Cambodia - Stung Treng - Banlung - Siem Reap - Battambang - Phnom Penh - Sihanoukville

 .. got to the Laos border with no local currency at all. It's always wise to have just a little for contingencies. I was fortunate I didn't need any. Some of the other backpackers on the bus had a problem with the imigration authorities though. They had hoped to withdraw U.S $ at an ATM but didn't get to. As fate would have it we all had to pay the immigration authorities two dollars each to get a stamp out. Some of us considered crossing without getting a stamp out but than the immigration personel on the other side wouldn't allow you in and you may be in even bigger trouble. So we all paid our dues to the Laos authorities and than had to pay another dollar to the Cambodian authorities. They didn't even have a PC to register your entry. They did however have a swanky briefcase to keep all the dollars they received ...

  ... we also had to swap buses. It wasn't a problem except that we had to wait for more pax so that the bus was full when we left. We waited an hour or longer, all of us sitting or lieing on the road and reading or playing cards. Eventually we left for Stung Treng where we stopped for a lengthy lunch. I was the only one with a ticket to Stung Treng. Everyone else was either going to Kratie or Phnom Penh. What was wrong with me?' I wondered. Why was I the only one hopping off here? Whilst the others had lunch and changed dollars to the local currency, Cambodian Real, our bus operator approached me and inquired what my plans were. I explained that I had met some backpackers in Don Det who recommended I visit Banlung where there was a volcanic crater lake. So the choice was between the lake and the Irriwaddy Dolphins in Kratie. You are not gauranteed to see the dolphins and even if you did it was just when they came up for air. Hence I chose Banlung and the volcanic lake ...   ... in between the question of local currency was mentioned, and this was when I got scammed. As I later learnt, most travellers in Cambodia usually fall prey to some greedy operator or the other. I didn't have any local currency and according to the bus operator there was no place in Banlung to convert money. So I opted to change 50 GB Pounds. I was told the rate was a lot better than the dollar. For U.S. $50 you got 200,000 Real. For 50 Gb Pounds I received 215,000 Real. I thought that couldn't be right and asked the money changer to check his calculations. He admitted he made a mistake and gave me 8,000 Real more and than disappeared. He did say if there was any problem he was glad to return the 50 GB Pounds except that he had already given the cash to his boss who was on his way to Vientianne to change the cash. I felt uncomfortable about the whole situation. Than I was convinced to take a more direct and faster route to Siem Reap which was my next destination. I was told that the minivan would still stop in Stung Treng if I still wanted to change back to pounds as many British travellers passed through regularly. I thought that was great and felt more comforted. Except that there was no bus or minivan which went through Stung Treng on the way to Siem Reap. That's when I realised I was scammed. I felt bad a considered how to get the cash back. Alas, there was no way except to go back personally. Even than, they could deny everything. I had to just go on and live with the fact that I was made a Mampara and lost the equivilant of $20 ...   ... though I'd been cheated upon entry into Cambodia, the remainder of my stay in this huge 'farmland' has been interesting and enjoyable. I have been criticising the people of Laos and now the people of Cambodia as well when it comes to environmental issues, especially deforestation. I owe them a humble apology, for which I shall explain later. On the positive side I'm pleased I made a stop in Banlung, even though some of the touts on the bus said it's not worth visiting. 100m out of Stung Treng and all the way to Banlung the road was dusty and for the most part gravel, and there wasn't much to see except red dust covered leaves. I could understand though why the touts directed me away from Banlung though. If you got stuck along the way or in Banlung itself, you could be there for days if it rained. The roads would turn to mud and in some areas even be flooded ...   ... whilst in Banlung I hired a bicycle and cycled to three different waterfalls and a dormant volcanic lake. The waterfalls were beautiful and I was tempted to take a shower at the last one, especially since it was a hot day. The sugar cane juice and shaved ice drinks along the way aided me temporarily, but cycling in +30 degrees heat soon got the better of me. Alas I didn't get under the waterfall. It was already 13:00 and I still had to get to the other side of town to see the volcanic lake. But the main reason why I didn't get under the waterfall, tempting as it was, was because just 100m upstream of the waterfall was a little village. People in these secluded little villages utilise the rivers primarily for irrigation and also for cleaning and waste disposal, not so much for litter but other forms of waste ...   ... the ride to the volcanic lake was draining. To compound matters I cycled/walked 2km.'s past the turn-off and had to make my way back on the hilly and dusty gravel road. I had tears in my eyes and sand in my mouth. Fortunately when I got to the lake it was clean and clear, ideal for swimming. I already had my blue swim shorts on so I placed the reminder of my clothes into my napsack and jumped into the tepid, emerald green water. It was a rewarding end to a busy day ...   ... the next morning I was up at 05:15 to catch a bus to Siem Reap. The bus only departed from the market at 07:00. Fortunately it's not always that bad. I had to change buses in Soung. I was alseep when we stopped, but I had told the passenger seated next to me where I was headed so he alerted the conductor who than told me how to get to the next bus station. I had to take a motorbike to where the next bus passed and had to wait till 16:00. Eventually I got to Siem Reap at 19:45. We were immediately accosted by moto and tuk-tuk drivers. I usually hop onto a moto and ask the driver to take me to a cheap guest house. My driver took me to Garden Village Guest House which was close to the night market and other amenities. I went from luxury sleeping arrangements in Banlung to absolute basic in Siem Reap. There was no fan or even partitioning. All I had was a pillow, a foam mattress and a mosquito net alongside three other similar sleeping spaces. But it only cost me $1/night. I suppose you get what you pay for ...   ... I travelled to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and the other ancient ruins. I thought I'd rent a bicycle and head for the furthest ruin first, which was Banteay Srey. The Lonely Planet said it was only 14km away. As it turned out it was 37km going and 37 km.'s return. To make matters interesting you have to purchase your ticket at Angkor Wat, nowhere else. So I spent half the day cycling there in the heat and couldn't get in. I kept telling myself it was the journey there which mattered. I did manage to get a tourist there to take photographs for me though. And than I cycled all the way back, in time to purchase a ticket for the next day. Thereafter everybody raced to one of the temples up on a hill to get a photograph of the sun setting. I was in the area so I followed on my bicycle. It was cloudy but we still hoped to see a golden red sunset. It wasn't to be. After all I'd been through I thought I deserved a treat and stopped at 'Herbs Happy Pizza' for supper. To make food 'happy' means to have a weed added to it. It's very common practice here. I chose an ordinary pizza. The waiter said I looked like I needed a 'happy' pizza. Perhaps, but for now I was content with just having an ordinary pizza ...   ... next day I cycled to and around the Angkor Park Ruins. I thought Sukhothai was impressive and intriguing. The Khmer ruins are far more so. They are lso well maintained, at a cost. A day pass would set you back $20. But seeing these ancient ruins are worth it. Like so many other ancient civilisations, it is a pity the Khmer couldn't maintain their development momentum and got derailed along the way. I have lots to say about the Angkor Ruins, but there are many websites which more accurately describe them and the associated history ...   ... a point worth mentioning though are the numerous children you will encounter selling books and other trinkets. They may seem like a nuisance at times but they are trying to make an honest living, and avoid begging ro depending on others. I use the term 'honest living' loosely because most things for sale are photocopied or pirated ...   ...from Siem Reap I made an overnight stop in Battambung before heading for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In Phnom Penh I visitted the 'Killing Fields of Choeung Ek' and the 'Toul Sleng S21' Museum, both sights of Khmer Rouge attrocities. There is not much to see at the Killing Fields apart from the grave pits. But when you consider that they contained 10's and 100's of bodies you realise how essential it is to retain this piece of land so that future Cambodians can avoid repeating the past, and the rest of the world can learn from their horrendous experience. Unfortunately, history as they say, has a tendency of repeating itself. The attrocities commited here are have been and still are commited in many parts of the world. To date, most of the Khmer monsters that perpetrated and propogated the heinous violence have not been charged or prosecuted for their crimes against humanity. I don't know if they ever will be, though I met another American who knwos people in government positions, and he said that they have begun TRC type commisions ...   ... I'm proud to say that South Africa is a glimmer of light in terms of holding people/parties responsible for crimes commited during the Apartheid days. We also made our shameful and dispicable mistakes, but for the most part we've made our peace and reconciliation and moved ahead ...   ... The Toul Sleng Museum used to be a high school in the south part of Phnom Penh. The S21 took command of it and conducted their rein or torture and detention without trial. It is a gruesome and emotional place to visit, but it must be done in order to understand the cruelty man is capable of ...   ... from Phnom Penh I took a bus to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. I hoped to do some diving, relax a bit and obtain a visa from the Vietnamese Consulate there. From the time the bus left Phnom Penh the rain poured down. It continued for the duration of my stay so I did not get to do any diving but got lots of relaxation close to, but not quite on the beach. I also encountered my first bereaucratic road block. Apparently South Africans can only obtain a visa for Vietnam from the Consulate in South Africa and not en-route. The simple reason being that we apply the same policy to Vietnamese citizens hoping to travel to South Africa. That hiccup was an even bigger damper than the rain. Whilst sitting at the Consulate and pondering my options for the way ahead I Josh walked in. He was the first South african I've encountered on my travels thus far. He was also having the same problem I was faced with. Fortunately he has been working in China for the past five years and had a roaming mobile phone. He contacted the South African Embassy in Hanoi and they attempted to resolve the situation amicably. We got not joy ...   ... feeble attempts at bribery and corruption didn't work with the authorites either. Josh went his way and I took a walk in the drizzle to Victoria Beach, thinking about what to do next as I splashed through the puddles and streams. On the way back I stopped at the consulate once more hoping for a way to get the visa. No luck. These guys were not going to change their minds. So I waited in the office while the rain poured down a bit harder. At 12:00 I had to leave the office because they closed. I walked till a travel agency to see if they could assist me. They were closed. All around me there was water but my drinking bottle was empty and I was thristy. I stopped at the Acleda Bank and filled up in the pretext of inquiring about the exchange rate. The heavens really opened up than so I made chit chat with one of the employees. When it slowed down I marched on and passed another travel agency. I inquired if they were able to arrange the visa for persons holding a South African passport. 'Yeb! We can!' I even wrote my inquiry on a sheet of paper when the rain thundered down louder and it became difficult to hear each other. The consultant made a call to her courier and the answer was, 'Yeb! We can!'. Hope at last. I returned to the guest house soaked but smiling ...   ... I had to cancel a visit to Kampot, a smaller version of Sihanoukville, and return to Phnom Penh to see if the travel agents there were able to organise the visa, or if I had to contact the agent in Sihanoukville again and have them sort it out. As soon as I returned and checked in at a guest house in Phnom Penh I made an inquiry at the travel agents. 'No problem!' In the end, after many Vegetable Thalis (cheapest meal in town) and a few addional days,  partially due to the weekend and partially due to some authorities being a pain in the .... but with some grovelling on the agents part I got the visa into Vietnam ...   ... as for my apology ... two of the reasons why most of the land in Laos and Cambodia are primarily utilised for farming are : a) due to the government forcing people to farm and b) due to wars, peasants are required to farm to feed the soldiers. So I humbly apologise to the people whom I have been unnecessarily criticising. Have a good weekend. Till next you hear from me ... Ciao