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18 December 2012

Did you know – The Hindu temple ruin of Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, and is the most famous of the Angkor ruins. The larger lost city of Angkor, including Angkor War, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the temple is very much the symbol of modern Cambodia, and decorates the Cambodian flag.

A wide moat surrounds the temple; past the moat is a wall almost 4,5m tall, 1000m long and 800m wide. The temple compound enclosed by that wall covers just over 200 acres and the main tower of the temple rises 65m high.

In the 12th century, King Suryavarman II built Angkor as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple was never finished.  After Cambodia converted from the Hindu faith to Buddhism, starting in the late 13th century, the temple was in turn converted to Buddhist use. This accounts for the numerous Buddha statues that continue to decorate the temple to this day. Even after the Angkor Kingdom collapsed, the temple was never completely abandoned, although many buildings in the old capital were. Europeans first became aware of Angkor Wat in the late 16th century, but serious restoration and archaeological work on it only began under the French in the mid-19th century.

The riding in Cambodia is quite different to Thailand – first of all it’s on the other side of the road, there is lots of hooting and the road is straight and flat – rice fields on  both sides of the road.  On the plus side, there are loads of children in the villages who are so excited to see us and shout Hello, Hello, Hello whenever we pass, sometimes almost to hysterical levels, it’s so funny.  They are just so enthusiastic that you just have to respond which meant we were waving and saying hello about a thousand times a day.  At least it broke up the long, boring road.  Another thing we noticed was the way the pigs are transported – on the back of a scooter, upside down – still alive!

Apparently electricity is much more expensive in the smaller towns in Cambodia so after a very hot day on the road we ended up with a fan room and it was hot!  The town didn’t really grab us either – a dusty little main road village really and the food also left a bad taste in our mouths!  So far we have been given soup with chicken feet in it as well as a strange cheese and pork mince dish which really didn’t look, smell or taste great!

When we arrived in Siem Reap and found an Indian restaurant we were in heaven – it was delicious and also our first Indian meal since Malaysia.  Siem Reap is a great little town although it’s full of tourists so it means lots of touts hassling you for business but it also means you get better food and lots of imported stuff in the supermarkets – time to stock up on some vegemite!

While in Siem Reap we visited the temples of Angkor Wat – we took our bikes which made it much easier to get around to the various temples.  It was a long, hot day as the temples were very big and we had underestimated the time it would take to get back to our hotel so ended up having a frantic ride back – part of it in the dark!  Not ideal when we didn’t have our lights with us and knowing how they drive here in Cambodia!  We managed to get to the main town area without any problems though, and managed to cycle on roads with street lights (yes, not all roads have street lights).

The Angkor complex is very big so we spent two days visiting the complex – we still didn’t get to see it all!  The second day was much better because took some of the more quiet roads and visited temples that were less frequently visited.  Jacques also got his first puncture, right at the end of the day – fixing it in front of one of the temples drew a small crowd of locals who were muttering to themselves about the bikes.  We didn’t have our puncture kit or pump with us, but luckily Craig had his with him.  Thanks for the patch Craig, I owe you one, otherwise I would’ve been walking back!

One aspect of Cambodia we found to be particularly annoying was the fact that they use two currencies – Cambodian Reil and US dollars.  This can be quite confusing because all the menus are in US dollars so you first have to work out how much it will be in the local currency so you can pay – then they give you change in dollars (or sometimes a combination of both) so you then have to try and work out if they have given you the correct change…very annoying! 

We left Siem Reap and headed towards Phnom Penh.  We had a big day of almost 90km with a head wind and an average temperature of 37deg!  Mandy managed to sunburn her fingers!  Along the way we bumped into some soldiers who were mine detecting along the side of the road.   They told us that they were checking for mines because the road is going to be made wider.  So far they had done 50km and found around 30 mines!  Most were about a meter deep, and they assured us that nothing would happen if you had to step on one buried so deep.  A stalk reminder of the history of the country and the fact that they still struggle with the effects of war so long after it all ended.
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8 January 2012

Did you know – The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979.  Around 20 thousand victims including diplomats, foreigners, intellectuals, officers, soldiers, farmers especially children and women were murdered at the Killing Fields.  Between 1979-1980 129 mass graves were found, 86 of which were excavated. 8,985 corpses were exhumed. The largest mass grave was a grave containing 450 corpses.

Today we made it to Phnom Penh, breaking two of our cycle touring rules!  Rule 1:  try not to arrive in a big city late in the day as it’s stressful enough navigating the traffic to find a hotel after a long day on the road and Rule 2:  don’t cycle in the dark (if you have to use your lights – which we didn’t!).   The day was a very long dusty day as we had decided to take a minor road along the Mekong river. We hit the expected gravel road earlier than expected but we managed to get through it although we had to navigate through the potholes and stones as well as heaps of dust – we were filthy!  The plan was to find a guest house along the main highway so that we could do the last stretch into the city in the morning but there didn’t seem to be anything along the highway and the road was being rebuilt, so the entire trip into the city was a total nightmare – there was no hard shoulder and we kept having to come off and back onto the road where there were diversions, add to this the dust, rush hour traffic and the fact that we had already had half a day of gravel didn’t make us happy campers!

We eventually found a hotel although the three of us had to share a room but we were so exhausted we didn’t mind and it was only for one night – we also had amazing burgers and chips for dinner which raised our spirits significantly – just what we needed after such a long hard day on the road. 

While in Phnom Penh we visited the Royal Palace although we could only stroll around the grounds and not go inside the Palace, as it was closed due to the fact the King had recently passed away.  The grounds were beautiful though and very interesting.  Inside the Silver Pagoda we saw part of the floor which was covered entirely of silver tiles! 

There are two other major ‘sights’ in PP, the S21 Museum (The Genocide Museum) and the Killing Fields – these two were quite hard to visit and quite graphic.  The museum is an old school which was converted into a centre for detention, interrogation, torture and killing.  The killing fields where the prisoners who were not killed at S21 were taken to be killed in numbers.  We had audio guides which gave a lot more information than the museum and told of how people were killed and buried in mass graves around the area.  There were even sections of the fields where bones were still appearing from the soil to this day.  These two ‘sights’ were quite hard for all of us but we feel that we need to see these things and understand what went on in the past to appreciate how lucky we are.   

After leaving the big smoke we took a slow route down to Kampot where we spent New Years.  It wasn’t a great celebration although the town was pretty noisy.  Because we had to stipulate an entry date on our Vietnam visa we had a few days to play with so spent about 5 days in Kampot enjoying some western food and riding around the area.  We also spent a few days in Kep which is famous for its crabs – Jacques and I tried it and it was pretty good although not sure if it was really worth all the effort!  By the time you eventually get to some of the crab meat, you almost not hungry anymore.  Still, it was tasty.

We eventually set off for the border – part of the route followed the coast and then we went inland.  Our exit out of Cambodia was quick but our entry into Vietnam was not so quick.  There were two coaches of foreigners and the border control guy took everyone’s passports, including ours and processed them all before handing them back.  When we finally got them back we had our 3 month multi visa stamped in and hit the road for about 10km for Ha Tien where were found a great little guest house with massive rooms – I think we are going to like it here in Vietnam.

Final Thoughts:

There is a big difference between Cambodia and Thailand, and this was evident from the time we entered the country.  The country is a lot poorer and more rural.  The country is very flat, which is nice for cycling, but also makes it a bit boring.  The roads are generally ok, but no hard shoulder to cycle on, which doesn’t make it that nice.  The people are friendly, especially the children, which is very entertaining at times.  The food isn’t that great, with the exceptions of a few tourist hot spots, where they seem to make more of an effort.  Overall not a bad place, but not as nice as Thailand and Malaysia.
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