Saturday, 3 March 2012

Ban Lung, Kratie and Broken Buses.....

Here we are in Ban Lung, our first real experience of Cambodia.
On arrival we sorted our room, driving a hard bargain, but the guy wouldn't budge. Five pounds provided us with a very comfortable double room with fan and ensuite bathroom. Cable TV included.
Witches BBQ

Darkness had just swallowed the bustling little North East Cambodian
As we wandered through the various streets side eateries, I tasted more bugs, but was less than tempted with the large bbq'd toads. I was tempted by the snakes on sticks which I was intending to try later, but never got round too.
We dined in a
small Khmer cafe, the food was delicious, coming in at £3.00 for the two of us.

 The next morning, we breakfasted in a place very aptly named diner 'The Breakfast Restaurant'.
Amanda ordered an omelette, soup and a juice, plus a filtered coffee for me.
We removed our cutlery from hot water half filled cup sat in the middle of the table.
The soup contained various pieces of strange meat and offal, and though we ate most of it, we didn't really enjoy it. Amanda's plate of oil contained an omelet. 'Nuff said' as they say.
My coffee was presented in a home made filter system. A tin can with the label removed (giving it a much classier presence on the table) sat on a little stand with a tiny metal cup (shot glass size) below. I looked for a cup to transfer the dark, brown, evil looking gloop in to. It desperately needed diluting. Now my memory isn't what it used to be, and as I poured the super strength filtered mixture in to the plastic cup of hot water sitting next to DIY filter system, I quickly realised what I'd just done. The recently cutlery cradling pink plastic cup now contained my 70 pence worth of filtered coffee. Now even less appealing than when the waitress had originally placed the well balanced structure on the table in front of me a minute or so ago.
I decided to let it rest, like a fine wine..... But I decided to leave it forever....

Over the past few weeks I've learned to try out the rental motorcycles before handing over any cash. My first lap of the town resulted in a smooth clutch (rare) and good brakes. There was no speedometer, but that was of no concern, Amanda was my speedometer. As I opened it up on the main road, a few more noticeable chugs and coughs revealed themselves. I informed the hotel owners that their motorcycle was not worth £4 a day, and that it felt likely to breakdown. They quickly and efficiently brought round a replacement in the way of another total heap of junk. I took it for a lap of the town. The clutch had to be stomped on to get it to change through the gears, up or down took great effort. But this seemed almost standard for the old manual motorcycles they rent out in South East Asia. The brakes were fine, and it didn't chug. Amanda would once again be required to assess the speed of the said vehicle.
I told him it was rubbish again (with a smile) and he agreed to do it for $1 less.

Cambodian money is denominated in Reil. But all their ATM Cash Machines pay out in US Dollars. They take dollars at an exchange rate of one to four thousand. There are six thousand Reil to the Pound. Change is give in Reil & Dollar.

We headed out to The Crater Lake. An extinct volcanic crater 5km's outside of Ban Lung. The fact that the lake now contains beautifully clear water, saved us the agony of perishing by swimming in the molten lava. The walk around the lake was absolutely beautiful. Lots of wonderful insect and bird life to be seen.
There were a handful of other tourists at the venue, all enjoying regular dips to escape the intense heat of the Asian sun. We explored an Eco Lodge for lunch. The place was completely deserted. Fairly well maintained wooden bungalows cost £10 per night. If the food had been better we'd have considered it for a couple of nights, as it was in a lovely, peaceful setting. But to be honest, our £4.00 fan room was awesome for the money.
We headed to a fairly unimpressive waterfall along a 9km track, then took the motorcycle for a couple of incredibly slow laps around the town's lake, just on the outskirts of the main town.

We enjoyed a couple of Coconut Lassi's (I think it's Coconut Water, with sugar and icecream...), unhealthy but delicious. We then decided to 'take a nosey' at a very posh looking resort called Terres Rouge. Of course we feigned interest in renting out a room just to get a look inside. It was just over £25 per night. It was very nice, but the bathrooms were nothing special, certainly not six times better than the one we were currently residing in. We noticed on their overly expensive menu that they served red wine, a rarity in these small towns.
The upstairs restaurant overlooked the lake. Two glasses of merlot and a wonderful sunset was the perfect way to finish a lovely days exploring together.
We weren't interested in seeing the other two waterfalls, so after eating that night, we purchased bus tickets to Kratie. The bus left at 6.30am so it was an early start.
The ride all went according to plan. We arrived in Kratie just before 12pm.

Kratie:  Pronounced Kratchy
We dismounted the bus into a stifling wall of heat. 38 degrees celcius and rising.
We took the second guesthouse we looked at. Amanda just wanted to lie down out of the heat for a couple of hours. I focused both the room fans on to her stretched out body and went to explore.
I walked the streets looking for motorcycle rental shops, I found none. What I did find was a street market (something of which I am now well averse to, and don't seem to be impressed any longer by the selection of fruit and veg on offer) and shed loads of litter. It was everywhere, it made the place look filthy. It was a sorry sight. Cambodia suffers a real litter problem, plastic bags, polystyrene containers, plastic bottles, tin cans, snack wrappers, the lot! Awful.
I spotted a little Khmer Cafe for eats at some point.
I returned to the guesthouse (Heng Heng) and arranged a motorcycle for 7am the next morning. He proudly told me the one he'd be getting didn't have a registration plate, and this was absolutely fine, the Cambodian police don't mind this. I was very reluctant to take him on his word, after all he was running an Asian hotel and his lips were moving. I wandered outside again, just to check that there were more motorcycles on the road with no registration plates, and it wouldn't be just my motorcycle. The Cambodian Police apparently have a liking for fining people willy nilly. No helmets (for the driver only) or absent wing mirrors are a no no. To my delight there were lots of unregistered motorcycles in Kratie, so we'd blend in just fine.

That evening we wandered the main streets, Amanda spotting a barbers shop. They shouted to me, pointing at my beard (no locals wear beards), 'Shave' 'Shave' they shouted, gesticulating toward the shabby barber chairs. I turned down their kind offer, but as we walked back up the street a couple of minutes later they were at it again, and now Amanda had joined in. 'Don't be chicken' she said. I sat down, indicating what how I wanted my facial hair treated. The tiny bits of beard stuck to my sweating face, neck and chest as he worked the battery powered trimmers across my lush whiskers. Unwisely I briefly opened my mouth, taking in myriad of tiny shavings. He talced my neck in preparation for the 'cut throat'. I was nervous to say the least. I'd never entrusted anyone to take a cut throat razor to my face, let alone my neck. As he scraped Amanda spoke to me, then said 'Don't speak!!!'. I had no intentions of responding to her. I liked the way the skin, veins and arteries work together to keep the blood inside my body! A couple of minutes later I looked like a new man, well once he'd brushed all the trimmings from my sweaty chops. He then closed his hands together, palm to palm, holding them in the clapping position and chopped lightly onto my shoulders and neck. Lovely finish. As that thought settled, he placed both his hands on my cheeks and lower jaw. He looked at me in the mirror. With a mischievious glint in his eye I sensed what was coming, and even though I wanted to tense up I knew I had to relax fully. He then whipped my head around the right, crack, crack, crack, crack, and brought it back to the centre. My eyes almost popped out of my head. He smiled again, whilst I thought 'Nooooo!', then whipped it around in the opposite direction. Crack, crack, crack, crack. I was pretty sure I would be looking at the back of the guys head sitting having his hair trimmed behind me, but to my surprise and relief my head was still facing forward.
They all laughed, including Amanda. But once they realised I couldn't move my arms or legs they began to panic. Okay, okay I was fine, but I reckon he must have broken a few necks in his time! The shave cost me $1.25.

The next morning we jumped onto our motorcycle and headed 16 km's north of Kratie to Kampi, a great spot for viewing the endangered Irrawady Dolphins, which although endangered, still inhabit parts of the Mekong.
We paid $18 for a one hour boat trip to view the rare mammals.
It was just Amanda and I, and of course the guide. Three other boats were out at the same time. It wasn't long before we had dolphins porpoising here and there, within 100 metres of the boat. As the hour went by we were lucky enough to have a few close encounters within 10 metres. These dolphins seem a lot more reserved than their saltwater cousins. 

Opting for rolling and porpoising, rather than uncivilised, showy leaping and flipping business!
Amanda Watches River Dolphins

The dolphins could easily be spotted from the river bank, but getting out on the boat, which was being silently propelled by oar power once the engine had chugged us into the vicinity, allowed a much closer, more intimate experience altogether.
The remainder of the day (it was only 10am and we'd seen our second lot of endangered animals on our tour of South Eash Asia, the Gibbons being the first) was spent enjoying the Mekong, at a little community venture. We pulled over into a little car park ($1), where a bamboo foot bridge lead us across to the middle of the river ($1), this in turn lead to lots of little bamboo shelters running along the flow of the river ($1.25) containing your own weaved bamboo mat and hammocks. It was a little riverside heaven on earth. I'm assuming once the wet season kicks in, the entire structure is swept away, then is rebuilt once the waters subside again. This can also be said for all the small bamboo bridges which link small villages and provinces across the Mekong and it's tributaries during the dry season. Once the river rises, they are swept away and rebuilt once the waters fall later in the season.
We played in river and watched the cast net fishermen constantly unsnagging their net from the river bed. I watched bee eaters, a fish eagle (not sure which species), asian kingfishers and egrets, it was lovely. We finished the day with an hour long yoga session. The sun setting in front, whilst the river rushed by behind us.
We brought the day to a perfect close by heading to the little Khmer Cafe I'd spotted the day before, for a deliciously filling veggie feast.

That wasn't what made it a perfect close to the day though. What was you ask?
Amanda relaxes in hammock on Mekong

Amanda enquired about bus tickets to Siem Reap for the next morning at one of the other Guesthouses (our guy was trying to charge $14 each, we knew we could get them for $10, possibly less) then, hopped back onto the motorcycle behind me. As we slowly crawled up the road we both spotted two very familiar faces having a beer with two other travellers outside the place we'd eaten the night before. The other travellers could see we were trying to sneak up, so I put my finger to my mouth, but their faces gave them away. Bus & Nora (our travelling buddies from the previous few weeks that we'd split from in Vientiane) both jumped up out of their seats, as elated to see us as we were them. We grabbed a couple of beers with them, arranging to meet up in Siem Reap, they intended to head there the day after us. Bus did his best to convince us that we should stay another day in Kratie/Kampi, and although tempted, the city of Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor Wat were awaiting us.

As we inspected the buses late that night, with the night market just coming to close (10pm) a guy on a motorcycle coming in our direction, on the opposite side of the road, the same side as the market stalls, suddenly veered to the right. He either fell asleep or was drunk. He didn't slow down whatsoever, crashing through boxes and the market stalls. Luckily the pyjama clad lady (the ladies all wander around during the day in patterned pyjamas, the ultimate statement of comfort in Cambodia) standing in front of the stall managed to dive out of his way, he missed the other young ladies clearing up their stalls next door too. Incredibly no one was hurt... Which was nice.
Lots of late night drink driving goes on according to one of the locals we recently chatted with, and most people have no idea of the rules of the road.
A roundabout in South East Asia is a free for all. You just give way to anything bigger or faster than you. Junctions are an opportunity to see if the after life exists too. Treat each one as if the road you are on is secondary to the one you are adjoining or crossing, and you should survive. Now that I can spin my head around 360 degrees after the curtain closing finali of my Kratie shave I have no worries on the roads here or indeed anywhere else in the world!
The bus leaves at 7am to Siam Reap, another early start!

Kratie to Siem Reap:
So.... Here we are.
The bus from Kratie to Siam Reap is a belting 9 hours when things go well......
When they don't, who knows how long it takes.
We got on the bus at 6.45am, changing at 11.30am for the second leg.
Amanda Sits & Waits..... and Waits..... and Waits...
The second bus broke down, pretty much in the arse of nowhere, at 4pm, about two hours outside of Siam Reap, it's now 6.05pm.  To be honest, looking at where we've broken down, right outside a motorcycle repair shop, The A-Team or McGuyver would already have built us a replacement bus!  Where the bloody hell are fictional TV heroes when you need them?!

One of the driver's assistants has headed into one of the nearby towns to pick up a new (replacement) part. This was a long time ago.... and I think he may just be slugging down an ice cold Angkor Beer at one of the local drinkeries. The sun has just dipped down below the horizon, but the air is still hot and sticky. We were so close but so far.
It's now quarter to seven.....Amanda and I have sat with a local lady, her kids, going through the photographs of various insects and animals on my netbook, the little girl loved it.... In fact she's just come back again, but now I'm only typing. It's dark, and there are midges everywhere. She's just snuggled into me, and has her head is resting on my arm, she's a tiny little beauty. You can see why the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt come here for kids to adopt, their soooo cute with their raven black hair, brown skin and chocolate button eyes.

Can we build a bus!?
They've just got the bus started, whay haaay, oh.... but it's just cut out again.... Long day, very long day!

I think I'm covered in tiny flies from head to toe.... In fact if they all took off at the same time, I may get to Siam Reap by air! If only we could harness the power of insects. I reckon they'd be a super efficient, reliable source of transport, especially in Cambodia. A plethora of oversized (heavy enough to depress the key pad I reckon!) flying insects are now crashing into my bright netbook screen, probably a good time to shut it down!
Good luck for now!

It's 9pm..... Just under five hours of sitting by roadside... The replacement has just arrived. In desperation to ensure we got on, Amanda went ahead whilst I loaded the bags. This involved my opening the luggage compartment, which promptly shot out of my hand, flipping up with a crash on to the side of the bus, just below the windows. Smooth!
We are now seated in cool air conditioned seats, it's a joy, but we have over 2 hours to travel to reach Siam Reap meaning a late entry to the city. Amanda has just borrowed another travellers phone to call a guesthouse. We've treated ourselves, gone absolutely crazy. We've booked an air conditioned room (always 50% more than a standard room), with breakfast included. Ten British Pounds. Bargain! We're are both shattered.
Onwards to Siam Reap!

We've just arrived, as it's now 11pm, we've decided to take room with a large ceiling fan with an additional breeze provided by a stand up fan. It's only £5.25, perfect.
It took us just over 16 hours to get here..... Cambodian public transport, reliable it is not!
Good night xxx

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