After a lovely few days in Phnom Penh it was time to start our final long drive of the trip – up to Siem reap. The journey is set to take about 6 hours nowadays as they have relatively recently surfaced the road making it smoother for the traffic to head between the main cities (it also promotes from crazy driving….like I have never seen before!).
Sok was pointing out all the new developments on the way out of Phnom Penh – the sport complexes, apartments, shopping arcades, car showrooms to name just a few. It really feels like the city is at risk of losing its charm and some of its heritage soon and a lot of it is down to international money – tourism or investment. Tourism and investment are seen as good things for the country but they do also highlight some of the extremes of the society – making the rich richer and the poor, poorer but comparison. I even noticed a Hooters being built in the centre of the city before we left!
We went further afield we did begin to enjoy some of the countryside again – the yellow fields ready for harvesting. Sok was explaining how farming had also developed over the years – a bit more as you’d expect – less done by hand and more by machine.
We stopped for a pit stop at a local market – people selling beetles, cockroaches, maggots and tarantellas to eat as snacks (we didn’t give it a go)….we just picked up some fresh pineapple and went on our merry way! Mum thoroughly enjoyed the skill of the girl cutting our pineapple for us – getting rid of the inedible parts and slicing it so quickly from full…. I’m not sure it’s a skill we’ll pick up too quickly!
We continued on our way, soon turning off the main road and beginnign to make our way through some smaller villages. Naked children running up to the road to wave hello passed the open fire the family had outside their homes, a mother carrying a small child with another on the way, a old man cycling ona rusty bike carrying 3m long bamboo canes, houses on stilts with roofs made of palm leaves – all just facinating to watch and take in.
Our next stop was a Hindu temple (Kuha Nokor), built in 11th century from volcanic stone. Whilst it is essentially ruins now it was possible to stills ee the structure and incredible craftmanship that went into building such a stucture. Sok talked to us about the many statues that have been removed or stolen through the years either during the war or even through corruption and blackmail – locals stealing them out of deperation for money. The temple is still used as a place of worship by the few Hindus in the area, it is also used by Buddhists and there is a Buddha statue within the grounds as Buddhism in Cambodia is influenced by the historical Hindu presence.
After a decent wander round we headed back to the car to continue on our way. At once point I saw a trailer attached to a car with CDs glued on to the back acting as reflectors. You really can’t say that Cambodian’s aren’t resourceful! After not too short a drive we arrived at an even older 8th century temple….Sok told us he was easing us in for the next day at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. This site originally contained 25 temples and over 100 towers across the area – the government are currently working on it becoming a UNESCO world heritage site to assist in its maintenance and preservation. We were escorted the whole was round by tourist police – I guess to ensure we didn’t use any damage or take anything from the site – mum and I clearly looked the types! Interestingly we were told that things had been stolen from this site as well and had ended up in museums in Bangkok, it was also taken over by the Khmer Rogue during that time which had caused more accelerated damage to a lot of the structures. It was a gorgeous site – so peaceful and so much history, just incredible.
After our morning of temples we were ready for something to eat – we arrived at what was basically a service station on the side of the road, but a very nice one overlooking the river! Sok suddenly shot ahead and we realised it was because he had noticed one of the best tables was available so he wanted to get it for us before the other group that had come in with us got it…he was so nice! We enjoyed waiting for our food in our little private area, hanging on hammocks and mum drank the fresh coconut juice from a coconut that literally was the size of her head.
The drive continued and it also continued to be absolutely beautiful. We really did notice the stark contrast in the terrain between Vietnam and Cambodia….and we both much preferred Cambodia. We drove passed cows wandering in the road, water buffalo drinking from the sides of the road, more houses up high to protect them in rainy season, huge hay stacks on the back of bikes, children in school taking their PE lessons and other cycling home after their day had finished (children in Cambodia do half days at school).
We stopped for a final time at a Dragon Bridge, built in the 12th century and still going. It isn’t passable by anything bigger than motorbikes (so cars etc take another bridge nearby) but it is functioning. Both ends are protected by the famous nine headed snake and stone guards.
Finally after a long but good day we arrived at our hotel. It was at this point we had to say goodbye to Sok as we were getting a new local guide the next morning. I was so sad to say goodbye to him as he had been so fantastic and really gone above and beyond inviting us to his family.
We swapped rooms (for a couple of reasons) but once we were settled we enjoyed a lovely cocktail on our balcony watching the sun go down on the first night in our last hotel of our trip together! We decided after the long day we would just enjoy dinner in the hotel so we had a very relaxed evening.
Chongsan met us bright and early the next morning to take us on our temple exploration around Siem Reap…. Today was the day we were going to going to see one of the seven wonders of the world…..Angkor Wat!
The Angkor area itself was built to represent the universe – surrounded by water and built in towers to represent the mountains. Angkor Wat was the largest Hindu temple to be built in the world – as a result every single person who visits Siem Reap (or more accurately anyone who visits Cambodia) wants to see it. It was converted from a Hindu temple to Buddhist in 16th century. The literal meaning of ‘Angkor Wat’ is ‘City of Temples’ and the show definitely fits.
We met Chongsan first thing and he took us immediately to pick up tickets for the day – the ticket area was so busy. Tickets around our necks we headed in the direction of the main event. Many people had said to go to some of the other temples first but our guide thought this way round was better as first thing was likely to be a little cooler – the number of people didn’t really vary throughout the day.
We entered the complex from the East gate – most people head in from the West as it is the front, however the guide also believed this was the better way as a) less people did it this way round round, b) the east pathway was covered so a little cooler as he talked us through the history and c) it meant our final view was the best one. He talked us through a lot of the history and explained how the structures were built of sandstone and laterite stone. The main temple itself was unusually pointing to the west (normally they point to the east for sunrise) but in this case it was the funeral temple of the king at the time and therefore pointed to the West in the direction of sunset. We walked around the first wall (east) entrance and then up to the main temple. Mum took some time to wander around here as I made my way to join the queue to climb up to the top.
The area was extremely busy but we were prepared for it. I waited in the queue for 45mins before being able to climb. They only allow 100 up at the top at one time which was really nice as it meant that it wasn’t overcrowded, it also meant that it felt safe. On reaching the entrance to the tallest tower there was a sign outlining a few rules including keeping voices down – given I was in front of a party of approx. 15 Chinese people I read it with great interest to try and promote a slight quieter / calmer approach when we got inside. Fortunately there was enough space that I could escape there presence quite quickly on getting to the top. After a good look around and being able to see some great views over the entire complex I went down to join mum again. Chongsan then took us around the intricate stone carvings that surround the circumference of the temple each with a detailed story of the time. The detail was quite incredible.
After a good few hours at the temple loaded with a lot of information we headed out of the complex to the get the main view (and a few pretty good pics!) before heading for some lunch. Mum and I had decided that we definitely wanted that day to the two of us that we had talked about earlier in the trip so mum spoke to Chongsan about it while I was climbing the temple – in order to ensure we didn’t cause the guides or driver to miss out on any payment we agreed that we would inform the tour company that we would go out with the guides in the morning but have the afternoon to ourselves (we actually had no intention of going out in the morning). Mum communicated with the company over lunch.
In the afternoon we visited two more temples – I actually think these were as impressive as Angkor Wat but in different ways. Before reaching the first one we crossed the brides of demons and gods shown within the carving in Angkor Wat – 54 demons and gods in total, representing the number of provinces in Cambodia at the time of building.
Chongsan explained how before 15th century all the kings had to build a state temples – one of them built Angkor Wat, the next Bayon, the temple itself is newer than Angkor but looks older due to its faster building and not such good quality materials. The temple was just incredible – 54 towers with 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara looking in every direction.
After a good wander here we then drove passed the terrace of elephants (historically used for public ceremonies ) and a base for the king’s audience hall and headed over to Ta Prohm temple – an impressive structure for a different reason altogether – this one of due to the power of nature as trees, plants, shrubs spout from every direction and cover the temple like giants tentacles – amazing to see. Apparently Tomb Raider was filmed here bu not being a huge film buff (understatement of the century) I would never have known that!
It really had been quite a long day by the time we had finished here so we headed back to the hotel to quickly turn around and go out for dinner. Odyssey (the tour company) had kindly offered us dinner this evening as we had decided to ‘just do a morning tour without lunch’ the next day. A lovely meal with the added bonus of a free dance show – we think put on by some local students – which was great s this was something we had debated whether we wanted to do so while it was amateur it was a little insight into local dance.
After dinner we thought we would go around some of the local markets but after a bit of a wander we were both completely shattered so headed back to the hotel. This is definitely another time I thought it would have been good for us to have planned a few more down days into our schedule we wandering around markets, bartering on things and just browsing is something mum and I love doing together and we just didn’t really get the chance while we were away together.
Our last day can we called nothing but lazy and it was lovely. We spent the morning by the pool, reading, getting the lovely people at the hotel to completely rearrange all the furniture so we could sit near each other in the best spot around the pool (oops!), drinking mocktails (which later progressed to cocktails) and I did some planning for the next stage of my trip. Having been with mum for the past 3.5 weeks I hadn’t needed to think about where I was going and how I was going to get places so I had get my thinking cap on again…. Especially as my friend Tim had mentioned he was looking flights to come and meet me in Laos so I needed to work out the best place for him to go to and how I was going to make it to meet him in the right place!
The hotel had a little spa which mum had kindly said she would treat me to a treatment in so in the heat of the day we took ourselves off and enjoyed an amazing 2.5hour treatment - full body ‘glow’ – in which we were completely covered in a body paste / gel (I’m not completely sure how to describe it!) for an hour before washing it off to result in beautifully soft skin. This was then followed by a foot massage – so lovely.
When we had finished the sun had started to move off the pool so we had a quick late lunch and then headed to the balcony for a cocktail on our balcony (tough life). We debated what to do for dinner and decided we fancied staying at the hotel as the food was good and it would mean we really did have a lazy day.
We enjoyed a lovely last dinner with a glass of wine before heading to the bar for a few games of cards, a drink and a good chat before we headed to bed.
I was pleased that our last morning wasn’t an ‘up and out’ to the airport, we finished our packing and then headed off with our guide and driver to the Tonle Sap – the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. The drive out to the lake took about 45minutes, quickly heading into countryside again we were soon by the river side and the overwhelming smell of dead fish. Unfortunately, rubbish was quite prevalent on the lake side again. Our little boat took us through the river and into the main lake – Chongsan explained how the local people living in the floating houses would move their houses in the dry season from the river banks into the main base of the lake as it isn’t deep enough to keep a house on water in the waterways during the drier months. Apparently in the wet season the water goes above the tree level – hard to believe when we were looking at them. We continued passed the floating houses / church / school / temples / shops -these people’s entire communities were in this area, pretty amazing and a totally different world. After a quick stop at a shop (and crocodile farm – crocodiles are farmed as food in Cambodia) we headed back to the main shore.
We were a little earlier than our guide had thought so we had a bit of time to drop my bags at the hostel, pick up my boat ticket for the following Monday, find a map of Cambodia for mum and also buy a few books for me to try and give to Sok (our guide in Phnom Penh) for the school we were kindly shown around. We then headed to enjoy a nice lunch before making our way to the airport.
I was quite pleased we had dropped my bags at the hostels as (understandably) Chongsan and the driver wanted to make a move after dropping mum at the airport and they had talked about dropping me back at the hostel which would have been very nice of them but I didn’t want to run off without seeing mum properly on her way. We said goodbye to both of them and then mum and I joined the queue to get her checked in. It was a bit of a wait but finally we got to the front of the queue and managed to check in the extra bag which was a relief as it would have been a bit of a nightmare to carry given its weight. I then waved her off through passport control …. It was so strange – I felt pretty subdued
Solo traveller again and I headed back to the city in a tuk tuk (no car now mum has gone!) and got myself settled at the hotel. I took myself off to the nice pool at the hostel for an hour and then had a quick chat with Rach, Ian, William and Sarah. I think they were wanted to check in to make sure I was ok leaving mum! Fortunately and through complete coincidence a friend I had met during the yoga retreat in Thailand happened to be in Siem Reap for the weekend (her parents live there, she currently lives in Bangkok) so she had asked if I wanted to meet up for dinner / drinks – timing couldn’t have been better as I think I would have been a bit sad if I’d had the evening on my own after spending such a nice few weeks with mum.
I met Jasmine and her friend in the evening and we headed for a few drinks on ‘Pub Street’ – the clue is in the name!
A pitcher of beer for $3, a traditional dance show, cocktails at the ‘tuk tuk’ bar with crazy dancing to some classic songs, pizza and some locally made icecream rolls, it was a really fun evening! I headed home in the early hours – pretty fuzzy having had a great time.
Sunday was a very slow day…. I think partly because of the antics the evening before and partly because I didn’t have to get up for anything…so I didn’t! Unfortunately I woke to a text from mum asking to to urgently check my emails as the hotel we had stayed in HO Chi Minh had emailed us as I have somehow managed to leave my driving license, credit and one of my debit cards in the safe in the hotel…. How I managed to do that I have no idea as they aren’t normally always in my wallet but I obviously had some logic to take them out while I was there….and promptly forget them! A bit of emailing back and forth and it was decided that the brother of the hotel manager was going to try and drop then in Bangkok with Amanda…. Let’s see if they appear!
I spent some time in the morning by the pool trying to get my journal a but more up to date (I’m now over a week later and I’m still over a week behind but every sit down helps! Hopefully I’ll be getting there with writing them by the end of tomorrow as I’m currently on an island with no wifi and little to do but read, sunbathe, snorkle and walk (more on that when I finally get to the appropriate journal entry.
A couple of hours of journal writing in and I was getting hungry so – as I now didn’t have Mum with me and therefore no included lunches through Odyssey, I had to go in search of my own food….shocking… Town was extremely quiet as this was actually the Lunar New Year so a lot of shops and restaurants were closed across the town. It was a very different vibe to the evening before! I found a nice little place for a mango salad and chatted with Sarah and William on facetime for a while – Rach, Ian and William were down visiting Sarah so Sarah was up looking after him early so Rach and Ian could get a little extra rest.
The afternoon continued with some more journal writing and an unepxected message from Jamine – she’d had her handbag stolen the night before last and so was having to go through the motions with the police to try and get it sorted out. Originally she was heading to Phnom Penh on Sunday evening to get a new passport (as it was also in the handbag!) but due to a bit of a mix up with her buses she was still in town. We met for a really nice traditional Khmer dinner, as little bonus of an evening. We went our separate ways and I headed back to the hostel via a few market stalls. Sod’s law I found the NGO market mum had been keen to find when we were in Siem Reap – I had a quick wander around before heading back to the hostel for an early night as I had an early start ahead of me the next morning as I moved onto my next location.