Happy New Year.......Again!!
16 Apr 2007
|Yes, it's Happy New Year again!! We seem to be following new year's around the world at the moment and have just celebrated our 3rd in 4 months which isn't bad going. This time it is Cambodia and Thailand that have their new year in the middle of April and it lasts for 3 days, so we started it in Cambodia and finished it Thailand........we like to make the most of a party!
More of that later. The last time we left you we were just about to head on our side trip to the Bolaven plateau in Southern Laos which was excellent. The area is famous for it's coffee growing and it's waterfalls so we made the most of both. We were not able to actually visit a coffee plantation as they don't seem to have grasped that particular tourist attraction opportunity, but we did cycle past many coffee trees and saw loads of coffee beans sitting out in the sun to dry. We would have liked to have known more about the whole process and how it works but as it was we just made sure we sampled plenty of it and decided that whatever they do it seems to work.
We also made the most of the waterfalls as we stayed in a guest house by the Tad Lo falls the first night and arrived in time for a swim. Well I say swim, it was really just a dip as the pool was not big enough or deep enough for swimming. It is a spot that is popular with the locals too who not only go there for their family Sunday outing but they take their shampoo and washing powder with them and get their weekly washing done in the river at the same time! Unfortunately they just don't get the whole environment thing and it is obviously the most natural thing in the world for them to do.
The second night we arrived at another waterfall in time for a great swim in the pool below the falls. We had hoped to camp there but there was a ticket kiosk and restuarant and the people said we weren't allowed. Not sure why but we just went up the road a little bit and camped in the coffee plantation nearby instead which was great...... apart from the cows that decided to graze by our tent most of the night with their cow bells ringing loudly as they ate. Not conducive to a good night's sleep!
Early the next morning we visited yet another waterfall which is a very impressive twin fall that drops in to a deep gorge. No swimming at that one but good to see. It was then back down to sea level and temperatures we were told that day of 50 degrees in the sun! We headed South to Champassak, a town on the other side of the Mekong river. We had been following the Mekong for a while now and have to say that we hadn't realised it was so big and so impressive, and this is the dry season so it must be quite something in the wet. We crossed by a great wee ferry that was 2 wooden canoes joined together by flat boards making a platform for bikes and motor bikes. You roll on one side and off the other, all for about 25p. The afternoon was spent visiting the Wat Phou temple which is a beautiful ruined Angkorian temple on the side of a hill that is the same era and style as the temples at Angkor Wat so it was a good taste of things to come.
The next day was our last full days riding in Laos to the '4000 islands'. The widest part of the Mekong where they have many small islands - not 4000 so we're not sure how it got the name. 3 of the islands are inhabited and 2 of them have become real tourist hot spots. After cycling 127kms and another ferry ride later we were on Don Det island, staying in a wooden bungalow enjoying a beautiful sunset view of the Mekong from a hammock sipping beer - it's a tough life this travelling lark!!
The next morning we were up in time to have a swim as the sun was rising and the moon was disappearing, a lie on the hammocks, some breakfast and then back on the ferry all by 7.30am. We wanted to make the most of our island experience and our last night in Laos. It was then about 25kms to the Cambodian border. The main highway in Laos had been an excellent sealed road all the way but for some reason the last 6kms to the border were on really rough dirt through the woods on what can only be described as a dirt track. There were no signs to let you know you were on the right road and no traffic to reassure you that you were in fact approaching an international border. We only knew we were going the right way by flagging down the only motor bike to pass us and ask the guy for confirmation. The actual border post was no more than a wooden hut in the middle of nowhere. Certainly this is a fairly new border crossing but we had thought there might be a bit more to it. Anyway we duly crossed and were pleased to find that the Cambodians on the other side had been a bit more diligent with their road building and had made a new road all the way to the border. So 58 very flat kms later and we were in Stung Treng, our first Cambodian town.
As we have made our way South in Laos and in to Cambodia the countryside has become flatter and flatter and the weather has become hotter and hotter. We have nothing but admiration for the people who live in such hot and dry conditions and admire their resilience and ability to cope in such extremes. They are made of tougher stuff than we are - oh to have browner skin and to sweat less!! Cambodia also has very few good roads and the ones it does have are all in the flat river plains. So.......having looked at our maps, read the guide books, seen the countryside and felt the heat, we decided that we would take a slightly different approach to Cambodia. The cycling, from our point of view, was not going to be the most interesting and would therefore not be the main focus but we knew we wanted to visit the capital Phnomn Penh and the Temples of Angkor outside Siem Reap and would get there with a mix of public transport and riding.
We had hoped to get a boat most of the way to Phnom Penh but they don't operate in the dry season as there is not enough water so it was back on the bus for a 9 hr straight forward trip to the bustling and lively city of Phnom Penh. We hadn't felt the same level of buzz since Hanoi and we both enjoyed being back in a big Asian city. The population of Cambodia is approximately 14 million and the population of Phnom Penh in 2005 was 1.2 million but has probably increased since then. So there are a lot more cars and people here than in Laos and immediately we were back to having all of our senses attacked at once and all the nerves and patience tested as we rode out the bus station and in to our first traffic jam for a while.......... All good fun!
Our first stop in the city was the Tuol Sleng museum, or the S21 prison as it was called during the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979. What a desperately sad place but an amazing experience and a great education. We felt so ignorant of the atrocities that went on here during our life time and were deeply moved to learn more about what the Cambodian people suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. We had both read the book "First they killed my father" which is a very sad but very moving account of one family's experience, so we had both learned a bit about what went on, but seeing the museum and listening to the video was far more graphic and really gave you a very good, if somewhat disturbing insight.
To lighten the mood a bit we then went for lunch at a restaurant that trains and supports street kids in cooking, serving at tables and the general hospitality industry and apparently has been very successful in placing people in full time jobs in many hotels in the city. Over the next couple of days a trip to the National museum, coffee by the river, a trip to the Royal Palace, a nosey around the markets and some great food at one of the local street restaurants was petty much the rest of our Phnom Penh experience and one we really enjoyed. I should mention that when we were in the market and had left our bikes locked to a tree, as we often do, to our horror on our return we discovered that someone had tried to cut through our cable lock. Thankfully they were obviously disturbed before they had finished the job but goodness knows what we would have done if they had been successful. So that was a bit of a scare and one that has made us very protective of the bikes.
It was then back on the bikes for 3 days riding to Siem Reap which was similar to Southern Laos in terms of landscape but different in terms of levels of activity, crops that were growing and the increased number of cars and trucks. You wouldn't believe how many people and their belongings they manage to fit in the back of a pick up truck. And to think that we now have laws about booster seats for nippers and seat belts in front and back - it reminds you just how different a world they live in here. This stretch of road is actually in very good condition which is good for a smooth ride but not good from the point of view that they drive very fast which can get pretty scarey at times. You just need to keep your wits about you and be ready to move off the road in a hurry if required. The air around us was pretty blue at times with the swearing that was going on. Doesn't make any difference of course but it makes us feel better!
The main reason for coming to Siem Reap and in fact the main reason that Siem Reap exists at all, is for the amazing Temples of Angkor, including the most famous and well known, Angkor Wat. When we were in Laos we asked a Frenchman that we had met a few times on our travels what he thought of Angkor Wat and was it worth all the hype and his reply was (and you have to do this with a French accent) "A wat's a wat's a wat's a wat.......but then, there is Angkor Wat!!" So we guessed he was impressed, and so were we. It's hard to sum up our whole temple experience but it's fair to say that you can't fail to be impressed by this amazing complex of ancient and magnificient temples primarily for their number, size and amazing attention to detail. We bought a 3 day pass and really weren't sure if we would need that much time but have to say we were very glad we did as we really enjoyed being able to look at them without any need to rush and to visit all the main ones plus some of the smaller ones too. They were all built for Khmer kings during the Angkor period from the 11th to the 13th century. Each one for a different reason and each king trying to out do the other which has resulted in some of the most impressive architecture and detailed carving that we had ever seen. They are all in a huge area that has the feel of a country park with loads of beautiful trees and open park land. On the outer edges of the park there are small villages with locals selling traditional crafts and food with small ruined temples scattered in amongst them. Some of the main temples have huge moats still full of water and some are on a hill top giving great views of the surrounding countryside. We used our bikes to get around for the first 2 days then got a tuk tuk on the third day to visit one of the temples 37kms away which was fun in itself. So altogether a great experience.
After Siem Reap we headed for the Thailand border at a town called Poipet. The road is famous amongst travellers for it's desperate state of disrepair. It is 150kms with the first 50 being bearable and the rest just being a mix of pot holes and dirt with the dust being the most unpleasant, and dangerous aspect, from a cycling point of view as the visibility is so poor. We decided to brave the first bit and see how we got on but sure enough after 50kms it became really horrible. So we flagged down a mini bus and managed to hitch a reasonably comfortable ride for the rest of the way.
So our trip to Cambodia was short and sweet. It was strange to be leaving so soon, after only 10 days, but it felt longer and we saw the main things we wanted to see. It was also long enough to realise that what Cambodia lacked in quality cycling it certainly made up for in character, history and culture. It is a country that has had the toughest time over the years but it is also a country that feels like it is recovering amazingly well and the people are friendly, cheerful and obviously incredibly tough. It has a real dynamic feel to it but at the same time great charm. So we didn't regret the short time and we headed for the border feeling ready to move on and to see what Thailand has to offer.
As I mentioned before it was the new year celebrations in Cambodia and Thailand and we were crossing from one to the other right in the middle. It is the tradition in both countries to throw a lot of water and talcum powder at each other.........apparently good luck! In Cambodia however they have now banned them throwing the water in many areas as it has caused too many road accidents over the years, particularly with motor bikes. So Siem Reap was very placid with just a few quiet parties going on in local families. Our guest house owners had a lovely party with food, drink and music and some traditional khmer dancing. They invited all the guests to join them so it was a great mix of locals and tourists. This placid celebrating was very different from what we were about to experience however. As we drove towards the border in our mini bus we went through a few towns where obviously the water throwing has not been banned and they were going mad. They were throwing wee bags of water at anyone who drove past and some were throwing buckets full. We were so glad we weren't on the bikes although we did get a soaking in the short distance that we did cycle to the border gates. We were soon to discover that in Thailand they celebrate with even more enthusiasm and even more water and after our arrival in the first town called Aranyaprathet we were absolutely soaked and covered in a talcum powder paste. It was all done in very good humour and the atmosphere was electric. It was literaly gridlock in the town centre with loads of people piled in the back of pick up trucks with huge drums of water just chucking it everywhere. There was very loud music being played from every car stereo and a real carnival atmosphere. What a welcome to Thailand!
In addition to the party going on around us we were immediately struck by how developed Thailand felt compared to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. To see ATM machines on every corner, Dunkin Donuts and loads of very modern looking cars it almost didn't feel like Asia at all. A taste of things to come we think. It may take a bit of getting used to but we'll wait and see and we'll save that for the next update.
In the meantime we'll sign off and let you get on with your work, chores or whatever you're up to(we've forgotten what they are!!).
We hope you're all very well and in good spirits. Keep the messages coming, we love them.
All the best
Vicky and Nick