30 Jun 2012

Cambodia: Land Of Smiles (Part One)

The people I met and passed by in Cambodia had one thing in common: they smiled.  Everywhere people are smiling and laughing, the happiness is infectious!  I remember walking along the Mekong river one evening in Kampong Cham, the air was warm and the streets were bustling with people, and every single local we passed gave us a brilliant, wide smile.  You can't help but grin back giddily!



This smiling and cheeky chappy was very rowdy indeed when we visited his family's home on a silk village excursion.  He's wearing his dad's glasses, cute!  I pretty much fell in love with Cambodia.  Their ease is a wonderful thing to encounter and I felt inspired just being there.

So, I'll give you a brief outline of what we did in Cambodia and where, then I'll tell you all about the nitty gritty (and the disasters, never forget the disasters).  We began in Siem Reap where we visited the temples, went to art galleries, and drank many cocktails.  We had a major monetary mishap in Siem Reap which we managed to resolve, then we went to Phnom Penh - I don't even need to tell you that something went wrong on the journey, it's standard practice by now.  In Phnom Penh we went to see the killing fields and S21 prison, it was full on and very upsetting.  But on the positive side we also learnt a lot about a wonderful charity called Friends International and the amazing work they do.  After that we spent some time in Kampong Cham where we visited the local fishing and silk villages.  Finally, we briefly stayed in Kratie where we were lucky enough to be able to see some endangered irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong river.

So we began in Siem Reap.  We stayed at Rosy Guesthouse which is run by a lovely British family.  The staff here were the friendliest I came across on the trip and had oodles of great tips and ideas for things to keep us occupied.  You can find them on Facebook here.  Our tuk tuk driver John picked us up at eight o'clock sharp, we hopped into his tuk tuk and off we went!  I LOVE tuk tuks and I really wish we had them here in the UK.  We decided to get a three day pass and started our temple exploration at Angkor Wat.  It is magnificent.  You definitely need to be there and see it to really appreciate it's majesty and grandeur.  The thing that I had trouble getting my head around was the fact that it is over a thousand years old.  One thousand years!  That's really old!  Some parts have been restored, but some parts are still original and the detail is staggering.  I took A LOT of pictures, I won't bore you with them all but here are a few that I really like:











There's Kayleigh looking like Tomb Raider!

We were in complete awe, it was very surreal to think we were walking on stones that people built and walked on so long ago.  John was happy to wait for us (when we were ready for some lunch we found him snoozing away in his hammock!) so we took our time wandering around the outer perimeter of the temple and taking it in.  I'd heard other backpackers say two things about the temples - that eventually, no matter how amazed you are at first, you will get 'templed out', and that it is unbelievably hot.  Well, we were by no means 'templed out' yet, we'd only just started.  But my gosh was it hot!  Luckily there were plenty of shady spots because we were in a temple!  The two of us were followed by two young boys at one point who looked harmless enough, however it was pretty obvious that they were waiting to pick our pockets.  They clearly knew that we knew what they were up to so I had to admire them really!  We'd already locked our bags though so they soon got bored and moved on.

After about two hours of open-mouthed gawping and walking about we went to a cafe for lunch.  To get out we had to pass the street sellers.  I'm telling you if these sales people were employed in the UK they'd be at the top of their game.  I refused to buy anything but it was extremely difficult to do so, I found the best tactic was to look straight ahead, keep walking (I made the mistake of stopping once, that was enough not to do it again) and quietly say 'No thank you'.  It's a difficult situation and sometimes even a bit frightening if they start to get angry that you won't buy anything.  But I remembered the advice we had been given, which was to not buy from them and rigidly stuck to my guns.

John took us to a place that was owned by friends or relatives of his (out there everyone is someone's brother, literally everyone, so you never know who is genuinely related and who isn't).  As we ate John sat on next table laughing and joking with his friends/family.  I idly watched some children playing on a bike that was about ten times too big for them and had no brakes, under the lazy watch of their father who was dozing in a hammock attached to some trees.  It was here that I felt I began to see Cambodia.  Don't get me wrong it's amazing to be able to do and see all of the touristy things and I feel incredibly privileged to have done so, but my favourite thing to do in foreign places above all else is to watch people.  I love seeing little things that you won't see in a museum or on a tour, real things.  These kids were playing in exactly the same way my brothers and I used to play in our garden whilst our parents would be gardening or just sitting out enjoying the sun.  I find comfort in knowing that in a lot of ways people are the same, no matter where in the world I am.

After lunch we were back on the road again to see a new temple.  On the way there I saw something that I found really hilarious, a real coming together of old and new.  There were some men riding elephants on the other side of the road, they must have been on their way to their next tourist pick up point.  One guy was happily ambling along on the huge mammal steering it up the path, whilst also on his iphone!  Maybe he was playing angry birds, who knows.  I tried to get a good picture but this is the best I managed:


See the temple right in the background?  Cool right?

Now, here is where I realise I really should have been much better at writing in my journal.  If I had been a good traveller I would know where we went to next, but I don't.  I'll try and figure it out though, here is a map of the general temple area:



I know we went to Angkor Thom but that was later on, I think we did a loop of the area.  It wasn't Ta Prohm Kei (where Angelina Jolie filmed one of the Tomb Raider films), so I think it was Bat Chum.  Yes I think that's right, the order went like this: Angkor Wat, Bat Chum, Ta Som, Angkor Tom and Ta Prohm Kei. Here are a few a lot of pictures:

Bat Chum:





Ta Som (I think):




Angkor Thom:




Ta Prohm Kei:



We became more and more amazed with each temple we saw and by the time we were finished the sun was getting ready to set.  John took us back to our hostel, we paid him and agreed to get picked up at the same time again the following day.  After a shower and probably a nap we decided to have dinner then head to pub street - we'd heard only good things about the bars there.  We agreed we would have one quiet cocktail then go back as we had another day of serious temple exploring booked in.  You know those nights where you say you'll have one drink and end up having about ten?  Well about four hours later when we should have been in bed we were dancing madly on a podium in Temple Club with backpackers and locals alike.  I had the worst hangover I have ever had in my entire life - and I've had a lot of hangovers!  Kayleigh wasn't much better and we made that much noise and racket when we got home that a guy in the room next door came to ask if we were okay!  How embarrassing!  Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of this night because we didn't take our cameras - we weren't planning on a big night out after all.

The next morning I woke up and knew immediately I wasn't going anywhere.  Like the true friend that I am I refused to move from the bed so Kayleigh, who was just as hungover as I was, had to go downstairs and apologise to John.  She gave him ten dollars for the trouble, bought some water for us and came back to our room.  To make matters worse, we'd moved into a cheaper room with no air con so as you can imagine we were lying in a furnace of nausea, heat, sore heads and self-pity.  It was horrible.  We managed to get up and eat some lunch, and later on even managed to get out to a restaurant and have some tea.  We watched an Apsara dance routine which was really cool, I loved the outfits:



We then sloped off to bed to sleep off the last remanents of the hangover that really was from hell and the next day were actually up in time for John!  Poor old John.  I'll tell you a bit about John actually, he was super cool with an ace sense of humour and a cheeky grin.  The first time he took us to the temples he got a flat tyre, he stopped and explained to us that he had to get it fixed in broken English.  Then as he hopped off he looked at the tyre and went 'Why?!' in a silly voice whilst shaking his fists at the sky.  Legend.  He was twenty-two years old (only about a year younger than we were at the time) and lived with his family.  What a great guy!  Anyway, moving on.  We decided to head back to Angkor Watt and explore the inner perimeter.  We'd missed our second day due to The Hangover and wouldn't have time to do a third day, so this was it!  We had to make it count!  I think we got officially 'templed out' after two hours.  Yeah, it was a poor effort.

John took us back to Siem Reap and dropped us off in town so that we could explore.  Siem Reap is a beautiful city, the locals have a real passion for art and a lot of the architecture is nice and French.  Kayleigh bagged herself a load of silk too at a cheap price.  Note her reference to the landslide at the end of the post, tee hee!




When we got back to the guesthouse we decided to top up our cash cards online as they were now empty.  Both of us found our bank cards appeared to have been blocked.  Why oh why do bad things happen to good people I ask you?!  This was a little alarming for various reasons: we had to pay our tab at the guesthouse, we had to pay for the coach we were getting later on, and we did not want to arrive at the next destination with no money.  We couldn't use skype to contact our bank (because you had to buy credit with your bank card, and ours weren't working!), the telephone was only for domestic calls and our phones still wouldn't work.  We tried a few other cash points with no luck and began to do what we did best: panic.  Kayleigh suggested we try and buy a sim card, my phone was unlocked so it should work.  We bought one between us (we had just enough cash for a sim card and some credit, how lucky is that!) and the woman who worked there very kindly helped us to top the card up.  I say she helped, she actually just did it for us.  We then each phoned our banks and managed to get our cards unblocked.  The guy I spoke to sounded incredibly bored, I guessed I wasn't the first backpacker he'd had to tell off that day.  So yeah, I learnt the hard way that you are supposed to tell your bank that you are going to a developing country before you go there, whoops!  

Disaster averted, we went and found a hotel with a free swimming pool and spent the afternoon lounging and speculating about one day owning our own shop together (you know, like best friends do).  At some point, I can't remember on which day, we watched The Killing Fields in preparation for our visit to Phnom Penh.  This is a fantastic but haunting film and is great for learning about Cambodia and its more recent history.  While we waited for our coach to arrive we joined in with a pub quiz that was being held for charity and had a little bit to drink (only a very little bit this time!).  Midnight came around and we were loaded up and beginning another journey that we suspected would at some point go wrong, as you'll discover in my next post, it didn't disappoint.