Sunday, 20 October 2013

Holiday In Cambodia

I find it weird to realise that I have been on the road for over three months.  That's a quarter of my intended trip. It already feels like I don't have enough time left and so much that I would like to do in that time, but it's still a long time before I have to think about what I want to do with the next stage of my life.  For now I can just enjoy the ride.  And that's pretty much what it feels like I'm on at the moment.

After leaving China I had my usual re-grouping in Hong Kong & considered my next move.  This time I was to start the real travelling in South East Asia.  I had originally thought about heading straight to Bangkok on the usual route and do Thailand first as I want to go to a festival there in November.  However, I had forgotten about October so found I had a bit more time than I had thought.  So I bought a last minute flight to Phonm Penh, Cambodia.

I had been to Phonm Penh last year and done the main attractions, the Killing Fields and the S21 Genocide Museum, so I was able to to spend more time exploring the city and trying out new things.  Which is good as those sites, which while culturally important to see, are not exactly the most uplifting of experiences and are emotionally draining.  So instead I got to walk around the city, soak in the atmosphere, find interesting places to eat, and just enjoy myself.

I had decided to stay in dorm rooms so as to meet people quickly, and found this was amazingly easy at Mad Monkey.  In fact, I was greeted by a full dorm so got into the swing of things straight away and along with their bar found new friendships in no short supply.  But as most people were here for the first time and would be going to the Killing Field I still had most of the days to myself.

I had not really seen the city last time and what appeared to be very bleak was in fact very colourful and vibrant.  Cambodian people are very friendly, although the ubiquitous tuk-tuk and moto drivers can be overly pushy.  How on earth they think that someone who doesn't need a ride is clearly looking for drugs and is not just having a peaceful walk is beyond me.

My favourite of the days was spent on a cooking class.  I love Asian food.  Cambodian is a lot like Thai but less spicy, letting the flavours do the talking.  I did a full day course (actually 9-3) which included a trip to the market to see the raw ingredients we would be using and immerse ourselves in the cuisine, followed by a lesson preparing and cooking four dishes - spring rolls, fish amok, banana blossom & chicken salad, and sticky mango rice.

It was a very varied group of 14, which meant that we all got to assist in making the sauces we would be using. The food was amazing, but it was very difficult to go wrong.  My only criticism would be that we didn't really do much cooking.  All the cooking required things to be one en masse, such as the rice, steaming the amok, deep frying the spring rolls, or was decided that it could go badly wrong, as with making caramel.  I would like to do courses in other countries and will be looking out for ones which are a bit more hands on.

The best part of the time here, and what made it most like a holiday, was the people I met, in particular Rory and Becky.  I met Rory at the hostel bar after I had just said farewell to another friend.  He wasn't actually staying there but we got on great.  He was one for doing his own thing and had befriended a tuk-tuk driver and arranged to go to the Muay Thai boxing one night, so a coule of us went along.  Not knowing what to expect, possibly a fight in the back room of a bar, we found ourselves in an arena full of locals watching amateur and professional fights, drinking cheap beer with our driver.  I am not a great fan of boxing, but to be in there watching the fights, and watching an enthusiastic crowd, was a highlight of that city.  And to top it off our driver then took us to his mates shop where we sat outside on small plastic chairs drinking beer with his friends and eating the food his wife cooked for us  It was not an experience I imagined myself having, but was really glad I did.  A bit less certain when we remembered we still had to be driven home...

I was heading to Sihanoukville on morning and was getting breakfast before my bus picked me up when we found we were doing the same route so agreed to meet a couple of days later.  This was a decision which got me through the first evening in Sinahoukville.

I had a frosty reception in the dorm at Led Zephyr and the bar was pretty empty except for a group who were heading out the next day and not very approachable.  I was tired from late nights in Phonm Penh and just wanted to crash, but sat in that bar was one of the loneliest moments I had had so far.  Add to that that the first conversation I heard was about thefts from the dorm room lockers that left even the staff baffled as to how it happened (how do you get into the lockers without removing the locks?) and I really did wonder what I was doing there.

Thankfully this only lasted one night.  Rory came down to join me the next day and some more friendly faces were found in the dorm, including Niall, so it was a decent group who partied into the early hours.  Just a word of caution though - if you're ever thinking of playing in the sea at 2:30am in the middle of a storm, take your iPod out of your pocket...

The next day we just needed to relax, so to the beach we went.  This was not a relaxing experience.  Small children constantly hassle you to buy sunglasses and bracelets, woman trying to give you a massage or sell you food (actually, this wasn't too bad - 10 squid for $3 grilled in front of you).  As soon as you got rid of one bunch, another wave would come long.  So the rain was a bit of a blessing when it came.  Here we met Ayelet, John and Robbie, who had met Niall earlier in Siem Reap.  With the arrival of Becky that evening we were now seven.  And this is where I start to get swept into an adventure I had not planned to have.  I have no recollection of who first mentioned going to Koh Rong, but in the early hours and being very impressionable Becky and I decided not to get the bus to Kampot in the morning but instead agreed to get the ferry to a paradise island instead.  The best decision ever.

Our numbers swelled to eight on the voyage with the addition of Hayley, and together we partied, played with plankton, partied, chilled on the beach, partied and philosophised.  Long lasting friendships were made on that island.  It was the perfect place for this group.  It is effectively a backpacker community based around some hostels and bungalows and bars right next to the beach.  There are other activities to do but we had precious little time.  We bonded in a trek through the jungle to a remote beach, and found our group paradise on another secluded beach with calm water where we cold enjoy each others company for our few remaining hours together.

Becky & I were the first to leave, with Ayelet, as we were headed to Kampot (finally...) together and the group slowly parted.  Niall was to join us in Vietnam in a few days, and a few others had decided to head north together, so bonds had been made.  I never did get to say goodbye to Rory that day, which is probably just as well as I don't think I would have handled it well, but in my mind those days had been made possible by our chance meeting and his enthusiasm to jump into anything has rubbed off on me.

Kampot was a big change.  Technically a city, it is very small and can be navigated on foot by knowing which roundabout you are at (Durian roundbout, Year 2000 roundabout or Salt-Miners roundabout - each with its own sculpture).  We stayed at the fantastic Magic Sponge with its $3 a night open air penthouse dorm, 9 hole mini golf course and seven hours of happy hours!  So after a few G&T's and a quick round of golf, we headed out with some Aussie girls to another hostel for some live music.  This was an eventful evening, most notable for walking back to our hostel very late with no street lighting and dogs coming out of the dark trying to attack us.  Only our best dog impressions (well, Becky's...) kept us unmolested.

We managed to get onto a tour to Bokor mountain one day, the site of an old French colony township which is suffering from neglect following the war with Vietnam and subsequent power struggles.  It is now owned  by a Russian company who aim to turn the entire area into a new city with hotels and casinos.

It is running massively over budget, doubtless due to the highly corrupt Cambodian government.  They have started work, with some roads under construction and foundations being prepared for a huge hotel, but some buildings that were previously built look really dated.  They have a model of the proposed city and it looks horrific, a needless destruction of what was a stunning national park with now very little wildlife.

And that was that.  The next day we left for Vietnam.  I had wanted to travel with someone into this country and had found a great friend in Becky.  Little did we realise what the next few weeks would have in store for us...

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait for the next update Ali, what a cliffhanger!