Bangkok Blues

We realised in Cambodia, or maybe even earlier, that if we wanted to get to India before monsoon season we wouldn't have time to visit Thailand. We compromised and decided to spend 10 days in Bangkok. Most of the time we spent in Bangkok was running errands and getting prepared for India. Including a one week wait for our visa, purchasing plane tickets, a trip to the doctor's office, a visit to the camera store... We also had a back log of blogging and photo uploading left over from Cambodia where we never succeeded in finding a good internet connection.

The hot season has officially begun here in Thailand and we tried to spend the hottest times of the day in the air-conditioned internet cafes. We visited all of the city sites including some of the decades old "sex streets" using the ultra modern sky train to get around. Bangkok is huge and has one of the highest population densities in the world. The public transportation is efficient, but only if you have money, as the costs seem high for us budget travellers, I feel that the average Bangkokian couldn't afford a ride on the sky train. The highlight of Bangkok public transportation for us was the river taxi that bombs up and down the Chao Phraya River docking at lightning speed and rushing people on and off the boat. We stayed in the infamous Kao Shan road district, the backpackers Mecca. Khao San Road vendors have got it down pat buying and selling old backpacks, Lonely Planet guides, t-shirts imprinted with lewd messages not to mention the fake student cards or press passes or the much neede Osama Bin Laden mask. It doesn't get any "cooler" than here: dreadlocks, birkenstocks, piercings, henna tattoos, old men with long hair, old ladies without bras... the place is surreal. I don't think it would be the first place most people would want to stay in Bangkok, but the low prices can't be beat, hotel rooms and food are extremely cheap. I begin every morning with a huge bowl of fresh fruit covered in yogurt and granola for about 1.50$ and Yann has a plate of Pad Thai for and a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice for the same price. The street vendors are out by 7 a.m. and don't pack up until past midnight. Our room faces the front street and we are kept up most nights by party-goers roaming the streets with their newly purchased Thai girlfriends and their bottles of Chang beer. Bangkokians have been extremely friendly, and many have stopped to help us with directions as we tried to figure out the crazy bus system. They have a deep love affair with their King, his photo adorns almost every building we pass and locals wear yellow (the royal colour) shirts embroidered with messages like "Long Live the King" and "We Love the King". I have noticed a marked slowdown in the speed at which I can find Yann in a crowd, his yellow shirt usually giving him away now just blends in with everyone else. The local monks also hold a more prominent position in Thai society than elsewhere in Asia. They recieve a salary and seem treated with utmost respect by locals, even having reserved seating in public buses and boats. We often bump into them in malls shopping side by side with other locals. Despite the cheap food, the friendly locals and the gorgeous wats, ten days is too long to be in Bangkok and we couldn't wait to catch our flight to Kolkata. As we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the airport shuttle bus, we walked by the various tourists some sleeping on the street being prodded awake by prostitutes others still drinking at the bars. We managed to get one last pad thai from a stall that hadn't yet closed up shop and we waved goodbye to Bangkok.

Best (and Worst) of Vietnam

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our 33 days in Vietnam INCLUDING Margaux's picks for Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta which she visited along with us. We've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

According to Yann:
1- Ben Tre
2- Dalat
3- Hue
According to Emilie:
1- Hanoi
2- Ben Tre
3- Hue
According to Margaux:
1- Ben Tre
2- Ho Chi Minh City
3- Homestay in Vinh Long (in particular the hammocks)

According to Yann:
1- Sapa
2- Halong Bay
According to Emilie:
1- Sapa
2- Hoi An
3- Chau Doc (mainly the hotel)
According to Margaux:
1- Chau Doc hotel

FUNNEST Activities
According to Yann:
1- Riding a motorcycle around Dalat
2- Eating dog meat in Ho Chi Minh City
3- Family dinner in Hanoi at our new friend Anh's home
According to Emilie:
1- Eating dog meat in Ho Chi Minh City
2- Family dinner in Hanoi at our new friend Anh's home
3- Homestay in Vinh Long
According to Margaux:
1- Eating
2- Lying in a hammock
3- Riding motorcycles

According to Yann:
1- Vietnamese coffee (the stronger the better)
2- White roses (dumplings stuffed with shrimp a Hoi An specialty)
3- Cao Lau (noodles with sliced pork, another Hoi An specialty)
According to Emilie:
1- Fish sauce (my new favourite condiment, makes anything taste better!)
2- Vietnamese coffee
3- Ice cream from popular local shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
4- White roses
5- Huge fresh crab
According to Margaux:
1- Vietnamese coffee
2- Crab
3- Ice cream
4- Pho Soup
5- Pork chops
6- Lychees
Note from Margaux: Really almost everything was delicious!

LEAST Delicious Foods
According to Yann, Emilie & Margaux:
1- Steamed dog meat with purple dipping sauce
According to Margaux:
2- Sour shrimp soup in Ho Chi Minh City

MOST Annoying Touts
According to Yann and Emilie:
3-Hoi An

THINGS We Might Have Done if We Had More Money
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Stayed in a room at Crazy House in Dalat
2- Bought motorbikes in Hanoi and rode them to Ho Chi Minh City
3- Drank more Vang Dalat (Dalat red wine)
According to Margaux:
1- Try fancier foods, like the giant lobsters or turtle and also eat more crab.

WORST Bus/Boat Rides
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Vientiane(Laos) to Vinh(Vietnam) (20 hours)
2- Unbearably hot boat ride from Chau Doc (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
3- Dong Ha to Hue (40 minutes, but won't actually bring you to Hue, could involve a 13km walk if you are stubborn enough)
4- Hoi An to Dalat (21 hours, the last 2 being a painfully slow uphill ride)
According to Margaux:
1- Boat ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh

If you are curious about our expenses we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Vietnam, it is available here

Cooking Classes and Rural Train Riding

Even though we had only been in Cambodia for two weeks, we decided that we didn't have time to travel into the remote North East corner of the country as it would involved alot of backtracking on poor roads. Due to poor planning and our visit from Margaux we had already passed through Phnom Penh three times and we didn't want to spend another night in the Lakeside ghetto although we had to pass through the city on our way back from Kampot.

We opted to push a little further past the capital and we ended up in a small lakeside town called Kompong Chhnang. We had planned on staying there two days, but after renting bicycles and hitting the town we realised that one afternoon was enough after circling the place in about 20 minutes.

Once again, the sun was hard on us, and we stopped at a roadside sugarcane juice shop to cool down. A group of intoxicated locals greeted us and the one quasi-English speaker asked us a barrage of questions. We were pressured into drinking some of their home brew, which was the most foul, fermented, disgusting thing I have ever ingested. As they insisted on having us drink more and seemed to get increasingly agressive, now mainly speaking to us in Khmer, we decided to play dumb, hop on our bikes and ride away. I wondered if I might drop dead from the drink. This was the most excitement we had in Kompong Chhnang. The next morning we got up early to catch a bus to Battambang, the third largest Cambodian city, sitting a few hours from the Thai border. We arrived before noon but spent alot of the day indoors as we got rain! Only the third time 4 months. For dinner we headed to the Smokin'Pot restaurant, where we wanted to sample the food before signing up for their cooking class. After dinner we paid our deposit and were told to show up the next morning for shopping at the market.
Our class was an excellent deal, we paid 8$ each and we spent most of the day shopping and cooking. Even though Yann and I have visited our share of Asian markets, we still saw a few new ingredients, like the huge barrels of fermented fish paste covered in flies and smellier than blue cheese. Our instructor didn't buy the premium stuff (stinkier and older) he settled on the mild version for the foreigners, but allowed us to choose whether or not we wanted to add it to our dishes. We had a keen class, all eight of us used it.
We started by making the most well-known of the Cambodian dishes: fish Amok. Most of the work was spent in making our own curry paste, grinding together with mortar and pestle, garlic, lemongrass, chilli peppers, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric and ginger. We each had our individual work stations including small gas stove and wok. Before cooking we had to extract coconut milk from the freshly shredded coconut we had purchased earlier at the market. We placed the coconut in a cloth, then poured water over it and wrung out the cloth. This process is repeated three or four times until all the flavour has essentially been extracted from the shredded coconut. Those were definetely the two most difficult tasks of the day. The other two dishes we put together were a spicy stirfry and a sweet and sour soup. Yann and I both completed all three dishes successfully, but eating the three huge plates proved more difficult for me. I finished my fish amok, but I could only sample my two other dishes. As a conclusion to our cooking class I spent the night huddled over the toilet bowl wishing I hadn't used the fermented fish paste, but not before we spent the rest of our afternoon exploring rural Battambang.
In the late afternoon we hired two motorbike drivers to bring us around the countryside. We were particularly interested in the bamboo trains, makeshift motorised bamboo platforms that are placed on the train tracks and used to transport locals between villages. Yann and I paid 5$ for a chartered trip down the tracks. The things are scarily fast considering the train tracks which are extremely worn down and crooked. We embarked, together with our driver, our two drivers, and the two motorbikes and barreled down the tracks towards the next village. About half way to our destination we spotted another bamboo train heading towards us. Both of us stopped a few meters away form each other and words were exchanged between both sides. After a short stand-off, the other train unloaded its stuff and let us pass. Yann and I determined that the cart with the least amount of stuff on it has to disembark, seems fair? We arrived at the next "station" followed by a handful of other trains behind us and hopped back on our motorbikes heading back to town. The whole thing is amazing and an ingenious way of utilising the track that passes right through their poor villages. The real train only passes through a few times a week and I'm guessing they have its schedule.

Quiet South-East Cambodian Coast

After parting with Margaux early in the morning, I might have opted for a day of rest in Phnom Penh but Yann was eager to push on so we boarded a local bus for the coastal city of Kampot in Eastern Cambodia. We thought about Margaux on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City, hoping that she would cross the border without too many hassles. We arrived in Kampot at lunchtime and searched among many full guest houses before we could find a room. I was hot, and exhausted (we were coming from our near sleepless night in Phnom Penh), it was my birthday which meant I had an emotional free pass, so I let myself collapse into tears after the third guest house which had no vacancies.

We finally found a room in a friendly guest house run by an energetic 76 year old, French, English Khmer speaking man. He was happy to speak to us in his less frequently used French, which he had learned at school back in the days of colonial rule. He told us inprisonments and miraculous survival.. Most French speakers of the time were educated upper class and thus obvious targets of the Khmer Rouge. His children, who help him run the place are also tri-lingual. Kampot is small, quiet and lovely. By nightfall the streets are deserted and the guest houses close their gates by 10p.m., the locals are friendly but don't pay us any mind. We walked about Kampot like we were back in our own neighbourhood. Our second day in Kampot we rented a motorbike, now one of our favourite activities. We drove along the coast until we hit the small village of Kep, that sits right on the sea. Much of what remains of Kep are the ruins of old colonial villas, shelled by Khmer Rouge up until the mid- nineties. Some luxurious villas have begun to reappear, and it seems destined that Kep will once again become a getaway for Cambodia's rich (and us foreigner of course) but today there is not much other than fishing. We pulled up our motorbike to a small beachside hut with hammocks. We were immediately greeted by a crab seller and we bought ourselves 2kg for lunch. The woman at the hut prepared us rice and spicy dipping sauce to accompany our crab and in return we bought our drinks from her. We paid less than 5$ for the crab, so we couldn't much complain, but the larger crabs were definetely sitting on the top of the bag, we spent at least 2 hours working away at the miniscule little crabs at the bottom of the bag. Our evening was spent back in Kampot, relaxing in our cozy guest house and eating on a rooftop restaurant in one of the old colonial building downtown. For the next day we had booked a full day tour of Bokor National Park. Bokor is the site of a former French hillstation and former retreat of King Sihanouk. It is now abandoned and the jungle surrounding it houses some of the most diverse species in the region (including tigers). Here is the approximate schedule that we were given for the day in Bokor:

08:00 : Departure
08:30 - 10:30 : Travel by 4WD to Black Palace
10:30 - 12:30 : Two hour hike through park
13:00 - 14:30 : Lunch and visit of Bokor Hill Station
14:30 - 16:30 : Travel by 4WD to boat launch
16:30 - 17:30 : Travel by boat back to Kampot and watch sunset over Bokor Mountain

Here is our approximate ACTUAL schedule:

08:30 : Departure
09:00 - 09:45 : Boat ride to Bokor National Park
09:45 - 10:00 : Wade through thigh deep muddy water to get to shore
10:00 - 10:30 : Wait for 4WD to show up
10:30 - 14:00 : Ride up to Bokor Hill Station, 11 people in the back of a pick-up truck, the bumpiest road I have ever been on in my life, slow and with little protection from the sun, this ride included at least four breakdowns of the truck (read: hood up, driver underneath truck, pouring cold water over motor)
14:00 - 15:00 : Eat lunch and visit Bokor Hill Station
15:00 - 18:00 : Drive back to Kampot, only 10 people in back of truck this time, and only one flat tire and one "hood-up" breakdown
So, the day was quite long. The National Park was beautiful and the eerie abandoned hill station looking down over the jungle was an amazing sight. We regreted not having booked a few nights at the ranger station. Of course we thought that if we liked it we would just head back up the next day. No power on earth was getting me back in the back of a pick up truck up that mountain again. At least we were only short the 7$ each that we paid for the tour.

Our Last Night With Margaux

When we arrived to Phnom Penh from the beach, we knew it would be a busy day. We first had to find a hotel, we couldn't stay at the place we had before, because they had tried to charge us for having a hot shower (after we had agreed to the price of our room including hot showers). Their response had been "oh... when we say with hot shower we mean the possibility of paying for a hot shower on request" grrrrrrrrr. It was an exceptionally hot and humid day and we wanted an air conditioned room, the only one we could find had only one bed in it, but it was a big bed and the room was so small that we thought the air conditioning would be extremely efficient, so we dumped our bags in it and hopped in a tuk-tuk to run our various errands.

We first hit the Russian Market where we stocked up on some very nice souvenirs (Margaux bought me a present for my birthday which was the next day). Shopping took the better part of the afternoon and we started thinking about our dinner plans. A special goodbye/birthday dinner. Margaux was determined to try something new and exciting, and I was determined to eat a burger with french fries. We tried to get our tuk-tuk driver to bring us to a restaurant that served snake. He didn't speak English, but I think we did a pretty good snake imitation. After driving around for quite a while, with our driver stopping and asking other tuk-tuk drivers for directions, we let him drop us off on the popular river front strip where I thought I had seen some scary creatures for sale as we whizzed by.

We passed balloon vendors, drink vendors, barbeques, fruit stands until we hit what I was really hoping I hadn't seen. A trolley loaded with piles of fried insects. We asked for a demo of which parts to eat off each bug, and then got a small handful of each: grubs, grasshoppers, black beetles, jumbo cockroaches and tarantulas. Actually we got one jumbo cockroach and one tarantula, but Margaux thought that we should get two tarantulas, because we would probably all want a piece?!?
We tried to find a quiet spot along the river where we could eat our sampler, we remembered at the last minute to buy ourselves some beverages for washing down. We decided we should eat from smallest to biggest or equivalently least disgusting to most disgusting. Margaux grabbed a whole grub and stuck it in her mouth. When she bit down on it, it exploded, she squealed and her eyes began to water but she got it down. Yann and I watched on with deep respect. Yann was the next to go, and not to be outdone he ate a whole grub too. I nibbled a microscopic piece off mine and proceeded to violently gag and nearly vomit into the river. What a wimp! I was out.

Grasshoppers are a little bit easier to deal with because they are so crispy, but the black beetles have an incredibly hard shell and we couldn't quite figure out what to do with them. With a large crowd of locals gathering around us, we packed our picnic away and decided to finish them off in our guest house. The gigantic cockroach was passed over for the tarantulas, whose legs seemed crunchy and manageable. Margaux, once again did the most damage, pulling the body apart and exclaiming that it was "just like crab". Yann and I nibbled on the legs.
With our hors d'oeuvres out of the way, we headed down the street where I could have my cheeseburger with french fries (its was my birthday ok!). We chatted and summarized some of our favourite moments of the trip, then we headed down the street for some dessert. Right as we were getting ready to leave, the lights went out in the restaurant. We quickly noticed they had gone out in the entire neighborhood, the backpacker's quarter had gone dark. We hadn't packed our bags, we hadn't showered and we had a room the size of a small closet. The waitress assured us that it was usual and the power would be on in no time.

We waited in our room for the power to come on, we gave ourselves the deadline of 11 p.m. before we would start packing with our flashlights. By now we were drenched in sweat and had discovered that no power meant no water either. The three of us lay on our one bed covered in our stuff ready to be divided up and sent home with Margaux. Margaux scribbled down the last of her postcards by candlelight while I began to pack her things for her. We didn't finish until past 2 a.m. and the power hadn't yet returned. So we could now proclaim that Margaux had not washed her hair the entire time we were in Cambodia. She left us at 6 a.m. stinky and exhausted and probably dreaming of her bed back home, I know I was dreaming of mine!

Beach Bums

Even though we still had some shopping left to do in Phnom Penh, we decided that we had enough time before Margaux left to head down to the South Coast of Cambodia to visit its white sandy beaches. Sihanoukville, four hours from the capital, is the main resort destination in the country, becoming more and more populated with tourists trying to escape the Thailand beach crowds.

We boarded an early morning bus and arrived in Sihanoukville by lunch time. Weeks earlier, we had met a couple from Quebec City, who had given us the name of a remote beach hut that they had really enjoyed. They warned us that it was quite "rustique" but very quiet and owned by a lovely family. I had scribbled the name of the guest house on my notepad and had kept it in my bag since then. On arrival at the bus station we hired three motorbikes to drop us off at Otres Beach, they didn't recognize the name of the guest house, but we knew/hoped it existed.

What we had failed to factor in to our calculations was the fact that it was Chinese New Year and a holiday in the country. My motorbike driver recounted to me, as we drove towards the beach, that he had driven around the night before with a tourist for over an hour, trying to find space in a guest house and she had eventually found a place for 50$/night. Panick took over me, I couldn't bear the thought of telling Margaux we would be sleeping on the beach, but I couldn't bear the thought of spending 50$ for a room either.

Otres Beach is 8km away from the main beaches of Sihanoukville, and has no listings in the Lonely Planet, which definetely helps keep it quiet and untouristy. As we rode down the dirt road lining the beach I spoted the name of the guest house on a small hand written sign and signalled for our drivers to pull over. My driver replied that we were out of luck, as the guest house only had two rooms and he had dropped people off the day before and they had taken the last room. I felt dejected, (no backup plan). As we were pulling away the owner's niece (the only one in the family who could speak English) came running towards and said that we could sleep on the floor of the attic. It was in fact the family's own room, which they were offering to us (there were two mattresses on the floor). The price: 8$ a night. Wonderful!

We settled into our room and headed for the beach (about 10 feet away). There were crowds of people spread out under the beach huts having picnics. I didn't feel that the place was exactly peaceful until mid afternoon when everyone starting packing up to go home. Then we had the beach to ourselves and the hammocks to ourselves.
According to one of the other guests (who had been there for almost 2 weeks), the place had been deserted, until Chinese New Year, when Cambodian families come to swim and picnic every lunch time. We still had the sunset to ourselves and got to listen to the waves crash against the sand and have the wind blow on our faces as we lay on the attic floor.

On the first night there, Yann and I awoke to the sound of Margaux yelling. Something had brushed up against her leg. Of course our immediate thought, mice. Yann decided that he had found a mouse turd in his hair and I was quite convinced that something had dashed across my mattress. All of this was being discussed in the pitch black in our half awake states, but we were pretty convinced that we were under attack. Margaux, who had sounded the alarm, was pretty quick to get back to sleep, but Yann and I weren't so lucky. Anytime Yann brushed up against me I would jump up and proclaim that I had felt a mouse.

The next morning, after Margaux decided that she was probably dreaming, and we found that all of our food was untouched, and there was no sign of Yann's mystery mouse turd, we concluded that there probably were no mice, and slept well that night.

Our two days on the beach were basically filled with swimming, reading, crossword puzzling, hammocking, drinking and eating. I spent quite a bit of time entertaining the young sellers who didn't feel like leaving us alone. I did get a free embroidered shrimp for my birthday present from Boos, a teenage boy who sold bracelets on the beach, he did however wolf down most of our digestive cookies. Margaux got a massage on the beach and I convinced her that she should try getting her legs "threaded". This is the technique used on the beach to remove hair, they wrap a thread around your hair and twist it so that it rips the hair out. I would say Margaux lasted about 10 minutes and then quit when the pain was too unbearable. The girls who were threading her legs proceeded to call her "no ooey" for the next two days (ooey is their word for ouch). Extremely hilarious.

Two days of beach time passes by extremely fast and as we waited for the bus back to Phnom Penh, Boos the teenage boy from the beach showed up on his bicycle to say goodbye (although he was annoying, I thought this was extremely sweet, and we sat down and had breakfast with him before leaving). We had only one night left with Margaux and we hadn't hit the main tourist market yet, we knew the minute we got to Phnom Penh there would be no more relaxing.

Cambodian History Lesson

We had two days to visit Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. The first day was mainly spent drinking and dancing for Chinese New Year which left us with one day to hit the major sights.

Phnom Penh is quite a lively town and not nearly as crowded as other Asian capitals. Sadly, other than the Silver Pagoda its main tourist attractions are the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison Museum, souvenirs of the Khmer Rouge's brief but brutal rule.

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to bring us out to the Killing Fields which sit about 15km outside the city. Not much remains here but a large monument has been ereted holding the skulls and bones of thousands of victims to have been found in the mass graves on site. Some information is displayed on panels desribing the executions and the mass graves, and poor children wait outside the gates of the site asking for money. Few if any Cambodians visit the site, our tuk-tuk driver explained that nobody wants to think about it. The next stop on the Khmer Rouge Circuit is the even more gruesome S-21 museum, a highschool turned prison. Here records of prisoners were diligently kept and their "confessions" recorded after sometimes long painful extractions. The photos of the sad faces of men, women, children, babies and elderly holding their prison cards are heartbreaking. On the top floor of the prison is an exhibit telling the stories of young Cambodians who joined the Khmer Rouge only to themselves by executed later in various "inner purges". Almost all prisoners of S-21 were eventually executed at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields that we had earlier visited. Of the four top Khmer Rouge generals, three have died of natural causes, the only who is alive and living as a free man is the former head of the S-21 prison.
We had got our lessons in Cambodia's sad and violent past and in the afternoon we visited a site that the country is more proud of, the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace.

We lined up with hundreds of other tourists (mainly Cambodians) to gain access to the grounds of the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace. After a lengthy wait we purchased our tickets and as we were passing through the gates we were stopped by the clothing police. Actually, Yann and I were waved through, but Margaux was stopped. She was indecently dressed, her shorts too short! What a scandal! Luckily, the Cambodians have encountered this problem quite frequently and they have gigantic pants ready to lend out to foreigners. I had a good laugh at Margaux's expense, but she was definetely not the only person directed to the pant-rental counter.
The grounds were quite busy and we shuffled around admiring all the buildings. We decided not to enter any of them, because the queues were long and the buildings extremely crowded. As we were getting ready to leave we still hadn't found the Silver Pagoda, although we had asked directions from several people. All had told us that "they had just been there" and that "it isn't far", but we couldn't find it despite circling around what we thought were all the buildings on site. We sat in the shade to rest, discouraged with our inability to find the main attraction. We made one last attempt to get directions to the Silver Pagoda. It turns that the "Silver Pagoda" is somewhat of a misnomer, its name comes from the fact that it has a sterling silver tile floor. We had probably passed the building 5 times commenting on the crowds of people waiting to get in. We joined the crowd for a chance to walk on the silver floor and admire the Buddha statue encrusted with a gagillion karat diamond, then we were happy. We could now head back to our hotel on the lakeside to pack our bags for Sihanoukville, looking forward to two days of beach.

A Rural Angkorian Day Trip

We had only one day left on our Angkor three day pass, but we convinced our tuk-tuk driver Chhay to bring us on a less traditional tour of Angkor. We wanted to visit a local fishing village that, although relatively hard to get to, was apparently worth the trip. Chhay was reluctant to do the trip, telling us that once we got there the boat would be expensive, and his fellow tuk-tuk drivers had warned him against bringing tourists there as the road was incredibly uncomfortable. We we're getting tired of being taxied around temples.

The first leg of the journey was the easy paved roads that surround Siam Reap, but how quickly they vanish when you are not heading towards Angkor. The hour long trip got progressively bumpier until it became quite clear we were no longer on a road, but what seemed to be a dried up river bank. In the rainy season this route would definetely be done by boat. At one point we heard yelling and their seemed to be a crowd of people blocking our way, we stretched out heads out of the tuk-tuk to see that a village home was actually being transported on the backs of its villagers and they were currently crossing our path. When they finally dropped the house down, the three of us cheered and clapped our hands. The villagers joined in on the celebration.
After a while we pulled over next to a small home where we would unhitch the tuk-tuk and continue by motorbike. Margaux and Yann sped off with two local motorbike drivers and I stayed with trusty Chhay, definetely a city boy, who did not enjoy the off-road motorbike scene. Margaux, whose driver was the young wild one arrived about ten minutes ahead of us, and was starting to get worried when Yann pulled up with his driver, Chhay and I came a distant third. After a few near tumbles I had taken to getting off the bike and walking through the rough bits, which Chhay seemed to appreciate, although his ego may have deflated a little bit.
At the river we were greeted by villagers, lunching on local products, raw shrimp and home brew. Its the first time since we began our travels that we turned down an offer of food. Our need to stay courteous was definetely outweighed here by our need to stay healthy but nobody seemed to bat an eye, our motorbikers were busy hitting the drink, so that they could be ready for the return trip. Not our city boy Chhay though, he decided to come along with us, as he had never seen Kompong Phhluk but had heard alot about it.
Two things make Kompong Phhluk amazing. The first are the wooden homes built on stilts, but not just ordinary stilts, ones that are 6 or 7 meters high. Tired of moving their homes every rainy season, the villagers finally settled on building their homes high enough to avoid even the worst flooding of the rainy season. The second is the petrified forest (also known as the enchanted forest or flooded forest). Right next to the village, is a forest petrified by the rising water that drowns it every year. The tree trunks are twisted and the roots immersed in water.

We docked our boat and visited the village, it was quiet and peaceful with the only people around being the elderly and the school children. Every one else was busy at work out on the water. The main road is covered with shrimps, spread out on mats and scorching in the sun, really a beautiful, colourful sight. The school children were eager to come see the visitors and as usual, Margaux was a big draw, with crowds of young girls vying for a chance to shake her hand.
When we arrived back at the dock our motorbike drivers were still there waiting for us, and we climbed on for the slow bumpy ride back to the tuk-tuk. I again arrived considerably later than Margaux and Yann who were busy entertaining the local children when I arrived. Of the many Cambodian children we had entertained, these guys seemed to be completely enamoured by the fact that foreigners were visiting their home. The young teenage girl, who ran the small shop where we sought out shade, actually gave her two hair barettes to Margaux and I, she took them right out of her hair and handed them to us. When Margaux pulled out one of her hair accessories from her bag and handed it to her she kissed it and put it in her pocket. As we drove off, the tuk-tuk was surrounded by children laughing and waving goodbye. For the rest of the afternoon, Chhay would not let us get off the hook, we still had one more group of Angkor Temples to visit. We were happy not to have skipped them, as they are more remote and full of character. As we pulled up to the largest of the three temples, so did a truckload of nuns and monks who shuffled in ahead of us. Despite our exhaustion and the midday sun, we still found the energy to race up the stairs of the temple when Margaux called out "last one up buys drinks tonight". Once again, I came in last place, but it was ruled that there was interference from Yann, so he was disqualified for cheating and came in last place. We pulled into our guest house right around sunset, said goodbye to Chhay and immediately set out to buy our tickets for Phnom Penh. We had less than a week left with Margaux, no time to lose!

Temple Hopping Madness

For our second day at the Angkor Temples, we had a late start, 7:30 a.m. We had decided to do whatever our tuk-tuk driver told us, he seemed to know what he was doing. We whizzed by the hoards of tourists (of which we had been part the day before) and stopped at a huge temple where were parked only a few other tuk-tuks. The morning passed by quickly as we wandered through the temples.
Most of the time we were only accompanied by the Cambodian children with their dirty faces and clothes and their calls of "buy something from me, only one daw-law". Most of the time we were able to resist their pleas, but it was clear that the temples in which they were "posted" got much less traffic than others and their sales much have been correspondingly low. One boy explained to us that their families paid for spots in the temples, that is, they paid off the police officers who patrol the area to allow them to sell there. The busier the temple, the higher the fee to be there. His aunt had been selling for 15 years, and he had joined her many years ago himself (he only looked about 10 years old). Not surprisingly his English was impeccable. The children know a fact about each country who might bring visitors to the temples. Here is the conversation we had with most of the children we met:

child: "Hi where you from?"
us: "Canada"
child: "Canada, you speak two languages. Capital, Ottawa. Population 32 million."
us: "Wow, you're pretty clever!"

In the afternoon we visited the "jewel of Angkor", Banteay Srei Temple, a small but beautifully carved temple that is dedicated to women. It was worth the 16km tuk-tuk drive down dusty bumpy roads. On our way back we stopped at a small village where we were greeted by a crowd of incredibly friendly villagers. The centre of attention was a little baby, dressed in a cute little tank top. The entire time we visited, I was fairly certain that the baby was a girl, but his grandmother must of noticed this by some subtle behavior I displayed. She proceeded to pull his pants down to make sure that we knew he was in fact a little boy. This got a huge laugh from all his siblings and cousins who teased him (unknown to him) about his little tank top. We bought palm sugar candy from the villagers (made from sap from palm trees, just like maple syrup!) and said goodbye.
Margaux and I were ready to call it a day, but Yann insisted on being dropped off at Angkor Wat to catch the sunset. I will give his account of the sunset at Angkor Wat (since Margaux and I were at the guest house by then). Just like sunrise, the crowds gather in huge numbers at Angkor Wat for the sunset. Among them several amateur, or maybe even professional photographers, looking for that unique shot?! The most popular place to stand is on the edge of the two pools that sit in front of the Wat. This way you can get the Wat and its reflection in the pool. The sunset causes a slight dilemma however, because some tourists choose to actually watch the sunset, which does not fall over Angkor Wat. What better place to watch the sunset but sitting on the edge of the pool, across from the photographers, right in the middle of their perfect shot?
Although slightly annoying, one cannot actually expect to get a shot of Angkor Wat without a tourist in it? However one photographer was determined to do so. After a little bit of yelling coming from both sides of the pool, he marched over to the other side and attempted to drop kick a woman in the face who was sitting with her two elderly parents. She managed to duck out of the way of his kick but her father got up to defend her and the photographer proceeded to brawl with him (did I mention he was elderly). After a few seconds the assailant walked away, with everyone in complete shock, including the Cambodian police who watched the entire incident unfold. I'm sure he succeeded in completely ruining the poor family's Angkor experience, and you might notice Yann didn't get any shots of the sunset.

Starting Cambodia with a Bang

After a long day on the Mekong we arrived in Phnom Penh after dark and were not able to find an air conditioned room. We did however find a room for only 4$ US (for three people), it became the holder of two titles "the cheapest place we've slept at" and "the stinkiest place we've ever slept at", I guess the two go hand in hand. It didn't matter because we were getting up early the next morning to head to Siam Reap, home of Cambodia's main tourist attraction, the Angkor Temples.

The 6 hour bus ride to Siam Reap from Phnomn Penh was fairly easy (although the air conditioning seemed to become less and less effective), when we arrived at the bus station we were drenched in sweat and greeted by the usual team of tuk-tuk drivers. One in particular caught our eye, he was holding a sign on which was painted the hand-written message: "100 RLS tuk-tuk ride to any hotel HASSLE FREE". The young skinny driver is basically giving a free tuk-tuk ride, so what's the catch? We love a good fight, so we hopped right and asked him to bring us to a guest house we had selected from our guidebook. He suggested a different one, "just to look at" and he would bring us "anywhere else" if we didn't like it. We didn't really care where we went, as long as it was cheap and had air conditioning. The first place he brought us to was a whopping 15$ a night, we told him we needed cheaper, he happily obliged. The next place he brought us to seemed nice, and I went to look at a room while Margaux and Yann waited, exhausted and overheated in our tuk-tuk. It was nice, only 8$ a night, but it didn't have air conditioning. After a tense moment between those who wanted air conditioning and those who didn't, we decided we would stay at the hotel, and the manager agreed to transfer our things to an air conditioned room the next day and we would pay 10$ for that room. Good compromise. Our tuk-tuk driver waited patiently as we worked out the details and settled on the guest house. Meanwhile he chatted Yann up about touring the Ankor Temples the next day. A brilliant scheme, he drives us around "hassle free" and then gets customers for the next day. We were happy to tour with him, his English was decent and he charged 12$ a day (including a 5:30 a.m. pick up to catch Angkor Wat at sunrise).

Getting up at 4:45 a.m. is extremely painful, but we did it, just to get a glimpse of the fames Angkor Wat with the sun rising above it. And a glimpse is about all you can get at Angkor Wat, as we pulled in at about 6 a.m. there were already thousands of tourists entering the massive complex. It's what we expected and even with all the people around, I still had butterflies in my stomach, walking down the giant walkway leading across the moat into the main gates and catching my first view of the spiraling towers of Angkor.
We spent almost two hours exploring Angkor Wat, actually Yann did more exploring than Margaux and I did. Margaux and I did a lot of exploring from a seated position. I am aware that it was only the first temple of the day, but there were many left to go and the Cambodian heat hadn't set in yet. We were thinking ahead, we were conserving our energy.
Note: Yann has climbed to the top of Angkor Wat to snap this photo, Margaux and Emilie generously remained seated to add some character to the shot

The next 8 hours is somewhat of a blur of giant temples, tuk-tuk rides and lots of sun. The temples are incredible, each one of them with its own special feature. My favourite were the huge faces of Bayon Temple. As you approach Bayon it looks like a big pile of stones, but when you enter the temple the stones come together to form giant faces, you can't be anywhere in the temple without 3 or 4 of them in your field of vision. When you step back and look the temple from the road, they disappear. Amazing. Margaux's favourite were the long carved murals at the base of Bayon Temple, telling of the various struggles of the Khmer Empire: Chinese invaders (with Khmer wives), famine, slavery etc. Yann's favourite moment of the day (although he won't admit it) was fighting for a spot to get a good shot of Angkor Wat at sunrise.
In the afternoon we visited Ta Prohm, one of the famous temples being reclaimed by the jungle (also the filming location of Angelina Jolie's Tombraider). Actually I had to take note of all the temples we saw using our guidebook at the end of the day, trying to piece together our visit from the maps of the site. This was our first day of three. We had to convince Yann to skip the sunset over Angkor Wat, he would have two more chances and we had already been at Angkor for almost 10 hours.