With a full week off for Christmas, we just couldn't help ourselves. We had to visit what Cambodians call Koh Tral, an island off the coast of Cambodia that actually belongs to Vietnam. From the beach in Kep (one of our most favourite spots in the Kingdom), you can see Phu Quoc (it's Vietnamese name) rising like a giant out of the sea.
This is a sore spot for all Cambodians as they claim it should still be theirs. If you take a look at the map, it is almost comical how out of place Phu Quoc is in relation to the rest of Vietnam. But hey, colonialism did some funny things to international borders!
Needless to say, we've been curious about this mighty island for three years and we finally got the chance to explore. From west to east and north to south, we are confident that we left no stone unturned. And in the process, we discovered beautiful hidden beaches, delicious seafood, and random fun monuments.
Word in the region says that Phu Quoc is going to be developed into the Vietnam 'Phuket'. From what we saw, they have a long way to go. As for now, the island is quite far off the beaten track and there are much easier ways to find nice beaches.
We have to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for our family mantra over the past few months. 'Do the thing you think you cannot do.'
Because, as we've found out since Aya was born, having a baby changes everything. It is rewarding, definitely. But it's definitely more challenging and chaotic and frustrating at times.
We've been on a huge learning curve, getting the hang of this parenting thing. Our first instinct was always to freak out, about everything. Like taking her out in public (what if she cries!). Going on trips (what about her naps!!!), hanging out with friends (how can we eat AND watch our crawling-bundle-of-energy!?!), and doing other things we love.
But this quote, which sits prominently on our fridge in all its colourful, stripey glory, is a constant impetus to at least give it a try. Even if the going is slower or more complex.
We tested ourselves to a new limit by going to our first ultimate frisbee tournament with Aya. In all honesty, it was hard. But we're glad we did it and still believe that we had more fun out on the field with all its challenges (finding baby sitters, getting her to sleep amidst all the stimulation, and not to mention our own aching muscles and fatigue), than if we had stayed home.
And hey, our team came in second! And it challenged us to trust new friends to care for our Aya (a whole new degree of doing something we never thought we could do!).
So, three cheers for Eleanor Roosevelt. You've pushed us farther than we ever thought we could go.
We just finished hosting the Gosselin grandparents in Cambodia for a month. They got a pretty indepth view of how our lives operate here (a lot revolving around Aya). Aside from eating out a lot in Phnom Penh and showing off our favourite places, we had a couple great trips to the south coast. Highlights included a boat ride to the ocean from Kampot and good old BBQ on the beach in Sihanoukville.
On a trek through the jungle in central Cambodia last year, we got a tip from one of the villagers about a large plane that crashed some 30 years ago into the side of a mountain a couple days walk away. For the next 1.5 years, we dreamed about trying to find it but nothing materialized due to the remote location and the time investment required to attempt a visit. One thing was for sure - this was the greatest adventure Cambodia had to offer.
Finally this weekend, enough courage was mounted, enough planning done, enough time off acquired to attempt this crazy journey into uncharted mountains and jungle.
We decided that we would bicycle into the village to arrange a guide. From there we would have flexibility to carry our bikes across rivers and over trees while trying to follow ox-cart trails. This is exactly what we did. When we reached the village there was good news and bad news. The good news was that our contact from last year (the only one who knew the way), would take us to the crash site but the bad news was that he couldn't leave for 2 days because of a village festival the next day. We decided that the 3 of us (Steve, Dan, and Mark) would set out ourselves and our guide (travelling much faster) would catch up a couple days.
We set out by bicycle and biked along jungle paths for the rest of the day before setting up camp. The next day we started biking up the mountain where the guide had said he would meet us. At about 300m up the mountain it became too steep and we had to ditch our bikes. After this, we continued on foot the rest of the day another 1000m up the mountain where we camped and waited for the guide. While we waited, we summited the mountain (another 500m up), making sure to stick to animal and ox-cart trails since we didn't know how many land mines were in the area. We shivered through the nights in the damp mountain air and spent most of the spare time tending to the fire and cooking.
Finally we met up with the guide and we set off to find the crash site. This involved hiking pretty much all the way back up to the summit before taking a detour down a different way. At one point we sat to have a snack while the guide searched for the plane. It took nearly 2 hours before he found the wreck again (since he hadn't been there since first accidently stumbling upon it during a hunting trip a few years ago).
The long journey and the delays were well worth the effort because the crash site was unbelievable. Actually, equally unbelievable and overwhelming after we realized the true magnitude of the crash and the lives lost. The plane (a large cargo plane first used in WWII and later sold from America to China to Cambodia) had hit the mountain with such force that the cockpit was completely compressed and buried in the dirt. The rest of the plane was in three pieces but quite well preserved, despite being torn apart and crushed substantially during the crash. We spent several hours scouring the wreck for clues to its origin and final flight. This was no easy task as the plane was on a very steep slope on the side of the mountain. It was also difficult to get perspective of the crash site because of the number of trees and vines all over the area.
After documenting the crash site we paid our respects and headed back to camp as the first step in a long return journey down the mountain and out of the jungle. The final night, the rain pelted our hammocks (with tarps) for 10 hours straight which was enough to penetrate all defenses and soak us to the bone. In the morning we stumbled around to pack our stuff and left the camp area exhausted but enthusiastic, having accomplished what we set out to do.
I've been to Kep almost 10 times now while living in Cambodia. One feature of the landscape that always sticks out for me is a small island 8km off the coast. The island (Koh Karang) can be seen from the hillside or the sailing club on a clear day but most people don't even notice it. The island very much resembles the classic small sand bump with a single palm tree where pirates are cast off, thrown a bottle of rum, amd destined to sit for all eternity growing their beards long and eating coconuts.
For a couple years now, my friend Tim and I have been dreaming about marooning ourselves on this island for a night (a sliver of the real marooning experience of course). Finally this weekend the dream was to be made reality. Tim now has an inflatable kayak which can be worn like a backpack and transported relatively easy. This was the craft that we used to set off to the island this late friday afternoon.
The sea was calm when we departed the Kep shoreline and we made good time, averaging a few kilometres per hour. As we got closer and closer to the island we were shocked to realise that it was a lot larger than we had seen from shore. Closer still revealed quite a bit of activity on and around the island. When we finally docked just before nightfall, we noted the island was at least a couple hundred meters in diameter, with a couple small shacks and some small fishing camps. Also, at least 10 mysterious boats were docked on shore. Some people came to talk with us and we used the normal ignorant and naive foreigner story of accidently arriving on the island. Although suspicious, the island dwellers let us throw up our hammocks for the night. We saw some suspicious activity so we didn't ask too many questions.
The island is 1/3 of the way to the Vietnamese controlled island, Phu Quoc, so it would not be surprising that some illegal smuggling or fishing activities go on with the small island as one of the hubs. One activity Tim observed from previous boating in the area involved petrol smuggling where natural currents were used to float canisters of petrol from Vietnam to Cambodia where they finally rested in the bay of a small island near the popular tourist spot, Rabbit island.
All in all, our stay on the island was quite uneventful and we enjoyed hammock camping and cooking over a driftwood fire. The island was like a hub for pirates but relatively nice ones. The next morning, the wind picked up and the sea was so choppy it took us twice as long to get back to Kep shore (3+ hours)
Our trip to Mondolkiri (and Kratie + Kampong Cham) was terrific. Steve and Jodi had access to a truck which made independent travel much easier - especially since Aya came along ;)
Mondolkiri ranged from cool to freezing - it was amazing! Aside from the high altitude, the rain + humidity made it even colder. The downside was the slippery roads, which delayed us more than once.
Bou Sraa Waterfall
The waterfall is magnificant but the less known hike down the opposite side of the falls was breathtaking. Complete with swamp crossings and jungle ladders, great views are available for the adventurous.
Our truck was the centerpiece of at least 2 adventures. The first was a dissapearing act. On closer inspection, the truck had creeped backward across a parking lot 50m to nessle itself inbetween a pile of bricks and a tree. It must have had the perfect tilt since it missed several trees and support beams for the carpark along the way. And the best part - no damage to the truck or the parking lot fence!
The second was getting stuck on the way to Leng Khin Falls. The road was so slippery we had to turn around but then we couldn't go up any hills. We spent more than an hour ripping vegetation out from the side of the road to coat the slippery road in foliage. Our efforts proved successful as it only took us 4 hours to get back to the main road (including a truck river-wash)
We saw the signs for a few days before finally committing ourselves to finding the place. And there were definitely a few times where we second guessed ourselves and thought about giving up.
Like when we pulled up to the last 'Bananas' sign which pointed straight down a rabbit trail surrounded by jungle. Or when we got to the end of the track and were met with a rundown wooden house and a bulldog guarding the front steps. Or when the German owner assured us Bananas was open (even though she was wearing her pyjamas) and ushered us THROUGH her house to her back 'patio' and sat us at a crumbling wooden table near a creek. Or when I had to use the bathroom and she motioned me towards a toilet in the jungle stained with who knows what and open to the elements (there was a door, but it had so many holes in it, it didn't need to be there). I prayed hard the entire time I did my business that no other brave souls would walk down her rabbit trail and catch me mid-pee. Or when the power kept on switching off leaving us in pitch-black, mosquito-filled darkness. Or when our new German-owner-friend went on a tirade about how much she hates Mondulkiri and missionaries and Cambodians and we just stared at her in silent amazement.
But in the end, it was all worth it. The food was incredible. Think gourmet European food - bisque and duck and salad and passionfruit mojitos (that's not really european, but you know...), and eggplant parmesan. And it tasted even better considering it all came out of a shack in the woods made by a rather feral (as someone described her later!) host.
We packed our 5 week visit home to Canada to the brim. We spent time in four provinces and 20 cities + towns (and a couple of farms) to visit family and friends. Aya took 11 plane rides (and was a star on most of them) and was initiated to all that is Canadian:: road-tripping, long drawn out summer evenings (light until 9:30pm!!!), prairie sunsets (still the most beautiful in the world), baby showers, long walks, hiking, Badlands and mountains, ultimate frisbee in the park, swimming in lakes, Tim Hortons, berry-picking, and summertime BBQing.
The trip was everything we could have hoped for - a shout of thanks to all of our family and friends who hosted us, spoiled us and cared for us during the past month.
We were lucky enough to have my (Amie) parents visit for a second time since Aya's birth. We explored Cambodia's beaches, took Aya for her first dip in a real pool, and had an impromptu family reunion when Chantelle joined us for a weekend. It was a refreshing and wonderful two weeks!