Meandering Along The Mekong

There was no way around it, to get out of Phnom Penh we just had to throw ourselves into the traffic. It was as chaotic as ever and the motorcycles were crazily weaving all over the place. The best policy was just to edge forward slowly but even then you had to make sure a bike hadn’t pulled into the space in front of you. As we cleared Phnom Penh though the traffic improved. The road was good and the area was less populated so there was also less traffic on the road.  
Our route North was following the mighty Mekong river which comes all the way from the Tibetan plateau. At this time of the year at the end of the rains the river is full, brown and fast moving. As we drove North we would get fleeting glances of it through the rice paddies. We were in farming country and the farmers had a hard life tilling their small plots of land. Water buffalo were still been used to plough the fields and the rice was been picked by hand.


At the end of the day we turned down a small lane off the main road and came across a spot of uncultivated land right on the edge of the Mekong. It was an idyillic spot and had clearly been used for picnics before as there was evidence of a fire ring and unfortunately as is always the case some litter. We settled in to enjoy a lovely sunset over the Mekong.


The next morning we were awakened by the tinkling of cow bells. The local farmers were bringing their cows out to graze. They seemed fascinated by us as we were by them.
Heading North of Kratjie we were hoping to see the rare Irawaddy Dolphin. This dolphin is found in the Mekong and a couple of other rivers but is endangered. In the Mekong there are thought to be less than 100 remaining but as they tend to stay in the same area we were hopeful of seeing some. We hired a boat to take us out and of course he knew exactly where they were. We spent an hour or so observing them in the deep swirling pools. There must have been a pod of about a dozen that we saw. The dolphin has a slightly unusual shape in that it does not have a beak but instead has a bulbous head rather like a Beluga Whale. Whilst they did not come that close we felt really privileged to be seeing such a rare creature.


Late that afternoon we reached the border with Laos. Not wanting to cross so late in the day we looked for somewhere to camp. I had noticed a small road a few hundred metres away from the border post heading down towards the river so we headed down there. It led to a tiny village with water buffalos, chickens, cows etc. There was a nice flat grassy area so we asked at one of the houses if we could park for the night. They said yes and seemed very relaxed by it waving to us as they passed on their scooters. The children were more curious coming up to us to say hello. In the end they were desperate to have their photo taken.


Looking at the map I realised we were really close to the border. I walked further down the road and had not got 200metres before there was a pole across. I guess we had got as far as we could.
The next morning we were up early to cross the border into Laos. As it was a Sunday and in any event things don’t seem to move very quickly in either Cambodia or Laos not all the border staff were about. Whilst the border was open it is normally very quiet anyway so we had to search all over for the relevant staff. Leaving Cambodia there was no one at customs. As I needed to have my Carnet stamped we needed to find someone. The immigration office used his phone but with no result. Eventually he found a key to the customs office. After rummaging in the drawer he found he necessary stamp and with my guidance we completed the exit form on the Carnet.
Arriving in Laos was no different, the first point of call was to get a visa on arrival but the man who did this wasn’t there. Immigration gave him a call and after 10 minutes along he came. Once we were stamped in it was the turn of the truck at customs but the customs man had gone off somewhere. After a few calls and a wait the truck was cleared. The last thing was insurance. There was an office at the border but it was closed. We were worried as it was Sunday it may not be open but immigration assured us it would open eventually. Since we thought it better to get the insurance there and everything was very relaxed we decided to wait. In any event the girls had their schooling to do. Eventually the insurance man came and we were all sorted to enter Laos.
We were not going very far just 20kms to the first town where we were going to park the truck while we took a boat out to one of the islands in the Mekong. At this stretch of the river it widens out and creates a network of supposedly 4,000 islands. We were going to head out to one of these to spend a few days. This is also the part of the Mekong where there are some impressive rapids, so impressive it meant the river was not navigable so the French built a railway line across one of the Islands to transport boats. I will let Alisha describe our time there below.


Cruising up the Mekong on a rather noisy old boat we went to the island of Don khon ( which I have no idea how to spell) where we searched for a guest house. After what seemed like hours searching we finally found a good place with both a fan and air con. Lucy instantly fell in love with the mosquito nets hanging above the beds and instantly began to take them down and tuck them in luckily she was stopped as we prepared for a walk. After walking through the small village we walked among the rice fields to a part of the Mekong where there was a dramatic fall complete with Rapids and large pointy rocks here Lucy befriended a kitten.  


The meal that night was atrocious the noodles where disgusting, the pork burnt and the Spring rolls yucky. Luckily we didn’t get tummy aches the next day. The only bright side was that the restaurant housed a cute puppy and a kitten so Lucy spent most of the meal in raptures watching the kitten and puppy play. 


The next morning I was woken by a very, very, very noisy boat. After a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce we went for a walk across the fields to the other side of the island where we had a lovely encounter with another lovely playful puppy. On returning we found out that we had to do school ( boo hiss ) after an hour we went out for lunch. Just as we were leaving we found out that Lucy had impetigo a skin disease that gives you nasty scabs, we had the cream to cure it back in the truck though.


Lunch was gorgeous, a tasty pizza with a massive sandwich for daddy and mummy to share. Me and Lucy kept watching the playful cat try to catch and eat a cricket. After school and a rest we walked to an old steam locomotive that the French used to transport gunboats around large waterfalls. We also went to see a Wat ( What Wat ?) Mummy told us a funny story and Daddy drove us all crazy by saying “What Wat ?” 


We went back to that lovely restaurant for dinner where we had had lunch Lucy played with the little girl although Lucy could not touch her due to her infection. We stayed till past nine after that we all felt rather glad to get to bed. The next morning after breakfast we went back to the mainland on another little old rickety boat. We got back and cleaned and treated Lucy’s impetigo with clean water, soap ,cotton wool and antiseptic cream. 


Then school ( double boo hiss) and then we a drove to a waterfall up on top of a plateau where the temperature was going to be 18 to 19 degrees 😱. We dressed up for Halloween after dinner. Me as a witch of the night and Lucy as my little spirit assistant we got lots of sweets 👍🏻. On the third time we went round daddy put on a funny voice and kept offering us vegetables. It was a great Halloween. All except for the fact we where woken by very very noisy barking dogs AT FIVE IN THE MORNING. But apart from that and a few other little things, it was a great few days.


As Alisha has said, from the Mekong we headed up to the Bolevan Plateau. The Plateau is famous for its waterfalls but what we were looking forward to, was that as it was at over a thousand metres high, it being a lot cooler. We were able to camp at the first waterfall and enjoyed a lovely quiet, cool night, that was until the dog started barking.


We spent a very pleasant day exploring a number of impressive waterfalls that were in full flow. At the end of the day we found a nice quiet spot to camp up a rough little road next to an antennae.

Reflections on Cambodia

Lucy

Angkor Wat was a very nice place filled with fascinating carvings that told different stories. All the sunrises we saw were very busy but it was rather grey. We saw lots of temples, including Ta Prom which is covered in trees. Alisha took hundreds of photos of me in tree roots. We liked getting lost in the temple and finding all the different parts. Before Angkor Wat, I had my birthday. I had 8 cupcakes, since it was my 8th birthday. 

Lots of the ladies wear their pyjamas during the day, they have long sleeved, long legs and are very flowery. It keeps them cool which is a good idea as it is very hot.

Alisha
Do you want to go to a country filled with crazy drivers, boring temples and weird contraptions on motor bikes? 
Welcome to Cambodia 
A country filled with all the crazy and mad drivers. If you don’t get hit by something like a large truck, you are probably going to hit some thing ,probably a motor bike. These motorbikes serve as family vehicles so it’s quite often you’ll see 4 or more people on one of these vehicles. They balance things on the seats and sit on them. We also saw one with a sewage tank balanced on the back of it. People attach all sorts of carts to them. Also there seem to be a sort of two-wheeled tractor, people attach carts to them. 


If you ask someone what there best bit of a trip to Cambodia was most will say the temples of Angkor Wat. I am not sure I agree. I don’t think it was the temples, you see to me one temple is very much like another, I preferred the beach. The temples did prove a wonderful opportunity to try out my new camera. They where interesting with some cool features and carvings, but by the end of 6 days I had got very very sick of temples and I think if we had stayed another day I would have screamed. Luckily we moved on the next day. 


I think part of the problem of Cambodia is the heat, it rarely dropped under 30 degrees and if it did it was only because it was raining. Right now the sweat is pouring off me in buckets as I write. That’s why we stayed in so many hotels as we needed the air con otherwise we would cook like eggs.
So that’s Cambodia a land of crazy drivers, interesting temples and weird contraptions on motor bikes and if you decide to go there the only piece of info of what to bring is a camera, some bug spray, sun screen, some dogem car bumpers for your car and a sense of adventure ( and probably some clean pants to and some food etc)
Happy Travels.
Gilly

I’ve enjoyed Cambodia but for me it has been one of the most challenging countries we have travelled through. It wasn’t one particular issue but a series of things: the terrible driving; our subsequent crash; bad roads; high temperatures; getting sick; and the frequent heavy rain all added up. I’m pleased we made the decision to spend a week relaxing near the beach to get back into the swing of travelling again. 
Despite my grumbles, there are many amazing things in Cambodia. Angkor Wat totally blew me away with its beauty, history and incredible size. Even after 6 days exploring, we hadn’t seen all of the temples, there are many more further out. 


As stressful as the driving was for Steve, and for me being the second pair of eyes, it did have its funny side. The Cambodian people are highly inventive, especially when it comes to transporting goods around. Just when we thought the vehicle, cargo or combination of people couldn’t get crazier, we would see something to top it. I missed getting a snap of the most ridiculous combination we saw a thatched roofed picnic shelter on the back of a tiny lorry, the shelter was 3 times wider than the lorry, twice the height and double the length! …and there were 3 of them in a row. My other favourite was a lady chopping vegies with a huge meat clever sitting astride a motorcycle food stall, while her husband navigated through the potholes at speed on a national highway. Every hour, there was a new “Did you see that!?!” moment.


Life isn’t easy here and the people have come through such a horrific past, yet they are calm (apart from when they are behind a wheel) and friendly. Even when we couldn’t communicate with people there were always lots of smiles. I relaxed and enjoyed our last couple of days in the country. We spent 2 nights at different spots on the Mekong River deep in the heart of rural Cambodia. The people we met there were gently curious but very relaxed about us staying on nearby common land, when we asked for permission they all indicated with big grins that it was absolutely fine. 
Steve
After 3 years and 3 months of been on the road I think we hit a bit of a wall in Cambodia. The driving along the roads from the Thai border to Phnom Penh was ridiculous and this was clearly compounded by being hit by a truck. Whilst the damage was not too bad it did shake us up a bit. That and for the virtually the first time on the trip we were all suffering from flu bugs.
To have gone so long without having that “get me out of here” moment I suppose was still a bit of an achievement.  
Fortunately Cambodia had some real highlights to compensate. The temple of Angkor Wat and those around it are truly magnificent and it was great to take our time seeing them and not having to rush it. With the frequent rain storms it was also good to avoid these and to be able to revisit some of the temples to enjoy them again.


There were also some good places to relax and recalibrate for the road ahead. We had a lovely time at the beach getting the truck sorted and ourselves back ready for the road ahead. The beach was not the greatest beach we have visited on this trip but was very chilled and it was also good to meet up with some fellow overlanders, Will and Amy.


Phnom Penh also turned out to be relaxed. The apartment an oasis in the hectic city that was still surrounded by bars, cafes and restaurants and close to all the sights while we waited for our Indian visas.  
And right at the end Cambodia surprised us. The roads improved, the traffic and population thinned out, the rain almost stopped and we could enjoy the countryside scenery of rice paddies, water buffalos and sunsets over the Mekong. It’s good to be back on the road.

Thought Provoking Phnom Penh

From designing high precision engineering parts for Formula 1 cars to fixing a broken truck tail-light, baking hot beside the road, using a soldering iron, sellotape, 2 plastic bottles and a red-felt pen. Not too much of a leap is it? Thankfully our fellow Overlander Will is brilliant at both ends of the automotive engineering spectrum. After our lovely night out at the beach in the rain with Will and his girlfriend, Amy, they came to our hotel the next morning to see if they could do anything with our completely smashed light. Will worked his magic and showed his full “Blue Peter” set of skills, so that the light was back working. It might not pass an MOT test but hopefully it will get us safely back to Thailand, where we can get a replacement. We were so grateful for both their help and skills as it was a really tricky job. The girls finished off by colouring in the red part of the light with their markers.


Feeling far more relaxed and rejuvenated after our week at the beach, we ventured back out onto Cambodia’s roads. After the previous week’s crash we were still a little wary but Steve soon got back into the swing of things. Thankfully the road to Kampot was quite quiet but it still had the diverse collection of vehicles and cargo that we have come to expect from Cambodia.

Kampot is a pretty little town on the banks of the Kampong Bay River, it’s known for its relaxed nature and pepper, grown in the surrounding area. The drive there was full of lusciously green rice paddies. The rain was falling steadily again and we could see the waterfalls falling from Phnom Bokor, a kilometre high escarpment, from miles away. Crossing the bridge into town we had planned to park at the far end of the riverfront promenade. However when we got there I didn’t feel happy leaving the truck there by itself while we went out for dinner that night. I then noticed the 2 karaoke nightclubs just opposite and vetoed it for our night spot too, especially as it was Saturday night. I’d seen a restaurant just over the bridge that had parking big enough for our truck, so suggested we go back there to ask. We parked up with much interest from the 10 or so waitresses, lounging around waiting for the last few lunch diners to finish. Eventually we found one of the ladies who could speak English and asked if we could park for the night, we offered to pay but they refused and were quite happy for us to park right on the riverfront. We’d already had lunch but stopped for cold drinks, as a gesture of good will. It looked like they were about to close for the day with table cloths hanging up and piles of dirty dishes everywhere.


We set off to explore town, our main aim was to find a good restaurant for that night to try the famed Kampot pepper crab. It was a relaxed sort of place with quite a few backpackers. There were lots of nice looking restaurants but many of them seemed to be run by westerners or with western menus with a bit of Khmer food thrown in. We found a couple that might be contenders and retreated to the truck for a couple of hours to get out of the rain. It was still chucking it down, as we got ready to go out for the night. Emerging from the truck we found that our restaurant hadn’t closed but had a new lease of life. It was starting to fill up with middle class Khmer families all looking very serious about their food. Maybe we had accidentally stumbled across the place for the crab? Running inside to avoid getting wet, we saw big platters of crab, fish and a whole host of other goodies all with the distinctive rows of green peppercorns. We had found our crab heaven, all on our “doorstep”. When our plate arrived it looked mouth-watering and delicious. Now the only issue was: how to eat whole crabs with chops sticks and a Chinese soup spoon? Let’s just say it wasn’t very pretty, much to the amusement of the waitresses who all gathered at the next table, between waiting tables, to watch how we would manage the challenge. The whole thing tasted wonderful, despite the mess.

Our aim was to arrive in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, at Sunday lunchtime, in the hope that the traffic would be light. Unfortunately for us, there was also some sort of big Buddhist festival at one of the Wats we passed on the road about 100km from the city. The cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes coming the other way were absolutely jam-packed full of people, in most of the trucks there seemed to be standing room only with 30 plus people squashed in the back.
Finding a place to park the truck in central Phnom Penh was always going to be a challenge, Steve had been scouring Google satellite maps the week before trying to find accommodation with a big parking lot. Thank goodness his search paid off and the first place we tried, were very welcoming and could fit the truck in. He did have to reverse the truck 50m down the road to their service entrance, not an easy task with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and everything else screeching around the corner at top speed weaving everywhere around him. The building’s 3 security guards had it in hand: blowing loud whistles; and waving at the vehicles to stop – which most of them completely ignored. We were very pleased not to be crossing town to find somewhere else to park and stay, we settled into our apartment. It turned out to be a great spot, in the embassy area; centrally located but quiet inside; with lots of restaurants nearby.
That evening we headed down to riverfront where the end of the Tonlé Sap lake meets the Mekong River to join those enjoying an early evening promenade in the lovely cooling breeze.


On Monday morning we were all bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 8am ready outside the Indian Embassy clutching our paperwork, waiting for it to open at 9. There are only a few Indian embassies that accept applications from non-residents, so we were very keen to get the process underway, even though we are still several months away from arriving there from Myanmar. The visa actually starts from when you receive it, rather than when you arrive, so we were hoping for a 6 or 7 month visa. First in the queue, it took them quite a while with quite a few questions to check out the forms we had filled in, we just had to wait till Thursday afternoon to find out if we had got them.
With the visas submitted we headed out to do some sightseeing. The Royal Palace was modelled on the Palace in Bangkok. While impressive it didn’t quite reach the heights of the counterpart in Thailand but it made for an interesting afternoon. 

Tuesday was a thought provoking day for Steve and I, Cambodia’s recent past should not be ignored. We have discussed the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s history briefly with the girls but visiting the museum and Killing Fields with them isn’t suitable, so Steve went by himself. This is what he wrote about it:
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days from 1975 to 1979. During that time they killed, starved or worked to death somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people or 1 in 4 Cambodians. It was one of the most barbaric genocidal regimes ever to be unleashed on our planet and that is saying something. It is a very dark period of Cambodian history but one that can not be avoided. While Gilly took the kids to see the dancing I went to two of the most symbolic monuments to that time. There are many more throughout Cambodia but these two are the most infamous. It was a thoughtful, sad day and one when it’s hard to grasp just how cruel humankind can be.
I first visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal crimes. This was a former high school that was turned into one of the worst security prisons. It’s in the middle of Phnom Penh in amongst the hustle and bustle and used to be just a normal high school. However between 1975 and 1979 it became a place of torture. Over 12,000 people went through the prison and only 7 survived. Two of whom were talking to visitors when I was there. It was a horrific place of torture. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone of intellect; doctors, nurses, teachers even just wearing glasses could make you a victim. Then before the end they turned on themselves. The purpose of torture was to have the victim confess to his crimes against the revolution or to been CIA or KGB spies, organisations that most of the prisoners had never even heard of. Once a confession had been extracted the prisoners were trucked out to be killed nearby.
Walking around and listening to the stories through the excellent audio tour it was difficult to imagine the horrors that had been perpetrated here less than 40 years ago.

From there I headed about 15kms out of town to Choeung Ek also know as the Killing Fields. It’s all peaceful here now with a large monument honouring those killed here. But there is no escaping what a gruesome place this was. The monument contains many of the skulls of the more than 17,000 people killed here. Prisoners were trucked in at night and killed almost immediately before been buried in shallow graves. Bullets were expensive so shovels and knives were used. The Khmer Rouge had a slogan then when pulling out the weeds you need to also pull out the roots. What this meant was that whole families were executed so the children could not want revenge. It meant a tree was used to kill babies who were then thrown into a pit with their dead mothers. Whilst it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for the prison guards if they did not obey orders they were also killed and towards the end the Khmer Rouge killed many of their own number in a number of purges.
It was a sobering day. You would hope humanity would learn from these awful lessons from the past but I suspect it does not. All it takes is someone with a crazy ideology spouting hatred, backed up by propaganda and brain washing to support it and a disaffected section of society only too eager to lap it up. In this case the Khmer Rouge used the disillusioned uneducated country peasants. They killed anyone with any education even though the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were themselves highly educated. They also evacuated all the cities. It’s hard to imagine that Phnom Penh was emptied in 3 days, with everyone been sent to slave on the land where many died from starvation and over work. 

Meanwhile the girls and I went off to find out about the reemergence of Khmer arts, which was almost completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. We visited a small arts academy offering free tuition in music, painting and traditional dancing to local young people. To support itself, tourists are shown around to watch the lessons for a fee but we were the only foreigners there at mid morning. Cambodian children usually go to school in the morning or afternoon, so the dance class was filled with girls between the ages of about 6 and mid-teens. They were very skilled, we couldn’t believe how flexible their fingers were to make the delicate hand gestures that are so important in classical Khmer dancing. After their dancing, they showed Lucy and I how to put on a extra long sarong, which is part of their costume. They then showed us some of the steps causing lots of giggling fits from them, which then spread to us. The drawing and music class were more serious with older students, the level of skill in the classical Khmer style was astounding. I hope it leads to a productive career for the talented students.

The sad fact is that although parts of Cambodia’s economy are now starting to boom, it is still a very poor country with huge scars from the past. There is a big sex-industry here, mostly frequented by Cambodians but there are quite a few sex-tourists too. Girls, and even children, are sold into prostitution by their poor families, it is incredibly sad. There a number of NGOs working in the country to help the victims of sex-trafficking, others help land mine victims; street children; the disabled; and other disadvantaged people. Many NGOs set up businesses so their clients can learn skills to support themselves. We’ve been to several restaurants in Cambodia set up by NGOs and we’ve been impressed with all of them. After the arts school, we went to one of them, Daughters of Cambodia which have a shop selling clothes and homeware made by former prostitutes. It’s an amazing project supporting women who want to leave the sex industry providing medical and psychological help; daycare for children; and training and employment in one of their 8 projects. We did some shopping, had a delicious lunch in their cafe and got foot massages in their spa. It was a lovely relaxing afternoon for us but also good to support such a worthwhile cause.

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We had been blown away by Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, even in its partially ruined state the whole place was amazing. Especially when you think that it was built by a culture that ruled a big chunk of SE Asia a thousand years ago. However many of the statues and ornaments are missing from the site, some of them are now displayed in the National Museum. The delicately carved, intricate statues are breathtakingly beautiful, many with that elusive “Angkor smile”.

At last it was Thursday afternoon, time to find out if we had got our Indian Visas. We trooped back to the embassy and found our passports waiting with a 6 month multiple entry visa – hooray! We will have to work around the extra month we wanted. It was a cushion, as we don’t know yet our planned exit route from India as there are many different factors in play, all out of our control.

With the visas in our passports, it was time to leave Phnom Penh and explore more of the country around the Mekong River.