I wond’r what this “crabby thing” is? Meeting more of Cambodia’s rare and deadly animals in Kratie, Cambodia

Our journey to Kratie was a little more, errr, let’s say thrilling, than previous journeys thus far: The maniac minibus driver felt that using his horn was an adequate safety measure, when frequently overtaking on blind corners. Although there’s probably insufficient evidence this is successful all of the time, we did arrive in one piece, so I’m willing to accept the driver’s daredevil methods on this occasion.

But that wasn’t all of our risky travelling done for the day; we still had to make it across the raging Mekong, to our guesthouse on the island of Koh Trong, which sits parallel to Kratie. Rather than doing so on a modern day boat, equipped with safety equipment etc, our crossing was made using what looked like a 12th century wooden raft with a lorry engine attached to the back and two tattered life jackets hanging on the side. At least a friendly monk was there to keep our minds off things, talking us through the Microsoft Excel training course he was currently undertaking.

Koh Trong island boat with motorbike
On board Koh Trong island ferry
Once safely on the island, not wanting to give up on dangerous modes of transport, we jumped on the backs of two waiting motorbikes, and were driven at serious speed along a narrow concrete path through the trees. Just before a torrential downpour had begun, we finally made it to Arun Mekong Guesthouse. The place wasn’t very clean or well maintained for the price we were paying, but at least the food was good – my fish red Thai curry was possibly the best I’ve ever had!

The next morning, after another night of giant spider wrestling, saw us come face to face with more of Cambodia’s deadly inhabitants. While I was packing my bag in the bedroom, Joella frustratingly called out from the bathroom: “Oh great, now what’s this crabby insect thing”. Initially, thinking it was probably a beetle or similar, I calmly walked in to see what the fuss was about – oh a scorpion. Probably worth making a fuss over then! Fortunately it was stuck in the sink, making it easier for the manager / receptionist / waiter / cook guy to make the kill. (Apologies for the grainy photo bellow, I’m unable to upload and therefore crop full resolution pics to my iPad while on the road…)

Scorpion in Kratie Cambodia
With the latest danger averted, we could now head on our way to seek out rare Irrawaddy river dolphins. After another Mekong crossing, an hour’s worth of tuk tuking, and 30 minutes on a private river boat, we were closing in on where the dolphins were apparently hanging out. Neither Joella nor I were 100% confident that we’d get to see them given it was Monsoon season, so you can imagine our faces when we were greeted by a pod of 6 or more swimming within 10 metres of our boat! Although none attempted to perform any backflips (too much watching of Flipper me thinks), we throughly enjoyed the show, as well as the constant whooshing noises they made each time they surfaced for air.

Searching for Irawaddy dolphins on the Mekong
Irawaddy dolphins on the Mekong near Kratie Cambodia
On the way back our tuk tuk driver took us past his home to grab a quick bite to eat. Snails were on the menu, which he ate speedily with a toothpick while his children and mother in law (she looked about 120 odd) watched disapprovingly – apparently we weren’t the only ones who aren’t a fan of l’escargot!

On our final full day in Cambodia, we successfully circumnavigated Koh Trong island’s muddy paths (impressive given Joella’s choice to wear slippery flip flops). Given that it was Joella’s birthday, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner and cocktails at the fancy resort next door. Obviously pizza was on the menu, as well as some exceptionally tasty triple-fried, chunky chips. 

Joella on muddy footpaths on Koh Trong island Kratie Cambodia
Although Kratie’s tatty accommodation left a lot to be desired (apart from the food and entertaining local cats), we did truly appreciate the opportunity to see the dolphins, especially considering how endangered they are believed to be.

Koh Trong island cats
Cambodia, you’ve been good to us – next stop Laos! 

I wond’r how we’ll use the bathroom without dying? Acclimatising to rural life in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

After a 6 hour coach ride with spitting and spluttering locals (Cambodians young and old love spitting, in plastic carrier bags when the ground outside isn’t an option), we arrived in Kampong Cham – a large town situated a hundred miles or so North East of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. This part of our trip saw us depart the comforts of Cambodia’s main tourist hotspots (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), to instead venture out into lesser visited areas.

On arrival in Kampong Cham, we jumped on a tuk tuk with a Canadian lady (Celine) already onboard, who was also headed to the same rural bungalows in Chiro village that we were. Unfortunately this led to our first experience of being taken for a ride (in the metaphorical sense); the driver stopped half way to demand an extortionate fee of $18, double what was already agreed by Selene. His excuse was there were now three of us, but this simply doesn’t fly. In the end I got him down to $15, and we’d pay $6 only on arrival, otherwise he was threatening to leave us where we were. We later learnt the correct fee should have been just $4, RAGE!

Arriving in Chiro village – Dancing children (and giant eight legged freaks)

Thoughts of crooked tuk tuk drivers very quickly disappeared as we were immediately rushed through to a nearby riverside cafe by Marin, an enthusiastic French lady who was responsible for managing all the bungalows. We had arrived just in time to enjoy the local school children perform a number of traditional Cambodian songs and dances for a group of tourists visiting from a Mekong river cruise. Despite the limited narration, we were able to get the gist of the stories and thoroughly enjoyed the colourful and sometime hilarious entertainment we were lucky to have caught.

Dancing children in Kampong Cham Cambodia with fish baskets
Dancing children in Kampong Cham Cambodia with scary masks
Once the festivities had come to a close, we headed over to explore our awesome bungalow. It was of traditional construction, consisting mostly of bamboo with a thatched roof, atop of three metre high stilts. There were gaps everywhere and you could even see the ground below, but not to worry, a mosquito net ensured we weren’t completely eaten alive by mosquitos! After a walk along the Goliath sized Mekong river, to the sound track of a million crickets, frogs, cows and chickens, we were beginning to feel at home in our new rural surroundings.

Traditional Cambodian bungalow in OBT Chiro Kampong Cham
Mekong river banks Kampong Cham Cambodia
That evening we enjoyed an unexpected drinking session with the other bungalow guests and volunteers of the OBT project (Organisation for Basic Training), offering after school education, as well as other environmental and economic initiatives such as melting down recycled plastic to make roof tiles. Part way through our beers I reluctantly slipped away to find Joella, who had disappeared some time earlier to go to the toilet in our bungalow nearby. 

I was initially worried that she was feeling unwell and had gone to bed, but instead was greeted with a far more sinister scene… While standing in the doorway to the bathroom, shaking with fear, she stammered just one word: “Spiders”. At first I thought this was ridiculous – I was losing out on valuable drinking time, but when I shone my torch to where she was pointing, my heart stopped and the hairs literally stood up on the back of my neck. The two offending beasts (not an exaggeration) were massive, hairy things, that definitely looked poisonous, in my humble opinion. What were we going to do? There’s no way I was going near these.

Spider in Kampong Cham Cambodia
After speaking with the Brummie volunteer who’d been there for a while, we learnt that apparently big spiders aren’t usually that dangerous, and instead to watch out for the smaller ones. His final advice was to use the bum gun (a shower for your derrière) to usher them out of our bathroom, which I proceeded to do. This method was seemingly more successful than my earlier attempts to throw books at them.

Day 1 – Relaxing (and ATM sightseeing)

Following a restless nights sleep (bathroom visits involved both of us, one armed with the torch and the other with the bum gun) we treated ourselves to some delicious banana pancakes and sweet Cambodian coffees for brekky. After touring all of Kampong Cham’s ATMs (the first six we came to didn’t accept MasterCard) we spent the afternoon lounging around in hammocks, reading (The Quiet American – Thanks Greg, Ruth and Phoebe!), watching the local dogs play fight, while keeping dry from the heavy rain showers that passed by.

Joella kicking back in a hammock in Kampong Cham Cambodia

Day 2 – Trunddling around on two wheels (at a snails pace)

On our last day we were equally tired, this time not caused by eight legged freaks, but instead by never ending chanting beginning at 4 o’clock in the morning – yawn. It turned out that it’s local tradition to play a cassette through a loud speaker system, inviting people from the surrounding area (internationally judging by the volume) to come and pay their respects when someone dies.

Not letting a bad nights sleep slow us down, we decided to rent some bicycles to explore the surrounding countryside a little more. Inevitably this did prove a rather slow paced affair, not out of tiredness, but because Jonny’s bike was stuck in a low gear. Changing up wasn’t an option due to a bolt having been replaced with an oversized one, blocking the chain from moving. Although we didn’t see any spectacular sights, it was nice to have escaped the larger towns and to feel like minor celebrities; the local children waved enthusiastically at the site that greeted them: peculiarly slow white people trundling past on rickety old bicycles.

Jonny and Joella cycling in Kampong Cham Cambodia
Cambodian hut on stilts with corn in the cob

Despite three traumatic nights of spider herding, we really enjoyed our stay and wish we could have hung around longer to get involved with the really worthwhile efforts of OBT. Perhaps another time!?

Next stop – Kratie, where we hope to catch a glimpse of the incredibly rare Irrawaddy dolphins…

I wond’r if you can please turn it down? Exploring temples and upholding the peace in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Following a rather uneventful 6 hour bus journey, we arrived in the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap. As expected we were spoilt for choice when it came to our tuk tuk driver to take us to our hotel; in fact we had no choice at all, it simply came down to who was more desperate to take us! It’s nice to feel wanted.

Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast pool area
Joella’s hotel booking skills again proved their weight in gold – Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast was a lovely setup that felt more like a second home, than an 18 bed hotel. The kitchen and restaurant was open plan, with both seamlessly merging into the tranquil swimming pool area outside. All the staff were lovely, and took time to show us round our room and all the communal spaces. Even the owner took time to chat to us on multiple occasions, and being a patriotic Belgian, gave us an update on the Flemish initiative to gain UNESCO world heritage status for their fries.

Day 1 – The Large temple circuit (and Mr Pheach)

Jonny and Mr Pheach tuk tuk driver
The second we were introduced to our designated tuk tuk driver, we were immediately impressed: Mr Pheach was a keen, happy and thoughtful chap, who always went that extra mile. Despite only paying him to drive us round, he made sure to give us a brief introduction to each temple, and led us to a few bonus sights along the way too! He was so good in fact, we appointed him our driver for the all three days worth of templing.

Khmer temple entrance with headless guards
Following a scrumptious breakfast of pancakes then purchasing our tickets, we made our way around the large temple circuit (large in terms of distance). The first few we came to were amazing, and it was difficult to take in their sheer size, design complexity and carving intricacy. The magical atmosphere most likely helped too, as often we were entirely alone in the sometimes cavernous hallways and dense jungles that surrounded them – Indiana Jones eat your heart out! The latter temples began to feel a little similar and got busier as the day went on, but they were still well worth the visit.

Jonny and Joella sitting on Khmer temple ledge

Day 2 – The Small temple circuit (and Pub Street)

Entering Angkor Wat at dawn
I entirely blame FOMO (fear of missing out) on our decision to get up at 4am, in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. Despite suggestions from some people [cough, cough Rebecca McLellan] that “it’ll be quieter the earlier you go”, it was in fact tourist central despite being 5.15 in the morning. After arriving, we merged into the eager crowds of approximately 200 – 300 tourists made up from a hotchpotch of nationalities, who were gathering around the moat. Everyone waited patiently for around half an hour, but due to the cloud cover we didn’t actually see anything resembling a ‘sunrise’ – what an anti-climax…

Cambodian Khmer temple
Four hours of temple exploration later, and we were ready for some drinks – Pub Street here we come! I guess you could say Pub St is Siem Reap’s answer to Magaluf – one street dedicated to the act of eating and getting drunk. It was very easy to sink a few $2 cocktails and $0.50 Angkor beers in this melting pot of people, sounds and smells, while we soaked up the electric atmosphere and became masters of the art of people watching. We even managed to find a Scottish themed bar that stocked a variety of excellent single malts, although the place was dead and decor incredibly cheesy.

Siem Reap Pub Street lit up at night

Day 3 – Art galleries (and scorpion eating)

Joella learning about Siem Reap workshops
After two days of hardcore temple touring, we felt the need to take some time out from Cambodia’s past, to enjoy some of the fine craftsmanship happening today. It was really heartwarming and inspiring to discover that many of the craft shops and galleries are run by charities setup to support the children, disabled and land mine victims of Cambodia. Not only were we able to browse through their beautiful creations, but we could also tour some of the workshops and see their creativity in action. Although our backpacks were near bursting already, we couldn’t resist buying a beautiful painting of a temple done by an ex-pupil, turned art teacher.

Worker chiselling in Siem Reap workshop
We finished the day off by trying a few local delicacies, scorpions to be precise. The passionate Frenchman that runs the show was especially surprised by our daring choice, and equally impressed that we finished all four of the crispy critters served up with fried cashew nuts and vegetables. They were edible, but not exactly tasty – at least our jaw and teeth got a good work out from crunching and chewing the claws to pieces.

Jonny eating a scorpion in Siem Reap Cambodia

Day 4 – Banteay Srei (and policing the waterfall)

Not wanting to lose out on our third and last day’s worth of temple access left on our pass, we set off on a marathon tuk tuk ride to Banteay Srei – ‘The Women’s temple’. After an hour’s worth of tuk tuking, we arrived and were immediately uber disappointed by how touristy the place was, especially given that many people had told us it tends to be less busy than other temples given it’s distance from Siem Reap. Unlike the other temples, here there was a huge dedicated car park already full with dozens of coaches, and even a holding-pen at the entrance for when it got too busy. We quickly sped round and moved on to see the waterfalls and carvings atop of a nearby hill.

Khmer waterfall carvings

Joella walking up Elephant path
After climbing said hill, we reached the summit to find a small tranquil stream surrounded by an assortment of ancient Khmer carvings that then led to a waterfall below. Despite there being a handful of tourists about, it was relatively peaceful. Or at least it was, until a disinterested teenager started blaring some angry hip-hop from his phone, while a tour guide was talking to his group. At first I thought perhaps it was a mistake; his headphones had come out, or perhaps maybe it was his ringtone. But no, it continued, and with my blood boiling and no one else saying anything (not even the tour guide), I couldn’t hold back from shouting over at him. Following a few awkward glances from people at me, then at him, he proceeded to turn it down; and my risk of heart seizure evaporated with the noise. 

No matter who you are, Siem Reap and its surroundings definitely deserve their place in everyone’s bucket list. This is thanks to achieving a fine balance in offerings, an almost juxtaposition in fact; between the central party atmosphere downtown and breathtaking ancient temples surrounding it.