Cambodia

Feb 9 - 17

The Mekong River - Part 2

Having had such a hard day of travel the day before we decided to bunk off the next morning's entertainment (a floating village and floating fish farm). We'd seen a fish farm in Nha Trang and unbeknownst to us we would see a Vietnamese Floating village in Cambodia a few days later so we didn't miss much and it meant we got a lie in until 7.30am!! Here is a picture that Sue took on their Mekong tour. We weren't the only ones to bunk off, two Australian girls, Kate and Jane overheard that we were missing the next mornings activities and decided to follow our good example.

Crossing the border into Cambodia

We took a boat to the border where we had to get off and cross the border on foot which makes you really feel you are entering another country compared to flying in. We rushed through the Vietnamese border because our guide on the boat had already done all the paperwork and we just santered through. Then we were in no-mans land where there were actually quite a few people around, Vietnamese or Cambodian I don't know. When we got to Cambodian immigration we all walked straight on through - all of us that is apart from the only other Brit on the boat who had already proved over the previous day he was a twit and a pain in the neck by refusing to share a room with anyone and then insisting he had ordered beef for lunch and demanding his money back when beef wasn't even on the menu - duh! It seems that he had travelled from Cambodia to Vietnam and now wanted to go back to Cambodia but his visa was only for single entry and he hadn't checked. He looked like a twit but you had to feel a teensy bit sorry for him as he was made to go back all the way to Ho Chi Minh which would take another full day. You can bet that the boat that dropped us off would have charged him a good amount to take him back and they had taken his Vietnamese visa from him when he left Vietnam so they would have every right to make him pay for another one to go back in.

Then we got the speedboats for an hour and a half and then a taxi for the same time again along some bumpy roads to Phnom Penh where we were dropped at the Lakeside Guesthouse on Boeng Kak Lake where all the backpackers hang out.

Phnom Penh

Lakeside

What we refer to as Lakeside is a squalid little collection of guesthouses, restaurants and other buildings. When I say squalid, I mean squalid. The only redeeming feature was that most of the guesthouses had lovely communal areas with hammocks and nice seats overlooking the lake - gorgeous at sunset, and peaceful during the day. Otherwise - yuk! Cheap rooms tho' - but we'd rather pay a little more and not feel that we have to get mindlessly drunk before we can return to the room - and even then, make sure you touch as little as possible. We actually turned down the first room we saw as not nice enough - but then saw the rest of the places, and by that time the one half-way clean room had gone (turned out the bathroom leaked into the room tho' - so not that great a loss).

Sunset at Lakeside, Phnom Penh Mosque at Lakeside, Phnom Penh

We stayed three nights in the Lakeside area - mainly due to getting there late one day, mistakenly moving from a bad room to a dreadful one the next day, and me having my third rabies jab the following day (the most English of English Doctors - hysterically so in fact, but then he presented the bill which wasn't so funny: don't get ill or need treatment in Cambodia, they'll take an arm and a leg even if it's just a sore throat...) After that we moved into the town centre to a place called...

Walkabout

Walkabout was an Aussie (surprise!) run place in a great location in the centre Phnom Penh, right near the Heart of Darkness nightclub (so good we bought the t-shirt), and close to the riverside area with it's nice bars and restaurants. What we hadn't realised when we looked around during the day was that the place turned into a bit of pick up joint for the local expats at night - and those that hadn't left with one of the young Cambodian ladies during the night seemed to stay in the bar drinking till about 6am when they'd leave on loudly revving bikes - not much sleep for us three floors up. Apart from that tho' it was a good place: nice room, good food, pool table: just spend the evening elsewhere and bring ear plugs.

One of the best places we went to in Phnom Penh was the Foreign Correspondents Club. The Phnom Penh branch is open to all, unlike the Hong Kong one which is members only (thanks again to Keith for taking us there). Definately one of the nicest places in town. Great to have coffee in the morning, or a full meal in the evening - being on the first floor raises you above the bustle of street level, but the great view allows you to keep an eye on what is happening. Highly recommeneded (and they take plastic!)

We took in a few sights around town as well: the clock in the ground at the temple (Wat Phnom) to the north, the independence monument etc. The Royal Palace complex was particularly beautiful and housed the Silver Pagoda whose floor is covered with 5000 silver tiles. Phnom Penh is obviously a city still struggling to rebuild itself after years of war, but it seems to be going in the right direction: it'll be years before the roads are finished tho' - a lot of main roads through town are still just dirt and rocks, can't imagine what it's like during the rainy season.

We took a trip out to the Killing Fields, and a visit to the S-21 school turned Khmer Rouge prison camp. Nothing much to say about that really - the picture says more than I can. More than 8000 skulls were on display here but the total number of people bludgeoned to death at the Killing Fields was around 17,000. A dreadful period in the country's history that I knew nothing much about before coming here - blame a 1980s comprehensive education for that: more interested in going on strike than teaching me about millions being murdered by their own government, although I can't imagine it makes the syllabus these days either.

To Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

We took the boat to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh - not feeling upto several hours of Cambodian road (much improved of late apparently, a four wheel drive isn't now essential, and you are less likely to get shot by left over Khmer Rouge than previously). The boat was of the usual high standard that we were coming to expect. Basically see how many people you can crowd onto an old, and probably undermaintained craft. Then add all their luggage. We sat on top, and that doesn't mean in seats - literally on top of the boat. A 10cm high rail around the edge being all that held us in. Five noisy, hot, hours later (and some great scenery) we arrived at Siem Reap. Well, we arrived at the point where we could get a taxi or moto the last 15kms to Siem Reap. And there were people waiting to offer us that ride: hundreds of them, all clamouring for our business. One even had a board with our names on to take us to the partner hotel of where we'd booked the boat ticket from, but that place was a bit out of town so we denied who we were and found a taxi of our own. Thus we met Mr. Lay: a man of many talents as you shall see. One of them being able to drive slowly, but surely across the poor imitation of a road from the pier to the town.

After finding a place to stay with Mr. Lay's help, and taking his mobile number in case we wanted his tour of Angkor we took a wander around town. Apart from being hot there wasn't much to it. Certainly not the ability to process APS film. A bit tired, and frankly getting fed up with how (relatively) expensive everything was in Cambodia we decided that we could rush around Angkor the next day and bail out back to Bangkok the following day. Once in Bangkok we'd be able to settle down and take stock of things before the next leg. Having decided that we'd only do one day at Angkor we chose to take up Mr. Lay on his offer of a "sunrise to sunset" tour - bound to be hard going, but we'd see a lot. So we called him and arranged to meet at 5:30am the next day.

After not thinking much of Siem Reap during the afternoon it was actually a bit better in the evening. We found a nice restaurant that took plastic so we could conserve our dwindling supply of US dollars (great currency system in Cambodia - anything of even moderate cost is in US$s, Riel, the local currency, is just used for making up change on a fraction of a dollar (about 4000 Riel to US$1): confusing at first but you get used to it (until they start to add in Thai Baht as a third currency that is!)). Best thing about the restaurant: large bottles of Stella Artois. Beer that tastes like beer should. Yum, yum! Second best thing: Cash back on the credit card. Took some explaining to get over what I wanted: "Can you add US$10 to the bill, and give me it as change?" "Yes, I don't mind you adding the 4% surcharge onto the extra" (slight lie that, but hey...). Once the manager had got involved as well, it all went fine and we left with enough greenbacks to get us through our stay.

Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most well known temple and the most impressive but there are quite a few interesting temples in the area; all built by Khmer kings between the 9th and 13th centuries. We arrived (driven by Mr Lay) in the dark. Mr Lay turned out of be more driver than guide and merely recommended where to visit and then dropped us off at each temple. So he dropped us off in the dark outside Angkor Wat. We couldn't see a lot but we followed a few other people and walked over a bridge, through a gateway, along a walkway and then into the main temple. Luckily we'd brought a torch and it was a slightly spooky but fun experience sneaking around the temple. Then we walked to one of the lakes in the compound where people were starting to gather - this was obviously the best place to watch the sunrise. It was beautiful as you can see watching the sky turn from black, to dark purple, pink, orange, yellow until the sun peaked over one of the five towers of Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Hindu God at Angkor Wat

We explored the main temple which was a maze of corridors and rooms with some well-preserved bas-reliefs depicting famous battles, ceremonies and daily life of that time, climbed the steep steps up one of the towers and stood at the top surveying the whole Angkor Wat complex which includes two symmetrically built libraries and lakes around the central walkway, an outer wall with gates and a moat around it. There are three stories to the main temple so climbing to the top we were 55 metres above the ground with a superb view of the surroundings - just don't get too close to the edge.



Ta Phrom, Ta Keo and Preah Khan

We visited three other temples: Ta Phrom was interesting because it has been left in ruins as it was found over a century ago. To see it we had to walk through the jungle so you could really imagine the wonder of the explorers that discovered it. It is now possibly to late to rebuild it because nature has taken over and the parts of the temple still standing have trees growing out of them and roots running through the gaps which mean that without the trees it would collapse. Ta Keo is a striking temple but we didn't venture into it. The security guard here offered to sell us a police badge! Couldn't tell if it was real though. Preah Khan was marred for us by a tour guide latching himself onto us early on, we couldn't lose him and actually he took us to a spot where there was an engraving of a Queen on the wall, we had to climb over rubble and walk through tunnels to get there so we would never have found it on our own. As we left he kicked up a nasty fuss because we hadn't given him enough money but then we hadn't discussed money and hadn't wanted the tour but it left a nasty feeling. I think we gave him a fair amount of money and it was the last of our riel but he wasn't very pleasant.

Angkor Thom

We had hoped to see sunset at Angkor Thom but we were exhausted. Still, it was nearly as impressive as Angkor Wat; a fortified city of about 10 square kilometres. There were a number of structures but the best was the Bayon, a wonderful temple which doesn't look much from a distance but when you get close you see some of the 200 large smiling (but slightly mocking and eerie) faces carved into the towers. From one spot inside the Bayon we could see 12 faces looking down on us - spooky!

The Road From Hell, But Towards Thailand

We booked a big bus to take us to Thailand with our talented Mr. Lay. Next morning we stood waiting outside our hotel for 30 minutes wondering if Mr. Lay had run off with our money. Eventually he turned up dressed as a policeman! and took us to the, not so big, bus. He said that he used to be a policeman and was going to help his uncle to collect a debt - very dodgy.

It took a long and bumpy five hours to drive the 100km to the border but until recently only pick-up trucks could make the journey and often they found the fields easier to drive over than the roads - they probably went slower than our average 20km/hr. It took two hours to cross the border into Thailand and another five hours to reach Bangkok but it did only cost US$24 (US$8 each but we bought an extra seat for Richard's legs!).

After a couple of weeks in Bangkok we headed to Northern Thailand


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