Phnom Kulem National Park

Heading nearly 50km outside of Siem Reap into the Phnom Kulem National Park we had a more relaxing day of visiting temples and waterfalls planned.

Phnom Kulem is considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire and the temple of Phreah Ang Thom is the most sacred place in Cambodia for Hindus and Buddhist, as well as the site of the largest reclining Buddha in the country. The National Park was created in 1993 and listed in 2012 by UNESCO to protect the area from the farming practices causing deforestation in the region.

The landscape was beautiful as we ascended the hill, but it is largely unexplored by tourists due to the area being a Khmer Rouge stronghold during the 1970s and therefore unexploded landmines are still present. I’m glad we didn’t plan on cycling as the private road up to the temple might be relatively new, but it’s steep and made of red sandstone so would have been hard work. It was a bumpy 45 minute drive to the Phreah Ang Thom temple at the top of the hill.

Phreah Ang Thom is still used by Buddhists and when we visited it was the weekend of the full moon and so prayers were taking place and there was a strong smell of incense in the air.

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As the whole area is a temple you need to remove your shoes to walk around; I couldn’t help feeling sad that the lady looking after shoes had been injured in the war.

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As monks prayed under the sacred rock and worshippers chanted, we ascended the concrete steps at the side of the rock to the giant reclining Buddha, carved into the top of the rock.

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From the temple we also visited the nearby waterfalls and played with some of the local children. The waterfalls are beautiful but very busy with tourists. This immediate area does suffer from litter and street hawkers, which is a shame but I guess isn’t uncommon, I can think of similar places in the UK that suffer litter from uneducated visitors.

We’d taken a fantastic packed lunch as we’d been advised that whilst there is a local cafe, the water quality and hygiene wasn’t guaranteed. I have to say our packed lunch was the best I’ve ever had!

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Cycling and Kayaking Tonle Sap

Yet another scorching hot morning to cycle out of Siem Reap and traffic dodge – this time heading 18km away to Tonle Sap Lake for a day of kayaking and seeing the floating villages. If the cycling in the crazy traffic hadn’t been daunting enough my kayaking skills were non-existent so the day was always going to be an interesting one.

Heading south out of Siem Reap we took highway 6. I tried to get a photo as it was actually fun and surreal to be on a mountain bike cycling up a 6 lane highway out of town but I was also trying to concentrate on not hitting anyone – or anything – so its a bit wonky. The traffic system is confusing to say the least; there is a dual carriage way in the centre apparently for faster vehicles, with two lanes either side of it intended for slower vehicles travelling both directions. The rules are quite flexible I discovered when we pulled out on to the centre dual carriageway alongside a wagon.

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Eventually we turned off and headed South taking a more typical red dusty road out of town towards the lake. It soon became apparent why we had mountain bikes as the roads are uneven and stony; this is one of the better ones.

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As we headed down through the rice fields down past farms and homes, the heat and taste of dust became more overwhelming, but at least the smells of car exhaust and waste rotting by the side of the street had been replaced with the aroma of spices and fresh air.

The route to Tonle Sap Lake takes you past mile after mile of rice fields and cattle grazing; past small markets and homes, with children waving and shouting hello as their parent cook and clean, and dogs are sleeping or scratching fleas by the side of the road. Best of all there is little traffic so the cycling is great, allowing us to stop to take photos.

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Arriving at a small village at the edge of Tonle Sap lake we left our bikes and headed out on the lake on a small boat, towards Mechrey, a small floating village, out in the lake. Its much smaller than the popular Chong Khneas, but our guide favoured this village for it not being over developed or commercial and much cleaner.

Tonle Sap Lake is a fascinating place. The lake is unmissable on the map of Cambodia and is the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Our guide explained that it also has a unique phenomenon as during the wet season the heavy monsoon rains flowing down the Mekong River near Phnom Penh forces the flow from the Tonle Sap river to change direction and to flow back into the lake, increasing its size from 2,500km2 to 12,000km2. This creates important habitats for both birds, mammals and fish around the mangrove forests, making it a UNESCO biosphere.

Once we arrived at Mechrey Village we swapped the power boat for kayaks and headed out around the mangroves.

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Paddling around the village felt a bit voyeuristic, watching people go about their daily lives, but it was interesting to see the village and how people live and was certainly an antidote to temples. Children laugh and play in the water and families cook and clean, all waving at us as we passed. I really recommend you get out on to the Lake and visit one of the smaller floating villages to see a different way of life in the Cambodian countryside, not yet spoilt by tourism.

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Once back on dry land we cycled back via the back roads and lanes, to Wat Athvea temple just on the outskirts of town.

The cycling in the afternoon heat was scorching and incredibly dusty. Despite its lack of carvings and half finished apsaras, Wat Athvea temple is still worth seeing due to its distance from the Angkor site it is almost unvisited by tourists. However, this does mean it lacks the maintenance and restoration that Angkor has benefited from.

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Cycling Angkor’s Temples

Having spent a few days wandering around Siem Reap and dodging the traffic, I have to admit I was a bit wary about the idea of jumping on a bicycle to head around the Angkor temple complex. In the end it was the best way of travelling; weaving through the traffic, learning to adopt a ‘blinker approach’ and just riding and letting the traffic go around me. Its loads of fun when you get over the initial fear of being run over by a tuk tuk or a huge truck.

The UNESCO protected Angkor site stretches over 400 km2 in total and reflect the different capitals of the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th Century and is one of the finest archaeological sites in South East Asia. However the chances are you’re probably going to head for the main temples of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its fantastic sculptural decorations.

The traffic significantly reduced as we passed through the checkpoint and onwards around the outside of Angkor Wat. We purchased a 3-day temple pass for $40 allowing us time to properly visit the temples and not rush around too much. I highly recommend this as the temples are too extensive, varied and vast to be able to see the best in one day.

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We started our tour of the temples for the day at Angkor Wat’s west entrance. Created in the 12th Century by Suryavarman II it is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Heading across the causeway over the moat we passed the huge ‘Nagas’, or guardian snakes on the end of the balustrades on the causeway. Wherever you see nagas in Cambodia they will always face east-west representing the passage of day into night and life into death.

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Crossing the causeway it was already busy with other tourists, but thankfully not too crowded and once inside the main complex we finally got a sense of the vastness of the site. Inside the entrance to the temple is a statue of Vishnu.

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As we continued through the west entrance the path continued to the inner temple which is guarded by huge lions.

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Make sure you see the amazing array of carvings of the Asparas, the mythical dancers.DSCF7174

The temple is still a religious site, now used for Buddhism since it became the main religion in the 14th Century, but you will find it happily co-exists with Hinduism in many of the historic temples. So if you with to ascend the steep staircase to very highest of the three upper levels in the centre of the temple, consider that you will have to be respectfully dressed.

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We left the temple by the East entrance which is considerably quieter and gives a sense of how the temple might have been prior to extensive archaeological work and tourism developed.

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From here we headed to Kabal Spean, which is on the Kulen hills just outside of the main Angkor site. It was a 20 minute walk through the woodland to the hill top river site where we could see the site of the 1000 carvings of lingas, or phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva, in the river and the square female symbols which all point north in order to provide luck.

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Last stop of the day was possibly the best temple in my opinion and one I definitely recommend you make time to visit; Banteay Srei. Its not a sprawling temple as it wasn’t built by a monarch and as it is a bit off the beaten track it is also much quieter. However, it is the most outstanding for its Hindu carvings, which are extensive, deep and intricate.

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We finished the day seeing the sunset at Pre Rup temple, which was nice but after the amazing carvings at Banteay Srei it was less impressive but a nice spot for sunset.DSCF7312 DSCF7318

It was fantastic to stop at Bayon temple on the way back to town and see it at sunset, particularly as Japanese archaeologists had lit part of the temple to work, which created an amazing atmosphere. However, it was also disappointing to have to rush and not see this majestic temple in the day time, knowing we wouldn’t have time to return again. Bayon temple, in the centre of Angkor Thom, is the only temple to be primarily constructed for Buddhism and its 216 carved faces represent Jayavarman VII who constructed the temple but also representing the Buddhist bodhisattva or enlightened one.

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Social enterprises in Cambodia

Its hard to travel in a country like Cambodia and not be affected by the poverty that exists. A relic from the conflicts and genocide under the Khmer Rouge that has left a country, with a powerful and glorious history, struggling to rebuild itself.

For the traveller, this provides an opportunity to see a country untouched by too much commercialisation (except perhaps in Phnom Penh where development is quickly racing along), and a place were the people are open to the opportunities tourism can bring, without being ruined by it.

The Khmer Rouge robbed the country of a generation, especially those best able to transform its future economy and infrastructure. Its hard not to notice that loss as you walk around the cities and towns – there’s few people over 50.

And its not hard to notice the impact of overseas aid, which has sought to assist Cambodia since the late 1980’s and led to noticeable economic development projects; everything from Chinese road building projects to Japanese and Korean supported schools.

There are also a significant number of overseas non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) operating in the country – supporting orphanages, schools and local community projects.

As I work for an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the UK, I am however surprised by the number of social enterprises, set up and run by the Cambodians which are making a greater sustainable impact on the local people than overseas support provided by some NGO’s.

Smaller in scale, social enterprises ultimately have lower overheads and retain all income generated in Cambodia and operate for the benefit of the people working for them. The majority of income is made through business, enabling them to create business models that can train local people to create their own income and making the most of offering services to the growing number of tourists.

Take care to learn about the projects and organisations you visit – for example there are lots of ‘orphanages’ set up to entice tourists but do not operate specifically for orphans but provide education to all young people on a couple of days a week. I’m not suggesting they’re not valuable but I personally do question the way they perpetuate the image of children awaiting salvation by Western donors and don’t seem to provide a means to access future employment opportunities for the children. Check out this website supported by UNICEF – Thinkchildsafe.

Hence the organisations I came across which I recommend you take time to find, are all locally set up and managed, and provide positive images of the future of Cambodia and opportunities for training and employment for different sections of the community. There is a wealth of other organisations I didn’t have time to find which are equally worth seeking out, and feel free to share them here.

– Phare Cambodian Youth Circus

The Circus provides a nightly show in Siem Reap performed by young people and it is a fantastic night out and alternative to wandering the bars in Pub Street. The circus was set up in 2013 by Phare Ponleu Selpak a youth development organisation providing vulnerable children and young people with a creative environment where they can access training, education and wider social support. The school provides free tuition to over 1,200 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with many of them developing skills in arts and creative activities. The school itself is in Battambang but having the Circus in Siem Reap enables them to access the growing number of visitors to the city. The circus is one of an number of spin off projects from the school offering young people an opportunity to gain employment and generate revenue for the social enterprise enabling more young people to gain training and skills.

I saw the show ‘Preu / Chills’ which was a fantastic story and I definitely recommend you stop by and see the young people performing amazing acrobatics through storytelling. they also have a shop where you can buy items made by young people at the school learning craft and arts skills.

Mekong Quilts

I found the Mekong Quilts shop in Siem Reap and then later in Phnom Penh. Since I love handmade products and it was coming up to Christmas I had to visit. Mekong Quilts was actually set up in Vietnam but also provides women in Cambodia with the opportunity to learn sewing skills and work as a community to create beautiful quilts to sell for which they receive a good income. Profits from the shops are reinvested in the enterprise and through the main charity Mekong Plus which also provides wider community development projects.

The quilts are a bargain in comparison to the cost of buying a handmade one in the UK and are beautiful, but if like me you are backpacking then there is plenty of smaller gift items you can buy.

– Daughters of Cambodia

Another craft based organisation, Daughters of Cambodia provides women with training, education and employment, as well as wider social support such as counselling, medical care and life skills. It works to help women escaping from the sex industry, many of them having been forced into it through poverty.

The saddest thing about the history of the Cambodia is that a generation of people have been robbed of the chance to have a good education and secure and good employment, meaning that the combination of poverty, low skills and a growth in tourism has lead to people being exploited by tourists, particularly for sex. Its not hard to find yourself in the ‘red light’ districts of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and wishing better for the girls (and guys) being used by western and other Asian tourists.

The Daughters shop in Phnom Penh provides a great way to find out about the organisation and buy some fantastic gifts, everything from bags and t-shirts to jewellery and toys. They also sell products made by the ‘sister’ company Sons of Cambodia which through a similar model seeks to provide transexual males with a means to leave the sex industry too.

Having checked out their website since coming home I’ve found they also run a small hotel in Phnom Penh, wish I’d known about that!

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre

I’ve mentioned this previously, but this butterfly conservation centre is definitely worth seeing when you are temple-d out. Close to the Angkor site they farm butterflies to sell to zoos and live exhibitions abroad. This income helps to sustain the centre, which in turn provides education to local farmers to prevent deforestation which is reducing many butterfly and moth species habitats.

Local farmers are also paid to collect eggs and caterpillars which the centre breeds, helping to prevent species extinction. At $4 to visit its worth an hours visit.

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Friends Restaurant

I love food. A lot. So there is nothing more exciting than discovering a restaurant which is offering young people an opportunity to gain skills in the restaurant industry as chefs or front of house staff. I visited the restaurant near the Royal Palace which serves a mix of Asian and western tapas and there is fantastic selection of vegetarian food. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that as this is a training restaurant that the food will be basic; I ate some of the best quality food at Friends that I had during my time in Phnom Penh. During the day they also have a shop next door selling items made by young people and you can also buy items from their stall in the Russian Market in the city.

Friends International also provides street children with support in other ways through ensuring they are able to go to school and avoid exploitation. They also have restaurants and shops in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, as well as Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Artisan Angkor

One of the first organisations I visited while in Siem Reap for a week and certainly the largest, Artisan Angkor is a bit different. It was originally set up by the Cambodian government in the early 1990’s in order to encourage the revitalisation of the traditional crafts and culture. If you’re in Siem Reap check out their demonstration site which shows visitors the range of crafts and skills being maintained  – from wood and stone carving (which is also helping the regeneration of the Angkor temple site) to silk painting, lacquering and silk weaving.

Training new apprentices annually the organisation now provides work to over 1000 people at different workshops around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Now run as a social enterprise, reinvesting income back into training more people, the crafts made are aimed at the high end luxury market, which also raises the profile of Cambodian cultural crafts. Frankly I couldn’t afford anything in their boutique shops (of which there is even one in the airport in Phnom Penh which is a fantastic showcase of Cambodian crafts), but the work is of an amazing quality.

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If you visit the site in Siem Reap, get there early to get chance to catch a free lift to their silk workshop which is a 20 minute drive out of town. The silk workshops provided a fascinating insight into the time and skill needed to create silk scarves and clothing, which made it clear why they cost so much. 1 metre of silk fabric generally takes 4 months from extracting the silk from the cocoons to weaving the end product.

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Chi-Phat Community Eco tourism

I visited Chi-phat for 3 days on the way to Phnom Penh. It provided both a unique opportunity to see the Cambodian countryside and stay in a small village at the same time as seeing a positive change in the economy in rural communities.

Formerly a hotspot for poaching and illegal logging, the small Chi-phat community now earns income from approximately 2000 tourists a year visiting and staying with families. Originally set up with assistance of the Wildlife Alliance the community now have a social enterprise through which they provide opportunities to trek in the jungle, mountain bike and learn about the local environment and reforestation projects aimed at regenerating the natural environment.

I’ll write about my 4 days in Chi-phat later, but its great to find an eco-tourism project where all the income stays in the local community and benefits local people, and isn’t a commercial business or providing a façade of ecological and community development.

Arriving in Cambodia – a week in Siem Reap

Cambodia provides a fascinating mix of history and culture along with a beautiful environment, neither feeling ruined by extensive over-development by tourism.

My first encounter with the country perhaps gave a very jet lagged me, the wrong impression of the people I was going to meet in Cambodia. Passport control around the world it is the place of hard nosed, smile-free faces and in Siem Reap I was met with seven such faces behind a long wide desk – like a panel at a talent show or prison guards at a jail (I imagine!). Despite having arrived with with money for my visa but no photo, I discovered this wasn’t a problem as I paid an extra two dollars and got into the country anyway. Was that a bribe, or an official payment? They obviously didn’t care too much about who I was.

As a place to start Siem Reap is where most people head, it being the nearest town to the world famous and UNESCO world heritage sites of the Angkor temples. I recommend before you jump in a tuk tuk and follow the crowds to the temples check out the town itself. So many people arrive here on an organised trip and don’t have the time to wander. Its a great place to start an adventure in the country as it is small enough to explore on foot – just remember where the river that runs through the town is in relation to you and you won’t get too lost. Or that’s how I navigated the myriad of roads and back alleys.

There’s the ‘old’ market, while now catering for the growing number of tourists, there is still a delightful mix of handicrafts and knick-knacks alongside housewares, fruit and vegetables and fish and meats. There’s other markets in town but this is a good start being easy to find, right next to the river, and small enough not to be overwhelming. Some of the other markets in town are purely for locals and much more of a maze. There is also the night market on the other side of the river opposite the old market, but honestly this is purely touristy items.

Pub street and the alleys around it are the tourist centre of town, especially after dark, but are still worth a visit for a cheap meal, a budget massage or amazing ice cream from The Blue Pumpkin (I recommend the ginger and black sesame). You’ll still find the odd bar where locals and tourists drink together and if jet lag has left you wide awake at midnight you’ll find somewhere to drink no problem.

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Bored of drinking and eating, I had an evening at the Phare Cambodian Circus which is run by a growing social enterprise based in nearby Battambang that providing training to young people in arts and circus skills. They provide a nightly show at the circus in Siem Reap and it’s a fantastic display of acrobatics performed and directed by young people from difficult backgrounds who’ve been trained to enable them to benefit from a career in the growing arts industry in Cambodia. At $10 its worth it for the hour long show.

During the day, seeking peace and a chance to lose jet lag and for my mind to catch up with my body I went to Wat Preah Prohm Rath, adjacent to the river. This was my first introduction to Buddhism in Cambodia and is a beautifully managed and maintained temple which welcomes tourists wandering in from the street. Just remember to remove shoes and cover shoulders when you enter.

Sitting with the monks and meditating to their chants was an experience I’ll never forget, and is something I struggled to find elsewhere in Cambodia. The Wat was constructed in 1915, though was the site of a monastery as early as the 13th Century. There’s certainly older and more specatular Wat’s in Cambodia but many are on tourist itineraries and as such are busier and not always used by monks for prayer.

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The traffic in Siem Reap was a gentle introduction to the chaos of driving in South East Asia, so if like me this is you’re first encounter in this part of the world and with the myriad of mopeds, tuk tuks, cars and vans, all driving in seeming chaos but somehow not colliding, then take note that the traffic is not as bad here as it is in Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap is also a good introduction to shopping in Cambodia, which I found to be a joy. You can haggle to your heart’s content and no-one will bully you to buy – this isn’t north Africa. Cambodia is largely a Buddhist country where people are by their nature polite and friendly and as a female traveller I certainly never felt threatened or worried about wandering around at night on my own.

As well as the markets try to visit some of the amazing craft shops run by local social enterprises. I was struck by the amount of locally run organisations tackling unemployment and helping the country’s disabled and those affected by the legacy of conflict by providing training and support. It is clear that they make a more significant impact in the country than the large NGO’s – but you can read about that here.

When you do head out to the Angkor temples make sure you also stop at the Banteay Srey Butterfly centre nearby, which works with local farmers to collect species, trains local people to raise them and help to prevent their extinction. So in many ways it helps the people as much as the butterflies. I learnt so much from the guide Lux Phem who took me around the small centre, about butterfly conservation and their lifecycle. I even got to see the chrysalis and some of the biggest caterpillars I’ve ever seen.

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And of course there’s the Angkor Temples, which I cycled around over the course of three days, but more about that later…..