April 21, 2002

New Year Travels

Greetings,

Well, I am now back from my trip which went very well and was lots of fun. It is Sunday morning and yes, it is still hot here.

After I last wrote I finished packing and began my motor bike trip by riding about three hours south to the town of Kampot. The trip was fairly uneventful although I did run out of gas once. It wasn't a problem though since people sell it in 2 liter fanta or sprite bottles by the side of the road and I ran out near one of these vendors. Some village kids helped push the bike a few feet down the road to the vendor where I bought some gas and was on my way again. Upon arrival in Kampot I found a guesthouse and rented a room with two double beds, fan, mosquito nets and a bathroom for $5. It was nearly dark by the time I checked in, and I enjoyed drinking some cold water while chatting to another traveler from Sweden before heading out in search of supper. I wasn't too hungry so I was hoping to find some fruit for supper, but instead ended up getting a fruit shake from a street vendor. The downtown area was filled with vendors making fruit smoothies from fresh fruit, ice, sweetened condensed milk and sugar. While having my smoothie I chatted with a guy who was called over to the stand when I arrived because he spoke some English. Just after I got back to the hotel a thunderstorm hit and it rained pretty hard for a bit. We are still technically in the dry season I think, but we're getting closer to the rainy season. So far the rain storms haven't been lasting very long yet, although they do help to cool things down a bit. Back in my room I read in my guidebook and made plans for the next day before going to sleep.

When I first got up Monday morning I packed up my things, checked out of the guesthouse and drove to the local "waterfall" which is basically just some minor rapids that are barely even rapids in the dry season. Since it was Khmer New Year the river area was full of local people out having a picnic. Enterprising vendors had set up flat wooden platforms with reed mats on them so that people could sit comfortably by the river. Inner tubes were also available for rent and lots of people were enjoying a swim in the river. I bought some mangosteins and a papaya which I ate by the river as my breakfast. Mangosteins have a hard purple shell with white sections inside that kind of look like garlic, but are very sweet and tasty. After I finished my breakfast I got back on the bike and rode about 20-30 minutes to the coastal town of Kep. Kep used to be a French resort area before the war days, and there are many abandoned and looted villas in the area. From what I understand it is usually a fairly empty town with very few people, although it was very crowded when I first arrived because of the New Year. The beach area was completely full of people playing with inner tubes in the water and having picnics on the beach. Since it was just after noon when I arrived, I located another $5 guesthouse with a view of the ocean and got a room. The family that seemed to be running the guesthouse was eating lunch when I checked in and invited me to join them for rice and cooked vegetables with meat. I was able to easily eat around the meat and had a nice meal. After lunch I took a shower to cool off and then took a nap. When I woke up I went out to the beach for a swim. At the beach I met a Canadian guy who also lives in Phnom Penh and is working for one of the newspapers there. After talking a bit we decided to meet up the next day to travel together. I relaxed in the ocean until dark and then went back to my hotel, read some more in the guide book, and went to sleep.

Tuesday morning I woke up fairly early since I had gone to bed so early the night before. I packed up and rode out of town back towards Kampot where I was planning to meet Patrick, the Canadian guy living in Phnom Penh. On the way I stopped at a Buddhist temple complex built around and on a hill that is home to some caves. When I first arrived a young boy started showing me around and guided be to several shrines, and through several caves. One of the caves was home to a fairly large population of bats that were quite talkative and another had some interesting stalagmite formations. Most of the caves had little shrines in them and the boy who was guiding me would stop, remove his shoes, kneel, and then bow down with his head to the ground at each of the shrines before moving on. It was an interesting cave tour and I got very hot and sweaty climbing around with my backpack on. While traveling I drank about 4 liters of water each day. Locally filtered and bottled water is readily available at every little roadside stand here for about 12.5 cents per liter so my water budget was about 50 cents per day. I usually would stop after an hour or two on the bike and drink an entire liter bottle in one shot. After the hot caving hike the wind felt especially good when I got back on the road to Kampot. In Kampot I met up with Patrick and we had a breakfast of fresh pineapple and ice cold Ovaltine, which is basically chocolate milk from a mix. After eating, Patrick rented a dirt bike and tried to learn how to shift before we both filled up with gas. We then stopped at the local market to get a couple of things before heading out of town. About 12km out of town we turned off the main road and paid our entrance fee of $5 each to enter Bokor National Park. The road to the hill station on Bokor Mountain is around 30km consisting of some remnants of what used to be pavement, along with plenty of big rocks and potholes. Dirt bikes are an excellent choice for traveling on this road, although quite a few people seemed to be managing in their passenger cars and small vans. After a couple of rough hours we finally arrived at the Bokor Mountain Hill Station where there are some rangers' quarters and a couple of rooms that they rent out for $5 per person. The elevation at the hill station is just over 1000m which is around 3,000 ft so the weather is a little bit cooler than down in the valleys. After getting settled in the room, we promptly went to sleep for a couple of hours and woke back up around 4:30 pm. The main attractions at Bokor Mountain are abandoned buildings and a waterfall. The ranger station/guesthouse is located in one of the old buildings and near the others. The most interesting of the buildings is what used to be a fancy hotel. It is 4-5 stories but is just a concrete shell now since the buildings were looted during famine years. The hotel is perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley floor and the coast. When we first began exploring, the view was clouded over so we couldn't see much other than a steep dropoff and thick jungle foliage. As the sun began to set the mist cleared enough so that we could see out over the coastal area though, and the view was quite impressive. Other abandoned buildings included a post office, casino and Catholic church. For me one of the nicest things about the hill station was the lack of people. Although it was crowded during the day because of the New Year holidays, nobody else stayed overnight so it was very quiet and peaceful, especially once they turned off the generator. In the evening I watched the sun disappear as a thunderstorm began to develop in the distance. I also came back to the cliff later on at night and could see the village lights along the coast as well as lots of stars overhead.

Wednesday morning on the way to the trailhead for the waterfall the chain came off of Patrick's motorbike. Since he had a cell phone along he was able to call the rental shop and they sent some guys out to fix it. While waiting we both got on my bike and went to the waterfall trailhead. We parked the bike with the rangers there who charge a small fee to keep an eye on it. We took some pictures with the rangers and I showed them the results on my digital camera. We were a bit surprised when they smiled and pulled out their digital camera to show us. They had a nice Sony camera, complete with 10x optical zoom. The rangers had quite a bit of gear with the WildAid logo on it and apparently get quite a bit of funding from the organization to help protect the natural resources. Illegal logging and poaching is a big problem here in Cambodia and I think WildAid is an organization that is trying to help. At any rate, the rangers had a nice digital camera from WildAid even though their quarters consisted of hammocks in a tent structure. After walking a short distance down the trail we crossed a bridge made from a few logs nailed together. On the other side of the bridge several moto (scooter) drivers were available in case you didn't want to actually walk the 20 minutes to the waterfalls. I think they were probably just there for the New Year crowd since I doubt there are enough visitors to make it worth their while at other times. We declined the moto ride and hiked on out to the waterfall area which was quite dry. It was interesting because we could hike around on what is the waterfall shelf in the wet season. I did manage to take a nice cool "shower" in the waterfall, although I think there are good pools for swimming in the wet season. By the time we got back from the waterfall we didn't have to wait much longer until the repair crew arrived on another dirt bike. They unloaded their tools and gave Patrick the good bike while they worked on his old one. I think there was a little more damage than just the chain coming off, but they sent us on our way before it was totally fixed. At the bottom of the hill Patrick headed back to Kampot where he needed to catch a bus or taxi back to Phnom Penh while I went the opposite direction to Kompong Som which is also known as Sihanoukville. By the time I found a guesthouse in Kompong Som I had been on the bike around 4 hours and was glad to get off. Since Kompong Som is a more touristy area there are many more places to stay and I was able to find a bed for $2 a night in a shared room. There were three beds in the room but the first night only one other person was there and he was from Japan. The second night I had the room to myself. After getting settled in I went for a swim in the ocean until after dark and then got some dinner of fried noodles with vegetables for 50 cents. When I got back to the hotel I talked to a couple of Americans and agreed to share the cost of a boat trip with them the next day. I then went to bed early to recover from a long day on the bike.

Thursday morning I met up with the two Americans who have been teaching English in Japan for the last year and are from California. We had omelets for breakfast and then bought some food to bring on the boat for our lunch. The boat trip we went on was in Ream national park and was mostly a river trip. The boat we went in had a small engine mounted on it with a long shaft with a small propeller extended down into the water. It is a fairly common type of boat here I think, and the propeller shaft is good for shallow water since it can easily be raised and lowered by tugging on a rope. As we made our way down the river we passed by Mangroves and also saw lots of people out fishing in row boats. There were also some people diving for clams and others checking on lobster traps. Our final destination was a small fishing village at the mouth of the river. To get to shore we had to walk quite a ways on a sand bar and in ankle deep water since it was low tide and the boat couldn't make it very close to shore. The village men and boys were playing volleyball when we arrived. Most of the traditional houses in Cambodia are built on stilts so that they will stay dry in the rainy season when everything floods. The houses in this village were of this type and the people were very friendly. From the village we hiked along a trail for about 30 minutes through the jungle and eventually came out on an ocean beach. We had the beach completely to ourselves and enjoyed swimming, sleeping and eating lunch before hiking back to our boat. The river boat trip was around 2 hours each way so by the time we spent some time on the beach, it was nearly 5 pm when we got back to the ranger station. Back in town I had noodles for supper again and then went for a night time swim in the ocean. I'm really glad I decided to go for a swim since it turned out that some sort of glowing algae or plankton was in the water so that when I moved my hands the water would sort of sparkle with green specks of phosphorescent light. The sea was quite calm so there weren't really any waves, or else I imagine they would have been glowing as well. The way it sparkled reminded me of the "fairy dust" that you see in the introduction to Disney movies where the little fairy is flying around. After my swim I took a shower and went to bed.

Friday morning I was feeling a little strange so I didn't do much after having pancakes (more like crepes) for breakfast. A bit before checkout time I got all my stuff packed up and went with the two Americans from the river cruise to a massage place. There is a project here in Cambodia to teach blind people massage so that they can have a sustainable income source. It is called Seeing Hands and they have two massage places in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap that have been going for a while, but the one in Kompong Som is just starting out. They were offering free sessions since the people are still in training there. I had a nice 1 hour massage before getting back on the dirt bike for the long (3+ hours) ride back to Phnom Penh. The road back to Phnom Penh is probably the best one in Cambodia with no potholes at all, but I still was getting pretty sore from so much time on the dirt bike and really enjoyed a nice 20 minute stop to sip cold water while sitting in a shaded hammock on the roadside. There are quite a few drink stands by the road that also provide hammock seating for the customers. When I got back here I checked email, let people know I was back safely, returned the bike to the rental shop, had cornbread for supper, took a nice cleansing shower and then went to sleep.

Sabbath I went to church where we had two sermons, one right after the other. The first was given by a man who used to live here and speaks the language well enough that he gave the prayer in Khmer and corrected the translator at least once during his sermon. The second sermon was a bit shorter but was given by the union youth director who is from Malaysia. The first speaker has recently moved to Thailand and is here doing some training sessions I think. Before he moved to Cambodia in 1992 he and his wife pastored in Northern California and they remember when we came to Redwood Camp Meeting dressed in our Sri Lanka outfits. I talked to them a little bit at the expat potluck following the church service. Sabbath school was cut a bit short since we had two sermons, but nobody seemed to mind. After potluck I took a nap, and then watched some TV in the evening before going to bed.

This morning I had a fruit shake for breakfast and I'm thinking of going to the market later on today to get some food and maybe some clothes. I took a bunch of pictures and will put them on my web site, hopefully pretty soon. I think we have hit our monthly bandwidth limit here in the office so I may have to find an internet café where I can upload the pictures, we'll see.

That's the news from Cambodia where the weather is hot, the monsoon is not here yet, and the humidity is above average.

Talk to you later!

Andrew

Posted by andrew on April 21, 2002
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