Across Cambodia with Intrepid - 2006

Full details of the intended trip can be found on the Intrepid Website.

24th October - London

I can't believe how well the first part of the adventure went. A train from Tiverton to Paddington on time. Spent an hour in Paddington, drink, bit of internet and then Paddy Express into Heathrow. Arrived 3 3/4 hours before take-off. I was in the Wetherspoons for my last 'proper meal' and a Magners within 3/4 hour. Plane took off on time. Watched Lucky Number Sleven which was OK and then started watching Poseidon. I recommend it as a cure for insomnia, for the first time ever I slept on a plane. 5 hours later woke up for breakfast and then we landed.

25th October - Bangkok

A truncated day, as we didn't land till 3:25pm and after getting through the airport (a new airport, I assume to old one is now for short-haul) and then taxi to the hotel it was gone 5. This in itself is a miracle, not so long ago it could take an hour and a half to get into the city. A lot of money is being spent improving the transport network. It looks as though the Skyrail will extend as far as the airport soon, good for tourists, bad for taxi drivers.

Checked-in. Vientai Hotel, the same hotel I stayed in 10 years ago when I last backpacked in Thailand. It's described as the closest 'proper hotel' to Khoa San Road. It's nice, has a swimming pool, air-con in the rooms, lovely. And you need those things, is a gorgeous 32 degrees here at the moment, and doesn't seem much less than that as night draws in. And doesn't it draw in early, by 6pm it's dark. So, my first night out on tour. A quiet affair. Took my book, 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. It's started very good. I like Bill Bryson's stuff, clever and fun, although having only read 10 books in my life maybe all books are actually that good!?!? I could do a page full of did you knows from the few chapters I've already read and I thought I knew a bit about astro-physics, beginning of the universe etc. Gordy and Jenn know the trouble my astro-physics (in the Roundhouse) has got me into in the past. Sorry you'll find as I go along I'll be including a few private jokes here and there.

Had a couple of beers, decided Tiger is much better then Singha. Had a bite to eat. Note to self, don't order anything on the menu that mentions the word chilli. 6 hours later my mouth is still tingling and I love hot food. Ended up in the Brick Bar, live music on stage and surprisingly full of Thais. A bar on the Khoa San Road and I was the only Westerner in there. Last time I was here Khoa San Road was almost exclusively tourists but now many more locals seem to be out and not just young ladies!

26th October - Bangkok

Quite a lazy day. Popped out for breakfast at one of the little old ladies who cook Pad Thai on their little carts on the street. 20 baht which when there are 70 to the £ is a real bargain, add a bit of sweet chilli sauce and it's my kind of breakfast.

Took a half day trip around Bangkok's river and canals. The water is the life-blood of the city. A main transport link, fishing, washing, bathing and for the poor drinking although they don't recommend you drink the tap water over here so you can only imagine how bad the muddy brown river water is.

Along the banks of the river are Palaces, Temples, Hospitals, a University, Military Bases, Churches and a Mosque. The housing goes from houses inside high security fences with satellite dishes and even helicopter landing pads, through apartment blocks down to rickety old shacks that are flooded because the river is so high now we are at the end of the rainy season.

On the river little old ladies paddle around selling water and rice to the locals and beer, whiskey and souvenirs to the tourists. We saw a small canoe which had a stove on board and was selling fried chicken and rice. The postman sped pass in his motor boat, and a river ambulance was moored by the hospital. Long-tailed motor boats, powered by truck engine act as taxis and huge barges bring building materials from the north are pulled along by tiny tugs which chug away bellowing out smoke and sound like they may give up at any time.

27th October - Bangkok

.Decided to have a day away from the tourists, get to see a bit of the real Bangkok, all be it the rich bits. But to get there I have to take a Tuk-Tuk. More bargaining over the price. (No it's not bartering, although most tourists around here seem to be too thick to know that's something completely different.) Ask how much to go to the SkyTrain. They say I take you Standing Buddha then I take you to SkyTrain. Argue over going to just the SkyTrain. Then argue over the price. Finally we set off. Then for the first ten minutes of the journey it's non-stop. 'You want to go shopping?' 'You want massage?' 'I can take you.' After a while they realise you just want to go to the SkyTrain and drop you off pissed-off that they haven't earnt extra commission out of you.

I found this sign on the SkyTrain over the seat by the door. On the tube we give up seats for the elderly and the infirm, in Bangkok for monks.

The SkyTrain was opened in 1999 and is fantastic, it runs on rails above the city roads and traffic jams. And it's air-conditioned too. 100 baht for a one-day pass, bargain. I got off at a few different stops, Siam Square, a massive department store for people with very expensive tastes. At the end of the line I found a Tesco Superstore. And it was massive. Clothes, electricals, hardware and every food stuff imaginable, English and Thai. There was even fish tanks where you could choose your own live fish and prawns to take home for tea. Was fantastic because everything was labelled in Thai and English so you could actually see what all the weird and wonderful stuff was.

A barge travelling up the Chao Phraya River. There were 4 massive barges all strung together being pulled by 2 tiny little tugs pulling for all they are worth against the current. I ended up down at Central Pier to catch to River Boat back to Pier 13 near Khoa San Road. 17 baht one-way, 100 baht for a day ticket. If ever I come here again, I'll only use the river boats and SkyTrain, a much more civilised way to travel.

28th October - Bangkok

Final full day in Bangkok so decided to take it easy. Spent some time lazing by the hotel pool, a stroll up and down Khoa San Road looking for a Money Belt / Bum Bag type of thing. I hate buying things in this sort of market. You ask how much, 200 baht, you say too much, want a better price, he says OK 180, after much toing ang froing you end up around 150 baht. I'm sure I could get a better price but I can't be assed to argue over 20 pence. I find it comical seeing tourists arguing over 10 baht when back home they'd think nothing of blowing £50 on a night out. Tonight will meet up with the rest of the group. Hope we all get on, will be stuck with them for the next month. It's a bit like going into the Big Brother House. No one knows each other but we will be living in each others pockets from now on. The first few days just like in Big Brother will be the worst, some of the group a bit nervous, some trying to make an impression. After that things should settle down. On a trip I did a few years ago a couple got together and a year later got married. (Just threw that in for my Mum and Gran who have given up any chance of me ever settling down!) Evening went well. There are 11 of us on the trip plus the Group Leader Scott. He only arrived in Asia last week after dong tours in the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. He shadowed the previous Group Leader last week and he's got us now. An Aussie and think he'll be good fun. Otherwise on the trip we've got 3 couples all in their late 20s. Couple of girls in their mid-to-late 20s. A 40 year old guy from Brisbane and one from Italy. Mario from Denver who I'm rooming with and Grant. An Aussie who is 81!

29th October - The Road to Siem Reap

Up in time to leave the hotel at 7am. Took an air-conditioned mini-bus for about 4 hours east across Thailand to the border. After getting Visas we left Thailand walked across No-Man's-Land which comprises of 3 Casino complexes, not quite the war-zone you expect on an Asian Border and entered Cambodia.

We then split up into 4 cars, 3 to a car and we headed off on National Highway no. 6. Sounds like a decent kinda road, but like the A77 in Estonia it's in need of a little bit of TLC. Cambodia is right the end of its rainy season and the road was completely impassable 2 weeks ago. (And if the typhoon that is currently somewhere off the Vietnam coast hits it may be closed off again soon. The land all around is very flat, flat and wet. Now I thought the Baltic States were flat and wet but that's nothing compared to Cambodia after the rains. Paddy Fields stretching off as far as the eye can see in all directions, only broken up but the odd road side village.

In many places there was a water running across the road and in quite a few the road had been washed away completely. Bearing in mind we're travelling in normal saloon cars carrying mainly trucks, utes, motorbikes and push-bikes, buses are not back travelling the road yet, it was an interesting journey. At a couple of points young boys were directing vehicles through, keeping them on the navigable path. Then we come up to a traffic jam. The road is completely out. But we get up to the front and there are tractors to pull cars through. The water at one point reaches up to the bottom of the car windows. Some how we get through and stay dry. All 3 other cars in our group got wet feet.

30th October - Siem Reap (Temples of Angkor)

Leisurely 9am start today (5am tomorrow for the sun-rise!). And a short mini-bus ride to Angkor a huge temple complex which was built between the 8th and 13th centuries. It has now been declared one of the 7 modern Wonders of the World. Nearly 200 temples in over 200km2.

What can I say about it? It's a lot of temples covering a very big area. Once we'd had our photos taken for our 3 day passes it was off to the first area of temples and The Bayan. A huge fortified area, surrounded by a moot. The most amazing part for me were the intricate carvings on the second set of walls. These show everything from their daily life. The wars, the parades, differing peoples, and most interesting village life. Cooking, dancing, playing games, so much of it seemed much as it is today.

Today we went around all the main temple areas except for Angkor Wat itself. I'll let the photos do the talking.

31st October - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat / Mine Museum / Floating Village)

Up and out of the hotel at 5am and over to Angkor Wat the most famous and spectacular of the Angkor Temples for sunrise. It was nice but really a bit of a waste of time as it was hazy and there were some clouds down on the horizon so although I guess the sun did rise, we didn't see it. Anyway it got us up nice and early and meant we had a long day and we packed a lot of stuff in.

Before breakfast a tour of Angkor Wat. For the yesterday and today we had our own guide Po Lin who was fantastic. Brilliant English and knew everything about everything at Angkor Temples and in the surrounding areas. He shows us the best views, talks us through the details in the carvings and generally brings the place to life.

A sign into the toilets at the restaurant where we had breakfast.

Pork fried rice and a fruit-shake for breakfast and then on to the Land Mine Museum. Set up by a guy who clears mine-fields and collects the different types of mines. He uses the museum to fund teaching for children who've lost limbs through mines. The kid who showed up around had lost a leg walking across a rice field. His sister and brother who were walking behind him were killed. Next a little bit of Cambodian history. After the civil war in the early 1970s Pol Pot took over the country, he forced everyone out of the cities and into the country and took the country back to purely rural living, killing 3,000,000 citizens in the process. The Vietnamese then invaded and drove Pol Pot towards Thailand. During that fighting nearly 10m mines were laid near the Thai border by both sides. An estimated 6m are still out there. Clearing mines is a very slow and dangerous process a team can clear a maximum of 300 a day.

The floating village extending out into the lake. Little kids from the floating villages begging from the tourist boats, they are paddling around in little tin tubs. These kids can sail before they can walk and their first words are "Mister, one Dollar".

After a few hours by the pool back at the hotel we headed off to Siem Salam Lake. Peculiarly the river and lake flows North to South in the dry season but in the wet season South to North as all the waters flowing into the Mekong River in the South back-flow up into the lake. The lake is 90x60km and 10m deep now at the end of the wet season. It's only 2km wide and 1.5m deep at the end of the dry season. During the dry season the whole lake that we could see becomes pasture and paddy field. We saw about 1m of mangrove trees, they are actually 10m tall and on dry land for part of the year. We took a boat out through the floating villages. Whole village built on bamboo they move with the rise and all of the waters so they are always near the edge. Farms, schools, churches, petrol stations, everything floating.

In the evening we went to the home of the Auntie of one of the waitresses at the hotel to see the rural life and have a traditional meal. It was nice to see beyond the tourists after the large number of children that the family seems to have danced and played with us they were so happy and fun a nice break from the harking and begging we have seen till now on the trip.

1st November - Travel to Phnom Penh

Half a day in Siem Reap and the flew down to Phnom Penh. Spent the morning walking around the Old Market in Siem Reap. A wide range of stuff on sale. From an area selling fine jewellery through clothes, quality and not, hardware and food, which a locals eating area. Lots fresh and live fish, vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colours and meats, including little old ladies sat chopping up frogs. Sticking to the food theme for a while the basic food over here is rice, with fried meats usually pork or chicken and some veg french beans are very popular. It seems they eat rice 3 times a day. The fruit is very good. On the street there are ladies selling whole pineapples neatly skinned and sectioned up for eating, 50c for a whole one. Bananas are also popular, smaller and greener than ours back home but taste pretty much the same.

Just to go off on another tangent, money in Cambodia. The official currency is the Rial (KHR) but the Dollar is the actual currency. Everything is priced in dollars, everyone uses dollars, but as there are no US coins over here the odd change is made up from local currency with 4000 KHR to the dollar.

Flight down to Phnom Penh was about 45 mins and hassle free. Siem Reap Airways. The meal on the plane was a vegetable pasty with a sachet of Heinz Chilli sauce.

In the evening we went out for a meal, I had Morning Glory (water spinach), Cambodian Curry (quite aniseed in taste) and frogs legs (they taste a bit like chicken) with lemon grass and chilli. After meal we were brought out plates and plates of complementary different fruits and deserts. Pineapple, banana, a sweet made from palm sugar, dragon fruit, ... And to top it off as they were giving out the bills and sorting things out we all got head and neck massages from the cute little waitresses!

2nd November - Phnom Penh

After yesterday's quite laid back day, another full on day of sight-seeing. Our only day in Phnom Penh so I planned to make the most of it. Firstly over to the Genocide Museum. This was a school which was taken over by the Pol Pot regime and used as a torture centre. By the way did you know that Pol Pot wasn't his actually name? He changed it to this when he took power and it is an abbreviation of Political Potential. The museum was quite like Auschwitz, police style photos of those who passed through, torture equipment, photos of torture victims etc and the story was brought to life by our guide, who was surprisingly candid about how life was then and how life still is today. Many of the top ranking Khmer Rouge were given amnesty and are back at the top of political life now. The No Smiling sign at the museum (shown below) was not necessary.

To keep the theme for the morning going we then went out to The Killing Fields. This was a surprisingly understated sort of place. A big monument one small covered building and in quite a small area (the size of a small field) were 10 semi-excavated mass burial sites. There were excavated by locals after Pol Pot was forced out purely in search of jewellery, gold teeth etc, of course they found none the Khmer Rouge had already taken everything. The only real evidence of what the place was were visible bones in the ground. More and more are uncovered every rainy season. It was the guide who gave the full story. How people were brought here and killed in various ways, different ways were dreamt up to keep the guards amused. Beating with sticks, slashing with barbs, hanging, drowning, many were not dead when they were pushed into the mass graves.

On the way back from the killing fields on another Cambodian rock 'n' roll road we passed a restaurant and our guide pointed out that they serve dog!

We had no activities planned for the afternoon so I just took a wander around the city on my own. Phnom Penh is a hive of activity. Not all that big and walkable if you don't mind taking your life in your hands with motorbikes flying this way and that, no pavements and no crossings. It's just what I'd expect from an Asian city which is more than I can say for KL or Bangkok which seem almost dominated by foreigners. Busily markets, shops and businesses opening out onto the streets and fearless drivers. The motorbike is to the Cambodians a vehicle for the whole family. 4 people on a moped is quite common and at crossways it's every man, woman and child for themselves. I ventured well off the beaten track, so far in fact that I was a source of amusement! A white guy 3 times as big as any local. At one point a group of ladies with a baby sat at a shop pointed me out to the baby. I waved and then went over for a quick (they had little English) chat. The babies eyes just got wider and wider in the way only a babies can as I approached. (No Mum I'm not getting broody!)

In the evening another great restaurant and probably my best meal of the trip so far. A bed of Morning Glory (you'll know what that is if you were paying attention in yesterday's instalment), on top some chicken and vegetables with the best peanut (sate) sauce over the top, served with sticky rice. Yum-yum. I headed back to hotel for an early night, but got talking to one of the porters at the hotel. Cambodian people are so friendly, most don't see tourists as a way to get money they just want to practice their English and hear about the big wide world.

Link to Travel Diary (Southern Vietnam).