Cambodia 7th to 20th November 2012
7th to 9th November 2012
We flew into Siem Repp wth Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur. The flight was good and on time. We stayed at Happy Guest House, which offered an airport pick up by Tuk Tuk. The airport is outside the main town and this gave us chance to view some of the countryside including paddi fiuelds and basking water buffalo.
Nestled between rice paddies and stretched along the Siem Reap River, the small provincial capital of Siem Reap Town serves as the gateway to the millennium-old temple ruins of the Khmer Empire. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses dozens of temple ruins including Bayon, Banteay Srey and the legendary Angkor Wat whose artistic and archaeological significance and visual impact put it in a class with the Pyramids, Machu Pichu and the Taj Mahal
We had a double ensuite with air con, it was spacious and comfy for the price. The hotel also has a good restaurant and bar that offers food all day long at competitive prices. It is about 10 minutes walk to the main tourist hub of Pub Street and the night markets.
On our first day we did our usual to get our bearings just wandered round town, along the river taking in the views of the Royal residences. The weather is very hot and humid so lots of stops for refreshments.
The next day we did a Temple tour, we hired a Tuk Tuk for the day which cost $20 for this he picked us up from the hotel at 8am and took us to Banteay Srey, which is 35km from town.The tenth century temple of Banteay Srei is renowned for its intricate decoration carved in pinkish sandstone that covers the walls like tapestry. The special charm of this temple lies in its remarkable state of preservation, small size and excellence of decoration.
The unanimous opinion amongst French archaeologists who worked at Angkor is that Banteay Srei is a 'precious gem' and a 'jewel in Khmer art'.
On the way back we visited The Cambodian Landmine Museum which is very thought provoking, I found very distressing but worth a visit to see what the people of this country has been through in recent times and still suffering.
We visited several more temples including TA Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple. It was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, dedicated to the mother of the king (Buddhist) replica to Bayon style of art. Ta Prohm is the undisputed capital of the kingdom of the Trees'. It has been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of a path for visitors and structural strengthening to stave of further deterioration.
Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars. The strange, haunted charm of the place entwines itself about you as you go, as inescapably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers', wrote a visitor 40 years ago and nothing much has changed today. I think this was my favourite of all. Leave plenty of time to walk through the ruins and soak up the atmosphere.
Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, was a fortified city enclosing residences of priest, officials of the palace and military, as well as buildings for administering the kingdom. These structures were built of wood and have perished but the remaining stone monuments testify that Angkor Thom was indeed a "Great City" as its name implies.
Bayon Wat, The giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. There are 37 standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism's compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII. Bayon was the Jayavarman VII's state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. It appears to be, and is to some degree, an architectural muddle, in part because it was constructed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion for over a century.
We saved the best till last and visited Angkor Wat so we could see it at sunset.
Angkor Wat អង is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The temple was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura យសោ, the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaivism tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation- first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia,appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors.
Be aware if you visit and want to climb to the top you have to be respectfully dressed this means covering knees and shoulders for men and women. They are very strict about this and because Andy had a vest top he was not allowed up. We were a little underwhelmed by it perhaps we were weary or templed out. It is very big and quite impressive but would probably recommend visiting at the beginning of the day, maybe at sunrise if you enjoy early mornings.
Our third day was a visit to a silk farm, where we could see the full process from worm to garmet. Very interesting and I now understand why silk is expensive, the process is very intensive and much can be done by machinery but much is still done by hand.
We then had a little bit of fun on the crazy golf field at Angkor Wat put, here you have to put the golf balls through various models of the temples.
We visited the night markets which are hundreds of stalls selling the usual sovenirs of silk scarves, cheesy garments and t;shirts plus arts and crafts. There is also a food market which is great value to eat at and an experince not to be missed, it also offers great people watching opportunities as the locals eat here with their families too.
10th and 11th November
We caught the bus to Battambang which takes 4 hours and cost $5 each. The bus is comfy with air con and stops for refreshments and toilet beaks.
Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city and one of our all-time favourite spots in Cambodia. A relaxed and laid-back town, Battambang is primarily a farmer and trader town, a refreshing change from far more touristy Siem Reap.
Set across the banks of the Sangker River, the bulk of the town's restaurants, hotels and attractions are to the west. It is a pleasant place to explore for a day or two on foot and forms a perfect base for trips into the surrounding area, where there's plenty to see and do.
We visited Phnom Sampov, a temple on top of the hillside underneath which is a cave where the Kmer Rouge took prisoners to be tortured and then thrown into the cave when they were finished.
There are several caves where bats live in the area and at sunset you can see them leave their roosting spots in the thousands so we stopped to watch, there are so many it just looks like a black river in the sky.
Dinner at Gecko Cafe - this cafe offers employment to young women whose families are poor to give them employability skills. The food is a little more expensive than other restaurants but is excellent quality with attentive staff and good ambience.
We visited several Pagoda's and saw some attractive colonial buildings along the river.
Sunday night we went to the Circus to watch a performance. The whole thing is run by a French NGO and supports youngsters who have suffered trauma, cruelty or orphaned to express there feelings through art and drama. The show we watched told the story of Cambodia's history before during and after the war, through acrobatics and circus skills. It was a great performance and very moving. The youngsters study for 3 years at the school and have travelled to France and Canada, where two members of the cast have been accepted to perform with the Cirque du Soleil.
Phnom Penh 13th to 15th November
Bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh takes six hours and cost $5 each. It is a long hot journey that seems to take forever with a constant sounding of the horn.
Once there we check into our hotel which is close to the meeting of the Tonle Sap river and the Mekong right in the middle of backpacker land.
Cambodia's capital retains much of its former colonial charm, with old houses along tree-lined boulevards.
The Khmer Rouge victorious in the war, entered Phnom Penh in April 1975. Although initially welcomed into the capital, they ordered all of the residents of the city to leave. The city was abandoned, looted and left to rot for nearly four years. It wasn't really until the early 1990s that the city truly began the process of rebuilding and recovering its past glory.
We had looked at top things to do in the City and one of the suggested items was to go to Flicks. This is a small cinema run from the top floor of a house, it offers some of the latest films and films in a foreign language too. It has seating for about 30 people in comfy couches ad the front row were beds. We watched a film called Savages .
The following day we hired a Tuk Tuk for the day to take us to
Section 21- Tuol Sleng Museum,
The prison officially known as "S-21" was established by the Khmer Rouge regime at the Toul Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh in May 1976. The classrooms were converted to prison cells with barred windows, while the open-air halls were covered with barbed wire to prevent escapes. Small individual cells were just large enough to hold one person, who was chained to the floor. People were held in large groups on the upper floors, chained to long iron bars.
People suspected of being against the Khmer Rouge government ("anti-angkar") as well as people believed to be educated or high-born were sent to S-21 for interrogation and ultimate execution. In all, estimates put the number of men, women and children killed at around 12,000. The KR were equally ruthless in documenting their atrocities. Every prisoner was photographed on arriving at the prison.
It's these pictures, hundreds of them, that form the bulk of the poignant exhibits. Room after room are filled with display boards covered with black and white photographs of numbered prisoners. When the Vietnamese captured the prison in January 1979, they found just seven prisoners alive and several others who recently died chained to the iron beds in the interrogation rooms. The graves of these poor souls can be seen in the courtyard in front of the buildings.
Once you get past the pictures, there are even more chilling things on display. One of the final rooms you pass through is a very real torture chamber, where some of the devices used to coerce confessions out of prisoners are shown and explained in far too much detail. Along side these is a case of skulls found in the mass graves operated by Section 21.
The Choeng Ek Genocide Centre (Killing Fields)
the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17km south of Phnom Penh, is the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over one millionpeople between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in their Tuol Sleng detention center.
Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in.
Tourists are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit Choeung Ek. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site.
finishing off at the Russian Market.
We walked along the river that evening, which was very pleasant.
On the second day we followed the map for a City Walking Tour, which took us to Wat Botum, where we saw over a hundred monks partaking in a ceremony and then eating, we were asked if we wanted to join in but did not want to intrude so watched from the side. We passed the Supreme Court building on our way to the Royal Palace, which unfortunately was closed because the country is in mourning for the former King. We spent some time at the National Museum which holds centuries of artefacts. We made our way to the Psar Thmey or Central Market,
Wat Phnom is in a large traffic circle at the north end of Norodom Boulevard is the temple hill that gave Phnom Penh its name. Legend has it that around 1372 a wealthy widow known as 'grandmother' Penh discovered five Buddha statues in the hollow trunk of a tree washed up on the banks of the river. She created a small sanctuary for the images on a mound near her home. The hill became known as Phnom Penh, literally, Penh's hill.
then into the colonial part of the city with it's Old Police Station and Central Post Office and finally walked back along the river to our hotel.
Tonight I went to a performance at the National Theatre, it was called the Passage of Life and showed Khmer celebrations and customs for Birth, Coming of Age, Marriage and Death. Very interesting watching the different costumes and musical instruments.
!5th and 16th November
Bus to Sihanoukville at 8.45am, takes 4 hours and cost $5 each.
This is a small seaside town that has suddenly seen an influx in tourists, and developed into a mecca for boozy, sunbathing backpackers, flashpackers and lonely old men looking for Khmer Wifes. We only stayed one night and then moved on. There are several beaches that line the west contour of the city from north to south are Victory Beach, Lamherkay Beach, Koh Pos Beach, Independence Beach, Sokha Beach, Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal Beach and Otres Beach. The most popular beaches are Ochheuteal, Sokha, Independence and Victory. The beaches get more deserted and nicer the further away you walk form the main town.
Kep 17th to 20th November
We caught a minibus from Sihanoukville which cost $7 each and should take 3 hours along the scenic coastal road. Instead our minibus broke down 10 mins out of town and we had to flag down another which cost us a further $5, eventually getting there in time for lunch.
Kep is the opposite, it is a laid back sleepy village with old world charm. It was the last strong hold of the Khmer Rouge as is evident by the large villa properties that have been left to decay. Some have been refurbished and the tourist are arriving back slowly. It is famous for peppered Crab and fantastic sunsets, which can both be experienced from seafront restaurants round the bay. It was here that we first saw the strangest picnic sites, hammocks strung up under wooden gazebos, where families gather for communal lunches at weekends and weekday evenings. We also saw the best sunsets we have ever seen so far in all our travels, very atmospheric and romantic. We spent most of our time here walking along the seafront and chilling. The people are so welcoming, friendly and genuinely helpful, nothing is too much trouble for them and they are very keen to please.
We also did a day trip Rabbit Island, which consisted of a local fishing boat taking us out to the island for the day where we swam in the sea, chilled in a hammock and ate lunch. Very nice and just what we needed as tomorrow we have a 10 hour journey to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.