Cycling, Silk and Catan

Our first ferry of the day across the Mekong River

Our first ferry of the day across the Mekong River

Yesterday was almost completely indoor downtime! Apart from a quick dip in the pool before a light buffet dinner on the veranda, neither of us left the house. I spent most of the day online, uploading photographs from the trip and preparing blog posts. Today though, we felt we should do something with our last hours in Cambodia and booked a cycle tour around the islands and peninsulas in the rivers just off central Phnom Penh.

I suspect it was our guide, Somnang’s first time leading the tour as he repeatedly had to call his sister (who owned the tour company) for instructions and directions. He was also quite hazy on many of the cultural questions we asked him. Nevertheless, it was a lovely trip at a leisurely pace around a bit of rural Cambodia; we weren’t in a coach, we weren’t with a big group and we weren’t pre-organised. It felt like a more genuine slice of Cambodia than we had really gotten with our homestay or family meal.

The west side of the river; expensive hotel

The west side of the river; expensive hotel

We started with a ferry across the Mekong downstream of its merger with the Tonlé Sap; a clear contrast between the expensive-looking hotels on the west (Phnom Penh) side and the ramshackle stilt houses on the east. We stopped briefly at a mosque(?) but it quickly became clear from the statues of the virgin and the stations of the cross around the walls that Somnang had gotten Islam and Christianity confused. We stopped at several pagodas along the way, some of them quite extensive complexes where the monks ran schools for local children. One of them, in what I think is a pun in Khmer, had statues of prawns outside. It was very strange; the kind of thing that gives children nightmares!

The east side of the river; a shanty town

The east side of the river; a shanty town

The bikes we had were not the best I’ve ever seen and, despite calling us to ask about our heights, they didn’t have a bike with a frame that was really large enough for me. So I started off riding a hybrid bike with its seat on maximum extension. Unfortunately because of the leverage my weight exerted on the seat post, I managed to split the seat tube/retainer and my seat tilted backwards. Somnang, who was quite a bit shorter than me, swapped bikes though and I was much happier with the mountain bike he had been riding, despite its almost completely ineffective brakes.

The cocoons ready for carding

The cocoons ready for carding

The tour was titled Silk Islands Cycling so one of our stops was at a silk weaving house along the way. We had time for refreshments and a chat with the young ladies who ran the place. We saw the young silkworms before they form their cocoons and also the raw silk after they have emerged – something so incredibly coarse you wouldn’t think it could be the same essential fibre!

Our next ferry ride, across one of the Mekong branches was an interesting affair. The boat was quite small. We arrived, parked up our bikes with a couple of others to one side and sought shade. The covered seating surrounded the engine which was exposed and chugging away in the centre of the small cabin, with turning crankshafts running in three directions and the control cables from the bridge above revealed as little more than well-knotted string. That, along with the diesel fumes which were clearly not being taken down the exhaust pipe, didn’t inspire confidence… and yet the trip went off without incident!

Our second ferry of the day

Our second ferry of the day

Shortly after we sat down, a group of Japanese tourists on very shiny bikes cycled up and boarded. The women were expensively (and, IMHO, inappropriately) dressed for a cycle trip. Several of them were wearing delicate pumps, socks, full-length trousers and blouses, along with gloves. It seemed strange attire, although I recalled something historic about tanned skin being a sign of the working class, meaning Japanese ladies are extremely keen to avoid the sun. I wondered if this was cause…

Lunch was a somewhat random affair. We were cycling down quite a good concrete road between small houses and pulled up at one. Somnang had a chat with the family who lived there and the lady of the house started putting together a table for us. I asked him how they were related and he told me they weren’t, but that this was the village he grew up in so everyone was close. (I was a little curious about why he kept taking wrong turns if this was where he’d grown up…)

A little while later his sister arrived on a moped with lunch in an insulated box; a home-cooked curry and rice that she’d brought over from her house in the city! It all seemed a little random to turn up on this family, use their furniture to eat our lunch off and then go on our way, but no-one seemed to be put out by it.

A monk lunching in the pagoda

A monk lunching in the pagoda

One of the most memorable things about this excursion was how friendly everyone was. Everyone we passed acknowledged us and the children under about eight uniformly smiled, waved and called out hello to us as we passed. If we were going slow enough they would ask us our name too!

Once we were back in the city, the return trip was pretty memorable too; we cycled for maybe a mile or so the wrong way down a reasonably major road, at one point nearly colliding with a moped pulling out from behind a parked van! After a while we pulled over on a side street and Somnang started calling people on his phone, although it seemed that no-one was answering. After a while we got him to explain that he was trying to get hold of either his sister or the tuk-tuk driver who had collected us this morning to take us home again. He wandered off to wait at the road junction, so after a while we sat down in the bar we were standing next to and ordered cool drinks.

In due course our ride home arrived and we set off. Ten minutes away from home, the heavens opened and the afternoon rain began.

We stopped only briefly at the house; just long enough to dump our bags and pick up umbrellas. Then we headed back out for a final massage; another deep-tissue session that left us very thoroughly relaxed once again.

Phnom Penh in the rain

Phnom Penh in the rain

Unlike our first day, however, the rain had not stopped by the time we were finished and we got a first-hand look at what Monsoon Season really means! It’s hard to credit how much water can come down so quickly, but it does! As we walked back to the house, most of the roads were flooded at least as high as the kerb and, in some places, overflowing onto the pavement as well!

At some point on our first evening with Mark and Chris, the subject had turned to a board game called Settlers of Catan. It’s something Brett’s family plays and also, it seems, something that Mark and Chris have gotten into with their friends here in Phnom Penh! And so it was that our last night was scheduled at home with them, Jeff and Matt to play games.

Chris had put together a lovely dinner. We brought along a half-case of wine and Jeff and Matt brought the game.

Once we started playing, everyone was quite competitive; there is clearly a history between the two other couples. Brett and I, on the other hand, had only played a few times (some years ago) and took a while to get back up to speed with the strategy. As a result we were not doing too well towards the end of the game… until I threw my support behind Brett and, in no time at all, he’d come from behind to win!

I don’t think the others had ever considered playing a co-operative game before…!

Once the game was over though, it was time to say our goodbyes to Jeff and Matt and head back upstairs to pack ready for the morning. Our Cambodian adventure was over.

Sunset on the Mekong River

Sunset on the Mekong River

Relaxing in Phnom Penh

For only having gotten into bed at 01:30, I was wide awake at 06:30 and, while I revelled in the snugness of the bed for a time, I was up, showered and dressed before 07:00. In the kitchen Chris had laid out the makings of breakfast and as I was getting coffee sorted Mark appeared to say hello. He is pretty busy at work at the moment, so could only chat for a short while before he had to leave and I finished breakfast with Chris on the veranda.

There were no firm plans for the day and, after the speed of events on the tour, we were both ready for an easier pace. A couple of hours online, then we headed out to a nearby spa for a deep-tissue massage before food. Brett got a manicure and pedicure too as he was feeling particularly indulgent! While we were on the couches, the heavens opened outside and the monsoon rain came down. It was quite a soothing background to the massage but had moved on by the time we were done. Talk about good timing!

We tried the Freebird restaurant for lunch and I had a very nice cheeseburger – it could almost have been a diner in the US somewhere, if they weren’t chatting in Khmer behind the bar.

Brett kept admiring his perfect fingernails.

Mark was home briefly around 5pm and we all took Theo out for a walk in a park near the Royal Palace. Sadly he rarely gets let off the lead because of the risk of dog theft! People will tempt your dog away and then grab them into the back of a van and you never see them again. Nasty stuff!

It was interesting walking around the park. Lots of people were out, either kicking a small football around a circle of guys, playing badminton with a friend or joining in one of the several line-dancing-style aerobic sessions that were taking place around the place. In one case two sessions were taking place directly across from each other, so it was hard to work out quite which music people should be moving to…

Mark had a work event to attend in the early evening, so we hung out with Chris and enjoyed pre-dinner spring rolls along with a G&T or two before getting a tuk-tuk off to a restaurant called Deco. Mark joined us when his thing was finished and we dined on some really delicious food. I started with Scotch Quail Eggs, followed with a succulent piece of roast chicken and had probably the best Sticky Toffee Pudding I’ve ever had for dessert! Soft, flavourful and not overly sweet, it was a perfect finale to the meal. This city has suddenly become Phnom nom nom Penh!

Phnom Penh Again

On the road to Phnom Penh

On the road to Phnom Penh

We were on another public bus today for our return trip to Phnom Penh. As a result we were up early to breakfast before the 07:30 departure time. My sunburn seemed to have calmed down somewhat overnight; where yesterday it looked like it would be painful and peeling in due course, today it just looked like I’d overdone the tanning a little bit. It was only uncomfortable in a few small locations, so I think I’ve lucked-out on that!

The bus journey was unremarkable. I spent most of it getting reacquainted with my music collection and staring out of the window. I managed to miss a great photo opportunity looking up the length of a lush valley towards the mountains though and then spent most of the rest of the trip with camera in hand futilely hoping I would get a second chance.

The Throne Hall of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The Throne Hall of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

We lunched at one of the many restaurants along the riverside again as the Friends NGO restaurant was shut (again)! Afterwards we went on to tour the Royal Palace which was pretty and very well maintained, but I think overshadowed by our memories of the glittering Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The Silver Pagoda does merit mention though, partly for its floor made entirely of silver blocks and partly for its enormous collection of Buddha statuettes. Like the Thai Temple of the Emerald Buddha, there is a raised dais on which sits an image carved of jade and numerous golden images on the tiers below it. Unlike Bangkok, though, the walls are lined with glass display cases exhibiting the numerous other Buddha statues that have been gifted to the King over the years. So many of them are almost identical and displayed in rows that you could think you had wondered into the gift shop by mistake!

Monks strolling in the grounds of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Monks strolling in the grounds of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

During the day I had been having a text-message conversation with Chris (one of the friends with whom we would be spending a few days in Phnom Penh) about the logistics of meeting up. It was all looking terribly complicated as they had commitments and our schedule kept slipping, but we managed to meet up after the palace for Chris to give us a key to their place so that we could arrive late if need be. We met in the park near the Palace as he was walking their dog, Theo, who has grown so much since we last saw him in Sri Lanka three years ago!

After a bit of a catch up with Chris we headed back to our guest house to shower and change for dinner. We’d arranged for the last dinner to be at almost the same place as we were at when we were here a few days ago; the River Crown, which is owned by the same people and on the floor above Touk. We had the same al fresco ambiance overlooking the river and the same menu (and cocktail happy hour!) but sadly didn’t have the pool table.

Our farewell dinner with the group

Our farewell dinner with the group

We all ordered more cocktails than we probably should have, but they took so long to arrive that nobody got overly drunk. (Pete and Marc inevitably started ordering jugs of beer.) We’d learned at some point that drinking gin makes Pete overly emotional and he often ends up crying after drinking it so, being a tad mischievous, I ordered him several large Gin & Tonics over the course of the evening; it would have been so flattering for someone to be in tears at our leaving the group…!

It turns out he is a tougher nut to crack than that and he lasted the evening in a seemingly very good mood. In fact the whole evening was quite convivial. Brett and I managed to talk a while with most everyone, although I didn’t quite catch up with Monica and Ana or Jenyfer. Panha made a little speech wishing us well and there were hugs all round as we left the restaurant.

Brett with Pete and Ana

Brett with Pete and Ana

Instead of heading straight over to Mark & Chris’ place as we’d planned though, we agreed to host an impromptu poker game in our guest house room. So in due course, Julia, Marc, Tim, Lucy & Annie all came along to play for the toothpicks that someone had lifted from the restaurant. Pete and Ana decided to get an early night as the remaining group had an early start for Ho Chi Min City in the morning (although, I suspect Pete really just wanted to go off and sob in privacy…)

Despite (or perhaps because of) several of the players being new to the game we had a good time. Marc turned out to be more of a savvy player than most – so Brett and I decided we were happy he lived on a different continent and wouldn’t be able to invite him to our regular games! I actually did quite well compared to my normal showing, finishing the evening as one of the winners!

The game did eventually wind down though, people left and Brett and I finally packed up our packs and headed out. Perversely we only came across one tuk-tuk on the road and the driver appeared to be stoned, so we passed on that and walked over to Mark & Chris’ place – which wasn’t really that far in the evening air.

I was surprised in the end how emotional I felt about it all. From my own time leading tours, I know the dynamic of the group can make or break the holiday for everyone on it. We had a pretty good group; while not everyone got on splendidly, there was no-one who especially got on people’s nerves. I feel I have met some really decent, interesting people and I hope we are able to keep in touch with them in the time to come. I really feel we have made some new friends in these ten days, which is an unexpected bonus to the trip itself. I feel sorry to be leaving them early and wish them all the best for their time in Vietnam and journeys home!

The Island

Today we had booked a day on one of the small islands in the Gulf but Brett had picked up some food poisoning and didn’t want to risk being away from the hotel plumbing for too long. (He jokingly suggested that this was the revenge of the King Prawn he ate last night, whose royalty he had mocked as he beheaded it…) As a result though, I did the island trip by myself as he rested and recovered.

On the boat to Koh Ru

On the boat to Koh Ru

After breakfast those of us who were taking the trip headed out to the jetty by tuk-tuk and boarded a boat considerably smaller than the one we all seemed to have imagined. I think most of us had expected a two-decked pleasure cruiser. Instead it was a slightly larger version of the long boat we’d toured Bangkok’s canals in; wooden benches and a canopy. It didn’t look capable of reaching as far as the islands on the horizon!

The ride was fairly bouncy but being so open and close to the water gave the trip a certain exhilaration. We made our first stop after maybe forty minutes, just off Koh Preus to do some snorkelling over the coral reef there. I am not much of a swimmer so, although I had a go with the snorkel, the mask didn’t get a good seal because of my beard and I decided to give it a miss and just floated around in the shade by the boat, which was pleasant enough.

Ed with his snorkel

Ed with his snorkel

After maybe an hour here, we took another thirty-minute ride over to the small island of Koh Ru where there was a lovely long stretch of beach with a beach bar, toilets and plenty of deckchairs. We were one of several parties doing a similar trip, but there was enough space for it not to feel crowded and, away from the facilities, it was an idyllic desert-island beach of the kind you typically only see in the holiday brochures.

We had an hour to kill while the crew cooked us a barbeque lunch. Some of the group took up spots on the deck chairs in the shade. I went for a walk to explore both ends of the beach and take some photographs. The lunch was good; grilled chicken, salad and vegetable rice. All very tasty!

Ed and Claire on Koh Ru

Ed and Claire on Koh Ru

After lunch we walked across the narrow neck of the island to an even more picturesque beach on the south side. This beach was almost entirely deserted and for most of the afternoon we had it to ourselves. We all went swimming for a while in the warm water. I persuaded Tim (who has a great physique and smouldering eyes) to do some modelling for me and we got some really good shots in the surf; a bit of an homage to the scene from Casino Royale where Bond emerges from the surf and walks up the beach. I imagine they will be a big hit if he chooses to publish any of them on Facebook!

Amelia and

Amelia and “Sandkor Wat”

Amelia spent a while building a large sand castle near the tide line which she named Sandkor Wat, but sadly she couldn’t manage to get the surf to flow into the moat. There was some volleyball in the surf and later on the beach too. I gave up after a while as it became exhausting running through the waves to retrieve lost balls and went over to a beach shack where there were a number of hammocks.

That was a real idyllic moment; lying in the hammock, swaying gently, with a breeze gently wafting over me and just the sound of the surf as I looked out over the waves. It was a very special part of the day.

Eventually we had to head back to the northern beach though and the boat back to the mainland.

The beach idyll on Koh Ru

The beach idyll on Koh Ru

The journey was somewhat more choppy than the trip out; there were a couple of moments as we cleared the island’s coast that the waves threatened to swamp or possibly capsize us! We donned life-jackets as a precaution and I got my camera memory card into the waterproof Ziploc in my pocket with my phone just in case, but the rest of the ride was less dramatic. We got thoroughly wet with the spray and I got rather sunburned down my left side. There was also some difficulty disembarking the boat when we reached the pier because of the swell, but we did make it home intact!

It felt really great though to peel off my soggy, salt-infused clothes and get into a shower. The after-sun lotion helped quite a bit afterwards too!

We had a few hours before dinner and I was feeling so good that I worked through the photographs I’d taken so I could take them along on my phone to show everyone. We ate with the couples and stopped off at a Blue Pumpkin for ice cream before a drink on the beach. I was still feeling fairly tired and Brett wasn’t entirely recovered from his dodgy digestion so, after maybe half an hour of drinking a smoothie and watching the ocean, we headed home to bed.

Tourist boat off the island of Koh Preus

Tourist boat off the island of Koh Preus

Waterfalls and Fireworks

In the morning I was cursing myself for not bringing flip-flops. The Cambodian custom of taking your shoes off before entering a house is much easier when you don’t have to muck about with sandals and Velcro. I was the first of our group awake so popped on my swim shorts and had a “shower” at the rainwater tub; just a big water cistern by the house with a bowl to scoop up the water to rinse yourself down with. Anywhere else the water would have been too cold for me, but here it was quite a pleasant temperature – and nowhere else have I been able to dry myself off after a shower by just standing there (in the garden) and letting the breeze do it!

While I was waiting for the rest of the group to wake up, I dug out my laptop and showed the father some of my photos of Bangkok and Angkor. Then it was time to say goodbye and we boarded the coach for the short drive back to the community centre for breakfast and our morning excursion. Most of us did the trek up to a nearby waterfall while the others took a cart out to see the paddy fields in operation.

The waterfall a few kilometres from our Homestay

The waterfall a few kilometres from our Homestay

The waterfall trek wasn’t particularly hard, but it was extremely hot and humid as we trekked uphill through the jungle. It was worth it though as the 14m drop was so picturesque! After seeing the waterfall itself we spent a while bathing in the run-off pool near its base before heading (via an extremely treacherous, barely discernible trail!) to another larger pool a little downstream. The water was deeper here, but the footing less certain so you had to proceed with extreme caution to make sure you didn’t stub your toe or lose your balance and go flying into a boulder.

The pool was populated by tiny (and some not so tiny!) fish and if you stood still long enough, they would come and nibble at you! I have never had one of the fish-pedicures – even though there were plenty of them on offer in the places we’ve been – so I was a little bit unused to the sensation, especially as I couldn’t always see my feet or what was doing the nibbling. Every now and then a larger fish would have a go and I would imagine myself losing a toe and scream like a girl. Not my finest hour! The water in the pool was deliciously cool though and refreshing after the heat and humidity of the climb, so it was very welcome and I found I could put up with a certain amount of being fish food to enjoy it.

Bathing in the waterfall run-off

Bathing in the waterfall run-off

Walking through the jungle we were constantly stepping over lines of ants going about their business. I counted no less than six different types – some of them quite large. I was wary enough of them in my sandals and suddenly rather glad I wasn’t in flip-flops! In fact, given the ruggedness of the trail, I think people should really have been told not to do the trip in flip-flops at all.

After another bumpy ride down the dirt-track road with its dubious-looking bridges we were back on the highway and heading for the seaside town of Sihanoukville a couple of hours away. It was quite the contrast from the rural homestay; a backpacker hotspot with restaurants and beach bars all competing for the large western contingent’s business.

We got settled into the room and Brett headed out to search the tourist shops for a pair of swimming shorts. I spent a while in the foyer using the wi-fi before taking a nap as my resources were pretty low after the restless night.

We had a group dinner that evening in a nearby restaurant. We sat down in the open air but it shortly started to rain so we moved inside to eat… and then moved back out after the food to drink in the fresher air once the rain had stopped. After the other night in Phnom Penh, the men in the party have bonded rather over drinking jugs of beer together..!

This afternoon Lucy, Annie and Tim had been down to the beach to have a look around and rather got swamped by the hawkers. As a result Tim came back with both a fresh manicure and three roman candle fireworks which he went to fetch after dinner and we all went down to the beach to let them off.

Apparently fireworks are quite tightly regulated in Australia and it sounds like most people don’t bother with them, as a result there isn’t much awareness of the firework code…

Aftermath of the firework incident

Aftermath of the firework incident

So when Tim lit the four-foot long roman candle while holding it like a sparkler, there was a certain slow-motion inevitability to what happened next. It was clear, as it started to go off, that he realised he should have planted it first and began trying to do that. Unfortunately the quality of the fireworks was poor; not all of the stars were getting much velocity and one of them misfired into his face.

Luckily – so incredibly luckily! – it didn’t hit him square in the eye. He was left with some powder burns over his left eye and a bit of blurred vision from the scorching, but was otherwise unharmed. To add insult to injury, at some point in the following minutes, someone stole his wallet too so he spent the rest of the evening on Panha’s phone looking up and then calling his bank back in Aus to cancel the cards.

The next day, Tim’s sight had returned to normal. He was also able to borrow money until he could get some more organised so, while it was not an evening I think any of us will forget in a hurry it could, on balance, have been a whole lot worse!

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