BootsnAll Travel Network

The Rarest of All

Feeling refreshed on my last morning in Siem Reap, I decided to do a last minute,very touristy activity, and take a ride in the hot air balloon over Angkor Wat. Since my 3 day pass had expired the day before, I was concerned that I would need to buy another one day pass, but my moto driver Red assured me that he knew a way around the checkpoint, and after calling the place to make sure they were flying, off we went. Red took me the long way around, towards the airport and onto a backroad, where the checkpoint to enter Angkor Wat was only two blocks further up from the the hot air balloon place. Relieved, I was greeted quickly by an attendant, and told it would be only about 30 minutes, since they were in the middle of a large tour group. I was the only person there on my own, the entire waiting area was full of Japanese tourists. Since I had never been in a hot air balloon before, I was a little nervous, but quickly assured after realizing it was attached to a large wire. After paying my exhorbant $15 fee, I waited my turn and finally boarded the huge platform area with about 15 other people. The balloon quickly took off, and lucky for us, it was a nice clear day, or else we wouldn’t have been able to see diddly squat. Angkor Wat was miles away, and without a decent telephoto lens, the pictures I took are laughable.  The breezey 20 minute ride was soon over, and with that so was my visit to Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat temples.After my first ever hot air balloon ride, Red quickly whisked me back to the guesthouse so I could get my bag and go to the bus station. Before leaving, I signed a Chicago postcard that I had brought from home, and thanked the girl at the front desk for helping me and telling her what a nice experience I had at her guesthouse. She looked puzzled at first, thinking that I wanted her to mail the postcard for me, but after some finger pointing and hand motions, she understood that I was giving her the postcard, and a huge smile erupted on her face. After explaining what all the little pictures were and what I had written on the back, she quickly came out from the behind the desk and hugged me, and at that moment I knew that I loved Cambodia, despite all the hardships. I don’t remember where I read to bring postcards from your home city to give people, but I think it was one of the best pieces of advice I have read, it made her so happy, probably more just being thanked by someone in a special way. After seeing me off in a tuk tuk to the bus station, she ran over to her friend and showed her the postcard, and I told her to make sure Red my moto driver saw it as well.   

My bus to Kampong Thom left at 11am, and after a somewhat quick 4 hour ride, I got off the bus, leaving other tourists on the bus scratching their head, as the bus continued on the Pnomh Penh and they wondered why I was getting off. Kampong Thom was the home of another group of important temples called Sambor Prey Kuk, and since I had some time to kill in Cambodia, decided to stop off there for the night. Getting off the bus, I saw no other tourists, and the bus dropped me off in front of a nice new hotel, where I treated myself to a room with A/C and cable TV, where I proceded to catch up on Lost episodes and world events. Deciding to venture out to get some dinner, I stopped at an internet cafe, which turned out to the be the biggest time wasting mistake. This was the slowest internet I have ever been on, and I spent literally 40 minutes trying to send an email to my friend Chris about our China travel plans. Needing to book our flights, I was panicking that I couldn’t get a hold of him for the next few days, this was truly frustrating. Little things like that bother me more than huge headaches, trying to send an email and not being able to bugs me more than a 15 hour road trip. Travel is strange. After the email finally went thorugh, I quickly logged off and got some dinner at the hotels restaurant, and headed back to my plush room for a good night’s sleep.

The following morning, I hired a moto driver to take me the hour out to the temples. Not speaking a lick of English, which was decidedly rare for moto drivers in Cambodia, the ride was nice and relaxing through the countryside. We arrived at the temples, and paying the small $3 entrance fee, I was given an illegible map, a finger pointed in the vague direction of some jungle and off my driver went. Trying to figure out where to go, I started walking towards some ruins, and I was quickly joined by two young boys selling scarves. At least, I thought they were selling scarves, though they never actually tried to sell me anything. They just walked along side me, and pointed towards paths, telling me in scattered English where I was going and what I was seeing. For the next hour, seeing about 6 other tourists also followed by some kids, I wandered around the ruins of these important temples. The kids knew certain key facts to tell me, the Lions Temple was the big one, as was the fact that one non-existent temple was apparently blown up by a bomb. After what I concluded was the end of the ruins, the kids pointed out to a path and said “motos” and giggled, and off we went to find my driver. As I approached the exit, the kids almost shyly asked me if I wanted to buy some scarves, and realizing that they had basically just served as tour guides for an hour and since I had no clue otherwise, I agreed to two scarves for $.50 each, and off they went. I found my driver, and we headed back towards Kampong Thom, where I had booked a share taxi to take me to Kampong Cham.

Climbing into the large minivan, the other passengers looked at me curiously but didn’t say anything, except the one passenger I was sharing the front seat with. Speaking fluent English, we chatted the two hours to Kampong Cham, and he was very happy to explain his job and some facts on Cambodia and Kampong Thom in general. The ride was fairly uneventful, except for a small detour through the rubber plantations, as my co-shotgun rider explained, cut out an hour of the trip. He also said something about people getting shot for ownership of the land of the rubber plantations, but I think there may have been some language barrier there, I didn’t quite grasp what he was trying to tell me. We arrived at Kampong Cham, and he helpfully asked the share taxi driver to take me to my hotel, which apparently was not his job as everyone got out at this crazy gas station and maneuvered towards motos and tuk tuks. My guesthouse was a huge sprawling building on the banks of the Mekong River, and after checking in, I was very disappointed to find out that the boats to Kratie don’t run anymore, due to a newly paved road taking buses in that direction. But for $3, I booked the bus and wearily sank into my very nice room in a seemingly empty hotel. Again, for $6, I had my own bathroom, cable TV, sheets and blanket, the works. Feeling sort of social, I opted to try a restaurant down the road said to be the only bar-type place in the town, which was sadly empty aside from the owner. The owner, as it turns out, was from Philly, and we chatted about home and what he misses, etc., as he’s lived in Cambodia for 12 years. He also had a fairly recent copy of Time magazine, which I devoured along with my grilled cheese and french fries. It quickly got dark, and realizing I was tired, I went back to my room for some TV therapy in the form of Dodgeball and Braveheart.

I boarded the one bus to Kratie the next day, along with a few tourists, and many other locals. I met two girls on the bus who were also heading to Kratie to see the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins, and we spoke to a young man on the bus who owned a guest house and arranged tours to the dolphins. In what turned out to be a whirlwind of events, we got off the bus, checked into our rooms and then were quickly sold tickets for the moto and entrance to the dolphins. We were quickly whisked away by our moto drivers, and looking up in to the sky, my moto driver was apparently trying to outdrive the threatening storm clouds, with no suck luck. A torrential downpour hit us about halfway to the dock, and we pulled over and stopped for some shelter in  what turned out to be one of the moto drivers homes. I hadn’t been in a traditional stilt house yet, and it was beautifully made inside, with hardwood floors, and very dry. We sat on the floor and drank hot water offered to us by his mother, and waited for the rain to clear. When the worst had passed, we climbed back on and headed towards the dolphins. Our tickets included the $2 entry and boat ride to see the dolphins, which is just an insanely cheap price for this activity. We climbed aboard a small motorboat, along with a few other people, and set off down the muddy Mekong River. Rain still fell but not as hard, and we kept our eyes peeled, needlessly, for the dolphins. The guy at our guesthouse assured us we would see the dolphins, but I wasn’t so convinced, considering there are only about 75 left in this part of the Mekong, and are one of the rarest mammals in the world. But in the distance, I quickly saw a black dorsal fin rise out of the water close to some small trees in the middle of the river, and then I knew they were there, as the driver on the boat also pointed out the area to us.

For 1 1/2 hours, with our motor cut, we drifted among some trees and shrubs in the river, catching glimpses of these rare creatures. A few were missing dorsal fins, and while we couldn’t get very close to them, and they clearly didn’t want to get close to our boat, we  were treated to a few doing small acrobatics in the water, and small pods swimming together, almost circling the boat, diving down on one side and then surfacing on the other. After trying to get a photograph for about 1/2 hour, I realized I had 40 pictures of brown muddy water, and decided for once to give up and just enjoy the experience. The only other places to see the dolphins are in Laos and Myanmar (Burma) and I felt incredibly lucky to see these rare animals. The dolphin conservation project does what they can to monitor the dolphins and such, but with the amount of water traffic on the Mekong and the pollution, etc, their job seems quite fruitless. Regardless, there was a lot of information on the dolphins and their plight, and the $2 entrance fee hopefully will help fund some more research and conservation.

The drive home was equally soaking, and at one point the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t see a thing in front of me, and I wondered how my moto driver could see the road or the cows in it for that matter. A few death defying curves and near misses of dogs and small children, we arrived back at the guesthouse. The helpful owner quickly asked us where we wanted to go tomorrow, and when I jokingly asked why he didn’t want us to stay another night, he laughed and said, “No, everyone only stays one night. See the dolphins and go again.” So clearly, he was focusing on quantity, not quality, and he gladly booked my bus ticket to Pnomh Penh the next morning. I opted out of going trekking or to some hill tribes with the two girls, as they had an 8 hour journey on the back of a pickup in front of them, and I decided I wanted to rest instead of another adventure. Arriving in Pnomh Penh, I checked into the same guesthouse I stayed at before, and headed towards the riverfront to take care of some emails, buy some books and eat some pretty decent Mexican food. I had no desire to do any sightseeing, and I had done most of it in Pnomh Penh anyway. I booked my bus to Sihanoukville, or the south coast, for the following morning and called it an early night.

Sitting on the 4 hour bus ride to Sihanoukville, I met a Dutch girl and we decided to share a room once we arrived in town. There are various beaches to stay at, and we headed towards Occhuteal beach, said to be the nicest. We found a nice guesthouse for $6 a night, just across the street from the beach, and quickly donned our swimsuits and headed towards the sand, both clearly needing some rest. Since it was the rainy season, the beach was pretty empty, but we had nice hot sunny weather that day, and settled on some comfy lounges in front of a beach restaurant. Barely undressed, we were quickly surrounded by hawkers, selling everything from bracelets to sarongs to massages to lobsters and fresh fruit. Getting some rest on this beach was not going to be as easy as we thought. Determined, the hawkers sat on our lounges, draped themselves over our towels, and did just about anything they could to get us to buy something from them. The once innocuous word Maybe was now a signed promise of future buying, and we quickly learned that only a firm No would deter them, and even then it was a struggle. But it was a nice day, and ate some dinner from the beach restaurant and enjoyed the clear weather. We headed out for some drinks at an English owned pub, and sat for a few hours with drinks and some good food. Neither one of us was much in the partying mood, so we headed back once the party got crazy.

The next morning, I set out for town to find some more books to read and use the internet, since it was slightly cloudy outside. After a few hours of strolling around town, I headed towards the beach and enjoyed the last few hours of sunshine. I also somehow agreed to get my legs “threaded” by a local girl the next day, and we agreed to a price and a time she would meet me. The sky started to cloud over again late in the afternoon, and the rain started to come down pretty hard, so I headed back to the room. After some nice naptime, we went out in search of dinner, both tired and slightly sunburned. It was an early night again, which was fine with me. The next day, I met Mom, the local girl who would do my legs. For $12, she worked for over 4 hours to thread my legs. This process, not quite like pulling out the hairs, was supposed to last for about 2 months. The thread pulls the hair up from beneath the skin, and then another thread quickly cuts it off, leaving the hair cut much further beneath the skin, but not quite pulled out at the root. Slightly dubious of how long it would last on me, but curious just the same, it was decidedly worth the money. (While she clearly couldn’t find every single hair, the majority of ones she did find did not grow back two weeks later, and still haven’t. But since she did miss some, I have to go over parts with a razor anyway, but it definately works.) The Dutch girl was leaving the next day, so we went out for some dinner later and a quick drink.

The next day at the beach, again, I met a nice English girl named Sam and her mom who were on vacation. Sam, as it turns out, lives in Shanghai and was more than happy to try and teach me some Chinese for my upcoming China trip. We hung out at the beach all day, and decided to join them for a boat trip to some neighboring islands the next day. It was a nice, relaxing day atthe beach, and I noticed that once I bought a few things from the hawkers, like the threading, and some lobsters from another woman, the rest sort of left me alone, giving to the fact that someone else got to me first. It rained again in the afternoon and evening, and I had a quick dinner and some quality reading time to myself. In the morning, I joined Sam and her mom for the boat trip to the islands. THe skies were threatening, but it wasn’t raining, so we boarded the boat along with a big group of about 10 other tourists and a few local kids that Sam had met and brought with her. The sea was really choppy, and it took us almost an hour to reach the first island, where we were to do some snorkeling. I stupidly realized I forgot my contact lenses, and would not be able to see a thing with the snorkel mask. But in a few minutes, it didn’t much matter, as the rains just came plummeting down and soaked us. Our beach BBQ lunch turned into us eating on the boat under the tarp, and when we set out for the next island, the water was even rougher. Sam and a few of the kids got sick on the boat, and some of us debated just headed back to shore, as the skies didn’t seem to be clearing, and a day of relaxing on the beach away from the hawkers was gone with the rain. We stopped at our second island, and swam a bit in the water, but the rain continued to come down. Our drivers informed us that we couldn’t even go to the third island because the water was too rough, and we headed back towards shore after a disappointing day out. We made plans with the group to meet in town called Victory Hill station for dinner, and after showers and some warming up, Sam, her mom and me headed out on motos for the 15 ride up to town to join the others. We settled on an Indian restaurant, and after what seemed like eternity to get our food, we ate some really good curry in the middle of Cambodia with people from all over the world; England, US, Israel, South Africa, Finland, and Belgium. It was a great way to end my time in Sihanoukville, with some much needed rest to gear up for China.

The following morning, I headed back towards Pnomh Penh for one last night before flying back to Bangkok to meet Chris. I quickly hired a tuk tuk driver who took me to the Russian market so I could buy some last minute things, and then took me to the riverfront for dinner and internet, again. I happily ran into Louis and Leen from the crazy road trip earlier, and we chatted about what we had been doing for the past few weeks in Cambodia. It was good to see them, and sort of wrapped up my time in Cambodia, as I had met them on my first day. My flight left very early the next morning, and while I was very happy for finding a $40 flight to Bangkok, I was not happy to discover a cheeky $25 departure tax when leaving Cambodia. But having no option, I paid the fee and boarded my plane, ready to head back to Bangkok, which more importantly, would lead me to China.

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