Phnom Penh is another bustling Asian capital, with markets, temples, restaurants, and hostels. I really started believing my name was Tuk-tuk here as on every street corner somebody calls out "hello tuk-tuk?".
Our hostel had a roof-top bar and a cinema with beds, which was a novelty. We watched the film lion with the kids. My advice: whatever you do, don't watch that film without a big box of tissues handy, i came out of there and had to spend the rest of the day with red, puffy eyes!
The hostel was called the "happy backpackers" and it was on the street where all the girl bars are.
What we didn't like about PP was that it didn't really have any pockets of different atmospheres in it. It was all just one rush of everything intermingled.
And one thing I've forgotten to mention about Cambodia, is that you pay for everything in dollars here, not the local Riel currency, which is really strange and makes everything just that bit more expensive. Everything costs a dollar. A dollar here and a dollar there and before you know it you're at the bank again.
We sent off our souvenirs, broken clothes and Nicks (really heavy) books over to France on another boat which is going to take 3 months again to arrive!! I hope it does arrive one day!!
So we are again, a few kilos lighter and ready to get another flight.
GOODBYE LOVELY CAMBODIA
Kampot is our preferred size of town, small enough to walk around, but quite animated. It is the pepper and salt capital of Cambodia. It is also where Hester's Hydrogeologist friend lives with his wife. Nick and Pheap bought a plot of land just outside town overlooking Bokor mountain (Bokor meaning humped cow) and built his "fruity" house, so called because of the lime-colored walls and lemon-coloured window frames! In fact the houses here are all really colourful. We got together the first night for drinks and an Italian restaurant and Pheap and Nick paid for everything. They said it was a Cambodian tradition to pay for the guests even if we were not staying with them! So we gracefully accepted! Next day we hired out scooters and rode through the saline fields to a seaside resort place called Kep, which was not unlike an Asian version of Palavas les Flots or Margate! We didn't have much time to explore as we were invited to Nick and Pheap's house in the country late afternoon so the kids could have a dip in the pool.
Their generosity was overwhelming and it was an indescribable pleasure to meet Nick after all the years of contacting him by telephone or email. We had so much to talk about. He is 63 and has worked in not far off 20 or more countries! When I asked him why he chose to settle in Cambodia, he said because it's the best country in the whole world. He obviously feels at home here. He gave me copies of his 2 books he has written.
Next day, time to move on, though Hester quite sad to be leaving. The end of our trip round Buddhist SE Asia was coming to an end. Phnom Penh in sight and with it a plane ticket to Indonesia. A totally different universe.
We stayed one night in the mangroves near Otres Beach, Sihanoukville, where we spoiled ourselves on lok lak (a local beef dish inspired by the French) and a bottle of red wine! We put the children to bed and chilled out at the bar area, playing pool and talking to the waiter, who came from the North of Cambodia, near where we crossed the border. He explained about why the people started the fires there, all his family are hunters. Also he said that there is a large gap in Cambodia between the rich and the poor. You can see that because there are quite a few beggars and street kids about. Some of them with UXO (unexplored ordnance) wounds, which is really sad to see. And then you get the hugest of 4x4 trucks driving past everywhere, really bling bling. The waiter also taught us how to say hello and how are you. "Sua si dei" is hello (I think!), but Khmer is so unlike its neighboring languages, it's much more complicated to remember. So we just stuck to thank you, which is "aw cone"!
It was the waiter's last night working at the hotel, before starting up his own restaurant on the beach. He had a good send off!
The next day we had booked the bus to go toi Kampot, a town further East along the coast. But before leaving, we stopped off at a hotel, which one of Hester's colleague's aunt and uncle own, called Ananas Beach"! They were really pleased to meet up with us and talk about France and living in Cambodia. In fact they are from Cambodia but lived and worked in France for 40 odd years. Robert in a spare parts Renault garage. They then retired to Sihanoukville and have been here ever since. Like many Cambodians, they fled the country during the genocide in the mid 1970's. They told us of their family history which was very sad, but I won't go into details. It's absolutely terrible to think what happened here not so long ago in the labour camps. Looking at the country now, you wouldn't imagine it possible.
We had to decide which island to visit in the South, as this was our next destination. It's a bloody hard life :-)
Asking around and consulting the guide we decided on Koh Rong Samloem. We were passengers of a high speed boat (James Bond style) and arriving at the end of that rickety, wooden jetty, putting on your rucksack and looking straight out ahead of you, at the white sands, palm trees and flute fish swimming under the planks of the pier, just took our breath away.
The Ukrainian hotel manager had told us when you get off the boat, look out for a boat called "sweet dreams", he's my friend, he'll drive you to the bungalows. This seems like such utterly estranged information before you reach the island, but when you get there and you see the little green wooden boat waiting for you at the other side, it all makes sense!!
The bungalow had the most amazing view, the sea was crystal clear, the colours grading from a pristine, white colour, through turquoise, green and then a deep blue.
There are no roads whatsoever. Everything is sand and bamboo bungalows and wooden bars which sip the coastline. You can cross to the other side via a 1.5km walk through the tropical, shady forests to other, more remote beaches. They say it's like Thai islands used to be 20 years ago.
Absolutely STUNNING! We felt like Robinson Crusoe rolled into one!!
It was on this beach that Hester, on a piece of salad, managed to crack her molar filling in two! Nothing serious, but a visit to the dentist in not too many days was needed.
This is also where Ruben got his first taste of snorkeling. Because he cannot swim yet, the mask actually keeps him afloat and he can breathe! Brilliant invention!
4 days later it was again time to move on to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, where more reunions were in store for us...
Finally arrived in Siem Reap at night. At first sight, it seems like a splurge of lights and American diners and loud music to attract the tourists. Prices rocket compared with Laos, but don't forget Oh Best Beloved, to negotiate, yes, even in restaurants, prices can drop from an initial 7$ to a mere $2.50 per dish!
As you can see, we have become almost obsessed with our budget. When you are travelling 6 months, you have to stick to the bare minimum.
The hostel was pretty lousy. Bunk beds in a dorm, Alana got bitten by mozzies about 20 times, no towels, no proper light...etc Thing we noticed is that of course if you are travelling alone, a bed at 5$ a night isn't that much but for a family of 4, it's quite significant, so with the help of booking.com, after 3 nights we found another hotel just down the road which was only $5 more and it had... A SWIMMING POOL!!! Ahhhh wow, it feels so good to rediscover clean sheets and towels and a hot shower!
We ended up spending 6 days here in Siem Reap. Jeje got a bad tummy bug with cramps where he couldn't sleep and we were generally exhausted from travelling. We visited the impressive temples at Angkor Wat (3 day pass) on motorbike. The large tree-lined alleys and green, open spaces were really refreshing and calming. You just kind of stumble on ancient ruins and temples and get off your bike to explore and then get back on your bike and stop for some fresh spring rolls...the park spans over kms and kms. There are sociable monkeys at the side of the roads and this time, Ruben stayed well clear of them I can tell you!
One of the great moments in Siem Reap was the fish nibbling your feet (a real weird thrill at first, which then turns into a kind of strange experience except you're not screaming anymore!). What made it even weirder is that a girl who had just experienced this heard us talking to Alana and Ruben and said that for 10 years she babysat a brother and sister called Alana and Ruben!
A couple of nights later Hester was checking FB and saw that one of her old Uni friends was in Siem Reap at the same bloody time! Talk about coincidence! Contacted her (Sonia) straight away and met up for coffee the next morning. Had a great chat and then said our goodbyes and parted...perhaps for another 20 years...
Haggled and bought quite a few souvenirs here. We knew we would be sending another package back home from Phnom Penh...
Crossing the border into Cambodia was an adventure in itself! From the beach of Don Det we squeezed into a very narrow long boat with all our rucksacks and got driven to the other mainland shore, where we got on another bus to take us to the border. They always cram you in as much as possible, so even if you pay for 4 tickets, you still end up with the children on your knee. We have now obviously started only paying for 2 or 3 seats on the buses and boats and it works!
Cambodia is the land of negotiations. If you see a price stuck on something, don't ever take it to be the real price. Asking for half usually works in bringing down the price!
So anyway, when we arrived at the border (discovering Jeje's bag was in another bus which was arriving soon), we had to first pay the Lao police 2$ pp to leave their country. Which of course we managed to negotiate (all the other tourists paid it!).
We literally walked about 300m across a desert type place, with red earth and in front of us a huge gate with either side golden lions as if to guard the entry. It was a memorable moment, we didn't know what to expect next. As we neared the border control "palace", we noticed a queue of tourists outside the entrance and a sign saying "health check". Well we didn't choose that queue luckily enough because it too is a scam. You pay again 2$ to get a bogus health certificate which they pretend is required to enter their country. We followed the sign that said visas...
And guess what? We had to bargain with the Chief of police, who was trying to charge us 35$ each instead of 30, meaning an extra 20 $ for us. So we argued for ages, but they pulled out every excuse in the book "the price changed recently" and "well it's 30$ for the visa but 5$ for the stamp". We just told him we were not prepared to play their corrupt game and that we know the price and they just want money in their pockets! So they got really angry, but we stood our ground (even though all the other tourists had long left the building and we weren't sure the bus would wait for us on the other side!). Bit stressful but we managed to get the real price in the end, so maybe it paid off for future travelers?
When we finally got out of the border control, we got on a minibus and crammed in, with Alana sleeping on my knee and then, just before you think surely no more people could even squeeze in here, sure enough, a few hundred mètres later, 3! Yes 3 people were hitchhiking and were very tired and one of them had a wounded leg, so the bus driver stopped and don't ask me how, but they managed to squeeze in to the minivan too. And we drove like this for quite some time. The roads were bumpy and a lot of them were dirt tracks. The concrete ones were full of potholes anyway. We drove past the bare, desert countryside and through many fires which apparently started on purpose as part of a hunting and trapping tactic. It was quite eerie really.
The bus ride from Paksé to 4000 islands takes about 4 hours, although there are only about 250kms that separate them! There probably are about 4000 islands, but some of them are kind of big rocks sticking out of the water with riverweed on them.
It's a pretty strange place actually, filled with tourists and after Paksé it was totally different. We had got used to everyone looking at us and wanting to talk to us and here, it seemed like all the locals were just really fed up with the tourists. And vice versa!
It said happy pizza and happy shakes and happy this and that, but nobody seemed very happy. Think they were probably all too stoned to smile!
The promised beach was a small stretch of sand with water about hip deep. Not that inviting really, but the kids could cool off a bit here. We hired out bikes. There was only one road going all the way round the island and it was very flat. The first night we ended up in a teepee which was quite cool, but we soon got fed up as we couldn't stand up in it and we had too much "stuff" lying around the floor and nowhere to organise. Also, the bathroom was sparse to say the least. One pipe of water (no shower head) either going to the tap or the shower, controlled via a valve, and of course cold water.
So we moved and hired 2 bungalows this time (5$ each). Each with private bathrooms...luxury!
There wasn't much to do on the island except drink, smoke and eat, but Jerome managed to rope us into getting two rubber tyres to float down the river, avoiding the rocks (or not!) as we floated by. In any case we came to this place to rest. We were really tired of constantly moving every 2 or 3 days and it was catching up on us so we did't feel like doing anything anyway.
There was another, bigger island we went to see, with a waterfall. There was a big wooden restaurant just by the falls where we ate a really nice, spicy green curry.
After 4 days we were ready to cross the border to our 3rd destination: Cambodia.
Arrived in Paksé at the more respectable time of 6:30am, where we took a taxi to our hotel not too far from the town. First morning, Alana broke her sandals, so back to the hotel to put on flip flops. Then on a mission to find some scooters.
It's funny because when you first get somewhere, you need an "adjusting" time. Everything seems quite bland until you get to see and do things, get to know the streets and hangouts and sights and meet people. Then everything seems to become such fun and you end up wanting to stay longer!
Motto now is when you get somewhere, don't judge it by the first morning!
Paksé is not a particularly touristy town. It's relatively small but endearing because of those 2 things. There are 2 humongous Buddhas (in different places): one right at the top of a huge hill, overlooking the whole town and the river, and one at the end of a dirt track, leading up to which there was a stone Buddha carving village.
In this temple at the end of the dirt track, is where Alana went straight to pray on her knees in front of the Buddha and everyone else in the temple. One of the monks approached her and tied a mustard coloured bracelet around her wrist while chanting and praying. I could only imagine what he might have said! No one else in the family got one, only Alana.
Life is slow and easy here. The big highlight here is hiring out motorbikes for a few days to do the "Loop" on the Bolaven Plateau. This was one of our favourite places so far. It is where coffee and tea is grown. Very rural, a few houses along the road side. An empty primary school here and there, children waving and shouting sabaidee as we drove past. We decided to do the abridged version but to take our time doing it. We spent 3 nights out there! We had left our big rucksacks at the rental company and just took the bare necessities for a couple of days. A real adventure. Stopped at a village to sleep called Tad Lo which has a few waterfalls around it and elephant rides. There were only 2 elephants and they were left to roam free, in fact when the kids went to go on a ride, one of them had got lost! How do you go about losing an elephant? We stayed in a little bungalow next to a river. Cost only 5€ per night. The houses here are either wooden or bamboo and on stilts. Underneath people work or go to sleep in hammocks. There are pigs and chickens running free everywhere, as well as dogs and cats. No cars on the road, just a few motorbikes and bicycles. Heaven for the kids!
We felt really free here too and could stop off wherever we wanted. It was nice and cool. Bit too cold at night! But welcome after the heat in Paksé. One of the many waterfalls we visited we could swim in and even walk all the way behind it! The water was pretty cold though. We were sorry to give back our motorbikes at the end of the 6 days as we had got quite attached to them strangely enough.
When we returned to the town, we spent 2 nights in a guesthouse on the Sedone River. Apparently this guesthouse is a real hippie hang out. We saw people just sitting outside their bedrooms all day long, drinking, smoking, meeting new people etc... one guy said he had been here for one week already! The longest we have stayed anywhere yet has been 3 nights in one hotel. Anyhow, each to their own I suppose.
Hester got in touch with one of the Egis teams who are working on a large rehabilitation (design and construction supervision) project. One of the components of the project is to rehabilitate the Sedone river bank, right where our guesthouse was!! It was great to meet the team and we were all invited out to dinner that night on the terrace of their hotel. It was fun the kids being there and I think Gerry (Team Leader) and Sam (Solid Waste Management) appreciated it too as it made a change from their usual guests! Alana even proposed her excellent massage services and gave Gerry a shoulder massage while he was tucking into his Pad Thai noodles! So Hester at last met her experts. A great experience.
And it was time to move on again...this time to the 4000 islands, where the Mekong meets Cambodia.
Well the transition from bustling Hanoi to sleepy Vientiane is quite a shock to the system! The traffic moves around 40kms/hr slower and people actually make way for you in the road, even if you don't have right of way. We hired out a couple of bikes (Vientiane isn't big) and went visiting temples and markets.
We finally found the Asia we had been looking for, kind, smiley people, great food, sun and heat, the good life. WE LOVE LAOS!!
This is where we started taking the dreaded malaria pills that were supposed to make you sick as dogs. We don't feel any kind of side effects. Not even the children, so that's a real relief!
The food here is amazing: don't know what the hype is about Vietnamese food. Every restaurant we ate in (we are becoming pros, as we have been eating in restaurants twice a day for the last month) was just scrummy. A lot spicier than in V and more herbs and meat and a lot less oil and sauce.
The Mekong runs along side Vientiane, and there are restaurants lit up all along the banks. It's much more international here. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese... and that's not just the food!! The visa on arrival was very easy and quick at Vientiane airport. As we were 10kg lighter, we moved a lot faster too. We had already learned how to say hello and thank you (most useful expressions) which helps a little! Sabaidee (hello) and "kerp chai lai lai" (thank you very much).
As there is not that much to see and do in Vientiane, we stayed just 2 nights and booked yet another overnight bus to Paksé, following down the Mekong right down to the South of Lao PDR.
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