This is the second part of my three part write up of our honeymoon. As I said in the first part, it’s a bit long winded as it has been written mostly as an aide-mémoire for Julie and I.
We failed to get up in time for breakfast for the third consecutive day, and packed up and left the Shangri-La for our trip to Cambodia. I was worried that it would be a while before we could experience luxury like that again.
The Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia was a short hop for us compared with the flight from London to Bangkok. We flew in a fairly small plane with all the accompanying shakes and wobbles. The landscape below started to look flooded, and frequently it became difficult to tell lake from farmland. This was the wet season in Cambodia.
We paid for a 5 dollar taxi journey from Siem Reap airport that ended up costing us $150. This price hike was chiefly by our taxi driver, Sunhour, suggesting that he should be our $25 per day personal chauffeur and tour guide. This we agreed to without ever checking whether this was a reasonable price. Sunhour assured us it was very competitive though, and that was (evidently) good enough for me.
He took us to the Lotus Angkor hotel to check in. It’s a new hotel and the spacious rooms put me more in mind of four star hotels despite the facilities only qualifying it for three. There was a pool, a reasonable restaurant and very friendly staff. As we arrived, our bags were taken from our car to our room, we were seated with some juice and the checking in process was completed with little need of our participation.
Once checked in, and with barely time to give the room a cursory glance, we hurried back out to our waiting driver (mainly due to my feelings of guilt at leaving him waiting, despite his assurances that he didn’t mind). The agenda was a trip to Phnom Bakheng to get a scenic view over Angkor Wat.
The trip there included having our photos taken and passes issued to get us into the Angkor national park. The laminate still hot in our hands, we proceeded into the park.
The drive took us past a monkey by the roadside (there were armies more of them to look forward to in the temples, admittedly in carvings of Hindu mythology) and on to a large body of water that was to become quite familiar; Angkor Wat’s moat. It’s the only temple moat in the area to remain full of water, complete with locals bathing (or showering, as Sunhour’s English would have it) and it contained leeches (again, one of Sunhour’s additions).
We proceeded on to get our first view, from the road, of Angkor Wat. It was very exciting to see, in real life, the sight that Julie had been dreaming about seeing for years. From the road the West gate was the most prominent feature, with the temple itself poking its five peaks over the wall teasingly.
This wasn’t our destination for the day though. It was five pm and already the light was dimming, so we went straight on to Phnom Bakheng. This is a hill topped with a modestly sized temple and, on a good day, a view of the towers of Angkor Wat. We got the view, but the haziness of a rainy season afternoon in Cambodia meant it was a bit of a struggle. Sunrise is probably a great view as the towers would be silhouetted or obliquely lit, but that would have required a 5:30am hotel departure. This was a honeymoon, not a boot camp. We settled for a picture of the sunset between some clouds on the other side of the hill and then struggled down the unlit path in near darkness.
At the base of the hill we battled our way back through a throng of children we had encountered on the way up, all trying to sell us something. Guide books, normally priced at over $20, were available at prices as low as $5. Where did they come from? Illicit printing facilities somewhere I guess. More above board were the multitude of bamboo bracelets, silk shawls, bird whistles and plain old food and drink. Every walk into or out of a temple complex was accompanied by a cacophony of “mister, you want water?” and “mister, you have a dollar?”
Cunning tactics were used by the kids in the common event of us declining their wares. An example of an exchange from later in the trip was:
“Mister, you want t-shirt?”
“No, thank you.”
“Where you from?”
“Ah! Capital, England. 65 million people. Rains a lot.” Where are they taught this?! And then, “what’s your name?”
“You buy from me when you come back? I remember you.” We were on the way into a temple. I gave away a vague promise that I’d think about it. Sure enough, when we left the temple two hours later she was there: “Josh, you buy t-shirt from me, you promised!” Then I had to smile and try not to look like a real git as I declined again, looking to all and sundry as if I’d broken a promise to this child.
Another one went:
“Lady, you want a guide book? 15 dollars?”
“No, thank you, I have it already.”
“Which one you have? This one is the new edition!” (That one impressed Julie for its originality.)
From the base of Phnom Bakheng our driver took us to a restaurant that doubled as evening entertainment and was replete with large Japanese tour groups (large in group numbers, not individuals’ weight). The fare was a buffet of traditional food and a troupe of traditional dancers. Both were good, but the former included a chicken foot in some red curry that rather freaked Julie out. After the show the dancers put up with a good twenty minutes of being joined by Japanese tourists for photo ops. Julie, with her Hampton Court experience, heartily empathised. She observed that a common practice amongst Japanese is to make the victory ‘V’ sign in photos, whatever the situation. Watch out for it; she’s right. If you have an explanation, let us know.
We had our earliest morning yet in Asia, getting up at 7.30. We visited Angkor Thom in the morning and Angkor Wat in the late afternoon.
Arriving at Angkor Thom the first sight was the gateway. The road to the gate was flanked by a series of stone demons on one side and stone gods on the other. These were involved in a tug of war, representing the scene in Hindu mythology where the ocean is churned to produce an elixir of life (and a number of other wonderful things). Why are most other creation myths more fun than Genesis?
The first building we saw inside Angkor Thom was the Bayon Temple, a Buddhist temple. This was our first close up view of a temple and we marvelled at the 800 year old carvings. Large carved faces stared out of each face of the 54 towers.
We moved on to the Baphuon temple. This is the site of a major restoration project. The path to the temple is a French restored raised walkway standing on hundreds of pillars. The temple itself was originally Hindu, dedicated to Shiva, but in the 15th century it was converted to a Buddhist temple (like many others). In the process of the conversion, the second wall up on the west of the temple was dismantled and reassembled in the form of a 70 metre long reclining Buddha. We saw the general form of the Buddha, but a lot more restoration is going to be necessary to return this amazing sight to its former glory.
Our driver had left us to walk around at the area of Baphuon, and we accidentally picked up a tour guide as we walked. He just started talking to us, telling us about the temple and the surrounds and suggesting a walking route to accompany him upon. A very clever tactic. It became clear we weren’t going to extricate ourselves without money changing hands, which I didn’t mind so much. However, he ended up asking for 1000 Thai Baht, the equivalent of £15 sterling. Now, call me tight, but I wasn’t sure our ten minute tour warranted this! He pleaded that he needed it to pay his Thai English teacher. I think we ended up parting with a third of this, which was still very high in terms of the Cambodian cost of living.
Other sights in Angkor Thom included the Elephant terrace, from which royals would view public ceremonies and which formed the base of a royal pavilion, and the row of tall thin Suor Prat towers (used for individual meditation).
Sunhour took us on to a temple called Ta Keo which will be remember chiefly for being our first experience of the insanely steep stairs most of the temples have. There are no hand rails and no concept of public liability insurance. Regressing to a toddler-like traversal of the stairs should not be laughed at.
Ta Prohm was the next destination. The memorable feature of this temple was that it was the first we saw of tree roots holding up some parts and slowly tearing down other parts of the temple. I got a real sense of the strength of these trees as I saw them eating the temples up.
Lastly this day we went into Angkor Wat itself. It’s the largest religious structure in the world (according to the Guinness book of records). The main gate is built into a wall wide enough to house a corridor. Within this corridor, to either side of the main gate, are large statues of a many-armed Vishnu and Buddha. The theory is that the Vishnu statue was originally in the centre tower of the third tier as the temple was dedicated to him. It is supposed to have been moved to the gate when the temple was converted for Buddhist use.
As we stepped through the outer gateway onto the long raised walkway to the temple, we took a moment to take it all in. I remember promising Julie six years previously that we’d go and see this temple one day, and it was funny to stand there and think back to that conversation in her flat above the shop in Kingston.
The carving in Angkor Wat is more detailed and more prevalent than elsewhere in the area. The architecture is considered classic Khmer. And it’s big. Like all the temples it is offset from the centre (but to the west rather than the east) of its outer enclosure and like most it has three tiers. Again, like most of the temples, the pyramidal shape is supposed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Hindu Gods. The stairs to each tier get progressively steeper, and climbing down again from the third tier was one of the more scary things I think either of us have had to do, even with the aid of a recently added iron handrail for tourists.
Tired from our first full day templing, we elected to eat at the hotel that night. I also phoned forward to Hanoi to book a hotel for us. The quality of the call left something to be desired, but through copious repetition and loud speaking of English I was left with the strong impression that I’d succeeded.
Sunhour revealed that we were to take a rather longer trip today to see Banteay Srei. Obviously this involved handing over money for excess petrol that he’d forgotten to mention before. I didn’t mind, as the price of petrol there seems to be out of proportion to the rest of the cost of living.
Banteay Srei is known for its intricate carvings that are similar in proportional coverage to that of Angkor Wat. However, it’s tiny! There are no steps up into each tier, and the buildings are barely head height in places. It was commissioned by a king’s counsellor and is over 1000 years old. The carvings, in sandstone, have survived remarkably well. Even though it took us an hour to get there, given Cambodia’s road quality and speed limits, it was worth the visit.
On the way there and back we passed a lot of farmer’s dwellings. Most of these were stilt houses, often with walls made with panels of woven bamboo leaves. The farmers grow rice or watermelon trees, depending on the season.
They also grow coconut palms for various purposes. Ultimately the wood is good quality for building with, but as the palm is growing they make use of everything it sheds: The leaves are used for weaving and packaging, the coconuts are eaten, obviously, and the flowers (on the male trees especially) help produce palm sugar. They poke at the flower with a pointed stick and then catch the drops of liquid that ensue. These drops are a weak sugar solution which they then reduce down to a syrup and ultimately to solid lumps of palm sugar.
On the way back from Banteay Srei, we stopped to buy some tubes of these palm sugar lumps, wrapped in palm leaf. They have a quality of fudge about them, and a distinctive flavour. I enjoyed them, but they’re very sweet and I couldn’t manage more than a couple of mouthfuls that morning.
We visited several other temples that day, and I won’t go into details about them all. For the record, they were:
Banteay Samré: Built in the same style as Angkor Wat, particularly the central tower.
Preah Khan. Actually, this one is worth mentioning in more than just passing. This temple has been seriously damaged by pepper trees, but the resulting intertwining of roots and stonework is beautiful. The conservationists had to pull down one of the trees here, ironically, to save the building from becoming more damaged. I did my bit by trying to identify which of a set of hundreds of fallen blocks contained a key piece of carving, but I didn’t get very far. Separately from its ruinous look, it was also quite a large, complex and historically significant temple. It was a city built on the site of a victory against invasion from neighbouring Chams. It also housed a Buddhist university with around 100,000 attendants and servants and 1000 teachers. It was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s father, and it’s interesting that it is as similarly overrun with jungle as Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to his mother.
Temples over for the day, we ate on the balcony of the Madame Butterfly restaurant that night. It’s a little pricey as restaurants there go, but it was nice to be out and about rather than in the hotel, and it was good to have a quiet romantic meal in contrast to the touristy buffet of the first night.
We went back to Angkor Wat to take in the bits for which our legs had been too tired the last time round. We gave ourselves a proper tour around the carvings in the first floor galleries using one of the guidebooks of dubious origin but quality information. The galleries showed different scenes from Hindu mythology. The churning was there, in exquisite detail. Also there were scenes involving monkey armies with their generals playing important roles in the Hindu history. (I don’t know whether to call it myth or history; I’m sure I’m offending someone whichever I choose.)
Other temples we visited this day were:
By the time we had finished with the temples there was, predictably, no time to go into town to visit the markets as per Sunhour’s plan. We’re not the fastest of temple tourists, but that’s as much to do with our long sit downs to cope with templeoverloadus as it is to do with fastidious reading of the guide book and detailed examination of carvings.
We went straight to the floating village. It was during this journey that our driver let slip the information that we were going to have to pay another $15 each for the boat hire. Evidently we looked like money grew under our toe nails so we didn’t need advance warning of these costs, or indeed the opportunity to decide whether we thought a floating village was worth $30 and the inevitable child tax that would follow. As it turned out, it was worth it, and enough off the main tourist track that it wasn’t festooned with guide book sellers.
To get to the lake, we drove through Siem Reap proper for the first time. It was a lot bigger than I’d envisaged, having mainly been exposed to the rural communities in the national park thus far. I saw first hand the schools and university of which I had initially doubted the existence.
We stopped off to buy the tickets and then drove out through wetter and wetter suburbs. There were properties with cars on driveways that clearly weren’t going to move again until the impromptu lake between their house and the road had evaporated. This would start happening in November. I hoped they’d been grocery shopping recently.
Eventually we reached the lake. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Khmers had beaten us to it, celebrating the end of the Buddhist festival by picnicking and driving on the wrong side of the road (the latter was, I suspect, not purely a holiday activity but I mention it here because it’s particularly nerve wracking on a road surrounded by water and was doubly so on the way back in the dark).
We battled our way to where the quay currently lay. I say currently because the lake itself differs in layout and depth depending on the season. In the rainy season the Mekong river swells with run-off from the Himalayas and floods this lake, raising levels by several meters and increasing the surface area, by a factor of three, to 9000 square kilometres.
We boarded a boat crewed by a couple of 18-20 year olds and set off. Immediately we were alongside the top of a forest. The trees reached a mere half metre above the water.
We saw many house boats nestled amongst the trees and several small and slim rowing boats with conical hatted pilots snaking their way between them plying wares and selling supplies. The majority of people living out here on the lake were refugees of the Vietnam war (or ‘American War’ depending on which of the nations you happen to be in). They’d long since obtained Cambodian identity cards but their culture was very much Vietnamese.
We left the forest behind and headed out into the open lake, soon cutting the engines. This was obviously par for the course and not some unfortunate miscalculation of fuel consumption as we were not alone in drifting out on the lake. It was most relaxing bobbing around, which was the point I guess. A boat full of orange robed monks were enjoying themselves too, jumping into the water and swimming about.
Our peace was disturbed by children rowing towards us in wash tubs with a single oar and half a plastic bottle to bail out water. Their English was poor, but they each knew how to ask for a dollar. Our driver told us that was too much and changed a dollar into Riel so we could give them each 1000 (about 20c/10p).
We were taken to a floating café with a “fish exhibition”. This comprised crocodiles, catfish and others. We shared a plate of prawns there with Sunhour. Julie bravely pulled the heads off (she doesn’t like the way fish stare at you even when they’re decidedly dead), dipping them in a pepper and lime sauce whilst Sunhour educated us on Cambodia’s recent history (the time of the Khmer Rouge) and his opinions on the recent change of king. The king had abdicated to allow his son to take over. His son, Sunhour claimed, was unknown to the Khmers, having spent all his life in France.
In the evening we went to a locals’ restaurant to try out frogs after I foolishly expressed an interest in the car on the way back from the floating village. I was trying to explain to Sunhour that fans of shark fin soup were seriously endangering sharks, and that frogs too were becoming endangered, but more because of environmental changes (it’s believed) than people eating them. I don’t think the concept of conservation or ecology got through to him much, as he took it as a desire from me to each frogs.
There was lots of ‘entertainment’ consisting of Cambodian singing and some kind of incomprehensible comedy at the restaurant. The frogs came deep fried with onions, their heads allegedly removed. Not so with the little frog hands and feet though. I was tiring in my attempts to pick meat off the bone and took up the driver’s suggestion to eat the bones too, as they were soft. They weren’t all that soft but I did so anyway. Eventually I persuaded Julie to eat a bit of frog too, but only because I was careful not to reveal the little deep fried hands and feet.
Meanwhile Julie’s fish came partly cooked and in a dish filled with sauce and vegetables sitting on top of a mini table top barbecue. This sat on a dish with lots of ice in it to save the table from burning. After five minutes Sunhour declared the fish and veg cooked and helped to serve.
Food is apparently always a family-style affair and dishes are brought to the table to share between everyone. Everything was shared at this meal including the wine (to save Julie from having to drink the whole bottle) and the three 750ml Angkor beers (shared equally between me and the driver despite him driving). Well, everything other than the bill, which Julie and I took care of.
Thank goodness for the 30km/h speed limit in Siem Reap, given the volume of beer that slipped down Sunhour’s throat.
We had a lie in and eventually surfaced about 12 to head down to the pool at the Lotus. We were hungry as we’d missed breakfast. I was craving something western, which is supposed to make you feel guilty when you’re in a foreign country with its own delicious food to try from. However, I’d eaten frog, and in my book that allows you a free pass to a club sandwich.
A drive back to the airport and a farewell to Sunhour saw the end of our Cambodia trip. Next stop was Hanoi.