Everyone loves Angkor Wat, don't they?

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March 6th 2012
Published: March 8th 2012
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Most people we’d met in Laos had said that, by comparison, Cambodia was a disappointment (with the obvious exception of Angkor Wat that is universally raved about). However, nearing the end of a month here we’d have to disagree. What Cambodia lacks in attractions it more than makes up for with its’ people who are delightful. In Laos you are always greeted with a warm “sabaidee” (hello), but further intimacies are hard to extract. In Cambodia you receive an equally welcoming “hello” (sadly not their own “suas’dei”), but it doesn’t end there; the people are that little less reserved, that bit jollier, and hence more approachable. Even the dastardly auto-rickshaw drivers are politeness itself: “Does sir/madam want tuktuk?” We never do, invariably preferring – to their astonishment – to walk. Nevertheless, after our equally polite “no thank you” they may inquire where you are heading or if you have a guest house booked. Pretty much anywhere else in Asia these lines are merely to start a new dialogue because obviously they know that your destination is totally un-walkable, the targeted guesthouse closed, flea-infested or outrageously expensive and they can take you to a wonderful cheap place that will suit you just perfectly… And if you are foolish enough to turn down their gracious offer then please do not expect further guidance. Not so in Cambodia; the driver may think you’re nuts wanting to hike several miles with a pack on your back, but he will willingly tell you that you are headed in the wrong direction and indeed happily give you the best walking route: this is not normal rickshaw-driver behaviour and is totally endearing. Further encounters with the same drivers are met with beaming smiles as they picture your previous lunacy and playful parodies follow in your wake: “No thaaank youuu”.

Once again the border crossing went smoothly although we knew we were reluctant participants (read lazy sheep)in a scam... From the harbour at 4000 islands we joined a bunch of other westerners who had all booked on the same bus into Cambodia. We’d read that immigration officials regularly try to extort additional dollars for services un-rendered, but meekly accepted the bus company’s speech about fees for a necessary medical examination (a pseudo service to account for the back-handers given to those manning this remote crossing) and how the conductor could process all passports himself for an additional ($1) fee – negating the need for anyone to even dismount the bus at the border. Everyone bought into this save for one bold couple who insisted that they would handle everything themselves at the border. Ali n I followed the crowd, wary of being left stranded if a lengthy stand-off with immigration ensued: we’d been told that they’ll nearly always back down eventually, but would the bus wait for a stroppy minority? Anyways, sadly, the couple with balls lost them at the border and we all sat there as formalities were sorted for us. Next thing you know an immigration official is on the bus and holding a probe to everyone’s neck. He doesn’t even look at the fictitious readings he is obtaining but smiles jovially as he hands out forms stating that we are all disease-free and fit to enter the country…

Our destination, the small town of Kratie, is a convenient stopping point from which to head to central Cambodia and Phnom Pehn, to the southern coast or to the remote east which was our plan. It’s a pleasant transit hub situated on the Mekong with several day trip options: travel upstream to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin (we didn’t spot one) or take a local ferry to the pretty Mekong sand island, KohTrong, for cycling around: we rented bikes from a decrepit one-eyed and jack-knifed-backed but canny old man. I handed over some money which he scrutinized inches from his one rheumy eye and from his gushing thanks it was clear that he wasn’t expecting us to ask for change. We chalked this up as our good deed for the day. Unfortunately the town of Kratie does have a problem with rubbish, much of which seems to end up on the steeply sloping riverbank. However, help is at hand as the bus station has a resident artist busy knocking up hand-painted visual signs to educate the locals about their waste disposal: he’s got his work cut out.

Whilst on cultural matters it was pointed out to us that electricity here is super-expensive, indeed as a percentage of the average wage it makes Britain’s exorbitant prices look a bargain. So, fridges are a rarity which accounts for the giant orange cool boxes, chilled with vast slabs of ice, that front local eateries and shops. A common morning sight on many street corners is seeing the ice sawn into manageable chucks from the 6 x 2 x 1 foot blocks that sit on the backs of trucks or carts. Interestingly, well to me at least, is the nature of the ice which is frozen in such a way as to resemble a 3-layer sandwich: the two outer layers being clear and inner filling opaque. It is the inner, and presumably less frozen, layer that sees most saw work once split along its length, with additional grooves added to aid further sub-division should it be required. Anyway, once cut, one of the workers will place a block into the front basket of his bike and cycle off ‘Hovis-like’ to deliver it. Not unreasonably, if you want to buy a cold bottle of water or beer then it will cost you something like 20% more than a warm one. Bottled beer here is more varied than Laos with ‘Beer Laos’ still in evidence but joined by the local ‘Cambodia’, ‘Angkor’ and the ex-pats’ favourite ‘Anchor’. Beer in bottles, whether chilled or not, is expensive so fortunately it is also common on draught at a much more quaffable 50c a tankard.

As I say, thus far bus travel had been a doddle and we were annoyed with ourselves for not having been more gutsy at the border. Consequently we decided to save a whopping $2.50 by taking a local bus rather than a door-to-door mini-bus to our next destination of Sen Monorom, a remote town to the east. No westerners on this baby. Several hours into the journey and Ali is convinced that we are no longer heading in the right direction. Eventually we make a loo stop and, on quizzing the driver, are informed that yes we should have switched buses at a previous pause 100 km earlier. No worries, we can just wait here and another bus will – probably - be along later; we can then retrace our steps, change buses (if there is a connection) and arrive a mere 5 or so hours later than expected. Quick change of plan and we decide to stay on the bus until Cambodia’s third largest city, Kompong Cham, that would have been our next stop anyway. We’ll just miss out on Sen Monorom which we rapidly convince ourselves would have been very much like the bucolic towns in the north of Laos.

The food in Cambodia has Chinese, Laos, Thai and Indian influences with stir-frys, noodle soups, exotic salads and curries (particularly Amok, mild coconut-based) all common. China, Laos and now Cambodia all seem to have adopted the Korean Barbeque and indeed each claim its origins as their own – here described as ‘Cambodian mountain of fire’. In Siem Reap (not there yet I know) they go all out on the meats front for these self-cooked feasts with frogs legs, snake (according to Ali: chewy tasteless rubber), goat, kangaroo (where do they source that?) and alligator joining the usual chicken, beef, squid and prawns. The French legacy in Cambodia, like Laos, means baguettes are everywhere and bargain sandwiches (often with a strangely pleasant spammy sliced pork, or if you’re lucky real unprocessed pork) can be bought from mobile road-side stalls hitched to the side of motorcycles. There are also deep-fried insects of all descriptions and – Ali is, for some reason, desperate to try one – tarantulas. Ok, they may not be tarantulas, but they are palm-sized hairy black monsters. However, without doubt, the culinary highlight is to be found in Kep, our next destination. This seaside village comprises once grand retreats dotted about the hills (now derelict, bullet-pocked, shells care of the Khmer Rouge), a dozen or so guesthouses built since the regime’s demise, a seafood market and eateries serving up the market’s delights; top among these are the blue soft-shelled crabs. Alone these would be sensational but when accompanied with sauces made from neighbouring Kampot’s green peppercorns (subtle, soft, fresh peppercorns cooked still in sprigs of a dozen or so) they become decapod heaven. The 4-5 inch crabs are usually quartered and most people scoop out the delicate flesh, but the shells merely add a subtle marine crunch and I waste not a morsel. If visiting Kep, the last shack furthest away from the market does them just that little bit better than anywhere else. The locals who come down in their hoards at the weekends tend to go directly from the market (where they have eight charcoal-fueled fires and broil great vats of crabs, prawns and squid) to raised platforms along the coast where they sit and enjoy communal picnics, much as they did before the horrors of Pol Pot. There is nothing to do in Kep save laze in a hammock overlooking the ocean and feast on crab – it was hard to
Dawn at Angkor WatDawn at Angkor WatDawn at Angkor Wat

Picture almost in focus - a miracle amidst the jostling hoards

From Kep to Kampot is a mere skip of less than two hours. Size-wise Kampot just about qualifies as a real town. It sits lazily on the Teuk Chhou river with its broad roads largely devoid of cars and for much of the day anything else. On the surface, with the exception of a wonderful food market, it has little to offer; but try telling that to the substantial ex-pat community here. We intended to stay for a day or so and were surprised to discover one morning that a week had passed. The people of Kampot: locals, ex-pats and travelers alike are simply – inexplicably – friendliness personified. We hung-out at ‘Blissful’ (our guest house) and the one next door (both with chatty punters constantly entrenched at their bars); played pool (8:3 win ratio, obviously slipping since China), petanque, and crib with the owner and staff at ‘Blissful’; treated ourselves to racks of ribs at ‘The Rusty Nail’; took part in a quiz night (third of ten teams which was a result given the number of trick questions – expected by the ex-pat teams in the top 3 – and our team’s bijoux size of four against the typical eight; and tested our nerves in a Texas-hold-em poker tournament. The latter was a particularly fun revelation given our total novice status and the seriousness with which it was conducted. As there were so many competitors we started on multiple tables until the numbers were whittled down to the final eight. Ali was third out from our section, but miraculously I made it through to the high table. At one preliminary stage a pair of Germans complained that it was not fair as I was obviously a Pro when they overheard me explaining to Ali the probability rationale of raising on a particular (fortunately winning) hand. Still, glory was not to be and I finished fourth, just outside the prizes. Nevertheless, this was a particularly good night that continued through to dawn with the tournament’s winner (a middle-aged American who shuffled like a croupier and computed chip-stacks instantly) buying jugs of beer for the lock-in crowd and myself earning kudos by being the first person in living memory to tackle (obviously for free) the dregs of an ancient bottle of centipede vodka (legs and all – see bleary-eyed photo from the next day).

Bus journeys are typically accompanied by Cambodian karaoke videos. These often tell a story that is invariably tragic with deaths and maimings befalling star-crossed lovers. If you are spared the karaoke then an even worse fate awaits in the form of a bizarre variety-style comedy show in which guttural screaming seems obligatory. The locals find it hilarious, apparently immune to the teeth-jarring screeches. Another such journey took us to Sihanoukville, our first beaches in ten weeks on the road. Serendipity beach is very package holiday Spain: a thin strip of sand sandwiched between sea and the massed ranks of loungers spilling out from guesthouses and restaurants. It isn’t overly inspiring. To everyone’s amazement we donned our packs and hiked three miles along the coast to a rather more chilled stretch of beach at Otres where we secured a cute ramshackle hut directly on the sand. This did set us back $10 / night, but was worth it for the sound of the crashing surf and the stunning sunsets.

People had said cycle at your peril in the bustling capital Phnom Pehn, but the traffic was still tame compared to Saigon or Bangkok. The city has a nice mix of old colonial and modern high-rise all laid out in a navigationally-friendly grid-system. It also claims to be the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, but is easily out-shone by Laos’ contender, Luang Prabang. We visited Tuol Sleng museum. The former school of four, three-story, concrete blocks around a central courtyard was converted by Pol Pot’s security forces into a handy torture centre: security prison S-21. There is little to the grim museum save the odd bed frame complete with iron manacles, a gibbet from which the victims were strung-up for the more imaginative pain administrations, the graves of the last seven prisoners murdered before liberation by the Vietnamese, some piles of bones and broken skulls, and row upon row upon row of haunting photographs – many women and children – of those interred. Seventeen thousand were brought here between 1975-9 and only seven survived. Those who were not tortured to death on-site were taken to the notorious killing fields where they were bludgeoned to save on bullets. A cheerful place it is not.

Whereas China saw numerous western couples with local children in-tow (for the purpose of adoption), Cambodia has fat old western men with girls and boys – often little more than children – similarly in-tow (not, I fear, for the purpose of adoption). Such distasteful pairings are a common sight in Battambang which we rather liked – rather more I suspect than the bored-looking local escorts. Again it sits on a river and again there isn’t much in the way of sightseeing with the exception of the Bamboo train (video on Facebook). To get to the bamboo train is a 4-5 mile walk through back streets, dusty lanes and poorly defined paths that no one, apparently, ever attempts - judging by the looks of horror and amazement on the faces of the locals when they asked where we were heading: “Why not tuk-tuk?” “We like to walk”, we replied. Cue whistles and looks of horror and amazement. We did get very lost and five miles was probably closer to seven and I did, regularly, have to perform charades in order to obtain directions. After completing my mime I was usually shown to the nearest toilet as my crouching and bouncing obviously looked nothing like riding a bamboo train, but we did make it. On arrival we hung around waiting to buy a ticket and assemble our train. Eventually a tourist policeman appeared and rather shocked asked us where we’d come from and why hadn’t he seen the tuk-tuk: “You walked?” Cue a look of…… Seems we’d passed under his radar and he duly organized a driver. The train line itself is single track. Onto the rails are placed two unconnected axels with flanged wheels, therear axel having an attachment for a drive belt. The bamboo platform bearing the motor sits directly on the axels that clip into notches on its underside. The drive belt hanging through a hole in the platform is somehow connected around the rear axel and tension maintained by way of a branch forcing the engine backwards. Anyway, it’s kinda ingenious and is assembled/dismantled in seconds which is fortunate as you confront an on-coming train every few minutes. The ride itself is bumpy (the rails are barely joined) and fun if somewhat pointless as after reaching your destination (in the middle of nowhere) and being rapidly fleeced by some persuasive stall-holders you merely return back to your starting point before walking back accompanied by more looks of astonishment…

Siem Reap is the one destination that all tourists to Cambodia visit – Angkor wat being located a mere 4 miles out of town. Fact: Angkor wat is the largest religious structure in the world and the complex it is part of spreads over something like 10 miles square of semi-cleared jungle. It has been described as “the eighth wonder of the world”. Indeed, according to the Lonely Planet “Angkor is a place to be savoured, not rushed…. One day at Angkor? Sacrilege! Don’t even consider it”. We personally have not met a single person who was not wowed by it.

Most of the masses visiting Angkor do so by tuk-tuk (surprise, surprise) over three days; some poor backpackers do so by bike over one day. Our visit took three attempts. Attempt number one: awoke a 4 a.m. to collect our bikes organized the day before – no bikes so, cursing, we went back to bed. Attempt number two was thwarted at 12 a.m. due to Ali being unable to stray from the toilet. Was someone trying to tell us something? Attempt number three saw us cycling away in the blackness at 4.30 a.m. as the swarms of tuk-tuks shot passed. Paid our entrance fee ($20 for a day) on the outskirts of the complex – security is tight, tickets even bear your photograph - and followed the masses to ‘the’ photo-spot to await dawn. Indeed Angkor wat itself at dawn is spectacular with the light passing through shades of purple to orange behind its eerie silhouette and its mirror-image cast across the west moat (although a tripod is necessary for really good photos). Once the sun is fully up though the scaffolding and boards covering large swathes of the monument make it rather less photogenic. Getting ahead of the crowds we rapidly cycled off, climbed up the hill to Phnom Bakheng, cycled along the enclosing walls of Angkor Thom and then through the enclosure itself. By now it was scorching and pushing 100 degrees in the shade. Fortunately Ali’s bottom was holding up. We had a good look at Bayon and the terraces of the elephants and the leper king, combed every inch of overgrown Ta Prahm and then cycled back to Angkor wat itself to look inside. We’d covered about twelve miles. It was at this point that Ali noticed her front tyre was flat and I announced that Angkor has seen better days. We decided to head back for a much needed beer rather than hang around for sunset. It was 2 p.m. Angkor wat complex in nine hours: heathens. Impressive it was, but better than the Great Wall of China or Borobudur in Java? No way. I say, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the complex is in rather a state of disrepair and that its former majesty is hard to picture. Yes, it is rather old (12th century), but Borobudur is also in a steamy jungle, was totally neglected and is so much more intact and aesthetically pleasing. And it is 300 years older. Maybe we are the first ever to be disappointed by Angkor, but there again it is massively hyped.

Siem Reap is small, little more than a holding pen for the tourist hoards, but it has a certain charm, a chilled vibe and is a fun place to while away a few days. There is good food (zesty lotus root and banana flower salads; squid or aubergine stuffed with spicy minced pork; and the previously mentioned “mountains of fire”) and cheap beer, we even treated ourselves to our first wine in three months. My snobby palate savoured every drop of the cheap plonk. Meanwhile Ali is out doing some good and has been visiting an orphanage (CDO; web site: www.cdochildren.org). In Siem Reap and other Cambodian cities there are many street children, but their plight is seen and there are NGOs attempting to help. Impoverished children in rural areas have no safety net. CDO was established in 2010 and is run by a local woman, Mom, who has brought some such children from a particularly dire remote village to be looked after and educated in Siem Reap. Many of these are not orphans but their starving, poverty-stricken, parents can do little to alleviate their miserable lives. Here Mom, other local helpers and miscellaneous short- and long-term western volunteers make a difference. The organization has close ties to the village and those with parents go back to visit when possible. Of course funds are always desperate. Amazingly Ali was the first person with any medical training to ever visit the centre. Within minutes of introducing ourselves I am dispatched back to fetch our medical kit (theirs being even more pathetic than our traveling one) and she is tending to wounds, diagnosing the cause of various sores, monitoring fevers, de-lousing, and even extracting a foreign body from one little girl’s puss-encrusted ear. Whilst the carers do just that they know nothing about many basic health issues. Ali was in her element. Another day, post medical rounds, she is teaching a class although she was less than happy about its rather limited content: “M is for mouth”. How do you teach “mouths” for an hour? Her training at “Kings” proved invaluable: thanks Peter.

As I said there are still many street children in cities such as Siem Reap. Many of those here have been ‘re-educated’ away from begging to selling postcards, bracelets and books. These wandering waifs will collar you whilst you’re sipping a beer and demand good explanations if you don’t want to buy (we have the set which is occasionally placatory). If a sale isn’t forthcoming you’ll be asked your nationality and then given a précis of your country to demonstrate their willingness to learn. “The capital of England is London; the population is 65 million; the prime minister is Cameron, before Cameron it was Brown, before him Blair, before him Major…. Thatcher, Callaghan, Heath, Wilson….” It’s hard to come back on that. One approach I ventured was that I was Icelandic to which I received a knowing quizzical look and “Are you sure?”

We adored Cambodia and, contrary to most, we actually enjoyed it even more than Laos; contrary to everyone we weren’t overly impressed with Angkor wat: it takes all types.

NB. As always scroll right to the bottom for additional photos and look out for tabs saying “2”, “3” or “next” for even more – there are 51 photos attached this time.

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8th March 2012

It just keeps getting better
As usual guys the tales and photos of your travels make me feel that I am there with you. Thank you. Keep well and take care. Ex

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