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A leisurely departure from Cambodia

Our final day in Phnom Penh.

storm 31 °C

Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand

Our final morning in Phnom Penh was spent at a leisurely breakfast followed by a walk along the streets close to our hotel. For the first time we visited Central Market. This large yellow building houses fruit and vegetable stalls, clothes, jewelry and a variety of tourist handicraft stalls, along with a large food court replete with small wood fired stoves and their small plastic chairs. For us it was an interesting place to browse but we were now ready for our departure.

Preparing to the leave the hotel the afternoon monsoon, that we had missed the day before, arrived in full force. A fitting end to our departure from the country. As we drove the thirty minutes to the airport the roads once again flooded. Brown water some three of four inches deep soon covered the previously dry roads. For those on scooters and tuk-tuks it was a soaking experience. We were glad we had paid the extra money for a taxi.

A few hours later we landed into Bangkok. Dark but never asleep our hotel on the river felt almost like coming home. With our suite affording fantastic views of the Chao Praya, and the bright lights of Bangkok we opted for room service. A first on this trip before retiring in our soft, comfortable bed.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Touching 2,000 years of history

Exploring the research laboratories of the Royal University of Fine Arts

overcast 30 °C

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Returned to the capital our morning was spent preparing for tomorrow’s departure from Cambodia and exploring more of the city. As before various journeys were required to source cardboard boxes and a variety of packing materials.

Through a friend of a friend we were able to spend a fascinating afternoon at the Faculty of Archaeology within the Royal University of Fine Arts. Our guide for the afternoon was Netra. She is leading a Team of archaeologists in the south of the country who are working to excavate the remains of a more than 2,000 year old Cambodian settlement. Close to the now Vietnamese border the site has offered a fascinating insight into the lives of these ancient people.

Within her laboratory at the University three volunteer students were working to rebuild broken shards of pottery. Clearly defined earthenware jars were visible on their work benches, created from hundreds of broken pieces. Buried with the remains of clearly important people some of the jars had found to include human remains, whilst the larger jars had been buried with babies inside. Others had been used to cover the head of the revered bodies, in a similar practice to one already seen in Vietnam. Other earthenware objects were found to have covered the faces of the deceased. As with many questions relating to the site it is unclear why these particularly rituals were practiced.

Along with these objects a variety of jewelry items were also found. Bronze, silver and gold bracelets, beads and thin spirals of gold that may have been some sort of pendant were packed carefully into a water tight box ready for the painstaking process of cleaning, review and cataloguing. As Netra unpacked these 2,000 year old items she allowed us to hold some. With great care and a few nerves we were able to touch and feel two centuries of history, not locked behind a glass screen within a museum but cradled carefully in our hands. Quite amazing.

Unfortunately, the site of this archaeological treasure was looted by ‘antique collectors’ for some two years before the University was able to attract sufficient funding to take over the site. In that time countless objects of historical significance were removed, sold by the villagers to middlemen who in turn will have sold to collectors probably outside of Cambodia. A terrible crime against the history of the country. For whilst the archaeological sites around Angkor Wat receive more funding and publicity this site in southern Cambodia is providing a previously unknown glimpse into the history and technologies available to our ancestors 2,000 years ago.

Inside the National Museum

Inside the National Museum

From Netra’s laboratory she was then able to take us to the public display of her work in the National Museum. Housed within a section of the museum, flanked by statues of Buddha and a wooden cabin of an 18th century sailing vessel lies the fascinating story of their discovery and excavation of the village along with key objects, found earlier in their investigation, and now restored for all to see. Complete earthenware jars similar to those we had seen in the laboratory are on display, with signs explaining their use not only for carrying liquids but also as part of the burial process.

A variety of jewelry, tools and primitive weapons are also on display pointing towards skills in metallurgy and wood carving for both killing, working and personal adornment. Yet, possibly the most fascinating aspect of our visit, especially having someone so integral to the Project as our guide, were the unanswered questions. What were the gold, spring like objects? Were they decoration or some form of primitive money? Who were these important people buried with so much adoration and wealth? Why were earthenware jars so important to the burial process?

Netra and her Team, backed by German researchers, are working towards answering some of these questions. For us the visit provided a fascinating insight into a history we can only barely imagine.

Unfortunately, whilst Netra did allow me to take a few pictures within her laboratory for ‘personal use’ many of the items there have not been published to the outside world. As such I cannot publish pictures of the many interesting items we saw. However, should you visit the National Museum in Phnom Penh many of these items are on display and a very worthwhile display it remains.

After viewing the many other exhibitions within the National Museum , a variety of stone and wood statues, royal regalia and painted tapestries we returned to the streets of Phnom Penh.

A crazy number of SUVs roam the streets of Phnom Penh

A crazy number of SUVs roam the streets of Phnom Penh

For our final night we once again visited the bars and restaurants on the edge of the Mekong, close to the Royal Palace. For once rain did not interrupt our evening as we sat watching tourists, expats, locals and hawkers busy about their evening business. Tomorrow we would leave Cambodia. It would be a relatively sad departure. Cambodia, like Myanmar, had provided us with interesting sites to visit, smiling faces and good food. Accommodation, food and drink were very reasonably priced and as such the country had everything a long-term traveler might require. We both felt that it would not be long before we were returning to this country we had grown to like so much.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:36 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

An unchallenging travel day

Taking the bus to Phnom Penh

sunny 29 °C

With our bus to Phnom Penh not departing until the early afternoon we were able to spend a pleasant morning relaxing by our hotels pool. As the only guests now staying at the hotel our view over the port of Sihanoukville and to the ocean beyond did not require sharing with anyone. The cool, inviting pool allowed us to spend a few relatively rare hours simply swimming, reading and drinking in the view.

Yet by early afternoon our relaxation time was over, much to Trey’s disappointment, and we were back travelling once again on the excellent Mekong Express Bus Service. This time our journey would be non-stop to Phnom Penh. No stop to leave offerings for the Black Lady on our return. Travelling to Sihanoukville we had been subjected to Khmer karaoke and the Stallone film Rambo (in English!) on the large TV, at the front of the bus. For the return journey some version of Cambodian ballroom dancing was shown. A large, generally overweight middle-aged singer would carouse a traditional sounding song whilst surrounded by young Cambodian girls and boys dressed as if for an American prom. Their dancing, however, whilst in ballroom style, did not allow for any physical contact. The required motion was simply a continuous sway left then right, along with a rolling hand movement. Even the dancers looked bored to death. Fortunately, we had good books and a DVD player. Not sure either of us could have sustained over 4 hours on a bus watching the Cambodian version of MTV!

Of course the Cambodians watched this painful performance avidly. As in Myanmar, Cambodian TV is not quite to our tastes or expectations. The remainder of the westerns sat around us were left playing on their iPad’s. As yet on this trip we have yet to see any traveler using this new and expensive device for anything other than playing games!

Arriving in Phnom Penh we were met by the usual gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers offering us ‘very cheap’ rides to wherever we wanted to go. Feeling akin to an animal in a zoo we sidestepped the melee and retired to a local restaurant for supper.

Finally ready to check in at the hotel our tuk-tuk driver contrived all manner of excuses as to why it was not a good hotel. From being too expensive, not having swimming pool and dirty we went through the entire play book. Clearly, having stayed there on our previous trips to Phnom Penh this was going to be an impossible sell. Growing both annoyed and impatient with the constant attempts to change our destination he seemed genuinely confused when on arriving at hotel we showed no interest in his offer to take us sightseeing around the city the following day.

Finally at our hotel we settled down in the now familiar room ready for sleep after a not particularly challenging travel day.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:45 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Snake bridges and eclectic passengers

Exploring the islands around Sihanoukville

sunny 31 °C

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Unlike the previous morning we awoke to clear blue skies. Given that were taking a boat out to some of the islands that percolate the coast around Sihanoukville this was more than a little fortuitous. Riding down from our hill top accommodation, Tola, our driver and also the manager of the hotel confirms one of our curious questions since we had first arrived in Cambodia.

SUVs line the streets of Phnom Penh - A typical sight

SUVs line the streets of Phnom Penh - A typical sight

Particularly in Phnom Penh but prevalent throughout the major cities of the country we keep seeing large and expensive 4WDs. Lexus is the most ‘common’ but we also see plenty of Ranger Rover, large Toyotas and even the odd Hummer. With a minimum 125% import tax on these vehicles a Lexus will cost over $150k USD, whilst a Range Rover $300k USD. Given these extraordinary sums and the poverty of the country these vehicles would be absurd to contemplate for the majority of the population. Cars such as these are reserved for a few very wealthy businessmen and government officials. Bribes and ‘under the table’ dealings pay for these vehicles. The conspicuous show of how many bribes are received is somewhat curious but appears to be simply accepted. Tola tells of a local businessman who recently purchased a new status symbol. A Rolls-Royce. The price, after import tax, was just over $1m USD. The perfect vehicle for the muddy, potholed streets of Cambodia you might think!

Incongruous Snake Bridge

Incongruous Snake Bridge

With time to spare before our boats departure we could also visit Techo Morakot Bridge, known locally as ‘snake bridge’ as it connects the mainland with Snake Island (Koh Puos) in the Sihanouk Bay. Opened in July 2011, at a cost of $417m USD, the 900 meter bridge has been developed to connect to a 500,000 sqm resort. However, with the bridge closed less than a month after it opened, apparently due to a problem with the dampers which were allowing the road to buckle, and work not started on the resort itself this appeared as somewhat of a brave investment for someone! From a marketing perspective I would have also suggested a name change for the island. Not the ideal address to have in what I am sure will be an extremely expensive development.

Our home for the day - MV Sun

Our home for the day - MV Sun

Returning to the docks our three storey cruise boat - MV Sun - was now ready to depart. Replete with comfortable lounge chairs, a bar and sundeck this would be a little different to the speedboat tour we taken around Ko Phi Phi recently.

Ready for an adventure

Ready for an adventure

This being the low season the passengers on board numbered no more than fifteen but what an eclectic bunch they were. Out of season the Cambodian coastline does not appear to attract many families or groups of Chinese tourists, as we had seen in Thailand. If Agatha Christine were writing today our passenger manifest might resemble a modern updating of her Death on the Nile. Not that we were spending the day with well dressed, important or sophisticated travelers. What we had was a group of people, all very different but easily described. Caricatures one might say. We had the lone mid forties French man who said nothing but watched and listened to everyone. The constantly talking girl from Somerset who had worked two jobs, seven days a week for two years to save up for her six months of travelling. The curiously thrown together group of twenty something lads with French, Cambodian and English backgrounds who liked nothing more than throwing themselves from the top of the ship whenever we were at anchor. The Cambodian family who spoke French and were clearly having a great adventure and of course the two Australian girls who appeared very good friends, replete with their loud, obvious but not very well executed tattoos. Perhaps their manner was best summarized by one of the girls two dagger tattoos on the back of each thigh. Intertwined in one the words ‘Love’ and ‘Will’ and the other ‘Tear us’ and ‘Apart’. Hmmm!

Relaxing at the bar on board MV Sun

Relaxing at the bar on board MV Sun

Victory beach

Victory beach

Not that any of our passengers were particularly unpleasant or annoying. We simply had a very eclectic group of people for a snorkeling and island exploring cruise. Yet, as the day progressed we socialized amiably. Snorkeling off one island in relatively murky waters, not unsurprising given the recent volumes of rain, we could still observe an abundance of brightly colored parrotfish, wrasse and the odd nudibranch. With the space available on board a buffet lunch was served en route to the tropical island of Ko Rung. A picture perfect island almost undeveloped. With only a few sporadic fishing huts to break the view of golden sand, turquoise beach with thick, green jungle crashing down to meet them our anchorage was quite idyllic.

Relaxing onboard

Relaxing onboard

Leading an expedition inland, one of the crew, navigated us along a cold, brown freshwater river. With many too scared to place their feet in the brown uninviting waters they were never to learn that it was simply rotting leaves and the sap of the Ti-tree causing the discoloration. With the group voicing irrational concerns about snakes, crocodiles and all manner of terror inducing creatures it was somewhat amusing to watch the group, particularly the previously boisterous boys, quietly return to the ‘safety’ of the beach. For Trey, myself and a small group we had a fascinating river walk along the mangrove swamps, reminiscent of the Black River in Guyana.

Our island paradise

Our island paradise

Returning to the beach an even smaller group wanted to venture barefoot into the jungle. Yet a few of us where quite happy to walk inland in search of interesting flora and fauna. Whilst the jungle was not to provide much of interest it did provide the opportunity to speak with the two Cambodians leading our walk. Both in their mid-twenties they were still very much aware of the horrors perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge, before they were born. One had lost eighteen members of his father’s family, the other twenty. Executed for some imagined crime or misdemeanor. The younger of the two was the result of a forced marriage. As pro-natalists intent on increasing the Cambodian population to 20 million within 10-15 years forced, arbitrary marriages were government policy. Some 250,000 women were married this way between 1975 and 1979. Groups of up to thirty men and women were forcibly married, at the same time. Women who refused to live with her new husband would risk ‘certain death’. It was thought that only a handful of these forced marriages remained intact after 1979 yet our guide through the forest had parents, still married today, who was the result of this shocking policy.

Returning to the beach the rest of the group were now relaxing with a cold beer. In need of a swim Trey and I headed back to the boat. On board, for a few minutes, piece and calm descended until the small Zodiac returned with the rest of our passengers from the beach. A gentle two hour cruise would see us returned to the mainland, fortuitously outrunning the monsoon storm clouds that now appeared on the horizon.

Serendipity beach

Serendipity beach

Returning to Serendipity Beach as night fell (this close to the equator there is no time for dusk) the beach was lit with candles housed in old plastic bottles. Ordering food and a few cold drinks a variety of hawkers and beggars continuously interrupted our supper. At the end of our meal small children once again appeared to beg for the remaining food on our plate. With reservations we let them take it. Whilst neither of us would deny them food reinforcing their preexisting views that food can be taken from tourists simply by begging from them is hardly helpful. In a small way a couple of paintings purchased earlier in the evening, from a charity that aims to keep children in school and not working on the beaches by selling paintings that they have drawn, might, hopefully, have been helpful.

Relaxing on the beach

Relaxing on the beach

Cambodian 'lobsters'

Cambodian 'lobsters'

Sunset on Serendipity beach

Sunset on Serendipity beach

Whilst decidedly overgrown with bars and their associated paraphernalia the various beaches around Sihanoukville offer varying levels of tranquility. In the high season we could imagine the beach we had chosen being completely full of eager tourists. Yet, at this time of year it remained relatively pleasant. Fishing boats still lay at anchor in the bay, neon signs were minimal and only a few high-rise hotels could be seen. However, judging from construction levels this will likely change in the not too distant future. At some point someone high up in Government will desire a new Lexus (or maybe a fleet of them) and will have the bamboo huts that line the beach today cleared for a vast, soulless resort. That being the case visit soon. This is one part of them Gulf of Thailand where it is still possible to leave the maddening crowd far behind.

An excellent Anchor beer

An excellent Anchor beer

Night falls on the beach

Night falls on the beach

Posted by jamesh1066 15:26 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Angry temple dogs and streets littered with $100 bills

Exploring the towns and beaches around Sihanoukville

overcast 30 °C

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Discussing our travels and exchanging ‘must-do’ travel advice with an Australian couple we met at breakfast it was late in the morning before we were ready to explore Sihanoukville. However, the monsoon that had been falling steadily all morning only just drawing to a close this was of no consequence.

Riding down the hill to Sihanoukville the tarmac road changed to a Cambodian version of cobble street for the last few hundred yards of our journey. Bouncing over large rocks we drove down the not terribly picturesque main street towards the beach. As expected the beach we alighted upon – Serendipity – was a mass of bars and sun loungers, each desperate for business in this quiet ‘off season’. Walking along the beach every bar felt the need to ask us if we wanted a drink and to sit down. Unlike in Siem Reap where the ‘massage gauntlet’, the street offering $1 massages, lasted only a few yards these requests lasted the entire length of the beach and some became a little irritating. Yet, that is how things are done in Cambodia!

Sihanoukville beach on an overcast day

Sihanoukville beach on an overcast day

Along with offering Cambodia’s premier beach holiday destination we were reminded as we looked our across the Gulf of Thailand, that it was Sihanoukville that also saw the last official battle of the United States army in the Vietnam War - known as the Mayagüez Incident. On May 12–15, 1975 US forces and the Khmer Rouge engaged in battle after the Khmer Rouge seized a container ship, bound for Thailand, in international waters, that Cambodia called their own.

At the end of the beach a slightly narrow strip of sand led to a much quieter beach – Ochheuteal. This beach visited predominately by Cambodians was much more relaxed. As such we were soon ensconced in a bar, with a cold beer, watching the waves crash up the golden sands. As the overcast skies began to clear and blue skies appeared a variety of holidaymakers began to enjoy the beach, taking to the waters and soaking up the suns now warm rays. Whilst not offering the same beauty of other areas of the Gulf of Thailand that we have explored in Thailand, such as Koh Tao, it is easy to understand the appeal of this tropical, cheap and laid back beaches.

Temple Money lying in the street

Temple Money lying in the street

Walking through the streets of the small town a myriad of guesthouses, bars and tour operators proffered their wares. A variety of bamboo stalls had t-shirts and beach dresses for sale but their appeared to be few interested tourists. Curiously, as we walked the streets brand new $100 bills littered the roads and sidewalk. Whilst most were obvious fakes some would briefly catch the eye as being genuine. Naturally, these were all copies - Temple money. This ‘money’ is burnt at the temple as a means of passing earthly wealth to those in the next life. Imitations of other worldly necessities can be burnt but money is perhaps the most common. Curiously a substantial amount was blowing around the streets of Sihanoukville, which continued to provide fleeting piques of excitement as we wondered around. Quiet as one expects of a beach town in the off season we were soon in a very large tuk-tuk heading for Victory Beach, an area that promised to be much less commercial than the immediate environs of Sihanoukville.

Duly delivering on its promise Victory Beach proved much more restful with fewer visitors and correspondingly fewer hawkers, than its more commercial neighbor. Whilst still attractive this beach borders the main reason for this areas existence – the Commercial Port of Sihanoukville.

Construction on the port began in June 1955 providing the only deep water port in Cambodia. Built in part due to the waning power of the French leading to the Vietnamese tightening their control over the Mekong Delta and hence restricting river access to Cambodia it removed Cambodia’s reliance on the goodwill of Vietnam and their need to transit through their territorial waters.

With time to spare a long walk through the small, ramshackle town of Victory Hill and along the only six lane highway we had seen in Cambodia took us back into downtown Sihanoukville.

Wat Leu

Wat Leu

Returning to our hotel, ahead of the monsoon rains, we were able to take in sunset from the picturesque hill top temple of Wat Leu. From there a vast panorama down onto the ramshackle towns of the Sihanoukville peninsula and out towards the Gulf could be taken in. A few Buddhist monks welcomed us with smiles and quiet hellos whilst a small, angry ‘temple’ dog made it very clear that women were a curious sight at this practicing monastery.

Admiring the sunset

Admiring the sunset

Returning to our hotel we arranged our island hopping tour for the following day, hopeful, that the monsoon rains would stay away.

Looking out over Sihanoukville

Looking out over Sihanoukville

Posted by jamesh1066 15:20 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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