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Plans are made to be changed ... As we running short of time, our planned two weeks in Laos shrink to two days in the capital Vientiane!
The small city on the banks of the Mekong charms us with many temples and old houses in colonial style. The French past is still remarkable today, after more than 50 years of independence: we see many French names and enjoy European food in one of the many French restaurants ...
We are back in Phnom Penh, just in time for the famous Water Festival. The city boils because of all the people that came from all over the country to join this big party. For three days traditional rowing boats will compete on the Tonlé Sap channel in front of the King's Palace. This festival is the most important one in the country. It commemorates the end of the rainy season marked by the change of direction in which the water flows from or to the immense lake Tonlé Sap.
We had the chance to get official tickets to see the spectacle from the first rows: after about three hundred boats competing for the whole day, the Cambodian Leader - King Sihanouk - came to greet the rowers and to wish them good luck for the competition. He was right next to us!
After sunset, several illuminated floats took the place of the small boats. Slowly they floated up and down the wide river while in the background fireworks were lit.
We couldn't have imagined a more enchanting end of our visit to Cambodia!
Phnom Penh might be the capital of Cambodia and by far the biggest town in the country but it's still far from European standards. The streets are mostly unsealed, the traffic is chaotic and at every corner street vendors gather.
We are impressed by many historical buildings like the Royal Palace an the towns location along the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap Channel.
As we have one week left to the annual Water Festival takes place, we decide to make a short trip to the South of the country to the Gulf of Thailand. We cross dry sunny plains and the Elephant Mountains (unfortunately without seeing the animals). Between mountains and sea we are far from the typical Cambodian landscapes we were used to up till now. We discover holiday villages like Sihanoukville, Kep or Bokor - the later two seem more like ghost towns. They were built at the beginning of the 20th century by the French colonialists and left alone during the years of wars. To feel the charming atmosphere they once had, we need a lot of imagination. Nowadays abandoned churches, casinos and hotels tell stories of better times ...
We cross Cambodia from west to east, north of the immense lake Tonlé Sap - a water and fish reservoir in the heart of the country. Its water level varies dramatically between the dry and wet seasons, which is the reason the people on its banks either live in houses built on poles high above the ground or even in floating villages. We discover that the whole country lives with its feet under water for half of the year! At the end of the rainy season about 90% of the country is flooded (which is very good for the agriculture) and only some of the few main roads are still usable - everywhere else the only means of transportation that can be used is a cart drawn by buffaloes. That might be the reason why the life concentrates along the roads: Cambodian people are in a constant move. By bicycle, motorcycle with oversized trailers, overloaded trucks or carts behind buffaloes, cows or horses. The load they carry on any of these are just beyond imagination.
But along the roads there is happening a lot more: the people fish with small nets, children enjoy the deeper waters and it is the bathroom for everyone. 90% of the population lives in huts without flowing water or canalisation ...
Our path over Cambodian roads is a continuing spectacle and sometimes a real adventure having in mind the state of the roads. On minor roads we sometimes don't even reach 20 km/h - potholes, washouts, broken bridges and flooded passages won't let us get bored. Our rhythm of travelling slows down and we enjoy the views for a longer time: rice fields, palms and traditional houses keep us smiling ...
Like most of the visitors that come to Cambodia, we also visit the temples of Angkor within the first days of our stay. It is no surprise that these astonishing monuments are called one of the wonders of the world - we also fall under the spell of these many temples hidden in the jungle. From the 9th to the 14th century the area hosted different capitals of the former Kingdoms of the Khmer. The many succeeding kings tried to compete in building the biggest and most impressive temples and palaces.
Four days we spend to discover the highlights of art of the Khmer and are astonished by their architecture, reliefs and sculptures. Some of these we tried to capture in pictures to give you an idea of their skills ...
Cambodia opens slowly its doors for us. After a relatively quick immigration without much hassle we are called back - four kilometres behind the border. The customs officer found out that he does not want to be responsible for letting us into the country with our car. And so we spend the first 27 hours in this country in the customs house until we finally get a permission from the main customs in Phnom Penh. Thanks to the French Embassy who wrote a letter to customs ensuring them that it's OK to let us into Cambodia! On the evening of the next day we start with mixed feelings our second approach into the country ...
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