Published: April 27th 2009April 27th 2009
At 6pm I am sitting in the lobby of the Royal Palace hotel and there are lots of people milling around. There are two GAP tours departing tomorrow morning and our tour is rounded up by our tour leader, Derek. There are 15 of us and 2 leaders Derek and Dyap (excuse the spelling, I never saw it written down) who is in training, is Thai and is friends with Wasa! The group is a mixed bag of couples and solos. Alex and Annica are from Manchester, Rory and Katie are from Southampton, Andrea and Martin are Austrian. The singles are Anna, Gussie, Vicky, Chris, Alexa, Abby, Theresa and Johnny. All are Brits except Abby who is Australian, Alexa who is American and Johnny who is from Hong Kong.
After filling in the necessary forms and hearing the introductions etc. we head out for our first meal together. We go to the same place as we'd gone to on the final night of the last tour which was surreal. Nice though because I can have the yummy Beef Massaman curry again.
After an early night we set out the next day for the border in minibuses. The journals all said that there was a stark differnece between Thailand and Cambodia and wow, were they right! After paying my fine for overstaying (500B) and recieving a 'naughty note' identifying me as the 'alleged offender' we queued in a dusty and hot building awaiting our stamps of approval for travel into Cambodia.
We picked up the bus on the other side and the first impressions were memorable. Gone were the green trees, fields and well-laid roads. Cambodia's landscape is dry and dusty. There are reconstruction works all over and the houses are nothing more than shacks and part built frames.
We arrive at Siem Reap which is a small place and our hotel is central.After dropping off out bags we head out for a walk to the market and main street. Once we get our bearings we had a wander and then found a bar for some pre-dinner drinks. Our restaurant for dinner is called Dead Fish and is a really nice place. This whole areas used to be made up of crocolile farms and some of the previous residents are still at home in a pool next to where wer are eating. While we are waiting for out meals to arrive, we head over to see the crocs and Derek feeds them with lumps of pork fat and sardine-like fish. Its amazing and scary at the same time.
My dinner choice was well made, and my Amok (coconut fish curry served in a banana leaf) was seriously good. After dinner we headed to Pub Street where we went to a bar called Angkor Wat?, it was a funky place and we all had buckets of cocktails.
The next day were headed out by minivus to see the famous temples of Angkor. We began out tour with a visit to the south gate and across the bridge which represented the story of the churning of the sea of milk, which is basically a fight between good and evil. The next temple was Bayon - famous for the hundreds of faces, often seen depicted in wood carvings and also Angkor Thom which describes daily life through murals on the walls.
next is Angkor Wat - we are given 2 hours to explore this huge complex of epic proportions where legend and stories of ancient people adorn the towers and walls. Its overcast but very hot, and within 45 minutes we are all pretty tired. We take in enough of the site to satisfy ourselves and find a shady spot near one of the reflecting pools to rest for the remaining hour. Bombarded by small children selling magnets, postcards and local crafts we head back to the bus and wait for our driver to return and turn on the very welcome aircon.
Cooler but still tired, we go back to the hotel for some lunch and after some food, a refreshing shower and change of underwear we set back out to see some more. Ta Phrom is nicknamed the 'jungle temple' because the trees have continued to grow and have become one with the buildings. It was used as location for some filming in the film 'Tomb Raider' and we all enjoy some time posing like Lara Croft for souvenir photos and generally messing about. Its an amazing place and we all agree that its our favourite.
Our final destination, and where we are to watch the sunset is a temple on a hill overlooking Angkor Wat. Elephants can be hired to take you to the top or you can walk up a long a winding road, or you can do what we did, which was to follow the elephnat trail part way and then decide to take the even shorter royte up steep and dusty tracks. The first couple were hard but novel - pulling myself up with tree roots and branches can be fun! Sacrambling through the dust in the hoe that the chosen foothold does indeed hold can be exhilerating! However - after 3 or 4, the novelty has most certainly worn off and exhaustion and lack of muscle power has left me way behind the pthers and at more than one point I consider giving up and waiting for death to come. As it happens I had no choice but to carry on as there was a steady stream of equally crazy people coming up behind me so onwards and upwards I went.
I reached the top with no oxygen in my lungs and jelly for arms and legs. I was hot, red and sweating like I've never sweated before - good job I'd changed my knickers or I'd have been really unformfortable. Annica was there at the top - we smiled with a hint of apology which I suspect was due to the fact that it heas her boyfriend, Alex, who had suggested the 'short-cut'.
The sight of the large plateau was such a relief and I may have even smiled a little at my achievement. Any joy was soon quoshed when I saw the steps - so many steps. I nearly cried. Yet, with the sunset imminent and not wanting to miss it after all I'd already been through, I sucked up as much air as I could and climbed - toddler style - using my hands, I slowly climbed the wall of steps up to the top. Turns out there were about 100 stairs.... urgh!
At the top I received applause from the group and some water - both gratefully received. Johnnie was off taking photos and soon eveyone was joining him. I found a ledge in the shade a sat for a good 10 minutes allowing by body to get over the shock of the exertion.
The sunset was beautiful - gold, orange and pink across and sky - we sat in silence along the temple wall and watched as the day turned to night. Before finding my 'sunset seat' I had taken a few snaps from different viewpoints and had captured what was to be dubbed 'Mandy's Monk shot' which was a Buddhist monk in his orange robes and shaved head, looking contemplative and holy with Angkor Wat as the backdrop. What made it unusual was that he chose this special place to make a call from his mobile phone - an amusing pic, yet a sad reminder that modern monks have lost some of their traditional, simple living status and can be seen in shopping malls and internet cafes all across SE Asia.
We head back down and I select the long and winding road back to the bus and head back to the hotel. After another shower and a full change of clothes we set out for dinner. Tonight we go to a place on thw main strip and I have BBQ Pork in Sauce with chips. The chips arrive first, as is the way here, and I fail to keep any to go with my main course. The pork is dlicious and I realise that I am chewing food for the first time since Australia.. since then its been soup, noodles and soft stuff.
After dinner we go to the night market where I take another giant step towards my fish fears and actually pay to put my feet in a pool of Garra Rufa fish which suck the dead skin off feet. Its a traditional Fish Spa treatment that has allegedly been used for over 400 years. My experience was of sheer terror and despite Anna's calming words, the first 5 minutes were some of the worst in my life - well, maybe not, but I was very scared. The sensation was plain weird, it was ticklish mostly but had an undercurrent of discomfort that I am struggling to find words for. Not pain - but kind of like your feet are being sucked by tiny fish mouths. The second 5 mins were better - I was able to tolerate the torture and I even posed for some photos... I had to have evidence that I did this - just to remind myself in case it turns to denial in the morning. The final 5 mins were almost pleasureable - well, fun at leat, except when they went between my toes - that was not nice at all, a toe wiggle usually moved them on but I was worried they'd get get squashed and be sucking forever... eugh!
After my feet are dried off, they feel very clean. The tan has literally been sucked off, and my feet no longer match the colour of my legs - hey ho. Anna and I decide to complete the spa treatment with a 30 minute massage at one of the local places and we are served by 2 lovely girls. One speaks no English but has very strong hands - its a mix of pain and pleasure - my thighs are pummelled, my ankles slapped, toes clicked yet I leave feeling like I'm walking on air.
In the morning we go by public bus to Phmon Phen. Its an eventful journey - we break down and have a crash. The breakdown was caused by a faulty exhuaust, and the accident happened when we slowed down for a guy in a wheelchair / bicycle and are rear-ended by a 4X4 people carrier... oops! The locals all come out to see what's happened and stand all stare at us... we stand, stare and smile back. The policy arrive eventually, reports are completed and within an hour we are on our way again.
We arrive late and have some dinner and head off to bed - its gonna be a difficult day tomorrow.
[This next section was hard for me to write and its hard to read, so you may wish to skip to the next day which I start with *****]
In the morning we leave by minibus and travel the 20 minutes to the Tuol Sleng prison in near silence. We are all mentally preparing ourselves for the emotional and difficult sights we will witness at this horrific reminder of the unspeakable violence and torture that was instigated by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Its hard to comprehend how, within my lifetime such evil and systematic abuse and manipulation of an entire country's population was taking place. I am left with an overwhelming mix of relief and guilt that while I was born in Swansea, my life was full of potential and happiness, whereas if I'd have been born in the same year in Cambodia, if I'd made it to the prison and avoided starvation and disease, I would have been repeatedly raped and tortured. Even the escape of suicide was prevented by the installation of 'safety' fences to prevent the women and giurls from jumping off the roof.
When the American and Vietnamese troops arrived at the prison they found just a handful of survivors, hidden in cupboards and under beds... mostly children. The majority of prisoners had all been removed to the killing fields when the news reached the prison that troops were on their way - just empty cells 14 bodies remained as evidence of the treatment received at this terrible place. The bodies were photographed by the troops as they were found - and are being used in evidence at the current trial - grainy copies remain on the walls of the cells and those, along with the blood stained walls and ceilings will stay with me forever.
Next we go to the killing fields of Choeung Ek - this is where the prisoners were killed and dumped into mass graves. We walk along dry mud paths where hundreds of thousands of people, men, women and children still lay. A glance to the ground we are walking on reveals pieces of bone, teeth and the clothes they wore - its a terrible place and the horror is everywhere you look.
Despite their recent history, its astounding how the Cambodian people have found the strength to move on. Yet they have... yes, the governemt is corrupt and still harbours those that carried out such awful things but their inate survival instincts are to be commended. Our guide himself was subject to the horrors of the time and as a child he was held in a prison camp. He lost his parents and 2 siblings to murder and disease yet today he smiles and is genuinely happy. He has 12 children and lives with his married sisters and their children in a house in the town - 45 of them in one 2-storey house!
We join him and his family for dinner in the evening - they make us a feast of curry, ribs, rice, noodles and spring rolls. We eat on the floor of the girl's bedroom which is adorned with posters of flowers and cute fluffy kittens - a typical girls room... albeit for 19 of them to share. After dinner we are given a special gift of tarantula wine - a rice wine steeped with hundreds of the big black spiders and then diluted with more rice wine to taste. Its strong and sour and we drink them in shots - I follow mine with a large gulp of orange fanta, not exactly a traditional chaser but necessary.
We tuk-tuk it back to our hotel and are tucked up in bed before 11pm. Its been an emotional and hard day for us all, but an important one as we learn more about the world and those that live in it.
In the morning we set out on the 4 hour drive by public bus to Sihanoukville. Its a seaside town and our bungalows are about a 5 min walk from the beach. Its a busy place and within seconds we are bombarded by children selling handmade bracelets and fruit and women wanting to paint our nails and thread our legs. Its not the most relaxing of lunches - even though my craving for tuna mayo sandwhich has subsided.
Once settled on the beach chairs and comfy, the constant polite 'no thank you's' are harder to maintain and at this point I'd swap the beach for a pool-full of sucky fish, yet I really want to top up my tan, so I endure the nagging. A swim in the sea is a short respite, but once on land there's no escape. Eventually I give in and allow one of the ladies access to my legs. We agree $10 for half legs and she sets to work. Within seconds, her 'friend' is there - with pleading eyes and demanding 'why I help her and not me?', I faulter and let her join in. The proicess of threading is said to reap similar results as waxing - i.e. weeks of smotth hair-free skins. The results of my experience was excrutiating pain for alsomst an hour and a very definite tufty finish. My underarms were also tackled (the most painful!) and one of them started on my forearms before I could stop her - so I left the beach almost bald and $30 lighter. Between that and the 8 bracelets I bought from the kids, I feel like I have really given quite a lot to Cambodia today... well $40.
After another day at the beach - this one, part of a private resort, where for $1.50 we could sit on a secluded white sanded resort where children and traders are banned - we finally have the relaxing beach day that we all needed before leaving the next day for Vietnam.