Siem Reap, Cambodia, July 13
Cambodia (Part 2)
Early in the morning, we headed down to a pier to board a large speedboat heading north along the Tonle Sap River and then across Tonle Sap Lake to the town of Siem Reap. Most of the backpacking foreigners on the boat chose to ride on the roof of the boat and take in the river scenery while baking in the sun. Sue and I decided to stay inside the air-conditioned cabin instead. However, with about two hours left on the five hour ride, I also headed topside and secured a place among the windblown roof-riders to take some pictures of the passing landscape and get my fair share of sunburn.
Upon reaching the far end of the lake, the boat entered a small channel. On either side, huts were built on floating platforms in the water. Everywhere I looked was a rich slice of life in the riverside community. The degree of poverty was blatantly evident, but again the people seemed friendly. Children smiled and waved from windows and doorways as we passed. People in small boats paddled by, several filled with round wooden fish traps. People sat in groups here and there eating lunch. I saw a few large black and white storks. It all appeared to be very peaceful.
When the boat stopped at the end of the channel we were greeted by a throng of hotel touts. Many were holding up signs with the names of their hotels and some had guest's names on them. The owner of our guest house in Phnom Penh had told us she would call ahead and have someone meet us and sure enough I picked out a sign bearing our names.
We walked down the precarious gangplank onto dry land and soon were heading away from the water on the backs of motorbikes. It was just past midday and the sun was beating down with brutal disregard. The dusty and bumpy dirt road was flanked by small, dilapidated huts interspersed with dry ditches and piles of trash. The degree of poverty here seemed, if anything, worse than along the river. There were much less people out and about than near the water, very few children playing, and an occasional chicken or water buffalo. Occasionally I could discern the form a someone lying down in the shadows on the wooden or mud floors of the huts we passed. I smiled at the people who I made eye contact with along the road but they only responded with blank stares.
About halfway down the 12 kilometer road to Siem Reap, the motorbike on which I was riding had a flat tire. My driver pulled over to a roadside mechanic (these are pretty popular in Southeast Asia I had observed) and they worked on changing the tire while I sat under a tree. Sue had gone on ahead to check out the hotel. Before long I heard a strange sound coming from across the road and noticed a young boy sawing a large block of ice into smaller blocks of ice. When he had finished cutting, he loaded all of the smaller blocks onto the back of his bicycle and rode off, presumably to make his daily deliveries. Another small example to put into perspective the things we take for granted back home.
Once in Siem Reap, I met up with Sue and we settled on a $4 US room at the Sunway Guest House and after lunch and a nap, we rented bicycles to watch the sunset at Cambodia's larget attraction - the temples of Angkor. One of the best places to watch the sunset at Angkor is the temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng. En route, we had to stop off at a checkpoint to buy our passes for the following day when we planned to spend the entire day from sunrise to sunset exploring Angkor. The one day passes were $20 US each. Kind of steep we thought until you realize that Angkor is really the only major tourist attraction that Cambodia has, so they need to make the most of it.
We rode seven kilometers out to Phnom Bakheng and climbed a steep slope up to the temple courtyard and then up some more series of very steep steps to the top of the temple. There were probably a couple of hundred other people milling around. Not quite magical, but the view of Angkor Wat down below to the east and out over the rice paddies to the west was impressive. After the sunset, we headed back down to the road and began peddling back toward Siem Reap in the dark. Everyone else who had come out to see the sunset had apparently either hired motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks, or were on packaged bus tours. Sue and I appeared to be the only dimwits who had resorted to using our own steam to make the trip. After all the vehicles had passed us by, we found ourselves more or less alone riding along in the darkness. I couldn't help but thinking how strange it was to find myself myself riding a bicycle at night around Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Not something I ever pictured myself doing, but I highly recommend it.
Back in town we arranged for a "moto-chariot" (for lack of a better word - see picture) to take us around Angkor the next day as one trip out by bicycle was enough. Then we found a little restaurant called the Taj Mahal and enjoyed our favorite Indian meal of chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi, and stuffed nan.
At 5:30 AM Sue and I headed out to the street for our prearranged pickup by the moto-chariot for a full day of sightseeing around the temples of Angkor. Our driver, whose name we did not catch so I will refer to as Mr. Smiley, spoke almost no English but was quick with a nod and friendly smile at any attempt at conversation. After a quick stop to buy some baguettes for breakfast, we rode on to Angkor and made our first stop to watch the sunrise over the top of Angkor Wat.
Contrary to what many people may think, Angkor is actually a collection of about one hundred temples spread over a large area. Angkor Wat is the largest, best preserved, and probably the most widely recognized thanks to the photogenic grandeur of it's five enormous towers.
The temples were built during the Angkor period between the 9th and 14th centuries. This was the apex of the Khmer empire. Many different kings ruled during this time and the architecture of the monuments built during their respective reigns clearly demonstrates evolving artistic styles.
After the sun had come up, we walked down the long raised stone avenue into the central temple complex. As it was still very early in the morning, there were very few other people around. We climbed a steep stairway to the upper level and explored the many chambers and passageways, noting the intricately carved stonework. After taking in the view out over the surrounding area from different sides of the upper level, we descended back to the outside of the central complex to explore the 800 meters of bas-reliefs along the outer esplanade.
We made our way back through the sprawling temple to the Western gate and emerged to find a sea of taxi, motorbike, and bus drivers awaiting their charges along the road outside. Mr. Smiley flagged us down from afar by clapping and waving his hands. We boarded the chariot and headed north to the "city" of Angkor Thom.
Built between 1190 and 1210, Angkor Thom is a three kilometer square enclosed area surrounded by a 100 meter wide moat. Five large arched gates topped with towers sporting giant heads facing the four cardinal directions straddle the roadways leading inside. Several temples, palaces, terraces and other structures in various states of renovation and elemental disrepair stand throughout the city. As we approached the South Gate, Mr. Smiley pulled the moto-chariot over so we could get out and take some pictures. While I was doing that, Sue wandered over to one of the many stalls along the side of the road to look at hats. As we were planning to spend most of the day outside, she needed to buy one. I joined her and as she was deciding on a hat with the help of the young woman who owned the stall, I started talking with an old woman, presumably her mother. She was very soft-spoken with a kind, but sorrowful face. She seemed to have an inner peace born of having lived through much tribulation. At one point she asked where I was from. I told her we were from America. With a gaze that passed right through me she quietly said, "You are very lucky." And she meant it. There was basically nothing I could say. I just nodded silently. On the inside though I pretty much felt cut to the core. Another solemn reminder of the abundant blessings we enjoy at home, and how easy it is to take them for granted.
Sue chose a hat and bidding the woman and her mother farewell, we drove on through the South Gate. Our first stop was at the Bayon near the center. The three-story sandstone and laterite temple is well known for it's giant photogenic sculpted faces overlooking the nation. The lower tier is adorned with many bas-reliefs depicting battles between Khmers and Chams as well as scenes from daily Angkorian life.
From the Bayon we walked over to the Hindu temple of Baphuon which was not open due to renovation work. Thousands of numbered sandstone bricks were scattered outside the temple, awaiting their turn to be replaced in the massive rebuiding puzzle. Next we climbed up the Hindu monument of Phimeanakas and then walked along the Terrace of the Elephants, complete with almost lifesized bas-reliefs.
After checking in with Mr. Smiley to make sure we were heading in the right direction, we walked over to the Terrace of the Leper King to see the Buddhist temple and monastery at Tep Pranam. The large Buddha statue inside the temple was reconstructed or repaired after being damaged at some point, probably by the Khmer Rouge. I then dragged Sue around to some lesser known temples including Preah Palilay, the Preah Pithu Group, and the North Klang before returning to the moto-chariot.
Mr. Smiley drove us out of Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate on the eastern side. We made a brief stop at the comparatively average Thommanon before heading to Ta Keo, one of the first Angkorian temples to be built of sandstone. As the highlight appeared to be a steep climb to the top, Sue opted for napping in the chariot while I made the ascent. It turned out to be worthwhile as I ran into a large group of teenaged Buddhist monks at the top who were keen on practicing their English with me.
After rousing Sue, Mr. Smiley took us to the Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm. Markedly different from the other sites at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left prety much as it was when discovered in the 18th century. The jungle growth is thick throughout the crumbling ruins with the roots of ancient trees slowly displacing the bricks and statues.
As we were walking along the path leading back to the road, a man in an offical looking uniform approached us. I thought he was just checking tikects, which I produced for inspection, but he was much more interested in flashing his police shield type of badge for us to examine. For a confused moment I was trying to figure out what we were being busted for before realizing that the police officer (if he even was one) was actually trying to sell the badge to us as a souvenir. We breathed a sigh of relief and had a laugh. Tempting as it was, I had to decline the offer.
Emerging back onto the road, we indicated to Mr. Smiley that we were hungry and he directed us to a horde of food stall owners. One particularly ruthless young woman shoved her competition aside and led us to a table near her makeshift kitchen. We ate some fried rice and some pineapple while being entertained by young children selling various trinkets. Their technique involved attaching their wares to my person or sticking them in an available pocket, assuming this unwanted transference of possession constituted a sale. Sue switched into teacher mode and before long had the children singing songs to us in Khmer.
After lunch Mr. Smiley dropped us off in front of Banteay Kdei. We walked through the ruins of the one time monastery and out the other side to the large manmade lake of Sra Srang. At the edge of the lake was a large stone terrace with a staircase adorned with sculpted nagas leading down into the water. Around the terrace were the usual array of local vendors selling cold drinks, food, guidebooks, postcards, film, etc. (what we really wanted was ice cream which, of course, they did not have.)
The children of the vendors were soon collected around us, pushing various trinkets and asking us questions in surprisingly good English. We sat down on the terrace overlooking the lake for a rest. While Sue was again engaging the children in singing Cambodian songs, a boy came up and sat next to me. He was about eight or nine years old and had Down's Syndrome. He was obviously outcast from the other children and judging from what appeared to be cigarette burns on his stomach and back was not treated well at home either. The eldest of the other children explained that they thought the boy was "crazy". He was carrying a dirty shoulder bag from which he produced one worn and crumpled postcard to sell. I declined his offer but subtley slipped some riel into his bag out of sight of the other children, not knowing what they might do after we were gone. (It has been our policy not to give money to people but I felt it was warranted in this situation. My heart was really going out to this kid.) I also gave him my bag of "emergency peanuts" (normally reserved for keeping Sue happy). He was quick to offer some back to me and to Sue as well. As we munched peanuts we attempted some conversation though he didn't speak any English. He was very interested in my big foreign shoes and spent some time examining them. Thinking that he probably wasn't usually getting much in the way of positive contact, I taught him the "high five". He enjoyed that and over the following short while until we had to leave we kept up a steady exchange.
I'm sure many travellers to third world countries have similar experiences and the resulting emotions, ranging from a sense of life's unfairness to the realiztion of our ignorance and the guilt of ungratefulness for the blessings of our Western lifestyle, ending with the resolution to some beneficial action. And then we carry on and the experience becomes just another fading memory. All I can say is that I hope I never forget that boy and the sense of compassion that I felt for him. I pray that the Lord watches over him...and I know He will.
By five o'clock in the afternoon we arrived back at Angkor Wat. Inside the temple we found a great many more people than we had seen in the morning. We climbed up to the top level of the temple and secured a spot along a crowded western-facing ledge to watch the sunset. It was sublime.
Finally, after more than twelve hours of taking in the sights of Angkor, we put our feet up in the moto-chariot as Mr. Smiley drove us back to Siem Reap. Back at the guesthouse we booked transport for the following day to take us first to the border with Thailand and then on to Bangkok. It would be another long travel day but we were looking forward to getting back to Bangkok and the meal at Sizzler we were going to treat ourselves to! (The simple pleasures of a decent cheeseburger...)
We were up early to pack our gear and have some breakfast. While getting ready to leave we discovered that the other people going along with us were a group from YWAM (Youth With A Mission) on a ministry trip. They were musicians and were travelling throughout Cambodia and Thailand putting on shows in churches. They were all very friendly and we were glad to have them as travel companions.
We all piled into a minibus and, along with a pickup truck loaded with their musical equipment, headed for the border at Poipet in western Cambodia. The road was rough, but not quite as bad as the ride from Vietnam to Phnom Penh. At one point we had to change buses at a broken bridge which was impassable for vehicular traffic. We had to carry all of our gear across the bridge (which had a huge gaping hole in it) and then spent an hour trying to fit people and equipment onto the available buses on the other side. (The pickup truck which was supposed to be waiting to carry the band's gear never showed up.) We finally solved the problem by moving Sue and I onto a different bus with another group of backpackers to make more room for the musical equipment.
By midafternoon we arrived at the dirty and desolate border town of Poipet where a young guy from the transport company boarded the bus and collected our tickets. My gut feeling was to retain the ticket since it was the only form of a receipt that we had, but assuming the deal was similar to our Vietnam to Cambodia crossing (i.e. a bus would be waiting for us on the other side of immigration), we all handed them over. We piled out of the bus, strapped on our packs, proceeded through Cambodian immigration smoothly, then had a depressing walk through a long fenced-in area lined with several disabled persons and mothers with young children begging for money. Once through there we had to queue again to get an entry stamp at the Thai immigration office.
As I took my place in line, I turned to check on Sue who had been lagging a bit behind. I saw her in the middle of the fenced area surrounded by a large group of children who were making a lot of noise. Assuming that she was getting harrassed, I hurried back and shouted at the children as I approached. Sue shot me a severe look which immediately told me that she didn't need any help. I then realized what was happening - she had stopped to give out crayons to the kids and a small crowd of them had gathered around her. I went back to the immigration office and she joined me a few minutes later.
Riding on the roof of the boat across Tonle Sap Lake
Along the river (1), Siem Reap
Along the river (2), Siem Reap
Along the river (3), Siem Reap
Along the river (4), Siem Reap
Along the river (5), Siem Reap
Bike repair shop, Siem Reap
Ice delivery (1), Siem Reap
Ice delivery (2), Siem Reap
Approaching Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat (1)
Angkor Wat (2)
Angkor Wat (3)
Angkor Wat (4)
Angkor Wat (5)
Angkor Wat (6)
Angkor Wat (7)
Angkor Wat (8)
Angkor Wat (9)
Angkor Wat (10)
Approaching the South Gate of Angkor Thom
The Bayon (1)
The Bayon (2)
The Bayon (3)
The Bayon (4)
The Bayon (5)
The Bayon (6)
The Bayon (7)
The Bayon (8)
The Bayon (9)
Terrace of the Elephants (1)
Terrace of the Elephants (2)
Ancient Khmer rock 'n roller. Party on, dude.
The Humpty-Dumptified Buddha of Tep Pranam
A monk's hut, Tep Pranam
Temple wall detail, Thommanon
Aspara ("heavenly nymph") statue, Thommanon
Ta Keo (1)
Ta Keo (2)
Ta Keo (3)
Ta Prohm (1)
Ta Prohm (2) (Aspara statue with missing head as a result of art poachers)
Ta Prohm (3) (Banyan trees invading the temple)
Ta Prohm (4)
Ta Prohm (4) (Suzanne striking an Aspara pose)
Guardians of Sra Srang
Ancient inscriptions on a stone stele
Sue and our moto-chariot driver, Mr. Smiley
Even monks get into the tourist thing!
House among rice paddies along the road to Poipet
Bicycles seemed to be a popular mode of transport
Landmine warning along the road to Poipet
Sue gets ready to carry her gear over the broken bridge on the way to Poipet
The broken bridge...
Good place for a nap
Sue and I tried to find out where this party was happening and if we could attend, but no one seemed to know...
"Sure, there's room for a couple more!" (Poipet)