Cambodia - December 2017

2nd December 2017 - To Phnom Penh

Late afternoon flight Phnom Penh. Only about 50 minutes in the air but Thai Air still manage to rush out a snack, drinks and the landing and visa application forms. A full selection of films are on offer (even though there's only time to watch half of one) and there are USB and electrical plugs available for charging devices. BA could certainly learn from Thai from a service point of view.

The main reason for the trip is to meet up with Andy and show him some more of Asia. So once checked in it was out for a couple of beers and a catch up.

3rd December 2017 - Phnom Penh

Woke up to a lovely hot and sunny day in Phnom Penh. So first up after a late breakfast was a walk along the riverside promenade down the Tonle Sap to where it meets the Mighty Mekong (I think it's compulsory to prefix it that way).

The waterfront is PP's 'centre' and the huge wide promenade is a hive of activity day and night. At one point we walked past a very small temple with something going on. Surrounding it were people selling lotus flowers and incenses sticks and people were queuing to walk up to the small alter.

Below it where the Tonle Sap which comes down from Siem Reap meets the Mighty Mekong. The big hotel stands on the corner.

We walked on for a while further along the river then cut into town. After stopping at the shopping centre for a fruit smoothie to replace some flluids and energy and to buy phone SIM cards we jumped on a tuk-tuk to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. But when we arrived they were just closing up. Apparently some dignitory was coming for a tour so we had to quickly change our plans.

We jumped in another tuk-tuk for the 45 minutes journey out to the Killing Fields. It was an interesting ride out through much poorer areas; daily life going on. But it a strange situation to have people living on a few dollars a day watching a steady stream of rich tourists going by everyday, not in big tour buses where there are cosseted away but in open tuk-tuks which chug by at 20mph.

Above is the main memorial at the Killing Fields, I'll come back to that once I've described the rest of this very sobering place.

This area well outside of the centre of Phnom Penh is one of the Khmer Rouge execution camps which became known as Killing Fields. This is where decenters came on their final journeys probably after already being tortured for days or weeks on end. The area was previously a Chinese graveyard surrounded by orchards and farm land. Now it is a peaceful surrounded by lush vegetation, fruit trees and a big lake, but it's brutal history is in every inch of the soil and every leaf on every tree.

Here tens of mass graves have been found and excavated, many more especially those near the water have been left to naturally fade away and be reclaimed by nature. Everyone who visits walks around quietly listening to the audio guide which walks you through the horrors committed in the name of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rogue and their take on (extreme) Communism.

The memorial over-looks the whole area in it's macabre way. The tower is full of cases of bones and skulls all classified by body part, age and sex of the victim and the method by which they were killed. It really is hard to grasp that these are real skulls and were lives taken in my life time.

After a couple of hours of walking a thinking it was time for the journey back; thankful that we got to leave when many didn't.

4th December 2017 - Phnom Penh

Today started with a wander through the old French Quarter. It's the usual grand but unimagintive fare. Big solid and ver yellow. Although many buildings like this one have become over grown you can still see how magnificent they must oce have been.

Monkeys must love humans. Not only do we leave loads of food around for them to steal we also provide wire walkways for them to make swift getaways.

We were heading for Wat Phnom. Supposedly a widow called Penh found some Buddist relics and built this temple on top of an artificial hill (Phnom) hence today we have Phnom Penh, Penh's Hill.

At the top is a fairly small but nicely decorated temple, many little alters to different gods and lots of white stupas of which this is the biggest.

Below the hill is this giant clock which we arrived at at exactly 12pm to the second.

From Wat Phnom we walked over to the Central Market a beautiful big building with a huge dome in the middle and three big arms off the sides. It was built to pull breezes inside to keep the place relatively cool. Inside was a fairly standard tourist leaning market. Andy went a little mad, he bought three tee-shirts and two pairs of sun glasses. For someone who hates shopping it was quite a haul.

From it was another tuk-tuk ride down to Tuol Sleng again.

This former school was a Khmer Rogue torture centre now a place of remembrance and education about the atrocities that happened.

Again an audio guide is provided and you slowly wander around the buildings and the grounds learning of its history.

You can imagine this place as a school before becoming a scene of gruesome war crimes. In the rooms are tools of torture, exhibitions and room after room full of photos. Like all nasty regimes the Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers. Every prisoner was photographed and detailed records kept. There are photos of how the camp was found when it was liberated and paintings produced by one of its few survivors showing what went on.

As Andy said after we left I'm glad we did this and the Killing Fields on different days. It would've been too much all in one day.

5th December 2017 - To Siem Reap

Leisurely start today, a taxi to the airport and a short hop up to Siem Reap.

Siem Reap has changed quite a bit since I as last here eleven yrars ago. Back then I'm sure it was fairly quiet with a few back-packer bars, some restaurants and a night market. Now it seemms to be full on backpackers central. A big backpaacker area full of bars selling beer for 50c and cocktails for $1.50. So what else to do but sit down and order up a mojito or three.

And of course we had to get some food. Some deep fried frogs? I don't mind if I do.

After a couple more mojitos it was getting dark and we headed over to the night market. The market has expanded to cover a big area and along with the usual Asian tourist stuff there was some interesting art, clothing and jewellery. The thing that stood out for me though were the huge number of 'fried ice cream' vendors. That was the name most of them had given themselves. I've only seen this once before and that was in Hanoi in the Spring. A guy has a cart with a freezing cold flat plate on it, it looks like a cooking surface for making crepes but instead of being hot it's very cold. They then pour on ice cream mixture, add some flavour and then mix it, kneed it and chop it as it slowly freezes on the surface. It's all quite theatrically down and in the end the ice cream is flatten into a thin sheet the they slice it and rool the ribbons of ice cream and drop them into a cup. Obviously the in thing this year as every other food cart was doing it.

After a wander and a couple of purchases we headed back to the hotel via the backpacker area and its hub 'Pub Street'. Maybe we'll have a night out here later in the week but not tonight as we have a fairly early start in the morning.

6th December 2017 - Siem Reap

This morning we headed to Beng Mealea, about 68km northeast of Siem Reap. Beng Mealea is spectacular as nature has well and truly taken over. It is built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat and it feels very Indiana Jones.

The temple used to be utterly consumed by jungle, but some has been cut back to reveal the remains of the temple. We entered by the south gate something I should've made a note of at the time as later I exited by the west gate and not surprisingly couldn't find our driver.

To explore we climb over piles of chiseled sandstone blocks, walk down long, dark corridors and around hanging vines. The central tower has completely collapsed so the similarities with Angkor Wat are minimal. But but amongst the rubble and foliage are several decent carvings.

This should've been a lovely peaceful place to explore. A temple in the jungle good enough to grace any film. There weren't too many people around which was nice but ... many of those who were around were Chinese. If said this before on my blog and I'll say it again, they are the most rude, inconsiderate and ignorant group of people bar none. It was bad enough they were climbing all over the stones completely ignoring the signs not too but that was nothing compared to the non-stop shouting. Whether their group were 1o yards away or right next to the they shouted, then the group next to them shouted even louder and it was non-stop. Local guides were totally in despair and other tourists were trying to get as far away as possible. Thankfully for the last half an hour I got away from them completely and it was beautiful. I could finally hear the birds singing and the wind blowing through the trees.

Then it was time to head back to find the driver. I happily walked down a long driveway back to the road, but I'd gone west rather than south. Thankfully in these days of mobile phones it was easily sorted and it gave me some time to take a few photos of the improvised vehicles you see all the time on Cambodian roads.

Time for lunch and we went to a superb restaurant called The Hut. Set in lovely gardens, banana plants all around and serving delicious food. I have a beef stir-fry with ginger, garlic and chili and a special local specialty sauce.

It's a paste of red ants. Beef and red any is quite a common dish over here and I had to give it a go. In some restaurants the ants are left whole, here they were made into a paste but you could still see their little body parts. The red ants have a sour taste and all in all the dish was delicious and I ate up all the paste.

Next up the Tonle Sap lake and floating villages. Andy and I had a small boat to ourselves. We had to climb over three or four other boats to get to it but soon we were off heading out onto or is that towards the lake. The wet season has recently ended so the lake is currently flooded out over a huge area. We were sailing along what may be a road in the dry season past half submerged trees.

We passed through a village of houses on stilts and were then dropped off at a building to jump into a little canoe to be paddled in around the mangroves. A forest of trees growing out of the lake. At one point we spotted a family of monkeys running around in the trees above us.

We then headed right out onto the lake. Water as far as the eye could see and then turned around and came back through the villages to the pier. The trip was nice enough but I'm sure when I did it ten years ago from a different pier it was better. The houses and villages on stilts were great but not exactly floating. Before I saw villages all built on rafts which move with the edge of the lake as it fills up and empties.

Back at the pier one last picture out over the water and we headed back into Siem Reap.

In the evening more cocktails. This time cocktails in what looked like vases with a bottle of beer or cider upside down in them. Worth a try and they went down quite well.

7th December 2017 - Angkor Wat

Today's the reason we came to Siem Reap, it's time for the Angkor Wat Complex. Prepared for hoards of tourists cramming every walkway we headed off. For our whole trip we've stuck with the guy who drove us from the airport and he's done a good job. We've got a mini-bus to ourselves, an air-conditioned mini-bus when most are travelling around in a tuk-tuk with no escape from the heat. Anyway we did the usual circuit but in the reverse order in the hope that it would be a little quieter.

First up the Tomb Raider Temple. The temple that's been over run by the jungle. Somehow it wasn't as good as I remember it. Maybe it was because there seemed to be a lot more walkways than before and a lot more roped off areas. It was also much busier. I guess also having been to the jungle temple yesterday it did seem like a bit more of the same. Anyway it was still a decent start to the day.

Next we stopped off at a smaller and much less visited temple. When we were there there were only a few other people there. We timed it really well, just as we were leaving it started to get much busier. It's called the unfinished temple, not sure why it looked as complete as the rest. If they've finished it those bits may have decayed away and left what's there. It also had much less walkways and protected areas. We clambered up the original stone steps to the top.

It was so nice to be able to wander around in peace. I guess it is called unfinished as the walls weren't covered in carvings but structurally it looked pretty solid. The were three tiers and some lovely views out over. The temple is made out of huge bricks of stone. How did they build it? It is hard to imagine how such huge structures could be built with such basic technology.

From there we moved on to another small, quieter temple Chua Say Tevoda Temple. It was a lovely small temple just big enough to fill a photo. It looked great with walkways leading up to it and a nice central building and some small towers.

Again the best bit was how peaceful it was just a few people around and no Chinese. We could walk around as we pleased and just enjoy the scene.

From there it is a short walk across the road to another small temple. I think I could do a whole day here just touring the smaller temples.

This left the big two. First up the Bayon Temple, the smiling face temple and it wasn't as busy as I feared. I came here 11 years ago and I remembered the faces but not that there were so many of them. Towers of various sizes with faces on each of the four sides.

I wandered around for a while photographing the faces from every angle looking for the carvings searching for the walls of carvings. . I knew there were some great carvings somewhere in this temple. Eventually I found them on along a wall near the back and they were as detailed and well preserved as I remembered them.

After yesterday I took care to know which exit we were meeting at and got the photo above on the way out. I quite enjoyed this temple.

From there we only had one temple left on the tour Angkor Wat so we decided to skip lunch and carry straight on and I'm so glad we did. I guess most people do stop so Angkor Wat was much quieter than I'd expected.

We walked along the first bridge above and then across the big open area and the 'libraries' to the second bridge. The original was closed off and there was a floating bridge to use instead. On either side of the walkway are two large pools of water. I remember this is where we came for sunrise 11 years ago only to be disappointed by the clouds. Much better this time with the sun out and a blue sky.

We first headed into the centre to climb to the top. This really brought home how quiet it was. Only 100 people are allowed up at once. And there was a queuing system in place. 45 minutes from here, 30 minutes from here. We just wandered up got one of the 100 plastic cards and climbed straight up. Last time I came it was a real clamber up a very steep and un-even stone staircase but much easier now as a wooden staircase has been over-laid it. From the top the views were the same out over the surrounding green fields and jungle exactly as I remember it.

We then worked our way down and around this huge temple. On one of the lower levels the corridors all around were beautifully carved telling stories of ancient times. Parades and battles and elaborate feasts.

By now we were flagging a little. so we headed back across the bridges only stopping off for a well deserved fruit shake on the way. Today exceeded my expectations, I was worried it wouldn't be as good as my memories but I was pleasantly surprised.

8th December 2017 - To Sihanoukville

The all too brief time in Siem Reap is done and today we flew down to Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia. Nice and easy journey which got us onto the beach in time for lunch.

We wandered along Ochheuteal Beach which is a thin strip off sand backed with bars and restaurants. Meandering along it took about an hour each way with a little stop for a quick swim. In the first half it's mainly foreign tourists but the further you get from the pier there are more and more locals.

Below: Daniel Craig's stunt double emerges from the sea in Casino Royale.

9th December 2017 - Sihanoukville

The Cambodia trip was built around today. The plan to be out on a boat sailing around tropical islands on Andy's birthday. We headed down to the pier and booked a $15 day out on a twin engine long tail boat which would take us to three islands. It was me, Andy and a bunch of Chinese so not much interaction on the boat but that suited us nicely.

We chugged away from the pier for a tour around the inner islands after half an hour or so we made our first stop and dropped anchor off of an lush green island. Time to put on the mask and jump in for a bit of a snorkel. After five minutes of reacquainting myself with the alien concept of breathing under water I have a lovely time floating weightless on the surface over the coral watching the fish and making sure I didn't get too close to the huge black and very pointy sea urchins. Andy and I were almost the only ones who snorkeled without a life jacket, I'm assuming the Chinese haven't spent much time in the sea.

From there we sailed on for a while past a few more islands to Bamboo Island. This is the same island we stopped of on on a tour I did the other time I came to Sihanoukville. We stopped at a sandy corner of the island for a couple of hours. Deck chairs, lovely shady trees and some BBQed chicken for lunch.

A few more small boats pulled in but it never got crowded. I lazed around, wandered a bit, listened to some music and learnt a bit more Thai. A lovely relaxing way to pass a few hours.

From there we headed slowly back via another snorkeling spot. Here a few other boats also stopped off. It was fun watching some of the local tourists in their life jackets floating around and having great fun. I'm guessing that don't get to the coast very often.

The snorkeling areas were decent but not amazing; but it was great to float around in the warm sea with the sun shining down. But after half an hour or so it was time to jump back on board an head back to town.

As we pulled into the pier we got a lovely view right along Ocheteaul Beach. The thin strip of sand with a warm sea lapping up against it and a long row of bars on the other side.

Lazing around on boats and beaches really takes it out of you. In the evening we headed to watch West Ham beat Chelsea and have a few beers. But by 10:30pm we were both feeling wiped out. It was Andy's birthday but we're both obviously getting old!

10th December 2017 - Sihanoukville

A lazy Sunday for me today. My first lie-in in ages. A bit of breakfast and wandered down to the beach. Another glorious day and a perfect day to stroll the length of the beach.

Being a Sunday the locals were out in force; once I got past the first part of the beach where the tourists congregate it was 95% or more Cambodian. The parents with their picnics and beers and hundreds and hundreds of children most of them in life-vests and varying amounts of clothes playing in the gentle surf. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time. One little kid who must've been about two was in a blow-up life vest which was bigger than he was and had a four foot inflatable shark. Every little wave was knocking him flying and between waves he had no chance of getting on the shark. But he kept getting back up and was having a great time. All it needed was an Eddie Waring and Stuart Hall commentary and it would've been perfect.

After doing an hour up and and hour back I stopped off for a drink and then headed to Sandan and training restaurant for disadvantaged young people. I had scallops with roasted garlic and lime and seafood with kampot pepper washed down with an avocado, mango and mint smoothie. Absolutely delicious.

I wandered back and met up with Andy for a beer down by the pier as the sun went down.

For dinner we headed down to the beach again for some more BBQ seafood. Lying on sofas on the water's edge drinking cocktails and eating delicious seafood; if it wasn't for the booming bass lines coming from a bar 50 or so yards away it would've been perfect.

11th December 2017 - Back to Phnom Penh

12th December 2017 - Bangkok