Welcome to Khmerland
Siem Reap...

Wednesday 24th November 2004

Last night I enjoyed the best night sleep. We crashed into bed at 9pm and slept straight through until I was temporarily woken up at 5am when my mobile phone received a football result text message from Steve; (United 2 Lyon 1; Yes!) but I had no trouble going back to sleep for another hour or so though. I eventually got up and had a shower; then the phone rang. As it was my father I was immediately concerned that there was something seriously wrong! It was only 6:45am here, which was early for us, but that meant it was 11:45pm in the UK which was unusually late for my parents to be still awake! Obviously everything was fine, he just wanted to speak to us, make sure we were safe and sound and still alive!

It was time for breakfast and during our stay in Cambodia we had pre-paid for all our meals. We would never do this usually but it came as part of the deal.

On our way down we noticed photos of the Royal Family.

The newly crowned King Sihamoni, on the left has a name which is actually a hybrid of his father's, (Sihanouk) and his mother's (Monineath).

We weren't too sure what to expect for breakfast.

We're usually disappointed by buffet breakfasts but our apprehension was gone when we saw what was on offer. We could have eaten, if we were so inclined, a full "oriental" breakfast of rice soup, noodle dishes, rice dishes and countless other spicy looking dishes. For the western guests the French influence ensured that the croissants and toast were bountiful and a full cooked breakfast was only a few spoonfuls away. There was an egg chef to prepare fried eggs or scrambled, or as the sign said, I could even have ordered an Omerlet! I piled my plate up so high that it would have embarrassed a lesser man and I sat down to enjoy a veritable feast.

Today's itinerary started with a long drive out towards Phnom Kulen. It was a good 50km away and would take us 90 minutes. We drove on decent tarmac roads through rural villages that reminded us of the hills around Chiang Rai, wooden huts on stilts. Happy waving children and nonchalant buffaloes littered the roadside and in one village they were celebrating a wedding. This we knew because the marital home was brightly decorated and by the door hung silver coconuts and golden bananas. Veasna explained that such celebrations could last a week!

A few miles out of the last village, in the middle of nowhere we noticed in the distance two people robed in white, standing in the road, one on the left side, the other in the middle. They were nuns and they had their hands outstretched for a donation in return for their well wishes. Our driver accelerated towards them. There was hardly room for the van to squeeze through between them, and we didn't slow down at all. We flew past them at some speed. I assumed and I hope the driver also assumed (unless he was a raving psychopath) that they would step away to safety; but they stood rooted to the spot, heads held high with dignity. I was too scared to look behind us in case I saw two heaps of blood stained nuns on the floor. At first I could see nothing but a cloud of dust but once it settled the shaven headed ladies were still standing tall; cursing us I'm sure.

We could see Phnom Kulen filling the horizon but that wasn't our destination. We were headed for Kbal Spean. We turned off the tarmac onto a dirt track that gradually became bumpier and bumpier until it lost the right to be called a track and became an extreme terrain zone. Some of the potholes were large enough for us to fall into, and I mean all of us including the vehicle!

At one stage we had to cross a river by driving over nothing but two steel girders. The rest of the bridge was non-existent. Thankfully we had the 2nd best driver in Cambodia and with a little help from a bridge keeper we safely made over and arrived at base camp.

The usual melee occurred once we stepped out and walked towards the starting point. There's always a persistent seller who either wears you down or winds you up. This kid finally wore me down for me to say "OK, I may buy something on the way back" He smiled and replied "Good climbing, see you later".

"Climbing? Climbing? Nobody mentioned climbing!"

He wasn't far off the mark however. After a strenuous uphill stroll along a well walked path we came to the steep part and ended up clambering over huge rocks. It was incredibly hard work in this humidity and required 100% concentration with every unsure step.

"Watch that stone" pointed out the conscientious Veasna "it's moving"

A little further up he repeated the warning but this time the step was as solid, well as a rock. He was only joking and off he went chuckling to himself!

Veasna was only 23 years old and being born in 1981 he was fortunate not to have experienced Pol Pot's genocide. He now spoke for the first time about the Khmer Rouge although he never mentioned them by that name, always referring to them as racists or "not nice people".

He continued to say that the holy sites of Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen were only safely accessible three years ago in 2001. At the tail end of the struggle during the nineties these mountains were a Khmer Rouge stronghold. Their soldiers hid away from government forces.

Veasna produced "exhibit A", a banana tree, as evidence that a community use to survive up hear. When the resistance came to an end a few renegades remained up here and exhorted money from anyone who dared to venture up this far under the pretence of offering protection. From then onwards Julie's concentration was only 75% on the uneven ground and 25% on what lay beyond the trees!

After climbing up for over an hour we reached a few steps which led down to the waterfall. OK, it was no Niagra but it was pretty and more importantly it was holy water that was cascading over.

Veasna knelt and scooped up a handful and washed his face.

You could see that this was not just bathing but a spiritual moment for him as he washed away his negative elements.

He invited me up to the waterfall to wash away my sins and receive good luck. This I did and it was extremely refreshing. I then did something I'd always wanted to do, and step behind the waterfall!

I got soaked in getting there but it felt really exhilarating! I was surprised by how cold the water felt.

This waterfall however was not the main attraction. Upstream lay astonishing riverbed carvings. They had survived here for over 1200 years with hardly any erosion.

I offered a scientific explanation that perhaps the lack of pebbles was a valid reason but Veasna preferred the spiritual answer that the carvings were under the protection of the gods.

We walked a little bit further up and he told me to place my hands in the water. I did and was surprised to feel how warm it was. It was a marked difference from the temperature of the waterfall.

As the water flowed from its source, over the linga, and across the riverbed carvings, it must have such a cooling effect. The spiritual answer was the water was being purified and made holy.

I was happy to agree.

We made our way down which was even more difficult than the ascent. The back of our calf muscles were feeling the strain and the rocks seemed slippery.

Perhaps we were more unsteady on our feet with dehydration (despite drinking plenty of water) but we certainly almost came a cropper quite a few times.

About halfway down we took a detour from the path and walked down towards a cliff edge.

As soon as Julie realised where we were going she was suddenly quite happy with the view from exactly where she stood, and not an inch closer.

Veasna and I continued to the very edge, squatted down and admired the jungle beneath us. As he was talking about the trees I took his photo but I caught him unawares and he stumbled slightly. "Jesus Christ!" I thought, he could have slipped and fallen to his death.

I was so relieved when he steadied himself.

We quickly returned to the safety of the well trodden path and carried on down. Unperturbed by his dice with death he was a mind full of information along the way down. We stopped to inspect a huge spiders web, an ant hill, he pointed out huge trees that he claimed were originally vines, and other trees with young vines wrapped around them tightly. He was quite the naturalist.

He also showed us a huge piece of stone that seemed to be half dug out of the earth, by hand or nature, but these were such stones that would have been dragged down the mountain by elephants and down to the flood plains to construct Angkor.

It brought home the incredible effort it must have taken to build these temples.

 

We finally made it back down to level ground where we stumbled across a congregation of butterflies. We stood, enchanted by them for quite sometime; then a small butterfly landed on Veasna's hand.

"The butterfly spoke to me" he said. "She sucked my sweet blood and sent a message to my brain. Do you know what she said?"

We smiled at his wonderful childlike imagination. "She said that she is single, and wanted to know if I was single"

But the curious thing was she didn't leave his hand until we reached the van where he decided to call off the engagement.

I almost started to believe him! "I did not want her to leave her family and be heartbroken" he said and blew her off.

I should also mention that as we returned to the car park the kid who wished us happy climbing was patiently waiting for me.

He deserved my custom for his perseverance so I bought a pack of postcards from him. He did his best to try and get me to part with $10 for Dawn Rooney's Angkor book but I already had a copy, and an authentic one at that! It's even signed by the author! So instead I bought another pack of postcards.

Back inside the van we were so glad of a respite from the blaring sun.

The air conditioning was switched to 'polar' and an ice cold bottle of water vanished down my plughole as we returned back along the bumpiest road in South East Asia!

Banteay Srei was our next stop but it was time for lunch first. We parked up outside the pink sandstone temple and walked to a nearby restaurant where we enjoyed the best meal so far in Cambodia.

We'd worked up quite an appetite climbing Kbal Spean and really appreciated the food here. Vegetable fried noodles for me, Minced Pork dish for Julie, and a veg soup to share. They tasted great.

I'd previously asked Veasna what "Thank You" was in the Khmer language, so I tried it out. "Akhu Kerhan" I said to the waiter. He knew what I was trying to say and politely corrected my pronunciation to "Okhun Jehran"

We encountered a squat toilet for the first time on this journey and again I counted my blessings for only wanting to empty my bladder and not my bowel! We paid 500 riels to a poor unfortunate toilet attendant who went in after we had finished making sure that we'd flushed away our waste properly. He didn't seem at all happy in his job!

As we walked around the few market stalls we were accosted by a sickening sight. We weren't too sure if she suffered from leprosy or was she a burns victim but she had no recognisable features on her face. It was scarred beyond what I could imagine anyone surviving. No lips, the remnants of a nose, and I couldn't bring myself to look in her eyes. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. She came straight for us, shuffling from one leg to another, moaning and groaning, arms raised in classic zombie pose.

I'm ashamed to say that I was gripped with fear and showed her no compassion whatsoever. We ran away and sought sanctuary back at the restaurant until Veasna was ready to take us to the temple.

Banteay Srei is often listed as people's favourite temple because it's so different.

The sandstone is dark pink not miserable grey; the carvings are the most intricate and beautiful in the area and its diminutive size gives it a dolls house charm.

We entered the main enclosure and were both pleased and disappointed at the same time.

Pleased because we had the place to ourselves, which has been a rarity. Disappointed because the central towers had all been cordoned off.

They must have had quite a problem with people breaking off chunks of the exceptionally ornate carvings.

 

 

 

We noticed that a security guard was keeping a close eye on us. What a real shame but a sign of things to come perhaps?

We didn't spend long here because we couldn't get up close and personal with the temple, which was quite apt for one dedicated to women.

When we left we had to endure the sequel to Dawn of the Dead on our way back to the van.

She had cut off our escape route and was heading straight for us. We arced our way around, on the blind side, keeping a safe distance and out foxed her, reaching the van without having to be confronted face to face. The driver wasn't ready, and there was a moment when he was trying to get the key into open the door but just couldn't, and the "Monster of Banteay Srei" was getting nearer and nearer, and Julie and I were starting to panic as if she was going to eat us alive or something!

Clunk, the central locking released, we opened the side door, dived in, and Veasna shut the door behind us, and not a moment too soon as she had arrived by our side looking at us disappointedly through the glass of the window. I never thought I would react how I did. I always considered myself the caring compassionate type. I certainly learned something about myself that I should perhaps concentrate on changing!

We left for Angkor Wat. We entered from the East, a different approach.

The proper gate lay mostly in ruin and did not look at all safe to walk through, but there was no need for us to be adventurous as there was a break in the wall where another part had completely fallen down and was easily climbable.

This must be a reasonably well kept secret; we were the only people here! Back at the wall there was a small group selling the usual postcards etc so there must be some tourist traffic this way but certainly not the hordes that pile in from the Western entrance.

I wouldn't recommend coming this way for your first glimpse of the temple but to avoid the crowds then it was so idyllic.

Veasna, Julie and I walked from the exterior wall down towards Angkor Wat in complete seclusion, except for a lady in the trees chopping wood.

 

It was wonderful to have the place to ourselves momentarily. In the distance we could see little orange ant-like monks sitting high up on the ledges, contemplating the universe and their enlightenment.

It was so peaceful here, behind the temple. There was such an air of tranquillity but we knew that there was a hive of activity inside the anthill, hidden from our view.

I finally placed my footsteps on the steps of Angkor Wat as we walked up to the first level and walked along the East Gallery, southwards.

The bas relief depicting the struggle between good and evil as a tug of war, presided over by Lord Vishnu, known as the "Churning of the Sea of Milk" was inspiring.

It was a work of art on such a large scale it was mind blowing.

We continued around the South Gallery. It was such a vast area with such detailed carvings that it was hard to take it all in. A section of this gallery appeared shiny as if it had been polished.

They were carvings of the apsaras, celestial dancers who had been rubbed by a thousand years of groping hands and yes, I also copped a discreet fondle as we walked by!

 

We walked up to the second level through the cloisters of the Thousand Buddhas.

A thousand was an exaggerated boast, I wouldn't have said that they numbered over a hundred, but perhaps originally there were many more.

Further along we entered courtyards that seem to be designed to have pools as their focal point. There was no water in them anymore but you could easily imagine the serenity of lotus filled ponds inside these walls.

Veasna told us a joke about three people who visited a psychiatrist. The therapist decided on a 'kill or cure' solution to their problems and brought them here to these empty pools.

He said to the first "Dive in!" It was from a great height, but he had such blind trust in his psychiatrist that he flung himself to his death. The second nutcase repeated the stupidity landing head first in the empty pools. The third refused. When asked why he did not dive into the pool he replied "I can not swim!"

Veasna laughed so hard about his own joke that it became infectious. We had a good giggle over it.

Onwards we moved, or inwards to be more accurate, until we reached the inner courtyard from which led ridiculously steep steps up to the sacred third level of Angkor Wat.At an inclination of over 70 degrees they were pretty near damn vertical!

We stood at the base for a while whilst Julie decided on whether or not she could overcome her fear. Veasnu explained that when built no one was allowed up there. It was solely the realm of the gods, symbolising heaven.

Then from out of nowhere Julie started to scramble up the steps with me following right behind her. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. At home she freezes with fear when she climbs a ladder into the attic roof space!

Most of the way up wasn't too bad. You were too busy focusing on the step in front to realise where you were, but the last few steps, as if designed into the stairs as a cruel joke, were even steeper!

Our elation on Julie reaching the top was quite emotional!

 

We hugged and laughed and Julie couldn't stop swearing. "Fucking hell" she said. "What?" "Fucking, fucking hell" She was shaking like a leaf. "I don't fucking believe I just did that!" She's turning into some adrenalin junkie on this holiday!

We reigned in our excitement and restored our composure as we strolled around the heavens, admiring the Apsaras, the central tower, the great view.

We dived into the empty pools and sat down briefly in our own quiet contemplation.

 
 
 

 

My thoughts strayed into how differently I should have reacted to the burnt beggar at Banteay Srei. How I should have looked at her as the person inside not the demon on the outside.

Julie's thoughts were focused on how the hell she was going to get back down those "fucking steps"!

She couldn't delay the inevitable any longer and we made for the exit. There were four staircases down but only one with a hand rail. Veasnu took my camera and probably like a goat scampered down one without a rail so that he could wait for us at the bottom and take our picture.

We queued at the top, waiting our turn. The nearer we got to the edge the sweatier our palms got, the shakier our knees became, and we completely stopped talking. This was far more difficult than the climb up.

The steps were so steep that you could hardly seem them. I felt as if we were overhanging the ledge.

That first step was almost a leap of faith because I knew there were steps down there but I just couldn't see them. I went first, held onto the rail, and turned to help Julie make that first step. She decided to adopt the 'slide down on my bum' approach first, then turned sideways, gripping the hand rail for dear life and gradually working her way down the first 5 or 6 steps.

Eventually the steps widened slightly a she became more confident to stand up and take each step at a time. Every now and again we both had to stop to wipe our hands dry as our sweaty little palms were making it difficult to hold onto the rail!

I could see Veasna clicking away capturing what Julie now calls her Bridget Jones moment, coming down arse first towards the camera lens!

When we reached the bottom there wasn't the same elation as before. The sense of relief was numbing; a real "Thank God I'm still alive" state of shock.

Once again there wasn't going to be a beautiful sunset today so we left the temple towards the west by the direct route. Veasna was still carrying my camera over his shoulder. He looked pleased to be carrying it so I allowed him to carry it for a while longer. He took a few photos of me by the entrance, of me by the reflection in the pool but I had to repossess it so that I could take some photographs of my own!

Walking back along the causeway I suddenly realised that my lens cap was missing. I asked Julie and Veasna if they had seen it. Neither had. I was really disappointed but despite thinking "You've lost my Nikon lens cap, you bloody fool" I tried my best not to show it as I didn't want him to feel I blamed him. "Ah well, never mind" I sighed. A minute later I could hear him chuckling as he said "Oh, look what I have here. hee hee hee" Out of the breast pocket of his shirt he produced the missing lens cap. What a comedian!

As we drove through Siem Reap we took a slight detour to catch a quick glimpse of any boat races. It was the annual Bon Om Tuk festival where the whole nation celebrates the turning of the tide of the Tonle Sap river. Today was the first day of a three day festival, which meant it would finish on Friday. I had painstakingly planned our itinerary so that we would be in Phnom Penh for the climax of the water festival but it seemed that I had miscalculated by a day.

We drove through an area that Veasna called 'Ho Chi Min' Street on the account of the Vietnamese immigrants. There were plenty of red lit massage parlours down here! Just off the airport road we also saw a sign saying "Angkor Massage by Blind". I suppose their hands are their eyes, but what a peculiar experience nonetheless!

Back at the hotel Julie went for a swim whilst I sat, wrote in my journal, and got attacked by countless nasty blood sucking malarial mosquitoes!

Having said that, not once did I get bitten, they were just buzzing around me like I was horseshit but I must have smelt far worse! They weren't coming anywhere near my skin.

As it happens after the swim we got talking to a Yorkshire man in the lobby who recommended Vitamin B1 supplements as a natural repellent. Perhaps I'm naturally high in B Vitamins? It must be all that Marmite (Vegemite) I eat!

After a two hour siesta we went out for supper to a restaurant called 'Orchidee'. It was down a dirt track, off Airport Road. Veasna said that it used to be a renowned area for prostitutes but they had all been moved on now. When we sat down the young waiter came over with the menus, and he was obviously quite keen on learning English as he wanted to strike up a conversation with us. He asked "Where are you from?" It was quite charming the way he stood there, after we'd answered, silent, looking up to the skies, giving the next question some serious thought and building up the courage to ask it. "Where did you go today?" and "How long are you in Cambodia?" We told him our plans but I don't think he understood much of it. I'm sure mostly because of my mispronunciation of place names.

We explained to him that I was a vegetarian and if he knew whether or not the green curry had fish sauce, or naam plah, in it? He replied "I'll go ask the cooker"! We didn't laugh, or at least until he was out of earshot.

When the food arrived I had the most delicious green curry which probably means the cooker had used fish sauce! And also a really different dish of deep fried battered bread with a sweet chilli sauce. I was very pleased with my meal. Julie however had ordered Pork Chops with Rosemary Potatoes. That sounded like such a "Julie" dish, but when it arrived it wasn't what she expected. It was small pieces of bone with meat attached. Pork ribs, chopped, would probably have been a better description. It was very cheap though costing only $10 for the two of us. That also included a plate of sliced fruits which we avoided in fear of them having being used as a dance floor for boogying mosquitoes with shit on their boots.

We also had a bowl of sugared salted peanuts, which we devoured and were left wanting more, plus two large bottles of Angkor beer into the bargain. Who could ask for anything more?

We returned to the hotel bar and had a few more Angkor beers before struggling in getting up the stairs to our room. Having climbed a mountain, climbed up to Angkor Wat's celestial heaven, we were finding it difficult simply climbing into bed!

Thursday 25th Nov 04 >>  
ęCopyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk