Cambodia – December 2014

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I’ll admit we had high expectations of Cambodia – just as we did of Hong Kong – and happily we were not disappointed 🙂

To be fair we were both pretty hooked on our descent into Siem Reap International Airport as we flew low over the Great Lake of Cambodia – Tonle Sap. We could see the red tin roofs on the stilted houses and colorful floating houses dotted about the water… miles of marshland and inlets weaving down to the body of the lake… The watery landscape then gave way to the emerald green of the rice paddy fields and farmland. This was obviously going to be the South East Asia of our dreams 🙂

The stars still in our eyes, we de-planed full of anticipation and were dumped unceremoniously out onto the tarmac with 400 other hot sweaty passengers (all incoming flights timed perfectly to arrive at the same time for maximum chaos). We stood in the searing 90F mid-morning heat while we waited to be shuffled through a human funnel to have our passports checked by 2 (yes – only 2) equally sweaty airport officials who then channeled us into another long chaotic line (albeit we were now just about inside the building with at least partially effective air-conditioning – yippee!). Naturally, no-one had any idea of which way we should be heading in the chaos and noise or what we should be doing save we knew that there was a visa application fee to be paid (the usual banana republic money generating process). Our passports removed from us – along with our $60 visa fee – we were then herded another 10 feet further along to congregate in a larger chaotic mass whilst we watched our passports and visas pass through the hands of no less than 15 very official looking government employees in intimidating military uniforms. Some half hour or so later our well-manhandled passports were returned to us by a smiling official who bellowed our names out – or some version of them – luckily Geoff was close enough to the desk to see my photograph as the nice man had decided to invert my fore-names and was bellowing “Susan” at the top of his voice 😉

Still, we were then, at least, the proud owners of visas to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia and we were very happy….

This sense of euphoria lasted only as far as the meeting point where we were expecting to find someone with our name on a plaque for the Angkor Miracle Resort and Spa. We managed to locate the driver but he had no idea who we were (maybe not the best start but these things happen). He kindly guided us to his partially air-conditioned van and offered to drive us to the hotel anyway. At check-in we handed over the usual documents and waited impatiently for our room key as I had already warned Geoff that we would hit the ground running and head straight to Angkor Wat as we had so much to squeeze in during our 4 days in Cambodia.

After 10 minutes or so of sitting in reception whilst the lovely check-in lady kept looking at her screen and frowning and looking up at us and smiling beatifically, she eventually found the courage to break it to us that we had arrived a day early and they were fully booked. Umm…. I don’t think so sweet heart! I showed her my confirmed booking and she smiled sweetly again and said that there must have been some confusion with the booking…. no kidding honey… 😉

Having done my research and discovered that this very peaceful nation of mainly buddhist persuasion peoples don’t respond well to anything other than total calm and relentless smiles and hand wringing, we remained surprisingly well behaved (for us) and after the frittering of even more of our valuable sight-seeing time the equally charming manager arrived with an even more lovely and beatific smile, much groveling and som pas’ (the traditional Cambodian greeting whereby one puts one’s hands together with fingertips pointing towards the chin and a slight bow of the head). He explained that there was indeed a mess-up with the booking and that they were fully booked for the night. Perfect!

However, we would be housed for one night in the neighboring sister hotel and then we would be upgraded for the remainder of the stay into one of the luxury suites in the hotel we had actually booked into – which he emphasized we would most definitely like (even if we didn’t really like the night in the sister hotel next door)! “OK … deal .. just get on with it so we can get the heck out to the see the Wat sometime before tomorrow” 😉

In the long run we did most definitely “like very much” the luxury suite and the gifts of wine and fruit etc etc …so all turned out well in the end 🙂 Not that Geoff was entirely thrilled with our first night “next door”. After an immensely hot and sweaty day running around the Wats we got back to find out there was only enough water for 1 shower – and that was mine 😉 I suspected things might not go well when it took 20 minutes to wash the shampoo out of my hair as the water spat at me and then dribbled to an almost complete stop….by the time Geoff tried to squeeze any more drips out of the shower head it had completely dried up…. oops…

And so finally to Angkor Wat – the very purpose of our visit to Cambodia – we grabbed a tuk-tuk (a Honda step-through moped towing a modern day 3 wheeled rick-shaw with a canopy), agreed a price with our driver Mr Bit (who became our devoted and dedicated driver for 4 days) and headed off at full pelt through the manically busy, overcrowded, dusty streets of Siem Reap on our 15 minute journey out to the temple complex. This was going to be fun – the wind in our hair, the smell of 2-stroke fragrancing the warm air and 2 pounds of red dust filling our lungs. Eventually we got used to the suicidal darting about, swerving to avoid craters large enough to drop an entire tuk-tuk into, banging over kerbs at speed and at such an angle that we actually had to hang on for dear life so as not to be propelled out onto the road and under the wheels of another passing tuk-tuk. It WAS really good fun though !! 🙂

The first time one sees Angkor Wat – the temple itself rather than the Angkor complex which contains many smaller (and infinitely more exotic looking) Wats over an area of several square miles – it does rather take your breath away. More so if you can see it during a brief respite from the hundreds of tour bus visitors. Luckily, because of our unanticipated extended check-in process we managed to time our arrival during the slightly slower hours of lunchtime when only the insane would be hiking round in the 95F heat.

Not be put off by a little heat and humidity (this being dry season, I kept having to remind a hot and sweaty Geoff that he didn’t actually realize how lucky he was that we were seeing Cambodia in such clement weather) I had a detailed, complicated and militarily planned strategy for seeing the highlights at specific hours determined by the position of the sun and hours of copious research on likely times to avoid large crowds at the major Wats etc etc…

I caved at the first Wat with trying to explain my grand plan to Mr Bit (who only spoke a bit of english – albeit a lot more than my Cambodian which basically amounted to smiling sweetly and wringing my hands 😉 In the end I told a very relieved Mr Bit that all he had to do was to make sure he took us to all of the Wats on my non-negotiable list. To give him his due he did as asked and it was a very long day for all three of us 😉

A potted run-down of the Wats follows:

Angkor Wat – (jaw-droppingly huge, imposing, mind-boggling in scale and by far the least appealing of them all. It is absolutely crawling with 1000’s of (mainly) Japanese tourists – our favorite part was when we headed off to find a toilet behind a dreadful tourist market and fell upon something far more interesting – a Buddhist Temple and a Buddhist monk’s school. A very cute little trainee Buddhist monk wrapped up in his saffron robes saw us hovering about and he smiled and waved us up into their school prayer room. He then beckoned us into the back to see their dormitory – hammocks strung from the wooden rafters. He opened one door onto a large dormitory and we peered in to see about 8 small boys in orange robes cuddled up on a bed … I’m not sure they were as delighted to see us as we were to see them and our inviter obviously thought it was the height of hilarity that he’d dragged 2 westerners in to see his mates sleeping. Obviously it’s not a rigorous training schedule as it was pushing 4pm and they were still all lazing about in bed! Boys will be boys I guess – even buddhist monks in training ;-). Oh …. and there are a lot of monkeys running around in Angkor Wat too…

To be fair the kings of the Khmer and their minions could knock together a pretty impressive temple in the golden years between AD 800 and AD 1300. Some of the temples are Buddhist and others were dedicated to Hinduism. Much of it was built by King Surayavarman II who was a very busy boy during his short 40 year lifetime between 1112-1152, and also by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in his even shorter 39 years on earth – he was an even busier boy and reputed to be the most prolific builder of the Khmer Empire.

Angkor Thom – the Great City (at the height of its power and wealth supporting some 1 million people) with its 5 monumental gates, entered by causeway over a moat and flanked by 54 huge demon statues and 54 gods.

The Bayon – famous for its gothic towers embellished with over 200 giant smiling heads of Avalokiteshvara … and intricate carvings at every turn – it was absolutely fabulous 🙂 There were even brief moments of respite from the crowds where one could find solitude to sit, take a deep breath and imagine what might have taken place in this temple centuries ago.

Preah Khan – (the Temple of the Sacred Sword) and Ta Som – eerily quiet save for the chatter of monkeys in the jungle, the chirp of cicadas and the birds way up in the trees. Left in their more jungle-engulfed condition they were fascinating and beautiful in an “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” kind of way. Amazing to think these wild and wonderful places exist in the world and have been pretty much untouched for more than a 1000 years…

And the piece de resistance – the top visited site after Angkor Wat is Ta Prohm (“Ancestor of Brahma”)- made (more) famous by the movie Tomb Raider (not that we could care one hoot about that). This temple is unique in that the Cambodian archaeological authorities chose to cut back only part of the jungle letting the roots of huge banyon, kapok and strangler fig trees, the jungle and undergrowth swallow up the temple. It was truly stunning (so long as you can time your visit towards the end of the day when the tour buses have hit the road). We found areas of total peace and tranquility from where we could contemplate the power and scale of nature and its ability to re-take what belonged to it in the first place as it consumed these amazing stone buildings, covered in bas-relief carvings and intricate decoration. In it’s day the temple would have controlled over 3000 villages.

It was a very long and very hot day (I can only imagine the joys of the summer temperatures in this part of Cambodia) but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world 🙂

We stopped en route back to town for fresh fruit sold by vendors at the side of the road – no need to worry about the non-organic provenance of the fruit here (paranoid as we are!), the mangos, pineapples, bananas and coconuts were harvested by families straight from the jungle to sell to the starving, dehydrated tourists for a $1 each. They were probably the best, most delicious fruit we have ever eaten. We soon spotted that the currency we had changed at the airport had been totally unnecessary – nobody wanted their own Cambodian Riel – only US $ – and everything from a bottle of water to a piece of fruit was $1. We gave up asking prices after a few hours here as we already knew how much everything was going to be 😉

The journey back to town was peaceful, the breeze through the speeding tuk-tuk cooling us down (vaguely 😉 ), we passed women working in the paddy fields, water buffalo and zebu (the exotic looking white cows with the fatty humps on their backs) grazing in the marshland and the sun setting on the fields….

I guess it was a perfect day 🙂

Mr Bit, never one, to pass up the opportunity to spend our money for us, thought it would be perfect to deposit us at the local training school for budding massage therapists (not exactly $1 but still an absolute bargain for $20 – or so we thought!). Anyone stupid enough to go anywhere near our feet after 6 hours or so of hiking over hot rocks and through dust and jungle undergrowth deserved danger money in our considered opinion. It was a little odd – quite different to a Chinese massage – lots more slapping and sticking strange implements (prodded without warning) into the pressure points on the soles of your feet – there were some interesting moments! The girls were very young – maybe 15 or 16 at the most – with tiny little hands of steel, they were listening to music on their iPods with semi-bored expressions and an occasional attempt to communicate stretching to “ you OK… ? “ …. and …“ oh solly “ while inserting their teeny fingers into some sensitive part of your delicate anatomy.

Anyway, so far so good with Cambodia – now the litmus test for us – was the food going to be better than the awful gloop in Hong Kong a few days before? Not much of a challenge I’ll admit but happily they pulled it off. The food in Cambodia was absolutely delicious – thank goodness!

We stuck to restaurants with a philanthropic element – employing and training locals kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to cook and run a business – and they were all amazing. Everything was extremely fresh, lots of vegetables and fruit, freshly squeezed fruit juices, fresh vegetable spring rolls (not the horrid fried stuff or the glutinous Hong Kongese horror – but wrapped in real ultra thin rice paper, spicy sauces, fresh fish and sweet curries (Amok is the traditional Cambodian coconut fish curry and I think we will probably both dream about it for years to come 🙂 ).

Being a bit Wat’ed out after a day or so, Mr Bit took us on a tour of town. I suspect he was trying to avoid the less attractive parts of town and obviously failed dismally to realize that the grungier the better for us ;—) But he was a very accommodating driver and always stopped when requested and waited patiently for us in the shade while we wandered off down the labyrinth of side streets. As usual we were drawn to the local food vendors market and watched women prepare and cook batches of rice, noodles, fish, curries and battered plantains to sell to local workers. We followed 2 monks as they passed by various stalls collecting alms from the devout (free rice for monks!). We were also tempted by the delicious fruit of the lotus flower – at least by the sample the vendor gave us – so we bought a couple (for $1- surprise!) but she conveniently failed to mention that ours wouldn’t be ripe for another month or so we donated it to Mr Bit to enjoy at a much later date 😉

We grew to appreciate Mr Bit – aside from his dodgy massage recommendation he was highly reliable (though probably also highly overpriced). He always turned up on time with a giant smile – and wherever we left him in town, or at the entrance to the various temples we visited, he always seemed to be able to find us in the thronging crowds at some other meeting point – waving frantically at us from a distance and bobbing up and down so we couldn’t miss him. It was always fun and games traveling by tuk-tuk – aside from the near death experiences. We were introduced to the concept of the Cambodian tuk-tuk driver’s hands-free cellphone – basically a cellphone wedged under the driver’s helmet – seemed to work but it must have been a bit noisy. Clearly, there are no rules of the road in Cambodia at all. It appeared to be quite normal to just pull straight out onto a main road directly into the path of fast moving oncoming cars, trucks, mopeds etc etc and then play a kind of game of “chicken”. Being a very peaceful people the drivers wouldn’t actually engage in combat armed with their vehicle of choice but they would just keep pushing until someone backed down and death was thereby avoided 🙂

On our travels we kept passing stands at the side of the road selling the obligatory bananas, coconuts, packets of brightly colored food items and racks of Johnny Walker bottles containing an unidentified yellow liquid which definitely wasn’t Whisky. We saw rack after rack of these bottles on street corner after street corner. We surmised it was probably some evil local hooch brewed up in people’s backyards – and Geoff was desperate to try some! 😉 …but as they are not a great boozing nation we eventually gave up trying to guess what it was and asked Mr Bit (who clearly thought we were idiots). It turned out that they were bottles of petrol – obviously! 🙂 The more sophisticated gas stations had large canisters rigged up with hand pumps and tubes and a miscellany of levers and valves – it looked as if they were in danger of igniting at any moment in the roasting hot sun.

Back in the more tourist frequented area of Siem Reap we visited the Old Market which was fairly rough even by (more familiar to us) South American standards. We tip-toed around women sitting cross-legged on the floor gutting fish, next to hairdressers primping young girls and women having manicures, next to fruit sellers, next to butchers hacking up slabs of meat, next to women preparing and cooking lunches for locals…etc etc… it was very busy, very crowded and very noisy!

On our last day we headed out to the “Great Lake” of Cambodia – Tonle Sap – to visit the stilted and floating fishing village of Kompong Khleang. On the journey out we passed women harvesting rice in paddy fields, grazing zebu, wooden shacks with palm fronded or red tin roofs, pots of bougainvillea adorning the steps of stilted houses, open-air barbers shops, marshes filled with bright pink lotus flowers, streams with kids fishing, dusty red soil roads and hay stacks shaped like bee hives reminiscent of Monet’s impressionist haystacks… There were endless stalls along the road selling sticky rice – a mixture of rice boiled in coconut milk with black beans stuffed into a piece of bamboo before roasting (we tried it and it was yummy!).

We were overtaken by mopeds carrying wide loads of chickens and pigs in crates, construction pipes and planks of wood, cans of gas, melons 300 deep … apparently there is nothing too unwieldy to be transported by either moped or tuk-tuk.

We stopped at a wet (fish) market at the village of Phsaa Thnal Jaek for a wander and a pee. I won’t elaborate too much on how ghastly that experience was. It is Cambodian tradition to take one’s shoes off when entering a building – thank goodness Geoff had convinced me to ditch the flip-flops for the day and wear something a little more sturdy because the shop keeper (and proud keeper of the only public toilet in town) took pity on me when I started to take my shoes off because I was wearing socks and he knew they would get very damp padding around the open sewer that was his toilet – it seems it’s perfectly acceptable to make the foreigners wander round in bare feet but not in little white socks – thank goodness 😉

And onwards to the fishing village of Kompong Khleang. The start of the village is where the wealthier fishermen live in tall spindly stilted houses – between 20 to 25 feet high. Some 6000 people live in the village – with their own schools, 3 pagodas and a hospital. In dry season the houses stand way out of the water but in rainy season the water laps at the floorboards and the villagers move about everywhere by boat. They survive entirely on the fishing trade – hundreds of different kinds of fish – and the streets in front of the houses were covered in mats with tens of thousands of tiny fish drying in piles in the sun and others individually and painstakingly skewered for smoking on huge open fires. Further on we boarded a boat to visit the lake and headed out to see the Vietnamese floating village – an entire functioning village with gas stations, hairdressers, local shops, a school, medical facilities etc. This community is less wealthy than the owners of the stilted houses and they move their entire village about in the mangroves with the rising and waning waters of the lake. The farmland surrounding the mangroves was planted with beans for the dry winter season – in summer the whole area would be flooded again. The towns were fascinating and although it must be a hard existence for many, the local people were very friendly and smiled and waved at us. The kids all wave enthusiastically at the foreigners and say “Bye Bye” – I understand they think they are actually saying “Hello” which is kinda cute 😉

We packed our bags to leave Cambodia with quite some sadness but an unspoken agreement that we would definitely return and head to the south and central parts next time around 🙂 We absolutely loved the people, our time there and everything we saw. It is a fantastic place to visit – beautiful, exotic and traveller friendly 🙂

To ease the passage of our sad departure we did at least breeze through check-in, security and immigration with total efficiency. We were expecting it to be the usual palaver with irritating bureaucracy, at least 4 check-points all searching the same luggage by hand, re-packing it and then re-checking it all over again 10 paces further along and the even more irritating request that every electronic item is powered on etc etc… So that was a refreshing change – as was the flight (both in and out of Cambodia, as it happens). These small tinpot airlines have something to teach the US airlines about happy smiling staff, food quality and efficiency – we actually took off 25 minutes early, were given delicious food, fresh fruit, edible salad and a wet towel on 2 and 3 hour flights… a far cry from a bag of peanuts served with a sneer on American Airlines… What luxury 🙂

…and so on to Laos…

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