Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Siem Reap and Battambang

Siem Reap is a relatively large and attractive Cambodian town, which has benefitted from its proximity to the Temples of Angkor; the vast majority of visitors use it as a base for touring the historical sites.

After our three days of intensive temple sightseeing, we decided to have a quiet one around town before heading off to our next Cambodian destination, Battambang*. I was especially keen to take it easy, as I'd started getting some quite nasty headaches and feeling really tired.

We began our more sedate day with a trip to Artisans d'Angkor, where they teach local people how to create traditional arts and crafts and thereby provide them with a vocation and income, and preserve the skills of Khmer craftsmanship that could otherwise be lost. It's free to show yourself around the small workshops and we saw wood carving, lacquering, silver work and stone carving. The tour ends up at the gift shop where there were so many beautiful things we had to be really strict with ourselves not to spend our whole holiday budget! It was absolutely full of gorgeous clothes and homewares that are only sold there and at a couple of other choice locations (i.e. not in the markets selling the usual tat) and the proceeds from sales are sunk back into the Angkor Artisans project. 

There's also an outlet of Blue Pumpkin there, so we sat down to treat ourselves to coffee and ice cream while we wrote some postcards home.

Even after all that culture, shopping and ice cream, I was still feeling under the weather so we headed to a pharmacist for some paracetamol. While chatting to the lady behind the counter, we found out that the former king of Cambodia had passed away. He'd been in China receiving medical treatment and died there of natural causes. Even though he voluntarily abdicated in 2004, the 'King-Father Norodom Sihanouk' was still held in very high regard and it was during his reign that Cambodia gained independence from the French. We noticed that there were signs of a more subdued atmosphere amongst the local people of Siem Reap, who were clearly saddened by King Sihanouk's death.

That evening we went to the Temple bar on Siem Reap's infamous 'Pub Street' for dinner and to watch some traditional Cambodian dancing. One of the first things we noticed was that many members of staff were distracted by the TVs mounted on the walls, which were showing rolling coverage of the arrangements for having the King's body flown back to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The dance performance we'd gone to see was really entertaining. It lasted for a good couple of hours with half a dozen different styles, performed with skill and energy by a troupe of young local dancers. Luckily, there were English introductions to each one explaining their history and meaning so we could understand what was going on. 

Towards the end of the show, the party crowd obviously cranked it up a notch in the bar downstairs as the Big Phat Bass started drifting up the stairs and drowning out the traditional music, which added a whole other aspect!

Here are a couple of videos that Dave took during the show: one is the coconut dance where the performers drum out a rhythm with hollowed out shells and the other is the peacock dance which shows young lovers courting in the park and then watching two peacocks doing the same.

You can also find the videos on our YouTube page.

We were due to leave Siem Reap over the next day or two, and on top of my tiredness and headaches I'd also broken out in some painful red spots, which I assumed were insect bites. So as I was feeling less than 100%, we decided that in Battambang we'd opt for accommodation that was a little more plush. We went online and booked ourselves into a proper hotel and our guesthouse helped us organise our bus to leave early the next morning.

It was a challenging journey from Siem Reap to Battambang; the majority of my 'insect bites' were down the backs of my legs and I found it very difficult to get comfortable on the bus' vinyl seats. After a four hour journey of trying to arrange myself into a position that wasn't extremely painful - the best seemed to be for me to poke Dave with a combination of at least three elbows/knees/shoulders at a time - we arrived in Battambang relieved and resolved to find the nearest English-speaking clinic as soon as possible.

We easily found the Asia Hotel and after a small mix-up over our reservation  - the 'deluxe' room we'd booked for $20 per night for some reason wasn't available, but they cut our room rate and agreed to include breakfast - we moved into our new comfy digs. Our room had a big bed, aircon, a fridge, plenty of storage space, a hot shower in a clean bathroom, cable TV and free WiFi. Flashpacker alert! 

Before getting too settled though, we headed out to find the polyclinic listed in the Lonely Planet guide, which was luckily just round the corner. I was feeling increasingly rough and realistically needed to have myself checked out. 

A couple of days after the event, I had an IM conversation with my friend George and I don't think I can better describe the Cambodian clinic experience better now than I did then. So here's the transcript:
"I rock up, all sick and in pain and shit, after a 4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap. And I show them the spot on my arm but try to explain that's not the worst of it while she peers at it/me slightly dubiously. And there's a kinda stern female doctor who doesn't speak much English. Then I'm ushered to a room with a man in a medical gown - dragging Dave with me - [where I really struggle to get up onto the hospital bed because the spots on the backs of my legs are so sore] and the man in the gown and a lady take a look, clean it all up with alcohol/iodine etc. Me: lots of pain and slightly freaked out that they don't really speak English either and it's not as bright white sterile as UCL. But they were really nice and gentle and kind (in Cambodian). And then I get taken back to the stern doctor who prescribes me drugs and I ask her what's wrong with me... but she doesn't know what it's called in English [only Cambodian and French] so I'm none the wiser. And even though Dave's french is good he doesn't know many random medical terms. But she smiles at me kindly/sympathetically, then there's minor confusion over my diabetes medication while I'm trying to make sure there's no problematic cross-overs with what she's prescribed. And I'm saying "diabetes" and "insulin" a lot and she doesn't seem to understand, so we pull out the phrasebook, which doesn't have 'diabetes' in Khmer but does have it in Thai and show her that and she's like (in ENGLISH) "Oh! You have diabetes? You take insulin? No problem." So we leave pretty happy with how it's all gone and head back to Google what she's scribbled down in French. And it was shingles! So I went back to bed. THE END."
The consultation, ministrations and anti-viral meds cost us about $30 and I finally knew that the painful blisters weren't insect bites and the headaches weren't caffeine withdrawal. I guess it also went some way to explain why I'd not been feeling my best in terms of dealing with things like the border crossing a few days earlier. 

We figured the shingles had probably been brought on by us overdoing it, paired with my slightly compromised immune system. In hindsight, although it didn't really feel like it at the time and even though in a lot of ways we'd had a very relaxing few weeks, once we got to Bangkok we were spending hours and hours walking round the city, then we had that hectic day travelling into Cambodia, then the few very long days looking round the Temples of Angkor - including the accidental 55km bike ride and the early start for sunrise.

The thing with shingles is that you just have to rest, so it was lucky we'd gotten ourselves such a comfortable hotel room. I basically spent the next week lying in bed sleeping, reading, watching TV, and receiving Skype sympathy from loved ones at home. Poor Dave found himself playing nurse and delivery boy - dressing my boo boos and fetching takeaway pizzas and curries as I was too sick to go out for dinner. 

The staff at our hotel were incredibly nice and even though they didn't technically do room service, they'd bring our breakfast up to us each morning until I was well enough to go downstairs for it. The breakfasts were really good too - Dave was tucking into omelettes and French baguettes and I was trying to keep my vitamin levels up with fresh fruit and muesli. And they served seriously good coffee; one of the lovely ladies kept checking if we liked it or not and when we emphatically told her that yes, it was excellent, she told us the hotel manager had specifically sourced the best he could find.

It was a frustrating time. Dave was really bored and climbing the walls, and I felt trapped and angry with my body for letting us down and interfering with our honeymoon adventures. But we both knew that taking it slowly and making sure I recovered properly at this point would mean we could get on with our travels sooner rather than later and hopefully with no further setbacks.

After a few days I was in less pain and feeling a little more energetic, so we decided to try a trip out to dinner. We found a place called the Gecko Cafe, which turned out to be perfect - so much so that when I still felt better the following evening, we went back for dinner a second time! It's a great little restaurant with outstanding food, which supports its lovely staff and their families by paying higher wages than a lot of places and gives them opportunities for training etc. The restaurant is on the first floor and we took a table overlooking a junction of the road, which gave us some interesting activity to watch during dinner! On our first visit it was 'Martini Monday' and after a week in my hotel prison I wasn't likely to say no to $2 cocktails. We also treated ourselves to some Cambodian comfort food over our two visits: vegetable soup, spring rolls, wantons, sweet and spicy chicken, lemongrass chicken, basil fried rice, stir fried fish with lime sauce. And for dessert: warm apple crumb cake with huge scoops of vanilla ice cream. I'm sure our indulgence had a significant impact on my subsequent rate of recovery!

As part of our Cambodia travels, we'd planned to visit Kampot and Kep before moving on to Phnom Penh. But after having to extend our stay in Battambang, and conscious of not wanting to overstretch ourselves again, we made the tough decision to skip them and head straight for the capital.

So even though we hadn't had a chance to see a lot of Battambang, once we decided that I was well enough to travel again we were keen to move on. We were delayed another day by huge sky-splitting storms, but the following day it was clear and dry and I was ready to hit the road. 

We checked out of the Asia Hotel and humped our bags over to the bus depot, where we bought our tickets to Phnom Penh. As we were waiting, a couple of lovely things happened. 

Firstly, we suddenly spotted the lady from our hotel trying to get our attention. She hadn't been at the desk when we were checking out and had therefore been unable to give us our leaving gifts, so she'd followed us over to the station hoping to catch us before we left town! We received two lovely scarves and exchanged some very fond farewells. 

The second thing was that some local girls were buying sticks of bamboo from a seller at the station (on the left in the photo above) and out of curiosity I went over to peer at what was inside them. The girls caught my eye, gave me two huge smiles and proffered one of the sticks, splitting it open so that I could see the contents. It was filled with a sticky concoction of sweet rice and red beans and I was encouraged to pull some out to try it. When I made gestures of 'yum, this is delicious' they then gave me one of the sticks they had bought to take onto the bus with me. People can be so very kind.

And so, after a bit of a hiccup in our plans we were on the road again, excited and delighted that our travels were continuing.

* Pronounced BATTAM-BONG. Although as lovers of marzipan-covered-cake we do struggle not to call it 'Battenberg'.

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