Indochina – Cambodia – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Siem ReapAll too soon, an early morning start saw us leaving behind the welcoming warmth of the Raffles in Phnom Penh to take an Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. Most people have heard of Angkor Wat, which is the major tourist attraction here – indeed in Cambodia, indeed in south east Asia, and probably in the top ten of the world’s greatest sights – but I certainly hadn’t heard of its brash little neighbour Siem Reap before. Well I can tell you it’s a complete gem of a place.

Raffles hotel poolIts name, rather belligerently, means “the defeat of Siam”, so you might expect it to be a warrior environment where, when the local lads get lairy, one says “Who you calling Siamese”, and it ends up with a head-butt and a trip to A&E. But of course not; this is Cambodia, one of the most relaxed, laid back and forgiving nations on this planet. The streets of Siem Reap are paved, perhaps not with gold, but with lovely restaurants and bars, entertaining boutiques, fashion bargains, and top quality hotels, of which the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, is surely one of the finest. It also happened to be where we were lucky enough to be staying. Elegant, refined, with some stunning art works, and the most beautiful pool beside which we enjoyed a fantastic lunch. There was only one other couple there during lunchtime, and it felt very relaxing, extremely exclusive and enormously privileged.

Preah KhanChiefly though, Siem Reap serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. They belong to the classic period of Khmer art and civilisation and were created by a succession of Khmer kings who presided over an empire that dominated the region from 800 AD to 1430 AD. From the 15th century, the temples were more or less abandoned and forgotten by the world, although occasionally visited by travellers including the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who is Preah Khan carvingsattributed with their re-discovery in 1861. Today the area attracts a good 2 million visitors a year, and tourism is second only to the textile industry in the country’s economy.

Our trip to the entire site was split over two days. On the first afternoon we explored some of the smaller, outer, sites, whilst saving the Main Attraction for the next day. Our first destination was the temple of Preah Khan, built between 1180 and 1215 as King Jayavarman VII’s temporary capital whilst Hall of DancersAngkor Thom (of which more later) was being restored. Not only a temple, it also served as a monastery and religious college, and the complex extends over approximately 2 square miles. Originally dedicated to Buddha, it was later vandalised by Hindu rulers who removed the Buddhist images and replaced them with Hindu carvings. There’s a marvellous welcome into the site – you walk through an arch overseen by three faces, looking ahead and to the left and right. Atmospheric Preah Khan Once in, like with all these temples, you just wander round and take in the history and the exquisite carvings, and imagine what it would have looked like at the height of its power. Outstanding sights include the engraved line of dancers in the appropriately named Hall of Dancers, and the extraordinary tree roots that have formed around the buildings, showing how, over time, nature dominates what man has created. They are amazing to see.

Ta SomAfter that, we visited Ta Som. This small temple has been the subject of extensive renovation work, and when you see how one fig tree has completely strangled the stonework at one entrance, it’s not difficult to understand why it was so necessary. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century and was dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II – these old Khmer kings were a bit of a mouthful. It’s one of the lesser visited temples, and we were lucky to see it.

Banteay SreiOur final port of call was to Banteay Srei, home to some of the best preserved sculptures of all the Angkor temples. Constructed between AD 967 and 1000, the name means Citadel of Beauty, and what makes it stand out is the use of pink sandstone. Unlike most other monuments in the area, it was never a royal temple, and there are hardly any plain surfaces without some elaborate decoration. Pink SandstoneThe main central sanctuary was dedicated to Shiva, and everywhere you find beautiful carvings which are a testament to the skill of the artisans and builders who created it. It’s a stunning sight and, extraordinarily, wasn’t discovered until 1914. Our guide was very keen that we should see this place, but, Hindu carvingsunfortunately, we had spent quite a lot of time at Prean Khan, and so by the time we arrived – it was closed! But, as I pointed out earlier, this is Cambodia; so our guide simply forced open the gate even though it was locked (not very securely, obviously), and we sneakily wandered around by ourselves as dusk turned to darkness. I must be honest and say that our illicit entry gave it an extra thrill; and to know that we were the only people there made it feel extra special. Exquisite carvingsThe guide shone his torch, and also we used our torch apps on the iPhones to help us find our way around. The moving lights of course had an unfortunate consequence, and it wasn’t long before a security guard suddenly appeared to see what was going on. But this is Cambodia; and once our guide had slipped him a few quid there was no problem. I’m not normally one to advocate an illegal act – but this was well worth the trespassing.

Getting darkOur journey back to the hotel was exciting, as it was now night-time, and we were driving through these small villages (although on relatively good roads), with no light other than that coming from the houses alongside the road. Despite its being pitch black, the area was full of activity – workers, families, children, sitting outside the houses, walking along the streets, engaging in animated conversation, preparing outdoor meals – all human life was there. It was as though the darkness had brought them to life like a colony of bushbabies.

Siem Reap by nightBack at the hotel, it was time to consider our evening meal. Having had a flashy (and expensive) dinner the night before in Phnom Penh, we thought we’d simply hit the streets of Siem Reap and (hopefully) find a good restaurant. One of our intrepid co-travellers had heard of Square 24, so booked it for all of us and it was excellent. We’d thoroughly recommend it – atmospheric, vibrant, and delicious. As in Laos, the local cuisine is delicate, tasty and rewarding – lovely, harmonised flavours instead of all those clashing ingredients you get in Vietnam.

Arrival at Angkor WatThe next day we were up early for The Big One – Angkor Wat. Of all the great sights in the world we have seen, this is one of the few that actually delivers more than you could possibly hope for – it’s a hugely satisfying place to spend a day, and in fact you could come back day after day after day and still have loads more to take in.Angkor Wat Most visitors just have the one day to sample it though, so if that’s you, make the most of your time and see as much as you can of this amazing place.

We think of Angkor Wat as being the entire complex, but in fact it is only one (albeit the largest) of the individual temples on the site. Arriving there is a beautiful experience, as you walk up a wide footway over the charming stretch of water surrounding it. You wouldn’t want to do it at night, Carvingsor if you’ve had one over the eight as there’s nothing to stop you from falling in the moat. Angkor Wat’s five great towers beckon you as you walk across this causeway, their reflections in the water teasing you forward. You share the walk with hundreds of other tourists, not to mention quite a few monks on a day out too, but the site is so vast that it rarely feels overcrowded.

MonksOn arrival you are confronted with a miraculous gallery of bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The mass of intricately carved figures of warriors overwhelms you, as you identify soldiers, chariots and animals in a higgledy-piggledy scrum of combat. The blend of images seems to go on forever; you could easily spend an hour just observing the figures and following the stories carved out on the walls. Once you tear yourself away from this sight, you just wander around the complex, Templemarvelling at the structures and the sheer magnitude of the entire place. It was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, so there are Hindu carvings everywhere. The Central Sanctuary towers over the whole place, giving the impression of a massive “temple-mountain”. Steep staircases take you up (and down) and you can walk around the galleries and admire the views both inside and out.

Ta ProhmLeaving from the back end of the complex, we made our way to Ta Prohm, which was a wealthy Buddhist monastery built around the year 1200, but is now most famous (perhaps somewhat sadly) for being the background for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The way the jungle has encroached on the buildings, and how the tree roots have strangled the structures is extraordinary to see. It’s a slow walk around, as everyone stops for photographs of themselves with roots – very entertaining though.

Terrace of the ElephantsFrom Ta Prohm we headed towards Angkor Thom, which means “The Great City”, and it’s a stunning sight, made up of many different elements. We found the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300 metre long structure decorated with almost life-sized elephants in procession. They look really cute. We strolled around the Bayon, a temple with no fewer than 54 towers, some with mysteriously smiling faces, as well as military and other carvings. BayonThe number of individual buildings, temples, palaces and terraces in the whole complex blows your mind. We probably only saw a fraction of it, but it will remain as one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had.

We started the visit early, so even after all this time, we weren’t too late for lunch. We went to Sala Bai, yet another restaurant designed to give training and a career to street children, and, as always with these places, Easter Eggit was excellent. From there we returned to the hotel for some afternoon chilling, where we were confronted by the most enormous Easter Egg (it was Easter Monday) – that would have taken some eating. Later on we headed out for a night on Siem Reap town, where we strolled up and down the evocatively named “Pub Street”, ending up at the Red Piano for dinner. No DrugsAs the website says, “drugs and prostitution are strictly forbidden – also the perfect spot for your afternoon coffee and snack”, so you know it’s a classy joint. Actually it was huge fun – not Cordon Bleu perhaps but good for a laugh. The music they played, you may be interested to know, included Free’s All Right Now, Dire Strait’s Walk of Life, and a French song we really like, Philippe Cataldo’s Les Divas du Dancing (Google it).

Pub StreetThe next day was our flight home, but it didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for another trip around town in the morning, visiting the Old Market, the souvenir shops and fashion boutiques, and laughing at the signs outside the Fish Foot Pedicure establishments. “Our hungry fish are waiting for your dead skin!” “If our fish cannot make you happy we’ll not charge”. Big promises there. We ended up at a lovely wine bar/restaurant where we treated ourselves to a final bottle of Cambodian red wine (it probably wasn’t Cambodian) and I had a great big pizza.Those trees Sorry to say I can’t remember the name, but it was on the corner by the Old Market – you can’t miss it.

And that was the end of our Indochinese Odyssey. Three weeks of extraordinary sights and meeting super people; the gentle relaxation of Laos, the gritty vibrancy of Vietnam, and the indomitable spirit of Cambodia. A great trip, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

Indochina – Cambodia – Phnom Penh

Leaving Chau Doc for CambodiaMeanwhile, back in Indochina…. a few weeks ago, gentle reader, I left you playing Hunt the Gecko all night in our hotel room in Chau Doc, not really the best preparation for our triumphal entry into Cambodia the next day. Nevertheless, we emerged from our sleep, ready to take in our final Vietnamese morning, and the exciting prospect of a four hour speedboat trip up the Mekong, into Cambodia, and on to Phnom Penh. What a stylish way to go from country to country! The boat belongs to the Victoria Hotel and they use it for day trips to the Cambodian capital as well as for proper international travel. There was plenty of room for us intrepid five to relax, stretch out and take in the beautiful scenery.

Vietnamese/Cambodian borderThere was no particular problem at the border crossing, although it was a slow process. Fortunately the hotel provided a guide who explained precisely all the forms we would have to complete, which booths to stand at, which fees to pay, and so on. We were expecting quite a major border post, considering it’s an international boundary on one of the world’s biggest rivers; instead, it was like a couple of garden sheds and a Portakabin, surrounded by a few obligatory shrines and a mangy dog. Bureaucracy took its usual unhurried pace, and, about an hour later, with ID’s confirmed and dongs exchanged for riels, we were back on the river. The rest of the journey was uneventful with nothing to do but observe river life, until, as often seems to happen on the Mekong, the boat broke down. En route to Phnom PenhThe Captain and the guide weren’t the remotest bit concerned though – I got the impression this happened all the time. The Captain did whatever is the naval equivalent of getting under the bonnet and wiggling a few connections, and off we went again. The Captain returned, somewhat smug at his engineering prowess, to his steering wheel. However, in doing so, he accidentally kicked over a bucket of iced water that had been keeping soft drinks cold for us so that the water went cascading all over the inside of the boat, splashing up the sides of our legs and ruining any delicate shoes that might have been worn. With a hundred sorries imparted to a few discomfited Brits, the Captain wasn’t looking so smug any more.

Arriving at Phnom PenhArriving anywhere from sea is an exciting view – we’ve been on cruises that have called at Valletta and Venice, for example, and nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of seeing these places from the water, as the land gets closer. Well, arriving at Phnom Penh from the Mekong is a similarly amazing sight to behold. From some distance you get the promise of all these gilded temples with their pointy roofs and elaborate finials shaped like the “nagas” of Buddhist mythology, although they remind me more of birds of prey talons, or those very ornate fingernails Thai dancers have. The initial sensation is one of elegance, a treasury of history, a place where time has stood still so that these extraordinarily beautiful buildings can co-exist with recent functional architecture in a modern frenetic city. You can’t wait to get off the boat and explore the city.

Elephant BarBut first we checked into our hotel – and how fantastic it is. We were at the Raffles Hotel le Royal, and it’s probably the second most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in (want to know which is the most beautiful? It’s the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra). The bedrooms and the public rooms are immaculate, and they really get the service right too, being the perfect blend of friendliness and politeness. The Elephant Bar is a wonderful place to unwind at the end of an evening, the poolside terrace is exquisite, and the main restaurant simply fab – as we would discover the next evening.

Royal PalaceAfter lunch it was time to head back into town and meet our guide, Phaly (I think that’s how you spell it – pronounced Polly). She was an extraordinary person with a very personal understanding of the sorrowful history of Cambodia over the last forty years. We would learn more about that, and her own experiences, the next day. Meanwhile, on a happier note, our afternoon was spent visiting the Royal Palace, whose intricate spires and quirky shaped temples had welcomed us at a distance on the boat that morning.Royal Palace another view You would think that the Royal Palace might be centuries old, but actually it only dates from the mid-nineteenth century, and is the official residence of Cambodia’s reigning monarch, King Sihamoni. There are many buildings that make up the whole Palace complex, including the Throne Hall, the Pavilion of Napoleon III, the Dancing Pavilion and the Royal Treasury. As you would expect, they are adorned with stunning decorations and it’s all landscaped to immaculate smartness; there’s hardly a leaf out of place. Costumes exhibitionOne of the halls has a rather bizarre costume exhibition; not that you wouldn’t expect an exhibition of costume in a place like this, but some of the models made it look as though they’ve been transported from a tatty 1980s boutique that’s having a hard time shifting some old stock. Alongside the Royal Palace you can also find the Silver Pagoda, with its stupa that holds the ashes of the current King’s grandparents, its Equestrian Statue of King Norodom dressed as Napoleon III, and its Buddhist temple.

Wat PhnomWe then moved on to Wat Phnom, a very lively and happening temple built in 1373 to house some early Buddhist statues; now it’s a market and a meeting place as well as a place of worship. It’s very colourfully decorated, verging on the gaudy more than the tasteful. Very prevalent in Cambodia are the people near to temples selling caged birds – the idea is you buy a bird and then set it free – it gives you good Karma. One of our group decided to buy one of these wretched animals trapped in its tiny cage; she paid over her money and received the little cage, which she then opened – shook a little – Wat Phnom clockand the bird just dropped dead out of it onto the floor. I’m sure that didn’t do anyone’s Karma rating any good at all. Whilst I was trying to stifle a smile remembering Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue, our fellow intrepid traveller just marched straight back to the bird seller and demanded a fresh one. It all seemed very strange to me. The new bird flew away and Karma was restored. Outside Wat Phnom there is a big garden clock, set in the lawn adjacent to the temple. It still works – although I doubt it’s been there since 1373.

Phnom PenhAnd that concluded our afternoon sightseeing. Like all Asian cities Phnom Penh’s roads are a battlefield between car, cyclist and pedestrian, although it wasn’t as terrifying as Vietnam. We safely made our way back to Raffles for afternoon tea and a nap, before returning into town to try the FCC for dinner. That’s the Foreign Correspondents Club to you and me. Railway StationIt’s somewhere people rave about, but to be honest, we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. My pizza was cold, and Mrs Chrisparkle discovered she had a big ugly black thing walking over her hand at one point, at which she let out a shriek, some good old Anglo-Saxonisms, and the big ugly black thing fled for its life.

Post OfficeThe next morning we all went for a leisurely walk around Phnom Penh’s old historic centre, to observe its fascinating mix of Khmer and French colonial architecture. We drove past the Medical University and the main railway station, which reminded me a little of the old Hoover building in Perivale. We saw Telecom Cambodia and the Children’s Hospital, where the streets were thronging with parents and children anxiously going in and out for appointments, then happily chatting about diagnoses and medications. A once elegant hotelWe saw what once was an imposing elegant building but with its façade damaged, its paint peeling from the surface, overrun with vegetation and surrounded by a collapsing corrugated iron fence – this was right in the heart of the city. Apparently it once was a very grand hotel, but once it had been attacked and had fallen into disrepair, it’s just been left to rot. We saw the Main Post Office, stately, as they often are; and a fruit and veg market, glistening with goodies and not as stomach turning as some markets can be.Regular market We visited the modern market hall, circular in design, with entrances north, south, east and west; and with outside rows of stalls lining the four entrance paths – it must look very elegant from the air. We took in the National Museum, with its four pavilions housing the most striking statuary – a beautiful building in itself and there are some amazing exhibits there.

Modern marketAfter all that edification, it was definitely time for lunch. It was yet another of these youth projects, Friends, and their Romdeng restaurant. It was possibly the most impressive of all these restaurants, that aim to train former street children, give them a career and also provide a splendid culinary experience. National MuseumThe food and service was great, and if it’s still on the menu, the chocolate and banana spring roll with strawberry sauce is To Die For.

Wherever you go in Phnom Penh, you cannot escape memories of the Pol Pot regime. These beautiful, kind, gentle people were subjected to the most brutal and cruel subjugation that virtually eradicated an entire generation.Hard work It’s very striking in Cambodia that you see many people aged around 25 or younger, and many 55 or older; but disturbingly few in between. They simply didn’t survive. Those that remain have few assets, as their property was seized or destroyed – our guide Phaly told us that she works to maintain the rest of the family and all eight of them sleep in one room. Her parents were killed when she was young and as a result, she doesn’t actually know her birthdate or age. Phnom Penh roadsThings one takes for granted in the west are precious commodities in Cambodia. Yet they don’t appear to resent the past, they seem to accept it in a very Buddhist way, and overall it’s a very peaceful, welcoming place, much more similar to Laos than to Vietnam.

Genocide museum - gibbetThus, having spent the morning taking in the sights and sounds of modern Phnom Penh, and the beauty of its archaeological and artistic heritage in the National Museum, it was time to turn to sadder things. The Tuol Seng Museum of Genocide is situated in a former school in the centre of the city, that was used as a prison by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and has been left as a reminder future generations. Genocide museum - rulesIt’s a harrowing and haunting experience, but essential to understand the true nature of what went on and to admire the indomitable spirit of the victims. Outside you see a sign with the prison rules – designed to intimidate and bully the victims into acceptance of their fate. Inside, on top of the spartan beds in each cell lie instruments of torture; on some of the walls you see pictures of people who spent their last days in those cells; the white and yellow floor tiles are blackened with the spilled blood of the murdered. When you hear what actually happened it chills you to the bone. Pol Pot’s terrorists,Genocide museum - cells who gathered together all the intellectuals, the professionals, the teachers, the doctors – everyone except the farmers by the sound of it – and tortured and despatched them, were mere boys aged 12 to 16, encouraged to let loose their bloodlust on the terrified population. It’s extraordinary to think that this sector of the community – one that under ordinary circumstances society educates, assists and nurtures – should turn on its fellow citizens in such a barbaric way.

Genocide museum - victimsFor me the most memorable exhibits in the Genocide museum were the galleries of photographs of some of the people imprisoned and who knew they were going to lose their lives. The majority looked – unsurprisingly – devastated, broken and desperately sad. A few looked furious, arrogant, proud and determined not to give in. That spirit of defiance was awe-inspiring. Illustrations on the walls showed the torture methods they used and looked positively medieval in their cruelty.

SurvivorOut of all the thousands that passed through its gates, only seven people survived the prison experience. On the day we were there, one of them, Chum Mey, now into his eighties, was giving a talk to a group of students, as well as selling copies of his book, Survivor. It was an honour to meet him, but I also felt a distinct degree of discomfort at freely wandering round the prison where he had suffered such appalling hardship. He seemed very happy to meet tourists though.

Killing Fields - pavilionIn for a penny, in for a pound. Once we’d been well and truly humbled by our visit to the Genocide museum, it was time to visit the Killing Fields. It’s an appropriate end to the day, as you’re following the route of those prisoners who were shipped off from the Tuol Seng to be sent the five miles out of town to the deceptively peaceful setting of the former orchard at Choeung Ek, to be killed. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – for so many reasons. At its centre is a memorial pavilion, built in 1988, with glass panels around, and inside you can see approximately 8,000 skulls of victims found at the site. It is gruesome – but it’s also strangely dignified and noble.

Killing Fields - noticeThere is a sequence of tourists signs denoting the places where the trucks, bringing in the victims, would stop, and from where they would be led away for immediate execution; but when the numbers got too many, it became impossible to kill them all quickly enough so they needed a detention spot where the victims could await their death – and there is a tourist sign indicating that spot too. There is a sign marking where the Executioners’ office was; and finally the Chemical Substances Killing Fields - signsStorage room sign shows where they used to keep DDT and other such chemicals which would be scattered over the corpses to obliterate the smell and also to kill off any people who had accidentally survived their executions.

What affected me most was the frequent sight of bones and clothing just peeping out of the surface of the ground. Although there was an exhumation of the Jagged edge treemass graves in 1980, there hasn’t been the time or resources to perform a thorough clearing of the site, and no doubt everywhere you walk is only millimetres above a burial site. There’s a display cabinet showing some rags of victims’ clothes that came to the surface during rain whilst they were exhuming the mass graves. It’s a particularly pitiful sight, just to see the ordinary, everyday items that people were wearing on their most extraordinary of death days. The Khmer Rouge didn’t like to waste valuable bullets on these people Killing treeif possible, so they were frequently bludgeoned to death by using blunted hoes; and some trees on the site provide branches with very sharp jagged edges that were used as tools for decapitation. There’s another tree – The Killing Tree – against which babies were flung by their ankles. I think I’ve gone into enough detail.

victims' clothesIt’s so incongruous that such a ghastly place is a tourist destination, but, like Auschwitz, it’s somewhere you have to go and bear witness to the atrocities committed by man on man, in the hope that it might prevent it from happening again. We both felt that the Killing Fields were actually more upsetting than Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a site of enormous dignity and reverence. The Killing Fields had an ice cream stall, souvenir shop and a children’s playground nearby. There were ladies walking round selling pashminas. I guess life goes on.

enjoy lifeI can’t imagine anywhere more welcoming than the Raffles after such a harrowing afternoon. The juxtaposition of present day luxury and 1970s genocide is surreal. However, you can’t change the past and can only live fully in the present and look to the future. So for dinner that night we ate at the Raffles Restaurant Le Royal which was hideously expensive but a real celebration of enjoying life.