Our journey through Siem Reap, Batambang and Phnom Penh
21.02.2011 - 14.03.2011 30 °C
We weren't even sure that we were going to go to Cambodia, or anywhere east of Thailand but it was during one of our many discussions about where to go and when, we decided to check it out so that we didn’t drop into Malaysia while their rains were still heavy. We had been reading a lot about Cambodia’s history and wanting to fully appreciate the country and its past, we both tried to absorb ourselves into it for this part of our trip. We could have just done the rounds on the sights here but Cambodia has been through so much in the last 40 years, so we decided to try to dig a bit deeper than that and learn what we could while we were there.
We got the bus from Bangkok over the boarder to Siem Reap and as we entered Cambodia we instantly saw the difference in countries. The boarder was a strange place. We had to get off our bus and walk from the Thai boarder control to the Cambodia boarder control; walking maybe 100 meters between them, where there were stalls selling duty free cigarettes and alcohol and there was even a casino there. The walk through ‘no mans land’ was verging on surreal as we approached the Cambodia side.
Across the boarder the buildings looked aged and dusty, the roads dirty and in disrepair. The streams of local people passing through the boarder looked very poor, many of them pushing by hand large wooden carts with various contents. No cars, trucks or even horses to help these heavy loads pass through; we saw some ridiculously heavily loaded carts with contents stacked five metres high swaying precariously as four or five people were practically breaking their backs to get them moving. We watched in wonder as they passed the menacing looking boarder guards who ushered them along impatiently. Immediately I sensed the authority and though wanted desperately to photograph this strange place I didn’t dare in case I was breaking a rule about photography at boarders (and I was not about to take any chances!). As we waited for our onward bus we observed how the local stalls set up just over the boarder were competing passionately for even the smallest piece of business, calling out to us to come look at their cheap drinks and snacks. It was amusing watching them spring into animated selling as each person walked past!
Once we got back on the bus and on our way, we noticed that the land in this part of Cambodia was very flat. For miles we travelled and we hardly saw any mountains or even hills. Coupled with the fact that it was the dry season so the paddy fields were dried up and the earth cracked and parched. All around we saw the land scorched where the farmers had burnt the fields following the end of their last rice crops. It was a bleak landscape and such a difference having come from the lush Thai Islands.
We travelled most of the day and arrived into Siem Reap late in the evening. Our guest house, 'The Mandalay Inn' was a Burmese ran place that was so helpful and friendly. Not the cheapest place in town but at $9 per night it was great value for money and well located so we were glad we chose it. J had started to come down with something on the journey over so our first nights exploration was limited to scouting for a place to eat dinner and then back to the hotel to get an early night. We quickly found the main drag; ‘Pub Street’ where there were young travellers enjoying the cheap beers and pumping music, but down the side streets we found a mix of smaller more relaxed upmarket looking restaurants and very European styled boutique shops. This, combined with the normal Asian street food night stalls on the fringes really made for quite a strange mix!
But despite the slightly crass looking tourist bars, you could still see the blend of French architecture and Cambodian tradition. You could see the French influences everywhere with fantastic french baguettes, croissants and french wine in many places. You could almost forget where you were, sipping your drink at a restaurant a child amputee on crutches would ask you to buy postcards. We saw amputees of all ages, some begging, some playing music, each of them struggling to earn a living. It was hard to get my head around the fact that the thousands of undiscovered and unexploded landlines and bombs are still killing an injuring people of all ages today in Cambodia. It begs the question, how can a country move on from a horrific past when so many are still being affected by it?
It was clear to see Cambodia’s poverty but at the same time, every corner of Siem Reap had charity projects, charity backed businesses and volunteer programs. Much of it was overseas investment to try and put back some of the education and wealth it had lost. Education being the lynch pin behind many of the initiatives now as during Pol Pots rule, anyone with an education was slaughtered and Cambodia had lost most of its doctors, professors, teachers, engineers etc…so many skills and knowledge had been lost which are essential to the country's recovery. Perhaps Cambodia’s government does not have the funds to provide this education back to the communities but at least it was encouraging to know that all sorts of people from large charities to individuals were putting something back into Cambodia’s children's future.
The following three days were pretty uneventful as we pretty much stayed put at the hotel as J got worse and then slowly better, and the only highlight of these few days was an unwelcome visitor to our room in the shape of a MASSIVE spider that was the size of my hand span! Even J looked more than a little scared at the sight of this beauty! I should point out that this picture makes it look positively small compared to how it looked in the flesh!
When he was eventually feeling a bit more human we decided to take a moto/tuk tuk to the nearby landmine museum, which is ran by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier to educate people on the devastation caused by such devices. He himself was made a child soldier after his parents were killed. After laying thousands of landmines during war time, has dedicated his post war life to deactivating mines, some 50,000 so far, in a bid to counter the number of landmine victims still being injured or killed by unexploded devices left in Cambodia. It left us feeling mixed emotions about how so many Cambodians had to lose so many of the people they loved as a result of conflict but also the guilt from fighting in a war that claimed so many innocent lives.
The following day we decided to do something a little more light hearted and cultural so set out to see the famous temples of Angkor. There are so many temples in and around the area, you could easily spend a week working your way around them all, but neither J nor I felt the need to see every single temple and besides that J was not yet 100% better so we decided to do one full day and see what we could in that day.
We started off at the former fortified city of Angkor Thom, 10sq km in size was built between 1181-1219. At its height, the city boasted 1 million at a time when London only 50,000 people!
From there we moved on to see Bayon, a truly majestic temple with 54 gothic towers famously decorated with 216 faces of Avalokiteshavara (try saying that three times quickly!). These giant faces look down on you from every angle and are a breathtaking sight set amidst the background of the forest.
From there we continued round to Ta Phrom, another great temple. This ancient Buddhist temple is even more stunning due to how the forest has enveloped the ruins, with the roots of trees and vines intertwined into the crumbing bricks making it a truly awesome place to visit.
To finish off our day we went to see the famous Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most famous temple and the largest religious structure in the world. It is the Khmer’s national symbol, a wonder of the world and a must if you are visiting the area. That said, both J and I felt that it was not nearly as impressive in comparison to the Taj Mahal!
From Siem Reap, we decided to take the boat to Batambang; not the most direct route nor the quickest but it was an alternative way to get there and one that would allow us to see some of the riverside villages along the Tonle Sap lake and surrounding rivers. At first, the novelty of it was great but we had no idea what a long and slow journey it would be (8 hours by the time we finally got to Batambang). With the rivers being so low due to the dry season, we went at a snail pace for much of the journey and sitting in simple wooden benches left our backsides well and truly numb! This coupled with the loud din of the outboard engine, we were starting to ask ourselves why we it seemed like such a good idea to travel by boat! That aside, the journey gave us a great insight into some of the lives of Cambodians who settled by the riverside. Many of them living in very simple bamboo huts on the banks of the river and some of them floating on the river. We saw floating shops, floating schools; whole communities living their lives out on the water. Some of the huts looked so basic, some without four walls, it was difficult to imagine a family living in there but as we passed the various villages we were met with welcoming Khmer smiles and waves.
Batambang; a busy little place with less of a touristy feel to it than Siem Reap. The town wasn’t much to look at but had a nice feel to it and the locals were friendly. We had been told that there was a place nearby infamously named ‘the killing caves’ where hundreds of people had been killed during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign. Apparently in a bid to save on the cost of bullets, they threw people down the mouth of a deep cave where their victims would fall to their death. Not your typical tourist attraction but Batambang had been so severely affected by this place in the late 70’s so we decided to pay it a visit. We took the long walk up the steep stairways up the hill and it was here that we befriended a local boy who helped to show us where to go.
As we climbed the many steps up the side of the hill we took in the sights over Batambang. The cave had been turned into a place of remembrance after the end of Pol Pot’s terrible rule and a number of the broken skulls had been kept there for people to see. A number of local people from Batambang were killed in these caves, in fact our moto/tuk tuk driver lost both his parents to this cave and said that it was such a terrible thing to learn that they had lost their lives in this way. What can you say to someone who has experienced such loss as a young child? It really brought it home to me how many people in Cambodia still live with the scars of the Khmer Rouge’s cruel dictatorship.
Next to the cave, there was a small Buddhist temple and in there we got talking to a lovely monk who was there. A peaceful place, we spent a lot of time up there just talking and learning about how the monk had found his spirituality and changed his life. It was just nice hearing his story and talking about his work.
The cave, now a place for locals to pay respects still houses the skulls and bones found there after the war and is marked by a Budhist shrine.
On our way back from the cave and temple, our driver asked us if wanted to go on the bamboo train, a rickety train that once served at the local transport but now was mainly for tourists. The unique thing about this train (if you could call it that) is that it only had one line so if you came across another little bamboo train coming in the opposite direction, one of the trains would have to dismantle and hop off the line to let the other pass. We thought about it, but after seeing our friends photos, we didn’t feel a massive urge to sit on a plank of bamboo struts just to go a few hundred meters! This was one of the first signs of me and J becoming a bit more selective about what tourist attractions we’d take part in…I guess that comes with time! That said, we did ask our driver to take us to the disused railway station that used to be the towns main transport hub. This old station, what was left of it, consisted of rusty old lines and couple of battered looking carriages; but it gave the place a bit of a ghost town feel. As we explored the place, we found a number of poor families who had set home where the station once was with little Cambodian children running around happy to see some new faces and keen to get in a photograph. So many smiling faces, young and old greeted us as we explored the disused station.
We were told that a new line was due to come through Batambang. A welcome development for the people of Batambang but no doubt but also an end to the old makeshift bamboo railway!
Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh, this time we took the bus!
Our first impressions of Phnom Penh was that it was a pretty hectic place, with more tuk tuk/ moto drivers than there were apparent customers (by the endless offers for a ride we gathered that business was perhaps a bit slow at that time!). The main riverside area had plenty of restaurants, many of them with western style dishes catering for tourists. It was a big difference compared to Batambang in that respect. The city was heaving with people and cars; far more than we had expected to see. The roads jammed with cars, vans, moto’s and even the odd elephant! It was a stark contrast to the surrounding areas and countryside of Cambodia, so much so it felt that Phnom Penh was very overpopulated.
Our first evening was spent walking along the banks of the river as the sun was setting. As we approached the palace area we saw that right near the river there was some sort of religious celebration happening so we headed over to see what it was about. Incense and traditional music filled the air, people milled about buying small birds from bird sellers with small cages and went about releasing them into the air as they said a prayer. The atmosphere was spiritual as we just stood and observed all this as the sun dropped beyond the horizon.
The architecture in Phnom Penh was a real mish-mash of styles and from what I had read, many of the traditional wooden houses had been destroyed in Pol Pot’s occupation of the city after 1975 so there was a feeling that this city could be anywhere with its many concrete hotels and shops. That said, you could still see glimpses of the traditional wooden houses here and there. We didn’t do much in the way of exploring the nightlife side of Phnom Penh but we did see evidence of sex tourism in some of the bars and restaurants we passed in the side streets off the river front which wasn’t very nice, especially as our first hotel was located right beside this. We found out about a lovely new hotel called Smiley Hotel about 10-15 mins away, tucked away from the main tourist area. We got ourselves a great room with cable TV, fridge, balcony and comfy bed for about 8 pounds! What a great deal! It was so nice to stay in something similar to European standards for a change (and not pay European prices)!
J and I got to talking about me doing some sort of focused photography project while we were there. I was already so moved by Cambodia’s ability to survive through the aftermath of extreme communist rule and mass genocide and so I decided that I would like to try and get in touch with people who were living with injuries sustained during Pol Pots rule or by the landmines left behind. This came in the form of a fantastic charity called Cambodia Trust. They had set up clinics in Cambodia in the early 90’s to reach out to people who were living with disabilities. Many of these people had lost their leg in landmines during and after the Khmer Rouges rule and had spent years house bound unable to get prosthetic limbs or physical rehabilitation.
Cambodia Trust give people custom made prosthetics and community support which for many have given them back their independence and confidence, enabling them to have a job, a home and to live as an active member of their community. Moved by the work that they had been doing and are still doing I requested an appointment to come to their Phnom Penh clinic to talk to them and their clients. J and I spent a whole day there meeting people and learning about their stories. These personal memories were told without hesitation and their openness really moved us. We took photographs of them and their injuries so that this would give the charity access to new photographs for them to use on their promotional material and a promise from us that we would use the photo’s to tell their story once we got back in the UK. An unusual thing to do I know, but it was for me one of the most humbling aspects of our time there.
Outside of the photography project, in the few days we were waiting for our appointment, we checked out Phnom Penh. We spent our days checking out the local area and found a local gym a few minutes from our hotel. Keen to try it out we discovered that this gym, though old and somewhat battered only cost the equivalent of about 18p per day to go. OK, so the exercise bikes had broken peddles and everything was well on its way out, but for a few pennies it was sufficient; besides it was funny being the only westerner in there with all the locals doing their work outs in jeans and flip flops!
By contrast, we did however find a really plush gym not too far away which was about 15 pounds a day to go. This gym though was as nice as any premium London gym and had state of the art equipment, sauna, steam and a lovely outdoor pool and sun lounge area. Although we were keeping to a tight backpackers budget, we decided to have a treat day in honour of it being international women's day (J was my honorary girlie mate for the day) so headed up to the plush gym for a posh work out and leisurely swim in the pool! From there we did a spot of shopping in a designer department store where I bought a pair of last season’s Gucci shades for the equivalent of 40 pounds! (Only to lose them 4 weeks later in Malaysia…what a complete fool!) and we finished off the day with us both having a pedicure and foot scrub. And yes and J loved every bit of it too!
Before we left Phnom Penh, we visited the infamous killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). Formerly a children's high school, it was converted into a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge and it is estimated that 20,000 prisoners lost their lives here or were transferred to the killing fields to be bludgeoned to death or left half alive to die in the open graves they were thrown into. It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking into one of the interrogation rooms, which still bear the blood stains on the floor and the metal beds they were tied to.
Our time in Cambodia had been a real learning experience. We had stayed away from the party scene and tried to embrace what we could of Cambodia’s culture. The kindness and friendliness of this nation touched us as soon as we got there and stayed with us for the whole visit and though the sadness of their past struck us deeply; we will always remember their smiles and determination for a better future.