A Travellerspoint blog


Siem Reap and Angkor Temples

Two days solid of exploring temples!

sunny 35 °C

Our 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap soon became 9 hours to cover the 300km. It was a long slow journey, but the scenery was good as we winded through the various villages, linked together by paddy fields.

On arriving at the bus station in the middle of nowhere, we had a complimentary tuk tuk waiting to transport us into town. It turned out the hotels volunteer details of potential customers for tours around Angkor, which therefore meant our tuk tuk journey was a sales pitch trying to get us to book him for the following day. Unfortunately for him, we had already decided we were going to do it on bike; however would you believe that just yesterday a cyclist was hit from behind by a moped, therefore a tuk tuk would be safer!?

We eventually managed to shake him off when we got to the hotel, but he sure did hang around! We were shown to our room, with the man showing the way desperately spraying bug spray as we went in. Great sign. We'd booked this hotel based on it scoring about 9.5/10 on reviews which could do nothing but praise the place. The room was really dingey, the floor had puddles, the double bed only had one pillow and the room was dirty. We decided to ask for another room and as we opened the door, they were coming over to move us anyway saying we had been shown to the wrong room.

The next room initially looked better and didn't smell; however the toilet had been used and the bathroom was so dirty it was slimey. Plus the air-con didn't work and it was 30 odd degrees and very humid. We went out for dinner while they sorted the room. On returning at 10pm, there was no one around, despite us agreeing to try bikes for rent on our return. We decided to head back to town to sort the bikes and on return managed to find the manager. He claimed he was angry with his staff for not doing our room and would have to do it himself. He disappeared for 10-15 minutes before sending up one of his workers who looked at the air-con unit before casually informing me it wasn't going to work. It was ridiculously hot in our room and without even a fan, it made the outside feel cool. Chris had gone off in search of another hotel as we really didn't want to stay here anymore and it was far too hot in the room. I was offered a third room which had a dirty bathroom and floor in the room, but the air-con worked. By this point it was 11.15pm and we'd had enough of being messed around.

As Chris was requesting a room at another hotel with no stuff and on his own late at night, the hotel questioned who he would be sharing with, insinuating he could be bringing in a lady of the night.

Back at our original supposedly 3 star hotel, the owner was telling me the problems were in my mind because i was British and therefore expected too much. When Chris returned, the manager, convinced it was all down to me, tried to get Chris on side by showing him the third grotty room I'd already declined. We changed hotels and I think the new hotel was surprised to see Chris arriving with backpacks and a Western girl!

The following morning we did the 8km cycle up to Angkor to find that you couldn't buy tickets at the entrance. We were told the ticket booth was 4-5km away and so we hopped on the back of the ready and waiting mopeds and went back towards town to get our passes. We decided to do the temples further afield today, and head out for sunrise the following day.

Our first stop was Sra Srang lake, which used to be used for the Royal bath time. It was a very big and square lake set amongst trees on three sides. We walked around the lake and headed off through the trees to a small village and on through some paddy fields to the well hidden Bat Chum temple, which was currently being maintained and had some pretty clever looking bamboo scaffolding supporting it.

We headed back through the village, pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the scenery was around the temples. Once back at the lake, we saw a man sat atop of his cart on top of some straw, being pulled along by two oxen.

The next temple was Pre Preup, which consisted of about 6 temple towers on top of a high brick built podium, which allowed for great views over Angkor. We decided to return here for sunset, watching the sun drop below the trees. At the entrance of all the main temples is someone to check you have a ticket. The guy on this temple clearly wanted to practise his English and so began talking to us. He asked us how long we had known each other and loved that it had been 22 years, stating that 'our love was immortal, unlike those who had met a year ago'. As usual, he too contradicted himself by saying we were young to be married, yet questioned why we did not yet have children with us.

By this point we had already cycled some 16km yet had barely covered any ground on the map. We carried on visiting a couple more temples, each one with ladies shouting at you to buy drinks and children standing there like zombies chanting 'one dollar, one dollar' trying to get you to buy some tat from their basket. Some of the children literally seemed like they were in a trance, barely saying the words and just making a constant droning noise.

Prah Neak temple sits in the middle of a lake and is reached by walking along a raised wooden platform through trees and plants growing in the waters. I think we spent longer photographing and admiring the view of this lake than of the temple sat in the middle of another section of water.

By this point we had probably cycled about 35km and decided to add to our route by looping back round for sunset. Angkor Wat is obviously the biggest group of temples, set with a wide moat around the perimeter, and we were saving these until tomorrow. The second largest group could be found within Angkor Thom, and so we cycled through the middle, entering through the north gate and leaving through the victory gate. These gates were built of stone creating and pointy arch with bricks stacked high on top. Within the bricks, a huge face had been carved and created by having some of the bricks sticking out. Leading up to the gate are two rows of Buddhas on either side who were beheaded as part of the Khmer Rouge regime. The following day at the south gate, we saw that they are in the process of restoring the heads.

We stopped off at a couple of minor temples before completing our loop and heading back past the lake up to Pre Preup temple for sunset.

After sunset, we did the long 15km ride back to Siem Reap which seemed to go on forever, especially as I had a really rubbish bike. We had planned to hire bikes the following day, but partly due to the 15km ride to Ta Promh temple for sunrise, we decided to organise a tuk tuk.

The next morning, we left our hotel at 5am to find it was raining lightly which meant we were not going to get the sunrise we had hoped for. Halfway there, the heavens opened and it began to really throw it down. We had to quickly let down the sides of our tuk tuk to avoid getting soaked. It was like a little tuk tuk tent. We arrived at Ta Promh temple before daylight had begun to break and sat in the tuk tuk listening to the rain pounding down on the metal roof. We ended up sitting it out until just after sunrise when it stopped almost as quickly as it had started. Most people and all the tour busses go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, but Ta Promh is usually a close second choice; however today there was just one other couple and a family of three.

Ta Promh temple is very popular as it was the temple used for the film Tomb Raider. When we cycled past the day before, the temple and surrounding area was packed out with loads of people. Disappointed that the sunrise had been a write off, we were rewarded with this temple being completely empty. Chris and I decided to do the route around the temple backwards meaning it was just us on our own. This temple is home to the infamous photo of tree roots growing down and through the temple walls.

After Ta Promh, we visited Angkor Wat as those who go for sunrise on tour buses normally head back to town for breakfast, leaving it relatively empty. There were still quite a few people around but we timed it pretty perfectly. As we returned, there was a sea of colour heading along the path as all the tour buses had returned.

Angkor Wat was much better preserved and grander than any other temple we had seen here. It seemed to go on forever in various different sections. One part had an outdoor walkway with carvings on the wall in the stone the whole 50m stretch of the wall. We spent about an hour and half here looking around the various different areas.

After breakfast, we visited Bayon temple and a few small temples in the surrounding gardens. We had agreed to meet our tuk tuk driver on the road up to north gate, but when we came out, he was nowhere to be seen. It felt strange walking through the 50 or so tuk tuks parked up without any of them paying us any attention or offering us a tuk tuk.Twenty minutes later, we found our tuk tuk parked on his own, behind a van some 200m or so away from where we had agreed. Oh well, at least he'd hadn't ditched us!

Our last stop was Phnom Bakheng temple, which was a ten minute walk up a hill. The views from on top of this temple were amazing and you could see for miles around in all directions. In the distance, you could see Angkor Wat standing out above the trees.

We returned to town feeling all templed out and visited the Foreign Correspondence Club, for a couple of beers and food before heading back to the hotel for a shower and nap.

That evening,we had an Indian for dinner before wandering around the night markets. We went back to our hotel early, running the gauntlet, which was two ladies and a girl harassing you to come into their restaurant. The little girl was quite sweet and seemed to like playing some game of tag as we passed. She absolutely loved playing with us and couldn't stop giggling as she dragged me towards her restaurant.

Sometimes I find it sad seeing all these children being sent out to sell instead of just playing like children should. The groups of children selling at the temples are selling such rubbish that no one wants to buy, that I'm not even sure they are that successful at selling and making any money and just end up making a nuisance of themselves. Most children here do go to school so I'm not sure there is even a need for them to work.

The next morning we took a propellor plane to Bangkok.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 04:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temples sunset sunrise angkor bike Comments (0)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A historical tour around the city

sunny 35 °C

The travel company with whom we had booked our bus tickets were more than willing to sort out your visa and passport stamps for exiting Vietnam and entering Cambodia for a small fee of $7 each. Everyone on our mini bus seemed more than willing to pay this, but Chris and I as the expert border hoppers we have now become decided to do it ourselves. This meant basically we had to lug our weighty passports through the 'International border gate' (as opposed to the other sort?) up to the exit desk in Vietnam, while we waited for the stack of 10 to be processed for the rest of our group.

We all realighted the bus to take us the 100m or so through the no man's land before we handed in our visa forms as the kind Vietnamese lady scribbled the visa numbers down for the other ten with whom were crossing. Today visas cost an extra $2, because they could, so I suppose we only saved $5. We had our passports stamped into Cambodia and waited for the rest of our group, who wished they had done it themselves, feeling a little ripped off. At least I now know what I want to do when we get back, help tourists have their passports stamped! Bearing in mind a month's wage in the capital is $100, more than double that of someone from the countryside, they'd just made $70 for half an hour's 'work'.

Our bus driver had clearly received a backhander as after initially refusing, we were forced to take the $1 medical check to the point where he allowed the 'doctor' to steal the keys to the van. This medical check involved a guy waving a 'thermometer' within an inch or our foreheads, not touching. If that guy really is a doctor, I do hope we don't get sick in Cambodia.

With our generic health clearance leaflet in hand, we were free to continue our journey at great speed, coming within inches of hitting a moped stacked a good couple of feet above the guy's head and out to each side. He was oblivious as to how close we had come to hitting him as when tooting failed, our driver finally slammed on the breaks which clearly did not work. We were quite relieved to get on the proper bus to Phnom Penh.

This was a very dusty bus, with clouds of dust lingering permanently in the air. We were wishing we had a face mask, particularly as ventilation on these dusty roads was the open window next to us. As with our arrival in Vietnam, within minutes we were going past the scene of an accident, this time the front of a lorry had been smashed off, bringing down the front of a shop. Fortunately there were no dead bodies this time but not sure how recent it was.

We finally arrived in Phnom Penh just before 6 and took a tuk tuk to our guesthouse before heading out for one of the nicest dinners we have had on this trip. Chris had a calzone pizza which was OK, but I had the most delicious chicken wrapped in bacon, stuffed with spinach and cheese, topped with a pepper sauce. It had such a homely taste to it.

We had one day in Phnom Penh to explore the many sights. We started off at the Royal Palace, which although not as grand as Bangkok Place, in some ways it was more pleasant to visit due to the lack of hoards of tourists. It was surrounded by pretty gardens, and a good collection of colourful lotus flowers.

Next stop was the national museum, and on the way we passed a photography exhibition created by 9 different western photographers who have lived in South East Asia for many years and wanted to capture Asia through the eyes of an outsider on the inside, hoping to see things that a native would miss and take to be normal everyday shots, but able to look deeper than the tourist passing through.

Some of the exhibitions were a little strange; one appeared to like taking photos of emaciated and dead bodies, another had taken pictures of herself in some basic accommodation, which reminded me of student accommodation, in 2011 and 11 years previously.

Chris' favourite was the construction pictures, where someone had taken photos of tower blocks being constructed with scaffolding round them. My favourite was pictures of Cambodia showing normal everyday life with the best photo being of the back of a group of tower blocks grouped together to make a courtyard. The photo was black and white and showed three sides of the block, giving a snippet of everybody's lives, with their clutter in windows and clothes hanging up all over the place.

The national museum housed a lot of stone statues, most of which were crumbling in places and had come from our next place Angkor. In the middle was a very pleasant courtyard with lotus flower ponds and a Buddha shrine in the centre.

We took a tuk tuk to the former S-21 prison, which is now home to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Previously a school comprising 4 buildings, it was converted into a prison used for interrogation and torture when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975. Despite its leader Pol Pot being a highly educated individual, he banned education believing everyone should be farmers, harvesting for an equal communist state. Threatened by education, all schools were closed, most, as well as pagodas were converted into prisons, used to torture anyone who was believed to have been against the Khmer Rouge regime.

First to be imprisoned were those who were educated, teachers and anybody who spoke a foreign language. (I wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes!) After that, it was anybody who was seen as a potential threat who did not follow the rules or a traiter. Nobody was safe, and towards the end, Pol Pot's paranoia became so bad that even the Khmer soldiers who had preciously been carrying out the murders were not safe from genocide.

Those who were arrested, often for minor offences like stealing a banana when starving hungry, would be taken to their local prison, along with their whole family. The logic behind this was if a whole family was locked away, there was no one available to seek revenge. Once there, they would be tortured until either they died or confessed to some crime against the regime. On signing their confession, they were marked for execution and would eventually be sent to one of over 300 killing fields. The prison has been left the way it was found when it was liberated in January 1979, with the original beds used for torture and blood on the floors and walls. The prison had 4 sections and each classroom had been converted into some part of the prison. One block had been converted into dark, individual cells made out of either brick or wood. Along the outside landing which linked the classrooms was barbed wire fencing covering the whole front of the building with razor wire used on the gates. Some of the classrooms had been knocked through to create mass cells where prisoners would be chained to the floor, with barely enough space to lie down. A lot of the classrooms still had blackboards. Another block had been given over to a museum, with one room showing the mugshots of the poor people who found themselves where, with their prisoner number. There was another section with some pretty gruesome photos showing bodies they had found which had not survived the torture inflicted on their often emaciated bodies. This museum was eerie and quite disturbing to think of the history that had taken place at this school.

The final exhibiton talked of the lack of justice for the victims as those who helped Pol Pot are still awaiting trail and some how have defense lawyers prolonging these cases. The faces of these men, including one famous one of Duch, who helped Pol Pot disseminate his policies and beliefs for a communist Cambodia, look so evil and show no remorse. You stare at these recent photos of them as old men, disbelieving that they can pose in such a relaxed manner, knowing what they did.

After this, we headed to the Killing Fields, where prisoners who confessed would be transported for execution and burial. Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located about 5km from Phnom Penh and were originally a Chinese graveyard. Prisoners would be brought here in the night to be executed to the sound of Khmer music, which was played on loudspeakers to mask the screams and avoid rousing suspicion. Bullets were expensive, meaning prisoners were bludgeoned to death along sides of pits which were to become their graves. Towards the end of Pol Pot's dictatorship, more than 300 prisoners would be taken for execution everyday in comparison to the one truck load which used to arrive 2-3 times a week. Outsiders were unaware of what was taking place in the Killing Fields.

With your entrance ticket comes a really informative audio guide which walks you around the peaceful grounds of the Killing Fields, which overlook paddy fields to the back. It is hard to believe that somewhere as tranquil as this saw such evil. The audio included stories of survivors who had managed to survive prison, telling their accounts of the atrocities which took place. After walking pass various graves and around a secluded lake, your tour finished at the memorial stupa, which contains the remains of the people they found buried in the mass graves. There are thousands of skulls within this building, which have been categorised by gender and age groups. Around the Killing Fields are many signs reminding you to be quiet as a mark of respect, but in reality you walk around in stunned silence, struggling to believe what had taken place so recently in this beautiful location.

There are still bones, teeth and clothes in the graves, which over 30 years on are still coming to the surface and are collected by staff every couple of months and added to the collection already on display

The Killing Fields felt surreal, especially when you think than 2 million people were killed over the 3½ years the Khmer Rouge ran the country, which equates to 25% of their population. It's hard to believe that anybody over 35 is lucky to have survived the regime.

In the evening, we visited the Foreign Correspondence Club (which by unfortunate coincidence turned out to be happy hour,) and enjoyed a couple of cocktails while watching the sun go down over the river. During the war, reporters used to go here to meet up and after a drink or two, used to fire guns off of the balcony.

The following day we took a bus to Siem Reap ready for our temple adventure.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 20:24 Archived in Cambodia Tagged palace cocktails genocide killing_fields Comments (1)

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