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Cambodia Travels
Rating : ( 3.7 )

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Feb 16, 2004 16:26

Pros: beautiful wats
Cons: none

We're in Cambodia now and it's hot, damn hot!! Not sure if that phrase was coined here but it could easily have been. Even our mid-afternoon train ride from Bangkok on the 1st of February was hot, as we sat on our rucksacks in the middle of a packed train gasping for air every time the doors opened. It made us think that we were back in India again. Still the previous night was excellent. Having met up with Winston, Jen and their friends, we were treated (engagement treat) to a meal at the Japanese Sushi restaurant, a first for us both. It was really good fun , although a bit bizarre as even the menu is more like a fashion magazine for food. However, even Sian (as most know she just doesn't do fish) found something to her liking and the whole evening gave us loads of enthusiasm for our travels ahead as Winston and Jen had just arrived from Cambodia and had lots of tales to tell us.

So, after a long, hot train ride, we spent the night at the Thai border town and cooked our own food in a very strange arrangement at a local restaurant where they supply you with hot coals, raw veg, noodles and meat (no chicken you'll be glad to hear) and we were responsible for the rest which was quite entertaining as we didn't have a clue what we were doing but at least we amused the locals. The next morning's border crossing was straight forward enough, despite many people's advice that it wouldn't be, and even as we were herded into the back of a pick-up truck for the infamous long, hot and dusty road to Siem Reap, things seemed to be working out fine. Until that is the driver tried to squeeze a few too many passengers and their luggage into the cab, our seats and laps. So we left and somehow managed to wangle an air con'd taxi to our destination for the same price after Kev did a sales pitch (to the cheers of the taxi drivers) on an English couple also heading that way.

So our journey to Siem Reap was quite pleasant considering the road and the stories we had heard and once in town, with a decent hotel found, we even had time to visit the local crocodile farm before making arrangements to visit the famed temples at Angkor for sunset (by air con'd taxi again!). As we climbed the long, steep hill to a ruined mountain temple we were joined by hundreds of other tourists on a pilgrimage to watch sunset, but it didn't, it only hid behind a cloud and cast strange shadows into the sky. Early the next day, and armed with our air con'd taxi again (we were really spoiling ourselves) we set off with Steve and Jo (English couple from the previous day) to do the essential tour of some of the many Angkor temples. We had built up much excitement and anticipation after reading about these temples, built between 950 and 1300 and something A.D., then lost in the jungle for hundreds more years with the plants and trees entwining themselves into the buildings and now quite often holding the bricks together in their root systems, it just sounded magical. Our first temple that morning was no disappointment. The Bayon at Angkor Thom where large stone faces peer down at you from every direction and a maze of stone corridors and walkways try to lose you in amazement, if it wasn't for all the other tourists there. In actual fact, most of the temples we visited on the first day were all very different in many interesting ways and we never had the feeling of being templed out although the shear number of tourists that visited the main sights do spoil it a bit. That's why for our second day, we hired bikes and set off to the lesser explored temples and discovered what we had been looking for. Even sunset at Angkor Wat itself hadn't been quite as magical as it should have been due to the crowds.

So it was that our second day proved much more fulfilling with fewer crowds and temples with less manicured grounds where the jungle reaches right up to the walls, quite often breaking them down or intertwining the stones into their root systems over hundreds of years, often resulting with a fully grown tree sitting atop a very shaky looking temple. Beautiful carvings covered with lichens cover the walls and the odd characterful Cambodian with a friendly smile lights incense sticks below draped statues of Buddha. Occasionally, as we cycled round the more touristy temples, we still ran into the crowds and the hoards of eager kids that tempt, offer then plead with you to buy something from them, but after finding the real feeling of discovering the (lost) temples of Angkor (you know what we mean), it was much easier to be patient. For the third day of our Angkor pass, we again headed out on bikes, already feeling more than a little achey from the previous day and with the sun blazing down on us it was harder going but we blamed the bikes. We revisited Angkor Wat and appreciated it a lot more without the crowds. It's an absolutely massive complex surrounded by double walls with hundreds of metres of intricately carved stone murals, depicting battles and scenes based on Hindu mythology. Surrounding this is a giant moat and towering above it all rises the temple itself. The climb up to the top is nerve racking as the steps are very narrow and steep which makes coming down even worse, but every wall column and doorway in sight is wonderfully carved and we were amazed at how little we had taken in when we visited it the first time with everyone else there. We also revisited another couple of temples before discovering that we had missed one great photo opportunity of a massive tree that had completely overrun a temple gateway. We set off just as the sun was casting long shadows over the dry Cambodian countryside but quickly realized we weren't going to get there and back before dark. So, we stopped at a busy crossroads and persuaded a local to take us by motorbike and trailer, much to the amusement of the local kids, but it was great if a touch uncomfy and we got there for sunset and had the temple to ourselves. We stayed another day in Siem Reap to visit the local and controversial Landmine Museum. The government has been trying to close it down as it doesn't paint a good picture of Cambodia to the tourists but it is a fascinating place. It was started by a young guy (well, Kev's age) who was recruited at the age of 5 by the Khmer Rouge Communist Guerilla group after they murdered his parents. He described how he laid landmines and was involved in many battles around the country before being captured and recruited by the Vietnamese army at the age of 12 and later by the Cambodian government army after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown but were still wreaking havoc around the country. The museum describes the massive landmine problem still faced by the country and tells the stories of the many people who have lost limbs or whose family members have been killed right up to the present day. Hundreds of people are maimed by mines in Cambodia every day but you never hear about it. All donations went towards helping and teaching those injured and towards clearing the landmines of which there are dozens of types (all displayed), but cost so much in time and skill to find and diffuse. Amazingly, so many landmines are still being manufactured (mainly by the U.S. and China) and laid all around the world, especially in Africa, seemingly without any thought to the future consequences for the people who return to the land after the fighting.

We moved on the next day by bus to the capital Phnom Pehn. The journey was long, hot and bumpy (no change there then) and the bus was full of locals with cute but screaming children until they were given some fruit which had a more than passing resemblance to a sink plunger, to munch on. We passed many local villages with their traditional wooden houses built on stilts above the flat dusty fields, at this time of year anyway although it must turn to a mass mud bath in the wet season. We also crossed the Tonle Sap river which interesting flows in different directions depending on the season.

Phnom Pehn itself, apparently named after a woman named Phnom discovered Buddha statues on the banks of the Mekong river then built a temple on a hill (Pehn) for them, is a big and bustling city with little to see or do but the sights it does have to offer are particularly shocking. The prison camps and killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled from 1974-78, killing over 1 million (1 in 7 innocent people) as it attempted to create a peasant Communist state and was still killing up to 1998 when Pol Pot died before trial, are very sombre places. A former school was turned into a prison camp and is now a museum full of horrendous stories where the photographs of many victims line the cell walls while thousands of skulls are displayed at the site of the mass graves just outside the city. It's unbelievable to think that all this happened within our lifetime and has since happened again in Rwanda and Bosnia.

We left the sad memories of Phnom Penh behind and headed south for a bit of R & R, to a place called Sihanoukville on the coast. We caught the bus at 7.30am - yes we really are getting better at getting up in the morning! - and just four hours later were sunning ourselves by the sea having found a guest house just 50 metres from the beach. We stayed on Serendipity beach which sounded relatively quiet and unspoiled but it was still a sea of multi coloured umbrellas where kids walk up and down all day trying to sell you fruit. Actually the kids in Cambodia are the most inventive we've met anywhere on our travels yet. They try all sorts of tricks and play games in the sand with you to try and get you to lose so you have to buy something from them! Their use of English is incredible, especially when you consider that most of them have had no formal education. We don't really know why they are like this in particular in Cambodia, when you consider all the other more touristy spots we've been to, but it was quite entertaining. We spent a lazy couple of days on the beach, occasionally making the very hard effort to walk a few metres to swim in the wonderful warm waters. It was really nice with relatively few tourists and the beach just had endless local cafes where we enjoyed icey fruit shakes. The kids with their "do ya wanna buy fruit?" every five minites were hard to resist and by the end of it we were absolutely sick of pineapple, mango, banana and yukky dragon fruit. We did make enough effort to take a boat ride in Ream National Park which has beautiful waterways and mangroves. We spent time on the most fantastic secluded beach, lined by thick jungle, with next to no one else there before walking back through the jungle to a small fishing village to catch a boat. The trip into the park itself wasn't exactly spectacular but it was a pleasant way to while away a day.

After four days of relaxing we decided to get off our butts and headed along the coast, and slightly inland, to Kampot. Kampot is by the river and we hoped to enjoy a stroll along it at sunset but the bad smells eminating from it made us bid a hasty retreat! We wandered around the town instead and whilst there was some evidence of colonial French architecture, it wasn't the most picturesque place you ever went to but nice enough. The following morning we went to Bokor National Park, again arranging a tour through the guest house. We squashed into a pickup, some inside but most out in the open on the back and we endured the very bumpy road into the park. It really did bruise a different part of your spine everytime it hit the numerous potholes and we're still aching sitting here writing this!! The park itself has some fantastic jungle but unfortunately the rangers have stopped all trekking in it due to a problem with tiger poaching. Instead we were driven to the top of the hill with a slightly cooler climate and we explored the derelict buildings built during the colonial era in the 1920s. There was a hotel which was a bit spooky but the patio had some fantastic views over the jungle below. It was abandoned during the civil war of the 70s and the last poeple to use it were the Khymer Rouge as they shot at the Vietnamese in the Catholic church close by. In all it was once again a pleasant way to while away the hours and enjoy the countryside. Kampot had little else to keep us there much longer so we decided to head back to Phnom Penh sharing a taxi with another couple.

Cambodia has been an interesting and surprising place full of beautiful, friendly people living in a land where the U.S. dollar is as widely accepted as the local currency and is usually interchangeable making pricing even more difficult for us. It has reminded us quite a lot of Africa and we encounter the friendliness and often generosity of the local people almost everyday. We haven't tasted much of the local cuisine yet as heaped plates of deep fried big, fat, hairy, black spiders don't wet the appetite that much but we'll see.....

Our plans now are to take a boat down the Mekong river to the delta in Vietnam. We head off tomorrow and are looking forward to the Vietnamese culture but not the local cuisine, if we thought spiders were bad, there's worse to come with barbequed dog and cat on the menu....

K & S