We were a little rattled by the time we hit Cambodia. While the Mekong Delta was great to see, the craziness and scams of South Vietnam left us a little deflated. Phnom Penh was a great place to recharge.
Cambodia is a country in recovery. While the Khmer Rouge have been defeated, the country is still trying to find its legs. There is some positive progress, but there is also a lot of poverty and broken infrastructure. While sad to see, it felt good to bring our tourist dollars to their country.
The Cambodians seemed to be a lot more laid back than the Chinese and Vietnamese. There was a much more relax vibe in all their cities. That said… it was also stinking hot. They might just have been way too hot to be fussed about anything.
The temples in Cambodia are very impressive, especially in contrast to the poverty around them. The Cambodians keep the temples in pristine condition. These almost seem to glow in the bright sunlight.
We only had two week in Cambodia, so we couldn’t see the whole country. Here are the highlights for what we saw.
Well technically it is the whole area around the Angkor Wat temple. There is a massive number of temples and other archeological sites around Angkor Wat. The Khmer empire was centred here for centuries and created amazing feats of art and engineering. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. The temples around it are not far behind.
It is fascinating how such an advanced civilization can fall so far. In the end the government had to abandon this sight and move east, eventually landing in Phnom Penh.
They are trying to restore many of the temples, but the work is not for the feint of heart. The sheer size of the job is enough for anyone to cry “uncle”. In one case, they took apart a temple and then the Khmer Rouge attacked. All the records were lost and now they are trying to put it back together… a massive 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
The temple sites were pretty tough on the kids. It required a lot of patience and that was in short supply in the stifling heat (high 30’s plus high humidity). We couldn’t stay for long, but we enjoyed what we saw.
Battambang Boat Ride
Tripadvisor and other sites had big warnings about the boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang. It is a long ride (6+ hours) that can get much longer (8-10 hours) and the boats are very noisy.
Still, there was enough positives (and I really like boats) that we decided to try it anyways. Besides, the kids were getting really bored of buses with no toilets.
It was a hard ride but the view and the experience was incredible. The water level was high. Tonle Sap lake had spread into the countryside submerging miles and miles of flat land. Our boat abandoned the river and motored through the forests. In some places branches were scraping both sides of the boat. The kids had a blast trying to avoid getting hit by flying branches.
We passed many different floating and/or stilt villages. It was cool to see life on the river. Kids playing, men fishing and women tending to the home. Very stereotypical, but also very relaxed and peaceful.
Silly as it sounds, my top highlight for Cambodia was the Bamboo Train. It wasn’t much more than a bamboo platform, a lawn mower engine, a couple of tank track axles and a fan belt… oh yeah and a stick. This was how the Cambodians used the railway during the dark days during and after the Khmer Rouge.
It was incredibly simple, yet effective. You didn’t need a clutch or a brake. You only had one gear. When you wanted to start down the track, you used your stick to push the motor backward and tighten the fan belt. With the added friction, the wheels started to turn.
When you wanted to stop, use pushed the motor forward. The system wasn’t very efficient, so it slowed relatively quickly. If you needed to, you could use your foot on the rail behind the train.
Since there was only one railway line, they simply took their “train” off the tracks to let someone go the other way. I happened a lot on our line, but then again, it was dedicated for tourists.
The countryside was beautiful. The wind was pretty amazing too. There hadn’t been much wind in Cambodia and it was very hot. A little breeze was really appreciated.
They say that the government is restarting the railway in Cambodia. Freight train are rolling again, but not on this length of track. This track was so warped, it would have to be completely re-laid.
They say that the days of the bamboo train are numbered. I hope not. It was a lot of fun.