Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Recapping - Part 1

To say the past couple of weeks have been hectic would be a gross understatement. Chris and I have been packing our days with as much as we can possibly handle. It stands to reason that I've been a little too distracted with travel to write up my blog. To put things in perspective: My last blog came to you from Da Lat and covered everything up until leaving Mui Ne. This blog is coming to you from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, 1500km north of Da Lat (or: two 4-hour buses, one 12-hour overnight bus and one 15-hour overnight bus in backpacker terms).

I've decided to split this blog into two parts as writing one blog about all that has happened in the 11 days since my last entry would be too cumbersome. Part 1 will include Da Lat and Nha Trang and Part 2 will include Hoi An and Hue...

Part 1 starts roughly an hour after I finished typing up my last blog. We had been invited by the guys who ran our hotel to play a game of football that evening. It sounded like a great idea and we agreed to go along. At 18:30 we jumped on the backs of motorbikes and headed off to the football field. It was freezing and the ride on the back of the motos to get there was chilly to say the least. The field was a small astroturf only big enough for 5-a-side, enclosed by nets to stop the ball rolling on to the adjacent fields. I'm afradi I don't have any photos as I was expecting it to rain so I didn't bring my camera. My expectations turned out to be correct. About five minutes into the match it started belting down and it didn't stop for the rest of the night. Within seconds we were soaked to the bone. The only way to stave off the cold was to get stuck into the game. We did just that.

It was an awesome game and possibly the best experience of my trip so far. The rain and cold only added to the experience. The cold forced us to throw ourselves entirely into the game to stay warm and we were rewarded for our efforts. We had started off quite slowly as a team and soon found ourselves 5-1 down. We quickly adjusted to the conditions and mounted a comeback that was nothing short of legendary. As we became used to the rapid movement of the ball on the wet astroturf we started to judge our passes better and started timing our shots much more exactly. We became better as a team and moved the ball around fluidly between us. The result was utter dominance over our opponents.

I hate to be unfair to the rest of the team, but it was the foreigners who proved to be the winning ticket. Chris, the two Americans (Joe and Shawn) and I scored the majority of the goals for our team and performed the midfield roles to perfection - controlling and distributing the ball. In the end Chris had scored about 5 goals, Joe - 3, Shawn - 5 and I - 8.

After a solid hour of intense football the game abruptly stopped. We were told we had won and were heartily congratulated by the other team. The locals on our team were beaming and seemed very happy with the way the game had turned out. We were quickly ushered back on to the motorbikes and whisked off to the hotel. At the hotel we were told to meet in the reception area in 45 minutes. As winners we'd be going out for supper. It sounded fantastic!

45 minutes later, after a much-needed, hot shower we all met in the reception area and piled into a taxi. The taxi took us down the road to a little local restaurant which turned out to be closed. Another plan was hatched and we were put on the back of motorbikes again and scooted up the road to another local resaurant. We sat down and were brought piping hot rice wine to warm us up. It was just the thing we needed. After a ridiculous amount of shots of rice wine a huge, steaming hot pot was placed on the table. The rice wine flowed and the hot pot rapidly diminished and finally, feeling full and utterly content we hopped into a taxi and headed back to the warmth of our beds. A fantastic day concluded with a smile.

The next day we wandered around town and visited the Crazy House for a dose of the absurd. The morning started off with a meeting with the leader of the Easy Riders over some green tea. We said we wanted to do a motorbike tour the next day and it was quickly organised. We then took a very leisurely meander through the town and ended up at the Crazy House. Not much has changed since the last time I was there, but that's a good thing as it remains as absurd as ever. It was surprisingly good to revisit the Crazy House and it brought back great memories of the Easy Rider tour I did the previous time I was in Da Lat and made me eager to do the tour the next day.

Da Lat is full of pleasant surprises. The next morning we walked over to Peace Cafe to meet our Easy Rider companions for the day. You'll never guess who turned up. Or perhaps you will...

Dunhill! You couldn't have scripted it better! The star performer of the last Easy Rider tour I did had made a comeback and was now taking Chris and I on a tour. It was fantastic! The laugh, the smile, the knowledge of the history of the country - Dunhill was just as awesome as I remembered him. The tour was fantastic. We visited some of the same places as the last time, but added a few more. It's always good to be doing something new and all my fears of doing an identical tour to the previous time were quickly allayed. We took in some fantastic views, stood under a raging waterfall and visited a beautiful pagoda among other things. It was a great day out and really rounded off my experience of Da Lat.

The return of Dunhill!
The next morning we hit the road to Nha Trang. The bus trip was nothing short of memorable, if perhaps, for the wrong reasons,. The poor kid who was sitting directly behind me was terribly carsick. The road down to Nha Trang from Da Lat is probably the most winding road in the country and the poor guy felt it. He spent the better part of four hours barfing into a plastic bag.

We spent the afternoon lazing around the streets and beaches of Nha Trang then headed out in the evening to play a game of pool and have a beer. The roughest night of my trip certainly wasn't planned, but somehow it pieced itself together. One beer and a game of pool somehow morphed into a beer, a game of pool, a free mojito and 3 buckets of rum and coke. It was brutal, especially when you consider that rum is cheaper than coke, thus more rum goes into a bucket than coke. It tasted like rum with black food colourant. It was messy, very messy...

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch a boat tour of the islands. Needless to say the last thing I wanted was to be on a rocking boat. But I'll leave it at that. The boat trip started slowly with a visit to an over-priced aquarium which we chose to skip. We'd be snorkelling at the next island so there was no point in seeing fish in a tank. A swim was just what I needed to break me out of the haze and I was feeling much better after we left the second island. A huge lucn followed and it completely sorted me out. I was feeling right as rain by the time we stopped at the third island. At the third island things got extreme. The boy band came out to play us a few songs, but the lead singer was a Ho Chi lookalike. He was such a cool guy and rocked out on the drums and then the guitar, singing all the time. It was rock 'n roll at its finest with Ho Chi taking the lead. Pure genius!

Karaoke followed, which was a bit of a let down as we were now forced to listen to all the other tourists warble away at the tops of their lungs. The Irish contingent did the tourists proud, though with a swinging version of some Mexican song.

The floating bar followed and I dived into the water to cool off. Despite my best efforts to avoid the bar I had 4 horrible shots forced on me. I let a lot of that brutal liquid wash away into the sea and steered clear of the bar. I opted to lie in the water and cool off. I was still recuperating from the night before.

After a brief stop at the fourth, and final, island we headed back to the harbour. The Irish blokes were now well on their way and sang along to all the old classics that got blared over the stereo. They were great company and one couldn't help but smile at their rendition of Wonderwall by Oasis.

We arrived back at the hotel and booked our bus ticket out for the next day. We collapsed on o our beds just in time to catch the start of the day's play at Wimbledon. It was a brilliantly relaxing end to a packed day. We packed our bags the next morning and checked out. We then headed to the beach to kill time before our bus trip to Hoi An. We played cards and read under a palm tree on the beach then wandered back to our hotel to catch the bus.

More in part 2

P.S. I ran out of batteries for my camera on the Nha Trang boat trip. So I don't have any pictures of Ho Chi to upload from my camera. I was able to snap a few on Chris's iPhone though. Here are some links:


Friday, 17 June 2011

Being Lazy

So it's been a week since my last post, which is bloody slack of me. But when you're having a good time the best thing to do is keep going. That's not to say I'm not having a good time at the moment. I'm just taking a break to catch you all up.

As you may know Chris has joined me in Vietnam for a month of travel. If you didn't know this already then you didn't read my previous blog. Shame on you! Here is some ocular proof that Chris is in Vietnam:

Musing in HCMC
Seeing as it's taken me so long to write this blog entry I have a lot to fill you in on. I'll start at the beginning, a logical starting point if ever there was one. Chris joined me on Friday last week in the amazing Ho Chi Minh City. I was waiting at the airport for him to arrive when he popped up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. It's great that he spotted me, because I sure as hell hadn't seen him. What a terrible job of meeting him at the airport I did. He wasn't particularly bothered and neither was I. We headed back to the city centre to get Chris acquainted with the crazy pace of Vietnam's biggest city and with the local beer.

Needless to say, Chris was knackered so we both called it an early night with plans set for the next day. The following day we visited some of the tourist hotspots and historical sights in HCMC. That night we spent at the local steetside pub, pissing it up with the locals. We had planned on going to Apocalypse Now after pre-drinks, but pre-drinks evolved (very quickly) into 4 litres of bia hoi a piece and all thoughts of Apocalypse Now (and even moving) rapidly dissipated. It was an amazing night out that didn't really get very far, but was definitely better than anything we could have planned.

The next day was a very relaxed affair. We meandered around for a while and spent a few hours in the parks before heading down to catch the sunset from the Saigon River. It was there that we met Frederigo (pictured below). We caught motos back from the Saigon River to the park opposite Pham Ngu Lao street. A flower show had been set up in this park and the whole park was lit up with neon lights and adorned with bamboo displays. We found a local who spoke a little English and she explained that the Vietnamese people were voting for their national flower and all the flowers on display were the candidates. It was an amazing festival to be part of. The people seemed so excited to be choosing a national symbol and we were lucky enough to drop right into the middle of it.

The omnipotent Frederigo

The festival of flowers in the park
The next day was one of the best I've had in Vietnam. Chris and I got up at the crazy hour of 08:00 and headed to the local bus station. We were going to the Cu Chi tunnels and we planned on going there solely by local transport. It turned out to be the best decision we could have made. It was incredibly easy to catch the correct buses and it was a lot cheaper than going with an organised tour. The journey there and back cost only 18 000 dong each (roughly R6). The Cu Chi tunnels were everything I'd hoped they would be and more. We watched an old propaganda film from the late '60s and were then promptly led to the entrance of the tunnels. The entrance we were led to was a tiny rectangle roughly 40x30cm. It was crazy to think that not so long ago this was the only means by which people could enter and exit the tunnels. Fortunately that's changed to accommodate tourists and slightly fat people. You can now enter the tunnels through proper staircases although the tunnels remain the same.

An idea of size. That was big.
Entering the tunnels was fantastic! And not a little unnerving. Our first tunnel experience was a very short hop between two rooms underground. It was a quick 3m walk on our haunches. But our guide didn't plan on letting us off easy. The next tunnel we went through was slightly longer at about 10m and included a right-angle turn. A few more short tunnels between rooms followed and then the guide stopped us all.

"Anyone with heart problems or respiratory problems or anyone afraid of the dark or small spaces go through this tunnel," he said, "The rest of you follow me."

Going in...
We knew something big lay ahead. And it was massive. The guide took us through a tunnel that measured roughly 150m in length. There were numerous twists and turns and even a narrowing of the tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel there was a section about 10m long without any lights. The tunnel tilted down, narrowed and turned a corner at this very point. It was bloody terrifying! At this stage we were about 6m underground, with no lights and no idea where we were going. Turning around was impossible so the only thing to do was to plunge ahead and hope you didn't crash into the person in front of you. Sight was completely eliminated and we were forced to rely on touch and sound alone to navigate. Knowing that the tunnel had narrowed around you didn't exactly make things easier.
Into the abyss

We climbed out of the tunnels with our adrenaline pumping, sweating like pigs and laughing like maniacs. It was superb!

I should have ended my blog at that point had I written it earlier, but as the title implies, I was too damn lazy to write it up earlier. I blame that entirely on Mui Ne. Those damn beaches are so alluring and relaxing that you couldn't be asked to move yourself and share your experiences with the world (Or rather the 18 people who read this).

Going back to Mui Ne was awesome! I felt like the prodigal son returning. I was greeted warmly by all the people who remembered me and was pleasantly surprised to know that they had actually remembered me. I remembered them, of course, but to be recognised and greeted so warmly was such a brilliant surprise.

Mui Ne welcomed me back into the fold and I fell straight back into the relaxed pace of life. Getting up late and going to the beach for a swim then relaxing in the shade in the afternoons. Mui Ne reasserted its hold over me almost instantly. I like to think it had the same effect on Chris who joined me in all my strenuous relaxing and beachgoing. That was an intended oxymoron by the way.

On our final day in Mui Ne (yesterday, as I write this), Chris and I hired motorbikes and headed out to see the surrounding area. We went to the red sanddunes just outside Mui Ne and were unimpressed. We then cruised along the beach to a tiny fishing village about 20km outside Mui Ne. We watched some local lads flying kites in the growing wind and decided that we should get to the Cham tower before the heavy weather set in. We cruised back along the coast and Chris's petrol seemed to evaporate. He went from having a nearly full tank to driving in the red in roughly 20 minutes. I told him not to worry we'd get there and back easily. I was, naturally, correct. We got to the Cham tower without so much as a splutter from his moto and promptly set about jumping between old war bunkers on the hilltop. The Cham tower took a back seat as Chris tried to take a photo of me jumping between two remnants of the Vietnam-USA war. I must have jumped the gap roughly 40 times before Chris got that damned photo. It was my first taste of parkour in Vietnam and it was done roughly 50m from a historical site, on top of another historical site. It was awesome!
The final shot
When doing parkour make sure your dong is secure

P.S. That rhymes, courtesy of Chris.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Rest of Cambodia

I had intentions to write about the rest of my time in Cambodia at the end of my last blog, but I thought given the nature of my previous blog it would be best to write another blog post about the rest of Cambodia instead. Wow, what a sentence that turned out to be!

So here goes. After visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields I spent another day in Phnom Penh, just walking around. I visited a few markets and walked along the Tonle Sap River for a while, just taking in the ambiance of the place. My second day in Phnom Penh was really chilled out. I went back to my guesthouse in the evening and booked my bus ticket to Kompong Trach.

The next morning, bright and early I headed to the bus station to catch my bus. Kompong Trach is not a tourist destination, there is only a single paragraph on it in the lonely planet and the only reason that paragraph is there is because of it's proximity to the Vietnamese border. But in that paragraph there was a little jewel of information. 2km from Kompong Trach is Wat Kiri Sela, a buddhist temple built into the side of a limestone karst mountain. I was instantly intrigued by this mysterious wat and simply had to go there. The lonely planet described the wat as having hundreds of caves and caverns under the mountain and a 'hidden valley'at the exit to one such cave. They described the walk through the cave as a 'stumble back in time to the Jurassic period'. The deal was sealed so off I went.

The one-road, one-tourist town of Kompong Trach
Kompong Trach was a one-tourist town and that tourist was me. The locals seemed shocked that a tourist was in their town and I was stared at constantly. It's a strange feeling, being stared at, and it's somewhat disconcerting. But their stares weren't malicious, just curious and they were some of the friendliest people I've met. Nobody spoke English in Kompong Trach so I had to get by with my limited Khmer. Basically all I could do was say hello and thank you. I did a lot of miming in Kompong Trach.

The beauty of getting away from other tourists is that you get charged the local price for everything. There's no farang mark-up off the tourist trail. Because of this, Kompong Trach became the cheapest place I have ever been to. The first meal I had there cost me only 25c (American) and I left feeling completely full and satisfied. When one gets off the tourist trail one doesn't expect to have the same quality of food as they are used to - I thought I might have to become accustomed to tarantulas for dinner. It was to my great delight that I was proven wrong. In fact, I had one of the best meals of my journey in Kompong Trach and for only 75c. I'll dream forever more of that fantastic pork and ginger dish with steamed rice.

It looks like I'm rambling again. What you really want to hear about is Wat Kiri Sela, I'm sure. The day after I arrived in Kompong Trach I borrowed a bicycle from the guest house and headed off to Wat Kiri Sela. Nobody could really point me in the correct direction, but thankfully the lonely planet gave clear directions. Hoping I was going in the right direction, I headed down a gravel road in the direction of a karst mountain. On the way I met a boy who was heading to the wat. He spoke good English and was going to the wat to guide tourists through to the hidden valley. Score. I said he could guide me. The wat wasn't far from the main road and before I knew it I was at the base of the karst mountain in the centre of the wat. My young guide pointed at the cave entrance and said I should follow him through to the valley.

Caves are generally very dark places and this cave was no exception. The only light that penetrated it was from it's two openings - the one we had entered through and the one to which we were headed. In the distance I could see the light coming from the exit, but the valley was impossible to make out. We walked through the cave and my young guide pointed out limestone formations that looked like animals and common objects. All of a sudden we were at the exit and what confronted me was one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I have seen. The cave opened up into the centre of the mountain. The valley was not so much a valley as it was a depression in the centre of the mountain, but it was fantastic nonetheless. Sheer limestone cliffs towered around us and vines and lush vegetation hung down from the mountaintop. We spent the next hour wandering through the little caves and caverns that are peppered around the hidden valley. It was an amazing place to be and I was lucky to be the only tourist there to experience it.
Walking out of a cave... 
Into a 'valley' that looked like this

Thoroughly please with myself, I headed back to Kompong Trach and inquired about a bus to Kep, a beach town 30km from Kompong Trach. I was able to gather that a bus comes past every day at 10AM and 4:30PM. I was also able to gather that nobody sold tickets for the bus. I would need to wait until the bus came past and then flag it down. If you've ever flagged down a bus in Southeast Asia you know that it can be very hit-or-miss. I was a little apprehensive about missing the bus. Kompong Trach was great, but I needed to be able to leave.

I got up early the next morning and packed my bags. The previous day I had waited until 4:30PM to see if the bus came past and sure enough it did,  10 minutes early. Armed with this information I guessed that the locals must have got the times right when telling me when the bus would come past. At 9:30 I went outside and waited. A moto driver was sitting beside me and said that the bus would only come at 11. I was now really uncertain as to when the bus would come past. So I waited. 10 o'clock came and went. I thought the moto driver had got it right, so I resigned myself to leaving at 11. An hour longer is really not that much. At 20 past 10 I was getting thirsty so I went to get myself some water from the shop next door. I can back and spied a chair which looked very inviting after having been standing for an hour. I picked up the chair and was taking it outside when the bus cruised past. "Shit!" I thought. I dropped the chair and waved at the bus driver.

He noticed. The bus stopped and I climbed aboard. I was on my way to Kep.

Kep is a beach resort town. And it isn't cheap. It was the polar opposite of Kompong Trach, yet it was charming in it's own right. I found a guest house that had cheap rooms and settled in. Kep has a very narrow strip of sand called Kep beach it's claim to being a beachside town is a little exaggerated. I've seen more sand in sand pits at playgrounds. But Kep's fame comes from it's seafood, pitched as the best in Cambodia.

Kep lives off this reputation and takes great pleasure in punching tourists' wallets in their kidneys. My own wallet spent the second day in Kep in the bathroom, pissing blood. I felt very sorry for inflicting that damage upon it, but bloody satisfied with what had inflicted the damage. But more on that in a moment.

Kep Beach
On my first day in Kep I went through my orientation and acclimatisation routine of walking around for a while and taking in as much as I can. This was a little trickier in Kep as it is a lot more spread out than most towns and to find a cheap room I had to get right out of the town centre. My orientation ended up being a walk down to Kep beach and then a walk back to my guesthouse to get out of the sun. My first experience of kep prices was dinner that evening. $2.50 for fried rice is unheard of in the rest of Southeast Asia, but not in Kep. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, besides cooldrinks and my poor wallet started whimpering at the thought of what lay ahead.

The next day I headed down to Kep beach again, this time on a bicycle. I lay on the rough sand for the entire morning and listened to the wavelets trickle up the beach. At midday I decided to get out of the heat and headed to my guesthouse to sit in the shade of a palm tree.You may find this back-and-forth strange, but I had a reason for it. I was deliberately doing it to build up an appetite for lunch. "Oliver you are a strange guy," you might be thinking. But there is method to my madness (I think). I was building up an appetite for seafood.

Munching on crab at the Crab Market
At about 2 o'clock my stomach started growling. I knew I was ready. I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled furiously down to the crab market. At the crab market there is no such thing as a cheap meal. Every dish costs in excess of $5. (Yes, that's not much by our standards back home, but in SE Asia that is at least 3 times the cost of a meal). The freshest seafood you can imagine is on the menu, some of it caught just offshore the previous hour. But if you go to the crab market, you'd be a fool to order anything but crab. And so I ordered grilled crab. 45 minutes later a plate with 5 massive crabs on it appeared in front of me. Who can complain about paying R9 per grilled crab, really?

By now I was famished and I tucked in with gusto. Eating crab at Kep will definitely go down as one of the top 5 culinary experiences of my travels. It was fantastic! The crab was incredibly fresh and the meat was fantastically tasty. It had been cooked to perfection and by the end of the meal I was too full to move. My wallet started simpering when I payed for the meal and pleaded with me to spare it from any more torture. I was happy to oblige, I didn't need dinner; I was too full.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Actually nothing was happening back at the ranch (except, this sunset pictured below) I just really wanted to say that line. I went back to my guest house and booked my ticket to back Phnom Penh. The nest morning (yesterday morning, as I write this) I jumped on the bus and headed back to the capital. Upon arrival I booked my bus ticket to HCMC. This morning I headed to the bus station with a huge sense of excitement. I was going back to my favourite city in the world and Chris was going to be joining me the next day. I could barely contain myself.

And here I am, back in Ho Chi Minh City! Sitting, typing to all of you (my avid fans) and eagerly anticipating the arrival of Chris. He's currently on a flight to Kuala Lumpur where he will change planes and fly to HCMC. i'll be meeting him at the airport tomorrow and a whole new leg of my journey will begin. Vietnam with my brother. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
There I go again!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Why do Cambodians Smile?

I found myself pondering this very question on the bus journeys from Phnom Penh to Kompong Trach, Kompong Trach to Kep and Kep back to Phnom Penh. It's not a rhetorical question. I want the answer to it, I just can't think of a suitable explanation.It may seem like a strange question to ask, but hopefully during the course of this blog you'll understand why it needs to be asked... and answered.

It was my visit to the Killing Fields and S-21 that prompted me to ask the question. On my first full day in Phnom Penh I decided to take in some history and arranged a tuk-tuk to Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, and then the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng used to be a school until the Khmer Rouge regime took hold. Under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a prison to house 'enemies of the Khmer Rouge' - a  loosely defined group of people which included intellectuals, women, children and even some Khmer Rouge officials. Although Tuol Sleng was officially defined as a prison it bore a lot more similarities to a death camp. More than 20 000 people were taken to Tuol Sleng and only 7 people left with their lives.

An old classroom, turned into a torture facility

Walking around S-21 was one of the most painful, heartbreaking experiences I have ever had to endure. It has been left mostly as it was found when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled and it serves as a chilling reminder of this amazing country's bloody history. I walked into rooms that used to be classrooms and found only steel beds on which prisoners were tortured and killed. In the courtyard, objects that used to be used by children to exercise had been converted into objects of torture. Classroom walls had been knocked down to create mass holding cells and in other rooms tiny cells (0.8m x 2m) had been built to separate prisoners. Torture devices and crude shackles were contained in yet more classrooms and the walls were covered in paintings depicting the violence that unfolded there less than half a century ago. However, what truly tore at my heart were the pictures of the faces of all the people who were murdered at Tuol Sleng. Thousands of faces stared back at me with such a huge range of emotion ranging from open defiance to utter terror. They seemed to appeal to me for help. Their expressions all asked the same thing of me - Never let this happen again.

The faces of thousands of people who died at Tuol Sleng
Blood still stains the floors of S-21

I left Tuol Sleng feeling a sense of shame - I had come to Cambodia as an ignorant tourist, aware of the brutality that had unfolded here only 30 years ago, yet uncaring. As I walked out of the main gate I was struck by the realisation that leaving Tuol Sleng was a privilege that had been taken from so many people. As I walked out of Tuol Sleng I was greeted with smiles from all sides. Why?

The stupa at the Killing Fields
The next stop of the day was the Killing Fields. It's hard to imagine a more brutal history than that of S-21, but the Killing Fields is one of the few places that can claim to have a more violent history. 15km outside of Phnom Penh, in the beautiful countryside, there is a large stupa in the centre of a lush patch of grass. At the centre of this stupa there is a column about 3 stories high. In this column are the skulls of more than 15 000 people who were killed and buried at the Killing Fields. Behind the stupa the ground is pock-marked with craters. These craters were all mass graves, the largest contained 450 people.

Never let this happen again
The Killing Fields of Chhoueng Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken there to be executed. 2 or 3 times a month a truck, loaded with prisoners, would pull up. The prisoners would be taken, one-by-one, to the edge of a grave and forced to kneel. They would then be bludgeoned on the back of the head so as not to waste bullets, or make a noise. Most of the time the prisoners were killed instantly, but many of the prisoners survived the bludgeoning and were buried alive. Nobody escaped the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Mothers were forced to watch as their babies were held by their ankles and beaten against a tree. Not a single person who was taken there left.

Why do Cambodians Smile?

This single question has been bouncing back and forth in my mind for the past week. After seeing the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng I can see no reason. The Khmer Rouge regime killed nearly 2 million people. Almost a quarter of the entire population. There is not a single Cambodian alive who has not been affected by the Khmer Rouge.

There are, of course, other questions that I have asked myself that remain unanswered. What drives people to  commit these crimes? How did they justify their actions? Are we really such an advanced species when only 30 years ago a supposedly educated man inflicted these horrors on an entire country? Why do we never learn from our mistakes? What the fuck is wrong with us?

And yet I keep coming back to that bothersome question. The one that can't be answered.

Why do Cambodians smile?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Temples of Angkor

The Temples of Angkor. I'm not really sure how to begin. I'll start by saying they were the most stressful experience my camera has ever had. I ended up taking roughly 600 photos during my visits to the temples. If you consider I'd only taken 1100 in the 2 months leading up to this you'll realise that's a lot for my poor camera to handle in just 3 days.

My last blog entry left with me telling you about my grasshopper experience. I'd like to add that eating a grasshopper was one of my top 10 goals for my trip. I'm really glad I got to tick it off. But let's get back to the Temples.

There's a cheeky tactic for visiting the Temples of Angkor that I made full use of. If you buy your ticket after 5PM you're allowed in for the sunset and your ticket is still valid for the following day. I wanted to do more of the Temples so I bought a three day pass. The cheeky tactic still applied. Making use of this tactic, on my first day in Siem Reap, I went to the ticket office and bought my ticket. I then jumped back in the tuk-tuk and headed for Angkor Wat the largest religious structure ever built. The first view of anything is always the best. My first view of Angkor Wat was just a peek at the main spire jutting out above the trees. My breath was instantly taken away. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer size of Angkor Wat. I'd heard so many stories about it's size and grandeur, but that first sighting completely exceeded my expectations!

Angkor Wat catching the setting sun
We drove past Angkor Wat and headed to Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill) which has a temple on it's peak. From this temple the best view of the spires of Angkor Wat is afforded to the viewer. As the sun set Angkor Wat lit up with an orange glow and became more and more striking. If the climb up the hill hadn't been enough to take my breath away, the sunset over Angkor Wat did the trick. Thunder rumbled in the distance lightning struck far away and clouds started to roll over, but the brilliance of Angkor Wat was not diminished in the slightest. It stood there, almost taunting nature to do it's best to bring it down. It's been standing for 800 years, a testament to the strength of the empire that built it.

I left the hilltop buzzing with energy. I could hardly wait for the next day when I would actually go inside the famous temple.

Angkor Wat needs no adornment
I woke up early and joined the rest of the group which had been formed the previous day. Five of us in total. It's a lot cheaper to share tuk-tuks than to go it alone. We headed to Angkor Wat for a sunrise viewing. It was cloudy so the likelihood of actually seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat was slim. We didn't see the sun rise, yet it was perfect nonetheless. Angkor Wat needs no adornment. It is the most impressive structure ever built. Seeing the temple up close was much better than seeing it from afar. As you've probably gathered by now, it is huge, but what makes it more impressive is the amount of detail that it exudes. The walls surrounding the outer cloister are covered in bas-reliefs depicting scenes of the empire's history. Scenes of great battles and the crowning of god-kings are intricately carved into the walls and statues adorn each corner.

Bayon and one of it's many faces
After a couple of hours of wandering around Angkor Wat feeling completely awestruck we left to avoid the hoards of Chinese tourists descending on the temple from all sides. We jumped back in our tuk-tuks and went into the Angkor Thom enclosure. Angkor Thom was the walled city in which the ancient Khmer people lived at the height of the empire's power. It boasts some spectacular temples. The first one we stopped at was Bayon. I find it difficult to describe Bayon. My advice to most people visiting it would be to avoid taking any form of hallucinogenic drugs beforehand it's crazy enough already. Bayon, like most other temples, is enormous. But that is where the similarities end. Bayon is famous for the hundreds of faces which are carved into the spires and face the four cardinal directions. walking around it and looking up at the eerie, smiling faces is a surreal experience. An experience so surreal I ended up buying a T-shirt to remember it.

Baphuong temple was where we headed next. It was closed to tourists as it's undergoing a bit of reconstruction internally. I'm going to sound like a stuck record, but it was amazing. And gigantic. It was a pity we couldn't go inside, but seeing the temple from the outside was stunning enough. A little aside: Baphuong was a Hindu temple and Bayon was a Buddhist temple. The Khmer king at the time proclaimed that Buddhism and Hinduism can co-exist in harmony and so he allowed the temples to be built next to each other.

Looking at Baphuong down the main drag
After Baphoung we walked to the Terrace of the Elephants which sports statues of elephants and a number of intricate carvings of, you guessed it, elephants. The terrace looks out over an array of what I assumed were burial chambers for the god-kings. They were either that or just a field of (relatively) small temples. A short walk took us to the Terrace of the Leper King, which is believed to have been built for a possibly leprous king. Hence the name. Bet you didn't expect that.

Preah Khan doesn't look so big from the entrance
We finished Angkor Thom with a cold beverage then set off for the next temple. Preah Khan was that temple. We arrived at Preah Khan not really sure of what to expect. And what we saw was incredible. Preah Khan it turns out is the second largest temple built by the Khmer. It doesn't look it when you walk down the main drag as it lacks the height of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Baphuong. But as you walk through it unfolds around you and the scale is revealed. The architects were clever when building it. The centre chamber used to house a statue of the king's father. Each doorway leading to the interior is smaller than the previous one. The idea behind this is that the subjects would be forced to bow upon entering the main chamber and seeing the statue. Preah Khan also gave us a taste of what to expect from the next stop as it had a tree wrapped around one of the buildings. We took a break in the centre of Preah Khan, away from the now overbearing heat. WE rested and soaked up the grandeur of the place.

"To the tuk-tuks!" I cried.
A blend of nature and religious fervor
I didn't actually say that, but now I wish I did. Off we went, cruising in our tuk-tuks, to Ta Prohm, the sister temple to Preah Khan. Ta Prohm is the perfect blend of nature and architecture. Over the centuries trees have grown in and around the buildings of Ta Prohm. The buildings and massive trees intertwine and the power of both nature and the ancient Khmer empire is blatantly apparent. Ruins support trees and trees support ruins in a harmonious display of coexistence. Obviously the Khmer didn't build the temple with that in mind, but I think they would be proud to look upon it today and see what it has become. It is a beautiful temple and the forest surrounding it and becoming one with it truly makes it more astonishing. There were a lot of tourists visiting when we arrived so we waited for the masses to dissipate a little before really looking at the temple. This proved worthwhile as it quietened down and the sounds of the forest started creeping back. It made us feel as if we were the people discovering it for the first time.

The midday heat had set in by the time we left and we decided to have one last stop. Ta Keo was that stop. It is a lesser known temple but by no means less superb. It is a single building built somewhat like a Mayan pyramid. We climbed to the top and were gifted with a fantastic view of the surrounding forest. As always the carvings on the walls were very detailed and the building was monolithic. I keep having to thin of synonyms for massive to keep things spicy. After Ta Keo our day was done. I'd snapped roughly 400 photographs in 7 hours. My camera's batteries died.

The next day of temple viewing started at a more reasonable hour, but it was still early. The group of 5 had now been cropped to just 2. The rest of the people were heading off within the next couple of days and couldn't fit three days of temple viewing into their timescale. The further temples were on the cards this day and we started off with the furthest, Kbal Spean 60km away from Siem Reap.

The carvings in the river
I wouldn't call Kbal Spean a temple as such. It is, in actual fact, a river with hundreds of depictions of the Hindu gods carved into the rocks nearby. The riverbed is comprised of thousands of lingas (sacred objects for making water holy) which is why is is nicknamed The River of a Thousand Lingas. The walk up to Kbal Spean was a brilliant 1.5km hike through a dense jungle. At the bottom of the temple the river runs off a small cliff, forming a beautiful waterfall. The water was so cool and it was refreshing to splash over my face and feet. After cooling off a little bit we headed upriver and were greeted by the incredible sight of the riverbed adorned with thousands of linga. Around the river were carvings of animals and deities. We ventured further and found another small waterfall which cascaded over even more lingas. There were more carvings and more lingas further upstream. It felt good to dip my feet in holy water. I didn't burn like I thought I would, I'm obviously angering different gods.

The intricacy of Banteay Srei
A small temple followed Kbal Spean, the temple of Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is the most intricate of all the temples. The walls are all exquisitely carved to the finest detail. Depictions of gods and demons abound and the brickwork is very fine. The locals believe that the detail is too fine to have been carved by men thus the temple must have been made entirely by women. The belief is carried in the name which dedicated the temple to women. However, it turns out it could just be an ancient typo. Banteay Srei is actually dedicated to Shiva. We'd spent ten minutes walking around before the heavens opened. By the time we got back to our tuk-tuk we were soaked to the bone.

The nameless temple, understated yet brilliant
On the drive to the final temple of the day we dried out. This is testament to the Cambodian heat. I don't know the name of the final temple we visited, there are over 200 temples of Angkor I can't be expected to know each one. It was, however, one of my favourites. It seemed somewhat understated, yet it was as grand as any other temple. It wasn't the gargantuan structure that Angkor Wat is and it lacked the strangeness inherent to Bayon or the natural aspects of Ta Prohm. What it did offer was a fantastic view of the surrounding areas and it was from the top that I spotted rain coming. We saw the rain and crammed in as much of the temple as possible before we felt the first drops fall. We climbed down the stairs and headed to the tuk-tuk. Not 5 seconds had passed after climbing into the tuk-tuk before it rained like it had never rained before. Rain bucketed down in torrents and visibility dropped dramatically. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

Bakong, part of the Roluos group
Somehow the rain had stopped by the evening and the next morning I awoke to clear skies. It was to be my last day of temple visiting and the temples in the Roluos group were the ones we were headed to. These temples were among the first to be built by the Khmer and the difference in the architecture is apparent. We visited three temples in the Roluos group. Lolei - the baby, Bakong - the biggest and Preah Ko - a mixture of the others. Lolei was tiny in comparison to other Angkorian temples and only had four spires. If I hadn't seen the rest of the Temples of Angkor it would have been amazing to behold. Bakong had a lot in common with the temples built in subsequent years. It makes one think of it as a dry run for what was to come. The centre spire was large and the views from the top were beautiful. Preah Ko was the last temple we visited. It was a ground-level temple, which is to say it had spires rising from the ground (not from the top of a building). It had statues of lions along the main walkway and before the steps leading up to the spires. It was a good temple to end with as it had a blend of a lot of the aspects of other Angkorian temples.

You're probably really tired of hearing me ramble by now, but luck is on your side. My fingers are getting lazy and I'm about to finish typing this. I hope you enjoyed my ramble about the Temples of Angkor. I sincerely hope that you all get to see them one day. Nothing I say can do them justice.