Anth in Phnom Penh

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Siem Reap (Pchum Ben Part 2)

The second half of our Pchum Ben holiday was quite a contrast to the first. We arrived in Siem Reap early afternoon on the Wednesday. After driving round town and goggling at all the new development we found a nice guesthouse and chilled out until dinner. On the invitation of our friend Maylee dinner was at Hotel De La Paix’s restaurant Meric. It was quite the dinner – we had the Khmer set - traditional fare all served in various common household receptacles. My favourite food blogger also happened to be there at the time, so I shall refer you to him for a more eloquent description. It was a luxurious meal. I was reveling in the fact that I was eating truly Khmer food that wasn’t ‘cha bonlai’. The chefs even managed to rustle me up a sour soup without meat – this was of course not authentic, as no Khmer would dream of making it without fish, but at least it meant I got a bit of an idea of what all the fuss was about.

Our evening of comfort set the scene for the rest of our time in Siem Reap. We were much in need of unwinding and thanks to Maylee and Paul’s hospitality our wishes were granted. Our first day was spent lounging by the pool at the hotel, doing the crossword and eating ridiculous amounts of ice cream.

The following day we went to visit some of the farther out temples. Maylee and Paul decided to come along and our small road trip began at Kbal Spean. The road out was terrible, beyond Banteay Sray it turned into a potholed mess, and it took ages to cover the 50 kilometers. Kbal Spean is very different to the other Angkorian temples that I have seen, as many of the carvings and stone is underwater. Wet season is probably not the best time to go, as the many of the carvings are not easily visible under the rushing water. The 30 minute walk through the forest to the site from the carpark was lovely. It was a busy day, and people were running around everywhere, further downstream families were bathing.

On our return we stopped in at Banteay Sray. I had never been to this temple before and was amazed by the intricate carving. It is simply stunning and so much more intricate than many of the carvings I have seen in the major temples in the Angkor complex. We wandered around with the hordes of tourists, took photos and simply gaped at the detail.

That eve Mr B and I decided to put our Angkor passes to good use and visit Angkor Wat for sunset. We walked in the backway and scaled up the stairs right to the top, which I always find terrifying. Sitting in a little corner and looking out on the temples we mused about leaving Cambodia. However, it wasn’t time to say goodbye just yet, as will be in Siem Reap again in November.

The following day, we decided to go even further afield and head out to Bang Melea. This entailed us leaving Siem Reap and traveling down the road to Phnom Penh for about 20 minutes before turning down a road that led to the site. Previously access to Beng Melea had been restricted simply because of the terrible road condition, but as some enterprising businessman had come along and fixed up the road – with a toll booth, which requires one to pay each way – the temple is now much easier to access.

All up it took us around an hour to get out there. We strolled up the main walkway and climbed up some wooden stairs constructed so to enter the first inner wall of the temple. It was simply jaw dropping. Thankfully, an apsara authority guard decided to take us around and show us all the parts, because it was enormous. It had the proportions of Angkor Wat with the overgrown and lost look of Ta Prohm. We clambered over stones and walkways and through high ceilinged coridoors. Every now and then our guide would explain that we were in the east or west quarter, but after a while I found myself completely lost and just content to follow. The full beauty of the temple was not immediately apparent as we walked up the wooden steps but the more we explored the more we discovered. Most of the stone carvings were covered in moss and tumbling down, however some had levels of detail similar to Banteay Sray, particularly on the outer walls. After we finished the tour we attempted a small wander around by ourselves. We couldn’t believe how stunning it was. After a while, we decided to go back to the car as the temple was ridden with mosquitoes and head back to Siem Reap for our final night’s dinner with Maylee and Paul.

They took us to an excellent Japanese restaurant. The owner treated us to an indeterminate number of courses of fabulous food. Sake and beer were being passed around and finally when the courses ceased I was very full and satisfied. Cocktails at Linga bar followed and by the end of the evening all I was fit for was collapsing into bed.

Despite the previous evenings over indulgences we were up fairly early the next morning and cruised out of Siem Reap by a little after midday. We arrived back in Phnom Penh tired and frazzled after an even more stressful than usual leg back into town. The insane driving and traffic started earlier (around Skuon) and crescendoed as we reached the Japanese bridge. We drove slowly and calmly and made it home safely.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Adventures in another Kiri (Pchum Ben 2006 part one)

In a brave move, we decided to spend our Pchum Ben in a ‘Kiri. Our previous Pchum Ben in Ratanakiri had been somewhat of a challenging adventure (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and yes the number of parts are positively related to the amount of difficulties encountered). This Pchum Ben though, things were going to be different. Firstly, our traveling companion in the other Kiri was safe and sound back in Sydney and most importantly, this time we had a car.

We set off the Friday afternoon before the Pchum Ben week of holiday. I had just had my final day at AQIP. Our trip was beginning and our time left in Cambodia quickly diminishing. Without much hassle we made it to Kompong Cham by evening so that we could start the real drive the next morning.

Already things were proving to be easier. There was no need for tense negotiations with transport junta leaders and my gleaming white pick-up was fresh from a service. We passed through some dusty, western-esque towns with saloon style two-story wooden buildings and a coating of red-brown dirt on anything stationary. We stopped in Memot for lunch and had quite possibly the best Cha Bonlai (stir fry vegetables, my provincial staple) I have ever had. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but for those keen to try it was the only one that cooked your food up fresh and it had a rabbit on the sign. As we traveled further towards Sen Monorom the dirt became redder and the forest denser and more lush.

The road was not great, but quite manageable as it had not rained for three days and had time to dry out. We arrived at the outskirts of Sen Monorom around 3pm. We couldn’t believe our luck. It was stunning, an extremely picturesque collection of rolling green hills, red dirt and jungle forested valleys. The scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen in Cambodia, and very reminiscent of Australia.

We cruised into town and found ourselves a guesthouse. We found the design of many of the guesthouses somewhat strange. As a general rule, cabins tended to be placed facing inwards with windows and balcony’s overlooking the other cabins. Behind the cabins lay a stunning and peaceful view. I couldn’t work out whether guesthouses had been constructed for a Khmer market with different holiday preferences to barangs, or just with little forethought?

After an incredibly oily dinner of fried potato chips and inferior cha bonlai we organized an overnight trek into the jungle. We were a little hesitant, given unsuccessful trekking attempts in the other Kiri, but decided to risk history repeating itself. The next morning we set out from Sen Monorom on an elephant, with two Pnong guides (the elephant’s minders) and a Khmer guide (presumably our minder). Not one of them spoke a word of English. This was entirely my fault. We had been negotiating in Khmer with a fast talking, James Bond from Stung Treng-like, young man and when informing us why the trip was so expensive: for example with English speaking guide I had jokingly said “Oh we don’t need any of those things”. Of course I didn’t actually clarify with him later on, that actually, we really did. But of course, like many of his kind, he disappeared as soon as the cash was handed over.

Nevertheless, we sallied forth, Mr B and myself on top of the elephant in a small bamboo basket. The basket was extremely cramped, we had to either sit on top of or nurse our bags, in addition to our guide’s bags. Mr B had to hang his legs over the edge of the basket and even then took up over a half of the basket and made it very clear that he was not comfortable.

Mr B less than impressed to be on the elephant

This state of affairs lasted around 15 minutes before the two of us insisted that they stop the elephant and let us down. Our guides were somewhat taken aback, but given a general reluctance to talk to us much, little was said. The next couple of hours were very pleasant, we walked beside the elephant and pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle. Whilst the beginning of our walk provided sweeping views of valleys and hills, after awhile we started to get into real jungle.

After a few hours it started to rain. The usual walking route had proved to be too narrow or difficult and so the elephant and rider had gone down a different route. As the rain started to splash down in warm, heavy drops we decided that we needed to find the elephant and make sure that all our things were covered. I dashed off with one of the guides back to the spot where we had last seen the elephant. We couldn’t see her, and so the guide delved down the thickly treed path which she had taken. Quickly, I realized that I had no idea where Mr B and the other guide were, or for that matter where I really was. My guide continued at break neck pace along the track following the deep prints of the elephant in the mud. I stood, already completely saturated, deliberating. The guide who I had been following did not stop and soon he was entirely gone from my site. In a snap decision I chose to follow him. After a few minutes I still couldn’t see the guide or the elephant, but the deep imprints in the sodden earth were enough for me to know that I was at least on the right track. As the rain continued to fall the track got more and more difficult. My feet, legs and arms were covered in scratches from the undergrowth and I had to regularly stop due to a lost thong almost being swallowed up by the muddy path. I was feeling pretty miserable. The guide was occasionally in sight, and would stop and wait for me at particularly difficult crossings. He kept on asking me where the others were and I had to keep on saying “knom at dung” (I don’t know!). As I stumbled along I started to conjure up all sorts of images of losing Mr B in the jungle. Finally we arrived at the camp spot, the elephant was happily roaming free and his minder was taking a rest, but there was no sign of the others.

We turned around and plunged back into the jungle. Ten minutes later, after revisiting all the spots where I had previously fallen over, or lost my thong, I spotted the others. Mr B greeted me with a mixture of intense relief and anger. Apparently he had also entertained various visions; one of me catching up with the elephant and continuing on without him and others of awful elephant and non elephant related accidents. We made our way to the camp and took in our nights accommodation. It was a wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof. There was a dirt floor and then a raised wooden section and no sleeping materials to be seen. Rather than start to worry about this, we walked to the waterfall that was nearby and relaxed, comparing our various jungle wounds.

When we returned, the camp had been transformed. Mattresses with rugs and mosquito nets had been set up from some mysterious storage space, there were fires inside and out, and dinner preparations were well under way. Our guides went to bed some time before 8pm after drinking some ‘sra’ that had been brought ostensibly for us, but due to its close resemblance to methylated spirits we couldn’t stomache. We figured it was probably early to bed, early to rise and followed suit.

Our start in the morning was not quite as early as we had expected. Breakfast needed to be prepared and then straight afterwards what looked to be lunch was also cooked up. The chief elephant minder had a bandage on his forehead, which he told me was because he had a headache. I asked if this had anything to do with the ‘sra’ last night, but he didn’t respond. He and the other Pnong guide then led the elephant down to the river and gave her a bath.

Finally we were ready to set off. Mr B and I decided that given the debacle of the previous day we would ride on the elephant, at least for the beginning. We were also wary of the condition of the track given that it had rained for most of the night. This time, I found the elephant immeasurably more comfortable, Mr B was right next to me and the elephant confidently and slowing plowed through the deep mud and across swollen creeks. Our return was slowed by her voracious appetite and a particular penchant for fresh green bamboo, but I couldn’t possibly criticize her given her amazing ability to climb up steep, muddy hills with two barang and a heap of baggage on her back.

Coming out of the jungle to a Pnong village

We arrived back in Sen Monorom tired and somewhat relieved. We had been talking a lot about the rain and the condition of the road out of Mondolkiri. We decided that given that it had been raining for almost a day that it would be best to go back now, whilst the road was potentially still passable rather than get stuck here after a few more days of rain. That night, I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed straight after dinner. It was around 8pm.

We woke early; me because I was uncomfortable and Mr B because he was fretting about the road. For once we moved fairly quickly and after a fleeting stop at the interesting looking Sen Monorom market we were ready to go. The trip did not start well, driving from the market at 5km per hour, the road was like ice and my usually well grounded hilux was having trouble finding its feet. We traveled the 140 kilometres from Sen Monorom to Memot tensely and slowly. There were potholes and puddles that spread along great swathes of the road with more potholes lying in wait. Five and a half hours later, with great relief, we arrived at the Memot junction. I had learnt to drive a four wheel drive in incredibly challenging conditions and the sun was shining. We decided to push through to Kompong Thom for the night and begin part two of our Phum Ben holiday the following day.