Welcome to Khmerland
Siem Reap...

Friday 26th November 2004

We must have been exhausted because we slept like the dead and in fact for the first time on this trip the alarm clock set for the 'just in case' was called into action. Both Julie and I woke up feeling a little nauseas with cramping stomachs and I feared those nasty fungal growths we ate last night were going to ruin today. Luckily the stool situation was favourable so no cause for alarm. The Imodium stayed in the packet.

We were a bit behind schedule this morning so we rushed through breakfast. Julie hardly ate a thing, hopefully she'll be alright. At least we weren't trekking up mountains today. Ahead of us lay a gentle day of shopping and floating, although she may be about to be fed to the crocodiles which would put a dampener on the day!

Veasna picked us up at 8:30am and we headed for the mighty Tonle Sap lake some 15km out of Siem Reap. We followed the river out of town.

Once in the countryside we drove along a raised road with acres and acres of paddy fields around us.

The abundance of water in this area meant that they could be lucky enough to have three crops in a year. Usually they would have to make do with the one crop that was watered by the rainy season.

It was so fascinating to watch them working in the fields, ploughing with an ox. How hard their existence must be.

The next time I pop to the supermarket for a bag of rice to boil in a microwave for my convenience I shall always think twice and remind myself of this morning. Although Uncle Ben probably doesn't break a sweat with all his modern machinery!

At the end of this tarmac road a hill appeared. It looked so out of place in the middle of this flat wetland. The flags were out, they knew we were coming!! Steep steps led high up to the summit where an old temple stood. "You want to climb to see the pagoda Julie?" suggested Veasna. She didn't even have to answer; the raised eyebrow look on her face was enough for him to understand. In fact they were raised so much that her face was visually swearing!

After here the wide tarmac road became a narrower bumpier dirt track.

It was hectic; we couldn't believe how many coaches were causing chaos by squeezing their way towards the end of this promenade.

It was very intrusive for the villagers who had built their houses on stilts along the banks of the river. We peered in as they swung in their hammocks, feet away from our window. They didn't seem to care however; they must be so used to it by now.

The reason for the attraction here is to set sail down river past the floating houses of the Vietnamese settlers and out onto the lake.

Whilst I took plenty of photographs of the villagers going about their daily life and whilst I found it all very interesting it did feel odd invading their privacy.

How bizarre it would be if the shoe were on the other foot and there we were at home going about our mundane business, mowing the lawn or washing the car, or even just swinging in your hammock; when a coach load of foreign tourists pull up to stare at you and poke their zoom lens towards you.

I know I would erupt, loose the plot and tell them all to get lost!

Having said all of that the floating village was really fascinating. They had a floating primary school, a floating catholic church, and even floating children in washing bowls.

These kids were risking their lives by rowing head on towards the on coming tourist laden boats asking for a dollar a photo.

At the outskirts of the village we rolled about laughing when we saw this guy trying to tow his entire floating home with only a tiny little boat.

He was getting nowhere, the engine was smoking badly and his wife was giving him serious grief!

Before too long we were out on the open waters of the huge ocean like Tonle Sap lake. The captain of our boat cut the off the engine and we bopped around listening to Veasna's facts and figures.

After he finished reciting his spiel he then reminded us that it was now time to feed Julie to the crocodiles! He had teased Julie relentlessly all week about this moment. He continued with his wind up. "We must feed the mighty crocodile. One of us must go!"

Veasna may have been laughing but I could tell by Julie's eyes that despite the absurdity of it she was thinking of the worse case scenario where the charming guide raised by Buddhist monks becomes a crazed psychopathic killer who worships the Crocodile god Crocodilus.

Then at the last minute, before Julie pushed him off the boat in self-defence, he said that he couldn't go through with it and was prepared to sacrifice himself in her place.

"I shall do it" he said and stepped onto the ships bow ready to jump. He had such a wicked sense of humour!

We finally got to meet our alleged executioner when we returned back towards the village.

We stopped at a floating souvenir store which also, as means of an 'attraction', had two cages overcrowded with crocodiles.

 

 

We felt a great deal of pity for these modern day dinosaurs. There wasn't enough room for one of them let alone the forty they'd crammed inside.

When we enquired about what will happen to them when they actually do grow too large for the cages, Veasna said "Perhaps this afternoon in the market you may buy them as handbags or shoes"!

As we shopped we noticed an upturned washing bowl on the floor. We stepped over it and continued to walk around browsing. Then moments later a small child lifted the bowl and stroked playfully a huge python! Julie couldn't get back on the boat quick enough!

A young girl in a washing up bowl had positioned herself alongside the boat, so I took her photo, and then had to hand over a dollar for the privilege. Like a flock of seagulls another two or three kids in bowls appeared from nowhere. I quickly put my camera back in its bag.

As we cruised back to where we started Veasna serenaded us in English with what sounded like a translation of a Cambodian love song.

He sounded awful yet on the other hand, travelling upstream to the strains of his weak quivering voice seemed eerily appropriate. It felt like a scene from a film; that uneasy Apocalypse Now sort of a vibe.

When we docked I tipped our captain for a safe journey and was quite shocked when he barely looked sixteen years old! His assistant, a young girl was even younger! As we stepped off the boat we had to walk very briskly to the van when we were chased by a one legged beggar. It's quite strange that we thought nothing of giving a cute little girl bobbing about in a washing bowl a $1 for her efforts but when confronted by an ugly old and disabled man we ran away. We felt a little disappointed in ourselves, again!

The road was a complete grid lock. We were going nowhere. Somewhere down the line there was a gap, into which one car moved into, then a coach nudged forward, followed by another which enabled us to move into the gap. This process of moving vehicles into the gap repeated as we edged our way nearer the open road. It was like one of those puzzles you can play with tiles and one empty space. For the first time we saw Chet our driver get a little bit agitated. After over half an hour of this strange game of strategy we finally we made it back onto the tarmac and off we sped towards Siem Reap.

We stopped quickly for lunch before returning to the hotel for a break. Julie went out like a light and slept for two hours. She must have been exhausted. It seemed cruel to wake her up just to go out to the market but we made the effort and we were glad we did so.

Before shopping we first visited the Eastern Baray, a huge man-made reservoir, perfectly rectangle, and built during the Angkor period. Apparently it was mostly dried out and farmed by the mid 20th century until a French archaeologist restored the Baray to its former glory.

With it being the climax of the Bon Om Tuk festival there were many people here having fun swimming, floating on large rubber rings, going for boat rides, fishing or just rolling out a mat and sitting on the embankment, or slung up in hammocks, enjoying a picnic.

We walked around the hastily set up food market where barbecued fish were served to the hungry masses.

Veasna bought us a bunch of a peculiar fruit he called Lasid(?) It was like a thick skinned grape with three fleshy segments on the inside. It was a couple hundred riels which fortunately he had otherwise the smallest cash we had was a $1 note.

That's the only problem; the cheapest item for a tourist will always cost $1, unless you've exchanged it for four thousand riels.

 

After a while we returned to the town. It was teeming with people, and their mopeds! Most of the crowd were gathered along the river for the boat races but first, before we joined them we went to the old market for some shopping.

We weren't there a minute when Julie said "Isn't she that woman we met in Banbury?" I looked up and squinted in the direction she was pointing. At first I was unsure but the nearer I got the more convinced it was this lady we had met a few months earlier at a 'Magic of Cambodia' day we attended as a taster for this trip.

We walked up to her and I gently tapped her on the shoulder. I excitedly asked "Excuse me but aren't you Dawn Rooney?" "Yes I am" she drawled (is she Texan?) "How did you know?"

So we explained all about the moment we met back in September at an event organised by Andy Brouwer. I asked if we could have our photo taken with her.

She graciously agreed to pose for a photograph but when she put her arm around my soggy sweaty waist I did feel a little embarrassed.

There she was, minding her own business, when a crazed, over-perspiring, star struck fan descended on her. Julie couldn't apologise enough on my behalf!

I don't think I could have been more in awe if it was Wayne Rooney of Manchester United and not Dawn Rooney!

We thanked her and left her to continue shopping. Veasna asked who she was. We explained and he could hardly believe us. "She was Dawn Rooney? I know of Dawn Rooney!" he said "How do you know her?"

Our only regret in hindsight was that we did not introduce Veasna to the most renowned Angkor expert in the world. I'm sure he would have died for a photo of himself with THE Dawn Rooney.

Whilst I suppose it wasn't such a surprise that she was here for the Bon Om Tuk festival it was still an amazing coincidence to have bumped into her! Buoyed by our brush with a true Angkor superstar we browsed around the old market where Julie bought a silk scarf for $4. Veasna shook his head and said "You pay too much!" We still haven't got the killer touch when it comes to bartering! We'd only knocked a dollar off the starting price. In the centre of the market there was a food hall but it wouldn't be where I'd go for lunch. It smelt badly, really badly and the amount of flies was just biblical.

Before leaving, Veasna took us to a stall run by a friend of his. It sold CDs and DVDs. We felt we should spend something here so I bought a Cambodian CD called 'Sweet Rock' (it's awful by the way!) and an hour documentary DVD on the Angkor temples (Sold as a genuine original but so obviously a copy) for the princely sum of $10. Veasna negotiated the best price for us, apparently! We didn't exactly shop 'til we dropped but we did spend the most we had done in a market on this trip. It was time to leave before we got carried away and bought a silk kimono or coconut shell ashtray!

We walked along the riverside to watch some of the final boat races. It was heaving with people; the banks were filled to bursting with cheering spectators.

Veasna was quite concerned about pickpockets and offered to carry my rucksack across his chest for me.

He looked like he was wearing a bullet proof vest as if he'd changed role from tour guide to bodyguard!

We found a gap in the crowd and got down to the river where it gave me an opportunity to take some photographs.

Whilst I was busy snapping away Julie noticed that Veasna was catching the eye of several young girls and our charming guide left his post momentarily for a brief flirt.

We moved on and walked past this beautiful oasis of tranquillity amongst all this chaos. This vision of heaven was the new Foreign Correspondence Club and it looked so inviting. It had a serene aura that was visibly glowing all around it.

We so wished we could suggest coming here for our supper instead of where ever the tour company had organised for us. We'd started to feel restricted and longed for something different.

We returned to our hotel room to freshen up and get ready for the evening then as we watched on TV the amazing illuminated flotillas from the celebrations in Phnom Penh, the phone rang.

It was Veasna asking if it would be alright for him not to escort us to dinner tonight because his family were in town and he would like to join them. I tried to say no problem, we'll find our own way but he was insistent that Chet the driver would still collect us.

We grudgingly agreed to go along with the itinerary but Julie doubted the 'family' story. She mentioned the young girls and how Mr.Loverloverman was probably on a promise!

We went down to the lobby where Chet was already waiting for us outside by his van. He was comically jumping up and down trying to catch our attention because we hadn't seen him straight away. He mustn't feel he was allowed to come inside to meet us? We ate at the same place we had lunch on Wednesday.

They had laid out a buffet which all it had for me was Stir fried veg and steamed rice. "I could kill for a pizza!" I said under my breath.

Julie however found tonight's food the best so far in Siem Reap. She had really sizeable pieces of chicken breast which she couldn't fault.

After we had finished eating we sat back and enjoyed a traditional Khmer dance show.

For the first dance we saw the celestial apsaras come to life. The lack of attention to detail in the bare chest department didn't matter. The intricate hand movements, the gentle smile, the poise and balance; they were captivating.

There were other styles of dances such as a rural dating dance and a fishing dance.

It was all very entertaining and I would go as far as to say more enjoyable than the show at the Royal Orchid in Bangkok.  

In the end it turned out to be the perfect ending to our stay in Siem Reap. Tomorrow we were flying down to the capital Phnom Penh so an early night was in order.

Saturday 27th Nov 04 >>  
ęCopyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk