27th February – Day 31

Ayup.
We were picked up by tuk tuk at 07:30. It’s a strange quirk of South-East Asia that each different area seems to favour it’s own style of tuk tuk. Bangkok has traditional rickshaws, whereas Ayutthaya has tiny vehicles that are like a cross between a songtheaw and a rickshaw. Go north to Chiang Mai and you’ll find rickshaws and songtheaws, but each city seems to have a favoured variation of the tuk tuk which prevails in number over all of the other forms of transport. In Siem Reap they have little carriages that are attached by a pin to a motorbike, and the drivers tow you along at a maximum of about 30mph. The dust blowing up off the road is constant, and though you might not notice it during the drive, you’ll probably end up having a sneezing fit at some point during the day. When we arrived in Thailand we noticed that a lot of the drivers seem to have nasal and phlegm issues, and this dust seems to be the cause of it – many of the Chinese tourists come prepared with dust masks.
One of the most common plans for visiting Angkor Wat is to go while it’s still dark, jostle with about a hundred thousand other tourists for a spot by the lake, and try and snap a picture without another human being in it as the sun rises over the temple. We didn’t really fancy this, so we decided to go there a couple of hours after sunrise, to coincide with all of the big tour groups going back to Siem Reap for breakfast. After travelling along a straight road lined with thick forest for about a mile, we swung a left at a junction and began driving alongside a huge body of water lined with flagstones. This in itself was impressive to me – a huge moat, about the width of the Thames, almost entirely surrounds Angkor Wat. At this point you have no view of the temple which is concealed behind foliage on the island, but it’s possible to see the human labour that must have gone into digging out this enormous pool. After a month of being away and having seen elephants, gekkos and snakes, we finally saw our first monkeys. Intelligent creatures, they know that they’re never far away from a good meal around these parts, so they sit on the flagstones surrounding the lake sunning themselves, scratching their arses and waiting for someone to throw food in their direction.

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It took a full ten minutes from first pulling alongside the moat before we were at the front entrance, such is the size of the place. A stone causeway spans the water and leads you to the outer gate, outside which a monkey sat eating an orange. A tourist attempted to take a selfie with the monkey, who bared his teeth and hissed, pushing the bloke away in much the same way a drunken lager lout might push away a rival for a taxi on a saturday night. The panic on the man’s face as the monkey struck was priceless – I wonder whether he’d saved a bob or two on not having his rabies jab, and in that second saw his life flashing before his eyes. After passing through the outer wall the causeway continues to bear you towards the picture-postcard bit of Angkor Wat. Though the years have ebbed away at the symmetry of the temple, it’s still pleasing to the eye to see that everything is set very deliberately – perhaps the Kings of the Khmers suffered a kind of megalomaniac OCD, which could ony be treated by forcing hundreds of thousands of their subjects to build temples in pretty patterns. We were able to go up into the main tower which afforded amazing views over the temple grounds and the dense jungle beyond. From here it was possible to spot the sea of tourists charging towards us like tiny ants below, and we realised that it was probably time to move on. Amazing that these walls saw the vanquishing of the Siamese, the Burmese and the Ancient Vietnamese, but have now been over-run by a far deadlier foe – Chinese tourists brandishing selfie sticks. Of all of the international tourists, the Chinese are the most formidable when it comes to asserting themselves. They arrive in Blitzkrieg busloads, twisting their SLR cameras over your shoulder or through your legs to get the scoop, and then disappear as quickly as they arrived, not to be seen again until you develop your photos and find the backs of their heads on an otherwise perfect picture.

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Angkor Wat is undoubtedly an amazing experience and doesn’t look like ever being challenged as the largest religious building in the world. It is widely regarded as a “Wonder” of the world but I’d argue that it’s not Angkor Wat on it’s own, but the whole historical park that’s worthy of being called a wonder. For Hollie and me, it was the second temple that we visited that impressed us the most. Ta Prohm might have been like any other of the dozens of temples scattered around if it weren’t for the vegatative onslaught of the jungle, which has claimed the temple as it’s own and turned the whole place into a scene from “Day of the Triffids”. Over the course of a millenium huge trees have stretched out their tentacle-like routes around the masonry, first wrapping themselves around the arches of doors, then constricting them like a python would it’s prey. In some parts it seems that flower power has caused bits of the temple to collapse entirely, and other bits are propped up by wooden beams. Ta Prohm was used as a setting in the movie Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why – why spend billions of pounds on sets and special effects when you can have something that’s stranger than fiction?

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By the time we’d poked around these two temples we were knackered. It was getting towards mid-day and the sun was beginning to become an issue. We went to see the last of the “Big Three” temples; Bayon. Bayon’s special feature is 36 gigantic stone faces designed to bear a likeness to the man who ordered their construction – King Jayavarman VII. Now, there was a bloke with an ego. Each face is as big as a a car, and there is something quite creepy and impressive about being stared out by 36 faces that have gazed unerringly at their beholders for the last thousand years. These temples were constructed by various Khmer Kings in the belief that they would achieve immortality through the scale of their gestures of worship to the Gods. I’m not sure about the God bit but in a way they’ve certainly achieved a kind of immortality, which is more than can be said for the labourers that no doubt perished during the construction process.
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We wandered along a couple more temples then returned frazzled to Baphuon Villa. We took an afternoon nap then got our gladrags on to attend a cello concert by a Paedeatrician – no, you did not read that incorrectly. In the evening we found ourselves sat with a load of other Europeans in the lecture hall of a university hospital, facing a stage on which a chair and a cello were placed. A portly gent with glasses and wild curly hair marched on and introduced himself as Dr Beat Richner from Switzerland. Dr Beat had been a young paedeatrician working with the Red Cross in Cambodia before the civil war broke out in 1975. When the war started he was forced to move back to Switzerland, but he returned after the fighting died down in 1992. Since then he has dedicated his life to providing the kids of Cambodia with medical care, raising millions of pounds and overseeing the construction of five hospitals around Cambodia. Inbetween playing short pieces of Bach on his cello, he would talk for ages about the dreadful plight of the Cambodian people, and in particular the children. He was an eccentric, passionate modern day saint who spoke well about his cause, but went on to labour the point quite a bit. Cambodia seems to be crammed full of benevolent expats and their charities, which is just as well really because the government seem to have little interest in helping their own people. Dr Beat talked about the rampant corruption and the complete lack of a healthcare system, and it made us feel humbled and grateful for being born in a country where education, healthcare and safety are taken for granted. Though the doctor provided little humour and plenty of harrowing information about his work, it was a privelege to be in an audience watching such a charismatic and dedicated man – apparently a bit of a legend in his native Switzerland. At the end of the free concert he asked us to contribute “Our money or our blood” for the children of Kantha Bopha – the name given to each of the five childrens hospitals. The name Kantha Bopha is a tribute to a daughter of the King of Cambodia, who died in infancy.
It’s taken me three days to get round to writing all of this up, and I’m all out of sync now.  Sorry there’s no pictures of Tah Prom – the wi-fi doesn’t want to play ball.  We hope you enjoy it, sorry for the delays in correspondence but the days are just too full of discovery!
Have a great day, whatever you’re up to.
Tommy and Hollie x

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25th and 26th February – Days 29 and 30

Song of the last two days: Gunga Din by the Libertines.  Why? Cos it’s a tune and I’ve been wanting to include it for ages!

Ayup.
On Thursday morning we got a taxi from our hostel over to Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal. It was easily the biggest bus station we’ve ever been in and looked more like an airport. Members of staff approached us and asked us where we were going. They were helpful and efficient in pointing out the Siem Reap bus to us – so efficient in fact that we were ushered onto the 8am bus as there was still space, even though we had tickets for the 9am departure. For the first half hour we crept along, bumper to bumper with other traffic as we passed through various checkpoints on the way out of Bangkok. The Thai police seem to enjoy a good checkpoint, though what they’re checking for is not apparent because a good deal of the traffic seems to get waved through at random.

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Down by the riverside at Siem Reap.  We’d have stuck some pictures of Poipet up for you, but it’s not the kind of place you should be getting your camera out.

I feel like our attitude towards Bangkok has softened since our first visit. Maybe a cocktail of culture shock and jetlag were responsible for our initial downer on the place, although I’m sure it’ll never be my favourite destination. In a country that’s changing so rapidly, you get the feeling that Bangkok is something of a fall guy for the rest of Thailand. As long as it continues to swell with more skyscrapers, fumes and western investment, the rest of the country will be spared from it’s worst excesses and remain charming and unique.

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US dollars – the currency of choice in Cambodia due to the weakness of the Riel

We drove for around four hours surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see, until we arrived at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. From here we would get off the bus and walk across the border into the Cambodian town of Poipet. To quote Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Poipet’s reputation precedes it and Hollie and I were pretty nervous about the place before we even got there.

Everybody passing through the Thai-Cambodian border must do so on foot, so we got out of the coach about a hundred yards before the gate. We followed the other passengers as closely as possible, keeping eyes ahead and ignoring the attentions of various grotty-looking geezers asking “You want help with your Visa?” A few of the less well-read amongst the group were picked off like wilderbeest from the rest of the herd, and we watched them disappear into shady-looking offices where presumably somebody tried to flog them a fake Visa. The first part of the process is to provide the Thai immigration staff with a departure card which we received when we arrived in Thailand. Our passports were checked, our Visas stamped and our departure cards were taken off us so that we were temporarily in limbo, officially not residing anywhere. We walked out of the Thai departure office and down a long gangway, and it was here that the beggars had positioned themselves.

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Cambodian riel – the amount that we’ve laid out in the photo is the equivalent to about £1

Women with their heads wrapped in scarves and tiny babies in their arms, who would approach you, pointing to the baby and say “Aaaah.” A little boy with a deformed leg, bent double on itself so that his toes jutted out of his kneecap, stretched out a begging bowl under the reproachful eye of his Mother a few feet away. Children who had barely learned to walk and talk, clad in old football shirts, who waved crumpled postcards at you asking for a dollar each. As heartless as it sounds we had no difficulty in saying no. Nothing about Poipet is as it seems and I wonder whether if we did give anybody a few dollars to ease our conscience, whether it would just have been taken off that person later by a beggarmaster. I have little experience upon which to base my judgement, but from what I’ve read, beggars in poor countries are often part of a much more intricate underworld than would first appear. We’ve read stories about women blowing smoke in babies eyes to make them cry, and children who have no relation to the women who pretend to be their Mothers being “paired up” by members of the criminal underworld to draw the biggest emotional reaction from tourists. As undoubtedly desperate as these people are, it’s unlikely as a backpacker that you can directly help, especially by giving out money in the street. For me, the best thing you can do is observe, let it enhance your understanding of the world around you and make other people aware of what you’ve seen.
After running the gauntlet we arrived in the Cambodia Visa Office, where we filled out an arrivals card and handed it over along with our passport and e-visa, which thanks to Hollie’s foresight we’d taken care of before we even left England. The immigration officer behind the desk was a complete tosspot. The delicate situation in which tourists find themselves in provides him with a licence to be as nasty as he wants without suffering retaliation. He succeeded in making us both feel like international criminals, huffing and cursing his way through a simple process which we had already sped up for him by doing the bulk of the paperwork online before we arrived. Come to think of it this may have been his beef – some of the border police have been known to make a bit on the side by charging people “extra” Visa fees – by completing the form online maybe we prevented him from being able to extort money out of us. I stood waiting for Hollie to have her Visa stamped whilst a young woman invaded my personal space and wafted her newborn under my nose – never have we been so glad to get back onboard a bus.
Cambodia is immediately different to Thailand. The reminders of French colonialism were spotted straight away as the bus pulled off from the kerb and occupied the right hand side of the road, whereas Thais drive on the left. Having said this, motorists in both countries – but especially Cambodia – have a penchant for driving up the wrong side of the road. It is a completely normal occurance for a scooter driver to trundle along the gutter in the face of oncoming traffic, with nothing but a smile and an indicator flashing by way of apology. In Thailand there were obvious signs of people being hard up, but it was a mobile kind of poverty in which you felt that a person was never far away from attaining a bit of work that could tide them over for a while. In Cambodia this is not the case – a perpetual cycle of hunger and want seems to exist everywhere. Barely any of the western-style signs and advertisement boards that are abundant in Thailand line the road here. Occasionally an extravagant sign will advertise the “People’s Party” alongside a smiling image of their Prime Minister, Hun Sen – as if the people need reminding of the fact that the same bloke has been in charge for the last thirty years.

The land between Poipet and Siem Reap is an infinite patchwork of dusty fields in which scrawny cattle are lead by slightly-built farmers in straw hats, past pools of filthy brown water where children play. Mopeds labour to pull massively overloaded farm trailers along the road and are frequently overtaken by cyclists or stray dogs. The Angkor Wat ruins that we seek are about a thousand years old, and the first impression gained from the coach window suggests that not much has progressed since then.
After another four hours we arrived in Siem Reap and were ferried over to our guesthouse, Baphuon Villa. It’s a beautiful place and at first I thought it must have been some old French ambassador’s house from the colonial days, before the owner told me it wasn’t that old and that he’d decorated the whole place two years ago, which shows you what I know about architecture. We went to the cashpoint and drew out US dollars – because of the weakness of the Cambodian Riel as a currency, dollars are universally used instead. Even more confusingly, shopkeepers will hand out small change in the form of a wad of Cambodian notes, so that you’re dealing with two currencies at the same time.
Both Hollie and me have been in poor health over the last couple of days since the long sleeper train journey down from Chiang Mai. Not for the first time, Friday was a day of doing very little but rejuvenating. The heat in the south of Thailand and here is unmanageable after a couple of hour’s exposure. The most productive way of dealing with this is to get up just after dawn and try to power through until about 3pm, after which you end up collapsing exhausted on the bed in your hotel, with the fan whirring above your head and palm leaves tapping against the window.
When we did venture out on Friday evening it was to the very Khao San-inspired “pub street” where a hundred or more different food joints compete for the custom of tourists from all over the world. A lot of these places are shady and grotty looking, and after our recent bouts of illness we didn’t much fancy coming down with food poisoning. In the end we went with a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen – Khmer being the ancient civilization who built the Angkor temples and ruled much of South-East Asia in the middle ages, along with the name of the national language. We both ate a stunning baked dish, almost in the style of a lasagne crossed with dauphinoise potato. Apparantley it’s a traditional Khmer style recipe and we need to get doing our research into it so that we can try and recreate it back home.
Competition time: It turns out that a very famous rockstar ate at the Khmer kitchen whilst on a visit to the Angkor temples. Can you guess from Hollie’s impression who that rockstar is??? The first to comment with the correct answer gets to pick the next “song of the day” for whatever reason they choose.  Were you hoping for a better prize!? It’s all we got out here!

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Tomorrow we visit Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples.

Tommy and Hollie x