Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Rest of Cambodia

I had intentions to write about the rest of my time in Cambodia at the end of my last blog, but I thought given the nature of my previous blog it would be best to write another blog post about the rest of Cambodia instead. Wow, what a sentence that turned out to be!

So here goes. After visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields I spent another day in Phnom Penh, just walking around. I visited a few markets and walked along the Tonle Sap River for a while, just taking in the ambiance of the place. My second day in Phnom Penh was really chilled out. I went back to my guesthouse in the evening and booked my bus ticket to Kompong Trach.

The next morning, bright and early I headed to the bus station to catch my bus. Kompong Trach is not a tourist destination, there is only a single paragraph on it in the lonely planet and the only reason that paragraph is there is because of it's proximity to the Vietnamese border. But in that paragraph there was a little jewel of information. 2km from Kompong Trach is Wat Kiri Sela, a buddhist temple built into the side of a limestone karst mountain. I was instantly intrigued by this mysterious wat and simply had to go there. The lonely planet described the wat as having hundreds of caves and caverns under the mountain and a 'hidden valley'at the exit to one such cave. They described the walk through the cave as a 'stumble back in time to the Jurassic period'. The deal was sealed so off I went.

The one-road, one-tourist town of Kompong Trach
Kompong Trach was a one-tourist town and that tourist was me. The locals seemed shocked that a tourist was in their town and I was stared at constantly. It's a strange feeling, being stared at, and it's somewhat disconcerting. But their stares weren't malicious, just curious and they were some of the friendliest people I've met. Nobody spoke English in Kompong Trach so I had to get by with my limited Khmer. Basically all I could do was say hello and thank you. I did a lot of miming in Kompong Trach.

The beauty of getting away from other tourists is that you get charged the local price for everything. There's no farang mark-up off the tourist trail. Because of this, Kompong Trach became the cheapest place I have ever been to. The first meal I had there cost me only 25c (American) and I left feeling completely full and satisfied. When one gets off the tourist trail one doesn't expect to have the same quality of food as they are used to - I thought I might have to become accustomed to tarantulas for dinner. It was to my great delight that I was proven wrong. In fact, I had one of the best meals of my journey in Kompong Trach and for only 75c. I'll dream forever more of that fantastic pork and ginger dish with steamed rice.

It looks like I'm rambling again. What you really want to hear about is Wat Kiri Sela, I'm sure. The day after I arrived in Kompong Trach I borrowed a bicycle from the guest house and headed off to Wat Kiri Sela. Nobody could really point me in the correct direction, but thankfully the lonely planet gave clear directions. Hoping I was going in the right direction, I headed down a gravel road in the direction of a karst mountain. On the way I met a boy who was heading to the wat. He spoke good English and was going to the wat to guide tourists through to the hidden valley. Score. I said he could guide me. The wat wasn't far from the main road and before I knew it I was at the base of the karst mountain in the centre of the wat. My young guide pointed at the cave entrance and said I should follow him through to the valley.

Caves are generally very dark places and this cave was no exception. The only light that penetrated it was from it's two openings - the one we had entered through and the one to which we were headed. In the distance I could see the light coming from the exit, but the valley was impossible to make out. We walked through the cave and my young guide pointed out limestone formations that looked like animals and common objects. All of a sudden we were at the exit and what confronted me was one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I have seen. The cave opened up into the centre of the mountain. The valley was not so much a valley as it was a depression in the centre of the mountain, but it was fantastic nonetheless. Sheer limestone cliffs towered around us and vines and lush vegetation hung down from the mountaintop. We spent the next hour wandering through the little caves and caverns that are peppered around the hidden valley. It was an amazing place to be and I was lucky to be the only tourist there to experience it.
Walking out of a cave... 
Into a 'valley' that looked like this

Thoroughly please with myself, I headed back to Kompong Trach and inquired about a bus to Kep, a beach town 30km from Kompong Trach. I was able to gather that a bus comes past every day at 10AM and 4:30PM. I was also able to gather that nobody sold tickets for the bus. I would need to wait until the bus came past and then flag it down. If you've ever flagged down a bus in Southeast Asia you know that it can be very hit-or-miss. I was a little apprehensive about missing the bus. Kompong Trach was great, but I needed to be able to leave.

I got up early the next morning and packed my bags. The previous day I had waited until 4:30PM to see if the bus came past and sure enough it did,  10 minutes early. Armed with this information I guessed that the locals must have got the times right when telling me when the bus would come past. At 9:30 I went outside and waited. A moto driver was sitting beside me and said that the bus would only come at 11. I was now really uncertain as to when the bus would come past. So I waited. 10 o'clock came and went. I thought the moto driver had got it right, so I resigned myself to leaving at 11. An hour longer is really not that much. At 20 past 10 I was getting thirsty so I went to get myself some water from the shop next door. I can back and spied a chair which looked very inviting after having been standing for an hour. I picked up the chair and was taking it outside when the bus cruised past. "Shit!" I thought. I dropped the chair and waved at the bus driver.

He noticed. The bus stopped and I climbed aboard. I was on my way to Kep.

Kep is a beach resort town. And it isn't cheap. It was the polar opposite of Kompong Trach, yet it was charming in it's own right. I found a guest house that had cheap rooms and settled in. Kep has a very narrow strip of sand called Kep beach it's claim to being a beachside town is a little exaggerated. I've seen more sand in sand pits at playgrounds. But Kep's fame comes from it's seafood, pitched as the best in Cambodia.

Kep lives off this reputation and takes great pleasure in punching tourists' wallets in their kidneys. My own wallet spent the second day in Kep in the bathroom, pissing blood. I felt very sorry for inflicting that damage upon it, but bloody satisfied with what had inflicted the damage. But more on that in a moment.

Kep Beach
On my first day in Kep I went through my orientation and acclimatisation routine of walking around for a while and taking in as much as I can. This was a little trickier in Kep as it is a lot more spread out than most towns and to find a cheap room I had to get right out of the town centre. My orientation ended up being a walk down to Kep beach and then a walk back to my guesthouse to get out of the sun. My first experience of kep prices was dinner that evening. $2.50 for fried rice is unheard of in the rest of Southeast Asia, but not in Kep. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, besides cooldrinks and my poor wallet started whimpering at the thought of what lay ahead.

The next day I headed down to Kep beach again, this time on a bicycle. I lay on the rough sand for the entire morning and listened to the wavelets trickle up the beach. At midday I decided to get out of the heat and headed to my guesthouse to sit in the shade of a palm tree.You may find this back-and-forth strange, but I had a reason for it. I was deliberately doing it to build up an appetite for lunch. "Oliver you are a strange guy," you might be thinking. But there is method to my madness (I think). I was building up an appetite for seafood.

Munching on crab at the Crab Market
At about 2 o'clock my stomach started growling. I knew I was ready. I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled furiously down to the crab market. At the crab market there is no such thing as a cheap meal. Every dish costs in excess of $5. (Yes, that's not much by our standards back home, but in SE Asia that is at least 3 times the cost of a meal). The freshest seafood you can imagine is on the menu, some of it caught just offshore the previous hour. But if you go to the crab market, you'd be a fool to order anything but crab. And so I ordered grilled crab. 45 minutes later a plate with 5 massive crabs on it appeared in front of me. Who can complain about paying R9 per grilled crab, really?

By now I was famished and I tucked in with gusto. Eating crab at Kep will definitely go down as one of the top 5 culinary experiences of my travels. It was fantastic! The crab was incredibly fresh and the meat was fantastically tasty. It had been cooked to perfection and by the end of the meal I was too full to move. My wallet started simpering when I payed for the meal and pleaded with me to spare it from any more torture. I was happy to oblige, I didn't need dinner; I was too full.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Actually nothing was happening back at the ranch (except, this sunset pictured below) I just really wanted to say that line. I went back to my guest house and booked my ticket to back Phnom Penh. The nest morning (yesterday morning, as I write this) I jumped on the bus and headed back to the capital. Upon arrival I booked my bus ticket to HCMC. This morning I headed to the bus station with a huge sense of excitement. I was going back to my favourite city in the world and Chris was going to be joining me the next day. I could barely contain myself.

And here I am, back in Ho Chi Minh City! Sitting, typing to all of you (my avid fans) and eagerly anticipating the arrival of Chris. He's currently on a flight to Kuala Lumpur where he will change planes and fly to HCMC. i'll be meeting him at the airport tomorrow and a whole new leg of my journey will begin. Vietnam with my brother. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
There I go again!

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