Cambodia

Beautiful Angkor Wat, Cambodia

After our ordeal with the bus we spent the following day relaxing and chilling by the pool. We took a tuk tuk just before sunset and went to one of the temples at Angkor. If you buy a one-day ticket to Angkor Wat after 5pm you’re allowed access to the complex to watch sunset at one of the temples as well as the ticket being valid for the following day. We thought we were being original watching the sun go down at Phnom Bakheng but it appears everyone had the same idea… there were hundreds of people perched on the top of the temple for sunset. Unfortunately the rain wasn’t waiting for the sun to go down and as soon as it started raining… the masses started leaving, leaving us to take in the view by ourselves.

Monks at Phnom Bakheng

Monks at Phnom Bakheng

The masses at Phnom Bakheng

The masses at Phnom Bakheng

Baby watching the sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Baby watching the sunset at Phnom Bakheng

We woke up bright and bushy tailed the following morning at 4.30am to be picked up by Mr Raya, our tuk tuk driver, for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Again, there were thousands of people standing across the moat from Angkor Wat waiting for the sun to rise. Despite all the people outside the temple, there were very few people inside the temple after the sun had actually risen. Walking around the temple complex left you in awe.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was actually first a Hindu and then a Buddhist temple, and is the largest religious monument in the world. The temple is a classic example of Khmer architecture and has 5 massive lotus-like towers made of sandstone. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful watching the sun come up over the lotus-like towers. Unfortunately the tranquility and beauty was somewhat ruined by the masses of hawkers inside Angkor Wat trying to sell you anything and everything. We saw one German tourist being repeatedly bothered by a hawker trying to sell him an Angkor Wat guide. The tourist kept saying no and eventually lost his patience, so the hawker deliberately kept trying to piss him off on purpose – we watched the hawker follow him around the temple for at least 10 minutes trying to get him to buy the guide. Also, you’d walk into some dark parts of the temple to find people holding out incense sticks and saying ‘this is for Lucky Buddha’ or ‘Good Luck from Buddha today’, luckily we’d read all about the scams that go on inside Angkor Wat and knew if we took an incense stick they’d then try and make you pay $10 or some other ridiculous amount. There’s no way to stop the hawkers unfortunately because Cambodians are allowed to visit and be at the Angkor complex for free – only foreign tourists have to pay.

Temple within Angkor Wat

Temple within Angkor Wat

Lotus-like towers

Lotus-like towers

Lotus-like towers at sunrise

Lotus-like towers at sunrise

After watching sunrise at Angkor Wat, we found Mr Raya and went to Angkor Thom City, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. In an area of 9km there are numerous temples and religious monuments. The first temple we visited in Angkor Thom City was Bayon and it was very striking because of the 216 stone faces in the towers that jut out from the upper terrace. This temple was more ‘baroque’ than Angkor Wat’s classical architecture. This is also the only temple that was built as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Buddha – the other temples were originally Hindu temples.

Bayon Temple - one of 216 faces

Bayon Temple – one of 216 faces

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

The 216 faces in the temple are apparently meant to be interpretations of King Jayavarman VII. On the walls outside the temple there were various historical scenes and scenes of every day life of the Angkorian Khmer carved into limestone such as the Khmer Army marching into battle. We then walked to the Terrace of Elephants, which was a former temple but there are only a few ruins left. The last temple in the Angkor Thom City complex was the ‘Terrace of the Leper King’. On top of the temple was a statue of the Hindu God Yama, the god of death. The statue is called the ‘Leper King’ because it’s discoloured and covered in moss, so it apparently looks like someone with leprosy.

Terrace of Elephants

Terrace of Elephants

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After exploring the temples of the city of Angkor Thom we decided it was high time for breakfast, so we stopped at one of the many restaurants inside Angkor for a bite to eat. We offered to buy Mr Raya breakfast but he said he’d already eaten and had a coffee instead. Mr Raya sat with us whilst we ate and told us about his life and family. He used to be in the Cambodian Army but now worked as a tuk tuk driver to earn a living. He explained that tuk tuk drivers could earn more money than any other skilled job in Cambodia. A seamstress earns about $70 a month, whereas he could earn at least $30 a day at Angkor Wat (we were paying him $15 to drive us around for the day). He explained he had to work as much as he could so he could pay for his children to go to school. It’s crazy that we can easily spend $70 in 2 or 3 days here, but that’s the monthly minimum wage for some Cambodians – I’ve never felt more grateful for where I come from and for the life I’ve lived.

We then got back into the tuk tuk to visit the Ta Prohm temple aka the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. It was a really interesting temple because there were trees growing out of the ruins and it was being taken over by the jungle. Ta Prohm was made famous by the film ‘Tomb Raider’ so there were hundreds of people at the temple. It was by far our favourite temple because the trees growing out of the ruins gave it an eerie feel. The temple looks like soon it’ll be completely taken over by the jungle.

Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider)

Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider)

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Inside Ta Prohm

Inside Ta Prohm

Kyle pretending to be Tomb Raider.

Kyle pretending to be Tomb Raider.

Our last and final temple at Angkor was Banteay Kdei or the ‘Citadel of Monks’ cells’. The temple was architecturally similar to Ta Prohm temple without all the trees. The temple was was full of hawkers trying to sell you drinks, books and lucky Buddha incense. Some tourists avoided parts of the temple because they could see there were loads of hawkers waiting inside trying to scam you, which I thought was a shame. There were also ‘Official Tourist Guides’ just wandering about the temple offering tours for $10 for 30 minutes. We heard one ‘Official Tourist Guide’ taking a group of people around the temple and everything he was saying he’d made up. It’s a shame that these people have to scam people just to make a couple of dollars.

All in all we had a great day at Angkor Wat and loved exploring its temples. It was a real shame though that the temples were full of hawkers trying to scam tourists into a tour or with the lucky Buddha incense. They tell you the money from the incense is going to the monks and the upkeep of the temple… it doesn’t.

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Nightmare Bus Journey to Siem Reap, Cambodia

After a couple of days in Phnom Penh we decided it was time to move on to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat. We booked a coach through our hostel to Siem Reap for $8 each and it was meant to take 8 hours. We were told by our hostel that the bus would be air conditioned, have a toilet and wifi… blah blah…it did not.

We got on to the coach to find the bus packed already and everyone covered in sweat because the air con wasn’t on. There were even 4 Spanish guys who’d taken their tops off because it was so hot. We figured that when the bus finally left the driver would turn the air con, which he did but it didn’t work. We spent the next 8 hours absolutely drenched in sweat.

There was also no toilet on the bus, so we had to stop at ‘service stations’ along the way. I say ‘service stations’ because your idea of a service station at home is nothing compared to the service stations in Cambodia. The ‘service stations’ consisted of an open air restaurant where the food had been sitting out all day and then at the back there were some toilets. The toilets were just holes in the ground – it was that basic.

We got talking to a couple from Hawaii and they were looking VERY pissed off. They’d apparently paid to go on a ‘luxury’ tour of Cambodia from Vietnam and somehow they’d ended up on this bus. They’d been told some cock and bull story that because it was a national holiday in Cambodia some of the transport options weren’t available. When we told them that we’d paid $8 for the bus they were absolutely furious! They said they’d paid over $500 each for luxury transport and 5* hotels. The coach was FAR from luxurious, and was the WORST coach I’d ever been on in my life.

I was just counting down the hours until we could get off the bus and we’d be in Siem Reap. After 8 hours had passed the bus seemed to be stopping so we thought that we must have arrived – hurrah! It was yet another ‘service station’ and it was the worst one yet. There were cockroaches and flies EVERYWHERE. I was busting for the toilet (no toilet on the coach) and the toilets were just another hole in the ground, but this time there were cockroaches everywhere. I cannot stand cockroaches – they make me squirm. I nearly didn’t go to the loo because of the cockroaches but the driver said it would take another hour and a half to get to Siem Reap. I was so desperate for the loo and so disgusted with my surroundings and standards of hygiene that I tripped and fell over. I finally put my big girl pants on and went to the loo in the company of loads of cockroaches – I ran out of there as soon as I could. It was only then that I realised I’d cut my toe really badly when I tripped and there was blood everywhere. Unfortunately the ‘service station’ didn’t even have any running water to clean my wound :-(.

I was feeling pretty miserable by this point and just wanted to be in Siem Reap already, but it took another 2 and a half hours! Total journey time was nearly 11 hours! When we finally arrived at the bus station in Siem Reap, the Hawaiian couple had a pick-up waiting for them from their hotel. I looked up the name of their hotel the next day and found it was nothing more than a crappy hostel. I felt quite bad that they’d been ripped off so badly.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

On our final day in Phnom Penh we decided to check out the Royal Palace. I’d read some reviews on tripadvisor before we went (it’s often quite amusing) and somebody had written that the Royal Palace puts Buckingham Palace to shame…

The entrance fee to the Royal Palace was a bit steep at $6 a person. (You had to pay $3 to take your camera in with you!). We thought it was pretty expensive considering you only really had access to 3 buildings and the gardens. Also, despite paying $3 to take your camera in with you, you couldn’t take pictures inside the Throne Hall or inside the Silver Pagoda.. which basically meant you paid $3 to take pictures of the garden. There were scary guards inside the Throne Hall and Silver Pagoda shouting at anyone who was even holding their camera inside these buildings.

Throne Hall at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Throne Hall at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Throne Hall at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Throne Hall at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Having just complained about the entry fee, I must admit that the Royal Palace was very impressive – there was so much gold. It was amazing that the streets outside the palace were dusty dirt roads and yet inside the palace walls was all this grandeur!

The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

We then went into the Silver Pagoda and we were rather confused as to why it was called so and wondered whether we were in the right place. Kyle asked the guard and he confirmed that sure enough this was the Silver Pagoda and lifted up the red carpet to show us the silver floor underneath. 95% of the silver floor is covered to protect it, which seemed pretty pointless to me. Why have something as lavish as a silver floor if you have to protect it?
Obviously there are no pictures of the Emerald Buddha or the 2048 carat gold Buddha inside the Silver Pagoda because you weren’t allowed!

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After an hour or two we decided we’d had enough of the Royal Palace and decided to go back to the hostel before our coach left for Siem Reap. As soon as we walked out the Royal Palace we were greeted by beggars and children with amputated limbs asking us for money. They kept saying to us ‘please, please. we need eat. please’. I thought it was incredibly sad that the King of Cambodia lives in this grand palace covered in gold and just outside the palace there are hundreds of people begging for money and living in poverty.

Genocide in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From Ho Chi Minh City we took an 8-hour coach to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I don’t think anything could have prepared us for Cambodia. When we arrived at the coach station the map said we were only about 10 minutes from our hostel, so I wanted to walk instead of taking a tuk tuk. We put our backpacks on and made our way to the exit only to be confronted by hundreds of tuk tuks asking us where we were going. We declined all their offers and made our way to the road, which was nothing more than a bright orange dusty track with no pavement. We soon realised that walking to our hostel would be virtually impossible. We jumped into a tuk tuk and escaped the hawkers hassling you every 10 metres.

The following morning we arranged to have a tuk tuk take us to the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison – Phnom Penh despite being the capital city has no public transport system. The next day we were picked up by our tuk tuk and made the 40-minute journey on bumpy dirt tracks to the Killing Fields.

When we finally arrived at the Killing Fields we were given audio guides and a map to accompany the visit. It was the first time in our South East Asia trip that we were given a running commentary throughout a visit. The audio guide was very interesting and was told by a young man who’d managed to escape the Killing Fields. For those who aren’t familiar with the Killing Fields, they were sites were thousands of Cambodians were killed and buried by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. Out of a population of 8 million I think about 2.5 million people died in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot is dubbed the ‘Hitler of Cambodia’.

I’m afraid pictures don’t accompany this post because it felt wrong to take pictures of where so many people were tortured and lost their lives. The audio guide explained that the people were being held at the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh and were told that they were going back to their families – they had no idea they were coming to the Killing Fields. There are 20,000 mass graves, and one of the mass graves was by the ‘Killing Tree’. A tree used to beat and smash the heads of young children and babies before throwing them into the mass grave. As ammunition was too expensive for the Khmer Rouge they used agricultural tools to torture and kill the Cambodians that were sent here. The audio guide explained they’d excavated many of the mass graves to ascertain how the majority of people died. The majority of people were killed by a blow to the head from a machete or some other agricultural tool.

It was incredibly sad and I felt so much sorrow for Cambodia. What was particularly harrowing was that you could see bones coming up under your feet as you walked around. The guide explained that whenever it rains remains come to the surface and they have to regularly collect bones, teeth and clothing.

At the end of the visit lies a memorial stupa dedicated to all those who’d lost their lives at one of Cambodia’s 500 killing fields. The memorial stupa was piled high with human skulls, and each skull had a little note on how they had been killed.

After the Killing Fields we went to the Tuol Sleng Museum or the S-21 Prison. Kyle had found the fields quite disturbing and really didn’t want to see what the prison had in store. What was most sad about the prison was that it had previously been a school. Under Khmer Regime all schools, pagodas and places of worship were shut down and turned into prisons.

All of the classrooms had been turned into cells, and many still had their blackboards in them. The windows of the cells on the upper floors were lined with barbed wire to stop prisoners committing suicide. The people that were held here were repeatedly tortured and coerced into giving up other family and friends. They were forced into writing confessions saying they were spies and were working with the CIA or KGB.

After the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison I felt so much sadness for the Cambodian people. You’d think after Nazi Germany and the mass killing of the Jews that it wouldn’t happen anymore. Although visiting these places was difficult, it’s a reminder to all that we cannot let these atrocities happen again. What I can’t get my head around is the fact that Pol Pot never stood trial for genocide; he committed suicide in 1997 before it could happen. Other senior members of the Khmer Regime were only brought to trial in 2007-2009. I don’t understand how they managed to get away with what they did for so long.