Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas in Cambodia

Our departure from Siem Reap went as planned, and it was a relatively easy drive along good roads to get to Battambang. We found a cheap hotel with no issues, and were quickly settled in. This was going well. Battambang itself is a pleasant town located on the banks of the Sangkae river. Whilst it is the second most populous city in the country, and a popular stop on the Cambodian tourist trail, it still very much retains a quiet, relaxed character.

Although we had arrived in good time, we did not do much on our first day. Our lunch in the wonderful Gecko Cafe expanded to fill more time than planned, as it was all too easy to relax on the balcony setting and watch life go by on the street below. From here, it was just a short stroll to the river, and we leisurely walked a loop around its banks. Although there is a lot of newer development in the city, there are still many beautiful examples of old French architecture to be seen, adding to the rich character of the town.


The next morning, we were ready to exert ourselves a little more. We started the day off munching fresh goodies from a local bakery. As a legacy from the French occupation, it is possible to find excellent baguettes and even croissants almost everywhere in Cambodia. We had really missed good bread over the last few months, so the easy and cheap availability of it here is a real bonus. We rounded off our breakfast with some excellent Khmer coffees at the Kinyei cafe. Situated down a quiet street with quirky but simple decor, if this place was transplanted to London it would be a hipster's dream. As it was though, it was pleasantly quiet, with the few tables occupied by a mixture of tourists and locals. The cost of our coffees was just $0.50 each, so it felt only right to indulge in more than one.

It would be wrong to visit Cambodia without acknowledging its difficult and painfully recent history. After a brutal insurgency beginning in 1968, the Khmer Rouge eventually took Phnom Penh and seized power in 1975, ruling for four long years. During their time in power, Pol Pot's regime embarked on an unachievable program of agrarian socialism. They ordered that the production of rice was to be tripled immediately – an impossible goal. The cities were forcibly evacuated, with the residents made to leave for the countryside no matter what their state of health, including those in hospital. Although the Khmer Rouge claimed to be creating a classless society, divisions were made clear between the rural peasants (the Old People) and those evacuated from the cities (the New People, or 17th of April People). According to the regime, the New People were of lesser value, and not to be trusted. This was despite the fact that many of these people had fled from the countryside to the relative safety of the cities during the civil war.

As part of this failed experiment, families were forcibly split up, with the only concession being very young children allowed to remain with their mothers. The agrarian reforms ultimately led to food shortages and many deaths from overwork. The regime was brutal, and unfathomable numbers of people were sent to prison camps, where they faced horrific torture and death. The death toll attributable to the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 is estimated at between two and three million, with two million being the most widely agreed figure. This was at a time where the population was only eight million. At least a quarter of the population suffered untimely and often violent deaths at the hands of the regime, a truly horrific figure.

It was with this history in mind that we set out towards the Wat Samraong Knong monastery on the outskirts of the town. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, this was used as a prison, and many executions took place here. Now, on the surface at least, this is a peaceful and surprisingly beautiful space. It is still a working pagoda, and a new one is currently under construction. It was sobering to think how different things would have felt here just 35 years ago.


From here, we got back on the bike and rode a few kilometres out of town to Phnom Sampeu, a rocky hillside that rises unexpectedly from the otherwise flat landscape. At the top is a small complex of pagodas, but about half way up there is an important and more difficult place to visit – the Killing Cave. This site was used for executions during the Khmer Rouge rule, and is situated in a quiet part of the hills. A huge skylight looks down into the dark cave below, which is now accessible by steps. Two small memorials are located here, both containing skulls and other human bones. We sat quietly for a while to pay our respects. We did not take any photographs here, as it did not feel appropriate. Whilst it had been hard to see, we were glad we had visited.

From the caves, we laboured up the remainder of the hill to see the pagodas at the summit. The temples themselves were full of monkeys, which I am no longer enamoured with after we saw one attack a lady in Nepal! We gave them a wide berth, surprised that so many tourists were happy to get close to them. The views over the flat, lush land below were incredible, especially when bathed in the soft light of late afternoon. We sat and drank it in, all the time keeping a wary eye on the monkeys behind us.


As the sun was sinking lower, we rushed back down to the road. Other than the Killing Cave and the pagodas, Phnom Sampeu is also known for a spectacular natural display. Every evening, at around 17:30, huge numbers of bats stream out of a narrow crevice in the rock face. Apparently locals estimate the number of individuals at around one million, although I am not sure if this has ever been verified or if it is only a guess. We joined a mixture of tourists and Cambodians, and patiently waited for the bats to emerge. When they eventually did make an appearance, it was incredible. They poured out of the cliff in a steady stream, all seeming to follow the same path. In places, we could see through the trees that they formed groups in the sky, similar to migrating birds in Europe. Set against the colourful sunset, it was a truly amazing sight, and one that we feel lucky to have witnessed.


After an alarming drive back to town in the dark, we rounded off the evening with a meal at the fabulous Jaan Bai. We had happily stumbled across this on our way back from breakfast earlier that day, and had been compelled to return by the fact that they not only offered $0.50 glasses of draft beer, but that they also had exciting veggie options. Oli went for some apparently delicious meat, whilst I tucked in to eggplant dumplings with a spicy chilli dip. If anyone ever finds themselves in Battambang, we would both wholeheartedly recommend a visit here.

We woke early the next day, as we were due to head to the capital. On our way to pick up our cheap baguette breakfast, we did toy briefly with staying another day, and were tempted to head back to our coffee haunt to while away the morning. Battambang is definitely the sort of place where it is easy to stay longer than originally anticipated, but we managed to motivate ourselves to leave. Just.

The majority of the ride to Phnom Penh was easy. Although the road surface wasn't always perfect, traffic was minimal. We could do a good speed for most of the journey, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. As we approached the city, the traffic increased considerably, with lumbering trucks on both sides of the road making progress difficult. The road surface worsened, and in places the dust was horrible. It appears that works are in progress to widen the road in places, but in others houses are built right onto the road side. It must be a difficult situation, as if the road is to be improved then those dwellings would need to be demolished. It was clear that the people living here were not affluent, so we hope that any future works do not worsen their situation.

As we entered the main city, the traffic became even worse. The reason for this quickly became apparent – a major protest was taking place in the middle of the main road, blocking it entirely. We did a quick U-turn, and dodged down a side street, hoping to get around it. This did not exactly go to plan, as we instead found ourselves driving along the edge of a large political rally, complete with a stage, loudspeakers and a whole load of flags. As seems to be our style, we have again arrived in a country at an interesting time politically. In a nutshell, the opposition are contesting the results of the August election, and there has been unrest in Phnom Penh over the past week. Hopefully it will be peacefully resolved.

Political strife aside, we made it to our hotel without further issues, and quickly settled in. For £6 a night it is pretty good, and we have a clean room with an en-suite hot shower. The only downside is that said shower trips the electrics every time we use it. One of us just has to stand guard at the junction box in the corridor, ready to flick the switch when needed. Ah, the glamours of travelling.

Tired from the drive, we lazed around in the cafe downstairs, growing steadily more hungry. Cambodia definitely does not have a lot of street food in comparison to Bangkok, which has made finding food slightly more effort. Imagine therefore our delight when a lady set up shop directly outside our hotel. Even better, the snacks she was preparing were vegetarian. We bought three pieces from her, at a total cost of around $0.30. Sadly, we have not managed to spot her since! Later that evening, we set off from the hotel in search of food, and as if by magic stumbled across a hole-in-the-wall Chinese vegetarian restaurant. We ate huge bowls of noodle soup for $1 each, before waddling home for a beer and some sleep.

Although the following day was Christmas eve, we were not feeling particularly festive. Our destination for the day was the infamous Killing Field of Choeung Ek. Not exactly a typical Christmas activity, but we felt it was important to visit, however upsetting it might be. Although it was only a few kilometres out of town, it took us a long time to reach. The traffic was insane, and not helped by the fact that roadworks often narrowed the street to a single lane, leaving countless trucks, cars, tuk-tuks and scooters to negotiate it without any traffic control. Despite the almost total lack of logic being applied by various road users, we eventually made it to Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek is perhaps the most infamous and well known of all the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Used as an execution ground for inmates from the S-21 prison, it claimed the lives of thousands of people over a four year period. It is now the site of a memorial, built to pay tribute to the many people who lost their lives here. The remains of some of the victims are housed within the monument, and can be seen encased in glass shelves within the towering structure.

Visitors are guided around the site by an audio tour. Whilst harrowing, we were impressed by how sensitively everything was explained. Given that a lot of the Khmer soldiers were forcibly recruited, and carried out their horrific acts under threat of death, the line between victim, survivor and perpetrator is very thin. Some of the testimonies described on the audio guide came from former guards themselves. For us, it made us think about how difficult it must have been for Cambodia to deal with this bloody history, and for reconciliation to occur within society. What happened between 1975 and 1979 here was a true human tragedy, the scope of which is both difficult and horrible to imagine.

Even now, bone fragments and scraps of fabric are still coming up to the surface, particularly following heavy rainfall. We were saddened to notice many pieces of cloth dotted around the fields. These are collected by the staff at the memorial every two to three months, which again embodies the scale of the losses here. We felt that the memorial site and audio-tour were well presented, in a respectful way that enabled reflection. Even for people with no historical connection to Cambodia, it is still a very emotionally difficult experience, but one that we felt was crucially important.


After the harrowing experience of the Killing Fields, we did not feel up to doing much for the rest of the day. We went for a slow wander around the area in which we are staying, eventually stumbling across a veggie cafe, where we enjoyed tasty baguettes full of hummus and salad. We embarked on a little further exploration, wandering the pleasant back streets, before ending up back at our hotel for an evening beer and an early night. I was feeling pretty weird knowing that at home it was Christmas Eve.  I usually love this time of the year, but a big part of that is being with the family and enjoying the food and festivities together. For the first time on the trip so far, I felt properly homesick.


Today is Christmas Day, and sadly our plans for festive treats have gone out the window. Oli must have eaten something that did not agree with him, as he was up all night with interesting digestive symptoms. As he is understandably not feeling great today, our cocktail and meal out plans have been deferred to tomorrow. We have actually been very lucky with illness on the road so far, and this is the first time one of us has felt like this. I have been teasing Oli and calling him a Scrooge that will go to any lengths to get out of Christmas, which seems to have cheered him up a little. Hopefully he will feel better soon!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Siem Reap, Kampuchea

We set off for the Cambodian border as planned. It was the first time on the trip that we have ridden with another overlander, and it was enormous fun ripping along the road on two big bikes. The drive was easy, with minimal traffic and excellent roads. We made it to the border in surprisingly good time.

Our crossing point was the town of Poi Pet, a major border hub with a chaotic character. This was the first border we have arrived at that felt somewhat like a snake pit, with plenty of people milling around who were only too happy to try and rip off the naive. Before exiting the Thai side we were approached on several occasions, with people trying to convince us that we needed to buy our Cambodian visas on the Thai side. Having done our homework we knew better, and laughingly refused to purchase them here despite repeated insistences that it was necessary. Once we got through the gauntlet of dodgy visa agents, the Thai exit was actually pretty easy and organised. We rode through to the Cambodian entry, negotiating the traffic swap-over from the left to the right side of the road, and found the genuine visa office. Visas obtained quickly and without difficulty, we allowed ourselves a glimmer of hope that this might be easy.

We rode along a little further, wondering if we had managed to complete the process already, as it was not exactly clear. The border is a weird place. Due to gambling apparently being illegal in Thailand, it is big business in Poi Pet. Within the border complex there are no fewer than nine casinos, which rather adds to the chaos and confusion. Locals seem to be able to wander around freely, and there were numerous shops and businesses dotted about. It was certainly a far cry from the sober security that has characterised most of our border experiences so far.

We were waved over by a uniformed guard, who instructed us to park up the bikes and join an enormous queue of tourists. He offered to stamp our passports then and there for a bribe of £4 each, which we refused; After all, queuing is an English speciality. As we stood in the barely moving line, another guard wandered over to the bikes and started poking at them, fidgeting with our camera mount and the throttle. Oli caught his eye, shook his head and smilingly said no, causing the guard to stop immediately and look a little sheepish.

The queue did progress slowly but steadily, channelled through a long narrow shed. We kept peeking out through the windows to check the bikes remained unmolested, which seemed to deter onlookers from fidgeting with them. As we waited, the guard who had offered the express service kept sticking his head through the windows and saying “You want quick-quick?” to various people. If we hadn't known what he was talking about this would have sounded very odd indeed! Eventually we reached the front of the line, where they took a complete set of fingerprints for Oli, and an incomplete set for me as they were in a hurry.

The staff at the visa office had told us we did not need to do anything to get the motorbike into the country, but even though we were optimistic, we knew that in reality this would be too good to be true. Sure enough, as we were getting ready to move on we were approached by another guard, who pointed us in the direction of the customs building. Seeing as there was no border gate or real security mechanism to speak of it would have been easy to give it a miss. However, not wanting to have trouble further down the line, the boys left me outside to watch over the bikes and went into the office, expecting a mountain of paperwork.

Whilst I waited, it began to rain heavily. I retreated under a doorway and found myself well looked after with the security guards insisting on bringing me a chair. The boys eventually emerged looking relieved. They had been told that the rules had changed around a year ago, and that it was no longer possible to bring a foreign vehicle into Cambodia. Not convinced this was correct, Oli and Noah had managed to blag it and persuade the officials to allow us in with the bikes. The customs official had been  been perplexed, asking how we had managed to get them through all the other countries we have visited. The boys patiently explained, showing the stamps in their passports and going over how the process usually worked. Eventually, the staff just photocopied the V5 document, stamped it, told us to be on our way, and we were free to hit the road. Phew.

The standard of Cambodian driving was immediately noticeably worse than Thailand, almost reminiscent of India. Furthermore, as with Iran, most of the two wheelers have decided to get rid of their mirrors entirely, evidently seeing no use for them. The wet road was slicked with mud from truck tyres, and scooters wobbled unpredictably all over the lane. Thankfully both the mud and kamikaze traffic did ease off as we got further into the countryside, which made the riding considerably easier. By this point, Noah was pretty low on fuel, so we stopped at a petrol station to top up. It was here that he realised his fuel hose had broken, and that it was leaking out as a result. It was quickly and easily fixed, and whilst we waited we were befriended by the family running the petrol station. They insisted on giving us cold bottles of water before we left, which was a lovely gesture.


By this point it was fairly late in the day, and we knew we would be lucky to get another hour's daylight. Noah decided to stop in the next town, but Oli and I had booked somewhere to stay in Siem Reap and were determined to push on. The rain continued intermittently, and dark clouds hung dramatically over the flat landscape. When it came, the sunset was honestly one of the most spectacular I have ever seen. It was 360° beautiful, lighting up the sky in every direction with an incredible variety of vibrant blues, pinks, oranges and purples. The full moon had already risen, and completed the picture perfect scene. Sadly we do not have any actual pictures, as the downside with seeing a beautiful sunset from the motorbike is that we end up panicking about riding in the dark.

Now, it is generally agreed that riding at night is best avoided. Finding ourselves in this situation was not ideal, but after ending up finishing journeys in the dark in India we were feeling reasonably confident. It turned out that Cambodian roads may as well be the cautionary tale to justify this rule. Although the surface had been perfect for most of the journey, with just 80km to go we started to notice huge potholes full of water, made all the more dangerous as they were totally random and unpredictable. The fact that most drivers coming the other way seemed to have no idea to work the low beam added to the challenge. Worse still, parts of the road were under works. These unsurfaced sections would suddenly loom out of the dark without warning, occasionally marked off with barrels that of course had no reflective paint or lights. When the myriad of unlit vehicles using the pitch dark roads were added to the mix, it was a recipe for potential disaster. Thankfully we limped into Siem Reap unscathed, but the last hour of the ride was tense indeed.

Tired from negotiating the border and the stress of the road, we settled in to our hotel. Our room was beautiful for the money we were paying, with an ornate plaster ceiling and comfortable bed. The only downside was that it turned out to be a cold shower only – not ideal after a ten hour day. However, the setting was peaceful and the staff so friendly that we decided to just suck it up and deal with it.

We staggered out of the hotel in search of food. We had not eaten properly since breakfast, and were famished as a result. It was fairly late in the evening, and we had no idea where we were going. A few places had already closed up shop for the night, so we quickly resolved not to be picky. We ended up wandering into the first restaurant we found (Palate). It was expensive for S.E. Asia but cheap for Europe, and turned out to be ridiculously fancy. We felt a little out of place in our hiking trousers and old t-shirts, and enjoyed our meal whilst feeling slightly dazed. It was wholly unexpected, but a pleasantly surreal experience nonetheless.

We had originally planned to spend our first day in Siem Reap at the Angkor ruins, but decided instead to relax and tackle them the following morning. We went for a very untaxing stroll through the town. Despite seeming to exist almost entirely for tourists, it is a surprisingly pleasant place, with lots of wide streets and greenery. Our walk took us through the old market, and also past the royal residence. We popped in for a quick look at this, admiring the statues and ornate architecture.


Not wanting to be too lazy, we decided to put the afternoon to good use, and go and pre-purchase our tickets for the Angkor ruins. We had heard that if you did this after five p.m. that it may be possible to get in to the park to watch the sunset. Thinking it was worth a try, we were delighted to find out that this was indeed the case, and zoomed off towards the site. We rode along for a short while before ending up on a bridge over the lake. It seemed like a decent place to catch the sunset, so we decided to venture no further for the evening.

Whilst nothing like as spectacular as the sunset the previous day, it was still a beautiful sight. As the sun sunk lower and coloured the clouds, we were intrigued to hear the sound of large motorbike engines. They belonged to an English/German couple and a South African biker, all travelling together. Equally surprised to have encountered each other, we chatted until it got dark, and decided to meet later on that evening for dinner and beers. It turned out that Kirsten, Kevin and Johan were fun, interesting and lovely people, and we enjoyed hearing their stories immensely. We finished the evening off with plans to meet again the following night.


The next day, we were up reasonably bright and early, ready for a day of scrambling over ruins. Angkor literally translates as 'capital city', with its glory days taking place between the 9th and 15th centuries. The original site is thought to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world, ranging over an area of at least 1000 square kilometres. The weather since we have arrived in Cambodia has actually been surprisingly cool (around 25 – 27 degrees in the day), which actually made for perfect exploring. In the heat, it would have been exhausting.

As we only had day tickets, we knew it would not be possible to see everything Angkor has to offer, but worked out a plan that should allow us to get a pretty good overview. On our way to our first planned stop (Bayon Temple), we spotted two smaller ones through the trees, and went for a little explore before continuing on our way. Bayon itself was huge, a dramatic structure of darkened stone and full of elaborate carvings. The stonework was covered with mint-green lichen, which lent an unexpected splash of colour. The main features of this temple are the many huge faces built into the stone, keeping a watch over the grounds. Although it was busy with other tourists, by getting out of the main areas it was possible to find sections where we were totally alone, which allowed us to play at being intrepid explorers.


From Bayon, we hopped back on the bike and made our way towards the brilliantly named Terrace of the Leper King. We spent a good couple of hours roaming the complex and clambering up the steep steps of the temples located here. The scale of Angkor really is difficult to comprehend, this part of it alone was enormous, and yet comprised of just a tiny section of the whole area. From the Terrace we crossed a field to get a better look at some tall structures sat unassumingly at the edge of the tree-line. The woodland itself hid the tumble-down remnants of another temple. Pleased with our finds, we thought it was high time for some lunch.


Whilst walking back to the bike we spotted the edge of a small temple in some woodland. Thinking it would be silly not to check it out we made our way over. We were glad we did, as this temple along with three others very close by ended up being the highlight of the day for us. All were considerably smaller than the well known sites, and in varying degrees of disrepair. We had the area almost completely to ourselves, and scrambled up and down the temples, clambering through gaps and edging along walls. We did have a brief moment of pondering why nobody else was there, wondering if perhaps they knew something we didn't (after all, Cambodia does still have a lot of land-mines!), but decided that this close to the main areas we would probably be fine. The peace of being alone here made it all the more enjoyable. Obviously these temples will have been explored by plenty of tourists before we ever showed up, but we enjoyed the sense of discovery regardless.


By this point, we had only a few hours of daylight left. We jumped back on the bike and zoomed along to some of the further temples. We did not have enough time to give them the full attention that they deserved, but were still glad to have seen them. Another highlight was the famous temple of Ta Prohm, known for the unique way that nature has taken hold, with huge trees growing over the ruins. This has to be one of the most photographed sights of Cambodia, but it was easy to appreciate why. We joined the other tourists clicking away, and even though the temple was fairly busy with people (ourselves included), the site still retained an air of mystery and quiet dignity.


With less than an hour until the sun set, we were racing towards perhaps the most well known part of the ruins – Angkor Wat. If the scale of some of the temples we had already seen was impressive, Angkor Wat itself was staggering. The temple complex covers a vast area, and the time we had left was not nearly enough to do it justice. However, the silver lining was that it was incredibly quiet, with few other tourists around. Although we ran short of time, we were still glad that we saved this for last. Aside from the fact that it made sense route wise, it was a powerful and evocative end to a brilliant day.


We had only purchased single day tickets ($20 each), but could understand how it would be possible to lose many more exploring the park. Although the admission may seem expensive, it actually offered phenomenally good value. Each temple has its own unique character and nuances, making it difficult to get bored no matter how many we saw. With almost two million people visiting Angkor each year it is not exactly undiscovered or off the beaten track, but it really is  a must see place. Our detour through Cambodia already feels worth it for this alone.

Tired but satisfied after a busy day of sightseeing, we made our way over to Kirsten, Kevin and Johan's hostel to meet them for dinner. We enjoyed another lovely meal, accompanied by plenty of beers. The local brew is only $0.50 a glass here, which makes it rather too easy to overindulge! Dinner for five and three rounds of beer came in at around $20, which seems insanely cheap even after eight months away from home. It was another great evening, and we were sad to say goodbye to these guys. Hopefully we will see them again on the road at some point.

Yesterday was spent lazing around Siem Reap, and indulging in some excellent coffee. Originally we had planned to leave today for Battambang, but I wasn't feeling so hot. Whilst I would probably have managed the ride, we are not on a schedule so it seemed pointless to suffer. Instead, we are staying in Siem Reap for another day, and will hit the road again tomorrow!