Battambang and Sihanoukville

•February 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After five days in Siem Reap, we were ready to move on, but we had nothing else we especially wanted to do in Cambodia, and eight days in which to do it. We had hoped to spend a few days travelling to a remote temple to the north of Siem Reap on the border with Thailand. The very day we started looking into transport there we heard that the long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over that temple had flared up again, with artillery fired on both sides and military and civilian fatalities. Unfortunately the dispute and the violence rumble on, and Cambodian press is claiming that Thai artillery has damaged the ancient temple.

So we took a boat to Battambang instead. The boat trip was cool, if excessively long, and we saw incredible numbers of birds (herons, oriental darters, cormorants and many more). The first hour or so was spent crossing the Northwest corner of Tonle Sap, the huge lake at the heart of Cambodia. Even just on the tiny corner of the lake we crossed, we lost sight of land all around. The remaining seven hours of the trip were spent slowly winding up the increasingly shallow river to Battambang, a journey that will surely be completely impossible by boat next month, as the dry season continues.

Battambang itself was not a particularly attractive or interesting place, and the less said about the food on offer the better. We spent a day there happily enough, but any more would be unnecessary. The most interesting attraction was the ‘Norry’, or bamboo train. We were sort of imagining a whole engine and carriages crafted from bamboo, but actually a norry is just a small woven bamboo platform balanced on two sets of train wheels, one of which is attached to a simple motor. Cambodia used to have a train network, but civil war and poverty combined took their tool, and no trains run on Cambodia’s tracks at the moment. The norry is something found in many areas of Cambodia, and seems to represent a people striving for normality after an apocalypse has torn apart the civilised infrastructure of daily life. Trains don’t run? We’ll make our own.

In Battambang the bamboo train has become a tourist attraction, with a small route set up for tourists by the tourist authority, with a set fee to travel a short distance, and back again. However, the norry is still used by locals – we passed one loaded with vegetables, and our own norry was jumped for the last few km by a family who were tired of walking. The tracks are warped and bumpy, but it’s a great system. The simplicity of the design means that meeting a norry coming the other way is no problem – one norry is disassembled in seconds, and laid by the side of the track to allow the other norry to pass. The norry will soon be a thing of the past, as a proper train service for both passengers and freight is planned in the near future. While this is a good thing generally, I’m sure the locals will miss the freedom and simplicity of the norry system, and given Battambang’s other attractions, the tourist industry in the town is sure to suffer a major blow.

As Battambang didn’t provide much distraction, we decided to head to the beach for our last few days before returning to Shanghai. We went to Sihanoukville on the south coast – feeling a little silly, as we passed the town on our bikes two weeks ago. It was ok, nice to be relaxing by the beach and reading, although the town itself is really seedy and not very pleasant, and the sea is a little too full of debris. There is a cinema of sorts – showing films of your choosing in small private lounges, so we managed to catch up on some films, which was fun. We hired a motorbike again to get around, and had some issues with it failing to start, and had a flat tire which really made us feel like we were still on the bike trip.

Now we’re back in Phnom Penh, and readying ourselves for a midnight flight to Shanghai tomorrow. The flight is at 11.55pm, and our visas run out at midnight – so we really got our money’s worth from those. We spent most of our last day at the airport, and various markets, and too many bike shops, and really all over the place trying to sort out last-minute shopping, and how and for how much we could take our bikes on the plane. The plan now is to trade in our remaining spare bike parts, and our pump, for two huge cardboard bike boxes, from the only bike shop in town who knew what a bike box was. They’ve even offered to dismantle and pack them up for us. Which is good because we’re abandoning most of our tools in an effort to cut our weight. Baggage limit is 20 kg, and a bike alone is 18 kg. So, much will be abandoned, but hopefully our bikes will return to the motherland, and we’ll be taking bets on how long it is until they get stolen.

To celebrate a job well done, we went out and had our most expensive meal of the whole trip, which was entirely excellent, and really could not be faulted. Except I forgot my camera. Suffice to say – galangal and lemongrass gelato is fantastic. They had fried tarantula on the menu, but neither of us could quite bring ourselves to try them. Only $4 for three. Bargain.

Pages updated: Statistics, Maps

We haven’t updated the pictures yet, but will do so when we get back to Shanghai.

Temples of Angkor, II

•February 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Our last morning in Siem Reap we visited Angkor Thom – a huge walled area which was once a great city dotted with Temples, Palaces and squares. Now only some temples and a few terraces remain within the outer walls, but once a estimated million people lived here. Some of the temples here are in a very bad way. One of them, Baphuon, was taken apart in the late 1960s for careful restoration. This process was interrupted by civil war, and in this period of confusion the careful plan of how to put it all back together was lost. A large part of the structure is now in place, but thousands of stones lie scattered around the site awaiting identification and replacement. It seems an impossible task.

Restoration was underway in a lot of the temples we saw that day, most of which are famous, and very much on the tourist route. We were very disappointed to see that Angkor Wat itself was also partly shrouded by scaffolding and green netting. Worse, no one seemed to be working on it, so perhaps it is a semi-permanent feature. Angkor Wat is the most famous, and by far the most visited of the temples, receiving 6 -10,000 visitors a day. It is the largest of the temples, and some claim it is the largest religious building in the world. Alison’s flip flop broke just after we entered, so she walked around most of it in bare feet. Maybe some people thought she was a particularly devoted buddhist. Or else that she was crazy. It did make the place seem even bigger though. The huge crowds meant Angkor Wat lacked the atmosphere of other temples, and for us, the best temple was actually Beng Mealea.

The crowds of people really brought home something we had gradually been noticing around Cambodia – the place is full of Chinese tourists. When we were in Angkor Wat at least 50% of the tour groups there were Chinese. Chinese people tagging around in a huge tour group is really not that new anywhere in the world, but what we have also noticed in Cambodia is small groups of independent travellers from China, almost entirely young women, but also families. On a mostly unrelated note, we overheard a family group from China chatting in Chinese as they relaxed on top of one of the temples. The family was joined on their trip by their daughter’s white American boyfriend. The daughter was complaining that it wasn’t nice to call her boyfriend ‘foreigner’, and that it upset him, and they should stop. Uncle, father and brother all laughed heartily, as at a preposterous request. Uncle responded wonderingly ‘But if we don’t call him foreigner, what are we going to call him?!’.

We had again cycled up to and around the temples on our hired bikes. Alison’s bike had a poorly designed fixed back lock – which would only release the key when the bike was locked. When the lock was open, the key would just bounce around in the lock. As the lock was a bit sticky, we had been advised never to lock it using that lock. It is a mystery why, but when we returned to our bikes after visiting Angkor Wat someone had turned the key in the lock and stolen the key, rendering Alison’s bike unusable, 8 km out of town. No bike and no shoes was a pretty gloomy situation, but luckily we weren’t out in the middle of nowhere, we were at the car park of Angkor Wat, surrounded by bored tuktuk drivers waiting for their customers to come back. In no time at all they had found a small boy with the same type of key – we thought they were crazy, but it turns out it’s true, crappy bike keys work on multiple crappy locks. Once the lock was opened a tuk tuk driver unscrewed the lock for us, small boy had his key restored and everybody was happy with a job well done. We didn’t even have to ask these people for help, they saw our consternation and jumped in. Though why anyone would be so malicious as to do that in the first place is unclear.

After walking barefoot around Angkor Wat, we celebrated that evening with a Siem Reap speciality – Fish Massage. I’ve heard of it before in spas and saunas, but Siem Reap takes it to the streets, with huge tanks of fish on every corner, hungry to nibble at the dry skin on your feet, legs, hands – anything you’re willing to put in the tank. A bargain at only $2 for 20 minutes including a free beer. Siem reap is a small town, but with such an enormous tourist attraction nearby it is thronged with tourists, and the streets are lined with bars, restaurants, night markets, and fish massage, all doing good business. We even found a bar/restaurant with a pub quiz, although frankly we made a poor showing. Now that we are winding up the trip, and are no longer on the bikes, we have started to allow ourselves to actually buy souvenirs and clothes in the markets. If anyone has any requests from the markets of Phnom Penh please let us know. Cambodia T-shirt anyone?

Our second set of pictures is up as well, they can be found here

Temples of Angkor, Part I

•February 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The bus ride to Siem Reap was pretty uncomfortable and excessively long, but looking at the road, it’s probably for the best that we didn’t bike. The roads in Cambodia are similar to those in Laos, but less scenic and with a lot more traffic. Siem Reap is a town just a few km south of Angkor Wat, the biggest tourist attraction so far on our trip.

Wikipedia can surely better explain the history of the temples of Angkor, but as far as I understand, the temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries by the kings of the Khmer Empire. The first temples were Hindu, and later temples are Buddhist, although a lot of the Hindu imagery in the earlier temples was later scratched out and replaced. As Cambodians are fond of pointing out, the Khmer Empire once covered not only present day Cambodia, but also large parts of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The Angkor area was once the centre of the Khmer Empire, although the wooden houses and public buildings have since decayed and only the stone temples remain. There are at least 50 of these ancient temples in the area around Siem Reap, with even more scattered further afield.

It is quite a daunting task sifting through all the information about the temples and deciding which ones to go to, and when, and how to get there. Not twelve hours after arriving in Siem Reap on the bus we found ourselves hiring bicycles to cycle around the huge park dotted with ruined temples that makes up the present Angkor Complex. Pretty ridiculous. We saw about 15 temples while we were in Siem Reap, some of them truly incredible. The most atmospheric were those that have been partially swallowed by the jungle, such as Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, but all were impressive for their scale and craftsmanship.

Beng Mealea is about 70 km away from Siem Reap, so on our second day we hired tuktuk/remork for the day to take us there. It was a long journey, but well worth it, as this was our favorite temple, partly crumbled, but still retaining its shape, with some sections perfectly preserved. The jungle has become so entangled with the building than it some areas its unclear if the trees are pulling the stones down or holding them together. It was one of the quietest temples we visited, and the staff there actively encouraged scrambling amongst the fallen stones. Probably not great for preservation, but a lot of fun.

We saved Angkor Wat itself for the last day, along with a few other big temples, more on those later.

The first half of our pictures have also been uploaded in the pictures section.

Phnom Penh

•February 5, 2011 • 2 Comments

Neither of us had any expectations when we arrived in Phnom Penh. We were pleasantly surprised to find it a fairly calm and quiet place (in Asian city terms). It seems everywhere is Cambodia is quieter and more sleepy than Vietnam. The tourism is heavy, but it clearly is a functioning city for locals as well which is always nice. As is expected by now, there are many crumbling remnants of the colonial French which give the city the typical Southeast Asian city look that you grow to love.

By the time we got to Phnom Penh, we had spent 9 days on the road (or backpacking), eating quite poorly and sleeping in locations that only ran electricity for a couple of hours each evening. So even more so than usual, arriving in a capital city was exciting if only for a comfortable bed and good food. We got our typical Italian and Indian, which was very good, and even found a Pho place since we were missing our Vietnamese breakfasts. But for the first time in the trip, some food at some point was a bad choice and Matthew ended up with a stomach bug. This means we have visited a doctor in every country on the route now. On a happier note, we took another cooking class to continue our training on how to cook a delicious chicken (or fish) amok.

One of our first days in Phnom Penh we visited Wat Phnom, a small temple on top of the only hill in town. The temple was nothing special, though the murals on the wood paneling and columns in the interior were more beautiful and less gaudy than most. More interesting to see are the dozen or so monkeys in the pleasant park surrounding the temple. They were calmer than expected, since monkeys are often known to be excessively vicious, and were peacefully receiving fruits from some of the vendor ladies in the park. Inspired, we returned later with bananas in hand to pass out to the monkey population. It went really well at first as the monkeys would come, get a banana, then leave to eat it. One banana was too unripe to be peeled by the monkeys, and they discarded it. Alison tried to pick the banana up to peel it for them, and a monkey rushed at her and bit her, apparently deciding the banana was still his even though he had tossed it aside. There was no damage (didn’t get through the clothing) but it was frightening anyway. So beware monkeys, though if you’re careful they seem relatively harmless.

Two of the “highlights” of Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields (the location of a mass grave during the Khmer Rouge’s terrifying reign) and the S-21 (a prison used for torture, before inmates were moved to the killing fields to die, which has now become a museum displaying the pictures taken of inmates at arrival and after interrogation). Over 17,000 Cambodians died here between 1975 and 1979. We decided not to visit these. We’ve seen too many grim documentations of the horrors of history (the museums in Saigon and Nanjing and countless memorials for WWII in Europe come to mind first). Another reminder of the brutality of man was not necessary, and we’ve read quite a lot about the mindless brutality of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath. It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died during their rule, but estimates range from 1 to 3 million. Even 30 years after the Khmer Rouge lost their control of Cambodia, it is still one of the most mined countries in the world (thanks for that also go to Vietnam, who mined the border areas in the 80s), and in some areas that have not yet been cleared it is dangerous to deviate even slightly from well-trodden paths.

The less horrific highlights in Phnom Penh include the Royal Palace and the National Museum. The Royal Palace is indistinguishable to an untrained eye (like ours) from any temple complex in the area, except for the fact that it’s a lot larger. It is the official current residence of the King of Cambodia, and as such large parts of it are closed off to the public. As you can see from the pictures, it was very ornate and impressive. The Silver Pagoda is the main religious structure within the palace walls. You walk up imported Italian marble staircases to enter the temple where the floor is tiled with 5000 silver tiles (1 kg each) and there is a life-size Buddha made of gold and 9584 diamonds (including a 25 carat beast). There’s also an offering box in front of the gold and diamond Buddha.

The original plan was for us to head on to Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) and then straight into Thailand to stop the trip in Bangkok. After some discussion, we’ve decided that neither of us has much interest in Bangkok, or any desire to extend the trip for the extra month or so it would take to properly do Thailand justice. On top of that, it’s taken nearly 2300 miles but we’re finally well and truly tired of the biking. The new plan is to leave the bikes (and much of our luggage) in Phnom Penh and set off like traditional backpackers for two weeks to see more of Cambodia. We’ve already booked our flight and will be returning to Shanghai from Phnom Penh on the 16th of February. After that? Living in Shanghai for a while. Both of us have jobs available at the same places we were working before leaving for this trip. We are both craving the still life for a while and funds must be replenished. We decided this over a day in Phnom Penh, and bought the tickets that night. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to have an end date, let alone one that is so imminent, but I think overall it was a good decision. So now we have a bumpy bus ride to Siem Reap, and the temples of Angkor to look forward to.

Pictures form Phnom Penh can be seen here

Pages updated: Maps, Stats, Food, Pictures

Gibbon Calls and Elephant Poo

•February 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Cambodia has many areas of untouched jungle and forest, which are home to a wide variety of birds and animals – including elephants. Most of this remained in excellent condition until the 1990s, which were a time of intensive logging in many areas in an attempt to reconstruct Cambodia after years of war and struggle. The majority of our 17 km cycle to Chi Phat was through former jungle now reclaimed as farmland, though the soil is very poor. Many animal species were particularly hard-hit, both by loss of habitat and through over-hunting. Now an estimated 30% of Cambodia is designated as a protected national park, but the government seems unable to effectively enforce the protection of these areas. Bokor (near Kampot) was officially a national park, and yet there were huge construction plans slated, and large parts of the park resemble a construction site rather than a protected forest.

Community based eco-tourism projects are attempting to provide a sustainable alternative to logging and poaching as a source of income for impoverished rural communities. The project we visited in Chi Phat has been running successfully for several years now, and provides something of a model for other communities. Many households offer homestays or function as guesthouses, while individual members of the community are hired as guides, cooks or boatmen. It’s all run from a central office, which puts everyone in the village in strict rotation, ensuring that the benefits are spread widely within the community. Feeling rather dusty and grimy from the road, we eschewed the homestay, and plumped for the most luxurious option, and the only one with a shower – the Eco Lodge.

The CBET office offers several one to seven-day walking and biking treks and bird-watching trips, and provides backpacks, hammocks and mosquito nets. We opted for a three-day, two night trek including a visit to a waterfall, and set off the next day with our guide and our cook into the jungle. It was an incredibly relaxed schedule, only 40km in three days, but apparently the guides complain if asked to walk longer. The jungle, once we got to it, was pleasant and leafy. Sleeping in an army style hammock with built-in mosquito net in the jungle was fun and different in itself. It’s incredible how noisy it gets at night, with only thin material between you and an unimaginable number of bugs. The jungle is also known to be home to populations of gibbons, macaques, langurs and elephants, along with many birds.

We didn’t see a huge amount of animal life, but we did hear the gibbons calling and dueting through the trees in the morning, which was amazing. On our final bit of walking, we also came across a lot of elephant dung – clearly we aren’t the only ones using the path. The dung was our first real sign of elephants in the wild, and though it would have been amazing to glimpse one, it is also nice to know they are sensible enough to stay away from humans, while still enjoying the jungle. Most excitingly, we saw several monkeys chattering and climbing in the trees on the banks of the river as we took our boat back to Chi Phat at the end of the trek. A hornbill flew over us several times when we were camped at O’Malu waterfall. We didn’t get a picture ourselves, but he looked like this. He was very large, and made an impressive whirring noise as he flew.

All in all, we had a great three days, although we had some reservations about the way the project is run and organised. Our route was unnecessarily easy – we were mostly done with the walking by noon each day. Luckily we took our books. As our guides spoke virtually no English and were extremely unenthusiastic about trekking and nature, they weren’t much company. We hired a boat to take us back to Anduong Tuek, and from there we’ll begin the three-day ride to Phnom Penh.

Pages Updated : Food, Pictures, Stats, Maps

Pictures from the jungle can be found here

The road to Chi Phat

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

We traveled quite out of our way to get to Chi Phat, a small village at the base of the Cardamom mountains which is the home of an expanding community based eco-tourism project. The journey there, like many of our journeys in Laos, was hampered somewhat by the necessity of finding places to stay. This meant breaking our journey into three inconveniently sized days; a 50 km day, an 87 km day, and a 17 km day. The last was supposed to be a boat trip, but the boat wasn’t running so we had to cycle 17 km along a dusty dirt track to get to Chi Phat village. We had been told that most of Cambodia was pancake flat. This is an outrageous lie. It was pretty tough going, and the sun here is very harsh. Our bodies have in no way got used to the scorching temperatures and unforgiving sun.

We stayed in some pretty crappy towns with even nastier guesthouses. The intense heat does at least mean we barely even miss the hot showers of Vietnam, and after Laos we have become adept at the old ‘water barrel and scoop’ style shower. Turns out the electricity supply is very unreliable in Cambodia, and also very expensive. 1 kWh of electricity can cost 10 times the amount it does in the US, according to the lonely planet. This explains why most of the guesthouses we have stayed at have electricity only in the evenings, and why it often costs about 20% extra to have air-con (where it is available at all).

The poverty of the rural population is still very apparent. We grumble sometimes about dirty and unpleasant guesthouses, but even the worst ones clearly provide better living conditions than most of the locals can hope for. Cambodia is not very urbanised, especially when compared to its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, with only 20% of the population living in urban areas. This is sure to increase, as the standard of living in the cities seems much higher, although there are still some beggars, and pick-pocketing and scams are apparently rife.

Cambodia is our first non-communist country on the trip. From our perspective that is not immediately obvious, especially given China and Vietnam’s current capitalistic road, which prioritizes economic growth and development above all else. There is an absence of flags, which are proudly waving all over communist countries, and fewer people want to see our passports. According to Wikipedia, “Cambodia [is] the world’s only post-communist country which restored monarchy as the system of government”. Constitutional monarchy that is. Unlike the Communist countries, we see lots of political advertising and local party offices. As far as signage goes, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is definitely winning in the countryside, with Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsey Party coming in second, and the Cambodian Human Rights Party a sad fourth. Perhaps this will change as we see more of the country. I have heard that the Sam Rainsey party is more popular in urban areas. But Chi Phat is definitely not an urban area, and we are getting ready to trek in the jungle, so we won’t find out if that is true for some time.

Photos and maps will follow soon

Pages updated: food

Kampot II

•January 22, 2011 • 2 Comments

We have been thinking for several months now about taking a cooking class, but haven’t got around to it, or have found the ones available too expensive, or just weren’t that impressed by the local food. After a truly delicious meal on our first night in Kampot, we were very tempted when we noticed a reasonably priced one on offer.

Our host picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the market. We’ve been to many markets, in China and on the trip, but this one was impressive in both its scale and busyness. It was significantly more exotic than the ones in Shanghai, and many of the things we needed for our dishes were unfamiliar to us. The actually cooking took place outside in a cool courtyard, and we were the only participants that day, which was nice. We made vegetable spring rolls, chicken amok, and shrimp with fresh green Kampot pepper. Kampot is famous for its pepper, and the stuff we had was very tasty. Actually the whole meal was very tasty, and it was a really fun morning. Chicken Amok is a creamy coconut milk based curry – and we made the whole thing from scratch, even pounding up the spices for the curry paste and milking our coconut – which is more tedious and time-consuming than it sounds. Photos can be seen on the pictures page and the food page. Sadly I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to reproduce it outside of Cambodia. Some of the things required – such as fresh turmeric root, palm sugar and shrimp paste are not things you see everyday. It was a great experience, and maybe we’ll try to do another later.

Our last day in Kampot we went on yet another tour. We had promised ourselves we wouldn’t, but had been told that the Bokor Hill Station could only be accessed by foreigners if on an accompanied tour. The Bokor mountains are a national park just to the Northwest of Kampot, densely forested and quite pretty. They aren’t especially high (1080m) but provide an excellent vantage point over the gulf of Thailand and the surrounding flat land, and are also much cooler than the flat land below. French colonialists built the Hill station in the early 20th century, and by 1935 quite a community had developed up there – with villas, bars, restaurants, a church and the huge Palace Hotel. It is all an abandoned ruin now, but quite atmospheric and interesting. We trekked part of the way up the mountain, through quite dense jungly forest. It was fun, but unfortunately there were about 30 people in our tour, which spoiled the atmosphere a bit.

Tomorrow we head on north and west, towards a community based eco tourism enterprise in the cardamom mountains, which should be excellent.

Photos of this leg can be found here

Kampot I

•January 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Our first stop in Cambodia could have been Kep, but we decided to skip yet another Southeast Asian beach town, albeit a more interesting one, made up as it is of deserted French colonial buildings partly destroyed in the 70s by the Khmer Rouge. Instead we forged ahead to Kampot, a riverside town, very close to the sea. It’s old heart is mostly made up of crumbling old French villas, and as such is reminiscent of Luang Prabang or even Hoian. We chose a guesthouse just outside of town on the river, mostly because of its peaceful location and pretty fruit garden. However, we needn’t have worried – so far Cambodia seems infinitely quieter than Vietnam, and Kampot is so sleepy you wonder if its even a town.

Our first day in Kampot we took the bikes out to find the limestone caves in the surrounding countryside. Most of the ride involved the small dirt side roads, and we were unsure of exactly where we were headed but eventually we found a place other foreigners were arriving and assumed we had found our destination. Two children took it upon themselves to be our guides (attempting to go in alone might be possible, but they are quite tenacious and, in the end, helpful).

The cave was a very impressive and large network throughout a solitary limestone mound in the middle of farmland. Most of the cave was lit by natural skylights so the cave was unique in its lack of pitch black claustrophobic conditions. The children led us around, always eager to point out various rocks that looked like certain animals, and proved very helpful in showing us tiny cracks that lead to larger rooms we wouldn’t have dared ourselves. Some of the tiny openings required more scrambling and climbing that we expected and was a lot of fun.

After leaving that cave, we discovered that it wasn’t actually our intended destination, since it lacked the brick temple from the 7th century. Some more off road biking led us to another group of child guides and another cave, Phnom Chnourk. This one was less interesting in itself, but the promised brick temple was within, and our child guides very sweet. When questioned, they claimed to have just returned from school, but its hard to believe. Their English, at least, was certainly very precocious, and they also spoke some limited French.

Photos to follow!

Cambodia – first impressions

•January 22, 2011 • 1 Comment

The Cambodian border was of even poorer quality than the Laos border from China (at Boten). Once we crossed out of Vietnam the road became dirt and we were directed to the small shack that would provide us with our visas. Despite the ramshackle appearance, the border control were all awake and friendly with very good English, which provided a nice contrast to our entry into Vietnam. Three officials, many stamps, and $52 later we were back on the bikes and riding along our first Cambodian road… hoping at some point it would become paved.

Currency in Cambodia is strange. The ATMs spit out US dollars only, and every price is quoted in US dollars. So you pay mostly in US dollars, but instead of coins you get Cambodian Riel (4000 is a dollar, which makes it perfect for supplying the equivalent of quarters). Where the locals are getting the Cambodian bills to begin with is a mystery to us. There aren’t many banks, and so far we have only seen one ATM.

The food has been good so far. A mild Thai style curry is very common here and often relies heavily on coconut milk for both its flavour and consistency. The breakfasts, specifically the noodle soups, have been nothing but a disappointment, especially after leaving all the delicious pho behind in Vietnam.

The road became paved not too far from the border. From there, the main roads have been paved and are in decent condition. The side roads are unpaved, but the well-packed red dirt provides a better surface for riding than most options. It would be difficult to imagine riding them in the wet season.

In many ways Cambodia feels like Laos – people smile and wave, especially the children, and life here feels quieter and slower. However, the appalling poverty of Laos is also apparent here – those happy smiling children are usually ragged and barefoot. The donald duck look is common for kids here, wandering around in just a dirty T-shirt, with no pants or shoes. In some ways Cambodia seems poorer than Laos, where even the scruffiest shack could be seen sporting a huge satellite dish, a rare sight here. In our experience, border areas are often poor – perhaps the situation will improve as we go further into the country.

Photos of this leg can be found here

Phu Quoc

•January 18, 2011 • 2 Comments

From Rach Gia we caught the ‘hydrofoil’ to Phu Quoc island, a trip of about 2 and a half hours. The dock is on the east of the island, and all the hotels on the west, but the distance is only about 15 km. Phu Quoc turned out to be a very pleasant place to spend a few days. As a site for a beach holiday, we would recommend it to anybody. Certainly there were people there who were staying for two whole weeks – again, mostly Europeans.

It was quite busy when we were there, in the sense that most of the resorts were full, but it never felt crowded. Half-decent bungalows on the beach go for $50 and up, so we contented ourselves with a cheap room connected (a little too closely) to a bar and only about 5 mins walk from the ocean. Luckily the island isn’t party-time central, and the music was off and the lights out by 10.30pm. We had initially intended to spend only two nights there, but the temptation to lounge on the beach reading proved too great, and we extended our stay. The sea was wonderful – very clear and with only very gentle waves, which makes it perfect for swimming and snorkelling. Most of the hotels and restaurants are concentrated on Long Beach, but most of the other beaches are deserted, and very pleasant.

On our second day there we rented a motorbike to explore the rest of the island. The whole northern section is forested and hilly, and in fact is designated a national park. We had a great day bouncing over pot-holes to deserted beaches, riding through the national park and going for a stroll in the forest. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the monkeys that supposedly live there. The motorbike trip started out on a very ominous note. We had lost the main road due to a bad map, and our road north soon petered out into a difficult sandy path. An old lady assured us we could continue north to find the road, but some children passing on bicycles insisted we should in fact go south. The lady and the children seemed quite annoyed with each other, and as we weighed our options the lady pulled out a poorly laminated piece of paper, on which was written in red pen: “do not follow the Children, they will take you to the police, prison, very bad” Despite the horror film scenario, we trusted the little old lady and with some trepidation continued down the sandy path into the forest. The going was tough, but we did eventually hit the main highway. Really not sure what it was all about though.

The main beach had a number of restaurants with tables in the sand all the way to the high tide mark. During the evening, tasteful lanterns light up the beach and the barbeques come out to do fresh seafood. Two nights we enjoyed a whole fish grilled on the beach (even splurging for some prawns one night) and both times it was delicious. After a great three days, we took the boat back to Ha Tien on the mainland, a town Northwest of Rach Gia, and only five kilometres from the Cambodian border.

Photos of Phu Quoc can be found here

Broke the 2000 mile and 100 bowls of noodles marks in this leg of the journey also!

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