16 May – 24 May 2015
The fourth entry in my Southeast Asia journal.
Ho Chi Min City/Phnom Penh – Day 39
The coach arrives to take us into Cambodia. It’s Panda Tours again and, my God, it’s cool, there’s plenty of leg room, and it has WiFi! It’s practically luxury. We meet a Hong Kong born Australian with an impeccable British accent. His name is Rizwan. We also meet a lovely woman named Cath. It’s two hours to the border and we find humour in the bizarre way the Vietnamese and the Cambodians handle the crossing. First they take your passport, fill in some documents for you and then take it from you again, all without saying anything – something the Asians like to do is keep you guessing. Then, they ushered us through a corridor for an iris scan, and loaded us back on the coach. Without our passports. Although we were warned about this, we couldn’t help but worry. But it was comforting to know everyone else was just as confused as we were. Eventually (and I mean eventually) we are handed them back, rather randomly as the coach pulls into a restaurant car park.
When the coach finally pulled into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, my first impressions were: it looks quite nice and developed. We had been warned that Cambodia was as poor as Laos, maybe poorer. But there are car showrooms, globalized shopping centers, and the like. We negotiate a tuk-tuk along with Rizwan and Cath for $3 – that’s right, American dollars. Because they seem to prefer that over their own currency. The tuk-tuk takes us to the Mekong riverside (that bloody river again, I thought we’d said goodbye!) where the backpackers congregate. We have no Cambodian currency, failing to convert what we had at the border. Unfortunately, our hotel receptionist demands that we pay first. Sophie runs for a cash point but her card is declined. Strange. So I go, and discover it’s a scandalous $5 charge just to withdraw. After a little bit of stress, we dump our things in the room and go to a restaurant, one that sells pizzas laced with cannabis. We eat (not that!) and walk along the river to a night market. Here we meet Cath again for a brief chat, and sit for a drink. Sophie then used Skype to call the bank and ask why her card is being declined. Apparently, she is told, you can only withdraw half of your credit card allowance. Pointless and infuriating, I know.
Tonight was also Steven Gerrard’s last ever match playing at Anfield, so we watched that. But, like Vientiane in Laos, the streets around the Mekong riverside seemed to do that flip where everything normal is replaced by swarms of prostitutes, all flirting with the white man.
After a little lie in we went to what I think was called the ‘Happy Pizza Place’ for lunch. There we met Rizwan and Cath and headed back to the hotel, where a driver agreed to take us to the infamous ‘Killing Fields’ and the ‘S-21 Genocide Museum’ at a negotiated price. It’s going to be an educational day, just what I like! After about 45 minutes on the tuk-tuk, through rocky roads and stinking strips of road where rubbish had just been dumped on the pavement, we made it. It was extremely hot, and the tour of the Fields was actually a lot similar to the Auschwitz one me and Sophie did in the past. You’re given a tape player that talks you through points of interest when prompted. The sites included excavated graves, where bone fragments are still brought to the surface during the rainy season. Cambodian children appeared on the other side of a fence marking the perimeter of the Fields, singing melancholy hymns while you listened to the tape recording. In hindsight it was really creepy and odd. The tour served to educate us on Pal Pot, a communist leader who led the country to ruin by making impossible ideological leaps. It ended at a stupa filled with skulls that had been excavated from the site. All of them had large cracks in them, the cause of death usually being an axe or knife. There was also the Chankiri Tree, where Pot’s forces would kill the children for fear they would one day grow up and try to avenge their murdered parents.
The driver then took us to the Genocide Museum: a school turned prison for enemies of the Khmer Rouge. It was pretty much as it should be (not renovated like the disappointing Schindler’s Factory was in Poland), though it did have pictures. I was struck by how antiquated and shoddy the clothing and instruments looked. This stuff was happening as late as 1979, yet it looked like we were back in Hitler’s Germany. At this point the sun was starting to really attack us and we felt we needed to escape it. On the way out was a survivor from the prison selling books. I bought a Coke, which was confusing because in Cambodia they accept dollars but hand you the change in Cambodian riel. We go home but later meet up, around 7pm, for dinner with Cath and Rizwan. Me and Sophie try the weed pizza, as well as the national beer, Angkor beer, which is really smooth – a bit like Coors Light. Rizwan then introduces us to his Canadian friend, Lenny, who perhaps had tourettes (he flinched a lot). He also had a remarkable talent: he knew every country on the planet, and could name every capital city, and also knew every Oscar winner. We tested him by asking the capitals of random countries and the Oscar winners of random years and he passed every time. Meanwhile, the ‘happy’ pizza made me feel a bit fuzzy and dried my throat up. I began craving mojitos, but they didn’t feel cold enough. So I attacked the ice cream, feeling my throat just wasn’t cold enough, not wet enough. I also lost all interest in talking. I really enjoyed just… listening to everyone. It must have been the weed. Sophie became irritated, saying I was rude for not being more involved in the conversation. I ate more ice cream. Rizwan, despite being the architect behind the group meeting up, suddenly changed his tone and decided to go back to the hotel. We didn’t stay out long after that, but we were out late enough for the transformation again. Much like Vientiane, it went from loud, bright, and crowded, to very quiet and dark and almost empty. Strange groups of women stood on the street corners. Presumably they were prostitutes, with the occasional Cambodian man with them. But there was nobody about, only the groups. They would stand on the street corners, in some cases only a few feet away from another group on the other side of the road – in silence. Not one of them talking among each other. In hindsight I don’t know why me and Sophie weren’t more creeped out as we had to walk past them – just the two of us – to our hotel. They didn’t harass us or try to get our attention, however.
Phnom Penh/Sinoukhville – Day 41
We get up early and wait for the bus to Sinoukhville and it’s terribly hot. In the end a little un-air conditioned and mostly empty minivan turns up and takes us to a bus station, where we are then loaded on to a coach with minimal air conditioning. There seemed to be a lone empty seat at the back and I actually sat away from Soph to enjoy what little air conditioning there was. Unfortunately after a few stops it soon became crowded with Cambodians. The journey lasted five instead of four hours, during which it got cooler as the day got older and the sun went in. We got a tuk-tuk to our hotel, called The Small Hotel, which was lovely and a bargain for the price. The staff were polite, the only downside was the location: you needed a tuk-tuk to get into town. Worryingly, both out Halifax cards are declined and Soph had to ring again and complain (she ended up receiving £110 in repayments) but even her Barclay’s account wouldn’t work. So we used my card and I had to pay the withdrawal charges – again, it was a sickening £5 charge to withdraw £60. The stress we endured with the banks cast a shadow over what was otherwise a gorgeous meal in a place called ’30 Restaurant’, and we ended up missing a chance to visit the tourist information center, meaning we couldn’t book a boat to the island of Koh Rong. We de-stressed in a bar called Led Zephr with – you guessed it – a few drinks and three wins for me over Soph at pool. As it got later the bar emptied and four gimpy English girls jumped on the stage of the bar as Shaggy played through the speakers, pretending to play the instruments and singing loudly into the microphone.
Sinoukville/Koh Rong – Day 42
I had to drag myself out of bed and book the speedboat to Koh Rong, which was due to leave in two hours. Then the sky fell in: it was suddenly black as night, with rain and thunder. I forced myself back down to cancel the booking, but we both woke naturally around noon to find the sky heavenly blue again. We booked the last boat of the day, due to depart at 3pm, and spent the intervening hours rushing to book accommodation over there. Almost every place we found on TripAdvisor had horrendous reviews warning of cockroaches, rats, mosquitoes, and the lack of clean water and electricity, but in the end we discovered a great sounding place called Koh Rong Island Boys, which is ranked as the second best place there (seconded only by Lonely Beach, which we desperately wanted, but it was closed for refurbishment). There was no way to reserve a room online, so Soph had to turn to her Skype credits and phone in (those credits proved to be invaluable looking back). Happy with our arrangements, we are picked up and taken to the pier. We meet two Australian girls on the way, Jess and Alex, and wait in the hot sun for a speedboat to get us, one that carries up to 70 passengers. It’s bobbing so much that it even makes me feel queasy. From there it’s a 45 minute journey to the island. Our first impressions though, are not great: far from being a tropical paradise, what we see from the pier resembles more of a shanty rack of wooden hostels. There’s filth and rubbish everywhere, leaves, tables and chairs, wooden splinters, bags of cement, tools, and dogs running around shitting about the place. There’s also a murky run-off, possibly sewage, that feeds into the sea in little channels, right there on the footpath. We step over it. I thank God our hostel isn’t anywhere near here, it can’t be, – then I spot it about 60 feet from where we got off the boat. It’s a ran-shackled little thing, best seen with the eyes closed, pure filth inside, filled with hipsters with beards and greasy hair. We are taken to our room but the place is undergoing some form of renovation. The passage between the reception and our beds was quite literally a workman’s yard. One builder placed bricks in the wet concrete as stepping stones for us to pass. The staff – young Western partiers like their guests – apologise in advance for the state of the toilets, which are dirty and without a flushing mechanism. (I later see the biggest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen, about the size of a finger nail, perhaps feeding from a massive blood soaked sanitary towel that was just placed on the top of an overflowing waste bin.) The room itself is a cover-less bed under a mosquito net. Sophie claims to have spotted a rat scrambling over one of the wooden beams but I didn’t see it. Spider webs decorate the walls. We walk down a beach that would make any environmentalist burst into tears. It’s completely trashed with rubbish, beer cans, and cigarette ends. We are told the ‘nice’ beaches are a 45 minute walk through the jungle-ey interior, inaccessible by taxi boat at the moment due to ‘waves’. It’s getting late anyway, but even with our short walk away from the shanty strip we can see vast improvements in quality. Away from the main concentration of bars the sand clears of most rubbish. It’s white and smooth; powdery, like baking flour. I’ve never seen sand like it. Palm trees dangle over the sand. It’s almost paradise. Almost.
We find a bar by the pier that’s just starting to open and play scrabble, unable to hide our disappointment with the place. We can see our hostel from where we’re sitting and head over at 6pm because the staff were kind enough to give us free coupons for drinks. We meet Jess and Alex again and they introduce us to some Italians. Next to us are some rowdy Canadians who quickly absorb us into their group, inviting us to pull up chairs with them out on the beach but still in front of the hostel. We get distracted and fail to use all of our coupons in the allotted time, so we give the ones we have leftover away. It’s also apparently ladies night, so the girls get drinks at a discounted price. Men dressed as women are also eligible for discount. Without hesitation Sophie knots my shirt like a woman’s. We get pretty drunk because it’s also free drinks on the hour, every hour. It’s a great atmosphere: everyone is welcoming and up for a laugh, and we stay out on the beach partying and drinking late into the night. There are Italians, French, Canadians, Australians and more. One of the Canadians tells me his family are from Liverpool, I drunkenly swear I’ll take him to Anfield one day. In addition to this wonderful night Koh Rong has one of the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen. The stars are really bright, and I struggle to identify some of the constellations, perhaps because of our near-equatorial proximity. But it may also have been because I was bladdered. I also thought I could see the Milky Way, but that might have been wishful thinking.
Koh Rong/Sinoukville – Day 43
A write-off. We wake naturally about 6am because the gaps in the wooden walls of our bedroom seem perfectly angled to welcome in the blazing sun. Sophie has thrown up in the bin, left the bin on the bed, and knocked it over in the bed while sleeping. Inside the mosquito net. It’s relentless heat, and one of the worst hangovers in recent memory [writing this up for this blog two years later, this title still holds]. We check out of our hostel and order breakfast in the ‘reception’ (the bar we drank at last night). We cannot eat the breakfast though, the smell makes us wretch. The worst thing is there is absolutely no breeze on the island! I just assumed we would be saved by a pleasant cool breeze. No, it’s insufferable and the hangover makes it even more insufferable. During the grueling wait for the boat to arrive and take us back to the mainland, I find I don’t have the strength to stand up because I feel so ill. Sophie and I sit on the pier so we’re among the first to get on the boat as it departs. Crabs walk vertically up the barnacle-encrusted beams of the dock. Sophie actually causes a bit of a fuss on the dock because she refuses/doesn’t have the strength to stand up, despite the staff (more half-drunken idiots) telling us to move. Finally, at 10am, the boat sets off. Sophie finds a bin, grabs it, and throws up in it repeatedly. No one says a thing, not even the families also on board. The whole time I am just wishing my life away until I can find the mercy of an air-conditioned room with a western toilet to throw up in. With a sigh of relief, the Sinoukville dock comes into view. With not a second to waste, and with all our strength, we jump a tuk-tuk back to the Small Hotel (thankfully rooms were available) and crash into the lovely beds where we sleep till late. In the night we book transport back to Pnomh Penh, then bump into Cath and play some pool. She’s not very good at first but quickly improves, while a musician plays some classics on the guitar, such as Bruce Springsteen.
Sinoukville/Pnomh Penh – Day 44
There never really was much in Sinoukville, despite it being advertised as a beach resort. It seemed the main attraction was the two islands off its coast, Koh Rong being one of them (I can’t remember the other one). Still, there were some decent restaurants and bars, and dodgy characters on street corners who tried to offer us heroin and crystal meth. Anyway, the plan on this day was to rise early and sunbathe on the resort’s beaches, but we only just woke with enough time to breakfast, have our cards declined at a Canadia ATM, and get picked up by a Mekong ‘Express’ mini-van – supposedly the fastest form of travel here. Similar to Vietnam, the drivers speed along like maniacs. But the good news is that it shaves hours off the trip. Our driver might have been a maniac, often overtaking four cars at a time, but he was smiling and always pleasant. The journey is an hour shorter than the one that took us the opposite way. We get off in Pnomh Penh and like vultures, the tuk-tuk drivers swarm us. Although we don’t know where exactly in Pnomh Penh we are, Sophie snorts at one driver’s $20 fee to take us to the Mekong riverside. We offer him $3 and he accepts, laughing, like he knows he was being cheeky. We’re back at the same hotel as before, but this time there are creepy-crawlies in the bed and the place has a strange smell. We walk along the riverside and find a bar that serves delicious English roast dinners for under £4. Then we had a very stressful two hours thanks to dodgy WiFi and a stubborn Halifax employee in regards to my constantly declining credit card. Apparently, the woman claims, there’s nothing wrong with the card – it just doesn’t work on some cashpoints, even those with the Mastercard symbol. The stress pays off though, literally. Similar to Sophie’s success, I’m awarded £15 for any charges incurred when I had to use my debit card for withdrawals, £25 for the inconvenience, and £90 for the international phone call costs.
On the way back to our room we make awkward eye contact with an American man with his pants unbuckled. He’s with a prostitute. We go in our room and hear him – quite clearly – complaining that she ‘broke the deal’ by asking for more money. He sends her downstairs and starts shouting over the balcony, ordering a new prostitute, presumably from the groups that stand on the street corners at night. ‘The one in pink’ he wants. There’s some exchange, then a drugged-up Australian appears and they start grumbling together out in the hall, the Australian upset that one of the prostitutes stole his phone and credit card. I remember the Aussie now: he was the same horrible man who was drugged up and harassing staff in a bar during our first stay in the city. The men talked almost like they were Gods, as though the Cambodian women were inferior sex things. I was glad they’d lost everything.
Note: At exactly the half-way point of the trip I’d spent £1, 523, averaging £253 a week or £36 a day. I was delighted to be running ‘above’ what I expected to be spending.
Pnomh Penh/Siem Reap – Day 45
It’s not the best start to the morning. We overslept, and had to rush out for food before the long coach journey to Siem Reap. We also forgot to take our malaria tablets, so we had no choice but to take them as soon as we woke up. This turned out to be a mistake. They react horribly with my stomach, and I’m unable to eat breakfast. And so we set off on a seven hour journey with nothing but a little dissolving malaria tablet for sustenance. Our Mekong Express bus has poor air conditioning, but I didn’t mind too much that day. We start talking to the only other westerner on board, Alex, from Cambridge, about travelling and politics, he even reads my Kindle clippings. Surprisingly there’s a meal included on the coach: a sausage roll and drink. It soon pulls over for a break so we never went too hungry. Even more surprisingly this coach had WiFi – good WiFi too, because I could stream videos.
We reached Siem Reap by nightfall and got ripped off – paying a mighty $3 to be driven by tuk-tuk a stone’s throw from the bus stop. Our hotel is lovely, though. Our room overlooking the swimming pool. Sophie already has her eyes on it. The hotel is too far to walk into the center of Siem Reap but fortunately for us it offers a free tuk-tuk service there. To our surprise, Siem Reap is actually really beautiful. It’s Cambodia’s cute town, and every country so far seems to have one (Chang Mai, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos; Hoi An, Vietnam). With the familiar motif that it’s well illuminated and easy on the eyes, almost festive. It’s absolutely thriving. Initially we decided to meet with Alex but he’d lost his phone somewhere, so we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. It reminded me of being in Poland, because I think I’d only ever been to a Hard Rock before in Krakow. We are treated to a live performance and all the singers have great voices, but bloody hell is that place expensive for Asia. It was £7 for a burger, way above our normal food budget. After dinner we explored the town, making our way toward Pub Street, of course stopping for a few games of pool on the way. The two main clubs are Angkor What? and Temple, both blasting loud music. I want an Angkor What? tee shirt, but you need to buy two fish bowls each, and its not couple friendly. Loads of backpackers partying in Angkor What? eventually spill into the street and form a people bridge to the opposite Temple club, facing each other as they go. [I wish I knew what the hell I meant by this, looking at my notes two years later. It must have been something noteworthy for me to have bothered mentioned it.] We find Alex and he sits with us for a while and we have a few drinks, then we decide to head back. With one last stop, Sophie beats me convincingly at pool.
We wake up fairly late, about 10am, and Sophie is furious! She’s missing tan topping-up time. We go down to the pool, having it all to ourselves, but those pesky clouds smother out any good weather by 1pm and we end up back in the room. As Sophie gets ready and showers, and after a nap [seriously Neil? You lazy bastard] I start planning our trip to the Temples of Angkor. Angkor was once a mega-city, the capital of the Khmer Empire, it’s discovery astounded French colonials who at the time could not believe the brown man was capable of such architecture. It’s actually not as old as you would believe, coming to an end around the fifteenth century. Still, it’s something we’re told you cannot miss. So I draw a plan of the key places to visit, then I book with the hotel a tuk-tuk to take us at sunrise to the temple grounds and then escort us for the day. Sophie books flights from Siem Reap to Bangkok, they’re £50 each but they cut out the laborious and difficult Cambodia-Thai border we’ve heard about. (Yes, having completed the swing around the Southeast Asian territories, we’re working our way down the elephant’s trunk that is southern Thailand, to the islands.)
Feeling productive, we head to the Red Tomato, an Italian restaurant near Pub Street. [I don’t know why I prefaced this sentence as though we were about to do something actually productive.] While we are there the usual beggars across Asia appear, deformed beggars, and ones with missing limbs, trying to sell us goods. The poor bastards. Guiltily, we avert our eyes.One had no legs, and crawled towards us with the aid of a skateboard. We didn’t see Alex today, he met up with a friend from Taiwan or China I think. Remembering that we have to be up for 4: 30am, we get snacks and go to bed.
Temples of Angkor (Siem Reap) – 47
We woke up and got ready in the dark, both really excited for the sunrise. The tuk-tuk takes us from our hotel down a dark stretch of road. The earliest hue of morning light starts to creep round the surface of the earth. We pass a Cambodian man at a roundabout who seems to be alone, thrashing out at invisible monsters. Maybe he was on drugs or something, or being attacked by insects that we could not see. We quickly grow frustrated with our driver because he’s going so slow. Other westerners keen to see the sunrise overtake. We reach an admission and ticketing point and are required to jump out and pay entry before continuing further. After standing in a queue, one of many, (it’s getting busy now), we have our photos taken. They’re printed on to our tickets before heading off. Further up the road, we approach a huge moat with a rock bridge: the entrance to the compound of Angkor Wat. I’ve never been one for all this ‘spiritual’ nonsense that some other travelers spew, and I’ve never kidded myself that by visiting Asia I’m somehow ‘giving back’, but seeing the spires of that great temple in the golden dawn really sent a shiver down my spine, I suppose that could be – for lack of a better word – the most ‘spiritual’ moment I’ve had on the trip, maybe my life.
Crowds were already gathering within the compound, waiting for the sun. Apparently it’s the world’s largest temple. Walking in, we are blessed with good luck by a monk, and we place some sticks of incense in some sort of Buddhist shrine. Here we see one of the Canadian’s from Koh Rong, stoned out of his mind even though it’s barely 8am. After a good while exploring the mind-blowing area, feeling like an Uncharted explorer, we breakfast at a nearby stall set up to accommodate visitors. Then we are transported to another part of this lost kingdom: the walled city of Angkor Thom. The walls are decorative and grand, like a fortress from Game of Thrones, or Skyrim. Inside we scramble around the creepy faces of Bayon, the same face carved in the stone a few dozen times. Sophie’s flip-flops then break and she’s forced to carry on barefoot. As we leave the Bayon part of the city, a little snake lunges at a tourist, narrowly missing him! We clambered around other sites we didn’t think we’d have the time for and I got a good photograph from the top of one. After a walk alongside more beautiful monuments, the Terrace of Elephants, we meet up with the driver. The merciless sun is starting to cook our brains a bit. He takes us to the last place I wanted to see on the list, Ta Phroem, a cool temple that looks like something from Indiana Jones, and the location of one of the Tomb Raider film sets. Huge trees have sprung up around the temple, in some places the roots being held up with man-made supports. We planned the journey well: sunrise to beat most of the crowds, and to get it done before the day got even hotter. Chinese tourists start to pour in as we make our way out. We buy our tuk-tuk driver an ice cream, and are about to go back when a little girl offers to sell me a postcard. I buy the postcard and a little boy then runs up offering to sell me a full pack. I politely decline and yet the boy persisted. After realizing he will not be able to flog them to me his mood sours: he grunts something under his breath and stares right at me, then growls: “Die! Die!” A more superstitious man would have wept, but I remembered being blessed with good luck by a monk only about four hours prior. Anyway, we left the city, leaving through an epic set of gates in the walls from a different entrance. On our return to the hotel, the receptionist said to us, “Good morning!” We can hardly believe it’s before midday. The Book recommended three days to explore the ruins, but we and other backpackers we’d talked to found one day was enough, even half a day. We jumped in the pool and met up with Cath in Siem Reap in the night. I buy an elephant vest for $3 and then the whole town is plunged into darkness. There’s a blackout for at least an hour until the juices start flowing again. Just in time to watch Liverpool get hammered 6 – 1 by Stoke.