We expected Cambodia to be very similar to Vietnam, but in many ways it’s quite different. The food is different, the language and script are different; the currency is different. (In fact, there are two currencies in Cambodia: prices are quoted and payment normally made in US dollars, but change is given in Cambodian riels.) Another difference we noticed soon after crossing the border was the design of temples: in Vietnam they are similar to China, but in Cambodia they are much more like those in Thailand.
We planned only two stops in Cambodia, although we expected one of them to be the highlight of our trip.
In Phnom Penh we met up with Nick, the son of a friend, who’s lived there for several years and speaks the language. He took us on an interesting trip to Udong, a few miles north and the capital from the 17th to 19th centuries. There we climbed a hill to visit a number of temples of different ages and states of repair, which was a fascinating experience and definitely off the standard tourist map.
As interesting as Udong itself was the method of getting there. Transport in Cambodia is mainly motor bike-based; taxis are very rare. The standard way of getting around towns is by tuk-tuk, a carriage seating up to four, pulled by a motor bike (a different design from tuk-tuks we have seen in other countries). But to get to Udong we travelled with local people in a remorque: a cart with wooden planks to serve as benches, seating up to about 20, again pulled by a motor bike.
The highlight of our sightseeing in Phnom Penh itself was a visit to the Silver Pagoda complex, adjacent to the royal palace (the palace is closed for three months due to the death of ‘king father’ Sihanouk). The buildings and stupas there are absolutely stunning, especially in bright sunshine. The Silver Pagoda itself has 5329 floor tiles made of solid silver – but they’re all counted so we weren’t able to steal one.
Siem Reap is the tourist hub for visiting the temples of Angkor. Angkor Wat is justifiably famous, and was the main reason for our wanting to visit Cambodia. What many people do not realise, however, is that Angkor Wat is only one (admittedly the biggest) of literally dozens of temples in the area. We obtained a three-day ‘temple pass’, and hired a tuk-tuk to take us round.
Angkor Watis certainly big and impressive, but the setting is not quite what we imagined. Far from being in the depths of the jungle, it is surrounded by a moat, manicured lawns, and an access road which brings in thousands of tourists daily. In some ways we preferred the quieter temples in a more natural setting (though some unfortunately are being damaged by trees attaching themselves to the walls).
It would be pointless to mention all the temples we visited, but we’ll just highlight two. One was Banteay Srey, which is some distance from the main group of temples. Unusually it is built from rose-coloured sandstone, especially beautiful in the morning sun, and has many intricate and well-preserved carvings.
The Bayon is the temple with the faces – 216 of them in total. There are 54 towers with four faces on each; we didn’t quite manage to photograph every one, but we gave it a good shot. The effect of all these giant faces can be quite overpowering, especially if you go at a time when there are not too many tour groups.
While in Siem Reap we had dinner at two restaurants where there were performances of traditional dancing to watch as we ate.
Another night we went to see a show called ‘Smile of Angkor’, which is performed in a special theatre just outside the town. It was a multi-media spectacle, with music, dancing, waterfalls etc etc – and it was totally mad. We gave up trying to make sense of the history being presented, let alone the theology. But the show ended with an enthusiastic rendering of ‘Ode to Joy’, and a message about universal brotherhood, accompanied by waving a variety of national flags. Corny perhaps, but it made us think (not for the first time) about how remarkably the Cambodian people have recovered from the horrors of their recent past.
Stuck in Stung Treng
The last paragraph should have ended this blog, because the day after our last temple visits we were to leave Cambodia and cross the border into Laos. But it didn’t quite work out like that…..
Our bus was scheduled to leave Siem Reap at 5.30 am and reach our destination at 5.30 pm. We had to be ready for a pick-up from 4.30 am onwards, although the bus did not arrive till nearly 6. We stopped a number of times en route, and at one point had to change from a bus to a minibus. There was a fair bit of confusion about when and where we had to change buses, not helped by total lack of communication (the drivers spoke no English, and we do not speak Khmer).
Finally, at 5.20 pm, we stopped outside a guesthouse, in a town called Stung Treng, about 30 miles before the border crossing. The driver called an English-speaking colleague to speak to us by phone. He explained that the border closes at 5 pm, so we were too late to cross into Laos that day. We had to find accommodation for the night, and continue our journey in the morning. So, unexpectedly, we had an extra night in Cambodia.
It was a bit of an anti-climax, because Stung Treng is not an exciting place. Finding accommodation was easy, and incredibly cheap (US$7 for the room). It was clean and perfectly OK, except that we could not get the hot water to work and neither could the manager. That was a pity, because there had been a town-wide water stoppage in Siem Reap the night before, so we were fairly desperate for a shower!
We went out to find a restaurant recommended in the guidebook, but discovered it had closed. Pavements and street lighting are poor in Stung Treng, and Ian accidentally walked into a deep pool of mud. Sandie, forewarned, took a different path – and did much the same thing. So we had to return to our hotel to clean off our black feet and sandals; we needed a shower more than ever, but couldn’t get one!