Well, it's my last night in Cambodia. What can I say? Well, plenty, apparently, as here's a full entry about the last couple days. And hey, ain't it kinda nifty that this only came out a few days after the last one? Maybe i should try that more often. *Cough* Anyway, it's been a wild swing of highs and lows these last couple days for Mother and Son Schnorr. So let's not waste any time in the preamble. I'll give you a spoiler though: there's going to be a lot of cycling mentioned. Shhh....
So, I am going to start with a couple of more general comments and observations and tidbits about Cambodia that I may have skimmed/skipped over in my last entry (or I may not have; I'm too lazy to go through and see). In no particular order...
-Money: The money situation here is really interesting. I don't think I've seen a country with as distinct of a dual-currency system as Cambodia has. While plenty of places will accept US Dollars as a backup currency, just due to its status as a universally recognized and solvent currency, Cambodia is the first I've seen where pretty much all publicly displayed prices are in USD, and it is as official as their official currency. I think the fact that their ATM's dispense USD is the biggest shock. What it makes me wonder, though, is if they are planning to abandon their local currency - the Riel - for the dollar sometime in the future. It would make sense to me; the riel is quite weak, being 4,000 to the dollar. At the moment, its greatest use is as change for a dollar, as they don't use American coinage. In fact, they don't use any coinage, with bills being standard for all denominations. At this point, I've spent the majority of my riel, and all I have remaining (which I'll probably just give to my nephews) is the equivalent of $0.32. It's five bills. Similarly, their largest denomination (that I've personally seen) is a 20,000 riel bill. That's $5. Imagine making a down payment on a new scooter with that. So, using the USD as a base is probably a good was to prevent hyperinflation like Zimbabwe's.
-Weather: I think I noted it several times in the last entry, but the weather here is hot and humid. We're just getting out of the rainy season, but I can tell you it's still quite moist everywhere. I honestly feel like I'm more sweat than man. The combination of sweat, dirt, and sunscreen on my face has given me the most blemishes I've had since I've reached my twenties. And when we're riding and/or walking through the jungle environment, you get a real appreciation for what it must have been like in the Vietnam War. I actually have relatives who were in the front lines, and I can really respect (though not begin to truly understand) what he went through - except when he was in the situation, he was wearing many pounds of gear, didn't spend the night in a hotel, and was constantly on alert to keep from being shot or blown up. As I'm writing this, Veteran's Day just passed, and it helps hammer the idea home.
-Food: This is pretty basic - Cambodian food is a lot like Thai food. There are some differences, but if you put a plate of unidentified Khmer food in front of somebody, dollars to donuts they'd tell you it was Thai (or Chinese, if they were particularly ignorant). There is a particular emphasis on seafood, be it from the actual sea or from one of the many rivers in the area. So if you like seafood, rejoice! It's widely available and often more affordable than land-dwelling animals. That said, I'm not a big seafood guy. I don't hate it, I just think it's a bit overrated, and will almost always prefer chicken in any instance. So Khmer food has not dethroned Thai as my favorite Asian sub-genre of food. (And of course, Mexican is still El Rey.)
-Sokha: I don't know if this is the name of the guy or just his hotel chain, but there is one man - a Vietnamese man - who owns more of Cambodia than probably anybody, and is most likely the richest man in the country (and could probably buy all the king's golden statues). It seems like no matter where we go, he has a piece of the pie. Hotels, casinos...he even owns Angkor Wat, or at least is in charge of (and thus gets the revenue from) selling the tourist tickets to the Angkor region. I don't really have much else to say about him, but I'm curious how he deals with the pretty suspect Cambodian National Party, who's been running the government for some time. Maybe look him up if you have a chance.
-Solicitors: This also includes beggars. The style here is definitely targeting pitiers, because everyone has this whine in their voice (and it's not just because it's a tonal language). Even the kids, selling their bracelets and whatnot, approach you with "You buy ooonnnee?" When you say no, they reply with "Maybe lateeeerrrr?" and if you say no again, they begin with a routine of "You don't like me..." I find it hilarious the difference in my mom's approach and my own. She'll often try to soften the blow and get out while keeping a smile on her face, whereas I take the jackass approach and say "Yep, you got it." Though this actually rarely happens to me, because my approach of silently and stoically shaking my head gets my point across more clearly than saying "Te" ("No"). But my mom said that the whole "poor me" approach, despite most likely being deserved by virtue of the absolute terrible situations the country has gone through in the past half-century (in which the Khmer Rouge effectively crippled the country for a generation, and the current Cambodian's People's Party are giving them crutches made of balsa wood), is actually a deterrent to business they probably would have gotten from her had they just shown her their wares.
-Roads: First of all, every single highway here is two lanes, which makes passing a potential hazard at even the best of times. Second there are two good roads in this country, it seems. The rest, as it was described to me, are made with inferior materials. "The government," Pheap says, "sends photos of bad roads to other countries, asking for money. The people building the roads then buy poor road materials that don't last, and pocket the rest." The first of these two good roads was actually built by the United States. I don't know to what extent this was, but I have to imagine that at least the manager and engineers were American, because the roads have a distinctly American feel (one thing my mom noted is that the road was slightly raised so that rain water would flow off of it, just like on The 5), and the tarmac is definitely of a higher quality. Apparently, and perhaps apocryphally they wanted to make it a four-lane highway, but the king of Cambodia refused, as he believed they would use it to land planes on. The other good road? Built by Sokha, to lead up to his casino.
-Typhoon Haiyan: I'll keep this brief. Aside from some additional rain that might be attributed to it, we are largely unaffected by Super Typhoon Haiyan. I checked the storm's path, especially as it entered into Vietnam, and saw that it was far, far north of Ho Chi Minh City, or anywhere else we would be. So no issues there. Which was good, both for our own sake, and so we could focus our thoughts and prayers on the people who are affected by it.
-Bugs: So, there are two types of bugs that are potentially bothersome. The first are red ants. These suckers - at least a centimeter long - are the kind that you read about in all those racist "white-guy-conquers-a-jungle-land" stories. While perhaps not as openly aggressive, they have serious mandibles, and they like biting. On our boat ride early on, one bit my mom on the back of her wrist, and she legit started bleeding. And I'll get to the other anecdotes shortly. Needless to say, you don't want them on your person. The second, to the surprise of none, are mosquitos. I'm still taking Larium (mefloquine), even though they say the malaria strains here are resistant to it. Whatever, it's not like I can ever give blood again anyway. But still, the bites are...they're exclusive to me. My mom says she's been only bitten a handful of times on this trip, whereas I'll get three bites in the course of a single meal. I'll have to look into why they're attracted to me, and it bodes well or ill. But while my blow-drier technique works well (when such technology is available), it doesn't seem to help the fact that I have apparently become somewhat allergic to mosquito bites? I don't know, it's never happened to me before, even on this trip, until Nepal, where I got one bite that swelled to the size and hardness of a golf ball. And here I've gotten some bites, mostly on my hands, which have made my fingers both puffy and itchy. Nothing debilitating, just annoying, and it's only a small fraction of the total number of bites I've gotten. I wonder if it's only from a certain type of mosquito, which in turn is only present in Asian countries. Definitely worth researching.
Okay, let's take a look at some of the specific haps. I'll stick with the process I had before of pasting the day's description from the itinerary, despite the fact that we seem to be diverging more and more from it.
Day 13: Sihanouk Ville – Ream National Park (50km)
Breakfast at the hotel and early morning enjoy swimming at the beach. Then cycle 25km through 3 hills to take the boat trip at Ream National Park to visit the mangrove forest. Relax at the quiet beach before hiking 45 minutes to 1 hour through the jungle to the village where lunch is prepared with local family. Relax on the boat and observe patiently to see the dolphin. Afternoon, return back to Sihanouk Ville for relaxing at the beach.
So, we were told the day before that the plan was just to cycle along the beach after having a late meeting time of 9am. After a pretty decent breakfast (featuring the first French toast that actually tasted like French toast [with a lack of maple syrup being the only thing to dampen the mood]), we met up, I slipped on my cycling gloves and...wait, we were getting in the van. Yep, despite the beach being two blocks down, we were driving first. So, we get in, and drive, in a direction that was quite clearly not towards the beach. In fact, it was away from it. We kept riding until we got to some random shack-looking place by a river. Pheap told us to get out quickly; the boat was going to be leaving soon. Boat? What boat? I pretty much gave up trying to figure out what was going on, so I just went with it. We passed by jerk monkey on a chain (I was going to take an excellent picture of it sucking on its own foot, but the flash bulb popped up, and I figured I should turn off the flash so as not to startle it. By the time I did so, the moment was gone, and I didn't even get a shot of it facing me - lesson: if time is of the essence, don't sweat the details, just take the shot), and found a whole bunch of white people standing on a dock. As it turns out, we were the first ones to get onto the boat, so if it was going to be late, it wouldn't be our problem. It ended up being quite full, so we had to sit in the back (which had no roof to block the sun and was right next to the engine). And we took off.
We, maybe, spent about an hour or so on the river (I don't remember the name of the river, but it translate to "Tidewater Stream", which belies the size of the thing). It's apparently protected, so that nobody can fish on it, save for a select group of locals who were fishing their way back in the day. It wasn't the most exciting or new of experiences - we passed by some mangrove trees and people in boats - but it was fairly relaxing, even with the constant roar of the engine behind my shoulder. We did see a number of fish eagles, which was pretty nifty. Finally, the boat stopped at a dock, but it turned out that only my mom, Pheap, and myself were getting off, with the rest of the people (who all seemed to be French and German) going to some further destination. The place we stopped at appeared to be a tiny fishing village, if indeed "village" doesn't oversell it. On one side of the dock were a giant rock and palm trees and a beach and a lot of stuff that just screamed "use me in a postcard!" On the other, locals were gathering nets filled with crabs and seas snails. We walked through the village - not without feeling somewhat intrusive, I must admit - and began walking along a path. Some of the dogs in the area seemed to score high on the watchdog meter, as we got a few more barks than normal. One dog in particular started verbally assaulting Pheap after he tried coaxing her puppy towards him. After some time, we got to the edge of a forest...no, "jungle" is the more accurate term. While it was still hot and muggy in there, at least the trees provided some shade from the oppressive sun. We continued through this for some time. At one point, when he heard the sound of the ocean, Pheap tried to take us through completely un-blazed trails. After tripping on wire-like roots and getting cut up by palm thorns, Pheap realized he had no idea where he was going, and so we turned around and went back onto the actual path, which brought us to our destination with little issue.
And that destination was a white-sand beach, complete with an old fisherman's boat in the middle distance. Straight out of a National Geographic calendar, it was. I suppose this was the beach that Pheap was talking about the whole time. The water looked beautiful; unfortunately, neither my mom nor I had our swimming clothes, and so we couldn't go swimming, at least not without getting our riding gear soaked. Not that it mattered though, because after some thoughtful consideration, it was decided that we weren't going to cycle. The temperature was well in the mid-90's, the sun was out in full force, and my mom's legs were spent after all the trekking (whereas the opposite seems to happen for me). So, we just decided to go. Pheap and Mr. Tree then began packing stuff up, and told us to rest a couple minutes. We tried to do just that in a small hut, but I quickly discovered a number of red ants crawling on me. Then biting. I brushed them off, paying particular attention to one that had gotten onto my shirt, and was biting incessantly at the fabric. I could just imagine that being my skin, and brushed him away.
We got in the van and drove to a small restaurant on a different beach, some distance away. Just off the deck of the restaurant, there was a boat floating on the water, with a group of kids splashing nearby. Even closer than that were a number of crabs running to - and then away from - the waves. We had a passable - if unsurprising - lunch there, which may have been the slowest service I've received anywhere on this trip. Not bad service, just slow. We then drove back to the hotel, where I took off my shoes and socks to find a red ant on one of my socks, at the ankle. He was dead - probably crushed between my shoes and tendon - but his mandibles were still holding firm onto my sock. I had to pull with some effort in order to get him off, and even doing that pulled a loop of fabric out of my sock. Those things are tough! Anyway, I took a shower, and then relaxed for a spell.
We eventually met up with Pheap to go to dinner at one of his favorite spots, an outdoor restaurant on the beach. They even had tables and lounge chairs on the sand, which we decided to sit in. It was a first-quarter moon, the ocean breeze was blowing in with a cool satisfaction, the smooth sounds of Jason Mraz and similar artists could be heard in the background, couples could be seen sharing lounge chairs and whispering sweet nothings to each other, and at the water's edge, people were shooting small fireworks from long "magic wands". In short, it was a really nice ambiance. We had our dinner in mutual satisfaction, essentially agreeing to return here without even saying a word. We then went back to the hotel. As we had a free day the next day, I was hoping to stay up late, just like I would do at home. But for some reason, despite having done no cycling whatsoever, I found myself struggling to keep my eyes open. By 10:30, I went to sleep despite myself.
Day 14: Sihanouk Ville – Free Day
Breakfast at the hotel. Free day to relax at the beach and explore the town on your own.
Well, I guess this one is pretty accurate, as it was, in fact, a free day and we did relax at the beach (if you extend that to mean "beach town") and explore the town on our own. Unfortunately, and probably because I went to bed so early, I didn't wake up much later than I have been otherwise, maybe getting an extra half-hour of sleep. What the no-meeting-up aspect of the day meant, though, was that breakfast could be a long, leisurely affair. And it was...for my mom. It doesn't matter how much time I have to eat breakfast, I still see it as a relatively fast meal. I finished my food and went back to the room, where I began what I'd be doing for most of the day - doing research on the South American leg of my trip. I'm not going to go into the nitty-gritty details, but here are some of the things I was researching for said leg:
-Amount of Time to Spend in Each Place
-Costs of Flights Between Cities
-Costs of a "South America" Pass vs. Booking Myself (though apparently, in order to be eligible to use the pass, I need to have an international flight from one of a select group of airlines, and then fly back to the point of origin, which wouldn't work)
-Costs of Booking a "Multi-City" flight vs. Booking a bunch of One-Way Flights
-Costs and Timings of Buses Going from Some Places to Others
-How to Pay Argentinian Resident's Costs for Flights (An endeavor I may just give up on)
-Different Inca Trail Providers
-Checking if I Can Get My Flight Home for Free (I can through my credit card rewards, which would be a nice bookend, since my first flight out of the US was free)
-Seeing What Hotels are In the Place I Was Planning to Be My Final City, Quito
-Reading That Quito is a Super-Dangerous City Where You Almost Assuredly Will be Mugged/Robbed
-Switching My Last City from Quito to Guayaquil
-Seeing What Hotels are In the Place I Was Planning to Be My Final City, Guayaquil
-Making Some Emails to People With Contacts in the Places I'd Be Going
-Making Timetable/Price Comparison Spreadsheets
In short, a lot of stuff. The irony of the whole day was that I didn't actually finalize anything; no bookings were made for anything. It was a pure research day which, while not nearly as satisfying, is definitely important in its own right to make sure I'm going about it the smartest way possible. (By the way, one of the other cyclists we met on this trip, Tate, noted that he saw a shirt in one of the markets he liked, which said "Losers Plan It" [a play on Lonely Planet]. I find it remarkable how simultaneously piss-poor and wrong an attitude that is in multiple senses.) So, even though I didn't have any chances to write, or filter through photos, or post photos, or any of that, I suppose it was a day well spent?
I also did other stuff that day, too!
First of all, I decided to get a haircut. I think the last time I got one was when I gave one to myself at Askari, back on, like, August 19 or so, meaning it's been two and a half months. My hair wasn't getting unmanageable, per-se, but I still believe that any management is too much. So, I decided to take advantage of the fact that the hotel had a hair salon. I went down, saw that the cost was $8, and asked for a haircut. When I needed to spend a full minute and pantomime cutting my own hair before the lady at the desk even began to understand my request, I became a tad vexed. Another lady came out, motioned to a chair, and began cutting without me even saying what I wanted. Meanwhile, she and the receptionist talked nonstop in Khmer. The only time she'd say anything to me was after some time of cutting, she'd ask, "Okay?" to which I responded (and this happened three times) "Shorter, please, I want it to be this short." (Imagine my fingers a small distance apart.) Eventually, once it was close enough, I said it was fine. I had earlier considered the possibility of asking for a trim to my goatee (which definitely could use it), but especially with the language barrier in place, I was definitely uncomfortable putting it anyone's hands but my own. So, I kept silent, especially when she took out a straight razor to define edges. I then got a shampoo job (complete with a free face massage, which seemed fine until the face-pounding began) and some pomade. When all was said and done, it ended up looking fine, and it should give me another month or two, so I'm happy enough.
We then decided to go out for lunch, so we walked down to the beach to see what was available. There were several options available, but if you squinted, you'd be hard pressed to really tell them apart. Save for a single Italian joint (and we didn't want Italian), all of the offered fare was pretty similar, with maybe a couple unique dishes per place. We eventually went back to the same place we'd gone to the night before...or, rather, thought we did. Turns out it was the place right next door. It turned out okay - we got some barbecue pork and beef, and it was quite decent, and different. And we got a papaya salad, because I never get tired of that. Afterward, I decided to go to the "Night Market" in order to get a pair of goatee-trimming scissors (figuring the name was just that, and the place would be open in midday). So, I walked uptown, passed by a few random shack stands, and...oh, wait, was that it? Yeah, according to my map, I had just passed it. I checked again. This place didn't look any different than any of the other clusters of roadside stands. Maybe it was a night thing after all. I had the option to visit some manner of supermarket, but that would have required either an additional 45-minute walk or tuk-tuk ride, with no guarantee of success. I decided my goatee could remain untrimmed until Vietnam.
I went back to the hotel, where I continued the South America research mentioned above. This...this pretty much lasted up until dinner time, when we again walked to the beach, and this time made sure we got to the right restaurant. Oddly enough, we briefly met up with Pheap, who had been enjoying his day off. We then sat down, and then noted that the atmosphere was significantly different than the day before. Fewer people, almost nobody shooting fireworks, even the ocean breeze was hardly blowing. It was still enjoyable, but didn't have that weekend feel. Anyway, I decided to try out a pizza (and figured a Hawaiian one would be appropriate, as all the ingredients are also native to here). It was good, but really heavy, mainly due to the huge amounts of cheese they put on it. I ate, maybe, a third of it, and then just picked off the ham and pineapple before we left. When we got home, I went back to my research for another couple hours, and then went to bad, feeling fairly satisfied.
(In case you were wondering, my mom was basically just resting all day.)
Day 15: Sihanoukville - Kampot (105 km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Today, we cycle 105km on one of the most challenging part in Cambodia. We begin with the 15km through 3 hills from Siahnouk Ville. It is a breath taking but more down hill than up hill. So we can enjoy the ride before the first snack stop. Turn right at Veal Rinh after 43km toward Kampot and the rest of the day is flat. We cycle passing the fishing village and the Muslim Mosque, the scenery changes from the beach area to the mountain range where we cycle along the Bokor Mountain National Park until Kampot. Kampot is a more quiet town and famous for its pepper and durian production. Dinner and overnight in Kampot.
Yeah, we did not cycle 105km. Actually, this itinerary doesn't sound familiar at all. I wonder if it was changed by Pheap for our trip specifically (for whatever reason), or if the itinerary listings are more like guidelines than actual rules, er, plans.
Anyway, we had a really late start (9:30), so we were able to get up fairly leisurely, and have breakfast fairly leisurely. My mom wanted to be especially leisurely, so she went early. I followed soon after, only to find out that we were both too early, and they were still setting up. Eventually - well, once utensils were put down that made it possible for us to serve ourselves - we came in and ate. I left a little early, to make sure all of my stuff was packed, and just to check up on some email enquiries I had sent out. Finally, we brought all our stuff to the lobby and met up with Pheap. Then we got in the van, and started driving. And driving. I don't know if we were originally supposed to be cycling this path or what, but we were driving for quite a while. Eventually, we reach this area just outside the city of Kampot, and turn to head towards this hill, though I think "hill" may be a bit miserly of a description. Imagine having 30km (18 miles) of nearly nonstop uphill of a fairly substantial grade. That was this hill. I don't know if it was part of the original itinerary, but if it was, nuts to that noise! Pheap said he's cycled up the thing in 45 minutes, which seems improbable but impressive if true. But Lord knows I wouldn't be able to do it. Still, we went up, up, up, knowing that'd we'd be cycling back down, down, down.
At least the road was nice. That's because it was built by Sokha. Why? Because Sokha also built a new casino at the top of the hill. That guy's everywhere.
Anyway, we had to make a stop for Mr. Tree to pray and make an offering to Kmao, the goddess/spirit/whatever who protects drivers on the road. We later stopped at a waterfall (the top of one, specifically), which provided for a few photos, but was otherwise fairly humdrum. We then continued until we got to the top of the hill. We drove past Sokha's casino/resort, which was huge and painted with a combination of Dijon mustard yellow and vomit green. We then got up to a Buddhist temple of some sort, where a bunch of monks were walking about. (Tidbit about young monks - apparently if parents can't afford to send their boys to school, they send them to become monks. So anyone can technically become a monk...well, so long as you're not a girl.) The place had amazing views of Kampot, probably. It was a bit hard to tell with a lot of the cloud cover. But it was still cool regardless.
What was cooler, though, was an abandoned Catholic church, built by the French in the 1920s and most likely abandoned once they left in the 50s. The place, a brick building, was in as much disrepair as you'd expect. Everything made of wood had either rotted away or been stolen, grasses were growing out of the altar, graffiti was everywhere. There were a few items in there that didn't seem to be in as bad of shape - a bible, some statues of the holy family - but these are probably placed in there yearly to replace stolen ones. As someone who loves ruins, it was quite a treat. In a similar vein, we visited the old casino, also built by the French in the 20s. Why they had chosen to build anything at the top of this tall hill is anyone's guess. The casino was similarly abandoned, and similarly cool. The whole structure was almost exclusively concrete, with an art deco style. It was fun walking up and down, through the now-empty rooms bereft of all their previous trappings, trying to guess what their functions were nearly a century ago. It'd be a cool setting for a murder mystery party, I'd wager.
Anyway, once we had our fill, it was time to actually start cycling. So, we got on our bikes, and just started going downhill. I probably had to cycle for about 2% of this entire trip. And not only was it downhill, but somewhat uncomfortably so, at least for someone who's not a normal cyclist. If it were all long, straight shots, that'd be one thing, but there were hairpin turns every 45 seconds. I had to basically ride the brake the whole time in order to make my turns at a speed that I felt reasonably comfortable that I wouldn't spill. I ended up falling way behind my mom and Pheap. This made me a bit sad, not because it damaged my pride or anything, but rather because there were so many moments when I just wanted to stop, get off my bike, and take some pictures of the absolutely gorgeous scenery, of the jungle trees and clouds and far-away views and such. But doing that would push me even further behind, and slow down the entire operation. Again, this is one of the things I don't like about cycling. So, I just gritted my teeth and kept going down for 30km.
Once we got to the bottom, we decided to continue cycling to Kampot, which was a mere 10km away. Along the way, Pheap asked us if we wanted to stop for lunch. I said I could probably wait until dinner, but my mom said we might as well stop. What she didn't realize is that it was already 4pm. She had thought it was only 2pm at the latest. So we ended up getting lunch at the latest time it can possibly be and still be lunch. It wasn't even that great; I got a pork green curry, and what I got was more like a red soup with pork, which I think even gave me heartburn, which is quite a feat. Afterward, it was just a hop, skip, and a cycle away to Kampot, and before long, we got to our hotel. It was one of those hotels with an exceptionally fancy lobby - this one was almost exclusively covered in carved wood, and in one corner, there was a table of girls harvesting swift nests for bird nest soup (look it up) - but with lackluster rooms. In fact, the only things this place really had going for it were foam mattress beds and comparably-fast Wi-Fi (and if I were smart, I would have left my computer running overnight to download the 3-gig Windows 8.1 update).
We met up with Pheap again to go to dinner at 7pm. We were considering having a small dinner, considering we just had lunch three hours earlier, but, well, we were brought to this place called (if I recall correctly) "The Rusty Keyhole". As the naming convention may imply, it was a British-owned establishment; I think the owner was a British ex-pat with a Cambodian wife. There was a very friendly atmosphere to the place - even the menu had a personality - and it had amazing food. My mom ordered chicken fajitas, and I got their "award-winning" ribs. The fajitas, my mom said, were probably better than what you'd get in El Torito (think about that for a second), and my ribs...I don't think you could even call them ribs. They were nothing like the kinds of ribs I think of when I think of ribs. There were only about four rib bones in there. It was all meat. Just huge hunks of meat, and I think two vertebrae. It had to be at least a pound of meat, and I am not exaggerating when I say they weren't just the best ribs in Cambodia, but the best I've ever had. That, plus two baked potatoes for $5.50? Yes sir! In fact, it was both so massive and so delicious that I asked for it to go, taking back half my meal.
So yeah, if you're ever in Kampot, Cambodia for some reason, go to the Rusty Keyhole. That's an official Wandering Loon recommendation!
Anyway, afterward, we had to walk back to the hotel, which was thankfully just a few blocks away. Once inside, I did some nightly work, and then went to bed, realizing immediately that the hotel owners must have reasoned that since the foam mattresses were so soft, they had to make their pillows rock hard.
Day 16: Kampot – Kep – Kampot (53km)
Breakfast at the hotel. Cycle to Kep beach town, a less visited beach than Sihanouk Ville. On the way, we visit Sar Sea Cave on the hill top. Arrive in Kep, we board the board to Rabbit Island. Enjoy picnic lunch and relax on the quiet beach. Swim and snorkeling before returning back to Kampot for overnight.
I'll start by saying I woke up really early, and found it difficult to go back to sleep. You may attribute this, if you were reading two paragraphs ago, to the hard pillows, and that may have indeed been the case, but I think it was actually due to my dream. In the first dream I remember clearly since Everest, I was...well, imagine The Walking Dead, but instead of zombies, there were dinosaurs running around everywhere and trying to kill everyone. The end of the dream was when I was looking at some cryptic notes my dad had left me on how to escape to safety, but then, I suddenly lose the note. I then spend the remainder of the dream looking around the attic I was hiding in, trying to find the note. It wasn't so much a feeling of fear that woke me so much as a feeling of frustration. Since I couldn't fall back asleep, and we couldn't have breakfast until 8:30 (since there was no in-hotel restaurant), I just decided to write until it was time to pack up and leave.
We met Pheap in the lobby (passing by more girls harvesting bird nests - they start early), and then cycled a short distance to a small bakery/restaurant. I got a basic English breakfast, though was rather dismayed in how they put baked beans on top of the eggs. My mom was enamored by the freshly baked bread that was served with our meals, but I think she may have been a bit biased, seeing as any freshly baked bread probably looks good to someone who can't eat gluten. I assured her that it was passable, but nothing special. (I made a comparison to indie games, saying that just because bread is homemade, that doesn't automatically make it good, just like a game is not automatically good because it's indie. Not sure if she understood the references.) What was good, and somewhat surprisingly so, was the somewhat legally-dubiously-named Green Tea Frappuccino that I ordered. It tasted like a legit green tea Frappuccino, and made me feel like I was beginning a day of Comic-Con or something. I wish I had the foresight to order it without the heavy whipped cream, but hey, live and learn. Meanwhile, my mom just had a black coffee with milk, which somehow cost the same as my fancy drink.
After we finished, we started riding out for the day. Getting out of town, we had to pass through a number of construction sites, which meant going through a lot of loose gravel and unhardened tarmac. Also, at one point, a car drove by and splash mud on me, which I thought only happened in movies. Once getting out of the town proper, we turned onto a side road and drove through some lush, green rice fields until we reached a Buddhist temple and cave area. My mom wasn't dressed to enter the temple, and I really had no burning desire to see another one, so we decided to take a quick tour of the local caves. We were met up by two young (I'm guessing late teens) monks in orange robes, who said they would be our guides, as they wanted to practice their English. Fair enough. But I'll be honest, while I get that they're young and not practiced in our language, and not even official tour guides, I'd say they were perhaps the least-contributing guides I'd ever seen. After asking our names and home, they essentially remained silent, save for some grunts and half-words to direct us where to go. Not even the slightest bit of background was given. We ended up going into two caves. One was literally a bat cave: guano was covering the ground, high-pitched screeches rang through the air, and (were there still any doubt), there were some bats flying here and there. The second cave was called the "White Elephant Cave", as there was a rock formation that resembled - slightly - an elephant's head. We then walked back down, and were immediately told by a guy who spoke better English than either of our two guides that we needed to give them money. Which we did, though I will personally maintain that I only favored giving a donation in order to support their monastic lifestyle, not because of services rendered.
We rode back through the rice fields, back onto the main road, through some more construction sites, until we finally made it into the beach town of Kep. This place, as mentioned in the itinerary, was smaller than Sihanoukville, but that doesn't mean it was worse. In fact, it was very relaxed and mellow, but is being developed to be a prime vacation spot. Also, it had a giant, anatomically correct crab statue sitting out in the water, atop a sign saying "Welcome to Kep". The absurdity of it endeared me to the town immediately. We drove straight to the hotel we'd be staying at for the night - the "Rock Royal", though I don't know how either of those words correlated to each other or, indeed, anything else - and checked in. Using an elevator ornately decorated in Egyptian hieroglyphics (because why not?), we made our way to our room, which had a fairly decent view of the water and we both agreed was fairly nice. We changed out of our cycling clothes and into bathing suits, and then went back downstairs. A short van ride took us out to a pier, where we got on a small motorized longboat clearly meant for ten times as many people, and took an enjoyable half-hour ride over to one of the nearby islands (in particular, Rabbit Island). One simple pleasure we experienced on the ride, incidentally, was seeing flying fish rush by. As we approached Rabbit Island, we could see that it was clearly a tourist island - there were a few lounge chairs on the beach, and a bunch of white people sitting in them.
We disembarked and made our way to the small restaurant. Pheap asked if we wanted lunch now or later, saying we might want to order later, because the restaurant was very slow. Not understanding his logic, we decided to order then. Like pretty much everywhere in this country, the main option was seafood, and I saw that I could get an order of curry crab. The novelty of the prospect prompted me to order it, but it turned out not to be available, so I just decided to get some chicken dish; I really didn't want fish, especially since I knew it would be a whole fish. (Here's one thing I learned about myself - I hate bones. Or rather, I can't be bothered with them. I would rather have a filet - of whatever meat - any day of the week. A whole fish, with its myriad bones...no thank you, sir.) And again, we had to wait more than an hour for it to arrive. While I can say not all Americans are fat from fast food, we definitely do have an inflated sense of gastronomic promptness. While waiting, my mom and I were talking, and she said something (I won't bother writing it here, as I'm over it at this point) which was definitely a slip. Whether an innocent slip of the tongue, or a Freudian slip, I found it very insulting and hurtful, and immediately became somewhat withdrawn, which made for a very quiet lunch when the food arrived, save for Pheap asking if I wanted rice and, later, more race (I declined both times).
I knew I wasn't doing myself any favors by being upset, so I decided to go for a walk around the island. I first walked along the beach, being careful not to get tripped up on/garroted by any of the ropes tethering the many boats to the shore. I quickly reached the end of this, which just led to a series of rocks. I took off my flip-flops and walked out into the water, watching a number of tiny fish swim by my feet (they didn't clean my feet, lamentably). I tried sitting on some rocks and just relax, listening to music, but found that these were not rocks meant for sitting. So I looked around the area, and saw a small path that lead through the jungle. I decided to follow it, still playing my music (in case you were wondering, I was listening to the Main Menu Theme from the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which may be the most mellowing 110 seconds of music ever). I ended up walking for maybe a mile or more, finding little coves and empty beaches. (There were also lots of plastic bottles in the ocean, keeping up the fishing nets.) The walk definitely worked, and any negative feelings I had evaporated and all I could do was enjoy the island paradise environment that I was in; nothing else mattered. I made my way back to where everyone else was, and saw my mom in a little hut. She decided to get a massage, because honestly, it's not very often that you have the ability to get an outdoor, beachfront massage on a tropical island...for $7, no less. I took her spot in the hut, tucked all our valuables under me, and then listened to music. (My mom had asked me to take a couple pictures of her getting the massage, so to make people jealous and whatnot, and she got lucky, because I completely clonked out until shortly before she was done.)
Afterward, we say that we had about 20 minutes, and I decided that I would go swimming, because who knows if I'll ever be in the Gulf of Thailand again? Might as well get wet there. The water was warm, and the depth was gradual - you could probably go out 80 feet before the water reached your chin. I had given our stuff to Pheap to keep safe, and upon seeing him running around the island with a pair of local dogs, paying no heed to our belongings, I was thankful that all the other people in the area didn't really seem like the thieving types. Before long, we saw that a boat was getting ready to go, so we got out of the water, dried off (I had to drip dry, as my towel fell out of the backpack at the hotel), and got on the boat, this time with about a dozen or so other people. The boat ride back was fairly uneventful, save for me appreciated some nice-looking clouds in the distance. We drove back to the hotel, showered, and then relaxed for some time, agreeing that it had been a good day - an unexpectedly good day, in fact.
Dinner was a simple, and relatively quick, affair. We went to a local restaurant, where Pheap said he had already ordered me some fried curry crab. I think he felt that I was a big crab fan, rather than that I was going to order it earlier more ironically than anything. He then asked us if there was anything else we wanted to order, and seem genuinely dismayed that our order didn't have any seafood in it. "No fish?" In fact, I would wager dollars to donuts that it was for this reason that he didn't eat with us. Whenever he orders for us, he orders multiple seafood dishes, and eats with us. When we choose for ourselves, he eats with some locals. New lesson learned: If you don't care for rice or seafood, don't live in Cambodia. As I loathe the former and am ambivalent towards the latter, this is good for me to keep in mind. Anyway, the curry crab may have the worst effort:reward ratio of any food I've ever eaten, though the sauce was admittedly good. As for the other food we ordered, we could only eat about a third of it between the two of us, and took the rest back to the hotel with us, deciding there was no reason for us to lounge in the restaurant. When back at the hotel, we just did our nightly things - my mom wrote a letter, I wrote a portion of this entry - and went to bed to the sound of a pounding storm.
By all accounts, it was a good day. Much better than the next day, I think we'd both agree.
Day 17: Kampot – Takeo (85km)
After breakfast, we cycle heading to Takeo, the less traveled town in Cambodia but is has much history related to the first Khmer civilization when the first Kingdom was established in the early century. It was known as Funan or Nokor Phnom, means the Kingdom of the Hill. Enjoy packed lunch overlook the scenery of the countryside. After lunch, we continue cycle to Takeo passing Ta Mok's house, the former general commander of the Khmer Rouge. Board on the boat for sunset to Phnom Da to visit the hill top temple former the capital of Khmer Empire in the early century known as Funan. Overnight in Mittapheap Guesthouse.
Wow, I don't know where to begin with how wrong this itinerary is. I'll instead list what's true: we did go to Takeo, and it was to be about 85km. And then, well.......
So, we woke up, and went down to breakfast. I went down first, simply by virtue that it takes me less than two minutes to get ready. I walked into the restaurant and immediately thought I was in the wrong place. It had buffet trays, but they were all completely empty. Also completely empty was the restaurant, save for three employees. I checked my watch. 6:45. Could it possibly be before they opened? I asked if this was the right place, and they said it was. They told me to sit down at a table, and then handed me a menu. There were only a handful of foods to choose from, half of which involved fried rice. I ordered a pancake (because...because pancake) with lemon and sugar. I also ordered some iced sweet milk and ice water. The drinks came first. One was an opaque pink - I assumed this was the sweet milk - and the other was dark brown. I scrutinized it, sniffed it, tried to make sense of it. Maybe it was iced tea, given to me by mistake. I asked the waitress what it was. "Ice Water." She could tell in my perplexed expression it wasn't what I wanted, so she came back later with a glass of what I would comfortably call water, though who knows if it was from the tap. Anyhoo, the pancake came in next and...that's all it was. A single pancake. With a small plate of sliced limes and a small plate of sugar. I must say, a single pancake must be the most depressing breakfast ever. Two smaller ones would be much better. When my mom came in, she ordered eggs, which somehow came with a weird, sweet-yet-flavorless French bread, tomato, chorizo-tasting bacon, and some other things. I tried bits and pieces, and none was very good. Also, the waitress couldn't serve bottled water, because she didn't know what bottled water was, despite us pantomiming and pointing at water and bottles in turn. I've said it before, but it still holds true: while I respect that not everyone needs to know English, if you are working in an establishment specifically built to cater to an international clientele, it would be useful.
Anyway, it wasn't the worst breakfast we'd had on this trip, but it did seem like the biggest discrepancy between hotel quality and breakfast quality. After getting back to the room and packing up, we went out to meet with Pheap. After making sure everything was as it should be, we got on the bikes and started cycling. Going through Kep was nice and easy, and we continued out of the town and along the main road for about 15km or so. It was there that we stopped at a pepper farm, which Pheap had been hyping up since we began the trip. We got there, and...it was a pepper farm. I mean, imagine the single most unexciting thing you can. This pepper farm was maybe two notches above that. Pheap asked if we wanted to walk around and take photos (a less exciting proposition has never been uttered) or taste some pepper. We declined, choosing instead to sit and drink water to fight the hot sun. While sitting there, a dog walked by. It was a lactating female, which I swear to God could be said of 80% of all dogs I'd seen in Cambodia. Also similar to all other dogs was its slenderness. "Oh, you're too skinny to be a mother," my own mother said sympathetically to the dog. In response, the dog turned around and vomited. I'd never seen such spontaneous comedic timing in my life.
We got back on our bikes and began cycling again. While it wasn't the hottest day we'd had, it was still pretty hot, and my mom was feeling it. Worse than that, though, was the fact that the road we were riding on was in terrible condition. When you have constant gravel and potholes and such, it makes the riding much harder, particularly on your back. I've noticed this myself, but it was particularly strong on my mom. For my part, I just plugged along, not really committing to going faster than anyone, which has been a successful strategy thus far. I was happy to finish my audiobook during this leg of the trip. I'm debating whether or not I should put it my book list above since, y'know, I just listened to it. Nevertheless, if you enjoy history, biographies, and good turns-of-phrase, I highly recommend One Summer by Bill Bryson.
Unfortunately, after finishing the book, the road conditions got even worse. Now there was water filling up the ditches, some of which were ten feet across and spanning the entire road (and there were only wet rice fields on either side, so that wasn't necessarily a better option). In retrospect, I think we should have taken the complete lack of bicycles on the road to be a sign that maybe this wasn't the best one to be on. Really, the only reason we were there was because Pheap didn't want us going on the main road, which was under construction and almost constantly covered in a cloud of dust. But this came at a price when we got to one particular water-filled ditch. Pheap was able to make it through, but didn't provide any sort of warnings about it. So as my mom goes in, her bike gets submerged in about eight inches of water, and then gets stuck in mud. She tried to stop and stand, but there was no solid ground beneath her foot, and so she ended up falling into the mud and water. I, being a couple feet behind her, barely managed to stop in time, and managed only by divine intervention not to fall as well. As it was, my foot sunk almost half a foot into the thick, sloppy mud, completely encasing my two-week-old shoes. My mom gets up, laughing a bit at the absurdity of the situation. However, the laughter was cut short when she heard the music from her iPod - which was in her shorts pocket - cut out.
Meanwhile, Pheap told me to come across. "It's okay, you cross now." "Screw that," I actually said to him, and walked my bike across on the shallowest part of the bank. Even holding it up slightly, the bike got stuck in the mud. It was a good decision; considering what the water had done to my mom's iPod, I could only imagine what it would do to both my phone and especially my camera, both of which were tucked in very non-waterproof pockets in my backpack.
We looked at my mom's iPod, considering what we could do to help the battery. Unfortunately, the batteries on iPods aren’t removable, unless you pry the thing apart (which isn't always the best idea). Pheap tried using his pocket knife to do so, but my mom convinced him to stop. So we just tried whipping as much water out of it as possible, and placed it in my backpack. While this was happening, we saw no fewer than three motorcycles try to make it through the same ditch, getting stuck and/or nearly falling down. That provided a bit of perverse solace, at least. Now, I should note that my mom is not a materialistic person. She wasn't upset or concerned about the possibility of losing the iPod as much as she was losing the music for the remainder of the trip. But in any case, we had to continue on, and along more of these terrible roads. There were plenty more of those huge, watery ditches, and places with big rocks, and - most insidiously - huge watery ditches with big rocks in them that you couldn't see. On no fewer than six occasions, I could feel that I was going to fall. And in all fairness, I probably should have. But I didn't. This leads me to believe I have the hardest-working guardian angel in the industry. When I finally do die, I'm gonna have to buy that guy an ambrosia. What didn't get protected, though, were my shoes (particularly my left shoe, for some reason), which got covered in mud and then soaked with dirty water in equal measure.
We finally stopped at this one little house, where we sat down to rest. I used the opportunity to check up how to treat a waterlogged iPod. The first couple steps, it seemed, were similar to what we already had done. What we were supposed to do next was put the iPod for 48 hours in...rice. If there was ever a time to be thankful for being in an Asian country. We bought a half-kilo of rice from the family, and put the iPod in there. Meanwhile, my left foot was getting really cold from my shoe also being waterlogged. I wasn't really in any mood to be cycling, and my mom, whose back was feeling sore after the rough roads, wasn't really in any shape for it at the moment. Still, we had to get to the main road, so we cycled down that way. But that wasn't the end, as to get to lunch we had to go another "1km" (which was actually closer to four). The main road was barren, gravelly, dusty, not especially pretty, and quite hot. By the time we reached the restaurant, I wasted no time tearing off my soaked shoe, creating a farmer's mud tan on my leg. I changed into my flip-flops, and went into the place. I also brought in our leftovers from the past couple dinners, which proved to be quite a stroke of foresight. Especially the ribs. Even two days later, those ribs were the best! They also saved us from having more of the fish that Pheap had ordered. After we finished, Pheap asked us how many kilometers we wanted to cycle. I thought he was joking at first, but he seemed genuinely surprised when we said we didn't want to do any more for the day, as though the last leg hadn't taken it out of us. (Also, the sun came out with a vengeance, and my mom didn't want to ride in that.)
So, we hopped in the van and drove the remainder of the way to Takeo, maybe about 30km. In retrospect, it was definitely the right decision. Even if things had been perfect up to that point, the construction on the road was, at best, pleasant and, at worst, outright dangerous to cycle on. (Of particular note were several large sinkholes in the road with a tiny one-lane detour road with no visibility curving around it.) When we finally got to Takeo, we went to the Chumno Moat Beng Guesthouse. I found this interesting, as it was not the place we were said to be going according the day's itinerary description, nor was it the place that the hotel booking's had us set for. And I don't know if they would have been any better, but this place...it wasn't great. For starters, when we went into our bedroom, there was an old, shirtless man lying on one of the bed's watching TV. He may have been the owner but still, ew. The place itself would be a poster child for the word "lackluster". Our window view, to name a simple example, was brick wall and clothesline, holding but a single pair of briefs. When we found out that Pheap was also staying here, we knew that was a bad sign, because the company never let Pheap stay in nice places. I, more-or-less, took the situation as it was; I've been in worse accommodation on my trip. It was a bit harder to swallow for my mom, who I think was just frustrated with the events of the day and feeling sore. We took some badly-needed showers and washed the most egregiously dirty clothes, and then relaxed for a spell, I writing and my mom sleeping. Pheap had mentioned to us earlier that we could cycle around town if we wanted, but we really didn't want to. And the whole itinerary speak of a boat ride? Never even broached with us.
When dinner time came around, my mom decided she didn't want to eat, and preferred instead just to rest. I went out and met Mr. Tree, who walked me to the restaurant. I was secretly hoping they'd let me eat on my own, because I'd rather be by myself than with two people that I can't understand. Oh, wait, make that three. Some guy, I'm assuming a friend of Pheap's, came and sat with us, and the three of them had a fine Khmer conversation, leaving me feeling completely superfluous. I did get a bit of entertainment when the waitress at the restaurant, bereft of English knowledge, asked Pheap if he could translate between her and some French customers. But otherwise, I just ate in silence, pretty much clearing a plate of vegetables by myself. Finally, the last thing to arrive was the first I asked for: some simple grilled chicken. I'm guessing by the wait that it was a fresh chicken. I'm guessing by the svelteness of the drumstick that it was the world's most emaciated chicken.
Afterward, I asked if I could go to a local mini-mart, as my mom had asked to bring back some ice cream for her. It was a bit of an inconvenience for Mr. Tree, as we had to walk back to the hotel, then get in the van and drive, but he did so with his usual graciousness (though he did use the opportunity to let me know how poor he was; convenient timing, given how we're to tip him the next day). At the mini-mart, I got a couple ice cream bars, and then was astonished to find scissors for sale. And not just one pair, but about seven different varieties. I picked up one to do some trimming at our next stop, and then we drove back to the hotel, where my mom and I enjoyed our ice cream before she went to bed.
And so now, we're in our final night in Cambodia, and to be perfectly honest, they chose a pretty crappy way to cap it off. But it's all relative; if you don't have the crappy moments, you appreciate the paradise island moments even more. And, as I told my mom, whenever I'm in a less-than-desirable situation, I just think to myself, "This too shall pass." I'm curious what the accommodation will be like once we cross the border. The hotels in Thailand were among the best we had on the trip; maybe it will be the same in Vietnam? In any case, this whole cycling trip is going to change quite a bit after tomorrow. Not only will we be in a new country, but we'll have a new guide and driver.
Admittedly, it's a bit anticlimactic, as we'll only be with them a couple days, but still!