Cambodia

Weighing up Angkor: Temple travel advice

 

David Whitley hits Cambodia’s famous temples with a guide – and is mighty glad he spent the extra money doing so.

 

Bunchay pulls us over to a relatively unpromising temple wall. A series of engravings run down the sandstone like a comic strip, but Bunchay points to one in particular. “Take a look – what do you think it is?” It looks like a stegosaurus. In fact, despite trying to reimagine it as anything but a stegosaurus, it still looks like a stegosaurus. On the walls of a newly built place of worship, this would be rather odd, but Ta Prohm was built under the orders of the great Angkorian god-king Jayavarman VII in the 12th century.

 

“No-one can explain it,” says Bunchay. “Some people think they must have found a fossil, but it seems unlikely.” Essentially, people who didn’t know dinosaurs ever existed have drawn what appears to be a dinosaur on a temple wall. And that’s quite an intriguing puzzle.

 

The temples of Angkor are justifiably Cambodia’s biggest draw card. To think of them as just a bunch of temples would be a major mistake – the sprawl takes in a large chunk of the country, and most of them are were cities in themselves. Angkor Thom, for example, covers nine square kilometres and contemporary Chinese scribes (albeit ones clearly prone to massive exaggeration) claimed one million people lived inside.

 

The three must sees are Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom, and all have very different qualities. Angkor Wat is the giant one on all the postcards, Ta Prohm is the one that the jungle is atmospherically entwining itself with and Angkor Thom is a complex full of ruins, with the fabulously weird Bayon temple in the middle. Frankly, enough words have been spilled across the web about all three without me having to needlessly throw a few adjectives on the mountain.

 

What I can offer is a bit of advice. If you’re visiting Angkor, it pays not to be cheap about it. By and large, Cambodia is a really cheap country to travel in. Food, drink, transport and accommodation are gloriously inexpensive by international standards, and there can be a tendency to see the country as a place for spending as little as possible in.

 

For one day, at least, an exception should be made for visiting the big hitters at Angkor. You have to pay US$20 to get in anyway (although three day passes are available for $40). Whilst it’s tempting to hop on the back of the cheapest motorbike you can find and make your own way round, a good, well-trained guide can make a phenomenal difference to your day (or two). And not just in pointing out anachronistic dino-pics.

 

Part of what makes the temples so extraordinary is the artwork on them. Sculptures, engravings and bas-reliefs on a Bayeux Tapestry scale are all over the place. Wander around by yourself, and you’ll probably not have a clue what’s going on. A good guide brings them to life, and gives context to the ancient building spree.

 

Bunchay is also something of a marvel when it comes to picking out good photo spots. He leads us away from the route ploughed by the tour group herds (it’s a little known fact that half the Korean population can be found at Angkor at any one time) through jungle paths and back entrances. We end up seeing the temples from very different perspectives. And, once inside them, he points out the best spots for framing the temples’ distinctive features – such as the heads on the towers at Bayon and the trees growing through the stone at Ta Prohm.

 

More to the point, the company Bunchay works for, About Asia Travel, has conducted impressive surveys on footfall at the temples. They know which places are heaving at which time of day, and plan the route accordingly. We end up at Ta Prohm early in the morning with nary a soul in sight. By the time we drive past later at 10am, it looks like a bus factory outside. I do feel sorry, as well, for the poor sods traipsing around Angkor Wat behind the herds in the middle of the inevitable 3.30pm

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of About Asia Travel (aboutasiatravel.com) 

roundtheworldflights.com offer a 3 day Treasures of Angkor tour from £169 More details here

 

Avoid temple fatigue in Siem Reap

 

There’s no denying the principle reason for visiting Siem Reap. The thriving centre of the Khmer Empire for 600 years, its Angkorian temples are so beguiling that many people add three days to a Thailand or Vietnam itinerary, popping in and out of Cambodia to see them and nothing else.


It’s better than nothing of course - if three days is all you have, it’s time well spent. But it’s tiring. Even if you aren’t trying to see all the temples (and no-one would suggest you do so), it involves early starts, lengthier drives to the further-away temples and long days.

With the three-day pass valid for any three days out of seven, it’s a bonus if you can spend a little longer in Siem Reap and discover more than what Angkor built. Siem Reap itself takes on a different atmosphere. With the majority of visitors at the temples during the daytime, it’s the perfect time to pound the streets, go cafe-hopping, book a massage and wander the colonial Psar Chas district. Even Pub Street is calm, which is quite something. Highly recommended is the street food tour run by The River Garden hotel who also organise Cooks in Tuks Tuks, combining food markets with cooking classes.

If the town’s not for you, get out. A few miles away is the huge freshwater lake of Tonle Sap, its floating villages home to mainly ethnic Vietnamese and Cham families. While some villages, such as Chong Khneas, are outrageously touristy, you can join a more sophisticated tour to the more authentic ones. ABOUTAsia Travel is currently the only company to offer kayaking along the waterways of Kompong Khleang floating village, a brilliant way to explore local life.

Another outdoor spot is the West Baray reservoir, the largest reservoir made by the ancient Khmer. Popular with locals for its picnicking spots and waterfront hammocks, it’s also great for walking and cycling. Warning, there are a couple of ruins en route so look away if you’re on full temple detox.

A particularly memorable afternoon happened to be one of the laziest. The ‘hammock bars’ along the stretch of the road to Tonle Sap Lake are quite something. Bar after bar line the roadside, each one with numerous hammocks strung out to look over the rice paddies of the Siem Reap countryside. They get busy with tour groups at lunchtime but go before sunset, order a can of cold Angkor beer and watch the sun cast a warm glow over the fields. It may not be cultural, but it’s soul-stirring stuff. And with a temple day tomorrow, resting up is no bad thing. 
By Meera Dattani

 You can get Cambodia included as a stopover on your RTW here

Published by Stuart Lodge

Siem Reap

 


 

 

David Whitley learns about the horrors of landmines – and the people trying to clear them up – near Siem Reap.

 

A distressingly regular sight in Cambodia is someone trying to get by – often just a child – whilst missing an arm or leg. Despite plenty of money and effort from overseas donors, landmines and unexploded ordnance are a still a serious problem here.

 

 

In many ways, landmines are the most callous weapons of war ever created. They’re designed to maim rather than kill, working on the principle that it takes more resources to help an injured colleague on the battlefield than a dead one. Over the years, use of them has become gradually more evil – the intention being to cow civilian populations and make farmland unusable.

 

Cambodia has a recent history of war and genocide that is utterly heartbreaking, with the countryside being terrifyingly explosive from the moment the Americans decided to deluge supply lines within Cambodia in a bid to win the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger, the US National Security advisor who authorised the secret bombing campaigns, is possibly the least deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in history. Frankly, he should be serving a life sentence for war crimes.

 

Civil war, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese incursions followed, leaving rural Cambodia as one giant minefield. Now the country is tasting peace at last, but the unexploded mementos of past horrors still remain. And Aki Ra is perhaps the most maverick of those trying to clear them up.

 

Aki Ra was a Khmer Rouge child conscript. He was given his first AK47 at the age of ten, and through most of his childhood and early adult life, he killed people. During that time, he became something of an expert in laying mines. And now he tries to clear them up.

 

This is the story behind the Cambodian Landmine Museum near Siem Reap. It’s not actually a particularly good museum, but the stories it tells and the information it displays should make you weep with anger. Art ‘boxes’ hang from the ceiling. They have been made by children who picked up what they thought was a pineapple-shaped toy, and have lost limbs in the process.

 

There’s an element of self-aggrandising – Aki Ra has long gone and removed mines from small villages on request, but has done so in controversial ways that don’t meet with the generally accepted guidelines. He’s recently come into the official fold and now does things by the book, but he claims to have removed thousands from ‘low-priority’ areas over the years.

 

Many of them are on display in the museum. In a see-through tower in the middle of a fishpond, stacks and stacks of them are piled up according to type and country of origin. The majority are from the United States, Russia, Vietnam and China. Another room goes into the worldwide political efforts to eradicate landmines. The Ottawa Treaty banning them became international law in 1999. 156 nations have signed or acceded to the treaty, and of the few that haven’t, some familiar names pop up. These include the United States, Russia, Vietnam and China. Read into that what you will.

 

 

For more details visit CambodiaLandmineMuseum.org.

 

Khmer Rouge

 

 

David Whitley steels himself for a grim morning in Phnom Penh, visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison.

 

 

For pretty much anyone visiting Phnom Penh, a trip to the Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ is the sobering top entry on the To Do list. A former orchard on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, this is where the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s killed and buried over 8,000 people. Most of the skulls dug up in the mass graves are now on display inside a giant stupa. The skulls are arranged by gender and age, and soar upwards for numerous storeys. It’s a grim memorial to those who died under the Khmer Rouge – thought to be around two million in total across the country.

 

Most of the skulls have cracks and indentations, indicative of the way the victims were killed. Rather than waste a bullet, the executioners would make people kneel at the edge of the mass grave, then smash them over the head with a heavy, blunt object. They’d fall forward, then have their throat slit to make sure they were dead. Next to one of the mass grave sites is what’s known as ‘The Killing Tree’. Babies and infants would be slammed against it until they were dead.

 

As a single site goes, Choeung Ek is hugely emotive. It’s not alone either – there were killing field sites across the country. But to really get an understanding of what like life under Khmer Rouge control was like, a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison is a better bet. This was formerly a school, but Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cohorts turned it into a secret prison. Originally it was designed for members of the previous government and those deemed enemies. But over time, deranged paranoia kicked in and the list of people deemed enemies became pretty much all-encompassing. Around 20,000 people are thought to have been imprisoned here, and only seven are known to have survived.

 

When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, they found 14 bodies in Building A of the prison known as S-21. Walk into the cells of Building A now, and you can see the pictures of these bodies as they were found; bludgeoned, in pools of blood and tied by the ankle to a basic iron bed in a room where the only toilet was a small metal ammunition box.

 

These were the good rooms, and the full horror emerges as you walk through. Prisoners were kept isolated for around ten days, and tortured into making false confessions about being CIA or KGB agents. Some of the torture techniques are on display – there are paintings of a man having his fingernails pulled out, and a couple of waterboarding tables. Outside there is a ‘gallows’, where people would be hanged from their angles until they passed out. They’d then be dunked into a barrel of faeces and urine to wake them up so the torture could continue.

 

After this, they’d be taken upstairs to the communal rooms. Around 40 men would lie in malarial conditions, head to foot and arm to arm, unable to move because they’re shackled to the floor. It was essentially a waiting room for those due to be transported to the killing fields.  The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in its documentation. Everyone who passed through Tuol Sleng had their photo taken, and many of these have survived the attempts to destroy the evidence. Most of those recovered are now on display. Wall after wall of faces confronts visitors in what is now an excellent – if unrelentingly sad – museum.

 

Our guide points out one wall of photos that don’t have identification numbers on. These are of the guards – most of whom who had no choice but to carry out sadistic acts of brutality. They’d find themselves as prisoners otherwise. Looking closely at the pictures, most of them are just children, brainwashed and uneducated, but hoped to be the future of a movement that wanted everyone working under slave labour conditions on rice farms.

 

As we walk between the buildings, however, our guide points out the most heart-breaking sight of all. He gestures towards a bench where an old man sits. “That’s Chum Mey,” says the guide. “One of the seven survivors. He comes here nearly every day to talk to journalists and researchers.” It’s an extraordinary sacrifice, and one that hopefully no-one else ever has to make.

 

 

Cambodia Elephants

 

 

In Cambodia, David gets on an elephant and heads off to spot monkeys in the most unlikely setting.

 

There’s a certain anything- goes absurdity to Cambodia, and nowhere is this more the case than at Wat Phnom. It’s big temple in the centre of Phnom Penh, with all traces of peace and tranquillity wiped out by the roaring, snarling traffic that surrounds it. The temple is, to all intents and purposes, an ostentatious traffic island; a poncy roundabout.

 

 

But on that roundabout, you have what all roundabouts should considering investing in: monkeys. A troop of macaques roams the grassy banks and lower temple walls, generally on the prowl for food. Suffice to say, this is probably one of the worst places in the world for a picnic. These boys and girls are really not shy about taking what they think is their rightful share.

 

The monkeys are not the only wild additions to the outer reaches of Wat Phnom, however. There is also Sambo, a 51-year-old elephant. It’s impossible not to feel a bit sorry for her – after all, she has been blessed with an archaically racist name that has never been used outside the comics your granddad used to read as a child.

 

She also has a bit of a rubbish job. Ex-pats tell me that she’s often seen on a trudging commute to and from work, plodding along highways as mosquito-like motorbikes swarm around her. When she gets to Wat Phnom, she has but one task – to walk round and round the roundabout with grinning idiots on her back.

 

I, however, will rarely pass up the opportunity to be a grinning idiot. And the world’s most rubbish elephant-back safari sounded like an excellent way to while away 15 minutes. Riding an elephant is a somewhat bizarre feeling at the best of times. We had to climb up a ladder to a special platform in order to get on board in the first place, and once there, we were swaying about in our seat as the inelegant beast lurched from one foot to the other. It’s something of a balancing act – the chap leading Sambo around would often shout for one of us to move over slightly. Making the ride smooth is apparently about even weight distribution. Not that Sambo appeared to be paying the blindest bit of notice to those on top as she repeatedly thrusted us towards overhanging branches.

 

Our steed stepped into the road, and suddenly the absurdity started to hit home. We were riding a bored elephant around what is probably the busiest roundabout in a major capital city, watching macaques eye up a gullible tourist’s sandwiches. No-one bats an eyelid at this. It must be perfectly normal for Phnom Penh, and I can only love the city for that.

 

When it’s time to dismount, there’s an extra treat in store. For an extra dollar, we’re allowed to feed Sambo a bunch of bananas and pose for a photo as we do so. I held the bananas out, and she picked them up with her trunk. It’s ever so cute, although she didn’t seem particularly interested in eating them. It was, I suspect, not the first time that a grinning idiot has given her a bunch of bananas that day.