Work kicked in at warp speed and we struggled through the week desperately trying to sleep and adjust back to winter.
The UK is pretty gloomy and despite fun activities such as renewing my passport, paying tax and writing wills (one day we’ll actually do this) Blue Monday looms with the promise of being the worst day of the year. Apparently suicides are up as there’s nothing to look forward to.
Having just spent every last penny of my January pay on tax and am now wondering how I’ll survive until February 15th, I can see the appeal!
Our final stop was Phnom Penh and as was fitting for a return to the UK, it was our only day of rain.
We took a quick tuk tuk trip in the rain to the central market, still no tarantulas so that was a complete myth and our final evening was spent reflecting on this epic journey at the Elephant Bar in Raffles hotel.
It was a three week adventure but somehow managed to feel like a gap year condensed and on steroids.
We packed a lot in and got a lot back. I arrived feeling ill and exhausted and am returning feeling well and exhausted but in a very different way.
The next morning we were up and off to the airport having our final Cambodian breakfast (fresh pineapple juice, I miss you already).
We left a thriving country where the quality of life was high, people seemed happy and everyone seemed to have what they needed.
We arrived back to a third world country where we couldn’t get the Heathrow Express to Paddington due to strikes and instead had to take the Piccadilly line, getting home an hour and a half later at midnight, exhausted. A Saturday evening in London where people seemed enormous compared to the South East Asians, disgruntled and consumed with consuming. A very different world but perhaps that was culture shock.
We arrived home cold and disorientated and went to sleep, waking a few hours later cold and disorientated. With a rainy Sunday to recover and Agnes home, it was a day to put the fire on (an exorbitant luxury these days) and take it easy at least for a day.
From Battambang, we journeyed on to Siam Reap, to the jewel in Cambodia’s crown, Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is a little misleading. Rather than one temple, the site consists of multitudes of temples, cities, stupas, towers, moats and lakes. It was stupendous and deserved the respect of exploration.
We spent two days touring the UNESCO site, starting with the four main attractions on the first day including Angkor Wat. We climbed up many steps to experience the heights of the biggest temples and panoramic views.
By the end of the first day, after eight hours of templing, we were hot, tired and fairly broken but we knew there was more to see and so, with a more leisurely start the following day, we headed back out and did the Grand Cycle, the remaining temples including a huge lake.
It’s impossible to capture the size and scale of this, the largest religious site on earth. It was daunting and impressive and words and photos don’t do it justice.
The smell of incense in the temples and burning wood smoke drifting through the trees are missing from pictures. The sound of peace and solitude with a hum of tuk tuks and a few determined sellers of souvenirs.
The feeling of a welcome breeze whilst driving between temples, sometimes not quite long enough and the delight of a cold bottle of water after climbing to the top of Angkor Wat in the hot morning sun.
Each temple was different, or had something memorable about it, whether covered in giant roots of a banyan tree or surrounded by a water lily moat. It was truly stunning and I’m pleased we were able to spend time seeing it in detail. It’s somewhere we’ll always remember.
In the morning we set off to find the bamboo train. We had heard there were recent imitations packed with tourists but we were directed to the original bamboo train so off we went by tuk tuk to find it.
As we arrived we saw a small group of people standing by a single railway track. As our tuk tuk pulled up they all roared with laughter. The latest mugs had arrived and it seemed we were in the right place!
The train “carriage” was assembled as we waited. Two axles, a bamboo platform and a small motor and with a couple of cushions for seating, we were ready to go.
Off we went trundling along the little track with rice paddys, local dogs and children flying kites, the smell of diesel filling our nostrils as we enjoyed our ride.
We couldn’t go very far as there was a new busy road which wasn’t safe to cross (on a bamboo platform) and so we stopped, the driver turned the engine around and switched the fan belt to the other side and off we went, trundling back the other way.
It was a fun journey and we were glad to have ridden the original bamboo train by ourselves. Not a tourist in sight (with the exception of these two mugs!)
One of the challenges we discovered travelling around Cambodia was getting from Point A to Point B. Things were not always straight or forward.
Getting from the Tatai River to Battambang was one such example. Our options were to take an overnight bus for thirteen hours (with changes) or hire a private driver to take us through the mountains on the new road for eight hours. We chose the latter and stumped up $220 for the privilege.
There is only one expressway in Cambodia and it soon became apparent that the new road meant no road as the new road was a construction site.
We wound our way through the mountains for hours bumping into ditches and splashing through rivers as we off-roaded through the Cambodian countryside.
On our way we passed Monkey Corner where no monkeys were to be seen. As it turned out later, probably a good thing.
We saw many enormous Chinese dams where rivers were flooded to create power plants and reservoirs, the price of development.
We stopped for a break at a waterfall or rather series of volcanic rocks where Big T found the perfect jacuzzi and had a refreshing bathe before we bumped off again.
And we suffered the ultimate indignity of being taken for lunch and taken for fools as we were charged an exorbitant price for terrible food. To be charged $5 a plate for miscellaneous bird feet, innards and bits of gristle washed down with a can of stout (not me I might add) seemed like the icing on the cake. We paid the price for being the only tourists in town by an opportunistic young businesswoman.
After a long and fairly arduous journey, we arrived in Battambang and checked into our old colonial hotel, La Villa for the night. We were pretty dusty and shaken around after eight hours on the road.
The longest, most challenging part of the journey was over and we set out to explore Battambang for dinner.
As we travelled through the Cambodian countryside we noticed large apartment blocks with small windows and were confused.
Were they homes for factory or farmer workers? Were they prisons and if so, were there lots of tiny criminals in Cambodia?
We asked our driver who explained that these were bird houses for Cambodian Swiftlets. A highly-prized bird known for their nests.
Swiftlets make nests from their saliva which are then gathered and sold to the Chinese to make bird’s nest soup.
Apparently the Swiftlet Houses play the sound of swiftlets at high volume to entice birds to nest there, they then stay and hatch babies who in turn make more nests and the cycle continues. Neighbours are not too keen on living near a Swiftlet house and noise pollution is a big concern.
As for the end product, call me conservative but I’m not too keen on eating a bird’s nest made from saliva which dissolves into a glutenous mess in a soup. I think the nests are probably best left for their owners to reuse.
I am not a fan of jellyfish and hate swimming with jellyfish of any kind. Arriving at our floating tent, we were informed there were harmless jellyfish in the river, a variety of which the Khmer people liked to eat.
They were welcome to them as that was definitely something I wasn’t up for trying.
Sure enough, as soon as we arrived, there were three bloody great jellyfish lurking around the bottom of the steps. There was no way I was swimming in dark river water with jellyfish.
Apparently jellyfish are delicious if sliced and put in a jar for ten days. They turn pink and taste like…jelly!