Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Cambodian Coastal Adventure-Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville - Part 1
Day 1 - 06:20 AM

I awoke this morning in Phnom Penh to a gloriously beautiful day with the air cool and a crisp breeze blowing, which seemed like a great way to start another journey out of the capital and make my way to the coastal towns of Cambodia.

After grabbing my 2 small bags and making my way downstairs to the street, I hailed a motorcycle taxi and headed out for the Central Market and the G.S.T. bus station located near there. Paying a generous 2,000 Riel (.50) to the driver, I decided to head over to the large, Chinese "Sorya Restaurant" for a spot of tea and an omelet after purchasing a seat on a southbound bus for 14,000 Riel ($3.50)

Sorya Chinese Restaurant in Phnom PenhAs I waited for my food, I started to watch the beginnings of yet another day in the city, with all the rituals and ceremony associated with life in Asia. Of course there is the mandatory spirit house and the sweet aroma of incense sticks with staff members taking a moment to make their prayers to their Gods and family. a light, lyrical Chinese music is played from the overhead speakers and as I drank my pot of hot Khmer tea and jotted down my notes, I couldn't help but feel all was well with the world (...although I knew different.)

As I've already gotten my ticket and seat assignment, I waited until 7:10 before heading back next door to the awaiting G.S.T. buses. I noticed during this short stroll that the former Shell station on the corner across the small street from the station has lost its Shell name and logos but had been freshly painted with the same Shell colors. Changes are constant here and I suspect this trip south to be nothing different.

G.S.T. is one of the major bus companies that ply what are loosely described as "highways" here in Cambodia. Considering what these tired workhorses go through, I really never get upset with the frequent breakdowns of air-conditioning and coaches. Usually however the stops along the highway are short, with drivers carrying their own tools, often times crawling under some part of the bus or another and fixing whatever has become broken or loose. If they can't, another company bus is not far behind and if worse comes to worse, you simply switch buses and finish your ride to your destination while standing in the aisle.

G.S.T. buses leaving Phnom Penh's Central Market presently have the following schedules and costs (11- 2004).

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville - 14,000 Riel - 07:15, 08:15, 12:30, 13:30
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - 14,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:45
Phnom Penh to Poi Pet - 20,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Bangkok - 56,000 Riel - 06:20, 07:30
Phnom Penh to Battambang - 12,000 Riel - 07:00, 07:30, 07:55, 09:00, noon
Phnom Penh to Pur Sat - 10,000 Riel - 06:30, 07:00, 07:55, noon, 13:00

G.S.T. Bus Station in Phnom PenhAs the bus won't leave until it is as full as it can be without being too late for the scheduled arrival time of 11:30 in Sihanoukville, it is only after 2 more "barang" (foreign) woman arrive on the back of motorcycles that the driver blasts his horn and the doors close and we make our way out onto Monivong (Street 93) from Street 142 (the G.S.T. Bus Station) at 07:30, 15 minutes later than scheduled.

As we head south out of the city we soon turn off of Monivong onto Russian Boulevard and follow signs pointing to Highway 3 and the Phnom Penh International Airport. It is also at this intersection you will notice on your right the old, colonial main train station and rail yard still serving freight deliveries from Thailand to Phnom Penh and Cambodia.

As the price of oil continues to climb around the world, with prices at or over $55 a barrel, I can't help but notice the numerous gas stations as we inch our way out of town. It seems every station, even though they are different companies, have all posted the exact same price for each grade of fuel with Diesel advertised at 2,350 Riel a liter, 3,000 Riel (.75) for unleaded and 3,100 Riel for "super". It wasn't that long ago I remember buying barrels of diesel for my hotel's generator at .44 a liter.

As we continue to crawl out of the city in the very early morning traffic, we pass several large and famous institutions of higher learning including the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, the Engineering Institution of Cambodia and the huge campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. (The only thing that seems to be missing in any of these thousands of high sounding names throughout Cambodia's education system is the use of the word "Imperial".) This is quickly followed by numerous nurseries for flowers and plants as well as countless stands selling freshly baked loaves of French Bread at 500 Riel each.

People are everywhere doing what people do on the streets of Cambodia; selling, buying, praying, bartering, eating, arguing, etc., and even though you are in the middle of city of over a million people, chickens, roosters and children roam the sidewalks and alley ways everywhere.

As we make our way closer to the airport, signs for the Hong Kong Garment Company, Toyota, the Phnom Penh Water Park and the National Technical Training Institute pass buy. Cambodian Air Force Headquarters is also visible on this stretch as well as the infamous Dragon World Disco long since closed.

A half hour after pulling out of the station, we reach the entrance to Phnom Penh International Airport and the buildings for the Cambodian Air Traffic Services (C.A.T.S.) and the ornate looking building belonging to the "Department for Foreigners".

You might also notice if you look closely at the area across from the airport as you continue down its perimeter, a large army base with open bays for aging (that is a nice term) APC's (Armored Personnel Carriers) and trucks as well as large early morning formations of troops around its barracks area. While observing this, the "bus steward" starts up some Khmer music and the bus starts to pick up speed. I guess the driver likes the music.

As we approach the circle where signs point to Sihanoukville and Ta Keo, for the first time we have to stop at a police check point where they seem to be making vehicles coming into the city unload items stacked high above their vehicles as is so very common on the roads here. Although we are obviously headed south and a bus, it never becomes apparent why we have to wait the 3-4 minutes that we did.

For many months I have noticed a large compound of new buildings just south of the circle on the road to Sihanoukville. I had speculated that it was going to be a new Wat or university as it obviously had large, ornate, multi-leveled housing areas/dormitories as well as central offices or classrooms. It seems I was wrong on both accounts as a new sign now indicated it was the base for the "High Headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Air Force". Sharp looking soldiers holding bayoneted rifles guarded the entrance and activity seemed everywhere. I couldn't help but wonder what this was all for in a country that had no operational air force? Was something about to change? Was it all show for the new King and his upcoming coronation?

Almost immediately past this new base is the older and better known "Special Forces Airborne 911" battalion on the right where many have gone in recent years to fire small arms or blow up a cow with a hand-held grenade launcher. Recently however, the cows are gone (many survived the experience as the sites were rigged...) and it has become a bit more humane and low key.

As we pull through the toll booth, military formations continue on the right, soon followed by numerous textile factories lining the road south out Phnom Penh. A new, obviously modern truck weighing facility has also appeared on the north bound side of the toll booth where trucks are stopping to be weighed. That's another first.

It isn't long before the insanity of the capital's streets disappear and fields of rice paddies soon dominate the landscape. On this early fall day, the sky is is perfectly clear with not a single wisp of cloud to be found. Combined with the amazingly, almost luminous green of the countryside, it makes for an incredible treat to the visual senses.

About an hour from when we started, a sign welcoming us to the "Kompong Speu Province" appears and I once again start to notice the red and white concrete kilometer markers on the east side of the road that inform you of your distance along the road south to Sihanoukville. As street signs and addresses are practically non-existent once you leave the city, with villages not having signs indicating their names, I have found the road markers to be the easiest way to describe locations and cross roads for travelers south.

At marker 41 you will notice the Kompong Spey Meteorological and Water Office. Sort of an interesting combination but knowing the importance of weather and the rains to life (or death) of rural and urban Cambodians, maybe not so strange after all.

At markers 42 and 43, the larger town of Kompong Speu lines the road. Here you will find the hospital district headquarters, Veterans and Youth Affairs (...does that seem like a strange combination to you?) and the Provincial Election Commission (...what a fun job that must be.).

Schools are of course everywhere as well. It often makes me wonder where all the students come from and how they get there. You of course see the motorcycles with wagons attached to them carrying tens of students but even with that, can there really be that many children from such small villages? This makes me even wonder more as recent reports indicate that Cambodia has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world with 1 in 7 children dying before the age of 5.

More signs indicate that Kompong Speu has a Teacher's Training College, a Post and Telecommunications office and a Women's and Veteran's Affairs Office (...is that different than the Veterans and Youth Affairs office?)

As I peer from building to building you realize that there is literally nothing behind them and the entire town is literally lining the American built roadway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Sort of reminds me of a Hollywood movie in which the old, wild west town is in reality nothing more than the facades of make believe saloons and town buildings.

Shortly outside town the bus overtakes an old blue dump truck with numerous warnings indicating it is a "driver's education vehicle". From the looks of the terrified occupants in the front cab holding on to the front dash for dear life and the 15 or so "driver trainees" in the rear, it appeared that this driver wasn't one of the better students. Fortunately, we overtook the menagerie quickly and left them in our dust!

Between markers 87 and 88 a sign indicates the road that veers off to the southwest leads to a national park called "Preah Suromath". At marker 90 a long and ornate fence appears and once again, it is another Cambodian military installation belonging to the "Mixed Officers Training School". Immediately past this and on the right is where the Wah Genting Bus Company stops on its way between Phnom Penh and Sihaoukville. Actually the food and facilities are a bit better here than the G.S.T. stop a short distance further.

Shortly after this at 09:15 (right on time) we enter the roadside rest stop used forever by G.S.T. and tourist other buses headed north and south between the coast and Phnom Penh, as it is the "half way" point between the 2 destinations. It is also where you leave the central, flat plateau with its thousands of rice paddies and descend into the lower, more rugged coastal plain with its numerous hills, streams and recently planted orchards.

Over the months of the monsoon rains, it is here you will find the dividing line between the perpetual rains and mist of the coast and the clearer skies and occasional, afternoon rains of the capital. Although only a couple of hundred meters difference in height, combined with a line of low lying, steep hills, it seems to be just enough to block most of the southwest winds and the monsoon rains.

After a 15 minute "breakfast" break, the driver gives notice he is ready to depart by a single blast of his air horn and as we start off continuing our journey south, I have often thought this would be a perfect place to begin a bicycle journey as the scenery and landscape quickly changes, becoming hilly and steep to the east and west of the highway with heavily forested, lush hills hiding numerous plunging waterfalls during the rainy season.

Spirit HousesBefore the descent however, we pass by the spirit houses occupying the higher hill guarding the road to the coastal plain. Occasionally we have stopped for riders to offer prayers to their ancestors and pray for luck and prosperity for them and their families. Today however, we continue on.

Soon after this another military camp appears indicating it is the Cambodian N.C.O. (Non-Commissioned Officers) School followed by a huge sign indicating Sihanoukville is another 125 kilometers away.

At market 114 I notice something else new on the trip and that is a rather large sitting Buddha with accompanying buildings. At marker 117 the terrain starts to change again with numerous streams winding their way around fields, dikes and the ever present water buffalos hidden up to their sides in mud holes.

The traffic has now become quite light with long straight stretches of roadway with cattle of various descriptions. Everywhere as far as the plain stretches you can see thousands of fig trees lined up neatly in rows and neat little villages for the workers working the plantations.

A "New Life Retreat Center" appears off to the right at marker 144 and I guess if you are a fundamentalist Christian, as good as any to get closer to your God.

At 10:50 and marker 197 the toll road ends and another new weight station appears. I am wondering who is making money on what will obviously be many fines to come with this little innovation or is it in fact an effort not to destroy the best highway in Cambodia?

At 11:00 and market 208 the new Sihanoukville Airport appears followed by signs at marker 219 indicating we have finally arrived at the outskirts of our destination, the port city of Sihanoukville. After passing CamBrew (Cambodia Brewery) where you can savior their products for free in their private pub in the late afternoons (with the right connections), we finally arrive at the taxi/bus station downtown at 11:30, pretty much on time.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Koh Rong, "Snowdrift Bay" - Sihanoukville Cambodia

by Saigon Charlie

These photos were taken in the last week of October, 2004.  Of all the places I have 
traveled in this world and all the islands in all the oceans and seas, it is hard to describe
the awesome beauty and remoteness of this island.  Located 44 kilometers off the coast
of Cambodia's industrial port, Sihanoukville, Kok Rong is the second largest island
in Cambodian waters.  The beach in the pictures is what I have named "
Snowdrift Beach"
due to the pristine, snow drift like quality of its pure white sand.  When you walk on the beach,
you make a "crunching" sound like walking on newly fallen snow and combined with the drifting like 
quality of the sand, makes it appear like "snow drifts".

I walked this particular beach and estimate its length to be in excess of 8 kilometers with
a brisk walk from end to end taking about 2 hours. Approximately half way around 
this beautiful bay, you will come upon a small rocky point where the only rocks and boulders 
to be found in these waters are located.  I have named this point "Rocky Point" and the 
bay itself, "
Snowdrift Bay".

The end of the bay on the northwest flank of the island, is a hill gently sloping to the sea looking
very much like a sleeping crocodile laying on a beach.  I have named this point, "
Crocodile Point".  
The other point at the southwest end of the bay has a small, wooden Chinese temple on it.  
Keeping it simple, I have named this "
China Point".

At the southwest entrance to "Snowdrift Bay" is a huge fishing net that marked by two red
fishing flags.  If you are not paying attention, this net could do some serious damage to a 
small boat if you hit it while motoring into the bay.

There will be no difficulty about anchorage and ground tackle as there are no rocks, stone or 
coral.  It is nothing but gently scalloped white sand underneath incredibly warm azul waters.

Along the beach there is numerous areas where fresh water is flowing down in streams from the
steeply, forested hills of the interior.  At the small fishing village at the far end of the beach, 
water barrels are overflowing with fresh water as it gushes out of pipes connected to island streams.
This small village is mostly empty with many huts abandoned.  There are however many dogs including
some very mean and vicious rotweilers.  I have lovingly named this trading village "
Rothweiler Village".

Except for some trails leading up through the sand, penetrating the island through the mangrove would
be impossible without anything less than a chainsaw.  Forget about using a machete through this stuff.


 

  
   
   
  
  





Saturday, October 16, 2004

Rory's Irish Bar in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Rory's Irish Pub opening review

Rory's Irish Pub opened Saturday afternoon the 16th of October to a packed crowd of locals and well wishers, all of which were greeted by one of the true Irishmen in Phnom Penh, Ruairi "Rory" Barry from Dublin.

Raz, "Dingo" and Tony eating some excellent Irish stew.

Even as the doors opened at noon, "Dingo" from the Dingo Bar was there lending a hand in the day's start of emptying the iced down coolers of beer and the shelves of well stocked Irish whiskey. Raz and Tony showing up a short time later and it wasn't long before they were all consuming huge bowels of Irish stew.

Located on Street 178 just across from the Cambodian National Museum, the pub is in fact a small cross section of Irish history, having a fascinating collection of hand painted "Irish county crests" as well as the crests from both his and his mother's families, Barry and Lynch.

Familiar Irish names adorn the wall including Cork with its interesting twin-towered castles and trading frigate, Kilkenny which every self representing Irishman want-a-be knows is some of the best beer in the world (...second to Guinness Only!!!) and of course the icons of 3-castles on fire representing Dublin itself.

Bo and Tony. A beautiful couple!

Tony's beautiful companion, Bo from Mikey's on the riverfront, showed up a bit later and the two made a lovely couple indeed. Tony was having quite a time through the afternoon and quite enjoyed himself.

Tony is another one of the local boys who manages to enjoy himself in the lunacy of living and working away from the "real world". I don't think anyone that knows him would disagree with calling him "spirited"!

Even though this was suppose to be a "soft opening" with no advertising of any type, people from everywhere continued to stream in. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the Irish music streaming into the street or maybe just all the smiling faces that brought them in, but whatever it was, Rory's was soon out of places to set.

Rory's Irish Pub Phnom Penh Cambodia

Peter, keeper of the pay check to many ex-pat NGOs in town, managed to also show up and entertain us all. Robert (formerly of Riverside) and Barry (DV8) were there with their lovely ladies as well.

Arida, Rory's better half, was there supervising the 6 wonderful ladies on hand to assist in the opening festivities. An extraordinary Irish stew had been prepared with bowl after bowl being served by her and the girls with Muy showing up after her shift from Mikey's and lending a helping hand as well. Brett came a bit later.

It wasn't long before yours truly was dipping into the first of what will turn out to many shots of Irish Whiskey at Rory's Irish Pub! With over 18 different whiskeys, 10 scotches and 4 bourbons on the shelf, with common names such as Paddy and Bushmill, finding a favourite isn't ever going to be a problem. If you like to try some real top shelf brands, you might start off with some really smooootthhh Green Spot or if you got a few extra dollars in your pocket, Midelton. You might also want to tap into the very rare "Jameson Gold" or "Locke's 8 Year Old". Even though I tried to buy Rory the first drink, Brenton "Dingo" had already beat me to it!

Peter and Michael chilling in the upstairs loft.

The sound system is rather exceptional, being computer mixed and selected, with well positioned speakers bringing a very nice "surround sound" feel to the place. If you want to "get away" and have a quiet discussion with your mates, the loft is an excellent place to chill with some very comfortable couches and chairs which you sink down into. Combined with the beautiful coffee table and old-world carriage lamps, you might think you had warped yourself back in time to a era long-gone.

The downstairs seating is pretty exceptional as well with Rory having gone out and had each chair hand made from a small photo he found on the Internet. Actually unbelievable as they are beautifully crafted and extremely comfortable, just as you would expect from an Irish pub with many years of neighbourhood regulars.

Rory is presently working on the upstairs and will have 4 moderately priced rooms done up to 3 star standards, offering an excellent central location to Phnom Penh business, embassies, clubs and the waterfront.

I couldn't help but think as I looked at Rory seated behind the bar as the U-2 song came on, "Still haven't found what I'm looking for..." that he had been one of the fortunate few in Asia that had found his nirvana. For me however, always searching over the next mountain, I left humming to myself an old Irish ballad, thinking Rory's Irish Pub in Phnom Penh had to be the best Irish bar in Cambodia, if not Southeast Asia...

Rory and Charlie toasting to a very long life!


Phnom Penh's only real Irish Bar run by a real Irishman, Rory from Dublin. A very unique (for Cambodia) feel with an old world warmth. Opened in mid-October 2004 with an excellent selection of Irish whiskeys as you might suspect. Great music!


Peter and Soklang.


Tony and Brett showing their stuff!


The ever smiling and charming Soklang.

Monday, October 4, 2004

Pattaya to Bangkok to Cambodia by Bus

This is a multi-part article with photos about a trip taken in early October 2004. Things are changing FAST in both Cambodia and Thailand so be prepared for the unexpected!

Overview

  • Do not try to repeat this trip in a single day as night time travel on Cambodian roads is extremely dangerous and this trip requires at least 4 hours of pitch black night time travel. I only did it to see if it could be done but will never try to repeat this stunt again!
  • This trip took me exactly 15 ½ hours. 2 hours from Pattaya to Bangkok (90 baht). 4 hours from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (164 baht) and the Cambodian border town of Poi Pet. Most of the remaining journey was at night.
  • Visa issues are always a problem. Make sure if you plan on staying in Cambodia for either business, teaching or just to stay longer than 30 days, you arrive with at least a 30 day, MULTIPLE ENTRY business visa. If you come in with a tourist visa you will have to leave the country and re-enter on a business visa. Border visas are always more that those issued at the embassy. Also make sure you request and get a multiple-entry as once you leave, you will not be allowed to re-enter the country. In the past all business visas were stamped “multiple-entry” but this has now changed. As of this mid-October 2004 what appears to be in place is multiple-entry business visas are only issued for 6 months or longer. On November 2nd, a 6-month, multiple entry business visa from Lucky!Lucky! Motorbikes on Monivong in Phnom Penh was $148. 3 months are available for around $70 but in reality are only a "single exit" as you can't get back into the country with it if it is issued in Cambodia.
  • Thai immigration posts seem to change their operation hours frequently. During this trip in early October 2004 they were closing at 5PM, compared to 8PM only a few months earlier. What is bizarre about this is that the Cambodian side is still open to 8PM!
  • Travel over both Thai and Cambodian roads are filled with far more checkpoints, both military and police or both, than ever before. Expect police and military to board your bus and ask for identity documents.
  • Be extremely careful about the money you take on the trip to use or the change you receive. You will have a difficult if not impossible time of exchanging US $100 bills with a date of 1996. You will also have difficulty in exchanging the older, smaller “faced” bills of any domination. Even Thai 1,000 Baht are suspect and often scrutinized. On several occasions I was informed this was because of the “Russians”, of which there is a large community in the Pattaya area.
  • There are many spellings for Thai words in English. Personally I have counted no less than 5 different English spellings on signs leading to Bangkok’s present International Airport, “Don Maung”. Words like Ekkamai can also be Ekamai. Sometimes they are separate, sometimes together such as Morchit/Mo Chit/Mor Chit, Aranya Prathet or Aranyaprathet.

Pattaya to Bangkok - First Leg

I awoke a bit before sunrise at the Diana Golf Resort just across from Pattaya Nua’s (North Road) "Pattaya to Bangkok Air-Conditioned Bus Station". Having used this hotel for many years as my base for adventures around Southeast Asia, today’s sunrise and brewing southern thunderstorms appeared to look like this journey might be another exciting one.

Gathering up my few things, I checked out and strolled across the small field separating the hotel from Pattaya’s north road and the express bus station to Bangkok and after arriving just after 06:30, I purchased my 90 Baht ($2.50USD) ticket to the “Bangkok Bus Station” (or as most foreigners call it, the Eastern or Mor Chit Bus Station).

As the next bus wasn’t leaving until 7AM and I had a few moments to kill, I grabbed my usual two bottles of water and a coffee. The newspaper stand wasn’t open just yet so I wasn’t able to pick up this morning’s Bangkok Post but as I was planning on doing a bit of writing along the way, this didn’t bother me too much.

About 10 minutes before the planned 7AM departure, I strolled over to the bus that was to be my ride north to Bangkok. Buses from this terminal leave every 20 minutes or so for either the western or “Ekamai/Ekkamai Bus Station” and the eastern/Mor Chit or “Bangkok Bus Terminal”. Things are always well organized and if you should have any additional luggage you need to check in the coaches’ baggage compartment, you can do so without worrying about someone snagging it as theft on these buses is practically unheard of.

As I placed my small bags down on the curve and turned around, there was a lady standing there staring at me. I immediately recognized her as someone I knew from one of the ex-pat hangouts in Jomtien and thought once again what a tiny little village I lived in.

We chatted for a few moments and exchanged some pleasantries. She was headed up to Bangkok for the day (Sunday) to see her family and I assumed would be back at work at “Phukey’s” in Jomtien on Monday. There was one other farang (foreigner) standing there as well who seemed to be staring at the both of us. As I did not know if she was traveling with him or not and was feeling a bit uncomfortable, I quickly disengaged the conversation and placed one of my small bags into the luggage compartment and boarded the bus.

Fortunate in having a window seat, we soon pulled out of the bus terminal and turned north on Thailand Highway 3 (Sukhumvit or Main/High Street). I couldn't help but notice the building thunderstorms to the south with their frequent lightning flashes as well as the weather to the east, dark and ominous, with swirling, grey shadows across the land as the sun continued to rise.

Heading north the streets were alive with activity, even in spite of it being only a little past 7 on a Sunday morning. Already the Monks were making their rounds, rice pails in hand, blessing those and saying their prayers for the generous and spiritual.

The bus I am on this particular trip is more modern than most that ply the routes to Ekkamai and Mor Chit. The seats are a bit newer and properly stenciled with large white numbers behind each seat. The air conditioning is blowing cool air steadily from its vents and it has more the feel of a larger coach than the smaller buses I use frequently to Ekkamai.

Laem Chabang Industrial Estate and Port quickly appears fifteen minutes later and after a bit of a wait at the intersection, a few minutes later we make our first stop to pick up more passengers at what the sign indicated to be the “Roong Reuang Coach Company”, which just happens to be the same name of the company issuing the ticket to me in Pattaya.

Fifteen riders board from this station and they all appear to have seats and in less than 3 minutes, we are once again back on the road.

Shortly after this stop, we stop again and take on more new passengers followed by a turn east off of Sukhumvit into an area named “Ao Udom”, which is a narrow, winding lane connecting Highway 3 and Highway 34, the actual highway normally used for bus and truck traffic north. Once we turn north on Highway 34, I notice a sign indicating Bangkok is 94 kilometers away.

Highway 34 is a motorway of sorts, or what an American might refer to as “Interstate”. In reality it is neither. Although it is divided with a medium, there are countless entry, exit and U-turn intersections that can at times make for a harrowing ride. God how I love BIG buses!

About 90 kilometers from Bangkok or about 30 minutes into the trip, we go under the overpass for Highway 331, which is a shortcut to the large industrial estates on the elbow of Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard, the joint military/civilian airfield of Ao Tapao/U-Tapao (pronounced “u da pow) and the Thai naval air and sea bases at Sattahip. If you want to see Thailand’s only aircraft carrier and it military in all its glory, this is the place to go!

It is also interesting to note that on the north side of this intersection of Highway 34, you will see a junkyard that makes you do a double take for it is here that you will see two vintage DC-3s, wing tip to wing tip, only a few meters from the fence separating them from the highway. One can only wonder what these two aging, camouflaged ghosts could tell if they could only talk about their war so long ago called “Vietnam”. (I wonder if the yard still has their maintenance records? ).

The terrain beyond this point is actually quite lovely now with the surrounding steep and forested hills seemingly asleep in the early morning sea mist. It is such a contrast to your senses to be at one moment staring at these tranquil hills followed a moment later with the shrill sound of the busses’ horn jolting you back to the reality of Thailand’s sprawling urbanization. Unfortunately these small hills quickly disappear, and even though we are still a good hour out of Bangkok, the girth of the city is obvious.

What fascinates me is the number of trucks. Yes there are cars everywhere as well, but trucks dominate the highways. In particular, pickups of every design and manufacturer ply the roads of Thailand and unlike Europe, where they are no where to be found, they seem to mirror the economic and regulatory realties of their respective economies.

Having spent many years in both Europe and most recently Germany again, the contrast between their existence on the two continents is an icon for the differences in their respective economies, ways of thinking and laws. Thailand being highly entrepreneurial and not regulated whereas Germany's rules and regulations are daunting at best.

With these thoughts in mind, we once again make a broad, looping turn onto the intersection of two highways merging north. Just to the north of this intersection is where the famous Thai German Institute (TGI) is located. A few minutes later, the 4 candy stripped smoke stacks of a large power generation facility looms up from the horizon. At this point you know you know you are half way to Bangkok.

It is now 8AM and unlike the buses to Ekkamai, the buses to Mor Chit climb up onto the elevated tollway part of Highway 34. If you remain on the ground under this monstrosity of engineering achievement, your trip into Bangkok is free but the traffic will be far heavier and of course your trip much slower.

Shortly after climbing this engineering marvel, signs are now pointing to Bang Na and we soon cross a large river filled with ocean going vessels as well as barges both berthed along the banks of the river as well as tugs pulling heavily laden barges up river to Bangkok.

It is now easy to seem many kilometers in every direction from this height. Although the area is now dead flat, it is very lush and green from the seasonal monsoon rains. Massive warehouses and housing flats dominate the landscape and it isn’t long before another towering complex comes into view through the early morning haze and smog.

It is one of the newer, more famous university campuses that seem to be cropping up all over the region with a soaring skyscraper in the center of its campus. Closer to the highway is a very large and rather ornate Wat, with colors of red, yellow, green and of course, the ever present glistening gold roof.

It is now an hour and a half into the first two hour segment of this journey and the first of multiple, huge road intersections appear. This one happens to be the junction for the new international airport being built to serve the region. Signs point to a name that most farangs find either difficult to pronounce or impossible to read, “The Suvanabhumi Airport”. I wonder what genius selected this name, knowing this facility was being built for the sole purpose of tourism for the eastern seaboard as well as serving as the regional hub for destinations beyond Thailand. I guess “Eastern Seaboard Regional” would have been a bit too simple. I guarantee you there are going to be many confused travelers and travel agents both booking and arriving on planes into the Kingdom!

The bus soon stops and pays its Class 7 toll of 110 baht and we soon start our decent from “heaven” onto the streets of “hell”, where if anyone has spent anytime in Bangkok trying to move about the city in anything other than the Skytrain or brand new Subway, know what I mean.

Here of course is where the perpetual road construction is most obvious. I use to joke year ago about this in Germany and their Autobahns, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the Thai style scope and frequency of construction and expansion.

It is easy to see, even on this early Sunday morning, with countless cranes, workers, steel and concrete everywhere why so many Thais work as construction laborers around the region and in the middle-east.

In spite of the ongoing construction, the traffic is relativity light this Sunday morning which is the main reason I chose today to make this trip, always preferring to make long and difficult passages across the region on a Sunday or holiday. With a little luck and a strong back, it might be possible to complete this journey in one, very long day.

Billboard advertising in Thailand, and particularly in and around Bangkok is everywhere and the boards themselves are massive, reaching a dozen or more stories into the sky. Although Thai culture always wants things to be “beautiful” and Thais hate things that are ugly (including people), the boards are horrific monsters of bolted steel frames, many of which are empty and fouling the cityscape, awaiting their next “victim” mobile phone, cosmetic or airline company.

At a little before 9AM we glide down off the elevated highway and make our circuitous turns into the Eastern Bus Terminal, less than 2 hours after leaving Pattaya. Not bad for a Pattaya to Bangkok run and the first leg of this journey I would say!


Bangkok to Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet - 2nd Leg

Bangkok’s Eastern Bus Station to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and the Cambodia side, Poi Pet.

Although the signage in front of the bus terminal indicates it is the “Bangkok Bus Terminal”, most folks refer to it as the “Eastern” or “Mo Chit” bus station as it is on the east side of Bangkok as well as being located next to the largest and most famous market in Thailand, Mor Chit. It is also the area where you will find the terminus of the Skytrain and an interconnect point with Bangkok's new subway.

I have traveled the world and have ridden every form of transportation known to man, including days on buses across Turkey (which has some of the largest bus terminals I have ever seen), but nothing compares to the scale of this terminal east of Bangkok. As such it can be overwhelming and intimidating, as it was for me the first time I made this trip to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.

The secret however is to realize that there are TWO terminals, one for arrivals and one for departures, just as there are in most modern airports. Once you know this, the rest is easy although if you have some heavy bags, the walk to the bus departure terminal is a bit of a hike as there are no carts to ease the journey between terminals nor are there any porters to assist you.

As I had arrived right at 9AM, I quickly grabbed my laptop, rucksack and small bag and quickly made my way down the long, winding, fenced corridor that separates the terminals, crossing the entrance way for departing buses. The signs now however are referring to this area as the “Eastern Bus Terminal” instead of the Bangkok Bus Terminal.

Although you will find literally hundreds of windows, each with a destination in either Thai or English or both, you need to head to the large, centrally located Information Kiosk and directly opposite that you will find a “blue window”, labeled with the number 26 to Aranyaprathet.

You should be aware that the difference between the orange and blue windows is mirrored in the colors of the buses as well. Typically, blue means “express” with orange translating to “local”. In reality, this simply means that the blue buses are express in that they won’t normally be picking up passengers randomly as they travel their route (although they will make stops at pre-designated points) while the orange buses will. As far as dropping off passengers is concerned, either bus will drop you wherever you want whenever you want.

I am also fortunate this particular morning as the next bus to Aranyaprathet departs at 09:30 and after indicating my preference for a window seat and paying my 164 baht , I get my ticket and am told that the bus will depart from “116” which just happens to be located just outside and behind this window.

As this is my last day in “civilization” for awhile with all its franchised junk foods that Cambodian doesn’t have (including ATM machines…) , I scan the numerous signs in the terminals for KFC, Dunkin Donuts, etc. and opt for the early morning donut route. After 76 baht and 4 donuts later, I drop off my small clothing bag in the baggage hold and board the coach. One of the bus stewards escorts me to my seat and after climbing over a uniformed Thai Air Force airman, I settle in for the 4 to 5 hour trip east to the border. At 09:37 after another ticket check the bus backs out and we start the second segment of this day’s journey to Phnom Penh.

The bus is completely full (how do they do that every time?) and only a few minutes later the bus steward is dispensing our free boxed breakfast of hard toast, condiments and water. Once again, as we exit the city east we are under another elevated highway and as I watch out the window and notice a lone Thai Air Force F-16 Falcon climb out of Don Muang Airport and turn east into the early morning haze. I’m thinking that’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning…

Fifteen minutes after leaving the terminal, we are passing the numerous airport terminals that line the road east out of town and the runway from the which the Falcon had departed from. Once again Bangkok’s commercialization and urbanization is overwhelming with western franchise after western franchise lining the roadway including Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari dealerships as well as the expected KFCs, Office Depots, Swensens, etc.

At 10:05 we come upon a huge “super mall” at a large crossroads with countless stores around it. This particular one is call “Future Park Rangsit” and it is here we make the first stop of what I know will be countless others. Here another 15 passengers board and as all the seats are full, there is nowhere to go but the aisle. One woman assessing the situation quickly, plops herself onto the roof of the toilet which is at the side entrance of the bus from which these folks entered. I just wonder how far these people are going and what they are going to pay for the privilege, but I suspect no free breakfast meals or water will be forthcoming.

As we travel Highway 7 out of the city we pass places with names like Krung Kavee Estate and Golf Course as well as the campus for Eastern Asia University at 10:20. We seem to be paralleling a long and straight canal (klong) as well which was most probably at one point not in the not too distant past, the main “highway” in and out of the city from this direction.

At 10:30 we make a stop to let someone off and only 7 minutes later, we do it again. Oh how I hope this doesn’t continue as it will be a very long trip indeed.

At 10:50 we stop the parallel track with the klong and do a 90 degree turn that within moments deposits us at a huge police checkpoint where we once again pull off, wait a moment and than move forward a few hundred meters and stop again, this time for the lady steward to starting selling 90 baht tickets to those standing in the aisle. I guess standing is cheaper than setting as my ticket cost 164 baht but hey, I got some free toast and a water!

This takes about 10 minutes and after she completes her work, she exits out the side door, re-enters in the front driver compartment from the outside and we continue. I just wonder why she couldn’t have done this while we were heading to our destination on the road as no one got on and no one got off, except of course for her.

The bus is deathly quiet except for some Thai tunes coming from the speaker above me as is typical of Thai buses and most public transportation including city buses and the Sky Train. This fascinates me as Thais love to make noise and love their music LOUD! One might think they work long hours and long days and they want to use these trips to relax and unwind. Not really sure although I do remember one incident some years ago where an American friend of mine and his Thai girlfriend were chattering away for a good hour in their seats on the way to Pattaya from Bangkok where the man in front, turned around and told them to shut up, he was trying to sleep. I guess that could be it…

At 11:20 we veer off the divided highway and once again, we make a brief stop where folks are both getting off and on. So much for the concept of “express”. Sort of reminds me of the word “direct” in the airline industry which as most seasoned travelers know means we can stop as many times as we want as long as it is on the way to where the plane is headed. English is a funny language…

At 11:25 we stop at a "formal bus station" where of course no one seems to get on or off. Why go to the bus station when you can get on in front of your house? Makes sense to me but I don't think that was what was intended with the concept of an "express bus".

A few minutes later we back out and head back onto the the road, doing a Thai-style U-turn. Never have really been sure what this town or bus stop is called as there are no English signs anywhere! Guess we are off the beaten path a bit...

At 11:30 we are back on the divided highway, now 2 hours into the second part of the trip to Phnom Penh. 15 minutes later we make another stop at a quiet round-a-bout with folks playing chess under a rather large shade tree which dominates the intersection.

The road narrows now and we are soon seeing numerous government and military facilities along the roadway. Noon comes and we make another brief stop but at 12:15 we make an unusual stop in that it is a police checkpoint where the drivers of each bus coming and going along this road must make an entry into a log book located in front of the small police station. From what I can see however, there are no police anywhere to be found.

It is also interesting to note the white, spray painted outline of a motorcycle and driver painted onto the highway just in front of the log book stand. This usually indicates an accident and a dead victim. Wonder if someone didn't stop in time and got stopped permanently....

Five minutes later we make another brief stop and a young girl exits the bus....a minute later we stop again while we wait our turn to cross a railway under repair. Geeeee.....with only 75 people left on the bus, at a minute each to let off, we might make it to the border by dark! This is really beginning to get ridiculous and I really don't remember it being this bad before. Is it because it is Sunday?

At 12:30 we once again pull into our second official bus terminal along this segment of the journey and once again, there are no signs in English to indicate where we are. Even the bus routes on the side of the buses are only in Thai.

It is here that I determine enough is enough and I exit to use the toilet as the aisles have been jammed and it is now or never as far as I am concerned. I am aware however that this driver isn't going to be here long so after waiting patiently for the 15 or so departing passengers to exit before me, I rush to the toilet seeing the bus driver exiting the toilet and heading for the bus. Obviously, with his own door, he was able to get things done far quicker than us mere mortals in the back.

Knowing this joker isn't going to wait, I quickly find my 3 baht for the toilet's caretaker, do my thing and rush out only to find someone yelling at me the bus has left and to head the other way out to the parking lot! Shit man! More Thai high drama! It seems however that common sense prevailed with this cowboy as other people were missing and running to the bus as well but we seemed to manage to get everyone back on board and were once again, plying our way slowly to the border.

After the massive exodus at the last station, we now only have a handful of standing patrons. The aircon is working, I've got a seat all to myself, a few donuts in my stomach and if all goes well, I'll be back in the Kingdom of Cambodia by night fall. Life is good!

I do wonder however if it is still a Kingdom with no King? Since King Sihanouk abdicated this week and as there is no constitutional replacement to select a new king, Cambodia has once again, rode to the top of the world's political drama and intrigue.

As this lumbering hulk of a bus speeds up and slows down and weaves its way around slower traffic, jerking itself back into the eastern bound lane only seconds before colliding with the oncoming traffic, it does at times feel like I'm in an amusement part ride although I wonder if I have to pay extra when we get there?

The ever present police posts seem to be magnets for people loading and unloading from these buses and once again, at 1PM, we let off even more passengers followed by only moments later pulling into the third "real" bus station, which this time has a sign in English declaring it the "Sao Kaeo Bus Station.

Once again, you better not leave this bus and driver if you are continuing on as within moments of stopping and letting the doors open, we are pulling out and heading for the highway. It was amazing that the single, boarding passenger, a Monk in his gold robes, even had time to step aboard....

As I am watching the concrete road markers go by (slowing!), I notice that the first one we come upon indicates that the border and Anyaprathet is 51 kilometers away. It is soon after this that the intersection for the road south to Chantaburi comes up as well.

A rather nice golf course appears quickly followed by some type of Thai military installation. Guess the two go hand in hand.

We are finally getting close to the border and at 1:30, for the first time ever on this trip, we are both stopped and boarded by a Thai military ranger who goes down the length of the bus, looking at faces and checking identity documents. Times have changed....

As near the border for the third and final leg of this trip, I have taken my passport out of its waterproof waist pouch, put $30 or do into one pocket for small money and a couple of thousand baht into another pocket for the the anticipated taxi to Phnom Penh.

As the US dollar is the actual currency of Cambodia (riel is used but only as "coinage"), baht is also used, especially on the borders as you might expect but the farther you get from the border, the worse the exchange rate will be.

You should also be very aware that counterfeiting is a huge problem, not only in Cambodia but in Thailand as well, especially areas frequented by Russians (...such as Pattaya). Presently 1996 series $100 dollar bills are unacceptable to most money vendors, whether they are good or not. Usually bills in larger dominations with "smaller faces" or worn bills will not be accepted as well and as this is the very last place you will be able to use your ATM card before entering Cambodia (...they have none, zero, zilch!), you better make sure you not only have enough cash but it will be accepted!

The Thai Queen's 3rd Infantry Battalion or the "Queen's Guard" comes into view at 13:45 and I know we are close. We weave a bit more, going around construction and a short time later, we pull into the bus station on the outskirts of Anyaprathet.

As the border is still a few kilometers away, I find a motorcycle taxi and after refusing to pay the posted sign rate (outrageous), I settle on something more acceptable, grab my bags and head for the market area at the border.

The driver dumps me in front of an area that requires me to walk a few hundred meters to the immigration posts and what I refer to as "no mans land" or "DMZ" between the two kingdoms. It is from this point forward, you better have your wits about you and act (even if you don't) like you know what you are doing because if you don't, you will be overwhelmed with touts, beggars and hustlers. Although the two countries and peoples are truly wonderful, this area between the two is the slime of the planet...

Sihanoukville Cambodia Friends and Adventures

After arriving in Sihanoukville, I made a beeline to the Spitfire Guest House owned by an old time friend of mine, Randy an American from Humboldt, California and his Khmer wife, Sor.

Randy is someone who I have known a long time having first met many years ago in Phuket, Thailand while we both lived there in our respective relationships (...both since long ended) and later in Pattaya on the eastern seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand.

As is normal here in Asia, there is no way you can spend any length of time here and not have a "story". Randy has more than most to put it mildly but has now settled down to an almost nirvana existence with a beautiful guest house, a beautiful wife and two, very brand new twin sons.

Twins are considered very lucky in this part of the world and having had twin boys, exceptionally lucky, so I have a feeling I need to hang around this guy a bit so his luck rubs off on me and my adventures!

It seems others might feel the same way as shortly after I had dropped my bags, people from everywhere started turning up. Locals from around town as well as a couple from Thailand and his mother Gladys from Huntsville, Texas! Seeing the pulls in many directions that this very popular guy is having to deal with, I politely excused myself after depositing my bags in my beautiful room and headed over to the Freedom Hotel to see if I could meet up with Reinhard (Reini) , another friend of mine from Zurich, Switzerland who I was a week late in hooking up with.

Fortunately for me he hadn't left yet and as I was sipping a cold beer, he turned up with Jonnie (the manager of the Freedom). It was good seeing him and we were soon talking about his past 12 or so days of adventuring around Sihanoukville and where his next adventure would be taking him before heading back to his air traffic control job in Europe.

We decided we needed to hook up for dinner and he extended an invitation to a French run restaurant at 8PM. Seemed like a damn good idea to me so after finishing our drinks we parted for a couple of hours and I headed back to Randy's Spitfire.

It is interesting to note how Randy chose the name for his establishment as he had told me that his wife Sor was so "spirited" that she reminded him of the American phrase, "...a little Spitfire" to describe someone who is very spirited and maybe a bit difficult to control, like the horse with the same namesake from the American wild west.

I guess if you know Randy like I did from earlier years in Thailand, seeing him now as the proprietor of a beautiful port town guest house and the husband and father to a lovely lady with two beautiful twin boys, makes you wonder about how we change with time. For me however, it was a bit too much to take in all at one time...

Day 2

The day started off early at 5AM with me working on some articles and photos from my room. Over the quiet hum of the air-conditioning, I could hear the constant crowing of roosters in the neighborhood reminding me that sunrise was only a short time away.

Gladys, Sor and the twins, Ronald and Robert

Gladys, Sor and the twin boys, Ronald and Robert.

At a little before 7AM, I got ready for the day and headed downstairs with my papers and computer and found everyone up and about. Galdys, Randy's mother, was once again there, friendly and engaging. (I guess I now know where and why Randy picked up all his people skills and was such a great host.)

Anyway, she started chatting me up about various things including the running of the guest house and what was needed to make it better, as well as the many changes that had taken place in Cambodia from her earlier visit two years ago.

Yes, changes were everywhere and I indicated to her, change was going to become even faster due to many political and economic factors both here and in the region. Those changes however will most probably be good for Cambodia and the area around Sihanoukville and that Randy was most probably in the "right place at the right time". But having been here 6 years already and having been through the trauma of those times, he deserved it!

We talked about simpler things as well, including the guest house getting new DVD players for each room, 2 more air-conditioners, large king size beds or 2 twin beds in the new rooms and Randy's idea to add new serviced apartments to the roof area. I also suggested they set up an area for free tea and coffee for the guests. She quickly got the hint and asked me if I would like some coffee....for which I smiled a big grin and said, "Yes, that would be wonderful!"

I went on to start working at my desk in the guest houses' huge "living room" (...for lack of a better phrase) and it wasn't long before freshly brewed coffee arrived. As they were out of milk, Randy was there a few moments later telling me he was headed to the store and did I prefer cream or milk. Does it get in better than this?

A few hours went by and around noon we decided to all head out to Independence Beach for an afternoon swim. As I had no transportation and since I was going to be on the coast for a week or so, I decided to go to the corner where the G.S.T. bus station was and where they also rented motorcycles.

As I had gone there earlier on my own and priced the bikes at $5, I asked Sor to come with me as I knew we could get one cheaper. Sure enough, we agreed on a price of $3 a day but unfortunately there wasn't any bikes immediately available, so I had to wait.

A short time later we headed to the beach together, winding our way around the coast out of town to the far end of Independence Beach, right where the old and imposing Independence Hotel stands.

Randy and Rob liked the little area and knew the Khmer woman who ran the beach hut. Gladys was with us as well and it wasn't long before the 3 of them were in the water while I chose to write a bit and take some photos.

It was shortly after they entered the water that some monks came onto the beach. As always, they were dressed in their golden robes which made quite for quite a foreground of beach shots as they sipped their soft drinks in the chairs next to me.

I had also gotten a bit hungry and tried to communicate with the woman that I would like some chicken and rice. She smiled and shortly scurried off to get me some.

I continued to take photos and write and the time started to slip by. My compatriots had now left the water and were sipping their drinks next to me under the hut's roof. 10 minutes became 20, 20 became 40....but where was my chicken and rice. About 50 minutes after I ordered I tracked here down and she kept saying "10 minutes". 10 more minutes went by and than 20.

It was than that we started to wonder if they were killing and plucking the chicken.....which was about the time that a procession of people appeared...and sure enough, a full chicken was on the plate! Of course plates and a huge bowel of rice was also presented.

Charlie and his chicken and rice!I just hung my head. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Of all my years in Asia, I couldn't recall such a miscommunication for a food order but as everyone was a bit hungry, I had lots to share! After a bit, I couldn't stop laughing as I tried to eat the obviously very fresh and very tough field chicken. This time however I opted not to eat the feet or the neck...and instead feed them to the half or so dozen dogs hanging out under the shack.

After the "chicken feast", I guess the only thing I could say was I guest I didn't order "pig" and rice!!!

Headed for CamBrew

After arriving back at the guesthouse, we decide to take a bit of a break and plan for a later afternoon excursion up to the Cambodian Brewery, where with the right connections, free "samples" of their finest flows for hours at a time.

Joel was to by our "guide" into the wilds of the brewery and after he arrived, we piled into the Cambodian Camry taxi and headed out of town north to where "CamBrew" is located. Having been there before, I had no problem being convinced in going there!

Although not open to the public in the evening, you can visit if you have the "right connections". Knowing the brewmaster, Mr. Limm however seems to be an excellent calling card and it wasn't more than a couple minutes later after we arrived, the gate security guard waived us through and we were setting at one of their three pubs, drinking down cold glasses of Angkor draft.

Randy and Charlie at CamBrew in Sihanoukville CambodiaAfter countless numbers of "cheers" and "prosts" front both the 4 foreigners and the half a dozen Khmers, we said our goodbyes and thanks at 18:30 (30 minutes later than we should have) and headed back to our car and home at the Spitfire Guest House.

Randy had been cooking up a beef and vegetable stew earlier in the afternoon and although we were quite hungry, it wasn't quite ready yet. Decisions.... what do we do next?

A consensus was quickly reached that we should stroll down the street to the Angkor Arms and have a beer while we waited for dinner to cook. Supposedly, Bert was still gone so we made a plan to head to the "Dusk to Dawn Bar" after a beer or so.

As we walked up however, two of the outside tables were filled with Bert, his son and others obviously having a good time from their day's motorcycle trip to Bokor Mountain. It wasn't long before rounds of beers were being bought and deep discussions about things happening in and around Sihanoukville were taking place.

It seemed that the highlight of the conversations were the numerous motorbike trips that had taken place in the past or were coming up, both in Cambodia and around other parts of southeast Asia, as most around the tables had their own stories to tell about such adventures.

A table of "Barangs" at the Angkor ArmsAfter that, conversations slipped to the discussion about yet another expat that had "slipped and fallen", or as some might express it, "gone off the deep end". As in Thailand, the stories about farangs (foreigners) succumbing to the wild freedoms of Asia are both notorious and endless. Cambodia, although not as large, populated or as accessible for many years, has developed its own legacy of expats "gone missing". Michael, an American "stockbroker" was yet another example of this.

After I jotted down a few notes and indicated I would see what I could do once I returned to Phnom Penh, the conversation shifted to the rapid growth and development of the area. Besides the now official announcements of ChevronTexaco about their oil concessions off the coast and the beginning of drilling, there was also the continuing rumors about US Military deployments to the area.

As I listened to the comments I couldn't help but glance over to Bert's newspaper rack and see the two headlines from the that day's and the the previous day's Bangkok Post. One screamed "Cambodia may be next 'terror haven' while the other informed us that 87 Muslims had been killed in one day by Thai troops in their southern provinces. I was thinking to myself it seemed a situation ripe for US intervention...

Anyway, the day had been long and poor Ron (Randy's guest from England) had started to slip a bit from way too many beers and an overload of the day's activities in the sun and gulf. We decided it was probably best to head on back to the Spitfire and call it a day.

We paid and strolled back across the street to the guest house. As it was around 11:30, things had quieted down and the gate was nearly closed. Sor was up with the babies but made sure I was taken care of and got me a bowl and spoon for what turned out to be some of the best stew I have had in many a day. I guess after three bowls, I was qualified to make that assessment!

Monday, September 6, 2004

The Mysterious Mekong River Dolphins of Cambodia



Phnom Penh, Cambodia

2004 September 06
by Ajarn Charlie at mysticsailor@gmail.com
http://ajarncharlie.blogspot.com/

My friend Phanna and I decided to head back to his hometown of Kratie (pronounced Kratchey) to visit his family and find and photograph the rare and mysterious freshwater Mekong Dolphins.

Leaving from the riverfront in Phnom Penh at 8AM, we soon wound our way through the weekend traffic exiting the city and headed north along the Tonle Sap River.

Crammed into the proverbial Cambodian Toyota Camry taxi with seven others ($35-40 per taxi for the trip from Phnom Penh to Kratie), I was allocated the space in the front seat jammed against the door, setting on my feet as there wasn't enough room for both Phanna and myself to set on the seat and also allow space for the driver to shift gears during the more treacherous and traffic laden parts of the journey.

For the next 5 hours, with my upper torso more outside the cab than inside we dodged in and out of traffic, honking the horn constantly at the never ending streaming obstacles of humanity, animals and vehicles. To put it mildly, a rented taxi jammed with seven other brave souls is probably not for the faint of heart as the first hour of the trip is a constant game of playing chicken and is probably better travelled with your eyes closed and fast asleep!

As I chose to keep mine open (since I was hanging out the window anyway), the 1st of the inevitable southeast Asian traffic accident appeared only a half an hour later with a motorbike lying on its side and a young woman laying in the arms of another woman next to it, crying and sobbing.

Passing this scene we continued north and at 09:30 AM made the first of several stops, this one at a very crowded restaurant. After a 15 minute break during which I had some soup and tea, we turned east on Highway 7, headed towards Kompong Cham. At 10:20, nearly two and a half hours after leaving Phnom Penh, we started over the new Japanese built bridge and were crossing the Mighty Mekong.

As many times as I have seen and travelled on this river, it has never failed to leave me in awe and this time it is no different, for as we climb quickly into the sky on the bridge, the river beneath you seems to dominate everything for as far as you can see, spreading itself to what I estimated to be over a kilometre and a half wide and running north and south for as far as the eye can see.

It is now September, the height of the rainy season and the river is full and straining its banks. The current is wicket; rushing towards Vietnam at speeds that require most barges, ferries and other vessels to hug the shore lines in their efforts to stay out of the fastest parts of the river and make some progress against the torrid current.

Most people don't really understand the size and power of this river. Here in Cambodia however they do as it is the only place in the world where another large and powerful river, the Tonle Sap, has its own southerly flow reversed at the confluence of the two rivers in Phnom Penh due to the shear power and strength of the Mekong River's waters rushing to Vietnam, the Mekong Delta and the South China Sea.

During this period as the levels of the Mekong rise, the Tonle Sap is backed up and the river reverses direction and starts flowing northwest with the lake enlarging from 2,500 square kilometers to over 13,000 square kilometers with the depth increasing from 2.2 meters to over 10 meters.

It now isn't long before we exit Kompong Cham and the road improves dramatically as the next leg of the journey has been rebuilt with the assistance of an Asian Development Bank loan and quite frankly, they have done a damn good job as the road is smooth and more importantly, very wide and straight.
Along this section, I start to notice new tree farms around almost every bend, laid out in perfectly straight lines that go on for hectares and hectares. As this region in past years has been a target of massive logging operations and pulp and paper mills, it is refreshing to see an effort to replenish what nature once gave us.

I do notice however numerous trucks still filled with logs either setting along the highway or travelling in various directions. It is obvious to anyone but a blind person that logging is still an economic reality and seems to be still occurring on a rather large scale although supposedly outlawed some years ago. Maybe someone has a special permit?

I also take note that the soil here is obviously very fertile and the vegetation very
lush and thick. This is quite a contrast to the land in and around the temples of Angkor and the town of Siem Reap which is difficult to impossible to grow anything on and during the dry season becomes incredibly hard and baked, seeming to turn almost into stone.

After a couple more stops along the way to let the obviously pregnant woman passenger in the rear seat to throw up and to fuel up (and throw up again), we pull into Kratie town at 1:20 PM, which quite frankly does not leave one with a terribly wonderful great impression as the buildings are drab and the road turns to dust and rock again. This however is the wrong impression as the town turns out to be a wonderful, quaint backwater that reminds me in many ways of Nong Khai in Thailand (that sets across the Mekong from the capital of Laos, Vientiane).With only a couple minutes more, we are pulling up in front of Phanna's parent's home and they quickly greet us with smiles and hugs.

Panna's father turns out to be a very fascinating and extremely well educated man who has served in various capacities in the region including being directors of the World Food Program and the Kratie Province Rural Development Agency. It isn't long before maps are flying out of drawers and I am getting a briefing on plans for the development and potential for the province.

It seems the local officials think that the economic salvation for the province after the "legal" demise of the logging industry is agriculture, specifically dairy farming. A map that I now have shows me 6 massive tracks of land to the east of the Mekong and to the east and north of Kratie. The area encompasses over 34,000 hectares of land and lies approximately 20 kilometres east and north of Krati bordering areas along the Prek Te, Kampi and Prek Kakol Rivers. Land prices are discussed and quite honestly, I find the prices mentioned to be amazingly reasonable given their location, fertility, proximity to Vietnam as well as river transport via the Mekong.

After a spot of late lunch, Phanna and I head off with his brother in law in (you guessed it) another Toyota Camry. It seems that this model from Toyota is everywhere in Cambodia and in reality it is, from the beaches of Sihoukville to the trashy border town of Poi Pet, to the temples of Angkor, they are in fact everywhere! Just why or how has to be a story in itself and it is hard to imagine where Toyota could have this model somewhere else on earth as they had to have all been shipped to Cambodia!

This time however, with 5 fewer people, the trip north out of Kratie is quite pleasant and with the air-conditioning on, free of dust and the usually inevitable grime that accumulates on your skin and face from a Cambodian road trip.

Our destination for this late afternoon trip is the extremely rare and very famous Mekong River Dolphins. Although no one knows where this species came from or how they managed to come so far up the Mekong (and adapt themselves from salt water to fresh water), they are in fact here and living in several different pods (groups) in the waters of the Mekong.

The one pod we are headed for is called the "Kampi Pod" and seems to frequent where the Kampi and Mekong Rivers come together. It seems this past season (2004), with the Mekong being the lowest it has been in over three decades, that the population has declined from the estimated 100 or so earlier in the year to less than 60 (according to some locals) due to having to move from their normal feeding grounds into unfamiliar and dangerous waters where they were caught up in nets or injured/killed by river vessels.

This species of dolphin is more formally named the "Irrawaddy" and has a rounded head with no beak, and a flexible neck. They can vary in color from dark and light blue- grey, to pale blue. It is grouped as an oceanic dolphin, although some dolphins may live in the freshwater of rivers all their life (such as the Ganges in India). This species of dolphin has a small triangular shaped dorsal fin with a rounded tip, below the centre of the back , and is a slow swimmer - usually moving in small groups. Irrawaddy dolphins are very similar to the shape of the Beluga (toothed whale), and to the shape of the Finless Porpoise with its blunt round head, so they are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They can have up to 40 teeth on their upper jaw, and 36 teeth on the lower jaw.

Adult Irrawaddy dolphins can grow to between 2.1 and 2.6 metres long, with new-borns about 1m in length and a fully grown Irrawaddy dolphin weighing between 90 and 150 kg. At birth they are as much as 12kg.

Although some travel guides indicate that the best time to see them is between the months of December to April, Phanna and I have no problem finding them immediately as Phanna had for many years been a tour guide while growing up and was intimately familiar with this area of the Mekong, the dolphins and their feeding grounds. After renting a boat and driver for $6 at the dock just south of the Kampi River, within minutes at least 2 if not more, broke the surface next to our small boat and with regularity over the next half hour we observed them as our young boat handler managed to keep us on "station" with the engine off, just meters from the entrance to the Kampi River.

As we wait for them to surface and as I make an effort to catch them with my Nokia digital camera, we discuss the area, its past, development and growth. It is than that I learn that a proposal is on the table and is being seriously considered to build a dam in the very spot where we are watching these creatures feed and play.

Although I am usually very much a realist and know here in Asia feeding people and providing them food, water and power will always override other environmental concerns (as well as the destruction of rare animal species), I secretly hope that this is one dam that isn't built.

As I watch a massive thunderstorm build to the north, we can hear the rolling thunder from its anger and I am wondering if it and its rains will head our way. After watching it and the winds for a few more minutes, I determine that it most probably will not, at least for the next hour or so and after getting some more photos of fishermen and the their nets along the river banks, we turn the boat south and head for the parking area and dock where Phanna's brother in law is awaiting us.

After piling into the car again, I am surprised to find we turn left (north away from town) out of the lot onto the narrow, heavily potted lane that serves as the main road north and south along the Mekong. After another 30 minutes or so and after passing through another village where the road makes a Y and forks off to the northeast, we stay on the section that parallels the banks of the Mekong and soon enter an area that has a very large, modern Wat (temple/pagoda) within easy view of the road and the Mekong. It is only after pulling into this area that I understand just how large it is and find out it is the largest such Wat in Cambodia, having exactly 100 large columns supporting its roof.

Wat Trasor Muoy Roi as it is formally called, is famed for its excellent wall paintings as well as the stupa dedicated to the Princess Nucheat Khatr Vorpheak who legend says was killed by a crocodile. Although very beautiful, I became much more mesmerized by a much smaller and far older wooden Pagoda setting on the grounds several hundred meters further inland and to the east.

As we pulled under a beautiful tree that dominates the area where the older Wat still stands, we noticed that no one was around except for one lone monk picking up palm branches. It had been raining earlier and the ground around the temple was wet and muddy so we had to step carefully as we made our way inside.
After taking my shoes off, I was immediately drawn to a large setting Buddha which dominated the pagoda but was additionally surprised and fascinated to find a panoramic collection of hand-painted murals that rested on the walls above the height of the doors and windows. They were spectacular!

As I snapped at least one photo of each, I listened to the translation from Phanna of the monk's description and history of the murals and the pagoda itself. I was told that the temple's name was "Preak Heak Kok" which means "high ground" as the ground on which it set was higher than the surrounding area and was never flooded by the Mekong when it overflowed its banks. Articles from others however refer to it as "Wat Preah Vihear Kuk" so I am not exactly sure what its proper name is.

I also listened to several stories about its history and was told it dates back to 1142 AD when the original stone temple was built on the same spot. The resident monk told us that the wooden temple that existed now was 346 years old but once again this seems to be in conflict with other writers who have indicated it to be over 700 years old. I am more inclined to believe the younger age myself.

Stories were also relayed about its role in the recent fighting in 1983 when a major battle took place on the surrounding grounds. Supposedly three monks were killed and several buildings were destroyed, one of which still has the concrete steps leading up to an obviously empty space, pot marked with the battle's scares.
There was also another story concerning this very old and beautiful pagoda that was equally sad in that as recent as 1998 it was looted of many of its precious artifacts by a high ranking government official who was supposedly taking the items to Phnom Penh for safe keeping with the intent of putting them on display in the National Museum. According to the monk however, the items might be "safe keeping" but they are nowhere to be found in the National Museum. Go figure....

Part 2

It was looking like the thunderstorm was moving in on us from the north so after a few more photos, we piled into the Toyota just as it started to gently rain and headed south, backtracking our way back to Kratie Town along the banks of the Mekong.

As we made our way south, we made a quick stop at another beautiful, wooden temple where I once again took a few photos. It was all closed up however with the entrance gate closed and locked so I had to settle from some shots from the street.
The road (actually a lane) was once again congested with people, vehicles, animals and pets even in spite of the fact that it was starting to rain harder and harder as light turned into dusk. I was in the front seat during this leg with Phanna in the back, straddling the opening between the two front passengers as we discussed in great detail the Cambodian education system.

Although I have experienced it first hand having been a teacher in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as well as having taught courses at both language schools and universities, I did not agree with some institutions policies of allowing students to attend class as late as they wanted with students not even reporting to class until at least 15-45 minutes after it had started. It seems here in Cambodia, all too often, once a degree has been paid for, that somehow precludes the actual necessity to go to class and learn what is being taught. In my opinion, not the best way to assist in a country's development or show a student what is expected after graduation.

After a few more stops along the way to chat with friends, we eventually enter town and get out of the car across the street from the Red Sun Falling Restaurant which turns out to be the only Barang (foreign) owned bar in town.
Al from Sharkys in Phnom Penh had told me to make sure I visited the place so after saying thanks and goodbye, I crossed the street with Phanna and we set ourselves down on 2 of the 4 bar stools that were in front of the bar.

The proprietor of the establishment is a young guy named "Joe" from Chicago in the good ole U.S. of A. As I was writing this article, I wanted to try his "special" posted to the entrance ways' chalk board as well as have a couple of cold beers.
Joe was friendly enough and filled us in on his personal history and the hows and whys of him coming to Kratie. Also told us about some of the local expats which seemed to number a dozen or so and were all involved with one NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) or another.

The special arrived and it was a pretty decent pasta dish, with salad and some garlic bread, all for 7,000 Riel (less than $2). Not bad I thought. Not bad at all.
Over the next couple of hours we talked about numerous things including the growing number of travelers through Kratie on their way north and south on the Mekong from Laos. Joe stated that at the height of the tourist season that 60-70 folks passed through the ferry terminal here and many chose to stay for at least a night or two before continuing on their journey. With very nice accommodations with large rooms being available for $3 a night, not exactly over taxing on a backpacker's budget. (Kratie however is NOT the place to use the Internet as prices are between $4-7 an hour compared to Phnom Penh's .50 an hour!)

It got to be around 9PM and I felt it best we head home back to Phannas and join his family for a bit. Grabbing a motorcycle taxi we arrived back at Phanna's home where everyone is preparing to go to sleep. A bed has been made up for me in the front living room area which is quite comfortable and after a bit more conversation, we all called it a day and went to our separate beds. It was only moments later I was fast asleep.

DAY 2 - Down the Mekong

The day woke with the noise of the traffic outside and the crowing of the ever present roosters. Even in the "wilds" of Phnom Penh, awakening to sounds of occasional rooster crows and the occasional automatic weapons fire seems to be quite normal. Today however, all I hear here in Kratie, are chickens and cars.
It is early and I don't even realize just how early until I am out of bed getting dressed and putting on my watch. I guess 5:30 AM isn't too early to start the day's adventures and with that thought in mind, I am soon outside, pacing around the area in front of the house and along the graveled street.

After Phanna's mother fixes the family some breakfast and me some tea, there is several long exchanges again with Phanna's father about the development of the province. Phanna's father speaks very little English as being a well educated and an older Khmer, he learned French. Phanna however does an excellent job of relaying our conversation and I learn many more interesting things.

Time is pushing on however and there is a lot to see before we catch the 10:30 high-speed ferry towards Phnom Penh. With this in mind, we set off by foot as Phanna's sister is out and about with their motorbike. She soon catches up with us however and even though she is some distance from their house, turns the bike over to us and we leave her standing on the street next to the Mekong. Seemed a bit odd that we didn't offer to take her back to the house....

Phanna and I are than taken up with the area along the Mekong and its many old French Colonial buildings, wats and wooden pagodas. There is also an area just south of town on the dirt lane closest to the river that has more Vietnamese than Khmer but although it is a bit seedy, the view along the shore is quite beautiful and only a couple of minutes through this area leads us to another beautiful wooden pagoda.

Wat Roka Kandal is a well preserved pagoda dating from the 18th or early 19th century located right next to the banks of the Mekong. It has traditional decorations and is of wooden construction and the information inside state that it is the only one of its type in Cambodia.

A German NGO has helped with the Pagoda's reconstruction and maintenance and inside now there is a local arts and crafts shop.

I was really taken with the beauty of the columns and the views through the surrounding grounds through the beautifully framed windows. After a bit of shopping picking out things for friends back in Phnom Penh, Phanna and I got back on the motorbike and headed once again south along the wide, picturesque streets with their numerous traditional, wooden framed homes.

It has now gotten to the time where we need to start thinking of catching the ferry home to Phnom Penh so we head back north to the central part of town and the ferry docks.

After spending a bit of time in the local market and after grabbing a bite to eat in a restaurant across the street from the docks, we head back to Phanna's house where we return the family's Honda and say our goodbyes.

Phanna's family with wonderful smiles and waves say goodbye to us as we catch a motorcycle taxi to the docks.

A couple of minutes later we pulled up to what was obviously a developing throng of people waiting to catch the various ferries that seemed to be heading out in the next few minutes. As it was only 10 AM and the expected departure time was 10:30, I took a quick hike around the block, snapping some more photos of both buildings and people.

I returned a few moments later, and it seemed the dock had swelled to it was in fact now occupying the riverfront street, with packages, bundles, construction material and food stuffs appearing from everywhere.

As I had been told the boat would be appearing from the north on its way down from the Laos border with Cambodia, I kept an eye in that direction to make sure I caught it as it neared the dock. I wasn't however prepared for the site that was to come into view and as it turned from the main channel and headed towards the shore, as it seemed that it would capsize at any moment.

As I stared in disbelief at the "express" ferry I could only imagine what the slow boat might look like. Was this really going to be the vessel that was to take me and Phanna down the Mekong?

As I had already purchase my $6 ticket (negotiated down from $7) and Phanna his (Khmer price of 15,000 Riel or $3.75), we obviously had no choice as we needed to get back to Phnom Penh and unless we waited for a weekday, the boat probably wouldn't be any less crowded.

To Chan Thel and Phanna at the Kratie Municipal Dock

After saying our farewells to Phanna's friend who is also an English teacher and part-time tour guide in Kratie, we boarded the boat, crawling our way along the port side cat-walk only inches from the water. As few people had left the heavily laden craft, we had to go back as far as where the engine's exhaust stacks rose from out of the engine room where we climbed up onto the roof which for the remainder of our journey served as our outpost on the Mekong.

It is hard to see the boat under the sea of humanity boarding the ferry.
As we departed Kratie port and set out down the Mekong, it wasn't long before we were moving along at a pretty good clip, far faster than anything else we came across.

Although everything along the journey was interesting, including the numerous stops along the shore to load and unload passengers and cargo, what was particularly interesting early on in the trip was the mid-channel docking at noon with another express boat coming up the Mekong. Done smoothly and quickly, if you hadn't been watching the bow (front) of the boat you probably wouldn't have noticed it happening.

What was also interesting to watch was the young girl walking along the very narrow "catwalk" of the boat selling oranges as it was hurling full-speed down the Mekong. What made me wonder of the longevity of her career was the fact that she chose to neither tie herself off to anything or hold onto what rail there was. Her faith in the boat's buoyancy or the captain's capability or maybe just Buddha was pretty amazing....

At 1PM we had gone as far south as Steang Trong where you notice steep cliffs on the western bank of the river. It was only a half hour later we arrived Kompong Cham, crossing under the huge Japanese bridge spanning the waters of this mighty river.

After a bit of negotiating ($10 for the rear seat), we found ourselves a taxi and were soon winding our way out of the port taxi area and onto the road south to Phnom Penh. At 3:30 PM we passed the Chroy Chang Var Taxi Station just to the east of another Japanese bridge that spans the Mekong in Phnom Penh and were soon once again where we started, the Crystal Net Internet Cafe on Sisowath Quay.

Sophanna Chheang (Phanna) can be reached in Phnom Penh at his guest house, the #10 Lake Side Guest House (Lake Boung) or by phone at 012-725-032 or 011-445-464. He can also be reached via email at "Phanna Chheang" phanna2005@gmail.com .

He is wonderful and knowledgeable young man who speaks fantastic English, some French and is studying International Relations and Law.