Temples overrun by ancient forests, a countryside dotted with active landmines, rough roads and floating villages… travelling to Cambodia is an unforgettable experience. By Shona Riddell
Strapped to an aged washing machine as it reaches the peak of its spin cycle is how one might describe the 10+ hour bus trip across the Thai border to our destination in Cambodia. “The government don’t care about roads,” announced our guide Thea, shouting above the din and clutching his seat as we bumped, juddered, rattled and shook along the rocky main road to Siem Reap, home to ancient temples made world-famous in Tomb Raider.
How we (and the poor bus) made it in one piece I don’t know, but we did – in March, the second-hottest month of the year with daily temperatures reaching the brow-mopping late 30s. Tourism in South-East Asia peaks in the more sensible, cooler months of November to February, but we coped by taking regular swigs from giant bottles of water and the occasional Angkor Beer.
From the moment we crossed the Thai border and waited for our visa stamps, competing for space near the one fan in the room, it became obvious that Cambodia was going to be an extreme sort of place. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, so within metres of the border crossing Cambodia has placed a line of flashy casinos, as out of place as Paris Hilton in a $2 Shop. Beggars linger near the doorways hoping some lucky punter will toss any spare change their way. Trucks and motorbikes beep their horns and brakes squeal as rickshaws bearing junk are ferried across the busy intersection. Raggle-taggle shops lining the roads display signs in the mysterious, squiggly Khmer script.
Siem Reap, Home of Temples
Finally, after many butt-numbing hours, we shuddered into town. Weeks could be spent in Siem Reap inspecting all the temples, including pricey (think four American-dollar figures) chopper rides to the more remote locations. Elephants bearing tourist couples lumber round the temple grounds, and small children run after visitors waving postcards, scarves, water, fans and bracelets, calling: “What your name? Where you from? Ten postcards one dollar! You buy, lady?” They are cute, aggressive, wearying and heartbreaking.
The most untouched of the sites is Ta Prohm, an 11th century fortified city that sits crumbled and overgrown. The surrounding jungle has crawled through it over the centuries, overtaking it and encircling it with its roots, which now support many of the walls. But it is not just the roots that have taken over Ta Prohm: here begins many an enthusiastic commentary about Angelina Jolie, movie star and tabloid darling, who came to Cambodia in 2001 to film the action flick Tomb Raider. After witnessing the poverty in Cambodia Jolie began her humanitarian work, becoming a UN Ambassador and adopting a local orphan, the first of several (she recently adopted a Vietnamese boy).
Still, our female guide Alaan is a bit jaded by the subject. “You’ll hear most of the guides here talking about her instead of the temples,” she explained with a sigh. Despite the heat Alaan was fully covered, even with a hat and scarf. This was not just modesty, although we were encouraged to cover our shoulders and knees in temple areas; pale skin is coveted. Whitening skin creams are top sellers, and the pastier members of our tour group were greatly admired.
We moved on to the faces of Bangor, a monument built for the Khmer king in the 12th century with narrow passages and steep stairs (no indoor-outdoor flow) and 216 looming faces chiselled into the stone walls. It would have been an eerie spot if it weren’t for the hundreds of other people there, shoving past each other for the best pictures in the crowded heat.
But the one structure even a stadium full of tourists couldn’t dwarf is Angkor Wat. It’s the great-grandmother of all temples, one that elicits usual suspect adjectives like “stunning” and “majestic”. The time to approach is just before sunrise, and the sight is certainly worth heaving yourself out of bed for as you cross the moat and advance just as the purply light of pre-dawn reveals the temple’s silhouette, and the pink ball of morning sun suddenly peeps above it.
Land Mines and a Floating Village
Once temple fatigue had set in we were whisked to the nearby Land Mine Museum, a non-government organization set up by Aki Ra, a former child solider who continues by hand to de-fuse mines laid during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. He opened the museum to educate visitors and help land mine victims. A 19-year-old amputee who lost one of his legs in a mine blast showed us the different types of mines, the damage they cause and how hard it is for the unwary pedestrian to spot them in the ground. His eyes filled with tears as he told us there were still six million active mines in Cambodia, most of them near the Thai border. Wandering off the beaten track is not encouraged.
That evening we headed to the otherworldly sight of the Chong Kneas floating village, a set of bamboo huts that rise and dip on the surface of the lake depending on monsoon levels. Our boat drifted past locals waving as they cooked dinner, kids paddling in canoes and buckets and women desperately trying to sell us bananas and Sprite. Driving back to town after sunset we passed other tiny ramshackle huts on stilts with large families crowded around flickering lights inside. “Television,” confirmed Alaan, to our surprise.
Eating and Shopping
Siem Reap’s local market was a more light-hearted excursion with its abundance of silks, jewels, food, pirated DVDs and books, including well-photocopied Lonely Planets for just US$3 each. The cry “Lady, Mister, you buy from me!” followed us everywhere. Transactions were mostly carried out in US dollars, although officially the currency is the Riel.
A meal of noodles or fried rice would cost just a few dollars each. The national dish is Amok, a coconut-satay concoction with fish, seafood or chicken, served with rice. But more adventurous culinary options included frogs, snakes, catfish and water-beetles (crunchy and juicy, but not delicious, reported those who sampled them).
We ate out a lot, and the best way to get around was by tuk-tuk. Thea, our male guide, explained the pricing: “Tuk-tuk cost one (American) dollar. If they say more, tell me and I kill them!” I think he was joking. Tuk-tuks were fun and fast, if a little wild, whizzing along the dirt roads past locals snoozing in the shade. Things came to life more after sunset.
Cambodians enjoy their dancing and while there we caught two evening performances: traditional dancing, with golden costumes and slow, bendy hand movements, and some very cute dancing children performing at a non-profit restaurant created to raise money for orphaned street kids in Phnom Penh, Cambodia‘s capital city. There are more and more such restaurants, and hotels, being created to help the many disadvantaged people of Cambodia.
The Terrible History of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh certainly was more hectic and rougher than Siem Reap, but is part of the tourist trail for its sparkling Royal Palace and the city’s harrowing tales of the Khmer Rouge, who took over the country in the 1970s and are thought to be responsible for the deaths of around two million Cambodians. First we were led through the S21 torture camp, which was formerly a primary school. Mugshots of hundreds of executed prisoners, men, women and children, stared blank-eyed at us and we heard stories there I will not forget.
Next stop was the extermination point known as the ‘Killing Fields’, which some may be familiar with from the 1984 Oscar-winning film of the same title. Thea’s brother and grandfather were murdered there so he left us at the entrance, where a tall building contains row upon row of human skulls grouped by age. We wandered around the gaping pits that were mass graves, stepping over scraps of clothing and, yes, human bones sticking out of the dirt.
Despite such recent horrors Cambodia is filled with stunningly beautiful sights, and with gentle and friendly people who are optimistic about their future while not forgetting the past or ignoring their present. It’s a fascinating place. Just take a cushion for the bus.
Shona travelled to Cambodia with an Intrepid group. For more information, visit www.intrepidtravel.com
To help the children of Cambodia, visit The Cambodian Children’s Fund website.
All photos © Shona Riddell
For more of Shona’s writing, check out her money blog Rich Minx.