Having worked and travelled extensively in some SE Asian countries over the past 15 years (especially Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Malaysia), we are keen to visit some new places on this year-long adventure. Cambodia and Laos are hardly adventurous destinations for tourists these days but, we were looking forward to them having read some great research by our good friend Colin.
The short journey along Russian Federation Boulevard to our ‘boutique’ hotel in Phnom Penh was a first glimpse of the construction site that is Cambodia’s capital (interestingly, 30% of construction workers are female).
Located in the south midlands of Cambodia, Phnom Penh sits at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers and is home to 1.6m people (10% of the total population).
On arrival at the Home Chic Hotel we noted a new hotel being built directly opposite and another to the right. We were therefore relieved to be offered a “quiet” room at the back of the hotel. However, when we opened the curtains there was a third hotel being built right at the back too! When the whole city is covered in construction sites there’s nothing to be done but settle in and make do.
Our first day saw us gravitate to the eastern edge of the city where the two rivers meet. We took in the huge Independence Monument on the six lane Sihanouk Boulevard en-route to the spectacular Royal Palace.
We knew covered shoulders and knees are de-rigueur for entry to temples all over SE Asia but we’d wrongly thought the scarf we’d taken would suffice; apparently not. So an unflattering oversized t-shirt for $3 was Karon’s penance.
Spectacular though the Royal Palace buildings are from the outside, they are largely used as storage for the hundreds of historical artefacts in the national collections. There are only so many dusty statuettes you need to see and the selection on offer way exceeded that number. We headed to the Silver Pagoda instead, only to find most of the 5000 silver floor tiles that give it its name were covered in carpet.
The Silver Pagoda contains Cambodia’s famed Emerald Buddha – the precise age and origin of which is not known with certainty, probably 20th century though – and the life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha covered with 9584 diamonds including one weighing 25 carats.
After so much dedicated tourism, John was relieved to sit at a café for a cold beer at 10.30am! We’re not fans of daytime drinking, but the local beer was by far the cheapest thing available being used as a loss-leader to entice the tourists ($0.50 a glass). By way of comparison, my glass of lime juice was $2.50.
Much as modern day Phnom Penh is busy adjusting itself to the needs of global tourism (and the staff who work for the estimated 500 NGO’s located here), history looms large in modern day Cambodia.
Between 1975-79 the communist Khmer Rouge government murdered an estimated 2m fellow men, women and children – 25% of the then population – in the Killing Fields and equally notorious S21 detention centre in Phnom Penh. The scale and brutality of the torture and killings stand as one of the lowest points to which humans have ever sunk in their treatment of fellow humans in all history.
Today, the S21 detention (torture) centre and Killing Fields are staples on tourist itineraries. We visited both in a bid to learn more about the country’s history and knowing the entry fees aid the survivors. We left both numbed and speechless.
Our last night In Phnom Penh saw us again in the district along the Tonlé Sap river by the night market. Lured again by the cheap beer and promise of authentic local food we settled into a restaurant overlooking the river.
The food was great but we suspected the beer may have contained an hallucinogenic as our tuk-tuk home appeared to have morphed into a courgette. Nevertheless, we managed to locate our hotel to collect our bags before heading off for the overnight bus leaving at 10.30pm.
A double bed on a bus was a first for us and, fortunately, the gentle rocking soon had us sound asleep as we headed for Siem Reap.
Arriving in Siem Reap at 5am, The La Residence Blanc was all we’d hoped – clean, great service and a nice pool. Unfortunately, the mosquito count in Siem Reap is famously high and we routinely had to despatch 10-20 each night in our room before we could settle. Karon got off lightly in this skirmish.
Of course, no-one comes to Siem Reap for the town. The big draw is the 1.6 square mile complex of Angkor Wat located 5 miles outside the town. The Khmer Empire was established in Cambodia in 802 CE by King Jayavarman II and building of its ancient capital at Angkor began in the 12th century. The remnants of the ancient capital are what we now know as Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious site in the world.
The site was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but, during the late 12th century, realigned itself as a Buddhist site. Over the next 500 years a succession of Khmer rulers added temples to mark their own period as monarch. By the 17th century the site was almost abandoned completely.
The daily visitor count is very high and it is only that the site is so vast and the temples so spread out that makes the visit tolerable. Our tuk-tuk driver San was excellent at navigating us around the sites, even picking us up at 4am!
Apart from the main temple of Angkor Wat, the other spectacular sites are the Bayon and Ta Promh temples. The latter often referred to by locals as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple on account of its use in the first Lara Croft movie starring a young Angelina Jolie. The filming of which started her high-profile relationship with Cambodia.
The Ta Prohm temple is most famous for the liquid-like roots of the silk-cotton and strangler fig trees running over the buildings.
(Aside: The latest result of Jolie’s association with Cambodia is her directing the Khmer-language movie First They Killed My Father about the Pol Pot era (to be released on Netflix Sept 2017 – see trailer here. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a local screening.)
We were really taken with the laid back feel of Cambodia. People here seemed more polite and friendly than other places in SE Asia we’ve visited. We agreed we might return one day.
For now, we are taking a 1000km flight northward to Luang Prabang in land-locked Laos.
Like Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang stands at the joining of two rivers: in this case the Nam Khan and Mekong. Though small, the city is actually a sprawling collection of 58 separate villages spanning both sides of both rivers.
The area of greatest interest is the old town which sits on a narrow peninsula about 1 mile long and contains many examples of old Laos architecture and Buddhist temples. The older part of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site. We found it was possible to walk all around the peninsula in about an hour and across it from side to side in 10 minutes.
Luang Prabang has a lot of good places to eat and drink. Naturally we sampled them all from street food in the central Hmong market, the gourmet coffee at the Indigo House hotel opposite, cocktails at the legendary (apparently) 3 Nagas restaurant, to the high-end Laos cuisine at the Tamarind restaurant overlooking the Nam Khan river. Everything tasted great and no ill effects anywhere (except in the pocket).
We had 4 leisurely days in LP visiting (too) many temples, cycling to the large covered Phosy market 2km out of town and taking a boat trip across the Mekong (5 minutes each way) to the village of Xiang Men.
The latter is undergoing a major redevelopment and is constantly covered in heavy dust from trucks and road construction. Also, we had been charged with the search for the ‘Bowly Grail’, a friend had happened on a particular bowl on her visit to LP but didn’t not take the plunge which is now a regret, unfortunately it was elusive.
Like Cambodia, Laos was very relaxed and welcoming. The service everywhere was very good and the food different but very good too. Would we go back? Probably not because Luang Prabang is lovely but limited in size and things to do – for us – and Vientiane, the capital, isn’t usually considered a must see on tourist itineraries.
Next stop is a month in our favourite country: Vietnam! We are starting with a well-earned two-week holiday in gorgeous Hoi An. Well you didn’t think this world nomads lark was all exotic cities and cocktails, did you? We’re knackered!