Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dolphins in the provinces

On Wednesday a dawn start for a 7 hour bus trip to Kratie.  

The journey was stunning.  When I say the journey took 7 hours this is true - however I did not realise that at least 2 1/2 hours of this time was due to stops for people to have a snack and to load things - e.g old women, sacks of rice, small kids, post.... - into and off the bus at unscheduled stops.   The journey passed through villages and other large towns.  Banana trees, rubber trees, palm trees and other expansive greenery was breath taking.   What was also breath taking was the driving "skills" of everyone on the road.  I had the joy of sitting at the front so saw all of the near misses as the driver overtook and was overtaken.  The polite thing to do here when overtaking is to beep the horn.  The bus overtook lots and had a very loud horn.  Not so great.  This was combined with Khmer culture - a showing of video of Johnny English (the one with Mr Bean as a 007 character...) dubbed in Khmer.  I hate this type of film at the best of times but the other Khmer passengers (the rest of the bus) loved it.  It may have been the most hilarious thing they had ever seen given their howls of joy... At least I thought it was their favourite comedy until the journey back when a showing of a stand up comedy type show (think the Crankies on crack) was shown.  Now it seems that really was funny!! 

Anyway, the journey finally ended and Kratie awaited.  A small town in the provinces.  The hotel, the guidebook said, was the best in town.  It is run by the wife of a local government official.  Basically a large concrete mansion with lots of wood and "marble" and paintings in garish colours.  Still, the view of the mekong river from the balcony was impressive and for $17 a night it was a good choice.
The next day was spent searching for the famous dolphin that had prompted the entire trip....
The Irrawaddy dolphins are known to only inhabit 3 rivers - all in SE asia.  The Mekong is one of them and is the most important area for the endangered dolphin which can be seen every day in Kampi pool a 40 minute moto ride from Kratie.   The drive to the "pool" (part of the river) was great on a narrow road through villages where wooden huts stand on stilts and where much of the people can be seen outside working on the land or taking a break from the heat (or trying to persuade a monkey to come out of a tree).   

Seeing the dolphins was possible by watching from dry land but seeing them by boat really gave a chance to get a lot closer.  The dolphins are shy and are not like "flipper" and other dolphins of that variety (I don;t just mean performing ones and ones that can identify burning barns and ship wrecked boats... just the ones that live in the sea and have a bottle nose) and so do not come up to the boat itself.  The gently come up to the surface to breathe and then they are gone again.... During the hour boat ride plenty of beautiful dolphins came to the surface, sometimes not too far from the boat.  As the guide book said its practically impossible to take a decent photograph of them - I got a lot of shots with just fins!!!  The experience was very relaxing and the dolphins very beautiful.  There are only 170 of them in the Mekong river so seeing about 10 on this trip was great.   

On the return to Kratie the moto driver stopped at a meditation centre nearby - Sombok Mountain.  Not exactly a mountain but there was about 500 steps to climb in temperature over 30 degrees.    The view at the Wat at the top of the climb was really worth the climb though as you could really get an idea of the landscape of this part of Cambodia.  
The morning after - an early start for the bus journey home.  You have to really love dolphins to endure this trip! 
On Monday, you workers will be pleased to know that I am starting a TEFL course.  The course involves working with children who work/used to work on the infamous dump here in Phnom Penh.  I am really looking forward to that but have spent the day revising grammar by a pool at a 5 star hotel here.  The pool was great, my grammar not so hot.  Thankfully I think these children are just on basics at the moment! 

Pictures: Dolphins, nagas at meditation centre, snack of fried whole chick (beak and all) at "service station" and sunset over Mekong...

Khmer property finding....

Since my last post considerable time has been spent finding a suitable place to live with some interesting moments.  Perhaps a run down of properties would paint a picture.   We saw three estate agents. 

The first agent was found via the internet.   A young woman found us three overpriced properties picked us up and drove us around her selected places....  

Flat 1:  This was opposite the market (BKK market) I visited the other day.  As the agent stated it is convenient for the market.  However, the draw backs were considerable.  The kitchen was a health and safety disaster.  The squat toilet was practically in the kitchen.  The bedroom was filthy. The second bedroom could not be observed because someone was sleeping in it(!)  The living room was massive and as one of the young women who had been woken up to show us around said "you could put a pool table in here".  That was true but it was more likely that I might die from various faulty electrical wiring first.  The market was directly opposite.  It would have been a disaster and the price was ridiculous. 

Flat 2: Hopefully on to the next (waiting for that modern, western look requested) - this was basically a house with a corridor of doom.  Dirty and with a massive picture on the front door of a dangerous guard dog.  Suffice to say it was a big NO. 

flat 3: This was a very odd flat.   It was (needless to say, horrible, bad electrics, dirty, bad furniture, nasty bathroom...) not what we were looking for but the most amusing thing was the fact that there was one flat on the first level and then you went onto the balcony at the back of the property and then up a "ladder" to another floor to another flat that would also be part of the deal.  The ladder filled me with fear and also I could see the estate agent was not too keen on going up it either.  

Moving on to the next estate agent - the properties got better! 

Flat 4:  He tried to show us flat 1 again! - NO!

Flat 5: Nice. Clean.  A serviced apartment.  The only problem - it was on a street with a sewer. In the hot season - smelly.  In the wet season, flooding.  Poo all year round.   Not ideal.  

Flat 6: Nice again but security not good also next door to a building site.  The electrics were not hanging off the walls.   Was down a passageway from the main road so not so good at night. 

Flat 7:  In the Wat Phnom area of town (north). Nice a bit bohemian presently occupied by a couple from New Zealand.  Wrong area of town. Second bedroom did not have a window. 

.... estate agent number 3....

Flat 8: Tired to show us flat 1 again - NO!!!!!!!!

Flat 9: tried to show us flat 5 again.  We laughed about the potential pitfalls of living by the sewer!! Noooooo!

Flat 9: Flat 6 again (rapidly learning all estate agents try and sell all flats!) 

Flat 10: Phew, the first flat that would seriously be  considered.  It was at the top of a modern but nice building.  It was more of an extended hotel room as the main area was just a bedroom with a bathroom which you could lock up but the kitchen was in an open area on the landing.  Sounds odd but it was quite nice in that no one else would go up there (as it was right at the top of the building on its own floor) and that it was partially an open area.  Still, a bit odd and the price was expensive for the size.   The landlady was willing to clean and do the laundry and that was tempting...!

Flat 11: Our budget was not getting quality as desired so the agent took us to a nearby block to show us a more expensive apartment.  It was a lot better immediately and was so clean compared to flats 1, 2 and 3!!! It was still overly covered in tiles (on the floor and walls - its a Khmer thing). 

On the drive back the agent mentioned flat 12 - he described it like it was a palace.  It was our budget plus another third but a look wouldn't hurt.... the building was by far the best outside so far.  It had a lot of greenery and was next door to a decent looking hotel.  The best thing so far however was the security guard who saluted as we got out of the car!!  After getting the keys we saw an apartment on the third floor.  The kitchen was fitted (!!! - the first so far!!), the bedroom was light and airy, the bathrooms (2 of them) gleamed, the bed was still in its original packaging, the living area had a new sofa, the balcony had good views, the air con looked like it would work.... SOLD!   The view overlooks some of the city's sights - like the independence monument and the modern shopping centre Sorya in the distance.... the contract is to be signed on Monday!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Friday and Saturday

On Friday I ventured out again with a plan in mind to visit the local market a few streets away from where the guest house is. Despite it being only a simple walk away (turn left out of the guesthouse take the next turning on the left) I managed to get lost fairly quickly by not concentrating and going right of of the guesthouse! Anyway, a slightly longer walk later and I was at the market. Really a smaller version of the central market, selling the usual - However, this one was slightly more authentic as there were no other tourists about and the focus of the market was food. Women were sifting though massive piles of rice while others played cards. The meat stalls I am quite used to now but the fish stalls that I came across here were new to me in that the fish were still alive in about 2cm of water - flapping away waiting to be someone's dinner. I was not tempted to see one battered (to death - rather than the fish and chip shop variety of batter) for me despite the sellers delight that she would love to assist me.

Following the market I managed to walk to Tabitha which is an organisation that exists to assist women learn a craft so that they may earn a living by making the products and Tabitha then buys and sells them. Cambodian silk products are a specialty. Women undertake a six-week training course at which point they have usually made enough money to purchase a sewing machine to take home. Tabitha places orders with its home-based handicrafts teams, who receive a regular income. In the shop I was pleased to find items that will help me when I (hopefully get round to) teaching children English like big fabric dice, counting charts, ABC ....

I then took a long walk (Khmer people think walking is mad a) its boiling hot b) you are a rich westerner why would you walk anywhere) to try and find a Wat (temple) that appeared to be quite close - when I got there is was practically a shell as it was being renovated so instead I walked a little further but soon got fed up of the heat and hailed a moto to take me to a Wat in the centre of the city. My intention was to visit one of the city's original wats founded in 1422 which I had gone past on a few occasions (Wat Ounalom). However, I read the map wrong (!) and instructed the moto driver to take me to Wat Sarawan which is just behind Ounalom. I realised when I was dropped off that I was not in the right place but I looked around this wat first and was very pleased that I had made the mistake as the monastery was very peaceful and quite beautiful. The monks found it very funny when I could say hello in Khmer.

I then walked to Wat Ounalom which was, as it always seems to be, shut. The outside surroundings of the wat were nice enough but as it was nearly lunch it was obligatory to go to the FCC for a beer.
The afternoon was filled with the joy that its Cambodian bureaucracy. The bag that was had sent by cargo had arrived at the cargo terminal of the airport. A (second) trip to the airport was necessary today because we had now written to the customs minister (or something like that) and pleaded to have the bag (your excellency, humble servant etc etc) and his official had stamped the form earlier in the day.... Anyway, after being shifted from one official to the next (over 13 officials to be more precise in the whole process) and about eight official stamps later the bag was released and could go! Very amusing, but I started to get a little impatient (that's not like Michelle I hear you cry!!!) when we were told the bag leave only to be brought back to show any other man the papers again, so he could pass them to another man, so he could just say "ok"....!
On Saturday I had booked a tour with Betel Nut Jeep tours to go to Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) - a safari park/reserve/zoo about 40km from the city. Our guide, Barb was really great. She was accompanied by Dareen (not sure of the spelling) who was a young female Khmer who was learning to take over from Barb.

The PTWRC was set up by the Government as a much needed wildlife rescue centre. The animals at the centre have been rescued and if possible will be rehabilitated to be released. Many of the animals are endangered. I was concerned that visiting this centre would be a disappointment at the way the animals are kept but the animals were kept in good conditions - there was none of the polish that comes with a western zoo, but the enclosures were large and the animals seemed very happy. The great thing about it not having the airs and graces of a western zoo (with no health and safety laws!) is that interaction with the animals is greater! The Betel Nut tour has a special relationship with the centre (Barb is presently pioneering a project to make cards out of elephant poo at the centre!) so getting up close to the animals was a great experience.

The first close up experience was with a group of crazy otters all screaming for coconut! After drinking our green coconut juice the boys, who had been in intense negotiations with Dareen about the price of the coconut since our arrival, cut up the flesh of the coconut into manageable pieces (they had been waving a massive knife for quite sometime so it was pleasing to see it being used for this process rather than something else) and returned it to us. The otters would then grab the coconut piece from you with their webbed "hands" which were surprisingly strong and were just like a small child's hand but with webbing. As we moved on, one of the otters played with the coconut husk in the pool throwing it in the air and chasing it.

We got to meet a gibbon and her baby and scratch her leg and head which she loves and would follow you sticking her leg out of the enclosure waiting for a scratch...

We also met Lucky the elephant at a nearby bathing pool. She was rescued when she was 6 months old as poachers had killed her mother. Often small elephants do not survive (even if rescued) as they want their mother but the dedication of Lucky's keeper when she arrived, by spending 24 hours a day with her for months, ensured that Lucky survived and is a very pleasant elephant who responds to voice commands. Lucky soon was in the pool and so a wash was in order. I was able to go into the water with her which was amazing. Lucky's loves human kisses -this involved blowing down her trunk - so I got to "kiss" an elephant as well as be groped by her trunk which left a great deal of elephant snot on my trousers. Elephants do not understand inappropriate groping!

Later in the day we returned to Lucky and her 3 elephant mates (including one baby elephant) to feed them - but not before we were treated to a Lucky dance. Some Khmers had paid for the privilege - the centre accepts donations of this kind so that the elephants can have better enclosures/food etc over and above that which is presently given to them. Lucky is famous in Cambodia. She has appeared dancing with a famous Cambodian pop star, Preap Sovath - apparently everyone loves this pop star here, and she has shot to fame in his recent karaoke video which you can find on youtube (search: Preap Sovath - Domrei Tnom Sane - its worth a look)! Surprisingly, Lucky has a great sense of rhythm and was happy enough to dance of her own accord when the music (a CD player attached to a car battery - there is no electricity at the centre) started up. Lucky also clearly knows the smell of the American dollar, when the Khmer paid for the dance direct to Lucky instead of gulping it down (as she had just been doing with sugar cane) she handed (trunked?) it straight to her keeper.
We then fed the elephants the bananas we had brought with us. Taking them with their trunks the elephants would eat an entire bunch as fast as you could break the bananas off and given then to them.

We also got to meet the tigers face to face at their feeding time. It was amazing being less than a metre from tigers (one on each side of you) with only chicken wire separating you from an angry tiger. They were amazingly large and powerful creatures - They looked cuddly enough (!) but a few of the keepers had received scratches so a trip into the enclosure itself was not covered by my insurance!!!

By the time we had returned I was covered in elephant snot and was totally filthy but the close up encounter was amazing and well worth doing the trip with Betel Nut.

Friday, March 21, 2008

more pictures...

Here are some more..... Mekong, (the river view one is for you Mum!!! - sorry family joke), me trying out new lense for camera and nice flower too... me in Garden Centre cafe and pictures of around a Wat (temple).

Well - I wrote all about my day and then promptly lost it all. Will write tomorrow - in the meantime here are some pictures of today...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


A trip out by moto alone again kick started the day and after a walk I ended up at Wat Phnom again - a 45 minute walk in the heat of the middle of the day was probably not the best idea but I wanted to prove that I could find the spot picked for lunch if I wanted to by foot- Wat Phnom, being a small man made hill, not surprisingly is circular and so I walked around it determined to find my way but then ended up right back where I started... I saw Sambo the elephant (again) though but not sure it was worth the pain! After lunch the focus was on ice cream. I had seen that the largest shopping centre in town by the central market yesterday was doing a good selection so headed over there. There was also the chance then to visit the roof terrace of this shopping centre to view the city from one of its highest buildings! Exhausting and so a beer and then a moto trip back home was necessary. My first ride on the motorbike sitting side saddle. The Khmer women do it but although it is slightly more comfortable (if there are three of you on the moto) balance is more difficult so i don't think I will repeat the experience too often.

An uneventful day so now is the time to start thinking about moving out of the capital on some day trips but not before attempts are made to find a flat - That will be one of tomorrow's activities combined with a trip to the airport to pick up the excess baggage which has just arrived!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More hard work...

Phew, I am alive after my first venture out by myself...... I took myself on a trip to the central market (picture) which is an amazing art deco building stuffed with clothes (a bit Dinosaw Market like - the Herefordians will understand the reference), electronics, household items (a flashing Buddha is a definite must for any house). I had been there before last year so it was no shock to see the pigs trotters, intestines, blocks of fat etc all hanging up on hooks in the meat bit of the market. I also located the biggest indoor shopping mall in town - 3 floors! There is even an ice cream parlour. A new mobile phone network has been launched here and so there were dozens upon dozens of Cambodians all desperate to get this new phone in the mall today.

As I now have a helmet I could get a moto to town. A moto is basically a moped with a driver and they are used as taxis to get about - you just hop on the back of them. So today with this new found experience I was "moto-ing" all over town. The contact with people who may not speak English is also good as I got to practice my Khmer today quite a lot and even understood answers in Khmer too! - I came out of the shopping centre and had only a vague idea which way to go and my map reading skills are limited to say the least. Luckily the moto solves such problems. You just find one (or they find you) which takes about 3 seconds at most, and then you are zooming away to your destination of choice! Problem solved.

The afternoon was filled with beer and swimming - The latter being part of the new healthy living which is potentially incompatible with the first! I can see a pattern forming already so tomorrow new entertainment must be found!

Dinner was at amazing place run by students of an initiative called "Friends". This is a NGO for training street children and at this particular centre they are being trained to enter the restaurant industry as cooks/waiting staff etc. So the food is served and prepared by students learning the trade. Friends target group is homeless and vulnerable street children and adolescents and their families, who are at high risk of exploitation and physical and emotional abuse, especially through forced commercial sex and violence in the streets. So obviously a very worthwhile cause and also the food and service was really really excellent which adds to the "feel good" experience!

Monday, March 17, 2008


Today's mission was to locate and observe the supermarket - "Lucky". Finding it was no problem and then it was like Christmas - cheese, wine, kitchen applicances.... all with fixed prices! A purchase was necessary to celebrate the air conditioned shopping environments - A pack of laughing cow cheese and a German (don't ask - I have no idea) sausage in a hot piece of dough. Delicious. Also were little ready meals, for instance a whole fried chick (only minus the feathers), placed in a ready meal tray complete with the prepared vegtables for you to stir fry at your leisure. One I think I will not be buying.

I have located THE stationery shop of Cambodia next door to Lucky. I can now continue with my passion for paper based products. What a relief. Imagine rows on rows of post-it notes and files wand ink stampers when you thought there would be none - and all at reasoanble prices!!!!!! Now all I need to find is the decent shoe shop.

So after all that excitment after lunch a trip to a pool in a large hotel across town - really rather ugly and geared towards big buses of tourists. The pool was good though as it was next to the rivers. The hotel was in the process of buildng a fake beach for the residents by the river as well and this seems rather odd given that one foot in the river and you would be out of action for a fairly long time I'd guess from the general filthiness.

Supermarket and swim -not overly exciting but all in preparation for my first day out on the town alone tomorrow beginning tomorrow morning! Also had a first taste of Khmer food today for dinner which was amazing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Sunday in Phnom Penh

Today after a mango breakfast, took a visit to the national museum. I had seen the old pots and Buddhas before and so the trip was really to go and see a photo exhibition that opened yesterday. The exhibition was of famous people (like Michael Caine) who the photographer had captured at close range. Apparently his thing is “controlling the subject”. Very good portraits but can’t remember the name... oh well. I also acted like a crazy English woman by buying some fish food from a vendor and feeding the fish that "live" in the ponds in the centre of the museum!

The plan was then to go to Wat Phnom (picture on left - the wat (temple) is the white spire)which is on the highest hill in Phnom Penh. That said it is very much to my liking because as hills go you would barely notice it. Its kind of a hang out area for Cambodians with tourists staggering up the hill in the heat and there is an elephant called Sambo who walks around the foot of the mound giving rides with monkeys being chased away. “Friends” is a project that teaches street children a skill and the shop is on the way from the museum to Wat Phnom. A visit revealed lots of great stuff to buy so I’ll be returning there. There were children’s fairytale books there as well. One I glanced through had two pages devoted to two boys that appeared before a judge and the judge preferred one of the boys stories because the boy had given hi m lots of “gifts”. I didn’t get to the end of the book but I am SURE that the judge made the right decision in the end based on the true basis of the law and not on “gifts”.
Lunch was at Raffles - There was another photo exhibition I wanted to see there and so it seemed only right to take use of the facilities... very refined. A walk down the river side (sounds nice but the river is huge, quite dirty and alongside what is essentially a main road!) followed and I got to practice "no thank you" in Cambodian quite alot to street children, tuk tuk drivers and the like - I am almost fluent now....!!!

A drink at the FCC (other picture) seems to be a regular trip now with a beer there this afternoon as well. All that remains is my sundowner to assist with the flow of the Khmer (Cambodian) language lesson I am about to give myself...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Travel and arrival

I thought the bag was big enough to carry the handbags, the shoes, the jumpers, the stationery.... but no, it weighed 45kg. A mere 25kg over my 20kg baggage allowance. I thought this might be the case given I could not pick my bag up but hoped that my charm would prevail. Suffice to say it did not and as marched away from check in with the information that I would be charged £39 per Kg. Now maths has never been a strong point of mine but fairly soon I realised that my stationery was going to cost me in the region of £120 to transport. Phnom Penh was unlikely to have Symthsons of Bond Street stationery but this did seem a little steep for even my shoe/bag/paper requirements so with the advice that there was an excess baggage company who would charge much less I was happy enough. Some kind traveller had left his "dead" bag to one side after buying a new one from the freight man so after pinching this and checking it for "substances" items were transferred to the poor sad bag that would arrive in Phnom Pehn in about 10 days time!
The flight was good - I was not sat next to any annoying fat person who I am usually placed by. Then we arrived at Singapore. Not much to report about - other than I am pleased to report that my suspicions that it is rather strange and a bit boring were correct. Singapore is like a big airport. All clean and too many signs. Where else in the world are you instructed not to bring a smelly fruit on to the underground?!

Anyway, a cable car ride, a meet the fish at the aquarium and a chat with a dolphin filled one day. Some shopping was practically off limits because of the weight problem (the bag obviously not me). Ate a great meal at a chinese hawkers market with a hundred stalls all selling different food - a bit like wagamamas but alot better (if you could identify the meat).

I was not impressed by the weather in this place. Rain rain rain - this was not what I was looking for. I was so cold I had to buy a jumper (from the exclusive Singapore shop that is "Gap").

Anyway, yesterday flew from Singapore to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. On arrival I was met by a tuk tuk/fixer who will organise everything one may want in this city and driven with 50kg of bags balancing delicately to our B&B.

The B&B is great. Very small and beautiful. It is run by an English woman (who works for the BBC) and her husband who is Cambodian. Have a look at the link if you are interested to Mango Cambodia.... After unpacking we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner - Russian food - where else would you go on your first evening in Cambodia?!

Today, undertook some exploration on foot of the city. We had lunch at the "Garden Centre Cafe" - Like a garden centre cafe without the garden or the centre but there were wicker chairs and they did serve very good cheap food! A walk around the city was then in order in the baking 30 degree+ heat! Street 240 is a boutique shopping type street and so a stop was required there for a smoothie and then on the the Foreign Correspondents Club (a great bar/hotel where we stayed in May 2006 when we visited) for a beer and to check out the local papers....

A slow walk back and then battle with the computer for Internet.... this takes us to tonight's sundowner - a Singapore Sling (to celebrate the departure from that city!) .... so far its not been too tough but its only day one and a trip to the city's infamous dump I think is in order soon.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Final countdown to take off

Finally finished work and now saying goodbye to family and friends. The bag is nearly packed - well it is actually packed- i just need to unpack it and repack it given that it weighs more than i do. 8 pairs of shoes and about 5 bags does seem excessive.... but who knows what circumstances will arise!!! Leave on Tuesday and fly to Singapore for 2 nights. After that onwards to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia (I think - I best check the tickets!).