Craig and Ross in Cambodia


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December 31st 2019
Published: December 31st 2019
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Blog # 2: Siem Reap and onto Phnom Penh

December 31, 2019

Well, happy new year everyone! 2020 , my gosh.

(Over here, there has been extensive coverage by international news outlets of the Australia bush fires. And incredulity from commentators and experts at the inertia of the Australian federal government with regard to addressing climate change. Australia is especially vulnerable to global warming, but the band plays on.)

Anyway, We are safe and well and coming to the end of our trip. It was hot and sunny the whole time in Cambodia. Don’t remember seeing a cloud! This “cooler” dry season of November-January is the best time to visit, in my view. It’s still hot, about 32°C each day. Just not shit hot (nor wet).

After visiting Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the two other main sites on our list were Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei. Many people often cite Ta Prohm (the “Lara Croft-Tomb Raider Temple”) as their favourite archaeological site at Angkor. I think we agree, as it is amazing. A crumbling temple complex now being overtaken by the jungle. Many of the 12th century buildings have surrendered to the clutches of giant fig trees. The trees now grow among the remains of the temple. Their massive roots wrap around the lichen-covered stone ruins like giant octopus tentacles. We again visited in the early morning. Very atmospheric, with the rising sun filtering through the trees and across piles of collapsed stone pillars and through mysterious ancient doorways. I fully expected Indian Jones to come barrelling out of one of those doorways . Pictures don’t do the place justice but some are attached here. You have to see it with your own eyes. And speaking of jungle, one of the things I really liked about the whole Angkor area was the lush forest surrounding everything. Many beautiful tall trees, thick undergrowth and palms dotted around. Lovely.

We hired a car and driver the next day to go to Banteay Srei (“ladies palace”), as it is further away. I wanted to see this site because it is very well preserved 10th century Hindu temple that features amazingly intricate carvings in pink/orange rock. Quite different to the other temples. It was very good and highly recommended, especially the monkey and lion mythical statues. On the way back to Siem Reap, our driver suggested we stop at the Cambodian Land mine museum. We weren’t sure, then agreed. So glad we did, as it was really very very good and we learned a lot. While great strides have been made in their removal, there are still over 4 millions landmines strewn throughout Cambodia, mostly laid during the civil war years (1970’s-1980s). We learned that it takes as little a 5 kg to set off a landmine and we saw piles of de-activated land mines and mines designed to blow up vehicles too. There are over 40,000 amputees in Cambodia due to this scourge. There is also still a shitload of unexploded ordinance all over Cambodia. The USA dropped tonnes and tonnes of bombs across Cambodia during the Vietnam war, to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. (They dropped more bombs in Cambodia than they did in WWII).

The other activity that most visitors do here is visit the floating villages on the vast Tonle Sap lake or its adjoining rivers. We elected to go to the less touristed area of Kompong Phluck, an other-worldy village of ramshackle houses on stilts along the riverfront. Their purpose is to stay clear of the water when the river rises dramatically during the wet season. We had a fascinating half day with a guide touring the village by boat and on foot. People here live a simple life, largely dependent upon fishing. Sadly, there has been widespread drought here this year, so water levels are way lower than normal, with fewer fish and threatening the livelihood of the locals. More evidence of the pervasive effects of global warming, as everywhere else on Mother Earth.

Just before leaving Siem Reap, I took myself to the top of a mountain for sunset views over the monument. A very popular activity. Many other people also did the same. I got a good spot and set up the camera on the tripod, as did a Korean guy beside me. An Aussie family were also beside me – Jane and Peter from Bondi and their two daughters. The sun was about to set, casting a soft light on Angkor Wat as it stood high above the jungle in the distance. A park ranger came along and told us sharply: “No tripod ! Remove tripod!” We were disappointed and could not work out why no tripods were allowed. Really, a tripod was needed for the best shots in the fading light and it was not blocking anyone’s view. There was room enough for everyone. The ranger wandered off among the crowd, which prompted the Korean guy to re-assemble his tripod! I was nervous to do so, lest I get chucked over the mountain top. Aussie woman Jane said to me:

“Go on, set it up Craig – I’ll cough as a signal if I see the ranger come back.”

So, I set up again, only to soon hear a rapid cough behind me. I fumbled to quickly disassemble the tripod, nearly dropping my camera over the edge, only to find it was someone else coughing. Not Jane, and there was no ranger in sight. In the end, I got my tripod-based photos, despite the ranger re-appearing very nearby unbeknownst to Jane, who failed to cough!! He didn’t notice me in the fading light. I told Jane I was firing her as a security guard. We all laughed and shared travel stories on the walk back down after sunset.

After a fantastic time in Siem Reap, We caught a bus (coach) six hours south to the Cambodian Capital, Phnom Penh (Giant Ibis coachline, if anyone would like to know). We chose the bus over flying to see some of the countryside, which featured green rice paddies, villages and palm-dotted vistas. The coach was modern and comfy, they provided pastries and bottled water and fast free Wifi onboard. (Please take note anyone reading this blog who runs the Melbourne airport Skybus, whose “free Wifi” is useless). We enjoyed three days in Phnom Penh, a bustling city that is a mx of Khmer temples, French colonial architecture and a lot of Chinese-funded construction going on. We had sundowners atop Le Moon bar, which afforded lovely views of the city at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. As we watched the chaotic traffic of motorbikes, cars, minibuses and tuk-tuks below, Ross said:

“Everyone here drives like a maniac. Stopping at red lights is optional. However, I guess there would be no chance of any of these drivers losing their licenses.”

“why not?” I asked.

“Because I’m sure none of them fucking have one.”

We stayed in a beautiful hotel in Phenom Penh called the Plantation, a jungle infused oasis in the middle of the city. It had a lovely pool area flanked by thick ferns and palms, visited by little birds, where we had breakfast each day. So lovely and relaxing. We visited the city palace nearby (very similar to the one in Bangkok), and the excellent national museum. The latter was packed full of Khmer artifacts, statues etc. We strolled along the Palm tree-lined Sisowath Quay, which runs beside the river. A nice area that is hugely popular with families in the late afternoon. From the quay, we did a very pleasant dusk dinner cruise on the river. We also went bananas buying cheap stuff at the massive central market (including noise cancelling headphones for $15, wireless ear plugs for $10 ,etc. etc. Let’s see how long they last!). However, the main thing we did in PP was visit the genocide museum, housed in the horrendous S-21 (former Tuol Sleng prison) and then the killing fields, just 15 km south of the city.

You cannot visit Cambodia without acknowledging its dark history. Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge Regime ran this place in the late 1970’s. The bastards killed up to 3 million people while trying to enforce a poor agrarian Marxist state. People were torn from the cities and forced into rural life. Those who resisted were summarily killed. Pol Pot drew upon the uneducated masses from rural areas to stoke his army. Anyone considered intelligent was slaughtered – doctors, teachers, students. Apparently, if you had soft hands or wore glasses, this was considered a sign of intelligence and you were immediately marked for slaughter. (I would not have lasted long). An inordinate chunk of contemporary Cambodian society is under 25, as up to one fifth of the previous generation was killed in the late 1970’s. The regime was finally overthrown when Vietnam invaded and Pol Pot fled to Thailand. However, he eventually returned to Cambodia. How did Pol Pot himself die? Well, he did not rot in jail, and he evaded execution. He ended up under long term house arrest. He died as recently as 1998, peacefully in his home. He deserved so much less. The site where thousands were detained and tortured (the current genocide museum) was harrowing but very informative. Thousands of people were also sent to be murdered further south at an extermination camp at Choeung Ek - aka the killing fields. This was also harrowing but excellent. Like the genocide museum, the killing fields had an excellent audio guide. It is a peaceful place today, but the most confronting thing we saw at the killing fields was a huge glass-paneled stupa, housing some 8000 skulls and bones of just a fraction of those killed. Even today, after every wet season, more humans bones and bits of clothing are exposed when some soil is washed away. Thousands were slaughtered; there are so many mass graves here. Overall, the Cambodians suffered three decades of terrible times after independence from the French; the US bombing during the Vietnam war, the brutal Khmer Rouge years and then a bloody civil war during which most of those land mines were laid. Yet, despite all this, the people here are absolutely beautiful, charming, gentle and friendly. I fell in love with the people.

It was at the killing fields that I overheard what might take the cake for the most pig ignorant statement I have ever heard on all my travels. It came not from an American, as so many of them do (that I have heard anyway), but from a young Italian woman. She said: “The killing fields memorial was quite interesting, yes. But the tuk tuk trip out here was just too long, darling. 40 minutes. They should move this memorial closer into Phnom Penh.”

Over dinner one night, Ross was commenting to me how there is great artistic flair here in South East Asia. I agree. Everything has creative style. From simple things, like napkins on tables arranged like flowers, to tables in restaurants that are old sewing machine tables, or amazing lighting, or wash basins in toilets where the taps are old tea pots. All sorts of stuff that is really cool and creative. Speaking of tables and dinner, the food was excellent, as I ‘ve noted previously. Did I mentioned banana leaf (or banana blossom) salad (Nhoim Troyong Chiek)? This salad includes sliced banana flower and carrot, red cabbage, onion, lemon, chopped bits of nuts, coriander, star anise and god knows what else. It’s a flavour explosion in the mouth; crispy, sweet, sour, spicy and salty. I often had it with chicken strips in it.

We left Cambodia a few days ago, to spend New Year’s eve and a few extra days in Singapore. I might do a third blog on that if I can be bothered, although I have blogged from Singapore before. As we got driven to the airport in Phnom Penh, that familiar sad feeling descended again. I never get like this at home. It's a terrible feeling I get when leaving a place I have grown to love. I have discussed this feeling in blogs several times in the past. Mostly, after leaving places where I have been wildlife watching. Africa, mainly. It’s hard for me to describe but it’s a very sad and deep feeling of loss. A terrible hopelessness, that something I should be grasping tight is slipping through my fingers. What is it? This time the feeling hit me harder than ever. As Ross sat on the other side of the car blissfully reading his book, I was staring out the window at the passing city scenery. While I sat silently, tears started to pool in my eyes behind my sunglasses. Then they started streaming down my cheeks. I furtively wiped them away and had pulled myself together by the time the car arrived at the airport. But something has happened. Something has clicked in my brain and I have a feeling that I am coming back here.

More photos below. Click any to enlarge.

Love, Craig (and Ross).


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