Siem Reap was the last place we visited on our SE Asia trip. We took a taxi from our hotel in Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. I had read somewhere that this trip was not for the fainthearted but I figured it couldn’t be that bad. It might seem rather decadent to take a taxi but the cost for a 6 hour trip was only 120 American dollars. It should have been 90 but we were travelling on Saturday 15th April which happened to be the middle day of three days celebration for the Cambodian New Year. We didn’t do our research! This event was massive and everyone (except us) became involved in the activity of firing enormous water guns, or hoses at passers by, either on foot, tuk tuk or moped. They gave everyone a good shot of water and a dowsing of flour. I have not got to the bottom of this tradition, but if I ever find out I’ll let you know. The whole thing escalated as the day went on and by the evening it was a full blown battle. Geoff and I kept our sightseeing to the daytime, when all the revellers were sleeping. There was not much evidence of over-consumption of alcohol, and we only saw the riot police once so it was an orderly event on the whole. Nobody got hurt — they only got wet and sticky.
Our taxi driver, Vanay, was friendly and happy. He spoke very little English but nodded and smiled at everything we said. He had two mobile telephones that constantly pinged and beeped. He spoke on the phone — not hands free — and sent several text messages, all whilst driving along a two-lane main road at furious speed, weaving in and out of the traffic, overtaking cars, buses, bicycles and mopeds and honking his horn every single time he passed the latter of these. It was hair raising and nerve wracking. The trip was 342 km and for every single one of those kilometres my heart was in my mouth. The sad thing about the journey was the amount of plastic rubbish we witnessed on the sides of the road, the animals grazing amongst the empty bottles and bags. I don’t think there was even a 100 metre stretch that was clear of it. Come on Cambodia . . . sort this out if you can. We made a couple of stops on the way. The first one was for Vanay to hose down the car, for no apparent reason, it didn’t seem dirty. We thought he was stopping for fuel but no. ‘Would madam like the toilet?’ he grinned. I declined as we’d only been on the road half an hour and had not even left the outskirts of Phnom Penh! The second stop was at a popular roadside cafe/shop/toilet area, which was nothing like a UK motorway services except for the tat they had for sale there, hats, plastic toys, cheap toiletries etc., you know the sort of thing I mean. There were some impressive dragon fruit though, for less than a pound (5000 riel). I found the money very confusing and couldn’t get used to spending thousands or millions on something that in sterling was very little money. At the the third stop, Vanay unloaded a large box from the boot of the car and passed it to an ‘associate’ who had arrived by moped, not sure what he was delivering but the mind boggles. There was more room for our luggage after that stop. At the last stop he delivered another package in a plastic bag, which had been nestled on the floor of the car beside him, in the front. I thought it was his lunch but obviously not. A young boy and girl came up beside our taxi on their moped, money exchanged hands and then they were given the package. Hmmm… interesting.
Siem Reap was buzzing with New Year activities as we drove into the city. The taxi was sprayed with water from hoses and everyone ran about the streets excited and happy to be soaked or soak others. We were glad to reach the haven of our hotel, the Chateau d’Angkor La Residence. Our room was again a suite with kitchenette and sitting room. There was even a washing machine so I was able to do a wash, which dried on our balcony in no time. It was still very hot so we took a swim before eating in the hotel dining room. We did this each night while staying here, mainly to avoid the party goers in the streets. It was fun to watch them from the safely of the hotel balcony. I thought I had captured some video of the water fights but sadly they’re all rubbish. You’ll have to use your imagination. Sorry. Lots of noise, water, fun and laughter. . .
One morning at the hotel we were visited by a group of dancers. They told the story of a young deer being caught by hunters. That’s about all I can tell you. Guests and staff at the hotel threw money at them which they collected in baskets and naturally we joined in throwing notes of thousands of riel (it was all monopoly money to me). I noticed that the staff were throwing HUNDREDS of notes at them, great wads at a time, how generous I thought. However, later that day when we walked to the museum there were people selling wads of notes, 10,000 riel (£2) I think they were. It was obviously some kind of tradition to have fake money to bandy about the place. ‘I hope the dancers at the hotel realise that the money we threw at them was real riel!’ I said to Geoff.
We wanted to take a car to Angkor Wat but were advised not to do this until Monday when the festival would be over. So on Sunday we visited the museum, a walk away from our hotel. Air conditioned and very well set out, we walked around for a couple of hours looking at various exhibits and watching short films about the history of Cambodia, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Thom Wat. Geoff was far more interested in it all than I was, I’m ashamed to say, it all left me rather cold. I couldn’t get enthusiastic at all. Perhaps I would be more excited about visiting the actual sites.
We arranged to leave the hotel at 7.30 on the morning, for our visit to the temples. ‘The earlier the better,’ said the receptionist. Our driver and guide, Khoshal, took us first to buy tickets from the Angkor Wat ticket office located in the city, they took our photographs and handed us our personalised passes for, I think, five temples. It was a short drive to Angkor Wat and the receptionist was absolutely right to tell us to leave early. It was already heaving with people in the car park and by the time we left, two hours later, you couldn’t put a pin between the visitors or the parked vehicles. The lovely Khoshal, parked up and waited for us.
We had to walk through a rather large commercial area with a great deal of stalls selling souvenirs as well as food and drinks, rather as one is forced to walk through duty free at any airport before you can find a place to just sit and wait to board the plane. We didn’t stop at this point but just followed other people who appeared to be heading in the right direction for the temple of Angkor Wat. It was an impressive sight, reached by walking along a causeway over the man made lake that surrounded the temple, like a moat. It is impossible to imagine how many people (slaves?) it took to build this huge, extraordinary monument. Although it has been restored to some extent, the pathways, steps and corridors were in places precarious. We walked from one side to the other and then all the way around. It was interesting to see that only a few people ventured around to the rear of the building. We were almost alone, compared to the front which was as packed as Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night.
There was some kind of community exhibition on, we couldn’t quite work out what is was all about, but there were thousands of small hearts on sticks stuck in the ground like fields of flowers and also pinned on strings and hanging on square frames. Quite a sight to see. I think they were all made by school children.
From Angkor Wat we went to Angkor Thom, which as one time was the largest city in the world. It has many gateways, causeways and temples, the most well known being Bayon. The driver parked up just opposite the Bayon temple and waited for us. I was flagging in the heat but Geoff was keen to look all around. There had been some kind of festival there the night before and they were dismantling the ‘scenery’. It was odd to see the golden polystyrene Buddah, rocks and temple parts being loaded onto the back of a truck. The remnants of the flowers were wonderful.
We stopped at one more small temple before visitingTa Prohm, the temple of the trees, which was to be our final stop of the day. This, I found most impressive. We were dropped at the West Gate and Khoshal said he would meet us at the East Gate, we just had to walk straight through, which took us about an hour. The trees have grown through the ancient walls and are now make up an intricate part of the architecture. The most famous one was almost impossible to photograph without a tourist posing in front of it, but we did our best.
I’m truly glad we went to Angkor Wat and all the other temples, but I think I prefer more modern history and visiting places where I can imagine how people lived and I just cannot relate to these ancient times, although I can when it comes to ancient Roman history. Is that because there are so many films about Rome and not about Cambodia?
This concludes my posts about our trip to SE Asia, except to say that I found the money very confusing indeed. We flew back to Bangkok where we had a one night stay before flying back to the UK. We had no baht left when we reached the hotel and Geoff had some work to do. I left him and went down to the hotel shop to buy milk, teabags and a few snacks to see us through. I had forgotten they didn’t take cards in the shop. They showed me to the cash machine outside and I promptly withdrew 10,000 baht thinking it was about £50. Oh dear me. Geoff was slightly horrified when I told him. ‘You’ve just drawn about £250 from the bank and we’re not even here for 24 hours!’ he said. Oh well. . . next time he can go for the milk and teabags. 😂