Krong Khemara, Cambodia. Saturday 26th May 2018.
Riding into Cambodia, with wallet suitably lightened, I immediately suffered a culture shock. People drive on the right here! While I waited under the awning of a shop for the thunderous rain to stop, I worked out how long ago I’d last done that. It was in Russia and, apart from one day when I rode across South Korea, I’d ridden on the left ever since. In case you wondered, that was over three and a half years ago. And once I’ve finished with Indo China I’ll be back on the left again, probably for another couple of years. The effects of British colonial influence, and Japanese occupation, are long lasting.
I found a hotel in the nearest town to the border and was more than happy to be paying in US dollars, and not very many of them at that. $8 for a nice hotel room was fine by me. It looked like Cambodia was going to be quite a cheap country. Also a dark one. There were no street lights in this town, only those of businesses that were still open, or the bright but limited light of stallholders’ LED lamps.
I needed to get to the town of Pursat, a fair bit north of where I’d crossed the border. After that would be Siem Reap, the nearest city to the temples of Angkor Wat. There seemed to be a usable road up through the hills. I had no idea of what its condition would be, but it would be fun having a go. I anticipated dirt in this still underdeveloped country. The first section was concrete, up until it reached the Chinese built hydro-electric plant. After that it became a stony track. But not for long. Soon I was on a graded dirt road as good as any I’d ridden in Australia. It wound up and down, around lakes and across rivers, all surrounded by thick rainforest. Since passing the hydro plant I hadn’t seen any signs of human habitation but suddenly I came across a café, out in the middle of nowhere. I stopped, welcoming a break, and got chatting to some guys taking their lunch break there. One spoke good English and explained that they were checking the lightning conductors at the top of the electricity pylons. I expected to see some 4WDs crammed with equipment parked outside. No chance of that. A couple of 250cc trail bikes and a couple of small rucksacks was all they had. He told me about road conditions further along – deteriorating – and left me to finish my coffee.
He was right about the road though. Sure enough, the nice gravel ended as a I came into a village, and it was mud, glorious mud, all the way from there. To be fair, the surface was still hard packed but it was no longer smooth. Puddles, runnels and washouts kept me on my toes and often standing on the footrests too. Most of the bridges now were rough and ready in style and build, but not a big challenge for me. But I still felt humble about my riding ability whenever I came across, for example, a local woman riding her scooter along the track, dressed in her summer dress and summer hat,the epitome of insouciance. And talking of local women, I was extremely grateful to one of them when I dropped my bike in a puddle for the second time. I hurt my back trying to pick it up and had to wait for some help to show up. A smartly dressed woman came along on her scooter and was quite happy to wade into the puddle with me and help me get my bike upright. In fact I’m fairly sure she did more of the lifting than me!
Then fun got even better when the rain started. I sheltered for a while but time was pressing so I had to carry on. No more falls though, despite the last ten kilometres being a slippery, muddy challenge, and eventually I reached blessed asphalt. I was now in a town and hoped to find a hotel, but no joy. No choice other than to press on, hoping to reach Pursat before it got dark. Which I did, just. Sadly, just as I was passing some buildings, a small dog ran out into the road and straight under my front wheel. I had no time to brake or swerve and both wheels went over its body. I didn’t stop. There was nothing I could have done for the poor thing. But it showed me just how stupid dogs in Cambodia are. Unlike in all the other countries I’d ridden through, they just ignore all evidence of an approaching vehicle and stay, happily sniffing at whatever, in the middle of the road. A blast on the horn invariably gets them to move, fortunately. Eventually I got to Pursat, feeling a bit fed up after the dog incident, and found another cheap hotel, and food. They insisted I bring my bike into the lobby for safe keeping, where it joined several dirt bikes, their reason for being there unknown to me.
As I move from country to country I’m always interested to see what vehicles are being used. People in poorer countries simply don’t have the money for pick-up trucks, or large trucks, and will mostly used something motorcycle based. In Thailand it was the motorcycle and sidecar. Here it’s the motorcycle and trailer. The bikes and the trailers are at opposite ends of the scale in terms of size. Small step-thrus, up to 150cc, haul surprisingly large trailers often loaded with items that are clearly too heavy. Some of the trailers I’d hesitate to pull with my car. One I saw had three cows in it. Another was so loaded up with woven baskets and household goods that I could barely see the bike and rider. But that’s just how it rolls out here. I suppose a small bike is better than having to rely on bullocks, as some people do. But the oddest vehicle I saw was a weird combination of tractor and trailer that looked as if half of it had been left at home. The single cylinder, stationary type diesel engine sits on top of the narrow front axle, and is connected to a gearbox, built into the axle, via a drive belt. It’s steered by a tiller, which has the controls on the handlebars. But this tiller is at least a metre and a half long, so when it needs to go round a corner, the driver has to lean out from his seat as the front wheels turn. The tighter the corner, the more he leans. The trailer is attached to the front axle via a long tow pole and the load area is behind the driver. Once again, they’re invariably overloaded, often with huge sections of timber or very heavy looking ornate wooden furniture. The pictures explain it better then I can. They are very slow moving as well. I was able to study one closely and was surprised to see that they’re made in Thailand. Why the surprise? Because I didn’t see any of them when I was there, at least, not in the south. What with overloaded bikes, bullock carts and half tractors, all moving very slowly, riding on these roads can get to be what we might call ‘interesting’.
The villages I passed through, especially those along the dirt road, looked to be very poor, with wooden shacks for houses and shops. People were always cheerful though, waving at me as I passed by, especially the kids. Towns were bustling and busy, with stalls alongside the main streets and hundreds of motorbikes buzzing around. Traffic discipline had regressed to Indonesian standards, i.e. there was none. But I knew what to expect so wasn’t fazed by it. ‘Asian overtaking’ was common out on the open roads. What’s that, I hear you ask? It’s when a car/van/truck/bus pulls out to overtake regardless of the fact that you’re occupying the same road space. It always strikes me as being a calculated manoeuvre, based on the other driver knowing there is a hard shoulder for you to move onto. At least, that’s the way it’s worked out so far! I couldn’t quite work out what was growing in this area. Very little rice, but I did see plenty of plantations of small trees, possibly for rubber.
The distance from Pursat to Siem Reap is about 260kms. It could easily be half that were it not for the huge lake of Tonlé Sap lying across my path. I’ve described it as huge, but for some of the year it’s small. It’s fed with water from the surrounding higher ground, and empties into the Mekong river, via the Tonlé Sap River. But that flow reverses, according to the season. As the dry season ends and the wet begins, the Mekong river starts to fill up and some of that water flows back up the Tonlé Sap river to fill the lake area. As the wet season progresses, the lake fills with seasonal water and the flow of the Mekong reduces, so the process reverses. The difference in area of the lake over the year is phenomenal. It varies between 2,500 sq kms and 16,000 sq kms. That’s a factor of six. When I first looked at the map I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t built a road across the top corner of the area to shorten the huge loop the road takes. When I read about how this lake works, I could fully understand why. Much more info here, for the geographers among you.
Meanwhile I had things other than water on my mind. That other essential liquid, petrol, was very much to the fore once more. After all my efforts while in Pattaya, the bike had been running well and my confidence in it had slowly built up. Until, half way to Siem Reap, the misfiring returned. I had plenty of fuel so it was clearly up to it’s old tricks. I limped along, stopping every so often in an effort to tease the bike into behaving. I filled up again and was OK for a while before it started playing up again. Then for no discernible reason, it cured itself and ran happily once more. Even so, I was very pleased to reach Siem Reap and the hostel I’d booked for myself.
Oh yes, the hostel. What a dump. Gloomy rooms, with an owner that would follow you around and turn out lights almost as soon as you put them on. The lights were dim enough as it was but having to carry a torch around just to avoid tripping over things wasn’t my idea of welcoming. Add in the thin mattresses and poor bathroom facilities. I’d booked for three nights but moved to a better place after two. It was only $1.50 per night, but that’s what you get for cheap-skating. An extra two dollars got me a bed in a hostel that was a veritable palace by comparison. It also happened to be close to where all the action was. Siem Reap is the closest place to the Angkor Wat complex and is a backpacker heaven. It’s Cambodia’s second largest city and the tourist centre is stuffed full of hostels, bars, clubs, massage parlours (legitimate), bike hire shops, market stalls and anything else a young traveller might need. There’s an area called Pub Street, which is a night time splendour of restaurants, bars and clubs. The road is closed off so people can wander freely up and down in the warm night air. There’s locals selling all sorts of tempting knick knacks, from phosphorescent gimcracks to roasted spiders on a stick. Tuk Tuk drivers will be walking up and down offering waccy baccy, women or whatever you fancy rounding off your evening with. It’s where it all happens, that’s for sure.
I went there to eat most evenings to enjoy some western food and cheap beer. Cambodia has several local brands, often in draught variety, a slight step up from drinking it out of cans. But it’s still only lager, just presented better. I usually sat in the outside area, next to the street, and enjoyed the procession of people passing by. The food was very good, not expensive, and occasionally a young lady would stop to see if I needed anything else as a ‘dessert’. Across the street, sat on a dais next to the road, was a traditional band playing some jingly jangly music to entertain us all. The common feature of all the band members was that they had at least one leg missing, victims of Cambodia’s dreadful land mine legacy. More on that topic later.
Angkor Wat. ‘Angkor’ means Capital and ‘Wat’ means Temple. Basically, Westminster Abbey then. But just as with Central London, that temple is by no means the whole story and there’s plenty more to see nearby. They recently established the Angkor Archaeological Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is managed by a private company. Their job has been to restore or shore up the ruins, according to need, and to manage visitors. Part of this ‘management’ involves charging lots of money to see it all. The prices are $37, $62 and $72 for a one, three or ten day pass, respectively. If you’re only making a flying visit, that one day pass is super expensive. I bought the three day pass but you have thirty one days in which to use it, which is a great idea. The prices are high but the money seems to be used to good effect. Access to the temples is well managed, with all weather access roads and walkways in among the ruins. For reasons I didn’t quite understand, some work had been sponsored by other countries, such as Japan and India. Angkor Wat has been extensively restored and the bas relief carvings are a thing of beauty and wonder. But what’s its history?
Time for a bit of info on the whole Khmer Angkor empire, to which all these buildings relate. ‘Khmer’ is a reference to the ethnicity of the people in the area, and goes back long before this story began at the beginning of the 9th century. The whole of SE Asian began to be ‘Indianised’ from the first century CE, with Hinduism and Buddhism being spread by traders from India. There was no homogeneous country at that time, just lots of Princedoms and city states, invariably fighting each other. At the end of the 8th century a returning warrior king held sway and was able to bring together enough of these states to stop the rivalry. I discovered most of this history in the excellent National Museum, in Siem Reap. As well as all this information they had some fine examples of carved stonework to look at and plenty of artefacts from the era. There is an unusually large amount of verifiable information about this era, most of it coming from the writings of Chinese traders and emissaries who visited the area. A lot more comes from writings found on the temple buildings.
In 802CE the new ruler declared himself as a God King (a very common approach in that era) and began the building programme that gave us the Angkor temples. There had been other temples built in earlier times, some Buddhist and some Hindu. This king aligned himself with Vishnu, one of the main Hindu gods, and built his temples accordingly. His successors didn’t move the capital to the Angkor area until the end of that century, when temple building began in earnest. Over the next few centuries the Khmers fought their traditional enemies in both Thailand and South Vietnam, creating what’s reckoned to be the worlds richest pre-industrial city in the process. It was in the 12th century that Angkor Wat was built. Meanwhile the state religion changed to Mahayana Buddhism, then back to Hinduism, and finally to Theravada Buddhism, which is the main religion today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Cambodia By the 14th century the resurgent Thais were attacking Angkor and eventually the king decided to move the capital to Phnom Penh. The temples remained active and, contrary to what I believed, were never ‘lost in the jungle’. At least, the main ones weren’t, although some others did suffer that fate, and the jungle certainly made a comeback. It was a French traveller, Henri Mouhot who is credited with ‘discovering’ Angkor Wat, and created its first tourist boom. So that’s the brief story. There’s lots more on the internet of course. This is a good site to visit. Or this.
The temple itself is a pretty amazing place. Firstly, it’s big. Very big. The outer walls are surrounded by a 200 metre wide moat, whose total distance around the site is 5.5kms. The west facing main gate is normally approached via a 12 metre wide causeway but sadly it was closed for refurbishment work so I had to use a pontoon bridge. The main gate faces west because that is the direction of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, and is the place the design of the temple represents. It’s also believed that Angkor Wat was a funerary temple, for King Suryavarman II, and west is where the sun sets and so is associated with death. Most temples’ main gate will face east. I won’t attempt to describe it all. Firstly, I couldn’t do it justice. Secondly, it would take too long. It’s better to read a fuller description via one of the links.
But I will focus on what I especially liked. You’ve probably seen the photos, with that iconic shape reflected in the moat. I can assure you it’s equally impressive in real life. Looking across to the towers creates a sense of grandeur only matched, but not bettered, by such buildings as the Taj Mahal, or an ancient cathedral.
Within the inner walls are cloistered corridors which house the extremely well preserved bas relief carvings. These are incredibly detailed and tell, in part, the story of the Khmers’ battle with their enemies; the other sections relate to Hindu folk tales, centred on Bagavata Pourana. Included in this tale, and shown on the carvings, is the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Gods and demons use a serpent, which is pulled and pushed backwards and forwards to churn the ocean. It generates Amrta, the elixir of life. The purpose of the churning is to recover lost treasures such as the sourer of immortality; Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune; the milk white elephant of Indra; and the nymph of loveliness. The retrieval of these objects symbolizes prosperity. It is what formed the whole universe. The symbolism relating to this tale can be found everywhere and is used to good effect in various parts of Angkor era buildings. Female figures, called Apsaras, are very common, along with serpents, monkeys and various other mythical figures. The imagery relating to the serpent’s churning is most commonly used where a balustrade may be needed, such as on bridges, causeways or paths. The serpent is the handrail and the supports are carved to represent the churners.
There are three rectangular galleries, each one rising up from the other. Some very steep steps gained me access and I was able to see all the various towers, with their own set of decorative carvings, and marvel at their design and workmanship. Although the outer walls are built of laterite, a volcanic rock, the buildings are of sandstone, including the carved panels. They fit perfectly together, all with dry joints. The roofs are of curved stone and are self supporting. It wasn’t possible to go up to the top tower as it’s not safe, but the five lower towers could be easily accessed and I was happy to wander round looking at this and that, just how I used to when I was a kid visiting one of England’s castles. There’s that same feeling of the history of previous lives lived there, wondering how they spent their days and their time.
I engaged a guide at first, who told some of the interesting stories and explained the details. He told me that nobody got paid for their work during construction, which struck me as little more than slave labour. But then I thought about it a bit more. People at that time didn’t get paid anyway. They worked on the land to survive. They would have got board and lodging so wouldn’t have really been any worse off. And they would have had the kudos of working for their God King. So maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. There is no evidence on the ground of accommodation of any kind. But of course this was a temple, and access would have been restricted anyway. People would have lived on the surrounding land so any buildings, made from wood and reed, would have long since been ‘eaten’ by the encroaching jungle anyway. He explained the stories on the carved panels too, and what an Apsara is. Armed with the guide’s information I was than able to wander around to my heart’s content. I got my photo taken with some Japanese girls, I’ve no idea why. By the time I’d finished climbing up and down those steep steps, in the hot sunshine, I was glad to get back to town and find a beer. It was a fascinating place, full of grandeur, majesty and mystery. Very well worth the visit.
Angkor Thom. This ‘Great City’ is located about fifteen kilometres north of Angkor Wat. I approached it from the opposite side to where most visitors are delivered, and rode down a jungle track in order to do so. It was a very impressive sight that I was faced with as I neared the perimeter wall. A tall but narrow archway greeted me, on top of which was a structure which had four carved faces, one looking in each cardinal direction. Equally impressive was that I had to ride another several hundred metres before I came close to any of the main buildings. Clearly a big place. As you’d expect from a city, this was the administrative centre of the Khmer empire and the buildings inside this outer wall were mainly for that purpose. But the greatest of them is Bayon, the state temple. It is quite a surreal building, sitting in the exact centre of the city. It doesn’t have the striking looks of Angkor Wat, especially from a distance. But once inside, and especially having climbed to the upper levels, visitors can’t help but be impressed, and probably baffled, and maybe even disconcerted, by the fifty four faces that stare at them from the towers inside, just like those I saw on the gateway arch, with four on each tower. It’s not completely certain who this face represents; possibly the Buddha, possibly the builder, King Jayavarman VII. Or maybe a combination of both. As I walked around the towers and galleries, some of them would always be in sight, keeping an eye on me. Those galleries contain 1200 metres of bas relief carvings, spread among the three tiers of the building. As well as battle scenes and legends, they include many that relate to everyday life, such as fishing, work in the fields, worship and so on. As a symbol of the power and reach of the king, Bayon impresses very much.
In the area surrounding Bayon are many other buildings and smaller temples. Some of these were completely taken over by the jungle and they had a definite air of mystery to them. Having to walk through the woods to get to them made me wonder how this big city would have looked when it was populated with traders, soldiers and administrators. As mentioned, domestic buildings had long since rotted away but walking round a temple that still had trees growing out of its walls was very odd. They appeared to be claiming ownership of them, as if to say “You’ve finished with them and they’re ours now”. Ta Prom temple is one of these, and it became famous when some scenes from Tomb Raider were shot there, using, as a backdrop, a curtain of tree roots as they overhang a wall. Getting a photo of that was a struggle because of the hordes of tourists, but I managed in the end.
I visited many more of the temples in the area but I think there is little point in trying to describe them all. They are all unique in their own way and have been restored to a greater or lesser degree, often with the help of other countries. I was very glad that I had my bike to tootle around on because I was able to visit smaller and more remote places, which people without independent transport may not have bothered with. The small ones almost all had an air of abandonment, as if they knew that their glory days were long gone and their only role now was to be kept preserved merely for the benefit of the curious visitor. Here are a couple of links to find more information. There were more things to see in and around Siem Reap, but they will wait until the next blog post.