Cambodia – Of Temples And Thunderstorms

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, arriving in Cambodia from Bangkok was definitely an experience in itself. The bus from Bangkok was first class with its posh seats and 2-level seating. It’s just when you reach the border that things start to get a bit ropey.

First, is the crossing itself, which is a good lesson in the art of queuing whilst getting nowhere. Then there’s the transfer to your next bus, which comes in the form of twenty dilapidated motorcycles with sidecar-type cages, coupled with a mad frenzy of flying rucksacks, kind of like a giant version of ‘find the lady’ with a lot more running and panic.

Then there’s a one-hour wait, followed by a 10km drive in the back of a truck, which makes you feel like you are being delivered to the front line of some unseen battle, which, when it arrives, comes in the form of a war of road against arse. The red dusty crater-pitted ‘track’ between the border and Siam Reap is quite an experience.

If the craters aren’t bad enough, the bus itself is fitted shock absorbers from a train, giving you the feeling that you are constantly riding a racing bike with no tyres on the cobbled streets of old London town. If only the lady-boys of Thailand knew that to have your bits and pieces re-arranged only costs you 3 dollars and 6 hours on a bus! Stunning value.

Ok, so entertainment on this journey came in the way of a future Darwin award winner, who, upon realizing that it was a complete waste of his time to do 40 separate trips in his small pickup van, in order to re-stock the whole of Siam Reap’s corner shops, decided to pile all the stock onto the back and do it in one trip.
I do not exaggerate (this time) when I tell you the ‘car’ was piled up at least 12’ in the air (seeing is believing) and 6’ wide, and the driver’s and passenger’s seats were both crammed with boxes, leaving approximately 6 inches for the driver to squeeze into.

Whilst driving this mountainous roller-skate along this crater-ridden road, the driver happened upon a bridge with a steep ramp and a bit of a lip. Did our driver turn back knowing the situation was futile, given that the wheels of the car could not turn properly as they were firmly pressed into the wheel arch? No – did he bugger. He pressed on, and with a bump and a crack snapped his rear axle, blocking the bridge for all traffic. Oh how we laughed. In fact, we laughed for about 20 minutes until we realized no one was actually going to do anything about it and there was no way to get round the ‘mountain’ and no other roads to take! Oh…

For God's sake honey, we're only going away for the weekend!

For God’s sake honey, we’re only going away for the weekend!

After much shouting and negotiation, whilst a storm raged in the background and the sun set (very stunning scene), and much pushing and pulling, a truck arrived. It took us an hour of pitching in to unload the ‘car’ and load up the truck, which went away full, even though we’d only half emptied the car. Fortunately with the car now half empty, we were able to push it out the way and continue our journey, 3 hours late and very filthy.

Sorry Dad for not being able to call you on your birthday, but you see there was this car and…we didn’t get there until 11:30…. and….18 hours it took…and…..sorry.

So, the next day, with not a day to lose on this leg of the journey, we plunged straight into the temples: A relatively recent addition to the tourist trail, the temples at Angkor are a beautiful sight to behold.

The temples here are spread out over many hundreds of square kilometres and if you wanted to spend a full week visiting temples, you may just get around them all. But for us just one day would have to suffice.

The (one time) walled city of Angkor Thom, spread out over 40km sq (approx), contains some of the most beautiful temple designs anywhere in the world. Both Buddhist and Hindu temples exist side by side, although, depending on the ruling classes at various times, temples were converted from one religion to another.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAContained within Angkor Thom is the magnificent Bayon temple, a marvel of smiley-face architecture. A very unique design exists here in that everywhere you look you will see a big smiley face beaming back at you. What the purpose of this is for eludes me, but they do make you smile a lot – which may indeed have been the idea behind it in the first place.

The Bayon was also where we first encountered the saying ‘one dollar for Buddha’. Upon turning a corner in any given temple, at anytime, you could be kindly accosted by a Buddhist monk whispering ‘one dollar for Buddha’ whilst thrusting joss-sticks in your hand. The art of hiding without hiding is well practiced by these monks and unless you walk around the temples treating all monks as ‘Kato’ whilst you adopt the Chief Inspector Clueso role, then be prepared to be caught out. Shouting NOT NOW KATO! at these guys seems to go over their heads, but if we all keep up the pressure then maybe, just maybe, in the future these monks could be carrying kendo sticks and leaping at you from behind a smiley face – now that I’d buy for a dollar.

The terrace of the elephants here is just as beautiful: A 300m 3-tiered walkway with carvings of elephants of varying sizes and ages all along the walls. It looks very impressive when you stand way back from it, giving you one giant picture to enjoy.

Away from Angkor Thom is the jungle temple of Ta Prohm. Now, this one is stunning.
If you’ve seen tomb raider, you may recognize this temple as the one used in the film. It’s a beautiful wreck of a temple that has trees growing though, on and around all of the structure. It’s a temple that has been ravaged by wars and nature, but retains more character than any of the other temples in Angkor because of it.

It is such a pleasure going exploring around this place, looking for ways through the ruined hallways and blocked pathways, finding places where nature has wrecked the structure but, just in it’s own way, held it together at the last moment, creating the most stunning temple scenery imaginable.

The most famous temple of the region is Angkor Wat, a massive structure that had a community of over 10,000 people living within it’s walls, and was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, but has since been converted to a Buddhist temple.

An architectural marvel and perfectly preserved, this temple is stunning and affords you great views across the region of Angkor from the central tower, whilst watching a spectacular electric storm in the distance. Late in the day there is always a thunderstorm in this country at this time of year – guaranteed.
Sunset on a mountainside overlooking Angkor Wat with a cold beer, and the day is done.

Dinner and drinks for the evening come courtesy of the Red Piano, the same place where Jolie and her crew stayed when making Tomb Raider. Great, relaxing atmosphere in a street of old, French, colonial buildings, extremely friendly and, all in all, very civilized.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day, we were off to see the floating village, where around 200 families live in floating houses on the river. The children paddle their own boats to school in the mornings and the adults go out fishing for the day. Life is slow but not backward. They have TV’s powered by car batteries and even a floating, mobile, phone-mast, so life progresses very nicely. And when the rains come and the river rises, they just tow their houses 5 km up river to the high land so as not to be in too much danger.

One of the sights here is to watch the kids in the washing up bowls just float about the place, paddling from boat to boat having a lot of fun and looking to pick up the odd dollar from tourists; very funny and a little cute as well.

It’s impossible to enter Cambodia and not get immersed in the country’s recent history:
During the period of 1975-1979, Cambodia was ruled by The Khmer Rouge, a guerrilla group that had been fighting for control of the country for a number of years. The KR’s success was brought about by the events unfolding in Vietnam at the time. The USA, with all her allies withdrawing from the Vietnam conflict in 1973, had the knock on effect of leaving Cambodia open for the Khmer Rouge to come storming down from the north, eventually taking control of the capital Phnom Penh in 1975.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe people took to the streets in droves, with jubilant celebration and loud cheers of support, convinced that the Khmer Rouge would bring an end to the bloodshed and war that had ravaged the country for so many years. Within hours the people knew that this was not to be so. The victors ordered the people of Phnom Penh out of their homes and told them to walk out of the city to the countryside. Leaving all belongings and vehicles behind. Many died on the roadside unable to walk any further without food or water, and unable to comprehend what their own countrymen were doing to them.

The Khmer Rouge razed the city to the ground; scrapped the calendar, making the year “0”, and embarked on four years of systematic abuse, torture and mass genocide, the like of which can only be compared to the holocaust. Over 3 million Cambodians died in a brutal regime that echoed the beliefs and actions of China’s Mao Tse Tung during his cultural revolution, but took the idea one step further than even Mao had dared.

The legacy this left Cambodia with is that of a land mostly without middle aged parents; a land that now belongs to the youth. The sadness that they bear is buried deep behind smiling, happy faces as they are only too willing to become your friends. And, of course, corruption, leading to poverty, which is rife everywhere here. The desperate need for money is as obvious as the sun in the sky. Fortunately it is not a land that has too many people who want to rip you off, so you do feel safe and rarely threatened.

The killing fields in Siam Reap are a toned-down photographic representation of the tortures and deaths that happened in the country, which makes this place nowhere near as shocking as the horrors that await you in Phnom Penh. But they’re certainly a useful insight into how things were.

The landmine museum alternatively shows just how dangerous the country still is, with a large collection of mines and bombs on display and your guide for your time there is likely to be a child victim of the mines, who has been given the chance to live and work at the museum.

With two million mines still active and children getting maimed and killed every day, there is a massive amount of work still to be done in making Cambodia a safe place for all. Aki Ra, who runs the museum, which also doubles as a home and school for some of the young victims of land mines, used to be a soldier for the Khmer Rouge, and in his time, had personally laid over 20,000 mines. He now works with relief organizations clearing them, to date he has cleared well over the 20,000 that he personally laid and says he will continue until the last mine is cleared.

The museum itself is fantastic. It’s a really informative place and a great environment for the kids that Aki Ra rescues from the streets. Travellers can volunteer to work there for as long as they want and Aki Ra is always on the look out for more help.

Phnom Penh
Here is where the poverty really hits you. In Cambodia’s main city most of the buildings are in a desperate state and people of all ages are living on the street. The city itself has a great feel to it though, with friendly faces everywhere you go, lots of places to walk and things to see; and as I’ve said, you do feel safe.

The quayside is one of the most beautiful parts of the city, with old, French, colonial buildings lining the waterway. Comfortable restaurants and stylish bars are to be found all along the street, including the FCC (foreign correspondents club), which has a roof top area affording you with superb views of the area. It was our favourite place to watch the evening go past, though, alas; it’s also one of the more expensive places here.

Kids are everywhere on the street of PP, and a trip to the local shop to get them some school books, pens, pencils, sharpeners, toothbrushes and toothpaste goes down very well. The kids we gave our gifts to, came back to us later in the day to show us the work that they had already done that day! Very bright kids and so excited that they finally had a schoolbook. It’s as easy as that to genuinely do something that does make a difference to someone. Conscience slightly eased.

The killing fields of PP are altogether a different matter though: A huge tower of skulls and bones, mass graves, exposed buried clothes, and bones and teeth sticking out of the ground. This is a genuinely eerie place, the bones and teeth are from victims yet to be dug up, and there are thousands of them. Just one small area has so far been unearthed and there are maybe as many as 4,000 people still left here to uncover!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven more harrowing is a visit to section 21, the prison where most of the intellectuals; teachers, educated, soldiers and officials of the old government, were taken to be tortured and murdered. The thing that sickens you so totally is that the abusers photographed all of their victims, before and after their torturous deaths! All the photographs are on display in what is now a museum of mass genocide. And a very harrowing display it makes too.
Photographs on the walls of the cells show the victims that were found in the prison the day that it was liberated, all 14 people found in the cells were dead, all bloody and deformed. Horrifying. They are buried in the grounds now.

Continuing the travels to the south, you arrive at Sinahoukville, a beach with some shacks and a town not worth speaking about. It’s a good beach though – nice sand, lovely water with a slight chill, not quite like the warm bath water of Thailand; good bars and restaurants and limited accommodation. We stayed in a nice beach hotel called Eden, which doubled as the local nightclub! They didn’t stop the music until 8 the next morning! So much for the restful night’s sleep that I needed after picking up food poisoning in PP. We would have liked to spend a bit longer here but it rained the next day, so there wasn’t much point. So back to PP it was on the bus journey from hell, as the food poisoning took hold once more and forced me to clench my buttocks for the entire ride. That poisoning has lasted me 4 days now and has been the best diet I’ve been on in years. I lost about ½ a stone I reckon! Just got to poison those love handles now.

So, it’s back in PP for another night by the quayside, lovely; and then Vietnam in the morning. That’s where I’ll leave you for now – with the thought that Cambodia has been one of the best countries we’ve visited so far: Beautiful, friendly, thoroughly interesting and educating, and, of course, very cheap. Definitely not to be missed.

Take care all.

Scott & Claire.

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