November, 2009

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Khmertrip – Stage 3: Battambang to Pailin to Phnom Penh

Monday, November 30th, 2009

© Frank P. Schneidewind

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Stefan and I made a side-trip to the secretive Pailin district (no officials or military allowed) on rented 250cc dirt bikes. I dropped my digicam later in a half dry creek bed, that we were negotiating there in order to find the old ruby-community, I happened to know from previous trips here.

The batteries flew out their compartment because of the impact in the flat water at the spot, it was totally dysfunctional until hours later (discharged quick). So no pics of us for hours, sorry!

Emeralds and Rubies originate in the hills of Pailin, the former Khmer Rouge controlled and lawless zone. The people here still use ancient and hand-driven tools to cut raw gems and polish them nowadays. Electricity is fed from 12 Volt car or truck batteries, which power some fluorescent bulbs or other light sources. Refrigeration is unheard of here, but ice in huge blocks are being delivered from Pursat or Battambang on occasion, and sold in chunks. Cold refreshments are a real rarity, we must have gulped down 3 to 4 Cokes each to avoid dehydrating in this hot weather then, because we did find one dealer. He kept the Coke, Fanta and Sprite in a barrel with ice, so the bottles were cold and uncontaminated.

It is not advisable to drink anything here, unless sold to you in the original container.

Trust me, a full blown “Montezuma’s revenge” compares to a real regular Cambodian diarrhea like a weak fart in the wind!

The gem stones were all neatly prepared on tools to hold them for further polishing. If you look at Melona’s engagement ring, I gave her that ring earlier this year :) – it proudly displays a nice ruby from right here! This trip itself was for “men only” for a lot of reasons, security was an essential one, but there were other issues too.

This Pailin area holds special memories for me. I was born again here, so to speak, when a landmine blew up years ago on a geographical surveillance trip, and injured my right leg badly. It injured a few more of us, but killed the unlucky dude, which stepped on the mine. A young Cambodian man with a good sized family at home :(

The gem cutter’s huts were well protected by others outside, wielding AK 47′s and with pretty grim looks on their faces, they brightened up, when we gave them a dollar bill each to protect our bikes during our exploration of the huts. Unbelievable, but in the poorest and most war-torn area of Cambodia, the finest gems were handled.

Needless to say, we bought a few. A man never knows, if he needs one someday :)

The price was very right and the digicam’s batteries were neglecting any more pictures again! But we were happy, that they gave us a handful of snapshots after the dive in the creek. Rechargables don’t take a beating like quality Energizers or Panasonic Hi-power conventional AA’s. In Cambodia’s back country, you may search very long for a plug to stick the recharger in.


This bus was supposed to haul us to the Capital of Phnom Phen, it really looked like a decent vehicle until we got closer to inspect details. 3 $ was the fare, which equals 12.000 Riels. Gunshot holes are nothing to worry about, we wondered how the brakes were doing. You always hope, any shooter aims high enough :)

The tires had indeed some rubber left, but a German TÜV or American DOT would have pulled the operating license for this piece of equipment in a heartbeat. Exhaust was noise-tuned, so potential passengers along the roads it traveled, could hear him coming for at least half a mile. Seats were old ones, newly upholstered with a vinyl (chicken poop and vomit resistant), but we weren’t in the market for sweaty butts and sat on our towels.

That was really a comfy transport, considering other options like rooftops of pick-up trucks or clinging to the outside of vans in the back with no foothold for humans. All these folks headed for the big city on the Tonle Sap River, where it meets the Mekong. Quite a distance, but standards in Cambodia are even lower than in Thailand. Things improve gradually as I can testify, having traveled on anything here from worn out, unserviced military aircraft to oxcarts before.

Military is a lot less present or visible nowadays. In older days, that was quite a difference.

Any transport here is maxed out, the tailgates are always used in the down position to extend the bed, sometimes stretched even further with a couple of wooden doors or something suitable. Dangling kids legs in the windshield signal little hold for them, don’t think any further – be happy you’re in a bus with wheels and seats. $ 3 is their monthly income, so traveling “rich people style” aboard a bus is not a valid option for them. Kids usually go free with paying parents, but no right to a spot on the wooden boards crossing the beds of the pickups for more cargo, human cargo in that case.

Suddenly we whizzed by other funny vehicles. Roofless buses? No – mopeds of a mere 100 cc engine pulling busloads of passengers on open makeshift trailers. This spot of road was not dusty and blacktopped, so I tried to take a snapshot backwards out of the little ventilation windows:

The moped buses were more popular, the closer we got to Phnom Penh, their capacity must have been several dozen of passengers. Gas tank was a plastic canister attached to the side! Snail paced, some rolled in front of our bus, but the loud horns of the bus and his very aggressive driving style forced them one after the other into the dust of the roadside, brutal methods here, but “business as usual” :)

They were really common in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, as you can see:

We arrived a short time later in Phnom Penh, checked a 1 $ motorcycle taxi ride later into my beloved Angkor Hotel and took an extended shower to cool down and get rid of the fine dust, that had clogged every pore of exposed skin. Soap alone doesn’t do a proper job, you need to rub eyebrows, mustache and your skin fairly hard!

Later we ate at the famed “Sharky’s”, a bar and restaurant only 3 blocks from the hotel. My friend quickly was beflirted by this attractive lady, but we were here not on a dating trip. A posed snapshot made this waitress happy indeed, emails were exchanged to send her the photo.

Later Stefan’s eyes focused on something very dark. This lady with black hair, a black dress and pitch black eyes was having dinner at the neighboring table. Stefan couldn’t keep his eyes straight and he asked kindly to trade chairs with me (I didn’t appear staring and was naturally facing her).

Her name was Sophea, as we found out after her dinner in another establishment near the Central Market (Psar Thmei). Once done with her dish, she accepted Stefan’s invite for a drink and told us about her job as Apsara-dancer in a famous hotel on the Sisowath Quay. I love Apsara Dancing and am quite familiar with the grace and beauty on display during those classical performances. Apsaras were the handpicked dancers of the Angkorian god-kings a 1000 years ago! Later, she came across with the information that she also has a second dance job near Wat Phnom. Not so Apsara style, but better paid.

I knew Wat Phnom well and we had planned to visit anyhow, so we promised to look her up at the place near the important temple on the following day. That night’s sleep was long and good after the long trip here. Stefan nailed me with questions about Apsaras that night :)

He proved to be one of the most compatible people I ever traveled with! Quick witted and with a sunnyboy smile But a task oriented energy, if things don’t run so smooth!

Khmertrip – Stage 2: Poipet to Battambang

Monday, November 30th, 2009

© Frank P. Schneidewind

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This is Michael, hailing from England on his first Cambodiatrip. He was in good humor, even two full hours after a tout disappeared with his 25 $ for the promised front seat in a shared taxi. He was helplessly stranded in downtown Poipet but hope has vanished for him. That was his second Siem Reap scam on this day, he came here with an early minivan from Khao Sarn Road, but the connection in Poipet he missed and they left him there, offered was a spot in tomorrows transport.

I informed him, that 25 $ exceeds monthly salaries of qualified workers here and he bid his task to get to Siem Reap today farewell. We told him about our plan to catch a ride to Battambang or at least Sisophon, dirt cheap for 3 $ or 12.000 Riels on the back of any roadworthy pickup-truck.

He was really enlightened when he learned that there are presumably direct and scheduled boats going from Battambang to Siem Reap, although Battambang is really out of any direct way to Siem Reap.

We got lucky and found such transport opportunity, finally hitting the road shortly after luchtime.

Stefan found a good use for his new headscarf, sitting on a pickup-bed, overloaded with sticky jam-like preserved fruits underneath us gave the flight instructor and college teacher (in his real life) a totally new horizon in traveling, especially with the horrendous road conditions between Poipet and Sisophon. Potholes is the wrong term because pots aren’t big enough!

The road remains to be in the sorriest condition of any transit route thinkable, even with the other national roads all being finished recently or under construction.

Wind in the face doesn’t bother me if it’s not laced with too much dust.

Michael, our trip buddy for this segment was amazed at the new blacktop road after Sisophon leading South to Battambang, his butt was not taking the treatment of the previous stretch of road anymore, so he said.

This is Battambangs main bus terminal, it also serves the shared taxi gangsters, that sell the passenger seat in the front twice and backseats at 25 % of the bench per head. Business as usual in Cambodia.

The big white building right near the terminal was also a guesthouse, we all checked in and needed a shower badly

The rooms were pretty basic but cleanliness of mattress and bedsheets were taken into very close inspection, the fan-room had a shower/toilet in a sideroom and two large wooden beds. The spider inside on the ventilation insect screen there was big enough to have had deserved to be named. Stefan and I decided to leave the light there on and alarm the other, if spidey disappeared from there in the night.

   

But before nightfall we ventured into Battambang and tried a variety of possible transports for us. The colonial buildings here on the riverside are quite impressive, the pics below show us on the typical cyclo here.

We opted for some waste of money and the benefits of motorized transport.

At this motorbike shop, we booked their only 2 Offroad bikes for the following day (above), 7 $ per 24 hours was reasonable for the 250 ccm Hondas offered.

Jewelry and woodcarvings are a speciality here, the carvings are brought here from many surrounding areas and are rather inexpensive.

Note that Stefan wears a grey shirt, it was indeed much brighter (and less smelly) than the white one he wore on the pickup!

Gas Stations fill by the bottle here, this is very common anywhere outside the Capital.

We couldn’t be much attracted by the street food here, but the salesladies gave us a lot of grins and smiles:

Dental problems could be helped 24 hours on any day, we were glad not to have any for sure!

The winner of the day was a moped-taxi with comfy trailer, we choose him to spent the rest of the night with us and tour us around.

 

Below we got stuck for dinner and wondered about the cannabis smell everywhere!

 

The “happy herbs” are known elsewhere as Marihuana or grass, but here they were kitchen herbs and reason for many to come to Cambodia. A big bag of maybe 500g was offered nearby for 5 $!