As it is the world’s 12th longest river, and travels through literally every country we would be visiting on mainland South East Asia, it was inevitable that the Mighty Mekong would feature heavily in our lives, particularly with our ongoing fetish for being near water.
Our affair started properly in Cambodia, with a night in Kampong Cham, before crossing over for the first time and taking a potholed track that followed the eastern bank through dusty rural villages. This was exactly why we’d brought the Beaut, and it was wonderful. We took wrong turnings; drove down tracks far far too narrow for us; and generally had a brilliant time, with waving children running alongside (and overtaking on mopeds…).
Our destination was Kratie, another key provincial town on the river bank, but after stopping for provisions in the market, the lure of freshwater dolphins to the north drew us out again before nightfall. After being refused a camp spot at the dolphin watching centre itself, we continued on another kilometre or so to Kampi. Here we were greeted with the unexpected – a kind of Butlins for Cambodians. A holiday resort with wooden walkways built on the river – stretching for hundreds of metres out in all directions, and lined with hammocks. There were children jumping in and playing; surfing rubber rings in and out of the gangways, with their families relaxing, drinking beer and eating picnics on dry land. The few tourists we did see arrived on tour buses, and were whisked round at pace, but needless to say, we dived straight in – and took the opportunity for a well needed wash!
The following day we returned to the dolphin watching centre and, for once, paid the tourist price ($9 per person) willingly – after all, there are only supposed to be 85 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong. We were worried that it would be a bit of a disappointment, and the critically endangered species would elude us, but we were in for a treat. We spent the vast majority of our allotted hour gazing in delight at a small frolicking pod, and returned to shore utterly satisfied.
Little did we know that our day was to only get better. Just as we were climbing into the Beaut, we were hailed by Thomas, a missionary from Singapore, who was with two of his sponsored children and his ‘soul brother’, a master monk.
If I’m honest, I can’t really remember how it happened, but after an hour or so of photos by the Beaut and general excited conversation, we were driving down the road after them, completely failing to keep up with their Land Cruiser, having been invited to spent the night at the temple. It turned out that this was no ordinary night at the temple. It was the climax of a 3 day ceremony (not party – as we were frequently reminded), in honour of the finished build of a school on the edge of the temple grounds, financed by Thomas’ charity. It was a truly impressive ceremony, and we only caught the final afternoon/evening. There was a show by authentic Khmer dancers; fireworks; fire lanterns; games; food; an incredibly dubious-looking Ferris wheel; and most amazingly of all: a large open air rave tent. Slightly embarrassingly, it all proved a little much for us, and we retired back to the temple and spent the rest of the evening chatting to monks who were only too delighted to get the chance to practice their English.
The ‘ceremoning’ continued until 4am, and, with the morning prayers (chanting) starting at 5, it is fair to say that it wasn’t the most restful of nights. However, being literally dragged off to breakfast almost as soon as we emerged from our tent firmly reminded us of the incredible Buddhist hospitality we were shown. We said a fond farewell (how many of you can claim to have been hugged by a master monk?!), and we were finally on our way – at least as far as the next temple which we had been invited to!
This one is actually in the guide book, for it sits atop the only hill around, and has pretty special views of the surrounding Mekong valley. The steps up are worth it – I promise! Be sure to take a book to donate to their new and slowly expanding library – it will be welcomed!
Next on our Mekong tourist tour was the turtle sanctuary at Sambor. If I’m honest, it wasn’t much, but does shelter rare hatchling freshwater turtles when they are at their most vulnerable, and, arguably more importantly, help to educate the local community about the human impact on this endangered species.
Battambang has firmly placed itself on the exclusive ‘places we could live’ list. There’s enough going on to keep yourself busy: the circus was fantastic; there are a selection of cooking courses to do; a couple of different markets to wander around; and most importantly of all – plenty of good cafés and restaurants. There is also a vineyard that does wine tastings – please see the additional blog on SE Asian wine. We didn’t even get chance to do a ride on the Bamboo train, or a bike tour into the countryside – both of which seemed extremely popular. We met some lovely people – a real mixture of locals, expats who generally work in one of the many charitable organisations, and tourists. Tom went into a school for a few days, observing some science lessons, and giving a talk to some students about our trip so far. The Beaut also had a makeover!
We stayed at Tomato hostel, which was ludicrously cheap at $4 a night for a double with a fan that worked when it wanted to… And used the money we saved on accommodation to further expand our stomachs.
Top of the list was Kin Yei cafe. I’m not sure what was better – the Flat White or the poached eggs and proper bacon! Regardless, we didn’t just go once!
A close second was Choco L’art Cafe. French owned, it was always a popular choice as an after dinner location, mainly due to the decent and reasonable value wine and the HEAVENLY puddings. Lime merengue pie. Wow. There’s even a tasting plate of three (or four on a good day!) mini deserts if you can’t make your mind up (or just want them all!).
Third prize goes to Coconut Water, which is a Fair-trade shop with a restaurant upstairs. It also organises school voluntourism ventures if you like that kind of thing. Anyway, the Khmer food was really good, and excellent value. We then spent hours just chatting to the waiter, and ended up going for a drink with him in the market after his shift was over, where he tried (with limited success) to improve our Khmer!
An honourable mention goes to the Flavours of India. Delicious – but not cheap. The set menu is definitely worth it however.
If you want a cheap eat, go to the market by the river (on the West Bank). A wide selection of Khmer dishes, including BBQ and good noodles, and everything less than $3.
With heavy hearts, after delaying departure for over a week, we said goodbye to Ping-Ping and Dancing Baby, and set course for one final round of poached eggs before getting back on the road. Next stop – the Mighty Mekong!
Staying on the culinary theme, whilst in Battambang we both enrolled on a cooking course at Nary Kitchen. Although not often as exquisite as a high standard Thai curry, we have found the quality of Khmer food to be much more consistent – we haven’t had a bad meal in Cambodia yet! We were therefore, keen to know how it was done! $10 per person seems to be the going rate for a 3 hour lesson, including an educational trip to the local food market where Kat found she had the stomach for everything except baby turtle (still alive). Returning ingredients in hand (don’t drop the eggs!), we donned hideous pink chef’s garb and set to work pounding paste for fish Amok – the national dish.
The jokes of the instructor became steadily harder to force a laugh at as the course progressed, although to his credit, he did speak both English and French. Other dishes on the menu were beef Lok-Lak (fast becoming our favourite); fried spring rolls; and banana goop for desert – delicious, but we’d never come across tapioca before!
Obviously the best part of the course came at the end, sampling our wares! By some miracle we hadn’t managed to poison ourselves!
Being partial to cheeky glass of wine (or three), when the opportunity to visit a vineyard rears it’s head, we are usually the first on the scene. After managing to find the only one in Myanmar, we thought we’d do the honourable thing, martyr ourselves and conduct a thorough review of the regions’ wine producing capabilities.
Red Mountain – on the shore of Inle Lake, Myanmar
As a location for a wine tasting, this couldn’t really get any better. The vineyard has spectacular views of the Inle Lake valley. There is a good selection of whites and reds on offer, and the tasting menu is a four glass affair. Two whites, a red and a desert white. Being brutally honest, the quality didn’t really live up to the price as a general rule, although we did each find one or two that slipped down easier then the rest. Conclusion: well worth doing for the experience and the setting, if not the quality of the wine!
Prasat Phnom Banon Winery, Battambang, Cambodia
Again, the country’s only foray into wine making. A short drive south of Battambang (where, incidentally, there is an excellent wine shop selling a wide variety of wines from all around the world), the small vineyard is in the village of Bot Sala. The tasting menu is, in theory, cheap ($2.50), but only includes one red, a brandy, a two shot size glasses of juice – a grape and a ginger. It is fair to say that this is probably the only time where we have been grateful for small portions at a wine tasting. The juices were pretty good, but the wine was possibly the worse we have ever tasted and the brandy was something else entirely. By that I mean that it could not be described as brandy. The guide book describes it as “tasting favourably to turpentine”, but we don’t think that really does it justice. Just see Tom’s reaction!
First of all…. we admit it: Tom and I are NOT temple people. (A week long Nile cruise, five years ago gave us a rather brutal introduction to the feeling of being ‘Templed Out’ – we have since been careful not to repeat the experience).We understand that in this part of the world, to say that you’re not temple people is positively sacrilege however, this must be taken into consideration when reading our account of our day in Angkor and indeed to explaining away the fact that we stayed for a mere day, when three day and week long tickets are available to those with better temple stamina/budgets!
Needless to say that a single day trip to the Angkor temples must start early. Sunrise (and sunset) is a key part of of your spiritual/cultural/romantic experience – three things that Tom could not be more on board with. So an early start we had. Ignoring the advise of our friendly guesthouse host who told us that we ‘MUST’ take a tuk-tuk as driving the Beaut around would ‘DEFINITELY’ not be allowed, we rolled up at 05.30 on our own wheels, bought our $20 day trip entry and were waved in, no questions asked. (Moral of the story – never listen to the advise of anyone trying to sell you a tuk-tuk).
As non-temple and non-tourist people, having our own transport made all the difference. In the first instance, when the crowds gathered by the moat of Angkor Wat for sunrise, we were able to pull up by the side of the road and grab an elevated view on top of our girl, unmolested by hawkers and crowds alike. Later in the day the Beaut proved equally advantageous, when avoiding the ‘tour bus / tuk-tuk’ loops and allowed us to get out to the furthest (and quietest) of Angkor’s temples.
Following the sunrise over Angkor Wat the next logical thing is to get yourselves inside to have a proper look, and actually, its one of the best times to do so, as many of the ‘People’s Republic of Bus Tours’ head back to Siem Reap for breakfast (not necessary as you can get an egg baguette on site for $1). Angkor Wat is obviously the main attraction and for good reason, its the largest, the most imposing and its fairly well preserved with some walls of colour still telling their stories in places. Those who like the biggest and the best will be suitably awed by Angkor Wat but for those, like me, who are fans of chaos and dilapidation, your day will only get better after you have ticked this one off.
Enter the shady Ta Prom, set of Tomb Raider and completely overrun by nature: man may build but eventually the wild will reclaim. Trees grow under, over, on and around the walls and temple and the moss is everywhere. It’s utterly charming and the longer walk around the outer walls is well worth the effort.
Next, to Ta Som. A random pick from the guide book, (incidentally, don’t rely on the scale of the maps, it’s generally further than it looks) this one is blessedly smaller, and whilst a little less wild than Ta Prom, the most beautiful feature is the rear gate which, though still intact, has been totally enveloped by an enormous tree and its exposed roots.
As I said, we’re not really temple people, so after three good temple explorations and with the midday sun staring to crisp our pasty white skin – we made that lunch time. The food inside is actually pretty good but be sure to ignore the prices on the menu – haggle hard but expect fairly slow service (even by Cambodian standards.)
Re-fueled and with enthusiasm at an unexpected high we made for Angkor Thom, the walled city housing many temples and in particular Bayon Temple. This one is a must for all but especially for those with transport they’re a little proud of due to the fairly epic photo opportunities. Leaving behind all chat about how much we love the Beaut, Bayon Temple is really special. Special because it has a very different feel to the others we saw, for some unknown reason the colours stick in your mind. If feeling artistic you might say Charcoal and British Racing Green. But it’s the upper level, that wows. It’s covered…and we mean covered with towers of enormous and beautifully caved faces, 216 to be exact. The photos cannot really do it justice but maybe the couple getting married there (All in Pink) would disagree.
Four seemed like a poor effort considering the temples of Angkor total fourty-six, (mentioned in the guidebook at least) so we picked one more – really off the beaten track, though my bad habit of not quite reading to the end of the paragraph backfired somewhat, when we discovered that it was atop a hill and a good 30 minute hike (in 35C heat I will add). Now this one is true chaos. Fallen stones are all over the shop and huge and beautiful flowering trees burst from the top of the twin towers but best of all we had it all to ourselves, a blessed relief after some of the maddening crowds.
A short drive back into the thick of it and nothing remained of our day but to watch the sun go down over one of the lakes, complete with an Angkor beer and fishermen (practicing their butterfly stroke of all things).
Not a fun day out – but essential for anyone visiting Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole. Lots of things are deemed ‘essential’ in guide books, but these two really really are. I can’t see how you can get a full impression of Cambodia without visiting these two places.
I can’t really explain them in words if I’m honest. Not in a way that would do it justice, but I will try and give a bit of background information about their role in the genocide that happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. In under 4 years, the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 3 million people. The exact number isn’t known, as a large number of the mass graves are deep within the jungle regions, or in areas known to be land mined. This number is even more shocking when you realise that the population of Cambodia (or Democratic Kampuchea as it was then known) at the time was only 8 million. The majority of these people died as a result of the conditions imposed upon them – forced labour; no sanitation or healthcare; very limited food, and a policy of mass resettlement where all of the people in the cities were forced to move into the countryside to set up collective farms. Even Mao declared that he couldn’t have implemented a policy like that.
The Killing Fields and the S-21 prison however, show an even worse side to the Khmer Rouge. As it became clearer and clearer than their ‘social experiment’ was failing and the regime was falling apart, the leadership became even more paranoid and brutal in it’s suppression of ‘suspected traitors’. The S-21 prison (now the Tuol Sleng memorial centre) is situated in an old school (which were all closed in the time of the regime), and was a torture and interrogation centre. It is estimated that 17,000 people passed through this centre on the way to the Killing Fields. I’m not going to describe what it is like, but it has been left in the exact state that it was found, complete with photographs.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek was an old Chinese burial site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge drove people here in trucks from the S-21 prison and murdered them. The bodies of nearly 9,000 men, women, children and infants have been recovered from the mass graves here, and there are still 43 mass graves that have been left untouched. Like the prison, it’s a truly horrifying place, with the memorial stupa being particularly shocking.
I thoroughly recommend the audio guides – the one for the Killing Fields is very clear and informative, and deciding not to get one for the prison was a mistake. We found that without one, it was confusing and harder to understand.
A very difficult day. Lots of emotion, and for me, an overwhelming feeling of anger, not just at the Khmer Rouge regime, but at the Western governments that had continued to support the Khmer Rouge for decades after they had been ousted from power, both politically (they retained their seat on the UN!), and even through financial aid. Words fail me.