Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pohnpei: It takes a Village

I bet you've never heard of Pohnpei before, even though it used to be a U.S. Trust Territory and it contains a former U.S. national landmark, the ancient site of Nan Madol. Pohnpei (formerly spelled Ponape) is actually the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia--which include  Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae (heard of them, right?)--which became independent of the United States in 1986. It’s another one of the many Pacific islands that were occupied over the years by the colonialist flavor of the month—Spain, Germany, Japan, the United States.

Oh yeah, it's a Pacific island
We chose to stop in Pohnpei, which lies well east of Palau and just a bit north of the equator, about halfway between Manila and Hawaii, for 5 nights because John’s parents had taught at the community college there in the early 1980s. We had wanted to visit them at the time but never got around to it, so it’s been on our list for quite a while. It made a really nice stop on our island-hopping route to Hawaii.

The flower-filled island has a population of about 34,000, with the main town, Kolonia, a hub of small commerce, especially humming right before Christmas. There are a few places to stay, but during our Internet research we were fortunate to have come across the star of the show, The Village, a 20-bungalow wooden inn that sits on a hill overlooking the sea, several miles outside of Kolonia. It’s a beautiful place—just what I imagine when I think “Pacific island.”

Once I saw the palm-thatched roofs of the cottages that splash down the hill from the reception area and restaurant, I knew we were in the right spot to spend a happy Christmas in the Pacific. The cottages are large, with big screened windows on all sides (no glass) and mosquito nets draped over the beds. An added bonus was the really good food served in the open-air restaurant, including fresh-from-the-sea tuna (both grilled and as sashimi), mahi-mahi, mangrove crab, and a tasty morsel called plum chicken. There was also a pretty decent wine selection and a nice Jamaican beer (!) called Red Stripe, which we drank a lot of. I am still a bit disappointed by the lack of fruit variety in the Pacific islands—mostly bananas and pineapple, though we were also able to enjoy papayas and soursop (the latter best served as a major ingredient in delicious soursop daiquiris).

The Village, surrounded by tropical forest
Closest thing to icicles in this part of the world
At The Village we met another visiting couple, Tom and Anita (Tom was working on a road project in Chuuk, an island about which he had almost nothing good to say), who were renting a car for the day and invited us to tag along with them. So we spent part of the 24th with the local holiday shoppers, though we passed on the ubiquitous t-shirts and shorts and gravitated instead to the island handicrafts—fish carvings, wooden and shell mobiles, and seashell-decorated items. Most women on Pohnpei wear colorful mumus or calf-length flowered skirts, and most of the people we met were pretty friendly. 

We also drove out to another part of Pohnpei, Sokehs, and hiked up the hill on a rough gravel toward the top. The views along the way were great, but we eventually had to turn back because the trail got too muddy—Pohnpei gets a huge amount of rain (300 inches in some places), and the wettest season was just ending. Oh well, more time for Red Stripes back at The Village.  

We had a really great Christmas — two days of Christmas, in fact. The first day (the 25th on the island) we did a combined snorkel/hike/kayak trip to the highlights of Pohnpei: snorkeling with huge, amazing manta rays, hiking to a gorgeous waterfall where we swam in the pool at the base of the falls, and kayaking through the ruins of Nan Madol. In between we had a bento lunch (served in a banana leaf) on a small island with some of the finest sand we’ve ever stepped in.

Lincoln Logs at Nan Madol
Nan Madol is more than 1,000 years old and is made up of 92 man-made islets built of basalt columns. Lots of hard labor went into building up the structures, apparently constructed during a 500-year period of rule by the dictatorial, outsider Saudeleur dynasty. As with many ancient structures, it’s difficult to fathom how the heavy stone columns were transported to the area and used for building with limited means of transportation and technology. An impressive site for sure.

Blue-tailed lizards dart around the pathways
Christmas dinner back at The Village was a filling meal of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding with carols playing in the background. A beautiful way to spend our first Christmas day on Pohnpei.

But wait—there was another one! Because the island is on the other side of the International Dateline from the United States, December 26th in Pohnpei was actually Christmas day in the United States. And that’s when we got the best Christmas present of all—our first granddaughter. Congratulations to Tyler and Kelly on the birth of little Scarlett Sophia! We were on pins and needles while we awaited news from San Francisco, made especially difficult because my global phone doesn’t work in Pohnpei (ironically, it’s the only time we’ve wanted to use the phone and the only place it hasn’t worked!). But we eventually got the news, and Tom & Anita shared a bottle of champagne with us to celebrate. It was also an interesting coincidence—29 years ago we sent a telegram to John’s parents in Pohnpei to announce the birth of their grandson!

Our final two days on the island were spent working on our projects (back to reality), made easy by the beautiful view we had as we toiled away on our computers, and taking some walks in the local area. At one point we were approached by a young guy named Dwayne, who spoke a little English and invited us to come with him to his home a short ways away. We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we went along. Turned out he just wanted us to stop by where his family was gathering for a post-Christmas celebration so we could exchange greetings. It was kind of awkward so we left pretty quickly, scratching our heads about what that was all about! Perhaps a little too much of the local island drink, sakao, had been consumed.

Today we fly to Honolulu for our last island adventure. We’ve been to Hawaii many times before, so we feel like we are really saying goodbye to the less-trod path we’ve followed over the past 4 months—only Hawaii, San Francisco (where we’ll meet our new granddaughter), and London still remain on the agenda before we return to New Jersey in mid-January.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chilling on Peleliu Island

The fast boat to Peleliu Island, in the southern part of Palau, costs upwards of $50 each and takes just under an hour, but we took the slow (cheap) boat at $17.25 for the two of us and our bags, arriving at the dock in Peleliu about 2 ½ hours after we left Koror. The boat took us, about 40 Palauans (several of whom were chewing betel nut), 5 Europeans, 1 car, and dozens of boxes (including lots of instant noodles) and bags on the slow cruise past the Rock Islands, where we had snorkeled and kayaked—why would we want to go fast?

On the boat to Peleliu
Pulling up to the Peleliu dock, we knew we had arrived at another special place. About 700 people live on the island, which is 6 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point. There’s one main road with a few offshoots—no street signs, no stop signs, maybe 100 cars in various states of repair. Ninety percent of them are unregistered, and 90 percent of the drivers are unlicensed, according to a local guy we talked to. Downtown consists of one small store, an elementary school, the state legislature building (Peleliu is a separate state in the Palau Republic), and a couple of tiny resorts. Our lodgings, the quiet little Dolphin Bay Resort, is about a mile down the road, set on the edge of a lagoon that is protected by the reef, where waves break about 400 yards from shore.

Free kayaks at Dolphin Bay
Dolphin Bay Resort is owned and operated by a Japanese/Palauan couple, and we were greeted with many bows as we hopped out of the van that had met us at the dock. The resort is associated with Peleliu Divers, a nice little dive/snorkel operation. The 7 cottages are lined up next to each other with small decks looking out to the sea and the entrances facing a lovely tropical garden that is immaculately kept. There’s a small restaurant that serves delicious home-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and kayaks are free for guests’ use. Really simple, really nice, $195 a night with all meals included. We couldn’t ask for a nicer place. There’s no choice at meals—though the owner asked us if there was anything we couldn’t/didn’t want to eat (no)—but the food has been wonderful (rice, chicken or pork stir-frys, interesting vegetables, spring rolls, fried bananas, a grilled whole red snapper); lunches are packed for us in bento boxes, which always makes them taste even better.

This little note in the guests’ booklet is indicative of the vibe: “Peleliu is a tropical island with beautiful tropical insects and marine life. When you are greeted by one of them, you can enjoy their natural beauty.” 

The view from the hammock
So what did we do during our 3 days in this little piece of paradise? Well, we kayaked in the lagoon every afternoon, timing our trips according to the afternoon tide. THE SUNSETS HERE ARE AMAZING! As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, we’ve seen a lot of cool sunsets, but the one we experienced the first night we were here takes home the top prize.

U.S. Sherman tank, left where it was hit
One day we did a land tour with a local guide to see the World War II remnants that are scattered all over the island. Peleliu was the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the war (and perhaps the most needless, in retrospect). It was fought as a prelude to the United States’ successful attempt to take the Philippines from Japan. There were many thousands of casualties in what the Americans erroneously assumed would be a 3- or 4-day battled; it raged for 2 months in September-November 1944 before the U.S. eliminated the Japanese resistance. There are lots of abandoned tanks, parts from downed aircraft, guns, and other remnants to look at, as well as a small museum that does its best to document the battle (could be improved greatly with some money and curating assistance—especially needed is a scanner to digitize the photos that are quickly deteriorating). We climbed up to Bloody Nose Ridge, site of one of the most deadly parts of the fight, where we got a good view of the scope of the island. Very interesting.

Ruins of the Japanese Headquarters, commemorated by origami cranes
On our last day we did our final snorkel outing in Palau—just the two of us, with a boat driver (Godwin) and our snorkel guide (BJ). We snorkeled at 5 different spots, including the eponymous Big Dropoff, a fantastic place to snorkel and dive, with blue, blue water and shockingly beautiful fish. Our favorite fish of the day was the clown triggerfish, but we also saw a horde of yellow goat fish moving along the coral like they were in a Miyazaki movie, several turtles up close and personal, black-tipped sharks, a big Napoleon wrasse—plus quite an array of coral and of other fish, big and small. Some of the divers we’ve met along the way grouse that the diving in Palau isn’t as good as they were led to believe (wow—they must have seen some really great places elsewhere in the world), but this is the best snorkeling we’ve ever done--or at least it more than holds its own against the Great Barrier Reef.

View from Bloody Nose Ridge

I did experience one little incident while snorkeling earlier in the week—everything was going swimmingly but suddenly I was being covered with what felt like a dozen invisible stinging strings. I couldn’t see them, and I couldn’t get away from them! I quickly returned to the boat and put ice on the stinging parts of my body—my back, arms, and ankles—and fortunately soon felt better. Our guide said that sometimes during the rising tide coral shoots off tiny pneumatocysts—stinging cells—that can get to you if you get close to the coral. I wasn’t particularly close, but I guess they got me! Made me kind of nervous the next couple of times I got in the water, but fortunately that was the only time anything like that happened.

Spend about 15 minutes in Palau and you're tan
Yesterday morning we made our way back to Koror by slow boat and checked into a fancy nearby hotel for the day/evening. We flew from there to Guam at the ridiculous hour of 2:30 a.m., and then on to Chuuk (aka Truk), finally reaching Pohnpei at 2:30 p.m., where we'll stay for the next 5 days. Christmas in the islands! The only bad part of it is that Tyler, Kelly, Owen, and Roque aren't here to enjoy it with us and reprise our great days at Casa Ensueno in Nicaragua. We miss you!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Palau: A fish and coral paradise

To get to Palau from Phnom Penh we first flew back to Vietnam, staying overnight in Ho Chi Minh City before flying on to the Pacific. To make things easy, we had arranged with our Vietnam travel agent, Tonkin Travel, for a car to pick us up at Saigon airport and take us to our old standby, the Sanouva Hotel.  As usual, there were a bunch of drivers waiting with signs as we left the airport, and we spotted our name on one of the signboards. We waved to the driver and he led us out to his van, which took us on the route we were familiar with by now. But when we got to our street the driver pulled up to the Golden Hotel, not the Sanouva, which was across the street. No problem—we told him we were going to the Sanouva, walked across the street, and checked in. 

A few minutes later we got a call from the travel agent asking us how we had gotten to the hotel. When we told her, she asked if we’d paid the driver anything. (No, since we knew that the agency paid the driver directly.) Then she said that our driver—apparently the driver we were supposed to go with—was still at the airport, looking for us! Very strange. I think what happened is that when we waved to the driver at the airport the wrong driver came over, and it was just a lucky coincidence that he was supposed to take someone to the Golden Hotel, across the street from our own hotel.  So now we know how to get a free ride from the airport even if you haven’t reserved one—just point to one of the name boards and go with it!

The next morning we were back at the airport by 10 for our flight to Koror, Palau, via Singapore and Manila. The first two legs were on Singapore Airlines, which has to be one of the finest airlines in the world. Great service, sufficient legroom (even in row 57), decent meals that included free wine. And Singapore airport is really nice—the floors are carpeted (and the carpet is spotless!) and the chairs at the gates are padded. Comfortable! Quite a contrast to Manila airport. There we got to use the VIP lounge because we’d been upgraded to business class on Continental for our flight to Koror, but the lounge was the worst I’ve been in. When it came time to board the flight the extra security checks were the most stringent we’ve seen in awhile. No more laid back Southeast Asian airport security!

Many flights into and out of Palau all take place around 2 a.m. We arrived around 2:30 a.m. and took the West Plaza Hotel shuttle to our lodgings for the next 5 nights. First impression of Koror: sleepy, and sleeping. The hotel is basic but expensive for what you get ($100 a night), like many things in Palau. But it has air conditioning (important in this tropical climate) and a view across the water, so it’ll do. The plan was not to spend much time in the hotel anyway—we’re here to kayak, snorkel, and enjoy the laid-back tropical atmosphere.

We arranged a trip with Sam's Tours to the nearby Rock Islands that included a speedboat to the best kayaking locations (the boat takes us and the kayaks to the spots), kayaking, and snorkeling. Water tours aren't cheap here--they run about $115 per person. Oh well--how many times will we get to Palau?

Red roosters are popular in Palau!
Our plans were put on hold, however, by a tropical storm that passed through Palau on its way to the Philippines. That gave us more time to explore the town, including the Belau National Museum (there's no "p" in the Palauan language, so Belau is the local spelling of the country). Palau has been administered by several countries in the past couple of centuries: the Spanish gave way to the Germans, who gave way to the Japanese, who lost Palau to the United States in World War II. After the war the islands that make up Palau became a U.S. Trust Territory; in 1994 they became an independent nation with a seat in the United Nations. The museum has some interesting exhibits on the area’s history. It was a nice place to visit until it was overrun by Chinese and Japanese tour groups as we were leaving—Palau is a popular holiday destination for Asian travelers, and most of them travel in packs, so when they descend on a site they really make an impact (both on land and in the water).    

The Pacific islands treat has been modernized!
The storm didn’t amount to much in Palau, though it did cause significant damage and at least 200 deaths when it got to the Philippines. By evening it had mostly passed through our area, so our kayak trip the next day was ON. Yay! It was interesting to see day-to-day island life in Palau, but our interest was quickly running out.

And then we got what we came for: 3 fantastic days on and in the water. 

On the first day there were 6 of us on the boat, plus our guide Lewis, a couple of guides-in-training, and the boat captain. The boat brought us and the kayaks to some amazing kayaking and snorkeling sites, including lagoons with calm waters—perfect for both kayaking and snorkeling. The corals were gorgeous—purple, green, orange, white—and in all kinds of varieties. The fish were equally colorful. I can’t list them all, so I won’t list any; suffice it to say that what we saw on our 3 snorkeling runs that day was 10 times better than the best aquarium we’ve ever been in. Maybe our favorite was the Harlequin Sweetlips—dark brown with big white spots and fluffy fins. But there were so many others! The colors of the water ranged from milky blue to turquoise to all shades of blue-green. 

We boated into a big cave, and John and the 2 other guys climbed up to the top of the cave’s opening and jumped into the blue-green water below (I stayed on the boat that time, to take pictures). The kayak portions of that day were the best we’ve ever experienced. Awesome.

The next day we went out with Sam’s again, this time on a snorkeling tour with 2 other people (U.S. Navy guys from Guam), further afield in the Rock Islands. We snorkeled 5 times—one was at the edge of a reef wall where on our right side the corals and fish were again amazing and on our left side the trench along the Philippine Sea was unfathomably deep. 

Our kayaks ready and waiting
Another place was the unbelievable Jellyfish Lake, an interior marine lake that we reached by hiking up a steep coral path and then down an equally steep slope to the lake—fortunately there was a sturdy rope on one side that we could hang on to to keep our balance as we climbed up and down. The walk was worth the effort, though, because at the lake we had our own personal National Geographic moment: snorkeling with thousands of pulsating orange jellyfish, some bigger than my hand spread wide, all of which have evolved with no stingers since they have no predators in the lake. We were able to touch and hold the jellies but had to be careful not to lift them out of the water because that would have been harmful to them. We were lucky because our guide timed our visit perfectly to sandwich us between two big tour groups—one leaving just as we arrived, the other arriving just as we left—so the 4 of us we had the lake and its resident jellyfish all to ourselves while we were there. Stunning!   

Who are these people?
Another fun stop on that snorkeling tour was the Milky Way, a protected lagoon in which very fine, white mud accumulates on the bottom and makes the water a milky blue. Our guide, Loren, dove down to the bottom of the lagoon and brought up a pile of mud, which we plastered all over ourselves for an impromptu mudbath. (The same mud sells in one of the expensive hotels in Palau for $100 a bottle.)

We had so much fun on both the kayaking and the snorkeling trips that we decided to do yet another kayak/snorkeling combo today. Yes, we saw more awesome sights and got more great exercise. At the first snorkeling stop we snorkeled over a place called Darwin’s wall, named for all the brain corals and other colorful corals that line the wall. At the second snorkel stop we saw a black-tipped shark patrolling less than 10 yards from us as we swam. We kayaked in a quiet marine lake that we got to by doing the limbo on our kayaks under an low opening in the wall; by the time we left the lake the tide had begun to rise and we had to really flatten ourselves against the kayak tops in order to get through. We also did a lengthy, slow paddle through a beautiful mangrove channel to an inner lake where we saw devil rays gliding below us. What a great day—too bad I didn’t have a water camera! Or maybe it’s good—I was able just to enjoy what I saw and take a mental picture.

For meals we’ve had bento boxes arranged by Sam’s Tours (not great, but they keep the hunger pangs away), and dinners at Fuji (Japanese), Little Italy, Taj (Indian), and a Thai restaurant whose name I’ve forgotten. Nothing memorable—food is definitely not one of Palau’s highlights. However, one of our guides highly recommended Carp Restaurant for local food, so we’re going to try that before we leave Palau.

Tomorrow we get a break from all the physical activity: we’re taking the $5 state ferry 2.5 hours south to the Palauan island of Peleliu, where we will stay in a seaside cottage for 3 days of laying in a hammock, doing a little more kayaking, and otherwise relaxing before we say good-bye to Palau and fly on to Pohnpei, farther east in the Pacific.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More from Cambodia--Phnom Penh, Kep, Kampot

To get from Battambang to the capital, Phnom Penh, we chose again from the Menu of Uncomfortable Means of Transportation, this time selecting a 6-hour bus ride on the Capital bus line. It was long but not too bad--no loud music or blaring videos. The bus was full; we were the only Westerners. $7 each. We had two pit stops at roadside restaurants along the way, where everybody piled out, gobbled down some noodles or other food (we passed--we're trying to lose weight and the food was as appetizing looking as bus station fare is all over the world), then scrambled back onboard.

As we approached the city we saw yet another means of transportation--motorbikes pulling flatbed wagons on which 10 or 12 people rode. When we finally pulled up to the Phnom Penh bus station we were met by the usual crowd of tuk-tuks. One enterprising guy made eye contact with us from outside the bus while we were still on it, offering us a ride, and we silently negotiated the price through the windows. He wanted $4--we ended up paying $3, though the going rate is more like $2. He didn't really know where our hotel (Villa Paradiso) was located, but he asked a driver friend for help and we worked together to eventually find it. Kind of an Amazing Race moment! (We've had a lot of those on this trip.)

We had 2 full days in Phnom Penh, which was enough to see the tourist highlights and get a sense of the modernized section of the city. It's quite large but not nearly as frenetic as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. There are plenty of motorbikes, but they haven't yet overwhelmed the place--both tourists and locals catch rides in the many tuk-tuks that ply the streets. We saw only a tiny part of the city; it spreads out for a long way from the edge of the Mekong.

In our two days in the capital we either walked or took tuk-tuks to excellent restaurants. Favorites were Yumi, a bistro with inventive Japanese food, and Friends, a Cambodian restaurant-with-a-cause (helping less fortunate kids learn the restaurant trade). We also spent time at the beautiful national museum (chock full of high-quality Khmer statuary and carvings from the ancient temples, and far nicer than the museum we visited in Siem Reap, a 1/4 the price). We also shopped along trendy Street 240 (most streets are numbered), which has a lot of nice boutique shops with silk, fashions, and art. Our hotel was on Street 228, in a very quiet, well-off section of town. We made a quick trip to the Russian market (nothing Russian about it) but quickly concluded that we didn't need to spend much time walking up and down the hot, crowded, stifling aisles full of clothes and food. I think we've seen enough Asian markets for a while! It was kind of funny to see Christmas decorations here and there along the streets--we are so far removed from our normal holiday routine that Christmas seems like just an oddity this year.

Part of the Royal Palace

A fashion shoot with the Royal Palace mural as a backdrop
The Royal Palace grounds are spacious and beautiful, with the star attractions being a painted mural on the walls surrounding the compound that illustrates the Ramayana story, and the Silver Pagoda, with a floor made of silver and a couple of stunning Buddhas (no photos allowed). Since we visited on a Sunday the normally quiet compound was buzzing with saffron-robed monks and with Cambodian families who come into the city for a visit to the palace grounds.

Lots of monks in Phnom Penh

We rounded out our city visit with a sunset cruise on the Mekong (quite a contrast between the built-up city side of the river and the still rural country side) where we met some of the only Americans we've seen in Cambodia--a family of Cambodian Americans who fled to Houston in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over and have been returning for biannual visits for the past several years. They love coming back but are also very happy to be living in the U.S. We also hit the bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club--another place much-visited by Westerners, with nice views of the waterfront from an iconic building overlooking the Mekong.

The Mekong from the FCC bar

Then it was out of town again (by car this time) for a trip south to seaside Kep and its neighboring town upriver, Kampot. In Kep-sur-mer, as it was formerly called, dozens of French-built villas from the colonial period used to line the shore. They were destroyed in the Khmer Rouge years and are just abandoned hulks now, but all the land has been snapped up by investors and there's been some attempt recently at rebuilding a few of the big houses. For now, though, Kep is a sleepy town with not much going on except a lively crab market with rustic cafes hanging over the bay where you can get delicious fresh blue crabs, squid, and prawns cooked in green peppercorn sauce, lemon grass, chili, or whatever way you want. We ate at the Sunset Restaurant--well, you could call it a restaurant; it's more like a large shack--which sits on stilts over the water and watched one of the longest-lasting sunsets we've seen in a while. We stayed for the night at Vanna Bungalows, rustic yet modern cabins on the hillside overlooking the sea.

Damn. Another sunset.

An offering at Bokor
Our final 4 days in Cambodia have been spent in Kampot, a languid town that hugs the riverbank about 25 km from Kep. We've been staying at Rikitikitavi, a wooden inn on the river with 7 rooms, an open-air restaurant upstairs, and a bar with happy hour. All the essentials! Through the inn we arranged a couple of good day trips. One took us the 32 km up to Bokor National Park, a former French hill station peppered with ghostly ruined buildings, including a couple of casinos, that again were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. (Broken record.) The climate is misty and cool, adding to the ghostly effect. The strangest part is that a big new road has been constructed all the way to the top of the mountain--through the park--to service the brand new, huge, ugly hotel and casino being built by a rich and powerful Cambodian investor as the first stage of a giant development project that will sprawl across the hill (think golf courses, villas, etc.). It's kind of disgusting to see the effort and money that have been spent to build the road to the top when so many of the country's other roads are in such need of repair and reconstruction. Looks like Cambodia is no different from the developed world--affluence leads to influence.

Kampot rice ready to harvest

Another trip out of Kampot was a full day touring the countryside, seeing Cambodian rural life from a tuk-tuk. What a beautiful and interesting area! One highlight was a walk through rice and vegetable fields up to Phnom Chnnork, a big cave with a small, 7th-century brick temple inside and one wall that looks--if you're a believer--like an elephant. We were joined by a charming 8-year-old girl who practiced her (already good) English on us as we wandered around. Cambodian kids are irresistible.

Kampot pepper
A little ways up the valley we visited a pepper plantation/fruit orchard. Kampot is famous for its peppercorns, which have actually been assigned a geographical indicator (like French cheese). Pepper was a thriving industry before--you guessed it--the fields were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but replanting was done in the 1990s and the industry is making a big comeback. We sampled the green pepper straight off the vines and also freshly dried--it packs a punch! I think we bought enough to last us the next 15 years.

This beer doesn't exist yet, but it's advertised all over Cambodia
We're so happy to have had 2 1/2 weeks in Cambodia--a beautiful country with some of the friendliest people we've ever met. It's high on my list of favorite countries--pushing toward the top. Tomorrow we have one more lazy day in Kampot where we'll celebrate John's 70th birthday. Wow! The next day a car will take us back to Phnom Penh for a quick flight to Ho Chi Minh City, where we'll spend the night and then fly westward to the Pacific (via Singapore and Manila) for three weeks of R&R on tropical islands--a vacation from our vacation.

Next stop: Palau, a diver's dream island in the Pacific

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Out and about in Battambang

Though we had 2 nights in Battambang, one of Camodia's largest cities (small though it is), that meant only 1 full day to enjoy the sights. To maximize our time we hired a tuk-tuk for the day through our hotel, spending the big bucks: $25 for a full day of touring in an around the city.

No idea what this says...but I love the writing system

Our guide/driver was the wonderful Mr. Lucky. During the course of the day we asked him how he got his name. He quietly told his story: when he was 6 years old he fled with his mother to Thailand after his father, brothers, and sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was the fortunate one, so his mother named him Lucky. He lived in a UN camp on the border until he was 15 (his mother died while he was there, making him an orphan), when he came back to Cambodia, met his future wife, and moved to Battambang. He has a 2-year-old son, and he and his wife are expecting another baby in January. Listening to him and seeing the subdued way he related the story brought some reality to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. What a terrible time that was for this lovely country and its people.

When the story was over, Lucky resumed his happy, joking demeanor as he took us to see the highlights of the area. First stop was the famous bamboo railway, which Lonely Planet accurately describes as "all aboard, everyone off, all aboard, everyone off!" This crazy little rail line to nowhere involves a 12-km roundtrip on a small bamboo platform that runs on 4 wheels on a single track. The rails, which are also used for big, normal trains, are wavy and a little off kilter, so when the bamboo train gets going fast, as it does, there are some hard jolts to the passengers. (This being the Land of Uncomfortable Means of Transportation, we were not really surprised by the discomfort!) The car flies along the brush-lined corridor, giving occasional glimpses of vast rice fields on either side.

The railroad to nowhere

When we encountered another bamboo train coming the other way, the one with the fewest passengers had to stop. The passengers then got off, the two train drivers took that little train apart, our train was driven past it, stopped, and the two train guys put the other train back together to continue on its way. Hard work, actually, since the iron wheels and their associated iron bar were very heavy--like lifting really heavy barbells.

Putting the train back together again

When we got to the end of the line we had a 15-minute break at a little refreshment stand (bottled water: 25 cents) where we chatted with the friendly owner, an older guy who spoke a bit of English. We also got a "tour" of the local rice mill, led by 4 young girls who spoke good tourist English (donation: $1). The oldest (Julie, age 14), the leader of the pack, told us she was no longer in school because her parents couldn't afford it and needed her to work as a guide to earn some money for the family. The youngest was a cheeky little girl (Jae, age 10) who was full of energy.

Our tour guides at the rice mill

Rest break over, we reboarded our little piece of bamboo and sped back to the starting station. The ride cost $10 (plus a $2 tip for the driver, who the old man at the rest stop said "really needs the money") and was one of those fun, quirky things that make a day special. The bamboo railroad, unfortunately, is slated to be closed down sometime in the near future when (if) the train line is renovated for the official train.

All the parts needed to make a bamboo train

Land mines are still a problem here
Battambang also has several temples, including a couple from the Angkor period. We visited Phnom Sampeau, Phnom Banan, and Wat Ek Phnom. To get to the first we each climbed aboard the back of a motorbike and were driven up a steep hill to the top. Besides the newish Buddhist temple built at the site, there's a cave called the Killing Cave. Here the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned people to death and threw their bodies down into the cave from above. There's a glass box filled with skulls and bones; next to it is a golden reclining Buddha. The yin and yang of life in Cambodia.

Buddha in the Killing Cave

Before making our final stop, at Wat Ek Phnom, we visited Cambodia's only winery--a small vineyard whose owners make serviceable red wine (out of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes), a pretty decent brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice. We tasted all four but didn't buy.

Rice paper drying; our tuk-tuk is parked on the road

Wat Ek Phnom is about 13 km north of town, and to get there we drove past small villages and a neighborhood of home businesses making rice paper (to wrap spring rolls) and banana chips, which dried on big slats in the sun alongside the road. The temple itself is from the Angkor period and hasn't been restored at all, so it was interesting to see that in comparison to the refurbished temples in Siem Reap. As we left the temple Lucky had a stroke of bad luck--a part on the motorbike that drives his tuk-tuk broke and we were stranded. No problem, though: he called a friend, unscrewed the broken part, and we headed back to town in the friend's tuk-tuk where he was able to easily get a new part (that's the great thing about having thousands of motorbikes in a city--parts are readily available).

The Stick Man of Battambang

A great day in a country that's quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Next stop: the capital, Phnom Penh.