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Gone walkabout

Cambodia part 1

CAMBODIA | Wednesday, 8 August 2012 | Views [6809]

We cross into Cambodia from Laos by bus. The driver asks for all the passengers passports plus $30 each. He heads off to each immigration building (small tin sheds, but soon to be replaced by larger concrete buildings)
We are told to walk through the Laos wooden boom gate, down a 100m road and into the Cambodian side. We wait for about an hour, the driver comes along with a pile of passports. He tries to call out your name at the same time matching your face with the photo. As he looks at Leeanne he calls out 'Lennie'.
So, me and Lennie get our passports back, jump on the bus, and head off into Cambodia to our first town about 5 hrs away although only 120 km's.  We change buses 3 times (can sometimes be more,we're told) before we reach Banlung, an off the beaten town in Cambodias northeast.
Our accommodation is called 'Treetops'. We get a pretty cool little bungalow set in the trees overlooking a valley full of vegetable and fruit trees growing wild, ready to be picked by any of the locals.
I'd love to have my own cashew and mango tree at home! 
We stay a couple of days. The first day we do our own thing checking out the waterfalls, reclining Buddha, and stunning crater lake where we swam in crystal clear unusually warm water.  Good to have a swim, something we haven't had a lot of the past couple of months. Second day we decide to visit ethnic villages and traditional cemeteries, famous in this region. To do this we need to hire a guide. It's the only way we can do it because of the language barriers and the prospect of getting lost or offending any ethnic tribes with a taboo in force.  So, we find a guide ( he actually finds us ) . His name is Mr Free...yep, that's his real name. He is not much younger than me, a survivor of the dark years of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. His father, brother and sister were all killed. He was enslaved for 3 years as a buffalo herder, before living in a refugee camp in Thailand for the next 12 years. He was just a boy during the 70's when his life changed forever. Anyway, we negotiated a price where he rode his bike, with Leeanne and I following behind. We call in on villages and see life and customs different to much of Cambodia. We ask what the small bamboo cubby houses are perched high on stilts.
He explains they are called boyfriend house and girlfriend houses and that when girls reach the age of 14 to 16 the parents allow them to sleep outside the house so eligible boys can check them out. If they want, they climb up into these cubby houses for the night and have a naughty. The couple does not have to marry unless the girl gets pregnant then they move into the village longhouse and live happily ever after. Pre-marital sex...nothing wrong with that!
Mr Free takes us along dusty roads where we stop to see gem mining at the most basic level imaginable. Families work together digging a circular hole less than a metre round and up to 15 metres deep. One guy will make footholes and climb down. His job is to fill  buckets with dirt. His mate at the top winds the bucket up, empties the dirt in pile, until they have a decent mound. Then they sift through the dirt by hand looking  for small gemstones. If they are lucky they live it up for a week or two. The death toll is fairly high. A dangerous job, but the risk seems worth it to these people. We continue our ride, stopping at random shelters during each heavy rainstorm. They don't last long, but they do make the roads muddy and slippery. Our last stop of the day is this fascinating cemetery. The local unique custom is to bury the dead and build wooden effigies  of the deceased, which stand guard around the grave. You can almost depict the person who died. Some effigies are wearing sunnies, listening to mobile phones, or even carrying hunting gear, like rifles or knives. The graves sites are left, and never visited again by relatives.
Next stop was Kratie where we crossed the Mekong yet again on a local ferry and explored a small island by bicycle. It was a 9 km circuit and all the children along the paths yelling out hello. This island could be another 4000 islands but for the time being it remains a perfect example of village life in Cambodia.
 We stop at a roadside stall where we point to the treat the little kids are eating. We are served a glass of shaved ice (shaved in front of us by a tortuous looking machine) upon which is poured sweetened condensed milk, strawberry syrup and sugar syrup. Absolutely delicious!!!! The next day we are on a motor bike again touring remote villages along the Mekong, trying to spot the rare endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins and saying hello to everyone we pass as if they have seriously never seen a westerner before.
We sit on a bus now, bound for Siem Reap, after spending a short overnight stay in a dodgy guesthouse in Kampong Cham. The lady in front is throwing up in a plastic bag and then when she has a little collection tied to the back of the seat she throws them out the window ....nice. The buses stop every 2 hours for pee stops and food. I wander over to see what the locals are buying for snack. Fried crickets yum, so i buy a pork steam bun and an apple. 
We decide to go a bit more upmarket in Siem Reap. This means paying $20/night for a pool, flatscreen and breakfast thrown in. We managed to get some news coverage of the London Olympics opening ceremony. Will try and catch results along the way through Cambodia......go the Aussies ! ( we hear that silver is the new gold ! )
It was nearly 4 years ago Sophie & I visited Josh on his RTW trip in Cambodia. It hasn't changed a great deal although there do seem to be a lot of tourists in Siem Reap and the streets aren't quite as dusty. I am feeling a little culturally burnt out so rather than go straight out to the incredible Angkor temples. A day of bike riding, massages and swimming we hit pub street for 50c beer and $1.50 mojitos.Two unlikely characters sit next to us Aussies of coarse volunteering here. The are running a music program for orphans teaching didgeridoo and guitar. Inspiring characters we will try to see them play later in the week. 
There are many street kids here and it is so hard to try to work out if the are legit or not. There are many scams where they ask for formula then sell it back to the shopkeeper etc. they put this whiny voice on and nag for everything. You are continually fighting with your conscience, wanting to give them a few dollars or feed them but why on earth they think whining will endear you to them I have no idea. There are also many many NGO,s and volunteers all trying to help the Cambodians get back on their feet after the massacres of the Pol Pot Era. Training young people with skills they can improve their life is fantastic from restaurants, tourism and English. 
We decide to take the traditional Tuk Tuk tour of the temples and I am so excited to see what Paul thinks. First stop Angkor Thom and the Bayon. Hundreds of beautiful smiling Buddha faces towering up to the sky. 
The temples have changed from Hindu to Buddhism several times over the centuries.  As incredible as I remember. 
On day two we take the free push bikes from the guest house, a couple of baguettes,boiled eggs and bananas and head out to do the grand tour. 45 km later we are exhausted and exhilarated. There is nothing better than finding hidden and quiet sections of the temples and imagining what life was like in the 11 th century when the jewels and gold were still in place. There is a good reason so many people visit here just one of those place that ignite your imagination and awe!!! Paul bungs on a sickie for day 3(no culture seriously) so I join a great Aussie couple from Perth to visit the beautiful Banteay Srei and more remote temples. 3 days I've had enough now.
 After 6 days it's time to leave. 
One of the worlds best/worst boat journey's (depending on your glass half full/empty view). We were told 5-6 hours, a good 9 hours later we pulled into Battambang  in the middle of a full scale monsoon storm. The trip had started in Siem reap where we were picked up by Tuk Tuk for a trip around town to pick up other travelers, then transferred to a minivan that was not big enough for all so overflowing, my knee kept touching an inappropriate part of the cute French boy opposite me hehe, an hour or so later we arrive at Tonle sap lake for the start of the journey.
This really is a must do trip through floating villages, wide open lakes and seemingly invisible tracks through long grass and weeds. The never ending shouts of hello from the local children many naked precariously balancing on their timber shanty huts. How these families survive with no road access, no where for the children to play, so many hours squatting on the boats or huts, but still they manage to wave and say hello. 
 The lives of the south east Asian people are always on show, very little or no privacy, bathing in public, toileting often on show (amazing what you can do inside a sarong), eating, courting all in full view.
You really have to laugh at the tuk tuk drivers here. I give them 10/10 for sincere ingenuity. If you hire a motor bike the road is too dangerous/narrow/muddy/non existant. You need me to show you, guide you. Still we stuck to our guns and away we went. Paul the moto driver and lennie (leeanne) the guide. We manage to find the rather well hidden bamboo train And an incredible tragic killing cave where people were lured to the cave and literally pushed in to their death.
Went to the most inspiring circus in Battambang.. Started in the refugee camps during the Pol Pot regime, street kids, disadvantaged children and domestic violence victims are trained in various artistic pursuits. This particular show was leaving for a German tour that week.

Tags: angkor wat, ban lung, kratie



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