Meet the Province

Originally I had intended to stay only one full day in Phnom Penh as it has such a bad reputation for thieves and aside from the Killing Fields and S-21 museum there isn’t a whole lot that can been seen. However, I had visited the genocide sights the day before with a couple of young women who were staying an additional day to do a tour called Meet the Province. Reading the leaflet, it sounded like a lot of fun and when they invited me along I eagerly accepted and extended my stay for another night.

Jiurua picked us up the next morning, and the three of us piled into her brother’s tuk tuk with her. We drove through Phnom Penh, passed the Palace which was covered in scaffolding and very gold, so just as well I had not bothered to visit. On the way we tried some fruit that looked very similar to lychees and is apparently nicknamed mens balls in Cambodian. Our first stop was a beautifully illustrated temple where Jiurua told us the story of the Buddha and about the temple and some of the festivals and events the happen around the year. She also showed us a tree, the flower of which is drank as a tea infusion by women in their fifth month of pregnancy to ensure a smooth birth.

From there we took a small ferry across the river, trying grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice and palm leaves while sitting in the small top area. On the other side of the river (or possible in the middle of it) we went to look around a small island where local women were making silk scarves and skirts. As always when it comes to anything related to sewing and fabric making I was very excited by this, especially when we got to try spinning the first thread from the silk cocoons. I the end I caved and bought a beautiful purple scarf, barely resisting getting a magnificent red one as well.

After seeing how the patterns were weaved into the skirts on the loom, something I hadn’t been able to figure at the Thai Silk Village, we headed to Jiurua’s plot of land where her sister made us a delicious lunch from a collection of home grown and local products. I am not sure which was my favourite but it was either the sliced lotus roots or the fish. Jiurua’s brother had caught the fish the night before so it was very fresh and marinated in a scrumptious sauce. I will confess that I still find fish with heads and tails attached a little disconcerting but I am definitely getting more used to them.

A short trip saw Jiurua collecting lotus flowers and fruits (also delicious and tasting like broad beans) from a large pond before we returned to her place and were shown how to fold out the lotus buds into flowers, a very therapeutic process. As we were waiting for a storm to pass (it did not rain on us but the wind meant the ferry would not be running), we all became fascinated with pulling the silky threads from the ends of the lotus stalks. Jiurua also gave us a very handsome gift of some lemongrass cuttings to try and grow when we return to our respective homes. Hopefully mine will survive long enough.

The procurement of some fresh ginger at a small local market marked the end of the tour and we were dropped off at the hostel with full stomachs and happy faces.

S-21 and the Killing Fields

I have no words that express the level of sorrow and horror I experienced walking through the S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. This post will be brief, not because I consider this a topic to be avoided but because I could never properly convey the suffering of the victims during the Cambodian Genocide. Walking through first S-21 Museum and then the Killing Fields is soul crushing.

“The Gallows” originally had ropes for children to climb in PE. When the Khmer Rouge took over, it wasn’t used for execution despite its name. Instead prisoners were hoisted into the air by their hands which had been tied behind their back. When they passed out, they were lowered and revived in jars of excrement and urine.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or more commonly S-21) was once a school. It had an outdoor exercise frame, large airy classrooms and open balconies connected the classrooms. This was a place of learning, joy and laughter, but then on 17 April 1975, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Within days the city was deserted, all its citizens forced out into the countryside at gunpoint as Pol Pot began creating his communist utopia where the peasant farmers were his “heros”.

The barbed wire across one of the balconies.

Then this school became a prison. The exercise frame was use to torture prisoners into confession; the classrooms became tiny cells, torture rooms or were left as mass cells where prisoners lay together with their feet shackled to an iron bar; the balconies were covered with barbed wire after a prisoner tried to leap from them. Now it is a museum and people come to learn once more, but joy has long since fled the grounds and now only grief remains.

A memorial for all the victims of S-21.

The Khmer Rouge systematically and purposefully destroyed the country’s economy and any connection to western capitalism. Currency was outlawed, machines were left to rust and Cambodians were put to work in farming collectives with demands for impossible yields of rice hanging over their heads. Many of them were city dwellers with no experience of how to grow crops. People quickly began to starve, grow ill and die. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge killed “intellectuals”. People who could speak another language or who had a degree or who wore glasses. Doctors, lawyers, teachers. And then their families. What was most chilling was the way prisoners were not allowed to die until a confession had been tortured from them. Only then would they be executed.

The dips here each mark where a mass grave once existed. Some graves were as deep as five metres and pieces of clothing and bone still surface to this day.

The Killing Fields were where the executions were carried out before bodies were shoved into pits. Bullets were too expensive so whatever tools on hand were used. The most common method was a strike to the back of the head followed by a slit throat. Loudspeakers played communist songs to cover the screams and a diesel generator provided the only light as prisoners were killed at night. The hardest part of the entire day was standing in front of the tree where soldiers had taken babies and toddlers by their feet and smashed their heads against a tree before they were thrown into a mass grave with their mothers.

Even the man who was in charge of S-21 and a seasoned torturer broke down and cried in front of this tree when bought to the killing fields before his trial.

Both museums were really well done but it is worth noting the audioguides are an absolute must to truly learn about the genocide. I can still feel the skulls of victims staring at me from the stupa of the Killing Fields and it will be a long time before the knowledge of the Cambodian Genocide and the 1-3 million deaths it claimed cease to haunt me.

The stupa at the Killing Fields, filled with skulls and bone fragments, stands to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but is also a reminder of what happens when the world watches a madman from the sidelines and does nothing.

Angkor Temples #2

Day two rolled around and after an very early start to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we began our trip around what we thought was going to be the grand circuit.  The map below shows the small circuit, which we had done the previous day, in red and the grand circuit in yellow.  However, as we set off, the trees and temples fell away to be replaced with rice paddies and cultivated fields.  After about forty-five minutes it was pretty clear that we weren’t following the grand circuit.  Despite a slight worry that we were being taken to the floating village on Tonlé Sap, somewhere our driver had tried to persuade us to visit the day before, we sat back and enjoyed the passing scenery.

angkor circuits
Map taken from here.

Fortunately for us and our laid-back attitudes, we eventually arrived at Banteay Srei, a temple well outside the most well-known parts of the Angkor Temple Complex.

In part because of the early hour and also the temple’s remote location there were very few tourists.  This was not the only reason for Banteay Srei being my favourite temple.  As can be seen above, the carvings in the walls of the temple and over doorways was absolutely exquisite.  The details were marvellously preserved and the temple was a little smaller so we were able to explore it thoroughly.  We also to the opportunity to sit down and eat out breakfast just outside the temple.


Over the years, thanks to the hard work of looters, vandals and time, a lot of statues are missing their heads.  I just couldn’t resist standing in to do the job for this Devas as he pulled on the Nāga Vasuki to help churn the Ocean of Milk.

Preah Khan provided another fix for my love of taking photos down corridors, they just seemed to go on forever.  While a lot of the temple was falling down there were still some extremely detailed carvings intact.  It also felt very tranquil in comparison to some of the other temples.

This little gate pavilion at Neak Pean reminded me of the entrance to the river Styx in Greek Mythology, a feeling underscored by the walk across a lake of dead trees to reach the island temple.


A lot of the Angkor temples seem to have a similar architectural structure whereby four smaller buildings surround a central building or peak as shown here at Pre Rup.  This layout was normally at the centre or top of the temples and then surrounded by a series of galleries.

Angkor Temples #1

The wonderful thing about travelling solo through hostels is that the opportunities to meet new people are endless and there is something freeing about hanging out with a group for a week, a day, or even just an hour with no commitment to be friends beyond that time frame.  You can see the sights, drink together and share tales of adventure but at the end of the day you go your separate ways, a mere paragraph in each other’s lives.  The drinking together is particularly apparent since hostels seem to have free beer more often than they have free water.

Anyway, temple viewing day one dawned bright and early and I set out with the three people I had agreed to share a driver with.  We knew we were doing the small circuit which visited the big three temples; Angkor Wat, our second visit here but our first opportunity to see all of it; Bayon Temple with its many faces; and Ta Prohm, slowly being reclaimed by nature.  However, we had little idea what else to expect.  You can read about our three visits to Angkor Wat here so I’ll skip straight to Bayon Temple.


Bayon Temple is one of the must-see temples when visiting the Angkor temples.  It’s covered in these faces that look out over the mass of tourists that come to visit every day.  With their little half smiles, I couldn’t help but think that the statues knew more than they let on.  Just what have they seen?


Like Angkor Wat, Baphuon Temple has a long causeway to walk up before you enter the temple.  It definitely seems like a good way to humble the lowly visitor.  It originally had a huge tower on the top but I kind of like these four arches, they make me think of magical portals to lost worlds.


Mr Bunna, our tuk tuk driver pulled over on the side of the road so we could take photos of a group of monkeys.  I just couldn’t resist taking a photo of this guy chilling on a motorbike.


I’ve always found taking photos through holes or down tunnels irresistible and visiting the temples certainly provided a lot of opportunities for me to do so with, arched corridors, doorways and collapsed roofs.


These seven headed snakes are used as balustrades throughout the Angkor Temple Complex.  They represent a reptilian race, the Nāga. In particular the king of snakes, Vasuki, who was used to help churn the Ocean of Milk by wrapping around Mount Meru.  Artisans Angkor have a really good description of this piece of mythology.


Used as a set in Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm has not escaped the Cambodian jungle’s grasp.  Without a moat to protect it from invading trees, parts of this temple have been reclaimed by nature.  The real trick though was trying to get a photo of the beautiful trees in the split second between everyone having their photo taken directly in front of the marvellous interlocking roots.  We were particularly unfortunate and managed to arrive at the same time as a large (and very loud) tour group but did find a moment of quite in one courtyard, at least for a couple of minutes.

Arriving in Siem Reap

After just over an hour of queuing, filling in forms and queuing to fill in forms, I make it land side in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  With no luggage to collect, I head outside and hire a tuk tuk to take me to my hostel.  Speeding madly along, I make multiple grabs for the convenient roof handle so as not to be launched headfirst from the tuk tuk into the sea of motorbikes, half of which are pulling trailers loaded with varyious goods and people.  Despite this, I can’t help grinning in exhilaration as the wind whips my face.  My grin becomes particularly Cheshire every time we overtake another tourist laden tuk tuk.


We make it to the hostel in one piece, and I arrange to be picked up at 4 o’clock to see Angkor Wat at sunset and to have my driver, Mr Bunna, for the next two days.  Price agreed on, I check into the hostel and try to decide what to do until 4 o’clock.  While I was planning, I spoke to a few people about what to do and asked if anyone wanted to join me on my temple adventures.  Unfortunately, everyone had either already booked on to a tour or had other plans so as the skies opened, I set out to the Angkor National Museum to escape the rain.


The roads had magically turned into rivers, with a good four or five inches of water covering them in some places.  I was mercifully shielded from the rain by the rain covers which rolled down all around the tuk tuk.  The ticket to the museum was US$12 which I felt was a little steep, but that may be the student in me talking.  Nonetheless it proved to be extremely interesting reading about the history of Angkor Wat, the main focus of the museum.  I certainly learnt enough facts to appears vaguely knowledgeable later that day.  I was particularly impressed with the detailed 3D model on the temple.

Something I feel it is important to note if one intends to travel to Siem Reap and see the Angkor Temples is that the Angkor Archaeological Park ticketing and Angkor National Museum are privately owned and it is unclear how much of the profits are fed back into the Cambodian economy or spent on restoring and preserving the temples.  I did find one article suggesting that the government now controls the ticketing but even so most restoration money comes from foreign aid.  While, this isn’t a reason not to visit, it is important to be aware of such things.  Personally, I elected to stay at the Mad Monkey Hostel which has a number of programs that help locals.


From the National Museum, I headed to the War Museum.  This has a wide range of old guns and tanks from the Vietnam war and Cambodian Civil War as well as information about some of the atrocities which were committed during them.  It was possible to hire a guide for free, all of whom were either war veterans, eye witnesses of the war or landmine victims.  The museum presented an insight into the last thirty years of the 20th century for Cambodia and I was once again left wishing that schools taught history outside of their country’s influence because how could we not be taught about this? Museums like this are a part of the reason that travelling can reduce and eradicate prejudice, because knowing history helps us to learn from it.


Feeling a little small, I headed back to the hostel and persuaded the driver that no, I did not need a tuk tuk tomorrow.  With that I began to plot how to corral someone into joining my temple tour and so divide the cost of the driver.  I was also determined to make some temporary holiday friends since one of my study year abroad goals is to learn to overcome my introverted nature and meet new people.  Fortunately for me, at that moment a group of unsuspecting students arrived and I was able to help them avoid the “stress and trauma” of planning by inviting them to see the temples with me.

Eventually 4 o’clock rolled around and we set out to explore…

Angkor Wat

 We visited Angkor Wat three times in total; once when we attempted to watch the sunset but were forced to leave because it was closing; the second time we took the back entrance but were forced to share the temple with hundreds of other tourists, all clamouring for photos; the final time for a somewhat anticlimactic sunrise.  Despite these not fully successful endeavours I was astounded by the shear effort and patience that must have gone into creating such an amazing and beautifully carved triumph of ancient architecture.


This was my first glimpse of the temple.  The long walk certainly gives one plenty of time to mull over its grandeur, I wonder what visitors thought of it 800 years ago.


My version of the classic temple reflection photo after deciding that I didn’t fancy vying with the crowds to use one of the ponds on either side of the walkway.


Unlike most other Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west not east.  This is thought to either be because it is dedicated to Vishnu or because it was intended to be the resting place of the Khmer King Suryavarman II who had it built.  This was the best shot of the sunset I managed to take before the whistles of the guards drove us back to our tuk tuk.


At least everyone leaving meant some nice (relatively) tourist free photos.


What’s a trip to the temples of Siem Reap without a few monks?


Seemingly every surface save the floor is engraved in breath-taking detail.  I was particularly impressed with the engraving of the story of how the gods’ and demons’ quest for the elixir of immortality led to the churning of the sea of milk and the creation of the cosmos.


Why take the public steps when you could take the Indiana Jones route?  Or as my German friend liked to shout, “TEMPLE RUN!”


The best photo from our sunrise outing and I have to admit, my camera made it look considerably better than it was.


Since we were at the temple early we planned to try and make it up to the very top of the temple as the queue had been too long the previous day.  However, it was not be as we would have had to wait a further forty minutes for the central stairs to open.  Fortunately, I at least got this rather nice photo before the sun was too bright, causing all my other photos to have blindingly white skies.

The Trials and Tribulations of Planning

Two or three weeks ago I stuck my head out of my textbooks long enough to realise that recess week was fast approaching and I had yet to form a plan of which country I was going to intrepidly explore.  After a few minutes of trying to wrap my head around the fact that my recess week is before most of my cohorts return to studying and that in their first week back I would be taking two of my midterms, I actually started planning.  Like anyone nowadays, my first (and only) port of call was the internet.  The internet is an amazing resource for anyone who so much as dreams of travelling as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.  It is also the bane of all holiday planners as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.

You see, it’s all very well and good saying “I’ll go to such and such a place” but then you bring up BBC news and decide that perhaps that particular location can wait a while or you pick a country but are then bombarded with choices as to where in that country you should go.  In the end, I narrowed my list of seven countries down to two by touring TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Pinterest.  My methods of elimination also included a quick check of for any travel warnings; Travel Health Pro for vaccination advice; and a slew of websites to try and interpret what visas were need for where.

All in all, there was a moment where I was tempted to can the entire venture and just relax on a beach in some tourist trap for a week.  However, I persevered and chose a location in each of country to spend the week.  I’m not sure they are any less tourist trappy but I like to pretend they are.  After the hard part of making a decision.  I only had to work out how to get there; what I needed for visas; where I was going to stay; and what I was actually going to do.  Fortunately for the modern traveller this is made easy with the help of websites like Skyscanner, HostelWorld and the multitude of travel bloggers who have gone before.

So without further ado, the winners of this semester’s recess week holiday awards are…

…Siem Reap in Cambodia:

Siem Reap

I am particularly looking forward to the temples of Angkor Wat, though the Night Market and Landmine Museum have also caught my eye.


…Hanoi in Vietnam:


As well as seeing the thriving Old Quarter here, I am hoping to cram in a day trip to the famous Halong Bay.

With only seven kilos of luggage, my laptop will be staying here in Singapore so posting may be varied but at the very least I hope to put a few photo heavy posts up.  Fingers crossed and happy travelling.