Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ratanakiri and onwards, to Lao

Busy Busy.

Well well, it's been a while - i got a bit bored of the slow internet (and being in internet cafes in general) so have been a bit slack on the blog...
*please excuse the low quality of spelling and grammer*

The last week or so in Sihanoukville was good, went kayaking a couple of times, once on a nice calm day, once in big waves that were not exactly suitable for a a river kayak, but a good workout for the arms.

Also took a catamaran out in the big swell, ably helmed by Camille, a French volunteer from CCPP. (sadly i bottled it when I saw the size of the seas - last time I sailed a cat was on a calm(ish) lagoon in the S Pacific).

Spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh with some friends who were heading home after their stint at CCPP, more markets, great food and a decent nightclub. Sad goodbyes all round.

Pictures here: and here.


Finally, after much talk and little action I got on the bus to Ratanakiri, in the NE of Cambodia.
Well worth the 11 hour bus ride as the area is amazingly beautiful - lush forests, many waterfalls, old french rubber plantations, local villages of the minority people... all visited on the trusty moto (Honda Wave 100) - I love those bikes, they go anywhere, through mud and rocks, and on one occasion, across a river. The bridge was down due to heavy rain, and rather than having to turn back, a bunch of boys from the village on the other side waded across (about 3-4 foot deep) and offered to carry the bikes over for a small fee (about 75c each). Fifteen minutes later we were on our way again. Cambodia - land of possibility. All in all we did about 100km, in a fair bit of rain and mud, i managed to stay out of the mud, but did end up in a ditch once. (the others fared less well).

Another day we went to a lake in the crater of a volcano.
Almost perfectly round, clear cool water, surrounded by forest and bamboo.
The crater edge is about 45 degrees so you can dive straight down from a wooden platform and not touch the bottom, disconcerting at first, but a beautiful place to swim, the water is sheltered by the rim and forest around, so is almost totally flat.

Banlung itself is a dusty little place, one paved road - the rest is red dirt and mud. Not much to see, just a good base for exploring the local countryside and villages (decided not to go on an organised tour to see the 'minority people' as it seems a bit like a zoo sometimes. (better experience of that in Lao later).

Two days was enough so I booked a ticket to Don Det in Lao, expecting a simple bus journey.
The minibus picked me up in the morning and had a terrible (hungover) four hour drive on the bumpy dirt road to Stung Treng (Cambodian for armpit perhaps?), where we (me and my new dutch friend) were told to wait an hour or so for the bus to the border...

some time later a man strolls up and asks: "don det?" - "yes" we say.
"this way" - pointing us to a waiting taxi - apparently there weren't enough passangers for the bus, so they paid a taxi to take us...

got to the border, easy crossing and the cambodian officials didn't notice i'd overstayed my visa by a few days (should have paid an extra $20 or so), paid a dollar to the Lao official for a stamp and then from nowhere another man walks up... "don det?"
"erm, yes"
"this way" - into the back of a truck (the driver had been paid by the taxi driver with the money from the bus company).
and so it continued including the small boat to the island of Don Det. Four modes of transport, two countries and a river. And people say it's hard to travel in the remote provinces!


Not much to say about Don Det - one of many (four thousand by name) islands on a wide stretch of the Mekong just North of Cambodia.
Very pretty, VERY relaxed. A good combination of local villges and guesthouses strung out around the island. Jump in the river, drift with the (strong) current, and get out further down.
Repeat. Eat. Sleep.
For 4 days.
(Oh yes, a short bike ride to an old french bridge and another waterfall).

Next stop Paxxe and the Bolevan Plateau...

Pictures soon...


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Leaving, Battambang, Temples & Thailand...

Time to leave the beach.

After a wonderful month and a bit at the project it was time to leave, so after a busy, sweaty morning making a postcard stand for the project (not bad with a budget of $5) the kids and staff all said farewell before lunch (no pics yet).

It was more emotional than I expected, lots of the kids had made (or helped with) little 'thank you' signs and drawings that they all held up before rushing over for hugs. (I swear that it was sweat dripping down my face, honest).
Everyone had been so great and the whole experience was very special; highly recommended.

Next stop Battambang (pr; 'Bong'), Cambodia's second city, but still a fairly quiet place, some nice french houses on the riverfront - which sadly is the sole preserve of phone and copy shops, with the odd hardware store thrown in... not a cafe in sight.

Around Battambang.

Went for another jaunt in the countryside to see the ever-present combination of caves and temples, this time with fruit bats and the bamboo train as well.

Drove out of town in a tuk tuk to the 'boat hill' (so-called 'cos it looks like a boat... riiiight).
Parked at the foot of the hill and was led up by a young guide to the temples at the top of this hill.

A long steep, sweaty climb brought us to a series of caves and temples. The Khmer Rouge used the caves as a quick and cheap way of killing and disposing of the undesirable (educated) elements of society - people were thrown throgh holes in the the cave roofs to fall to their death.
These days monks, nuns and pilgrims all pray for the victims in shrines housed in the caves, the bones having been collected and placed in memorials on site.
One of the caves houses a large reclining buddah.

Lotus ponds are everywhere, providing buds and flowers for decoration and temple offerings, emergency hats for the wet season and a tasty(ish) snack of the seed pods(?) which are revealed and mature after the flower dies.

Bamboo Train.

Described in the Rough Guide as 'one of the all-time classic rail journeys' - the bamboo train is more 'fun' than 'classic' consisting of a 20 minute ride along rickety rails on a bamboo platform on wheels (below). The fun part is that when you meet another 'train' going the other direction, one has to be unloaded, dismantled and removed from the track to enable the other to pass. Priority is given to whoever has the larger load; 4 passengers beat 3; a motorbike beats a couple of sacks; and a hobbled water buffalo trumps them all (full picture sequence here).

Moving on, we headed for Seam Reap, the base for trips to the temples of Angkor and beyond.
Found a reasonable hotel, after much faffing about in a tuk tuk, but no pool.
It was while we were here that CCPP bought the rice that we had been raising money for, a total of 5000 kilos, which will keep the kids and their families fed for some time. Many thanks.

Angkor Wat

Like other great temple cities that i've visited (Tikal, Carnak, Petra, etc) Angkor Wat is still stunning on a second vist, and it's so big that there was still a lot of new sights.

We spent 2 days at the main temple site; on the first day we hired bicycles - which is definitely the best way to see the temples on the 'small circuit'. Due to some map-reading errors on my part, we had a bit of a detour on the way there, meaning we rode about 9km before we even got to the first temple.

(angkor wat)

The increase in tourist numbers over the past few years means that there are even more hawkers and beggers outside and now, inside the temples too, meaning that ecery time you stop you're immediately surrounded be hoards of cambodians of every age wanting to sell you drinks, books, scarves, postcards etc. Not quite as peaceful as it was in 2000.

(Ta Prohm)

On the way back, at the end of a long, hot day it started to rain (as it did every day around 4pm), big, heavy rain which wasn't about to stop, so we carried on, soaked to the skin - only 10km back to town... Then, oh joy, a puncture!
So, the last 6km in the pouring rain, on bumpy roads full of holes, with a flat back tyre.
Every day an adventure, nothing is ever straightforward here.

(Angkor Wat moat)

The following day we took a Tuk Tuk around the 'big circuit' with a man called Ang.
Not the best Tuk Tuk (or driver) in the world - a day of fear as he hurtled along the bumpy tracks in the north of Angkor, constantly feeling as if we were going to either be thrown out or tipped over...
Still, we survived, and saw some of the more remote sites, all of which were new to me.
Lots more pictures here, and here.

Day three, and another Tuk Tuk, this time Mr Borai's 'Famous Rock n Roll Tuk Tuk', fully equipeed with DVD player, speakers and karaoke mics. Woo hoo.
A good choice for the 50km,2hr ride up to Kbal Spean, a river to the north with rock carvings in in the riverbed. Beautiful mountain forests and a shower under the waterfall.
Sadly the authorities seem to have limited the amunt of access allowed as the walk to the river was 3 times longer than the walk at the river (either that or my guidebook is a little misleading - or just wrong).

(Kbal Spean)

(kbal Spean)


On the way back we visited Bantey Srey, an exquisite little temple in the forest, small, but with the finest carvings of all the temples in the area. Probably one for the afficionado, as it's a fair way from Seam Reap/Angkor Wat.

more photos here.

Had to go to the Thai border to get a new visa - 4 hours each way, for 2 and a half minutes in Thailand.
Sneaky bus company only sells one way tickets from seam reap to the border... Why?
Because they charge a normal $4 on the way out, and a criminal $10 on the way back, as the only other option is a taxi, which by coincidence is $10 per person too...
Also, everyone i asked had paid a different amount for their visas.
Most irregular...
I hate border towns.

When Fija left for Phnom Penh I moved to the Hotel Tanei, $8 a night with a pool.
After 3 long hot days at the temples it was good to sit by the pool for a few days. Ok, four days.

Went back to Phnom Penh to meet up with Adi from CCPP, and was persuaded to return to the project for a couple of weeks - didn't take much arm-twisting to be honest.
So i'm back at the beach for a while before resuming my trip to the North East, Ratanakiri Province.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Kampot / Kep, the lost images...

A few pictures from a trip to the countryside (see post below).

The view from Bodhi Villa.

Kampot - faded colonial.

The raft (in the rain), good for swimming.

Very lovely countryside on a visit to caves and Kep.

Kep. Not much to do apart from sit in a hammock eating crabs...

My toe.

More pics here.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Boats, Beach & River


We took a long weekend and headed out to the countryside for a few days, taking a taxi (cheaper than the bus) to Kampot, an hour and a half away. The road was mostly good but with a 200 yard stretch that looked like the moon with craters 8 feet wide.

Kampot is a sleepy little town, not much going on in low season so we stayed at Bodhi Villa a couple of km down the river. A lovely place with a terrace and raft looking out across the water. Was nice to swim in 'fresh' water for a change. Hoped to try waterskiing, but the speedboat was broke down, bah.

We took a day trip to the local sights; a cave with a small temple/shrine inside; some stalactites in the shape of an elephant and a crocodile. Nice enough. Kampot is (or at least used to be) world famous for the quality of the peppercorns grown here, so we went to a pepper plantation which was, a bit dull; no info, just a load of bushes on a hill. The landscape here is gorgeous - jungle clad hills covered in mist, flat plains of fields and paddies and the occasional rocky outcrop.

While at the plantation I bashed my toe on a rock and split the end of it off, bloody mess. Mostly healed now but it's going to look a bit funky for a while.

Then on to Kep, which makes Kampot look busy. Barely even a town, it's a collection of houses scattered along a bay and a hill, famous for it's crab (in kampot pepper of course).
Again, pretty quiet at this time of year, just a few Khmer tourists eating crabs in the shade.

Tried to arrange a trip to Bakor National Park where there's an abandoned hill station, but due to the construction of a new resort (casino, golf course? - let's hope not) the road is closed so you have to bribe the guards to get access, making the whole thing too expensive, used to be about $10 - $15 for the day, now it's about $40-$50...

Will upload the pictures at some point (some more archived in the list on the right).

Boat trip.

Back at the project we took the kids on a boat trip to a nearby island to clean up the beach in front of the fishing village.

Some might call it child labour, but I like to think of it as a lesson in eco-conservation.

Perfect weather, flat seas and sunshine, everyone had a great time, despite a few bouts of sea-sickness on the way back.

Took some of the kids to the beach yesterday...
(more pics here)

Just a couple more days here then heading to Battambang, Siem Reap and the temples at Angkor...


Monday, June 08, 2009

My eyes hurt


Had a bad fever (tue-sat) which kept me in the house all last week. Chills, sweats and a headache that didn't go til sunday night (with the help of a couple of beers). Not sure what it was (dengue?) but seems that everyone here gets it at some point. Cue much hilarity as i'm sitting around in jeans and a sweater (cheers andy!) while all around are in shorts and t-shirts.

All better now apart from a slight lingering headache so have been back at work the last couple of days.

Today (monday) is our day off so me and a couple of the other volunteers went to Ream National Park; opened by the King way back in 1993, it's a large area of river, mangroves, primary forest, coast and islands.

Took a fishing boat down the river for an hour or so with our 'guide' Mr Song; not the most informative man in the world, but he did point out 2 kinds of sea eagles (big), a couple of kingfishers and a load of storks.

The kingfishers are big, about a foot long from beak to tail and brightly coloured, but not as iridescent as the UK version.

Saw big flocks of storks, wading and on the wing on the way down the river to a small village (villagers that were already there have been allowed to stay in the park so long as they only fish using traditional methods). Moored up at this gorgeous jetty...

... went for a walk through the forest to a deserted beach for a swim, followed by a refreshing rinse in a freshwater stream before heading back to the jetty for lunch (BBQ baracuda - again).

Back on the boat, through more mangroves, more storks and a cock-fighting chicken that came aboard with his handler to get a lift to the ranger station at the park entrance...

So, not the most rugged of 'treks' by a long shot, but a lovely day - and great to get away from the town/beach/project for a bit.

More pics here.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sihanoukville I

To the beach!

Spent the first night on Victory Hill as I would be living near the beach for a month or more. Grim.
A backpackers area in the high season, but now it seems to be populated solely by overweight white men who snooze on the beach all day and sit around drinking with the local hookers all night.
Moved to the centre of town the next day. Sihanoukville isn't much of a town really - a six lane road runs through the middle, it's small but sprawling, a couple of markets selling the usual stuff. No 'sights' as such.

The beaches are lovely, and there's seven of the them ranging from 100 yards of sand looking out to the islands, to 3 kilometer stretches with dozens of bar and restaurant shacks.

Where i'm staying at Ocheteul Beach is the most popular with tourists and locals alike. The modest Khmers swim fully clothed, rain or shine, shrieking in the waves and having fun.
The tourists dash from the beach to the bars at the first hint of rain. Of which there is a lot. Most days it's raining for an hour or more at some point. A few days have seen massive storms, loads of lightening and the loudest thunder i've ever heard. It feels like the whole building is shaking. Then the power cuts out and it goes pitch black for 15-20 mins as not everywhere has a back-up generator.

The plus side of all this weather is that the skies are amazing at the end of the day, as the sun sets behind the hill and lights all the clouds from below. Sadly my digital camera isn't really up to capturing all this but i'll try with my 35mm some day soon.

I've been working at the Cambodian Children's Painting Project for 2 weeks now. It really is a lovely place; the staff and volunteers are all great, there's a relaxed atmosphere despite the work involved and the kids are (mostly) really sweet.

Typical day goes like this - start at 8am, set up the painting studio for the children, who tend to arrive from 7.45 to 8.30, help them with painting and ideas for paintings (have to constantly try and persuade them to try new things as they can be very stubborn and always want to paint the same things; palm trees, sunsets, monks with umbrellas... At 10am they have English classes and I help the teacher with the lessons too, although a lot of the time it's just a question of keeping the kids in line, making sure they don't copy other student's work, and helping with their writing and spelling. After that we set up all the little tables and chairs out the front and start serving up 50-70 bowls of food for lunch.

In the afternoon they do more painting, various crafts and games, finishing at 5pm.
About 10 of the boys have home made skateboards with they ride down the access road opposite the project.

This results in an endless stream of minor injuries, cuts and grazes. So we also spend a fair amount of time doing first aid, patching them up and sending them off to do it all over again. They never cry, they're a tough bunch.

This afternoon we're taking some of them down to beach to give out flyers for the play that they are performing tonight... pictures soon (ish).

All in all, life is good - i'm enjoying the work and have met some great people here. There's plenty of time off for the beach, and a party most nights somewhere or other. It can be an exhausting combination of work/party/relentless heat - but it's great.


Phnom Penh II

How hot was it in PP? - the first day at the lakeside I put my book down (in the sun) while I had lunch. When I picked it up the cover came off in my hand as the glue had melted. Quite hot.

One day I visited the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is deeply depressing particularly as the KR Trials don't seem to be moving forward very smoothly:

"Unfortunately, existing Cambodian law is weak on the crimes the tribunal is investigating. Worse, the judiciary is one of the world's least qualified and most corrupt. Human-rights groups say it is not an instrument of justice but a political tool. Moreover, Hun Sen and other prominent government figures are themselves former Khmer Rouges and are assumed to remain sensitive about the tribunal's investigations and its targets for prosecution."

I'm not going to say much about the place as others have written about it much more eloquently that I ever could.

Prisoners' clothes left in an old store room (not part of the tour).

Old barbed wire (not part of the tour).


More photos here.

Afterward I visited the National Museum for a more positive view of Khmer history. There is so much good in this country, and such wonderful, positive people, despite the poverty and corruption. It's a lovely place, but can be very saddening at times.


Driving II

Forgot to mention; they generally drive on the right here, but for short journeys (1-2 blocks) the left is fine too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Driving in the city

Most people I have met here seem terrified of driving in the city.
I love it.

As long as you play by the local rules it's easy. The traffic is very heavy, but moves at about 20mph. Constantly. It never stops; not at traffic lights (which i think are there simply to indulge the Khmers love of all things twinkly), not at the roundabouts, and NEVER at a junction.

You simlpy pick a tiny gap in the oncoming/cross traffic and go for it. You know there's space, the other drivers know there's space so it all flows seemlessly. Unless you hesitate. Hesitate and be damned.
It's a nice Buddhist way of driving; 'be mindful of others'.

If London adopted this freewheeling style there would be no traffic jams at all. Boris, take note.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


After a month of frenzied packing and paperwork, the 13 Hour flight from Stansted to KL was uneventful (as flights should be) happily i slept through most of it (no movies on Air Asia).
Arrived at KL in a massive storm of lightening and heavy rain.

I remembered KL as being a nice airport, cool and airy in a modern tropical design (lots of high ceilings clad in thousands of curved wooden slats), but that was KLIA. I landed at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) which was less glamorous, more of a vast corrugated iron shed, with limited facilities.

At 06.30 it was already hot with 70% humidity; fortunately I only had 8 hours or so to wait for my connection; not quite long enough to be worth going into the city (sans guidebook), but just long enough to come to really hate the airport; its only saving grace being that it is largely beige.

On arrival all passengers had to go through 'swine flu screening' which involved walking in front of a thermal imaging camera (is this a recognised method of seeing who has a fever?) and had our temperature taken for good measure. (all clear).

Customs and immigration were painless, watched over by half a dozen Malaysian policewomen who, dressed in dark blue uniforms with matching caps and scarves that covered them fromeye brow to chin, looked like a small amy of cute and smiling Ninjas.

Finally the flight to Cambodia was ready (check-in at the domestic gates, of course) and an hour or so later we landed in Phnom Penh.

Spent a few days (6) at the Boeung Kak Lakeside area of the city. A small strip of guesthouses and bars along the shore of a rapidly diminishing lake. The ''City Planners'' have decided to fill in this mosquito farm in order to develop it. How long this will take and what is going to be built seems to be a bit of a mystery to the locals i spoke with, but whatever happens, the tourist dollars are likely to dry up a bit when the peaceful lakeside setting and sunset views are replaced with modern Khmer buildings (not pretty - more on that later).

Having dinner with some Danish girls one evening, i suggested a trip to the 'beach'' - a wide strip of sandbanks on an island a few miles out of the city; we agreed to rent Motos the next morning for a ride in the country.

It all started well enough - i vaguely remembered the way from a previous visit in Jan 2000 and had some directions in the guidebook... found the ferry, cross the river, turn right.

Well, turn left actually, but who's counting? - went the long way round the island, arriving just in time to be ushered onto a small thatched platform on stilts over the water, seconds before the sky opened up. In the 20 seconds it took to get my bike under cover I was soaked through. And cold for the first time since arriving. The water however was warm, warm like a bath.

So we swam about in the muddy water while waiting for lunch to arrive; a pair of fried catfish, rice and chilli/papaya salad. Despite the guts falling out as i tried to fillet it, it was delicious, and eaten while sitting in the river as it was still raining hard.

Eventually it stopped raining and we decided to head back, taking the correct route it should have been a sunny 10 minute ride back to the ferry, through the palm trees and stilt houses that ring the island.

But an hour of monsoon style rain had put paid to the solid tracks of the morning; now all was mud. Deep mud, in places a foot deep, churned up by a couple of passing trucks. My previous experience of off-roading, on a motorbike, with a passenger, being exactly nil, what followed is best described as a farce. Trying to keep the bike moving in a straight line was near impossible, having a wobbly Dane on the back didn't help, but she gamely clung on, and walked when it became apparent that i was pretty useless.

An hour later we made it to solid ground and the ferry, largely unscathed (apart from running over my own foot) but knackered and very muddy.
(ah yes, my new shoes...)

Made it back to the city, got the bikes and shoes jet-washed ($1); shower / happy hour.

The rest of the time in Phnom Penh I rode around on a bicycle, visited some temples and ate interesting things in the market.

Hopefully i'll find a faster internet connection soon and tidy this page up a bit and sort out the pictures, but here, now, it's all taking forever. (bloody useless PC too).