FEBRUARY 7th, 8th, and 9th
Out latest start yet for what was to be a long day. We were back on the large coach and we set off for Siem Reap. Everything changed within a few minutes of leaving Phnom Penh. The roads were dreadful, very much third world. the poverty had to be seen to be believed. The contrast with Phnom Penh was 360 degrees. This country has a totally unfair division of wealth and yet the largest hotel in Phnom Penh is owned by a Vietnamese. I do wonder ho some people can sleep in their guided cages with such poverty on their doorsteps. A familiar sight on the roads was a van jammed with motorbikes and people. This is a type of long distance taxi. They wait on a corner for people who don’t have bikes suitable for driving long distances and stack them and the bikes in and take off. Another very familiar sight was a motorbike with a driver and three passengers, nothing so unusual about that – the more the merrier – however the passenger sandwiched between the other two was attached to an IV Drip with one of the other passengers holding a piece of wood to which it was attached. Invariably these were young people, very few old people in Cambodia, and in many instances toddlers and I even spotted a tiny baby. The reason is the person was so sick they had to go to hospital, however they did not have the funds to remain and so are brought home to be nursed. Motorbikes crammed with food, wares, veg etc are everywhere. Their load is often the size of a car, very scary to watch them weave in and out
Our first stop is to a big market with a Happy House! We are greeted by children with tarantulas on their arms. Education is very important to the Cambodians and there are 2 school shifts, morning and afternoon. The country knows that the only way to move forward is through education. This is why Intrepid do not support children either begging or selling and we are asked not to support them. Likewise the orphanages, at last count there were in excess 0f 180 orphanages in Cambodia and only a few of these are legitimate. The remainder are used to make money at the sake of the children many of whom just turn up on a daily basis.
This market at Skuoli was famous for the Tarantulas, not looking at them but eating them. They also have a number of bugs for sale. Surprising myself I did eat one, it was deep fried with chilli and garlic and tasted very crispy, not too different from prawn crackers. However in the cooking process it has kept its shape so was quite obviously a tarantula, of the group of now 15 only 3 of us tried it!
Vin update – there is still talk of him joining us, however, as a group we feel now he should stay and wait for the next group as yesterday, albeit horrific beyond our wildest expectations, is too important a day for him to miss
Our journey continues and our next stop, also lunch is in Bardy and it is the Santuk Silk Farm. This is a very rural location and is run by Budd Gibbons. This is one of the few places in Cambodia where you can see the entire process of silk production. The farm employs 18 locals, mostly weavers and as a visitor you can watch the entire process. Budd Gibbons is an American Vietnam War Vet who has lived in Cambodia since 1996 with his Cambodian wife. He was initially involved with the support of the US and working as an NGO providing prosthetic limbs to victims of landmines. Today huge areas of landmines have yet to be cleared and the traveller is constantly reminded not to stray off well worn paths. To Budd’s dismay he would find the amputees betting with their prosthetic limbs out of sight – there is more chance of cash begging as an amputee! With funding he proceeded to educate people in the area on silk farms in the north of the country with another lady but this folded when his funding was stopped. He refused to return to the US and instead moved to Bardy where he set up his own small silk farm. His scarves were lovely, if expensive and few bought. The lunch was delicious and yet, although what he is doing is good, educating and giving work to the locals, a number of us left with a bad taste in our mouths. Impossible to put a finger on what was wrong but there was something just not quite right.
Bank on the bus again and we continued to Kompong Pluk on Tonte Sap Lake, the largest lake in Cambodia. Here we boarded a boat and sailed out into the floating community. This was, without doubt, the most humbling experience of my life. These people have nothing and I mean nothing, and yet in many ways they are richer in life that many of us. There is a fantastic sense of community, everyone smiling and waving to us, it went on for miles and miles and children, like children everywhere, laughing and playing. The reason we were visiting this particular fishing village is because this is where Fila was born and his family lived for many years. He still has some extended family members living there
Back on the bus, once more and we had an unexpected stop at Fila’s family home. He is married and lives in Siem Reap, however, his father, who me missed, step mother, sister, brother in law and 10 day old baby still live there. We walk there to visit his home and for him to give a present to his new nephew. His mother died during childbirth when he was 7. They were still living on the floating village but when complications arose there was no immediate help and she died. His brother is a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap. Fila worked very hard to get where he is today, fighting with his father to remain in school, he’s the only one of his family who is educated. As there is not free education in Cambodia he moved in with an uncle in Siem Reap and worked as many jobs as he could to fund his education. He learned his English from tourists but also studied for 2 hours a day with a monk in a monastery. We smiled, said our greeting in Cambodian, prompted by Fila, admired the new baby and headed to the Freedom Hotel in Siem Reap
It has been a long day, we didn’t arrive until after 19.00 but it was so worth it. Our hotel was fine if a little out of the main part of town but only $1 for a tuk tuk. We quickly checked in, freshened up and headed our for a lovely and very welcome dinner. This was right in the heart of the night market and at the corner with Pub Street and yet another shock – it was pure crazy as in Ibiza, Magaluf or anywhere that kids go on holidays. Yet another totally unexpected culture shock. All I could think of was what my kids would think if they saw me now, dancing in the streets with the wildest group of people imaginable plus an 11 year old girl who was the best break dancer I’ve seen. Her $1 wristbands were selling like hot cakes
Another early start the following day after a poor breakfast, pancakes you’d to watch like a hawk as they only brought out 2 at a time, dire coffee, I was told, yet again I’m delighted to have my own coffee and travel mug. So off on the bus again and a 6km drive to Angkor Thom the farthest one away. The temples of Angkor are purely heaven on earth. They are the earthly representations of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympics of Hindu Faith and the home of the Ancient Gods. Angkor is one of the worlds foremost ancient sites with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the Pyramids all rolled into one. No matter how many documentaries you’ve watched, how may books you’ve read or how many pictures you’ve seen nothing will prepare you for the splendour of your first view of Angkor Wat. Once again we had a personal guide who made the purchase of a 3 day pass including photograph and lanyard very easy and we were through and our bus was waiting the other side. In order to try and beat the crowds we headed for Angkor Thom first. This is one of the furthest points away from where we had entered. It is a great city on an epic scale. Unfortunately not long after we arrived a massive party of Japanese turned up. Our guide christened them VIPs Very Ignorant People! They were rude, arrogant, obnoxious and proceeded to photobomb all our shots. We weren’t letting them away with it though, we’re made of sterner stuff and whereas as a group we loved Angkor Thom most of us were just sick to the teeth of these VIPs. While visiting Angkor Thom we saw many things in the enclosure including Terrace of the Leper King, Bayon to name a few. We then ventured outside the Temples of Angkor to the art gallery of Angkor, Banteay Srei which is 21km northeast of Baton and 32km from Siem, Reap. It is known as the Woman’s Temple or ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it was very beautiful. It is also the first major temple restoration undertaken by EFEO in 1930 using the anastlosis method
Following our visit we had lunch and a visit to see how palm sugar is made into syrup, sweets etc. Its very sweet, even for me and we returned to the Temples of Angkor Wat to visit Angkor Wat in what is considered to be a quite time. It was busy but not so busy that you couldn’t move around freely and the queue to the uppermost level moved freely
Angkor Wat is the Temple that is the City. It is huge. You enter by a causeway only to realise that there are another three entrances before you see Angkor Wat in all its glory. As we were coming to the main temple disaster struck – our camera battery had died. While annoyed at first, accepting that there was nothing we could do about it I really enjoyed my visit more without trying to take photos. The Temple goes on and on layer after layer and all too soon it was time to leave. Yet again I felt so tiny and insignificant leaving this incredible place.
The following morning we left the hotel at 4.30 to view sunrise at Angkor Wat. There can be few things more humbling in this world. Despite 1000’s of people there not a sound was heard. As the sun slowly rose in the morning in full view of Angkor Wat and all the colours changing by the second. Following sunrise we quickly set off to Ta Prohm which is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor. It looks as if it has been swallowed by a jungle. Ta Prohm is also famous as one of its spots is the so called Tomb Raider tree and indeed we all had great fun attempting to imitate Angelina Jolies Lara Croft stunts. Indeed several scenes from Tomb Raider were shot around the Temple of Angkor and having been there now I want to see the film. Soon it was time to return to the hotel for breakfast and then a free day for all.
Bob decided to hire a bike a cycle back out to the Temple of Angkor. He said, although very hot it was very quiet and he spent the day there. Others were arranging to go to a show/circus or some other activity so it was decided we would all meet up in the Irish Bar in Pub St later. Firstly Debbie, Pauline and I went for a Cambodian cookery lesson. It was wonderful, totally different to our Vietnamese one. It started with us going to the market with the sous chef to purchase all the ingredients,. Anything we asked about was purchased and our lesson began with a fresh cocktail of juices and desserts. The chef introduced himself and we started. This time we ate as we cooked and we were shown the finesse of serving a meal. It really was wonderful. When we returned to the hotel Debbie and I lay by the pool until it was time to go for a massage. We were collected and taken to the place where we had been booked into. Our first impressions in the tuk tuk were not the most favourable and had Fila not made the bookings we would have kept going. However, we trusted Intrepid and their choice. We both elected to have a 4 hand, 90 minute Swedish massage. We were shown to a room with 4 mattresses on the floor and told to strip and lie down. When I say strip I mean strip! There was at most a foot between Debbie and I. Whatever 4 hands did to her another 4 hands did to me simultaneously. The giggles and roars coming from the room would have left anyone wondering. I will not go into any further detail apart from saying we both felt it was the weirdest but best massage ever. We did, however, leave wondering exactly what was happening behind a row of darkened doors and windows! Left sore but still laughing. That evening Debbie joined Bob and I for something to eat and the group met up in Pub St for our last night in Siem Reap