The treasures of Angkor


Dawn at Angkor Wat

We’d been warned by many that Siem Reap is a bit of a tourist trap. It’s home to the temples of Angkor Wat (and many others), making it a must see on pretty much any itinerary. Fortunately though, the place is pretty spread out, and beyond the confines of the backpacker/bar area around ‘pub street’, we found a nice quiet guest house (‘Sweet Dreams’), and some lovely riverside walks around the town. Being further north, you can immediately appreciate the drop-off in humidity, making the climate pleasantly warm without being sweaty all the time. A lovely relief!

As part of the tourist thoroughfare, the town is home to ‘The National Museum of Angkor’, which was the most modern (and most expensive, at $12 each) museum we’ve been to since starting. Housed in a huge complex, it seemed more like a Roman villa, with bright white walls, open courtyards and spiralling staircases – as well as pools of blue water here and there. If it wasn’t for the sunshine in January and the lack of a sulphurous smell, I’d have thought we could have been at a renovated version of the Roman Spa in Bath!

The museum itself gave us the lowdown on the history of the state of Angkor, as well as the religion and symbolism behind the temples themselves. It was fantastically modern – like a new wing of the science museum in London, with multimedia displays and videos alongside rooms full of artefacts bathed in bright spotlights. The only bad thing to say about it is that unlike many of the museums we’ve been to, it was quite clearly for the international tourist – its price alone (even with a substantial reduction for locals) apparently enough to ensure that the very people these temples were built for were absent from their own ‘National Museum’. Or maybe they all went last week instead!


Stone Carving at Angkor Wat

Other than the subject or streams of superlatives, and famous silhouettes, I confess that I didn’t really know what Angkor Wat was until we’d visited. It is by itself the largest religious complex in the world, originally Hindu and now Buddhist, with decorative stone carvings to reflect the change in affections over the years. The place itself is huge – with a 190 metre moat, and is one of a set of temples, former cities and other structures that fill mile after mile of the countryside north of the town. It’s all pretty impressive!


The 400m carved mural around the inner sanctum of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat itself is famed for its sunrises, with the red dawn forming directly over the black outline of the central towers of the temple in a perfect photographic moment. And who are we to pass up such an opportunity for luminescent beauty, even if it is at the ungodly hour of 6am?

Having booked a rickshaw the previous day to take us round the temples, we rose at 5 ready for our 5:15 pickup. When it hit 5:30 and the driver still hadn’t arrived, we began to get worried. Some of the staff at the guesthouse were up, and we were asked who we were waiting for. I drew a blank. Ben? Ned? Mic? Fortunately, Laura came through with ‘Mab’, although the response wasn’t immediately helpful. “Ah, he went party last night, drink too much, he no drive”. Right! We got up for this?! And this, we discovered, is why the guesthouse gets good reviews – yes, it may be that their receptionist/driver who gladly accepted our booking last night is now still drunk in bed, but they leapt into action to resolve the problem. The manager appeared, with his usual “Hello Simon” greeting (a greeting he used with either of us interchangeably while we were there!), and looked slightly panic stricken when we said we were up to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The sky was already beginning to get light. Five minutes later, they’d found and woken a replacement, hooked up a cart behind a motorbike, and we were off – and we made it! Hats off to the ‘Sweet Dreams’ guesthouse and, appropriately, sweet dreams to our original driver!


The obligatory kazoo photo

We were far from the only people there to witness the pink spectacle of dawn, but it was impressive nonetheless, as the varied shades of pink, blue and yellow filled the expanse of sky above us. As the light got better, we wandered around the complex and having bought the destined-for-a-future-coffee-table glossy book on Angkor Wat (my parents will be proud, especially since it only cost $5), spent some time admiring the 400m stone carved mural that surrounds the inner temple. We learnt a lot about the Hindu tale of ‘The Churning of the Sea of Milk’, the carving very detailed and understandable with the help of the book.


Vishnu on his turtle at the centre of the churning of the sea of milk

Angkor Thom is a former city, long since abandoned, but once home to some one million people at a time when London numbered only 50,000. Most memorable was the Bayon, where numerous huge stone faces stare down at you from the pillars forming the temple mound, like Gods with eyes following you as you dive in and out of the maze of passageways below. We managed to find a Geocache on the way round too!


The Bayon at Angkor Thom. Spot the faces in the stone

By 11am, we were suffering from Temple fatigue (we had been at it for 5 hours by this point!), and it was with some relief that we made our final stop – Ta Phrom, or as everyone seems to call it, the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. Like many of these sites, it was overrun by jungle when rediscovered in 20th Century, but a decision was made to stabilise the structure and then keep it in this state for visitors to see a ‘jungle temple’. Perhaps someone knew there was a Lara Croft film waiting to be made? Although we were expecting something altogether more green and overrun, it was a real spectacle with gigantic trees growing in, on, and through the ruins, their huge roots clutching the stone like tentacles from some giant monster from the deep. I think the picture below does it justice. There’s certainly no need for the fiction of Hollywood to make this come alive.


Tentacles at Ta Phrom

For our final day in Cambodia, we went on a cookery class to better appreciate the cuisine and hopefully learn some skills to use back home. Laura’s got the lowdown on the food, but suffice to say it was great, and we were stuffed by the end of it (although fortunately cannibalism is off the menu!).

Two chefs trained and ready!

We took a long bus journey across the border to Bangkok, which despite being infamous for scams going in the opposite direction, was surprisingly easy, if slightly enduring. There were coloured stickers and even numbers to keep us in order, a long queue to leave Cambodia while everyone was fingerprinted (when leaving the country, which is slightly beyond me), and even some tasty cheddar and salami baguettes thanks to some good planning on our part.

The Cambodia/Thailand border

It’s strange to be saying goodbye to Cambodia so soon – although we’ve spent a few weeks here, we only really stopped in three different places thanks to Christmas, and it feels like we’ve just scratched the surface. It’s an interesting country on the way up after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but one which is still finding its feet in many respects – the lack of economic power is evident by the use of the dollar absolutely everywhere, with even the cash machines doling out american bills; the country ranks pretty poorly in the global corruption indexes and this has got worse in recent years; and the posters asking people to be vigilant to foreign pedophiles really underline how tourism can bring terrible negatives. In spite of this, it’s a place we found hugely warm and welcoming – with promise of plenty more treasures left undiscovered for a future adventure.


Food for thought part five – Cambodia

On our last day in Cambodia, Simon and I embarked on a quest to learn more about Cambodian cuisine and enrolled ourselves on a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papiere in Siem Reap. After a trip round the market familiarising ourselves with some of the ingredients we donned our chefs hats and aprons, and knife in hand began to discover the hidden secrets of some of the Khmer dishes that we’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks…

Probably the best known Khmer dish, Amok is a coconut curry flavoured with lemon grass, ginger, turmeric and chilli, the meat of your choice (most commonly fish), shredded vegetables such as Chinese broccoli, cabbage, onion -and in the case of our cooking class even oyster mushrooms. Traditionally Amok is served in a banana leaf bowl with a side of puns from Simon about “running Amok”.


Monkfish Amok, made by Laura

Lok lak
Lok lak is another popular Khmer dish, comprising beef, pork or chicken marinated and stir fried in a peppery tomato sauce, served on a bed of salad.


Lok Lak, made by Simon

Saraman Kari
This curry differs from most others in South East Asia as the predominant flavour is peanut rather than coconut, this delicious curry also tends to come up a bit thicker than most.

Kep crab
Whilst in Kep why not find yourself a platform strung with hammocks and relax, taking in the fresh sea air and ocean view whilst waiting for your blue peppered crab to be cooked? The fresh crab is cooked in a flavoursome sauce with spring onions, pak choi and fresh green Kampot peppercorns. A tasty seaside treat, but hard-earned as you struggle to prise the meat from the shells, evolution certainly did a good job with the crab!


Peppercorns. Sorry, we were too busy trying to break open the crab to take photos!

A few surprises…
Whilst in Kampot we considered it our duty to visit as many dining establishments in town as possible and to my surprise discovered both the best ribs and the best scones I’ve ever eaten! The pork ribs served up by the Rusty Keyhole are absolutely huge!! You only get 3 ribs in a ‘half rack’ portion but they are the meatiest, best cooked three ribs you’ll ever eat, smothered in the Rusty Keyhole’s own barbecue sauce. The second surprise was the scones produced by Epic Arts, big, freshly cooked (served still warm), with the perfect soft yet slightly crumbling texture and served with delicious homemade jam. My only regret is that I didn’t manage a second one!


Amazing ribs from the Rusty Keyhole. As you can see, we couldn't wait to get started!

Fruit shakes
Fruits shakes feature on most menus in both Laos and Cambodia. These delicious fruit “shakes” are essentially fruit smoothies with fresh fruit of your choice blended together with either coconut milk (my preference), regular milk or yoghurt and ice. A refreshing way to recharge after a day of sightseeing.

Pineapple palm wine
Pineapple palm wine (8%) tastes pretty much as you might expect, like alcoholic pineapple juice. It’s easy to drink and definitely worth a try whilst you’re in Cambodia. Palm wine is produced by fermenting the sap collected from palm trees, the pineapple variety is presumably made by adding pineapple juice to the palm sap.

Cambodia has definitely supplied more mouthwatering South East Asian delights, next stop Tom Yam and Thai curry!


How to heat a Christmas pudding with absolutely no cooking equipment

1. Buy some Brie to make tasty sandwiches for a long bus journey (if you buy a baguette you can cut costs and make it last for two meals). Surprisingly the Brie is packaged in a tin, keep the tin as it may prove useful.

2. Visit post restante at Phnom Penh post office and collect Christmas goodies sent from home.

3. Open up package from parents and delightedly unwrap a Tesco finest Christmas pudding!

4. Buy a brandy minature from your local shop (may cost more than you’d expect).

5. Ask your guesthouse for a plate, a spoon and some ice (ice to cool the pineapple palm wine you bought). As an unexpected bonus the guesthouse provides you with a bucket of ice plus tongs.

6. Clear a good space on the tiled guest room floor, making sure all flammable materials are at a safe distance. Then light a tea light.

7. Remove pudding from packaging and place in empty Brie tin. Using tongs hold the tin over the flame. After a few minutes turn pudding to heat the other side.

8. Turn pudding out onto plate and douse with brandy.

9. Heat some brandy in the improvised “pan”, pour into metal spoon and set alight.

10. Pour flaming brandy over the pudding whilst singing “we wish you a merry Christmas…”
11. Enjoy the fruits of your labour, remember the proof is in the pudding!


“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”


The school buildings at S21

We visited a school yesterday. Its design reminded me of a Lycée I spent a day at many years ago in Paris, with multi-story blocks surrounding an open courtyard, and a chequered tile floor. This one sounded different though.

Schoolyards are meant to echo with the sounds of children playing, the shrieks of delight and footballs skidding around – but there was silence. The tattered blackboards were chalked with rules that preached total submission to those in charge. From the gym equipment in the yard hung a series of metal loops used for torture. And there were 14 anonymous graves in the ground outside one of the former classrooms. We were here to witness the remnants of the horrors of the three year, eight month and 20 day rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was probably the most heartbreakingly shocking thing I have ever seen.

Reading Jung Chang’s amazing book Wild Swans had given me a sense of the utter brutalistic lunacy of China under Mao, with his attempt to violently force everyone into the working class, turning man against man through successive purges and by fomenting chaos in the belief that only through repeated revolution could there be radical change. Pol Pot followed these beliefs fervently, but apparently sought even more rapid and forceful upheaval. The school we visited was S21, one of many prisons set up to interrogate and torture those who disagreed, or who in many cases were just caught up in the maelstrom of revolution and suspicion.


Blackboard in a former classroom converted to a cell

Over the course of just under four years of rule, between one and three million people were killed, either executed en mass using farm tools (bullets were too expensive) like the 17,000 who passed through S21, or starved to death in the fields working from four in the morning until ten at night with only a few grains of rice to eat each day. Even by the most conservative estimate, that’s one death for every two minutes they were in power. In all, it’s believed that around 1/4 of the Cambodian population died under the Khmer Rouge.

The sheer psychotic madness of their beliefs is preserved in the slogans of the revolution. Most aptly for our venue, one was “Study is not important. What’s important is Work and Revolution”. In line with this, all schools and universities were closed, many to become prison camps. The same happened to many prisons, and the entire urban population was moved to the countryside to do hard labour and learn from the peasants, Mao’s equivalent of intellectual role models. As an indication of how rapidly this happened, it took just 3 days for the entire population of Phnom Penh to be evicted – some 2.5 million people.


Classrooms knocked together with cells inside

Walking round, two things really brought the reality home for me. The first was how much the building was so evidently a colonial era school that had been crudely and swiftly brutalised into a prison. The masonry walls between classrooms had been punctured by primitive sledgehammer doorways, and the classrooms divided by rough brickwork into lines of tiny cells, each just big enough for an individual to lie down. The window openings in the open air corridors had been wrapped in barbed wire to prevent desperate prisoners from escaping by committing suicide. Many of the rooms still had their contents, rusting iron beds and shackles; an interrogator’s wooden chair; an ammunition box which was used for excrement. There were photos and paintings showing what it had been like. And running through all of this was the distinct, chilling reminder that this had all happened right where we stood – on the dusty, dirty yellow and white chequered schoolroom tiles beneath our feet.

Barbed wire to prevent desperate prisoners from committing suicide

The other thing that will stay with me were the faces staring out from the thousands of mugshot photographs. Each detainee was photographed on arrival, and of the 17,000 recorded in the files, only around 140 ever made it out alive.

In the afternoon, we went to Choeung Ek, the ‘killing fields’ where those from S21 were executed and buried in mass graves. A thought provoking audio tour gave plenty of opportunity for quiet reflection as we walked around the grave mounds and memorial stupa, where the victims’ bones are now kept. The barbarism of the regime meant that in many cases entire families were exterminated, including babies, following Pol Pot’s mantra that “to dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots.”


The sign speaks for itself

Poignantly, where indescribable horrors once occurred there is now an abundance of butterflies hovering between the greenery, their fluttering wings bringing colour – and life – to the grey piles of skulls of the past.

As you sit there in the shade by the brown shimmering lake, next to the gleaming green rice paddies and alongside the gold-topped memorial, you have to ask yourself how such atrocities can happen – and indeed can continue to happen. The Khmer Rouge’s massacres happened only just before I was born, continuing a chain that includes Nazi Germany and more recently Iraq, Serbia, Rwanda – and Palestine, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and perhaps even right now, in Syria.

I think my normal answer would be to say this is why we need to strengthen and have faith in international structures like the UN, which can use democracy and international law to bear on those who commit such acts. However, I must say that my faith was left severely lacking by how justice has played out after the Khmer Rouge were routed, illustrating how the very strength of geopolitics is also its undoing. As I understand it, the problem was that it was the Vietnamese that defeated the Khmer Rouge, forcing Pol Pot & co to flee to the border with Thailand and a new government to take over and pick up the pieces. With the geopolitics of the cold war in full swing, few were happy to side with communist Vietnam, and so instead China, Thailand, the US and even the UK supported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government in exile, channelling them aid money and even continuing to recognise the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s official government internationally in the UN. It was only in the mid 1990s that things started to change for the better with recognition that the Khmer Rouge was still seeking violence, and only in 2003 that four of its former leaders were put on trial, the hearing eventually starting in July 2006. The sad reality is that many of the perpetrators will never face justice due to old age – Pol Pot himself died in 1998, and many more have ingratiated themselves with the new regime. The one trial to have concluded so far – that of ‘Comrade Duch’ who ran S21 – resulted in him receiving a sentence of 35 years, which when time is taken off for his incarceration while awaiting trial is equivalent to 11 hours and 30 minutes for each execution under his command.


Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields

As we sit here on our sweaty bus out of Phnom Penh to adventures new, I can’t help but hear the voice of one of the survivors echoing in my mind. He was pleading for those who visited to take away from the horrors a greater understanding of how such genocide can happen to anyone, and how we must all work to prevent such atrocities in the future. I just wish the answers to these questions were a little more clear.


Christmas in Kampot


We’re back on the road again after a wonderful couple of weeks with the fantastic Michael Carroll in Kampot. We’re now in Phnom Penh, and tomorrow we’ll be heading to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat before journeying onward to Thailand and finally Malaysia.


Mike at sunset

Kampot is a lovely crumbling dusty old colonial riverside town with a peculiar abundance of tourist-friendly guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and slightly more strangely, roundabouts. Its the quiet charm of the town itself and not any nearby monument or beach that’s the main draw – and given that, we were surprised at quite how many tourist facilities there were, almost all run by a sizeable bunch of expats enjoying the quiet life. This was all the more strange given there was practically nobody around when we first arrived – the high season has been slow to pick up this year, in part due to the financial downturn, and in part the flooding in Thailand.

What the town lacks in specific tourist sites was more than made up for by our fabulous host Mike, who set us to work variously on cycling adventures, kayaking through mangrove swamps, playing crazy golf, and eating fresh blue crab in the seaside resort of Kep. On a number of occasions on the water, we were treated to the sight of flying fish. In the river by Kampot we saw shoals of thousands of small silver fish leaping out of the water in unison at sunset, a spectacular sight. On the way back across the bay from Rabbit Island, a single larger fish crossed the path of our boat at high speed and seemed to walk – or perhaps run – on water for 50m or more, tail wagging furiously to propel it along.


The beach on Rabbit Island

Rabbit Island was our destination for one day trip, a tropical paradise in the Gulf of Thailand, and home to the best beaches in Cambodia. In our first bit of sunbathing since India, we spent a lovely day as some of only a handful of people on the stunning white sand facing out into the turquoise blue ocean. The panorama was capped off by palm trees, distant islands, and a classic rickety bamboo pole jetty that looked amazing silhouetted against the bright sea. One of those distant islands was the Vietnamese territory of Phu Quoc, a mere 15km away but tantalisingly out of reach for the second time on our trip – we nearly went there from Ho Chi Minh City two months ago. We did however visit our first Cambodian geocache, with the chance to drop off a ‘geocoin’ Laura’s been carrying since visiting Spain with her family before we left home.

We had a bit of a panic on the way back when we stopped for lunch while waiting for our boat. It turns out that grilled fish takes quite a while to prepare, and as the seconds ticked down to our boat leaving, our lunch still hadn’t arrived. Fortunately, in true English style we were able to get it converted into a takeaway with which we ran to the departure jetty. The only thing missing was chips – fish and noodles doesn’t quite cut it, although using chopsticks to fillet a fish is always an entertaining exercise!

In our original plans for the festive season, we’d been hoping to rent a place where we could self-cater and have some independence for the first time since we started out. We even had dreams of cooking our own roast! Alas, that was not to be, but instead Mike introduced us to a home from home in the form of the ‘Ny Ny Hotel’, cheap but with a touch of luxury – our room even had a fridge to keep the all important sparkling wine and cheese cool! We had a small incident with scores of bed bugs on the first day, but after relocating to a different room, it was a brilliant place to call home.


Our Christmas tree made from water bottles and coloured paper. Yes, we're very proud!

For Christmas Day itself, Laura and I both went on a not-so-secret secret santa present buying mission at the market, each with $10 to spend, to great success – purple nail varnish, a pool table, kick-shuttlecock, earrings, bubble mix and even chocolate and a movie rental. I’ll leave it up to you to work out who got what, but no, purple isn’t really my colour! Thanks to a shop selling stripy ski socks, we even had a couple of stockings for the presents themselves. Accompanied by our previously broadcast decorations and tree (made from recycled water bottles), I think it’s fair to say the hotel cleaning staff were impressed at our festive efforts! Although Christmas isn’t marked by Cambodians, there were a fair few decorations and lights around town (even a huge inflatable Santa in Phnom Penh), and, interestingly a surprisingly large number of weddings going on. Weddings here involve big marquees in the street and music blaring through the night – revellers who certainly added to the festive spirt!

No Christmas is complete without feeling you’re going to explode through overeating, and so we went to extra effort to find the biggest Xmas lunch around. I haven’t eaten so much in a very long time – there was so much food we were given two plates each! Thank you Blissful Guesthouse!


Christmas lunch, across two plates

Amid the chocolate and presents it can sometimes be a little hard to remember that Christmas is a time for family and friends to come together. We had a lovely catch up with our families via Skype before, during and after the festivities. It was also really fantastic to able to spend time in person with Mike, as an old friend of mine and a new friend of Laura’s. He’s out in Cambodia working to set up a non-profit project, FotoKhmer, which is still in development so I won’t let the secret out just yet. Needless to say, when it does happen (and I’m sure it will – look out for more later this year) it will be a really exciting and positive venture. Mike has spent many previous years working with photography in Cambodia, and across South East Asia and has brilliant plans. Although we sadly weren’t able to actually kick things off while we were there, I hope to be able to come back in the future and lend a hand doing exactly that. Mike – sorry the real Christmas present is slightly delayed!


Mike and Laura at the riverside. Yes, I only have photos of Mike with sunsets in!

Our final night in town was New Year’s Eve, which we marked in style by eating a delicious dinner, going to a bar for the first time in, well, months, and then popping champagne at midnight and singing Auld Lang Syne badly while watching fireworks go off by the river – and occasionally right by us due to their somewhat unorthodox approach for launching them – by hand!

We’re both hoping for a New Year of more flying fish, friendships and full plates ahead – and all before the Olympics! Bring on 2012!