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Phespirit goes to Cambodia
Siem Reap     April 2007

In Vietnam, Phespirit flitted between three centres: the south, the middle and the north. In Laos, it was two centres: the new capital and the old. In Cambodia, however, he zoned-in on one single legendary location: the fabulous temple complex of Angkor.

No developments are permitted within the Angkor Archaeological Park, so the town of Siem Reap, six kilometres to the south of Angkor Wat, has become the hub for all modern tourist infrastructure. Phespirit stayed at a comfortable but characterless four-star hotel on the outskirts of Siem Reap. He had held no expectations for the town itself, other than that it would be a hideously tacky commercial centre sustaining a parasitic existence by draining every last dollar from its foreign visitors. Happily, his pessimism was wholly misplaced and, although local businesses are aimed almost exclusively at the tourist sector, the Old Market Area remains a fascinating hive of activity. The hassling is not excessive, and everyone is generally good-natured.

Phespirit's expectations for Angkor were completely the reverse. Indeed, if anything he was dreading that he might be disappointed by a reputed world wonder. Once again, though, there was no need for pessimism. Over a period of three days he encountered a succession of stupendous temples, and was only disappointed not to have had more time to properly explore every temple on the site.

The major attractions are heaving with tourists. Angkor Wat in particular was afflicted by Japanese tour groups swarming throughout its one kilometre square. Phespirit found it nigh impossible to get a clear photograph of any part of this colossal temple. A pity really, as it is highly photogenic, especially in the afternoon light. Phespirit joined the crowds to investigate every corner, culminating with an ascent of some alarmingly steep stone steps into the central pyramid. Here, deep within its dark recesses, four different Buddha statues gaze out from the shadows to the four corners of the world.

Phespirit concluded his sightseeing with an early morning visit to the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng. The sun was high enough above the horizon to cast its full light as Phespirit sauntered along the gently inclining footpath that winds around the hill to its summit. It was a beautiful morning, yet the only people around were some maintenance workers and a couple of idling site minders. With no tourists to clutter up the place, this was a perfect way to end his time in Cambodia.

Flight 10: Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It came as no great surprise that Phespirit's flight from Siem Reap called in at Phnom Penh en route to Kuala Lumpur. Upon reboarding, Phespirit drifted into an easy sleep. When he awoke, the plane was on its final descent, with the palm oil plantations of Malaysia clearly visible below. It turned out, however, that he was not on his way to Kuala Lumpur .....

Flight 11: Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Due to reports of violent storms raging over Kuala Lumpur, Phespirit's flight was diverted to Johor Bahru; the southernmost airport on the Malaysian mainland. Phespirit had been here four years before, on a roadtrip from Singapore to Malacca. Back then it was the essential gateway to his mainland destination. This time it was an inconvenient detour, but mercifully one that only lasted about half an hour. Just long enough to look around the scantily stocked Duty Free shop.

Flight 12: Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the outlook was good for shopping galore. After much dithering, however, Phespirit plumped for a litre of Grand Marnier and some chocolates for presents. Kuala Lumpur remains the finest airport in the world, but its prices do seem to have gone up quite a bit in recent years.

Flight 13: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to London Heathrow, U.K.

And so to home. Phespirit's bags were weighed down with a moulded resin Buddha head from Vietnam, a jade-like necklace from Laos, a Pursat marble Ganesha from Cambodia, numerous guidebooks, duty free shopping, assorted gifts, and piles of laundry. His load was made lighter, however, by the happy memories they represent.

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