As April was helplessly devoured by May, thus signalling the end of another month of our trip, so Vietnam was ruthlessly barged aside by Cambodia on our country-count. Whilst we had little expectations of the country, our two previous months spent in south east Asia gave us a fairly decent idea of what might await us: at least one city teeming with tuk-tuks and overflowing with hotels, bars, restaurants, temples and pagodas; a more pedestrian town/city offering the ‘chill-out’ part of the country, also overflowing with hotels, bars, restaurants and pagodas; and miles and miles of the greenest countryside interspersed with dusty old towns in between the two. We weren’t far off with our prediction, but there was still the element of the unknown.
We were far too experienced in Asian bus travel to worry, or care, about the type of bus or distance of the journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. Our only terms were that we had a seat and that the journey wasn’t in excess of 24 hours (something we weren’t afforded in Laos!). If these were met then there would be no grumbling from us. Our only reservation was regarding the Vietnam/Cambodia border, simply because every border we have been through so far has had different rules that may or may not apply on certain days and may or may not apply according to the border official’s mood, menstrual cycle or racial/ethnic prejudices. Despite our internet research on travel forums (largely because of the conflicting experiences of travellers, you just never know.
Fortunately this particular crossing went ahead with little disruption, not that that stopped us from worrying as we approached the border. We knew before we set off that the cost of a 30 day visa on arrival for Cambodia was $20 US and that occasionally officials would ask for more in a bid to catch travellers unaware. A local on the bus approached us, asking for $25 US and our passports so that they could speed-up the process of crossing and pocket the extra $5 US. Most of the people on the bus were surrendering to this fellow, however we had too many almosts and near-misses regarding theft and scams that we decided to do it ourselves.
The filling in the forms and handing over the money was easy enough, the only hindrance being that the people running the bus service were not keen to help us find the office for payment, after we refused to give them $5 US for something we could do ourselves. But we arrived on the other side with our passports stamped and our legal-alien status validated: onwards to Phnom Penh.
Our passage took us through the typical south-east Asian landscape of far-off mountainous regions and far-reaching flat green fields. We also very briefly boarded a ferry without having to disembark from the bus (cash-back) and we arrived in the capital city at approximately 2pm. We were met by a rabble of drivers desperate to have us in their tuk-tuk, and we agreed to be shown around a few hostels by the least annoying of them.
The place we settled on was certainly the best of a ‘decent’ bunch (refer back to my last few HCMC posts for the south-east Asian definition of decent) and whilst it didn’t have air-con, it at least had a bar directly below us serving draught beer for 39p. Every cloud, eh?
We did little that same day but unpack and forage for food later that night. Our mission to discover a night food market outsideof Thailand came to another unsavoury end. The ‘market’ was more of a street crossing with locals cooking outside their houses. We sampled some skewered meat that could well have been anything; it’s probably best not to know.
The next day brought us a full afternoon of sightseeing once we had run a few money related errands. It turns out ATM’s in Cambodia do not dispense their own currency of Cambodian riel, only US dollars; apparently their own money is not good enough. Not that I have anything against US dollars. The problem is that we were dispensed $50, sometimes $100 notes, making it extremely difficult to use the money for the smaller, everyday purchases like tuk-tuks and street food. Luckily, a Sacombank branch was at hand to assist.
The National Museum of Cambodia’s fascia was far more interesting (to us at least) than what was contained inside. With its fiery red colour and Chinese design, it looked more like the residing place of a mythical being than the resting place of numerous relics. The no-photo rule employed prevents me from showing you any of the museums contents so you’ll just have to take my word for its relative interestingness.
The Royal Palace and its accompanying temples, pagodas and monuments however was far more engaging. A large complex of buildings which makes up the most popular tourist attraction in the city, the Royal Palace has been home to the country’s reigning monarch since its construction in the late 19th century. It houses the current king in an area closed off to the public, but the areas we saw were brimming with grandeur and unlike the museum, it offered us some spectacular photo opportunities as the bright-blue, cloudless sky provided a spectacular backdrop.
After a hard day at work exploring the city, we thought it only right that we reward ourselves with an early evening drink and a deliciously sweet and cavity-making cake. While I conservatively ordered the chocolate cake, I looked on in envy as Jo triumphed with a heavenly-soft blueberry cheesecake that tasted sweeter and richer with every mouthful. We followed-up our ‘rest’ with a dinner at the hostel accompanied by a few more 50 cent beers. Regular readers will confirm that we like making cheap-booze related memories, and Cambodia was no exception.
The next day we had put aside for a visit to the Choeung Ek Centre of Genocide, about 10 miles from Phnom Penh. The centre is a memorial site for those who suffered at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge: the political party led by Pol Pot that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. The Killing Fields, as the site is commonly known, was formerly used as a graveyard for local Chinese-Cambodians but was partially destroyed by the Khmer Rouge when it was earmarked as a sort of concentration camp for ‘dissenters’.
It is difficult to say that the people sent to the camp actually were ‘dissenters’ to the party. From what I’ve learned, political preference didn’t really come into it. Essentially, if you hailed from the city, were educated, owned a company or indeed worked for a company, were ‘urbanated’ or were influenced by capitalism in anyway, you were sent to Choeung Ek and killed. Pol Pot had a dream of a communist Cambodia fuelled by agriculture. The only problem was his dream turned into a very real nightmare for most of the population.
I won’t go into the grisly and ghastly details of what happened here. Anyone with any knowledge of the Nazi atrocities toward Jews and Europe’s ethnic minorities between 1938 and 1945 will have a pretty good idea anyway. But the experience visiting the site was one I will always remember. I’ve not visited Auschwitz myself, but I imagine anyone who has visited both would recount similar experiences. It is a peaceful place, which is both strange and assuming at the same time. It should be a peaceful setting, providing the locale with serenity following its history of horror. Yet as you wander the site, plugged into an audio commentary as well as primary and secondary accounts of what happened, you kind of feel as though you should witness the actual horrors that took place here, if only to do justice to those people who were needlessly killed in the most inhuman of ways.
Of all the museums, monuments and historical sites we have been to on our travels (and indeed in my entire life) I can think of no other place as well organised or as well set up to help educate visitors. Because the tour is given under headphones, visitors are led around the site and informed at various stages as to its significance. No one is speaking, no one is rushing and no one is disturbed from the serenity that comes from remembrance. Even the nearby school that was in recess did nothing to detract from the experience. It only stood to symbolise that despite what happened here and whilst the country will never forget, life goes on. A beautiful, respectful and professional mix.
Whilst we walked about the site, the sun beamed down giving us a perfect day of subdued memorial however the 40 minute tuk-tuk ride back to Phnom Penh was accompanied by a sudden outburst of rain, prompting the driver to pull up and roll down the waterproof sides of the vehicle. Once we were back in Phonm Penh we were taken to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, hopping over puddles as we ran to the ticket booth for shelter from the downpour. This is the site where prisoners under Khmer Rouge control were kept before being taken to the killing fields, known at the time as Security Prison-21 or S-21. It was in fact used as a high school before the Khmer Rouge took the city.
The complex constituted three large buildings in a C-shape, each three storeys high and contained rooms, some of which still housed the beds and torture devices of the Khmer Rouge, whilst others were turned into museums showing before and after pictures of detainees (the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their documentation and record keeping, which made for a more haunting and real experience).
The combination of where we had just been and the thunder storm that had greeted us at S-21 made for what I thought was a more poignant experience. It was as though the mood of the day’s sightseeing was being reflected in the weather and it had the added effect of enhancing our experience.
The next day we were due to leave Phnom Penh and head west across the country. It was not only the capital and its surrounding areas that suffered at the hands of Pol Pot; the whole country was torn apart and no spot of Cambodian soil went undisturbed. While we took rest and dinner later that evening, our thoughts kept drifting back to the places we had been that day. Despite our need to move on, I can say with some confidence that the day’s experiences and the things we learned will never be forgotten. It brings into perspective how fortunate we are to be able to visit such places and move on freely as and when we please, even with the inconvenience of border control. Some people, not so long ago remember, were never that lucky.
We had been in Cambodia for no more than three days before we left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, yet we had come to the half-way point of our time in the country. When we first began to plan the Asian leg of our trip in the dark winter of months ago, we allowed ourselves two weeks to get from one side of the country to the other. This was still our allocated time up until Thailand where- between one sun-soaked day on a beach in Phuket and another in Koh Phangan- we came to the decision to fit a cross country trip from one side of Laos to the other, thus compromising one of the weeks set aside for Cambodia.
Whilst it was a fairly straight forward decision in the end, it took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to successfully iron out the details. The original plan was to allocate our two months in south-east Asia thus (in direction of travel):
two weeks in Thailand;
two weeks in Cambodia;
and two weeks in Vietnam.
Once we had made it to Vietnam’s Hanoi, we were expecting to jump on a plane and hop the South China Sea to Hong Kong for a week before returning to Bangkok. As it turned out, flights were significantly cheaper to and from Bangkok.
At the same time, a few things had happened and a few decisions were made as a result. We spent a bit longer than two weeks enjoying Thailand’s southern beaches that we had to find a third week from somewhere. With a distant eye on our sojourn in the southern hemisphere, we came to the decision, on behalf of our budget, that we should spend longer than planned in Asia where accommodation was cheap, and the Pad-Thai plentiful. After more to-ing and fro-ing with STA, we managed to put back our flight from Bangkok to Sydney by 11 days, giving us an extra week and a half to revel in the “cheap cheap”.
As well as this, we were planting the seeds of a planned trip to the north of Thailand; an area we had not originally scheduled to see. The reason for the detour was the news that Teckael (Tom, Becky and Michael) would be crossing the Laos-Thai border and spending a few days in Chiang Mai. As this would be the only chance to meet up with three of them, we decided two weeks was just about enough to lay dormant on sunny sands, and we made the arrangements to travel north. The logistics of being in the northern Chiang Mai meant it would be more convenient to visit Laos, as well as using it as passage to Vietnam where our original plan could resume, just in reverse order (I hope you’re still with me! Here’s an artists representation of our Original Route):
So to conclude, we gained a week by pushing our Sydney flight back, but used it up by spending an third week in Thailand. We then gave up a week in Cambodia- partly on the advice of Teckael who had been through the country already, and partly because we would be booking a flight to Hong Kong on or around 9th May- which we used to see the northern cities/towns of Laos (See our Actual Route below):
And that’s why, dear reader, we only had one week to see Cambodia. I know you didn’t ask, but it will save you asking why we didn’t simply give ourselves more time in the country.
So, the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap only took about six hours. If Cambodia had so far not endeared itself to us for its city hospitality, we were at least thankful for its short inter-city travel. Phnom Penh offered historical buildings of grandeur and fascinating cultural insights, yet we were not exactly charmed by its cleanliness or engaging population, so when we first got a glimpse of Siem Reap, we breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief: buildings that were no more than five storeys high and decorated in the finest French-colonial style, and possibly more importantly: a room with air-conditioning.
We chose our room at the hotel to which we were brought, but before we settled down we discussed our plan of action for the next day with the tuk-tuk driver who had brought us. We had read into the Angkor Archaeological Park, which was the undisputed number one sight-seeing attraction of Cambodia (and quite possibly south-east Asia too), and as it spans 400 kilometres of open and forested land, it is quite possible to spend a week visiting the vast array of temples and still not quite see it all. We, had naively set aside one day.
The tuk-tuk driver discussed which temples were the best to see in just one day as well as the best times to visit and we arranged to wake long before the crack of dawn the next day in order to get the best possible experience. The rest of the day we spent orientating, enjoying the thriving bars and shops of ‘Pub Street’ (a French word, I think) before crossing the river by the quaint set of bridges that took us to the quieter part of town.
Whilst we were discovering that accommodation in Cambodia was costing us a bit more per-night than it had in other parts of Asia (a shocking £2 increase per night…the horror!) we (or at least I) were at least happy to discover that we were paying less for beer: 50 cents for a draught that was not quite a pint, yet was significantly more than a half. Or in British pub terms: 65p for a pint and a bit.
With the disturbing knowledge of a 4am alarm set, we took our best advice and went to an early bed. As always seems to be the case when you wake at such a ridiculously dark hour, you never feel as tired as you should and we both sprang from our beds, wolfed down our cereal and bound into the tuk-tuk with the eagerness of a pixie jumping into its pixie-carriage on its way to its pixie-high school prom (analogy to be taken with a pinch of salt).
Before we could enter the park, we had to buy a pass and the passes were available in one, three and seven day formats. With our limited schedule, we could only allow for one day so we paid the $20 fee where our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off before jumping back on board and racing through the forest path in almost pitch black. Beyond the trees to the east, we saw the first glows of sunrise peeking through and it was not long before we had arrived at the parks flagship temple: Angkor Wat.
The sky began to bleed a reddish-orange, giving the ruinous landscape a beautiful tinge but the Wat was not yet in view; just the initial gate and surrounding wall. We were so caught up taking photos of this scene which was mirrored in the moat’s still waters that we almost forgot that this was not the main attraction, so we hurried through the perimeter gate before Angkor Wat revealed itself, dominating the scarlet sky as teems of tourists stared in awe (through lenses) at its ancient magnificence.
In a matter of minutes the sky had completely changed colour, through orange and red and deep purple, to a sort of faded lilac that hung about the Wat for a while. We took photos from various angles before approaching the temple for a closer look. The Wat was vast and labyrinthine inside- easy to lose one’s partner without really trying(!)- and the 6am stroll about the grounds made for a more ethereal experience. It is somehow more apt to view such a place in the grey and quiet of the early morning, as if by getting up early enough you can glimpse the past of its greatness before the modern world awakes.
We returned, well and truly impressed, to the tuk tuk driver who was clearly starving and he took us for breakfast at one of the eateries in the complex. Second -breakfast (for us at least) was taken before heading off to see more temples. We were dropped off at the Bayon which was the second most impressive ruin we saw that day. If anyone has seen Angelina Jolie rolling around in hot-pants in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, you may find this temple familiar. Then again, you might not have paid a blind-bit-of-notice to the Angkor architecture. I’m sure your eye was too busy chasing images far Jolier than thou.
We walked about the grounds of Bayon and then took in the other ruins of smaller temples, monuments, towers, walls, gates and sentry posts. They were all mightily impressive in their own right and there is no doubt that it was a worthwhile visit, but the early start was beginning to get the better of us and we began to flag in the searing late morning/midday heat. A few water breaks later interspersed with some more hauntingly and Labyrinth-esque temples- including one in particular, Ta Prohm I think, that was intertwined with bulging trees that wound around the stone, as if over time the two had joined into one- we had to call it a day.
We made it back to the hotel around 2pm and subsequently slumped into slumber. I will not say the park was not the gem of Asia that so many claim it to be, but I will say that it is the most trying. How some people spend two days there, never mind a week, I don’t quite know.
We had hoped before we came to Siem Reap to pay a brief visit to Battambang, which was recommended to us by Becky who told us the bamboo railway was worth a ride. Unfortunately we did not make it that far. We had one eye on our impending flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong which we had booked ourselves as an internal flight (i.e. not on our original ticket) and we were desperate not to miss it. After Angkor, we had one more day before we had to be in Bangkok.
It was either leave the same day as Angkor and have a night stay in Battambang at the risk of there not actually being a bus from Battambang to Bangkok, or just stay in Siem Reap and leave with plenty of time to get to the Thai capital; a journey about which we had received various and conflicting time-scales. When we considered our history of border-control and the potential problems that can arise, we decided to play it safe, booking a bus to take us across the border from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Sorry bamboo railway; we may never see your golden tracks.
I mentioned borders at the beginning of my last post, Cambodia Part 1: Pagodas & Pol Pot, and how despite the unhelpful bus operators, the crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia was fairly stres free. This one didn’t go quite as smoothly. As all Asian buses tend to do, this one stopped every 20 minutes for a pee-stop or a swap-stop or whatever the hell they do, but when it got to the Cambodia border, the doors opened with no one telling us anything. This was probably in part to the driver not being able to speak a single word other than Cambodian so we took it to mean “were here, you can disembark”.
Not knowing whether the same bus would carry on through the border and pick us up on the other side we took our bags and belongings with us as we approached the departure office. This was a simple act of waiting in line until an official stamped your passport before moving through to Thai immigration. Again, a simple waiting game, followed by a shiny new stamp.
But once we were on the other side, it was anyone’s guess as to where we were supposed to wait and who was supposed to pick us up. As most of the group form the bus were headed for Bangkok, we stuck together hoping that an empty bus would spot its missing cargo looking scared and timid outside a few dusty shops. Eventually, a bus did pull up but we all seemed to have different stickers (given to us earlier on the bus), even though most of us were headed for the same place. And when Jo and I were told to go on a different bus to most of the group, we really started to worry when one of the girls going solo was not going to Bangkok.
But, as we’ve come to learn in Asia, sometimes you’ve just got to suspend your doubts and hope that someone knows what’s going on. Luckily someone did, and that evening we arrived on Khao San Road in Bangkok and hunted down the cleanest and best air-conditioned room for the cheapest price: decent, you might call it. We were on a busy road that was lively through the early hours but our stay was just for one night as we were due at the airport the following day. Thanks to our chosen method of travel to Hong Kong, we could breathe a sigh of relief that we would never again have to travel uncomfortably by bus whilst simultaneously worrying about our passage into the next country. Unless they discover the smuggled, illegal contents of my rucksack…