Saturday, 12 March 2011

BAGUETTES, BEACHES AND BICYCLES- Cambodia



The border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, although not representative of our experiences in the country, was a bit of an eye opener into Cambodian corruption ! We had heard stories about the dodgy border officials, but figured we were experienced enough to deal with them. The official price for a Cambodian visa is US$20, which we had ready along with our passports when we arrived at the border post. But the guards had other ideas, and demanded 1200 Baht (about US$40 )! We saw other tourists just paying up whatever was asked, but we decided to politely decline this, and stick to our guns and insist on paying the correct amount., There was  a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, until they realized we were tight arses and after a while accepted our negotiated offer of US$23! It pays to have plenty of time sometimes!

We visited Cambodia 12 years ago, and expected many changes, which there were. But much of the country is still very undeveloped, impoverished and desolate. In 1999, we entered into Cambodia at Had Lek/Koh Kong, crossing into the south of the country, which we decided to repeat this time, as we previously never stopped on the south coast, as there was no infrastructure or tourist accommodation then. Koh Kong (where we previously stopped for the night in a brothel, due to lack of accommodation), is now a dusty, small, but pleasant little town to spend a few days, and settle into the many differences in Cambodia compared to Thailand (including getting our heads around the confusing currency issues- US dollars, and Thai baht are both accepted here, as well as the local riel currency)

Money changers

Don't know why it is, but Cambodia have so got it sorted when it comes to great food. Maybe it's the French colonized past, or the fact that there are so many expats/NGO workers living and working there, but they can whip up the most outstanding food like we have not seen since we left Oz, for next to nothing in cost. We've been scoffing western dishes such as: ribs,wood fired pizza, fish BBQs, steaks, nachos, fry up bacon and egg breakfasts, lemon meringue pie..... Fellow South-East Asian travellers will understand just how amazing it is to have this food after a long time on the road! Anyway, it was satisfying to have a break from rice and noodle dishes, but after a couple of weeks we began to feel fat and gross, and hanging out for some simple, healthy food again. The Khmer specialities we did try were delicious. Chicken amok- a coconut based, subtly flavored curry soup, baguettes filled with mystery (but yummy) meat and salad, and loc lak- a beef curry type dish were among the excellent food we tried. Combined with the extraordinarily large selection of local beers available for between $0.50 and $1, and strong, tasty cocktails for $1.50, Cambodia is bloody fantastic for eating and drinking!

What more could you want?!
Toxic cocktails

Richard and "the beast" ( ribs)

Much of the Cambodian cuisine, however, is infamously unusual. I'm talking about the duck embryos, frogs, bugs we've seen in Thailand, along with fermented fish paste, deep fried tarantulas, blocks of jellified blood, algae, fish bladder and cobra wine. Combined with a pretty low level of hygiene, and the unappetising smell coming from many of the food street stalls, made us hesitant to try too many things from the traditional Khmer menu.


Seaweed

Tiny suckling pigs

I think these are salted eggs- looks like mold!
Meat market

Enough about food! Of course, there was more to the country than eating....

We left Koh Kong for Sihanoukville, a beach town, with a crazy vibe. It reminded us of a smaller, wild west version of Kuta, Bali. There's all kinds of people there, a profusion of odd balls and excellent people watching. The sunbeds and jet skis on the beach left us unimpressed, but the locals are very friendly, the food and drink economical (see above!), and it was lovely to have our final dose of beach time for a while.

Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

We loved the next place on our travels- Kampot. The sweet people of this town made staying here a immense enjoyment, along with the pleasant riverside (with plenty of eateries!), just right for leisurely bike rides in the day. Our amazingly relaxing guesthouse made it easy for us to while away the steamy afternoons in the shade. The French architecture still lingering here (some succumbing to time, some been restored) is a beautiful reminder of times past. There are quite a lot of French influences still prevalent in Cambodia, apart from the buildings- baguettes, roads called "rue", boules played by the old men and driving on the right side of the road (sometimes!).


"Blissful" Guesthouse, Kampot

"Blissful" Guesthouse, Kampot

Sausages drying in the sun

Colonial building, Kampot

Sleepy little Kampot

From peaceful Kampot, we braved a visit to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. Another revisit from years ago (where we stayed in yet another brothel!), we weren't sure what to expect. We found a pleasant city, with a good budget accommodation area, and we stayed a few days more than we intended (this being partly necessary due to our Thai visa taking 4 days to be issued!). When in big cities, we love just wandering around and seeing what part of town we end up in. The newly renovated Central Market is excellent for bargains (we bought a $5 (fake) Lonely Planet), and we enjoyed delving into the narrow aisles of the Russian Market and the smaller less tourist-oriented markets, too. We spent an entertaining day on the huge Tonle Sap river, strolling around the gorgeous, old colonial buildings, watching boats, and later enjoying a happy hour drink at the atmospheric, famous institution- the Foreign Correspondent's Club, where  journalists would gather and work during the last days of Pol Pot's regime.

Having been  to Siam Reap and the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat on our last trip, we decided to skip it this time, to explore some other areas we previously missed, such as the south, and Battambang.  


Loaded up, Battambang

Gruesome temple statues, Battambang
There are still some around

Battambang is Cambodia's second biggest city, and apparently has a population of 1,000,000 people. It feels, however, like a country town, with dusty roads and locals still looking amazed at seeing foreigners. We stayed a week, and the staff at the front desk of our fantastic hotel were so happy, they gave us a scarf each on our departure as a thank you! We have always wanted to come to this part of the country, and the fact the Sally's cousin Nick, uncle Mike and his wife, Sophy now live here, made it a good excuse to visit! They were generous enough to take us for a day trip to Sophy's village, about one hour from Battambang. It was a great experience to meet her family, and have a glimpse of a rural lifestyle we wouldn't have had the opportunity to see on our own.


Sophy with Grandma

Other days we subjected our bums to another few days on Cambodian bicycles, and, because there are no police scams here (see later), we were also free to hire motorbikes and explore the further afield sights.
The Angkor era temples of Lek and Banan are the big draws, and we explored the rather haphazardly put back together ruins that are atmospheric, rather than spectacular. Time has ravaged the ancient buildings, and the Khmer Rouge also destroyed much of the cultural history of the area.


Fantastic way to get around Battambang

Carvings, Phnom Lek
Phanom Banan, Battambang
Phanom Banan, Battambang
Phanom Banan, Battambang
Phanom Banan, Battambang

Phanom Sampeau was another, more eery temple we visited around Battambang. The Khmer Rouge were very active in this area during Pol Pot's reign of terror, and this seemingly peaceful hill, with buddhas, quiet caves and shaven headed nuns sweeping around pagodas, was in fact a terrible hide out where thousands of people were murdered - deemed too educated, religious, unloyal, or many other reasons the Khmer Rouge used to kill their fellow countrymen.


Phanom Sampeau, Battambang
Kids playing, Phanom Sampeau

We found the "tourist" scene in Cambodia very organized- something we're sure comes from the Vietnamese. There are brouchers for every area printed regularly with up to date info on where to stay, eat, what to do etc., so we rarely had to use our Lonely Planet.

Accommodation was another winner. In the places we visited (which were, admittedly, not exactly off the beaten track), the guesthouses were easy to find, friendly, clean, cheap (we payed between US$5 and US$8), often with restaurants attached, TV, free bicycles, WIFI and loads of local information.

The only bad thing about travelling in Cambodia, is the lack of public transport. There are big buses to ferry mostly tourists from big town to big town, and they are excellent and very easy. But there's no little rickety local buses or songthaews (big multi-passenger tuk-tuks) for short trips out to nearby villages or sights, so it's really a choice of a tour, or hiring a motorbike or bicycle. We usually chose the bicycles, not wanting the hassle of being stopped at every roundabout and negotiating a bribe, and we actually loved the slower pace of the bicycles, although, obviously, we were limited in the distances we rode. Hopefully, as the country finds it feet more and becomes more wealthy, local public transport will be something that will follow.

Loaded up
Cambodian cycle rickshaws

In conclusion, we adored our month in mad Cambodia even more than our first visit in 1999. It's not as wild as it was back then, with blowing up cows with rocket launchers, and ploughing through huge, free bowls of pot in guesthouses being activities our fellow travellers previously enjoyed, but it's certainly still rough around the edges! The people are as lovely and welcoming as we remembered, it's great value, especially the food and accommodation, the beaches are clean and clear, it's easy to get around (to the big places, at least), and we will definitely be putting it on our list of places to revisit. We have the feeling it's only going to get better!


How many flavours of Fanta do we need?

Such a cute, welcoming menu

Richard gets new shorts!

  • And as a final note- Cambodia has some fantastic latest fashions I need to share! Love them....

Bling caps- the more glitter/sequins/fur, the better...

as seen here!

Grape shoes

Pajamas as day wear are particularly in fashion here, and I thought this combination with some high heels was awesome!


2 comments:

  1. A great time obviously! Loved the snaps and the tidbits of info. May your happy travels continue.

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  2. I think your blog is great! I wish I could get out of the catering business and travel endlessly. How wonderful. Love all of your photos and info. Keep it coming.

    ReplyDelete