Monday, 24 March 2014

Siem Reap (2nd time round)

After an emotional goodbye to those on Koh Rong, my destination was now Siem Reap, the place I started my adventure in Cambodia, and yes, the place I was nearly robbed on my first night out. I wasn't sure how to feel about going back here but I was very much exited to be visiting Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world. I took the boat from Koh Rong to Sihanoukville with the intention of getting the night bus from there, problem was though it was full so I had to stay one night in Sihanoukville to then catch the early bus in the morning. I went to The Dolphin Shack for some dinner and planned to get an early night in, what I actually ended up doing was spending almost the whole night on the toilet with what I can only put down to food poisoning. I had a brief bout of it on Koh Rong but thought it had passed so either it wasn't completely cleared or I'd picked up something else but it wasn't nice thats for sure. After very little sleep my alarm went off at 6.50AM and I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick, I had no idea how I would survive the long bus journey and almost decided to stay back till I was better, I decided though that I needed to go and pumped myself full of Imodium ready to catch my bus. The bus time quoted was 10 hours and normally you just add one or two hours to get a realistic time but the total journey was 14 hours with a change of bus in Phnom Penn, needless to say it was not so enjoyable but the good news is I did not need to use the vile toilet that was on the bus.

The first bus from Sihanoukville to Phenom Penn I took one of the three seats on the back row, to start with nobody was next to me but as I know full well in SE Asia these seats would soon be occupied by locals along the way. It turned out that the two available seats were used to fit three people but luckily two of them were kids so it wasn't too cramped, to take my mind of of things I ended up playing some games with them on my tablet. A few hours in one of the kids and his dad got off and I now had a lot more space to put my feet up, I managed to get some sleep but was woken to the sound of the other boy next to me heaving into a bag (presumably travel sick) it did not help my situation but I really did feel for him, I think he was only around 9 or 10, his parents were somewhere at the front and nobody came to his aid, I told him not to worry, offered him some water and told him he would be ok, he stopped for an hour or so while I drifted back off to sleep but then he set off again, luckily for both him and I we were nearly due to arrive in Phnom Penn. When we arrived it was time for a change of bus, and luckily I was pleased to see this one was a VIP bus and to my astonishment (the first time I have ever seen this) nobody was sat in the seat next to me for the entire ride so I was able to get very comfortable which made me feel a lot better. It was around 10PM when I arrived in Siem Reap, I got in a tuk tuk and headed to the guesthouse where Phillip my friend from Germany was staying, luckily he had also pre booked me a room so check in was quick and smooth. I went straight to bed in preparation for the visit to Angkor Wat the next morning.

After a decent nights sleep now that the bug that I had vanished I got up with a clear head ready to take on the extreme heat that visiting the temples of Angkor would bring. We arranged a tuk tuk via the guesthouse and we set off at 10AM deciding on just the one day pass. The day was specacular, through my travels in SE Asia I have visted a lot of temples and ruins but of course this topped them all by miles. We started with the most famous Angkor Wat site itself and worked our way round as much as we could see in the day, neededless to say the heat was extreme an with there being zero breeze this only added to the temprature but we battled through and throughly enjoyed it. Around 4PM we decided to head back to the guesthouse for an hour or so to shower and cool down and planned to return to watch the sunset, we were somehat dissapointed though because as soon as we got back to the guesthouse the whole sky clouded over making it impossible to view a sunset so we decided not to head back. Whilst we were on our way back to the guesthouse I witnessed something that instantly made me want to cry, we passed a childrens hospital which was split over two buldings across the road from each other, they have some barriers somewhat similar to those on a train track and as we approached they were being pulled down, I wondered what was going on and it was then that I saw three small kids being transported across the road hooked up to drips and blood bags, they were in a very bad way, they looked very malnourished and extremely sick, I'm not sure what was wrong with them but I think it may possibly have been dengue fever, on the way to Angkor Wat I noticed a big sign asking for blood donations due to a recent surge in people being infected. I would love so much to give blood but of course the idea of having a needle in my arm in Cambodia screams high risk to me, especially with the high prevelance of HIV in the country. The standard of health care in Cambodia is extremly low to non existent with a lot of doctors not even having proper training or education, it is a very sad situation and I truly pray that those children I saw and all the others young and old with health problems here find peace.

In the evening we headed to the 'Downtown Siem Reap Hostel" which is where a friend of mine I met in Ayutthaya had just started a job. The hostel is awesome, housing an outdoor swimming pool, a pool table and a nice chill out garden area, there's also a huge pull down projector screen on the side of the outdoor wall to watch movies. I spent my remaining three days in Siem Reap hanging out at this hostel and every night around midnight we would hit the Temple Club in Pub Street until the early hours, that place was always booming and we had some really great nights out there.

My time in Cambodia has now sadly come to an end, my visa is about to expire and I must leave and go back to Thailand, I am looking forward to seeing Fai and my other Thai friends but would have liked to have spent longer in Cambodia. Although my first experience was hellish the country really grew on me, I learnt a lot about the history and hardships the people had, and still have to face, and pray that times get better for these people. Cambodia is a country where 50% of its population are under 18 and it is great to see that their level of English is to a very high standard (much more so than Thailand), the children here are the future of the country and by them learning English it will ensure that they can secure themselves jobs in later life. There is certainly hope for Cambodia but its not going to be easy.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Koh Rong but it's So Right

Koh Rong is an island located three hours off the southwest coast of (Sihanoukville) Cambodia, it is the most magnificent tropical paradise I have ever come across in my life! There is no mains electricity everything is run by generators and power is rationed thoughout the day, water is also very scarce with the whole island being supplied by a reservoir. Our bungalow guesthouse "Koh Lanta" was without doubt the best, it was in a perfect spot directly on the beach, it was a reasonable price and was upstairs from a choice pizza restaurant. It's run by a French guy (Gee) and some Kymer staff he employs, they are awesome really friendly chilled out people, they make the dough daily and cook using traditional stone bake oven and they really were delicious. We had a small issue when we arrived to the island and that was that we didnt know there was no ATM, we came with around $50 in our wallet so kinda had a problem. We thought we were going to have to take the boat back to Sihanoukville costing $15 and wasting a whole day so were kinda gutted, word on the street though was of one bar who lends money at a 10% interest rate, they keep your passport and you have to come back to Koh Rong to pay them back so it wasnt really a good deal at all. Gee on the other hand told us he would do it at an 8% rate and we pay his friend from the boat when we get back to the mainland, he also told us he didn't need our passports which was a sick deal so our financial problems were thus gone.

We spent two weeks in total on the island and it will literally be impossible to explain the events that took place in the way that they happened so I can simply list. One day we trekked though a short jungle path to find an a good couple miles of beach which was virtually deserted. Another day we took a boat to another beach (Long Beach) on the island which again was largely empty, I hired a snorkel for the day and saw some incredible sea life I had never seen before, on the way back I steered the boat the whole way. I asked a kid on one of the days if I could ride his water buffalo along the beach to which his reply was yes. We partied with the local Cambodians at a Kymer wedding party. We went to a rave on the beach then after were invited back to a locals "house" (a big plank of wood on a platform with a tent like cover over it) we were offered food and drink although it looked highly unappealing I took some of the whiskey while my friends sampled the odd looking seafood. On another day we took kayaks to a very small island that had a temple/spirit houses at its center. I sung on a few evenings for the open mic night at Bongs. I helped out at the local school for which my favourite kid Mod was delighted,  he comes to see my every day at "Aisha" which is a Spanish restaurant next door to our guesthouse where I landed me a job, a few hours here and there very informal for free food and drink, that was siick. We went to the Full Moon party on a neighbouring island "Koh Rong Saloeng" for a superbly discounted price (being staff on the island) We helped put out a huge forrest fire using only a human chain and bags of sand as no water pumps are available, regrettably I was informed that the fire was indeed started on purpose by people wishing to build there, it is quicker and easier for them to do this instead of cutting all the trees down. What they had no consideration for was that the school (in the direct vicinity) could have gone up and if the westerners didn't help to put it out the whole island could have gone up. Im told that these fires are a regular occurrence. Lastly I should add in the two weeks I was on the island I slept inside just three times. My favourite place to sleep was on a camp bed on either the beach or balcony, luckily (touch wood) I do not get bitten by mosquitoes so was fine as far as that goes, on the last few nights though there were an abundance of sand flies which did bite me; this is only reason I had to sleep inside.

Koh Rong as I mentioned really is the best place I have ever been, without sounding cliché it is what I think the Thai islands would have been like 20 years ago. I was able to fully enjoy all parts of the island from enjoying the secluded beaches, meeting many local people, helping give back by giving time to the school and the local kids on the island, I was able to get an awesome job from which I met many more people and all in all I was able to feel at home with the island. I really do hope that the "Royal Group" who bought Koh Rong from the Cambodian Government dont completely destroy it, done correctly I believe the island can stay beautiful but it really needs considerable planning. Setting fire to things because you want to build there will not hold up, please sort this out!

My next stop is back to Siem Reap to meet my German friend Philip who I met in Thailand in January (i think), he has just come from Vietnam and we shall go explore the wonders of Angkor together. I am sad to leave as I got very attached to the way of life and the people here but I must move on. Dont worry though Koh Rong, I will be back!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Sunny Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville is just a five hour bus ride from Phnom Pehn and again all fairly painless, we had pre booked the sister guesthouse of the one in the capital which was also called "Sunday" only after we booked it though did we realise it wasnt so close to the beach so we cancelled and took a cheaper one "GBT" which was literally two minutes walk to the beach, it was ideal.

We ended up staying four nights and our days were spent lazing around the beach in the many bars on offer. There are a lot of kids selling bracelets on the beach and we again asked the usual question "do you go to school" they all replied yes but I didn't believe them all, I hoped some were telling the truth though. In any case we decided to be friendly as there's no doubt they have it pretty rough and the best thing we could offer was our time. We spent many an hour playing pool and we were propositioned by some of the nippers that if we win we get a free bracelet, if we lose we have to buy one. It sounded fun so we agreed, after a while though they started to get very annoying so we had to tell them to clear off, we bumped into them later however and they apologized so all was ok.

One of the best bars on the beach was "The Dolphin Shack" there are a lot of westerners working there and in fact almost every bar on the strip has a sign looking for western staff, if I'd come here earlier in my travels I would have almost certainly taken one, we spent a good couple of nights partying here and it was great. On one of the other evenings we hit the local casino with a budget of around $10 in mind, they offered us free alcohol and we all ended up winning a small amount of money. When we started winning suddenly the free alcohol stopped, although it was only around $30-$40 between us that we won I don't think they were so happy. On another evening we went to a nearby club/bar called Utopia where they had a late happy hour deal (25 cents for a beer!) we caught the last ten minutes of it and ordered as many as we could physically fit on the table so everyone could just help themselves. They had good music and a swimming pool in the middle, it was superb.

On our final day we headed to the quieter (Otres) beach it was beautiful and very relaxing we spent the day mostly playing pool and chilling in hammocks and chairs. Tomorrow we head to "Koh Rong" an island just three hours away we have heard it is spectacular and cant wait.

Sihanoukville was a pretty cool place but coupled with that it appeared to have a very dark side, the number of huge billboards and signs up everywhere relating to child trafficking and prostitution gave me the chills but its good to see at least there are organizations attempting to help these vulnerable people.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Phnom Pehn

After the ordeal I had on my first night out I am pleased to say that I have seen much more of Cambodia now and it is a wonderful country with some wonderfull people. I spent only three nights in Siem Reap in the end as my two German friends planned to head to Phnom Pehn I decided to head there with them, I didnt see Angkor Wat yet so will go back to Siem Reap to see it before I leave.

To get to Phnom Pehn we took a seven hour bus ride which was all fairly painless and arrived to the "Sunday Guesthouse" we had pre booked.  We were on the top floor which had a cool little lounge area right outside our room and as most people didnt bother climbing the stairs it was basically our own private area for the four nights we stayed. The first day Lenny and I jumped in a tuk tuk to head for the Central Market, unfortunately Jacob had to stay back nursing a dodgy tummy presumably from some off food but we couldn't work out what. We got to the market and it was pretty smart, I managed to pick up a sweet pair of shorts and a new t-shirt for a good price. We had a wonder round for a while looking out for a new ring (something I've wanted for for a while) but still I didn't find a suitable one the right size.  When we were finshed with the market we made our way to The Grand Place, another famous site in the city. It was beautiful, it had a lush green garden and a lot of interesting artifacts to see as well of course as the main temple, sadly we wernt aloud into this one but could still get a good look in. We spent a good hour and a half wondering round before heading back to the guesthouse. On the way back Lenny narrowly avoided losing his phone by someone on a motobike who tried to snatch it out of his hand, it was lucky he was holding it tight.

The following day our destination was the S21-Prison (Genocide Museum) Jacob was still feeling ill so it was just me and Lenny again. We walked there as it wasn't too far and grabbed some lunch from a restaurant outside before going in. Whilst at the restaurant we had the usual kid come in selling bracelets, as a general rule you really should not buy anything from kids on the street as it keeps them out of school but it was the weekend and when he came to our table we started chatting to him. We first asked him if he went to school for which his reply was yes, his English was incredible so we got talking to him more about his school and his family and it was really interesting, he told us on the weekend he sells bracelets and other random bits to pay for school, clothing, books etc so we decided to buy something, I took a bracelet, and Lenny a scarf. The boy (whose name is best pronounced Heya) offered us a chance for some money off for playing rock, paper, scissors which Lenny and I both won, we felt kinda bad so bought him a drink and chatted a whole lot more with him, we asked him what else there is to do around Phenom Pehn and he told us about the Russian Market, we had loads of time before the S21-Museum closed so we decided to check this market out, maybe we would find a ring here. Heya said he would come with us and organised a tuk tuk (one of his friends who would turn out to be our driver for two days) we had a mooch around the market for a while and I came out with the perfect ring, Lenny who also had been looking for one got his too. It was then time to head back to S21 and words cannot describe how horrific this place was, it used to be a school but was turned into a prison under the order of Pol Pot and the Kymer Rouge. I couldn't even begin to imagine what used to happen in this place, around 20,000 people were killed there and only seven people survived, on the way out we saw one of the seven survivors selling books on his story but I was lost for words on what to say to him, I was only able to give a respectful wai and we left feeling very sad.

The following day Jacob was feeling better and we all (Heya included) headed to the "killing fields" one of many sites where mass execution was carried in the most hinious ways. One particular method was to smash small children and babies against a tree. I felt physically ill. We had an audio tour and the stories and the horror told was barbaric, you could still see some bones emerging from the grave sites it was unimaginable to even try and understand. After an emotional visit to the killing fields we were taken to the shooting range where I would have my one and only opportunity to fire some big guns, it was pretty pricey but we got it down a bit, we ended up taking 10 bullets each on three guns, the guns we fired where AK-47, M16 & K57 and they were seriously powerful,  I have never fired anything bigger than a small rifle so it was really exiting, I'm not sure I'll do it again but it was a great once in a lifetime opportunity, my favourite gun I think was the AK. Having satisfied our trigger happy fingertips we headed back again to the Russian Market to buy Heya a gift for his great company, we got to speak to him a lot and wanted to say thank you. We asked him what he needed and he tried very hard to convince us that a new phone would help his schooling but we had something more practical in mind, he then told us he wanted some new shoes to show off when he went back to visit his home province, we thought was a much better option.  He decided on taking a pair that were too big but he told us they were the ones he wanted, we figured it was ok as they would last him longer as he grows into them so we bought them and he was happy. It was then time to drop him off while we had a quick drive around the independence monument amd took a nice pizza on the riverside.

I must say I was quite impressed with Phnom Pehn, sure its heavily polluted, the traffic is chaotic and we encountered another thief but I really enjoyed my time there. Our next stop is Sihanoukville on the beach.