Sunday 2nd December to
Siam Reap, Cambodia
My flight out of Phuket is at 6am so like the good traveller I am I arrive 3 hours before. Having checked my bag in I’m told security doesn’t open for another 1 hour 30 minutes! So much for arriving early!
I arrive in Siam Reap at 735am and after a very quiet trundle through the sleepy airport and having purchased my US $30 visa (valid 30 days) I step out into the Cambodian countryside. Wow, after Phuket it’s very quiet. There are no buses so I prepay for a tuk tuk and one shortly arrives to take me into town. Hello Mr Ben (tuk tuk drivers name), Hello Sir how are you? Can I interest you in a ride around the temples? This I find out is the cry of the Siam Reap tuk tuk driver. No matter where you are, if you catch eye contact that’s the question of the moment! However, it still being day 1 and I’m suffering a bit with the dog bite I decline and we head off to my hostel of choice. Good news is it’s in a quiet part of town away from the central bustle and Pub Street, bad news I’m about to spend the next 3 days sleeping or lying in bed feeling like crap.
On the 3rd day the hotel manager sends me in the hostel tuk tuk to an English speaking Doctor who diagnoses me with Cellulitis, a skin infection that is dangerous if not caught early enough. He prescribes me with stronger antibiotics and instructs me to reopen the wound and apply an antiseptic cream.. This obviously does the trick as that very night my swollen forearm explodes in a yellow volcano of putridness. I manage to squeeze about half a pint of the foul smelling stuff out of my arm with a further smaller discharge the next morning.
So, on the road to recovery I stay around the poolside and make 1 foolish mid day trip into town thinking I am well enough. I wasn’t and only lasted 2 hours before returning poolside. But I did see a couple of modern temples whilst out.
Siam Reap is the gateway to the Ankor Wat temple complex and this has turned the city into one of the world’s premier travel destinations. More than one million travelers visit Siem Reap every year to explore over a thousand years of Khmer heritage built near Tonle Sap Lake, the foundation of the economic power of the ancient Cambodian empire.
The primary attraction for visitors to Siem Reap is the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple Region, which blankets more than 300km of northwestern Cambodia. The Angkor Temple Complex has been designated a UN Heritage Site and consists of hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century that tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. This vast collection of historical structures are decorated with intricately carved, priceless Khmer artwork and that provide an archaeological and a pictorial history of an empire that ruled much of southeast Asia for five centuries. Structures range from partially renovated temples, pagoda and imperial residences to recently discovered ruins which are virtual untouched for the last 500 years.
By Friday 7th I’m feeling much better and decide to take an evening at the circus as a prelude to my temple stomping. I purchased a whole seat for the show but only needed the edge as I clapped and grinned along with everyone else to the madcap, boisterous and highly entertaining skits of the local tumblers, jugglers and trapeze artists as they told the story of hapless tourists visiting Cambodia! Wow!
Back at the hostel I bump into Ivar, a Swedish traveller who I’d spoken to previously and we got chatting again. We’re joined by Camila and Nicolas a couple from Chile, Karo a Polish girl and Marlie a Dutch girl. Oh and also Sylvain and Cedric, 2 French recumbent cyclists who were cycling SE Asia before heading to South America. They’re also riding Azub bikes (www.divearthsity.com)., small world!
Everyone is busy making plans for what temples they’re going to see, if at sunrise or sunset, in what order and by what transport, tuk tuk, motorbike, bicycle or car! So many choices. The locals offer the Big Tour, the Small tour or anything you want in between or beyond, there are trips out to far flung temples or the floating villages on a nearby lake, waterfalls and hiking in jungle parks, elephant rides and hot air balloon trips! Tourism is big here. To cut costs us tourists try sharing tuk tuks as it’s all one price if its 1, 2 3 or 4 of you in the vehicle. I end up agreeing with Karo to do a tour around some of the temples for the next day and then an early sunrise tour the following day to see the main Ankor Wat and Bayon temples. That will leave me 1 day left on my 3 day temple visitor ticket (US$62) and I’ll probably hire an MTB and do a self ride on my own once I’ve got the lie of the land and see what I’ve missed or even want to visit again.
Saturday 8th Dec
Angkor Wat Temple Complex
Unfortunately the Tuk Tuk we flag down and agree a price with breaks down just after leaving the main ticket offices, but there are plenty of other drivers waiting for some steely eye contact with their, “want to visit a temple” patter. Another price bargained and we set off again.
Our first destination, so the Internet tour sites tout, is not to be missed, even if it is off the beaten track, well about 20 kilometers off it! . The enchanting temple of Banteay Srei is nearly everyone’s favorite site. 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’. So, marks out of 10? Mheuhhh, not that great, but ticked off the list of “must see temples! ”
Our next stop back near the main complex is Preah Khan. The temple of Preah Khan is one of the largest complexes at Angkor, a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework. It is a place of towered enclosures and shoulder-hugging corridors. the temple of Preah Khan is in a reasonable state of preservation thanks to the ongoing restoration efforts of the World Monuments Fund (WMF). Marks out of 10? Yes I like this one alot! The jungle growing in around and on the stonework adds an eerie touch. I even have one of the security guards offering to take my pictures around the complex. He must have seen me coming as he then looked shiftily around before asking for money! He’s done a good job so I bung him 2 dollars for his efforts.
The heat and humidity of the day is especially felt out in these jungle ruins, the sun’s heat baking the sandstone and us along with it. As you walk through the temples the still air is superheated and the sweat pores out of us.
Back to the tuk tuk and it’s getting close to sunset decision time, where to see it? Yes I know it’s in the sky, but there’s a small number of ideal locations to see the sunset over Ankor Wat, but everyone else knows them, and if they didn’t their guide/tuk tuk driver does! We end up plunking for Phnom Bakheng, mainly because it sits on a big hill. A Hindu and Buddhist temple in the form of a temple mountain dedicated to Shiva, it was built at the end of the 9th century, during the reign of King Yasovarman (889-910). Located atop a hill, it is nowadays a popular tourist spot for sunset views of the much bigger temple Angkor Wat, which lies amid the jungle about 1.5 km to the southeast. The large number of visitors makes Phnom Bakheng one of the most threatened monuments of Angkor, so much so that we need to queue for one of the 300 tickets that they allow on the temple at any one time. Unfortunately it’s a cloudy day and by the time we’ve surmounted the hill and attached temple we realise it’s not going to be worth staying for so decide to relinquish our passes to the next 2 in line!
Our tuk tuk driver has his instructions… Food! Time to head back to Siam Reap before darkness. It’s been lovely riding around the jungle roads between the temples and I’m definitely looking forward to renting a bicycle and coming out on my own. Back in town we grab some street cart food next to the river then walk the kilometer or so out to our hostel.
Thank god its got a pool, I’m no sooner through the door,having thanked Karo for sharing the costs and experience than I’m washing off the dust in the cooling waters and washing the inner dust off with a cold beer! I’ve just realised it’s an early start tomorrow, bugger!!
Sunday 9th December
So the big tourist attraction is to do sunrise at the main Ankhor Wat temple. There are a couple of reflection pools for a dramatic sunrise shot of the temple. Karo and I are sharing again and we’re up at 0430 to catch our prebooked tuk tuk out to the temples. It’s still pitch black as we walk over the bouncing floating pontoon that straddles the large moat around the temple. There’s already a large crowd of people gathered around the pools but we manage to get a spot on the side of one of the pools and sit on a stone by the waterside. W can barely make out the skyline but it’s starting too get lighter. We break out breakfast, Karo has brought a pot of jam and some crackers, I’ve got some cookies! Whilst we wait the crowd gets bigger and deeper, A trio of geese wander along the waterfront honking at all the fuss and looking for food. We guard our crackers! All along the poolside we can see tripod after tripod, selfie stick and huge lenses, the Chinese are out in force. Finally the sky brightens enough for us to be able to make out the temple towers of Angkor Wat. Reflected against the water its a very moving sight.
Pictures taken we get out of the madness and head along the wide walkway towards the temple itself. We’re amongst the first few in and it’s nice to see the temple grounds so quiet. It’s a huge complex, one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura, present day Angkor the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva 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. 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. Well, we’re impressed but there’s still much to see so off we go again.
The main show done we head out to see Bayon Temple and the Terrace of the Elephants. Bayon is the mesmerising, if slightly mind-bending, state temple of Jayavarman VII. It epitomises the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king. Its 54 Gothic towers are decorated with 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, and it is adorned with 1.2km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.
Finally, after a quick refreshing coconut stop we finish off with Ta Prohm. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Today, it is one of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region. The temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location in the film Tomb Raider. Although the film took visual liberties with other Angkorian temples, its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple’s actual appearance, and made use of its eerie qualities.
Phew, by early afternoon we are knackered having walked around so many temples in 2 days. It’s time for a rest. So much so that I spend the whole of Monday Tuesday and Wednesday resting by the pool. With the occasional game of cards and a night out with some of the other travellers on Pub Street, a very lively night!
People come and go at the hostel, both Ivar and Karo have left and new people come and chat and swap stories and tips on places to go. A fellow trike rider, Annette from Germany has also arrived on her Ice recumbent trike, that makes 3 recumbent cyclists and about 8 cyclists that have stopped at this hostel whilst I’ve been here. I’ve been following Annette on Facebook, she has been on the road for about 2 years and got all the way to Australia and New Zealand but is now heading back to Germany to find a job. She’s had an amazing adventure!
Thursday 13th December
I’ve got one day left on my temple pass, so today I’m up early and borrow a somewhat rickety mountain bike from the hostel ($3) to take myself over to Angkor Wat and see a few of the temples I’d missed and also back to my favourite two, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. These two, with there forest surroundings and trees growing out of the walls and buildings are quite stunning. I end up covering 50km cycling out and back. But I take it easy, stopping and sitting at the temples taking in the surroundings or having a refreshing coconut.
Friday 14th December
Siam Reap to Battambang
This morning I’m checking out of my 12 bed mixed dorm and taking a bus to Tonle Sap Lake where I’m catching the long boat to Battambang. The bus is empty when I get on with a German bloke and a Dutch lady who are also travelling to Battambang. We soon pick up lots of other backpackers as we head around town stopping at all the hostels, it’s obviously a popular route. By 830am we are at the lakeside. There’s a couple of bus loads of Chinese here too but it looks like they are going on a lake cruise rather than the riverboat run.
Tonle Sap Lake is a seasonally inundated freshwater lake on the Cambodian floodplains and at its head is the Tonle Sap River which connects to the Mekong River. I and about 40 other travellers pack onto a narrow longboat, bags and rucksacks stashed here there and everywhere. There’s also a few locals travelling the route. It’s not the cheapest ($23) or fastest route but it’s supposed to be a great journey through the stunning countryside and passed many floating villages that have grown up along the river. There’s some confusion on how long the journey takes, ranging from 5 hours to 8 but apparently this will all depend on how much water is in the river and how many stops we make. The engines fire up and were soon motoring across Cambodia largest lake. I’m glad I read an online review that said get a seat near the front or sit on the roof as the engines are super loud. After a short time on the lake we enter a super narrow channel barely wide enough for our boat. Trees and shrubbery scratch and slap the sides of the boat and the travellers that have decided to sit in the blazing sun on the roof! A few narrow fishing boats are also plying the channel and both ours and their boats scrape alongside each other to pass in the smallest of gaps!
Soon we break out into the river proper and the going is faster and easier. Our boat has a tenancy to wallow on it’s side if too many people sit on one side or we sweep around a corner. The water is at times inches from the gunwales! Several of the lady passengers let out squeals of consternation at the continuous rolling!
Now we start passing floating villages, houses built on bamboo rafts or stilts line the riverbanks. Kids swimming off front porches, shops selling to passing river trade, fishermen selling their catch. As our boat approaches these villages it gives a toot of the horn and passengers come out on small boats to join us. Some of the drivers are young children dropping of their mum perhaps who’s off to market further down river or Battambang itself.
In one village a long boat pulls alongside and there’s an immediate stink of fish. 3 barrels get loaded onto the front with fish inside. The stench immediately wafts back through the boat. If you’re on the roof you might get a reprieve but the baking sun is forcing most passengers back into the shade.
I’ve been sat with Nick, a Mancunian and we’ve been having a good natter. He’s also travelling to Hanoi after Cambodia so maybe we’ll see each other again, but in the meantime we agree to meet up for a beer tonight in town.
Lunch break comes on a floating restaurant store. I order rice and meat and wonder why everyone else is going for the veggie option, scaredy cats. We motor on, the river now meandering back and forth, cutting our speed in the tight corners, more and more the boat leans precariously close to the waterline. By now I’ve got a numb arse from the hard wooden seats, and trying to find shade is getting more difficult!
Finally just after 5pm, after 9 hours on the boat we arrive in Battambang, the last few kilometers the riverbanks have been strewn with litter and detritus from the houses lining the banks, a totally different scene from the earlier clean lush villages. Our boat docks and as we alight we’re immediately harassed by tuk tuk drivers. Fortunately my hotel provides a free pick up service and I and a group of French travellers are whisked off to our hotel. For $3 dollars a night I’m staying in the Blue Diamond Hotel, it’s even got a very inviting looking pool! The only downside is it’s a little out of town and a tuk tuk costs $1 to get in. I grab a shower to wash off the days dust then head into town to meet Nick. We grab a bite to eat then pop round to a bar that is recommended in the Lonely Planet, Pomme. Run by two guys from the UK, Johnny and Olly we enjoy some happy hour drinks and then meet Alex and Liz, 2 sisters from the UK who know Nick and are out here travelling with their parents. They mention they’re doing a Cambodian cooking course in the morning so Nick and I decide to jump onto the bandwagon, sounds like fun. At only $10 and getting to eat what you cook it sounds like a bargain… So long as we don’t poison ourselves!
Saturday 15th December
Well, what a fun packed day. It all started out with a walk around the crowded local market. An amazing cacophony of noise, colours, animals (dead and alive!) hawking and squawking. Our chef/guide showed us local herbs, veggies and spices used in Cambodian cookery. We tried to pay attention but were distracted by the slithering snakes and eels, crawling crabs and flipping fish all around our feet! An occasional hand would flash out and grab the escaping creature and throw it back onto a pile of its captive mates.
Unbelievable. Back at the restaurant we donned pink chef hats (I obviously rocked mine) then were taken through various dishes and techniques for making some fab dishes. The chef was very funny and animated but with an unfortunate verbal tick of speaking in cockney rhyme but Cambodian style! We got to eat our dishes and by the time we are finished I am stuffed!
Nick, Marle and I then leave Alex and Liz and head off in a very dodgy half car half tuk tuk contraption. We’re heading for the bamboo railway, which turns out to be a manic ride through the Cambodian countryside on a rickety platform. Originally conceived as a logistical fix during the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia period, the original “bamboo train” was a lorry system that operated on Cambodia’s rarely used northern rail line. However, tourists soon discovered that the improvised rail vehicles, often consisting of a small motor and a bamboo platform on wheels, were a thrilling ride through the countryside, and a cottage industry sprang up just outside the provincial capital. The most bizarre thing on this single track line is that as you meet another oncoming platform we grind to a halt and then the drivers take one of the cars off the tracks, platform first then wheel axels. The other car then moves on and they replace the train back onto the tracks. Amazing. After this we realise the platform we’re sitting on is in no way attached to the wheels and as we drive along the bouncing track at breakneck speeds the ride becomes that much more thrilling!!
Our final destination of the day is a local hill that has some infamous caves (used during the Khmer massacres) a temple and a bat cave. The cave is located halfway up a hill complex which is dotted with beautiful wats, statues, and lookout points over the village below. Macaque monkeys roam the mountainside, and millions of bats can be seen at dusk. Stairways snake up the mountain and back down again into limestone caves and canyons.
One of these caves is the Killing Cave.
The descent into the cave is quite beautiful – the rock is covered in green vegetation and low-hanging vines. The cave is quite large inside, and a huge golden Buddha reclines in the center of the room. But at the bottom of the stairway sits a chicken-wire cage full of bones. The atrocities that took place in this beautiful spot suddenly become very present. To the right is another memorial of human remains, these encased in a glass box.
These are the bones of the doctors, teachers, men, women and children killed by the Khmer Rouge here at this cave. At the top of the cave is the natural skylight which the Khmer Rouge marched people to, lining them up, then bludgeoning them and letting their bodies fall into the darkness below.
The final sight is the massive daily dusk exodus of millions of bats from the cave mouth at the base of the hill. Food and drink stalls line the road opposite and we sit on plastic chairs and order a beer. After a while we can see the bat’s circling the Cave mouth when suddenly there’s a stream of black coming out of the cave. It is soon flying over our heads and we hear people squealing as bat poo and wee rains down. Fortunately we’re under some tree cover that offers some shielding but the stench makes us gag. And still the bat’s are still streaming out in a seemingly never ending convoluting ribbon of blackness. After about 15 minutes with no end in sight and darkness descending we call it a day and escape the smell. What an amazing natural phenomenon!
Sunday 16th to Thursday 27th December
Battambang and Siam Reap
After a lazy Sunday relaxing by the pool I return to Siam Reap by bus. The 170km ride takes nearly 4 hours, but is better than another 9 on the boat! For the next few days I pretty much do nothing other than laze by the pool, play cards with my fellow hostel guests in the evenings with the obligatory beer swilling and go for a couple of runs. Yes, you read it right here! I haven’t been for a run since Iceland in the summer of 2015, so why I would decide to do so now in 30 degrees is mind boggling, but the shaded river bank that runs through town is quite pleasant and keeps me off the tuk tuk, moped infested roads. Madness!
Other mentionable moments include a fab night out with Liz and Alex who I met in Battambang and who have also travelled to Siam Reap. There’s also a birthday meal and cake for Anastasia, a Russian traveller. Finally I meet up with Cynthia, our Dutch friend who we met several times in Nepal this time last year. It’s great to see her again and we have a few beers, catch up and enjoy a Slipknot tribute band performance at the local Hard Rock Cafe. Cynthia is going to be here for a month so we meet up a few times. For Christmas Eve I’m invited out for Fondue with 3 French girls who have just set out on a year’s world travel trip, Fiona, Marine and Dauphine. Unfortunately the Fondue is sold out, it must be popular, so we opt for a racklette and some white wine to celebrate Christmas!
Christmas day itself is a very quiet affair as there is a distinct lack of travellers at the hostel after the hoards that were here just 2 days ago! I spend time finalising my Vietnam travel plans (2 days to go) and hit the gym for an afternoon workout. In the evening I go out for a quiet drink with my kindle but later bump into Lucas and Gina, a Lithuania couple I’d met with Cynthia at Hard Rock Cafe. The rest of the night passes in a blur of drinks, pool and Australians.
On boxing day I meet up with Cynthia and we watch some live music before heading into town and meet a few other people for drinks. I end up playing pool with Lucas again until a Russian girl I noticed the day before challenges me to a game for money. I think she’s a hustler but initially agree to play for $2. I win, or I think she let’s me win. So when she wants to play for $20 I refuse and she’s angry. Definitely a hustle. Unfortunately the beer starts talking and I agree to play again for the stated stake. Well, she was a hustler and her game miraculously improves but I’m feeling the vibe now and with a couple of visits to the table clear up. God is she pissed.
On the 27th I sort of let time creep up on me poolside enjoying life and good company and then have a mad scramble to get a tuk tuk to the airport for my flight to Ha Noi, Vietnam. Fortunately I make it and after an uneventful flight and immigration process I arrive in Vietnam. Cambodia, what little I have seen of it is amazing. I will definitely be back here one day to see more of this great country.