Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Cambodia

Navigation Day

Day 14 Monday 29 December 2014

We spend the day steadily heading along the river towards Vietnam.  During the day we cross the border and our passports (which were collected at the start of our journey in Siem Reap) have to be put through passport control.

One of our number (the aforementioned Brazilian) has apparently suffered a leak in her Manhattan apartment which has been discovered and requires urgent attention so she disembarks in Pnhom Penh before we sail and heads for the airport and a local flight to Saigon and then back to NY.  Some of us suspect there may be more to this than meets the eye as she gives my wife a “Ciao” as she departs hardly having spoken to her since we boarded.

My day is however improved by a trip around the lower deck containing key matters to making it a successful journey and also to the bridge – so there are photos over at Flickr.

This is the newest cruiser in the fleet having been delivered on 31 December 2013 and entering service on 6 January 2014 so it has improvements over the earlier vessels.  In particular the crew now have small shared cabins under the kitchen (so on level 1 – the same as our cabin) and do not sleep in the level 0 under our cabin.  They have external access to fresh air which must be far more preferable to the original arrangements.

Food stocks are largely refreshed at the southern end of the journey as the boat is Vietnamese owned (and laoding at the north end difficult as it does not reach Siem Reap at the momen) but fresh vegetables are bought at most stops and some fish I think.

Being a floating hotel the water supplies are important.  Cooking itself uses bottled water.  Water supply for the cabins is taken from the river and double cleaned by various methods before use.  A partial supply is then treated a third time before being used for cleaning of kitchen surfaces and so on.  The waste water is collected and the solid waste is pumped out at the southern end of the journey, whilst the liquid waste is treated and is returned to the river cleaner than the water brought on board.  Hot water for the cabins is achieved by using power from solar panels.

There are two large diesels running when we are under way and there are also two power generators but only one is used at a time but both are used regularly.  Fuel consumption rates are not small either.

Moving to the bridge the controls are fairly simple.  There are only two screw propellors – no side propellors – and sideways movement or turning the boat is achieved by using them in different directions.  Our speed is faster downstream at about 17 km/h – this reduces to about 12 when against the current, so time spent navigating is therefore greater when travelling in the other direction.

There is a wheel but most of the activity is controlled by a small joystick being pushed either left or right as this gives a finer degree of control.  The crewmember responsible largely navigates by sight in the daytime but there are radar scanners and other equipment to hand – although it all seems remarkable bare in the bridge.

There are three staff on duty normally – an engineer in the bay next to the engines (he ought to wear ear protectors as he will end up deaf!) and two on the bridge.  Actual shift lengths vary slightly as it depends on the length of each period of navigation but are typically not more than 3 hours at a time.

Crew wages are considered good for Vietnam – but the vessel only operates for part of the year.  However there is turn around at both ends and so the ship is effectively in non-stop operation during the summer.  It seems however that a lot of the team (particularly in the kitchen) are return members from last year as they are given the first choice for the next season.

The front of the boat also seems to have a small herb garden – just like a Vietnamese house.

We carry on sailing.

Phnom Penh

Day 13 Sunday 28 December 2014

This time we have not moved overnight and we are still resting at the pier side – underneath which we can see immense amounts of rubbish – somewhat typical of this untidy city which we are formally touring this morning as we are with the main party.

We are taken first to the Royal Palace where the current elected King lives.  It takes some understanding but the king is elected by a Royal Council and it is not a hereditary position as in the UK.  Although apparently there are two important families which are considered.  The current king is 61 and lives a life much like a Buddhist monk – simply and maintaining the ten key buddhist attributes.  He has no children and is not married.

Today’s photographs can be found at

He lives to one side of the Palace area but we are shown to the Throne Room where the gold throne is occupied only once during each reign when the King is crowned.  The Room is also used for official receptions and for greeting foreign dignitaries and in front of the Throne is an ordinary chair used for non-crowning events.  It is a magnificent room but we are not permitted any internal photos; there are some external pictures on the Flickr page.

We wander through the rest of the palace site seeing some of the remaining assets, including some paintings in a gallery which were partly damaged during the period of Khmer Rouge control in the late seventies.  During much of this time Phnom Penh was an abandoned city – indeed all the cities were emptied and under Pol Pot no-one was allowed to do anything other than live and work on the land.

On the other side of the grounds is the Silver Pagoda which has a solid silver floor.  Most of the floor is covered by carpets and internally we see a gold buddha with (I think) 246 jewels mounted on it.  Also within the Pagoda are numerous gold buddhas which have been given to the Kings – an amazing collection.  There are also other precious items.  External photos only again.

The trip heads to the Museum of Fine Art – which we enter but decide to rest rather than study.  We gather there are some exceptional items of Khmer Art within, but the weather has turned warm (well for us – about 30 deg C – which means it is winter here!), so need a small break and would have liked a cup of coffee but could not find a coffee shop at all.

Our final calling place this morning is the Central Market; the building is of French construction a little over 100 years old and is stuffed to the gills with traders.  In the central domed area jewellers, watch and sunglass sellers.  The most amazing selection of Rolex, Patek Phillipe and Breitling I think I have evere seen.  No Jaeger Le Coultre so the wife did not get the Reverso she wants.

Elsewhere in the emporium are just about anything you could want.  We both look at handbags and I am tempted by a Mont Blanc bag.  We also wander through the food area and the clothing but give the electronics a miss.  There is a picture of one of the many flower stalls.  Beautiful.

The morning completed we return to the cruise vessel.

After lunch we have a second more chilling excursion this time to S-21 which was once a school but in the time of Pol Pot became a detention and torture centre and from here many were despatched to Choeung Ek (see previous post).

There remain two of the famed seven who were initially believed to have survived the camp, subequent research later put the total at over 100, although an absolute number will never be established.  The belief of the regime and its troops is that they never arrested an innocent individual and therefore if they were there, then the individual must be guilty.

Again I felt that recording the cells and means of confinement (which were brutal and inevitably painful) photographically would show a lack of respect – but I did take one picture of the way the interrogators addressed the victims as recorded by a large board at the site.  I do not believe the terror or pain can even be imagined by those of us who have never experienced it.

In the evening we have a wonderful presentation by Mr Jean-Michel Philippi who by day is currently Professor of Linguistics and the Royal University of Phnom Penh but is a very engaging speaker on Cambodian history from 1953 to 1993, although the time he has does not allow much of the latter part of that period to be covered in great detail.  Should I manage it some observations on this talk will appear in my “Musings” elsewhere.  He does however have his blog at and if this matches the quality of his talk it would be worth reading.

He had two brief films showing Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot era.  As the vehicles drive through the streets, they are eerily empty and a huge contrast to the sites seen earlier in the day.  A quite unbelievable demonstration that the cities had been emptied.

Thinking back to my own University days I can only wish that all lecturers were so engaging.

Tonle Sap and Phnom Penh

Day 12 Saturday 27 December 2014

There was a programmed visit this morning but this included a school visit and silk weaving.  We had seen silk weaving earlier on our travels and I felt it unlikely that a planned school visit would be particularly educational.  My wife agreed with me and so we remained on board and I spent the time on some earlier days of this blog.

Link to photographs:

Rivages du Monde who operate the river cruisers jointly with a Vietnamese company have dropped the Killing Fields visit from their own itinerary as it was felt that combined with the S-21 the impact was overpowering.  Our booking with VJV did include it in the itinerary at the time of booking (this may well have changed).  Our itinerary was honoured – so whilst the other passengers went to visit Wat Phnom in the afternoon we were off to the site of one of the Killing Fields – Choeung Ek – which lies on the edge of the City and is also close to the river’s edge.

There are no pictures of our visit.  All of the buildings at the time of the deaths have been removed and the mass grave areas, not all of which ahave been excavated, are marked.  They have audio guides and marked locations around the (to me) surprisingly small area of land.  The audio guides have been well produced and relate the stories of events in the period of the Pol Pot regime and the terrible deaths inflicted on this site.

There is a peaceful area where one can sit alongside a small canal to listen to some of te stories of those who managed to avoid death during this period of dispossession and in one case escape to USA and return as part of the team overseeing the first elections.

Centrally on the site is a building which houses human bones – skulls are visible through the glass doors – of some of those who died.  We do not feel we can enter as it somehow would further disturb those no longer with us.  Whilst we have not visited the scenes of mass murder arising during the Second World War, the events in Cambodia, as retold seem removed as there is no underlying schism of religion, race or politics which drove the happenings of which this is the result.

Around the site even now bones and rags of the departed rise to the surface and are collected by the staff.  Perhaps the most horrendous and chilling area surrounds a tree against which babies were thrown in view of their mothers.

It is as if all sense of reason and logic had left the Khmer Rouge army and the people.  There is more on this aspect tomorrow.

The day ends with another Khmer Apsara dance troupe – this time of children and once again the coconut and other dances are portrayed – remarkably well.  This tradition is obviously set to continue in Cambodia for a long time.Ap

Tonle Sap River

Day 11 Friday 26 December 2014

This morning we have moved along the Tonle Sap river to see Kampong Chhang (and convincing a spell checker of the need for the second h is difficult).  When the Pol Pot takeover happened one of the key instructions was to remove all Vietnamese into Vietnam – Cambodia for Cambodians (which sounds a touch too like Nigel Farage for my liking – but somehow I cannot see Pol Pot having a pint down the pub) and they were driven across the border.

Accompanying photographs:

When the Cambodians returned to the towns from the country they were allowed to occupy and become owners of property so the Vietnamese were dispossessed of their property.  However they have subsequently returned to Cambodia as migrants and so have created floating villages in Cambodia as they cannot return to the land.  Kampong Chhang has one of the largest floating villages with omething like 900 families living in poor conditions on the river.  I am not sure how but the community exists and finds ways of ensuring the somewhat ricketty floating rafts remain afloat.  Toilet facilities are limited – straight into the river and of course this does not aid pollution levels.  We were told that the Government is seeking to find them land within Cambodia and to resettle them – but this will prove difficult as they seem to have a natural affinity for the water.  Everyone has a little boat with (sometimes very) noisy motors to power their progress around the harbour area.

Then we land to visit the market in the village itself.  Our guide, who is moonlighting this week – he is normally a civil servant, seems keen to make us believe that some of what we are seeing are Cambodian delicacies – but I am not so sure.  The food seems plentiful, even bountiful, and whilst we accept that less pleasant items were consumed during the diffiult periods it is hard to credit all he says.  He eventually manages to identify a snake on a skewer but none of the travellers try it – the wife warns me off from going anywhere near it.

Against this he claims that the homeless Vietnamese on the river all have smartphones – maybe not iPhone originals but cheap Chinese copies and there is evidence of suppliers everywhere.  The other aspect is that of relatively small children around who are not immediately attached to a parent or adult – riding bikes, watching the tourists (not detectives) and even testing some english – usually just hello! – but friendly and smiling.  Such visits are no doubt regular events but there seem to be less parental worries about child safety (see the recent Paddington film for mention of “stranger danger”).

Along the main drag the buildings have a real sense of faded grandeur – decay and decline in places alongside others which have been improved and are being looked after and extended.  On the other hand we see at least three statues along the way that have received no care and attention at all.

We pass along more of the floating village before returning to our cruiser.  Amongst other things we see a hall decked for a wedding and water side suppliers.

Having moved a little down river we go ashore for a trip on a cart pulled by ox.  Perhaps the traditional mode of transport in the countryside it is now I suspect largely used for tourists.  We journey from the riverside a good mile or so at a decent walking pace with children walking behind us.  We sit facing backwards with my wife between my legs.  The lack of suspension soon  tells on the backbone.  The cute little girl walking with us is rewarded by a dollar from my wife.  We eventually turn into a temple, one of the few not completely destroyed by the communist regime, although it was vandalised and saw other use during the period.

For the next stage of our journey we transfer to rather more comfortable coches and we head across the countryside to Oudong where there is a very impresive buddhist temple (where we are all duly blessed.  This is the Vihara of the Wat Kampong Leu Pagoda which retained some very beautiful wall paintings.

However disaster struck outside the temple as my wife’s new camera had decided to malfunction – and it was her Christmas present.  She had been snapping away madly since arrival in Hanoi and is regularly uploading her output to facebook as a record of events.  However the iris which covers the lens refuses to open.  Possibly some dust has got into the mechanism as it is very dusty.

I do however manage to get some photographs – there are some wonderful statues in the grounds of the temple and in the surrounding area.

The area does have the benefit of some major employment in at least one (and possibly more) garment factory.  This does however require workers and they have a form of co-operative transport – not a bus, simply a trailer loaded with people all going back to a single village.  We pass a small number of these and we are told that they are not insured but are needed as the only way to get from a remote village back to the factory and back.

There should be an Oudong album on Flickr which covers the second visit mentioned.

Tonle Sap Lake

Day 10 Thursday 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas and for us a day of transition.  We leave Siem Reap by cruise boat to head south along the Tonle Sap lake and river with seven days of cruising ahead of us.

Although pre-warned the low level of water prevents the river cruiser – Mekong Prestige II – being able to negotiate the Tonle Sap lake and so we are  loaded into a motorboat which is not particularly comfortable (not enough knee room for tall western sized people) and told that we have a three hour or so journey to the river cruiser.

There are no pictures of our activities today – it was not quite what we wanted!  It took more like four and half hours to reach the cruiser and not far short of our destination those travelling on the small deck were forced indoors as we saw the first rain of the holiday.The lake is huge and for most of the journey land was only visible on either post or starboard at the horizon.  And the other horizon is water as far as the eye can see.

The commencement of our trip is enlivened by the party sitting in front of us (an apparently excitable Brazilian) and the ladies behind us have an entertaining discussion as both appear to have been allocated the same cabin.  After a while we decide nothing can be done until we get there.  I certainly get the impression that the Brazilian thinks she might be travelling on the Queen Mary rather than a river cruiser!

Eventually we have land on both sides again and we transfer from the motor boat to the cruiser.  She is a well appointed vessel as we had expected (she is less than a year old).  Whilst we might struggle to get across the crew have to get our huge suitcases on board as well – and nothing goes in the drink which is good news.  However due to the cabin mix up one of our cases goes astray so unpacking is a little slower than we might have liked.

Before long we are sat at dinner and the tensions relax.  There is a wide offering and four courses – and even cheese for the end of the meal for me.  We are going to eat well for the next week.   And I rather think we shall sleep well.

Luang Prabang to Siem Reap

Day 7 Monday 22 December 2014

Until now all of the holiday arrangements had run well; timetables had been observed, guides knowing well what they were doing and it all has gone very smoothly.

We get to the very nice small airport at Luang Prabang and check in.  Just as we complete this a notice is posted at the desk and we are going to be delayed by nearly two hours.  The guide offers to take us back into town – but we decline – who knows the flight might suddenly be right time again.  He does however notify his office and we hope the message reaches the other end.

So we head through the passport control – only to find that there is not much in the way of refreshment the other side.  Anyway I am a fat unfit b******, so missing a meal will not do me that much harm.  And the passenger information systems continue to tell us that the flight was leaving on time even when we were clearly nearly two hours past that time.

We see the arrival – it is the same plane as the one on which arrived from Hanoi a few days earlier.  It unloads and reloads rapidly so that departure is pretty rapid, recovering some of the lost time.

Consequently our flight arrives in Siem Reap nearly two hours down and thanks to ebola we have to fill in another form to say we have not recently been in West Africa – which means we take ages to exit the airport.  The passport control team are not particularly speedy either.  Once outside our guide is not in evidence and we carry out several checks before electing to get a taxi to our hotel.

The route to our hotel takes us along what seems to be the main drag from the aiport with numerous hotels, all of which have lots of glittering lights, snowmen, reindeers, Santa Claus and Xmas trees – here it seems there is some acknowledgment.

Our hotel is the Tara Angkor which is graded 4 star, but to our mind is perhaps a little lacking in some respects.  Dinner in the hotel and the prices are again unbelievably low.  The wife has a burger for about $4 whilst I stick with rather more local food.

Amazing how a day doing nothing is tiring.  So time for bed.