A Travellerspoint blog

December 2012

Christmas in Kampot!

There's no place like home...

sunny 30 °C

We knew we wanted to be near the coast for Xmas and new year so we started the journey back down south, breaking it up with an over night stop in Phnom Penh to see The Hobbit! As luck would have it the one night we were in town was its release date in Cambodia, perfect timing!

New year was going to be on Otres Beach and as we knew that area was really booked up we decided to chill out in the riverside town of Kampot over Xmas first. We had been given a recommendation of a place to stay right on the river and so headed there hoping there would be a room free, but it was fully booked! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they directed us next door to 'Bungalow Kampot River' and we got a great bungalow there for $6 a night. This turned out to be our 'holiday from travelling' as we decided to stay here for a week to recharge the batteries and celebrate Christmas.

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The bar/hangout area was on stilts out over the river complete with diving board and floating pontoon so you could jump straight into the water to cool off.

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Only problem is that if you are a muppet like I am you may knock your sunglasses off into the water and lose them to the murky depths. Being a tidal river the flow is constantly changing stirring up the sediment and so visibility under the water is really poor. A bit disconcerting not being able to see what else might be down there! Being prescription sunglasses it was a bit stressful losing them but after some helpful emails home (thanks Dad) I soon had my prescription and found a local opticians who made me some new ones in 24 hours for only $35! Bargain!

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Our first night it was meant to be the end of the world according to the Mayan predictions and so we decided to go to the end of the world party at Bodhis, another guesthouse a couple doors down the river. It was great fun and fireworks were set off over the river. At one point there was a power cut and for a few moments you could feel the anxiety in the room...was this actually the end of the world....but soon enough the lights were on, the music was blaring and dancing resumed. Walking down to the deck area on stilts over the river Dan did not see a gap and disappeared between the slats into the river. Fortunately he was ok other than a bang to his leg and the embarrassment of everyone stopping and looking after hearing the splash and taking photos as he emerged! Unfortunately I didn't have our camera, it would have been a good pic!

Most of our days were spent relaxing by the river, reading, sleeping, blogging, cycling, exploring the town (home to the giant durian fruit roundabout) etc...

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One day we decided to rent a moto and explore Bokor National Park.

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There is a road that snakes its way up Bokor mountain to the hill station at the top which is being redeveloped into a huge resort.

This sign sums the road up...

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It was great fun if not a little hair raising at times going round all the hairpin bends but the views along the way were amazing and on a good day you can see the Gulf of Thailand.

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This is the moment a pesky monkey scared me by jumping behind me out of nowhere!

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At the top is the old hotel/casino called the Bokor Palace. Apparently people used to throw themselves off the top if they had had a bad night gambling! This and the rest of the resort/hill station were abandoned in 1970s when the Khmer Rouge came into the area creating a ghost town. It was a great building to walk around as it is completely empty and you could imagine how grand it had once been.

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That night we had our first huge storm since we have been travelling and the first rain we had seen since leaving China! It was really dramatic with rain splashing up from the water and booming thunder. There was a mad rush to move all the chairs and cushions away from the waters edge as the rain was blown in and we huddled by the bar and watched the lightning over the river.

We were struggling to find the festive spirit in Kampot although if you looked hard you saw the occassional sign it was approaching.

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We asked around town if there was anything going on and found out that a traditional Xmas dinner was happening on Xmas eve! At $20 each it was a bit expensive but we rationalised that at home we would probably be spending the same on an Xmas dinner out and as we were missing home some traditional Xmas grub was exactly what we needed! And it didn't disappoint! Turkey, lamb, pumpkin squash, stuffing = yum. Oh and cold Chenin Blanc :)

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The moon was amazing too and we could see all the craters, a great night!

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Xmas day was spent catching up with friends and family and it was great to Skype home and see everyone :) Miss you all!

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Xmas night was spent celebrating at Madis bar with some great live music that had the whole place dancing.

We ve met quite a few interesting characters here but staying for a week in one place you see and hear alot and think one of the things we ve realised is that we wouldn't want to live this expat lifestyle. No matter where you are in the world your baggage follows you it seems and boy do these guys like to talk about their woes over and over again!

So don't worry folks we ll be coming home at some point :)

Hope you all had fab Xmas!

Sxxx

Posted by doyledan 04:09 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Bats of Battembang

On the elephant project we had heard about bat caves in Battembang where every sunset millions of bats fly out of the cave for their evening feast of insects. This was something we needed to see for ourselves and so we took the now relatively short bus journey to Battambang from Siem Reap. Also we wanted to go here purely for the fact that Battembang sounds a bit like Battenberg and I love Battenberg cake. Probably should point out that this is where the similarities stop and we did not find any Battenberg cake here...sad times but we did see the bats...good times!

It was only going to be a flying visit on our journey back south towards the coast for Xmas and new year and after paying a bit more in Siem Reap so we could have a pool to cool off in we were pleased to find the Tomato guesthouse where our own room was only $1.50 each! Cheap as chips :)

The bat caves are located on a limestone hill called Phnom Sampeau which is also where another more ominous cave is known as the Killing Caves. This is where the Khmer Rouge killed over 2000 people and is now a memorial to the people who died there with a reclining Buddha inside and a temple also resides at the top. We decided to check this out before the flight of the bats.

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It was quite a steep walk up the hill and we were joined by a couple of enthusiastic kids who made it look so easy running around us and even raced Dan a short distance whilst a plodded up behind them. It was a good thing it was late afternoon, in the heat of the day it would have been even harder! We passed a smaller temple on the way to the caves and were inundated with different people asking for donations for the road and although we obliged it felt a bit odd as we had already paid the fee to go up and so you would think that should go to the road?

The kids lead as to the killing caves and it is a really eerie place. As we walked down into the cave they pointed out the opening in the ceiling, like a skylight, at one end of the cave. This was where people would have been bludgeoned at the top before being chucked through the skylight to their death. It was sickening to think that where we were standing so many bodies would have landed and by the memorial Buddha there was a glass box containing their bones as a reminder of what happened here. We didn't stay down their too long and were pleased to climb back out into the sun.

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We continued to the top to see the temple and also the great view.

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There were also lots of monkeys at the temple but they looked a bit scary so we stayed out their way!

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At the temple we met a Swedish guy called Patrick who was travelling on his own and told us how on his way to Battenbang he got chatting to a local girl on the bus who wanted to practice her English. The family then invited him to go and see their house and join them for a hot pot dinner. Once they found out he had not sorted his accommodation yet they insisted that he stayed the night with them! Another example of Cambodian hospitality :) We made our way back down the hill to wait for the bats to come out! We had misjudged the time and had an hour to kill and so sat chatting with the tuk tuk drivers and had a cold refreshing drink....or so I thought! Unknown to me a bee had got into my can of Sprite and I did not find out until I tried to drink it and it stung the roof of my mouth making me spit it out all over Dan! I ve never been stung before so it was a bit of a shock particularly as I could feel the stinger still stuck and Dan had to try to get it out. Bit of a drama but I survived!

Lesson learned keep an eye on your drink...another one was on the can in an instant

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As I recovered Dan joined the tuk tuk drivers in playing their version of keepy uppy.

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Then it was time and we eagerly waited beneath the entrance of the cave for the bat spectacular! You could hear them all making clicks and noises to each other in the cave. As we waited a young guy who was studying to be a lawyer at the university in Battambang came to talk to us to practice his English. He was really friendly and when I was off taking videos of the bats he asked Dan how he could get an English girlfriend :) I'm not sure what tips were given but they had a good chat.

He told us that an estimated 2 billion bats live in the cave and fly out every evening at the same time to feed on the insects. It takes over an hour for them all to fly out of the cave. The numbers are unfathomable even when you are watching it....really was a breath taking sight as the continuously stream out of the cave. Definitely one of the most impressive wildlife phenomenons I ve seen with my own eyes.

This is just 45 seconds of the flight of the bats....literally millions of them...

Just remember if you go to keep your mouth shut as you look up in wonder as they fly out doing their other business too!

Sxxx

Posted by doyledan 20:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Siem Reap and Angkor Temples

Upon finishing our time at the Elephant Valley we knew we wanted to head west in search of temples. This would require us to travel across country via bus for 12 hours (it actually turned out to be 16) but we had done it all before so we jumped on in the morning and made our way to Siem Reap. The journey was relatively easy but a bit too long, fortunately we had booked our hostel ahead and was able to get a tuk tuk. The bus stops in Cambodia are always very odd, never really located for ease of the passenger rather more for the bus driver as we had been dropped off at the depot, which had been fenced off to stop locals coming into the area and supposedly stealing. We thought it could also be a cartel of tuk tuks who make sure they get first dibs on passengers. Either way we got our transport and excepted that the 4 dollar cost was fine despite it probably being inflated.

Our hostel was chosen specifically for the pool that it had as we knew we would be cycling around the Angkor site and we would need cooling down after long days. This was a blessing as we were so hot and fed up from the bus ride that as soon as we checked in we jumped in. However we had to do this all with torches as the hostel had had a power cut, a slight concern but when we were chilling in the pool it really didn't matter and the power came on pretty soon after. (You learn to take things a little easier as time goes)

Our next day would be the longest cycling excursion taking the larger outer ring road bypassing the famous Angkor Wat and taking in the smaller sites. This was recommended to us in order to save the best till last. So off we set on our bikes and we stopped to buy our 3 day ticket for $40 each. As we went through the ticket checkers sold us the option to see Angkor Wat at sunrise and further afield sites of Bantrey Srei, Landmine Museum and the Butterfly Centre. It was a good deal and we set it up for the next day.

Our route would be 40km in total and we saw many temples, some of which I have listed below. The day was a great introduction into the sheer size of the area and we felt like we had our own mini adventure. Here are some of the best bits we saw.

Prasat Kraven
Bantrey Kdei with Sran Srang lake
Baray of Phreah Khan
Pre Rup
East Mebon

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This was the first site we reached which was a shrine called Prasat Kraven meaning Cardamom Sanctuary. It was small in its size and did not have many hallmarks of the famous Angkor Wat but was interesting nonetheless, mainly for the way they were able to build into the wall a almost 3D shape.

Before we left to go to the next site we were approached by locals trying to sell souvenirs and drinks, something that would be a regular occurrence throughout the trip. The little kids got the look down to a treat making it hard to say no but we knew that buying from these kids was not doing them any favours as it would essentially keep them out of school so we refrained and moved on.

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This site called Pre Rup had a more similar look to what we recognise as Angkor and we had a good walk around despite the stifling heat and also walked to the top to take in the view.

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We found Elephants at East Mebon.

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We found this at the Bantrey Kdei site and it looked straight out of Indiana Jones film.

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After our long day we ventured in Siem Reap for dinner. We must of been so tired because we can't remember where we had dinner but it was good. Later we walked the night markets but with the early start on our minds we went back to hostel and saved the batteries.

Next morning we were treated with probably the most stunning moments of our trip so far. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. We both were excited about this before reaching Siem Reap but words almost couldn't describe the view we saw. The early start meant we approached the Angkor Wat site in pitch black ( silly dopes we forgot our torch) fortunately there was a young Cambodian girl who sold drinks who helped us out and we met up with her later to by some drinks from her stall to repay the small favour. Standing by the small pond that is situated outside the main temple we waited and it certainly was worth it. The change of colour as the morning sun rose was breathtaking and there was a sense of satisfaction that we had seen one of the 7 wonders of the world at such a perfect time.

Sarah took some incredible shots which I think captures the beauty of it.

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As the sun rose we walked around the site and got to see the outer moat that surrounds the area. It was built during the reign of Suryavarman II both as a city capitol and a state temple. ('Angkor' meaning 'City' and 'Wat' meaning 'Temple'). But also it is said that the temple mimics the home of the devas from Hindu mythology that is situated on Mount Meru.

After a quick baguette from a local vendor ( yes there is food served as well) we hopped in our tuk tuk and our driver started the long trip to Bantrey Srei. It was a good scenic trip with another opportunity to see rural life in Cambodia. The site is extra special due to intricate carvings that have managed to sustain the test of time. To look at these designs you would think that it had only been done this year. They were incredible to look at as the symmetry and depth of each design could have you staring for hours. It was believed that due to the intricacy's of the carvings it was more likely that women made these as they would have required a far more delicate approach. The site was built by one of the future Khmer King's counsellor's or guru. The name Bantrey Srei means 'Citadel of Beauty' and it certainly held firm to its name as it was one of the better temples to really see the Khmer's abilities in stone carvings.

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One thing that amazed me was how they built all the temples considering they did not have machinery to aid them. The size of the blocks that made the walls were at least 1ft cubed and were heavy. I was interested to find out that they vegtables compound to hold the blocks in place which is why you don't see any mortor joints.

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After a delicious Khmer lunch we moved on to see the Landmine Museum,a non-govrnment organisation (NGO), which was a real eye opener to the real affect War has had on Cambodia and the rest of what we call Indochina. We were fortunate that when we got there a tour was just starting with an American guy who had started working full time with the founder of the museum Aka Ra. He had heard about Aka's story and instead of just sending some money he decided to up sticks and move out to Cambodia to help with the foundation. His knowledge and passion for the cause really helped us understand the magnitude of what they face in terms of ridding the country of landmines and helping local children gain the education they need to have a better life.

The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Facility (Museum for short) was established in 1997 by ex-child soldier Aki Ra. After years of fighting he returned to the villages in which he planted thousands of mines and began removing them, by hand, and defusing them with homemade tools. Aka also saw the hard lives young children were experiencing in the rural areas and decided to help by offering a home to these troubled kids which allows the to live and learn at the same time so that can get the education they desperately need to achieve a better standard of life.

The cause itself was very admirable and we were glad that we stopped by, however it was shocking to hear the difficulties they have with the bureaucracy and cruption in that is rife in Cambodia's politics right now. One example was that the location of the museum had to be outside of Siem Reap due to the fact that the local General owned the museum in the centre of town and therefore it is seen as competition meaning there are forced to stay on the outskirts, it was a hard fact to swallow.

The stories we got from the American guy helped us understand just how much the Vietnam War has affected Cambodia with families losing members due to unexploded mines. We were shown a map of US bombing missions over Cambodia during that period and it was nearly half the country. It was the US attempts to seal over the trails of supplies to the Vietnamese but it just looked like a free for all. They reckon that the amount of unexploded devices that surround the country will take over a 100 years to clear and what's frustrating for them is a that the don't have the governments financial backing so it is all done through fund raising which our American tour guide plays a huge part in.

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He also told us about a possible break through that could change things dramatically. One of the problems they face is that it takes a huge amount of time to clear an area known to have landmines. This is because the techniques used are still relatively basic. You set out an area with sticks and poke the ground until you find something mental and then dig around it before exploding it in its location. If you are lucky and you can afford the $20,000 mental detectors you can scan the ground rather than poking it, but even then you still have all other bits of mental to contend with. A possible breakthrough we were told about is that a student at Stamford in USA is developing an app which could be plugged into the mental detector which then would provide a visual of what was in the ground and therefore would speed up the process drastically that larger areas could be covered in a shorter space of time. Lets hope this can be discovered and put into action sooner rather than later.

We left the museum for the butterfly sanctuary and Sarah's was able to finally get her picture of a butterfly. it wasn't the best place to visit but we did get a short tour from a friendly Cambodian guy who was very knowledgable and enthusiastic. We even got to see a stick insect! They are huge!

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Later that evening we had the pleasure of meeting up with our friend Jude as she had decided to stay longer in Cambodia. We had a delicious meal at the Red Piano catching up about our experiences through Vietnam.

Next day would be our last around the temples and we decided to use the cycles again to go round the shorter tour which takes in Bayon, Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. As we had seen Angkor and Thom and Angkor Wat the day before we concentrated on the other two. the Bayon a state temple is one of the most powerful religious constructions according to historians. It's design is complex and includes many faces carved into the walls and statues. As you walk into the first outer wall and upstairs you instantly get a different experiences as the platform as it tree height and is far more peaceful.

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Our next stop was Ta Prohm, made famous for its use in the Tomb Raider film, however me and Sarah just felt like we were in an Indiana Jones scene.

It was a temple-monastery and had been taken over by the jungle until it was found. It was decided that it should be kept in this way to show what it would have looked like upon discovery. An inspired decision as a lot of people venture to this area now to see it and to be fair me and Sarah really liked it. A significant amount of work that went into keeping the area from collapsing which you can visibly see.

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Siem Reap is a nice place to relax, the pub street caters for all kinds of culinary choice and we were certainly guilty of enjoying a few western treats.

It was a good few days.

Stay tuned for more tales

Dan

Posted by doyledan 19:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temples Comments (0)

Elephant Valley Project

Please don't ride elephants...

sunny 35 °C

We had heard about the Elephant Valley Project which works to rehabilitate elephants that have been used for work such as logging, transport and tourism, allowing them the opportunity to live and behave as an elephant should in natural surroundings. After volunteering with EHRA and wild elephants in Namibia I was interested to find out more about the work with captive Asian elephants and the different issues here.

We decided we wanted to visit for 4 days on the project where half the day was spent with the elephants and half the day volunteering, and we had an amazing time...it was great to be so close to these beautiful animals and a real eye opener not only on the treatment of captive elephants but also the problems that the local people face as well.

Jack and his team do a great job and it really is an inspiring project.

You can check out in more detail the project click here...

Here is a sum up of our time on the project...

Our journey to Sen Monorom was our first in one of Cambodias infamous mini buses, where they cram in everyone and everything that they can! We made sure we were there on time to get a good seat but then waited in the bus for an hour and half after it was meant to leave for it to fill up! The next 6 hours were not the most comfortable but the people in the bus were friendly and offered us some local snacks.

We were staying at the Greenhouse Guesthouse for one night before leaving in the morning for the project in Elephant Valley and the view from our room was not too shabby and we were definitely more remote. We tried to catch up with our blog but its tiring work!

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Arriving at the top of the Valley we were met by the team and started our walk down to 'elephant heaven' which is home to 5 of the 12 elephants here. Jack told us that the land used for this sanctuary is rented from the local people and the project provides them rice in return. They also provide jobs and healthcare for the local people as well which provides an incentive to preserve this area for elephants and other animals to live in rather than sell it off and allow further deforestation in the area.

Our first sighting...can you spot them?

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At the bottom of the valley is a river which the elephants come down to bathe in and get muddy. We were only too happy to help!

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Here is Onion, enjoying the mud but also marking her territory...

It really is a beautiful location and easy to see why it is called "Heaven". It was great to see the elephants emerging from the forest and to hear them trumpeting and rumbling to each other.

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We spent the rest of the morning walking with them, watching as they foraged in the forest and behaved as elephants should...

These elephants had all been working elephants and you could see the affects this had had on their bodies such as scars, pronounced spine and dropped rib cage from the pressure of the weight they would be carrying/pulling and ill fitting baskets. Jack told us that even though elephants are big animals they are not as strong as people think and can only carry 10% of their body weight, compare that to an ant that can carry several times its own body weight. Even carrying a couple of tourists around in a basket is heavy for them, and then take into the fact that they would give people rides all day as well. Elephants can make their owners a lot of money particularly from tourists wanting to ride them. If an elephant is ill or hurt they are made to keep working rather than being allowed to heal. This is because if the owner says the elephant can't work they lose out on a lot of money and potentially may not get work from that place again. It seems an impossible situation when you consider the average daily income is $2-5 but with an elephant it can be several hundred on a busy day. The project buys elephants when they can (but this costs $15,000 per elephant!) or rents them from the owners to bring them to the sanctuary to rest and heal, and sometimes they are left here when the owner can not look after them anymore.

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Each elephant has its own sad story of their time as a working elephant but I will tell you about one called Milot. You can see the scars on her back from the baskets she carried tourists in. She was also blind in one eye, they think from a misused hook. The end of her tail had been cut off as elephant hair is considered good luck and she also had skin cut from her vagina to be made into medicine for a woman who was having trouble getting pregnant. Now she can spend the rest of her days at the project, not being worked or mis treated. The Elephant Valley Project no longer allows visitors to ride the elephants which was an important factor in us choosing to visit here.

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After a great lunch (the food on the project is yum!) we were put to work whilst the day visitors went to wash the other elephants. As volunteers we helped wherever needed. Dan did some gardening whilst I sanded and varnished handrails at one of the lodges.

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The communal areas at the project were great especially the lounge area which was an incredible place to relax, listen to the sounds of the jungle and watch the sun go down.

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Here are some of the other creatures we shared the 4 days with...

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The next day we volunteered in the morning (varnishing furniture) which meant we would spend the afternoon washing elephants and walking with them on top of the hill. Many of the elephants come to the project not knowing how to throw mud or water on themselves. This is mainly because when they did it when they were younger they would be punished as it would go over the mahout. Armed with buckets, brushes and hoses we all got stuck in...

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I can not describe what it was like to be so close and actually touch elephants. They looked right at you in the eye as you washed their heads and gave them water to drink. We could see the muscles of their trunk rippling upwards as they sucked up the water and were sprayed when they put their trunks back down for more. Their skin is covered in course bristles and feels tough and smooth at the same time. Incredible!

We had 7 elephants to wash, some being more easy than others and we were all covered in mud and drenched by the time we followed them up the hill. It was great to walk with them and to see them roaming in such a large area.

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We alternated between volunteering in the morning and the afternoon over the next two days which meant we got to go back to 'heaven' and wash the elephants again.

It was a magical couple of days in a beautiful setting and highlighted how important it is to protect areas such as this from being sold off for deforestation as well as protecting elephants.

Safe travels to Jude, Daniel, Darcy, Emma, Robyn,Annie, Brydie and Wan.

Thanks to Jack, Trixie and Kay, keep up the good work!

Oh and the dogs

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Sxx

Posted by doyledan 01:59 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Stop off in Kratie to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins

Having spent most of our time in Phnom Penh organising Xmas and New Year we finally came to a decision about the next part of our travels. We read about the Elephant Valley Project that was located close to the eastern border with Vietnam and wanted to spend a few days there volunteering.

Due to timings when we could join we had a few days to spare and because we had been in Phnom Penh a bit too long we decided to bus it to Kratie and spend a night there so we could experience the Mekong and also find the Irrawaddy dolphins that are rare mammal indigenous to Mekong region.

The beginnings of our trip did not start off well as the bus company decided just to not come and pick us up from our hostel and so we had to get a tuk-tuk and ask around before being shown to our bus (with only a minute to spare). It was early in the morning and making our way out of Phnom Penh still took some time but as soon as we did get out we hit our first obstacle, the road. It was a uneven track that would kick up dust as soon as a car would decide to wizz by making it almost impossible to see what lay ahead. Still the driver remained on course and I was beginning to realise why this trip would take so long!!

When we did reach Kratie we instantly felt as though we were getting further into the rural part of Cambodia. The roads were quieter, the people appeared to have less money but also the Mekong was spread out across the scenery for us to marvel at. The sheer size of this river takes your breath away, and what's more was that by Kratie there is an island within the Mekong River called Koh Trong that takes 9km to cycle round so you can begin to realise the size of it.

Our guesthouse was a short trip away from the centre and we were pleased with our choice as it stuck to its name 'Balcony' Guesthouse supplying a perfect balcony to watch the sunset go down. During our chill out time we met Harriet who was travelling through Cambodia on her own. After a few drinks we found out that she worked in Advertising as well and funnily enough had the same job as me but for a different agency. She also knew people that Sarah had worked with. It is a small world after all.

The next day we made our way to the Irrawaddy Dolphin location via tuk-tuk. The project had been set up a few years back to help sustainability as the species was beginning to see a number of calves die without explanation. The dolphin is recognisable from its bulbous foreheads and tiny dorsal fins.

On our way we got to see the rural life with many people by the road side selling fruit or vegetables or just lazing in the heat. We also got to the see the houses that are built on stilts.

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When we reached the location the set up was very basic but we were shown to our boat and lucky for us within seconds the dolphins were appearing from all angles. Two even came so close to our boat that we saw their bulbous heads and unthreatening eyes. I was amazed to say the least! I wasn't really sure how I would react but to see them up so close was a real privilege, and what's more was that we were the only ones on the river for some time which added to the experience as it was so quiet and a peaceful.

Sarah managed to get some action shots but we saw quite a lot more of them than what came out, its only that the click of the finger was just not fast enough to capture what were saw.

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Stay tuned for more tales.

Dan

Posted by doyledan 04:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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