Mick O at large in South East Asia - Cambodia Diary

Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010 at 14:54



I'd been trying to get to Cambodia for several years now but the planets never seemed to align on previous trips to SE Asia. Imagine our surprise when the Pocket Rocket and I managed to secure ridiculously cheap flights on one of the many "5 minute" deals with the cheapy airlines. Before I could type in the credit card details, we had three return tickets to Cambodia via Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia for under a grand. You bloody beauty. So it was that the three of us (myself, the Pocket Rocket and Crown Prince) departed Tullamarine on a cold Saturday morning last week intent on having a flying taste of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

25thSept - KL

26 - 28th - Siem Reap and the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat

A frightfully early start to the morning. Our taxi driver was asleep out the front in his vehicle awaiting us…thank god. We arrived in plenty of time and managed to secure a bite to eat before trudging through the customs hall again and into the rudimentary departure lounge. Thankfully it was a fairly short hop from KL through to Siem Reap. We landed at the small but neat airport and walked ourselves through customs and arrivals in quick time. Being a day behind, we weren’t quite sure all our frantic emails from KL had reached their intended recipients. We were pleasantly surprised to find a driver waiting for us to run us into our Hotel in Siem Reap.

It’s only a short drive into the town. The weather, while warm was very overcast and rain appeared imminent. As we drove into town we were struck by the rapid expansion occurring in the area. There were small to medium sized hotels springing up along the main road everywhere, all being built with little or no thought to future planning. And infrastructure. We were indeed fortunate to have booked a hotel right on the Siem Reap river and only a couple of minutes walk from the centre of town (City River Hotel, Achasva Street,) It was a nice enough place with a roof top pool. Our rooms were on the 3rd floor and right at the front so a little noisy.

Siem Reap presents an almost schizophrenic personality when you begin to wander its streets The centre of town, and its aptly named main thoroughfare “Pub Street”, is geared totally towards the tourists with bright restaurants and bars, tuk tuk drivers touting for business and the ubiquitous massage establishment sharing pavement space with open air diners. Nearby the local commercial interests take hold, the odd market and then it’s the unregulated sprawl of development and poor pavement until you reach the broad green expanses of rice paddies and farms.

After settling in to our room, we opted to grab a bite to eat over in the main restaurant area. The many restaurants have eating areas spilling out onto the footpath which allows you to watch the passing parade. We’d soon found one that took our fancy and sat down to enjoy. The food is great. We followed up with a bit of a look around town before heading back to the hotel for a nap. The crown prince opted to check out the roof top pool while the PR and I recharged our batteries after such an early start.

While at lunch we were approached by a Tuk Tuk tout by the name of Mr Happy. His well practised act had us negotiating for a look see around town in his conveyance. After some time of looking about the local environs and temples he suggested a trip to the floating village. Not bad I thought not having seen any information anywhere about the place previously, off we headed to the Chong Khneas village on the Tonle Sap Lake about 15 kilometres out of town. It was a little bit of a shock to be dropped at a mooring site where we were told by uniformed guards that tickets on the boat out to the floating village were $45USD each.Well that was soon put paid to as we hunted down Mr Happy and sought further and better particulars in respect to the affair. Seems to have been a fair bit of detail left out in regards to the floating village!

After some robust negotiation we were down to somewhere approaching a realistic cost or at least one that we were prepared to accept like $15USD for the boat. God knows how many unsuspecting tourists are dragged out here and left for a couple of hours by the unscrupulous tout. The floating village in itself is actually nothing more than a collection of boats tied up together for the wet season. These nomadic fishermen are largely of ethnic Vietnamese extraction, spend the dry season out in the lakes and shelter in the tributaries of Lake during the storms of the wet season. The government has provided schools and facilities as have many aid organisations. There was a handout going on from one boat that looked in danger of capsizing as it was swamped by the locals looking for a handout. The locals also supplement their income during the wet by selling all manner of trinkets and consumables to the passing parade of tourists.

The number of small boats darting about was amazing and we witnessed one enterprising mobile stall holder race up beside our larger boat and suddenly a small child of very tender years stepped between the moving boats carrying a basket loaded with drinks seemingly totally ignorant of the risks. I suppose they are bought up in a marine environment. Thankfully a boat containing three round eyes was a less attractive target than one containing a dozen Koreans as we witnessed with an open water “pirate” attack underway. A boat only marginally larger than out own stopped without reason at the mouth of the tributary. In a flash, boats that had been well camouflaged in the bushes surrounding the edge of the streams appeared from everywhere and raced each other to the prey. On arrival, children swarmed over the edges of the boat in a well choreographed boarding process. In seconds the tourists were at their mercy being showered with drinks, cheap jewellery and more than a few pythons lol. Revenge is sweet.

Here’s the sad reality of the place. The tourist police took over the Chong Khneas tourist boat operation in November 2003 and take the lion's share of the money charged. The prices were supposed to be fixed, but in fact the police will try to get from you as much as they can and your driver will be expected to help. Drivers and tour guides are given a kickback and strictly prevented from bargaining on your behalf. The person who actually takes you on the trip, the boat operator, sees very little of this money and as a result will often be more interested in getting you to buy stuff than actually show you anything interesting. At its worst, the boat driver will mysteriously and conveniently breakdown in the middle of nowhere and ten boats will surround you trying to sell you junk. Meanwhile the boat driver continues to try "fixing" his boat, a successful repair occurring right about the time you give in and buy something. At its best, the driver simply stops at every possible place where someone could sell you something, usually a restaurant. Now you’ve got the picture.

To get the opportunity to see a bit of the countryside, we hired a private taxi, in effect someones private vehicle with a limo licence, to travel the NH6 down to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. There we were to meet a second vehicle for the 3 hour trip south to Sihanoukville. My god what a drive. It was white knuckle to say the least. The speed limit of 110 kph only applies to those who haven't paid the appropriate "Tax" at the start of the trip. For a few thousand Realls, delivered into the right hands at the start of the trip, speed limits and road rules appear to go out the window. I consider myself to be a brave man and a reasonable driver but by the many arms of Vishnu, I prayed to every deity I could think of to make the 5 hour trip alive. It was seriously frightening! It's hard to get a taste of the rural life of Cambodia when you're average speed is 140 kph. You do get an appreciation for traditional methods of transport though when you find yourself about to plow up a buffalo's arse at breakneck speed. Thankfully I managed to stifle the unmanly scream that was trying to escape my throat so that it sounded more like a strangled cough and didn't elicit comment from the Pocket Rocket who was sitting oblivious to the chaos in the back seat.

29th September - Sihanoukville (Costa del Cambodia)

Well here I sit in whiling away an hour in an internet cafe while the wet season rains thunder down outside. The intermittent bursts of sunshine don't help with the humidity but at least it's warm. Such is much of Sept-October in SE Asia. Currently the three of us are in Sihanoukeville on the southern coast of Cambodia. It's a soulless sort of place that seems to embodies a lot of the broken dreams that Cambodia represents.

The lure of squeaky white beaches is what draws people to Sihanoukville (or Kompong Som if you have a communist bent - again illustrating the ideological differences and battles that are still fought here). The reality is somewhat different. Many of the key beaches have had the rights of access bought up by major business concerns keen to develop major resorts. What's left has seen little control so the beaches are packed with beach bars and restaurants all catering to something, from backpackers to go-go sleaze.

Not wanting to spend a fortune, we have found ourselves in a mid-range hotel one street back from The whole area has a patina of age and despair about it. As far as development goes, think Bali of the early 80's that has decayed rather than progressed and you'll have some sort of idea. Streets are unmade and in these rains, soil rubbish and anything else lying about is swept straight down into the via the beeches you've come to see. At least the seafood is fresh and the drinks cheap (seriously cheap!).

We've just had a tour of the area checking out all the main beaches and one of the resorts we were going to spend time at but the $140 per night put us off. In hindsight, what were we thinking? This place was a 5 star resort and magnificent. It cost me the same for a donga at the back of the Cocklebiddy roadhouse last year. Compared to the "Ocean Beach Resort" we're currently in for 60 bucks, it's a mistake I will not make again. Thankfully I can ride out on the Pocket Rocket for this one as it was she who wanted to head this way and booked the accommodation...I should get some mileage out of this leading up to Xmas lol.

We spent the sunset on the back last night being hassled by the local hawkers and watching the serenity evaporate quickly. The Crown Prince, being a tall, strapping 15 year old lad had the local bracelet makers vying for his attention and finally fighting over who was going to make him the actual bracelet. It was a good lesson in life and relationships for him because he got ripped off to the tune of a gold coin, and as soon as his loot was gone, so was the affection from his fan club. Mother and I couldn't help but laugh.

Vik is a bit crook today so our tour of town also took in the local pharmacy where we got the essentials in the way of a broad spectrum antibiotic and the local Gravox equivalent. She's having a rest momentarily but I feel certain that she will be able to put the aches and pains aside to get in one ore round of shopping and massage before we head up to Phnom Penh tomorrow. What a girl. No sacrifice is too great.

29th Sept - 2nd Oct: Phnom Penh

Well after just loosing better than 30 minutes of typing, due to this dodgy internet cafe, I'll just leave a short and sharp entry and fill in the gaps from home next week. We had a leisurely trip north from Snookville (as we know it) to Phnom Penh (PP) yesterday. It gave us a chance to get a good look at the countryside and appreciate the gap between the haves and the have-not's here. It is immense.

We immersed ourselves in the hustle and bustle of PP yesterday afternoon amongst the oppressive humidity and heat. Our accommodation is situated in the Keng Kang district, favoured by expats and embassy staff to live. Relatively quiet considering it's only one street back from the main drag into town and the waterfront.

We were all greatly disturbed, distressed and appalled by the horrors of the S21 prison and torture camp in the heart of PP where the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly exterminated 20,000 of their opponents over a 4 year period. This number did not count the children and babies murdered in front of their parents. Hard to believe that such a friendly people could also be capable of such acts against their own.

After the shock of a place like the S21, it was hard to then get enthused about the Russian market but we went and looked anyway. The evening was spent down along the waterfront finding some decent Khmer food before the rains tumbled tumultuously. It's never a light shower here. Through the curtains of rain in a Tuk Tuk to home and retiring.

Today (Friday) was been a day of culture with visits to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the Cultural and artifact museum. A spot of shopping and then some lunch. Now it's time for a rest before the Pocket Rocket gets back into the shopping. It's strange that everywhere we go, we're asked "only one" referring to the Crown Prince. Being incredibly family orientated and having numerous kids in a family, they find it hard to believe that there was no spare to the throne. How to explain that one 15 year old is enough lol.

While chaotic, much of PP maintains colonial charm left over from those damnable cheese eating surrender monkeys, the French! It's also amazing considering that Pol Pot and his cronies emptied the city of over 2.5 million people in under a week in 1975 driving them into the countryside to commence his Moaist vision of an agrarian society. The damage they wrought on the deserted capital was immense but now largly concealed by the hustle and bustle of this expanding metropolis. Building is going on everywhere and towers of up to 50 stories are starting to dot the skyline.

Another booming trade here is opticians. I'd been putting off getting some reading glasses for nearly 12 months now but at the PR'surging, I was into a local eye store (and there's one on every corner around here) where I was tested, analysed and fitted within an hour and all for under AUD$30. Not bad really and a damn site cheaper than home. We took a liesurely tuk tuk ride around the city in the afternoon finally spending the last of the afternoon light at the confluence of the four main rivers. The mightyMekong is better than a couple of kilometres wide at this point and busy with traffic heading north to Loas or south down to Vietnam.

A couple of cocktails during happy hour on the verandah of an old colonial mansion and then a feed and back to the hotel.


We're killing a few hours before heading out to the airport and our flight out to KL. Another beaut day although sticky. The rains seem to be somewhat later in the day than they were to the north in Siem Reap. The Crown Prince now finally understands the meaning of hygiene and caution with him spending an interesting night getting used to the throne Ha Ha. At least he can see the bright side of it. The pocket Rocket is off trying to locate a last minute bargain. She's saving herself for Chinatown in KL tonight. Now that we have the lay of the land there at least we'll save some money on cab fares and the like meaning all the more for her to spend lol.

We hit the tiny PP airport with plenty of time to spare after a leisurely cruise out in a Tul Tuk. We opted for this mode of transport rather than an air-conditioned taxi to offer a bit more financial support to our new friend Heym. Having adopted us on our first days arrival, we were indeed lucky to find someone so friendly polite and accommodating. While I’m sure he had mercantile interests to pursue in support of his family, he was very accommodating and while I did feel obligated to haggle over prices (as is customary), I didn’t haggle too hard as he was a beaut bloke. He and the Crown Prince struck up quite a friendship over the three days and while the $35 may sound exploitative for the three days of running around, it represented a bit more than the going market rate and more than an average months wage for a local so we all had a win.

I would not hesitate in recommending this young fellow to any traveller to Phnom Penh and will include his contact details below. His English is reasonable, his Tuk Tuk in good condition (and has full canvas sides which can be quickly let down to combat the afternoon showers in the wet) and he’s knowledgeable about the area and history which is a bonus in a young bloke considering the near and deliberate cultural extermination committed by the Khmer Rouge.

We arrived at Malaysia LCC Terminal in the evening dark and were through customs in under 10 minutes. Knowing our way around a bit better we immediately caught one of the many shuttle buses into KL central for 8 Ringgit each ($2.50), a far cry from the $50 taxi fare rip-off. Once there we caught a taxi to the Melia Hotel which is actually right opposite the Imbi Monorail station. Very handy for the PR who immediately wanted to get down to the Chinatown market despite the late time. She figured she had just enough time to get down there, get a good hour of shopping in before the market closed…except!!!!! It seems that in my fatigued state I circled the wrong station for them to get off on meaning she and the Crown Prince found themselves wandering the dark back streets around KL Sentral rather than the bright lights and crowded spaces of the market. Then the rains came. I inadvertently ran into the both of them looking like drowned rats and standing at the base of the stairs to the monorail. I didn’t need to be an expert in body language to realise that all the good will I’d earnt earlier had evaporated despite the pouring rain. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. At least the accommodation was 4 star.
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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