We Went Back to Cambodia

We have been in Bangkok for a fairly long stretch this rainy season, but we broke it up by flying to Siem Reap last weekend. It is easy and cheap to fly to Cambodia and I don’t know why we don’t do it more often (except that on the Bangkok end one often spends more time getting from the airplane to home than one does on the airplane itself). This time we mostly hung out in Siem Reap, which is a pleasant town to do nothing in, not least riding remorks:


Many things were closed because it was Pchum Ben, the two weeks when Cambodian ghosts return from hell to be fed rice-balls. But we managed to feed ourselves.

The first thing we did was something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, going to the newly built Angkor Panorama Museum. What is notable about this museum is that it was made (and appears to be run) by the North Koreans, who have a friendly relationship with Cambodia on account of Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian king, living in exile in Pyongyang in the 1970s. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh both have North Korean restaurants (as does Bangkok now!), which I have also been curious about, though they are meant to be extremely expensive and a little ethically dubious. But with the Angkor Panorama Museum, the North Koreans are trying to become a force in the painting business. So we went to see them.

Although it is difficult to tell from its website, which suggests the prices are $2.50 for Cambodian adults, $1.50 for Cambodian children, and/or 30% off (for everyone?), the Angkor Panorama Museum is extremely expensive: if you are not Cambodian, you’re paying $20 for an adult. Children under six are free; Cambodians are more than $2.50/$1.50; as far as we could tell (which was not very much), no one is getting 30% off anything. $20 actually gets you two tickets: one is for the panorama ($15) and the other is for the movie ($5) though the tickets cannot actually be bought separately. I did not want to go to the movie, having watched the preview online, but that turned out to be wrong thinking. The museum unfortunately allows no photography of any of the interesting things, but I did get a picture of the prices:


Luckily they have put together a video that gives you a feeling of how it were be if you were a robot who had consumed too many sedatives and were trying to make your way through the museum:

The panorama is well-painted, particularly the bloody scenes where the Khmers are the Chams but $15 seems like a stretch. Various young people ask to take your picture, but we did not take them up on this, mostly because who knows how much a picture of your at the panorama would cost, but also because it seems a little foolhardy to give them a photographic record of your being there.

While the brochure announces that “The movie theater shows 3D movie reproduced high architectural technics and the building process of the mysterious Angkor Wat with fictions and historical data” this is not entirely true: the movie is 3D in so far as the screen is curved a little. It is worth noting that the seats in the theater are as hard as you might hope which makes it easier to stay awake for the movie. There is a preview for the movie online:

The whole thing is maybe fifteen minutes long and it describes the creation of Angkor Wat. The narration is confusing. Visually it seems to have been done as some kind of computer game; one might not expect quite so much focus on the manly thighs and buttocks of the ancient Khmer workers (this comes across a little in the preview) but I am not very familiar with North Korean film. The elephants particularly seemed mechanical. One was left with the impression that there weren’t any women at Angkor Wat. It was quite a film, and probably the best value of anything that is in the Angkor Panorama Museum.

After you leave the film you can go through the painting gallery where there are scenes of Cambodian scenes and dogs, presumably painted by North Korean artists, that you can buy. We did not buy any. Then we left. I am not sure that I would recommend the Angkor Panorama Museum to anyone. One is left with the impression that the primary purpose of the museum is to help the North Korean government assemble a collection of $20 bills.

* * * * *

The next day we went to Preah Vihear, which is something that I would recommend. Preah Vihear is an Angkor-era temple on the border between Cambodia and Thailand in the Dangrek mountains. There is a long history of the Cambodians and Thais fighting over it, and as recently as 2011 the Thais and Cambodians were shooting each other over it. (You can read a short account of the conflict here; for a fuller account, John Burgess’s 2014 book Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear goes over it in exhaustive detail.) Basically, the Siamese and the French (who were running Cambodia) agreed to demarcate the border in 1903; the French made a map showing the temple on the Cambodian side, and the Siamese seem not to have bothered to look at the map (a Thai trait familiar to any tourist who has attempted to show a map to a Bangkok taxi driver). The Thais are unhappy that they don’t have Preah Vihear; the Cambodians are extremely pleased that they have it. The Thai army, for reasons that are best known to itself, continues to make, guard, and possibly destroy scale models of Preah Vihear.

While it was until a few years ago easier to visit Preah Vihear from the Thai side, the border is now closed and you have to go through Cambodia. It’s a three-hour drive from Siem Reap; but the roads are good & it’s not a very complicated trip. When you get to the base of the mountain, you’re transferred to a pickup truck for the ride around the mountain, which is somewhat harrowing; the pickup truck takes you to a plaza at the north side of the complex, and from there it’s a short walk to the start of the temple.

Preah Vihear is set up differently from other Angkor temples: it’s essentially a straight line, going north to south. You climb the hill until you reach the southern-most part of the temple, which is on the edge of a cliff which looks out over Cambodia. UNESCO’s putting money into conservation, but not a huge amount has been done yet; while there were a lot of mostly Cambodian visitors while we were there, you’re still allowed to scramble over the fallen bricks. Here’s the entrance, which is being propped up:


There’s a long processional path that goes uphill:


You go through a series of doorways into courtyards:


It is a fairly large complex:


And some of it is still in pretty good shape:


though not all of it:


There was a central tower next to the central shrine, but that fell down a long time ago (you can see the remains on the left):


And finally, when you exit the last courtyard, you come to the cliff’s edge.


This is looking south, so what we’re seeing is Cambodia. I don’t think that rectangular pond is Angkorian, though there are others like it outside Siem Reap:


More of Cambodia – this picture makes it clear that we were there during the rainy season, and the visibility probably wasn’t as good as it would be other times of year. Those hills are others of the Dangrek mountains.


Also there was a little pond at the top that was full of tadpoles:


It’s worth going to see! If possible, go when people aren’t shooting at each other.

Holiday in Cambodia

So we went to Cambodia last week, and things have been hectic since we got back and we haven’t put up pictures, so now I am trying to catch up. So here is what happened, in semi-loving detail.

First, we flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, which takes about an hour. Harriet has a new-found interest in airline safety brochures, and Cambodian Angkor Air has a particularly nice sequence that seemed to illustrated the dangers of smoking in the bathroom (first a bunch of people are having a fine time smoking in the bathroom, next a fellow is screaming with terror in front of a window full of flames as the airplane has caught fire & he is ready to jump to his death) which Harriet was extremely interested in. We failed to get a picture of this, which is going to be a common refrain of this post. Maybe Kim got real photos of things on her real camera, but I don’t know. But anyway then we figured out that the poor man was actually meant to be inside the airplane and the outside of the plane was full of flames, and the point of the picture was that you are not supposed to go out the emergency door is everything is on fire. There is a message in here somewhere but I am not sure what it is.

Now. We got to Phnom Penh and after making our way through the airport (visas, SIM cards for the phones, fish pond), we went to our hotel via the Cambodian version of a tuk-tuk, which is a remork, which made Harriet extremely pleased. The remork isn’t quite a tuk-tuk (which is a three-wheeled contraption that goes tuk-tuk-tuk), it’s actually a scooter with a tiny two-seat trailer attached to the end of it. You can find an introduction here because we failed to get a nice establishing shot. But the drivers decorate them nicely, and you could make a fine coffee-table book of the different remorks of Cambodia which would probably find an extremely limited market though Harriet would buy a number of copies. Remorks are slightly more pleasant to ride in than tuk-tuks if you are not two years old. They are a fairly recent invention; historically the foreign visitor got around Phnom Penh via cyclopousse (basically a stroller for old people pedaled by a driver, as can be seen here) but that seemed a little weird and colonialist.

I didn’t get a lot of pictures of our first hotel in Phnom Penh, but it was basically a verdant wonderland with cats which is all Harriet cares about:


It was also notable for being opposite the North Korean embassy, which meant that it had a great deal of security. I imagine that this car with Arkansas plates belongs to a spy:


Some background: Norodom Sihanouk, the two-time ex-king of Cambodia (Wikipedia strains to keep up) had warm relations with Kim Il Sung, and spent a lot of time in Pyongyang after the military coup removed him from power. Possibly the North Korean government still operates a restaurant in Phnom Penh? We did not make it there, which is a shame.

But. After lazing in the hotel, we arranged for a taxi to take us to the town of Kep, which is on the coast very close to the Vietnamese border. It was a resort town when Cambodia was a French protectorate; it is famous for its crabs, which we ate, and its burnt-out French villas, which we saw. Kep is fairly spread out and there’s not much of a center; we were staying off in the hills in a pepper plantation. Cambodia is full of enormous statues of things; Kep has a crab to be proud of:


The horizon in Kep is not tilted, this was taken from the back of a remork going as fast as a remork can go. These photos are terrible, I’m sorry. I didn’t get a lot of pictures of the place we were staying at, but it has a lovely pool and fields growing pepper and it was out in the middle of nowhere. We had a fine time there but you will basically have to imagine it. Extrapolate from this picture of a broken-down remork trailer:


Maybe Kim took better pictures. The next day we went to Koh Tonsay, which is a tiny island off the coast of Kep. We took one of these boats:


which take you out to the island, which is maybe ten miles off the coast. It’s not a big island; there’s no electricity, and basically there’s a beach with a handful of restaurants and cabanas that you can stay the night in. Also chickens. And you can get massages. But we had a fine time. The beach was extremely shallow and it went out a long way:


And Harriet had a fine time until she didn’t any more:


Again, Kim took better pictures of things but she has not put up a blog post so I have to tell you about these things with my terrible pictures. The next day we went from Kep to Kampot, which is famous for its pepper, which they also grow in Kep, and its durian, which we did not see. Kampot has an enormous statue of a durian, which is a fine thing to see but which you will have to imagine. You can google “Kampot durian statue” if you are curious. Why do we bother taking pictures at all? Who knows.

But on the way to Kampot we took an extremely rickety remork ride – probably the most rickety of all of them – to one of the local caves, Phnom Chhnork. (“Phnom” means hill in Khmer. Now you are as educated as I am.) There was some nice statuary at the entrance:


This particular cave has a large stalagmite that looks like an elephant, hence these, and is the site of an ancient Hindu shrine. There are a lot of stairs going up, which Harriet was pleased by:


And inside it was a cave, which of course it is lunacy to attempt to photograph on my telephone:


Okay. Now. After the rickety ride to the cave and back and on the way to the next place we were staying the remork broke down:


Fortunately it broke down next to a puddle and so Harriet had a fine time. The only documentation I have of the next place we stayed is this picture of Harriet with a cow:


That’s basically how it was. And now I have to stop apologizing for not photographing things very well and start apologizing for not photographing at all because the next day I forgot my phone at home, which is a shame because you are missing out on photographs of some amazing things. We took a taxi up to the Bokor Hill Station, which was a French outpost at the top of a small mountain; a winding road goes up to the top, which made Harriet carsick and she threw up all over Kim, to our driver’s considerable entertainment. But again, you need to use your imagination. At the top of the hill are a bunch of creepy abandoned buildings and a waterfall, and an immense housing complex being designed by a Korean conglomerate. Should you like to have some idea, you could look at this film by Norodom Sihanouk, former king of Cambodia; in the 1960s, he decided that his country would be better served if he took up film-making, which he did. The Khmer Rouge then showed these films to their young recruits as examples of the decadence of the ruling class, and that ended badly for everyone, but I am not here to teach you about Cambodian history.

After that we went back to Phnom Penh, which is kind of great. As previously noted, Harriet had a tarantula (not particularly delicious) and the National Museum is very nice. The National Palace is infested with monkeys and also cats. There are a lot of playgrounds and Harriet had a fine time with the Cambodian children:

And then we left Cambodia and Harriet was sad to go.