Monday, February 03, 2014

Go East: Part 2 - Siem Reap

(Part 1 here.)

Friday 11th November

* The journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is long and largely monotonous. Despite our passage through countryside, houses are clustered alongside the road the whole way. It's unsurprising when you consider that sticking to the beaten track is strongly advisable because much of the country remains out of bounds due to unexploded landmines. The countless victims now missing limbs serve as a warning of the dangers, and for a predominantly rural country whose people are already mostly dependent on what they can grow or scavenge, this situation only exacerbates poverty and malnutrition.

* I say "largely monotonous", because every now and again it's enlivened by spotting a bathing water buffalo, witnessing a cow getting chased out of a cafe or stopping at what passes for a roadside service station for delicious food that puts our motorway staples - a Ginsters pasty and a vat of coffee-flavoured hot liquid - to shame.

* On first impressions our temporary residence in Siem Reap, Karavansara, compares favourably to the Royal Mekong Boutique Hotel in Phnom Penh. At risk of sounding like a typical Brit abroad, the staff's general grasp of English is better, and the fact that it's our honeymoon has been taken as an excuse for some impressive towel origami. We'll overlook the fact that the booking is under "Mr Jennifer"...

* We're itching to get sight of some temples before night falls, but our first trip to Angkor Wat turns out to be a bit of a disaster. Not only do we queue only to just miss out on seeing the sun set from the vantage point at Phnom Bakheng, we're ticked off for drinking the lager we've been sold by hawkers, who strangely omit to mention that it might be disrespectful behaviour and merrily let us confirm stereotypes of loutish Brits abroad.

* Having headed back into town past the strip of gaudily ostentatious hotels catering for massive tour parties, we find ourselves in a cafe bar being accosted by a child who tries to flog us books with the unusual sales technique of reciting the names of British prime ministers as far back as Callaghan. Bemused rather than impressed, we politely decline.

* At the Angkor Palm restaurant, the thali proves a sound choice: fresh spring rolls, fish amok, morning glory, spare ribs, mango salad and steamed rice, with the only disappointment the beef green curry (excluding the dessert of bananas in hot coconut milk with tapioca, which I would have given a wide berth even if it had come with its own Michelin star).

* Now we're fed, it's time to feed the fish - with our feet. At $3 for 20 minutes plus a can of beer, it's a cheap way of getting tickled to death.

* Pub Street is aptly named, lined with joints selling 50 cent beer. It's also host to a raucous beach party and a more intensive hustle, the place to go to hear banging dance music and witness German gap year students ripping grilled frogs apart. Showing our age, we take it all in with a fascinated horror (or horrified fascination) before beating a retreat to the quiet Alley Bar for a Grumpy Old Mekong (Mekong whisky, ginger ale, lime) by way of a nightcap.

Saturday 12th November

* Determined to make up for yesterday evening's ill-fated first visit to the temples, we're up and on site early, marvelling at the fact that Angkor Thom was a city with a population of a million at a time when London only had 50,000.

* By far the most distinctive feature of the Bayon are the faces with smiles so enigmatic and inscrutable they could give the Mona Lisa a run for her money. The doorways have steps and are carved at the bottom as well as the top and both long vertical sides, which makes moving from chamber to chamber like stepping through a picture frame.

* Sod baked bean jigsaw puzzles - the Baphuon would be a real challenge to any jigsaw enthusiast. That's thanks to the Khmer Rouge, who seized power when it had been largely dismantled for rebuilding, killed all the workers as French collaborators and destroyed all records of which stone should go where. The steep steps are a useful test for vertigo, while the reclining Buddha, incorporated into the temple using reclaimed stone, is something of a botch job for which the blocks aren't well cut. Someone call the DIY SOS team...

* Ta Prohm aka "the one from Tomb Raider" is famous for being overgrown, with trees perched seemingly precariously (and photogenically) on top of walls while the roots of others threaten to tear walls apart. For someone like me who is fascinated with nature's flagrant disdain for human constructions, this temple is a definite highlight - it's been made safe and some minimal reconstruction work has been carried out, but otherwise it's been left as it is to allow you to get an impression of what it must have been like to be one of the first Western explorers to come across it in the jungle, amidst the deafening siren sound of the cicadas.

* Back in town and wandering around with the intention of relaxing, we decide to give an establishment named Holly Hand a miss. Presumably it should be Holy Hand - holly certainly doesn't sound ideal for massage.

* Tonight's dinner is at a Khmer barbeque place, where we enjoy an enormous spread. Jen takes the plunge and tries a grilled frog, which to no great surprise she describes as being "like chicken". When we get back to the hotel, there are frogs waiting outside our door - it's as though the heavies have been sent round to exact revenge for what Jen's done to one of their number.

Sunday 13th November

* Seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat is pretty much obligatory and demands a 4.30am start. It also demands your tuk-tuk driver turning up on time. Ours is nowhere to be seen, so rather than risk missing the moment we catch a ride with someone else. We're glad we do - it's a spectacular sight, even if we're in the company of hordes of fellow tourists and even if Jen's attention is drawn away from the view of a building often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World by a puppy and a gaggle of fluffy chicks.

* Inside Angkor Wat, everything feels formal and ordered - it's reminiscent of Versailles in that respect. We scale the successive levels somewhat less nimbly than the monkeys scale the scaffolding, admiring the views, taking in the enormous friezes, reminding ourselves that it was once painted and all of the wooden structures have been lost, and feeling grateful to be able to explore it in the cool of the early morning.

* Preah Neak Pean, a tiny temple on an island in a pool surrounded by four other pools, is accessible only by a boardwalk over the water and between the trees. Given that I'm nearly taken out by a Japanese parasol en route and when we arrive we discover we're not allowed in, it's not really worth the effort.

* At some distance from the other temples, Banteay Srei roughly translates as "the Woman's Temple", a reflection of the fact that many of the carved figures depicted on its red sandstone walls are female and perhaps also that the work is so intricate and extravagant that (people assume) it could only have been achieved by delicate ladyhands. Surrounded by a pool, it's small and on one level so doesn't take long to get around - but is arguably the most aesthetically charming of the temples and (at last!) has boards giving information about things other than the restoration process.

* On our way home we stop to pick up some palm sugar - a tasty treacly table made and sold by the roadside.

* The wat across the road from our hotel is rather different to those we've been visiting - all brightly painted, garish friezes and gaudy shrines, like a Footballers' Wives tribute to a temple. It's dedicated to a monk who, when he left, would always return with fresh rice. Evidently the joys of finding a reliable local takeaway are recognised all around the world.

* Heading into town, we randomly encounter Indy, one of our party on the trip to the wildlife sanctuary when we were in Phnom Penh, and hook up for cocktails and a meal. An accountant based in the Cayman Islands, he's used to making money for people who already have more than enough, so is keen to give something back and is about to start four weeks' work with a local NGO. Over the course of the evening the conversation ranges widely but we're left regretting that we didn't give Phnom Penh nightclub Heart Of Darkness a try. 

Monday 14th November

* Breakfast is pretty much a full English, and in combination with a bread basket necessitates a lie down to read.

* After our leisurely start to the day, we decide to explore the Roluos group of temples by tuk-tuk. While not as spectacular as most of the other temples so often unfairly ignored, they're older by at least a couple of centuries, and both Preah Ko and Bakong are worth a visit.

* It occurs to me that the Cambodian habit of rising very early in the morning must be due to the popularity of roosters.

* Two blokes pass us transporting a massive pane of glass on a scooter. I have to pinch myself to check I've not landed on the set of a Laurel & Hardy film.

* Time to get active. Bikes are hired for a charity donation of $2 from a local hotel, and we ride up and around Angkor with occasional stops, including one to watch a monkey climbing up a bloke's leg in pursuit of pineapple. It's hot, sweaty and dusty work, though - so next stop the pool. I'm an avowed jeans man, but am starting to appreciate the value of linen trousers.

* Wat Bo Street is a cooler, less lairy alternative to Pub Street, where we begin our evening by enjoying excellent buy-one-get-one-free pizzas at Kholene (plus a free pumpkin, carrot and ginger amuse-bouche courtesy of the French owner).

* Wat Bo Street's bars are a cut above, too. Beaches is full of eclectic and kitsch touches, complete with fake parrots and a pop art portrait of Mao, while the eccentrically themed Under Construction has bath tub halves as seats, paint tins as light shades, and yellow and black tape everywhere. The best touch, though, is the marker pens and chalk in the toilets inviting you to graffiti the walls.

* We can't resist heading back into the centre of town, though - the lure of the Alley Bar and a Grumpy Old Mekong nightcap is just too much. We're greeted like locals, and the question: "The usual, sir?" Result!

* Stopping off in an internet cafe on our way back to the hotel, I spot a man earnestly reading about DNA testing. Someone's holiday may have taken a turn for the worse, it seems.

Tuesday 15th November

* There's just time for a spot of shopping before we leave, picking up some presents in Rehab, one of several shops run by and in aid of landmine victims. We also browse the markets, a riot of headscarves, T-shirts, colourful knick-knacks, chickens' feet and fish heads.

* For lunch it's back to Kholene for another pizza before drinks by the pool bring our stay to a fittingly relaxed end.

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