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Month: August, 2019

Phnomenal Penh

The minibus out of Battambang weathers the literal storms of Cambodia as we rocked and swayed along the country’s perpetually-under-development roads. Yawning potholes and slick gravel make for a dynamic if perilous journey, all to a symphony of horns and protesting cattle as we slipstream farmer’s carts and poncho-clad families packed onto tiny scooters.

A quick, concussive crack of my head against the window combined with the furious utterances of an outraged biker alerted me to our arrival at the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s only true metropolis is a hive of kaleidoscopic public transport, freshly-incinerated street food and heated haggling, all to a backdrop of historic architecture and modern industry. Before we can even open the door of the minibus, tuk-tuk drivers swarm the tired passengers to offer their services and whisk us off into the night.

Only two false stops and three wrong turns later, we arrive in the heart of Khan Doun Penh district – a choose-your-own-adventure of dining, sleeping and touring and the go-to streets for lost travellers like ourselves. You’ll get used to politely turning down drivers and restaurant hosts every other minute while you drift between high street and temple courtyard with no obvious separation between the two. Orange-clad monks tap away on their phones while expertly weaving between traffic on motorbikes; elderly salesman stride slowly but confidently between furiously-honking trucks and impressively-overloaded bicycles carrying produce.

Head to the banks of Tonle Sap River and watch your head as thousands of well-fed pigeons hurtle past you to the outstretched arms of alarmed tourists. Just across the square lies the resplendent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda – both of which typically closed for our stay in the city, but impressive even from outside the walls.

*A less-positive anecdote and word of warning about the riverside area: we fell victim to a well-choreographed group of pickpockets who grabbed Meg’s phone without us ever seeing them. After a frantic attempt to find it via the Find My IPhone app at a local cafe (and pointedly locking it to prevent access), we returned to the scene of the crime and encountered a group of women who ‘didn’t steal the phone, but know where it is, and will get the phone but how much will you pay’. They seemed outraged when I even mentioned the word ‘stolen’, but after we (falsely) claimed to only have $30 they thoughtfully produced said phone from a hiding spot around the corner and disappeared. We then discovered that they’d completely wiped the phone and destroyed all of Meg’s photos from the trip, so if that’s not your idea of a good time then hold onto your possessions in such places.

Cultural sights in the area include the gleaming Golden Temple and the towering Wat Phnom; against the shining monoliths of the 21st century, such traditional architecture would seem bizarre in any other country, but in Cambodia it’s completely within the ordinary to see ornamental golden spires and modern brutalist architecture leaning against one another.

Another key spot in the city is, sadly, the Genocide Museum – a school-turned-torture prison for the Khmer Rouge takeover, and now a memorial to ensure the atrocities within never occur again. It’s a rough hour or two’s education while walking around the museum with an audio guide, but I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s far too early in the morning for a pair of laden backpackers when the tuk-tuk arrives to whisk us away to possibly my least favourite bus ride of the entire trip (but there’s still time for that to change) – to the islands of Koh Rong.

The Bats and Bones of Battambang

Having skipped the opportunity to eat a bag of crickets, we headed away from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia by population – though you’d never believe it. With a tiny city centre and a few short roads either side, it feels more like a small town than a city; despite its #2 ranking its population is still less than 140,000. Even that seems too high of a number – it’s a quiet, sleepy sort of city, though not without its historic importance.

One thing that will come up a lot when you Google ‘Things To See In Cambodia’ is, unfortunately, the word ‘genocide’. The vicious Khmer Rouge takeover of the country in 1975 resulted in almost a quarter of the country’s population either being executed or dying from famine and disease, so it’s understandable that a great deal of the country‘s modern heritage would feature places like Battambang’s Killing Fields, Killing Cave and Torture Museum. You’d be hard-pressed to find a funny spin on such destinations, but it’s a hugely important aspect of the country to absorb.

A memorial stands just outside the city, containing hundreds of actual skulls of the victims and adorned with carvings depicting the horrors inflicted upon them. Outside the memorial is a booth with one incredibly friendly guard who lived through the experience himself, asking for a tiny donation (a few thousand riel, or less than a dollar) for the upkeep of the shrine. It’s hard to walk away smiling, but it’s a part of history I wasn’t ever taught in school. Chalk it up to a failing on the part of the British education system.

It’s not all historical horrors in Battambang, however. Hop on your trusty scooter (or ever-available tuk-tuk) and head either north or south from the city to visit its own ancient sites, Ek Phnom and Phnom Banan; we headed to the latter, nipping along smooth, tree-lined country lanes and returning the enthusiastic greetings from children on the roadside.

The path up to Phnom Banan starts as a serene, tree-canopied stone square with a small flight of steps – which quickly arches up into a aggressively steep incline of rough-hewn stairs bordered with dragon-head banisters. By the time you reach the top you’re heaving and cursing under your breath, but the small ruins is worth the climb. Sitting in a cloud of incense fumes, the temple has panoramic views of the countryside and multiple prayer sites; visitors don’t need to be hushed by caretakers as the tranquil atmosphere seems to create itself, with visitors stepping quietly over fallen statues and worn-smooth steps.

The main event of Battambang for us was the mountain containing the Killing Cave, Pkar Slar Cave and the mountaintop temple Phnom Sampov, as well as the Bat Cave – a huge scar in the side of the mountain, from which thousands upon thousands of bats pour out every evening at 5:30, more or less on the dot. Pull up a plastic chair, buy a cheap beer and marvel at superhero origin stories as the sky is filled with the chittering of crazily-flapping creatures.

We were too late for the Killing Cave in the end, though that didn’t stop the security guard amiably pointing us the way even an hour after closing time. It was starting to get dark and the power had already been switched off, so when we found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine famed for its horrific executions, in the dark, surrounded by piles of human skulls, we thought better of becoming a viral internet mystery and left rather than wander deeper underground with nothing more than a low-battery iPhone torch.

The rest of the evening was uneventful, save for a slightly-near-death motorcycle crash skinning both our left legs a little bit (sorry, respective parents, you told us so). Roundabouts in Asia can be perilous at best, so when an articulated truck cuts you off and sends you braking onto wet gravel, there’s only so much that can be done. Lesson learned and shared: big trucks are not your friend, avoid them before they try to make friends with you.

Bandaged and sore, but otherwise alive, we hobble our bags onto the waiting tuk-tuk for the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I bagsy the front passenger seat and absolutely play up the injury for attention, but I suspect I’m just another backpacker with a leg-bandage now. Way to enforce the stereotype, me.

Angkor Wat’s Happening Next

The journey from Hanoi to Siem Reap is one-eighth the length of a Vietnamese sleeper bus ride. I’ve barely managed to get into my usual rhythm of quiet sleepless desperation and tablet fiddling before the captain announces our imminent arrival and I must repack my back for the umpteenth time.

Admin note for Cambodia – it’s easy to get a tourist visa to enter the country, but do yourself a favour and do it online in advance. You can absolutely fill out a form after getting off the plane, but you’ll be among hundreds of like-minded passengers and will have to queue up to do so. It’s the same price either way ($30) but it’s way easier to just smugly waltz through passport control.

After a brief moment of soul-chilling panic when my bag didn’t arrive (it had fallen off the bloody conveyor belt) we stepped out into the steam-room air of Siem Reap and got a taxi into town. A few notes on money and taxis in Cambodia: here they use their own currency (the Riep) as well as US Dollars, which is a bit confusing. Essentially, 4000KHR = $1, and anything less than a dollar is converted to KHR. For example, if a drink is $1.50, that’s either $1 + 2000KHR, or 6000KHR outright. It takes a bit of on-the-spot maths, which is why I almost always get it wrong, but the system does work.

On the taxi front: something I’ve noted since being in Cambodia is that people are far less likely to try and rip you off for journeys, or even overcharge you much in the first place. Instead, what people are more likely to do is try to pitch their services to you for the length of your stay, as a recurring driver. There’s still a certain amount of awkward shuffling of feet if you don’t fancy it, but it does at least come off as more honest than many tourist experiences. Our driver from the airport pitched us his brother’s tuk-tuk services for exploring Angkor Wat ($20 for one day, or $27 for sunset plus half the following day). Initially we declined the offer, but after looking up prices via our hostel we realised that he actually charged pretty reasonably, and we ended up booking him anyway.

Siem Reap is one of the most-visited spots in Cambodia, but outside of the capital Phnom Penh there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘large’ city; even as a small country with a population of 16 million everywhere has a relatively ‘small’ feel, even cities. The local night market in Siem Reap is a busy collection of traditional stores and smoking barbecues, offering the usual tourist memorabilia as well as locally-made fabrics and clothes.

The main draw of Siem Reap is possibly the most famous feature of Cambodia: the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. The complex is vast. When tour guides assure you that you need a driver to visit, that’s not just a hard sell; Angkor is five times the size of Manhattan, spread over 153 square kilometres of dense jungle. Any like-minded children of films like The Jungle Book, Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider will spend the entire time gawping at the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm and eerie carvings of Bayon Temple.

Even if your heart is totally devoid of interest for history or architecture, each temple is swarmed with families of monkeys doing exactly as they please with little to no regard for the humans Instagramming them. One particularly mischievous chap managed to drop an entire tree branch within millimetres of a Korean family, followed by much elated screeching and defecating (on the monkey’s part).

There simply isn’t enough blog space (or, even charitably, reader concentration) to go into detail every facet of Angkor City; we visited eight temples and didn’t even scratch the surface. We left for the complex at 5am to do The Tourist Thing and await the sunrise over Angkor Wat itself, as many before and after have done. This is during the off-season, but even so expect a fair crowd of like-minded people watching/instagramming/vlogging the event. This particular dawn – perhaps luckily – was rather overcast, which did decrease the vibrancy of the sunrise somewhat but also made for a cooler, less crowded day.

Each temple has its own distinctive flavour. The central Angkor Wat building is a grand, palatial structure with its distinctive ‘pineapple’ towers and foreboding half-kilometre approaching road; following that, Bayon Temple is a looming stack of grey, weathered faces staring down at you through scrambled, Rubik’s cube-like stonework, dotted with monkeys scratching themselves amidst the historic structure.

Baphuon is off-limits to children, pregnant women and the elderly, primarily because the steps involved to reach its peak are far closer to climbing than walking; while I was there, a number of tourists turned back rather than take the stairs. Ta Prohm is one of the most recognisable structures, featuring in the first Tomb Raider film. Somehow more so than the other temples, it has been absolutely reclaimed by nature, with towering silk-cotton trees bursting through the tonnage of stonework and reaching into the canopy above.

Angkor Wat, being as famous as it is (and responsible for a huge percentage of Cambodian tourism), is likely the most expensive single thing you’ll do on a trip at $35 for a single-day pass – but you simply have to do it. It’s absolutely not the only thing to go to Cambodia for, but rather like going to Paris and skipping Notre Dame, you’d be missing out. I’d argue that it’s worth it even just to tell people you did.

It could be the sunstroke talking (hydrate, people) but after six or seven hours of exploring the ancient ruins the monkeys started looking at me weird and I needed to retire with some air-con. Having officially struck off something that *would* have been on my bucket list if I was organised enough to do things like write bucket lists, it was time to head on to the country’s second-biggest city, Battambang.

It’s the half-way point on the journey and there’s a nice lady selling spicy-fried grasshoppers. I instead went for a fish-cheese sandwich and will spend the rest of the journey wondering what the hell fish-cheese is.