Category Archives: Cambodia

Angkor Temples (and a Lonely Planet rant)

Angkor Thom Bayon

Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in Southeast Asia and a national symbol of Cambodia, is on all the ‘must-see’ lists. You simply have to go there – right after you’ve been to see The Great Wall and just before you jet off to see the Pyramids. It’s a ‘must-see’. You have to go. What do you mean you don’t want to? You have to.

When I was a teenager, one of my parents (not my father) disapproved of the kinds of books I read and nagged me to read classic literature. Though  ‘Jane Eyre’ is almost certainly a better book than ‘The Babysitter Hammer Holocaust’ or whatever trash I was reading, I developed an unwavering aversion to being told what kinds of culture, literature or … anything I am supposed to enjoy or find meaning in.

I feel the same way when I’m travelling. Those ‘101 Places to Visit Before You Die’ type lists make me want to stay at home and pull the curtains. Just think – if you paid attention to the ‘101’ albums list, you’d be listening to a U2 CD by now. That’s how dangerous and misinformed those things can be.

So, I was not enthusiastic about seeing Angkor Wat. In fact, I was even a little angry with myself for going at all – angry that I’d given in and blindly followed the bullying,  ‘must-see’ commands.

But, in the end … it was pretty good.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat 2

After looking around, I sat down in the shade and made the mistake of reading some of the ‘Temples of Angkor’ chapter in the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook. Out of the purple, adjective-laden prose, this sentence struck me as particularly heinous:

Holy men at the time of Angkor must have revelled in [Angkor Wat’s] multilayered levels of meaning in much the same way a contemporary literary scholar might delight in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Who writes this shit? It’s not just the reference to Ulysses (a book usually name-checked by the kind of people who sit in Costa Coffee wearing a trilby hat and strumming an acoustic guitar) that annoys me, it’s those verbs. Revel. Delight.

Lonely Planet writers never fail to leave home without a thesaurus in their backpacks. You can’t ‘go’, ‘see’ or ‘do’ in Lonely Planet world. You are commanded to ‘kick back’, ‘journey’, ‘soak up’, ‘bask’, ‘marvel’ or ‘contemplate’.

I’m going off-topic here, but I can’t resist the temptation to pull out a few more quotes from Lonely Planet’s Cambodia and Vietnam guides. These sentences are all from the worst-offending section  – the chapter ‘highlights’ (always written as commands):

Stare in wonder at the delicate carvings adorning Banteay Srei.

Cool off under secluded waterfalls and taste a tipple with the local Pnong people.

Get imperious, making yourself at home in the Forbidden Purple City in Hue.

Unearth hidden treasures at Ben Thanh Market

Breach the rugged coast to see the hidden beaches and dense jungle of Cat Ba Island

This kind of writing threatens to stir the homicidal maniac inside me.  At least I can find solace in the fact that the company didn’t profit from my purchase of pirated copies of their books.

Angkor Wat was very impressive, but I preferred Bayon (see picture at top of post), within the walls of Angkor Thom. I walked part way around the walls – moat on one side, jungle on the other.

Angkor Thom Wall and Moat

A spider web:

Angkor Thom Spider Web 

Apparently, this used to be a city of a million people. Only royal and religious buildings could be made of stone – the rest were made of wood and are obviously long gone. The jungle has reclaimed most of the land, but the areas around the temples have been cleared and would feel like a peaceful park if it weren’t for the tuk tuks, motorbikes and minivans that zoom past, kicking up lungfuls of dust.

Angkor Thom Tuk Tuks 

There were a lot of South Korean tour groups at the Angkor temples. Most of the middle-aged women looked exactly the same – neon pink and yellow sportswear, sun visors, permed hair, bleached white skin and bright red lipstick. I watched one of the groups and saw the guide tell them where to take pictures. They queued up and, couple-by-couple, had the exact same picture taken in the exact same spot. They then moved on and the guide chose another place for them to have their identical pictures taken.

Angkor Thom Bayon Faces

Angkor Thom Bayon Face

Angkor Thom Bayon Tourists

I’m going back to Siem Reap in a week or so (I’m flying to Beijing from there) so I’ll see some more of the temples then.

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Boeung Kak Lake Protest

Boeung Kak Protest

I’m back in Phnom Penh for reasons not worth going into.

Today, I went to Boeng Kak Lake, just north of the city centre. There’s a little tourist area by the lakeside with bargain-basement guesthouses and seedy looking bars. It seems to be the place to go if you’re looking to get high – I was offered weed six times in about as many minutes.

I didn’t buy any weed, but I did take some pictures of the lake:

Boeung Kak Lake

That’s a mosque in the background. The whole area is quite dirty and depressing and is soon to be redeveloped. A local developer owned by a ruling-party senator has teamed up with a Chinese-owned investment company in a deal that seems more than a little shady.

Four-thousand families are due to be displaced and they aren’t happy about it. Or at least, they’re unhappy enough to make s0me banners:

Boeung Kak Human Rights

There were only a few protesters today – many of them sleeping or sitting in groups chatting – but they’ve held larger protests recently and have threatened to boycott Chinese goods.

Boeung Kak Chinese

In Beijing, you occasionally see shops or houses with big ‘foreign journalists, please help us’ posters hanging in the windows. These properties have been earmarked for demolition and the occupants are desperate for coverage of their plight. Hanging a poster like that is a recipe for trouble, so the occupants always, without fail, cover the rest of the window with flags, Chinese Communist Party logos and portraits of Chairman Mao – to make it clear that they are limiting their criticism to certain local government officials and not to the Party as a whole. The Cambodian protesters did the same thing:

Boeung Kak Royal Family

The colour pictures are of members of the royal family, and the black and white pictures are of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife.

Hun Sen, on an unrelated note, has six children: Manet, Mana, Manit, Mani, Mali, and Malis. In 2007, he publicly announced that the youngest child, an adopted daughter, was lesbian and had a ‘wife’ and that consequently he was going through the legal process of disowning her and cutting her out of his will. He followed this revelation by saying:  “I urge parents of gays not to discriminate against them, and do not call them transvestites.” So, that’s alright then.

Previously, I wrote about how wonderful Phnom Penh is. I stand by that, but will just add that I may have been less enthusiastic if I hadn’t arrived by boat. The boat takes you to the most peaceful, attractive part of town – the riverfront – whereas, arrival by bus takes you through the chaotic, dirty, traffic-clogged side of the city. If you have the choice, I strongly recommend coming by boat.

Miscellaneous Cambodian Signs and Posters

Battambang Drugs and Violence Poster

In Vietnam, I posted some photos of the propaganda posters that can be seen on almost every street across the country. Cambodia doesn’t have the same kinds of government posters – it’s a democracy (albeit a deeply flawed one). But there are plenty of signs promoting the main political parties, and a few public information posters. Here is a selection:

Cambodian People's Party

There are three major political parties in Cambodia, as well as several smaller ones. Hun Sen (above, centre) is Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister who has been in power either alone or in coalition since 1985.

One of the leading opposition parties is the Sam Rainsy Party. Sam Rainsy is currently in self-imposed exile in Australia after the government removed his parliamentary immunity and convicted him in absentia of defamation (he had accused the government of corruption and claimed that Hun Sen had been involved in the murder of a union leader).

Sam Rainsy Party Poster

He was pardoned by the king and returned to Cambodia but left again after being accused of inciting racial violence and destruction of property.

Off-topic: this is Hun Sen’s beachfront mansion in Sihanoukville. It’s in a very odd location right next to the main tourist beach. You’d think he’d have chosen somewhere a little more secluded.

Sihanoukville Hun Sen's Mansion

In Phnom Penh, two other Asian strongmen have had roads named after them. This one is named after Chairman Mao, an ally and enabler of Pol Pot:

Phnom Penh Chairman Mao Blvd

And directly opposite, a road named after the deranged enslaver of the North Korean people, Kim Il Sung:

Phnom Penh Kim Il Sung Blvd

Though it’s a North Korean leader who had the honour of having a road named after him, South Korea has far closer links with Cambodia these days. South Korean property developers have made inroads into the country and Korean goods have a strong presence in Phnom Penh’s luxury shopping malls. As in Vietnam, Korean pop stars appear to be very popular (particularly Rain and Wonder Girls). Many of the intercity buses have been sold / donated by South Korea:

Cambodia South Korean Bus 

It’s not a good picture, but you can see that the bus still has the Korean destination on the sign above the windows. This bus once travelled between Suwon Bus Terminal and Sadang Station.

This sign from Sihanoukville gives an indication of the problems caused by sexpats and Gary Glitter-types:

Sihanoukville ChildSafe_thumb[4]

This anti-littering poster in Battambang has a picture of the central market in the background.

Battambang Litter Poster

A similarly styled public information poster at the top of this post warns the public not to engage in drug abuse, gangland executions and domestic violence. I saw the same poster several times, always outside schools.

Finally, a sign that reminds of the fact that Cambodia still has a serious landmine problem:

Battambang Mine Warning

Battambang Bamboo Train

Battambang Bamboo Train Me

Cambodia’s rail network is not in good condition. There are still a few cargo trains but passenger services stopped running a few years ago.

Homemade bamboo platforms make use of the tracks. The boy below is starting the engine. Battambang Bamboo Train Start

When two trains travelling in opposite directions meet, the one with the lightest load or fewest passengers must be dismantled to allow the other to pass.

Battambang Bamboo Train Heavy Load

That’s all.

A Middle-Aged Man in Battambang

Battambang Hay

I started to write something more general about Sihanoukville – the last city I visited (see previous post) – but gave up after realising how formulaic my recent posts have been. They all fit the same template:

I am in [insert name of city]. It is nice / not nice. Here are some pictures of some buildings:

Flesh it out with some moaning and self-deprecation, and that’s more-or-less what I’ve written about every place I’ve been to.

Anyway, I am in Battambang. It is nice. Here are some pictures of some buildings:

Battambang Pepsi Factory

That’s the abandoned Pepsi factory on the outskirts of town. It’s been closed since 1975 but a friendly, elderly security guard still watches over it and trims the hedges and lawns.

Battambang Pepsi Factory Bottles

OK, don’t get too excited about seeing pictures of buildings – before we continue, here’s some more writing:

From a quick glance at the map, I’d guessed that Battambang was about five hours from Sihanoukville. What I hadn’t realised is that there are no direct roads – I had to go back to Phnom Penh and change buses. The 520km journey took a gruelling 11 hours. It was a long journey, but I was quite happy to leave Sihanoukville.

Sihanoukville was, as I mentioned in my previous post, very spread out. The beaches, city centre and port are all a few kilometres apart – and in a country with no real public transport other than intercity buses, that means motorbike men and tuk tuk drivers are everywhere and very persistent.

Most tourists go to Sihanoukville for the beaches. I spent about five minutes walking along narrow Serendipity beach before the sight of identikit, fashionable-in-1994 tribal tattoos and acres of soft, white belly made me feel nauseous. How can people be so unselfconscious? When a women looks in the mirror and sees a huge, flabby, stretch-marked gut hanging over her almost pornographically revealing bikini bottoms,  how can she not cover it up? And the men are even worse – I haven’t seen that much back hair outside of a zoo.

I felt very middle-aged as I looked disapprovingly at these ‘young people’ (many of them older than me). I’m not suggesting that everyone respond to their body in the way I do – feeling like you’re serving life-without-parole in a rotting flesh prison – but there has to be a happy medium between gross overexposure and self-loathing.

My early-onset middle-age was confirmed last night as I saw in the new year by washing my socks in the sink and watching BBC World News. I shouldn’t give up on my youth so readily – I’m only 27. Maybe I should get an unfortunate facial tattoo, or try crystal meth, or buy an expensive faux-vintage T-shirt with an ironic slogan. I don’t know – what do young people do?

What they probably don’t do, is spend there time in Southeast Asia walking alone around cities taking photographs of buildings. But that’s what I’ve done – and here’s the proof:

Battambang Market

That’s Battambang’s central market. It was designed by the architects responsible for the central market in Phnom Penh.

Battambang is the second biggest city in Cambodia but, with a population of just 250,000, it’s very compact. It was controlled by Thailand before the French demanded its return to Cambodia. The city still has a lot of French colonial buildings.

Battambang Colonial Building Battambang Shop Fronts

There are also some examples of the 60s New Khmer style buildings that I’ve been writing about.

Battambang Apartment Building Battambang Sports Centre 

I went twice to the riverfront to try to take a photo, but I’m sorry to report that the first time I went, there was a bottom-half naked homeless woman defecating on the riverbank, and the second time I went, there was a bottom-half naked homeless man defecating on the riverbank (I’m not making that up!). I didn’t feel it was a moment worth capturing for posterity.

By the riverfront there was an interesting statue funded by the Japanese government and made from gun parts.

Battambang Gun Statue

Yesterday, when I was looking for the Pepsi factory, I walked quite far out of town. It gets very rural, very quickly. Within a couple of kilometres the houses were mostly wooden, the road became a dirt track and I passed by farms and vehicles transporting hay (see picture at top of post).

Battambang Wooden Home

Khmer people are very friendly – as I walked through the village, lots of people called out ‘hello’ and toddlers and young children waved and looked quite excited to see me.

Though most of the homes are made of wood and quite old, there were huge, well-kept temples, mosques and churches:

Battambang Temple

That’s it. Happy New Year. Have a great 2011. I broke all my resolutions before midday, but good luck to you if you’re trying to be good.

Vann Molyvann in Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church 

I had an ulterior motive for hunting out these Vann Molyvann buildings. In a city as spread-out as Sihanoukville, and with temperatures hovering above 30°C, there’s only so long you can wander around aimlessly. Looking for these buildings allowed me to see the city with purpose. Without them, I would have apathetically meandered down the interminable tourist drags before getting out as soon as possible.

That said, the buildings were well worth seeing in their own right and not just as a reason to get away from the beaches and bars. The first building I saw, a couple of kilometres northwest of the city centre, was St. Michael’s Catholic Church (above), my favourite of the Sihanoukville Molyvanns.

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Roof Detail

The church was built in 1960 and is unusual in that it survived the Khmer Rouge years unscathed – one of only two churches in Cambodia to do so.

 Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Interior

The wall behind the alter allows in light to create an ethereal glow.

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Detail

The back of the church:

Sihanoukville St Michael's Church Back 

My next stop took me from Jesus to another friend of the lonely and downtrodden – beer. The Cambrew Brewery (originally SKD Brewery), in the northeast of the city, is where Angkor beer is produced. Built in 1966, the brewery operated for almost a decade before being closed down by the Khmer Rouge. It eventually reopened in 1991.

Sihanoukville Brewery Sign

Sihanoukville Brewery

I asked the security guard if I could step inside the gate to take a better picture but was shooed away.

Sihanoukville Brewery Front

Like many of the Molyvann buildings I’ve seen, the offices are on stilts. This is a common feature of Khmer homes – if protects the house from floodwater during the rainy season and creates a cool, shady area to escape from the heat.

Sihanoukville Brewery Close

The National Bank of Cambodia was harder to find so, again, I emailed Khmer Architecture Tours, who must be getting sick of me by now, as well as The Vann Molyvann Project, an organisation that is creating blueprints of the surviving Molyvann buildings (the architect’s original plans were all lost during the Khmer Rouge years). They sent me directions.

Under colonial rule, Cambodia’s money was printed in France before being shipped over, so it was necessary to build a branch of the bank close to the ports of Sihanoukville.

Sihanoukville National Bank

I don’t know to what extent it is still in use today. There were a couple of cars outside (and a sleeping security guard) but it didn’t look very busy.

Sihanoukville National Bank Back

The design on the building’s facade:

Sihanoukville National Bank Detail

The incinerator for burning money:

Sihanoukville National Bank Incinerator

Staff accommodation:

Sihanoukville National Bank Worker's Housing 1

Sihanoukville National Bank Worker's Housing 2

To see St. Michael’s Catholic Church, head west out of the town centre along Ekareach Street. Take the second right after Canadia Bank, pass CT Clinic, and continue for about 1km. The church is on your right just before the T-junction. For more detail on the church’s history, see here.

The brewery is on road NH4 northeast of Sihanoukville.

The National Bank of Cambodia is next to Holiday Palace Casino and Hotel on Victory Beach. According to a sign on the side of the staff accommodation, they are available to rent.

Kampot & Bokor Hill Station

Kampot Sunset

I spent my final day in Phnom Penh visiting the killing fields (where you can still see bits of bone and teeth on the ground) and the high school-turned-prison-turned-museum where many of the Khmer Rouge’s victims spent their final days.

My tuk tuk driver, an employee of the hotel I stayed in, asked if I wanted to go to a shooting range after seeing the killing fields. Several former military bases around Phnom Penh have been converted so that tourists can fire live ammunition from hand guns and AK-47s and throw hand grenades. Apparently, it’s even possible to buy a live animal – a chicken or a cow – to shoot or blow-up.

The driver said that I was unusual in not wanting to go – at least 90% of British men he gives rides to go shooting. He said he took a group of three Brits a couple of days ago and they spent $900 shooting bazookas. I’m glad to belong to the 10% of people who, after seeing the site of a genocide, don’t feel compelled to fire a rocket at a farm animal.

The next day, I left Phnom Penh for Kampot, a small riverside town in the south. The sun was so bright in Kampot and Bokor that almost every picture I took looks bleached – the pictures below are the best of a bad lot.

Many buildings in the town are derelict or in varying states of disrepair. The old market looks like its days are numbered:

Kampot Derelict Market Exterior

Kampot Derelict Market Interior

A lot of the town’s French colonial buildings are in a similarly run-down condition:

Kampot Colonial Building

The old prison is in better shape than most:

Kampot Prison

From the front:

Kampot Prison Front

Remember to rubber up:

Cambodia Safe Sex Poster

I like Kampot but I’m definitely a city person. I don’t know what to do with myself in a place like this. Once I’ve walked around and taken a few pictures, what next? I’m not good at relaxing. I always feel like I should be doing something else – like I haven’t done the homework that has to be handed in tomorrow. Only I don’t know what my homework is.

Today I kept busy by going to the jungle close to Kampot. It’s not really possible to go there by yourself because you need a park ranger (armed, for some unknown reason, with a machine gun) to guide you. So I joined a day tour. When I bought my ticket, there were eight people on the tour. By the time I arrived this morning, there were 31.

Bokor Jungle

The jungle wasn’t quite what Disney had led me to believe a jungle should be – no singing bears for a start. There are bears – and leopards, elephants, cobras, pythons, etc – but it seems that they stay away when 31 tourists and three guides traipse by. I saw a worm.

It was good exercise though. At the top of the hill is a former French holiday resort with an abandoned casino-cum-hotel and a church. This is the casino:

Bokor Casino

Back of the casino:

Bokor Casino 2

The view of the south coast was hazy but quite spectacular:

Bokor View

And the church:

Bokor Church

Though its at the heart of a national park and conservation area, 140 sq km of Bokor have been sold to a well-connected developer who is in the very early stages of building a $1billion ‘tourist city’ with two golf courses, a 650 room hotel and 1000 villas. At the moment, the only real work being done is on the road leading up to the top. What will happen to the abandoned colonial buildings is unclear. There are some artist’s impressions showing the planned development here.

Well, that wasn’t one of my best posts. I’ll try to up my game next time.