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Published: April 5th 2013
Blog 12 - 20th March
HCMC - Phnom Penh - Siam Reap
So.. After our crazy easy riders week in the countryside we were flung back into "travelaar" mode with a bang. Our night bus rolled into the urban monster that is Ho Chi Minh City at 4.30am. As we scrabbled around in the dark for our hotel we were caught up in the cross fire of one day ending and another beginning. On one street we found all the bars and "massage" parlours still open, with very drunken revellers casually sifting from one to the next. Then as the clock struck five and the sun came up, the neighbouring park opposite came alive with aerobics classes, dance music, joggers and all things healthy. What a contrast, welcome to Saigon!
Our final hotel in Vietnam was probably our comfiest yet. With white crisp clean sheets it was just what we needed after some fairly suspect lodgings in the highlands (where highlights included hairy sheets, dodgy stains, ant infestations, dirty loos and the infamous taxidermitised den!). It was also the first time in a week where we regained control of our diets. We looked no further than the legendary
Fanny Ice cream parlour. Silly names aside, this place is a Vietnamese institution with an amazing selection of flavours - We didn't hold back and blew a whole days budget on two crazy sundae concoctions. We had to scoff it quick too because at 37 degrees and serious humidity it was melting almost as fast as we could eat it (almost!). With only 24hours and not wanting to get too bogged down we explored many of the city's touristy sights from the outside. We found ourselves perching in a street corner cafe and simply soaking up all the hustle, bustle and electric energy of this very modern city.
From Saigon we bordered the "Mekong Express" bus for Cambodia. After an unbelievably smooth border crossing we arrived safely into Phnom Penh eight hours later. It turns out we were incredibly lucky because had we taken that very same bus the night before we would have found ourselves held at the border while our bus driver tried to explain to customs why he was carrying large quantities of cocaine into the country!
Like Saigon, arriving in Phnom Penh at night gave us a slightly artificial first impression of the city.
The street numbering and layout is so ridiculous it would leave even the boffins of Mensa baffled and we stumbled up and down for nearly 2 hours to find our hostel - which duly greeted us with cockroaches on the bed! And though not quite as seedy as Saigon you can see the nightlife heading more in that direction. It was off putting seeing so many old western men with very young local women.
In the day light however the town has a very different feel. Boiling and sweaty heat aside we felt very relaxed and strolled the riverfront to get fantastic views of the royal palaces, temples, pagodas and city monuments - offering a glimpse of the once great Khmer Empire. Our highlight was the national museum which documented the country's glorious past as the ruler of all south east Asia, from Burma to Vietnam, and the 9th century sculptures gave us a snippet of what lay ahead at the temples of Angkor.
The local people of Cambodia are the nicest and most friendly that we have met so far, bar none. Everyone from the street vendors and rickshaw drivers to public officials and soldiers greeted us
with beaming smiles and happy faces. This is all the more incredible when you consider the terrifying horrors and great atrocities the country has endured time and time again. The country is still recovering from the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime and the rein of Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979 about two million people died from either execution, torture, maltreatment, starvation or disease (about a quarter of the population). The Khmer Rouge established 'Year Zero' and sought to transform the country into a peasant dominated cooperative. All educated people were branded as parasites and systematically killed. Schools were closed and many transformed into detention centres where inmates were tortured before being taken away for execution. Our visits to the Tuel Sleng Museum (a school turned security prison S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek were harrowing but we felt necessary to see. Despite the revealing of mass graves all over the country in 1980, it was chilling to learn that when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese the UN continued to recognise them as the official ruling party. They occupied the Cambodian seat at the UN General Assembly until 1991, meaning the murderers represented
their victims for 12 years. Today, the people of Cambodia are still waiting for the outcome of the trial for the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders and its too late to try Pol Pot who escaped justice when he died in 1998.
Moving on from Phnom Penh our next stop was Siem Reap - the gateway to Angkor. We really enjoyed our four days in this laid back and friendly tourist town. With lively markets throughout the day and night, it was a cracking place to stay. Here we found our love for traditional Cambodian food, most notably the creamy coconut and mildly spiced 'Amok' fish and pork curries. All this was delightfully washed down with local beer at 50 cents a pint - particularly handy for St. Patrick's Day when the beer was given a 'natural' green dye glow, yum yum!
The climax of our Cambodian tour was our trip to the ancient temples of Angkor, the eighth wonder of the world. Our rickshaw driver looked more sleepy than we did when he picked us up at 4.30am (clearly a heavy night on green ale) and we joined the pre dawn traffic as we headed out to catch
the sunrise over the world's largest temple - Angkor Wat. We jostled for a position by the bank of an inner pond, the sun wasn't due for another hour but the place was already heaving as everyone tried to get the best spot for their massive cameras and tripods. Slowly dark shadows appeared ahead to give us our first glimpse of the monstrous beauty lying in front of us. Sadly our pictures don't do it justice but it was incredible to see the sun rise and the colours dramatically change from grey to red to gold. We explored the inners of the temple and its size and intricacy makes it truly a sight to behold.
Heading back to our rickshaw we woke up our driver again who took us to our next stop where we explored the rest of the Angkor complex. Formerly the capital of the great Khmer Empire this ancient city once had a population of over one million at a time when London was a little town the size of Alnwick. The sun was firmly up by now and we were sweating buckets. The two most impressive sights were the mighty Bayon temple in Angkor Thom
and the jungle dominated Ta Prohm. From a distance Bayon looked like little more than a towering pile of rocks but when you get up close you see hundreds of carved out faces watching over you from every angle. Aptly used for the film set of Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm has been taken completely over by trees, whose roots snake over the rocks and seem to strangle the buildings. Both were amazing and we duly expensed a whole memory card on photos.
We finished the day with a real buzz and it was a fantastic way to bring our short but incredible Cambodia stay to an end. Finishing very much on a high! Next stop Bangkok!
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