Saturday, 11 April 2015
Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Sunday, 5 April 2015
Today's contribution is by David
Next day we had an early start from the Delux Villa. How we would miss their enormous fruit plates! We were met by a very jovial driver who seemed to find everything that we said hilarious, despite not being able to understand what we were saying. After the now customary Krypton Factor-esque puzzle of how to fit our luggage in the boot, we were off, weaving through an anarchy of tuk tuks, scooters and lorries that make up the Cambodian streetscape. Our route to Phnom Penh was fairly direct. We made it in under five hours through an almost continuous succession of villages and dried up rice paddies. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh we slowed to a crawl for the last part of the journey.
Hot and tired. we were eager to arrive at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Gill is an habitué of the FCC, Anthony once had Christmas lunch here, but for David it was a first. The FCC is in a prime riverfront position in Phnom Penh and today is a well known watering hole for expats and visitors alike. The walls are decorated with photos and stories from its 1970s heyday when it served as the hub for foreign correspondents covering the descent of Cambodia into Khmer Rouge rule, and the later disintegration of the regime. Despite the availability of club sandwiches and sauvignon blanc, it still felt evocative and we could imagine the former glory of the FCC where adrenaline and alcohol-fuelled journalists competed fiercely for stories and fought to get their copy out first.
After laid back Battambang, Phnom Penh was an assault on the senses. The centre of town is a jumble of architectural styles, centred on the Royal Palace and National Museum. Close to the FCC, Trunkh is a great place to shop for quirky Cambodian products. They stock a wide variety of clothes, art and housewares made by co-operatives from across Cambodia. The owner is a very friendly Aussie lady who was not only a great salesperson (“ouch”, says our credit card) but also gave us recommendations on places to go in town that we would not have found in a guide book. We hopped into a tuk tuk to spend our first evening in Lane 308, which has recently developed a reputation as the place to go for bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh. We were amazed to discover Cicada, a gin only bar. Anthony and David decided that this was “research” so we stopped off for a few gins served in copper tankards.
The next day was rather more sombre as we were to spend the morning visiting the killing fields just outside the city, followed by a visit to the notorious S21 prison- both of which now serve as important reminders of the brutality and nonsensical nature of the brief but devastating Khmer Rouge’s grip on Cambodia. The tuk tuk drivers who congregate outside the FCC reminded us of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. It was impossible not to be intercepted and cajoled by competing drivers. How to decide between one and another when they all rely upon tourists to earn a living and are desperate for a morning’s work? The more savvy drivers managed to remember our names from the first morning. Being greeted by name from a tuktuk parked across the street was disarming to say the least. In short, transport is never a problem in Phnom Penh…
After 45 minutes of weaving through the gridlocked and fume filled streets we arrived at the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city. The almost bucolic scene that awaited us seemed to belie the grisly purpose of this site during the Khmer Rouge era. This location served as an execution site for citizens who had fallen foul of the regime. Transgressions were as random as wearing spectacles, breaching minor rules or being compromised by family links. Many of the mass graves have been excavated but others remain untouched as a mark of respect to the dead. The most telling reminders of the history of this place are the fragments of clothing and even bones that are seemingly given up from the ground and are clearly visible to visitors. An audio tour provides testimony from survivors of life under the Khmer Rouge and a temple has been constructed in memory of those who were killed at the site. The grisly spectacle of piles of skulls and femurs attested to the history of this sad place.
Continuing the theme, our next stop was the infamous TuolSleng prison, or S21, where dissidents and opponents of the regime were often detained en route to the Killing Fields. The complex is in a suburban part of the city and its original purpose as a school is immediately apparent to any visitor. The conversion of classrooms into cells and torture chambers was made to house and interrogate those who fell foul of the regime, again for often spurious reasons. An estimated 17,000 inmates were imprisoned here between 1975 and 1979. The number of survivors is disputed but estimates range from 9 to 129 people who left Tuol Sleng alive. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about recording the reception of inmates and their time at Tuol Sleng. Today their carefully maintained records serve as a reminder of these forgotten people, many of whom had been separated from their families and were never seen again. The photos of the inmates stared back at us from room to room. Some were frightened, others defiant...The shy smile of a teenage girl, the confused look of an elderly woman, and even the mischievous smiles of toddlers serve as a powerful reminder that each one represents a life, a family, hopes and dreams and only represent a sample of the millions of ordinary Cambodians who found themselves subject to thisnew and barbaric regime. They will not be forgotten by anyone who visits S21.
The midday heat was punishing in Phnom Penh, driving us back to the FCC each day for a rest. We had read that the Olympic Stadium was an interesting place to visit in late afternoon as the heat of the day subsides. The stadium was built in 1964, and has had an interesting history including hosting North Korea vs Australia for the 1966 World Cup qualifiers. No other country would host them at the time and North Korea eventually qualified for the tournament and made it to the quarter finals of the 1966 World Cup. It was no surprise for us to learn that during the Khmer Rouge period the Stadium was used as yet another execution site. Today the Stadium has a happier use as a focal point for locals who congregate in the late afternoon to do mass aerobics. Competing sound systems blare out western dance music to a mix of mostly older people around the rim of the stadium. Meanwhile more serious runners do laps of the stadium below. The atmosphere is jovial and fun and it gave us an interesting insight into how locals spend their time in this frenetic but somehow captivating city.
The Mansion is a must visit for any visitor who finds themselves in the vicinity of the FCC. It is a derelict building that has had an interesting history, like just about every other building in Phnom Penh. It was constructed as a colonial mansion, and inhabited by a succession of wealthy families before being commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. These were followed by the Vietnamese army in 1979 until their withdrawal from Cambodia; all of which has taken its toll on the building. Faded elegance it isn’t: trees and shrubs are growing out of the building, the roof is largely absent and the masonry is flaking. But don’t call Phil and Kirstie to make an offer just yet, as this makes for an excellent watering hole, helped enormously by a very generous happy hour policy. The FCC now run The Mansion as an art and event space, and at night the building is lit to its best and most dramatic effect. Hours can slip by on the slouchy sofas in the courtyard to the soundtrack of Ibiza style chillout music and the horns of tuk tuks. We recommend the Front Line cocktail: a heady mix of passion fruit, gin, chilli and kampot pepper.
For those with an interest in architecture there is a fascinating tour that can be taken either with a guide or downloaded. It covers most of the city centre, guiding the visitor through the various architectural styles from French colonial, through the 20s and 30s to 50s and 60s brutalism.The Central Market was a particular standout on the tour, and it offered us welcome respite from the midday heat. The joy of the tour was that it did not just focus on tourist guide landmarks, but concentrated on rather more prosaic sites such as public toilets, apartment blocks and other municipal architecture. This is what makes Phnom Penh such a singular place in contrast to most other Asian cities where identikit high rises predominate. How long this will last is uncertain as the cranes dotting the Phnom Penh skyline are the harbingers of a new city that is growing from the old. Many of the locations on our walking tour have now either been demolished or are under threat, so go now to catch a glimpse of a low key, low rise, and ultimately enchanting Asian capital that has not been strangled by expressways, shopping malls and high rises (yet).
We left Phnom Penh with mixed feelings. It was Anthony’s view that Phnom Penh was reminiscent of Bangkok 20 years’ ago. It is certainly true that the city has much to offer to the casual visitor. Aside from the set piece guidebook sights, and the Killing Fields in particular is a must for any visitor, Phnom Penh is a captivating place to spend time planning the next happy hour venue.
The next stage of our trip would take us across the border into Vietnam and into the heart of the Mekong delta. The best way to do this is by one of the boats which ply this well trodden route.We left the planning to Gill to decide which boat to take. Not known for her sea legs, we let Gill loose on unsuspecting touts on the quay who compete for business on this stretch of the Mekong. We are sure that they could not have anticipated her forensic questioning on the size, pedigree and sea worthiness of competing vessels.
Friday, 3 April 2015
Wednesday, 1 April 2015
Our second surprise within minutes was being hugged by a diminutive Gill, looking very trim after her recently completed 1000 mile walk. She looked amazing, bringining our pasty, fleshy, economy flown North European bodies into sharp relief. We spent three days in Siem Reap, catching up and exploring favourite haunts. Swanley travel had arranged cute duplexes at the formerly 'gay friendly' Golden Banana, thanks Gill! It's now thankfully rechristened the Rambutan Hotel. It was an oasis of calm, just across the river from the madness of downtown SR. We also loved the FCC of course, especially at happy hour!
Pub St has certainly grown since I was last here in 2006 and Gill a couple of years later. It's far from charming, but fed and watered us well for a couple of nights and a great place to people watch.
Angkor Wat, was of course the must see! Gill had done her research well and by avoiding the peak times, we almost had the temples to ourselves. Tuk tuk hired for a half day, we phut phutted out into the jungle. It is really spectacular and we were all blown away, even though it was only David who was seeing it for the first time. We scrambled up sheer staircases, exclaimed at household scenes in the bas reliefs and loved catching unexpected photo angles. saffron clad monks and gold draped Buddha's completed the scene. We also explored Bayon in Angkor Thom and Ta Prom, the Angelina Jolie one as the day got hotter and hotter. We ere so hot we must have looked a bit tired - the local guard suggested that "short walk best for you" as we were deciding which route to take around the temple... At one point David exclaimed that 'he was so hot that he could cry!' We agreed with him, and felt that our temple time was up for the day and indeed for this visit. Angkor Wat, big tick.
The splendours of Cambodia's past history is in stark contrast to modern day life for most of the locals, who appear to live in dire poverty. We had decided to visit a local, little visited fishing village on Tonle Sap, some 40km south of SIem Reap. The poverty didn't seem to bother Michelle Obama's motorcade though as she drove people off the road on her way to lecture poor people to let their kids go to school. if she had donated the cost of her trip and those of her security staff, then I'm sure more good would have come of her self satisfied smug visit. Anyway, she sped past us, we and everyone else chased off the road, there was a dying or maybe even dead young guy lying in the back of a hand cart next to us. Michelle, didn't even slow down. (That was an Ant rant...)
There is a closer fishing village to the one we visited but it is highly touristic and now Korean owned like a "poverty Disneyland". We really got a sense in Cambodia that they will take a handout from any country that offers it. Kampong Khleang was astonishing. As the lake level is so low, the stilt houses are hanging 20m up in the air, an extraordinary engineering feat, made possible by planks and nails. Kids played in the filth, dogs fought for scraps, people rocked slowly in their hammocks beneath their houses. Health and safety clearly had never visited! We chartered a small boat to take us down this creek and out onto the lake. It was hard to imagine that later in the year, this would all be 20 metres underwater. The creek bit was no more than half a metre deep, but Gill of course still sported her life jacket! Our taxi driver insisted on joining us in the boat and enjoyed taking photos too, he pointed out areas in the lake where 'Fish make babies'.
He was a fount of knowledge and we learnt how so much fuel in Cambodia is smuggled in illegally and hence not subject to tax. He explained this as our taxi was parked in a shed and he was buying petrol in a water container that was being weighed! He also told us how teachers and government workers are only paid $100 per month and have been told that they will need second jobs to survive, parents are therefore chipping in. He says many teachers in the area have "run away". Ironic as we had just seen him avoid paying fuel duty! It made us smile. We motored out to the lake to a small floating village with a school, shop, petrol station etc, the light brown shallow muddy waters lapping at their bows, it must be a strange existence to live out here. The route back to the shore was marked in the water by tree branches stuck in the mud, it was really at a low level.
Our evenings were spent drinking and eating, we enjoyed cocktails at the upmarket Shinta Mani, after having shopped at their little artisan market. Probably our favourite meal was at Haven, a restaurant that teaches street kids some marketable skills. SIem Reap is touristy, but we enjoyed it. The large groups of Chinese and Korean tours follow easy to avoid timetables, and tend to eat at their enormous edge of town chain hotels, so are not a problem in the evenings. We all had fun and vowed to return, maybe in the wet season.
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Sunday, 15 March 2015
I've just done day three so am becoming a bit of an expert on my bas reliefs.... Well not really but they are nice to look at! The whole complex is really busy. It's funny how your mind remembers things differently though. Both Ant and I seem to remember the place where you buy your tickets as super efficient with barcode controlled Disneyworld type entrance gates. If that were ever the case I can only assume that it broke down and they replaced it with the usual melee of ticket booths and the scrum of tuk tuks as they wait for their passengers to get said tickets. Certainly not the efficient machine I thought I remembered. And funnily enough walking round the park I seem to be the only person ever stopped to have their ticket checked.... I guess they assume that big tour groups are automatically honest... Or I look like some hippy wandering around on her own, a more likely explanation. The parade of coaches, taxis and tuk tuks into the park is relentless, and the tuk tuk queues forming at the pinch points like going through the narrow gates into certain temples are reminiscent of the Dartford Crossing in rush hour.
And the snake of people going into some of the more popular temples is like the Bejing ring road during rush hour.... I am really surprised by the small proportion of Western tourists about and amazed at the huge number of Chinese. But the sheer size of the place overall and individual temples means that they absorb so many people it really isn't too crowded. So far I have concentrated on the places Swanley Travel will recommend on their forthcoming escorted tour.... Angkor Wat, the main must see, Angkor Thom, the one with the faces and Ta Phrom of Tomb Raider.
Swanley Travel clients are not known for their sightseeing patience, indeed one of the Company's specialities is speed sightseeing, so I think this will be more than enough! I also paid a visit to the National Museum here to see if that was worth a recommendation, but again, Swanley Travel clients base their liking of most museums on the quality of the gift shop, so this one probably won't make the cut... But on my times when I m just wandering the streets in town I am beginning to see where all the new development is. The east bank of the river is filling up, I remember it being empty, with cool new chic hotels and restaurants as is the French Quarter where the FCC is located. They are certainly giving the FCC a run for its money. But I see that the FCC is about to go through a complete renovation as well as an extension with more hotel rooms across the road. It's probably time, it's still very stylish and always smells amazing as the oil burners are always lit but is slightly on the tired side now. There is a new Hard Rock Cafe just opened as well as a Costa Coffee, but both very sympathetically designed so fit in very well. And no sign of any Golden Arches... There are some new, extremely stylish shops and spas too with other buildings still going up. But it looks like none of them are going to be nasty high rises, I hope not.
Yesterday was a very busy day in town. There was a huge procession with thousands and I mean thousands, of people going through early afternoon. Traffic was at a standstill for almost an hour. But a la Thailand if the roads were at a standstill, the bikes just took to the pavement! It started with the uniformed local school kids band, followed by lots of women in white crimplene (never good in this climate...) suits, followed by older school kids carrying the national flag followed by what looked like loads of office workers carrying the national flag followed by hundreds and hundreds of orange and maroon clad monks then followed by what looked like all the women in town in white blouses and black skirts followed by all the OAP women in town in white shirts with shaved heads followed by a mix of other I assume, less mobile people in a huge parade of tuk tuks and cars. There were a few floats in between, one of of flower covered elephant. Everyone was carrying lotus flowers and most had a picture of a man wearing orange monks' robes and glasses.
It was such a big production I assumed every one would know exactly what it was all about. The girl in the bar I repaired to for a cool drink (diet coke, honest) had no clue. The hotel staff when I got back had no clue apart from it must be a Buddhist Celebration... even I could work that one out. The nearest I got was a waiter I asked at the side of the road. His English was pretty bad (but better than my one word of Khmer) but he seemed to be saying that it was a celebration of the guy in the picture wearing the monks robes that everyone was carrying who many many many years ago had discovered the Khmer language. Frankly it seemed improbable, the guy was wearing glasses so it couldn't have been that ancient! But improbable or not he was pretty close. The joy of Google found this:
Samdech Sangha Raja Jhotañano Chuon Nath (Khmer: ជួន ណាត [cuən naːt]; 11 March 1883 – 25 September 1969) is the late Kana Mahanikaya Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Amongst his achievements is his effort in conservation of the Khmer language in the form of the Khmer dictionary. Nath's other contribution to Cambodia include the current national anthem, Nokor Reach. Nokor Reach was written to correspond to the motto of the nation, "Nation, Religion, King" as well as demonstrate the grandeur and the mighty past of the Khmer nation. This phrase is on the Cambodian visa.
Amazing what you learn whilst travelling, just a pity most of the locals didn't have a clue! I assume the parade was today as it was the nearest Saturday to his birthday.
And then while trying to understand all about him whilst drinking my Diet Coke, it was all lights, camera and action as what looked like a music video was being filmed in the streets.
And on the way back to the hotel early evening I discover mass aerobic dance sessions. On the next block to the hotel is a big building extolling the virtues of the Cambodian People's Party. Each evening it appears to get taken over for the good health of the people.... while Hun Sen, the long serving leader looks on benevolently...
Prices here are ok too, even with the appallingly weak pound against the dollar. All transactions here are in dollars, with your change, anything less than a dollar is given back to you in grubby Riel notes. No coins circulate here. Interestingly water is much more expensive than in Thailand, but in a balance that suits me, wine is much cheaper and better! I am living high on the hog, eating at the expensive FCC where last night's dinner eaten under the stars was of smoked salmon and tomato bruschetta, FCC Salad of chicken and Parma ham and two glasses of a good Chilean Rose and it came in at just £12.20... Result!
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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia
Friday, 13 March 2015
If you have two weeks holiday and want to decide where to spend it, two weeks in Siem Reap may not be an obvious choice, but that's exactly where I've rocked up for almost a fortnight. But don't worry I haven't gone temple crazy, I do have my reasons! My Thai visa, even though for a year still meant that I needed to report in to immigration after 90 days. I had heard stories that this could take all day as the new tourist visa rules meant that all those people who previously were whizzing about doing visa runs to the border were now crowding out the small immigration office on Samui. They are building a new one but it isn't finished..... I also needed to get to Cambodia ahead of time and needed enough time here to get a Vietnam visa. So all in all it made sense to get out here a couple of days ahead of when I really needed to be and also do an advance Swanley Travel recce for my VIP visitors expected soon. So am happily ensconced in the FCC Angkor and am equally happy wandering the streets and walking along the river. I am re discovering Pub Street, a great place to people watch and enjoy the pleasure of a glass of decent why why (I don't say thanks to the French very often, but this time thanks for the wine legacy...) and at only £2. Can't say I am missing Mont Clair wine yet... I am also just getting my bearings from the last time I was here and whilst I can't see any big developments it is definitely busier. But there is still that old charm of dirty streets, broken pavements, markets, backpacker children and backpacker adults. The bottom seems to have fallen out of the photocopied book business though I guess Kindle finally put paid to that although you can now download them cheaply at ROGUE, as you can download $2 movies there as well, creating another business failure out of the copy DVD market too! Big tour groups, although they will be here, are, I think tucked away in the bigger tourist hotels on the airport road when they are not "doing Angkor Wat". Most people just drop in here for a couple of days, do the temples and then leave. I seem to be doing the opposite..... And I am having to get used to the new traffic.
Unlike Thailand who drive on the left, I now have to remember to look the other way. Crossing the road is impossible at times until I recalled my old Vietnam training - take a deep breath and go, the sea of motorbikes should part around you.... So far so good... And the drivers here do seem a little slower than the Thai's. There are a few sets of traffic lights here too even sporting little green men at the crossing and unlike the Thai's the Cambodians do actually stop at red lights, a real novelty... On the way from the airport the driver explained the police stopping some motorbike riders who were being fined "one dollar" for not wearing their helmets. No mirror on your bike is also "one dollar" and not obeying a red light is also "one dollar". I wonder how many "one dollars" end up in the police pockets?
Yesterday I walked into the Angkor Park in the rush hour, all tourist life was in the traffic. Big coaches of Wendy Wu type Chinese tourists jammed into big coaches, streams of ten tuk tuks with groups of Travel Indochina type posher smaller group tourists, gorgeous independent travellers (as you find with Swanley Travel) in their own tuk tuks, rich American's wafting in from Raffles in their aircon limo's and the Germans and Swiss on their push bikes.... and me bringing up the rear in my flip flops. And that reminds me, my Jawbone UP told me recently that I had completed my thousandth flip flop mile in 88 days, way ahead of my 100 day target. I am now trying to pat my own back...
Today I walked through a bizarre sight in the park in front of the a Royal residence. I have never seen so many brides in my life. All being attended by cameras, video cameras, make up artists. Some looking graceful in traditional Khmer dress but most looking far from that in pretty bad Western ones. I do feel the poor girl below was rather badly advised.... Perhaps "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" is on tv here... I think it's all about getting the pictures, I think the ceremony itself follows on weeks if not months later.
But Siem Reap itself, although it has brash places like Pub Street, it also has lovely little lanes with some great shops and restaurants.
Oh and of course some big temples... I made my first visit this time this morning and unlike last time, about seven years ago, there was some water in the reflecting pool and here's the pic to prove it!
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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia