The bus ride from Inle Lake to Mandalay went pretty smooth. Except for the poor kid in front of us who was puking on the floor during the very curvy ride out of the mountains. Felt really bad for him, but it is so common for the locals to get car sick. Every mini-bus is equipped with plastic bags and the roads can be so bumpy and curvy its no wonder they get sick.
We were told to spend as little time in Mandalay as possible. But we discounted that advice the first afternoon. Mandalay surprised us. We rented bikes the next day and proceeded to roughly do the bike tour as outlined in our guide book. We stopped at the train station to buy our $3.30 ticket for the next day and then rode all the way to the river to see the boats. And laundry. It was fascinating to see all the ladies along the riverbank scrubbing their clothes and then hanging them on the boat lines or laying them in the grass to dry. Along the way, we crossed a cool long, low pedestrian bridge. We stopped at a few monasteries, where we got many stares, and many barks.
After roughly following the bike tour through un-named alleys and unmarked roads, we headed north to Mandalay Hill. But first we stopped at the post office, where I dispatched two postcards to my brother and grandmother for their upcoming birthdays (this is proof that I did not forget – whether they arrive or not). We circled the palace walls, which are basically just a reconstruction of the original enclosing a reconstruction of the main palace area. Something we decided to skip based on the reviews and the price.
Along the wall, we stopped for lunch at the Golden Duck, mostly because it was on the map and I was starving, and I am not too fun to be around when hungry. We instantly felt out of place when the valet offered to take our bikes, our push bikes and ushered us into an elevator. This is not our normal restaurant. We’re used to open flames and dogs eating the scraps under our feet. Much to our surprise, they had reasonable prices and we ordered three small dishes for less than $8. And they were HUGE. We couldn’t finished them, though we gave it our best shot. And then when we asked for the bill, they brought us some sweet gooey coconut things, which I devoured, despite being full.
We continued onto Mandalay Hill, parked our bikes and removed our shoes and socks. That’s right. AND socks. This is something I cannot get behind. I will remove my shoes, no problem. But please let me keep on my socks. I currently have massive blisters on three of my toes. And then they make you walk 30 minutes up concrete steps to the top. And the stairs are covered in bird poop and red betelnut juice spit. I just don’t understand. Its not clean. Its gross.
But along the way, I befriended some cats. And since I was already dirty, I petted them, which I don’t normally do (except for all those other pictures you have seen). At the top, we were rewarded with a splendid view of the city and tons of tiny mirrors inlaid in the columns. We meandered around the top before returning the same way, barefoot to the bottom and riding back before it got too dark.
I almost forget we even went to Battambang, as I am about two weeks behind with my blogging. I have an excuse though. We had no wifi for an entire week.
Our trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second most populous city in Cambodia took about 4 hours. It was relatively uneventful, except for when we stopped halfway through for a break, got off the bus with everyone else and the bus drove off. It took quite awhile to return and we were a bit worried for our bags. Scams are notorious in Cambodia and you never really know what is normal or if you are being conned. Eventually the bus returned, our bags were intact and we continued on our way.
While having a late lunch in Battambang, we ran into a Dutch/English couple who invited us to join them the following day for a tuk-tuk tour of some the sites around town. Turns out we had spoken in Siem Reap about e-bikes a few days before, but neither of us could place why we looked familiar until later.
Battambang has some French colonial architecture, a bit reminiscent of New Orleans. Low buildings and small streets along the river are semi-filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. Many were shuttered and we couldn’t tell if they were just closed or empty. There is not a whole lot to do, but we met up for our tuk-tuk tour the next afternoon ready for anything.
And I was pleasantly surprised. Our first stop was a bamboo train, which I had read was overrated, touristy and a waste of time. You have to take what you read online with a grain of salt. Usually the people who review either love or hate something, not so much in between. I review almost everything we do, whether good, bad or just ok. I really liked the train. It is expensive ($5 each) and weird and at the end they drop you off for 20-30 minutes and you are bombarded by young girls selling bracelets. But along the way, you bounce around on bamboo slats through some decent scenery. And when you meet someone coming the other way, you have a bit of a chicken fight. There were four of us, so we won a few, as it seems the larger groups get to continue. The others have to remove the bamboo platform and the two axles with wheels and reassemble when the other train passes. The wheels are fueled by a small, noisy motor at the back of the platform. It was fun. And at the end, before we turned around to go back to the start, while Riki was off taking pictures, I befriended some small girls, despite not buying any of their bracelets.
Our next stop was Phnom Sampeu and the killing cave. We declined the offer of a moto ride to the top and walked up the steep road instead. The cave is where the Khmer Rouge threw people over the edge to a mass grave after bludgeoning them to death. There is a small shrine of skulls and bones, but not much info otherwise. There is also a monastery up there too, which has a nice breeze and a good view of the surrounding flat area.
At the base of Phnom Sampeu is a tall non-descript cave. Easily missed most of the day, but just before sunset, millions of bats swarm out of the cave into the air. We sat around with a bunch of other tourists and waited for this spectacle. And we were not disappointed (except for maybe being peed on a number of times from above). The bats (perhaps a million or more we were told) streamed out of the cave in a thick line of black spots overhead. They swerved left and right and became a unified beast. After about 10 minutes of watching them emerge, our tuk-tuk driver took us to an open area where we could see much further and how they fly in unison and create a long ribbon over the skyline. It was awesome.
The next day we got on yet another bus, headed for the coast. But with a transfer in Phnom Penh (6 hours) where we had been assured that we would be dropped at a place where we could buy another ticket on another bus with the same company. Not the case. But we were only a bit surprised. So after some confusing hand-gesturing conversations, we managed to get a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus office, but not before trying to drop us at a closer office of a different company (one we had heard terrible things about). Luckily, there were seats on the next bus and we only had to wait an hour before the next bus left.
Another six hours later, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We had arranged to stay on an island half an hour away by boat, but could not go until the next morning. So we holed up in a decent looking hotel for the night, bought some supplies and did some last minute emails before going off grid.
Ko Ta Kiev is not the most popular island to visit out of Sihanoukville. And that is why we went. Ko Rong is more of a party place, way over-priced and not the kind of beach time we desired. We booked four nights at Coral Beach on Ko Ta Kiev, but liked it so much, we stayed for seven. There is no power on the island, only a generator to power a few lights in the evening. And no wifi. Hence, I am way behind on the blogging.
We spent the next week reading whatever English books I could find, lounging in hammocks, swimming in the flat clear water, and playing cards. There is a bamboo platform, not unlike the train that you can pull out into the water and jump into deeper, equally clear water. That and playing frisbee were the extent of our exercise for the week. And a few walks to meet up with the same couple from Battambang who had followed us to the island and to the absinthe distillery where they had three cuddly kittens.
We ate amazing fresh food, sometimes never leaving our little beach all day. Our bungalow was $20 a night, had no power, was enclosed on three sides and faced the water. Oh, and we had a huge round bed. I have seen numerous mattresses carried around on motorbikes and trucks here. None have been round. Where they got these is a mystery. Custom sheets no doubt. We loved it, despite the cold bucket shower and the sand in everything. We even had a night visitor, but a good one. One of the young cats slept by my pillow outside the mosquito net a few nights. Riki didn’t even mind, a few sniffles to keep away any other unwanted guests is a small price to pay.
We had $21 cash left and we realized we had to leave. It was tough, but we went back to the mainland to hang out for a few more days of beach time before our visas ran out.
Unfortunately, the guesthouses in Otres were pretty booked up and we settled on a place on the beach for $12, which turned out to be infested with rats, roaches and termites. The worst place we have stayed on our whole trip. Luckily, we found a great pizza place and moved to another guesthouse down the road.
We ate pizza every night and even caught their quiz night. Proudly, I must say, we won two rounds (of the small groups), and thus two rounds of beer. We stayed longer in Otres than we thought, but were able to correct Riki’s Myanmar visa (as he had been classified as female) and research a lot for our next leg.
I managed to get my first sunburn on our last day, despite being in the shade all day. Must have been the glare off the water. We packed up and prepared for our border crossing to Thailand on the very last day of our Cambodian visa.