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Cambodia 2010, Days 6-9 – Siem Reap

Sunrise over Angkor Wat


I am lumping the four days at Siem Reap together as they were spent touring the various Angkor ruins.  It has been said that one could spend seven,  eight or even more days here but, unless one is a dedicated temple freak, I believe that Kuoni got it about right and we had plenty of time to visit the the important of the temples without too much rush.  It is a fact that one can only assimilate so much knowledge in a given amount of time and as I have mentioned before the complex mix of Khmer, Buddhism and Hindu mythology which are found here leave the mind boggling.      

We were back in 4 star luxury as far as accommodation went, the Tara Angkor Hotel,which could nearly have qualified as a 5 star which was the perfect place to recover after a hard days sightseeing. Air conditioned throughout, great spa, nice restaurants and free wi-fi in the lobby.  Service also impeccable.      

Our first day started with an elephant ride across the bidge and through the Victory Gate into Angkor Thom, (literally Great City) which was the Khmer capital founded in the late 12th century by king Jayavarman VII.
We were then deposited back onto solid ground and headed off toward the Leper King Terrace which is off the royal square and boasts a replica of the 15th century statue of the Hindu god of death, Yama. You really needed to know that!

The terrace is named because of the lichen and moss which grew on the original statue and was reminiscent of leprosy and this complemented a Khymer legend of a Angkorian king who suffered from the disease. This is a cheery way to start the day.
From here we moved on to Phimeanakas, a Hindu temple in the shape of a three tier pyramid with a tower on the top. According to another legend the king was supposed to spend the first watch of every night there with a woman who represented the snake diety, Naga. Not even the queen was allowed to intrude. He was able to return to her at the second watch. It was believed that if he did not show up each night disaster would strike the land. I do not think this ploy would work at home.


A short walk down the road and one comes to the Baphuon, another three tiered temple the original of which was built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva the destroyer. It was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th century and a reclining stone Buddha, 9 metres tall and 70 metres long was built on the second tier.  Due to the inherent instability of the site much of the edifice has collaplsed and it is currently being restored with aid from the French.
 Then on to the main attraction, the Bayon Temple, which sits in the exact centre of the city and represents the intersection of heaven and earth. It is a Buddhist temple but, believe it or not, has Hindu cosmological elements. It is famous for the huge stone faces of the Avalokiteshvara carved into the towers. One on each side facing the cardinal points of the compass. They really are amazing and there are vantage points which gives one  differing perspectives. The smiling image is thought to be a portrait of King Jayavarman an has the attracted the dubious title of “the Mona Lisa of South East Asia”!  There are 51 smaller towers surrounding the Bayon each with four faces. There are two long walls round the temple which carry bas relief scenes depicting legendary and historical events. In total there are about 11,000 carved figures. I cannot do justice to it here but i hope that the pictures on the page and the ones you will see on the links go some way to showing it attraction.
We were supposed to see the sunset over Angkor Wat but our guide, Srey Thy,  suggested that we give it a miss as it would be difficult to get a vantage point due to the crowds and the weather was not the best for photographing sunsets.  We were booked to see the sun rise over it (see the title photo) on the morrow and we were templed out by this time anyway.  Like many other temples  Angkor Wat started life as Hindu, dedicated to Vishnu the creator, and was later  adapted to Buddhism.  Not being a Khymer classicist I think Bayon has the edge but Angkor Wat is considered to be the epitome of Khmer architecture and is embodied in the national flag (so they must be right)!  It is imposing and is a favourite place for wedding photographs.  We came across this couple with their photographer on one of the collonades.  Unlike in the west orientals have their photography done weeks or even months before the wedding and the photos are then displayed at the ceremony, often blown up to poster size, or larger in some cases. Angkor Wat also boast the famous bass relief depicting the “churning of the ocean of milk”, the Hindu creation myth.
The following two days were spent visiting various diferent Angkor city/temple complexes which were interesting in their own right and in various states of deterioration.  The Khmer Rouge were responsible for some of the wanton destruction and lack of money and resources means that restoration many is unlikely to take place for years, if ever.  There are acres of collapsed stone like huge jigsaw pieces that would take lifetime to put into place even if one had the picture to work from. Nature has also had quite an effect especially at Ta Prohm where huge strangler fig trees have engulfed the buildings. Our tour here was enlivened by a large group of Russians, who were probably the rudest and most obnoxious crowd that we have come across on our travels, climbing over barrier ropes to photograph each other hanging from porticos and completely ignoring the protestations of the guides.
As you may have realised Siem Reap is host to a myriad of complexes all of which have their own particular histories. The last place that we visited was the minature temple  of Banteay Srei, Citadel of the Women. This is renowned for the detailed stone carvings and air of  tranquility. Our final evening in Siem Reap was spent at the Apsara Theatre for dinner and a dancing display.  The tables and benches are sunk into the floor so one is sitting with one head at roughly stage level.  A somewhat different experience to western cabaret.  This ended our time in this district of Cambodia and we prepared for the day journey to Kratie, a small town on the Mekong River and home to the Irrawadi dolphins.



Cambodia 2010, Day 5 – Sangker River

This was one of the most rewarding days on this adventure.  An 8a.m. start saw us board our boat, complete with packed lunch, for the 9 hour trip down river to Siam Reap.  This was a welcome break from road travel and promised to give us an insight to the completely different lifestyle of those living along the banks of, or on, the river.The river is basically divided into three, the upper section where the villages are static and the population farm rice,
sugar kapok whilst on the water there is a healthy fishing industry and boatloads of firewood, going up river from the lake,  or bamboo going down river are to be seen depending on the season. There are no bridges and a variety of ferries operate along the way.The middle section is the flood plain.  There are no permanent villages here and people come and farm rice, jute and vegetables as and when the weather permits. In the dry season, whilst we were travelling, the river becomes extremely narrow with banks of shrubs, reeds and grass, but lower down it becomes degraded swamp forest. There are quit a number of rare birds in this area. One then moves down, past the Wat Chheu Khmao (the black wood pagoda)  Here we encounterd a village where a crocodile had escaped from the farm and all the inhabitants were engaged in trying to locate it. Apparently crocs reared in farms have no concept of hunting and die of starvation very quickly. After this excitement we continued towards the Tonle Sap  great lake where the flood water rise up to 10 metres.  This is a world of of fishing and floating villages, housing not only Khmer but Vietnamese, Chams and Chinese.  There are about 150 different types of fishing tackle used in the area, from the huge raft-mounted lift nets (chhnuk) to line with a hook and cormorant feather. The Prek Toal sanctuary, an area of flooded forest is the most important breeding site for large water birds in Southeast Asia.

We finally crossed the corner of the Tonle Sap and headed up river to the landing pier to disembark and finish our journey, by way of a twenty minute bus ride, to Siem Reap.

Siem Reap and the temples

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Cambodia 2010 – Day 3, Route 5 to Battambang

Monday. We left the hotel at 8.00 for the 290km drive along national Route 5 to Battambang.

Our first stop was at Kampong Lung, a village of silversmiths, about 40 minutes drive from Phnom Phen. The kampong, which lies along the river bank,houses a number of family concerns each having up to three generations all involved.

From there we moved on to the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Centre and the pagoda at Udong Mountain. According to our guide,Sam, there were 136 steps to the top but it certainly felt like double.
The Buddhist centre houses the mausoleum for one of the leaders who was shot in 2002 and also is the centre of learning for both monks and nuns of the faith. There was much climbing of steps and removing of hats and shoes along the way.

Next stop lunch at the Sovannphum hotel. The “restaurant” runs down one side and is inhabited by quite a number of sparrows or their ilk. The other rather basic omission is toilets, though they did open a bedroom for the ladies and there was an outside footplate loo for the gents.
The meal consisted of rice, mushrooms, a broccoli substitute and a couple of other vegetables I couldn’t pin down all in a very nice sauce of indeterminate composition, a fish and cabbage stew in a coconut sauce and sweet and sour chicken, (none of your battered balls here), what you saw was what you got, with green and red sweet peppers, onion etc. I washed mine down with a large Angkor beer whilst the others chose iced lemon tea.
Fresh pineapple, dragon fruit and lychees followed for dessert.
All things considered you couldn’t complain.

From here we moved on to the Pottery co-operative where clay pots are made in the traditional Cambodian way, not a wheel in sight all hand formed and fired in charcoal ovens.
Then back onto the road for the 2.5 hour drive to Battambang.
Our hotel here was the Stung Sangke. This is definitely not the standard of the Sunway. Had to send down to reception for a hair dryer and the bellboy appeared with an armful of Philips dryers still in their boxes. Having said this I find that there is free wi-fi.
We have a local resident in the form of a large chit chat who took up position on the en trance wall. At least this means there will be no mosquitoes!
Dinner was arranged for 7pm and our guide duly collected us and we were transported to “La Villa” about ten minutes from the hotel.
La Villa is a most unprepossessing looking place alongside the river, no apparent sign and a very dimly lit entrance through the garden. Nor does it give the impression of being anything special once one is inside. Although not noticeable at first there are also a number of tables on the patio to the rear.
The menu is fairly short having about five starters including French onion soup and spring rolls. We decided to split a salad and the spring rolls, following with a prawn soup (we didn’t know it was a soup until it arrived) and a beef fried rice. I know I complain about them putting carrots in Chinese menus at home; I had not realised that it is de rigueur in Asia!

See the next installment – The Bamboo train

Cambodia Overland 2010 – Day 2

The day started with a tour of Tuoi Sleng, the infamous S21 prison, where the Khymer Rouge interred around 17,000  men women and children, between 1975 & ’79, before shipping them off to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. The prison was originally a secondary school and the 4 classroom blocks were used, Block A was for VIP prisoners. In the other blocks the rooms were divided into cells 2 metres by 1. There were no doors on the ground floor cells as the inmates were too terrified to move. The outside of the buildings were covered in wire mesh after one prisoner managed to commit suicide by jumping from the balcony. We were introduced to a 78 year old who was one of the few people to escape execution and now spends some of his time in his old cell explaining what it was like to visitors.

We folllowed this somewhat harrowing experience with a vist to another of Phnom Penh’s temples before moving on to the Bopha Restaurant,

which is located on the riverbank and opposite the night market, for lunch. It is quite a plush venue with big comfortable chairs and plenty of room. As is standard on these tours a set meal is organised and one pays for ones own drinks. The starters were “riverfish” skewers, a kebab of freshwater fish, onions and peppers with lemongrass glaze. The main course consisted of Khmer Chicken curry with potatoes and carrots accompanied by fried mixed vegetables with cashew nuts and the inevitable boiled rice. All extremely tasty when washed down with a bottle of Angkor beer. The sweets, which were billed as Bhopa pastries, turned out to be a sort of varicoloured solidified custard served with cane sugar syrup.  Disappointing compared with the rest of the meal.

Following on we visited the National Museum, which, if one does not have at least a passing interest in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, would be quite hard going to say the least.  Luckily they are subjects with which I have become quite enamoured during our travels and the museum guide was a fount of knowledge on these and Khmer history.

Officially this ended our day, however, I felt that having come this far it would be remiss not to go out to Choeung Ek.

This is now the national memorial centre for all those slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the various killing fields. There are over 120 mass graves there of which so far they have excavated only 89. The horror of people butchering their own countrymen, women and children en masse and by hand is something that one is unlikely to forget. It is estimated that 20,000 were killed in Choeung Ek alone.

Having paid our respects we returned to the hotel for a much needed beer.  It actually turned into two beers as they run a BOGOF from 4 – 8!

We engaged a tuk-tuk to take us back to the Bhopa for dinner. I had assumed that not only did the driver know the name of the restaurant but he knew where it was, having shown him the menu card with the name on it for good measure.  I became a little perturbed when we reached one of the boulevards which I knew was on the far side of town! He then stopped at a restaurant I had never heard of.  There was a tourist policeman outside to whom I showed the directions and he redirected our driver.  Finally reaching our destination he was most put out when I paid him for the direct route!!

Dinner was fine and there was a floor show with a traditional trio and Khmer dancer.

After that we wandered around the night market.  The only troublesome thing here was the flies which , seeing as they are no trouble at all anywhere else, was realy surprising.

We picked up a tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel and awared ourselves a wee whiskey!

Click here for day 3

Cambodia Overland 2010 – Day 1

After an uneventful journey to Phnom Penh, via Belfast City, Heathrow Terminals 1 and 3 and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh at 9.30 on Saturday morning, local time and approximately 24 hours after leaving home.

There was our courier and a minibus waiting to whisk us off to the
Sunway Hotel which lived up to its 4* rating for getting us booked in and up to our room and a much needed shower.  As we were not expected to do anything until 2.30 we grabbed a couple of hours sleep as well.

Our “group” turned out to be a couple from London, the other 7 apparently having foregone their deposits at some time long before departure.

We started out at Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple built on a manmade hill adjacent to the hotel .  There is park around the base which caters for all the locals, including the monkeys, and a year old elephant called Mr Sammy.

Following this we moved on to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor consists of 5000 solid silver tiles each weighing 1kilo. Another interesting exhibit was that of women wearing the colours of the days.  Dressing in the correct colour is extremely important as bad luck can follow if one gets it wrong!

We retired to our hotel for a welcome beer and to recover from jet lag and a fairly exhausting days touring.

The speciality of the evening in the hotel was a “European Buffet” which couldn’t be faulted on any count although some of the eastern interpretations of western food were interesting.

Click here for the next installment