December 3, 2009
Today we left PP and headed north to Siem Reap. We were getting the bus rather than flying as it was much quicker – we had a flight booked but at the time we booked there was no direct flight from PP to Siem Reap so it meant going back into Vietnam and Saigon. We were worried we’d have to pay departure tax and for another visa so we decided to just skip the flight and pay the $9 for the bus.
The bus was supposed to leave at 9.30am and was supposed to take about 5 hours. By 9.30am we had only just been picked up from the hotel and it was gone 10am when we finally left the bus station and hit the road. The bus was really stuffy and hot and the air vents provided little respite.
Like Vietnam, the scenery was stunning with the flooded green fields stretching out for miles on either side of the roads, punctuated fairly often by little shacks comprising some of the villages along the main north/south highway.
After just an hour or so, we made a stop at a roadside café. This wasn’t really your normal tourist spot but the locals were ready for the influx of tourists nonetheless! We were greeted with loads of kids selling fruit and trays carrying many different deep-fried bugs and spiders. One of the little girls had one of the pre-cooked (i.e. alive!) tarantulas crawling all over her shirt and took great pleasure in scaring the tourists with it. At one point, one of the older women stood up and the “stool” she was sat on turned out to actually be a bucket full to the brim of massive spiders. At this point the girl thought it would be funny to put her spider on my shirt and proceeded to grab another from the bucket and put that there too. I’m not scared of spiders usually but these things were massive and whilst I was fine when they stayed still I was a little more uncomfortable when one headed towards my open collar! I didn’t have my camera so one of the girls on the bus took my picture so I hope she emails them to me!
Back on the sweat bus, we expected more stops given that we’d only done an hour before the first one but our next stop turned out to be Siem Reap. It was just after 3pm so the journey, including stop, had actually only taken 5 hours and we were almost on time! We had arranged a pickup with our hotel but none of the name boards had my name on it. We’ve been quite lucky with pickups really as we’ve been met on time and in the right place by every one on this entire trip except Cairo. And now Siem Reap. After a few calls to the hotel and a 20 minute wait, the driver eventually turned up and blamed the traffic! Less than 10 minutes later, we were at the hotel, the traffic having mysteriously disappeared!
We were so hot from the bus ride and the waiting around at the bus station that our room with fan just wasn’t enough so we decided to pay the extra $5 a night and get air-con. We both got cooled off and had a look at the map to try and find something reasonable for dinner. Elizabeth found a place that served burgers and whilst I know that isn’t very Cambodian it was exactly what was required!
We headed out for an early dinner as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and we, of course, discovered that the place we wanted to eat wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Unlike the curry place in Saigon, the actual location was pretty close so we headed around the corner and settled in at the Funky Munky with a couple of nice cold beers to accompany my chili burger and Elizabeth’s chili cheese hotdog!
We made plans with the hotel for an early pickup tomorrow – we wanted to head to the temples at Angkor Wat and wanted to be there for sunrise. We were told the same driver as earlier would collect us in his tuk-tuk and so both pondered whether he would be there for the 5am start.
December 4, 2009
After waking up at 4.30am and heading outside the hotel a bit before 5, we were greeted by a couple of tuk-tuk drivers, none of whom were ours! As you can guess, the useless waste of space was not on time and by 5.15 he still hadn’t showed up so we made a deal with another driver to take us there. I wasn’t waiting any longer for him as I didn’t want to miss the sunrise and we wouldn’t be using him any more, either!
Our new driver was really helpful and took us exactly where we needed to be. We were surprised by the number of people on the roads already and guessed we weren’t the only ones getting there early. The first stop was the ticket office where you get a personalized ticket with your picture on it. At 5.30am our pictures sure ain’t the prettiest we’ve ever been!
The driver dropped us at the main temple, Angkor Wat and there we headed across the moat and through the main gate into the temple complex. It was still dark at this point and some of the steps were a little treacherous, lit only by the bright, almost full moon. Inside the gate, there were lots of people sat around the edge, looking towards the silhouette of Angkor Wat and as the clock ticked by the sun gradually rose behind it. It was an amazing view, marred only marginally by the retarded American behind us who said more stupid things than George Bush during an entire presidency term! Yes, that many.
This was just such an amazing thing to see and it makes me now think about some of the other places we are heading to – Machu Picchu, Uluru, for example – and what they would be like to view at sunrise.
After taking it all in we walked towards the temple itself, the largest religious building in the world, and were amazed by its size and detail. The carvings were wonderfully detailed and the bas reliefs on the inner wall were exquisite. They run for around 800m around the whole temple and even though one portion was closed off for renovation it didn’t detract from how cool the temple was.
Back at the front of the temple, we saw the reflection of Angkor Wat in the two large lakes which flank the main entrance. It was turning into a scorching hot day and we were glad we’d made an early start.
On the tuk-tuk, which is thankfully open and has a nice breeze, we headed through the south gate into Angkor Thom. This is the fortified city of Angkor and each gate, including the one we entered through has four faces on it each depicting the Buddha of compassion. The walls of the city are over 12km long so we wouldn’t be walking around those!
Inside Angkor Thom we walked around a number of the different structures here. The first was Bayon. This was a massive temple and the upper parts are adorned with over 200 faces similar to those seen on the entry gates. We headed around the temple and climbed upwards to get a better view of the faces. The sight here is not as stunning as Petra but the fact you can climb around inside the temples and walls and really explore makes it every bit as much fun. Bayon looks like a pile of rocks at times but inside there was so much more to it.
Everywhere we headed there seemed to be some kind of renovation taking place, including Angkor Wat itself and Bayon. Sometimes it can be detrimental to your experience and you wish to yourself you could come back at a time without scaffolding. Here, however, the building work was being tactfully undertaken.
The next piece we saw inside Angkor Thom really was more of a building site. Baphoun is a temple which was taken apart piece by piece by archaeologists prior to the civil war to protect it. Unfortunately, during the madness of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, the records detailing the plans were destroyed. 30 years later, having carried out extensive research and having used old photographs and drawings, the temple is now being fully restored. It was quite cool being able to see it coming together along with some of the designs and 3-D drawings being used to help the workers piece it all back together.
Finally within the city walls, we saw the Terrace of Elephants which is a huge bas relief of gargantuan elephants with stairways containing three-headed elephants. Even the columns here were made in the design of the elephants’ trunks.
Back outside Angkor Thom’s walls, we headed to Ta Keo, a massive pyramid which was never completed. The inscriptions suggest it was struck by lightning during construction and abandoned. Nevertheless, it was a really cool structure and one which we decided to climb to the top of. What we didn’t realize was quite how difficult and steep the steps were until we were beyond the point of no return. The guidebook did warn us that “those suffering from vertigo should stick to the eastern staircase” and the girls selling postcards at the top had shouted down to us to advise us to take another route! It wasn’t so bad really but getting to the top was a relief and the nice breeze and great view made it worthwhile. There wasn’t much of note at the top but it was an achievement to get up it. We took the eastern staircase down though!
Finally we headed to Ta Prohm which is one of the more poplar sights at Angkor, as indicated by the amount of tour buses parked by the entrance. And we’d been having such a good time today, too! The area looks like it could be something out of an Indiana Jones films and apparently some of the Tomb Raider film was shot here (one of the bars in town has a drink named after Angelina Jolie as she ate there when she was filming). The buildings are showing their age and are undergoing some restoration but the crumbling brickwork just added to the mystique and the beauty of the temple area. Many of the other temples have been preserved by removing much of the surrounding jungle but here that is not possible – the trees have grown so large that the roots have started taking over and are interlocking and engulfing some of the buildings. If they were to be removed, the buildings themselves would topple over with it. This isn’t a problem though as the roots crop out like tentacles in so many places and provide some great photo opportunities even though the maze of corridors through the temples are a little beyond repair.
Inevitably though, we did encounter the unfortunately not endangered species that is the tour group. Here, it was the Japanese rearing their ugly heads and taking over the world. OK, it was just Ta Prohm they took over but it seemed like the tour group spread much further! It seemed that everywhere we went we had to wait for a tour group to take a thousand photos oblivious to the other paying patrons. We were so glad we were doing this independently and could take the time to wait and enjoy some serenity than have to try and keep up with that rabble!
Back on the tuk-tuk and getting very hot, we were glad of the fresh air as the driver took us back to the hotel. We’d been up since 4.30am and although it was only around 10am it seemed like we’d had a long day already. Last night we bought some biscuits to have as a breakfast but they didn’t provide much nourishment so after a quick laze around we headed out for some lunch.
We had a few things to do on the internet and as we don’t have wifi at the hotel, we found a café that did and headed there for lunch. On the way, we bought a book which details the temples at Angkor and we thought would be a good place to learn some more about them.
At the Blue Pumpkin Café, we grabbed a seat on the spacious comfy sofas upstairs and made ourselves at home. Along with using the internet, we both had a nice light sandwich followed up by a nice filling ice cream sundae! We deserved it, we were up before sunrise after all! The café was quite westernized again and as a result was a bit more than we should really be spending in lunch but we needed it and it was bloody tasty!
After lunch we walked around and popped in a few tourist shops and tour offices. We wanted to visit the flooded forest and it seems it is quite difficult to get to and around so we thought we’d try a tour agency or four to get some ideas of prices. It wasn’t something we definitely wanted to do which was handy as the tour agencies were useless in providing worthwhile information with every single one trying to sell us a tour to the floating village instead of what we wanted! Each tour seemed a bit more “miss” than “hit” and for the price we decided there were other things we could do and enjoy more so we decided to skip that and hit one of the hotel pools instead for a bit of relaxation!
When we returned to the hotel we asked the manager about tours to the flooded forest, too and he wasn’t much help. In fact, he didn’t even know the driver he had arranged hadn’t shown up this morning! Bloody useless!
In the evening we headed out for curry and the food was good and cheap. After the excessive costs in Japan we were pleased to be somewhere cheaper and hopefully Thailand will help reduce our food spend even further! It certainly needs reducing!
December 5, 2009
We had arranged with our tuk-tuk driver yesterday to come and pick us up today and take us out to the Landmine Museum. The museum was quite a way outside the city and to get there was passed through a large part of the outer sections of the temples of Angkor. It was great to get to see some more scenery and some cool ruins for free!
The ride to the museum took about an hour, longer than even we expected and we knew the journey was going to be longer than we’d spend actually in the museum. And we were right.
The museum was quite small but really well laid out. It was originally opened by a man called Aki Ra. He doesn’t know when he was born but it is estimated around 1970 and by the age of 10 he was a member of the Khmer Rouge. It was at this age he was taught to use a gun and fight as well as place landmines. Within a few years, he’d defected and joined the Vietnamese fight against the Khmer Rouge. After the war, he started using his training to disarm mines and make areas of the country safe. His reputation quickly spread and before long villages from all around the country were contacting him when they found anything suspicious. He now displays a number of the mines he has disarmed at the museum along with other landmine related items including pictures of not only himself working with the mines but also victims of landmines. It is estimated that there could be somewhere in the region of 6 million mines still hidden around the country and Aki Ra reckons he has personally disarmed 50,000, an amazing effort from one person.
The museum also highlighted certain sections of various charters and conventions set out and followed around the world, including the Ottawa Treaty which is signed by countries who want landmines completely decommissioned. Each country that signs the Treaty has 10 years to work on decommissioning its own supplies. The museum listed countries which haven’t signed the treaty and these include China, Russia, Vietnam, India and the US. Each country gave a reason why it hadn’t signed the treaty. For example, India cited the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir as a reason as they claim that Pakistan have them too so they need them. The US reason was it needed them to defend the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea – what the fuck has that region and that dispute got to do with America? The US doesn’t need to be involved in any disputes around the world and really should be keeping its nose out of other people’s business let alone using such stuff as a reason for producing more landmines.
The museum also doubled as a school and has around two dozen children from around the country living there. They are all the victims of the Khmer Rouge or landmines in some way, whether directly through having lost a limb or indirectly through loss of a parent or trouble in their own village. It seems utterly stupid that 30 years after the event people are still suffering as a result of the Khmer Rouge atrocities but wherever you go in Cambodia it is still fresh in the memory and impossible to escape.
We returned back to Siem Reap, stopping briefly for some unauthorized pictures of the outer temples, before heading for some lunch. We found a nice little café and were pleased to have a sandwich that was a reasonable price rather than the westernized stuff we were used to.
From there we headed to one of the hotels in town to use their pool. It was $5 to use the pool and it was a lovely, refreshing pool in a nice hotel. It was a nice relaxing way to spend an afternoon and a change to be nice and cool rather than soaking with sweat!
For dinner we went to the Khmer Kitchen where I had a lovely Chicken Lab, a local dish of chicken flavoured with lots of lemongrass. Elizabeth had a Khmer veggie curry which was also yummy and had lots of nice chunk vegetables in it. After dinner we strolled around the central area and two streets in particular – one nicknamed the Alley and one nicknamed Bar Street. Both of these were lined with restaurants and bars and we stopped at a couple of different ones for cheap beers before settling in at the Angkor What? Bar for a few more glasses of beer and some good music. It was a nice atmosphere and we may well have to come back here tomorrow after dinner for some more relaxation!
December 6, 2009
Today we went to the Tigre de Papier restaurant and did a cooking course, trying our hand at traditional Khmer cuisine. I was a bit worried Elizabeth wouldn’t enjoy it very much as she doesn’t like cooking as much as I do but I needn’t have worried.
Rather than the cooking classes we saw in Vietnam which had fixed menus, this one allowed us to pick what we wanted to cook from their full menu. I chose a banana leaf salad and Khmer chicken with bok choy. Elizabeth chose the mango salad and Salor Machu Kreoung (hour, sour and spicy pork soup). There were four other people doing the course with us – a young couple from Bristol and a couple from the US. Most of us chose different dishes which was great as it meant we’d get to try lots of different things. We were also going to have a sweet potato dessert which came with some kind of tapioca. It sounded strange…!
We started off with a walk around the market where the chef showed us many of the different types of foods and herbs as well as the fresh fish and meat, as well as plenty of fish guts and chicken offal lying around!
The cooking course itself was a lot of fun as they chef showed us how to chop and prepare all the ingredients before we made all our dishes. The American guy had chosen spring rolls as his starter and the ingredients went a long way as there were loads of them. He had plenty of fun deep frying them though and playing with the rice “Frisbees” which were actually the outside of the fresh spring rolls! I don’t think the chef knew what to say when she saw us throwing a rice Frisbee around!
It was really good fun and we were all starving by the time the food was ready. We took our plates and headed down to the restaurant and tucked in, sharing and trying a bit of everything. Both the fresh and fried spring rolls were really tasty and both mine and Elizabeth’s salads were so fresh and every bit as tasty. The main courses were just as good. Both of our own dishes tasted great and the others did too. There was so much food we were all totally stuffed but there was still dessert to come. Thankfully, this didn’t taste too good so I was able to leave that and avoid bloating myself any further!
After lunch (a BIG lunch!), we headed back to the hotel with the pool for another swim, stopping briefly to post our postcards home. We didn’t spend too long actually in the pool today but it was nice to be somewhere cool and quiet to just sit and read without any distractions and without feeling confined to our hotel room.
In the evening we headed out for Cambodian BBQ. We had fairly high hopes for tonight as we had such a great BBQ experience in Vietnam and this place did lots of different meats. We selected a set meal they did which included chicken, beef, squid, kangaroo and crocodile. I think we had tried crocodile before in Zimbabwe but I can’t remember! With the high expectations, we were bound to be disappointed and we were – the grill here was not very good and everything stuck to it and burnt, meaning all the meat had a burnt flavor to it. We weren’t the only one with a smoking grill so it wasn’t just us messing up!
Both the crocodile and kangaroo tasted good though, with the kangaroo being like a rich beef and crocodile being a cross between chicken and fish. The squid was a bit weird and Elizabeth really didn’t like the way it curled and uncurled on the grill as it cooked, almost looking like it was alive and wriggling!
After dinner we headed back to Angkor What? Bar where I worked my way through a few more beers while Elizabeth tried four of the cocktails – I thought she might want to work her way through them all but given we had a flight tomorrow we didn’t want to be too hungover!
We are leaving Cambodia tomorrow and heading to Thailand. Cambodia has been great and very different to Vietnam with the poverty seeming much worse here, particularly in Phnom Penh. Siem Reap was really touristy and although we had a fun time here, we would have struggled to have stayed for longer with little to do during the day time – we happily managed to eat and drink our way through the evenings though!