We are travelling through IndoChina for a few months. We start in Laos and head south into Cambodia, then we cross into Vietnam and head north. Our journal is separated similarly and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. Cambodians are such friendly and unassuming people, and of course Angkor Wat is a spectacular destination.
Siem Reap: We land at Siem Reap and get a very quick visa at the door. There are a lot of travellers and tour groups here, and there is also a lot of accommodation to match, from US$8 to US$800 a night. The town is full of visitors from all over the world, it’s almost one hundred years since the first tourists arrived in 1907. We visit the market and downtown area, we spot souvenirs, street vendors, street stalls, every flavour of restaurant, internet, espresso, tour touts, transport touts, motos and tuk tuks…it all exists for one very good reason – Angkor!!!
The Great Foreign Currency Exchange Fiasco: While in Laos the US$ gained against the Kip, so we change US$200 and made a quick US$16. We left Pakse with about US$100 in Kip, but it is early Saturday morning and the money changers are still asleep. So we take our Laos Kip to Cambodia, Cambodians don’t think much of Laos or their Kip (or their boat racing skills), the best offer we got was half value, so we are now down US$50 (net US$34). So that’s the end of the FX trades for us!
Angkor Archaeological Park: There is just something fundamentally magical about thousand year old temple ruins set in the middle of jungle. You can see for yourself at a great interactive site: http://www.world-heritage-tour.org/asia/kh/angkor/bayon_up.html
While Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building, it is just one temple in the Angkor Park which covers about 200 square miles. The temples were built by the Khmer empire during the Angkor period 802 – 1432. There are hundreds still remaining today but the Angkor group are the stand-out masterpieces and remain the main point of pilgrimage for Cambodians and tourists. It must have been a fabulous sight when the French archaeologist and explorer Mouhot initially came across the ruins in the 19th Century.
While travelling by elephant was the traditional travel mode, late afternoon we get a Tuk Tuk, and a three day pass with photo ID and climb the path to the Phnom Bakheng sunset lookout, it is steep and it’s hot at the top, many other sightseers look in a worse state than the ruins. On the way back there is traffic chaos and as we travel south, late guests for a temple wedding try to head north, the small road turns to six lanes of car park.
The next morning we start early with guide, tuk tuk and map to join throngs of others, as we cross moats, dodge vendors and scale temples. Our guide provides enormous detail, dates, names, Buddhism stories, Hinduism stories, “did you know there are over 3,000 Apsara (nymphs) with 30 different hair styles carved into these wall reliefs?”
“Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, it is about 1.5 km square, the moat is 200 m wide, the outer wall is about 1,000 m square, the entrance porch is 235m wide. The bas relief stretching around the central temple is 800 m long. The sandstone blocks were quarried 50 km away and rafted down the river and moved into place using elephants”.
“Angkor Thom is a fortified city – the wall is 8m high, 12 km in length and surrounded by a moat 100m wide. At its height it is supported a population of 1m. Inside, Bayon has 1.2 km of bas reliefs with over 11,000 figures”.
Across the 200m long, elevated causeway and onto Baphuon, “which is still being restored after 10 years – longer that it took to build”. But we already know it costs more and takes longer to renovate than to build.
Onto Phimeanakas the back way, we sit and enjoy a cool drink in the shade, then through the Elephant Terraces, and a light lunch surrounded by touts.
Afternoon and there’s more, but now it’s really sunny, very hot and humid, and there are many other tour groups. Our guide provides more detail, but he is humourless, and there is little relief from the millions of meticulous reliefs surrounding us.
We begin to observe the curious lore of tour itineraries, it seems all tour groups appear at the same destination at the same time, and in the same sequence. Angkor Wat, Ankor Tom, little circuit 17 km, grand circuit 26 km. The guide starts working on us about tomorrow, we quiz him on his timetable and recommended program. That afternoon we sack him and decide to follow his program for tomorrow but in reverse.
The next day guideless but with tuk tuk and map we slip and slide down a dirt track to the 26 km outer circuit. It’s early morning, the light is soft, it’s quiet and there are few others around. It’s quite some distance between temples, the roads after the wet are pretty poor, and rain last night and road works today make them worse.
We find ourselves alone in temples with little restoration, in jungle amid giant trees, dappled shadow, massive root systems embrace the sandstone blocks that elephants moved into place 1,000 years ago, it make for some special Kodak moments.
In its day Ta Prohm had 80,000 support staff including 27,000 officials and 615 dancers. Then it’s onto Banteay Kdei a ruin, Pre Rup, Ta Som, Preah Khan, and then lunch, and after lunch there is more, we see few other people.
For the next day our tuk tuk driver tempts us with another more remote ruin cluster about 13 km to the east, or another 13 km to the south but our enthusiasm is templed out.
Ferry to Battambang: The 4 hour ferry trip to Battambang takes 7 hours, in the dry it can take even longer and you might have to push as well. It’s a fantastic but bum – numbing ride across the lake, through the channel and up the river in a long-tail boat. It seems the speed boats no longer operate because of the damage they cause to the river banks and the fishing nets, or maybe because of the rising price of fuel.
We cross Lake Tonle Sap, this month its at its peak. It’s the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia providing fish and irrigation to half the people of Cambodia, a major geographical feature as well as being important economically, socially and spiritually. During the wet, the Mekong rises, it seems the Tonle Sap River then reverses its flow and fills the lake, which goes from about 2m to 10m deep, an increase of 4 to 6 times its volume, from now on the water starts to flow back out into the Mekong.
John chats with two women from Bendigo. The Victorians are backpacking through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for a couple of months, it’s the first time out of Australia for one of them, thought it was all good fun, a bit of a shock, but loved the food, ‘you can’t get fried rice like this in Bendigo’.
Our ferry trip takes us through the flooded forests which is inundated every year, and past the floating fishing villages spread along the route. In the wet the neighbourhood can spread out, but as the estuaries shrink the neighbourhood gets pretty close and cosy. The kids, dogs and chooks don’t have much of a traditional backyard but there’s kilometres of water and plenty of canoes, so it’s easy to get out and about. The general store and other services come by on floating shop boats, there is no water, electricity or sewer of course.
Our ferry stops regularly to pick up locals and their produce, even whole families get on for the trip to the next village or on to Battambang. The ferry gets crowded, some sit on the roof, the rain comes down and the sun comes out. We take a short cut up a narrow channel cut into the floating bushes, it’s un-navigable in the dry. The captain stops regularly to dislodge the weeds from the propeller. We reach the river proper with 7 m stilt houses, we weave our way between the fishnets, they’re everywhere, the odds aren’t good for the fish.
Battambang: is a quiet regional – agricultural town, it gets a few tourists because it’s at the end of a great ferry ride, and on a good road to Phnom Penh. There is also a lot of gems that come from west Cambodia, this makes it a bit of a cheap jewellery hub – so Cathy scores a new ring. There is some good cheap accommodation, great restaurants, internet and coffee – plus the opportunity to visit the emerald green countryside and rice paddies on the back of motor bikes.
We visit villages where women pass on skills from generation to generation, rice paper village (what’s the secret to getting dimples in the rice paper?), noodle village (do you like thick or thin?), sticky rice village, wedding gown hire, and catering village.
Onto Phnom Ek where an 11th Century Hindu temple resides next to a contemporary Buddhist Pagoda – next to that is a huge half constructed Buddha with rusty reinforcing, halted it seems because it breached town planning guidelines – eh? Cambodia looks like it never heard of town planning.
Our driver Tin Tin is 41 years old, he takes us to Phnom Sampeou – temple, bat cave, and Khmer Rouge killing caves. Tin Tin was 11 years old when Pol Pot came to power. He lost his parents and siblings and tells us some poignant and harrowing stories. It takes an hour to ride home on the back of his bike, its dark, dusty and a very bumpy road – we dodge and weave around the muddy pot holes from which sometimes there is just no escape.
How many chillies with that?: The technology for measuring the heat of chillies is not yet available in restaurants. You may have seen little chillies printed beside menu items to indicate spiciness – 1 being mild and 3 being hot etc. Up to now we have been using ‘a. not too hot – please, or b. just mild – please’, but this has delivered inconsistent results.
And then in a little restaurant in Battembang we spot a new simple, consistent and obvious metric. They simply ask how many chillies you want in your dish, the standard is 2 for mild-hot or 10 for hot-hot, but finer customization is available – “just a half of one please”.
After half a chilli chicken, we visit a local NGO supported Circus, the locals are rolling in the aisles, Tin Tin forgets to pick us up, its very dark, we catch a ride back to town with a small German tour bus.
Phnom Penh: We catch the 5 hour bus to the capital Phnom Penh; it’s a comfortable bus with allocated seats and well behaved passengers. The road is good, it’s the most traffic we had seen, but there are still too many animals on the road, and too much karaoke music on the bus. We see bright green paddies to the horizon, interrupted by the occasional village.
Phnom Penh, with a population of about 1.5 million, is flat and downtown is typical of developing cities, hot, big, busy, dirty and noisy with plenty of touts. We decide against staying near the riverside, our usual choice, because the Dragon Boat Race Water Festival has finally caught up with us.
We have a few days here while we get our Vietnam visa, watch the festival and take in the local sites, palaces, wats and markets. At the Central and Russian Market, we spot lots of international brands of clothes and accessories, often made in France or the USA, then we come across the stall selling ‘Made in xxxxx labels’, you simply choose your country.
There is some genuine Columbia travel gear that has ‘escaped’ from the local factory, and some cheap Lonely Planet Guides that have been ‘republished’ in Cambodia. We go to the new air conditioned shopping centre next door, with elevator ‘trainers’ helping the locals get on and off as many, especially from rural areas don’t travel much and rarely get to town.
We catch up with the Water Festival and Dragon Boat Races that we had missed in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse. Phnom Penh swells from its crowded 1.5 million to about 2.5 million. There are over 400 boats this year from 5 countries with 50 plus crew a boat, they race down the river two at a time for 3 days.
The finish line is in front of the Palace, we didn’t score an invite there so we joined about 2 million others and squeezed into the 3 km long riverbank esplanade along with touts, pick pockets, vendors, food stalls and crew – ‘we can’t see our feet’. All commerce in Phnom Penh comes to a halt – its festival time and even the banks and the Embassies shut down.
Day two of the festival we watch the broadcast in the cool of the guest house lobby, on any of four local channels. Later that night the races continue, then the fireworks, concerts and real time advertising along with the race replay. Its neck and neck, Cambodia beats Burma and Laos but in an upset for the home team Thailand then beat Cambodia…………we know it’s time to move onto Vietnam.