Christmas…Wat Christmas?

Battambang is a small city with not a huge amount to do, other than sit in one of the bars or cafés and watch the world go by. We walked around the town in about half an hour, which gives you an idea of the size of the place. As usual Katy found a market to drag me around, where they had everything ranging from ivory ornaments and t-shirts, to saucepans and motorcycle parts. There was even a beauty salon in the middle of it, but even after offering to pay for Katy to get her hair cut, she wasn’t tempted for some reason.

What it did have in abundance were chemists and walk in hospitals, offering everything from rectal probes to blood tests. Not something that we were in need of at the time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concentration of chemists before, so the locals are either very ill or hypercondriacs.

Friendship Festival, Battambang
Friendship Festival, Battambang

We went to a Cambodian festival which was just outside the city while we were there, and let’s just say that it wasn’t Glastonbury. We were told that it started at 3pm, so we decided to arrive at around 4pm to give it time to get going. When we did arrive, there were only about 4 other people there and the bands were just doing sound checks. On the bright side there was no queue for the beers, so we just sat and watched a Cambodian reggae band get ready for their set at 1am.

There was a VIP bar that overlooked the main stage which was only $1 entry, so we decided to take a look. Annoyingly we weren’t allowed to take our beers up with us, and inside they only sold Champagne and wine for $5 each. When you compare that to $0.50 a beer, we decided to go and get another beer and sit on the grass. It did eventually get busier, and we were treated to Cambodia’s version of Michael Buble, which I have to say was pretty awful.

The place was filled with kids and policeman with body armour and guns, which seemed a bit of a strange mix. There was a lunar eclipse that night, which I think was the first that we’ve ever seen. Although it wasn’t the best festival, we had a good time, and it was a non-profit event with all proceeds going to the local kids.

The next day we got a bus to Siem Reap, which took about 6 hours. The hostel we checked into was quite a nice place (or so we thought). It was right next to the main street (Pub Street) where there are loads of bars, restaurants and shops.

As we were only due to be in Siem Reap for four days, we booked our trip to Angkor Wat for the next morning. It was a 4am start to get there for the sunrise, and as I’m sure you can image, we weren’t looking our best that morning. So we were thrilled to find out that they needed to take a picture of us to print on the ticket before entering the temple complex. Although mine didn’t look great, Katy looked like someone on Britain’s most wanted.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

For those of you that don’t know, Angkor Wat itself is an early 12th Century temple that is a three tiered pyramid with five lotus towers about 65 meters tall. It is surrounded by over 50 other temples of varying size and importance. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 12th centuries. History lesson over…

At sunrise we were there with 1000’s of other tourists fighting to get a decent spot to take pictures. Katy had a Chinese woman in-between hers legs at one point, and a rude Italian woman almost pushed me into the lake to try and get in front of me. We quickly escaped Angkor Wat, and went to another temple which was deserted.

To say that the place is big is an understatement, and it’s an amazing place to be. It was over 30 degrees that day, so we were glad that we had hired a tuk tuk to take us around. We were considering taking bikes, but I think with the early start and the weather, we wouldn’t have got too far.

Buddha heads, Bayon Temple
Buddha heads, Bayon Temple

We were there for about 14 hours that day and saw over 20 temples; taking almost 500 pictures in the process. We were quite surprised that you were actually allowed to climb all over the temples, as most of them are in ruins. Katy also bought a rubbing from one of the temples for $7, before we saw someone else selling the same one for $1. Nothing like a good bit of haggling. As beautiful as the place is, it is marred slightly by the amount of people there. For sunset we had to stand in a queue for 30 minutes to get into the last temple, and there were hundreds behind us that were not so lucky. After a very long day we had a few well-earned beers in the evening before going to bed and looking forward to a lie-in in the morning.

We were woken at 7;15am by a jackhammer directly above our bedroom in the hostel. Building works were taking place in the hostel, and we were told that it was to continue for another two weeks. As we had decided that we wanted to stay in Siem Reap for Christmas, we decided to check-out. We treated ourselves and moved into a nice hotel, with a pool.

Since then we’ve been chilling out for a week, sunbathing, eating and drinking. We’ve thrown in the odd bike ride in the country to try and burn some calories, but to be honest it’d been nice to do nothing. We’ve really enjoyed our time here as it’s quite a lively city, with so much to choose from in terms of food, shops and nightlife

Christmas here is pretty much non-existent, which is quite refreshing for a change. We were chatting to a local guy who asked what Christmas was. After explaining as best we could, he then asked “so are you going to it then?” That sums it up really. We went to a bar called the FCC to try and book Christmas dinner, but then found out that it was $55 each. We settled for a couple of gin and tonics before leaving. The token Irish bar is offering a turkey dinner, but it may end up being a local curry and beer.

Merry Christmas from Cambodia
Merry Christmas from Cambodia

So it’s Christmas Eve, we’ve got our santa hats on and we’re ready to party. We’re off for a nice meal tonight in a place called The Sugar Palm, which is supposed to be the best Khmer restaurant in town. We want to wish everyone a Happy Christmas. We’re heading to Southern Laos on the 27 December, so we’ll be in touch in the New Year.

Until the next time…

A holiday in Cambodia…

The two day trip down the Mekong was not really what we expected. I had visions of Apocalypse Now, drifting down a quiet and beautiful setting of the Mekong Delta. Instead we spent most of our time on a bus rather than the river itself.

When we were eventually on the river, we were taken to a local floating market, which was closed. Apparently the market opens very early in the morning so the locals can get everything they need for their daily trading. It does beg the question as to why we went there in the knowledge that it would be closed, but who are we to argue.

Elephant Fish
Elephant Fish

We were taken to a small village where they are famous for making their alternative to chocolate, a coconut candy. Here we were also shown how they make rice paper for their spring rolls and various other things, before heading to lunch. Katy and I enjoyed an Elephant fish, where we made our own spring rolls. We also stopped in to a crocodile farm which housed over 15,000 crocs. They are no longer really found in the Mekong as so many locals capture them to make these farms for meat and their skin.

By that point we were ready to get to our hotel for the night, which was a floating hotel in Chau Doc near the Cambodian border. The night was pretty uneventful until a full scale thunderstorm hit us. As the entire hotel bobbed up and down on the river, Katy frantically asked me “the hotel isn’t going to float away is it?” Thankfully we survived the night, and awoke to calm waters and clear skies.

When we got to the Cambodian border the next day, it consisted of a ridiculous foot bridge that looked older than I am. It almost makes our border control look competent. What we did notice after crossing the border though was how much nicer the river was. Everything was cleaner, greener and the river wasn’t used as a personal dumping ground as on the Vietnamese side.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

We arrived in Phnom Penh weary but excited about being somewhere new. First impressions were that it was much more laid back than anywhere we had been so far. What shocked us is that it was more expensive than Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong, it is still cheap with beers averaging $0.75, and meals $5. We were in Phnom Penh for four nights, and in that time we saw the Royal Palace and a few other sights as we walked around the city. Katy also took me to another 15 markets, where we spent hours looking for replacement clothes for her, as she is already bored of what she has got.

Most nights were spent by the river in bars or restaurants, where there is a fairly lively crowd. The FCC is a famous bar on the front where all of the journalists hung out during the war, and it’s a great place to sit for some cheap beers at sunset.

We also visited the Killing Fields, where 20,000 bodies were discovered. Although rather morbid, it was an interesting place to walk around and learn a bit of history. 3 Million people were killed in total from a population of 8 Million, which is quite hard to comprehend.

Taking a plunge in Kampot
Taking a plunge in Kampot

After Phnom Penh we headed to the coast, and a 7 hour bus journey to little town called Kampot. It’s famous for its green peppercorns, and Cambodia’s only vineyard. Other than that there is very little to do other than chill out and relax. We stayed in a lovely place right on the river, and although we had a room with no power for the first night, it was a great place to stay. We cycled into the town for a quick look around, although there is not a huge amount to see other than a huge Durian monument, which is quite bizarre. We went swimming in the river, played some badminton, found frogs in our bathroom and dinner each night was whatever they had bought from the market that day. We were only there two nights before heading off to an island for some beach time.

After Kampot we left for Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. This was a quiet beach of about ten beach bars, and we stayed in a funny place called Mushroom Point where all rooms were designed around mushrooms…quirky but expensive. We got chatting to one of the Cambodian beach bar owners, Joe, who taught us some local lingo in exchange for some cockney rhyming slang. He also wrote our names in Cambodian, and told me that my name means that I don’t stop talking and tend to repeat myself, and tend to repeat myself.

Bamboo Island (or Koh Russei) had been recommended to us by my friend Alex. We also happened to meet the owner of the resort (if you can call it that) in our hostel in Phnom Penh. Everyone told us how nice it was and that we should go there.

The bungalows consisted of a bed…that’s it. The showers and toilets were 100 meters down the beach. Having a shower and then having to walk through sand back to the room just makes no sense to me. There is only electric for about five hours per day, and in the bar only. Toilets are rated in a different way in places like this, as these didn’t have a lock, a flush, the sink didn’t have a waste pipe, no soap and nothing to dry your hands on. But all in all, they weren’t bad.

Koh Russei sunset
Koh Russei sunset

But all of that was forgotten when we sat in our little beach bungalow and the sea was only 10 meters away. There were only about 30 people on the entire Island, so the beach was pretty much deserted. The bar was lively at night, serving good food and drinks with great music in the background. We also bumped into a friend that we met in Beijing on our last night (small world), and we watched the most amazing sunset over a few beers.

Today we have arrived in Battambang after a night in Phnom Penh (to break up the journey). It’s another fairly small city, but we have just bought tickets to go to the Friendship Music Festival tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what a Cambodian festival is like.

Until the next time…

Vietnamese Pho

We arrived in Mui Ne after a 6 hour bus ride and got a very pleasant surprise when we checked into our hostel, perfect location and our room was overlooking the beach.

Hostel view in Mui Ne
Hostel view in Mui Ne

Mui Ne is renowned for kite surfing and it is quite an impressive sight to see them all out there doing their thing. We could have had a few lessons but decided we were better off just watching them whilst we relaxed on the beach. Mui Ne is not a huge place and we managed to walk the length of the beach (about 3km) and check out what was on offer; beach bars and fish restaurants mainly.   The Vietnamese are mad for a bit of Russian trance music and sometimes the odd cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin but changed to ‘Like a Surgeon, cut for the very first time…’

So after 5 days of pretty much doing nothing but sunbathing, we were on our way to Saigon.

After Hanoi we were expecting Saigon to be a bit crazy and we were not let down. We eventually found our hotel which was quite nice, dumped our bags and headed out into the city. We got chatting to an English guy who had just moved out here to teach English. It sounds unbelievably easy to do, so Sam was quizzing him for a while. I was getting quite worried when he actually sounded like he wanted us to do it too. Apparently there is a school in Cambodia where you can volunteer, so we may do that for a couple of days but as for a career change, I don’t think so.

The next few days were a bit of a disaster. Sam got quite ill on the Sunday with a bad tummy and didn’t get out of bed for almost 3 days. So I did my best to look after him, getting him water and trying to get him to eat bread and bananas. On Sam’s birthday (Monday) I persuaded him to come down to the hotel restaurant for some food but he only managed a bowl of steamed rice. The next day when Sam asked me if I thought the peanut M&M’s I had bought him as a post illness/birthday treat would be ok, I knew he was starting to feel better.

Saigon streets
Saigon streets

By Wednesday he was feeling a lot better so we set out to explore Saigon and found a market or two. I was looking at a top when I heard ‘that looks like it will fall apart after one wash’…I didn’t realise I had brought my Mother with me! As Sam was feeling much better and his actual birthday was pretty rubbish, we decided to really treat ourselves and blew the budget on a steak dinner. We had fillet steak with potato gratin and red wine, I don’t think we spoke for the first 15 minutes, we just kept eating with silly grins on our faces.

On Thursday we went to see the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon which are a maze of old war tunnels used during the Vietnam War. They are described as a spider web of tunnels and took 20 years to create. We got to see lots of the Vietnamese trap tactics from the war, mock ups of how rooms in the tunnels would have looked and finally got to go into the tunnels ourselves.

We were shown a hole in the floor where they used to hide, and is barely big enough for a small Vietnamese person. When the guide asked if anyone wanted to go down, I stupidly said yes. I had to climb into a hole no wider than me and go underneath and close the roof….all fine until I had to get out again. Sam ended up having to pull me out. Not embarrassing at all.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels

We then went into the proper tunnels which were about 1m high, a struggle for someone my height so Sam being 6.3ft found it quite difficult. We probably only walked /crawled about 60m underground but when there is no light and no air, it felt like forever. It was good fun though.

On the way back from the tunnels we were dropped off at the War museum. We had been warned it was quite graphic and disturbing and they weren’t wrong. It was very interesting none the less but we did leave feeling very sombre and thoughtful.

In an attempt to lighten the mood we went for a few beers, where a local Vietnamese girl challenged Sam to a game of darts. It was quite amusing to watch as the 4’8” girl looked like she was going to beat him. He was quite relieved to end up beating her 2-0.

Tomorrow we begin our journey into Cambodia via the Mekong Delta which we are very excited about. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, it’s a place full of history and culture and I would definitely recommend it as a place to see.

Until the next time….