My last blog focussed on the worst of Cambodia, so this time I will keep to the title of the Intrepid tour, The Best of Cambodia, and talk about variety, excitement and delight – the Temples and the waterways.
Temples to die for
Like Machu Pichu, Mecca and Jerusalem, Angkor Wat in Cambodia is high on any bucket list. It is high in beauty and mystery, it is high in cultural value and it is high in terms of the steps you need to climb.
It is magical to wait for the sun to rise on Angkor Wat, and reflect its ancient stone in the surrounding lakes and moat. You can imagine the passion of the king who built the massive monument to himself in the 11th century at the height of the Khmer kingdom. Thousands of slaves and prisoners of war cut, carried, and carved the stones , which stand testament to brilliant architectural skill. In the Bayon complex, French explorers in the 18th century found a huge and detailed carving telling the story of Khmer life in the 11th and 12th centuries- now a matter of great pride to Cambodians as they rebuild their country.
Angkor Wat is the biggest construction, but it is only one of many monuments and temples which cover many square kilometres near Siem Reap in the centre of Cambodia. UNESCO have declared the vast area of flat countryside and jungle to be a World Heritage , and only just in time. A pitifully small team of volunteers is restoring some of the buildings. Many others are slowly collapsing, or being swallowed up by the voracious jungle. Tomb Raider was filmed at the surreal Ta Prohm , and vividly reveals the power of nature to overcome human construction.
We spent two whole days walking, photographing and gazing in awe. I would advise at least four days to do Angkor Wat justice. Our hotel was the Orchidee, on the road to Angkor Wat. Beautiful rooms, and a blissful swimming pool to cool down after the dust and heat of the day.
You can book a tuk tuk to take you around, or a private tour, for very reasonable prices. Over the road is the National Museum, an excellent place to spend two hours learning about the Khmer civilisation. Sophisticated audiovisuals and contemporary displays with English explanations.
In Siem Reap there are so many restaurants and bars that one street is called Pub Street. Our pick is Joe to Go, – delicious Cambodian and Western food and all profits go to help street kids gain employment skills. They had also opened a fashion boutique, for local designers to sell their wares.
Rivers and Beaches all year round
Siem Reap can be reached by air, road or river. We travelled by scenic long boat, for six hours chugging up theSAngker River. It was great to travel at the speed of people around us, even though the boat would by no means satisfy any safety ruling! We passed riverside villages, fishing boats and the famous floating houses and shops.
We stopped at a village where all the houses are on stilts of eight to twelve feet, to protect them from the annual flooding in the rainy season. Everyone gets around in boats a bit like gondolas. Even the schools are up on stilts, and tiny children play perilously close to the edge of the platforms. Everywhere there are water hyacinth plants, blocking the waterways, and floating in huge chunks down the Mekong. The whole area is another giant UNESCO World Heritage site , but again there is insufficient funding for effective conservation.
Our boat driver knew all the short cuts, along narrow channels between trees and bushes adapted to the water. Our final hour was across the open Tonle Sap lake, which some of the year is fresh water and sometimes is salty, depending again on the season.For more about this unique phenomenon see http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/srtonlesap.htm
At Kampong Cham, we stayed right on the Mekong River. The Mekong is the lifeblood of Cambodia, irrigating the almost completely flat countryside, and providing a rich array of fish. We crossed a tributary by wooden barge, driven by a car engine.
In a few weeks the water level will be low enough for a bamboo bridge to be used by the inhabitants of Koh Paen, to bring their bananas,pineapple, dragon fruit, rice and vegetables to market. We biked around the muddy roads of this pretty island, sampling fruit and giving high fives to waiting children.Dinner on the Mekong in Kampot was like being in a tourist advertisement.
Our thatched roof restaurant jutted out over the river, and we watched fishing boats setting out for the evening catch, as the sun set behind Bokor Mountain. The newly built Natural Bungalows, on the Mekong, were a perfect place to explore the colonial French architecture and peaceful street life of this lovely town.
We finally hit the south coast of Cambodia at the popular seaside town of Kep. As we ate a meal of sea food, at a long table above the beach, we watched women collecting large crabs from bamboo baskets right in front of us. They hauled them up on to the rocks and sold them straight away to busloads of locals.
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Sihanoukville was the seaside town of choice for the French during their time in Cambodia, and many of the terraced and courtyard houses remain, in spite of the area being the last strong hold of the Khmer Rouge.
There are miles of white sand beach, carpeted with sun lounges and tables, and lined with beachside cafes. Further out there are beautiful islands still undeveloped. We had a great day snorkelling and sunbathing, and eating fish barbecued by our boat driver.
Another place for a few more days of sun and fantastic cheap food. Our favourite drink in the heat and humidity is a fruit smoothie- pure papaya, or pineapple or mango, whizzed up with ice, for about 50cents a tall glass. This is a breakfast fruit salad. Along with an omelette, baguette, and coffee, it is a great way to start the day.