Two days past December 25th and I’m still full of Christmas food. While I’m fighting off this food coma I’ve cast my mind back again to 10 years ago and our very different holiday period.
27th December 2011
A Laos sandwich is a great way to start a day. Today’s was scrambled egg, tomato, and cucumber and encased in baguette heaven. After fueling our bodies we set off to see Wat Phu.
Wat Phu was built 1500 years ago to worship the goddess of love, Shiva. There are lots of phallic shapes around and also a crocodile stone where they used to make human sacrifices usually of young girls, so we sacrificed Kenny, just kidding.
Thank goodness it was only a couple of hours drive to our next destination as I seem to have lost the ability to remain conscious while onboard the bus. The engine starting has some kind of magic hypnotic effect and immediately I start nodding off. We arrived at the endpoint of our journey with the Stray bus, it had served us well on this trip from Thailand through the length of Laos. We farewelled it and the driver before boarding a longboat to get to Don Det. Don Det is the second largest island in an area known as the 4000 Islands and it is possibly the most chillaxed place ever. The remainder of the afternoon was spent dozing in a hammock on a balcony overlooking the river before moving to our guesthouse room to doze some more.
More hammock time this morning. As I catch up on some Internet time, Kenny is lying in a sunny spot on the balcony and the boys have gone off to kick Christian’s Takraw ball around. After a lazy breakfast, we hired two bikes ($1.50 for the day) and headed off with one child on the back of each. We cycled to the other end of Don Det crossing a bridge to enter a national park. We checked out the local Wat then the local waterfall and had a swim. Lunch followed then the race was on to get back for a cold shower and back into the hammock, the circle of the day complete.
Tomorrow we head off in the morning to Cambodia, country
Today was one of those days when you’re traveling that are really no fun at all. We checked out of Mr. Mo’s guest house which aside from the cockroaches and the lumpy mattresses had been great. Under the guidance of the aforementioned Mr. Mo, we started our journey to Cambodia. All was smooth sailing to start with crossing the Mekong by longboat and getting a minivan to the border. Mr. Mo left us then and we had to look after ourselves for the first time in weeks.
The Laos/Cambodia border was so corrupt it was actually comical. First, we had to get our passports stamped to leave Laos. This cost $2USD each. Then we went to ‘quarantine’, which may be a leftover from the bird flu epidemic but has proved too profitable to get rid of (it would be fascinating to find out how they are dealing with covid!). We had health forms to fill out, had our temperature taken, and were charged $1USD each. We then walked about 500m through no man’s land to start the rort at the other side.
$23USD each for the actual Visa and then another $2USD each for the same trio of wee men issuing the visa to stamp it. There are grand border buildings being constructed on both sides but for now, business is conducted in a series of tin sheds, at the rate they get money out of you they should have the new ones finished in no time.
There were a whole bunch of travelers sitting in any shady spot they could find waiting for a bus. When the bus arrived and the locker doors opened it was like the backpacker Olympics to get to the bus first, get your luggage stored, and get inside to get a seat. This is where traveling in numbers has its advantages. Murray was able to take care of getting our two backpacks under the bus while the kids and I got on board and secured seats. This proved crucial as the number of seats was heavily outnumbered by the number of people who had paid for tickets for the 8-hour trip, which actually ended up taking 9 hours. Never fear, out came plastic stools which were put in the aisle for the unlucky folk who missed out on the padded seats. When one disillusioned soul asked ‘is this a sleeper bus,’ the attendant cackled and replied ‘yes, sure, you sleep on da floor’. Cue evil laugh. Hilarious.
What the bus lacked in seats it made up for in hideous decor and disorganization. The bus windows were lined with purple patterned curtains that gathered with tassels along the front windscreen. Entertainment was in the form of comedy shows which were played at ear-piercing volume. They may well have been hilarious for the 1 person who spoke the language. Eventually a Sth African man begged the driver to turn it off.
Occasionally the bus would stop and passengers who were connecting to other destinations would be ushered off. Often they’d return a few minutes later after discovering this wasn’t where they actually wanted to be or where their connection was only to discover their seat was now taken. A foursome dropped off at the wrong spot pulled up alongside the bus a few minutes after it had left on the back of a flotilla of scooters, their suitcases wedged between them and the locals helping them.
We were fortunate that the young couple who sat in the aisle between us were both from my hometown, Tauranga. We had a nice time chatting to them and the male of the pair enjoyed playing on the iPad with the kids. We eventually arrived at Phnom Penh after 9pm tired and hungry, not at a bus station as we had expected, but at a row of tuk-tuks with which we had to haggle with to get to where we wanted to go. Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr Tommy, wants to be our driver for the day tomorrow and has promised us he’ll be waiting for us at 10am.
Friday 30th December
As promised Mr Tommy was waiting for us, not at 10am as we had agreed, but at 8.30. Full marks for promptness, keenness, and making sure we didn’t get lured in by another driver. We negotiated a fee of $15 USD for him to take us where we wanted to go for the day and our family of 5 set off. Yes, our family has expanded. We have been adopted by a French Canadian dude who is lovesick as his recent travel love has gone back to Korea.
Our first stop was at Former office S.21, the genocide museum. This used to be a school until April 1975, when it was changed to a detention, interrogation, torture, and murder facility on the order of Pol Pot, the nutcase leader of the Khmer Rouge. Only 7 people came out alive of the approximately 20 000 that were imprisoned.
It was a deeply sobering and creepy place to be and Kenny particularly was moved by the exhibits and photos.
From there we went to the Choeung Ek killing fields, one of 300 such places throughout Cambodia. We had an excellent audio tour that described in horrific detail how the Khmer Rouge murdered innocent people. Still visible today in the ground are fragments of bone and teeth and victims’ clothing rising up through the dry earth. The memorial Stupa holds hundreds of skulls many of which are visibly damaged from their death.
While I continue my Christmas food coma recovery it’s sobering to revisit this horrific time in the history of Cambodia. I long to be traveling again and be able to have the experiences that go along with it, both the good and the bad. Here’s hoping 2022 will be a year of travel!