Our trip to Cambodia was short and sweet, being only six days in total, but it was a great week. Cambodia is a country of contrast, the rich are clearly silly rich - we saw many young girls being driven around in posh 4x4’s and lunching at nice cafes - and the poor are some of the poorest we have seen in south east asia. The country is full of street kids who grab onto you and don’t let go, wanting food and money. Their english is impeccable, some as young as about 5 or 6. One evening a little boy was asking for milk so we decided to buy him milk, in the shop he then pointed to a $20 tub of formula, saying it was for the baby. Unfortunately we had been told about a scam, where you buy things for kids from shops and they immediately take it back and get half the money back. To be fair, this kid probably did want the formula, but we decided against spending $20 on him. There were about twenty kids a night asking for the same thing and you want to help all of them but it’s just impossible. We had to remember that this country is full of NGO’s and realistically the best way to help is to donate to them.
Anyway, from Saigon we decided on a night bus to Phnom Penh. This was a mistake!! Sleeper buses are no more once you get down to Saigon, they seem to be strictly a Vietnamese thing! SO we had a normal bus, which was annoying but we could live it, as it was supposedly only a six hour journey… Except it wasn’t, it was about four hours to the border then two hours of sleeping in a hot coach waiting for the border to open! At 6am we all piled out to leave Vietnam, piled back on, drove a hundred metres and piled back out to enter Cambodia. We arrived around 11ish and got absolutely accosted by tuk tuk drivers. After a night of fitful sleep in the heat we were so not in the mood. Walking along the riverside, the sun was blaring, and the guesthouses were so expensive! We eventually found a nice one and after checking in and showering we had a nice relaxing lunch. The rest of that day was spent drinking smoothies, walking along the river, napping, and going out for dinner. Phnom Penh is a lovely location, I didn’t even realise it was along a river until we arrived! The streets are set out in a grid system, tree lined and pretty, and the roads are so very quiet - no constant beeping like in Vietnam!
Our second day in Phonm Penh was a pretty horrendous sight seeing day. Our first stop was S-21. This is a former school that was turned into a prison in the days of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge regime ruled from 1975 to 1979 and an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed in the most barbaric of ways. Pol Pot, the party leader, wanted an agrarian based communist country, and moved entire city populations into the countryside who were then forced into hard labour. Anyone seen as against party policies was imprisoned. This was basically anyone who had any education, any professionals who were considered capitalist and of free mind. These people were tortured in prisons like S-21 and kept in barbaric conditions, before inevitably being taked to many of the countries ‘killing fields’ to be battered to death over mass graves. After looking around S-21, which is full of photos of the prisons victims (the Khmer Rouge was very particular about keeping records of their victims), we headed out to the Killing Fields. This area is full of mass graves, with teeth, bones and clothing still coming up from the ground when it rains. Many of the graves have been excavated and their is a huge stupa in the middle of the field, full of skulls and bones, to honour the dead. To say the day was depressing is an understatement. We kept thinking how recent it all happened, and looking at anyone over the age of forty in Cambodia, you really want to know how they survived. The sad thing is that in Cambodia they believe that the dead have to have a proper burial to move on, and the fact that none of the victims did is apparently still a source of massive pain to the victims relatives. After looking around the Killing Fields we got dropped at the citys Russian Market for a look around before having some lunch. That afternoon I then went to have a look around the Royal Palace and that evening we met up with friends and had dinner and a few drinks out.
Next on the agenda was Siem Reap, which brought alot more ancient history for us! We opted for a day bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap which was much better than doing it over night. Our guesthouse in Phnom Penh booked us into their sister hotel with free pick up from the bus station, which made it alot easier for us upon our arrival. The hotel was lovely, and we had free breakfast which was a bonus! OUr first evening we ventured into town and found ‘Pub Street’, a great little street full of restaurants and bars! The town has apparently changed dramatically in the last ten years and you can see that it is a town grown up around tourism. Our first full day was spent out seeing the Temples of Angkor! We decided on our own itinery and got a tuk tuk driver and a guide and off we went! We started in Angkor Thom, which is an area full of a few different sites. We went in the South Gate and our first stop was the incredible Bayon. This temple is probably the most well known, and even if you don’t know the name you would know the famous image of Bayon’s faces. The entire building is full of Buddha faces, and seeing them for real was fantastic! The carvings are in amazing condition considering the age. The temples of Angkor date back to the 10th century. After Bayon, we saw a few other little temples, some of which are undergoing restoration, before heading to Ta Prohm. Something I didn’t know before arriving is that this temple was used in the film Tomb Raider! This particular temple is brilliant to explore as it is still very overgrown, and trees have grown up around the templed, meaning many of the trees’ roots are exposed and winding around the ruins. Cue some great photo opportunities! The morning was a long one, and we had a late lunch. Unfortunately at this point Lucy was coming down with a bug, and she headed back to the room, whilst I went to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset, along with about a thousand other tourists! Nonetheless, it was a great experience and the sunset was of course beautiful.
Day number two was the big one, I was up at 4.45am to get to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise! Again, this is a very popular site for the sunrise but the grounds are vast and so it was alot less crowded than the peak of Phnom Bakheng. The temple looks amazing as the sun is rising, and is reflected into the pool in front of itself, which makes some fantastic viewing. It takes a while but eventually the sun then rises above the temple, when another bout of photo taking ensues! Angkor Wat is a spectacular temple, being the worlds largest religious building, and has some beautiful carvings. The temple has five towers and it was possible to get right up into the top of the middle one. The views over the surrounding grounds are also lovely. By 9am we had looked around Angkor Wat and from there it was onto Preah Khan, which is the temple of the sacred sword. This temple was similar to Ta Prohm in that it had been left to ruin and is still largely overgrown, resulting in some climbing around to see it all! We then headed out to see Banteay Srei, which means the Citadel of the Women, and was a pretty temple built of different colour sandstone - some with a pink hue! On the way back we looked at a temple called Banteay Samre before having lunch. The afternoon was spent looking around the temples of the Rolous Group which date even further back than Angkor Wat, as the area was the first capital of Cambodia, known as Hariharalaya. These temples were obviously in more ruin than the temples of Angkor but impressive nonetheless, especially the largest of the group, Bakhong, which was a nice last stop as the sun was going down. As you can imagine, I was shattered that evening, and Lucy was still not feeling well having spent the day recovering at the hotel, so a quiet evening was had.
Our third day in Siem Reap was lovely, it was the first time in a while we hadn’t had to rush to move on. We had breakfast and then sat in the sunshine on the roof for a while. Cambodia was so hot, especially compared to Vietnam where we even had rain! We wandered into town for lunch and had a look around the markets where I bought an Angkor Wat T Shirt, before Lucy went to see Angkor Wat in a tuk tuk and I went and had a massage! It was back to Pub Street and the famous Angkor What? bar in the evening but it wasn’t a late one as we were both still very tired!
The next morning we got a bus at 8am to head back to Thailand! I wish we had had more time in Cambodia, the people were helpful and friendly and I think know there were alot more towns to explore. The bus journey back was a long one, and the border was the worst of the lot, two hours were spent waiting at passport control, an hour of which was outside in the heat. It was totally unorganised too, we had to get off the bus and switch onto a minivan on the Thai side, so some guy carted our luggage off and left it on the other side of the border for us to find ourselves! Coming back into Bangkok was a funny feeling, almost like coming home! We got dropped at Khao San Road and we were both amazed that we’ve done it! The circle has been closed, the loop has been completed, South East Asia has been thoroughly explored and there we were, back where we started. It was funny looking around at the other travellers on Khao San Road, knowing that some of them have probably only just arrived and are yet to do everything we have just done. I felt like a bit of a seasoned traveller!!
However we are doing one last stop in a town called Ayutthay just north of Bangkok, and after some dinner last night we hopped straight on a train. Today has been spent looking around more temple ruins, as this is a former capital of Thailand from the 14th century, and then looking around a floating market. We decided to come now rather than when we were first in Thailand because their is a festival going on celebrating the town becoming a World Heritage Site. Tonight we are going to a sound and light show over one of the larger temples which should be spectacular!
Tomorrow it’s back to Bangkok airport for our flight to Melbourne! It feels like the end of one adventure and the start of a new one! I have had the absolute time of my life in south east asia. I have seen some of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, met some amazing people, and partied hard! I have been constantly surprised by the people and the experiences, and have mostly found the south east asians to be friendly and helpful. Food and accommodation has been excellent, and some of the towns have been positively beautiful! Mostly, instead of seeing signs of poverty or signs that these are still developing countries, I have seen people living off the land, not rich, but definitely not poor, always with a smile on their face. If I could do these ten weeks over again, I most definitely would, and I most definitely intend to come back!!