Posts Tagged With: phnom penh

4th June – Day 16 – Gaffa tape to the rescue!

Today was a travel day – between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.  Unlike the rest of the tour, we took a public bus service for this section.  The bus left Phnom Penh at 8, so we had a quick breakfast in the hotel before jumping onto a transfer bus, then connecting to a large coach for the 7 hour journey north.

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Banana Pancake for breakfast

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Front row seat!

The bus itself was fairly comfortable and had wifi (once they figured out they needed to plug in the router) as well as at seat power, but ultimately it was still a 7 hour coach ride and wasn’t the highlight of the tour!

Since Jackie and I got the front row seat (pre-reserved by Gadvantures for us), we ended up with the router in our seat area.  It kept coming unplugged, so I grabbed some gaffa tape which I had in my bag and taped it into the plug socket – the connection was pretty solid after that!

We stopped 3 times including a lunch stop at a local place where they served VERY fast and reasonable quality food to two bus loads in a matter of minutes. Impressive!

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Rest stop food

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My egg sandwich

I won’t write too much about the journey – who wants to hear about that – but safe to say 7 hours passed, there was rain, some scenery, and some boring bits.

When we arrived in Siem Reap, the bus dropped us in a kind of make shift bus station and we transferred to a Gadventures bus to go to our hotel.  The luggage was a bit of mayhem, since they unloaded the whole bus into one big pile, but it was quickly resolved.

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Rain on the route to Siem Reap

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Arriving in Siem Reap

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Baggage mayhem

 

Our hotel in Siem Reap is one that i’ve been really looking forward to since I saw the details of all the places we’re booked into.  It’s a resort hotel called the Royal Angkor Resort and it has a huge pool, as well as a beautifully scented public areas.  When we arrived we were shown to a welcome room where we sat for a few minutes, were presented with welcome drinks and cool towels and introduced to the features of the hotel – it felt very fancy!

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The reception room

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My room

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Balcony view

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The huge pool

After checking in and sorting things in the room, I headed down to the pool for a swim and a couple of cocktails – happy hour was from 3 till 7pm, perfect timing!  Almost the whole day had been consumed by the bus journey, so there was just time for us to head into down for dinner in the night.

At 6pm we met for the hotel shuttle into the city.  The shuttle was an elongated golf cart which was quite a vehicle for the 15-20 minute ride into the centre of Siem Reap.  Dek arranged for us to be dropped off at an area called Pub Street, which is kind of the social centre of Siem Reap.  It had a great vibe to it, and we quickly picked a bar offering $4 buy one get on free cocktails for some pre-dinner drinks.  Being on my own, I of course had to buy one and get one free… if you’re keeping count, thats 4 cocktails before dinner. Oops!

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Our shuttle

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Pub street, Siem Reap

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Save Water… Drink Beer… for $0.50!

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One of my cocktails

After a couple of pre-dinner cocktails, Dek took us to the Red Piano – a bar made famous because it was the hangout of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during the filming of the Tomb Raider movies and Angkor Thom. They had such an influence on the place that there is a Tomb Raider cocktail, created by Angelina, which of course I had to try.  The vibe was great in this part of town, with live music from some of the bars, an plenty of tourists around enjoying the ambiance.

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Angkor is the local beer

After dinner we shared a tuktuk or two back (at $3 for the 15 minute ride, nobody was complaining) and headed to bed.  Tomorrow, we have a 4:45am start…. remind me why I drank 5 cocktails with a start like that!

 

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3rd June – Day 15 – My Darkest Day

As mentioned yesterday, the hotel room in Phnom Penh was really pretty basic – and the air conditioning decided to suddenly work over efficiently at 2am, leading to me waking up freezing cold in the middle of the night! Still, I slept… On and off… During the night and we met at 7:30 for breakfast in the hotel.

Breakfast here is served in a seating area outside of the Fire Protection shop which oddly is located deep in the hotels courtyard. I guess it works for them, and hey – at least we know there’s plenty of fire extinguishers available if we need them!

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Scrambled egg and fatty bacon

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Fire extinguisher selection

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Our breakfast table

For breakfast here, there’s very little self service – one of the hotel staff brought a small piece of laminated paper with 5 options on it, and then disappeared to bring you whatever you ordered. Today I didn’t feel like negotiating so I ordered the Scrambled Eggs and Bacon and just left the bacon, which was really fatty anyway!

At 8 we met our tour guide for Phnom Penh – an expert local guide who knew all about the local events. Our time in Phnom Penh is centred around the Pol Pot massacres. The first stop was the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek – now advertised as a Genocidal Center.

If you’re not familiar with the Pol Pot stories – in the space of 4 years he came to power and almost 2 million Cambodian citizens were killed – either through killing fields or by starvation, sickness or torture and murder in prison. The whole story is pretty horrifying and feels incredible recent and relevant. The exact details of all of the history are still fairly unknown since much of the worst atrocities were carried out in remote locations, blindfolded and those committing the atrocities were also finally killed before the Vietnamese invaded and brought down the Pol Pot regime.

At the site that we visited, over 12,000 people were murdered – most of them without the use of guns since bullets were expensive. Our guide talked us through some of the methods of murder, the tortures imposed upon some of the women and children and the mass graves where people would see their final breath. I found this such a terrible and upsetting place to be, but was keen to understand all of the events and what had gone on.

I’ve put all the photos at the bottom of this article – some of them are quite upsetting. Please feel free to stop reading after the text, if you don’t want to see them.

Feeling subdued after the visit to the killing fields, our next stop was the prison known as S21 – originally called a ‘Re-education centre” – the official name now is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This building started life as a high-school, before being repurposed by the Pol Pot regime into a prison. During the time of the regime there was little use for a school, since all children (well, all citizens) were expected to work in the land and educated people were eradicated. It was estimated that after the fall of the regime, only 15% of the people in Cambodia had received any sort of education – all those who had previously been educated were the targets of the regime and were eliminated.

Inside the museum, we walked between the four buildings where prisoners were kept. Conditions decreased as we progressed, from the building A known as the ‘VIP’ building (each prisoner had their own fairly sizeable room), through to cells of less than a meter in the later buildings. The stories of the conditions in the prison come primarily from the accounts of 5 survivors who were found alive hiding in a kitchen after the fall of the regime. Their tales are far too graphic to write here, but can easily be found with a Google search if you’re interested.

None of us made it all the way around the museum, with most of us ducking out before the third building. It was simply too much to hear and see the awful events that had gone on just a few years ago in this place.

After the museum, we all agreed that we needed a change in pace and Dek suggested a ‘blind massage’ – a local organisation runs massages staffed by blind people, called Seeing Hands. Most of the group made our way by a $2 tuktuk to the massage place, and booked ourselves in for a $7 massage. The massage was quite an experience – we were given cotton pyjamas to change into and then lay on a table in a room with around 6 other people, and our masseur came and joined us. There was no talking, just a really deep massage which was actually really good but lying in a dark room did have me thinking a lot more about the sites of the morning – perhaps reflection time wasn’t what was needed.

On the way back from the massage, our tuktuk driver insisted he knew where our hotel was and then proceeded to drive us the wrong way up our street. We spotted some house numbers which looked wrong, and turned him around, which led to more confusion as on the way back, the numbers seemed to be going in the wrong direction still… After 2 or 3 tries, we figured out where we are, but reading online afterwards it appears that in Phnom Penh, the street numbers are often not sequential and in fact there can easily be two or more places with the exact same number on the same street. People navigate there with cross-street numbers, so if you’re travelling there – try to learn the cross street of your hotel, not just the number!

Once we got back to the hotel, I treated myself to a western style Pizza for a late lunch before relaxing in the hotel. My laundry arrived back fully washed and folded, and I happily gave the hotel staff $4 for the laundry. It was a disappointment to find that the laundry place had written with pen on all of the labels of my clothes to identify my room number – not a nice discovery! Still, it’s done now and for $4 I didn’t expect a great service!

This evening I booked myself a separate activity to the rest of the group. Dek had arranged for everyone to go to a restaurant where they could try local creepy crawlies for dinner – which didn’t sound like my kind of thing. So instead, I booked Dine in the Dark.

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Dine in the Dark

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Dine in the Dark

If you’ve never heard of Dine in the Dark before – it’s a restaurant experience where you learn to experience life as a blind person would. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I headed there and ordered the vegetarian menu – there’s no choice about what you get, and half of the fun is discovering the food you’re presented with. It’s not a cheap option in Cambodia – $18 for the meal plus drinks – but you’re paying for the experience and supporting local blind people, so I was happy to pay it.

After ordering, I was asked to submit anything I had on my person which had a light – camera, phone and watch went into a locked box and I was given the key for the box. After this I was introduced to my waiter for the evening, Fredro. He introduced himself and asked me to place my hand on his shoulder and follow him.

He guided me to a staircase and upstairs, where the light level quickly fell off before we turned through a black velvet curtain into darkness, then through 2 more curtains before reaching complete black.

It was really surreal having absolutely no idea what was surrounding me. Fredro announced that we had reached my table, and I felt around to find my chair and establish how much space was there between the chair and the table – enough to sit without having to pull it out. I sat and Fredro then introduced me to the items on the table – including a napkin, knife, fork, spoon and water glass. I had to feel around to find each of these items but obviously finding them is important to eating dinner.

Shortly after sitting down, Fredro brought me a beer which I had ordered and we chatted a little bit – and then the food started to arrive. I won’t spoil the surprise by describing what I ate, but it was an amazing experience having to feel to find my plate, figure out what was on there and then how to eat it without knowing everything’s location. It was such a thought provoking experience, being unable to identify things by look meant everything was about touch.

After my 3 courses were finished, I realised one of the really big problems when it comes to blindness. I wanted to get the attention of a waiter, to let them know that I’d finished but it’s impossible to make eye contact in a blind world, and the waiters were talking amongst themselves which meant that speaking out would interrupt their conversation – something as a Brit I’m always loathed to do. In the end, that was my only option – and I let Fredro know that I was ready to leave, but not before I sat agonising for 15 minutes to try and communicate in a world of darkness.

After the meal, the staff presented a photograph of all the food which I’d eaten and it was really interesting to see the presentation of the dishes, which was completely irrelevant in my vision-less world. They also gave an opportunity to take a photo with my waiter, which you can see below.

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Me and my waiter, Fredro

I left the restaurant with my head thinking a lot about the events of the day – and the experiences I’d already had on the trip overall. Tonight I packed for the final move of the tour – tomorrow we travel to Siem Reap where we’ll end the tour. Can’t believe how quickly it’s gone!

The pictures from todays visits are on the next page, click Read More if you want to see them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2nd June – Day 14 – Planes, Cyclos and Sunsets

Today was our last flight of the tour – after this it’s busses, tuktuks and our own bookings. The timing was odd today, since our flight route (Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh) is an infrequent one – we actually ended up booked onto Qatar Airways who do a two leg flight between Doha and PP – stopping in Ho Chi Minh. This had one great advantage for us which was that the plane was a Boeing 787-800 – a ridiculously over-specified plane for the 25 minute flight! It was huge, and almost empty – I had my own row in the cabin, as did most of the group!

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Empty plane

Our flight was actually at 15:30, so the whole morning was lost to hotel time and currency exchange – I took my remaining Vietnamese dong to the local currency exchange and swapped to USD, which is the main currency in Cambodia. It was nice to have a lazy morning in the hotel after so many early starts and I made use of it to buy a Vietnam t-shirt as well as some postcards.

Once we made it to the airport, leaving Vietnam was easy – just a stamp in the passport – and we had a ton of time to kill. I had a small meal and a coffee, and still made it to the gate before the plane had even landed from Doha. Shortly after it landed, we were ready for boarding – and after what seemed like no time at all, we were in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian visa process was a little more complicated – there were 3 forms to fill out and we had to queue up for our visa on arrival, in a chaotic system which involved handing over your passport and photo as well as one of the forms and then waiting for your name to be called out (or your passport held up, if they couldn’t say your name) before going up and paying the $30 visa fee and collecting your passport. The system worked, but it was slow and a little stressful compared to the other immigration processes in the trip. Still, my passport is filling up nicely now!

After we regrouped in the airport, we headed to our bus transfer to the hotel – which was a pretty large bus considering we’re a group of 9 people! Our hotel in Phnom Penh is our most basic of the tour, and Dek had warned us not to expect huge luxury – thankfully he warned us because the hotel was really fairly basic. My room had 3 beds in it, and a huge shower room, but that’s about the only good things – the air conditioning never really got the room cool (until 2am, when I would wake up freezing)!

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3 beds to myself

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Swimming pool

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Beer ‘fridge’

By now we were all getting desperate for our washing to be done, and this hotel offered washing at $3 for half a bag, or $6 for a whole bag. The bags were huge, so I threw all my dirty stuff in there and handed it in – we’re here 2 nights so there’s time to get it back before we leave.

At 5pm we met up for another Cyclo tour (noticing a theme here yet??) where we were lucky enough to catch Sunset hour. I love taking photos at sunset.

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Another cyclo tour

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Kiwi mart

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The sunset was beautiful

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Sun setting over the US embassy

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A famous nun

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More sunset

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The central market

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Proud of this photo

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The king of Cambodia, Nordom Sihamoni

 

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More celebrations of the new king

 

This cyclo tour was supported by an NGO which runs the scheme to encourage underprivileged Cambodians into work and it took us past some of the major sites of Phenom Penh. The city actually has quite a few sites, but they’re spread out which means that a tuktuk or cyclo is definitely required to get between them. The hotel is surprisingly close to the Royal Palace and National Museum of Cambodia however, so both of those could be on the hit list if we have time (they’re not on our tour however).

The Cyclos dropped us off in front of the Royal Palace and Dek showed us a big monument to the new King who was crowned a little while ago. He told us that the Cambodian people are a little worried about this King, because he is unmarried and really likes ballet…

The Royal Palace is located on the edge of the river, and we walked up the riverfront which had a really nice vibe to it – a few tourists but also a lot of locals just hanging out by the water and relaxing. Dek had booked us a table at another training restaurant, where locals are taught to be chefs and waiting staff. The food here was okay, although they were unable to cook my first or second choice so I ended up with steamed vegetables and rice – a little disappointing but extremely cheap! Even with a starter and 2 beers, the whole meal came to $9!

After the meal, we walked back to the hotel and to bed – in a room which I couldn’t get cool. Hmm, see you tomorrow… One way or another.

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