This tour came about through catching up with a school friend, Kirschty Birt, on Facebook. Kirschty and I went to high school together but we hadn’t seen each other for about 35 years. She asked me in February if I’d be interested in helping plan a holiday in Cambodia and Laos for her and a friend, Delvene Read. I was happy to make the arrangements, including the flights to and from Lao. Later, Kirschty’s younger sister Sarie also decided to join the trip. Some friends of Del, who were in a craft club, gave her 290 hand made tee-shirts to bring over and give to Cambodian kids she met on her trip. I had some doubts how she would manage to bring that many over in her baggage but as it turned out there wasn’t a problem, and she didn’t have to pay for excess baggage. Del had raised money to pay for excess baggage, and as it wasn’t required she generously donated it to the Jesus School to purchase new text books.
Day 1 – September 22nd
Da and I arrived at Blue Lime mid afternoon, and caught up with Kirschty, Sarie and Del soon afterwards. They’d flown in from Singapore that morning. After dinner we went by tuk tuk to the night markets and had a fairly early night, ready for an early start next day.
Day 2 – September 23rd
I’d arranged for a couple of tuk tuks to take us to visit a school, the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and a small orphanage. The drivers, Samnang and Leang are brothers and we’ve been good friends for a number of years now. Although we were on the road by about 8 am, we made slow progress through the streets of Phnom Penh. A lot of roads were closed off as the newly elected government were being sworn in by the King that morning. We finally arrived at the Jesus School around 9:30, and were met by Meng who runs the school. Paleriders helped raise funding for construction of three new classrooms and they’d just been finished. After the usual introductions and a tour of the school, the ladies handed out about 100 of the tee-shirts they’d brought over from Australia. The children were very happy with them and couldn’t wait to try them on.
After reluctantly leaving the school, we headed further out of town to the Killing Field Museum and Memorial. It had been about 4 years since I was last there and I was quite impressed with the self guiding system that had been introduced. Everyone is given a type of MP3 player with headphones and a recording describes each particular section along the walking track. Interspersed throughout the commentary were interviews with people who’d lived through the Khmer Rouge era, some who’d lost family at the Killing Field, and people who actually worked there and carried out the atrocities. It was a very sober group who gathered for lunch afterwards. Kirschty commented that 1975 to 1979 were our high school years and at the time we were both quite unaware of the events happening in Cambodia, or Kampuchea as it was then known.
After lunch we returned to Phnom Penh to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the people killed at Cheung Oek had been imprisoned and tortured. Mere words cannot describe the suffering and horrors that were inflicted on the inmates, by their fellow countrymen and women. Of particular interest to us was the transcript of David Lloyd Scott’s confession, he was an Australian yachtie who was unfortunately captured by the Khmer Rouge and executed after being severely tortured. It is believed that his body was burned in the street outside Tuol Sleng.
Afterwards we visited the children at NACOPCA Orphanage, a much happier place than the previous one. The kids here are always so pleased to see visitors, they are very outgoing and not at all shy. The orphanage is run by a Cambodian family who were involved in the TV and film industry, so the kids are taught to dance and perform on stage from an early age. They make all of their traditional dance costumes themselves. The ladies gave everyone their tee-shirts and also donated money.
After dinner at the Boomerang Cafe, the ladies went for a Seeing Hands massage by the blind and emerged an hour later looking a bit bruised and battered.
Day 3 – September 24th
Sreyda’s cousin picked us up around 9 am, and progress out of the city was quite slow due to the previously mentioned road closures. We were travelling to our home at Baray, in Kampong Thom province so that the ladies could see some schools Paleriders has been involved in building. Kirschty and Del had helped raise money to provide desks for one of them so they were keen to see the school and meet the students. We stopped at Skun on the way to show the ladies a local delicacy, deep fried tarantulas.
After arriving at our place, we lunched on fresh baguettes with lettuce and tomato. Kirschty had brought over some mango chutney and pickles so I had to try them out on mine, the chutney was delicious, just like Mum’s. The ladies were quite impressed with the view from our back verandah, looking westward towards Lake Tonle Sap.
When the day had cooled off, we went for a look at the new classrooms under construction at Samroeng Village Primary School. These should be finished by mid-October, there have been a few delays mainly due to wet weather.
Then we visited the school at Wat Samroeng where Kirschty and Del had donated money towards the construction and fitout. The kids were finished their English and about to go home but stayed back to talk to the ladies. They never miss an opportunity to practise their English with “barangs” (Westerners), that’s the best way to learn correct pronunciation. The ladies gave away more tee-shirts and also school supplies.
After an excellent meal of fish amok from Solar Cafe Baray, we returned to the pagoda for a night of dancing. The ladies were expecting some traditional Khmer dancing but instead were treated to some Gangnam Style by the locals. No worries, everyone got up and danced and had a great night.
Day 4 – September 25th
A short trip to Kampong Cham today, passing through the rubber plantations of Chamkar Andoung and Chamkar Leu. We stopped to have a closer look at the latex oozing out of the trees into collection cups which looked like they were made from coconut shells. A short detour to Phnom Srey (Woman Mountain) to visit the various temples before arrival in Kampong Cham where we were amazed by the height of the Mekong River, it was so high that the street had been sandbagged in an attempt to keep water out of shops along the riverfront.
After lunch at the Lazy Mekong Daze Cafe, we headed out to the Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage to meet the children and give away more shirts. All of their land was under water but fortunately the building was high and dry. The children here are not as accustomed to visitors as the ones at NACOPCA but after their initial shyness they were excited to see us.
Afterwards we went to Wat Nokor, a fairly new temple built inside a 10th century ruin where I’d previously arranged for the monks to perform some blessings for our group. After some initial confusion over what we actually wanted, we were showered with holy water while the monks chanted, seemingly without drawing breath. The ladies mentioned later that this was the highlight of the tour so far.
Day 5 – September 26th
By our itinerary we should have gone to Kratie, but with the amount of water coming down the Mekong, and the need to make two crossings by ferry, I considered it prudent to change our plans a little. Consequently we retraced our route from the previous day, and headed for Tbeng Meanchey in Preah Vihear Province instead. It was a fairly uneventful day, with a torrential downpour in the afternoon. Unfortunately, as I’d chosen to ride, I was soon saturated and quite cold. The ladies had a scenic tour of the town when we arrived, as our driver had forgotten the route to the guesthouse. The Vattanak is fairly new, and very well appointed but enormously expensive at $17 a night! That night we had a great meal at Phnom Tbeng Meanchey Restaurant and managed to find our way back to the guesthouse without too many detours.
Day 6 – September 27th
A fairly early start saw us on the road to Prasat Preah Vihear by 8:30. It took about 90 minutes to travel to the ticket office at the foot of the mountain, then the ladies were transported to the top by four wheel drive whilst I rode the bike. Sreyda had bought cigarettes, noodles and lollies to give the soldiers and their families who live there, as the temple is on the Thai border and the surrounding land is under dispute. It is quite a walk from the parking area to the temple itself, perched on a 500 metre escarpment overlooking Cambodia. Fortunately the day was overcast and not at all hot. After returning from the temple, we had lunch at a small restaurant before heading off to Anlong Veng.
On arrival in Anlong Veng I’d planned to take the ladies to see Pol Pot’s grave, in the Damrek Mountains on the Thai border. Unfortunately the road was cut due to floodwater but we spent an interesting hour watching the locals negotiate a washed out creek crossing not far out of town. They even managed to build a small bridge to allow motorbikes to cross. Next morning we found a way around the washout and visited Ta Mok’s house, unfortunately during another downpour.
Day 7 – September 28th
Not a good start for me, as it was raining when we checked out of the hotel and I was riding but it stopped about 30 km down the road towards Siem Reap. We were meeting my friend Mr Lucky on the way, he’d arranged our Angkor Wat entry tickets which are required to visit Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei temple. At Kbal Spean there are numerous carved lingas (penises) in the riverbed and also carvings of Hindu deities. After a humid but not too strenuous walk we found that the river level was too high to see the carvings. Nevertheless, the ladies were not to disappointed and plan to return at a drier time of year.
After lunch at a local restaurant we travelled a further 15 km to Banteay Srei temple. This is a particularly beautiful temple, with intricately carved figures in the pinkish sandstone, contrasting perfectly with the growth of lichen on the upper sections. Just down the road from Banteay Srei we stopped at the Landmine Museum, a reminder that although the war is over these leftovers continue to maim and kill Cambodians and will continue to for many years to come.
Before reaching Siem Reap, we stopped at a roadside stall to buy palm sugar. The palm sap is condensed in large open boilers, about 7 litres of sap is required to make 1 kg of sugar.
That night we went to a Khmer BBQ Restaurant, all you can eat for $5, followed by a visit to the Night Markets.
Day 8 – September 29th
Last day of the tour and the ladies spent most of the day at Angkor Wat with Mr Lucky. Sreyda and I caught up with them briefly during the day but pretty much left them to their own devices as we had a few people to catch up with in town.
We met that night at the Temple Club for dinner, then watched the Apsara dancers upstairs for a while before returning to the hotel. Next morning Sreyda and I headed home to Baray, leaving the ladies with Mr Lucky to visit a floating village before flying to Luang Prabang that afternoon.
Thank you Kirschty, Del and Sarie for coming to visit Cambodia, I hope you enjoyed the tour as much as Da and I did. We look forward to your next trip; can you make it in the dry season please!
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