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Stories from Cambodia

Well hello again all...been ages again since I last managed to get an email together...seems I'm just having too much of a good time to be spending ages in internet cafes...but have just spent the last 2 days in hospital here in Koh Tao cos of food poisoning, so with little energy for anything else but sitting down in front of a fan and a computer, this is as good a chance as any to update ye... Hope ye're all keeping well and had great Paddy's Days and Easters...can't believe that's all over already! Anyways, here goes...

We arrived in Phnom Penh , the capital of Cambodia , on January 21st at the end of our tour of the Mekong Delta. The first thing I noticed on the drive thro’ the countryside to the city was how much poorer rural Cambodians seemed to be than rural Vietnamese: lots of the younger children in the villages along the roadside were running around with very few if any clothes on…But my first day wandering around the city of Phnom Penh told quite a different story – not since leaving Ireland had I seen so many massive SUV type cars and other fancy expensive cars (never been good at makes, but could prob tell you all about the colours!): the effects of corruption staring me straight in the face… Needless to say jail walking, which is the only way to cross roads in Vietnamese cities where motos will drive around you, was out of the question here…way too many fast cars…traffic lights were a welcome sight!

We spent a few days in the city checking out the sights and being particularly careful with our valuables as we’d heard stories about how dangerous a city it could be – fortunately we didn’t experience anything that confirmed those stories for us (phew!). On the first day at lunch this guy at a table across the restaurant kept looking over at me – and me at him – he looked so familiar (very similar looking to “sexy boy from Belfast ” – but I knew it couldn’t be him..). He came over and introduced himself when he was leaving as he realized I’d no idea who he was…and you’ll never guess – do you NUIG GMIT divers from 1999-2000 remember Durgham Mushtaha?! Well, he remembered me…I guess I haven’t changed much… He was running for a flight somewhere so it was a very fleeting meeting...oh, the small world of the Irish!

I guess the most “memorable” things I did in Phnom Penh were the very depressing but highly educational visits to both the Toul Sleng Genocide museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek – what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s was – well, I can’t think of a suitable adjective – but when I began to meet Cambodian people and noticed how friendly they were and how happy they seemed I wondered how it’s possible after all they went thro’…I guess the human spirit is remarkable. I also managed a second-time-lucky visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda – first time my sleeves weren’t long enough (actually, sleeveless is how I believe it’s described) and I got turned away! And while wandering around the city we saw some of its other sights…

After a few days in the city we headed south to the sleepy town of Kampot . We spent just 2 days there and I pretty much just read a book one of those days. The second day, which happened to be my birthday, we hired a tuk tuk and driver for the day and drove around to a local coastal town called Kep. En route we visited some of the local things to see…salt fields, a cave (one of many in the area) and pepper corn plantations. In the evening there was a massive thunder and lightening storm and the streets of Kampot were knee deep with water – not enough to keep us from the pub tho’…a few drinks and the premiership – a great birthday combo ;)

From there we headed to Sihanoukville…the beach resort of present day Cambodia . Kep used to own that title in the days of French Indochina. Sihanoukville, named after King Sihanouk, wasn’t a hugely impressive place. The main tourist beach was an awful place full of bars right down to the water’s edge…ok at night but dreadful in the daytime. The afternoon of the day we arrived I went wandering along it on my own only to be accosted by a small group of boys trying to sell me men’s swimming trunks ?! They were very persistent and instinct told me they were up to no good…fortunately the position of the sun was in my favour as the shadows it cast told a good story of what was going on behind me (only one of the kids – the biggest – was in front of me trying to “sell” me the stuff…the rest were “lagging” behind). One of the other bigger kids was trying, and not completely unsuccessfully either, to open the zip of one of the pockets of my bag?!?!?!?! I got so incredibly angry incredibly quickly…it was way too soon after the episode in Nha Trang to have people messing with my stuff again… Fortunately for the kids, while the shadows appeared to (and did) tell the truth, I couldn’t be 100% sure and so I didn’t hit them – and believe me I really wanted to…but that would’ve achieved nothing of course. I just went into the next bar where the barlady asked me if I was missing anything from the bag – she’d seen it all. I wasn’t tho’ (missing anything) – and there was nothing in it that would have been worth nicking anyways… But I was shaking with rage at that bar, and altho’ I ‘d been planning on stopping at a bar and having a drink along the way – the Reggae Bar with lots of stoned westerners lazing about would probably have been the last bar I would have chosen to stop at… I had to stop there til the rage abated… and until the kids had gone off to find another potentially easy target… I swear, sometimes I reckon it would have been so much easier to be doing this travelling if I’d a penis! Women are definitely, very sad to say, seen as easier targets…especially those on their own…

So anyways, I never did make it to the end of that beach! But myself and Marcus did wander around the coastline to the various other beaches in the area – and all of them were way nicer than that main one. Another day we did a day trip into the local Ream National Marine Park – a nice day indeed but they could have done sooo much more with it…still I guess tourism is still a growing industry in most parts of Cambodia. And another day I went off diving for the day around one of the local islands called Koh Rong. That was a great day – water was 29 degrees and I saw barracuda (ate lots of bbq barracuda in the evenings too…yum yum!) The rest of the divers were lovely but the company that we’d chosen to go with could have done a better job...

A vid of some cool crabs on the beach in Sihanoukville:http://youtu.be/32DK1bHpQf8

So, after Sihanoukville we spent a very long and sweaty day busing it over to Siem Reap in western Cambodia , the home of the Angkor temples. This is by far the most visited city in Cambodia . I reckon everyone who visits the country visits these temples, from backpacker types to bus loads of Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans and from families with kids to older retired types on tours…the place is chock a block. Ticket options to get to the temples range from 1 day to 7 day passes. We chose a 3 day pass – definitely enough templing at one go! We hired a tuk tuk and driver to take us around for the 3 days. We had thought at one stage of cycling to the closer temples, but it was starting to get very warm in that part of the world and some of the temples take up to an hour to walk around – so cycling in between them sounded way too much like hard work in our opinions! We visited about 18 temples in the 3 days and also visited one river site where there are lots of carvings in the river bed and on rocks along the edges of the river. We visited the most famous and the largest of the temples, Angkor Wat, twice. The other “famous” temple we visited was Ta Prohm – where the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was filmed!! Neither myself nor Marcus had seen the film, but we still took photos of the “famous” Tomb Raider Tree where Lara Croft (a.k.a. Angelina Jolie) apparently picked a jasmine flower before falling thro’ the earth…hmmm…I guess I’ll have to watch the film when I get to NZ! Anyways, the temples are lovely but after 3 days memories of each begin to blend into one and appreciation of the architecture and the bas reliefs on the walls and everything else that makes them so amazing just begins to fade into a tedious monotony – that’s when it’s time leave.

While we were in Siem Reap however, we also got to do something that most visitors to the city do not experience. While we were in Kampot we’d met two American girls who were volunteering at a small school in Siem Reap as English teachers. So when we got to Siem Reap we got in touch with one of them (the other had since finished up and returned home) and we spent one day hanging out at the school sitting in on the English classes and joining in with the afternoon games. It was great fun watching and listening and taking part (the children wouldn’t let us away with not doing whatever they had to do!). It was very funny, one class were learning the letter G and a few choice words were used to teach it, including the word girl. So Brittany (the American girl) went around the class pointing at everyone individually and the children had to say whether the person was a girl or not…when they got to me a few said “girl”, but some smarter, cheekier ones said “woman”!! And there I was still thinking I looked the same as I did at 16 ;o) We joined in all their songs too and they got such a laugh watching Marcus “turning all around” while doing the hokey pokey in a space that was way too tight for him (between the desk and the bench!)… Afternoon games were great too…we joined in some of them, played soccer with them and generally just hung out with them – they really enjoyed two new faces :o)

I had a great day altogether – it was a really lovely experience. These children get to go to a half days worth of regular school in Siem Reap (run by the government I assume but I don’t remember) as all children are entitled to do, but without this school they’d be on the streets trying to sell stuff to tourists for the other half of the day. The staff of this school pays their parents in rice to ensure that they attend the school. And it’s obviously so much better for them to be there learning some bit of English (altho’ their abilities and ages are so mixed that it’s hard to know how much they’re actually learning) and having fun in a safe environment than being out on the streets.

Another thing that I did in Siem Reap was go to a concert in a local children’s hospital that was set up by a Swiss doctor called Beat Richner. This guy is pretty amazing. He’s a paediatrician who went out to Cambodia in the early 70s but, as with all other foreigners, was forced to leave when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. In early 90s he went back to Cambodia and began opening up children’s hospitals. There are 6 or 7 in total now between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These hospitals offer free health care to all children. In the rest of the presumably government run hospitals, the families have to pay. His hospitals are also up to the standard of Swiss hospitals and almost all of the staff are Cambodians that have been trained there. Only about 10% of his funding comes from the Swiss and Cambodian governments, the rest comes from private donations. I’d heard about this doctor from a Swiss guy we met in Vietnam and so went to the concert out of curiosity. He plays Cello and is a remarkable entertainer mixing classical Cello pieces with pieces he’s composed himself and he mixes it all up with some video footage from short films he’s made about the health situation of children in Cambodia (he calls it the silent genocide with reference mostly to the Dengue fever epidemic and TB that kill many children every year – can’t remember the stats but he had them all) and lots of information about his experiences in Cambodia. It was a really informative evening and it was free. The idea was to educate us, the mostly western visiting audience, and then hopefully to get some donations. He asked that everyone who was old (and defined old in Cambodian terms as 50 yrs or more) would give him some money, that everyone who was young would give him some blood and that everyone in the middle would give him some blood and some money. I went to the hospital on the last evening we were in Siem Reap and gave them some blood – probably the last thing I ever would have imagined myself doing while travelling especially given how many excuses I seem to have come up with every time the transfusion unit came to Galway in the past few years!! And of course given the low standards of hygiene etc. I would have imagined a hospital in Cambodia to have…but it was like being in a very, very good western hospital. In fact Princess Ann, in her role as something or other with UNICEF told him, in a derogatory way, that his hospitals had higher standards than regional hospitals in Britain ! According to Dr. Richner, it is believed by the WHO that the quality of a country’s hospitals and health care system should reflect the state of the country’s economy…he doesn’t agree.. Beat Richner has a website if anyone’s interested in finding out more…www.beatocello.com.

From Siem Reap we headed in the direction of Laos . One of our last stops along the way was an overnight in Kratie, a small town on the Mekong . One of the only attractions of this town is its proximity to a population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong . These are an endangered species of dolphin only found in rivers in Asia . Anyways, I took a boat trip out to see them and I enjoyed it. Altho' they don't jump right out of the water the way the common dolphin does, there were plenty of them swimming around and only 2 other boats on the river when I was out.

Our very very final stop before hitting Laos was in the Ratankiri Province of northeastern Cambodia . This province has borders with Laos and Vietnam . It’s not too much on the tourist trail but there are westerners around. Ban Lung was the town we stayed at - a long dusty road trip away from the Mekong . The first day we were there we hired a motorbike and driver and both myself and Marcus squished on and visited some of the local waterfalls and a local lake. It was Chinese New Year when we arrived there so the town and the lake were busy with locals that had come home for the holiday and Phnom Penh natives escaping the city for the long weekend. We also booked ourselves on a 2 day 1 night trek in the buffer zone of Virachay National Park. To trek in the park itself you need to go for at least 2 nights.. We joined an American girl and two English guys on this trek and the five of us and our guides spent the night in hammocks in the forest!! It was class!! The trekking itself wasn’t brilliant – a sweaty walk thro’ a forest would be a better description. There were only short bits of the walk where you could get any views. But we all had a good time. On the second day we visited the village of a minority tribe, and never had any of us felt less welcome somewhere. We were totally stared at, altho’ that’s not too bad, but most of all nobody smiled…to compound the situation we turned up in a big jeep and we had the impression that our main guide had had a little too much rice wine with lunch.. We weren’t sure whether or not our guides realized how unwelcome we all were – they certainly shouldn’t have taken us there… Anyways, it was interesting to see but we’d all have rathered not intrude on these people if they don’t want westerners intruding. In the village we had had lunch at we also didn’t feel very welcome, but at least they must have been making some money out of the fact that we ate there… I’m not sure the second village was benefiting in any way at all.

We left Ban Lung and crossed the border into Laos at Dom Kralor on February 12th. And that is as they say, all for now folks...til the next time take care xxx

Some pics from Cambodia:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914432591/

PS hospital was pretty cool really...private room with air con and tv and all paid for by my insurance!! I'm not used to such luxuries!!

Posted by niscratz 03:06 Archived in Cambodia

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