14.02.2016 - 26.03.2016 28 °C
From the idyllic beaches of Koh Kud, Thailand, we catch the ferry back to Trat. It takes 2 buses, a shared taxi and another taxi to get us across the border into Cambodia. The border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia at Psar Pruhm is quick and easy, notable only for the remarkable cultural differences between the Thais, who escort us with smiles and jokes to the border, and the more stern Cambodians who greet us. That's not to say that they are not friendly, but nothing compares to Thai hospitality! By nightfall, another taxi has gotten us as far as Battambang. The taxi driver is eager to take us all the way to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) for an extra $100, but we opt for the bus in the morning ($7 pp) and check into the first hotel we see (Holiday Hotel) with a respectable room for $15. Actually, the first room is dirty, but we get that straightened out immediately.
We were warned, but you have to experience it to believe it. In Cambodia, the preferred currency for change is the US dollar, but not just any dollars. Bills must be recent and in perfect condition. The slightest wrinkle, tear or mark and the bill is refused.
The scenery is rural between Battambang and Siem Reap so it's awfully strange when suddenly, there's a large hotel, then a big resort and another... At first it's hard to imagine how they fill all these rooms but then again, the entire Angkor Wat complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and candidate for 8th Wonder of the World. Siem Reap is densely packed with hotels, restaurants, markets and massage parlors. There's something for every budget and it's all pretty inexpensive by Western standards.
A bit off-center, the extremely funky, Reflections Art Hotel ($28 for 2 with breakfast) is decorated like a novelty shop and every room is unique. Ours is completely tiled and has stickers of all sorts, floor to ceiling. As I look around, I notice there are a few swastikas, one of which I delicately remove. From his blank stare, I realize that the guy at reception doesn't know what it represents. The language barrier is too thick, so I suggest we google it. Within minutes he's comparing it to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and has got someone in the room removing all other offensive symbols.
Angkor Wat was the center of the great Khmer Empire (9th - 13th centuries) with its peak during the 12th century. There's nothing left of the sprawling cities whose homes and administrative buildings were made of wood. Only the stone and brick dwellings of the Gods, a fraction of what once was, still stand. Hundreds of massive temples built by successive kings each trying to out do his predecessors in size and creativity culminate in the granddaddy of temples, Angkor Wat; still in use today.
The center of the vast temple complex is about 15 minutes outside the city and most people follow the same drill. You hire a tuk tuk (or other motorized vehicle) and follow the short or long loop. Some brave souls rent bicycles, but it's far, hot, and will deplete you of the energy needed to visit the temples.
Chronologically, or if you want to save the crowning jewel for last, you do the long circuit on Day 1 saving Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom for Day 2. Most people, like the friends who have joined us for 2 weeks, go for the 3 day temple (burnout) pass. We buy the 7 day ticket valid for one month.
Before we hit the temples, we spend an afternoon at the nicely curated Angkor National Museum. There's way too much information, but it's a great preface to the various periods of the Khmer Empire and to situating the sites we'll visit.
One marvels at the task of assembling such boulders or the manpower required for the carvings and bas reliefs that recount everything from the battles of God kings to daily-life during the Empire.
Highlights include the over 200 gigantic stone faces at Bayon located in Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire.
Mother Nature's upper hand at Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider temple, where century-old living roots drip over the stones.
and of course the staggering proportions of Angkor Wat temple itself.
EVERYBODY goes to the main temple of Angkor Wat for sunrise. Once you accept that you will not experience this on your own, you can enjoy the nice atmosphere with hundreds of people milling about the large lawns at dawn. The people-watching is more interesting than the sunrise. By 7, the crowds are receding to town for breakfast and we almost have the place to ourselves.
To diffuse temple overdose, we hire a minivan to take our group to Prek Toal Bird Reserve for the day. At the northern tip of Lake Tonlé Sap, a variety of storks and pelicans, some endangered, call this home during the dry season.
At what seems to be the end of the waterway, without warning, our skipper guns it up and over the barrier of vegetation and carries on leaving no time for fear or protest. On the way back, we're forced to get out and gingerly file along a floating path to the shore from where we watch him fly the boat back over.
About an hour away from Siem Reap, in the middle of not much, the jungle has taken formidable hold on the ruins of Bang Mealea temple. Cool just barely describes the huge stones covered in moss, vines and roots. On the way, we stop to admire the elaborate pink stone carvings at Banteay Srei.
The boat trip we've planned for our friends is supposed to be a fun way to get from Siem Reap to Battambang.
It will be remembered as a nightmare cum great travel story. About 2 hours into what should be a 5-8 hour river trip depending on the water level, the boat gets stuck in about a foot of mucky water. For awhile, the captain tries to maneuver out of it with no success, then motions (because none of the 30 or so tourists speak Cambodian) to half the load to move to another boat while he spends another chunk of fleeting daylight churning the riverbed to no avail.
A couple of hours later another boat rescues us and we're on our way. There's still quite a distance to cover and it's getting dark when the boat pulls up to a shop/restaurant.
After everyone has rehydrated, our bags are unloaded and we are pointed towards 3 pick-up style jeeps. The hiccup? You have to walk a plank over a muddy swamp with your bag AND the jeeps are already filled. Spotting a (prime) front seat free in one, we practically push two of our friends in while 3 of us squeeze into the back. One friend has to stand, back against a grate on the cab, which will ultimately shred her clothes, while we sit on the edge of the tailgate holding on to each other. As uncomfortable as I hope it sounds, we are better off than our jeep mates. Bouncing along a narrow dirt track through the jungle in the dark, the people sitting on the sides are whipped and lacerated by prickly bushes. Within minutes, we are all huddled towards the center face down, taking a beating.
To absurd to believe, one jeep runs out of gas... Several attempts to tow it result in rope breaking, jeep ricocheting by with screaming passengers...
Eventually, gas is delivered and the odyssey continues. 16+ hours later, exhausted and traumatized, we make it to our respective hotels in Battambang. But relief is short-lived when my cell phone vibrates with the news, "My suitcase isn't mine!" Before I've finished reading the text out loud, we're out the door. Thankfully, Battambang is small and all the tuk tuk drivers know each other, so it all gets sorted quickly.
One of the nicest services in Asia is dirt-cheap massages. An hour, full-body massage costs under $10. For a more original experience, at Seeing Hands, massage is performed by blind people and we encourage our friends to give it a try. Unfortunately, the one male masseur turns out to be a little too enthusiastic literally breaking my friend's toe!
What strikes me about Phnom Penh is how young the people are. Two days of gut-wrenching visits to S-21, the school turned detention center, and the Killing Fields, which I can only describe as human land fill, offer some explanation. From 1975 - 1979, while we were cutting classes, shopping at the mall and rockin' out to Led Zeppellin, Pol Pot, with his extreme Maoist vision, was single-handedly wiping out the entire adult population of Phnom Penh. Cambodia, whose Khmer Empire once dominated South Asia, who for centuries, more and less successfully warded off invasions from border-mongers Thailand and Vietnam, who prospered under the French protectorate in the 19th century and won independence by the mid-20th century, was suddenly on its knees in front of one single man. Deja vu. You simply cannot fathom the horror until you are standing in a classroom, divided into dark, claustrophobic stalls, with nothing but the metal loops that anchored chains, and indelible dark stains on the floors, and the voice of one of the 7 known survivors recounting the abomination in your headphones. People shuffle through visibly moved and some just crumble at the sight of 2 survivors there to greet you at the end of the visit.
But Phnom Penh is rising from its tragic past. The markets are choc-full of baubles and wares, well they were until my friends showed up! Trendy boutiques and cafés line fashionable streets. We're told there is an underlying current of corruption and petty theft, but to us the city feels safe, it's easy to get around and people are friendly.
The list of NGO's is impressive including one called Friends International which owns and operates shops and restaurants (worldwide) that train underprivileged young adults and serve delicious, creative food.
The Richly Hotel ($25/night double with breakfast) is brand new and just a few blocks from the riverfront. The street it sits on is ripe for development. Add a few better restaurants and some shops and it's the next place to be.
Our friends enjoy the last days of their trip at the more upscale Plantation Urban.
As we contemplate destinations further south like Kep and Kampot famous for its black pepper, I happen to check the expiration date of our pass to Angkor Wat as we still have 4 days of visitation rights. The pass expires in 5 days! We hightail it back north.
It's fun to come back to a hotel we've stayed in before. The staff at Reflections Art are thrilled to see us and offer us a super upgrade on the room. It's late and I'm all excited to enjoy the deluxe shower, but as I turn the knob, a rush of pressure blasts it off and boiling hot water explodes in all directions! Unable to stop it we run for help. While water continues to spray like a sprinkler, they move us to another room.
We rent the freedom of an E-bike (electric scooter) to visit the temples. Every night, we switch it out for a fully-charged bike, but it turns out, you can't always trust the needle. Riding back to town one evening along the deserted forested roads that separate the temple complex from the city, the bike begins to slow down. We recall seeing power stations and stop at one figuring a one-hour charge will do, waiting it out in a hammock as the sun sets. We go maybe 3km when the battery falters again and there's nothing and no one in sight. A disastrous attempt to be pulled by an inebriated tuk tuk driver gets us within puttering distance of a big hotel and within 20 minutes, a new bike is delivered.
We make our way to the southern border of Laos, stopping for a night to visit one more Angkorian temple: Prasat Preah Vihear. The rickety minivan drops us at a gas station at the main intersection of Tbeng Meanchey, a dusty, one-horse town, promising to pick us up the next day at the same time to continue to the border. We look left, right, see nothing and decide to check the one building with Chinese signage that might be a hotel.
The temple is about 1.5 hours away and the bus station, an empty lot, doesn't look promising. Clearly, the taxi drivers are in control here. With little room for negotiation, we just have to wait until they finish fighting over who will take us. Cars are not permitted to drive the last 7 km stretch, but moto-taxis are standing by, dump trucks for groups. We each get on the back of a bike. The road is so steep, I'm wrapped around the driver with my feet dangling below!
Possibly the most contested piece of property and cause of numerous altercations between Cambodia and Thailand for generations, Prasat Preah Vihear holds a commanding view of the Cambodian plains. Most of the structures throughout the complex of this UNESCO World Heritage site, built by 7 kings from the 10th - 12th centuries, are in ruins and renovation and land mines are still a danger off the main paths. Probably not worth the detour, unless you are a specialist in Khmer art.
The next day, standing on the corner in the blinding noon sun, as promised, a van picks us up and we're on our way to the Laotian border.