Stolen Kiss

Stolen Kiss

December 3, 2006

Confronting Cambodia. November 2006

After just returning from a wonderful, awsome sail across the Indian Ocean and back, it was now time for an adventure of a different kind. Having already visited 8 countries in 9 months, we were off to Cambodia; a much awaited destination to visit amazing temples, including the infamous Angkor Wat.

Added to the adventure was the travel with the Blue Bananas (Sam and Bill) who had been on the hard for some time at Boat Lagoon and needed to do another visa run. Our original plan to meet in Phnom Penh went a little awry as Bill read the flight number as the departure time. Missing their flight, they chose to go strait to Siem Reap instead. They redeemed themselves by finding us a superb hotel in Siem Reap, the Somadevi, which was offering amazingly cheap rates as it was new. In fact, it was not officially opened. We were practice guests for the staff and they were still putting on the finishing touches to the inside of the hotel.

Cambodia’s 13% economic growth rate, (November 2006) was being fueled by the garment and tourist industries. The rapid changes were evident in the amount of WIFI spots springing up in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In addition to this, in order to facilitate foreign spending at grass roots level, the ATM’s in Siem Reap spat out USDs! Siem Reap represented something of a building site as there were many hotels springing up everywhere in order to cater for the increasing Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese tourists. It was not the western tourists that had money to burn!

For a developing economy, they do some things exceptionally well. The way they move tourists around is second to none. Even with the poor road conditions, they are fast and efficient in moving people by bus or air. Similar to the Indian Ocean countries, the Japanese investment in this country has been significant. Could it be to buy carbon credits? Cambodia’s lack of industry should mean clean air, however, the pollution from its northern neighbours in the NE monsoon results in a hazy sky on most days. The amount of motor bikes is also a likely contributor.

One of the most stunning views for us was from our flight path which took us just to the east of the Mekong Delta and over the many miles of floodplain (which of course was flooded). It had been skillfully developed with a matrix of channels, padi farms, and roads with a ribbon development of villages. It appeard that village access was mainly by water, something you would expect.

In November, the Tonle Sap Lake/River is at its peak and we were fortunate to see part of the Water Festival which marks the reversing of the lake/river so that it empties via the Mekong. In Siem Reap, we watched some of the boat races before the lure of our comfortable air conditioned rooms won us over. Sam and Bill’s hotel room overlooked the river in the distance enabling us to watch the fireworks on a few consecutive nights. Lucky for us we were not in Phnom Penh as there were 24000 participants in the boat races there. We also later found out that the police had foiled a coup attempt. The city was jam packed with people, many camping out in any available space.

Our return to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap by bus just happened to coincide with all of these people trying to return home. Our bus left us about 8km outside the city – it was dark, dusty and hot. The bus had broken down earlier and we had not eaten since breakfast. We had to negotiate a tuk tuk back to our hotel, through this great mass of humanity. We were not in a bargaining position! For the grand price of USD 15, shared with two English girls, we set forth to join the throng. The two lane bridge (built by the Japanese) could be seen in the distance – the vista between us and it was no more that tail lights and car lights as far as the eye could see. We were wheel to wheel with every vehicle imaginable! Many people were walking. Even the local people were amazed, with some on the back of motor bikes filming the event on their digital cameras. Nothing like exhaust fumes to fill the lungs!

The odd traffic light can be found at major intersections, but appear to only act as a guide. From the western perspective of having a very ordered road system, these large intersections in Phnom Penh appear at first, to be nothing short of chaos as tuk tuks, motorbikes, trucks, cars and carts that weave in and out like Maypole dancing. However there is order and drivers are patient. As a pedestrian, crossing the road is simply a matter of stepping out into the traffic and walking in a determined manner on a direct path! He (or she) who hesitates is lost!! The traffic just goes in front or behind you. No dramas! Our first experience of this was our ride in from the airport on the back of a motor bike. I noticed that there were a lot of LHD vehicles and it took a while to realise that of course we were driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road! Peter did not notice this until it was pointed out! The powers of observation! We are on top of things! Another oddity for us was the beautifully paved footpaths which were of course used as a car park for vehicles and motorbikes. The road was for traffic – vehicular and pedestrian!

Our stay in Phnom Penh was primarily to visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Seng (Genocide) Museums. The road out to the former was so badly pot holed that even in a tuk tuk; it was almost impassable at 3mph. There were large grave 'pits' where thousands of skulls had been dug up, some of which were on display. There was also an area where the mass graves had been left untouched. How do people move on from such atrocities? We have purchased two books which give an account of life under the Pol Pot Regime; 'At First they Killed my Father' and 'The Gate', both being very worthwhile reads. We purchased them from a man in Siem Reap who was selling books from a cart to pay for the education of his children. A beautiful, gentle man who understood that the education of his children was the most important thing to him in his life. Although a chilling reminder of the past, it was a feeble attempt for us to somehow digest the horrors that the people of this country have faced. Behind the Killing Fields lies Tonle Sap River; very tranquil and beautiful at its peak.

The Russian and Central Markets in Phnom Penh were worth a visit as there are many bargains to be had, including much of what is available in Thailand. Clothes are cheap which reflects their largest growing industry. We decided that a visit to the Royal Palace was a must see (every city has one!). It was very beautiful compared with its surroundings and an exquisite example of Khmer architecture, even though it was built as late as 1866. The palace still functions as the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk. The Buddhas there are very famous and valuable, one being made from Baccarat Crystal and the other made of pure gold and studded with over 10000 diamonds. Well worth the visit.

Many of the restaurants are situated along the river front which provides an interesting vista and a place to sit and watch life wander by. There was a smallish old ship making its way very slowly up the river against something of a 5 knot current. The river was on its way out! Some of the restaurants have a ‘movie’ room where they show short films which provide an overview of Pol Pot’s Regime and the land mines.

Although we would have preferred to have traveled to Siem Reap one way by boat along the lake, the exorbitant price led us to the bus. An air-conditioned coach (Japanese), The Mekong Express, which was comfortable save for the lack of leg room! An uneventful, but interesting 6 hour trip along a road, offering a small window into village life. A road which is often flooded, as it is surrounded by water.

Arrival in Siem Reap was something to behold. In a dusty ramshackle part of town, many touts surrounded the bus each holding a placard, displaying costs of rides to different guest houses/hotels at the cheaper end of the market. One guy had eyeballed us and kept us in his sights. The police were there with a large bamboo stick hitting the legs of the touts to keep them at bay! A little overwhelming to say the least!

Our driver had reasonable English and organized for his not so enterprising brother to be our driver for the duration of our stay. The drivers all had to be registered and wear a special shirt. However, our driver appeared to have had his taken off him by the police for some misdemeanor, which we never quite understood. Sam and Bill were fortunate enough to hook up with a wonderful tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English. He was a member of Child Safe Cambodia which was an organization supporting the freedom of children.

The Somadevi Hotel, our sanctuary, was close to town so we could wander around at our peril. Sam and Bill had stumbled across another haven in an otherwise dusty world called the Blue Pumpkin; an air-conditioned WIFI café with an all white décor. We would get lost in a white out! The long couches with a short table in between couples became the favoured position. We would all sit in a line with our PDA’s looking very busy, with the exception of Peter, who took to reading. Sam and Bill visited the Boom Boom Room to top up their iPods. These music rooms are also in Phnom Penh and offer any album for USD 1.50.

The plethora of restaurants was a welcomed variation from our rather bland choices in Langkawi. Luckily for Peter, a legacy of French occupation meant an abundance of donuts and pastries that needed to be devoured at any opportunity! We never did find an excellent Indian meal, however, the Mexican food was enjoyable and Peter finally got to experience a ‘Chummy Changa’. Sam asked for some of the ‘hot’ salsa, with the waitress returning with the salsa – temperature hot! Difficulties in communication just reinforce to the Cambodians, the oddity of these western people. One thing we did enjoy was the amazing cleanliness of public toilets wherever we went. Cruising changes the things we value the most!

The majestic Angkor Wat was awesome. Encircled by an expansive moat, (all moats were said to be guarded by large crocodiles) one could just sit and wonder of its building (which purportedly took 30 years). There were many carvings of Apsara Dancers and other carvings leading to an illusion of life in early Cambodia (which was part of the kingdom of Siam at one stage). The central pyramid could only be accessed via very steep steps that were too narrow to put even half your foot on. These steps are high and close together. Whilst Bill raced up with Sam and Peter close behind, half way up I chickened out and gingerly made my way back down, which provided brief entertainment for some of the locals. It later became apparent why these men stand at the bottom of the steps. A very large, overweight European woman in a short skirt was climbing, slowly, up the steps with the assistance of a local guide who was quietly encouraging her. It looked as though she had a G-String on. Not a good look! On top of the pyramid, Peter came across one woman who was hysterical, having an anxiety attack, as at some stage she had to climb down. One of the other sides of the Pyramid had a hand rail which would have made the accent and descent easier.

The Base Reliefs were in fact, incredible. Each one told a story. The carvings were still very clear albeit missing the original colours. We found it more effective if we had a vague idea of what we were looking at, then going back and reading more about it. An early morning visit would have been worthwhile and something which Sam and I thought about. A sunset view would have been a waste of time, as late one evening, a great mass of humanity descended upon Angkor as we were leaving. We were sitting on the moat wall waiting for Bill, who was not difficult to spot amongst a sea of Asian tourists!

We purchased a 3 day temple ticket for the grand price of USD 40. Although we were ‘templed’ out by the end, it was well worth it. Wandering through the expansive grounds of Angkor Thom (some 10 sq km in extent), The Bayon, and The Baphuon and along the Elephant Walk was peaceful, with the majesty and tranquility of it all somewhat overwhelming. Purportedly to have had over a million inhabitants within its city walls, (larger than any European city at the time) we could not even begin to imagine what life would have been like. The Bayon was indeed extraordinary as it had 172 gargantuan faces (and no, we did not count them all!) of either Jayavarman or Buddha. The additional journey out to Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women) was worth the effort, even if for the journey through the jungle/villages on its own. It was on this journey that Bill and Sam made a brief stop for the first t-shirt purchase. Bill took the plunge, inadvertently paying 2.50. He had been negotiating a price, having money in his hand. As their tuk tuk was on its way, the enterprising child had promptly exchanged money for the t-shirt without Bill realizing what was happening! This opened the floodgates for a buying spree! The t-shirts are made of light material and good to wear in the tropics. We are now sporting t-shirts from the land mine museum, Le Papier Tiger Restaurant as well as the usual tourist’s shirts displaying various temples.

Whilst most of the temples faced east, Angkor was the only west facing temple built. The great ocean navigators were lost on land without a compass nearby and on one occasion, when asked where east was, hands went in every direction! Our delicate minds were in information overload as we were also trying to digest not only the history of the temples we were looking at, but the history of the county – who had done what to whom.

We were fortunate enough to miss crowds of people on the majority of our visits, actually being able to take photos without them being adorned by tourists. On one occasion though, having to wait for some time for people clear our photo opportunity, Peter and Bill finally joined in with a tour group (at the group's invitation) so we could take their photo! The group leader now has a photo of his group with two tall white boys!

Peter’s favourite temple was Preah Khan with its intricate carvings. In the centre stood a stupa – the same which adorns the sides of Borobodour Temple in Jakarta. Like Ta Prohm, it too had large roots of the towering kapok trees invading its stones. Some of the temples have been left untouched, being slowly devoured by the jungle – an arboreous ruination. Others like Angkor have been restored, largely by the French. We had heard that at one stage the Indian Government had offered their expertise in assisting to clean the age old dirt and grime from Ankor Wat. Unfortunately the solution they used (a type of acid?) has lead to the very extensive black markings that can now be cleaned. We guessed that no-one though of trialling an area first.

These awesome temples were a result of Khmer Kings between the 9th and 13th centuries that needed to utilize their vast wealth! Ironic that these temples are now the marvel of the western world, whose inhabitants come to part with their wealth, by looking at the same.

Enduring the very rough road to the landmine museum in Siem Reap was indeedworth the visit. Not on the popular tourist route, (which is soon to be rectified) the museum has a collection of landmines and bombs, one of which has in big red letters ‘USA’ plastered down its side, as a not so gentle reminder of the past. A Cambodian man, who is a land mine diffuser by profession, has established an orphanage for landmine victims, as well as an organized charity which locates and diffuses mines. Peter and Bill spoke to a boy who lost his arm and we were privileged to have been able to read the many stories of children who had lost limbs and were forced from their families, due to an inability for such children to be cared for. Life at the orphanage has provided an opportunity for these children to gain an education and hence a future. We were amazed at the tenacity and resilience of these children and naïve about the extent of landmines in the world today and countries that still make and supply them. There are so many ‘causes’ in the world to take up, but this would have to be one of the most important.

Along with t-shits, the children sold copy books for a few dollars; travel guides in addition to an excellent choice of autobiographical accounts, providing an insight into the history of Cambodia and its people. We now know where all the trees have disappeared to! This is another significant ‘industry’ for the people. In the purchasing of these books and satisfying ourselves of obtaining a good bargain, we have not only contributed to the incomes of associated families, but also to the destruction of an environment! So much for sustainable development! Wood is still the major fuel for the villages which is indicative of their general living standards.
Taking a break from the temple tours, we decided on a short (expensive!) tour of Tonle Sap Lake. There are communities of floating villages that must move when the lake empties. There was a floating school, basketball court, engine workshop and many houses with the most amazing electronics inside! Children paddle around in these small circular tubs, which bring to mind the nursery rhyme, ‘Rub a Dub Dub, 3 Men in a Tub’.

The numerous times we were surrounded by children, it took a while for us to realise that the children were more interested in ‘scaring’ the tourists than getting the ‘dollar’ they were asking for. Peter tried (to no avail) to get the children to change their pronunciation of ‘dollar’ (funny that Sam and Bill,, being American thought their pronunciation was accurate!), which left the children utterly confused. When our bus broke down on the way back to Siem Reap, the young children of a small village were quick to play with Peter, who gave them ‘whizzies’ and the like. The children loved our attention and wanted us to pick them up and hold them. The only girl there wanted lots of hugs from me. Happy to oblige, I found it sad that she did not know how to be hugged, staying stiff as a board in my arms. Their laughter was infectious and the giving of our time a valuable asset.

So there ends a most enjoyable, if not confronting, but very worthwhile journey, not only for the brief discovery of another country and culture, but also the sharing of it with wonderful friends. Our face muscles, exercised from much laughter, were all the better for the experience.

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