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Cambodia : The Road to Battambang

Thursday, 11th September 2008

As much a destination (it turned out) as a travel route, we believe that the road to Battambang deserves a special mention. The 178km trip was suppose to have kicked off at 07:30 on Wednesday morning, but because of torrential downpours overnight and the central part of Siem Reap temporarily being transformed into a large network of interlinked swimming pools, we only left town well after 09:00.

Once on our way we quickly realised that the ‘Boulevard of broken backsides’, as the guidebook refers to it, was going to live up to it’s reputation. Being a gravel road is one thing, but this was one of the most badly maintained strips we’ve come across. Despite this being a major road link between Cambodia and Thailand, it’s rumored that an undisclosed airline group is paying off Cambodian government officials to delay plans to improve the road in order to maintain a high turnover in international flights between the two countries. Nice.

OK, so the road was bumpy, big deal, but like we’ve mentioned before, Cambodia is as flat as you could imagine. During our very limited travels through this fine country we’ve seen only the occasional blimp on the horizon, which means that when the water comes, it’s got nowhere to go. And with last night’s downpour, the water was already there waiting for us..

About 2 hours into the rattle we started experiencing ever more serious incidents of aqua planing on the muddy surface. The bus driver – even though he had a disturbingly chronic head twitch – seemed to know what he was doing and repeatedly managed to bring the slightly sideways bus back under control and re-aligned with the road.

We also seemed to be encountering more and more unfortunate drivers,  mostly heavy goods vehicles, who had not managed to pick the best line through the testing road surfaces and got helplessly stuck in the mud. Eventually we reached a point where we could go no further because of a apparent gridlocked situation up ahead. Climbing out of the bus one could see a line of cars and trucks disappearing into the distance, all trying to pass each other and work their way around stranded vehicles.

After a while a few Caterpillar road-scrapers magically appeared out of nowhere and started to clear up the mess. It was impressive to see how the drivers of the big Cats managed to pick out the busses and trucks in most peril, tug them out of the mud and skillfully skim off the worst of the mud on the road around them. After a mere three hours of watching and waiting for the road to clear, the oncoming traffic slowly started to move again and before long we were on our way, finally arriving at 17:25.

Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, is completely unimpressive and despite the guidebook’s use of words like ‘charm’ and ‘linger’ we were hard-pressed to find much to write about. We got a hotel, had dinner and left the next morning.

The remaining 124km to the Thai border presented slightly better conditions compared to the previous day’s trip, and we were luckily not to have any further traffic-jam incidents. The transition at the Thai border was fairly slick and within an hour or so we were on our way again. Having switched to the left-hand side of the road, and now cruising in a swanky new mini-bus (we were in a real old rattler up until then), we were doing 120km/h on a massive dual-carriage way virtually all the way to Bangkok. A starker contrast in road conditions will be hard to find anywhere else.

Cambodia : Siem Reap / Angkor

Tuesday, 9th September 2008

A relatively easy bus ride from Phnom Penh got us to Siem Reap at about 2pm on Saturday. We didn’t want to spend too much time looking for a hotel so we went with one of the 1st ones we came across. The afternoon was spent strolling through the small central part of town visiting the market and making use of the many but-1-get-1-free draft beer offers advertised at bars and restaurants situated on a short strip affectionately known as ‘Bar Street’.

The main reason for coming to Siem Reap, and Cambodia really, is of course to see the fabled Temples of Angkor. About 6km north of town lies a mystical, other-worldly place that is simply impossible to describe. Cambodia, for the most part, is as flat as they come as far as topography is concerned, but this area is covered with thick jungle and beautiful tall trees. Seemingly out of nowhere rise these impressive structures that look dated and weathered in such an authentic and mythical way that one would guess they were built to look like that. But they have been shaped and worn by nature over centuries during a time when they were forgotten by civilization.

The hundreds of temples that survive today is a fraction of what once formed the vast capital of the ancient Khmer empire, systematically built under order of the Cambodian devaraja (god-kings) between the 9th and 13th centuries. Rediscovered in the 1860s, Angkor Wat (the name of the most well-known temple, but one which has come to represent the whole area) was reintroduced to the world and, as a result of intense interest over the following years, a massive project was undertaken at the start of the 20th century to systematically clear away centuries of vegetation & jungle that was slowly busy devouring the sacred buildings. Only interrupted by the war during the 1970s, the project has made great strides in rebuilding the ancient structures and restoring them to a level that approaches their original grandeur.

To get the most out of our visit we set aside 3 days for visiting Angkor’s temples. The pricey entry fee for a 3-day pass was a sting, but worth every penny. On the first morning the alarm clock went off at 4:15am – we rented bikes and cycled the 6km-odd to the temple of Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise – absolutely breathtaking! Being the main attraction of all the temples it was absolutely packed with people, but they soon thinned out after the oranges & reds of the morning sun started to fade away.

To give you an idea, Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, surrounded by a moat which more closely resembles a sizable river. The central structure has three pyramidal levels, surrounded by large galleries and corridors each one enclosing a square, culminating in a 55m high central tower. The rock walls are covered with detailed carvings and the outer enclosure is surrounded by an 800m-long series of intricately carved bas-reliefs.

We spent about 2-3 hours inspecting the halls and walls of Angkor Wat before moving on to Angkor Thom, an ancient fortified city another couple of kilometers north. The city’s square perimeter is marked by a 12km wall, 6m high and 8m thick all the way around. As we slowly cycled towards the entrance, the huge structure of the southern gate started to appear from behind the trees lining the road. We parked the bikes and spent close to an hour gazing and snapping away at the carvings of 4 enormous faces (said to be that of Avalokiteshvara) on top of the gate and the dozens of larger-than-life-sized figures lining the bridge across the moat. It’s difficult to explain what this place is really like, so we’re hoping that our photos will paint a better picture.

Once inside the city’s confines, the first temple en-route and built exactly in the centre, is Bayon, which is perhaps the most impressive to look at from a distance and came to be one of our favourites. Remember the Avalok-something fellow we mentioned earlier? Well this temple has a massive 216 of these same Mona Lisa-like smiling faces carved out of rock spires on all 4 sides, each one being at least 3m high. With 1,200m of bas-reliefs and more than 11,000 figures carved out of walls lining a maze of alley ways and corridors this place is simply amazing.

After that we dropped by the temple of Baphuon, the Terrace of Elephants, & The Leper King, as well as a few others inside the city walls – all of which were magnificent in their own right.

Moving out of Angkor Thom, a lengthy visit to Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed temples in the area, took up most of the afternoon. This temple has been left just as it was found about 150 years ago where massive trees are slowly winding their roots in between the rocky structures, making for surreal scenes resembling that of an Indiana Jones movie set (parts of Tomb Raider was actually filmed here).

Just before sunset we made our way back to Angkor Wat for the last light of the day and some more photographs, but a cloudy horizon spoilt things a bit. Cycling back to town in the dark we realised that we had been going at it for 13 hours straight with hardly a break.. and that was only the first day.

To spare you the agonising details, the abridged version of the subsequent days follows: We never made it back for sunrise again (we simply couldn’t get ourselves to set that alarm clock again), but we had various return trips to most of the temples mentioned above, as well as a string of additional ones. Honourable mention to Preah Kanh & Ta Som. If pressed for time when you’re here – and trust us, you have to come here – don’t bother with Phnom Bakheng or Preah Neak Pean.

Day three saw a very quick visit to the ruins as the weather started moving in and after only 2 or 3 hours we scurried back to the bikes and only just made it into town before the heavens opened. That night, as before, we enjoyed great food at good prices – try an ‘Amok’ of any kind when next in these parts (coconut based curry-like soup).

It was up early again for our 07:30 bus pick-up for the short-haul trip to Battambang. Famous last words..

For all Angkor Temples click here (Angkor Wat below).

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Cambodia : Phnom Penh

Sunday, 7th September 2008

No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to the well known Killing fields and the notorious S-21 prison, so we insisted on starting our one-and-only day in the capital by checking those off our to-do list.

Between 1975 and 1979 almost 2 million Cambodians died in a holocaust-like fashion as a result of the insane revolution implemented by the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of the ruthless leadership of Pol Pot (fitting name for such a pig!). Most of the country’s educated were relocated to the countryside and tortured to death or executed. Anyone who spoke a foreign language or even wore spectacles were captured and killed in Pot’s efforts to convert Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated, agricultural machine.

The cheapest option of getting out of town to the Killing Fields is a motorbike, so we flagged one down, both got on the back and made the 16km trip out of town with our driver. A memorial stupa has been erected in the middle of this relatively small area which contains a total of 129 mass graves, some of which are still untouched. The stupa itself holds a massive amount of human skulls which serves as a reminder of the crimes against humanity.

We walked around for a while taking in the somber atmosphere, but quickly made our way all around the enclosed areas. Because of a lack of government funding the site is in dire need of attention as most of the area is exposed to the elements and little attention is given to the upkeep of this extremely important monument. The dilapidated state makes one feel almost hard-done by even for the measly ‘$2’ entrance fee, but it’s a must-see never the less when in the area.

To our disgust we realised that getting a ride back to town was going to prove a little more difficult. All the bike and tuk-tuk drivers parked outside were waiting for the return of the tourists they had brought from town, and as our driver was long gone (having only arranged for a one-way drop off) we were stranded. Walking back to the main road in the hope of finding another willing bike-rider, an Irish couple, on the back of a tuk-tuk, stopped and kindly offered us a lift to town. As it happened they were also on their way to the S-21 museum.

Tuol Sleng, or ‘Security Prison 21’ (S-21) as it was called under Pol Pot’s regime, is a disused high school which got converted into the country’s largest centre for detention and torture in the mid-70s. At it’s peak the prison claimed a staggering average of 100 victims per day. Those who did not die during interrogation were sent to the Killing fields for execution.

Sobering prison mug-shots of victims and a lot of photos of tortured and mutilated bodies are on display. Some of the exhibits are very simple with only a single iron bed in the middle of a large room, paired with a gruesome photo on the wall of one of the victims chained to the same bed. Much like our lasting impression of Auschwitz, we were left with a dark view of man-kind’s ability to simply disregard life after experiencing all that the museum had to offer.

The Russian market was our next stop for the day, but we spent little time there as it proved to be quite commercialised (in a Western sense) and a little less interesting than some others we had recently visited. We got a comfy tuk-tuk ride to the Royal Palace after grabbing a quick lunch, but got a bit of a sting with the comparatively inflated entrance fees.

The Palace grounds are in fine condition and is in stark contrast to the dilapidated Killing Fields & S-21. Each building is laced with the finest gilding in gold & white and extravagantly decorated inside. It’s the official residence of the King and Queen so large parts are off-limits to the public, but there are loads of space to roam around. The Palace is a beautiful and calm place with many visiting Buddhist monks snapping photos of their favourite spots. We were lucky enough to meet up with Phillipe and Karine again – the French Canadian couple we met during our Mekong Delta tour (see photo below) – and this time remembered to exchange particulars.

Our timing was perfect, because just after arriving back at our hotel the rains started to come down. We only had one day in the capital so we had to pack in the sights, but they were all worth it and we thoroughly enjoyed the day. To close it off we had dinner at a little restaurant/bar on the river where loads of expats (all with serious tattoos) seemed to congregate. Openly smoking grass in restaurants seems to be completely acceptable here..

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For Killing Fields & S-21 click here.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Cambodia, Vietnam : Mighty Mekong Delta

Thursday, 4th September 2008

The pickup was at 08:00 to start our Mekong Delta 3 day/2 night trip. The Mekong Delta is the area around the Mekong river that connects Vietnam with Cambodia and is famous for floating markets selling fruits and vegetables.

The first day of the tour was packed with lots of really interesting things and beautiful boat rides. It took 2 hours on the bus from Saigon to My Tho City where we got a motorized boat along the river to a little island where we stopped to taste some tropical fruit at a local orchard. From there we got into rowing boats and cruised through small canals, full of coconut trees, and stopped off to taste some honey tea and coconut treats at a honey farm in the forest. They served a light lunch there and afterwards we cruised further to a village where they make a living producing coconut candy in a small local factory. Later that afternoon we arrived in Chan Tho and our group checked into a little hotel. We had some free time for dinner, so we decided to do our own thing and walked into town where we found a nice little restaurant with a balcony overlooking the riverfront and busy street-front.

Very early the next morning our bus left at 07:00 after a quick, very basic breakfast at the hotel, to visit the famous Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets – the biggest in the Mekong Delta. We were taken to the markets by boat and it was fascinating to see how a whole family live on a small boat and make a living selling fruits or vegetables to other boats. It was a bit disappointing that it was more of wholesale operation and very different from the small, colourful boats you always see on pictures. Also, we were hoping to actually buy something, but that was not possible because we only stayed on the sidelines.

We spent about 1 hour slowly cruising through the 2 markets and then visited a small home factory where they make rice noodles in the back yard. After lunch we headed to Chau Doc and stopped at a crocodile farm where they actually only breed the crocodiles for their skin and meat. You can walk around, choose a crocodile and they will kill it for you – all included in the price (the price being a secret we were told).

In Chao Doc we had time to visit the Sam Mountain (just a small hill really) and enjoy the beautiful view from the top of the rice fields after having a walk through the Queen Lady Temple. Our hotel was situated a little outside town, so our bus dropped us at a local restaurant in town and most of the group stayed there to enjoy their famous fish hotpot dish (which Marizanne ordered and it was delicious!). We were about 20 people in the gourp and we met a really nice French Canadian couple, Phillipe and Karine, from Quebec. The bus then took us back to our hotel where we had no aircon with only a pathetic little fan mounted on the wall. Again, it was terribly hot, so the fan did very little to help and we were very happy to get out the next morning for breakfast.. slightly dehydrated.

After breakfast we took another boat trip to a floating village where they spesialise in fish farming. We then stopped to visit a Cham monority village where they weave traditional scarfs and sarongs. Unfortunately that brought our sightseeing to an end and we boarded the boat again for a 3 hour trip to the Cambodian border.

A girl from the travel company took all our passports and went ahead by motorbike to sort out our visas, so by the time we arrived at the border, we already had the visas and Vietnamese exit stamps in our passports. Passport control on the Cambodian side was very quick and we then took the boat again for the last 4 hours. The boat was very basic with nothing but a local women selling drinks and snacks and a small toilet, so we were very glad to finally get off it, but then we still had to take a 1.5 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh. The bus station was at the lake side, but all the hotels and guest houses seemed a little too dodgy for our liking, so we took a tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) into town where we found a nice enough small and quiet hotel. A good end to an great, but exhausting few days in the delta.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.