Welcome to Khmerland
Bangkok... Siem Reap

Tuesday 23rd November 2004

I was up and showered before Julie stirred. The prospect of getting out of bed and being whisked away to the airport was not proving enough of an incentive for her to get up. Despite her reluctance we were in the lobby at 5:30am checking out. I was a little surprised when we came to pay our bill. It was astronomical, and sadly correct. The itemised list was quite embarrasing as it was mostly alcohol!

Right on schedule our mini bus arrived and the driver chucked our luggage into the back. A retired couple, called Ann & Jim, were already on the bus and coincidentally they were on their way to Siem Reap this morning. We talked a lot about travelling and exchanged experiences and anecdotes, but they trumped us when their Machu Pichu card beat our Russia card!

We reached the airport and checked in our hold luggage which was curiously x-rayed before we checked them in. That's the first time we've done that. I suppose it makes it doubly safe?

We paid our 1000 Baht ransom to get out of Thailand. The receipt we received strangely did not describe it as Airport Tax but as a Personal Service Charge? Imagine trying to claim that back on the business expenses! Only when we had paid up were we allowed to go through into the departure lounge where we had an hour's wait before our flight.

We had breakfast at the café, took our malarone, and Julie started popping her diazepam. She seemed to be holding it together reasonably well today. Well, that was until we saw the Bangkok Airways airplane for the first time. Julie experienced an earthquake in the knee caps and her stomach shuddered. She was shocked by seeing propellers hanging on the wings. "It's got propellers!" she cried!

She wasn't expecting this flight to be a twin prop AT7 airplane. I had somehow neglected to mention it!

"I've been on bigger buses!" was her final comment before she did herself proud yet again and purposefully walked up the stairs and on board. Four diazepams helped her to get on and another two kept her on it.

By the time we had been served a small snack, filled in the visa application and the arrival/departure card we were descending towards Siem Reap. Throughout the flight Julie consistently checked the status of the propeller, "Yes, still turning!"

Clutching her sick bag she looked out of the window as we swooped down to the small provincial airport. (Actually it's now an International Airport with direct flights from all over the Far East.)

Below us we could see vast rectangle reservoirs, but no teasing glimpse of Angkor Wat.

We landed with one hell of a bump as it bounced back up in the air before bumping down hard again. As the brakes screeched the plane seem to drift gracefully to the left, then to the right. Everything kicked into slow-motion as it often does in times of trauma. I honestly started to think that we were about to fall into an uncontrollable spin. Poor Julie almost ripped out the seat in front as she tried to single-handedly steer the plane to safety!

It only lasted a second or two before mercifully the pilot corrected the glide and we were back on the straight line; albeit still careering down the runway at high speed.

We finally screeched to a sudden stop and we all jolted forwards. Ping went the seat belt sign but Julie sat there motionless, in a state of catatonic shock!

She was really suffering before eventually an emotional smile quivered on her mouth. When she stepped onto the tarmac she could hardly bring herself to look at the propellers. The ones she had stared at for the last hour!

We walked to the immigration desk, queued for 15 minutes to hand over twenty American Dollars each for our entry visa, and then queued again through passport control. There was no welcoming smile to ease our impatience; the staff took their "protectors of the borders" role far too seriously! The military style uniform made them look very important and their unblinking gaze was quite unnerving.

We eventually found a warm greeting when we stepped outside and met our guide. He walked towards us with a big smile, shook our hands, and handed over a gift from the tour company. A traditional Khmer scarf. Not the familiar red & white krama that I'd expected, but a far more ornate and delicate cotton scarf.

His name was Veasna, but was pronounced something similar to 'Vesnu'. There was another guide alongside him, waiting for another couple (who were delayed as they'd forgotten to fill in their visa application on the plane.) Veasna explained that this morning he had first refusal on which clients to guide and that he had chosen us as we were young and looked like fun! He seemed quite the charmer!

We got into our MPV (multi-person vehicle) and were taken to our hotel which was only a few minutes away from the airport. Our driver, called Chet, was heralded as the 2nd best driver in Cambodia. Veasna didn't elaborate as to why he was only the "second best", he simply chuckled to himself!?

We reached Lotus Angkor Hotel, along the imaginatively named Airport Road. It was dwarfed by the larger City Angkor Hotel which stood next door but we did not at all feel as if it were the poorer relative. The lobby was extremely spacious, immaculately presented, and the staff gushed with their greetings and subservience. The room, once we sorted out a small misunderstanding, (we wanted one big bed, not two little ones) was comfortable and large enough for a small family!

On the downside however the patio doors opened out onto a large shared balcony area overlooking the swimming pool. We were slightly concerned about no privacy but we appeared to be the only guests! The hotel was unfinished with one whole wing still frantically being painted. Apparently it had only opened a week or two ago.

At 10am we met our guide in the lobby and were off on our first temple tour but before we could step a foot on temple ground we had to pay for a 3 day pass.

It cost $40 each and in return we received a laminated pass with our mug shots allowing us to access all the temples in the Angkor area. We asked Veasna why the name SONGKHA HOTEL LTD appeared at the top of the pass. He explained that they had won the contract to administer the whole process.

Whilst they pay the government for the license to run the Angkor Pass Scheme they must make a huge profit from the sheer visitor numbers.

I wonder how much is ploughed back into the temples or the local area? It's strange that the government didn't seek to benefit directly from this tourist boom and administer the passes themselves?

We decided to allow our guide to look after our passes in case we misplaced them or forgot to bring them with us on a trip.

He said that at the end of our time here he'd give them to us as souvenirs of our stay, and they are quite a souvenir!

Our first adventure was out to the Rolous group of temples, approx. 15 miles out of Siem Reap. These were the earliest examples of Khmer temples in this area dating back to the late 9th Century. Our very first temple experience was Lolei.

It was made from brick and was held up precariously by wooden scaffold but despite its time ravaged look it showed glimpses of ornate carvings that hinted at its former glory.

This was probably the least impressive of all the temples and as such was perfect as the aperitif. The appetite was whet!

Alongside the ruins was a modern Buddhist temple from where our every move was followed by the inquisitive eyes of saffron robed monks. Eager postcard selling children were also watching us, waiting to pounce as soon as we walked down towards our van.

We drove next to Preah Ko, the sacred ox temple where Veasna imparted with an essay load of information about the Hindu gods such as Vishnu the preserver, Brahma the creater and Shiva the destroyer, to whom this temple was dedicated.

He spoke very good English although his pronunciation was a curious blend of French and Asian.

He also had a great sense of humour, always laughing and telling jokes. Some we understood; others we just politely laughed along not having a clue why!

At Preah Ko three badly damaged oxen sat facing the towers as if they were begging for protection. Sadly Shiva the destroyer wasn't listening.

It's such a shame that over the centuries visitors feel they have the right to take lumps out of these sacred carvings.

The final member of the Rolous group was Bakong and they certainly saved the best until last.

This was more like I had imagined. Rising up into a wonderful mountain-temple, we made our way up the steps to the top.

Veasna said that as a rule temples that rise up in terraces are usually Hindu and represent Mount Neru and the whole Hindu cosmos, whereas those on one level would probably be Buddhist in origin.

As we climbed Bakong we passed three kids. One little uniformed girl was obviously skipping school to come here and stare at tourists where as the other two delightfully scruffy children were too interested in each other's head lice!

It was incredibly hot in the midday sun and after the exertion of reaching the temple's summit we were glad that our next stop was going to be lunch.

As we came down from the Hindu heavens, towards the west side, we waded through a wave of children selling all sorts. We resisted their calls to buy anything for a dollar, and despite us being miserable tight arses they were very polite and we left to a chorus of "Bye! Bye!" One persistent girl did follow us though and said "What you like to buy?"

"Nothing" I replied with a smile.

She looked at me with a cheeky glint and said "You want to buy nothing? Nothing costs $20. This (one of her scarves) only $1" Well, she found the chink in my armour; humour! I couldn't stop laughing as I bought a burgundy coloured scarf from her.

We returned to Siem Reap for lunch where we crossed paths with Ann & Jim again. We had also exchanged a wave and a "Hello" earlier at Preah Ko. I suppose everyone does the Rolous group as their introduction to Angkor.

Veasna explained to the restaurant that I was a vegetarian and I'm glad that he did. Julie was given a fish soup to start.

It described itself as containing prawns and squid. Well the prawns appeared undercooked; they were still translucent, looking more like slugs than the familiar pink prawn. Then lurking in the depths of her bowl was a whole baby squid, with all its eight little curled up tentacles ready to attach themselves to her tonsils.

She managed to eat quite a bit. The stock was delicious and there were plenty of vegetables to eat but no way on God's green earth was that rubbery little monster going down her throat!

My vegetable soup was fine, although after Julie's soup I was a little apprehensive about finding something inappropriate floating about in it. Thankfully I didn't and it was gratefully slurped down. The main courses were excellent.

For me, a sweetcorn and mushroom stir fry and a fine bean with garlic dish were very tasty and Julie said that her Green Chicken Curry was wonderful. The place looked a bit shabby but we couldn't fault the quality of the food at all, mini octopus excluded.

We returned to our hotel for a 2 hour siesta before heading back out again. First port of call was Prasat Kravan. It was quite similar to Preak Ko but in much better state of repair.

We stepped inside the central tower to see a fantastic bas relief emerging out of the brickwork. We saw Vishnu riding his trusty steed Garuda, a small army in attendance, and another depiction of Vishnu dancing.

Our guide was rambling on about the fascinating richness of Hinduism until his flow hit a verbal iceberg and the sentence spiralled down into a guessing game. We eventually realised what he was trying to say.

He actually knew the word but his pronunciation was bizarre in the extreme. We finally left the central tower with Veasna proudly repeating out loud the word "dwarves" in the best Queen's English.

We moved along and stopped opposite the Eastern Gate to Banteay Kdei and walked eastwards to a large square reservoir called Srah Srang.

Along the way we heard for the first time the astonishing ear shrilling racket of the seekada; a cricket like creature that lived up in the tree tops.

We walked down the steps to the waterside and imagined the king of the Khmer empire bathing here after Veasna told us that it was the king's own "private swimming pool".

We returned to the road and crossed over to enter Banteay Kdei through the Eastern Gate. They were a smaller version of the famous gates of Angkor Thom with those enigmatic faces watching us.

We walked some distance from the gate before reaching the temple.

 

Along the way a gaggle of children were walking towards us. I was about to say "Thanks, but no thanks" but they were too busy collecting firewood to try and sell us anything.

We approached the main enclosure and I smiled. This was the first structure that really felt like what I expected to find here in Angkor. Banteay Kdei is known as the 'Citadel of the Chambers' and was built by the prolific King Jayavarman VII.

 

 

He's responsible for most of the best temples of Angkor. Most of this temple had been dislocated by the jungle. The majority of the trees had now been removed because it was in the process of being restored.

Many parts were held together by rope or propped up by scaffold so we walked through to the western gate rather gingerly.

Huge piles of numbered rubble lay waiting to be put back together again. What a massive jigsaw puzzle!

Yet despite the confusion I really liked this temple because of the beauty of the stone. It still retained the red colour of its original covering, with the mix of the green vegetation it was very striking.

Just around the corner, north, from here was one of Angkor's celebrity attractions; the temple of Ta Phrom.

This is perhaps one of the most photographed and most atmospheric of Angkor's temples. It featured prominently in the Tomb Raider film which definetly adds to its popularity and was the first crowded temple we encountered.

It is the most photogenic of temples as the banyan trees seductively wrap their legs around the entire structure to create such a unique sight.

Now I felt a little like Henri Mahout clambering through the jungle stumbling across these beautiful buildings.

 

 

Click, click, click, the camera was working overtime!

In the centre of Ta Phrom we stood inside a small tower where Veasna told us to stand with our backs against the wall and beat our chests.

He said it would dispel our demons. I must have felt the need to get rid of a Mordor full of demons because I stepped up first, puffed out my chest and hit it with such force that I could easily have cracked a rib!

It had the desired effect though as a huge boom shook the room, echoing up to a crescendo.

Julie had a go, slapped herself, but didn't really achieve the required thud.

My performance hadn't gone unnoticed as an appreciative audience of three Japanese tourists asked me to repeat my macho display in order to capture it on film. They rolled the camera, and action. Trying to beat my earlier show I clenched my fists, expanded my lungs and hit my chest with such power King Kong would have been proud! It bloody hurt but the boom was monumental.

It's very odd to think that somewhere in the suburbs of Tokyo a Japanese extended family will be seriously impressed by my manliness.

Sitting just outside this chamber was an old gentleman selling little wooden trinkets. He looked familiar but I couldn't place him until Veasna told me that he was a very famous person in Cambodia. He was the old man brushing the temple steps on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide for this country!

I went to take a photo and suffered a major trauma when my camera stopped working with a low battery warning. "Shit, shit, shit!"

Before I threw myself into a weeping heap of woe I soon realised that the camera was trying to charge up the flash and not getting enough juice. It worked once I switched off the auto-flash. Phew! Panic over!

I did ration my photo snapping after that because we were on our way to Angkor Wat. It would have been awful if I failed to capture on film my first sight of one of the wonders of the world.

We quickly left to reach Angkor Wat before the sunset and before my camera expired.

It wasn't far, and as we got closer I felt pins and needles down my arms due to the adrenalin rush. I've rarely felt so excited.

Then finally after years of yearning I saw the temple in the distance. I was simply struck dumb and could only smile.

It was quite a hazy evening and it was clear that we weren't going to get a good sunset but I just didn't care. It was enough to be there. The temple is surrounded by a wide rectangle moat and we entered from the west over the sandstone paved causeway to the perimeter wall and stepped inside the enclosure through a relatively narrow gateway. A further causeway led the way to the temple.

It was closing time at Angkor Wat mostly because once the sun drops from the sky the steep steps within become very dark and dangerous. A torrent of tourists cascaded towards the exit. We swam against the flow towards the pool of reflection, to the left hand side, for the classic photo opportunity.

Veasna was insistent on taking our photo with the temple behind us which was very kind of him but "Don't waste my batteries!" was the thought screaming in my head.

He didn't, and I did get my "classic" Angkor Wat reflection photo, albeit without the sunset glow.

We weren't going to go inside the temple today, we didn't much daylight left. That was planned for tomorrow.

Veasna was biting his tongue from telling us all he knew about Angkor because he would have nothing to tell us on our return visit.

This was actually a great idea as it allowed the conversation to flow on a more personal level.

We sat on the steps of the library building and talked. He had a great sense of humour, always laughing and smiling.

We played a guessing game with our ages and he diplomatically under estimated my age at a sprightly 31 but made the mistake of pitching Julie at 33!

He had still under quoted by a couple of years but the fact he thought she was older than I was quite funny!

He also had a deep and rather sensitive side. He recalled his childhood memories of being raised in a rural village not far from Sihanoukville, and how his days were mostly spent tending to the cows. His happiest time however was between the ages of 10 to 15 when he moved to Phnom Penh for an education. He left his simple life and his family behind and was taken to a Buddhist Pagoda in the capital. Here he lived amongst the monks earning his keep whilst he studied by helping with the chores, such as cleaning or tending to the garden. He spoke of one monk, who taught him English and of wisdom, with a great deal of warmth.

The moments we spent on these steps, talking, chewing grass, and gazing at the temple were quite special. The exodus had calmed down and serenity had arrived. We should have stayed here longer. I could have stayed all night! Instead, we were back in the van, returning to our hotel for a shower, a change of clothes, and back out to a restaurant for our evening meal.

It was a different place than lunch, called Angkor Meass but it was pretty much the same set menu. I had vegetable soup, stir fried veg and the fine bean dish. Julie was relieved when her fish soup wasn't hiding an alien but was slightly distressed when she spooned up a horrible growth of some description.

It looked like it could have perhaps been a piece of a chicken's foot? Or just an odd shaped cashew nut?

Despite the culinary endurance test she enjoyed the flavours and we finished the evening with a large bottle of Angkor beer each. The service was with a smile as a young girl was assigned to give us her personal attention. This she tried but the television in the corner showing a Cambodian/Thai soap opera was competing against us for that attention, and winning!

By now our eyes were rolling and our heads sliding off our necks before being jerked back into place. It was time to retire and reflect on an amazing day.

 

 

Wednesday 24th Nov 04 >>  
©Copyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk