I’m in Cambodia at Siem Reap, the town nearest the temples of Angkor. Siem Reap is still a fairly simple place, but the road from the airport is lined with ever bigger and more expensive hotels, western bars and food are plentiful, and there is a decidedly touristy feel. The US Dollar is the standard currency here, and most stuff costs a dollar or more, but you can also spend Thai Baht and even the Cambodian Riel, thought the Riel is so devalued that you get four thousand Riel to one Dollar, so I think people just use the Dollar because the sums are easier.
Arriving in Cambodia, and since, has been a fantastic experience, particularly after the anticlimax of Thailand. The Cambodians I have met so far, almost without exception, have been exceptionally friendly, happy and open people, something all the more amazing for the treatment they have received at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the USA, with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot still a very recent memory. The Cambodian countryside is beautiful, flat, with lush green paddy fields surrounding houses built on stilts, and Angkor-era temples jutting out of the undergrowth at every turn. The journey into Cambodia wasn’t the easiest – the road from the ‘wild west’ border town of Poipet to Siem Reap was diabolical, so after a lengthy border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, it was then a four-hour arse-numbing drive along roads with potholes big enough to swallow a man. The tourists who stay in the Raffles hotel probably fly in. The vehicles of choice here fit the environment – Honda 250cc dirt bikes, scooters, and virtually all cars are Toyota Camrys. There must be a thriving trade in replacement axles and shock absorbers.
Seeing Angkor Wat is listed in several places as a thing to do before you die, and while it wasn’t a religious experience for me, it is a very beautiful building, with monks in bright orange robes standing around happily having their photos taken by the Japanese tourists who stumble up the steep steps into the temple in high heels, and amazingly intricate carvings somehow having survived the elements for all these years. As impressive as Angkor Wat were the surrounding temples of Angkor, the Bayon, Bantei Srei (including stunning pink sandstone carvings), Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and others. Each has its own character, and apart from the stunning visuals, a visit to each gives you an earful of an incredible racket of insects, birds and frogs, chirping, tweeting and belching away. There was probably a time when seeing Angkor Wat was considered a truly special experience as so few could do it before, with Cambodia being unsafe and inaccessible, but I missed it – the tourist trail has truly come through town here. It makes me wander if I’ll be able to see anywhere this year unaccompanied by half a dozen souvenir sellers and without the benefit of pay toilets and ice cream on hand.
I’m staying in Siem Reap for a little while – it’s a nice place with a nice feel. As Earthwalkers is involved with an orphanage which provides care and education for local children, I’ve been out to see it, and from next week I’ll be teaching English to four different groups of kids for two weeks on a voluntary basis. I can remember the songs ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’ – any other ideas?