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Cambodian countryside

Phnom Penh and surroundings

sunny 33 °C
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Having seen a fair share of city life, we felt the urge to get out of town and to discover more of the countryside. So we booked a tour to check it out.
The first part of the tour brought us to the ‘killing fields’ genocide museum in Choeung Ek, one of the more than 300 Cambodian sites of mass murder during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. An audio guide provided us with much more background on the subject. It is already hard to imagine how the Khmer Rouge managed to kill roughly a quarter of the population in their five years of ruling – half actively the other half indirectly by letting the agriculture and food production go down. But it is much harder to understand that their leader Pol Pot got to live another 20 year in peace without being put in prison. Hearing that he was able to marry again and see his grandchildren grow up, was harder to believe than the fact that the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the official UN seat for Cambodia for years after having been overthrown.

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After that excursion into the brutal history of Cambodia, it was time to clear our minds. We headed out together with our guide Det into the countryside. Sam and I were riding on 330 Polaris ATVs and Max on a small kid’s ATV with the guide riding behind him.

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After a kilometer on tarmac, we headed off onto small dirt roads leading along the river Prek Thnot. We got to see little isolated villages, nice pagodas, mango and banana plantations and rice fields. Our first break was at a small store to quench our thirst. We were very happy about the dust masks we had been given. The roads were very dusty.

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Even though we were mostly riding along, we were able to get a good impression of village life. There were the youths playing soccer or volleyball on village squares, there were the kids taking a bath in murky waters of the canals leading to the rice fields, the huge and thin white cows dotting the fields, the huge containers next to the houses filled with rain water from the roof, the omnipresent signs advertising the merits of the Cambodian People’s Party, kids running up to us and waving, the setup of a wedding pavilion on the dirt road leading through a village and much more…

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Our second stop at a pagoda was very nice as well. We had a look around, and even got to see some monks.

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We were lucky to see all of this on a Sunday, being able to see people enjoying life. We had tremendous fun our tour. But it was a long trip and eventually we were happy to have the last stop for watching the sunset over the rice fields.

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We were exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel. It had been a long and exciting day. We had dinner and fell asleep.
The next couple of days we took it very easy. We spent much of our time at the pool, enjoying life and planning for the days to come. One of those days, we realized that the pool really helped us to balance the exploring in the heat with relaxation. Realizing that the place we had booked in Bangkok did not have a pool, we cancelled that booking and found another place that did have a pool.
We read much, caught up on sleep and were happy just to be in one place without having to rush around to tick boxes in whatever sights should be ticked off by the avid tourist. While we’re often enough behaving like tourists in our travels, long term traveling is different.
So our key highlights of the next couple of days did not include the National Museum or one of the many temples. Instead, we went for another excursion with Sopha. After picking up her son Pong Pong at his school, we headed to the ferry and crossed to the other side of the Mekong.

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After another couple of kilometers passing along small markets, miniature stores, pagodas, family houses and animal paddocks, we reached the mango garden of Sopha’s brother. It was nice and peaceful there. The boys had a great picnic that Sopha had brought along, we picked some mango and had great conversations. There were many working cows passing by. It’s hard to believe that these cows are fit for doing heavy work in the rice fields – as they look so thin. From one of the nearby rice paddies we had a nice view of the sunset. What a great outing!

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On the way back, we passed a wedding ceremony in a decorated pavilion erected on the main road. Life in the dark was mellowing the scenery. The omnipresent garbage is not visible anymore, the atmosphere looks cozy, making even the poorest living conditions look romantic and homey.

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After our ferry ride back home, we concluded the evening with a typical Khmer BBQ. We were probably the only foreigners in the huge place. Sopha ordered for us a full set containing meat, various entrails (we suppose it was heart, liver, kidney, but also something else unidentifiable), shrimp and octopus. In addition, there was onion, bell pepper, mushroom, green tomato, cucumber, cabbage and water mimosa. What a feast! We were very full at the end of our meal and happy that we had to walk only two blocks back to our hotel.

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While we enjoyed life in Phnom Penh, there are also bad news that we heard from home. It’s strange being so far away and still affected by such far away decisions. While shocking indeed, the distance makes it probably more easily digestible. After all, we’ve been surviving many surprises lately and traveling certainly taught us that there’s a way out of every situation.
For lunch, we wanted to follow a recommendation of the Lonely Planet for a change. Unfortunately the nice restaurant with the view from the top floor of the Sorya Shopping Center was closed. We still enjoyed the view. Heading to the food court further down, was not a very smart decision. With all the building works in the shopping center, it was not very full and lacked through put. Luckily just Sam and I took a slight fit from the food and were happy to stay in and around the hotel for a day. It could have been worse. Other travelers had told us much worse stories.

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There was also good news that week: on Thursday, we headed to the Russian consulate right at 8am when it opens. There was no line and within a couple of minutes we held our passports with nice Russian visa in our hands.
The celebrations took place in the nearby Aeon Mall. Due to the early hour, we toasted with hot tea and hot chocolate. When the mall opened a bit later, we checked it out. Quite frankly, it could have been located anywhere in Europe just as well. Apart from a couple of stores exclusively appealing to the taste of locals (such as the store full with Korean smiling animated figures), big malls seem to get globalized and exchangeable. The only way to distinguish the location of a Starbucks or KFC is to check out the menu where in addition to English, the local language might give away where you are. But latest when exiting the mall, haggling with a tik tuk driver about the price of the journey and being back on the road, it becomes pretty obvious that we're still in South-East Asia and not Europe.

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Having received our Russian visa, our mission of the trip to Cambodia and specifically Phnom Penh had been successfully accomplished. Consequently, we were ready to head off. Anyhow, with our eight nights in the same (great!) hotel, we had spent much more time there than all other guests. Most people left after two or maximum three nights.
After a very personal good bye ceremony from hotel staff, we boarded our bus to Siem Reap. We were seated comfortably in the big bus, being able to enjoy the vistas of the Cambodian countryside passing by. Two stops and six hours later, we reached Siem Reap, the main tourist destination of Cambodia due to its proximity to the World Heritage listed temples of Angkor Wat.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cow river rice museum pool visa mall bbq ferry news quad Comments (0)

Adventurous roads in the mountains

Namobuddha, Dhulikhel, Bhaktapur, Pokhara

sunny 25 °C
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Our drive to the Buddhist monastery of Namobuddha turned out to be much more adventurous than what we had imagined. We had not realized that the traffic and condition of Nepali roads can easily turn an outing to a place 25km away into four hours of driving.
While we had obviously known about the mountainous nature of Nepali topology, it turned out that the highway we used is the only major connection of Kathmandu towards the Eastern part of the country and towards Tibet.
A fascinating thought: continuing on the highway for not even 100 km and finding ourselves in Tibet… Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking only. For one thing, we don’t have visa for China or the Autonomous region of Tibet. And even if we had visa, we’d not be able to go there: since the earthquake of 2015, the road has been severely damaged and has still not reopened.
The road did not make the slightest impression of a highway – by German standards, it would have been rather a county road in terms of width and curves. We’ll skip the safety standards – which were mostly damaged or simply not existing. And the state of the pavement left much room for improvement. While there were some stretches without potholes, those with potholes clearly were in the majority. But even worse were those parts of the road which completely lacked pavement and had been worn out so badly that it took our driver Dhil lots of creativity to find a path that did not make our long Hiace bus scratch the ground.
Along the road we got to see some rice paddies and a gigantic statue of Shiva which even holds the title of being the largest of its kind in the world. It reminded us of a similar statue we had seen some years back in Mauritius (but which is only holding the third place in terms of size).

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Eventually we arrived at the monastery of Namobuddha, located on the top of a hill with a view of the surrounding valleys. On a less hazy day, the view would probably be spectacular. But being here in April, we did not see too far into the distance and unfortunately none of the higher peaks of the Himalaya. The monastery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The last 5km of the road were unpaved and probably better suited to be driven in an offroad vehicle vs. our Hiace.
We explored the grounds of the monastery with its prayer wheels, balconies, Buddha statues and pagodas. It was a quiet and peaceful atmosphere.

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But there was one thing that fascinated us: on a nearby hill we saw hundreds of prayer flags attached to a pole. I’m not sure why prayer flags are so attractive, but they definitively are.

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From the monastery, we got to hike a bit and it felt great to be moving again. It had been a while since we had gotten some exercise and we realized that we had missed it. And hiking pace had the obvious advantage of being able to observe more details of village life than by just driving by.

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Lunch was in a nice hotel in Dhulikhel which featured more flowers than what we had seen for a long time. The view of the Himalaya range from there is supposed to be spectacular – specifically at sunset. Hmmmmm - not for us. Hazy as it was, we got to see the hills surrounding us, but that was about it. A picture on the wall, explained which mountains we would have been able to see on a good day, but that was more depressing than anything else. We started wondering if we’d see any big mountains at all in our vacation or if we’d need to come back again to Nepal some other time.

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Maybe that glum outlook explained my rather bad mood at dinner. For once I did not have any energy to see the positive side of getting our desert of banana pancakes served simultaneously with the soups. While Sam just put it down as me having a bad day, I started wondering if it’s not eventually time to return back home. After all, it’s not the first time that blunders like that happen. It’s just that after so many times, I am eventually at the end of my patience with putting up with things like that.
The next day, we had more Nepali roads and traffic on our agenda: the drive from Bhaktapur to Pokhara led us through Kathmandu, over mountain passes and along some deep cut rivers.
Even though we were already accustomed to Nepali traffic, it still felt awful by far too often. When there was again one of those crazy trucks, busses, cars of motorcycles coming straight at us on our side of the road (mostly blowing the horn and / or flashing the headlights), I sometimes simply closed my eyes with the resolve of not opening them anymore until we’d get to Pokhara. As the landscape was very nice and there was much to be seen along the road, I did not follow through on that resolve though.

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It took us over two hours for the first 50km of our 220km journey – not a pleasant outlook. But given the conditions, there was no way to do that part faster.
Traffic was heavy with one truck after the next. The trucks were a sight in itself. The Indian brands of Tata, Mahindra or Eicher were not very familiar to us, but they dominated the scene. Most of them were brightly colored and featured some message on their back. They said things like 'road king', ‘see you’, ‘love star’, ‘blow horn’, ‘slow drive, long life’ or ‘speed control’. Some others were rather frightening such as ‘my life - my rules’. We were happy to have a very reasonable and defensive driver who tried to keep a good distance of all crazy drivers around us.

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Still, at times I recalled the words of my sister to go rating on the stretch between Kathmandu and Pokhara. And considering the atrocious traffic, it seemed like a heavenly alternative to move along on the rivers underneath us.

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Lunch break was a very welcome relaxation from our drive. But the bad news was that we still had some more distance to cover. At least traffic seemed to ease a bit and we were able to enjoy the sights of terraced rice fields along the road. Every once in a while we saw a wedding pavilion. Seemingly it was an auspicious day to have a wedding. And eventually we had made it: we reached Pokhara and about an hour later we had made it through town to the lake side where our hotel was located.

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For dinner we went to a nice restaurant with a view of the lake before retreating to our hotel room. We had to get ready for our trekking trip which would start the next day. We were really excited and looking forward to that – after all, that’s why we had come to Nepal for.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:37 Archived in Nepal Tagged traffic mountain rice road pass trucks crazy Comments (0)

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