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Up the Irawaddy

In search of the Mekong River Dolphin of Northern Cambodia

sunny 30 °C

After 25 years of hopefully looking around on every boat ride I have ever been on in hope an unexpected dolphin might swim by (and 25 years of being disappointed that this has never happened to me wherever in the world I had been) I had begun to think that dolphins were either mythical or had some sort of aversion to me. For years I have looked enviously at people's holiday photos where dolphins have swum alongside their boat or jumped up in front of them unexpectedly. I have to admit that of you guys (you all know who you are) I have been green with envy.

Therefore when Andy suggested we change our current plan, to go straight to Vietnam, and instead head through Cambodia up the Mekong River in search of the rare Irawaddy River Dolphin. I was enthusiastic, but also wary that my curse of being a dolphin vaccination might also rub off on him. When he informed me that there are only 170 of these rare dolphins left in the world and are rare to see at all, I lost all hope. However, with one enthusiastic fiancé suffering from dolphin mania, I shelved my scepticism and we embarked on a 6 hour bus ride to North Eastern Cambodia, to the town of Kratie. After all, it was the only corner of Cambodia we had not visited.

Kratie Landscape
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From arriving it became clear that the town was not a massive tourist destination, and the few people that did arrive there were solely in search of the illusive dolphin. This was clear from the fact that the few restaurants and hotels around were either called “Dolphin” or “Mekong River” or a combination of the two. You would be impressed how many combinations they came up with. The buildings that were not these tended to be shops selling wooden statues of dolphins kissing, or statues of baskets of fruit (I have no real explanation for this anomaly but thought it best to be accurate). As soon as we got off the bus we were greeted by a friendly guest house owner (predictable guest house name; 'Silver Dolphin') who kept asking us whether we wanted to go see the dolphins right now.

I started daring myself to hope that this was the time that dolphins might be prepared to forgive me for however I had wronged them in the past. Instead of heading out in a rush we waited until the next day and spent the evening exploring the one street that is Kratie. It didn't take very long so we instead decided that beer on the balcony of our river view hotel room might be the best way to curb our excitement.

Setting out on 'Dolphin Day' (the alternative D-Day as it shall now be forever called) we were again quoted a ridiculous price for a tuk tuk and a ridiculously cheap one for a scooter so took off again on our own wheels along the Mekong riverside road to the 'dolphin site'. The drive took us through a whole set of stilted Cambodian wooden villages standing precariously on their four legs along the scenic river that was filled with tiny islands and the odd fisherman checking his nets; on equally as precariously balanced stilts. The breeze from the ride was appreciated as the afternoon sun in this part of the Mekong basin is boiling to say the least. The villages appeared to be entirely inhabited by children and animals as all the parents were working in the fields and rice paddies of the area. Kids were chasing and waving as we rode through laughing along with us as we pulled away. We had to stop for numerous chickens crossing the road in front of us *pause for chicken crossing the road jokes... enter your own here*.

We knew we had arrived at the dolphin site not from the hordes of tourists, as there were none, but from the life size statue of the Irawaddy dolphin that stood at the typically Cambodian entrance gate. This consisted of a sleepy but smiley Cambodian bloke behind a wooden desk next to an old woman with a cool box full of coca-cola and beer and a grill full of sardines on skewers. Still sceptical we paid our entrance fee, and were waved in the general direction of an equally sleepy and smiley looking bloke who had a boat that he pulled up almost to the shore for you to jump on. This is another typical Cambodian trait. It would be just as easy to pull the boats up entirely or build a slightly longer jetty, but they like the laugh of watching you jump awkwardly onto the boat, or more regularly in my case, fall head first into or out of the boat without any grace at all to the amusement of the crowd of boatmen and children.

We drifted into a beautiful pool area in the middle of the river while the boat man indicated for us to be quiet. We were unsure as to whether this was not to disturb the dolphins or whether he just wanted to sit in peace as he steered the boat with one foot and chain smoked silently. Not three minutes since we had left the shore, Andy suddenly jumped to his feet and whispered/yelped 'Dolphin! Dolphin!'. Suddenly we did not know where to look as the peaceful river dolphins broke the silent and calm surface of the river to breath all around the boat, about 10 foot away at every side. About 12 dolphins in total sauntered around the boat for the next hour coming as close as 5 foot away at times seemingly not bothered by our presence.

Dolphin and Boat
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More Dolphins
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Now, the bottle-nose dolphin is famed for it's friendly disposition and its hilarious nose. The Irawaddy dolphin is not as famous because it is not as plentiful and not quite as pleasing to the eye. In fact they have no nose at all and are pretty downright ugly. Ask Andy for his description of what they resemble. I won't be as crude to include it here but apparently it involves an area of the body that I don't myself have. However, I'll quote Kirsty Allsop here, it is all about 'Location, Location, Location' and when picking this area for their home of choice, the Irawaddy dolphin's have struck residential gold. The dipping hills behind the river landscape, the hot sun beaming and reflecting on the water and the tiny islands drifting along. Add to this the friendly neighbours in the Cambodians, who are desperate not to disturb the dolphins as they believe them to be reincarnations of people who have died, and you have a peaceful and lovely living environment. If you ever are in the area and you think that the 6 hour journey might not be worth it...you are wrong, it is!

Dolphins once again
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Thoroughly chuffed we jumped off the boat (without falling this time!) and headed back for the sunset. As you leave you are informed that the money you paid for the boat, 'Thank visitor please, all money you pay goes straight to the dolphins please'. I'm going to say that if these dolphins carry on being so entertaining then they better get a bank account to store all their dollars, as with the opening of more border crossings in Northern Cambodia and the building of more River Dolphin hotels in process, Kratie might be getting more tourist traffic in the future.

After discussion we decided that we felt satisfied with our Cambodia adventure and were ready to follow the river further North and get ourselves into a new country. Planning a stop over in Stung Treng, we got off the bus to find ourselves immediately boarding another one bound for Laos without the stop. As we found, all the best decisions to move on to pastures new are made spontaneously...

Posted by Annie Thornton 05:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia dolphins mekong kratie irawaddy_dolphin Comments (0)

Cultural Capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh

sunny 28 °C

After celebrating our last night with the group before we went our separate ways we found that the party was premature and through a strange twist in the fate of all our travel plans, we were all heading to Phnom Penh for stop overs before departing in three directions across Cambodia.
Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, is a low rise but charming place although it's hectic development cannot be described as beautiful. It is in Phnom Penh where the reality of the atrocities of what the Cambodian people have had to live through is brought home to you. As such, we spent some real time in the city visiting the historical sites and learning as much as we could about the background to Cambodia. As a result this blog entry is understandably lacking many of the jokes that we previously fit in. There is also no pictures from this section of the holiday as we decided it was more respectful to learn rather than photograph. Heed the warning... you might want to stop reading now!

When you visit this city and meet the cheery smiling people it is very difficult to believe that so recently the life of the cities inhabitants was so brutally and violently disrupted. On April 17 1975 Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and took the city as a start of the Red 'Revolution' that over the next four years led a cruel regieme to 'cleanse' the population of modern elements by murdering the educated, the young, old and disabled who were unable to work on their communal farms and anyone else that upset the leaders. Through the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, a quarter of the population of Cambodia died (+3million) in horrendous circumstances, lost their homes, had their families split up and suffered torture and violent re-education. We had some knowledge of what had happened during this period from films and books but when in Phnom Penh and visiting sites such as S-21, the prison where suspected dissidents were held and tortured, and the Killing Fields, where Cambodians were murdered and put in mass graves, the whole period was suddently very real and clear.

The sites are still preserved to educate on the atrocities and they promote the belief that by allowing and encouraging people to visit and understand what happened in Cambodia, it would work to stop similar terrible events happening again in the world. It also works to educate young Cambodians about their own history so that they can fully understand and appreciate the suffering of their own relatives. This is particularly important in a country where 31% of the population are under 14 and only 3% of the population are over 65. The impact left from visiting these sites showed us that the Cambodian's are successful in promoting these sites and educating people about their history. I would, strangely, reccommend a visit as it was both horrible and fascinating. However, I would also recommend a very strong drink afterwards as it is the most depressing day I have had for a long time.

After stocking up on a new Casio watch each and meandering down the river we decided to head North through Cambodia to cheer ourselves up with one of Cambodia's beautiful and altogether more cheerful attractions, the rare Irawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River.

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:09 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh killing_fields s_21 Comments (0)

Rabbit Island

Island Adventures

sunny 32 °C

Rabbit Island, off the coast of Kep, had become something of a fantasy land to us over the week before we set out. Over tipsy evenings of numerous bottles of non-Cambodian wine we had discussed the mythical facets of the island until it became a combination of an ideal and deserted wonderland of palm groves and beer trees, a centre hold of the Mormon international religion where rabbits were used both as the primary food group and as the internal currency and the location of the little known, but equally as real, alternative ‘Full Moon Party’ that could trump that of Koh Pahngan two hundred times over and was ridiculously elite and secret.

Arriving by a boat filled with five of us, one driver, two crates of Beer Laos, wine, whiskey, pringles, water and mosquito coils (the result of the boys going shopping without supervision) to sustain us for three days… we found that the island was tiny, beautiful, quiet with only a smattering of beach huts among the palm trees along the golden beach. There were for the moment no Mormons or rabbits in sight but we were assured that the moon was full and we were satisfied with the somewhat more convenient compromise from what we had imagined. Luckily our beach huts were accompanied by a little restaurant that meant that we did not have to ration the three packets of pringles and could instead eat a packet to convert the tube into a speaker booster for the full moon party later that night.

The beach huts were simple structures up ladders on stilts. They were not un-similar to the wendy house that Sophie has in the garden at Ian and Sue’s; apart from with the height of course. We had three bungalows reserved for the five of us. Andrew went to choose. There was the choice of being under a tree or having a proper Western throne toilet. Andrew chose the treeless option which I initially condemned him for as we had the Cambodian squat. I ate my words however when I discovered that out of trees come bright green snakes and tarantulas looking for a quiet space to chill out. We survived three days beasty free (excluding a hilarious frog who thought that the water bucket next to the squat toilet was a peaceful place to relax… how wrong he was). Unfortunately for the other guys, they were not as lucky and became subject to the zoo that took up in their bungalows. Over the next two days, trips to the toilet in the bungalows became accompanied with shrieks and screams as three foot long snakes slithered past when they were mid flow. Trips to bed were preceded by a full beasty inspection expedition. These investigations were not helped by the lack of electricity and involved spinning round in the middle of the bed with a head torch.

Rabbit Island is not a place with really anything constructive to do and you are therefore required to make your own fun. Andy was made up now that he had a new work group to construct the sand fort he had been dreaming of for many a year. All his past attempts seemed like scale models of the original by the time the ‘sustainable development’ was completed and a beer Laos flag topped its front. There was a tense moment when the local kids found that the fort was an entertaining new play area and messed with Andy’s turrets. Luckily Will managed to calm the situation by convincing them to build their own miniature settlement just outside the fort walls (which resembled a refugee camp from the encroaching domination of the Beer Laos forces… perhaps not!) Apart from providing three hours of entertainment for the chaps which allowed me and Lucy to relax on the beach, the fort also provided a perfect arena for the bonfire and full moon party once the sun set over the calm waters of the gulf of Thailand.

I will not bore you with our drinking games and antics over the course of the evening apart from saying it was loads of fun and punctuated with night time swims in the sea before returning to the bonfire to warm up and dry. Also I don’t think I can fully explain the hilarity of watching Andre repeatedly punch the sand in an angry fashion whilst we all sat around watching him in confusion steadily. It was a strange venue to play charades and it took us 45 minutes of watching Andre do this before we finally established he was attempting to portray ‘Die Hard’. He did not find the scars the next day on his hands as funny as we found it at the time.

After a two hour trek around the island the next day we found ourselves back on the beach for further relaxation before another night of beach party. Again the beach party consisted just of us five, but tonight we were joined by a a very strange Slovenian bloke who returned when we had headed to bed to do naked yoga on the beach in front of Andre's hut under the moonlight!

Excluding the naked European, Rabbit Island was a brilliant tropical holiday within a holiday. Like all good holidays, it was one that we needed to detox after for a week to recover! Heading back to the mainland we started planning to get back on the road to the capital of Cambodia.

Posted by Annie Thornton 01:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia island kep rabbit_island kampot_province Comments (0)

Backwaters to Battambang...

Cruising into Cambodia...

sunny 32 °C

Siam Reap brought Angkor Wat and Angkor Beer and Angkor Beef Roast (well maybe that is not branded Angkor… yet) and after our Christmas decadence we took off from the home of the Cooks to explore the rest of Cambodia with no real plan but a fistful of dreams.
We decided to head to Battambang. This was initially because it has a hilarious name but we found there was much more to it.
Searching out our transport options we were faced with a choice...

1) A three hour bus journey
2) An eight hour boat journey through floating villages on the Tonle Sap River and across the Tonle Sap Lake

No competition when there is some boating on offer. We boarded our craft with 32 seats and set up in a tiny double seat. Then 30 other people boarded the craft and took their seats. Then 142 other people boarded the boat and set up on the roof, the deck, the luggage area, the engine… The boat started a descent closer and closer to the lake water. Fear set in and the boat departed loaded to the brim with locals and tourists. We survived the trip through the channels and lakes of Cambodia’s waterways (hurrah!) stopping at floating convenience store/restaurant (which incidentally also nearly sank with the pressure of the boat unloading it’s human cargo) and saw some beautiful sites along the way. Sitting on the front bow of the boat sunning yourself as you float through lovely scenery makes the fear of sinking much more tolerable.

When making your way through channels in the water growth you suddenly start getting whacked from branches at either side. Prepared as always the driver puts a 9 year old local boy behind the wheel (suddenly a beer is also needed at this point to fend off the fear of sinking as sunshine is no longer enough) while he starts pulling down tarpaulin at either side to fend off the encroaching undergrowth. It is all very reminiscent of the old school ride that my mum remembers from fairgrounds in the olden days…. I believe it was called the Caterpillar where the tarpaulin is bumped around and pushed in and people shout and squeal and try and get out of the way of the walls. I remember mocking when my mum explained this ‘rollercoaster’ to us as kids, but experiencing it in Cambodia is actually pretty terrifying. Arriving in Battambang we were elated at our survival and I think whatever we found in the town we were going to have to love it after the journey.

Luckily what we found was a small and quiet but relaxed and friendly little town (which is apparently the second largest city in Cambodia… we saw little evidence of this development). The town is a former French settlement and is full of crumbling remnants of colonial times. The whole town appears that it has been slightly forgotten and this creates the charming backwater atmosphere. However, the threatening signs of development are showing with building sites and the odd posh hotel springing up and as this little town has so much potential I fear it could be a very different in a few years.

Now Andrew has been missing his kitchen… creating his masterpieces and in the process using as much cutlery and crockery as possible and, setting new records for washing up with each meal. To combat this bout of kitchensickness we decided to book onto a cooking course and spent the morning cooking up a storm in Khmer curries and eating our treats. By the third dish before 1pm we were fully stuffed and instead handed over our LokLak Beef treats to the homeless so we will never know whether that one was as good as our previous spicy concoctions. However, we have the recipes so who knows whether someone at home will get treated to that on our return!

Products of Cooking Class
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It was at the cooking class that we picked up a leaflet with a picture of a man holding a crocodile on the front and without pausing for breath Andy was already negotiating with a Tuk Tuk driver the fare and entrance fee to get involved with the crocs. This strange business-cum-tourist attraction is a gate down a back road with no sign. A quick call from the Tuk Tuk driver and a surly looking youth turns up on a scooter and wants a dollar in order to take you behind the gate. With crocs in mind we took our chances and entered the man’s lair. What we were faced with was approximately 1000 crocodiles around two pools with walkways and tiny barriers around them. Some of the crocs were 20 or 30 years old and were absolute beasts. They are kept to sell for meat and their skins and are caught directly out of the Mekong or bred at the farms.

Concerned as to the lack of health and safety and the sheer amount of crocs that were looking excitedly as if we were lunch I hesitantly asked what would happen if I fell in…. The response: “Maybe two minutes of pain”. Annie: “Before?”. Smiley Tuk Tuk cum Guide without breaking the Cambodian grin: “I had a German Shephard puppy that I loved that slipped and fell in. There was nothing left of it within 30 seconds…. So. Do you want to hold one now?” Annie: “No Thanks!” Andy: “I do!” Luckily the croc that was pulled out was a baby one rather than the three meter long beast. Andy had a smile for the rest of the day. I was pretty pleased that Andy waited until after we left to speculate about how good the crocodile farm would be to dispose of a human body if you robbed and murdered someone.

Crocs up Close
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Now it has come to our attention that Cambodia has a strange collection of tourist attractions. They have the basic obvious choices, the temples to draw a crowd and some overpriced museums, night markets and floating markets stay favourites with visitors. However, they also have the bizarre side shows, farms, circuses and miscellaneous. After the crocodile experience I thought we had had our strangest bit of the day. I did not bet on the weird and wonderful entertainment that was the infamous Battambang Bamboo Train.
Before setting off to have a sunset trip on the Bamboo Train I thought I knew what we were letting ourselves in for. The principle of the ‘train’ is a small railway line that bamboo platforms travel up and down to transport rice from the paddies to trade in the town. It connects one remote settlement and saves the farmers a ridiculous amount of transport time and costs. Caught up in the image of this trip on a bamboo platform through rural Cambodia we were imagining one of those contraptions from the Western Frontier of the Wild West with two people taking it in turns to push their lever to get the platform to slowly work its way along the railway lines. Thinking the trip would be a languid and slow meander we did the obvious thing and bought ourselves a beer to drink on the platform as we chatted and looked at the scenery sitting crossed legs on a wooden square in the sunshine.

Fat Chance.

We did not notice that our 1.5m square bamboo platform mounted on railway tracks had a pretty powerful motor attached to the back. Stuff the beer , you needed both hands to hold on as we set off at a speed that was faster than most busses that I have travelled on in Cambodia. Add to it that the locals have found that it is not absolutely necessary to connect the train rails to each other exactly at the right angle as long as you go fast enough for the momentum to reattach you if you raise off it. It was a thrilling and hilarious sprint through the countryside, so low to the ground and on a bizarre contraption that I’m not sure could entirely handle the pressure. Andy insists that that train was actually a lot scarier than most of the actual big rides he has been on in his time. I am suspicious that this is just a ploy for him to force me to go to Blackpool Pleasure Beach when we get home…

Bamboo Train
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I will not dwell on our trip to the Cambodian vin yard but to say that there is a reason that you have never heard of Cambodian wine…
We finished the trip off with watching the mass exodus of over 30 million bats who fly out of a cave in the mountain at precisely 5.45pm every day in a mass formation before dispersing over the surrounding area. The locals sell it to you as the bats following a strict routine every day following the same time and patterns. You get this image of bats with Casio watches counting down the seconds to the minute they can fly out on cue in perfect synchronisation. What actually happens is at exactly 5.45pm every night a few of the kids from the town bring gongs, with a tone that sounds terrible to a bat, to the mouth of the cave and bang them causing them to get a little peed off and take off into the night to find an altogether quieter joint in which to go sit and produce ammonia. I think if I was a bat I would stop going back to that cave to be put through that every night. I’d find a nice quiet cave without the noisy neighbours. That being said, watching the waves of bats move across the sky was impressive to say the least.

Satisfied with Battambang and that we had literally done all the activities the town has to offer, New Years Eve and a Beach Party beckoned and we boarded our bus to the Southern Coast….

Posted by Annie Thornton 07:07 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia river battambang bamboo_train floating_villages Comments (0)

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