One of the big advantages of working in a school in South East Asia is a long break in December when the weather is usually pretty good. Our first year we went to Indonesia diving and then to Bagan. The next year was Sri Lanka right before the pandemic hit. Our third year we were stuck in Yangon and our fourth year we were basically stuck in Thailand and spent it in Chang Mai. After 2 years this was our next and last chance to travel in the region. We decided on going back to two of our favourite places namely the temple complex in Siem Reap in Cambodia and then Vietnam.
Due in part to a direct flight to Phnom Penh (which seemed an astonishing luxury), we decided to spend a few days in Phnom Penh first which is the capital of Cambodia. We had heard that pick pocketing is a bit of a problem there and when I was there on business once before something had been stolen from a tuk tuk while we were moving. That being said, we didn’t have any trouble nor did we feel any bad vibe at all. On the contrary, Phnom Penh is a very vibrant Asian city with seemingly lots of interesting neighbourhoods. In typical fashion Lindsey booked us into a lovely part of town full of restaurants and bars right near the centre of town.
We arrived on the night of the World Cup Final – Argentina vs. France. Both being traditional foes of England I was a bit non-plussed at the prospect and after Argentina scored 2 goals I fell asleep. Lindsey woke up to the cheers of the French bar underneath us and I ended up watching the end of the game. On balance I was happy for Messi – Mbappe will have another day.
I imagine Phnom Penh is a very liveable city but is a bit light on sights. These consist primarily of a palace which has quite a few closed off areas but is definitely worth a one time visit. The other big ‘attraction’ is the genocide museum. Briefly, the Khmer Rouge, a communist political group under the leadership of Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975 ending a number of years of civil war. His idea was that Cambodians should go back to an agrarian lifestyle with everyone growing rice in communes. To this end he organised the clearing of all the cities including Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge began to then systematically kill anyone who might be a threat their new system including pretty much anyone who might be educated. Unfortunately, simply killing people was not enough. The deaths had to follow signed confessions which were all obtained through torture. The genocide museum is the site of one such torture centre which was a converted school. We got the audio guide which was suitably harrowing and full of warnings suggesting that you might want to skip this next bit or maybe you ought to go and find a nice bench to sit on outside before listening to this next section. There are only about 14 known survivors of this place and astonishingly three of them were at the museum. At first we thought this was a one off but they seem to be actually a permanent part of the museum relaying a standard patter translated by someone on hand and selling their memoirs. I’m not sure how I felt about this to be honest. It seemed to take something away from the gravity of the overall message which was excellently delivered in the main. Depression duty done we headed back for some consolation local craft beer and good food.
Our next main stop was to be the temple complex of Siem Reap but I knew about an excellent bird sanctuary on the way which is one of the few places you can reliably see Greater Adjutants, which are very large, ugly looking stork type birds. This was the only part of our trip that Lindsey let me organise. The day started with a 5 am pick up at our hotel by a tuk tuk. This was already a bit of a surprise to me as I understood we were starting with a fairly long car journey to the Tonle Sap lake. The tuk tuk ride took us straight to a boat on the Tonle Sap river (surprise number two). What followed was a fairly long but pleasant boat ride on the river. Although the boat was large enough to accommodate many passengers, we were the only ones on board which was nice. The boat took us up the Tonle Sap river where we could take in the scenery and see a few birds along the way. We eventually stopped at a not very obvious spot and had to ‘walk the plank’ off the boat to a waiting car. This was the bit I remembered and this turned out to be a 3.5 hour car ride to the main lake area, where we were picked up by another boat with a very loud motor for the next part of the trip which would eventually take us to our stop over night on a boat called the Queen Tara. On the way we stopped at some floating villages which have houses that are either on stilts of up to 8 meters high or are literally floating on rafts.
At one point we stopped for a canoe ride through a submerged forest paddled by a local woman and and joined by her 2 children. This was very picturesque but did involved paddling up to a canoe shop where we were a pretty captive audience. They were probably our most expensive cans of beer of the whole trip! Once we got back to the pick up point we were sort of waiting around when the guide vaguely pointed to a kind of floating area with what looked like pretty flimsy nets. I glanced inside to find several large crocodiles! This turned out to be a mini crocodile farm which were all over the place.
Finally we headed to the Queen Tara which was a large boat doing dinner and sun set drinks as well as overnight stays. Quite a few people were there for the sunset dinner but as it turned out, we were the only overnighters. On balance, a bit more research would probably have revealed that the Queen Tara had far from ‘royal’ accommodation with the crowning glory being the rats that crawled around in the ceiling 3 feet above our heads (surprise number three)!
The next morning we got back in the boat for the actual point of all this travelling which was to see the Tonle Sap bird sanctuary. The Tonle Sap lake has a very unusual eco system whereby it gets filled every year largely with snow melt from Nepal and then empties out to the Tonle Sap river eventually merging with the Mekong. The result is apparently one of the cleanest water systems in the world which attracts lots of fish and therefore birds. Although there is a lot of local fishing done there it is mainly subsistence fishing with no real machinery so is fairly sustainable.
We saw lots of birds on the way into the sanctuary but the highlight was a platform built on a tree from which you can see the nesting and soaring birds. The only problem with the platform is that it was built in the classic Asian ‘safety first’ method. We motored up to the tree which had no base platform and instead simply a ladder made from sticks accessed directly from the boat. This particular platform (and there are around 50 in the sanctuary) was particularly high which meant that the ladder was equally high and practically vertical. Once you got to the top and stepped out onto the main platform you could at any moment step back into the hole you’d just come up through to your certain death. This was made more possible by the fact that the platform wasn’t that stable. If someone saw an interesting bird and everyone looked and stepped in that direction, the platform would lurch alarmingly. There was another guide with another group there who had an excellent Swarovski spotting scope but you had to wait for the platform to stabilise before you could see what he pointed it at. All that being said the view point was excellent and I saw at least two birds that I’d never seen before including the afore mentioned Greater Adjutant which was particularly impressive in flight and I believe might be one of the largest birds capable of flight.
After this we stopped off for lunch in a floating village and then headed on to Siem Reap itself for our first night there. We had a nice AirBnB planned for the few days around Christmas but as they didn’t have any availability that night we stayed in a hotel. We arrived quite late but had time to rent motorbike style scooters from the hotel and scoot off to the temple complex for a first look around. After Bagan, we wondered whether the temples might not have the same allure as the last time we visited but not so, they were as amazing as we remembered. Prior to the covid pandemic it was usually so busy in December that the guide book warned you off going at that time. This time however it was far from heaving probably due in part to the small number of Chinese tourists there. The largest nationality represented was almost certainly Cambodians possibly followed by Indians and then Americans or French. On that evening we only visited Angkor Wat which is usually the name most people know the whole area by even though it is only one of the temples. While most all of the other temples had to be reclaimed from the jungle by archaeologists, Angkor Was was an active temple so was kept in better condition. It is stunning to think that it was built in the 12th century (check) when the UK was basically entering the dark ages. If the human race could achieve Angkor Wat a thousand years ago it frankly doesn’t seem like we’ve achieved much since then.
In the morning of day two we went back to the Tonle Sap bird sanctuary but this time with a bird specialist tour company which we’d used before the last time we were there. The trip was quite similar to what we’d done the day before but the guide was much more of an expert so I was able to identify a few more birds. In the afternoon we had to give up our bikes and rent new ones which was annoying but turned out to be good in the end as the bikes we subsequently rented were better and cheaper (Scoopy – $10 and Honda Click $12 per day). We moved to Lindsey’s brilliantly booked AirBnB which was perfect for us complete with a little swimming pool.
Day three (Dec 24th) we got top early to spend more time in Angkor Wat including the very top part where they limit the number of tourists. The relief carvings are truly amazing and extremely well preserved in some cases with the walls of the whole ground floor being dedicated to scenes from Hindu stories. The highlight of this wall is one whole side given over to the story of the churning of the sea of milk where giants grab hold of two ends of a giant snake wrapped around a mountain in the sea of milk. The giants pull the snake in a kind of tug of war which rotates the mountain, churning the sea of milk which gives off immortal properties. It’s a great story wonderfully depicted. On the way back to our bikes we stunningly bumped into a colleague from ISY just entering the temple. We bumped into him three other times during the trip!
Nearby you come to a series of other temples and something called the Elephant Terrace which was a kind of parade ground. There is a little visited section of this called the Leper King’s Terrace which has been partially excavated to reveal some short corridors where you can get very close to the stone carvings. One of the temples is known as the jigsaw puzzle as it was painstakingly taken down only to have all the records destroyed. This left a giant jigsaw puzzle that had to be reconstructed although they did a pretty good job in the end. The architects seemed to love a steep staircase which led to some hair raising climbs and descents. The other major temple in that area is called Bayon also known as the face temple for the many large carved faces of buddha adorning its towers. Unfortunately, you don’t really get to see the best views until the third level which has sadly been closed since 2020.
Christmas morning we went to Ta Prohm which is famous for having large trees growing out of the walls of the temple as well as being the place where they filmed Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. Last time we were there we discovered the trick of an early start to be the first ones in before the hoards arrive to get their photos next to the trees. This time we expertly pulled off the same trick made easier by the friendly ticket lady who let us in 5 minutes early. As there are two entrances this meant we were ahead of anyone coming the other way. As it happened, the temple was even less crowded than the last time we were there and for most of our visit we had the place to ourselves. Next up was a nearby temple which, as we approached it, a French lady stopped us and pointed up into a tree. To my astonishment, in the tree there were three large hornbills feeding from the fruit. These were part of a re-wilding project and had been released almost exactly a year previously. For the full story you’ll need to read my ‘other’ blog post on this subject from my new blog (introducing Audubird and Audubird’s YouTube channel). Having received that excellent Christmas present I didn’t think the day could get much better but the lunch we had at a French restaurant proved to be the icing on the Christmas cake. It was a set menu starting with amazing oysters and to top it off we were the only guests so were thoroughly looked after by our French bon vivant host.
We spent two more days at Siem Reap and saw a few more temples but the main other highlight to mention was our visit to the landmine sniffing rat place. That’s right, I wrote ‘landmine sniffing rat place’. There’s this rat from Africa which as far as we know has one of the best noses of any animal in the world. The species is called Giant Pouched Rat. That may not sound too appealing but as I had a pet rat when I was a kid I’ve always had an affection for them. Not so with Lindsey but I’ve managed to slowly bring her round over the years. She became a convert after some random school visit where she got to hold one.
Anyway, this guy figured out that these rats could be trained to sniff out landmines and unexploded bombs. They are too light to actually set off the landmines and apparently are incredibly efficient at their jobs. So far they have never missed a landmine and can clear land at a fraction of the time it takes people and/or dogs. Initially, they were used in Africa but their success means they are now being imported to other parts of the world. Sadly, Cambodia has one of the highest densities of landmines in the world so there is a big need for these rats. During our we learnt all about the training process and got to watch them perform an exercise in TNT sniffing. Then was the best part when we got to hold them. Now you tell me, are they not the cutest!.
That’s about it for Cambodia. I’ll let Lindsey regale you with tails of our unexpectedly chilly trip to Vietnam.
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