Phnom Penh and Angkor
07.07.2012 - 17.07.2012
This is slightly out of sequence but before my time in Takeo (check out Cambodia Part 1 blog if you haven't already read about my time volunteering) I first had a couple of nights in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. Much like all the other big Asian cities I've visited it's busy and crowded and chaotic, but what makes Phnom Penh unique is its macabre recent history. Its two biggest attractions (this seems like the wrong word but I guess that's what they are) are both related to the horrendous genocide which took place under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. So traveling with Graeme for the last day, we set out on a rather sombre day with first stop at Tuol Sleng (aka S21). This is a former school which was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge to torture its 'enemies' before sending them to the Killing Fields to be murdered. The grim stats from Toul Sling are that at least 20,000 people were imprisoned here and all but a handful were killed. One of the buildings has been preserved exactly as it was when the Khmer Rouge fled, showing the grim conditions people were people were held. Other buildings now house galleries where photographs of the victims, taken as they arrived for record keeping purposes, stare back at you. The sheer scale of the numbers of pictures of men, women and children is shocking but what was really chilling was knowing that every single one of them was tortured in that very building where I now stood, before being killed.
So after Toul Sleng we headed to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the same journey all those prisoners would have made a few decades earlier. As you walk through the quiet fields an audio tour narrated by a survivor does an excellent job of describing the smells, the killing techniques and the general horrors which occurred here. Walking past the trenches of exhumed mass graves which are everywhere, you occasionally notice fragments of bones or teeth which still rise up to the surface. The most chilling section for me was a big beautiful old tree with a small sign next to it marking it out as the place where babies were bludgeoned to death by having their heads smashed into the tree trunk.
The new stupa containing skulls and bones of many of the exhumed bodies is a national memorial to the two million Cambodians who died under the Khmer Rouge. Getting to know about the countries recent history really helped to understand why Cambodia is still such a poor country today. Anyway, despite all that doom and gloom we enjoyed the remainder of our stay in Phnom Penh, eating good street food, drinking cheap beer and enjoying the ambience of the bustling city around the pleasant riverfront area (and avoiding the red light area we had accidentally stumbled across and quickly left the night before).
Then I was back to travelling on my own again, for a few hours at least until arriving in Takeo it was back to Phnom Penh for a very quick stopover before heading on the eighth wonder of the world...
The Temples of Angkor
Having not seen a since temple in over three weeks I decided to spend a whole three days at Angkor taking in the huge number of ancient ruins in the vicinity as well as the famous draws like Angkor Wat. What's more, feeling energetic I decided to rent a bike and cycle everywhere for the three days … it’s an 8km cycle from Siem Reap where I was staying just to get to the park entrance, then probably the same again to reach some of the furthest flung temples, then the walking around the temples and the cycle back all in the blistering Cambodian heat meant that I was absolutely knackered at the end of each day. Luckily the tourist hub of Siem Reap has everything you could need to recover within the confined area around the rather tacky Pub Street – cheap massages, cheap food and even cheaper beer.
On my first day I had a slightly delayed start due to taking the wrong road into the park (although I took the shortest route it turns out you can only buy you ticket on a different route so I had to back track several kilometres before getting started). With a three day pass bought for $40 I set off on the Grand Circuit – a route to the North and West of the Angkor Historical Park along which I stopped at 8 temples and monuments. I think this was a good way to start my three days as each temple was impressive in its own right but maybe they would have been slightly underwhelming if I’d already seen the really impressive temples which I saved for later. I started at Prasat Kravan which is a five stupa monument housing some impressive carvings, followed by my first taste of jungle clad temple ruins at Banteay Kdei. This was followed by the impressive man-made lake at Sras Srang, then the temples of Pre Rup, East Mehon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and finally the largest and most impressive temple on the Grand Circuit Preak Khan. The route itself was pretty quiet of tourists considering how many people visit Angkor every day (lots), however this did mean that I came in for quite a lot of attention from the local kids who besiege you at each stop selling all sorts of tack. One woman in particular expressed an impressively large array of English profanities after telling me to only buy from her stall, and then seeing me buying some fruit from another!
Day two was an early start to see sunrise over Angkor Wat, the 900 year old Hindu/Buddhist centrepiece of Angkor and the world’s largest religious monument. This meant setting off at 4:30am and a cycle in the dark to arrive just after 5am. Unfortunately the sky was too cloudy to experience the full glory of the sunrise, and there was some restoration work taking place meaning scaffolding intruded on the photos, but still it was an awe inspiring experience to see such a huge and magnificent monument. Although Angkor Wat is impressive from a distance, for me the sheer size of the place and the intricateness of the carvings which cover just about every square inch are only appreciated from close up. After spending a couple of hours wondering around the temple I headed back to my guest house for breakfast and sleep.
Later that day I headed back to see the huge ancient city of Angkor Thom and its centre piece, the Bayon monument which features 216 faces carved into the stone which look down on you wherever you are. As the sun set I also had time to visit the Baphuon, a huge pyramid temple, and the Royal Palace area featuring the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
On my final day my legs were starting to ache from all the cycling and walking, but I was rewarded for my efforts with a visit to Ta Prohm. This is the temple ruins which are so overgrown with jungle that no restoration has been carried out to cut back the trees as they have become such an intricate part of the structure that they temple would probably collapse without the roots which smother it. It was also the setting of the Tomb Raider film and left me wanting to watch the movie again despite remembering that it was pretty terrible first time round.
Finally I visited a few small temples I hadn’t yet seen and finished with a climb up Ta Keo, a huge pyramid temple which for some reason was never finished with the intricate carvings which cover all the other temples. The lack of carvings really makes you acknowledge the scale of the building and boggles the mind as to how such huge structures were built around 1000 years ago.
Although I could have probably seen everything in slightly less time if I’d wanted, the three days was a good amount of time to take in everything at a leisurely pace without feeling rushed. Unfortunately as I left Cambodia something upset my stomach(possibly the water I used for brushing my teeth which at times came out of the taps brown, or possibly my last meal which was a breakfast soup from a market on the way to the boarder – I’ll presume it was the water as I don’t want to spoil the memory of all the great market breakfast I enjoyed in Cambodia) and coupled with a throat infection (which was only temporarily halted with a mix of unknown drugs from a Cambodian pharmacy), meant that my planned week seeing Thailand’s beaches and islands was actually spent pretty much confined to hotel rooms and bathrooms. I did eventually make it out to Krabi’s Railay Beach but by the time I was fit enough to get out the weather had taken a turn for the worse so all I had was a day of grey skies and rain. Still coughing and wheezing I gave up on the hope of rock climbing up the incredible karst cliffs or exploring the coast by kayak and instead decided to cut my losses in Thailand and head straight to Malaysia…