The capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, George Town, is a hectic mix of distinct historic cultures, urban cool and some of the best food we’ve had during our entire trip.
The city’s history is rich; established in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town was one of the first British colonies in South-East Asia. During it’s British heyday the port town served as a trading post, with various ethnicities and religions arriving on its shores and passing through. During World War II the town was conquered by the Japanese empire, at the end of the war the Japanese surrendered and the British took control again.
It’s this diverse mix of influences, the coalescence of local, British, Chinese, Indian and Islamic elements that has shaped George Town’s large variety of eclectic architectural styles. It’s this mish-mash of Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and all manner of buildings in between that led to it being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nowadays George Town is considered a city; wandering around the narrow streets of the old town it is easy to forget that fact. ‘Little India’ and ‘China Town’ are authentic as it gets, the sights, sounds and smells of Little India transported us straight back. Like India, the British influence is apparent and the cities charm lies in its backdrop of colonial architecture. The architecture is easily on a par with the likes of Mumbai, although it lacks some of the grandeur.
Alongside the traditional architecture are stunning Art Deco buildings from the 30’s and 40’s and modernist buildings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Then comes the post-modernist architecture from the 90’s and 2000’s; these later additions add something for any architecture enthusiast and augment a surprising amount of charisma.
The city is cultured. Cool coffee shops, art galleries, public sculptures and design houses are nestled amongst the quaint streets, they’ve even got a container hotel! The cities burgeoning street art scene is also drawing a lot of attention from tourists.
Reputed as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia thanks to the ubiquitous street food, George Town is heaven for foodies - but we’ll save that for another blog.
George Town really is quite unique; it’s colourful history and compactness means you can soak up the multicultural essence of the area with ease. One of our favourite stops in South East Asia.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!
Arriving into Thailand after a full-on, hectic four and a half months in India followed by a strict two week Myanmar guided tour we spent our first night camped in Taksin Maharat National Park near the Northwest border. The immediate quiet and organisation of the place was a shock to the system! Off season, the camp site was empty so we had an entire site for us and our French family friends in their motorhome who we’d travelled across Myanmar with. A basic yet sufficient wash block meant we had clean water, shower and toilet facilities and a huge open, flat space to clean, hand-wash, re-order (and relax) after our Indian odyssey.
There are 127 National Parks in Thailand, varying from quiet, low-key areas with basic camping facilities to tourist-tastic parks complete with Hornbill keyrings and Deer tame enough to take a selfie with. They are excellent places to plan your route around as the facilities are perfect for overlanders and the cost minimal- with incredible jungle, mountains and coastline they are perfect places for relaxing in nature and spotting (surprisingly easily) many of the hundreds of species of animal, birds, reptiles and insects.
Mae Surin National Park offered an escape from the steep tarmac roads, as beautiful, sedate sand tracks weave along the edges of unspoiled forest. Wild camping was easy with viewpoints and picnic spots overlooking an undulating, tree-covered horizon.
Our next stop was Khao Yai National Park, in the East of Thailand, where we stayed 3 nights at Lumtakong Campsite where the less-than-shy resident Sambar Deer outnumbered campers several to one. Drinking tea with the beating of Hornbills wings flying overhead and jumping as a huge water monitor lizard strides past you, slipping into the nearby river and gliding across.
Dawn hikes through swaying, orange sunlit grassland with wild elephants crashing through the undergrowth nearby and gibbons howling and acrobatically swinging through the jungle canopy above. This is the gem of Thailands Parks, with a modern visitor’s centre and over 50km of marked, extensive, beautiful hiking trails.
Southwest of Bangkok, we visited Kaeng Krachan National Park, staying in Ban Krang campsite where salt licks attract huge aggregations of colourful butterflies (over 300 species!) at the camps entrance. A stream flows through, with Malabar squirrels hanging from tree branches above and stump-tailed Macaques chattering in the tree tops.
Smaller, low-key reserves dot the Thai coastline, our first experience of this was at Hat Wanakon on the East coast. With our hammock slung between two beachside pine trees we watched a stunning sunset over the water as fishing boats bobbed past. In the morning we wandered through pine groves, large vivid lizards diving for their burrows, on our way to the outdoor showers.
Crossing the narrow band of Southern Thailand to the West coast we camped at Laem Son National Park, fringing an idyllic stretch of beach with forested outcrops. Khao Lampi Hat Thai National Park further south boasted a completely empty campsite, beautiful solitude right on the beach- coastal wilderness with the luxury of toilets and showers in a scenic pine forest. Karst limestone islands loom from the waves in Krabi province, creating a surreal landscape around Hat Chao Mai National Park. Along this deserted stretch of beach on the Andaman coastline we saw no one but the odd curious cockle collector and were able to swim and sunbathe in peace with the tide lapping all the way to our table and chairs.
Timing is key when visiting Thailand’s National Parks; they are far more enjoyable when quiet so try and visit off-season if possible and during the week. The bigger parks have a reasonably budget-denting entrance fee (eg- Khao Yai is £8/$10 each) but this covers your entire stay, no matter if you visit for an afternoon or four days. We chose fewer parks but stayed longer to make visits more economical and give ourselves enough time to relax and hike the surrounding area. Camping is extra but only around 60p each a night and the facilities are basic but generally well-maintained. In contrast the smaller coastal parks charge only £2/$3 entrance so you can afford to stay in several for single nights. The security of patrolling rangers on campsites means you can stay ‘set-up’ and wander off into the wilds and sleep better without that ‘on-guard’ feeling when wild camping. Of all the countries we have travelled in, Thailand’s National Parks are by far the best, managing to maintain that wonderful wilderness feel while providing fantastic, affordable facilities across the entire country. It’s a great way of seeing wildlife while contributing directly to its protection.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
The internet is full of inspiring travel quotes floating wistfully over awe-inspiring landscapes. The general gist being that - travel broadens your mind. Thankfully I haven’t taken to wearing Thai fishing pants and eating with my hands, I have however garnered a whole host of insight that might fill you with wanderlust (or not)!
In this blog I’ll be attempting to add my wisdom to the pantheon of travel writers by summarizing 10 things I’ve learnt as a global overlander!
1) “Nothing says death like the smell of rotting flesh”
Before we embarked on our adventure I can’t say I was very au fait with the pungent smell of death. I have however, since travelling, become very familiar with the unpleasant odour of rotting animal corpses. Typically, circling raptors give us enough advance warning to wind up the windows before the rancid smell violates our nostrils.
2) “The more flags a country flies the less you can trust its government”
Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe and the whole of Central Asia like to fly flags. Countries full of nationalism and pride, countries with some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and countries with fairly dubious governments.
Generally, the number of flags a country likes to fly is tantamount to how untrustworthy the government is. The more flags you see, the more you should be scared.
Nothing instils nationalism and patriotism in a country than hoisting a giant flag, preferably bigger than your neighbouring country’s largest flag. For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million. Incidentally, over 200+ stolen luxury cars from Germany managed to find their way to the president of Tajikistan’s inner circle and associates of his family.
In Southern India the prominence of the Hammer and Sickle is a little unnerving at first.
For Westerners, the image is synonymous with the Cold War era Soviet Union and filled with negative connotations. To see this distinctive red and white flag flying so prominently is an indication that the people of southern India may have slightly opposing political values to our own.
3) “I went to India to find myself… I found out I was a @*$£!”
Most people go on a spiritual journey whilst in India. Certainly in Rishikesh and Haridwar we witnessed hundreds of Westerners “finding themselves”. After having spent more than 4 months in India I became “enlightened” only to discover I’d turned into an intolerant, short tempered, unreceptive and quite frankly horrible person.
My hard earned open-minded outlook was tested to the limit by people who think it is ok to spit in my general direction, open my car doors and get inside, push and shove and, worst of all, invade my personal space at every opportunity. Then there’s the rules and bureaucracy… and the Indian customs department and the filth and rubbish and… AND THE DRIVING!
Somehow I managed to maintain my polite English demeanour by not exploding into a tirade of abuse, but honestly, I’m not sure how! All the negativity slowly ground me down until the point I actually started to resent India and the monster it turned me into. Thankfully the duality of the situation meant we met hundreds of amazing, friendly and openhearted people who, on a daily basis, helped maintain a certain level of sanity.
4) “Never judge a road by a map”
Forget everything you’ve ever learnt about estimating travel times. On one occasion in Greece it took us 2 days to drive 10 miles. In North Eastern India, what should have been a 3-hour drive took 15 hours. Expect potholes, corrugations, mud, landslides, collapsed bridges and surfaces so ungraded that you question whether it is actually a road and if your really expensive tyres are up to the job!
What can look like a motorway on a map can often be the worst road in the country. Kazakhstan is a massive country and most of the roads are in terrible condition, if you need to drive all the way across it, make sure you have enough time on your visa! In Armenia some of the potholes are so large you can see them on Google Earth.
5) “Stupidity is rife all around the world”
The world is full of stupid people, myself included, from the poorest of the poor to the top ranks of the Indian caste system and from religious and political leaders to the average man on the street stupidity is demonstrated daily around the world. Stupidity out of necessity is endemic in poorer countries, if you have a family of five and a motorbike is your only form of transport you’re going to use it. Some might argue that you express a great deal of intelligence to solve the problem of fitting 5 people on a motorbike, but that is debatable.
In Armenia we were overtaken by a speedy Lada on an icy mountain road, 40 minutes later we caught up with the driver who’d lost control and skidded off the road. His car was on its roof about 10 metres down an embankment and was being pulled back onto the road by a tractor. Another 30 minutes passed and the same car overtook us again still travelling at 40+ mph, only now his roof was all battered.
We were also overtaken by a 6-year old driving through fast heavy traffic on the ring road around Almaty, Kazakhstan, whilst his father relaxed eating a sandwich. We managed to snap a photograph when we pulled up alongside them at the traffic lights.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese are exploiting anyone and everyone in every country we visited. The respective governments are letting it happen at the expense of the environment and the people who inhabit it. The majority of the countries we visited have been ravaged by major wars, that have all happened during my lifetime. It’s tough to distinguish who is stupider; the uneducated or the “educated”; at every level greed generally outweighs common sense and, quite often, human life… Who am I to judge? I managed to loose my spare wheel and get stuck in the middle of an open field.
6) “It’s a big job but someone has to do it”
This entry should be #2 really - thankfully it's only got one photograph! When overlanding you certainly become more aware of your bodily functions. Due to diet change, dehydration and food poisoning I am amazed on a daily basis at what my body produces, especially in the length department.
Having previously read that monitoring your bowel movements on expedition was a key indicator to your health I decided to keep a “Captain’s Log”. The ‘log’ featured the date, a descriptive title, GPooS coordinates and a record of ‘firmness’ using the Bristol Stole Scale. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about here are a few entries from the Captain’s Log…
03/07/2012 - The Vulgar Volga Turf-out - 54° 46' 22.5912'' N48° 47' 59.6256'' E – BSS 5
30/07/2012 - The Secret Forest Foot-long - 53° 54' 26.694'' N109° 17' 23.1396'' E – BSS 4
08/04/2014 - The Sahara Sludge Pile - 29° 47' 12.6024'' N6° 3' 59.4468'' W – BSS 6
Having read that the largest fossilised human poo was 9 inches long my important ‘work’ may help archaeologists of the future locate specimens, which will clearly top this.
7) “Sleep with the planet”
I don’t mean a promiscuous overlanding lifestyle; getting in touch with your circadian rhythms really does make a world of difference to how great you feel. We go to bed when it goes dark and get up with the sun (well Emma does). This is occasionally problematic; in Norway it never went dark and in Georgia it was dark by 4pm. It is not unusual for us to sleep 10 hours a night – we’ve never had so much sleep. One of the benefits to all this is that not only do you get to watch sunsets you see way more sunrises too.
8) “Expect the unexpected”
Expect to be woken up by an Indian TV crew opening your tent.
Expect to be on TV in Iran.
Expect to be chased by sheep.
Expect the road to not exist anymore.
Expect rocks bigger than your car to fall out the sky.
Expect to see LOTS of guns.
Expect to wake up covered in snow.
Expect the bridge to have collapsed.
Expect to see a Kyrgyz nomad carrying a severed horse leg on the back of his horse.
Expect to see a holy man rolling down a motorway.
Expect an Iranian truck driver to just give you 40L of fuel… For FREE.
Expect to see a bus on its side.
Expect your front wheel to collapse.
Expect to see a truck half hanging over a cliff edge.
Expect a monkey to piss on your face.
Expect a 150cm Monitor Lizard to stroll through your camp.
Expect a wild deer to come and say hello in the evening.
Expect your ice-cream to be MASSIVE….
And these are just a few things we managed to photograph… We never managed to photograph the giant Cobra that passed through our camp a little to close for comfort, the Huntsman spider in our car or the numerous earthquakes we experienced.
9) “Less is more”
We sold nearly all our possession to fund our trip; it was a liberating experience. Living with few belongings shifts the focus of what is important. Materiality falls aside as basic survival comes to the forefront: finding water, food and fuel, keeping clean and dry and vehicle maintenance. Living this way helps ground you and brings a little perspective to life.
10) “Never get a haircut in Armenia”
No text needed for this one... Pictures speak louder than words.
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The Jesada Technik Museum is the quirkiest car museum we have attended, essentially a motor museum, it does however house a few planes and boats too.
What makes the museum so unique is that the collection focuses on micro cars. The extent and growth of the collection is nothing short of miraculous, Mr Jesada Dejsakulrit purchased his first vehicle in 1997: a German Messerschmitt KR200 microcar. This early purchase set the tone for his collection and within 10 years he’d purchased over 500 vehicles. In 2007 Mr Jesada opened the museum to the public.
The collection is predominately micro cars although there are other vehicles on display. What is nice about the museum is the juxtaposition of typically classic cars you’d expect to find in a motor museum like a Ford Mustang next to an excellent example of a late 70’s “everyday” popular car like a Honda Civic.
The museum also has a DeLorean DMC-12, the iconic vehicle made famous from the Back to the Future film trilogy. The main attractions though are the smaller cars: Mini Mokes, a VW Type 181, Citroën 2CV’s, Bond Bugs, BMW Isetta bubble cars and numerous other micro cars.
The museum is free to enter with the purpose of public interest, preservation of history and heritage of these unique vehicles.
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.