Cambodia 2nd January – 11th January
The journey from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh in Cambodia was on a public boat and took about four hours. As usual, the sights and sounds on the river were fascinating – people living, trading, fishing in such an unfamiliar a style of life. Squalid on the one hand, comfortable, sociable and cooperative on the other. The immigration and visa process took place at some point on the river. We disembarked, having had our passports removed by the boatman. After some time we were put back on the boat and proceeded, still without our passports. This felt very worrying as I had no idea what was happening and we watched as an American girl was detained by officials and did not appear again until the next stop. This stop was at an immigration office not far away where we disembarked again, waiting to be processed. This was a lengthy process and no information was given in English on what was happening. Eventually the boatman came with the passports of all the passengers and held a roll call, returning passports one by one. He had some real pronunciation issues!
We were met in Phnom Penh by Mark, the director of the tour company who was leading the Cambodia part of the trip. We checked into the hotel, had a quick lunch and then walked around with Mark, getting a flavour of the city – the French historic quarter and lively waterfront, ending in an exhausted heap at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club, where intrepid war journalists gathered during the Vietnam war.
I had arranged to have dinner with a former colleague from Child’s i Foundation and he ordered some great local food for us. It’s always strange to see people out of context as I worked in Uganda with him but we enjoyed the evening, ending up in his partner’s pop up shop where we managed to force down, on top of our meal, the most delicious roast park I have ever had, washed down with champagne. There was talk of asking me to do some consultancy work with Save the Children, where Robert now works but time will tell if anything ever comes of this.
The following day was a more structured tour, taking in the Royal Palace, a market, the architectural gem of a post office and the Khymer Rouge Genocide Museum. I dipped out of the latter, having read about it the previous evening. It is located in the school that had been converted to a prison, used by the Khymer Rouge for indescribable torture, evidence of which remains. Our guide had lost several members of his family to the Khymer Rouge, both as part of the genocide and through starvation. Likewise, I opted out of the next visit to the killing fields, an area where prisoners from the above prison were taken to be dispatched, after further torture and abuse. It was a memorial with a pagoda containing the skulls thousands of the victims. One in six Cambodians died during the period of the Khymer Rouge, from genocide or starvation. For me, the opportunity to visit such places ( I had also opted out of the Rwanda Genocide Museum when I was there) is a no win situation . If I go, as at the war museum at Ho Chi Minh City, I feel sick and faint and that there is an awful prurient or vicarious interest being taken. If I don’t go I feel I’m opting out of something I should be doing to respect the dead and understand the history. However, on this day I took myself to the national museum instead, meeting up with others later at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
The following day we drove through scenic countryside to the small provincial town of Siem Reap in Western Cambodia – our base for visiting the nearby Angkor Temple complex. On the way we stopped at a market where all sorts of unspeakable wares were on sale for human consumption: huge spiders, beetles and scorpions. We were traveling with Mark’s Cambodian girlfriend who gave us a demonstration of eating, and apparently enjoying a giant spider of the tarantula family.
We also stopped off at the well preserved 10th century temple of Kuhananokor, in a small village in the grounds of a primary school. It was amazing for the way it was preserved but with tumbledown parts freely available for children to clamber over.
After arrival at our Siem Reap hotel we went to buy our passes for the Angkor Wat temples. There are 297 of these and I was not particularly looking forward to trailing around any great number of these, believing in my monumental ignorance that one temple is very much like another. Deliberate pun. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We visited them in a sensible way given the heat – spread over two and a half days, leaving early, back at the hotel around 9am and back out for more around 2.30. We visited around ten of the temples in this way. They really were mesmerising, especially those we visited with no other tourists around, or very few, because of the timing of the visits. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones with a bit of Jungle Book thrown in. They all dated from between the tenth and twelfth century and varied from being partially restored to absolute splendour and architectural perfection to being derelict looking, tumble down with the jungle growing through, over them and around them. The huge site had been abandoned and ‘rediscovered’ in the 1950’s ( I’m sure it had not been forgotten by the locals and folklore but the jungle had completely repossessed it). I can imagine the amazement of the French archaeologists who systematically explored and rediscovered this huge site. I’ll never remember the idiosyncrasies of each temple, even though there were significant differences but hopefully the photos will give a flavour.
As a reminder to myself we did: Banteay Kdel Temple, Angkor Wat itself, Angkor Tom: Leper King Terrace, Preah Palilay, Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, Elephant Terrace, Baphuon, Bayon Temple, the hilltop Phnom Bakheng Temple, and Preah Khan ( a jungle top ruin with huge roots growing out of and over buildings), Ta Nei and the Ta Prom ruins where ‘Tomb Raider’ was filmed. On the final day of our temple visits we went to the spectacular Beng Melea, a huge and partially ruined site.
When we had finished the temple visits and spent some time in Siem Reap we left the town for a day’s journey by boat to Battambang. This began with a boat journey across the Tonle Sap Lake, past the flooded forest and on down the Sangkar river. The river trip is, for me, one of the highlights of this trip to date. We had a traditional wooden motor boat to ourselves. The owner could not do enough to ensure our comfort and we found chilled water, beer and hammocks waiting for us. The scenery changed constantly as the day went on. There was complete chaos at the landing stage at the point of embarkation, with porters fighting our own tour leader and boatman over the carrying of our bags onto the boat. The first section on the lake was spectacular as the lake is the size of an inland sea, bordered by a bird sanctuary, which we followed up to our first stop at a floating village. The bird life throughout the journey was impressive, particularly as we had seen so few in Vietnam where birds are trapped for eating or to put in cages. Here there were storks wheeling overhead, cormorants, kingfishers and a host of other birds.
Th first floating village was at the confluence with the Sangkar river and was totally remarkable. All houses were on stilts, as was the temple, church, billiard table,health clinic, schools, wedding venue etc. We saw small boats navigated by small children in immaculate uniforms taking themselves to the floating schools. We were taken into an NGO assisted project that made basketware out of the water hyacinths that, having been introduced from abroad, have become an invasive species on all the rivers we saw. We were impressed with the quality of the work and bought a few items which we subsequently sent home by post.