Friday, 25 July 2014

Cambodia - Siem Reap (long post alert!!)

Siem Reap isn't a pretty town by any means.  But it is host to the temples of Angkor Wat, the originally Hindu turned Buddhist temples built in 12th C.  Ever since I was a kid playing the Tomb Raider games on my PC I have wanted to visit these temples so I was very excited to get the opportunity to do so.

In Bangkok we got up bright and early, grabbed a taxi to the bus station and boarded our bus.  The Thai government in the past two years have started to run a direct bus all the way from Bangkok to Siem Reap for 750baht.  The alternative was a route involving a bus, tuktuk and another bus for a fgiveundred baht more.  The bus isn't very well advertised and not many travellers seem to know about it, Amy stumbled across it on the web in someone's blog post.  We had read that even the government bus wasn't free from scams, stopping five mins from the border where they tell you to get your Cambodian visa for £30 whereas if you wait till you get to the border, it will only cost you half that. 

We braced ourselves for the inevitable stop but wondrously it didn't happen, first scam defeated.  The next one was at the Cambodian border.  The visa officially costs 20$ however they have a crude handwritten note saying 20$ + 100 baht.  Again we had read about this and previous reports have all said they refused to pay when asked and were let through no problem.  When we were asked, I told the man I had no baht on me so couldn't pay.  He then said 3$.  I said all I had was the 20$ for the visa.  He sent me out of the queue to the side where I thought was the next step of processing.  Turns out he was chucking me out of the queue.  After a stand off we conceded he wasn't going to let us through and Amy eventually waved 100 baht in his direction. This did the trick much to my annoyance which I was quite vocal about to him but he didn't really give a toss.  All of the other travellers on our bus paid without a fight so I didn't really have much argument.

Oh hi Cambodia!


The rest of the journey passed without incident.  Whilst in the visa queue we met a lovely couple called Sandra and Jeff who are on their way back from living in NZ for a year and travelling before heading home.  As they're doing a similar route to us they've become our travel buddies and we've met them most nights for dinner.

Our first night we met on Pub Street, Siem Reap's quieter and less busy version of Khao San Road.  A lot of the restaurants do a DIY BBQ at your table where you can pick meats such as crocodile, frog, goat and snake.  At dinner a teenage girl came up to us with a basket of bracelets.  Ready to shoo her away, she engaged in a conversation with us instead and admitted she likes talking more than selling.  She was rather adorable and had obviously watched too much American TV going by her swagger. 

Aww look a carrot eagle


After dinner we embarked on a mini pub crawl on a mission to find the cheapest beer, our record was 50 cents for house draught.  Two places worthy of mention was Triangle Bar at one end of the street.  Set above a market, it had a nice atmosphere, cheap beer jugs and swinging bench seats as well as live music.  We sat behind a guy with a striking resemblance to Alex Karev from Greys Anatomy dressed in white robes and a Fez, drinking and smoking a cigar.  We wanted to know his story but didn't pluck up the courage to ask.  We ended up in the famous Angkor What? bar drinking buckets (buy 2 and you get a free T-shirt!) and dancing the night away.  Crawling into bed at 2 I was slightly hungover the next day. 




Seems legit

Pretty sure Cambodians stick any old fish into their fish spas


The following morning we went to the National Museum which gives a bit of history about the Angkor era.  We didn't find it hugely interesting though I learnt that buddhism and hinduism are very closely related. I also learnt how Ganesh got his elephant head.  His mother (term used loosely as he was created by Parvati when she drew his figure in tumeric pste and breathed life into it as she wanted her own loyal son as Shiva, her husband, had a bull who was loyal to him) wanted to take a bath and instructed Ganesh not to allow anyone in the house whilst she was doing so.  Shiva returned home and Ganesh would not let him pass.  In his rage at not being allowed into his own home he cut off Ganesh's head, killing him instantly.  Parvati was furious and sad and instructed Shiva to bring him back to life.  They couldn't find his head so Brahma the creator suggested finding the head of the first creature they came across facing North.  This happened to be a dying elephant so they waited for it to pass before cutting off its head and attavhing to Ganesh's body, bringing Ganesh back to life.

Ganesh (stolen off the interwebs)


Next we headed to Angkor Wat to buy our tickets.  A day pass costs 20$ and you can buy it from 5pm the day before.  This gives you the chance to watch the sunset which was our intention.  Unfortunately our tuktuk driver dropped us off at the temple rather than the sunset view point and not consulting a map we didn't realise they were two separate locations.  So we had a quick explore of Angkor Wat then headed to find the hill to watch the sunset.  The weather had started off so promising but by the time we found the hill it was overcast and threatening to rain.  Turns out the hill was over capacity and we weren't allowed up it anyway - mission failure.  




Jeff and San








We ended up at the Night Market for dinner with Jeff and Sandra followed by a slightly disappointing walk round the market that seemed to sell the same stuff at each stall.  On our return to the hotel one of the guys who worked there asked us to join him for a beer to which we happily obliged.  We sat for the next two hours with them and some Dutch people also at the hotel. It was very pleasant.  What has struck me about Cambodia so far is how friendly everyone is.  Everyone returns a smile, everyone is willing to help you.  You don't feel so much like everyone just wants your business.  When walking home the other night we invariably heard the call "tuktuk?". When we said no, the driver replied with a polite " OK no problem, have a nice night!". I haven't experienced that anywhere else in my travels. Also a lot of women in Cambodia favour wearing floral cotton suits. Just an FYI.

The next day we decided to give the sunrise viewing a miss (4.30am start for that!!!) and instead started at much kinder 7.30am.  We started at the Landmine museum.  I highly recommend this, it's about half an hour away from the temples but it's thought provoking.  Set up by Aki Ra, it tells the story of how he was recruited as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge.  When he was 10 he defected to the Vietnamese Army to fight against his once comrades.  When the war ended he made it his mission to deactivating landmines he knew he had placed as well as others he came ascross.  He had no tools and would just use a stick and his hands.  He is credited with disarming 50,000 Landmines.  It is estimated that there are still over 5 milkion landmines in Cambodia and theres no way if knowing their locations.  Estimates range from 50 years to 1000 years of clearing them all.  1 in 250 Cambodians is a landmine victim.

In  2008 with various funding he created an NGO called "cambodian self help deminung".  He trained a group of people to deactivate mines and bombs left over by the Americans in a safe way that the government approved of.  His charity focuses on small villages who aren't deemed a priority for landmine removal by the government.  First this removes the risk of death and injury to the villagers, second this allows the once mined land to be cultivated so they can grow food.

He also runs a school and relief centre for children who have been affected by landmines.  The museum explains the work his charity does and was filled with anecdotes from him and the children in his school.  Some stories were heartbreaking.  It wasn't all doom and gloom though, many of the children who have been in his care have gone on to universiry and are studying law, IT, and medicine.  Unrelated but in Laos they use old rockets for house structural support and canoes- very resourceful.

After the sobering trip to the museum we headed on a mini temple tour.  We explored three temples and drove past others - not being huge temple fanatics we weren't interested in seeing every single one. 

We started at Banteay Kdei which has been left to the hands of the jungle.  It's a lesser known temple and as such was free from the hordes of tourists you'd find at Angkor wat. It was beautiful. 




We stopped next at Ta Prohm which is the temple made famous by Tomb Raider.  It was built in the early 12th century by King Jayavarman VIVII fir his mother.  Unfortunately this was a lot busier than the previous temple.  The tree roots emerging from the walls and the moss covered stone created an almost eerie atmosphere.  It was easy to imagine you were Indiana Jones on an adventure.















I am so happy I got to experience the Angkor Wat temples.  It's incredible seeing them in the flesh as they're huge and it is mimdboggling to think they were built 900 years ago when the only transport would have been ox and cart and only tools would have been very basic.  The carvings in all of the walls are so intricate and the fact that they have lasted such a long time is incredible.

Our evening was spent at the circus.  This isn't just any circus though.  After the war, 9 Khmer survivors and their art teacher returned to Cambodua after living in refugee camps.  They wanted to share the gift of the arts with the underprivileged children so started a school in Battambang.  Over the years the school has grown and though primarily focuses on performing arts, it also teaches maths, English, music etc.

As an outlet for the performing arts students and as a way of raising money and awareness, a circus was started featuring five different shows all by current and graduate students.  Tickets cost 15$ and are worth every penny.  The show we was was called Preu (chills). It was very funny, very talented and very heartwarming.  I highly recommend a visit if you go to Siem Reap, its a fun show for a very worthy cause.






Sorry for the ridiculously long post.  Siem Reap was only two days but there is so much to talk about.  I am writing this on a very bumpy bus to Phnom Phen.  The main highway across the country is no more than a dirt track in places which is making for a slow and uncomfortable journey.  Our bus has a crack across the windscreen, the AC is dripping and the driver's side window is covered in a black film.   At least he's wearing a seat belt :)

Places stayed:

The King Boutique Hotel, $15 a night (3 nights)
Lovely room, double twin beds, nice bathroom.  Good WiFi. Hotel has communal balconies on each floor and a lovely pool area.  Nicest staff ever! Breakfast included.

3 comments:

  1. Amazing stuff! So glad you're having a good time! -x-

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  2. Great reading about this. I find it so weird this place is still here despite what went on in Cambodia. Ps love the floral cotton suits fyi

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    Replies
    1. Tel me about it!! Though a lot of Buddhas are missing their heads or have had their faces scraped off by the Khmer Rouge as they didn't want anyone being religious

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