We had a quiet morning in the Lamphu House packing and having a final breakfast at Prakorb's. Then we were off to the airport - we were told it would take one and a half hours to get there - however, it was Sunday and there was little traffic and we were there in less than half and hour. The departures section of the new airport is all finished (could this be the doings of the former President - the coup took place while he was out of the country - did he have the airport open ahead of schedule so that he could use it for fleeing?). Anyway, it was lovely - lots of high end duty free shops and plenty of eating establishments. Lots of orchids, everywhere.
We flew on Bangkok Airlines, they bill themselves as a "Boutique" Airline, their planes really are rather cute - all painted up with tropical fish, palm trees and sandy beaches - as they fly primarily to the resorts on the southern beaches. They also fly the tourist route to Siem Reap - so that the foreigners can easily visit the famous Angkor Wat.
The flight was at a rather low altitude, so we were able to see the countryside most of the way. Once we were past the Cambodian border, there was little sign of human habitation. Indeed, the land was almost completely inundated with water - there were no roads, just water and trees here and there for as far as the eye could see. I later read that 70% of Cambodia's forests have been logged - I can't imagine what it must have looked like from the air before. We spied the little town of Siem Reap as we approached the small airstrip. I searched the horizon for the temple complex, but it must have been on the other side of the aircraft for all I could see was water and trees to the west.
Thailand is known as the land of smiles and the guidebooks say that the Cambodians are some of the friendliest people on the planet, but the customs official who stamped our passport was one of the sternest I've come across in South East Asia. He was wearing a Canadian flag pin on his lapel, but when I commented on it, he didn't even crack a smile. However, we were soon on our way through the delightful airport, out the door and into a taxi van driving into the town.
Siem Reap (translation - Siam Defeated) has really had a tourist hotel explosion in the past couple of years, it reminds me of Chang Mai in Thailand when I saw it 14 years ago. However, it really still maintains a small town charm, the river passing through it resembles a moat more than a river - maybe this is because it is the rainy season and there is water everywhere. The town is built up on the two sides of the river - there are several parks and a palatial residence for the King when he wants to visit.
We went to three hotels before we settled on the Golden Orange Hotel. It has about twenty rooms, is relatively new, and has very friendly staff who speak good English. The rooms have all the modern conveniences - most of which we did not have in the Lamphu House. I choose not to turn on the TV or use the minibar - would rather read the Lonely Planet - Cambodia - and have a walk to find a cold drink. We went for dinner to a Cambodian restaurant that was recommended by our taxi driver - we kept him for the evening to give us a driving tour of the town, and the restaurant was great. I took a couple of photos of the food - Anil ordered stir-fried chicken with peppers. Little did he know that it came with fresh green peppercorns, still on the stem. I don't know how many of you have ever seen fresh peppercorns - I remember being amazed by them when I first saw them in India.
The other dishes were very tasty - the two kinds of curry came in the shells of fresh coconuts. They make very attractive serving dishes - you don't even have to wash them when you are done. Now that's a new kind of disposable dish that most environmentalists would approve of. After dinner we settled in for an early night as Angkor Wat was just down the road waiting for us to arrive. We decided to keep our driver for the three days of viewing the temples because they are spread over a very large area and it was too hot and humid to manage in open tuk-tuks. Besides, with four of us, it amounted to the same cost as two tuk-tuks and we had AC to cool off in now and then.
We arrived at the site and purchased three-day passes at an amazingly reasonable price of USD 40.00. Unfortunately, the government granted a major oil company the rights to manage Angkor Wat and they then receive the lion's share of the admission fee. It's hard to believe that a company that already controls a scare resource in Cambodia, also keeps most of the profits from tourist admissions to one of the world's most incredible religious sites. We had arranged for an English-speaking guide to accompany us through the temples, and were a little dismayed to find his English very difficult to understand - made even more difficult by the fact that he had a terrible cold. We didn't have the heart to send him packing, it is the off-season here and opportunities for work for a freelance guide are few and far between.
We were absolutely floored by the beauty of the temples in the complex - there are so very many - each quite different from the other as they were built by different Kings over a period of hundreds of years.
We started the day at the temple by having a quick breakfast at one of the open-air Khmer-style cafes. Just as we were about to leave, I noticed that someone had left a camera hanging on the back of the chair at the table next to me. I mentioned this to Anil and David and learned they had checked out the two western girls that had been sitting there while we ate. The women had just moved to a different table because the sun was shining directly on them. Were they ever relieved to have their camera returned - they hadn't even missed it yet. I guess there is some good that came out of the guys checking out the gals in this case.
We set off for the first of the other major temples beside Angkor Wat - we would return to see Angkor later in the day. It is the Bayon Temple - there are huge carved faces on each of the 54 gothic towers a total of 216 gargantuan faces - probably one of the most recognizable architectural treasures of Cambodia. We clambored all over the temple, and then when we arrived at the top most level, we visited the Buddhist shrine inside for a prayer and a blessing from the priest. We continued on taking countless photos and were ready to move on to another temple when I noticed that my laminated photo ID pass was no longer around my neck. Our guide was most alarmed; we all scurried off to retrace our steps to try and locate it. I was resigned to having to replace it - rats - but our guide was mortified. The average Cambodian only earns USD 20 per month, so to lose a $40.00 pass was unthinkable.
At one point I peered into the dark shrine and noticed the priest waving to me to come in, but as we had already prayed there, I didn't bother to go in again. In the end, our guide went to speak to the priest, and it turned out that he had found my pass at the foot of the shrine and was calling to me to come and retrieve it. I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay there longer than I had, that I had not received all the blessings that were to come to me - so my photo decided to stay longer. Hmmm... David and Jeong Ae felt that finding the pass again was a "pay it forward" good deed, for having found the tourist camera earlier that morning. Anyway, we were all in high spirits and set off to see the next temple.
One of the things about the temple complex that seems to be hard on other tourists, is the large number of children selling souveners and trinkets. These children become very good at speaking a little of several foreign languages and have the most incredible come-backs to almost any way one tries to say "no" to them. They are very adept at catching your eye, and once you look them in the eye, it's pretty hard to get away without buying something. All the books they have are color photocopies of the originals and the jewellry is poor quality so we were really not interested. Anil is the softest touch with the children - that should come as no surprise after teaching for over thirty years. When he would not give his name to one of the older girls - she started calling him "Mr. No-Name" (we had a good laugh and still refer to him this way) and she seemed to be lying in wait for him at the beginning and end of each of our three days at the temple site. He did manage to resist buying anything from her, but that was due more to her unpleasant attitude than anything else.
As we toured from one site to the other, we were able to walk some distance through the temple compounds and at one point we passed a small group of musicians playing traditional instruments. A simple sign posted beside them told us that they had all lost limbs to land mines and that they were playing music to try and raise money to feed their families and send their children to school. Anil was more than willing to empty his pockets of his remaining Cambodian bills to these enterprising fathers. Further along, we came across a pair of twin girls who lived in a small hutment next to the temple. They could not have been more than three years old, but with their wee voices, tried to speak a few words of English and sell their origami birds. Anil found he couldn't resist buying one and he somehow found another bill, in another pocket somewhere. We don't want to encourage parents to send their children out to sell things instead of going to school - but were told that school is only half-day and the children see to manage to go to school and help support their families too.
The second day at the temple site went much like the first, we found the sun very hot and the air unbelievably humid - luckily our driver kept a cooler full of cold water and also carried umbrellas for us to use, as there is very little shade at most sites. This was the first time I had ever used an umbrella for the sun instead of rain, and I was thrilled to find my shoulders shaded - something a sunhat could never accomplish. After several hours in the bright sun, I didn't have even a hint of a burn.
At the end of the second day, we drove several kilometers out of town to see the huge water reservoir that was built a thousand years ago to provide a reliable supply of water for the thousands of workers living and building the temples. Many of the temples are surrounded by huge moats, it's almost unbelievable that these water projects could have been built on such a large scale so long ago. As we drove along the National Highway, a narrow two-lane paved road, we came upon a washed-out section. We marvelled at how courteous the drivers in each direction were being, as they took turns slowly plowing through the deep muddy potholes in the road. Cambodia's infrastructure is slowly being rebuilt after more than thirty years of civil war and genocide. It's hard to believe that there has only been peace here for the past eight or nine years.
David had heard that there was a street named "Pub Street" and he wanted to pay a quick visit there to see if there was such a thing as draft beer in Cambodia. We found the area with the help of our driver and David managed to find the draft beer without any help at all. It was a lively street, just getting ramped up for the evening. We were only going to spend an hour there as we had tickets to the Cultural Centre for a buffet dinner and a traditional dance program. The little pub opposite ours had a cute name - "Angkor What?". Our driver whisked us off to the buffet dinner in time for us to get our meal before the programme started. We were slightly disappointed as the place was like a large aircraft hanger with hundreds of tables and a smallish stage - luckily we were seated quite close to the front.
The food was rather bland as they were catering to a large number of Korean tourists - busloads in fact - and although most Westerners find Korean food rather spicy - they are not adventurous eaters on the whole. The dance programme was pretty mediocre - we think that the whole thing is designed to get as many people into the place (and out again) as possible. The evening was over in less than an hour and a half and the place emptied faster than I could ever have imagined - I think it would have taken longer to clear if someone had pulled a fire alarm.
Early to bed to rest up for our final day at the temples.