Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cambodia Travelogue

(Describing the individual temples would take too long, and I direct you to Wikipedia for any enquiries.)

Day One, Saturday:

The flight was uneventful - Changi Airport was as pleasant as ever. I Arrived in Phnom Penh around 1 local time and took a cab to The Pavilion which was as nice as the website had led me to hope. Free: bottled water, limeade when I arrived, breakfast, computer in room with internet. I was in a detached single from the main building, the Garden Bungalow, an aircon and private bath room with a queen bed.

After settling in I walked over to K'nyay - a Khmer restaurant that is gay and vegan-friendly. I thwarted this, however, by having pork in green curry and some watermelon/apple/mint juice. Took a tuk tuk (think rickshaw with motorcycle) to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: this is where they interrogated prisoners before sending them to the killing fields. Only seven people survived. There are thousands of photos of those who didn't as you walk through the cells and interrogation rooms where the cots and devices still sit out. The whole place is rather decrepit, and they've kept the barbed wire on one of the buildings - the compound formerly was a school. In one room there is a shrine surrounded by skulls.

After this I took another tuk tuk to the Russian Market - similar in size and scope to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, but instead made of corrugated roofs and uneven floors. A third world shanty town of a Grand Bazaar. It was getting near closing so I browsed and haggled around killing time and getting souvenirs while I could hear the brief tropical storm rain down on the metal overhead. Then I hopped in the day's last tuk tuk back to my rooms, unloaded, and went around the corner to Frizz - another Khmer restaurant where I got Lok Lak (beef with tomatoes garlic and onions in sauce and a fried egg) some fried spring rolls and a banana shake (yum). It had been recommended by both my guidebook and my hotel, so it was not surprisingly lively when I arrived. Then I made an early night of it to rest for the next day.

Day Two, Sunday:

Got up around 8 to make the best of a free breakfast - two fried eggs, two pieces of artisan walnut bread, a chocolate croissant, passion fruit and orange juice (fresh squeezed) watermelon and banana slices and some tea by the pool. Walked a few hundred meters to the entrance of the Royal Palace. Cambodia is still a monarchy (albeit of the parliamentary, constitutional type) but after Pol Pot the return of the King was a major unifier of the people and so the King and royal family in general is very highly respected. It also means much of the compound, still his residence, is off-limits. That which is open is quite grand, and I took my time, my shoes off as needed, and many photos.

After this I went over to the National Museum, about a block away. It was another beautiful building, but the interior exhibits were a bit lacking. Many pieces of sculpture from back to the 5th century. If I was really jazzed I might have taken maybe two hours to read all the plaques - but as was the few small rooms were rather quick going. So I moseyed across the street for lunch at a joint called Friends, very popular and also highly recommended. Part of the reason for the recommendation is that it takes kids off the street and trains them in hospitality. The food was a little pricey for Cambodia, but very good. I had a raspberry vanilla shake along with my two small orders (they only do small dishes) of cashew chicken and mangoes and sweet potato fries with curry (one of these was more authentic than the other...)

Not knowing what to do with a free afternoon (which I'd planned on Museum-ing after a more lengthy Palace tour) I ruled out the killing fields (since they've been, if you can believe it, privatized by a Japanese company. I'm not big on genocide tourism - but money for the impoverished nation is worthwhile, so I saw Tuol Sleng. But letting the Japanese profit off the tragedy struck me as wrong.) and instead went to the river front, an apparently popular joint. Indeed it was lined with many bars and restaurants - but was decidedly unscenic. Not even in a fun, grimy way - it was very neat and very boring with uniform architecture dating back to maybe 1980. I moseyed down to what I think is the confluence of the Tonle Sap (PP's main river) and the Mekong, before heading back for another early evening as the thunder rolled outside.

Day Three, Monday:

The morning was basically the same, and I arranged a bus to Siem Reap, which picked me up around 11:45 leaving the capital around noon. The road was often bumpy and, had it not been for two days of tuk tuk preparation, scary. Most of the bus was Cambodian, and we picked up more on the way. Sometime around 2 we broke down for a while and had to wait as they repaired the engine. The countryside was beautiful, though. Lots of cows and water buffalo, lots of rice paddies and farms, lots of poverty. I took pictures of the countryside (not the people, since I couldn't ask their permission). Oddly there were lots of cell phone stores on the way - it seems every place where there's more than two houses had one.

The bus got in to Siem Reap around 6 and I was picked up by my hotel in a tuk tuk, in a nice twilight ride. The Pavilon Indochine was a bit more of a hotel - I was on the second floor, and all the rooms had a private "deck" overlooking the pool. The room was bigger, bed was smaller, fewer free amenities. But still aircon and a private bath. The grasp of English, throughout the city, wasn't as strong as in the capital. The same driver took me downtown once I'd unloaded my stuff (the Pavilon is a ways out of town, nearer to the temples) for dinner at Viva - Cambodia's attempt at Mexican. Very lively and full of tourists and Cambodians alike. Not surprisingly it was a little strange, but after some rather lame nachos, a steak burrito with shredded carrots, and chicken wings with sweet and sour sauce washed down with watermelon juice I was ready to go back and rest.

Day Four, Tuesday:

After breakfast (very similar to Pavilion's) I started walking to Angkor Wat with enough money in my pocket to by a ticket and $4 left over. I figured as a place of pilgrimage it would make sense to walk. After I bought my ticket and went up the road apiece an old man on a motorcycle (moto) asked me if I wanted I ride. I told him I had no money (usually to tour around for a day is $15) but he said he didn't care. So I hopped on and we got to talking. He was retired, and had nothing better to do, and he wanted to practice his English with me. He was 69 and named Meas Soth ('meas' like 'mea culpa' and 'soth' like 'both'). We went first to Kravan - which was a nice, small introduction of what was to come. Then we went on to Sra Srong (A large artificial lake one of the kings built) and nearby Banteay Kdei, a nice temple. Then we hit iconic Ta Promh - where they usually film "ruined temple" scenes. As such it was a bit busy, but it is the vine-covered classic.

After some time we went on to Ta Keo. Soth usually waited around and talked to other drivers or would have a smoke as I wandered around the temples, but occasionally would join me. All the temple sites are restored by different countries, I guess to be fair and since I'm presuming Cambodia lacks resources to do so (unlike Germany, Japan, PRC, India). After Ta Keo we went to two small temples, Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda. In the latter I gave incense to Buddha - most temples had old women in them that would insist you do so. We passed on, through the East gate of Angkor Thom, a large walled city of probable millions when the Empire was at its height. We passed by some Kleangs rather briefly and the Terrace of Elephants before going on to Bayon, which is the temple with the iconic faces smiling back at you. I spent a good amount of time here. This was followed by a small temple, Baksei Champrong, before Soth insisted we stop for lunch at one of the roadside stalls. I was wary - roadside food can leave one fairly ill. I had some veggie fried rice, and only a couple sips of the water provided (I was carrying and replenishing my own bottled water throughout the day.

After a leisurely lunch we went on to Angkor Wat. I slowly made my way around the place, which was sort of crowded. The sun went away, and when I was in the top of the central tower the rain came down in a massive thunderstorm. Usually you're only allowed 15 minutes up there, but as we were stranded I got to take my time. Eventually the rain died down, and we could climb the stairs back down to the main temple. In all I spent a couple hours at least walking around the massive site - the largest religious structure in the world. I rejoined Soth when the storm broke and he said he had to go to his stepdaughter's, to which I somewhat reluctantly agreed. The dirt road was incredibly muddy and sketchy, I realized as evening was coming on I was being driven further from safety. We met his step-daughter and went to her house, so Soth could have dinner. Their house was pretty swank for the area. Lots of chickens, dogs and puppies, and children. I declined a meal, for obvious reasons, and eventually we geared up and went back to my hotel, via a safe well paved and lit road. With no money in my pocket any more, after he'd dropped me off I started to walk to town to get to an ATM, when I was picked up by a nice tuk tuk driver. After some difficulties with tuk tuks not knowing how to get back, I reached my hotel and got room service, eating some chicken wings, amok (curried fish and the national dish) and carrot apple juice. This was followed by a one-hour complimentary massage, and a rest after a long day.

Day Five, Wednesday:

After a rather late morning I decided to make the most of it and see more temples - albeit that these were farther afield than the cluster I'd seen the day before. The guy who'd picked me up at the bus stop agreed to take me on moto $35 to the three sites I wanted. The first, after a lengthy drive, was Banteay Srei, which was small, but very well-carved. This was followed by another lengthy drive to Kbal Spean. All in all about two hours, I'd guess, to get from the hotel out there to Spean. The actual site is a 1,500 m climb/scramble uphill to get to. A waterfall and river bed has been carved with vishnus and other figures - the source of a river that runs all the way to Siem Reap. From this long 3km jaunt I met back with my driver and we headed towards the last destination, which was quite some ways from the other two, in the opposite direction of where we'd been heading so far.

The road we took was not a main road, instead it was dirt, and very pothole-y, which was unfortunate on a moto - although we dodged 98% of them. We were going pretty fast, and still it took a couple hours of constant driving to get to the last site. This was Beng Melea, which is not part of the UNESCO conservation (like all the rest mentioned) but a separate temple. The reason is that it is still ruined - basically what you would've encountered if you'd stumbled on it coming out of the jungle. Almost no restoration work has been attempted. We then had another very long drive back, maybe an hour and a half, and got back around 6 before I took a bit of time to rest and then go to dinner at a place called Butterfly Gardens, similar to Friends in that it's a training restaurant, where I had some shrimp spring rolls, ginger pork, a banana shake and fried ice cream with mango. The service was lousy, unfortunately, and I headed back to my hotel where I got another massage to help my sore muscles from a day of long moto rides while the rain came down.

That's about it. The next day my driver took me to the airport, where I hung around waiting for my flight and then I came back to Singapore.

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