12. August. At 07:00 we get picked up at the hotel and find us some 30min later on board our bus to Phnom Penh. The ride is quite comfortable, when one is used to the bad roadconditions.. We pass small rural villages, bright green rice paddies, giggling children, working people on their fiels.. The scenery won't change for the next 5 hrs. Just some queer thoughts and feelings occur from time to time, when one remembers the tragic past of Cambodia and his people.
History: on 17. April 1975 the regime of Khmer Rouge took control over Cambodia and forced all the City people, starting at Phnom Penh this day, to leave homes immediately and resettle to the urban countryside to proof they're "worth to stay alive and proof they're real Khmers" by leaving everything behind and work on the agricultural side now. Within the 4 years of terror regime, 1/3 of Cambodias residents came to death by starvating or malnutrition, genocide(lots of inhabitants were half-chinese), murdered for beeing a monk or a university professor / teacher, even wearing eyeglasses (a "sign for intellectual intellicenge") could have set one on the deaths list... Children were separated from their families and had to work on plantation grounds or were trained in camps to become a child soldier. (A impression of life during the Khmer Rouge regime, written by a survival, is described in the book "first they killed my father", but definitely nothing for the faint-hearted!)
So we're now in the opposite direction of where the treck some 36 years earlier started.. At 14:00 we reach Phnom Phen. On a first look: bigger, busier, more earnest than SiemReap. We were brought to our "hotel" and immediately know now of how the "good price of our travel arrangement" is achieved. The manager guides us to our dedicated room: a 8 sqm shoe box without window but an increadible smell of sticky, wet air. A half-black wall indicates the source of bad air: the funghis are alive.. No way, I'd rather sleep on a garden chair than in here! We changed room and found ourselves now in a smilar-sized room, but with window and running cold water. For one night.... But don't want to know how many living creatures shared the bed with us. At least the nights sleep wasn't really comfortable, most likely it was already a kind of psychic reaction that my body felt itchy and biten every few minutes...
Too sad, our promised "rivercruise on TonleRiver" was cancelled. By the taxi driver. He didn't show up, but we had to wait from 16:00 onwards. No manager, no one around we could ask. We were catched in the outmost location of Phnom Penh. At 17:00, Our fresh developed plan of doing the PP exploration on ourselves by feet was immediately interrupted again. Petrus took his chance for a Veto and loud Thunder and a deep black heaven recommended a stay in the very neighbourhood of our brilliant hotel
13. August - day starts at 07:00 with an hours drive through Phnom Phen to pickup 2 Other people for our taxi drive to the Mekong Jetty. Upcoming two hours will force our nerves.. Squeezed with 5 in the taxi, we make our way to the suburbs of PP, while our 2 italian companions don't waste any second for their emodional chats of dontaskmewhat. The rear center seat changes my back in a hellfire of pain, while our ears are already bleeding. The taxidriver seems to have made his driving license in India: with speeding like Schuhmacher through the narrow streets of the villages (flanked by kilometres of spreaded dry corn on the streets) he hardly makes 10 seconds without pressing the horn. Don't know whether I'll ever suffer from the tinnitus.. But the drive through rural landscape along the Mekong is still a pleasant one, watching people in following their farmer's business and again confronted with this bright vivid colours of nature.
At 10:20 we reach the "jetty": the end of a narrow pathway on the riverbank. Thats it. Nothing else. But our boat arrives 15 minutes later and we enter for our cruise along the Mekong with destination Vietnam Boarder.
12:00 - lunchtime. Just in time we arrive at the boarder. Immigration formalties are done by the boat crew, so we have time for a relaxed noodle soup until we proceed our journey on the Mekong.. Goodbye Cambodia - Hello Vietnam!
Two hours ride through the winding channels of the Mekong arms (we're about to enter the famous Mekong Delta). No words for the scenery left but phantastic! Our videocuts may show..
At 15:00 we reach Chow Doc, the first bigger town in Vietnam, passing the "floating village". That's some hundred houses built in the river. On a kind of boat. Quite nice for those who're in troubles with their neighbours: jist lift the anchor an paddle for a new surrounding Our residence this time is somewhat better value, especially: it's the FIRST place since our departur from Germany where there's NO construction in or nearby the hotel! Yepp, that's really worth to comment!
Chow Doc is quite small, but due to transfer point for travellers from or onwards Cambodia, the inhabitants are used to foreigners. Especially the cyclo-riders are quite eager to get a foreigner onboard. They even don't mind to park their bike just along your dinner table and chatting with you, while you're trying to swallow your rice balls. Well, they're really interested in chieving the best for their small business ("grab-you-a-tourist"), but are still also interested in the chat with foreigners for the chat's reason. So.. Not really a quiet time for us, but still a nice one.
The contrary scene on the market: it's not a tourists market but the one for locals. A thousands of vendors are squeezed along the roads, allowing just a some 80cm narrow pathway inbetween. Everything is sold - from shampoo and tooth brushes to T-shirts, bags, umbrellas, Walkman(!!! No idea where they get the cassettes for..), about hundredfiftythousand mobile phone vendors, vegetables and fruits (we found our delicacy: fresh roasted peanuts with white sugar peel), fish (fresh, salted, dried, dried/salted, fisheads... ), frogs, crabs, birds (size of a sparrow [Spatz] including some eggs on a stick, grilled).... Inbetween the shoppers. Some of them by feet, but most of them on their motorbike. The market seems to be the "mother of drive- through"! One can imagine the noise and smell, mainly when 3 motorbikedrivers try to make their way in the confronting direction - and the complete even-moving flow through the market comes to a stop. But somehow they always manage to pass their ways on areas, where we're struggling to go ahead by feet already! (it needs to be highlighted, that 80% of the bikes aren't occupied just by solo driver but at least accompanied by 1-3 children. Sometimes a whole family [2 Adults + 2 kids] move around that way and they even find some space on their vhcl to store their vendings..!) Another grolling Thunder gives us the advise to leave the market and settle for a place in shelter. Time for the Four-O'Clock-Tea.
14. August - 07:00 boarding for our excursion.. (hey, a tour program part that really works..!?!). Already busy life along the Mekong and it's riverbanks. Postcard-like motives attract our eyes and hearts (kids on their way to school, women in their typical coneshaped hats padling their boats, fisherman throwing small nets) and when we slowly cruise through the channels of the floating village, we catch some glimpse on the bizarre life of the people on the water. The tourist program leads us (who'd have expected..? also to a "sarong making factory" where one can buy scarfs, sarong and other fabric stuff. Okay, we don't need anything, but listening to the tour guide and his explanations was still worth the trip. The visit of nearby fishfarm at least re-confirms our denial of eating "Pangasius" Fish...
Back on the mainland we head on for our bus transfer to Saigon, where we arrive at 17:00 - in heavy rain. Once again, misfortune leads to a room downgrade (no, we really don't want to move rooms again after 1 night!) and straight into the soutterain. Someone seems to think we urgently need to have crap rooms.. But this time there's at least a "window" (not that it helps to get the room enlightened, no no, darkness everywhere), and we're confronted with a bath tube and hot hot hot water! Another Plus: to overcome the loss of downgrade, we'll receive free shuttle to the airport. So at least this travel budget is to be saved as well. (some 12 hrs later we'll learn why this cheapest room category is usually not available for booking of foreigners...)
We've really enjoyed our days in SiemReap! What a nice city and friendly people! Traffic goes slow and relaxed, even when streets are crowded with Tuktuks, bikes, cycles etc.. Nevertheless, we need to head on to our next destination: Sihanoukville!
The night bus will take us from SiemReap via Phnom Penh right to the village on the Cambodian Gulf Coast. Departure at 20:00 and arrival scheduled for 06:30. Fortunately got a "sleeper bus". We would have re-considered our booking, if we had known that we (once again) have been forgotten by the traveller's god. We are led to our "berth" in the bus - at the very far end of the bus. Right on the Axle. No plain berths but a kind of "resting seat". Okay for a 1.50m asian guy, but for us European Biggies.. hmpf... We nevertheless manage to get some minutes of sleep just from pothole to pothole (forget your idea of roads, the Cambodian ones are those with some asphalt around the potholes ;-) Time goes slowly during this night. No light in our department, and reading a book is absolutely a no-go as the pages in your hand would jump up and down for some 20cm in high frequency. At 02:38 - as we've just managed to fall somewhat asleep - we wake up again, and find ourselves about 30cms above the berths. In freeflow, like Neil Armstrong, managing to stick our feet in the front row and avoid the hard collision / the flight through the bus. What has happened? Seems like a new, and so far unknown, pothole was found by our speedy busdriver. His last-second try to avoide that the bus will loose his axle resulted in a really hard break. Even though, the hit into the groundless pothole sorted all our bones from upside down.
We arrived Sihanoukville in time at 06:30. To avoid the crowds of tuktuk drivers, we first had a coffee at nearby food stall. But as the tuktuk drivers here are well organized (a cartell), "our" driver (we haven't asked for one, but was directly dictated from one of the seniors) keeps staying and watching at our breakfast table all the time. So the first impression already on arrival shows us: Sihanoukville is different to Siem Reap..
However, managed to get some 30min later to the city. By fixed price of course. No bargaining. As mentioned, it's a well-organized cartell and they have negotianted how to help travellers to get rid of their Dollars. But who cares.. we're here now, first checking in at the dive shop, being lucky to directly do a reservation for the upcoming 2 days and having the fortune to grab one of the last bungalows on the island! Our hotel (booked for just this night) we find right opposite the divestore and is quite ok for 15$. AirCon AND a kind of "warm" water... ! yeah!
09. August, 07:00 and the day already begins by busy arrangements. We store our main baggage in the diveshop and proceed to the pier, where our boat is waiting for the 2.5h trip to Koh Rong. St. Peter pleases us during our hours on the sea with really rough weather. Storm, Rain, Rain, Storm. LiveJackets were handed out - and I am feeling more comfortable with them than without ;-) Our clothes are soaked to bones, but we're anyway going for diving now. So who cares ;-) At 10:15 we reach the small Island and have a short break to pickup the additional divers. At least the weather gets better now.. then our first journey to the divespot starts.
Diving at Cambodia.. not anyhow comparable to Thailand. But we are still enjoying to have the head back in the water. And we claim our Names correct now with "GreenwaterDiving"! Remembers somewhat of diving in the NorthSea (on one spot even with Blausteinsee on a Saturday afternoon): visibility is between 0.5 - 6m, but the water is definitely warmer. Lots of nudibranches and small stuff can be detected. But for photos the vis is too poor, so upfront already: sorry, no pics from cambodia!
The island "Koh Rong" itself is a astonishing big island, without any infrastructure. There's the main jetty where the boats leave 1x / day. Some "resorts" have found their way to the beach and are clustered in the lush green jungle along the beachside. But no nightlife, no bars, no internet. No hot water, limited electricity (06:00-22:00). So a really relaxing time we've had on the island. But worth to mention is the beach: even while we hadn't the chance to enjoy a sunbath (rain..), the brilliant white strip of fine sand is really inviting. (the next bay changes completely to a squeaky Orange). Rumours are that an "international" airport is planned, as well as some investors are already to make "eco-friendly luxury vacation resorts", whatever that means. In the end, we somewhat fear that KohRong may become a next KohSamui; at least the sale has already started :-(
2 Nights we've spent on our island bungalow, having met there also two really nice French guys with whom we've had a nice evening with lots of exchange of traveller stories, infos where to go, tips for food and diving etc etc. They're also on travel and gave us really good advises, as they're coming right from the opposite direction than we are. Hope they'll doing fine now and do have a gooood and safe trip! :-)
For our next tour plans, we have to stay another night in Sihanoukville. Supported by nice Teriyaki.
We've decided to make a "tour arrangement" (3D/2N) for our way to HCMC (HoChiMinhCity = Saigon). Price was reasonable and stuffed with some bonuses (river cruise etc), which we couldn't beat in price by doing our own individual transportation organization. So lets see, how our first "tourist tour" will work out - at least we're released for the upcoming 3 days from travel planning :-)
We had a great stay in Koh Tao, and - as we've already mentioned - had some wonderful diving. So let me sum up a bit how our days went there.
As we arrived with the ferry, we had only a rough picture of where to stay and what dive shop to pick. Koh Tao is a basically a dive resort of the size of an island, with more dive operators than palm trees (at least kind of ...). We had already invested a couple of hours of internet investigation, but we still weren't sure. On the one hand we always look for small operators, which are definitely hard to find there. On the other hand, we were looking for some serious beach- and night-life, so we wanted to stay in the Hat Sairee area. And guess where all the big operators are ...
We found out that Big Blue Diving might be worth a try, since they offered trips to Sail Rock (a must!) and had some nice looking accommodation pictures on their web site. Nevertheless we were sceptical because of it's size, and of course because we have learned to never ever trust those nice looking pictures unless you've seen it with your own eyes.
That said, we got on a taxi (which is kind of a rip off on Koh Tao) and made our way from the jetty to Big Blue. The first contact was promising - although situated at the beach front, there was a lot of green and a first cozy feeling about the location, even with dozens of guest around. The shop office turned out to be really small when we entered it, which made sense after a couple of minutes - we were told to deposit our rucksacks, take a seat in the restaurant and everything, including the paperwork will be done there. That was exactly what we wanted to hear.
A coffee and some water later, we had sold our soul to the dark forces of PADI paperwork, arranged first dive trips (after the explanation that we were both certified divers, and what this fancy CMAS *** certification is all about - no one of the staff seemed to have seen it so far ...) and were ready to check the beds in our simple but clean hut, a 1 minute walk away from the beach. The accommodation was not overwhelmingly charming, but paying 200 Bath on a dive day (5 €) and double if not diving was well worth it. And seriously, after our travel the beds felt like heaven!
Being lazy after traveling, we checked out Big Blue Restaurant for dinner that evening, after we had our very first beach beer at a bar just a few meters away. The prices were reasonable, the food was good, the cocktails as well - perfect preparation for our following dive day.
The next day we got on the boat to our first trip. Due to choppy sea, the original - highly recommended - destination Chumpon was cancelled. We didn't worry so far, since we hadn't seen any dive spot round Koh Tao. Before getting on the Long Tails for the commute to the actual trip boat, we were assigned to our dive master, which made it very easy to learn and follow the highly organized procedures from getting your equipment together over having a safe commute to how and when to setup your stuff on the boat.
Our divemaster was Tibo, a young French guy who accidentally knew what our certification was about. He seemed to be kind of impressed with the number dives we had logged. During a short chat we were told that it is very rare to have obviously experienced divers as clients around here, which surprised us a bit. He promised us to do his best to guide us appropriately, which we found both a bit funny and very nice.
The dives itself (Himong (???) and Ligthhouse) weren't exactly spectacular, which of course had nothing to do with Tibo's perfect guidance (just the three of us!). The sites had a rather bad visibility, not much coral and only a reasonable amount of the usual suspects of reef fish. When we came back we were wondering if four days of diving here - as planned so far - would be really worth it. Yet since were booked for the Sail Rock full day trip the next day, we assured ourseves that at least this trip would be great - as mentioned in an earlier post, it was our very first dive spot when we did our Discover Scuba course years ago, and although this sounds like it has to be a beginners dive site, we can assure that there is serious, advanced and beautiful diving!
The next day started great. We had a new Divemaster assiged: Ferry a cool and handsome guy, which surprisingly turned out to be Dutch - thus he's originated right around the corner from where we live. During his very good briefing it became clear to us that we would be diving in a larger group, with some Open Water Divers in the group which was supposed to limit our depth and our dive time. This would not have been a catastrophe, but we gave it a try and asked whether threre was a slight chance to dive on our own, given that we are doing this usually and our certification permits this easily.
To our great surprise, our boat leader Greg allowed us to dive on our own as a buddy team. He gave us another great briefing and provided us with a surface marker boye, which both we asked for and he liked us to take with us. We were more than happy and thankful to get this opportunity, since you have to understand that this is totally unusual around Koh Tao, which is supposed to be a famous "start your diving career here"-destination. As we learned later, we were the very first divers at Big Blue Diving to get this permission, and we really have to say: Thank you guys, you really made our days! Our recommendation to our readers: if you are good and safe divers, experienced enough not only with diving as such but also with guidance and being self sufficient as buddy team even in rough conditions, don't hesitate to ask those guys for diving on your own. But don't come with the expectation to be allowed to, since Greg, Ant, Steve and the other guides in charge will base their judgement on what they actually see of your diving and soft skills, not on your log book or your certification card alone - which is just the way as it should be!
That said, we had two fabulous dives at Sail Rock, first - a bit accidentally - to the hidden pinnacle, which Ferry found as we dove the first minutes together with his group. The second dive was a looooong exploration of the main pinnacle, including the nice camin reaching from 18 to 6 meters, which we managed to enter without any other diver around. When we came back, the moronic grin on our faces ensured the other divers on the boat that we had a really great time.
After a tasty lunch and a longer boat ride we got to our third dive site of the day, Laem Thien Bay. Again we got a great briefing, both by Ferry and Greg, which made it easy for us to enjoy a cozy, yet wonderful dive with much to see and a great underwater landscape with lots of pinnacles. Coming back, we felt like having deserved both a big beer or two and a great BBQ. Great day, would things get worse now?
Actually - no. Although the trip at the next day was originally aiming at famous Chumpong site, which was - again - cancelled due to choppy conditions, we had two wondeful dives (again on our own) at Hin Wong Pinnacles - a really misterious and unique underwater landscape - and Mango Bay. At the latter site we even managed to find the juvenile Sweet Lips (a must see!) and the tiny black Sea Horse in the middle of nowhere on a sandy area. Great day, crowned again by some beers and sss... sssss... ssssssome cocktails in the evening.
By that time we already had agreed to extend our stay and do five dive days, as we found our expectations regarding both the dive sites and the shop highly exceeded. We had a nice fourth day at Laem Thiem Caves, with great swimthroughs which might have been hard to find without the help of our dive guide Tibo this time. The second dive from Red Rock to Japanese Garden we survived as well, given that a totally gone mad Titan Trigger first attacked Tibo and later managed to bite one of the Divemaster trainees that accompanied us - luckily without serious injuries. Beer, tasty food - nice day, again.
Our last day diving was a hightlight again. This time we were planned to not go to Chumpon, which was actually switched when the trip started. Our boat leader Steve asked if we would mind to see his two favourite Koh Tao dive sites, and surprisingly we refrained from throwing in our veto. And oh well - it was fabulous! Chumpon showed all it's beauty with the best visibility we have had so far, revealing loads of fish in a setting of massive pinnacles. Some say it is better than Sail Rock, and although we would not to favour one over the other, it is definitely as much a top site, which is surprisingly not as famous.
The last dive was at Green Rock, and oh boy, we soon came to know why this was Steve's favourite. Loads of pinnacles and rocks with holes, swimthroughs and all the like - a huge and beautiful kid's playground, with much small stuff to find and enjoy. Actually the highlight was a snake we found in a crack, giving a show just for the two of us, right before our masks. Again we were allowed to dive on our own, and since our boat was the only one around, we managed to see no other divers until the very end of the dive!
Every dive has to end, and so has every stay with a diver's location. We really had a great time at Koh Tao, and we have to thank the guys at Big Blue - Greg, Ant, Steve, Tibo, Ferry and Heather, just to name a few - for giving us the long leash and successfully managing to create a personal and cozy, yet professional and well organized environment not to expect in combination at a shop of this size.
Wanna dive in Koh Tao? Go ahead, we can recommend. Not sure for the Dive Shop? Big Blue gave us some great days, you might want to check them out. Remember, we've seen a freakin' lot of dive shops so far, this is not the usual "I made my OWD here, it's the best dive shop in the world"-recommendation :)
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