Friday, June 13, 2014

Bamboo trains, a deserted island and a touristic ghost town...

After a couple of days I was somehow glad to escape the tourist masses of Siem Reap - I honestly haven't expected the town to be that busy. But at least travelling from here would be easy, as I was on the tourist-beaten track again. Almost every guesthouse and hotel in town offered a bus or minivan service to all major cities in Cambodia.

My next target was therefore Battambang, Cambodia's second biggest city. Although it first doesn't seem to be too far from Siem Reap, it still took me like 4 to 5 hours to get there by bus. Welcome to Cambodia - a country where time travels as fast as a slug on methylphenidate. I was surprised that the Khmers are actually quite fond of watching music videos and complete movies in those rugged buses, so during the whole ride several Cambodian singers and a gun-wielding Chow Yun Fat were flickering on a small flatscreen. Yeah, that's right, a «heroic bloodshed» movie like God of Gamblers Returns was shown in front of the passengers, also including a couple of small kids!

Chow Yun Fat kicking ass with a shotgun - a perfect film for an audience including 5 years old kids!
After this fine example of public transport entertainment I finally arrived in what was supposed to be Cambodia's second largest city. I was surprised to see that in reality the town seemed really small, I even had the impression that Siem Reap was a much busier city! But this was just fine to me - everyone who stayed a few days in a very touristic town in South East Asia knows why. While getting out of the bus, the foreigners were already expected by lurking Tuk Tuk drivers who eagerly wanted to show you around the city. Soon later I already made a deal with one of those guys to take me to my booked hostel and to do a small tour the day after.

The next day I went to see Mount Phnom Sampeu, an iconic hill outside the town. The small mountain is famous for being home of thousands of bats, that can be seen at night when flying out of their caves. Because I visited the mountain at daylight, I couldn't see the swarms flying out. But there they were, hanging inside the dark caves...

... the famous bat cave (no Bruce Wayne inside).
At the foot of the mountain you could already see...

On the top some Buddhist pagodas...

... merge together with the beautiful countryside.

But like many places in Cambodia this mountain bears a pitch black past as well. During 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge used to kill hundreds (if not thousands) of innocent people on this hill. As some of the caves in here have openings in the cave ceilings, the Khmer Rouge soldiers used to chop those people with machetes and finally throw them down into the cave, a drop of maybe 30 metres. Sometimes the Khmer Rouge scum didn't even bother to use their machetes and they simply would push their victims into the pit - those who didn't die from the impact still would pass away in agony because of their injuries.

... that the Khmer Rouge used as a mass grave.
The main entrance into one of the «Killing Caves»,...

From this opening the victims fell to their certain death

On the cave floor some human bones still can be found

But most remains were respectfully put into...
... a glass display like this one.

This lovely monkey couple doesn't know what happened here 40 years ago...
As gruesome as this seems to many foreigners, this is just a tiny fraction of what happened in Cambodia during the reign of the Communist Khmer Rouge. Instead of only visiting Ballermann-like parties in Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, every tourist with a drop of respect for the country's history should at least visit those places of terror. I will write more about the whole subject in another point.

Let's move to a more cheering up place. A long time ago Cambodia used to have a working railway system. But after the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the ongoing corruption and worsening poverty this branch of public transport fell into oblivion. The former train station of Battambang is a overgrowing and rotting witness of what used to transport locals from one town to another.

One day the clock hanging on the old train station exactly stopped at 08:02...
... to other Cambodian cities.

From this sad place no regular trains are departing anymore...

No trains at all? Not exactly! As improvising as the Cambodians are, they actually managed to find another way to re-use the still remaining rails. I'm talking of the famous Bamboo Trains, once a humble workaround but now a major tourist attraction in Battambang. The «train» I'm talking of is nothing else than a wood/bamboo platform with two axles loosely attached on it. Those small railcars are powered by tiny Chinese engines, which were apparently taken from Go Karts. It was actually good fun to ride those things! You'll note in the video below that there is only one railtrack that several bamboo railcars have to share. See how.

Furthemore I went to see another small Khmer temple called Wat Banan, which consisted of nothing more than 4 or 5 Prangs and a steep stairway leading to it. But it still was a nice place to be and the local people there were nice and welcoming.

Wat Banan, Battambang's tiny Angkor Wat.
Even more beautiful turned out to be the Kamping Puoy Bassin, an artificial lake that was once dug by labourers forced by the Khmer Rouge. Their megalomaniac plan was to create an artifical reservoir for watering the nearby rice fields - it's needless to say that hundreds of workers died during the construction of the lake. But even then, the lake is nowadays used for watering the fields as intended and offers one of the best views at sunset.

A long road lead me to the lake,...

... where the dams where holding back the water of the bassin.

But the view at this sunset was, hands down, one of the best I've seen in South East Asia so far.
It also happened here in Battambang that my old cellphone stopped working - for whatever unknown reason. But even in laidback Cambodia you easily can acquire a new smartphone in every major town, so it was no problem to get me a cheap Samsung Galaxy.

However, Battambang turned out to be a much better place than I expected. The locals were more honest and friendlier than in Siem Reap and there was still much to see for such a small town (but still supposedly the second largest in the country). After a few days I head southwards, into the direction of Sihanoukville. To get there I had to take another bus which drove over Phnom Penh and then to the seaside. I originally wanted pass by the town of Koh Kong, but it wasn't really possible to get there from Battambang. Again - welcome to Cambodia, a country which is slowly developing its road infrastructure...

My travel plans in the southern part of Cambodia
Sihanoukville, named after the former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, is probably Cambodia's most famous seaside town and now quite popular among Party Backpackers. But as I already knew that a Party destination, many foreigners and much involving money doesn't really make a good mixture, I intended to avoid the actual town. I was more thinking of visiting one of the many islands that lay just a few kilometers away from the coast - in this case I am speaking of Koh Rong Samloem Island.

Sihanoukville, which was infested by noisy westerners, party-oriented bars and rude hawking kids («Mistah, you no buy necklace? You Muddafuckah.») resembled rather Palma de Mallorca than an ordinary town in South East Asia. In this dirthole (sorry if I insult anyone) I only spent one night and the morning after I already took the ferry to the before mentioned island.

At least the beer tasted good in this rotten hole

Sihanoukville is a much worse place than this photo suggests...

This nice ferry finally took us from mainland...

... to Koh Rong Samloem in no time.

I must admit I haven't expected that the island was that laid back and underdeveloped. There was no running water nor electricity, no shops, no roads, no annoying Tuk Tuk drivers or hawking kids - only a few bungalows and some divers. It almost seemed to me that peace finally arrived on earth. The only downside was that those bungalows were sinfully expensive (a whopping $30 (!) a night) and heavily frequented by mosquitos. You don't want to mess with those blood-thirsty bastards, believe me.

Through this trail it was possible to cross the island

Koh Rong Samloem - can't imagine a quieter place on earth
The view outside the (expensive) bungalow - not bad at all!

The former lighthouse of the island

For a $1 fee it was possible get up there...

... and to enjoy the view over the whole island. Soon after a thunderstorm came in from the left.
Well, Koh Rong Samloem wasn't bad, but after 2 days I already got bored. I guess I'm not quite the type of traveller that enjoys sitting on a beach for too long. Furthermore the horrendous accomodation costs were really out of my budget. Time to get back to Sihanoukville and to travel further...

My next destination was Kampot, a lovely city not too far away from Sihanoukville and famous for the quality of its Durians. The town administration is bizarrely so proud of its bad-smelling (but yummy) fruit, that they even put up a roundabout in the shape of Durian in the city center. That's what I call passion!

The famous Durian roundabout in Kampot. We love the Durian - long live the Durian.
The city proudly held up its country's banners

This bridge was once built by the French colonialists

Speaking of French colonialism again, the Frenchmen actually used to have a spa resort on a nearby mountain called Bokor. As the place up there offers a great view on the Gulf of Thailand and refreshing mountain air, it seemed obvious to the colonialists to build a small settlement there in 1921. This small hill outpost included a pompous hotel, a casino, some holiday apartments and even a Catholic church. Until the 1950s this Bokor Hill Station was frequently visited by French colonialists and until the 1970s by rich Cambodians who could afford a night in one of the pompous rooms. But then, once again, came the takeover of the Khmer Rouge and ruined it all. Most Cambodians got enslaved to work as farmers or labourers in the countryside and the whole hill station got abandoned. During the war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army (I will elaborate on this in my next post) this area also became a battleground between both sides.

Since then this hill station became a rotting ghost town, more resembling Pripyat in Chernobyl rather than a former spa resort. Where once white foreigners were gambling or enjoying the fresh air, the buildings were soon conquered by moss and surrounded by high grass.

The shining Bokor Hotel/Casino in the 1950s...
... and as a rotting ruin after its abandoning.
For many years, even after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, nobody really cared of rebuilding this spa outpost. The country just suffered from destruction, millions of dead and the evergoing corruption, so Cambodia had other problems to deal with rather than looking after a deserted hotel somewhere up in the Bokor mountain. But after a while it was re-discovered as a creepy ghost town and even several foreign movies like City of Ghosts or R-Point were filmed at this location.

The Bokor Hill Station as seen in the Horror movie «R-Point». Quite a good flick, by the way.
After seeing the latter movie I always wanted to visit these ruins and to wander around in those misty premises. Before arriving in Kampot my anticipation of finally seeing the Bokor Hill Station was enormous, but I soon got bitterly disappointed. It turned out that the same corporation that makes loads of money with the Angkor Wat ruins (remember my last post) recently leased the whole mountain for 99 years and just built a huge new casino next the ruins! They even went so far to build a massive resort town up there and a new asphalted road to the very top of the Bokor mountain!

«Well, whatever...» I said to myself and drove there anyway with a rented motorbike. It didn't turn out as bad as I imagined, but the whole experience still left me with a bittersweet aftertaste.

Tadaah, the old Hotel/Casino ruins nowadays. Yes, to my biggest disappointment they actually cleaned it up.
So the situation is as follows - the before mentioned «Sokimex» corporation left most of the Ghost town ruins as they were and separated them from the new casino complex. But nowadays massive flows of Cambodian and Vietnamese tourists come up to this place to throw some money into the gambling hell rather than seeing the ruins. On the way up to the mountain (on a road probably better than most of the rest in the country) I overtook dozens of buses and minivans - on the same day hundreds of tourists wanted to go there as well.

This huge Buddha was recently built on the....

... way up to the new (ugly) Bokor Casino complex.

It's somehow ironic that nowadays a new Casino replaces the old one and again attracts thousands of local gamblers. It's as if history would repeat itself - I hope this doesn't apply to the Khmer Rouge takeover...

The weather on Bokor mountain was in fact extremely changeable. When I first arrived there, the sun was still smiling at me, then a few minutes later dense fog took control of the area and another 2 hours later heavy monsoon was already hitting the mountain. Anyway, a few kilometers behind the new resort the old ruins still can be witnessed. Let's take a look at those creepy buildings!

Behind a foggy rock...

... the abandoned French Catholic Church emerges.

A creepy peek outside...

Inside it was even messier, but it actually used to be worse.

At least the Sokimex corporation left the ruin more or less as it was before...

A Flying Saucer? No, just the old Water Tower.

This maybe used to be its maintenance hut?

Again sudden fog! A view over the ridge of the mountain.

Too bad they got rid of the moss and weeds...

Finally. The Old Casino/Hotel, Bokor's most popular ruin.

This here used to be the hotel lounge area, where also the casino tables were standing.
That's left from a once pompous hotel room

The «enlightening» view from the roof top

A falling-apart viewpoint near one of the old holiday apartments...

... that definitely have seen better days.

Their interiors were already visited by street artists

Beyond those ruins also lies the actual Bokor National Park, which is famous for its bizarre rock formations standing on those lone plains of grass. Those scumbags from the Sokimex corporation charged me an additional entrance fee of $3 to get there, but it was still worth it.

Is nature suggesting us that this is a duck?!
The so called «100 Rice Fields» rock formations on Bokor

Then suddenly heavy monsoon just poured over me - but again the «Green Lantern» struck back and saved the day!
Well yes, the ruins are still there as before and, to be fair, the new road to the mountain was fantastic. But after all I'm still upset that the Sokimex Corporation transformed a once mysterious, almost spiritual place into a tourist-ridden Casino stopover. Before the company began to work on the new Casino project, the only possibilty to get up to Bokor Mountain was over a dirty road or to trek up by foot. Today hundreds of local tourists sneak around those premises and spread their garbage all over the place. The once eerie magic of the lonely ruins, as we know it from the movies like R-Point, is defintely gone.

For the rest of my stay in Kampot I explored the beautiful area around the town. I would say this was defnitely a highlight of my Cambodia trip!

The countryside of Kampot - peaceful and without annoying tourists or hawking kids

... which count to the very best in Cambodia.

One of Kampot's many pepper farms,...

As a good conclusion of my trip to the Cambodian coastline I visited the small town of Kep, which is particularly popular for its crab dishes. It's needless to say that a wannabe-Gourmet like me couldn't hold back when seeing those tasty animals on my plate.

Kep, home of its legendary...

... crab dishes and other seafood.

A local woman setting up a crab trap

Jeez, I'm already in Vietnam and writing about Kep... This was quite a while ago. I will hurry up with my next post!

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