15.02.2011 - 19.02.2011
After 5 weeks, the best part of 5000 miles and numerous adventures later, it was time for the final leg of the trip. The most exciting part: we had saved the best for last!
Siem Riep has been known to travellers ever since it was ‘discovered’ by the French in the mid-1800s. After missing a generation of travellers during the Khmer Rouge period, this thriving destination is most certainly back on the radar and is red hot once again.
Travelling round Cambodia everyone has one question: have you been to Siem Riep yet? It is not a question of ‘if’. It is ‘when’. As you hit the town (in our case after 12 of the most wearisome hours of our lives), the first thing you realise is that you are most certainly back on the tourist trail once more. Retired ‘cruisey-types’ were back (we last saw those in Ha Long Bay), as were the huge tourist markets along with inflated prices. Suddenly a fiver a night wasn’t covering accommodation – panic set in.
Considering we arrived at 10pm, with no reservation, to a bus station 5 miles away from the city, in total darkness and with no means of getting to the city apart from the crazy moto drivers, the fact we found a bed whilst remaining in one piece was satisfying.
By the time daylight had arrived and we had got to our new hostel (a bed was about the best part of last night), the city had taken on a different vibe. Whereas Phnom Penh was slightly edgy and unpredictable with some of Hanoi’s mahem, Siem Riep was a lovely, relaxed comfort zone. This is not to say it was boring, or that the street kids and social problems were not just as visible in Siem Riep but, as proven by the cruisey-types, it was certainly less intimidating.
After a morning of ruining our budgets at the amazingly touristy central market, where yet more amazingly addictive ‘tat stores’ were to be found, the afternoon (together with every other afternoon following that one) was spent at various coffee shops, juice bars and real bars, only adding to the relaxed and chilled feel of the city.
In all honesty, people come to Siem Riep for one thing. Yes, it is a lovely town, but without Angkor Wat it would still be a quiet farming town where tourism had yet to smear its greasy claws.
Please excuse the slightly cutting remark above but I hope that, once I have given you the background story, you will appreciate my slightly negative undertones.
Tourism in Cambodia is an emerging industry, bringing with it money and hopes of social mobility to millions of Cambodians. However, to say tourism here is commercialised moves beyond the descriptive realm to the one of reality.
Take the genocide memorial museum in Phnom Penh, possibly the most important historical sight in Cambodia, tourist or otherwise, and yet when you look closely you will find that a Japanese company owns the commercial rights to the museum. Yes, that is right, the commercial rights to it. It was thus no surprise to find that the lovely paragon of virtue that is Shell owns the commercial rights to Angkor Wat. To criticise the Cambodian government of selling their national treasures down the river for a quick buck would be churlish and hypocritical when you consider such topics as the UK fishing industry or the Premier League, but there is an important point here beyond the obvious.
Siem Riep is literally overflowing with rickshaw drivers wanting the pleasure of being your guide around the town and, more importantly, around the temples of Angkor Wat. At £10 a day it is a rich ticket for them and a vital source of income to the local populations especially the local, male, under-40 population. Shell, however, are rumoured to be introducing a new transit system around the temple complex that only licensed operators will able to work. Under the guise of improving ‘the visitor experience’, in one swift move Shell will undermine much of the local rickshaw industry, severing the financial umbilical cord that connects the temples to the local population. When hearing stories like these, it is hard not to suspect with large amounts of cynicism that Shell may just be trying to cream of a few extra dollars of profit, as no doubt there will be a significant charge for their new transit system.
Cynicism aside, the temples at Siem Riep are utterly incredible. Getting up early to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat itself was phenomenal and one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime activities that did live up to its billing. However, one temple above all others stole the show: Bayon.
As we approached Bayon over a stunning stone-carved bridge that passes under a majestic archway, the pile of rubble in the distance was an anticlimax to the sunrise we had just taken in at Angkor Wat. Even as we pulled up next to it there was little to recommend it. Then just as we were about to pass it over and leave, the sun hit the stone carved pillars to reveal the most stunning effect. Faces. Hundreds of faces. From every angle you are being watched by the most enigmatic eyes on earth. On every one of Bayon’s 52 stone pillars that make up the temple here, are four faces looking outwards to the four compass points, as if a king were surveying his kingdom. It was in utter awe and wonder that we passed two hours here struggling to take in, and struggling to leave, the faces that reach into your soul with each glance.
Two days of exploring the temples had ticked off all the ‘must-see’ ones off our list and had left us with some amazing memories: the Tomb Raider temple of Ta Phrom in the Jungle; the Banteay Srei 20km away with the most dazzlingly intricate stone carvings; the majestic aura of Angkor Wat; and, of course, the charisma of Bayon.
It was a fitting end to what had been a memorable trip, offering up a glimpse of the richness and beauty in both culture and nature of one of the most captivating regions on earth. If Vietnam has exploded onto the global tourism stage then Cambodia is not far behind, with both offering intimate and vivid examples of the good and bad of this attention. My advice, get there now before they become the Thailand of tomorrow!