30.06.2011 - 15.08.2011
After waiting in nomans land for nearly an hour between 2 big border structures, one finished and unused (Cambodian), the other still covered in bamboo scaffolding with a bumpy mud track diversion (Laos), we finally enter northern Cambodia. First impression not great, as far as the eye can see swathes of forest flattened and huge piles of roots and trunks piled up in lines, with the odd really tall tree stranded in random places.
First stop Siem Reap, home of the Angkorian temples and unfortunately not too close to the Laos Boarder, so after one 13 hour bus journey we arrive safe and sound at a lovely guest house called the Golden Mango where we meet James and Becca on a summer brake from uni. As we got in late we left James and Becca to get up at 5.30 and watch the sunrise at Angkor, but unfortunately it was a bit cloudy & drizzly. We meet them at 10ish for a day of exploring the complex by tuk tuk. Angkor Watt may be one of the most spectacular temples around but it is only one of many temples built in the area by the khmer kings/people and is no means the oldest. James and Becca were only here for one day so we tried to fit in as many sites as possible wizzing round on this tuk tuk (which are different to any others previously seen, more like a trailer attached to a moped). From temples of grandeur and huge scale such as Angkor Thom (or the temple of faces, 300 odd carved into the towers to represent the god with a king'ish resemblance, classic king making him self godly), to temples in ruins reclaimed by the forest hundreds of years ago (and the perfect location for a Lara Croft Tomb raider film!). There were also half finished temples, apparently one had been built out of hard lime stone which made it very hard to carve, so they never finished the work (or the khmer king popped it and his son had something better to build). After a long day exploring we headed back to the Golden Mango to drink our free jugs of Angkor beer before heading out into town. All the action seemed to be down 'pub street' the most non-asian street name so far! We said goodbye to James & Becca about 1am and off they went on their night bus to Bangkok.
After a slow start to the day we visited the very modern Angkor museum, a bit pricey but explained a load about Angkor city, Hinduism & Buddhism. We spent the rest of the day wandering around Siem Reap along the river and into the crowded old market.
Our third and final day was another visit to Angkor temples, seeing some of the temples we didn't see on the first day, some further afield and older sites. One imparticular was Bantei Serai which was about 20km away from the rest of Angkor. It was pretty miniature in comparison to some of the others probably as it wasn't a royal site, and our bargain guidebook came in handy (genuine copy of course). We finished off the day as the rain came in at some of the original and oldest brick temples more than a thousand years old, (almost 600 years older than Angkor Wat), and then escaped back to the Golden Mango for some more free beer!
Next stop was Battembang, the other side of the Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap. As soon as we got off the bus we were literally surrounded by tuk tuk drivers and hotel touts which were impossible to shake off. So like all the other travellers we ended up at the Royal Hotel, which turned out to be a steal at £6 a night, they gave us a massive deluxe room with a balcony!
Nearby are the Khmer Rouge killing caves where they bludgeoned people to death and pushed the corpses through a skylight hole and into the cave below! All in all a pretty grim & surreal place as they have now collected all the remaining bones and put them in a glass cabinet next to a gold reclining Buddha. On a positive note the views from the top of the hill of the surrounding area were fantastic. Another cave close by is home to “millions” of bats which leave their cave at dusk, but just as we started to watch & wait the heavens opened! So the bats just swirled around the entrance and didn't come out. We had to make do with our tuk tuk driver saying he was batman in his waterproof cape and ride back to town in his batmobile tuk tuk, stickers and all !!! He was a bit strange but nice enough!
As we'd had a 'hectic' few weeks we needed to recharge a bit, so we headed down to Cambodia's small stretch of coast and the town of Sihanoukville, home to Cambodia's only sea major port.. As we didn't get up to much over the four days, all I can say is, the beach was lovely (except you do get pestered a bit by sellers, and I lost a game of noughts and crosses with a 12 year old so I had to buy a bracelet, ha), the beach side bars had a great location and the seafood BBQ platers every night where delicious :o) (also it seems to be the next British get away because it was flooded).
Kampot a few hours down the coast was the next stop where the local speciality is black pepper. The town itself is nestled on the river with classic French colonial buildings running along the banks, but not much else except maybe a unique collection of roundabouts, one with a massive dorian fruit and another a millennium celebration consisting of the date in big numbers and a sea gull (millennium white elephants must dot the world, some costing more than others!). We joined a tour and headed up to the Bokor nature reserve, we had a little hike up through the jungle where we were introduced to some nasty locals, slimy blood sucking leaches, (the one on my leg had a great meal, by the time I spotted it he was nice and fat, and the bite bled for hours). At the top of this collection of forested hills is Bokor hill station, a retreat constructed by the French to flee the heat, including a posh hotel, the only Catholic Church in Cambodia and a really windy road. This was before the 20's and since then it has been left to the elements, used as a killing site by the Khmer rouge and following that it was literally the front line during the Khmer rouge/ Vietnam war where the hotel belonged to the Khmer rouge and the church to the Vietnamese with the no mans land between peppered with land mines which were only removed by the UN in the early noughties.
Now typically the richest man in Cambodia is building a massive casino complex and will be renovating the old hotel after the near completion of the replacement road, through this “nature reserve” (not a small job). The best part about it is that no Cambodian national will be able to set a foot inside this casino as they're not allowed by law to gamble, priceless! Apparently that law is a throw back to when the French came in under Napoleon the 3rd and introduced gambling and screwed all the natives out of their wealth, Not priceless. The guide we had was and an interesting man and had survived the Khmer rouge as a teenager by hiding out in a jungle village community somewhere nearby, but seemed quite positive for the future of Cambodia. Finally the end of the day was spent crusing the river and watching the fisher men heading out to sea.
Next day's stop was meant to be at the coastal village of Kep but we woke up to torrential rain and decided to change to a direct bus ticket to Phnom Penh, not much fun on the beach in the rain, so onwards to the capital. Another bustling Asian city with motor bikes, tuk tuk's and the odd posh car rampaging round the streets, but surprisingly sky scrapers were scarce. At the centre of Phnom Penh we find our selves again on the banks of the mighty Mekong, and in the riverside bars enjoying a few happy hour beers watching the world go by. The historical/religious city sites as in much of the Cambodia suffered badly in the hands of the khmer rouge and the various wars and as a result any sites with any significance were decimated and been have been restored. The Royal palace and Silver Pagoda were a bit underwhelming to be honest, with the pagoda apparently built on thousands silver tiles (Unfortunately didn't realise this until afterwards but they definitely had the carpets down!). It was basically just some nice looking concrete. From our visit to Angkor the museum was a must with many artefacts moved for safekeeping and display, but this was not as fulfilling as some of the guide books had promised and definitely not as high tech as the museum in Angkor. That afternoon we did the Phnom Penh walking tour, taking in the majority of the city's landmarks including Buddhist temples, victory monument, the old market, the American embassy (more like a modern fort), the royal hotel etc etc... All in all the city isn't the biggest with a lot of construction going on, but a nice place to wonder around. We found a good bar/restaurant called 'The Laughing Fatman' a couple of doors down from our hotel and made the most of the tasty food and cocktail offers :-)
The final day we explored the darker side of Cambodia's history with visits to the Khmer Rouge prison and then on to the killing fields. The guide showed us around the once high school turned torture centre, including the cells, the torture implements, some pretty graphic photographs of the final victims left in the cells ( Sian nearly fainted and had to be taken out for a drink and fresh air). There were also hundreds of registration images of the people admitted to the prison up on the wall, in a strange way the Khmer Rouge documented all details of the victims and recorded their individual “confessional crimes”. All would have been moved on by night trucks to the fields with only literally a handful of those admitted to the prison surviving to tell the tale. The killing fields were about 40 minutes away by tuk tuk, and a glass pagoda now houses the remains of some of the victims which have been exhumed. The displays and information at the visitors centre outlined the many brutal killings/execution methods used in an attempt to save bullets, and highlighted the existing tree in the fields used to smash babies and young children to death. It was also incredible to learn that the US & Thailand actually continued to supply the Khmer Rouge with arms & funding even after they were overthrown in an attempt to regain the country from the Vietnamese and surviving Cambodian people. Worse still the UN still recognised the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia until the early 90's, whilst Cambodians are still waiting for justice!!!
So after a pretty serious, humbling day of sightseeing, a few drinks and a nice meal was in order, so back to the laughing fatman for our final evening in Cambodia before departing by boat down the last stretch of the Mekong.