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Colin and Sue’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Location: Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia

MapWe decided to spend a week in Cambodia and spent a lot of time considering our transport options. We particularly wanted to visit Siem Reap - the nearest city to the numerous ancient (9C - 13C) temple complexes of the Khmer civilisation including the famous Angkor Wat - one of the largest religious structures in the world. The overland route from Bangkok to Siem Reap is notoriously bad (and allegedly the only airline that flies the route pays money to ensure the road doesn't get upgraded - it also charges fares to match its monopoly status). Anyway, we decided we might as well go to Phnom Penh as well so we flew to Siem Reap then got the bus down to Phnom Penh and flew back to Bangkok, this time with AirAsia - the local equivalent of Ryan Air with the flights costing about 20 Pounds each.

Cambodia was a bit of a culture shock after Thailand - it's a much poorer country (not surprisingly considering its recent history) with a lot of beggars - including victims of landmines which are still everywhere in rural areas. There are also lots of very young kids on the streets at all hours selling books, bracelets, flowers, shoeshine etc (the shoeshine seems a odd one with most people wearing flip-flops).

The French influence shows as well - driving on the right and baguettes everywhere. The traffic is amazing - there are very few traffic lights or rights of way at junctions and basically the traffic (which is fairly slow) just seems to merge - it keeps it all flowing though and we only saw one minor bump. Makes it quite scary crossing the road as merging is the way for pedestrians as well - we tried to merge in front of scooters and tuk-tuks rather than cars and trucks.

Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination with loads of new hotels being built and there is obviously an effort to beautify the town with armies of people weeding and cleaning up. Our guesthouse arranged for a tuk tuk driver to meet us at the airport and the arrangement is that you use him to visit the temples which are fairly spread out. We went down to arrange a pick up time for the next day and were told that it was all already arranged and that Thul was coming to pick us up at 5am! In the event the early start was good since it meant that at least some of the visit to the temple sites was during a cooler part of the day - by lunchtime it was just too hot. The temperature was consistently around 35 degrees falling to about 25 at night.

We spent two days "doing" the temples - on day one we arrived at Angkor Wat for the sunrise and finished at Phnom Bakheng for the sunset (with a siesta in the middle) - neither sunrise nor sunset was much good for photos. On day two we went to some of the more remote temples and saw some of the local countryside. The temples are really impressive and covered with intricate carvings - some have been heavily restored and are in good repair and others are being overtaken by the jungle. They're an odd mixture of Buddhist and Hindu imagery depending on which group was in charge at the time. Angkor Wat was spectacular and we also liked Bayon (big faces), Ta Phrom (jungly with big trees straddling the walls and where some of Tomb Raider was shot) and the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srey.

We also visited a landmine museum run by a guy who used to lay mines for the Khmer Rouge and has now dedicated his life to clearing mines. Our exciting wildlife spot was a snake by the river in Siem Reap - it leapt into the air so we kept our distance for the photo - just as well as our guide Thul thought it looked "very bad."

Phnom Penh was even more of a culture shock with piles of rubbish in the streets and even more beggars. We arrived on Cup Final day, although there wasn't much 'fever'. We watched the game sitting on the pavement just outside the Hope and Anchor on the banks of the Mekong River eating lasagne and drinking Tiger beer with tuk-tuk drivers watching behind us - very surreal and incredibly hot.

We spent one day doing cultural stuff in the city - visiting the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Next day visiting notorious Khmer Rouge sites - Tuol Sleng (a school converted to a prison where people were interrogated and tortured) and Choeung Ek - the Killing Fields site where thousands of people were murdered. This now has a glass memorial full of skulls but you can still see bits of bones and fragments of clothes as you walk around the site.

The food in Cambodia was a bit disappointing compared to Thailand - strangely because it was a poorer country we tended to eat in more up-market westernised places. We did have one very entertaining meal in a restaurant where we discovered that the owner took in street kids who greeted and waited on. We were surprised by the welcoming committee of 5 or 6 small children and then 4 or 5 slightly bigger ones stood around our table while we chose what to eat. Their piece-de-resistance was the free dessert of local fruit and banana leaf packages with coconut and pumpkin - they positively swooped on us, breaking open rambutans and longans for us to eat and even trying to force feed Colin with a forkful of coconut dessert!