After a sleepless night spent in a corner of Kuala Lumpur’s Low Cost Carrier Terminal we arrived in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap early on May 6th. Well it was sleepless for me, Lisa has the fantastic ability to be able to sleep anywhere!
Immediately we were taken with the humour and friendliness of the Cambodians, a pleasant change from the blandness we experienced with Malaysians. We were picked up from the airport by a Tuk-Tuk driver from our guesthouse, Cambodian Tuk-Tuks are a glorified two wheel trailer towed behind a scooter – a fun experience straightaway!
Our guesthouse (Siem Reap Rooms) was great, a real step up in quality from that we had been used to in Malaysia, cheap, clean, and comfortable and run by a very helpful Canadian couple. We liked the laid back vibe of Siem Reap straight away and spent the morning catching up on some sleep before enjoying one of the lovely salads at the nearby ‘Peace Cafe’. Siem Reap is the ‘base camp’ for a visit to the nearby ancient temples of Angkor, the supposed eighth wonder of the world, which means that it is very tourist friendly. We kicked off our Angkor visit that evening at the ‘Pre Rup’ temple, which we climbed to watch the sun setting over the surrounding jungle.
Later we went for our first ‘Khymer Curry’, a tasty coconut based curry – Cambodian food is similar to Thai but not so spicy. Siem Reap comes alive at night as tourists descend on ‘Pub Street’ and the surrounding alleys to enjoy the social vibe – after conservative Malaysia this was very welcome!
This was my second visit here (first time in 2006, read more here) and I saw both the town and the temples from another perspective – I enjoyed them just as much if not more than last time, Siem Reap in particular has seen a lot of improvement. The Angkor Temples cover a large area and you need more than a day to take it all in, we went for a three day pass (US$40) although many people spend a week or more here. To cover the distances we hired a Tuk-Tuk driven by friendly driver Chamnan, with his big red ‘Lucky’ helmet, for our three day visit.
On our first full day we cruised around the Grand Circuit, which took us on a big loop of the outer lying temples. We started at the furthest away Hindu temple of Banteay Srei, which sits 25km north-east of the main group of temples – a long and dusty ride from Siem Reap in the Tuk-Tuk! All the temples have similar features but each have their own charm, Banteay Srei is a kind of mini-temple compared to the others and is thus named the Jewel of the Angkor temples.
Near the Banteay Srey is the Cambodian Land Mine museum, a real eye opener, which details the terrific work done to rid the country of these horrible devices. Cambodia has been affected by several wars in recent decades and is the most densely land mined country in the world. In 2011 alone 200 people were killed by land mines and many more maimed – we have seen a crazy amount of people, including children, with missing limbs.
Back to the temples, which were built around 1000 years ago and each was built in the honour of the serving king at the time. It must have been an unbelievable effort to build these temples when you consider they had no modern tools to help move the massive stones used in their construction – some temples are over 50m high! The Grand Circuit took us all day and we saw lots of temples (I won’t bore you with all the names), some more interesting than others. Having been to many before I was happy to just sit somewhere and take it in.
The level of detail put into the temples is incredible, which is particularly evident in the carefully chisled carvings that cover most of the walls.
Most of the temples have a theme such as water or animals, we particularly liked the Elephants at the Eastern Baray Temple.
At all of the temples there were lots of children (some as your as 6) waiting to sell us souvenirs with a shouts of “Lady you wanna buy scarf?” or “Sir, you buy postcard?”. Whilst they can be quite pushy and persistent they are also amusingly entertaining and many were almost fluent in English. Of course I don’t condone the use of ‘cute’ kids to make more money from the tourists, it is just a game to them, but hopefully at least the language skills will benefit them later in life.
As well as the kids there was always a throng of stalls around the entrance/exit of each temple selling souvenirs and cold drinks. Of course there is a lot of competition so when they saw us a chorus of “Hey lady, you want cold drink?” or “Sir, you want scarf for your girlfriend?” would be chirped in our direction. I didn’t mind the harassment, they just want to make some money and I enjoyed the banter with them!
On our second day we toured in the inner circuit, which arguably has the most interesting temples. Where better to start than sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most famous temple. It was a painful 4am wake up but as the first rays of light came up behind the temple we realised it was well worth it – nicely mirrored by the lake in the foreground.
We also had the benefit of being getting inside the temple before the throngs of tourists arrived meaning we could have a good look around in peace! It is believed to be one of the longest continually used temples in the world having been a working temple for over 1000 years. I suppose you can think of Angkor Wat as the Rolls Royce of the temples – it’s refined and the attention to detail is incredible.
That said nearby Angkor Thom is a close second and has many features not found at Angkor Wat, such as the smiling faces of the Bayon that seem to stare at you wherever you are.
Angkor Thom is a large area that was once a ‘city’ and includes many temples within its walls – it took us several hours to walk round it all. I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a tacky tourist photo with some locals dressed in traditional costume!
For me the best styling was at the Ta Prohm temple, which has been ‘reclaimed’ by the jungle, I remember it from my last visit and it was no less impressive this time. Astonishingly large trees have grown between cracks in the walls, you really have to see it too believe it.
This was the last temple on our tour and since my last visit I noticed they have been doing some fantastic reconstruction work, which must have taken a lot of painstaking work.
Considering the early start we were knackered and ‘templed out’ by the early afternoon, the heat and humidity in the midday sun is unbearable, so we went back to the guesthouse for a much needed rest.
Suitably refreshed the next day we felt ready to get back in the Tuk-Tuk for a journey out to the Beng Mealea temple and the nearby Kompong Khleang floating village, which is 70km out of Siem Reap. It should be noted that whilst Tuk-Tuks are good fun they are not suited to long journeys on the dusty and bumpy Camodian roads. Nevertheless the two hour journey took us through lots of villages and farmland with friendly waving locals, which gave us an insight into the way of life in rural Cambodia.
The Beng Mealea is picturesque temple that is mainly in ruins, which we found ourselves scrambling over as we were guided around by a friendly local ‘guide’.
We tried not to think about how safe the structure was and were glad that we noticed the sign saying that over 500 landmines have been cleared from in and around the temple on our way out!
From the temple it was then an hour or so drive out to the floating village, with the last few kilometers being down the bumpiest road imaginable. Of course to view the village properly we had to go on a boat, although our vessel could barely be given that title! Equipped with a big engine that constantly overheated and broke down, and an inefficient propeller on the end of a long pole that sprayed muddy water everywhere and picked up all the rubbish, fishing nets, and general crap from the bottom of the shallow muddy river – we were stopping every five minutes to make ‘repairs’.
Add to that our ‘captain’ couldn’t speak English nor did he seem like an able seaman and the deafening roar of the over-sized engine it made for am ’interesting’ trip. Nevertheless, when we finally got out to the floating village on the lake (we were thankful for it being very calm!) it was interesting to see. Not really sure why they live out there but there was a whole community with schools, shops, and houses.
The happy waving locals seemed happy to see us and generally content with life, despite living with basic amenities and in obvious poverty. We were thankfully to disembark the ‘Boat’ back at the jetty, but had to laugh at the Cambodian craziness of the trip!
We were sad to leave Siem Reap the next day, it is a nice town with some rally nice locals and a good nightlife, but after four days there we had to push on to Cambodia’s capital Phomn Phen. It was a four hour trip in a speedy mini-bus and we arrived in Phomn Phen at lunch time. First priority was to get a Visa for Vietnam, which we easily arranged in 24 hours with a travel agent in the backpacker area on the riverside – I love that in Asia it is always easy to get things sorted!
We spent three nights in Phomn Phen, which isn’t really a sight-seeing city but a good place to soak up the Cambodian way of life. To be honest in the heat of the day you don’t want to be out in the sun for too long! We did have a look at the golden roofed Royal Palace, which stands out from the crowded Phomn Phen skyline.
We also had a look at the city’s temple – Wat Phomn – and did some souvenir shopping at the central market. Like Angkor there were throngs of children keen to sell us their wares, such as this cheeky chappy who wanted to exchange flip-flops!
A lot of these street kids in Phomn Phen we wearing these “I could be your son/daughter” T-Shirts issued by the UK’s Save the Children charity – not sure if they are trying to encourage people to buy from them or not?
Our last day in Phomn Phen was a sombre one as we got in learnt about the horrors of the genocide committed in Cambodia by Pol Pots Khymer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. Firstly we visited ‘the Killing Fields’ about 20 minutes out of the city, which is where thousands of Cambodians (and a few foreigners) were mass murdered for ‘crimes’ against the regime. I visited here before on my last visit, but they have improved it greatly with a good audio tour that details what happened here. Nevertheless it is hard to believe what happened here and I’ll spare you the gory details. The sites poignant monument is a large pagoda that is rammed full of skulls from some of the victims – men, women, and children.
Possibly even more moving was the S21 prison in the heart of the city where many people were interrogated and tortured until they confessed to their crimes, at which point they were subsequently trucked out to the Killing Fields. The torture was barbaric enough but sickly the Kyhmer Rouge documented each prisoner in detail including taking a photo of each one. These photos are on display in the cells of the prison, which was former primary school, ghosts of the past staring out at you.
I don’t want to dwell on this part of Cambodian history, I can’t get my head around the insanity of it. Regardless of the past the friendly and optimistic Cambodians are getting on with their lives and are rightly proud of their country.
We couldn’t end our Cambodia trip like this so after hearing good things (thanks Mik and Sarah!) we’ve spent the last couple of days in the sleepy town of Kampot on the south coast. With its riverside setting, laid-back cafes, and ageing French buildings it’s a nice place to while-away a few days. There’s not much see here but we did go into the Bakor National Park where a mountain peak (1080m) with a recently built Big Buddha statue on top offers fantastic views around the surrounding area.
At the top of the mountain are the ruins of former French colonial buildings including a grand hotel/casino and a catholic cathedral. The buildings have been unoccupied since the Khymer Rouge soldiers made their last stand here in the 1980’s, but now are being redeveloped to for the booming tourism industry – come back in a few years and I’m sure it will be looking good.
This evening we took a sunset cruise along the Teuk Chhou river before enjoying one last Khymer curry.
Tomorrow morning we are off to Vietnam, the border of which is not too far from here. We will spend a couple of days on the Mekong Delta before heading up to Ho Chi Minh City.
Cambodia has really got to us, we came thinking it was all about Angkor Wat but are leaving knowing there is much more to it than that. The Cambodians are lovely people whose infectious smiles and warm character have really inspired us – there’s no doubt about it, we are sad to leave…
You can find a load more photos from our trip in Cambodia here.