Friday, 13 January 2012

Ancient Temples, Dark Pasts and River Adventures...

Leaving beaches behind in order to see traditional historical sights in Cambodia the first point of call was Phnom Penh, the capital and urban centre of everything. Its a return to the urban city that I have not really experienced since Bangkok. It is however nowhere near as big as Bangkok. The hawkers are reasonably aggressive as are the TukTuk drivers, you can't walk anywhere without being asked if you want a ride. Crossing the road, like most Asian cities is a daunting task. Although it goes against everything you've ever learnt about crossing the road the best thing to do is step out into the traffic, like with dogs, the cars/bikes can sense your fear and hesitation is likely to end badly. Just like in Chengdu they have 'car parks' for all the mopeds and these are actually staffed by a security guard despite just being a roped off area of the road. The markets are fun and interesting and sell everything you could ever want, but never what you need. The meat is hung out on stalls and bearing in mind its plus 30 degrees I seriously question the logic behind this. Phnom Penh is located on both the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers making it a key port town, on top of this many vietnamese people live on boats on the river. It was previously a French colonial city and some of this still remains. Another quirk often found in Asian cities they have evening aerobics glasses in open spaces where they dance(imagine dancerise but on the street).So enough history and context then (Will be more history later at relevant points as I feel I should share some knowledge that isn't so mainstream) and moving to tourism.
Meat in the market
The first port of call was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, an impressive complex consisting of many fine buildings, temples and Stupas. Originally built in the 15th century it was expanded in the 18th century. It was nice to spend an hour or so walking around. In the evening I went on a river cruise down the Tonle sap and Mekong and witnessed said Vietnamese living on their boats, with a backdrop of the sun going down. I ended the evening talking politics, local gossip and watching Ice hockey in a Canadian bar with some guys from the boat.
Royal Palace

Boat life

Fishing at sunset
Awaking with a cold from a very torrid sleep due to the heat I headed for what is a dark part of Cambodia's history; the Killing Fields and S21. Between the years of 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge led by 'Pol Pot' (Saloth Sar) led a brutal paranoid dictatorship. You could be imprisoned and executed (without trial) for such heinous crimes as "speaking a foreign language", being a foreigner, being a teacher and so on. In Phnom Penh the prison where prisoners were tortured and false confessions were procured was a school reclassed as a prison and known as S21. To the southwest is a collection of mass graves. It was here they were taken to be brutally murdered; Men, Women, Children and shockingly also babies. Bullets were deemed too expensive and so farm equipment was used for the most part to beat or cut them to death. Both these locations are now memorials/museums to remember the terror that unfolded due to one regimes paranoia. It is sights like these that make you realise the truly dark capabilities of the human race, and why we need to remember stuff like this happens so that we can hopefully allow it never to happen again - 'lest we forget'. Further shocking is that the UN ignored the atrocities for almost 20 years and actually gave the Cambodian UN seat to the exiled Khmer Rhouge regime after they fled after the fall of their genocidal regime. Only in 2006 did a proper internationally recognised trial begin of the senior leaders responsible(almost 30 years later). I've made my point although there is a lot more to be said regarding these atrocities*, it like the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima and any Holocaust memorial is a rather harrowing experience.

After the depressing morning activities I headed to the Central Market to explore and see what weird items would be procured today. I actually found the two things I wanted, a new shaver($10) and a new combination padlock. The market itself is an art-deco circular building housing a lot of jewellery, clothing, electronics and pretty much anything else you could want. A few more temples taking in and it was time to move on to the next place, Battambang.
Killing Fields
Skulls(the writing on the sign says "Female Juveniles - 15 - 20 years old"

S21, Black and White for atmosphere(bleak)
'Art Deco' Central Market
Battambang is Cambodia's second biggest city and you've probably never heard of it, I hadn't till I was advised to visit it for a boat trip to Siem Reap. Despite being the second biggest city, it is very very quiet. Almost everything closes down before 8 and there really isn't that much to do. I only intended to stay a night but the Hotel insisted I waited a day for the boat because it was awful (other sources have since confirmed this) so I stayed longer. Despite there being little to do within the city, some temples around the countryside is where the fun is to be had. For all of 10 bucks I was whisked off on the back of a motorcycle. The first stop was a crocodile farm, where literally 100s are farmed for their skin. It is kind of illegal. Second stop was an abandoned Pepsi factory now derelict, interesting with an old bottling facility still hosting some old bottles. I then took a ride on a bamboo train (literally a train made of bamboo on the oldest bumpiest track imaginable) pictures will do this justice before I finally went to 'Killing Cave' where the Khmer Rouge killed people. It is now home to some temples and about 2 million bats. I watched the bats leave the cave which was quite awesome and seemingly never ending. I moved on to Siem Reap by an 8 hour boat journey!
Crocodile Farm

Abandoned Pepsi factory

Bamboo Train

Final flight of the bats
The 8 hour boat journey was relatively painless except for the crashes in to trees on corners taken far to fast. It was amazing and we saw local cambodians living on the river in stilted houses/boats. This was a real taste of everyday Cambodian life, we saw the kids on their way to school in little kayaks as well as numeruous fishermen/women.
River boat


CHildren waving

Stilted House
Siem Reap is more entertaining than Battambang, still relatively run down but with a bustling nightlife and zest that Battambang completely lacked. I was here to visit the temples and therefore decided to see sunrise at Angkor Wat at 5am. In typical fashion it was kind of cloudy but still a good experience. I spent the rest of the morning visiting another 8 or so temples before returning to the hostel after 7 hours of touring before 12 and to go back to bed. The temples themselves are absolutely amazing, a real wonder and traversing them is an adventure in itself. Some temples have giant trees growing out of them, which only adds to the wonder. It is a true feat of engineering and some are to this day unexplored. The only real comparison I can draw is to Machu Picchu although I am sure some of the Aztec temples are on similar level. The sheer amount of them is also quite spellbinding. The pictures hopefully do them more justice than confuddled worlds. Spent the rest of the time in Siem Reap socialising, realising quite how little time I have left and planning what I have/must see/do beore I leave South East Asia.
Elephant Terrace


Face in the rock


Angkor Wat
I returned to Phnom Penh to arrange my Mekong boat tour to Ho Chi Minh city and in doing so caught up with (new)old friends and bumped into yet more people from Plymouth Uni, this time a girl who knows Hiro.

I have fallen in love with Cambodia, not so much any particular city but everything as a whole, from parties on the beach to the breathtaking temples in the jungle. The people are a revelation, I am not the only one who feels like this, in fact in the Lonely Planet the second top thing listed is 'the people'. It is an amazing country, I am sorry to leave but I am already strapped for time with certain activities looking less likely. I usually aim to spend at least a month in a country to get to know it, but this is just not going to happen, so a whistle stop tour is the name of game. I can no longer afford lazy days off and every time I lose a day it ebbs into some other activity. Two new countries still left and one to revisit, I have just over a month to do so.

*Further reading/viewing 'The Killing Fields'
'Race, Power and Genocide' -

pps. Further comments on SE Asia, Angry Birds is hugely popular, they sell merchandise literally everywhere. In Cambodia as far as I have found I can not find any male shower gel, it would appear the men do not wash. Also just like China in Cambodia they seem to be ridicuously overstaffed, funnily enough the English speaking Cambodians are quite sarcastic or at least like to take the piss(in a good way), as experienced previously in Sihanoukville. In all they are more laid back, have more passion and are generally more friendly than the Thai's. I actually find this quite often in the poorer countries or those with the tendency for natural disasters (Japan). It is always nice and when you meet people who have (comparatively) nothing who are ready to share at a whim it seriously makes you question your own sensibilities. I will talk at greater length about the generousity and hospitality I have experienced in the end of year/travel round up. Don't worry everyone I'm still equally as cynical and grumpy I have just learn some patience, compassion and humility.

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