I must begin by saying that Christmas in Cambodia this year was so ‘unchristmassy’ that when we checked into our hotel on Christmas day I had to look at my watch to check the date when completing the hotel registration form. Not that I am complaining, Christmas and all the hype that goes with it is not my favorite time of the year.

Chong Kos floating village near Kompong Chhnang, CambodiaChong Kos floating village near Kompong Chhnang

So what did we get up to??? We were travelling for pretty much all of Christmas Eve, leaving the coast and heading north to a place called Kompong Chhnang. We arrived about 5pm and very nearly without our luggage – we had to change to another bus in Phnom Penh and for some strange reason the bus driver decided to drive off to the depot taking our luggage with him. A quick phone call (there are times when even I appreciate that mobile phones are handy) and short tuk-tuk ride later and we were reunited with our bags so all turned out OK in the end although I did have an argument with the bus company as they wouldn’t pay the tuk-tuk driver even though their driver drove off with our bags. Needless to say I lost the argument and paid the fare myself; Cambodia isn’t big on customer service. Kompong Chhnang is a small place and there was no Christmas Carols or pub crawl but we did find one restaurant with an English menu and cold beer and once tucked up in bed (by 8pm) we watched an ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Christmas special (the one when they become millionaires) which was most enjoyable.

Chong Kos floating village near Kompong Chhnang, CambodiaChong Kos floating village near Kompong Chhnang

Santa doesn’t do deliveries in Cambodia so there were no stockings at the end of our bed so we got up and headed down to the river to explore the floating villages for which Kompong Chhnang is best known.

It was a glorious morning and we really enjoyed paddling through the villages, taking photos and saying hello to the locals. I don’t think either of us even wished the other a ‘Merry Christmas’!

By 11am we were on the road again, heading further north to Cambodia’’s second city, Battambang (pronounced with a ‘bong’ on the end). Not much bigger than an oversized town, Battambang is a nice place with lots of faded French architecture and a laid back feel to it. I last visited it in 1991 but having arrived late and left early the next morning I didn’t get a chance to see it back then. Kirsty, however, had visited a few years back but again had not really seen too much so we decided to spend Boxing Day exploring the surrounding area. Back to the rest of the 25th. By the time we arrived it was 3pm and neither of us had eaten all day which is strange when you think about it as I can guarantee that pretty much everyone reading this blog will have been sitting on the sofa at the end of the day saying that they had eaten far too much and promising themselves that they will soon be going on a diet?? Along with no carols or Christmas stockings you can be sure we certainly didn’t have roast turkey with all the trimmings. In fact we had in mind that we would have a ‘Christmas pizza’ but couldn’t even find that so ended up a Cambodian curry called Loc Lac, rice and a big bottle of Angkor beer. By now it was 4pm and I can assure you that none of it touched the sides, we were so hungry!! We ended the day with a couple more beers and phone calls from our respective families (which was nice) and the tail end of ‘Gladiator’ on the telly (it is near on impossible to watch a film on television from start to finish in Asia as you can never find listings to work out what is on and when).

Kompong Chhnang (Chong Kos floating village) CambodiaChong Kos floating village near Kompong Chhnang

So that was Christmas Day. On Boxing Day we hired a tuk-tuk and driver for the day and headed out to see the ‘sights’. We had a great day, enhanced by our ever so friendly and knowledgeable tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Phi Lay (*) who was a steal at $16 for the entire day. We rode a bamboo train (a rollercoaster of a ride), took in a couple of temples, visited a traditional wooden house (where Kirsty spoke with ease in French with the owner; I was most impressed) and even visited a derelict 1960s Pepsi bottling plant where production ceased very abruptly in 1975 during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Strange I know but you want to see what we got up to a few days later (read on). We ended the day with a massage given by a blind masseur where the options for the massage were ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Kirsty opted for ‘soft’ and had a pleasant time; stupid here went for ‘hard’ and got the crap kicked out of him!

(*) Like many Cambodians our age or older, Mr. Phi Lay had a tragic past. His father was high up in the Cambodian Air Force pre Khmer Rouge and Mr. Phi Lay used to remember driving around Phnom Penh in his father’s Lotus sports car but once the Khmer Rouge took power his whole family were either murdered or died of starvation. He managed to walk to Thailand with his wife and did not return until 1993. When he left Cambodia he weighed 65kg but by the time he arrived he was 40kg

So that was our Christmas. Not the conventional one granted but none the less enjoyable. After our time in Battambang we headed further north to see the Angkorian temple of Banteay Chhmar. Not many people get up this far and as a result there are no hotels which means that you stay in with a local family in their house. In the trade we call this a ‘home stay’. Personally I call it ‘hell’. I am getting far too old for this type of thing and although we missed out of carols, stockings, presents and a turkey dinner, we did have the traditional Christmas argument over why we had to come to such a godforsaken place! On the plus side the temple was worth seeing and we had it nearly to ourselves, having only to share it with a couple of young monks. On the downside the home stay was expensive, the village dusty and we were bitten to death and had a sleepless night. Enough said.

Banteay Chhmar Temple Cambodia

Exploring Banteay Chhmar Temple

The next day we headed up to the Thai border to a place called Anlong Veng. If we though the Banteay Chhmar was dusty, it wasn’t a patch on this place. Talk about the ‘middle of nowhere’ I reckon the term was invented for Anlong Veng. So why did we come here? Well for almost a decade the town and surrounding area was the ultimate Khmer Rouge stronghold: home to Pol Pot, Ta Mok and all those other evil b……ds that took Cambodia to the brink of destruction. Having taken a taxi from Banteay Chhmar (there is no public transport) we arrived around mid morning and headed out with a couple of motorbike drivers (one of which spoke good English and was very knowledgeable) to explore the surrounding area. We have done some strange sightseeing in our time (Pepsi bottling plant for one!) but this has to be the strangest. We headed out over rough dirt roads and through dense jungle along the Cambodian/Thai border to look at the ruins of villas and hideouts that used to house the likes of Pol Pot and his cronies. We also saw their graves and were even asked if we wanted to visit the daughter of Ta Mok (*) who still lived in the town. We declined; I mean what do you say to the daughter of ‘Brother Number 5’ who was known as ‘Uncle Mok’ to his supporters but simple as ‘The Butcher’ to the majority of Cambodians? ‘Lovely weather for the time of year Mrs. Mok, by the way why did your father massacre thousands of his fellow countrymen??’

(*) Ta Mok was Pol Pot’s military enforcer. Arrested in 1999, he died in hospital in 2006 awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

It was a strange day and there really isn’t much to see but we were ‘in the area’ so to speak and so thought it was worth a visit. As Kirsty put it, she dragged me along to a home stay and I took her to the middle of nowhere to see a couple of derelict houses. One all me thinks??

We are now in Siem Reap, the base for exploring the world-famous temples of Angkor. The hotels are good again and the beer is back down to 50 cents a glass (New Years Eve should be interesting?). We intend to stay here for a bit as Kirsty goes back to work on Monday and I hope to find a good charity to which I can offer my services. I am going to try the Angkor beer factory in the first instance.

Happy New Year one and all, I hope the diets go according to plan?????


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