28.08.2007 32 °C
I've given up on adding the fancy map thing, since it no longer really represents my whereabouts! We've picked up enough days to already arrive in Bangkok, and spend a very enjoyable and laisurely time in Laos. We won't be overlanding it to China any more, but will go back to Bangkok and fly to Hong Kong to go home. It's not ideal, but better than wading through mud in northern Loas (app the roads are impassable in the summer you see).
So I left you in a slightly sombre mood in Siem Reap, the base for most forays into the ruined temples and cities of Angkor. Most famously, Angkor Wat, the temple with several peaks and general awe-inspiring picturesqueness is the temple which will come up on Google first, but there are actually scores of them dotted around the countriside, all in different states of decay and accessibility.
There's a reason Angkor Wat is so famous though, and that's because it's by far the best preserved and most breath-taking. Arriving you have to cross the perfectly square moat over a stone causeway, walk through an impressive gate and then down another long stone path to the temple itself. It's really, really huge, and for a long while we just had to stare at it, to really believe we were there. Anyway, we were pretty lucky beacuse we'd missed the main tourist crowds, and as we explored the passages and courtyards it became quieter and quieter. There are three main levels, and to reach the final level which sits beneath the famous conical towers that make the temple so destinctive you have to climb the most hair-raisingly steep steps I've ever seen. The descent was even worse (lots of anxiety for pretty much everyone who had braved the climb up!) but absolutely worth it for the view over the temple grounds and into the jungle. By the time we had climbed down (very, very slowly) we had the 2nd level to ourselves and the slow walk to leave the temple was worth every penny of our $40 3-day pass. We saw so many temples over the three days, some of them like mountains, some like labyrinths. We explored as many nooks and crannys as possible, sometimes finding little Buddha shrines in the most unusual of places, other times finding lots and lots of bats. Our luck with the tour buses (or their absence) continued for the three days, and for the most part we shared each temple with just a few other tourists, making us feel very intrepid indeed, although I doubt Lara Croft or Indiana Jones would have started their explorations by TukTuk.
The carvings of millions of individual nymphs (all with unique expressions and stances), the inscriptions on the walls, the shrines and the overall atmosphere seem barely possible to describe, I don't think photos could even really do it justice. It was most certainly an experience and I feel really priviliged to have been there. If anyone's planning a trip to Thailand, it's really just a hop-skip-and-a-jump, and worth every penny. Check it out here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor
One thing that caught our eyes on the journeys in and out of Siem Reap was a cello recital at a local children's hospital. Intruiged, along we went on Saturday evening, and after the concert started with a white Doctor working in Siem Reap playing a piece on cello, we were shown an Australian-made video about him and his work in Cambodia. To say this guy is.. contraversial.. is something of an understatement. Specifically, he's taking the WHO and UNICEF to court accusing them of 'passive genocide'. Strong words in Cambodia. His name is Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who has set up and runs 3 hospitals in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Don't get me wrong, the hospitals are nice, and his principles of providing western-quality medicine and health resources in the developing world is good, but completely and utterly unsustainable. He screens children for TB using a CT scanner, which I'm sure we'd love to do on the NHS but it's just such an expensive diagnostic technique to be used for the small increase in pick-ups. In fact, the whole thing functions on charitable donations from his concerts and his position as a medical pseudo-celebrity, something he flatly denied in the film which was really all about him. Despite the fact that I think he's wrong, and flippantly using the word genocide in Cambodia, he claims to run each of his hospitals at $20m a year.. so plenty of food for thought. You can check him out at www.beatocello.com.
So leaving Siem Reap found us on the worst bus yet, which had no baggage hold, so we were up to our ears in bags all the way to the border. In fact, it seems that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is the only fully paved road in Cambodia, and from Siem Reap to the border was the worst main road I've ever seen. Part mud, part pot-holed dust track, it took us 6 hours to cover the 145km to the border with Thailand. Mark was so uncomfortable in his tiny seat that he had to sit on the window sill with his bum sticking out of the bus for the majority of the journey. We were so dusty when we arrived that we felt coated in a thin layer of brown.
Several stamps more and we'd crossed into Thailand onto the air-conditioned beauty of a coach with upholstered seats and rolled to Bangkok in 4 hours thanks to the stunning road conditions and general relative wealth of the place. I've never seen a border crossing like it. Quite astonishing.
So now I'm on the infamous Khao San Road, complete with its own branch of Boots. Last night we headed to a giant shopping mall to see (the very silly) The Invasion and eat fancy food. Glorious. Well, except for not finding the exit out of the shopping mall for about an hour, which seemed to threaten to incarcerate us for our flagrant capitalism.
Interestingly, everyone in Thailand is wearing yellow. I'm not joking, about 40-60% of the people you'll see in the street are wearing yellow. It's testimony to the Thai enthusiasm for the King, who's 40th anniversary is this year, and is being celebrated by yellow flags and lots and lots of yellow-wearing Thais (complete with the royal arms on the left breast of the t-shirts). At the cinema, it's standard for a film about the King to be played before the feature, and everyone stands up. Lucy, who's been to Thailand before, warned us not to put our thumbs over the King's head on bank notes, as it's extremely rude. In fact, the Thais are extremely friendly and forgiving, but bad-mouthing the monarchy is such a no-no here I think I'd better change the subject.
Lucy's Thai is quite amazing. She came here on holiday 2 years ago, and has retained enough to be able to get us much better bargains than we would have in English! Not bad given that it's a tonal language.
Anyway, I think I've filled you in on everything till now. I'll probably write again from Vientiane or Luang Phabang. How did the time go so fast?!
Until the next time, hope you're all well and good. Loads of love