in IndochinaComments Off on Cambodia


We had time to spare in Singapore waiting while the boat yard replaced our flaking antifoul, it was to be a 3 week process; a good opportunity for some land travel. We made a few bookings and a tentative intinerary for 2 weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam.

We took an evening flight to Phnom Penh, our first impressions even in the dark (after Singapore) were of disorganisation, poverty and dirt; a low rise town; in the streets, many, many people, unregulated traffic in chaos and a street-side lifestyle.
Our hotel was aging, but with character and was comfortable; centrally located near the Independence Monument shown above.
We set out the following morning to explore, on foot, by choice. We needn’t have; there was always a waiting posse of motorbikes, remorque-motos (tuk-tuks, -motorcycles with trailers) and pedicabs vying for business outside the hotel door. (It’s never difficult to pick up a ride, anywhere in Cambodia (or Vietnam), – the offers are endless, and as there are so many other hawkers and ‘touts’, the difficulty with them all is maintaining your sense of humour!)


Behind these gates, the Royal Palace complex has to be the most beautiful collection of buildings in Phnom Penh,


on a fine day, those golden roof lines against the blue sky are just  glorious!


The grounds are park-like with carefully trimmed borders and topiary; there is a small army of gardeners and vigilant security guards, not all the buildings are accessible to the public.


The Throne Hall has a golden grandeur to rival the best of the European 


with masses of gilt and a ceiling looking to have been painted by Michelangelo himself. In the courtyard is the small, obviously European ‘Iron House’, a gift from Napolean to King Norodom.




Delicate European looking iron traceries and gilt embossed relief wood-carvings also adorn the doors through the wall to the silver pagoda, notable for its silver-tiled floor and many diamond, gold and silver ornamentations. Although still impressive now, prior to the desecration of the Pol Pot regime when much of the palace complex was plundered it had far more.


Shrines to past kings have survived,


and the intricate sandstone carving is still perfect. As we saw more, we came to really admire the Khmer (ancient and modern) skills carving wood and stone.


Nearby the Palace is another jewel in the Phnom Penh crown, the National Museum, a fine building in Khmer style. Also in that area, an old part of town are many buildings dating to and showing the French occupation and influence.


If the money ever became available, they are great candidates for restoration.
As we later found too in Vietnam, France is still in evidence. Apart from the building styles, the language quite widely spoken, there is French food and French  pattiseries; baguettes are just everywhere and as good as or better than any on the Continent!


The Palace area is right on the Tonle Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong  and although it is becoming less so now as the roads are improving, an important means of communication, -upstream to Siem Reap and downstream to Siagon and the China Sea.


It’s a Buddhist City, there are many temples, Wat Ounalom above;


and on top of the only small hill in town, (well it is 27 metres!) is Wat Phnom, regarded as the birthplace of the city, although it’s a rather seedy part of town now. The trees around the base of the knoll shade a crowd of people hawking many wares, -food, drinks, trinkets, elephant rides -and other items less reputable…
The temple on top is a dingy place




but still well attended by people coming to pray for good luck in academic pursuits, -if you have an examination to take, then this is the temple for good luck they say!



It’s only 10 years since tourists were being murdered by dissidents in Cambodia, political turmoil is not far away and the genocide of Pol Pot in the late 70’s is still in everyone’s mind. Although initially not keen on visiting the sites of these atrocities, to do so was enlightening and an experience we were pleased not to have missed. We in the west really didn’t know how bad things were there at the time.


In Phnom Penh is the Tuol Sleng Museum, prior to the 1970s it was a High School, then when Pol Pot came to power it was taken over as a  prison for the incarceration of non-working class people. From 1975 those with ‘hands used to hard work’, illiterate and poor were sent into the countryside to work in agriculture, but anyone with brain,  money or seen as a risk to the regime, was in danger of being imprisoned, tortured and eventually slaughtered.
Phom Penh became a ghost town, millions were tortured then put to death in the cruelest possible ways on the ‘killing fields’.
The prison has been kept as a museum, with many of the original cells, (just tiny, brick boxes) and the torture rooms with the instruments of torture preserved and on display.


Obviously the conditions were terrible, the prisoners crowded, starved and not allowed water to bathe, disease was rampant. The torture methods were unimaginably cruel.
There are thousands of photos, most of the people who passed through there prior to execution are on display,


along with chilling personal accounts of their fate by family members. Later in the five year period of the regime it wasn’t just innocent people being taken, the party was torturing and slaughtering within their own ranks.

About 15 km out of town is Cheung Ek, one of a number of ‘killing fields’ about the country, it is the nearest to the city and the end of the line for those tortured detainees of Tol Sleung. After being forced to make false confessions they were taken to this one-time longan orchard by the truck-load and slain.


It is now open as a memorial too, the pathways lead around the many open, mass graves. Victims were bound, blind-folded and lined along the side of these pits, then with loudly amplified music playing to drown their screams,  bludgeoned to death, -or near death -and buried


Since then many of the graves have been exhumed, most of the body parts reburied, but the skulls have been taken and in this small pagoda like building there are more than 8000 of them on display


Many of them bear the marks of the head injuries they sustained.


As if that isn’t chilling enough, the paths among the graves are littered with human remains and old clothing, bones and teeth scattered about as they emerge from beneath the earth surface…
What more graphic demonstration  could there be of the non-value of human life to Pol Pot and his cohorts?
There is no doubt that this killing was of the worst kind because of  the cruelty, the magnitude and being of innocent people, but on briefly reading through the political history of before and after the Khmer Rouge, it is clear that torture and killing for political reasons is nothing new in Cambodia, but the events of that 5 years were a severe spike in the graph!


The streets of Phnom Penh are a busy, noisy  place, cars and trucks are out-numbered by the thousands of motorcycles.


Traffic controls are few, but even when there are lights, they are usually disregarded; it is incredible that there are not more accidents as the motor cycles toot and weave around each other and the other vehicles!  

In an echoing building resembling a railway station, (seen in the far distance above), is the main city market,


selling enormous amounts of everything, clothing, electronics, watches and jewellery at bargain prices.


It’s surrounded by the food markets. Interspersed among the fruit, vegetables and the wet market (literally wet for the live fish eels and crabs) are numerous stalls with food ready to eat…interesting, looks tasty, but of dubious hygienic standard and difficult to consider eating in that situation!


Much more tempting are the rows of roasted ducks and baguettes in the fresh air along the streets!
Most of the eating is done on the footpaths and towards the end of the day they are lined with food stalls;  people with cookers, a couple of tables and stools  preparing their speciality food…mini-bistros… 

From Phom Penh we hired a car and driver to take us the 300 or so km to Siem Reap. Car hire in this country is very reasonable and always comes ‘driver included’. When we did the trip, we were pleased for that. The traffic on the open roads is no better behaved or predictable than in the town; although our driver seemed one of the more careful and we felt the protection of being in the back seats, we regretted the lack of safety belts!


The road to Siem Reap is continuously flat, the Mekong river plain vast and fertile. There are peasant  houses and villages along almost all the way,


and several large market towns on the rivers


Although the land is good and the crops thriving, there is nothing rich about the rural people and those constitute the vast majority of the Cambodian population.

Siem Reap is an attractive town with many trees and gardens


but by virtue of being close to the world famous ruins of Angkor, it is also the major tourist centre for Cambodia, so has numerous hotels, nice shops and its own international airport. It is wealthier by far than most of Cambodia. and much less chaotic than Phom Penh, the central park adjacent to its royal palace could almost be described as a peaceful spot…







The ruins of Angkor are scattered over many kilometres around Siem Reap, but the major group including Angkor Wat, the most popular, is about 8 km away.  Thousands visit out there every day.
These are ruins of temples built by the ancient Khmer empire which spread across Cambodia and into Vietnam from 800-1400 AD, at it’s height, around Angkor Wat and the adjacent temples was a vast city. Because the belief was that only gods and kings (often one and the same to those people) could live in stone buildings it is only those structures that now remain, but there is still evidence of a vast civic infrastructure with reservoirs, canals and bridges to support about a million people.


Angkor Wat is the busiest, known because it is said to be the largest religious structure anywhere in the world, but  also as it is one of the more complete of the remains. Most of the temples when they were discovered in the 19th century were overtaken and buried by jungle, but Angkor Wat, built in about 1100AD was never completely abandoned over the centuries,  although originally Hindu, it continued to be used as place of Buddhist worship and a monastery.


The buildings are of sandstone 


and are a series of courtyards within courtyards around a central tower, built on a small hillock.


Although the views from the tower are pleasant, the most memorable thing to many of the visitors is the set of stairs to get up there…they are unbelievably steep, narrow, broken and slippery, going up is quite a climb, -but for most, and the test of many painful knees, -is the coming down again!


Although there are 4 sets of stairs up the tower, there is a handrail on only one, -incredible to us that this is the only gesture towards improving the safety of the whole complex!  It’s nice to have the freedom still to be able to clamber almost at will around these ruins, but to compare this with the restrictions that would be placed on such a structure in the Western, developed world is mind-boggling!  Not only from the point of view of safety, but for the preservation of the remaining ruins.


There are stone carvings and lathe-turned columns everywhere, inside and out. Those outside have been quite damaged by the years of weather, but inside there are still delicate traceries carved over many of the surfaces, ‘wallpaper’, as it were


all these fragile artworks are unprotected from thousands of tourists with sweaty hands and an uncontrollable urge to touch!


Although many of the carved images are also found in other nearby temples,  Angkor Wat is known for its unique gallery of excellent bas relief carvings of battle scenes



and its more than 3000 nymph-like ‘aspara’.


Surprisingly, these heavy wooden doors are part of the original structure, some of the very few wooden parts that remain in any of these ruins.


As with most of the temples, Angkor Wat is still used as a place of active worship by some people, there are shrines in many corners sheltered from the weather and although no-one is resident now, monks drop by for inspiration in their studies…




In the vicinity of Angkor Wat are many temples, the land around is all flat, but any small hillock was used as a temple site. From one, Ta Prohm Kiel, there is a good view over Siem Reap and the distant Tonle Sap Lake


When I was there it was deserted, -apart from some children with a cow


but in the evening, busloads of tourists flock there, climb or take an elephant ride up the ‘mountain’ to view the magic they say happens with the changing light of sunset. However, I wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t want to have been there then….


There are many recurring images in carvings around the ruins, the multi-headed cobra being one.


The balustrade of the bridge leading over a wide moat is a series of warriors carrying a 50 metre long stone serpent of that type.

 At the end of the bridge surrounded by the moat is the perfectly square, walled city of Angkor Thom


with 4 high arched gateways at the points of the compass.
The walls enclose some 10 square kilometres, they were built around 1100 AD, although used to contain the houses and farms of many thousands of people, it is now largely trees.


Perfectly in the middle of the square however, is another large temple, Bayon. It hasn’t weathered as well as Angkor Wat


but parts are remarkably intact


and some it’s relief carvings well preserved.
It is best known for the faces, there are 216 of them around this temple,


everywhere you look, several of them are spying on you…


Along the road a little further in Ankor Thom is the Elephant Terrace, where it appears the god-king would sit, elevated, to be entertained by elephant parades and other acts being performed in towers across the feild.


Some of the sandstone carvings where they have been protected under the cover of an overhanging ledge are in such good condition they could almost have been carved yesterday.


Out through the eastern gateway, along a road is an ancient bridge,


the river it crossed now well away and below.


There are temple ruins everywhere, many are inside the walls of Angkor Thom, but also along the roads leading to it. Each one, as they say here, is ‘same same but different’, -they share a recurring theme, but have different features.

At Preah Khan, which is a walled complex in itself, just north of Angkor Thom, is the one example where there has been building on 2 levels using columns giving it an ancient Mediterranean look.


It was constructed in about 1200AD


Further beyond is Prasat Kravan, a Hindu Temple, built around 900AD; is one of the older temples and constructed of brick rather than sandstone.


Much of the known history of this ancient people has been gleaned from the Sanskrit scripts etched in the walls in many locations.

Ta Prohm is different, a Buddhist Temple built around 1200AD, but unlike the rest, the jungle has not been totally cleared from it and there has been less restoration.


The overhanging trees make it pleasantly cooler to visit but the roots of the Banyan trees are taking over…-or are they holding it together?


No attempt yet has been made to put it all back together as has happened in others, where the walls and roof of this tumble-down corridor might have been piece by piece rebuilt. 


The ancient Khmers didn’t know about the Roman arch with its keystone method of building, so all their arched roof corridors were neccessarily narrow, put together by successively overlapping flat stones until they met in the middle and it’s not a very stable construction.


We hired the services of ‘Mr Rock’ with his ‘Rolls Royce’ moto-cycle-remorque to take us to one of the more distant temples about 30km out of town. 


It was a pleasantly cool way to ride through the paddy fields. 


Banteay Srei is a relatively small Hindu Temple,


one of the oldest, built around 900AD and different for being built of a pinkish sandstone and for having what many regard as the finest carvings of the whole group.



The carving is intricate, apparently fragile and remarkable that it has survived a thousand years, but even more so that it is still unprotected from the damage by careless tourists!

All the temple attractions of the Siem Reap area have been extensively developed for tourism with toilets, car and bus parks and each gateway has a cluster of hawkers nearby selling food, drinks and souvenirs. There’s a constant stream of people, adults and children, with bags and baskets of the same postcards, books and trinkets pestering for you to buy.


It can be patience testing when it’s hot and you’re hungry for your lunch! They are very persistant, it’s difficult to turn them away, especially when they are children. It’s a serious business to them, they are just as hot and uncomfortable as we are and frustrated as they cannot yet do ‘deals’. Their parents however are more realistic, they are used to being refused, they have a good sense of humour and dealing can always be turned into a joke, they’re not offended.


None of these people have much money, but there are also the disabled who with no social support have even less. The land-mine victims in particular are often there busking, -they have amputations and many are blind.

We were done with the ruined temples of Angkor, -although there were many more we had not seen, (and not all those we saw are mentioned here) so decided to see something different. Another  frequently visited ‘attraction’ in the area is the Tonle Sap lake, we asked Mr Rock to take us there. It is a very large body of fresh water, part of the Mekong River system and although very shallow, extends much of the way back to Phnom Penh. Boat travel is often quicker than by road, it is still used to get back to the capital and other towns from Siem Reap. 
It is also the main source of fish in the area, apparently an excellent breeding ground for them and many people live in floating villages depending on fishing the lake for a living.


Around the lake are wetlands with water buffalo and lotus marshes.


The  town of Chong Kneas is largely a floating village, but it’s landing stage is an extremely dusty, dirty place, so having ridden in the cool of the tuk-tuk for the 10km or so from town we were not impressed to get there and be smothered by dust from every passing truck! Maybe the mud of the wet season might be preferable? – but I think not!


We quickly paid our money, boarded a boat at a precarious landing stage and were taken down the waterway,  through the village to access the lake.


Although not squalid, it couldn’t be a comfortable place to live,


we prefer our houseboat!


The lake is a vast expanse of brown water stretching for ever, broken just by houseboats and fish-farms


It’s so dirty that it’s hard to imagine fish thriving there…but they do. We stopped at a farm where there were tanks of fish being hand-fed


and freshwater crocodiles…  They were very docile, barely moving, they gave us no bother, far more disturbing was the persistance of the ‘banana one dollar, banana one dollar’ boy! He was a cute kid, but it’s not possible to buy from them all and on Cambodian standards that bunch of bananas for one US dollar WAS rather pricy, but he was too young to bargain with.
Our intention had been to have lunch out there on the lake at the seafood restaurant associated with the fish farm , but we didn’t feel attracted to their food by what were seeing, -we elected to cut our tour a little short and return to our favourite eating place in town…


We had enjoyed Cambodian food, it was similar to, but less spicy than Thai, lightly cooked and using plenty of fresh vegetables and this place did the best.

This was to be our last Cambodian meal so we wanted it to be a good one, however, as we were to leave for Hanoi by the evening flight.

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