
The whole group had one final dinner at The Bayon beach restaurant, with the exception of two couples who had already returned to Phnom Pehn. The restaurant obviously wasn't staffed and equipped for a group of 15, so it took quite long for some of the ordered food to arrive. My Lok Lak wasn't the best I had tasted in the past two weeks either. Not counting the incident with Petra fainting and being taken back to the hotel we had a good evening nevertheless. The last two weeks were evaluated and fruit mixes and jugs of Angkor were passed around. We called it a night at around half past 10 and walked back across the beach to the hotel. Tomorrow would bring another early departure and the start of a 34 hour journey back home.
"Can you wait,
My plane will be arriving shortly,
Right there at the gate,
I pray that you'll be waiting right there for me"
New Order - Jetstream
After passport control we enjoyed a cup of coffee, looked around at all the expensive souvenirs and had a final Angkor at the bar at half past 10 (which had recently been pronounced the 'official Angkor time'). It's hard to break with habits, isn't it. ;-)
The flight from Phnom Pehn to Kuala Lumpur was uneventful but the utter chaos that emerged when we arrived was something that will hunt our worst nightmares for years to come. Djoser had arranged hotel rooms to fresh up but the instructions had been vague to say the least. The fact that Sandra had mentioned that there was only one transfer hotel seemed to contradict Malaysian airlines information that we needed to get a voucher behind custom control. Eventually it turned out that Djoser had arranged a hotel 20 minutes driving from the airport ! After much aggravation and lots of wasted time Ad, Mieke, Angela, Peter, Rimke and me decided to take the KL Express to the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
An unexpectedly nice last day of our vacation followed. Call it 'the icing on the cake'. At the Central train station we decided to take a taxi to one of the big shopping halls of Kuala Lumpur; Suria Shopping Centre, which was located at the foot of the famous 452 meter high Petronas twin towers. When approaching a taxi driver, Mazlan, he offered to escort us through some highlights of the town for the rest of the afternoon. For 40 dollars he drove us to the shopping centre, the Menara radio tower, Chinatown and back to the station.
Suria Shopping Centre turned out to be one of those huge shopping malls, six stories high. Most of the merchandise was designer clothing, which of course was of high interest to the ladies in our small group. After doing much looking and little buying we walked outside where Mazlan was already waiting for us.
Next up was the Menara radio tower, 421 meters high and offering a great view over the city. After buying tickets and being shot up to enormous heights we were given audio sets for a 'do it yourself' audio tour. Quite a nice added value to the magnificent panorama's over Kuala Lumpur. We had arrived at the right time since the sun was setting, which resulted in some beautiful orange clouds.
Back at the base of the tower Mazlan took us to Chinatown, where streets were filled with countless stands of merchandise. As a matter of fact, you could easily call it 'replica heaven' since the legal nature of all products was highly questionable. After some searching we found a nice restaurant in one of the streets. It proved to be managed by a Chinese dude who had worked in Amsterdam for a while and actually new some Dutch lines. Some fine food and a couple of Tiger beers later we headed for the spot where Mazlan would pick us up and he was faithfully waiting for us.
After taking the Express train back to the airport we found out that the plane had been delayed. Fortunately we were in high spirits and hilarious moods by the time so it made little impact. I mean, it gave us some more time for a last Tiger beer. Past midnight we'd be going back to Holland. It had been a marvellous vacation but most of us were glad to be heading back home.
Pink Floyd - Breathe (reprise)
It must have been around 0:45 AM when our plane took off, delayed by a connecting flight from Jacarta. Most of the group members were sitting next to each other, which might have been the case on our journey towards Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago, without actually noticing it.
I watched two movies on the flight. The Librarian was a rather silly adventure movie, making me wonder if it was a tribute or a spoof on Indiana Jones. Whatever it was it was too predictable and daft. I'd heard some negative stuff about the other movie, The Island, but it actually was quite enjoyable, although maybe a bit long.
Food on this Malaysian Airlines flight was good again and having taken twice the advise dosis of Melatonine I actually managed to catch some Z's this time. With a slight delay we arrived at Schiphol and after picking up our luggage we said goodbye to most of our travel companions of the past two weeks. Mieke, Ad, Marcel, Jaap and me took a train to the south and in Den Bosch I said goodbye to these dear friends and drinking buddies. I continued my journey to Oss, where my dad had come to pick me up.
What a great feeling to be back home. It was a marvellous vacation, but lying in your own bed, sitting in your won chair, drinking your own coffee and taking a shower in your own bathroom has it's charm as well. ;-) I spent most of the day unpacking, doing the laundry and working my way through the mail. At the end of the day I made a quick visit to Arianne to see how she and the kids were doing and did some quick groceries. After all, I had promised to make her dinner this evening. Another good reason to making coming home so pleasant ...
Cambodia is a marvellous country in many ways. I actually liked it better than Thailand since (not counting Siem Reap and Sihanoukville) it feels less touristy and more authentic. I also found the trip itself more diverse than Thailand, especially owing to our visit to Ratanakiri. Below I have summarized some of my impressions I'd like to add the travel log above.
The people. In general, the people are very kind, which is quite amazing considering their horrible past in the last 30 years. The Khmer Rouge regime did however have a big impact on the composition of the population. Not only are there slightly more women than men, but 50% of the population is younger than 18 years ! The generation that has died during 1975-1979 is very obviously absent.
There's also a lot of people that have lost their arms and/or legs by land mines and their only means of survival is begging in the street. I do have a lot of respect for those handicapped people that have found a way to 'earn' money instead of begging for it; selling books, making music, etc.
A lot of the people I met were very curious and genuinely interested in your background. This goes for the monks I talked to and the man of the house where our bus broke down. In the areas where less tourists come, like Ratanakiri and Kratie, people watch you with a mix of curiosity, amusement and slight suspicion. What a difference with places like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, where people boldly approach you with all kinds of merchandise and services. Although the latter can become rather tiring after a couple of days, I have to admit that none of these people are extremely pushy. Most get the message if you tell them 'no' one or two times. One exception was a woman that went completely berserk when Angela didn't use her services but decided to have another woman do her legs a while later. She was cursing and screaming, very unbecoming for a Buddhist.
Other less pleasant encounters with the Cambodians include commissioned scams. People often take you somewhere which is 'a better place to eat' just because these restaurants are friends and/or family. There's nothing really wrong with that as long as it's true and the food doesn't give you explosive diarrhoea and as long as bus drivers don't need to make a sudden stop at a restaurant to have noodle soup, only an hour after the whole group had lunch. Another annoyance was the people at Chiva's who, even though we had been very generous all day, found it necessary to increase our bill with a 'spontaneous tip'. Finally there was this shady drugs dealer loitering about in Sihanoukville who turned out to be employed by the army and was using his 'connections' to be 'allowed' to sell his stuff in bars and restaurants. Surely, every society has it's rotten apples.
One of the most remarkable traits of the Khmer, as with many other South-Asian people, are their inefficiency. Whereas westerners have ben trained to find the easiest way with the least effort it almost seems like Cambodians prefer the other way around every now and then. Restaurants often don't have half the food that is on the menu, driving some of the people in our group to such utter desperation that after several attempts out of a huge menu they said, 'Okay, just tell me what you do have !'. The most hilarious moment was the restaurant that advertised a 'menu of the day' but when someone tried to order it they informed him that they did not have a menu of the day today !
Buddhism. Like in Thailand, people in Cambodia practice Therevada Buddhism, combined with traces of Hinduism and Animism (e.g. the ghost houses which you'll also find in Thailand). A did however have the impression that the Thai take Buddhism a whole lot more serious than the Khmer. The Thai seem to have incorporated it much more in their daily live and the monks seem to follow the rules much stricter than their cousins in Cambodia (e.g. not asking for money). This might of course be the result of Buddhism practically being wiped out during the Pot Pol regime and it's comeback in recent years. As a matter of fact, some of the monks I spoke in Kratie told me that after studying in Cambodia for many years they would move to Thailand for further education.
Geography: Some of the people in our group found the geography of the country a bit of a letdown. The reason was that most of the country looks the same. The same fields, the same houses, the same people. Looking out of the window of the bus it would be hard to determine in what part of the country you were. I personally didn't mind that much, and I think it made the underdeveloped Ratanakiri with it's hilly landscapes and dusty roads all the more charming.
The group: The group I travelled with wasn't as close as last year's group in Thailand. There was the occasional lone wolf who preferred not to join any of the excursions or group activities but unlike other people I really cannot be bothered by that. People have to do what they find best for themselves, and as long as they don't bother others that's absolutely fine with me. Half of the group, which I dubbed 'The Terrible Ten', often ended up drinking and eating together in the evening. They could be considered the more exuberant part of the group where having fun and enjoying a bottle of Angkor was as important as all of the impressive experiences during the day. There were not major conflicts or annoyances in the group and there was even a bit of holiday romance going on, so in general the company was very relaxed.
The group was slightly more 'mature' (both in age and behaviour) than the group in Thailand, which was to be expected for a country like Cambodia. Nevertheless there was a big diversity in the personalities and professional backgrounds, featuring an IT specialist, a doctor, a tax inspector and an owner of a snackbar to name a few. A colourful bunch and certainly a nice one to travel with through such a diverse country as Cambodia.