The colours, smells, and sounds of the Bangkok streets as we pushed through the traffic from the airport to our hotel threatened an overwhelming start to our journey. Luckily we had our tiny Cambodian CEO (Chief Experience Officer – G Adventures term for your guide) Sky, whose unbelievably big grin and matching laugh meant it was basically impossible not to be upbeat and smiling.
First we set out to explore a side of the city that is a world away from the infamous Pat Pong and Khao San Road areas – the canals. Bangkok is built on a vast network of canals and rivers of varying sizes, which continue to serve as major trade routes, gardens and even temple gateways.
We drifted past overhanging gardens and brightly painted buildings. The water roiled with the sheer number of fish that surged to the surface to be fed, and we caught a few glimpses of everyday river traffic.
Leaving behind the watery side of Bangkok, we headed for Wat Pho. Complete with pagodas, wonderfully intricate patterns adorning every spare inch and a gigantic reclining, gold Buddha, we were getting a real insight into the ancient Buddhist history of Bangkok and a glimpse of the old imperial majesty of Thailand’s kings. Duly awed, we departed the temples in search of food. After a quick meal in a rickety shack right on the river’s edge, we headed back to our hotel to cool off, clean up and head out for a night on the Khao San Road.
We were soon sucked into the chaos. End to end Khao San Road has become a Mecca for backpackers almost exclusively as a result of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Whether you’re cooling off in the 7/11 at one end or dancing until the small hours in Gulliver’s at the other, it’s a rite of passage for any traveller to South East Asia and guaranteed to have you questioning your sanity.
The Death Railway
The following morning, with quite a few of our number nursing sore heads, we piled onto our minibus and drove out of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. Once the site of the ‘Death Railway’, this is the town of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ fame. After a sobering visit to the prison camp, we headed downriver to the bridge itself. Taking a quick trip across the river on a small tourist train gave us some sense of what was achieved by the prisoners. With a sobering impression of how people survived in such appalling conditions and under such terrible duress fresh in our minds, the beautiful day and the perfectly maintained gardens of the cemetery we visited next made for strange companions.
Leaving behind Kanchanaburi we headed for the border crossing with Cambodia to move onto the main focus of the trip – getting to know Cambodia. With the help of Sky it was barely two hours later (we were assured that was a speedy crossing) that we were through and into the land of the Khmer, Cambodia.
The change could not have been starker. Where the roads in Thailand had been lined with adverts for skin-whitening cream, mobile phones, credit cards and omnipresent building sites, Cambodia’s roads were lined with green fields, farms and the odd ramshackle stall selling bananas, deep fried crickets, scorpions, spiders and even rat on a stick. Yup, rat. I’m pleased to report it tasted just like chicken. Surprise surprise. N.B. Don’t eat city rat though, that’s not good eatin’, save it for those country rats.
We headed for Sky’s home village. It’s a cliche, but it really was like arriving in another time. Wooden bridges spanned the muddy river the village was built upon, and children played everywhere in the dirt. In the space under their home what seemed like half the village’s children had gathered, and they promptly demanded to have their photo taken and to be shown the results – a reassuring glimpse of that universal, youthful exuberance.
Arriving finally in Siem Reap, we settled into our hotel and, after a dip in the pool, we headed out to explore the nightlife of this exciting little town. A short walk into the town centre brought us to a restaurant where we would try Cambodian food (less peanut-y than Thai, less soup-y than Vietnamese and just downright delicious), before heading to Pub Street and the famous Angkor What? and Temple bars. Covered in neon paint and graffiti these bars lend Pub Street its own, slightly grimy, but definitely charming ambiance. It was all that you could hope for from a night out in South East Asia.
Waking up a lot earlier than we would have liked, but confident it would be worth it, we headed for the Angkor Wat temple complex. The complex is actually home to hundreds of temples, but a lot of them are buried deep within the encroaching jungle and in poor states of repair. Angkor Wat itself is the biggest and best preserved. Every inch of surface is carved with intricate bas reliefs of gods, monsters and humans. It has multiple towers and sprawls over a vast space. It took us hours to properly view just this one temple and a full day to see the three most famous – Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom (with the famous stone heads) and what is known as the Jungle Temple, or Tomb Raider Temple. All of them vast in scale and detail, the mind boggled at the daring of a 12th century society conceiving and building them.
Once more back into the hustle and bustle of early-evening Siem Reap, we split up and some went in search of fish foot massages, others for the nearest bars and still more browsing the seemingly endless array of shops, stalls and street sellers offering everything from knock-off RayBans to flippers and snorkels. More drinks, more time in Temple bar and a rickshaw ride later, we collapsed into bed.
Orphanages and care work
Not all the mornings began quite so early and this time we didn’t have so far to go, or as many people to compete with. We were headed for the New Hope Centre (run by Planeterra, G Adventure’s charitable wing). We visited two sites; their old centre is now an orphanage and home to children from the surrounding slum, all of whom displayed an incredible resilience and positivity in light of their misfortune. The new one came complete with school, medical centre and culinary school. Being pretty cynical and a bit jaded by the sort of poverty-porn adverts we are bombarded with in the UK, both the centres really felt like they were doing fantastic work on the ground and genuinely making a difference to these children’s lives. You can volunteer in these centres, as part of a tour or separately on a longer term basis.
Our hectic schedule pressed us on and soon we were whizzing through the Cambodian countryside, not one of us daring to try and catch up on missed sleep for fear of missing something. Mesmerised, we soaked up the villages we passed through, the endless green fields, until finally our destination emerged from behind oddly constructed houses on stilts.
Tonle Sap Lake
We had arrived at Tonle Sap Lake. More than 75 miles long in peak season and home to a collection of floating villages, we were headed out into the middle of the lake on a boat manned by a father and two sons, clearly all skilled watermen and before long we were hopping off onto one of the floating villages. Situated miles from the nearest shore and home to a very small community this village surely must be one of the most unique in Cambodia, if not the whole of Asia.
Bound for one more night in Siem Reap before hopping on a plane to Phnom Penh, there was something in the air as we left our hotel that evening. Meteorologically speaking, it was a massive thunderstorm, but metaphorically speaking there was a definite hint of sadness at our impending departure from this amazing little town. We’d seen its slums, its temples, its bars, and even got to know some of its people, all in just a few days. The traveller in me felt like I should be staying for a lot longer, but this time it would have to wait. At that moment we were just concerned with not getting soaked to the skin. Hours of dancing, games of pool and many, many drinks later, we headed for bed.
You probably won’t find Cambodia Angkor Air on Skyscanner. The tiny aircraft we boarded, after having our passports and boarding passes checked at least half a dozen times by different people, however, was emblazoned with a gold silhouette of the temple complex we’d visited just two days earlier and was perfectly capable of whisking us and the rest of its passengers to Cambodia’s capital city – Phnom Penh.
It felt strange to be in a big city again. We’d all adjusted to the intimate size of Siem Reap. Thus far, although we all knew the disparity between rich and poor was there, it hadn’t been quite so obvious. In Phnom Penh, directly across from our hotel was a view out over half-finished concrete structures and the corrugated iron roofs of shanty towns, built at both street level and on top of every building within sight.
At some point we all knew we’d have to address the tragic history of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Nowhere was this more evident than in Phnom Penh at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, just outside the capital. That evening though, we sat in a pleasantly airy bar looking out over the river, eating more delicious Cambodian food and playing drinking games.
The first stop on our tour of the Khmer Rouge sites of Phnom Penh was S-21, or Tuol Sleng as it is more commonly known now. This former school turned execution centre was run by the senior Khmer Rouge member, Comrade Duch, who oversaw the estimated 17,000 people imprisoned there. The site is divided into different buildings, each of which housed a different level of prisoner. Some buildings contained large holding cells and others contained individual cells for high value prisoners. The one thing that unifies them all is the sense of foreboding that permeates every corner of the compound. The depths of depravity are very hard to come to terms with and really have to be seen to gain any kind of understanding.
The Killing Fields
We left Tuol Sleng (Hill of Poisonous Trees), for the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh in sombre silence, all of us struggling to process what we had seen and been told. I should say at this point, that although difficult to witness and fundamentally disturbing, the museum is fascinating and very important to understand where Cambodia is now and how it has come to be there.
The Killing Fields seemed remarkably innocuous, given their name. It’s only when you walk out onto the fields, surrounded by trees and look beneath your feet that you realise what you thought were rocks are actually shards of human bone that have risen through the soil that you begin to grasp the horror of the place. This is another place of contrast and one that, again, really should be seen. To ignore the history and violence here would do Cambodia a disservice.
With only one night left on the trip, we were all in need of something lighter to pick us up, so we headed back to Phnom Penh to explore the city on a cyclo tour. Cyclos are three wheeled rickshaws, with the seat at the front, and they are pushed by homeless residents of Phnom Penh, giving them a chance to earn some money and support themselves. We toured the length of the city, seeing gardens, the river, markets and even some of the recently built spacious boulevards. Life seemed to be returning to Cambodia and I sincerely hope it brings prosperity with it.
On our final morning, we flew back to Bangkok to catch our return flight to the UK. There we said fond goodbyes to Sky, thanked him for his time and boarded our flights, exhausted, but having had a fantastic time and, certainly for me, once again realising the joys of travelling in this beautiful and rich corner of the world.