Third time lucky

Friday is present day. This week we have changed the rules a bit - presents will be a "surprise" from mummy and daddy. This avoids lost opportunities on other days of the week, last-minute rushed decisions, and basically the accumulation of useless plastic tat. Presents are still handed over on the completion of the 5th page of weekly homework, but Lucas decided it would be cool to do Friday's homework yesterday and so get his present hidden under his pillow at nighttime.

Finally managed to see the Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda, on our third attempt. A bit of a disappointment really. You can't go into the main palace building, so you are reduced to walking around the grounds (very nice, with European style gardens) and peeking through the windows. The guide said it was a bit of a copy of the one in Bangkok but we didn't think so at all.

The Silver Pagoda has silver floors... covered in carpeting (except for one little corner to "prove" you are walking on silver). There are a few more things to visit, royal elephant palanquins and such like, but all in all this visit didn't seem to feel like good value for money. Having said that I think it's about a third of the price of the one in Bangkok. Basically the Grand Palace in Bangkok is much more impressive in general, but the one in Phnom Penh has much nicer grounds.

But the kids didn't care. As long as we went to the massive playground next door they decided they would tolerate our wanderings for a couple of hours. The night market was also a hit - new clothes and for dinner... Angry Birds on a stick (processed fish protein plus food colouring).

Lesson learnt today: Vattanac bank doesn't charge us anything to take money out of their ATMs - up till now we have been paying $3-6 for each withdrawal; great to know on the last day in Cambodia.

Sihanouk ville

Este famoso destino costero le debe su nombre al rey Norodom Sihanok, conocido en Camboya como "el padre de la nacion".

Es uno de los destinos obligatorios en Cambodia y alli que nos fuimos en busca de playa y sol. Aunque a mi pesar, decidimos alojarnos en pleno pueblo en lugar de quedarnos en las islas o en alguna playa mas remota. Despues de varios dias en unas cabanas sencillas a la orilla del rio queriamos disfrutar de las comodidades modernas que ofrece un hotel playero, como agua caliente, aire acondicionado, piscina y un sin fin de restaurantes.

El pueblo es mas bien una ciudad tomada por mochileros. Aun asi encontramos nuestro rincon paradisiaco en Outres beach, una playa maravillosa a 15 minutos en tuc-tuc a la que fuimos dos dias. El resto del tiempo lo pasamos haciendo el vago en la piscina y en Serendipity Beach, donde hay mas hamacas y tumbonas que espacio para poner la toalla.

Pero siempre recordare Sihanouk ville como el sitio donde me hice mi primer tatuaje!

Grand Palace closed

Just realised today we need a Vietnam visa for our boat border crossing. We had understood that those formalities would be sorted as part of the trip, but apparently not. Cue rushed phone call to the agency, arranged a meeting at 3 at the hotel for them to sort it out for us.

As ardent fans of this blog will no doubt remember, last month we had to leave the Grand Palace for later as I was ill. As we were doing OK for time we decided to give it a whirl in the morning (ish). After a stop at a book store and a quick street lunch (gosh, so much cheaper than any of the restaurants, why haven't we done this earlier!?), not 10m from the Grand Palace we had a quick look in the guide to be reminded it was closed from 11am to 2pm. Since we had to be back by 3 it made no sense to stick around so we went back and hit the pool.

Visas into Vietnam are expensive. Apparently they have just raised the prices. After confirming the price online we sadly handed over our hard-earned cash to a complete stranger in exchange for a pink slip.

Full circle

We have just finished spending 10 days going round Asia's largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, and we haven't even seen it. Even the day we flew over it it was impossible to see because of the clouds. We have now come full circle and are back in Phnom Penh. We have a swimming pool again and so made the most of it today. Starting to plan and book few things for Vietnam now. So far we have a boat down the Mekong river and the first 3 nights in the delta.

Pottery, countryside and a floating village

Pottery is something which has never excited me. During my life it has completely failed to touch a single emotional fibre in my body. Today was no exception. I think a bad experience at summer camp is to blame.

Which is not to say I had a bad time. I enjoyed seeing the holes the families dug out of the ground to get the dry clay, how the clay is passed through a sort of blending machine, mixed with water, put on a potter's wheel, turned into a round object and put into the oven to come out as a vase. Well, mostly all in my imagination as our timetables (11am start) don't quite overlap with the potter's (12am finish), especially taking into account the hour and a half we spent watching the countryside and local temple before getting there (no wonder, because it is hot, hot, hot).

The area is famous for its pottery. It has small sparkly yellow chips from the clay of "golden mountain". Some of the families are so traditional they don't even use a potter's wheel, they just walk round and round the clay batting it with a small flat stick. Some specialise in pots, others do clay charcoal burners (which everyone uses as a kitchen) and others make piggy banks (mostly elephant banks really).

We can't really buy any pottery as carrying it around for 6 months might be a bit awkward (I prefer metal, plastic, wood or even wicker objects anyways) but there was something else for us: palm sugar. They take juice from the palm trees (from the sap I guess) and either drink that, turn it into a sort of beer, or boil it away to obtain the sugar paste. We tasted some of this paste, loved it, so bought a pot.

Went one of the two local floating villages through the back roads, past the houses on stilts (which give you an idea of how much the river level rises during the rainy season). This village houses both Vietnamese and Cambodian families. We hopped on a small boat and were rowed round the "streets", past houses, shops, and even a school. Lucas decided he would live here when he was older.

Took the long way back again, playing with kids, looking at the rice fields, "chatting" to some women looking after cows (Aisha was a big hit with them) and even driving through a wedding (they take over the whole road) and getting a present of a couple of beers (warm - they drink it with ice) to toast to the health of the newlyweds.

In short, another lovely day just seeing how the people really live out here.

Mar y cangrejos en Kep

Kep es un pequeno pueblo al sur de Camboya famoso por sus cangrejos y su playa. Esta cerca de Kampot y decidimos hacer una excursion de un dia para darnos un chapuzon, visitar el mercado de cangrejos y comer marisco fresco.

Ya nos habian avisado de que la playa no era nada especial asi que ibamos con las expectativas bajas. Tambien ibamos avisados de que estaban llevando arena, lo que no sabiamos era que la arena era practicamente blanca, y casi nos quedamos ciegos al bajar del tuc tuc y quitarmos las gafas de sol.

El bano nos sento fenomenal, los ninos disfrutaron un monton con las montanas de arena y hasta Aisha se bano, porque la temperatura del agua superaba con creces la del Mediterraneo.

Con el cuerpo fresquito nos fuimos a comer a un precioso restaurante con vistas al mar. Por el tamano del cangrejo os aseguro que comi mas pimienta que crustaceo, en esta zona cocinan todo con pimienta fresca verde. Las gambas, aunque enterradas en pimienta, estaban buenisimas. Personalmente repetiria la experiencia.

El mercado fue algo decepcionante. No vimos mas que un punado de cangrejos y el olor a pescado y fogatas, de no quiero saber que, echaba para atras! Asi que la visita fue rapida.

Al caer el sol y de vuelta a casa, nos desviamos para dar un paseo en barco con uno de los muchos pescadores de la zona, en concreto un amigo del dueno de nuestro hotel. El susodicho no hablaba nada de ingles pero conseguimos entendernos, o eso creimos. Desde su pequeno chiringuito en el rio salimos al mar para ver los manglares y hacer un breve desembarco. Fue la mejor manera de terminar el dia.

So this is what it feels like to be famous

Travelled to Kampong Chhnang (no typo, I swear). For the first time this trip we got the bus instead of a taxi. Haven't been missing that much really, the quality is similar: old but decent, comfy chairs and aircon. The main difference is that we got to see a typical film of the sort they watch here. Don't think they'll make Cannes or the Oscars any time soon, but judging by the guffaws martial arts comedies are an acquired taste.

Judging by the complete lack of Westerners I guess Kampong Chhnang doesn't feature highly on most people's itineraries. We are all alone, possibly the first Spanish(ish) family to set foot here ever. Walking down the street we got accosted every 5s by kids saying hello. Aisha was very excited at everybody liking her and wanting to be her friend. Finally we go to the kiddie park I had seen from the bus, to whoops of joy. There we found a tuk-tuk driver for tomorrow that speaks good English. Looks like we can see all the sights in one day, and there isn't much else to do, so we'll stay 2 nights here instead of the planned 3.

Dinner was a bit of a disaster. There's no restaurants here, so we got some BBQ chicken and fish from the market. Then, realising our stall didn't have anywhere to sit we sat at some other tables only to be promptly chucked off as they were from another stall. Still don't quite understand it - the BBQ stalls don't have seating, but the ones doing juices and boiled eggs (?) do. Anyways, we walked sadly in the dark and dust back to the hotel carrying the food and the kids. Amazing how quickly fame abandons you.

When we reached the hotel we realised it actually has an attached restaurant. Duh! When we explained our adventures they let us sit down there so we bought a couple of beers and munched away.

Cambodia's only winery

Today we got on the tuk-tuk a bit earlier as first we went to a resort on the outskirts to spend some time at their pool and have lunch there. For a few dollars you can have this sort of arrangement with most hotels.

After a relaxing time living in the lap of luxury we headed to the ruins at Phom Banan. A temple the locals say served as a model for Angkor Wat, though much smaller (it was build a few years before). It is at the top of a long staircase up a hill. We had to visit it separately as the kids had fallen asleep. It's worth the climb, with nice flowers and flowering cactus amongst the ruins. On the way up I bumped into one of the people the guide book warns you about - he claimed to be in charge of a school charity and then pockets your money. Even without the warning we wouldn't have fallen for him: we hardly give any money on the way, and definitely not on the street - we prefer to give a lump sum to one or a few charities when we get back.

Had to abort a visit to see the sleeping fruit bats, the road was closed. So we went straight on to the only winery in Cambodia. They make a drinkable red, a horrible brandy, a nice but raisiny grape juice, and a gorgeous something with ginger. Then we hot the back roads again to pass by the local farms and over a dodgy (but new-looking and made of metal) bridge to a small Muslim fishing village (Muslims make up about 5% of the population in Cambodia).

Back in Battambang a nice surprise, a batucada (African drum session) in the street by some girls from Madagascar. It's all part of an Asian tour they are doing as part of a youth and cultural interchange program to promote human rights and improve the quality of life of disadvantaged women and children through education. Just to ram the message home we noticed that part of the crowd which had joined to watch included some of the local street kids, each with his glue-sniffing bag. Some were really small, it was very sad to see.

Countryside and crocodiles

This is ethno-tourism at it's best. Our past experiences of visiting people and villages to see "traditional ways of life" (mostly during our South American travels) had been disappointing. They feel more like a human zoo, with the locals putting on their Sunday finery and prancing around doing traditional dances (normally reserved for special occasions) every day for the tourists. That's why we haven't even been to see the long-necks and other hill tribes of Northern Thailand.

But this was different. It was just us and our tuk-tuk driver. We weren't the only ones of course; during the day we saw more tourists like us (and the things we visited are pasted all over the travel agencies), but it all felt very low-key.

Yesterday we had been South of Battambang, today we headed North. First we stopped to see a family making rice paper (used to make spring rolls, both for the fresh and the fried varieties). Apparently this is all manual production - there is no industrial production of rice paper in Cambodia. It can be a very good source of income for a rural family in the dry season (the wet papers need to dry in the sun so they can't be produced in the rainy season).

Saw the ruins of Ek Phnom, a small site with a modern (relatively speaking) temple and big Buddha next door. Nothing really to write home about after Siem Reap. And then we returned home on an alternative, much more rural road. Went past rice fields and assorted rural settings to the fish paste market. Normally everybody makes their own; this is low-quality mass-produced (though not industrial) fare mostly for restaurants. It doesn't look like a fun job: sweaty and extremely smelly (though nowhere near as bad as the crab market at Kep).

Paid a visit to the killing fields, site of further atrocities from the Khmer Rouge. The numbers say it all: 4060 arrested, 4008 bodies found in mass graves. There is a memorial to the victims and details of the local history.

After that the kids favourite: a crocodile farm. They are crammed in pens round pools in their hundreds. You walk above them on small walkways, with just a hand rest to separate you from a very sudden death. It's quite exhilarating in an adrenaline-rush brown trouser kind of way.

Back in Battambang Esther had a massage by a blind Massey. It is quite a common charity / social enterprise in Cambodia and enables blind people to make a decent sustainable living. Quite an experience she said.

Fun on the tracks and a million bats

Yes, I spend most of the day thinking up daily titles for the blog.

Invested most of the morning farting around Battambang: saw the market, the riverfront, the French "colonial gems"...

First thing this afternoon we got on our arranged tuk-tuk tour. First visit was the bamboo train. Possibly the most fun you can have on rails without becoming a trainspotter. The old narrow-gauge tracks have been maintained for a few kilometres and you ride to one station and back on a contraption made of bamboo and wood on wheels with a small motors. Apparently in the 70s the track was used extensively with these "trains" (powered by hand) as the roads were a mess, and in the 80s they introduced the motors.

We got on our pillows and were shuttled at what felt like break-neck speed down the track. Soon we saw another bamboo train off the tracks. Great, we thought, they actually fly off the rails. However the passengers seemed pretty cool about it, and nobody seemed to be bleeding. It took us a couple more to realise they were actually trains coming back in the other direction which had been removed from the track to let us pass.

Second and final stop was Phnom Sampeau, a hill outside Battambang which was a strategic stronghold for the Khmer Rouge. A temple on the hill had been converted into a jail and next door were some caves where thousands of bodies had been dumped. Further up the hill were a few more temples but we didn't reach them as we had to get back down. At 18:00 sharp (actually 5 minutes before) a million bats started coming out of a different cave at the base of the hill. Quite an amazing sight. They are small bats which feast on insects for the night in the wooded areas and then return.

The circus is in town

The kids slept for most of the trip in the taxi to Battambang, so it was pretty relaxed and uneventful. If you ignore the insane overtaking which is pretty much par for the course in Cambodia, and in Thailand as well actually.

Aaargh, forgot flip-flops at Siem Reap! Will have to survive with shoes and sandals, or maybe go shopping soon. I must say we have done pretty well with packing: virtually used everything we brought and have had to buy very little (mainly anti-parasite medicines).

Arrived early in Battambang, a nice relaxed town with plenty to see, and decided to catch the evening circus show. Like so many enterprises in Cambodia it is a socially responsible / charitable circus - the performers are all orphans and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It was a great hit. The kids loved it. I suspect Lucas may run away and join the circus before long. We got a chance to see them practising, performing and later could ask them questions and have photos taken with them. During dinner, Lucas and Aisha put on a circus show for us, much to the amusement of the rest of the restaurant.

Quite liked our tuk-tuk driver; arranged a tour with him for tomorrow.

Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Pre Rup

Stayed closer to home today to do as many of the nearby temples as possible. First on our list was Angkor Thom, which is a walled area with various buildings. After passing the South gate in out tuk-tuk we hit the main site, the Banyan, an eclectic temple with carved faces continuously staring at you. Inside the kids ave an offering to Buddha and got a bracelet which Lucas was well chuffed with as we told him that now Buddha would protect him.

After the Banyan we walked past a big Buddha to the terrace of the elephants, past the royal palace (didn't go in as the kids were a bit flaky) to the terrace of the leper king. Man, today was hot. Never sweated so much in my life. there the tuk-tuk picked us up and took us to the highlight of the day, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple, is a bit of a controversial issue amongst archaeologists. It has been left much as originally found - most of the restoration has been simply a bit of cleaning and stabilising the ruins. This is great for the visitor as it is the most atmospheric of temples, with trees meshing with the site walls, tumbling masonry and dusty cobwebs. It gives you the impression of being the first to discover the temple. However most archaeologists hate the fact that this temple has been singled out to not be properly restored as a "concession to the general taste for the picturesque". Others bow to the fact that the "picturesque" will lead to more interest in Anchor Wat and archaeology in general; a minor sell out which results in publicity from word of mouth and blockbuster films. I can confirm it was our favourite site.

Final stop was a minor temple we had passed a few times and wanted to get a closer glimpse of: Pre Rup. It is a bit older than the others: 10th century. By now the kids had completely abandoned all interest so I braved in alone, armed with only my trusty camera, while the rest of the family played in the tuk-tuk.

Kbal Spean and Banteay Samre

Tuk-tuk won the toss against private car. Today we went over 50km out of Siem Reap but the price difference won out against speed and comfort. We just left an hour before originally planned to make up for the slower speed.

Kbal Spean is a riverbed with many Hindu carvings. All very poignant, meaningful and pretty but we were really heading there for the waterfall. After what seems 8h of tuk-tuk we stretched our legs with a shortish (1.5km), mostly uphill, hike to the river. The kids did pretty well - soon we got into a pattern of 100m walking / 100m carrying (there are signposts every 100m so flabby tourists don't loose hope).

As expected, the wonderful carvings didn't woo any of us enough to stop for more than a few minutes. Philistines us. Sweaty and hot Philistines - the carvings area had a no swimming sign so we headed straight to the waterfall. When we got there we had it all to ourselves for a few minutes, enough to snap a few photos, before a few other visitors started trickling in. It never got too crowded though. Had a great time splashing around, looking at the butterflies, and Lucas was brave enough to follow daddy under the waterfall for a natural shower. Shame there wasn't another waterfall at the beginning for the way back.

Our driver took us to a tourist-trap restaurant (commissions I suppose) which we quickly abandoned for more humble fare next to Banteay Samre, a temple about 15km back towards Siem Reap. It is quite a lovely temple, small but very pretty. Apparently historians believe it was designed by women due to the elaborate carvings. Even out here there were crowds, nothing compared to Angkor Wat but enough to make photography a chore. Spent some time chilling round the back of the temple (where the sun hit it properly), the kids playing with the girls who try to sell you postcards (we refuse to buy anything off children).

Ta Prohm was also on the list for today but it was getting late. Temples open at sunrise (5:30) and close at sunset (17:30-18:30). We'll have to ave it for tomorrow.

Dinner was amazing, the best so far in Cambodia. According to Lonely Planet (so take with a large pinch of salt) the great Gordon Ramsay learnt a trick or two when he came here. All I know is that the salads were great and the aubergine with pork was to die for. Not much more expensive than our usual khmer/western restaurants with plastic chars and dodgy toilets, except sadly for the wine which was priced out of our league.

Lesson learnt today: no matter how far you go out from Siem Reap you can't beat the crowds - the only way is to get the timing right.

Cycling round Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the closest of the Siem Reap temples. It is about 6km from our hotel, so we decided to rent some bicycles with child seats. Yesterday wasn't too hot and today looked to be the same. Also, we are beginning to understand how traffic works. There is order in all that chaos.

By some miracle we found the ticket office on the first attempt, only to discover they don't take credit cards. So I did an extra couple of kilometres back into town to the closest ATM. Got a 3 day pass, as we have 3 more days in Siem Reap and will be visiting temples every day.

So was Angkor amazing? Well, being well travelled and having seen some of the best the world has to offer we didn't expect to be blown away, so we were only mildly disappointed. Not being an artist, an archaeologist or a historian you never know how these things will affect you. For me it's a combination of how I'm feeling mentally and physically on the day, the location, the weather, the other tourists, how much I know about the significance of what I'm seeing, as well as the site itself. Personally in the head to head with Machu Picchu the Incas win hands down.

Whatever our issues with Anchor Wat it is pretty impressive. Also it isn't alone; if it fails to impress you the sheer number of sites nearby will surely grab you eventually. Most of the temples and buildings date from the 12th-13th centuries, when the Angkor empire was at it's height.

We were planning on visiting Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple. It looked fairly close on the map but turns out to be another 6km cycle ride away. It was hot, but bearable, so we went for it. However, on the way Aisha fell asleep and was bouncing around in her chair (not quite an ergonomic back-supporting model) a bit too much for comfort so we stopped for a bit and then woke her up. By then it was getting too late and, cycling round Cambodia in the dark not being the most fun activity on our list, we headed for home. Esther had had problems with her bike and not felt safe so we decided to do the next 2 days by tuk-tuk. We'll probably get more done that way as well.

Lessons learnt today: don't assume you can pay anything in Cambodia by card; don't let UNESCO set your expectations too high.

Landmines and butterflies

There are dozens of ancient (12th-13th century) sites round Siem Reap, many (including Angkor Wat) inside the city itself, but others are miles away. All fall under the same entrance ticket. We will buy the 3-day pass but, not knowing the 3 days don't have to be consecutive, we decided to spend the first day doing non-temple stuff.

First stop today was the landmine museum. We got a tuk-tuk for the day because it's a fair way out of town. It was started by an ex-child soldier who defected from the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese army and eventually started using his skills to find and defuse landmines all over Cambodia, as well as set up a charity to look after mutilated and orphaned children. I didn't know that normally you have anti-tank mines (designed to blow up with something much heavier than a person, and with a lot of force) and anti-personnel mines (sprinkled around the anti-tank mines so the soldiers can't clear those up, and are actually designed to maim rather than kill as an injured soldier is more expensive than a dead one). We used the opportunity to explain a bit more about war and it's consequences to Lucas.

We had lunch at a curious place. It is a Japanese-run charity that acts as an informal school for the local children. They turn up when they can and spend the day learning English, Japanese, dancing, painting, and origami. Not quite sure how it's funded but part of the money comes from an attached restaurant. Lucas and Aisha became informal pupils while we finished lunch.

After that a lighter note: one of the biggest butterfly farms in Asia. We saw everything in their life cycle: mating, eggs, caterpillars, cocoons, and lots and lots of butterflies.

Flight to Siem Reap

After sitting on our bums all day on the beach for a few days we have decided to start being a bit more active and adventuresome for the time remaining in Cambodia. Shocking we didn't visit any of the islands, or even stay a couple of nights on one.

After a morning lazing round the pool after checkout we went to the airport and flew to Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat. This is the Cambodian tourist destination, UNESCO world heritage site and, more importantly, where they filmed Tomb Raider. This is the first time I've has an official pick-up from the airport.

A pool of blue sky

Happy Valentine's day!

We're not the most romantic couple in the world so we left it at that.

Today we returned to Outres beach as it's worth the hassle and 10 bucks (Cambodia works in dollars) tuk-tuk return fare compared to the main beach.

Full moon today. Had dinner on our beach, which was chocca with fireworks and preparations for full moon parties.

But the big news of the day has to be Esther's first tattoo. She had arranged an appointment yesterday and been investigating typefaces. It is a slight adaptation of some lyrics of Pearl Jam's Unthought Known: "a pool of blue sky" branded on her forearm for all eternity. Made sure we got the words right, and no spelling mistakes. Now it should go a couple of weeks without a proper soaking (if you want to be extra-cautious) which is OK as we leave beach areas for a while. Once it's healed all we have to do is wait until my parents will talk to her again.

Outres beach

We're all a bit sunburned after yesterday, especially the kids. Today we were a bit more careful with the suncream.

Hired a tuk-tuk for the day. First stop in town - a bookstore to get a few new story books and colouring pads. It was full of toys as well so we bought Friday's presents a day early. Then we had lunch in a real local restaurant (not that different from the tourist restaurants except much cheaper) and headed to Outres beach.

Outres beach is much less built up than the main beach, though it's not completely empty. It was the original backpackers beach before everybody moved into town and so has a string of resorts down the beach front. It boasts miles of white sand, clear waters and is pretty empty, though the resorts do take up a fair amount of beach real estate with their sunbeds. I'm sure the beaches on the islands are even more idyllic, but this will do and is more practical.

Good thing we didn't go on a "party boat" tour. "Not really party, OK for small children" they told us at the agency yesterday. The blaring techno declared otherwise. If the wind hadn't drowned out the music a bit it would ruin the experience of Outres beach: those that don't like techno would have their peace shattered, those that do would be dying to leave the beach and join the boat.

Had a bit a tiff with the tuk-tuk driver on the way back about timetables and price. We've blacklisted him.

Just pool and beach

Nothing special today, just spent the morning splashing round the pool. It's been ages since we had an hotel with a swimming pool so the kids made the most of it. In the afternoon we visited the beach. The sea was a bit choppy so we all had fun in the waves (turns out Aisha isn't afraid of waves, only of cold water). One of the highlights of the area is a tour of the nearby islands. We had even contemplated spending a couple of nights on one but thought that the kids wouldn't appreciate the idyllic surroundings and be bored. Looks like we won't even bother with the tour - they are pretty expensive, the ride is long, and the sea isn't quite flat. We've had our fair share of pristine paradise beaches anyways; children prefer beaches with people and things to do. There are a few nicer beaches out of town which we'll visit by tuk-tuk.

Backpacker heaven

We tried to get a late-ish bus to spend a leisurely morning at the lodge, saying goodbye to the river, but after an hour's wait and news that the bus (coming from Vietnam) had some sort of mechanical problem that needed fixing we went round the corner to another agency to book a taxi (the last buses from all agencies of the day from all agencies had gone). Life's too short to wait around for dodgy buses.

Sihanoukville is an endless array of hotels, restaurants and pubs, with a few shops, massage/tattoo parlours and tour operators in between. Once you get through the real part of town to the tourist area that is. It is faintly reminiscent of the Costa del Sol. Near the main part of town is a large beach, served from end to end by a string of bars, mainly on the sand. Some even look pretty interesting, if only we could find a reliable babysitter...

Descubriendo Kampot

Kampot es una pequena ciudad en la ribera del rio Kampong, famosa por su pimienta, su salsa de chili y el durian, una enorme fruta con un olor tan intenso que muchos hoteles prohiben comerla en la habitacion.

Desde Kampot se pueden hacer diferentes excursiones organizadas, pero despues de preguntar a varias agencias decidimos hacerlas por nuestra cuenta. Sobretodo porque empiezan a las 8.30 de la manana y ultimamente Lucas y Aisha no se despiertan antes de las 10.00.

Asi que nos aventuramos a coger un tuc tuc y visitar una zona del rio muy frecuentada por la gente de aqui, sobretodo durante el fin de semana. En la temporada de lluvia hay rapidos en el rio, ahora solo habia una corriente algo mas rapida de lo normal, pero lo suficiente para banarnos y jugar con un neumatico enganchado a un arbol. La temperatura del agua era tan buena que hasta Aisha se bano.

El conductor del tuc tuc nos acompano todo el dia y nos ayudo a descifrar los precios e ingredientes de los diferentes aperitivos que nos ofrecian los vendedores ambulantes de la zona. Probamos arroz con coco y sesamo cocinado en hojas de banano y unos dulces riquisimos llamados nidos de pajaro. Todo por 2,5 dolares!

Antes de volver a casa Lucas se quedo jugando con unos ninos que tenian unos tirachinas caseros. Le explicamos que no todos los ninos pueden comprarse juguetes y que en Cambodia en muchas ocasiones tienen que fabricarselos ellos mismos. Ahora andamos con una bolsa llenas de cartones de leches, botellas y pajitas para hacer nuestros propios juguetes.

3 de las 5 noches en Kampot hemos estado en Les Manguiers, un hotel con cabanas en las afueras de la ciudad con un enorme jardin, un parque infantil, canoas y zona para bano en el rio. Llegamos en fin de semana y el hotel estaba lleno de ninos americanos y espanoles residentes en Phonm Penh, el paraiso de Lucas! Y que pequeno es el mundo porque una de las familias espanolas eran los amigos de nuestros amigos en Madrid con los que ibamos a contactar en Cambodia.

Kep's shelfish extravaganza

Kep is a small coastal village not far from Kampot which boasts a small beach and "Cambodia's best seafood". We booked a taxi for the day to take us around as there were some detours we wanted to do on the way back. The beach has recently had new sand dumped on it, blindingly white. Had a great run around and a swim (temperature was to Aisha's standards) and then rushed to the crab market restaurants in case they closed at 2.

Silly optimist me, Cambodia's best seafood does not actually mean it's anywhere close to Spanish standards. So instead of the expected fare we tasted the delights of the common crab and prawn. In pepper obviously. It was all actually quite nice, but I must say I hoped for something more exotic. Well, apparently there are lobsters in New Zealand, so we'll try again there.

The highlight of the day was what came next though. We had arranged a short boat trip with a local fisherman. Neither he nor his mates spoke any English but that didn't stop him. Two of his little daughters came on board for the ride as well, and played with out two. From his hut on the edge of a salt field we followed a small stream out to sea, by the mangroves. We got a glimpse of how people really live out here, and even though it's pretty harsh everybody is pretty happy.

We stopped the boat for a small walk. One of the fishermen dug a big hole, but we're not really sure what for. Our host kept on mentioning the number 10, which either meant he had 10 children, his eldest daughter was 10, or his wife was 10 months pregnant (!). We met her later counting crabs and getting them ready for market. Lucas was very brave and held some (by a string).

Tonight is our last night here. Esther is getting outnumbered, even Lucas is asking for civilisation now. Probably more to do with the fact that many of the expat kids have gone back to Phnom Penh after the weekend. It's not been that bad - we have moved hut and now even have hot water. Tomorrow we have a late bus to Sihanoukville, a town by the sea with a bit of beach.

Kayaking round the loop

The river here is quite wide, but a bit further up it has some smaller streams and loops which are very nice for kayaking. The area we were heading was 4km upstream so we hitched a ride on a boat which dragged our kayak to the start of the loop. The entrance and exit are only 10m apart, but to get from one to the other takes about an hour of (very light) paddling. Here the stream is much narrower and much prettier than on the main river. At certain points the vegetation completely covers you like a tunnel. There are a few ducks (domesticated I think) and here and there you see civilisation in the form of lodges. It was quite a chore wish both the camera and Aisha in front of me, and Esther with Lucas (and Lucas occasionally "helping" by splashing me and hitting me with the oar) so we took it especially slow.

Our boatman had gone after another group and already returned. He said they would probably be an hour so we decided to leave the kayak with him and hitch a ride on the road back. We must have been quite a sight in our swimming trunks, without shoes, waiting by the dusty road. A few of the locals who sped by on motorbikes or pickups couldn't help point and laugh at the farangs. A little girl came over and squatted and stared at us for a few minutes. We gave her a rendition of a few songs in English and Spanish but can't have been very good as she got bored and walked off.

Escaped the gravitational pull of the lodge and went into town for dinner, mostly for a change but also to pick up a few things from the shop (milkI!) and get out some cash. It's amazing what a bit of light exercise does to you when you're not used to it. By 9 we were knackered and ready for bed but the kids were fully charged and having a great time playing together. Not wanting to spoil the moment we patiently waited slumbering on the sofas.

Cambodia: pais de contrastes

Llegamos a Cambodia el 2 de febrero y nos quedamos 4 noches en Phonm Penh, la capital, para descansar unos dias despues del ritmo acelerado en el norte de Tailandia.

Un tuc-tuc nos llevo desde el aeropuerto al hotel atravesando grandes avenidas llenas de pequenos negocios y comedores cambodianos y sobretodo, muchas motos. Mas de una vez pense que ibamos a chocar pero siempre habia 5 centimetros de margen para hacer una maniobra y evitar un accidente. Lucas y Aisha decidieron quedarse dormidos al ron ron de los pitidos y echarse una microsiesta de 20 minutos. No es la primera vez que se duermen en un tuc tuc, los baches y el ruido les deben relajar.

Nos dimos cuenta rapidamente cuando estabamos llegando al hotel por los restaurantes con terraza de varios pisos, los boutique hotels (nueva denominacion para los pequenos hoteles urbanos de reciente construccion), los turistas europeos y americanos y los 4x4 de lujo con los cristales tintados. Bienvenidos a la otra Cambodia!

Cambodia es un pais de contrastes y desigualdades, con una clase media inexistente, una reducida clase alta local que concentra la mayoria de la riqueza y muchos extranjeros y expatriados afincados en el pais haciendo negocios o trabajando para una ONG. No es facil encontrar un lugar donde comer o dormir (adecuado a nuestros estandares) que sea propiedad de un cambodiano, una buena opcion es ir a restaurantes y hoteles extranjeros de ONG, y contribuir a la insercion laboral de las personas mas desfavorecidas o al desarrollo de sus propios proyectos comunitarios.

A veces creo que estoy en un viaje de trabajo visitando ONG locales. Cambodia parece muy interesante y creo que vamos a disfrutar viajando por aqui.