Flying in across the Gulf of Thailand from Kuala Lumpur and then over the countryside the landscape looked flat, sparsely populated, but with some great river systems and lakes snaking across the country. Even when coming into land there was no sign of a large dense population.Taxing in from the runway I was surprised not to see another single aircraft at the terminal, we were the only plane in the entire airport! The terminal looked to be influenced by the local temple style and was just one large building. It was straight through customs and the baggage area. As I walked out I expected to be swamped by Tuk-tuk drivers and the like but the atmosphere was quiet and relaxed and I had to walk out to where the drivers were all standing and asked to be taken to town.
The town is quite small, lined with local shops, internet cafes, restaurants and a KFC, no McDonalds yet… A small river cuts through the town and after finding a guesthouse I followed it up exploring by bike. While riding a young Cambodia rode up beside me and we started chatting so he could practice his English. He just asked questions about my family and Australia and then he was on his way.
I knew that at the local children’s hospital foreigners were able to give blood so when I stumbled across it only hours after landing I went in. Outside the hospital was a long line of parents with sick children waiting to get in. The hospital looked very basic and it seemed to be being constantly being mopped down to keep it clean, the smell of disinfectant was quite strong. I was lead through to a small room where there were two nurses, two beds, a desk and foreigner already donating blood. I had to fill out a short questionnaire and then I was on the bed, needle in arm, blood flowing into a bag all in under 5 minutes.
The hospital was the Kantha Bopha Children’s hospital, part of a group that consists of a number of children’s hospitals in Phnom Phen and Siem Reap, all established since 1992 largely as a result, guidance and hard work of Swiss doctor Beat Richner. Working at the original hospital in 1975 his time there came to an end when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. In 1991 the Cambodian government asked Dr Richner to return and rebuild the hospital. The hospital group now treats over 85% of all sick and injured children in Cambodia for free. In 2010 108,000 severely sick children were hospitalised, 733,000 sick children received their treatment in the outpatient facilities, 15,265 children underwent surgical procedures, 25,220 children were treated for tuberculosis and 14,171 deliveries occurred at the maternity clinic. You can find out more about Dr Richner and the hospitals here.
While at the clinic I met the other donor and I ended up tagging along with her and her friends for the next week in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. She is actually involved with an Australian organisation called World Youth International (WYI) that among other things runs volunteer projects in a number of countries around the world. Two of her friends that she was travelling with were actually in Cambodia as team leaders for a project that was about to begin run by WYI in conjunction with a Cambodian based charity called This Life Cambodia (TLC). Her two friends were going to be leading a team of volunteers on two 5 week programs undertaking a few important projects at a local secondary school in a village bordering the Siem Reap township.
After buying a 3 day pass (US$40 or US$20 for 1 day) my Tuk-tuk driver drove me to the base of Phnom Bakheng where I walked up to the top to catch the sunset over West Baray Lake. Sunset at Phnom Bakheng was however absolutely ridiculous. The number of tourists swamping the area was unbelievable; it was like a circus with elephants and all. Tuk-tuks lined the road as far as the eye could see and the flow of tourist up the mountain didn’t stop. Once at the top of the hill seeing my first Angkorian temple up close was pretty amazing although trying to get a photo without another tourist in it was close to impossible. The sunset wasn’t that crash hot and on the whole, Sunset at Angkor Wat (Phnom Bakheng) isn’t something I would recommend as a must do.
The following day I tackled my first day of temples solo by push bike. It was a sunny day, mid 20’s, so it was perfect for taking it slow and cycling around the temples. First stop was Angkor Wat the world’s largest religious monument in the world.
The complex was built during the 12th century and is believed represent the complete microcosm of the Hindu universe – the moat represents the ocean surrounding the Earth, the concentric galleries represent the ranges and the towers represent the mountain peaks of Mount Meru – home of the Gods. The complex originally contained a city and the royal palace but there are no longer any remnants of these as they were constructed from wood and other light materials and have long since perished – Stone was reserved only for the Gods.
The ruins were awesome and there was a lot to explore and see, there were thousands of carvings and statues throughout. Some sections of the complex were under restoration so there was scaffolding surrounding parts of the temple. After an hour or two it was time to move on, I rode up and checked out Baksei Chamkrong, rode past Bayon which looked impressive, as did Angkor Thom, I rode through a gate with a Buddha face with the final stop for the day being Ta Prohm.
Parts of this temple many people would have seen before as it featured in Tomb Raider. The temple was definitely in ruin, covered in overgrowth from ancient looking trees, rubble scatted all around, partly due to age, also as a result of the tree roots literally pushing the bricks apart. Sections of the complex are now reinforced to prevent collapse. One of the most disappointing parts of this temple was that it was really touristy and there is no doubt that Tomb Raider had something to do with it. A famous scene from the movie involves a doorway overgrown by tree roots, it looks impressive but they have built a nice little wooden platform for you to stand on to get your photo taken… There were a few other sections around the temple that were similar, it is also for safety and to keep people at a relatively safe distance which is important given the traffic flow but this wasn’t the case at any other temple I saw. You have pretty much free rein to climb and explore in all the temples which is both a good and a bad thing. From here it was quite a long ride home, largely through bush land, a few times I questioned whether or not I was on the right path but I eventually came across the moat of Angkor Wat and I knew I was homeward bound.
My second excursion out to the temples was with the friends I had made, we intended to do the outer loop in the East Baray area which we did by Tuk-tuk. We visited a number of the temples including Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and the final and my favourite of all the temples Preah Khan. The temples on this loop, although still touristy, were not as busy as the temples I had previously visited and we had the opportunity, especially at Preah Khan, to explore every nook and cranny of the ruins.
One thing that really stands out when you see Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and similar temples is how old they really must be as the overgrowth and size of the trees that are taking over is phenomenal. The trees and roots are huge with some estimated to be over 400 years old, it really gives you a feeling that a rich and powerful ancient civilisation once occupied these walls.
Preah Khan was the last temple that we visited and it was the end of the day so there was only a trickle of people left, this added to the lure of this temple as we were free to explore on our own. At one point we came to an area that had a number of rock cairns, we added to the collection and built a small one in the hallway. Climbing though ruined sections, shimming between walls and scrambling over rubble, it is hard to imagine what it really looked like when it was first built and to really understand exactly what went on within the temple and city walls. The overgrown trees, rock carvings, engravings, statues and sheer size of the building blocks leaves you in ore. This was a magnificent place.
The outskirts of Siem Reap
My final day in Siem Reap was actually spent riding through the country side out to the village and school that my friends from WYI were going to be working at. It was great to get off the tourist track and see some of Siem Reap that most foreigners don’t bother to. The dirt roads outside the city are rough and our single speeds weren’t always up for the challenge, we had a few punctures along the way but there was always a make shift garage not too far off, even out in the sticks with a cost of only 20 cents a repair!
As we rode into the village the kids all started yelling out and they would run out to the road for High Fives. The school was quite small, less than a dozen buildings, primary on one side and secondary on the other. There were murals painted on the primary school walls and the main playground area was just dust bowl. I was shown what WYI and TLC had done in the past and what they would be doing this time round. The work that the charities have done looked to really have made a difference and the increasing attendance rate at the school is evidence of this.
It was a great afternoon; we didn’t see another tourist the whole time, just the Cambodian countryside, flat, sparse and baking in the sun.
It was then an arduous bus journey to Sihanoukville for New Years at the beach.