The days leading up to Chinese New Year see the world’s largest human migration, as the population make their traditional expedition to reunite with family for the festival. It is estimated that 3 billion passenger journeys are made during this period (it even has its own name – Chunyun), for which reason the entire expat community gets a head start and flees the country. Much as I would have loved to build a hut in the corner of Shanghai Railway Station and watched, Attenborough-style, as the crush of people descended (like the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, I imagine), we decided to follow the trend and take a holiday.
Our first stop was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we were greeted by the world’s most hostile immigration official. There was a Polish girl ahead of us in the queue – she had pink hair and a very gap year vibe – who hadn’t filled in the arrival card handed out on the plane (always fill out the arrival card). The official removed it from her passport and literally threw it at her. She looked around for a pen, but he snarled at her to get out of the queue and fill it in elsewhere. Polish girl tried to protest but her case was lost, and amidst a torrent of Khmer abuse, she dejectedly retreated. The immigration official then took a good thirty seconds to bitch about her under his breath before moving on to us, and begrudgingly letting us into his country.
Surprise number 2 arrived shortly after. There were 4 of us on this leg of the trip – me and Roland, and our friends Steph and Alice – and our hotel had arranged an airport transfer for us. As promised, a man was waiting for us at the arrival gate with a sign reading Rolando Powell (as he was to become in almost all unofficial documentation throughout the holiday) and led us out of the airport (which is quite new and very shiny and beautiful). Oh look, I remarked at one point, he must be taking us to that minivan. Nope. Past the minivan we strode, and then through and out of the car park. At this point we were joined by another Cambodian man, and our greeter informed us that we’d be splitting in half. Because, of course, we’d be travelling to the hotel by tuktuk. This was not the best news for my travel anxiety, which was already heightened by being in a very new place at 1am, but tuktuk we did, with our massive rucksack perched on a shelf, and great fun it was.
Our purpose in Siem Reap, along with everybody else visiting Siem Reap, was to see the Angkor temple complex including ‘8th wonder of the world’ (so unnecessary; so shady) Angkor Wat. But more importantly, our hotel had a dreamy pool and pool bar and it was 30 degrees, so that’s very much where we spent our first day.
Fully rested, it was on day 2 that we first entered the temples. It was also on day 2 that we met our tuktuk driver Tia (yes, we asked if he had a twin sister called Tamera; no, he didn’t get it) who ferried us around for the duration of our stay. Full props to him for navigating the Siem Reap road system (if you can call it that; I only saw 3 sets of traffic lights the entire time I was in the country) and keeping us alive on roads riddled with potholes and stray dogs, lined by open building sites.
Tia took us to buy our tickets for the site – they take your picture, from underneath so you look truly terrible, and print it on the pass so you can’t scam them – and then into the protected area. Instantly, the world gets quieter, and a little darker. Gone is the busy clatter of the town; gone too, a little, is the sun. In their place is jungle; thick, green jungle growing forcibly in any place it can; growing back in places where it has previously been cut away. I find the separation of wood/forest/rainforest/jungle blurry at best – when I’m in a place with lots of trees I’m happy to accept it for what it is – but driving through the jungle lined roads I remembered just how distinct the jungle is because of its sound; the birds, the insects, the way the wind has to fight to escape plants growing on plants growing on plants growing in the tiniest space between plants.
The road to the main sights of the Angkor complex are rich in other ruins; small temples or buildings that humans just couldn’t keep from the jungle. To stop and look at them all would take so much time, but seeing them whip by is a good reminder of the mite of what once stood here: the capital of the 12th Century world’s largest civilisation; a population of one million people.
Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time is one of those ‘what-will-it-be-like-when-I-see-it-for-the-first-time?’ moments. So there’s pressure; pressure that’s immediately paid off whatever angle you first see the beehive-like spires from. It’s huge, truly – the largest religious monument in the world – and does the magic trick of seeming to grow more beautiful the closer you get to it, and then more beautiful still the further away from it you go. Within the structure are cool, dark passageways lined with detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu legends.
Look, it’s busy. Of course it’s busy; it’s one of the most incredible structures ever erected by mankind. And it needs to be busy. The money from ticket sales (the cost of which actually rose steeply just after we visited) is essential to maintaining the temples and the hundreds of thousands of lives that depend on them; if Angkor Wat is shit, ain’t nobody going to Siem Reap. But if you just deviate from the path a little, you can find space here. Within the walls of the monument are large lawns, with perilously steep steps up to small, outer temples. Here, it’s easy to feel lost, and also to appreciate the sheer scale of the place. While all the other tourists are queuing to climb the spires, you can separate and imagine for a second what it might be like to be in here alone at night (terrifying; if this ever happens to me I’ll kill myself).
We returned to Angkor Wat a couple of mornings later to see sunrise (followed by a swift return to bed) which was absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. There were a lot of people there, including a group of perky Australian gays who had clearly come straight from a club and some really annoying South Americans who were Facetiming everyone they knew to show them the view. Like, just enjoy it for yourself. If your friends can’t be arsed to trek to Cambodia then they don’t deserve to see the sunrise.
It was still dark when we arrived, though the silhouette of the temple was still visible. We watched as the sky lightened, that iconic outline growing ever stronger, and then a pink tint, followed by an orange tint, lit the haze. And then, everybody left. Like, yes it was light, but I don’t think the sun had actually risen yet. But clearly they’d had enough and off they scarpered, meaning that, some time later, when the sun did rise and its first rays shot through the gaps in the stone, we were almost the only people there to savour it.
There’s so much more to see in the Angkor site than Wat itself. There’s Ankgor Thom, the 9km² site of the capital city itself, crowned by the majestic Bayon. Bayon is a Buddhist Temple, in contrast to Hindu Angkor Wat (although that did gradually become a Buddhist temple, its decoration is almost entirely rooted in Hinduism). The inner temple and central tower of Bayon is carved with some 200 smiling faces; to witness them up close is a cheering, if slightly eerie, experience.
We decided to use the four hour flight from Shanghai to Siem Reap wisely, and research the rich history of the country we were visiting. That is to say we watched Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – a small segment of the film takes place in an Angkor Wat temple. It is an awful film; I knew it was an awful film because the Radio Times used to relentlessly give it, and its sequel, one star whenever it was on. But still, it’s awful. Motion Picture quality control seems not to be high on the Angkor Wat governing council’s agenda, however, because one of the temples has now been rechristened the TOMB RAIDER TEMPLE. Gallingly, it was the busiest temple we visited.
What’s so annoying about this is not that a garbage film has found a global audience of devotees – that’s great, really – but that this temple complex could draw the crowds without people galloping around pretending to be Angelina Jolie; this is a large temple complex currently in the process of being reclaimed by the jungle. Huge trees shoot from the once-roofs of the ruins; one particularly slug-like trunk slumps over the side of a wall crumbling under its weight. It’s an atmospheric, unique thing to see, sadly ruined by hoards of coach tours desperate to stand where Angelina Jolie once stood. Interestingly, I read an interview with an Angkor Wat conservationist who said that the buildings come first: if the trees start to wreck the temple more comprehensively, then the trees will be removed. Then where will people stand cockily pretending to hold two guns with a couple of cantaloupes stuffed up their vest, eh? (I didn’t do this, honest.)
Outside of the temples, we witnessed two sides to life in Siem Reap. The first of these was in the remarkable Kompung Phluk; a village built on stilts over a lake. It was an amazing thing to see; small homes perched on two stories of rickety timber frame. We were there in dry season, so the whole of these structures was revealed to us, and it was easy to see from markings where the water would rise to, engulfing entire ladders and a layer of decking.
This was a humbling trip. After our speedboat driver had dropped us at the end of the village, where a floating cafe marked the opening to Tonle Sap lake, we took a quiet canoe ride with an old lady villager through the quiet water-forest. Honestly, I was terrified of crocodiles the entire time, but I appreciate how a braver person would have found the experience peaceful. What we saw was the daily lives of the stilt village population. Ferrying tourists around, persuading them to buy books for their school, fishing – so much fishing; children fishing. It’s an incredibly poor community – living in one of the stilt houses is unimaginable – but one that seems to function almost self sufficiently.
Siem Reap town provides an entirely contrasting side of Cambodian life. Centred around the incongruously named Pub Street, this is the the city’s pulsing tourist haven, the apres-ski for those who’ve spent a day trekking up and down temples. It’s a gross and manic as you’d expect – the closest thing I’ve experienced is the strip in Tenerife – but there’s a lack of cynicism about it that’s almost endearing. One fun feature of the area is mobile bars, where you can buy a cheap cocktail and take control of the music via Youtube. I don’t know what it says about the type of people who holiday in Cambodia, but by the end of our Wham-Ace of Bass-Cher set a lot of the other bars had left the street for pastures new. There’s also a couple of really booming night markets where you can pick up loads of trinkets (Roland’s obsession). One night I became aware of a fight between a stall holder and a customer. This escalated to the extent that the customer, a woman who for some reason began repeatedly bellowing ‘I AM A CANADIAN TEACHER’ had to be forcibly removed from the market. I don’t know if she was drunk or what, but imagine the shame of waking up and remembering that you got thrown out of an anything-goes night market in Cambodia.
The whole scene here is is new – the first bar opened in 1997 – and they’re figuring it out. So it’s horrible, and it’s seedy, but you have to hope that it’s doing some good, improving some lives.
My lifelong Tudors obsession has left me slightly ignorant about recent world history (unless you include 19th Century parliamentary reforms – thanks AS Levels!), and holidays seems to be how I find out about particularly awful periods of human sufferings. It was in Jerusalem for instance that I first learned about Armenian Genocide, which is still denied by Turkey (despite recent pressure and profile-raising by the Armenian-descended Kardashians). And so, despite not going to Phnom Penh or the Killing Fields, in Cambodia I learnt a little of the unimaginable horrors enacted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I won’t go into the atrocities here but what’s so shocking is how recently this took place. The country has had little more than my lifetime to rebuild after a sickening 25% of its entire population were killed by this dictatorship. And so, of course, they haven’t recovered. Extreme poverty is evident everywhere you look; Alice went on to travel to the south of Cambodia and said it’s even worse there.
There are small measures in place to help improve things, particularly by giving impoverished children hope for the future. Many restaurants are participants in a scheme that employs homeless children and trains them up in the hospitality industry. Eating in such places feels like a pretty self indulgent way to help out, but hopefully it does. And the Cambodian people really deserve the help; there wasn’t one person we met (immigration official aside) who wasn’t completely gorgeous and happy to chat and help out in any way. As an irrelevant and horribly inappropriate aside – the people (especially boys) of Cambodia are beautiful; I’ve never been the type of person who is attracted to a particular race of people, but being here did make me feel a bit like EM Forster.
Since my visit, I’ve seen some pretty mean spirited Trip Advisor comments about locals (or ‘natives’ as one particularly heinous, obvious Trump voter put it) ‘swarming’ tourists and forcing them to buy things. This couldn’t be further from the truth – we never felt remotely ‘swarmed’ – but there is a slight edge of desperation because people here are desperate.
I’ll shut up about poverty and the horrors of genocide now; this is a holiday blog at the end of the day. Next up: Thailand!