Wat a birthday!

It’s birthday time for Hardcow so we decide to start our big temple (wat) visits today. Deciding that a 4.30am start to see Angkor Wat at sunrise is just too early, we opt for a more leisurely 7.30am pick up by our enigmatically named tuk-tuk driver “Z”.

To quote our January 2011 entry – For those who don’t know, Angkor is the old capital of this whole region of SE Asia, covering an area of over 1000 sqkm. It contains over 100 old temples all built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Apparently, it was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. All this is pre-empting us saying, it’s big, very big.

First up is Angkor Wat. It is the national symbol of Cambodia and Angkor appears on everything, either by name or outline of the towers, including the national flag, beer and almost every guesthouse or hotel name for miles around.

We loved the dramatic entrance on a new floating and slightly bouncy bridge over the 50m wide moat. This is a very recent addition and is there to protect the old original stone bridge. At 8am it was busy, but not as bad as we dreaded. Even though we saw it six years ago, what a great way to start the day. The rain is non-existent – a bonus considering what the weather has been doing in the past few days.

Next, on to the vast area of Angkor Thom. On first look at The Bayon (main temple), it is just ruined stonework. Then you look closer. Fine carvings, more intricate carvings and big displays such as the huge faces (in the picture below) all appear. We also see something new, a small temple with a huge stone 300m entrance walkway. To finish, we visit our favourite structures from our last trip – a scattering of buildings that look the Weasley family house in Harry Potter. There are dark clouds looming, but rain is still just about holding off.

Our final temple is the famous Ta Prohm. Although famous for the Tomb Raider film, we think it is very much Indiana Jones. Last time it was just us and our guide and the sound of birdsong and silence. This time there were a few groups of over 20, all chattering away and their guides speaking very loudly.

Fortunately, Ta Prohm is a maze of corridors, nooks and crannies that allow us to escape to quiet parts with ease. We see a far greener Temple than last time; the rocks covered with moss, leaves on trees – it was if we were wearing green-tinted glasses. Ta Prohm is still massively overgrown with vegetation, but the authorities here are also re-building parts of it like huge jigsaw puzzles. It truly is special place – even with amount of visitors. Rain has started, but barely a drizzle.

We arrive home at around midday feeling very hot and sweaty from the very high humidity, but happy that the rain hasn’t stopped us and the temples weren’t too busy.

Half an hour later, it absolutely throws it down, but that doesn’t spoil a lovely birthday with prezzies being opened, family video messages being played and phone calls back to the UK.

Rebuilding a society from the arts up – Phare Circus

Cambodia is furiously building its skills base. Like all developing nations, it knows that this will be the key to a better future. Unlike most, it lost nearly all of its teachers, academics, artists, and scientists when they were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It has a long way to travel before it can restore decades of lost cultural and academic progress.

Battambang is now home to a healthy arts scene, with a growing population of painters, sculptors, musicians and performance artists. Part of this community is Phare Ponlue Selpak – a performing and fine arts school financed by a circus show, bar and gallery. Places are free for local children, and they offer a kindergarten and social work programme. The aim is to keep kids in healthy families, in school and safe.

We’ve been repeatedly told not to miss a performance and, although it’s not our favourite art form, we agree that the Phare Circus is an interesting project and worth experiencing. We might as well go on our last night.

Oh, such cynical tourists! We gasp and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ along with the rest of the crowd as tumblers, acrobats, dancers and jugglers amaze and delight.

The show, called ‘Influence’, explores the nature of power, control and corruption. In the opening scene, performers crouched under plain grass mats transform into underwater creatures (think horseshoe crabs) to play out the earliest power struggle – survival. Attack, predation and defence are all miraculously enacted with the simplest of sets. Later scenes include: a magical slow-motion race towards an undefined source of power; the victorious rising up of a king and his subsequent transformation into a (literal) puppet monarch; and the ruses used by rich/colonial players to distract and control local populations.

In the most chilling scene, the audience is invited to admire, laugh and even root for the western-shirted, evil sidekick diabolo-juggler while, simultaneously in the background, the linen-suited, trilby-wearing ‘boss’ walks repeatedly over the backs of crying Cambodians. The audience doesn’t know quite how to react as the juggler gives us the cues for cheers we are culturally trained to provide while, behind him, people silently wail and suffer. It was brilliantly executed.

Missing from the show was any exploration of female empowerment. This felt like a massive omission, give the sexual exploitation rife in Cambodia and its strong conservative streak when it comes to gender politics.

It being our last night at the wonderful Bric a Brac hotel, we make sure we’re home in time for gin, cheese and, as it turns out, an impromptu vocal performance by two of the staff, who duet for a few of the guests on the (by now) deserted road junction.

Holy mountain, Batman

Forgoing the cheese board for one night, we head up to Battambang’s bat cave. This was the hotel’s recommendation and it is very much at a limit of a tuk-tuk ride, around 15 miles each way, that we would want to do safely on a busy main road.

After 45 minutes on bumpy roads in a tuk-tuk, it feels like our bones are being shaken out of their sockets, but we do arrive in time for the main event.

Hundreds of bats are emerging from their cave every second and fly off into the distance to get their mossie dinner in a massive line stretching for miles. They then split off into groups of only a few thousand (!) that look like rain clouds. It reminds us of an extreme version of the murmeration of starlings displays at dusk back home at Vauxhall.

There is mass squeaking from the bats, but most of the noise is from bewildered and amazed tourists and locals just saying “wow!”. It is estimated that there are approximately five million of them. Blimey.

 

As with almost everything in Cambodia, there is also sadness and ingenuity. The caves themselves were used for particularly horrible events during the Khmer Rouge days, but now, the enterprising owner of the cave scoops up bat crap and makes his fortune selling it as fertiliser.

 

 

 

 

It feels inadequate to say what we saw last night was truly an awesome sight. All we need is a David Attenborough voiceover and we’d be watching, a live “Life on Earth” documentary. The video and photos show a tiny part of the natural show we saw although the dusk sky and the speed of the bats make any decent visual record almost impossible.

An hour of our lives we’ll never forget.

 

 

Our own personal cheeses

Ton up, it’s now 100 days since we left the UK.

We managed to drag ourselves out of south Cambodia. To get to Siem Reap in the north, the choice was around 14 hours by two buses over two days or a 45 minute flight. Even the fear-of-flying half of Hardcow agreed that the flight was the preferred choice.

Only one night in Siem Reap (we have a week there soon) and a 3.5 hour bus ride has taken us to Battambang. We have splashed out to stay at the Bric-a-Brac hotel, a big old colonial mansion converted into accommodation that has only 3 guest large and comfortable rooms. We get a free drink every night, a gorgeous breakfast that could be straight out of a Paris boulangerie and the most comfortable bed this side of France.

Last time we had a big holiday around South East Asia, one of the surprising things we missed about home was cheese & pickle sandwiches. Luckily, for any future similar cravings, Bric-a-Brac are known for their cheese board and we pigged-out last night with 5 hand-picked imported French cheeses plus homemade Rillettes. Bloody gorgeous.

I’m sure we’ll have a good explore around the sites of Battambang, but with this comfort and the hottest temperatures of the holiday so far (pushing 35c in the shade – if we can find any shade!), it’s difficult to see beyond lazy days and nightly cheese at the minute.

Apologies to Depeche Mode for the post title.

Goodbye to Kampot (again)

Much like last time we were in Cambodia, we found a place in the south of the country that felt just right and end up staying for a week or so longer than planned. The region, and town itself, of Kampot certainly hit the mark for us in terms of accommodation, things to see & do, quality food, high on the QfSEA (quiet for South East Asia) index, safe and friendly that all mixed together to make it to be a lovely place to visit – twice over. We’ll miss it.

To finish, some photos taken either late at night or early in the morning directly outside our hotel when the temperature was barely hitting 30c.

Holy Crab!

After ten days, we managed to drag ourselves out of Kampot and travel an hour down the road to the coastal town of Kep. It is known for seafood, especially crab.

Kep is a sleepy little town, although by all accounts was ridiculously busy over the holiday weekend just gone. Our hotel owner at the lovely Beach House Hotel talked with joy about being able to take a breather for the first time after many 16-hour days in a row. Again, we seem to have chosen our hotel well, have a great sea view from our room and the pool is a lovely escape from the heat and especially, the very high humidity here.

Kep itself is spread out, so we hop in a tuk-tuk for a morning tour around the sights. Public statues are once again a big thing. Obvious ones include an independence monument and the massive crab one at the top of this post, but there are other random ones such as ‘woman with dolphin’, various goddesses and ones of people we can’t decipher as our Khmer is absolute rubbish.

 

We also are taken to a beautiful temple. Outside there are signs outside saying “meditation here”, but, with a huge lump of irony, there is music blasting out at ear-splitting, speaker-distorting volume. I would defy anyone to find their inner peace. Turn up your PC volume up to max and click here to get some idea of the (lack of) serenity of it all.

There are old French colonial villas built in the 1950s. A lot were abandoned many years ago and some only have their majestic garden walls still standing. Kep must have been pretty spectacular during that time when it was known as Kep-Sur-Mer by the Paris elite.

We finish with a visit to the famous crab market. We see huge prawns, squid, many types of fish. Most of the crabs are kept in their pots offshore, so we don’t get to see what this town is famous for. There’s only one final thing to do and that’s for Allan to have a 10.30am breakfast of 6 giant prawns with pepper & lime sauce in a cafe overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The cafe has the fantastic name of Holy Crab and the prawns were equally fantastic. Yum.

Kampot Pepper – the real deal

Kampot was pretty famous around the world, especially for foodies & chefs for one thing. Pepper. It used to be a “must have” on every good French restaurant menu. But then, as briefly documented in our previous time here, the absolute devastation of this entire country by the Khmer Rouge happened whilst the world just watched and didn’t do anything to prevent the genocide.

In the past 10-15 years, Kampot has attempted to gain back its rightful place as the “champagne of pepper” from India and Madagascar. There has been foreign, mainly French and Belgian, investment in new plantations. Kampot pepper has also gained a Geographic Indication mark and, although production is still reasonably small scale of around 70 tonnes per year, demand and production are growing.

We bought some Kampot pepper last time we were around this area and it is indeed pretty special. It tastes a lot stronger than your average supermarket pepper, but with an actual taste of something and not just hot. It is also used extensively in cooking around here, our hotel uses substantially amount of pepper in 8 meals and down the road in Kep, the speciality is Prawn or Crab with Kampot pepper.

 

We chose to visit a plantation called “Le Plantation” as it sells itself as ethically sound and pays workers well, built and pays running costs for a local school, building a new road and other such good stuff. It obviously doesn’t sell itself in the “Original name for a pepper plantation” competition.

The visit to Le Plantation was slightly disappointing as we’d just missed harvest season, but still was interesting enough. There were only odd peppers on the huge amount of vines. We did however find out there are 3 types of peppercorn made (black, red and white) but there was also other types such as long pepper. We also get educated to know that white pepper corns are actually red pepper corns without their husk.

Le Plantation also farms turmeric, salt and other goodies. Their shop was popular and we obviously bought a reasonably big vacuum-packed bag that will hopefully last the next four months travel.

 

All was left to do was to have the special of the day back at our lovely hotel. Aged Australian melt-in-the-mouth tenderloin steak, perfectly cooked that matched the best steak we have ever eaten, even compared South America’s finest. And it came with a choice of lime & pepper or creamy pepper sauce – obviously.

 

Puddles, punctures and pyjamas: a day in the country

Largely on the basis that a moving tuk tuk means a breeze, we decided on a few hours tour of Kampot’s surrounds. Our driver, Chian, suggested a few sights we could include and we were off.

Roads in Kampot are pretty good but deteriorate quickly once we leave the main road. Luckily, Chian has done this a lot and skilfully negotiates the potholes and large pools of muddy water left over from yesterday’s rain. He is a slow and steady driver, which is proven when we are regularly overtaken by but eventually catch up with another tuk tuk carrying a party of tourists to many of the same places.

The main road is a twisting, churning river of mopeds, trucks and carts, studded with little food markets and other commerce. Chloe is delighted to see that the Khmer pyjama ladies are still in evidence. Traditional women’s daywear in Cambodia is a combo of light cotton trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. This is often fashioned in brightly coloured, matching fabric, rendering a pyjama-like ensemble. Topped off with a wide-brimmed hat, it is surely the most practical of outfits. Younger women increasingly opt for long shorts and t-shirts with a baseball cap – probably more fashionable but far less practical (‘go out in that hat and your neck will burn’, ‘those jeans shorts will never dry out after it rains!’ we imagine frustrated parents calling after their daughters). We dream of a future in which smart pyjamas are accepted outdoor wear in Britain.

Our first stop is a salt farm. With rainy season drawing in, the fields are not being worked, but Chian shows us the patchwork of shallow fields (similar to rice paddies, with raised sides and irrigation systems). In this case, the water is bought from the sea into large pools and condensed under the sun for about a month. It is then diverted into smaller pools where the final bake is completed in a week or so and the salt removed. The best salt, called ‘fleur de sel’, is the very top skimming of the new crystals and sells to the best restaurants. We peered into a wooden storage shed to see enormous piles of salt awaiting distribution, and we wondered what happens when the roof leaks…

Turning off the tarmac and roads immediately become red dirt – alternately dusty and muddy. We chug through several roadside villages, which look very much like the villages we saw around Siem Reap on our last trip. There are signs of improving conditions – better maintenance, more power lines, refrigeration and, an unexpected sign, more people at leisure as they take a break from work during the hottest part of the day. Children are better dressed, youths suck on ice lollies, adults exchange news over a coffee. It’s no utopia though. Despite some relatively affluent looking homes, incomes are clearly still very low.

 

After a couple of hours of bumping, we reached the obligatory cave (wherever you go – waterfall, temple, cave). But this one was different. Yes, it was a temple in a cave. We thought that was probably worth 200 steps in the baking heat. The stairs were spectacular, each handrail was an enormous naga so you simply followed the snake body upwards. The cave itself housed a little temple, which reminded us of a miniature version some of the carved buildings we saw in Petra, and some impressive stalagmites that resembled elephants.

After a short hiatus to fix a burst inner-tyre, we eventually reached Secret Lake and revelled in the cool breeze coming off it. It’s a reservoir that helps make this one of the most fertile parts of the region, demonstrated by the mangoes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peanuts, green beans, chillies, turmeric, pepper, cabbages and garlic we saw growing. Basically, it was like driving through a live veggie curry.

Our final stop was a pepper plantation but, given its importance here, we think it deserves a post of its own. A special mention, though, must go to the durian field we paused at. This fruit splits continents, societies and families – we certainly can’t agree on whether it’s a delicious if stinky treat or from Satan’s own bottom.

Kampottering around


We didn’t make it to Kampot last time we were in Cambodia, instead, we stayed up the south coast in Sihanoukville for far longer than should be even possible. We heard that Kampot was a fairly laid-back town on the banks of the Preaek Tuek Chhu River and an escape from the hectic, but great, Phnom Penh.

After 3 nights here, it is indeed laid-back, especially for South East Asia – you can even cross the roads without too much delay and there is even the odd pavement!  It is a smallish town, but seems to have the perfect combination of tourist infrastructure and shops, good clean cafés & restaurants, a few things to see & do in and around town, but also some excellent accommodation.


Looks like we chose our accommodation well. Rikitikitavi is a lovely place. An old wooden mansion that has been converted into 8 big & well maintained rooms with a huge, dubiously legit, DVD library. The staff are friendly & hard-working and there is a great selection for breakfast & dinner (Vegetarian red curry? Fish Amok? Beef Saraman? All made with local famous Kampot pepper? Oh, yes, bloody yum…). There are even 2-for-1 cocktails that we are taking full advantage of – definitely worth the princely sum of $2 each.

From the hotel, there are views of the river, brightly-decorated sunset cruise boats and tree-covered mountains plus the added bonus of having front row seats for the nightly spectacular thunder & lightening displays. Oh, did I say that the Internet connection was good enough to hear and see Newcastle winning the Championship?  A bonus. Rikitikitavi rightly ranked number 1 in the, sometimes untrustworthy, TripAdvisor best hotels list for Kampot.

We originally booked 5 days in Kampot. This has already been extended to 8 days and wouldn’t be surprised if we stay even longer. How lovely.

All aboard the Kampot express!

The last time we were in this part of the world, we agreed that Cambodia was by far our favourite destination. Six years on, we were excited (and a little nervous) to find out how it had changed.

Phnom Penh, the capital, offers extremes and contrasts that leave you reeling: traffic of dystopian proportions; a jumble of poverty and wealth; friendly locals; ‘girlie bars’ (the more acceptable face of a local sex industry that gets much, much darker); delicious French food (duck terrine for dinner, anyone?); a very young population (average age, 23); flashes of colonial history around every corner; a thirst for education. And we were only there for one full day. We think we detected a general rise in affluence, certainly in the part of town we stayed, but will need to see more to be certain.

One very concrete change is the railway. It stopped running entirely during the war and upheavals of the 1970s. Afterwards, guerrilla activity and lack of money saw it slowly decline. Lately, development agencies and Australian rail companies have injected significant investment. The first regular passenger service out of Phnom Penh re-started in 2016, so we couldn’t miss using it to get to Kampot. And if you’ve been on a Cambodian bus, you’ll probably appreciate why we opted for a slightly longer but safer journey!

We were on the blue train (there’s also a yellow one), which means the seating is a long bank down either side of the carriage. It was a tumble of luggage, kids, locals, tourists and (joy) a big air conditioning unit at each end. We discovered there are just a few rules for Cambodian rail travel:

  1. It is perfectly acceptable for everyone to listen to music, watch TV and talk hands-free on their phone at top volume. Well, how else will you hear it over all the other phone noise? Duh.
  2. Eat constantly and from a bewildering array of food options. The family we were seated with managed to munch their way through the following courses in the first three hours: pringles, little pies, pot noodles, nuts, mango, lotus seeds, chicken legs, fried rice. It was quite a holiday atmosphere, and brought to mind childhood road picnics – warm sandwiches and squash in the back of a hot car, while sticking to vinyl seats.
  3. Language is not a barrier – everyone smiled and laughed, pointed out of the window and were generally congenial while barely exchanging a word.

It took four and a half hours to get to Kampot. Luckily, the air con only broke down about four hours in. Result.