Week Twenty One - Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

Trip Start Aug 26, 2003
Trip End Aug 24, 2004

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

We have done rather a lot this week so I would recommend that you treat this week's entry like The News of the World and just look at the pictures.

Day 142 - Tuesday 13 January

Chuffed, relaxed, well slept, hot showered and right handed are just some of the things that we are not this morning. Except showered and hot. On all fours, moving backwards, pushing our backpacks with our legs we make our way to Reception like two giant dung beetles. We try to check out but the manager shows us to a newer, bigger, nicer room in the new wing. It isnt so we check out. As we come out of the gates we are resigned to swinging right and booking into the $95 per night Ayanara Hotel. However a moto driver offers to take us, for free, to a nearby hotel which is $40 per night and very nice. His name is Nick and I climb aboard his wee Honda while Nicola climbs aboard his mate's Tony. The hotel is called Regent Park Hotel and it is indeed very nice and $40 per night. We book in. The room has its own safe, but unlike others we have used which are either key operated or code entry, this one has a key and a dial like the old safe cracker films. It takes twenty minutes of following the instructions before we get it to work. All the while I am on my honkers which isnt good with my knees. Vanessa Phelps has better knees than me. Meanwhile Nick and Tony are camped outside waiting for us. We go outside and they run us down to the FCC where we have nice breakfast baguettes. Tony, who speaks in an American Mockney accent, talks us into doing the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum with him and Tony tomorrow. We cant decide whether Tony lacks gorm or English but he does smile a lot and even nods twice. Walk to Royal Palace and do tour of grounds and temples. Both very tired so back to hotel for doze. Hotel Ayanara for $2 cocktails during happy hour - 6-8 - including fancy nibbles at the bar. Get caught up with Travelpod then have nice dinner in French 'Rendez Vous' Restaurant on the river front. Bed early and watch De Niro's acting career fall further down the pan.

Day 143 - Wednesday 14 January

Wake simultaneously at nine and decide to go get some dollars before Nick and Tony pick us up at 11am. Get motos to bank which Lonely Planet said gave cash advances with credit cards. There are no ATMs in Cambodia. The bank had stopped this practice recently but luckily the adjacent Mekong Bank sorted us out. Back to Hotel in time for Nick and Tony. Left stuff in safe - 15 mins to open - then climbed aboard our steeds. First stop a bakery on the way for breakfast of ham and cheese rolls. As the Museum isnt open till 2pm we head the 18kms out to The Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. One of over 300 such sites this is the most well known and was the last resting place for about 20 000 poor souls. We decide to hire a guide for $3. He takes us first to a seven storey chedi built to house the skulls and bones of those exhumed from the ground. The skulls are stacked roughly by age. Many of the skulls show the signs of how their owner met their end. Bullets were considered too expensive by the Khmer Rouge so most were killed using farming implements such as hoes etc. Another favourite tool were the sharp edged palm leaves which grew on the trees nearby. One famous tree on the site was used to swing babies heads against. The whole tour was deeply moving and had Nicola in tears. The guide was however mostly upbeat. We questioned the fact that Pol Pot himself was allowed to die of natural causes under house arrest in Cambodia aged 76 without any charges being brought against him. The guide explained that the Cambodian people preferred to draw a line under the whole affair and get on with their lives, even though about 3 million people lost their lives over the four year regime. During the short tour a young local kid came over to us and offered us the opportunity to shoot him dead for $200. The guide shooed him away but we werent sure whether he was joking or not. As we walked through the field past many mass graves the guide pointed out many new bones which were coming to the surface. The ground is too dry to exhume them so they have to wait until the floods to dig them out without the bones crumbling to dust. You could also see bits of clothing sticking out of the ground. One of the mass graves contained the bodies of former soldiers who Mr Pot decided knew too much. They knew they were soldiers because they had to behead the soldiers and bring the heads to the generals to prove that they had been executed.

Back to the bikes we head back into Phnom Penh to the Tuoi Sleng Genocide Museum on the outskirts of town. This former school was used to bring doctors, teachers, intellectuals and anybody with light skin, soft hands and who wore glasses, who Pol Pot considered might pose a threat to his regime, for retraining. Farmers had dark skin and hard hands from farm work and were therefore not considered a threat to the regime. Pol Pot himself taught at the school for a time. All were tortured to get all their contacts etc before being taken out to the killing fields for execution. Those that died during interrogation were buried around the school. Again we paid for a guide - $5 this time - who took us through the various buildings. She herself had escaped across the border to Vietnam with her mother by travelling for two weeks at night through the jungle. Her brothers and father werent so lucky. Seven people survived the camp when the Vietnamese liberated the city. Some of them still turn up at the camp to guide tours. Its a grisly place with haunting photos of all those who were brought for retraining to the camp. Our guide expresses only remorse that some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still part of the Cambodian Government and have never been punished for their crimes.

Enough of the history lesson. There are many history books on the story for those of you who are interested. One recommended by Mark Stephens which is very good is called Stay Alive, My Son.

Back to room for shower, book 5 hour boat journey to Siem Reap for Friday at $25 each then head for few drinks round happy hours. Have nice dinner in FCC then go out to the famous Heart Of Darkness Bar until midnight.

Day 144 - Thursday 15 January

Big lie in then moto to The New Market in the centre of town. Buy cheap copies of The Lonely Planet Guides for Vietnam and Australia for $10. Notice that lots of the local girls wearing pyjamas during the day. Wander to Post Office to post some stuff then sit by pier and drink some water whilst reading our new books. Back to hotel and drop off stuff before heading back to town for food at FCC then cocktails at Ayanara where Nicola decides that Margarita is her fav. Both jump on the back of a scooter for ride back home.

Day 145 - Friday 16 January

Up at 5.30am and get v expensive $4 taxi to pier. Quick brekkie in cafe then board boat. Nicola decide she wants to sit downstairs in a/c whilst P prefers lying on the roof. Mexican stand off ensues and 5 hours later we are still in our respective positions Boat full and people steal positions when they become free. Arrive up narrow inlet to Siem Reap port. Pilot beaches boat several times. At embarkation there are loads of touts with signs waiting for their customers. There is no one waiting for us so get taxi to our hotel - Nokor Phnom Hotel quite a way outside town on the Airport Road. Hotel fine and good deal for $38. Nicola again finds hotel on Directrooms.com which has consistently got us bargains for rooms compared to their advertised tariffs. Nokor for example was advertised at $85 per night. Directrooms.com also have rooms across Europe. Have lunch by pool at hotel then doze before getting tuk-tuk driver into town. Driver, Rattana, offers to take us on tour of temples for $10 per day. We book him for the two days and for lift to airport on Monday. In town we go to book flights to Hanoi and discover that we have to apply for our visas three days in advance. Luckily there is an express service available so we head back to hotel, pick up passports and go back to town. $45 will have our passports back tomorrow night. Flights cost $160 each with Vietnamese Airlines. Use Directrooms.com again to book Sunway Hotel in Hanoi. Have drink and spring rolls in Soup Dragon restaurant then Rattana takes us home.

Day 146 - Saturday 17 January

Up at 8.30 for crap breakfast and plan itinerary for the day. Pay $40 each for 3 day pass at entrance to Park. Only here for 2 days but $20 per day anyway. Go to Bayon first at Angkor Thom which has 200 giant Buddha faces carved into the structure. Amazing place like all the rest we go to. All the temples defy description. They make Carrickfergus Castle look like Jack has kicked over his Lego box. Without boring you with the details, we go from the Bayon to Tep Pranam, Kleangs, The Royal Enclosure and Phimeanakas, Baphoun, Terrace of the Elephants. From there to Ta Phrom, our favourite temple where the jungle has been allowed to overgrow the structure, then Ta Keo, Victory Gate, Baksei Chamkron and lastly Phnom Bakheng where we climb the hill to the temple overlooking The Main Event - Angkor Wat itself. Its quite a way away so we only get a taster for tomorrow when we plan to be there for sunrise. On way back to town, only about 20 mins, we follow a procession of locals on bikes with moneytrees on their way to a service of some sort. Have much needed shower then into town for dinner and drinks in Red Piano in town centre. Dismiss Rattana for the night because we feel guilty that as part of his job he should wait for us, will get another ride back home. Nice town with some good bars. The Red Piano was where Angelina Jolie and the rest of the film crew spent their evenings after filming Lara Croft - Tomb Raider Part Two. The walls are adorned with her photos and they have named a cocktail after her. Few other bars - Banana Leaf, Angkor What etc. Lots of street kids begging which is awkward at times but they are generally good natured. Pick up visas for Vietnam, our flight tickets and our passports. Get some baguettes and cheese for our lunch tomorrow. Head home.

Day 145 - Sunday 18 January

Up at 4.45am and meet Rattana at hotel gate and head out to Angkor Wat. All sorts of folk are making their way by foot, bicycle, minibus, coach etc. We arrive and walk in total darkness through the first gate and join about two hundred aother bleary eyed tourists sitting on the walls on the outer perimeter. It takes about two hours to get our first glimpse of the sun. The initial sight is slightly disappointing. We make and eat our baguettes whilst the mob make their way to the main part of the temple. By the time we have finished most have left for the day and the non-early risers have yet to arrive. We more or less have the run of the place to ourselves. We climb the steep scarily smooth steps up to the highest part of the structure with the 5 towers. Great views of surrounding area. Climb back down and walk around the perimeter of the temple looking at the famous reliefs including the Churning of the Milk scene. Meet Rattana after about 3 hours. Had decided to go to Banteay Srei but Rattana wants $20 to do the 30ks out to it. We decide against it and go to town for coffee and bit of e-mailing. Decide to go to The Cambodian Cultural Centre which is beside our hotel and has only opened 3 months ago. Entrance is $12 and the place looks as cheesy as a family bag of Wotsits so we give it a miss. Decide to kip for couple of hours then go back out to Angkor Wat for sunset. Rattana picks us up at 5pm but when we get to gates realise that we have forgotten our passes. Have to wait until 5.30 before guards let us through. By the time we get to the temple the sun has gone. Back to Siem Reap where we have our worst meal since arriving in Asia at The Soup Dragon. Dont eat in it but go for couple of quiet beers in Red Piano. Back to hotel at 11pm. Sit in hotel bar for couple of drinks and chat to the barmen. Learn about their struggle to learn English, $1 per hour, and their plans of seeing Phnom Penh sometime in their futures. Bed feeling very lucky.

Day 146 - Monday 19 January

Lie in until 10.30am then get up and eat another cheese baguette each. Pack up and Rattana takes us to the airport. Sad to leave Cambodia. The people are not as nice and chilled as the Thais but they are friendly and have come through an awful lot. Looking forward to Vietnam but Nic a little less so. Lovely new airport. Discover that airport departure tax has gone up to $25 each from expected $10 so have to cash in some travellers cheques. Only 12 on 79 seater Fokker Jet. Steward serves in flight hot dog shortly after take off. Its certainly not hot but may well be dog. Nicola doesnt eat but I do. Its easily the worst in-flight meal we have ever had and vow to try to get any other carrier to take us to Hong Kong from Hanoi. Decide to page the steward who we havent even seen for an hour and get more wine. Manage to squeeze another two glasses out of him. Two hours later we arrive in Hanoi to discover that we are desperately under prepared for the weather. The temp hovers around 10 degrees C after 30 in Cambodia. We are both in shorts and t-shirts. A Vietnamese family rushing for their flight actually detour to come and point and laugh at my attire. We get a taxi and I manage to chain 3 fags whilst he fetches another passenger for the journey. Another flat country and we pass paddy fields on the 36km journey to Hanoi. Our driver pumps his horn almost continually on the way to the city. Even when there is no other traffic he toots his horn. We later find out that everyone in Hanoi has this most annoying of habits. Its the noisiest city I have ever been in and it gets very wearing. As we approach the city there has been a bad accident involving a lorry and a bike. There is nobody about. Traffic just skirts the debris. 300 yards down the road there is a police box full of officers without a care in the world. In two days time it is the Chinese / Lunar New Year. The biggest event in their calendar. Cumquat Trees bearing little orange fruits are their equivalent of our Christmas Trees and we pass hundreds of people on their way home with their trees. All of this is done on mopeds. Some carry one tree behind them and one in front peering through the branches. Maybe this explains the earlier accident. Coming into the city it turns out that the other passenger is going to the most remote lane in Hanoi. It takes almost an hour of horn pumping to squeeze our way down alleyways to get to her address. The advantage is that we get to see into the very bowels of the city into places we would never go by ourselves. We pass stalls selling dog. Thit Cho is how it is described on the menu for any Fidotarians out there. All the little stalls are lit up by little bulbs and red lanterns. This, combined with the steam from boiling cauldrons and the bustle of crowds creates a very memorable picture. We eventually arrive at our hotel, The Sunway, at 7pm. The reception is modest but our superior room is brill. Have dinner in hotel restaurant which is terrible. My lasagne is some pasta with sheets of processed ham with white sauce in a bowl. Terrible. Next day I discover that my belt now fits in the last hole. To bed to watch TV.
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