Some day last week, as we have completely lost track of dates, days of the week, and time of day, we went slightly off the well trodden path of most travels in Cambodia and ventured to the wild east to a town called Sen Monorom. Our adventure started, as most do with an early bus ride. Actually, this particular bus ride didn't start that early and we were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and coffee. We arrived at the bus station slightly early and the bus was predictably late so we used our time wisely and wrote in our journals. This aroused curiosity amongst others waiting and they watched over our shoulders. There was some confusion about which bus was ours as we were constantly told "next bus." A lovely overseas Cambodian couple helped us and when the correct bus arrived we claimed our seats and prepared for the journey.
The first two hours were along the new paved road and the bus driver was in no hurry to get to our destination. We stopped for a rest in Snoul and waved goodbye to the paved road, which quickly turned into red dirt but was fairly smooth. That too, quickly faded. The next 6 hours were a rollercoaster ride as the driver tried to avoid the giant holes in the road. There was maniacal laughter from those sitting in the front, the kind evoked only by deathly fear. One tall passenger in the back seat hit his head on the ceiling a few times and the laughing girls in front caught a lot of air when we pounded through the giant holes. There were only two breakdowns. The first was due to a broken tire rim from misjudging a giant hole and taking it at high speed. That was fixed in 25 minutes flat. The second was due to a clogged air filter also fixed in no time. The last part of the bus ride was exceptionally scary as daylight was fading and the driver was late for an important date. We arrived in Sen Monorom well after dark but happily in one piece. Our bag, which was under the bus, was covered with fine red dirt, a souvenir forever.
The next day, we rented a motorbike and went to see the smaller Morom Falls and the double drop Bou Sraa falls. Both waterfalls had not been reduced to the trickle they are in the dry season. The road out to Bou Sraa falls was 37 km. There was a toll booth at kilometer 14 because the next part of the road was new and in good condition. Perhaps it was new 5 years ago but I much prefered the red dirt roads to the pavement reduced to large chunks of gravel and pot holes. The waterfall was well worth the white knuckle experience and Frits did a wonderful job of navigating the treacherous roads yet again. After we returned from the waterfalls it was close to dusk. We looked at the abandoned airstrip and helipad and were finished for the day.
The next day, possibly Thursday but probably Monday, we went on an an elephant trek through the jungle. Well the jungle turned out to be forest but it was still an elephant trek to a small waterfall. To get to the waterfall there was a lot of downhill trekking for the elephant and a lot of vertical sitting for us. It felt like we were going to fall out of our little basket. The way back from the waterfall was via a different route which involved a couple of river crossings and a lot of up hill for the poor elephant. It stopped for many bamboo snacks along the way and we were very ready to arrive at our destination, a small village and a long wait for our ride back to town. That evening we nursed our bruised bottoms and backs and booked our tickets for the treacherous journey back to the beaten and paved path.
Back in Kampong Cham we decided to go straight to Siem Reap instead of stopping mid way to see some very old temples. The bus to Siem Reap was 6 hours instead of 4 but we were well prepared, as always, with snacks and drinks. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and our pick up was not there. We took a tuk tuk into town and were surprised at how touristy everything was. We took time to explore the town and visit the markets, artisan centres, and a rehab shop. We also found a driver to take us to the temples the following day.
We woke up early and our driver was waiting for us at 5:30. We got to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise already in full swing. Hoards of people were on the grounds vying for that good picture of the sunrise. When the sun was sufficiently in the sky, the restauranteurs came out soliciting customers and asking for promises to remember them and visit their shop. The prices were ridiculously inflated but there were deals to be made. After breakfast, we started our visit to the outer temples of the Angkor complex. This journey took all day and we didn't even make it all the way around before the requisite sunset at Angkor Wat. No matter we had a three day pass and no stone would be left unlooked at.
Our second day started much as the first: 5:30 pick up, arrival with sunrise in full swing, and breakfast. We needed to formulate a plan for crowd avoidance as this was the day for Angkor Wat. After a very long breakfast break, we saw the tour bus parking lot was almost empty and figured it was a good sign. We went in and after hours of making our way to the top level, we were disappointed to find the middle tower closed for restoration. We got lost in the maze of corridors on our way down but managed to find the way out. Our plan for crowd avoidance worked and we only ran into a couple of tour groups. We continued on to the rest of the small temples and returned to Siem Reap at sunset.
We saved the best for last, which was Angkor Thom. Within Angkor Thom is the Bayon where stone faces gaze in all directions. We finished our day early with a visit to a pottery workshop where they were reviving an old method of firing pots in a tiered cob kiln. The kiln wasn't being fired at the time so we were able to look inside. There was some beautiful pottery unfortunately too heavy and fragile to carry in our packs.
The following day we left Siem Reap. We booked boat tickets to Battambang, the second largest city, and were told the shuttle to the pier would pick us up at 5:45 am. Another early morning. The shuttle that arrived was a pick up truck with seats in the back. The luggage was loaded between us and somehow they managed to squeeze 13 people onto the truck. There were supposed to be 14 people but there was no room. We should have guessed that this was not going to be a luxury cruise. We arrived at the "pier" more like sandy lake shore a little late but we were not the last to arrive. The boat was much like the truck and had benches on either side and space for packs and legs in the middle. With about 20 people on board, the boat left slightly behind schedule. One of the workers said the boat ride was 6 hours; at the hotel we were told 4 hours. Good thing we were prepared with gourmet breakfast, snacks, and drinks for the journey. The first part of the trip through trees growing in water (possibly mangroves) was interesting and uneventful. It was when we reached the open waters of Tonle Sap lake, the largest in Cambodia, that things got exciting. The boat was bounced around by the waves and was very close to capsizing a few times. There were more people on one side which also didn't help matters. The lake crossing took almost an hour and we were back in the relative safety of the tributary overgrown with trees. No matter, the boat barreled through the trees and they popped up in its wake. Several people got hit with branches while we were invading the tree territory. Along the way, we passed floating villages. Our boat doubled as a floating bus and we picked up extra passengers. Six and a half hours later, we arrived in Battambang.
Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia and is much more relaxed than Siem Reap. Our second day here, we took a cooking class in Khmer cooking. The class started with a trip to the market. We returned to the cooking school and learned to make our own curry paste from fresh ingredients and coconut milk from freshly shredded fruit to go into the Amok (traditional coconut curry). We also got a cookbook with many Khmer and Thai recipes and can't wait to try them.
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