Thursday, March 30, 2006

Phnom Penh II

When I go cycling, people are always asking me to pick up a small gift or two to bring back to Australia for them
Today's my last day here. Just had the bike washed at a local 'carwash' - as I left, the washers were all squabbling over how to divide up what I paid (a dollar, whereas I think it probably only cost 25 cents)

I've been to a few bars/nightclubs over the past 2 nights - something I don't usually do. On Wednesday evening I went with Kevin (he's lived here for about 8 years & has produced a book of his photographs: Phnom Penh People. Check out some examples here) to a very pleasant bar across the river, run by an Australian fellow, 'Snow'. ('Snow' had a small role as an Australian expat in Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts) It's apparently the only bar on the east bank; there's no sign out the front, at the request of the local police, but it's known as "Maxine's on the River", "Snow's Bar" or the "Blue House" (by the French). Lots of lights, bells, mirrors, a lovely breeze & good music. We later went to Bar 51 (I think) and the Pickled Parrot. These were basically bars at which you can chill out, and have a beer & a chat. I drank rather more than I usually do but no ill effects the next day.

In contrast to these establishments, Martini's, which I visited last night with another local, Ian, followed by Walkabout and then the Heart of Darkness, was an eye-opener. Martini's was full of scores & scores of so-called "working girls" - many more of them than customers, it seemed. As you walk in, you are virtually engulfed by numerous women smiling & moving suggestively, giving you shoulder rubs & so on in the hope that you'll employ them for something more substantial later on. The experience was both astonishing & just a little unsettling. Walkabout was a much smaller, more low key venue, but with a similar program. Heart of Darkness seemed to be pretty much a nightclub with a lot of Cambodians in attendance, and loud thumping dance music being played by a DJ.

So perhaps tonight, my last evening here, should be a quiet one, spent reflecting on my stay here & preparing for departure tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Phnom Penh

Day 6 cycling:
Pursat to Kompong Chhnang
Distance: 98.6 km
Ridetime: 6:02 hrs
Average speed: 16.64 km/hr
Max: 23.1 km/hr
Between Towns Total: 540km
Odometer Total 760km

Day 7 cycling:
Kompong Chhnang to Phnom Penh
Distance: 95.1 km
Ridetime: 6:25 hrs
Average speed: 15:03 km/hr
Max: 22.0 km/hr
Between Towns Total: 635km
Odometer Total 855km


Back in Phnom Penh, and at the Last Home Guest House
again


The ride to Kompong Chhnang was as gruelling as the previous stretch, but I eventually made it to the Sokha Guest House. It was $8 for a fan room & an additional $4 for aircon, which I unwisely declined - I had a hot & sleepless night, and seemed in poor shape for yet another 100km ride when I arose the next morning. The $2 breakfast provided was solid (2 bread rolls, jam, omelette, milk coffee). This, coupled with much cooler weather - it seemed all morning that it was going to rain at some stage - resulted in an easier day's cycling than I'd feared. But now of course another issue arose - the buttocks began to get quite sore - I must do something about that seat!

I began to really enjoy some of the roadside drinks you encounter on the way. Almost as enjoyable were the reactions of incredulity when I stopped & ordered one. Sugar cane juice squeezed from the cane between a set of rollers is refreshing; even more so was the drink made from shaved ice, to which was added syrup (green, red...) and maybe some condensed milk or some other fluid ladled into the mixture. Whatever it was, it was a nice change, as there's only so much Coke; yellow, green, orange or pink Fanta; 7-Up/Sprite; Red Bull; or canned Lychee juice that one can take.

It seems that ice may be OK here, unlike in many other southeast asian countries where you're cautioned against having it in drinks. Overall, and I've not been super-careful, I've had no gastric concerns during my time here.

Pursat

Day 5 Cycling:
Battambang to Pursat
Total 111.04km
7:02 hrs ridetime
Average speed: 16.09 km/hr
Total (between towns): 441km ;
Odometer total (i.e includes within towns): 662km

Today's cycling was a struggle, and especially gruelling in the heat. I zipped along for the first 60km, but then just seemed to run out of puff. I plodded on, inch by inch ... the last 20 km was an eternity - like a line that never quite reached the asymptote ... nearer & nearer... 101...102 ... "omigod ... will this never end ..." .. and then the last 10km... the last 5km .. and so on ...

Finally reached the destination - Pursat, and checked in to the Phnom Pich Hotel. Such relief, such an oasis. It was a superb room, very quiet hotel, quiet town, no other tourists to be seen. I decide to take the next day off from cycling, and spent the time washing clothes, reading, and generally resting. The prospect of a further 2 x 100km rides was not pleasing.

The next day, I strolled (well, toiled is perhaps more apt - it was like being inside a huge sauna) downtown for some lunch & arrived at the Tep Machha Restaurant (also known as the Magic Fish Restaurant, as mentioned in the LP guide). The stir fried vegetable dish (5000 R) was uninspiring but the view of the river out the window was fabulous - people swimming, fishing, washing ...

People here are so very friendly, and as noted previously, while cycling along you're constantly bombarded with "hello" (and the occasional "what is your name?"), usually accompanied by delightful smiles & waves (in fact, the kids enthusiasm sometimes seemed to border on hysteria - was it really that exciting to see me (at times I felt like a cross between Santa Claus, Mr Whippy & Lady Di returned from the grave) ... perhaps they were just bored...?). I estimated that on average about 3 people a kilometre said "hello" - and typically, especially if kids, they would yell this out at least 3 times .... so during a 100km journey you're confronted with near enough to 900 "hello's"... Sweet, and well meant, to be sure, but like the so-called Chinese water torture, each "hello" became like an arrow to the brain after a few hours. It was a good challenge for me to try and remain graceful about it all.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Battambang II

I'm staying at the Chhaya Hotel in Battambang, which seems OK to me, nothing flash. The moto driver however was fairly negative about it, saying that it was also into selling drugs & prostitution, but I've not been approached. It's wedding season here in Cambodia, and boy, are they LOUD! In several spots around town, large, colourful tents have been set up, with scores of people eating & generally celebrating the various weddings. Unfortunately one was situated outside the Chhaya yesterday, and proceedings started very early - maybe 7am. So noisy.

I had a relaxed look around town yesterday, visiting 2 Buddhist wats & the museum - rather overpriced at $1 for what was on offer.

A day of superlatives followed, commencing with a massage at the Seeing Hand Massage, again done by blind people, and possibly connected to similar sounding places in Siem Reap & Phnom Penh. I went through the same blue pajamas routine, and was asked by the masseur, a young bloke, if I wanted "medium or strong" - naturally I elected to go for "strong". Sweet mother of Jesus it was strong! At times it felt as if he'd slipped a pair of pliers into his hands, or even a vise. He tugged at extremities, yanked muscles & nerves, dug with steely fingertips .... yikes!! Still, he did manage to locate several trouble spots (as well as probably create a few others). But surely something that painful must be good for you! I avoided tears in the eyes ... until I hit the Smokin' Pot - a local restaurant, diagonally opposite from the White Rose. It has a good reputation, an deven runs cooking classes for interested tourists. I went for the spicy chicken with basil ... the menu said it came "with more or less spice". When I said I wanted it spicy, I think they thought I meant "much more". After the first few mouthfuls, my eyes began to water, lips began to tingle .... I was on fire!!! Is this what they meant by "Smokin'"? Hot, but tasty nevertheless.

The room at Chhaya is windowless - functional but charmless. I suppose I could change rooms, but I can't really be bothered.

I had some breakfast at the Sunrise Coffee House - very western food, which I tend to eat only sparingly when in SE Asia, but pleasant.

I'd thought of doing some cycling today, but instead hired a man & a motorcycle - the first time I've done so, being somewhat of a cycling purist. $8 for 2/3 day seemed reasonable, so off we headed to Phnom Sampeau, then Wat Banan, and then went for a ride on the "bamboo train" or "norry" - this is basically a vehicle comprising 2 sets of wheels, a bamboo platform and an ouboard motor to drive the thing. They use the train tracks to transport people & goods up & down the line, although obviously not when the official train runs (which is maybe only once a week). When two norries travelling in opposite directions meet, the smaller one gives way - it is quickly disassembled then reassembled when the larger one has passed. It was daft, but sorta fun.

Bamboo train or "norry"


The odd thing for me about visiting Phnom Sampeau - the location of the so-called "killing caves" - was how little emotion it managed to elicit from me. In the caves, in wire containers, were scores of skulls & bones of people who'd been pushed to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps I'm just desensitised or a bit knocked off, but I did find it hard to relate to the obvious horror of it all. For me, the S-21 school, with all the photographs of its victims and implements of torture, remains the most disturbing & distressing example of the regime's reign of terror.

The people here now apparently enjoy 'democracy', but everyone you speak to talks with dismay & sense of powerlessness about the widespread corruption in the country - politicians, police, public servants, business people .... Tragic really, but I suppose it's better than it has been.

It was an incredibly dusty trip, but it was nice to see a bit of colour return to my beard, albeit temporarily. It's currently raining - only the second time since I've been here - and it sure is welcome.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Battambang

I'm now sitting, with some difficulty, in the KCT Internet cafe next door to the White Rose cafe in Battambang - it's a decent cafe, good food, but for some reason extraordinarily slow service.
....
The trip from Siem Reap to here by boat was ... an experience. It started off as a sheer delight - after a 5.30 pickup from the guesthouse & trip down to the port at Siem Reap, I, a few Cambodians and about a dozen or more other tourists got on the boat (the local visitor's guide notes that the boats "in no way meet international safety standards" & they are notorious for breaking down mid-journey). The bike, for which I had to pay $5 extra, was on the roof of the boat, and for a while I sat atop also. For some reason the other passengers were reticent to do which meant I had it to myself for much of the journey. The view was delightful - we passed numerous floating villages, fishing nets, people fishing, folk sailing by in various craft, and for once it wasn't overly hot. After about 4 hours, we pulled in to a floating shop, where we were told that because the water level was too low at Battambang we'd have to get off & complete the journey by road. After our initial suspicion that this was nonsense had been negated by another tourist who'd just arrived from Battambang, we all disembarked via a narrow 10 metre bamboo gangway (me with bicycle in one hand, 2 panniers in the other). All the luggage, including my bike was strapped into a pickup truck, and about a dozen people also crammed in, leaving 4 of us plus a few Cambodians, standing around (I wasn't that keen to jostle my way aboard the pickup). After some strenuous debate that the rest of us could not/would not possibly fit aboard the pickup, another one mysteriously materialised & we clambered aboard. Thus began the journey from hell... along a narrow, potholed, bumpy track - it was the dustiest, bumpiest, roughest trip I think I've ever done in a vehicle - ww were whipped by branches, pounded up & down in the tray of the truck, slashed by the dust ... for about 2 hours, at top speed, enveloped in the usual heat & humidity. People lost hats, one Cambodian had his shirt ripped by the passing branches, I was slashed on the face & arms and even had cuts on my back from the branches. Even talking was difficult - I sounded a bit like Donald Duck at one point, as the vigourous bumping made it hard to breathe normally. I looked like I'd had a session with an S&M exponent during an inspection prior to having a shower after eventually reaching our destination. Today I have an enormous swelling on one buttock and a smaller one on the other from the pounding received from the edge of the tray truck on which I'd attempted to sit

... so today I'm recuperating here in Battambang (I think the name means something like "pounded mercilessly on the arse with a stick"...), which seems like a pleasant, low key sort of place. With about 8 or 9 days to go, I'm now in a quandary as to whether to "kick back", spend another day here & then, after taking my time to cycle the 300 km back to Phnom Penh, spend another week hanging around there, or cycle like blazes & go down to Kampot & Sihanoukville (riverfront & beach regions), and get the bus back ..

Monday, March 20, 2006

Siem Reap IV

Today was a day of rest after all that cycling. After doing a few chores (eg travellers cheques, photos to CD, etc) I had lunch at Sala Bai, a training restaurant to give disadvantaged youth a head start. I had a main of fish, with spicy sauce & rice, desert of caramel & orange cake with sauce & ice cream, a coke, cafe latte and juice, for $9.50. I enjoyed the meal, but the trainees were terribly anxious in their desire to "get it right". Afterwards I had a massage at the Ă„ngkor Massage by Blind place (on Highway 6 between the Caltex servo & Jasmine Lodge). It was $4 for an hour, and took place in a room of 5 tables, 4 of which were being used. Again I had to slip into a pair of massage pyjamas. This time the operatives were young women who all seemed pretty short-sighted. It was quite good, fairly vigorous, but they will persist with tugging your digits (i.e toes & fingers), which I'm not mad on. Happily, and in contrast to what happens in Vietnam, there's no pressure afterwards to give the masseuse some extra money.

After the afternoon massage I walked over to take a look at "Miniature Replicas of Angkor's Temples" - of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Banteay Srei - in the garden of a local sculptor. He seemed a nice old bloke, and proudly showed me various certificates & photos, a silver cup & a self-portrait he'd painted, and told me that today was his 70th birthday. I think he said that it took him 4 years to do all the drawings of Angkor Wat before he got down to construction. It did leave me wondering ... "why?".

Tonight I had a meal at the Dead Fish Tower, as suggested in the Comments section - it was sort of fun. It's a slightly quirky place, and the food - Thai - wasn't bad. The best part was the entertainment - a trio doing some sort of repetitious Khmer dance, with emphasis on the hand movements, and then two female singers with American accents singing all those karaoke favourites - Whitney Houston, Cher, and so on. It oscillated between being great fun & a little cringeworthy.

Both on my way to the restaurant & on the way back, numerous young fellows lounging about in the street kindly enquired if I wanted a "tuk tuk" (a form of transport) and then, in a lower voice, if I wanted a "lady massage". I presumed that they weren't the ones who were going to give me the massage, and that this was undoubtedly a "special massage" that was being offered ...

Counsellors sometimes use "minimal encouragers" - appropriate eye contact, occasional nods, "hmm"'s, "uh-huh"'s & other indicators that suggest interest. To deal with being regularly importuned for tuk-tuk, motorcycle and so on, I suggest the use of "minimal discouragers" i.e limited eye contact & maybe minimal acknowledgement, rather than becoming annoyed (although this is not always easy). I try & remind myself that they're just trying to earn a living & that it's not personal, and to endeavour to be good humoured about it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Siem Reap III

phew... it's so hot & sweaty here ...
I've just spent a further 2 days exploring - cycling & walking - the temples. Perhaps unbelievably, I've cycled nearly 90km around the temple complex & I've walked countless km at each of the temples, and taken god-knows-how-many photos (in fact, my 1Gb card failed, due to overuse I'm sure. Luckily a fellow in a camera shop had the right software to recover the photos & burn them onto a CD, for a small fee).

Admittedly I am one of them, but there seem to be unbelievable numbers of tourists tromping around the temples. It is possible to avoid the crowds to a good extent by timing things differently (i.e to not be at the expected place to view sunset or sunrise, or to continue visiting places at lunchtime), and it's often rewarding to wander off the well-beaten track eg Preah Palilay was virtually deserted compared to the Terrace of the Leper King next door, which was covered with tourists - the image was like a horde of white soldier ants killing their prey.

Amusing to stop at a temple-side restaurant for a meal yesterday - I was presented with a menu; when I said the prices were ridiculous, they presented me with an alternative, cheaper priced menu (same meals listed). When I said it was still too expensive, thw young woman said she'd give me a 'discounted' price. This was $1.50 for some fried rice, down from $2.50, and a Coke for 0.50 cents (= 2,000 R; 'reduced'from 3,500R on the first menu).

Typically, Coke, Fanta etc are about 1,500R; a 950 ml bottle of water (in the cheap plastic bottles, which seems sometimes to taint the water a little) costs about 500R. If you're assertive about it, you can usually buy it for this price even at the temples. (By assertive, I do mean also being a little light-hearted & maybe humorous about it ... it's hardly worth getting het up about 13 cents - and you'll need more water to cool back down!). You can usually eat well at a restaurant for about $6.00, including drinks.

Last night I went to the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant (I preferred the Arun, as there were far fewer other tourists there). It was pretty tasty - I had the Amoc chicken (like chicken curry) & rice, and a few drinks, and finished with a milk coffee & sugar - the good-old tinned condensed milk was added to the coffee. So far, zero ill effects from anything I've eaten or drunk.

I've just started reading Voices from S-21: Terror & history in Pol Pot's secret prison by David Chandler - I feel I should try & understand a little about what happened during those years. It seems so hard to put together the horror & barbarism of this with the apparent sweetness & openness of the Cambodian people that you meet. It's extraordinary how many people smile & say 'hello' as you cycle by or stop to buy a drink ... I'm struck by how, for the first time in years (well, to be honest, it's never much happened), young women will smile, or even seem to flirt a little - such a delight - I can see this as one reason why so many of the expats here like the place. But I can't quite put this all together .... have they always been like this? is it some sort of reaction to the horrors that've occurred? Where did the savagery come from ?? Something to chew over .... On the other hand, maybe that's just daft. I suspect that, given the circumstances, savagery can emerge from any group of people, anywhere ...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Siem Reap II

Last night, dunno why, I thought I'd try an Indian restaurant - Taj Mahal - which gets a good write up in LP & elsewhere. But it really wasn't that great. I ordered a meat thali, lassi & Angkor beer. The beer & lassi were fine; the curries (chicken, beef, lentil) were of a similar fluidity i.e a lot of sauce, all of which seemed fairly similar, & only about 3 bits of meat in the meat curries. The meat was also quite chewy, to the extent that much of it seemed to become stuck in my teeth. Luckily there were plenty of toothpicks available, and to the restaurant's credit, they were the best I've encountered in Cambodia!

So tonight I wised up & went to a Khmer restuarant, Arun. It was great food; I had some uncooked/unfried vegetarian spring rolls, amoc (a sort of fish curry - apparently one of Cambodia's national dishes), steamed rice & 2 cans of Fanta - for 28,000 R (=$7 USD)

Today I ventured forth on the bicycle to see the temples of Angkor. Very impressive - even though I covered nearly 20km on the bike, and probably walked nearly as far again, I've only seen a fraction of what's there to see (I've yet to actually visit Angkor Wat, reputedly the most stunning & best preserved of all the temples here.) But what I saw today - Phnom Bakheng & much of Angkor Thom - was fascinating. The only thing is that it's very hot here at present, which seems at odds with the image I had of the place - cool jungle, dark & dank, creepers, strange & exotic creatures crawling & flying everyhwere. Instead, it's boiling hot, really bright, and pretty exhausting work. So I'll explore the place at a leisurely pace, maybe taking up to a week to get my fill of things.

Lunch today was some pineapple & some sticky rice which you can buy at the side of the road for about 500 R. The rice comes jammed into a tube of bamboo, the sides of which you peel away to get at the rice. It has a slightly sweet taste, and also contains currant-like (I hope they were) black bits. It's very sticky - afterwards my fingers felt as they do after a mishap with the super glue.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Siem Reap

While at Kompong Thom I tried the teuk kralohk - like a fruit & vege smoothie - at the local market. Tasty. While out walking I saw 2 Western cyclists go whizzing by - I tried to wave them down but they didn't see me. Later that day, another 5 cyclists appeared briefly in town before heading off in their respective directions. Other than these folk, I've not seen any other cyclists, or in fact other tourists, en route. Presumably they're in the buses that shoot past at unconscionable speeds.

It can be a lonely business at time cycling on one's own. At the same time, the experience of being alone with oneself has quite a stark and interesting edge to it -how one deals with issues that arise, noticing what one's mind gets up to, the various emotional states one goes through & how they come & go ....

Day 3 cycling:
Kompong Thom to Kompong Kdei
Total 90.05km
4:54 hrs ridetime
Average speed: 18.70 km/hr
Maximum: 24.9 km/hr

I set a cracking pace for the first 36km out of K. Thom - no idea why ... perhaps it was having had a decent breakfast (omelette, roll & coffee), a good sleep, ...Also tolerating the heat & humidity a little better.

The old saying "getting hit by a bus" is largely metaphoric in the west; here, on highway 6, it's a real possibility.

I stayed at the Ngoav Peang guest house in K. Kdei. I beat the price down from $4 to $3 USD. Later I discovered it was right next door to an ice making factory which operated all night. Other than this it was quiet until 4.40am when their dog began howling & barking, in the odd, strangulated sounding way they seem to have here. By 5.30, it was all systems go - the ice factory really cranked up, people talking very loudly, motorbikes revving etc. Je-sus!

The Towel Incident:
After arriving, I had a shower & left my small microfibre towel on the bicycle to dry in the sun. I went to grab it an hour so later, to find that it had disappeared. I had a devil of job trying to explain the problem, using mime again. I became a little cross, so did they; no one had a clue what my issue was, although for a while they thought I wanted some soap. Eventually, after pulling out my dictionary, they understood what I meant. It turned up a few hours later - laughs all round!

Day 4 cycling:
Kompong Kdei to Siem Reap
Total 66.83 km
4:08 hrs ridetime
Average speed: 16.40 km/hr
Maximum: 25.8 km/hr

Even though it was a seemingly small ride today of about 60km, it was tough going. Riding conditions - the road, wind, traffic - were all fine, but it was a bit hotter today. I've checked into Jasmine Lodge, which seems pleasant enough. I'll most likely spend a week in Siem Reap ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Kompong Thom

Day 1 cycling:
Phnom Penh to Skuon (or Skon or Skun ...)
Total 80.91 km
4 hrs 40 mins actual cycling time
(6 hrs on the road i.e 1 hr 20 mins of breaks)
Average Speed = 17.72 km/hr
MAX = 28.7

The traffic here seems very fast, & cycling can be a bit hair-raising at times. The road surface was good all the way to Skuon, but the actual bitumen is fairly narrow. Motorists are not very accommodating to lesser forms of transport, and I had to hit the shoulder a number of times to avoid being hit by oncoming maniacs (can't do much about those coming from behind, other than pray. So far, so good). And the shoulder is not always at the same level as the road surface. There are very few road signs or mile posts but Highway 6 is generally unambiguous. People have been extremely friendly - you're bombarded with "hello!!" every inch of the way. And happily, there have been no additions to this like: "one rupee!", or "one pen" as is so common elsewhere. The children, who seem especially thrilled to see me pedalling past, come across as being quite sweet & guileless.

It's not been overly hot - the humidity however has been quite taxing. Water starts to lose its thirst quenching capacity after a time; Fanta, Coke - "Coke-A" - & Sprite do a pretty good job though. Before leaving PP, one of the expats suggested it might be good to take some oral rehydration salts (eg oralyte) to counter the possibility of dehydration. Good idea, I thought at one stage as I was cycling along, and so I stopped in a small town to ask at the local pharmacies if they had any. I couldn't find any translation in my dictionary, but I figured it would be easy to mime what I wanted ... after the folk at the second one couldn't figure out what I wanted, I gave the idea away & continued with the soft drinks (... the Lychee flavoured Fanta was tasty). It was a bit dispiriting to not get across what I wanted, and I struggle to be very successful with the dictionary or with words that locals have have introduced me to. Disappointingly, I'm just not a natural linguist.

There are plenty of places to stop for drinks along the way, and it's always a delight to see the looks of incredulity, and subsequent smiles, when you do.

So, overall, it was a decent road, and I was pleased I managed the 80km with little suffering on the physical front.

Skuon - famed for the spiders that people there eat - had little going for it from my point of view. I checked in to one of the few obvious guest hosues in town - the Tang Sreng Ngoun Guest House, a rather grubby & dismal place, and lay on the bed for a few hours.... It was $5 USD for the night, and to its credit a towel, toilet paper & overhead fan were provided. I was very pleased that I brought along my new "Portable media Player"- a small 20Gb device that allows you to store thousands of MP3's, vidoes & photos on it (I bought this at the Aldi supermarket in Melbourne for $250 - a real bargain I reckon). I watched an episode of Seinfeld - slightly incongruous in this setting - and then tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep. No such luck - it was hot, I was really itchy, and the neon light in the hallway outside gave the impression that it was daylight. As I'd planned another early start - having found that hitting the road at 7.30 am was a good move, in sparing me from much heat & humidity - I remained half alert for much of the night.

That evening I had fried rice with chicken & vegetable in the attached restaurant, & chicken soup for breakfast, before hitting the road again.

...

Day 2 cycling:
Skuon to Kompong Thom
Total 92.86 km
5 hrs 37 mins actual cycling time
Average Speed = 16.81 km/hr
MAX = 29.3 km/hr


The heavens finally opened after I'd cycled about 20km. The sky looked ominous as I started off that morning, but the lack of heat & humidity were a blessing, and I was glad to move on from Skuon. When the rain hit, I was passing a small farmhouse or hut, and so dashed in to seek shelter, as did two passing motorcyclists. We sat with a family as the rain beat down, surrounded by dozens of chickens and puppies, watching the rain and the ducks in the pond outside rushing this way & that, not quite sure what to do with themselves. The main problem on recommencing cycling was that now the road surface was wet, and as well as feeling the back wheel splashing water upwards, extra vigilance was called for in not being a target for passing motorists, who do not seem anywhere as sweet as the Cambodians you meet everywhere else.

At 2pm, after about 6 hours on the road (including breaks) it became quite hot again. Today I drank about 4 litres of water & had at least 4 drink stops for various fizzy drinks. It's interesting to notice how one's energy levels vary over a day, somewhat independently of what you eat or drink. In the morning, I felt very low in energy; at other times I felt full of beans & could really feel myself flying along the bitumen. Psychological factors also come into it - at the 60km mark I began to feel really fed up ... "can't take much more of this .... I must be insane to be out here cycling ..." but later this passed, helped by various things experienced along the way - about 30 young blokes pushing a house along, on wheels, in a paddock (!). Much hilarity ensued as I took their photo, wandered down to where they were, and then momentarily forgot where I'd left my bike. Later, I cycled through a village where people were carving numerous and varied statues (eg Buddha).

So now I'm here in Kompong Thom, staying at the relatively flash Stung Sen Royal Garden Hotel. It's $20 USD a night, but worth every cent to have my first hot water & aircon in a week. Such luxury - I think I'll stay here for 2 nights to rest up & get ready for my next 2 days of cycling to get to Siem Reap.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Phnom Penh III

... still in Phnom Penh ... tomorrow I plan to head off. Mind you, I've done a bit of cycling around here in the past few days. Yesterday I went for a 40km ride - intending to find the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) but I somehow missed the "well signposted in English" way - as Lonely Planet describes it - and ended up god-knows-where. It was damn hot, I was sweating profusely and suddenly, urgently I felt a bit light-headed & with a desperate need to go to the loo. It's rare for me to get "caught short" like that; happily, there was something resembling a beer garden nearby & I was able to avail myself of their facilities.

Today I headed out with a grim sense of determination & did indeed find the correct turnoff & make my way there. (For future reference, you take the left fork at the SOKIMEX petrol station - almost 2km from the bridge - and head south). Overall, this was 28 km round trip from the Last Home Guest House (172 Street) and it took about 1:41 to cycle. While not as confronting as Tuol Sleng it was still quite a sobering place to visit.

" ... the dust ... the dust..." - people have warned me about this, and today I experienced it. Even worse for the cyclist are the sections of road that have been watered, presumably to settle the dust but creating a hazardous sludge on which to ride. I created much amusement for several locals on motorbikes as a passing truck splattered me from tip to toe in the stuff as it inconsiderately hurtled past. Very funny, guys.

From the small bit of cycling I've done around town and into the nearby countryside, I get the impression that while the roads are much less chaotic than India (i.e here, on the roads, fewer dogs, goats, pigs, chickens, elephants, people not looking) they are in much worse condition, on average. I do get the sense that here there is some sense of order or rhythm on the roads that is quite lacking in India. But, as I say, this is a very early and possibly unreliable impression.

One odd sight yesterday: a man on a drip riding a motorcycle while his pillion passenger (wife?) held the drip bag aloft.

I'm also finding some of the food to be not all that great here - I suppose trying Indonesian (at the Bali Cafe) and Thai (at the Lemongrass) is not really in keeping with the spirit of being in Cambodia, so maybe my disappointment is deserved. Both seemed to provide a fairly miserable approximation to the food that I've experienced in these 2 countries. Both places turned out especially oily dishes, and they weren't all that tasty. Still, my stomach is holding up OK, other than the small incident yesterday ... I'd better wind this up ... nearly every evening, around 8.30pm, the power goes off for about an hour ...

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Phnom Penh II

... whew... it's a little hard to write this, as they've just turned the fan in the internet cafe up to what must be force 10 hurricane setting ... my hair's a blowin' in the wind'...

It's so humid in PP (= Phnom Penh) that I'm beginning to realise it'll be this and not the heat (it's only in the low 30's on average) that will be the killer. I've been spending a bit of time out & about, seeing the sights and generally being a tourist. It's not very cool of me I know, but I do like to look at museums and some of the major attractions in a city. PP is an OK town - low key, spacious, clean ... beggars, monks, tourists, expats (what are so many of these single guys doing here!?), restaurants. It's a very pleasant place, but not what I'd call overly fascinating (in fact, I'm feeling a little bored and almost ready to get cycling - probably Saturday. The plan at this stage is to head to Siem Reap via highway 6. Skuon - spider city - will be the first stopover ).

So, yesterday & today I visited the Royal Palace & Pagoda, Museum, Wat Phnom (Buddhist Temple), Library, Railway Station and market - some of it by foot and some by bike. The Tuol Sleng Museum was the standout - quite harrowing - this is a former prison, based in a local high school (given that it almost seemed purpose-built, you have to wonder what they were thinking in their approach to schooling when they designed it) and run in the 70's by Pol Pot's security forces. There were cabinets full of skulls, and rooms & rooms of photos of men, women, and children killed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

On reflection, the subsequent massage I'd booked earlier in the day was an uneasy contrast. I did start a little when, after having changed into special green pajamas, the masseur grabbed me vigourously around the neck, ready to commence the process. I was at Seeing Hands Massage - conducted by blind masseurs. While on the table, I mused over the notion that blind masseurs might be better at this than sighted ones .... could a bunch of deaf guys set up a variation on this ... mmm ... dunno... It wasn't a bad massage, and he spent most of the time working on my back, for which I was grateful, having fallen flat on it at my tae kwon do class last Saturday while trying unsuccessfully to execute a 'turning hook kick'. The massage only cost $4.50 USD (about $6 AUD) for an hour - a fraction of what you'd pay in Australia. And it was undoubtedly a much better massage than the likely one proposed to me by two very masculine faced 'ladies' while I was out walking yesterday evening ...

I've enjoyed eating out at various places - Friends - a place set up to help street kids get into the workforce - was pretty good, and Kyhmer Borane, where I had Lok Lak - fried diced beef with salad - was also good. But I think I'll have to start being a little more careful about what I eat, as the beef did seem a little under-cooked, and my understanding is that it's quite easy to get a stomach bug of one sort or another here. Still, no ill effects to date from eating flesh (well, one small drama - I had some fried won ton at Friends, and (what I later discovered was) a fish scale became stuck in my throat. I confess I became a little alarmed when I suddenly began to feel this bizzare rasping sensation in my throat ... "what the hell is it?" and "what to do...?" as the sensation persisted ... luckily the fish scale suddenly dislodged after a while ...

Pretty much everything here in PP is paid for in US dollars, and change is either in dollars or the local currency - riel. I'm saving these up for when I'm in the backblocks of Cambodia, just in case the greenback is not so readily accepted.

I do love the way people here cram onto motor-scooters/motorbikes - yesterday I saw four young lads out on the town, all on the one motor-scooter. A family of six was the record for the evening ... well, time for dinner I think ...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Phnom Penh

The check-in guy at Tullamarine was a bit of a fusspot, but, as I was travelling Malaysia Airlines, all I needed to do with the bike this time was to let a little air out of the tyres and wheel it to a metal cage to be loaded onto the plane. A minor problem arose when I first arrived - my name had been spelt "WLLLSHIRE" on the ticket - three L's - and after firstly telling me I wasn't booked on the flight and then admonishing me for not checking my ticket details properly, and then checking with his supervisor, he allowed me to proceed. Noting I had a bike, he asked if I had anything flammable in my luggage such as the glue used in repairing punctures ... foolishly I said yes, so he took the tube to ask his supervisor if it was OK (it was). Luckily the bike only weighed 10kg this time, so there were no problems on that front (it does help with the weigh-in if you hold the bike firmly and a little upwards on the scales). I remarked on his punctilousness, to which he replied that he was working a double shift and had been on the job for over 12 hours ....

As usual, I overate, slept very little and watched several movies during the flight - Million Dollar Baby, which was OK until she ended up paralysed and on oxygen, and some absurd sci-fi movie starring Charlise Theron. Eight hours to KL, a 4 hour wait in transit, and then two hours to Phnom Penh made for a tired arrival in Cambodia.

The taxi fare into town is a fixed $7USD but naturally the driver (and his dozen or so colleagues) insisted on a little extra for the bike. We reached a happy compromise ... I said I wanted to go to the the Last Home Guesthouse but they all insisted it had closed down (the old trick, I thought knowingly ... ah! you can't fool an experienced traveller!). In fact it had - they'd moved from 108 St to 172 St. Still, the room was spacious, clean and cheap at $5 USD a night. The only drawbacks were having to lug the bike up 3 flights of stairs and not having my own loo & bathroom, but the latter should not really be a problem (assuming I avoid gastrointestinal issues).

The environment is nowhere near as noisy or chaotic as India, but cycling on the wrong (i.e the right) side of the road will be an adjustment. I still recall, with some horror, cycling in Vietnam & forgetting this fact as I did a left turn onto the wrong side of the road, and being met by a phalanx of oncoming bicycles and motorbikes.

Last night I met a group of expats from the US, UK and elsewhere, some of them having lived here for a decade or more. They were a pleasant & helpful bunch of folk and I'm sure we'll meet up again soon. I expect I'll spend several days here exploring PP before I & the bike hit the road.