Tuesday, 24 January 2017

To Angkor Wat or not to Angkor Wat?

You know it’s hard sometimes to get started on a new post. Every time I put a new post up I get that fleeting feeling of accomplishment, that I’m up to date, that things are in order, but I forget that within days, hours even, we’ve done so much more, added so many amazing experiences to our trip that I’m instantly behind again. This time round that’s coupled with having to do everything on my phone (my tablet won’t communicate with my external HDD and even though we have mobile data and usually wifi, we’re talking ridiculously low-speed and unreliable) which makes the whole process twenty times longer. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth bothering, but then I find myself skipping back to previous posts, sometimes years later, and remembering things I’d have long since forgotten otherwise. Really, this is a travel journal for me as much as anyone else who might happen to read it.

As much as I liked the city of Phnom Penh, I think we both agreed that it was time to leave by the time we did. We decided to head south to the coast, led by a naive idea that there might be enough wind for Evan to spend some time kiteboarding over Christmas. I’ve long since realised that kiting isn’t a sport at all, it’s a philosophical gathering of optimistic people who like to sit by the water all day, occasionally standing up to gauge whether or not the wind is any stronger than it was ten minutes previously. This can last hours, days or even weeks at a time, everyone involved scared to leave for fear they may miss that elusive and rarely encountered window, usually of less than an hour, where it’s possible to launch and keep a kite up in the air long enough to get on a board.

Of course, the wind was barely above 0 when we arrived and despite a hopeful conversation with the owner of the one kite school in town, it didn’t change from this for the time we were in the area. For our first night in Kampot we decided to be sociable and stayed at the Mad Monkey Hostel. Actually, we just liked the look of the pool. It’s one of those ironically named places that seems to think that adding the word ‘mad’ into its title automatically makes it a really cool and fun place to be. To be fair, the other people there seemed to be enjoying themselves, as far as anyone who has been drinking solidly since 7am can claim to be, and it was surprisingly quiet for a party place, but a night was enough for us. Not wanting to drink a lot and not finding too many people that fitted our ‘being sociable’ criteria we moved to another place in town for the next few nights.

Kampot was an odd town. It has a touristy strip of ex-pat owned restaurants and bars (that we only found on our last night there, so maybe that shaped our views of the place) and not much else. It does however have the Bokor National Park and within it the Bokor Highland Resort and abandoned Bokor Hill Station. Built in 1921 by French colonialists alongside a quaint Catholic Church, the station also included a hotel, a casino and a royal residence, all now long deserted and in ruins. Abandoned more than once since it was built, first in the 1940’s during the first Indochina War and again in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took control of the area, the casino never came to be, but the empty buildings still stand, an eerie reminder of their troubled past. Astonishingly, the entire National Park area has been leased by the government to the Sokimex Group who have paved the winding 60km road up to the site and built an ugly monstrosity of a casino resort at the mountain's summit, complete with 500+ rooms, a restaurant and a golf course. Curiosity got the better of us and we decided to go inside for a closer look. Instantly we were transported back to Cuba and the ghost hotel in Varadero. The full contingent of staff inside went about their daily work as we were left free to wander around as we pleased. We made our way up to the casino, wandered around it and back out again, never once being questioned as to why we were there. We didn’t see a single paying guest and when we sat down in the cafe for coffee we were left for some considerable time before anyone cottoned on that we might be waiting to be served. I have no idea what the purpose of the whole venture is - reportedly it was expected to draw in Chinese gamblers that never came - but it’s clearly out of place and doesn’t sit well with locals or indeed with us.

Far more interesting was the old Hill Station, church and royal residence. Climbing around old ruined buildings is something that fascinates both of us, absorbing the history of a place, imagining all the things that have happened there over the years and the events the buildings must have witnessed. We actually made two visits to the site after reading a bit more about its history. Luckily the thick cloud that had obscured the stunning views from the top on our first visit cleared when we returned allowing us breathtaking, uninterrupted views out across the Gulf of Thailand.  

With Christmas fast approaching we made the decision to move a bit further along the coast to Kep, a fishing village about 25km to the east, in the hope of finding some good fish and seafood and a place to escape any festivities. In hindsight I don’t think we’d have found any outside of the two big cities. Cambodians don’t celebrate Christmas and this suited us just fine. We found a nice enough room in a pretty treehouse-like guesthouse and set off in search of some food.

Kep is famous for two things - its crabs and its pepper. The first you can keep - I’m really not a fan of shellfish or crabs - but the crab market was fascinating to see all the same. The daily catch is brought in every day just after noon and the place erupts into a frenzy of sizzling BBQ grills and ladies hustling their fish and seafood offerings. Later in the evening, full of fish and crabs, we headed back to our room feeling sleepy and looking forward to a peaceful nights sleep. Unfortunately the owners of the place had other plans and without bothering to inform any of their paying guests had invited friends over for a noisy Christmas Eve party that continued to increase in volume right the way through the night until well past 5am when I presume the last person must have passed out. Ok, it was Christmas, but when you have paying guests some respect is due. Midnight, even 1am - fine, but almost 6am?!

To make matters worse I had eaten or drunk something that had disagreed with me, coupled with spending far too much time in the sun, so for most of Christmas Day I lay writhing on the bed, willing whatever it was to pass. By evening I managed to summon enough strength to ride into town for some dinner. We settled on a very unfestive gnocchi and baked fish at an Italian restaurant and it was surprisingly good.

Boxing Day I felt much better so we set off in search of Kep’s abandoned mansions. Built by the French in the 50’s and 60’s to house discerning holidaymakers, most were abandoned by their occupants fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime and those able to return years later pillaged the buildings for materials, leaving empty ghost shells with only little hints of their former glory. Up until only a few years ago there were around 150 of these buildings still standing, but with land prices steadily increasing most have now been either renovated into boutique hotels or else they have been knocked down for fear that preservation orders may soon be slapped on them. A handful still remain though and it was these we sought out. This is where the bikes came into their own. They allowed us to cover a lot of ground and meant we could ride right into narrow laneways and fields and back again if there was nothing to see. We clambered up banks, climbed over walls and through gaps in fences.

From one derelict house near the waterside a path led up to a road with large locked gates but with a small gap in the adjacent wall so we decided to take a look. It turned out it was the road to King Sihanouk’s summer palace, a grand circular building with circular balconies and lots of outbuildings. Inhabited almost exclusively by a very large troop of macaque monkeys who didn’t seem at all bothered by our presence, we wandered around the site, through the grand semi circular main room with its crystal chandelier still hanging and into the outbuildings until we found ourselves accompanied all of a sudden by a small, curious boy. He followed us around, eyeing us warily. We’d read that several of the old mansions were either squatted by local families or else they were paid as caretakers by the owners. Most were friendly but had begun to realise they could make money from curious tourists by charging a fee to look around. Suspecting this was the case here we made our way back to our entry point and slipped back over the wall.

One thing I hadn’t realised when I first went to Kep was that a few years previously Roa had visited and painted on several of the ruins. Eager to try and find his murals, with a bit of research and asking questions of previous street art hunters, I managed to work out the locations of his three pieces in the town. The first we found easily, a giant praying mantis on the first floor of a house just behind the tourist information centre. Unfortunately the site was locked up and there was no way in so I had to rely on Evan to scale a wall opposite the place to get a good photo. The second was an elephant skull and bones in a slightly more obscured place, but accessible through an unlocked bamboo gate. Sadly the third, a giant centipede, no longer exists, the building it was on has been demolished and only a large, empty, overgrown plot sits where it once was.

We spent the rest of the day visiting local sites including a tiny butterfly farm and ‘sunset rock’, a very rough, rocky track leading up to a rock that sadly no longer has a view due to the growth of surrounding forest. We even met an Australian woman with a pet monkey while looking for a cold drink up an isolated dirt track.

Moving on from Kep we headed for Sihanoukville, back along the coast from where we had previously come. A beach party town, our expectations were low, so we were pleasantly surprised to find it was fairly quiet, very similar to the beach resort we visited in El Salvador minus the armed guards at the gate. With a long stretch of beach full of bars and an equally long road full of BBQ restaurants backing on to it, everything we needed was within a couple of minutes walk. Feeling in need of a little extravagance we splashed out $25 a night on hotel with a pool. It was hot and I was still struggling to shake the bug I’d picked up so we treated ourselves. We spent the days lounging in the pool and the evenings eating $3 plates of the best BBQ we’ve had anywhere at Mr Sony’s restaurant. Really though, the place was very limited for anything more than a couple of days and as prices were sharply hiked in the lead up to New Years Eve, we moved across the road to the Monkey Republic hostel, a far nicer than we expected place for the price. Rebuilt only a few years ago after a fire destroyed the old building, it had a nice bar area and small cabin rooms out the back away from the noise of the road. It was odd to see a huge Adnams advertising poster on a cooler cabinet behind the bar.

Still unsure where we wanted to be for New Year we decided to jump on a boat across to Koh Rong for a bit of snorkelling while we thought about it. Unfortunately the water was too rough so we ended up wandering the beach there for the day instead. I’m glad we didn’t decide to stay over there, despite the beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise blue water. Koh Rong is an island just to the south-west of Sihanoukville and has recently been sold off by the Cambodian government to a major developer. This company now has an agreement with all the local businesses on the island that they will leave without a fuss as soon as their land is required for another purpose, namely the building of large, soulless high end resorts. At the same time restrictions have been put on the building of these kind of ventures on the other nearby islands which have been given additional environmental protection. It seems like an odd way to do things, but it’s fairly common practice here. Koh Rong is an odd place, a little bit of Hopkins but without the depth, a bit of Caye Caulker but not as pretty. An endless procession of beach bars and overpriced cabin accommodation all playing either identical loop tapes or Buena Vista Social Club, from what we saw of it in the short time we were there I wasn’t sorry when 4pm came around and we could get back on the boat again. Except of course being Cambodia the 4pm boat didn’t leave until 5.30pm. It’s all approximate around here.

Arriving back on the mainland we were faced with a dilemma. Despite having what appears to be way more beds than occupants, Sihanoukville was fully booked for New Years Eve. We walked around asking at the diviest places as well as the pricier ones, but the answer was an almost disbelieving no, as if we were a little crazy to think we’d find anywhere to sleep with only a couple of days notice. This left us with two choices - Phnom Penh or Siem Reap - both a good long ride away. Following our vague rule of moving on to something new rather than backtracking, we plumped for Siem Reap. This meant three long days of riding or two VERY long days of riding. Naturally, we went for the most difficult option.

Cambodian roads aren’t bad for the most part, but there is a point in any day riding those little scooters when enough is enough. You can shift around, sit back a little, slide forward for a bit, but eventually you just have to stop and get off. That’s usually around the 250km mark. To Phnom Penh, the only logical place to stop halfway, it was almost 300km. Couple this with the fact that the most direct route involves riding on a hell road where people would mow down their own children if it meant arriving 30 seconds faster, it wasn’t a nice ride. We had two more run-ins with the police along the way - one officer indicated for us to stop as we rode out of Sihanoukville but we just pretended we didn’t see him and ignored him. Later at a police road stop we were motioned to pull over, but as luck had it at exactly the same time a local kid decided to speed through on the wrong side of the road, sending the police officers into a frenzy, so again we were free to continue on our way. Hot, dusty and suffering from the 110% concentration required to make it there in one piece we were very glad to finally find ourselves in the crazy traffic that marks the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

It was a really good feeling arriving back there. We headed for the places we knew and found that we were recognised and welcomed as though we were friends who had been away. We greeted the little old man from whom I'd bought a little handmade purse on the street on our first visit to Phnom Penh. I didn't need it but something about him made me want to support him. Evan commented at the time that he probably had some interesting stories to tell, but I was only later that we discovered he’s a Khmer Rouge survivor, now aged 76, who lives alone in the city selling purses so he can send the money back to his family. His name is Om Kessara and there is a fascinating interview with him on youtube.

At our favourite little restaurant, Aroma Chef, we didn’t actually want a drink with our dinner but inadvertently found a gin & tonic and a draught beer appear on our table. We had dinner, stopped by another favourite place for an iced coffee with ice cream before calling it a night ahead of another long ride the following day. Unfortunately my stomach had other ideas. I’m not sure what caused it this time, but I spent the whole night sitting by the toilet regurgitating everything I had eaten and drunk that day.

Feeling more than a little groggy from lack of sleep, the following morning we set off for Siem Reap. About 330 uneventful kilometres later we rolled into town, an immediately unlikeable, soulless city, clearly built up around its famous attraction to cater for the hoards of tourists. The rules are that tourists aren’t allowed to rent motorbikes in this particular city, apparently because they caused too many accidents. Hard to believe really when local drivers are so unbelievably awful, the worst we’ve experienced so far. As for whether or not tourists are allowed to ride motorbikes they brought in from elsewhere, the jury is out. We didn’t have any trouble, but then we didn’t push our luck either. We had planned to ride to Angkor Wat but had heard more than one account of the local police confiscating tourist motorbikes at the site and then issuing a fine of $250 for their return before marching people to the edge of town and making them ride away. 

Late one afternoon, having spent some time searching for the correct location of the Angkor Wat ticket office, we decided to ask a local policeman what the deal was on this, a bit of a risk as we had our bikes with us at the time. We figured he was unlikely to want to cause a scene in front of the coachloads of money generating tourists queuing for their passes so we posed the question. He started with a long drawn out ‘Welllllll……’ followed by a long pause, before adding ‘technically no, but yes you can. You can ride your bikes in the park.’

Before we could think about Angkor Wat though, we had New Years Eve to consider. We were staying in a hostel just across the river from the main action, not a bad spot to be. With no real plans we started the evening with a walk through ‘Pub Street’, an awful section of town full of tourist-priced restaurants and cheap bulk alcohol deals. Surprisingly though, the majority of people there were not drunk foreigners, but local youngsters enjoying themselves. It seems the Gregorian calendar's New Year has caught on here. We tried to find a spot on a couple of balconies, but discovered that those places had been reserved long ago. We perched at a bar for a while watching the crowds until the area got a little too claustrophobic and then wandered back towards the river in the hope of finding a spot to watch the fireworks at the magic hour. With a combination of luck and cheek we managed to find a place at the bar of a swanky roof terrace with a pool serving crazy medical inspired cocktails. A couple of drinks each and some bar snacks gave us the perfect view of the (rather low key) fireworks and still be out for under $30!

It was at this point that we had to come to the sad realisation that our time with our bikes was coming to an end. We could have tried to cross into Laos with them, but the chances of getting in are 50:50 at best and if we did we’d have had to then go back to Vietnam to sell them because we wouldn’t have been able to leave Laos without them. With this in mind I had posted for sale adverts to several facebook groups and soon we found ourselves inundated with messages from people eager to buy. One of the first people to enquire was a British guy who happened to be in Sihanoukville who was interested in both bikes and after some back and forth we agreed to sell both bikes to him for only a little less than we had originally paid for them on the condition he would come to Siem Reap to collect them. This gave us a few days to kill and so we used the first of them to get out of town on one more adventure to visit a derelict temple about 65km out of town.

Beng Mealea is a part of the Angkor Wat complex a little to the north east of the city. The ride out there was hot and dusty, but gave us the chance to get out into the rural areas and see for the first time the Cambodia of my imagination. Small dirt roads full of cows and rototiller tractors, horse carts with wagons piled high with hay loaded by hand, proper kids storybook stuff. It was such a contrast from Siem Reap, a breath of fresh air. People smiled broadly at us as we passed through villages, small children waved and shouted to us. The ride there and back was just as enjoyable as vising the ancient site. Beng Mealea is little more than piles of stones, once a majestic temple complex, reduced to rubble by the roots of trees that have grown up through the site. There were relatively few tourists there and we often had parts of the site to ourselves.

For several days we had been trying to make a difficult decision - to Angkor Wat or not to Angkor Wat? That was the question. I know for some people this would be a no-brainer, given that Cambodia IS Angkor Wat for many people. After spending a few days in Siem Reap though and reading accounts of the hoards of tourists that visit every day making moving around the site almost impossible, we started to wonder if it was worth the effort. I kept having visions of it being like Chichen Itza and as neither of us have any interest in ticking off the big ‘must sees’ we came very close to deciding to skip it. After visiting Beng Mealea though we started to get a niggling feeling that we’d regret it if we didn’t, so still somewhat unconvinced we paid up our $20 each for a day pass for the following day.

With the sale of our bikes agreed we decided not to push our luck and instead spent the evening looking for a good deal on hiring a tuk tuk for the day. We knew that the going rate was $13 for a tuk tuk and driver to take us to the main temples, a few dollars more if we wanted to start early and watch the sunrise. However, we wanted to find a driver who would take us to the sites in the order we chose and not follow the busy tourist route. Our hostel was happy to arrange this for us but wanted an extortionate $50 to do so in an order of our choosing. We passed on this and went out in search of someone who would. Several hours later, feeling thoroughly dejected having spoken to several tuk tuk drivers who either wanted to charge way over the odds or else wouldn’t listen to our plan of what we wanted to do for the day, we arrived back at the hostel at nearly midnight unsure what to do. And sitting across the road with his tuk tuk was Mr. Chantha. A quiet, unassuming 25 year old father of two children, a boy aged 6 and a girl of six months. He listened to our requests and agreed to pick us up at 5am the following morning, to take us wherever we wanted to go and for a flat rate of $15. Amazingly, we’d found our guy.  

The following morning he was sat outside on the dot and we set off for the main temple to see the sunrise. We found a spot to the right of the temple rather than joining the crowds who flowed down the main path and disappeared to the left. We hadn’t particularly planned on being there so early but the sunrise was worth the effort as the colours changed from dusky blues to pink and orange and the iconic spires started to form out of the darkness. After a quick stop for breakfast whilst waiting for the rest of the site to open during which we took the chance to chat with Mr. Chantha about his life in Cambodia as a tuk tuk driver, we headed for Angkor Thom and Bayon, the famous temple adorned with hundreds of carved faces.

Bayon was a highlight for me, a part of the site I have always been fascinated with, more so than the main Angkor Wat temple itself and it didn’t disappoint. The crowds were surprisingly sparse, as they were in fact all day, and we had plenty of time and space to wander amongst the towering columns. We followed this with a walk down the Terrace of Elephants (where sadly there were still tourists paying for rides on miserable looking elephants) and then on to Ta Prohm, better known as the site where the Tombraider movies were filmed. I’ve never seen them so I can’t say that I was impressed by that but plenty of people seemed to be. It was the busiest part of the site by far and when we eventually found our way out of it, we decided to use our last little bit of energy to return to Angkor Wat itself and look around inside. By this time it was early afternoon and the sun was blazing and despite this being an addition to our original plan, Mr. Chantha willingly retraced our steps and agreed to wait for us for another hour.

By 2pm we barely had enough energy to walk back to the tuk tuk. Dehydrated and with very sore feet we headed back to town. True to his word, Mr. Chantha asked only for $15 as agreed and was clearly delighted when we gave him an extra $10 for providing such a perfect service. It’s nice to find someone as honest and hardworking as he is and we were lucky to have found him. If you find yourself in Siem Reap and need a good, honest guy to drive you around then he’s your man. You can call him on 069 513 301.

With one last day in town we chose to visit the War Museum just a few kilometres out of town. On this occasion we had the opposite experience to the previous day. We flagged a tuk tuk on the street and were immediately quoted $10 for the 3km ride. We laughed and the price came down to $8. As we walked away he shouted after us '$3 return'. Reluctantly, we took him up on it. Upon arrival at the site he agreed to wait for us for a hour, but this proved to be too little time and as we walked past the fence near the parking lot he waved at us angrily, tapping his watch. I would have minded less if we'd actually been more than an hour at that point. We explained to him that we were going to stay longer and that we would make our own way back to town and he started to whine and complain, saying he would wait longer. We told him to leave and handed him $2 for the ride there. He whined some more that he had waited for an hour and wasn’t at all happy. We upped our offer to $3 (a very fair price for such a short distance) and told him to go. He was still unhappy so we had no choice but to slide the money under the fence at his feet and walk away, telling him to take it or leave it. It’s situations like that that make me so distrustful of using taxis and tuk tuk’s. Compared to Mr. Chantha who was willing to drive us around for nine hours solid the previous day for $15 it left a rather bitter taste.

The Siem Reap War Museum was a real gem of a find. A large collection of armoured vehicles, weapons and ammunition from Cambodia’s civil wars and the Khmer Rouge period, the museum offers guides who are all either veterans or have direct connections to the conflicts, free of charge on a tip basis. Our guide was a 35 year old man from Battambang who as a ten year old child in 1991 spent many a night in a flooded air raid shelter, up to his neck in water while missiles flew overhead between the Khmer Rouge in their last stronghold and the Vietnamese to the east. He explained to us the various types of landmines and the level of destruction each was designed to cause. He described how still today landmine injuries and deaths occur every week and explained the processes by which landmines were being discovered and disarmed. Hearing the stories he had to tell from first hand experience or from relaying the stories of his parents, both of whom survived the Khmer Rouge horrors, brought the place to life. It took me back to Sarajevo, standing up on the hill hearing of the horrors of the Balkan War and seeing the landmines and shells.

One of the most interested things he did though was to fill in for us the more recent political history of Cambodia, something that we had been unable to find out much about. He explained that the current ruling party is essentially made up of Khmer Rouge members and is universally despised by the younger generation. However, they are voted for by older people as they fear the consequences of the party being ousted even more than they hate the party members. At the last election, supposedly overseen by the UN to ensure it was fairly conducted, the incumbent party lost the vote but in reality refused to stand down. This led to a period where there were two parties both claiming to be in control with two Prime Ministers. Eventually the unelected government pushed the elected one out and this is where things currently stand. He was hopeful that the next elections in 2018 would change this, but added that there is a lot of upset at the moment about the numbers of Vietnamese citizens being allowed in to the country and being given the right to vote, potentially swaying the vote in the present government's favour. It seems nowhere has a solid, transparent political system based on a fair vote these days.

At last the day arrived for us to say goodbye to our beloved two-wheeled companions. I’m not one for getting attached to cars or bikes, but I was really sorry to say goodbye to this one. After a quick trip to the motorbike wash we took them to meet their new travel partners, fellow Brits (now living in Bali) John and Lisa who plan to ride them around Cambodia and then Vietnam. We sadly waved goodbye, happy in the knowledge that they’d be carrying on their adventure without us rather than being sold into lives of servitude as tuk tuk bikes, a la Black Beauty as Evan pointed out.

As soon as the deal was done our first stop was a travel agent to buy overnight bus tickets to Bangkok. Flights weren’t cheap unless we wanted to wait until the following week which neither of us did. One day in Siem Reap is too long and we’d been there a lot longer than that. With bus tickets in hand we wasted the rest of the day at the ‘tourist cinema’ a place with cosy rooms with a screen and sofas where you could pay to watch dvd’s of illegally downloaded screeners for $5 a head. Bags packed again and with a constant feeling that we’d left something behind, we headed for the sleeper bus that would take us to our next adventure.   

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