Cambodia

Day 322 – Wednesday, March 12th 2014

Our first taste of Cambodia would be their corrupt border officials, and their amateurish attempt to relieve us of 200 Thai Baht with a hand written sign at the Visa payment desk. With a little confidence behind us, having dealt with quite a few borders on this trip, we refused to pay. They backed down with surprisingly little effort from our side, and gave us our Visas without the extra fee.

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It took a little wild goose chasing to complete the rest of our paperwork, but before too long we had stamps in our passports and, although we didn’t think they needed to, the customs officers gave us a stamp on Ivor’s Carnet de Passage too and sent us on our way.

We’d be heading straight towards the capital of Phnom Pehn, since we had some visa applications to make. There was no way we’d make it all the way there in one day, but we could see how far we could make it, and there’d always be a gas station forecourt to park up on for the night if we needed it.

The Cambodian drivers were crazy and unskilled, in equal proportions. It was reminiscent of our time on India’s roads, but here the road conditions were slightly better, which unfortunately meant that the same quality of driver could go considerably faster here – something which they took full advantage of.

The overloaded vehicles of Cambodia do deserve a special mention, and although these pics aren’t all from day 322, you get a better feeling for the magnitude of the issue with them all on one place…

We stopped with about 100km left to go when we saw a nice looking hotel, they agreed to the old ‘we park here if we eat in your restaurant’ deal. This solved two problems in one go – where to stay for the night, and how to avoid heating Ivor’s cabin up by cooking inside. In the restaurant we met some Expats out here in the mine clearing business, who claimed this was the best place in town, so we’d gotten lucky.

Day 323 – Thursday, March 13th 2014

It was a flying visit to the capital, only stopping to submit for Chinese Visa’s, to smash a branch from a tree in a posh looking neighbourhood, and to make the most of the city’s cosmopolitan centre by finding a pizza restaurant. In the time that the Chinese would spend trying to decided whether to let us back into their country or not, we would make our way north-west to the town of Siem Reap, so that we could pay a visit to Angkor Wat and the other re-discovered temples in the area.

The road away from town was receiving a facelift, and as such was missing the all important top layer; turning it into a 6 lane dust bowl – where everyone could drive just as fast and badly as they had been before, but you just couldn’t see them doing it.

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Stopping that night still some way from Siem Reap, we found a restaurant with the all important big parking lot. The owner there was super friendly, and showed us some other parking further away from the street and said we could use the toilet block and shower by his house – Actually, he even said we could sleep in the house if we wanted, but since Ivor really now felt like home, we politely declined.

Day 324– Friday, March 14th 2014

We took advantage of our kind host’s offer to use the shower, and then took breakfast in the restaurant – partly to repay the favour, but also because it was easier, and didn’t involve any washing up.

Making our way to Siem Reap, we searched out an overlander-friendly hotel, where we could park for a small fee, use the internet, and even more importantly; we could use the pool. It was roasting during the day, pushing the high 30’s, so even at 5pm a dip was perfect.

That night we investigated the town a little, and found dinner to be surprisingly good and cheap despite it being a tourist hotspot. The appropriately named ‘pub street’  was just around the corner and, garish though it was, it offered some good fun for falang and local alike – with dancing spilling onto the street as the night wore on.

It was a good job we’d parked at the hotel off the street, since we had to have all the windows and doors open to avoid Ivor’s hutch tuning into a sauna.

Day 325 – Saturday, March 15th 2014

Today was the first of our temple spotting days so we unloaded our bikes and set out to find, among others, the famous Angkor Wat. We sweated through the day, and pedalled our way to…

Angkor Wat…

Angor Thom…

 

Ta Keo…

 

And finally, Ta Prohm…

We’d managed to dehydrate ourselves quite badly without noticing, and on stopping to pick up some juice on the way back into town ‘accidentally’ necked the whole carton.

With more water, some salty snacks, and a swimming pool waiting for us at the hotel we were soon feeling better – but took dinner from the hotel since we couldn’t be bothered to go further afield. It was a good thing too, since the owner turned out to be pretty handy in the kitchen.

Day 326 – Sunday, March 16th 2014

Ivor got to go sightseeing today, with some groups of temples lying beyond the reach of pedal power, it made sense to drive to there. First on the list was Bantreay Srei, with its exquisite carvings still in remarkably good condition.

Next was trek out east and down a few dirt tracks to some of the oldest temples – the Roluos Group, stopping at a few others on the way.

At one temple, the path was too narrow for Ivor, so we got ready to proceed on foot. Just as we were ready a pair of falang on quads showed up, being guided by a local on a motorcycle. Vaughan flagged down the bike rider and jumped on the back while one of the tourists carried Kim.

Back in town, we took Ivor for an oil change, before taking once again to the swimming pool. It was a relaxed evening, with dinner and drinks in town and some refreshingly good music being played.

Day 327 – Monday, March 17th 2014

Taking a break from sightseeing, so we didn’t over temple ourselves too much, we did some chores that had been waiting for us – cleaning water tanks and filters, replacing a fuel filter (which had mud in it?!), and checking on the brakes, along with some other tidying. It was again baking during the day so we took regular dips in the pool to keep our temperature in check.

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We ate at a local’s hangout just down the road from hotel, and though the food was good, we still ended up paying tourist prices. In town it was St Paddy’s day, so there was nothing for it but to drink a few green ales at the Irish bar before moving towards ‘Angkor What?’ on pub street, where yet again the party ended up taking up the whole road.

Day 328 – Tuesday, March 18th 2014

With a few To-Do’s still waiting for us, we dragged our heals getting them done this morning – but with the perk that we could then have lunch at the hotel again. We had one slot left on our three day temples ticket, so we stopped in at a couple of others that we had missed in our earlier tour.

There was Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, and Preah Khan…

The latter of which was accompanied by a smooth coconut ice cream, so had to be declared favourite of the day.

We left Siem Reap, on a charge back towards the capital to collect our passports which we’d hoped would now be nicely adorned with visas for our visit to China.

Having covered a little over half the distance back to Phnom Pehn, our parking spot for the night would be next to another restaurant, set back from the main road.

Day 329 – Wednesday, March 19th 2014

Scurrying back to the city, we made it to the Chinese embassy with half an hour to spare before the visa pick-up desk closed for the day. Afterward, we tried to park at a posh hotel, offering to eat at their restaurant, but they were having none of it – though did offer the suggestion of parking at the university – which worked out perfectly, and this way we were free to dine wherever we wanted.

Now with some free-time, we went to check out the palace. There was a slight farce on entry whereby Kim had brought a shawl / scarf to cover her shoulders, since short sleaved tops were not allowed out of respect for the various temples and stupas that were in the grounds. At the ticket booth she was shown a sign saying ‘no scarfs’, and there was a small stand selling ‘pre approved upper wear for ladies’. It all seemed ridiculous and we sloped off sulking and muttering, only to be told as Kim stuffed the scarf into her bag, that her T shirt was okay anyway!

We took a walk by the riverside, stopped in at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for an aperitif, watching the world go by from the balcony, and went for Mexican food before heading back to Ivor. We both had cold showers trying to lower our body temperatures before going to bed – the heat and humidity meant that a good night’s sleep was difficult, particularly now that we had to shut the doors.

 

 

Day 330 – Thursday, March 20th 2014

Applications in hand, we were at the Russian embassy just after it opened hoping to get the final tricky sticker placed in our passports. While Canadians seem to have spent the last few hundred years perfecting maple syrup, or hiding away from the cold, the Brits on the other hand have been messing around all over the place, warring with whoever took their fancy, and generally making a bit of a nuisance of themselves.

This has not gone unnoticed in visa application offices the world over – normally the British passport requires an extra fee to have a sticker administered to it, but on this occasion there were entirely different conditions for the application: they really must have pissed the Russians off back in the day.

Kim’s application would be processed in the normal manner, whereas Vaughan’s would only be considered if he could upgrade his Cambodian tourist visa to a business one, indicating that he could stay for longer than a minimum of 90 days. Pah, this was impossible to do without spending in excess of 350 US dollars – or without deliberately leaving the country, and re-entering with falsified documentation confirming the need for a business visa. The conditions for obtaining 90 days+ were even more complicated to fake in Laos, the next country we would visit, so applying for a Russian visa there was also a non-starter.

There was nothing else for it but to send a passport back to the UK, where an agency could apply on our behalf, and then to get it sent to us somewhere on route – probably China. For good measure Vaughan had to apply for a Mongolian visa through the same agency, this would mean that instead of swapping between passports on the way into Russia, it would be carried out on the way into Mongolia – where they’re not such sticklers for paperwork, and even if ‘persuasion’ was required for them to accept that one person has two passports, hard currency would probably do the trick.

Finding all this out, and deciding what to do of course took most of the day, so before we knew it the evening was upon us. We went for a couple of drinks and bar hopped a little. There was a French run bar with some live jazz (of course), and then we checked out another bar. The crowd was fun, but the drinks were so pricey that we just shared a bottle of water, but we still danced until the wee hours.

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Day 331– Friday, March 21st 2014

Despite the night before we were still up at 8, and went to a local bakery / cafe for some breakfast and a hit of Wi-Fi, to finish arranging the logistics of Vaughan’s Russian visa application.

On our return to the truck we noticed a tell tale puddle by Ivor’s rear wheel – it was obvious before taking the drum off what had happened. The weeping seal on the slave cylinder had finally given up.

The parking lot for the Uni was also common with that of the Phnom Pehn Post, a newspaper based in the city. While looking for help, Kim found an English speaking journalist who could in turn find a local, who could communicate with another guy on a motorcycle to tell them to go off and find a mechanic.

It sounds convoluted, and it was, but before too long, a man with a bag of spanners showed up on the back of the motorcycle. Seeing that he didn’t have quite the right tools to get the cylinder off, he went off to get more, and returned also with an assistant. We helped them remove the troublesome cylinder, and they went off to find a replacement. But without any Iveco outlets they returned empty handed, instead they would have to change the seals and hope for the best.

It was less than 3 hours between first discovering the problem, and having a reconditioned cylinder installed, with the brakes rebuilt and bled. A few heavy braking tests in the parking lot confirmed all was okay.

We decided to spend one more night in Phnom Pehn, getting ourselves sorted before making for the coast. When we were out for the evening we got a recommendation for our coastal trip – apparently Otres beach was the place to go.

Day 332 – Saturday, March 22nd 2014

Finally, we made it out of the city. We were in Sihanoukville in time for lunch at the awesome Starfish Cafe – a non profit organisation that employs disabled people, and turns out some of the best food we’d found in a while.

With last night’s tip we searched out Otres beach, and a restaurant that didn’t mind us parking there if we bought some food from them once in a while. We took a swim and relaxed on the sun loungers. Afterwards a guy came down the beach distributing flyers for a night market.

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The market was just a short tuk-tuk ride away, and the event had some live music, some craftsmen pedalling their wares, and some good food for sale. There was quite a party atmosphere to the place. We got chatting to one English couple that were living here working on the protection of sea horses, and then a couple of Aussie ladies (who were hilarious) and a Swedish guy. We even bumped into an Israeli guy that we’d met on the trekking routes of Nepal.

A raffle had been put on to cover the wages of the musicians, and Kim’s lucky ticket came up – winning a  Sunday roast dinner for two at one of the bars on the beach, not bad at all. The night went on slightly past our bed-time, but was a lot of fun.

Day 333 – Sunday, March 23rd 2014

Yay – a lazy day at last!

Almost all we had on our list for the day was to claim our free roast dinner. After spending the morning dipping in and out of the sea, and lazing around on the beach we made our way to John’s bar to get our to-do list polished off!

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John was a welsh guy, so knew how to knock up a good roast dinner – something Vaughan had been missing for quite some time. We whiled away the rest of the afternoon there, chatting, internetting a little, and relaxing.

Leaving at 5, we went back up the beach towards Ivor and bumped into the Aussies Kaye and Suzette, along with Michael (the Swede), at a restaurant on the shoreline. The owner came over to say hi and, when we learned that he was Greek, decided that it would be a mistake not to order some souvlaki  – we were not disappointed.

Day 334 – Monday, March 24th 2014

Oh yes, more lazing around at Otres beach. Not the most culturally diverse part of our trip sunning ourselves in the company of expats and fellow holiday makers that’s for sure, but it was a welcome break from life on the move every day.

With some internetting / blogging / swimming / eating and snoozing we filled the day successfully. We even treated ourselves to barracuda steak for dinner before finding another bar to lounge in. The bar was run by an American who’d made her break from rat race where she used to work as an Engineer. Life here still seemed to be full of challenges, but at least the stress levels were lower. We chatted to Carrie and her French boyfriend Ollie for until the wee hours.

It was still roasting in Ivor, so we slept on the beach loungers.

Day 335 – Tuesday, March 25th 2014

Woken up by restaurant staff laying out cushions on the loungers, it was time for us to get on the move again. We hung about until lunch time for another hit of western cuisine, and then set off driving towards Kirirom National Park – where we hoped to find some biking, or at the very least some hiking.

Buckerooing our way down the bumpy entrance road, we arrived at a holiday resort that is best described as ‘extinct’. They only person still in attendance asked for a frightening amount of money just to park for the evening, so we gave up on that idea and drove further into the park. Despite a number of promising road signs, we never tracked down any proper tourist accommodation, instead choosing to camp near a tiny village that contained a derelict tourist information centre.

They sent for someone who could speak English, he agreed to guide us for a walk the next day, and the lady from a local family cooked us some dinner. We never did quite figure out if the tiny building was a proper eatery, but some other locals showed up for drinks later so we assumed it wasn’t just serving as a family home.

Day 336 – Wednesday, March 26th 2014

The same lady prepared us some breakfast, and our guide showed up, but apologised, and said he could no longer be our guide – instead he drew us a map.

With a combination of the hand scribbled map, our GPS, and coincidentally walking past the guide’s house and receiving some more pointing by means of guiding, we managed to make ourselves quite a decent stroll through the woodland, even incorporating a stop at a pagoda to throw some sightseeing into the mix.

The walk barely took up the morning. Soon returning to Ivor, we drove straight back towards Phnom Pehn and parked up back at the Uni. Now back in town we could get ourselves to the internet cafes to chase up V’s visa applications

Day 337 – Thursday, March 27th 2014

Kim toddled off to the Russian Embassy to collect her passport while Vaughan stayed back to check on the brake cylinders to make  sure they were still keeping brake fluid in all the right places – and they were.

Stopping at DHL on the way out of town to send Vaughan’s passport off, we left town headed north towards Kratie – and hopefully towards sighting of the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins. The terrible traffic, awful roads, and a large bolt throwing itself through Ivor’s tyre all played their respective parts in holding us back, so by the time it was getting dark we were still some 50km from Kratie. Instead we pulled off the main road at Chlong, finding a guesthouse that didn’t want any payment to let us park up next to them – and they opened a room for shower / toilet facilities. A refreshing change to seeing dollar signs flash up in people’s eyes when we showed up to more touristy destinations.

Mekong living, as viewed from the roadside

Mekong living, as viewed from the roadside

Day 338– Friday, March 28th 2014

Finishing off the route to Kratie, we checked in at the tourist information centre to find the disinterested staff next to useless. We tried a different building, where the enthusiastic assistant walked us back to the first place, immediately handed us the folder that was printed in English, and sent someone to photocopy any pages we were interested in.

We decided to take a drive to see some of the sights, and to arrange an activity for the next day – kayaking, biking, or hiking. We passed a sign for Kayaking that also claimed to have ‘real coffee’. It was too much to resist, so after a little failed haggling we settled on a half day trip on the water – hopefully this would get us the dolphin sighting we sought after.

Sights to see in the area included the Wat of 100 pillars, carefully reconstructed after the Khmer Rouge had their way with it. Admiring the murals gave a couple of benefits, firstly the complex stories gave an insight into the Buddhist beliefs of the region, and secondly it provided respite from the scorching sun. Some of the old timer locals and groundsmen were making use of the cool inside for a little siesta, so we did the same, making up our versions of stories to accompany the mural that lined the ceiling.

The girl at the Kayaking place had arranged for us to park at a church overnight, so we left Ivor there and went for dinner at a restaurant run by a catering training school – and so to give the pupils an opportunity to practice some of the finer dishes, we selflessly ordered the steak-frites and a glass of red wine each.

Day 339 – Saturday, March 29th 2014

A battered up truck carried us and our kayaks north along the Mekong, along with Nicki, an Irish lass that would be joining us for a paddle.

After waiting for a ‘ferry’ that defied both gravity and the displacement theory by somehow keeping its occupants dry despite ruthless overloading, we slid into the water. It was pleasant being so close to the fresh water, and in a sheltered area of tiny islands we stopped for a snack of steamed rice (cooked in the traditional manner of the area, mixed with coconut milk and a few beans inside a short section of bamboo) and some lychee style fruit. We also took some time for a swim.

The route then took us downstream through the flooded forest, where the trees survive almost completely underwater during the rainy season, and now in dryer times show off the impressive lattice of roots that keep them from being washed away.

Finally, we came to one of the deeper pools on the western side of the river where the dolphins sometimes reside. We kept our eyes peeled, but alas, no dolphins. Our guide steered us further downstream and towards the eastern bank, and sure enough grey mounds started showing themselves, allowing us a fleeting glimpse as they rose above the waterline. We sat and watched for a while, they would tend to come up in groups and sometimes we’d be lucky enough for them to surface quite close, but they never paid any interest to us being there – they must be quite used to the attention by now. We paddled our way over to the bank and hauled the kayaks up the steep bank before getting a ride back to Kratie.

We took a nice lunch back at the training restaurant with Nicki, and then started the drive north towards the Laos border. We hoped to make it all of the way to the border, but the areas of construction, and the areas of the road that needed reconstruction soon put paid to that. Instead of racing to the border before nightfall we pulled into Steung Treung, and parked in the centre of town.

One feature of Cambodian living that we’ve not had a chance to explain thus far is the local’s undying love of pyjamas, so much so that they just wear them all day – whatever they are doing.

The heat had finally taken its toll on us; we badly needed a good night of sleep so we paid for the hotel room with AC.

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Our hotel at sunset

Day 340 – Sunday, March 30th 2014

The riverside guesthouse, just down the road from our hotel provided us with a bacon baguette and banana pancakes, and then we had to move north to the Border.

The vehicle papers were stamped without any trouble, but the Immigration officer tried to relieve us of a couple of dollars in exchange for an exit stamp – this meant that we would be leaving the country the same way that we had entered it; getting stroppy with border guards until they gave up on their petty bribes.

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Normally we’d give some kind of ‘final thought’ as we part a country, so we’d better have a go at one here. Cambodia is a tricky one for us to sum up though, partly because there is SO much here that we didn’t really scratch the surface, partly because our tour of the popular tourist sites meant we’d spent a lot of our time in a western friendly environment, and also because we’d spent a fair chunk of time worrying about visa logistics.

Perhaps its best just to say that although Cambodia has many of  the heavy hitters of SE Asia’s tourist attractions, the real joy in the country lies in the places in between – the sheer chaos of Phnom Pehn, the wilderness of the jungle, and the welcome when you roll into a tiny village unannounced. It was amazing to have seen all that we did, but to make the most of the place needs that most exclusive of luxuries; time.

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