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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

It’s amazing who pops up in the middle of Asia

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 4 July 2006.

Cambodia, Country 21, Diary entry 5th-15th May 2006, Total distance in Cambodia: 2166 KM

Cambodia… the end of the tarmac and like stepping back in time compared to the modern and convenient neighbour of Thailand. Border formalities were a bit confusing when we apparently didn’t have the correct bit of paper we should have received on entering Thailand, so before we were allowed to leave we had to fill in a scrappy bit of paper in duplicate, which resembled more of a ships crews list rather than for a tourist car crossing the border. However the guys were pleasant enough so it was just a matter of filling in all the spaces then getting a load of documents photocopied, which they obligingly did for us, even though it was a public holiday… which appears to be the case everywhere when ever you want anything done which involves a government office!

We stumble into the local CARE office just across the border

Into Cambodia and after quickly realising the traffic drives on the opposite side, we pulled up at the first office to get our visas issued, then stamped into the country. After asking where customs was and waving our yellow carnet around, all the officials hanging around were suddenly extremely interested in their shoes laces! Picking on one poor sole, he managed to pluck up the confidence to sign that it was just over the roundabout. All quite simple really. Assuming it would be a more substantial building we had a guess and picked the one with the most number of people in uniforms milling about.

After years of war, Cambodia is now changing

Hmmm, problem, the man with the stamp wasn’t there. Asking around it appeared that a full scale badminton tournament was ongoing in the car park and the right man had nipped off home to get changed into his whites & grab his racket! He wouldn’t be long though and just about then a flash car pulled into the compound and a man sprang out all ready for his match. He had good English and welcomed us to Cambodia, popped open his boot and took out his badminton racket and a plastic carrier bag… the stamp bag, he told us smiling and he must have had a stamp in there for every occasion! He led us up to his office, had a quick scan over the carnet, then rummaged into his bag for the correct stamp or three, bam, bam, bam – all done.

Almost stumbled over this little beauty..!

Directions to Siam Reap were easy… follow the only road, so we headed out of town only to catch out of the corner of our eye a big sign for CARE International. Stopping up we were greeted as if they were expecting us. We showed the guys our translated ‘mission statement’ so that they had some idea what we were all about then met up with Hear Bunla the project manager for the HIV/AIDS awareness project that was being run. They have a huge task of educating the transient workers that ply the border towns and as is inherent in many such locations, this fuels the sex industry. Their approach was that you are never going to stop this from happening, but you can at least educate to ensure the workers health is protected.

We arrive at Angkor

We asked if there were any projects that we’d be able to have a look at whilst we were in Cambodia and Hear told us that a big rally was being planned in a few days time to promote safe sex. Although we were heading across to Siam Reap, we decided it’d be a great opportunity to see some of CARE’s work in Cambodia, so agreed that we would come back.

Pre Rup shines in the evening light

Before leaving Hear gave us some CARE stickers for the car, which he thought looked bare without. Every car, motorbike and bicycle they had were completely covered in CARE logos so he had a point. Up to now we’d not had the CARE logos on the cars (just the wording.. ‘Supporting CARE International UK’) as the UK office were concerned that it would pose a security risk in some of the countries which we were travelling through. People could easily associate the logo with the NGO, and CARE personnel have already been victims of kidnapping, targeted specifically as they were aid workers! We now have nice shiny CARE logos!

Maz can't be bothered to do her Tomb Raider bit

We’d already decided that it was too late to drive all the way to Siam Reap and as Poipet is simply a tacky casino border town, after saying our farewells, we decided to head just out of town and camp up. It wasn’t difficult to find camp, we just followed a track off the main road, which then turned into a smaller track until we found somewhere that looked secluded enough where we wouldn’t be disturbed. Onto cooking detail and with a fridge full of goodies after our stop over at the Carefour, it was time for a spaghetti bolognaise of mega proportions cooked over an open fire - delicious. With an early rise planned for the morning after a quick shower al fresco, we got into our tent to the sounds of distant competing Karaoke mixed with thunder.

The many faces of Bayon

With our lunch time rendezvous schedule with Frazer in Siam Reap, we were up and out early. As we rejoined the main road, we were startled to see a gang of workers with metal detectors on mine clearance walking along the side of the road. D’oh, how had we been so stupid. We knew when in Laos you should be cautious, but for some reason we completely forgot about the threat of UXO’s in Cambodia which was pretty stupid of us really. That realigned our bush camping desires, which was a travesty with so much secluded space perfect for camping and resigned ourselves to staying at guesthouses whilst in Cambodia.

The incredible carvings of the Terrace of the Leper King

140km or so and 3 hours later after a rough and ready pot holed dirt road where our mysterious knocking noise at the front was definitely getting worse, we turned the corner into Siam Reap Airport. Looking in the side mirror I saw the rear spare wheel carrier swing out as we turned – strange, had we forgotten to close it properly? On investigation the latch holding it closed had snapped clean off, probably weakened by the kiss Max gave Martins car in Nepal when he reversed into his side! With a bungee temporary repair, we waited outside international arrivals for our second visit from Friz whilst trying to stash kit inside the car to make enough space for him to squeeze in!

Still somewhat perplexed as to exactly what type of business trip he was on that brought him to the far east, after all he runs Big Blue Support offering IT support to schools, small businesses and home users in the London region, he’d either diversified big style whilst we’d been away, or otherwise there was a more subtle reason why he was in Vietnam! Before long a familiar face emerged, fresh from Vietnam, in a flowery holiday shirt with thankfully a small backpack….

The Naga guard the entrance to Preah Khan

“Well it’s not every day you find yourself in a country far far away with your brother and sister in law happening to be in a neighbouring country on a trip of a lifetime driving half way around the world! (that is apart from the first time I bumped into them back in Croatia of course). Being lucky enough to have secured a place on the ‘EU/Vietnam Creative and IT Trade and Investment Fair’ I found myself in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) looking for something to do after a gruelling (!) week of hard nosed business bartering and transacting. Thinking the Overland-Underwater team were currently in Thailand heading for the Philippines I thought an email saying hello was in order considering they were probably flying overhead en-route at that very moment.

A rapid reply from Alex told me they had in fact decided to cancel the Philippines leg of the journey and were heading for Cambodia earlier than planned - perhaps we could ‘catch up’? An hour or so later, negotiating the sheer chaos that is Saigon’s moped traffic, I found myself clutching a one way ticket to Siam Reap, Cambodia. A forty minute flight later and I was at the Cambodian customs getting a $35 entry visa sorted out, without the obligatory passport sized photo’s. “No have photo? No problem! $36 dollar OK photo” and STAMP! I was in.

Intricate carvings of Banteay Srei, make this a highlight

Maz was waiting at the entrance with the limo (aka Tinfish) and Alex helped me with the bags (yeah right!) and after all the hello’s and “what the/how the ***** did you manage that!” I was bundled in and off we headed to find the nights accommodation. Several nice but basic establishments later we settled on a pleasant guest house offering free coffee, bananas and internet! (as long as the tangled mess of wires and networking equipment, not to mention the macramé of phone lines strapped to awkward looking tree trunk poles around the town, continued to suffer on).

Siam Reap’s rapidly evolving ‘Pub Street’ offered us a place to sink a cool glass of Angkor Beer and discuss the agenda whilst savouring my first delicious Khmeer food. 3 days, countless temples, Angkor Watt – what a place!”

Since you’ve already been treated to a detailed account of these wonders by Martin’s dad I won’t go into too much details…. There are plenty of other temples to come which we managed to explore off the beaten track later during our time in Cambodia which we’ll get onto in due course. We spent the first day exploring Angkor Thom and the marvellous Bayon and the incredible carvings of the inner wall of the Terrace of the Leper King, before driving around the loop visiting Preah Khan and ended up catching a peaceful sunset sat on top of Pre Rup. A great day realising just how extensive this site is before returning to Siam Reap for our evening meal trying to avoid all the bars and restaurants with the film ‘Killing Fields’ on constant loop!

The infamous Angkor Wat

The second day we started with the temples around the loop, Neak Pean a cool little collection of ponds, then Ta Som with the classic tree roots strangling one of the entrance gates with the faces still struggling to see out between the roots and ended the morning at Eastern Mebon, different again with it’s brick towers and elephant statues. At every stop the local kids gathered, reeling off every statistic they knew about England in the hope of securing a postcard sale! After lunch we headed for the main attraction, Angkor Wat and lost ourselves in there for the rest of the day, admiring the statues and bas-reliefs until the sun started to set, which prompted the obligatory sun-downer.

A part of the amazing Bas-relief that surrounds the entire Angkor Wat

Frazer seemed to be a hit with the stall girls who he entertained whilst they gathered around as one of the girls groomed his hair. I think he was loving all the attention. I was poised waiting for the sun to slowly sink to get a few shots of the temple bathed in orange light and of it’s reflection in the water, whilst at the same time fending off the guards who were telling us it was closed and we had to leave. Evening was spent eating from a road side stall, which consisted of first pointing at the appropriate size and shaped noodles, followed by which flavour of meat to have on top.

Tinfish pauses besides Bayon

The final day we headed off to the more distant Banteay Srei, which is covered in a fantastic array of integral carvings, before ending up at Ta Prohm which has suppose to have been left ‘o natural’ to show how the jungle reclaimed the ruins. With three days of temple exploration under our belt it was time to say farewell to Angkor and see what the rest of Cambodia has to offer. Our appointment back at Poipet with CARE was for that evening, so with some trepidation we set back out along the rough road, listening all the time for the clonking getting louder and louder!

The majestic elephants look out from each corner of Eastern Mebon

Only about 10km out of Siam Reap, we decided it was fool hardy to continue and risk something serious breaking, so unfortunately we had to change the plan and miss the CARE rally, turned around and headed towards Phnom Penh, at least the roads in that direction were tarmac. We got as far as Kampong Thom before stopping for the night and tucked into left over spaghetti bolognaise, reheated whilst sat around the back of the car in the guesthouse car park. Coming straight out from England, Frazer probably wondered why we were so excited about spag bol, believe me it’s always a wonderful treat for us to have some familiar home cooked food. We must have looked a strange sight indeed!

Friz & Alex pause to rest at Neak Pean

We had a leisurely morning and ended up watching some rubbish kung-foo movie on the postage stamp sized TV in the room, at least it was in English. Next stop Phnom Penh after a pause for lunch at a road side restaurant, where the owner could speak French. So with a little effort we ordered the house speciality (which I think was the only thing on offer anyway) beef soup, boiling away on a burner in the centre of the table as you added your own green veg, mushrooms and a few strips of beef mixed with an egg. It paid not to dig too deep, as just below the surface remained all the nasty bits of cows insides that makes up a good stock… intestine, bones, stomach etc! They looked quite surprised when we accidentally fished a bit of this stuff out, that it ended up on the side of the plate… what and leave the best bits…!?!?!

Bagsy the bit of stomach..!!?!?!

On entering Phnom Penh, Maz read allowed from the Lonely Planet about how the police love to stop farangs (foreigners) for the slightest traffic offence, such as turning left when not permitted. Trying to get our bearings we headed for the Independence Monument which was left off the main boulevard. Seeing it signposted as left, I quickly clocked the ‘no U turn sign’, but nothing else. As the road signs directed us left I made the obviously incorrect assumption that you were permitted to actually turn left – silly me! We were pulled over straight away. After negotiations with the traffic cop I was shown the ‘no left turn’ hidden behind a bush and we settled on a $2 bribe, twice as much as I’d wanted to pay, but nowhere near the $10 he was angling for!

Even though it says turn left to Independence Monument, don't be silly unless you're ready to pay off the traffic cops!

We found the river front and settled on a café to sit and unwind with an iced coffee, when who should walk by but the Pitwoods, Junior & Senior. Arranging to meet for dinner later on, we set off in search of suitable budget accommodation which also had secure parking. We ended up at Spring Guesthouse which was everything we needed… cheap, clean and a 24hr guard for the car.

Some classic old French colonial architecture

Our time in Phnom Penh dissolved into a number of days doing not very much, but at the same time catching up with a host of things. It’s quite a relaxed place for a capital with a pleasant air about the place. It was easy to spend time chilling in a café sipping a coffee and enjoying the left over influences of French cuisine. As the somewhat pleasure-loving King Sihanouk cynically said, “I am an anti-colonialist, but if one must be colonised, it is better to be colonised by gourmets.”

Poignant reminders of the atrocities committed here during the reign of terror of the Pol Pot years

It also allowed us time to catch up on some admin and get the car to Toyota to try and resolve the two strange noises, almost now in harmony with each other – a whirring and a clunking – unsuccessful however. With our laptop blowing up whilst in Siam Reap the local internet café saw his profits for the week quadruple as we tried to arrange a repair or replacement and resorted to their pc’s for diary writing. Frazer also had to arrange his return visa for Vietnam and with the now customary national holiday looming it appeared it wouldn’t be ready in time, before a helpful security guard offered his service to get it quick quick. Frazer negotiated only $5 over the visa price and it would be ready to collect the next day.

The sun sets red over the Killing Fields

Of course we finally managed to get in the main sites of the city, which conveniently appear to be closed at any time when you want to see them! After returning from one such visit to the National Museum, I immediately noticed something wrong with the car… both sets of glass from the wing mirrors had been stolen! Maz then shouted that two bits of the trim had also been nicked from the side panels. A few choice words were spoken. Driving around these parts without mirrors is inviting trouble. The motorbikes & cars fly past you from all angles, so if you don’t want to hit one, you need to be on constant guard, which would be impossible without mirrors.

Replacing our wing mirrors & fitting the anti-theft device

A quick return trip to Toyota confirmed my fears… $400 per mirror and they didn’t have any in stock anyway. I asked where I could buy mine back from and they directed me to the used car bits market. After a bit of calling around, the shop produced a left and right mirror and also suggested we should fit the metal inserts which would prevent the mirrors from being popped out again! Strangely from then on we noticed pretty much every car was fitted with this simple mirror protection system! The side trims they also had - surprise surprise, but wanted lots of USD for those and since they don’t serve any real purpose we decided we could live without.

The Silver Pagoda

Evenings were spent trying out the more secluded eateries when not being dined courtesy of Mr Pitwood Senior – many thanks for the meal and the attentive waiter/ess!?!? We did however decline the tiny wee complete fried birds, from minute to chick sized, offered by the street stalls. One place we chose to eat was obviously not used to farangs and everybody busied themselves doing anything until someone who could speak a little English was pushed to the front. We asked her to advise and were treated to a gourmet feast the highlight being little cuttlefish stuffed with minced pork.

Inside of Security Prison 21

Before we really knew it we’d been in Phnom Penh four days and were waving Frazer off at the bus station for his trip back to Vietnam. We decided to move south and search out the beach and the Cambodian Riviera. On arriving at Sihanoukville, we did a lap around the headland and sea front – hmmm. What did we miss? At one end is an unsightly container port, followed by a row of less than inspiring beaches full of local holiday makers (it was another public holiday after all) with the obligatory bars and restaurants crowding the strip.

Barbed wire stopped inmates committing suicide from the top floor

We headed into the town itself to search out a dive shop to see what the local diving was like. The best diving is done on a kip-aboard on an overnight trip, but the weather was on the turn with a storm brewing so he didn’t think anything was likely for a few days. Sihanoukville didn’t grab us as the sort of place to hang around for that long, so we decided on a plan B, we’d stay the night down by the beach and then head north to more remoter Cambodia and seek out some of the many temples off the beaten track in the heart of the jungle.

Entertaining the children at our beach camp

We retraced our beach loop and headed to the furthest beach where development was in the early stages. Although concrete plots had already been segregated only a few had been turned into anything. We pulled up outside one proudly displacing the Swedish flag and the owner welcomed us, but after 10mins of him telling us all his woes and how difficult it was to get any good staff that didn’t take everything back home with them, we had a quick drink then moved on to the neighbour. This was run by a local family, so sat down in deck chairs on the beach to sink a sun-downer.

The beach was nice enough as you got away from the masses

We showed them the Cambodian flyer and with broken English agreed that we could set up camp next to them. We spent the evening playing chess and entertaining their children, which they appeared most grateful for. The children showed us a local game using the chess board and discarded pistachio shells that we’d chomped through. For some reason they placed all the shells the same way up, so it soon became difficult to tell whose pieces were whose. I indicated that they might try having one side shell faced down like a tortoise and the other faced up like a boat… revelation..!! To show their appreciation the parents kept us topped up with their local whisky and a dash of sprite… we’d sleep well tonight. We turned in to the gentle sound of the waves lapping at the shore and a nice cool sea breeze – perfect.

The moon shines bright above Pre Rup

The next morning the children were waiting to say hello, so we showed them inside the roof tent and around the car. As it was a nice day, we decided to spend the morning by the beach, so idled the time away swinging in their hammocks and playing Carcassone (chess is now banned!!) our highly competitive board game of world domination.. a bit like a simpler version of Risk and highly addictive. I do believe I might be on top of the oluw league.

Not really wanting to leave our relaxation, we finally packed the car after a leisurely lunch, waved goodbye to our new friends and set off north once again, first back to Phnom Penh then onwards into the wild jungle and mysterious temple ruins of Northern Cambodia…

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