Friday, 10 January 2014

The Mighty Mekong

The journey from Kep to Kampong Cham was mostly very good, but as we passed Phnom Penh the road works began. For approximately 50 miles we laboured along a very wide and very dusty road. It was not exactly obvious where people should be driving, as various sections were randomly blocked on each side. The result was a chaotic mixture of lorries and scooters looming out of the dust clouds in an unpredictable manner. Shade was a limited commodity, and it made for a tiring journey.

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Very much in need of a break, we pulled over at a petrol station to buy a cold drink. Not seeing any recognisable cans, we took a chance on what promised to be sparkling pomegranate. The atmosphere on the forecourt was pretty weird, with a lot of vendors hanging around. They mainly seemed to be selling some sort of plant and peeled boiled eggs. Our polite 'no thank yous' were ignored, and we were getting a lot of stares. We decided to ride a little way down the road and have our drinks elsewhere. This may not have been the best strategy, as we rode for a considerable way without finding a scrap of shade. In the event, the drinks were a bit grim, but did the job of cooling us down.

After what seemed like an age, the road once again became sealed, and wound its narrow way through small towns and villages. As always in Cambodia, it was pretty hazardous. Dogs, children, chickens, cows, bicycles, murderous 4x4s and suicidal scooter drivers were a regular feature, but we made it to the outskirts of town without incident. We decided to stop for a short rest and some biscuits before trying to find a hotel, and realised that we were both absolutely covered with red dust. Not wanting to turn up to town looking utterly filthy, we had a token face wash with some of our drinking water, which did make us look a little more acceptable.

We ended up staying in the first hotel we asked at (The Mekong Hotel), as it was only $8 a night for an en-suite fan room with hot water. Cambodia is not actually that hot for us, and aircon drives the price of a room up considerably. We have proclaimed it a waste of money as a result, and have so far found a fan to be more than adequate. For $8 a night the hotel was pretty damn good, with the bonus of numerous cute geckos and no cockroaches. Possibly due to the geckos.

After a good night's rest, our first full day in Kampong Cham started well. We followed a big breakfast at the Mekong Crossing with a milkshake and a brownie next door at the Destiny cafe. This turned out to be quite an event for us, as many places in Asia have claimed to offer brownie, but it usually turns out to be a dry chocolate cake. This was the genuine article, and Oli was so excited that I let him eat the majority of it. Feeling full, we wandered towards the market. We were both very much in need of hats, as the sun can get fairly intense here. Added to this, our anti-malarial pills make us more sensitive to the sun, so it seemed like a necessary purchase.

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Armed with our new fetching baseball caps, we set out in the late afternoon for a walk. Our destination was the old French watchtower on the opposite bank of the Mekong. Once used for monitoring river traffic, it now stands derelict. It was an easy stroll to reach it, and the soft pink of the tower itself was set off beautifully by the golden afternoon light, green trees and a bright blue sky. We watched the world go by for a while, and then wandered back towards town.

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Back on the urban side of the river, the evening was starting to pick up as the sun sunk low in the sky. The riverfront was transformed from a quiet promenade to a popular hangout. A group of ladies did aerobics to the tune of a dance beat, and a small fairground was blasting out epic Asian ballads. We watched the sun set from the bridge, which provided an excellent viewing spot. Pretty hungry by this point, we decided to forgo the tourist restaurants and have a street food dinner instead. Street food in Cambodia can be difficult for veggies, but we spotted a nom kachay (a fried snack made from glutenous rice flour dough, chives and spinach) lady. The vendors seemed delighted and amused that we knew the name of this snack, and giggled profusely. Oli accompanied his with some meat on a stick, and we washed the lot down with a couple of cans of beer each. The total cost of this feast was under $3. We sat on a bench watching the flow of the dark river whilst chatting about all sorts. It had truly been one of those evenings where travelling feels amazing.

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We had a typically slow start the next day, which was okay as we had decided to let the midday heat pass before attempting our excursion. Our vague aim was to get to Wat Maha Leap, apparently the only remaining wooden pagoda in Cambodia. It was in the middle of nowhere, so we figured that even if we didn't find it, we would have a nice rural ride and see a different side of the area.

In the end, we didn't make it to the wat, but our rural wanderings were well worth the effort. We rode through tiny villages and along dirt roads. In places the road was barely the width of a footpath, definitely more for motorbikes than cars. The villagers were unbelievably friendly, with kids running out to yell hello and wave at us. We shouted and waved back enthusiastically, feeling almost like undeserving celebrities from all the attention. We continued on our way and slowly pootled along the river, through forest and over tiny rattling bridges. After spending most of our time in small towns, it felt great to be getting well and truly off the beaten track.

A short while after a photo stop, we realised we had dropped the lens hood from the camera. I volunteered to stay put whilst Oli rode back to find it alone, which earned us a few strange looks from people working the adjoining field. He reappeared after about five minutes, careering over the hill in an impressive cloud of dust, before pulling over and telling me how much fun he had without me on the back. Nice to know I was missed!

We rode a little further down the track, then pulled over on the river bank to take in the scene. The low sun was bright and glittering on the water, giving the surroundings that late afternoon glow that Oli and I have fallen in love with. A few people were fishing with nets in the shallows, and every now and then a scooter or bicycle would pass on the track behind us, usually giving us a huge smile and a cheery wave. They must have thought we were pretty odd, sat there gawping at the scenery with what is a ridiculously oversized bike for this part of the world.

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As the light was starting to disappear, it was time to get on our way. We rode the final few miles through more small villages, the dirt road widening to a standard size. Eventually we rejoined the asphalt, and zoomed back to town. Before disappearing back to our hotel, we decided on a quick diversion to the bamboo bridge. This is an interesting structure, as it is washed away every wet season, and rebuilt each year. It may look flimsy at first glance, but it is more than capable of supporting a hefty 4x4, and apparently can even cope with trucks. I stayed on the bank admiring the sunset whilst Oli drove over and back. This caused confusion with the lady collecting the small toll fee, and she seemed to think he was a little odd for crossing the bridge with no purpose.

The sunset that evening was insanely beautiful. There really is a reason why people rave about Mekong sunsets. The sky was a mixture of vivid hues and soft pastels, all reflected on the glassy surface of the lazy river. Small boats chug-chugged their way across, and a local man had even brought his horse down for an evening swim. It all made for a stunning tableau, and we stayed until it was very nearly dark. It was a fitting and grand finale to our time in Kampong Cham. We had become enamoured with this small town, enjoying the laid back atmosphere, romantically decayed French architecture and riverside charm. The only thing to detract from it was the odd group of local kids sniffing glue... nowhere is perfect I suppose.

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Aside from having to contend with the usual gang of spatially challenged 4x4 drivers and random potholes, the drive to Kratie was surprisingly easy. As with much of the world, people with large cars seem to drive like big, ignorant bullies, whilst everyone else is expected to scramble out of the way. It was not at all unusual to find a huge pick-up truck bearing down on us in our lane, flashing its lights and beeping the horn. After a good few months on the road, we try to see this as amusing rather than annoying.

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Having arrived safely into Kratie (pronounced Kra-chey), we settled into a cheap hotel and had a much needed wash before heading out for a spot of food. We had a good wander around the town and the riverfront, slightly surprised to find a business proudly advertising 'Special Dog Meat'. We gave that a miss, and instead sat on some steps leading down to the river to watch the sun go down. The sun set was awe inspiring, but as is sadly so common in many countries the amount of litter was overwhelming. 

Whilst Oli went down to the water's edge, I was quickly joined by two young children. The little girl sat herself down beside me grinning, whilst her brother was a little more shy. I pointed to the toy she was holding (a long string of elastic), and she handed me one end, giving her brother the other and instructing us as to which height to hold it. She then proceeded to jump backwards and forwards over it, having a great time. Oli came back up the steps at this point. I told him to join in, but he didn't feel like playing, so we waved goodbye to our little friends and continued on our way.

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We were only staying one full day in Kratie, so thought it would be a shame to miss a chance to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. These animals are critically endangered, with only around eighty surviving in the Mekong region. The part of the river we were going to try and spot some is known to be home to a pod of 15 – 20 individuals, so we were hoping we would be lucky. The boats leave from the nearby village of Kampi, and for $9 each we had a boat to ourselves. It was not long at all until we saw a dolphin surface, and over the course of an hour we were fortunate enough to see several of the creatures. Naturally shy, they did not stay above the surface for long and kept their distance from the boats. This just made them all the more interesting to us, and made those short sightings all the more rewarding.

As the sun was going down, we remained on the bank for a while following our boat ride. Close to the shore, several dolphins were swimming, occasionally emerging from the glittering water. We could easily have stayed until darkness fell, but driving on Cambodian roads at night is an experience we are keen to never repeat. Reluctantly, we left the beautiful river scene behind and headed back to town.

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We rose today to leave for Stung Treng, the closest town to the Laos border. Whilst it would have been possible to make it to the border and beyond in one day, knowing how unexpectedly long these things can take, we thought it best to split it into two. The road between Kratie and Stung Treng was horrendous, small stretches of asphalt interspersed with bad gravel roads. The unpredictable road surface made for an exciting ride, but we made it to here with no real problems.

We are having an interesting Stung Treng experience. At first glance it appears to be just a run down riverside town with a lot of rubbish, but it does have its plus points, such as nice views of the Sekong river. The restaurant where we had dinner served decent food, but for some random reason the table was printed with a large photograph of Westlife. We appreciated the strangeness of this. On another note, the hotel we are staying in is playing host to a wedding tonight, and with the volume of the music we are not sure how much sleep we will be getting. We were well aware of this when we decided to take the room, but for $7 a lot can be forgiven!

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We are going to miss Cambodia, which has been an unexpected highlight of our travels. Originally we thought we would only spend around ten days here, but we now find ourselves almost at the end of our thirty day visas. Friendly people, interesting sites and charming towns have made it all too easy to lose ourselves here. Hopefully Laos will prove to be just as captivating.

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