Siem Reap and New Year

•03/01/2011 • 3 Comments

Siem Reap. Its rather lovely. And now i’m no longer there and am,  in fact, in another country, i have time to write about it…

Siem Reap was described to me before i got there as an oriental benidorm, but i think thats doing it a bit of a disservice. It is pretty touristy, you could find out more about the reality of Cambodia from a day in the country than a month in Siem Reap, but thats not what its for. The reason it exists is the temples, and servicing the tourists who come to visit them, and it performs that function admirably. Its relaxed, and it has pretty much everything you could want. Hence why we ended up staying for about a week.

View from the chill-out area of the hostel onto the temple next door. Imagine a grateful “Ahhhhh” as you sink into the hammocks. Speaking of which, a hammock is a definate priority when i get back, they’re everywhere here, why aren’t they in the west?

View past a Cambodian lion down the river in the middle of town. There are busy streets either side, but it still seems to retain a strip of blissful calm.

“Happy” pizza places. They make genuinely excellent pizza, and if you ask for it to be “happy”, they add something a little extra. Then you wait an hour and realise you’re all laughing hysterically, and you have a burning desire for snacks. So you go and watch in awe, the art of the chocolate and banana pancateer. That was a good night, although some people did go to see temples the next day still utterly wasted…

The old market. This place was brilliant, all touristy booths selling assorted tat on the outside, but inside, a crazy maze with a fruit market, fish and meat market, clothing, hardware, jewellery, and any number of unidentified things i didn’t have the vocabulary to ask about. Everything an asian market should be, in fact. I spent about an hour and a half just wandering its cramped and twisty byways.

New Years Eve in Siem Reap, and the main bar area, imaginatively named Pub Street, was just a massive street party, with 3 seperate soundsystems fighting it out for dominance while fireworks went 0ff from every angle.

Clearly, we had a good time. I didnt even get that drunk, there wasnt really time, i just danced like a twat non-stop for about 5 hours.

Clearly, it had an effect on some people.

And yes, we went to the shooting range. Where i was, truth be told, massively disappointed. Rhys just loved the fact that he got to shoot a gun, but i’ve already done that. I wanted variety. I wanted to shoot an AK47, and at least one pistol. But all they had was this or an M-16, and it was really expensive.

One casual gunslinger.

One man, with possibly visible disappointment. I did shoot a couple of rounds, but it wasn’t the same. However, i found out that Vientiene in Laos has a shooting range too…

The Temples – Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon

•02/01/2011 • 2 Comments

Since the reason Siem Reap exists is the temples, we were obviously going to do some. There are dozens in reality though, and each have their own charms, so we thought rather than trying to see them all, we’d try to get a feel for them, and then see a few that showed you a cross-section. First we went to the Angkor National Museum, to get an overview and see (the presumably precious and delicate) relics they’ve removed from the temples for safekeeping. But actually, there were only a small section of items on display, you weren’t allowed to take photos of them, and it was $12. I wished i hadn’t bothered to be honest, although there was one room with hundreds of Buddha’s they’d removed from Angkor Wat, and that was pretty cool.

Then we went to check out the Roulos complex, which is the earliest temple complex in the area, with the temples dating from the 8th and 9th Century. Sadly, this was as far as we got. As soon as we stepped through the gate, a guy asked for our tickets, so we asked him where we could buy one, and he said at the ticket office near Angkor Wat, 15kms away…

After that we pretty much just gave up the day as a bad job, went and got drunk, and resolved to get on with the big temples, starting with the biggest, Angkor Wat…

Angkor Wat

At sunrise… Which was pretty amazing, but at the same time, i couldn’t help but feel it probably looks 90% as amazing all the time, and i wouldn’t have had to get out of bed at 4.30am.

The idiots who got up at 4.30am. From right to left, Paul, Rhys, James, Me, Nicole and Pasquale.  After this, everyone with any sense went back to bed. I went to look at the carvings, which were frankly amazing.

Someone’s popular… This is an Apsara, a kind of goddess figure, usually dancing and doing their hair and getting their norks out a lot. The Cambodians do have a breast obsession, which clearly dates from about the 12th Century. There are paintings of women with their bristols out in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, everywhere. But its not like actual Cambodians regularly get them out or anything. Its just a bit odd.

The carvings of battles and scenes from the Hindu epics cover all 4 sides of the exterior of the temple walls, amazingly detailed for hundreds of feet, and clearly a massive undertaking for them alone.

This depicts the massive battle in Hindu mythology, the start of which provides the setup for one of my favorite philosophical works, the Bhagavad Gita. I was really looking forward to seeing the depiction of Arjuna, one of the generals, and Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, as his 4 armed charioteer. But actually that section was a bit damaged, so i have a pic, but its rubbish. Enjoy this pic of people fighting an elephant instead.

Even the “ordinary” bits of the temple are covered in beautiful scrollwork carvings, like this pillar, with gods and goddesses, and at the bases, bramins sitting in contemplation.

But enough of that. Have another fight scene instead, this time depicting Hanuman’s monkey army fighting a load of demons, with the monkeys overwhelmingly favoring the “just keep biting till you hit something soft” fighting style.

Inside the temple walls. The entrance to which, the pillars are covered in writing in a mix of Khmer and Sanskrit, and relate to dedications and services performed by people during the early life of the temple.

Looking up at the top level, where only the King and the high priest could originally enter. Entrance these days requires queuing up with many Japanese people and climbing the incredibly steep steps to the one open entranceway.

Where you’re greeted by even more Apsaras.

The central tower, a representation of Mt. Meru, the mountain at the centre of the universe in Hindu Mythology. Sadly, you cant climb it, not for health and safety reasons, but because it doesn’t have any steps inside. And the doors into it are closed anyway, they were blocked when it was converted to a Buddhist temple (rather than one dedicated to Vishnu) in the 15th Century, and now 4 Buddha’s stand in the entranceways.

View over the complex from the top level, out to where we watched the sunrise. In all honesty, even though its supposed to be a masterpiece of architecture, i found myself strangely underwhelmed with the temple itself. Its massive, and the bas-reliefs are truly astounding, and the Buddhas and lions with their heads knocked off by the Khmer Rouge saddening, but the actual building structure itself failed to blow me away.

Ta Prohm

I was much more impressed with Ta Prohm, even at first sight. Ta Prohm is the archetypal jungle temple, ruined, covered in trees and vines, and left to the elements. Of course, its being looked after now, but they’ve got a difficult job on their hands, maintaining and preserving it without destroying its essential character.

Even the gateway is ruined and leans drunkenly.

View of the relatively intact main buildings.

The trees are literally growing on and through the buildings, an amazing unplanned fusion of nature and architecture.

The beauty of this temple is formed by its ruin. The carvings that cover the walls are also strewn on the floor in huge piles.

In trying to maintain it as it standing now, they’ve had to install steel structures in many of the buildings to keep them upright. And they have a throughly unatmospheric crane.

But they ultimately have an unresolved problem. The trees provide much of the beauty and contrast that makes this temple truly special, but they are also slowly and inexorably levering the buildings apart. You can see the measuring devices they are using to measure the progress on the wall in this pic. But what are they going to do? They either have to remove the tree, or accept that its going to fall down. They could use stronger and stronger steel structures to hold it up i suppose, but that will end up spoiling the character anyway i think.

Bayon

The last temple was Bayon, known amongst the backpacking crowd as “the one with all the faces”. Its in the middle of the ancient city/temple of Angkor Thom, which is full of small temples and carvings, but Bayon itself is the centrepiece.

Entrance to Angkor Thom is through one of the 5 gates, guarded by demons and angels either side of the causeway, and by Airavata, Indra’s three headed elephant, on the gates themselves.

Bayon itself, which looks like a bit of mess from here, and is incredibly higgledy-piggledy inside, with small passageways and stairs and terraces on multiple levels all mixed together like an MC Escher drawing.

Apsara’s getting jiggy. I later found out that the curved fingers depicted in this bas-relief are formed by binding back the fingers with elephant grass for longer and longer periods until they stay that way permanently. Sounds painful.

The outer walls, like Angkor Wat, are covered in carvings. These though are notable for depicting ordinary Khmer people, not only in battle, but in scenes of daily life and celebration too. As you get further into the temple though, ordinary people appear less and less.

And the faces depicted on all 4 sides of the 37 remaining towers come more and more to the fore. Everywhere you look inside the temple, multiple faces look down on you. They’re thought to resemble the face of the temple’s builder, Jayavarman VII, in a remarkably narcissistic move, which even now Aled is probably planning to emulate.

I cant decide if the faces look compassionate and beneficent, smug, or just plain constipated.

The central tower, showing the carvings, gallerys and general madness. After this we headed back to get ready for New Years Eve!

Pooey’s Last Ride

•29/12/2010 • 3 Comments

This is a sad post to have to be making. Pooey is gone. We always planned to sell him (and Rhys’ bike “Mike”) in Siep Riep. But when we left Kompng Cham a couple of days ago, we were planning on staying at a remote temple on the way. That didnt work out, so we ended up getting to Siem Riep 2 days early. So i wasn’t really ready for it. I hadn’t steeled myself for the loss.

Pooey a couple of days ago after his Christmas wash. Behold his shiny form (and “race lightened” mudguard).

He was so beautiful…

Then we put him through 2 more long days mostly spent offroad. He took  it all with the aplomb which was his habit when faced with adversity.

Although he did get the occasion rest stop. I think this was the best lunch stop of the entire trip so far. Good food, hammocks, view over a lake full of flowering lillies. But anyway, back to Pooey.

When we got to Siem Riep, Dan’s bike “Gary” (best bike name of the trip btw) was parked outside. With some other guy on it. Steff and Dan had told us they’d sold their bikes to 3 guys who wanted to do a bike trip, and that we could probably sell at least one of the bikes to them when we got there. Turns out we missed Steff and Dan leaving by about 2 hours, which was a shame. So we introduced ourselves, and a couple of hours later, Rhys’ bike was sold to Joey, one of a trio of frankly, dangerously unhinged Cockneys. I tried to sell Pooey to a girl, Elena, travelling with them, but she didnt really seem fussed. Later we went out with Joey and got absolutely hammered, going to a “happy” pizza place, then on to a succession of bars, finally ended up at Joey’s favorite hooker bar, talking to randoms and playing pool with the off-duty prostitutes. Lovely.

But recovering the next day, and resigned to having to make up “for sale” signs for Pooey, Elena came and found me, and told me she was interested in buying the bike, literally an hour before they were meant to be leaving. I gave her a test ride, and as she came back and put it on the sidestand, the weld (which has lasted since Hanoi) gave way and the footpeg fell off. Not good. But this is Asia. 20 minutes later i’d been to find a welder and he was fixed. And promptly sold.

I gave her all the bike stuff too, spares, bungees, the lot, in a grief stricken frenzy. I was going to keep the helmet as a souvenir, but i’d have to carry it around everywhere for weeks, and Elena didn’t have one, so i handed it over.

And i thought the helmet looked ridiculous on me…

Rhys’ showing understandable remorse. Joey looked please with his purchase.

Weird thing is, all these bikes, which have travelled a long way together, are united again, but now with different riders. From left to right, Steff’s bike, Rhys’ bike, my bike, and Dan’s bike. With Dougie, Joey, Elena and Lee.

And then they buggered off, taking Pooey out of my life forever.

Bitch.

And now i’m bikeless. Not a good feeling. I had to sell him, i dont have time to ride through Laos now. We might hire dirtbikes for a couple of days in Laos and go for a ride, which will be cool, but its not the same. Feels like the end of an era.

Enduro Cambodia

•29/12/2010 • 1 Comment

This post covers the period before and just after Christmas, since we spent both times mainly riding dirt. Thing is, aside from the major highways (and including a few), roads in Cambodia are dirt. Even big roads are what you’d call forestry roads in the uk, i.e. packed dirt and load of gravel, with huge clouds of dust off every vehicle, including the bikes. Minor roads, you’re lucky if they’re even packed dirt…

After our day of recovery from hiking, and the night of getting drunk with the hilltribes, we decided to head north to Ratanakiri province. The guidebook said it was for experienced off road enthusiasts only. The locals in Sen Monorom said there was a dirt road now halfway, but after that the tribes didnt want a road, so there are just basically hiking trails, loads of them everywhere. And if we wanted to try it, we’d need a guide. So we thought we’d have a go, on 3 Vietnamese road bikes.

The first part wasn’t so bad, packed gravel and basically a decent surface, although the dust did mean Pasquale got dressed up like an armoured Bedouin.

Even this bit wasnt so bad, at least the dirt was dry, although it hammered the suspension.

And the riverbeds were dry, since the monsoon is over. We got told about a French guy who tried this in the wet season, and he had to dismantle his bike 4 times, carry the bits over the river, and put it together again to carry on. Some of the climbs out of the riverbed were like trials bike courses, but i think we got lucky on that front.

By lunchtime, we were doing pretty well. Look at us there, a little dusty but basically happy, halfway to our goal with loads of time.

And then the road disappeared, we were onto the trails, and we got sand. Huge deep drifts of sand. The back tyres were basically ok, but our smooth front road tires just turned into snowploughs. We were all over the place.

After a few hours of this, and everyone falling off at least a couple of times, and even with the hilarity of watching Rhys bouncing around and managing to stay on, his motocross tyre throwing up huge clouds of dust, the strain was starting to show. Pasquale had had to pick up her bike about 10 times.  I looked back at one point just in time to see her swerve wildly off the track into a fence.

We rode like that for about 5 hours. Really fun, and intense, but really tough on these little bikes, and seriously draining. And when we though we’d got to the end, we hit a river crossing, and had to get a boat to take us across.

At least we got to relax for 5 minutes. Which was fortunate, since it wasn’t the end at all. We then had to do another 30kms, flat out, in the dark to get to Banlung, and a hotel.

By the end of all that, we looked like this. I have some ridiculous pictures of my face covered in dust, i look like Bigfoot, but if you want to see those you’ll have to ask me.

And Pooey looked like this.  The mudguard had been fatally wounded too, and i ended up snapping off half of it the next day as it was just flapping about. Aside from that, the little bugger was fine.

We thought we were done, as there was a highway from Banlung. But the highway, when we rode down it the next day, actually looked like this. In this middle of this photo is a “bridge”. There is a space underneath it for water to flow, but it otherwise utterly fails in its basic function of spanning the gap. There’s just a space about a foot and a half wide. We hit this at about 60kph.

Mmmm, lovely surface. Which i ate quite a lot of over the course of the day, in the form of lovely refreshing dust. Pic by Pasquale.

This one too. Love this pic, taken as we rode trails down the side of the Mekong.

Another “bridge”. This one was at least complete, although the logs weren’t fixed to the bridge in any way, and bounced alarmingly as you rode over it…

You can tell you’re lost when this is the road.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys, what you gonna do, what you gonna do when they come…. into your front garden at 2 in the afternoon, without a clue where the hell they are.

View over the Mekong on the way down from Kratie. We were hopelessly lost by this point, so you might as well take a nice pic.

Christmas in Kratie

•25/12/2010 • 5 Comments

Well we didnt get as far as we’d liked, mainly due to reasons that will be explained in the upcoming post “Enduro Cambodia”. So Kratie, a little town on the banks of the Mekong, is home for Christmas. I bought Pooey a wash.

So today, for christmas, after a tradional christmas breakfast of sticky rice and beans steamed in a bamboo tube, we went, as is tradional at this time of year, to see some critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphins.

In deference to their critically endangered status, you’re only allowed to hunt them with NERF(tm) harpoons, and their warhead barely explodes at all. Only 1 has been successfully hunted this way in the last 5 years, and he choked on the foam tip. And they are buggers to find let me tell you, the water is cloudy and they only come up every 5 minutes or so.

Anyway, believe it or not, there is a dolphin in this picture. We did see a couple come up right next to the boat, but they’re pretty shy and my camerawork was not stellar.

Rhys “I Boldly Go”Lewis.

Aside from the dolphins, entertainment was provided by these frogs living in the sunshade of the boat.

They dropped us off at a little sandbar and we spent a couple of hours on the sand, paddling in the water and generally sunning ourselves in what must be the most throughly unwhite christmas ever.

Our attempt at the Christmas Greeting.

Rhys wanted this photo taken specifically so he could use it to make people at home jealous. The man is all heart.

Mondulkiri Province, Nat and the Pnoung

•21/12/2010 • 5 Comments

So, a couple of days ago we left Dan and Steff behind in Phnom Pehn and headed for Mondulkiri Province, a pretty remote area in the South East of Cambodia. Steff and Dan had to sell their bikes and getto Thailand, but me, Rhys and Pasquale wanted to go and see the “real” Cambodia. So we set off for 2 days of riding to get there.

Stop with scenery along the way. Pasquale thinks this shot really shows off her chin in a good light.

We left late on the first day, and only managed to get as far as Kompong Cham. Which did have its benefits, we ate fried crickets and street food, and we got a room with a balcony, which meant a view of sunrise over the Mekong.

Lunchstop near the border of Mondulkiri. The day was going pretty well till just after this, when we got ripped off for food (always ask the price first!). Then we went 20kms the wrong way. Then Rhys got his first of 2 punctures. The second one was in the middle of a protected jungle area, with no-one around. We had to flag down a lorry and stick the bike in the back. So Rhys spent the last 30kms of the journey in the back of a truck with some locals drinking beers and passing them to me and Pasquale riding along behind. A pretty good first experience of Mondulkiri, i think. Pasquale took some photos and video of that too, so i’ll have to get them off her.

Board at the hotel where we’re staying. No humour should be derived from the English on display here.

Rhys’ tyre upgrade. Should come in useful.

Pooey’s upgrade Mark 2. Speedo AND compass, the extravagance…

We took a 1 day 1 night tour with the hotel to a waterfall and a remote village. This first entailed a 15 minute 3-up ride to the start point.

Where there were actual elephants wandering around, since the locals dont really use vehicles much. They also dont allow them to mate, which means this guy’s effort is entirely in vain.

This, apparently, is a bridge. Also in this photo, is Nat, greatest and worst of guides, as should become clear shortly.

Actual swinging off a liana, Tarzan style. When i tried this, i did not, in any way, half fall in the water like a knobend.

The locals make holes in the trees and then collect a kind of rubber used for sealing boats. Looks pretty damaging, but actually all of the trees looked really healthy.

Nat knowingly lead us into a bog, and then laughed at us when we fell in. This was only the start.

The waterfall. We went in for a swim obviously.

An elephant, wandering around eating in its natural environment. And then you see it has a chain around its back leg, and its front legs are tied so it cant wander too far. Beautiful and depressing.

Then we hiked 10km uphill to the local village of the Pnoung people. It almost killed Rhys, who spent most of it shuffling like a zombie. And once we got there, Nat really set to work. We had food there and he told Pasquale they would be very offended if she didnt eat vast quantities of the green stuff. Then just said good luck as she went to tuck in. It was, obviously,hotter than the surface of the sun.

We responded by making sure he got absolutely hammered. This is actually the best pic of the nights proceedings by far. Half the village turned up for a drink. In the foreground, in the jar, is Pnoung wine, made from fermented wine and herbs left to ferment for at least 3 weeks. We all had to drink vast quantities. There was singing (with Nat, here, on drums). And once we were hammered on Pnoung wine, they got out the normal rice wine. It was messy. Also, during the course of this chaotic evening, something landed on my leg. I thought it was an ember from the fire, so i went to brush it off and recieved excruciating pain. I honestly thought id been burned at first, then they thought i’d been bitten by one of the local bugs, and then 20 minutes later one of them found the scorpion wandering round on the floor of the hut. I was shitting myself, and my finger was incredibly painful. Nat talked with the locals, and then told me that the villagers said they would say prayers for me at my funeral. Bastard. Then they went and got some lemon juice, traditional medicine (which looked like wet chalk), soaked it into a rag and wrapped it round my finger. It worked though, as an hour later i was drinking again (this may also have helped).

Pic which actually shows Rhys in position, next to the head of the house, from where he was forced to drink even more rice wine. He insisted thatwe drink at least 2 litres, even after all the Pnoung wine. Rhys’ tried to at least get the head guy to drink some of the drink by indicating that we should drink together, but after a few the bugger actually started faking it!

Even more rice wine (which i didnt realise was a delightful brown colour at the time), when we were forced to drink even more together. After this,its all a blur, me and Rhys got in hammocks, and Pasquale got off with Nat in hut full of sleeping locals. Epic.

We’ve spent all day today just recovering.

S21 and the Killing Fields

•21/12/2010 • 3 Comments

Ok, so this was a couple of eventful days ago now, but this is going to stick in my mind for a while. The main tour from Phnom Penh is to these two places, and we’d been told you really have to go, so we all went as a daytrip. First up was S21.

S21 was a high school until the day the Pol Pot regime took over the city. Then they shipped everybody out of the city to the countryside (our guide at S21 spent 3 months walking to a remote province,and lost her brother and father along the way), and set up the school as an interrogation centre.

Its basic function was to torture people for information, before they were shipped off to be killed at the Killing Fields site we visited later. No-one was intended to survive once they came here. They either died under torture, or were killed anyway. Of 20000 people, only 7 people survived.

It looks like a pretty nice school from some angles.

When the Vietnamese invaded the city, everyone here had already fled, but there were 14 bodies left behind. These are their graves. They’ve also found dozens of other bodies all over the site.

These cells were used for high rank prisoners (i.e. members of the Pol Pot regime who had done something wrong). The photo on the wall shows how it looked when the Vietnamese arrived. No one knows who the bodies they found were.

The rules of the prison.

This building had been preserved as it was, barbed wire and all. It was there to prevent people committing suicide off the top floor, as many had tried this previously.

Most of the prisoners were held in these tiny rough cells built onto the classroom floors. They just contained a chain concreted into the floor, and an ammo container for waste.

The regime destroyed almost all the photos and documents recording the people who came here. But in the aftermath, about 5000 negatives were found, and the photos of the victims have been printed out into huge wall displays. Some are clearly just children. Some clearly have no misconceptions about what is going to happen.

Some torture implements. One of the survivors was an artist, and painted graphic pictures of the practices that occurred here.

Whats disturbing is how like a normal school it still looked. The classrooms upstairs that were used for mass detention still had the blackboards on the walls.

Then we visited the Killing Fields site 15kms outside the city. Everyone who survived the torture at S21 ended up here.

There was a huge shrine built to the victims, and filled with 15 stories of their bones. 143 mass graves have been identified here, in a tiny area the size of a large garden, of which 93 have been excavated. They found over 9000 bodies.

All over the site, fragments of clothing and bone are exposed whenever it rains. In the more obvious areas it has been cordoned off, but there was nowhere really safe to walk. This area, as well as the clothes, was covered in teeth.

The people here were usually killed with blunt instruments, as bullets were expensive. But this tree was used to kill tiny children before they were thrown into the nearby pit.

A view over some of the excavated pits.

No comment.

After this experience,the tuk-tuk drivers seemed quite keen to take us to a shooting range, but none of us were in the mood to shoot the place up after that experience. It was our last night with Dan and Steff too (who i’ve been riding with since Hanoi), and everyone went out and got hammered, but i just had to go to bed after a day of seeing all that stuff.