The Secret Six in South East Asia! - Episode Eight - 'Cambodia - so much more than a Tomb-Raiding Lara Croft!'

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November 26th 2018
Published: December 2nd 2018
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It's been all too short, but today we leave Laos to move on to our final country of this trip, namely Cambodia. I think it is fair to say that we have all loved Laos and could really have done with, at least, one more day here, but unfortunately, the Mercury Tour Bus waits for on we go! Laos has been such a lovely experience, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam and the Lao people have seemed very gentle and welcoming. Interestingly, we found out that Laos is a new destination on Mercury's Indochina itinerary and we'll definitely be recommending that it becomes a regular fixture.

Our flight out of Luang Prabang was not until 14.40 and we were departing the hotel at noon, leaving us with the morning free to do what we wished. We decided to take a tuk tuk into the centre of Luang Prabang, to spend a couple of hours or so exploring this lovely old town. We walked the length of the Main Street (Sisavangvong Street, named after the longest reigning King - see last episode) and whilst there were a few 'tat shops' about, it was a really enjoyable stroll. Watching the kids in the local school playground being entertained by a juggler/magician, was a real joy, particularly with the look of complete delight on their faces. When we got to a small market, Steve, Sarah and I absconded to a local coffee shop for a cup of the local brew (coffee, I mean!) and pretty strong it is too; a definite caffeine hit, that's for sure.

Gifts purchased and money spent, we hailed another tuk tuk to take us back to the hotel, checked out of our rooms and were then back in our coaches for the short trip back to the airport.'s the good news.......there were no dramas at check in or security (even though Hazel's bullets were still in her case apparently!!) and after a quick sandwich lunch, we were boarding the plane and on our way to Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, another short flight of just about an hour. As with Laos, we knew we had to get a visa on arrival, but unlike the slightly ramshackle affair at Luang Prabang airport, this was almost a military style operation!

We were given our visa application form on the plane, as before, but when we reached the Immigration Hall this time, we once again had to complete another similar form - why we couldn't be given both forms on the plane to fill in, is beyond me. Unlike Luang Prabang, Siem Reap airport was rammed with people with several flights having landed within minutes of each other and the whole process did become a bit of a bun fight. Having filled in the new form, we joined a lengthy queue to hand over this form and our $30 fee each (has to be cash and in dollars, by the way) to the first of a long line of gentlemen, dressed more like they were commanding troops on the front line, than dealing with a motley bunch of tourists, trying to enter the country!

The forms (with our passports) then worked their way down the line of 'three star generals', each of whom seemed to have their own specific task to do, whatever that may be, while we had by this time moved to a 'scrum' of passengers, opposite the end of the 'military parade', waiting for our passport and visa to emerge. The penultimate 'General' was obviously the official 'stamper', deploying his
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The school children loving the entertainer........
rubber stamp very efficiently, by doing seven or eight passports at a time and with absolute gusto - this was definitely a job he enjoyed, although you wouldn't have known it from the look of utter boredom on his face!

Stamper then handed the passports to the official 'name caller' to 'whisper' the name on each passport, seemingly as quietly as possible. It was a bit like the famous scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, with the people at the back of the crowd whilst the Sermon on the Mount is going on, saying 'what did he say? Blessed are the cheese makers? What's so special about cheese makers?!'. Well, in our 'scrum' it was more a case of 'Who did he say?', especially as the Cambodian pronunciation of some of the names was a little unusual to Western ears! Anyway, before too long we had our shiny, new Cambodian visas and then joined another queue, this time at passport control, so we could 'show' our shiny new visas; there were quite a few queues to choose from, but they all seemed equally slow, taking about 5 minutes a person to get through and the whole process probably
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took the best part of 90 minutes for us all to get through and meet up with our new guide, Dee, in the Arrivals Hall.

The coach trip to our hotel only took about 30 minutes and it was very clear on the way, that Siem Reap is a major city, with all the international hotel chains represented. Siem Reap's tourism is built upon the popularity of the Angkor Temples, with less than 10,000 tourists as recently as 1993, but increasing to over 3 million at the last count, with a target of 5 million in the next 5 years! Obviously, we only had three nights in this one place in Cambodia and we wouldn't be leaving this area, but there is little doubt that the whole country's tourism is centred around the temples and this was, indeed, the focus of our next two full days. On the way from the airport, Dee talked us through the itinerary for the next two days and tomorrow was to start with the most well known of all the temples, namely Angkor Wat. But then he threw in a curved ball..........tomorrow, we would start at 4.30 am (!!!) to catch the sunrise
Our final morning in Luang Prabang - 6Our final morning in Luang Prabang - 6Our final morning in Luang Prabang - 6 transfixed....the other more interested in his food!
over Angkor Wat. Now, we knew that the iconic sunrise image would feature in the itinerary at some point, but the trouble was, it was forecast to bucket it down all day tomorrow and getting up at 4 am, just to stand in the rain, really didn't appeal. The forecast the next day was better and as we pulled up at the hotel, I decided to tackle Dee about switching the 'sunrise trip' until the following morning. He seemed to take on board what I was saying, but time would tell whether the plans would change.

Our hotel was the Tara Angkor and very swish it was too. Lovely setting and the rooms and overall facilities were excellent. It also had a super cocktail bar called Lily's Lounge ((serving, amongst a whole range of other drinks and cocktails, the 'Lily Special' cocktail) and clearly, we had to go there...........every evening! After freshening up, we met in the Lily Lounge for our free cocktail, plus another 'happy hour' snifter and then we were off to dinner. From memory, the dinner was fine (albeit, yet more sticky rice!) and on the way back to the hotel, we tackled Dee again about
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The temple over the moat in the pouring rain!
tomorrow morning and I'm pleased to say that we succeeded and sunrise was 'postponed' until the next day.

Day two was now a more respectable, 8.30 start and guess what, it was pouring down! It was to be a day of temples, temples and yet more temples and the prospect of trudging around a 'bunch of ruins' in filthy weather, muddy conditions and wet through, didn't really lighten the mood of the group. But, we Brits are nothing if not hardy and these temples were the highlight of Cambodia for us, so a bit of inclement weather wasn't going to deter us........hopefully!

The Angkor complex comprises a number of different temples, with the Angkor Archaelogical Area covering a total of 400 square kilometres. The temples were all built during the period of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries, with the Khmer ruling most of mainland South East Asia and Southern China, during this period. The temples were originally Hindu, but became Buddhist in the 12th century. Our visit today would include the temples of Angkor Wat itself, plus those of Ta Prohm, Bayon and Primeanakas, all at Angkor Thom.

After boarding the bus, our
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The iconic image, but not the best weather!
first stop was the new ticketing centre, where we picked up our two day passes for the whole Angkor area, costing $67 each, but covered by Mercury in the holiday cost. Whilst the tickets had been organised and paid for, we all had to queue to have our photos taken, with the tickets then issued with our photos printed on them. The tickets were then handed out on the coach by Len (of Len and Wendy from Barnstaple), a former police inspector, who used his undoubted 'facial recognition' skills (from years of tracking down the rogues of Devon) to make sure we all got the correct tickets! Dee advised us that the running of Angkor had recently been transferred to a private company, resulting in the ticket prices more than doubling - clearly, they are doing their very best to exploit the burgeoning tourist numbers!

I don't propose to list all the whys and wherefores of each temple, because frankly, it would bore me to death typing it, so Lord knows what it would be like reading it! But here are a few highlights of the day:

* Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 180 metre wide moat,
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The central temple, but it was closed off to visitors because the steps were too dangerous in the rain!
full of water. A new bridge is being constructed over the moat, but in the meantime, everyone crossed by a large, temporary floating bridge, which was interesting! The weather was foul and whilst the iconic images were still there to see, they weren't at there best. In addition, there were hordes and hordes of people, which made the whole visit far too crowded. The rain also made both the stone and wooden steps very tricky to negotiate and the final steps up to the inside of the main temple were closed because of the weather. However, there is no doubting the grandeur and epic nature of this place, which is the largest ever built Hindu temple in the world, at 1.6 square kilometres in area.

* Ta Prohm was the first temple we visited at Angkor Thom and I think we al loved this much more. Firstly, it was much less crowded and also, the rain had eased off a touch. In addition, Ta Prohm is a lot smaller than Angkor Wat and much more atmospheric, particularly with the amazing roots of the giant Kapok trees, enveloping the ruins. Although there is around a thousand years of history at
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The amazing Spong trees growing around the temple walls....
this temple, it is a fact that many people today may know it more as a setting for the film, 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' and whilst this may indeed draw a number of visitors, Cambodia is really, so much more than that!

* Lunch was a little different today in that, although we had several dishes once again, this time they came together with individual covered bowls for each dish. We had to wait a little longer for the food, but once it all came, and very nice it was too!

* After lunch, we were off to temple number three and guess was chucking it down again! This time we went to Primeanakas, which looks like a very Mayan type structure. We were only doing a walk by this one, because the temple itself is closed to tourists, but it did look pretty impressive, even in the rain. But the most impressive feature is on the outer approach to this temple and that is the 'Elephant Terrace', with an entrance staircase guarded by carved elephants, and a 350 metre terrace wall, featuring elephant after elephant.

* After walking past Primeanakas, we moved on to
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.....and more Spong roots! Apparently, this is the classic Lara Croft film shot.
what is considered, the star of Angkor Thom and that is the temple of Bayon, yet another amazing structure, comprising 54 classic 'Angkor' towers, with the added feature of what was once 200 huge, enigmatic stone faces (of which about 80 survive today), 4 on each tower facing north, south, east and west and believed to represent the all seeing and all knowing Hindu God. This was a stunning building, albeit that the pouring rain didn't help our enjoyment once again.

* The ground conditions all around the temples were extremely wet and muddy, which made it a joy to walk around and not a little treacherous! The bottoms of our clothing were getting pretty filthy, but poor old Hazel took a nasty fall at one point and really finished off her trousers! She was shaken up, but hopefully no lasting damage. Steve decided it would be a good idea to wear flip flops, reasoning that as we had to remove our shoes before going inside temples, this would make life easier. As it turns out, we didn't have to remove shoes at any of these temples and poor old Steve just managed to get very wet and dirty
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.........and yet more Spong roots!
feet instead!

Templed out, very wet and tired, we headed back to the hotel, only to hear Dee's dreaded news that it would be a 5.00 am start tomorrow to go for the Angkor Wat sunrise. This resulted in a near mutiny! The weather forecast tomorrow was dry and partly cloudy, but there was no guarantee of a clear sunrise. About half of the group said that they definitely wouldn't bother. A few were certainly going to do it. Mandy, Steve, Lily and Sarah weren't going to bother and I was in two minds - I decided to set the alarm and see how the weather forecast was looking then.

When I woke up, the forecast was a little better, so I decided to go and Mandy came with me in the end, seeing as she had been awake for some reason (and not my snoring!!), for most of the night. Tina was there as well, and there were about 10 of us there to greet Dee when he arrived. Once back at Angkor Wat it was still very dark and with the aid of a torch and phone lights, we trudged across the floating bridge again and
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Such a fantastically mystical temple.
took up station on the edge of a small lake in front of the temple, along with a few hundred others! The iconic shot catches the reflection of the temple in the water as the sun comes up. Guess sun! We still got a few nice shots, but whether it was worth the early start is debatable.

Back to the hotel to have breakfast and 'get up' properly and then ready for Dee again at 8.30. This morning we are off to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, for a cruise on the lake and visit to a floating village. The lake was about an hour's drive away and on arrival we boarded our boat (perfectly OK, but much simpler than the one we used on the Mekong) for a couple of hours messing about on the lake.

Tonle Sap is fed by the very full Mekong River during the rainy season creating a massive lake of over 2700 square kilometres, although as the level of the Mekong falls during the dry season, the lake drains away to virtually nothing. As we moved sedately along the water, we saw a number of
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Such a surprise checking under each lid, with Andrei (of Andrei and Allison) in the background.
brightly coloured floating houses lived in by the locals, people who live, work and breathe on the lake. We saw a mother rowing her child to the floating schoolhouse and two very young children row themselves around, one in half a plastic barrel and one in a small polystyrene box, neither seemingly with a care in the world, nor with any parents around who seemed concerned!

The boat passed by a floating restaurant and market, before coming to a halt in the open water, with 'lake' being everywhere, as far as the eye could see, and beyond! But there was a reason for our stop.......a very unexpected and for some, a very frightening, reason. Our boat was approached by a couple of local ladies rowing smaller boats and standing up in these boats were children wrapped in huge snakes; pythons as it turned out. Then it was the plaintiff cry of 'One Dolla' once again, either for a picture, or to make them go away. Quite a few of our group (Mandy and Lily included) fled to the other side of the boat, only to find another snake carrier approaching that side. The whole few minutes was extremely uncomfortable
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The Mayan like temple of Phimeanakas.
and unedifying, with these poor people having to parade their kids with these beasts, just for a dollar of two. One or two of us did hand over a few dollars, more out of pity and guilt than anything else, but once again I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling about this form of tourism.

Surprise surprise, our next stop was the floating market and it wasn't snakes this time, but crocodiles. A number of crocs were bring kept in a watery hole for us to gawp at, before being 'processed' at some point for their skins and there were lots of crocodile leather skinned items to buy at very high prices, not that we were interested. It is all a little barbaric, but before we become too critical, it must be remembered that this is, of course, one of the few ways these people have to make any money and to survive. Nevertheless, it was pretty horrible. Visit over, we returned to the boat and went back to the jetty to rejoin our coach. Before we got there, Dee mentioned two things that are threatening the lake and the local people. Firstly, is climate change, with the
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The entrance to the Elephant Terrace.
area of the lake reducing each year. Secondly, is a massive new boat terminal complex being constructed and paid for by the Chinese, presumably to increase the amount of traffic on the lake, with the inevitable impact on the environment that this will surely have.

Back in the coach, it turned out that it was a bit early for lunch, so Dee took us to an Artisan Crafts workshop and showroom (!), established to employ 18-25 year olds to teach them skills such as wood carving, stone sculpting, lacquering, silver work and the like, producing a wide range of beautiful items, many with a religious or ceremonial flavour. The workshop was originally set up as a charity, but is now privately run, employing 1100 youngsters said to be paid a 'fair wage' for producing items that can sell for very high prices. The quality is clear and it is to be hoped that this is not being achieved by the exploitation of this workforce. A small number of items were purchased by the group and then we were off to lunch.

Post lunch was one last temple and to be honest, this was probably a temple too far!
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Part of the 350 metre Elephant Terrace wall.
It was an hour's drive to the temple of Banteay Srei, or the Citadel of Women. Built in the 10th century by Hindu priests, Banteay Srei is unusual in Angkor in not being a royal palace. It is small, but very pretty in pink sandstone, with some very ornate carvings and shrines, dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva. After a shaky start at Angkor Wat, the weather had got steadily better and by now it was pretty hot and humid and it was a combination of the heat and 'temple fatigue' which meant that our hearts really weren't in it. I think most of us felt that an afternoon left to our own devices to explore Siem Reap, would have been a far better idea, especially as by the time we got back to the hotel, we only had an hour or so before we were being picked up again for dinner. Having said that, the coach did stop for 5 minutes on the way back to give us the opportunity to take a couple snaps of a paddy field complex, which was well worth it.

This was our last dinner with the whole group tonight and we were
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The epic temple of Bayon.....
off to an open air restaurant within another hotel, for a 'special meal', which included a performance of traditional dance. The dancers were very good, but unfortunately the food was distinctly average, coupled with the fact that some of us were plagued with midges of some sort! The meal started really well, but unfortunately went downhill, a fact that was passed back to Dee. Having said that, we'd had a decent meal at lunchtime, so none of us were starving!

All but three of us returned to the hotel (the 'three' were dropped off at the night market), where Cheryl got us together for some group photos, before we said a fond farewell to some and joined a number of others for some last drinks in the Lily Lounge AND because we had been regulars in the lounge, our normal barman offered us a 15% discount on all our drinks! A very nice way to end the day.

So that's it. The formal tour is over and on the whole it has been a huge success, with a few iffy experiences, but overall an excellent introduction to the wonders of Indochina. Tomorrow, we move on to the beach
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.....and me, the drowned rat!
for a well earned rest.

A final question of the blog:

Lake Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, but the largest such lake in the world is almost 30 times larger. Can you name it?

Additional photos below
Photos: 46, Displayed: 36


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Angkor Thom - Bayon - 3

Some of the temple faces........
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Mandy, recreating one of the temple faces!

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