Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cambodia.... part 1

I did not expect to love Phnom Penh, but I do! Wow, this is such a cosmopolitan, artsy, foodie, pcituresque, international, walkable city! I felt immediately at home here. But let me back up a little....

On 10 January, I left Don Dhet, Laos (in the 4,000 Islands area), heading for the Cambodian border. A couple days before leaving I had met a couple American women, Leah & Johanna, who were planning to head to Cambodia on the same day as I was. They were planning to head to a small town in the northeast, called Ban Lung, which I was unfamiliar with at the time. They'd read that there were lakes, waterfalls, and some good (mountain) trekking there -- it sounded great to me, so I decided to tag along with them. We boarded our boat from Don Dhet to Nakasang (the mainland) at 8:30 that morning, then caught a bus to the border. Crossing the border was really pretty easy all in all (cost $28) and then we had another approx 4 hours to Ban Lung. The first 2 hours were on the same bus -- which was bound, ultimately, for Phnom Penh. So we were dropped off just outside a city called Stung Treng, where we were to catch another bus the 2 hours to Ban Lung. But instead of a bus there was a minivan that was taking several Cambodians to BL. We jumped into the middle seats, with Cambodians in front and behind us -- none of them able to speak a word of English -- and off we went. It was pretty painless, though, and 2 hours later we were plunked into the middle of BL. 

Ban Lung is fairly small and fairly poor. It is not at all a tourist town -- despite the large number of guesthouses we saw -- and so we really stuck out. Got a lot of stares -- that would turn into big smiles as soon as we smiled and/or said hello. Cambodian people are so warm and lovely. [For reasons I don't even know, I took no photos of Ban Lung...!? But I'm pretty sure that L&J took some, so I'll have them send me their pics so you can see this little town.]

Many, many tuk-tuk and moto drivers hovered around our minivan, offering to take us to "their" hotels.... as usual in these towns, it was a bit overwhelming (but we're used to it). We knew that we wanted to stay in a hotel on the (in town) lake, so when Chico told us he had a triple room in the Lakeside hotel for $7/night, we decided to take him up on it. We got to the hotel on 3 different motos (small motorcycles): each on a different moto with our bags jammed on the bike in front of the driver. "Cambodian style" they said to us. This was a free "transfer." The hotel was gorgeous -- looked almost like a resort -- and our room was lovely.


Turns out that Chico fancies himself somewhat of a "tour guide." He had made his own (rather amateur) brochures and he was so eager to help us (have a great time) that we decided to use his services for the things we needed. On our first full day there, he rented us 2 motos (2 of us on one bike), so that we could ride to the local volcanic lake. Um, unfortunately, about halfway there, the bike that Leah & I were on broke down. Fortunately, Chico had given us a local phone and his phone number, in case we needed it (which, well, we did). We phoned him and he came and picked us up and took us to the lake in his car. 

The lake was absolutely gorgeous and we spent several hours there, swimming, hanging out on the dock, and walking on the paths. Dreamy. Chico picked us up later, took us to a place to eat, then back to the hotel.
As we were leaving the lake area, we came across a group of Cambodians who were picnic-ing and had a huge jug of a local (grain?) alcohol. Leah & Johanna wanted to take a taste, so they did!
 They said it tasted really strong... and really good! (I chickened out).
The 2nd day we used two other motos (at no extra cost, since the day before was a bust) and drove ourselves to one of the waterfalls and road around some back roads -- almost all dirt -- checking out some very small villages. We noticed that, even though the houses in these villages are very simple and often small, they are kept up so nicely and often are accented with beautiful paint on some of the trim (not sure if you'll be able to see this in the below photos)..

That evening we wanted to go out to a restaurant we'd discovered that afternoon, so we thought we'd use the motos one last time. Unfortunately, one of them had no lights and, since it was dark, wouldn't work for us. As we were pondering what to do, a wonderful Cambodian man, Hian (sp?), who we'd met in our hotel lobby, came out and offered to drive us to the restaurant. We took him up on it and had a wonderful time with him.
As we ate dinner with him, he shared with us his story of growing up in Cambodia and we were riveted. Hian's father was the Cambodian Ambassador to France for many years and Hian was born in France (in 1967). In 1975, his father's tenure was up and they were to move back to Cambodia.... just as the reign of the Kmer Rouge began. As you may recall, one of the main intents of the KR was to kill all intellectuals (but, of course, they didn't limit themselves to intellectuals). After being in PP for a while, things began to get very intense with the KR. They began ordering everyone out of the city and/or gathering up people and taking them to "camps." Hian's family had found refuge at a university here, but Hian's father knew it couldn't last. He told Hian to leave the university and get as far away from PP as possible. Hian was 8 years old at the time. Hian left and was able to escape PP, but was picked up by the KR anyway and taken to a "camp" outside the city, which held 4,400 boys between the ages of 8-14. Hian was there for 3 years -- and, as you might imagine, the conditions were horrific and he nearly died. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the KR and everyone (still living) was freed. Of 4,400 boys in Hian's camp, 9 of them survived. Of 90 people in his extended family, he and his mother -- who he was reunited with shortly thereafter -- were the only two who survived. It is a story almost impossible to believe. I'm so glad we met Hian and could hear his story.
Our 3rd day there, we planned an all-day trek through Chico's tour "company." He had hired a "ranger" -- who spoke decent English -- to take us through the countryside and mountains. Chico drove us 45mins out of town to a teensy village, where we met "Nong" (sp?), our ranger/guide.[the road was VERY dusty on the way there, so we wore the -- very typical -- SE Asian face masks].
We met our guide in a teensy village (below).
 the local "gas station"
 Yes, she's pregnant....
 Our guide.... and us!

Our trek was wonderful. In all, we hiked for about 5 hours, through Cambodian countryside, forests, and even jungle-like areas.
 Lots and lots of very twisty vines... everywhere.
 No clue what this sign says.... but I liked it.

We stopped for lunch at a most divine pond -- i.e. swimming hole. Oh, it was perfect. Fortunately, we'd all packed our swimsuits, so we changed and had a swim -- by swinging from the very long vine into the water.
 That's dragon fruit -- one of my faves -- he's cutting and we're eating.
Toward the end of the day, we passed through another village, where a man was rocking his sleeping child in a hammock. Loved this.
We arrived back at the village from which we started at about 3:30 and Chico had told us he'd pick us up around 4:00. We saw Chico's car there, so knew he'd be around soon, so we grabbed some food (banana chips -- yum!) in the local "store" and sat and waited. Finally, around 4:45, Chico arrived in a car with a friend and it was clear that he was VERY drunk. Literally, he could barely walk. We were shocked and very disappointed. There was no way we were going to get in a car with him but, even worse for us, we felt really let down. He almost didn't recognize us and when we said we didn't want to ride back to town with him, he began yelling at us. He was nothing like the Chico we'd known for the previous couple days.

By this time, another small group had returned from their trek and they were going to be taken back to town in a very nice Toyota truck. We asked them if we could catch a ride with them and they (the clients) said, "of course!" But as we were climbing into the truck, their guide said we'd have to pay $20 for him to take us back to town (!?!!?). There was no way to reason him out of this, so we stepped away from the car, walked over to the dirt road and flagged down the next car that came along. The two men in the car were, coincidentally, going to Ban Lung (those were the only words they understood, btw) and gestured for us to get in. Yay!    Not yet.

About 5 minutes down the road, they decided to stop at a roadside stand to buy some bananas and, oops, their car wouldn't start up again after that. Now this whole thing is really becoming epic.... and a little hilarious too. We waited about 10 minutes while they tried and tried to get their car started, but finally we got out and began walking down that dirt road again. After about 15 minutes of walking -- during which not a single car passed us! -- the same two guys drove up again, having gotten their car started, and gave us a lift to town.

In town we went straight to a ticket office and bought our bus tickets for the next morning.... heading to Phnom Penh, had some dinner, then walked back to our hotel. It was a long day that ended on a rather crazy note.... but we were back in Ban Lung safe and sound and no worse for the wear. Whew! I'm really glad we did that trip to BL -- it's a beautiful area -- but I don't need to go back. Done.

Bright and early the next day, we were picked up at our hotel and taken to the bus station for our 12-hour trip to Phnom Penh. It was from that bus, btw, that I wrote my last post. The trip was long and bumpy and ALMOST uneventful. About 5 hours in we apparently got a flat tire and were waylaid for about 1/2 hour while it was repaired. This is something to be expected in most of these SE Asian countries. In fact, I'm surprised I've not had more bus breakdowns in all the time I've been here.

And then we arrived in Phnom Penh. Ahhhhhhh.....
As I said above, I am surprised how much I like this city. It has such a great feel.

The food is absolutely fantastic -- so many restaurants with fresh, organic ingredients -- there's so much art, and beautiful parks and gardens.

And here's our lovely hotel.....

I'm so enjoying my time here. In my next post, I'll tell you a little more about what I've been doing here and show you some more pics. Now off to another delicious dinner!


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