Saturday, 17 January 2009

Siem Riep and the temples of Angkor

Angkor was built between the 9th and 13th centuries as the capital of the ancient Khmer empire. Its most famous building is Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious building. Even today, hundreds of temples survive and give some sense of the enormous scale of Angkor in its heyday.

For us, there were three buildings that rose above all the others. The temple of Ta Phrom had been left to the jungle, and there were massive trees growing out of the stonework. In places, the gigantic roots wrapped themselves around buildings. The temple was used as a location in the film “Tomb Raider”. Very similar to Ta Phrom, but better preserved, Preah Khan may have been a Buddhist university. The temple of Bayon, on the other hand, has 216 smiling faces carved on towers and over doorways.

Cycling around the temples was very enjoyable. We hired some great quality Japanese bikes that whizzed along the tarmac roads. The cycle shop even cleaned and oiled them overnight, ready for us to use them the following day.

We took a lot of rest stops, as every temple had some shacks selling noodles, coconuts and souvenirs. We ate some delicious noodle soup for lunch and chatted away with the sellers. One lady had a young son who had enormous dark eyes and a beaming smile. He only had two front teeth so far which he happily kept showing us.

After two days of temple-overload, we went to see some butterflies today. Unknown to us until later, the Butterfly Garden Bar pays street kids to catch butterflies to populate the mesh enclosed restaurant. Some butterflies were damaged by the time they were freed. Those that survived then had to run the gauntlet of Western toddlers trying to catch them. A well intentioned project, but at the expense of the local butterfly population. Not the experience we were expecting.

Our thoughts on Cambodia

Visit Cambodia

We've fallen in love with Cambodia in the short time that we've been here. The country has a lot of charm, as it's not as developed as neighbouring Thailand. The people have lived through some very dark times, and there's still a lot of land mines after 30 years of civil war. Looking to the future, people are always smiling and enjoying life.

Travelling on the main tourist trails here has been really easy with modern buses, tuk-tuks and motorbikes. The main cities, like Phnom Penh and Siem Riep, are landscaped with the busiest streets tarmacked. We've felt safe in all the places we've visited.

Rural areas look similar to those in Laos and Thailand. Most house sit on stilts and are made of anything from bamboo, wood or concrete. They don't have such luxuries as glazed windows. The land is flat, and villages are surrounded by rice paddies. The cows graze in them now, as it's the dry season and only the stubble remains. Kids are brought to work with their parents; babies hanging off a bike's handle bars in a sling, or under mummy's arm on a motorbike. Some kids can't afford to go to school and work instead.

Animals are a big part of life here too. We spotted a cat eyeing-up a tray of dried fish and another one sleeping on a pharmacy counter. In an internet café, a dog was sleeping at Jen's feet and two geckos were fighting on the wall above. Seconds later, one of the geckos lost its grip and crash landed on Jen's keyboard.

Tomorrow we leave Siem Riep for Thailand by bus. We'll walk across the Cambodian-Thai border at Poipet and then catch another bus to Bangkok. All going well, this should take no more than 14 hours...

As we're posting this update, a guy next to us in the internet cafe is kissing the computer monitor as he's having a video chat with his girlfriend. What a strange guy - and he's not 15 either...

Monday, 12 January 2009

Phnom Penh

We'd heard that the architecture in Phnom Penh is very interesting, so we decided to follow an architecture tour which we found on the internet. There were many beautiful buildings and some downright ugly ones, ranging from the start of the 20th century to the present time. The highlight was the enormous Central Market, built in 1938.

The National Museum and Independence Monument were also striking, in a more traditional style.

Along the walk, we also saw a fine example of preserved road kill, and a man using a motorbike as a bed.

Fortunately, the streets of the tour were relatively quiet. Walking across roads in Phnom Penh is very dangerous. Traffic comes from every direction. People don't drive on the left, like in the UK, or the right, like in Finland. They drive on the left and the right. How there aren't more head-on collisions is a miracle. But somehow the traffic flows. We saw somebody getting a ticket from the police – probably for obeying a green light!

In the evening, we were lucky enough to meet three very friendly Cambodian men – Kimley, Kun and Khoen – at a street side eatery. Kimley spoke excellent English, and we discussed border relations with Thailand, and the value different cultures place on time verses money. Every 10 minutes or so, it was customary for everyone to chink glasses. Our evening meal consisted of beef-on-volcano, thin strips of beef which you cook yourself over a charcoal burner.

The other night, we tried 'soup chnnang dei' – a cook-your-own-soup very similar to Chinese hot pot. A litre-bowl of base soup with bones and beef bubbled away on what looked like a camping stove. Extra vegetables, eggs and crispy sheets of something were added to taste and plucked out once they were cooked. Every so often, the base soup would be topped up. It looked like it had snowed in the restaurant, as the customers had discarded the white tissues on the floor once finished.

We're catching a bus to Siem Reap tomorrow. This will be our base for a few days as we visit Angkor Wat.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Just 15km from security centre S-21 lies the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. During the four year period from 1975 to1979, around 17,000 people - men, women and children - were brought here. They were taken to the edges of mass graves and killed. To save precious bullets, some of the victims had been bludgeoned to death with blunt or sharp instruments.

The white stupa contains the skulls of around 8,000 people whose remains were exhumed. Other skulls still lie in untouched mass graves.

Walking around the graves, evidence clearly points to the evil that had happened here. There were remnants of clothing littering the earth. We glimpsed pieces of bones peaking through the paths. Some of the trees had deep machete cuts in them.