Hello from the poorest country I'm visiting all trip - Cambodia. If this blog has uploaded it will be a minor miracle as the Internet here is unsurprisingly appalling. Today is the third day of my Intrepid tour of South East Asia and I already feel like I've settled in quite well with the 15 other people on tour. The group is unsurprisingly dominated by Australians (especially Sydneysiders). Most are university students travelling during their long summer holidays, but there is also an American guy, a Norwegian girl, another Brit and 2 sister's from Toronto. Immediately after our introductory meeting on Tuesday night we all went out for some drinks at a couple of bars along the Khao San Road - Bangkok's backpacker mecca. There were hordes of western tourists there and it didn't really feel like Asia at all. There were however some funny signs on display advertising each bar - one I noted boasted "We don't ID anyone".
The next morning we were up early to get our private transfer bus to the Cambodian border at Poipet, about 3.5 hours west of Bangkok. A random Thai bloke had to accompany us and pose as our guide during the Thai section of our journey. Work permit laws did not permit our actual guide Sareth to work in Thailand, but really the other guy did nothing other than sit on the bus. Sareth is a 38 year old Cambodian. He is funny in his own Cambodian way (he's very homophobic), but his English isn't really good enough for him to fully intergrate with the group. He will remain our guide until Ho Chi Minh City in 10 days or so.
Just before the border we stopped at the Cambodian Consulate to collect our visas, which was a very swift process. We then proceeded to the crazy border town, which was a haven of activity. We entrusted our bags to some luggage carrier children, who put them all in a trailer and towed them over the border. I wasn't sure we'd ever see them again, but thankfully the porters were trustworthy. The Thai side of immigration was very swift, but the Cambodians took forever. When I got up to the desk it just seemed like the guys were having a laugh and in no particular hurry. It was really annoying as the building was extremly hot. The humidity and high temperatures here are even troubling the Aussies, and its apparently Asia's cool season! I can't imagine how awful it would be in the hot season.
We then boarded a different private bus and headed down the imfamous "dancing road", so called because it used to be horrendously bumpy. Fortunately for me though it has all been tarmacked in the last year, and other than the crazy drivers and all the cows on the road, the 3 hour journey was very smooth. Cambodians drive on the right, whereas Thailand was on the left, but other than that the road systems and laws are very similar. I especially like how the traffic lights here have a second countdown so you know how long you will be waiting on red, or how long there is left on green. They should definitely introduce that in the UK - it would make driving in cities far less stressful!
We stopped for lunch at a Cambodian Restaurant, where I had some nice fried rice. The food so far has been good but I wouldn't say it was any better than the Asian stuff we get in the UK. Not sure how long it will take before I get bored of noodles and rice, but it looks like they'll be the staple of my diet for the next 2.5 months. We reached Siem Reap as the sun was setting at around 6pm and checked in to our hotel, which has been one of the most basic I've stayed in all trip. The shower only produces trickling cold water, and they don't provide toilet roll. On the plus side the TV has an excellent choice of English language news and sports channels. The Premier League is very popular over here and I've managed to see a lot of goals in the last couple of days, including Bolton's 4 against Lincoln last weekend.
Siem Reap is a bustling tourist town, but the place has very little character. There are hotels everywhere and lots of tourist bars and restaurants in the centre. We visited one on our first evening here to watch some traditional Aspara Dancing over dinner, which looked like it would be really hard to do. The women performing it were incredibly skilled, as well as incredibly pretty! After dinner we were forced to go round the night market, before we caught tuk-tuks (motorbikes with trailers) back to the hotel. I didn't get to bed until 11.30pm, which was annoying as we were up at 4.30am to head out to Angkor Wat for sunrise. It was my third and final sunrise viewing of my trip, and I'm glad I don't have to do anymore!
Angkor Wat temple complex is the reason Siem Reap is a tourist haven. It is Cambodia's premier attraction, as well as arguably the most famous sight in this part of Asia. The local beer is named after it, it is on the Cambodian flag, a model of it was on the border arch - it is everywhere here! We arrived at the reflection pool at Angkor Wat at around 5.45am, which is the prime photo spot for the sunrise. The changing light behind the temple was beautiful as the sun ascended over the western tower and I got some really good photo's, even though my camera doesn't perform well in low light. The scaffolding that covered part of the structure didn't spoil the view at all. After the sun was fully up at around 7am our temple guide took us to explore the building. Angkor Wat is the best preserved and best known of all the many temples in this area. Weathering has taken its toll on the building but the French colonialists here in the early 20th Century have restored it quite well. It was constructed around 900 years ago as a Hindu temple, though later it became sacred to the Buddhists. The temple's around Siem Reap were all built around this period, a time when the country's religion switched from Hinduism to Buddhism numerous times depending on the King's position. Some temples were constructed to be Hindu, others made to be Buddhist, but either way they all look very similar except for differences in the carvings.
I was hugely impressed by Angkor Wat, though due to tiredness I struggled to pay attention to the bombardment of information our temple guide was giving us. I didn't really wake up until after breakfast after we'd finished our tour there. Our next stop was Ta Prohm, or "Tomb Raider" temple as it has become known. It was the sight where a large amount of filming was done for the 2001 Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie. The French restorers of the Angkor area deliberately left this temple pretty much as they'd found it, so it is awash with trees growing at bizarre angles out of the temple rocks. The temple had a very different atmosphere to Angkor Wat and it was nice to see one in its natural state. Again, I took plenty of photo's, though if you ever see them you'll probably think they all look the same - most of the temples do here!
We drove past even more temples on through the gates of Angkor Thom City, the area's main settlement. This was where the King lived before he was driven out by the Siamese Army around 1609 - the time when all these amazing temples were left to ruin. We were given talks on more carvings and given the chance to scramble up some of the temple's steep steps. Clambering on the temples here is not at all frowned upon, which is very different to how they operated at Machu Picchu. Angkor Thom was not as impressive as Angkor Wat, but still interesting. One sour note is that the place was awash with children "hawkers" (street sellers) trying to sell books and things to the tourists. They are so young, but yet they speak good English. They don't cause too much bother as they are not very persistent. You just say no thank you and they go away, which is very different to those in Peru who would follow you down the street.
We then stopped for lunch, which was a long awaited chance to escape the heat and humidity. Our guide offered around his traditional Cambodian meal, which was the most repulsive smelling food I've ever seen. It was fermented fish paste containing large red ants. I was near enough sick just to smell it, and there was no way I was trying it. The few people who did looked absolutely disgusted.
After lunch we were driven 40 minutes through the Cambodian countryside (which is all flat paddy fields) to the Banteay Srey temple, or lady temple as the tourists know it. This was a small temple with a nice moat around it famous for its well preserved carvings. By this time everybody was feeling "templed out", but we had one more to visit for sunset. Lots of people had gathered at the top to watch the sun go down over the jungle, but the view was slightly spoiled by some clouds on the horizon. Whilst waiting for the sunset a genuine (our tour guide verified this) Cambodian police officer came up to me and tried to sell me his uniform. He was offering his cap, T-shirt and badge, and said he could pick up more from the nearby police station if anybody else wanted one. Nobody took him up on the offer, but I was amazed at his corruption!
In the evening we went out for a meal at a nice restaurant in town, and whilst eating my Amok curry (the national dish) I got a good view of the fireworks display set off in town to commemorate the Liberation Day bank holiday. Yesterday marked 31 years since a Vietnam invasion brought at end to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime - arguably the world's most brutal regime in the last 100 years. Remarkably, considering what the Khmer Rouge did in this country, some Cambodian people call yesterday "occupation day", and do not celebrate it, but these people are in the minority. After the meal we went to a local bar which was half filled with western tourists, and half filled with Cambodian prostitutes and ladyboys. The hookers were not shy and would grab men's balls as they walked past. This seemed to go down well with some dodgy looking old English men, who paid and went off with them on their mopeds. We all enjoyed plentiful cheap cocktails and had a good night though, but I have found touristy Siem Reap to be more expensive than Bangkok. The main currency used in Cambodia is the US Dollar, but they also have the Cambodian Real. The only time you get these are when your change does not round up to a dollar. There are 4,000 real to the dollar.
This morning we had a free morning to have a lie in. I spent all morning in bed enjoying watching tennis and football on the sports channels. At 3.30pm we are heading off on a boat trip to Cambodia's largest lake, Tongle Sap, where we will be visiting a floating village. The intention is we stay and watch sunset over the lake but today is cloudy so I'm not sure if we''ll bother. Tomorrow I have my first experience of Asian public transport as we journey off the tourist trail bound for the town of Kompong Cham, around 6 hours south west of here. If they have Internet, which is a big if, I'll update from there.