When we visited Cambodia in December 2010 we had an amazing time. But we had some small regrets as a result of our time there. We only stayed for 5 days which is not long enough for such an incredible country with such amazing people. And we also visited with too much of a backpacker mentality and looked to travel as cheaply and lightly as possible. So we came back to put things right.
We flew into Siem Reap which is where most tourists go in Cambodia. Siem Reap is the town which is close to most of the temples built by the mighty Khmer Empire between the 8th and 13th centuries. The most famous of which is the incredible Angkor Wat.
We wanted to see more temples and chat with the children and young adults who try valiantly to sell their wares to tourists. We also wanted to spend some more time with the wonderful Davong, our tuk tuk driver from 2010.
We arrived courtesy of yet another flight with Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur. The flight cost £50 each one way. By camparison to fly to Siem Reap from the much closer Bangkok costs around £200 with a Thai Airline. It is in fact cheaper to fly with Air Asia from Bangkok via KL.
Entry to Cambodia is often troublesome I believe. Last time we got in slowly after waking the border guards on the Mekong River. This time the modern state of the art Siem Reap International Airport was a fine example of disarray. We completed two forms, paid for our visa but were then turned away by immigration for not having the correct form. We, along with many other tourists, were pointed from desk to desk until eventually an officer appeared with a stack of the correct forms. In all it took about an hour to get through the airport.
We were driven by tuk tuk driver Lee to the Motherhome Inn. This hotel is new and the staff were quite simply amazing. Welcoming, helpful, friendly and most importantly they handed us each a cold towel fresh from the fridge every time we arrived back. I can not emphasise how wonderful a cold towel feels when you step inside from the vicious Cambodian heat.
Our tuk tuk driver was attached to the hotel and we wasted little time before asking him to drive us out to see a temple that I was very excited about seeing. Beng Mealea lies 70km outside of Siem Reap and has only recently become easy to get to. A new road has been built to another outlying temple and Beng Mealea is on this road. This is the temple where the film Two Brothers was filmed. It’s going on the Lovefilm request list when we get home even though I have seen it before.
The temple itself is immense and mostly in a state of collapse. The jungle is rampant throughout the ruins which makes for an incredible atmosphere. Visitors are free to climb over the huge jumble of sandstone blocks to get to the galleries and buildings which still stand. Two young Cambodian girls joined us on our visit. We knew they were hoping we would pay them and we were more than happy to do so. Essentially they just followed us around though the oldest did take Claire’s arm on some of the steps whilst my companion followed me like a shadow. After 20 minutes we paid them so they could go and find other people to help and hopefully earn some more money.
Next we stopped for lunch and invited our driver Lee (probably not spelled like that though) to join us. He spoke good English having attended hospitality school. He told us how poor Cambodians eat mostly rice, with only a tiny amount of meat in their meals to keep costs down. At the time I was ladelling my Fish Amok from coconut shell to plate which was a little embarrassing. He also told me that he used to work in the hotel office but the salary of US$80 per month was not enough so he now works much harder as a driver but earns a little more. So less than £15 per week for an Office Job. Another reason to be amazed how Cambodians are so happy.
After lunch we visited the Roluos Group of temples where we met a young chap who ran a voluntary English Language school. He had been a monk but returned to normal life as he felt he could do more good teaching English. His school relies on donations and we really wanted to do more that just give money. Sadly there was little more we could do. He told us that sending books from abroad was pointless as they would never arrive.
The highlight of the day though was the look on the young kids faces as we returned their waves as we drove past. This far out of Siem Reap the poverty seemed much worse but despite this everybody looked happy. Hopefully the new road is bringing more opportunities for them.
That evening, after fantastic massages at Motherhome Inn we ate near the comically named but fantastically alive Pub Street again. In fact we ate at the same restaurant when we visited in 2010. We shared a table with Caroline and Diane from the UK then and we sat at the same table this time. And in fact I ate the same food which was again brilliant!
The next day we had arranged to meet Davong and he was to take us on a day of temple visits. We were really excited about seeing Davong again as we had such a brilliant time with him in 2010. So much so he warranted a mention on one of our wedding tables!
Davong arrived bang on time and any fear that he may not remember us was unfounded. We all said an excitable hello and set off.
We started by returning to the huge city of Angkor Thom. This city houses the incredible Bayon temple and it was a joy to revisit. Last time Davong took us to the Bayon very early and we had the temple to ourselves. This time we shared the experience with around 10% of the people of China. We spent time looking at the bas relief carvings this time which depict daily life within the city limits some 900 years ago. Much like us last time nobody else was looking at these but they were so interesting.
After the Bayon we strolled through the Western side of the city which we didn’t have time to look at last time. We spent an hour exploring smaller temples and administrative buildings in beautiful solitude.
After this Davong took us on a tour of some temples we hadn’t seen and some of the best temples we had already seen but wanted to look at again.
We won’t bore you with intricate details suffice to say they were all fantastic. But a few items are worthy of mention I think.
At Preah Khan we again took a look at the small visitor centre. This was newly opened in December 2010 and we were first to sign the visitors book. Aside from page one which was allegedly signed by Angelina Jolie. The visitor book now has many hundreds of entries with ours sitting proudly in position one!
We ate lunch at the East Mebon temple. A number of restaurants are located here in a line and as soon as we pulled up all of the women running these eateries competed for our custom. All well humoured mind, but choosing is a nightmare. We made Davong choose and we then tried again to buy him lunch and again we failed.
The food was great and two young girls from two of the shop stalls sat with us to try and sell scarves. One of the girls spoke excellent English and we spent 20 minutes chatting to her. She told us how each of the stalls and sellers at the temples must buy their pitch. She told us that a small pitch at Angkor Wat, which every visitor will visit costs up to US$5,000. She bought her own pitch at East Mebon for US$200 a long time ago and she estimates it is now worth US$1,000.
She also told us about her sister who is aged 15. A few years ago an American/Russian couple visited her shop and met the younger sister. They eventually offered to sponsor the younger sister’s education which consisted of three different private schools and a private taxi to and from each day. They think this costs around US$800 per year. By chance the sponsors had visited that very morning as they do once every year to pay the fees and to make sure all was well. Apparently they always visit Cambodia for this reason only and fly back out the same day.
As with all of the sellers at the temples they have so much respect and such impeccable manners. As soon as our food arrived she left us, but not before we promised to visit her shop. As we ate one other tourist arrived and we watched the competition for his business. This is the quiet season at Angkor and East Mebon is a fairly quiet temple. We got the impression that some of the restaurants may receive no customers all day.
After eating I bought a cheesy t-shirt and Claire bought another scarf. As we walked around one of the ladies running a restaurant told me she loved me and offered to swap me for her own husband. Claire declined thankfully, though the thought of limitless delicious Khmer food did linger in my mind.
In the afternoon we visited Banteay Samre, as we thought we missed this one out last time. However we soon realised that this was the temple we went to sleep at. In our defence the heat and the early starts are very tiring. We found the comfortable spot where we snoozed and then pressed on discovering what we had missed.
We also visited Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple. This is the temple that has huge trees growing on top and through the buildings and walls. It is breathtaking second time around too! I became conscious that we tended to turn right when exploring temples last time. Some sort of weird human instinct no doubt. This time we always turned left.
After that we visited a water temple, Neak Pean. Last time we were here I was struggling in the heat and collapsed in a dramatic heap. This time I was feeling on top form so we were disappointed to find the temple fenced off. But all was not lost. The children selling things here were brilliant. One stall had the brilliant idea of displaying a giant thermometer and self rehydration powder. Their thermometer read 36c! I stuck to my rehydration fluid of choice, Coca Cola. We also gave some pencils out to some of the kids in the hope that they would find good use for them.
The children are quite desperate to sell and their sales pitch is quite intense. But I discovered last time that they absolutely love to have a conversation so they can practice their English.
Finally we bought some tiny metal animal figurines from a chap who only had one leg and part of his hand missing. Undoubtedly he is a victim of a landmine. The country is still riddled with them courtesy of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese military. Great work continues to remove them but it is so sad to see so many people with limbs missing. It is so hard to prosper in Cambodia anyway without such a shocking disability. I read that in the mid 1990’s some 300 people per month were killed or injured but this number is thankfully now much lower.
Second to last we returned to Angkor Thom to visit The Baphoun. This is a huge pyramid temple and when we visited in 2010 a French team were working hard to finish rebuilding it. The temple had almost entirely collapsed by 1960 when restoration started. Each of the blocks location was recorded and then removed but when the Khmer Rouge came to power the restoration team had to leave. The records of the work carried out were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge so when the work restarted some years later the job had effectively become the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. They eventually finished a few months after our last visit so we were keen to see it.
Access is still restricted but following the permitted route we were able to climb nearly to the top to take in the fantastic views.
Finally, we headed to Angkor Wat for sunset. Angkor Wat is truly incredible. It is the largest religious building in the world and because it was never abandoned like the other temples it remains in fantastic condition. We strolled (to the left) and then returned though the main buildings planning our next adventures as we walked.
We then headed back to our hotel and Davong asked if he could drive us into town later as he had something for us. He remembered last time that we had bought him a gift of some honey after he tried to warn us of a bees nest. He didn’t know the English for bees but kept pointing at the nest and saying “honey honey”.
I just had enough time for a shower and another superb massage before Davong returned. He had bought us a beautiful stone Elephant carving and written us a kind message which reduced Claire to tears. It was an incredibly touching gesture and was the perfect end to another perfect visit to Siem Reap.
If you are reading this prior to visiting the Temples and Siem Reap, please consider using our friend Davong to get around. He is an absolute legend and you will not regret it. Drop him an email, and say hi from us!