What I didn’t mention in my last post was that I had managed to sunburn myself. I hadn’t realised how much the skin had toughened up to the sun on my arms, legs and face. Having spent most of my time on the road or in cities I had almost always been wearing a T-shirt and my torso was its normal Scottish pale blue, looking for its first sun rays to tan it white. Oh boy it got them. At the time I covered up there was no sign of burning, but by the evening it was clear it had had too much. A few days later and the loose skin appears for the start of peeling, unfortunately the skin underneath is still red and angry. My own fault, I was stupid and made a few bad assumptions….. and its lead to me sheltering from the sun on the most idyllic location its been my good fortune to encounter.
Still, I’ve had the company of three friendly Aussies returning to Sydney having spent time in Edinburgh and a Brit I’ve met in Siem Reap and Bangkok has just turned up this morning. Plus it was interesting chatting to the acrobats who put on a show here and regularly do the Glastonbury and Edinburgh festivals.
I wasn’t up in time to get the early train to Kanchanaburi, which would have got me there in the morning, but got the second one arriving late in the afternoon. It was too late to start sight seeing, but next morning would be a rush, as I had to catch a train out at 2:45pm. That evening was spent having dinner at a guesthouse which also ran a cookery school (the food was a good as you would expect) and watching football at a small convenience store that had put a temporary bar up in front of a TV.
I’m not sure if the Lonely Planet had the scale wrong on its map but it took me 20 minutes to walk from my guesthouse to the Bridge over the river Kwai, which would suggest it was over a mile away, not the 600m indicated. The bridge itself was mobbed and despite the fact that it was a railway bridge one track wide you could walk across on planks between the rails. Every 30m or so was a bay at the side where you could get out of the way if a train came. To be honest a train coming was the least of your problems, the plank path in the middle was narrow and to pass people coming the other way required one party to place one foot either on the rail or the sleepers. Not originally designed for passengers the bridge is not really enclosed, meaning a slipped foot could easily send you falling through to the river below, a knock out blow to the head on the way through a small mercy. Despite my part time phobia of heights I made it across the bridge and back again.
My extended walk here meant that there was no way I could stick to walking and see everything I wanted to. I hired a scooter for 3 hours costing 50 baht (80 pence) and set off for the allied war cemetery outside of town. Only 3km out of town and I was the only person and this well kept memorial. Most of the graves here are British, but I also noticed a significant number of Dutch. Each person had a simple stone declaring their nationality, regiment, date of birth and date of death. Many have a simple message from the persons family and reading these the loss of a real person to a real family is made clear. As I walked the length of the cemetery I noticed something even more poignant, the graves of unidentified people with a simple inscription you can read below…..
I then set off for the real JEATH museum, a recreation of a Japanese POW hut, filled with pictures donated by survivors and families of survivors of the death railway. One of the museums near the bridge has also started calling itself the Jeath museum, including official looking signs on the street, but the Lonely Planet had warned me about this scam. It’s a great collection of photographs, drawings and paintings covering the construction of the railway and the conditions of the prisoners working on it. What seems to be forgotten here, and by the world at large, was that far more locals were killed building the death railway than Western POWs. Despite this it’s a great place to visit. I then went to the two cemeteries in town, one for the Allies and one for the Chinese. The Allied cemetery was similar to the one out of town, just much busier as it’s more accessible to the tourist hoards. The Chinese next door is a contrast, as every grave is different, most being very ornate and colourful.
That was all I had time for if I was to drop off my scooter, grab lunch, my bags and make it to the station. I was glad I had visited here, its a place with a recent tragic history but the key sights are presented with dignity. You are left in little doubt about the coast of war.
The train at 2:45pm was the start of a long journey. 1.5 hours later I’d to get off at Nakhon Pathom and wait for a couple of hours to catch the overnight sleeper train to Surat Thani. At 6am we arrive, however the station is 14km away from town so its onto a local bus. Once there a ferry ticket to Ko Pha Ngan is easy, however the various ferries leave from piers outside of town so its onto another bus to get to the boat. A 4 hour boat ride brings us to the island, but on the south west corner, not the south east where I want to be. A shared taxi takes me to Had Rin, famous for the full moon party but not where I eventually want to stay. However I need to get a feel of the place and am looking to avoid travelling any more so I grab a room for the night near the pier. Had Rin really is a busy little traveller community but next day I’m off somewhere better.
I found something close to paradise, an island beach only accessible by boat, surrounded by palm trees, full of fine sand leading to turquoise water. Along the back of the beach in the hillside are a series of wooden bungalows, small bars and restaurants. There is nothing to do here but chill, enjoy the sun and sea, whilst noting that every girl here is gorgeous. At one end of the beach a raised wooden walkway leads over the rocks and up into the hills. First stop is a great restaurant with a fabulous view and great food. If, however, you continue you find yourself on a rough trail through the jungle to a second beach, even less developed than the one before. At the back of this is a superb little bar, though it was closed the first time I tried. They had had a party two days before and the staff were still recovering; my kind of place.
Anyway I’m here for a couple of weeks but as there is no mobile phone signal, no phones, no internet, no roads….. etc etc I’ll not be posting much up for a while.
I went for my final fitting last night and my clothes are fully made. Once they are steam pressed my tailor will post them home, as I have no intention of carrying them for the next few months. It’s great to have clothes that fit properly, a sensation I am unused to being as tall as I am.
I’ve not done a huge amount this week, visiting the biggest temple complex in town and the snake farm used to produce Thailand’s anti-venom serums. Twice a day they milk some of the snakes in front of the public; right in front. When it’s a 4m long King Cobra that’s slithering a few feet away from the front row it adds to the tension.
Most Thai cities have a foundation stone that is believed to hold the spirit of the city. Bangkok’s is near the Royal Place and main temple complex of the city but unlike those, which are overrun by Farang tourists, the stone (actually a pillar) is visited by the local residents. Its an easy place to like with lots of locals offering incense & food offerings, refilling a series of oil lamps and watching plays in traditional costume.
I meant to visit the Royal Palace but on arrival I found out that shorts, even knee length ones weren’t allowed. It was also in this area that I came across a common con, drivers telling you the attraction you are heading for is closed so they can take you somewhere else. By the 4th such approach I was getting somewhat abusive and they left in a hurry.
Early tomorrow I’m off to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, before heading south to Koh Pha-Ngan.
My original plan in Trat was to pass through spending a single night, but my fondness of it and a slightly upset stomach persuaded me to spend a second night here. I found places to swap my books, get a haircut, etc and kicked back. The next day I booked a minibus to take me to the Khao San area of Bangkok. Normally I prefer to get on the main public buses but I knew the bus stations were out on the other side of town and getting from there to where I wanted would be a pain. In addition the minibus was advertised to take 4 hours instead of 5 for the main one.
I was clear we would be a little late when we stopped for a 2nd break after 4 hours. When I asked how much longer the reply was an hour. Around an hour and a half and we are on Bangkok’s highway system, so getting close. We come off the toll roads and descend into the start of rush hour. I am having trouble recognising where we are until I realise we are on the main hotel road to the east of the city centre. It seems crazy, I know its at least an hour from here through packed streets to where we are meant to be heading. It soon becomes clear; two couples have bribed the driver to drop them off at their overpriced hotels in the east of town to the inconvenience of those of us staying in the west at the buses destination. 7 hours after we set off we are finally set down and are able to look for a place to stay. Luckily there is a room in my first choice so I can set about enjoying one of my favourite places.
The Banglamphu or Khao San area is probably the busiest traveller’s hangout in the world. That would normally make it really naff except that it’s also the hangout for young Thais. In many of the bars the locals will seriously outnumber you and in none of them are there any bored looking hostesses. The Khao San road is lined with a variety of bars, guesthouses, shops, restaurants, market stalls, everything. Those passing through the street are from all corners of the globe and sitting on the pavement with a beer allows for some great people watching. I can’t recommend this place highly enough.
When it all gets a little much, head to its west end and get onto Soi Rambuti, with the cocktail beetle bus at it entrance. Along here are a quieter strip of restaurants, bars and guesthouses doing great grilled seafood. I’ve got an excuse to spend some time here as I’ve ordered a couple of suits to be made by a local tailor. Not trusting the make them cheap merchants I decided to use one in one of the bigger hotels. It’s a bit of a commute to get there but the journey by riverboat and then skytrain is pleasant.
I was stamped into Thailand without hassle, however I realised my early arrival could cause me some slight problems. My visa ran out on April 8th, but the Full Moon Party I was determined to be at was on April 5th. It was something I could sort out later, for now I jumped into a waiting minibus heading for the town of Trat.
On arrival there was a tout waiting from Guys Guesthouse, promising a free ride there. Normally I steer well clear of anywhere pushed by touts but it had been a long journey and I jumped in the back of a pick-up with a few others. Because of the one way system we took a slightly round about way getting there with the last couple of hundred yards passing through narrow lanes. I wasn’t sure if this felt right. The place itself seemed nice enough and I checked in, getting a room with a telly. Unfortunately the only news channel was Fox News, a nastly right wing Republican mouthpiece. I hadn’t seen it since my business trips to Detroit and forgotten how bad it was. Ample evidence that we shouldn’t allow Rupert Murdoch any further access to our media.
A quick exploration of the local area showed I was in a charming part of the old town, with small restaurants, winding lanes and a laid back feel. All my missgivings about touts had been wrong in this case.
There are two ways to get between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; boat and bus. I’d used the boat on the way up, but at $22 vs $5 I couldn’t justify it for the way back down, especially given the difficulty of getting to it. The ride doesn’t take much longer than the boat and in a year or so will be much faster as many delays were caused by work to seriously improve the route. On my return to Phnom Penh I stayed to the north west of the city centre by a lake called Boeng Kak. Its a small traveller hang out area and its nice supping a cold beer on a balcony over the lake at sunset, even if the water is so polluted you’d never consider getting in. I’d left the National Museum to visit so I’d have something to do between journeys.
The museum is housed in a spectacular building of traditional design (and which I failed to photograph). Apparently the building has one of the largest bat populations for an artificial structure. Unfortunately bat dropping are corrosive and were falling through the ceiling onto the exhibits and visitors. The Ozzies came to the rescue; in exchange for borrowing some exhibits they built a second false ceiling to catch the droppings. The problem with this museum is that it is very old fashioned, a bunch of stuff with small label cards and no other explanation. Whilst it nice to know the treasures in the museum’s collection are protected from the looters that have raided so many of Cambodia’s historical monuments its a really dull museum to visit, imparting little information on those who visit.
I only spent a couple of night in PP this time, enough to get over one hourney, book tickets for the next, buy some more malaria pills and see the museum. I was keen to head down to Sihanoukville and check out the beach. This is Cambodia’s most important seaside resort with an older backpacker area near Victory Beach and a newer one at Serendipity Beach. On getting to town I jumped onto a moto taxi and asked for Serendipity. After a bit we headed off down a bumpy unsealed road to a scruffy collection of guesthouses. I assumed the driver was bucking for a commission from a less popular area of the beach and set off to explore on foot. Nope I was at the right place and the scruffy guesthouses were charging around double what I expected. I checked into the least bad immediate option and headed to check out the beach and bar life. Really quiet was the answer with small crowds only at two neighbouring bars, one of which tried to make up for teh lack of peole by damaging eardrums.
I had hoped to spend a week here chilling out and getting to know a small group of people, but after two nights where things looked little better I decided to move on and give Victory Beach a try. I jumped on a moto and headed north through the centre of town, eventually turning onto a badly rutted dirt road that became steeper and steeper. This was looking even worse, with no sign of life anywhere. When the bike gave up tryin to climb the hill with the driver, myself and my rucksack proving too much for it, we were next to a guesthouse. I was persuaded by the manager to have a look, but the first room was a bit basic. He had something better, someone was just leaving and why did I not look at that. The room was being vacated by an Irish guy who had been there for a week and a half. “Was the any life in this place?” I asked. “Yeah down at Serendipity” he answered. “Thats it!!”, I exclaimed. He shrugged and suggested it wasn’t a party town. I’ve been to quiet beaches in Samoa and happening ones in Oz and this town seemed to fall somewhere nasty between the two.
It was 11 o’clock and the daily boat to the Thai border left at midday. I jumped back on the moto, change of plan, take me to the docks. The boat was one of the river express boats pressed into service on the coastal run. Though fast I was pleased to see the water was calm as boats designed for shallow rivers don’t handle waves well. A few air conditioned hours later I was in Krong Koh Kong and jumping on yet another moto for the 6km ride to the border, crossing a new 1.9km long bridge and saving me from the the boat mafia that used to rob visitors blind here. I was lucky enough to be one of the first off the express boat to reach the border post and was stamped out fairly quickly. I wasn’t sorry to be leaving Cambodia; I found it fascinating and wanted to learn more about its history, however I hadn’t fallen in love with the place. After Thailand and especially Laos I found I was hassled too often for money and that the tourist and backpacker areas were too removed from local life.
I spent the first couple of days in Phnom Penh not achieving much, basically chilling out and sleeping a lot. After the travel of the previous few days I had booked into the nicest room yet on the trip, which still cost less than a dorm bed in a US hostel. BBC World gave me access to the news just at the point where Tony Blair got hit by the Claire Short UN bugging allegations. It was good to see him caught again on the actions surrounding the Iraq invasion, but frustrating that he seems to have got over this issue. Trying to pin this guy down is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
The hotel was on the riverside, in a strip of bars and restaurants (including Phnom Penh’s famous Happy Herb Pizzas) catering to the expat, NGO and tourist crowds. Its a pleasant enough place for a meal and a drink, though it attracts a huge number of shoe polishers, newspaper sellers and beggers. I was surprised to realise that food and drink were roughly double the cost of what I would have expected in Laos. I suppose the greater number of monied tourists, plus the large number of NGO & UN staff have driven up prices in the past decade.
After a couple of days of dossing it was time to get back to the business of travelling. Firstly it was out of my luxury pad and into a good guesthouse just down the road at a quarter of the price. It was then off to the Tuol Sleng Museum, followed by the killing fields of Choeung Ek.
In 1975 Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21). It became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country, with more than 17,000 people passing through between 1975 & 1978 before being taken to the Choeung Ek killing fields. We know what happened here as the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, photographing every prisoner, sometimes before & after torture. When the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979 they found only 7 prisoners alive in S-21 and the corpses of 14 tortured to death as the forces closed in. The photographs of these victims are up in the rooms where they were found along with the furniture & equipment found at the time. Other parts of the prison retain the tiny cells built into former classrooms, racks of iron leg shackles and torture gallows. One long series of rooms displays the photographs of people who passed though this awful place. Apparantly a lot of work has been done to preserve the documentation from this place so that the crimes committed here aren’t forgotten, however this isn’t publically displayed. What is missing from the museum is the story of how the place came into being, how it functioned and how the prisoners came to be here. It is probably this lack of information that stopped me from being affected as much as I expected; it was this element that made the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC so effective. Make no mistake, this is a place everyone should visit and it will leave a lasting impressing all those that do. I didn’t take any photos here; it didn’t occur to me (I was so wrapped up in what I was seeing) and they wouldn’t have conveyed the atmosphere anyway.
The Choeung Ek killing fields are a few km away but also need to be seen. Of the 17,000 murdered here, 8985 were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. 49 of the 129 communal graves were left undisturbed. What you see here are a large number of pits surrounded by fragments of human boen and bits of cloth. In the centre is a Memorial Stupa with glass walls containing more than 8,000 skulls. Its a very affecting place, though less so than S-21 and also lacks background information that I would have expected.
S-21 and Choeung Ek are a small part of the story of genocide that happened to this country in the 3 years, 8 months and 21 days of the Khmer Rouge rule. During that time it is estimated around 2 million people died, either in one of thousands of killing fields or through starvation and ill health. The Khmer Rouges rise to power was largely to do with the after effects of the Indo-China (Vietnam) war and the Americans disruptive influence in it. When the country was finally liberated from these genocidal maniacs it was by the Vietnamese. For years afterwards the Cambodian seat at the UN was filled by a Khmer Rouge official as the UN refused to accept the Vietnamese installed government. In the 1980’s SAS troups were sent to teach landmining techniques to one of the armed factions opposing the Vietnamese. All those factions, including the Khmer Rouge, were allied so its more than likely the UK supplied landming expertise was available to them. Cambodia has one of the worst landmine problems in the world and its something that will blight the country for decades to come. In the early 90’s the UN stepped in to create order in the country and bungled almost everything. As the pulled out hailing success none of the Khmer Rouge had gone to trial, none of the armed factions had been disarmed and the party that lost the elections still retained most of the power in the country. No nation in the world can have been so let down both by their own politicians and by those abroad. I’ll expand on this potted history when I can; Cambodia’s recent history is truly shocking and should be more widely known.
I also got round to visiting two of Phnom Penhs more famous markets, the Russian Market and Psar O Russie. The Russian market is more tourist oriented, but between the two of the you can buy almost everything : food, hardware, clothing, toiletries, PA systems, CDs, computer software (at $2 a pop)……..
On Tuesday I caught another express boat up the river to Siem Reap. It was another enjoyable 6 hours in the sun watching rural Cambodia pass by. The water must be really low as a few times the boat had to stop to allow the depth ahead to be judged by poles and then at the far end we transferred into a fleet of small boats to take us to land. In them we passed through an extensive floating village including restaurants and shops. I’d arranged to stay at the guesthouse twinned with the one in Phnom Penh so a motorbike taxi weas waiting for me. The initial 4km of the road is shocking, being an incredible bumpy dirt track. Its a crazy sight, my driver with my 18kg rucksack between his legs, me perched behind him all on a 100cc scooter. Before long we had a puncture so I waited at a shack for 15 min, drinking water whilst he zipped of to get it repaired.
The next two days were spent exploring the temples at Angkor. Its hard to know what to write about a series of monuments this impressive, I’ll give some sizes so you can put some scale to the pictures.
The most famous is Angkor Wat. Its surrounded by a 190m wide moat measuring 1.5km by 1.3km, inside which is a wall. At the heart is the temple complex in five tiers, on which the highest has 5 towers, the centre one 55m in height from the ground. Reaching the core temple is via some scarily steep and tall stairs. I saw one Asian lady attempting them in heels and had to look away…. The outside of the entire first level is surrounded by 8 main bass relief carvings each 7 ft high and around 100m long.
Angkor Thom is just north and was the previous Khmer capital. It is surrounded by wall 8m high and 3km along each side, outside of which is a 100m wide moat. It has 5 huge gatehouses, each 20m high. Despite their size the fortifications do not look particularly defensive, lacking all the small features such as arrow slots and ballistrades you would expect on European equivalents. This might be why the Siamese were able to capture it so often, leading to abandonment in favour of Phnom Penh. Inside Angkor Thom are a huge number of impressive monuments, the most significant of which is the Bayon. This has 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 gargantuan faces.
Highly atmospheric is Ta Prohm which has been left partially swallowed by the jungle. This is real Indiana Jones / Tome Raider territory with trees growing up through buildings and vast roots systems growing over and through walls. It was here I spotted one of the most famous Cambodians to foreigners. The front cover of the current Cambodian Lonely Planet shows an old guy with a broom emerging from a door surrounded by roots. He’s still there.
I saw a huge number of staggeringly impressive temples in the two days I was there but the final lasting impression was of an artificial lake, The Western Baray. Its perfectly rectangular and is 8km by 2.3km. How on earth did they manage to create a lake that huge with the technology they had at the time (1000 ADish).
Within a few hundred years of completing the most impressive of the monuments the Khmer empire went into decline. Possibly the effort of building them may have been the catalyst for this by stretching their resources too far. The Angkor area was abandoned to the jungle to remain relatively unknown until the arrival of the Europeans. What it must have been like to discover someting of this scale I can’t imagine. It is said that Angkor rivals Egypt’s pyramids and has to be visited if you come to Cambodia.
Not far away is a landmine museum, run as a charity and providing education to children injured by the mines. There is a huge collection of different mines and other ordinance here. Many of them have their page from the Janes guide mounted above them and it makes chilling reading as someone describes the weapon in unemotional techical detail. Many of the mines found are little plastic anti personnel mines copied from an American design by the Vietnamese. About the size of a coffee jar lid being plastic they are really hard to find and will destroy a limb. Its worth remembering this because like Laos, Cambodia is full of mines and UXO and will be for decades to come. If you are somewhere remote don’t head off the trail.
Siem Reap itself is a pleasant place to spend some time with a good selection of restaurants and bars. However, news of Angkor has got out and luxury hotels are springing up at an incredible rate. The local airport provides direct access to several major local airports including Bangkok and tourist numbers will probably grow enormously over they coming decade. Get here before it gets worse.
The plan is to head back to Phnom Penh tomorrow, then off to the south coast a few days after that.