Cambodia

From all accounts, Cambodia is a lawless place. What with mines, gun-toting vigilantes, looting of priceless monuments, and cheap hit-men, I was all prepared to enter a war zone.

Except I missed the war, by more than a few years.

The Cambodian people are remarkably friendly. Many speak good English, and value the ability to learn it. One moto driver let me shelter from a sudden downpour in his taxi, and went on to ask me questions, knowing he would get a few good minutes of English lessons.

The bargaining culture that permeates other Asian countries is not so obvious here. I found if I didn’t like the second price offered, I may as well walk away, because it wouldn’t get any cheaper.

While the official currency is the Riel, the US dollar is the de facto currency for foreigners. Only for small-value items (under $1) does one see Riel. It is another measure of the relaxed Cambodian attitude that they go by the easy-to-calculate exchange rate of 4,000 Riel to the dollar when giving change in Riel, instead of the precise market rate (closer to 3,900). All prices given here are in US dollars.

There is a great deal of poverty, however, and young children will regularly come up to you begging for food and money. Dressed in rags, it is hard to ignore their pleading eyes. Families rely on these street kids for income.

Getting there

I flew SilkAir direct from Singapore to Siem Reap. This is not a cheap ticket. It’s up there with the extortionate Heathrow-Dublin route in terms of lowest number of flight miles to the dollar. And I kicked myself when I learnt I could have taken a cheap flight to Bangkok and a US$6 bus ride (ten hours) across the border to Siem Reap instead. The savings would have paid for a nice hotel! Still, ten hours on a bus across Asia is not necessarily a cushy ride, so for the pure convenience of landing practically beside the temples after a brief two and a half hour flight from Singapore, the plane can’t be beaten.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a small town. At the airport, walk past the official taxi stand to the horde of drivers, any of whom will drive you to your hotel for a dollar, on the chance that you might hire him for a full day for $20 to $40, depending on how far you want to go. We hired a young, clean-cut, soft-spoken driver by the name of Prach (pronounced "Bry"). When he told me he is studying to be a school teacher, I figured his general knowledge had to be above average, and he would make a valuable local escort Matthieu, our zany French. Matthieu does not come cheap, but then again, having lived in the town for many years, actually training the local guides, he is well placed to tailor a day’s temple-hopping to a visitor’s tastes.

Matthieu runs an unassuming French restaurant called Chez Sophea, close to Angkor Wat. The US$7 steaks he serves are as tasty as any I have eaten at Morton’s. Wash them down with the local beer, cleverly named Angkor.

Temples

Angkor Wat is big. And that’s not just because we walked around it in the 38-degree heat and humidity. This place is literally fit for a king. Even just digging out the ten metre deep moat around the entire complex could have taken a generation. The temple took a million people about 30 years to finish, although unfortunately the records - written on paper and leaves - have long since decomposed. All we are left with are fabulous carvings on every stone, depicting ancient legends, battles, and scenes of everyday life.

The temple was originally built to honour the Hindu god Vishnu, although later was converted to a Buddhist shrine. It is no surprise that after nearly a millennia travellers find it somewhat the worse for wear. Many statues have been looted, parts of the structure have fallen, and the intricate carvings have become worn down. Yet the strikingly alien architecture, with its distinctive lines and bold towers, makes it easy to apply one’s imagination and visualize what it must have been like in its heyday.

Two hundred years older still is Bantei Srei, which means ‘woman citadel’. Dating from the tenth century, it honours - among others - the god Siva. Again we don’t know the precise details of its construction. One group of foreigners who may have known were the 15th century Chinese who came across the temples upon their travels. However it appears they were more fascinated by the bare-breasted Khmer women and their depraved sexual habits, than in how the temples got to be there! (In fact, when I asked Matthiew where our $20 a day temple admission fees went to, he muttered something about ‘expensive prostitutes for the government’. My own feeling is that they maintain the many rubbish bins found in the temples. These bins are everywhere, sometimes making it tricky to compose a photograph without a modern artifact appearing in the corner!)

The roads range from passable to bumpy, potholed dirt tracks. We passed bulls pulling carts, and saw houses built on stilts to avoid the floods. A car with (no doubt fake) Texas number plates sped by. 97% of Cambodians are farmers. Nobody pays personal income taxes, although there are business taxes. When asked about bribes, our zany French guide replies that he tells visiting army tough guys to ‘piss off’, asking what have they done for him lately? Our favourite temple was Bayon, a 13th century Buddhist temple that took about 30 years to build. The tops of the towers have enormous carvings of serene Bodhisattra heads, which become increasingly eerie as the sun goes down. It should be noted that the Khmer had such a strong dislike of the Buddha image that every head depicted in a carving has been erased, either by physically removing the piece of stone, or by chiseling over the image, in some cases replacing it with an entirely new image!

The carvings in this temple were simply magnificent. Sheltered to some extent from the elements over the last 800 years, many maintain a high level of detail.

Some temples are still actively in use for Buddhist worship, and we saw locals lighting incense sticks in front of small shrines.

The next day we rented mopeds. Fun! This allowed us to join the other westerners zipping down the roads at up to 80kph without any protection whatsoever. $8 will get you a 100cc bike for a day, and another $1 gives half a tank of petrol, generally enough for a day trip. I didn’t ask how much it cost to rent a helmet. While guides will offer you their services at the entrance of each temple, it is not mandatory to have one, so whizzing around on the moped allows you to set your own agenda, and linger at the more interesting temples, such as Ta Prohm (below), which in places has truly succumbed to nature.

For 400 years the temples of Angkor lay abandoned. The city’s population was moved elsewhere. Wooden structures quickly decayed, but the magnificent stone temples stayed standing, towards which the surrounding jungle was allowed to encroach.

Today, not all the temples have been cleared of jungle, and temples such as Ta Prohm retain their sense of isolation and mystery with massive trees maintaining a grip on the stone walls.

Do not venture into the jungle; it is not safe due to land mines.

Back in Siem Reap, foreigners can get their McDonald’s fix (almost), and there is fresh French bread in abundance - we understand baked to Matthieu’s precise instructions.

Boat ride

Despite holding a SilkAir ticket to Phnom Penh (stopover en route to Singapore), we decided to take the boat. By all accounts this is a scenic, five hour journey, with scenes from another world on the river banks, and only the occasional irate gun-toting fisherman to impede our travels.

We didn’t see any irate fisherman (despite swamping several boats with our wake), but enjoyable the journey is not.

It begins just before 6am with a one-hour bumpy ride in a van to the lake. For those who have not already stocked up on water, the villagers beside the plank leading to your boat will gladly oblige. A dollar will buy at least three litres of good-quality water. That and the sunscreen are mandatory. To our horror, the boat company had oversold tickets for that day, and being the last to board, we had to sit on the roof. For five hours. In the tropical sun.

We saw fishermen in long, narrow boats laying nets in the (very muddy) river, families in simple wooden houses on the river banks alongside piles of fruit, and the ever-present Cambodian People’s Party office, always painted blue.

I imagine sitting in the cabin was no better, judging by the people who begged to be let onto the roof - to escape the claustrophobia. If the boat overturned, at least we were in the better position to safely swim to shore. The boat companies take turns to ply the route each day, and evidently we had drawn the short straw, as our fellow passengers told us the ride down was idyllic by comparison, where they could stretch out on a boat twice the size. Caveat emptor.

Phnom Penh

Despite five days acclimatizing in Siem Reap, the heat in Phnom Penh still overwhelmed us. It was oppressive, dusty, sticky, and energy sapping. We passed on our original plan of staying at a budget hotel, and went for something more upmarket, figuring the pool would come in useful before long.

A brief bargaining session got us a car with A/C for five hours for $13, and off we went to the Killing Fields, also known as S21, a must-see for every passing tourist.

S21 is a former school where hundreds of people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, their bodies dumped in mass graves. Today it is a cross between a cemetery and a history lesson. The site consists of several open pits, with signs describing how many bodies were found there. The most gruesome sign, however, is beside a tall tree, "against which executioners beat children".

In the centre of the site is a tall, clean, fresh-looking building, housing the skulls of every victim. We entered and found one of the glass partitions open. I could have, but did not dare, touch a skull.

Official Khmer orders were to execute every prisoner who arrived at the camp. Only seven people made it out alive, one of whom even wrote a book about his experiences. Perhaps he would not be amused to learn there is now a small souvenir shop at S21.

Essential for every journalist covering the war was an evening at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. A bookshop, bar, and restaurant in one, it sits in the heart of Phnom Penh, with a much-celebrated view over the river. The colonial style building has tall ceilings with fans, open balconies without windows, leather couches, and tables scattered around.

I wasn’t impressed until the sun set. For ten minutes, the sky became at once brighter and darker, with beautiful colours streaking between the clouds over the restaurant opposite. Out came the cameras - and not just at our table!

Opinions of Phnom Penh vary. Some love the rowdy nightlife, although it is not safe after dark. (Pay your driver a little extra to wait for you outside a bar or club, rather than risk getting into a stranger’s car at midnight.) Now that there are so many direct flights from outside Cambodia into Siem Reap, it has lost some of its economic value as a stopover point. You may find it annoyingly backward, without the air of a capital city.

There are other areas of the country that are worth visiting. Most people don’t venture beyond Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as Angkor Wat alone is justification for the trip. This is probably a shame, as now is the perfect time to see the rest of the country before, as with Angkor, it starts to become spoilt due to tourism. Just don’t expect the locals to speak English - and watch out for those mines!