Until recently, Cambodia was off the agenda of all but the most extreme of travellers. Violence and strife meant most simply bypassed the country all together. Thankfully, not so much now. There is still violence here, you will not go far without seeing lives filled with more strife than you can image, but the Cambodian experience is no longer just an exercise in poverty tourism.
We entered the country from the Laos border on a long bus journey to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. Looking at a map of the country you would be forgiven for thinking that the journey should be short and direct and therefore that our bus company’s determination to go via the capital of Phnom Penh, way down in the south, was merely a way of increasing their price. However, this is not the case. Travelling over the middle of Cambodia is nigh on impossible and all roads go via the capital. This meant that our, perhaps, 10 hour bus journey was going to change into a bottom numbing 28 hours.
ahhh, Laos – already I miss it.
It all came about when our Laos travelling companions decided to fly out of Siem Reap. They left the journey as late as possible so that they could make a final rush for the airport (they were flying to Australia) and sleep on the flight. The last thing they thought we would do is join them. Our sensible option would have been to enter Cambodia at a slower pace and then take a week or so to work our way around to Siem Reap, but we decided that we wanted to be at Angkor Wat for Christmas day and so the mission was on for us all.
The first challenge was the border crossing. The southern Laos border has, until recently, been closed. The latest Lonely Planet edition makes no mention of being able to get through at this point. However, the enterprising Laotians have realised that opening the border here will exponentially increase the tourists coming down to the 4000 Islands region. The effect is to turn this quiet backwater section of the Mekong, seen by only the completist, to a bustling Western haven for those crossing into Cambodia.
Bustling is good for money but what damage will it do to the area?
The private bus companies are all for this change and many deals have sprung up for easy transport to Cambodian cities. We chose to take a bus at $20 a head. It started with a boat ride out of the water locked islands followed by multiple small 12-seater transports to the border. The border guards inspected our Laos Visa’s and entry cards and penalised all who had lost them (the vast majority of the Vang Vieng Crowd), then they pointed out down a simple road to Cambodia. As Cesca and I walked I could not help but imagine snipers watching our every move, and so we danced across the line Morecambe and Wise style, just to show them.
On the other side we were ushered into a more transports and then onto a larger bus. The usual frauds were in operation about changing currency, which involves a confidence trick in convincing you that any Laotian currency cannot be changed anywhere else on your trip. This is, of course, rubbish and the rate being offered is very bad. However, the rate all over Cambodia is bad and the best idea is to change all your Kip to US Dollars before entering Cambodia at all. The real journey then began in earnest. The north east of Cambodia is perhaps the most un-touristed area, and for us it was passing by in flashes out the window. Trekking is available here, but like in all of this war ravaged country, stepping off the path can be deadly.
We arrived that night in the darkness of the capital. There are very few times that I allow a tout to select my hotel for me but this was one of them, as we had no idea where about we were. The hotel was actually quite good and obviously had a large crowd of tourists staying. We crashed out and awaited the next day.
The next day came with an unwelcome change of bus. This new bus was stacked with wood. That is to say, the entire inside of the bus, under every chair and in every nook and cranny, were large planks of wood that had been stacked and were taking up all the room. For a tall man this made the journey even more distressing. Now the bus plied its way up the western side of Cambodia towards our final destination.
All busses make stops, but the stop here was one I will not forget.
Spiderville is very well named. The bus stopped and we all piled off to stretch our legs. I was quite sleepy and did not take a clear look at the food items proffered by the lady tout sitting outside. It was only when my mind grabbed my eyes and fixed them onto the thing crawling on the young lady’s arm that I realised she was selling deep-fried Tarantulas.
She saw my eyes widen, “You want spider?” She said while pulling the arachnid back into place as it tried to scamper up her top. She then pulled it off and offered it to me, legs a-wiggling.
“Err, no. No thanks very much, I am fine,” I managed to say backing away slightly.
The girl was sitting down on a bucket, which I thought was only her chair. It was not. She took my hesitance to mean that I did not want this particular spider and so she stood up from the bucket and showed me her selection inside. Twenty of the monsters were all tumbling over each other to be my deep fried food choice.
“Bwahhhh,” was an accurate translation of my reply and I quickly moved on.
The next girl was selling deep fried spiders too and had a pile of paprika coloured crawlers on a tray on her head.
After a few further spiders sellers I was able to purchase a Coke and make my way back onto the bus.
A few brave souls bought one to eat and a large offering was passed around the bus. Lenin, our travelling companion, tried a leg but I passed it on,
“Sorry, I’m trying to cut down…”
The deep-fried spider is offered around.
The rest of the journey was quiet and we rolled into Siem Reap about 3pm. The sun still beat down on our heads as we organised a tuk-tuk into the centre. The city of Siem Reap is based around the river running through the middle. The arc of the river forms a T-junction with the main roads leading off, heading towards the hospital and Angkor or following the flow towards the airport. The town-planners know that the draw of Angkor is magnetic and so most of the roads into the city are lined with hotels built or being built.
We were planted in the main road and grabbed a cold coffee to cool down. Our plan was to find a hotel and then organise our trips to the Wats, but this was not easily performed. All the hotels in the centre of town were full and we had to settle for one 20 minutes walk from the night market. We did get one piece of luck and organised our Angkor trip with the driver of our tuk-tuk.
The Wats are clustered around the big Angkor Wat, but a few are further out and even one is way off in the mountains. The traditional 3-day tour is to visit most of these with one sunset and one early start for a sunrise. We arranged a late start for the first day and an early start for the third. Some drivers are very experienced and knowledgeable about the Wats and are more like fully-fledged guides. Our driver was a young guy who could not offer these services, but was very sweet, so we hired him. The price is entirely negotiable and we did our best, however, I do not think we got any sort of “good deal” and settled on $70 for the three days.
Our driver, just before I made him jump out of his skin.
We ate out that night after the short walk into town. We ate at a local restaurant on the main road and enjoyed a classic selection of various local delicacies. Eventually we asked what one strange dish was to be told by the owner that it was a rare type of local potato. The description extended to a lot of gesticulation.
“How big is it?” asked Lenin. He soon found out when the owner went and got one. It was enormous. Quite how anyone found out that it was edible I couldn’t imagine.
Our meal, very nice local fare. The monster “potato thing” – “You eat it!?”
We met up with our guy in the morning and he drove us out to the first of the Wats. There are many ways of doing the tour so to hit as many Wats as possible, and our guide and Francesca had a long and heated debate about which order we should do them in. After agreement, we drove up to the entrance and bought our three day tickets.
The magic of the temples of Angkor are almost beyond imagination.
I have met many people, in my travels, who have claimed to be “templed out” – tired of seeing one similar looking temple after another. I always ask them if they have been to Angkor, as the quality of temples here truly eclipses anything else I have seen or heard about. Angkor’s temples have been classically described as:
“…a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo …grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
An Elephant guardian.
The rediscovery of the temples was thanks in most part to western explorers who found many of the number deep within the jungles of the 18th century. Most had given themselves over to nature and took many years to be returned to glory, a task that is still ongoing. One temple was left in its original condition and this wondrous structure has multiple trees growing out of the roof!
Overgrown with trees and half fallen down, some of the Wats are all the more wondrous for the damage
The basic Wat is a religious city-state, acting as both state temple and sometimes as capital to the kings who built them. Thus, they are often of a very large size. The central motif is usually the “temple mountain” and/or “galleried temple” which rises majestically above the city and represent Mount Meru of the Hindu architecture. Materials used in construction are the main way of dating the structures and the early Wats are comprised of blocks of laterite, which is a deeply pitted red rock similar to breezeblocks. Later Wats are sandstone and represent the peak of the kings powers.
The amazing carvings of the victory of Vishnu / a Devata – naked boob angels
At its height the Khmer empire ruled parts of what is now Thailand and Vietnam. The Thai connection draws a lot of trouble as the Thai’s often claim to be the rightful inheritors of the wats, something that has caused conflict between Cambodia and Thailand’s armies in the past. A recent Thai actress almost ruined her career by suggesting as such publically and was forced to formally retract the statement lest her comments led to war.
A detail description of all but a few of the wats is impossible here. The sheer size of the history on display is enough to fill a thousand blog posts and this indeed is one of the wonders of the area. One thing I can comment on is the history of their use.
Cambodia is a Buddhist country, one of the main Theravada Buddhism countries in the world. However, the Angkor temples were all at first constructed as Hindu sites (mainly worshiping Vishnu) and later converted to Buddhism when the empire faded. This means that the experience of walking around them is one of visiting an ancient and lost religion. All the Hindu art on the walls, and there is much, comes across as dead. This feeling was later thrown into sharp relief when visiting India, as there it is the other way around. There the Hindu’s have supplanted the Buddhists and it is Hinduism that is practiced and vibrant.
One of the smaller sites / Nandi the Bull, Shiva’s mount – a sure sign that this is a Hindu temple
Mostly the walls depict religious teachings in the form of the Hindu epics. Vishnu has come to Earth a number of times in the guise of “Avatars” and the stories of these visits are one of the main forms of Hindu knowledge. Many walls tell the story of one such incarnation; Krishna, who fought in a large war and was a genius lover. Others tell the Hindu creation of the world story, which has demons and gods pulling a large snake wrapped around a mountain and churning the “Sea of Milk” to create life.
One discouraging sight at the wats comes at you the minute you step from your tuk-tuk. The child labour here is rampant. At some of the wats the level of hassle almost ruined the experience. At others you find small shrines together will a child minder, who wants a donation “for Buddha”. Many of the children are selling items rather than simply begging, but still it is most upsetting. We purchased a book detailing the temples from one kid only to find another selling it far cheaper only a few stops down. I particularly disagree with begging, and at the price they wanted for their items, this is what they were doing. There must be a factory churning out copies of books on Angkor and then selling them cheap to families that send out the kids to sell them. This heart breaking aspect of Cambodia will be discussed in greater depth in another blog entry.
That night we met up with our friends for one last night on the tiles together. We headed down to the Tourist Street and into the Angkor What? bar around 7pm. We left it at 3am in the morning. Our possessions were memories of dancing on tables, playing the “beer mat game” (a real meeting of two masters between Lenin and I) and T-Shirts gifted to those who manage to drink 3 buckets of whisky and coke. We had four of these T-shirts between us and Lenin (almost) pulled. As a last night out with our friends it was a great send off and I still today miss them (almost four months later.)
Cesca is the table elf / The crew discuss the next drink
The next night we bid farewell and Lenin and Bobbits headed out to the airport. It being Christmas Eve, Cesca and I upgraded our room for Christmas and settled in for another day at the mother-wat, Angkor Wat sunrise on Christmas Day.