Monday, 18 February 2013

Siem Reap - Gateway to Angkor

The Spirit House at our hotel
We travelled by minibus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and it was probably the most uncomfortable, not to mention terrifying, journey we have had so far.  It took about 5.5 hours, the promised air conditioning an exaggeration, but the most memorable aspect was constantly living in fear that we were going to crash at any given moment because the driver was handling the vehicle like an absolute lunatic.  It was exhilarating if nothing else.

There are few transport options available in Cambodia, none of them particularly safe (and that includes walking) and most involve travelling by road.  We were quickly beginning to realise that we really didn’t like any of the road options with the notable exception of tuk tuks.  Tuk tuks are, as Paul continues to remind me at any given opportunity, the mutt’s nuts.  But at this point we were yet to discover our love affair with this mode of transport so I’m jumping ahead.

Travelling by boat is possible to quite a few destinations, as the Mekong reaches many parts of Cambodia, and although it is slower it is more relaxed but much more expensive (often more than 3 times the price of the bus ticket).  We couldn’t justify too many boat trips so had to bite the bullet and mainly stick to road travel.

Honey Bee puppet
In general, road journeys between main destinations in Cambodia are usually a lot quicker by minibus rather than by coach (sometimes taking half the time) but taking the faster option will normally age you 10 years by the time you reach your destination as we were soon to discover.  Any decision involving mode of transport revolves around safety versus comfort but any decision is heavily influenced by your most recent experience so your choice tends to change on a rota basis.

Obviously we would personally prefer a comprehensive high speed rail network or, even better, a personal Tardis but the Chinese are unlikely to build railways in Cambodia any time soon and apparently Doctor Who isn’t actually real so our only real options were coaches or minibuses for the foreseeable future.

So we set off for Siem Reap and it quickly became apparent that our minivan driver was a lunatic.  He was driving faster than anything else on the road and it was particularly hair raising passing through small towns and villages bustling with people and animals were milling about, at speeds exceeding 40 or 50mph.  Overtaking other traffic seems to be considered an extreme sport and near misses an alarmingly common occurrence.  Nerves were ragged.

Approximately half way on the trip we made the usual stop off at a restaurant in order to feed the driver and for passengers to stretch their legs, smoke 15 cigarettes (even those that didn’t usually smoke), stock up on essentials and use the facilities.  If anyone had any valium at that point I seriously think I would have mugged them for it. 

Sting Ray puppet
But sadly, no drugs were to be had so we settled for a couple of cold cans of drink, reassuring each other that accidents are relatively rare in Cambodia (in other words, blatantly lying through our teeth in order to reassure each other and keep ourselves from descending into a full blown panic attack). 

Outside this particular restaurant there were 3 or 4 small barefoot boys aged about 9 or 10 (although they could easily have been younger, they were so small and thin).  They were dressed in dirty rags, sniffing glue and begging – a very sad and sorry sight.  While they were really cute and cheeky, it was yet another occasion in Cambodia when the reality of life here hits you really hard.  What on earth were these children doing?  Who was looking after them?  Do they actually have anyone at all to care for them or do they only have each other?

The kids were full of beans (no doubt the effects of the glue) and  one of them had gleefully dug a poor little gecko out of its hiding place and frightened it half to death before chucking it at me (scaring me half to death because I’m a bit of a wimp!).  The poor creature shed its tail and was cowering on the floor and I promptly trod on it (unwittingly), thereby ending its sorry little life completely.  I have henceforth been referred to as the gecko killer! 

So between fearing for our lives on the road, me killing geckos and both of us trying to ignore glue sniffing and the sorry plight of these young homeless kids, it wasn’t the best trip in the world although, for all the wrong reasons, one of our more memorable.

Another giant puppet
We were dropped off in Siem Reap in record time and met by the tuk tuk driver sent by our guesthouse who transported us in what we considered to be relative luxury and comparative safety.  Progress may be slow in a tuk tuk but you feel safe and it is cool in the hot humidity of central Cambodia.  I shall throughout be referring to our tuk tuk driver as Walter because that’s what I thought his name actually was the whole time we were there, and although I fully appreciate that Walter is not a very Cambodian name, it kind of suited him and I never caught his real name.  He didn’t seem to mind too much.  Either that or he was too polite to correct me!

And so began Paul’s love affair with tuk tuks.  It is the way to travel when the air is heavy and humid and the temperature never seems to fall below 30 degrees Celsius.  There was even the odd occasion during our time spent visiting the temples where we felt slightly chilly as we set off in the early hours and travelled through the sheltered wooden areas of the archaeological park and that was absolute bliss.

Local kids in a marching band
We liked Walter as soon as we met him and as we planned to spend the next 6 days touring the various temples around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, and we needed some kind of transportation to do this, we decided to book him for the duration. There is no real practical alternative to see the sights at Angkor.  You may choose to cycle from temple to temple if you really are super fit and crazy enough to want to cycle for miles in the blistering heat.  Or you could hire a taxi (more expensive than a tuk tuk), or pillion on a moto (not as comfortable as a tuk tuk but slightly cheaper) but we went with what we considered to be the sensible option of Walter’s tuk tuk.  This proved to be one of the best decisions we made.  Each morning, as we set off at 6.30am, we were able to enjoy relatively cool temperatures as we travelled to the park, and each time we climbed back into the tuk tuk between visiting temples all hot and sweaty, the breeze as we rode along cooled us down a treat, and we were suitable refreshed and ready to tackle the next historical monument.

Now all we had to do was come up with some kind of schedule to visit all the places we wanted to visit throughout this enormous site.  Some are quite close to Angkor Wat but some are an hour’s ride away and we needed to organise some kind of timetable for the days we would be spending here without making it too gruelling which would take all the fun out of it.

An unidentifiable (but impressive) giant puppet
In the meantime, while we were here we had a look around Siem Reap to see what it had to offer and, although it is a pleasant enough place, there wasn’t really much to interest us. To be fair, the town grew up to accommodate the tourists attracted to Angkor Wat and it is understandable that it has been developed to cater for that market.

The main drag in tourist central is called Pub Street (go figure) and there are endless options for dining, catering to all budgets and tastes but mainly western and Khmer.  Certainly, if you are at that stage in your trip where you crave some western food, you will be spoilt for choice here (and that is not always a bad thing as we have craved many home comfort foods since we left last August).  Pizza and pasta is available everywhere and you can get a Sunday roast if you are around at the weekend.

One for our friend Warwick Francis and all
the honeybee keepers of the world
One evening, while we were eating at a restaurant in Pub Street, we were fortunate enough to witness the giant puppet procession one evening which was an unexpected bonus.  We weren’t sure of the occasion but it seemed to be insect related.

The whole parade lasted about an hour and local schools and youth organisations were represented, either taking part as puppets or in marching bands.  We saw some creations and all the kids seemed to be having an fantastic time.  It was, of course, the one occasion I didn’t take the camera but we took some photos using Paul’s iPod. Sadly the quality of the photos wasn't that great but it was certainly a great carnival atmosphere.

There are certainly other places of interest in and around Siem Reap, including the landmine museum and a national museum but we were interested only in making the most of our time here to see the temples.

Siem Reap is a pretty town with a river running through the centre and there is more to it than Pub Street if you have the time to explore further afield but be prepared for the journey to get there – either take a valium (available at all good pharmacies in south east Asia) on a long trip to help you sleep, or take a valium to calm your nerves on if you take the shorter, terrifying option. 

For us, however, it was well worth the effort and Angkor Wat was one of the highlights of our trip but more of that in our next post.

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