We took the bus from Kampong Thom to Siem Reap. We were on the local bus which was an interesting experience! Every long distance bus we took in Cambodia had Khmer music or films playing the whole time – at top volume. Thank god for ipods!
After the inevitable mobbing when we got off the bus with our bags at Siem Reap we managed to squeeze on to a Tuk-Tuk and went to our hotel. It was a great little place with a lovely pool and super-friendly staff and was on a quiet local street just 5 minutes walk away from ‘the action’ in town. We went for a quick stroll and were pleasantly surprised to see that Siem Reap was nothing like Phnom Penh. It was just a small town really, that happened to have one of the 7 wonders of the world (the Angkor Wat complex) right on it’s doorstep. And the people were really, really friendly with none of the edginess that we’d felt the whole time in Phnom Penh.
It was bloody boiling though and we soon discovered that most people were hiding indoors if they could between the hours of 12 – 3pm as the sun was so vicious. We realised that we had indeed arrived in Cambodia at the hottest part of the year and that it was gonna get even hotter hitting 42/43 degrees most days.
We decided to buy a 7 day pass for Ankgor Wat as opposed to a 3 days pass as it cost only $20 more and we had the time to spare. This turned out to be the best thing we did as it meant that we were able to see the temples at our own speed thus avoiding temple overload and fatigue. We grabbed a tuk tuk and went to go and get our pass and then climbed to the top of a hill to see the famous Angkor Sunset. Frankly it was a bit rubbish and my first impressions were that it was more like being in the sacred space at Glastonbury – i.e busy and full of fake hippies staring out at a sunset that never arrived. Hoping that not every temple was going to be like this, we climbed back down the hill and chatted with our Tuk Tuk driver about the best plan of action with regards temple spotting over the next couple of days.
We spent the next couple of days visiting lots of temples. Angkor Wat (the most famous) is just one of many in what is a huge national park and temple complex. Cambodians still live and farm within the national park and there are cattle wandering around and people selling their produce at the side of the road. Our Tuk Tuk driver Keo (more about him later), was absolutely invaluable in taking us to a particular temple just as the crowds left or before they arrived and he spoke enough English to tell us a little about each temple.
I was surprised at how different each temple was and how many there were. They were all in varying states of repair/disrepair too. It was a shame how badly some of them had crumbled/collapsed as a result of them being clambered over by too many people for too many years and of course, being over a thousand years old, they had weathered pretty badly. But similarly some of the reconstruction/preservation seemed to give some of them a bit of a theme park feel which is only likely to get worse – so get there and see them for yourself as soon as you can! Our favourite temple was Bayon (the one with the smiling faces carved into all the buildings). It was really amazing and was like a warren of temples within a temple that had a really amazing feel to it.
In the hot weather, it was really, really hard work clambering over the temples and we both soon were packing flannels with us to absorb the vast amounts of sweat that were pouring off us every day! We quite quickly realised that it was enough seeing 2 or 3 temples a day. Any more than that and the thought of climbing up more stone steps was pretty unappealing and you’d spend more time hiding from the sun than appreciating the carvings.
Likewise, the hawkers at some of the more popular temples were really quite exhausting at times. They weren’t allowed inside the actual temples so we’d get mobbed as we got out of the tuk tuk and walked towards the temple and would be mobbed as soon as you started walking back to the tuk tuk when you left. They were selling everything from bracelets to fans to t-shirts to carvings to books to drinks to snacks to musical instruments (pan pipe or violin anyone?!) and they were the most persistent hawkers we met anywhere! The usual patter would begin with ‘where are you from’? upon whichever nation you replied, you would be regaled with the Prime Ministers/Presidents for the last 20 years. This would move on to the football players of their favourite team all being shouted in your ear as you tried to walk along and fend them off, repeating ‘no thank you’. The children were the most persistent. They’d just go into some sort of a robotic trance repeating ’3 bracelets $1′ in a slightly pathetic voice, over and over and over and over again whilst clinging onto your hand… We quickly found that if you asked them a question, rather than just said ‘no thank you’ it would have the same effect as administering a slap to someone having histrionics i.e it would stop them for a short while whilst they thought of the answer to your question and would give you enough time to jump into your tuk tuk and drive away…
As well as temple spotting we took a day trip to Tonle Sap lake to visit a floating village. Unfortunately we didn’t plan and research this as well as we should have… As it was so hot and the dry season, the level of the water in the lake was really, really low. This we expected but what we hadn’t thought about was how low the river flowing into the lake (and where the boats left from) would be. We got into our boat for what should have been a short boat ride out onto the lake. This actually turned out to be an hours crawl into the lake whilst boats got stuck etc. We should have guessed that perhaps the trip wasn’t going to be much fun by the fact that all the tourists coming in the opposite direction, seemed to be grimacing slightly.
Once we’d finally got out onto the lake, it became apparent that the ‘floating village’ wasn’t what we were expecting. It was actually a very primitive camp for Vietnamese refugees who lived there in terrible conditions and were totally dependent upon handouts from the tourists. First stop was to the floating ‘school’. The school was a large houseboat with one room full of children running around. There was one ‘teacher’ and there was very little evidence of any teaching going on. As soon as we walked in, the kids flocked over and posed for photo’s.
On the way out, our guide informed us that the next stop was the local shop, where we could buy some much needed pens or books for the school kids. Whilst at the school, Steve had spotted a cupboard bursting with packets of unopened pens and books that clearly weren’t being used. Once we got to the shop (which didn’t appear to be run by Vietnamese) we were told the proce of said pens and books – this was about ten times more than you’d pay in the UK. We smelt a fish. Declining to buy any of these and pointing out that they had hundreds already at the ‘school’ we were told that we could buy some noodles instead – again at vastly over-inflated prices. Again we declined.
Next stop was the floating crocodile ‘farm’ and floating ‘fish farm’. Here our guide announced that we should stop for 30 minutes. We got off the boat and found the said ‘farms’ consisted of one crocodile in a cage and a couple of sad looking fish in a net. Oh and there was of course a HUGE gift shop and cafe. Again we declined.
We finally persuaded our guide to take us back and as we left, we saw the desperate sight of boatloads of tourist handing out money and food off the back of a boat and being pursued by hundreds of women and children in small rowing boats.
This really was tourism at it’s ugliest and I’m certain that the Vietnamese were not benefiting from this in any way at all – especially the children, who were effectively being treated like animals in a zoo and who certainly were being allowed to receive the education that they deserved.
When we finally arrived back at the dock our guide demanded money for his services over and above the whopping $20 each we’d already paid and which we found out was going straight into the pockets of the Korean investors who ran the whole sorry show. This was another example of how both the Cambodians and the Vietnamese were being exploited without really realising it. Thoroughly depressed, we set off in our tuk tuk to our next stop, the Landmine Museum.
Now, as depressing as it sounds, this was actually a fascinating though incredibly sad place to visit. It was basically a sheltered home out in the countryside with the aim of raising funds to look after the young people who were being supported by the organisation. All of these young people had either been injured, displaced or orphaned by landmines. As a result of the civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime and the American bombardment of Cambodia, he country is littered with them and thousands of innocent civilians are killed or injured every year by these as they try and go about their daily business. It is not thought that Cambodia will ever be fully ‘cleaned’ of landmines or UXO (unexploded ordnance).
The museum is run by a guy called Akira. He had a very sad but quite inspriring story (link to film here). A former Khmer Rouge child soldier who experienced and inflicted so many horrors at a young age, he had used his skills and experience in laying mines for the Khmer Rouge, to become a kind of landmine vigilante; clearing landmines with his own hands all around the country. Eventually, the UN had taken him on board and trained him to do this properly ensuring that all the areas he had cleared were logged properly etc. The museum was full of examples of the landmines and UXO that he had cleared over the years and to show the horrors that they inflict.
Whilst visiting the museum, we were chatting to Keo our driver who we had become good friends with and he started to tell us more about himself and things he’d experienced and witnessed, including being orphaned, public executions, bombings and killings all carried out by the Khmer Rouge. He is 28 years old. This was happening in the first 13 years of his life at for least 13 years after the Khmer Rouge regime supposedly ended. I felt completely ignorant that I had thought all their problems had ended in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge regime ‘officially’ ended.
During our first week in Siem Reap we were getting to understand Cambodia and the lovely but damaged people a little better.