The four of us (including Dave and Katie) set off for the Angkor ticket office around 5pm so that we can get in for the sunset – many people don’t realise that if you buy a ticket for the next day, you can get in the night before! So we asked our tuk tuk driver to take us to Bakheng Hill, on top of which is Phnom Bakheng – remains of a temple. From here we watched the sun set over the monument, the jungle and the lake beyond. It was a mesmerising site and though there were a hundred other people who had cottoned on to doing this, the site was large enough to feel the jungle around us.
Next morning we jumped into our tuk-tuk early to make sure we get to a few temples before the heat (38-40 degrees) of the day. Luckily, a pot-pat in Kampot had given us excellent advice to visit the temples in an anti-clockwise direction as the tours go clockwise. This meant we found ourselves as the only visitors at some of the major temples complexes.
The first thing we noticed in the jungle was the din – though totally deserted this early, the jungle was alive with noises of insects, birds
and animals – none of whom we could see. Though we did spy some monkeys and apsaras (!) later on. I was surprised to find that the entire Angkor Wat temple complex represents Hinduism, but
given how old it is, this makes sense as Buddhism came later. Many of the structures were built around the 12th century. All made with sandstone and many still standing against the elements.
We visited 9-10 temple complexes all day but three or four stood out. Preah Khan was the first around 7am. This place was totally deserted except us and was really rather large. The main structure was in the shape of a cross with dozens of doors leading in from all four sides into the centre with a huge lingam (Symbol for Shiva). The structure was still standing impressively though hundreds of large stones lay about which must have fallen during the last 700 or so years. All stones have carvings and all carvings are intricate, telling a
story from the Ramayana. We couldn’t help but go into each of the nook to see what we could find especially as we were alone in the entire place. Of course the boys found the bats and clapped to attract them to fly around! We later learned this site is one of five top sites in the entire complex.
Next we were taken to a temple which was a pond with a monument in the centre – though obviously ancient and important in it’s own right, this wasn’t quite so impressive and Dave suggested we look at our list of temples and consult with the tuk-tuk driver so as to not miss the important sites around the complex. This was a good idea because all in all there are three dozen places you could stop at and it would be impossible to do all in one day (Dave and Katie only have one day but we’ll go back later).
Soon, we were passing the smaller sites fulfilling our curiosity with a quick glance. We had to make a toilet stop at Pre Rup, and though not on our list, we decided to go in anyway. This was a very high temple built with very narrow and very steep steps. I don’t know how the ancient people climbed up and down these easily. It had a few more tourists but at least there were no kids selling tourist tak or women urging you to buy water and soft drinks from them!
From the top of Pre Rup enormous stone lions on all four sides of the temples sat facing out at the jungle and guarding the temple. Buffaloes roamed around the pasture of the temple complex and bats flew haphazardly inside. Even though it was only just past nine am, the sun was already blazing and making any physical exercise feel like an effort. We needed to get going to see the other important temple sites before the sun did it’s worst so we got back in the tuk-tuk.
We decided to stop at Ta Prohm next which is a famous temple not just because of it’s size and importance in the Angkor period but also because it is the best place to see where jungle and architecture become one. For hundreds of years, silk trees and other vines have ambushed the temples and the roots grow up the walls, inside the temples and all over them. This provided a great set for a number of movies – Lara Croft:Tombraider being one of them. Overgrown roots clutch at the buildings as though aliens descended upon earth. This was one of the favourite sites for all of us.
By this time we were not only tired traipsing around but also sweating bucket loads. Threatened by dehydration we headed to a small restaurant nearby for lunch and quenched our thirst. Having eaten some food and wiped our brow we headed back out again.
After another couple of small temples, we headed to Bayon – a large site and another famous one for Angkor Wat images.If you google Angkor Wat or think what you know of it, you might imagine large heads of Shiva with eyes closed pointing every which way. This temple had the best of the intricate carvings depicting the Ramayana.
The sun was right above our heads now and we decided to go to see Angkor Wat – the actual centre and capital of the site. This place is beautifully preserved and actually quite large with a monastery inside. The highest point of the temple has a shrine and you need to be covered (especially f you are a woman) to enter. Nothing above the knees and they will also reserve judgement on bare arms. I find it strange because no one stops anyone in all the other shrines around the temples – perhaps this god is a little more conservative! Interestingly Angkor Wat itself turned out to be a disappointment having seen other beautiful sites beforehand!
After a couple of days in Phnom Penh, we were itching to get away and considered heading north to Battambang towards Siem Reap where we needed to head to meet Dave and Katie or south to Kampot and away from our destination. We had a week and after talking to some expats in PP, we made a split second decision and headed south. We are so glad we did.
Kampot is a sleepy hollow on the banks of Kampot river and a 20 minute ride away from Kep beach. The town centre is the riverfront overlooking palms on the other bank and Bokor mountain in the middle distance behind which around 6pm the sun sets so beautifully each evening. Kampot has a dozen bars and restaurants and a similar number of hotels and B&Bs.
We arrived mid-afternoon and there was no one on the streets. It looked dead and the ‘centre’ with it’s derelict old market place across the road from the also derelict fish market not he banks of the river made us think twice about staying. Before we turned on our heels and headed back to the relative safety of a big city, we entered what was to become our daily pilgrimage, The Rusty Toenail – oops, that’s my affectionate name for the legendary bar/restaurant and provider of all manner of information, the Rusty Keyhole.
From there on it was easy. They gave us recommendations for places to stay in our budget, for scooters to hire, places to go, restaurants to dine. A customer who was leaving the bar as we entered advised us to book their famous ribs for the evening as they go quickly so we took the advice, came back in the evening and had a plate of a kilo of ribs (mind you this is more meat and less bone) in front of us. Delicious as it was, we couldn’t finish it. We sat with the two Pot-pats (as Kampot expats like to call themselves!) we had met in Phnom Penh and bumped into here and the barman/owner Vic till 2am and drank and chatted and generally felt great! This was to become a daily routine, at The Rusty Keyhole, though we spent a great night at Bar Red one of the evenings.
Next day, we hired a bike and headed out towards the sea. Another Pot-pat at Captain Chim’s – amazing red soup – recommended this off the beaten path (literally, as there is no tarmac) on the way to the beach where you go through some villages to get to a mountain with some caves. We headed there and saw some beautiful rice paddies on the way. At the cave some local kids wanted to show us around and we were not keen. They followed us anyway and we were glad because we won’t have seen most of the caves or got through them without them. There were little nooks in the large cave where you can head off into other caves through tiny holes and felt like pot-holing without water. It was pitch dark, scary, really claustrophobic and full of bats. But it was a great experience!
Off we went to Kep later and never made it to the beach. How could we when before the beach there is a crab market! Not any old crab market but the largest and most famous in all of Cambodia. The market is right on the sea from where there is constant seafood coming out and being sold just as it comes out the sea. Little shacks line the east side of the market overhanging the beach. We went to one and ordered a kilo of the local special – the blue crab. A lady went out into the sea, opened one of the floating baskets in which they were catching crabs and brought eight of these babies out to us. Within 15 minutes we were tucking into them and they were as good as the crabs in Vietnam.
The next few days we did as little possible. There was a lot of eating and drinking involved but we didn’t leave Kampot. The sunset is so beguiling that everyone – pot pats and locals come out to the riverfront to stare at it. Though I am yet to see the prize of Cambodia – Angkor Wat, it’s Kampot I am sure I will remember as a place of bewitching beauty!
……and if you are anything like me, you’d want to move on!
The culture and feel of a city comes from it’s residents, it’s architecture, it’s heritage. Some cities are built on tourism but even they attract the kind of tourist who is looking to explore the people, the city and the unique history of that city. And so it is and should be that cities are organic in their development.
Phnom Penh has an ancient heritage. Some of the buildings are breathtakingly beautiful. Much of the centre of the city seems to be much cleaner and more relaxed than it’s neighbour Saigon. But pretty much the entire city centre seems to be dominated by tourism alone.
Markets sell tourist tack. Restaurants feature four European cuisines on one menu. Every tuk-tuk driver tries to sell you a tour around the city. This could be true of many cities but here in Phnom Penh what is striking to me is the distinct lack of women tourists. The place is swarming with Western men travelling on their own. Though I did meet three men travelling together – on a vacation from their security jobs in Iraq. In the evening, pretty much every bar has young, scantily dressed local girls. You get the drift.
Like Vietnam, Cambodia’s recent past has seen a lot of violence. All around Cambodia there is evidence of this. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Life in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ was strict and brutal. In many areas of the country people were rounded up and executed for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, scavenging for food, and even crying for dead loved ones. Former businessmen and bureaucrats were hunted down and killed along with their entire families; the Khmer Rouge feared that they held beliefs that could lead them to oppose their regime. A few Khmer Rouge loyalists were even killed for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to execute.
Yesterday, we went to S21 – a school which was converted into a prison for torture by Pol Pot’s regime. After visiting the War Remnant’s Museum, I wasn’t expecting to be shocked but I was. This was a dictator who captured, tortured and killed a quarter of his own people. In S21 – it’s estimated that 17,000 prisoners were brought to it. Only 7 walked out alive. The photos inside S21 are gruesome at best. How one man can do this to another (and to women, young children and infirm) always surprises me.
After spending almost half a year in South America where at least I could converse with the locals even if in my broken Spanish, here in Asia I find it difficult to get to know anything about the people and their view of their recent past and the hopes for future. The language barrier is of course the biggest problem, but there is an even bigger difference in our cultures than in S America.
Cambodia produces textile and it’s their major export but their next biggest income comes from tourism. For a country which is only just beginning to be able to cater to mass tourism – even that is only in the two or three areas/cities – this is bad news. The world economy has slowed down tourism and Cambodia is suffering.
Perhaps this is the reason the people of the country are desperate to make a quick buck out of any tourists who do visit. Unfortunately this attitude sometimes manifests itself in people being scammed, inflated price on food/drink/accommodation for foreigners and seedy city centres.
It’s not all bad and we arrived on the coast of Cambodia yesterday to a sleepy hollow where things can’t be more different than what I have described above. Perhaps Phnom Penh is just not for me!