A Travellerspoint blog


The road to Laos...

...is long, dirty and corrupt.

sunny 28 °C
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We knew that from Siem Reap we wanted to head up into Laos, but were struggling to find reliable information about buses. The journey times seemed to vary depending on who you spoke to. We Googled, Lonely Planet’d, and Trip Advisor’d as much as we could but were not having much success again with conflicting information.

The crux of it was a long journey either way, but that some bus companies try and screw you over demanding more money at the border, or in some cases conveniently not even making it to the border in time to cross, being dumped at an expensive guesthouse in the middle of nowhere so you have no option but to pay and be picked up again the next morning. Hmmm, this was going to be interesting!

Deciding to break the journey up after reading the horror stories we stopped in Kratie, roughly 60km south of the boarder, for one night. Our bus here set off from Siem Reap at an unreasonable 05:00 with the aim to be at Kratie for 13:00. Yet again another bumpy bus ride we were happy with our VIP air con bus, until after 5 hours it randomly stopped at an unknown town and everyone was told to get off and told to get on the bus behind and older VIP bus which was packed and for some reason had the heating on! Eventually, feeling very travel sick and hot, we arrived at Kratie only two and a half hours late! We brought our bus tickets for the next day and then needed to find accommodation. Normally we book at least a day in advance but everything in Kratie had bad reviews so decided to wing and pay as little as possible. As with all bus journeys this one ended with people trying to sell their hotel. Normally we stay clear but today decided we would trust one, he told us his hotel was close and only $5 a night and if we didn’t like it we didn’t have to stay. Looking round it seemed ok and it was only for one night...

... However on closer inspection Morhaoutdom Hotel wasn’t great, the bathroom was home to a few ant colonies, the window sills were filthy covered with what looked like rat poo and sheets had lots of holes in them (slightly resembling teeth marks). Again thinking it’s only for one night we decided to suck it up and stay, wedging the chair in front of the door to make it feel safer.


We’re glad we did after reading fellow travellers reviews http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g729351-d2051626-Reviews-Morhaoutdom_Hotel-Kratie_Kratie_Province.html#REVIEWS. Kratie is a small unremarkable town and as such the only thing to say about it is, nice sunset.


The next day we walked to the bus stop which is actually just a random shop on a side street and waited for our bus (our tickets were for the 13:30 bus which promised to cross the boarder before 18:00 when it closes) after ten mins a couple we saw on the bus yesterday turned up. They should have been in Laos already as they were doing the crazy long journey from Siem Reap?? Unfortunately for them after the bus dropped us off, the day before, they were told they wouldn't make the boarder before it closes and had to go tomorrow with us instead. This is why we chose to break up the journey. Now even more worried the bus wouldn't make it we waited together until well after the time it was due, when a tuk-tuk turned up to take us to “the junction”? So all four of us got on with no choice but to trust them and were dropped off 10 minutes later at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We then had to wait a further 20 minutes for our bus to turn up and finally we were on our way. Well for 5 minutes when it stopped for a break! Back on the bus and a bumpy ride to the boarder, imagine riding in a 4wd drive off road on one of those adventure course for 5 hour drive and your close to our journey to the boarder.


A few hours in and we are asked to fill in three forms and hand over the cash for the Laos visa, $36 which we’re sure is more then it should be, a stamp fee of $2, a leaving fee of $2 and $1 fee for the bus operator helping us. Luckily we had brought passport photos with us or that would have been even more. So we attempt to fill out our forms on the bumpy ride and became $82 lighter. According to Lonely Planet (our bible) the boarder closes at 18:00 so when it started getting dark and then went past 18:00 we started to panic a little, thinking we were going to have to stay another night in a random place. Then when we stopped again for some people to get off and a shipment of fruit to get on (the buses are used as cargo and animal transport as well) we panicked some more. However just before19:00 the guy tells us it's fine and we'll soon be in Laos getting our passports back. Surprisingly in only 20 minutes we had crossed both boarders and had a new visa in our passports! We had made it to Laos! Now for another 4ish hours of driving and thank goodness on actual road.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Who needs Indiana Jones and Lara Croft?

semi-overcast 28 °C
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We had been told that our mini-bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap should take about 6 hours but our driver seemed determined to do it half that! It was a very bumpy and jerky trip with lots of harsh braking making both of us feel very travel sick! Hence we were very surprised we arrived an hour late, but as arranged there was a tuk-tuk driver waiting with Nick's name on a board and it was only about a 5 minute drive to the Angkor Pearl Hotel http://www.angkorpearl.com/hotel/. Nick was not 100% sure at first but it was a nice comfortable room and the staff were really friendly.

By now it was about 17:00 and as we had not eaten all day we went looking for an early dinner. About 10 minutes walk from our hotel was the centre of Siem Reap and Pub Street which as it's name suggests is nothing but bars and restaurants. Lonely Planet in hand we went to one of their recommendations, the Khmer Kitchen where they give opportunities to local people teaching them English and waiting skills. The service was good but sadly the food was revolting with neither of us finishing our meals. After a quick walk round we stopped for a drink (Angkor Beer!) and headed back to the hotel for an early night...

...however, even though we had a map, the name and address of the hotel and directions (as learnt from lesson number 5) we somehow managed to get lost. In Cambodia only the main streets have names, everything else either has a number or nothing at all. After 10 minutes we asked a passing tuk-tuk driver for help and were willing to get him to take us back but he had no idea where our hotel was (I suspect because everything we had was in English). After some back-tracking and crossed words getting very hot and sweaty we finally found our hotel!

Next morning and after a good breakfast we went out to our tuk-tuk driver Mr. Theoun from the previous day, to start exploring the temples of Angkor (tuk-tuk $27 for the day) - the main draw for travellers to Siem Reap (and Cambodia it seems!). Mr. Theoun was brilliant! We had a rough idea what we wanted to see and knew we wanted to leave the "Big Three" (Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and of course Angkor Wat) until our final day, so he suggested a route including some of the smaller and more remote temples.


After only about 10 minutes we reached the entrance to Angkor and pulled over to purchase our tickets. You can buy 1, 3 or 5 day passes. We opted for a 3 day pass at US$40 each (which you have a month to use) knowing it would be worth the money. Tickets in hand (with our horrible digital pictures on them) we set off towards our first and farthest away temple. But after only 10 minutes there was a popping sound and we realised we had a puncture! Mr. Theoun was more concerned about us than the tuk-tuk, but once he was happy we were ok he suggested starting at Banteay Kdei only 1km up the road, telling us to go and explore and he would have it all fixed by the time we got back.

Banteay Kdei was incredible and still our favourite temple. It was much larger than we expected expanding backwards into the jungle as you walked through it. It was like being in a film set with crumbling ruins covered in moss and vines with the smell of incense burning at the still used shrines. Throughout the temple (and all of the Angkor complex) there people (normally young children) trying to sell you things from guidebooks to bracelets. They ask where you are from always responding to our answer of England with "Ah London, lovely jubbly!". One girl even started quoting facts and figures about population sizes! At the end of the day though they want your money and will whine and moan with everything being "one dollar, one dollar, you buy from me for one dollar". You just have to keep your patience and stay friendly remembering it is their parents who are making them do this.


Anyway temple thoroughly explored we went back to entrance gate to discover Mr. Theoun had a nice new tyre and was ready to go back to our original plan. The 30 minute drive weaved through jungle roads, rice fields and Khmer villages with traditional stilt houses dodging the occasional dog or even cow from time to time.

Banteay Srei is know as the Women's Temple, not because of any religious of cultural reason but because the carvings adorning every surface are so ornate and intricate the locals believe only a women could have carved them. The temple is beautiful, albeit much smaller and more ruined than our first stop. It is also noticeably a different style being much older and made of different stone. Again after exploring it was back to our trusty tuk-tuk to head to our next stop.


As we reached Banteay Samre the heavens opened so we took shelter in the conveniently located restaurant next to the entrance until it slowed. This temple was the smallest so far, but by no means less impressive.


From here we visited two more temples; East Mebon and Pre Rup both beautiful, but again different in style. Both also involved steep climbs up to the top levels where we were rewarded with stunning views over the jungle.


Calling it a day after 5 temples we returned to the hotel. Sadly the rain had continued to drizzle throughout the afternoon making Nick grumpy! However his phone suddenly sprung into life. Corrina and Teresa (our friends we met on our Ha Long Bay tour) were in Siem Reap! We arranged to meet for dinner later that night at Temple Club on Pub Street (another Lonely Planet suggestion). This time the food was delicious. After 21:00 though and still eating the lights dimmed, the strobe started and bass kicked in, apparently Temple turns into a nightclub in the evening. It was very strange as there were lots of other people eating and no body rushing to the dance floor. We decided to move on and head to The Blue Pumpkin, a coffee shop/ice cream parlour, again with ethical links to the community and again a Lonely Planet top tip! Yummy! As usual we were last people lreft and had to be asked to leave as they were closing! It had been bucketing it down on and off all evening so it was no surprise that we had a walk back in torrential rain (in flip flops and flooded roads but with an umbrella). It was actually quite good fun!


Day two of Tomb Raiding (Nick told me to put that!) and back with Mr. Theoun and his tuk-tuk (only $15 today as a shorter distance). Again we followed his suggestions on a route which would make sure we completed the Grand Circuit as well as a few others.

We started at Preah Knan, another crumbling, jungle covered temple which sprawled in lots of directions and had a curious structure which would not look out of place at The Forum in Rome. It is classed a “fusion temple” as it blends both Buddhist and Hindu iconography.


We then visited Neak Pean a tiny floating water temple you can not walk around, but which was accessed by a long wooden walkway across a moat and mangrove swamp and was quite eerie.


Then to Ta Keo, a pyramid structure, symbolising the mythical Mount Meru. This typically was covered in scaffolding, (as it is being renovated by the French) so we couldn’t go up it.


Next was Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, two very small temples which sit opposite each other and are very beautiful.


Then, finally ending at the old bridge and South Gate where Mr. Theoun turned into our photographer! Haha.


We were back at the hotel by 13.00 but on the drive back the weather was starting to improve with the cloud cover lifting - should we risk trying for an Angkor sunset or would we be wasting our time? Mr. Theoun didn't seem convinced we would see anything but agreed to wait for us while we went for a coffee to make up our minds. An hour later and the weather was much the same, still more cloud than sun but we decided to go for it. On way to Phnom Bakheng temple we passed the entrance gate of Angkor Wat giving us tantalizing views. Nick couldn't resist a sneaky peek, so Mr. Theoun pulled over for 5 minutes so we could have a closer look - amazing! You however have to wait until tomorrow! We continued to the temple where we had a 20 minute steep climb up to the top (you can pay $20 to ride up on elephant!)


We had read in LP that it could turn into a bit of a circus up here and they were not wrong, it was obviously where all of the Chinese tour groups ended so was packed. We planted ourselves in a good position and refused to move. We were confused though as they way the guidebook had read made it sound like you would have sunset views over Angkor Wat - you don't as it's in the opposite direction and although you can see it, it's too far away to get a decent photo. Anyway, the sun started to set and although it was not the postcard image we had hoped, it was still pretty cool.


Back down and regretting why we had not bought a really good camera for this trip as our sunset photos were pretty crap compared to other peoples we had seen. We asked Mr. Theoun to drop us at Pub Street rather than the hotel as we were both starving. After two days of him being our personal tuk-tuk driver, It was time to say goodbye. We ate at Le Tigre de Papier, yet another LP recommendation and a famous restaurant in Siem Reap where we had delicious food.

Day three (and our last day of exploring the temples) and we had organsised a private tour guide to take us and Corina and Teresa around the largest of the temples. Our guide Mr. Vy Keng was a little slow to warm up, but once he did was fantastic! We started at the South Gate and entrance to Angkor Thom which literally translates as “Great City” and was the Capital of Angkor and home to the royal family. It takes monumental to a whole new level and is a series of temples and buildings set over 10 sq km all still surrounded by it’s original 8m high wall and 30m wide moat (which was dug by hand!!).

Our first stop inside was at the Bayon Temple, famed for it’s 54 gothic looking towers with 216 heads. The temple is huge and it would have been very easy to get lost in it without our guide who gave us loads of information about the history of Angkor and the different icons within the temple, explaining how they were changed from Buddhist images to Hindu ones by simple adding a third eye to the forehead.


From here we continued to explore the rest of Angkor Thom, visiting Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Elephants before taking a much needed break and a spot of lunch.


Feeling refreshed, our next stop was Ta Prohm or “The Angela Jolie Temple” or “The one from Tomb Raider” as it is known! This temple has truly been reclaimed by the jungle with some stunning trees and roots intertwined with the stonework, and in many cases even being what is holding the temple up!













Our final stop was the symbol of Cambodia and world famous Angkor Wat (and what Nick had been so excited to see!). Surrounded by a moat of 190m wide which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km by 1.3km (so that’s huge then!) stretching around the outside of the central temple with it’s tower measuring a whopping 31m (Dad that is just over 100ft!) To Nick’s delight the weather was incredible meaning he got that famous photo of the temple reflecting in the lily covered pools. Angkor Wat is stunning and so so impressive. We definitely made the right decision in leaving it to last, and we can’t believe that some people only see this one temple - madness!


It has been the most amazing day and one of the highlights of our trip so far.

That night we went for dinner with Corina and Teresa for one last time to say goodbye before they travelled back to Vietnam to catch their flights home. It was a lovely evening and it was so great to have met these two wonderful characters!

Our last day was spent relaxing and sorting out our onward transport to Laos for the following day.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia angkor Comments (1)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

So much to see, so little time!

sunny 31 °C
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After another 3 bumpy hours on the coach we arrived in downtown Phnom Penh to the usual crowd of tuk tuk drivers and hawkers trying to get you to go to their hotel, telling you theirs is cheaper and nicer than what you've booked. We successfully managed to dodge all of these and headed for the nearest ATM to be very surprised to find they only dispense US Dollars (after a quick re-consult with Lonely Planet - thanks Susie!) we realised this was the norm and EVERYTHING in Cambodia is in dollars.

Money in hand we had to weave our way back through the crowd of touts who were all very annoyed when we told them we knew where our hotel was and we wanted to walk. However, 10 minutes later in 30+ degree heat, carrying our packs, we realised we had made an error and that perhaps we needed to stop being so suspicious of everyone! We hailed a tuk-tuk and agreed a price of $3. It was the best thing we could have done as we soon realised we were still a fair walk away.

One Up Banana Hotel http://www.1uphotelcambodia.com/reservations (yes it's a strange name) was really nice and as usual the staff were incredible. So friendly, welcoming and desperate to help. We had to wait a couple of minutes for our room to be ready which they couldn't stop apologizing for. The room was nice and big and suitable for our new flash-packer status - although Nick was annoyed it was on the ground floor and right next to Reception but he soon got over it.

By this time it was about 16.30 and Nick had not been feeling well all day as he kept feeling dizzy and queasy, which in his usual paranoid state meant he had a tropical disease. I suspect however he was just dehydrated and tired. So he lay down for half an hour (which turned into two) before convincing me he was ok and he wanted food. By this time it was dark (making Nick more annoyed as it had been a glorious sunny afternoon). We walked past the Independence Monument which was all lit up, then past a park where people were doing aerobics / line dancing to techno music (?!?), before reaching the riverfront which is apparently the up market end of town. We were both starving though so after a quick look round settled on a first floor restaurant with views over the river and we're ashamed to say both had burgers! I think we both needed a bit of western comfort food and this seemed to perk Nick up a lot. After dinner we walked the short distance along the river to Phnom Penh Night Market which was packed and slightly disappointing selling more cheap clothes than anything else. We decided to walk back to the hotel - another error as we ended up walking though some very dirty, smelly streets with no street lights in flip flops - Yuk! (I actually held my breath for the whole time)

After a good nights sleep Nick seemed nearly himself again. We had already arranged with the hotel to have a tuk-tuk for the day for $20, to make the most of our brief time here. This felt a little strange and upper class having a driver but the distances were too far to walk. Mi was ready and waiting for us at 09.30 so we jumped aboard and set off for our first stop.


The Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (The Killing Fields) which are about a 30 minute, very bumpy ride outside of the city. $6 each to enter and you're given an excellent Audio Guide to help explain the history and give you an understanding of what happened there. For those who don't know about the atrocities of Pol Pots and The Khmer Rouge this was the site of a former "work camp" where Khmer people (and anyone who disagreed with the regime, in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply had always worked in an office) ended up. The area is covered with mass grave sites, some of which have been left undisturbed. The worst area though was the killing tree, so named because it was here that babies were snatched from their mothers, taken by their feet and had their heads smashed against a the tree, to then be thrown into the near by hole. Near the end of the walk way is a huge Stupa with a collection of bone and cloth over several levels. It was a very moving and sobering experience with both Nick and I commenting how scarily it compared to what had happened in Europe with the Holocaust.


It was back to the tuk-tuk, where we turned down the offer of a shooting range where apparently for a mere $100 you can fire a rocket launcher at a cow (I wish I was joking!) and instead headed back to the city for a quick lunch stop before visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum or S21. Again this is not the nicest of places to visit but is a must see in Phnom Penh. The former High School campus was closed down under the regime (as were all schools) and turned into a prison where detainees were tortured to confess crimes they didn't commit. Again the comparisons with our European leg was scary and how this took place AFTER WW2.


Feeling in need of some lighter subject matter our trusty tuk-tuk took us to our final stop, the Royal Palace. Luckily we had read that you needed to be dressed modestly so we were both covered up and we couldn't help but laugh at the tourists turning up in tiny shorts and vest tops being made to buy t-shirts or be turned away. The inside of the palace grounds are simply stunning. Gorgeous Khmer temples and buildings with soaring spires and curving eaves all with ornate gold carvings, where orange clad monks (and even monkeys) dart between buildings. For Nick this was the highlight of the day.

Monk with orange phone

Monk with orange phone


From here is was back to the hotel to decide on a plan for the next day (as we were due to check out). After coming up with lots of ideas and then changing our minds about 10 times we settled on heading to Siem Reap by bus the next day which the hotel could organise for us for only $12 each. Another couple of hours later and we had a hotel booked too so headed out to a nice local restaurant for our final meal, a great restaurant which also gave back to the community http://www.anisehotel.com.kh/?page=front&menu1=6&ctype=article&id=6&lg=en. We both felt we may have made a mistake in not deciding to stay in Phnom Penh for one more night but it was too late to change our plans now.

Next morning we had just enough time to pop to a bakery before getting our mini bus to Siem Reap.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Việt Nam to Cambodia

Crossing the boarder

sunny 31 °C
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So crossing theVietnam Cambodia boarder is fun. We decided to get a bus from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. We thought this would be the easiest way to cross as the bus should go straight through with no changes. We are told the journey is 7 hours long taking in time to cross the boarder and go through passport control. So when an hour passes and our “guide” asks everyone for their passports and $25 (£15) were a little surprised. It feels very strange handing someone your passport but everyone is doing it even locals. Two hours later and we arrive at the Vietnam boarder only this isn't announced, the bus just stops and everyone gets off with the man holding our passports disappearing. We see a mass of people around 4 passport booths so along with the other foreigners we head towards the crowd all asking each other what's happening. Then guys at the booths start shouting out names and passing passport back over the heads of everyone waiting. Hearing our names we grab our passports and walk confused through the boarder to find our guide at the exit who then takes our passports back. Once back on the bus we go literally seconds down the road (we could have walked) and are all told to get off. This time watching our guide like a hawk we are ushered through a room and told to sit down. One by one we're called, given our passports and get to go through passport control with a slip in our passports. This is unexpected sophistication we are asked to digitally scan our finger prints and look into a camera for our mug shot. Passports stamped get to board our bus and keep our passports. We are now in Cambodia!


Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 03:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged ho_chi_minh_to_phnom_penh boarder_crossing_vietnam_cambod Comments (0)

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