Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Temples can be dangerous places

This blog is in danger of becoming a travel review - although I'm in no danger of emulating Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson in the writing stakes anytime soon.

After our recent trip to the Normandy Beaches (see below) Jean and I have just returned from a rather more substantial trip, to Cambodia. We went with my cousin Marie Oldham and her husband Andrew (themselves both UK media bigwigs of course). Marie and Andrew are both celebrating their 50th this year, and wanted to do something special to round off the anniversary. They suggested backpacking & cycling in Cambodia, and we jumped at the chance to join them.

We flew into Phnom Penh via Bangkok, and spent a night in the Cambodian capital feeling a bit jet-lagged, so not able to fully absorb its style.

We were up the following morning to continue our journey to Siem Reap, where our cycling was to take place. The amazing thing about the trip, of around 200 miles, is that by road it takes 12-13 hours. So no-one goes by road, and everyone travels by boat, up the river and then through the giant lake Tonle Sap which sits in the centre of the country. 5 hours on a boat did nothing for the jet lag! 

We arrived at Siem Reap mid-afternoon on day 2, and were welcomed at the hotel by BoBo and his team from Ankgor Wat cycling tours. You might just be able to tell in the picture below that BoBo's most noticeable feature was a set of teeth that would put Ken Dodd to shame. He also had a natty line of TdF cycling tops, including a polka dot "king of the mountains" jersey he wore on day 2, when the ride was as flat as a pancake!

Anyway, on that first day we did a sunset tour ride, finishing up a hill as the sun went down, looking out through an ancient temple - and very nice it was too. On the way up the hill we did question BoBo as to how we would cope returning to the hotel after dark with no lights on our bikes. "Don't worry", he replied, "I have a front light, and my assistant," who was also riding with us, "will have a back light and will stick at the rear of the peloton." No health and safety police were on hand to question this apparent breach!

Day 2 riding started at 4am! not a problem for those of us struggling with jet lag, but still bloody early to be getting on a bike. Again pitch black, as we headed off for Angkor Wat, about 10km away from Siem Reap. The reason for the early start was so we could get to Angkor Wat temple itself for sunrise. Which we did, and quite spectacular it looked.

Angkor Wat is one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world - and deservedly so. The whole area is studded with giant temples built almost 1,000 years ago, with the main temple itself truly magnificent and awe-inspiring. it's a must-see.

The plan was to go see as many temples as we could during the day, with a next stop at the temple of Bayon before breakfast, in order to beat the Chinese tourists, who Bobo assured us didn't normally turn up until after 9. Well he was wrong - they were thronging around this temple by 8.30 when we got there. I headed up to the top for a quick look around the area, and then descended to find disaster had struck. Jean, wandering inside one of the darker recesses of the lower parts of the temple, had fallen and twisted her left ankle very badly. She had also damaged her right knee in the process. Cycling was over for the day for the Rileys, and we were forced to abandon the tour in order to get treatment for Jean at the Siem Reap International hospital. Thank goodness for travel insurance. We racked up a $1,000 bill in less than two hours with the number of X-Rays taken and drugs prescribed!

I got back on the bike for day three - which was more temples, even older than those at Angkor Wat, but we finished early and went back to pick up Jean, and spent the afternoon in a tuk tuk (ubiquitous motor-bikes with a passenger carriage attached at the back) revisiting the temples we both missed the previous day.

The whole area is a world heritage site, and is extremely well preserved. the reason it is so spectacular is that this was the Capital of the Khmer empire 1,000 years ago, when the empire stretched across modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and into Vietnam.

Riding over, and templed out, we flew to the coast for some R&R. Jean's continuing ankle injury meant the R&R was somewhat limited, but we did manage to chill out in Kep, which is part of a burgeoning holiday coast with a number of nice hotels (although the infrastructure there is some way behind Siem Reap and the capital itself). The highlight for us was spending a morning with vibol, the sous chef at The Strand, Kep's top restaurant, where he gave us a Khmer cookery lesson - and we shall be attempting it again at home as soon as we've sourced all the ingredients!

Back to Phnom Penh by taxi for a final day of sightseeing. We stopped at Choeung Ek, the genocidal centre, more commonly known in the west as one of the "killing fields" of the Pol Pot khmer rouge regime of the mid 1970s.  As just one example, the picture of the "killing tree" below, and the caption next to the tree, simply takes your breath away.

This is a truly amazing place. Up to 3 million Cambodians were killed out of a total population of 8 million in an act of genocidal madness which lasted almost half a decade. The memorial centre does as good a job as is humanly possible of explaining how this tragedy occurred and what life was like under the Pol Pot regime. There are few places in the world that will leave you speechless. This is one of them.

Phnom Penh itself is a wonderful, vibrant, crazy city. Everyone rides a motorbike or scooter, and the roads are orchestrated chaos. A tuk tuk tour on a our final day showed us round the city, including the royal Palace, and some exquisite buddhist temples.

There must be many hundreds of cities like Phnom Penh all over Asia, and it's easy to see from the vibrancy of the culture there why many people think the next century belongs to that continent.

I know Thailand is on many people's bucket list - but I'd urge you to think about Cambodia as well as (or even instead of) Thailand - it really is a remarkable country, and given the trauma it went through only 40 years ago, its ability to thrive and prosper today ought to give us hope for other parts of the world too.