After a 2 hour flight to Siem Reap the home of the mighty Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure on Earth and the centre of Cambodian spiritual life. We get to where we’re staying pretty quickly. Our driver points out all the new 5 star hotels along the route. We turn onto dirt roads – clearly we’re not staying in one of those! The hotel is fine though and relative luxury compared to some we’ve stayed at.
Siem Reap is really just the gateway to Angkor Wat so there’s not much more to do here other than visit the incredible ancient temples. The town is dead by day but goes a bit potty at night. Pub Street (yes really) is er…the place to be.
The favoured mode of transport here too is the legendary tuk tuk. The difference here is that they go as fast as they can with complete disregard for any kind of road signs/markings/pedestrians/other (often larger) road users. This proved especially interesting on the ‘road’ to our guest house as there were deep potholes filled with rocks and various bits of rubble – fun on a three-wheeler…
Also, glad we didn’t exchange any currency as US dollars are the thing to have and as luck would have it all of the souvenirs available at the temples were $1.
Ever seen a 2$ bill???
So on to the main event – the temples. We took the advice of others and hired a guide, a tuk-tuk and a driver for the day and headed off into the vast grounds to see the temples. One of which was Angkor Thom – most famous as the setting for Tomb Raider – and that’s as far near as we’ll ever get to Brangelina. Finally we arrived at Angkor Wat. Outside there’s a huge moat it’s 100m wide and stretches as far as the eye can see and the temple is breath-taking.
So, after 2 days of temple sight-seeing we head down to Phnom Penh …problem is all the seats on the good bus company are sold out and there’s not enough to do in Siem Reap so we don’t have much choice but to get the ‘alternative’ bus. Cambodian roads are pretty bad and the driving is worse so we’re not much looking forward to it.
However the bus company does offer free transfer from where we’re staying to the bus so that’s a good sign. Or it would be if it wasn’t 30 mins late or a rust bucket on wheels! We get to the bus…..not looking great, we drive about 1km and then switch to another (slightly ropier if that’s possible). Our third bus of the morning and it’s only 9.00am.
Anyway, bumpy, dangerous and dirty but we get to Phnom Penh finally to be greeted by rain.
Our hotel in Phnom Penh is a gem (still less then £30 a night!) – The 240 Hotel if you’re ever in the area – and we chilled out before having a small explore. Given the rain we sought a bit of shelter in a hotel bar but clearly chose the wrong one with one group paying $5 to take a photo with the children selling stuff on the streets and another making an indecent proposal to the waitress. We were out of that one pretty quickly.
Phnom Penh is a city on the up but you can’t come here and neglect the history. We took a ride to Choeung Ek which is one of the killing fields from the Pol Pot era. This is a former Chinese cemetery where the Khmer Rouge killed many thousands of their victims during their four-year reign of terror. It is horrific and the narration pulls no punches when it describes what happened. This was followed by the equally barbaric Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) where thousands of people were tortured. It is important these places exist to commemorate the people who died but also as a warning that we cannot repeat these histories.
Finally we took a stop off a the Royal Palace. Access was limited as the King has recently died but we did see the Silver Pagoda that has 5,000 silver floor tiles each weighing 1kg and a gold Buddha statue with diamonds. The palace was beautiful and the antidote needed to a dark day closely followed up with a beer overlooking the Tonle Sap (the river) at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club – a Phnom Penh institution)
And so ends the brief Cambodian part of our trip with a spectacular thunder storm in the night before heading for the bus to Ho Chi Minh City. Despite its history Phnom Penh is full of friendly, happy people, despite its recent history and definitely worth a visit.