As is the custom in Kuwait, it was about a week before we were set to depart when called the travel agent to pay for and pick up our tickets. Only when we called, the ticket price was about almost 50% more than we had originally been quoted. We checked online and found that if we bought the Bangkok to Phnom Penh portion of our ticket from a Thai travel agent, we would end up paying just a little more than the original price. So we went with the the online ticket for that portion of the trip, and paid a ten dollar delivery fee to have them send it out to the Bangkok airport for us.
It wasn't until we were taxiing up to the terminal in Bangkok that I started to worry about the possibility that these tickets might not present themselves so easily. We did have a contact name and meeting point at the airport, and a contact number if anything should go wrong. So after flying all night, we wearily walked down the bridge towards Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok, trying to scurry to customs before as many of the other passengers as possible. We didn't make it far. Waiting for us, with one of those little signs with our name on it, was our contact from the travel agency. A quick passport check and the tickets were in hand. Plus, he advised us to head down to the connecting passengers check-in, to see if we could save ourselves having to go out and check in again. Well, the lounge was clear at the other end of the airport. It took at least 15 minutes to walk down to it. For the last 10 minutes the airport was deserted, except for solitary Thais napping at duty free carts.
When we finally did arrive, our airline (whose flight didn't leave for four hours) didn't have an agent on duty for two hours. However, after a few inquiries and language difficulties, the agents from Thai Airways assured us that we did not need to worry. Once all the other bags had been picked up, and ours were left on the carousel, someone would pick up our bags and store them in the unclaimed baggage area. When President Airlines opened their desk, they could send someone down to collect them and see that they joined us on the plane. Despite fears of our bags being picked up by someone who watched them travel around and around until they realized we weren't coming, we decided to risk it.
Of the few other passengers that trickled into that secondary connection lounge was a man who must have been an African chief of some sort. He was dressed in a sarong style skirt and was bare-chested, except for a folded blanket that he wore over his shoulders like a shawl. He was barefoot, but wore a large nose ring and heavy bracelets and anklets. After two hours, prolonged by exhaustion and waiting in airport waiting-room chairs, an agent arrived. We checked-in and, after another half hour of waiting, she promised us our bags had been found and would be sent on to Phnom Penh. Our gate was just past the gate where we arrived - as far away as physically possible without leaving the building.
I had noticed in the wait that we needed a photo for the entry visa to Cambodia. We stopped at a little photo booth. I opted to follow the new "no-smiling" rule and produced four photos of a quality that could have come from the waste paper basket of the mugshot room of any on the world's finer police stations. Karla, rebel that she is, smiled and her photos looked every bit as bad as mine, but she looks like she was happy to have had them taken.
Aside from being locked out of the airport and having to wait on tarmac for about five minutes, Phnom Penh airport was clean, modern and efficient. In about 30 minutes, we had filled in the paper work, bought our visas, picked up our luggage, and cleared customs. We changed some money and caught a taxi into the centre of town. Eventually, we learned that there was no need to change money. 4000 Cambodia riel has been consistently worth about one US dollar. Most transactions are negotiated in US dollars, with riels taking the place of change. It doesn't help the riel's usage that the larges bill, 10000 riel, is worth $2.50. Cambodians used riels. One driver we hired for the day explained that he usually earned about 10000 a day, which was enough to support his family of four.
Our taxi took us straight to the area where buses leave for other parts of the country. We were lucky enough to hop on a bus as it was pulling out. The Lonely Planet stressed the fact that Cambodia had some of the worst roads in the world. The first road out to Kompong Chhnang, a national highway, was a narrow two lane strip. It was being replaced along one section, where the dust that would form the base for the road had turned the plants along the side of the road red. It took a couple hours before we pulled into the little town that the LP described as an atmospheric little colonial town.
As we pulled into town, we realized that no one on the bus spoke any English. The town was so small that our book didn't provide the handy map of it either. Passing one guest house, we stopped the bus and got off. It wasn't the guest house the LP recommended, but it would be a place to stay. As soon as we were off the bus, a friendly, but non-English speaking motorcycle taxi driver stopped to take us wherever we needed to go. After a couple minutes of failed attempts at English, and even an attempt at Khmer (using the not-so-handy-dandy language section at the back of the Lonely Planet (LP)), we tried to thank him and began walking back towards the guesthouse we had passed. Three-quarters of the way there, we passed a roadside barber, who the motorcycle taxi driver (he had been following us) used as a translator to figure out where we wanted to go. The two of us, plus our big backpacks, piled onto the one little moped and putted off to the guest house.
The guesthouse owners looked a little surprised to see us and spoke no English. But they did show us a room - $3 with a private bathroom, HBO and an unlimited supply of creepy crawlies. We took it, since we were hours past exhausted and not feeling at all confident about our ability to explain that we wanted to go somewhere else. Karla napped. I went out for food.
Down the street, I came across one of the recommended restaurants. Their English menu consisted of steak, chicken and an omelet. I opted for the omelet. And experienced some success with the Khmer language section in ordering a beer. After lunch and a little nap, we discovered that The Fellowship of the Ring was on HBO. I was hoping to catch Return of the King in Bangkok on our way home. At 9:30, after the movie, we decide to pop out for a little snack before bed. Kompong Chhang was black - no street lights and no house lights. The town was asleep. Even our attempt to go for a little walk to look for water was abandoned after madly barking dogs came out of every dark house. So far, rural Cambodia was not making us feel very welcome. We went home and climbed into bed and slept, clothed and with the lights on for fear of losing a limb to insects in out sleep. Later in the trip, we bought a new copy of the Cambodia LP. The guesthouse where we stayed the first night, which had been to recommendation in ours, was now included only as "stay here if there's nothing else" location.
The next morning we hopped a bus on to Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. After four hours rolling through endless rice paddies, we arrived in Battambang's bus station to be greeted by several touts suggesting the city's hotels. After several polite refusals, they seemed to get the idea. With directions to their respective hotels and new advice to make up our own minds, they let us set off on foot. We took the LP's recommendation, which this time was clean and free of biodiversity in the room. The town itself doesn't have much to offer other than being a typical Cambodian town. Daily life in Cambodia begins and ends early. By the time 6 am rolls around, the town is in full swing - cars, music, construction. (I'm sure than in Cambodia, "up with the birds" describes a lazy person). But by 6 pm everything is closed. Even all the local restaurants. At least in Battambang there were restaurants (at least two) that stayed open all the way until ten o'clock serving tourists. We had the best Khmer food here.
One day we hired a couple motorcycle drivers to take us around to two hilltop temples. When we stopped for gas at the edge of town, another driver appeared and after a brief conversation in Khmer, one of our drivers suddenly remembered he had a class to attend that afternoon. With a new driver and a bit of suspicion we set off. Once we were off the national roads, there was no asphalt. To avoid the dust-churning traffic as much as possible, we stuck to little side roads and lanes through the country. It took us almost an hour to get out to the first temple. Along the way, the driver told me that in Battambang, they have a system. When tourists get off the bus, the tout that sees them, claims them. If that tourist ends up staying at the hotel that the tout represents, all that tourist's business goes to that tout. When we had left that morning, one guy that claimed us wasn't there, so the other guy got his friend to help him. But the rightful tout found us before we could get away and claimed his job. The whole day was spent chatting with our guides about Cambodian life.
The first temple, a combination of a Hindu temple and Buddhist temples, had been taken over by the Khmer Rouge. The temples had been used as prisons and a cave on the mountain had been used as a "killing field". Wire chests were filled with the bones of the victims who had been tossed into the cave. One cave, the guide told us, still had bones down in it that we could climb down and see, but that from the top, all we could see were the clothes of the victims. The majority of the bones were locked up to protect them, the guide explained, from people who would steal them to minimize the atrocities of the past. The mountain top was also the front line after the Khmer Rouge had fled to the north of the country. Some old government heavy artillery still pointed towards the next mountain. Four recent temples topped the hill, with two new ones being built. The second temple was much older and mostly in ruins. On the way home we stopped to check out the traditional Cambodia beer snacks - large insects, frogs, snakes, small birds and ant salad, and for a taste of palm wine.
The next day we bought tickets on the ferry to Siem Reap. The ferry and taxi both were supposed to take 6 hours to get there, although the British couple we met the day before said the ferry ride took them nine hours. While we were waiting the ferry did arrive, in just over seven hours that day. We discussed the idea with a Swiss couple and decided to take a chance. We took it easy in town that afternoon, visiting some of the shops in the market and soaking up the atmosphere wandering the streets.
The next morning we arrived at the dock. We were encouraged to get onto a long, narrow, enclosed boat, but opted for a more rustic looking open (but covered) wood boat. For the next hour we cruised down the wide river towards Siem Reap. The banks were lined with river villages of houses perched high and low above the water as well as large wooden boats that looked they doubled as place of work and home sweet home. All along the route, the children seemed to be on waving duty. From standing silently to jumping ecstatically, they were always waving to us. We reached a fork in the river and turned onto a much more narrow stretch. There were fewer people here and our boat sometimes only made the corners by deflecting off of the vegetation along the side of the river.
After a couple hours we reached a water town on the edge of the lake. The schools, houses and store, either lined the banks, or were floating on the water. We pulled into a little shop here. We waited for an our until the boat we did not get on first thing that morning pulled in and we were told to switch boats. Inside the air conditioned cabin, we were treated to Khmer karaoke videos (without sound) on the ride across the lake. Cambodia has recently banned karaoke, seeing it as an encouragement to prostitution. Of all the things that people have thought of doing to try to control the world's oldest profession, this probably won't be the most effective. In fact, the law has just driven karaoke underground. Walking around Phnom Penh, we did see little karaoke bars. Everyone sat at a table and watched the video, while one person sneakily sat with the microphone and sang along inconspicuously.
We shared a taxi into Siem Reap with the Swiss couple we had met who had a third party recommended for a guesthouse. It turned out well for us, as the guesthouse we had hoped to stay in was full. We met up with Kathy and Chad as planned. Our time in Siem Reap was dominated with the temples known as Angkor Wat. In all there are more than 50 temple sites that were built by the Khmer kings over about 500 years.
The next morning, after Kathy and Chad had moved in at the Smiley Guesthouse (happily free of insects), we set out on two tuck-tucks to begin our tour. First stop was the ticket centre. 40 USD got us three days access to the sites. The man who sold us our tickets reeled off the rules and regulations so mechanically that we would have suspected he was actually a very human-looking robot. Except that after we asked him to repeat them for the third time, he got a little irritated with us. Of that 40 dollars, half of it goes into the pockets of the oil company that manages the sites. Sadly, corruption in Cambodia is such that if the government got their hands on the kind of money that tourism at Angkor Wat brings in, it would be too tempting. This way, at least there is some accountability - a portion of the ticket price does go to the preservation and restoration of the ruins.
The first three temples that we visited, called the Rolous Group, were the oldest of the temples in the area. About 20kms east of town, these sites were simple and largely under restoration, or at least preservation. When we first arrived at the site, we were greeted by the group of pushy, but polite hawkers. The same cold drinks, postcards, t-shirts, handicrafts and locally published copies of books were available at every site. The local strategy seemed to be to establish a relationship to get the business later with lines like, "When you are finished you will buy from me. I will remember you because you are so handsome."
It's hard to imagine what the country would have looked like in the 1860's. Today, Cambodia is practically an endless rice patty. When the French arrived, these huge temples were lost in the jungles. Our next stop was Preah Khan. This old set of Buddhist shrines has never been cleared of the jungle. It demonstrates how the jungle can grow in, around and even overtop of the stone structures. Some walls and temple are still standing, but much of the site is seemingly enormous piles of rubble. Except the rubble is actually piles of large pieces of carved rock.
After lunch, we toured Bantey Kdei, a temple and its grounds. And I can't remember a single distinguishing feature about it.
Our final stop for the day was Angkor Wat. As our tuck-tuck approached I was trying to figure out where we were on the map of the area, based on the river we had been following for a few minutes. When finally, we rounded the corner, I realized that the river was actually the huge moat. This was where the tourists were at. Hundreds, no, thousands of tourists are there for the Lonely Planet recommended sunset. Fortunately the ground of the site rival West Edmonton Mall in size. Over the moat and through the gate, and up to the temple we went.
The temple sits in the middle of a huge garden. The first wall is decorated with bas-reliefs (pictures carved into the rock). The pictures are massive and depict scenes from mythology and of the king's achievements. The murals are ten feet tall and to walk around all four sides took us past more than a kilometer of carvings. Inside the outer wall, an inner wall is raised up on a platform. Inside the inner wall, is the main temple, again raised high above its surrounding walls. Khmer steps are something else. They must have had long legs and tiny feet. Their stairs are dizzyingly steep. Each step rises about 40cm, but is only about 10cm wide. Today, the main sanctuary is a working temple with a statue of Buddha surrounded with offerings of candles, incense, and flowers. But the rest of the temple at the top, like the whole complex, is sparse. The wide stone hallways and courtyards are empty.
We began day two at sunrise, climbing to the top of the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng. There is not much to the temple itself, but to the east it overlooks Angkor Wat. It's a great spot for sunset. But since there are several hundred people huddled at the top of the temple to catch the setting sun shining of the temple who then have to make their way down the perilous Khmer steps at twilight, we opted for the morning view.
Next we headed for Angkor Thom, the megalopolis of King Jayavarman VII, the Khmer equivalent of Louis XIV. When it was built it supported about one million people. At that time, in around 1200 AD, London and Paris could only boast about 50 000. The Bayon looks like a pile of rubble. It is a nice, big pile. But this temple has definitely seen better days. When you do get close, the outer wall is decorated with bas-reliefs. They are not on nearly as momentous a scale as the ones at Angkor Wat, but they depict more domestic scenes. The first scenes are complex and detailed, but as we made our way around, the artists either ran out of time or energy. By the fourth side, the carvings were not much more than outlines.
Once inside the wall, we climbed up to the temple. The temple is made up of 54 covered shrines, arranged so that they surround and build to a central tower. The roof of each shrine is made of four carved, placidly smiling faces looking in the cardinal directions. In among the towers, the impressive organization of the construction was apparent. From inside each shrine, looking out two or three of the four doors, you could see the faces of the adjacent shrines. The faces are Jayavarman's. The Bayon symbolizes the care with which he watched over his 54 provinces.
The Terrace of the Elephants was a long, wide walkway just outside the grounds of the palace (of which nothing was left, except the temple and a couple of swimmin' holes) where the king could watch his army parade by. It overlooked a set of twelve small towers which, it is speculated, served as the justice system. To settle a dispute, both parties would confine themselves to one tower and stay there until the other gave up or god stepped in and one of them perished.
That afternoon we visited Preah Khan, another temple complex (which I am sure you are eager to have described in meticulous detail). All the temples we visited were carved stone structures that contained sets of small shrines- small rooms where a state of Buddha was found, and courtyards. I can't say I understand exactly how they would have been used. This was another nicely overgrown one. It's layout was very repetitive - form fits function, with not much to look at, one was left to reflect on the important things (for example, when the next beer would be had).
We stopped at one more temple on the way home. It was unremarkable except for the tree that had decided to grow on top of its east gate. By this time, temple overload was really beginning to set in. We stopped at a big fountain on the way home whose highlight was a human head spout (by which I can't help but be reminded of certain inflatable dolls). We had only seen about ten of the fifty, and they were already starting to be like McDonalds restaurants - characterized by subtle variations, but ultimately a whole lot like one another.
Day three, which happened to be Christmas, began with a long ride out to Banteay Srei, the women's temple. It was so named because the carving was reputed to have been too fine to have been done by men. Temple overload evaporated. We happily spent an hour roaming this small temple. The details were remarkable. Archeological work was going on while we were there. Unfortunately, it did overshadow the other two temples we stopped at - the second completely undeserving of the Lonely Planet's "interesting" description, and the second offering a dry internal moat that would have left the central shrine an island. Around lunch time, we headed back to Angkor Thom to do a bit of shopping. The journey took us past a couple of the temples that we had not seen, but which we could definitely recognize as either larger or smaller versions of other temples we had seen.
We took the afternoon off to eat and rest. I arranged a taxi he next day to take the four of us to our next destination, a town called Kompong Cham that was a stopover on the way to Kratchie. We met a couple of Kathy and Chad's Canadian friends from Taiwan at a swank restaurant for Christmas dinner. We turned in early for the next day's early start.
After about five hours on the not-as-fearful-as-their-descrition roads, we arrived in Kompong Cham, a true cross roads kind of town. There was nothing to see or do, and few places to eat or stay. The next morning we hopped a ferry to Kratchie to avoid the some of the worst roads in Cambodia.
In Kratchie, we were greeted by some of Cambodia's most persistent touts. The only way to even discuss where we wanted to stay was to stand in a square shoulder to shoulder and leave them all was repeating their hotel's promises to each other around us. Other than our boisterous welcome, the town turned out to be very hospitable. Our hotel was nice and they set up all our transportation out to the see fresh-water dolphins. The beautiful, wide Mekong River is home to a colony of dolphins that small boats take tourist out to see. Dolphins are grey bumps, no matter how close you are. But the boat got us close enough to hear their watery gasps as they took breaths.
That night, we ate at the recommended budget guesthouse. Their restaurant has two large tables, which meant we ended up sharing with other travelers. One of whom was a tour leader for Adventure Tours, who took people places that in general people don't want to go. We were shocked to hear that he hadn't yet been to Kuwait.
Our hotel arranged a car to Phnom Penh. Apparently the awful roads had been improved. We rolled into town just after noon and found a hotel just across from the national museum. For lunch we went to Friends, a little place that Kathy and Chad had found. The restaurant was staffed entirely by street kids who were being rehabilitated. The service was only exceeded by the food. It was like being in heaven. The whole place just gave you a great feeling. We took a quick look around the national museum that house the originals of all the sculpture we had been looking at in the souvenir shops.
Later that evening we met up to witness of the Lonely Planet's recommended Phnom Penh sights - the bats. Some say the museum hold the worlds largest colony of bats that live in a man-made structure. And at dusk, they come streaming out from under the roof of the museum. We were there. We waited. And waited. No bats. But we waited on the hotel balcony. The museum was a block away, across a park. Maybe the bats snuck away.
The next day, Kathy and Chad headed down to the coast while Karla and I went to the Tuol Sleung Museum. This was a former high school (that looks a lot like the school where we teach). During the 1970's the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison where they tortured and killed their opponents. The museum was simple - bare concrete rooms lined with the photos of the people who had been brought o the prison. The third wing of the museum have paintings of the camp's operations, by a former inmate. The tour ends with a film that follows the life of a pair of people who became victims of the prison.
After this uplifting morning, we headed out to the Russian Market, the main tourist market. Clothes, souvenirs and digital piracy were on the menu. Kathy and Chad wanted to come back to pick up a few things, so this trip was only to survey what was there. After an hour we had seen what there was to see.
Through lunch we couldn't shake what we had seen at the museum. That afternoon, Karla stayed at the hotel to mark, while I caught a moto out to the Killing Fields. Records from Teol Sleung say there are ?? people here. Some of the mass graves have been excavated leaving 10-15 foot wide craters side by side in an area the size of a football field. At a few places, between the graves there were small piles of scraps of clothing and bones. At the centre, was a shrine that contained the skulls from the graves that had been excavated.
The next day we toured the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda where the reigning King Norodom Sihanouk lives. The king, who is 80 and has ruled (on and off) since his teens, is still involved in the country and publishes a daily handwritten note (in French) on the internet. At the palace, a Cambodian who was studying English chatted with us for a few minutes and wanted us to explain the difference between grace and compassion.
We headed off to the Russian market to do a bit of shopping. Despite being four people wandering around a huge, crowded market, we managed to find our loot and each other. We enjoyed another great lunch at Friends rested up for New Year's. The restaurant we had planned to go to, were only serving a set menu (despite promising us they would offer the regular menu as well), so we went to a restaurant that was owned by a German the Kathy and Chad had met in Thailand the year before.
After dinner, the Heart of Darkness, Cambodia best bar, was the evening main destination. We were frisked going in and I hand to hand over by Swiss Army knife. I was sure I would never see it again, but it was returned at the end of the night. It was packed; locals and foreigners, young and old were all getting down. Just before midnight, a Cambodian in an giant afro wig came out to announce that the Ministry of Culture had sent a team of traditional dancers. Cambodian dance is elegant. The movement is slow and controlled. After the dance, we counted down to midnight and watched another dance before the music kicked in again. We lasted a little while longer. We said goodbye outside the bar and went home.
The next morning, we had to get up early and headed out to the airport to go to Bangkok. The airport was modern, clean, efficient and organized. It's not exactly the busiest hub, but definitely feel like an international airport. The President Airlines flight back was a little worrisome. Part way through the flight, there was distinct smell of something burning. But we landed in Bangkok. We found our way to a hotel we had stayed at last year and checked in. We found a theatre that was showing Return of the King and got tickets for that afternoon. We spent the afternoon picking up a few things that we had missed the last tie we were in Thailand, getting a meal at Karla's favourite restaurant and enjoying a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.
The next morning we were on the move again. Back to the airport for the long flight home. We stopped in Dubai, were we are forced off the plane for 30 minutes while they clean it. During that time, we clear security to get into the airport. Clearing security means being about to walk through the metal detector without setting it off, which means many people have to take off the belts and shoes. By the time we'd waited to get through the line, we had to get in the line to clear security again to get into the boarding lounge. Welcome back to the Middle East.