Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kampot from CK's Prospective

A recent email from CK about our weekend in Kampot...

> A month or two before we left for our trip, our friend Vim from high school (who Michelle met in Atlanta) put us in touch with her friend who lives in Phnom Penh. Lindsey is originally from Buffalo but moved to PP a few months ago for an adventure and also to teach. After a few email exchanges, Lindsey convinced us that taking a weekend trip down south to Kampot would be a great relaxing break from our hectic travels...looking back now I think it was my favorite part of our trip yet.
> Lindsey met us at our hotel in PP on Friday night and we all split the cost of a taxi to Kampot. I can't begin to describe how luxurious the ride was when compared to all of recent buses, tuk tuks, etc! The journey took about 2.5 hours consisting of the constant swerving to avoid cows, water buffalo, chickens, children and pigs which has strangely become normal. Street addresses don't really seem to exist in this part of the world, so as we approached Kampot we called the guesthouse and had the taxi driver speak directly to the staff. Directions consisted of turning right at a temple entrance with two lions, following a dirt path to a mosque, driving through the mosque (seriously we almost hit it!), around a few villages (at which point our taxi driver was laughing out loud at how ridiculous the journey was) until finally being met on the road by a dog, which led us the way for another 5 mins down a few more dirt paths to the guesthouse.
> We arrived at the Ganesha "eco-resort" just after 9pm, just in time to meet with the eccentric German owner and receive our flashlights that would be our primary lighting for the weekend. Lindsey booked us a large Yurt to share, which is essentially a large tent - no bathroom, a/c, or any real walls in sight! The unexpected surprise is that unlike what was listed on their website, we did have electricity - well, enough to power a few lanterns and a single fan (which I made sure got a good workout). We fell asleep under our mosquito nets to the sounds of geckos calling just above our heads.
> After breakfast the next morning, we noticed a sign saying that the hotel could arrange motorbike rentals for 5 USD a day...I also realized that I finally had an ally in Lindsey, who had also never ridden one but always wanted to. A quick chat with the owner and the next thing we knew three motorbikes were delivered to our yurt. This was followed by me bringing up the fact that none of us had ever even been on one before. No problem, the woman who ran the guesthouse kindly pointed out to me the accelerator, gears, brakes and (most importantly) the horn. After a few shaky initial goings, we were off tearing up the dirt paths.
> We decided to ride up the the Secret Lake, which not so secretly was the most identifiable landmark on our unnecessarily large tourist map. However as we were riding on the main road through the town of Kampot, I suddenly realized I had no control over my bike - the back end was swerving all over the place. Realizing something was very wrong, I pulled over to the side of the road to find my back tire completely flat! Now I've had flat tires when driving cars before and it usually takes a minute or so to realize somethings not right, this is certainly not the case on a machine with only 2 wheels! However after a call back to the guesthouse and Lindsey somehow communicating with a few nice locals to get on the phone to tell them where we were, a new bike appeared and we were once again off to the lake.
> The Secret Lake was actually built by the Khmer Rouge some time ago, I'm guessing to help with irrigation for the fields but not entirely sure. We drove around the lake before spotting a couple of thatched roof huts next to the water with hammocks. We stopped, grabbed a couple of "cocas" and laid in the hammocks for the next hour or two just enjoying the scenery. The lake was surrounded by durian plantations, mountains and fields. We thought about taking a dip in the lake (which was recommended) but I was put off by the fact that we'd be swimming alongside cows! We met a few fellow travellers by the lake and were told of a couple nice places around town to go swimming so we jumped back on our bikes and headed to a swimming pool near the town.
> It was so nice to be able to drive ourselves around for a change and not be dependent on tuk tuk drivers or taxis. The best part by far was the children in the villages that we drove past. As soon as they'd see us they'd scream "HELLO" as loud as they possibly could and wave their hands. This is the extent of their English for the most part, but it was so cute and their smiles were amazing. This was the Cambodia we were looking for! We stopped all along the roads and talked with the locals and children - all were very friendly and happy to say hello, give us directions or simply give a smile. I think that single ride through town made the trip for both Jen and I, absolutely amazing!
> We spent the rest of the day lounging by a pool before returning to our yurt to watch the sunset while swinging from hammocks again. Probably one of the best days of my life, and we decided to repeat it again the next day before heading back to PP by taxi.
> Can't wait to share the pictures from this part of our trip - I only hope they capture how amazing this place is. I don't know if we'll ever make it back to this part of the world again, but if we do Kampot will be on top of my list of places to visit. Only next time I want to spend at least a week (if not month) just there, riding a motorbike around town and taking it all in.
> Sent from my iPod

Where Old and New Collide

It is not unusual to see chickens running about on a side street or a person pushing a wooden hand cart while just around the corner is a shop selling the latest tvs or motos. Saffron clad monks sit in internet cafes or zip thru the streets on the back of a moto. This is the place where old east and new west collide in spectacular fashion. It is almost impossible to capture this phenomenon in photographs for in the very moment you see it it is gone. The chickens duck into open air buildings, the motos zoom past or giant beer trucks obstruct your view of the old man selling mangos and bananas from his wooden cart. I've said it once but it is still true; sensory overload is my current state. It would take years to absorb every sight. However, the smells seem to arrive all at once! As breathtaking and amazing these last few weeks have been I have come to realize that the amount of environmental destruction is equally breath taking. Deforestation, litter, pollution, chemical run off into the rivers; you name it and it is here. In one snap shot you have mountains, streams, and piles of ripe rubbish. People have no descreation in dumping their trash. They pile it next to homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and they do not seem to mind the pungent smell as it bakes in the sun. They sit eating their meals and their kids run about the mess in barefeet. It is amazing and terrible all in the same moment. Despite this I am still in love with Cambodia and Laos. Countries where worlds collide and ancient culture clings to the people like red dust to the cheeks of the children playing along the roads. I know why people come to visit and never leave.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Real life...

Will be next to impossible to go back to in less than a week. In Kampot we have found a little slice of paradise. Kind people, beautiful surroundings and scores of 'hello' children. Yesterday we rented scooters (against my better judgement) and set off to explore Kampot. First to the not so secret lake and then through the city (I use that term loosely) and finally we found a guest house along the river with amazing views and a refreshing pool. Reluctantly we left the pool to return to our yurt... and a brilliant sunset over the mountains from a hammock swinging gently. How do we go back to real life after this? Back to tube rides and traffic... here traffic is a line of motos carrying brightly dressed girls to weddings or a tuk tuk loaded well past capacity with 5 families as well as their market haul. Real life afforded us this amazing experience but now all I want to do is turn my back on responsibilities, on bills, on work, on real life... I just want to stay here a moment longer. I just want to hear the sweet, vibrant voices yelling hello and waiving maniacly as I zip past on my moto. I want this to be real life please.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Life is so good...

We have decided to take the day off from sightseeing and crowds to enjoy the pool at the Blue Lime in Phnom Phen. So far we've had breakfast by the pool, coffee in a cabana, gone for a refreshing dip and listened to the monks chanting at the temple behind the hotel. This is a tough life...
We will be meeting up with Lindsey (friend of Vim's who lives in PP) tonight to head further south to Kampot. I think it will be a 2 or 3 hour ride but we are sharing a taxi so no bus! Woo hoo!  However, all we have to do at this moment is wait until it is socially acceptable to order a cocktail... make mine a double!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Road to No Where

Everytime we get on another bus or into the back of a tuk tuk for a journey over 20 minutes I find myself humming the Talking Heads song, Road to No Where. No matter what is blaring on the bus speakers or what I have thoughtfully selected to play on my iPod, Road to No Where is what I hear. Although today's 6 hour journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Phen might have been better as the Road Through No Where!

I am starting to enjoy the bus rides. It is the little glimpses of life through the bus windows that take the sting out of spending most of the day on the bus. Watching as children play together in their front yards or in the middle of the street, seeing dogs running across the fields and cows grazing in the midst of thatched roof huts and road side vendors. As the sun set on todays drive I was disappointed  to think that I would no longer be able to catch these glimpses. However, to my delight most of the huts were flickering an iridescent blue putting the evening routines of Cambodia families on display. It only took a few minutes to realise that my road side attractions were being lit up by televisions. How funny that they still cook there meals over open fires, bath on a concrete pump slab in the yard, farm for sustenance and yet they all have televisions. These are the glimpses that make it difficult for me to stop staring as we breeze by at 15 to 20 miles per hour on the bumpy, partially paved road. I know they see me staring and I know staring is rude but I can't stop so I smile and even wave... maybe that makes it better?

I have realised over the last few days that there are so many things that I want to write about from the last 2 weeks. However, despite my best efforts it is difficult to find the time and even more difficult to single finger peck away at the keyboard of my phone. I have started jotting down notes to help me remember everything when we are back home. The notes look a little something like this: thousands of naked babies, satellite dishes on wooden huts, pigs on a scooter, monks in the rain, Angor Wat kids and candy, school yards, little legs on giant bikes, crickets for dinner, bald Buddhist nuns... I think you get the point. Since touching down in Bangkok my brain has been on overdrive, trying to absorb as much as humanly possible and at the same time trying to put all of it into words that capture the details as precisely as possible. I don't want to forget a single moment on this road to no where via everywhere.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dr Jones and Lara Croft take on Angkor Wat (with a guide of course)

Our tuk tuk driver, Mr Sith, insists that watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a must... so we wake at 4:30 and meet him and our guide, Mr Khem. It is early but already hot and humid. Mr Khem is a Seim Reap native and only lived away to finish his studies in archaeology... we tell him we will call him Dr Jones and he laughs shyly but smiles proudly. He is a good guide and steers us away from the crowds as best as possible. We watch the sunrise and it is beautiful, peaceful, and we see why this temple is so special to Cambodians. After the throngs of tourists interested only on ticking the sunrise box leave, we head inside. 2 solid hours of purposeful wandering through the galleries exploring the inticate hand carved reliefs and learning the history of the temple that is dedicated to Hinduism and we barely scratch the surface. Our final mission is to climb the very steep stairs to the inner temple, the views are breathtaking!
We leave Ankgor Wat and eat breakfast... it is only 9 am! The rest if the day is spent in and out of temples. There are about 400 temples in various states of repair in the complex. Many are only traces of foundation or less. Again we only barely scratch the surface.
My favourite is probably the Ta Prohm or Tomb Raider temple. Not because of the movie but because you can see the power of mother nature. 400 year old trees have slowly but surely undone most of man's work for the 12th century. The tree roots look like magnificent works of art and the bark is silver in the sunlight. I could spend an entire day here and not see it all. We can only hope some of our pictures do it justice!
Today we are heading to Banteay Srei or The Citadel of Women. No guide, just the intrepid travellers and our dependable tuk tuk driver, Mr Sith!
Pictures: Angkor Wat at sunrise, CK and Mr Khem, and The Bayon faces.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Holiday in Cambodia

A quick hop on our prop plane and we are now in Cambodia! Our first impression: holy wats it is hot! Seriously hot and humid like you wouldn't believe. We had an image in our head about poverty, beggars and constant rip offs. However, I can honestly say that has not been our experience so far. We checked into our guesthouse, dropped our bags and fought the urge to go back to bed. We started off in Phsar Chas or Old Market shopping for souvenirs.  A few high prices but easy to bargain down to reasonable amounts. However, I think I.have heard "hey lady" more in that 2 hours than I have heard me entire life! Hey lady you want scarf? Hey lady you like I make deal for you. Hey lady you want tuk tuk? Hey lady, hey lady, hey... enough to make me want to scream! We headed to Pub Street for lunch and to check out a potential cooking class before meeting our tuk tuk driver, Taul, to take us back to the hotel. The midday heat is absolutely draining so we caught a 30 minute power nap before meeting Mr Sith to take us up tothe Angkor Wat complex to watch the sunset from Bakeng Hill. Beautiful but the description of this event being like Disneyland is spot on. The crowds were massive and lessened.the experience a bit... and did I mention it was hot?!? Drenched in sweat I set about the crowd stalking a few monks for the 'perfect' picture. And all it took was a nice little smile and asking nicely to get the shoot I have been craving since seeing the first saffron clad holy man in LP!
Dinner was homemade Pat Thai and Paneng chicken at our guesthouse. Tomorrow we meet our Wat guide and driver at 5 am to catch sunrise and beat the heat and crowds! Until tomorrow.

Sunset at Bakeng Hill

Me and CK enjoying the sunset despite the heat!
The beginning of the sunset. Look at all the tourists!!!
Sunset at Bakeng Hill in Angkor Wat Temple Complex

In Air Entertainment

Near disaster averted...

Woke up yesterday morning in or French colonial hotel to rain. It was so peaceful laying in bed listening to the rain fall and hearing the creaking of the old wooden floors. Breakfast was delicious including CK's yogurt, banana and honey smoothie. We decided to check out of the old hotel and into the new first thing and then hired a few beater bikes to cruise around town. Unfortunately, the Hello Kitty bike I had at first needed repairs... I've always wanted a Hello Kitty bike! After a few hours seeing the sites (wats, stupas, old buildings and monks in saffron robes) we thought we'd spend the rest of the day relaxing at the Settha Palace Hotel pool. Why not we thought, we've got all day tomorrow to rent a motorbike and see the rest of the lazy little capital. Here is where the disaster started to develop.
The pool was perfect... blue, relaxing, and with a banana daquiri life was good! We finished the evening with an amazing three course French meal at Le Central. More storms after dinner knocked out our internet but we were happy to fall into bed feeling full from dinner and warm from the day full of sun. CK fell asleep the visions of our upcoming scooter day in his mind. Which is likely what saved us...
He had been mailing guesthouses in Siem Reap to arrange accommodation starting on the 2nd. However, we had somehow lost track of time and thought we had an extra day in Vientiane! So CK woke up this morning at 4:30 excited about renting the scooter only to realise our mistake. We dashed around the room, half dressed with toothbrushes hanging out of our mouths stuffing clothes into our bags! I had to wake the overnight staff to check out and we jumped in the back of the slowest tuk tuk yet. We made it to the airport with about an hour to spare. Feeling relieved we headed into the terminal only to have our path blocked by a security guard with no English language saying " no, you go other" and pointing at nothing. Sudden heart dropping fear set in again as we knew the next flight wouldn't be until the 4th... one more day in Vientiane would be ok but not two... as we reasoned unsuccessfully with the guard we saw a rather gloomy building to the right of the international terminal and realised the guard was saying domestic. We headed over and were able to check in with time to spare! The intrepid travellers averted disaster and are currently en route to country number 3, city number 5 and guest house number 6!
Sad to leave Laos and hopeful I can return again to explore more of this enchanting country.