January 29, 2015
My last day in Cambodia. I breakfast at the hotel and take a quick walk along the Siem Reap River before my guide picks me up at 8a.
As I wait for my tour guide, I notice there are few native English speakers–though everyone communicates in English. It is the lingua francaof the world (once the French language, of course). I am so lucky to already know this most difficult language! It allows me to teach and travel in relative ease. I am very grateful.
On the way out of Siem Reap we are stopped by police. There is a roadblock on both sides of the highway. I’m told that I have nothing to worry about and that the police will not even speak to me, only the driver. After the driver gets out, my guide tells me that the driver will have to produce his license and will probably have to pay a small bribe. We wait about 10 minutes. The driver returns all smiles and says that he did not have to pay. He said that he was patient and just kept saying that he had an important tourist with him and needed to get back to the car. The police are often after money, but they don’t like to mess with tourist. Police are corrupt throughout SE Asia, though my guide says Vietnam has the worst reputation.
We make a stop at a silk farm and silk weaving school. It is associated with the school I saw on arrival, but only silk agriculture and production is taught here. I buy nothing in the shop, but it is truly beautiful work. If I were not so hard on clothes, I would wear nothing but silk.
The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million. Many of those executed were the educated, but there was also considerable “ethnic cleansing.” As a result, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, is sometimes described as “the Hitler of Cambodia.” The killings took place over the entire country, but at this spot in Siem Reap, 1000 people were bludgeoned to death (bullets were too expensive) and their bodies thrown into a well. The skeletons have been recovered and the bones piled into an enclosure with glass windows. The well was filled in and a Banyan tree (sacred in Buddhism) planted there.
We stop at the Angkor National Museum, with a well-organized display of artifacts from Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other nearby Khmer Empire sites. It covers the golden era of the Khmer Empire (802-1431). Of the 8 displays, the Room of 1,000 Buddha is my favorite. Here are images of the Buddha carved in stone and wood as well as cast in metal. My guide shows me that the reclining Buddha (left hand supporting the head) and the Buddha in Nirvana pose (right hand supporting the head) are different. Here are unique images of the Buddha protected by Naga, the king cobra. According to legend, Buddha was meditating under the Banyon tree. It began to rain and he did not notice the rising waters of a nearby river. The cobra, king of the water, took pity on Buddha when the water rose nearly to his nose. The snake coiled his body under the sitting Buddha and lifted him out of the water, one coil at a time, then he spread his neck like an umbrella to sheltered the Buddha from the rain.
The last gallery at the museum is about ancient costumes, as depicted by the Apsara, the celestial dancing girls, chiseled onto the walls of the temples. I find this odd since they aren’t wearing much in the way of clothing!
Sovann is Buddhist and he tells me the story of the Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk–a story depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat and the bridge into Angkor Thom.
After the museum, my guide and driver leave me at the market to find lunch on my own and shop for an hour. I’ve bought all I need and can’t carry any more! But I like to look. It’s too hot to eat much, but I get a simply eggplant and fish dish. I’m taken back to my hotel to shower and check out for my flight back to Vietnam.
It’s been an amazing trip. As a bonus, I’m able to get an additional month tourist visa in Vietnam, enough to get me through Tet festivities. Getting a visa takes over an hour and they put the stamp on the last possible page of my 28 page passport. Good thing another is already in the works. It will probably be ready at the US Consulate in HCMC next week. (I got an email the very next morning, after I was back in Bien Hoa, that it was ready for pick up. Darn!)
I am up early and breakfast at my hotel, the City River Hotel in Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia. My guide, Sovann meets me at 8a as agreed. Yem is the name of my driver. He does not speak much, but seems to have a fair command of English. I can’t believe how much I’m getting for this trip. The cost is just over $800, but in addition to airfare, hotel and breakfast, I have a private guide and driver, with all admission fees paid.
We are off to see the ruins of the Khmer Empire. This great civilization lasted from 802 to 1431. They held Hindu religious beliefs up to the end of the 12th century and after than Buddhist religious practices, but there has been a strong mixing of these two religions throughout southeast Asia. The Capital of the Khmer Empire moved from the Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1341 and this grand empire went into a steady decline. The sites here in Siem Reap were mostly abandoned. Many were lost to the jungle for centuries.
We start at Angkor Wat, the best known. Sovann explains that it will be less crowded to start at the largest temple–the largest religious site in the world. Most guides bring their tours to Angkor Thom in the morning and continue to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. He is right. This is high season, but the crowds as we approach Angkor Wat are not too bad. This area seen 4 million tourists a year. Until recently, most were from South Korea. Last year, the majority of tourists were from Vietnam.
Sovann tells me that while a lot of money is made here at Angkor Wat, most of it does not go to the people, the Government or even for restoration. The temple sites are rented to a private company, with a lease for 90 years. He says this is an example of the corruption of the country and he is sad that the money is not better used. The private company is owned by a Vietnamese man and is just one of the many ties to that country and to communism. In 2005, Cambodia “gave” an island to Vietnam. While Cambodia is officially a democracy with a (relatively powerless) king, it has strong ties to communism through China and Vietnam. The current prime minister has been in power for 30 years. Single day tickets are $20 and three day tickets are $40. They have your photo on them and there are several checkpoints.
We pass the moat, dug by hand around temple complex. This has never gone dry, according to Sovann. It served to protect the temple and also to drain it during the rainy season.
After the moat is the high temple wall surrounding the entire complex, approximately 8 meters high. We approach Angkor Wat from the back side to avoid crowds. It is one of the few temples built facing west, toward the setting sun. The temple is built of sandstone, which came from a mountain 80km away (50 miles). The stone blocks were transported here by bamboo boat down the Siem Reap River (which runs in front of my hotel), then by elephant to the temple site. It’s good quality sandstone and harder than I would expect. The buildings and carvings are in better shape than you’d think. No mortar was used to keep the stones together. All are blocks, fitted closely and then finished with detailed carvings everywhere.
My guide walks with a bit of a limp and gives me frequent rest stops. I am grateful. With his slight handicap, he makes an excellent guide, good at finding the flattest approach. He reduces my climbing, often takes my hand on steep paths and helps me avoid walking hazards. I am lucky to have found him. If you want to see this wonderful site, don’t wait too long. You need good knees and strong legs.
The temple is built on three levels with 5 towers, a representation of heaven on earth. From our initial entrance we can see 3 tower–representing the Hindu trinity. From other views you can see all five, representing the peaks of the mythical Mount Meru.
At the center of Angkor Wat is the tallest tower on the highest level, with steep, new wooden steps to the top. These are less steep with a wider tread than the original steps, though. It must have been quite a hardship to climb those! No short-shorts or skirts are allowed, nor hats. A woman in front of me is removed from the line and told she cannot go up to the holy of holies (which I find odd when all the carvings are of bare naked women). Men are reminded to remove their hats.
My guide waits while I climb and explore. From this height you can see the moats, which partially protected the temple from being consumed by jungle. Though there is no evidence of them now, the bas-reliefs show crocodiles, which added an additional level of protection to the temple. There is a hot air balloon tethered ahead.
It’s all too beautiful to describe and I’m overwhelmed by the history and the grandeur, but also heat and hardship. I have to sit and wipe my eyes and calm my breathing. I feel like an overstimulated child badly in need of a nap. I’m grateful that my tears of joy and exhaustion come when there is no one around that I know.
I’m not a religious person, though I have a spiritual side. There is something powerful in a place where generations of people have brought their cares and worries and left them on the altar. I felt it in the Vatican, the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) and in Egyptian temples. I feel it here, too. In fact, the more we walk the more I am reminded of the ruins of Egypt.
Angkor Thom is our next stop and the name means Big City. It is a a separate, complex from Angkor Wat. The thick walls are 8 meters high and 12km around (26 feet high and 7.5 miles). There is also a wide moat. There are five gates into the city. Three are Cardinal points, but two are for special purposes. The victory gate is just for the returning army. The ghost gate is for soldiers lets who die in battle.
The approach bridge to the South Gate has an excellent, those damaged, example of the forces of good and evil. One side of the bridge has gods while the other demons. Each is pulling on the body of a great snake, a king cobra, known as the naga. It is a scene from a Hindu story called The Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk—a long and complicated story that Sovann tells me the next day. All the balustrades are the body of the naga–king of the water animals. You also see lions, king of the jungle animals (though there are no lions in SE Asia?).
The huge temple inside Angkor Thom is called the Bayon and each of the 54 towers has four faces. My guide says they are the faces of the Buddha. Only a few are smiling broadly. My guidebook calls the expressions “enigmatic.” Sovann takes my photo far more times than I’m likely to share, but one is with the face with the largest smile. He calls it “the face of Cambodia.” “Not only Cambodian people smile. Even the stones smile!” He clearly loves his country and it’s a beautiful thing to see in someone’s eyes.
It’s estimated that a million people once lived in and around this area. There is little that remains of their wooden structures, however. The area was abandoned when the capital was moved from Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1431. Many sites were lost to jungle for centuries. Only Angkor Wat remained in use, though barely.
All the walls of the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief. Even after all the centuries, the detail is quite amazing. The most striking are the apsara–the celestial dancing girls, in seductive poses. These sensuous women line the walls and columns, wearing ornate jewelry, imaginative headgear…and little else! There are also devada, dancers who can be male or female (though I don’t see any male figures dancing). They are portrayed is slightly less alluring poses than the aspsara. Personally, I can’t tell the difference. I notice many of the breasts of the women are shinny from constant touching. LOL
In the entry courtyard walls of Angkor Thom is a bas-relief of everyday scenes: fishing, cock fighting, farming and even a market scene–real finds for archeology. In the Eastern Gallery is a detailed scene of the wars between the Khmer and the Cham (or Champas), a Muslim tribe which no longer exist.
My favorite is the Terrace of the Elephants, with hundreds of almost life-sized elephants in poses of fighting or working along the 300m retaining wall. There are steps with elephant tusk balustrades and a raised platform for the king to mount his elephant. The terrace was used for royal review of military parades. It overlooks the marching grounds and both soldiers and elephant were trained here. The terrace adjoins the smaller Terrace of the Leper King. Both date from the 12th century.
We see the temple of Ta Prohm, site of the film Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. My guide got to meet her briefly and was quite proud that she adopted a child from Cambodia. He calls him the luckiest child of the country. This temple is known at Jungle Temple and was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, in honor of his mother. The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Jungle trees have destroyed and covered many Khmer buildings, but here they seem to be protecting them and even holding them together.
On the way to lunch, at a Khmer style restaurant, we pass a very old temple that was never finished. Built in the 10th century, it has 5 towers, but no statues or carvings. According to legend, the central tower was hit by lightning, a bad omen. The king abandoned construction.
My guide and driver take a much needed rest in hammocks while I lunch alone. I take my guide’s recommendation of Amok with fish, a local Khmer dish. It is a thick soup served in young coconut. I also order a cooling pineapple shake. It all arrives quickly and is more than enough for two. The soup is in a coconut with a star shaped lid cut into it. It’s piping hot and redolent of lemongrass, ginger and coconut milk. I’m not sure how it is usually eaten, but I spoon it into my mound of rice and enjoy my fill.
Though the bathroom is marked for women, it has a urinal with slices of lime in it. Also a huge spider. As I am washing my hands outside, a woman approaches the toilets and quickly retreats from one saying “that must be the men’s.” I say that I don’t think it matters which is which, but she laughs. “There’s a man already inside that one.” She says and points to the open door. She rolls her eyes to let me know she saw more of him than she wanted to!
After lunch we see a final temple, a small, almost abandoned one. Little reconstruction or restoration is evident. Banteay Kdei is beautiful, but I have temple overload. They are all beginning to jumble in my mind. I’ve taken way too many photos which may or may not help me sort them. I’m ready to go back to my hotel and glad that the itinerary is over for the day. I need to rest and absorb all I’ve seen.
Evening reflections along the Siem Reap River, during a leisurely dinner
I find it interesting that my almost constant ill feelings in Bien Hoa are gone here. I’ve had a rough day–lots of walking and climbing in heat and high humidity. Yet, I’m quite well. A bit tired, perhaps. Certainly I will sleep well tonight. But my sinuses are not full. My stomach isn’t even slightly queasy. I don’t feel like I need to lie down, or run to the bathroom. Maybe I really am allergic to something in Vietnam? Bien Hoa is the site of the former US military base and Agent Orange does come to mind, along with other chemicals. Who knows what’s in the water supply or the air? Or the soil?
The Cambodian script reminds me of Thai–ornate, incredibly beautiful and completely indecipherable. It flows so that I’m not sure where one letter ends and another begins. They are not like Chinese characters, nor like our familiar alphabet.
I’m hungry, but want something light so that I sleep well. I order a dish simply translated as “pumpkin with meats.” I think it’s a soup but when it arrives it’s more like a semi-solid French onion soup. I taste a slight sweetness that might be pumpkin and a bit of ground meat. It’s perfect and I believe that is real cheese on top! Despite the heat, foods are served piping hot–probably safest!
Sovann and I got into quite a philosophic discussion today. He is quite a deep thinker and is concerned about his young son and new child on the way. He asked for advice on teaching them, particularly English. He says that if money weren’t a problem, he would like to be a teacher. He wanted my opinion on who would be the next president and had many questions on American politics. He says that “all the world” follows American politics. It’s quite a responsibility.
January 27, 2015
Up in darkness, a fast breakfast and a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh airport by 6:15a. (It cost me 450,000vnd, twice yesterday’s trip. Huh. But it was a metered taxi, so that’s the price. I guess.)
Security is not strict at Ho Chi Minh Airport. Though the signs (all in English) say you must have your 100ml liquids in a plastic bag and take off your shoes, no one does. I don’t either. But I did go through 3 security scans on the way to the gate. This morning, there are almost all westerners at the gate–20 somethings in small groups or retired couples. And then there’s me.
Surprisingly, the prices at the airport are quite good! I bought a silk, reversible robe with embroidery for $25 and a silk scarf for $7. The robe is beautifully made in the Chinese style and one of the most sensuous pieces of clothing I’ve owned! My current robe does not fit well and I’ve wanted to replace it. All the prices in this section of the airport are in US dollars, though I would have expected Euros. Many of the passengers speak French and German.
We board on time. The bathroom on the plane is unbelievably tiny! Turning around to flush requires contortion skills. I bumped my elbow on the sink. Can’t imagine what a truly large American would do. Or someone tall. Suspect they would have to back into the space. Grateful for the few pounds I’ve lost in the last year. Need to drop a few more—particularly around my waist.
We land in the Kingdom of Cambodia at Siem Reap (See-em Reep). The name means “Siam Defeated.” It commemorates a Khmer victory over the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya (which I visited a couple years ago in Thailand). Siem Reap is located in NW Cambodia and is the capital of Siem Reap province. It sees millions of visitors a year as the gateway to Angkor Wat, 10 km (6 miles) away.
“Wat” means temple in Thai, Cambodian and a few other languages. Angkor Wat translates as “the City that is a Temple.” It was built during the 12th century and is the best known of a series of stone temples left behind by the Khmer Empire. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat later became a Buddhist center. It is the main reason I’ve flown here–well, and also to renew my Vietnamese visa. This is a “border run” for me–or a “border FUN run” as some of the others call it.
On arrival to Siem Reap airport, I easily clear visa, customs and passport control. Good thing I got those 6 passport photos in HCMC. The ATM at the airport gives US dollars, something I’m running low on. Bonus! I’ll get more on the way back through.
My guide meets me at the airport. Sovann and a driver are my personal guides for the trip! Both speak quite fair English. My guide is one of 7 children. His family is from the Phnom Penh area. He’s been a guide for 8 years. Sovann asks me how the “traffic jam” is in Vietnam and laughs. He says that I will not have any trouble with traffic jams here. “In Cambodia, we drive on right. In Thailand they drive on left. And in Vietnam they drive everywhere!” He’s right!
Sovann tells me that the Cambodian language is somewhat similar to Thai, but nothing like Vietnamese. “Nothing is like Vietnamese, he quips.” Again, he’s right. The script is individual letters, not characters as Mandarin, but they are nothing like the ones used in English.
Like Vietnam, this is the “cool” and dry season—90F, easily. I hate to think what summer is like.
I’m taken to an Artist school where young, local people are taught traditional crafts. They are given a place to live and a stipend during their 9 month training. The goods they produce at the school are sold to support them. Skills taught include:
• Carving wood and stone (sandstone and soapstone)
• Silver plated copper ornaments
• Silk making and weaving
• Painting on silk and wood
• Lacquer ware
The items are lovely, but there is nothing I need at the gift shop.
The currency here is the Cambodian riel (REE al). The exchange rate is 4000 riel to 1 US dollar. But at the market, all the prices are in US dollars. Since most of the travelers are Asian (particularly Korean and Vietnamese) or European (I hear a fair amount of French and German) I can’t imagine why.
Next I’m taken on a ride in an ox cart. It is possibly the most uncomfortable ride I’ve ever taken in my life! You really are reminded what a fine invention shock absorbers are! I’ve ridden horses, elephants and even a camel, but the ox cart is the worst! (later that night, when I shower, I realize I have a small wound on my backside!) The road is dirt, actually hard packed, red clay. I can only imagine the sticky morass it becomes in the rainy season. When I asked Sovann about this, he just said “slick.”
We drive through a small community. Only some of the shacks have electricity, but my guide says all have television, using car batteries as power. There is a mishmash of housing styles. The oldest are on stilts–a precaution from wild animals like tigers, snakes and bear (I didn’t know about the bear, but Sovann assures me of this when I question it). The newer houses have foundations on the ground are brick with plaster over them. I see no cars, but a few motorcycles. The “main” dirt road has many trucks, though.
On the outskirts of the community are rice paddies and a shallow pond with fish and flowering lotus–both important food staples. One farmer has fenced off a narrow inlet and is raising ducks, too many and too close together for my taste. Chickens run wild everywhere. At the edge of the rice paddies, there are stupas, conical structures containing the ashes of family members. These ashes are held in the “spirit houses” outside the home–small altars on a high platform. If the family can afford it, all the ashes are interred in a stupa.
We pass a school where the uniformed children are outside playing. Primary and secondary school is free in Cambodia. Sovann was quite proud of this, and rightly so. He says that the Cambodian people know how important education is. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, killing 2 million Cambodians before the Vietnamese government drove them out less than four years later. They focused their killing first on teachers and intellectuals. He says that Cambodia must have so many people educated that this cannot happen again. But the schools have few teachers or resources. Schools are mostly run in two shifts–morning and afternoon–of four hours, so everyone gets some education. He practically begs me to return to Cambodia and teach, particularly when he finds I am an engineer.
I ask Sovann how he became a tour guide. He said he had to finish high school then take an entrance test of general knowledge, which he said was very easy. Once passed, he studied 5 months about history and the sites of the area, along with English, before taking another test, which he says was very difficult. “But this is corrupt country. If you have money, you can pass test.” Money talks in many countries, I find. Including my own.
Sovann pays the ox-cart driver and I ask about the ruins all around us. It is a stone temple, perhaps 1000 years old, and there is evidence that the locals worship here still. Like many old temples of the area, it was originally Hindu. As fashions in religion changed, it was transformed into a Buddhist worship site. From what I’ve seen, Buddhism and Hinduism seem to have fully merged, in Southeast Asia. Both recognize the Hindu trinity–Shiva (the destroyer), Vishnu (the protector) and Brahma (the creator). Both recognize the mythical Mount Meru, home of the pantheon of gods. And Ganesha, the elephant god, is popular. This is a favorite of Sovann’s, though originally he did not care for this rotund god, child of Shiva. Sovann tells me that the fat stomach contains the book of knowledge and he thinks education very important.
Though the Buddhist and Hindu religions are quite strange to me, I find them fascinating and full of wonder. It may be sacrilege, but I find their stories of the creation and the tales of their gods and prophets entertaining and enlightening. Are they really so different than the Christian stories? IMHO, the most human thing we do is to try to understand the world around us and teach it to our children. Stories, myths and legends were our first forms of education and training, as well as entertainment. The stories, told huddled together against the terrors of the night, were the thing that made us a community. The telling of tales has made us human.
My guide takes me to my hotel to check in and I release him until the next day. I shower and explore first a temple near my hotel, then the city market. Prices are downright cheap and I replace a few pieces of clothing that have worn thin. My weakness is scarves and I buy a couple. I suddenly realize I’m both hungry and exhausted. I grab a couple snacks and water for tomorrow, suck down a cool avocado shake, and sink into my bed for a 2 hour nap against the heat of the day.
When I wake it is dusk. The city has come alive again. Twinkle lights are everywhere and there’s a night market. I need nothing, but browse for an hour. I grab some stir fried noodles with vegetables and an egg for protein from a street vendor. I’m asleep by 10p.