Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Phnom Penh and saying goodbye to Cambodia

The bus down to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was pretty easy going and when we arrived in the city and disembarked we had the usual onslaught of tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for our business. 

As I was still a little fragile after my recent illness, we'd booked ourselves a room in another comfortable-looking hotel and so had the most persuasive/relentless driver take us from the bus station to our new accommodation.

The journey was an interesting introduction to Phnom Penh traffic. We held on tight to our luggage as our driver squeezed between other vehicles, whizzed across roundabouts and dodged precarious pedestrians. 

We distracted ourselves with the incredible sights around us: a man and woman on a moped, the latter of whom was holding over her head the drip belonging to the toddler squeezed between them; the moped with the half-dozen or so plucked chickens strung over the handlebars; the in-tuk-tuk advertisements for trips to such places as the historic 'Killing Fields' and local shooting ranges (illustrated with photos of smiling tourists toting RPGs).

We arrived at the Lucky Star hotel unscathed - always a nice suprise! - and checked into a big double room with all the modcons we needed. 

The next day we ventured out to do a little sightseeing. I was feeling a lot better and although we were still taking things relatively easy, it was great to feel free to explore again.

First stop, after breakfast, was the Independence Monument, which sits in the middle of a busy intersection. It was built in the 1950s to commemorate Cambodia's new freedom from the French and there's not really anything to do there, but the weather was beautiful that day and we spent some time walking in the park near the monument.

We then had a bit of a sweaty walk to find a tuk-tuk (never a difficult task unless you're actually looking for one) to take us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The museum is the latest guise of a group of buildings that during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s was converted from a high school into Security Prison 21 (S-21). During its darkest days it was a place of torture and murder - an estimated 20,000 people died here under horrific conditions - and is now used to educate visitors about the atrocities that the Cambodian people were subjected to. I'm glad we went, as it wouldn't have felt right being in Phnom Penh without learning about what had happened here such a short time ago. We'd spent time among the stunning ancient history of the Khmer people around Angkor, and it was important for us to know about the more recent history that has left just as tangible a legacy on Cambodia as those breathtaking temples. But it wasn't exactly a fun day out for all the family. 

The museum is bleak and stark and terrifying and teaches us about the darkest possibilities of the human condition. There were parts that I wasn't able to stomach, and so I spent a while sitting in the open while Dave continued around the exhibits, but the place is so imbued with the echoes of what went on there, and what I'd already seen had made such a vivid impression, that it wasn't possible to escape the realities just by sitting quietly in the sunshine - rather it gave me time to reflect on how Cambodia has come so far in such a short time after losing so much.

We left emotionally exhausted and decided that that was enough sightseeing for one day. The Killing Fields were another option, but we knew from the guidebooks what it was going to entail and so made the decision that we'd immersed ourselves enough in the country's dark past. 

As we rode back to our hotel in a tuk-tuk we picked up outside the museum the Cambodian traffic craziness struck again and we were involved in our second crash! Not quite as dramatic and life threatening as our last one thank goodness, but our driver wasn't paying enough attention, accelerated too soon at a green light and smashed his wing mirror into the head of an old guy on a motorcycle (fortunately he was wearing a helmet). As our driver and the injured party - along with a little boy who was on the front of his bike - pulled round the nearest corner to discuss the incident, Dave and I gently extricated ourselves from the situation by leaving the tuk-tuk and walking off down the road before jumping into the next one that came along.

That evening, desperately in need of some comfort from the extremities of life 'on the road', we headed to a place called Freebird Bar & Grill. The diner is decked out with plenty of Americana and has a good atmosphere. We drank draft beer and chowed down on the free peanuts and popcorn that the friendly staff kept bringing to our table, not to mention the tasty burger and chili we had. In total our bill came to about US$16 - you always pay more for Western food than you would for eating local dishes but in this instance it was so worth it. We left very full and satisfied.

The next day we headed to the Central Market to do a little shopping. We found a place for some coffee to give us a much-needed morning boost before heading in to tackle the sprawling complex of stalls. Everything from flowers, fresh fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes, homewares, jewellery, souvenirs, toys... you name it! 

There were even women taking advantage of the crowds by carrying round pairs of bathroom scales and charging people to weigh themselves! 

I invested in a pair of 'Ali Baba' pants - baggy, floral, low-crotched trousers that are ubiquitous amongst the backpacker community and more importantly that were long and comfortable enough to cover the still quite angry-looking red marks on the backs of my legs that the shingles had left behind.

One really nice surprise that came about while we were in Phnom Penh was that my cousin, uncle and aunt were coincidentally in town for a wedding. It was really exciting to arrange a meet-up in such an exotic, far-flung place and also really good to see familiar friendly faces after what had already been about two and a half months away from home.

We met up for dinner with Andrea, Trevor and Muriel at a yummy restaurant called Anjali near the riverfront and had a good catch-up over bottles of Anchor lager and plates of stir-fried dishes like chili and lemongrass chicken. Andrea had brought us an incredibly welcome care package comprising a huge box of Nurofen Plus (you can't get codeine in Cambodia!), a squeezy tub of Marmite and a bottle of Doom Bar ale. Oh sweet purveyor of blissful treats, how you spoiled us!

After dinner, us kids split off to a nearby bar for more beers, parent-free chat, and so Dave could watch that evening's Arsenal v QPR match. Such fun, random times! At about 2am we decided a short walk down to the Royal Palace was a good idea, as we weren't able to visit during the days as King Sihanouk was currently lying in state. The grounds were still full of people paying their respects even at that hour. 

Then it was back into another tuk-tuk to take us to our respective hotels. When we'd dropped Andrea off and were barrelling down the near-deserted roads we passed a sight that, like our two RTAs, had seemed kind of unavoidable since we'd first set wheel on a Cambodian road. A man had been knocked off his bike and killed and our tuk-tuk driver thought it appropriate at that moment to slow down as we passed the poor man's body, thereby joining the multitude of people who had paused to take photos on their mobile phones. Eyes shut, I shouted 'Please... GO!' and he stepped on the gas again, my first ever sighting of a dead body seared onto my retinas. 

Phnom Penh was our last stop in Cambodia, a country that has relatively recently undergone horrors that wiped out huge chunks of its population. This isn't the place for an in-depth analysis of a nation's scarred psyche, yet it does seem to have a bizarre disregard for keeping its citizens safe, considering everything they've been through to survive. More than anywhere I've been, Cambodia left me feeling nerve-jangled and harassed. It's a beautiful country, but nowhere else have I ever genuinely feared for my life whenever stepping outside of the safety of my hotel room!

A thriving tourist industry fuelled by stunning ancient temples, cheap entertainment, good weather and a fascinating culture working to reestablish itself in the aftermath of tragedy, isn't showing any signs of slowing and I'm sure the country has a bright future; we had a lot of great experiences in Cambodia and met some truly lovely people, but I do have to admit that I was kind of relieved to say goodbye.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Siem Reap and Battambang

Siem Reap is a relatively large and attractive Cambodian town, which has benefitted from its proximity to the Temples of Angkor; the vast majority of visitors use it as a base for touring the historical sites.

After our three days of intensive temple sightseeing, we decided to have a quiet one around town before heading off to our next Cambodian destination, Battambang*. I was especially keen to take it easy, as I'd started getting some quite nasty headaches and feeling really tired.

We began our more sedate day with a trip to Artisans d'Angkor, where they teach local people how to create traditional arts and crafts and thereby provide them with a vocation and income, and preserve the skills of Khmer craftsmanship that could otherwise be lost. It's free to show yourself around the small workshops and we saw wood carving, lacquering, silver work and stone carving. The tour ends up at the gift shop where there were so many beautiful things we had to be really strict with ourselves not to spend our whole holiday budget! It was absolutely full of gorgeous clothes and homewares that are only sold there and at a couple of other choice locations (i.e. not in the markets selling the usual tat) and the proceeds from sales are sunk back into the Angkor Artisans project. 

There's also an outlet of Blue Pumpkin there, so we sat down to treat ourselves to coffee and ice cream while we wrote some postcards home.

Even after all that culture, shopping and ice cream, I was still feeling under the weather so we headed to a pharmacist for some paracetamol. While chatting to the lady behind the counter, we found out that the former king of Cambodia had passed away. He'd been in China receiving medical treatment and died there of natural causes. Even though he voluntarily abdicated in 2004, the 'King-Father Norodom Sihanouk' was still held in very high regard and it was during his reign that Cambodia gained independence from the French. We noticed that there were signs of a more subdued atmosphere amongst the local people of Siem Reap, who were clearly saddened by King Sihanouk's death.

That evening we went to the Temple bar on Siem Reap's infamous 'Pub Street' for dinner and to watch some traditional Cambodian dancing. One of the first things we noticed was that many members of staff were distracted by the TVs mounted on the walls, which were showing rolling coverage of the arrangements for having the King's body flown back to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The dance performance we'd gone to see was really entertaining. It lasted for a good couple of hours with half a dozen different styles, performed with skill and energy by a troupe of young local dancers. Luckily, there were English introductions to each one explaining their history and meaning so we could understand what was going on. 

Towards the end of the show, the party crowd obviously cranked it up a notch in the bar downstairs as the Big Phat Bass started drifting up the stairs and drowning out the traditional music, which added a whole other aspect!

Here are a couple of videos that Dave took during the show: one is the coconut dance where the performers drum out a rhythm with hollowed out shells and the other is the peacock dance which shows young lovers courting in the park and then watching two peacocks doing the same.

You can also find the videos on our YouTube page.

We were due to leave Siem Reap over the next day or two, and on top of my tiredness and headaches I'd also broken out in some painful red spots, which I assumed were insect bites. So as I was feeling less than 100%, we decided that in Battambang we'd opt for accommodation that was a little more plush. We went online and booked ourselves into a proper hotel and our guesthouse helped us organise our bus to leave early the next morning.

It was a challenging journey from Siem Reap to Battambang; the majority of my 'insect bites' were down the backs of my legs and I found it very difficult to get comfortable on the bus' vinyl seats. After a four hour journey of trying to arrange myself into a position that wasn't extremely painful - the best seemed to be for me to poke Dave with a combination of at least three elbows/knees/shoulders at a time - we arrived in Battambang relieved and resolved to find the nearest English-speaking clinic as soon as possible.

We easily found the Asia Hotel and after a small mix-up over our reservation  - the 'deluxe' room we'd booked for $20 per night for some reason wasn't available, but they cut our room rate and agreed to include breakfast - we moved into our new comfy digs. Our room had a big bed, aircon, a fridge, plenty of storage space, a hot shower in a clean bathroom, cable TV and free WiFi. Flashpacker alert! 

Before getting too settled though, we headed out to find the polyclinic listed in the Lonely Planet guide, which was luckily just round the corner. I was feeling increasingly rough and realistically needed to have myself checked out. 

A couple of days after the event, I had an IM conversation with my friend George and I don't think I can better describe the Cambodian clinic experience better now than I did then. So here's the transcript:
"I rock up, all sick and in pain and shit, after a 4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap. And I show them the spot on my arm but try to explain that's not the worst of it while she peers at it/me slightly dubiously. And there's a kinda stern female doctor who doesn't speak much English. Then I'm ushered to a room with a man in a medical gown - dragging Dave with me - [where I really struggle to get up onto the hospital bed because the spots on the backs of my legs are so sore] and the man in the gown and a lady take a look, clean it all up with alcohol/iodine etc. Me: lots of pain and slightly freaked out that they don't really speak English either and it's not as bright white sterile as UCL. But they were really nice and gentle and kind (in Cambodian). And then I get taken back to the stern doctor who prescribes me drugs and I ask her what's wrong with me... but she doesn't know what it's called in English [only Cambodian and French] so I'm none the wiser. And even though Dave's french is good he doesn't know many random medical terms. But she smiles at me kindly/sympathetically, then there's minor confusion over my diabetes medication while I'm trying to make sure there's no problematic cross-overs with what she's prescribed. And I'm saying "diabetes" and "insulin" a lot and she doesn't seem to understand, so we pull out the phrasebook, which doesn't have 'diabetes' in Khmer but does have it in Thai and show her that and she's like (in ENGLISH) "Oh! You have diabetes? You take insulin? No problem." So we leave pretty happy with how it's all gone and head back to Google what she's scribbled down in French. And it was shingles! So I went back to bed. THE END."
The consultation, ministrations and anti-viral meds cost us about $30 and I finally knew that the painful blisters weren't insect bites and the headaches weren't caffeine withdrawal. I guess it also went some way to explain why I'd not been feeling my best in terms of dealing with things like the border crossing a few days earlier. 

We figured the shingles had probably been brought on by us overdoing it, paired with my slightly compromised immune system. In hindsight, although it didn't really feel like it at the time and even though in a lot of ways we'd had a very relaxing few weeks, once we got to Bangkok we were spending hours and hours walking round the city, then we had that hectic day travelling into Cambodia, then the few very long days looking round the Temples of Angkor - including the accidental 55km bike ride and the early start for sunrise.

The thing with shingles is that you just have to rest, so it was lucky we'd gotten ourselves such a comfortable hotel room. I basically spent the next week lying in bed sleeping, reading, watching TV, and receiving Skype sympathy from loved ones at home. Poor Dave found himself playing nurse and delivery boy - dressing my boo boos and fetching takeaway pizzas and curries as I was too sick to go out for dinner. 

The staff at our hotel were incredibly nice and even though they didn't technically do room service, they'd bring our breakfast up to us each morning until I was well enough to go downstairs for it. The breakfasts were really good too - Dave was tucking into omelettes and French baguettes and I was trying to keep my vitamin levels up with fresh fruit and muesli. And they served seriously good coffee; one of the lovely ladies kept checking if we liked it or not and when we emphatically told her that yes, it was excellent, she told us the hotel manager had specifically sourced the best he could find.

It was a frustrating time. Dave was really bored and climbing the walls, and I felt trapped and angry with my body for letting us down and interfering with our honeymoon adventures. But we both knew that taking it slowly and making sure I recovered properly at this point would mean we could get on with our travels sooner rather than later and hopefully with no further setbacks.

After a few days I was in less pain and feeling a little more energetic, so we decided to try a trip out to dinner. We found a place called the Gecko Cafe, which turned out to be perfect - so much so that when I still felt better the following evening, we went back for dinner a second time! It's a great little restaurant with outstanding food, which supports its lovely staff and their families by paying higher wages than a lot of places and gives them opportunities for training etc. The restaurant is on the first floor and we took a table overlooking a junction of the road, which gave us some interesting activity to watch during dinner! On our first visit it was 'Martini Monday' and after a week in my hotel prison I wasn't likely to say no to $2 cocktails. We also treated ourselves to some Cambodian comfort food over our two visits: vegetable soup, spring rolls, wantons, sweet and spicy chicken, lemongrass chicken, basil fried rice, stir fried fish with lime sauce. And for dessert: warm apple crumb cake with huge scoops of vanilla ice cream. I'm sure our indulgence had a significant impact on my subsequent rate of recovery!

As part of our Cambodia travels, we'd planned to visit Kampot and Kep before moving on to Phnom Penh. But after having to extend our stay in Battambang, and conscious of not wanting to overstretch ourselves again, we made the tough decision to skip them and head straight for the capital.

So even though we hadn't had a chance to see a lot of Battambang, once we decided that I was well enough to travel again we were keen to move on. We were delayed another day by huge sky-splitting storms, but the following day it was clear and dry and I was ready to hit the road. 

We checked out of the Asia Hotel and humped our bags over to the bus depot, where we bought our tickets to Phnom Penh. As we were waiting, a couple of lovely things happened. 

Firstly, we suddenly spotted the lady from our hotel trying to get our attention. She hadn't been at the desk when we were checking out and had therefore been unable to give us our leaving gifts, so she'd followed us over to the station hoping to catch us before we left town! We received two lovely scarves and exchanged some very fond farewells. 

The second thing was that some local girls were buying sticks of bamboo from a seller at the station (on the left in the photo above) and out of curiosity I went over to peer at what was inside them. The girls caught my eye, gave me two huge smiles and proffered one of the sticks, splitting it open so that I could see the contents. It was filled with a sticky concoction of sweet rice and red beans and I was encouraged to pull some out to try it. When I made gestures of 'yum, this is delicious' they then gave me one of the sticks they had bought to take onto the bus with me. People can be so very kind.

And so, after a bit of a hiccup in our plans we were on the road again, excited and delighted that our travels were continuing.

* Pronounced BATTAM-BONG. Although as lovers of marzipan-covered-cake we do struggle not to call it 'Battenberg'.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Temples of Angkor: Day 2

Sunrise over Angkor Wat is one of those activities lauded as unmissable by the travel community and it was something we were both keen to experience. 

At 5.45am we were in the reception area of our guesthouse waiting for Barang to pick us up in his tuk-tuk, and listening to the drunken nonsense coming from a group of gap year kids who were yet to go to bed.

At that time of the morning the roads were quiet but once we were at Angkor Wat we joined throngs of tourists lining the shore of one of the pools facing the the temple - the prime spot for viewing the sun breaking over the tops of the towers. 

It was quite an overcast morning, so the sky wasn't perfect for a particularly spectacular sunrise, and any romance or wonder was largely intruded upon by the literally hundreds of jostling snap-happy tourists and the constant drone of the hawker patter; people selling postcards, scarves or trying to get you into their cafes for breakfast.

However, the temple did look stunning and it was just possible to lose oneself in the spectacle long enough to make it worthwhile being up that early.

We decided to have a bite to eat at one of the many cafes that line the bank of the pool. Someone in Cambodia has obviously done their homework on the most appealing celebrities that no Westerner can resist, and each cafe was named after one of these stalwarts of pop culture: Lady Gaga, J-Lo, 007, Angelina Jolie. In the end we opted for 'Justin Bieber', for no other reason than the extra lengths to which they had gone by hiring the Cambodian spitting image of the eponymous popster (he had a floppy hair-do). 

After a couple of distinctly average cheese baguettes and intensely sweet coffees, we felt ourselves sufficiently fuelled for another day of temples and went back to find Barang and our trusty transportation.

The next place we were to visit was Banteay Sanray, another massive temple complex made up of long, steep staircases and imposing towers. As it was still so early, we had the place to ourselves and really enjoyed the peace and quiet after the hustle of sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Once we'd finished at Banteay Sanray, it was time to head out of the main Angkor complex and travel about 30km from Siem Reap to the similarly named Banteay Srei. 

It's widely seen as the most beautiful of the Angkor temples, and the name means 'Citadel of the Women' as the delicate carvings are thought to be too fine to be created by ham-fisted men. 

By the time we got there, bus-loads of tourists had begun to pour in and it was often a bit of a struggle while they pushed and posed in front of each new carving they reached. But once you got the chance, the intricate craftsmanship and skill were truly amazing to see.

The weather had begun to take a turn for the worse, so Barang suggested we stop for a bite to eat before going into the next temple. And it's lucky we did! The heavens opened, and we refreshed ourselves with hearty bowls of noodle soup and lychee sodas while the rain fell in torrents, turning the corrugated iron roof of the cafe into the loudest mealtime musical accompaniment ever... you literally had to shout above it to be heard!

After the downpour eased, we entered the temple that Barang had brought us to see - the name of which we never managed to catch! The rain had created lots of deep brown puddles amongst the stones, but the golden light that hit the buildings as the sun came out again was gorgeous. And this particular temple stood out because of the little family of cats that had made its home in one of the towers!

It was a relatively small site and we didn't linger long as there was still much to see - however cute the kittens were! - so we hit the road again to take a look at Kbal Spean. 

At the top of a 2km climb and clamber through jungle and over rocks, there's a carved riverbed known as the 'River of A Thousand Lingas'. However, we can't personally testify to its existence as we didn't make it to the top. I had started to feel extremely tired and pretty unwell, so when we were about halfway up the steep ascent I had to admit that my going any further wasn't an option. So we picked our way back down to the tuk-tuk and sat with Barang for a while, quenching our thirst and chatting to him about his family and his aspirations to become a qualified tour guide at the temples. 

Soon it was time to move onto our final visit - the breathtaking Ta Phrom. Here nature has undertaken a fierce campaign to show the humans who's boss and the jungle is evidently taking back control. Ruins crumble amongst dappled sunlight as the trees recover the area, roots burst through brickwork, and 1930s adventurer-archeologists dodge booby traps and recover lost idols. OK, maybe not that last bit.

It's genuinely difficult to pick which photos to include here... such an awesome place.

It's a huge area and we took a good long time having a proper explore. What an atmospheric way to end our tour of the Temples of Angkor.

But being on the site of such history, where some parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed, wasn't the most dramatic part of our day.

The earlier rain had made the roads around the temples pretty treacherous. On our way back to Siem Reap for a well-earned 50p lager, Barang's motorbike went out from under him, shearing off the bolt attaching it to our tuk-tuk carriage and causing him to slide across the road, with Dave and I pitching forward and skidding along completely unattached to anything with brakes. 

The crash was something which, in hindsight, had felt inevitable from the moment we entered Cambodia. The roads in the country are insane at the best of times and I soon found that every time we were on them I was genuinely relieved when we made it to our destination in one piece. So a rickety old tuk-tuk, barrelling along mud-slicked roads amongst ancient ruins was, I suppose, always an accident waiting to happen.

We were incredibly lucky that we all came away unscathed; just the fact that 
at that moment no kids were playing in the road and no buses were ploughing their way through the other traffic was incredible. Barang had a couple of angry-looking scrapes on his elbow and ankle, but seemed far more concerned that we had come to no harm. Dave and I were both fine and kept telling Barang so, but he continued to check on us as he pulled out his makeshift tool kit and proceeded to reattach the tuk-tuk to his bike. 

Ten minutes later, shaken but unhurt, we were on the road again. Once we got back to the guesthouse, the first thing we did was grab three cans of beer and sit down to calm our nerves. Then, still assuring Barang that we were ok, we paid him his fee for the two days and said our farewells, thereby ending a very eventful couple of days.