The Laos border crossing. As you can see, it's very official.
Leaving Siem Reap I headed for what is supposedly Cambodia's second largest city, Kompong Cham. After arriving, however, I noticed that I was one of only a handful of foreigners and the place is a ghost town. There were only a few restaurants and it seemed that everything shut down after 8pm. So here I am, alone in a random town booked for two nights and wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do here. I did, however, meet a very eager tuk-tuk driver (a rarity, I know) who told me to call him the next day for a tour of the area. So sure, why not. Annnd it turned out to be a great tour! Gideon, the driver, took me to these ancient Angkor Wat-like temples that predate their famous counterpart and actually walked around with me, explaining the temple and what the inscriptions mean.
Beautiful sunset over the Mekong River.
He then took me to a larger, more ornate operating Buddhist temple, crawling with monkeys!, and told me all about the Khmer Rouge and how they used to use it as a prison. There was a smaller Killing Fields there as well and he opened up to me and told me the story of how his grandparents, a doctor and a teacher, were killed by the Khmer Rouge and then targeted his father who took him, then aged 3, and fled to Vietnam to hide. Luckily, and obviously, they survived, but they lost all their money, their home, and their lifestyle. It was sad when he said "let's just say if that didn't happen, I wouldn't be a tuk-tuk driver." The guy spoke great English and I could tell he was very smart, but his family, he said, couldn't afford to send him to school and so he has no education to get a "real" job.
My two favorite English sisters, embarking on our bike ride.
It was fascinating and also heartbreaking to listen to his story and this random little city ended up being one of the highlights of my time in Cambodia because of him. Lesson learned: do not always brush off the tuk-tuk drivers!
I then headed up for the ever-so-exciting border town of Stung Treng on what was perhaps one of the most awful, and thus satisfyingly Asian, bus rides. I was the only foreigner, there were about 15 children (many of whom liked to cry), the bus smelled like feet mixed with sweat, dirt literally fell onto my face from the barely working A/C vent when I tried to adjust it, there was some sort of scalding hot radiator at my feet which burned me every time I accidentally hit it, and to top it off, the bus broke down 45 minutes into the trip and we had to wait an hour for it to get fixed.
Crazy waterfall with tons of water.
Perfect. Definitely the real Cambodia and not one of those cushy VIP tourist buses! Somehow we got to Stung Treng, which was fairly uneventful. I ended up meeting a Dutch guy and we decided to share a room to make it cheaper and so we walked around the tiny town, stopping for a few beers and watching the sunset over the river. We decided to wake up at 1:30am to watch the US/England soccer game and it was worth it considering we tied. But of course the Dutch guy wanted to talk about US politics and how much we suck and so I had to be the guy and say "look, I don't want to talk, I want to watch the game!" But at least I got to watch him strut around the room in his speedo-like underwear all night and morning.. yuck. Europeans.
Little boy playing with Roisin's bike.
We left the next morning for the border and arrived in Laos no problem. Waiting for the little boat to take us to Don Det, aka the Four Thousand Islands, who did I see but my favorite British sisters Siobhan and Roisin from Vietnam! It was soo exciting to see them. We spent most of the day drinking with an Irish couple and taking walks around the quiet island while catching up. Siobhan had a huge bandage on her face from a bad burn she received drunkenly fire-blowing at Vang Vieng and I heard about and saw numerous other injuries from the same place.
They just loved spinning the wheels. No Nintendo for these kids.
That night there was an insane thunderstorm, my first real one of the trip, and it was so loud and the lightning was flashing so often it was incredible. At one point in the night I actually thought someone was walking outside my bungalow with a flashlight and I got so freaked out I grabbed my pocket knife and walked to the window to check. Then I realized it was lightning and felt like a spaz. Oh well... better to be safe than sorry?
The next day Siobhan, Roisin and I rented bikes to tour around the island and visit Don Khon, the neighboring island, to see the waterfall there. The waterfall was most impressive, more in terms of the volume of water cascading down the slopes than the actual height since it was pretty low.
Hey, they could be right.
While our bikes were parked these two local children come over and start spinning the wheels, all excited and fascinated by how fast they could get them to spin. At one point while the wheels were spinning, Siobhan hit the brakes hard to make them stop immediately and the kids were so bewildered as to how that happened. Pretty funny stuff. We then headed further down the island on a road made completely of rocks, and not small ones either. It was such a miserably bumpy ride that we started singing Disney songs to cheer ourselves up, namely Hakuna Matata after the little Laos girl's t-shirt we spotted on the way. We then joked that our arms were shaking so much it was like that little mechanical arm shaker they sell on TV to tone your arms and how we were getting it for free.
So nice at night.
So really it was a great workout. Stopping for a drink and turning back, we enjoyed Roisin's iPod speaker and listened to Bob Marley while biking through the jungle. Fun times. Later that night we watched the World Cup game of the night, forget which one, then lay on the secluded beach and star gazed, witnessing perhaps the most clear night sky I have ever seen filled with shooting stars. Truly amazing. We left the next day, but I am so glad I got to see them again.. definitely some of my favorite people on the trip!