Monday, 19 March 2012

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat
Referred to by many as 'the eighth wonder of the world', Angkor Wat, in the heart of Cambodia, has been written about so much that there's little I can add, except perhaps a personal perspective.  It is one of those places.  It features on many people's 'bucket list' - I know it did on mine.  Hear the name and you immediately have an image in mind of the iconic conical towers, maybe with a lotus flower filled lake in front of them.

Neither my husband nor I have any particularly deep interest in Hindu or Buddhist history or architecture.  We visited Angkor Wat, as I suspect most people do, with a superficial knowledge of what it is all about and armed with a guide book to fill in the gaps.

Crossing the bridge to Ta Prohm
When planning our trip to Cambodia, we debated about how many days we should set aside to explore Angkor Wat.  Many sources we consulted suggested that three days would be about right and up to seven wouldn't be too long if you had a particular fascination.  Wanting to maximise our 'beach time', we settled on three nights in Siem Reap, giving us two full days to explore the temples.  As it turned out, we did it in one day and spent the other shopping in town and relaxing by the roof top pool at our hotel.  I don't think we rushed it or missed anything.

So, what did we do in our day?  Well, our tuk-tuk driver ($15 for the day) picked us up from our hotel at 9am.  First stop after getting our tickets ($20 for a day pass) - Angkor Wat itself.  It was certainly impressive, but cheapened somewhat by the number of wedding couples, fashion models and tour brochure poseurs being photographed in national costume amongst the pillars and passageways of the first level!  We saw everything recommended in the guidebook and climbed to the top of the third level from where we got a great view of the surrounding countryside.  We had lunch at one of the many cafes in the grounds and resisted the temptations of the numerous souvenir sellers.
Kapok tree

Our next stop was at Bayon, part of the Angkor Thom complex, which we clambered up and over and through and photographed from every angle before walking over to Baphuon which is approached by crossing a 300 metre causeway.  Again, we took photos, but this time, i have to say, we didn't climb to the top.  From there, we walked along 'Elephant Terrace' which I was disappointed to discover wasn't made up of statues of elephants all along its length, but, instead, had them as supports at intervals.

After meeting up again with our tuk-tuk driver and having a cold drink, we were taken to our next two temples, Thommanon and Kraoi Romeas.  These were smaller than the previous ones with fewer steps to climb.
Our balloon

Our next stop was at Ta Prohm.  The world and his wife were there and we were stuck in a tuk-tuk jam for a few minutes!  We were dropped off at one entrance, walked through the temple complex, and were picked up at another.  Never having seen Tomb Raider (though I probably will now!), I wasn't prepared for the sight of the banyan and kapok trees growing through the temple walls.  It was quite incredible!  Consulting the guide book as we walked around, I discovered that Ta Prohm is known as the 'jungle temple' and has been used as the location for several films, most famously 'Tomb Raider' starring Angelina Jolie.  it was certainly my favourite temple!

From there, we were taken to Banteay Kdei, another impressive temple, the visit to which included a pleasant walk through woodland to a resevoir which Cambodian kings used to use for regattas, or, at least, that's what we were told!
Angkor Wat from the balloon

Our last scheduled stop of the day was at Phnom Batcheng, the highest temple in the area and the recommended spot from which to view the sunset.  The ascent to the viewpoint is best made by elephant (the unappealing alternative is to walk, but the path is so steep in places that you have to go on your hands and knees!).  Unfortunately, we arrived too late to secure a seat on an elephant, so we missed out.  Instead, we returned to where we'd begun the day - Angkor Wat - and went for a ten-minute 'ride' in a hot-air balloon which was tethered to the ground, but which, from 200 metres up, afforded great views of the temple and the surrounding countryside.

And so we returned to the hotel.  We feel that we saw as much as we wanted to.  For me, the Angkor temples, whilst incredibly impressive, are not as aesthetically beautiful as, say, the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids or any of the great cathedrals of the world.  They are, without doubt, a terrific testament to man's ingenuity and engineering skills and, if you manage to escape the crowds, they have a certain spiritual calm, but, for me, they won't merit a place in my top 20 'must-sees'!  Just call me a Philistine!

See all of our photos here.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Street scene, Siem Reap
Siem Reap appears to have developed largely to service the needs of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit nearby Angkor Wat every year.  By all accounts, it started with a few backpacker hostels and cheap eateries to cater for the intrepid travellers who found their way to the heart of Cambodia.  Now, however, there is a wide range of accommodation and dining facilities on offer to meet the varied demands of the wide range of tourists who visit.  The result is a delightful mishmash of a town which exudes a great atmosphere, particularly at night.  It provides the perfect base for exploring Angkor Wat and has something to suit all pockets.

We were in town for three nights.  We arrived by boat from Battambang and picked up a tuk-tuk driver at the dock to take us the 15km into town (it was the dry season so we weren't able to go as far up river as you can in the rainy season!).  Once there, we checked into our hotel and went for a wander around town.  We found a decent selection of shops with many more international products available than we have at home in Vietnam.  We whiled away an hour or so watching the world go by as we sipped on deliciously cold beer.
FCC, Siem Reap

For dinner on that first evening, we headed for the FCC.  We had had such a good experience at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Pehn (I wrote about it here), that we wanted to repeat it.  All I can say is that we shouldn't have bothered!  FCC Siem Reap is simply trading on the name of its authentic counterpart in the capital.  The food and service were but a pale imitation and the ambience was non-existent.  I wish we hadn't sullied our memories of the original!

Traditional dancers
For our other two evenings, we stuck to Pub Street which isn't nearly as tacky as it sounds!  What it is is an area of bars, clubs and restaurants covering two or three streets.  There is a huge range of cuisines on offer - everything from Indian to Italian to Indonesian.  Not having eaten Italian food since leaving Veneto last September, we were tempted by a restaurant offering home-made pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven.  We opted for the conventional toppings rather than the 'happy pizza' option which we were led to believe had a liberal sprinkling of cannabis resin on top!  We were not disappointed!  The pizza was almost up to the standard of Funghetto's, our local pizzeria in Ca' Savio.

On our last night in Siem Reap, we went to a Cambodian restaurant where, as well as fantastic food, we were treated to a traditional dancing show.  To eat, we ordered a mixed platter for two people which consisted of a range of curries, spring rolls and rice dishes served in banana leaves.  Every dish was fresh and tasty, but we particularly enjoyed amok, the local speciality.

Elephant statues by the river
Other than the restaurants and bars, Siem Reap has many other places where you can just sit and 'people-watch', not least along the riverside which makes for a pleasant walk punctuated by several benches placed beneath the trees where you can take advantage of the shade.  The night markets are also worth a look although, perversely, we actually found it better to visit these places early in the morning when not all the stalls were open but those that were seemed to be offering silly prices for being 'the first customer of the day'.  Whether or not this was just a line, we were happy with our purchases!
Dried fish at the market

Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Siem Reap and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if we find our way back there someday!

You can see more of my photos of Siem Reap here.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Battambang to Siem Reap (or vice-versa) by Boat

Dawn departure
When planning our two-week trip around Cambodia, it was important for me to include this journey as I'd read that it is the most beautiful boat trip in the country, but which direction to do it in?  I read one account which suggested it was better to go from Battambang to Siem Reap rather than the othern way.  It didn't really explain why, but I decided to follow the advice and I'm glad I did - it's definitely the best direction to do the journey in!  A boat is scheduled to leave each city at 7am every day.  By leaving from Battambang, you see the busiest part of the river at the busiest time of the day and you pass through all of the floating villages when the inhabitants are most occupied - fishing, cooking, cleaning, shopping, bathing, doing their laundry, etc.  Later in the day, there is much less to see as everyone is taking a siesta.

A boy and his boat!
The fare for the trip is $20 and it is scheduled to take anything from six hours to ten hours depending on the time of the year and the water levels.  We made the journey on January 20th, mid-way through the dry season, and it took eight hours.  The route is said to remain navigable year-round, but I really wouldn't want to make the trip any later in the season as, at times, the water level was incredibly low.  We had to inch our way through certain parts of the river and actually ran aground twice.  At one point, I was facing backwards taking a picture when I heard a warning shout and turned round just in time to be poleaxed in the chest by a very large branch as we ran aground!  No lasting damage, but I was seriously winded and sustained some colourful bruises!

House boats
The manager of our hotel in Battambang told us that the boat trip was very beautiful and memorable - he was right.  He also said that it was only for tourists and that no local person would use the boat - he was wrong!  What he should have said was that no local person would go the whole distance, but that many local people would use the boat to transport themselves, their shopping, their children, their animals, several sacks of rice and assorted cardboard boxes from the city back to their homes in the floating villages!

Daily life on the river
As I said, the boat is scheduled to leave at 7am and we were duly delivered to the landing stage (a very precarious and very long flight of metal steps leading from the top of the river bank to the water a long way below) by the hotel tuk-tuk at 6.50am.  We had our hotel-supplied packed lunch with us, had our tickets checked and were shown aboard.  Our case was thrown on the roof and we made our way past the rows of cramped, uncomfortable-looking seats for two in the boat's interior, to the benches at the back of the boat where we believed we would have more space, more air and would be better placed to take photos both to the sides and the rear of the boat.  Well, two out of three isn't bad!!  It was certainly airier with a nice breeze blowing across the back of the boat for the entire journey.  There were definitely plenty of photo opportunities, too, as 754 snaps in eight hours surely testifies to!!  As for the extra space, though, no .... this wasn't to be!  When we first boarded, all of the other western tourists occupied the seats inside and we were the only ones on the benches at the back, but, as the scheduled departure time came and went, more and more locals boarded and came to 'our' area.  By the time we finally left, at 7.45am, we had been squashed into a corner and were surrounded by several Cambodian families along with their shopping, their luggage and their food for the journey.
It must be the dry season!

For me, though, it turned out to be the best place to be.  The eight-hour journey whizzed by.  We were totally enthralled, not only by the activity on the river and its banks, but also by the goings-on inside the boat.  And, as people got off when we came to their villages, we were able to spread out and take full advantage of our position.
Floating village

A thoroughly enjoyable journey which I would recommend to anyone.  You can see the photos here. 

Top Tip: Take plenty of drinks and snacks with you as there is no opportunity to buy anything en route.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Bamboo Railway, Battambang, Cambodia

When I mentioned to a colleague that we would be visiting Battambang during our two-week trip around Cambodia, she told me about the Bamboo Railway and said it was worth a visit.  So, always keen to follow personal recommendations, we duly included it in our short stay in the city.

The railway was built across a rural area of central Cambodia to facilitate the transportation of rice, animals and other goods.  Now that roads and motor transport have superseded the railway for this purpose, it has become something of a bone-shaking tourist attraction.

Obviously, the narrow-gauge track isn't made of bamboo - that would be ridiculous - but the 'carriages' are.  These are flat bamboo platforms which sit on top of two sets of wheels.  The only concession to tourist comfort is a thin mat placed on the bamboo poles for you to sit on.  Each 'carriage' has a driver and is powered by a small motorcycle engine enabling it to reach a teeth-jarring 40km/hour.  When you meet an oncoming bamboo train, as you invariably will on this single-track railway, one of the parties has to 'give way'.  This means that the passengers have to get off whilst the drivers of the two trains lift the bamboo platform off the wheels and the wheeels off the track, place everything on the verge next to the rails, move the other train along the track, and then reassemble the original train so that both parties can continue on their way.  Time-consuming and not that practical as a mode of transport to rely on, but quite a novelty for the tourist!!

The whole Bamboo Train experience lasts for about an hour and costs $5.  You hurtle through paddy fields, over rickety bridges and across roads, sitting just a few inches above the tracks.  It's not the most comfortable ride you'll ever have, but nor is it as bad as I was expecting having listened to several accounts before embarking on the trip.

The journey takes you to a village where the people make a living from husking rice and supplement this by selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs to tourists.  After your pit-stop, you will return the same way you came.  A 'must-do' for the visitor to Battambang!

See some more photos here.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Battambang, Cambodia

I think we may have managed to spend a couple of days in Cambodia's second largest city without actually seeing it, but I don't mind because we'll definitely be back and next time we'll stay longer!

I included Battambang in our itinerary for our two-week trip around Cambodia because the guide book said it was little visited and that the French colonial architecture was like nowhere else in the country.  I was also seduced by the rave reviews on for a particular family-run hotel consisting of a few bungalows set around a small pool.  So, I booked the said hotel and, after spending a day or two in the capital, Phnom Pehn, we took the bus to Battambang.

We arrived hot and weary after a six-hour bus journey, just as it was becoming dusk.  We got off the bus into chaos as people crowded around.  There were those who were meeting friends and family, vendors trying to sell drinks and snacks (including whole, cooked chickens!) to the passengers who were continuing on the bus to Thailand, and tuk-tuk drivers who were competing for the fares to hotels.  As we were the only Westerners on the bus, competition for our patronage was fierce.  We settled on a friendly-looking driver with a reasonable command of English, Sokha, who offered to take us to our hotel for the princely sum of $1 (and that included him shouldering our not exactly lightweight case across several busy streets to where he'd left his vehicle!).
The pool at the Phka Villa Hotel

So, Sokha delivered us to the unprepossessing entrance of our hotel on a dusty street.  The first thing we noticed was the shocking-pink monstrosity which was the hotel next door, but, once through the gates of The Phka Villa Hotel, all our doubts disappeared.  It was a haven of peace and tranquility.  It was dark by now and the pool was beautifully lit with fairy lights, the bungalows hidden behind lush foliage and vivid tropical flowers.  After a much-needed complimentary ice-cold beer, we were shown to our bungalow which was clean, well-equipped and welcoming.  Not having the energy to head back in to town to find somewhere to eat (despite several recommendations in the guide book), we had dinner by the hotel pool and were delighted by the good food and calm, relaxing ambience.

After a good night's sleep and a leisurely breakfast, we had to force ourselves out of the hotel to do some sightseeing.  We could easily have stayed where we were all day!

However, force ourselves we did and it was well worth it.  We hired Sokha's services for a few hours.  He took us to the Bamboo Railway (which I blogged about here) and then on a tour of the countryside surrounding Battambang.  It was lovely.  We passed through paddy fields and rural villages where the children waved and shouted hellos.  We stopped twice.  The first stop was at a winery where we tasted Cambodian shiraz (an experience we won't be rushing to repeat!) as well as a brandy-type liquor and a ginger and honey drink which the owner assured us would guarantee weight loss.  If that's true, give me a tanker-load and I'll make my fortune!  The second stop was for lunch with the option to ascend a mountain to visit a temple and admire the view of the city.  We declined.  The lure of a cold beer by the pool was too tempting!
Sokha, our lucky tuk-tuk driver!

So, we asked Sokha to return us to our hotel where we spent the rest of the afternoon in and around the pool.  In the evening .... well we ate there, too!  It just seemed too much like hard work to do anything else!

The next morning, we had to leave Battambang very early.  The hotel staff arranged our onward boat tickets to Siem Reap and our transport to get to the boat, so we left the city without ever seeing the famed French architecture or sampling the other culinary delights the city had to offer, but, hey, I'm sure we'll be back!!

See photos of Battambang and its environs here.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Phnom Pehn

I felt rather let down by our visit to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in Phnom Pehn.  It cost $6.25 each to get in and, whilst not expensive by western standards, was the dearest place we visited in our entire trip around Cambodia.  For our entrance fee, we got to see some quite nicely laid out gardens and a collection of ornate buildings painted in rather garish colours.  We weren't allowed in to any of the buildings and some, including the highly praised Napoleon III Pavilion, were being renovated and so were covered in scaffolding and protective netting rendering them invisible to the visitor.  Large areas of the grounds were also out of bounds.  Perhaps we were just unlucky and on another day we may have seen more, but we were disappointed, both by what we saw and, more so, by what we didn't see.

You can see the photos of what we were allowed to see here.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Choeung Ek - Cambodia's Most Famous Killing Field

The Stupa
After our visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Petter, our tuk-tuk driver, took us straight to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre 15km south-east of Phnom Pehn.  This is the most famous of Cambodia's 300 or so 'killing fields', and the one that has become the national memorial to all those who died at the hands of the Pol Pot regime.

One or two people had suggested that it was a bad idea to go as it was a Japanese-owned commercial enterprise and had been given the 'Disney' treatment.  Nevertheless, we decided to visit and see for ourselves.  All I can say, Japanese-owned or not, is that I thought the place was very well presented and a fitting tribute to the victims.  I certainly didn't get any sense of it being a theme park.  On the contrary, I found it to be a contemplative and very moving experience.

The entrance charge is $2 per person which includes one of the best audio guides I've listened to anywhere.  The purpose of the site - to exterminate people - means that there were few buildings there to begin with and today nothing remains of them.  So, wooden markers have been placed at appropriate points around the site and the audio guide takes you from one to the next explaining what went on there.  These factual commentaries are interspersed with personal testimonies from families of victims and from former Khmer Rouge workers engaged in the grisly tasks committed there.

One of the markers
The markers around the site include the truck stop where victims were delivered to the killing fields, the point where the killing tools storage room was, the mass graves, and 'the killing tree' against which babies were battered to death.  Beating was the method of execution most commonly used in the killing fields and weapons included clubs, shovels, hammers and axe handles.
One of the first recordings on the audio guide tells the visitor how remnants of clothes, teeth and fragments of bone are still coming to the surface around the site, particularly during the rainy season.  Nothing quite prepares you, however, for the first time you realise that there is indeed a piece of fabric under your foot that is obviously part of a victim's clothing.  It certainly brings you up short!  There are glass cases around the site containing clothing, teeth and bones which have surfaced in recent times and visitors can be seen carefully placing newly discovered relics on top of these cabinets.

There is also an area around a lake which has been landscaped with paths, and visitors are invited to sit a while on one of the benches and listen to the audio guide or simply contemplate the echoes of past atrocities.  We did this and were fascinated to see that just beyond the fence marking the site boundary, families were tending their paddy fields as people in this region have been doing for generations.  I wondered how often they thought about the Pol Pot era and how that time had impacted on their lives.
Skulls in the Stupa

The tour of the killing fields at Choeung Ek begins and ends at the Memorial Stupa where the skulls and bones of victims are displayed.  It is a particularly chilling reminder to leave with if one were needed.  Visitors are offered the chance to lay a flower or light an incense stick in memory of the 20,000 people who died here as well as the three million or more victims in the country as a whole.  I, for one, think it's the least we can do.  We must never forget!

See more photos here.