Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Temple overdose in the Kingdom of Cambodia!

Again I'm writing this with a 3 week delay - sorting out good photos and typing all this stuff after an exciting day sure takes its time, believe me.

Anyway, with the 4000 Islands behind me I squeezed myself into a bus filled with backpackers who wanted to do the nearby border crossing to Cambodia as well. After 10 minutes of driving towards the Lao-Cambodian border the bus suddenly (but not surprisingly) came to a halt. What happened?

The bus driver immediately went to check out what was wrong with his trusty Korean rust bucket...

Well, it was not entirely a «technical error», a good portion of «human failure» was involved too. It turned out that the bus driver used a hose branching off the brake compressor to blow continiously fresh air at his face. In other words, he abused it as a fan! This lead to the unlucky situation that too much air was derivated from the brake compressor and the bus eventually stopped. Woohoo!

But already after 20 minutes the bus company sent over some replacement vans and we finally arrived the border. As for the crossing procedures I already expected the worst: From corrupt border officials, overly long periods of waiting over to fishy travel agents who want to collect their commission I've read lots of horror stories about crossing the border at this point. I was prepared for everything.

The infamous border crossing point at Veun Kham/Dom Kralor
But just like back then at the border crossing from Thailand to Laos, the Visa procedures here lasted without incidents! Again there was no bribing, no intimidation of backpackers and no shady travel agents who wanted to rip you off. Perhaps the governments of both countries finally took action to get rid of the corruption at this border crossing? Or maybe the shady business just got less obvious nowadays...? Who knows, but after 30 minutes we were already sitting in the next bus in the direction of the tiny town of Stung Treng...

Just as good 'ol Chief Phillips did in Apocalypse Now, I realized that I landed in the Kingdom of Cambodia, home the legendary Angkor Wat temple ruins and 15'000'000 Khmer people (a huge population compared to the 5'000'000 inhabitants of Laos). While Cambodia may be much more touristic than its often-forgotten neighbour Laos, the country still remains affected by its horrible recent history, poverty and ongoing corruption. Read on.

Stung Treng was nothing else than a border town with not really much to see. The streets appeared even dirtier than in Laos and the locals were much darker in their skin, which is the result of the warmer Cambodian climate. It indeed was very hot and the temperature would even get more intense as it later transpired on my travels. It also appeared to me that Khmer people are dressed in a really weird way, I often saw Cambodian women on the street wearing dirty pyjamas, and this wouldn't be the last time I'd encounter those strange creatures.

The town of Stung Treng - quite a messy welcome to Cambodia, if you ask me.
At this point I wasn't quite sure where to go - most backpackers and tourists would immediately head towards Siem Reap, which is the nearest town next to the famous Angkor Wat temples. But as I wanted to take my time, I first wanted to see some other stuff. I therefore decided to visit the temple ruins of Preah Vihear, which laid in the way between Stung Treng and Siem Reap.

My first travel plan through Northern Cambodia...
Well, it didn't turn out to be that easy to get there. I first couldn't find a direct bus connection from Stung Treng to the Preah Vihear temple, and even then it's notheworthy that the bus system in this northern part of Cambodia is still in its early stages of development. A couple of years ago there was just a dusty, unasphalted road connecting Siem Reap and Stung Treng, and to get to Preah Vihear was even much more difficult. Nowadays, thanks to some massive foreign investments, new roads connect the once laid-back towns, but the bus connections in this region are still not as developed as in Thailand or even Laos.

This meant that I had to be dropped off in the middle of the regular way from Stung Treng to Siem Reap and then find another way to get north to the Preah Vihear temple. Once again, this turned out to be an adventurous ride!

The messy ferry crossing the Mekong at Stung Treng
On the way to Preah Vihear....

...over gorgeous roads, all new and fresh!
I was lucky that a Pick-Up truck driver took me from Tbeng Maenchey (the town between Stung Treng and Siem Reap) to the Preah Vihear temple for about $5 (the most traded currency in Cambodia is still the US Dollar, the Cambodian Riel is just being used as change money). As Cambodia consists mostly of flat plains the ride was a short one - the excellent road conditions also played a part in contributing to the comfy ride. But meanwhile I noticed that I was almost one of the only foreigners near the temple ruins. One reason is surely that the bus connections are still pretty miserable, as I already wrote. Another possible reason is much more interesting...

The most famous «Gopura», a Khmer temple gate, of the Preah Vihear complex
The other reason why so few tourists visit Preah Vihear is that Cambodia and Thailand actually fought about these ruins back in 2008, resulting in a long diplomatic dispute and a small border war with approximately 40 dead soldiers and many more wounded. Although the fighting ceased in 2011, many tourists still avoid this place and may get irritated by the presence of Cambodian Military...

Chilling out... in Khmer Military style!
But the reality if far more relaxed: The Khmer Army personnel actually live there next to ruins, and they even brought their whole families (kids included!) to live in those corrugated-iron huts. Only the sandbag bunkers and AK-47s may give a threatening presence, while the soldiers are happily playing with their kids or having a picnic with their parents. The soldiers were actually happy to see foreigners around this area, and even better, they didn't charge anything for visiting the actual temple.

The ancient temple itself was built on a huge cliff, nowadays standing just between Cambodia and Thailand. The more than confusing background history about the border conflict involves flawed French colonial mapping of the area, some patriotic claims of both sides, the breakout of intense fighting and various international investigations. Anyway, in November 2013 the International Court of Justice officially declared the temple ruins to be in Cambodian territory, so after years of confusion the dispute finally came to an end.
The Preah Vihear temple complex from an aerial perspective, note the massive cliff it is standing on.

A top view and horizontal plan of the temple ruins

A guardian lion, one of many...

... guarding these once sacred sites.

... sneaked around these premises.

Good thing that not many foreign tourists...

An improvised bunker as used by the army

... overgrown with various plants.

Just as most Khmer temple ruins, these sites are...

Bullet holes from the recent fighting?

Another Gopura in good condition

... distinctive for Khmer temples.

These inner yard corridors are also very...

At the front cliff the army installed an observatory point,...

... from where you could overview...

... the whole lowlands!

With patriotic slogans the Cambodian Army make clear who the owner of the ruins are...

After this interesting daytrip it was time to move on to Siem Reap, the neighbouring town of the Angkor Wat temple complex. Again there was no public bus to get there, so I was recommended to take a so called «shared taxi». The Shared Taxi turned out to be a regular 5-seated Toyota Camry, creaking and rusting from its age and poor condition. The funny aspect was that we actually managed to squeeze 9 passengers (including one infant) into it!

The «shared taxi». Note that the guy with the hat is the driver and he's sharing his seat with the dude on his left.
But we arrived Siem Reap in no time and without incidents. It turned out that Siem Reap was a horribly touristic town that only lived on because of the nearby Angkor Wat. While other Cambodian towns lack infrastructure and modernization, you can find practically everything in Siem Reap. Irish pubs, brothels, boxing arenas, massage parlors, supermarkets, luxury hotels, top-notch hospitals, a highly frequented airport, huge road signboards, night markets, karaoke bars, night clubs and whatever you can imagine. It's also needless to say that average prices were quite high as well - for a regular Hotel room you normally pay about $15 a night which is a small fortune in this part of South East Asia.

Welcome to Siem Reap...

... a place full of sin and vice...
... and artificial pomposity.

Even the management of Angkor Wat temple ruins turned out to be completely commercialized - a one day ticket to the ruins costs a whopping $20 - an absolutely shameless price tag if you consider how many tourists visit this place every year! After speaking with a Khmer guy I actually found out that the Cambodian government (corrupt as it is) actually leased the temple complex to a Vietnamese corporation, that makes most money of it. Apart from the few Khmer employees, the Cambodian people don't really profit from this massive income. In contrary - the province of Siem Reap counts to one of the poorest in the whole country.

The waiting line at the Angkor Wat ticket counter. There were so many people that I couldn't get them in one photo.
But to be fair, the temple complex is still absolutely worth to visit as it represents one of the world's most spectacular architectural masterworks. The ruins are the last surviving witnesses of a massive civilization once called the Angkorian Khmer Empire, which expanded in South East Asia far over the current Cambodian borders (remember Wat Phu in Laos or Mueang Sing in Thailand?).

The ancient Khmer Empire...

... was once one of the most advanced civilizations in Asia.

There's a bloody good reason why this place was accepted as an UNESCO world heritage site, and I soon realized why.

The main temple of Angkor Wat, as we know it from countless photos and other popcultural sources
To get this clear, the temple complex consists not only of the famous Angkor Wat building. It is a huge city consisting of several temple ruins and sites that are separated from each other by several kilometers and dense jungle. To see all ruins in only one day is pretty much impossible, so that's why the company behind the temple ruins makes so much money with 2 days or 3 days tickets.

Errrr, where to start?
Because renting motorbikes in Cambodia is officially not allowed, I instead went to visit the ruins with a crappy bicycle. In one day I was able to see the Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, the beautiful Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants, Phimenakas, Takeo, Ta Prohm (which is particularly famous for being the film location of the first Tomb Raider movie) and Banteay Kdei. It's actually much bigger than it looks like!

Especially amusing were the monkeys, that got tamed by the masses of foreign tourists. They would simply sit on those ruins, almost begging to be fed. Judging by their body mass those monkeys were definitely not starving.

In conclusion, I liked the Bayon temple with its iconic stone faces most. I also got the impression that the more I moved away from the actual Angkor Wat building, the less tourists I encountered. But someone you never can evade are the hawking kids. Everywhere in the temple complex small kids in the age between 5 to 12 years were trying to sell you useless stuff. Trouble is that those kids exactly know how much money they can make by begging good-hearted tourists for money - so why should they go to school anyway? Their parents usually force those kids to sell stuff in this area, so it makes the whole story even worse. To anyone reading this and intending to go there as well, please DON'T support those annoying brats. You're not doing a favor at all by buying stuff from them.

Near Siem Reap also lies the huge Tonle Sap, South East Asia's biggest lake during the wet season. I decided to do a (overpriced) boat tour to check out one of the floating villages.

... I went to see one of Tonle Sap's floating villages.

From the shabby boat pier...

The lake is so massive it almost looks like an ocean at some parts
This village here was full of floating houses and..

... houseboats.

... pig farms and...

From Super Markets up to...

... floating schools you could find everything.

Inside the floating school

I also went to see the Landmine and War Museum, both excellent exhibitions about the recent Cambodian history. I even dare to say that those were the most authentic places I went to visit in Siem Reap. Highly recommended if you ever drop by.

The War museum exhibits lots of Khmer Rouge memorabilia,...
..., Chinese-manufactured tanks,...

...ancient J-6 fighter aircrafts and many...

... small arms from different origins.

In this post I won't elaborate too much into Cambodian recent history, as I will have plenty of other occasions in the following articles. Just bear in mind that the civil war and the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge still affect the country in a similar way as Laos. Many war-traumatized veterans and civilians, millions of (still) buried landmines and corruption in almost every public section make life in Cambodia not exactly a picnic.

Landmines - a symbolization of the problems that Cambodia still is facing
Stay tuned for more stories, anecdotes and history from Cambodia!

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