Dividing this post in two parts made sense. It allowed those who wish to skip the horrors of Tuol Svay Prey High School and the Killing Fields in Crossing Cambodia (it felt hard to write any more after that). And it means if your interest lies in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and beyond, you can, in any case, find it here.
We traveled by bus to Siem Reap and stayed in Hideout Hostel . Cambodia, unlike Indonesia, is firmly on the backpacker trail and for the first time in months we encountered Irish, Welsh and British accents among the young travelers. The hostels have been great, with private rooms as well as dorms, and Hideout Hostel was a brilliant example of good value comfort -plus everyone was kind and friendly to us old folk (thanks for the pack of Irish tea.😊).
We purchased a three day pass to visit the temples in and around Angkor Wat, and hired a Tuk-tuk driver, ‘Tom’, to take us around. Motorbikes are banned in the vast temple area, and we figured bikes would be exhausting if we wanted to cover the outlying sites in thirty degree heat. Tuk-tuks (more spacious than their Thai equivalent) are by far the most efficient way to get around, plus money goes directly to locals.
There is a persistent urban legend claiming Angkor Wat is owned by the Vietnamese (grabbed by them when they overthrew the Khmer Rouge) and that none of the money collected from the 2 million annual visitors goes to Cambodia. As it is a World Heritage site, I thought it unlikely so I did some research (see https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-south-east-asia-mainland/cambodia/vietnamese-ownership-of-angkor ). That is not to say there is no corruption/criminality involved – Cambodia scores very badly on global corruption tables, but Angkor Wat is very definitely Cambodian.
The history of the building, discovery and restoration of the different temples is complex and fascinating, and there are plenty of places on the Internet and in books where you can read about it. Not here. Here you will get an impression of the grandeur and beauty of this unique World Heritage site, with little in the way of detail.
The foundation stone is a rusty red Laterite cut and fitted together without cement, and the sandstone used for the buildings was quaried over 50km away and transported by specially built canals.
An advantage of having a local driver is that you can wander when you like and meet up later to explore some more. We had a relaxing explore through the shady forest from the heat of the elephant terrace in Angkor Thom to Bayon, finding temples on the way.
Exploring and photographing the temples presented its own challenges. With over a million tourists a year, it gets pretty crowded and the extremes of light or a hazy, cloud covered day will dramatically affect the quality of a picture. But worst of all is the mass obsession with selfies. Is a photograph of a unique, 12th century temple in the middle of the Cambodian jungle of no value without a pouting face in front of it? I have seen countless tourists only taking selfies. Do they think family and friends will not believe they were there? Do they believe that a photograph of themselves in the same spot as Angelina Jolie or Harrison Ford is the only reason to visit such a historic, beautiful and spiritual place. Seeing people queue to take a selfie in ‘the spot’ and then leave without a glance around them is profoundly depressing.
Have you really come so far, for so little?
Lucky to have grabbed this shot, one of the Temple cleaners taking a short cut
The first thing that impresses you about Angkor Wat is its size. The temple is made from 6-10 million blocks of sandstone (transported through 50 miles of jungle), including some that weigh 1.5 tons. The original site was larger than modern day Paris and it remains the largest religious building on Earth.
Then there is the detail, corridor after corridor of galleries containing beautiful carvings depicting ancient Hindu tales. There are literally miles of sandstone carvings illustrating scenes including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons, chariots as well as fierce warriors following an elephant-mounted leader. The gallery wall alone is decorated with almost 1,000 square metres of bas reliefs.
We visited Angkor on two separate occasions, and it worked well. We did the pre-dawn visit, along with everyone else(!), for ‘that shot’ of sunrise and then headed elsewhere to see temples before the crowds arrived. On our second visit we again arrived pre-dawn, but went straight into Angkor Wat, and had the place virtually to ourselves for an hour or so before the crowds came in. Consequently we had a calm reflective experience of the place, not something most visitors would be able to enjoy.
Moving on – Kampot
Feeling a bit ‘templed-out’, as no doubt you are dear reader, we headed down to Sihanoukville and from there by bus to Kampot. Sihanoukville is a sad reminder of where Cambodian tourism is headed, with scores of ugly casinos and girly bars, all responding to the massive influx of Chinese investment and tourism, aimed at making it the ‘new Macau’.
We checked in to a ‘party hostel’ in Kampot, Mad Monkey and really enjoyed our time there. Again we had a comfortable spacious private room, there was a pool and a good restaurant, but most importantly the people, staff and guests, were fab. While it is defiantly a party place, where young travelers go to meet and have fun, the rooftop bar closes down at midnight (the young-uns move on to party elsewhere) and it’s an easy place to chill out. We met some lovely people, shared travel stories over a few beers, relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. Hostel manager Darren, from the Lake District, looked out for us on the organised tours (booze cruise and mountain motorbike tour), and people couldn’t have been nicer – our team even won the Pub Quiz 🍺🏆🍺.
We hired motorbikes for a few days, to tour the local area. The roads aren’t busy for the most part, and it’s great to be independent. On the first day, Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast we went to the seaside town of Kep. It’s not the best beach in the world but it was lovely seeing locals hanging around on hammocks in the shade sharing picnics with their families.
We went on to see the salt farms, quiet with no-one working on a Sunday. It’s a harsh bleak environment, but we were soon surrounded by local kids, so my origami skills were deployed once more.
And then we stumbled on a small temple, deserted we thought, until we came across a monk on his mobile.
Our second day on motorbikes started well with an interesting visit to a pepper farm – Kampot being globally famous for its pepper.
Heading on from there, we decided to take a road to a cave in the mountains nearby. While the road (we’re talking dirt tracks here) may have existed on the map, it soon disintegrated into walking trails and dead ends. GPS indicated actual roads nearby but we struggled along tracks for two hours to find one. The few locals we came across indicated by sign language what direction to take (almost always back the way we had come). We were well and truly lost, and Anne was low on fuel. Our cross country bike skills were improving, but we were getting distinctly worried we might get stuck in the middle of nowhere. After nearly three hours, we got back to the pepper farm, sorted a bottle of petrol from a roadside shop and headed back to bitumen and our hostel. Relief.
Our final bike day was part of a hostel tour organised by Darren, up in to the mountains, to Phnom Bokor national park, with the mist hanging around us. It’s a strange journey, up a very well made road, with surprising, sometimes disconcerting sights. It was also one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, who occupied the area in to the 1990s.
The abandoned church below, built by the French in the 1920s, was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and used as an execution site for conscripted farm labour, who were no longer capable of working. It’s a sad, desolate place.
The old casino (originally French) is now being renovated and big money (thought by many to be controlled by Chinese and Vietnamese criminal gangs) is being spent on new casinos and hotel development.
From Kampot we have traveled down to Otres river village, a sleepy beach area outside of Sihanoukville for a bit of relaxation. Tomorrow we head to Ream National Park, staying in a hostel there. We fly out of Cambodia on the 22nd on an elaborate journey (via KL, Bali, and Sulawesi) to get us to Raja Ampat by the 27th for some diving at the end of the year.
More posts likely to be in the New Year, click on ‘Follow’ to find out.
Happy Christmas 🎄