Crossing Cambodia #2

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.

Urban Myth

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 ). 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.

Early light on Pre Rup, guarded by lions. We started at 6.00am and had the place to ourselves


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.


Lions, again keeping guard over Anne on the steep climb at Pre Rup
Elephants at dawn, Eastern Mabon


Local kids playing by the entrance to the atmospheric Ta Som, where the jungle seems to be winning control.




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.





Rant Paragraph

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? 

See this article, identifying the same problem Instagrammers are sucking the life and soul out of travel

Early morning at Ta Prohn, before the crowds queue for a selfie at the Temple of Doom
Thommanon, a small and beautiful old ruin
Bayon Temple is beautiful, but the crowds are overwhelming


Lucky to have grabbed this shot, one of the Temple cleaners taking a short cut


Angkor Wat


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.

Before dawn. For some reason the camera picked up the pink lilies in the lake, along with the first light of morning



Sunrise inside Angkor Wat, it’s worth it for the calm




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 🍺🏆🍺.

Cruising down a river with free beers, a beach and a sunset is a relaxing way to enjoy yourself





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.

Pepper farm worker

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.

Phnom Bokor


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.

Statue to the mythical Lok Yeay Mao , and below abandoned French colonial buildings and pagoda, much of it covered in red lichen (and graffiti)



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 🎄


Crossing Cambodia

Cambodia carries the weight of its history remarkably lightly, though it’s astonishing past is visible throughout this small country.

The vast complex of temple ruins, originally Hindu and then Buddhist, going back to the twelfth century (with many atmosphericaly emerging from lush jungle) is perhaps the most striking aspect of its past, and the reason so many tourists visit.


However it’s more recent history is infinitely darker. Following on from nearly 100 years of French colonial domination, it has the horrendous distinction of being the most bombed nation on the planet. In pursuit of its war in Vietnam the USA illegally dropped more ordinance on a country the size of England’s and Wales than were dropped in the whole of WW2 – including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With 30% of that reckoned to be UXO, the impact of this is everywhere, with amputees of all ages working/begging on the streets.

Next the Cambodians endured the internal genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the horrors that came with it. Even after the Vietnamese toppled this murderous state in 1979, the aid and support needed to rebuild was blocked as Cold War warriors continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge in the U.N.

How then can a country that has endured so much and remains one of the poorest countries in SE Asia, be so peaceful, calm, helpful and friendly to its visitors? Smiling and singing seem to be a national pastime, families gather and socialise on beaches and river banks, sharing food and laughter. It really is a relaxed, enchanting place to visit.

Phnom Penh


Although this post is named ‘Crossing Cambodia’ we only have five weeks here, so our agenda is quite modest. Landing in Phnom Penh, we soon adjusted to the dual currency (Riel and USD), the unusual Tuk-tuks 20171126_142555_edited-1458x658and the abundance of coffee shops in colonial buildings selling all manner of Western food. Eating real bread and lightly cooked eggs for breakfast was a welcome break from the dietary rigours of Sulawesi (see Sulawesi Penjelajahan* and More tales from Sulawesi).
We also took shelter from the heat at the Foreign Correspondence Club, an elegant bar overlooking the Mekong, that seems to have been plucked out of a Graham Greene novel. And in one sense it has. Despite the slowly turning fans and war correspondent photography (including some iconic images from ‘Killing Fields’ journalist Sydney Schanberg), the FCC was established after the conflict had ended. The owner delights in overhearing journos telling tall tales of the war, and legendary meetings in the FCC, when the club only opened is doors in 1993.


 While in Phnom Penh we spent time in the national museum and visiting the Royal Palace, both were places of calm in a bustling city and a welcome contrast to the horrors of the Killing Fields and the S21 security prison.

Royal Palace

The architecture is very reminiscent of the Thai palace in Bangkok
Meditation and Browsing


Killing Fields and Security Prison S21

Note, this section of the blog is understandably upsetting, detailing as it does the genocide that destroyed so many lives in such a brutal manner. You may wish to skip through to the next section. I have split the Cambodia blog in to two parts. Clicking here will take you to part 2.


Tuol Svay Prey High School

In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21. With chilling bureaucratic efficiency, the 17,000 men, women and children who passed through this secondary school/torture centre were photographed before ‘confessions’ were extracted. From there they were sent to the Killing Fields (an orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh), their final destination.
For us, the real horror of what happened came through at the Tuol Svay Prey High School. The school buildings, the play area, the classrooms and the suburban life just outside set against the metal beds, the barbed wire, the instruments of torture, and photograph after photograph of those who perished. The audio story, told by survivors describes what happened and visitors wander from classroom to classroom in silence, observing the heart of darkness within humanity.
Classroom into torture room. The normality of lives through the bars outside add to the horror
Just a standard secondary school. The graves in the courtyard are of those whose bodies were found by the Vietnamese Army


Barbed wire across the balconies prevented prisoners throwing themselves off.
These boys were Khmer Rouge cadres who carried out the torture. It’s thought they were themselves tortured and killed as purges came through the centre.
Cells in the classrooms. The walls were smashed through to provide easier access to the victims
The Choeung Ek orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is where the victims of S-21 ended up. 17,000 people were killed here between 1975 and 1979. Now it’s a peaceful reflective place. The remains of many victims have been recovered from the mass graves, but in the rainy season, clothes and skeleton parts still surface. The building in the centre is a monument to all those who died in all the killing fields in Cambodia.


Visitors over the years have left bracelets at the site of the mass graves. This tree is where executioners smashed babies and infants before throwning them into an open pit.

The Cambodians have told this story well, with dignity and wherever possible allowing the survivors to speak. If you go there, the story will stay with you.


Crossing Cambodia 2  – Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Sihanoukville and Kampot is here