Kratie, Siem Reap, Battambang
18/9/15 - 17/10/15 32 °C
At first glance Kratie (pronounced krat-chay) seemed like yet another strange and peculiar Cambodian town, but first impressions turned out to be wrong and it turned out to be a busy little place with lots of charm. After a six hour minibus ride I was dropped close to the Silver Dolphin Guesthouse, a real backpacker dive, which was to be my home for the next couple of nights. My small windowless room which was feebly lit by a single bulb - possibly so you couldn't see the dirt, stank of the hundreds of travellers that had been there before me, and the family that ran the place, lovely as they were, were far more interested in their family life, particularly the year old baby, than they were in looking after their guests. The beer was warm and the food they provided was the worst I've had in months. But for $5 dollars a night, what more can you expect? Once I'd found alteralternative providers of food and drink the town began to grow on me and I wish I'd stayed longer. The main reason I came here was to see the river dolphins, which after hiring a motorbike and driving 15k north along the river bank and then hiring a boat to take me out into the middle of the river I did. There are very few of them left; in this part of the river about 20 to 25 and only about 100 or so along the whole stretch of the Mekong. It's strange and sad to think that unless something miraculous happens I will probably outlive the whole species. Conservation measures are being taken to protect them from fishermen, so here's hoping they will be successful.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to photograph any dolphins as they are too quick and I am far too slow. They surface every now and then, one at a time, with an audible exhalation of breath which makes one turn just in time to see a large forehead and small dorsal fin appear and disappear beneath the murky brown waters. Most of those that I saw were 20 metres or more away but one did make an appearance within ten metres. Up close you appreciate just how big they are; two and and a half metres full grown.
Picture courtesy of Internet shows river dolphins near Kratie
I have been meaning to write about Cambodia's monetary system which in my first few days here I found incredibly confusing. Although they have their own currency - Cambodian riels - they prefer to deal in US dollars and almost everything you can buy is priced in them. You can pay in the local currency as well (and use a combination of both for the same transaction) but dollars are used far more often. This means that nearly everything costs a multiple of 25 cents and more often than not a whole dollar. Fortunately the exchange rate is 4,000 riels to the dollar which makes calculating reasonably easy. Some ATMS give you a choice of dollars or riels but most dispense dollars only.
And so to Siem Reap where I arrived in the rain, shortly after dark, following a full day on a rickety old bus on bad roadsThe highlight of the journey had been eating one of the legs of a fried tarantula bought by a fellow traveller at a roadside stall. It's difficult to describe what it tasted like but it had a meatier texture than I'd expected.
Siem Reap is the most tourist oriented place I've yet come across in my travels, and not surprisingly, for it lies just 3 or 4 miles south of SE Asia's most famous attraction, Angkor Wat. Even in the low season there are hundreds of western and Chinese tourists here and the infrastructure caters for their every need. There are dozens of bars and restaurants competing for their custom centred around "Pub Street" - yes, really - and offering varying qualities of food and drink. As the night draws on one could almost imagine oneself back in an English town on a Friday or Saturday night as the hordes converge on the bars - except for the heat and humidity, that is.
With lots of time left on my visa I decided to take things easy - what else have I been doing, you might ask - and not rush the sightseeing. And so after a couple of lazy days checking out the bars and restaurants I finally hired an electric bike (it is illegal for foreigners to hire proper motorbikes in Siem Reap - probably just as well) and headed out of town to first buy a 7 day ticket for $60US and then to the Rolous group of temples which lie about fifteen kilometres out of town. On the way I called in at market which had been recommended in the highest terms by the French guy who had rented the bike to me. I was a bit skeptical about its merits as I'd visited dozens of markets in the past few months and thought this would just be another of the same. However, it turned out to be not just the largest but the most varied and interesting market I've seen. At its centre were a large number of stalls selling gold jewelleryand these were surrounded by stalls selling everything imagineable, from meat and vegetable to clothes and shoes and everything in between. There were stalls selling fish (still alive) and crabs, some of which would manage to escape from their bowl and make a run for it only to be scooped up by a young boy and thrown back in with the others. Some that he failed to catch in time were crushed beneath the wheels of motorcycles. (I told yof those things were dangerous; especially when they come speeding at you in the narrow alleyways of a crowded market and you have to squeeze to the side to avoid becoming another casualty).
After feasting my senses at the market I rode on to the temples taking care to stick to a steady 20 kilometres an hour. This is the optimum speed to get the most from the bike's battery and can give you a range of about 40 ks between recharges. Although the bikes are capable of 35 kph this quickly runs the battery down and severely limits their range. The streets of Siem Reap are not as chaotic as those of Saigon or Phnom Penh, for instance, but they are still challenging and you have to keep you wits about you. Traffic comes at you from all directions and any rules of the road that may have applied at home are quickly forgotten as you enter the frenzy of a crossroads, weave your way across and continue gratefully on your way.
The Rolous temples are the oldest in the region and date back to the 11th century. Some are brick built and are in very poor condition, while others are constructed from stone and better preserved. Though small scale when compared to those that came later they give an idea of how temple architecture evolved and whetted my appetite for the following day.
I decided to leave Angkor Wat until last and instead headed for some of the smaller temples further afield. Two of these stand out from the others: Bayon and Ta Prohm. Both are magnificent, but for different reasons. From a distance Bayon looks like a pile of rubble, but once up close and inside the temple grounds one begins to understand what it must once have looked like in its heyday. Long corridors and galleries connect sanctums, some still containing Siva lingams, (Hindu fertility symbols) or Buddhist images and steep flights of stairs carry you up the three different levels. 49 towers (originally 54) soar up to the sky, each with four faces carved into its sides facing the cardinal points and gazing out with enigmatic smiles over the jungle which now surrounds the site.
When they were discovered by Europeans in the 19th century all the temples had been abandoned and had become overgrown by the jungle. Many have been restored but a decision was taken to leave Ta Prohm largely as it was found. It is therefore in a poor state of repair but fascinating for the way that trees have grown on the site, sometimes forcing their way between the stonework and strangling walls and buildings with their enormous roots. Of all the temples it is perhaps the most atmospheric.
Ta Prohm Temple
The most famous of them all however, is Angkor Wat, reputed to be the largest religious building in the world. Back in the 15th century before the city was sacked it was the centre piece of a city of one million people (at that time London had about 50,000). From ground level it does nor appear to be particularly imposing but once inside and at a higher vantage point its true scale can be appreciated. It is huge!! The temple is encompassed by a continuous gallery whose walls are carved with the most exquisite bas reliefs detailing past battles and the Ramayana among other scenes. Inside this the central sanctum is reached by a series of different levels and some of the steepest stairs I have ever seen. From the top the view over the surrounding jungle extends as far as the eye can see. The whole thing is truly awe inspiring.
Having had my fill of temples I decided to move on. This time to Battambang (pronounced "bat-dam-bong) by boat, first across the enormous Tonle Sap, the largest lake in SE Asia, and then up rivers and extremely narrow waterways, on a.scenic seven hour trip.
A floating village on the way to Battambang
Battambang proved to be a very pleasant riverside city with a few example of French colonial architecture, but the main attractions lay just outside the city and so I hired a tuk-tuk and driver, Han, and set off to see them. First up was the "bamboo railway", a hang over from French times. It consists of a a single track railway, only a few kilometres of which are still operable, and which the enterprising locals have turned into a very profitable tourist attraction, although locals still use it to transport themselves and their goods between the ciliates on route. For $5 US a head (a mere fraction of that for the locals) passengers sit cross-legged on a bamboo platform which in turn sits upon a pair of dumbell like wheels. The rear wheels are driven by a fan belt attached to a six horse power engine and the whole thing rattles and clanks along over bumpy and misaligned rails at a top speed of about 25mph. Being a single track there is the problem of what happens when one meets a car coming the other way. This is easily solved - one of the cars is quickly dismantled and laid by the trackside as the other passes. It is then reassembled within a couple of minutes, it's passengers reboard and off it goes on its way The rule is that the truck with the least number of passengers has to give way.
The "Bamboo Railway"
From there, my driver took me to see a fishing village and a tree which is the daytime roost of a couple of hundred fruit bats; its proximity to a Buddhist temple means the bats are protected despite the damage they do in the local fruit plantations, Next stop was an ancient temple reached by a strenuous and very hot climb of 358 steep and irregular steps. A few of the local kids armed with fans accompany tourists up and down wafting them with cooling air in return for a few riels.
My fan servant
From there my tuk-tuk took (?) me along a long bumpy dirt road through beautiful countryside and past remote villages to Phnom Sampou, a large hill which rises from the flat farmland all around it and affords fantastic views from the complex of Buddhist temples on its summit.
It is also the site of a killing cave where more Khmer Rouge atrocities took place. Previously a Buddhist shrine, the cave was then used to dispose of "enemies of the state". Victims were killed by a blow to the head and their bodies thrown though a hole in the roof into the cavern below. At the end of the war the remains of thousands of victims were discovered in this and two other caves nearby.
As dusk fell I was transported down the hill by motorbike (it was far too steep for tuk-tuks) to yet another cave, this time one with a very different purpose. It was home to millions of bats - four to six million according to estimates - and as the sky began to darken they started to stream out, hundreds per second. Apparently it takes well over half an hour for them all to leave the cave. Their destination is Tonle Sap lake some 30 to 40 miles away! Quite incredible.
And so ended my stay in Cambodia, another country that has captured my heart and imagination. The people have been wonderful, especially the children who always smile and say hello. It seems that the poorer the country, the friendlier the people. How strange. I will also miss the weird and wonderful statues that adorn roundabouts and other sites and rarely failed to provoke a smile. To finish the post here are a few more examples. The last one , still under construction, shows the terrors awaiting sinners in a Buddhist version of hell.