I love how much plans can change at the drop of a hat.
It all began during my one night stay in Da Lat. I had arranged to meet up with my Canadian mates Reid and Riley on April 13th for Songkran in Bangkok before they fly back to their home country. Songkran is the celebration of the Thai new year and, as such, is probably the busiest time of year in Thailand.
With this in mind I did something I rarely bother doing; I decided to plan ahead. A quick look on Sky Scanner for anything around my arrival date gave me a shock. Flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok were around three or four times more expensive than at any other time of the year. I found myself faced with three options.
The first option was to bite the bullet and pay well over the odds. This would be the most convenient option, but truth be told, I’ve spent a little more than I’d have liked recently and my wallet was still feeling the effects of my Easy Rider tour.
Secondly, I could pay the normal cost and arrive in Bangkok five or six days early. Now I love Bangkok, but spending 10 days there at a time didn’t really appeal, especially as I’d already been there twice in less than two months.
The final, and by far the most attractive option, was to travel overland from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok via a series of buses. On paper it sounds like hell, I admit. However I set off in enough time to allow me five days in Cambodia, which I decided to split between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The bus journey would be split into three sections: from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, then two nights later from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap where I would spend three nights. The final leg of my journey would be a two hour bus from Siem Reap to Poipet, where I would cross the Thai border and get a six hour train to Bangkok which would cost less than, wait for it…£1.
Whilst five days is nowhere near enough time to discover all of Cambodia, it gave me plenty of time to see the main sights: namely the Killing Fields and Angkor Wat. After avoiding numerous border scams and taking my rightful place behind the locals who bribed passport control, I arrived in the country for a jam-packed five days.
Tuol Sleng Prison
The sightseeing began at Phnom Penh’s rather grimly named Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – a former prison where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of innocent Cambodian civilians. Entry was $2, which is insanely cheap when you consider we spent a couple of hours in there.
You may have noticed I quoted the price in US dollars there. In Cambodia, the preferred currency is indeed US dollars, although the local “riel” is accepted too. This can be particularly confusing, as any change under a dollar is given in riel whilst over a dollar it tends to be paid in US. When you bear in mind that 4,000 riel is equivalent to $1, receiving a wallet full of 100 riel notes in change can make your pockets rather heavy for very little gain. On the plus side, it makes great tips as you look very generous when in reality, you’re probably giving next to nothing!
Back to the prison: this is not a place for the faint hearted to visit, as the photographs and accounts detailed here were exceptionally graphic and really tough to comprehend. As was the case with the Vietnam War, my knowledge of Cambodian history was shamefully limited so this was to be a particularly eye opening experience.
Reading tales of families including women and children who were imprisoned and forced to admit to crimes they didn’t commit was particularly shocking as were the accounts of some of the seven people who actually survived the prison. When you consider that people were imprisoned in their thousands and only seven survived, it really hits home just how brutal Pol Pot’s regime really was.
As an aside, whilst we were leaving the prison we were approached by a guy who appeared to run the German restaurant and beer garden just outside. He tried his best to lure us into his establishment with the promise of good food and cheap booze. Now I don’t know about you, but we thought this was in particularly bad taste; he was essentially trying to capitalise on the tourism brought about by such an atrocity. I may be overreacting, but I thought it was really low and certainly won’t be visiting his place in the future.
The Killing Fields
After politely declining the tasteless guy’s offer, the five of us jumped straight into our crowded tuk tuk just in time to avoid the heavens opening for all of 15 minutes. I haven’t seen such a sudden downpour for, well, about three months.
After 20 minutes of negotiating bumpy roads (not recommended in the back of a tuk tuk) and holding our breath as we passed through the truly terrible stench of the river in Phnom Penh, we arrived at the very dry killing fields. How this could possibly be so dry after such heavy rain just a kilometre or two down the road I had absolutely no idea. John Kettley; I am not.
Entrance was $6 which included an audio tour. The audio tour made it a lot easier to understand our surroundings, and included stories and speeches from victims of the Khmer Rouge. It was one thing reading about these, but actually hearing it from the mouths of the people who lived through the atrocities was truly harrowing.
The killing fields were just as, if not more graphic and disturbing than Tuol Sleng. Exhibitions included glass cases containing clothing from the victims buried in mass graves, and a case containing human bones, teeth and skulls. These items are constantly appearing on the surface following heavy rain and floods. I really don’t envy the person whose job is to gather all this up after the floods.
The tour ended at the “Stupa”, a building that was raised to help commemorate and pay respects to the masses of civilians who lost their lives at these particular killing fields. I saw one tourist having her photograph taken outside the Stupa. Again, maybe I’m overreacting but I feel that some photographs could do without the beaming smile she had on her face or better still, don’t require a person to be in them at all. Each to their own I guess.
I’ll be honest, I struggle to be enthusiastic about temples at the best of times. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the architecture, or the relevance and history behind them – I just feel like I’ve seen so many in the past couple of months that I’m truly “templed out”.
Angkor Wat, however, was to be different I decided. I’d heard some people say that seeing the temples was “life changing” and although I felt that was probably a bit over the top, I was keen to check them out for myself so I booked a tuk tuk to take me to Siem Reap and Cambodia’s main tourist attraction for sunrise.
After parting with $18 for the tuk tuk and $20 for the day pass (a fairly expensive day out for South East Asia!), I arrived at the temples at 5.20am. It was still pitch black and the headlights of hundreds of other tuk tuks suggested that many other people had the same plan. I picked my spot at the lake and prepared to take as good a photo as I could muster on my humble iPhone.
6.30am rolled round and it was well and truly light but one thing was missing: the sun. Now I don’t know about you, but to me this is a fairly important part of a sunrise. Sadly it wasn’t to be, as I’d booked to visit Angkor Wat on a cloudy day more suited to Manchester than Cambodia. Once again, John Kettley; I am not.
I remember visiting the Taj Mahal in 2010 and being fairly underwhelmed. I’d heard so much hype around it that I went into it with unrealistic expectations. I feel I gave myself a bit of “Taj Mahal fever” with Angkor Wat too, which is admittedly my own fault entirely. I met a number of people who had three day passes to see every single temple in the area – but I can safely say that a one day pass and the short tour circuit was more than enough for me.
I do feel a bit of the magic is taken away from a group of stunning structures when it feels like every time you stop someone is after your money. Whenever the tuk tuk pulled up at a different temple I was mobbed by a group of locals of varying ages either begging for money, or trying to sell me books, postcards, tablecloths and much more.
I understand that Cambodia is by no means a rich country, but when I find myself being given an unofficial tour of a temple that I didn’t ask for and then being asked for a donation afterwards, I struggle to willingly part with my money.
Despite all that has been said above, I would recommend getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise providing you have checked a weather forecast – I’m sure it’s absolutely stunning!
With four days of Songkran madness now on the cards, all I can say is that it was a short and sweet visit to Cambodia. I’m more than confident we will meet again in the not so distant future.