Category Archives: Cambodia

the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.

A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

sweat and pepper

Kampot RiverCambodia is getting hotter and hotter. The locals have a remarkably simple way of dealing with this. They get up at the crack of dawn, eat and fuss about until about 10am when they disappear into shaded hammocks and enter a partially comatose state until 4 or 5pm in the afternoon when things begin to cool down. The three of us have not quite managed to emulate this skill. Generally by the time we are awake, up and breakfasted it has become the hottest part of the day so there has been much sweating and Rob’s arm got so burnt the other day that if he rolls up his sleeve it looks like a nepolitan ice cream!

Looking through the ruins at Bokor HillWe left Snookville and got a very small minibus to the riverside town of Kampot which is a very sleepy town with wide streets, palm trees along the river front, small restaurants and cafes, prowling night dogs, a militant ant population and absolutely no street lighting after dark. Standing overlooking Kampot ProvinceThere were some lovely old colonial buildings below the centre and a fascinating bridge in three mismatched parts (one French, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian) and two different heights. On our second day we took a trip up to Bokor Hill Station, a former retreat during French colonial times and used as a major strategic stronghold for the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in more recent decades. The view from the top was pretty impressive, the station stands at 1080m and drops straight back down to sea level, we could see the coastline stretching out in front of us. All that remains now are burnt out decaying ruins including the former palace, casino, church and water tower. Walking through the abandoned buildings with the clouds rolling over the hill top outside the whole place was a little spooky, shades of The Shining and the water tower looked like a stage prop from War of the Worlds. After lunch we had a short,rather uneventful walk through the jungle on our way back to sea level and then hopped on a wobbly wooden boat which took us the scenic one hour route back down the Kampot river into town.

The three country bridge in Kampot

And as for the pepper, Kampot is known for its pepper, and I have to say, it is probably the best pepper I have ever tasted.

dirt bikes and dirty dancing

Happy New Year! Phnom PenhCurrently chilling out in Sihanoukville, which has been a lot of fun, but is beginning to burn a hole in both my liver and my wallet! Our last night in Phnom Penh we ended up being covered in talcum powder and wished a Happy Khmer New Year by the staff in the restaurant – for some reason we were the only westerners they felt the need to talc…Turns out I look pretty scary with a white face!

Big Night out in SnoopVilleThe next day due to some late night Cuba Libres in an Irish Pub chatting to a fascinating old American guy called Bob, we were all fast asleep for the whole of the four hour journey down to the coast. About 15 minutes after arriving we found ourselves in a $7 bungalow in a place called the Monkey Republic. Kids in Ream National ParkSihanoukville is a weird place, everything seems to be owned and largely run by westerners, there are bars, restaurants, beach loungers a go-go and the place is more full of backpackers than our bathroom is of ants. And still, it’s a nice place, the beach is cute and chatting to the kids there is very amusing even though we refused to buy anything from them (many reasons not too, namely trying to encourage them to go to school). Beach Kids in SihanoukvilleThey have Camembert, Monterrey Jack and Feta cheese in the restaurants which, after two months of Dairy Lea and plastic cheese, is heaven. The music is good, the rum is dark and the weather is hot, so really it’s a fun place to hang out. Thursday night proved rather messy although it started out so peacefully having post-sunset Cuba Libres in a little beach bar with Squid and chicken skewers for dinner. How it descended into a bar crawling, gin-fuelled, dance fest is beyond me – maybe the addition of two new friends, Tara (Camden) and James (Glasgow) tipped us over the edge. Well it was fun, but sweaty, and at least this time I didn’t break the beds! We all wisely decided to have the next day off and concentrated on eating food, drinking water and sitting in the TV room with the fans on full blats watching DVDs.

The pink scooter girlsToday Rob, Mika and I hired bikes to head out to Ream National Park abut 20km from town. Mika and I have very cute, but speedy automatic scooters in hot and baby pink. Rob, being a boy, and being Rob, hired a 250cc Dirt Bike! Thankfully apart from a broken brake handle both he and the bike made it back in one piece – actually it was pretty cool although I didn’t quite feel confident enough to have a go as my feet couldn’t reach the ground from the seat! We drove out to Ream National Park and rode through the edges of the jungle along the coastline dotted with palms and small local wooden houses on stilts. shells in Ream National ParkThe narrow strip of beach was deserted apart from ourselves, strewn with drift wood, shell fragments and tiny white crabs scuttling into the surf. There was a good few kilometres on really rough, bumpy track which Mika and I carefully navigated on our hers and hers scooters whilst Rob went flying along at full speed and grinning like he’d just found the true meaning of happiness! Bless! Well I am off to meet Rob, Mika, Tara and James in the bar for a few drinks and a quiet meal…and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!

troubled past and the hedonistic present

In thought at Wat PhnomThe journey to Cambodia I think will go down in my memories as the hottest, sweatiest day of my life. Two cramped boat rides down the humid, sun soaked Mekong, a very efficient border check and then another boat ride and a final 90 minutes by bus to deliver us into the centre of Phnom Penh. I fell asleep on the bus with my forearm stretched out across my leg. When I lifted it up there was a wide sweaty damp streak underneath. Tasty!

The Nightlife of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Bangkok without the the huge shopping malls and Skytrain. It’s really quite at the moment as most places as closed over the Cambodian New Year, although despite that we’ve managed to find some excellent restaurants (how can I describe the wonders of deep-fried Mozzarella after months of Dairylea slices and plastic cheese) and some very entertaining late night bars. Yesterday we spent the day wandering around the centre, visiting a small sleepy temple called Wat Phnom at the top of a small hill and vegging out in a lakeside bar. We’d had dinner and a few drinks along the riverside strip and Rob refused to go home until we’d had one more for the road so we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us one somewhere else. I think we ended up in what must surely be the only lesbian run bar in all of Cambodia. Seriously! I had my boobs poked by our very friendly bar woman who told us she slept with her girlfriends and didn’t like men. Needless to say it was a rather entertaining evening! Mika in the broken bed!We got back to the guest house about 3am and Rob and Mika both collapsed on their beds. I was marching over the three beds complaining that they were being boring whilst “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”was playing on the speakers. As I stomped my foot onto Mika’s bed the whole end of it crashed through onto the ground! I laughed until there were tears! We sort of fixed it but it will no longer support anyone’s weight. Oops. This, boys and girls, is why your mother tells you never to jump up and down on the bed.

The Killing Fields
Skulls at the Killing FieldsThis afternoon we went to visit the Killing Fields and S-21. These two sights represent the horrific regime of genocide that was implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979 in his attempt to create a Maoist-peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. The entire population of Phnom Penh was driven out of the capital to work on forced labour camps in the countryside, hundreds of thousands were executed and still more died of famine and disease. S-21, formerly a school was converted into the main torture and detention camp, also called ‘Tuol Sleng’ which means a posionous hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Photo of a girl at S-21About 27,000 men, women and children were detained at S-21 and then taken out to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek outside the city (the Killing Fields) and machete’d to death (they didn’t want to waste precious bullets by shooting the victims). Choeung Ek is now a rural, peaceful area, with bright flowers and the sounds of birdsong. There is a large stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves around the area. Even so, it is hard to imagine the atrocities that took place.

S-21 I found far more upsetting. It still looks like a school with a leafy courtyard, white flowering trees, checkered floor classrooms and balconies; but the exercise bar was used to torture detainees and the classrooms were the cells for holding thousands of prisoners, administering lashes, electricity and other torture methods to extract confessions. The prisoners were mainly Cambodian, from all over the country and from all walks of life. It was not only the individual who was guilty, their whole families from the elderly to babies would be taken for extermination. Cells at S21The rooms now show the blank expressions of the men, women and children taken there. Some show the bloodied faces and emaciated bodies in horrific detail. There were rooms in which narrow brick cells had been built within the classrooms to keep certain prisoners in isolation. It was a very thought-provoking and very harrowing afternoon. All three of us were very quiet in the tuk tuk driving back.  As we passed through the streets we could see families lying around their porches in the shade, children running around on their bicycles, young guys posing by their motorbikes, girls with hilights and heels chatting on new mobile phones and groups of men laughing and playing cards. As we paid our driver he smiled and said “Happy New Year” before driving off. Whatever horrors lie in the recent past Cambodia seems, at any rate, to be positively rushing forward into the future.