A Travellerspoint blog


Goodbye to Cambodia

Looks like we saved the best for last

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Kampot, a small town at the southeastern edge of Cambodia near both the sea and the Vietnam border, has been the perfect end to a fascinating two weeks here. It’s difficult to think of adjectives to describe Cambodia that don’t sound trite, over-used or conventional. I want to say it’s a place of incredible scenery and considerable suffering, where the individuals are warm and friendly but the collective mood is one of tangible despondency, where you can find extravagantly honest tuk-tuk drivers among a culture of rampant corruption, and where smiles are plentiful but fragile. We’ve seen just a slice of it—Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnomh Penh and finally Kampot—which really doesn’t do justice to all of its possibilities. Some of the most beautiful, scenic places are those we didn’t get to, lacking the time and mettle to reach remote areas in provinces like Ratanikiri and Mondulkiri. With more time (and possibly without kids), we would have loved to see more.

The guesthouse we’ve found in Kampot has been the high point of the trip. Called Les Manguiers (“the mangoes”), it’s a sprawling place with individual bungalows built on tall stilts along the river.


The bungalows are spaced well apart from each other, scattered around grounds that include a badminton court, a playground, wooden swings hanging from trees, hammocks, and wood-and-thatch gazebos built over the water for dining.


There are at least four dogs, including a puppy named Kmao (the kids’ new best friend), as well as sheep and two rabbits. Yesterday morning we were surprised to walk out of our bungalow and find half a dozen cows munching the grass nearby. There are bicycles available free of charge—we took the two-kilometre ride down a red dirt road into town yesterday—and kayaks to rent. The place is owned by a Khmer-French couple, and the French co-owner’s stamp is all over the menu: lunch and dinner are both served in the gazebos over the water table d’hote style, with a set menu that seems to combine Khmer and French influences. Breakfast is coffee (hot chocolate for kids), tropical fruit salad, and fresh baguettes served with real butter, cheese, chocolate spread, and homemade jams made from garden fruits – mango jam, banana & soursop.

Here is Kmao:


We’ll be sad to leave, but we’re on our way to Vietnam tomorrow. It’s a long country and we have to traverse it from south to north within the confines of our 30-day visa—leaving by January 4—so it’s time to get going. Tomorrow promises to be one of our more interesting land border crossings to date: it turns out that while we can get a taxi, bus or tuk-tuk to the border from Kampot, once in Vietnam the only option is motorbikes from the border into the nearest town, Ha Tien. Vietnam allows a maximum of two riders per bike, one of which is the driver, which means each of the four of us will be on a separate motorbikes, kids included. Apparently the ride to the Ha Tien bus station is just six kilometres, so we’re betting on being able to persuade our drivers to go VERY SLOWLY and safely. (We may be fooling ourselves, but the alternative was to take a four-hour bus ride back to Phnomh Penh followed by a six-hour ride to Saigon.) The plan is to wait at the Ha Tien station for the next bus to Can Tho, the epicentre of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Kampot to Can Tho or bust –it’s going to be a long day!

Here's one last look at our river view from Kampot...


Posted by The Rymans 23:56 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Now we've tried everything

Big, juicy spiders...mmmmmm

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We had heard about a town in Cambodia called Skuon, where tarantulas are captured in their burrows and pan-fried with garlic and salt. The lore is that Khmer people first began eating the spiders during the dark, desperate days of Khmer Rouge regime, when starvation was rampant and you ate what you could find, including wasps, crickets, grasshoppers and anything else that moved. Nowadays the spiders are thought of more as a delicacy. We thought we would have to stop off in Skuon to find them (and we weren't planning to make a 140-km round trip detour just for that)...but as we were motoring along in our tuk-tuk in central Phnomh Penh this afternoon, we noticed a vendor selling them from a cart on the side of the road along the river. So we pulled over. I'll let the photos do the rest of the talking.

Here's what the cart full of insects looked like.

This is a close-up of the spiders. Big, fat and juicy!

Here's Mark biting into one.

And here's Chloe.

In the previous entry, I briefly described our bus trip to Phnomh Penh from Battambang but I left out a little anecdote about Ciaran. Ciaran, for some strange reason, gets carsick on about 6% of trips -- or in other words, hardly ever, but not reliably. Every so often (usually after his thumbs have gone numb from Nintendo DS use), he'll pipe up and say those words every seat companion dreads hearing: "My stomach hurts, and my throat has that throwing-up feeling."

When he said this to me four hours into our bus trip to Phnomh Penh, I couldn't believe my bad luck -- if he hadn't felt sick in four hours, why start now?? I don't understand these things. I rushed some children's Gravol into him, but he felt even worse after that and was looking a little green, so I fumbled around in my shoulder bag and found a sturdy plastic bag. I widened the opening and stuck it in front of his mouth. He dutifully coughed into it, but nothing else came out. I sat there for five minutes on the edge of my seat until I couldn't stand the suspense anymore (well, some of you will know how I handle these situations)....and then I reached across to the seat in front of me and tapped Mark on the shoulder.

"Mark, I'm going to need some help back here," I said.

"Really? What's going on?" he asked, immediately removing his iPod earphones.

"Ciaran feels sick and I think he might throw up."

Mark looked over his shoulder and cased out the situation. Ciaran was sitting there with his little pink bag in front of his mouth.

"I've given him some Gravol," I added.

"Okay. So what do you what me to do about it?" he sensibly asked.

"I don't know," I said. I was wishing I could think of something he should do, but really there wasn't much. "I just don't want to handle it," was all I could come up with.

Mark was out of his seat in a flash, and we traded places. I got to sit with Chloe and play her Scooby Doo DS game. Mark got to sit with Ciaran and coax him out of feeling green. Fair trade? Probably not!

Strangely, after half an hour, Ciaran was fully recovered. Maybe it was the Gravol? I don't understand these things.

For tomorrow's trip to Kampot, we've hired a private taxi.

Posted by The Rymans 05:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

A room with a view in Phnomh Penh

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We arrived in Phnomh Penh today, a five-hour bus ride from Battambang. The five-hour ride turned into more like six or seven when the bus broke down near the city limits, leaving us stranded on a busy, dusty road while one of the drivers went to buy more gasoline. (Yes, how does a long-distance bus run out of gas unexpectedly, anyway? Poor planning? Who knows?) He eventually returned with a giant jerry can full of gasoline, but that didn’t do the trick: turns out the battery was also stone cold dead.

Rumours began to surface that the problem would be remedied in five minutes, when a car from the bus company would arrive. Five turned into 10, then 15, and meanwhile we were being approached from all directions by tuk-tuk drivers eager for an assignment. We were just in the process of making a deal with one of them when all of a sudden what should appear but a shiny white van bearing the bus company’s logo. I thought, mistakenly, that the van was there to boost the battery. It turned out the van was there to pick up all the stranded passengers and convey us to the bus station.

That would be great, I thought, since the guesthouse we’d just booked that morning was supposed to be sending a driver there for us.

Wrong again – turns out the white van was bringing us to the bus company’s main booking office, nowhere near the bus station, where we were unceremoniously dumped out and ended up needing to hire a tuk-tuk anyway.

Our guesthouse is great for the price -- $20 for a room with two double beds, air-con, a mini-fridge, hot water, TV with cable, and two big windows. On the other hand, it’s quite removed from the city’s major hot spots, including the pleasant riverfront area. In fact, it’s on a strange, busy little garbage-strewn street that looks more like a back alley.

We ended up here after we left the hotel search to the last minute, finally booking something about 10 minutes before we boarded our bus this morning. Finding rooms in Asia with two double beds has been a problem since we set foot on the continent; most rooms have two singles or one double. Getting two double beds often means booking what’s called a “family” room, which is code for “the most expensive room this hotel has” (when it has one at all). There are alternatives, of course: sometimes we take two separate rooms. Sometimes we can find a triple room, which is fine if one kid sleeps on the floor (we carry an air mattress) or if we’re in the mood to push all three beds together and make a giant family bed out of them (not very often).

We left things a bit late when it came to booking a place here in Phnomh Penh. Most of the best places were full, virtually none had “family” rooms, and the few that did offered, strangely, mostly windowless rooms. When I mentioned this to the owner of our Battambang guesthouse this morning, he pointed out that the steep number of windowless hotel rooms here in Phnomh Penh are the result of the not-so-long-ago time when a room without a window was the most desired kind, as it offered protection from hand grenades being tossed in. Okay then….

We plan to whirl through Phnomh Penh tomorrow and hit all the highlights in a single day, then go rural again after that, heading south to Kampot for a few nights on the river before we cross the border into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. So tomorrow’s itinerary includes the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, the Russian market, Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum) and, possibly, the killing fields. We’re not sure we need to see the killing fields now that we’ve seen the killing cave (see earlier entry), and we’re quite sure the kids don’t need to see the killing fields, but that’ll probably be a last-minute decision.

Posted by The Rymans 07:44 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Around Battambang

Leaving no stone unturned...

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I seem to be doing a lot of writing here in Cambodia after considerable slacking off in Thailand. There is a lot to see, and so much history, and I’d like to get it all down before I forget it.

After Siem Reap, we went to Battambang. The interesting thing about Battambang (pronounced “Bahtambong”) is that people seemed, on the whole, to find it a bit odd that we were there at all. The town sees relatively few tourists compared to Siem Reap and the beaches of Sihanoukville to begin with, and there is little—okay, nothing—for children to do. We saw no other tourist children at all. For that matter, we’ve seen few other families anywhere in Cambodia.

Arriving from Siem Reap, we headed into the market area of the town to have a look around and get some dinner. We found a place called The Smokin’ Pot, which is supposed to be known for great food, cooking classes, and, yes, ingestible weed. And the menu makes no attempt to disguise it, either; there is actually a pizza you can get with some “special herbs” on top, and in case you’re too dim to figure out what that implies, the description spells it out for you: “…with mariwana on top.” Yes, it really was spelled that way! We skipped that offering and went for veg curries.

Stepping out in the dark and wondering what we should do the next day, we bumped into a tuk-tuk driver named Irellen (he pronounced it more like Ai-Lin) who spoke English quite well and had lots of ideas for us, with photos to back them up. We agreed on a price for him to show us around for a day and a half.

He was very eager to please, perhaps too much so; having overcharged us slightly (as we found out later), he seemed determined to earn his keep by taking us to every monument, site, activity or attraction that could ever have interested anyone in Battambang. I’ll offer up the laundry list here but will limit photos and detailed descriptions to the handful of places that were truly memorable.

In no particular order, he took us to Wat Ek Thom, a ruined temple that apparently predates Angkor; to Phnom Banan (“phnomh” means hill), where we walked up 358 stone steps for an excellent view and to poke around yet another ancient temple; to visit a family that makes rice paper for spring rolls so we could see how it’s done (it’s gruelling assembly-line type work that pays very little: about 50 cents for each batch of 100 hand-produced sheets); to another “factory” where people spend their days making fish sauce by fermenting fish of all sizes in big vats of salt (this made a particularly strong impression on Mark, who has since sworn off all fish); to Cambodia’s only winery, where we received free samples of grape brandy, rose, and another red that was described to us only, mysteriously, as “grape wine”; to a century-old Khmer heritage house constructed of now-rare hardwoods and furnished with beautiful antiques, where the current owner spoke to all of us in French about his family and the history of his house; and to the old train station in Battambang, which hasn’t been in operation since the war and the large clock at the front has been stuck at 8:02 for years.

Here is Ciaran heading up the 358 steps:


The winery was quite a strange situation. We stepped in past the grapevines and welcome signs and right away noticed a pungent, unpleasant odour. The owner greeted us and explained in Khmer to Irellen, who translated for us, that she hoped we would excuse the smell, which was hanging in the air because the workers were in the process of, as Irellen put it, “changing the bat shit.” Due to Irellen’s accent, it came out sounding like “bat sheet.” Right, the winery uses bat droppings as fertilizers (there are massive fruit bats nearby and so of course there are people whose sole job is to collect this fertilizer). We had the good fortune to arrive just as the old bat sheet was being replaced with newer, fresher bat sheet – lucky us. We tasted the three drinks on offer, and bought a bottle of the rose just to say thank you.


In fact, most of the day went that way – Irellen bringing us into what appeared to be people’s homes (but were also, in fact, their place of business) so we could poke around and satisfy our curiosity without paying anybody anything. Of course, we always felt obliged to leave a little something behind, whether by buying something or making a small donation. The exception was when he took us to a crocodile farm. We pulled up alongside a metal gate off a dirt road. Irellen hopped out and slid the metal gate to one side, ushering us in. The first thing I noticed was a woman lying in a hammock across from an infant who was lying in another one. There was a piece of rope attached to the infant’s hammock, and the woman was pulling on the rope to rock the hammock and put the baby to sleep. Following Irellen’s lead, we simply walked right past her, with a friendly nod, and onward to where the crocs were kept. The woman didn’t so much as shift her weight in response. Rather than being a crocodile zoo aimed at tourists, this place was a bonafide crocodile farm where the big beasts are raised for their meat and skins, hence the lack of an admission fee. On the way back out, we went right past this woman and her baby again, giving them a friendly wave. No donation or other contribution. It was very bizarre.

I would say the two highlights of our time in Battambang were the ride on the bamboo train and the trip up Phnomh Sampeau to see the killing cave.

First, the bamboo train: these are an ingenious local solution to the dual problem of single-track lines and a defunct railway system. While no passenger trains run in Cambodia anymore (at least not yet—plans to restore the system are in the offing), there are still places where local people travel short distances via the bamboo train. A bamboo train is essentially a 3-metre long wood frame covered in bamboo slats which rests on two barbell-like bogies (we were told they came from tanks), the rear of which is connected to an engine via fan belts. It all sounds very rudimentary and benign, so when we climbed onto a bamboo train near Battambang, I wasn’t expecting the engine to roar to life and propel us down the track at speeds that would put a roller coaster to shame. But that was exactly how it felt and sounded—all the way to a village called O Sra Lav, about half an hour down the line.

From time to time, we would see another bamboo train coming at us headlong down the track. This was alarming the first time it happened, given the speed, but there is a simple solution: whichever driver is carrying fewer passengers must have them disembark while he disassembles the train, removing the wood-and-bamboo frame from the metal bogies and then lifting those off the tracks as well, and placing the entire assembly on the ground beside the tracks. When the oncoming train has moved on, the driver reassembles the train, everyone gets back on, and off it rolls again. This happened to us at least half a dozen times during our half-hour journey.

I can say that for the kids, this was certainly the highlight of their time in Battambang. It certainly beat Phnomh Sampeau hands-down, for them. Here are some photos (in the third one, you can see the train being taken apart):


Phnomh Sampeau is a mountain near Battambang that offers stunning views over the town and surrounding farmland. But most people visit because of its role in Cambodia’s history. During the late seventies, it was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and the Khmer Rouge had no trouble putting a few of the mountain’s natural caves to gruesome use.

To get to the caves, you can walk a kilometre up a hot, dusty concrete road, or you can hire a boy on a motorcycle to drive you up. We went with the motorcycles – me and Chloe on one, and Mark and Ciaran on the other, each with a driver. Mark’s driver doubled as our guide.


The first cave he showed us began with some stone steps carved into its entrance, then tailed off downward into blackness that we chose not to explore. Our guide explained that this was where the Khmer Rouge would toss people to starve and/or torture them to death. Our guide didn’t pull any punches with his descriptions, either, and went into some detail on the methods used—forcing children to shoot their parents, slicing open the bellies of pregnant women, driving nails into people’s skulls, often bludgeoning them to death to save precious bullets.

Once people were dead, the Khmer Rouge would throw their bodies down through the skylight of a separate, nearby cave. This is what became known as the killing cave. We went into this one; from inside you can look up and see the skylight and imagine the bodies raining down. It’s a good 25 metres from top to bottom.

When the war was over, efforts were made to gather the bones of the many people who died in the caves. These were piled into a rough memorial made of metal and chicken wire. Thanks to donations, a newer memorial with a glass door was created in 2007, although the old one remains in the cave and still has a few skulls at its bottom. The new one is packed with skulls and bones from top to bottom, clearly visible through the glass.

The cave is now also graced by a large, reclining golden Buddha with all the requisite incense, flowers and decorations. During our visit, the man who painstakingly collected all the bones for years after the Khmer Rouge left sat in front of the Buddha, meditating; our guide said he is often there.


Too much for the children? Probably. Ciaran thought the skulls were kind of cool and didn’t pay any attention to the history. Hear no evil, see no evil. Chloe refused to enter the cave at all, and we didn’t try to encourage her. They mainly enjoyed the motorcycle ride up and the view from the top.

The last really interesting place we visited in Battambang was our tuk-tuk driver, Irellen’s, house. His wife had just had a baby two weeks ago, and the proud father wanted to show off his first born, a baby girl. At the end of the day he drove us there to show her off and meet his family. It was an awkward encounter; we were honoured and happy to be there, but at the same time awestruck by the obvious poverty. Irellen appears to be well put-together, with clean, attractive clothes, decent shoes, a cell phone, an excellent command of English, a working tuk-tuk and even a Toyota Camry for clients who prefer to ride in style. So we weren’t expecting his home to be, essentially, a hole in the wall of a crumbling, decrepit railway building. He and his family are literally squatters there; he expects the government will move him when the trains start to run again. The building itself is literally crumbling out from under itself, with cement supporting beams that in some cases don’t reach the ground anymore; the only roof is a tarp.


We offered congratulations and best wishes all round, and then Irellen brought us back to our hotel, where we spent the evening feeling very fortunate indeed. Instead of stewing over the fact that he had charged us a good $5 to $10 over the going rate, when we said goodbye to him we gave him a top-up.

Posted by The Rymans 07:35 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Serendipity in Siem Reap

Into the wild blue yonder...

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After our guided tour of Angkor on our first day in Siem Reap, we decided the kids needed a day off from temples, so we spent a day hanging around in bookshops, doing a bit of school work and checking out “Pub Alley” and the night market, which were both fabulous. Down at the night market there’s a makeshift movie theatre (think bamboo chairs and a tin roof) that plays the same 40-minute movie four or five times every evening about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge for visitors interested in some historical perspective. We wondered whether or not it would be an appropriate movie for the kids to see, and decided Mark should preview it first.

He went to the first showing, which was in French, and he was the only one in the entire theatre. He decided there were images the kids shouldn’t see, so he took them to a nearby bar for some snacks while I saw the 5 p.m. show. I was by myself as well for the first 10 minutes—a bit of a surreal experience. Both of us had been familiar with Cambodia’s sad history in a vague, removed sort of way (after all, who hasn’t heard of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?), but seeing the movie as well as widespread firsthand evidence of the war’s aftermath—for example, the many amputees selling photocopied books in the streets, or merely begging, or the schools that teach disabled people art, or even just the presence of so many NGOs helping the country get back on its feet—makes it all seem much more real.

The next day we decided we wanted to see the Cambodia Landmine Museum, which is about 30 km past Angkor and near an outlying ruin called Banteay Srei, a temple constructed of pink sandstone with even more intricate carvings than usual. The plan was to combine a visit to Banteay Srei with a visit to the landmine museum, finishing up back at the Bayon, an area we had visited on our first day at Angkor. (Photos from the previous entry here show a few of the faces.) We had seen an artist painting watercolors of the Bayon faces there and wanted to return to buy one.

We began with a 30-minute incredibly scenic drive down a narrow country road through small villages and rice fields to the temple. The temple was just as impressive as we expected it to be—I hate to give it such short shrift—but once again there were other people and places in our day who left greater impressions on us, beginning with the landmine museum.

When you first arrive at the museum, you’re greeted by rows of enormous torpedo-shaped bombs that have been used decoratively as a kind of fence. They certainly set the tone. Inside, most of the museum is devoted to conveying information about landmines—how many remain in Cambodia, what’s being done to eliminate them, how they continue to maim hundreds of people each year. Most anti-personnel mines were designed not to kill the person who stepped on them, but rather to maim—the idea being that if the victim is merely injured but not dead, his compatriots will rush to his aid, so you’ve effectively taken out several soldiers rather than just one. They continue to maim ordinary Cambodians—usually farmers and others who live in rural areas—even now.

The museum uses the money it raises from admission fees and donations to run an orphanage attached to it. The orphanage houses and schools some two dozen children whose lives have been affected one way or another by mines, extreme poverty, or both. There is a wall at the museum dedicated to these children and their stories, displaying one-page, first-person profiles with photos. Each story is shockingly sad and completely unique.

An attached gift shop sells string bracelets for $0.50 each that have been made by children who are missing one or both arms. A fenced area just outside the museum contains a selection of some 20 (de-activated) landmines of varying types hidden in the grass and foliage, the idea being that you can try to spot them from the fence. At first glance you don’t notice anything, actually, but it doesn’t take long to start noticing these sinister-looking wires and bits of metal embedded here and there. It’s really disheartening to think of the two or three million active landmines still planted around the country.

After about an hour in the museum, we piled glumly back into the tuk-tuk to head back towards Angkor and the Bayon. But after we’d been driving for maybe 10 minutes, we noticed a strange sight: an ultra-light plane (our driver called it a dragonfly) in a field behind a local police station, and it seemed to be taking off. Doing a complete 180 in terms of spirits, we enthusiastically asked the driver to stop so we could see it fly. But as we pulled in, we realized the plane had been landing, not taking off. By the time we were parked, the pilot was at our tuk-tuk, taking off his helmet to greet us.

His name was Eddy, an American ex-pat originally from Virginia, and he was offering 10-minute rides over the local countryside for $20 a pop. We declined, but he was chatty, and we spent a good 15 minutes talking to him about Cambodia. He is a disenchanted, Bush-hating American who finally decided he couldn’t stand Virginia one minute longer, so he retired to Cambodia, where he makes some money flying people around in his ultra-light – sometimes tourists, like us, but more often archaeologists, journalists, researchers, photographers and other professionals who want to get an aerial view of Cambodia for whatever reason.

It’s hard to recall what Eddy said to inspire a sudden change of heart on Mark’s part, but just as Eddy was picking up his helmet to bid us adieu, Mark decided he would take that $20 spin after all. So we all piled out of the tuk-tuk to walk out into the field and have a closer look.

Eddy gave Mark a series of explanations and instructions about how the plane would work and what to expect (most of which I found thoroughly confusing, so I was happy it was Mark heading into the wild blue yonder and not me). Then he gave Mark a set of padded headphones with attached microphone, plus a helmet, and the next thing we knew, the propeller was spinning and they were making tracks down a dirt path leading out of the rice field. A few seconds later, they were airborne.


A gaggle of local kids of all ages had gathered to watch, pointing and giggling the entire time. As Mark and Eddy swooped and soared, Chloe and Ciaran gaped as well, and I took far too many photos.


When everyone was on the ground again, I asked Eddy if there was a bathroom nearby that we could use, and he said we should avoid the toilet at the police station except in the most dire of emergencies, and instead we should drive a kilometre or so down the road to the recently opened Angkor Butterfly Centre. Since this place reportedly had a restaurant, and it was past lunch time, we decided on another impromptu stop.

The Angkor Butterfly Centre turned out to be an NGO project whose goal was to create jobs (while protecting wildlife) in this relatively poor province in Cambodia. The centre pays staff members to run the centre and restaurant, but it also pays nearby farmers to catch and grow caterpillars and butterflies. Project staff are educating the farmers about different types of caterpillars, how to spot the eggs, what the caterpillars eat, and how to care for them. Eventually, the centre hopes to be able to ship pupae to zoos and similar centres elsewhere in the world. Six dollars bought entry tickets for all four of us, including a personalized tour (homeschooling for the day, check, we thought gleefully); we were told it only takes 12 paying guests a day for the place to pay all of its staff and farmers and still break even. The centre is adding an interesting display with stick insects, and there was an enormous praying mantis while we were there. The kids were fascinated and Chloe went a little wild with the camera.


Back at the Bayon near the end of the day, the painter we were looking for was nowhere to be seen, so we beat a hasty retreat back to our guesthouse to set the kids loose for a while. Then down to the night market again for happy hour and dinner, and the next day we were off to Battambang.

This last photo doesn't have a natural home anywhere in this story, but it was taken somewhere along the scenic road to Banteay Srei, and we just thought it would be fun to include here (to market, to market, to buy a fresh hog....)


Posted by The Rymans 07:21 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)


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There is just no way I can even attempt to explain or interpret Angkor Wat and the many other equally impressive temples of Angkor that we visited in Siem Reap, so I’m not going to try – I’m just going to put up a few photos of our first day around Angkor to give you a very basic sense of what we saw.

We took a guide, Mr. San Park, for that first day, which was a mixed blessing. Mark and I really got a lot out of having him along; Chloe got a little something out of it; and Ciaran was mostly annoyed that on top of being hauled around from boring temple to boring temple, now he was also being asked to stand still and listen to reams of information about things he wasn’t really all that interested in even looking at in the first place.

To be fair to Ciaran, it was rather a lot of information to take in, much of it about complicated Hindu epics and myths that can be difficult to follow if you aren’t already familiar with them, and more so when you’re listening to a guide who, despite his comparatively excellent English, nonetheless speaks with an accent that requires you to pay quite close attention to each word. The kids did enjoy scrabbling and climbing all over the ruins, especially those at Ta Prohm, where the jungle is slowly reclaiming what the Khmers worked so hard to create a thousand years ago. Massive trees have grown all over the remains of the temple, and their thick, sinewy roots, which reminded us of flash-frozen lava, look to be slowly squeezing the sandstone to death. This is where the Angelina Jolie film, Tomb Raider, was filmed. She is reported to have arrived near Angkor Wat via helicopter, where apparently she stepped out and immediately borrowed a cell phone from a nearby monk!


To get to Angkor from our guesthouse, we took a tuk-tuk driven by Mr. Marom, who helps out around the guesthouse when he’s not busy driving. This seems to be a mutually beneficial arrangement he has with the guesthouse: in exchange for his “free” help, Marom has informal access to its guests and can readily pick up work that way, since virtually everyone coming here is planning one or more visits to Angkor. We left at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get back until nearly 4 or 5 p.m., so it was a long—and very hot—day for everyone.


While Angkor was fascinating and awe-inspiring, I was equally interested in the stories of the two men who spent the day with us. Mr. Marom, for example, earns a maximum of $15 (on a regular day) to $40 (on rare occasions when clients want to travel to very remote temples) per day. He has two children, both of whom go to public school for half the day. He sends them to private school for the other half so they can learn English. This costs him $800 a month. When times are lean, he simply takes them out of private school for a while. (It is normal for Cambodian kids to go to school for just half a day—they either go in the morning from 7 to 11 a.m., or in the afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. This makes the greatest possible use of both teachers and facilities.)

We were sitting there doing the math – even if he made the rare $40 per day all the time, and worked all seven days of the week, he would still only earn $1,120 a month, leaving him about $300 for the entire family to live on after school fees. From that, deduct the cost of gas (at a steep $1.25 per litre) and maintenance to his motorcycle and tuk-tuk. I’m not sure how much would be left, but it seems very little.

That said, it would still be a pretty tidy sum by Cambodian standards. Police officers, we were told, earn about $35 a month, which goes a long way towards explaining the rampant corruption. As an example of corruption, consider the interesting fact that just 2 per cent of Cambodian drivers have valid licenses—which goes a long way towards explaining the traffic patterns. The cost of a license for one year is $35, while the fine for being caught without one is $3, and less if you negotiate well. So you’d have to get caught without a license (or with an expired one) at least a dozen times in a year to even make the purchase (or renewal) of one worthwhile.

Most teachers at public schools make more a paltry $55 a month, which is why many “public” schools ask their students to pay $5 a week towards their teachers’ salaries.

Then there’s our guide, Mr. San Park, who charges $25 per day. That would seem a kingly sum by local standards, but he is completely freelance, so often goes days without pay, and when clients book him through their hotel, the hotel keeps a healthy proportion. Still, it’s a better living than many he’s had in the past.

Now 38 and with two children, he remembers his father being conscripted by the Khmer Rouge when he was just four years old. As a young adult after the war, he got a job on a farm. Finding the work difficult and exhausting, he moved on to Siem Reap, where he worked in construction. He would work all day, then study English in the evenings. Eventually his English became good enough for him to get a job with a demining company, where his task was to report daily on where land mines were being found and what progress was being made with regards to dismantling them. (According to estimates, there are still two or three million scattered about the country.) After taking a one-month training course, he eventually became a deminer himself, and did this job for another six years or so, until the company was found to be stealing money from the NGO that was funding the work, and was disbanded, putting 3,000 deminers out of work. That was when he became a tuk-tuk driver, a job that offered him better opportunities to practice his English. When he felt his English was good enough, he became a guide, a job he says he’s happy with.

We learned all of this (and much more) from Mr. San Park during a lunch break in between temples, and I’d have to say that talking to him about his life and the impact of war on it was at least as interesting as visiting the temples of Angkor.

Here are a few other photos from the day.


Posted by The Rymans 07:01 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

George goes to Canada

Team Rymans goes to Cambodia

sunny 30 °C
View Get Out The Map on The Rymans's travel map.

Before I move on to telling you about our trip to Siem Reap, I wanted to include a few links to someone else’s blog: the McNouyes. Odd name, odd thing for me to do, you may be thinking, so here’s an explanation. I’ve already briefly described another Canadian family we met on the island of Koh Lanta – Audrey and Dave, and their kids Taro and Kiyoshi, from Edmonton. We went on hanging out with them long after I wrote that early description, and in the end we left Koh Lanta together and spent several days in Railay as well before we had to part ways. I was lazy about maintaining this blog while in Koh Lanta, but Audrey and Dave (whose “family” name is, like ours, a hybrid of their two individual surnames) were more prolific, and they’ve posted descriptions and photos of our time together that you might find interesting.

Not only are Audrey and Dave also Canadian, also using a hybrid surname, and also travelling with their two kids for six months, but they also have a blog right here on Travellerspoint.com. Turns out we had lots of other things in common as well, and after many fun happy hours and dinners together on Koh Lanta, we started trying to recruit them to move to Ottawa (a remote but still possible possibility, as Audrey has family in the area). We were a little hard on Dave in that regard (all of his roots are in Edmonton), but hey, hope springs eternal. Here are the relevant blog links:


And here’s a group shot – Mark and Ciaran are missing because they were still in the water snorkelling (and Mark took the picture):


Well, moving along....When it was time to leave Koh Lanta and Railay, we briefly considered flying back to Bangkok (to continue on to Cambodia), but in the end we were just too cheap, and despite the kids we went the old-fashioned backpacker route – by overnight bus, a 14-hour journey not counting the longtail boat from Railay to the mainland, the wait at the pier for a smaller bus to take us to the Krabi bus depot, or the half-hour trip from the pier to the depot. I was waiting for disaster to strike—either in the form of a midnight bus crash or a vomiting child—but actually the ride was completely uneventful and both kids slept for most of it (unlike me). We were dropped off on a familiar corner near Khao San Road at 6 a.m. the next morning, and stumbled out bleary-eyed to find a guesthouse that would be open for breakfast. A sign advertising whole wheat toast and cappuccinos drew our attention and we sat right down, bags and all. Never have I been so happy to encounter real coffee – standard fare on the islands seems to be Nescafe served with Coffeemate, a toxic and nearly undrinkable mixture.

We had two full days in Bangkok to tie up any loose ends before leaving the country, so we got straight to work, burning CDs, shopping for books, looking into transportation to Cambodia and so on. One of our key missions was to drop into the General Post Office to see if the kids had mail. Happily, they did – four postcards for Ciaran and one letter for Chloe – and were just thrilled to sit down and read handwritten messages from their Ottawa friends. (Thanks!!)

The other reason for visiting the GPO was to unload George, Ciaran’s beloved coconut. We had persuaded Ciaran that he stood a better chance of hanging onto George for the long run if we sent him home in a box than if we tried to smuggle him across several borders past quarantine checks for plant and animal products. He had regretfully consented, so George went into a box along with souvenirs, books and other random objects that we didn’t want to carry anymore, and off it all went by sea mail to Canada. So yes, we did actually mail a large, heavy, brown (George is slowly turning to wood) coconut to Canada. I guess stranger things have been done.

But enough about George finally, and on to Cambodia: we arrived safely and without much mishap yesterday around sundown after a nine-hour trip from Bangkok that involved the usual dazzling array of transport modes: first a taxi to Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station, then a five-hour local bus to the Thai border town, Aranyaprathet, then a tuk-tuk to the Rongklua border market, where we were greeted by a posse of men with badges and clipboards posing as immigration officials. They handed us reasonable photocopies of the authentic Cambodian arrival and departure cards, and tried to insist that we should fill them out and return them along with payment for our Cambodian visas. They would then go and arrange the visas for us.

This particular land border crossing is notorious for scams and trickery, so instead we loaded up our backpacks, waved them away and started off on foot in the direction of the border. We pleasantly told them we would come back if we saw the need (as expected, we got a fairly grumpy response, but not much more hassling). We had arranged transportation from the Cambodian side all the way to our guesthouse here in Siem Reap, but first we would have to get to that side without attracting any more touts or “helpers.” In fact, our guesthouse had sent us a two-page set of instructions for crossing the border, which I may very well paste at the end of this entry just for any of you who are interested – it was quite an eye-opener on what goes on in and near this no man’s land. The town on the Cambodian side, Poipet, is described in our guidebook as the armpit of Cambodia, and is essentially a scruffy casino town full of unsavoury characters.

After we’d been stamped out of Thailand, we looked for the Cambodia Visa Services Application building, where our guesthouse’s representative, Sambath, was supposed to meet us. And miraculously, there he was, looking for us, and he helped ensure that the Cambodian immigration officials didn’t rip us off on the price of the visas (also standard at this crossing). After that, off to passport control. All told, the border crossing took about 90 minutes. At the end of it, Sambath ushered us onto a government shuttle bus that would take us from the border to a Poipet taxi stand. From there, it was a smooth two-hour drive down the newly paved road to Siem Reap. (The old dirt road from Poipet to Siem Reap was legendary among travellers, and I can’t tell you how many stories I had read about it before we took this trip – reportedly, it used to take a good 4-5 hours, and much longer in the wet season, hard going much of the way. When we decided to cross this border by land, we didn’t know that the road had been paved, so we felt very lucky indeed that it had.)

So here we are, ready to take on Angkor. We’re all set up with three-day passes, a tuk-tuk driver and a guide, and managed to take in the sunset from Angkor Wat this evening while we were buying the passes. We’ll be in Siem Reap at least another four nights and are not sure yet where we’re off to next.

For those who are interested, here are the instructions we received from our Siem Reap guesthouse on crossing the border.

1.) After exiting Thai immigration, head over to the Cambodia Visa
Services Building - even if you have visas already or you don't need
visas (Singapore, Malaysia, Phils, Laos) you MUST go to this location,
it's the first building on the right after crossing the foot bridge
into Cambodia. Somewhere around the Visa application window will be a
sign with your name(s) on it.

2.) If you need to obtain a visa here, we are connected with the folks
inside and you will not be hassled to pay excessive fees above the $20
US the visas cost, however our customers are sometimes asked to pay a
100 baht tip, particularly during low season when tourists are few and
money is scarce. Ultimately it's up to you whether you pay this or
not, but the small tip (it's all of $3 US) does make friends and
influence uncles and will make life easier for the next customer who
comes along. We wish it weren't so, but that's the reality. (Effective
October 2009 - they have begun construction of a new Visa Services
Building and it is possible that upon your arrival you will not see a
Visa Services Building or even a temporary excuse for one, but rather
a pile of rubble. If this is the case, please look for our contact on
the opposite side of the road)

3.) The person you want to meet there is named Sambath (pronounced
Sombot) and he'll take care of everything - visa apps, immigration
forms, etc. He is not the actual driver but rather is our Poipet
contact who handles our arrangements. His English is quite good. The
need for a middle man will make better sense when you see the border.
He will escort you all the way to the taxi stand and see you on your

4.) The fee for the car is $45 US and will be charged to your guesthouse bill.

5.) If by any chance someone should approach you before the Visa
Services Building, most likely in Rongklua Market or even the bus or
train station(!), and has your names on either a piece of paper, their
hand, or just happens to know your name, whatever, ignore them - do
not acknowledge them in anyway! No one except Sambath is authorized by
us to approach you anywhere and he is only to meet you at the Cambodia
Visa Services Building. Anyone who approaches you at any other
location whether they claim to be Sambath or not, they are not our
contact. We have had some problems with touts and other unauthorized
individuals who see the sign at the Cambodia Visa Services Building
and then walk into Thailand to try to intercept our customers for any
of a couple of reasons - redirect you to another taxi or bus at an
excessive amount of money, rip you off on a visa, or simply "help" you
and then demand a tip later. Often they will misrepresent themselves
and tell you they are Sambath. There is not much we can do about this
except warn you as they will probably approach you on Thai soil, not
Cambodia. So if you are met by anyone who deviates from the above
information, meeting you in advance of the Visa Services building,
asking you to pay for the car up front, asking for more than $45,
asking for 1000 baht or more for the visa, etc than this person is not
our contact even if they claim they are Sambath. Remove yourself from
this person and call us immediately.

6.) If for any reason you don't see Sambath inform one of the visa
helpers (but not anyone who followed you) that you are the name on the
sign and/or call us at the number below.

7.) The guesthouse phone number is 063-965-107 or from Thailand +855-63-965-107.

8.) If you'd like to bring extra riders to reduce the cost please be
advised that we have a special arrangement with the local taxi
association (they have a monopoly on all transport from Poipet) that
allows us to transport only our passengers for which we are provided a
reduced rate (normal taxi fee is $50-60). Unless we are informed prior
to your arrival at the Cambodia Visa Services Building of additional
passengers including their names and nationalities, the taxi
association may charge extra passengers a commission in the
neighborhood of $10 US per person.

9.) It is more than likely that the tuk-tuk that transports you from
the bus or train station to the border will take a detour to the
“Cambodian Consulate” where you will be given all sorts of lies as to
why this is where you must get your visa and at their ridiculously
inflated price. Needless to say, it’s all a scam and not only do you
not need to get your visa here, you are under no obligation to show
your passport to anyone or even discuss whether or not you already
have or need to get a visa.

Posted by The Rymans 03:58 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (6)

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