Our first stop in Laos was Don Det, an island in the Mekong River, part of the 4000 islands group, just across the border from Cambodia. We thought we had seen the last of being ripped off by Cambodian’s but we were in for one last surprise. The Cambodian bus driver tried to sell us our boat tickets to Don Det for double the normal price. We said no thanks and headed down to the river front to buy the tickets off the Lao boat driver. Unfortunately the bus driver followed us down there, angrily yelled at the boat driver, we presume threatening the boat driver to ensure he still got his cut. The boat driver was friendly, old, couldn’t speak English and looked like he had worked hard his whole life. It makes us sad to see the likes of him exploited by the “educated” upper class.
The main thing to do at Don Det is relax on your hammock outside your bungalow overlooking the Mekong River. At night the bungalow hosts often make small fires on the beach where the guests can sit around and chat and relax which we did on one night. Also we hired a bike to visit Khone Phapheng falls which are famous for being the obstacle preventing the upper Mekong from being navigable by the early Europeans. A railway had to be built to circumvent them.
It was on Don Det where we got the now infamous “worse meal ever served in any restaurant anywhere”. Hanging out for some pasta after being rice and noodled out, we ordered the penne bolognese from the restaurant adjoining our accommodation Run only by locals, this should have served as a warning that maybe their western food might be a bit dodgy. Actually the pasta was inedible. The meat in the bolognese was chunky stewed beef. It had a very strong stewy flavour, like it was fermented and salted and stewed for a month. Tomato was totally absent from the dish. Instead it was topped with grated carrots and spring onion. Nothing else. Sharni could not swallow even a single piece of pasta. Joe struggled with a few pieces, not wanting to make the chef feel too bad. But no amount of good will could have made this dish palatable. We quietly snuck out to our bungalow and went to bed a little hungry.
Kratie was our last stop in Cambodia before heading to Laos. Again we liked rural Cambodia much more than the cities but not a lot to do. There are some organized treks to do in the area which we’ve heard are good, but it was getting way too hot to do anything physical. We decided to save the trekking for the Northern Laos Highlands where hopefully it would be cooler.
Kratie is famous for the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the Mekong River nearby. We took a tour to see them. Unfortunately they weren’t playing any games when we visited so the best we saw was just slight breaches of the water as they surfaced to breathe. Apart from the dolphins we just did the usual checking out the markets and walking around town. They sold these small whole bbq birds with an egg attached. Not sure if they were quails but we call them quails anyway.
On the way to Laos the bus we were on hit and killed a calf. I think the driver should have paid off the local farmer but instead quickly chucked the calf in the bottom deck of the bus with our luggage and drove off. Further down the road he stopped, dragged out the carcass and processed it right there on the side of the road. He took off the legs and gave one each to the staff on the bus and one to a guy on a motorbike who witnessed the impact. The body must be a bit messy to prepare so he chucked that back on the bus to take care of later.
Kampong Cham is a nice little town on the Mekong River in Cambodia. The further away we got from the big ticket tourist attractions, the less we disliked Cambodia. Even maybe started to like it. The people got much friendlier. The constant attempts to rip us off became fewer. Kampong Cham was also quite clean and the riverfront was a pleasant place to walk along and sample some local food and beer. Not much to do here though. We hired a pushbike and rode it across a rickety bamboo bridge to an island in the Mekong called Kaoh Pan. The bridge gets swept away and rebuilt after every wet season. It was excellent to ride through some sleepy villages, see the kids smiling and playing and waving and giving us high fives as we rode by. Some kids rode their bikes along side us asking “hello what is your name?” Got some noodles at a local roadside eatery where Sharni enjoyed holding a Cambodian baby. It amazes us how friendly, outgoing and resilient the children are in Southeast Asia. Very rare are they seen crying or upset. After the noodles we got back on the bikes and headed to our guesthouse in town. It started getting really hot and humid in the early arvo so we were suffering by the time we got back. A cold beer and mango fruit shake sorted that out.
Time for Cambodia’s national symbol and premier tourist attraction: Angkor Wat. We stayed several days in Siem Reap, the town adjacent to Angkor Wat. Our visit to the temple was delayed a few days, with both of us firing liquid napalm, suffering from a case of the squirts. We spent a few days recovering in Siem Reap, mostly confined to our hotel bathroom.
We were still feeling a little weak when we visited Angkor Wat. Combine that with stifling heat and humidity meant it was tough going.
We saw a huge quantity of people taking artistic shots with big fancy cameras. It’s a funny feeling taking photos of something that is so photographed by so many people with better skills and better equipment. To make our photos more personal we created some highly artistic, emotive shots. Some of my favourites I describe in detail below:
Towards the light: Here I’m depicting hope. From within the dark confines of the corridor there exists a light at its outer margin. This represents the journey towards a better future.
Progress – New vs Old: The grey, pitted surface of the old lion contrasts against the smooth, shiny veneer that encompasses modern life. Has civilization really progressed? What happens when you look below the surface?
Against nature: Here I am making a statement about man’s constant battle against nature. The rubble represents a lost battle. It seems that in the end nature will always triumph. Maybe it’s time we stop fighting against nature?
Relative Perspective: What we see depends on where we are looking from. A metaphoric window can obscure our perspective, blinding us from the views of others and causing conflict. The moment mankind learns to consider the views of others, we can live in peace.
From Sihanoukville we took the bus to Phnom Penh, only to realize later that we were supposed to stop first at Kampot according to our itinerary. What a shame, as we’ve heard Kampot is a relaxed, friendly, attractive town. Unlike Phnom Penh! Busy, dirty, noisy, terrible traffic and unfriendly locals is what we found. They weren’t all unfriendly, mainly just those involved in tourism. The tuk tuk drivers were pushy, annoying and sometimes aggressive. One particular run in with a tuk tuk driver marred our visit and probably skewed our perception of Phnom Phen. Still there are some sites to see and we enjoyed our couple of days there. A couple of days is enough.
We visited the national museum. No photos allowed, which is unfortunate as it is loaded with armless statues in the style of Venus De Milo, not unlike what we found in the Bangkok museum. The central square garden is a great place to relax, isolated from the noise and traffic by the surrounding museum building.
The S-21 prison and killing fields are two sites related to the brutality and genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime. The prison is where people were held and tortured and the killing fields is where they were slaughtered and buried. The prison is now a museum and the killing fields is the site of the national monument where the bones of some of the victims have been stored. There’s plenty of information out there so no need to go into detail about how horrible and devastating the regime was.
From Ko Lanta we left hastily, having only a few days left on our Thai visa and knowing it would take a few days to get to Cambodia. The trip was long and involved a 1.5hr boat ride to Krabi, 3hr bus ride to Serat Thani, 14hr overnight train to Bangkok, 5hr bus ride to Trat, overnight stopover in Trat followed by an hour bus ride to the Thai / Cambodia border at Hat Lek then a short taxi ride to Koh Kong.
There were no beds left on the overnight sleeper train from Serat Thani to Bangkok which meant we had to take 3rd class seats. What a long, uncomfortable, tiring night. The seats are almost upright, can not recline, and are arranged opposite other seats so that everyone’s legs are in the middle and there is nowhere to stretch. We endured around 14 hours of this on a crowded overnight train. Not fun. At least it’s cheap! Needless to say we slept on the bus from Bangkok to Trat.
Trat was nice. Cheap, heaps of local food and there was some dancing and singing stuff going on for some festival. The border crossing was interesting. The tourist visa into Cambodia is supposed to cost $20. The way it works is the customs officer asks for a lot more, say $40, or the equivalent in Thai Baht. The closer you match his first offer, the faster you get your visa. We waited around half an hour and paid $25 each. Another couple that came before us only wanted to pay $20 and were still waiting by the time we got our visas approved and organized a taxi out of there. A few games go on – the customs officer will be rude and aggressive and close the window in your face when you refuse his first offer. Wait 10 minutes. Then he’ll swap with another guy who’ll maybe ask for a bit less or tell you another story about how you must pay inflated prices in Thai Baht. More waiting, more swapping of customs officers. Eventually you get through.
Koh Kong is the first small town on the Cambodia side of the border. First thoughts of Cambodia were very friendly people, friendly outgoing kids who are keen to try their english skills on you, and lots of smiles. Probably should have stayed in Koh Kong a couple of nights as we found the people nicer and the atmosphere more relaxed compared to the more touristy areas we’ve since visited. We stayed only one night, had a fancy seafood dinner on the waterfront for $11, then caught the bus to Sihanoukville the next day.
Sihanoukville is a party beach resort town. Main thing to do is go to a beach bar and consume your drug of choice. Plenty of options available depending on your preference. Our first night was spent in a bed bug infested beach bungalow. Not really into the local scene nor the bed bugs, we opted for some luxury resort style accommodation for the next couple of nights. No bed bugs, awesome pool, excellent room and a flat screen TV with many cable TV channels. We vegged out in our room and around the pool for a couple of days. We thought we could call it the honeymoon we never had, but there was no poolside cocktail bar so it wasn’t quite there. We resorted to making our own poolside cocktails.