2004 - Cambodia

 

Thursday 22nd July

We had to be downstairs in the hotel lobby at 5.30 a.m. in order to catch our 8.00 a.m. flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. So... up at 4.30!  Bangkok roads are in fact very good at that time.  They were fairly empty and being 3 or 4 lane dual carriageways with fly overs, progress was quick.

Siem Reap is a small airport and therefore it was good that the plane took only perhaps 100 people as we had 3 forms to deal with - one of which was the visa application.  The roads were much smaller and rougher than we had experienced this holiday.  Many remain unsurfaced.  As before in Asia there were signs of development. 
The very wet and flat area with its timber houses on stilts gave way to a road where several hotels and modern buildings were in the course of construction.  Our hotel was described in Lonely Planet as being the best in Siem Reap...until 1997.  It now seemed tired and lacked the facilities previously found in every hotel such as complimentary tea and coffee making facilities and in room safe.

Our guide, Ohm, spoke excellent English, was well informed and had a good sense of humour.  We felt sure that he would be very good for the 4 days in the area.

We had an excellent lunch in a roofed restaurant having no walls so that we could see the rain continuing its 4 hour downpour.  The only others in the group were Bill and Helen who were .... teachers!  Helen works with pupils with special needs and Bill covers for absentee staff having taken early retirement from his post as a deputy head.  We had seen both before on our tour of the Grand Palace at Bangkok and when we then came across them on our flight to Siem Reap had discovered that they were also on the Kuoni tour.

Ohm, our guide took us to a series of  sandstone and/or brick temples built from the 9th to the 12th century.  They became increasingly large and comprised large platforms on which towers were built.  The stone and even the brick were elaborately carved.  They were mainly Buddhist but also Hindu. 

The first was Lolei.

Pride of place has to go to Ta Prohm - a real story book temple with huge amounts of fallen stone and trees growing everywhere, including over the walls and on the top of the buildings.  The jungle had really taken over.  It had been used for an Indiana Jones film and one could clearly see why.

Music seemed to accompany us to the first 2 or 3 - it turned out to be weddings.  Apparently weddings take 3 days and involve several dresses for the bride and several visits to the temples at Angkor Wat. 

Whilst this was very nice in its own way, it was delightful to have silence or just the sound of cicadas at the last temple.  The carvings everywhere were very detailed and skilfully executed.  Some vandalism had taken place, some theft of statues and some older disfigurement in the 14th century by Hindus of the earlier Buddhist temples.

The temple overgrown by jungle was really atmospheric despite the presence of some other people, perhaps 50 or 60 in total, to clamber between fallen stones, walk through buildings over 1000 years old, admire the carvings, see how the trees had taken over the site...it was fantastic.    Near the centre we saw an old man whom our guide told us was the man on the front of the Lonely Planet guide.  So for a dollar we took our own photo of him, sitting counting the money given to him by other tourists!!

We headed back to the hotel through rather more traffic.  Apparently there are no age restrictions on driving and no test to pass - "You want to drive?  Well just get on and do it!"  When we went out in the evening for a meal we became more conscious of the driving being a little reminiscent of Vietnam.

Our meal was taken in a similar restaurant to lunch and even included the same fish in coconut sauce that we had enjoyed then.  After we had been there perhaps 10 minutes the monsoon started again and was still going when we left about an hour later in torrential rain.

Friday 23rd July

We had been to bed early and despite being awake from time to time, we had a good night and lay in till just gone 7.00.  The breakfast was modest. 

We set out for Angkor Wat which was some distance away.  We approached from a side not used by many people.  With it being the rainy season and the morning we had the place virtually to ourselves and were able to look down a gallery for the entire length of the building without seeing anyone.   The gallery had a long bas relief of various Hindu myths.  Built in sandstone in the first half of the twelfth century Angkor Wat is a huge Hindu temple complex which became Buddhist in the thirteenth century.  Surrounded by a moat and beyond that jungle it is really unique and captivating in its beauty and mystery.  It is believed to be the largest religious complex in the world.  It was probably existed primarily as a tomb for Suryavarman II. 

The area enclosed by the moat is 1.3 km x 1.5 km. The stones were quarried 50 km away and were carved off site.  Whilst we left the complex this way rather than approached it, there is a causeway 475m long passing from the gate tower, between two library buildings and 2 pools, to the main building.  It offers a truly wonderful view of the terraces of this amazing building, lost in the jungles for centuries.  The central temple complex is of 3 terraces enclosing squares surrounded by galleries.  The corners of the 2nd and 3rd terraces have towers with domes on the top and the centre has a single tower.

Jill and I clambered up the very steep and narrow steps to the top section where we were able to see yet more.

We moved on by our minibus to Angkor Thom, a late 12th century city, the curtain wall of which protected its inhabitants, believed to number 1 million.  London at the time had 50,000!  The walls themselves are 8 metres high and 12 km in length, all encircled by a moat.  This was certainly building on the grand scale. Originally it had 54 towers but storms and time have reduced these to 36, I think.  Each tower has four faces:  compassion, sympathy, charity and equanimity.  It was amazing to clamber up and look in any direction and see these faces, nearby.

Once again there are 3 terraces, the first 2 being square and the  top round. 

Amazingly, we lunched next to our French party of 3 not seen since Saigon!  They move on to Malaysia for a few more weeks and had not been to Thailand in the intervening days as we had.

In the afternoon we went out of Siem Reap along the river edge with the housing continuing for perhaps 2 or 3 miles.  In some parts they were simple wooden structures on stilts, in others there were walled and gated compounds with brick and rendered buildings some with the ground floor filled in, others with a car parked under.

The houses eventually stopped but soon we turned off the paved road and were in amongst wooden shacks, many only a single room with palm leaf walls, again on stilts.  We then progressed along a causeway leading to yet more houses and some boats, one of which we took out along the river to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in south east Asia.

We passed between the floating houses that lined either side of the river, leaving a channel of 25-30 feet.  Ohm told us how both these and the shacks on the causeway were temporary buildings moved each year to the lee of an isolated hill that offered protection from the typhoons.  The floating houses (which have a population of 16,000) are towed there along the river.

There is clearly considerable poverty with the houses being almost devoid of furniture and the children equally devoid of toys or education.  This year 3 floating schools have been created and Jill took pictures of these.  The adults earn their living mainly by fishing and the children work, go to school or play in the house or in the dirty river which also takes all the waste.  There must also be disease from insects  - there was a notice in Siem Reap of a severe outbreak of Dengue Fever. 

Despite these more obvious discomforts many houses had battery driven black and white TVs taking pride of place in the home.  Jill even noticed some colour ones.  The children were seemingly universally happy.

The lake apparently reduces to a fraction of its size and depth in the dry season and the floating houses just rest on the mud, making travel even more difficult.

We stopped for a look at a pen of 2 year old crocodiles and some fish on one of the floating buildings which serves as a restaurant and shop for tourists at the lake's edge.  Then we set off home, stopping at a training school in stone carving, wood carving and lacquer work in the Angkor/ Siem Reap area for young people (18+).  After 6 months training they return to their villages to pursue their crafts.  Their work was on sale and was very attractive but pretty expensive, although we realised how much hard effort went into it.

In the evening we enjoyed another set meal in a local restaurant before coming back to the hotel at about 8.00 pm

 

Saturday 24th July

A much better breakfast  with a buffet and considerable choice.  This must be due to there being more than the handful of guests of the previous day.

To be honest we don't know where we have been - but it was good.  We started with a 10th century temple designed and built by women and with elaborate carving.  It was a single level temple - no platform on which the temple was built later.  Named Banteay Srei it means Citadel of the women.  It has particularly elaborate and detailed carving which cover almost all the interiors.

We moved on a further 10 km on dirt roads with huge potholes and much water.  It took close on an hour and the minibus was clearly working on its limits - a 4 wheel drive vehicle would have been better.

However, the slow opaque gave us ample opportunity to study the houses.  These are built on stilts because of the very wet ground, to give protection at night from animals and so that a bonfire can be lit at night to keep away  insects.  Generally they are made of wood and have sides and roofs of palm fronds or reeds, sometimes of planks of wood.  Some of the best ones have tiled roofs and the very best brick or rendered walls.  These are not rare but probably not more than 10%.

Every house seems to have lots of children! 

At about 11.00 we arrived at a little group of stalls and a place to drink and Jill and I set off walking up "the mountain" with Omh. We had no idea how long it would take.  It was a pretty steep, jungle covered and rock strewn path that gradually wound up the hillside.  After about 50-60 minutes we arrived at a stream and Ohm pointed out a large number of carvings on the rocks beside the stream and under the water. Known as Kbal Spean, these were largely linga - (phallic symbols) and Hindu deities, dating from the 12th century.  There are literally thousands of linga and an impressive array of images including not only gods but also a cow and a frog.  These carvings continue to a waterfall.

Hazards include land mines (keep back within the red markers) tigers and bears as well as poisonous insects! 

Bill (who suffers from MS) and Helen had waited below and we rejoined them before heading back to Banteay Srei for lunch at a wayside eatery that we would have by ourselves avoided but which proved very good.

From there we set off in the van to a temple with elephants.  A little boy attached himself to us and went up to the temple area, whereas all the other children did not attempt to - as being against the rules.  We found out that he was deaf.   We wandered round the terraces looking at the carvings with this boy running ahead to point out the sights to us. Jill had distributed several pens to the children and was duly presented with a number of hand drawn pictures - including by our little deaf friend.  We took several photos of him including one with him doing a "V" sign.  What it meant to him we do not know.

We next visited a temple in the middle of a lake and surrounded by 4 ponds, one on each side.  We had just arrived when it started to rain monsoon style and we were soaked through. Omh commissioned a boy who had followed us to go back to the minibus and collect the umbrellas from the driver.   We have a photo of him bringing them and then he accompanied us around the site.  We stopped at some stalls on the way back to the van and bought a dry tee shirt for Adrian to put on and a silk blouse that Jill admired.

We moved on to  Angkor Thom and Elephant terrace.  Dating from the late 12th century this 350m long terrace carved with innumerable elephants was a viewing platform outside the king's palace.  It overlooked an area backed by the 12 towers of Prasat and used for elephant fights and displays by acrobats.  It was again cascading with rain.  We moved on to Angkor Wat to see the reflection of the buildings in the ponds at the front, but the clouds made this of limited value.

Then home for a quick shower, change and off for an evening meal.

 

Sunday 25th July

A dry departure at 8.30 to a holy mountain a long way away.  That was all we knew.  Our conclusion is that Ohm spoke quite freely when asked or when guiding us around a particular temple but did not give general background information on the country, the locality or even what we were to do that day.

We found from the guide book that we were headed for the most sacred mountain in Cambodia - Phnom Kulen "a popular place of pilgrimage during weekends and festivals".  We hit both but we were not to know this as we travelled probably 15 km on unmade roads and then began a 45 minute climb up a newly made mountain road that would seem to be impassable by normal traffic save that when we reached the top we found numerous cars, minibuses and motorbikes.  The road weaved between rocks and was hemmed in on both sides by jungle.  Again the river bed (larger and faster flowing) was carved with linga and religious carvings.  Then we came to a Buddhist sanctuary area with a 13th century reclining Buddha carved out of natural rock on the highest point of the hill.  The sanctuary was approached by a steep concrete stairway but the top offered distant views over the jungle covered hillsides.  The surrounding area was covered by paths in the jungle leading to little shrines, stalls selling religious souvenirs and herbal remedies for various ailments. Everywhere was litter - on this holy mountain.  Everywhere people were happy to try to relieve you of your dollars.  Not exactly holy stuff in Adrian's opinion.

We rejoined the van for a short distance to a waterfall where families were enjoying themselves in the water.  Presumably this also was holy but the good time seemed more important.  There were stalls selling various items along with a caged bird and a helpful monk who translated for us when Jill wanted to buy a couple of eggs made of some sort of translucent stone.

We returned along the lengthy unmade track and eventually stopped at the same place for lunch as we had yesterday.  Jill bought a couple of tops at a stall outside.

Then back to our hotel at a little before 3.30 before we were to set out again for a show and dinner.  There was a wide spread of food and traditional Thai dancing - interesting but I would not return to Cambodia for the dancing alone!

Impressions so far?  A poorer country than Vietnam or what we saw of Thailand.  Also undergoing considerable development.  In Siem Reap there are numerous hotels being built but the roads remain unmetalled as regards the side streets and pretty narrow elsewhere.

The minimum price for tourists for any item is always a dollar.  Numerous traders - especially children are waiting at every site to relieve you of your burdensome dollars.  Many  seem adequately dressed but we understand that for some families this is their only income.  The agricultural population is still about 80%.  We could not get clear what percentage go to school - either 35% or 65% and it costs to go.  Particularly at Angkor Wat we saw fair numbers of children who appeared very poor.  With so much surface water and the children playing in it and little drainage, water borne diseases are a major problem.  50% of the population is under 15, 10% die under 5 and life expectancy is only 53 for men and 58 for women.

There is a lot of dislike of the Vietnamese, in part due to border disputes.  More than 90% of the population are Khmers - which means that there is less cultural diversity than in many countries.

Land mines remain a major problem with 5 million still "out there".

Things on motor bikes:  4 adults; mum, dad and 3 children; pigs (alive and dead), bamboo, sacks of rice; rice seedlings; another motor bike; a bicycle; boxes of drink cans; really anything. Tuesday - add a car door!

 

Monday 26th July

We flew to Phnom Penh arriving at our hotel, the Juliana at around 11.30 a.m. We then left again an hour later to go to a restaurant overlooking the river near the Royal Palace.  Reminiscent of colonial times - English speaking, ceiling fans, English newspapers etc.

Then back to the hotel until taken out for evening meal. Fortunately the Juliana was a pleasant hotel.  Our room looked out into a house about 40 feet away and there were flats a little further away that were above the shops and looked fairly poor concrete structures with black staining and clothes hanging on all balconies.

The side roads were very largely unmade.  Indeed, the immediately adjoining area to our hotel (itself an oasis in the back street) was comprised of a school with bars at all windows, some other educational establishments and a really 3rd world looking row of shacks. 

We sat by the pool in the afternoon and then went to use the internet locally for a fraction of the cost that would have been charged by the hotel.

Our restaurant in the evening was in a thatched first floor open sided restaurant run by a Cambodian woman who had lived 22 years in New Zealand returning 2 years ago. (It was thatched with reeds such as are used in the country properties on stilts) It was a really delicious dish and out of the routine.  We had a kebab and spring rolls then a soup with a tasty beef dish served on lettuce before the customary dragon fruit and melon.

 

Tuesday 27th July

We started at 8.00 a.m. and after a request stop at the Post Office  - again a grand colonial building, we headed for the Royal Palace.  This was a large compound of elaborate buildings dating from about 1870 onwards to 1963 and possibly later.  One would not know this from the style which was very opulent and traditional.  As well as a coronation hall, a silver pagoda (the floor made entirely of silver tiles) there were the royal quarters the inside of which was not on show.  The guide (a separate one for the 4 of us and supplied by the palace) was very good at English and gave us a good tour for an hour.  One hall was full of gifts given to or by the royal family - one rather tired of hearing the weight in gold and silver of the various objects, especially when at every stop in the day we were besieged by crippled beggars that our usual guide (no name yet!) said the state had no money to feed.

We ended up in the elephant house - a sort of stables for elephants.  This had various banners and seats used for royal processions on elephants.

Then on to the national museum.  Here again we were allocated a guide.  He was excellent at English although he spoke in a monotone which made things harder.  He took us through the galleries of statues starting at pre-Angkor (pre-6th century) up to the 17th century explaining the natural and skilful representations of the earliest period which became more stylised and monumental by the Buddhist era of 12th -13th century.  He explained about the Indian gods which were part of the Cambodian culture from about the third century and were dominated by Buddhism since the 13th with 90% now described as of the Buddhist faith.  To us as outsiders it appeared that some good moral teaching of the earliest days of the religion had been replaced by superstition and the touching of statues, the burning of joss sticks and the thrice repeated putting together of hands and moving them slightly downward in front of a Buddha.  These things would lead to good health and good luck like the winning of the lottery.

We moved on to Wat Phnom a hill with a Buddhist sanctuary on top.  Monkeys played at the foot of the hill - one even reclining on a shrine.  To reach the sanctuary itself, we had to pass numerous beggars missing arms or legs, blind or holding babies all in a forlorn state.  We gave as we could but still found it difficult to reconcile certain aspects of this society. Clearly it was poor but equally clearly there was also considerable money for motorbikes, new cars etc.

We then broke for a buffet lunch at a pleasant enough restaurant  which had diners mainly of Japanese or Chinese origin - apparently 50% of tourists at Siem Reap are Japanese.

We then proceeded to the faded glory of a market building built in 1935 and untouched since.  Again beggars and traders.  The stalls were packed initially with tourist tat but deeper in with the cheap and gaudily presented mass produced goods that we had come over the years to associate with Asian markets - clothes (many bearing designer names), piles of cheap cosmetics, bags, meat, china, electrical goods and cooking utensils.  Most of it was packaged (or not) in such a way that it was clearly made in China or somewhere cheaper.  Most of it looking cheap and shoddy but then so do our markets I suppose.

Then back to the hotel at 1.30 "for a rest" till collection at 6.30 for our meal.  Really, we concluded, there was enough for 2 morning trips but they put us in Phnom Penh for 4 days to fill up the tour schedule.  At least the hotel was pleasant enough but like some others (charging $4.50 for a bottle of water) charging ridiculous amounts for ordinary things - 4 for a coffee and a soft drink.  By contrast we avoided their internet at 10c per minute and spent 10p on 20 minutes at an outside internet shop.  Painfully slow as all had been.

In the evening another good restaurant at 2nd floor level.  As before there was no front wall and we in fact sat forward of the roof but towards the end rain began gently and a blind had to be lowered to give us protection.

Then home again, amongst the cars (our guide told us belonged to senior officials especially army and they did not pay tax on them), motor bikes and a couple of carts each pulled by two bullocks.

 

Wednesday 28th July

Our first visit was to S21 a former high school in the city taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison and torture centre.  We were shown the individual cells where people were chained to iron beds and endless photos of victims taken as they were registered - many being women and children.  Apparently 2 m of the 6 m then inhabitants of Cambodia were killed in the 3 years 8 months and 20 days of the Pol Pot regime.  What can we add?

We were then taken out 15 km to a killing field where there was a large memorial tower (perhaps 60 feet) with many skulls.  Outside were a series of what looked like bomb craters.  These had been 89 exhumed mass graves where just a little under 9000 people had been killed.  We were conscious that this genocide has been repeated in possibly half a dozen countries in the short time since. 

We returned to the city for lunch with our guide telling us more about his country and the politics.  He and his family had survived - his job had been to scare birds away from the rice fields as he was 5 when this period started but his uncle's family had all been killed and some other relatives also.

After lunch we went to the Rouse Market where we found some bargain clothing and later in the afternoon we went for an hour's boat cruise on the river, past another floating village and also past 2 modern hotels and the Royal Palace. 

Driving past the hotels and palace on the way to a Chinese Restaurant for our evening meal we were conscious of the attractive roads and buildings that could be many a modern city - not all is unmade roads, shacks and poor little workshops and trading stalls.  Our guides had made no secret of the poverty of Cambodia and years of war can only have made this worse.

An interesting and  challenging time in a country very different from many others we have seen yet also struggling with similar problems particularly corruption which apparently is discouraging inward investment - even by the Japanese with whom there are good relations and whose name we had seen as donors on various public projects.  How clearly we see the nature of man in things like this.  Wealth does not remove them but simply alters how they are manifested.

An interesting and historic country with apparently more natural beauty than we have seen on this trip with particularly mountains and waterfalls.