Relaxing on Rabbit Island, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have to be only about the heat (and hectic exploring of all those glorious temples) of Siem Reap, or the chaos and nightlife of Phnom Penh. When it’s time for a bit of back-to-basics relaxation, Rabbit Island is the place to go.

Known locally as Koh Tonsay, Rabbit Island is offshore from Kep, on the southwestern coast of Cambodia. To get to the island, head to the Kep port pier before 9am to catch one of the boats for a 20-30 minute (5 km) ride out to Rabbit Island. The island itself is two square km in size. Remember the number of your boat, as you have paid for the return trip and you need to catch the same one back in the afternoon, or you’ll be hit up for another fare.

For me, a big part of the attraction of Rabbit island is how undeveloped it is. It’s as loved by locals as by tourists. There’s a long golden sand strip shaded by towering palms. A few sun-loungers and low bamboo platforms are spread along the sand, all free to use. The water (in April anyway) is body temperature, as tranquil as a lagoon, no waves here. And being saltwater, it aided our buoyancy as we floated around happily for hours, only emerging occasionally to top up our sunscreen. There’s an open air tent for soothing massages, a couple of basic-but-good open air restaurants with cold water and beers, and a public long-drop toilet just out behind the trees. And thats all. A perfect place to relax with a few friends. Let’s hope it stays undeveloped for a while longer.

And if you want to stay overnight, there are a handful of nice little cabins that can be rented, I think I might need to try those next time.

Where have you found your ideal relaxation island?

 

#fridayfaces – child beggars in Cambodia

I always struggle with how to deal with beggars when I travel – how can I help, am I making the problem worse? There were no easy answers when I was approached by this young beggar at Angkor Wat.

girl begging, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2006
girl begging, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2006

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.

#friday faces on Tonle Sap, Cambodia

After the heat of the ruins of Angkor Wat, it was a nice change to spend the afternoon out on nearby Tonle Sap, at the floating village. The kids of the floating village could certainly steer their tin tubs like a real boat and turn on the charm for the tourists.

boy, floating village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia
boy, floating village, Tonle Sap, Cambodia

The photos that make the most impact on me when I travel are the faces of people I come across in my travels.

 

Angkor temples without the crowds?

Its the second day of the new year festivities so we allow ourselves a sleep-in – departing for the far flung temples at the advanced hour of 7am. All the guide books talk about staying extra days, getting outside the “inner circle” of temples and escaping the crowds, and that is exactly what we are planning for today. With hindsight, we should’ve taken the guide books with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t matter because we end up with a nice twist on the crowds. I should know by now that when popular guidebooks say “go here, get off the beaten track” then lots of other people will be doing the same thing. And the crowds are definitely here, car loads and bus loads at every temple today, but for once we are completely outnumbered by the locals on holiday and its a great feeling. Because its the three day national New Year holiday, Cambodian families have gathered from across the country and are visiting their own history and temples in great numbers, often spreading blankets to have huge extended family picnics under the trees. And we, the hot sweaty fly-in tourists, are in the minority for a change, which makes the temples feel much less like open air museums than usual .
Cambodia temples

We make six temple stops today, which is a bit ambitious with our late start for the day, so we are a wee bit exhausted (heat stroke anyone?) by the last couple. Here’s my highlights of the day.

Kbal Spean – The River of a Thousand Lingas.

This site is an interesting change from the usual temples. It a 1.5km walk up through the valley to the riverbed at the top – its a gentle incline but made harder for unco-ordinated people like me by  being a bit of a scramble over a rocky mountain goat track in parts. I am a bit disappointed when I first see the carvings at the top, as they mainly look like a cobblestoned path. Duh! I eventually realise that these are the remaining bases of the thousand lingas (phallic symbols), and by the size of the bases they must’ve been impressively sized lingas. Now I guess its a case of a thousand eunuchs. We beat the crowds to the top and as we head back down, there are many families on the way up , easily carrying vast picnic supplies, politely laughing at the sweat running down our faces. We realise our driver may be a bit worn out from his New Years festivities when it takes us fifteen minutes to track him down fast asleep in a hammock.
Cambodia temples

Banteay Srei.

A truly beautiful small temple, Banteay Srei has the most intricate carvings, the stone a dusky rose red. Its also incredibly popular and incredibly busy, its a continuous snake of people around the paths. However the layout makes it easy to get up close to all the beautiful carvings and get an uninterrupted view, negating any impact of the crowds. The lack of shade is more of a problem, it’s still early morning and we are cooking! We finally find shade behind the temple, next to a local band playing under a tree. They are a poignant reminder of the recent past, as the band is a group of land mine victims and this is how they support themselves and other victims (and since the music is rather refreshing on a hot day, its not that hard for them to sell their CDs either.)


Cambodia temples

The Temple of Ta Som.

Back closer to the Angkor Thom complex we stop for a wander around Ta Som, a temple mainly known for its general state of dis-repair, and its classic strangler fig tree wrapped around an ancient ornate stone gate. All sensible people have retreated out of the midday sun by now, leaving a much emptier temple site to explore. I think I am on about my fourth litre of water by this stage. What I love about Ta Som is that it looks so decrepit, the stones toppling off each other and arches looking like they barely hold together. Its not an overgrown, ‘Indiana Jones slash your way through the undergrowth’ kind of environment – most of the vegetation has been cleared out, except for some bigger trees providing a nice level of shade, and the famous strangler fig of course, although it’s had some judicious pruning as well. But that does show off the fragility of the stonework quite well, so its a good compromise. And this temple has kids playing around today, which adds a nice sense of movement and colour.

We don’t last much longer after Ta Som, very happy with what we’ve seen, too worn out by heat and humidity to give the remaining temples their due, it’s definitely time to head back to a cool pool.

Return to the temples of Angkor Thom – part 2

Surrounded by hundreds of mysterious serene faces carved on massive stone towers, scrambling through the rubble of a temple whose walls look like they would have fallen over if they were not intertwined with the massive root systems of ancient trees, these are the memories of the Cambodian temples that I loved the most on my first visit. Sure, Angkor Wat is the star attraction, and it is breathtaking and impressive and unmissable, but it is a couple of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom and nearby that worked their charm on me the most, and I am looking forward to seeing them again five years later.


Bayon, Cambodia
The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads all smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa -I am told they are all images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, although some claim the faces also have a passing resemblence to the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur including the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII. To me however, each head, each smile, seems subtly different. I find it easy to start attributing each of them a personality, a story to fit their expression. They adorn the four sides of all fifty four towers on the third and top tier of the pyramid, facing due north, south, east and west.

The bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three layers of big blocks of stone, with quite a few fallen to the ground around it. Its only on close inspection that the walls on the outside and on the first level reveal a series of bas relief carvings to rival those of Angkor,depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus. Its easy to miss these in the rush to the top to see the heads, but it is well worth stopping and circling these picture stories for a while. Even for these levels, if I look up I find it very hard to spot the carved heads just above. I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the top level, and finally find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile. Some are in good condition, some very worn, some have parts missing, so every direction I look is a different vista, and I find it almost meditiative to circle around and around the top tier, watching different faces spring in and out of view while I circle. The effect of the light at different times of the day here is quite compelling, as different faces and profiles are highlighted as the sun moves through the day. My favourite is first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, when the early morning light throws some carvings into bright light and some into dark contract.
Bayon, Cambodia

This is how I saw them the first time. On this trip I will visit them twice. First I see them about 9am, after seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This seems early but already the sun is higher and harder, reducing the early morning contrast. Its also a lot more crowded, as many people come here after their Angkor Wat sunrise, whereas the previous couple of hours are much less crowded, more tranquil. Two days later I return at 7am, just after dawn, but the clouds roll in for the first day of the rainy season, so there is no soft dawn light picking out faces, its a much darker and sterner picture today.

Ta Prohm – The myth of the overgrown temple held together by the roots of the trees growing over it.

Maybe not completely a myth, but also not completely true. My other favourite temple is a photographers dream (except for the crowds), and any quick google search will reveal thousands of atmospheric black and white photos of old trees towering over a tumble of old stone blocks on weird angles, tied together by hundreds of exposed tree roots. But if you arrive thinking it will look like you have just stumbled upon a long lost temple hidden in the bush, you will be disappointed. It has been cleared of much of the growth, leaving in place just the biggest and most spectacular mergers of trees and ruins, making it more accessible, and no doubt easier to photograph (except for the crowds). In spite of that, it is still fantastic to wander through, finding odd corners with no apparent restoration work or clearing out at all, and yes, fantastic to photograph. I may have mentioned the crowds – its not only my favourite, it is a fav of just about every visitor to the area, and its quite a small temple compared to its neighbours, so I just have to grin and bear it, its popular for a reason. Its a great challenge of both my photography and patience to frame up my shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot, looking as though the place is actually deserted – its not unusual for it to take me ten minutes or more to grab one shot.

Ta Phrom, Cambodia
Five years ago I remember there being a boardwalk path through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds (but when scrambling around it was easy to miss the sign), where we could feel a real sense of possible risk and danger as we crawled over and under precariously leaning structures. I notice a marked difference this time. There is now a very extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, taking away the risk of twisting your ankle or having stones fall on your head, but also handling the volume of visitors better. As part of this, viewing platforms have been built for most of the iconic ruins/trees vistas, some even have roped off queueing areas to ensure everyone gets to the front of the line and gets a clear view. Remaining dangerous areas are completely roped and chained off, no chance to claim “I didn’t see the sign”! This is both fantastic progress and completely ruining my ability to put my superior ‘photo-grabbing” skills to the test. Using the walkways to navigate the site, I also notice that many of the walls and trees have substantial support structures built behind them, to shore them up without having to go to a full renovation. I also see one wall which had completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree above it looking very unstable and ready to topple over itself, which reinforces to me just how hard it is to walk the fine line of keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was. It looks like they are doing a fine job of balancing all those concerns, I hope I get to go and visit again in the next five years and see what else has changed.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?

Return to the Temples of Angkor Wat part 1

I get off the plane at Siem Reap at 7am into a wall of heat, and a wall of paper-pushers (literally). In a charming homage to colonial bureaucrats everywhere, the process to get a visa on arrival in Cambodia goes like this:  I hand over my visa form and cash, walk twenty metres to the other end of the long desk, and watch a row of nine uniformed officials – the first one stamps my passport and then tosses it nonchalantly to the person to his left, and so it continues, from hand to hand, person to person, flying freely through the air, via all nine people, and then passed back to me.

I am impressed by such a successful job creation scheme, and the great hand-eye co-ordination they have all achieved. It’s good to see they are taking me seriously now. When I visited five years ago,  I was greeted by a mere one immigration official.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Siem Reap – has it changed in five years?

Fast forward 4 hours and I am feeling the heat. Five years ago I was here in January, the coolest month, which I thought was very pleasant at up to 30 degrees during the day and cooler overnight. Now its 35 degrees during the day with about 98% humidity, and virtually the same at night,  except I can at least avoid the intense burning of direct sunlight then.

After exploring the town on foot I am melting with every step, so I retire to the pool and order an iced lime tea and settle in the shade. I have an added excuse, my friends aren’t arriving til early afternoon so I may as well hang around the pool and wait. Initially I thought that Siem Reap hadn’t really changed in the last five years,  in many ways it looks exactly the same, but the more I wander around the more I notice the differences. It’s like all the original bars, shops and hotels are still here, but then has been a lot of new ones added and they are all much more upmarket. There are also dozens of ATM’s, last time there was one, which generally didn’t work.

And perhaps the most noticeable change is the one I feel most conflicted about. Last time I was here, there were a huge number of beggars, mainly limbless people or really young child beggars who would grab onto your leg and hang on desperately as you walked by. On our arrival that time, we decided we would give money to every limbless beggar we saw, as their need seems so obvious and genuine. After giving to about ten in the first block from our room, we realised how unrealistic our plan was, and how overwhelming the need here really was.  Now, there are very few beggars on the street. I would like to think that the general increase in wealth and well being here has led to more orphanages and help for the needy in general, but I have a horrible feeling that it just means the government have moved them on to somewhere else, so that they don’t upset the tourists.

When Travellers J & K arrive we choose to take to the pool for the afternoon to plan the next few days. We head out late afternoon to go and catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. The passes for the temples are sold by no. of days, and the neat trick is that if you arrive at the office to buy your pass after 5pm, you get that evening for free and then get the next full three days as well.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat is not going to be a bright red sky, as the sun is actually behind you, but it means the temples glow softly in the lovely evening light, so much better than the harsh light in the middle of the day. There are two large pools, man made ponds, in front of Angkor Wat, and the classic photo to get is a picture with the temple reflected in the pool.

The better photo is the one from the right hand pool. Unfortunately it has no water in it this time, so the left hand side it is, although somehow the angles just aren’t as good here. It’s also a great time to walk through the levels of the temple as most people have left already. We do a random wander until the guards chase us out. The only level not open at this time of the day is the very top (third) level.

Last time I was here I did the sunset from Phnom Bakheng but its definitely something I would only do once. It was so crowded, everyone elbowing for room, and the only nice part of the view was seeing a tiny looking Angkor Wat surrounded by jungle, in a pinkish evening glow. Its something you need to experience for yourself, but I doubt it is anyone’s highlight of their visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

We return to Angkor Wat again before sunrise the next morning, travelling by tuk tuk (a 5am start). I find an unexpected advantage of the tuk tuk is that as it moves it creates a breeze through the open sides, which helps to slightly cut through the clingy heat – it can be more effective than the air con in a car, although rather less comfortable for a long trip. It’s another pretty but pale pastel sunrise.

Dawn is a great time to visit Angkor Wat. Although a lot of people arrive for sunrise, most head back to their hotels for breakfast without venturing into the temples themselves, and then come back later in the day, so this is relatively uncrowded in between. Instead of stopping for breakfast we grabbed pastries from one of the bakeries in town the night before, and of course plenty of water.

The temple is a huge pyramid structure, the largest religious structure in the world, if you measure it from the large moat surrounding it, which is full of water and is 1.5km by 1.3km in size. When I walked through the first gate on my first visit, I thought I was entering straight into temple buildings but I quickly realised that I was in a vast walled field surrounding the temple, with a long causeway  to the temple structure and the two large ponds on either side. The temple is a complex of terraces rising in three stories, topped by five domed towers.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010


Most of the structure is covered with bands of finely carved stone sculptures and bas relief carvings of exceptional detail. We explore the lower tier, following the bas relief that circumnavigates the walls of the corridor that encloses this whole level, telling Hindu fables of Vishnu is amazing detail and beauty. Once the 2nd tier opens at 7am we progress around that level, and rest in a shaded corner until tier 3 opens at 8am (we have already drunk and sweated out at least a litre of water by then).

Tier 3 is still an active temple, which is why it has more restricted hours, and has a dress code, one that in my heat exhaustion I almost mess up. I remember to bring trousers to put over my shorts, but forget that I am wearing a sleeveless top, however a bit of stretching quickly turns it into a wide necked, cap sleeved top and I pass the inspection.

The stairs up to the top level are the steepest in the complex. I remember five years ago climbing up the old narrow stone steps almost like a ladder, and feeling extreme vertigo when having to climb back down them in a large crowd of people all moving at different speeds. Now all the sets of original stairs are locked off, and a new set of robust wooden stairs has been built in one corner, floating over and protecting the original staircase, while actually accommodating feet longer than 4 inches in length. I feel both relieved and disappointed that I don’t get to experience the fear and excitement of the more dangerous originals this time. Its now 8.30 am and we are ready to move around the inner circuit of other temples.

 

The Cambodia swimming pools tour

When I dream about Cambodia I dream about the temples of Angkor, the fish amok, the handmade crafts & the foot massages. What I had never previously associated with Cambodia is swimming pools, but I sure do now. While visiting Cambodia in April, it is exhaustingly hot and humid, both day and night. I am here just before the monsoon season is due to start, so the heat has not broken yet. So my great daily pleasure became the swimming pool, and I am lucky enough to come across some really good ones.

The Siem Reap swimming pool.

pool at Golden Banana, Siem Reap, Cambodia
pool at Golden Banana, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Before arriving in Siem Reap, I had booked into the Golden Banana B&B on a friend’s recommendation. It is down a quiet laneway just 5 minutes walk from Bar St, and right next to its flasher siblings, the Golden Banana Hotel and the Golden Banana Resort. All three share the same facilities, which include a gorgeous pool in a courtyard surrounded by brightly flowering tropical plants and sun loungers, and with bar and cafe access. All this with a room I am paying $22 a night for. And the room itself is well above expectations. It is large, clean, nicely decorated in the angkor style, and has a mod, almost trendy bathroom. The shower water is hot (not that I need that in this heat) and there is a working air conditioner. In fact the only problem with the air conditioner is the local power supply, which seems very overburdened and unstable, not surprising given the level of tourism in a country that is running fast to try and catch up in terms of actual infrastructre. There are power cuts every night, which means a few hours without cooling, but its a citywide problem so there is no point getting  stressed about it. Anyway, back to that pool!

Because of the heat, we are generally up and out exploring temples from as early as 5am, and are finished and back at the GB by lunchtime, as the heat is just too intense to sensibly do anything else. So the afternoon is pool time. I order a iced lime tea (which comes by the litre) and float in the pool while they deliver it to me. I stand under the waterfall wall at one end and let the water drum the top of my head and run over my shoulders for the ultimate cool down. Its a very friendly pool as well, with many of the guests introducing themselves and swapping tips on what to do in Siem Reap and the various temples. And to top it off, the food available all day is really good, with excellent examples of local food including fish amok, local fresh fruit platters, and spring rolls.

The Phnom Penh swimming pool

pool at Blue Lime, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
pool at Blue Lime, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’d picked  hotel Blue Lime for my Phnom Penh stay, for its location right behind the Royal Palace, its good reviews, and its strict no “sex travellers” policy – a still sadly all-too-present part of Cambodia’s tourism market, particularly in Phnom Penh. Its a very modern makeover of an older building, with polished concrete floors, minimalist lines and bright blue, lime and orange colour schemes. Its only four stories high and has no lift, so getting a room on the top floor does mean a good leg workout while I stay here – I don’t want to waste all that practice from clambering up the steps of temples. My room is large and has a large balcony as well, and the aircon works all night here. The lobby opens out onto a large pool surrounded by traditional day beds down one side and sun loungers on the other, nestled cosily within a solid wall of lovely tropical trees and flowers. This is also the breakfast patio, and the bar, although I was underwhelmed by their sweet & creamy cocktail list (where’s a mojito when you need one?) and the food options are mainly pizza, of the “thick, soggy, too much cheap cheese” variety – oh well, you clearly can’t have everything. I don’t know if it is just while I am here or a if it is regular occurence, but all the other guests that I got chatting to around the pool were westerners working for NGOs and having conversations about who had the most success from their proselytising – not really my kind of conversation, at least if I don’t wont to offend the other guests! The room here is twice the price of Siem Reap at $50, but still a bargain in this heat, and I can always hide away in one of the day beds.

The Kep swimming pool

The Kep Lodge, on the southern coast of Cambodia, not far from the Vietnam border, lies a couple of hundred metres up the hillside, overlooking the ocean and the distant islands. Each room is its own mini-villa, a thatch-roofed large bedroom with a four poster bed swathed in a huge mozzie net, a basic bathroom, and a front deck with a hammock. I love hammocks, I think every balcony in all accommodation should have a hammock, so i am often disappointed, but not here. I am going to spend time every day in this hammock reading my book in the shade from the heat of the day, or sheltering during a tropical thunderstorm.  The rooms are spread along a meandering path through the gardens, and all paths lead back to the large comfy communal open-sided lounge/bar/restaurant, which looks out over the pool to the ocean. Ahh, the pool. A deep blue curvaceous salt water pool, with sun loungers and umbrellas, the requisite tropical flowering plants and palms, and the ongoing view over the ocean to the horizon – with bar service. This pool is particularly spectacular at sunset –  a great place to float in the pool, sip one of the very strong cocktails (Mojito’s are really good here) and watch the sky turn red. The pool and the communal bar space makes this a very friendly and social place to stay as well.And its a bargain down here on the coast, under $30 a night for my room at this time of the year.

pool at Kep Lodge, Kep, Cambodia
pool at Kep Lodge, Kep, Cambodia

Yep, its safe to say I am going to be paying more attention to the pools when I plan to visit anywhere hot from now on, a good pool is just the icing on the cake of a great trip. Have you got a great pool recommendation?

Links:

www.golden-banana.com www.bluelime.asia www.keplodge.com