12.12.2012 - 01.01.2013 28 °C
We decided that we'd make Ban Lung our first stop in Cambodia, it's a little off the tourist trail but we'd heard that it was surrounded by jungle, and not far from a huge national park and lots of little villages. When we arrived we were taken on the back of motorbikes to our hostel, which is by far the worst place we've stayed in Asia. The signs on the doors to each of the rooms that said 'No drugs, weapons and sex-traders', kind of gives you an idea of what kind of place this was! It didn’t take us long to realize that Cambodia was a lot more deprived than we could have imagined. The town was nothing more than a red dirt road lined with a few run down shops and restaurants with beds in the back where whole families worked and lived. There was a huge bustling market but the indescribable, putrid smell meant that we didn't spend too long in there. On the way out, the cause of the smell became apparent as we saw an absolutely enormous pile of rotting rubbish lying in the middle of the stalls. The villages on the outskirts of town consisted of whole families living in tiny makeshift wooden frames with bits of plastic or sheets for walls and roofs, skinny pigs tied to sticks and half naked children running around at the side of the road. However, it also didn't take us long to realize that the Cambodian people seemed to be among the friendliest and most humble and helpful that we've ever met. Especially the kids, who run towards you shouting hello whenever they see you. On our first day we hired a scooter, and after filling up at the 'petrol station' (a barrel and pump under an umbrella at the side of the road), we went off to explore the surrounding countryside. We found a beautiful crater lake surrounded by Jungle, and after getting chased by a large angry monkey, Shaun started diving off the deck into the lake. I hung back because girls had to go in fully clothed, but when a group of Cambodian girls asked me to go swimming with them I couldn't really say no... So I spent the rest of the day soaking wet! After seeing some small villages and having lunch, we continued on to find the waterfalls, but when we were about 5km out of town we got a flat tire and had to push the scooter all the way back to hostel! Much to the amusement of the locals who all made the effort of coming out of their shops to laugh at us as we shuffled past. It's safe to say that we hadn't had the best luck since arriving in Cambodia!
The next morning we caught the bus to Phnom Penh. The city was completely hectic, and the wealth disparity here was extremely prominent. The roads were swarming with bikes piled high with boxes, mattresses, huge blocks of ice and full families of four, speeding by alongside shiny new 4X4s. We drove past huge mansions with electric gates, followed by whole families living in a tiny one roomed shop or sleeping on a mat at the side of the road. Obscenely expensive hotels, boutique shops and fine dining restaurants line the streets alongside beggars, street children, landmine victims and people selling books and bracelets out of baskets. One side of the river is lined with huge grand ornate buildings, whereas the other side is over run by tiny corrugated iron and wooden huts. You can spend $100 on a meal or eat delicious authentic Khmer food from one of the many street vendors for just a couple of dollars. It's a busy, charming city that's full of life and energy, but you don't have to look far to see that it is still recovering from the scars left by the Khmer rouge.
On our first day we went round the central markets and the Russian markets, and split up to buy each other tacky little presents for Christmas. So after a nice morning we went to visit Tulong Sleng; a school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation camp. One building is filled with haunting images of the victims that were imprisoned and tortured here, from frail old people to young men, women and children. Some rooms still hold the torture devices and metal beds that the last few victims were found strapped to. The next building was kept as it was found, a 3 story concrete structure covered with barbed wire, housing hundreds of tiny cells. The place was intense and deeply upsetting. That night we went to a really nice restaurant called 'Friends' that employs former street children and provides them with training to give them a head start on entering into the hospitality industry. The next day we visited the Killing Fields (the biggest 'extermination' camp run by the Khmer Rouge) which was even more hard hitting that Tulong Sleng. None of the original structures are left standing, and other than the tall memorial stupor filled with piles and piles of victims skulls, there is nothing to indicate the horrors that occurred here. Instead the place is full of trees and flowers and butterflies, and everyone is given an audio guide where a survivor tells his story and the story of those who were killed here as he walks you through the grounds. Because everyone is so absorbed in their own audio guide, the place is completely silent and peaceful. We learnt that when the Khmer rouge murdered a prisoner, they also murdered their whole family, and so the most traumatizing part of the tour was the killing tree; where babies were brutally killed and dumped in a nearby mass grave. So, after being thoroughly depressed and with a sense that I had lost all faith in humanity, we went back to the city and went on a sunset Mekong cruise to try and cheer ourselves up! The next day we just wondered round getting a feel for the city, eating ice-cream and watching the locals take part in mass aerobics and dancing sessions, or playing football along the riverside, before moving onto to Siam Reap the day after.
We came to Siam Reap to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat; the 8th wonder of the world. So when we arrived in a bustling little town filled with hordes of tourists, neon lights and streets lined with pubs, clubs and restaurants, we were definitely surprised! We were picked up at 5am the next morning by our tuk-tuk driver (despite Shaun's protests!) to go and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Now you'd imagine sitting at an ancient temple watching the sun come up would be a peaceful experience, however with around 1000 other tourists all sat on a hill in the dark like they're watching a concert, it was far from it! After the sun had risen our driver took us to all the main temples on the complex, our favorite was obviously where tomb raider was filmed, a huge crumbling temple with enormous trees growing out of the stone structures that looked to be almost held together by the colossal roots! The whole place is huge, and it's impossible to see everything in a week never mind a day, but with such an early start we were well and truly finished by half 1, and went back to town for lunch and a nap! Whilst we were in Siam Reap we met up with some friends we'd met in Laos and had a surprisingly good night out on 'pub street', where a group of Cambodians singing Christmas songs on karaoke was our first indication that Christmas was only a week away!
The next day we'd planned to go to Kep for a few days before heading to Sihanouk Ville in time for Christmas Eve, but Cambodian buses had other ideas. A few hours into the journey the bus stopped at the side of the road. After a while we all slowly started filing off the bus to find the driver pouring water over a steaming engine. After the bus had spluttered back to life, some people refused to get back on and demanded a replacement, but after about an hour arguing the driver told them that a replacement bus was not going to come so they either get on or he’d leave them in the middle of nowhere... So we took our chances with the bus and left a group of about 10 people standing at the side of the road. By the time we eventually got to Sihanouk Ville around midday we would have had to wait another 3 hours and then get a 3 hour minibus to Kep, so we decided we’d just stay where we were and have an extended beach holiday in the middle of our trip! When we walked onto Ottres beach and booked into a hut that was just a few meters away from the sea, we knew we’d made the right decision.
So we spent the next few days sunbathing, playing in the sea, eating fresh fish and having BBQs every night. Shaun also discovered that if he stamped on holes in the sand, little crabs ran out of them and he could chase them... so that kept him amused for hours! The only problem was that the whole town seemed to be in a constant power cut, and our guesthouse was the only one without a backup generator. Having a shower and getting ready with a tea light and a head torch is easier said than done.
On Christmas day we hired a Kayak and went out to the nearby islands to go snorkeling, and then came back to have fresh crab and cocktails on the beach for Christmas lunch. That night we actually found a restaurant that was serving a full Christmas dinner... including pigs in blankets (hot dog sausages wrapped in bacon) and mulled wine. We’d had a really good day but it was so weird Skyping our families back home, it definitely didn’t feel like Christmas without them!
In between Christmas and New Year we spent a few nights on a paradise island, Koh Rong Samloen, just off the coast. It was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen, the sand was so white it was like icing sugar, the sea was crystal clear and our beach hut was practically luxury compared to what we’d been staying in so far! We found a jetty that Shaun insisted he wanted to jump off, when I told him that he’d never be able to climb back up because it was too high, he took this as a challenge and jumped straight in... Only to cut his feet to shreds on barnacles trying to climb back up! There was hardly anyone else on the island, except on the 2nd night; we saw a huge, yellow, full moon rise out of the sea whilst the locals were squid fishing in the shallows, and shortly after, to our surprise a boat load of people turned up for a mini full moon party, complete with cheap Mekong buckets and fire dancers.
We made it back to the main land just in time for New Years Eve. Our guesthouse was run by such a nice English family. They invited all the guests to a party in town, where a really excitable Argentinean couple were trying to teach us to Salsa (unfortunately my lack of rhythm was getting in the way) and Shaun tried a bird embryo that was still in its egg (he said it was the worst thing he's ever tasted... and he's tried most things!). After the party we headed down to the beach for the huge beach party. There were so many people there, surprisingly of all ages, full families including little kids just dancing away on the beach. It was such a good atmosphere, and an amazing end to our time in Cambodia!