Published: August 26th 2006August 24th 2006
Now reporting from Siem Reap, the closest town to some old temples you might know about. If you don't know about them, read on.
From Phnom Penh I tried to go into the south of Cambodia to Kampot, which I'd been told was a nice town and a good place for exploring the abandoned and supposedly atmospheric French hill station at Bokor. Unfortunately, this is the rainy season and as the long, wet (I had to get out of the bus and walk across a bridge to the other bus in the rain and mud. Strangely, it started raining just as everyone got off and stopped as soon as we got on again. Odd, but that's life out here.) and bumpy ride through flooded fields and villages hinted, not much was going to be happening in Kampot. The town was mostly covered in knee high water and electricity had been cut off. Luckily, we (As in me and some people who I'd just met on the bus) managed to find a not-too-badly flooded guesthouse with a generator, upstairs rooms, a balcony and a willingness to cook, so as long as we were boring and didn't go outside, we would be set.
Unfortunately, we did want to do things. As we were told that, altough we couldn't go to Bokor the next day, we could go the day after, we decided to wait around for the day. This was a hopelessly optimistic decision since it was obvious to all that not only was it going to keep raining but that the floods were not going to go away. Therefore we waded around this supposedly charming little town, stopping in at a local restaurant when the rain started again. Then we spent the rest of the day on the balcony again and when it was confirmed that Bokor really wasn't happening this time, we prayed for luck and sorted out a taxi to the Cambodian beach capital Sihanoukville, which was apparently having a better time where weather was concerned.
It was, as in it wasn't flooded. It still showered on us occasionally, but at least we could get around. Howver, the beaches were mediocre and crowded with kids trying to sell you souvenirs and stuff, which is not what one needs when trying to relax, although one guy did repair the broken straps on my sandals right on the spot, which was handy. We rented some motorbikes (two bikes, two per bike, I didn't drive) and tried to find a nice, deserted beach or something to do. We failed. The closest we got was pulling into the Angkor Beer brewery and asking if they did a tour we could go on the next day. They did, but only on Wednesdays (it was a Saturday)- take note, beer fans.
Thus I left Sihanoukville behind and, after overnighting in Phnom Penh, went to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the place to go if you want to visit Angkor, capital of the medieval Khmer empire. Back when Cambodians ruled most of mainland SE Asia, they had a hobby of building giant, intricately carved stone temples dedicated to Hindu gods or, later on, Buddha. These are dotted all over Cambodia as well as parts of Laos and Thailand, but the greatest concentration is just north of Siem Reap in an area which used to house a great big city until the Thais invaded and it was abandoned. The wooden buildings which made up most of it rotted and now only the crumbling temples and walls are left, creating somewhere on par with the Egyptian or Aztec pyramids in the 'big, famous old stuff' stakes. The most famous of these is of course Angkor Wat, the biggest and most spectacular temple, as well as the only one which was still used as a place of worship by locals after the city was abandoned so that it's still in decent condition. It has some really cool wall carvings depicting Hindu mythology and the central part with the iconic five towers has one of the most terrifying staricases in the world (high, steep, open and eroded with no handrail except for one which was crowded with people trying to get back down. I almost cried, and then got stuck at the top when it started raining.). It also makes a great picture, particularly at sunrise.
Unfortunately, although solitude was possible in really boring parts of this large complex, Angkor Wat was always really crowded (Angkor is firmly on the tourist map- walking past some of the luxury hotels to my $2 cell was a bit depressing and many a quiet moment was wrecked by an armylike tour group turning up) and I found it slightly disappointing. I preferred Bayon which its mass of face towers (the King who built it has had giant images of his face carved into the many structures he had built), the mazelike complex of Preah Vihear and the far flung but genuinely wild Beng Mealea (they demined it, built a couple of wooden walkways and that's it- a great place for fulfilling any Indiana Jones fantasies you may have). I spent a three long days exploring the various options and currently have serious Temple Fatigue, a condition where you don't ever want to see another pile of stones again.
I also have to inform you that the first sentence of this blog is a lie. I'm now finishing this from Battambang, a laid back city south of Siem Reap. Catch you in Thailand!