I don’t really know too much about Cambodia – to me its one of those countries I’ve only heard of as it was featured on the news for all the wrong reasons when I was younger. But it’s the first stop on my tour and only a few hours drive away.
With a few fuzzy heads, we set off from Bangkok split up into two luxurious minibuses, although we’d been warned not all the hotels and transport will be quite as nice as the first few experiences. After a brief stop to pick up our Cambodian visas we had lunch at a border town street market. It was an interesting bowl of noodles, with some particularly interesting ‘mystery meat’ inside, mainly in the form of a tongue-shaped black lump. I hid it under a spoon and pretended I hadn’t seen it.
With border formalities over in around an hour, we arrived in Siam Reap in the early evening. It’s clear that Cambodia is a much poorer country than Thailand – its dusty streets are lined with shacks made of wood and corrugated metal.
Many streets are potholed and littered with rubbish. Begging is a part of life here, and its never too long before a young child approaches asking for a dollar for some postcards or a bracelet.
Tuk Tuks are also a major part of life here, and infact the main way of getting from A to B in towns due to the poor roads. They are slightly different to the nimble, wheelie performing speed demons of Bangkok, as it’s mainly a trailer attached to a motorbike, but they are surprisingly comfortable.
A tuk tuk was our mode of transport to a meal with a Cambodian family on the first night, and we left the hotel in a fleet of four. The journey was going well until we hit a particularly dusty stretch of road which had been badly potholed by recent flooding. Gradually, the motorbike started to sound like it needed a breather, before eventually deciding that enough was enough and it had one on its own accord. Incredibly, we’d broken down in a tuk tuk in the middle of nowhere. We considered a call to the AA.
After about 20 minutes of frantic kick-starting by the driver, he got it going again long enough to limp to his friend’s house, where the motorbike was swapped over and we were off again.
We couldn’t go all of the way to the house by tuk tuk as the road was still partly flooded by the heavy rains, but after a 10 minute walk we were greeted by the really friendly family in the village of Spean Chreav.
It was a shoes-off, sit around on the flood together affair, just how the Cambodians enjoy mealtimes, but I was introduced to something which suddenly rocketed up my favourite foods list.
It’s a Cambodian dish called Amok, and comes along with various ‘run amok’ jokes, but its one of the best things I’ve eaten from this region. It came in a folded banana leaf, and was a creamy, fragrant taste a bit like a Thai green curry but thicker and sweeter.
Everyone ate really well after the slightly off-putting lunch, before the children of the village were allowed to come up and play with us.
The place where we had been eating was being turned into a community school for the village by the family, who had taken it on themselves to promote education and encourage youngsters to get good jobs and a good future. But one of the surprising factors of the evening was just how much modern technology has reached into some of the poorest, most difficult places to live.
Having been asked what games one of the boys like to play, and expecting an answer along the lines of football or basketball, we were quite surprised to hear ‘Angry Birds’! Incredibly, the kids here are all big fans of the totally addictive game that started out on the iPhone, where you have to twang little birds into bricks to kill little green pigs. Its all cartoony and quite harmless, but the kids could do great impressions of the actions and noises the birds make.
I had a chat with the woman who is setting up the school. She told me the whole village had been under water for two months due to the floods, but that now it had started to dry out she could start planning activities for the kids again. She told me how they loved going to the shopping centre as a treat, purely to spend hours going up and down the escalators and lifts. She said the children have one dream: to see the sea.
She’s trying to save enough money to take them next year, but it’s still a humbling thing to hear. Living on the coast of an island back home, I take the seaside for granted. For the children here, it was as much a dream to see it as it is for us winning the lottery. She went on to tell me how she’s gaining support and helping to organise events among parents in the village – on Facebook! It seems wherever you are in the world, apart from those places its banned, there’s no getting away from its usefulness!
It was an early night back, as at stupid o’clock in the morning our alarms were all going off. It was 4.20am, still dark outside, and there was a tour bus waiting outside reception. It was to take us to Angkor Wat, a series of huge ancient temples just outside the town. We’d been asked if we wanted to go for sunrise, and however much the temptation was to say I’d give it a miss, this was one early morning start I was glad I made.
It’s such a famous sight, but to see the sky changing colour behind it as dawn breaks was spectacular. We arrived to see a feint silhouette of the main temple looming ahead, and as we moved into position around the pond in front, gradually the sky changed from a deep blue, to purple, to red and through to orange as the sun rose from behind one of its famous towers.
It was difficult to know when to take photos, as with every passing minute the incredible scene in front of us changed for the better – the mirror image reflection on the perfectly still water got clearer, and there was genuine excitement among the hundreds of people who had got up so early to watch the spectacle. I wasn’t expecting to be taken aback by it quite as much as I was – it truly was one of the best sunrises I’d seen in such a beautiful and famous setting.
After a quick trip back to the hotel for breakfast (and in my case, a much needed powernap) we headed back. Angkor Wat, built around 1150, is perhaps one of the most incredible buildings mankind has ever made.
But there isn’t just the one temple-it’s a massive site, built for the king Suryavarman IIin the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city.
Its estimated that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 390 square miles. There were around 1,000 temples of various sizes, a huge manmade moat and the biggest swimming pool ever constructed at the time – although only to be used by the leader and his people.
We first went to a place known as the jungle temple, where the native trees have done their best to wreck the place. Everywhere you look, huge trunks and roots weave their way around the huge stone blocks. The belief is that the temples came from nature, and so if nature wants to take them back, then so be it.
The end result is a great sight – huge ‘spung’ trees, hundreds of years old, growing through the roof in various locations, and intricate roots searching around the giant stone blocks for a water source. Many parts have been renovated and pieced back together following collapse, rivalling the Terracotta Warriors for the title of most difficult jigsaw puzzle.
Next we went on to another temple which involved a death-defying climb up the side. The steps were incredibly steep, and almost as vertical as ladders. A good group of us made it to the top and took in the views.
The main temple of Angkor is the star here though – it was the centre of the huge site that was constructed. Its unbelievably huge, regarded as the largest single religious building ever made.
But apart from its size, the detail of the carvings is hard to take in. Almost every piece of stone has intricate stonework covering the whole surface – around doorways, around windows, along walls, on floors – it must have been one of the most labour-intensive projects ever undertaken by man. The stone was brought some 100km from a quarry, sometimes floated along a nearby river on the monsoon tides. There are still holes and markings visible on most, where those who built the temple somehow managed to lift them into place.
Everything here is on an incredibly huge scale, from the detailed stonework, to the wall carvings, to the vast area the whole place covers. Elephants were used to move the stone around, and in many places there are carvings of elephants and trunks which protrude from the walls.
We’d all been in search of the elusive photograph of a robed monk, and while in the main temple there were a group of them walking around. We all tried to get discreet shots, but when there’s a group of tourists suddenly reaching for cameras whenever they get near, it soon became clear what we were up to. One of them came over and talked to us about his life, where he was from and how he was enjoying his visit. He then said we could add him as a friend on Facebook. It really does seem absolutely everyone is on it!
At another temple, hundreds of faces of the Buddha look out from huge stone pillars, while we spent a few minutes walking along the main road into the site, through a stone gateway, again with more intricate detail all over it.
The sun was beating down on us all day, and the sticky heat means it’s always a relief to get into the air conditioned minibus, but as we were driving away there were some elephants at the side of the road. The bus stopped and we all took turns to stroke their trunks and feed them bananas. They are such beautiful animals, their eyes looking at you and taking everything in around them as you approach.
As a group we’d decided to make our way to a floating village, so we left the temples at about 4pm to catch a boat. The full problem of the flooding became clear as we approached the departure point – water was suddenly as far as the eye could see, with the tops of trees and bushes poking out.
We passed villagers who were busy making dinner and going about their lives, despite the watery surroundings. While many of their houses were raised off the ground, it was obviously difficult to live and get by in such conditions,
We got on the boat for the journey to the floating village, which according to our guide is mainly made up of Vietnamese people who made their way to Cambodia but were not allowed entry.
Instead, they took their boats and floated out into the lake they had just crossed, hooked up to a tree and made it their home. Now there’s a fairly substantial village, complete with school and a hammock bar, happily floating around six metres above land, and in doing so getting around the border problem.
Everyone seemed really happy as we floated by, lounging around on the roof of the boat, many were giving us waves and saying hello. At one point a faster longboat pulled up and a young girl, only around seven years old, jumped over the gap to sell us beers and soft drinks.
After watching a beautiful sunset over the lake – meaning we’d seen it rise and set in the same day – we stopped by a crocodile farm where they breed them for meat and their skins. Then there was a special treat to go with our ice cold beers – some snake meat.
Now, I’m always willing to give things a go – its part of the fun when travelling –but having been offered snake meat kebabs along with scorpions and tarantula when I was in China, it wasn’t really appealing to me here either. But then Colin said it was actually quite nice, followed by a few more tentative nibbles.
“It tastes like bacon,” someone joked.
And sure enough, it did – I first had a nibble, blotting out the fact that it’s a snake – and then got a bit of a taste for it. It was even the same texture as bacon, looking and tasting just like when you leave bacon in a frying pan for too long and it goes all dark and chewy. It was a surprise for everyone, and nobody left it. The plate was clean in no time!
Full of beer and snake, we headed back and went out for dinner and drinks. Having had quite a bit of my new discovery, chicken amok, over the last few days, I was recommended another dish by my Thai tour guide Fon. Its fried vegetables with chilli and garlic, so I ordered it- ‘deep fried morning glory’ (stop giggling at the back!)
While it was pleasant enough, it felt a bit too much like I was eating the grass we’d seen people picking from the roadside as we passed by on the bus. It was a bit dry with the mound of rice too. I knew I should have stuck with what I knew – the amok was ‘amazing’ according to those who had it.
It was the first opportunity to have a few drinks after dinner, so we headed for pool and cocktails at the Temple bar in Siam Reap. We’d been told for just $8 you get a pitcher of cocktail and a free t-shirt.
It was a great night – the travelling pool sharks became known (Ricardo being one, although I managed to beat him) a stage was found and a few people managed to strut their stuff – badly – despite the incredibly long day. At 2.30am, I rolled back into the hotel clutching two free t-shirts, Tuk Tuk grease all up my legs and a lot of great photos and good laughs about the shenanigans that we’d all just been part of.
I’d agreed to give blood the next morning, which added to the hilarity for some people who’d seen me somehow put away about four litres of Cambodia’s finest Temple cocktail, but sure enough when the alarm went off at 9am I managed to drag myself down to reception to meet Fon, while everyone else slept off hangovers.
Because of the floods, there’s a huge outbreak of Dengue Fever among children at the moment, and its really taking its toll. Many are dieing because blood supplies, needed for treatment, are always running low. After checking that everything was sterile and new, with no risk of infection, I agreed to go along and give a pint to the local hospital.
I’m a big believer in giving blood – I did it for years back home until my travels saw me being turned away by the NHS. Because I’ve visited malaria-prone areas, I get banned from giving blood for up to a year at a time. That currently means it will be June 2013 before I can give blood in the UK again, but somebody somewhere may as well have some of it!
Despite taking anti-malaria tablets, the hospital welcomed me in. There were three of us, including Fon’s fellow tour guide friend, and many people looked at us as we walked through. It was a sad sight to see so many poorly children, many being cradled by their mums on mats on the floor. The hospital has to treat hundreds of children every day, and if ever I needed justification for doing what I was doing, the walk through to the donation room was just that.
It didn’t take long, and aside from a brief pinch when the needle goes in, the worst bit is always trying to take the plaster off later in the day. The least I can do in such a poor country is to give something back, and I’d like to think that a child somewhere has been helped out.
An hour later we were on the bus heading to our next stop, Phenom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a seven and a half hour journey on a public bus. It was comfortable enough, but the driver had an awful habit, as most do here, of beeping every time he approaches a cyclist/motorcyclist/tuk tuk/lorry…infact, almost anything.
Unfortunately, the horn gets used that much over here it pretty much loses its effect. This was demonstrated by the two dogs that were fighting in the road as we approached. There was a horn…and then there was a thud…and then the bus jolted up and down. The Chinese passengers on the right side of the bus laughed. Assata, our American co-traveller, screamed.
“Lets just call that fight a draw then,” says John in his Aussie accent.
Its never good when an animal loses its life, let alone two at the same time, but it was certainly the main talking point as we arrived in the capital after a day-long journey.