A pattern is starting to emerge in the way Caroline and I like to travel. Our first notion when we left our jobs behind (almost a year ago) was to take it slow. To stay in one place for long periods of time. To see the finer details.
Are we traveling like that? Sort of.
We are both a little bit impatient by nature, and constantly yearn to see what is around the next corner. We could see this… There’s an amazing *something* in the next town… There’s that and that and that… The food in *somewhere else* is apparently incredible…
And so we’ve struck up a compromise with ourselves. We’ll spend as much time in a country as a visa will allow, but we’ll hop around all over the place, only occasionally settling for more than a few days. Often, though, we’ll wake up in some new bed somewhere (floor, tent, island, jungle, guesthouse, shed). This has made us quite adaptable.
So goes our travel in Cambodia so far after 14 days.
I wrote about our crossing into Pailin in this post, and from there we caught a bus to Battambang, spending five nights at the Royal Hotel at $6 per night. We ate well, explored a few of the notable sites in the area (as I wrote about in this post), and met some colourful characters.
On a day that could have just as easily been Saturday as Monday, we took an aimless stroll through the centre of Battambang and found a Swensen’s ice cream bar. The heat outside, combined with the promise of air conditioning and chocolate-sundae goodness inside tempted us greatly. As fate would have it, we noticed a small drinks kiosk opposite Swensen’s, and decided to support the smaller business instead (we also assumed – correctly – that it would be cheaper). The man running the drink stand was named Tomo, and he chatted to us in English about his businesses – two drink kiosks and a restaurant that sold, “Bitter soup. Very healthy.”
Tomo scrawled the name of his soup joint on a business card, and that evening we walked the streets of Battambang asking directions from anybody who wasn’t selling food or riding a motorcycle. This only left police, tuk-tuk drivers, monks, and old men in chairs.
The restaurant was a steamboat, or hot-pot style place – one where you cook your own food in a hot broth that slowly gets more delicious as the evening progresses. We ate our fill, and met Tomo’s family; father, mother, and younger sister.
It was at this same restaurant that we also met Zach & Logen from the USA, who were doing missionary work in Cambodia. Zach, a recent graduate of journalism, was interviewing Tomo’s father about his harrowing past during the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation. His story can be found on Zach’s blog.
We caught a public bus from Battambang to Pursat for $2 each, and spent two nights at the Phnom Pech Hotel at $6 per night. I wrote this post about visiting a ghostly grave in Pursat, and we also spent some time strolling the tiny town, taking in the sights.
At this point we were getting our head around the use of multiple currencies at once; 4000 Riel is equal to 1 USD, and most establishments will accept either currency, generally giving change in Riel. Coins are so rare in the country that we have never seen them, and the lowest note is 100 Riel, which is 2 US cents. If you want to eat at grotty little street stalls (as we do), you’ll need either Riel, or low denominations of Dollars, and ATMs only spit out twenties or (worst case scenario) hundreds. We drew one hundred dollars out, and then marched straight into the bank to change our hundred to ten fives and fifty ones. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s immensely helpful. You don’t want to get caught in a small town on the weekend with no banks open and only large notes in your wallet!
We caught a public bus from Pursat to Krakor for $2 each, and stayed one night in Guest House Paris. The guesthouse was getting a new driveway made, and so we stepped lightly around the loose stones and new concrete, and found the owner. Asking if there was a motorcycle available to rent, he looked a his friend uncertainly and finally said, “Yes.”
“How much for one day?”
“Er… ten dollars?”
We politely declined, and instead took a two-hour walking trip out to the nearby floating village. We had heard that in rural Cambodia the children will yell, “Hello!” as you pass them, and keep yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” until you are out of ear shot. Krakor was the first town where we experienced this. I suppose an expat living in Cambodia would find this bloody annoying, but to us, fresh-faced, it was charming.
As we walked past a school it became clear that some of the older kids knew a few other phrases too.
“What is your name?” yelled one.
“David. What is your name?”
“Bai Sach Chrouk!” he screamed, to the delight of his friends. ‘Pork rice’.
For a short while we were followed by a convoy of giggling girls on bicycles. Their leader, a mischievous girl with a wicked grin, rode alongside Caroline and practiced telling her that she was, “Going home.” Finally, we reached her house, one of the many ramshackle wooden dwellings the lined the street. “Bye,” she called, giggling.
We walked as far as the road would take us, politely declining offers of rides along the way. The end of the road revealed a bustling little floating village, that wasn’t exactly floating due to the low water level. Before turning back we ducked into a small shack selling drinks, and sat down for some iced tea and flies.
“Say hello,” coaxed the owner. The baby in her arms was shy, but eventually beamed at us before hiding her face.
“She’s my baby,” the owner explained. She was probably in her late teens or early twenties. “Her father,” she continued, pointing to a smiling man lazing in a hammock. We said hello.
“Very ugly.” She frowned.
We caught a shared taxi van from Krakor to Kampong Chhnang for 15,000 Riel each, and spent four nights at the Garden Guest House. The owner, Sophia, found a motorcycle that we could use, and we took off to explore. The town was a striking mix of old and new; wide open spaces contained manicured parks and fancy government buildings, yet only a street or two away were crowded markets and grubby, bustling alleys. One minute a van would drive past, it’s roof completely laden with tied chickens, and the next minute we would see buffalo-drawn carts filled with vegetation trotting past gleaming banks with mirrored windows. The people riding the carts looked surprised to see us. The feeling was mutual.
And who was gathering at the provincial hall? Monkeys.
Driving five minutes north revealed rows of houses built on high stilts, their ‘back yards’ endless stretches of flat, semi-flooded plains and paddy fields. Although the houses were basic, it appeared to be a wealthy area compared to the Cambodia we had witnessed so far. Yet contrary to the affluent suburbs of western society, these streets were absolutely alive with neighbours chatting, kids playing games, vendors rolling up the streets, and farmers moving crops.
Sophia told us about a Buddhist meditation centre in Oudong that contained the mummified body of a monk, and so we took a day trip out there to see him. The Sontte Wan meditation centre was grand in scale, and by far the most impressive and immaculately presented Wat we’d seen in Cambodia. The mummified monk was named Sam Bunthoeun, and he was shot under mysterious circumstances in 2003. His body was contained in a cabinet covered in frosted glass, so you could only see his outline.
Using our phone, we tapped, ‘How preserve body?’ into Google Translate, and showed the monks and nuns who were present. Most of them were puzzled, but a young monk suddenly clicked, and pointed to a covered white cable coming from the body’s case that led to a meter reading ’22 degrees celsius’. Sadly, it was too difficult to discuss anything further due to our language barrier.
A nun suddenly produced a phone and climbed up the steps (marked ‘Do not step’) towards the cabinet containing the body. There was a small gap at the top of the case, and she shoved her phone though, motioning to us that we could do the same.
“Really?” I asked. “To take photo?” I held up our camera. She nodded furiously, grinning a black-toothed grin. I climbed up the steps, pushed the camera through the small gap, and blindly took this photo:
Returning back to Garden Guest House, we thanked Sophia for the tip.
“You’re welcome,” she smiled, “Another foreign guest found the monk’s body hard to look at. She said to me, ‘Why can you look at a dead body, but you’re scared of thunder?’ And I told her it was probably because I was so used to seeing dead bodies.”
Sophia proceeded to tell us about her time in the early 90s during the Vietnamese occupation, walking to the Thai border in search of refuge, but finding the camps full.
“We walked through the forest, sleeping during the day and moving at night. We’d follow the footsteps of people before us. All along the side of the paths were dead bodies.”
Sophia finally found work at a refugee camp as a midwife, and she began to put aside a small amount of her salary each week, buying gold with her savings when she could. Returning home, she managed to get a small property with her savings, and as accumulated more gold, she slowly bought all her neighbour’s properties as well. All the land she bought is now the site of the Garden Guest House – $8 per night.
And yes, this is already a long post, but I wouldn’t leave it here without pictures of the Cambodian food we ate along the way. Yay!