Sunday 25 November
The border formalities on the Cambodian side are reached from the Mekong up a wooden plank up the bank supported by some bamboo poles. Presumably anything more rigid is washed away when the river rises. Waiting time here is probably only about 30 minutes whilst the border staff process all the passports although once our passports are stamped with the visas, we then have to show them again 100 yds further on before we re-board the boat to Phonm Penh.
Some fellow passengers have visas already so they get processed quicker than us but they all have to wait for us.
Once in Cambodia, the densely populated sights of Vietnam give way to much more vegetation and houses rather than “shanty type settlements”. We have three hours to go and lunch is served at about 11:30 which was welcome and better than I had anticipated. River wider now but little traffic, we seem to have left that back in Vietnam.
This is my 13th country since retirement and Sal’s 14th and we arrive at the landing stage at Phonm Penh, which is near the middle of the town with the hotel not far away and somewhat like the one in Bangkok, tucked away down a side street, but perfectly presented.Top floor very modern and minimalistic room from which we can see about 8 temples at least one of which is the supplier of some chanting throughout the hour or so we are pool-side. The guide we have in Phnom Penh tells us that he thought that our itinerary had been prepared for people younger than us! Cheek of it!
Out for meal at Mali’s – only chose it as it is the name of one of Phillip & Sylvia’s grandchildren. Set off walking only to go too far because we are talking with David & Pippa, turn back and the heavens open. Restaurant seems to be almost flooded in places but food and service very good and we manage to get back to hotel avoiding further showers and the large puddles that have formed.
Try a Skype with Sarah but picture no good, so just resort to speaking over Skype. I then notice water had dripped through roof in the storm and on to our bed. A quick call to Reception and someone was up within a few minutes and agreed that the bed needed changing. Another few minutes and they were back to change it with a promise that we could change rooms tomorrow if they needed to repair the room or the rain persisted. Thankfully, slightly moving the bed and no more rain meant we had a good and dry night’s sleep. Very impressed with their response though.
Monday 26 November
An emotional day.
No need for alarms here as the Temple music starts at five to seven and lasts for a good 35 minutes. Down for breakfast and then off to see the main temple – the palace. Because of the death of the King last month he is still lying in state so much of the palace is closed although the grounds are open still.
As with the Temple in Bangkok, there are many different but similar statues, Buddahs, minarets and other similar structures. However, the crowds are not here which is a blessing as Bangkok was crowded, and somehow the place seemed cleaner.
Certainly the first building made entirely of concrete was spectacular in it’s appearance, especially the intricate carvings.
It, and others housed remains of past Kings, Princes and Princesses. The mural around most of the walls had been severely damaged over the years but was being repaired to a high standard.
We skip the museum but instead go to prison. No, we didn’t do anything wrong (except perhaps take a photo of the Emerald Buddah when I wasn’t allowed to) but it is s21, the prison in centre of town which was used to incarcerate and torture during the brutal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s.
The numbers of people murdered in prison and the killing fields is beyond belief.
The sensless brutality of it all, must rank alongside Austwich in WWII. Our guide (his name is pronounced T) had provided us with a very detailed talk on the history before we went to see the buildings: his passionate talk was about 20 minutes long so you can imagine how much detail he went into.
To describe the torture cells, the equipment used and the conditions experienced is too long for this, but we did meet the only two remaining survivors out of the seven who survived because of their specific skills and have signed books to read from them.
Lunch nearby and a brief visit to the Russian Market which is no place for the faint hearted; narrow alleys, bags, clothes, souvenirs galore and we only were in there for half an hour or so.
We now were taken to the nearby killing fields site, 16 km outside Phnom Penh. The roads are dusty and pitted, especially as we go on a detour past a clothes factory.Lorries act as busses here with some exceptionally crowded.
This was one visit we thought maybe was too harrowing for us but were ultimately glad we went. During the Pol Pot regime of the 70s, over 120 pits were dug here with prisoners who were not going to cooperate with the communist regime – most townspeople in reality. They were blindfolded, led from trucks in darkness and lined up on the edge of the pits so that their shooting or decapitation would result in their bodies falling into the pits. In one pit alone 450 bodies at least were discovered when excavations started in the 1980s and it is thought that of the 20,000 bodies of men, women and children executed, they still have not accounted for over 2,000 heads.
As the women were all found naked, it is beyond belief what suffering they went through.
During our walk through the killing fields, the guide described how there were only rice fields there before and locals were tending the rice fields at the time of the killings. They were unable to understand what was happening as very loud music was being played which drowned out any gunshot noise and screams.
The bodies were covered in DDT which ensured that there was no stench from the rotting bodies and also killed anyone who didn’t die instantly. Appalling!
Within the area now designated as a museum, a temple like structure has been built into which has been inserted a glass case 10 shelves high that houses a collection of skulls. Macabre it might seem but the collection of heads brings the history home to the visitor in a striking way.
A group of Australian youngsters seemed understandably very moved by the experience. It should also be remembered that this is only one of many areas around the country where similar atrocities occurred.
The overnight rains of the previous evening had revealed some more pieces of human remains and clearly visible were some teeth which we were told would be collected by the security guards later and placed with other remains in a dignified manner.
Although we did not participate, an audio commentary was available and by judging by the length of time taken by the Australian youngsters took, there was more to see and hear about than time for us permitted.
Return to Phnom Penh was subdued with dinner in Metro, or rather on the pavement outside, spent people and Lexus watching. Word has it that those who drive Lexus’s are those who have received bribes for whatever. There are a lot of Lexus cars in Phnom Penh!
Tuesday 27 November
Ok, so the monks are only part time ones and don’t chant every morning, and whilst we were not planning on getting up early a bit disgruntled at waking up at 6am!
We were supposed to be watching the water festival today but due to the King’s death it had been cancelled so a day not doing much and we went by tuk tuk to the main market. T had warned us that everyone gets lost there and he is right. A central circle with feeder avenues galore all looking the same as each other. Nevertheless, a pair of beach shoes and a couple of Harry t-shirts later and we emerged, walked three quarters of the way round the outside to find Mr. tuk tuk man to drive us back to hotel for a leisurely afternoon by the pool and a packing session for the internal economy flight tomorrow.
Mr tuk tuk man takes us into town for a dinner at Friends, a charity run restaurant but it was closed for the water festival public holiday even though the water festival was cancelled because of the King’s death. We also wanted to see the street dancing but heavy rain appears to have scuppered this idea as well so make to the upstairs of the FCC (foreign correspondents club) for dinner and watched the world go by on the street below – a bit like Key West or Miami Beach in Florida. A good dinner but it is advisable to book and I guess many of the tourists there, which is why it was so crowded, had, like us, booked their travel before the King’s death to co-incide with the Water festival but had still come to Phnom Penh anyway. Not sure if it would be so crowded at other times.
Wednesday 28 November
Another early start with a ride to the airport and a domestic flight to Siam Reap. We are only 3.8 kgs over our weight allowance and Phillip & Sylvia are about 8kg over but the airline are quite relaxed about this so no excess baggage charges.
Both airports are modern, especially Phnom Penh, and luggage retrieval at Siam Reap was efficient so we exit to meet our new guide. Outside the airport perimeter, we get diverted off the main road on way to hotel as a Chinese VIP party overtakes us on their way to a hotel for a conference.Our hotel is again of the boutique type and as we are being advised of the hotel facilities it transpires that the cycle ride in our summary itinerary is not in the main itinerary and has not been organised. Cost of organising is about $150 but we have an opportunity on the last morning if we can find out from Audley what the position is.
Leisurely afternoon by pool although there are not enough loungers for all guests and two noisy kids seem to occupy much of the pool. The one downside to the hotel is the pool and it’s surroundings.
Leave hotel at about 6 for a visit to Siam Reap market which seems to come to life the longer we stay there. Many propositions for tuk tuk rides and again we are thwarted in our eating attempts as the vegetarian restaurant was closed. Eat at Noodles for $45 for the four of us including tip! Good value although only one spoonful of Phillip’s desert was eaten, eughhhhh!
Phillip was persuaded to have a foot fish pedicure whilst at in the market and a few “bargains” were bought.However, the effort and workmanship involved in producing the items is amazing and again, how much profit is there in what they sell – their standard of living is so low.
Sadly, we hear 10 days later that fire ripped through the market, as a result of an electrical fault, destroying 100 stalls and killing 8 people including at least 3 children.
It is very hot here and a cool drink is called before bed and yet another early start although our noisy neighbours – Brits of a certain class and age – were loud talkers until about 10:45 talking about shareholder and director’s loans and dividends on the phone!
Thursday 29 November
Our noisy Hoi poloi neighbours were awake talking at 5am waking up everyone around – very inconsiderate but that is obviously not their concern.
Our guide is late arriving and still has no charisma, not explaining anything really as we get bundled out of our van to get a photo card so that we can enter the Angkor complex. More brownie points lost when he helps himself to a bottle of water from the in car fridge without offering us one. It is by now getting hot.
We then go out to visit one of the small temples and walk in the soaring heat back to the van which had moved to a new position.We even have to ask twice when back in van for water – not a good guide.
The access road to the temple gate to Angkor Thom is overly crowded and why they allow vehicles to pass through the gates, polluting the air is beyond belief. The vehicle fumes must do untold damage to the vast display of fabulous stone carvings that guard the South entrance and the foot flow through the entrance at the same time as the vehicles must add to the slow destruction of the site.
One or two electric passenger vehicles are around but nothing’s properly organised. A couple of elephants saunter by with their two passengers each and to add to the wildlife, a couple of monkeys bounce around. Possibly what is needed is an organised electric vehicle access with parking outside the temple only allowed.
A lot of what Mr guide tells us is so quietly told, we really cannot take it all in, especially when he tells us from a position just next to the road. However, Phillip and I climb up to the main temple the centre of which is exactly 1.5km from each of the 4 gates that surround the main temple in a square. Missing out one of the side temples, we pass the elephant verandah and head towards a car park of virtually identical transit type vans.We have to wait 5 minutes or so whilst our guide tries to find our driver; apparently our driver has no mobile phone!
Back to the hotel for lunch, nothing else around so bit of a captive market and grab the four chairs as all 6 loungers taken, some of them by Mr Noisy & wife who are from Wallingford and are going today. Yippeeeeee!
Mr guide arrives 10 minutes late for our next visit, the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. Despite it being nearly 3pm, the area is very crowded but not as crowded as it was when we passed it on way to Angkor Thom.The main temple is within extensive grounds much of which is accessed only by many stairs. The intricate stone carvings are amazing and it is a wonder that they have survived for so long.
Once up a flight of stairs ( they also helpfully protect each doorway threshold by wooden steps) and we are into the central area and a queue to get up to the top temple.
The queue moves fast and although Phillip and I go up, the 65 – 70 degree steps that forms the only access point for the main temple is a no go for many people including Sal and Sylvia.
The top temple is in fact at least two separate courtyards with two Buddhas to view, hidden away in the centre of the structure. One absolutely abhorrent sight is some graffiti on a pillar although I don’t know how long it had been there.
Making our way down and out we stop and view some changing colours on the structure but progress to some stones outside the main complex. Here we wait until the sun has finished for the day on Angkor Wat watching the colours change on the stone. In fact the colours seem to be better on the photographs I took without the benefit of photoshop than in real life.
despite the heat and the crowds Angkor Wat is a must to see, but a guide is pretty essential to get the maximum benefit. Let us hope others have a different guide to our one.
Dinner in town tonight and a new tuk tuk driver. Despite extensive directions from hotel staff, he trundles off the wrong way, ending up on a dusty dirt track of a road, having to rely upon the information from a passing motorcyclist to get us to Pub Street. First two restaurants that Phillip had picked from the Audley list are full, the vegetarian one only appearing to have 4 or 5 tables.
Ended up in a good Khmer restaurant for $37 for 4. How is that for good value? Sal not well so off to bed earlyish for a very, I mean VERY, early start. This is supposed to be a holiday!
Friday 30 November
We saw the sun set and we now should see it rise at Ta Prohm the following morning. We are told be at reception at 5 am for a 5:15 start. We arrive on time, as does the driver and the transport. Surprise, surprise, Mr guide is 15 minutes late so there is a feeling we might miss the sunrise. However, we find ourselves the first people there and wander up to the buildings just as the sun starts to shine on the buildings in front of us. Not so much a sun rise but the effect of the sunrise is what we are witnessing.
Ta Prohm is the temple area where thick roots of trees have pushed downwards from the trees themselves which grow on top of the stone following the dropping of seeds by birds over the years. Getting there first does mean you have the sense of having the place all to yourselves, giving some extra photo opportunities and perhaps the very early start is now beginning to justify itself.
An added bonus is the dawn chorus which, with no one talking at certain times was absolutely magical and Sal makes it around the temple even though she is still not well.
The site itself is, like many temple sites, under renovation, but only in one part did it prevent a photograph being taken. The temple was the location for the filming of Indianna Jones and the Temple of Doom. So many different structures here and possibly better than Angkor Wat.
After breakfast back at hotel we set off for a boat ride, after all it is only 3 days since we went on a boat so we must be missing it.
You can tell why it takes such a long time to move around on Cambodian roads, no motorways, bicycles everywhere and drivers with no road sense – just like Vietnam really. Through a couple of villages with rice fields or Lotus plants on either side we are travelling on a raised track and the houses are on stilts at road level with the fields about 10 feet below the road.
We pass a couple of schools and although the road is pitted, there is a good amount of street lighting, probably just as well as the houses probably do not have any electricity. Certainly a different type of village life to what we have seen in our travels so far.
Or boat trip starts off on a bad note as we ask Mr Guide if there is water on the boat and he says yes. We are ushered onto a mini type of long tail boat experienced in Bangkok with just a driver and a little boy to keep us and Mr Guide company. But there is NO water.
Scoot along the waterways whilst little boy gives first me and then Phillip a top back massage. Interesting experience. We go past many more floating houses with men relaxing after the fishing and the women cooking, one even cleaning the boat. Visit one of the floating shops that includes a cafe if only to buy water.
We were supposed to be taken to a bird watcher’s paradise but for some reason this is missed off our trip or we are never told about it. David, and Pippa had a similar problem yesterday and got a very sincere apology but nothing similar from Mr Guide. In view of the fact that we had limited water, the bird watching are visit was probably not even a good experience. Mr Guide is in serious danger of not getting a tip.
On way back we visit Artisans D’Ankor, a silk and other type of craft workshop where handicapped people make items for sale. The quality is very good, especially the paintings and lead us to buy a couple of Xmas presents although leaving my credit card there was not the best moves I have made. (I did retrieve it after the shop assistant tracked me down before I left the complex).
Lunch and a relaxing time by the pool beckoned although Sal still not 100% and retires to the room for an attempted sleep only to be woken by a strange phone call and the delivery of the laundry.
Dinner in the hotel tonight and say goodbye to David & Pippa who are on their way to Thailand for a few days rest before returning to Uk.
Saturday 1 December
Awoken at about 6am by chanting of monks and noisy neighbours. I must admit I do like the idea of a Siesta in the hot weather. Sal feels a bit better today, and after breakfast we set off for our bike ride. Mr Guide said he would not be with us yesterday but due to sickness of the other guide, he is. Out of town to a mud track that is as straight as a dye for many a mile. Helmets fitted, water bottles fixed (we had to ask for them again) and we set off. The countryside is flat and we manage to go for a couple of miles before a stop.
This one is not for Sal and she retires to the van for a lovely drive through the countryside following us, probably the best option in view of the increasing heat.
We stop ( we asked to stop ) to give out some pens and paper we had bought from home which were well received by the youngsters. Nearby was an orphanage and school which we decided to visit and are shown around by Lang, a 12 year old girl whose English was outstandingly good.
Lang told us that her father, a fisherman, had died when she was 9 months old and her mother could not cope with bringing her up on her own hence she is in the Orphanage. “Don’t forget me” were her words. A few buildings were sponsored or had been built with funds from organisations in Canada and Wales and communual living but were running short of funds. There are about 70 orphans and in excess of 600 pupils at the school in the grounds who appeared well fed and, for those who we saw, happy. Another emotional
Lunch and departure from Cambodia to Laos by Vietnamese Airways.
Cambodia is a fascinating country with a very tragic recent history. Hopefully we will return some day although I doubt whether a return to the tourist spots of Siem Reap will be on the menu.