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What a Wat!


Sorry – been itching to write that...

Moving up from Vietnam to Cambodia we took a 12 hour bus ride across the border (no dodgy visa fee demands for overtime, bus driver service or any other made up excuse this time as we had already got our visa sorted in the Cambodian embassy in Ho Chi Minh) to go Siem Reap in the north of the country. This is the town nearest to the once jaw-droppingly huge centre of the ancient Khmer kingdom –the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor – a 'have-to-see' on any tourists list.

The enormous complex of temples (experts reckon it covered up to 1000 sq km at its heyday) was the main focal point for the Khmer empire from 9th to 15th centuries and is now a huge playground for any wanna-be Indiana Jones / Tomb Raiders

. There are dozens of remains; some still in a reasonable state, some just broken down blocks to climb over and some totally reclaimed by the jungle. We took the 3 day pass and spent all that time squeezing as many sights in as possible from dawn ‘til dusk. In fact even before dawn as we started one day at 4.30am to get the sun-rise over the main temple Angkor Wat. Unfortunately no-one had told the sun we were there as it didn’t bother coming out from behind the clouds, however we still had an atmospheric lightening of the sky and a chance to eat the jam sandwich and watermelon packed-breakfast provided by the hotel with an incredible backdrop.

The Wats range from the huge Angkor and it’s skyline to the surreal Bayon and its towers of faces supposedly modelled on the long-named king of the time; from the tree-root takeover of Ta Prohm (need to watch the film Tomb Raider as it was used as scenery), to the ruins of Beng Melea where local children demand money to lead you the back-way over collapsed slabs of rock and under those still teetering precariously above – we chickened out and took the sign-posted way. Some of the temples are so spread out you need to take a 2 hour tuk-tuk journey to get to them. Air-conditioned cars are for wimps (!) so the hotel sorted us with Mr Sen who drove us bouncily over miles and miles of pot-holed roads for the 3 days – remember to take sunglasses each time or you will end up with several hours worth of road grit in your eyes
. Each ruler had added a bit more during his reign meaning in theory (if you are an archaeological buff) you can see the difference in building styles over the centuries, or if you are me you spend most of the time with your nose in the guide trying to work out what’s going on. It’s a brilliant thing to visit and great fun for ‘dramatic action’ shots – just remember your hat and whip for full adventure hero disguise!

After several days of non-stop Khmer history (you K’hmer, no YOU K’hmer etc etc) we were left exhausted and full of cold so some time relaxing by the beach was called for! However, this ended up with another 17 hour bus ride (advertised 9 but clearly not including the breakdowns / traffic / mad driving) all the way to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Arriving at midnight we agreed enough was enough and that would be the last long bus ride for this trip...

Sihanoukville is a strange mixture of grotty backpacker hangout (don’t want to imagine the last time any of the cushioned seats on the beach were cleaned), sea-food stalls and new resort building works half completed, catering to tourists, locals and a number of older western gentlemen with VERY young local girlfriends... There isn’t a great amount to do here which was just fine by us as the plan was to recharge the batteries, make use of the hotel pool (when the rainy season stopped being rainy for a few hours) and an obligatory birthday cocktail on the beach (that’s obligatory for me – not for anyone visiting Sihanoukville)
. We found a cafe that served blue cheese baguettes (yum!), played some pool and went to the local ‘cinema’ (not the best copy of a film but comfy seats and you could order in pizza if you wanted).

The last stop in Cambodia was the capital city of Phnom Penh. We had a hotel right in the middle of the city, not far from the Silver Pagoda and national museum which made for the cultural part of the visit. Carsten has been here before and so has seen the other ‘feature’ of the city; I chose not to go and see the infamous S21 museum (depicting the torture that took place under the terrible rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s) or the killing fields as I think I saw enough of the terror we humans commit in the organisation supporting those affected by landmines in Laos and the war remnants museum in Vietnam. Needless to say even the photos depicted on the local tuk-tuks advertising a day out there makes your stomach sick. How easy we have it in the west with our freedom of movement and freedom of speech is something we just do not value enough. As I write this the terrible riots are happening in the UK – driven by greed and stupidity. Perhaps all those caught should be made to come here and learnt to appreciate what we have in a free society and clearly do not value enough.

Sorry – needed to get that off my chest. Cambodia is a great country to visit and the people were very friendly. The Angkor complex is just amazing and totally worth the trek - quick, come now before commercialisation takes over anymore and you can get a McWat from a restored temple complete with its new golden arches!

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