Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ream National Park, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Although I am a total beach bum, I was down in Sihanoukville with some people who aren’t particularly fond of spending complete days basking in the sun and floating in the water. So after about 5 days of surf and sand, we decided to check out the nearby Ream National Park.

The day before we were to take the trip, the four of us spent some time researching it – trying to find out the cheapest and best way to explore the park. What we found, though, was that there wasn’t much information available. The Lonely Planet doesn’t have much to go on and the Internet chatter is pretty quiet as well.

Nonetheless, we decided to skip on the full-day package tour touted by all the local travel agents (costing about $20 each). Instead, we rented motorbikes ($4/day) and headed out ourselves. It was a short and uneventful ride out to the park.
Once we got there, though, we realized that it wasn’t going to be too easy to explore on our own. For one thing, the park is mostly made up of mangrove forests. Mangroves are like big bushes that grow only in places where there is both salt water and fresh water. They basically grow in rivers or swamps and don’t really make for good hiking areas. In addition to that fact, the only person in our group who was really keen on hiking was Nick – the rest of us were feeling a bit hot and lazy. So we opted for a ½ day boat ride around the park ($35 total – we split the cost 4 ways).
Normally the full day boat tour ($45) will take you through the mangrove forest and out to a deserted beach. Unfortunately, we arrived too late and weren’t able to do the full tour. No worries, we paid up our fee and hopped into a little long-boat.
For about 45 minutes we floated down the river. Unfortunately, they didn't have any boats left with shades over them, so we spent the time baking in the mid-day sun. 

There were no river banks to speak of, but thick mangrove forests sprouted up out of the water to mark the edge of the river. After an enjoyable (but monotonous) 45 minute boat ride, we arrived at the “Mangrove Viewing Tower.”

We docked our boat at the mouth of a small tributary and headed into the mangrove forest, walking along a small raised walkway.
After a couple minute “trek” we arrived at the viewing platform, which was a small tower rising just above the top of the mangroves.
Unfortunately, it didn’t offer much of a view. We were basically high enough to see the surrounding tree-tops but not high enough to see the whole forest (what's the metaphor here?). We stayed up there for a couple of minutes, enjoying the shade, and then headed back to our boat.
At this point, we were informed that our tour was basically over and it was time to head back to the ranger station the same way we came. BUT, our guide offered, if we were really interested in the mangroves, he could take us back down an alternate route via this little tributary.

Of course we were very interested, not only because it would make for a more interesting ride but it would also give us some shade from the mid-day sun. But there was a catch – we would have to pay $5 extra per-couple for the “extra petrol” that would be needed for the trip.

Well, of course we knew that this was complete BS and we certainly weren’t going to pay any more for this already way over-priced trip. And definitely not $5 / couple… for “petrol”! Not a chance in hell, considering gas to fill the boat would cost less than 2 bucks. We discussed the rangers' proposition for a couple of minutes and then grudgingly got back on our boat and proceeded to nap for the rest of the trip.

At least now we know why it’s difficult to find any information on this national park… because there isn’t much to it. It is definitely important for the Cambodian government to be saving the rapidly vanishing mangrove forests from illegal poaching and logging, but as far as tourism goes, there’s really not much to see here. All in all we had an enjoyable afternoon – albeit soured by the petty extortion attempt – but would I recommend others to visit the park? Definitely not.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Week in Sihanoukville

As soon as we gathered our friends together, we headed straight for the beach.

Sihanoukville is about 3 hours drive (on completely paved roads!) from Phnom Penh. Even though you can take a bus there for about $5, we splurged on our own private minivan for the 6 of us at $9 per person.

Originally, Nick and I were planning on skipping Sihanoukville, which is Cambodia's only real beach area, because we had heard that it wasn't anything to write home about,. But after a couple months on the road, we figured a week on the beach with our friends is just what the doctor ordered.

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend Nick and I met in Laos, we headed strait to Otres Beach and parked ourselves at the Queen Hill Resort for most of our stay. It was a nice place with a group of bungalows on a hill overlooking the beach. It's also the only place on the whole beach with 24 hour electricity and the options for A/C.

Most of the beaches we saw in Sihanoukville are completely overpopulated with lounge chairs and restaurants leaving no room at all for having your own little spot on the sand. Just the kind of beach I despise!
This being the case, we completely avoided these beaches all together (except for the occasional meal or beer) and stayed at our little sanctuary on a secluded corner of Otres Beach.
The water was beautiful, warm, and where we spent the majority of our time.
But while I was bobbing about lazily in the ocean, Claire was spending most of her time hunting through the sea to see what she could find. She was a super sleuth and found all kinds of awesome things on the bottom of the ocean, from hermit crabs to baby squids and octopuses!!

Some of the hermit crabs she found were pretty big
and we noticed that there was something soft and slimy on the back of their shells, so we put them in a cup of sea water to get a closer look.

It turned out that they had little sea anemones growing on their shells that opened up once we put them back into the water.
Clair was finding things all over the place and when we walked down the beach in the evening to catch the sunset, she found something that I'd never seen before. It was a little disk about an inch and a half in diameter and 1/4 inch thick with bristly hairs covering its body. On the top it had a brown and white pattern and with what looked like a thick wiry coat
but the bristles on the bottom were used like little cilia to move the thing forward along the sand
here's a video Claire took of the thing:
It was the weirdest little thing I've ever seen and none of us had any idea what it is! (anyone know?)

While we were in Sihanoukville, we broke our streak of having horrible food in Cambodia and had some awesome stuff. Our first day we stumbled upon a restaurant called LaPona that had kick-ass BBQ and we went back almost every night for their red snapper and amazing spare ribs.
a fabulous red snapper meal for only $4 USD

Sunset at Otres Beach
Sunset at Victory Beach
Snorkel ling trip out to Bamboo Island

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My First Balut

Eggs are a very popular food all over the world. Before I left the states, I never thought eggs were a particularly exciting food, but as I mentioned before, it's a whole nother story over here in Asia.

In Taiwan, you can't go anywhere without seeing tea eggs which are just hard boiled chicken eggs stewed in a dark sauce to give it a little extra flavour.
Here in Cambodia, it is duck eggs that are ubiquitous. Everywhere you go, you can see bowls of cooked eggs for sale - usually sitting on top of a steamer to keep warm.
After a couple of days in Cambodia, I discovered that these eggs are not just regular hard boiled eggs. They are fertilized duck eggs and they already have a little chick growing inside. Or at least, it was growing.... until someone took it from it's momma duck and cooked it!

I didn't have the guts to try this thing out on my own, but with my friends in tow, I was ready to try anything - so on our first night together, I convinced Clair to buy one so the 4 of us girls could try it out together.

The egg was served on a little plate with a lime, some leaves which I believe were basil (although we didn't use them), and a mixture of salt and pepper. After we bought the egg, the woman who sold it to us tapped on it with a little spoon to crack it open for us.
From here Meg took charge and began to break off the shell.
Usually the first step in eating this kind of egg is to suck out the juices that surround the chick, but once we saw what was inside, none of us were volunteering to suck anything out of it... so we skipped that step.
What we found inside was a black slimy mass unrecognizable as anything in particular. But once Meg began to dig around a bit in there, I was pretty sure I saw something that looked like a head and beak.
The chick was not completely formed yet, so it was very soft and mushy. No bones or tissues were solid enough to hold it together in any recognizable form.

After squeezing the lemon over the egg, Meg the Brave was the first take a bite.
I couldn't quite bring myself to try the duck, so my first bite was from the egg yolk. It looked somewhat questionable - there were some blood vessels and other goop hanging off of it - but it tasted just like a hard boiled egg yolk from any old chicken egg. Pretty tasty in fact.
 So after successfully eating the yolk, I manned up and tried the duck.
For all of the fuss, I have to say it was a bit anti-climatic. It didn't really taste like anything - mostly it tasted like the lemon we squirted on it. There was no other distinct taste that I could really describe. It was warm, mushy, and some parts of it were pretty slimy. But I think if you ate the little chick at the same time as the yolk, it would actually be a nice mix of textures.

After Meg and I tried it, Clair and Renee had to also - although no one was really excited about the idea of it.
In addition to the yolk and the chick, there was a little round white ball in the egg. I'm not sure what it's purpose or function is, but it was the size and texture of a rubber bouncy ball. Eating it was literally like taking a bite out of a superball. It was dry, had no flavor, and biting into it was like slicing into a piece of a rubber. We split it into 4 pieces and each took a bite.
All in all, I'd say the fetal duck egg (or balut) wasn't too bad. Like most things, the idea of it is much worse than the actual act of eating it. If I could get over the mental hurdle of it all - the idea of eating a duck fetus - I think it's a treat I could actually grow to enjoy. But, that's a pretty big hurdle to surmount, and I don't see myself snacking on one of these again any time soon! 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

We Have Friends!!!

Wooo Hooo, our friends are here!!!
Within 48 hours of Nick and I arriving in Phenom Phen, all of our friends had arrived at our hotel! Our first activity as a group was to go on a sunset cruise along Phenom Phen's riverfront.

One of the great things about having friends around now is that it gives Nick and I a bit of a break from haggling and hunting for transport and accommodation. Clair and Meg did a lot of work to get us on this boat before the sun set - within 15 minutes our price quote went from $25 to $50! Clair finally settled on $30 for an hour boat ride for 9 people and we got out on the water just in time to catch the sun set.
Nick and Renee getting on our boat 
It is awesome to have some friends around! Meg and Ross will be staying with us for a week and Clair and Neil will travel with us for 2. Renee is on a vacation with her boyfriend and his mom, but they'll be coming down to the beach with us for a week as well!
 the sun sets over Phenom Phen

the Royal Palace

And so just like that, our backpacking trip is transformed, temporarily, to a vacation with friends.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Day in Ratanakiri Province

After a day of loafing around Ratanakiri, we got up the energy to go check things out. We still weren't up for a hike so instead we payed for two motos to take us around town and show us the waterfalls.
We had just spent lots of time in Laos looking at waterfalls, so I was a bit waterfalled-out. I have to admit that the falls in Ratanakiri didn't quite match up to those we saw in Laos, but we still had a nice day driving around to all of them.

Waterfall 1:
Our guide told us we could jump from the top of this waterfall into the pool... but neither of us were interested in being the first one to try
Waterfall 2:

Waterfall 3:

a view from behind the falls

And finally to the volcanic crater lake just 5km outside of the town were locals and tourists go when they need to take a dip.
 After a full day riding down dirt roads on a motorbike, Nick and I were looking a bit orange and feeling pretty grimy so we welcomed the opportunity to go for a swim and rinse it all off.
we bear a striking resemblance to this plant!
The water was the perfect temperature - refreshing, but not too cold. We spent a couple of hours hanging out at the lake and swimming before heading back with our guides.

We had a really nice day and I could probably have spent a couple of days just sitting at the lake relaxing, but at this point in our trip, Nick and I are both ready to head back to civilization. We haven't been in a real city since Chiang Mai, Thailand, (we only stopped for a couple of house in Laos' only "big" city Vientiane) so we're ready for a couple days of paved roads and modern conveniences.

In addition to that, we JUST found out that 5 of our best friends from Taiwan were coming to meet us in Cambodia in a couple of days and we are SUPER excited for them to get here! When we said goodbye to our friends in Taiwan, we thought it would be years before we all saw each other again, but here they are - 2 months later!!!! I am beyond excited to see them all again.

And, although Nick has been an awesome travel partner and we're having an great time together, it will be really nice to have some friends again - someone else to talk to, some more people to hang out with. It will be a bit like a vacation from our travelling.

So now, weren't in a bit of a "sit and wait" mode. Tomorrow we'll go to Phenom Phen and basically just hang out until all of our friends arrive. and then.... we go to the beach!!!