Size: 181,000 sqkm
Capital: Phnom Penh
Time Zone: GMT +7
Part of 2006 World Trip, arriving from Thailand
and going on to Malaysia
A week exploring the truly spectacular Temples of Angkor.
Use the navigation bar on the left or the map-links to select a place. Alternatively scroll down to see all the entries. Click on photos to enlarge. See all Cambodia photos here
The bus trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap was something of a performance. Over two thirds of the journey was on the Thai side, and having set off early we arrived at the border before lunch. Things slowed down somewhat after this. The actual border is the easiest I had encountered but roads in Cambodia are close to nonexistent (photo shows a good bit of the only road) so we slowly bounced along after this, stopping for a couple of hours to fix the bus when an oil pipe broke. I didn't mind because as the sun set we could see the most spectacular lightning storm over the dusty planes, and this seemed to continue all night. While Cambodia, like Laos, is a country dominated by rivers, in the north there are large expanses of farmland, which can only support a single crop per year. This had just been harvested so the land looked barren for as far as the eye could see. We finally arrived in Siem Reap about 10 pm in the evening.
The town of Siem Reap is quite strange in many ways. Twenty or so years ago it must have been much like any other small town in Cambodia, but the growing popularity of Angkor Wat has changed all this. Enormous 5 star hotels line the roads as you enter the town (these roads, thanks to the Japanese, are of good quality), which are far bigger than any hotels I have ever seen before. The old town is also packed with hotels, and this has lead to serious competition. There was a guy on our bus persuading everyone to stay at his hotel, he asked me how much I was aiming to pay of a night and when I said $3 max and I planned to walk the few kilometres to the dorm but he said he would see what he could do. When I arrived I was given a triple room with bathroom to myself - $3 a night is better than nothing when there are thousands of empty beds, but the guys running the place continuously tried to sell me other stuff to get a little more money.
To see the Temples of Angkor you have to buy a pass, only valid of 1, 3 or 5 days. I purchased the 3 day pass so the next 3 days were spend doing this - see below - however, in the evenings and on my last day I had time to explore the town. Each night I want to the same little food stall near the old town - as ever this was far cheaper than any cafe or restaurant (I had put myself on a strict budget to have plenty of money for my last month travelling) and the guy running the place served really good fried rice with plenty of chillies. His wife also made the widest selection of fruit shakes I have ever seen, and I tried many interesting fruits I have never seen before or since. I also got to meet a few local students, and so was able to learn something of the area first hand.
On my final day I wandered the markets and streets and found a tree in the centre full of bats - all jostling for a spot and making lots of noise when there were plenty of empty trees elsewhere. I came back at sunset to see then fly off but they seemed to want a lay in and didn't move.
Temples of Angkor
The Temples of Angkor are truly spectacular. Not only in terms of number and scale, but also in the intricacy of architecture.
I had hired a bicycle to get around but with the temperatures close to 40 degrees and humidity to match I sweated a fair bit the next few days (out of the hundreds of people also visiting the temples I only saw about 10 other cyclist, and half of those were the crazy Danish guys I had met in Vang Vieng). However, I love cycling and freedom to do as you wish was great. Again, being hot season the place, while busy, was not so bad as at other times of year, and in the early morning, late evening and over lunchtimes you could almost have the less famous temple complexes to yourself. Cycling up the entrance road and getting the first glimpses of Angkor Wat was really special and filled me with excitement. While you are sharing the experience with uncountable numbers of other people it still feels a little bit like your exploring.
Angkor Wat was my first stop. An outer building surrounds the main structure and all this is set in gardens that are also surrounded by a large wall. The Angkor architects like making their buildings tall, which leads to incredibly steep steps. Climbing up is alright but after millions of people and over hundreds of years the steps are very rounded and getting back down was one of the hardest things I did on my whole holiday. It is impossible to describe everything here, there are so many building all with many rooms and all of these have exquisite sculptures or entire walls covered with carved scenes of stories or historical records. You think you've explored the whole place only to find another corridor with more inscriptions, and this is only the first of many temples - although it is one of the most elaborate.
My next stop was The Bayon. After Angkor Wat this is the second most famous structure. While smaller in size the whole building is covered in sculpted faces, each turret has one on each side, and there are many turrets. It is said that the face is of the ruler at the time so he could always be looking everywhere. The corridors inside the Bayon are small and dark with many twists and turns and returning here in the evening is quite eerie.
The Bayon is situated in the centre of a compound of about 2 square miles in size. Most of this is full of trees but several other major buildings are also here. Near the Bayon is the Grand Palace, this building was carefully dismantled by French archaeologists who where analysing the site in the early twentieth century, unfortunately during the years of the Camere Rouge all records of how it was constructed were destroyed. The area is now likened to the ultimate jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of numbered stones lying in piles. Just beyond this is the Terrace of Elephant (picture). This is a 5-meter high wall that runs for about a mile. To say the wall is sculpted is an understatement, the picture shows one of the better sections but all along it the level of detail is similar, and often there are extra statues and the wall divides into rooms with all faces of equal intricacy. Following on from this there are many more temples, one of my favourites being Preah Khan.
This is slightly more run down and a little way from the main tourist centre so was quieter but has lots of passages and tumbled down buildings and courtyards to explore (picture outside the temple entrance of a guardian). Angkor Wat is one of the major money makers in Cambodia - a country still recovering from total destruction and mass killings of Pol Pot and the Camere Rouge - and everywhere people are trying to sell stuff. However, the Cambodian people are really nice and are also smart about their techniques. No sellers are allowed in the actual temple areas so your not constantly hassled, and bargaining for things like water can often be skipped - I quickly found that if I just gave the right money (about third of the asking price) no-one complained and speeded up proceedings somewhat. Young children are sent out to sell the souvenirs - it's harder to say no to sweet looking kids - but they too are cleaver. After asking which country you are from they will reel off a list of capital city, prime minister and for England usually say 'lovely jubbly' to finish before trying to look needy and push their wares at you.
The little girl in the photo was a bit confused over the nationality of the people so was counting to 10 in English followed by French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and a few other languages - they know their stuff. I bought postcard from a little boy who, when told I already knew the capital of England said he bet I didn't know the capitol of Sri Lanka. That I did not, so I agreed to buy his cards in return for finding out. The children also have amazing memories. The first morning of my first day I parked my bike and a little girl said she would look after it if I bought a scarf, I employed the usual 'Maybe' trick, which stops then from hassling you as they think it's a yes, then on you return your under no obligation as you didn't commit. However, three days later on my last evening I again parked my bike and the same girl runs over saying that three days ago I said I might buy a scarf and now I should - she must have talked to hundreds of foreigners in that time but still remembered me (having said that there might not have been many other blond haired guys on push bikes). My best bargain all trip was from a group of school kids hanging around in one of the temples. I had been planning to buy a guide book with lots of nice colour photos and seen one I quite liked, but it was usually quite expensive. I'm not sure where these kids had got the books from - off the back of a lorry perhaps - but as I used the usual uninterested technique the price fell more than usual and I started to get interested.
It was late in the day so I would probably be the last sale and after about 10 minutes of discussion we came to an agreement that I could have the book for a few dollars (much less than any bartered price I had heard) if I paid half in US Dollars and half in Thai Bart and got the change in Cambodian Riel. When I ask why they were keen to have Thai money they said they could make extra money with the exchange rate (I used my exchange rates for the purchase as theirs were somewhat unfavourable, but I suspect they still did well out of it, which is of course fine and the purpose of bargaining - to find a price everyone is happy with).
On my second day I cycled out to a much older and less grand set of temples know as the Roluos Group. These were about 10 miles from Siem Reap and the road had little shade making it hard going. Here was very quiet and as I was wandering around I met a local man who was working on the restoration of one of the towers. I think he was quite bored and wanted to practice his English as he took me to the top of the scaffolding and showed me all the tools and practices they use for the restoration. I hadn't realised that any stones that are badly damaged are removed and replaced with new ones. This means that quite a lot of the temples are technically new, although the techniques and materials are the same as in ancient times and it stops the whole thing falling down. He also told me that the restoration projects used to be backed by the Japanese and Germans, but recently the money had dried up and now only the Cambodian government was funding the project - meaning he had to work in a restaurant at night to pay the bills. He want an English dictionary and after hearing this I would have been only too pleased to provide one, however I had nothing useful on my person so sadly could not.
I had planned to explore a temple on the map another 6 miles up a dirt track and asked about what I would find. He told me it was a temple that was still to be restored and was surrounded by jungle - what Lonely Planet also said and just the sort of place I wanted to see. Unfortunately after cycling a few miles around the sandy tracks at the Roluos Group I had picked up a slow puncture. There are many little houses along the main road, which sell petrol and drinks etc, and thinking it wasn't too bad I got the tyre pumped up and continued. This was OK for another mile until the flat got worse and I had to push my bike for a few miles in the midday sun to find someone to fix it. I found an old man asleep at the roadside who had a small repair kit and a few other bits and pieces, after some general hand signals he fixed the puncture and I was on my way. After all this extra effort and sun I didn't think I could cope with 5 miles of sandy tracks so turned around and cycled back to the main temple area, stopping several times to grab a cold drink made from crushed sugar cane and ice - the perfect refresher. The afternoon was spent revisiting some of my favourite temples from the previous day.
On my final day I wanted to explore some of the other more out of the way places, and having cycled more than 30 miles each of the previous days (the temples are quite a long way apart) I planned to take it a bit easy. Taking it easy is something I'm not always very good at and after climbing a hill for a view over the main temple area I went to explore the reservoir. Cycling down little tracks was good fun and when it tuned into sandy heath I though I must be nearly there. However a large part of the reservoir had dried up and with no defining perimeter I had managed to cycle right into it. I only discovered this after another hour of hard cycling over sandy ground, again in the midday sun, and there was nothing much to see when I finally got to the waters edge. As I cycled I saw a few groups of kids herding cattle or picking berries. This pleased me as Cambodia has more landmines than almost any other country in the world, and it is advised not to leave the path - I had figured that I was safe as cattle were scattered around and they would have been quite effective at triggering any remaining mines long ago but the sight of the children was also reassuring. The remainder of the day was spent looking at more temples and I was glad of a rest that evening with a cold beer in the famed Angkor What? Bar.
My next destination was Malaysia
and rather than take the two to three day overland route, for a similar price I could fly with Air Asia, the Malaysian equivalent of Ryan Air. Since my credit card still wasn't working - I had forgotten to activate it, or remember my pin number - my mum booking the flight for me; she was also a star and sorted out the whole credit card mess so within 3 weeks I had two working cards, making life a lot easier.