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Cambodia Adventures, Continued 26 February 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Travelling.
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Kep

After our very lovely experiences with all the temples and bamboo trains etc, we still had some holidays left over, so we decided to make the long haul to the coast to find a nice little beach to snuggle up on.

Getting from Battambang to the beach is actually quite a trek – not because it is incredibly far, but because the road is not magnificent, and because there is a mountain range running parallel to the coast and Tonle Sap lake, meaning that to get from Battambang to the coast we needed to either go through the mountains (dirt roads, no bus services, so something we would have been able to do if we had motorbikes, but that was something we did not have) or go all the way down to Phnom Penh first, and then go to the coast from there.

We did the latter, and chose to go to a little coastal town called Kep. Kep is indeed a tiny town, but it is up and coming. It used to be quite grand, and it still has many bombed out old villas that remain from when the French used to use Kep as a weekend retreat for swanky parties (bombs courtesy of the Khmer Rouge, of course). They are slowly being pulled down, though, and resorts are mushrooming, now that the place is regaining its popularity.

We had not booked ahead, so we ended up having to stay at a basic back packer like place for the first night, which was perfectly fine, apart from the low doorframe to the bathroom, meaning that we both smacked our heads at some stage during our stay.

Kep has a crab market where you can go and eat (supposedly) fresh sea food, and watch the sun set into the ocean over cocktails. You can see the (now) Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc from Kep, which is weird, as we knew that friends of ours were staying there at that very moment. The local crab with green pepper dish that we had was delicious, but we are not sure whether it or a later meal caused us so much trouble later on.

The next day, we decided to go out to the island outside of Kep – Koh Tonsay – and stay there overnight. They only have beach shacks there, made of bamboo, and very rustic. In theory it was a fantastic idea, but we were mighty unlucky.

We had lunch at the beach, and I spent the whole day exploring (I walked around the entire circumference of the island to see the locals in their fishing villages, and managed to spot a few kingfishers) and frolicking at the beach. Koh Tonsay is an absolute gem. It has beautiful beaches, and the water was just perfect for swimming. Time seems to slow down, because there is no reason to hurry. Our shack had two hammocks outside on the veranda, where we could lie and read in peace, or just contemplate the palmfronds above. It was true heaven for the time that it lasted.

That night we realised that we had managed to contract food poisoning. And it was so hot in the shack that I felt the skin on my face tighten as I was lying under the mosquito net, trying not to think about the heat. The generator seemed to be near our hut somewhere, running most of the evening to keep the lights on.

To top it all off, the neighbouring shack (I should have known better) contained some crusty old foreigner who had been on the island anywhere between two or six months (he was a little fussy on the details) and had made his shack into his home. The music from the hut was not too annoying, although the nature of the huts is that there is not much walls or anything to dampen the sound. It was the next morning that made me want to scream. He woke up at the crack of dawn (like everyone else due to the roosters) and decides he will get up and start hammering!

And I try to be zen about these things and ignore other people, because the more you let things irritate you, the more irritating they become. But it was when he was having a (very long) argument with someone over the words in the song Barbara Ann (Beach Boys), and was singing the words

“Ba-ba-ba…Ba-ba-ba-reng”

repeatedly, and when he eventually pulled out the stereo and played the song several times, with everyone there singing along that I thought I was going to lose my marbels.

Luckily, we travelled on to Phnom Penh that day, where we spent most of our time recuperating from the food poisoning, and seeing just a few sights. Luckily, we managed to catch up with some friends of ours while we were there, so we could see the capital through their eyes.

After two more days of exploring Phnom Penh and relaxing, we returned to Hanoi for another stint. Good to be home.

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Cambodian Food 26 February 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Part of the enjoyment of travelling is, for us, trying new food. I am not the most adventurous of eaters (no grubs and the like for me), but I do like to try new dishes abroad.

And for me, what was surprising about Khmer food, was that it is not spicy. I had for some reason expected it to be more like Thai food – with a real kick in the guts of chilli. Instead, it is a very subtle cuisine, which allows you to taste the flavours of the dish without the (sometimes) overpowering overtones of chilli.

Amok (or amok trey) is a dish that I was particularily intrigued by – and not just because the name appealed to me – it is a coconut based curry which can be eaten with various types of meat or vegetables. We tried the fish version, which was supposed to be the nicest one. It has a beautiful and smooth texture, and it is served in banana leaf which makes for an aestetic experience as well.

Other Khmer curry dishes that we tried were also very good, however, even though I don’t particularily like spicy food, I kept thinking that a tiny bit more chilli in the pot would have added to the flavours of the dishes. And trust me – that is a first!

I also tried Lok Lak (or Loc Lac), which is supposed to be a delicacy as well. It is a beef dish with lime dipping sauce, and it was very nice. Interestingly, I later found out that this is actually a Vietnamese dish which has been adopted by the Cambodians as their own (although slightly modified). In Vietnamese, it is called bo luc lac, which translates as shaken beef. Although if you were to ask any Cambodian today whether it is a Cambodian or Vietnamese dish, you are sure to get the answer Cambodian.

So if you ever have the chance to go to Cambodia – try the local cuisine (the Cambodian barbecue is also heavenly)!

Cambodia Adventure, Continued 25 February 2010

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Monday

We decided to head down to the floating village on the Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap is a gigantic inland lake and river system which during the dry season (when we were there) runs west, and which joins the Mekong, contributing to the water flowing through the Mekong Delta.

During the wet season, though, when monsoonal rains and snow melt from the mountains in China make the Mekong swell enormously, the Mekong Delta becomes so saturated that the tributary in fact has nowhere to deposit it’s waters, so the Tonle Sap river first stops up, then starts flowing in the opposite direction, back into the Tonle Sap lake! So the water level rises during the wet season by up to eight metres every year, meaning that people living in the area have had to adapt.

Cue the idea of a floating village. As you would know, we have seen many floating villages already around Vietnam. Unfortunately, the lack of novelty, strongly combined by a super dodgy racket which controls the tickets sales to the village, meaning that prices have inflated to $20 USD per person (with no competition either allowed or possible) made for a less than enjoyable experience. In hindsight, we wish we would have skipped the village all together.

We did get to see a crocodile farm, though.

That afternoon we spent shopping in Siem Reap, getting massages, and generally being lazy, drinking cocktails by the pool at the hotel.

Tuesday

We had booked a bus trip to Battambang the next day, because I wanted to go on the bamboo train. Being nerdy as I am, I love trains, and I really could not pass up the opportunity to go on this one.

The bamboo train (or the norry) is a unique little tourist attraction which is unlikely to be around for much longer. This is because of the rail history of Cambodia: the line that connects Phnom Penh to the Thai border is of extremely bad quality, mainly because it was laid a long time ago, and the country has been too poor and war ridden to upgrade it. Passenger trains stopped running long ago, and the goods trains that are still chugging along the tracks that have completely buckled from the heat have a top speed of about 20 km/h.

However, the locals living on the tracks have taken to use it to transport people and goods with make-shift bamboo trains: placing four wheels on two axels, covering it with a flat bamboo contraption, and using a motorbike engine with a fan belt to propel the vehicle forward over the rails. The tracks are used to go both ways – so when you encounter oncoming traffic, the two drivers quickly assess which train has less passengers (norrys carrying motorbikes get precedence). When it has been decided who ‘loses’, the passengers of that norry have to descend, the norry is quickly dissembled by the two drivers, the other bamboo train is let through, the drivers reassemble the norry again, and they both go on their merry way in opposite directions.

It is great fun (or so I thought at least), feeling the wind in your hair and hearing the rhythmic steel on steel every time the contraption goes over a joint between the rails. I spent most of my time grinning like a village idiot, or at least until I got flies stuck in my teeth and all over my arms (the sunscreen was a bit sticky). Slowing down for cattle crossing the rails, we both looked at each other and smiled – I had now done and seen all the things I had on my list of things to do and see in Cambodia, and it was only day 4!

The train lines in Cambodia are currently being upgraded, however, in an effort to connect Singapore with Bangkok via rail, so this little gem is doomed to disappear in the not too distant future. Get in while you can!

After the norry adventure, we continued to Wat Banan.

Wat Banan was built on top of a hill in the 10th Century, and is claimed to have been the inspiration for Ankor Wat. It is a punishing ascent to the top – 359 steps (and the steps are quite large, so it takes quite some effort to get up there) which are so steep for the first bit that you cannot even see the Wat at the top.

But once you get up there, it is an amazing sight – the Wat is wonderfully red and the views all around are magnificent. The temple hill is pretty much the only hill in the surrounding countryside (except for the other hill which we climbed later that day) and you can really see far around. We could also hear a ceremony going on somewhere down there, which filled the temple site with drumming and chanting.

Unfortunately (for me), the temple is still in use, meaning that there was incense burning everywhere. I felt like I would suffocate, especially after being winded from the hike up there. But I managed to find a beautiful little spot where there was no smoke at the other side of the temple, where I could sit and overlook the five towers that remain (in a semi collapsed state) and there are still quite a few carvings that remain as well. I wondered what it would have looked like in its prime, but could not imagine it. It was beautiful all the same.

After climbing back down (I had to zig zag to minimise the impact on my knees – to much laughter by the locals) we bought sugarcane juice to quench our thirst. I love sugarcane juice, and buy it in Vietnam all the time. But I have never had any with dead floating bees in it, though.

The ride from Wat Banan to the other hill – Phnom Sampeu – took us through Cambodian countryside that was parched and dry, but I am sure it would be splendid during the wet season, with rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

Phnom Sampeu is famous for the horrors that played out here during the Khmer Rouge regime, and because I know full well the evil people can be capable of, I chose not to go to the ‘killing caves’. Instead, we hiked to the top via a set of stairs, and had a look at the temple at the top of the hill. But by this stage, I was somewhat templed out, and was more interested in looking at other things. We found a set of stairs that led down into a natural crevice in the mountain, where at the bottom you could see two more statues. Descending the stairs, you could feel the stinging odour of guano enter your nostrils. At the bottom of the crevice, we were surrounded with high limestone walls on all sides.

All of a sudden, a large, white bird – my first ever owl in the wild! – makes a quick circle above our heads and then disappears, ready to go hunting in the waning sunlight. Walking back up out of the crevice on the other side, we see a little, bushy-tailed, red squirrel scurrying over the rocks, and there are monkeys coming out to eat the offerings made by humans.

We walk back down to the bottom of the hill to see the bats leaving the cave for the night. It is an interesting experience, because they are literally all flying in about a metre-wide highway of bats – thousands and thousands of them, causing the gray evening sky to go black with flitting bodies. The tuk-tuk driver showed us how they change direction when you clap – the sound waves make them move away from the clapper.

The way home was on an unsealed road, and the dust was unbearable. Luckily, we had stopped to buy scarves before heading back, so we both wrapped our faces entirely up in the scarves, and sat there looking like bandits on the back seat back into Battambang. Even with the scarves, we were completely covered in red dust when we were back in the hotel, and a shower did little to get it out of my pores, because the white towel was far from white when I was finished scrubbing it all off.

Battambang itself is not much to speak of, so I won’t. But I will mention the little restaurant called The Smoking Pot where we went for dinner – and had expatty hamburgers with chips, just what we felt like after spending days eating the local cuisine. It is a quaint little restaurant, and we very much recommend it if you do go to Battambang. But don’t go to Battambang for it, because unless you like the idea of the bamboo train, there is nothing much else going on in the second largest city in Cambodia.

Cambodia Adventure, Continued 23 February 2010

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Installment 2

Sunday

After a leisurely eating breakfast poolside, we were all ready to go and see some more temples. It was gearing up to be another very hot day, so my initial plan of renting bicycles and be a little more independent had long been discarded, and Mr. Thy picked us up from the hotel again.

Unfortunately, it being Valentine’s Day and all, the hotel we were staying at did not have a room for us to stay for the third night, so we loaded all our belongings into the tuk-tuk, and headed off towards a place which we thought was nearby. But when we called them again for directions, it turned out they were out on the way to the airport, which we did not particularly want. So we found a little boutique hotel called Villa Kiara Hotel.

It was a little pricey, but it was absolutely worth staying here; the manager, who is French, and his wife are very sociable and friendly people, who really seem to enjoy running the place. And they do it well. It was even further out from the centre of town than our initial place, so the last bit of road is unpaved and quite wobbly, but they provide guests with a free tuk-tuk service into town, and plenty of directions for coming back to tuk-tuk drivers who do not know how to find them.

So, on the agenda for the day, we only had one temple in mind – Banteay Srei – but we told Mr. Thy to find a couple of other ones to break up the ride. He was more than happy to do this for us, and took us first to see Pre Rup.

Pre Rup

Pre Rup was built in the year 961, and is completely different from the other (later) temples that we had seen, in that it has a starkness to it, and a remarkable lack of decorations. Whereas all the other temples have (or once had) intricate sculptures and reliefs etc, Pre Rup was minimalistic, with only a few statues. The staircases on all four sides were so steep that after climbing up, I climbed part of the way back down backwards, to keep the point of gravity of my body as close to the stairs as possible (and to avoid vertigo).

Yet the red stone (laterite apparently) used to build it makes it very interesting and aesthetically pleasing all the same, and we very much enjoyed our visit. When climbing to the top, it is also worth glancing around, because there is not a thick tree covering like the other temples, so you can see quite a far way around the Cambodian countryside. You are supposed to be able to see Angkor Wat as well from the top, however, we were unsuccessful in spotting it.

Next we continued to something completely different;

Banteay Srei

This temple is, as opposed to Pre Rup, famous for its intricateness. It is a small temple, quite a way away from the other temples. It was constructed out of red sandstone, a hard type of stone which lends itself to carving, and which they certainly took advantage of – the carvings are deep and intricate, some beautifully preserved and others very well restored, it was just a delight to visit this temple. There were almost too many things to look at, and I bet you could come back again and again and always see something new. The colourings of the sandstone also made for a pretty picture – it ranged from sandstone yellow to dark red, to dark mouldy patches that were almost black, and other parts had a weak green tinge to them, all adding to the mystery and my enjoyment of the temple.

It was built in the 10th Century, and dedicated to Shiva, and I was completely blown away by the beauty of it. It was apparently not built on the direction of a King (and this is the only temple in the area not to be built by royalty), but by a councillor to a King. If you ever go to see the temples at Angkor, make sure you do not miss out on this one.

On the way back from Banteay Srei, we also made a stop at Banteay Kdei.

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei is a very long structure with a continuous walkway stretching from the entrance all the way to the other end – which makes for an awesome picture if you are lucky enough to find no tourists popping up into the middle. Which is practically impossible.

It was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII (yes, the same person who built Ta Prohm and Bayon) but it is uncertain who the temple was dedicated to. We were told that this temple used to be a university, and that Jayavarman VII had built it for his tutor, however, the Wikipedia entry makes no reference to this information (or anything like it). There are references to monks having occupied the enclosed temple at various stages, perhaps this is what they meant.

At the very far end of the temple, there is another large tree whose roots have dug into the structure and which, like at Ta Prohm, is partially ruining the building and partially holding it up.

What a memorable day.

Cambodia Adventure 22 February 2010

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Picatures to follow later, when I have downloaded them to the computer.

I am freely admitting to being a poor blogger over the past two weeks. Partly, this has been because I have been unmotivated. But mostly because I have (yet again) been travelling and seeing a new country. Can you blame me?

Cambodia has been on our (much talked about on this blog) ‘must-see-while-in-the-region’ list of countries since we arrived in Vietnam, but we have in the past always been foiled by prohibitively expensive airline prices, which have made other destinations far more attractive. But having five days off for Tet (Vietnamese New Year), making a nine-day trip feasible was too good to pass up, so we jumped on the wave of expats leaving Hanoi.

Friday

We flew in to Siem Reap on Friday night after work, and stayed at Antanue Villa Hotel. It is a lovely little hotel with our room only two steps from the edge of the pool, and with an amazing special which I found online, it made for a very nice stay indeed. It is also located outside of the main tourist area, about ten minutes walk from town.

That evening, we walked into town, to have a look around. As we arrived after dark, there was quite an ambiance, with fairy lights along the river banks. But I was glad that we had found the hotel outside of ‘Pub Street’, though, because live bands were pumping out such hits as Oh Carol, (Neil Sedaka) which, frankly, I was not sad to give a miss.

Siem Reap in itself is not much to see – it has lots of bars and hotels and fully caters to all the tourists that come to this part of Cambodia to see the Angkor temples.

Saturday

Saturday was going to be our day of exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. A friend of ours in Hanoi had told us about a good moto-remorque (tuk-tuk) driver who was reliable and friendly, and above all, whose English was amazing. We have never really explored an area with a recommended driver before, but Mr. Thy was certainly worthwhile.
He met us at our hotel, and his English was indeed impeccable.

He took us to Angkor Thom first, and was able to tell us quite a lot about its history, which, together with our Lonely Planet, was for us just about the right amount of information before exploring the temples and ruins ourselves.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was the capital city of the Khmer empire, before it was abandoned and moved to its present day location in Phnom Penh. It was at some stage supposed to have housed around 1 million inhabitants, but all that now remains is the outer wall with its five gates, and the temples and palaces that were located inside. The houses that were there for the commoners would most likely all have been wooden, and have since then degraded and disappeared.

The bridges over the moat around the outer wall leading up to the gates into the city are adorned with (once) beautiful statues representing the 54 deities (devas) and 54 demons (asuras) holding the serpent (naga), and represents an ancient myth (the Churning of the Sea of Milk) of their old belief system. The South Gate’s statues are the most preserved and restored, and therefore the most popular starting point into the city. The other gate’s statues have had their heads cut off for wealthy collectors. Looting like this is still a problem in Angkor, especially at the outer temples, and much of the most valuable pieces have been replaced by replicas and the originals stored away in museum warehouses in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

Inside of Angkor Thom, the first temple we explored was the Bayon.

The Bayon

The Bayon is a structure built in the late 12th Century by a rather extravagant king called Jayavarman VII. It was built at the centre of Angkor Thom city.

The temple is full of faces, all believed to bear more than a passing resemblance of the king himself, smiling a mysterious but benevolent smile in every direction. Wherever you are in or on the temple, one of the 216 giant faces will be looking at you or at least be visible. The temple has 54 towers, which some say represented the then 54 provinces of the empire.

We climbed the temple all the way to the top, and the impressive size of the temple and the amazing state of the faces was a marvelous start to our templing adventure.

Baphoun

This temple, directly northwest of the Bayon, was taken apart and carefully numbered (in an attempt at restoring it), however, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the records pertaining to the temple, and thus it remained a giant jigsaw puzzle for many decades. They are now trying to reassemble it piece by piece with the help of computers as well as some very patient archeologists.

Unfortunately, it was closed to the public when we were there, so we only saw the outside, and did not have the opportunity to see the big statue of Buddha at the back of it.

Phimeanakas

We walked through the jungle to Phimeanakas, which used to be a royal palace. We shared a coconut at the bottom of the palace, before we climbed to the top of this one as well.

In the grounds of the palace, we saw children frolicking in the pools which still are full of water, and which provided great relief from the heat of the sun. It was fantastic to hear the careless giggles of the children through the ruins of the solemn old structures.

We continued through the forest back towards the main road, and the Terrace of the Leper King.

Terrace of the Leper King

It has been suggested that this structure could have been a royal crematorium, but they are not entirely sure about this. The walls surrounding the terrace, as well as the Elephant Terrace have marvellous carvings in it.

Angkor Wat

After a quick lunch on site, we set off for Angkor Wat. It had been recommended to us to do this during lunch when most of the larger buses with tourists returned to Siem Reap, which turned out to be well worth the suggestion.

Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in Cambodia. It is even found on the Cambodian flag, and is extremely closely linked to the psyche and identity of Cambodia as a nation.

And it is indeed an impressive structure and quite a feat of engineering. However, I found that the temple had been talked up so much for me that once I was on the grounds of it, I was just a little underwhelmed by it. I would still not have missed it for the world, though, albeit not my favourite temple on our trip.

It certainly has an amazing grandure, and, had we not been unlucky and seen it during some major renovation work on the facade, it would have yielded some impressive photos. And for being a temple first built in the early 12th Century, it has been amazingly preserved.

As we were trailing along the edges of Angkor Wat to try to return to the main gate via shadows rather than the middle of the walk way in the blaring sun, tourbus after tourbus of tourists came trotting the other way, proving that yet again, we had been lucky with our timing of our visit.

That deserved to be celebrated with ice cream.

Ta Prohm

But my favourite temple of the day was Ta Prohm. It was also built by Jayavarman VII (who had commissioned the Bayon), in honour of his mother. It, however, has been completely overtaken by the forest, and the trees that have taken root all over the grounds of the temple, which in itself is rather large, have infact become so entwined with the rocks that it has both displaced them and is keeping them in place.

Tomb Raider was partially filmed on location in Cambodia, including in Ta Prohm, so there is something quite familiar about walking around in the ruins. We were there at a great time, too, when it was possible to get away from the crowds, and see the place without a million other people popping up in your pictures.

We felt like kids exploring the nooks and crannies of the temple, and had great fun finding picturesque spots to use the auto shutter device on my partner’s camera, balancing on boulders and treetrunks to find the perfect couple shot.

The light in the late afternoon made it all very intense and mystic, and I hope that those photos turn out alright.

Saturday evening

So, our first day of our Cambodia Adventure went well. Our driver, Mr. Thy, had invited us to a party at his friend’s house, because, after all, it was Chinese New Year’s Eve that evening, and his friend’s grandfather had been Chinese, so it needed to be celebrated. So we spent the evening drinking beer (I found myself as the only woman in a large circle of men, with the other women in the house either in the kitchen or watching TV), toasting the New Year and, after a while, some great performances of Karaoke on the TV (after the women had been told to turn off the show they were watching, and clearly enjoying).

There were actually some amazing singers amongst them, so eventhough it was Karaoke in a language we could not understand, it was quite good. We left long before the party was over, though, and even though it was a most random invitation, we are happy that we accepted it, as it turned out to be most enjoyable.

But next on the agenda was sleep, because we still had many more things to do in Cambodia!