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Eventually Chiang Mai was too dangerously addictive to stay so we elected to make the long bus trips to Siem Riep, Cambodia in order to visit one of the modern wonders of the world, Angkor! I had previously visited Angkor and written about it (even somewhat humourously) so I would direct you to my 28-year-old impressions here. However, this was now to be undertaken with S. and the delightfully cosy hotel we arrived at after 24 hours of travel was welcome for its pool as well as the effort they took to strip the garden of flower blossoms and flax to create a botanical artwork adorning our bed congratulating S. on her birthday (slyly informed).

To provide a short recap, the Angkor civilisation was the premier power on continental southeast Asia from ~900-1300 AD. Their power covered much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and the Angkor city was the largest urban settlement in the world for more than 300 years. Pretty impressive and now all that is left are the massive stone temples which represented the physical embodiment of the devotion of their ruling kings to the Hindu gods and Buddhism. After the gradual fall of the civilisation, the wooden sprawl of the cities were subsumed into the hungry jungles, and only stone remained.

Siem Riep itself remains a madhouse of touts and keen masseuses so in order to celebrate properly we visited a social enterprise in the form of Marum which provides hospitality training to former street children and other disadvantaged youth. They are part of a network which consists of 7 restaurants in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Ethiopia. The menu was inventive and delicious with red tree ants and BBQ’d frog legs finding their way into our mouths.

Early in the morning we embarked on a 25 km tuk tuk trip  to the Banteay Srey temple north of the main temple complex in order to try to avoid most of the tourists. As luck would have it we were travelling just after Chinese New Year so had to battle hordes of tour groups for prime photo opportunities. However the reddish pink sandstone bore witness to the sheer artistry employed by the Angkorians. Fierce devatas (warriors), delicate apsaras (dancing ladies) and growling garudas (bird with massive talons and a sharp beak) had been carved across the temple devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. Later on (like many Angkor temples) it had been retrofitted to also pay homage to the Buddha.

We visited many Gormenghast-esque temples including the famed Angkor Wat at dawn to take the classic photo which even adorns the national flag. However for the second time the clouds thwarted my ambition and I was reduced to taking a snap of the enormous crowd with the pros encamped with their camera tripods in one bedraggled clump. Our favourite temple was Ta Phrom, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple for its cameo in the movie with Lara Croft. The big stars are the strangler fig trees bestroding various walls and holy temples. Their roots are works of art in themselves but the combination with the ancient stone gives one the feeling you’re uncovering the relics of a long-lost civilisation. Which I guess is the point. Archeologists are now enthusiastically chopping down these titans of the jungle in order to protect the stone unbound by either mortar or steel rebar.

We retraced our steps once we had imbibed our fill of Angkor and headed to the coast of the Andaman Sea northeast of Krabi Town via a train (and one missed connection), three buses and two songthaews and one tuk tuk. Our aim was Bananas Bungalows which had the benefits of a stratospheric tripadvisor rating coupled with complete isolation. Stunningly located within a mangrove, picture-perfect bamboo bungalows (as advertised) led to a wooden pier which provided perfect sunsets and lazy hammocks for reading.

We also loved the communal dinners, perfect for getting to know the other guests, the warm hosts (including volunteers working for food and board helping out the German owner) and the general slower pace of life with some staying for weeks at a time. The highlight was the plethora of animal life with the owners’ seven Chihuahuas running around, two aviaries stuffed with doves, tropical birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, parakeets and even a golden tree snake which cheekily devoured two chicks before being spotted by yours truly during my breakfast which led to a fatal beating by the gardener. We also encountered a banana spider the size of my hand, vast casts of crabs migrating their way across the low tide desert of the bay, an irate monkey making off with a water bottle out of our kayak and a cheery frog squatting on top of our mosquito net in the morning as we woke to yet another day in paradise. After five fun nights we moved a little to the south to Klong Muong beach to meet S.’s father and stepmother before we head to Myanmar.

 

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Siem Reap is cool. My time is almost up then onto Bangkok to sort visas and then Chang Mai and then the Middle Kingdom. Also Tristan has left me for some minor music festivals in Serbia and Prague and some lame band called Radiohead in Europe, so solo travelling from now on!

Siem Reap. Swank mixed with the poor. This place is very close to Angkor (5km) and effectively provides all services for the hordes of tourists visiting this place. Pretty nice, has a river flowing through it, an all important ‘Pub St’ and legions of NGOs. Met up with some nice people and managed to have dinner for a few nights on the street together with them.

Angkor. Many of you have been there before so I shall spare you from reliving everything in minute detail. The thing that really struck me was the sheer scale. Angkor Wat is simply the largest and most recognisable temple amongst the many scattered temples. It’s not my favourite, my personal preference being the Bayon. Very cool temple with dozens of large smiling stone faces everywhere. The ‘tomb raider’ (Ta Prohm) temple with its strangler vines and silk cotton trees growing right through the entire temple was neat too. In short, the stone temples are all that are left of the ancient Angkor civilisation, the temples usually being built at the centre of the capitals for the various kings. Their palaces and cities were made of wood and have now disappeared. There is a profusion of SLR cameras (no doubt bought with this place in mind specifically) aimed like sniper rifles at promising lintels, devas, steles, asparas, laterite protrusions and lingams. Ironically, what the place most immediately sparks is the depth of the devotion of those living in that age as well as their mastery of rice cultivation, that they would spend decades dragging rock from 30 km away and constructing gigantic monuments to their gods in order to chalk up some credits for the flip side. The place is truly to be savoured and I spent three days checking it all out, two on motodup and one on bicycle seeing the favourites one last time. One recovery day in there as well a 5am departure to capture the dawn breaking over Angkor Wat (of course it had to be cloudy that day) and conquering over 20 individual temples.

Cambodians are justifiably proud of Angkor, Angkor Wat is even emblazoned on the national flag. It is a point of national pride that is key to rebuilding their shattered country after the war years. On the downside, it can be a point of conflict between Cambodia and some surrounding countries, some of whom were under the sway of Angkor historically. For example the Preah Vihear temple dispute continues to bubble and is regularly in the news here.   

What I can say is that you can’t appreciate the place until you have been there and seen the incredible scope of the various complexes. It didn’t really stick until I had been driven for two days from temple to temple by motorbike, it’s BIG.

The patter. A typical dialogue goes a little something like this:

Urchin: Hallo Sir! You buy from me .. [insert – cold water, guide book, Coke, pineapple, bracelet, flute, t-shirt]?! Where you come from?

Yours truly: No, I [already have some water, Coke rots your teeth, you should be in school, excellent English, call me Dr Jones, I already have a t-shirt, only girls wear bracelets, she (point vaguely in some direction) offered it to me for [1/2,1/3,1/4] the price!]. Also, I’m from the moon.

Urchin: Why not?! OR You lie! OR Your mendacity knows no bounds.

Y.T.: Keep up the good work. [exit stage right]

Moral of the story is that this is a training ground for Cambodia’s future service industry workers. Their English is to a large extent, fairly good. The key is that they continue to go to school to read and write and also attend English schools (which is free for most I think).

The difficulty with giving. Cambodia strikes me as having the most beggars, cripples, homeless and orphans (not mutually exclusive) of all the countries I have visited so far. I have resisted virtually all the pitying cries, incessant wheedling and puppydog looks directed my way. Siem Reap has more NGOs dedicated towards orphanages, children’s hospitals, landmine victims and schools that you would have thought possible. Is it necessarily the hardest affected province in Cambodia? No, simply the one most often visited by Western tourists with soft hearts. Am I being hard by not deciding to give on the street be it a meal or money? I would argue that it is better to direct time and money directly to a charity where I know what the purpose and result of my action is. You have to think that for many of these charities the money may be ill-spent. There is a great organisation called Stay Another Day which has a list of organisations in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia where travellers can volunteer their time to assist the local populace. Alternatively simply rock up to a place (orphanage etc) and ask whether they can use any help (English teaching), then you know that the $/effort is going to the right place. Thanks to Tally for illuminating!

All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone is something you’ll be quite a lot. Dr Suess

You may question my slight hiatus – I put it down to  expensive and poor internet connections and the allure of a beach! We pick up the adventure in Saigon…

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon. The big economic motor of Vietnam, it isn’t as nice as Hanoi I thought but many people prefer it. I went to see the Reunification Palace which used to be the Presidential Palace before the south lost. Really impressive building and lots of interesting history of where some bombs were dropped down the main staircase in 1975, the two tanks that were filmed smashing through the gates in April 30 1975, forcing the surrender of the South, the receiving room where such luminaries as Helen Clark and the Hungarian Prime Minister were received, underground bunkers and the party floor where the Prez had a gambling room, cinema and dancing floor installed. Also the War Remnants Museum which documents the effects of the war with a focus on Agent Orange and other defoliants (and the horrific side effects on children born of those exposed), cluster bombs and napalm. The pictures they have here are truly awful. There was a fascinating section on photographers who had died during the war. There was also an area which covered the prison camp system of the south where they interned captured NVA and Viet Cong and tortured them. All in all, its somewhat amazing how the Vietnamese of both sides can seemingly move on from this awful time and not still harbour resentment against those who inflicted so much pain. For example it is embarrassing how little the US Government provides for land mine clearance, both in Laos and Vietnam. Maybe there is a story there.

Cambodia – Phnom Penh. We scuttled into the backpacker hangout of ‘lakeside’ which despite the swank sound, is a rapidly disappearing lake used for overflow when it rains. The Cambodian government is reclaiming about the middle third of the lake with massive pumps that go night and day in order to develop it. Such shortsightedness! Sitting on the edge of the lake on a pier and looking out at night you could imagine how delightful it may have looked in earlier times. More specifically it really is the theme of my stay in Cambodia – a country really f*cked up after many years of civil war and a now deeply embedded corruption which does the people little credit. The capital is developing at breakneck speed with enormous office blocks being built left and right (including some outrageously impressive buildings for Government agencies and persons such as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his daughter…). There is also a nice Silver Pagoda chock-a-block with hundreds of gold and silver Buddhas.

S-21. Anyways, of course there are two main destinations for travellers in Phnom Penh. The first is Tuol Sleng aka S-21, the largest torture centre during the plague of the Khmer Rouge. This is now a place of contemplation and a shrine and I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us as world citizens to travel to these places of death and see and understand and communicate how these things were possible. S-21 is slap bang in the middle of town, a former school with four blocks, each three stories high. It has been left largely in the state in which it was found by invading Vietnamese forces who put a stop to the slaughter. All those windows looming over you is very eerie and you can imagine the screams of those tortured echoing around the playground (so as not to worry the neighbors they installed glass windows – fortunately the city of 1.5m had been reduced to 40,000 as Cambodia was being dialed back to  year 0). As you walk through the school you can see the instruments of torture, places where prisoners were held and also the infamous rows and rows of pictures of those detained. They stare out at you in black and white and projected emotions of fear, shock, distrust, blankness and sheer horror down to me. There were many young children amongst the prisoners, its hard now to understand how this was possible. All in all, a powerful experience I am glad I undertook. Today, there is an international criminal tribunal underway to prosecute those responsible, or those still alive (whole story in there). Our very own Dame Cath Tizard is one of the judges. They are currently prosecuting Duch, the chief prison warden of S-21.

Choeug Ek killing fields. The second major destination is the Choeug Ek killing fields which are 15km south of Phnom Penh and this is where the detainees of S-21 were shot, strangled and bashed to death, roughly 18,000 of them. The crazy thing is when you think that although this is the most prominent site, it houses only a fraction of the total killed through this killing system in sites across the entire country (not to mention the hundreds of thousands who died of starvation). It is a peaceful place when we arrived, wonderful weather and no noise from traffic. The place is dominated by an enormous Buddhist stupa which houses about 5,000 skulls and other bones. I lit some joss sticks and placed some flowers, it seemed the right thing to do. As you wander around the place, there are holes everywhere where they dug up mass graves and disinterred the bodies. They haven’t dug up all the mass graves either. The other thing which really brings it home is that as you walk along the dusty paths between the graves, you see scraps of clothing and pieces of what I at first took to be white stones. In actual fact the whole place is littered (scattered?) with bone fragments of the murdered.

Finding Face. I met up with Paul, a friend of Richard L. who has been living in Phnom Penh for the last two years. He kindly invited me to a film screening of a documentary which is partly set in Phnom Penh and addresses two areas in Cambodian society, the culture of impunity prevalent here; and female acid attacks. I know, pretty hard core for a traveller! The movie was kept secret as there were fears it would be shut down otherwise. The title was Finding Face and in brief it concerns the story of a beautiful 15 year old girl who becomes the mistress of a senior Cambodian Minister and when his wife finds out, she finds the girl and pours a bucket of acid over her face and body. Horrific stuff but the catch is that due to the Minister’s connections and position, his wife 10 years on has not been prosecuted. I could write screeds on the stories of corruption I have heard but I shall refrain! In short, nothing is ever what it seems in any developing country and I thank Paul for opening my eyes to this scourge which incidentally is not limited to Cambodia, also being prevalent in India, Bangladesh and other countries where the ultimate destruction of a women’s self, begins with her primary asset (as reckoned in most third world countries), her beauty.

I am now in Siem Riep after a short stint at the beach in Sihanoukville.