Published: August 27th 2011July 21st 2011
Siem Reap is a town built for tourists to Angkor Wat, the hugely extensive network of temples that is the must-see destination of Cambodia. While this could have been hell; think tanked up tourists and cheap T-shirts, Siem Reap is actually quite a pleasant place to spend a few days and use as a base to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounds.
At Siem Reap airport we got our visa-on-arrival with little difficulty, which was good because we had somehow forgotten to confirm if Del could attain one of these visas, not all nationalities can, and previous research had been inconclusive, leaning on the negative, before we remembered when we were already checked onto our flight in KL and had ten minutes at our gate before the flight boarded.
Happy days, they were just interested in the $25 each visa was bringing into the country. Arranged in a horseshoe shape, sat 12 immigration officials, dressed as if on Horse Guard's parade, complete with medals. Our passports got taken, our money given over and as we moved ten metres from where we had paid to the end of the horseshoe, our passports had been visa-ed up, each general having contributed
his own stamp, signature, or expert eye. It took two Rear Admirals to mouth out the names of the new visa-approved visitors, each taking it in turn, with comic returns that we very deliberately did not laugh about while in their vicinity. This was our first introduction to Cambodian and later all-Asian bureaucracy – the simple rule is that the more people who can be involved in a menial exercise that could happily keep one person intermittently occupied, the better.
An official taxi to Siem Reap is $7 for the twenty minute journey. By the end, our taxi driver had volunteered his tuk-tuk services for the temples the day after for $15 for the day hire. This was the price suggested by Pascal and Vania and we were happy with the arrangement. The hotel was another recommendations. Boy, do we owe them some beers. The Siem Reap Temple Villas, “not the red one”, has a pool, a restaurant where someone got served food once, long ago, free Wifi downstairs and large double rooms with TV, balconies and A/C for $15.
We were fairly knackered after another early/cheap flight from KL and the thought of wasting the day away
in the hotel room with the occasional short excursion into town to see some of the markets and choose a restaurant from 'Pub Street' for dinner, sounded awesome. As things turned out, although we did waste the time in glorious idleness, we also found time to see one of the main markets and spend some money – a novel experience after months of stinginess in Oz and just reward for Del, who hadn't spent a penny on herself for six months.
The next morning we were picked up by our taxi driver's brother/cousin/friend/apprentice, Mr Bandol, in his tuk-tuk. Poor fellow, he had to wait an hour for us as Del's pancakes took the hotel kitchen an extra hour on top of their usual zombie-rapidity (we'd eaten at the hotel for all three meals the day before – it rained like the floods around dinnertime and we hadn't bought ponchos yet). It was our first go on a tuk-tuk. Initially, we were a little perturbed, it is after all, a motorbike pulling a carriage/cart open on all sides and we'd already seen enough of Asian driving to realise that Russian Roulette was for Volvo-driving, Lib-Dem voting sissies. It was, however,
lots of fun. Like sitting on a park bench at 30mph. With stunts and unforeseen collateral damage. You also feel, well, a little embarrassed; you are able to be seen by everyone, it's not like a car with windows and interior climate control. On the other hand, you also don't care; you're too good to walk like all those other chumps on the side of the road, you're a little regal; you are, after all, riding on a carriage.
At the ticket office, about ten pleasant and breezy minutes from town, you can buy either a one-day pass ($20), a three-day pass ($50) or week-long archaeological pass for, well, lots. Regardless of what ticket type you opt for, your photo will be taken by web-cam, like at passport control and your mug will adorn your personal pass, to be used by no one else. Angkor Wat is big business in Cambodia. Remember, it is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and like visas, money coming into the country is too valuable to let a single tourist gain elicit access to their cultural heart and soul. The seemingly pointless jobs for bureaucracy continues, as you walk with your new
pass three steps, to a lady with a hole-punch, who has just seen you buy the damn thing, who then scrutinises the pass with an expression that says she can't wait for biometric tests to be incorporated into the process, before she reluctantly punches your ticket and you re-board your chariot, uh, tuk-tuk.
It should be pointed out here that in almost every piece of literature there is regarding visiting Angkor Wat, you are advised to spend more than a day. Even a guy in our office in Australia recommended “you'll need three days, minimum.” The site is huge. It remains the largest religious structure on the planet. Temple complexes are discussed in kilometres square. People led their whole lives within its walls. It is a city, or indeed, several cities, built over centuries in differing styles by differing architects and it is still being rescued from the jungles that came to enclose it after the Khmer abandoned it. In places, the jungle and terrain is so impenetrable that archaeologists must use satellites to map the outlines of ruins that people didn't even know existed.
We had decided to buy the one-day pass to see how we got
on and if we absolutely wanted to see more then we would just buy another one.
The first temple, Ankor Wat is the one that adorns mostly any pictorial representation of the area, it is on Cambodian money, on their coat of arms, on any tourist literature of the country. It is the long, wide stone walkway leading over the moat towards the three rounded pillars, that are actually five, two directly behind the outer two.
It is busy. Everyone who visits Cambodia comes here, remember. You are approached politely several times by gentlemen asking if you require a guide for the day (your guide cannot be your tuk-tuk driver and we had left Mr Bandol at the entrance, whence he rode into the scrum of tuk-tuks congregated under the shade – he would find us) to help advise you on the site. We decline but throughout the day we hear the guides talking well to small groups of tourists, in French, Italian, English, German and Japanese. It is impressive.
I could explain the whole tour of the ruins but I feel it would not be to everyone's interest so I will limit myself to just our
strongest recollections and let the photos do the talking. Of course, if you have any questions on it, please feel free to do so.
The first temple takes upwards of an hour and a half. It is a huge and built on several levels. There are courtyards, towers, corridors, rooms, temples within temples and it is all made out of big, thick pieces of stone that would have required phenomenal energy to move. Carvings cover virtually every surface. Some are plain and simple. Some are mindbogglingly intricate and complex. Mostly they are of people, women chiefly. Some are rubbed almost to nothing. Some tell stories. Like books of rock. Some are so clear it is as if they were chiselled just yesterday. All deserve your time and together they are mesmeric. You could, if circumstances allowed, lose yourself in the hallways following the pictograms from surface to surface. The man-hours needed to create just one corridor from the start of the quarrying to the final blowing of dust away at the end of the carving would have been unbelievable.
Walking around one tall tower, whose steps climb almost vertically, we look out ,back towards the moat, to the
walkway where we started, to where Mr Bandol is waiting for us, and it is lost in the distance.
The second temple, a few minutes drive, is of a different style completely. It is in not as good repair. Again, it is on several levels. At the top, large carvings of the face of the Buddha smile at you benevolently from all four sides of squares of rock the size of some kitchens. In certain places, mostly doorways or arches, stones that have sat still for centuries are starting to bow to gravity and tilt towards the ground. We have the impression that it is because the ground, over years, moves and not because of any shoddy workmanship.
The third and fourth temples are of different styles again. The carvings are different and not as numerous. Somehow they do not look as well cared for. Like the grass on the central reservation of a motorway.
The next has an opening walkway like the first, except longer and narrower. This leads to a smaller central area in terms of square footprint but it looks higher. We are not allowed in but signs invite us to walk around the
area. At the back of the temple the stone bricks, they are definitely bricks now and not monoliths of rock stacked expertly together like in some of the other places, are curved to resemble a Buddha lying down.
To one side, a trail leads through an archway towards the forest. Here are the first 'temple in the jungle' photos. A large tree, easily fifteen metres high grows from out of a wall, its roots displacing the ground and stones in ultra-slow motion. We are starting to tire. It is a hot, humid day around one-thirty in the afternoon now and we're ready for a break. Except we can't find a shortcut out of the jungle. The 'floor' is mowed and trimmed for easy walking but there are walks going off in every direction, leading to more ruins. We head in the direction we think is back to the road. Stones of all sizes, some in clusters, litter the way. They seem to come from beneath the ground. As if the soil itself exudes them. Logic tells you that they must have fallen there or been moved there when building collapsed or were demolished to make room for more buildings.
Of course, there are no signs of them. Just these rocks, squares and rectangles, some with carvings of the Buddha, most without, remain. Discolouring naturally into the jungle colours with moss and inattention, but retaining flat, hard lines that are unmistakably fashioned by man.
We break out into the clearing of the road. We are on a stone terrace about five metres above the level of the road. This is the Terrace of the Elephants. We walk along it to the left, where we believe Mr Bandol is waiting, underneath a tree. Shapes of elephants, in herds. It is the first time we have seen elephants rendered in carvings, although they alone could have provided the muscle to move such numbers of quarried stone over the time-frames of these buildings.
We descend and reunite with Mr Bandol, who grew too hungry to wait for us and had lunch himself. He drives us to a clearing where restaurants are lined up under shade. He guides us to one and then seats himself a few tables away to read, bizarrely, what looks to be the Cambodian equivalent of 'Hello'.
It is tourist central and it is reflected in the
prices of the dishes. Fried rice with chicken for $4. It is scandalously expensive. A young woman on the table next to us leans over.
“Tell them you want a discount. We did and we got it half price. It's too expensive here.”
We thank her and do as she suggests when the waitress comes over. Without hesitation she offers us $1 off every dish.
We get talking to them and later on they give us a spare copy of the Lonely Planet covering Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Cool. They were cycling around Angkor Wat. Nothing they said about it made me think it was a good idea.
After lunch we went to Angkor Tom and then to our favourite temple of the day. I can't tell you what it is called as I swapped the Lonely Planet for a Czech love story in Bangkok, but your tuk-tuk driver will know. It's the one that looks like the jungle has made a temple. It's amazing. Trees wider and taller than you would believe grow out of the walls as you turn the corner of a corridor. Roots reach out to tug your arm as you move
by. Monkeys and parrots breeze through windows and doorways. We loved it and most of our photos are of that temple. It's wonderful to think that this visual feast all happened by accident and tragedy. It also reminded us that the nature has more patience and more resources that we will ever have. Sure, the Khymer Kingdom cleared the jungle floor and used countless tress ,I'm sure, for scaffolding and camp fires, they inhabited this place for centuries, then their time passed, and the jungle crept back, sprouting right out of the fortress walls that they had so painstakingly and painfully erected.
We left Siem Reap three days later, after buying up a good proportion of the available paintings and souvenirs in the two markets in town. We had been recommended to go to Battambang by the English couple we'd met cycling around Angkor Wat. The countryside around was supposedly beautiful – all rice paddies and green poverty. We took the bus, which is a five hour trip skirting the north bank of the lake that lies, inconveniently, between Siem Reap on the east, Battambang on the west and Phnom Penh in the south, close to the border of
Vietnam. Battambang is also one of the places where you can apply and receive your visa for Vietnam on the same day.
To be honest, we thought Battambang was a shit-hole. It is architecturally ugly and nondescript, difficult to walk around, dirty, smelly and lacks anything of any worth to see. We stayed two nights, long enough to get our visa and admit we had made a mistake, and then left for the capital Phnom Penh. The journey from Battambang to PP on the bus was pretty in places but not nearly enough to justify staying in Battambang. We would have paid more than the $6 to get away. We thought the jungle should have taken that city back and left Angkor Wat alone. If you were going to hire a motorbike, or foolishly cycle, then I would recommend sorting accommodation out as you tour around and not stay in the city.
Footnote: There was one good thing about Battambang: There was a restaurant, The White Rose, that served good, very cheap food, with a good balcony overlooking the street, open to the breeze. We went there twice. Go there to eat if you can.
with some trepidation that we arrived in Phnom Penh, after Battambang, we weren't really in the mood for a city, especially a big and notoriously noisy one. As it happens, it became our favourite place in Cambodia. PP is everything Battambang isn't. It is interesting to look at, there are cafés. Nice cafés that serve good coffee. There are good restaurants. Notice the s – plural. The place seems to have and had for a while, a purpose, instead of just being a place where people crowd together to work. It is a city that seems vibrant, colourful. There is a cracking Mexican restaurant on the waterfront that serves exactly what you would expect a Mexican restaurant to serve and does it well.
From PP you can go on day excursions to The Killing Fields. Anyone not familiar with Cambodia's very painful modern history; the Khmer Rouge, a Communist government led by Pol Pot, that overthrew the existing one by force, in the manner of Stalin's 5-Year Plans and Agricultural Theory, returned everyone to the countryside, emptying the cities, so that everyone could re-learn how to be good citizens, live a decent hard-working life, uncorrupted by international influences. In
short, the general populace were coerced into being slaves. Freedom of the press and speech were obliterated, as were millions of Cambodians. Families were battered by clubs to save bullets and babies thrown up in the air to be impaled on bayonets. Buried in mass graves, thousands and thousands of mass graves; these are the Killing Fields. The genocide of the intellectuals, (irredeemably corrupted) the sick, the old and infirm, the handicapped, the political dissidents, the professionals and the millions of others who happened to get in the way, is one of the most horrifying episodes in recent world history. Not least because, not for the first or last time, countries that could have done something to help the people of Cambodia, people like you and me, didn't. For political reasons. Maybe there just isn't enough oil in Cambodia.
All this to say that it is now heavily marketed as a day-excursion. Tuk-tuk drivers and hotel receptions will provide you, with no invitation, of details of how far away they are, how much it costs, how their tour is better than anyone else's. It is difficult to reconcile your feelings about this. We, as visitors, were sickened and disgusted
the more we learnt and spoke about the events with reverence. Is it right to go and see a place of such horror and take photos of a crime scene? Is it responsible tourism? Does it make you, somehow, a better person? Are you duty bound to go and view it, experience it, so that you are in a better position never to let something like it happen again?
On the other hand, is it taking advantage of a people? Does it belittle their suffering? Is it voyeuristic? I asked this of a tuk-tuk driver who was trying to sell me his tour.
“Is it right to go, would the Cambodian people want me to go?”
“I think..it is OK,” he said, and waved his laminated, one-page brochure a little higher for me to see it better. Tuk-tuk drivers and people on the street will sell it to you, seemingly, without a qualm. Even though some of their own family could have been murdered there. It is...strange.
I kept thinking of Auschwitz. I would go there but I would have the same debate with myself. I imagine that one of the reasons that it would be
'easier' to make the decision to go there is because it is more cushioned by the past. The main culprits in the Khymer Rouge are still under arrest and awaiting trial in Europe. The killings had only just stopped when I was born. They're still finding graves.
Or is it because visiting Auschwitz, being part of such a world-wide event, is permissible, it is an historical monument? Viewing it is legitimized by the global recognition. And The Killing Fields, in Cambodia, aren't? We go to sites of European interest and call it learning but going to a poor, Communist Asian country to see scenes of brutality is more complicated for us, for some reason.
In the end, we decided not to go. One of the reasons was that there isn't much to see. Fields and a mausoleum filled with bones. A good reason? Probably not. Maybe we needed to see some kind of fairground or interactive displays to make it seem like we were 'experiencing' something. Maybe just the prospect of standing in a field and being told this is where some of it happened just wouldn't be enough. It wouldn't make it any more real.
find this answer unsatisfactory. A few years ago we went to the World War One battlefields in Northern France. There, signposting of events that took place there, almost a hundred years ago, are at a minimum and at some of the sites there is not much to see. Just fields. That didn't make it any less moving. I'm proud to have gone there and tell anyone interested they should go too. Also, as an Englishman, I should see where my countrymen fell. Why did I feel so confused about it in Cambodia? If I went back there, I'm still not sure I would go.
What we did go and see was S-1. This is a school in central PP that was turned into a prison for political prisoners. Obviously, I don't know if it is harder to go there or The Killing Fields, but I do know that S-1 is a very tough place to visit. When PP and S-1 was liberated, they found the bodies of eight people, seven men, one woman, dead in their rooms. Manacled to the beds. They had been tortured, killed and left to rot. They have come to symbolise the events that occurred
here. They are also your first introduction to the place, the first eight classrooms that you walk into. Each is as it was, minus the bodies, the bloodstains, although there are a lot of marks on the floor and walls that you wish weren't. The manacles have been left, as have the buckets they used as toilets and the rusting, wire beds they slept, if they ever did sleep, and died on. On a wall is a photo of the scene when the bodies were discovered. Thankfully, some are not so clear.
In other parts of the school the classrooms have been subdivided, using rough bricks and cement, to form tiny cells. They are tiny and dark and feel haunted. I stepped into one when other people had left the room. I tried to open my mind, to imagine being here and not being able to leave. I looked at the partition walls, the floor of the classroom and the roof. I doubt I managed to get anywhere close to the reality but I could stand it for only a few seconds. People died in there and they shouldn't have.
Upstairs, the same story, only that along the
outside walkways, barbed wire creates a mesh, a trap, so prisoners could not leap off the edge. In some of these classrooms there are numbers printed about a foot off the floor and a foot apart All the way along the walls. It puzzles us until we come to an exhibition of some of the art work done by three survivors of the prison, depicting what happened there. The numbers indicate where children lay down to sleep and were manacled together, like in the diagrams of African Slave ships.
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were methodical and catalogued all those that passed through this prison. Every prisoner had a photo taken. They are displayed downstairs, rooms full. All are in black and white. Some of the prisoners are looking at the camera, some smiling, strangely, some sombre, some looking through the camera. Some look away, just off to the side. Most are mug shots. Others are of whole bodies. Some prisoners, men, women and children, look fit, robust, even in some cases a little rotund. I look at these for a while because I am reading 'First They Killed My Father' by Loung Ung. Her father, whom I
had come to like very much, is described like this. Carrying a little jolly weight. I think about the weight falling off these prisoners in the same way Ung describes it happening to her father, as he is put to gruelling work in the rice fields, with barely any food, before he is taken away. I strongly recommend this reading.
I think of the teeth falling out of their faces and their lips and eyes puffed with beatings. Other prisoners are shown to be skeletal. Some standing, some lying down, some conscious, some not. Some look scared out of their minds. All the tourists are quiet. Only the guides who you can hire to give more detail are loud, describing events, people, like directions, walking through quickly and heavily.
One Asian tourist's phone goes off. A man of about 40, old enough to know better. He talks into his phone like he is on a bus. I look around and all the Europeans are looking at him. He either doesn't notice or doesn't care.
The last room downstairs is where the drawings of life in the camp are. The four or five paragraph biographies of the three
surviving artists are available to read. There are scenes of torture and death and pain. Torture devices depicted in the scenes are displayed. You can touch them. Figure out how they work. Size yourself in them. Realize how they would break you apart. The only pictures of the outside of the camp are The Killing Fields, you know that is what they are because they are of people being killed. Men and women, blindfolded, kneeling over a ditch that is full of bodies. A soldier walking along, using a large, very heavy hammer to break the back of their skulls. Another shows soldiers holding babies by the legs, smashing their heads against trees. Another shows one soldier throwing a baby in the air while another gets underneath it with his rifle, fitted with a bayonet. In both, women are watching, screaming.
There are several skulls in perspex boxes. They are victims from the fields. The skulls have been broken by bullets or hard, blunt, heavy objects.
Upstairs, there is photographic display of eighty people. Most of them were victims of the Khmer Rouge, the photos are of happy times before the government fell. There are one or two
recent photos, in glaring colour, of lined men and women, these are the survivors. You move from the 'before' to the 'after'. At the smiling faces of before and the old faces of the after. The next room has the same except the photos are of the guards or the minor employees of the prison or villagers forced to be Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some give accounts of what happened here. Again, I am reminded of the Nazis. Most of the guards and soldiers suggest they were frightened for their lives and for the lives of their families, and so had to follow orders.
The last room gives some background on the generals and leaders of the Khmer Rouge. They are all in Europe awaiting trial. Before a few years ago they were all still at large, in Cambodia. Most were officials of some kind in the new government. We read that they are being defended by European lawyers, 'experts' in cases involving war crimes. We are shamed to see one of the lawyers is English, on is French.
We move back into the sunlight. It is feverishly hot, the white stone walls of the school reflecting the light
back at us. A lot of schools do, it is true, look like prisons. Still, looking around the feeling of perversion is strong. To take a seat of learning and make it be used in such a way is just so foul.
We can't remember if it was hot or cold in the rooms. We don't go back to find out.
As we leave, rainy season rain, the heavy, dense, sudden kind that lasts half an hour and turns streets into rivers falls out of the sky. We take shelter in the ticket office, trying to make sense of what we have seen. I watch water pouring off the tin roof of a house like a waterfall falling off a cliff.
A tuk-tuk pulls up, all encased in thick, green, no-nonsense weather-proof plastic. Its two passengers get soaked as they run the two steps to the door. We run into the damp, plastic space.
We go to the Russian Market. It sells everything and anything useful or useless. It is hard to get in the mood after S-1, but it also feels like the right thing to do too. Talking about it will come later, when
we've processed it more.
The water in the market is ankle deep. Our feet come out dirtier than when they went in. We spend a few hours haggling over various souvenirs and chatting to the local sellers, most of whom seem to relish the exchange. I'm sure, despite our best efforts, that they get a good deal out of us. We learn from one stall that the Japanese word (she sells Japanese pottery) for Cambodia means pumpkin.
We leave to go to Ho Chi Ming City, still called by everyone we meet except airlines, as Saigon. Before we do, we would like to say that we enjoyed Cambodia. The people are friendly, warm and kind. It doesn't take much for them to smile. We were left, after S-1, at a real loss to understand how they could be so, but we are thankful that they are and would like to thank them for having us.
There are more photos below