Change or No Change- Election Time In Cambodia

Change or No Change??? That is the question and it is the chant that can be heard around the streets of Phnom Penh. Election time in any country is an important time, but when it is in a ‘developing’ country it is time of high tensions. You have a formula of people who are tired of being under-paid, under appreciated, living in poverty and facing corruption on a daily basis. Add this unhappiness to the tension of an election and you could have a recipe for disaster, tragedy and violence.

I have experienced an election in Kolkata, India in 2011 before. This election time was somewhat peaceful, besides the fact that a bomb was detonated around the corner from our apartment. However we found out that this detonation was just a show of power by one party and the bomb did not contain any ball-barrings or nails.

So here is a quick run down of the Cambodian general election 2013
The General Election will take place on the 28th July 2013 and there is an estimated 9.6 million Cambodians eligible to vote, however this is estimated by The National Election Committee (NEC), so numbers could not be correct. It has also been reported in some local newspapers that National Identification cards have been taken off people in the provinces. 
Cambodia has a 123-seat National Assembly, which is one of the largest in the world. The ruling party in government is the Cambodian People’s Party(CPP) who currently hold a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. The CPP is led by Hun Sen who has governed the party since the Vietnamese-backed owerthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is the next biggest party, who’s leader is Sam Rainsy. He has been in exile since 2010 to avoid alleged crimes of racial incitement and destruction of property. From what I have researched he has been living in the USA and Paris. However in a recent turn of events Sam Rainsy has been granted a pardon from the King and is set to return to Phnom Penh on the 19th July at 9am. The CNRP has gathered a large youth following and the streets have been packed with chants of “lai m-pal” English:Number 7 (CNRP is number 7 on the ballot paper(the last on the ballot))

With Sam Rainsy’s return on Friday, there is a huge turn out expected to greet him at the airport. This new lease of life for the CNRP party also brings with it heightening tensions, and a repeat of the 1997 elections is best avoided. Here at the NGO we are taking all necessary precautions to ensure that all the volunteers know what to do and most importantly what not to do in the event of violence breaking out. Political demonstrations at the Cambodian level is something that is very interesting but also something that is best avoided. These are hotspots for attacks as it is a small area containing large masses of people. We are advising our volunteers to have a plan in action that may involve them leaving the county, Vietnam being the closest border to Phnom Penh.

Of course these are just precautions that we are taking, but it is necessary to be prepared for the worst, at the same time hoping that it doesn’t happen.

It is very much expected that CPP will win the election, with CNRP wanting to gain more seats in the National Assembly. A complete change of government is something that no one is predicting.

You have to ask the question, in this situation is ‘Change’ a good thing. Or would it just bring more devastation to a country that has suffered enough.

A Typical Phnom Penh Weekend

Its very cliché but its very true, ‘living for the weekend’. No matter what your work is, you want Friday to arrive as soon as possible and just let loose for the few days of freedom that you have.Nothing changes when you move to the other side of the world! Friday is Friday, but here in Cambodia it comes 6 hours earlier than it does in Ireland! So that’s a benefit!

Once Friday hits out in Som Roung, it is Creative Friday. This usually means, painting, drawing, jigsaw’s or movies with the students. So this is a nice way to ease yourself into the weekend mood. I finish my class at 2pm and unless there is something important to be done in the school, I will usually leave the village at about 3pm(after a noodle soup) Leaving the school on my moto, I usually stop to say goodbye to Sovanred, Da and Visal, who are usually chilling out the front with the neighbours. Switching on my iPod I drive out of the village waving to the students who are playing games out the front of the school and in neighbours gardens. Once I hit the main road it takes me around 45 minutes to do the 20km to Phnom Penh. I head straight for our usual guesthouse, ‘Grandview Guesthouse‘. We discovered this guesthouse around 4 months ago and it is has been the place of choice since then! Located in the Lakeside area, it is a quite and i bit of a run down area of the city, that in its good days used to be the main place to be in PP.

Grandview Guesthouse. Don;t let the name fool you, there used to be a ‘grand view’ of the Lake, but a few years ago the lake was sold to the Chinese and they filled it in with sand. They did this to try and build new buildings, complexes and a shopping centre, but to this day it just remains a big empty dry lake. To be perfectly honest we dont come here for the view, even if there was one.
We come here for 3 simple reasons;
1) It is cheap! That is thing that people look for when they are going to stay in a place, especially backpackers, you go for the cheapest option. So for $4 a night we get a room with either a big bed or two twin beds, and each room has its own bathroom attached and a big window. This mightn’t seem like much but what else do you need?? Your only using it for sleeping off a hangover!
2) The Staff! It has been over 4 months now that we have been staying there every weekend, so the staff in there know is pretty well!! After all we are their best customers. Every time we walk in the door they are happy to see some regular faces walking in the door. We have become such good friends with them that one of the guys invited us to his sisters wedding that was taking place 40km outside PP. This was a great honour for us, after all we are just guests in their guesthouse! So ya it is safe to say that we have become quite good friends with them!
3) The Lounge area! This is a big open area that most guesthouses around PP lack. It is a nice area with loads of couches, wifi, TV and a pool table. However it is the food and how fast it is served that makes this place special! The food is very cheap and I have no idea how it comes out so quickly! And if you want to make some small alterations to a dish there are no issues!

So after checking in to the guesthouse I usually find myself in the lounge area doing a few pieces of work that need good internet in order to get completed, while having an ice cold Klang beer, of course! (its the weekend) I usually hang out there for a while and wait of the rest of the volunteers to arrive in to decide on what we will do for the night!

The Pub Crawl- After having a few warm up drinks while playing pool in the guesthouse we usually head for 65! This is a small Khmer restaurant on the side of a side street. Now before I get into more detail, the name of the bar is not actually 65, its some Khmer name. We call it 65 because a jug of beer there is 6500 Riel ($1.60) which is pretty damn cheap! So after a few jugs in 65 we head towards the next bar! This bar is the bar that will make or break your night, you will either go out and have a great night, or go out and have an awesome night and not remember a thing!!
Mekong River Bar- Again I have been going here for the 7 months that I have been in Cambodia, almost every weekend. So the bar tenders in there know us all and know that when we order a cocktail that we want it Klang!(strong) This is another great thing about this bar, the cocktails cost $1.75 each! But only during happy hours which are 7am-Closing time. The Long Island Iced Tea in this place will kill you the next morning, especially if you have three! It is basically like a shot of rum, tequila, gin and vodka mixed into one glass with a drop of Coke for the colour. So ya, 4 shots in one glass is going to ruin you, but in the good way!! We usually leave at closing time, just after midnight, and head around the corner to the next establishment for a sing song!
Heartbreak– Ahhhhh Heartbreak……where to start with this one? Julius’ first love, singing and not giving a shit, turning the bar into our own little club, and just generally having a mess!! They have a TV located above the bar and a song book that you can choose which song you want to butcher! Some of the faviroutes are anything by The Beatles, Better Man, Hotel California, She’s The One and Save Tonight. We usually stay here for an hour or two  our until the owners get sick of our singing and turn off the music! Next stop is the night club area.
Street 51– This street is home to Sorya Mall, which houses dozens of bars in an open air shopping centre. Our personal favourite is Swiss Bar, which serves tasty food and refreshing beer! The bar tender Chaly is a legend and every time I walk in he immediately hugs me and asks if I want my regular Vodka and Sprite. This bar allows you to put on your own music on Youtube and play pool for free. Its a nice area to top up on your alcohol before the nightclub!
Heart of Darkness/Pontoon– These are the two main clubs in PP that all the people go to. Heart of Darkness is always free in, and Pontoon charges $6 before 4am. Pontoon is the better of the two clubs but given the state you are going to be in this stage, you won’t even know where you are!

So this is your typical Friday and Saturday night in Phnom Penh. The rest of your weekend depends on how hard you like to drink and how well you handle your hangovers!

During the weekends then when you have time to spare there are a lot of other activities that you can do to pass the time.

There are 4 cinemas in Phnom Penh that we go to. Two of them are big multiplex cinemas that show the big blockbusters and some movies in 3D. The cinema here costs between $3-6 for a show and you can get your popcorn and coke in there for a reasonable price compared to back home. The other two cinemas are independent cinemas called The Flicks and The Empire, these cinemas are small and very comfortable. You can drink beer or wine while you watch some of its alternative and independent films. The seating in these two cinemas is what really makes it, there are huge cushioned floor that you can lay down on with pillows, to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Entry to these cinemas is $3.50 and you can stay for as many showings as you like (3 showings per day) This is a great way to eat away some hours in the city.

Massages- South East Asia is famous for its massages. They are cheap and places can be found all over the city. Prices can range from $4-15 depending on the place and the treatment. Our place of choice on the weekends is Long Beach Plaza Hotel AKA Plaza. Here you only pay for your massage ($6-8) and you get a swimming pool, gym, sauna, steam room, hot and cold tub and as much iced tea as you can drink. There are two sections to this spa, one for men and one for women, so it is a nice time to take a chill and just chat with the lads about the mischief that we got up to the night before. This is by far the best way to cure a hangover, just walk straight into the sauna and sweat out all the toxins that you poisoned yourself with the night before.

Obviously there is a whole section that I could write on food to fill in this section but I am going to leave that for another more detailed post.

So ya that is an insight into my average weekend in the great city of Phnom Penh! If you have any places to add leave a comment!

Most people who pass through Phnom Penh don’t like it, but give it the time it deserves and you will fall in love with the chaos, the people and everything in between!

5 Reasons Why Cambodia Is Better Than Ireland

I’ve been in Cambodia for just over 6 months now and to be perfectly honest it’s awesome. There have been a few bad times of course, but these are majorly outnumbered by the great times. Cambodia is a lot different to Home (Ireland), and each place has its positives and negatives, but here are a few reasons why I think Cambodia is better than Ireland.

1)The Weather – This is an easy one, I didn’t even have to try for that one. There are two seasons in Cambodia, dry season and rainy season. Simple! The dry season takes place from around November to May, and the May to October is rainy season. The rainy season isn’t even that rainy, about every day it rains for about 30 minutes to an hour. Thunder storms are regular but don’t cause too much disruption, and the temperature stays in the 30°C range and higher. A blue sky is almost guaranteed every day, and there is no need for any fake tan or sun beds! Back in Ireland you don’t know what the weather is going to be like in 20 minutes time!

Blue Sky in Som Roung

Blue Sky in Som Roung

2) Street food – This is something that Ireland is seriously lacking! And I don’t mean food that is available late at night for drunk people to munch on after the club. I mean readily available fresh street food that you can pick up for a couple of dollars. In Cambodia and most of Asia these street vendors are found everywhere, and they all offer different types of dishes. Some of the vendors even have small tables and chairs where you can sit and enjoy meal. Some of these dishes range from fried rice, fired noodles, noodle soup, fried meat, vegetables, and my personal favourite, pate. This pate is a fresh French baguette with sauce, dill, chives, papaya salad, chili and meat. Now I am not too sure what type of meat it is (possibly pork) but I know that it tastes amazing! Quick, fresh, simple tasty food readily available on the side of the street, served with a smile! None of this McDonalds, KFC or Burger King bullshit!

3)The People – Cambodia was voted the most friendly country in the world by Rough Guides http://www.roughguides.com/gallery/the-friendliest-countries-in-the-world-as-chosen-by-you/#/10 and to be honest I can see why. The people here always have a smile on their face, and they are more than happy to help anyone who has a problem. I have heard these stories from tourists who have had problems with losing passports and bags. The Khmer people will go out of their way to help tourists in their country, but there are of course some people looking to take advantage of foreigners, but the majority are nice. I have seen this helpful nature first hand in the village of Som Roung. Families here will help their elderly neighbours with food, water, clothing and shelter. There is a great sense of community and the genuine want to help others.

Having a boogie with the guards

Having a boogie with the guards

4) The Police – First things first, and it is good for you to know this, the police in Cambodia sleep at night. What I mean by that is, they do not work at night! Yup they don’t work at night. So if you are going to have a problem try to make sure it happens during the day, but not between 12-3pm because it is very hot then, the police don’t like that either. The other times they are probably drunk. You can usually find the traffic police sitting on their motos under a tree by the side of the street. If you make a wrong turn or run a red light they will jump off the moto and start to wave you to the side of the street. Okay there are a few options you have now:

Drinking with the Police

Drinking with the Police

  • You can stop and they will probably issue you with a fine from anything from a dollar to $5, depending on their mood and how much they think they can get out of you. This will lead to some bargaining on the price of the fine, and sometimes they will accept a can of Coke as payment on a hot day.
  • Drive, just drive, if the police man has been a bit slow to his feet and you have a gap ahead of you in the traffic, take it! The police are not going to get on their motos and chase you; they are just far too lazy to do that. Then you are home and free, with no fine to pay!

Now don’t take all this advice from me, some people and police men might react differently, don’t hold me responsible for what happens. But could you imagine doing this in Ireland, or even the Gardaí acting in this way, could be interesting!

5) Drinking culture and Nightlife – There is none of this no buying alcohol after 10pm nonsense! Everyone know that all the fun happens after 10pm and you want more booze!! Some bars stay open here 24hours, and a can of Angkor is never too far away! But it is just the small little things that make it better here, you can sit on the Riverside and people come around with little ice boxes selling beer and other minerals. It is just generally accepted here for people to enjoy a beer in public, and what’s wrong with that. If you do that back in Ireland you are seen as a degenerate low life and will probably get fined for drinking in public!

Ireland might be nice and easy to live in, but it gets boring and monotonous with easy day that passes. Cambodia on the other hand, each day is an adventure and experience in itself.

You never know what lies beyond the door unless you open it!

Songkran – The offspring of a water fight and a music festival!

DSC02592The only way to quickly describe Songkan to those who have not experienced it, is that it is a perfect mix of a 3 day music festival and a water fight, all taking place in city surroundings.

Songkran is celebrated in Thailand from the 13th to the 15th of April, which coincides with the traditional New Year celebrations all over South East Asia. It falls on the hottest time of year in Thailand, at the end of the dry season.  The traditional celebration of Songkran is throwing water over others; this is essentially to wash away the sins of the previous year and to start the New Year clean and pure.

Typically, as with the rest of Thailand, it has become over run with tourists and backpackers. This does add to the fun of the festival but at the same time it slowly eats away at the traditional Songkran. However the local Thai people don’t seem to mind this and even enjoy it more to hit Western targets with their water guns.

Our first introduction to Songkran in Chiang Mai was when we returned from our moto trip to Pai, we were bombarded with buckets of water as we drove down the highway into the city. Children who were just able to stand to grandparents all joined in, tossing buckets of water on passing vehicles.

Once we entered the city we hit a huge traffic jam around the moat area, this is where the main party takes place. It was here that we got stuck for an hour trying to manoeuvre our bikes in and out of the stationary traffic. It was a lot of fun though; people were all sitting on the back of pick-up trucks with barrels of water, soaking anybody in sight. The Thai people were respectful when they threw water, we had backpacks on so they would only throw water at our chest, in order to avoid wetting our bags, the Western tourists were not so forgiving though.

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When we made it back to our guesthouse we met some of the friends we had met on the train from Bangkok. I grabbed some beer and joined in on the festivities outside the guesthouse. We then returned our bikes and headed for the main area where the celebrations were taking place. Armed with water guns and buckets we headed straight towards the battlefield. Water was gathered from anywhere that you can find it, usually from passing pick-up trucks or else from the water in the moat. This water in the moat was not very clean water, in fact it has a very strong green colour to it, this however didn’t deter me from going to for a quick swim. By the time we reached the main area the sun was starting to set and the temperature started to drop, so as an alternative to a water fight we settled for a few beers instead.

Songkran is a water festival for people of all ages, it is a chance for older people to leave their childish side out and just have fun, and the children of course love any chance to throw water. Everybody walking through the streets of Chiang Mai during Songkran has a smile on their face, and to be honest, why wouldn’t you? You are taking part in one of the biggest water festivals in the world.

Of course no festival is complete without alcohol. The Thai authorities have however limited its availability during the festival. For example the main festival area where all the music stages are located is a strict no alcohol area, and the 7/11’s are prohibited from selling alcohol from 2pm-7pm. I presume this is in an attempt to lower the number of alcohol related incident that may hinder the enjoyment of the festival. There are of course bars open during the day, and this is where most of the drinking takes place during the day. However the alcohol consumption is not just done by the Western visitors, the local Thai’s also like to indulge. This seems to be a very traditional way of drinking; usually the family would sit down together over food and drink beer or rum and coke. It was very common to be walking around and to be offered a drink or a shot of rum, and of course that is very hard to turn down.DSC02594

Most of have been lucky enough to experience the feeling at the being front row of a concert, for those of you that don’t; you are missing out big time!! Being at the concert stages at Songkran is something surreal. The DJ is protected from the water by transparent plastic sheeting, beautiful girls are constantly spraying the crowd with power hoses, the water is ankle deep and the atmosphere is inexpressible. At one stage I turned around from the stage to see a pick-up truck stopped and people, including the drive, were climbing onto the roof. It took me 5 seconds to think about it and I went to join them. With a helping hand from someone on top of the roof, I joined them for a dance in the middle of all the traffic. This may have been the highlight of my Songkran, it was the last few hours of the festival and everyone was going crazy and I had the best spot in Chiang Mai.

Songkran is a festival like no other. If you get the chance to do it in your lifetime, just do it, no matter what age you are!

It was something that I can now tick off my bucket list!

Is it on yours?

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Wet Dreams – Songkran and a crazy motorcycle ride through the jungle

Now that I’ve got you attention, let me tell you a tale of four naïve volunteers, their Honda Dream’s, the jungle of Northern Thailand and Songkran water festival!

We had just arrived in Chiang Mai from Bangkok on an overnight train that took 14 hours. This however is not as bad as you may think, in fact, it is by far the best way to travel long distances in Thailand. The cost of the ticket was 800 bhat (just under $30). We each had our own fully horizontal bed, complete with pillow and blanket. Before we got on the train we took a quick stop in a 7-11 for a couple of beers and two bottles of Sang Som rum. The train even has its own restaurant/party carriage where we spent most of our time. So when you were fully loaded with drink and ready for bed all you had to do is stumble back through the swaying carriages to your bed and pass out. When we work up we were arriving in Chiang Mai. Perfect!!

Double checking our route

Double checking our route

Anyway, planning our route was the first part of this expedition. We bought a map and set our sights on the northern town of Pai. There is a main road that connects Chiang Mai and Pai, this takes you through the valleys on a nice tarmacked road. Or there are the other alternative route that are never travelled by tourists. It came down to a flip of a coin on which route we would take, like it literally did come down to a flip of a coin (heads or temple) And the alternative route came up temple, so our choice was made by fate. Little did we know what lay ahead of us because of that simple flip of a coin!!

With our motos rented the previous night we awoke early at 6:45am to begin our journey at 7am. We estimated the length of the trip at around 150km to get to Pai, so around 6-7 hours. (How wrong we were) However because some of us are not ‘morning people’ we did not leave until 8am. Looking at it now, that hour lost us a valuable hour of sunlight. Getting out of Chiang Mai was easy, there was not too much traffic and the roads in Thailand are a lot more organised than those in Cambodia. We headed north until we had to turn off the main road to find our alternative route. Once we turned off this main road that was fully of trucks, buses and fast cars we were greeted with one of the best roads that I have ever had the pleasure of driving on. It was the perfect combination of a smooth paved road, seamless inclining bends, and awe inspiring views that would distract you from the road ahead!

Our bikes out side the cafe after breakfast

Our bikes out side the cafe after breakfast

After making it out of the city and off the main road we decided to stop for breakfast as a small cabin at the side of the road for some morning Pad Thai. After filling up we set off once again, stopping every so often to take in the sights and some pictures of the interlocking green valleys. We tried to stop along the way at a couple of waterfalls and caves; however these had all been turned into tourist attractions and had an entrance fee. For me this is not the way that you should experience some of Mother Nature’s greatest sculptures. It just reminded me of how lucky we were in Koh Kong when we found the giant secluded waterfall. We did however come across a cave, while it was a tourist attraction, it did not charge and entrance fee. Here we found a deep cavern that bore its way in to the monstrous cliff-face. Equipped with just the flash lights from our mobile phones we entered the cave to explore. The impeding darkness quickly engulfed us and sounds of the unknown cause paranoia to set in and it soon had us exiting the cave quite quickly.

Caves we found along the way

Caves we found along the way

Back on our Honda Dream’s again we set off again. For those of you that are unfamiliar with motos, the Honda Dream is the most popular and reliable bike in South East Asia. It is perfect on big roads and with its 125cc engine it can reach a good pace. Its handling and gear changes are second to none and it there are ever any issues with it, most mechanics will know how to fix it. But what really sets the Honda Dream apart from the other motos is its endurance and ability to overcome any terrain that is throw at it, be it mud, water, gravel, or all of them combined! It really is the ultimate bike and it was just what we needed for this trip.

We stopped for food at Yang Moen at 3pm with around 4 hours of sunlight left. The next part of road was going to be the worst of the trip, on the map that we bought it said that this road is only passable in a 4×4 during the dry season, on our Dream’s we could handle anything.  Even before we set out we knew this, but we didn’t realise how bad it was actually going to be. While finishing our food we tried to guess at what time we would arrive in Pai and what we would do for the night. Let’s just say we were way off guessing our arrival time in Pai. The first half of the road was an enjoyable change from the perfect tarmac, now we were driving on sand and rubble, up and down through the green hills. A flat tire here would be a disaster for us, but luckily that flat tire came on a different road.  The conditions of the road would change dramatically every hundred metres or so, but this just added to the excitement that was building up inside us.

Some of the road conditions that we encountered

Some of the road conditions that we encountered

This was short lived however, and soon we came crashing down to reality when we came to a cross roads that was not on our map. There was a village at this crossroads and we asked a family for directions to Wat Chan. This was a rural village in the middle of the jungle in Northern Thailand and no one spoke English. He pointed us to turn right at the crossroads, but I am pretty sure he had no idea of what we were asking him at all!! Hoping for the best we took his directions and headed off right, we travelled along a road that was so bumpy and full of potholes even the most equipped 4×4 in the world would have struggled on. We carried on for a half an hour until we came to a village that was completely and utterly deserted. There were around 15 houses in the village and not a soul to be found, and the road that we were stopped within the ghost village. We decided to turn around and to head back to the crossroads and see if we could get better directions. We found a guy that spoke a little bit of English and he showed us a different way and ensured us that his way was indeed the best way to get to Wat Chan, but it would take us over two hours. Now we were in a race against the sunset. For you how don’t realise the importance of getting off the road after dark have not travelled by road in a developing country. It is a dangerous place to be even during the day, let alone at night. The biggest vehicle has the right of way regardless of everything else, and us on our motos wouldn’t stand a chance.

The new road, in the middle of no where!!

The new road, in the middle of the jungle!!

Racing against the inevitable darkness we began to encounter roads that we getting worse and worse, until we came to another village deep in the forest. This village was slightly unusual because all the way we had been driving on dirt and suddenly in the middle of this village they were building a concrete road. This then forced us to go around the road that was still wet, and through someone’s house. This involved driving through a fence, up huge earth steps, under a house and around all the animals that they kept! At this stage we had started to gather quite an interest from the people of the village. Once we got around the road works we stopped to ask the locals how far Wat Chan was. This was a lot more difficult to communicate than you would expect because none of them there spoke a work of English, and none of us any Thai. So through various different forms of communication we realised that we were still at least 2 hours away from Wat Chan. This is the point in our journey where real panic and worry started to set in. This resulted in high tensions between the 4 of us, and anything that we said or did got on someone else’s nerves. This was the first real sign that everyone was worried about where we would end up. To add to this situation, my moto stopped working; whenever I gave it power it wouldn’t respond and just cut out. This was a very worrying situation to be in. The fact that we may already have to spend the night in the jungle, as well as trying to get a powerless moto out too would be a disaster. Thanks to a local ,with what looked like a giant spliff, he got the bike working again, as I said, the Honda Dream is an extremely reliable moto.

The locals fixing my bike

The locals fixing my bike

We now knew which direction that we had to go in but we did not know what condition the ‘road’ would be like. This was fine for 15 minutes until we came to yet another split in the road. It was at this point that I turned to the guys and said to them that we had two options; 1) Carry on the road but we didn’t know what lay ahead. 2) Go back to the village that we just left and ask for help in getting us out of the dense jungle. We opted for the latter and went back to the village. We were fortunate that two guys were already packing to go out to the main road and they said that they would guide us out.

If it was not for these guys we would never have made it out. The road that unfolded before us was made up of all sorts of obstacles and challenges for us to get past. Small wooden bridges, followed muddy crevasses and then climbing up 50° hills with dykes on either side of the foot wide path. This was a huge challenge for us and it could have gone very wrong if someone took a stumble or hit a bump and fell off. That’s not to say that we never fell over during all of this. I took a couple of falls and my moto took a serious beating but we made it through. After this exhausting drive we finally made it out of the jungle area and out onto the main road! First stop was petrol.

While at the petrol station there was a huge sense of relief that we were out of the jungle and finally back on a road that was on the map. Nevertheless tensions were still high and words were firmly spoken between a few people. We decided to try and put it behind us until we had reached somewhere to stay and have a well needed beer! We still had an hour drive to go until be reached Wat Chan where we would try to get a place to stay for the night, and now there was around 15 minutes of light left so we had to get going. Driving in the dark is something that you have to be cautious about most of the time, but especially so when you are driving on a dirt road that was full of huge potholes that you can’t see until the very last moment.

The condition we were in after 13 hours driving in the jungle

The condition we were in after 13 hours driving in the jungle

The best feeling that we had all day was when we were driving along this dirt road and suddenly we hit smooth tarmac, this indicated that we were on the main road to Wat Chan! This was the biggest sense of relief that I have experienced in a long time. As we sailed along this road we all started to cheer and beep our horns in excitement, now it was smiles all round. We found a guesthouse in Wat Chan, got something to eat, had a beer and went to bed. We were all tired, dirty, dusty and delirious from 13 hours of riding, but the important thing was that we weren’t sleeping in the jungle that night!!

We arose with the sun the next day hand travelled towards our original destination of Pai, 57km away. This was a beautiful ride through the mountains as the sun was coming up, I couldn’t help but stare off into the mountains and realise how lucky I am to have the chance to do this! It’s something that I will never forget. We made it to Pai at 11am and got some lunch, we decided not to hang around and just start off back towards Chiang Mai, this time taking the main road! This road was superb, new smooth tarmac combined with hair-pin turns made for an entertaining journey home. Lars was not so lucky because at about half way he got a flat tire, better on a main road than in the middle of the jungle. A nice Thai family with a pickup truck were happy to help and loaded the moto into the back along with Lars.

Lars and his moto in the back of a pick up truck

Lars and his moto in the back of a pick up truck

They found us a mechanic that would fix the tire and didn’t want any money in exchange. With this slight inconvenience out of the way we finally made it back to Chiang Mai. It was here that we were greeted with buckets of water being thrown at us while we drove. Entering Chiang Mai then was total madness!! The streets were full of people, cars and pickup trucks all taking part in the beginning of Songkran! We made it back to our guest house wet, exhausted and filthy, but at least we made it back. Now we could concentrate on the 3 day long water festival that awaited us!!

Songkran Water festival

Songkran Water festival

SONGKRAN!!

Thailand Adventures – A Sneak Peek

Diner before the train out of Bangkok

Dinner before the train out of Bangkok

Khmer New Year gave us the opportunity of having a two week holiday away from the school. And with Thailand being so close there was no point in staying in the Kingdom of Wonder, so along with three friends; Leo, Carl and Lars we set of on our journey north towards Bangkok. I’m not going to get into the full details of the trip that we took yet but instead give you a quick preview of what we experienced along the way.

19 hours on a bus from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, just some of the travelling that we had to do in order to reach Songkran in Chiang Mai. There we rented bikes and headed towards the northern town of Pai,  however we wanted to take the road never travelled by other tourists. The was the first big test of our group.

The local villagers fixing my moto in the middle of the jungle

The local villagers fixing my moto in the middle of the jungle

Getting totally lost in the jungle of northern Thailand is an experience that I will never forget  and something that I never want to do again. Eventually, albeit with help from local village people we were guided out of the dense forest area. Songkran greeted us back in Chiang Mai in the form of buckets of water when we arrived on our motos.

Songkran - Chiang Mai

Songkran – Chiang Mai

Pattaya was next on our list but this would not be a highlight, but it was something that I just wanted to experience for myself. It is the same and a bit worse than I expected, during the day there were a lot of Russians in bars drinking, unhappy local shopkeepers and a huge amount of construction going on. At night it got worse then. At night is when the place really makes its name for being the world capital for sex tourism. Bar girls, prostitutes and lady boys roam the streets trying to get people into their bars and then into bed. But luckily this was only a stop over and the next day we headed back towards Cambodia. Final resting place is in Otres Beach. Nice beach, good food and the sea is only 10 feet away!!

An Alternative Khmer Band

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An Alternative Khmer Band

On Chinese New Year Leyla and I were taking a walk through Phnom Pen and headed in the direction of Central Market. This was closed for Chinese New Year but we could however hear loud music coming from inside the market. Peering through the gates we saw what was making this music. The Khmer people inside saw us looking and kindly invited us to join them for a beer and a song!!

On closer inspection of the band of security guards we could see what they were using as ‘instruments’. The lead of the band was the drummer who had set up two plastic buckets and a metal table in front of him. Using two pieces of wood for drumsticks he kept the beat going and encouraged the others into the songs, even though he couldn’t even see straight!! The guitar was constructed from a rectangular piece of styrofoam with a metal pole acting as the neck. Complete with strings, a strap and even ‘wires’ that plugged into ‘amps’. This was a unique guitar that made no noise but that didn’t stop the guitarist from strumming like mad!! The keyboard was the most basic of the instruments; this was just two styrofoam boxes with the guy carefully pressing the imaginary keys. To top it off the band had two singers, one with a mega phone and the other with a silver microphone that didn’t work.

After a few beers with the security guards and a police man we decided to call it a day. But it’s quite difficult to leave a situation like this because the Khmer people are so welcoming that they just kept handing us beer! Being Irish, this is a very kind offer that is very difficult to turn down!

Welcome To The Jungle – Day Two

Day Two

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After a very peaceful sleep we awoke early to get the most out of the day. Listening to the jungle birds singing in the distance made up for the bothersome alarm clock that woke me from my deep slumber. We made our way over to the outside dining area to be greeted by hot coffee, scrambled egg and a fresh baguette with butter and jam. This may seem like an insignificant breakfast for all of you currently living in the West. But trust me, after two months of rice and vegetables for breakfast, this was five star dining. All that was missing was a couple of nice crispy bacon slices, but you can’t have it all!!

At 8am we boarded the boat back to land in order to get the bikes and head out for our day trip. Driving back in the direction we had come the day before, we turned off the road. The road we were now on was not paved and was littered with potholes up to three feet in diameter. These monstrous potholes were caused but the giant dump trucks that were building a new Chinese hydro-electric dam. This did not make for a comfortable ride on the back of the bike. My arms, back and ass were already suffering from the 6 hours excursion the day before. It is a constant battle to keep your balance on the back of a big bike heading downhill and bouncing over potholes. Sometimes a sudden break or bounce of a pothole would cause my head to fly forward and clash helmets with Lukas.

As we drove on the morning fog started to descend upon the tree tops that surrounded the red dirt road. This made for a surreal sight and the road ahead vanished into the dense fog. None the less we continued on, until we were stopped by a bridge that was being repaired. So instead of going over this river, we now had to go through the river. The river was small so this was not a problem; the only issue was the muddy make shift road down to the river. We took a small break here before we crossed the river and watched several cars, motos and trucks struggle to make it up the muddy embankment. Somehow they all managed to succeed, all be it with a lot of revving, exhaust fumes and a push from the three of us. After crossing the river with no problems we continued on, but we would have to cross this river again on the way back!

The road now was pleasant and comfortable after crossing the river. We were now really in rural Cambodia. We zipped past small wooden houses and young children waved and shouted ‘HELLO’ as we passed by. Along the road we found a small sign with picture of a waterfall and various different animals on it. We presumed that this was where the secluded waterfall that Thomas had been telling us about. We could not ask anyone if it was the right place or not because in rural Cambodia nobody speaks English, and our Khmer was not good enough. Anyway we followed the small path into the overgrown forest, winding around trees and bushes to a small clearing where we couldn’t proceed any further by bike. From here we could undoubtedly hear the sound of rushing water and we made our way by foot down a steep hill towards the water. As we emerged from the clearing we found the most scenic, stunning and secluded waterfall I have ever seen in my life. The fast moving river made its way over rocks and through the green jungle to plummet over a 30 foot drop into a vast pool of clean fresh water. We were the only people there in exception to two local children that were astonished to see three white people going swimming in this plunge pool. Unfortunately for us the pool wasn’t deep enough for us to jump into from the top of the waterfall, so a cool leisurely swim would have to suffice.

This is one of the main reasons why I love Cambodia. This waterfall was so beautiful but it was not a tourist attraction, if this had been Thailand its natural beauty would have been spoiled by development, backpackers and beer cans! Cambodia is around 20 years behind Thailand in terms of tourism development which means that some of its natural beauty is still untouched. However this is changing, you can understand the need for this development from an economic point of view, but at the same time it is Cambodia’s natural areas that suffer.

After the waterfall we made our way back to the road and continued onto the nearest town in search of some much needed food. We found a nice small village that was buzzing with activity and small shops. Here we found a small restaurant where there was a family sitting down drinking coffee. To say the least they were quite surprised to see us walking and sitting down ready to eat. Communicating only through hand gestures we ordered rice with vegetables and some kind of meat. To be perfectly honest I couldn’t tell you if this ‘meat’ it was pork, chicken, beef or even dog, but it was well seasoned and tasted awesome!

After an appetizing lunch we were ready to ride on again to the last town on the map before the road vanished into the jungle abyss. As we entered into the town we came to a Y junction and we weren’t sure which road to take. At a shop we found a couple of local men drinking beer and eating some food, we showed them a map and asked them about the road ahead. Before they gave us an answer they insisted on us joining them for some beer and rice wine mixed with an energy drink. After a few beers they told us that there was nothing more to see or do on the road ahead and there was no point of continuing on. This was the point in our adventure that we have listened and turned around, but of course we didn’t and curiosity got the better of us.

The road became smaller, bumpier, and more enclosed by bamboo trees, after leaving the last village we did not see another person for the next 2 hours. Our next obstacle was a handmade wooden bridge that stood above a ten foot drop into a gorge. If one of the bikes were to fall in here there was no chance of us getting it out and it would made for a difficult job of explaining the loss of a bike to the rental company. We dismounted from the bikes and walked them across extremely slowly and carefully one by one. This took a bit of time but in the end it was no problem. Another few 100 metres down the path we came across another bridge, but this one was much more unstable and had a higher drop. Again with exceptional care we crossed the bridge bike by bike. When we came across a third and even more unstable bridge we knew that we could not cross it with the bikes. Undeterred we continued on by foot, all the time checking the path for snakes and spiders that may cause us harm. After 40 or so minutes of hiking through the jungle we came to a stunning lake that contained the bamboo ferry that Thomas had been telling us about. It was here that we realised that we could not continue on any further. We chilled by the lake for a while and then decided to make our way back to the bikes.

Making our way back up the hill an animal track mark on the path caught my attention and caused me to go back to inspect it. The print was at least 9-10cm across and was not on the path when we walked it first. Not knowing what kind of animal may be lurking in the dense jungle around us we started moving quite quickly. Julius then mentioned that there were still wild tigers living in in the jungle that surrounded us. This immediately caused paranoia to set in! Again further along the path we discovered more of the same track marks on the path, and these were most defiantly not there when we passed the area previously. This is was the point that the paranoia, panic and fear of the unknown were all mixed together our heads to concoct a cocktail of utter terror!! To put it plainly we were scared shitless, and started running as fast as we possibly could, looking back every so often to see if there was anything following us. At one stage we actually stopped to pick up rocks to throw at whatever may have been behind us. Thinking of it now, I have no idea why I was looking back, I don’t know what I would have done if there was anything chasing us. When we eventually got to the bikes we started them with a huge roar of the engine to scare anything away. We took on out of the jungle as fast as our heart rate, only to realise that we had to get back across the two dodgy wooden bridges again. With Julius leading the way we saw him stop ahead of us, turn and shout something back to us and then he took off like a bat out of hell! It was only afterwards that we found out that an extremely dangerous 3-4 metre black cobra had crossed the path just ahead of him.

It took us around an hour and a half to get to the lake area that had the bamboo ferry, and no joke, on the way back out on the bikes it took us no more than 5 minutes. We stopped at the shop we had been before for a drink and to sit down. We each held out our hands to see how much we were shaking. Not one of us could keep our hand out straight with all the adrenaline that was in our system. After a few minutes we all calmed down and we started to make out way back before nightfall.

We refuelled in the village where we had the suspicious food and continued on our journey back home with no problems until we got to the bridge that was being restored. Making our way down the muddy embankment to the river the bike began to lose control and the back tire began to slip out from underneath us and before we know it we were on the ground. Luckily we both managed to stop our legs from being trapped and pinned under the bike. There was no damage done to us or the bike, but at the same time it gave us a bit of a fright. The rest of the way back was no problem and we headed into the city of Koh Kong for a much needed beer on the Riverside!!

After this we made our way back to Neptune Bungalows for diner. We were treated to a delicious German style snitzle and homemade french-fries! This was the most meat I have had for dinner in two months of being in Cambodia, and it really hit the spot! Dinner was of course accompanied by probably too many beers next to the campfire. Plans for the next day were discussed and a deep sleep ensued.

Welcome To The Jungle- Day One

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Leaving Phnom Penh on this weekend was a must do, because of the cremation ceremony of the King most shops, restaurants and ,most importantly, the bars closed out of respect for the much loved King Norodom Sihanouk. As we headed west on the National Road No.5 we passed dozens of citizens wearing clean white shirts and black pants/skirts heading for the Royal Palace.

Despite the night before, I now felt safe on the back of the bike with Lukas more or less having my life in his hands.  Effortlessly overtaking buses, trucks and motos along the road we were at the end of a few strange looks from the locals. Probably thinking ‘Crazy Barangs’ (Barang being the Khmer word for foreigner)

The journey started off without a hitch until we decided to stop just before we had to turn off the National Road No.5. While standing on the side of the road looking for a place to eat, we realised that there was an immense amount of black smoke coming from the side of our exhaust. Lukas quickly ran to the nearest shop to get water to stop the smoke, and what may be a potential disaster at the start of our journey. On closer inspection once the steam and smoke had cleared we realised that there was some sort of rope lodged between the exhaust and its plastic guard. Obviously the heat from the exhaust caused the rope to heat up and burn. We quickly removed the charred rope with a small bamboo stick and continued our journey towards Koh Kong.

After 3 hours of straight monotonous driving, turning off the main national road onto what may be described as a secondary road was a relief. The scenery and the road conditions dramatically changed for the better. All you could see for miles around was green forest and jungle, and the now winding road made for a more interesting drive. At one point in the road, at the crest of a hill all you could see 360° round was tree tops and the road ahead slowly descending, twisting and disappearing into the vast green area ahead.

At around midday we emerged out of the forest road we stopped at the start of a bridge and Lukas told us that we had arrived at our destination, Tatai. Lukas phoned his Uncle Thomas who owned the bungalows where we were going to spend the weekend. http://neptuneadventure-cambodia.com/ Now the only way you can get to The Neptune Jungle Resort is by boat. So we sat down and had a well needed Coke, and stocked up with a box of Cambodia Beer for the day and night ahead. Sitting onto the narrow boat and heading straight down the river towards the mangrove forest, I knew that this was going to be a great weekend. I can only describe Neptune Jungle Resort as pure bliss! It consists of three bungalows that sit upon stilts, a kitchen and dining area and, my personal favourite, a handmade wooden pier. After settling into our own personal bungalow our immediate plan was swimming!! Grabbing a few beers along the way we headed straight for the water. After a 6 hour bike journey in +30° words can’t describe the feeling of jumping head first into fresh, clean and unspoiled water. We spent the next few hours lazing around drinking beers in the kayaks leaving the river slowly drift us wherever it wanted to, and we couldn’t care less!!

The night brought food and more beers! We were treated to a delicious Khmer curry and rice, served outside in candle light with a blazing campfire at our backs. As conversation flowed, so too did the beer. The conversation revolved around our plans for tomorrow and the day after. With only 3 days there we wanted to make the most of our time. It was agreed that we would take the bikes into the jungle in search of a secluded waterfall and a lake that contained a bamboo ferry and crocodiles.

Being in the jungle and everything, the risk of lethal snakes and poisonous spiders lurks around every tree and under every bush. Knowing that if one of us was unfortunate enough to get bitten by a snake we would have two hours to reach Koh Kong City to receive treatment. This trip is possible in the two hours but it is cutting it very close. With this fresh in our heads we slowly and carefully made our way back to our bungalow to rest before our early start in the morning!