20/02/03: Boat to Siem reap; book into Victory Guesthouse; go for walk with O and colleague – stop for drinks at Red Piano and Green Garden; find the others at Green Park; have dinner at Lucky Crab, followed by drinks at Angkor What?.
The journey up the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap should have been a sublime experience. It passes through a lake of immense proportion whereupon about half way along you can look both port and starboard and genuinely struggle to identify the riverbanks. Stoked by the confluence of the Mekong it's comfortably the largest lake in Indo-China, yet it was spoilt for me by an act of pure folly. Somehow I had managed to lose a roll of camera film in Phnom Phen and it was on this journey that I discovered so. For solace, I would go on to purge my camera with images of tanks and various munitions at Siem Reap War Museum (although would have probably done so regardless). Russian T-54 tanks are abundant, along with an array of heavy artillery and small arms, and on the forecourt there’s both a MI-8 helicopter and a Mig-19 fighter plane.
Yet this is not what Siem Reap is famed for: that’s Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, most dating back to the 1100s, which attract tourists in droves. Imposing, perfectly located amongst the sub-tropical flora, expensive, but a must see if only to throw into some sort of relief this country's more recent and vulgar past.
Herein lies the nexus of Cambodia. One cannot delve into this medieval spectacle without avoiding the all too visible aftermath of over 20 years of in-house fighting. Missing limbs, a reliance on foreign aid, and a bizarrely insouciant sense of humour all come together as a backdrop to this most unique of nations. Ancient ruins, contemporary horror, cool bars and the loveliest people… It may lack the scenery of its Indo-Chinese neighbour to the north but Cambodia’s atmosphere is intoxicating.
The last two nights in Phnom Penh had ended up with me, my colleague and O playing copious amounts of cards. So intense was our gameplay that we’d even invented a new game to alleviate the repetition; a game we named Galaxie 500, a nod to a band and a genre of music that O and I both appreciated – the logic of it didn’t stretch beyond anything more than that. There were no objections when it was mooted that it might be time to move our operations to Siem Reap. If I’d shown a little more enthusiasm then my colleague and O would probably have been prepared to leave a day earlier, but I had needed to pause for a while after a week of hit-and-run, and Phnom Penh had proved an interesting and suitable refuge.
You read things about this city and I imagine they could all be true. In Bangkok I’d slowly begun to enjoy taking a few chances and exploring beyond the obvious spheres of interest. Vientiane had me almost completely at ease. But In Phnom Penh? It’s a strange place, its ostensible insouciance masking a gnarled edge: a place where tourists are drugged and mugged, and have even been known to disappear completely. Drinking in cafes, reading the local papers, I’d get the feeling that I was both respected and resented: respected because I had wanted to come here, but resented because I could afford to.
There are Cambodians whose homes are their peddle-driven taxis. Slap a mosquito net over the top and that’s their bed for the night. Drift carefully passed these nocturnal cocoons and be careful not to disturb them. It could just have been our choice of location, but in Phnom Penh a lot of people hanging on.
And where were the other travellers? Up by the lake apparently, getting stoned and being bitten by mosquitoes. I preferred the idea of the FCC, although I never sought to test this supposition.
Phnom Penh’s edifices are worthy of note: although the temples differ little from those found elsewhere in the region, the municipal architecture has a more Mediterranean edge, rather like in Laos, but on a grander and dirtier scale. I wished I’d dared to venture further. I should have hired a moto to show me the sights but I was wary of doing business in Phnom Penh.
My colleague and I have been travelling for a full three months now and I’m losing track on how much money it’s costing me. I reason that it is best to take a pessimistic view, for fear I might run a little short in New Zealand. Despite this, it’s agreed that we should take the more extravagant means of transportation towards our next, and final, Cambodian destination: Siem Reap. This works out at about $25, compared to the $4 or $5 it would cost by public bus. It should take less than half the time, though, and will sail up the Tonlé Sap River and across the freshwater lake of the same name, offering an alternative perspective on the Cambodian landscape along the way. It’s always good to take the boat.
We sourced our tickets for our 07:00 charter the day before, scheduled to leave from a pier about 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel. It is one of our earliest rises thus far, but the cool morning air makes it bearable.
I haven’t really thought much about what will happen when we reach our destination but am forced into doing so by a young gentleman carrying a large mobile phone, who can arrange transportation from the point of arrival to the nearby town of Siem Reap. I suppose I’d thought that our vessel would dock somewhere in the centre of Siem Reap itself, but apparently it doesn’t and I had no business assuming that it did. With this in mind, I see no harm in coming to some arrangement now and not having to bother with the competition at the other end of our voyage. Actually, I do see harm in coming to some arrangement now because this guy could be pulling a fast one, but I don’t want to find myself in some bidding war the moment we set foot on land. After consulting with O and my colleague, we decide to take our chances.
I’ve not been sitting down for more than 10 minutes – long enough for the boat to have been freed from its moorings – when I realise I’m a cartridge of film down. I don’t know which but assume it’s the roll most recently extricated from my camera. I last changed film in the Cambodia’s Royal Palace, and I remember struggling to find somewhere suitably shaded to action the exchange. Did I leave the spent cartridge there? Or did I leave a roll back at my room in Last Home? Either way, I’m beside myself – how could I have been so careless? My journey to Siem Reap is not a happy one.
The views are a bit of a let-down too. Much of Cambodia is very flat and that’s certainly true of the landscape bordering the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap is not just a river but also a lake. In fact, it’s the largest fresh water lake in the whole of Asia – or at least during the wet season. When the seasonal rains fall, the Mekong becomes so engorged that it backs up the Tonle Sap to such a degree that it actually starts to flow in the opposite direction, almost as if it were a tidal entity. Consequently the lake increase four times in mass, from 2500 km2 in the dry season to approximately 10000 km2 in the wet. But the wet season has long since passed and the outlook from our vessel is partially obscured by the high river-banks that have been built up to withstand the variable water-level. It is only when we’ve reached the middle of the lake and the water’s edge has all but disappeared from view, that I’ve any sense of wonder at all.
After a few hours we arrive at what doesn’t very much look like Siem Reap, populated by a mass of hustlers, one of whom is holding up a sign with my name on it written in felt-tip. Our gamble has paid off.
The piers are too high in the water right now, and the local condominiums sit atop tall wooden stilts. Disembarkation is a tricky business and the only way off is to walk what is effectively a wooden plank. Then, like rock stars, we’re mobbed. Three drivers have been sent to pick us up, so it’s by moto that we’ll be driving to Siem Reap. This will be my fourth journey sat on the back of a scooter and I’m beginning to thoroughly enjoy them. Even L appears quite relaxed, her experience back in Chumphon a distant memory now.
We want to book into a place called Green Park where we’ve been told Welsh L, K, F and G have taken up residence. Typically, our chaperons are a little reluctant to take us there, but they accede. On our arrival, however, there’s no sign of our colleagues and nor does it seem like the sort of place they would want to stay in – the grounds are too well maintained, for one, and the staff don’t look too enthralled at the prospect of any of us taking up residence. So we permit our drivers to take us to digs of their choosing – with the caveat that they take us somewhere else if we don’t like them – which ends up being somewhere tucked down a dusty lane, called Victory Guesthouse. The rooms are clean and tidy there, and rates are good, so we agree that we may as well stay.
Our drivers are still keen to know how we intend to see Angkor Wat, which is a little presumptuous of them. Their line of enquiry gradually begins to make more sense when it becomes clear that they’re offering to sell their services for the duration of our stay. They reason that it will be more convenient for us to arrange our travel to and from the temples in advance, that Angkor Wat covers such a wide area that it’s not navigable by foot, and that they’ll be able to pick us up from and drop us back to Victory Guesthouse whenever we please. I’d rather not have to make such firm decisions right now as I’ve not fully considered the ramifications, but can appreciate what they’re saying, because we’ll undoubtedly need regular transportation. Saying that, I don’t think it’s going to be too much bother finding conveyance to Angkor. Saying that, they think it will be and that we’ll be over-charged for the privilege; fix a price a price in advance and they’ll be at our beck and call. They need us to agree to this now, because if we’re not interested they’ll have to find their punters elsewhere. Christ, I hadn’t even given a second thought to how many days we should give over to the temples, let alone when we might like to commence our tour of them. In fact, all I was looking forward to was a boozy evening to see off G, followed by a relaxing day tomorrow in recovery.
It is Thursday and we know we’ve got plenty of time to spare on our month-long visas, so we agree to commence our tourisms on Saturday – that way we can get the low-down off of Welsh L and the rest and dump our contract if we think it’s overly balanced in our escorts’ favour. Our tour of the temples will necessitate we buy either a three or five day pass, and we’ll get a sunset thrown in with that, so that will leave us time to go someplace else before we buy our passes. How about the War Museum? You bet.
After a walk around the town, a drink in the Red Piano, and a closer inspection of our travel guide, we realise that there are two guesthouses with the same name and deduce that Welsh L, K, G and F are more than likely staying at the one we weren’t taken to. We know that G has to be back in Bangkok by the weekend to catch his flight back to Blighty, so it is imperative we act quickly if we are to see him before he leaves.
We decide to take a chance on the other Green Park being the Green Park, dash home to change into fresh clothes and hail a tuk-tuk to take us across the river to where the real Green Park should be. It’s probably walkable, but we’re not aware of this at the time. And they are there, very pleased to see us, and we have a drink with them in the grounds of Green Park, and then look for somewhere to have dinner. We find a restaurant called the Lucky Cafe and somebody takes a photograph that will closely resemble the one that was taken when we ate pizza together in Phnom Penh – a rip-roaring image of decadence to reflect on, even cherish. I have the beef stroganoff with mashed potato. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten since those curries at Nazims.
We then head back across the river and try out a karaoke bar, whereupon F enthusiastically struts his stuff, singing ABBA tunes to the assembled Khmer throng. It’s hard to tell how this is going down with the locals, and so we decide to switch location to a bar called Angkor What? back over the river, a pun on the temple Angkor Wat (pronounced the same) located nearby. The walls are given over to visitors’ graffiti, and I contribute P.A.F.C. to this scrawled medley. Everybody’s in the mood (might even L have let herself go if she was still with us?) and it’s a very auspicious welcome to the town of Siem Reap, tinged with sadness that G will be leaving soon, and the faint apprehension that my travels will never quite be this swinging ever again.
21/02/03: To Green Park to bid farewell to G; Lucky Café with O and colleague; random internet café; check out the local ‘stadium’; FCC for dinner; cards at guesthouse with O and colleague with The Killing Fields being played on constant rotation in the background.
22/02/03: Breakfast at Aspire Café; go to local market to find sunglasses; trip to the War Museum; trip to the Khmer Rouge Monument and then to Angkor Wat to see the sun set; Green Garden for dinner; Laundry Bar, plus Welsh L, K, and F.
The next morning, hung-over, we walk to Green Park and bid G good farewell. Welsh L, K and F are staying for a few more days and we arrange to meet them for dinner at Siem Reap’s FCC.
The day is given over to nothing in particular. My colleague, O and I return to the Lucky Café for brunch, where they serve tomato soup – which I’ve been craving – but only cold. We then take a walk around town, check out the local stadium, and feel unwell.
Later, our rendezvous at the FCC feels forced. It’s a far more sterile environment than its Phnom Phen cousin, a newer build without any of the colonial affectations. After we’ve eaten there are no more drinks, and vague arrangements are made to meet the next day for a concert recital by Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor who plays the cello – under the guise of Beatocello – in-between raising funds to build hospitals for the Cambodian disadvantaged (of which there are many). He’s built three so far, the piece de la resistance being this one in Siem Reap, with its conjoined music hall constructed out of concrete and bamboo.
The next day is far more productive. My colleague, O and I take another trip into the town, but find the local market this time, where I finally find a half decent pair of sunglasses to replace the ones I broke in Thailand – fake Ray-ban aviators for a dollar.
Then in the afternoon it’s off to the local war museum to take photos of military hardware. It’s a small museum but there are enough battered Russian T54/55 tanks there to keep me occupied for almost an hour. It’s also completely open air, which makes for a sweaty slice of sight-seeing under the midday sun.
Next up is the Angkor Monument, with a school for disadvantaged kids conveniently placed next door, a tour thrown in and a petition for your money. My colleague, a teacher by trade, is made to feel sad and guilty enough to donate $10 to the cause. Not having any particular profession to fall back on when I return home, and with less money in my coffers, I cannot be made to feel as sad or as guilty, and all I contribute is small change.
And now for Angkor Wat. First, we need to buy our three-day passes so we can claim our free sundown. I find this arrangement quite liberating, for once we have our passes we will be free to visit Angkor as and when we feel like it. Knowing how offices in Asia can open and close on a whim, this could deprive our drivers of any leverage, should they try to impose a timetable of their choosing.
The printing of our passes is a potentially laborious but actually very joyous affair. I suppose I was expecting something like our entry into Cambodia, just without the passport sized photographs. But no, these passes will require our picture upon them, and then they will be laminated, which makes the $40 damage a little easier to swallow. We’re not expected to supply our own prints, and neither will be charged 200 baht for one of theirs. Instead, a Cambodian in-house photographer, adopting the persona of Austin Powers as his English speaking template, will steal our image and develop it there and then. He doesn’t care how we pose; in fact, he encourages us to smile, laugh, up our thumbs – anything that conveys a sense of rapture in keeping with his own. He is unique among Cambodian men, and one of the most likeably personable people I have ever met. If only the acquiring of personal documentation was always such fun.
Back on the back of our bikes, the assembled throng of vehicles line up like they’re in competition with each other. At a predetermined time, the signal is given for everyone to GO GO GO! The motos have the better acceleration so for a while we’re leading the pack. More substantial vectors soon overtake.
Angkor is awash with tourists, as it is for every sunset, every day. It’s not that spectacular a sight, and I’m hungry. We’re also supposed to be attending Beatocello’s recital with Welsh L, K and F, and if we’re going to eat first then we’re cutting it fine.
We cut it more than fine; we miss the whole show. By the time our drivers deliver us back to Siem Reap we’re ravenous, and the Green Garden looks too inviting. We do eventually find the others. They’re having dinner in a curry house down by the old market. We arrange to meet for a few beers in Laundry Bar once they’ve finished up, but as much as I try to get the party going the evening looks destined to finish on a low. It’s fair enough – they all have to get up early the next morning. They are heading back to Phnom Penh to take in a few of the sights they missed the first time around, and they’re catching the early boat. I ask them to keep a look out for that lost roll of film, hoping it might have turned up when they cleaned my room at Last Home.
From our first meeting with Welsh L and K in Vang Vieng over a month earlier – wherein I inadvertently insulted Welsh L by alluding negatively to the dread-locked hippy in Koh Phan Ngan – and our bike ride in Nong Kai, to our drunken beach antics in Koh Chang and our intrepid journeys through the backwaters of Cambodia, they have proved most excellent company. It’s a shame, then, that our final evening doesn’t feel as poignant as it should.
23/02/03: Lunch at Green Park (Mk.2); trip to Angkor Thom; Taj Mahal for an Indian.
24/02/03: Up early to see sun rise at Angkor Wat; bad lunch at Gecko Mayonnaise; the Blue Pumpkin for a beer; watch the Killing Fields properly at Victory; play cards with O.
25/02/03: O leaves; explore remaining temples with colleague; Lucky Café for lunch; write postcards; Green Park (Mk. 2) for dinner; Angkor Wat for many drinks; catch horse-drawn cart home.
26/02/03: Hangover from hell; Gecko Mayonnaise for coffee and recovery; play cards back at guesthouse – can manage little else in the heat; dinner at Lucky Crab; more card playing – early night.
It’s just myself, my colleague and O, left alone to see what all this Angkor fuss is about.
Angkor literally translates as city, with ‘Wat’ meaning temple; it’s a Temple City, or City of Temples, depending on which vernacular you run with. Over a hundred actual temples occupy the area but they were all built at different times and by different peoples. The biggest and most important structure – the central Wat, sometimes referred to as Angkor Wat itself – was built during the early 12th century by King Suryavaram II, and evokes Hindu references. Indeed, this early Khmer Kingdom was not Buddhist at all but had its roots in an earlier colonialization of Indian traders, who arrived there in and around AD 200. Foreign exploration back then was no small undertaking and was dependent upon meteorological factors, the monsoon tidal flows of the Indian Ocean being particularly instructive. Explorers sailing from India to Southeast Asia were therefore committed to a pre-determined tenure, unable to return to their Indian homeland until the following year. In the meantime they built temples, not for strategic purposes, as was once thought, but almost as a whimsical exercise in spiritual time-killing.
In the years that followed the various shifts in political power had its impact on the cultural influences that helped contribute to the many shared Hindu mythologies present in Buddhism to this day. By the time Angkor Wat was being built these similarities were fully assimilated, and although Angkor is now associated with Buddhism and the monks who tend to it, Angkor Wat itself is rampant with images of Vishnu and allusions to Hindu cosmology.
Most exciting of all, however, is the fact that this ancient complex was lost to the world for the better part of 500 years. After a Thai invasion in 1431, the temple and its inhabitants disbanded and, save for the odd monk hanging around, lay pretty much derelict until 1860, whence a French explorer named Henri Mahout disinterred it and brought it to the worlds’ attention. The French colonialists had been hearing stories from Buddhist monks of the remains of a lost civilisation built by Gods or Giants, and on discovering this lost kingdom immediately began its physical resuscitation.
It’s quite an undertaking, still going on to this day. It has been decided that one of the temples (Ta Phrom) should be left undisturbed so one can get a feeling for what the place would have looked like when Monsieur Mahout stumbled upon it. Trees have taken root, quite literally, on top of some of galleries: huge fig trees with green lichen encrusted roots gradually destroying the structures that now support these huge plants. All this might sound like the cutting edge of contemporary exploration, but it’s about as remote as a trip to Stonehenge. In and around Siem Reap I counted over 14 hotels in the throes of production, and the only reason they’re being built is to accommodate the tourists who come to admire Angkor Wat.
But the temples do impress, despite this heavy commercialisation. We are free to clamber up and down these well-worn structures, and maybe something needs to be done about this. Some of the more popular temples are starting to show signs of excessive wear, but money talks and the Cambodian authorities seem unwilling to take any action that might preserve their investment.
On the second day of our tour of Angkor Wat, we assemble to watch the sun rise up over it. It’s marginally more impressive than watching the sun set, and there are certainly less people about to see it, but I just want to get stuck in to see what all the fuss is about. I assume my fellow Englishmen feel the same way because there’s a group of them taking pictures of each other striking suggestive poses behind a statue of a lion.
Close up, Angkor Watt doesn’t disappoint. Scales its steep steps and you’re right in the thick of it: ornate frescos, impressive views, the sound of monks at morning prayer… the colour of the whole thing. One is free to wander, to delve into nooks and to wander down ancient corridors. One occasionally comes across a monk presiding over an assortment of idols and effigies, and you will be encouraged to pay for the privilege of lighting incense and saying some sort of prayer for whoever it might be you’d like to say a prayer for.
As the tour continues, the propriety of having one’s personal chauffeur makes all the more sense. The complex as a whole is so vast that you’d really struggle to cover this ground on foot. After we’re done with the main temple our drivers take us to Bayon, a lesser temple no less impressive. Not as big, Bayon’s main draw is the huge stone faces built into the towers that form its central peak. Bayon actually forms part of Angkor Thom – or ‘Great City’ – and, dating back to the late twelfth century, was the last great city of the Khmer Empire.
There are plenty of other smaller temples worth seeing, and the apparently abandoned Ta Phrom should not be missed. Despite its appearance, work has been undertaken to stabilise these ruins and to preserve the façade of neglect. O and I ask that my colleague take our picture standing in front of one of the massive route structures, which clasp its stone quarry like some giant multi-limbed bird of prey.
After five or so hours the heat levels have become increasingly uncomfortable, as our designated drivers told us they would and being the reason why they’d insisted on such an early start. So back to Siem Reap for lunch.
We go to Gecko Mayonnaise, which disappoints and encourages me to pause for a quick beer at the Blue Pumpkin a few doors down. We don’t venture out come the evening as O is leaving for Thailand the next day. I am sad to see O go and have enjoyed visiting temples with him by day and playing at cards by night.
My colleague and I still have one day left on the pass that permits us to behold temples and ruins. I’m glad we didn’t invest in a five day pass because our final day spent driving around Angkor feels more like a mopping up exercise. It’s still an enjoyable experience, made more so by the police officer who tries to sell me his badge for $10. I’m tempted but don’t fancy being pulled over for it when I pass through Customs.
It’s the Lucky Café for lunch, and then this country’s postcards are attended to. The evening beckons a final night at Angkor What? for which I am punished the next day. It’s a total write-off, and I spend much of it drinking Gatorade and lying on our bed. It’s a shame, but we’ve done all we really can here and tomorrow we will be following O back to Bangkok.