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Cambodia

North-east Cambodia

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My trip through Cambodia concluded with four days in the least visit quarter of the country, the North-east. Thankfully, this area is absent of both fake hippies and party backpackers, who congregate only in famed destinations (because they’re fake). Nevertheless, I was surprised by the number of Westerners present, as Lonely Planet implies this is a relatively isolated pocket of Cambodia. Although hordes of travellers are yet to descend upon the North-east, there are still countless businesses in each town to service the tourism sector. I travelled to the Kratie on the Mekong River and spent three nights in the supposedly remote capital of Ratanakiri province, Ban Lung. Kratie is a typical Indochinese riverside town and the transit hub for the region. The vast province of Ratanakiri is renowned for its untamed wilderness and ethnic minority communities. Trekking is the principal touristic activity in the region. I eventually deemed the arduous journey to Ban Lung as a pointless and regrettable waste of time. I was yet to decide whether I wanted to partake in a multi-day trek; and this indecisiveness should have been reason enough to skip Ratanakiri province altogether and allocate more time to my next country, Laos. The prices quoted to me in Ban Lung ultimately quashed any temptations.

The defining characteristic of this component of the trip were the dreadful bus rides. To reach Kratie from Siem Reap, I needed to wake up before 6:00am and expect to arrive in the early afternoon. Consistent with public transport journeys in Cambodia though, the bus failed to leave the station until at least an hour after it was scheduled to. Fortunately, the bus was comfortable and it stopped at fruit stand in the morning where all the Westerner passengers loaded up on packets of dried bananas and freshly sliced mangoes. At midday, the passengers bound for Kratie and the Laotian border were forced to change into another vehicle. Sixteen people (mostly Westerners) and a baby squished into a van designed to accommodate eleven. Our maniacal driver (he had mad-eyes) literally sat on the lap of another person. His recklessly fast driving nearly had everyone killed as he clipped the side of a much larger truck (my heart nearly stopped before the incident because I could see our trajectory was in line with the vehicle), frightening us all. Our backpackers were either stored under the seats or precariously tied with a motorcycle to the back of the van. I was very relieved to arrive in Kratie alive and with my backpacks.

Kratie is located on the Mekong River, the longest in Southeast Asia. The Mekong begins in China, courses along the entire length of Laos, flows through Eastern Cambodia, disperses into the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam and ultimately dumps its water into the South China Sea. Several languid towns with French colonial heritage dot the banks of the river in Cambodia and Laos. Kratie is one such town, where faded European edifices are situated beside colourful Khmer Buddhist temples. Since I was traveling with two French girls who wanted to stay on the island immediately opposite Kratie, I stayed there instead of the town.

Koh Trong is a spear-shaped sandbar island in the middle of the incredibly broad Mekong River. Local residents have transformed the island into a haven of agriculture. Herds of cattle graze in thin paddocks and flocks of chicken wander around orchards of pomelos (giant grapefruits), which are presumably the island’s primary export. The “main road” of Koh Trong is essentially just a bicycle path that runs for several kilometres along the western side of the island. Banana trees and bamboo shade this artery that also serves as a communal area for children to play and adults to gather gossip and conduct business. Stilted wooden houses (the Mekong floods) set amidst emerald greenery line the main road. Koh Trong offers homestay experiences in a rural environment within close proximity of a major town. We stayed with an elderly couple that spoke no English and slept on futon mattress in their large one-room stilted house (this design is more reflective of tradition than economics). In the evening, a bizarre bird-like screech emanated from their balcony. They showed us the creature that made the sound was a large lizard. One of my French companions was travelling overland from the French Alps to Singapore, without any flights in between. The other girl was an experienced traveller and had previously walked for one year from Panama to Mexico, zigzagging between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.

The journey to Ban Lung was the next instalment of my horrendous bus experiences. The bus departed Kratie at 1:30pm and was scheduled to arrive five hours later. Already running late, something in the rickety vehicle broke (I think it was a flat tyre) in the late afternoon and we were forced to wait at a repair store in the middle of nowhere for more than an hour. The passengers all celebrated our eventual departure, but that proved to be premature. We rolled into a derelict town (none of the Westerners had any idea of the name) in the darkness of night and were told to await a replacement bus as the current one was no longer drivable. After twiddling our thumbs for a couple hours, the new bus eventually showed up and transported us successfully to Ban Lung. We arrived in the remote town at 11:00pm… approximately five hours late.
Strange and inconvenient are two adjectives which immediately come to mind when I think of Ban Lung. A paved highway ploughs through the town, but the marketplace and major businesses line another dustier track parallel to it. The quality of the main road is certainly suggestive that Ban Lung is an outpost provincial town, and yet all the amenities (such as reliable wifi and numerous restaurants with English or French language menus) are present. Most of the hotels are clustered around a beautifully green lake, but its located irritatingly three kilometres from the centre of town. Ban Lung is a funny place and difficult to assess, but it was pleasant enough to chill for a couple of days.

I hired a motorcycle taxi to visit three waterfalls and a crater lake located near Ban Lung. My driver for the day spoke excellent English and was also conversational in four other languages (we stuck to only one). He was recently discharged from hospital after recovering from malaria for two weeks. There is no financial assistance for medical purposes in Cambodia, so this would have been a particularly difficult time for the young father-of-two. En route to the waterfalls, we passed rubber plantations and several minority villages. The languages of these communities are completely different to Khmer. In one of the villages, betrothed couples live separately in specially built thatch stilt houses. Females reside in low and spacious one-room structures, while male abodes are small and high off the ground. After couples are married, they live with their paternal families (rotate between each) until they can afford to build their own dwellings. Each waterfall we visited was located in a jungle environment. The first waterfall was high and gushed into a creek. The second waterfall cascaded into circular pool, which I went swimming in. The last waterfall, the most voluminous, formed a river and was viewed from a flimsy wooden suspension bridge. The crater-lake we visited is called Boeng Yeak Larom and is sacred to the local minority groups. The aqua blue lake is incredibly serene and surrounded by thick jungle.

On Koh Trong, dinner was cooked for us and the guests of other homestays at a single centralised dwelling. We ate freshwater-fish soup, beef stir-fry and rice, which was an uninspiring but wholesome meal. After the bout of sickness in Siem Reap, I craved Western food gradually more and more. I eventually caved into temptation and ordered a hamburger with Australian cheddar cheese (amazing) in Ban Lung. Twice I dined at the restaurant attached to the hotel I stayed at in Ban Lung and was treated to scrumptious concoctions on both occasions. I ordered “fried hot with beef”, which was an absolutely sensational stir-fry with chilli, garlic and lemongrass, and fried fish with ginger. The fillet came with a thick mixture of fresh ginger, beansprouts, shallots and soy sauce. For my last meal in Cambodia, I ate a delicious serve of Chicken Amok, although it was really a coconut-based curry (best in Cambodia nevertheless).

My final road trip in Cambodia consisted of a two mini-van legs and was relatively seamless. Unfortunately though, the journey went amuck (hehehe) when me and the three Swiss I was with crossed the border into Laos. Another mini-van was supposed to be awaiting our arrival and drive us to the boat landing for Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands. However, no van, bus, taxi, tuk-tuk or any form of transport arrived on the desolate Laotian side for the next three hours. This was especially frustrating since we were only twenty kilometres from the boat landing. Finally, tbus crossed the Cambodia-Laos border and we demanded seats on it, just before sunset.

As previously mentioned, in retrospect I would skip Ratanakiri entirely and devote more time to Laos. The north of Laos boasts more interesting treks anyway. Staying on Koh Trong though was a pleasant experience and a worthy stopover between the major tourist destinations of Cambodia (either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh) and Laos.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 03:38 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Temples of Angkor

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The glorious Khmer Empire is consigned to history and forgotten from the consciousness of the modern world, but their remarkable capital of Angkor endures and remains one of the world’s most celebrated archaeological sites. The empire was established by Jayavarman II in the eighth century, when he conquered all of present day Cambodia and proclaimed himself a “universal monarch”. He was the first in a long sequence of “god-kings” that continually expanded Khmer territory, until it encompassed nearly all of mainland Southeast Asia. The Khmers constructed highly sophisticated irrigation networks throughout the empire to support a massive population. At its apogee, the city of Angkor boasted a population of more than one million (dwarfed London and Paris, approximately 50-100,000 each contemporaneously). Researchers concluded in 2007 that Angkor was the largest (in size) preindustrial city on Earth. Elaborate infrastructure systems connected the urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres to the temples at its core (nearest rival, Tikal in Guatemala, covered 100 to 150 square kilometres). The houses, public buildings and palaces of Southeast Asia’s first metropolis were constructed of timber, because the right to dwell in stone or brick structures was reserved for the gods. Since Angkor was abandoned in 1432, the temples (of which there are hundreds) are the only surviving vestiges of this extraordinary city. The Khmer Empire gradually eroded from incursions by the migratory Siamese (originally inhabited regions in Southern China) and the expansionist Vietnamese. The capital of the weakened kingdom was relocated to the Mekong River at Phnom Penh, leaving Angkor to pilgrims and the jungle.

Everyone that visits the Temples of Angkor stay in the nearby town of Siem Reap. It is an abominable place that exists solely to serve tourism. Absolutely nothing about the town is traditional or distinctly Khmer. The streets consist of guesthouse after restaurant after bar after souvenir market after guesthouse… it is certainly not my cup of tea. The only appealing aspect of the town is the token lanterns that decorate the riverfront area at night. Since Angkor is one of the world’s most famous attractions, Siem Reap is inundated with people from all walks of life. Gigantic mass tour groups of dumb Americans or Japanese fixated on photography trample over the temples, but it is the party backpackers that spoil the atmosphere in Siem Reap (and so many other places in this region). Bangkok and the islands of Thailand are obvious destinations for backpackers who are eager to get smashed and wasted each evening. Angkor’s relative proximity means that many such backpackers travel to Cambodia to check out these temples they’ve heard are “quite nice” (but know nothing about). Despite making the effort to endure a long bus trip and pay for a Cambodian visa, many compromise their visit to the Temple of Angkor by drinking into the early hours of the morning and then sleeping throughout the subsequent day. I encountered several stories of people who had missed the temples entirely because of just that. I don’t understand why people bother to travel to Siem Reap if their priority is simply to party. Please, just stay in Thailand! [Note: the author of this piece had a rather unpleasant stay in a party hostel, with loud and obnoxious roommates in the dormitory. His grumpiness could also be explained by a spell of ill health, which included vomiting and fainting in the bathroom. At least the latter woke the hung-over roommates up].
Hinduism was originally the state religion of the Khmer Empire and most Angkorian temples were dedicated to the deities of Shiva and Vishnu. The growth in popularity of Mahayana Buddhism (Northern school), especially during the reign of Jayavarman VII, resulted in the construction of temples with mixed dedications to both Buddha and Hindu deities. Some scholars believe that the rise of Theravada Buddhism (Southern school) as the state religion in the thirteenth century may have contributed to the empire’s stagnation. This transition eroded the Hindu conception of kingship that underpinned Angkorian civilisation. It destroyed the royal personality cult that had inspired the grand monuments of Angkor. The last great state temple was built during Jayavarman VII’s reign, just prior to Theravada Buddhism prevailing.

The ruins of the Angkorian temples are scattered across a completely flat landscape of farmland and jungle. Since there are hundreds of temples surviving (of which, dozens would be the main attraction in any other city), any self-respecting visitor allocates at least two days to exploration with the three-day pass (two-day pass is not an option, which is probably intended to encourage you to stay an extra night in Siem Reap and therefore spend more money). The temples are located more than eight kilometres from Siem Reap and are significant distances from each other, so tourists visit by tuk-tuk, minivan or cycling (reflective of the vastness of the ancient city of Angkor). Each morning, the one road between Siem Reap and Angkor becomes a grand parade of countless tuk-tuks, minivans, motor-cycles and bicycles heading eagerly in the same direction. On my first day in Angkor, I hired a tuk-tuk and visited the major sites. On the second day, I joined a group tour to see several temples situated further afield from the primary cluster. On the third and final day, I hired a tuk-tuk again and travelled to the Roluos group of pre-Angkorian temples.

The epitome of the Khmer Empire’s genius is the stupendous temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on Earth. It was constructed in the early twelfth century, during the peak of Khmer civilisation, and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple complex is surrounded by a gigantic moat that forms a rectangle measuring 1.5 kilometres by 1.3 kilometres. It encloses a vast open space, with the primary structure located toward the rear of the central axis. Symmetry and axial procession are integrals components of Angkor Wat’s design. After crossing the moat and passing through the massive entrance gate, visitors are awed by the sheer size of the temple; still hundreds of metres away. Harmony and restrained monumentality is achieved in the design through its perfect proportions. It has been compared to the Parthenon in that respect. Angkor Wat is a representation of Mount Meru, the abode of the Hindu gods. The five central towers symbolize the peaks of the mountain. The temple is raised on a platform that was higher than the surrounding city. It features three rectangular galleries that are each progressively higher and culminate in the central tower. The towers are designed to resemble lotus buds. Angkor Wat’s fame derives from not only its monumental architecture, but also its extensive decoration. Miles of surfaces are covered predominately in base-relief friezes. They depict scenes from mythical Hindu epics and celebrated Khmer military victories. Angkor Wat is composed of enormous quantities of sandstone that were transported on rafts along the Siem Reap River. Despite the logistical issues involved with the material, it was completed in just forty years (compared with the centuries it took to build the great gothic cathedrals of Europe). Angkor Wat is justifiably a source of national pride in Cambodia and features on the country’s modern flag.

Although Angkor Wat is an extraordinary singular temple, it is ultimately just the “Arc de Triomphe”, or the monumental entrance, to Angkor. Immediately behind the temple is the walled city of Angkor Thom, which was founded during the reign of Jayavarman VII, widely regarded as the greatest of the Angkorian kings. In the late twelfth century, the Cham of central Vietnam invaded the Khmer Empire and sacked the capital at Angkor through a remarkable naval assault up the Mekong River and across the Tonle Sap Lake. Jayavarman, then a prince, rallied his people and successfully defeated the aggressors. He assumed the throne and oversaw the period of Angkor’s most prolific construction. The state religion shifted to Mahayana Buddhism and many temples were accordingly altered (including Angkor Wat). Angkor Thom became the magnificent new capital of the Khmer Empire.

Angkor Thom is surrounded by a huge moat and fortified walls that stretch as far as the eye can see. The entrance gate is guarded by colossal statues of gods and demons that are in a perpetual state of tug-of-war for the control of the world. Inside the walls, no buildings intended for mortal use survive and jungle sprawls on the vacated land. I thought Angkor Thom had the appearance of a nature park, similar to Healesville Sanctuary or Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, with attractions set amidst a natural but tamed environment. The gargantuan stone temples are the surviving vestiges of Angkor Thom’s prominence. The Bayon, my favourite of all the Angkorian temples, is the geographical centre of Angkor Thom and served as the state temple to Mayahana Buddhism during Jayavarman VII’s reign. The monolithic structure rises ominously from the jungle and belittles viewers with its assemblage of towers. The grand scale and open spaces of Angkor Wat are not evident at the Bayon, which instead appears densely packed. Each tower supports two to four identical gigantic smiling faces that are thought to either depict Jayavarman or bodhisattva. There are 216 eerie faces at the Bayon overall. Visitors walk from the Bayon to several nearby temples and structures within Angkor Thom, through jungle and across broken stone foundations. The Baphuon and Phimeanakas temples actually predate the formation of the walled city and are examples of early Angkorian architecture. They are temple pyramids that represent Mount Meru and their surrounding moats symbolize the mythological oceans. Phimeanakas is the older temple and is a simple but immensely beautiful step-pyramid (looks exactly like what I imagine the pyramids of Central America look like). The Baphuon is more elaborately designed and ornamented. A massive sleeping Buddha is featured in its rear stonework. Surviving in the north of Angkor Thom is the three hundred metre long Terrace of the Elephants, which was used by the Khmer monarch to survey his imperial army marching on the vast field before it. The trunks of elephants support the platform and intricate friezes adorn the walls.

Impressive temples abound in all directions of Angkor Thom, but the principal area I explored by tuk-tuk was to the east of the walled city. I visited several temples that are individually remarkable, but pale into insignificance when considered in the context of Angkor. I was somewhat sympathetic to those temples, as they could easily be the star attraction in any other Southeast Asian town, but their relative anonymity nevertheless testifies to the glory of Angkorian civilisation. Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the “Tomb Raider temple”, is perhaps the most popular temple in Angkor. It was constructed during Jayavarman VII’s reign as a Mahayana Buddhism monastery and he devoted it to his mother. Ta Prohm is features a “flat” layout, as it is not a temple-pyramid and not attempting to depict a mythological mountain. The complex consists of galleries, courtyards and innumerable small towers. The primary appeal of Ta Prohm is obviously the picturesque qualities of massive trees growing over the ruins. The jungle invaded after Angkor’s abandonment and Ta Prohm has certainly merged with its surroundings. The stones are almost entirely covered in mosses of various green hues. Robust tree roots have split the solid walls of the temple and grow exposed over them. Unlike the other major temples in Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left virtually unmolested from restoration, as a “general concession to the taste for the picturesque. The scenery at Ta Prohm certainly evokes an ethereal atmosphere and is an exhibition of nature defeating humankind. Yet both themes can be appreciated at other temples in Angkor with substantially less tourists. Sure, the trees are situated in more romantic positions amid the ruins at Ta Prohm than other temples, but the number of annoying Westerners at Ta Prohm stymies the ability to feel as though you are walking through a “lost world”. Neighbouring Banteay Kdei is totally desolate of tourists (the hawkers there speak in their most dejected voice and claim they have had “no business today”) but it features similar aesthetics.

Visitors committed to seeing more than just the iconic stars of Angkor usually opt to complete the “big circuit” on the second day. This involves travelling to several temples that circulate around the primary cluster on the periphery of Angkor. I joined a group tour for this route to gain some understanding for what I was actually seeing. The first temple we visited was Preah Khan, commissioned by Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father. The temple exhibits a synergy of Buddhist and Hindu architectures. The flat design consists of a Buddhist sanctuary surrounded by Hindu shrines. The complex is largely unrestored and overgrown with trees. We visited Pre Rup and the East Mebon, two temples constructed during the tenth century (two centuries before Angkor Wat) that are demonstrative of early Angkorian architecture. Both complexes are temple-pyramids, feature five towers elevated on platforms and are composed of a combination of brickwork and sandstone. They are devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. The pyramid at Pre Rup is fifty metres wide at the base and affords exceptional views of the surrounding jungle. The highlight of the tour was visiting Banteay Srei, which is often described as the “jewel of Khmer art”. The structures within the complex are unusually small for Angkorian architecture and thus do not evoke a sense of monumentality. The temple is instead exquisitely beautiful, with remarkably intricate wall carvings. The structures re composed of red sandstone, which can be carved as easily as wood.

On my final day, I stepped further back in time and visited a cluster of pre-Angkorian temples at Roluos. The temples were far less visually captivating than the main temples, but they were nevertheless interesting to see for historical perspective. The temples were part of the first capital of Khmer civilisation. They are primarily built of red brick and complexes consist predominately of just towers.

On my first night in Siem Reap, I decided to eat with the locals at a crowded Cambodian BBQ. While the grilled beef was nice to eat, I suspect the water on the accompanying salad caused my bout of sickness the following day. That particular episode and the inflated prices in this ultra-touristic town prevented me from sampling a range of Khmer dishes. For some ridiculous reason, I thought that Khmer curry (coconut milk-based) with duck constituted an appropriate order for my first proper meal post chuck-up. The curry was decent, if a bit skimpy on the duck, but it did not digest too seamlessly. At the temples, I bought a delicious baguette with omelette, fried pork belly, salad and chilli sauce for an absolute pittance. Upon discovering a genuine Melbourne café in Siem Reap, I dispensed of my Asian diet without hesitation and indulged in a chicken burger with bacon and hand-cut chips. And definitely met Melbourne’s higher than high standards (although the bun was a tad too soft for my liking).

The Temples of Angkor collectively form one of the greatest attractions on the planet. Their omission from the New 7 Wonders of the World list was a blasphemous outcome. One of the many aspects that make the ruins of Angkor so special is the incomprehensible scale. The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum of Rome, the Acropolis of Athens or the Forbidden City in Beijing requires no more than half a day to explore. Spending two full days at Angkor is only just sufficient to visit the constitute clusters of temples. People particularly eager and interested in Khmer architecture can even purchase the one-week pass. The Temples of Angkor were a definite highlight of this trip and I would be pleased to return, if it weren’t for Siem Reap.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 09:35 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Phnom Penh and Battambang

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Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city, largest city, richest city and most evocative city of the country’s tumultuous past. Yet Battambang is the archetypal Cambodian city, where Khmers live their daily lives without modern and generic consumerism, without tourist hordes clogging the central area and without glitzy towers destroying the characterful colonial architecture. Similar to the destinations discussed in my previous entry, Phnom Penh and Battambang provided contrasting experiences. Nevertheless, I actually quite enjoyed my time in both cities, which was fortunate particularly in regard to Phnom Penh as I was stranded there for four nights awaiting my laptop’s repair. In a region of chaotic mega cities, Cambodia’s two most important population centres are comparatively small, ordered and peaceful.

Phnom Penh was not a city I expected to like. I thought the ugliness and incessant congestion that I hated about Saigon would resurface on my travels in the Cambodian capital. Fortunately, these fears were unfounded. Although Phnom Penh briefly served as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the fifteenth century after the Siamese sacked Angkor, it was not until 1866 that the city became the permanent seat of government. French colonists transformed the riverside village into a modern city that was colloquially referred to as the “Pearl of Asia” by the 1920s. Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, although most of the metropolis sprawls west of the waterways. The pleasant riverside area is the de facto centre of town and entertainment precinct. Numerous classical European buildings from the French colonial era abound near the riverside. The neon lights and steel-and-glass architecture of modernity are thankfully situated away from this area. Countless restaurants (food), bars (alcohol) and tuk-tuk drivers (transport and marijuana) cater to the surprisingly robust tourist scene (I didn’t realise Phnom Penh was sufficiently well known to be on the mass-tourist trail). Spacious streets and grand boulevards divide orthogonally the central area of the city, which thus establishes an orderly layout. Together with the blessed presence of traffic lights, Phnom Penh is a much easier and safer city to navigate than its Vietnamese counterparts. Although the main arteries can heave with motorcycles, areas in between are often peaceful and relatively tranquil with an abundance of foliage.

The Royal Palace (still occupied) and Silver Pagoda complexes (adjacent) are indisputably the city’s most iconic attractions. The structures within this precinct exemplify the typical stylization of temples and institutions in post-Angkorian Cambodia. The architecture and design motifs exhibit similarities to corresponding buildings in Thailand and Laos, but are completely different to traditional Chinese and Vietnamese edifices. The royal palatial halls and Buddhist temples in Cambodia are monumental and elaborately decorated (similar to European baroque architecture in that respect), whereas temples in Vietnam tend to be less imposing and harmonious with nature. Verticality is particularly emphasised in design, as tall slender columns of porticos supports high roofs and towering spires. Interestingly, the components above the internal space of a building are visually the most captivating aspects of the external appearance. The roofing system deceptively seems as though it features multiple layers, which are each revealed gradually moving away from the central axis. The layers are usually composed of shimmering gold tiles and green tiles. Golden heads of naga (mythical snakes) protrude from each corner of the roofing system and a magnificent and intricately detailed spire soars from the middle. This display contrasts with the plainness of the mono-coloured and unadorned walls and columns of the buildings. The interior of halls and temples are opulently decorated, with buddhas, elephants and snakes featuring prominently in figurines and carvings. The architecture is certainly more characteristic of Southeast Asia than East Asia and it showcases the historical influence of Hinduism on the region.

Unfortunately the horrors of the Vietnam War were not exclusively restricted to one country. It was a regional conflict that gravely affected Cambodia, particularly in its aftermath. The North Vietnamese trained and supported a communist offshoot in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge. Carpet bombing of Eastern Cambodia by the United States military arguably contributed to the growth in numbers of Khmer Rouge insurgents. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized ultimate power and control over the country. Their notorious leader, Pol Pot, instituted his radical and maddened social reform process. He wanted to completely restructure Cambodia into a purely self-sufficient agrarian society. Everything was collectivised. He ordered two million people from all the cities and provincial towns (the entire urban population) to be mass evacuated and marched to the countryside to work in agriculture. He classified Cambodians from rural areas as the desirable “Old People” and the urbanites as “New People”. One of the Khmer Rouge’s mottos in reference to New People was, “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” They were prohibited any property and were expected to work 10-12 hours each day on minimal rations. Despite the urbanites obviously having prior agricultural knowledge, the Khmer Rouge wanted to increase rice production threefold and expected Cambodians to achieve this immediately. Famine was inevitable. Picking berries or fruits from wild vegetation was considered “private enterprise” and punishable by death. The Khmer Rouge wanted to extinguish capitalist influence and ideology from Cambodia and it took extreme measures to achieve this. Cambodia had no currency, no banking system and virtually no industrial base. Its schools were closed and religion was suppressed.

The Khmer Rouge purged the population of “suspected” capitalists, which included basically anyone with an education or from an urban area. Many were sent to Tuol Seng Prison in Phnom Penh (formerly a high school), which has been transformed into a genocide museum. Prisoners were routinely held for two to three months. They were interrogated, and forced to produce false confessions. These usually included espionage activities for the CIA, KGB or Vietnam (the Khmer Rouge was deeply xenophobic and the regime had severed ties with Vietnam. China was the regime’s ally). Out of estimated 17,000-20,000 prisoners, there are only twelve known survivors. Prisoners were either exterminated at the site or at Cheung Ek, about 10 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. This was just one of numerous killing fields the Khmer Rouge used to exterminate victims. To save bullets (which were scarce), victims were usually bludgeoned to death with agricultural tools. At Cheung Ek, there is a tree decorated with hundreds of wristbands. They commemorated the children and infants who were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunk of the tree. Victims were buried in mass graves. There are 20,000 mass grave sites in Cambodia. Out of a population of eight million, between 1.7 and 3 million people died from starvation or extermination, within just four years. The Buddhist memorial at Cheung Ek contains the skulls of thousands of victims.

The Khmer Rouge was finally toppled in 1979 with a Vietnamese invasion. However, throughout the 1980s, the western half of the country remained a battlefield and was planted with millions of mines. It was not until 1998 that the Khmer Rouge ultimately surrendered, although Pol Pot escaped justice as he died just before.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second city and centre of the country’s principal agricultural region. But this languorous riverside town exhibits nonchalance to grandeur and modern glamour that a city with such a status would usually exude. Battambang seems content to be stuck in a time-warp where locals enjoy a sedate existence and where the hallmarks of capitalist “growth” are not present. Despite its proximity to Thailand and Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Battambang is absent from the mass tourist trail. Consequently, the city is free of exclusive hotels, tourist-trap restaurants, kitsch bars (i.e. stereotypical “Aussie bars”, that are ubiquitous in cities… outside of Australia), junk souvenir shops, massage parlours and drug-dealers that plague other Southeast Asian towns. The grid layout of Battambang’s commercial centre occupies an area on the western side of the Stung Sangker River. It features the greatest concentration of French colonial architecture of any city I have travelled to in Indochina. Virtually all the buildings, from either the French era or the decades immediately after, appear aged and worn from dilapidation and lack of restoration. Some people may find dusty Battambang unattractive, but to me the degraded buildings are more characterful than perfect yet sterile façades. Due to the location of several colourful wats (Buddhist temples) in the central area, numerous orange-robbed monks saunter through the city during the day. In the late afternoon, the parklands on the eastern riverbank are crowded with hundreds of ladies (and some men) that perform their daily aerobic exercises. The guesthouse I stayed at hosted a quiz night while I was in Battambang. I participated with a Canadian couple, an Irish girl and a Dutch girl; all of whom I have forgotten the names of. Naturally, we won!

The following afternoon, the Dutch girl and I hired a tuk-tuk (Cambodian tuk-tuks are motorcycles that drag colourful four-person carriages) to visit the countryside attractions near Battambang. Our first stop was the Battambang bamboo train. Historically (I assume!), people and cargo were transported between major towns in Cambodia on “bamboo trains”. Tourists can take a quirky ride on a section of a single rail track just outside of Battambang. Small bamboo platforms, no larger than queen size mattresses and with no railings, are transported on steel carts with small engines at the back. The “trains” reach speeds of 40km/h, which is quite thrilling to experience when on the exposed platforms. If two “trains” are traveling in opposite directions, then the “train” with the least number of passengers is disassembled to allow the other through. The train is then reassembled on the single track and continues on its merry way. We then visited Phnom Sampeu, a large hill with golden Buddhist stupas on the summit (and dozens of hungry monkeys on the slopes). En route to the top is the Killing Cave of the Khmer Rouge, where the thugs brutalized innocent victims and threw their bodies into a ravine to pile up at the bottom. At the peak, after observing a toddler wield a machete, we enjoyed magnificent views of the flat rice-field landscape interspersed with perfect conical-shaped hills. We descended to the bottom of a hill to watch a colony of bats exit a cave at around dusk. Between two and five million bats depart the cave at the same time each evening. They fly together and form a homogenous “stream” in the sky. It was one of the most extraordinary spectacles I have ever witnessed. In the evening, we attended the Battambang circus, which is an energetic performance by students of a local NGO school.

Despite my extensive stay in Phnom Penh, I ate traditional Khmer cuisine only twice in the capital. An excellent Chinese noodles and dumplings restaurant situated near my hostel commanded my attention instead. I had not eaten proper Chinese dumplings since I was in Melbourne, so these delicious morsels were simply too tempting to resist. The restaurant granted me a positive reason for returning home. It also revealed to me how remarkably various the flavours of fried noodles are between Asian cuisines. Nevertheless, I did not entirely neglect the local gastronomy. I sampled Khmer curry once more, which features an unremarkable gravy of coconut cream and minimal spices. I tried mango salad, consisting of shredded green mango, carrots, peanuts and dressing, but it was far too tangy for my taste (so I have subsequently avoided it!). In Battambang, the kitchen at my hostel cooked delightful meals. I had a filling meal of banh chao (thin Khmer pancakes made from rice flour, water and turmeric powder) that enclosed pork, beansprouts and onion and was served with a peanut and chilli sauce. At a nearby restaurant, I had a mouth-watering plate of lok-lak (beef in peppery tomato-based gravy) with chips and fried egg. At my favourite haunt in town, I enjoyed a curry noodle soup with chicken. Eating curry with noodles seems quite unusual to me (nonsensical mindset), yet it tastes delicious and is superior to curry-and-rice combinations.

Admittedly, neither Phnom Penh nor Battambang were particularly enthralling cities, so both are probably skippable on whirlwind trips in Southeast Asia. But to properly learn about the Khmer Rouge, the current status of Cambodia and the future direction of the nation, then Phnom Penh is an imperative destination to visit. Battambang, meanwhile, provides the ideal opportunity to experience a typical and unassuming Cambodian society.

That’s all for now,

Liam

P.S. I’m becoming quite a cranky commuter on public transport. On trains, buses and planes, I become infuriated by people who:
- lean their seats back and constrain my leg space
- play loud or abhorrent music without headphones (Asians have a tendency to play loud and abhorrent music)
- invade my half of the seat
- are restless (constantly fidgeting with something)
- stare at my computer screen
- sit next to me

Cambodia photos

Posted by Liamps 16:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Coast of Cambodia

Cambodia photos

Upon entering Cambodia, I suddenly realised the knowledge I had of the country amounted to diddlysquat. I could identify Cambodia on a globe, write the name of its capital city (though have difficulties with pronunciation), give a vague estimation of its population, classify it as a former French colony and recognise the world famous temples of Angkor were within its borders. This was a shockingly inadequate list of facts which disrespected the historical significance of its people. Heck, I wasn’t even aware that the people of Cambodia (most ethnically homogenise nation in Southeast Asia) are called Khmers. Cambodia’s contemporary ball-shaped territory is squished between the Indochinese heavyweights of Vietnam and Thailand (plus a small border with Laos). But the Khmer people formerly ruled an expansive empire that stretched across most of the region. They constructed remarkable infrastructure, including Angkor Wat and advanced irrigation networks, and shadowed the diminutive kingdoms of the Vietnamese and Siamese. The Khmer Empire gradually eroded away and its glory was forgotten to the broader world (surely awareness of the Khmer Empire is rather limited in the West, or have I just been particularly stupid?). French colonisation in the nineteenth century arguably saved the Khmer state from crumbling completely. After gaining independence, Cambodia suffered during the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge era and even the subsequent period. Cambodia is now among the poorest nations on Earth, and also one of the most corrupt. Its also a kingdom with a purportedly democratic form of government, but an authoritarian and fraudulent regime ultimately rules. All of which I knew virtually nothing about, which was obviously justification enough to spend three weeks in the country and become acquainted with Cambodia.

The first region I explored in Cambodia was the coastal areas in the south-east of the country. The history and identity of the Khmer people are not especially relevant to my experiences there, so discussion on such matters will be delayed to further entries. When I first crossed the border, I expected Cambodia to exhibit similarities to Vietnam. I was instead surprised to discover, both immediately and during the ensuing weeks, how contrasting and substantially different the two countries are. Even at the immigration control office (a shed), I noticed how suddenly I could not read local signage. The Khmer language adopted a script from Indian sources in the seventh century; and thus the written form of the language is completely different to Latinised Vietnamese. Within short time, I was confronted with the realisation that Cambodia is a much poorer, less developed and less organised nation. To me, the Cambodian people instantly appeared less affluent and further removed from the modern world. The route from the border to the town of Kampot was entirely on dusty dirt roads (which was ostensibly due to construction). After seventeen days in Vietnam, for the first time I felt like I was traveling through a properly rural area. The population density of Vietnam is so high that settlements of varying magnitude are constantly passed in the “countryside”. But extensive areas in the south-east of Cambodia are genuinely abandoned to agriculture. The region is less crowded, less polluted and thus more peaceful; it is evocative of a bygone era. The landscape is utterly flat and dominated by rice-fields. I found it quite beguiling to see boundless land covered in shallow freshwater. The bright green rice-fields are interspersed with palm trees and tended to by gigantic water buffalo. On the roads leading to Kampot, there were boards every hundred metres promoting the “Cambodian People’s Party” or occasionally the “FUNIPEC Party” (political arm of the royal family) instead of commercial advertisements, surely indicative of a corrupt political system. I spent three nights in Kampot and three nights on the hedonistic coast, which provided radically different experiences.

My first impressions of Kampot were that I had arrived in a desolate ghost town of derelict roads and dull buildings. By the time I left, Kampot had become one of my favourite “off the mass-tourist track” destinations for the entire year. Kampot is a provincial capital located on a charming river near the coastline. The centre of town is essentially a dustbowl of dilapidated buildings from the French colonial era and the period immediately after. Despite their grandeur and elegance fading with time, the aged façades of these buildings possess bountiful character. Monumental sculptures of salt miners and durian fruits (large, spiky and stinky) decorate the great roundabouts to celebrate two of the province’s famed products. The Old Bridge (steel bridge constructed by the French) crosses the wide and languid river and connects Kampot to a riverside cluster of guesthouses among the reeds. I went on a sunset cruise upstream of Kampot and was captivated by the scenery. The river and its banks are clean and not spoilt by pollution like so many waterways in Asia. The river is bordered with dense thickets of reeds, palms and other vegetation. Stilted houses are situated above the river and local Cambodians ply the waters on slender wooden boats. Kampot is a docile place and a most enjoyable town to unwind in after the chaos and traffic of Vietnam.

The allure of Kampot is difficult to describe, though my affection for the town is certainly shared by numerous other Westerners. Indeed, part of the appeal is that Kampot boasts a vibrant and interesting expat community. Westerners happen to operate all the tourism businesses, which is a situation prevalent throughout Cambodia. My impressions though suggested that expats in Kampot differentiated from others on the coast, because they genuinely loved Cambodia rather than just the cheap booze and weed. They are quite a well-knitted community and publish an amusing and free survival guide for travellers. The hostel I stayed at ($3 for a dorm bed! The high standards were a bonus) was owned by an eccentric Alaskan who had spent most of his adult life in Southeast Asia. Hyper energetic and bombastic William ran a fantastic guesthouse that even featured a minigolf course. While I enjoyed fifty cent pints during happy hour, I met an interesting man with the thickest working-class British accent you’re ever likely to encounter. I was astounded to learn that he spent thirty years away from the UK as he moved between labour jobs in ports around North America. He was so charmed by Kampot that he intended to replicate other Westerners and make a permanent move. I also met Kieran from Jersey, a small British dependency in the English Channel. We travelled together to Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Phnom Penh after Kampot.

The primary reason for tourists to stay in Kampot is to explore the surrounding countryside. I opted to achieve this by joining two minivan day tours, due to their inexpensiveness. The first tour visited several attractions east of Kampot, toward the Cambodian border. We stopped at a desolate expanse near the sea where locals farm for salt. Each year, the land is cleared of vegetation, levelled and subdivided by channels into fields. When the land is prepared, seawater is channelled into each field. Subsequently, the fields are sealed off and the trapped water evaporates from the heat of the sun, thus leaving deposits of salt for the farmers to gather. Appropriately, peppercorns are also produced in Kampot province. Kampot pepper is reputedly the finest quality pepper on Earth, with one bag of Kampot pepper retailing for thirty to forty euros in Paris. The industry exists solely to serve the international market (difficult to buy in Cambodia). Unfortunately, pepper plantations are not overly interesting; they consist of rows of vines with peppercorns growing on them (green, white and black peppercorns are produced from the same vines. The differences come from the time of picking and the drying-out process). We visited an uninspiring cave with a colourful Buddhist temple nearby. Dozens of monks live in the connected monastery. Cambodia is a deeply religious country and most men will spend at least three months (usually after adolescence) living as monks in Buddhist wats. Consequently, young men with shaved-heads and orange robes are ubiquitously seen in Cambodia. Above the cave, we were afforded exceptional views of the flat paddy-field landscape and stone Buddhist stupas (resemble giant bells). We lunched in the old French seaside resort of Kep, which is famous for its crabs. We spent the afternoon relaxing on a paradisiacal island that is known as Rabbit Island in English. The small, jungle-clad island is fringed with palm trees and surrounded by clean blue waters (though unfortunately not turquoise). All the boats which service the island are painted orange and green. overall, the tour was a pleasant way to experience the sedate nature of rural Cambodia.

The second tour was a fascinating, though tragic, exploration of Mt. Bokor near Kampot. The mountain is at the epicentre of a national park that spreads across a vast area in the south-east of Cambodia. The French developed a hill station on the summit of Mt. Bokor (it doesn’t culminate in a pinnacle) in the 1920s and it became a popular holiday retreat for colonists to escape the searing heat of the plains. The hill station was abandoned in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge gained control of the mountain and it has since become a ghost town. Several of the surviving buildings, most notably a Catholic church, are covered beautifully in red lichen. The structure and decorative details of the grand Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino remain, but all fixtures, furnishings and surfaces have been stripped away. These once decadent buildings were absorbing and eerie to walk through. The casino overlooks the coastline and jungle sprawls over the slopes below it. The loudest sounds I have heard in nature emanated from that jungle. Catastrophically, the summit of Mt. Bokor is being spoiled by rampant development. Exclusive hotels, shopping malls, casinos and golf courses are all part of a master-plan to form a new city of 100,000 on the mountaintop. The complexes infringe upon the quaintness of the French ghost town with their generic capitalist architecture (who wants to see a hideous outer-Melbourne estate when they travel overseas?). The natural environment is being debilitated by the development, and an example of this is the change in water colour at povokvil waterfalls from crystal-clear to murky brown. The project is a strange initiative because the precinct is located inconveniently far from the coast and downtown Kampot, so who would want to stay there? I suspect even luxury-love Westerners would have minimal interest in such a location, so I assume wealthy Chinese are the target clientele. This was quite a unique tour that provided a different experience to merely visiting tourist sights.

Sihanoukville is a vile beachside town that is devoted purely to tourism. It is not a place worth lingering in, unless you’re a party-orientated traveller intent on getting smashed each night. It is also not a place worth writing about, so I’ll cease discussion of Sihanoukville now.

Koh Rong is a vaguely pleasanter destination with a handful of redeemable aspects, but overall it is an island worth avoiding. Koh Rong was the first tropical island that Kieran from Jersey travelled to and he departed with revulsion for such places. Koh Rong features all the standard characteristics of an idyllic tropical island: its isolated, surrounded by blue water, boasts white fine-sand beaches and is draped in verdant jungle. On one side of the island, Long Beach stretches eight kilometres around a brilliant turquoise blue bay. Long Beach is advertised as a pristine environment, but like many beaches in Asia, it is strewn with rubbish. There is little to do on Koh Rong and unfortunately the water lacks coral reef and fish to explore. We were primarily entertained by a colony of speedy crabs and an intimidating goose that kept following me. On Koh Rong, I unexpectedly met someone from earlier in my trip. At a small fried rice and noodle shop, I was suddenly asked by the person sitting opposite, “Have you been to Bosnia recently?” It was Costa Rican Rey from the hostel I stayed at in Mostar! What an incredible coincidence: we sat at the same table on a small island on the other side of the planet from a small town in an obscure country of South-eastern Europe where we first crossed paths. Even stranger, we didn’t actually speak to each other in Mostar! He remembered my beard and my Danish travel companion who he spoke to! That encounter was one of the highlights of Globo Trip.

The issues I have with Koh Rong relate to the tourist settlement. Usually, I find mass-tourist developments spoil beachside areas, but in this case the (fake) backpacker scene has become the problem. Dozens of primitive wooden guesthouses and bars are clustered densely together on a beach. By that I mean, quite literally on the beach. Aside from the detrimental consequences this has on the aesthetics of the environment, this arrangement is also inherently stupid because a freak storm or tsunami would completely annihilate these structures. When we were there, a high tide surged up to the entrance steps of the guesthouses and wiped out the pathway between them. Furthermore, the land immediately behind the cluster of wooden structures is sufficiently flat and clear to be convivial for development, so why were they not constructed there (which would have preserved the beach)? While a small village is connected to the tourist settlement, there is nothing about Koh Rong that seems “Cambodian”. It is an island devoted purely to (fake) backpackers eager to chill with a stubby and a joint in hand for indefinite amounts of time. Kieran and I were flabbergasted to discover that virtually every other (fake) backpacker on Koh Rong intended to stay at least a week and some had been there for months. Since there was virtually nothing to do, we couldn’t wait to leave.

In my entries about European destinations, you may have detected my disdain for package tourists and giant tour groups. Another traveller typology I particularly loathe is on the opposite end of the spectrum, the “fake hippy”. These contemptible creatures congregate in places like Koh Rong. Fake hippies are easy to identify as they are people desperate to be noticed. Dread locks on a white person, shaved heads with pony tails, bountiful piercings, hideous tattoos, supposedly ragged (but really designer) clothing and anything that looks confronting are all indicative of fake hippies. They want to appear outrageous and “alternative” to the superficial, image-obsessed culture of the Western capitalist world. Yet their images are so painstakingly honed that they themselves blindly fit into the mainstream ethos. These are people who are prideful of their apparent adventurousness and global-mindedness in traveling to an “exotic” country like Cambodia. I always find it fascinating that you never see these people at destinations which have not yet been drawn into the mass tourist realm or places that have a misplaced reputation about their lack of safety. For example, I didn’t notice them in Kampot, Battambang or Kratie in Cambodia and nor in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.

Unfortunately the Khmers failed to match their empire-building prowess with aptitude for cooking. The cuisine is similar to a mild and simplistic version of Thai. Nevertheless, decent (though not mindboggling) fare is still available and a range of cuisines (Chinese, Indian and Western) are omnipresent. The best dishes I ate in Cambodia were during the first week in Kampot and on the coast. Unlike the Thai kitchen, Cambodia seems to have one traditional type of curry; humbly named Khmer curry. The coconut-cream based curry is flavoured with a light smattering of spices and can be eaten with any meat. Beef lok lak is one of the country’s two signature dishes. Cubes of beef are stewed in peppery gravy and eaten with either chips or rice. I think it’s a rather unusual dish of for a Southeast Asian country as the flavour and texture is more akin to a European concoction. Amok, made with freshwater fish or chicken, is the other national dish. Cubes of white meat are steamed in banana leaves with lemongrass, pounded shallots, garlic, kaffir lime and coconut milk. The sauce obtains a mousse-like texture and is fragrant and tasty. To maximise the “1 free beer for every $1 spent on food” deal on “Mad Mondays” at my hostel in Kampot, I dispensed of my usual rule of eating only local cuisine and ordered a full thali meal. The Indian food (chicken curry, spinach and cheese curry, dhal, chapatti and rice) was unexpectedly delectable and also epically proportioned (reflective of the American ownership). In Kep, I enjoyed one of the most memorable dishes of the entire trip: fresh crab fried with Kampot pepper. After ordering, the cooks gathered live crabs from their cages in the sea. We received piles of crabs in a garlicky and peppery sauce with another pepper sauce for dipping (each tasted quite different). On the cruise to Koh Rong, we enjoyed a delicious fillet of fish that was marinated in lemongrass and steamed in banana leaves. On the island, I survived entirely on ultra-cheap fried rice, fried noodles and fried bananas. In Southeast Asia, I have developed an obsession for shakes, which are made from tropical fruit, ice and sometimes condensed milk. This shake mania particularly came to fruition in Southern Cambodia when I was often drinking three a day. Mango, coconut, banana and pineapple are the flavours I usually order (preferred flavours in order).

Kampot and Koh Rong are located relatively close to each other, but they are vastly different destinations. If partying with Westerners is all you desire when traveling abroad, then Koh Rong is certainly the place for. If you actually want to experience something a bit more foreign, then head to Kampot.

That was a big one,

Liam

Cambodia photos

Posted by Liamps 18:18 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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