Cambodia, our 26th, is a country which conjures up conflicting images of magnificent wats, iconic Angkor Wat, Khmer Rouge atrocities, poverty and corruption, and with a history unlike any other, we can’t wait to explore. As Cambodia emerges from a long period of civil and political instability, it is beginning to heal from a devastating recent history; the allure of an ancient culture combined with a turbulent past is coupled with a feeling of stepping into the unknown…
We had read that there are stunning lakes and waterfalls in the north east, and wanting to escape the normal tourist traps we decide to head to Ban Lang. After Stung Treng we turn off on to a dirt road, which the border guards had warned us about. The 150km route takes us along an extremely bumpy, rocky dirt road, through a dry landscape. The temperature is up again to 36C.
It is a 3 hour journey and when we arrive, the town is reminiscent of a western movie, red dust everywhere, flimsy wooden buildings and a heavily armed guard standing outside the ATM machine!
Despite it feeling like a frontier town, we actually manage to find a nice little bar where the beer is just $3 for a large jug and surprisingly we have some of the best and cheapest food so far in SE Asia.
2nd April Phnom Penh
In the morning we head back to the same bar as last night for breakfast. As they don’t actually have a breakfast menu, we end up having fried rice and noodles!
We head to the Boeng Yeak Laom lake, which is billed as one of the best natural sites in Cambodia. When we arrive, it’s pretty, surrounded by green jungle, but not quite as impressive as we had imagined or as described in the LP. So we head to the Cha Ong waterfalls, in the hope they will compensate. The signposts initially take us the wrong way down a dirt track, but locals point out the way and we eventually get there, but our hopes are dashed as it is a non-existent waterfall! At least in the dry season anyway.
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Admitting defeat, we decide not to visit the other 3 falls and head onwards towards the capital of Phnom Penh, but aren’t too sure if we’ll make it all the way. The first two hours are spent on the same rocky road we had taken to reach the town, and then we join onto a smooth road cutting south through the country. It is now 38C, similar to temperatures we had in Spain and Turkey, but the humidity makes it quite unbearable.
We wonder how the motorcycle riders manage to deal with all the heat and the dust… they can’t just roll up the windows and sit in the luxury of air-con like we can!
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The roads are virtually clear, partake a few motorcycles and ox-pulled carts, passing quiet countryside villages complete with thatched roof huts.
7 hours later, we are near Kompong Cham; the light fades and darkness is upon us, as the traffic begins to build. We are just 20 miles from Phnom Penh but it takes another hour to actually reach our hotel as we sit in slow-moving traffic, battling with cyclists on the side of the road with no lights whatsoever.
The bright lights of the city are a far cry from the towns and villages we have passed in the rest of the country, with 4×4’s everywhere and well-heeled people heading out to the numerous bars and restaurants we pass along the way.
We get a strange sense of déjà vu; it’s starting to feel like we are back in India with dirty streets and crazy drivers!
We grab a tuk-tuk to the highlight of the city, the Royal palace, built in 1866, when the capital was moved from Oudong, and occupied by Cambodian royalty since then. The palace buildings are grand and remind us of Chinese style pagodas, gilded with reds and gold and set in a peaceful green environment, a bubble in the midst of the bustling city. It is located where the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers meet. The Tonle Sap lake is the biggest freshwater lake in SE Asia, providing water for half the population of Cambodia. We walk around the impressive king’s throne room and the silver pagoda, made with 5000 silver tiles. Inside is a 17th century Buddha statue decorated with thousands of diamonds, also known as the ‘emerald Buddha’.
The air feels hot and heavy, and we stop for a drink in an outdoor bar, whilst continually approached by young street vendors trying to sell books, films and local papers for a few dollars. One is so persistent that it is inevitable we eventually buy something just for his hard work!
A friendly young tuk-tuk driver takes us to Central Market. He tells us he has to work as a driver for two to three years to save enough money to go to university and study economics, that he loves football but because he works everyday he never sees a match, and that Cambodia is slowly improving but change will take time.
The market is relatively quiet and tourist-free so we have a wander round; the huge dome is full of the usual t-shirts and tacky souvenirs you would find in any market around the world, although we do manage to pick up an extremely powerful torch. We head to the nearby shopping mall and grab a bite to eat.
We notice the Cambodians seem to have an unusual taste in fashion; whilst in the cities, the women wear normal dress, outside the cities, they wear pyjama-like clothing, matching tops and bottom, which also seems a bit strange considering its 40 degrees outside!
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took power in 1975, implementing a brutal restructuring of society in Cambodia. Their goal was to create the perfect communist society, marching everyone out of the cities and forcing them to work out in the countryside as slaves for up to 15 hours a day, without adequate food and water. The result was mass starvation and death.
In a bid to create an agrarian utopia, religion was abolished, schools, hospitals and temples destroyed, currency banned and all private belongings confiscated.
Security prison 21, now the Tol Sleng museum was originally a high school; the classrooms were converted into torture chambers extracting ‘confessions’ from detainees. Speaking French, being educated, wearing glasses or practicing Buddhism were all reason enough to be executed by the brutal regime.
Most of the 17,000 prisoners held at the prison were taken to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, 14km outside of Phnom Penh.
Three years and eight months later, in January 1979, Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, successfully occupying Phnom Penh, and forcing the government to flee.
The exact number of people who died under Khmer Rouge rule is not known, but is estimated to be around at least 1.7 million from starvation, exhaustion or execution.
Today the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity are progressing very slowly, amid political corruption, despite the backing by 80% of Cambodians and the UN.
4th April Siem Reap
The drive to Siem Reap is easy-going. It is the main base for exploring Angkor and one of the most popular places on the planet, accommodating 2 million visitors a year. We arrive to find the guesthouse we had chosen is fully booked, but luckily there is a wealth of budget accommodation nearby, and find one just down the road.
Following the guest house owner telling us we would not be able to take our vehicle in to the Angkor National park, we take a drive to the ticket centre to find out for ourselves. The ticket staff do not seem too sure and look slightly confused when we ask, calling over a policeman for reassurance. He quickly agrees we can take our car through without a problem, and it dawns on us the cheeky guest house owner was just trying to get us to use his rickshaw for the next 3 days at $15 per day. Buying our three day (very expensive) tickets, we are allowed in to the complex this evening to capture the sun-set and get our first glimpse of Angkor Wat.
We pull up at the west entrance, where we grab a couple of drinks and sit on the edge of the huge moat to watch the sun cast its golden rays over Angkor Wat as it begins to set.
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5th April Angkor Wat
We visit the legendary Angkor Wat, abode of the gods, an ancient wonder of the world and the world’s largest religious building. The Angkor area contains temples from the 9th to 15th century located at the centre of the Khmer empire. A national symbol at the epicentre of Cambodia, it is a jaw-dropping sight, and a source of inspiration and pride to the Khmer people. It is definitely a highlight for us!
In its heyday, Angkor was a powerful kingdom that dominated much of mainland south-east Asia.
Khmer architecture evolved largely from India, also incorporating styles of neighbouring cultures, culminating in a new type of art and building seen at Angkor.
We wake up at the crack of dawn in the hope we will miss the hordes of tourists, meeting up with our guide, Peter. He is young, enthusiastic and also has two wives…
He suggests we head to Angkor Thom first as Angkor Wat would be busy with tourists in the morning. The city of Angkor Thom (Great city) was established in the late twelfth century by king Jayavarman VII after Angkor Wat. It is surrounded by five 20m high extravagant entrance gates complete with intricate faces. Construction coincided with a change from Hinduism to Buddhism and the temples were altered to portray images of the Buddha.
We stop at the South Gate, the best preserved of the four gates. The gate is flanked by a row of heads which guard the city; to the left are statues representing heavenly Gods and to the right, demons performing the famous Hindu story, the myth of the churning of the ocean, whereby the Gods and demons would pull the head of the snake in different directions, forming the earth and the cosmos.
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The first temple we come to is the Bayon, which has an amazingly intricate bas-relief covering the walls, depicting everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Peter describes some of the scenes to us, including heroic scenes of the Chams and the Cambodians at war, lives of the local people, and tales of Hindu mythology. It took 40 years and around one million people to build, mainly Indian and Chinese workers. Designs were carved into the sandstone and all painstakingly done by hand. One of the first things we notice are the huge Gothic towers with smiling faces which are said to represent the face of the king, enticing you to venture in and explore.
The Terrace of the Leper King is next, with a (replica) statue of the king on top and intricate carvings of asparas, celestial maidens, kings, princesses and nagas, mythical serpent-type creatures on the surrounding walls.
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A short walk away is the Terrace of the Elephants, used by the king to view public ceremonies and decorated with hundreds of elephants.
Ta Prohm temple, of Lara Croft fame is next on route. Built in 1186, it is a spectacular crumbling temple where the jungle has literally taken over, centuries-old silk cotton trees and strangler fig trees grow within the ruins, over doorways and towers, sprawling roots pushing the temple with it in parts. Unlike most other Angkorian temples, it’s been left in the same condition as found, due to its unique imposing atmosphere. At one point amongst the ruins, there is even a perfectly preserved face carving poking out from the huge roots of a tree. It was founded by the Khmer king as a monastery and university. There are pieces of the temple lying everywhere, making some passageways through the temple impassable.
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Peter takes us to a restaurant in the hope of getting commission, but dishes are three times the price we normally pay, so we just stick to drinks.
The second part of the tour takes in Angkor Wat and we head over expecting it to be crowded, but surprisingly it’s quiet with just a few tourists milling around.
A Thai king once proclaimed that the temple ‘belonged to Thailand’ and ordered his soldiers to bring him the ‘great temple’.
We finally arrive at the star attraction, the sublime Angkor Wat, bathed in the glows of early evening sunshine. Built in the early 12th century in less than 30 years as a place to worship Hindu Gods such as Vishnu, it was later converted to a Buddhist place of worship in the 16th century.
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Our first views are from the moat surrounding the temple at 200metres wide, the iconic three towers dominating the skyline. There is a long walkway leading us to the temple and an 800 metre long bas relief along the central temple, with delicate and intricate carvings depicting scenes of the Khmer army victorious after battle and the most famous bas-relief, the churning of the ocean of milk. The story goes that the churning of the ocean of milk is undertaken by angels and demons, in search of Amrta, an elixir that will grant them immortality.
In the 15th century, almost all of Angkor was abandoned after Siamese attacks, the temples cloaked by the forest for years until the late 19th century, when the site was rediscovered by French archaeologists. The exception to this was Angkor Wat which remained a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists throughout its history.
Angkor Wat or ‘City Temple’, replicates the universe in its symmetry and architecture, the central tower is Mount Meru, with the smaller towers bound by continents and the oceans i.e. the courtyard and moat. It really is an architectural masterpiece, perfect in composition and proportions.
Built before Angkor Thom, it took around one million people to construct the temple. The large bas-relief decorations depict large-scale scenes mainly from Hindu origins with apsaras (beautiful supernatural spirits) and devatas (guardian angels) carvings prominent. There are also historical, religious and everyday life scenes.
Peter describes a scene of the judgement by Yama, which portrays 37 hells and 32 heavens with carvings of a leisurely nature on a top tier and scenes of hell underneath, of punishment and suffering, which he seems to linger on for some reason!
We climb to the top of the central tower for great views over the surrounding courtyards and countryside.
The sun is out today, so we grab the opportunity to visit the temples we’d missed yesterday and get some photos.
The first temple we stop at is Banteay Srey, a 10th century temple also known as the citadel of women which is the only temple carved in hard pink sandstone in the Angkor region. We pass herds of water buffalo in the watery plains before we get to the temple itself. It was rediscovered only in 1914 and the buildings composing it are small, unusual when compared to the Angkorian standard. It’s also known for its intricate sandstone carvings.
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Next is Banteay Samre; we are virtually the only ones here. It’s a large temple with extensive restoration, made around the same time as Angkor Wat in a similar style. The temple has an interior moat which distinguishes it from all the other Wats, we can only imagine that when it’s full it must look stunning. At the entrance are some very persuasive girls who are trying to sell anything and everything from jewellery to soft drinks. Given the heat, on the way out we give in and buy some drinks from them.
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Ta Som is next on route, a small temple which has been left unrestored, which is very similar in structure to Ta Phrohm. A huge tree is growing out of the east gate, and in spite of its semi-ruinous state, it has a captivating beauty, possibly attributable to its remoteness and peaceful atmosphere.
Pre Rup was one of the first temples built after Angkor with a temple-mountain style of structure. It is Hindu in style, dedicated to Shiva. On the east path are huge towers which are believed to have been libraries, and elephant statues which are in near-perfect condition.
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We decide to pay Ta Prohm another visit, as the light is much better today for photos, and also it’s one of our favourite temples! It is a little less crowded than yesterday and so we get the opportunity to explore a bit more.
Our time at the beguiling Angkor is complete, with a final visit to the incredible Angkor Wat at sunset.
The road taking us to the border is good and we get there in just under 2 hours. Deciding to spend under two weeks in Thailand means we don’t have to apply for another visa. Carnet stamped, the only fee we pay is 30B ($1) for filling out of the carnet paperwork.
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Martin & Nicole]