Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cambodia: briefly

Deciding to spend the whole two weeks of our vacation in Cambodia was an excellent decision. Some people I chatted to whilst planning the trip had recommended side trips to Laos and/or Thailand, but I am so glad we stuck to our plan of just being in Cambodia. Two weeks was nowhere near enough, and I would've felt we'd cheated ourselves - and Cambodia - if we'd rushed the trip - even more - to see another country as well.

So two weeks on paper, on a calendar, sounds like quite a long time. But when you're in a country with so much depth, so much history, so much beauty and diversity, as Cambodia has to offer, it flies by! So I've titled this blog post "Cambodia: briefly" because I felt we experienced so much, I had so many thoughts, thoughts ad more thoughts going round in my head during our time there, that a single blog post would never suffice to tell about it all. So herewith follows a brief summary of our trip; highlights and some of the recurring thoughts I had whilst on our trip and my pic of the best or most representative photos I took on our trip.

THE tourist attraction in Cambodia is Angkor Wat temple, and the temples in the area around it. Cambodia's history is fascinating: the ancient history from around 800 to 1400 A.D. is one of riches and a huge, powerful empire which at times included vast tracts of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The incredible temples still standing, bear witness to this.

But, then, in contrast, the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge rebels, the civil wars before and after that, unrest and tragedy are recent memories in the minds of many Cambodians. Cambodia was plagued by political unrest from the Vietnam war, right up until the mid 1990s. This recent tragedy, combined with the ancient glory of the temples result in Cambodia's fascinating atmosphere and character: a proud people, bearing scars of the past, but looking forward. There is also an incredible amount if positive work being done in Cmabodia by foreign NGOs to try and help teh Cambodian people re-build their country. At times this worried me as there seems so much foreign influence which could build reliance, but there does seem to be a lot of emphasis on training Cmabodians and providing them with knowledge and skills they can use once the NGOs have left.

the 'compulsory' Angkor Wat photo!

We started our trip in
Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a small city which is the 'gateway' to the temples of Angkor. It is built on tourism, and is a very touirst-friendly city. Tuk-tuks - the most favoured transport method for visitors - abound and restaurants serving all sorts of cuisine, from local Cambodian dleights, to Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and western food. We spent three days in Siem Reap, visiting mostly temples, and just taking in the atmosphere of the place.

We also visited a floating village on the mighty Tonle Sap Lake - the biggest lake in South-East Asia - and the Cambodian Landmine Museum which was an eye-opener of note.

Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in Cambodia and is said to be the biggest religious structure in the world - but we actually enjoyed some of the smaller less popular temples more. Angkor Wat is probably one of the most-visited places in the world: it is overrun with tourists and going there at sunrise or sunset means jostling with crowds and not actualy getting the 'iconic' Angkor Wat photo - or peaseful temple experience - because of the crowds. However, a little foresight and Lonely Planet reading soon revealed 'how to dodge the crowds' and we managed to get quite good at this. I think my two favourite temples besides Angkor Wat were Bayon - with it's famous 'face' towers -and Beang Mealea - the most 'Jungly' temple of the ones we visited. It really has almost been taken
over by the jungle. Wonderful!

at Bayon Temple

Angkor Wat - it is, indeed, a magnificent building!

Beang Mealea - roots, roots, and more roots, all over the ancient structures! A tough one to capture in photographs. Go and see for yourself is all I can say!

My favourite photo of Angkor Wat " a little birds' eye view" - kind of puts things in a different perspective

Village on stilts: there is such a huge change in water levels of the Tonle Sap lake - it is fed by the mighty Mekong River which floods in the monsoon/rainy season - so the people have adjusted to the environment.

Further into the main body of the lake, they just float along and the change in water level doens't bother them much

floating shops...

floating schools...

...floating homes including pot plants and pets!

From Siem Reap we then took a 12-hour overnight bus down to the coast - the beach town of
Sihanoukville. It bears all the traces of touristed beach/port towns: lots of opportunistic locals, the usual spread of localised expats making money of the more transient tourists, the feel of easily accessible drugs and sex...and loads of party venues. It DID also have pretty views, beach bungalows and access to offshore islands, diving and snorkeling. So we focused on the later characteristics and had a good time! In any case, for us Sihanoukville was more a jumping off point to the nearby island of Koh Rong.

Serendipity Beach- the part of Sihanoukville we saw most of.

Cloud 9 Bungalows, Sihanoukville. A pretty spot slightly off the main drag.

Sunrise over Serendipity beach - we saw so many beautiful sunrises during our trip - not that lazy after all!
(The little 'house' is a shrine to the gods which almost every home in Cambodia has)

Our next stop was Koh Rong Island. It's a smallish island - one could probably walk around it in one day - off the coast of Sihanoukville in the gulf of Thailand. We spent most of our time on the island diving and chilling. It was so peaceful: there are only 2 tourist lodges on the island and one or two litle local fishing villages. We were there for three days and when someone mentioned that they were looking for a volunteer English teacher the idea of living on a perfect paradise tropical island for a few months was very tempting indeed...

Locals leading their water buffalo along the beach on Koh Rong. Water buffalo are ever-present and an intricate part of the lives of rural farmers in Cambodia.

The view from our bungalow on Koh Rong. Bliss.

A few more photos from Koh Rong.

From Koh Rong island we went back to Sihanoukville for one night, and from there we caught a bus north-west to the border town of Krong Koh Kong. It's on the border with Thailand and is mainly seen by people on their way through. We stayed one night and relaxed and visited the mangrove forests of the Preah Krasaop Wildife Sanctuary. A walkway has been built in this mangrove forest - which is one of the biggest in South-East Asia. We enjoyed the early morning walk through the forest, but were a bit disappointed at the lack of information about the forest and its ecosystem. We had also hoped to do a bit of bird-watching as there were some special mangrove species we could've see but it was very quiet - wondered where all the birds were...

Mangrove forest

From Krong Koh Kong we went to Rainbow Lodge near the Tatai river. It was about a 40 minute tuk-tuk ride from Krong Koh Kong and then a 15 minute long boat ride up-river. Such a beautifully situated lodge. It is a so-called eco-lodge as they run mostly off solar energy and the lodge was built from sustainably harvested materials. It was nestled in the Cardamom Protected Forest and very peaceful indeed: far from the madding crowd as they say. We were there for three days and this was the most relaxing part of our trip. We passed the time swimming in the beautiful clean river, playing scrabble, reading and just chillin'. We also went for a 'Jungle Trek' - more like a nice walk through the forest, but lovely nonetheless.

The experience left me thinking about the definition of the words jungle/tropical jungle/forest/rainforest/tropical jungle etc...The Cardamoms Forest is the largest intact piece of tropical forest/jungle on the South-east asian mainland. However, I don't know how 'intact' it is: there is a lot of poaching and most of the large mammals are no longer easy to spot as their populations numbers are so low. There are supposedly tigers, elephants and the rare siamese crocodile, amongst other lesser known mammals, in these forests, but even wildlife NGOs with camera traps are having very few sightings of them, so sadly even this last mainland jungle 'foothold' is no longer truly pristine. From the deck at Rainbow Lodge we did however hear gibbons calling in the mornings and there was lots of birdsong all around, so we did enjoy the bush! We also got to see giant hornbills which were amazing.

Sadly, the Cambodian government has awarded a contract to an chinese company to build a huge dam on one of the major rivers running through the Cardamom forest, so there goes that one. I must admit, our peaceful nature experience at Rianbow Lodge was strongly tempered by the reality of epxloitation: Cambodia is still a very poor country and so the 'little' people use the forest as a resource, but much more dangerously, the 'big people' like this giant chinese dam construction company are being given free reign on one of the country's most precious natural resources. The people need eletcricity, hence the dam, but the manner in which the business is being conducted is not conducive for a long-term solution to Cambodia's poverty.

Rainbow Lodge at Sunset, so bushy and green. We loved it!

Scrabble! we played again...and again..and again! Jules won more than me, but when I won, it was more convincing. Judge for yourself!

The resident cat at Rainbow Lodge.
Almost every place we stayed in Cambodia had a cat - I loved being with them. Oh how I miss our kitties at home!

"Jungle Trekking" - Jungle Jane?!

Beautiful waterfall on the Tatai river.

From Rainbow Lodge we travelled back up to
Siem Reap. Another long 12-hour bus trip, only broken by a transfer into a second bus in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. As it happens, we didn't actually get round to spending any time in Phnom Penh. It is a bit of a pity, as I believe it has character and is a worthwhile place to explore, but we just wanted to see as much nature and countryside as possible. Enough city life for us here in Korea!

We spent the last day of our holiday in Siem Reap again. We hadn't quite had our fill of the temples and it was nice being able to go back and do things at our pace and see the ones we hadn't managed to first time round. Here are some pics of the last bit of temple-hopping we did...

My favouritest budding photographer and travel companion in the whole wide world!


EEbEE said...

You know the stange thing about going through this post... i felt it was all very VERY familiar.

"I've been here" i said to myself.

Then it hit me. The newest Tomb Raider game has a Cambodia chapter. It's rendered almost EXACTLY like the real thing (just fewer blood thirsty bats and tigers wanting to disembowel you roving behind every corner).

I wonder if virtual tourism will ever take off....hmmm

(PS awesome postcard. thanks!)

Jessica Jane said...

hahaha! So do you HONESTLY not feel like you still need to see the real thing?
Well, considering the absence of tigers and crazy bats bit be a disappointmnet, sticking with your version might make sense!