Category Archives: Cambodia

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Ankle What? Uncle Tom?

Travel Dates: 2nd – 4th November 2013

Day 1 by Vicki

Our first full day in Siem Reap dawned hot and sunny, and we were raring to go. For most people in the group, today’s tour represented the main reason they came to Cambodia – to go to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is the main attraction in a large collection of temples and stupas built by the Thai kings between 600 and 1500 years ago. Whilst the buildings are all understandably in various states of disrepair, they were fortunately protected from destruction during the war, with an unwritten rule apparently stating that no fighting should take place in the temples. This wasn’t always adhered to as they were used as a refuge and some bullet holes show that they had on occasion been attacked. Recently, restoration efforts have begun although with mixed success – an Indian team sent to help clean the temples used acid to remove the dirt, thus speeding up the destruction!

Our first stop of the day was Angkor Wat itself – along with thousands of others. Before we were allowed in Boreth decided to give us a bit of the history of the place, and the Cambodian people. Whilst it was interesting, everyone itching to get inside and have a look for themselves rather than sitting on the wall outside. After about 45 minutes, we were finally allowed in….and it was worth the wait.

The complex is incredible – surrounded by a moat and linked to the land by an imposing stone bridge, it seems to just rise out of the jungle. The temples were unknown to the outside world until French colonials came for a visit, and it was fun to imagine what they might have felt, after hacking through the jungle for days to suddenly come across this huge building.

All the buildings are lavishly decorated with carvings, everything from dancing Apsara girls to monkey soldiers and everything in between. All of the jewels that would have decorated the rooms have been pilfered, but even without the bling there is no denying the splendour of the place. The religion of Cambodia changed several times through the period, alternating between Hinduism and Buddhism, with elements of Animism also creeping in. The combination of Vishnu’s and Buddhas and all the associated characters means that there is something different to look at whichever way you turn.

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The heat definitely adds to the atmosphere – in 35 degrees plus everything seems to shimmer, giving the complex a mystical quality. There is a central pond at Angkor Wat, where people would run naked to purify themselves before religious ceremonies. This was certainly an appealing option for many in the group at this point!

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A quick pit stop for lunch at the “Angkor Wat view” and we were on our way to the next set of temples, called Angkor Thom – or when said with a Cambodian accent, Uncle Tom. It did take a few minutes to realise we were off to another set of ruins, rather than afternoon tea with Boreth’s family. Angkor Thom was once the centre of the largest city in the world, supporting a population of over 1 million people at a time when London had 25,000 residents.

Angkor Thom is surrounded by a massive wall, and leading up to each gate is a set of sculptures of Naga and Nagi, 7 headed serpents, being carried by warriors. Most of the warriors have now lost their heads but it would still make you think twice if you were planning to invade.

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Despite the surroundings, the thing that drew the most frenzied photo taking of the day was a little monkey, sitting on a cart of mangoes. He was very cute, trying to steal one but being too small to move them. The owner of the cart eventually came back and started to drive off, but the monkey hung on for dear life – who knows where he ended up.

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Bayon temple is a sight to behold – 54 towers with 216 craved stone faces peering out at you. It is a bit like a magic eye puzzle, at first you don’t see the faces and then all of a sudden, the only thing you can see is the faces. It is a real maze, with stairs and corridors and little rooms everywhere. It is much more compact than Angkor Wat, and at times, with all the tourists (including a large noisy French group) it felt quite claustrophobic. I made a sharp exit at this point and went to look at a couple of the outlying stupas, each containing big (4-5m) gold buddhas.

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Our final temple of the day was the famous Tomb Raider temple, Ta Promh. This is the most ruined temple that we saw, and at times, it was an effort to stay upright, clambering over fallen rocks and uneven flooring. Some people were getting a bit templed out by this point, but this temple, being so different to the others we had seen still held our attention. The temple is basically a combination of trees and stones, and I couldn’t believe that some of the trees were still standing, they seemed at such impossible angles.

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This is the temple that Hollywood took over to film the Tomb Raider films, which generated some excitement in the group. Having not seen the film, this was a bit lost of me, but nevertheless it was an impressive temple that we could have spent a lot longer in, had we not been with the a tour group who were keen to get back to the hotel pool.

After a quick drive back to Siem Reap, we were back at the hotel. Some of the group had gone to an Artisan’s school and workshop, but we decided to pass on this. We would have happily spent more time at  temples, but given the choice between the school and the pool, we took the pool. Whilst it was only the size of a plunge pool, it was a welcome bit of luxury!

Dinner was traditional Khmer food at a restaurant just off pub street, as recommended by Boreth. We opted for the “personal dinner” option rather than heading out with the group, but we did join Inga, Roar, Jerra and Ana for a drink in the Angkor Wat? bar later in the evening. This was an incredibly noisy bar with music blaring from all sides making conversation very difficult. After a few drinks, anticipating a long day tomorrow and looking for some peace and quiet, we headed home to bed, leaving Ana ploughing through a bucket of cocktail (this is no exaggeration – the cocktail came in an actual bucket) and Jerra nursing an Absinthe and coke….

Day 2 by Rich

This morning I awoke to a poorly Vicki. She had been up during the night with an upset stomach. Other than my brief stint of feeling sorry for myself in Chengdu this was our first encounter with illness. As Vicki had not slept much and still had a sore stomach she made the unhappy decision to sit out the day so I headed to breakfast alone. Today’s activity was an optional part of the tour, a boat trip on a lake to visit a floating village. Even though an optional extra, almost everyone in the group had elected to come along.

In breakfast I found a few people to eat with joining Zoe and Libbie as we tucked into a second day of high quality breakfast. Yesterday there was muesli and strawberry yoghurt, bacon sandwiches and waffles which went down very well. Today’s selection was more egg based which isn’t great for me but the cereal followed by beans on toast still did the trick. Anyway, while chomping through my breakfast and explaining Vicki’s illness to the others, in she strolls. Not wanting to be kept down by a mere stomach bug, Vicki had decided to brave the day.

This was quite brave of Vicki as first thing we were back onto a bus for a drive to first a small village market and then on to the lake. Arriving at our first village at 8:30am, Boreth encouraged us all to have a beer as all drinks were included on the trip. Not wanting to offend him, Meg and I obliged and had a very early start to the days drinking as we strolled the market with a beer. Next to the market a wedding was happening. There was a marquee filled with people enjoying a wedding meal. Although early in the morning which would be unusual for a wedding for us, this is nothing special for them. The wedding food would continue to be available to anyone who came throughout the day and probably several days either side.

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At the lake we hopped straight onto a boat. Again, good luck to Vicki with her tendency to experience travel sickness compounding how bad she already felt. On seeing the person sat in the driving seat we were all a little concerned. A young boy of around 6/7 years old was there. Luckily his dad soon came aboard and we had a slightly more experienced captain. The little boy did steer at some points as his dad attended other tasks and was more than happy to take our tips at the end of the trip.

The boat ride passed by a floating village which consisted of houses on stilts. The lake was calm except for the tourist boats passing though. Locals were getting on with their lives, sorting their mornings catch or tending to fishing nets. We had the choice of inside or on top of the boat. For the outward trip I sat on top with some of the others. The view was great and we enjoyed waving to the local children and seeing the sights. All manners of life were living on the floating village. I wonder what it is like to be a cat, pig or chicken stranded away from dry land. At least the humans had use of boats to get in and out.

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Our destination on the lake was a landing point with a restaurant and walkway through the mangroves. Shortly before this we had stopped in a secluded area where there was an optional swim. Rob was the only taker yet his enthusiasm made up for the rest of us. Back in the mangroves we explored the walkway before some had a refreshing drink. Having already had 2 beers and with another ready on the boat for the return trip I passed. Vicki was however very appreciative of the stomach calming Coke.

As the heat was picking up I took the shady option and stayed inside on the return leg. Those that went on the roof did look a little hot and crispy when we returned. With everyone having already had a few drinks on the boat, we continued the party on the bus. Meg passed round beers to several takers and we headed back to Siem Reap. There was only one stop on the way back. Boreth assured us that the ideal accompaniment to our beers was grilled frog. I was well up for this and found it to be a delicious snack. At first I was a little worried as I bit into it and didn’t get the expected taste. Turns out the frogs are stuffed so the texture inside was nothing to worry about.

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In Siem Reap we were ready for food after our morning of drinking. The whole party moved to Khmer Family Kitchen where the others had eaten the night before. I don’t think anyone had Khmer food though, most opting for pizzas, burger for me and safe Caesar salad for Vicki. Tired after lunch we returned to the hotel where Vicki had a long awaited nap. I made the most of the pool while she slept.

Shortly before 4pm I headed up to the room to tell Vicki that I was off to explore some temples back at the Angkor Wat site. Included in our tour was a day pass to the temples which costs $20. Vicki and I had upgraded ours to a 3 day pass which are sold for $40. I was ready to start making the most of the extra $20. Not wanting to be left out and feeling a bit better from her nap, Vicki decided to join me.

We headed outside and for once we did want a Tuk Tuk. As is always the case when you actually want something, there were none to be found. A short walk along the road and one pulled up beside us. Mr Leng offered his driving services out to the temples for an explore then sunset view for $10. We accepted and were soon zooming off to the temples.

Yesterday we had done the big 3 temples that are on the tourist trail. Today we wanted to experience more peaceful ones. We decided to explore more of the Angkor Thom (Uncle Tom again) complex. We only touched on it yesterday so without the group we had a better opportunity to look around. Being there alone was a hugely different experience. We explored a temple that was a mix of pyramid shape and jungle temple, linked by pillared walkway and long terraces. There were also a number of ponds where monks were swimming. It really is a shame that most people miss out on these temples, just doing the big 3, as they have so much to offer and easily equal the popular ones. One day really isn’t enough to do Angkor Wat justice.

By staying of the well trodden tourist trail we found we had the temple practically to ourselves. We were probably outnumbered by the young boys who had been sent to practice their English, sign you up to mailing lists and get money out of us to fund their education. We were willing to chat to them however if you strayed of their known spiel you were in trouble. [Him: Manchester football good. Me: Which team? Him: Manchester football good…I can only assume he knew there was only one team in Manchester worth knowing about.] Safe to say, they got no cash from us as we didn’t want to encourage sending children begging even if it really was for a good cause.

The final stop on our exploration with Mr Leng was the sunset temple. This is the most popular spot for sunsets so gets very crowded. We were only just in time so it wasn’t too busy walking up the hill to the temple. We passed a few viewpoints with fine sunset views. When we arrived at the top it was extremely crowded and hard to see the view. It wasn’t a particular fabulous sunset yet there were still hundreds of tourists present. We let them crowd the front of the temple and found a quieter spot at the back.

The sunset temple was very reminiscent of our time at Bagan in Burma earlier this year. The whole Angkor Wat area and Bagan are very similar and we couldn’t help making comparisons. We think Burma wins on sunset. The view from their sunset temple is over a flat plain with many other temples around. Here it is over jungle and rice fields so you don’t actually see the light on the temples. Still it was worth the climb up and sometime you need to go with the crowds as they are in the good places for a reason.

After carefully heading down the hill (one Japanese lady wasn’t careful enough and was left on her bum with a crowd fussing around her) Mr Leng returned us to Siem Reap. Before we departed we enquired about a tour for the following day before our flight. Unfortunately he was busy but called his friend Mr Kheng and arranged for him to collect us instead. Mr Leng said he liked us a lot and as we departed offered me a big hug. We now look forward to meeting Mr Kheng to see if we get the same.

Dinner tonight was the group farewell dinner. We were taken by Boreth to a restaurant on the far side of pub street. The service there was extremely slow as this was another restaurant catering for multiple large groups. One thing we won’t miss about the tour is the effort and time taken in eating with a large group.

As it was the final night in Cambodia a few more drinks were in order (we had recovered from our morning drinks at this point). Vicki decided to pass and get home early which was partly thwarted by Rob taking her and some others on a very long and not so scenic route back. For me, beers, Jaeger bombs and dancing followed accompanied by the Guernsey girls, Norwegian boys, Jerra and Meg. At midnight I sensibly called it a night ready for our early start the next day. (Vicki: I knew Rich had made it back when I heard him shouting “don’t give him more dollars!”. Apparently, our travel companions were trying to be overly generous with the tuk-tuk driver, and Rich wasn’t having any of it!)

Day 3 by Vicki

After Rich’s night time exploits, I was more than a little surprised that he was willing to get up when the alarm went off at 5am. He did have some difficulty in working out what was going on, and what clothes to wear, but I’ll put that down to lack of sleep rather than alcohol…

Mr Kheng was ready and waiting for us, and in no time at all we were shooting through Siem Reap on our way back to the temples in time for sunrise. I was amazed at the the number of people up and about already, lots of people getting stalls ready, and even some runners. I guess when you live in that climate you to make the most of the time when it is not roasting hot.

We decided to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, despite the fact that it would likely be overrun with people. As Rich said above, there is a reason why some temples are busy at sunrise/sunset. We arrived in plenty of time and claimed a spot slightly away from the majority of tourists.

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After a bit more exploration of Angkor Wat, where I felt very conspicuous in a bright pink T shirt, we headed back to Mr Kheng, and set off for some of the lesser known temples. On the way, Rich spotted a small temple on side of the road that he fancied a look at, so we pulled over. Never one to miss an opportunity, mountain goat Rich was clambering up the temple before you could say ancient monument.  This caused some issues with an American family who were also looking at the temple. Their small child (Kathleen) was suddenly desperate to climb the temple, much to her parents annoyance – she kept whining and moaning and eventually was allowed to climb a few steps, but not as far as Rich, which was probably for the best. You know it is steep when Rich is coming down backwards!

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Our next stop in the Tuk tuk was Preah Kahn, another temple similar to Ta Promh, with lots of trees  growing out of the walls. This one was a bit of a maze though, with corridors full of identical rooms – we could see why this temple is described as a “hall of mirrors”. As it was still early, we were lucky enough to have this one almost to ourselves. The lack of tourists really does enhance the experience – if we went again, I would be tempted to do all my site-seeing either very early in the day, or very late, just to avoid the hoards.

Our final temple was Neak Pohn. This is a very different one to any of the others – it is a small stupa completely surrounded by water. We crossed a long wooden bridge to get to the viewing area, but that is as far as you can go, and this gives it an isolated feel – like the person who built it wanted it to be revered from a distance, giving it a mythical quality.

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Looking at the time, it was now about 8.30am, and our aim was to be back at the hotel just before 9.30am in time for breakfast. We could have just gone back early, but instead decided to give the tuk tuk driver a laugh and went for a run. Trying to communicate that despite having hired a tuk tuk, we wanted to run part of the way back was quite tricky. You  could see what was going through his head, “crazy westerners…you want to RUN? in this heat?” but he gamely took our rucksack and followed us very slowly down the road, much to the amusement (or confusion) of the other road users. It was quite hot by this time, and after a only a couple of minutes in we were sweating buckets. Never the less, we ran back to the previous temple, a solid 2 miles.  We then got back in our tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel, very grateful for the breeze generated by speeding along with Mr Kheng. It is a shame that it is so hot – running would be a great way to see the temples. Someone has obviously had the same thought as me – there is a half marathon around Angkor War in December. Unfortunately we are in Malaysia then, or we could have been persuaded….

After a very quick breakfast (we arrived about 1 minute after the official end of breakfast) and some packing, we headed back out to the tuk tuk to go to the airport. Luckily, Mr Kheng had done this before and helpfully provided ropes to tie the luggage on. It was a great way to end our trip to Cambodia, and I think we will definitely be back in the future, to see all the things we couldn’t quite squeeze in this trip.

Next stop…Thailand!

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You want Tuk Tuk?

Travel Dates: 1st November 2013

Today was a travelling day involving Vicki’s favourite mode of transportation, a bus. We set off from Phnom Penh early on a relatively small and very sticky mini bus. Although it was air conditioned, the seats seemed to draw sweat out of us. This combined with rattling along very bumpy road made for a less than comfortable ride.

Talking about the cramped bus is as good a time as any to quickly introduce our travelling companions through Cambodia. Most of them have been together for a months tour through Laos and Vietnam and we are joining for the tail end in Cambodia. The group is:

  • Zoe and Libbie – sisters from Guernsey. Both about to start accountancy training, Zoe even wants to be a forensic accountant. They are travelling SE Asia and New Zealand for 3 months together.
  • Rob & Shell – an Australian couple, him a mine fitter of some kind (not sure) and her a nurse. Rob prefers his outdoor activities but endures the cultural sections of the trip.
  • Charmaine – a friend of Rob & Shell’s who works at the same hospital as Shell. She often travels with Rob & Shell and they have visited Africa/South American and other places together before.
  • Meg – an Australian who has until recently been working as head of house keeping at a hotel on a tropical island.
  • Elise – another Australian who is on her way to live in Canada. She is going to stay there with her brother until her money runs out.
  • Jeanine and Linda – an Australian couple who work in prisons, Jeanine as a guard and Linda as a psychologist. This is there first trip abroad and are spending almost 2 months in SE Asia doing a trip through Thailand after this.
  • Roar and Ingar – Norwegians working in the technical sector in Oslo. Ingar is a programmer and Roar an accountant so again a good fit with us. When we met Ingar his arm was strapped up as he dislocated it in the first few days of his trip in Vietnam. Roar is a runner having recently completed the Oslo half and looking to do a marathon (probably New York).
  • Ana – an American of Columbian decent. She is currently working in London as a travel agent at the Flight Center.
  • Jerra – the youngest of the group at 19, he is student taking timeout to backpack around SE Asia for a few months.
  • Boreth– our guide!

Boreth deserves his own few paragraphs as he is an interesting chap. As our bus ride began today he gave us a bit about his background. He was born in a village about 50km from Siem Reap. He grew up in these two places. At 15 he decided to leave home with two of his friends. They had no money so stole some watches from one of their parents who was selling them and used the watches to pay their way to Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh they spent there first night wandering the city with nothing to eat and nowhere to stay. Fortunately the following day they found work washing cars. This kept them going for a few months as they experienced the city. After 9 months they grew homesick though and one by one returned to Siem Reap and their families.

Boreth’s father was a business man who has explored different avenues throughout his life. There were stories of how he invested in different deals (some legitimate, some less so) but none seem to go right for him. At times it sounded as if he were quite prosperous however his downfall came after a series of rice export deals fell through. Apparently his contacts in Vietnam turned back several shipments of rice which were subsequently ruined. This lead Boreth’s father to bankruptcy. Following a stroke he now lives with his family in a poor section of Siem Reap.

Learning from his father, Boreth knows that to get ahead you need to work hard. Although his father was not very lucky in his deals he taught his son a good work ethic and to value education. As such Boreth has been to university to study tourism and has worked his way up through the tourist industry, starting as a waiter where he learned English and Japanese, becoming a local guide before moving up to tour leader. He has ambitions of starting his own travel agency. Hopefully he will have more luck than his father did.

Back on the road, our first stop was a village along the way popular as a rest stop for tourists. As the bus doors opened we were swamped by small children trying to sell us bags of fruit. We don’t buy anything from children as we don’t want to encourage their parents to keep them out of school, working to sell to tourists. There were however enough adults around market stalls to allow us to purchase some mango (unripe so bitter but still very tasty) and a mix of roasted beetroot and sweet potato chips. There were also some less conventional food stuffs on offer…

The main draw for the village is obvious from how it is referred to, the spider village. Tourists stop here to sample the creepy crawlies that have been fried up. Our group was mixed in their opinions on this. El was straight in, sampling anything that she was offered. Others like Rob refused to even get close. I tried spider and cricket. I would have tried frog if I knew it was on offer but I turned down the bug/worm things. I have had similar before and not been impressed. The spider was ok. If you ignore what you are eating the taste isn’t horrible even if the texture a bit weird. Like the scorpions back in Beijing it just tastes like deep fried something. Cricket on the other hand was delicious. It was cooked in a sweet sauce and the crunchy texture made it very appetising. As insect eating is being promoted as a way of solving world hunger I would recommend the world tries these crickets.

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The food stop preceded a long stint on the road. About 2.5 hours of being bumped and bounced around were less than comfortable. Libbie was particular hard done by as she had the seat next to the stack of bags. Several times the whole pile threatened to come down on her head. We were all very relieved to arrive at our lunch stop.

Lunch was next to a lake. We can’t remember the name but it was big. Apparently the biggest in SE Asia. This was the first tourist rest stop to be built in Cambodia and is definitely popular. A number of groups filled long tables making service a bit slow. They clearly took a dislike to me as they ignored most of my order. As everyone else got drinks, I didn’t get my beer. Then when everyone’s food came my beef in pineapple (in a whole pineapple which was pretty cool) was last by some time and they then promised but didn’t deliver the accompanying rice. Safe to say I won’t be going back there again (not that I could ever find it).

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Further bouncing along down the road brought us to Siem Reap. We were very relieved to arrive and escape the bus. We didn’t have long to rest though. A 15 minute turnaround and we were back out for a Siem Reap city tour by Tuk Tuk.

The city tour took us first to the poor part of town as described by Boreth. A surprise to us here was they he actually took us to his own home and introduced us to his family. His mother, father and brother were there along with several of his nieces and nephews running around. Apparently up to 22 people can live in his home at one time although it seems the members of the family roam around a lot. If everyone was present it would be very cramped as the traditional stilt house only has a single room upstairs containing a double bed and lots of possessions heaped up. The porch, or shade as he called it was Boreth’s preferred place to sleep. Apparently this was because it allowed him to escape without anyone noticing.

One interesting point about Boreth’s family is that his younger brother was described to us as being a bit crazy. Boreth said this was because while present his mother had looked at a lunar eclipse. This subsequently caused the problems when her son was born. When we saw the son we realised he actually had Downs syndrome rather than being crazy. It was interesting how they explained the cause of this.

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The tour continues with a temple stop and passing by many areas. One notable stop was a market. This was a locals market rather than a tourist one. This meant most of what was on sale was set out to be someone’s dinner. Normally I am not too squeamish in these markets however this one really tested my limits. There were people slaughtering things left right and centre. Libbie wasn’t having a good day already after the bus ride and we thought she might flip when her leg was sprayed with fish guts. She handled it very well with hardly a complaint. I think the most disturbing thing I saw were frogs in a bowl wriggling away. This wouldn’t be so bad expect they had been skinned and beheaded already.

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The tour finished with a sunset visit to a reservoir. We had an opportunity to swim here. Rob was straight into the water closely followed by Meg and I. The water was warm and very refreshing after our day on the bus. Vicki had a bit of a paddle but didn’t want to change into swimming costume with all the locals watching.

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Not wanting to rest too long our return from the city tour was followed by another quick turnaround (in which Vicki and I still managed to fit in a drink on the roof top bar) and then heading out to a buffet meal accompanied by traditional singing and dancing. Having done a few of these kind of shows around the world, I wouldn’t say this one was a classic. The food was nothing special and although it was interesting to see the dancing styles and costumes, a lack of narrative left us a little confused.

After dinner we went for our first experience of the night markets and famous Pub Street in Siem Reap. The sandals that I bought in Phnom Penh weren’t doing the trick so I wanted to get something more comfortable. This meant we needed to try our terrible bargaining skills again. We could only find one pair of suitable sandals in the night markets (Cambodians have much smaller feet) which immediately put us on the back foot. It was clear we wanted them so didn’t leave us the we could take it or leave it approach. We managed to cut the offer price in two but could probably have done better if we had been more persistent.

Pub Street is, as the name would suggest, a road filled with pubs. They are are filled with westerners with no locals to be seen (except working of course). In Phnom Penh we thought there was more of a balance between westerners and tourists but here it was very one sided. While shopping for sandals we managed to lose the rest of the group so settled for a drink on our own. We found a good bar which offered 75cent draught beers and I wasn’t complaining about.

The other noticeable thing on Pub Street other than pubs are the offers of Tuk Tuks. Westerners could not walk more than a few metres without hearing the regular offer of “You want Tuk Tuk?” Being walking distance from our hotel we did not want a Tuk Tuk. We found saying no to each Tuk Tuk driver wasn’t a good idea. Saying no to each makes it more annoying that they are asking. The best way was just to blank them all. I did try the alternative option of chatting to them. This confused quite a few as their vocabulary is generally limited to “You Want Tuk Tuk?”. At one point I pre-empted being asked and offered a Tuk Tuk to someone before he asked me . When he said yes, I started escorting him to my own imaginary Tuk Tuk. If only I had a real one I could have made a dollar.

In any case. We finished our drinks and then walked home. Sorry Mr Tuk Tuk, not today.

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Pnohm phen? Nom pen? Phnohmh Phenh?

Travel Dates: 29th – 31st October 2013

Day 1

Phnom Penh is really tricky to spell. I know this because I had to write it on multiple forms and kept getting it wrong. We had an immigration form, customs form and visa form. Now I am also writing a post about it by I guarantee if you ask me in 5 minutes how to spell it I will still get it wrong.

So out of Singapore and into Cambodia. When we had the required forms filled and were through the airport, with surprisingly little wait despite the red tape involved, we had to tackle the taxi into town. Vicki has been worried about this as she thought we were going to get ripped off by the taxi driver. We found though that they have a set fare of $9 (US) into the city. Easy peasy!

When we got to the taxi rank a Scottish chap asked to share our taxi. Since Vicki’s fears of getting ripped off by the drivers were gone we were more than happy to travel in with a stranger. This gave us someone else to worry about ripping us off instead. No need to worry though as the guy we shared with was a genuinely nice fellow. He has visited Cambodia many times and owns a motor bike here. He regularly visits to ride around the country with friends who own bars and guesthouses in the south of Cambodia. We didn’t get his name but know he was from Edinburgh. He paid his $3 share of the taxi and we were all happy at having had an easy trip into town.

After checking into our hotel we set off to explore a little. We didn’t have much time so headed for the central market which was only a short distance away. Vicki needed some t-shirts and I needed a pair of sandals. The market was a bit hot which meant we weren’t in the mood for much bartering. No doubt we could have gotten a much better deal if we tried harder but still came out with the products we needed. After paying $12 for my knock off Timberland sandals the stall owner did laugh. I think this might have been at the sweaty English man who kept almost falling off a stool while trying on shoes (that would be me) rather than that he had totally done us and made enough to feed his family for a week. £7 for shoes may be a bit pricey here but I was happy to be out the market and he was happy I didn’t knock his whole stall over.

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Our Cambodian leg is being done as part of a tour. We are here with a Gecko tour, joining a group who had been together before. Some had done 33 days through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and others only part of it. We are the last people to join the tour as others have left. The group consists of 17 people, mainly Australian, who I don’t have a hope of remembering names for right now. After the customary welcome meeting with the Cambodian guide we headed for dinner.

A tuk-tuk ride to dinner was with the Norwegian chaps in the group. Roar and Inga maybe? (These names may not be right) Anyway, a group tuk-tuk took us to a restaurant. It is a bit hot and sticky here. One of the Norwegian fellows must be suffering as he is in a sling that wraps his upper body. Apparently on his second day in Vietnam (where he joined the tour) he dislocated he shoulder jumping off a boat. Ouch!

At dinner we sat next to the other British members of the group. They are sisters from Guernsey, Zoe and Libbie (these are definitely their real names). They have both recently graduated from Canterbury university and want to be accountants. Even better, one wants to be a forensic accountant so Vicki was in her element. In any case we had good food, good beer and conversation about accounting…what more can you ask for?

The rest of the group were very tired after a bus ride from Vietnam so headed home early. Vicki and I took a walk along the riverside and then had some more drinks in the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) which was popular with overseas journalists during the war years. It is a fabulous little bar with a real colonial/expat feel. Vicki struggled to drag me away for the tuk-tuk ride back to bed.

Day 2

The day started with a treat…breakfast! Having stayed in various hotels of different quality through China and Hong Kong, it has been a while since we had a hotel with breakfast. Generally we have been picking something up on the go so not starting the day right. Today we did so were raring to go for the 7:30am start to our tour. First activity was a cyclo tour.

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Being whisked around Phnom Penh in these contraptions was good fun. Although we did feel a bit guilty that our cyclo-engine pushers were working hard while we sat back. They all seemed to be having a good time as they laughed and joked between themselves which helped relieve the guilt. On the tour we visited the main city sights including the Royal Palace/Silver pagoda and some temples.

Our morning tour finished at 11:30am so we headed for an ice cream. This was our first of our trip (we haven’t been in hot places that long though) and prompted by our Australian tour mates who all seem very keen on ice cream. Ice cream was closely followed by lunch in a Cambodian restaurant. It does seem we got the desert/main in the wrong order here but we weren’t complaining. Squid & rice for Vicki and a mango/shrimp salad for me were well received.

The afternoon had a sombre set of sights lined up. First was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek closely followed by Tuol Sleng / S21 genocide museum. These are both linked to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge (lead by Pol Pot) while they were in charge of the Democratic Kampuchea as Cambodia was known between 1976 and 1979 (it is now officially the Kingdom of Cambodia). During this time up to 3 million Cambodians were killed by their own ruling party. A large number of these in the S21  prison, run by Comrade Duch. We both knew a fair bit about the background on this having both read The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop on route.  This tells the story of the head of the S21 prison that was responsible for the torture and execution of thousands of Cambodians – not a happy read but very informative. Since being found by the author Comrade Duch is now serving a life sentence for his crimes. After finding Catholicism late in life, he has confessed to the crimes committed at S21. The other leaders of the party who have been put on trial have refused to talk about their involvement or take any responsibility for their actions. It is a harrowing story so we knew that we were in for a less than cheery afternoon.

We arrived by bus at the Choeng Ek memorial ground, about 40 minutes outside Phnom Penh, and were shown around by a guide who still vividly remembers that period oh history – his family alone lost 42 members in the period 1976-79. The area itself is probably smaller than a football pitch but it is estimated that about 17,000 men , women and children were executed here.

There are various “stations” around the site, each marking a particular discovery or point of interest, such as the mass graves  where all the victims were headless, the grave where women and children were buried or the tree where the guard smashed the babies heads in. It is said that the executions here were of “political enemies”, but that is a little hard to swallow when discussing the murder of young children and babies. Our guide had another theory, that the murder of the children was to prevent revenge attacks when the children grew up and found out what had happened to relatives.

The main memorial is a huge stupa in the centre of the site. Inside this there are 12 twelve levels, and each level is filled with the bones that have been found at the site – so far about 9,000 skeletons have been exhumed. There is no active work being carried out at the site at the moment, but bones still keep appearing as the rain washes the soil away, revealing more graves.

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It really is inconceivable that only 35 years ago, a ruling party should have been able to do this to it’s own people, whilst the rest of the population lived in fear and abject poverty, and yet the world pretty much did nothing to stop it, even giving Pol Pot’s party a seat at the UN. 

After this sombre start to the afternoon, we headed back into town to Tuol Saeng, known as S21, which was the main prison for enemies of the revolution under the Khmer Rouge. It was from here that victims were transported to Choeng Ek to meet their fate. The prison was originally a school, and as you walk into the compound, you can easily imagine school children running around – there is a central square, with three storey buildings of classrooms on three sides. However, this image is distorted by the 14 “coffins” of the final victims of the prison, who were still here when the prison was abandoned by the guards in the final days of the Khmer Rouge reign in Phnom Penh.

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In the first building, the “classrooms” have been divided up into cells. Each has the original furniture consisting of an iron bedframe, shackles and ammo box to serve as a toilet. On the wall are the photos taken by the first people to enter the compound after Phnom Penh’s liberation. These show the state of the prisoners as they were found, still tied to their shackles with no food or water, just abandoned.

The second building has information about the running of the prison, and photos of the victims that were brought to S21. There is room after room of small photos of prisoners – each prisoner to arrive at the centre had their photo taken, and these records were not destroyed when the prison was abandoned, and so the scale of the atrocity is clear for all to see. There are photos of men, women and children of all ages, often before and after interrogation by torture. Everyone brought here was suspected of being a counter revolutionary, but this was often just an excuse and most (if not all of the confessions) extracted after torturing the victims were complete fabrications. Again, these were just left here when the prison was abandoned.

It is impossible to describe the experience of walking in room after room of pictures of people who were all killed for little if any reason, maybe stealing a potato to feed a starving family, or happening to know someone already thought of as an enemy of the revolutionary.

There were only 7 people who survived being brought to Tuol Saeng, out of 15,000+ people. Two of these people now work as guides at the museum, and have written books about their experiences, as have many of the guards. One of the survivors was at the museum when we visited, and he was smiling for the cameras and chatting away happily, which seemed completely at odds with the surroundings, but I guess when you have been through what he must have been through, anything life gives you afterwards is a bonus.

To us looking at this period in Cambodian history, it just seem incomprehensible. Talking to our guide, he said that many people feel the same, but they are unlikely to get any answers as to why it happened – even Comrade Duch has no explanation for them.

After the afternoons tour, we returned to the hotel and had time for a quick run. This was much needed as it gave us a chance to clear our heads after the afternoon. It had already gone dark so running through the extremely busy streets of Phnom Penh was a bit of a risk. We managed to dodge people, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks to find our way to the Cambodian Olympic stadium, complete with Olympic rings on the side. Here, after a round about route to find the entrance we found crowds of people gathered in the dark. On the top of the stadium stands there was music blaring and people we lined up to do exercise. Several different groups were doing the same thing to different music so there was a lot of noise.

Inside the stadium there were people making there way around the track. We descended the stands to have a closer look. There were fairly large and sharp fences keeping us from the track. We did a half loop in the stands to see if we could find a way in. We didn’t find one but did find another English speaking runner trying to do the same thing. We decided we must have missed the entrance so returned the way we came. The other runner went ahead and through sign language to some Cambodians discovered we had to squeeze through a gap in the fence to gain access to the track. We did this and we soon running around the Cambodian Olympic stadium (and no, they have never held the Olympics). There were many other people running round in the dark. It was a bit strange because the track was sandy rather than the athletics track you would expect. Lap completed we headed back to our hotel.

Dinner was Cambodian with the group again. We chatted to Linda and Jeanine, two Australian prison workers who were on their first trip out of Australia. After dinner others were off for another ice cream so we went alone to get a drink further down the riverside. The bars we found we full of revellers celebrating Halloween, complete with costumes and make up. We found an outdoor seat at a quieter bar where we could watch the world go by over a few drinks.

We are still here!

It seems without much travel time on trains we aren’t keeping up with our travel blog. We are currently a week behind on posts. Since last posting we have been through Singapore, Cambodia and are now in Thailand. We were all go in Cambodia as we had a short time with lots to see. We were on a tour so our time was dictated by a tight itinerary leaving limited opportunities to record our progress. Never fear though, we are still here. Things are moving along nicely and we will let you know all about it in due course. For now we have our Singapore post uploaded and are almost ready with some from Cambodia. Once again photo sorting is delaying posting.

For now though we are back out into Bangkok and this evening we are heading to Chinatown. This reminds us that we left China two weeks ago now. Time is really flying as we move through our last two countries and final 4 weeks before returning home.