OR: 'HEY MY FRIEND, YOU WANT TUK-TUK?'
12.07.2011 - 20.07.2011 31 °C
The quaint town of Kampot, a few kilometers inland from the Gulf of Thailand, was the perfect place to recharge my batteries after a manic day crossing the border from Vietnam. On Monday, I headed to a small cafe/bar run by an expat Frenchman, whose name escapes me, so lets call him Jean-Paul for now. Jean-Paul and his wife, after leaving Bordeaux, had spent the last thirty years running establishments as far flung as Sri Lanka, Tonga and now Kampot. A successful drummer, Jean-Paul got his kicks from quietly cranking the volume of his extensive sound system up to 11, letting rip with a huge smash on his electric snare drum and cymbals and laughing heartily as his clientele narrowly avoid heart attacks. So great is the infectious happy energy of Jean-Paul, and of Kampot as a whole, that everyone always sees the funny side.
One evening, while supping on a Khmer curry at my hostel, I got chatting to a toothless Mancunian, whose name I also can't recall. Dave was employed seemingly with the sole responsibility of manning the iTunes playlist, a job he performed proudly, and I must say, very well. He had spent the best part of twenty years working at pubs all over England which coincidentally included The White Hart in Brasted, an establishment just barely walking distance from my house, but which I had never entered. I never did find out what took Dave from Brasted, Kent to Kampot, Cambodia. After dodging the ubiquitous house lizards that dotted the door frames, I somehow managed to get some sleep in the hottest room in the world.
The next morning, I caught a bus to the town of Sihanoukville. On the way, I found myself pressed up against a fellow Englishman whose name I do recall. Andy was coming to the end of his travels and had aspirations of teaching Maths on returning to the UK. We decided to find a room together, and for a total of $7 a night, we had a bungalow in the biggest backpackers' hostel in Sihanoukville. With plenty of hammocks, cheap beer, Oasis being played on repeat and Western food on demand, the hostel had been exactingly crafted to cater to the needs of the backpackers who loved to party all night and sleep all day. And Sihanoukville was full of them. With this kind of travel being a lot more profitable to local businesses, everything in the town actively encouraged this kind of lifestyle. Marketplaces, fishing boats and street food stalls were replaced with iPod servicing shops, banana boats, countless nightclubs and an army of tuk-tuk drivers to rival even India.
That evening, Andy and I headed to a Cambodian casino. While the odd blackjack table and roulette wheel could be found in a dark corner somewhere, South-East Asia's main game is Baccarat, whose tables dominated well over half the floorspace of the casino. This straightforward card game involves no skill whatsoever, and is a straight up coin flip between the dealer and the 'player', and you simply bet on either to win. Its appeal is lost on me, but the locals treat it with such seriousness and superstition that watching them play was the highlight of the evening. The two face down 'player' cards are dealt to whoever has the most money at stake. Everyone I saw followed the same ritual. Instead of turning over the cards straight away, the local would take one card, and over the next ten seconds or so, peel it from the table.. Imagine slowly removing a plaster from your arm, and you get an idea of what an arduous and painful experience it was to watch. When the value was determined, the player would toss the now completely deformed card to the dealer before starting on the second.
When Andy was offered a chance to turn over the dealer's cards, he did so in true style. He would take twice as long peeling up the card, and if he didn't like what he started to see, he would put it down again, rotate it 180 degrees and start again. The locals were delighted with this method, and Andy quickly became one of the most popular players. These are the same people I'm sure who would absolutely love the seemingly endless pauses offered up by Davina on Big Brother.
The next morning, Andy and I hopped on a boat that would take us to a nearby island. Like every kind of public transport in South-East Asia, this one was well over capacity.
As we set off from the pier, I wondered aloud whether the black sky in the distance would reach the looming island before we did. A New Zealander beside me doubted it, and turned out to be correct.
As the rain arrived, so did the wind, and we found ourselves soaked to the skin simultaneously by the constant cold pounding rain, and the intermittent warm pounding sea that splashed over us. To further add to our troubles, we turned away from the island that reared up in front of us, what we thought was our destination, and instead headed for a tiny spot on the horizon.
An hour later and we landed on Koh Russei, a tiny, sandy and leafy tropical island. The storm had passed and we began the ten minute trudge through the jungle to the opposite side. Here we found the only accommodation on the island, a row of beach houses that lined the shore.
Andy and I were assigned Hut 4 and began the process of laying out passports, documents and even dollar bills in an attempt to get them dry. As it turned out, the walls of the hut was not impervious to the sea breeze. I gave up and retired to a hammock. After lunch, I joined a game of volleyball in progress and, as anyone who has played volleyball before can attest, spent the next two days with a red raw wrist. With nothing much else to do, I returned, again, to the hammock. Unfortunately, after an hour or so of 'relaxing' (I read: 'doing nothing'), I tend to get bored very quickly, so I made arrangements to move on. It seemed that the other backpackers were relishing the opportunity to sleep for 23 hours of the day, so the next morning, Andy and I took a thankfully dry boat trip back to Sihanoukville.
On Saturday morning, Andy and I caught a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. As we were leaving Sihanoukville, our bus halted for more than half an hour. A cluster of moto drivers and passers by up ahead alerted us to some unusual happenings, and much rubber-necking later, we found out that a minibus up ahead had taken a terrific shunt and was now straddling the central reservation. As we finally started moving, the scale of the accident became apparent. A huge row of lorries stood slightly further back from the minibus, each with its cabin completely collapsed. A chain reaction of perhaps six or seven huge vehicles had taken place, though with no sign of anyone within the deformed vehicles, it seemed like the cleanup had already taken place.
Arriving into the capital, and after four days of travelling together, my new chum Andy and I parted ways and I checked into the nearest hostel I could find. There isn't much to say about Phnom Penh; a bustling city of 2 million with cheap food, a poor infrastructure and a sad history.
After only one night and unfortunately only one $2 steak and chips dinner, I caught another 6-hour bus to the town of Siem Reap. While certainly another town that caters to the tourist, Siem Reap is primarily the gateway to the Angkor region, a vast expanse of temples dating from the reign of the Khmer Empire.
On locating a hostel, I found what are easily the cheapest beds I have seen so far on my travels. For just $1, the hostel offered a mattress on a shelf and nothing more. While travelling cheap, I felt this was going too far, and claimed my own room for $3. It was still just a mattress on the floor, but the four walls surrounding it were a nice comfort.
The next day, I hired a bicycle and made my way to Angkor. The first temple you find of the 200 or so that dot the landscape is certainly the most famous: Angkor Wat, surrounded on all sides by vast gardens, a wall and a very wide moat, is the world's largest religious building. It appears on Cambodia's national flag, its currency and solely accounts for around half of all foreign visitors in Cambodia.
As I approached the temple, a small monkey stood just to the left of the main gate. He looked disinterested, so I strolled straight past. Just as I did however, he leaned forward and nonchalantly punched my foot. I turned around and had a good mind to punch his foot right back but as he bared his fangs, I decided I'd let him off just this once. Stepping out into the main grounds of Angkor Wat, I got my first look at the magnificent temple.
Moving inside, the sights didn't get any worse. Every wall was adorned with carvings of various kinds, from countless images of gods and kings, who were sometimes interchangeable, to visual tales of various battles that stretched endlessly from corner to corner.
Next, I cycled barely a kilometer up the road and found a hill, quite rare in the generally flat landscape of Angkor. I left the bike at the bottom and started the 20 minute trail to the top. There, I found Phnom Bakeng, a magnificent temple that, if located anywhere else in the world, would certainly be a lot more famous than it is now. As it was, I was the only visitor at this time, and I wasn't quite sure whether I was allowed to ascend the almost impossibly steep steps on the outside.
Before I could even take in the structures on the top, first I had to admire the view. Much like the Monkey Temple in India, this unusually high hill gave virtually uninterrupted views of the surrounding flat countryside and the temples that populate it. After constantly squeezing past fellow tourists just a short distance down the road at Angkor, it was bizarre that this impressive temple remained largely unnoticed.
My next stop was the fortified city of Angkor Thom. An imposing wall encompasses the 9 square kilometer area, with four gates facing the four cardinal directions. I waited for the traffic coming out of the South Gate which included a line of elephants, one of whom's handler was busy on his phone.
At the centre stands the Bayon, an huge temple comprised of countless towers, each adorned with four faces.
Heading back to Siem Reap, I was reminded again of the seemingly exponential increase of foreign backpackers that I'd experienced since coming from India. And edging ever closer to the border of Thailand, probably the most well-trodden area of all, just how much busier is it going to get?!