Angkor What?!

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After a wonderful stay in Malaysia, I flew from Kuching to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A funny little town; it serves primarily as a stop-off point for people visiting the Angkor compound. At the start of the 20th century the temples were re-discovered and the village of Siem Reap gradually grew as the temples attracted increasing numbers of visitors

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I’d been warned that Siem Reap was extremely touristy (Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. More on that next time) with little to offer in and of itself other than being a convenient jumping off point for Angkor. Actually, I found it to be a very nice place to stay. It helped that the hostel was amazing (Big up to Luxury Concept Hostel; neither luxurious nor conceptual, you are, however, certainly a hostel!) In the day there are some wonderful restaurants, relaxing bars and the pub street transitions into a small but vibrant night area later on. You need a good place to relax after making your way around Angkor all day.

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I made the foolhardy decision of taking my first day in the Angkor complex by mountain bike. I’d been told it was a big place but I severely underestimated the size of the area.   And my ability to ride a mountain bike in 35 degree heat. My logic was that it’d give me more freedom to explore some of the more undisturbed temples without worrying about my driver waiting. Turns out, if you do go to more temples in this manner, by the time you get there you find yourself exhausted, stumbling around the ancient ruins like some cretinous, sweaty Khmer ghost. I managed it, sans camera due to further idiocy, but it was more of a whistle stop tour.

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The best way to do it is, without a doubt, get yourself a tuk-tuk. Preferably a driver too. It seems a little less…intrepid. It’s also true that you’re a little less flexible. But it’s totally worth the trade off, assuming you’re visiting when it’s hot.

Which is all the time.

It costs you like $8 more than just hiring the bike and you can split the cost between more people if you have a group. The guy will wait for you at the entrance/exit of each place you want to go and gives you plenty of time to look around.

The compound itself is really quite something. Strangely, the most famous temple (Angkor Wat) was actually the least impressive, in my opinion.

 

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The vista as you approach the water-enclosed compound is iconic, of course, and the towers look great through the wilderness. But the inner parts of the area are less interesting and, overall, it serves mostly as a nice introduction to the later Angkor Thom (Yorke?) and Ta Prohm.

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The Bayon temple was my favourite. Intricately designed, you find yourself getting lost incredibly easily. The architecture is almost fractal and you quickly lose your sense of place and direction. The large faces on the upper towers are still very clear and visible, while the lower areas are coated in smaller carvings. At one stage every inch of every building in Angkor would have had similar carvings. An insane amount of labour. In fact, I learned that the amount of stone used to build the compound was far in excess of that required to build the pyramids and was transported a huge distance to the compound. The place would be a massive project even now, I imagine, so it’s incredible to think of the time and energy spent on creating this place at the height of the Khmer Empire so long ago.

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The temples don’t feel too ruined either. I mean, they are literally ruins. But after spending so long in China I find myself constantly assuming places are going to completely lack authenticity; reconstructions surrounded by food carts and public toilets. But the site has only the most minor of compromises allowing for tourists. A few wooden steps for the steeper temples and the occasional scaffold to hold up dangerous rooftops. But nothing to ruin the atmosphere too much. Also, as mentioned, the place is huge so it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds if you so wish. You can easily find a temple for yourself to peruse if you’re so inclined. Just watch out for spiders.

Next stop was Phnom Penh (Pronounced…pphhhffff). More on that later.

 

Welcome…to Bako Park

Dun-derr-dun-derrrr-duhduhderrr-dederrr-derrrderrrr...

-John Williams

I’d just arrived at the pier a couple of hours outside Kuching. The ferry to and from Baku park is run by a closely knit group of men who live on the outskirts of the park in the village of Kampung Bako. Their livelihood revolves around ferrying tourists from the mainland out onto Baku National Park, which is only accessible through the village by boat. Obviously, for them, it’s not great if they have to take a day off. As such, the torrential rain and choppy ocean was a cause for concern. As they were huddled around under a canvas it was obvious that they were, five minutes before the first boat was due to leave, deciding on whether or not to go ahead or not.

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Many people were with guides, who were understandably keen to reassure their customers that their jungle trek would not be preceded by either a short, sharp encounter with a crocodile or a slightly more lengthy but equally unpleasant underwater experience.

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Ultimately they decided to go ahead, which I was thankful for, I was pretty excited to get going. Already it felt like much more of an adventure than KL. Proper Borneo-y!

Four of us clambered into the boat and set off down the river. The route took us around the rocky headland of the park into the flat northern area where we could land.

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It felt pretty sketchy. I’ve got to say. That being said, these guys care about their boats and, I would imagine, their lives so I’m sure there was no question in their minds that it was fine. And it was fine, ultimately. I didn’t notice how rough it was for the first 10 minutes or so, I was enthralled watching the park come into view. Thick with vegetation and covered in a wispy haze, it filled me with childish excitement. It’s still a national park, after all, but it felt like heading somewhere really isolated.

The two women sat in front of me began to express themselves as to how they felt that they would really rather the boat hadn’t been allowed to launch, how they were disinclined to die right at this moment and that, perhaps, the speedboat driver ought to seek medical attention for his presumed psychological deficiencies. Quite directly. The tour guide constantly reassured them, telling them that it was always like this and it was no big deal. When we finally pulled up to the jetty and the two women got out I turned to him and asked “Is it really always like this?”. His face said it all!

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I was so happy when we arrived. It was just what I’d hoped for. For sure, Bako Park is in no way the most isolated, most exposed or even most beautiful area of it’s kind. But it was Borneo and it was jungle. It was grey and misty, absolutely pouring with rain and we’d just taken the dodgiest boat ever to arrive in the rainforest. This was exactly what I’d been after.

First we had to report to the HQ. I was encouraged to see the sort of dilapidated buildings that look like they’re constantly mere weeks away from being swallowed whole by the surrounding environment. The sight eased my fears that I’d see the ugly ‘Hilton’ monolith stretching up once I’d got to the park itself.

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Unfortunately, many of the longer trekking routes were closed due to the weather. Disappointing, but certainly sensible and I can’t bemoan the staff their disinclination to spend each evening fishing tourists out of rivers. Speaking of, it was unbelievable to me just how many people were woefully unprepared for the visit. The worst culprits were a CHinese group and a British couple. I know, for a fact, that the word ‘Jungle’ doesn’t translate to ‘Shopping Mall’ in Chinese. But you’d think so looking at the high-heel clad visitors. Their guide met them at the HQ and much eye-rolling was had.

The British couple were the worst though! Immediately upon arrival they checked out the beginning of the trek (emphasis on the fact that it was called a trek, not a stroll) and began complaining to the staff, “You can’t expect people to walk there! This is your park, you should make sure people can enjoy it!”

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There are no words.

Sigh. Oh the entitlement.

For starters, it’s definitely not his park. It even says ‘Bako Nature Park’. It’s not like ‘Bako Unnatural Park feat. Concrete Paths’. They were literally wearing flip-flops and had no water, no food. To a jungle trek in Borneo.

I signed in for the longest day-trek I could and set off.

Strangely enough, most of the wildlife I planned on seeing turned out to celebrate the start of my way. The proboscis monkeys, other less penis-y monkeys and a lot of bearded wild boar arrived just as I was setting off and quickly became surrounded by people eager for a photograph. I felt like some kind of shit, poncho-wearing Dr. Doolittle! Afterwards I learned that they rarely head that close to the HQ and likely had been driven there by the poor weather. Funny how these things can turn into advantages.

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The trek itself was great, though occasionally more challenging than I expected. Most of the route was flooded to ankle/knee deep. But, once again, I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t just a paved path. You were hopping over gigantic roots, paddling through temporary pools which appeared suddenly, fed by a multitude of rain-water streams. It was still raining heavily and I was keen to just power on through to the sea-stacks so I didn’t take many photos on the way there.

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The rainforest felt alien. You were constantly surrounded by organic material; you walked on roots as you heard animals swinging overhead and the vegetation was so thick it was often almost pitch black. I also felt crushingly aware of my own ignorance with regard to the life around me; it was clear that I was surrounded by species of fauna and flora that were interesting and hugely different to anything I’d ever seen. But I kind of blundered my way through it all and felt a little undeserving. We can’t all be Zoologiststs I suppose. Nothing would get done!

(Says the Philosophy Graduate…)

 

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When I finally arrived I managed to fashion a waterproof SLR case out of a plastic bag under some shelter. The beach was totally deserted, as expected. A nice spot to wander around, but the rain continued and I was conscious that the route back wasn’t going to be getting any easier, as the paths were becoming more and more waterlogged. So I headed back.

Overall the trek took me about five hours or so. A lot of that was purely due to the weather though. I’d love to go back after the rainy season and tackle a longer route sometime. A great experience.

 

Right now I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Spent today in the Angkor complex, hopefully should get some photos up here soon.

Take care all.

 

 

and the rain drops and the rain drops and the rain drops and the rain drops and….

Kuching – Malaysian Borneo

As much as I enjoyed Kuala Lumpur, I was probably there for one day too long. By the last day I felt like I had got a feel for the place and seen what I’d wanted to. This gave me the advantage of having a day to chill out and figure out what to do next.
I had a few options but the obvious choice was get somewhere in Borneo because a) it sounds cool, b) its legit jungle and how often am I likely to experience that? It’s got something that the other countries on my trip haven’t got. I had a few comments from people when I mentioned the idea often along the lines of ‘Do you realise you’ll have to walk loads!?’. I must admit, when considering travelling to Borneo, the least of my concerns was my ability to be successfully mobile on two legs. I’ve done it for a while and I think I have it sussed, although I appreciated their concern.

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Borneo, as you may or may not know, is not small. It’s the largest island in Asia, split into three countries. Two cool countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, and one not-cool country Brunei (Sit down Brunei, nobody cares).
Travelling from Kuala Lumpur it was obviously better for me to take an internal flight, saving money that way. As much as I’d love to visit Indonesia, my enthusiasm translates poorly into either money or time. So that’s one for the future.
As mentioned, what I really wanted to see was jungle. And Malaysian Borneo is great for that. I decided to go to the western precinct of Sarawak, to the provincial capital of Kuching. The alternative, heading further east to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, was, I felt, a little too far in the wrong direction considering I’m going to Cambodia after. Also, many people had vouched for Kuching as a place to stay if the weather freaked out and I couldn’t leave the town.

I landed pretty early in the morning of the 9th. It felt like a massive relief just to get out of Kuala Lumpur I have to admit. The time there was pretty frantic; the place is relentlessly busy and quite expensive. That’s fine, but I was ready to go somewhere a little quieter. A little more Malaysian.
If ‘Malyasian’ can be understood as ‘Wet’ then I certainly got what I asked for. It has rained almost constantly since I arrived, to a greater or lesser extent. Usually to the greatest extent. I find the further towards the equator I travel rain keeps upping it’s game. I thought I’d seen the rainiest rain that ever rained during typhoons in China. Here it’s more like some ridiculous vertical river. Not all the time, but for a good hour or two each day after which it reverts to merely torrential downpour.

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I woke up early on the first full day with the intention of going straight to the big one, to Baku National Park. However, there was an absolute thunderbastard of a storm raging so I decided to save that for the next day. Instead, I went to the nearby Orangutan Sanctuary. This serves as a place to rehabilitate Orangutans before reintroducing them to the wild. So, for example, if an Orangutan is orphaned, develops a crippling World of Warcraft addiction or turns to crystal meth there is a wonderful group of volunteers who support them through the process of becoming jungle-competent again.
I don’t expect to see much. Most of the time, according to the guide, the animals are no-shows during the rainy season. The place is not an enclosure, they’re wild animals. However, it had been a couple of days since the sanctuary had seen a particular group, one which had a baby which may have a severe case of the banana-pangs by that point, and so they knew they were due for a visit.

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Sure enough, as we are walking down the road from the carpark to the sanctuary proper, an Orangutan tumbles clumsily out of the overgrowth into the road, followed by another slightly more dignified specimen.

Well. There we go. Orangutans. These two plodded awkwardly down the road to the feeding area, mother and baby also in tow.

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As they were wild there’s no chance of going up too close to them. They will only approach the one volunteer that they recognise as ‘That one with the food’. I can’t say enough about how captivating they were to watch. Reams have been written about how astonishingly human they seem, how much character they have and others have explicated the details much better than I could hope to. But, in the silence, they were genuinely fascinating and I left feeling very fortunate to have seen them, especially considering the all-pervasive meteorological onslaught.

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I think that’s enough for now. Next time, the big one. Baku National Park.
Thanks for reading.