Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kampot Trip - Part 7 - Scammed

Rotha got us back to Kampot in plenty of time, likely because the temple visit got cut short after my vertigo.  He dropped us off at a corner restaurant telling us he'd call the bus driver to pick us up there.  Promptly at 3:30 pm, the bus arrived, and we boarded.  The bus driver didn't ask to look at our ticket and I never gave it a second thought.

This bus headed for Sihanoukville, where we would eventually board the sleeper bus to Siem Reap.   Along the way we picked up and dropped off passengers, including three young monks.  I'd guess the age of the older monk at about 25, but the two youngest looked barely 10 years old.  Although I couldn't understand what they were saying, the young boys chattered as kids will do when they play together.  Although it was a fanciful thought, I imagined one of them pulling out a 'Transformer' toy from the sleeve of his robe, and I wondered if they'd ever done anything like that.

The day had been a hot one, overcast and muggy, and for the first time since we'd been in Cambodia, it began to pour... .... buckets.  The bus careened around corners and passed slower vehicles and people who stopped for cover.  At times the visibility was so poor I wondered if we would make it, or if we'd slam into something.  The bus stopped, and the monks got off, drenched before they'd gone only a few feet.
Running for cover

By the time we reached Sihanoukville, the rain had stopped as suddenly as it began.   We still had nearly three hours to wait before boarding the sleeper bus, and it might have been nice to explore the town, famous for its beaches and party atmosphere, but the bus terminal was on the outskirts.  We contented ourselves with exploring the bus terminal complex, grabbed some fried noodles at one of the food stands, then sat down to wait some more.  An hour later, Gordon wandered off and returned with some tins of peanuts for the journey.  He thought he'd also seen a bottle of wine in a display case, but the little old man who ran the kiosk wasn't letting it out of the case without payment.  I went over to have a look, and in my broken Khmer, managed to get the bottle of wine with a couple of plastic glasses (kao) thrown in....all for $1.00.

For the next two hours we watched as buses and people came and went.  Young men, clad only in their underwear, scrubbed buses down with soapy pads on long bamboo poles, and tossed buckets of clear water high up the sides of the buses to rinse them down.  No automatic bus wash (or even hoses) here.

Near our departure time, a bus arrived, and a man hollered for everyone to get off.  The bus was broken, he said, and pointed to another bus, commanding everyone bound for Phnom Penh to board.  I approached him and asked when the sleeper bus would come.  He asked for my ticket, and when I showed it to him, he growled 'Where did you get this?!'.  When said I'd bought it at the Kampot Riverview Guesthouse, he grabbed it from me, sat at a desk without a word, wrote out two new tickets, and kept mine.  He also asked me to write down my name, saying there'd be a free tuk-tuk waiting at the Siem Reap bus terminal for us.  Strange....These two new tickets had stubs attached...The one I'd given him didn't...But it still didn't register.

'Get on that bus' he said, and pointed to the double-decker bus with upright seats.  I began to refuse, trying to explain we'd purchased tickets for a sleeper bus.  'The bus is broken,' he said.  'Get on!', and realizing we had little choice, we boarded the bus with reassurance we'd be transferred to a sleeper bus in Phnom Penh.  To say I was upset is putting it mildly.  Not only had we paid for a sleeper bus, I had really been looking forward to my first time on one!

So there we were, crammed into a crowded bus.  Nothing more to do than sit back (not lay down) and enjoy the ride.  There's nothing better than humour to break a bad mood, and nothing else can get a few laughs going like a bottle of cheap wine.  I sneaked the bottle out of my bag, unscrewed the cap, poured some into our plastic cups, and we toasted.  Next came the peanuts....coated with chicken flavour.  (Chicken flavour? Yep, you read that right.)  Actually, it looked like CHSCKEN which really cracked me up.
Ginseng Wine - 23% alcohol
Tastes a bit like creosote.
'Coated with CHSCKEN flavour'
Pretty tasty, actually....
We managed to grab some sleep, and I woke with a stiff neck which made me even more anxious to stretch out in that sleeper bus.  (Sleeper bus? Did I say sleeper bus?)  In Phnom Penh, they herded us onto another double-decker bus.  Now I was furious.  But we were in a strange city, in the middle of the night!  What else could we do but get on the bus, and figure it all out when we got back to Siem Reap.

The bus was filled to capacity, and most of the seats were in poor condition.  Our seats wouldn't recline.  In place of the air vent above my head was a huge gaping hole that blasted arctic air.  I stuffed my kroma (scarf) in the hole, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep.  At 6:30 am, as we pulled into the Siem Reap bus terminal, another bus pulled in right behind us.   (You guessed it....the sleeper bus from Sihanoukville)  Of course, there was no free tuk-tuk waiting for us...... I wasn't surprised.

Later that day, we made some calls, and learned some interesting things.  In the end, we had to accept that we'd been scammed and there was nothing further we could do.  

Looking back, here is what I believe happened:  Rotha took our money for the bus tickets ($20 each), gave us a used ticket, and pocketed the money.  (I now know from sad experience that bus tickets are supposed to have a detachable part on one end, which ours didn't.  I also know that we are supposed to get one ticket per person, not one stub like Rotha gave us.)  We've since learned that several similar incidents have originated in Kampot.  It makes me wonder if  it's a scam that has been cooked up between Rotha and the bus driver in Kampot, as we weren't asked for our ticket when we boarded the bus there.  What better place to get used tickets than a bus driver?

When the man at the Sihanoukville bus terminal asked me where I got the ticket, and then later asked me our name for the 'free tuk-tuk', I wonder if he was planning to use this information to track down Rotha, the scam artist?  I hope so.

Bhuddism teaches that 'If you do good, you'll get good, and if you do bad, you'll get bad.'  After that awful episode was over, I wondered to myself what bad had we done to deserve this?  In retrospect, I see it differently now.  You know, when I handed that man the used bus ticket, he had every right to make us pay all over again, or leave us stranded in Sihanoukville.  Fortunately for us, he had a good heart, and said nothing... just wrote us out two valid tickets, and got us back to Siem Reap.  That was a good thing.  Funny how I was mad at him at the time, and now I realize I should have thanked him.  So often things aren't what they seem... 


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kampot Trip - Part 6 - Salt and Pepper

On our last morning in Kampot, when Rotha pulled up in the tuk-tuk to take us on the Salt & Pepper tour, things started to make sense.  Two evenings before, when faced with two exhausted and unsuspecting tourists (us), Rotha had seized a golden opportunity - He'd taken our $36, written us a bogus ticket for the tour, and borrowed or rented  a tuk-tuk to drive us around so he could pocket the profits.  Now, as we loaded our bags into the tuk-tuk we knew it, and he knew that we knew it.  Perhaps that's why he didn't speak more than twenty words the entire day, and although we'd paid for a guided tour, we ended up with a high-priced tuk-tuk ride to all the places listed in the tour brochure.

On the first leg of our ride, we passed through an area which appeared to be primarily populated by Muslims.  We'd seen some ladies in the Kampot market wearing head coverings, but weren't aware that this part of Cambodia is also home to many people who adhere strictly to Islam and the garb of their faith.  Riding past small villages, we saw women dressed completely in black robes with only their eyes showing, men and boys in white robes and caps, and a very elaborate mosque. 

Muslim man off to the far right


We turned off the road at a sign indicating a pepper plantation with restaurant, bar and tours, but this wasn't  to be our destination.  Instead, Rotha took us to a small roadside plantation where a few people sat in the shade of a small rotunda while a monk, stripped to the waist, slugged away outside, digging up some ground in the hot sun.  I'm still not sure what the monk was doing or why, but it just struck me as curious.

A few steps away was a small pepper plantation, where we were fortunate to meet a young boy  eager to practice his English, who explained all about pepper cultivation.  We were amazed to learn that pepper plants have a vine-like growth habit, and some plants can be as old as 30 years.  Pepper grows in grape-like clusters.  The corns are green and hard at first, then as they mature, they form a red fruit over a large white seed, (similar to a chokecherry, I thought).  We learned that black pepper is made by drying the green peppercorns, red pepper comes from dried whole red peppers, and white pepper is produced by removing the outer red fruit, and washing and drying the remaining white seed.  

Kampot pepper is considered to be one of the best and most exotic in the world.  During the time of the Khmer Rouge, production was halted, and all but died off.  Currently, Kampot produces about 4,000 tonnes of pepper a year, and if you buy it anywhere else except Cambodia, it's pretty expensive.  Check out the prices and descriptions by clicking >>> here<<<
This young man knew a lot about pepper production

The young pepper plants are started from cuttings from the mature plants
These ones are about 3 months old
The hole next to the plant is for water

Nearly mature pepper plants, about 3 years old
As they mature, they are watered between the rows only

Can you see the clusters of green peppercorns?

The peppercorns turn red

After making or purchases, we hopped back into the tuk-tuk, again with no inkling of our next stop until we got to the salt flats.  There wasn't a soul around, nobody to give us any information, so it's a good thing Gordon knew something about how salt is produced from seawater.  
As far as the eye could see, there were square pools of water.
When the tide comes in, a gate is opened to flood the pools,
then it is closed to prevent the water from returning to the sea.
The seawater is then evaporated by the sun and the salt is collected

Salt crystals on the ground

Salt crystals are dirty and mixed with sand

There were many storage shacks like this one, filled with salt

Mounds of salt inside the shack

We wandered around the fields for a while, marveling in the wonders of nature, and the ingenuity of man.  It would have been interesting to know what happens to the salt, how it's harvested, where it's refined and sold.  That's another subject for a google seach, I suppose.

We hopped back into the tuk-tuk, with no idea where we were headed from there, until we arrived in Kep.  Once a bustling seaside resort, Kep was almost entirely abandoned during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.  Many buildings still lay in ruins.

We continued toward the seaside, where vendors sold their wares, mostly handmade.  I bought a few trinkets and some sweet treats, all for mere pennies.

Along the road, a horse cart

Kep Beach

I dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean

Buying some trinkets

Twenty small packets of sticky rice for about 50 cents

Yummy treat inside, still warm....

It was lunchtime, perfect time to head to the market for some fresh seafood. 
All kinds of seafood for sale - fresh, salted, dried.....

Gordon went for the grilled squid,
but I couldn't look another fish in the eye at that point...

More trinkets

I settled on half a jackfruit....

And yes.... I ate the whole thing....Delicious!

Being in Kep for such a brief period left us wishing we'd had more time to spend there, exploring or just walking on the beach, but we were watching the time, and with only a few more hours before we boarded the bus back to Siem Reap, we jumped back into the tuk-tuk, expecting to head straight back to Kampot.

We turned down a road with a sign pointing to Phnom Sosir Resort, and Rotha stopped at the foot of a long set of stairs leading to a temple.  Seeing the stairs, Gordon held back, thinking his knees wouldn't take the climb, but I forged ahead.  At the base of the stairs, I passed a man who followed me up.  At the top, he showed me stairs that led up further to a cave shrine.
Stairs up to the temple - I love the soft pastels

A monk contemplating in the shade

As we passed this on the way to the cave,
the man pointed and said 'Holy Cow'.
I replied 'We have the same saying in my country'.
I bet he thought I was nuts...

At the cave entrance was a steep narrow set of steps descending into the cave.  There was no handrail and the stairs seemed to drop off into nothingness.  I took a few steps down, felt my knees buckling, and had to turn back.  Vertigo had won.  Whatever beauty was in the depth of that cave would have to wait for the next visitor.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Massage Sign...

Massage is big in Cambodia.  No matter where you go, someone on the street is calling after you, or handing you a brochure, trying to drag you into their establishment for a massage. 

Fish massage.  Foot massage.  Thai massage.  Massage by the blind. 

I've always wondered about massage by the blind.  I suppose if you're a person who is mortified at the thought of having a stranger rubbing oil all over your naked body and then running into them on the street later, being massaged by the blind would be a pretty safe bet.    But, are they REALLY blind?  Maybe they're just pretending to be blind because they need the job....  I mean, how could you tell?  Sometimes people just aren't what they seem.....

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kampot Trip - Part 5 - Hoodwinked?

On our first evening in Kampot, we'd booked (and paid for) our tours and return bus to Siem Reap through a man named Rotha at the Kampot Riverview Guesthouse.  He'd written out our tickets, and I'd tucked them securely into my wallet.   For Day 2, we'd booked a 'Salt and Pepper Tour', which ended at 4:00 pm, but the bus to Siem Reap was scheduled to leave at 3:30 pm.  "Is no problem!" -  He reassured us we could ask our tour driver to take us back early.
When our tour on Day 1 ended late, we began to worry whether we'd be able to interrupt our tour on Day 2 to get back early.  What if there were a big group of people as there had been on Day 1, and we were somewhere far away?  How could we just tell the driver to turn around and get us to the bus station?  To be on the safe side, we set out in search of 'Smiles Tours' to double-check. 

The 'Smiles Tours' agent gave us a strange look.  "I don't have anyone booked for tours tomorrow.  Where did you book your tour?"  I took our ticket out of my wallet, and he smiled. "Oh, this ticket is for Kampot Tours, around the corner.  You'll have to check with them."   Gordon and I looked at each other in bewilderment.  How could we have a ticket for Kampot Tours when the brochure Rotha had shown us was for 'Smiles Tours'?   Strange.....   At Kampot Tours, the agent told us he didn't have any tour booked either!  Stranger still....

It was already getting late and dark, and we hadn't even had time to look for another guesthouse.  Then it dawned on us...  Rotha said the driver for the Salt & Pepper tour would pick us up at our guesthouse, meaning Kampot Riverview.  We we were stuck - We'd have to take the crappy room he'd offered us that morning after all.  While Gordon went in seach of  a phone card for our cellphone, I headed back to talk to Rotha.  (Oh well, it was only for one more night, right?)  Wrong.  The room was gone....already rented out, but Rotha said we could still have the room we'd stayed in last night.  (No way!  Over my dead body!)  Just as I was about to flip out, Gordon arrived, looking a little shaken, and said he'd been bitten by a dog!  (What else could go wrong?)   Fortunately, it hadn't broken the skin.  

That was the last straw.  We told Rotha about going to Smile Tours and Kampot Tours, and said we were leaving, cancelling the tour and wanted our money back.  We were fed up with this guy.  How could we trust him?    He said everything was already arranged - Either we forfeit the money or go on the tour.  "And how will they know where to pick us up tomorrow morning?'  'No problem, I will arrange for you'.  He dialled some numbers, speaking in Khmer, then told us all  the guesthouses were full.  (Now I was fuming.  I was convinced he was lying so we'd feel we had no choice but to stay one more night at this dump, and I wasn't buying it.) 

I told him we'd rather sleep on the road than stay another night in that room....and miraculously, he made one more phone call, and found us a room.....  right next door.  It was a much better place, albeit at a higher price than we were paying in Siem Reap, but we were in no position to argue.  As Rotha left, he reassured us our driver would there to pick us up at 8:00 the next morning.

Natural Bungalows is a lovely spot, right on the water's edge, with attention to detail in every aspect of their accommodations. All the rooms are in wood bungalows, extremely well built and luxuriously furnished.  The grounds are lushly planted.  A lot of loving care has gone into this establishment.  (They do, however need a little help with the English on website and their menu. - Where else can you get DEET fried vegetables?  Nothing like getting your required dose of mosquito repellant internally!) 

All the signs are made with rope on wood.
This one is both in English and Khmer

Sign advertising their offerings

We stayed in this bungalow, in the room on the left.
There was a separate room in the right portion of the bungalow

Gordon hadn't been successful in finding a phone card after all, so after settling into our room, we set off for the phone shop we'd passed while walking to The Bungalows.  The road was very dimly lit.  As we walked back, dogs growled and barked at us, then seven or eight of them began forming a pack farther down the road.  (This is really strange, since most dogs in Cambodia seem so docile.)  I could feel myself being overcome with fear.  I know dogs sense that, and now I was really afraid to pass them, so we walked back to the phone shop.  In my broken Khmer, I begged the lady to help us.  Thankfully, she walked with us to the entrance of the Bungalows, and only then I breathed a sigh of relief.

After a meal at their restaurant (which has magnificent tables made out of some of the hugest slabs of wood I've ever seen) we settled in for the night, wondering what more could happen?  Little did we know.....

OK, just a teaser....
Guess who was our driver for the Salt & Pepper tours the next morning? 

Yep, you guessed it.......  Rotha.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kampot Trip - Part 4 - Bokor Palace Hotel

It's been a while since I began writing about our trip to Kampot.   I interrupted the train of thought to let everyone know we were home safe & sound, and now that I am almost over the worst of the jetlag, it's time to continue the saga of our trip....

For our first full day in Kampot, we'd booked an all-day tour, which included Bokor Hill Station, situated on the top of one of the Damrei (Elephant) mountains some 3540 ft. above sea level.  The tour featured a hike up the mountain, but since Gordon has bad knees, we'd been reassured we could hire a car.  

At the base of the mountain, we were met by Cambodian Rangers who would be our guides. The lead guide was a very interesting Cambodian man who'd been a soldier for many years in the Vietnamese army, fighting against the Khmer Rouge and against Nixon (the American invasion of Cambodia).  As a young  man, he had seen his entire family bludgeoned to death by the Khmer Rouge, and barely escaped death by running away and hiding in the jungle for almost two years.

Our tour group - 39 in all
The lead guide

At the last moment, we learned that the roads were under construction, and instead of a car, we would be taking a 4-wheel drive truck part of the way and hike the remainder through the jungle.  Gordon opted for the $2.00  fee to ride rather than hike, while I decided to rough it and hike with the rest of the group who were all much younger than me.  After all, how bad could it be?
The ranger in our truck carried an AK-47
He cited incidents where gibbons
and black bears had attacked hikers....
The lead guide giving instructions to the hikers

The temperatures hovered in the high 30'sC.  We were each given 2 bottles of water and told it would be a two hour hike.  Now I was beginning to wonder......I wasn't well prepared...
Should've packed sneakers.... Uh-oh!
Well, at least my toenails look cute...

We started up the trail, and I fell a bit behind the others, safe in the knowledge that the lead guide was behind me...  It was a gruelling hike, almost 1000 feet up, winding through dense jungle.  I imagined what it must have been like 30 years ago, when soldiers ran through jungles like these, perhaps running for their lives.... 
The path through the jungle was narrow
and rose steeply uphill.
I worried about falling behind and getting lost
After a while I began to notice it was marked
by red paint or red rags like these
The vegetation was interesting and unusual
I occasionally got my foot caught in vines
or had to stoop below fallen trees
Around the half-way mark, our guide stopped
to answer questions and tell us his life story
I snagged my pants on a branch....
These used to be my favourites
We finally arrived at the end of our hike up the mountain.  Gordon and the trucks were waiting there for us.
Gordon, waiting patiently.
The clouds had rolled in...
Strange to be lower than the clouds...... 
Near the road, the edge dropped off into a precipice
No guard rails here...

 We still had another stretch to travel upwards to the palace, so we hopped back onto the trucks and forged ahead.  As we rode up the mountain, the clouds grew denser.  At times we could barely see the vehicle in front of us....
Can you see the truck in front of us?

Finally, we reached the summit, and in the eerie mist, caught our first glimpse of Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino.  This massive structure, built by the French in the 1920's, must have been a magnificent building in its heyday.  It was part of a resort complex where French colonials living in Cambodia could go to escape the heat.  The hotel had a ballroom, and operated a casino (the French loved to gamble).  It flourished until the 1950's when the First Indochine war forced the French out of Cambodia.  For a while afterward, King Sihanouk used it as a summer palace, until the Khmer Rouge took power in the late 1970's and used the building as a stronghold, because of its strategic position so high in the mountains.  It was one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge even as late as the early 1990's.
Our first dim view of the palace

Every once in a while the clouds would lift
and we got a clear view of this magnificent but ominous structure.
To me, it was like a scene from a movie about the 'end of the world'....
It's the perfect spot to film a scary movie.

After a hearty lunch of curried vegetables  & rice, we were left to explore on our own.  
The sign says 'Not allowed to entry old building!'
Everyone went in anyway....

Front entrance to Bokor Palace & Casino

The fireplace in the grand ballroom
Beautiful tiled floors
.....which later were covered with linoleum....

Graffiti everywhere...
(So sad to see beautiful places defiled
just so someone can leave their own mark!)
The hotel had several guest rooms fully equipped with full bathrooms.
Many of the rooms had lovely balconies like this one.

Bokor Hill Station was set up as a resort for the French, so it also had a post office, water tower and of course, a Catholic Church.
Reminds me of early Catholic churches built in Quebec in the 1600's
The altar...again defaced with graffiti

After exploring for a couple of hours, we descended the mountain the same way we we went up....truck, then hike, then truck.  Somehow the hike didn't seem nearly as bad going down.  We loaded into vans and were driven down to the docks for a cruise in a longtail boat down the Kampot River.

A boat at the landing where we embarked

Cap'n Gordon sitting on the bow of the boat

The elephant mountains in the distance

Ollie's Place - Ollie obviously loved it enough here to stay

A group of guys sitting under the railway bridge
I wonder how they got down there...

Kampot Riverview Guesthouse as seen from the water
Looks pretty good from out there...
Looks can be deceiving....

After we disembarked, we thought we'd better double check on the next day's tour before we headed back to the guesthouse.  Boy, were we in for a surprise....
To be continued.....