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CAMBODIA TALES 1998

March 1998 - Trip overview

Phnom Penh from the air, with the Japanese Bridge in the center of the photo.Flying in from Bangkok, I parted with US$20 and emerged from the scrum with my visa, passing through immigration and into the waiting throng outside Pochentong Airport. I stayed at the colonial Renakse Hotel for a night, directly opposite the entrance to the Royal Palace. A bit run down, the atmosphere was so laid back that the staff were either asleep or absent, with regular power-cuts, whilst outside the streets were alive with the hustle and bustle of motos, cycles and four-wheel drives, as well as scores of picnicking families on the lawns directly in front of the Chan Chaya Pavilion and along the nearby Tonle Sap riverfront. I took a 6.30am flight north to Siem Reap the following morning and from the aircraft window, the ground below looked brown and dusty, apart from the murky waters of the Tonle Sap lake. The familiar scrum of taxi-drivers waited outside the arrivals lounge. The trip into town was notable for the number of new hotels undergoing construction along the route. I stayed at the homely Stung Siem Reap Hotel in a quiet back street near the indoor market. After chicken saltimbucca at the Continental Cafe around the corner, I took a leisurely stroll to Wat Prohm Reat and Wat Dam Nak, along the river and visited the crocodile farm before finishing off with a chicken curry in coconut at everyone's favourite eatery, the Bayon restaurant.

A tired and  dishevelled author on top of Phnom Bakheng, with Angkor Wat over my shoulder, rising from the forest canopy.A 4.30am start the next day and onto the back of Soydy, my guide's moto to watch the sunrise over the towers of Angkor Wat - my three-day temple pass had cost me $40. A torch would've been handy as I stumbled up the causeway in the darkness, completely alone for an hour until a tourist bus disgourged its tour group just before the 6am sunrise, heralded in by a deafening dawn chorus of cicadas. After breakfast, we visited a host of tourist-free temples inside the walls of the old city of Angkor Thom, outstanding among them the incredible Bayon and the restored Leper King Terrace and its recently revealed secret passageway (right). We stopped at Wat Thmey and its memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge on our return to the Intricate apsara carvings on the inner wall of the Terrace of the Leper Kinghotel for lunch and a lie down. Spent the whole afternoon at Angkor Wat - a truly remarkable place - and struck up a friendship with 12-year old Noung, an adorable krama seller at the foot of the steps to the temple's upper tier. At 6pm we finished off the day watching the sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng (above) and dinner at the Greenhouse Kitchen restaurant.

Day three started at Prasat Kravan - get there early to see the brick bas-reliefs inside the towers - and onto a batch of other ruins including the mysterious Ta Prohm, where nature has been left to wreak its own destructive damage. After lunch at the Ang Krapeu restaurant opposite the crocodile farm, we stopped off at Angkor Wat (below) to see Noung and her family before another round of temples, the pick of the bunch being Preah Khan. At Neak Pean, I gave Somaly a photo from my last visit - she was selling souvenirs in the same spot twelve months earlier. Next day, Soydy collected me at 7am for the dusty drive out to Banteay Srei and later, Banteay Samre. All alone at Banteay Srei was a big thrill until a couple of tourist buses arrived just after 9am and we The causeway leading to the central towers of Angkor Wat.moved on, stopping many times on the way back to mingle with the locals going about their daily business - it certainly helps if your moto driver speaks passable English. Banteay Samre was a little gem and is rarely-visited. Covered in red dust, a shower, change of clothes and lunch at the One & Only bar, preceded another temple tour. At Pre Rup, we detoured to visit a group of stilt houses along a bumpy track to hand out some more photos from a previous visit - it was great to be made so welcome by the whole village - and on our return to Siem Reap, we veered off the main road to view the 12th century towers behind Wat Preah Einkosei and dined at the Bayon restaurant. An early morning trip to the Tonle Sap lake to see the activity in and around the Chrong Kneash floating village and a long, hot trek up Phnom Krom to view the 9th century temple was finished off with a walk back through Banteay Chey village. In the afternoon, we took a bumpy car ride along Route 6 to the 9th century Roluos group of temples. Sunday was less strenuous and was spent cycling leisurely alongside the Siem Reap river to Wat Athvea and its four 11th century towers and joining in a game of foot shuttlecock and flip-flop throwing with some eager kids.

The walls of Tuol Sleng are covered with pictures of the victims of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.The next morning, sad to leave Siem Reap, I said my goodbyes to my guide Soydy and to the hotel staff - for a few days I was their only guest - before my 7.40am flight back to Phnom Penh. Back in the capital, lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) was followed by a visit to see the valuable work of the Cambodia Trust Centre at Calmette Hospital, where I was made to feel a welcome guest by the expat and local Cambodian staff. Back at the Renakse, I met up with a small tour group who'd arrived at the hotel and we had dinner at the Rendezvous along the riverfront. Up at 6am to photograph the sunrise over the Mekong river, my motodub, Onphum, took me to the sombre Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (right) in the morning and out to the killing fields mass grave site at Choeung Ek after lunch. On the way back we stopped at a few temples including Wat Stung Meanchey where the kids were an absolute delight and at the offices of the Irish charity Concern, who invited me to their St Patrick's Day party. My evening meal at the Ettamogah Pub was followed by refreshments at the DMZ and Heart of Darkness bars.

Playful girls at a market stall in Phnom Penh.Next morning, after breakfast at the FCC, I began my day at the National Museum - it really needs a major overhaul - and moved onto the Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda complex (although the Throne Hall was off-limits). Lunch at the FCC preceded visits to Wats' Botum, Langka and Moha Montrei before an appointment with the Director of the Documentation Centre of the Cambodian Genocide Project to get a better understanding of their work. A visit to the disabled workshops of Wat Than rounded of the afternoon which ended with dinner at La Taverne on Sisowath Quay. Oudong, the former Royal capital some 40 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, was my destination the following day. My guide, Sothy was an excellent companion as we made countless stops before arriving at the Khmer Rouge victims' memorial at the foot of the Oudong hills. The stupas containing the ashes of former Cambodian kings were on top of the ridges which also housed a collection of shrines. We stopped at Tul Mau and Svay Pak on the return journey, where one noticeable feature was the number of new temples being built enroute. Back in Phnom Penh, Onphum took me across the Japanese Friendship bridge to the Chrouy Changva Peninsula, its three wats and a considerably slower pace of life.

Onphum, my friendly moto-driver in Phnom Penh.Next on the itinerary was a car ride to Tonle Bati and Phnom Chisor, some 50 kilometres south of the capital. We visited the 11th century temple of the Black Virgin at Prasat Neang Khmau before the hike up the 348 steps to the top of Phnom Chisor and its deserted 11th century temple, which was in surprisingly good condition with a gorgeous panoramic view of the plains below. Back along Route 2, we took a left to the Ta Prohm temple at the popular weekend retreat of Tonle Bati, which was also very well preserved and finished off our visit with a picnic on the shore of the nearby lake. My evening meal back in Phnom Penh at Bopha Nakry was excellent. Next day, Onphum (right) moto'd me around Phnom Penh on a whistle-stop photo tour of the capital before a trip out along the busy Route 1 to Kien Svay, where we eventually tracked down a Khmer Rouge victims' memorial at Wat Champuk Kaek but not before we'd had a minor moto accident on a dusty trail miles from anywhere! Dinner at the Ponlok restaurant along the riverfront and then onto the St Patricks' Day bash at the Concern offices was a great way to round off my hectic week in the capital, as I left for Bangkok at 10.30am the following morning. I arrived back in England thoroughly satisfied with my two-week trip, having made lots of new friends, considerably enriched by my experiences and with a promise to myself to return to the Land of the Khmer in the near future.

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