The rest of Cambodia and Vietnam

I can’t believe it’s been more than six months since we visited Cambodia and Vietnam. I started the series of posts on Cambodia, but never managed to finish them. I don’t think I ever will! This is what happens when I had seriously neglected my travel diary and didn’t take a million pictures of every single moment of the holiday. But there are still a string of holiday memories that are still crystal clear in my mind.

  • The awesome and hectic public holiday celebrations. We were lucky enough to arrive at Phnom Penh during the King’s birthday. Apparently Cambodia has the most number of public holidays of any country in the world, and they definitely celebrate in style. The streets were all closed off to cars and even the most effective means of transport for us tourists (the infamous motorcycle taxis) were not allowed to enter the main streets.  After a long and hot walk into the city centre, it was a relief and a surprise to be offered the VIP treatment in a giant marquee right next to the river. So what’s going on? Dragon boat racing! All the foreigners were allowed to sit in the breezy marquee to watch the fanfare whilst the locals had to endure the heat. I soon understood the locals’ persistence as periodic thunderous cheers erupted along the riverbank and I see television screens broadcasting the race to the rest of Cambodia. But the weather was insanely hot, and I had to quickly find refuge in an air-conditioned cafe.
  • Visits to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.  Many people are familiar with this dark period in Cambodia’s history. Here was a stark contrast to the majestic temple grounds of Angkor Wat or yesterday’s spectacular King’s birthday celebration. The Genocide Museum is based in a former primary school where the Khmer Rouge converted classrooms to torture chambers and jail cells for their captives. This notion alone is disturbing but I never expected to have tears in my eyes as I walked through the various classrooms, many of which still had blood-stained floors. It was immensely confronting, although compared to the Killing Fields this was just the beginning.  At the killing fields, nothing is left untold. We could see clothes debris embedded into the ground that we walked on, hastily buried after the victims were executed. Beneath that earth, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of skulls and bones. We saw deep pits that were used to bury the victims, even babies. Walking past a tree, the guide pointed out that the soldiers would smash babies against its wide trunk and bury them in the pit nearby.
  • Ton Le Sap. We were extremely lucky to have visited Cambodia at the end of the wet season. This meant that this largest lake in Cambodia was still fully flooded (otherwise it reduces its size dramatically) and we could visit the floating villages. The village was built on stilts. During the wet season, villagers travel around in small boats across town. We got on some boats and went on a tour around the place. I even rowed for a bit.
  • Luckily, that was the best and worst of Cambodia. The next day we boarded a motor boat across the Mekong into Vietnamese border.
  • To me, Vietnam was totally different to Cambodia. For one thing, it was obviously more prosperous, and the capital, HCMC, actually resembled a modern city. Memories in HCMC include stepping into the bustling night market and having delicious street food which never made me sick; eating delicious deep fried spring rolls with noodle soup and copious amounts of chilli in a shop that only sold those two dishes, and getting seriously sick the next day; sipping my $30USD cocktail in the Caravelle Hotel; learning the art of crossing the streets without being run over by hundreds of scooters; writing postcards in the General Post Office and watching bridal photo shoots across the road outside the Cathedral…
  • I seriously loved Hoi An. Ok, I admit that a major part of it was the excitement of getting my own tailored clothes, shoes and bags, all within a mere 24 hours.  But Hoi An impressed me with its nostalgic Chinese buildings, the remnants of wet-season floods that blocked off the section of the road that led up to the riverbank, and the great local food. The hotels was also a lot cleaner than the hotels in the big cities and the mahogany-coloured furniture was just lovely.
  • The night we spent on a junk at Ha Long Bay was something else altogether. I had seen Ha Long Bay in many pictures, but they didn’t even come close to the amazing scenery, the giant limestone formations and the sheer amusement of enjoying it all on a junk. There were some drunken karaoke indulged that night, all thanks to (fake) Hanoi vodka and the terrible terrible ‘death shots’ someone came up with.

There were obviously ups and downs when you travel with a tour, but it was a great experience. I got to see parts of Cambodia and Vietnam that I would never have seen otherwise (like eating dinner at a local’s house and riding on the back of a truck on unsecured bench seats)! Oh, and my Vietnam photos can be seen here.

Part 3 – Angkor Wat sunrise

The next day, by either sheer stupidity or tenacity, we got up at 4am to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat. There are two types of pass, which will either give you one or two days’ access to all the temples. The two day pass has a picture of you printed on it, which was not exactly a glamour shot at 4 in the morning.

It was pitch black, and our little panic alarm / small LED torch became very handy. We were told by our local guide (yes, she got up at 4am too) that if we bought a cup of coffee or tea from the street vendor then we could borrow his plastic chairs. At $1USD, the rather ordinary drink was decidedly expensive by Cambodian standards, but well worth it for the comfort of sitting down.

We grabbed the prime spot – right up against the edge of the lake that is in front of Angkor Wat, good viewing point but also the worst in terms of getting bitten by mosquitoes.  I was mildly surprised (amused?) that there weren’t any little boats carrying monks dressed in bright orange robes on the lake, as one would expect from watching Tomb Raider.

Now came the exciting part – so we waited.

Waited…

Waited…

And waited…

Finally.

A small ray of light poked through the sky above the magnificent temple, and its highest point illuminated. First a round of gasps and exclamations, then an avalanche of cameras clicks around us. We didn’t miss out on the action, and grabbed our respective Canons and clicked away.

The light gradually flushed the sky and clusters of dark clouds came into view.  Then, almost instantaneously, the sky was ablaze with orange and crimson, and the temple a grand silhouette against the striking backdrop. The intense hues were gone almost as soon as they appeared, and daylight finally broke through, revealing the surface details on the divine structure that was Angkor Wat. A few small insect bites and a few hundred photos later, we learned that this was one of the best sunrises our guide had seen, what luck!

It was time to thoroughly explore the temple. We were well-acquainted with Angkor Wat on television, through shows like the US Amazing Race; and a  miniature version at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. How they paled in comparison with the real thing! No images or models could depict the grandeur of these ancient temples grounds, with its huge sandstone blocks and intricate carvings.

Several areas were off-limits to tourists, including steep sandstone stairs leading up to each of the towers, apparently a Korean guide died not long ago racing down the stairs (a very silly thing to do)! The same steep steps were ubiquitous in ancient Khmer temples we visited later on, but we saw a young girl, 7 at most, bouncing down the stairs like she did it every day (and she probably did, to sell souvenirs at the top).

Coming out of Angkor Wat, it was breakfast time. Little kids crowded around the tourists (that’s us), trying to sell us post cards in absolutely perfect English.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Australia.’

‘The capital of Australia is Canberra. The largest city is Melbourne and it has 3 million people.’

‘Um no, I think it’s Sydney. And Melbourne has more than 3 million people.’

‘No! You are wrong, it’s Melbourne. Do you want to buy my post cards?’

‘No thank you.’ (We were specifically told by our guides to not buy from street kids, as this would only encourage their parents to send them out on the streets more often.)

‘You are very beautiful. You look Chinese.’

‘Ummm thanks. I am Chinese. You are very sweet’.

The kids followed us to the restaurant, and I later received a ‘love letter’ from the girl I was chatting to. But still we resisted, and did not buy from those kids. This scene would often repeat itself during our time in Cambodia, little kids would follow us everywhere. It’s sweet and heart breaking at the same time.

To be continued …