Asian Travels - Cambodia (2010)
The 'fast' ferry up the Mekong to Phnom Penh had only 12 passengers and probably got along at about 25knots. We were served a cold towel and a small lunch box of sandwiches, cake and water. It was an extremely restful experience, skimming up the river observing the rural landscape slip past. The river is probably about 1-2km kilometre wide at this stage. You notice immediately the openess of the country in Cambodia - there appear less hamlets along the river than in Vietnam and certainly less vehicles on the roads. The people also seem to smile a lot more. As a race, the Khmer have rounder less angular facial features than their Vietnamese neighbours. We had been advised of hassles in obtaining Visas on the river border crossing but this did not eventuate and we got them for A$22/each without any steely stares.
I had tentatively pre-booked a hotel in Phnom Penh (The Indo Chine 2) but when we inspected the room it was shockingly small, without a window, on 4th floor without lift and dirty) and so I fearfully threw my lot in with the taxi driver who assured me he knew of something far better for the same price. I should not have been so sceptical. Far from being a dump owned by his brother or uncle, he delivered us to the wonderful Hotel Noura on Ph 178 (email: email@example.com) which had uninterrupted views of the Royal Palace and National Museum and was run by the wonderful Mr Diamond. Our room met all our requirements and cost just A$25/night. This was the first hotel of many which offered a safe deposit box in one's room - very handy. This reminds me also of the fact how technology has altered the way hotels verify guests' identity. When we last travelled we had to put up with the annoying habit of hotels holding your passport but nowadays they simply copy or scan your photo and particulars from it.
Our Hotel Room in Phnom Penh
An added bonus which I had not realised when we booked into the Noura was that it was just 100m away from Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) which has one of the best views and food and drink menus in the whole of Phnom Penh - yes, I spent a great deal of my time relaxing there whilst up-dating my notes - I am sure Uncle Wilfred and Peter Hansen would have approved. You could get a beautiful Fish Amok (a Cambodian curry of spiced coconut milk and tamarind chutney) for about A$8, salt & pepper calamari, corn fritters, pork dumplings, mixed satays all for A$4 or pizza for A$10. However, their house wine (an Australian Chardonnay) was $25 cf assorted cocktails for $4.
View from our hotel room Jotting on hotel terrace
Phnom Penh sits on the confluence of the Mekong River and the Boeng Tonle' Sap (a large shallow lake which depends on the waters from the Mekong to maintain its level). During and just after the wet season one can take ferries up the Tonle' Sap to Siem Reap. However, during our visit, just before the onset of the monsoons, there was insufficient water to permit this.....we were to curse this climatic mistiming in a few days time.
Low water level of Tonle' Sap View of Tonle' Sap from Foreign Correspondent's Club
Mekong River just visible in background
Cambodians' seemed to have 'botched' this Union Jack
There appeared to be alot of expats and or NGO staff in Phnom Penh judging by the prevalence of large late model European vehicles over and above the rash of UN badged Landcruisers. Perhaps that's why so many restaurant menus quote prices in both Cambodian Riels as well as US$. The compliant ATMs here will only give you US$ which you must then exchange for local currency (US$1 =4000R) - in Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore they all spit out local currency.
Despite the very hot and steamy conditions we set out to see the major sights in the capital, including, the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum, Interrogation Camp S21 (shocking photographic display of Khmer rouge atrocities in the 1970s) and finally the Killing Fields themselves. The latter are 14kms SW of town and house the skulls and other skeletal remains of over 8000 bodies exhumed from mass graves found there. However, over and above the remains formally housed behind glass, there are still bone fragments poking out of the ground. It was horrifying to learn that the vast majority of executions, were carried out with farm implements and frequently the victims were buried while still alive.......a very sobering place!
Tuol Sleng Museum (Security Prison 21)
En route to Killing Fields Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka The Killing Fields)
A dress code of long pants, covered arms, removal of hats and shoes is strictly enforced throughout the country when entering temples or royal palaces or anywhere you are likely to encounter an image of Buddha. I was secretly amused to witness a chap with a wooden leg being approached by temple guard and asked to remove both of his shoes until the chap pointed out that the offending one was painted on his wooden foot.
Royal Palace and its Various Pavilions & Stupas
We had an excellent lunch of baguettes stuffed with exotic fruit and pork terrine at one of the many small French style cafes but also got to like the local Amok coconut curries served in banana leaf - all the food is good in Phnom Penh. However, there are some suspicious looking things in the markets eg turtle, snake, giant carp and a myriad of dried seafood with very spiky teeth. However, the Cambodians do not make as nice coffee as that in Vietnam and their Iced Coffee not a patch on the brew served in downtown HCM. On a day when Maria's stomach was not behaving very well, we ventured out to the famous albeit cavernous Russian Market where you are supposed to be able to buy anything......you certainly could and just before we had to retreat to find a WC we found a replacement clasp for our backpack.
By far and away my most thrilling moments in Phnom Penh were in the evenings with the sun setting over the Mekong, sipping a quiet Angkor Beer (A$1) from the rooftop bar of the FCC (happy hour 1700-1900) (www.fcccambodia.com) and watching an elephant being walked home along the road below after a day of carrying tourists about.
Note that the elephant is wearing shoes
At the FCC's Rooftop Bar and Restaurant
Scrum of Tuk Tuks outside our hotel The particular Tuk Tuk we hired for a day
We also dined here regularly and I bought yet another souvenir T shirt to record the occasion. Notwithstanding my earlier rapture of sinking suns etc, I should also mention that throughout our entire stay in Phnom Penh, the entire place had been shrouded in a smoke infused heat haze which is quite common for this time of year, as the farmers go about burning-off the weeds around their rice paddies before ploughing and planting.
After three days we decamped and headed north on a Paramount Bus organised by the good Mr Diamond to Siem Reap. This 320km trip was supposed to take 6 hours. However, in mid afternoon our bus broke down as did the first rescue bus and so we did not get into Siem Reap until 2230hours that night, having spent 4+ hours beside the road with very little water to drink and wishing the rains had come so as we could have made the journey by boat.
Monkey at the Phnom Penh Bus Stop (Last Laugh - obviously knew more than us about what lay ahead)
Broken down bus
Rural scenes en route to Siem Reap
Mr Diamond had taken care of our accommodation by booking us into another hotel that he just happened to own. While the room and the price was good (A$24/night), it was located about a 20 minute walk away from the main commercial and tourist strip where the majority of restaurants, bars, markets and shops were located - we subsequently discovered there are loads of 3 star hotels and guesthouses much more conveniently located than our own. One should not leave the town without having spent at least one night in the innocuously named Pub Street where you can get every imaginable type of cuisine, drink, tattoo, massage and lots more! Maria had a good look around the jewellery stalls in the local market but felt that their unwillingness to offer any certification with their items was looking for trouble. However, as consolation, she managed to schedule another massage.
Our Hotel in Siem Reap JWB Poolside with some new European friends
Scenes from Pub Street
Pokambor Avenue (road to Angkor temples) Siem Reap
I was totally unprepared for what we experienced in Siem Reap as the place is literally thronged in hotels and guesthouses catering for all levels of tourism from the feral backpacker, the Japanese corporate bus group, to the idle and wealthy seeking boutique grandeur in their digs. Some of those top class hotels were simply huge but all had that ornamental Asian touch of gaudiness. One forgets I suppose that thousands and thousands of people come each year to view Angkor Wat - truly one of the great awe inspiring wonders of the world...its not simply just another Wat or freakish Hindu temple. Hence the (UNESCO inspired) cost of the visitor passes at A$41/3 days each is quite reasonable. Having said that, let me advise others that may follow, that April is not the best month to visit even if one is as immune to climatic heat as we were - the heat around those temples near crippled me...I think we drank 3 litres each a day whilst out in the field. But everyone should make the effort to revisit the main temple at Angkor Thom for either Sunrise or Sunset and try and ignore the 1000s of others who have also come to share the poignancy of the moment.
The Angkor and associated temple complex was built during the height of the Khmer Empire between the ninth and fifteenth centuries and have frequently been compared in grandeur to anything built in Greece or Rome. The earlier temples were built to celebrate the ancient Hindu pantheon such as Vishnu, Asparas, Nagas, Garuda, Singha, etc. However, with the ascension of Jayavaraman VII in 1181, the country adopted Mahayana Buddhism and he built The Bayon arguably the most beautiful temple of them all with its famous four-sided sculptured faces of the Buddha. The temple complex remained hidden in the Cambodian jungle (from western radar) until discovered by the French archaeologist Henri Mouhot in 1860. The complex is only 8km north of Siem Reap and therefore readily accessible to the 1000s of visitors from all over the world who come to view them each year.
It is simply too complex a tale to relate the history surrounding these temples here. However, anyone contemplating a visit, is advised to read a good guidebook before attempting any field work as otherwise you will be overwhelmed with the architectural intricacies let alone the religious and mythical relationships contained therein. Below, I set out just a sample of what can be viewed.
Our Three Day Passes to Angkor
We contracted a Tuk Tuk (motorised cyclo affair for two-four persons) for two days at A$30/day to drive us around. Now I had intended to hire a pushbike but the heat put the kybosh on that idea. Then I tried to hire a motorbike but the police no longer permit visitors to hire them (too many accidents). So apart from joining a bus tour or your own private taxi (A$50/day) we had no other option. Our chap really lacked sufficient English to do much interpretation for us and so we had to rely entirely on our own guidebooks - we could have hired a guide on top, but you know me - too stingy.
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (AD 1181-1220)
Sunrise (0530 hrs!) over Angkor Wat
The Bayon Temple
Terrace of Elephants
Ta Prohm Temple (AD 1186) (where Lara Croft ran around in 2001 in the film Tomb Raider)
Prasat Neak Pean (Island Temple)
Preah Khan Temple (AD 1186)
Our driver told us that alot of the missing heads from temple statues were stolen by the Khmer rouge in the early 1970s and later sold to foreign collectors
Phnom Bakheng (AD 900)
In addition to our field trips we paid a visit to the excellent National Angkor Museum in town and this new facility has some very clever interpretative displays which further enhances your understanding of the sites you have been visiting. On our final night I booked a table at the Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor - a very swish establishment occupying the former Governor's residence on the main road leading to the temples....very pleasant evening
Going out to dinner at the FCC Angkor
While in Phnom Penh I overheard on the 'travel grapevine' that a trip to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand would be quite unpleasant at this time because as it had not rained it was a very hot and dusty. However, a good alternative to those seeking to beat a little heat, was to be found in the hillside town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. This sounded a little exotic and so after a short discussion we agreed to go and have a quick look before heading into Bangkok. Once again the good Mr Diamond said he could fix which he did but he insisted on being paid in cash and in US$s at that.......we had been trying to keep our US$s for emergencies and this did not appear to warrant the use of them - however, he insisted only after he had already bought the tickets. Beware, Cambodian inn-keeper bearing too many gifts!
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