A Travellerspoint blog

Tonle Sap - The "Great Lake" In Cambodia

Our boat ride to Battambang

sunny 28 °C

In the centre of Cambodia lies the Tonle Sap lake which is the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia. It stretches from Siem Reap in the very North and flows into the Tonle Sap river, joining the Mekong River in Phnom Penh in the south.

From Siem Reap you have two ways in getting to Battambang in the North-West of Cambodia; by road or the Tonle Sap lake. We opted for the boat ride as it's promoted as the most scenic boat journey in all of Cambodia and we'd experienced enough bus journeys to last us a lifetime.

Like any form of transport in SE Asia, they crammed the boat full of tourists so it barely floated above the water. At first the boat spluttered along at a snails pace which made us think we'd be lucky to arrive in Battambang before nightfall. Somehow we picked up speed and in no time we were cruising along the narrow waterways and wetland.

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The Tonle Sap lake slowly came into sight as we came into the open. We could hardly make out where the horizon met with the water. The lake is so vast and made us feel so small in its entirity.

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After an hour we started to veer to what we thought was the lakes edge but instead the boat entered more intricute water channels. Some were so narrow that everyone had to lean towards the middle of the boat to avoid being whipped by the branches and reeds as by now we were screaming through the water.

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This journey is adventurous and certainly scenic. The highlight of the ride was when we returned to the lake and came across the most colourful floating villages. We'd never seen anything like it before in our lives. The entire town floated on water...schools, churches, shops and houses are all built on wooden rafts or stilts.

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Motorbikes mean everything to the majority of Cambodians but for these local inhabitants, a dug out canoe is their lifeline. With such intrigue we watched men & woman go about their daily routine passing hundreds of children squealing out "hello" to us.

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After 8 hours on water, we arrived in Battambang. Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia and is a vital link connecting Thailand with Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh.

The city itself isn't the most warmest of places however you still have to admire its old charm and clusters of old French shop houses along the riverbank.

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We only had one full day here so we decided to spend it in the more scenic surrounding countryside. We each sat on the back of a motorbike and let our drivers take us through rice paddies and local villages on dusty tracks. We visited Phnom Sampeau (Ship Hill) & saw the killing caves once used by the Khmer Rouge. This was our first real learnings of the Khmer Rouge and our drivers had some sad stories as the Pol Pot regime happened within their lifetime.

P1030083.jpg View from Ship Hill

P1030087.jpg Battambang's countryside

The Cambodian rural countryside is really beautiful and we loved the earthy colours.

Posted by willbourn 18:36 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Journey To The Mystical Angkor Wat

Crossing into Cambodia

sunny 27 °C

After an adventurous two weeks in Laos, we were up against time to make our way into Cambodia.

From Laos we travelled on a minibus which took us through the border crossing then onto Kompong Cham where we spent the night before continuing our overland journey to Siem Reap. Even though the journey was very long & exhausting, not to mention having to change buses three times due to mechanical problems, it was very picturesque and a great way to see the country for the first time.

P1020823.jpg Nathan on one of the minibuses to Siem Reap

P1020828.jpg Cambodian countryside on route to Kompong Cham

In Kompong Cham we got dropped off by the river which is the only part of town you would want to stay in. Our hotel was pretty dingy however the bistro next door served up delicous Khmer (Cambodian) chicken coconut curry. Considering our love for Thai style curries, we were pleasantly surprised by the Cambodian version.

We woke up at 5am the following morning and had breakfast by the river with the bonus of a beautiful sunrise. By 6am we were on the public bus for our last leg of the journey to Siem Reap.

P1020831.jpg Sunrise in Kompong Cham

P1020841.jpg Kate with local kiddies at roadside stop

We arrived in Siem Reap (the host town of the jaw dropping Angkor Wat) at lunchtime. After being cramped up in a bus for the last day or so, we needed a good stretch so we strolled around town to get our bearings and to withdraw US $ from the ATMs...yes, the main currency they use here is US dollars as the Cambodian Riel is worth zip.

The Old Market (Psar Char) is the heart & soul of Siem Reap. The surrounding streets and the maze in the Old Market are great to wander around, especially at night when there is a real buzz in the air. Because it was nearing Christmas, the streets and river that ran through the town were lit up with fairy lights and Christmas decorations which was nice to see. There is a great restaurant scene in Siem Reap, primarily in the two streets running parallel to the Old Market. It reminded us of St Christophers Place in London having lots of charm and quaintness about them.

Our long awaited day for seeing Angkor Wat in the flesh had arrived. Hearing so much about its beauty at sunrise, we decided to hire a tuk tuk & driver for the day who would pick us up at 5am. It was pitch black when we arrived. Using our torch, we found a spot which we thought would give us a prime view when the sun rose. We were told the sun should rise at 6:10am however at 6:20am we were still waiting in the dark. The sky slowly started to get lighter but still no sign of the sun. Unluckily for us the sun never made an appearance. Not letting that ruin our day, we made the most of the early start and set out to explore the majestic Angkor Wat.

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It truely is one of man's greatest achievements. However they built such a thing thousands of years ago I don't know. Angkor Wat is not only an archictectural masterpiece but a piece of art which tells so many stories on it's walls.

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P1020897.jpg The grounds of Angkor Wat

P1020880.jpg Bas Relief on wall

Not only is there Angkor Wat to see, but if you follow the common small circuit , there are many temples and pieces of Khmer Art to explore. Some of our favourites ones are below:

P1020913.jpg Two Faces, Bayon temple

P1020948.jpg Angkor Thom

P1020951.jpg A cheeky wall bas relief

P1020964.jpg Ta Phrom

P1020984.jpg Ta Phrom (Tomb Raider was filmed here)

You could spend days exploring Angkor, however a full day for us was just enough.

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On our last night we had a lovely dinner near the Old Market again. Later that evening we went to the Temple Bar for cocktails and to see live Aspara dancing and music. Aspara is another form of Khmer art which acts out old tales of love, life and war.

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P1020996.jpg Aspara dancing

Posted by willbourn 02:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Chilled Out 4000 Islands

Don Det Island - Laos

sunny 29 °C

In the most southern depths of Laos lies Si Phan Don, more commonly known as the 4000 Islands. After travelling at quite a constant pace for the last 3 wks in Laos, we couldn't wait to get to the remote 4000 Islands to kick back and relax.

As dreamy as the 4000 Islands sound, in reality they are very different to the white sandy beaches and crystal blue water you imagine. Instead, this is where the Mekong River breaks up into many intricate waterways weaving its way around marsh like islands of all sorts of shapes & sizes. Because of it's unique formation and isolated location, the 4000 Islands are just as idyllic and serene.

P1020772.jpg 4000 Islands

The only form of transport to these islands is by wooden longtail boats which are chartered by the local fisherman for a small negotiable fee. We set out for Don Det Island, one of the bigger islands known for it's chilled out atmosphere and backpacker scene. As we glided through the murky Mekong water, we passed a row of charming wooden bungalows which were perched on the banks of the river shaded by a beautiful collection of palm trees. Without hesitation we asked our captain to anchor up so we leap onto solid ground and book one of the bungalows for our stay.

P1020731.jpg Boun Tip bungalows on the banks of Don Det Island

P1020751.jpg View of sunset from our bungalow

A painted picture of island life on Don Det would feature coconut palm trees swaying by the waters edge, wooden stilt houses built inland on the sunburnt yellow and green grass fields with water buffalos shimmering in pools of mud. Crowing roosters proudly parading the islands grounds with women washing their clothes whilst their children play in the river. Men playing cards along the dusty riverside walkway and a handful of colourful cafes keeping travellers happy with an array of local Lao cuisine and western fare.

P1020741.jpg A restaurant on the waters edge of Don Det

P1020736.jpg Local kiddies

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Don Det was the answer we'd be looking for. If it were any more chilled we would have frozen.

There is a limited supply of electricity between 5pm-midnight which only reinforces the simplistic way of life on the island.

P1020796.jpg Relaxing on our bungalow porch

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The only time we ventured away from our slice of heaven was to explore Don Det's neighbouring island Don Khong. We hired bicycles and rode along the scenic river path and used the old connecting French built railway bridge to reach Don Khong. The landscape varied only slightly. There is a river which runs through Don Khong with an agressive waterfall which cascades over sharp and rugged rocks. The island also has small beach coves, well the closest thing you can call a beach however the current was far too strong to swim in and the sand felt like it could melt the soles of your feet. It was great to just cycle around the island, observing the locals daily routine and appreciate the natural wonders under the warmth of the sun.

P1020781.jpg Nathan on beach Don Khong

P1020780.jpg Kate on beach Don Khong

After 4 of our most favourite nights whilst travelling, we had to force ourselves to check out and catch a boat back to the mainland. The 4000 Islands is a well kept secret, well until now that is.

Posted by willbourn 02:45 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

On The Road With The Air In Our Hair

Our 2 day motorbike adventure in Pakse & the surrounding Bolaven Plateau - Laos

sunny 28 °C

Coming to the end of our overnight journey from Vientiane, we watched the sunrise and the sky awake from our bus window. After covering 750kms and travelling for over 10hrs, we reached Pakse bleary eyed and in need of a good stretch. Not being too sure what Pakse had in store for us, first thing first we thought was to find a guest house. Thankfully we found the Saibadee 2 which opened its doors to us even though it was just after 6am. The place turned out to be a godsend as they helped us put together an unforgettable two day adventure.

Struggling to function at that time in the morning, we ordered some strong black coffee and a toasted baguette to fuel us. After speaking to the reception staff, we spontaneously decided to skip checking in and instead hire a motorbike and pack an overnight bag so we could head straight into the highlands. The guesthouse provided us with some essentials and agreed to secure our other belongings until we returned.

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By 8am we were on the bike, starting off slowly until Nathan got the knack of the gears and driving on the opposite side of the road. Within time we were cruising the country roads, admiring the thick green forest and agriculture plantations along the way.

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The Bolaven Plateau is a beautiful region rising above the Mekong by 1500m providing the perfect ground to grow coffee and tea. It's also blessed with beautiful waterfalls and rivers. The environment is very much untouched by commercial development with only ethnic villages of thatched huts and a handful of guesthouses to shelter the few tourists who venture and stay in this area.

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The sun was beaming down on us all day long. As it was so hot we stopped off at two waterfalls along the way to cool down. By 3pm we reached the most famous waterfall Tad Lo which is truely amazing. We found a great restaurant which we could enjoy some food and view the waterfall and river from afar. After finishing our food, we got that wave of tiredness you know get after a good feed. Considering we'd already rode 85kms, we decided to quit whilst we were ahead and stay put for the night.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring on foot the waterfall and ending the day drinking cold beers on the terrace of our guesthouse.

P1020662.jpg Tad Lo

P1020674.jpg Guesthouse we stayed at Tad Lo (closest to bridge)

P1020679.jpg Local boy fishing infront of our guesthouse

The next morning we woke up bright and early, fully charged for another day on the road. We had 120kms to cover so as soon as we finished brekkie, we packed up and jumped on the bike. For 45kms we drove on a dusty unsealed road. Even though we ended up being covered from head to toe in dirt, we really loved this leg of the journey as we passed many small villages with hundreds of children, squealing & waving at us with their adorable beaming faces.

P1020686.jpg Local School Kids

P1020691.jpg Village

For lunch we stopped off at the twin waterfalls which you can hear its thunderous fall of water from across the valley.

P1020719.jpg Twin Falls

Throughout the last 20 kms, the smell of coffee wafted around us as the local farmers were drying out their coffee beans alongside the road.

P1020712.jpg Coffee plant

P1020705.jpg Coffee beans drying

We came across a bit of bad luck when the back tyre on our back went flat due to a puncture. However we were so fortunate as we were only 2kms away from Pakse and we literally only had to push the bike 50m to a repair shop. A young and eager Lao man whipped off the tyre and repaired the puncture within a matter of mins. We thanked & paid him before jumping back on the back and cruising the last couple of kms back to Saibadee 2 in Pakse.

P1020724.jpg At the roadside repair hut

It was an incredible two days on the road which we felt very proud of ourselves for being so spontaneous and for Nathan (after never riding a manual bike before) controlling the bike brilliantly.

Posted by willbourn 03:29 Archived in Laos Tagged motorcycle Comments (0)

Vientiane - The Capital Of Laos

sunny 28 °C

After our full day kayaking adventure, we finally arrived in Vientiane at 6pm. Thankfully the tuk tuk driver dropped us off in the centre of town so like all the other passengers, we could make a mad dash to a guesthouse. Luckily we secured the last room available in the Sayseely guesthouse which was bright and airy and thankfully came with a hot shower which we were seriously in need of.

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos, located in the Northern region sitting on a curb of the mighty Mekong River. It's neighbour Thailand can be easily seen on the opposite side of the river. It's a small yet bustling city with three main streets parallel to the Mekong forming the heart and pulse of the capital. Vientiane turned out to be an ideal place for us to settle for a few days whilst we confirmed forthcoming travel arrangements & visas.

P1020642.jpgVientiane's version of Paris's Arc De Triomphe

During the days whilst waiting for our tourist visas, we visited the nearby Buddha Park and Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Laos.

P1020622.jpg Pha That Luang

The Buddha Park is a grassy park filled with Hindu and Buddhist statues 25kms south of Vientiane. Some of our favourite sculptures are pictured below:

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In the evenings we strolled along the riverside, curiously observing the local market nightlife. At night the warm humid temperatures with cool sweeps of breeze made it an even more pleasant experience to sit outside the riverside cafes and enjoy the local Lao cuisine. We especially loved chicken Laap which is their national dish. It's made up of minced chicken infused with zesty limes, lemongrass and fresh mint usually served with sticky rice and eaten best when washed down with a cold Lao beer. Highly recommended on those warm nights.

After receiving our tourist visas and having explored all the sights in town, we booked the next overnight bus out of Vientiane to Pakse. The ticket said it was a sleeper bus but we had no idea we'd actually get a bed to sleep on instead of a seat....check this out!

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Posted by willbourn 03:13 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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