Is this Lilliput? : Cau doc

An enjoyable six-hour boat journey along the mighty Mekong River provides us delivery all the way from Phnom Penh to the upper reaches of the Mekong delta at Cau Doc, Vietnam.

Mekong river trip from Cambodia to Vietnam

"The Boy" enjoys the Mekong river trip from Cambodia to Vietnam

Having crossed the Vietnamese border a little way upstream, this elongated, communist bulwark of a country thus becomes the sixth country we have visited since leaving the UK on August 11th.

I believe these half-dozen hops now allow me to lay valid claim to being a genuine travel writer.

A pretty shit travel writer, solely blog based, with a paucity of readers one might well argue.

Even you might say, a writer who also displays particularly poor grammar, a lack of attention to detail and a disgraceful attitude towards editing.

I cannot deny any of this.

Nonetheless, in my hallowed opinion (and of course, that’s all that matters on these pages) the ramblings of “From Sketty to sweaty” now cover enough hard yards to place me amongst a pantheon of popular modern writers such as Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and… uh… Karl Pilkington??

I’d like to think my recent experiences might one day inspire me to turn my hand to writing fiction in the way that it did Jonathan Swift when he wrote “Gulliver’s travels”, the classic 18th century political satire cum parody of travel writing.

Fish cutlets for sale, Chau Doc market, Vietnam

Fish cutlets for sale, Chau Doc market, Vietnam

Of course, I don’t profess to being anything like an expert on the novels of Swift, and neither can I lay claim to possessing much knowledge of the travels that inspired his writing.

My instincts however, though unsubstantiated as they may be, tell me that at some point before knuckling down as a novelist, Swift most definitely visited Vietnam.

Permit me if you will to explain.

You see, my suspicions are fuelled by the first voyage of Swift’s book, whereupon suffering a shipwreck the protagonist is safely washed ashore in the land of Lilliput only to become prisoner to a race of people rather diminutive in stature.

My first impressions of Vietnam are that this land most definitely has candidature for being the inspiration behind Swift’s Lilliputians.

A vietnamese baguette seller in traditional hat, Chau Doc

A Vietnamese baguette seller in traditional hat, Chau Doc

I mean, short?

Snow White would have a field day and Disney would have needed a support cast of thousands had the fairy tale been based here in Chau Doc.

Even the vertically challenged Swansea City midfield would be imposing around here.

These people are tiny.

At 6ft 2, I usually possess one of the more elevated set of eyeballs in a room. Here, I positively tower above the locals.

Upon the hectic streets of Chau Doc, I am not just stand-out head and shoulders tall like in other parts of South-East Asia, but I am so profuse of height that I could happily rest my moobs on the heads of most local men even if they were to stand without a slight hunch.

For her part, the 0.5 (who I would normally describe as being of a healthy medium height in UK terms) enjoys a clear streetscape view of the kind she could only dream of in Northern Europe.

baby on a bike

Chau Doc babies start riding young. By six years old they are let loose on a moped. By ten years old they are experienced 500cc riders, This is FACT.

An assembled melee of Vietnamese women even sporting their omnipresent conical crowns of sun hat will inevitably fail to block her line of vision.

These people are truly miniscule.

It stands to reason why they dug and hid inside complex tunnel systems in order to outwit the US Marines during what they here term “The American War”.

There is no way a 200-pound marine fed on a diet of Big Macs and deep base pizza was ever going to give fruitful chase down a hole just about high enough to accommodate a fully grown badger.

The markets of Chau Doc buzz with teeny people selling unknown wares, whilst the city roads are jammed with motorbikes both steered and hooted incessantly by undersized riders.

Vietnam bar furniture

Sharing a beer with "The Boy" outside a Vietnamese bar. The plastic furniture is definitely a better fit for a 16 month old then me.

Café’s and bars spill onto the streets, where uneven pavements are occupied by plastic stools and chairs more familiar to junior schools than establishments licenced to serve alcohol.

These seats, set out for the comfort of paying adults, are more suitable for use by “The Boy” and his 16-month old contemporaries than beer swigging men.

My introduction to Vietnamese hotel beds confirms that they are low; a halfway hybrid between divan and futon, whilst Cau Doc’s taxi firms are clearly taking the piss out of me when they send a vehicle with similar dimensions to a SMART car, but with the intention of providing passage for four people plus luggage.

The price of rice.  Chau Doc market.

The price of rice. Chau Doc market.

Lilliput.

I’m left in no doubt.

I sense that Vietnam is not going to be easy. Furthermore, something tells me I’m going to ache a lot over the next three weeks.

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The Killing Fields : Choeung Ek

Before leaving Cambodia for Vietnam, we stayed one more night in Phnom Penh as we still yet to take in the Genocide Memorial Centre, some 17km outside of the city.

Choeung Ek memorial stupa

Choeung Ek memorial stupa

Choeung Ek is popularly referred to as “The Killing Fields” (also the title of a 1984 Oscar-winning movie), though it is in fact only one of hundreds of mass-grave sites established by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.

At this site alone, fields that were formerly orchards, became the place of execution for an estimated 17,000 prisoners of the Toul Sleng S-21 detention centre.

Visiting Choeung Ek was a logical closure of events after our earlier visit to S-21.

As you wander the grounds in silence, one can only imagine the horror and fear of those who were transported here in he dead of night, cuffed and blindfolded, awaiting what many must have realised was their end.

mass grave, clothing, choueng ek, killing fields

Following heavy rains, the mass graves of Choeung Ek reveal some of their grizly secrets

Dozens of mass graves lay like bomb craters across the undulating fields. As a result of the heavy rains this season, bones, teeth and clothing have broken through the soil and now lie scattered across a sparsely grassed surface exposed to the elements.

Every few months, a team clears the site of these remains and places them in a sanctified place.

89 separate mass-graves were discovered at the Choeung Ek site.  These graves were disinterred in late 1980 and pictures of the exhumed skulls laid out in neat rows on the ground were broadcast by news organisations worldwide.

More than 8,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves before a decision was taken to leave the rest undisturbed.

the killing tree, cheoung ek, the killing fields

"The Boy" sits next to "The killing tree"

At the base of a large tree, a sign reads “KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN”.

The Khmer Rouge were protective of their ammunition, so to avoid being wasteful it is said that many victims were beaten to death, the younger ones by repeatedly bashing heir skulls against this very tree.

As “The Boy” sits on a low kerb next to the killing tree, I am greatly disturbed to think that children as young, or even younger than him were murdered at this very spot in the name of building a communist agrarian society.

The centrepiece of the genocide cemtre is a towering memorial stupa housing the skulls of the deceased.

The stupa has plexiglass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. In a powerful gesture by the Cambodian Government, visitors can see the skulls directly and note how many have been shattered by traumas to the head.

Exhumed skulls of the victims of "The Killing Fields", cheoung ek

Exhumed skulls of the victims of "The Killing Fields"

Peering into the cases the skulls are dozens deep and stacked high.  It is a surreal scene indeed.

Though the events that took place here were clearly horrendous, the mass scale of what I was witnessing made it far more difficult for me to absorb and assimilate the events than the tales of individual torture and cruelty as heard at S-21.

With estimates placed at around 20% of the population either being murdered or dying of starvation during the 3 year, 8 month and 21 day rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, it becomes difficult to compute how a society plunges to such sorrowful depths.

As Cambodia does its best to recover from the years of genocide, the victims still await justice through the court system.

To look at a 50-something year old Cambodian (they are few and far between as a proportion of the population), is to wonder if they were one of the killers.

The system created many such people, though to determine where the blame stops is not only a very difficult and slow process, but one which I suspect will continue to be obstructed until the killers and their seniors have themselves died of old-age and natural causes.

I also suspect that only then will this nation find true peace.

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Mine’s bigger than yours : Angkor Wat

For our third and last full day in Siem Reap, we intend to see the triumvirate of heavyweight temples that make this area famous throughout whe world.

Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Wat between them are the focus of most itineraries if visiting either the immediate area or wider Cambodia.

 Angkor Thom  traffic jam, elephants Siem Reap

Outside the gates of Angkor Thom we became part of a traffic jam comprised of tuk-tuks, golf carts and elephants. Most peculiar.

The great city of Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer empire. Covering an area of 9 square kilometres, it is accessed via a gate in the outer whole whose 23m high towers are topped with huge stone faces whose eyes peer down on you as if to judge your worthiness to enter.

These stone faces are also the centrepiece of the most impressive structure of the numerous remains within the city, that of The Bayon.

A compact yet intensely decorated temple, The Bayon consists of many stone towers that jut upwards from a raised terrace, encircling the central temple peak.

Numerous bas-reliefs depicting Angkorian life decorate the lower courtyard and its walls, where “The Boy” takes a liking to climbing its sizeable stone steps before exhausting himself and demanding a well-earned milk time-out.

The Bayon courtyard and galleries

The 0.5 inspects the decorations of The Bayon courtyard and galleries

Yet more decorative stonework covers the inner gallery, but upon climbing to the upper terrace one quite literally comes face to face with some of the most impressive architecture you could ever wish to see.

Dispersed around the gallery there are to be found 37 stone towers of various dimensions. Adorning each of these formations are colossal, carved faces whose giant smiles appear to beam down broadly upon insignificant human visitors.

These assembled humans, us included, can do nothing but stare back in awe and wonder.

The early morning sun casts fascinating shadows across the faces, hardening and softening profiles in a way that gives validity to the description of what we are looking at as being “The Mona Lisa of South-East Asia.

37 giant faces that adorn The Bayon, Angkor Thom

Just one of the 37 giant faces that adorn The Bayon

Nobody knows why they smile, they just do.

In one area of the terrace, people from many nations (especially Korea and Japan) gather to both observe and be photographed with a small cast of Ramayana clad actors in exchange for a dollar.

The orientals can’t resist a photo opportunity, and more specifically a photo with them posing a “V for victory” with their hand, which to me just serves to utterly ruin the image.

Once you begin noticing this ubiquitous trait it begins to grate like an annoying itch.  Then, when upon noticing you with a camera, local street kids and vendors start pulling the pose when you were all set for a nice candid snap, it becomes rather frustrating.

Though today is by far the quietest day of the visit so far, I still can’t help but feel I’ve been transported to some ancient corner of Seoul.

A masked Ramayana actor in front of a stone face, The Bayon , Angkor Thom

A masked Ramayana actor in front of a stone face

Every few minutes during the mornings visit to The Bayon, and now again at Ta Phrom, a guided group of chattering Koreans will stop immediately in front of me and ruin my view.

Nothing against Koreans per se, but I want to feast my gaze upon the cult ruins of Ta Phrom not a short bloke with so much camera gear he likely has a team of Nepalese Sherpas on call to help him get his mass of electronics from golf-buggy to 5* hotel lobby.

Made famous by the Angelina Jolie film “Tomb Raider”, Ta Prohm is regarded as being the most intriguing and atmospheric of Angkor’s ruins, what with it’s forest surroundings almost claiming the stones back as part of the Cambodian jungle.

Trees, roots,  Angkor Thom ruins

A small part of the Angkor Thom ruins which are for a large part overrun by huge trees

Parrots squawk in the foliage of the spung and silk cotton trees that grow out of the partially collapsed ruins, creating an other-worldly, eerie landscape and casting a dank, green hue across the site.

The ruin has numerous dark recesses and crumbling galleries inside which masses of carved blocks sit and hinder my passage.

Nonetheless, “The Boy” enjoys exploring Ta Phrom’s nooks and crannies whilst also taking a particular interest in climbing through the root system of one of the invading arboreal hordes.

For most people, Angkor Thom is an overgrown architectural anomaly.  For “The Boy” it is a natural playground.

tree roots of Angkor Thom

The Boy uses the huge tree roots of Angkor Thom as a makeshift playground

Finally, after sating both our intrigue for the tree-temple and our desire for lunch, we head to Angkor Wat itself.

Angkor Wat is a 12th century state temple and one time capital city.  Though vast in scale, it is arguably the best-preserved temple of the entire archeological site.

A symbol of Cambodian national pride, it’s iconic towers feature on the national flag, on the notes of currency, and on just about every piece of tourist tack that Siem Reap can offer its dollar-rich patrons.

Angkor is a pretty awesome structure to behold, but though much more grand in scale, in my humble opinion it lacks the spark of magic that the Taj Mahal possesses.

hanging out at Angkor Wat

Me and "The Boy" hanging out at Angkor Wat

The central structure of Angkor is accessed via a series of raised causeways that firstly cross a 190m wide moat and then an even longer outer courtyard.

Beyond the causeway, the internal walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as other such cultural nonsense that the hardened traveller has little time for.

“Seen one bas-relief, seen them all” as the 0.5 quite probably muttered to me within 20 seconds of our arrival.

The central structure at Angkor rises above the surrounding city ruins offering views in all directions that my fellow oriental visitors seem obliged to shoot.

They point and shoot not just by cardinal point it seems, but with a “click” for each of the 360 degrees of the compass.

Guard, Angkor Wat

A highly motivated guard is on full alert at Angkor Wat

How the hell did they manage in the days of film cameras?

These guys will truly snap anything and everything.

Exhibit A: The point and zoom of a massive lens on a characterless, flat wall. “Click”.

Exhibit B: A featureless, poorly lit floor “Click”.

Exhibit C: A patch of half-dead, trampled grass parched by the lack of recent rains “Click”.

Guilty on all accounts.

Who teaches these people? Do they not stop to think?

My £500 D-SLR, though a capable beast in most scenarios, is nothing compared to these alpha male camera specimens that surround it.

As I walk the upper gallery, several grands worth of bulbous Canon EF lens is pointed at…. Well, at what exactly?

zoom lens, angkor wat

An oriental gentleman with a long extension

Fully elongated tripods with some seriously large bits of kit screwed onto them are set up by Koreans.  Squat Japanese men swing huge telephoto lenses that take up half the width of a gallery.

Every far eastern man appears to brandish one of these monster lenses as a bare minimum requirement.

I deduce that it can only mean one thing.

Penis extension.

These guys from the far east are doing little more than outwardly boasting the prosthetic dongs of the camera world.

No technique required, for them it’s all about the size.

Moving to the lower terrace where a serious case of “Alforama” has broken out, I take some shots from strange angles and get chatting to an American who has been observing me.

child Angkor Wat

The Boy appears to do his best Hitler impersonation as a spontaneous outbreak of Alforama ensues at Angkor Wat.

The gentleman proceeds to tell me he is interested in upgrading his camera and would like some advice.

Excusing my lack of genuine expertise, I then talk in layman’s terms, finding his needs and dispelling the myth that the megapixel is all-powerful before recommending him (as I do everyone else) that far better than to spend £1,500 on camera kit is to spend £15 on a good “How to” photography book.

He then politely asks me to take a picture of him with his partner.

Reaching into his rucksack, he offers me a small, silver point and shoot camera with minimal functionality and a pathetic zoom capacity.

I inspect the equipment and then, like a tonne of deadweight, the penny drops.

Monks descending from the central temple of Angkor Wat

Monks descending from the central temple of Angkor Wat

The guy now posing before me is a black American.

I look through the viewfinder up towards where he is standing and obligingly click a few shots.

As I do so, I’m sure he casts me a knowing wink before taking back his camera, thanking me solemnly, and walking away with a swagger.

I bet he did the same thing to some other white bloke at The Bayon earlier that morning.

It all makes sense now, no wonder those stone faces seemed to be grinning.

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Dude, where’s my house? – Tonle Sap

In my last blog entry I mentioned the existence of temple fatigue and the strong possibility of succumbing to it after a short stay in Siem Reap.

An elderly Khmer man entering Banteay Srei Temple

An elderly Khmer man entering Banteay Srei Temple

Well, with this front of mind, I’m going to summarise our visit to the outlying temples on the second day of tuk-tuk touring by describing the temple at Banteay Srei as being compact, red and beautifully decorated, whilst a hike to Kbal Spean led us to a surreal submarine site carved many centuries ago in the bed of a fast flowing stream.

Our journey there took us across expansive rice paddies, fields being ploughed by oxen and through wooden-hutted villages where the folk were heating cooking pots on top of clay ovens.

Over the course of the day, we scaled a dry riverbed, scrambled over rocks, hiked through a forest and walked past a small waterfall.

That my friends, spares you five hours worth of travel, hill climb and temple inspection.  It also allows you to read the rest of this entry without feeling the need to scroll immediately to the bottom.

ox cart, siem reap, cambodia

A man and child ride upon an oxen-pulled cart in the countryside of Siem Reap province

Our day ended with a detour to the far side of Siem Reap, and a sunset boat ride to see one of the curious floating villages that lay several kilometres offshore of Tonle Sap lake.

Tonle Sap is an enormous body of fresh water that covers a large part of central Cambodia. The lake varies in size depending upon the season and the strength of that year’s monsoon.

The floating villages of Tonle Sap are home to an ethnic Vietnamese population of fishermen and their families.

Whilst the addresses of their homes may be fixed, the locations of their properties are not.

What makes these villages so unusual is that they change position with the seasons and the levels of water in the lake. After extensive flooding they may be located 30 or so kilometres from their position during the dry season.

floating village, tonle sap, Cambodia

A fixed water mark helps to position the floating village at the right depths, Tonle Sap lake.

Of course, this situation is not ideal if this patch happens to be your morning paper round, even less so if you return after a big night out only to find your house wasn’t where you thought you had parked it.

As the seasonal floodwaters retreat, so too will the villagers “up anchor” and sail their houses, schools, places of worship, communal halls (or in the case of the village we visited, a full-size basketball court), into deeper waters where the fishing will likely prove more rewarding.

The floating village was an interesting and unique place to visit, though the level of commercialism and exploitation of tourism left us with a rather distasteful feeling.

A prime example of such behaviour being that we would only be able to visit the village school in lieu of a donation in kind of classroom utensils purchased from one of the designated village shops.

Smelling a substantially sized and particularly odious rat, I ventured onto the floating shop with hesitation.

My fears were to prove well founded when the shopkeeper informed me a school exercise book could only be bought in batches of twenty and even then at a price which would justify accusing a Central London branch of Rymans as engaging in blatant profiteering.

snake beggar, tonle sap floating village, metal bowl

The snake wielding captian of a cutting-edge yacht fashioned out of a washing-up bowl. Magnificent stuff!

No sale to a cheapskate cynic from the valleys then?

After cruising around the village for a short while, we docked with a floating bar/restaurant (handy location that eh?) and were swamped with beggars, vendors and wannabe snake charmers, all desperate to part us from the contents of our western wallets.

I know I shouldn’t laugh at those less fortunate than myself, but what else was I to do when a bunch of shouting women and kids came furiously paddling towards me in what can only be described as a flotilla of tin washing-up bowls.

Ignoring the pleas and protestations whilst making our way onto the floating bar, we then climbed a ladder to the upper deck, where we supped a couple of beers as the sun went down.

Angkor Sunset

Angkor Sunset, my way.

Meanwhile, the majority of visitors to this area would right now be elbowing each other whilst attempting to capture the perfect “Angkor at sunset” photograph, no doubt with most snaps taken from the hill overlooking the complex ending up looking predictably similar in their composition.

I’d like to think that my own “Angkor sunset” shot has an element of originality to it, though I suspect it may not be a candidate for gracing the pages of next years edition of the “not so lonely” planet guidebook.

Anyway, there’s only so much stone you can photograph in three days without becoming weary, and I don’t want to be in danger of suffering from RSI before the main event.

Gentlemen, to bed.

For tomorrow we make for Angkor Wat….

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Stone Temple Pile Outs: Siem Reap

So after several unanticipated stutters, I have finally made it to Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor.

The hurdles faced were various.

First up there were the devastating floods back in November, which accompanied by a serious Dengue fever outbreak in this part of Cambodia, caused us to postpone our plans for visiting the country.

steps of Pre Rup

Me on the steps of Pre Rup

Next, as we travelled North through peninsular Thailand, we made a last-minute decision to forego the usual Bangkok-Siem Reap overland route due to the scams and delays which nigh on everyone we had spoken to had experienced. Instead we headed into Cambodia on the seaboard route.

Then last week, with the buses to Kampot a post New Year kind of full, we opted to fly immediately to Siem Reap.

As we reached the newly opened airport in Sihanoukville in god time for the single scheduled flight of that day, we were taken aside by the travel agent who had arranged our tickets (the carrier’s website seems to be permanently down for maintenance). She sympathetically informed that the flight was overbooked and that we had been bumped from our seats.

It was a serendipitous moment.

The previous day, when asked by Miss March, I had been explaining the meaning behind the name “Serendipity”, the beach resort at which we were staying for one night following our return from Koh Ta Kiev.

An artist paints his interpretation of Pre Rup, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Grand tour

An artist paints his interpretation of the stone giant at Pre Rup

“Serendipity” relates to a fortunate outcome that happens by chance, a “happy accident” for want of a better description.

This chance occurence was serendipitous indeed.

Upon reflection, we were disturbed that in our desire to get to Siem Reap quickly, avoiding extensive and tiresome overland travel on Cambodia’s rather inadequate roads, we had paid a total of nearly £200 for one-way tickets for the three of us.

Instead, we would now revert to plan and visit nearby Kampot and its pepper plantations before slowly make our way to Siem Reap for a total of £14

Still, we were set upon reaching Siem Reap that afternoon, and were obviously disappointed.

Pre Rup masonry, Angkor Wat , Siem Reap

The boys use fallen masonry to hide from mummy inside Pre Rup

The way our agent managed the situation can only be described as brilliant.

Showing genuine upset at our upheaval, not only did we receive the full, expected refund, but she also reimbursed the cost of our taxi ride to the airport.

Then, after we had informed her of decision to visit Kampot, she arranged for her brother to drive us there free of charge and arranged for us to stay in a guesthouse of our choice.

Now that is what I call customer service.

Siem Reap itself is a nice enough but unremarkable town. It has plenty of bars and restaurants selling dirt-cheap fayre (the cheapest yet) but the main events lie outside the urban area in the Angkor Archaeological Park.

tuk-tuk, Angkor Wat

The boy and The 0.5 about to pile out of our ride

Stretching over some 400 square kilometers this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the crumbling remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire including the largest pre-industrial city in the world at Angkor Thom.

Primarily constructed between the 9th – 15th centuries, one could spend weeks exploring the scattered ruins though the average visitor will no doubt be suffering “Temple Fatigue” after a couple of days.

Most tour groups zoom round the key sites in a day, but a $40 ticket allows 3-days open access to the sites over the course of a week, so we opt for a triple whammy worth of templemania, negotiating a Tuk-Tuk driver to guide us for the duration.

On our first day we discuss the options with “Jack”, our driver and he advises we plump for the Grand Tour, saving the main draw cards for another day.

Elephant East Mebon, Angkor Wat

The Boy does his party-piece elephant impersonation at east Mebon

Jack proved wise counsel.

As today is the 7th of January, a public holiday when Cambodians celebrate the fall of Pol Pot and their liberation from the rule of the Khmer Rouge, He rightly predicts the main draw of Angkor Wat (the iconic image of Cambodia with it’s recognisable corn-on-the-cob towers) will be over run with tourists, both foreign and domestic.

I have never seen a historical site so busy. Any photography would be pointless.

A sea of heads can be seen extending right the way from the approach road, across the causeway that bisects the moat, and up the steps of the wide entrance gate.

Tour buses, minibuses, oversized golf-carts and hundreds of tuk-tuks carpet the parking areas, bored drivers snooze whilst waiting for their passengers to finish scrumming their way around the complex.

We complete our drive-by and head for the temple of Pre Rup

postcard vendor at Ta Som, Angkor Wat grand tour

A young postcard vendor at Ta Som

Known locally as “The City of the East”, the 127 x 116M temple-mountain of Pre Rup dominates the irrigated plains surrounding it, built as it is upon an artificial mound in laterite with soaring brick towers.

As we pile out of the tuk-tuk, Pre Rup brings into perspective the scale of the Angkor ruins as though this site would be a huge draw in itself anywhere else in the world, here at Angkor, it is a mere sideshow overlooked by many visitors.

The huge blocks with which the base of the temple are hewn of what appears to be porous red sandstone, whilst the upper temple is built of a more solid grey stone whose decaying columns sometimes teeter at near impossible angles.

Artists sit in shaded nooks brushing considered strokes on order to capture its grandness in the soft morning light. Local children rest their backs upon massive stone doorways awaiting a chance to pounce upon a potential buyer of their souvenirs.

Our climb to the top of the structure was rewarded with views across the plains and the chance to inspect the masonry work at close quarters in the soft morning light.

The entrance to Ta Som is ensnared within the roots of huge tree

The entrance to Ta Som is ensnared within the roots of huge tree

After jumping back in the tuk-tuk, our next pile out is at East Mebon, a structure similar to Pre Rup in its general appearance, before a third pile out at the atmospheric Ta Som.

Constructed during the 12th Century, Ta Som has been left in a largely unrestored state with numerous trees and other vegetation growing and twisting their way amongst the ancient stonework.

The central temple structure was reached firstly via a gopura (entrance) guarded by a gigantic, yet delicately perched stone face, and then via a seemingly endless, partly collapsed corridor whose series of stone doorways stretched into the distance as though in a scene from the Bohemian Rhapsody video.

The child vendors here were possibly the most persistent we have encountered on our trip, and the crocodile tears encountered would have fooled many a less-hardened tourist.

The kids were able to count to ten in a surprising number of languages (including Portuguese, Swedish and Hindi) but there was an epic fail all round when challenged to count in Welsh.

Vendor, Ta Som entrance

A vendor takes a time out in the shaded entrance of Ta Som

To be fair, a few of the girls gave it their best shot so we bought a bunch of bracelets for $1 off one of them.

Cue begrudging tears of despair from the unsuccesful.

Our first pile out of the afternoon at site of Neak Pean was probably the least impressive of the day.

Consisting of a boardwalk across a swampy lake the centrepiece a small Buddhist temple surrounded by shallow water, we walked in, looked at each other knowingly, and walked straight back out.

Always keep your powder dry, that’s what I say, so instead of dwelling at Neak Pean we headed for a pile out at Preah Khan, an extensive city ruin that once housed over 100,000 officials and servants.

approach to the ruins of Preah Khan, Angkor Wat

A boy and a bike on the approach to the ruins of Preah Khan

Built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII to celebrate a victory over the neighbouring “Chams”, and spanning 800 x 700 metres, one cannot fail to be impressed by the scale of his victory memorial.

It’s the middle age equivalent of triumphing at Waterloo and deciding to build London to commemorate the event, covering it (as you do) with 1500 tonnes of decorative bronze plating.

With the bronze long gone, like Ta Som before it, the Preah Khan site also appears to still be deliciously neglected with huge masonry collapses leaving angular architecture of an unplanned nature.

Similarly as per our earlier visit, the central sanctuary is accessed through an elongated sequence of part collapsed corridors whose axis cuts through a series of rectangular galleries.

At the centre of this sanctuary stands a plain stupa reaching phallic-like towards the collapsed ceiling area.

collapsed hallway at Preah Khan, Angkor Wat

One of many collapsed hallways at Preah Khan

The scale of the whole thing is immense, but as we exit the site across a broad moat bridge whose stone demons appear to be tugging at looks like a giant serpant, we recall the need to constantly tell ourselves that todays giants are merely the supporting cast that are little visited in comparison to the headline sites.

Over the next few days, we plan to visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and The Bayon, three sites that together make this the stand out archeological diamond of the region.

Its a tall task with a lot of stonework to get through.

I wonder which of us will succumb to temple fatigue and pile out of the tour first?

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The end is in sight : Phnom Penh

Our second swing by of Phnom Penh, and we are this time on our backpacker budget staying in a £8 a night room, as opposed to our Christmas treat accommodation which weighed in at over three times this rate.

I find Phnom Penh to be an engaging city with a youthful energy and a sense of self that says it is a city on the move.

Mangos outside Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

Mangos outside Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

The traffic is heavy and there are more 2-wheelers as a proportion of the overall flow than any other place we have so far visited.

The city still retains a distinct French influence in terms of its catering, doing the small things well and offering for sale far more baguettes than anywhere I’ve ever seen, including France.

What is also noticeable is the number of monks walking the city.

The monks’ dress in a uniform of orange or saffron robe set against broad yellow parasols.  The shades reflect brightly in the morning sun as the shaven haired monks venture from their temples to undertake the ritual alms rounds.

In a simple trade, the monks accept money and foods in exchange for a prayer, whereas the donator becomes the recipient of “merit”.

The concept of merit roughly translates as a kind of Buddhist credit system available to be cashed in on reincarnation or ascension to Nirvana.

For a young Cambodian, the monkhood offers a means to education and as in Thailand, there are many such novices also to be seen both on the streets and in more holy locations.

monk Royal Palace Phnom Penh

A tech savvy monk inside the grounds of the Royal Palace

Our cultural endeavours involve a visit to the Royal Palace where we explore its impressive throne hall as well as a building known as The Silver Pagoda.

With the boy in a stroppy mood, refusing to do as he was told and insistent on throwing his sun-hat in a puddle, we sped around the complex with the sun beating down on us and a sense of déjà vu creating a lack of concentration, the site recalling as it did the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

We decided that a much better idea would be a sunset drink and a stroll on the nearby riverfront.

Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. A short distance downstream, the waters broaden to in excess of a kilometre as they flow seawards toward the Mekong Delta in deepest Vietnam.

The well-developed promenade acts as a magnet for local youths and families as well as offering an opportunity for hawkers and beggars to hassle tourists.

“The Boy” at one point even tried to upstage a local dance crew, busting his best moves to the booming rhythms they were grooving to, and then got involved in an impromptu game of futsal, skinning several locals and turning on a sixpence before rounding the keeper and slotting home effortlessly.

boy sunset football Phnom penh

Like his old man, "The Boy" is prone to excessive dribbling once the sun goes down

His motor skills are coming on well, though we have both commented that he displays an instinct to mince when running excitedly around a table.

Given the intense management his physical exertions now require, it’s probably fortunate we will be truncating our trip and ending our route part way through Vietnam.

In mid February, I return home for a couple of weeks before flying back to SE Asia to roll the dice and begin a paid life in Kuala Lumpur.

Yes, you read it right, I’m going back to work.

The fun was always going to end sometime, and at least this way there’s financial security at the end of the trip.

I’ll miss the ability to change itinerary on a whim, but now need to begin planning where to take my holidays…

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Sgt Pepper : Kampot

When someone announces that they a big fan of Pepper, you can be pretty much sure they will be referring to the 1967 Beatles album and not the spice native to the Western Ghats of India.

Whilst being a huge fan of the seminal music masterpiece, the spice is something to which I admit I’ve given little consideration.

Kampot sunset riverbank guitar

"A day in the life" of a guitarist draws to a close on the Kampot riverbank

Together with salt, I have generally accepted pepper as being no more than a readily available flavour enhancer.

A mere commoner of condiments, its exotic roots forgotten, I would expect pepper to be at hand at any British dining table; almost always with salt, often with Sarson’s malt vinegar and Heinz ketchup.

At some point in the 1980‘s, the ground white pepper that until then had always been a mainstay of my parents seasoning, started to be replaced on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, times when my dad turned his hand to posh food such as grilled steak) by a tall wooden grinder containing black peppercorns.

As the grinder creaked and crushed the corns within, I recall the aroma it released as being far more potent than the dusty pre-ground sneezing powder of an earlier generation’s kitchen table.

Over the years, in the same way that the grey squirrel has taken Darwinian theory to the extreme in ousting its red cousin from her native UK woodlands, so too has the fiery black peppercorn replaced ground pepper from our condiment collections.

taste kampot green pepper

Tasting self-picked Kampot green pepper. The flavours of Cambodia are "getting better" all the time.

The small tub of ground white pepper is an endangered species in Britain.

Here in Kampot, Cambodia, it thrives.

During the years of French colonial rule, the sleepy town of Kampot garnered a reputation for producing possibly the most flavoursome and therefore sought after pepper in the world.

With an ideal climate and soil, the market price of pepper from Kampot terroirs is approximately four times that of inferior pepper from neighbouring regions.

It is the Champagne of the pepper world, the Parma of Hambodia.

After seeing its farming heritage devastated during the Khmer Rouge rule when pepper plantations (an evil cash-crop) were replaced with other subsistence crops, Kampot pepper disappeared from the restaurant kitchens of Paris.

Now, with a newly awarded Protected Geographical Indication status to go with a resurgent pepper farm collective, the Kampot pepper is once again gracing the dishes of haute cuisine establishments.

Determined to find out why, the 0.5 and I opted to visit a plantation and gain some first hand knowledge.

monk alms collection binderbhat cambodia

A monk near Kampot thinks he will get by "with a little help from my friends" as he collects alms from the local community.

Right, crib note time again.

Kampot Pepper comes in several forms, so firstly lets consider my recently established favourite, green pepper.

Harvested when still young on the vine, the Kampot green pepper drupes are served locally with all manner of seafood dishes.

Once picked, the drupes only remain fresh for a few days so to preserve their flavour. This accounts for their relative unfamiliarity in the UK.

To create greater staying power for the possibility of export, immature green pepper drupes are dried in the sun for several days, during which time the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer known as a black peppercorn.

The Kampot black pepper is at once powerful, spicy and tasty, but the green?

Oh, the green!

So this is what all the fuss is about. I get it now.

minefield Cambodia

"Daddy, why are you waiting?" The 0.5 and The Boy selflessly ensure that "when I'm sixty-four" I'll still have a chance of retaining all my limbs.

Almost chilli like in its assault on the mouth, to chew your first green pepper freshly picked from the vine is to open a whole new world of taste sensation as it explodes on the palate with a delightfully ripe pepperiness.

But it doesn’t stop there.

To create red pepper, the drupe may be harvested when fully mature during which time it should have developed a sugary sweetness and a powerful fruity aroma.

White Pepper is then obtained by soaking red peppers in water for a few days to remove the fleshy outer layer before drying.

Kampot red and white peppers are extremely rare due to the difficulty in harvesting fully mature pepper.

Only a few hundred kilos are produced each year, and this extra processing means that much sought after Kampot white pepper is sold at a premium.

Upon finishing our tour of the pepper plantation and having already been guided through a minefield by some teenage boys earlier in the day, we decided to taste the local piece de resistance, peppered crab, at a restaurant in nearby Kep.

crab picker, Kampot

"She's leaving home" and heading for my plate. Our crab lunch is collected on demand.

Kep is a colonial era resort town whose villas are slowly being restored to their former glories. It is positively mediterranean in its look and feel, and boasts a famous crab market where it is said the seafood is as fresh as it gets.

I beg to differ.

At the seafront restaurant to which out tuk-tuk driver took us (commissioned, naturally), we actually saw the crabs we were to eat being picked from the pots which bobbed just off the shoreline.

The resulting dish was superb even if the crab proved a wee bit too cumbersome for the 0.5’s liking, though I (literally) cracked on, taking almost an hour to polish off the entire plate of crustaceans that sat before us.

Kep Crab with Kampot green pepper sauce

Crab with green pepper sauce does a good job of "fixing a hole" where my breakfast proved insubstantial

The fresh green pepper provided a suprisingly subtle sauce whist the fruits were temptingly fiery to chew upon.

The good old, humble pepper, eh?

And not a dodgy, scouse moustache nor sitar to be seen.

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