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Little wobbly boats on the Mekong

We had set our alarm to make sure we were up on time but at 6:30 a loud bash on the door was accompanied by Qui shouting time to get up. Where Trung had been all politeness and smiles, Qui is definitely more gruff and basic. He is probably used to countless numbers of people oversleeping and causing mayhem for him. We were chased again at 7:15, presumably because we had not put in a show for breakfast.

Downstairs most people were already sitting around waiting to go. I think the tour group was split here as it was yesterday because Qui kept talking about the people going to Cambodia, a smaller section of the overall group. Why people would have sat for a couple of hours on a bus to get to Chau Doc to only go back is beyond me but there is no accounting for folk! Our bags were loaded onto a cyclo which disappeared off down to the river. No explanation was given about what was happening or where our bags were going, another example of Qui’s less than great guiding skills.

Eventually we were off too and we caught up with our bags on the river front. We then went down a steep set of steps to the water’s edge to be confronted with the sight I had expected yesterday. There was one big boat with an engine onto which we put our main packs. Around it, about ten small fishing boats were all queued up waiting, with us their obvious intended cargo. These boats were small, wobbly contraptions guided by small but wiry women with oars. I am wary in little boats like these and knew that I had a couple of uneasy hours ahead of me. It wobbled and rocked as I got in, and this was with the benefit of being able to hold on to the bigger boat for balance.

Our oarswoman did her best to chat away to us but with us speaking no Vietnamese and her English limited to “me number 1” they were short conversations. She jabbered away endlessly with all the other women on the other boats all of whom seemed to get a bit irritated by her continual chat. We set off onto the river with me nervously expecting us to capsize at any moment, daft really because the people here hop on and off these boats all day with big heavy loads and they are fine.

We were rowed out to a little fish farm which gave me the first taste of what was to come today – getting in and out of these little boats at small pontoons with nothing to hold onto to stabilise yourself in the process – aaaggghhh! Stef had done his usual and turned around in the boat to take a photo along the way creating a big wobble and getting shouts from me of “stop it” and “stay still”. The next big wobble was getting out onto the pontoon while trying to dodge the piles of dog poo at the same time.

The fish farms were similar in construction to those in Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam. They were floating houses with open central “courtyards” and nets underneath to keep the fish in. Here the water is about six metres deep at this time of year and they have about six thousand (it could have been six hundred thousand but I can’t remember) fish in each farm. They are fed fish meal which the farmers make themselves, a very smelly process. The meal is worked into pellets which are then fed to the fish. I am not sure if the people here get any financial benefit from having groups of people tromping around their farms, there was certainly no evidence of cash changing hands. All the fish farms seemed to have electricity and TV aerials were again a common part of the skyline. The river acted as an open sewer as well as a source of water.

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Friendly Mekong people

We were soon back on the boats and on to our next stop, a small village with a Moslem mosque. The fishing boats carrying the tourists were all fighting each other to get to the quay. It was again as if we were back in Halong Bay although the boats here were on a much smaller scale. This is where the rowers got their tip and a young Finnish couple massively over tipped by giving fifty thousand dong for the half hour ride, probably more than the woman was paid for the ride. She was jumping up and down waving the money around, and other women who had generous tips soon followed suit. We both felt that all they did with these tips was to create an expectation from future groups leading to tourist driven inflation. Ah well.

It was another wobbly hop onto dry land and really just another retail opportunity. There was a small workshop with one lady weaving and I am sure she starts and stops as the tour groups arrive. In front of her there is a small shop where you can buy textiles. Steps lead up to a concrete path which links the house up to the main road. There I was surprised to see a tarmac road with traffic whizzing up and down. From the water it looks like a small quiet village that would have a dirt track road and no more.

Off to the right is a small very clean mosque painted white and blue. It seemed totally at odds compared to the poor ramshackle houses around it. Our oarswoman followed us up and onto the road pointing out where the mosque was, we think in an attempt to try and boost her tip. Inside, the mosque was very simple with no ornamentation, presumably so as not to deflect from the important business of prayer. Prayer mats were laid out on the floor but folded over.

Going back to the boat we stopped to watch some of the local kids playing volleyball in a court under the concrete walkway. A couple of Aussie girls from the boats had joined in. I had expected that we would be bundled back into the little fishing boats but we were sent off with a different man to a bigger boat. He kept saying there was not enough room in the boat for everyone but we had no real idea what he was talking about. We were taken across the river where we had to step off the front of our boat and climb in through the window of a larger boat, a sort of small river cruiser. My “boat” nerves were well and truly fraying by this stage.

The cruiser soon set off and the process began of sorting our visas for Cambodia. The chap on the last boat had taken our passports but was now nowhere to be seen. Stef rightly got concerned but we were reassured that all would be OK and that our passports would turn up at the border. We filled out our visa applications, handed over cash and then spent the next three hours cruising along the Mekong watching the world go by. I was glad we had ended up on this boat where you could at least move about if you wanted to. Kids along the river bank shouted and waved hello as we went and it was a relaxing experience.

We finally made it to the Vietnam border and the boat pulled up at the riverbank. There was no pontoon or jetty to get off onto just a jump to shore and then a short but steep climb up to the path above. There was still no sign of our passports and we were told to leave our main packs on the boat while we went off for lunch. We finally pieced together that we had ended up on the boat from a different group, who had lunch on board the boat, because our boat was too full. There were no guides in sight telling us what was happening and what to do, we simply had someone from one of the cafes by the border telling us to come for lunch.

We were both wary of what was happening and fully expected the boat with our bags to start to set sail with our bags still on board. We headed back closer by so we could at least try to hop on board if it did start to move. Next we were told that we needed to get our big bags off the boat. Armies of small kids appeared with their hands going everywhere. Stef wandered off to do I don’t know what and totally ignored me when I was trying to talk to him about how to get our bags off. This combined with the kids was making me lose my cool, not the thing to do in Asia!

In the end a couple of the kids hoisted our bags up the slope for us. They were pretty strong and our bags must have weighed almost as much as them! We finally got our passports back, went through the Vietnamese border and into no-man’s land. Here we had to get onto a different boat to continue up to Cambodia. This last boat was meant to be an express ferry up the river but there wasn’t much “express” about it. At the Cambodian border we had to get off again, this time there was a proper landing stage which was the first and only one of the day. The boat tried to leave without a Finnish couple who for some reason took about twice as long as everyone else to go through passport control.

We then had another couple of hours meandering up river. The guide had changed again to one from Sinh café’s Cambodian counterpart. He was quite entertaining and was on hand to change currency which was useful. By this time though my patience was wearing thin. We were meant to have reached our hotel in Phnom Penh by 3:00pm but this time came and went and we were still on the water. Eventually we got to where the boat stopped and we did our last “walking the plank” impression of the day and transferred into a bus. By this time I regretted that we hadn’t paid extra to get a boat all the way to Phnom Penh because I suspect that that was the express option.

We were both hot, tired, sticky, thirsty and irritable by the time we got on the bus. It was a small one and there was only just enough room for everyone and their bags. The road was pretty awful with lots of bumps and holes along the way. There are signs of improvements underway but it looks like it will be a long and slow process. I think it was about another ninety minutes before we made it to Phnom Penh. Along the way we passed through lots of small villages like many we have already seen in South East Asia, very poor looking bamboo shacks raised up on stilts.

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Heading into Cambodia, aided by eager little porters

In Phnom Penh we were dropped at the Capitol Café, the Sinh café counterpart. We had been given the expected sales pitch on the bus about where to stay together with the “you stay here, very safe, can walk around at night OK with no problem” patter. The local tour companies obviously read Lonely Planet as much as the foreigners as they had picked up on the LP warning that some parts of town are dodgy at night. The place where the bus stopped was manically busy. It was next door to a market and the streets were solid with traffic and people and lots of western tourists were all over the place.

We had decided that we wanted to stay somewhere a little quieter and a bit more comfortable than we had for the last two nights. We got a tuk tuk down to the Star Royal Hotel on the river which seemed a little soulless on the outside but was comfortable on the inside. Stef did his usual scout of the rooms which are large and clean and will do very nicely.

Long, cool showers left us both feeling refreshed and we headed out to eat at the Ponlok Restaurant. It was recommended to us by the hotel but as we walked in and saw familiar faces from the boat ride we realised it was also in Lonely Planet. The food was OK but not great. One dish we ordered was a shrimp salad and they came on the plate, raw, with lots of ice and salady bits. Needless to say we didn’t eat them!

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Royal palace, Phnom Penh
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Phnom Penh streets
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Chilling Tuol Sleng, aka "S-21", a school turned into an "interrogation" centre by the Khmer Rouge

Breakfast was served in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, a cool and breezy place to sit and watch the world waking up. Down in the river dozens of fishermen were out in the boats, casting their nets and leaving them to run downstream while they held their position. It was a pretty sight to see especially set against the backdrop of the flags of the world that line the riverfront promenade.

Our hotel was close to the Royal Palace which was our first stop of the day. It was very warm already, despite only being 9:30 in the morning. From the outside the Palace looks spectacular. The style is similar in some ways to what we have seen in China, Laos and Vietnam with low hung sloping roofs but here the ornamentation is different. The tiles are painted yellow so that they glint and glimmer in the sun and at the end of the roof curly decorative parts reach skyward like flicks of flame running away from the building.

There were guards outside who looked gruff and stern but they were friendly enough and were happy to have their photo taken. They pointed us down the road to where the entrance is and off we toddled. I had not expected to be able to walk around much of the Palace grounds and large sections are sealed off but you can still explore and enjoy the beauty of some of the buildings. The first one you come to is the throne room, a large airy room with a cooling breeze blowing through. It was rectangular in shape with the throne positioned on a raised platform at the far end, out of reach of passing tourists. There were no other chairs in the rest of the room so I suppose people either stand or sit on the floor.

To the left of the throne room was an unusual iron house given to one of the Kings by Napoleon of France. It looks oddly out of place set against the backdrop of the traditional Palace buildings and it reminded both of us of the iron church in Arica, Chile, which had been designed and built by Eiffel. It somehow looked cold and uninviting although ornate at the same time. I suspect that it must get pretty hot inside with all this strong sun beating down on it.

A small passage leads through into a bigger courtyard, enclosed by a colonnaded gallery. Frescos decorate the walls of the colonnade, colourful scenes depicting tales from the Ramayana. The courtyard itself is also full of colour with plants in pots providing a setting for the various monuments and stupas it houses as well as its main centrepiece, the Silver Pagoda. Italian marble staircases lead up to the pagoda which is a temple. Its name comes from its floor which is covered in silver tiles.

Carpets cover the tiles to protect them from the multitudes of tourists who come to have a look. While I can understand the need, to me it detracted from what must be a magical sight with reflections bouncing around the temple between its floor and the collection of bits and pieces that are on show. Here they have an emerald Buddha, made from such fine green crystal that it is almost translucent. Display cases around the temple housed different royal and religious artefacts, a rare find as the Khmer Rouge destroyed over 60% of the palace’s riches. Behind the temple is a large model of Angkor Wat, a sight we will see in a few days time. They also had an area where some crafts people were still plying their trade, a man painting religious murals and a woman sat weaving away.

By this time the heat had got to us and we went in search of a cooling drink. This area looks like ex-pat and embassy territory and the bars were very western in look and feel. Refreshed we headed towards the National Museum, stopping en route at a bookshop to stock up on reading material. The National Museum is a large building set around a courtyard but again built in traditional style with large sloping roofs. As with the Palace, no photos were allowed inside which is a shame as they had some incredible pieces of furniture and ceramics as well as a large collection of statues, many of which had come from Angkor sites.

In the afternoon we took a tuk tuk out to the infamous Tuol Sleng S.21 complex. Set in the middle of a residential area it was originally a school that was turned into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge. Basically it was a torture chamber and death camp with only seven of its inmates surviving. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge seem to have been a barbaric lot, often turning on their own ranks and imprisoning, torturing and killing them too.

Inside some of the rooms have been left as they were when the buildings were an interrogation centre. What used to be school rooms were subdivided into tiny cells some with windows, some without. I couldn’t decide whether it would be good to have the window or not. The fresh air would probably be welcome but the heat of the sun beating down into your cell would probably be quite unbearable as there was no space to move into shadows.

Most of the buildings have now been turned into an exhibit with pictures of the people who lost their lives here. The Khmer Rouge, apparently like the Nazi’s kept good records of their victims both before and after torture/death. These galleries made for quite a haunting visit. People of all ages were shown in the pictures from young children to the elderly and, strangely, some were smiling. I overheard a guide telling his group that the guards would tickle the inmates to make them smile, take their pictures and then send them to their superiors as a way of demonstrating how happy the inmates were to be there and to be helping out the regime. They also had displays showing some of the torture techniques used.

The whole of the top floor of one building has now been turned into a gallery with brief stories from different people affected by the turmoil here. Some were soldiers in the Khmer Rouge, others were victims or members of their families. The stories were also harrowing and clearly showed that it was a time when you couldn’t really trust anyone else. Such a sense of fear pervaded society that it seemed that sometimes the only way to survive yourself was by informing on your family, friends or neighbours.

As we left I dragged Stef into a fair-trade shop across the street which was selling locally made handicrafts. I bought a small silk bag, a bargain at just a couple of dollars. Our total spend though was soon increased. Outside Tuol Sleng some very badly deformed and disfigured beggars were hanging around hoping for a handout. Stef gave some money to one and soon they were all following him. They were very sad cases, we think victims of the war either directly or indirectly through land mines.

We made our way back to our hotel and popped into the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) on the corner for a drink or two. It was totally out of place here being very smart and swanky and I could picture groups of journalists all sitting around, sharing stories and rushing to finish their copy in time for their editor’s deadlines. They have an open air rooftop bar and we sat here watching life, and a man walking his elephant along the river bank, go by drinking a couple of very good smoothies.

At the FCC Stef had also had lassi, an Indian drink with yoghurt and ice, and not long after we got back to our hotel it started to do nasty things to his guts. He was in a pretty bad state for a while and must have been feeling poorly as he declined the opportunity to go for food. I headed out on my own to the Cambodia club, opposite the FCC, and settled in with my book. About five minutes later a power cut sent everything dark, except for the FCC which must have its own generator. This, and the quality of the food that eventually arrived, made me wish that I had gone back to the FCC for my dinner!

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Back on the buses
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Bus hostess (makes a welcome change from a lad in a greasy t-shirt!)
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Empty Cambodian countryside

Stef was still decidedly not right this morning, a bad omen as this afternoon we have to take the bus up to Siem Reap and the last thing you want on a bus is dodgy guts. He spent the morning relaxing in the room while I checked our mail and went to get cash from the bank. It seemed strange to be walking around a city like this on my own. I didn’t really need to go far but even so I was wary of the people around me and tried to ensure I looked like I knew where I was going. It was daft really because anyone can tell from the clothes you are wearing that you are here as a tourist and not part of the expat community.

At midday we got a tuk tuk up to the Mekong Express Limousine bus service, a very grand name for a coach company. There was no bus station as such, just a couple of buses parked at the corner of the road outside the bus company’s office. They seemed to be pretty well organised and everyone was given a ticket for their bags creating the feeling at least that they would be secure. A hostess was on board the bus ready to welcome you for the journey. She seemed friendly enough but was a bit shy and wary of having her photo taken.

Soon we were on our way driving through very flat landscape with small clusters of palm trees dotted along the way. It reminded both of us of the Chaco territory in Paraguay. We passed through a few tiny settlements, really no more than collections of wooden houses strung along the clay road with a little market at the heart of it. The wooden houses in the towns, as well as those along the road, are very rural. They are raised on stilts with bamboo awnings and a few trees near by to provide shade. Livestock and chickens potter about freely in the yards outside. Bird flu is still very prevalent in this part of the world so the chickens in particular were always given a wide berth by us.

The people here didn’t really seem to have an awful lot to call their own. The kids entertained themselves with whatever they could find on the road side but quite often they were running around with no clothes, or very little. Politics was ever present though and we regularly passed signs for offices of the three main parties - CPP, Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy. These were always hoisted above sandy paths leading to modest wooden huts. There were just too many of them to make and sense really and must have been more to let the local population know that the parties were here and still watching them.

At about the half way point we stopped for a break at a large open plan restaurant which seemed to have been designed solely to cater for the trade coming from the busses. If there was a food menu it didn’t appear and we just had a drink waiting to be called back onto the bus again. A few more hours of flat countryside passed us by before we reached Siem Reap at around 6pm. We’d been given conflicting times of when the bus would arrive so we ended up getting to Siem Reap earlier than we had expected, and therefore earlier than our pick up from our hotel had been arranged for.

I suppose we were really met by nothing unusual for Asia, a lot of Asians trying to make money. The bus had parked up behind a fence but as soon as we got off we were besieged by tuk tuk drivers all wanting to take us to our hotel. They all seemed to be operating at the same rate, around R500, for a ride to town which is less than 10p. It just didn’t make sense so you knew that somehow they would make up their money. They were a relentless and noisy bunch and it made it virtually impossible to think or talk. I could feel myself getting irritated and wound up by them, not the thing to do, so just followed Stef as he kept walking around the bus politely trying to shake them off.

A brief respite arrived in the form of another bus and off they went like a swarm of bees to hound a whole new bus load of people. At the same time a chap arrived from our hotel carrying a sign for Mrs Algen, very apologetic that we had had to wait for him even though we explained several times that the bus had arrived earlier than we had thought it was and it was not his fault. He drove us out to the City River Hotel and I finally managed to orient myself on our map in Lonely Planet. It was yet another case of a bus not stopping at any of the bus stations they have on their map so it was just as well we hadn’t put ourselves at the mercy of a tuk tuk!

Our hotel is a new looking, smart but also somewhat characterless affair. We’d booked in for a double room but tonight they only had the suite available which they gave us for the normal room rate of US$50. It has a large dining/conference table, a large leather settee, comfy bed and good bathroom and even better it has HBO on the TV, a film channel we have come to love! As we were freshening up the phone rang to say that Beuk, the guide Tim and Erica recommended to us was downstairs.

I think we both instantly warmed to Beuk. We were met by a warm friendly smile and he came across as a very knowledgeable guide who spoke good English. He clearly knows the history of the Angkor sites and we both knew that we were in for a couple of very intensive, interesting and informative days in his care. He created a very positive impression on both of us. There are simply loads of different temple sites that you can visit, some close by and easy to get to but others more remote. NASA satellites have scanned the area so they now feel they know where most of the temples are but I am sure that more will still get uncovered in the coming years.

Ideally we would have planned our temple tours to follow the chronology of the history, the characters involved and the building process but with only three days to play with that simply isn't possible to do. Even so we have a packed agenda of places to visit and if nothing else we will get a good taste of this unique part of the world.

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Itinerant potters
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Monks on a local truck (no cab)
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Sharing lunch with the villagers
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Not sharing his lunch with anyone
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Hundreds of Buddhist nuns at Angkor

Our suspicion that our hotel was mainly geared towards the Asian market was confirmed at breakfast as we were the only non Chinese, Korean or Japanese people at breakfast. It’s weird how you can tell when you walk into a place what its target market is even though there are no visible signs to pre-warn you.

Beuk met us as arranged at 8:00am and took us through town to the main ticket gate for the Angkor Sites. They are a World Heritage Site but seem to be run and managed by an overseas hotel chain. From what we learned over the next few days very little of the money you pay to see the sites actually ends up being used for their conservation and restoration. The local political machine seems to get its cut, the managing group will obviously take their cut and not a lot else seems to be left over.

As we drove through Siem Reap we started to get a feel for what it was like. You can tell that it used to be just another small town with not much going for it but that this has all been changed with the discovery of the temples and them being turned into the country’s main tourist attraction. Now the town centre is laid out on a grid pattern with new buildings going up all over the place. Most seem to cater for the tourist trade being either hotels, café’s, bars, tour agencies or travel agents. The streets are all being dug up presumably (hopefully!) to lay new water or sewage systems. I would imagine that the local people who used to live here have now been well and truly pushed out of town.

On the edge of town we drove along wide tarmaced roads through large empty tracts of land enclosed by a wire fence. A roundabout came out of nowhere but a sign of the fence next to it explained all. This whole huge site has been earmarked as a new tourist village and soon there will be luxury hotels and all the trappings needed to keep foreign tourists happy. Beuk explained to us that the Angkor sites are already suffering damage due to the current volume of tourists and that within the next two years he anticipates that they will control the number of visitors to each site. It seems at odds then that on the outskirts of town they are planning a massive new development to attract more tourists to the area.

Most of the tourist infrastructure also seems to be foreign owned so although the sites bring in high levels of tourist dollars not much stays within the local economy. The tour guides, hotel staff and vendors obviously get paid but the real money goes out of the country and into the coffers of the international chains that own the hotels and most of the infrastructure. I’m sure that even all the Angkor tourist tat that you can buy is probably made in China rather than locally!

Tourism is Siem Reap’s biggest industry but if you come here hoping to find romantic lost temples hidden away in the dark atmosphere of the jungle you will be disappointed. The temples are fabulous but this is now a mass tourism site which is being well and truly exploited by a wide range of commercial outlets. Everywhere you look there are tour buses packed with Koreans, cyclos with western backpackers, mini vans from the luxury hotels and the odd couple of people who for some mad reason have decided to rent bicycles and cycle between the temple sites, a very hot way to travel.

Running through the centre of town is a river, a small brown trickle at this time of year but one which looks, from the height of the river banks, as if it changes character massively in the height of the rainy season. A large portrait of the king hangs in front of the Royal Residence in readiness for the King’s visit in the next few days. There is a major Buddhist feast day coming up and the king always comes to Angkor to pray and give donations.

With our temple passes in hand we turned around and headed south of town to the Roluos group of temples. Along the way we passed a huge cart being pulled by a couple of Oxen. Hanging off the cart from both sides was a wide selection of different pottery items – pots, bowls, dishes, and moulds for cooking. One of the villages in the west of Cambodia is renowned for its pottery and its people set off with their carts fully laden plying their trade all over the country

Beuk is easy to chat with as we go along and he combines the official tour guide facts, figures and information with his own insights, opinions and local family history. It was so good to have a “real” person as a guide rather than a guide who sticks to the rule book. We had had one of those in India, we nicknamed him Fred, and the contrast is huge. Beuk caught our attention and just the way he relayed information to us had us hooked. And then he would make a joke and burst into laughter with a childlike chuckle that was incredibly infectious.

Finally we made it to the Roluos group of temples, one of the oldest groups of temples which lies to the east of Siem Reap. I won’t even try to describe the temples in detail never mind the history and the stories that accompany them as there is so much history and symbolism in each building. Beuk pointed out to us the various different features – carvings on lintels and pediments, the architecture, building techniques use, purpose of the building, positioning of shrine for men compared to women – as well as telling us about the person who had commissioned the temples to be built.

Temple building was a major industry here for many years and the end results are some pretty incredible feats of engineering. The building materials themselves were hauled long distances with volcanic laterite being used for the main walls and an outer layer of sandstone, bricks or plaster being used as a more decorative layer. One of the reasons that temple building seemed to cease was that they had exhausted the supply of raw materials.

Today most of the temples are echoes of their former selves and are not actively used for their original intended purpose. They still exude an aura of mystery and charm which is only diminished by the number of snap happy tourists with cameras at the ready. Unfortunately some, mainly Korean, have no awareness of other people and they simply walk in front of your line of sight and into your photo. We had many chuckles and shared jokes with Beuk over the next few days about tourists from different nationalities and which were the better ones to work with. Koreans were not near the top of the list of preferred clients!

Each of the temples had its collection of vendors waiting to sell you much needed cool drinks as well as scarves, bracelets, t-shirts, books, bags etc etc. We tried to spread our money and but a little from a couple of people, also opting where we could for what looked like locally made products so we had coconuts to drink rather than coke. We were both glad that Beuk had fixed our itinerary so that we would avoid the usual crowds at the popular sights. The drawback is that we didn’t get to see the temples in the best light for taking pictures but at least we were able to create the illusion of near solitude with most of our pictures.

The three temples in the Ruluos group are Preah Ko, Bakong and Lo Lei. We started at Preah Ko, a small site with three towers used as burial sites. Bakong was larger, the first of several temple “cities” we were to visit and the first of several places where Beuk deciphered parts of the old script carved into the walls. To the right was a small temple which is still in use today. Beuk told us how during the Khmer Rouge time the temple was taken over and turned into a prison and place of torture. Yet again another building of peace, calm and innocence was diverted from its use to become a house of horrors.

At Lo Lei there was one tower still standing but evidence points to another tower having formerly been on the site next to it. Now there is an active Buddhist temple and as we approached we could hear singing and chanting inside. Beuk took us in to have a look. On a low platform a group of monks were sat with the people from the local village on the floor in front of them. They had come together for some sort of special day and offerings of money were on display to the right of the stage. I added to the collection and received some sort of blessing from one of the monks.

We were invited to stay for lunch and, wary of the hygiene of the food, we opted to stay. I found it interesting that Beuk appeared in some ways to be as wary as we were about the food. I’m not sure if that was just his tour guide’s protective instincts kicking in or if it was a genuine concern on his part. Nevertheless we joined the groups of women sitting on the floor and soon had bowls of rice, fish and vegetables laid out before us. This was definitely not part of the standard tourist trail.

In the afternoon we carried on to Angkor Thom, a huge complex back on the north side of town. It is a complete city surrounded by a wide and deep moat which is now overgrown. We entered through the south gate, the bridge over the moat to which is lined with enormous serpent statues one on either side of the road, a recurring feature of many of the temples. One serpent represents demons, the other represents gods. The site is far grander than the temples we saw this morning and Beuk again gave us detailed explanations about the site.

A central piece is the Bayon, a large temple with many different towers with a face carved into each side. We had timed our visit well as the Bayon is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks and nuns at this time of year. Every where you looked you could see shaven headed nuns in white robes and monks in yellow. It created a very special atmosphere but somehow seeing the occasional one with a camera or mobile phone shattered the illusion that we had stepped back in time.

This temple must have been a really stunning sight in its day. Balustrades surrounding the edge of each level and intricate carvings lined the walls. Some of the cloisters had tiled roofs, now long since gone, and the large walkways leading up to the entrances ensure that the temple dominates your view. Beuk drove us down a leafy lane to one of the smaller gates into the Angkor Thom site. This gate had seen better days and the stone elephants that act as the corner supports have started to crumble away. Its most recent claim to fame though is that it is one of the locations used as part of the Lara Croft film, not that you would necessarily recognise it if you’ve seen the film (which I haven’t). It sounds like it was dressed up and changed quiet a bit for the film so you wonder why they didn’t just use a film set instead.

From the gates Beuk took us back into the centre of Angkor Thom and to the terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King. This tall terrace stretched the length of the Phimean Akas, a large open space used for sporting events and competitions. On the terraces would have been large pavilions for the king and high ranking officials to watch the proceedings going on below but now they are empty. The towers that are dotted in a line behind the parade ground were used to resolve disputes with the disenfranchised parties being put separately in a tower. The one that survived the longest without food and water was declared to be in the right!

By this stage in the day we were both well and truly at saturation point. We sat and watched the locals enjoying an afternoon’s picnic in the sun before heading back into town. At the Bayon the ceremony that the monks and nuns had gathered for was now well under way. Rows of orange clad monks and white nuns were sat on the floor in quiet contemplation, each with a small candle burning in front of them.

It had been a very interesting day but a long one too. It had been really hot and sticky throughout the day and we were both feeling pretty knackered. We had a refreshing shower, relaxed for a while in our room and ate in the hotel again, both too tired to go out and explore Siem Reap by night.

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Monks at Angkor Wat
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Fantastic bas-reliefs
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Demons guarding the city
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At the end of a long day

Beuk met us at our hotel for yet another early start. Today he is in his new guide’s uniform, blue trousers and an uncomfortable hot shirt made from thick material. A patch on the side shows him to be an official guide. Some of the other guides are also in their new togs but not all. It seems to be a new rule that is coming in but I don’t think it’s been well received by the guides themselves. The shirts are expensive to buy and being hot I doubt they will take off.

Our first stop was at a travel agent in town to sort out our flights to Malaysia. We had considered going overland through the north of Cambodia and into Thailand. That would be a long day or two of minibuses, tuk tuks, taxi’s and then either the bus or the train down to Kuala Lumpur. It’s certainly do-able but not the nicest sounding of trips so we have opted to fly instead, assuming that we could get sensibly priced flights, which we did.

In terms of temple sites our plan for today was to visit Angkor Wat, the biggest and most famous of all of the temples in the area. We had driven past it yesterday and it is a huge and impressive site. The Wat is surrounded by a water filled moat which is more than 30m across. The reflection of the temple plays on the water’s surface creating an even more magical and mystical feeling than you get from simply looking at the temple itself. The site is simply awe inspiring. To think that this was all created hundreds of years ago and without the benefit of modern lifting equipment is staggering. They must have had thousands of people working on the site at any one time, hauling huge blocks of stone and then carving and decorating them with intricate patterns.

Around the outside of the Wat is a covered cloister. The ceiling tiles are still intact and below these on the inside would have been ornately decorated wooden panels. Beuk showed us where either time or money ran out on the temple and where craftsmen had not made it round to carve and decorate some of the walls. Shrines were frequent and with the upcoming religious feast day the statues have all been dressed in bright colours and fresh offerings are on display.

At one stage we came across an old sage who tells your fortune … for a donation! Beuk went first and then I followed. The fortune teller has a small book made of thick sheets of paper that are stitched together with thick string. You put the book on your head and then put a small stick in between the pages wherever you want to. The sage then reads the text on that page and that is your fortune. It seems that everyone has three goes per donation so if you don’t like the first story you can get an alternative. Beuk’s fortune wasn’t great and I think he used all three lives and still didn’t get a great ending. My luck was better and I struck gold on my first turn. My tale was that when I was born my parents gave me up for adoption. I was adopted by a very wealthy family and have had untold riches and will lead a very happy life. Good for me!

The whole of the Angkor site and the surrounding area was a key battlefield during the time of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the subsequent occupation by Vietnam. No respect was shown because these were religious buildings, they simply made a good base to hide in and to attack the enemy. Beuk showed us many places during the days we spent with him where the resulting bullet holes can be seen, many still with bullets wedged into the stonework. He also shared with us some of his personal experiences of growing up during these war years.

There was no education and people simply had to work all day every day no matter how young, old, healthy or frail they were. The concept of being an individual human being with your own identity was wiped out. Everything was focussed on communal living, cooking, eating. Marriages were dictated by the party and everyone lived in fear - fear of being informed upon, fear of being caught eating food you had smuggled and cooked for yourself, fear of doing anything a party official may take a dislike to. The picture he painted was very bleak and also very humbling. It was another case of us both realising how lucky we have been to have grown up in Western Europe at the time we did. You could sense how ingrained the fear had been and how it must have shaped his character to an extent because even now he was looking around him and watching other people as he spoke.

The film, The Killing Fields, is pretty harrowing but I don’t think it really captures the essence of how much normal day to day family life was destroyed. Family ties and loyalties were eradicated and an individual’s life really did cease to exist. They were reduced down to living in primitive conditions with survival being a daily challenge. Fortunately for Beuk and his family they were country people and were not considered to be so intellectual that they would be a danger. Many people who lived in towns and cities became victims simply by virtue of that fact. The cities were emptied and the people were sent to live and work in the fields. The peasants, the noble hard workers, became the dominant force in people’s lives.

Beuk’s entire family survived this period of Cambodia’s history and he is now working hard to ensure that his children (a boy and a girl) have a better life. With no formal education to speak of he has taught himself English, which he speaks very well, and has learnt the history of the Angkor sites to become a qualified guide. It also sounds like he’s dabbled at a few different jobs before settling on his current life having worked as a tuk tuk driver and also running his own restaurant for a while. You could sit and listen to his stories for hours but we didn’t have time on our side and needed to get going around Angkor Wat.

From the outer cloister you cross an open inner courtyard and then come to a further inner cloister. Here the walls are highly decorated with carvings of scenes from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabarata. One of the characteristics of the temples around Angkor is that Hindu, Buddhist and other religious iconography is all mixed in together. The carvings were extensive revealing many tales if you had someone with you who could point them out to you and translate them.

Angkor Wat is a really complex site with many different interconnecting passages and rooms. I’m sure that if you get an aerial view the site is square and has been subdivided into equal but interconnecting quarters. In turn each of these has also been subdivided so that you get a complex network of quadrangles and courtyards that have symmetry but all overlap and interconnect leading up to the main central square which is a huge building representing Mount Mehru, the centre of the Hindu universe.

Beuk cleverly left us to scale “Mount Mehru” on our own. It was a very steep building, the sides of which were at a 70 degree angle. Only the stairs on one side had a hand rail to steady yourself as you go and it was a bit of a hairy climb, worth it though for the views from the top. From here you can see out over the jungle landscape below seeing Angkor Wat and other temple sites stretching out beneath you. The worst part was coming back down. The slope is that steep that you can only really see the steps when you are right on top of them. It was a definite case of easing down backwards and not looking down to the bottom until you got there.

At Angkor Wat, as elsewhere there were orange robed monks wandering around on their own or in small groups and we would often come across some just sitting around inside. They created the sense with us that we were just interlopers while they really belonged here. As ever they made some good pictures but as with many in Asia they too now ask for payment. Lunch at one of the nearby tourist restaurants gave us chance to cool down and rest and enabled Beuk to catch up with his colleagues.

The first venue for our afternoon was Preah Khan. Whereas Angkor Wat was grand and still largely intact Preah Khan has only comparatively recently been wrestled back from the jungle. You can see and walk through the complex now with no trouble but in many places trees have grown up and around the walls of the buildings and they are now intrinsic to the stability of the ruins. It makes for a darker and more mysterious temple experience but was also a sad sight to see. As Beuk guided us around the site we came across people making more preparations for the imminent feast day. Preah Khan has special importance and the Cambodian King will be here to say prayers and make offerings to the gods. Preparations were ongoing with lights being strung up among the ruins and a steady supply of plates of different offerings being brought into the temple.

By this stage we had all reached saturation point for the day and Beuk looked relieved when we said that we didn’t want to see another 4 temples. As we made our way back into town we drove along the massive eastern baray, a huge former reservoir. It has now been turned back to agriculture and open land and trees and termite mounds dotted the landscape. Beuk pointed more temples out to us as we drove and we stopped briefly at Preah Rup, a small temple again designed to resemble Mount Mehru. Many people come here to watch the sun set but the prospect of waiting an hour or more didn’t appeal much to us so we enjoyed the view for a while before Beuk dropped us back at our hotel where we had a quiet night enjoying the cool of the air con.

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Indy and Lara Croft territory
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Cheekie chappie hitches a ride from his brother
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Yum, crunchy beetles for lunch!

Beuk picked us up as usual for our final day of touring some of the temple sights. Our first port of call was Prasat Kravan, a small site with a few brick built towers. Next up was the more intriguing Ta Prohm. Like Preah Kahn it was mostly overtaken by jungle but it has now been cleared, except for the trees that are now supporting structures. Many people are familiar with this temple without realising it as some of the scenes from the Tomb Raider film were shot here. One of the gates into the temple had a little help from Hollywood’s scenery teams to hide the decay and damage it has suffered over the years.

From the work that Beuk has done with a Japanese photographer he knows some really good places to take shots of the temples. The only problem was waiting for the hordes of Korean tourists to pass by and leave them free of people. Stef started to get a little wound up by them as they seemed to have no idea that there were other people around and kept walking into his line of shot.

From Ta Prohm we went on to Banteay Srei, a small and compact site but one known for the quality of the carvings on the lintels and pediments. It was also unique because it had been constructed by a wealthy and powerful priest not a king like the others. It is about a 20km trip out of town passing through rural villages and scenery along the way. The tourist trade has probably been key to the road being improved last year from a pot holed rough track to a good quality tarmac road. Not so long ago the road was bandit country and before then it was part of the territory of the Khmer Rouge. Beuk told us about a group of backpackers who were attacked and killed along this road a few years ago.

After Banteay Srei we stopped at one of the small rural houses along the road. Most of the houses have a small stall outside from which they sell very sugary sweets wrapped in banana leaves. We watched as the lady of the house transferred a huge wok style pan from a fire, where she had been melting a concoction of sugar and fruit sap, to a cooling stand. She then has to sit and stir it non stop until it cools and thickens and the sweets can be made. We tried some of the warm liquid which was incredibly sweet and bought some sweets before we left to thank them for letting us see what they did.

We headed next for a local silk farm passing some fantastic scenes of normal daily rural life along the way. A chap cycled past us with a pig strapped onto the back of his bike. The pig was pretty well trussed up and seemed to have given up all attempts at a struggle. No doubt it could sense its imminent fate. There were people working in the paddy fields, boys taking a bath in the local reservoir and one poking his head cheekily out of the basket on the back of yet another bike. All typical scenes here but very remote compared to what we are used to at home.

Our next stop was at a silk farm. The farm has been set up to help people in the local villages to acquire new skills and to become self sufficient in producing and weaving silk. They have a range of different type of mulberry bushes that they are growing which presumably produce different qualities of silk. The leaves of the bushes are the staple diet of the silk worms that grow very quickly changing in a few days from tiny worms to big fat juicy ones. When they make their cocoons part of the crop continue on to become moths and continue the reproduction cycle but about 90% are taken to make silk.

The cocoons are boiled in water to start the process of silk making. Raw silk is the outer layer of the cocoon and is a coarser silk. The fine silk comes from the inside of the cocoon. Various stages are then followed in the process to spin the silk into thread, dye it using natural dyes to produce a wide range of colours and then wind it onto bobbins ready for weaving. With some of the patterns they make the skein of silk is dyed with different colours so that when it is woven a pattern emerges. Its pretty clever stuff.

People from the local villages spend a few months here learning every stage of the process. The finished products they make are available in a small shop on the premises and they range from cushion covers to bed spreads, clothes, bags and all sorts of other bits and pieces. The profits are fed back into the scheme to again help the local villagers.

From the silk factory Beuk took us to the western edge of the Western Baray another huge reservoir. A huge dyke was built around the reservoir, and the eastern reservoir which we passed yesterday, to retain the waters from the wet season. It is now a huge flat lake which partially dries out during the year. On the western edge there is a small beach lined with snack stands and places where you can rent a hammock for the day or a large inner tyre to mess about on the water. Stef tested the water and as it was warm was happy to paddle for a while.

A girl came by selling what Beuk tried to make us believe was a tasty local snack but it’s not one that he chooses to eat himself! She has a plate full of dead beetles and despite her best efforts we declined the opportunity to taste them, it was too far a stretch of the getting in touch with the local cuisine for even Stef to give them a go! Beuk told us about a Belgian wrestler who was once a guest in his restaurant and who, fuelled by several beers, munched handfuls of these beetles.

Beuk dropped us off at our hotel where his nephew in law Mark was waiting to meet us. Beuk has lined him up to be our tuk tuk driver for tomorrow so we had a chat over a drink to agree what we wanted to do and what time Mark should pick us up. True to the family mould he was very friendly and welcoming and spoke good enough English for us to communicate easily with him. We said our farewells to Beuk giving him a few small gifts to show our appreciation for all that he has done for us over the last few days as well as a tip that he seemed embarrassed to receive. He is certainly someone we would recommend to anyone going to visit the Angkor sites.

In the evening we made it out into the town for dinner a little fed up of eating in the hotel. Our tuk tuk took us to the main street that Lonely Planet recommends for eating and drinking. We opted to get away from there pretty quickly and found a quieter bar just around the corner, still geared up totally to tourists but away slightly from the main drag. A few hours later another tuk tuk took us back to our hotel tired and ready for bed after another very enjoyable day.

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Hammocks by the rice fields

Today was an unplanned extra day in Siem Reap, necessary because the flights to Kuala Lumpur do not run every day. Beuk had introduced us last night to his nephew (in law?), Mark, who is a tuk tuk driver in town and had arranged for him to take us down to the floating village a little way out of town. Our route out of town tool us past little villages strung out along the road, villages that seemed to be only one house deep. The houses were made of bamboo or wood as we have seen elsewhere but here under quite a few of them cars were parked. The houses did not look affluent enough for them to be there for personal use so I suppose they could have been the houses of tour guides or taxi drivers.

Once we had left the villages behind we drove along a main road that passed through the rice fields. It was raised up, like the roads we had driven on with Beuk around the reservoirs of Angkor. Mark explained that in the wet season the land either side gets totally flooded. Now in the dry season it is turned over to agriculture and the inevitable rice fields stretched out before us. Along the road were large restaurants all raised up from the ground on stilts to bring them level with the road. I had expected them to be used for the coach loads of tourists who must come this way to the floating village, but no. These are where the local people come to chill out at the weekend, swinging in the hammocks that hang from the rafters and watching the world below them go by.

After about forty minutes we turned off the main road and onto a smaller unpaved road. There is a central office where you buy your ticket for your boat ride where I suspect a large proportion of the cash paid goes into someone’s pocket rather than to help the local community. The village itself shifts location depending on the water levels so for us it was about six kilometres further down the road than it is during the wet season.

The road here was in a pretty poor state with fairly large bumps and holes that Mark navigated through well. He kept looking back to check we were OK and I was pleased that he had stopped in town to buy a padlock to keep the tuk tuk carriage firmly secured to the back of his bike (he can take it off at the end of the day so he just has a normal motorbike). The local people here looked very very poor. They have tiny little bamboo shacks for houses and the smell along the way is horrific. It is a combination of sewage, rotting rubbish and drying fish. On the way back we saw a couple in a tuk tuk quite near the main road still with hankies over their noses to try and block out the smell. I would have loved to see them when they got hit the depths of the village because the smell was much worse there.

Mark showed us where to go to get our boat. It is all a neat little set up with certain tuk tuk’s bringing people to certain boat companies. Everyone knows each other and everyone knows the score. We had to walk along a plank to get to our boat and as my foot slipped slightly all I could think of was not wanting to fall into the water here. It was a dirty brown colour, not just from the mud but because of the muck that comes from the diesel boats plying up and down and because it acts as a public sewer as well. As ever our boat was nearest to land so the driver had to push and pull his way between the other boats until he had got into a clear channel of water.

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Fisherman off to set his traps at Tonlé Sap

At first we had a slow crawl through some narrow channels before the inlet widened and he picked up speed. As we speeded up water started to seep in between the planks of wood of the boat, for me not a good sign but I do not think Stef even noticed it. I had to force myself not to watch it and kept telling myself that the rate of inflow was a mere trickle and we would not sink. Every now and again the driver would scoop out a bucketful of water. We were obviously in the cattle class boat as most of the others had an electric pump.

There is a whole maze of little channels that eventually lead you out onto the Tonlé Sap Lake and every facility of a village is based on the water. We passed primary and middle schools with lots of little boats moored up outside, obviously the equivalent of the school bus. On top of one of the schools was a caged in area for a playground. Next to another was a similar caged in area housing a basketball court. A small boat moored up along side one of the schools was selling sweets and drinks, the only floating tuck shop I have ever seen.

Along the river bank a group of men were mending a large fishing net, the only land based activity I saw in this village. As we made it out onto the lake proper it was a strange sight to see the village floating around on either side. In the Mekong we saw floating markets but these were temporary and something quite different. Here the whole village was on the water the churches, houses, shops for the locals and the inevitable shop for tourists.

For the $10 each that we paid for the tour it was, as it says in Lonely Planet a bit pricey for what you get. The length of the tour was also stretched out by a spell of about ten minutes where we were simply just sat out in the lake looking back at the village and a further stop at the tourist shop. Here they had one pen with fish, another with about five or six crocodiles and a small aquarium to give you something to look at if you were all shopped out. You could also sit and have a drink if you wanted to.

Back on dry land Mark took us back into town and toured us around to the Post Office and the market. We were keeping an eye open for a few nick nacky bits but did not see anything we liked. We were then taken to one of the big tourist shops where Mark was sure we would find what we wanted. What we wanted though is probably something hidden away in the corner of an antique shop rather than in a brash shop designed for Chinese tourists. In the shop the staff followed us closely wherever we went, no doubt used to people slipping things into their pockets and leaving without paying.

With a failed shopping trip behind us we headed back to the hotel to sort ourselves out in advance of leaving tomorrow. In the evening we went to a dinner show, another recommendation and a totally touristy affair. We had booked our tickets this morning so we had good seats close to the stage (the best seats were all pre-booked by big tour groups). There was a big buffet dinner with a wide range of food to choose from and if you wanted to, and several people did, you could eat yourself silly here going up time and time again.

The traditional dance show started at about seven thirty and it was entertaining to watch. They performed a mix of dances, some based on every day scenes of village life others more traditional classical dances. For the latter the dancers were sumptuous costumes made of silk and woven through with lots of gold thread which sparkled in the bright stage lights. The dancers made slow and graceful movements which must take a lot of practice to master. Although they were beautiful in an ornate way, we both preferred the village life dances more.

These were based on things like gathering coconuts or fishing. In the coconut dance five boys and girls swirled around each other clipping each other’s coconuts shells as they went. It was very simple and probably the dance we both enjoyed the most. The fishing dance was a variation on the theme of boy meets girl, decides she’s the one for him, shows it by teasing her and pinching her fishing net but they get together in the end and all was sweetness and smiles.