One of the wonders of the world - Angor Wat and one of the saddest places I've seen in SE Asia, Phnom Phenh
Travel Notes : Thailand and Cambodia November 2005
• Cambodia – my first trip there and I found it both easier traveling than I expected but more disturbing than either Thailand or Laos due to a surplus of beggars and an aggressive attitude by many of the people.
• Angkor Wat – words fail me ; it certainly deserves all its praise as a Wonder of the World. It is an extremely impressive place which I thoroughly enjoyed.
• Safety – I was alarmed by the poor safety standards (indeed, total lack of standards) in Cambodia.
• Bangkok – many improvements but still a long way to go. Pollution and traffic jams seem to be back after a slight respite when the rapid transport systems were first opened a few years ago.
• Increased prices for the Thai people – transport in particular - cause a general sense of discontent in the country. There was even talk of a coup but I think it was just that – talk.
(I was wrong .. there was a military coup in 2006).
• Thai Airways –it really is a superior airline .. the food and service were good, especially compared to the rather blunt service provided by KLM.
I spent a week in Bangkok, then went to Cambodia for two weeks and had a final week in Bangkok before returning to London on 30 November. Thai Airways – I was lucky to get a non stop London/Bangkok return journey for £480 (it is normally closer to £600 this time of year). I was even luckier to have a vacant seat next to me on both outbound/inbound legs of the journey. The cheaper than normal prices and empty seats are an indication of how tourism in Thailand has been hit by (1) the tsunami after effects (2) the bird flu scare and (3) competition from Vietnam and China.
Trouble on arrival in Bangkok when the airport ‘approved’ taxi driver did not use his meter and overcharged me for the journey to the hotel. This is the first year that this has happened. I suspect it is due in part to the squeeze being put on taxi drivers because of the increase in petrol (gas) prices, but no one likes being cheated, so I have written to the Tourist Authority of Thailand .. I await a response.
The Hotel Malaysia as welcoming as ever … many of the usual suspects there (the gathering of International White Trash, as my friend Tom Childs used to say). Nice room with cable TV, a large fridge, and air conditioning for just over £10 ($17) a night. Having a Deluxe room meant that I had my own coffee maker and the fridge allowed me to keep fruit, so I had breakfast in my room and did not have to face the world until I was fed and watered. Now that the underground station is nearby, the hotel has become far more convenient.
I did many of the usual things in Bangkok, most of which I have reported before (river taxi trip, went to Lumpini Park, etc.). This time I was searching for semi precious stones or gems for my friend Helen’s jewelry making hobby and that took me into Chinatown and the crowded markets there. Not much luck in finding anything really special for Helen (although she was pleased with a couple of items I got for her), but I had fun as I went through the markets. The chaos of it is slightly overwhelming but the variety of goods in fascinating and it is ‘real Thailand’.
I also found a new (to me) area which specializes in timber and wood carving – (Bang Sue, not really a tourist area, it seems to be a wholesale operation for Thai businesses). There was a lively general market in the same area with beautiful vegetables and fruit, fresh fish, clothing and all sorts of general merchandise. The place was exceptionally clean and orderly (especially in comparison to Chinatown) and while I wanted to take photos, I felt that it was not appropriate since the place was not a tourist attraction and the people were so sweet and curious about what I was doing there. I think that the camera can be a way of treating people as objects and am very wary of photographing them.
The Bangkok property boom continues … building sites all over the place and new apartments/condominiums being built in spite of a glut of property on the market. The relationship between the cost of property and rental values is crazy (buying property is expensive while rents are very cheap and would not cover the cost of a mortgage).
A crash seems inevitable but I have been saying that for years about London and it has not happened. I guess I simply underestimate the amount of spare cash that is floating around the globe.
Eating is always a treat in Bangkok and the outdoor restaurant near the hotel (Just One) is still excellent and cheap. I had many good meals in Bangkok. One of my favourite places, Mizu’s Kitchen in Patpong, is still outstanding value for money (it would not pass many people’s hygiene standards but a little dirt never hurt anyone). I wish I could get their breaded shrimp here (especially at less than £2 a platter).
On to Cambodia. Because of its recent past and the fact that it is such a poor country, I was amazed to find that it is an easy place to deal with. Siem Reap, the town nearest Angkor Wat has a population of 85,000 but the part of interest to me was very compact and I walked most of the time. The Golden Banana Guest House (which I located over the Internet) was a delight. 16 rooms, most in a traditional style; hot water and air conditioning and extremely clean. Breakfast was included and I particularly liked the large bowl with 4 or 5 fruits and good black coffee which started my day.
The owner (Kee) lived in Australia for 6 years and speaks excellent English .. most of the staff spoke good English. I liked the fact that all sorts of information was available about how to visit the local sights, and while the hotel had taxi/tourist/driver contacts there was no pressure to use them. I did my usual freelance thing and found a tuk tuk * driver near the old bridge who took me out to the ruins and waited while I did my sightseeing - $8 for 4 hours, which seemed good value.
- (in Cambodia, they are small cabs hitched to a motorcycle, not exactly like the purpose built tuk tuk of Thailand)
It seems odd that a Communist country is so lax about currency controls but bills could be paid in the local currency (riels – 4,000 to a dollar), Thai Baht or US Dollars. Many prices are set in US Dollars and that seemed to be the currency of favour. Luckily I was prepared for this and had a stash of smallish US bills. In general the prices were higher than Thailand and many places seem to think that a dollar was a low price .. a few things were priced at 50 cents, but that was rare. I am certain that the local people don’t pay as much (although I saw a lot of them dealing in US Dollars). In any case, it was all still fairly cheap by Western standards, so I did not lose sleep over it.
There are lots and lots of foreign owned businesses in Siem Reap (bars/restaurants) and a bewildering choice of restaurants serving Italian, Indian, French, American, Chinese food – in fact, most everything but Cambodian food. Coffee and bread are much better than in Thailand (I suspect this is the French influence since this was a French colony and they are now back there in a big way). There are many very posh hotels with rooms from $200 to $400 – most of the major chains were represented : Meridien, Sofitel, Raffles.
I met an American architect working on the extension of a 12 room hotel where the rates were $800 a night. It was so posh it did not have a sign on the low white wall enclosing it. I confirmed this price with the owner of my guest house, it is apparently the place for movie stars and seriously rich people.
Angkor Wat is actually only one temple complex out of a extensive set of them. The 100 or so temples were built during the 9th and 14th Century when the Khmer civilization was at its peak. The ruins are spread over an area about 40 miles wide and are linked in style to other Khmer temples hundreds of miles away. This Khmer civilization included much of present day Thailand and Vietnam, and stretched up into southern China. Angkor Wat was said to have been a city of over a million people when London had a population of 50,000.
The closest thing I have seen to compare it with are the Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan, but the Khmer ruins and both more extensive and elaborate. Many people warned of fatigue (‘templed out”) but I found sufficient variety in the ruins to sustain my interest. Some places appeared to be for ceremonial purposes (Terrace of the Leper King and Terrace of the Elephants); others were royal residences (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom); there was also a huge moated complex (Neak Pean) and an impressive monastery (Preah Khan).
Perhaps one of the best features of the whole complex is that it is surrounded by forests (jungles?) and there are pleasant walks between many of the temples. Signs are in good taste and new development within the park kept to a minimum, so it is a very high quality environment.
While Angkor Wat is impressive, my personal favourites were Bayon .. a ‘temple mountain’ with 56 stone towers which have (or had) the face of the king. Bayon also has nearly a mile of bas reliefs on the external walls; they tell the story of various wars and royal adventures. … and Ta Prohm, a monastery which was over run with trees and vegetation which has only been cleared up enough to make the place safe (relatively speaking) for tourists. It is a haunting beautiful place which gives one an idea of what the French must have seen when they ‘discovered’ the temples in the 1860s.
I had a week long pass and went out sightseeing 5 days (not continuous – I had a couple of rest days) before running out of steam. Walking and climbing in the 90 degrees plus heat and burning sun were exhausting. I did not get to see the outlying sights such as Banteay Srey and the Roulos Group (said by fellow guests at the Golden Banana to be impressive). That is sufficient reason to return to Siem Reap on another occasion.
I stayed in Siem Reap for 9 nights and had allowed far more time than the usual visitor because I assumed this would be my only visit to Angkor Wat, but now that I have seen it, I think a return trip is in order. I must make it before I get much older. It is a testing place .. climbing and walking on rough surfaces .. and even for one like me who loves heat, it was physically demanding. Some of the climbs (Angkor Wat itself) were simply too daunting for me.
I was very lucky to be in Cambodia at the time of the water festival (called Loy Kratong in Thailand). The people place small ‘boats’ (about the size of a dinner place in most cases) on the water, lighting a candle on the boat before pushing it out into the river. I have seen the festival in Thailand but the setting in Siem Reap was more impressive because there were so many people. The river was calm so most of the boats stayed afloat. There were fairy lights in the trees and later fireworks which added that extra touch. During the afternoon and early evening there were boat races on the river and the local people were actively supporting their favourite teams. I liked it because it was all so casual and there were thousands of ordinary Cambodian people enjoying themselves – this did not have the touch of the Tourist Organisation or some TV production company.
This was in marked contrast to the boat races in Phomn Penh which are big business. Over a million people attend over the 3 day festival and the city was packed when I arrived on the last day of the races. There were huge chaotic crowds along the river and the whole proceedings seems to be on all the local TV channels. The King was there handing out prizes and it was all great fun. Fireworks bring out the kid in me … they were really fantastic. I was glad to have paid extra for a riverside room in the hotel (FCC - Foreign Correspondents’ Club) ; I had an excellent viewing point.
Just as well that I had some good times in Phnom Penh because I was certainly miserable because of the severe sunburn that I got on my boat trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
Lake Tonle Sap varies in size with the seasons but after the rains (when I was there) it is nearly 16,000 square kilometers (which makes it only slightly smaller than Lake Ontario’s 18,000 square kilometers). My 5 hour boat trip went the length of the lake; the trip is over 150 miles.
We now go into the HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID mode. In spite of reading about the hazards of these boat trips, I stupidly thought that the $25 I paid for the Mekong Express Boat would ensure some degree of comfort and safety. The advertisement in the local guide showed a sleek boat with seating on the top which was covered ; individual cushioned seating and international safety standards were promised. I had originally planned to take a $6 bus to Phnom Penh but Kee at the guest house warned that because many streets would be closed in Phnom Penh for the boat races, it might be difficult to get from the bus station to the hotel. The boat landing in Phnom Penh was close to my hotel so I opted to pay the extra and get some comfort and an interesting ride.
Imagine my surprise when we got a few miles outside Siem Reap to a ferry landing where the boat was not the one pictured .. the indoor seating looked claustrophobic. There were 120 people on a boat designed for 40 people ; no safety equipment in evidence and I ended up crammed hip to hip with about 80 people on the roof of the boat, exposed to the sun (my sun cream was not accessible and I was so stunned by the whole situation that I did not take the initiative to ask someone for some). After about 20 minutes of going through colorful water villages (in which the locals live in houseboats on houses built on stilts in rather vile murky water), I realized that we were going the entire length of this lake .. and for at least 3 hours there was only water, water everywhere … no land in sight. I tried not to dwell on the whole thing but could see fright in the eyes of many of my fellow passengers – all foreigners from what I could see – it is too expensive for Cambodians (and probably they have better sense). I was certainly glad when we finally saw land – even though we had another 2 hours to go before reaching Phnom Penh. In spite of all my attempts to cover my head, my arms were sunburned and the reflection off the water scorched my face. By evening time I was uncomfortable and by next morning in such a state (possibly a little heat exhaustion or sunstroke?) that I stayed in for the day. A couple of days later, I still could not stand the sun even with thick layers of sun screen applied. Oh well - I survived!
At least I was not staying in some fleabag. Pricey by Asian standards ($60 a night) the FCC was a real delight. My room was minimalist style with a huge bed and the bathroom very smart. One special feature .. the mini bar did not contain those miniatures of booze, but full litres of gin, vodka, rum and whisky (all well known brand names - $28 per litre bottle) with lashings of tonic, soda, etc. There was a large balcony with table and chairs, excellent for viewing the river activity. The rivers Tonle Sap and Mekong merge in Phnom Penh to create a vast river.
The bar at the FCC is on the second floor in a corner of the building open to the air .. large ceiling fans and huge leather chairs in part of it provide the colonial feel which makes it special. Tables at the rear overlook the National Museum and Royal Palace. Food is quite international and fairly good (if a bit pricey by local standards) and there were many serious drinkers in addition to those who came to see and be seen. I soon became friendly with many of the staff as I nursed my sunburn with Tiger beer and the occasional rum/coke.
The hotel is in a excellent location with lots of restaurants and bars nearby, so I did not have to deal with the local taxi/tuk tuk drivers who looked a fairly unsavoury lot (although in fairness, my taxi driver to the airport was nice enough).
The collection in the National Museum is impressive and it brought home the fact that the Khmer civilization was Hindu/Indian and not Buddhist. The statues of Shiva and Vishnu predominated (there were Buddhist statues from later eras). The statues were striking because the figures were far more masculine than much of Thai sculpture. Massive arms and legs, big bellies and rather war like stances are in contrast with the more delicate androgynous Thai sculpture of Sukothai, for example. The museum was fairly orderly but an annoying feature was that instead of keepers or security people there were women trying to get donations for their shrines of incense and flowers. I found them disconcerting and ignored them.
One area had arts and crafts including two beautiful wooden items – a lovely cabin for a boat with carved louver windows, and an 18th Century loom of beautiful light construction. Each member of the loom frame had interesting carvings and the whole thing created an impressive lightweight but robust structure (approximately 15 feet long and 6 feet high).
I found the Royal Palace a bit of a disappointment – it seems to be a copy of the Emerald Buddha compound in Bangkok (except there were just a few buildings in Phnom Penh). It was populated almost exclusively by tourists, and had none of the sense of wonder that the busy temples in Bangkok have.
I decided that I knew enough about the mass murders in Cambodia and give the Killing Fields and Torture Museum a miss.
From the time I arrived in Phnom Penh (and because of the boat race we did not arrive at the convenient passenger terminal but at a muddy mucky site downriver), I found many of the people aggressive and unpleasant compared to people in either Thailand or Laos. The porter who brought my suitcase off the boat nearly had a fist fight with the taxi driver I selected (the porter was trying to steer me to a driver of his choice). Even a hefty tip for the porter did not shut him up.
There was tension bordering on violence on the streets; the nasty looking police at roadblocks were more keen to collect bribes from those allowed through the roadblock than to help me find my hotel. There is a sense of lawlessness in the city which I did not experience in Siem Reap. In fairness, poverty can breed such activity but I suspect there may be underlying factors associated with the years of brutality that these people experienced under the Khmer Rouge when several million people were killed in horrible prison camps or following interrogation.
I am generally case hardened when it comes to beggars, but Cambodia presents a case which got to me. After thinking about it, I believe it is because there are so many victims of land mines. Some of these people are in terrible state and are trying to make a living by selling books or postcards – others simply wander around the city begging. I tried my usual technique of giving money to the first two beggars I encountered in a day (my logic being that I cannot give to all .. so the early bird gets the worm). But there always seemed to be a case which seemed so pathetic that I gave more money later in the day. Eventually the begging and constant badgering by people wanting you to buy trinkets or take a tour resulted in compassion fatigue (or at least that’s how it affected me).
A negative thing about Phnom Penh is that the place is dirty; except for the museum /palace area the, the streets are piled with rubbish. I had the distinct impression that many of the people were quite dirty compared to Thais (on the other hand, most people seem dirty compared to Thais who seem to be obsessed with cleanliness) So it was with some pleasure that I took a taxi to the smart new airport in Phnom Penh and while I thought
the $25 Departure tax a bit stiff after the $25 visa fee on entry, I was happy to be on the Bangkok Airways flight back to Bangkok.
Bangkok for a another week - more of the same .. shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking. After reading the Bangkok Post for several weeks, I realized that there is great unrest in Thailand. The government (in common with many governments in the world) seems intent of ‘privatizing’ everything and there is a big argument going about the proposed sale of the government electricity supplier to private companies. As I recently read in another context, ‘Most Egyptians believe the country is being plundered for the enrichment of the elite that owe allegiance to foreign powers’ – substitute Thais for Egyptians and I think that describes the situation. In addition, Thailand’s Prime Minster Thaksin is a megalomaniac who cannot abide criticism and it appears that there could be problems ahead. There was even talk of a coup … and there is always the big question of what happens when the King dies (he is 78 this year and has a history of heart problems).
The week passed quickly and before I knew it I was on Thai Airways flight back to London. The security arrangements at Bangkok Airport had resulted in a letter to the Editor of the Nation (English language newspaper in Thailand) which I saw after I had boarded my flight. I certainly can confirm the writer’s view that security at the airport is far too lax .. something I noticed on my trip to Cambodia earlier in the month.
The Nation – Bangkok English language newspaper
30 November 2005
Too easy for troublemakers to enter Bangkok airport
Recently, my partner and I travelled from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to Macau. Amid all the so-called security increases since the 9/11 attacks, I sadly must conclude that there still is a huge security breach at the Bangkok airport.
Airport authorities make great efforts to ensure no weapons or bombs can be taken onto aeroplanes, but what about the terminal itself? In Bangkok, there is no watertight security whatsoever from the moment you step into the departure hall until you reach the gate area.
Although the check-in luggage is screened, one could easily walk with a bag packed with explosives through the terminal and detonate it. There are security guards with hand-held scanners at the entrances, but they only check people randomly. In Thailand there is a clear danger of terrorist attacks, not only because of the many tourists here, but also because of a potential spread of insurgency terror from the southern provinces.
If a terrorist’s aim is to kill as many people as possible, an explosion in a packed terminal could prove much more effective than in an aeroplane.
When will the authorities realise it’s a ticking time bomb?
Europe bound flights from Bangkok normally arrive at midnight or in the early hours and arrive in Europe early morning. This was the first time I took a daytime flight. There are two flights a day with Thai Airways and I was on the afternoon flight leaving at 1330 hours and arriving London at 1930 hours. An unexpected benefit was daytime views of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. As it happened, my flight reading was the Report of the September 11 Commission and I was struck by how illogical the US military position was when they said they dare not over fly Afghanistan to try to kill Osama Bin Ladin (this was in the period following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania but prior to September 11). Even to my aging eyes, any man made structures stood out clearly in that bleak desert terrain which provides no ground cover. I suspect that there was a lack of will rather than any real technical or military basis for their argument. I am angry that while Bin Ladin is still hiding down there more than 3 years after September 11, we (USA and UK) have got involved in this Iraq sideshow which has only served to destabilise the world and Al Qaeda are still at large.
Sounds like that has little to do with my trip and I will get off my soapbox now.
Golden Banana Guest House
Kum Sala Komreuk, Krom10
$18 a night
(note: This place has expanded and now has a boutique hotel with swimming pool)
FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club
363 Sisowath Quay
Warning: My advice is do not take the Mekong Express boat (Siem Reap to PP ; it is dangerious)