Posted by: Tom Lancaster | October 11, 2010

Do your parents know what Angkor Wat is? Do you?

Episode 28: Sihanoukville/Phnom Penh/Siem Reap/Bangkok/Ko Samet, Cambodia/Thailand

Skin colour (Tom): Jimmy Tarbuck

Skin colour (Jane): Jimmy Krankie

Location: Ko Samet, Thailand

Date: 11th October 2010.

This post is book ended by a couple of unpleasant bus journeys, amongst the worst we’ve had. I’ll spare you most of the details and take you on a whistle-stop tour of Cambodia, which is exactly how we did it in the flesh. You may even see more than we did.

We left Ha Tien on the Vietnam-Cambodia border, bound for Sihanoukville, on a bus with a baby who genuinely hated life. I don’t know what he had against it at such an early juncture, but whether playing in the aisle, feeding, sleeping or sitting, the constant noise was a scream. He was like a tiny human representation of Edvard Munch’s famous painting.

This little bundle of hatred was like a character in a book we recently read, who had images of terror implanted into his brain and couldn’t stop screaming as a result (we’ve read some absolute drivel on this trip). I suspect if all kids were like this Gary Glitter would be famous, rather than infamous.

I recently spent a lovely day with my friends’ twins, whose default position was “sleep”. They were marvellous. We may have kids one day, but we’ll certainly make sure to vigorously beat “the screams” out of them.

The perfect weather for sunbathing

The bus took us to Sihanoukville, on the southern coast of Cambodia, where we quickly got drunk and played some awful pool. I suspect I’ll never be the player I once was after this session, although at the time (and in my mind) I was superb.

We’d come to Sihanoukville for a few days sunbathing on the beach, and on day three, when the rain had finally stopped, we made our way to the beach in the glorious sunshine. When we’d settled ourselves into our loungers, the thunder claps began and we were quickly stranded by the torrential rain.

Retreating to a nearby beach bar was hardly respite, as we were hounded by local kids and women offering pedicures and bracelets. Our automatic response by now is, of course, “no”. However, undeterred, the Cambodian sellers have an interesting tactic.

Their answer to “no” is “Later?”, which might work with the bracelets if you’d had a few beers and needed a pick-me-up after a heavy defeat at pool. But a pedicure? I doubt my toenails, gnarly claws though they are, would have grown to such an extent that by afternoon I’d be desperate for a quick trim. If you agree to “later”, then they basically stalk you for the rest of the day.

A rare break in the Sihanoukville deluge

The bracelet-selling kids’ response is “why?”, to which I have no adequate response, other than I don’t want to look like a traveller tw@t, which I’m not sure they’d understand. One kid also offered to play a game with us and, given our location, we were understandably concerned as to what exactly he was offering.  We were reassured later though, that he was actually offering to play draughts with us, the upshot being, that if we lost, we would have to buy one of his bracelets.

One thing in Sihanoukville’s favour (and Cambodia’s) was the food. We consistently dined well. Even the western food was good, which is unheard of on this trip (I promise we’ve barely eaten any  but every time we have it’s been dire).

Sihanoukville’s obvious down-side was the weather (6 days of pretty much constant rain) and the beach (without the hawkers it would have been unpleasant, with them accosting you every 30 seconds it was unbearable).

Perhaps the highlight of our visit then, was the quiz we entered one night and we were chuffed to finish a creditable third against the requisite enormous groups in other teams.

The two chaps who we were teamed with were thicker than a Hunter Mahan wedge: they didn’t answer a question between them and the chap who’d studied physiology at uni, didn’t know how many bones there were in a human body (neither did we to be fair, or we would have grabbed second).

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Rained out, we braved the buses again to Phnom Penh which would be up there with my favourite cities on our trip. Yes it had the obligatory scary traffic and people pestering you continually, but it also had splendid wide roads, some pavements you could actually walk on, fabulous eateries, and interesting things to see.

We started with the Royal Palace, which was overpriced but really good, even if many areas were roped off. The towering roofs made for great photos, but I was more taken with the bloke wearing a towel on his head.

The afternoon brought us back to Earth with a bang, when we visited S-21, the notorious school, turned prison and interrogation centre, where the Khmer Rouge carried out much of their hideous torture. Thankfully, there wasn’t much to see apart from empty cells, but the row after row of photographs of  inmates’ faces from the past certainly made the “No Laughing” signs unnecessary.

Unnecessary signage

It’s sobering to think that out of 21,000 people who were brought here, only seven made it out alive (the guards even shot the last 14 prisoners as the prison was being liberated).

We don’t like to dwell on these things, so headed out for beers and banter with a very pleasant English couple who live and work in Shanghai (although she did only eat a chocolate crepe for dinner, which is just odd). I had enough beers to tell a young lady that she was wearing a very pretty dress, which I’ve never done before or since, and Jane drank many glasses of the first decent red wine she’s had since Blighty.

Not one of the Cambodian foods on our menu

Our appetite for mindless slaughter unsatiated, we took a tuk-tuk (try saying that after half a dozen tequilas) to the killing fields at Cheong Ek, where we wandered round another scene of unbearable human torment.

The centrepiece of Cheong Ek  is a 36m high stupa, containing the bones and clothing of thousands of people who were killed here. We saw pits where hundreds of men, women and children were interred in mass graves, depictions of babies being swung against tree trunks, and the tools used to bring about Cambodians’ deaths. Grotesquely, every time the area floods, new bones emerge from underground.

It was  unpleasant. Frankly, I’m glad you weren’t there.

The bones of the dead at Cheong Ek

Take a breath: we did.

The question now is whether you’ve heard of Angkor Wat? Be honest. Our parents are all purportedly educated people, but their reaction when we told them where we were heading was one of vacancy.

To many, Angkor Wat is the eighth wonder of the world, but we’d only heard about it from others: “You have to see it”; “The only reason to go to Cambodia”; “Worth every penny”; “Your parents are Philistines, kill them immediately and cash in on the insurance”.

So we sallied forth to Siem Reap, the base for the temples of Angkor. Siem Reap is another cracking place, even without the parent-eluding attraction close by, it would be worth going to for the tourist friendly bars and restaurants (although the whiny, slightly creepy “Hey lady, buy something from meeeeeeeee” every four seconds in the market nearly forced me to pull both Jane’s and my hair out).

Angkor Wat

The temples at Angkor were everything that our folks weren’t expecting. We hired a tuk-tuk driver from the guest house and spent five fabulous hours exploring the site. For those of you who know what Angkor Wat (and the many other temples around) is, but haven’t been, it’s a huge site. They sell 3-day and 7-day tickets for a reason. Our tour was about 25km.

Everything we saw was awe-inspiring. Everything was much bigger than we’d imagined. Everything was worth far more than the $20 entrance fee. I won’t bore you with the details, but these are some of the most amazing ancient structures in the world.

Thankfully there is no photo of me almost soiling myself on the way down these 70 degree incline steps

There were vertigo inducing climbs (I know, I suffer), tree-entwined ruins, insurmountable steps and fantastically preserved carvings. They’re constantly conserving the site, so sadly we didn’t get the “money-shot” pictures that our parents wouldn’t expect, but it’s safe to say it was one of the best days of our trip so far (there was even a four-star hotel waiting for me when I was caught short!).

They filmed some of Tomb Raider here

We also can’t speak highly enough of the Cambodian food and, although it’s not gonna win any Michelin stars, a pound of belly pork, a handful of rice, some indeterminate meat patties and a corn on the cob from a street stall in Siem Reap for £3 were good enough for us. We watched Europe prevail in the Ryder Cup whilst shovelling this feast down.

Siem Reap led us to Thailand again, where we’re squeezing in a week on the beach before heading off to Java . Whilst it’s fair to say that Buenos Aires didn’t improve much in our three viewings, I think Bangkok did. We got there, got room service, bought anti-malaria pills and a toothbrush and left. Perfect.

How many faces in this photo?

The beauty of the travelling (many people say) is in the getting there. I think we all know that this is poppycock. The worst thing about travelling is travelling. The best things are actually being in the different places, seeing the things you’ve only read about, meeting new people and paying about 50p for a flagon of lager.

That said, sometimes the A to B is a wonderful exercise in people watching/eavesdropping as you’re about to read.

There’s nothing that’ll make your heart drop faster than the last four seats on your bus for an 8-hour journey being filled by four obnoxious, pissed-up, English/Irish people at 8am. To be fair, the girls weren’t too bad, but the two blokes literally couldn’t walk.

Stacks of "Krama" scarves in Siem Reap

It soon became apparent that something odd was going on with them, apart from being drunk at 8am, and after some determined eavesdropping, it became apparent that they were smugglers. And not just smugglers, but woeful smugglers who couldn’t have drawn more attention to themselves, if they’d worn dark glasses and false beards.

First was the following exchange:

Pissed-up Irishman: “Look at the police there, taking bribes as always”

Mancunian lass: “Hold on a minute, the police aren’t supposed to be working today” [it was a public holiday of some kind]

Mancunian bloke nervously: “It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK”

They continued drinking all the way to the border (because that’s what you should definitely do when carrying large quantities of heroin/child porn/live alligators and need to keep a low profile), with the Irish girl getting more and more agitated and upset, telling the Mancunian bloke that “the stuff” was his responsibility and she didn’t want to get involved.

There followed many half-whispered conversations, which obviously we continued to eavesdrop on, concerning “the plan” and “the stuff”, including instructions about when exactly the Irish girl should start crying as a distraction.

The final evidence of their nefarious intentions came when we heard them tell numerous people (including the border officials) that they were only going to Bangkok for a couple of days, but each had a huge suitcase with them.

Erm... I'll have the braised spiders please

At the border, the English couple realised that their visas had expired 30 days ago (they were criminal masterminds you see), necessitating lengthy, drunken conversations with all the border officials about how they could get away with not paying the $5 per overstay-day fine each. Interspersed with their chats with officialdom were pep-talks: “Focus, focus – I need you to focus now”. It was like being in a Premiership dressing room at half-time.

We waited and waited on the other side of the border, but only the Irish couple appeared, so the bus set off without the Mancs. For all we know, they’re now rotting in some hellish Cambodian jail, but maybe they just found a decent bar. We’d love to know what was in the suitcases, and if we’d just asked them, I’m sure they would have told us.

(In about six months time we will have exaggerated the story to them being dragged away from customs with guns pointed at their heads, but this is the truth for now).

Quite a few people from the bus asked the Irish couple what had happened to their friends at the border, but they didn’t seem too concerned in their still-drunken state.

We also learnt that the English couple had smashed every piece of furniture/crockery etc. in their previous hostel room, so we say throw away the key.

Ko Samet

Anyway, as I mentioned above, we’re in Ko Samet right now, on the beach. We’ve been here for three days and are lounging around. It’s everything that Sihanoukville should have been – there is even an over-abundance of ridiculous-looking beach dogs.

We were starkly reminded of our old-age today when the touts handing out flyers for the big party tonight passed us by, in favour of younger, cooler folk.

What care we, we’ll be in bed by 9.30pm with a mug of Horlicks, then who’ll be laughing?

Any comments or questions are very welcome. However, bear in mind that we’re travelling around the world for 11 months, with varying standards of internet access, so won’t always be able to respond quickly!


  1. Oh the memories! Your cambodian story is a joy to read, really enjoyed it.
    Being the ‘odd’ half of the pleasant English couple, I’d like to say thanks for a lovely evening. We took your advise and skipped on Sihanoukville. Choosing instead to remain in Kampot for a couple of days, hiring 125’s and racing round the rice fields. It was only on our return did we think that was a bloody stupid thing to do considering that not all fields are cleared of mines.
    Great blog, still reading it.
    Long may your adventures contine and who knows where we’ll bump into each again!?! I do know, should you find yourself in China, look us up, I’ll take you to the greatest Crepe house in shanghai!
    Tracey & Jason

    • Great to hear from you Tracey – believe me, your crepe eating is nowhere near as odd as the eating habits of some folk we’ve met! Glad to hear you had fun in the rest of your time in Cambodia, although the mine-field riding sounds a bit too dangerous for us. Thanks for your comments on the blog, pleased that you’re enjoying it. Give our best to Jason and you never know when we might be in China (maybe after another few years of saving!).

  2. Apprentice , cant believe you ever play pool badly son ! Ill never forget when you did a leo sayer meet up after dodge ball i talked you in to land at the wei heh hey house and played frames with jonelle and clair amazingly and continued to get riquered light up big F P to you your a legend boycie ! Lots of love grobellini Ps did i leave a voice mail that night ??

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