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A full week in Phnom Penh? Why that?

From Auckland, NZ, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Getting from Auckland to South East Asia, is fairly easy and cheap. With AirAsia serving the region so well, we were able to get to Phnom Penh in Cambodia for less money than the one way flight from Sydney to Broome had cost us a couple of months earlier.
The only downside was the less than ideal connection. On the way to Kuala Lumpur, our plane had a short stopover in Australia’s Gold Coast. We had assumed that we’d be able to stay on the plane, but unfortunately had to get out, go through security checks and were only 30 min later admitted to board again. What an unnecessary effort – specifically with a sleeping child (which was eventually not sleeping anymore).
The other disadvantage of our flight was that we were not able to check our baggage through to Phnom Penh, but had to retrieve it in Kuala Lumpur and check it in again. I had bought two separate tickets to make sure we can show the New Zealand immigrations officials a ticket to a destination we do not need visa for. Both flights were AirAsia, but they refused to check our baggage through.
So upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur at 4:30 in the morning local time, we had to go through immigration, get our bags, check them in again and go once more through all security controls and to our gate. At least we got some exercise and luckily everything worked out fine. As a sided effect of this process, we have now official stamps in our passports that we have been to Malaysia. Despite this official proof that would probably count for any kind of record attempts, we do not feel that we’ve been to Malaysia. Getting to meet two bored (and unfriendly) immigration officials and one lethargic and tired check in employee as only representatives of their country would be a rather unfair picture of Malaysia. I’m sure we will eventually have the time and energy to get some more extensive contact with this country and its inhabitants.
But not now. We had briefly contemplated using the opportunity of this stopover in Kuala Lumpur to get to see the town a bit, but we were too anxious to get to Phnom Penh to afford some time elsewhere.
So what’s so special about Phnom Penh? Well, formerly it used to be called the ‘Pearl of Asia’, but even though our guidebook promised that it’s on the way back to the previous splendor, there’s still way to go. So, let’s be clear: we had another reason to go there.
When we were sitting in Australia around Christmas time and had finally worked out our plan on how to spend the last three months of our travels, we came to a great plot. Sam and I agreed that I would be a perfect ending for our trip to spend some time in Mongolia and to then go back home by train – the Transsibirian Railway to be exact.
What sounds like a great idea, is sometimes more easily said than done. Talking with a travel specialist, it soon turned out that the only way to get a visa for Russia, is to apply in the home country. That was very bad news. We had little interest to fly back to Germany just in order to get our visa.
As I’m not easily deterred when I have a good plan in mind, I did turn to my friend Google in search of a good idea. Soon it turned out that the Russian Embassy in Cambodia seems to have a much more relaxed view in respect to issuing Russian visa to non-residents. Seemingly other travelers had been successful in getting their Russian visa there, so that’s what we wanted to try as well.
So that’s why Phnom Penh made it on our list of destinations. And that’s why we arrived at the airport, marveled at the process of getting our visa (our passports went through the hands of probably 10 people in the process), got our stuff, took a taxi to the hotel, enjoyed a quick welcome drink, dropped our stuff there, gathered our paperwork (quite a stack) and took a tuk tuk directly to the Russian embassy.
Yes, we were tired and exhausted. We had had hardly any sleep on our night flight and had six hours of jetlag. Yes, we were stunned by the sudden exposure to Asian traffic rules again (anyone who has been to a South East Asian city will know that I’m not referring to right-hand traffic here). And yes, it was extremely hot and humid. The pool at the hotel was definitively much more tempting than the outlook of having to deal with authorities and bureaucracy. But we were in Phnom Penh on one single mission that we tried to tackle as soon as possible.

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At 10:15am we were at the embassy. We were cordially invited to take a seat in the waiting area and joined a group of others waiting for their audience in the consulate.
As time passed by, we got talking with some of the others waiting with us. We made the acquaintance of Nicole and while talking about the many languages she spoke with various people at the embassy, found out that she’s in fact Romanian. Being brought up in a gypsy community as the daughter of one of the gypsy kings, she had so many stories to tell. I love meeting people like Nicoleta – that’s exactly what makes traveling so much fun.
The part about traveling that is definitively not so much fun is bureaucracy. Up to now, having been to rather ‘easy’ destinations, we did not have to deal with too much of it. This should sure change from now on. Our first glimpse of that came at noon. At that time we were waiting to be admitted any minute, as it was finally our turn. This is when the consulate officially closes. A rather unfriendly employee came to the waiting area and declared the consulate closed. Next week Monday at 8am, the consulate would be open again.
While most other people left, we tried our luck. And indeed, it turned out to be our lucky day after all. Five minutes after the guy had disappeared into the bowels of the consulate, a lady appeared. When explaining her our situation, that we had waited for so long and that we had all required documents for getting a visa ready at hand, she promised to have a chat with the consul. And he seemed to have a good day and admitted us at 12:15.
In fact, they quickly saw that we had all required documents. We did not even need to go for the urgent visa. For 210 USD, we'd get the visa next Thursday. We happily accepted. We’ve hardly ever been so relieved. Wow, we had made it! Our Russian visa were within reach and we’d be able to realize the perfect ending of our round the world trip by taking the legendary Transsiberian Railway! Delighted we returned to our hotel to celebrate.
And we even found the perfect companions for our celebrations. As we hit the pool after lunch, there were already four other people there. We soon found out that Andrey, Angelika, Tatiana and Mikhail were from Russia, enjoying their last day in Cambodia before heading towards home.
Initially it was Max who broke the ice by identifying them as perfect companions for playing in the pool. And indeed, they were playing endlessly.
Sam, Andrey and Misha tried their best in emptying the pool with a simultaneous dive-bomb. The wave they produced was gigantic and proved to be a good reason to celebrate.

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At 5pm we were ready for Happy Hour and ordered our drinks. After a first round, there was a second one, eventually a third and then the count becomes a bit more blurry and less reliable… What can be stated with certainty is the fact that at 5 to 8 a last order was placed to make use of Happy Hour. By then, all of us had eaten so many peanuts with lemon grass / ginger flavor and had drunk so much that the original plan of having dinner became less relevant.
Despite the 6 hours jet lag vs. New Zealand and a severe lack of sleep from the overnight flight, Max managed to stay up until 8 pm. I used the excuse to go to bed as well. Sam stayed up later.
Max and I were awake at 5am and were happy to get breakfast at 7am. That’s also where we met our Russian friends once more. They had to head out quickly to catch their ride to the airport. What a pity that they had to leave. Even though one should think that by now we’ve gotten used to saying good bye to new friends and acquaintances, it still makes us sad. Let’s see – we’re still hoping that we’ll be able to host some of the people we met on the road back home in Germany when we’ll be back.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 09:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged pool tuktuk visa russia transsib gypsy embassy Comments (0)

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)

Feeling at home

Bangkok

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After a couple of days in Bangkok, we even cut down further on our activities. We would be busy again before too long and had no intention of stressing ourselves with too much sightseeing.
At the pool, we did overhear others who had visited the Royal Palace in the morning, did a river cruise in a longtail boat, spent lunchtime in Chinatown and were discussing in their quick pool break which night market they should visit before retreating to a rooftop bar. Well – that’s not us. There were days which we spent exclusively at the pool – maybe interrupted by a quick to our favorite juice bar to get our fix of smoothies for the day.
And whenever we did venture out, one major activity usually was enough. On Sunday, our target was Lumphini Park. The original plan of walking there, was quickly dismissed when we passed a metro station along the way. The elevator down into the pleasantly airconditioned clean world of Bangkok’s excellently organized public transport was just too tempting.
Two stations further, we emerged again into the heat and strolled around the park. We had fun on our outing in a swan boat, passed the local version of Muscle Beach (which presumably is much more crowded when it gets cooler in the evenings) and realized that the canals were full of goanas and turtles.

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But it did not take long for us to call it a day. We headed home by metro again and retreated to the pool.
Another day was reserved for Sam to get his Mongolian visa from the embassy. Given the experience from his first visit, he had the taxi wait for him for the two minutes it took him to pick up his passport. He swiftly got back to the hotel with a new and shiny visa.
It was time to celebrate having all documents in place to complete the plans for our remaining journey. We went for Hanaya, a Japanese Restaurant just 15 minutes away on foot. We sat at the typical Japanese low tables and enjoyed excellent food. We had eaten so much Khmer and Thai food lately that we were excited to have something very different for a change.
The food was excellent and probably typical. We were not able to tell, but that’s what we concluded - considering that all patrons seemed to be Japanese. Despite some ‘interesting’ menu options such as shark fin or whale bacon, the most adventurous in our order were the roasted gingko nuts. The Bento Sushi Box and the Tempura Set were excellent.
Our city tour the next day cost a fraction of what we spent at Hanaya. We walked to Siphraya Pier and took the express boat on the river. It was nice seeing the river live. Once we left the touristy areas, the river got much less crowded and the vistas of stilt houses decorated with flowers took over. Every other stop seemed to be at a temple of some sort.

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Eventually we headed back all the way to the last station where we connected to the Skytrain which directly delivered us to the shopping district at Siam Square. Our plan for lunch was neither adventurous, nor very exciting. But MBK’s food court provided us with good quick food options. Just what we needed.
Compared to MBK, Pantip Plaza seemed out of this world. The shopping center that sells everything around IT and computers was fascinating. The neon lights all over the place grabbed Max’ full attention while Sam kept admiring the gaming PC’s. There were computers and mobiles everywhere, but not a single place to get an overview of where to find what. Eventually we were directed into the right area. After all, we had come to get our laptop fixed. Since the time when it fell into the sand and Sam was only able to get rid of the sand by taking some of the keys out, the backspace key had an issue. And not being perfect in typing, I really need that key probably more often than all the others.
We kindly declined the first offer to replace the keyboard for 1500 baht. A couple of stalls further someone was able to help: using some pincers, he pried the key and its mechanics apart. After fixing its attachments, everything was just like new. All of that for free. I am so thankful to have this fixed!
So while Sam and Max headed off to check out the gaming PCs, I retreated to the McDonalds to enjoy typing with my fixed keyboard. Strolling around in a mall like that might be heaven for Sam and Max, but gets close to the worst nightmare for me.
Getting a taxi to take us back home was a bit of a nightmare as well. We simply refused their offers to take us for 200 baht – knowing that we had paid a third of that price coming here. Eventually, a tuk tuk driver offered to take us back for 100 baht and we accepted. And it was an excellent deal, as he skipped many traffic jams by driving the back roads. The only downside to the much quicker journey was to sit directly in traffic with its unpleasant exhaust fumes. Bangkok traffic is only pleasant wherever there is public traffic available.
Sam also tried the other quick transport option: using a moto taxi was very quick indeed. Still, despite the luxury of having his own helmet on the ride, Sam did not recommend using this way of transport for the family.
At Max’ request we did one more trip to Khao San Road. He wanted to see some more Thai Boxing. And this time the trainer had even brought along his son. It was fascinating to see how well he was doing – much better than any of the other people training at the center despite him being not older than 10 years. Max knew already where he wanted to have dinner and anyhow felt quite at home.

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Well, needless to say that we spent even more time at the pool. Sam enjoyed having the fitness studio at his disposal. And with the exception of a quick shopping tour to get a birthday present for Max and a tripod for Sam (he had been regretting not having brought his since the beginning of the trip), there was not much more we did.
But despite having had lots of time to relax, the nine days in Bangkok had passed too quickly after all. And on March 31, the alarm clock woke us up at 6:15am and it was time to head to the airport. We spent our last baht on breakfast and made sure that Max got a maximum of exercise before boarding the plane. This time we flew on Thai Airways. In other words: there was an entertainment system and the four-hour flight was over before we knew it. Unfortunately, there were so many clouds and haze that we did not get to see any mountains as we descended into Kathmandu. Let’s hope we’ll get a better view in the coming weeks.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged taxi boat river pool visa mall tuk_tuk Comments (1)

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