Siem Reap and Battambang: The best ships are friendships

Our time in Thailand had been eye-opening. From being chased by stray dogs in Ayutthaya to enjoying the hospitality of a mosquito-impersonating hotelier in Pai, it had provided me the perfect introduction to life in Southeast Asia. On the eve of our flight to the Cambodian town of Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient Angkor complex, I got to ruminating on our trip so far.

I found myself asking: “When you really think about it, what is travel?” While I have a few theories of my own, I think the definition that rings truest comes from the avowed logophiles at Oxford Dictionaries:

“Taking more than the allowed number of steps (typically two) while holding the ball without dribbling it.”

This puts into words – better than I ever could – the fact that travel (or “the ball”, as Oxford Dictionaries would have it) is all about enjoying the journey (the allowed number of steps) rather than fixating on the destination (exceeding the allowed number of steps without dribbling).

Who knew what revelations lay in store for me across the border in Cambodia?

 

Siem Reap

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Angkor une fois

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I hope I’m not guilty of hyperbole in saying that arriving somewhere new is among the most important parts of travel. Stepping off the plane, train or bus is always an exciting moment, as you immediately start to consider the possibilities ahead of you. What will you enjoy most about this strange new town? Will you find a favourite bar or restaurant? Will you never end up leaving (ideally because you like it so much, not because you’ve been brutally murdered)?

However, in another way, arriving somewhere new is a fucking ballache. As you struggle under the weight of your luggage, tuk-tuk drivers invade your personal space, demanding to whisk you away to your hotel for a fare that you’ll soon discover was exorbitant. Given that Cambodia is significantly poorer than Thailand and receives about six times fewer tourists a year, I didn’t have high hopes for our late-night arrival in Siem Reap.

But I was wrong. Ill-informed, handsome and wrong. Siem Reap International Airport is a delight; air-conditioned, clean, well-signposted and extremely quiet. Picking up our visas couldn’t have been simpler, and our hostel – as promised – had sent a taxi driver (WITH A SIGN THAT HAD MY NAME ON IT) to collect us.

Based on her previous visit five years ago, Caroline described Siem Reap as a small, rough-around-the-edges town dotted with scuzzy rock clubs. Eager to visit Cambodia’s answer to Satan’s Hollow, I had extremely high expectations. But in the intervening years, life in this northern town has changed dramatically. Cambodia’s growing reputation as a tourist destination and the enduring appeal of Angkor Wat have swelled the local economy and attracted significant development. Far from being packed with dive bars, Pub Street – the epicentre of Siem Reap’s nightlife scene – is now a genuine culinary hub. Rather than the roadside noodle stalls of Thailand, you’ll find upscale burger joints and pizza parlours.

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Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street. I was last here 4.5 years ago and it’s seriously changed since then, with more upmarket bars opening alongside the backpacker hovels. It’s still loads of fun, and much more chill than Khao San in Bangkok πŸ’ƒπŸ» πŸ’ƒπŸ» πŸ’ƒπŸ» #pubstreet #siemreap #cambodia #seasiatravel #seasia #travel #traveller #travelling #travelblog #travelblogger #travelwriter #traveldiaries #travelbug #travellersnotebook #nightlife #wanderlust #bucketlist #party #explore #exploreeverything #passportready #instagood #instago #travelgram #instatravels #seetheworld #bigtravel #travepics #travelphotos

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As I’m apparently fiercely brand-loyal when it comes to guidebooks, one of our first chores was to procure a new Lonely Planet. In doing so, we fell foul of our first Cambodian scam (of sorts), as we were haggled into parting company with $6 – plus our trusty, nearly new Thai Lonely Planet – for a shrink-wrapped Cambodian one that turned out to be photocopied and written in 2012. The maps were unreadable and almost all the bars and restaurants listed in it had since shut down.

The combination of knock-off guidebook, fancy Western eateries and our positively luxurious private hostel room (complete with free-standing granite bathtub) made me feel like a bit of a fraud. This wasn’t the “sort of travel” I’d been expecting here, having mentally convinced myself that Cambodia would be edgy and difficult.

Fortunately for the sake of this increasingly narcissistic blog entry, my “poor little white boy in search of authenticity” act only lasted until the moment we hired two bikes and cycled to Angkor. In Thailand, I had been rendered speechless (not literally – I’m really very loud) many times over by the dishevelled grandeur of the Ayutthaya and Sukhothai ruins, but comparing either of them to Angkor is like when people in the early noughties started referring to Richard Blackwood as “the British Will Smith”. While we’re on the subject, did you know that the 1.2.3.4 Get with the Wicked songster used to be Naomi Campbell’s step-brother?

 

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Heathcliff my dude, where you at?

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Much as Blackwood’s star turn as Donkey in Shrek the Musical was heralded for awakening Britain from the cultural doldrums of a post-credit crunch world, Angkor Wat is often touted as being the high-water mark for Khmer civilisation. The image of its iconic towers silhouetted against the setting sun has adorned many a guidebook, postcard and “travel goals” listicle. But I’m not even certain I’d include it in my top three sights at Angkor, and not just because I’m a contrarian edgelord – there’s just so much more to be enamoured with.

Former EastEnders star Blackwood famously asked “Mama, Who Da Man?” in his #3 hit single of the same name. Had he directed that question at the citizens of 12th and 13th-century Angkor, they would no doubt have replied “Jayavarman VII”. It’s possible that Blackwood’s mother gave the same answer; her response is sadly unrecorded and thus lost to history. Under the watchful eyes of the self-styled universal monarch and God-king (Jayavarman VII, not Blackwood), Angkor underwent its most prolific period of construction, spawning the wonders of Angkor Thom and Bayon – the kingdom’s spiritual centre – as well as the sprawling temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

King Jayavarman VII (Image via S Pakhrin, via Wikimedia Commons)

The number of jaw-droppingly beautiful ruins at Angkor defies logic. Stretching over 400 sq km, the heartland of the Khmer empire is gargantuan. We bought a three-day pass to give ourselves enough time to see more than just the big hitters, but by the end of the second day – having cycled 60 km in the scorching heat – we’d hardly scratched the surface.

To put all of this into perspective, it takes a solid half-hour bike ride to get from one side of Angkor Thom – the walled former capital city that lies at the centre of the Angkor site – to the other. You’ll need at least 15 minutes to cycle the arrow-straight road between Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm, the overgrown ruin made famous by pixelated animal murderer Lara Croft, is an agonising 5 km slog from Angkor Thom. After all that, you’ve still got to factor in the 15 km round-trip between Angkor and Siem Reap. And that’s just to see the main spots. Unless you’re prepared to sweat out every millilitre of water in your body, you’ll need motorised transport to reach equally awe-inspiring but farrer-flung sights like Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean. On our third day, we caved and booked a tuk-tuk.

 

Battambang

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πŸ‰

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Siem Reap is the exact opposite of “off the beaten track”, luring almost 1.5 million tourists in the first half of 2018 alone. Incredible as it is, after a week of revelling in the glories of Angkor and drinking $0.50 glasses of lager on Pub Street, we fancied spending some time away from the masses. Battambang was to prove the perfect solution.

Despite being Cambodia’s second-largest city and only 77 km from Siem Reap as the crow flies, Battambang only attracts a tiny fraction of the tourists that visit its more illustrious neighbour. This is partly down to northern Cambodia’s horrendous transport infrastructure; there’s no direct road from Siem Reap, so the journey inexplicably takes four hours by bus along frequently rutted single-lane carriageways.

Also, it has to be said, Battambang isn’t exactly rich in eye-catching sights. A couple of interesting if unspectacular Buddhist temples – one ruined, one still operational – stand proudly atop two of the monolithic limestone karsts that lie to the south of the city; and the riverside promenade is unassumingly pretty, dotted with attractive French colonial buildings. Beyond this, Battambang’s most popular tourist activity has, for years, involved taking a ride on the rickety bamboo train – a motorised bamboo-platform-on-wheels large enough to seat about four people – but this somewhat niche attraction is now sadly deceased (at least in its original form).

Despite having more than 600 km of tracks, Cambodia’s rail network was almost entirely abandoned as civil war gripped the country in the latter half of the 20th century, and by 2009 all services had been suspended indefinitely. The bamboo trains – known locally as norrie – were created as a kind of unofficial replacement bus service using the original rails, and enterprising Khmers soon cottoned on to the idea of flogging trips to Westerners. Happily for Cambodia but unfortunately for us, rail services between Battambang and the capital, Phnom Penh, were re-launched earlier this year, bringing an end to the authentic bamboo train experience. A new bamboo train route has been purpose-built on the outskirts of town, but it is – by most accounts – utterly dreadful.

While none of the above will sound like a ringing endorsement for visiting this regional capital, we ended up staying longer than planned. Battambang seduced us. With its laid-back atmosphere, its friendly residents, and the ease at which it offers a window into genuine Cambodian life, it was the perfect antidote to Siem Reap. And with a trip to Phnom Penh – notorious for muggings and assaults on tourists – looming large on the horizon, spending a few days drinking in the ambience (and beer) of this tranquil city was extremely appealing.

That being said, Battambang wasn’t all about R&R. It also proved fascinating – and extremely poignant – thanks to a day we spent with Montha, a local tuk-tuk driver. Don’t get me wrong, we were paying him to drive us around, he wasn’t knocking about with us by choice; but he relished having an audience for his stories, which were captivating and deeply moving in equal measure. Now around 50 years of age, Montha had been a child during the horror years of the Khmer Rouge – the totalitarian, genocidal communist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975-79, and continued to fight a bloody civil war after its ouster that dragged on well into the 1990s. During the Khmer Rouge’s time in power, Pol Pot’s missguided utopian vision led to the deaths of 1.5-3 million Cambodians, up to a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Many were the victims of murderous purges; others simply died through starvation and disease as the impact of the party’s disastrous agricultural reforms and foreign trade embargos took hold.

In the early 1970s, aged around seven, Montha’s parents sent him away to a remote village in rural north-eastern Cambodia to flee the growing conflict between the Khmer Rouge – backed by their Vietnamese allies – and the beleaguered, US-supported republican government of Lon Nol. His parents moved around regularly as the combat lines shifted, while Montha took refuge with his grandma at a Buddhist pagoda. His father was briefly staying in a neighbouring village, but was unable to visit Montha for fear of being mistaken for a guerilla by government forces. Desperate to see him, Montha made the arduous trip alone on foot. On his way home, he was spotted by the republican army – hunkered down on a distant hillside – who mistook him for a Khmer Rouge spy aiming to pass information on troop positions to rebel commanders. A hail of bullets and shells were fired in Montha’s direction as he ran, terrified, down the narrow, exposed road connecting his father’s village to the sanctuary of the pagoda. Eventually, he was able to take refuge in the undergrowth on the far shore of a lake; spotting no movement, the army stopped shooting, presuming him dead. Despite having almost been killed at the hands of government troops and witnessing numerous US air strikes, Montha was even more afraid of the Khmer Rouge. “The government and the Americans were people; you could trust them. The Khmer Rouge had been brainwashed. They were animals.”

As well as his stories, Montha had a seemingly endless stream of opinions and wise words to share with us, covering everything from Cambodia’s lack of bridge-building expertise to Brexit and contemporary Khmer politics. Every piece of advice was dished up with an accompanying metaphor, many of which were water-based (which I suspected was largely because we were parked next to a river at the time). Party politics, he explained, was like a river lined with trees; when the water level is low, the ants in the trees prosper because they eat all the food, while the fish die out. But when the water is high, the fish eat the ants. This, he told us, is why he no longer believes in politics. “Most governments are corrupt, but we’ve seen where protests and revolution lead to. It’s better to just carry on as we are.”

 

A light-hearted conclusion

Because that all got a bit heavy, here’s a semi-amusing anecdote to conclude this epic. While in Battambang, we regularly frequented an English expat-run hostel bar called Pomme (you should visit if you’re ever in town, it’s great). Two 30-something English lads were staying there; while Caroline and I sat around discussing literature and history over bottles of Angkor lager, they favoured the more base pleasures of the pool table and whisky chasers. They kept reciting an infuriating rhyme, over and over again. While I shudder to think of it, I still remember every word. It goes like this:

Here’s to tall ships. Here’s to small ships. Here’s to all the ships on the sea. But the best ships are friendships… here’s to you and me!

All along, the alpha lad claimed that he had single-handedly invented this moving elegy while on holiday in Magaluf. But something was nagging me about his poetic credentials; I seriously doubted he would recognise an iambic pentameter if it bludgeoned him over the head with a copy of John Keats’ ode To Autumn. Still thinking about it weeks later, I did some Googling, and found the following damning evidence:

Either this dude has a significant sideline in inspirational memes and handicrafts, or he was lying all along.

Tune in next time for more quality investigative journalism that you won’t find in the #MSM. Open your eyes, sheeple.

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