Seeing the past, present and future in Phnom Penh

After 7+ long hours on the bus (omg the bus WiFi actually worked!), we arrived in Phnom Penh in time for rush hour. Our bus crawled the last 2 miles to the bus station. Happily, our tuk tuk from the hostel was waiting and could tell the descending hordes we were already accounted for. We ended up hiring our driver for the next day to visit some of the outlying sights starting at 8 am (free pick-up with hope that you will hire them for the next day seems pretty standard).

We chose 88 hostel because it wasn’t too crazy but still had a pool and bar. They have a pod room with double beds, so we were able to share a pod for $15 total. Since we booked directly with them, we got $3/each bar credit. We were a bit lazy the first night and just had the incredibly tasty bar food for dinner. Their potato wedges were perfectly battered and fried and their chicken skewers were well-seasoned. Rob went out later for snack with a group and ended up at the same chain if Mexican food we went to in Siam reap.

The next morning, we found two other women to share our tuk tuk headed to the Khmer Rouge historical sites, so we had a full cab.  While waiting on them, our driver mentioned that much of his family perished in the regime’s rule. I couldn’t do anything but try to express my sorrow for his loss. It was a good reminder of how recent the tragedy is to the Cambodians. Our first stop was the Killing Fields outside of town where the Khmer Rouge did their “disposal.” This Killing Field (many have been found) requires a drive outside of the city and through a small village ending in a pleasant seeming garden area with a tower among the trees. Not until you approach the tower can you make out the bones housed in its soaring crypt and the depressions of mass graves surrounding it. As much as it can be, this once terrible place has been transformed into a peaceful, verdant resting place for so many. Watching a video of the man who first stumbled upon the site describe his discovery was particularly heart breaking. Bullets were too expensive to be used so blunt force trauma followed by DTT poisoning was the method of choice.

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Memorial among the mass graves at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Then, we went headed back to town to visit to the Tuol Sleng/S-21 prison museum where people were cataloged, tortured and made to confess their “crimes” before execution. En route, our tuk tuk got a flat tire so we spent some time at a sugar cane stand waiting to get it fixed. We bought the hardest mango from the nice folks who cleared off a sitting spot for us. Here, they serve the green mango with a bowl of salt.

The prison museum looks remarkably non-sinister from the outside. In a neighborhood of shops, the former school is tucked back behind a large wall. You start by visiting the torture cells where dead prisoners were found after the Khmer Rouge abandoned the facility. Many of the original cells were kept intact so you can imagine the deplorable living conditions. One floor contained thousands of mug shots of all the S-21 victims; many were children. The methodical documentation of each person was incredible and included their background as well as their photo and confession. One of the foreigners tortured there and later killed laced his confession with pop culture references, so people would know it was a load of crock. Six people managed to survive imprisonment there by  having useful skills. Two of them have written books and were on hand to talk to visitors.

After the museum, we dropped off the Canadian women at the Russian market and continued on to the Cambodian television network station where the Pradal Serey fights were being filmed. A form of kick boxing, it was pretty brutal but no blood. One of the fighters look pretty woozy after being knocked out. When the competitors have each other in a head lock hug then try to knee each other, it looks pretty silly. We watched four matches with increasingly bigger and older fighters.

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Pradal Serey (kick boxing) at CTN studios 2-~4 pm on Saturday (someone mentioned more at 5 or 6 pm too) and again on Sunday at 2 pm

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CTN films the fights with a live audience so anyone can go watch for free. The fighters ranged from 17 to upper 20s. We saw a couple knockouts and a couple decisions, including one we both incorrectly guessed the winner.

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Chillaxing and Biking in Battambang

Battambang is a smaller town on a river southwest of Siam Reap. It’s known for it’s French Colonial architecture and was a wonderful place to spend a peaceful day.

The previous night Rob and I finally mustered the energy to walk downtown, ~20 minutes. Rob caved to my desire for Indian food and we sought out a place recommended by Lonely Planet, Flavors of India. When we got to the address, it wasn’t there, so we continued wandering down a more major road nearby. Just when we started checking out menus for other places, I saw Flavors of India across the street. It had moved at one point. We proceeded to have a extremely large and good meal for $14 (palak paneer, eggplant masala, naan, tumeric rice, beer for rob and mango lassi for me).

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Flavors of India in Cambodia!

Unfortunately, my stomach was still a bit on the fritz, so I couldn’t enjoy it completely. We joked that Rob knew I wasn’t feeling great because I gave him the last 1/4 of my mango lassi. Our tuk tuk driver came and picked us up afterwards. We paid him for the two rides so far and told him we weren’t going to hire him but instead bike around. Returning to home stay, we were greeted with a plate of amazing mango that overcame all stomach issues. Best mango yet!

The next morning, we woke up early and had an amazing Cambodian breakfast at our guesthouse (we highly recommend Battambang My Homestay) before borrowing their free bikes (Rob’s was great, my front wheel didn’t rotate too well and required extra oomph) for a cruise around the city and a short ride out to the bamboo train, a dinky monorail about 1 km connecting two villages. The cars are made of bamboo so they can be disassembled when passing is needed. We decided against the $5 ride but it was fun to go check it out.

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Crazy good pancake thing with chicken, veggies and a vinegar based peanut sauce. Cambodian breakfast is awesome!

 

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Lunch stop at a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant

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Checking out the former Thai Governor’s mansion

Returning to downtown, we grabbed lunch at a tiny “veggie” restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. We were confused because both of our dishes had meat. We also tried some flavored soy milks (black sesame/peanut for Rob, pumpkin for me), which were pretty good.

After lunch, we went in search of a quiet, shady cafe to spend a few hours. We found Alan and Peggy from the boat “cruise” in the best value beer place we could find ($0.50 drafts at happy hour) and ended up talking to them for a couple hours about traveling, history, and views on other countries. We would run in to them a few more times before leaving Cambodia. While we were there, another guy from the boat walked in. Tourist Battambang is small.

Eventually, it was time to grab a quick street side bite and head north to the circus. We picked up our bus tickets to Phnom Penh en route to the show. The performances are held at a fine arts school famous for its acrobats and the older students show off their skills a few times a week to raise funds. Graduates do another show in Siam Reap that we missed. It was a fun show with some parts that left us confused about their “storyline” but the acrobatics were fun. We sat next to the same woman from France that we were next to on the boat ride.

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Circus School Performance. This guy is balanced on a series of cylinders.

The next morning after a tasty spring roll (2 types) breakfast, we were off to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

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Boat “cruise” to Battambang with a free surprise off-road adventure

Rob and I felt okay to continue our journey with the help of mucho Imodium. After a short ride on a moto taxi, we were delivered to a bus stop a short walk from the hostel. Thank goodness there was a bakery across the street and we had time to kill because we hadn’t had a chance to get breakfast at the hostel. Based on trip advisor reviews, the journey would take about 9 hours (with limited bathroom access). We definitely needed to get breakfast in addition to the snacks we had packed.

Finally a mini bus appeared and we managed to get everyone and their luggage in clown car style. Halfway through loading, Rob and I were in the back row with two others. The lady managing the bus packing zeroed in on us and added another person. This set the tone for the day.

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Getting off the bus at the boat pier, we were immediately assaulted by a horde of women trying to sell us drinks and snacks for the journey. We grabbed another bottle of water and went to claim seats on the boat.

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The back of the boat. I took this when I realized we were done with the boat ride. Rob was fascinated watching the driver because the boat transmission was made with salvaged car parts.

 

There were a number of older tourists (it was pretty clear they didn’t know what type of day they had signed up for) on the boat and many of them of had staked out sizable bench spots with bench space for their bags. Continuing with the theme of the day, they kept packing tourists until some refused citing no space. The driver than kicked the locals out of the shaded seating area to fit more tourists on board.

Based on reviews, we decided to sit near the front away from the engine fumes and incessant racket. The benches were hard but we were prepared with our therm-a-rest pads. The one flaw in our seat choice became remarkably clear very quickly: the cross wind as we navigated the top section of Tonlé Sap (the biggest lake in Cambodia) dumped water into the only two windows not covered by curtains (necessary for the driver’s view). In minutes, Rob and I were drenched with the murky, fetid lake water (most of Cambodia’s freshwater seafood comes from here and after this, I didn’t want to touch any of it.). We packed up the pads and stood in the middle of the dry boat section until we turned into the wind and the deluge ceased. At this point, the trip became quite pleasant as we watched floating villages go by for a couple hours.

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I think the overhanging shed on the end here is a bathroom. It looks like the one we used later in the trip.

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Entering the river.

 

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Fishing contraption

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Lost Days in Siam Reap/Angkor Wat

Strolling through Siam Reap en route to our hostel brought to mind tourist Mexico. Visiting Playa del Carmen in high school, I remember the mixture of modern buildings, outdoor restaurants and ramshackle structures surrounded by hordes of tourists. Welcome to Siam Reap. Rob and I were once again on the tourist/backpacker trail and we ended up spending more time here than we originally planned.

We were amazed to find ourselves spending US dollars in Cambodia. At the airport leaving the US, we both had pulled some emergency cash and now it meant that we didn’t have to hit up an ATM right away. The other nice thing about Cambodia is that they drive on the right side of the road. Despite a month of Japan and a few days of Thailand, we still invariably look the wrong direction first when checking traffic.

Rob chose the Downtown Siam Reap hostel since we’d been isolated for the last bit. Our hostel had a beach bar area and a pool. With the surrounding wall blocking views of the street, it felt like a little backpacker resort. We met some pretty awesome folks there (or mainly Rob did since after the first day, I was pretty much down for the count after 5 pm). Our second night, we joined the hostel BBQ and its two free beer half hours from 5-5:30pm and 9-9:30pm.

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Rob enjoying a beer at the Downtown Siam Reap Hostel

Our double room only had fan cooling, but it was definitely nice to have our own space. The main issue that we quickly realized is that the hostel doesn’t have enough water supply, so half the time you try to shower and find the water is out. This was also an issue for the toilet and it’s special feature the bum gun (pretty much a kitchen sprayer for you butt).

Our first full day in Siam Reap was a bit of a wash since we had been up a bit late and slept in. We decided to use the afternoon to visit an orientation museum (Bayon Information Center) then indulge in a Smith family tradition – minigolf. Renting bikes from the most disinterested women ever, we biked north of town in search of the Bayon information center. For only $2 each instead of $12 each at the National Museum, we received background on Angkor especially the Bayon Temple at the center of Angkor Thom. One of the staff members walked us through a number of the exhibits and there was only one other couple there. Armed with new found knowledge, we prepared to the many of the temples ( in miniature form).

Angkor Putt was a 15 minute bike ride out of the center of town on a dusty highway. With some help from google maps, we found it quite devoid of other tourists. The owners were laboring to build a new temple replica of aluminium cans on one of the holes. There were definitely a few holes that killed our scores and when the dust settled, I beat Rob by a record 6 strokes. Normally, he wins by a couple. I was a gracious winner and didn’t brag too much. I even shared my hole-in-one beer with him (one beer per hole-in-one).

By the time we finished minigolf, it was free beer time #1 followed by the BBQ and free beer time #2.

Needless to say, the next morning was not an early morning. I woke feeling pretty terrible, s0 we slept in until 11 am and with a couple pain relievers felt okay enough to venture out. We opted to hire a re-work moto (they call them tuk tuks too, but they’re different than the ones we’d seen before) and driver for $18 since we didn’t quite feel up to biking as we originally planned. With the wheels, we decided to visit the outer temples on the Grand Circuit. I found a guide book called Ancient Angkor at the hostel, which gave us great background and information on each temple (I saw a guy selling the book for $1 at Angkor Wat.

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View from the back of the re-work moto. It wasn’t particularly fast, but it was nice that Rob and I could talk as well as stay cool in the shade. Plus, our driver knew where all the bathrooms are located.

We visited 7 archaeological sites (Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Sras Srang, Banteay Kdai ) sites the first day and I was pooped by 4 pm. Since we didn’t really have lunch, we grabbed some amazing ice cream at Blue Pumpkin on the way back to the hostel (Rob also picked up four skewers and cold noodle salad for $1 at the local restaurant near the hostel). A nap and some more Vitamin I were required before dinner.   Rob and I tried a local BBQ place on the same road as the hostel. We’d walked by many times and it had always been busy. We had a few tasty dishes and enjoyed the local atmosphere – kickboxing on two tvs and  female beer reps drinking with tables of men drinking their brand of beer. Halfway through our meal, a car dropped off a group of attractive women in distinctive purple, green and yellow short dresses. They turned out to be cigarette reps selling their product to the restaurant clientele.

The next day, we pushed through not feeling great and rented a tandem. It was fine for awhile, but as soon as we got to the temple area ~11 km from town, the chain started falling off with increasing frequency as the day dragged on.

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Our $6/day rental tandem needed some TLC. We should have gotten the fancy ones with awnings over the seats.

We went to Angkor Wat first braving the hordes for people and heat. There are guides everywhere trying to sell you their services. It honestly would have been nice to have a bigger group and hire one. The grounds are huge! It’s a pretty decent walk from the entrance to the temple itself.

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Inner temple of Angkor Wat. Since it was a holy day, we were unable to climb up to the top. Normally there’s a wait to do this and they even have the “x min from this point” signs.

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View of Angkor Wat from the pond outside the inner wall

The bas reliefs at Angkor Wat depicting many battles were quite neat. Unfortunately we were compelled to leave in a hurry and only made a cursory inspection of most of the carvings.

Our next stop was Angkor Thom. Not feeling great, I survived our visit to Bayon Temple, the elephant terrace and the leper king terrace and the northern gate. The pain relievers kicked in just in time for the ride to Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, and our ride home with the timing chain falling off constantly. At times, we weren’t in a good place to pull over, so I got to power the bike solo. It would have been fun to hear “He’s not pedaling in the front” for a change.

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Ending the day at Ta Prohm

We didn’t get back into town until well after dark. After a tiring day, we just wanted grease and got some $2.5 burger and fry plates from our usual restaurant a couple doors down from the hostel.

Our last day in Siam Reap, I felt so terrible that I relaxed in our room all day while Rob hung by the pool side. After having been worried that my symptoms were flu-like (also can be malaria symptoms), I called the nurse consulting line for our health insurance to see if they thought I should get test as a certain strain of malaria can get bad rapidly. We found a nearby clinic (Sok San clinic next to Same Same Bar) and they were able to draw blood and perform the tests right away ($15).

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Test results.

 

It was a relief to know that I didn’t have malaria and although the test for dengue came back negative, they said my low platelet count could be a sign of that. I wasn’t as worried about dengue since I didn’t have the high fever. To celebrate the good news, we got some Mexican food. It wasn’t too bad and we had a great time talking with a couple from San Diego that was heading to Vietnam for a motorbike road trip.

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Viva Mexico branch in Siam Reap. There are two locations and one seems to have better specials.

At this point, we had already booked the boat to Battambang for the next day, so we hoped with all the rest that we would feel up to the 9 hour journey. Otherwise, we would be taking advantage of the travel insurance for the first time.

 

 

Crossing the Thailand-Cambodia border at Chong Chom-Osmach

I wanted to make sure to record this because I scoured the internet for more detailed information about the crossing and couldn’t find too many recent reports. Most tourists doing crossing this land border go through Poipet. Reading about how to navigate the crossing without getting scammed is insane. The wikitravel guide has pages walking you through the procedure complete with maps. They begin by overcharging you for the visa then forcing you to pay an extra stamping fee. Someone even mentioned the bus company giving them slightly different continuing transportation (you walk a across the border even with bus transport booked through) stickers to show whether or not they paid the extra fee. If you need transport on the Cambodia side, you’re herded on to busses by police to take you to a more expensive bus station rather than the local one.

Since Nang Rong was equidistant from Chong Chom and Poipet we decided to go to the less crazy but onward transport more uncertain border. The Chong Chom crossing was closed for a long time due to fighting with the Khmer Rouge, which lasted into the late 1990s. Now, this border sees more Thai tourists hopping the border to gamble at the casino resorts directly at the border. Gambling is illegal in both countries for their citizens, but in Cambodia, foreigners can gamble. At Friday midday, the casino traffic wasn’t too bad.

To get to Chong Chom, we took a full bus toward Surin after an hour of waiting, but ended up getting off early realizing we could save distance/time by transferring at Prasat instead. There, we caught a minivan to Chong Chom. There’s no baggage storage in those cars. Our huge packs rode in our laps. Then, they fit three people in the two seats next to us.  Thankfully the ride wasn’t too long.

The border crossing was uneventful. A taxi driver we wanted our business sheparded us through the crossing, although it was pretty straightforward. We managed to only pay the $30 visa fee each without tea money. The shared cab was a bit on the pricey side. We ended up paying 1500 baht for a two hour ride to Siam Reap.

Unfortunately, he dropped us 3km from the hostel with a tuk tuk driver for a “free” ride to our hostel. We decided to walk as it was a nice evening and we had been sitting all day.