After a week-long excursion to Vietnam and the Mekong Delta we headed back from Chau Doc to Cambodia by boat. After a very journey we arrived in Kampong Thom, halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The town offered some more insights into provincial life in Cambodia, as well as served as a basis for an side trip to Sambor Prey Kuk, some pre-Angkorian ruins.
After seven days in the Mekong Delta it was time to say goodbye to that part of South East Asia and return to Cambodia. At 7:30 am our hydrofoil left Chau Doc in Vietnam for the Vietnamese-Cambodian border and on to Phnom Penh. The guide on the boat offered to organize our visa on arrival in Cambodia for 34 dollars for us. After our experience at the Lao-Cambodian border, we declined politely since we didn’t expect any free goodies for a job which one can eassily do oneself and the amount he was asking for seemed odd. At the Lao-Cambodian border the officials charged 5 dollars processing fee on top of the 30 dollars for the visa. it all started making sense once we had to pay the visa. The border official only asked for 30 dollars each and didn’t request us to pay a processing fee, even though the guide implored him to do so in order not to lose face. The border official however was on our side this time and the guide then went on to ask us no to tell anyone on the boat in order not to cause a riot.
5 hours grueling hours on the hydrofoil brought us to Phnom Penh, where we immediately got busy to find a ride to Kampong Thom. The tuk-tuk driver only wanted to bring us for one dollar to a travel agency around the corner. Unfortunately the ride was way more than what we expected such that he had to bring us to our originally negotiated destination near Psar Thmei at the main bus station. It was the first time we had to deal with a really unhappy tuk-tuk driver since he didn’t get the 4 dollars he was originally asking for, but only one. We prefer to leave people who provide service in a good mood, but the touts at the pier for the speedboats were just hoping for way to much luck. It is very unfortunate if foreign tourist are just regarded as walking wallets. We believe that this image is created by the tourists themselves since they usually do not adjust to their host country and it customs and standards. Understanding prices and negotiation culture in a country should be part of any travel preparation.
Another 5 hours of bumpy bus ride later we were very tired when we reached Kampong Thom. 10 hours of net travel time left us so tired that we happily checked-in the first guesthouse across the street from the bus stop. Even a delicious dinner was to be found only a few steps from the guesthouse. We had decided to sleep in he two following days to rest a bit after 7 days of uninterrupted moving around. This aligned well with our plans of half-day trip to Sambor Prey Kuk and a 2 to 3 hour bus ride to Siem Reap.
After a long time it was the first day we had not set the alarm clock and were quite surprised to find out that it was already 9:30 when we finally woke up. Lazily we got ready and ate some breakfast across the street from the guesthouse. A tuk-tuk driver had already spotted us the night before and found as again, before we were even thinking about a tuk-tuk. After he had given us time to eat our breakfast we started negotiating prices and soon were on the way with his friend through villages and rice fields to the temple complex of Sambor Prey Kuk, about 30 km north-east of Kampong Thom.
Sambor Prey Kuk is a collection of brick temples, which were built about 300 years before the Angkorian complex near Siem Reap. Since the temples are less impressive there are way fewever visitors and a relaxed atmosphere reigns among the trees and temples (Sambor Prey Kuk translates as “Temples among trees”). Quite a few things the guide at the site explained us sounded familiar to what we had already seen at Vat Phu in Laos, which dates back to roughly the same time.
A little disturbing however was the number of children who relentlessly tried to seel scarves to any foreigner walking by. Although the children and their imploring looks have a very strong effect on any tourist, one should never buy anything from children or give any kind of presents to children. As soon as the children are successful in seeling products, the parents have one important incentive less to send the children to school, but rather let them sell their products to make more money. Any kind of present, whether it is a piece of candy or a pen and paper, will transform the receiving child into a beggar at one point. There are more than enough organizations which can be contacted on how one can effectively help poor people and children. We have seen our share of results of well-meant support for poor people and children and they are not encouraging at all. At some places we were even asked by tour guides to buy pens and paper for the children in the villages and the children in the area where already begging, even though tourism in that part of the world was still in its infancy.
In the late afternoon we checked out the town of Kampong Thom and inquired about pricing for bus tickets to Siem Reap. Apparently there is a common fare among all bus operators, it’s just that some add an extra dollar which can easily be negotiated away. We decided to postpone buying a ticket until the next morning, knowing that the buses should start passing Kampong Thom around 10:30 am. We hoped on the first bus arriving around 11:30 am and about 3 hours and one exploded tire later we arrived in Siem Reap. Fortunately the change of tire only delay our bus ride by about 15 minutes as a tire expert can be found every few kilometers on Cambodia’s roads.
At the bus station in Sieam Reap we once again were attacked by a pack of tuk-tuk drivers. Asking for exorbitant prices they tried to pull every single dollar from our pockets. Unfortunately they guy who ended up giving us a ride into town was not sympathetic enough that we hired him for the rest of our stay in Siem Reap. We were dropped of at a quite corner of town amidst a number of guesthouses. Even though it was almost halloween we did not trick or treat, but went from door to door asking for available rooms. At the Happy Guesthouse we found a room which fulfilled our requirements and we moved in.
On foot we started taking a first tour of the city and were more than mildly surprised to find a very well established infrastructure for tourists. The center of town around the old market could be a touristy place anywhere in the world. The multitude of restaurants and bars is inviting to a culinary tour around the globes completed by souvenir shops en masse. We took a good look at everything and ended up in a Khmer restaurant for some excellent local food. We needed to be strengthened for the program we had planned for the following two days of visiting temples.
We decided to spend one day discovering the temples of Angkor by bicycle on the so-called small circuit, before we hired a tuk-tuk the second day to explore the large circuit includ Banteay Sreay, the lady temple. A very good choice as we discovered. Even though we read reports of people complaining how far the temples were apart and that a bicycle tour was a very bad idea because of the heat and no shade, the contrary was very much true. The small circuit is somewhere between 25 and 30 km long and most of it is actually on roads among trees and thus very shady. We opted for the higher quality mountain bike instead of the city bikes which very often are made for short Asians rather than tall Europeans. We saw plenty of people on city bikes who looked like they were hitting their chins with their knees.
Just past 7 am we were on our way to Angkor Wat, the main attraction of the area and important symbol of Cambodia. We managed to finish our visit just when the flood of tour groups started arriving. The disadvantage was that we drowned in the masses of tourists at the Bayon in Angkor Thom. Fortunately that remained the only time this happened to us on the first day.
We explored the further sites around Angkor Thom before we started looking for possibilities to eat lunch nearby. Lenka’s reaction upon seeing the prices in the menu made those crumble to about half of their original value. Timing proved to be excellent since before we finished our meal the skies opened and people started to seek shelter. We enjoyed the downpour from our almost dry vantage point and opted to stay put until the second time the showers stopped. Better choice than what the cyclist next to us in the restaurant did, since we believe they did not make it much more than a few hundred meters, before the hardest rainfall started. After we had set off, the rain soon completely stopped. Perfect timing indeed!
We climbed around the temples east of Angkor Thom before we took an extended period of time to disover Ta Phrom and its many side rooms and trees which grow on bricks and walls. Soon we understood why the temple is not only liked by tourists but also by the film industry (parts of Tomb Raider were apparently filmed there). The sometimes hidden passages kept giving new interesting sights on the temple.
We also visited Banteay Kdei before returning to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. Arriving at Angkor Wat we were surprised once more. Even though the towers of the temple were looking amazing in the colors of the setting sun, however there seemed to be very little interest for the spectacle right in front of the temple. The reason for the few tourists is probably twofold: for one most of the tours return back to Siem Reap much earlier and secondly most of the people gathered in exactly one location. We enjoyed the quiet atmosphere before speeding back to the city where we arrived before the sky had turned all black.
After a quite tiring day we enjoyed a dinner near our guesthouse in order to return to our room early. Again there were two reasons to sleep well that night: firstly we were tired from our 12 hours cycling temples visit and secondly we were going to get up very early the next morning. We had already agreed the day before that we would meet a tuk-tuk driver at 5 am to experience the sunrise at Angkor Wat. At a leisurely pace we made our way out to Angkor Wat, however the leisurely part was not our doing, but the tuk-tuk’s. It seemed that the whole day other tuk-tuks and motorbikes were passing us as we enjoyed the view from our tuk-tuk. Not once did we pass any motorized vehicle. We thus came to the conclusion that we must have hired the slowest tuk-tuk of Siem Reap for our excursion. We still made it to Angkor Wat in time to capture a front row space at the lake in which Angkor Wat would be mirrored once the sun was rising.
Slowly the sky began to lighten up and the colors behind the Wat started to change, albeit not quite as much as we were hoping. Next to us an ambitious amateur photographer had set-up his gear. As his company he had a professional who was supposed to teach him a few new tricks. But the student proved to be resistant to any hints and pointers the pro was giving him. It was kind of hard to understand why he had hired a teacher in the first place…
Once the sun had risen we continued our tour to Angkor Thom for a break before heading to Preah Khan, one of the largest ruins north of Angkor Thom. Simiarly to our excursion the previous day to Ta Prohm we enjoyed discovering the hidden passages and rooms on the on either side of the main axis of the temple. The walls and bricks covered in moss made for an eerie atmosphere, especially since it was still early morning. The place also looked like some giants used to place Lego and left just left them there once they had played enough.
A long ride later we reached the lady temple or Banteay Srey. This temple located about 10 km north of the Angkor complex shows beatiful stone carvings in rare red sandstone. The only bad part about the visit was, that we had lost quite a bit of time eating breakfast and visiting Preah Khan, such that all tour buses already had made it out to Banteay Srey. Fortunately the tour groups moved rather quickly such that we could have a few moments without too many people inside the small temple.
At our limited speed we headed back to the big loop where we checked out Ta Som, Neak Pean, the East Mebon and Pre Rup. Of course we came across a lot of dealers trying to sell us a typical scarf, book about Angkor or fruit. While most of the dealers accepted a polite “No, thank you” as a reaction and left us alone, there were a few others and all children, who were different. Especially the children were out of luck with us, since we decided not to buy anything at all from children. Even though they can almost make stones melt with their looks, one has to understand that buying from children encourages their parents to send them selling products instead of going to school. The more successful the children the higher the likelihood that the will not see the inside of a school again. We would appreciate if more tourists would consider the consequences of their actions when visiting poor countries. Maybe there will be a post about this topic sometime in the future.
Since we had returned from our excursion during the afternoon we had some time to roam through the streets of Siem Reap. We did this looking out for a potential place to eat and to possibly find an office of one of the bus operators in order to buy a ticket to Battambang for the next day. We found the office of Capitol Tours at a very central location and bought a couple of bus tickets for 4.50 USD including a pick-up service from our guesthouse. The same service would have cost us 6 USD if bought from our guesthouse. This showed us once more that we could save money for a small breakfast with very little time effort.
Once again we went to bed early because we had to be ready for pick-up the next morning at 7 am. After a not quite so exciting breakfast at our guesthouse we packed our belongings in a minibus which brought us to the Capitol Tours bus station. The tourists were split up according to destination and a little bit later we were on our way to Battambang, our last stop in Cambodia. After a short stop in Banteay Meanchey, where we had time for a cup of sugar cane juice, we reached Battambang pretty much exactly three and a half hours after our departure in Siem Reap.
Much more actively than elsewhere the tuk-tuk drivers expected the bus to attract customers with signs they were holding up. One driver got our attention since he was offering a ride into town for half a dollar a person. Through sign language we agreed to make use of his services and he also had a hotel to recommend to us. Additionally he also offered his services for tours in and around Battambang. We let him drive us to the Royal Hotel, where we checked a room, negotiated the price and finally moved in. So we could focus on the next task at hand with the tuk-tuk driver, discuss tour options for the afternoon. He had already offered a tour to two English persons for the afternoon which matched exactly what we had in mind. We happily agreed to ride along with another English girl. The arrangment made everybody happy. Us, because we had to pay less, the tuk-tuk driver because in sum he made more money on one ride.
Before our tour started at 1:30 pm, we had enough time for lunch on the market and to explore the area around the hotel a little bit. Right on time everybody arrive in front of the hotel and the party of six headed off to one of the roundabouts in town. The driver stopped to explain to us how the city of Battambang come to its name and how the statue in the middle of the roundabou showed the person being responsible for that (Grandfather Stick). THe tuk-tuk driver proved to be a decent tourist guide as well. The first real destination of the trip then was the bamboo train or Norrie. After the Cambodian railway system had crumbled during the Khmer Rouge regime, people started making use of the existing train tracks using an invention by Mr. Norrie. A Norrie consists of a couple of axles and wheels which fit on the train tracks. A bamboo frame is placed on top to keep the axles in place and in its earliest form a long pole was used to propel the train. Later on the bamboo pole was replaced by lawn mower sized gas engines which accelerate the little vehicle to speeds up to 40 km/h. Of course we didn’t want to miss a ride on the dangerously shaky vehicle and sped down the track in a little bit. A Norrie would not pass any safety test in the world, but they are still fun to ride and after 20 minutes we reached the little village at the far end of the train tracks. We had just enough time to take a look at the brick and rice factories before we headed back to our origin. On the way back we also had to disassemble and reassemble our Norrie once due to us being the smaller party crossing. A quick routine action of not even 2 minutes.
The second destination of our afternoon excursion was Phnom Sampeu. On top of this hill located about 12 km south-west of Battambang, there is a temple which used to used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. A cave nearby ended up being the last destination for about 10000 Cambodians who were brutaly killed there.
The last attraction of the tour was located at the bottom of the mountain. A cave at the foot of Phnom Sampeu houses an estimated 3 million small bats. Every evening at dusk the bats head out to nearby Tonle Sap in search for some nice insects for food. On seemingly a road all the boats follow the same path out to the lake, even kilometers from the cave one can still make out the stream of animals in the sky.
Once the sky was pitch black we arrived back in the city where we set out to hunt for food as well. In one of the few restaurants which were still open we found what we called a worthy final meal in Cambodia before we left the country for this time heading to Thailand.