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Monthly Archives: May 2012

What can you say that hasn’t already been said about the ‘eighth wonder of the world’?

Probably not a lot! The things that strike you most are the scale and number of temples together with the fact that the temples span both the Hindu and Buddhist religions reflecting the fact that the country’s dominant religion has shifted several times over the course of its history

We bought a three-day pass, probably the minimum amount of time you need to visit the temples. It also gives you chance to revisit one of the temples should the heavens open as was the case on our second day!

Angkor Wat (Hindu), the most iconic of the temples, is a three-tiered pyramid crowned with five lotus-like towers with the highest rising 65m above the ground. The lower levels are covered in bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II who used it as his state temple. The best time of day to see the temple is at dawn from across the moat when the rising sun creates a dramatic silhouette of the temple and its surrounding buildings

Angkor Thom (Buddhist) is a walled and moated city covering over three square kilometres that was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. Most of the construction took place in the late 12th and early 13th centuries coinciding with the reign of Jayavarman VII. The city walls have five enormous entrance gates each crowned with four giant faces

Bayon Temple (Buddhist) is the state temple of Angkor Thom which took over a century to complete. It’s made up of 37 standing towers most of which also have four giant faces

Ta Prohm (Buddhist) is probably most famous for being the location used for Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie! In some respects this was the most dramatic of all the temples with large parts of it having fallen into ruin but held in place by the root systems of towering silk cotton and fig trees growing around and sometimes through the stonework!

Perhaps the best way of all to see the temples is by hot air balloon, maybe next time!

 

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After two weeks we finally tore ourselves away from the comfort and familiarity of Hotel9 and Phnom Penh. We travelled to Siem Reap on the ‘Mekong Express Limousine Bus’ which is a very grand name for a somewhat ordinary bus. Still it got us there in one piece after another six hour journey. On arrival we went through the now familiar routine of negotiating with the tuk-tuk driver and politely but firmly declining his offer to take us to ‘Yeta-Nother Guest House at very special price’

‘Same Same But Different’ is a phrase you often hear in Asia and means just what is says. So it is with Siem Reap. Tuk-Tuks, street markets, street vendors and beggars are all here however the big draw is the temples at Angkor Wat, hailed as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, which we look forward to visiting tomorrow!

 

Yesterday we visited Phnom Tamao animal sanctuary with Betelnut Tours. All the animals apart from the monkeys have been rescued and are in the process of being rehabilitated. Those that are capable of surviving are released back into the wild, those that aren’t are kept at the sanctuary along with the endangered species which become part of the breeding programme

On the website it describes the tour as follows:

This is not a luxury air con tour. You will spend a lot of time in the sun, you will get dirty and sweaty, you will have to do some walking and climb in and out of the jeep. This trip is not for everyone. Roads are bumpy, elephants will put dirt and saliva on you and if it rains you will get wet.

We have never had a complaint and we would like to keep it that way. If this doesn’t sound like your idea of fun – don’t do it. However, if you want a unique experience, can handle getting hot and dirty and want to meet some amazing people who are working with some incredible animals – then this is your trip

This proved to be a pretty good description. It was hot, we got dirty and sweaty but it was by far the best place to see animals that we’ve visited so far!

Road users in Phnom Penh have a very relaxed approach about getting from A to B.

Tuk-Tuks, SUVs, motos, rickshaws and pedestrians seem to co-exist quite happily in what seems, at first glance, to be traffic chaos. Driving on the wrong side of the road, going the wrong way down a one-way street or the wrong way round a roundabout are all standard manoeuvres. Junctions are particularly unnerving as priority seems to be a combination of ‘first-come, first-served’ with a touch of ‘who dares wins’ thrown in for good measure

At first it’s a bit scary, but then you realise it works the same way as everything else in the city and the introduction of rules and regulations would only serve to cause total chaos with everything grinding to a halt in no time at all!

 

Phnom Penh is little different to any of the the other large towns and cities that we’ve visited in SE Asia in that life is lived on the streets (even when it rains and boy does it rain!)

Tuk-tuks, scooters and street vendors all play their part in the frenetic daily life of the city. It’s impossible to walk more than a few yards without a chorus of ‘tuk-tuk’ from drivers eager to ferry you from one place to another. Scooters weave in and out of the traffic sometimes with as many as 5 people on board and street vendors peddle anything from books and DVDs to street food and lottery tickets

All this activity gives the city a buzz and a vibrancy and demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit and an intoxicating optimism about the future that would have seemed impossible thirty-five years ago

and when there’s nothing else to do, what better than a game of Flip Flop pétanque?

 

Once again we were given a stark reminder of the extent to which the people of the region, and more specifically Cambodia, have suffered over the years. Not only was Cambodia heavily bombed by the USA during the 1960s and 1970s, it then was subjected to one of the worst genocides in recent history

In 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. The city was almost immediately evacuated and residents and workers were taken off to labour camps in the country and put to work with the objective of tripling the rice production as a means of building a sustainable economy once the existing economic infrastructure had been destroyed

1975 became ‘Year Zero’. Pol Pot was paranoid about any kind of threat to his leadership and anyone deemed to be an intellectual (including everyone who wore glasses) was rounded up and sent for interrogation. Tuol Sleng or S21 as it become known was one of the prisons/torture centres used by the Khmer Rouge to extract confessions from its victims using the most brutal methods imaginable

In three years the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, had killed 3 million Cambodians out of a total population of 8 million people. Meticulous records, including individual photographs, were kept of each of the victims

As the numbers of victims grew, the prison no longer had the capacity to deal with them. An alternative had to be found and it was at this point that the regime began to make use of the ‘Killing Fields’ one of which is about 15km outside the city. On entering we were given an audio guide to listen to as we walked round the area. Just listing the different passages gives a chilling reminder of the atrocities that were carried out here

  1. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh 17th April 1975
  2. Truck Stop
  3. Dark and Gloomy Detention
  4. The Executioners Working Office
  5. Chemical Substances Storage Room
  6. Mass Grave: 450 Victims
  7. Killing Tools Storage Room
  8. Longan Orchard: People Worked to Death
  9. Mass Grave: 166 Victims Without Heads
  10. Victims’ Clothing
  11. The Killing Tree
  12. The Magic Tree
  13. Memorial Stupa

Whilst the Stupa containing human remains is a stark reminder of past events, the fact that the clothing, bones and teeth of the victims are continually coming to the surface is even more disturbing. They provide a constant reminder of the terrible events of the past and will continue to do so for years to come

S21 and the Killing Fields are further examples of the degree to which humanity can inflict pain and suffering on itself, even more so when you consider that many of those responsible for torturing and killing were the countrymen, friends and family of the victims

This final picture includes a portrait of ‘Duch’ the commander of Tuol Sleng. To date he is the only member of the Khmer Rouge regime to be convicted of crimes against humanity. He recently appealed against his 35 year sentence on the grounds that he was only a junior official following his superiors’ orders under penalty of death. The judges rejected his appeal and increased his sentence from 35 years to life imprisonment

As with all the images, this can be viewed full size by clicking on it. A word of warning though, the final section describes probably the most brutal act carried out by the regime

Don Det was where we said farewell to the StrayAsia tour guides. From that point onwards we’re reliant on public transport.

We travelled the first leg of the journey (a mere 12 hours) with two Kiwis – Bin and Diborah (translation Ben and Deborah) and Louise who was from Sweden (no translation needed). We stopped for lunch at a roadside diner where we were offered a choice of dishes each of which was simmering away in a large cooking pot

Chicken with rice had been a firm favourite on our travels so that’s what we chose again. After a couple of spoonfuls I discovered a couple of surprising ingredients, namely a mosquito and a chicken foot! Still lacking the courage to try these local delicacies I stuck to the rice

We arrived in Phnom Penh around 10:00 p.m. and then began our quest for accommodation. After a tuk-tuk tour of three different guesthouses we asked for one with a pool. The tuk-tuk driver took us to another guest house which had no pool but instead had a pool table, I guess it’s the thought that counts. We ended up heading back to the first guesthouse where we booked in for three nights but only stayed for two after witnessing a travellers’ nightmare, the theft of a gold necklace

Bin and Diborah headed out for breakfast and returned to discover that Diborah’s gold necklace had been taken from her bedside table. At first the hotel staff flatly denied it until Louise found it in a bucket full of cleaning materials in the hotel laundry. To make matters worse this all happened on the morning of Bin’s birthday and they’d arranged to spend the day sightseeing but didn’t get out of the hotel until lunchtime and still had to find somewhere to stay. Ironically one of the activities Bin had lined up for his birthday was firing some heavy duty machine guns, so he’d got rid of some of his aggression by the time we met up in the evening

Not surprisingly we checked out as well and headed to Hotel9. What a difference. So much so that we’ve just booked ourselves in for another week!