Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Christmas in Communist Cambodia

Time to head to the beaches of Sihinoukville, Cambodia for x-mas. Four of us cram into a Tuk Tuk with a slipping transmission which causes us to wonder if we will make it to the bus station. And also if it might be faster to walk! Arrived to be greeted by the Giant Golden Lions dominating the central round about of Sihinoukville. Accepted rides from some moto drivers to help us find rooms. Eventually we wound up at the English owned "Monkey Republic" for a reasonable $6nt per room. Cheap draft beer, heaping portions of decent food, incredibly strong Vietnemese coffee, Free Pool table, Free (but totally lame) Foos ball table, hammocks to chill in and a cute spunky Canadian waitress (Mel).

We all agreed to do as little as possible here. We succeded. On our first full day there I didn't even leave the property till we went to "Bamboo Light" for a really excellent Indian smorgasborg.

Dec. 22nd 2005: 3 more shopping days left. But we don't care, we're off to the beach. A nice leisurely stroll down a picturesque 4 mile long beach passing Monks, Bars, Restaurants, masseuses, pedicurists and child hawkers selling their wares: fruit, handmade bracelets, flowers, etc.

Settled into the beach loungers at Chivas Lounge and withing minutes Laura is kicked back and receiving a pedicure from a woman and 2 little girls. Isabella wades in the water, Minesh begins reading, Hanna checks out the items for sale, Robin poses for pics in the water and I go for a nice long swim in the beautiful 75 degree water.

Spent the afternoon reading "The Quiet American-Graham Greene" and watching the others get overly pampered. I was gonna play some pool, but got scared off when Minesh got beat soundly by a local 70lb woman.
That evening we had another great meal at "Holy Cow": Veggie Pasta and beer Laos. For desert I insisted we all try the "Vegan Chocolate Love Sponge cake with ice cream and chocolate Love Juice"!! How could we not give it a try.

We had been trying to rent motos for ourselves to cruise around on, but they have been all booked out. It seems that Sihoukville is a very popular place to spend the holiday. So we settled for rides to the town market to stock up on this and that. I also picked up a present for the guesthouse Secret Santa gift exchange ($2 limit).

X-mas Eve Day: We awoke to find the power had gone out. No worries though. We're taking a longtail boat trip to 3 of the small neighboring islands. A 45 minute boat ride brought us to our first stop, a small cove to do some snorkeling. Plenty of shallow coral which was good because the visibility was 5 meters at best. Spotted some nice small fish and tons of tons of beautiful huge Sea Urchins staring at us with their jewel like silver and blue eyes. Had to be careful though as many were barely below the surface. Off to another island for some beach time. Minesh and I gave the volleyball court a go, but with only the two of us playing it didn't last too long. After they gave us lunch we were guided thru an island jungle trail to sample another beach.

After leaving the island we had one more stop for another snorkel session which was much the same as earlier.Returned around 4pm, showered and got some motos to drive us across town to Victory Hill thru a huge traffic jam brought on by the Revlon Show. It was pretty humerous to witness a half a dozen decked out models in the spotlights, walking the runway, each holding out a single stick of lip garnish.

Making our way past the show we arrived at "La Trattoria" for what is reportedly the best pizza in town. A sweet old lady served our beer, wine, and salads while downstairs her Italian husband prepared the pizzas. They took a while to arrive, but all agreed it was worth the wait.

With our bellies full it was time to bring on the festivities. The big party is on the beach at "Utopia" and they even supplied free moto transportation there (not back). Robin, Minesh and I each chipped in $10 for a drink kitty and drank RedBull/Vodkas all night. I think we even had a little change left over! Good times! I tried my hand at the fire chains. Got covered from head to toe in black carbon soot from nailing myself, but managed not to catch myself on fire. Robin was nearly killed by some rightfully pissed off locals when he tossed a table on to the fire to keep it going. Fortunately, the Aussie owner intervened and after an agreed compensation the Cambodians backed off, though still visibly irked. We washed off the soot with a late morning skinny dip and then prepared to leave. Searched for our flip flops that we left at the door, but they were gone so we had to settle for the last three pairs available. And I had just spent 90 cents on a brand new pair! That's the fourth pair that have gone missing. (Business opportunity: LoJack for sandals!)

Christmas morning we all exchanged our Secret Santa gifts. I received from Tim (Oz) a humorous, but not so glamorous gift of $2 worth of 100 Riel bills. They are worth 2.5 cents each so it made an impressive wad of worthless cash! We all chilled on the beach for the rest of the day among all the little inquisitive Cambodian children who were all smiles and wishing everyone "Happy X-mas".We all wished Robin farewell because he is headed off to Sydney. The following day Minesh and I were able to finally get ahold of a moto so we took the opportunity to cruise around the area taking in the landscapes.

I decided to go back up thru Thailand with Minesh before heading to Laos. We said goodbyes to the girls and decide to avoid the road and instead take the 4 hour boat ride to Koh Kong on the Cambodian border to spend one last night in the country. We arrived at "The Blue Gecko" and each got our own room for $2.50. It's a brand new guesthouse and only opened the night before. We were there first two paying customers. Relaxing on the patio, we talked with the owner, Carl (Oz) and his beautiful Cambodian wife and baby boy while "Shorty" the cute local barmaid kept the beers coming.

Carl said, if only for laughs, we Have to check out the local "Chicken Ranch" so we went down for a look. Barely stepping off the motos we were immediately escorted by the ladies to a table for a beer and a gander. Then we took a walk thru the gauntlet where again we were immediately accosted by the ladies. A beautiful, but extremely quiet young lady attached to my hip even though we told them we were only looking. Having seen the show we made our way back to cap off the evening at the Blue Gecko.
And so we cross the border into Trat, Thailand. Timing it perfectly we immediately caught a bus up to Bangkok were we will secure Visas, Minesh for China and I for Laos. But there is no way were are spending New Years in Bangkok. For that we are headed north to Chang Mai........

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

At the bustling bus station in the morning surrounded by Cambodians selling newspapers, fruit, baguettes etc. It was a good bus this time and the paved roads were heartily welcomed as the flat deep green and wet Cambodian countryside slips past. At our first stop a Cambodian guy befriended me telling me his story and showing me his travel pics.

Arrived in the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Penh and found a tourist agent and recieved a map. Located the address for the guest house where the group was staying. Grabbed a moto driver (mopeds are the main type of transportation here. Cars are only for the privelaged elite)and weaved thru the no rules crazy traffic to Guesthouse Sister #9. Had lunch and awaited the crew who were off taking in the sites. BTW: there is a heavy French influence here. They even have a Charles du Gaulle Boulevard!

Isabella wound up coming to Cambodia afterall and she was the first person I saw arrive. Robin and Minesh showed up shortly after there tour of The Killing Fields, S-21 Genocide museum and shooting off Ak-47s and Colt 45 guns at the interestingly named "Happy Club" shooting range. They introduced me to the others of the crew: Laura/Hanna (Canada), Paul (Can), Brian (Scotland) and Dave (Oz). We hung out on the chill patio overlooking the lake and playing pool (All pool tables in Cambodia are competition sized snooker tables: odd for such a short race of people.) into the night.

Saw some of the crew off in the morning, they're headed up to Siem Reap but will be back in a few days. Paul stayed back and we decided to check some sites. After a short moto ride we entered the National museum and had a look at the rooms filled with increasingly larger and larger statues of Buddha, Shiva, Vushnu, Ginesh, Mama Buddha, lingas, Nagas, etc. After finishing up with some ancient jewelry and 2nd century B.C. drums and flutes we took lunch at a Cambodian noodle shop. All locals and all noodles, the lunch came to a meager $1.25!

We walked to the Royal palace next. First thru the Throne room which is adorned in gold and impressive. A smaller version of Thailands, but unfortunatley no pics were allowed. Strolled thru the grounds admiring the buildings, gardens and stupas. We entered the Silver Pagoda next. It's name comes from the hundreds and hundreds of solid silver floor tiles each weighing over 2 lbs. Of course there was a plethora of Buddha statues, but the two standouts are the 200lb gold Buddha adorned with 2084 diamonds and high above all the rest is the Emerald Buddha. Unfortunately, again no pics were allowed. Lastly we had a look at the shrine to Buddha's footprint. Now I know why he walked around barefoot. He couldn't have possibly found footwear to fit his 18ft. foot!!!

Next up on the agenda is the Killing Fields Memorial. My moto driver, Rain, dropped me off at what is actually a very small area where some 9000 bodies were unearthed and they have built a towering stupa to house the skulls as an eery reminder. After the Nazis the world said "Never Again", so you have to wonder how Pol Pot, Ankor and the Khmer Rouge were able to do it all over again in Cambodia a mere 25 years later. Or maybe "Never" isn't so far away.
After the Killing Fields, Rain took me to "The Happy Club" which is a pricey tourist trap were you can fire off all kinds of weapons such as Ak-47s, M-16s, Colt 45s, Lugers and even a grenade launcher!! I took a look at the menu, but didn't eat.

A short moto ride brought us to the S-21 Genocial Center. Got there just in time for the documentary movie and then witnessed the torture implements, gallows, cells, interogation rooms, skulls, forensic wound studies, photos of the dead, and their stories. The same sureal feeling as in Aushwitz/Berkinow, but not quite as intense.

After that all I could do was head back to the Guesthouse to drown my sorrows with Tim (New Zealand) who has been working in -40 degree Mongolia and Joel (Germany) who is here on holiday with his Cambodian wife and says there is no doubt about it. When he retires in 10 years he's permantely moving to Cambodia.

So that is about it from Phnom Penh. All that is left to do is wait for the crew to come back from Siem Reap and then we are all headed to the beach for X-mas!!!!