My Trips: Cambodia 2008

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Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand by bus

Up early and we pack for the bus to Bangkok. I have read many horror stories of this journey. Apparently an airline has been paying a Cambodian official to stall the modernisation of the road to the Thai border. So the road remains unsealed and slow.

Our guesthouse tuk-tuk drops us to the bus at 08:15. The bus is packed, and everyone’s luggage is in the isle running down the bus, as there is no proper luggage storage. We jump in and find seats; at least they haven’t over sold the tickets.

We get going and we find the road isn’t actually too bad. It’s a bit bumpy in places, but is nowhere near as bad as the roads in Nepal or India. In fact the worst bits are where the bus makes a detour around the works where bridges are being constructed.

We stop several times on the trip, maybe a bit too much. We get to the border and we make it easily, albeit fairly slowly, out of Cambodia and into Thailand. This is our last land border crossing, and our last country of the trip.

Through customs we find our bus company and wait just over an hour with drinks and sandwiches. It’s quite pleasant to be in Thailand, sitting in the shade. The time goes really quickly. We notice a young Thai boy, about 10 years old, collecting plastic bottles and cans. We give him ours, and notice he has ink on his face. He is a funny lad who catches my attention. We watch him interact with a few people, and it seems he may have some learning difficulties. I notice the staff from the bus company looking out for him. I them realise that he looks quite similar to my nephew at home. This makes me feel very sad. I have seen so much poverty on this trip, from Nepal, India, Indonesia and Cambodia, but I haven’t found it so difficult to deal with. Yet today, when a young lad reminds me of my own nephew, I feel very affected. We watch the lad and see that many of our fellow travellers are giving him food; chicken, biscuits, noodles and water. He is well looked after I think. I don’t know his story, but he seems to be here on his own, and whilst his clothes are old, they look fairly clean. He doesn’t hang around with the big gang of kids we have seen fighting for money when people give them coins. He collects bottles and sits with the western travellers. He comes over to us and we share smiles with him. We notice he has quite a large belly, a good size for his age, and especially a Thai. We give him our drink and he smiles, walks away and has his drink.

I’m still feeling sad when we get onto the bus. I think about the lad and my nephew some more. I also think of the monthly donation I make at home to the NSPCC. I am looking forward to going home and seeing my family again.

It’s good to be back in Thailand, where the buses are modern and clean. But, we have loved Cambodia, it is sad to leave there.

The bus gets us to Bangkok in good time. We ignore the touts and find a nice hotel room.

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Visiting Angkor, day 3, and shopping at the market, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A 4am start to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. When we get to the sight the light and colours are starting to come through. It’s a little cloudy so some effect is lost, but it’s still a great sight. There are a surprising amount of people around, but still nowhere near as many as on our previous visit a few days before.

We grab some breakfast after Angkor Wat and head back to our favorites. We stop at Bayon, where we discover a bit we had missed before. After chatting to a local guy for a while about the restoration projects we head over to Ta Prohm, my favorite temple in the site. The first time we visited this temple it was raining, so now we get to visit in the dry. We find and notice several things we missed the first time, in particular several more massive trees that are engulfing the temple, which are probably more spectacular than the other trees. There are several tour groups visiting whilst we are there, so we take our time and wait for them to thin out a bit so that we can get some good photographs.

We’re feeling pretty tired and templed out by the afternoon, so we ask the tuk-tuk driver to drop us into town. We grab a drink and head into the market. The market here is a pleasant mixture of shops, and a much more chilled atmosphere than the markets in Phnom Penh. We go shopping crazy and by a lot of things to take home.

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Visiting Angkor, day 2, Siem Reap, Cambodia

An earlier start today as we head back to Angkor and explore more of the many temples. We start by taking the long ride out to Banteay Srei. It’s a great temple with a different style to others in the complex.

We stop at the landmine museum and take a look around. The work done there is very impressive. They have cleared tens of thousands of landmines in Cambodia, that were laid by Khmer Rouge during the civil war. Amazing almost all of the landmines have been cleared by one man, using a stick and a screwdriver. His costs are a few dollars each day, whereas international groups and military forces charge about US$1,000 per landmine. Impressive stuff. We make a donation.

We head to more temples on our way back to the main sight. We stop in a cafe for a drink and the heavens open. We wait about 30 minutes before the rains finally stop.

We explore more temples in the main sight before heading back to the guesthouse.

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Visiting Angkor sights, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

After breakfast we jump in a tuk-tuk and ride out to the Angkor main site. We stop at the modern entrance office and get our photos taken for our 3-day passes. Back in the tuk-tuk and we start an amazing day-long exploration of the main Angkor site.

The entire site is a lovely combination of dirt roads, hidden monuments and glorious temples. It’s a real pleasure just driving around. We stop first at the Bayon temple, and move onto many more.

Each one different but just as amazing as the last. Many of the temples have undergone restoration, most being sponsored by contributions from different countries. Some of the temples have been left to let nature take its effect. It has been 1000 years since these temples were built, but they have stood the test of time well. But nature is impossible to stop.

The temple nature has the biggest grip on is Ta Prohm. So many massive trees are growing out of the temple that the restoration projects have decided to nature reclaim the building.

It starts to rain just as we are about to explore it, so we hide under trees and inside the corridors. The rain stops, and the shining walls and floors add to the atmosphere. As we are leaving Ta Prohm I see an imagine I have seen many times, the massive tree than has engulfed an entire wing of the building. We stop for quite a while waiting for a good photo opportunity.

Out final stop is at Angkor Wat, the biggest, and for many the best of the temples in Angkor. We explore whilst the sun sets.

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Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap by bus, Cambodia

Up early for breakfast and the bus from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap. The shuttle takes us to the bus depot, were we jump on to the main bus. The bus station is opposite the Central Market and we enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of Phnom Pehn.

Soon enough the bus departs and we are on the road. The scenery is similar to what we have seen before. There is a lot of rain on the journey and we see some bad flooding. Thankfully though we don’t breakdown, despite the fact that the bus seems likely to overheat at any moment, as the driver hoses down the radiator as soon as we stop.

After a few stops we make it to Siem Reap. There is no suggestion of Angkor’s sights as we travel through the town. The bus yard is saturated with water when we arrive. But, the crew do a sterling job and pass everyone their bag without any getting muddy or wet. We pre-arranged a guesthouse, and a very friendly guy has arrived to meet us. We jump in the tuk-tuk and make the ride across town.

The guesthouse is nice and run by a very friendly family.

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Market shopping and the National Museum, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

We head over to the Central Market again, to try and get some more treasures to take home. We only have 20 days of the trip left, and only a few more places to stop, so we are collecting as many nice things as possible now. When we came to the market before we didn’t find much to buy, but this time we were much more successful. I manage to find 3 t-shirts and a very bright shirt, and Abs finds several bags. We’re really enjoying the battering that comes with market shopping. Although we do have a bitter experience when buying drinks, when not only do they overcharge us, but they try to short change us as well.

We have found the Cambodian people to be the friendliest, most helpful and the most honest of all the people we have met on this trip. A contrast from the aggressive people of Vietnam. It’s amazing how the Cambodian people, who have suffered so much in recent times, are the most forward thinking and considerate. I think Cambodia is set for great things in the future, maybe more so than her neighbours.

In our guesthouse there is a sign advertising software developer jobs, and English teaching jobs. Something that appeals to us both, if only we had more time.

After the market be get a tuk-tuk to the National Museum. It’s a wonderful building filled with wonderful artefacts from all over Cambodia. Many from the Angkor region, which is a shame, but at least they are safe in the Museum now, rather than being sold into the wrong hands.

We don’t have time to visit the Silver Pagoda or Palace, so we will have to leave them for next time.

In the evening we venture away from the guesthouse and have a great dinner by the river. There are many people relaxing for the evening by the river, and it’s fun to watch. We get approached by some funny characters whilst we are eating.

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The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Russian Market, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

We negotiate a price with a tuk-tuk driver and head out towards the Killing Fields. It’s a 30 minute drive across Phnom Penh, through some interesting suburbs and sights. At the Killing Fields, even from the car park, we can see the many skulls, stacked inside the beautiful white pagoda.

We quickly fall into the mood required for a visit to such a site. The site is minimal, with just a few signs indicated some of the graves, and where buildings once stood. Nothing remains of the buildings or much else at the site. I like this, as I have come to pay my respects, and I don’t need any visual indications of what the people here suffered. A few trees are labelled with their purpose during the bloody years here at Choeung Ek, reminding me of how primitive things. At the far end of the sight we get hassled by some kids, just looking for money, but I ignore them, moving them on with my hand gesture. Abby takes the time to talk to them, but I want to think and take in where I am.

It’s a fairly small site, and to be honest I was expecting there to be more here, maybe after there was so much to take in at S-21 yesterday. But, it has been interesting and much has been left to the imagination, which I think is important at the sight like this.

We spend a few minutes at the pagoda where I watch a local man by some incense sticks and make his prayers. It’s impossible to think of the emotions the Cambodian people feel. They are so strong and brave.

We get back in the tuk-tuk and head over to the Russian Market.

It’s a bit more cramped and claustrophobic than the other market yesterday, but it’s fun and we find several things to buy, for ourselves and for other people back home. I have more of my ongoing frustration at buying t-shirts. I find 2 that I really like, but they are the wrong sizes.

We head back to the guesthouse and spend the rest of the day relaxing. We have just 22 days of our trip left (of our 5 month trip, and 7 months for me). We are both looking forward to going home, but we are sad to leave these fascinating and fun countries. We are already planning future trips 🙂

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Tuol Sleng (S-21) museum and Psar Thmel (Central Market), Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

After breakfast we take a long walk south across the city to Tuol Sleng, better known as S-21, the school that was used to perform unthinkable horrors during the Khmer Rouges rein of terror in Cambodia. Around the museum the streets are home to regular Cambodian people going about their day. As we approach, the building line changes and the space the school was occupied for more than 30 years is obvious.

In the barbed wire fence the entrance is visible; we take a deep breath and go in.

The first room in the first building holds the images I have seen many times in the film Baraka and from other photographs; checked tiles on the floor, a single window, and a rusty metal bed.

We move through the building, through the similar rooms. In the second building we find the endless walls of photographs of the people who lost their lives in this gruesome museum.

There is a respectful display of photographs by an artist who has tried to bring back the lives of the people features in the photographs. He has used only the reflections of the glass covering the photographs to create the illusion that the people are in the room. It’s clever, impressive and respectful. In the third building we find the horrible cells, cheaply and badly made to house people during their time in the prison. Upstairs we find wooden cells that are creepy and scary to walk around. The last building holds some of the items of torture and other artifacts found on the site. The museum is well presented and leaves much to the imagination rather than explaining too much, which is good, as too much information when you are inside the former prison would be too much.

We leave saddened and enlightened, having learnt and having paid our respects. We stop at the cafe across the road to unwind a little.

After lunch we take a walk north through the city. Cambodia is a real mixture of new, old, rich and poor. The people are so friendly and smiley though, a wonderful change after Vietnam where people are keen to take your money without offering much.

The area around Central Market is a mixture of workplaces and street shops. We find the market and take a look around. It’s big and housed in a wonderful domed building. I quickly find myself almost unable to resist buying a watch I didn’t really want. Moving on we find lots of good things to buy for ourselves and for people at home. The people in the market and friendly, helpful and realistic with their prices; another nice reality check.

After the market we head over to the shopping center, get some food and continue our shopping mood. We don’t find too much, but a visit to the supermarket, and watching the roller disco is fun.

Eventually we leave and take a long walk back to the hotel, through what seems like the karaoke area (read brothel zone).

It’s been a day of ups and downs. I’ve wanted to visit S-21 for many years, and today I learnt some things about other people and myself, and paid my respects to those who suffered here in the past.