Journeying East through Cambodia

After countless bus and train journeys, we decided to have a change by moving on to the next destination by boat. The journey from Siem Reap to Battambang is reputed as being particularly beautiful, following a series of small waterways through reeds and past rice paddies, and navigating through a number of floating villages.

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On the river

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Traditional fishing rig

The reality turned out to be somewhat different to our romantic notions. Due to its popularity, this route has turned into a very commercial operation, and after an early start we spent a couple of hours sitting on the pavement outside the boat office waiting to leave for the jetty. Three hours after the departure time we eventually boarded the boat, and were lucky to get a seat on one of the tightly packed wooden benches; the boat company had overbooked and so quite a few people had to sit on the floor, having bought an already overpriced ticket. The landscape on the way to Battambang was very picturesque, and it was heartwarming to pass through the remote floating villages where ecstatic children would run out of their houses screaming and waving, some of them so beside themselves that they leapt into the water out of sheer excitement. We were glad to have done this trip, but feel like we’ve now ticked the ‘boat’ box, and in future will stick to buses and trains for long journeys!

We explored Battambang by foot, but didn’t really find a lot to do here, and were happy to move on to Sihanoukville, Cambodias premier beach resort. There are several different areas to stay in – we chose Otres beach, reputedly the quietest and most laid back, and found a guest house comprised of bamboo huts at the very end of the beach. The next 1.5 miles of beach used to be filled with guesthouses and bars, but these were all demolished a couple of years ago to make way for grand new developments. Luckily the project has stalled, and so for the moment this remains an empty stretch of perfect beach. We felt like we had the best of both worlds, with restaurants and bars in one direction and deserted white sands in the other.

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Empty beach

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Enjoying the view

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BBQ!

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Sunset swim

The original plan was to spend 3 or 4 days here, but we ended up staying for 6 days. After lots of travelling recently, we treated this as a break, and spent our time swimming in the sea (29 degrees Celsius!), relaxing with a book, walking along the coast and eating tasty barbecued fish. One day we also hired a 2 person kayak and paddled to an island a couple of kilometres from the mainland, which was brilliant. Sihanoukville really exceeded our expectations, and we enjoyed every moment of our time here.

Whilst in Sihanoukville we started a new hobby – learning French! Some friends we made introduced us to an apple app called ‘Duolingo’, which is great for learning languages, and provides some extra motivation by ranking you against your friends on a weekly leaderboard. We’ve both intended to improve our French for a while, and so far this seem like a great tool. If anyone reading this uses Duolingo, or fancies starting, let us know and we will add you to our leaderboard!

Reluctantly, we had to leave Sihanoukville and move a couple of hours along the coast to Kampot, a provincial capital which is renowned for the pepper it grows – reputedly some of the best in the world. As a result, most of the food in Kampot is seasoned with very liberal quantities of fiery pepper! Whilst here we visited nearby Bokor hill station, and were treated to a fantastic view over vast swathes of jungle leading down to the sea. It was amazing to hear all the animal noises rising out from the canopy. There are various abandoned relics on the hill, including an old French colonial luxury resort from the 1920’s, a Khmer Rouge luxury hotel and casino from the 1960’s, and a newly opened (yes, you guessed it) luxury hotel. Third time lucky?!

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Looking down from Bokor hill station

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The derelict Khmer Rouge casino

Our tour was lead by an interesting Cambodian guy who had grown up during the Khmer Rouge regime, and it was fascinating to hear about it from someone who had survived it. Afterwards we returned to Kampot and took a ‘sunset cruise’ along the river, heading upstream away from the town in the hope of seeing fireflies once darkness fell. Instead of a sunset, the cloudy sky grew darker and darker, and as we reached the furthest point a mighty thunderstorm began. It was incredible to ride along the river in the pitch black, watching lightning forks light up the sky. Needless to say, the torrential rain kept the fireflies at bay…!

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Calm before the storm

One of our favourite places in Kampot was a small independent cinema called ‘Ecran’, run by a Belgian ex pat, which makes its own hand pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. We visited a couple of times just for lunch before visiting one evening to see a film. The main screen was an assortment of sofas and beanbags in front of a projector, and homemade popcorn with fresh coconuts to drink made for especially good cinema snacks!

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Pulling noodles by hand at Ecran cinema

Our final few days in Cambodia were spent in the capital, Phnom Penh. Like most Asian cities, Phnom Penh is big, frantically busy and very polluted; despite this we liked it here. On the first afternoon we wandered to the nearby ‘Olympic stadium’, which confusingly has never actually hosted the Olympic Games. We had a great swim with the locals in the open air 50 metre pool, and finished with some diving in the adjacent pool. We didn’t venture up to the 10 metre board, primarily because of the corroded metal ladder leading up to it, with several rungs missing (that’s my excuse anyway). Afterwards we headed up to the main amphitheatre of the stadium, where thousands of locals come in the early evening to join in with free group aerobics classes. There were lots of different groups comprising all ages and body types, exercising to pumping dance music, and it was fun to watch and soak in the atmosphere.

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Olympic pool

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Group exercise at the stadium

The next morning we paid a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This is housed in the notorious ‘S-21’ detention facility, where over twenty thousand people were imprisoned, tortured and executed during the 3 years of the Khmer Rouge regime. The museum wasn’t particularly well laid out or informative, but the content was so harrowing that this didn’t make much difference. There are thousands of photos pinned up with the faces of the victims staring out at you from the past, and some of the blocks still have the cells laid out as they were at the time. It was an incredibly powerful exhibition, and we left feeling downbeat.

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S-21 rules

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Prisoner cell block

Our final experience in Phnom Penh was visiting the night market, which runs at weekends on the banks of the Mekong river. There is a fantastic food stall section, which encloses a picnic style area where you can sit on mats to eat. We wandered round and sampled some delicious street food, finishing with what can only be described as a saxophone-shaped biscuit tube filled with Mr Whippy ice cream – not a classic Khmer delicacy as far as I’m aware!

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Tasty food at the night market

We’ve had a great few weeks in Cambodia; overall the people have been welcoming and friendly, the food has been delicious, and there are some amazing things to see and do. We have however noticed a big difference since reaching one of the well trodden countries of SE Asia, with lots more tourists and all the development which goes with it.

I am writing this post on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which we should reach in a few hours. It feels odd to be moving on to another country, but we are both excited about seeing Vietnam!

L

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