First off, if you are thinking of visiting Cambodia, go to "talesofasia.com". Lots of useful, current information.
I left Bangkok for Cambodia on 16 November. Three things are worth noting about traveling to Siem Reap Cambodia by road from Bangkok. First, it is really cheap. It cost me about $19 when purchasing my ticket from an agency on Sukhumvit, but had I purchased it in the Khao San Road area it would have only cost me about $6. Second, it is cheap because the people driving the vans and trucks are getting kickbacks from guest houses in Siem Reap. They will deliberately take a long break on the way to the border, a long break at the border, where we were switched from an air conditioned van to an overcrowded pick-up truck, and a long break between the border and Siem Reap. This ensures you will arrive late in the evening, tired, and in no mood to shop around for a room. Of course they take you to the guest house paying their commission and assure you every other place is dirty, full, closed, unsafe or unsuitable for some other reason. The group I was with was taken to a place on the edge of town. I was the only one who insisted on being taken to the center of town, where I had no trouble getting a comfortable room. The rooms the driver was pushing on the edge of town were smaller and slightly cheaper, and I like being near the center of things.
The last thing I'll mention about road travel in Cambodia is a description of the roads. In Phnom Penh I saw a few paved streets and other streets that may have been paved many years ago. Outside the city the roads are made of a clay/rock mixture that is wetted down and packed with a steam roller. Traffic quickly wears out the road and rain washes it away. The following three shots are of the road crossing the rice fields between Poi Pot on the Thai border and Siem Reap. It is one of the major highways in Cambodia. This is what the road is like on a better than average day. I assume that during the rainy season, which lasts from May to October, long stretches of the road disappear and have to be rebuilt when the rains end.
It was a rough ride to Siem Reap but worth it. I settled in a large room with full bath in the Singapore Guest House that cost $6. Cambodia has its own currency but everyone uses U.S. dollars. Cambodian currency is the riel, which traded at several thousand to the dollar. I don't remember exactly what the exchange rate was because the riel was only used for small change; everyone preferred dollars. The convenience of using U.S. dollars was offset by not being able to find ATM's. There are a few places in Cambodia that allow you to charge money on your credit card, but no ATM's that let you withdraw from a bank account. Cambodia was the first country I visited that didn't have ATM's. Laos was the second.
Anyway, I arrived on 16 November and spent the next day learning my way around the town. In the process of getting oriented I met Dave, the cook at the Ivy Guest House. He is a university trained chef from Dayton Ohio who has worked at high class restaurants in Savannah, but prefers life in southeast Asia. He had some useful advice about dealing with beggars (he advised against giving money, suggesting school supplies for children and contributions to charity clinics and Wats that offer free classes), money (don't accept torn or dirty U.S. bills), places to stay in Phnom Penh, and stuff like that. He trained the cooks at Sharky Bar in Phnom Penh, which you'll read more about later. He was considering an offer to work at one of the fancy hotels that have opened in Siem Reap, so he may not be at Ivy Guest House Bar and Restaurant when you visit. However when he worked there the chicken burritos were excellent.
So long as I'm recommending places, the best bar in Siem Reap is the Angkor What?. I don't care what the crew from Tomb Raider thought (I was told they preferred the Red Piano, which was dull and overpriced). If you go to Angkor What? say hello to Miranda if she's still there. She's an English/Canadian out to see the world who stopped in Siem Reap for a while to work at the bar and rebuild her finances. Both Miranda, who is an experienced and competent bar manager, and Dave, who is a talented, trained chef, could be making good money almost anywhere in the developed world, but they are not ready for a conventional life. They may never be. Some people are like that.
So long as I'm covering elegant living; the best thing about food in Cambodia is that there are lots of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. The only Cambodian food I can recommend is Amok, which was fish fillet boiled in coconut milk. The Amok I had was excellent.
Enough of this nonsense and on to the reason for visiting Siem Reap--Angkor.
The temples of Angkor were built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries when the Khmer were at their peak. At the time all of South-East Asia from Vietnam to Burma and up into southern China was ruled by the Khmer kings. Repeated invasions lead to the decline of the civilization and eventual relocation of government to the south and abandonment of the temples. The area, which was covered with government buildings and residences and surrounded by productive rice and fish farms, was also abandoned. Buildings not made of stone decayed, irrigation systems for farming and fish ponds silted up and the jungle took over. Only the stone temples survived, approximately one hundred temple complexes, many of them huge. But they represent only a small fraction of what was once there.
The Khmer people in the area knew of the abandoned temples in the jungle, but it was not until the nineteenth century when the French naturalist Henri Mouhot published an account of his travels that the western world took note. At the time Cambodia was part of French Indochina and French archaeologists set to work on the massive job of mapping, excavating and restoring temples. Wars, revolutions and changing governments frequently interrupted the work and the temples were continued to be looted. Most recently, while the Khmer Rouge were fighting their losing war against Vietnam in the 1980's they used Angkor Wat as a headquarters. They planted land mines throughout the area and sold whatever they could strip from the temples to finance their war effort. In spite of the damage caused by time, war and looting, the temples are amazing, much more impressing than any of the Greek or Roman ruins I toured in Europe. The Alhambra in Granada Spain is the only place I've visited that comes close to the jaw dropping amazement of Angkor Wat.
Good news about the looting; at the Ivy bar I met an Israeli archaeologist working on a French project who said the Cambodian government has a warehouse the size of four football fields full of recovered artifacts. When the temples are sufficiently secured the artifacts will be returned. Of course it will probably be a long time before the area is that secure.
Okay, enough hype. I won't give a bunch of additional history pertaining to the pictures that follow. I will mention that "Tomb Raider" fans may recognize the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat.
The South Gate to the Angkor Thom area. The long serpent the demons are holding is a Naga. Nagas are popular symbols in Buddhism, though I think they originated in Hinduism.
The Bayon, one of the "Tomb Raider" temples. It does not look like much at a distance, but is impressive when you get close enough to appreciate it. The last three pictures were taken from the upper level of the temple, which was reached by way of two steep flights of stairs.
The Royal Palace. I put the first two pictures in to give an idea of how treacherous the steps are. The steps in the second picture are steeper than average, but all the steps were steeper than they ought to be. The last photo was from a small temple nearby. It gives an idea of the typical width of the steps. The Angkor people must have had small feet.
The Elephant Terrace. It's actually much larger and nicer than these pictures make it appear, I just didn't get there when the lighting was right. When it rains in Cambodia it rains hard, and when the sun shines it shines intensely bright. That means when the light isn't right for a picture, it is very wrong.
My only monkey shot, and this one is on a leash. I saw many wild monkeys while riding between sites, but never got a good picture of them.
Angkor Wat, the largest, best preserved, and most amazing temple of the Angkors, and the most impressive ancient site I've visited. Ephesus, Aphrodisias, the Acropolis of Athens, Delphi, and the Roman forum don't come close. I even have to put Angkor Wat ahead of the Alhambra. The first picture is of the long bridge across the very wide moat surrounding the temple complex. On the far side of the moat are the halls that form a rectangle with a perimeter of three and a half miles enclosing an area of 500 acres (five and a half kilometers perimeter and 210 hectares enclosed for the metrically minded). Inside the perimeter halls, shown in the second picture, is the walk in the enclosed area leading to the Angkor Wat temple complex in the center. The third picture is of the main entrance to the temple. These pictures were taken in a futile attempt in showing the scale of Angkor Wat. The last picture if of a scale model of the inner temple complex. I took that picture in the Royal Palace grounds in Phnom Penh.
The following are more pictures I took while wandering around the temple grounds and outer halls.
The central temple complex is surrounded by halls with beautifully detailed bas reliefs of the Indian epic Mahabarata. I believe the Cambodian's now prefer the Ramayana. I'm more into Hemingway and Twain myself. Originally the reliefs were painted with brilliant colors. It must have been stunning when it was new.
The following pictures are of random shots taken inside the temple, beginning with some bas reliefs I really liked. The Khmer appreciated the female form.
Some pictures taken from the top level of the central temple, starting with a shot looking down the stairs leading to the second level.
That's all for Angkor Wat. This is Banteay Kdei, which gives an idea of some of the steps taken to prop up a temple during restoration.
Sras Strang, the King's Pool, and some Cambodian children enjoying it.
Ta Prohm has been left pretty much as the French archaeologists found it. It appeared in scenes in "Tomb Raider" because it is a classic overgrown temple. The last picture, of plain walls with holes in them, is the Queen's Room. All the holes once held precious stones, and the walls were covered with other precious decorations. At one time Angkor was an very wealthy kingdom. Historians assume that most of the wealth was looted during the many invasions, but I can't help but wonder if some of the guardians of the temples didn't bury some treasures in anticipation of an invasion. Who know's what might lie beneath the jungle's surface?
Preah Khan, a huge temple complex, with a building that looks surprisingly like a Greek temple. The last two pictures are of an overgrown side entrance and the hall I had to walk through to reach it. I thought it looked kind of cool.
This is Bantey Srey, a small temple but with the most intricate carvings of the temples of Angkor.
Kbal Spien, the River of a Thousand Lingas, was a sacred river to the Angkors. It has numerous religious theme rock carvings in the river bed and once had many lingas. All the lingas have been looted. I'm not sure what the significance of a linga is, but the ones I saw looked suspiciously phallic. Reaching the carvings required an uphill hike on a jungle trail that has only recently been cleared of land mines. These are steep hills covered with thick jungle. I would not want fight in them or have to clear them of ordnance.
The Eastern Meborn, noted for its sandstone elephants
The Pre Rup, a Royal Crematorium.
Just south of Siem Reap is the Tonle Sap river and lake. The river connects with the Mekong near Phnom Penh. During the summer rainy season the Mekong rises so fast it fills the Tonle Sap from downstream, forcing the river to run backward and fill the lake to triple its dry season size. The surrounding land is flooded and trees submerged. When the rainy season ends the lake recedes so quickly that fish are sometimes trapped in the treetops. Fish thrive in this crazy lake, probably because all the churning creates nutrient rich water that supports abundant life. It is a major source of food for the Cambodians. The Tonle Sap and land suitable for rice farming are probably the reason why the Khmer people settled and civilization began in this area. On a hill on the north shore of the lake is Prasat Phnom Krom hill, with an Angkor era temple and views of the fishing village nearby.
I left Siem Reap by boat on 21 Nov '01, heading across the Tonle Sap lake and down the river to Phnom Penh. Along the way I got some shots of the fishing community and some of the trees flooded by the lake. 80% of Cambodia's population survives by subsistence farming and fishing. The fishing community is well off by Cambodian standards, but can only stay that way so long as the Mekong stays unpolluted and runs naturally. I couldn't help but notice that in Laos and Cambodia, both very poor nations, the people use rivers as their water source and sewer. I also read that China is planning several dams on the upstream Mekong. I have a nasty suspicion that upstream development on the Mekong may cause big problems for people further downstream.
Around mid-afternoon I arrived in Phnom Penh. I went out of intellectual curiosity--the city has a reputation for wild night life. However when I was there the government was cracking down on bars. The official reason was that there was too much drug dealing and prostitution and too many shootings going on in bars. Sounded like silly government harassment to me. The rumor among the ex-pats was that the real reason for the crack down was that Cambodia's Prime Minister had an out of control nephew who had shot up a popular night spot. The Prime Minister was under pressure to take some action, and he refused to let his nephew be arrested, so he shut down bars all over the country. Sharky Bar and Restaurant, a place recommended to me by Dave at the Ivy Bar in Siem Reap, hastily painted over the word "Bar" on their sign and taped over the word on menu's and waitresses name tags. They managed to stay open, but most other places didn't. Apparently Karaoke bars and discos had been popular places for prostitutes to hang out, but closing them just put the prostitutes on the streets outside any places that managed to remain open. I don't think this improved things.
Anyway, Sharky Restaurant stayed open, and they had good food with one exception. I advise against ordering hamburger in Cambodia. I did, and it may have been ok, but it had a definite mystery meat flavor to it. Maybe it tasted like ground water buffalo is supposed to, but I'm not sure. Probably a good idea to avoid any ground meat product in Cambodia.
So long as I'm offering food warnings, don't eat a "Happy Pizza" in Cambodia or Laos if you are going to be driving or required to take a drug test. Trust me.
In Sharky I met an Englishman who had just arrived in Phnom Penh to search for a job teaching English. He spent one day looking and found a school that would pay him $10 an hour for 20 hours teaching a week. That's a lot of money in a city where the average worker makes $2 or $3 dollars a day. It is about three times what English teachers are paid in the Czech Republic or Thailand, which are both more expensive to live in. Phnom Penh is a dive, but it will probably get better. The country has had only a few years of peace and a sort of democratic government after decades of war, tyranny, anarchy and destruction. It would be interesting to watch history in the making as the country recovers from its past, and teaching there would be playing a useful part in the process.
Phnom Penh was probably lovely fifty years ago. Now it looks like a city in desperate need of major renovation. The pictures of pretty buildings that follow are in the Royal Palace grounds, the only place I found with pretty buildings. The first picture is of Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichay, a Buddhist temple. The second is of the Pavilion of Napoleon III (remember this was once a French colony) and the third is Cambodia's Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not to be confused with Thailand's Emerald Buddha. I don't know what the last two buildings are, I just thought they looked nice.
Running a distant aesthetic second to the Royal Palace are buildings along the river walk, which has one of the cities few paved and maintained streets.
These pictures below are more typical of the city.
The most important historical temple in Phnom Penh is Wat Phnom, which traces its origins to the 14th century, about a century before Phnom Penh became the capital of the Angkor/Cambodia.
Covering much more recent history is the Tuol Sleng Museum. It was once a secondary school, but in 1975 the Khmer Rouge turned it into Prison S-21, a detention, torture and execution center. The sign at the entrance to the museum stated that the prisoners were "peasants, workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, students, Buddhist monks, teachers, ministers, Pol Pot cadre, soldiers of all ranks, Cambodian diplomatic corps, foreigners and their wives and children." Those that were not tortured to death were executed at Choeng Ek, one of Cambodia's killing fields. The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated, agrarian cooperative, and set about killing anybody that didn't fit into this "ideal". Anyone who didn't look like an ignorant peasant was at risk. People with bad eyes would throw away their glasses out of fear of appearing educated. Out of a population of seven million, between one and two million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 and 1979. In 1978 Vietnam invaded, leading to a war that lasted into the '90's and resulted in the eventual overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam turned the country over to the U.N. when the cost of occupying Cambodia and continuing the guerrilla war with the Khmer Rouge became prohibitive. A peace settlement was negotiated, but none of the big shots of the Khmer Rouge were convicted of anything. Pol Pot died an old man of natural causes while different factions were trying to decide what to do with him.
While in power the Khmer Rouge would take children between ten and fifteen and train them to be cruel prison guards contemptuous of the prisoners. They needed specially conditioned people to work in Prison S-21. The first picture is of the school/prison, followed by shots of grainy black and white photos taken of prisoners tortured to death. The pictures are of poor quality but you get the idea. After that are photos of some of the prisoners, many who were clearly children. Finally there are picture of the manacles used on the prisoners and a painting showing how they were used. Last are some of the some of the torture instruments used in the prison. There were paintings showing how these instruments were used, but they were over the line for my website.
Most of the prisoners who weren't tortured to death at Prison S-21 were executed at Choeng Ek, one of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields. The site has been turned into a memorial to the victims. Between 1975 and 1978 17,000 men, women and children from the prison were executed there. Many were bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting bullets. Thousands have been exhumed, but the remains of many are still in the ground and scattered about on the surface. Pictured are a monument made of skulls, an excavated burial pit, some bones collected in urns besides burial pits, and bones and teeth in the trails underfoot.
The next picture is of one of the many bare foot beggar children who hang out at Choeng Ek. Most don't ask for money, they ask for "pen-book". I went to the gift shop and bought notebooks and cheap pens to give to the children, who lined up and politely accepted them. I still don't know if this was a scam, but it only cost a few dollars and it seemed to make the children happy. I was told in Siem Reap that in some Wats the Buddhist monks would give free classes. Getting school supplies was up to the students.
On 27 November I caught a $50 flight from Phnom Penh to Battambang. I could have saved money by spending a very long day on a road worse than the one to Siem Reap, but decided to spoil myself and fly. Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city, though it struck me as being quite small. My guidebooks said Long Beach California has more Cambodians. Battambang has nice French Colonial buildings, but the city would benefit with some fresh paint and the removal of some tacky signs. It also has some interesting statues, the kind that were once common in Cambodia before war and looting made them disappear. An interesting stop, but not worth a long visit.
Very early on 29 Nov I paid way to much money, about $10, for a ride on a pickup truck back to Poi Pot. After I got in the truck it cruised the local market for other passengers who only paid $1 or $2 for the ride. Once the truck was packed inside and out it headed for the border. The road from Battambang to Poi Pot was drier but rougher than the one from Poi Pot to Siem Reap and the overloaded truck bottomed out many times. It was only a three hour ride to Poi Pot and the border. I crossed over and caught a bus to Nakhon Ratchasima, also know as Khorat. Back in Thailand.