This time last year

I’m away from my computer at present, the one loaded with all my travel imagery (on Picasa)  therefore it’s impossible to keep the story going the way I want. Therefore I must be patient.

I’m also ten hours away from my home – by car – & considering the journey home after spending Christmas with family in Sydney, & more particularly in Woy Woy.

Yet what’s running through my mind at the moment is not what’s just been & gone, but the realisation that it’s now exactly twelve months –  to the day – from this exact point in our Cambodian adventure. I guess that’s what  makes the whole experience doubly meaningful.

Nevertheless, though the Australian countryside has such a lot to offer (including the ribbon of traffic that stretches ahead for twenty-three kilometres before it tries to squeeze onto the bridge at Kempsey), I feel somewhat filled with desire to visit Asia again … soon … to return to the comforting honking of horns, & to slide my backside across the faux leather of a tuk-tuk (remorque) while jiggling the camera into action. 

We’ve set a date in March to make the booking for our next journey.

In the meantime I’ll aim to finish this story so it coincides  … chronologically  & somewhat synonymously … with our movement through January 2013.

Advertisements

Day 12: New Year’s Day : To Kampong Cham

Sunday 1st January 

There is enough time for a languishing shower before we need to reconnect with our group.

While I stand naked & dripping beneath a spray of Cambodian water, Ben decides to ingest another tablet with a cup of black Lan Choo tea, and to take in some toast and half a banana after he’s nibbled down a couple of Marie biscuits.

He is happy to be drinking something other than water and ‘degassed’  Sprite.

Toweled off, refreshed & dressed, I’m more than happy to emerge from the bathroom knowing he’s on the mend.

We venture to the dining room with far happier expressions than we’ve had for days, and with a further fried egg, an additional piece of toast and another satisfying cup of tea tucked into an empty belly, we return to our Siem Reap room for the last time to  gather our bags and expanded belongings.

Many bleary eyes appear from doorways.

Downstairs, a vast array of expressions become hidden in hands or behind sunglasses; each having its own story of over-indulgence-in-karaoke-or-cocktails to divulge –  in snippets – over the course of the day.

Nevertheless we join the pick up bus that Fila says ‘will transport us all the short way to the  bus station in my best town of  Siem Reap’. When there we wait on the roadway for our connection to Kampong Cham.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we wait, there’s much to see. I’m more than curious about the variety of goods on offer to waiting travellers, and also very impressed by the hairstyle of our soon-to-be- university-student who, this morning,  sports a loosely woven plait at the nape of her neck ( and the dregs of a ‘much-too-late-night-out-partying’ in her eyes).
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“How did you do that?’ I ask, wanting to learn new hairdressing skills, though also wishing to instigate conversation with someone in our travelling group other than my son. Though the response is cursory & somewhat abrupt (because she perhaps thinks at first I might be asking about her eyes), the accompanying smile is appreciated …  it makes me consider that in some small, almost imperceptible way,  we may be making some inroads into being accepted as part of the group.

We soon all tumble onto the bus  & are assigned the seats towards the front of the bus, leaving the remainder for locals. The bleary-eyed girls grab the front seats, as usual, so when I’m not looking sideways out of the window, I get to study the plait .

Yet the air-conditioning is set too cool for most travelers. For the first two legs of the journey, at least, we sit with newly purchased scarves draped around necks, shoulders and arms while the countryside offers monotonously flat terrain, the road stretches quintessentially straight ahead and  the girls fall asleep .
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still the bus moves at a steady unfussed pace  …

babies sleep (or eventually cry themselves to sleep) …

and travellers’ chins rest on breastbones following a night of dancing & carousing as New Year’s revelers.

At the first rest stop I raise my camera to capture a precious moment of  quintessential fathering, Kmer -style …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

then further on, as we glide past the proverbial town monument,  I glimpse the similarly adaptive nature of Kmer mothering that seemingly finds shade & shelter beneath available concrete bellies,  in round places,  in town squares.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we arrive we find Kampong Cham is surprisingly nice,

set quite prettily (Cambodian-style) on the banks of the wide Mekong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our hotel room at the Monorom VIP on Mort Tunle Street is again huge and fitted with a mirrored dressing table intricately carved in dark wood, with sufficient space to hang wet clothes squeezed as dry as we can in a twisted towel. A large, life-size Buddha carved in shiny wood stands in the foyer, and I snap Ben rubbing his polished stomach for luck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And luck it seems we then have, for we later witness a top sunset  …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and thankfully Ben seems cured, at last.

Our afternoon is spent cycling a few blocks south of the bridge to, and across, the Bamboo Bridge, cautiously negotiating a way to pass motorbikes, cars and vans…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

till we reach Koh Paen Island. Apparently during the monsoon, when the water rises the river swallows the bridge making it impossible to reach the island except by boat. The bridge is then rebuilt when the dry season arrives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once across, the bamboo slats become large bamboo mats set onto the sandy road, and from there a leisurely, hot ride takes us through endless Cham and Kmer villages, past quaint houses mounted entirely on stilts;  where children stand at gateways to willingly offer high fives on cue.

Sufficient rest breaks help us to keep going in the sun and heat till we reach a complex consisting of a Buddhist temple and an elementary school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leaving the bikes under shade we cross the  dusty road before being guided to the rear of the temple ,then follow a rough path through to rice fields, where a woman sieves and dehusks rice beneath a shade canopy using a large bamboo tray before moving off  – with child – & carrying her efforts elsewhere.

.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Otherwise, only the tops of worker’s heads are visible above the crops.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Simple scarecrows dot the fields.

Our cameras sufficiently filled with imagery of choice, we retrace our steps along the narrow elevated walkways that separate the fields, explore the temple surrounds where boys and girls skip happily together with a makeshift length of vine and, and after removing hats and shoes (when Miss Lawyer stops me in my tracks with an instruction to do so)  —and making certain our shoulders and knees are covered (because I know it’s the custom)—enter the body of the temple where other children are busy rolling up the mats  used for their morning lessons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After pausing a moment to take in the beauty & serenity of the place, we return to our bikes, swill down a  good measure of replacement liquid …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

then prepare for the return journey to the bridge .

En route we stop off  at a local house,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

for the sharing of bananas,

large pithy citrus fruits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

plus unripe mangoes our guide manages to grab from a tree nearby in the courtyard while balancing precariously on the seat of his pushbike.

Approaching the Bamboo Bridge we notice the sun is fast sinking into the horizon.

Legs stop pedaling and cameras click in unison as Nature presents herself in all Her pink glory.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With weary legs but warmed hearts we move off across the remainder of the bridge,  return our bikes to the Mekong Hotel and climb the stairs to our room to get ready for dinner with a local family.

Assigned to a remorque for the $1 return journey, we travel mostly in darkness only a short way into the countryside to be greatly welcomed into our local guide’s home. With mats laid out across bamboo flooring (perfectly separated for adequate ventilation) rice arrives in a silver pannikin alongside a variety of delicious selections including specific vegetarian delights.

DSC00193

Conversation falls from lips like confetti at a wedding

though a Tiger beer seems to rumble around in my stomach for most of the night.

When my sleep becomes the most fitful of the trip so far, and I watch Ben race to the bathroom – being set loose yet again around midnight – I consider we may have to cut short our stay in Asia.

Enough is enough.

Saturday 31st : More temple hopping at Banteay Serai before the year ends.

Waking early I venture down to the Internet Café in the foyer. When there I settle myself on squat cushions and send off New Year wishes to Australia. Meanwhile Ben sleeps on for almost a total of twelve hours though I find he’s dressed and ready for another day of temples when I return to the room.

Nonetheless, he is far from having a settled belly.

Fortunately the hotel’s breakfast menu includes recognisable toasting bread, neat bananas and omelettes.

Packed alongside our fellow travellers, a long forty-five minute bus ride delivers us to the parking area of Banteay Serai, known affectionately to Cambodians – and to Fila – as ‘The Citadel for the Lovely Womens’.

IMG_0009

He says the building of this temple began circa 967AD, taking ‘pretty much ten years to build because during the time there was the war shaking things up’ & the king wanted this temple to be particularly nice, with intricate design-work that could ‘last for a long time’ since he’d chosen ‘the best quality sandstone’ from a mountain positioned 20kms away.

‘It’s now’, he says,  ‘devoted to women – to wives, to daughters, to fiancés, to mothers & grandmothers – for their prayers’, & their ‘asking for good luck to protect their sons, their husbands, and brothers’.

Surprisingly everything appears quite at odds with my memories of this place.

It seems a lot can happen in four years.

The original local vendors’ spots have been moved and settled into neater lodgings beside an elaborate and sheltered entry area that rises on bricks and mortar beside neatly formatted rice paddies. One no longer ventures to the temple from a scratchy village and a roughshod parking area.

As we follow the designated path, I recognise the original toilet I visited years before when I ran—full-bladdered & shouting (to the best of my ability) ‘bawng-kohn neuv ai naa?’—up the dusty road from the temple grounds while young children pleaded for water from my Evian bottle, and a legless woman begged for riel as my life – and Vietnamese non-la –whizzed passed in a blur.

This time it appears the norm that we must first relieve ourselves of any urgent need in a newly constructed bawngkohn saathiaranah (public toilet)  , then approach the temple complex in an orderly fashion, gather under the shade of a tree while our guide begins his stories, and then proceed with hundreds of others sporting clicking cameras to enjoy this exquisite example of Cambodian history and culture.

IMG_0010

There is significantly more water in the moat, giving rise to a wonderful display of pink-tinged waterlilies

IMG_0011and perfect opportunities for perfect instruction …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and perfect pictures of time well-spent …

IMG_0012IMG_0013     IMG_0014

IMG

IMG_0015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next stop is the Landmine Museum, a stark reminder of the tragedy inflicted on Cambodians by the years of air strikes and Kmer warfare. There are too many metal casings to count, and enough tall historical boards loaded with sufficient stories to stop you in your tracks as you try to take in the horror of it all.

IMG_0016IMG_0017

IMG_0018

Filled to the brim with horror tales and cutely-stitched souvenirs we hop aboard the bus, journey along a winding road then stop at a small roadside village where we gather round as an inquisitive group of Westerners bent on watching as palm sugar is cooked up in large tubs, and sweets emerge as set pieces within neat little coils of bamboo to become dried on bamboo trays in the sun over 2-3 days.

IMG_0019

At our lunch stop Ben wrongly chooses French Fries. After suggesting it’s perhaps too much oil for his unsettled innards, leaving half a serving of fried rice behind I take a wander around the restaurant shop and select two neat handbags for $7 each, both for my mother, Ben’s ninety-year old grandmother.

The afternoon is taken up taken up by a visit to our final temple, a chunkier one with detailed carvings at the base of a central tower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Enveloped by signs of the artistry of the past,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

we  look up and see through to the present blue sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then it’s off to a viewing of Angkor Artisans silk screening folk tales, carving soapstone apsaras, inscribing intricate designs on silverware, and sculpting Buddhas from wood with an array of specialised chisels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the small café positioned near a neat courtyard with its own manicured lawns and garden beds, Ben purchases a vanilla ice-cream to help settle his stomach while we otherwise wait for fellow group members till shopping for ‘that special top-notch souvenir’. Of course the women – those who are lawyers, or wives of university professors – return to the bus, after an extended time, loaded down with parcels & paraphernalia, bemoaning the emptiness of their wallets & requesting a stop-off at the nearest bank-in-the-wall.

Meanwhile Ben gives no indication he is ‘in dire need’ of ‘a porcelain break’ and only just makes it back to the hotel bathroom before more herbal tablets are taken to help stem the flow.

Nevertheless, undeterred by this ongoing state of affairs, he’s happy enough to go shopping. So we arrange for a remorque to take us to the Central Market area where he buys –without bargaining – a silver bracelet for ‘only $30’ from a woman with a broad smile – and a sure eye for an easy target – while I choose a superior quality cotton blouse, an assortment of scarves & a few treats for our proposed ‘in-house’ evening.

Feeling rewarded with good fortune & a fine piece of jewellery, Ben seems happy to rest up by the pool while conversations ebb & flow around him and the year draws to a close.

Standing in the Internet Café I farewell the clustering of well-groomed fellow travelers about to head off into the evening intent on celebrating – Kmer style – the arrival of the New Year with ‘a pre-arranged banquet and show’.

I guess our celebrations will otherwise be somewhat more subdued.

Returning to the room I find Ben is showered and packed ready for tomorrow so there’s nothing left to do but to hop into our beds. There, ensconced like left-at-home-Cinderella-twins-whose-sisters-are out-otherwise-enjoying-the-ball, we watch the televised NYE celebrations on Network Australia:

preparing to see in 2012 in an Asian land as Jemariqau belts out a few numbers, David Campbell sets to singin’ and dancin’ ‘Goody Two Shoes’, and I munch on all four sections of a KitKat.

It’s not long before eyes are closed, and minds quite busy with the day’s happenings. A few muffled explosions suggest it is midnight, and thereafter the New Year in Cambodia.

Happy Khmer New Year 2012 ! Chaul Chnam Thmey – Cambodia Khmer New Year. (4)

 

 

Temple Hopping – Day 10: Friday 30th December

I wake with a start at 5 am realising we’re late. While Ben says, ‘I don’t think I can do this’, we manage to dress and make it out the door just as a call comes from our tour leader.

‘We’re on our way,’ is all I need say into the receiver.

I follow Ben down the dimly lit staircase with eyes half closed to the waiting bus where he stumbles aboard like a follower of Henri Mahout about to encounter Angkor Wat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and all its ancient intricacies …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DSC00160

I read that it is Mahout’s Voyage à Siam et dans le Cambodge (1868) that first brings Angkor to the public eye. And though the explorer made no such claims, it was Mahout who was posthumously celebrated as the discoverer of the lost city of temples in Cambodia, the rest of the world having ignored the writings of Charles-Emile Bouillevaux ten years earlier; perhaps because – according to Nick Ray in the Lonely Planet- Cambodia – this work lacked ‘the rich descriptions and tantalising pen-and-ink colour sketches … that turned the ruins into an international obsession’ yet ‘the preserve of French archaeological teams’  before becoming catalogued in such works as Voyage d’exploration en Indo-Chine by Ernets Doudart de Lagrée or the architectural musings of Lucien Fournereau.

Yet while the École Français d’Extrême-Orient funded expeditions to the Bayon in 1901, and six years later Thailand returned control of Angkor to Cambodia, an unprecedented 200 tourists was permitted to visit the temples at this time over a three month period  as the rescue of the man-made from the clutches of nature continued to become an ongoing project of reclamation and repair sponsored by a variety of nations including the USA, Italy, Germany, India, Japan and the Republic of China.

However, in some like Ta Prohm, it is obvious the root systems of the largest trees continue to swallow the crumbling towers, or to lock the blocks in a conquering embrace.

Back inside the bus , it’s some way along the route to the temples that I realise – with a sinking heart –  I’ve left my money belt, and passport, in the room. Fortunately Ben has remembered to gather his, so he agrees to subsidise me the entry fee and the necessary $3US for breakfast (baguette & jam) though we share the $5US lunch of Fried rice & vegetables to stretch the funds.

Meanwhile the bus stops with hundreds of others—and a similar army of remorques— in the midst of darkness at the official ticket booth and entry checkpoint.  Alongside a batallion of  excited tourists  we line up beneath fluorescent lights at one of many available queues and wait to stand before an official camera like corporals undergoing early morning  inspection, in order to receive our official ‘Three-Day Pass US$40.00’ doled out by the Apsara Authority and Sokha Hotel Co. Ltd.

Scrutinising the issued ticket I read – in tiny print -that this company has the right to withdraw the ticket in case of fraudulent use, and then to punish the holder of the said ticket ‘in according to the laws in force.’

Hole-punched at ‘30’ my ticket remains strictly personal — as No. 0622345; Nationality: COV.D0512 — and must be kept and shown on demand. This I discover happens at far more checkpoints than on the previous visit when things seemed far more relaxed.

Still, like my previous early morning venture to Angkor Wat, in reality the sunrise proves to be somewhat disappointing though my camera records some brilliant visual effects as the skyline illuminates into shades of pink beyond the five spires. And as the light brightens I realise it’s the tarpaulins and scaffolding involved in the extensive restoration of the façade that create the blotch in the silhouette to the left of centre, and to the far right in the vicinity of the Elephant’s Gate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still to the eye that cannot compare the present with past experience, though the place may no longer boast its brilliantly coloured temples and gilded towers, it still mesmerises ‘with its maze of stairways and long, echoing galleries adorned with yard upon yard of royal processions, armies on the march, and sinuous dancing girls  [etched into the stones with intricate perfection] promising the delights of paradise’  according to Brian M. Fagan in The Great Warming: climate change and the rise and fall of civilisations.

Then when you realise that the place is lifeless—abandoned by its builders as the rice paddies dried up and the people became hungry; as the environment proved itself to be unpredictable and the people somewhat adaptable and opportunistic—it leaves those witnessing the futility of all such past labour in the production of magnificence with a sense of despair for its loss.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ben learns the temples were constructed between the ninth & thirteenth centuries from portable laterite (as the foundations stones or the core sections) and sandstone (as the veneer) blocks. Ranging from grey, yellowish-brown to red sandstone and greenish greywacke, the blocks ( I later learn) were quarried in the dry season from at least seven areas, including the south-east foot of Siem Reap. [1] They were then transported down-river and along the Tonle Sap on rafts drawn by elephants over different construction stages.

DSC00154

Nevertheless,  Ben considers the temples are ‘more rubble’ than he expected;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and that because of the natural decay of materials over such a long time across an immense and complex archaeological landscape, the restoration and conservation processes seem to intrude, even detract somewhat,  from the original classical authenticity.

DSC00134

In spite of this, throughout the day the temples share their history and their presence with those who are part of the accelerated rush of tourism—on which the Cambodian economy depends—while the Cambodian people otherwise become part of the complex problem of living with heritage because they have differing perceptions of landscape, as priorities vary across the full range of stakeholders based on identifiable economic, environmental and cultural values.

Yet we are told that local opinion, perception and attitude is beginning to matter. That similarly to our great Australian landscape, the local meanings for the natural and cultural features—epitomised here by ‘neak ta’ (‘terrestrial spirits’)—need be accorded ritual significance perhaps over and above any requisite management of World Heritage Sites; predominantly by explicit attention to issues of governance and legal framework as Roland Fletcher suggests in Living with Heritage: Site Monitoring and Heritage Values in Greater Angkor and the Angkor World Heritage Site, Cambodia.

DSC00137

Indeed,  as we move within the temples it seems we are participating in the interplay between global and local values; that when we stand on designated diases for the million-dollar postcard shot it’s because site management requires some reconciliation between the often-conflicting objectives of maintenance that revolve around the outstanding universal values of a particular site and the land rights of the local people.

DSC00151

Indeed when one becomes part of the traffic jam at the South Gate of Angkor Thom such an experience diminishes one’s pleasure somewhat.

Still, we witness the trees that have sprung from seeds freely dropped by birds, now germinating in the crevices between the blocks such that their roots become particularly destructive over time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We are told of the natural tendency of laterite to cement lightly—becoming harder on exposure — making it suitable for light traffic and easy riding; yet of its poor wearing qualities beneath intense traffic, and heavy loads, such that a laterite ‘macadam’ soon breaks into pieces under stress.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And as our bodies become weary with the passing of the hours — because legs climb steps almost vertically and cameras click incessantly at arms’  length — we wonder at the ability of such structures to still exist as exceptional monumental evidence of man’s devotion to his gods; even after the intrusion of voyageurs — and cultural voyeurs — upon their grace and space, over countless environmentally-destructive centuries.

Still there is so much that remains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Replicating the spatial universe in miniature and surrounded by a wide moat representative of the oceans, being oriented to the west—symbolically the direction of death—our tour guide tells us Angkor Wat may have existed primarily as a tomb, or a funerary temple, though it is now commonly accepted it most likely existed as a temple and a mausoleum for Suryavarman II who ruled during the first half of the twelfth century.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Moving along an avenue lined with the remains of naga balustrades, we cross the causeway to the west portico, following in the footsteps of countless others — stepping across sandstone paving stones indented with holes that once held wooden pegs used to lift and position the stones — to view the large statue of Vishnu hewn from a single block of sandstone and adorned with flowers and offerings in the gopura of the outer entrance alongside our first glimpse of the delicately carved apsaras we will find scattered throughout the temple walls. Yet the stairs to the upper level are immensely steep. I guess because reaching the kingdom of the gods was never meant to be an easy task.

Instead we explore, in an anticlockwise direction, the galleries that stretch around the outside of the temple complex and find a series of intricately-carved bas-relief panels once sheltered by the cloister’s wooden roof yet now polished to resemble black marble by the millions of hands that have reached out to touch them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stretching the length of the walls for 800 metres they depict in graphic detail epic events such as the Battle of Kurukshetra with its mortally wounded officer falling from his carriage into the arms of his soldiers.

 

Or the triumphal march of the Army of Suryavarman II with the king sitting astride an elephant wearing the royal tiara, armed with a battle-ax, shaded by fifteen umbrellas and fanned by a legion of servants.

And scenes of the punishments and rewards of the 37 heavens and 32 hells where those condemned suffer terrible tortures:

DSC00153

or else the Churning of the Sea of  Milk where, as our guide explains, there’s a tug-of-war going on over the immortality offered by the extraction of the holy water from the middle of the ocean. Advised by the monkey god, Hanuman, the gods hold on to the serpent’s tail while innumerable danava (demons) wrestle with its head as it coils its body around a mountain that rests and pivots on the shell of a great turtle – the incarnation of Vishnu – and while they wrestle they stir up the waters as a host of heavenly nymphs, apsaras, dance in encouragement for the success of the gods.

Yet on another section of the remaining galleries we find work that is notably inferior to the other  bas-reliefs, depicting Vishnu riding on a garuda slaying all the danava he encounters  though there’s other depictions of Vishnu confronting a burning walled city, the residence of the demon king, Bana, and scenes where such gods as Shiva ride a sacred goose while Vishnu spreads his four arms above his mount.

Inside the temple a sunken floor suggests ponds for swimming may have once existed here. Otherwise the inner enclosure rests on a two-tiered pyramid and rises extremely steeply to the upper terrace with its continuous gallery enclosing an inner cruciform of four rooms thought to contain a number of separate shrines.

We wander around, with others,  noticing the  five towers that jut from the upper tier in a quincunx, with the central tower stretching (we are told) sixty-five metres above ground level …  and the hot-air balloon that hovers in the distance, dangling in the sky like a Christmas decoration.

And though fearful of heights,

DSC00139

I even climb, almost vertically, to take in the view from one of the towers, asking  Ben to capture such a courageous  endeavour, for posterity.

DSC00142

Then having taken in as much as we can in such a short time,  we head off towards the walled city of Angkor Thom built for Jayavarman VII, the powerful ruler of the Kmer Empire during the late 13th century. When there Ben gathers a few bananas and feeds one of the elephants waiting to accept riders – for a hefty price – near the Bayon; yet being so close to an eye and a probing trunk proves a little too ‘spooky’. There is no thought given to taking a ride though we hear , come early evening, other beasts become stationed at the base of Phnom Bakheng ready to transport riders up the hill for sunset.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith an interesting mixture of both Hindu and Buddhist elements of style, the Bayon rises abruptly from the ground like an artificial mountain aiming to impress with its thirty-seven surviving towers and magnificent, gigantic face sculptures, 216 in total.

These are thought to represent the projection of benevolence outwards by Lokeshvara, a Buddhist deity from the Mahayana Buddhism, in all four geographical directions. However though considered by some as representing Avalokiteςvara, some believe each face is a stylised portrait of Jayavarman VII, the most prominent of all Khmer kings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Appearing calm and noble, each face and has the same ironic expression of pity, the same serene smile. Nonetheless, as the last great temple built in Angkor, the Bayon remains one of the most enigmatic. Words become meaningless in trying to convey even a hint of the magnificence and grandeur of the experience as light and shadow create variations of colour on mottled-grey stone. Still our cameras work overtime in trying to grasp something of the splendour of our visit; even as we sit for a time watching a group of young sponsored Cambodian refugees given the opportunity to connect again with their roots through a Canadian organisation that supports visits with new family members as newly acquired accents bounce off the stone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We end the day’s tour at Ta Prohm. Avoiding the scaffolding and plastic that shields the restoration of the façade, after taking a pleasant walk along a bushy track while cicadas create a racket in the trees overhead, we enter through the East gate and emerge at the moat to find other tourists busily snapping the requisite photographs of toppled stones and invasive roots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Filling our cameras with sufficient imagery of crumbling towers caught in the throes of Nature’s ruinous embrace, we head back to the hotel and then hire a remorque to take our weary bodies to the Old Market area and Pub Street.

After having perused a variety of  potential eating spots we settle for a Kmer restaurant in the recommended complex and splurge US$10.50 on Deep Fried Spring Rolls and Mixed Vegetables. We eat fried rice from a pineapple shell and I  sip on a Lao beer.

However Ben appears somewhat edgy and stressed, so without finishing our meals, and remembering we had a particularly early start, we head back to the hotel.

 


[1] Apparently the sandstone blocks of Angkor Wat were almost all supplied from just one quarry according to Uchida, Cunin et al, ‘The construction process of the Angkor: elucidated by the magnetic susceptibility of sandstone’, Archaeometry 45, 2 (2003)   at http://www.crai.archi.fr/media/pdf/ARCH4502.pdf

Continuing on to Siem Reap

Along the way we taste sweet potato, taro and banana chips that are passed around the bus in brittle plastic bags. Meanwhile the traffic moves at a crawl over roads under repair because of the rains that only two-weeks ago swamped these riverside villages and their traditional stilt houses with record water levels, while elsewhere leaving, we are told, a group of tourists stranded at the Banteay Srei Temple complex—the ‘Citadel of the Women’ cut from stone of a pinkish hue—such that all needed to be rescued by emergency helicopter as water lapped at stone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Allocated Room ‘214’ at the Angkor Way, we settle into a room with a budget view, cable TV and an adequate bathroom that doubles conveniently as a clothes washing and drying space. Positioned on Vithei Charles De Gaulle, in Slorkram Village – and with floors and furnishings in the lobby that gleam as polished deep hardwood – it is a little too pretentious for my liking, and too distant from the centre of town.

I’d much preferred—when visiting in 2007—staying at 21 Boulevard Sivatha (only a 10 minute walk or $1 remorque ride to the night market and Pub Street), and finding a more-than-adequate room in the family-run Smiley Guesthouse with its patio full of discarded shoes, its own courtyard restaurant and Pumpkin Soup perfect enough ‘to die for’,  besides wicker chairs so perfect for relaxation and extended conversation.

However the Angkor Way offers a pool that Ben tries out, though with no more than a quick dip after waiting some time to share a generous serving of mixed veges and rice in a spacious dining room otherwise devoid of diners. After all, the water proves to be freezing cold.

We shower then set off  as a group, in separate in remorques, to Les Chantiers Écoles, a silk farm set down a side road in the village of Puok.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Being met  by our special guide, we are directed to see silk worms being harvested, and raw silk being spun, bleached, dyed—using 80% chemical and 20% natural products such as Morning Glory, coconut, saffron, jackfruit root, cucumber leaf, umbrella tree leaf (with or without a rusty nail added), tree bark (with or without the rusty nail additive), banana leaf, Cambodian mint, resin and lastly lychee, with the proverbial addition of the rusty nail—before being woven into thicker fine silk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ben decides to buy no silk articles : those two-metre long scarves made over four days from two thousand threads, and created on a loom that takes three people two days to set up though now they grace display stands with handfuls of others like sun-filled  water cascading unbrokenly from chipped rocks. Instead he buys a quality cotton t-shirt for $8US.

Then it’s back into the town area as the sun continues to lose its sting.

The evening follows on at a frenetic pace: taking a walk through a manicured garden littered with the shadows of bats in flight; pausing but a moment at the shrine to Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm (nearby Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor) where the reverence of the local pilgrims is so palpable that we crouch, bowed as a group, while three monks in saffron robes sprinkle blessings over our heads with a flourish, all the while chanting: possibly indicating the more we give without seeking something in return, the wealthier we will become; and that by giving we destroy the sentient urge to take that ultimately leads to further suffering.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We leave the temple grounds to marvel at the beautiful arrangements of lotus flowers and caged birds on sale beside the temple walls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pressing on we pause to allow others in the group leave their washing at the recommended local laundry …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

then brave the traffic and cross a bridge into the highly illuminated Night Market area with its 240 souvenir shops selling handicrafts and trinkets to those prepared to bargain hard with tourist dollars;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

before cruising through Pub Street with its vibrant atmosphere, through a pedestrian alleyway flanked by restaurants and diners before we are seated in the Phsar Chas Restaurant ready and waiting to select our own versions of a local treat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Though the wait may be worth it to most in our group, as the evening ticks on, the morning rears closer than it needs to do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Delivered back to the hotel by remorque well beyond a reasonable retiring hour, non-plussed and hopeful Ben sets his alarm for 4:25 am. However, with sedative medication on board that doles out nothing short of a solid eight- to ten-hours of sleep, I believe the quiet soul in the bed across the room may be faced with unachievable odds come the darkness of that hour, even in the face of divine inspiration and extravagant beauty born of classical times as we view what was once, and became again in many places through forced neglect during the rule of the Kmer Rouge, an endless stretch of tropical jungle turned into 75 square miles of fertile plains where thousands upon thousands of workers laboured to create seventy-two major monuments including temples and palaces with moats, reservoirs, dikes and canals all irrigated by a sophisticated system that equally controlled the abundant waters from monsoon rains and the yearly droughts, thus providing for two to three rice harvests per year, and feeding at times up to one million inhabitants.

 

Boating Up the Sangkor – Day 9: Thursday 29th December

Following a wonderful and lengthy sleep Ben wakes feeling somewhat better.

So I take a stroll to Phsar Nath for bananas. When diverting along a side street, I choose to purchase fresh bread rolls from a woman who’s  busily  chopping the husky tops from young coconuts -with ease –  with the well-practiced strike of a cleaver out the front of her stall.  Though I’m not overly impressed by the tangy warmth of the liquid inside, I learn it is antioxidant-rich; that coconut meat can be kept in a fridge for up to a week or stays fine in a freezer for three months; and that the meat can be dried in the sun or an oven and shredded so that it will last up to a year in a cool place.

When I return to the hotel room I find Ben dressed, packed and ready in his own cool place.

We zip our passports into our money pouches,  apply lashings of sunscreen, gather up our backpacks, wind our way down the stairway, then gather at the bottom with our tour guide & new-found friends.

Leaving the hotel, and our troubles,  seemingly behind, we journey by small bus to the Sangkor River to connect with the ferry to Siem Reap. This turns out to be a long junk with a covered top, and seats that stretch down both sides where concertina-like curtain flaps gather at strategic points to provide protection, shade and vantage points for picture-taking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Though the junk appears sturdy enough, life jackets strewn beneath its seats – as ragged forgotten orange objects – appear to be the only obvious connection to international safety standards. Nonetheless,  when laden with everyone’s luggage only the depth of the waterways will attest to its reliability on a journey where the appearance of floating villages and communities will appear not only as constant company,  but as the norm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Protected from an intense wintry sun, we sit our bodies at an angle on comfy cushions then twist our necks and heads to see all there is to see. On this infamous journey through a truly splendid and diverse countryside,  the river and its inhabitants do not disappoint. It proves to be as fantastic as the guidebooks say it is.

After sharing extra bananas around with everyone, & being rewarded by something sweeter in return …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

our cameras spring into action as the river meanders alongside, the waters teeming with life, and the repetitive daily passage of necessary movement:

with fishermen teasing out—or perhaps retrieving—huge nets buoyed by plastic bottles;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

with floating pig pens loaded down with cramped, grumpy livestock

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and farm ducks that denude the banks with their constant fossicking within defined earthy boundaries;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

with smiling children being nothing more than children in boats, bobbing in the wake like corks while legs dangle over the sides of a polystyrene carton or a river-worn raft of cultural sorts;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

some caught scampering  along the riverbanks waving to passers-by they’ll never get to meet or emulate;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

with narrow passageways that push through a tangled waterscape as the river broadens and deepens ;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

with the sun moving slowly in an arc overhead, and the villages appearing more concentrated and condensed as floating villages of palm-leafed thatch, plastic, corrugated iron, bamboo and sticks—and the ubiquitous shredded blue, or green, tarp—

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

all clinging to the river’s hemline like remnants of tattered lace,  suggesting a tenuous sense of belonging – and privacy – while hoping each somehow contributes to a flimsy livelihood as threads of present existence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The motor hums loudly enough to make conversation difficult (unless you’re positioned close to the bow).  So I stand there watching the water break apart, creating a fluid skirt that skims across the surface, breaking the dappled meniscus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then longer sections become seemingly uninhabited except for the occasional specimen of bird-life as it springs into flight; or as we slow with the passing of smaller boats at close range; or else wonder at the effect upon Cambodian streams and waterways of the invasive water hyacinths that clog huge sections of the river, before often breaking off to travel as single wanderers like Portuguese-men-at-war set adrift.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Perhaps feeling not quite as well as he thought he might be, Ben visits the crude on-board toilet (though advises me NOT to try it) before stretching out along a line of free cushions, grabbing more than a moment’s rest as, now constantly wide, the water glimmers grey-blue, and low shrubbery lines the river’s edge at times losing ground to the water, swollen by an unseasonal deluge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After many carefree hours spent in glorious,  relaxed wonder, we venture through imperceptive passageways,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

then squeeze beside other smaller boats pushed into the thickets so to allow others to pass.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Eventually we venture upon a vast lake – the Tonle Sap –  crossing through a gentle ocean-like swell,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and bobbing onward and forward towards a distant hill  (Phnom Krom)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 before passing alongside the floating village at  Chong Khneas

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

& docking there at the ferry depot, 12 km south of Siem Reap.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Helped from the boat feeling exhilarated yet weary, we pass a group of  Kmer musicans positioned on the pier playing roneat (the Khmer xylophone), the bamboo khloy thom,  the Sralay with its seven playing holes  …                                                                                                                          even the  three-stringed tro Khmer, all accompanied by the gentle tapping of  sindang while offering a form of traditional Cambodian elegance & beauty as a welcoming gesture to travellers from abroad.

We gather for a time in the terminal, then load backpacks and other baggage that seems to be doubling itself daily with every purchase—like amoeba experiencing the process of cytokinesis—onto sweaty backs, cross the dust to locate an air-conditioned minibus  among other taxis and motodups,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and make the half-hour journey to the Angkor Way Hotel.

The Bamboo Train

Of course the Bamboo Train becomes the highlight of the late afternoon. Because the real, full-sized passenger train passes along the track only once a day, the locals have otherwise devised an ingenious way of transporting goods and people between villages as well as giving tourists something memorable to do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As a few keen people assemble ready to take the ride, a platform of bamboo covered with a neat straw mat—or two—appears in the hands of two ‘manual technicians’. The platform is then attached independently to bare metal runners or ‘wheels’, mounted by the ‘conductor’ who then fires up the belt-driven engine that drives the ‘carriage’—about the size of a double bed—so it then clatters ingeniously at about 40 k/h—with all aboard sitting cross-legged and tightly upright as the wind tears at broad grins—through rice fields and thickets until a glitch in the track makes the whole thing jerk or bump sharply.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then it hurtles on to the sounds of a wedding celebration, reaching  its final destination at a bridge—as it did when we traveled the train—sometime near sunset.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We tip each driver something for our taste of raw rail travel though buy nothing from the stalls selling t-shirts and other Bamboo Train paraphernalia.

When told it is rumoured an upgrade of the section between Phnom Penh and Battambang will be completed in 2013, it’s sad to think that the bamboo train will have carried its last passenger into history.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nevertheless, before we retire upstairs for another evening sans food, I tip my moto driver $5US—something he’s earned for his courteousness and more probably his next packet of ARA King Size International Quality cigarettes—and pick up a bag of neatly folded washing from reception for another $5US as Ben races for the bathroom (without offering his driver a single dollar, or riel).

While batteries are recharged ready for the river trip to Siem Reap, there’s bamboo dust and a skid mark to be removed from underpants as I rinse out a few things by hand to dry overnight. And though Ben seemed untroubled by the hectic activity of the afternoon, he perhaps has been troubled. Still he appears content to take nothing in but bottled water and a capsuled remedy that is too-slowly taking full effect, while I otherwise go to bed feeling empty and too tired.

Previous Older Entries