Friday, November 9, 2012

Cambodia...and home!

From Don Det in Laos I caught a bus to the Cambodian border with a group of tourists. We got dropped on the Laos side and walked across, through "immigration" (which was a lady sitting in a tent on the side of the road with a thermometer who took our temperature) and waited on the Cambodian side for our visas and bus onwards. An hour and a half later the bus arrived and we set off, only to have the bus break down about 20min in. We waited for two hours on the side of the road for a part to come by motorbike and then it be fixed. I felt really sorry for most of the other tourists as they were traveling to Phnom Penh and some even further Siem Reap (site of the famous Angkor temples), which are massive journeys anyway, let alone with a two hour delay. I had decided to break up the journey to Phnom Penh by stopping the night in Kratie, which I was stoked about when the bus finally dropped me off at 6.30pm, with another 5 hours to Phnom Penh, and another 10 to Siem Reap for the others!

Trying to shelter from the sun behind the bus waiting for mechanic
On arrival at the bus station at Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, the next day we were swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take us to hotels. They were banging on the windows and shouting and then pretty much wrestling each other to get close enough to haggle with us, pretty amusing stuff! I hired a moto-taxi (just a scooter with a driver, of which there are several on every street corner, along with tuk-tuks, all wanting to take you somewhere) and set off to have a look at the Killing Fields.

The Killing Fields are at Choeung Ek, the site where the Khmer Rouge executed about 17,000 people in the late 70's. It is a very sad place, but also very beautiful - a great memorial to those who were killed both there and elsewhere under the Pol Pot regime. It was eerie walking around as everyone was given headphones to listen to the historical commentary, so there was little or no talking, all you could hear was the laughter of the school kids playing at the neighbouring school.

Commemorative 'Stupa', filled with more than 5,000 skulls. Mass graves in the grass in the foreground
A very morbid but powerful memorial
Back in Phnom Penh I stumbled across a mass pilgrimage to the Royal Palace, where thousands of people had gathered to pay tribute to the King, who had passed away last week. I had seen many flags flying at half mast and also photos of the King with flowers and incense burning, and now it made sense why. Everyone was wearing white with a black ribbon on their lapel and most were burning incense which made for a smoky haze across the square. It was an impressive sight, especially when the lights came on on the palace.

Walkway along the Mekong River in Phnom Penh

People paying respects to the King (pictured) outside the Royal palace

From Phnom Penh I bussed south to Sihanoukville, a beach town on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Within minutes of walking onto the beach I had people offering manicures, bracelets, shoe repairs and tuk-tuks and saw a few groups of Aussie bogan backpackers so I decided to find somewhere a little more off the beaten track and got on a boat to Koh Rong island. It was a two hour boat ride to the island from the mainland and I stayed at Paradise Bungalows (the name says it all!), about 100m from the beach. The best thing was it's about 1/4 the price of a motel on Papanui Road - still can't believe how cheap everything is here. It was a stunning island with white sand beaches and crystal clear water and no one hassling me about my toe nails or sandals! I spent hours lazing reading my book and swimming. It was all a little too relaxing so I hiked through the jungle over to the otherside of the island one morning to another beach, which was deserted, bliss!

Rush hour in Phnom Penh...ladies off to work?

There were several international schools in Phnom Penh with hilarious names, including Milky Way, Bright Time, and my favourite: American Idol. Simon Cowell would be so proud.

Small village on island of Koh Rong, with kids demonstrating spear tackling

My own private island, well worth the walk (and my toenails look perfect right?)

Paradise Bungalows

Local kids playing house cleaning

My view most days
I have noticed that many women in Cambodia tend to spend all day in their pyjamas...not sure if this is because they don't want to get sunburnt (women in Cambodia want to be white and are often fully covered up in the sun) or because its just so comfortable, either way they look pretty funny...I even saw one woman carrying planks around a building site in her pink Angry Birds PJs, and shopping in them is totally the norm. I might see if I can get this fashion statement to take off back home.

A lady purchasing live fish at the market in her PJs
I left Koh Rong reluctantly and headed up to Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor temples, catching another 10 hour 'sleeper' bus. Siem Reap is possibly the most touristy place I have visited so far, with millions of visitors per year. I hired a bike, much to the dismay of the tuk-tuk driver who picked me up from the bus station (he did everything in his power to try and convince me that biking around the Angkor temples was a bad idea, even telling me it was very dangerous and that I would get sick!). I followed the advice of a photographer in his online blog suggesting when was best to visit the temples to avoid the crowds, and went to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples (sunrise is when most people visit this temple). It was an amazing sight, especially in the evening sun, and was amazed at the freedom you have to clamber over ruins from the 12th century.
Reflections in the moat surrounding Angkor Wat temple

Entrance to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Two monks heading home for dinner

Entrance to Angkor Wat
The next day I was up at 5am following my online advice to beat the crowds to the other temples. The advice was I cycled out to the site there were literally hundreds of tuk-tuks and buses heading to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. I biked past and headed to check out the other temples in the park. The area where the temples are located is massive, covering 400 square km, with the ruins hidden in amongst the jungle and the outlying rice fields. I had most of the temples to myself, bar the odd tourist who had the same idea. It was magical cycling through the jungle at first light listening to the noise of the birds and insects, and then to be able to explore the temples in the quiet was a treat, even if a little eerie! My favourite part about the temples were the massive trees that had grown through and over the ruins, looking almost like giant alien fingers grabbing hold of the stones.

Dawn sky over Bayon (Angkor Thom's central temple)

Preah Khan

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm
Faces carved into the stone of archways leading into Angkor Thom
The area where the temples are located is massive, covering 400 square km, with the ruins hidden in amongst the jungle and the outlying rice fields. By 8.30am I had caught up with the masses and had to contend with weaving my way through huge groups tours for the last few temples I wanted to visit. I have to admit I have become a bit of a tourist snob and can't stand following along with the masses! This is where it was great to have a bike as you could get onto the smaller paths where the tuk-tuks couldn't go. I even managed to see a monkey walk across the path.

Aghh they found me!

Off the beaten track...the monkey wouldn't sit still for the photo
I biked back to Siem Reap and treated myself to a foot massage after a hard day temple viewing...but not your traditional 'hands on' massage, instead I sat on the edge of a pool and had a whole lot of little fish nibbling at my feet and toes...very tickly but also great fun sitting there watching them eat my dead skin. I was walking through the streets when I heard my name and turned around to see Mike and Kate was a lovely surprise to see familiar faces from home. They are on their way to do a bike tour around Laos so was good to swap some stories.

Dead skin delicacy for dinner

Kate and Mike and I sweating in the streets of Siem Reap

From Siem Reap I caught a bus at 6am to the Thai border, walked across the border and then caught a train to Bangkok. There were a whole lot of seedy casinos at the border on the Cambodian side, attracting Thai tourists (gambling is illegal in Thailand). The train cost me $1.50 and took 6 hours. The train ran to Swiss precision timing, surprisingly, to the point that at most stations it stopped for all of about 5 seconds to allow passengers to quickly jump off or on and kept to its schedule. It was only minus the Swiss comforts, with there only being 3rd class carriages with hard seats and open doors and windows for air-con. I decided to take the train as it was far cheaper than the bus and there is something about train travel that I love...and it was well worth it as the views were stunning with thunderstorms brewing across the rice fields. Normally train travel gets a little boring when it gets dark, but this time Thailand put on the most amazing lightning show I have ever seen, with fork lightning going up, down and across the sky. It was great until it dawned on me that I was sitting in a steel train on steel tracks and was slightly concerned that we might get struck!

Storm clouds brewing near Bangkok
I arrived safely in Bangkok where I had a day to have a look around and have a few last Asian gastro treats, including authentic Thai pad thai and my favourite whilst traveling through SE Asia - deep fried bananas. The next day I caught the plane to Singapore to stay with my friend and old uni flatmate Cath, her husband Tom and little boy Angus. It was Halloween so I got to partake in a Halloween party for the kids, complete with dress up parade around the pool and trick-or-treating. Singapore was like another world after the places I had been, with no rubbish, pristine parks and streets and Lamborghinis driving past shops selling Gucci! Oh and the Christmas decorations were all out on Orchard Road, far too early for my liking.

Deep fried bananas, one of my "5+ a day"
Angus the super cute pumpkin off to the Halloween party

From Singapore I jumped on the big bird and flew to Auckland for the final leg of the journey. I was met by my heavily pregnant sister Nina (due on Monday!) and her husband Paul and had a lovely few days chilling out with them in Auckland (where for the first time in my life I wore my puffer jacket and felt cold!) before flying south to Lake Hawea, aka Paradise.

Flying over Lake Hawea en-route to Queenstown on a pristine Central Otago day

Its sooo good to be home - Lake Hawea from the deck of the Log House
So that's my adventure from Valencia, Spain, where my athletic journey ended back on 4th July, right back to New Zealand. I covered more than 35,000km in four months stopping in 19 countries along the way. There were some incredible and varied experiences - Bruce Springsteen in concert in Vienna, paragliding in the Dolomites, watching Usain Bolt win gold live in the Olympic Stadium, goat polo in Kyrgyzstan, camping in the Turkmenistan desert, mass gymnastic performances in North Korea and swimming off white sand beaches in Cambodia, just to name a few. I loved the simple life living out of a backpack, crossing international borders by foot, the daily challenges of communicating with locals, finding your way around and finding a place to stay, meeting great people, the amazing sights and scenery, and sampling the local cuisine. The journey was a great way to put into perspective the injury on the long jump runway in Ratingen that ultimately sealed my London Olympic fate and was just the tonic I needed to be able to return to New Zealand ready to tackle the next phase in life....for now job hunting to fund the next travel adventures!!

Valencia to Lake Hawea. If you like you can see more detail on the live map here.