Indochina 2016 - Cambodia

Angkor Wat

The border into Cambodia was on a road so we had the usual struggles of a land crossing. Leaving the minivan we trundled our baggage over roughly finished tarmac before waiting for Vinh to get our passports checked and stamped at the Vietnamese border control. Once this was done we walked through no man's land to the Cambodian side where a whole new process started to process our papers and issue the new set of required visas. This felt like something from an earlier epoch as we filled in forms (why do immigration forms have such tiny spaces for answers?), sorted out payment in US dollars, handed bundles of papers to bored looking officials who themselves filled in more forms or hesitantly typed into ageing computers, sat waiting for different officials to examine and then reluctantly stamp our passports before tossing them back to us, and then move on to the next stage. At one point we were each given a 'health check' which seemed to involve nothing more than having our temperature taken and ensuring that we'd answered 'no' to the long list of symptoms on our declaration form before being charged an extra dollar to have our forms stamped.

Milking the tourists, Phnom Penh

During this process I'd seen a Cambodian official drive up from the Vietnamese side of the border with a collection of soft drinks - soon after this an empty plastic bottle came flying out of the back his office to land in a litter-strewn ditch. A little further on I glanced into the 'Veterinary' office to discover that the owner had slung a hammock across it and was fast asleep inside. Clearly this wasn't a glamour posting.

Stamped & processed we said our goodbyes to Vinh and crossed into Cambodia to meet Li, our guide for the final part of the tour. Up into yet another minibus and we were off towards Phnom Penh, our first stop in this new country.

Driving in Cambodia was appreciably different from Vietnam - the road surface was not as well finished, the villages along the way seemed poorer (the absence of electricity cables was one clue) and the billboards were either posters for the ruling political party or adverts for agricultural machinery rather than domestic appliances or cellphone providers. Another indication that we were in a very different system came when Li, as part of his introductory talk, explained that he might only be able to answer some of our more 'sensitive' questions when we were safely alone on the bus. In practice this didn't seem to be an issue but, as we found out later, the shadow of recent history was still a very real presence in the country.

Arriving into Phnom Penh through thick traffic we had the afternoon free to explore before meeting up again for a group dinner. The city was similar to others we'd seen - full of activity & commerce, shops, cafés, bars and markets packed in close together, not particularly pedestrian-friendly but easy enough to get around in. Navigation was made much easier by the system of numbering the streets as well as naming them, not quite an American-style grid system but a lot easier than trying to translate the decorative but very unfamiliar Khmer script. I strolled around temples, parks and city street before making my way back to the hotel to meet up with the group again.

Museum of Genocide, Phnom Penh

For the next day we had a full schedule of activities. First off was a drive out of the city to visit Choeung Ek, one of the Kiling Field sites where thousands of Cambodians had been put to death during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. We'd been joined by a second guide for our time in Phnom Penh and once inside the site she began to describe the horrors that had gone on there in a dry, monotone voice, describing mass killings and atrocities with less emotion than someone reading out football results. It made the events there sound both more inhuman & dryly mundane and in an attempt to experience it on more of an emotional level I abandoned the group and walked alone in silence, reading the signs & explanatory texts but making no attempt to process or make sense of them. I felt waves of sadness & fear well up in me but I kept walking and let them pass through in their own time, neither dwelling on them or pushing them away but continuing to move onwards. It was a powerful & moving experience. While walking I saw a groundsman tending some of the plants accompanied by a small boy who was dashing around & playing while thin drizzly rain fell, somehow it captured the essence of the site for me.

From there we returned to the city to visit the Museum of Genocide, set in a school than had been crudely converted into a prison and interrogation/torture centre by the Khmer Rouge. Like Choeung Ek it was a daunting experience and once again I walked around in silence, letting the experience wash over me without attempting to comprehend or internally process the horrors that had taken place there.

During these trips Li had told us some of his stories from those times - of having to leave Phnom Penh with only hours notice, hiding with relatives and being betrayed by neighbours, returning to the family home after the fall of the regime and finding it claimed by strangers with no way of proving their prior ownership. It was harrowing stuff and a reminder that all of this is living history for the adults still living here.

Our final stop was the Royal Palace which, after the intense experiences beforehand, was a bit of a disappointment. The palaces were big & grand but we'd seen lots of big, grand temples during our tour and a lot of the outbuildings in the palace grounds were closed or private. After a while I explained to Li that I'd find my own way back and took off to explore the rest of the grounds and the city streets on my own.

Unexpected t-shirt, Phnom Penh

Traditional band playing at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

I thought I'd need some solitary contemplation after the day's horrors but instead I found myself engaging with the life of the city - checking out the fortune tellers (equipped with regular playing cards and using magnifying glasses for palm readings) and sellers of offerings (lotus flowers & incense for the shrines, small birds to be symbolically released), being elaborately blessed by a 'monk' (but leaving before I was asked for a 'donation', we'd been warned about this), soaking up the music at a small but very well attended shrine, and generally being part of the human throng rather than observing from outside. While chatting with a Lao woman one of the mysteries of the trip was explained - 'Nobody walks in town' she revealed, if you need to go anywhere you take a tuk-tuk. The impassable pavements and bemused expressions when a tuk-tuk offer was refused suddenly all made sense.

That evening I decided to eat alone and, following the advice of one of the more well-travelled of my companions, made my way across town to a bar that used to be the Correspondent's Club in Phomn Penh, the place where journalists, diplomats and ex-pats would gather to swap gossip and write their reports. Establishing myself by a wide, glassless window overlooking the river I typed out rambling emails on my iPad (naturally there was free wi-fi) while beer and spring rolls were delivered to my table. As a thunderstorm built up and the rain started coming in horizontally I nonchalantly moved to the bar while the staff lowered blinds and brought my drink over to my new seat with not a word. It was gloriously colonial. As I walked back, stopping to help a pair of newly arrived tourists across what now seemed to me to be a quiet street, I realised just how much I'd adapted to my new surroundings, coping with very different languages, money (Cambodia uses US dollars with the local Riels for smaller graduations, it was common to receive both together in change), traffic, street awareness, food and cultural niceties and taking them (mostly) in my stride. I'd become a very timid traveller in my later years and it was astounding to observe myself setting off alone in a strange land, confident that I'd cope (or at least survive) anything that was thrown at me and actually looking forward to whatever I'd discover.

From Phnom Penh we headed north towards Siem Reap, our last stop of the tour and the base from which we explore the Angkor Wat temple complex. The road was excellent, apparently it was a big construction project that made it halfway to its intended destination before the funds were siphoned away by corrupt officials. Corruption was evidently rife in Cambodia - Phnom Penh was full of large & expensive cars - but although our guide bemoaned the situation there was a hint of admiration in his voice, the end result was praiseworthy despite the dubious ethics. It felt like this was a rapidly developing economy and although there would eventually be laws to constrain individual greed for the common good anyone who could find an angle in the interim couldn't be faulted for it.

Backpacker central, Siem Reap

On the way to Siem Reap we stopped at Skuon, a town famous for its bizarre culinary selection - fried spiders, scorpions, grubs and various other insects. The invertebrate fare was laid out in profuse abundance but I couldn't help noticing that the locals were more interested in the more mundane fried chicken. I'd read that the spiders weren't worth trying and I decided to give them all a miss, although I'd get my chance at insect fare before the tour was over.

Further along the road we stopped at a pounded rice stall, fried rice is literally pounded flat with a heavy wooden lever, raised by the operator standing on the other end like a big see-saw. A group of women were running the device but as soon as we appeared a man leapt in and began pounding with over-zealous vigour. The resulting flakes were tasty but tough, normally they are mixed with coconut milk but we weren't able to try this out.

Finally we arrived at Siem Reap and after checking into our hotel we set off to explore the town. At one end it was backpacker central - bars, cafés and tourist tat in abundance - while at the other things got more refined and correspondingly expensive. There was nothing obviously wrong with the town, it was just there to service the Angkor tourist trade and didn't really seem to have anything else to offer. Our hotel was a good example of this approach, the foyer was gleamingly impressive but the rooms had broken fittings, non-functioning safes and very limited supplies of hot water, they clearly had no eye on returning patrons.

But we, like everyone else, were here for Angkor and next morning we set off for the first of our temple visits. They did not disappoint. The first site was deeply overgrown with huge tree trunks & roots worming through the stone structures, the surrounding forest reclaiming the land in dramatic fashion. The second stood clear of the trees, its many towers crumbling but still showing clearly against the grey sky overhead. The overcast weather dampened the photographic impact of the temples but the sense of ancient majesty still pervaded the sites and filled me with awe & wonder. The third temple was constructed in pink/orange stone and was relatively small while the fourth rose high above the surrounding forest and gave long views far into the distance. At the end of the day we returned to the hotel filled with amazing sights.

Temple, Angkor

I'd fallen into the habit of wandering the temples on my own and once again I ate without any dinner companions. It wasn't that I'd fallen out with my travelling companions - I was pleasantly surprised to have found a group of people who remained good company after three weeks in each others' pockets - but I wanted to soak up my own reactions to these amazing sights without the overlay of tour guide narration or other people's comments. After the experience of the Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh I realised I wanted to let my impressions bed down before I spoke about them, especially as it was more than likely that I'd never be here again.

For our last full day of the trip we had an early start (4:45am departure) from the hotel to see sunrise over Angkor Wat itself. Unfortunately we weren't the only people to have thought of this and when we arrived the prime photography spot - where a large pool would reflect the temple and the dawn sky behind it - was thronging with tourists, many of whom had set up tripods & camping chairs and were ordering coffee & breakfast from the nearby café. As the sun prepared to appear the low cloud dissipated leaving a clear sky (hooray!) but with no dramatic red backdrop (sigh!). It was an impressive sight, especially with the subtle changes as the sky lightened, but the mass of other people, politely (in most cases) easing their way through to grab a photo or chatting while they reviewed what they'd already taken, became very wearing and once we'd passed into clear daylight I strolled around taking less obvious pictures, several of the tourists themselves. Two hours after our early departure we returned to the hotel for breakfast but soon after were heading back out for our final visit.

Angkor Wat is an incredible structure, a huge, sprawling temple rising up in three levels with a host of ancillary buildings both inside its outer wall and dotted around the surrounding land. A few parts were fenced off, either for reconstruction work or at sharp drops, but in general you could walk where you pleased and discover its secrets in your own time - needless to say I quickly abandoned the group and meandered hither & yon as the fancy took me. There were hundreds of tourists swarming over the site but it was big enough to (mostly) avoid them or to reduce them to tiny dots against its massive bulk. For the next three hours I wandered in & around it, initially taking dozens of pictures but gradually taking fewer & fewer and just soaking up the atmosphere around this giant structure.

The highest level of the temple has restrictions on the number of tourists allowed up at any one time and there was talk of queuing for 45 minutes to an hour to wait for a slot. I'd seen the long line of people waiting and decided that I'd rather spend my time on the lower levels but when I passed for a second time I found a single member of the group close to the front of the queue - in a moment of 'what the hell' I ducked under the rope barrier to join her and five minutes later was atop the structure. The limited numbers kept the area (reasonably) free and there were spectacular views both down onto the lower levels and out across the forests to the horizon, after snapping a bunch of pictures I took a silent circuit before descending the steep staircase and giving someone else a turn.

Early morning visitors, Angkor Wat

The one serious irritation during my time at the temples was the selfie mania of a lot of the tourists. At a picturesque spot one person would stand directly in front of it and take a picture of themselves (or have a friend take it), then the next one would do the same, and the next, and the next, and so on. My approach is to take pictures of what I've seen rather than document my presence somewhere and at times it was infuriating to have to wait to grab a shot between the stream of people armed with smartphones on sticks. On one occasion I saw someone stand on one leg, bend forward, grin and raise both arms with V signs which I thought was an interesting way to subvert the form until the next person in her group did the same, and the next, and the next...

That evening we had our final group dinner together. Li led us to a centre for locally produced goods where the restaurant was staffed by students learning catering skills, the menu had some strange & unusual entrees and I decided to try the wok-fried beef with red tree ants, finally going for some insect food. The lighting was quite subdued so another diner used her phone to get a better look at her portion of the same dish but then said she wished she hadn't, I took this as a sign that I should eat without looking too closely at what was on my plate. The food was very nice, there were some tart flavours that I assumed were the ants but nothing too startling to my taste buds. The meal passed pleasantly but it didn't feel like a final farewell, there were no big goodbyes (most of us were leaving the next afternoon) or vows to keep in touch, just another nice dinner with familiar travelling companions.

On the last morning I was planning to repack my case and hang around the hotel with the rest of the group but there were none of them to be found so I headed off for a last walk around the town. While exploring some of the less commercial streets I discovered the main post office and, in a flash of inspiration, realised I could send my sister in Australia a Christmas card as one sent from Britain on my return would never get to her in time. Remembering a shop I'd seen bedecked with Christmas stuff I found my way to it, bought a card, returned to the post office, wrote a cheery message and posted it off to her.

Psychedelic Buddhas, Siem Reap

On my way to the post office I'd found another interesting place, a shop selling modern art pieces based on the traditional stuff we'd seen all through the region. My eye was caught by a small, hand-carved Buddha statue that had been painted in flourescent, psychedelic colours, this seemed to represent the meeting of ancient & modern that permeated the countries we'd visited and to represent the altered states of consciousness that meditation could lead to. I decided to buy one but then discovered that I'd left most of my US dollars safely back in my hotel room, when I returned to the shop brandishing greenbacks the woman seemed genuinely surprised that I'd come back.

The dissolution of the group came piecemeal & undramatically. Airport taxis came early and people were gone before the rest could gather for farewells, once in transit our paths separated and when I got to Heathrow I had to rush for a train, leaving my four companions from the flight with a swift goodbye. Since returning there have been a steady stream of emails and Facebook postings so hopefully there will be more sharing of memories, photos & news.

It was an amazing holiday. I'd been to countries & cultures I never thought I'd visit, gone more deeply into them than I would have done on a more conventional package, and seen incredible sights & vistas along the way. I'd coped with an extended travelling trip - living out of a suitcase, managing resources & money (& laundry) and juggling the various banknotes & currencies as they came along. Most importantly I'd been thrown into street life in a wild variety of forms and had found that not only could I function there but I actually enjoyed it. The world has become a less scary & more inviting place - now where next?

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