No visit to Cambodia, and in fact SE Asia, would be complete without a visit to magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world with 150 square miles containing more than 100 beautifully carved temples and shrines.
Despite a restless night in a humid roof tent with an all-night deafening amphibian chorus (how can frogs be that loud!) we stumbled down the ladder at 4.30am, determined to make the most of our budget-extravagant $40 3-day passes.
Our first dawn stop was the show stopper of the ancient site itself; Angkor Wat. As the sun rises over this centrepiece of the vast Khmer Empire capital, reflected in an orange glow in the surrounding moat, your breath is simply taken away. No matter how many times you’ve glanced the iconic silhouette on postcards and guide books, it’s still a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
Inside, the religious site is still very much active with saffron-clad monks placing smoking incense and offerings at the feet of Buddha statues. Shady, green lawns surround the central temple complex of colonnaded walkways, carved stone towers and steps into grey courtyards surrounded by sculpted Hindu gods, the huge, iconic lotus-bud towers rising above.
Away from the crowds and the manicured lawns, it was the semi-ruined temples that encapsulated the true lost-city feel of Angkor Wat. Preah Khan was the perfect example of a crumbling fusion of Hindu and Buddhist ancient architecture, hidden amongst dense jungle with huge tree roots penetrating the mighty stone walls to a point you weren’t sure which was supporting which. Amongst the dark corridors, sunlight peacefully infiltrating where the ceilings had collapsed, were glimpses of a violent recent history where many Vishnu and Krishna statues had been ‘decapitated’ by Khmer Rouge forces.
For me, the feeling of nature taking back many of the temples across the site is what gives Angkor it’s mystical beauty; roots and vines so intertwined with temple walls it’s difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Man-made history merging seamlessly with present natural structures. Intricately carved patterns on walls are thinly shrouded with beautiful pale-green lichen, this slow-growing, dry algal fungus as delicate as the statues they gracefully envelope.
Our second eye-watering early start was a climb to the less-visited Pre-Rup for sunrise, sat silently among the rock-carved upper terrace as the changing dawn light turned the stone through a myriad of orange and red hues.
The incredible Ta Prohm was another magical example of ancient ruins intertwined with nature, a few Angelina-esque jumps through root-twisted archways as we ventured through the original jungle ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, with lichen-covered relics and giant tree roots both destroying and holding ancient stone structures together.
“If Pre-rup is lego, with its small, tightly packed brickwork then Ta Keo, with its enormous bulkly blockwork is Duplo” Andy, 2016. The early mornings clearly getting to him.
A short distance away from the main Angkor site, we visited Banteay Srei Hindhu Temple, containing some of the finest, most intricate stone carvings on earth. Beautiful, fine carvings in rose-coloured stone grace the walls and archways of this very delicately different small temple.
Early on our third morning, Bee-bee paused underneath the huge stone archway of the Victory Gate entering Angkor Thom, last great capital of the Khmer empire, with Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring down commandingly.
We rubbed shoulders with hordes of colourfully-dressed, selfie-obsessed Chinese tourists entering the incredible Bayon temple; 54 stone towers graced with 216 huge carved stone faces of Buddha staring both contemplatively yet domineeringly down on us.
The first level of the temple contains an enormous walkway with carved Bas-reliefs depicting life in 12th Century Cambodia; elephant processions, hunting, fishing, dolphins, turtles, deer, lions and underwater pond scenes. The upper terrace boasts huge, stone towers four-sided with the giant carved faces of Avalokiteśvara amidst a labyrinth of shaded, vaulted walkways.
An afternoon hot, sweaty climb to the top of the Baphuon, in the 12th-century royal Buddhist city of Angkor Thom was rewarded with spectacular views across the temple courtyard and gardens. Bee-bee posed in front of the splendour of the carved wall ‘terrace of the elephants’ and we rounded off our final Angkor adventures with a sunset climb back up to the Bayon. Eeerily devoid of the earlier tourist crowds, a light monsoon shower fell amidst the many stone faces of Buddha making them look serene, like closing their eyes into the sunset and our time here.
The entire, epic site is breath-taking and worth every cent of the budget-denting 3-day pass. I think even Andy considered walking through ancient history to be worthy of 3 consecutive pre-dawn wake-up calls, a must for any travel to the region and one of our finest SE Asian memories.
After Cambodia’s auspicious independence in 1953 the country began a period of transformation. This new social and cultural vision for Cambodia included numerous building projects in the capital Phnom Penh. This new architecture, integrating the ‘international modernism’ with local tradition and materials, became known as ‘New Khmer Architecture’, culminating in the construction of the National Sports Stadium, built in 1963 for the Southeast Asia Games the following year. Ironically the stadium never hosted any joyous unifying sporting events as the games were cancelled with the Vietnam War looming overhead. Instead it accommodated huge nationalistic political rallies!
During these prosperous times, these large, modern, angular concrete buildings became a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization. As the decade came to a close, dark clouds circled Cambodia as the Vietnam War started sucking in its neighbouring countries. Later the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime did little in progressing the countries vision of modernization. Miraculously, despite it’s recent history, numerous buildings constructed during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, many designed by one architect, Vann Molyvann, have survived.
Institute of Foreign Languages
What is now The Institute of Foreign Languages was originally the Teacher Training College. The original ‘Lab Buildings’ and ‘Library’ are two of the cities most interesting buildings. The group of three buildings by Vann Molyvann were his last work of the 1970s.
The Lab Buildings
The sophisticated lab buildings ooze 70’s panache, dynamism and chic. These structures are by no means style over form and function; but rather the perfect combination of all three.
The structure is a glorious demonstration of concrete ingenuity, a striking form that executes its function perfectly. Inside, the four elevated classrooms are joined by a long hallway, screened on one side by unglazed masonry lattice blocks allowing for fresh air to blow through.
Inside the raised space-age classroom pods, the cantilevered sloping floor supports stepped seating, originally tubular roof lights focused daylight onto each lab desk. The classrooms are small to encourage focused learning, a point re-enforced by vertically louvered windows that allow natural light in but restrict the view of the distractive world outside.
The Central Courtyard and Surrounding Buildings
The complex of buildings at the Teacher Training College centre around an open courtyard and raised walkways, bodies of water unify the site.
In his blog about the architecture of Vann Molyvann, Rémy Bertin writes “within the central courtyard is a beautiful old tree with an incredibly wide canopy, I think that the tree has to be older than the 35 year old campus, meaning that the buildings were composed around it.”
This approach to architecture respects the existing nature and incorporates it into the surroundings.
The courtyard, walkways and surrounding vicinity offer shady areas where students can gather and socialise. The large expanses of water have a cooling effect on hot summer days whilst reflecting light into what typically would be gloomy areas.
The Library at the Teacher Training College was built in 1972. Its unique appearance is an example of ‘form follows construction’ (if that’s a thing?). Like the Richard Rogers designed Lloyds building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris the structure of the building is integral to the aesthetic. The exterior columns encase the building like a ribcage.
Vann Molyvann created the Tardis-like building that accommodates offices at its core on the ground floor. A curved staircase leads to the 1st floor where the library is located. From the exterior of the building it is impossible to comprehend the complex workings of the circular roof. Inside, the construction of the roof becomes apparent as the complex geometry and concrete assembly is clearly visible and offers the same degree of sculptural form as the exterior. What looks like a concrete encased building from the outside is deceptively light and airy inside.
National Sports Complex
Like many stadiums around the world the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh was built in hope. Sadly, like its would-be Olympic bid winning counterparts the stadium has never really fulfilled its potential. As previously mentioned the Southeast Asia Games in 1964 never took place. Luckily, despite very few major sporting events being held at the site, the buildings have survived and have been adopted by Phnom Penh’s natives as a central recreational ground.
The Olympic sized swimming pool and diving pool are now filled with screaming kids, quirky impromptu aerobics sessions are held trackside and kids fly kites from the top of the stadium stands.
Like a modern-day temple to sports, the National Sports Complex was built using east-west alignment inspired directly by Cambodia’s most famous, and slightly more visited architectural site, at Siem Reap.
The original sports complex contained several giant pools, a sly nod to the lake that once stood on the site, and a homage to the temples at Angkor, which are often surrounded by moats and pools. Unfortunately the government sold off the surrounding land and these watery features have been lost, detracting from the overall feel of the site. The diabolical apartments that have replaced them have now obscured the view and lessoned the impact of the symmetrical array of buildings. The symmetry of the complex typifies the architectural layouts of the great temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Khan. The indoor stadium, the structure of which also supports some outside stadium seating, sits centrally, nestled into the raised horseshoe earthen mound which houses the concrete stands of the stadium. The stadium, which has a capacity of 80,000, is similar in construction to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which I visited last year.
Inside the indoor stadium Vann Molyvann’s mastery of light is clearly apparent, he utilises numerous techniques to great effect. Underneath each of the stadium stands natural light is beautifully diffused through consistently spaced windows underneath each seat.
Institute of Technology of Cambodia
The Institute of Technology, on the aptly named Russian Boulevard, is an immense building of Soviet proportions. It comes as no surprise to discover that the designers were in fact Russian. Nothing instils communist pride like an imposing +400 metre long, 3 storey high, concrete dynamo of creativity. Built with Soviet funds, the building was a gift to Cambodia. Like many of its contemporaries the complex optimises the use of air-flow, a masterful display of ingenuity, constructed to allow natural light while also keeping out heat and rain, through screened open cavities that extend over the entire façade of the main building.
The building was completed in 1964 and used until its abandonment during the war in 1975. After the war the French rehabilitated the school and many of the classes there are still taught in French.
Other Notable Buildings
Other notable buildings include… The Royal University of Phnom Penh with it’s undulating roof, which somehow seems to defy the laws of physics and engineering, The 100 Houses Project and the White Building; an innovative socio-cultural housing project for Phnom Penh’s growing urban population of the 1960’s. The scheme included the iconic Chaktomuk Theatre, designed by Vann Molyvann alongside ‘The Grey Building’, an Olympic Village for the Southeast Asian Games, also designed by Molyvann.
Unfortunately the buildings virginal paint-job has long deteriorated. It does however continue to be at the forefront of cultural importance and is now the focal point of a photographic project that centres on many of the 2000 artists, families and individuals who still live and work there! The White Building has garnered somewhat of an iconic reputation, despite its cult following amongst Phnom Penh’s cultured youth the building faces an uncertain future.
If you are interested in New Khmer Architecture and are visiting Phnom Penh please check http://www.ka-tours.org for a guided tour. They come highly recommended! Unfortunately there were no regular public tours whilst we visited and we couldn’t afford to organize a private tour! They also have a great FREE walking tour map, which is available here! Most of the buildings mentioned in this blog are open to the public and accessible without prior permission.
With all the planning, spreadsheets and lists in the world it is impossible to always climatically be in the right place at the right time. We found ourselves in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for the onset of the monsoon; a time of heat, humidity and torrential downpours. However, we overlanders are/should be predisposed to enduring the elements and despite the climatic and logistical challenges presented by monsoon travel we found enormous benefits to touring during this season.
Temperatures were a sweltering +40°C in the lead up to the start of the monsoon but once the rains actually arrived, showers reduced the temperature often by 10°C. Humidity was high but the accompanying monsoon breeze made the stickiness bearable and by 8pm the temperature had fallen to below 30°C, which was the crucial difference between a good and a sweaty, restless night’s sleep in the roof tent.
Rain itself presents obvious challenges when you are overlanding in a 4x4 and live outdoors. We learned to read the skies and approaching cloud formations when deciding if we had the necessary 45 minutes dry period necessary to rustle up and eat a stir fry for dinner. Our awning has attachable sides which are perfect if the rain is not accompanied by strong winds, in which situation the awning is more hassle than it is worth with sides flapping towards the stove and water being blasted by gale-force winds through the many gaps. On this occasion we take comfort that our fridge still delivered our beers at a refreshing 3°C and that SE Asian countries sell an amazing array of beer snacks- dried squid and pea crisps for tea-time in a steamed-up, front of the car, substituted dinner on more than one occasion.
An unavoidable downside to monsoon conditions is the surge in blood-sucking critters, particularly mosquitoes (everywhere) and leeches in the jungle. It’s never a pleasure to have to smear thick, pungent insect repellent on when your skin is already sticky with sweat and covered in sand and salt but it does work. Camping away from swamps and long grass reduced the numbers dramatically.
The last thing you want to do when the day eventually cools off slightly is to put clothing layers on, but this is when the worst aerial assault begins. Generally long sleeves and trousers kept the biters at bay. A small price to pay when watching the evening illuminated dance displays of emerging fireflies, which also increase in numbers during this season and gracefully light up the night sky.
Persistent precipitation leaves clothing, blankets and towels damp for days but the sun does eventually come out and then everything is dry within an hour. Rainfall is typically short and sweet and only lasts for a few hours of each day.
There is something beautifully wild and romantic about sitting on a deserted beach with waves crashing on the shore and dark storm clouds swirling in the sky. We witnessed some incredible lightning storms from the (relative) safety of our roof tent and the gentle pitter-patter of early morning raindrops can be as soothing as a lullaby when there is no work to get out of bed for.
We adventured through Cambodia and South Thailand in June, described by travel guides as the ‘low season when visitors melt’. The plus side of visiting at this time is that most tourists are far more sensible than us and follow this advice, leading to an empty Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat early in the morning. The surrounding beaches of Krabi and Phuket region, with sands crawling with tourists in the high season of November to February, were abandoned. We could wild camp undisturbed and wander endless stretches of empty sand gazing at an uninterrupted horizon of waves and karst limestone rock islands.
National Parks were deserted so we could enjoy wildlife trails all to ourselves, with numerous sightings of normally crowd-shy animals and birds. Camp sites were uninhabited and in many we were the only occupants, with the exception of sharing the site with wild deer and the shower block with the odd water monitor lizard. Paradise. Most chalet and beach-hut resorts are closed but now and again they let us camp there for free and use the facilities. On one occasion we were invited to join the builders for sundowner beers and fresh crab and shrimps after a day of cabana restoration preparing for the next season. If it’s peace and not parties you’re after, off-peak travel in Thailand is bliss.
The deafening quiet in the midst of a chaotic city has a profoundly moving effect on you as you walk into the The Tuol Svay Pray High School. Unlike other schools in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sound of playing children doesn’t ring out from the gates.
40 years ago, in the year I was born - 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a secret centre of torture, interrogation and execution.
Like the Nazi’s before them, the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their genocide; they carefully transcribed interrogations and created an incredibly haunting archive of inmates’ portraits. The photographs and confessions were collected by staff at the prison, fearing for their own lives, in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.
Between the years 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians. At least 16,000 went through the gates of the converted school, including women and children; it’s believed that less than 20 people survived.
S-21 is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.
In 1979, after the regime was removed by Vietnamese forces, two photojournalists entered S-21 to discover bloated, decomposing, tortured bodies chained to metal bed frames. The resulting photographs, which are on display, act as a stark reminder of the atrocities that happened here.
In the courtyard, the playground equipment, which was converted for torture, reveals a dark secret about the interrogators methods. The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were generally between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. The Khmer Rouge generally discouraged torture that ended with death, this was discussed at length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.
Of the information and displays around the building, the photographic portraits are the most haunting. Each one tells a story of confusion, fear, defiance and resignation. The innocence of a child’s eyes are lost as they stare straight into the camera lens. One photograph features a shirtless young man whose number tag has been safety pinned into his pectoral muscle.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the leader Pol Pot retreated, but continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges.
Like the Perm-36 Gulag camp in Siberia that closed in 1987 and the numerous sites we visited throughout the Balkans that had witnessed ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s, what is so shocking about this is the fact it all happened during my lifetime. A sobering thought.
Sadly the world has not learnt from it's mistakes… and probably never will.
Ladies, have you ever wanted to own an outfit that seamlessly transitions from day to night?
Well, you need to move to Cambodia (or the north of England) where it is totally socially acceptable to wear your pyjamas 24/7.
The abundance of ladies in their PJ’s is astounding. At first we were bewildered, did they actually know what they were wearing? Maybe they thought they’d purchased a co-ordinating two-piece trouser/blouse combo!
Actually most Khmer ladies are fully aware that they are wearing pyjamas, but who cares? They are incredibly practical. The comfort factor plays a significant role in their nocturnal daywear. Elastic waistbands allow for a little expansion after lunch, the baggy light cotton is cool in the baking sun and Khmer woman are fairly conservative; a pair of pyjamas allows them to modestly cover up.
Pyjamas are available in a whole cornucopia of colours and designs, allowing the ladies to express their personality. Occasionally and rather ironically we’d spot Cambodia’s most stylish trendsetters parading around in the sweltering heat covered in penguins. Very occasionally we’d spot a sophisticated lady modelling colour coordinated pyjama/crash helmet chic!
Whether this colourful display is a subconscious stand against the communist Khmer Rouge who notoriously dressed all in black is not known. Either way Cambodia’s fascination with nocturnal attire is somewhat amusing but totally endearing. To be honest we are slightly envious!