Day 10 Continued
We left Vietnam and entered into Cambodia. Once across the border it started to rain. This was the first rain since Ho Chi Minh but it was to be a feature of much our time in Cambodia. It was a relatively short journey to Banlung where we were booked to stay for the night. So much better than anything we had in Vietnam.
Luckily the rain stopped and the rest of the day was sunny. After unpacking it was decided to book Tuk Tuks and take a trip up to Crater Lake. This was a superb crystal clear lake where we all took a swim.
Returning back to the hostel, the next stop was to meet with the trek organisers ahead of our main trek. They were located in a superb verandah at the top of a hidden valley. Sadly it looks like the valley will soon be developed which will ruin the view and destroy a great habitat. Money speaks a lot in Cambodia and the developer is rich and likely to get his way. The Trekking place doubles up as a restaurant, but the students were keen to go to a different place :-(. However, we did agree to have breakfast there the following day.
We left to look for a restaurant for the evening meal – as we left we heard thunder and within minutes it was pouring – we sheltered under the roof of a bar where we decided to eat. As we ate we heard probably the wierdest sound ever – rather like a squeaky toy – it turned out to be a Gecko – I honestly thought it a gimmick when I first saw it, but soon realised it was real. For those who have never heard one I include a YouTube clip here – it isn’t ‘our gecko’ but sounds the same.
Up early for our first full day in Cambodia and our first day on trek. This Trek through Ratanak Kiri was a more demanding trek and this time we needed to take all our supplies with us. We had heavy packs as it was and then had to squeeze in a lot more in. We loaded everything in to a truck and headed off into the jungle along mud roads. Arriving at a river we embarked on motorised boats and headed off downstream. After almost an hour we disembarked and started off. It was incredibly hot and humid – following last night’s rain the paths were more like streams. We crossed through paddy fields as we passed small settlements. At some points the water was knee high and the pack was already killing me. Gradually the fields gave way to jungle. I had brought walking poles with me but unfortunately they would not fit snuggly in my pack and as we entered a this new terrain they kept getting hooked on vines and branches. The ground rose steeper and got muddier. We were all soaked through – not with rain but sweat. I had a water pouch which I kept on sucking from. The water had to come from rivers, but as long as the water was fast flowing it would be OK to drink after applying a few drops of purification solution and waiting 15 minutes. Every hour or so we would stop and have a drink but the pace was relentless – at the time I honestly though it was never going to end and I can’t say I enjoyed it – but eventually we descended into a valley and crossed a stream and climbed a small hill to where we were going to make camp. We had been carrying hammocks and bashers which we were going to use for the night. So before dinner we spent time erecting our sleeping equipment making sure we remembered all the advice about the sort of trees we should use and the way we should tie the ropes. After a quick cooked meal prepared by our guides we all retired to bed. It was hot and humid but dry, we were grateful for that.
The rain started about 10:oo pm. The pat, pat, pat, pat, gradually increasing in intensity – the jungle becoming cooler. I was just dropping off at the time – it had been a long day and I was exhausted. The next two hours the intensity increased – initially it was just the noise but then I began to feel it. Cool rivers running down my back the rain was getting in. Now a dilemma – I was still relatively dry in my night clothes – my rain coat was outside – my day clothes had been drying outside and were now wetting. Therain was continuing to run in and I was getting wetter. A pool was now forming at the bottom of the hammock where my own bottom was. I was getting colder and needed to do something. Eventually no choice but to get out and get wet. I rushed to my wet rain coat and put it on (dryish inside). I now needed to try to repair the hammock – the guy ropes had loosened and the rain was running down the ropes and straight into the hammock. The basher (roof) was not properly taught and a pond was forming on one side which was helpfully overflowing onto one side of my hammock.
After several minutes and several attempts – with monsoon rain torrenting down, I managed to sort some of the issues. I returned to my hammock still wearing my rain coat which I continued to wear until dawn. This was not a happy night – though in retrospect and looking back through 9 months it was an experience I will never forget. The clip below summarised my night in the rawness of the day after.
So wet, cold and very tired and after breakfast we set out again. Thankfully the strenuous exercise soon warmed me up – though I got no dryer. The day was more active than day one. To start we had to cross what was now a fast flowing torrent before ascending a steep bank. The pattern of the day would be a series of steep climbs and short descents along muddy trails and low hanging branches. At one point we moved through a part of the forest renowned for leeches – which drop from the branches in response to carbon dioxide breathed out. We managed to avoid these but not a swarm of bees which stung a few. Eventually we reached the summit of a hill and descended back down to a village. Approaching civilisation again we came across water buffalo and then more paddy fields. Exhausted and thoroughly fed up with my walking poles I entered the village where we were going to stay. The relief of removing my back pack was immense. It had been decided that we would camp indoors this night and put the hammocks up inside a building hanging them between beams. It was nice to be dry – the guides helped prepare the meal. After the meal I notice the guide eating something blue – he offered me what turned out to be a cooked dragonfly. I have never eaten an insect before but gave it a go – it tasted nutty but was fine.
We slept a lot better that night.
The last day of our trek was more relaxed. We started off with a tour of the village – a chance to see how rural Cambodians live. We village was relatively empty as at that time of year many of the families move out of the villages to live near to the paddy fields. In addition there had been a death in the village and the people were conducting a funeral celebration according to their Animist beliefs. We toured the cemetery and were able to see some of the earlier graves – but we kept clear of the funeral party. In addition we visited the school block and heard a candid comment on the political situation in Cambodia.
Leaving the village we travelled up river to a second village to which people from a different tribe live. Then on back on the boat to meet the truck. The truck was a little delayed as the state of the road had made getting to us a challenge. Luckily we were able to return to Banlung without a hitch.
With persuasion of the adults the students agreed to come back to the restaurant for dinner and we set off back on foot to our hostel. Within two minutes – the heaviest downpour I have ever witnessed caught us. We had to walk half a mile through rain so heavy it was like walking through a waterfall all the way. Sopping wet we arrived at our hostel and got changed. A fabulous meal at Dutch Co overlooking the valley was a great end to the day.
We were up early with a long trip ahead of us -we were basically traversing the the whole of Cambodia from Banlung in the East to Siem Reap in the West. Many hours on a public coach with booked seats – it was a slow journey, but after the energy of the trek it was nice to sit for a bit. We arrived in Siem Reap at sunset and booked into our hostel. We were really looking forward to visiting Angkor Wat and this was going to be the highlight of my expedition. As we were waiting for our evening meal we were suddenly alerted to one of our party who was in severe pain with stomach cramps. As one of two male leaders on the trip I had to accompany the boy and so followed a night sleeping on a trolley bed in Siem Reap hospital as the student was admitted. So there was I in a side ward, the student in one bed being monitored, myself in another, only a toad for company! The room was air conditioned and I was still in T-shirt and shorts – which made for a cold night too. Thankfully one of the nurses provided me a blanket. The student slept well and surprisingly so did I. The only problem was that all the students were getting up early to go to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise and I was going to miss it 😦
I awoke after dawn realising I had missed out on Angkor Wat. The hospital was requesting payment from me for the medical care for the student and although I had spoken to World Challenge in London and they had sent someone to talk with the hospital it was still not resolved. At 8am I had a phone call, my colleague was coming to relieve me and I was to go with the in-country agent to meet up with the party ahead of going into Angkor Wat. For the second time I got to go on the back of a moped – this time without a helmet! The journey was just as exhilarating with a little frisson added by the lack of head gear. Thankfully I arrived in one piece and met up with the team. We had booked a bicycle tour of the Temples- due to some confusion this had wrongly been assigned to another Challenge group from our school also in town that day. However, illness in their party forced a cancellation and we regained the booking. We visited the main temple first on foot – an amazing complex of temples built in the 12th Century by the Khmer Empire. This was a Hindu Temple but late was converted to Bhuddism, when additional statues were added and others altered. As we left the temple we bumped into the other party from our school including a work colleague from my own department- amazing to see people you know so far from home.
We then left the temple to have breakfast and pick up the bikes – it was then on two wheels all the way – going places and visiting temples that Tuk Tuks could not. It was an amazing day summed up so much better in photos than words.
Returning to the hostel we found the student returned and fees paid – so we were all set to leave the following day. It was good to meet up with the other team for a lemon tea in the evening and share stories.
After a wander around Siem Reap in the morning to get provisions a new mobile phone card for the phone and an ice cream at the Blue Parrot it was time to make our way back across half of the country to the capital Phnom Penh. We arrived in the late evening. We found our schedule had changed meaning that the project dates had changed – giving us an extra day in Phnom Penh before rather than after our project.
We found ourselves in a backpacker hostel right in the centre of Phnom Penh close to a lot of landmarks. It was decided that the next day we would visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek and S-21 the infamous security block.
There were plenty of places to eat nearby and food in Cambodia is ridiculously cheap compared to the West. So we chose to eat out, much to the disappointment of the hostel we thought. They did get our laundry though – and for me this was well overdue having missed out in both Pleiku and Siem Reap.
The students ordered Tuk Tuks from the hoard of those sitting waiting outside the hostels and we went to Cheung Ek (aka Killing Fields) this is an awesome place in every sense. A memorial to the near 9000 innocent people tortured and murdered hear in the ’70s by the opressive Khmer Rouge government. The stories were quite harrowing broadcast over headphones and juxtaposed against a tranquil and peaceful memorial garden that sits here today. The final part of the Audio tour brings you to the Mausoleum many tens of metres high and full of the skulls of the murdered. A tribute to their senseless deaths. Even now as I write the monstrosity of what took place there is sobering.
On from Cheong Ek we rode in Tuk Tuks to S-21 the security complex in the centre of Phnom Penh where intellectuals and dissidents were taken to be tortured and executed. Pol Pot the leader of the Khmer Rouge despised those with education or a profession. Within days of winning elections he emptied the cities and put everyone to work as a peasant labourer. Those who resisted were disposed of or imprisoned. He tried to take Cambodia back to the Stone Age and those with smooth hands unroughened by hard labour were enemies to be subdued. Places like S-21 were used to perform these acts of subducation and torture. Another sobering experience.
We returned to the hostel and some wanted to go out to the market shopping – I prefered to stay back so I did.
Day 18 – 21
The next day we headed off out of Phnom Penh to our project working with Kais Village – an orphanage. Part of the World Challenge program involves development work of some sort. For us the challenge was to clean and redecorate the boys dormitories. This was a lengthy task as the walls were in a poor state of repair and needed a lot of cleaning before they could be filled and then painted and painted again. We thought we were doing well, but our host was quite a perfectionist (rightly so in retrospect) and so we needed to repeat a lot.
In our free time we interacted with the students – playing Volleyball and Football as well as cuddles for the little ones. All of these children have for reasons been abandoned by their parents but they seem used to Western Visits – several schools visit throughout the year from the UK and Australia. One day I spent a few hours in the classroom used to help teach English to the older orphans. A volunteer from Australia was working over with Kais for a few months and helping with the classes.
Our accommodation was an isolated block with two dorms and a separate room (which I had) for the first time I needed to use my Mosquito net as there were no sealed windows. This was always a challenge to get into and stay inside. Something I will need to get used to in Tanzania. There were numerous sitings of all sorts of bugs and beetles. There was a gecko in the roof who would wake us all with it’s calls at the most unearthly hours. Foone day there was a Bhuddist funeral and this was proceeded by hours and hours of speeches relayed over tannoy and interspersed by lengthy periods of chanting and the clanging of bells (a little like the sound of an ice cream van chimes only longer and not Greensleeves). Thid went on well into the night, followed by the gecko!!
Each morning a team would go out to the market to buy fresh produce for meals – we ate vegetarian as this was seen as safer but some students were very fussy over what they would and would not eat – which caused issues.
After 4 days the job was complete and we headed back to Phnom Penh for a last night.
We arrived mid-afternoon and our savings had been enough to give us a chance to splash out on a posh hotel with a jacuzzi no less. For me the chance of my own room as TV in my room and air conditioning was a little bit of luxury. It was only two doors down from the last hostel so we knew the area quite well already.
Having settled in and with no one else wanting to do so I decided to break from the group and go exploring in Phnom Penh – making my way to the various palaces nearby. Half way round I got soaked again – but it was warm and I soon dried off – I had only a little money so went around on foot much to the surprise of all the Tuk Tuk drivers desperate to give me a ride.
We had a really nice meal in the evening to finish off our stay then off to my room to watch a film 🙂 I believe much fun was had in the jacuzzi late into the night.
Our last morning in Cambodia involved a trip to the covered market, an impressive building in the centre of the city. Our friendly Tuk Tuk drivers took us there and back and we used up our remaining currency on souvenirs.
Then the flight out of Phnom Penh to Bangkok, where we had a transfer from one airport to another crossing the city in the process. There was an 8 hour wait in the airport while a thunderstorm raged outside.
From departure to return had been 3.5 weeks and some amazing experiences – but I was glad to be going home to family.