As a respite from the endless sitting around drinking coffee, eating cake, reading books and watching beautiful sunsets that became the rhythm of life during mum’s visit, the two of us packed our bags and at the crack of dawn (or more correctly, pre-crack of dawn 5.30am) one Tuesday morning, we hopped in a taxi to make the 3.5 hour trip (the last hour was getting through Phnom Penh to where we needed to be) from sleepy Kampot to the bright lights of Phnom Penh.
Our reason for the early start – a booking for a 9.45am departure by bus to the north-eastern province of Kratie to go see the Irrawaddy dolphins.
The journeys and the sightseeing they were the prequel to provided watching opportunities aplenty. Here’s my observational highlights:
- Watching night turn into day, the sleeping wake and the traffic build to the standstill that is rush hour (make that rush 7-12 hours) in Phonm Penh – even after two years I’m still blown away by just how many vehicles of vary types can fit into a road two lanes wide.
- Observing the action at the overstuffed bus station where Cambodians and tourists mingled, flapped and flustered awaiting the obligatory late arrival and departures of the buses to their various destinations. Wary tourists sought solace from the more worldly-wise amongst us, Cambodians purchased and ate every foodstuff available to them and backpacking stoners hung around looking stoned, oblivious to the small boy dragging the diesel hose along precariously close to their lit cigarettes on route to fill up an already loaded bus awaiting departure.
- Spending 8 hours journeying by bus in which time we watched the scenery beyond the window change from urban sprawl to countryside with the vegetation becoming increasingly dense as the miles clocked slowly on, turning from low lying rice paddy into forest, commercial pepper farms, terraced fields and rubber plantations.
- Meanwhile, inside the bus, to our right, obviously intent on saving money, a family of four squashed onto two seats, the kids switching between pulling on the chairs immediately in front and draping themselves over the backs of their own as they fought for space, whilst the foreigners afore and beyond feigned nonchalance (and bit back the desire to scream expletives judging by the looks passing between them when they thought no one was watching).
- And, directly in front of us a guy developed travel sickness which he managed by going to sit on a stool at the front of the bus with his head pressed on the windscreen, before returning to his seat to vomit in a plastic bag and then rubbing one of the tiger balm like ointments all over his belly and head. Fascinated by this, the little girl of the family of four ceased her seat pulling and demanded her father get her a plastic bag. She then proceeded to fake vomit into it before prodding the sick man who was now lying prone on his seat, taking his ointment, lifting her t shirt and slathering the ointment all over her belly.
- Our reward for a whole day (yep it was 12 hours end to end) of travelling. An awesome Mekong sunset to watch and our backdrop for the walk to our guesthouse.
- Gazing as urban turning to suburban as we ventured out of town to visit the amazing 100 column pagoda which, as well as being stunning from the outside, is also filled with rather gruesome but fascinating artwork on all four walls and the ceiling
- Seeing the Irrawaddy Dolphins – the whole reason for the long-haul journey – playing in the river as tourists (us included) pointed, oohed and aahed whilst fruitlessly trying to capture a pic of them from the beach our trusty dolphin seekers had landed our boat at.
- Being treated to an extra special bonus viewing just as we were about to dock and disembark as a pod of dolphins appeared and proceeded to play around our boat for a few minutes before swimming off.
- Stopping to watch palm sugar being made and being caught in one of those bizarre multi language exchanges where our host (a 70 year old Cambodian) spoke fluent French to me, which I pigeon translated into English for mum (I knew I shouldn’t have dicked about so much in French classes) whilst responding to our host in pigeon Khmer (I understand more French than I speak (ditto Khmer, ditto Chinese, ditto lots of other language thanks to my ability to listen and get the gist courtesy of the situation combined with one or two words I actually understand (or think I do)).
- Watching mum manage to climb the 237 steps up to the top of Phnom Sambour and arriving just a few seconds too late to witness the most glorious part of the sunset. Thanks to my (relatively) superior fitness I got up there in time and snapped a few shots for her to view once she’d recovered from the ordeal (it was touch and go for a while as to whether oxygen would be required but thankfully an extended sit sufficed).
- Again, observing mum but this time on her bike. We got where we wanted to go – it just took slightly longer than expected thanks to mum refusing to turn left (we ride on the right here) thus requiring us to go around in a big square on more than one occasion.
- Discovering a great coffee shop to sit and watch the world go by. On one visited we were treated to a turf war as market traders who were nicely settled in their spot for the morning were unceremoniously shoved out by a man with a lot of tables and dried fish. Undetered, the women simply picked up their baskets and resettled themselves and their wares in the middle of the road.
- And finally, deciding to not only push the boat out by getting a shared 8 seater taxi rather than a bus back to Phnom Penh we also purchased an extra seat to give us the luxury of the whole back seat. Imagine our surprise when, just after picking up the 7th passenger we again stopped, the driver shuffled along in his seat and opened the door to allow another passenger to squeeze in beside him (yep, despite having lived in Asia for nearly 7 years in total this one managed to make me do a double take). We both, wisely I think, chose not to focus on how the hell the driver was reaching the pedals from his seating position with one ass cheek firmly planted on the handbrake.