3rd – 12th December
Making haste from Thailand
After a brief stopover back in Bangkok from Yangon, we decide to waste little time in Thailand and head almost immediately to Cambodia.
Our car, miraculously, is ready for collection from Toyota Bangkok (the Thais come a very distant bottom of our list of mechanics in terms of both eagerness and ability). A perfunctory visit of Bangkok’s Grand Palace and its extraordinarily dishonest touts is all we have time for before we leave the city, apart from a quick visit to a Thai dentist for Charlie (who lost a filling in Myanmar).
The earnest Thai receptionist informs us her only afternoon appointment is for 2.30pm… she can’t understand why Nina’s suddenly crying with laughter in front of her! Bless her, she’s even more perplexed when we say we won’t need a reminder card for the appointment...
The road from Bangkok to Cambodia is utterly featureless and it is with some relief that we finally arrive at the border. We had been warned about dodgy Cambodian officials trying to extort cash from us here; in fact it’s the dastardly Thais who try this (to no avail) attempting to charge us a not insignificant 600 Baht (£12) for ‘paperwork fees’…
The Cambodians officials are honest, cheerful and efficient. Within an hour, we are on a surprisingly good road and on our way to Siem Reap, home to Cambodia’s most famous attraction: Angkor Wat.
We cover the 150km or so from the border to Siem Reap in about two hours. There’s nothing to stop for: aside from the picturesque but diminutive Cardamom Mountains in the south, and a scattering of jungly hills in the north east, Cambodia is flatter than a pancake doing an impression of Kate Moss.
It’s so flat, in fact, that it contains one of the natural world’s most unusual phenomena – a river that, for half of the year, runs backwards.
In the middle of the country lies a huge lake, the Tonlé Sap, which drains into the Tonlé Sap River to the east, which eventually flows into the huge Mekong River near the capital Phnom Penh.
But during the spring, Himalayan snow melts combine with the monsoon to flood the Mekong with so much water that it can’t drain it all out to the sea quickly enough – the water backs up the Tonlé Sap River, reversing it’s direction and increasing the size of the lake five fold. This makes the lake uniquely fertile and supplies Cambodia with 75% of its fresh fish.
Unfortunately, because the country’s so flat, we don’t ever gain enough height to actually see the lake, but apparently at this time of year it’s marshy, muddy and full of fish.
We arrive in Siem Reap far earlier than we had expected, by 3pm. We had been led to believe that all roads in this country were terrible: they are, except for one, the N6, which helpfully connects all of the tourist sites to the capital and the accessible land borders.
An astonishing four million tourists a year now visit the 10th – 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat and its surrounds. All of them stay in Siem Reap, which means that in the space of around 20 years a small provincial town has morphed into an enourmous tourist centre.
Surprisingly, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. There are so many hotels, all new and of a decent quality, that competition is fierce and we bag ourselves a room in a seriously smart guesthouse for $13 / night. It’s the same with restaurants – a fantastic meal of traditional Khmer food plus a few ‘Angkor’ beers costs no more than $8 – this is good, cheap living and not to be sniffed at!
The greatest pre-industrial city
We spend two days exploring the ruins of Angkor. Although the sheer volume of tourists means the place feels more like a theme park at times (especially when irritating Americans yell “Hey! This is the bit where they filmed ‘Tomb Raider’!”), it is nonetheless fascinating.
Angkor was the world’s largest pre-industrial city – a sprawling, highly ordered conurbation of around one million people: far greater in size than Rome, Athens, Constantinople or Paris.
Only the huge temples survive, being made of enourmous chunks of laterite and sandstone. Everything else, from the palaces to the peasant dwellings, were made of wood, and rotted long ago. The city was sacked by Siam in 1431 and countless further times over the next 300 years, but was only fully deserted sometime around the 16th century, for a number of reasons not yet fully understood or verified.
Since then, the jungle has taken a mighty hold on many of the ruins. Angkor Wat (‘Wat’ meaning ‘temple’) and a number of other principle sites have been cleared, stabilised and are even in the process of some refurbishment, but some have been left to the extraordinarily destructive ravages of nature.
Our highlight is the vast and wonderfully overgrown temple of Beng Melea, a huge, cavernous structure surrounded by several kilometres of thick walls and a moat. The temple walls are comprised of enourmous rectangular five-tonne slabs of sandstone, fitted together with such precision that the joins between each one are no thicker than a pencil line. Intricate bas-reliefs depicting Hindu gods cover mighty lintels, cornices and columns.
But what really makes the site is the sheer wanton destruction wrought upon it by the jungle’s trees: in less than a few hundred years, huge specimens have grown up and through much of the seemingly invincible masonry, vast tentacle-like roots have wrapped themselves around pillars and door frames, strangling, crushing and in some cases simply lifting the seemingly immovable blocks apart.
Elsewhere, tree trunks have toppled supporting walls and grown straight through fine arched roofs. It’s fascinating, almost eerie, and yet quite humbling: although in the tropics nature acts far quicker than in the UK, it gives an idea of what would happen to London if it were abandoned overnight.
Off the trail
There are no in-betweens in this country: roads are either excellent or non-existent; areas of interest are either heaving or deserted. Having had our fill of tourists in Angkor Wat, we drive south east on the immaculate N6 before turning off the road to visit Preah Khan, another Ankorean masterpiece some 70km north in the middle of the countryside.
A helpful brand-new road sign indicates the exact point where we should leave the main road. Immediately the tarmac stops. Despite being the second largest temple complex in Cambodia – Preah Khan is, like virtually every other site apart from Angkor Wat, totally forgotten about.
We drive for four hours, through rivers, foot deep sand, forests and past a handful of basic, stilted and palm-thatched villages that haven’t changed for centuries. Finally, following our compass more than our useless map, we arrive at a dusty crossroads in Ta Seng, a remote village adjacent to Preah Khan, and helpfully, home to a solitary guesthouse.
A shy local youth acts as an impromptu guide for us, showing us round the deserted, peaceful ruins of Preah Khan, which lie within nine kilometres of walls and a 30 metre wide moat. No theme park feeling here…
The village of Ta Seng is a wonderfully relaxed backwater; having clambered over enough ruins for one day, we unwind over a cold G&T courtesy of our fridge, watching the assembled collection of farmers, ox and cart handlers, buffalo herders, dogs, pigs, chickens and children go about their business.
At dusk, we are bemused to see four other Westerners walk though the village to the ‘bar’ at the crossroads.
Intrigued (as we can’t imagine many tourists would choose to follow the route we took to get here) we wander over to say hello. It turns out they are actually archaeologists and metallurgists from Sydney, Phnom Penh and Oxford Universities, here to research 11th century iron works. They were equally bemused to see a British car earlier, and we end up chatting about their profession.
Unfortunately most of their conversation, undoubtedly hugely interesting to the right person, is brow-furrowingly academic and goes right over our heads. After an hour, we retire to an early supper and bed, in a little wooden room that we seemed to share with a dazzling number of small, buzzing and scuttling creatures.
We’re woken by a cacophony of farmyard animals at 5am; by 7am we decide we may as well get on the road. We’ve ascertained there’s no feasible way out of here except for the way we came...
We make it back to the main road intact, barring our front number plate which we manage to rip off crossing a river. By lunchtime, we’re in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s now glamorous but haunted capital.
Whilst Cambodia was only ever a French protectorate and never fully annexed into the French empire, their suzerains certainly left their mark. Very different from the British, though…
What did the French leave behind? Roads? Infrastructure? A healthcare system? A fine military? Non! They left behind baguettes, petanque and louvered windows. Magnifique!
Actually, Phnom Penh is a very nice place these days. The terracotta tiles and arched windows of the French colonial era merge with splendid palaces, dusty streets and moto-rickshaws. It’s seen something of a boom in the last four years, and gleaming Lexus’ outside trendy Western fashion boutiques are as common a sight as the flashy bars and restaurants that have sprung up recently. Despite this, it’s still a very relaxed city to spend time in.
Actually, it’s even better than this... Being in Phnom Penh after a night in the sticks really is a most welcome experience, thanks to the food Lunch consists of delicious French pâté, goat’s cheese and roasted red peppers, with fresh bread and balsamic vinegar. In the evening, we enjoy fabulous Amok curries (the Khmer speciality, courtesy of the French now served like a soufflé) in a charming colonial restaurant. Formidable!
Life’s pretty good for us in Phnom Penh. It is really, really hard to imagine that just 34 years ago, Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime evacuated the entire city of three million people, including the elderly and the infirm, to work in the countryside as part of his vision of agrarian utopia for the newly formed (and hideously ironically named) Democratic Kampuchea.
Between 17th April 1975 and 25th December 1978, the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of state-sponsored ignorance systematically eradicated virtually the entire educated and city-borne population of Cambodia.
In 1975, the country’s population stood at roughly 7.7 million. During the next three years, roughly 25% of the population - 1.7 million - perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Around a quarter of a million were imprisoned, tortured and executed; the remainder died through malnutrition, sheer exhaustion caused by forced labour and by disease due to the total lack of medical care.
On successive days in Phnom Penh we visit the Tuol Sleng Prison and Choeung Ek, ‘The Killing Fields’. Both are gruesome, sombre reminders of one of the bloodiest and brutal regimes in recent history. Tuol Sleng, near the centre of the city, was a high school until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge closed it and turned it into a ‘Security Centre’. Over 3 ½ years, 20,000 prisoners passed through its gates. Around 20 survived.
The prison is now a museum, its walls filled with photo’s of its doomed inmates, many women and children. So many pictures cannot fail to have a profound effect on you, and we wander round, peering into the faces of exhaustion, defiance, fear, resignation and confusion, in ever deeper stunned silence. The classrooms are still filled with the iron beds upon which victims were beaten to death; their iron leg manacles still litter the floor. Instruments of torture fill another room.
It’s a great credit to the people of this country that in such a short space of time they have managed to emerge, relative cheerful and hopeful, after such horrors. No-one in the country was left unaffected.
The following day, we walk around the ‘Killing Fields’ just 15km outside Phnom Penh.
This is one of the largest mass graves uncovered in Cambodia to date; 8,000 skulls in a glass memorial stupa are a harrowing testament to the horrors already uncovered here.
Yet, only half of this otherwise peaceful site has been excavated: all around the paths and trees, hundreds of shreds of clothing, worn by the regime’s helpless victims as they were shot or bludgeoned to death, are still working their way out of the ground.
As we leave the Choeung Ek, we can’t help wondering how on earth the outside world was so deceived by the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, after the Vietnamese liberated the country in 1979 and replaced the government, the UN refused to recognise the new government for nearly 10 years, giving Cambodia’s seat on the UN Assembly to the Khmer Rouge.
Even more incredulously, the Chinese, Americans and Thais all acted positively to re-group and re-arm the Khmer Rouge in the years that followed their ousting. The Chinese (though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised) actively supported the regime during its four years in power.
Now this blunder is only referred to in the UN as ‘an unfortunate incident’.
To the beach
After three very civilized yet simultaneously eye-opening days in Phnom Penh, we decide to head south, to the coast, before heading on to Vietnam.
Cambodia’s road network does not facilitate easy travel. Its beaches, although not far from the capital, have thus remained remarkably unspoilt. We head to a little resort called Kep, a famous and glamorous spot in the 60’s but a war zone through much of the 70’s.
Even now, it’s a mixture of burnt-out, bullet ridden ruins of old hotels and mansions, intermingled with the occasional small scale new enterprise. Despite it’s bloody history, the place is amazingly peaceful: sandwiched between wooded hills and idle stretches of beach, we count no more than 10 guesthouses or hotels, all tiny.
We stay in a bamboo and palm thatch stilted affair, surrounded by an orchard of durian trees, for a not-so-princely $10.
It’s possibly the most relaxing coastal spot we’ve found anywhere, and unwittingly sets us up for our most disastrous border crossing yet the following day…