Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
24.11.2011 - 01.12.2011 33 °C
We'd read that the border between Thailand and Cambodia was troublesome. Many touts want to lure you away and scam you. With this in mind we used the government bus to get to the border and already had our e-visas. It was really easy in the end. Just walked across into Cambodia and onto the free shuttle bus to the main bus station. We did have to pay a little extra for a seat in a taxi ($12) but we had a much better time of it than a bus load of travellers we met en route who had to wait two hours at the Thai border without their passports while their tout got visas done for them at a somewhat inflated cost.
In Siem Reap we managed to find a room for $4 at Garden Village. They also hired bikes out for $1 and beer was 50¢. It's a hard life; this travelling lark.
We set out the next morning for Angkor Wat, the ruins of a civilization of about 1000 years ago. The main city, Angkor Thom, had a population of about 1,000,000 when London had about 50,000. The ruins are awesome and the cycling was fun. It's 10km from Siem Reap to the ruins but dead flat. The ruins make up for the flatness by having hundreds of steps, some of them very interesting after a thousand years of wear and tear. We went back a second day for the dawn, which was worth getting up at 4.30 to see and to visit some of the slightly more remote and less touristy temples (although we did make an exception for the temple where Tomb Raider and Two Brothers were filmed, Ta Prom). We also had fun bargaining with the local women for water, drinks, and breakfast (who knew menu prices were so negotiable). The food in Siem Reap was some of the best we've tasted. We also saw some Apsara dancing, where women demonstrate how double jointed they are and how good their core strength is. Apsaras are goddesses created as a side effect of the creation of the world, which was done by armies of gods and demons churning an ocean of milk (obviously).
We decided not to pay the extortionate tourist fare for the boat trip across the Tonlé Sap to Phnom Penh ($35!) so we took the bus. Phnom Penh's numeric road numbering system was a big help in navigating the city, which was small enough to go everywhere on foot (no matter how insistent the rickshaw drivers are), although Claire still managed to get lost. Claire maintains not lost but directionally challenged. On our first day, we visited the Royal Palace compound. It contains the Silver Pagoda, so called for its solid silver floor tiles. Very shiny. Mostly covered by carpet, but we found some uncovered bits to walk on.
The next day, we organized a trip to Choeung Ek, one of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. It had a very informative audio guide and a very beautiful stupa has been built in memory of the victims, containing hundreds of skulls that had been found in the surrounding mass graves. All in all, not a very pleasant experience but important to include. We followed it up with a visit to the Toul Sleng Prison, where many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured before being transported to the killing fields. Hard to believe that this happened so recently - the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979.
Phnom Penh itself is a great city, though. We particularly liked walking along the riverfront in the evening, where many locals gather to socialize or take part in a street dance class.