Day 59 New Year's Eve
We have a mid-afternoon flight later today, which leaves us a slightly disjointed amount of time to wait around. After enjoying some more of Ho Chi Minh's best yogurt and indeed our last Pho breakfast for a few days, we head back into town to check out some architecture.
The walk to the particular Pagoda Ruth has selected (the oldest in Ho Chi Minh allegedly) is gruelling. It's another fiercely hot day and the roads are feeling particularly high-risk. We stop off in a bakery for some pastry reinforcement and another go on the coffees (these Philistines still need convincing). On the plus side, the euphoric high from a week's RDA of sugar carries us buzzing through the chaos on the roads.
The Pagoda is pretty, (and indeed old) but unlike the temple by the Delta yesterday, offers no respite from the heat or crowds. We decide to cab back to the hotel.
Sitting in the airport a few hours later, we have time to kill because our plane to Siem Reap is running late. Regrettably, this leaves us little choice but to play Scrabble with Sam on his iPad. One cannot truly 'win' playing Sam. He deceivingly uses words like 'faily' in day-to-day speech, which mask an absolutely extraordinary Scrabble vocabulary. Plus, he knows all the crappy little two letter words which shouldn't count but do. Getting beaten is a slow and tortuous process which is light on grace and heavy on "Who put down 'dog'?!" Even if you do get a lucky break and block a few triple word scores to beat him on points, he gets so pissy about the loss ("When would you ever use the word 'waxpod'?), that victory has all the triumph sucked out of it. Of course, then you agree to a rematch and your luck doesn't hold out a second time. The subsequent defeat is now laced with the triumphalism of a victorious gladiator posturing to the crowds ("Did I really just get 105 points for 'equine'? You lot are just neigh-saying!"). Thankfully, our flight is called while we're mid-way through and I'm staring blankly down the barrel at 6 vowels.
The plane seems to barely have taken off before we're descending into Cambodia in early evening. We are churned through a chaotic-looking passport control like we're on a production line. However, it doesn't take long to get through (passports now furnished with a hastily printed Cambodian Visa) though it does mean handing over $30, not the officially quoted $20 for the privilege. We don't haggle.
I should point out that the shame which accompanied Ruth and me in South America for not being able to speak the language is totally non-existent here. It’s appalling, admittedly, but everyone we have encountered has spoken if not excellent, then very understandable English. Even more remarkable given that it was mostly the French colonialists around here, not the British. As such, we've trialled a few 'thank yous' (cảm ơn in Vietnamese) but little else. We were slightly apprehensive of Cambodia because the Khmer alphabet looks to our ignorant western eyes like decorative pictograms, but we find that everything is flagged in English as well.
We get a cab to our hotel in town. We are in jungle as far as we can tell (it's dark), but the most common feature on the landscape seems to be palatial hotel-resorts. We drive past scores of them at various stages of erection. Very white, very new and very at odds with the surrounding scenery. It is not long after that we hit New Year's Eve traffic. And not the frenetic, organic, mass so favoured by Ho Chi Minh, just a whole lotta Not-Moving-Anywhere. We spend about half an hour going, maybe, 300 metres. We decide to just walk the rest of the way in. We wish our cabbie a Happy New Year and hop out. We get the bags out onto the verge while we settle the bill and adjust to the un-air-conditioned heat. "My leg's hot," Sam says, lifting his bag up and looking down.
"Fuckinants!" he shouts, leaping backwards and smacking at his legs, which are suddenly alive with enormous, crawling beasties. Turns out he'd dropped his bag on a fire-ant nest, which is now frothing with thousands of the angry little bastards.
"My leg feels like it's on fire," Sam grumbles as we walk half a mile down the pretty river in the middle of town towards our hotel. Siem Reap translates in Khmer to 'defeat of Siam' apocryphally referring to a centuries-old conflict with neighbouring Thailand. The French colonialists 'rediscovered' it in 1901 when it was just a small fishing village next to the nearby Angkor region, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire. It is because of the latter that we (and evidently tens of thousand of other tourists) have turned up, and the reason Siem Reap is thriving today.
For now though, we are largely concerned with changing into less fetid clothes, and Sam needs to de-ant his bag and appendages. Our hotel is an agreeable, airy, French-looking place on the outskirts of the old quarter and a stone's throw away from the river. We check in and meet up on the roof bar to enjoy Siem Reap's skyline and New Year's Eve fireworks from the fifth floor. Sam and Tash have apparently spent the previous half hour chasing fire-ants around the floor with shoes.
We clink Angkor beers, Ruth and Tash their alarmingly blue drinks, and head into town. We stop at the first restaurant we stumble upon called Butterflies. We are sat next to an enormous stone fish-pond and are fed much spiced lamb and vegetables of staggering value-for-money. Beer is also dangerously cheap. Earlier we had asked the taxi driver where he'd recommend going tonight and he carefully chose the words, "There will be lots of people on Pub Street".
So this is where we head (with a name like that it's inevitable). The taxi driver wasn't wrong. There are thousands of people in Pub Street, all cheerfully milling around in 30º heat (it's gone 11pm). There are countless tourists and locals celebrating with each other, people feeding their feet to fish, and frenetic barmen trying to keep up with the demand. We find a bar and a spare table at which to revel and spectate.
The mood is jovial. Fireworks are lit, countdowns are begun, and the crowd erupts in a mass of cheers and hugging at midnight. Incongruously, Auld Lang Syne is also sung by all; Robert Burns take a bow. We enjoy the evening with many more drinks (mostly blue - Tash announces she will henceforth ONLY have a drink if it's blue) and an abundance of setting the world to rights. At about 3, Sam asks if I want "one last headache?" (another brandy) which wraps the night right up for me. The stagger back home sees Ruth and Tash agree recklessly to be up for breakfast at 9am tomorrow (today) ready for some hardcore tourism.
Happy New Year y'all.
Day 60New Year's Day
Yeurgh. Ruth, who had the infuriating presence of mind to stop drinking well over an hour before I did, boots me out of bed at 8:30am to shower. I do not feel well; head thundering like a drum and mouth like a legionnaire's sandal. It's possible the brandy was a mistake. Irritatingly, when we get downstairs at 9, Sam and Tash are already having breakfast. "Morning!" Tash says brightly, ruining my hopes that she's feeling as grim. I seek solace from Sam, a man who definitely knows his way around a hangover. "I don't feel great" he shrugs, "but I’ve been worse." Eeeeeuuuuuurgh, wallowing in self-pity alone then. After breakfast (fresh fruit and omelette) we ask reception just how we might see some Wat today. I am quietly hoping that our slapdash organisation and the fact that it's New Year's Day will mean we're shit out of luck, and will have to spend it by the pool. But it's not to be. Reception promise that they will find two local drivers to take us around for the day, which will cost about $15 a couple.
An hour later, we are on our way towards Angkor Wat in the back of a Tuc Tuc (the motorcycle-rikshaw hybrid which fulfills a bucket list item of mine) piloted by Rith our smiley but quiet chauffeur. Sam and Tash's driver Timaru speaks a good deal more English and advises us what to see over our next few days here. Both are friendly, knowledgeable and their Tuc Tucs are cool.
In the 12th century, Angkor Wat was the biggest city on earth (significantly bigger than London), and the heart of the Khmer empire, which covered much of what is now Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The temples, and they are numerous. were built as cities (and Buddhist and Hindu memorials to the ruling kings). This was until the reach of the Khmers began to falter in the 16th century. As the neighbouring countries wrestled back their borders, the grand old cities were abandoned and slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Angkor Wat was largely spared this latter fate because of the bloody great moat dug around it, which we pull up to now, in late morning. We've needed to buy a three day pass from the site entrance, which will let us visit the whole Angkor region for the next few days. It was $40 each, which seems fairly reasonable when compared to say, getting your photo taken at the Land's End sign.
The sun is beating down and the place is heaving with tourists. The fresh air and fine day have done my hangover some good, but walking across the moat on centuries-old cobbles alongside a clamouring bunch of idiots not watching where they're going and stopping suddenly with vast sun-umbrellas does not.
There are plenty of local guides offering to take us around to knowledge us up on the place, but none of us are capable of retaining reams of information today, so we decline them all. Walking through the outer wall entrance is quite something, to put it lightly. the place is breathtaking. I mean, I'm not the first person to make this pronouncement nor, I daresay, the most articulate, but it is bloody amazing.
HOW did they build it with the shonky tools available in the 12th century? How many of them must have died putting it up? The place is vast. And every stone surface is ornately decorated. The long pathway up to the central temple and it's famous five towers is beset by ponds, ancient libraries and statues of lions. It is truly astonishing. Obviously, the effect is somewhat dampened by the hordes of tourists and their skyline of selfie sticks. But since we are amongst their number, it would be churlish to begrudge them the DAMMIT, WHY MUST YOU ALL SHOUT, WE'RE IN A TEMPLE, SHOW SOME FUCKING DECORUM.
Man, my head is sore. Our two drivers distinctly said not to split up because we'd never see each other again. We immediately lose Sam and Tash. We explore the site in 35º heat. There are no words really. Even if you only have a passing interest in architecture, historical sites and have a hangover which is bringing out all of your worst personality traits, you cannot help but be impressed. We spend a couple of hours tracing the columns and climbing the steep staircases (ascending to heaven shouldn't be easy was the architectural rationale) and soaking up the remarkable place. We also see a rash of bats nesting in the vaulted towers, which rekindles my old friend, 'fear-of-rabies'. There were notes posted all around our hotel about the local reverence the Buddhist Monks are held in, and not to interfere in their business and not to take selfies of them. We watch tourist after tourist doing just this, holding two victory fingers up at their phones.
We head back across the moat at around 1pm when the sun's heat has got just a bit too much. Tash is chatting with Timaru, and Rith is asleep in a hammock he's ingeniously affixed to the back of the Tuc Tuc. "I couldn't take all the people," says Sam, "It was amazing, but I had to leave. I feel like shit." I KNEW it! Knowing that Sam is also feeling terrible really takes the sting out of my headache. Our drivers suggest we go to Bayon, one of the more recent (relatively, obviously) temples commissioned by the same King who had Angkor Wat built.
We agree, and head off. We drive past a bridge of stone figures performing a tug of war with a snake. The figures have been restored (some with greater success than others) but it's an arresting scene. The craftsmanship in this place in the middle of the jungle, from an era countless generations before ours, is really pretty good.
Bayon is another treat, and thankfully has a fraction of the people that Angkor Wat did. We have a more leisurely look around (and because of the more enclosed nature of the temple, we are granted some blessed shade from the ferocious sun). I shan’t bang on about this one as well, but it’s known by the tourists as ‘The Head One’ due to the many faces carved into the walls and towers. Its effect is strong. Afterwards, there is an enterprising food seller outside, where we slake various thirsts with passionfruit smoothies and hotdogs of inconclusive meat. We buy the drivers an ice-cream each, which they accept with amusement and thanks.
They take us via the Twin Temples (“Don’t stay here long, they’re boring” as we survey a scene of mirrored ruins which in the UK would be a major county attraction being restored up to the gunwales by English Heritage - here it is crumbling into the jungle) to Ta Prohm, which seems nearly as familiar as Angor Wat.
“They’ve filmed a lot of Hollywood films here.” explains Tash, whose driver has been educating them on what we’ve passed. That would be why. The jungle nearly totally swallowed Ta Prohm, the old King’s memorial to his mother, and now vast spung trees (their actual name) sprout from the towers and roots cascade down the walls like waterfalls. It is another spectacular site, even allowing for the shrill “Do I look like Angelina Jolie” as groups of tourists clamber over it all. We bang on about historic sites in the UK having gone too far with restricted access but, by piss, they could do with a bit more of it here.
It’s mid afternoon, and we’re probably templed out for the day. The guys drive us back into Siem Reap, where we tip generously and secure their services for tomorrow.
We enjoy the hotel pool and the hotel bar, before heading out for an excellent if pricey (I mean, compared to everything else here) dinner by the river in a restaurant of water-lillies. We approach alcohol with a marginally more tentative attitude than last night, and walk back over the river for an early night.
We are up and clambering back on the Tuc Tucs at 5am this morning. The drivers had recommended that we see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which is what we now head for. Naively, we had assumed that because of the merciless hour the place would be deserted. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Walking back over the moat in the pitch black using phones as torches, there is an ominous crowd ahead of us, and we can see the winking lights of fleets of Tuc Tucs joining us behind.
Back inside the outer wall, there are thousands of people all bristling around the lake facing East. There are sellers trying to flog coffee and breakfasts, and again the din of a thousand griping tourists. “Do you ever feel like you can have too much serenity?” mutters Sam as we take a (currently) unoccupied spot by the lake.
As the glow of the new day rises behind the towers, some of the best photography to be had is of the hordes, trying desperately not to get pushed in the lake. “Hashtag sunrise wankers” says Tash surveying the scene grimly.
We agree. She and Sam leave to go and wander inside the third storey of the temple (which yesterday had a queue some hours long to get in) and after enduring a few more minutes of appalling behaviour, Ruth and I follow them in. The sun is just coming up when we climb the highest part of the temple, and it streams in through the columns lighting the place up gold. We are sharing the space with only a handful of people thanks to the #sunrisewankers and it’s the first time we’ve felt some of what the old civilisation must have felt in the place. Tranquility.
We get out while the going’s good, and ask the drivers where they’d recommend for breakfast. They take us to a place just outside the moat, (“it’s hygienic, which is important”) and the others have Pho again (not quite at the dizzy heights of Vietnam, but still pretty good). I have pancakes, because I’m an oaf.
The chaps take us to Prea Khan, our old friend the King’s memorial to his father, which is possibly the best one we’ve seen yet. Not just because it’s one of the quietest. Trees coil around the buildings, and there is a fabulous lake at the end of it.
While we’re walking through the serene, stone rooms (the walls are all pockmarked like Swiss cheese - they used to be bejewelled, and then of course were plundered after the fall of the empire), a male tourist does the most cacophonous fart ever heard by man, which thunders around the temple like a drum of war. Not acknowledging it at all, he walks on while the other visitors look at him incredulous and laughing. Outside, by the lake, he walks past again. “Hey Trumpy!” greets Sam. He doesn’t acknowledge this either.
It’s late morning, and after taking us out to another enormous lake with a modest shrine in the middle of it, Ruth and Tash treat themselves to some elaborate ’travel pants’ whose sellers have been at every temple. They are light baggy trousers decorated with, usually, elephants. Sam does the bartering, and gets himself a diet Coke thrown in to sweeten the deal. Our drivers suggest one last temple for the day. Banteay Srei, is a 40 minute drive or so away. We agree, and they take us out of Siem Reap onto an actual tarmac road (sponsored by Korea). It’s hot and dry, but the scenery is good - it rains pretty solidly for nearly half a year here, so many of the houses are built on stilts to keep them out of the flood-plains and maximise space for the rice-crops (we see plenty of people in the fields picking it).
We also see miniscule scooters carting around the most unlikely of loads on the back (4 people at a time, bird cages, farm machinery, 5 people at a time) and water buffalo wandering the roads unsupervised.
Banteay Srei is, naturally, impressive when we get there. We have to pay a small amount of dollars to get into this one, as it lies outside the park’s borders but it is worthwhile. Carved out of red sandstone and, again, ludicrously detailed, there’s a good line in stone monkeys (and some enormous and very organic spiders).
It is one of the older temples, dating back to the 10th century, but is in decent nick. Apparently they’ve suffered from a lot of looting over the years, so it’s difficult to know how much is authentic, and how much is replica. So they’ve obviously done a fine job. It’s bloody hot again though - well over 40º and there’s zero shade, so we sweat a retreat back to our Tuc Tuc transport.
We head back to Siem Reap, via a lunch of the drivers’ recommendation (Khmer Amok - a solid red curry which nearly blows my head off, though definitely priced for the tourists). After the dust has settled, we spend another fine afternoon in the sunshine by the pool drinking 80p beers from a shop by the hotel. This evening we go to Marum in town for another excellent dinner. Sam gets to try ants as well, which is his revenge for getting eaten alive the other night. “I was hoping for more flavour” he says disappointingly after a mouthful. The meal is otherwise strong, more spiced meats and honeyed desserts.
We are sat on the first floor looking at palm trees underlit in the garden below. The place is partly staffed by underprivileged teenagers learning to cater, an opportunity many of the restaurants provide here. Child exploitation is, we learn, evidently something of a problem. As warnings in the bathrooms starkly warn us. People can, and who knew, be right bastards.
“You want to fire machine guns?” asks Timaru this morning.
“No thanks” says Tash.
We have been spoiled by Wats the last few days and so we’ve enquired what else the guys would recommend. It’s another scorching day so something watery appeals. There is a ‘floating village’ a fair way away, or a waterfall similarly far. We can’t do both, so after a democratic voting system of which sadly (for her) Ruth is the loser, we choose the waterfall. Timaru recommends an even bigger waterfall, even farther away, but it’s too far for the Tuc Tucs, and sounds like a logistical headache, so we opt for the smaller one.
We are on the Tuc Tucs for nearly an hour before we get to the small mountain we have to climb and are all dusty and sun-baked. Climbing through the jungle to get there is scenic but hard work. My phone can (allegedly) read your pulse, so we see how we’re doing on the palpitations scales. Tash, who’s heart-rate is startlingly high even when she’s resting by a pool, reaches a number which has us all asking whether she should be medically alive.
The top of the mountain has us walking up a river whose bed has been carved out by ancient civilisations. There’s no obvious waterfall though. We sit with our feet in the water (until some small fish start nibbling them, which is deeply unpleasant). It’s only on our walk back down the mountain we see some wet walkers emerge from the treeline. When we retrace their steps we find the actual waterfall in a secluded riverbed. There are a handful of other people standing around taking pictures. Sam and I go and reenact the Timotei advert for the viewing pleasure of all there.
Ruth goes to do the same, but comes out quickly. “I left my phone in my trousers” she frets. As hands are held to faces in mock horror, Ruth says, “Oh no, it’s your phone”, which of course it is because I gave her mine to safeguard. The horror is real now. “Divorce?” Says Ruth, not taking the matter nearly seriously enough.
Fortunately, it still seems to work in spite of the water pouring out of the headphone jack, but I switch it off to dry out. I’m glad it’s so hot now. On the descent, Ruth’s new elephant travel-trousers let her down for the second time in half an hour, and splits from the knee to the crotch. Her sympathetic husband suggests if one were to believe in karma, they might see a link between the trousers getting a phone wet and then splitting up the gusset. Her response is less than befitting a professional with two diplomas. We buy her some new princess travel trousers at the foot of the mountain.
The chaps take us to another fine restaurant overlooking some banana groves (although they feel uneasy vouching for the hygiene on this one so I just order vegetable curry). My phone switches back on again, which spares Sam and Tash an embarrassing ‘marital scene’. We head back to Siem Reap for the last time (this is our last night here) and go via another temple of Timaru’s recommendation. It turns out you can have too much of a good thing. We walk around more world-class carving and sculpture, but are back in the Tuk Tuks before too long. Back at the hotel, we say our goodbyes to Rith and Timaru. They bow. We bow. It isn't weird.
Tash has booked us a 6 course meal in a place which has global rankings for Asian food. It’s near the hotel as is, we discover, an absolutely enormous brothel which we walk past. It’s decked out in neon lighting with dance music blasting out as if it were a casino.
The meal, as they all have been in Siem Reap, is fantastic. The food here has been an interesting influence of curries from India and Thailand with noodles from Vietnam and China. This is as good as it has been. Apart from an ill-advised conversational side-road into most-desired celebrities (which promises to be resurrected for months to come) the evening is a cracking end to our spell in this place.