Cambodia 15 to 22 April 2024

Cambodia the last country on our list. Cambodia a country with a troubled and tumultuous past. Mention Cambodia and people remember the genocide that took place from 1975 to January 1979, by the Khmer Rouge and the then prime minister Pol Pot. 1.5 to 2 million people were killed in a reign of terror, the exact number is not known. Mention Cambodia and people think of the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat. But there is more, much more.  There are more than 4,000 other ruins and temples scattered around the country. Cambodia is home to one of the natural wonders of the world, Tonle Sap Lake. This is South East Asia’s largest fresh water lake. It changes size  with the seasons, from 2,500km2 to16,000km2. It has also some of the friendliest people in Asia and also some of the best food.

This is a traditional Cambodian Tuc Tuc. It is called a “Remorque”

Phnom Penh Cambodia

Entrance door to the Bayon Temple

I took a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, it was a short hop, 226 km. But there was a border crossing and a bus. It took about 6 hours to get from Saigon center to Phnom Penh center. The bus left at 7am, bus stop was just around the corner from my hotel. It was a short run to the border. The bus stopped and unloaded the passengers and we had to walk across. We were ushered along to the various posts by the host.  The whole process was streamlined and took about an hour to complete. Then we boarded the same bus and carried on towards Phnom Phen. But we had an unscheduled stop at a tyre repair place. The bus crew wanted to change one of the wheel rims. This was done with the passengers all sitting in the bus…. All except me as I wanted to look. I have to say that these people were really professional and they were quick.

Saigon to Phnom Penh bus, changing the wheel

Then another stop for food. Then Phnom Penh center. I had prebooked a hotel in the center within walking distance from the bus stop. Even though it was close it was an arduous and long walk…. It was hot, really hot, incredibly hot, plus it was midday. The temperatures were going up every day. One strange thing that I noticed, as I walked…. The city was deserted and everything was closed. I thought that because it was so hot and everyone was having a siesta. But this was not the case as I found out later, it was New year, Khmer new year, coinciding with the solar new year in different parts of Asia. It lasts for 3 days. It is entwined in Buddhist customs and is passionately celebrated. It is an ancient Hindu tradition, which was the religion of Cambodia, then Buddhism took over. It begins at the end of the harvest season on the 13th or 14th of April, depending on the ancient Horoscopes the “Moha Sangkran” and lasts for 3 to 4 days. This one was 4 days. Everything is closed down, everyone is on holiday with family and friends and everyone is partying like there is no tomorrow. I ventured out to walk to the center and was met by an incredible sight. People were spraying each other with water. At one intersection a group had a hosepipe and were spraying everyone with water as well. They also sprinkled powder on to people’s faces. I bought a waterproof bag for my phone and camera and joined in the fun. I was soaking wet.

Armed and dangerous….. Come on dude make my day.

Locked and loaded…. ready to spray.

Happy wet, powdered covered people…. a night out in Phnom Penh

I finally made it back to the hotel at 3 in the morning. It was a fantastic night and a good welcome to Cambodia. This tradition of water spraying is called Songkran.

Party time….

Now I just had to wait out the end of new year celebrations, another two days, then the shops would be open and I could get a sim for my phone. I have an offline navigation app on my phone but when I have mobile internet I use google.

Once the celebrations were finished, the very next morning saw me at the phone shop. I felt sorry for the poor assistant…. She could hardly keep her eyes open. I got my sim and was back in business. Next thing was to arrange a bike. I was talking to two companies. I finally went with Victory motorcycle hire in Phnom Penh. One thing about hiring a motor bike is you have to trust the company and feel good with them. I got a Honda FLT 220.  This is a bike that was made for the Asian market and it turned out to be quite a versatile little bike. It was a so called flat tracker and it took me a while to get used to the large “cow horn” handlebars. Then it was time to explore.

Victory Motorcycles in Phnom Penh and Efftee my little Honda EFT flat tracker

I had made a route up, I had a plan, but that plan was gonna change… like every plan does when you start off. First stop was Krong Battambang.

Roadside restaurant and petrol station, Cambodia

Battambang dates back to the 11th  century. It is a major commercial hub and the leading rice producing province in Cambodia. It also contains some of the best examples of French architecture in the country. It was declared to join UNESCO created cities network in the field of the arts, crafts and gastronomy. I planned to stay here two nights and spend one day sightseeing. The easiest way being to take a guided tour. This was easily arranged through the hotel. My transport was a tuc tuc or to be more precise a “Remorque”. These are traditional Cambodian tuc tucs. It’s like a little horse and carriage, only the horse is a small scooter or motorbike. The wooded carriage is pulled along behind the bike. It can easily seat up to 6 people. It can be bumpy but it’s a fun way to go. This was to transport me in style around the sights of Battambang for one whole day. The first thing was a run through the city looking at the French architecture and the local market.

My private Remorque and driver.

Next stop was Wat Samrong Knong. This is a 3 hundred year old Buddhist temple. Unfortunately during the Khmer Rouge period it was used as a prison and over 10,000 people were killed there. But this happened in just about every town and city in Cambodia. The main temple is really nice and well kept. It is situated among the ruins of all the older buildings that have perished over the centuries. There is also a rather grisly memorial to the Genocides victims. It was nice to wander around the ruins.

Wat Samrong Knong.

We meandered around the countryside visiting some local small factories. One was weaving grass mats, these are not so widely used anymore. Next was rice wine making. This is another local brewed alcohol, and is popular all over Asia. They call it rice wine but it is really strong, it’s a spirit, its between 18 and 25 percent on the second distillation, the first distillation is 60 percent. The key elements of this home brew is Rice and homemade yeast. Added to the yeast are a number of spices, pepper, cardamon, coriander grains, garlic, galangal, ginger and star-anis being the main ones. A little bit of rice wine is added to the yeast before it is left to dry in the sun. Rice husks are used to fuel the fires under large kettles where the rice is distilled.

Rice wine brewing.

Next stop was a local rice paper making factory. This is used to make the spring rolls. Then onto a fishpaste factory. OMG, this was bad. The smell of fermented fish was overpowering.  

Rice paper making factory

Fish paste making factory

On the way to the next stop we meandered through the rural villages. A brief stop at a small rope bridge across the river. This is for pedestrians and scooters. They are a common sight in Cambodia and are built by the local community to join together settlements on the other bank. On the way two kids on bicycles held onto the tuc tuc and got a free ride.

Rope bridge and kids hitching a ride on tuc tuc

On the way we paid a visit to the Wat Samrong Knong temple. 

Wat Samrong Knong temple. 

We were  heading to the Bamboo train. This, nowadays is a tourist trap, but worth the experience. The original old bamboo train ran on old misaligned train tracks, it ran through the jungle. It is a platform made of Bamboo planks resting on two steel axils with old wheels  salvaged of a tank. It is not fastened, it just rests on top of them. It was use to carry supplies, rice and people to the different villages along the route. It was a narrow gauge single track so when two trains met head on the least loaded one was lifted of the tracks and carried around the other one. During the civil war and the Khmer Rouge period it was closed. It reopened and started to carry tourists but closed again in 2017. It was then moved to outside of town and exists primarily as a tourist attractions. It still runs on a single line track that is used by normal trains. But it just carries tourists. It runs to a small settlement with huts built selling souvenirs and hand crafts, stops there for 15 minutes then comes back. When I used it another big freight train came and we all had to jump off and lift it off the tracks, to let the big one past.

The Bamboo train

Little bamboo train lifted off the track to let freight train through.

Then on to the killing caves. I was not looking forward to this but I knew that I had to do it. Once again this is an old monastery and was used as a prison, torture and execution site. It is situated on Mount Phnom Sampeau about 12 km outside of the city. There are a number of caves here that served traditionally as Buddhist temples. People were executed and their bodies were thrown down shafts into the caves. Men in one, woman in another and clothes in a separate one. There is now a large reclining Buddha and a memorial in the form of a glass case housing some skulls and a large chicken wired enclosure containing human bones.

The killing caves

Temple on the killing caves mountain

Artillery left over from the civil war

Then it was back down again to meet with my driver and guide, dusk was approaching and we had to get to the bat caves. There are millions of bats living here and every sunset they fly out en masse. It is an amazing sight. The whole exodus takes hours.

The Bat cave

Exodus…..millions of bats.

The next day I left for Siem Reep.

Siem Reep is the second largest city in Cambodia. It’s main fame is that it serves as the gateway to Ankor Wat. I had booked a tour with guide and airco van. The temperatures were now hitting the 40c.

Angkor Wat is an UNESCO world heritage site. The temple was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was later transformed into a Buddhist temple. It is the largest religious structure in the world. It is surrounded by a moat and is enclosed by an outer wall. It is oriented to the west unlike the other temples that are oriented to the east. It is a symbol of Cambodia and is depicted on the national flag. It attracts over 2.5 million visitors every year. The sunrise is a really popular time to visit  Ankor wat, people try to capture that iconic photo od a rising sun up over the temple with its reflection in the moat. I was there at the start of the rain season so it was cloudy. No much point in missing breakfast and getting up early, so I opted for the sunset tour. To appreciate Ankor wat clink on the liked named photo album, link below. After a lunch break it was off to visit Ta Prohm.

Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm or the Tomb Raider Temple as it is better known by, it was made famous by Angelina Jolie in the like named film. This temple is a reminder of the powers of nature. It is swallowed by the jungle and is in a perpetual green light, created by the sun filtering in through the overhead trees. It has an aura of awe and mystery, making it one of the most impressive temples to visit. It is undergoing stabilization by a team of Indian Archaeologists working together with the Cambodians. Ta Prohm is a temple with a maze of narrow corridors and walled off courtyards. It is also referred to as the temple of towers. It is now forbidden to climb up to the galleries as these are in bad condition. A lot of the corridors are also impassable now, blocked by stones dislodged by the roots of trees. It was originally built in the late 12th and early 13th  century. This makes it a modern temple in a way. It was originally built as a Buddhist temple. Ta Prohm also actually marks the centre of the city of Angkor Thom.

Ta Prohm or the Tomb Raider Temple as it is better known by

Ta Prohm or the Tomb Raider Temple as it is better known by

At this time of the  day it has become extremely hot. Walking is getting difficult and the aircon bus is a relief. Our next stop was the unfinished temple, Ta Keo. This is a stark undecorated temple that would have been really impressive if it had ever been finished. Legend has it that it was struck by lightening during the building and then once building had commenced again it was struck for a second time. This was conceived to be a bad omen so all work was abandoned. But maybe it just wasn’t finished because the King had died, King Jayavarman. This temple is built in the typical Angkorian temple-mountain style. That is one central tower and 4 smaller towers on the 4 corners. The center tower is 50 meters high. The temple was dedicated to Shiva and it was also the first of the Angkorian temples to be built entirely from sandstone.

Ta Keo, the unfinished temple

Angkor Thom or in English the Great City. This was the last and longest inhabited city of the Khymer Empire. It was built in the late 12th century and covers an area of 9 square kilometers. It was built as a fortress. One of the most strangest and mind blowing sights lies at the hart of the city, the Bayon temple. It stopped me dead in my tracks. 54 Gothic style towers with carved images of the smiling face of Avalokirshvara, watching the 4 cardinal points and the surrounding jungle. The guardians. This temple is just ablaze with carvings depicting the eternal tug o war between the Gods and the churning sea of life. This was easily a highlight temple for me. I can still see those faces in my mind’s eye.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, the eternal tug o war between the Gods

Now it was getting time to watch the sunset. One of the best places to watch from is the Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu temple, built atop a hill. This temple was built at the end of the 9th century and dedicated to Shiva. It is also one of the most threatened temples as it attracts millions of tourists every year. It has now been taken up into a conservation program. It does offer some spectacular views of the surrounding jungle. Unfortunately there was heavy clouds at sunset so didn’t get to see that.

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Phnom Bakheng

This was an arduous full day trip. The heat and humidity making it nearly unbearable. But it was an memorable day and a day well spent. Once back at the hotel it was time to shower and head out into town to eat and enjoy some night life. But more importantly to get into airco spaces. This blog is turning out to be to long, so I am gonna finish it here and make a second blog. Coming soon Cambodia part 2, if I can tear myself away from the beach that is.

Now you gotta fluff up the cushions in your favorite chair, grab a big piece of cake and a cup of tea, settle back and click on the like named photo album, on facebook. Link below…. I hope. Click and enjoy the first impressions of Cambodia and Angkor Wat.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?vanity=100067756124491&set=a.773043124964218

Thank you for reading the blogs and looking at the photo albums. Thank you for being a part of the journey of discovery.   

លាហើយទៅពេលក្រោយ…. Khmer for Bye bye until next time

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