There is nothing to do in Battambang.
OK that’s not strictly true. It is a new place with people and things there, not some white cube prison floating in a vacuum. What I was trying to say is that it lacks the show stopping tourist attractions, natural beauty, or vibrant social scene cocktail that usually allure people to visit an area. What it does hold in it’s arsenal is a laid back atmosphere of the cafe culture variety and bright colonial architecture. This coupled with the quiet thoroughfares and arty upstarts make it a pleasant riverside town from which to prepare oneself for the madness of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat to the north east. I would call Battambang lazy, with all of the positive connotations that that adjective can muster.
Every town we have visited thus far in Cambodia has craft businesses or restaurants dedicated to helping the disadvantaged of the country. These projects are wide ranging and varied, but all have the common goal of inclusion, respect and equality. They are admirable enterprises and something that should be even more present and wide ranging in countries with better facilities such as the UK. The Lonely Tree Cafe, pictured above and modelled by my glamorous assistant/boss supports cultural preservation and disability oganisations in the area. It is a Khmer (Cambodian) tapas restaurant and is delicious. Below they have a handicraft shop selling traditional gingham scarves and other textiles. The procedes of which again go to good causes. The scarves mentioned above are everywhere and most Cambodians own one and adourn it in different styles. I thought that was worth saying so that you can imagine the aesthetics of local life more precisely, and you thought I was just wittering. It’s all important content on here.
Steven notices that:
Everywhere you go there seem to be ‘Seeing Hands’ massage parlours. The massuers of which are blind, the idea being that once the sense of sight is taken away the touch will heighten and identify the problem areas to alleviate more effectively. Obviously I’m aware of the drawbacks and possibilities of exploitation in such situations. The less cynical part of me however likes to think of this at it’s best, as another example of including everybody in the community and giving the disadvantaged a purpose, status and important role in their society.
Many people are disabled in Cambodia, the majority of which are the effects of the countries most recent conflicts. As a result the country does seem to have a surprisingly liberal and forward thinking attitude towards disability, given it’s status as one of the poorer countries in the world.
The end of the Khmer Rouge rule and the subsequent tourism boom has helped create jobs and give disabled people a job in hospitality and entertainment. Cambodia has one of the worlds premier tourist attractions, if you don’t know Wat it is then I’ll give you a little clue, it sounds like ‘anchor what’, but we’ll discuss that later.
A friend of ours called Ben worked in Cambodia for almost a year for landmine charity MAG. There are an estimated 6 million mines still unexploded in Cambodia. A very real ghost from the Khmer Rouge time and the Vietnam War before then. The below is genuine transcript from a real WhatsApp conversation with Ben about what MAG actually do…
‘We’ve got different stuff going on in Somalia, but in Cambodia mag are clearing landmines and other explosive things that should have gone off a long time ago. About 80% of people are farmers and lands becoming scarce, so freeing this up for productive community use (as people are often too scared to go near those sorts of places) is the main aim’
Isn’t he lovely?
Ben’s job is basicly to save, or reconstruct lives. Ben is handsome beyond words, possessing the kind of knock out eyelashes that you wish you could slide down, before clutching onto the curls at the end, whilst screaming ‘take me with you!’
You’d agree trust me. He is now doing such work in Somalia AND he’s single, so my best advice would be to book a flight there ASAP. You heard me, this travel blog says that you should book a flight to Somalia NOW. Ben will protect you.
I can’t say for sure yet, but it’s looking like we may well prefer Cambodia to Vietnam. It is more ruggedly beautiful than it’s neighbour, and benefits noticably from the twenty year head start it gave the Vietnamese in the tourist industry.
The coffee shop situated at the end of this road (balcony view below) serves spectacularly good coffee in all of it’s popular manifestations. You could be in Manchester’s Northern Quarter were it not for the distinct lack of rain and the presence of colour as opposed to washy greys.
Battambangs main attraction is it’s circus. We didn’t go because there are no shows on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and that is when we were there. Impeccable timing.
Anyway I hate clowns. Hate them, hate them, hate them. If you’re a clown and reading this, then F**K YOU.
Ahem… Once, on a family holiday in Spain, a clown approached me, proceding to perform one of those inifinite handkerchief tricks, whereby they pull a seemingly never ending series of knotted together colourful handkerchiefs out of a part of their victims person, often the ear… Yaaay, fun right? Not when he’s pulling it from the leg of your shorts and you’re 12 years old 🚓.
Regardless of the clowns, we had to start to think about leaving Battambang. The mode of transport we chose and the subsequent journey aboard actually became our highlight of Battambang for us and the primary reason that we can now muster to visit. It doesn’t do the place justice to say that the highlight was leaving, but the journey gave us a glimpse into a side of Cambodia that we hadn’t yet encountered.
The boat from Battambang to Siem Reap costs $20 which is a bit steep really, but with one family company doing the trip they had a monopoly. Cambodias national currency is the Riel. There are 6000 Riel to the pound and roughly 4000 to the US dollar. The currency is largely redundant in big quantities and so is just used for small change. US dollars are the most widely used form of currency here due to the unstable nature of the Riel. So when we’ve been quoting prices in dollars that’s why. Thank god I got that off my chest. Been worrying me that.
Back to the boat.
The boat was a simple contraption. It was a similar size to a barge (one for the Brits) if not a tad wider, made of wood with an outboard motor at the back. The deck consisted of one level with 2 benches either side facing eachother, there is a sturdy canopy roof overhead that doubles up as a roof rack and convenient place to bask in the sun. We opted for the shade below. We were crammed onto the small boat with close to sixty other people, ranging from brave explorers like ourselves to locals with vast amounts of produce to take back to the floating villages.
The river was shallow and narrow due to dry season. This makes navigating it more difficult and the boat regularly became beached along the way on the muddy river bed.
Along the banks of the river local life bustles along. One is given a more rural glimpse of domesticity and hence poverty. Floating villages line the wider points of the river where larger communities have settled.
At one point we pulled up to a kind of floating village hall to drop off some supplies for a wedding party that seemed to be in full swing. We were greeted by 8 or so kids who all ran to the balcony edge, waving and chirping hello, the first word on the path to making a living in tourism. One particularly happy little boy ran up naked and whilst waving manicly with one hand, and joining in with the hello chorus, had a wee at our boat with the other. He was a happy boy. Innocence takes many forms.
The journey takes nine hours with a half time lunch stop at a floating village families diner. To us the journey was a valuable insight into how some Cambodians live independent of the tourist industry.
In the last hour of the journey the scenery transforms with the Siem Reap River we had been meandering somewhat claustrophobicly, abruptly opening out into Tonle Sap Lake, which is the largest lake in Cambo. The contrast is welcome and the final phase of the journey allows one to witness some local fishing and contemplate, in the way that open expanses of vista often inspire, the time ahead in Siem Reap, inland off the shore ahead.
Once at Siem Reap’s outskirts our boat captors handed us over to a fleet of energetic tuck tuck drivers. We were to haggle our ransom fee and safe passage to the city. We bargained hard and ultimately brought the price down by sharing our ride with a pair of breezy, fun loving sightseers from the US. They recommended their hotel to us and we gave it a whirl.
Garden Village Hotel was cheap, clean and central. This usually is criteria fulfilled enough for us to be happy with our base. We stayed for an evening and left the next morning however. The problem being that for $10 a night the bathroom was shared, the wifi was crap and the crowd there consisted of reclining Brits all nursing and comparing hangovers. Like casualties from a mundane war. We knew that the Wat Bo area was more pleasant than the debauched centre, because a Lonely Planet book said so (why would they lie to us) and so we stayed there for the four remaining days in the region.
I’m going to tell you about Siem Reap now. Maybe make a cup of tea, get a choccy biccie and rejoin here in a minute. This is a long post.
Siem Reap is the old capital of Cambodia and possibly the busiest tourist town in the whole of South East Asia. The reason being that it has a fantastic bowling alley.
No wait, that’s not it. It’s because it is the closest town (5km distance) to Angkor Wat. The largest surviving temple complex on the planet. But more on that soonly.
Leave your bowling shoes at home.
Siem Reap services every kind of visitor, but is particularly adept at the drunken lout category. The road that best fits this purpose is the aptly named, Pub Street. The name is actually quite traditional as most towns have streets named by genre of business or just by numbers in Cambodia. That’s where the traditional features of the road end. This street looks like it came last in a Las Vegas impersonation competition. I’m sure people have a lot of fun there. It’s just not the kind of fun we are seeking👴.
Juxtaposed to this foreigner orientated strip is the Khmer Pub Street. It’s a bit out of town but by name alone promised to be more authentically Cambodian. That it was, we only saw natives along the whole mile strip. Said length consisted exclusively of these beer signs (locals get sponsored by beer companies who provide the sign in exchange for a quotation of beer orders being met, they’re an instant beacon of a Khmer establishment) for Khmer bar/ restaurants. Each business seemed large, all with plastic garden chair seating, big stages for KTV (karaoke is huge in all of Asia it seems) and big gangs of cackling, jovial local youths half filling each place. No eatery/bar seemed busier than another (so no barometer of quality). In the doorway to every single tavern stood or sat ten or more prostitutes, as the sad, slow, ghostly karaoke wailed across the quiet, neon embellished evening. We flagged a tuck tuck out of the heart of darkness and back to the relative paradise of regular Pub Street.
Siem Reap on the whole is a straightforward maze of bars, restaurants, guesthouses and tat markets, flogging baggy elephant pants and saggy beer vests. These are the traveller’s free spirit and individuality uniform.
Crocodile leather shops are one in twenty and of course there are tuck tucks in abundance. Walking down the road one is acosted by five drivers a minute. That’s three hundred calls of ‘tuck tuck’ and ‘maybe later’ every hour if you’re doing laps of the town. It can be testing for a scatter brain like me to hold a fluent conversation without interuption and forgetting the point one was making. Something regular readers of this blog will be used to.
OK. Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the business end of proceedings, the main attraction, the bowling alley! I mean…
So the area is vast. Roughly fifty kilometres squared of land with different temple complexes from numerous kings spattered throughout. By far the most prolific erector was Jayavarman VII.
He went temple nuts he did. Each complex has it’s merits and all a startlingly varied in design and ambition. The best way to talk you through our time in this region is to literally follow our itinerary day by day. We felt like we saw a very satisfactory selection of the most impressive sights with the time alotted by our $40 three day pass. The most famous complex is Angkor Wat. So let’s start there as that is also where we started. Handy.
Day 1: Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Sra Srang, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm
Angkor Wat is the closest complex to Siem Reap and so we opted to take on this cultural colossus on our 1st day templing on bicycles. The distances involved were conjusive to pedal power. Some may prefer to leave Angkor Wat until last but we wanted our hit of awe imminent, sudden and straight up. We simply could not wait. The roads leading up to the temples have all been picturesquely and sensitively restored to cope with the influx of visitors. Travelling along the jungle surrounded roads, dodging monkeys, anticipating the wonders ahead is especially fulfilling on your own steam.
Angkor Wat’s famous silhouette becomes evident as you skirt around the vast moat, taking the final right towards the front entrance. The view from the ground is different from those offered by Google Images, as those are elevated to show off all the spires of the temple all at once. Camera phones and human thumbs find it hard to adequately capture the iconic image too. Excuses excuses. In fact for this post we have been able to uplpad some snaps from our decent camera. Why not see if you can tell the difference? Either way you’ll have to use your imagination and I’ll use my GCSE A descriptive prowess. Deal? You impressed? OK good.
The spires, akin to pine cones, offset by the blazing white hot sun are quite a first sight. One is reminded that these temples were built with the explicit notion of creating a vision of heaven on Earth. The God King Suryavarman II that commissioned this Mount Meru, Hindu heavenly replica undertaking had his impressive vision very nearly realised. The monumental feat is astounding when one considers the scale of what was being built in Europe at the same time in 1030 AD. Like most of the temple complexes in the region, Angkor Wat is beautifully symmetrical and flanked by a stupendous moat.
That’s how many elephants were used to build it. Six thousand of em. Plus three hundred thousand slaves. Neither actually wanted to help. Selfish. The temple was built for the purpose of honouring Vishnu and was intended as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II. The idiot went and died in battle and was never composted there though. The temples are well preserved because they were constantly used. Most of the stone carving and ornate tit bits are still very much intact. The Khmer Rouge even left this area alone because they saw it as a formidable symbol of Cambodian greatness. Their only correct decision.
All you need to really know on here is that it is a totally unique and stunning ode to humanity’s whacky obsession with religion and the infinite and tumultuous struggle to find meaning and worth in being a concious mind, plonked on this planet.
An obvious and important point to remember is that you are not the only person who wants to see these sights. Although the images one encounters before arrival make the sights seem eerie and lush, millions of people go each year, as long as one is ready for the crowds, this place lives up to the hype and does not disappoint.
After Wat we took a peek at Prasat Kravan, which is a lot smaller and well preserved inside. It was empty which was welcome but is pretty unremarkable to view when put into context of the other sites on offer. Allow 10 minutes.
Sra Srang was next, a huge lake that once bore a diminutive temple in it’s centre. When we visited it the perimeter was under construction and it was probably the least inspiring scene of the day.
Built by Jayavarman VII (Mr. Prolific) it’s a big temple considering it isn’t among the famous ones. Tis hipster templers delight. Spend 30 minutes there. No more or you’ll miss other stuff. GO!
The silver medal in the day’s discoveries went to Ta Prohm, many a visitors favourite site. Amongst those are Angelina Jolie, who decided to play Lara Croft: Tomb Raider here. Cameras captured the resulting scenes and the film was released to the public thereafter. Jolie fell in love with some Cambodian kids whilst filming and brought them back to Brad as a holiday gift. He was livid but having lost the receipt the no refund policy was triggered and they were stuck with them (they probably love them very much).
Ta Prohm conjures magical imagery and is indeed a perfect setting for an explorer action film. The jungle it nestles within has strangled and penetrated it’s stoney features. The result is the perfect blend of fascination, restoration and conservation. The now controlled digestion of the temples facets lends a tangible sense of time and events past to the setting that can be lost in more polished and upkept structures.
Day 2: Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, Roluos Complex; within which are Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei
Our next and penultimate visit to the temples of Angkor came after a days rest. Our saddle sore skeletons were grateful of it and repayed us by stopping screaming. We had earmarked Banteay Srei and the Roluos Complex for day two.
On the way to our first stop of the day we stumbled across a grand, towering temple.
Pre Rup was an unexpected gem, the kind that could hold it’s own as the premier attraction in any region other than the abundant Angkor.
Bantaey Srei is 32km from Siem Reap. This was a job for a tuck tuck. After haggling with a few drivers, we got the price dropped from $30 for the whole day, to $20. $10 each ain’t bad for the mileage (said Jeremy Clarkson whilst running over as many puppies as he can in 30 seconds for his latest Top Gear challenge, before driving his 4×4 as a suicide bomb into the Green Party headquarters in the name of Tory terrorism. He’s grinning, with Hammond in the passenger seat, also grinning, but inwardly very scared).
Tuck tucks are a great way to see Cambodia. One can relax and absorb the scenery in a strangely exotic luxury, whilst the journey is uncomfortable, rickety and perilous enough for you to feel like you’re travelling in the manner befitting of an open minded, interested journeyman.
The fact that these temples are further away does mean that they are slightly less crowded which is pleasing.
Bantaey Srei is famed as one of the best examples of ancient stone carving in existance. If that doesn’t rev your engine then I submit that you’re dead inside. The intricate carvings baked in the heat of the day like an elaborate ancient comic book cake, created by a psychopath, hold their own enough to grasp your attention for an hour or so.
The Roluos Complex was a 40 minute trundle away and trundle there we did. They are among the earliet and oldest of the Khmer god king dynasty temples.
The Bakong Temple is the largest and most absorbing of this rubble rabble. It again constitutes an effort at an earthly incarnation of Mount Meru, I suppose if you’re going to build a temple, aim high.
The Lonely Planet book that I’m trawling through for facts says that this one’s dedicated to Shiva (Hindu Destroyer and Transformer God). It has magnificent examples of ancient plasterwork. So a lot like some houses I’ve rented. The name means Sacred Ox. To my knowledge no houses that I’ve rented have been called Sacred Ox.
This small temple had 4 typically symmetrical brick towers, that at time of visit 24th January 2015 were surrounded by scaffolding and construction parafenalia. It was rubbish. Who cares if it was once important, UURRRGH it was icky. Yuk.
Day 3: Angkor Thom; within which is Bayon, Baphuon
Then… Preah Khan, Preah Neak Poan, Phnom Bakheng
The Ancient City of Angkor Thom
Back on the bicycles again for our final day of Cambodge (Cambodia in Cambodian) bygone wanderlust.
The bridge/moat on the way into the south entrance of the ancient city has fifty four stone demons on one rail and an equal number of gods on the other, all pulling in the opposite direction to their enemies. It’s called The Churning of the Ocean of the Milk in Hindu scripture. Did you know that I’m an expert in Hindu scripture? I’m not really. I can make farting noises with my hand in my armpit though so I’m not totally useless. Anyway that moat is quite the entrance, you’d butter believe it.👍
The fortified city of Angkor Thom totals ten square kilometres. Branded as the last great capital of Khmer Empire, it was built as a reaction to the sacking of Angkor by the Chams (remember we mentioned the Cham minority now living in Vietnam? They used to be bloody terrors). After this embarrassment Jayavarman VII (nutter) decided that the empire would never again be vulnerable. Angkor Thom therefore boasts a huge wall and moat. At the cities height, it is estimated that 1 million people lived there. Compare that to the 50,000 living in London at the same time and you get a sense of what a mighty empire Cambodge was.
The focal point of Angkor Thom is the Bayon temple, situated exactly in middle of the city. North, east, south, west; all roads lead to Bayon. This goliath has fifty four towers with two hundred and sixteen faces (four on either side of the fifty four, but you’d already done the maths hadn’t you clever clogs).
The suggestively, slightly grinning mugs are supposed to be Avalokiteshvara, who is the godly embodiment of great compassion, but look a lot like Jayavarman VII. This boy had an ego and this temple is a fitting manifestation of it.
Oh my word this is a long post. Go and make another brew, maybe even grab a sandwich, food for fort thoughts. You must be hungry by now. I know I am. My thumbs have cramp and a have a pixel headache. Let’s all just take 5. We’ll get through this together.
Hi there! OK so we’re still close to the Thom walls here. Baphuon has a 200m walkway on small plynth supports. Walkways add the grandiose to any venture don’t they? It existed before Angkor Thom but feels small compared to that and the other newer ones around it. A bit like how I’ll feel when I return home to find ALL of my siblings are now taller than me.
After Angkor Thom we headed east to another errrm temple, yeh temple.
Guess who commissioned this one? Jayavarman VII. Again. Nutter nutter nutter. Twas his temporary residence while Thom was being built. There were no Travel Inns at the time you see. It’s very long, narrow corridors are a standout feature here. They jut along for an eternity, like this post. It is a multi faith temple of kinds being both Buddhist and Hindu which is interesting that the two could coexist so long ago isn’t it. Hmmm yeh.
Preah Neak Poan
He’s at it again! Jayavarman VII oh my days! This one is magnifique. It has four square pools surrounding a monument surrounded by what used to be a lake (but is now more of an atmospheric swamp with dead trees clawing out of it like awakened zombies) with an epic wooden plank walkway through it. Very different from the others making it a welcome addition to any itinerary. An itinerary for temple viewing in Cambodia anyway. It wouldn’t be practical on a Christmas shopping in Manchester itinerary for example. The distances just don’t make for a productive day.
That was nearly it. We had one last stop on our journey through Angkor history.
Tour agencies and travellers alike make a big deal out of seeing the sun rise and/or set over Angkor Wat. As our day drew to an end, the route home happened to intersect the famous vantage point. We decided to join the sunset pilgrimage.
This is the temple on top of the hill that overlooks Angkor Wat. We were made to queue for a whole half hour to get to the top. They semi strictly regulate the numbers allowed up each rise and set to 300 visitors. It used to reach way over 1000 and get quite out of hand apparently.
If you don’t want to walk up the hill you can ride elephants up there. Seeing elephants around the temples was very bizarre and I exclaimed in glee the first sight of one. Glee. Later I regretted it when I realised that the elephants are treated like Oliver Twist. The sight of them does fuel the imagination when one recollects the fact that they were used so much in the construction of the temples over one thousand years before 🐘.
Once at the top the crowds do not help create the kind of reflective ambience necessary to view the day ending earnestly. The evening was also relatively hazy, and the other Angkor temples hard to make out without an outstanding camera lense. It was an anticlimatic end to a wonderful few days dipping into a history that we knew nothing about beforehand.
Three days successive temple gawping can be mentally draining. Luckily the three day ticket is for three days within one week. Following our first day at Angkor Wat where we cycled close to 50km in one day, we needed a rest.
So a day was spent chilling in Siem Reap and writing some of this for you and us. Lovely it was. We’ve started affording ourselves rests more frequently. These heavy schedules of tourism are tiring and one appreciates things more when you take a step back and write manicly about it. Sister Srey Cafe is nice in Siem Riep. Lovely in fact. We discovered another kind of Café altogether that day too. ‘Happy Happy Pizza’ places number eight or more in town. We’d heard talk about them and had an inclination of what the extra ‘Happy’ entailed. We sat down like two naughty kids and brazenly ordered a small Margherita Happy HAPPY Pizza. The waiters sideways glance for eye contact and stoic nod confirmed that the code was real and had been recognised. Our $3 order arrived twenty minutes later. It was indeed covered in cannabis. Yes that’s right parents. We’re druggies now. From temple addicts to cannabis addicts. Who knows what is next. Temple is the gateway drug they say. So if ‘Happy Happy’ is cannabis, then Happy Happy Happy Happy is presumably ketamine (horse tranquiliser), a shot of tequila in the eye and a massage? Happy Happy Happy Happy Happy Happy Happy Happy Happy Pizza is topped with crack with a crystal meth stuffed crust.
Some people smoke, some rotters even inject, we do pizza. Small pizza. It was actually rather nice. The high occured slowly throughout the evening and culminated in us both intensely watching Sin City, then rolling CNN news back at our hotel. It all seemed to matter so much. We are wild.
Now that we’ve seen Angkor Wat I feel like packing up and leaving South East Asia. It is extremely difficult for me to comprehend another sight that can inspire like this one. It makes Cambodia one of the most fantastic countries I can conjure a reason to visit. One can only admire how it has been maintained and is presented as a modern day attraction that can still make a 28 year old cynic in moments of awe, feel like he’s Indianna Jones. I want to go back NOW. But we have other less amazing places to see. What a tough act to follow. Cambodia’s east and the town of Kratie are next. Kratie has dolphins. Everybody likes dolphins.
PLEASE NOTE THAT IF YOU ARE READING THIS THEN WE STILL HAVE A LOT OF PHOTOS TO UPLOAD TO THIS POST. WE ARE HAVING APP AND INTERNET CLUSTERFUCKS. BEAR WITH US XXX