First view of Angkor Wat. It certainly lived up to expectations and then some .....

Our journey to Cambodia involved a pre-booked tour that comprised a car to the border, an escort to take us across, another car to take us to Siem Reap and two days with a private guide around the temples of Angkor, then travel by bus to Phnom Penh.  Thanks to Martin's careful research and planning, everything worked perfectly, the only unexpected feature being an upgrade of the hotel in Siem Reap, which was very welcome.

The ride from our Bangkok hotel to the border was relatively traffic free, due to the New Year holiday, but when we arrived, the crowds (including an elephant) were daunting.  Well, they would have been, without our escort, who whisked away our passports and visa photos, managed all the paperwork, no doubt crossed a palms with a few US dollars, and got us to the front of the queue. Unethical maybe, but you'd do the same under the circumstances!  Once on the other side, you see immediately that, compared to Thailand, Cambodia is a very poor country indeed.  The roads are narrow and patchy, with kilometres at a time unmade.  Thousands of people are going places, the majority on motor bikes carrying whole families.  Others drive a sort of tractor engine attached by a long shaft to a trailer.  Minibuses are packed to capacity - all the seats full, luggage stacked high at the back carrying more passengers, more luggage on the roof, with several people on top of that!  Villages range along the side of the road, with makeshift houses and stalls offering drinks, melons and - stuff.  We almost never saw anyone actually buying the stuff, but maybe that was because of New Year, which we quickly found out was not just a Thai occasion.  And the rubbish!  Just strewn anywhere, or thrown into pits and ditches, which we think must fill with water in the wet season (right now, it's the end of the dry).  The fields are empty at the moment, as the rice harvest is complete, and the endless vista of brown stubble just adds to the picture of bleakness.  So, not a beautiful country, as viewed from the road, but we are so glad we came this way, rather than flying.

Our upgraded hotel in Siem Reap was markedly more opulent than anywhere else we have stayed on this whole trip and we can't deny that we enjoyed it!  We were greeted as "Mr Martin and Madame Elizabeth" and hope our friends will take note of this respectful form of address!  The pool was glorious and much needed after a hard day at the temples and the breakfast was monumental.  It was the usual buffet style, but so extensive that each day we found another "station" that we hadn't seen. 

But of course, we weren't in Siem Reap to eat the breakfast, we were there to see Angkor Wat. Angkor means "city" in the Khmer language and Angkor Wat is just one temple, albeit the largest temple complex on earth.  Everyone knows what it looks like and when you get there, it's just as overwhelming and amazing as you expect.  There are times of the day, and of the year, when there are relatively fewer people, but I think it is always crowded.  We were so glad to be on a private tour and not in a large group.  Leak, our guide for the first day, sized up our walking sticks and Martin's lack of a full set of lungs and got our car through a gate and much closer to the main temple than most. Then he judiciously chose a route that we would be able to cope with.  He firmly told us that we were not allowed to climb to the highest level ("Operations not allowed!"), which caused us no grief, and gave us exactly as much exposition of the history of the Khmer dynasty of Angkor (roughly 9th to 14th centuries) and the meaning of the extraordinary carvings, as we needed.  The kings of Angkor switched back and forth from Hinduism to Buddhism several times and most of the imagery reflects the Hindu stories and gods.  The Buddhist kings seem to have been happy to retain all of this, but when the power switched back to Hinduism, the orders went out to destroy the Buddha statues, so there are very many headless Buddhas to be seen.  We visited Angkor Wat first, but that's just the start!  There is Angkor Thom (Big City), Bayon, Ta Prohm (the temple all overgrown with enormous tree roots), Preah Neak, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei - and if you have the energy, you could go on and on.  But there is a limit to what you can take in.  Some of these sites are kilometres apart and we were very glad of our air conditioned car.  Some people do the tour by tuk-tuk or motor bike and some (including, we understand, nephew Matty and family), by push-bike.  Can't wait to get to Singapore and compare notes!  Only the temples were built of stone, all the other houses, even the king's palace, were made of wood, so have long disappeared.  It wasn't until we got to the National Museum in Phnom Penh and saw a brief, but brilliant little animated display from Monash University, that we got a clear idea of what this great city of a million people might have looked like when it was a thriving community, in our Middle Ages. 

On our second day, we had a different guide, Vithyea, as Leak had gone home to see his mum for New Year.  Vithyea had had to come out of office duties to look after us, as so many guides were on holiday.  New Year really is a big deal here!  Interestingly, both guides were very ready to talk politics with us, both about the troubles of the past and about the corruption of the current government.  We would not have raised the subject, but they did.  They also told us the shocking fact that the whole Angkor complex has been leased by the government to a Vietnamese businessman, so that most of the profits from the vast crowds of tourists go out of the country.

Cambodia, it seems, has always had a difficult relationship with its neighbours and for centuries has been either bullied or exploited by Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other.  Not to mention being bombed to smithereens by the Americans in the 1970s. Then there was the small matter of the civil war which continued between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam backed forces, right up until 1998.  And, of course, Pol Pot, who was in power for less than four years from 1975 to 1979, but whose legacy still casts the darkest of shadows.  Wherever you go, tourists are asked to support this or that good cause, to help these people rebuild their shattered country and before we left Siem Peap, we had the chance to share in the most inspiring of projects.

Phare - the Cambodian Circus is a wonderful show put on by a group of young graduates from the Phare Ponleu Selpak school in Battambang, which was founded by a group of refugees returning from Thailand in the 1990s and now gives more than 1200 disadvantaged children a basic education as well as specialising in expressive arts.  Not only do they aim to enable sometimes traumatised young people to express their emotions through art and performance, but some of those kids reach such a high level of skill that they can earn their living this way.  The night we went, seven dancer/acrobat/jugglers, one artist and two musicians told the story of the founding of the school, through the eyes of a girl growing up through the years of conflict, who resolves her own trauma by helping other street kids.  Sounds corny?  Not at all!  A fantastic, energetic,breathtaking and funny display that leaves you filled with hope for the future - if these people have anything to do with it!

On arrival in Phnom Penh we were gathered up by a tuk-tuk driver at the bus station and I've no doubt that we paid him over the odds, but it still seemed quite cheap to us.  You ask yourself - who is exploiting who?  Anyway, he was smiley and friendly and took us on the following day's trip too, to Cheoung Ek and Tuol Sleng. Apart from running out of petrol, we had no problems and that was easily solved.  You just go to the nearest roadside drinks vendor and there is the petrol - in old Pepsi bottles!

We had two full days in Phnom Penh and found it a much easier city to negotiate than Bangkok.  Our hotel was right on the waterfront, with a great view and hundreds of restaurants and sights like the Royal Palace and National Museum within walking distance.  The Museum is a beautiful place, built in the Khmer style by the French just 100 years ago. The contents are mainly just temple sculptures from different periods, but the aforementioned animation of Angkor made the visit worthwhile in itself.  The Royal Palace is a very splendid affair (the King wasn't home - he's taken his mum to China for medical treatment), with highly carved stupas and pavilions full of gold, silver and precious gems.  The contrast between that and the rubbish strewn streets is somewhat striking, but the people seem proud of it and happily picnic in the large grassy space in front.  We visited these sites on our second day and were completely wrung out in the heat after just three hours of sight-seeing. The day before, we had been wrung out for different reasons.

Our flight to Bangkok wasn't until late, so we hired another tuk-tuk (for the purists, these vehicles are officially known as "remorque-moto", but are usually called "tuk-tuk" the term imported from Thailand) and had a couple of hours touring round the city happily snapping the sights and soaking up the atmosphere on the city's first day back to normal after the Khmer New Year celebrations.  They look quite frail, but are robust enough to take us and our luggage to the airport - with more sights along the way, as shown in the photo section.

Everyone who visits Phnom Penh should put aside a day to face the history of the Pol Pot regime.  There are two sites to visit - the Tuol Sleng prison and interrogation centre and Cheoung Ek, the Killing Field itself.  (Just one of hundreds, of course, but the one associated with Tuol Sleng.)  The prison was a high school before the revolution and there are three mundane looking blocks set round a courtyard.  As you go around, you are confronted with the photos of hundreds of men, women and children who passed through here to be interrogated and tortured.  All, except for seven who escaped when the Vietnamese arrived in 1979, were transported to Cheoung Ek to be murdered.  Some instruments of torture are still there.  Most of the prisoners here were members of the Khmer Rouge who, often for reasons unknown to them, had fallen foul of "Angkar - The Organisation". The explanatory notices tell many stories - too many to bear - and one of these is the account of a Swedish delegation who visited Cambodia during this time and saw nothing wrong.  These people were not taken to Cheoung Ek. Those due for execution were carried, shackled and blindfolded in trucks to the Killing Fields, having been told they were going to a "new house".  Most were killed the same night, though if there were too many to deal with at once, some were shackled overnight in a pitch-dark shed.  I won't go into detail about this place, but I will say that they did not waste ammunition on these people.  The display and audio commentary is brilliantly done; completely unsensational.  It doesn't need to be - the place and what you are looking at speak for themselves.  We were in a very sombre mood after that visit.  Our guide book states that all of this demonstrates "the darkest side of the human spirit, which lurks within all of us".  Really?  Does it?  Some commentaries say that this period was especially shocking because the Cambodians did it to themselves - autogenocide.  But surely, brutal cruelty is just brutal cruelty. It's hard to reconcile those stories with the Cambodians we have met, but it is only forty years ago.  There are many people around today who were already adults then (our age) - who knows what side they were on?

We don't want to leave Cambodia on that note.  Let's rather carry with us an image from the Phare Circus - enthusiastic and talented young people smiling, laughing, remembering their country's past, but leaping with optimism and confidence into the future.

 

One of the five towers taken from the second level. The queues and heat/humidity confirmed that climbing to the third level wasn't worth the effort!

Inside Angkor Wat - a warren of passages .........

...... and chambers.

A splendid example of the stone carvings that cover the walls of Angkor Wat.

A young Buddhist monk telling fortunes inside Angkor Wat.

The classic view of Angkor Wat. Alas, it's the dry season, so no reflection in the pools in front of the temple.

Gateway to Bayon Temple.

Getting up close and personal at Bayon Temple.

Bayon Temple.

Ta Prohm Temple. How you start sorting out this lot for restoration?

Ta Prohm temple, more recently famous as being a location for the film "Lara Croft: Tom Raider".

Ta Prohm temple.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus - telling a sombre true story of resilience and tragedy through on-stage painting .........

... dance ......

..... acting ..............

.... and acrobatics! A refreshing break from the antiquities outside Siem Reap!!

Ceremonial stupa at Choeung Ek (17km/11miles outside Phnom Penh) built as a national memorial to those executed at the many "Killing Field"s. It contains the remains of many of the 8,895 who were killed at this site alone.

Choeung Ek - one of the many burial pits excavated for reburial. Many others have been left in peace.

Countryside at Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh - one the many "Killing Fields" - as it would have looked between 1975 and 1979. It's peaceful appearance belies what took place.

Tuol Sleng - Interrogation Centre & Prison S21 in Phnom Penh.

Chauffeur driven Madame Elizabeth at the National Stadium in Phnom Penh.

Tuk-tuk service station - ... "is that regular or super, sir? And today every customer gets a free melon".

What's health and safety?

The Royal Palace - the Ballet Hall on the left and Throne Hall on the right.

The Silver Pagoda in the Royal Palace complex, paved with more than 5,000 solid silver tiles, and containing a 90kg life-size Buddha encrusted with more than 9,000 diamonds - the largest being 25 carats.

Around the courtyard of the Silver Pagoda, there are 640m of beautiful mural. They are currently being restored with assistance from the Polish government.

When you're given a "friendship" monument by a neighbour as powerful as Vietnam, it's hard to say "no".

Norodom Sihanouk's memorial, King of Cambodia 1941/55 and again 1993/2005 and effective ruler of the country 1953/1970 - he's regarded as a national hero. In the background the Independence Monument.

Can you tell the Royal Palace from the National Assembly? This is the latter.

The other end of the spectrum - note the rubbish in the street.

Another tuk-tuk filling station. Much more sophisticated than the last!

Russian Federation Avenue - one of many motorbike shops ready to add to the thousands of vehicles already on the roads of Phnom Penh.

Our hotel (the tallest building) was on Sisowath Quay over the Tongle Sap river at its confluence with the Mekong. Along the street were lots of restaurants, bars and shops offering all kinds of goods and services .........

........ including this little gem!

Ending our report on Cambodia on a positive note looking to the future for Khmer youth.