Next it was off to Siem Reap, the home of the Temples of Angkor. Mateusz from the jungle and I joined together to make the bus journey there together. On the way we got talking to Katie and by the time we’d bundled ourselves onto a tuk tuk in Siem Reap, we’d made the decision to tackle the temples collectively. A brief conversation with the staff in our hostel and there was another guy who was hoping to join in with a group. We had 4 – the perfect number to rent a tuk tuk for the day! At $20 total, including a 5am start for sunrise, it was a steal.
Another pre-dawn wake-up and we were greeted by a friendly Cambodian who was far more awake than we were. He knew all the shortcuts and soon we were flying past the hoards of tuk tuks, all making their way to the ticket centre and then onto Angkor Wat for the arrival of sunlight. A one-day pass for all the temples was $20 and as we were on a bit of a schedule to make other destinations, we got just one-day passes. Unfortunately for any would-be visitors, they’ve changed the admission prices as of February 1st 2017 to 1-day @ $37, 3-days @ $62 and 7-days @ $72 – it’s almost double!
Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the biggest and most well known of all the temples. Lots of people collectively group the temples under the name Angkor Wat when it really only refers to the one where everyone watches the sunrise. It’s surrounded by a large moat and crossing over the walkway in the dark with the crowds built the anticipation. Once inside the grounds, hundreds of people crowd around a lake in order to watch the sun rise over the temple itself. We opted for a slightly more relaxed position just off to the side mainly because we had no idea where to be in the darkness! It did bring the benefit of an opportunity to get some fruit pancakes with coffee and thick condensed milk while seated in relative peace.
Seeing the skyline silhouetted with such an impressive panorama was magic. It was absolutely worth the early rise and I’d do it again. I was glad we’d chosen our spot to avoid the elbows and stern looks of the photographers in the prime position getting their photos with reflections in the lake. Little did many of them realise that on the other side of the walkway there was another lake with plenty of space to get off the shot you wanted. I was smiling blissfully, having made the minimal effort to take a stroll and find it.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
After losing each other in the dawn chorus, Mateusz, Katie, Clements (our unforthcoming German) and I reconvened to start the adventure round the temples. I took the role of tour guide and googled facts as we went. We wandered far and over to the forests on the temple’s other side. Katie spotted a Golden Orb Weaver spider and as a biologist, she enchanted us with her passionate knowledge.
Clements, Katie and Mateusz enchanted by the huge web of a Golden Orb Weaver
There are a couple of well-trodden tourist circuits round the temples. With only one day, we were on the short circuit and it seemed like the majority of others were too. I can’t even begin to explain the numbers of people that greeted us once we’d made our way to Bayon and Angkor Thom. At points, you couldn’t move for the tours. Unfortunately, we were there over a national holiday and this only compounded movement issues. However, this did little to take away from the wonder of the temples themselves.
Them crowds though
Each carved stone block was its own piece of art and with a little investigation pockets of peace with burning incense and golden Buddha’s could be found away from the crowds. After Angkor Thom, we lost our tuk tuk driver for around an hour having not understood his instructions. It was baking but iced fruit smoothies all round and a systematic approach through the hundreds of other drivers meant we eventually found him. I had the luck to be the first to discover his location and the smiles that greeted me as a lounged in the back and called out to the others were palpable.
The bridge to Bayon
Hidden buddhas and peaceful moments
'Just another' beautiful temple
Next came our moment of the day. Getting slightly off the usual short circuit we found a couple of temples that had no one around. The four of us took pleasure in strolling about and actually appreciating the soothing calmness of the stoic stone temples. I even managed to find a few precious moments to meditate. It was my highlight.
Afterwards it was off to Ta Prohm. You may not know Ta Prohm by name but it’s probable that you’ve seen pictures. When I think of the Temples of Angkor I think of trees growing out of stone with gnarled and twisting roots: Ta Prohm is this place and it was the setting for some famous scenes in the Tomb Raider film. We even dined in a restaurant showing Angelina Jolie in one of her most famous roles – I’m sure they just have it on repeat for the tourists – the staff must be sick of it!
Ta Prohm is stupefying. While Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are in relatively good condition with clear walkways, open courtyards and no rubble, Ta Prohm is the opposite. It truly feels like you’ve stumbled across an ancient world or King Louis’s domain from the Jungle Book. We spent ages getting lost there: whole paths and rooms were blocked with fallen stones and tree roots. There’s an established tour route with wooden decking to some of the famous trees and their stone breaking roots but heading off this path revealed unreclaimed sections of authenticity. The whole experience was awesome.
In fact, every element of the Temples of Angkor was awesome. From the epic crowd sizes to sheer disbelief that such buildings were built, I enjoyed my day there. It’s undoubtedly deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status and is a must see. Sadly many people visit Cambodia and only see their hotel and the temples. It’s worth making that trip if you have limited time; it’s just that you’re missing out on so much more the country has to offer.
On one of our evenings in Siem Reap, Mateusz and I met a French girl by the name of Cloé and an Italian called Lucio. We’d spent an evening drinking beers at the side of the road and after our day in the temples, we had dinner with them. They’d been cycling round the temples and the beauty of that is independence from the prescribed tourist routes. I’d recommend it based on their experiences. Over dinner with them and Katie, Lucio and I made plans to head to Battambang. Mateusz was heading to Thailand for a meditation retreat and I had a friend I’d made in Thailand to pay a visit to – Lucio was coming along for the ride and ride we did.
Siem Reap to Battambang is an easy couple of hours on one of the regular buses. We arrived early afternoon and struggled to find some accommodation. There wasn’t a lot in the way of cheap sleeps and eventually we found a twin room in a hotel to share for the extravagant cost of $3. I won’t mention its name as I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but it did what we needed, which was providing a bed.
Adam, the new friend I’d met in a Bangkok hostel, had told me to come to Battambang for a taste of a real Cambodian town. While we waited for him to finish work, Lucio and I took an epic walk round the town and into suburbs. We got a fair way out and it was wonderful being greeted with hellos and smiles from the children roaming loose.
We met Adam in the evening for drinks and dinner on a riverboat restaurant. We talked late into the evening and visited one of his favourite joints while putting the world to rights. A pleasant evening indeed.
The next day bought adventure for Lucio and I while Adam worked his hangover. First stop after renting a motorbike was the bamboo railway. This is every bit as fun as it sounds. During the 20th Century, the French built a railway running through the country to the capital. Upon independence, it fell into varying states of disrepair until some enterprising locals near Battambang built some cart wheels, attached a bamboo platform and stuck an engine on the back.
Bamboo carts at the ready
Lucio and I ready to ride
For $5 each, we hopped onto our bamboo cart and our driver set out with a wonderful pace. The train tracks weren’t straight, at some points they didn’t meet up and it generally provided a crazy ride. What they had created was effectively a flat rollercoaster (although I’m sure they’d claim it was for moving goods easily between town and their villages!). Health and safety certainly wasn’t a priority. We were whooping and hollering the whole way.
One of the beauties of this transport method is that due to the single line of tracks, if you met any traffic, the drivers (and us) would lift off the bamboo platform and the wheels from the tracks, allow the other party through and then proceed to rebuild for the ongoing journey. On our way out, we only had to stop once, which meant it was pretty much full power the whole way – ideal!
Getting our cart back on track
Once the end of the maintained line was reached, a series of stalls and eager-to-sell villagers greeted any tourists. We took a walk through the fields and came back when there was less hard sell pressure. We had a great conversation with a local girl who spoke wonderful English and had moved from selling bracelets to her own t-shirt and clothes stall over the years – it was smiles all round. The journey back was met with far more stoppages and each bought nods of appreciation with tourists and a battle for supremacy between the drivers who always wanted to move the other’s cart off the tracks. With plans to upgrade and start reusing the railway properly, there may be a limited timeframe on this experience unfortunately.
Next, it was on to the bat cave. A little further out from the town (~15kms) stands one of many rocky outcrops. This particular one was famous for a several reasons: firstly, 3 temples stand upon its top peaks; secondly, one of the temples was used as a killing cave during the Khmer Rouge’s reign; thirdly, around a quarter of the 6 million bats in Cambodia live in one of its caves. We’d gone for all three reasons.
The middle afternoon was spent visiting the temples, avoiding cheeky monkeys, clambering in dark caves, gazing at temple Buddha statues and appreciating weird monuments like glass boxes filled with skulls. Late afternoon bought a quick, time-killing motorbike ride through the countryside while we waited for dusk. Dusk was important because twilight is when the bats come out.
View from the top
A temple on top
Monkey on the move
Praying at the temple in the rocks
Potentially the strangest sculpture I've ever seen
Having already visited the temples and walked most of the rocky promontory, we were well placed to time our arrival for the bat viewings well. The bats came out at sunset before 7pm and we got seated around 6pm in the prime viewing position with plenty of time to share a few beverages and relax as the crowds appeared. And then came the bats.
Waiting for the bats
I’m not sure what I was expecting – whatever I was expecting, this was better. Starting with just a couple of early sky-adopters, a steady flow developed into one continuous stream to weaving, rolling bats. The flow shifted constantly and the bats just kept coming. The sheer numbers were baffling. They didn’t all come at once, the cloud of bats went on for over half an hour and I’ve no idea when it stopped – beyond that the sky was too dark to see them. It was one of those moments that photography will rarely do justice to – it just had to be experienced.
Afterwards, we had a slightly dubious night ride back to Battambang to meet Adam. Dinner and drinks went down at a restaurant that Adam joked was his ‘sketchy western bar’. The bar itself was fairly nice, the food pretty good and it’s always nice to spend an evening in a warm climate overlooking a street: it was the characters in the bar that were sketchy. From one guy who was a convicted murderer deported back to Cambodia to the Australian life-escapee causing carnage with the ladies of Cambodia, I revelled in the conversation and will never forget it. Lucio, Adam and I were merely bystanders to the show the expats put on.
I had the pleasure of Adam’s sofa and another early start to get me on my way to the Vietnamese border. It was another bus and this time heading back through Phnom Penh. Before that though I was stopping off in Kampot for a bit of relaxation and seaside.
Kampot and Kep are two towns set in the southeast coastal region of Cambodia. They’re a regular recommendation for those wishing to avoid the touristic party scene of Sihanoukville. I wasn’t opposed to visiting there at all, just with limited time and an impending boys weekend in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year I probably needed to keep a clean liver :)
I’d found a slightly quieter hostel set outside of the main centre of Kampot called La Plantation. When I arrived I couldn’t believe the place I’d stumbled upon – it was exactly what I was after: quiet, beautiful and with enough travellers to make for interesting conversation. I arrived late and spent an hour or so talking with Lance, the Canadian owner, about the little piece of paradise he was building. We talked American football, travelling experiences and Cambodia while I peered through the darkness at the wooden huts topped with palm leaves and the sandy volleyball area.
The next couple of days I spent reading and generally relaxing. It was nice to be somewhere that had enough going on to be interesting but not so much I felt like I was wasting time. It helped that they served good food, I was deep in a good series of books and the friendly barman was serving up the occasional beer on the house. So much for resting the liver ;)
Motorbikes are definitely a winner in Cambodia. They’re a great way to get around, cost effective and give you the freedom to get to places that haven’t had their tourist logistics developed too far yet. There are still plenty of original experiences to be had. While there, I met a French Canadian called Hubert who had taken a long-term rental on a motorbike for a month and was using it to get around. I’d do this if I visit again. I mention motorbiking as I once again rented a bike for another great day adventuring.
Setting off relatively early, I cruised along the highway to Bokor Mountain, an old French hill station. Here I climbed a wonderful road up to the high cresting special reserve. It was the first road since Pico that I truly loved: twisting and winding its way up, it was perfect for a motorbike with little traffic and great tarmac. I delighted in coming back down it too.
Having paid my 2,000 Riel entry fee for the motorbike, up top I visited the giant 29m Lok Yeay Mao Monument on the main road to the central park area. As the protector spirit of travellers it felt appropriate to visit – it was ok; nothing much compared to many others visited – the best bit was the view down to the coast. After that it was over to the Popokvil waterfall, relatively calm in the dry season, I can only imagine the spectacle it provides with rainy season waters gushing over its wide top.
In the dry season you can sit right where the Popokvil waterfall flows over in the rainy season
On top, the climate was totally different. It’s the reason the French has chosen it as they escaped the heat of the cities pre air-conditioning. Compared to the t-shirt wearing warmth of the coast, I was glad I’d been advised to take a jumper. It was cooler and the moment I left the waterfall, fine misting rain set in – not great for the bike! Taking it easy was the best course of action and I had plenty of fun enjoying the tourists in vests, shorts and flip-flops with scowls upon their faces. A bit of preparation had served me well here. One bit I did skip because of the rain was the 100 Rice Fields, a rock field which looks just like rice paddies.
In the central area, there is a hotel complex under stopped construction. I’m not sure exactly what’s happened but the buildings have either seen better days, are abandoned or work has been left midway through. I quite like dilapidated areas so had great fun driving round with the camera. There’s an old abandoned casino that I almost entirely missed in the encompassing fog that had developed. I was glad I’d missed it first time round though, as it led me to head further than most, down some old tracks in searching for it.
Hotel complex under construction
What I found was abandoned summerhouses with wonderful views over the forests of the national park. On a clear summer’s day they would have be awesome and probably revealed the coastline and sea beyond. What I found was a pocket of lichen covered concrete walls and high quality graffiti. There was no one else there and I had the pleasure of photographing with glee. What I found had been wonderful.
View from abandonment
Just one of the wonderful murals
As the weather wasn’t so great and I was getting a bit wet, I headed back down to the coast. With the wonderful drive to delight in and a brisk wind, I was pretty much dry by the time I made it to Kampot. I stopped briefly and then was off to Kep and it’s beach.
My main reason for heading there wasn’t the beach – it was for its famed crab market. Right down by the docks, just before you enter the town, there’s a food market. At first I couldn’t see any crabs for sale and was worrying I’d got the wrong place. On the dockside, there were many locals wandering about and it was only by strolling past them several times that I worked out what they were up to – they were the crabbers and until someone wanted some crabs, they milled about chatting.
Fishing the crabs out
Once I’d worked this out, I approached them and immediately one of the men was diving into the water to pull up a crab cage. We negotiated a price of $6 per kilo of crabs and very swiftly I had a bag of 20 or so smalls crabs ready to go. They ushered me over to a women with a small pot fire and for 2000 Riel she cooked them up for me. Never in my life have I had such fresh produce and it showed. Within 15 minutes, I was seated at a plastic table with a kilo of freshly cooked crabs and was getting stuck in. They were beyond delicious – it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever had, hands down.
Crab in a bag
I took a small ride on the bike along the beachfront and basked in the sun a bit. I’m not sure there was much else to do in Kep except soak up sun and enjoy the beach so I felt I’d executed the game perfectly by staying in Kampot and visiting Kep. That evening I dined with Hubert and two other French Canadians, Kloe and Pierre-olivier in town. We shared a few beers and enjoyed the darkness of the evening. It was all round a great day out.
Chilling with Hubert on my last night in Cambodia
Ultimately, Cambodia was a country of great activities for me. I loved it. Everywhere I went were some of the best experiences I’ve had on the road – everything I did made me smile. The wonderful company I enjoyed throughout Cambodia also helped!
Finally, it was off to Vietnam. Another day, another country. I wasn’t staying there long. I had to meet a man about a dragon and was taking a brief holiday mid travelling to see Hong Kong over Chinese New Year. The man I was visiting was Ben, a very good friend from home joined by his colleagues from work in Malaysia. That’s up next time.
Thursday 19th January – Boutique Dormitory Kochi-Ke, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Friday 20th January – Boutique Dormitory Kochi-Ke, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Saturday 21st January – 333, Battambang, Cambodia
Sunday 22nd January – Adam’s flat, Battambang, Cambodia
Monday 23rd January – La Plantation, Kampot, Cambodia
Tuesday 24th January – La Plantation, Kampot, Cambodia
Wednesday 25th January – La Plantation, Kampot, Cambodia
Thursday 26th January – Saigon Inncrowd hostel, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam