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Published: January 13th 2009
Cambodia, our 13th country and the last destination (not counting bonnie Scotland itsef of course) before we cross the border to get our flight home from Bangkok. Another country we had heard great things about from fellow travellers so we were looking forward to exploring as much as our limited time left allows.
We arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, on the 23rd of December in time to get booked into somewhere nice for Christmas. We had decided that as a wee Christmas present to ourselves we would try to find somewhere a bit nicer than the usual backpacker haunts. The main touristy drag seemed to be on the riverfront, we headed here first but as suspected anything in our price range was cramped and pretty basic. So we decided to head away from the busy river front and we are glad we did. We found a lovely hotel in a quiet area with a sparkly clean room for the same price as the boxy rooms on the river front...and it had air-con, mini bar, TV and a large en-suite, lovely jubbley.
The first thing that struck us about Phnom Penh as with so many places on our travels
is that it seemed to be a city of two tales: the poor and the rich, the old and the new, chaos and calm all found in one place. Where there are motorbikes whizzing by there are also horse and carts plodding along, next to the huge boulevards and avenues there are dirt tracked alleyways, next to the designer air-conned boutiques are the pungent smelling market stalls. It is as if the city is a crossroads of the past and present, ready to take the next step into the future. Looking back this is how you could describe the country of Cambodia itself.
It is hard to believe that just over 30 years ago Phnom Penh was a very different place. In 1975 during the Pol Pot regime the city was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and as part of a radical social programme its entire population were forced into the countryside and tens of thousands of the capital's educated residents were killed. To find out more about this terrible period of Cambodia's history we visited Tuol Sleng Museum. This was previously a school that was turned into a prison known as S21 which became a centre for
detention and torture. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people were held here before being taken to the killing fields to be murdered. The museum consists of rooms where the prisoners were held and tortured and photographs of all prisoners held here. As there wasn't a huge amount of written information we decided to hire a local guide to take us round . We are glad we did so as she was very informative and told us many stories behind the photographs. She also gave us a very personal insight into her life during this time. A teenager at the time, she and her family left the city to escape the atrocities and fled to Battambang by foot. It took them 2 months to get here, living rough and eating anything they could find. Saddly, after arriving in Battambang they were caught by the Khmer Rouge and her father, a teacher and her brother, a student were both executed. Without going into too much detail S21 is certainly not one for the squeamish as it included photographs of the prisoners after torture and the original weapons of torture are on show. It was a very sobering and thought provoking
The Killing Fields
experience, we were apalled at the depths humanity can sink to and cannot understand man's ability to allow such horrors to take place. Sadly though it does not seem that the lesson has been learned as many acts of genocide and indescribable hate continue around the world today.
We also took time out to pay our respects at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This is the area where the prisoners were brought to be executed often after months of torture at S21. Mass graves containing the remains of thousands of people have been exhumed. There are 43 graves which have been left untouched and as we walked around the fields we found fragments of cloth and bone scattered around the ground, an unsettling sight. A bold stupa has now been erected in memory of the dead and we felt that it was a lovely, peaceful place to remember the past, it is as if nature has reclaimed it as birds, bees and butterflies fluttered everywhere. Having visited these places we are amazed at how far Cambodia has come since their dark past, and the people seem so incredibly happy it is difficult to imagine that many have lost
The Killing Fields
so many loved ones.
So after these harrowing experiences we felt very lucky and happy to be spending Christmas in Phnom Penh. We really hadn't been feeling in the festive mood at all, there were very few decorations around, no irritating crimbo carols on continuous loop and to top it off it just felt impossible to feel Christmassy when it was so hot and sunny! Regardless, it was Christmas eve and we (well Karen) was eager to try and recreate some of the usual festive spirit. Fortunately we stumbled upon a well stocked supermarket full of food and treats available at home, we could not believe our luck, it had a deli counter full of REAL cheeses from around the world and a wine aisle with anything from Pinot Noir to Champagne!!!! So we decided to purchase a few of said delicacies and have ourselves a little crimbo buffet. That night in our swanky hotel room we enjoyed our feast of brie, chorizo and stilton with a lovely fresh baguette and a bottle of our old friend, Argentinian Malbec. Doesn't seem like much but it was a rare treat compared with the usual fare of noodles or fried rice.
We even had some tinsel!
Christmas day itself was spent lazily... at lunchtime we phoned Ian in NZ who was just falling asleep after his dinner and we phoned home to wish those waking up back home a Merry Christmas. We have to admit we did feel a little homesick at this stage, it just felt funny not being at home and we didn't really know what to do with ourselves! However we were looking forward to the evening as we had planned to treat ourselves to a Christmas curry. We glammed ourselves up as much as possible from the contents of our backpacks and headed out to a recommended Indian restaurant. We enjoyed a lovely meal in a very atmospheric restaurant with a friendly host. It was a lovely change from turkey and all the trimmings, we certainly didn't miss the brussel sprouts. After we found a darkly lit wine bar to enjoy a glass of wine and watched the world go by before heading to bed. A very special Christmas indeed.
After a very relaxing time in Phnom Penh we headed to er...relax some more in Sihanoukville. We had looked into doing something a little more
active in the jungle but well we really don't have a lot of time (or money!) left so we thought we might as well make the most of it while we can. Sihanoukville is a town on Cambodia's south coast that is surrounded by beaches. We stayed in a little wooden bungalow with our very own private balcony overlooking the sea, it was situated on a quiet beach away from the hustle and bustle of the main town. We only spent two nights here as we were eager to get to Siem Reap in time to celebrate New Year. The beach was one of the nicest and quietest we've been to in SE Asia with lovely clear, calm water for swimming in. We got up very early one day to go for a morning stroll along the beach, the sun had just risen and we had the whole stretch of sand to ourselves. Karen enjoyed a swim in the ocean, just her and the fishes and Tony enjoyed snapping away in the photogenic morning light. A memorable, blissful moment.
Ever onwards we then caught the bus up to the north of Cambodia to visit Siem Reap and Angkor Wat!
'pineapple Madame? I give you 2 bags for $1! You no buy I cry, you buy I happy forever!'
The bus was due to take about 10 hours, but this turned out not to be the case with a 2 hour delay when the bus broke down after stopping for a bite to eat. It was a tad frustrating but we really are used to this type of thing. Besides, there were young kids who were selling everything from Mango and pineapple to fried grasshopper and spider! Their English was excelent and their sales technique impeccable but they still couldn't convince us to try any of the fried delecacies! We did compromise and get far more fruit than we could possibly eat though! We spent the hours happily engaged in some quick witted banter with the young children, especially enjoyable was running away from them as they chased us with live tarantulas! Thankfully we only broke down once more before we finally arrived in Siem Reap late that night, tired and hungry.
We decided to book ourselves a tuk-tuk driver for 3 days in order to explore the extensive Angkor area, some ruins are as far afield as 70km. Zooming around in the tuk-tuk turned out to be one of the highlights of the next three days as
in a similar way to riding our motorbikes in Laos, we enjoyed being outside in the fresh air all day, with the wind in our hair. Also it allowed us to soak up the atmosphere of the villages and countryside as we sped from temple to temple. As for the temples themselves we have decided to try not to bore everyone with too much technical or historic details, there is just too much to take in. Our first day we visited the sight of Kbal Spean, 50km away from Siem Reap. Here we clmibed uphill into the jungle for a couple of kilometres before arriving at some increadible river bed carvings, hindu deities are etched into the bed rock overwhich the river actually flows. It was an impressive intorduction to the ancient Khmer civilization. Next stop was the small compact ruins of Banteay Srei, a pink hued temple built in honour of the Hindu god Shiva. Here we were treated to some of the finest stone carvings seen anywhere on earth! It was amazing to see the intricate detail that every inch of the buildings are adorned with.
After lunch we stopped off at several smaller ruins, one of
which was particularly enjoyable, Preah Khan, set in its own extensive grounds this temple is one of the largest complexes around Angkor. We loved wandering through the ancient maze of corridors and collapsed rooms, with the back drop of the jungle all around us, listening to the noisy insects chirp loudly. It was particularly nice because we visited this place in the evening just as most of the crowds were heading home so we got the place largely to ourselves. It felt very peaceful.
On day two we travelled even further afield to the majestic ruins of Beng Mealea, some 70km away, our tuk-tuk driver did a grand job getting us here well before any other crowds and we had the place virtually to ourselves making this a very special experience! Dating from the 12th century, Beng Mealea is set deep in the jungle, these have to be one of our favorite ruins of all the Angkorian temples. It was a truely spectacular sight to behold, the ancient crumbling temple complex has been largely subsumed by the encroaching jungle making for a very atmospheric feel. The walls and buildings are covered in vines and trees as they seem to
merge into one entity. We spent a long time clambering over, under and around the extensive complex, disappearing into a lost world, we felt like Indian Jones! There was a real sense of harmony here, so deep and undisturbed in the jungle, it was an enchanting place.
After lunch we spent some time visiting the various temples of the Rulous group, these are possibly the oldest temples anywhere around Angkor and date back to the dawn of the Khmer classical age. The Rulous temples themselves were not massively impressive, given how old they are some are crumbling badly and not as well preserved as others, but by the same token it is also amazing they are still standing at all! It was a nice relaxed afternoon.
For our third and final day we had supposedly saved the best until last. First off we spent the morning wandering around the massive and extensive complex of Angkor Thom. This was once a fortified city capital for the Khmer civilization and is thought to have housed around 1 million people! There are various areas and different ruins here, the main one being the Bayon, a very tall and imposing temple with
A fig tree swallows Ta Prohm. Supposedly this is the place made famous in the movie Tombe Raider.
54 gothic towers rising above you as you explore the stairwells and corridors.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic temples is called Ta Prohm, appealing because much of it has been swallowed by the jungle, trees seem to grow out of the ruined buildings themselves as if feeding on the stone. While not that large a temple the shear number of fig tree formations in and around the crumbling stonework make for some startling images. We had been looking forward to this temple very much and while we did enjoy our visit a great deal, as one can expect given it's popularity it was thronging with crowds. The fig trees were seriously impressive and very much worth a look as they twisted and turned all over the place. We will certainly remember the place for a number of reasons, particularly one comical incident... As we waited patiently amongst the huge crowds for our turn to take a pic of the main attraction we could see we were going to struggle to get a shot. While there was a modicum of order with many people waiting in line, we simply could not compete with the massed ranks of Japanese tour
groups, so hatching a secret plan we waited quietly in the wings... as one set of happy snappers departed the photo spot and their compatriots moved forwards, Tony sprinted ahead of them theatrically leaping onto the photo platform much to the enjoyment of the good natured Japanese who gave a swift round of applause with cheers of "oh very cool"! They all seemed impressed with our initiative. Unfortunately we were both in fits of laughter and struggled to take a worthy photo at all! But it was worth it for the giggles alone.
Aside from the temples themselves we also enjoyed lots of interaction with the children who live in the villages situated nearby the sights. These villages make their money from selling all sorts of souveneirs to the visiting tourists. Most of the selling is done by little children, as you wander around a temple you are often followed by two or three kids trying to sell you books, beads or postcards. As we've mentioned earlier these children are extremely bright and engaging and we had some great fun playing with them. Continuously throughout our travels we have worried over the dilemma of whether or not to buy
Our little friend
from children. We understand that buying from them perhaps perpetuates the act of parents sending their children out to sell, surely they should be playing and having fun. But then we do like to give something to help the families and the money earned here often helps the family pay school fees. It is tricky to know what is the right thing to do, but wherever we go we try to have a little bit of interaction with the children and rather than buy something from them we give them a drink or some food. As we ate lunch near Ta Prohm we met one little girl called Laurie who we will remember for a long time. We had bought her a drink and as we chatted she entertained us by telling us the capital of every country around the world, she was a very clever girl and told us she wanted to be a guide when she was older. Later on she gave Karen a picture she had drawn of flowers which she'll treasure. It is these little moments that often make our day.
It was then time for the big one... Angkor Wat itself, the massive
ancient monument thought to be the largest religious structure anywhere in the world. As we have experienced elsewhere on our travels it was a bit surreal being at this iconic temple which we had seen so many times in photographs. It goes without saying that there were thousands of tourists crawling all over the place, everywhere. We don't want to labour the point but this made the whole thing a bit of an anti climax because it didn't feel special or magical for us as many of the other temples we had visited did, though we were fully prepared for this, we knew what it was going to be like! With that said it was still a tremendous finale to see such a structure with our own eyes, to wander around its awesome buildings and marvel at how intricately carved the walls and stone work are. How did they manage such feats? We can only imagine.
We cannot leave out our unexpected meeting with our old friends, the monkeys! As we drove between temples, off to our right in the trees we suddenly saw first one, then another, then a whole troop of Macaque monkeys swinging around and generally
One of the older adults enjoys getting groomed by the little uns.
having fun. We quickly asked our tuk-tuk driver to pull over and we spent a good half hour playing with the wee rascals, it brought fond memories of Bolivia flooding back for both of us. It was a real bonus and thoroughly enjoyable, not to mention a welcome diversion from the temples!
There was just enough time to climb to the top of the hill top temple of Phnom Bakheng, where we watched in awe as the sunset over Angkor Wat, and the surrounding jungle which stretched as far as the eye could see. Every sunset tells a different story, here atop the hill with panoramic views all around us we enjoyed the skyscape as it went through it's transition from bright blue and cloud filled, though all the shades of golden yellows and crimson reds. Wonderful.
So we can tick Angkor Wat with all of its siblime, vast, spread out temples off our list of must see sights around the world! And what a magnificent three days we had exploring. Often we wandered through jungle swamped temples in a daze, aghast at the breathtaking grandeur of the structures around us. It was often like stepping back in
time, and as befiting such religious centres they seemed to instil a peace in us with their tranquility. Our favourite moments were those spent alone together surrounded by a temple with nature all around us, these moments will live long in our memories.
With a short stop in the town of Batambang it was then time for our stay in Cambodia to come to an end. It has been a real cauldron of emotions and experiences travelling though this wonderful country and we have enjoyed every moment. The people are amongst the most friendly we have met, just like those from Laos, they were always smiling and eager to chat. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism they have prevailed with smiles intact from a chequered past. It has been a real joy to see the people of South East Asia overcome such adversity to emerge bright and full of life, sure there are still problems, lots of them, but the backdrop is a people who are moving forward towards their future, for the most part in the right direction. We wish them the very best of luck and we will hold the people we have met long
in our hearts.
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