In the Court of the Khmer Kings
Siem Reap, Cambodia
I thought my recent trip to Cambodia was going to be something of a coup amongst my globe-trotting clique. How wrong I was!
Ever since the final pockets of Khmer Rouge activity were dissolved in the mid ’90s, tourists began returning to Cambodia, putting behind them the shocking kidnapping and murder of three backpackers in 1994.
Lured primarily by the romantic grandeur of Angkor Wat, it seems everyone wants a piece of Cambodia these days. Tourist numbers are climbing exponentially as jaded holidaymakers shun the well-worn traps in favour of Cambodia’s relatively uncharted territory.
Established adventure tourism operators like Peregrine, Classic Oriental and Travel Indochina all offer extensive Cambodian itineraries, reinforcing the country’s stabilising political climate and bringing welcome foreign currency to the needy nation.
There was a genuine feeling of adventure as my fellow Peregrinners and I shuffled off the Saigon airport shuttle and filed aboard the twin-engined turboprop that was about to airlift us to Phnom Penh’s Pochentong Airport. The gleaming new international terminal, albeit modest, was a welcome indication of Cambodia’s recovering economy. Customs and immigration formalities were completed without delay and even those daring souls who arrived without visas were processed promptly and, for once, I arrived at the luggage carrousel before my bags.
After the chaotic Saigon traffic, Phnom Penh was a doddle, although it was clear the newly motorised citizens aspire to the same mobile anarchy of their near neighbour. Road rules were being introduced, I was assured. Cars in Cambodia and Vietnam are, thanks to their recent French colonial heritage, left-hand-drive. Motorcycles are ambidextrous.
Parisian architecture bordered by wide boulevards and narrow back alleys further betray the French influence that dates back to the 1860s. As the tribulation of the 1970s is related, I find it hard to imagine Phnom Penh as a virtual ghost town during that time, and what’s even more amazing, is that so much seems to have survived, particularly the 14th century Wat Phnom and Silver Pagoda.
Our stay in Phnom Penh was brief but poignant. Our ebullient guide, Sothy, was orphaned during the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge and our tour of the notorious “killing fields” was a sombre affair. A highlight nonetheless, it’s not one to be celebrated as we walked amongst the shreds of discarded clothing, stray teeth and the occasion half-buried bone. That and the macabre S21 prison museum downtown left little to the imagination.
After a contrastingly festive meal at the pleasant Riverside restaurant, Team Tiger was formed at the nearby Foreign Correspondents’ Club in recognition of what was quickly becoming the official beverage of the tour. In fairness, the local Angkor Draft wasn’t a bad drop either, but ‘draftees’ didn’t have the same ring to it.
Our hotel, the Regent Park, would be unremarkable anywhere else, but its inability to raise a comment can be taken as a compliment. Right next door is an Internet café complete with web phone for those who forgot their global roaming GSM handset.
A “speed boat” awaited us for the next leg of our journey to Seam Riep, the home of the celebrated Angkor Wat. The boat’s vague description was enhanced somewhat when we were ushered aboard the sparkling “Mekong Express” by smiling hostesses in smart new uniforms. A bit noisy perhaps, but the powerful twin-hulled ferry was fast and comfortable and a damn sight safer than some of the precarious vessels we passed along the way.
Six hours later, we arrive at the much-vaunted floating village of Chong Khneas. Looking something like a flooded caravan park, families congregate on the decks(?) of their motley homes, some discernibly boat-like, others little more than tents pitched on pontoons. The “Mekong Express” picks its way delicately through the bobbing throng of buoyant huts, narrowly missing commuters in pole-powered canoes and dinghies. The residents survey our massive craft with nonchalance while the semi-clad infants still manage a refreshing, cheery wave.
An expectant shore party wave welcoming placards from the muddy bank, identifying their respective hotels and guesthouses as we prepare to disembark via a narrow wooden gangway. Our tottery exit complete, minibuses then take us to Siem Reap fifteen minutes distant.
This north-western province has been the recipient of much global attention in recent years. Siem Reap, despite being on the edge of one of the poorest parts of the country, houses some of the richest archaeological sites in SE Asia. The ancient city of Angkor, former seat of power for some twenty-seven Khmer kings, now draws tourists like the proverbial.
We were delivered to our lodgings at the charming Auberge Mont-Royal d’Angkor. Sounding a lot grander than it really is, The Mont-Royal is a delightfully intimate little hotel, spotless and tasteful.
Our first look at Angkor is the central Bayon Temple with its intricately carved depictions. Like a huge hand-hewn “Where’s Wally” mural, some of the fine detail reveals the quirky humour of these ancient artisans, like the tortoise who bites his handler on the…member.
Over the next 48 hours, we do the rounds of the sights;
- Phom Bakheng; a daunting, near vertical climb to the top for a sunset vantage point (take the elephants’ trail around the side, it’s much easier).
- Ta Prohm; the archetypal jungle temple featured in “Tomb Raider” complete with huge banyan trees.
- Banteay Srei; the so-called citadel of the women. A compact and incredibly intricate little temple with lots of saucy carvings of shapely Khmer ladies.
The list goes, for there are literally dozens of small and large temples in various states of preservation, many with little or no visitor restrictions.
But the one we all came to see, the mighty Angkor Wat, is the magnificent centrepiece of this expansive locale. Currently, various aspects of the structure are swathed in tarp and scaffolding, making a clean photograph difficult, but my early morning shot from the eastern perimeter was clearly a seldom considered angle. For a full half-hour I sat, completely alone, with just the awakening crickets and mosquitoes as company (yes, I remembered the Aerogard). The occasional passing cyclist my only distraction.
I visited Angkor during the so-called ‘low’ season (August) when the temperatures and humidity can get a bit oppressive, so sunscreen, insect repellent and bottled drinking water is a must. Even so, tourists were still in abundance, a further indication of the exploding popularity of this destination with cliché weary travellers.
Despite the very apparent upturn in the local economy these increased visitor numbers bring, a delicate balance exists between investment and conservation. Currently around 200,000 mostly well behaved tourists scramble over the one thousand year old ruins. Some estimates show that figure will grow to around one million within the next few years. As a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, there needs to be a balance between tourism and preservation and if current trends continue, expect to see more and more access restrictions placed on the site.
The simple advice, which many people seem to be heeding, is go see Cambodia now! It’s only a matter of time before ropes, boardwalks and cordons replace the current, relatively free access visitors enjoy.