So I spent the day today visiting the freshwater dolphins of Kratie. It was pretty cool. I rented a motorcycle with an English guy and a Swiss girl and we headed towards the place where the dolphins were. Once we got there, we negotiated for a boat and then went out on the water for an hour and a half. Our driver motored out to the dolphins and then we just watched as they came up for air. It was really cool. Even more cool was watching all the people farming and selling stuff and the little kids playing on the side of the dirt road. The dolphin area was outside of the town and everyone just lives on the side of the road. When you drive by, all the little kids look up, smile and wave while yelling “HELLO!” over and over. It’s hard not to have a huge smile on your face the whole time. The area here is pretty tropical. There are palms and banana trees everywhere and the houses are like something out of a movie (sticks and straw). The little kids ride around on bikes about 2 times their own size (they can’t sit on the seat, just the support bar below) and old men drive by on horse drawn buggies. You really have to see it to believe it. The differences between here and Vietnam are big. Cambodian tourism isn’t nearly as developed and there are just pocketed tourist areas in any given town. People generally don’t overcharge you and everyone smiles and waves as you go by. Buddhist monks are everywhere, most visible by their fluorescent orange robes and there aren’t nearly as many kids begging in the streets. As I mentioned, the architecture is incredible and although you can see the French influence, it is something all in its own. The writing is not western at all and it all looks like a bunch of squiggles. One interesting thing here is that Cambodia has quite a bit more Indian influence than do most other countries. It was historically the country that everyone had to go through for trade (overland) from India and that is why they are predominantly Buddhist. I imagine the writing and architecture was influenced as well. On all menus, you will usually find a few curry dishes also. Many old people still speak French here, but that is something of the past. A surprising number of people can speak English (less than in Vietnam though) for it being such a poor country. But it is indeed a poor country and will probably remain so. I imagine that in a few years, many of the places I have visited here will be just like in Vietnam – with tons of people and very aggressive locals vying for your money. Oh well, that’s how it goes…
So I leave for Laos tomorrow. I will take a boat up the Mekong River and then transfer to another boat to the border and then try to figure something out from there. It’s not entirely certain that I’ll be able to cross at this certain border crossing due to the fact that it’s not on the main tourist route, so I hope I am able to.
Man, have I been busy.
So I crossed over into Cambodia, spent a few days exploring around Phnom Penh, and then hopped on a bus to Siem Reap, home of the infamous Angkor Wat temples (where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed). The bus ride was long and I thought I would be clever and get the front seat of the double decker bus so as to get a good view, but it ended up being the seat with the smallest leg room and I spent the whole 6 hours next to a stinky old man who insisted on putting his hands behind his head during the whole trip, thereby nearly causing me to pass out from the smell. It was rough. The bus also stopped every hour and everyone got out and sat around for about 30 minutes. I got offered a plate of deep friend spiders about the size of tarantulas. I passed.
So when I got to Siem Reap, I hopped on a motorbike and found a hotel. It’s always funny when you get off the bus here because you get mobbed by motorbike guys trying to take you to the hotel they get the most commission from. So I made it to the hotel and arranged for my driver to come back at 5:30 to take me to see the sunset over the Angkor Wat temples. After the sunset, we arranged a price for the three days ($38 to haul my ass around nearly 60 kilometers a day for three days from 5:30AM to about 7:00PM each day and I got some rest for the next morning (sunrise over the temples). I slept well in my $3 a night private hotel room with mosquito net and all (but no hot water) and woke up early the next morning for the sunrise. It was absolutely incredible (see the photos if you don’t believe me). I spent the whole day wandering through the temples and they blew me away. Most of them date back to the 11th century and the detail and carvings in the sandstone are mind boggling. Buddist monks wander through the corridors and you spend your time marveling at the incredible “Bass Reliefs” all throughout. Most of the temples have been thoroughly restored and you see them almost exactly how they were in their prime. Many, however, just barely have the jungle scraped away and over half lie in ruins. You spend your day wandering through the hallways and passageways, stumbling across hidden rooms and secret spots your entire day. Once you get off of the main tourist trail, you can actually spend 20 minutes at a time without even seeing another tourist. Trees have spent the past thousand years swallowing the temples and you see some pretty incredible growths by the vegetation over the entry ways and guard walls. I was absolutely floored by the series of temples I saw and I spent the next day on the back of a motorbike visiting the temple Beng Mealea. It lies about 70 kilometers away on a dirt road in pretty rough condition smack dab in the middle of the jungle. You have to cross through the true Cambodian country side to get to it and when you arrive, you are presented with a massive temple that has had absolutely no restoration work done to it apart from putting a little wooden boardwalk through a small section of it. The cool part about the ride over there is that you get to see life just how it is for the majority of the people. The houses are always elevated off the ground on stilts (for the wet season) and people sit around doing all sorts of stuff. They have no running water or electricity and it’s pretty hard to imagine what their lives must be like. Children are at play nearly everywhere and when they see you ride by, they give a huge grin and wave.
So I arrived at the temple and was set loose. There was a tour group of about 4 Australians ahead of me (the only other non-natives there) and I ditched the trail and dove into the ruins. In most developing countries, they have no such thing as a lawsuit, and as such don’t feel compelled to rope off unsafe sections or put up warning signs. Actually, I take that back. They do have them at the other temples, but this one was free game. The jungle was swallowing the temple alive and over half of it was collapsed, but I spent the day walking on roofs and stone house skeletons, diving through open windows into secret passageways and rooms within, clambering over piles of rocks into deserted coves within the depths of the temple, wandering around the desolated temple walls (it’s nearly 1.4 kilometers around) and following paths into the jungle, being careful not to step on any undetonated landmines. After two hours of wandering, I was ready for the next temple, which was a bit closer to town. We went down another dirt road (by this time I was caked in dirt) and made it to the other temple with just enough gas. Then it was off to the landmine museum, then back to the hotel. This morning I woke up early again to see the sunrise and headed straight to the bus station for a 6 hour ride to Skuon (where they eat all the spiders). From there, I negotiated my way onto a local mini bus to Kompong Cham, then smashed into a 1989 Honda Accord “taxi”with 6 other grown men and a pregnant woman for $5 bucks to my final destination, “Kratie”: the home of some of the world’s only fresh water dolphins. So anyway, the AC broke and we spent the next 3 hours in this horribly crammed Honda on one of the worst dirt roads I have ever seen, absolutely caked in dirt and dust. My hair was brown, it was that bad. But we eventually made it and here I am – safe and sound. My hotel room is $5 a night and I have cable and powerful shower (although it is cold) and I am ready to go see the dolphins tomorrow. It should be pretty cool. In a few days, I’ll head up the Mekong River to Laos and spend a few weeks exploring the south.
I’ll keep you posted!