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.


24 hours on the bus


View from my seat on the bus

I’m writing from an epic bus journey, 24 hours from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos. Laura and I have just had a tasty picnic lunch of baguettes filled with ham and actual cheese with flavour. My taste buds are still tingling from the sensation! Accompanied by stunning mountain panoramas and the great music of Electrelane, it’s gone a long way to break up the monotony of a long road trip.

The bus we’re on is a modern sleeper, with three lines of bunk beds running down its length, some flat screen TVs playing Vietnamese dubbed Kung Fu movies, and a lot of sweaty passengers in the near-flat seats, and also on the isles between them. We’ve seen this trip dubbed ‘The bus journey from hell’ online, but in reality it’s been pretty good, after a slightly shaky start.

Our last day in Hanoi started with a quick visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and House. It’s a bit of a logistical struggle, and we’d failed to make it into the complex before going to Sa Pa. The complex is closed Mondays and Fridays, and of course on weekends. It’s also closed after 11am daily. And for all of September, October and November, when his body is sent for it’s annual re-embalming. It still being November, we were expecting to only see the house (which is apparently open afternoons, although how you actually get in since the complex is locked is another matter), but unexpectedly found ourselves in a line leading to the Mausoleum. I don’t think either of us had quite expected to round a corner, be shushed to silence by a guard, and find his body on display in the spotlights. This is probably the right time to say that as much as it was a surprise to us, it would also have come as a surprise to him, given his final wish was to be cremated, something not honoured by his successors. We also went round his ‘Stilt House’, a very modest two room dwelling where he was said to have lived, exemplifying himself as a man of the people with modest ways. This perspective does somewhat overlook a few facts though – for this place is still within the lavish grounds of the presidential palace, and Uncle Ho (as he’s endearingly known) also had another more conventially-sized house within the grounds – complete with a collection of cars. Strangely although on the tour, this isn’t the one featured on all the photos of his life though…


Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House

We were picked up from our hotel by a minibus to take us and apparently 25 other tourists to the bus depot. Considering the minibus could seat 19, and we all had luggage a plenty, it was a bit of a squeeze! The obvious jokes about us being on the minibus all the way to Laos weren’t that appreciated by those standing in the isle, and we were pleased when rolled up at the city bus depot. Although not quite so manic on this sleeper bus, it’s still a squash for taller folks, with some bunks apparently built for dwarfs incongruously the place they were forced to sit by the driver’s shouting assistant. There’s a guy off to our right whose seat is so small that with his legs straightened out he was nearly sitting on the head rest! Fortunately our bunks are fine, even if the aforementioned shouting assistant has gone to sleep on the bit of corridor between us and occasionally elbows us as he stretches in his sleep.


The border, Laos side

We’re now in Laos, having crossed the border when it first opened at 7am this morning. So narrow is the country that we’re already skirting its western border, and as I write this I can see over the river to our left to the trees in Thailand, where we’ll be setting foot sometime in the New Year. Our border crossing earlier was entertainment in its own right, with a jester amid the border guards on the Vietnamese side. They’d collected in all the foreign passports in
order to stamp us out (for a princely $1), and so had to return them. The guy called out each name, after which the corresponding person jumped to the front and did their best to look like their passport photo. Hats and sunglasses were removed, smiles were suppressed, and we tried to look as 2D as possible. It was more of a challenge for one girl who now had frizzy hair in contrast to her straight-haired photo; the guard even showed me her passport in jest as he refused to return it to her. Fortunately she had ID to vouch for herself, although at one moment it did seem he was going to seize that too! Laura and I managed to make it through unscathed – she actually looks quite like her photo, and it turns out that for me, the trick was to put on my best criminal pose, and then puff out my cheeks like a hamster – it would appear that I’ve lost weight since the snap was taken!


A traditional stilt house we drove past in Laos

All in all, we found Vietnam a little hard to get stuck into after India. Some of the places we went to were fascinating, and some of the things we saw and learnt heart-wrencing, particularly around the war. Unfortunately these moments of shock and awe were interspersed with a bitter taste from having both a taxi driver and a hostel try to con us in Hanoi. Perhaps we’ve also travelled too fast and not stopped long enough to let the qualities of the locals and their way of life really settle; our few days in Hoi An, in Ha Long Bay, and in Sa Pa were each enchanting in their own way – but not quite enough to make the whole.

So with less than a month to go until Christmas, we find ourselves on a sleeper bus to sleepy Laos, where we hope to find a different pace with a relatively untouched way of life. As the French put it, “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow”. We’ll let you know what it sounds like next time!


Leaving Shangri-La


Tibet has often been cited as the true location of James Hilton’s mythical fantasy land of Shangri-La. Between the mountaintop prayer flags, monasteries of chanting monks and wafting insense, you can really appreciate the likeness – although perhaps not so much now with the Chinese troops on the streets and jarring horns from each passing motorbike and car.

However, as we crossed into Nepal at the border town of Zhangmu, there seemed to be more of a resemblance to the modern day imitation Shangri-La at Glastonbury Festival than that of 30’s literature. Darkened alleyways with flickering florescent lights; narrow streets lined with mysterious shops bearing indecipherable Chinese script; sanitised quarantine zones for immigrants with quasi-english directions; and salubrious red-lit doorways with ‘hostesses’ awaiting their next customer. Ok, Glastonbury doesn’t have the last bit, but its sensory overload night venue is a fair representation of the contrast we saw in the last night we spent in Tibet.

We’re now in Kathmandu, Nepal, collecting our thoughts and future plans before embarking on the next step of the adventure. We arrived on Sunday after a journey through a landscape that felt more like Costa Rica than our expectations of a landlocked plateau.

The border was both classic and bureaucratic. A single lane bridge over a river cut through a deep gorge, with soldiers from each side arranged next to the line of control – the stuff of Cold War movies (or the opening sequence of Die Another Day for the younger generation). Then a laborious hour-long process of form filling, stamping, correcting, re-stamping and finally getting the signature of the chief immigration officer, who has to personally sign each visa. By hand. Not that the visa was actually needed to enter the country – the visa office was just a door on the street that we could well have just wandered past and into town if we didn’t have a guide with us!

The Costa Rican element of the journey came from the glorious green forest cut by a wide river, around which our dusty and landslide-evident road wound and precariously leapt. Luscious, balmy and humid – none of which I’d have previously thought would fit Nepal. Oh, and cramped, sweaty and bumpy on the bus, which fitted the bill more!

So we bade our farewells to The Rooftop of the World, and to the great friends we’d made on the trip from Beijing. We’re hoping to catch up with some folks in Delhi in a few weeks time, and others hopefully back in London – or elsewhere in the world. It’s strange to think back now to three weeks ago, indulging in Peking Duck on the first night, and the experiences we’ve had since then – seeing hundreds of people doing salsa/chinese crossover dancing on the streets of Beijing at night; shopping in The Gates Of Hell (massive supermarket, I’ll explain another time); crazy food – and being ripped off – at the night market; friendly shared gestures and photos with Buddhist Nuns; and the sight of Everest at last after the longest bumpy road imaginable!

Kathmandu feels so much more like India than China, with brightly coloured hand-painted adverts covering shop shutters, the continual screech of car horns (often musical), and the fabulous wafting smell of curry. It’s a lot more frantic and noisy than I’d imagined – probably closer to my vision of Bangkok than a centre for trekking. Each narrow street of the Thamel district is teeming with honking motorbikes and rickshaws jostling for space among the pedestrians, and it’s easy to get a headache after just a few minutes.

We spent a final night basking in the delights of a hotel room (with windows on three sides, no less!) before downgrading yesterday to a twin room at a hostel (en suite) for 1/10th the price. Cell-like – yes, in need of a good clean – definitely, but cheap as chips at £3 each per night. And with wifi and a rooftop view over the valley – bargain!

Yesterday we accidentally* wandered into the middle of one of Nepal’s biggest festivals, which was bemusing. Appropriately we arrived just as the various ambassadors of the world were driving up to palace in the main square here, and we slotted into the peculiarly prominent tourist area, waved past lines of riot police tasked it seems with holding the locals back from seeing their own festival. In short (this post is way too long already, but I’ve got to finish this now!), six year old living goddess, her feet can’t touch the ground, she gets out once a year – on this day – and rides a chariot (people, not horse-drawn) around the old town after blessing the president for another year of rule (it used to be the king but that stopped after he massacred his whole family ten years ago). Oh, and a dancing elephant (more people, not real animals), and man with a huge red hat. For three hours in the hot sunshine. It was certainly an experience! Then a final dinner with the remaining Gap Tour folks who had stayed an extra day.

Today we procrastinated and sat out on the roof garden of our hostel, admiring the view while Laura beautified her scrapbook and I watched a huge raincloud wash in over the valley. It’s lovely and (relatively) quiet here compared to the bustle of the Thamil area 5 minutes walk away – the distant car horns sounding more like quietly bleating sheep, fitting nicely with the surrounding vista of green hills and dreams of mountain passes and trekking adventures.

Tomorrow we need to actually plan our trek and start the journey onwards – but for tonight, it’s a cosy meal somewhere easy and then curling up with a book, possibly by candlelight if the one of the city’s regular power cuts sweeps in before we sleep.


* Apparently we were told about it by some friends from the trip, but I’m denying all knowledge.