Cambodia. A country full of character, history, scenery, lively people and good food. We had about 2 and a half weeks in this amazing country. The first and main thing for anyone going to Cambodia is to go and see Angkor Wat. Obviously a must. But. There’s much more to it than that. It could be said that Cambodia got a bit of a bum deal from us in terms of travelling time. We spent 10 days at the beach in Sihanoukville not doing anything. Not seeing anything, not exploring, not taking any pictures. Because, after all the other SE Asia travelling, we were worn out and ready for a holiday. So, yep, we ate into our Cambodia exploring time to be beach bums. But, it was worth it. I don’t feel like we missed anything, or sacrificed anything. In fact, those 10 days gave us some great times, great fun, new friends and even though Sihanoukville doesn’t feel like the real Cambodia, we met some of the loveliest Cambodian people going. And still had plenty of time to go visit those Angkor temples and to find out more about the Khmer history, include the Khmer Rouge regime.
From Sihanoukville, feeling more relaxed than someone who’s spent a whole year in a spa, we made our way to Siem Reap on a hotel bus. What’s a hotel bus I hear you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a posh sleeper bus. Little compartments for two, with completely flat beds and pillows/blankets, separated to the rest of the bus by curtains with headphones and music (Dr Dre beats no less, although of course they are the fake ones you can get out here). Normally you have to pay extra for this compared to the normal sleeper bus but we ended up being upgraded onto this one for free. Bonus. A pretty decent night’s sleep followed, and we wound up in SR in the morning surprisingly fresh and sprightly. When we originally booked our ticket the woman said she would organise a tuk tuk to take us from the station to the middle of town for free as part of our ticket. We were a bit sceptical, as you learn to take what people say about transport with a pinch of salt as it’s often not quite the case. So, we gave the name James Bond as a bit of a joke. But, sure enough, there was our tuk tuk driver holding up the sign JAMES BOND. I so wish I’d taken a picture but I was too busy fending off other tuk tuk drivers. Honestly, they’re like wasps round a jam jar as soon.as.you.get.off.the.bus. In your face. Literally. I’ve had to push some of them away before. They ignore what you say most of the time too.
The usual routine followed. I’m sure you know it by now. Find a guesthouse. Haggle for a good price. Dump bags. Get food if not eaten. Go for a wander. Find cheap beer. Drink beer. And that’s pretty much what we did the first day. We had our first beer at 11.40am. I don’t remember going to bed but Nick says I collapsed on my bed at about 9pm. We found a great bar on Pub Street doing cheap 50c beer where we sat for around 7 hours. We made some new friends from the USA, Doncaster and Ireland, and all sat there getting drunk. It was a most fabulous day, even if I don’t remember all of it. I do remember my foot bleeding a lot (I’d ripped part of my big toenail off somehow) and falling asleep in the hotel restaurant while waiting for a burger though. Just a usual drunken night out. Only this one cost us $7 each. That’s less than a fiver. For a 7 hour, 14 beer, drinking session. The next day was fairly relaxed, and I didn’t have a hangover. Extremely surprised at this. Either my tolerance level is back up or I was still drunk for most of the day. I suspect the former, the latter would just be scary. Walked lots. Suspect this helped.
The day after was Angkor Temple day. Whoop! You must have heard of Angkor Wat? Or the Temples of Angkor? If not, learn more here. It’s somewhere I’ve always fancied visiting if I ever got the chance, so I kind of woke up a bit excited. There’s bloody loads of temples in the whole complex, but there was three I really wanted to see: Angkor Wat (the main and most famous temple complex), Angkor Thom (the huge city, including Bayon which is the temple with the faces) and Ta Phrom (the one that’s overgrown with trees, as seen in the Tomb Raider films). So, after negotiating hard for a tuk tuk, we ended up with a sparky young lad as our driver for the day. For $6 he took us round. Little star!
The temples were beautiful. All different in their own way. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, that iconic view that I’d seen so often in other pictures, was mesmerising. Made even the more better by bumping into some old friends we first met in Laos. What a spot for a final goodbye, as they’re off to Indonesia, Nick’s off back to Thailand and I’m off to Australia, so no more chances to bump into them. I’m hoping to meet up with them in Oz or NZ though, if the universe plays ball and dates and places collide. Angkor Wat is huge. Really, really massive. Loads of rooms, courtyards, corridors, nooks and crannies. It was also crammed with people, no surprise there. Lots of tour groups. Especially from Japan and China. Who always seemed to be going the opposite direction to me. Especially where there were steps or small doorways. One chap from a tour group even decided to use my leg as support when he fell up some steps. And I didn’t even get a thank you.
In a way it reminded me of the Taj Mahal, although it’s not really similar in the slightest. I can’t quite explain why, it just does. Maybe the size and scale and, well, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. It was also lovely to bump into some friends we made on our very first night in Laos, all those weeks ago. Ross and Emma, a permanently cheery, lovely couple have been a bit of a permanent fixture in Laos and Vietnam. We kept bumping into each other all the way round, in different places, which was lovely. But we all realised that this would be the last time, as we were all heading off in different directions after Siem Reap. Although, I hopefully might be able to meet up with them in New Zealand, if dates and schedules line up. It was a sad day, a realisation that the next adventure was soon upon us, which, of course while exciting, also means the current one has to come to an end.
Angkor Thom and Bayon were next. I liked these. They weren’t as restored as Angkor Wat, and were a lot less crowded. I didn’t get pushed or grabbed, or fallen on. Oh, although I did get rudely told to move out of the way while I was taking a photo, so someone else could take on. I may have taken longer to finish my photo after that. Well. How rude.
I liked the faces of Bayon, they all seemed to have a bit of a self-satisfied dreamy smile. It made me wonder what they were thinking of. Yes, I know they’re not real but you know what I mean. Or, they could be magical mystical things that come alive at night when no-ones watching. You never know. Travelling means keeping an open mind, so, who knows?
But it was Ta Phrom that I think I was most looking forward to. This is the one that’s all overgrown with trees. Where nature has been left to do it’s thing, and you can see how destructive and powerful it can be. Huge trees have grown into, over and through the bricks. The one that was used in the Tomb Raider films (apparently, I’ve never seen them). It was beautiful. Eerily beautiful. Amazing to see all the roots and how they spread. The trees were huge. Really, really huge. It does just remind me how we can be at the mercy of nature. Ok, so there’s no immediate danger to us from these trees (as far as I know they’re not killer trees), but it just shows how things you think are strong can be reduced to a crumbling heap by nature. It’s powerful. We should never forget that, and give it the respect it deserves.
There’s so many more temples to visit, but these are the ones I wanted to see. I think any more and I would have been templed out. (This can be a common affliction while in Asia). It’s funny, the complex reminded me of Clumber Park (England), India and Mexico in different ways at different times. The more places I go to, the more triggers of memories I seem to get. The joy of travel, eh?
Siem Reap was a great place to hang out. It had a great little vibe. It’s only really a tourist destination because of the temples, but there’s actually lots of other stuff to do too. We hired bikes one day and went out to a couple of the rural villages on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake. It was awesome. The villages were very rural, and it was clear the people who lived there didn’t have a lot of money. But, the people we saw, especially the children, we just lovely. Shouting and waving to us as we biked past.
We also went and gave blood at Angkor Children’s Hospital. I wanted to do something to help, and I haven’t been able to give blood in the UK last year and of course when I’ve been away, so this seemed perfect. Everyone who can give blood, should. It saves lives, and is vital. I started as soon as I was old enough at 17 and have given as often as I can since then. It’s such as easy thing to do but so important. Seeing and hearing the children at the hospital when we went was heartbreaking, and so I’m so pleased I got this chance to help, just a little bit.
After Siem Reap, I took my last bus journey to Phnom Penh. A long, bumpy ride, I was so over Asian bus rides by the time we got there. I’m glad it was my last. They’ve been fun, and an adventure, but, well, think yourself lucky with the potholes in England. There’s craters over here, and they don’t get filled in. I’m surprised my spine isn’t shattered and that my brain is still in my head.
Phnom Penh is the capital city. We’d already been there once but only for an hour on a bus changeover. We arrived here in the evening, and headed to the South of the city to try and find a place to stay. It was harder here; places were either full or really expensive (well, expensive in the context of Cambodia/SE Asia). As we were wandering around after having no luck for a while, a guy on a scooter stopped us on a street corner, introduced himself as Greg and offered us his spare room. Of course we said yes, hopped onto a tuk tuk and followed him to his house. Why wouldn’t you?
We stayed with him and his two house mates (Cass and Kip) for our last 3 days of the SE Asia adventure, and it was great. No checking in and checking out, they gave us free reign of the apartment and even fed us pizza. Man, it was awesome pizza.
That’s one the beautiful things about travelling. You meet people and you just know. There’s mutual trust. People offer things, you know it’s genuine. No half-arsed offers. I had a 10 minute conversation with someone in Thailand and now have somewhere to stay in Tasmania next month. And I will stay there. It wasn’t just a polite offer. You get to meet all kinds of interesting people. A wonderful thing. The world is small and people are lovely.
The real reason for going to Phnom Penh though (apart from me having a flight to Singapore) was to learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime. I’d heard of Pol Pot, but didn’t really know much about him. Now I do. We visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum which was originally a school, and then the S21 prison, where people were taken to be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. It was a haunting place, where blood stains on the floors and photos of the prisoners made it even more impactive. We also visited the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh, where huge numbers of people were killed. Both were moving experiences, although the overwhelming feeling I had was anger. Such hypocrisy, power, greed and insanity. Such a complex and twisted history. And these weren’t the only prisons and killing fields; there were hundreds all across Cambodia. In total, more than 2 million Cambodian people died. For wearing glasses, for being a teacher, for being educated, for being able to speak a foreign language. All under the direction of a professor and educated man himself who studied abroad. Go figure.
I know a lot more now, and the more I learn about atrocities like these, the more I struggle to get my head around it. But the more I hope that things like this are in the past. That they will never happen again. That countries around the world will not let it happen. We must educate people so they are aware, raising future generations to stop this.
Cambodia has been a mix of experiences, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s captured my heart and there’s just something about the country that is special. I can’t quite narrow it down to one thing; it’s everything. Everything that I experienced there.
So thank you Cambodia. You were wonderful.