Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Day 03/01 - Close-Up Cambodia

... fleeing the madness of the Christmas Eve entertainment here in Hoi An, Vietnam, we've come inside to write this...

We were up for dawn again on Day 03 except that this time, we wanted to see it at Angkor Wat. This has become something of a must see experience and so we were hardly surprised when, as our tuk-tuk bumped through the gloom, we joined an eerie procession of other tuk-tuks bearing tourists to the entrance of the temple.

Inside, people were scrambling for the best positions. We weren't really sure where to go really but Vannak had given us a choice bit of info the day before. He'd told where the sun would rise at this time of year. At spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind the temple making the main gate the best place to view the sunrise. At this time of year though, it was to rise far over to the right. Main gate viewers would see the sun rise to the right of the temple. The best place was over to the temple's left and that's where we headed.

We had the steps of one of the outlying buildings all to ourselves and waited for dawn. The sky was pitch black except for a faint glow in the east. The moon was a sharp crescent and the night was so clear you could see the new moon in shadow. Through the darkness came the flashes of cameras and here and there the laughter of some of the louder nationalities represented there.

The sunrise was spectacular and it really put the temple into perspective. Here was this edifice, the handiwork of 80,000 people and the largest religious complex in the world. Yet, it took a simple sunrise to make it look much like a child's attempt at model-making. It drove home to us just how magnificent our God is and how banal are even our greatest attempts to emulate his creative ability.

Back at the hotel for breakfast we rationed our last remaining hours: a couple of bikes would help us spend an hour roaming through local villages, a dip in the pool would take up the rest.

The villages were great. We just went where the path took us. We stumbled across a large school, perhaps junior high age. The teacher was leading chants of something in Cambodian. Outside children were digging in what looked like a patch of dirt - their dreams of vegetation taking root only in their imaginations as we watched. We found ourselves in front of a temple complex being built and chatting with a young Buddhist monk in a saffron robe. Standing looking at a grass house, we were invited in for hot tea and the host answered our questions about the shrine he had in his garden. A woman restoring a statue of Buddha got up to open the gate to her garden when she saw us watching over the fence. It was great to simply wander and be welcomed everywhere without question, without hindrance.

Too soon afterwards we were at Siem Reap airport having checked in and were enjoying a coconut shake at a coffee shop while we wrote postcards. We'd recognised a couple there who we'd seen in a restaurant in town. They looked pretty miserable for some reason. Later while sipping our shake, a woman spoke to an airport official and we overheard her story. She'd come to collect two tourists who'd arrived for the flight having left one of their passports at the hotel. Despite sending a driver back for it, they'd only got hold of it once their flight had left. Sure enough, a moment later, the very couple we'd seen before came out of the terminal building. What a complete nightmare. We talked about what we'd do if it happened to us.

But it hadn't and a few minutes later we were walking across the tarmac to our waiting Vietnam Airlines plane...

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Day 02 - Templeland - The best one

... more from the smoky net cafe in Dalat, Vietnam...

There was one more temple we wanted to visit: Ta Promh. This isn't the biggest. It isn't the most famous. In fact, the only thing it's got going for it is the undergrowth. No joke. Let's introduce it with a photo which some who've seen a few recent Hollywood flicks might recognise:

Suryavarman II and his royal ilk had realised that kings with spectacularly long names were never going to be remembered simply for having them they had died out, the Khmer kingdom, like all kingdoms, fell to the dust of time. The jungle crept back into the sanctuaries it had been banished from and started to let those who remained know who was boss.

All of the temples in Cambodia were found in various stages of disrepair. While many were cleared of vegetation (and the obligatory Cambodian mines) and reconstructed to bring in the tourists (sorry) preserve the heritage of the world, Ta Promh wasn't.

Now, while many in the archaeological community may lose sleep over this, the tourists actually love it. Ta Promh is one of the most popular temples because it hasn't been reconstructed and because it's overgrown. Well, it has been cleared up a bit but just to help with walking about the place and other little things like not getting crushed by falling masonry.

We loved it. The trees are stupendous. What a root can do to a stone is beyond our understanding. If I was a rock I'd be weeping right now in fact (eat your heart out Paul Simon). But as I was a human and a great lover of trees to boot, I laughed with glee at the way the rock moved aside to let the life through. Kind of reminded me of another story I love...

Well, we were pretty much templed out by now. As we left, we were entertained by a band of musicians all of whom had been injured by landmines and had abandoned begging in favour of playing music. We bought one of their CDs as a souvenir. It was quite a reality check to see a man playing a fiddle with a stump instead of an arm.

By now we were very aware of the fact that we had less than 24 hours left in this country. We wanted to see something a bit more real. We asked Vannak and Chuot if they could show us a little of real life. They took us for a walk through some villages.

This was one of the things we'll remember most about our trip here. The villages were really clean. Bare swept earth sprinkled with fruit trees and palms surrounded houses on stilts and through all this ran dogs, puppies, chickens galore and everywhere welcoming people with smiling faces and mutual curiosity.

Typical house in the villages around the town of Siem Reap, west Cambodia. The lower room is solid and secure and used for storing a motorbike or other valuable equipment. The upper room is for the family. There's usually a shared toilet somewhere in the village which is basically a cement platform over a cesspit surrounded by a wall or screen.

John makes three fruits; these are breadfruit, sometimes known as jackfruit.

At one point, we came across a family group around a well. The grandmother who I'd say was somewhere between 60 and 412 years of age was washing herself. As we stood there using Vannak as a translator asking them questions about their lives, she suddenly gave a shout and had us all in fits of laughter. She'd soaped and lathered her head and wanted to pose for the camera!

Granny strikes a pose. Note the chick/ens running around. They were everywhere.

We found it very endearing that someone of her age (and goodness knows what horrors she's seen in her long Cambodian life) should bridge the cultural gap with some humour. We left these people with a really strong desire to get to know something more about them, determined to hire some bikes from our hotel and go exploring the next day.

Meanwhile, our guides were done for the day and they dropped us off at our hotel. At the last minute, we remembered that our long lost bags were in the back of Chuot's car! Almost lost them again.

We decided to go up the tower again and take in the sunset with a fruit shake to help us get through it, and then we had a dip in the pool.

Sheena reflects the sunset. On the left on the horizon you can just about see the tethered air balloon that really sad tourists can use to see Angkor Wat from the air.

We decided to head into town for a meal and so called a tuk-tuk from reception. These are contraptions with a motorbike on the front and a little carriage behind. Very comfy and a great way to see the streets without being in an air-conditioned sanctuary.

We went to La Noria and had a fabulous meal of Cambodian food in luxurious surroundings for all of about $4.

And when we finally made it back to our hotel, we had a visitor...

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Day 02 - Templeland - The better one

We did interface with God, but Angkor really had nothing to do with it.
Fleeing from the camera-bearing hordes, we headed for Angkor Wat itself. The temple is surrounded by a moat that is about 200 metres across and stands surrounded by a huge wall. Approaching it across the huge bridge is a little like approaching the Taj Mahal - the stuff of dreams. You've heard about these places for years and may know nothing about them. But you've seen the images and now, walking towards it, I could hardly believe that it was all real and we were actually there.

John (right) blends in with the monks on the way to the Wat.

Again, like the Taj, you have to enter through a relatively tiny gateway which only serves to make the view and the expanse the other side all the more impressive.

We wandered slowly up to the temple's main building with Vannak filling us in on history, measurements. Occasionally he also added interesting and essential facts such as the fact that if you went to the toilet there you had to pay but the ones outside were free.

Born just before the temple opened, she's lived here all her life.

There are two pools in front of the temple. These set the building off magnificently in reflection but were actually made, Vannak said, to ensure that the building was symmetrical and not leaning. The pools were being cleaned of their rampant water lillies by some intrepid young people one of whom was wearing, quite bizarrely, a Be the Reds t-shirt. For those who aren't amazed by this, it's the Korean national football team's t-shirt. Quite how she got it we could only guess.

The building contrasts strongly with the Taj Mahal though in its appearance. Made from volcanic stone darkened by tropical rain even the restored bits looked authentic. Funnily enough, there weren't half as many people here. We explored the central part via the steepest and most perilous staircase we'd ever seen. Vannak knew this. Which was why he said he'd see us later and spent an hour or so on his mobile below us.

Sheena in the labyrinth.

Lunch led us back outside to the aforementioned toilets (and now we understood why they were free!) and some fantastic food which Vannak recommended. Cambodian food isn't spicy at all and was really good. We had Amoke, a broth cooked in a young coconut so that the fruit and milk become part of the creamy creation. Gorgeous.

Sheena runs Amoke...

And then onto our last temple...

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Day 02 - Templeland - Photo post

The sun rises on our first day in Cambodia.

Our hotel from the tower.

Vannak demonstrates Japanese body language.

The south gate of Angkor Thom.

Bas reliefs of Angkor Thom.

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Day 02 -Templeland - Getting Started

Blundering round in the dark of the hotel garden before dawn, I came across a tower just the other side of the pool. Stumbling back, I roused Sheena to climb it with me and watch the dawn.

The landscape was black with just a hint of light in the east. Stars, something we've missed in Seoul, were bright and that wasn't all that filled the night. First impressions indicated that the nation was a kingdom of chickens and dogs. Huge choirs of canines and cockerels competed to welcome December the 18th 2006. The dogs won, but not by much.

Eventually though, the darkness receded and we could see that our hotel was way out of town. Sleepy little homesteads, some built, some makeshift, some grass were dotted around a landscape littered with palm trees and tropical plants. It looked like a very peaceful place, despite Cambodia's history.

We were due to meet our guide and driver at 8:30 so we headed for breakfast on a lovely terrace in our gorgeous hotel. It turned out to be just a good as the website promised - if not better. Set in lovely tropical grounds, each room is a separate bungalow made from palm wood and lined with bamboo. Fantastic for less than 20 quid a night!

Chhuot was back as our driver and we had a new guide, Vannak, to take us around the temple complexes of Siem Reap. The most famous of these is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world and the national symbol of Cambodia.

First though we had to find our bags. Having no luck in either calling the airport or the Bangkok Airlines office, we decided to go there first. They were very nice, even giving us all a free bottle of water each, but told us that we'd have to go back to the airport to pick them up ourselves. It wasn't far and we were glad we'd opted for a driver with a car today instead of something smaller and less useful for carrying luggage.

While waiting for the flight bearing our bags to land, we discovered that Vannak was in fact primarily a guide for Japanese tourists. Soon we were chatting away in Japanese much more fluently than in English. We exchanged languages all day. It was quite bizarre to find Japanese a useful bridge language between Brits and a Cambodian! We also tried our hand at reading and pronouncing some Cambodian. It wasn't as hard as we'd thought. The word for "king" for example is a simple sgynzkkywzgwyhh but pronounced qqydrygslkjwxe. Needless to say we didn't progress much beyond the basic oh kun - thank you.

After that, we headed off to buy our temple passes. These come in several varieties: one day, three day etc and have to be purchased from the office in town which is crawling with tourists. The passes are pretty pricey; our three-day passes were $40 each. But when you consider that this gives you free access to hundreds of square miles of antiquities it must be one of the best admission fees on the planet. A photo is obligatory and they take one for free for you. We sat in the car while Vannak picked ours up for us.

Then we were set to go...

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Day 02 - Templeland - The big one

(writing this at Ho Chi Minh airport while waiting for our flight to Dalat to board and listening to Jingle Bells by Boney M over the airport PA)

Where were we... oh yes... we'd just got our temple passes and were off to see the temples of Siem Reap.

Small historic interlude: to get an idea of the scale and achievement here, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of the historical context that gave rise to these buildings. Remember when Europeans were still wearing short trousers? Well that's when the Khmer people decided to build temples that were bigger than the average European city in area. Angkor Wat is a contemporary to Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury cathedral to give you some idea of architectural comparison. And while that cathedral is impressive, it is dwarfed by Angkor Wat. You could fit over a hundred English cathedrals inside the temple. And the carvings don't even compare. At Canterbury, we get excited about a bit of coloured paint and a couple of saints' heads. You'd need several years to complete a brass rubbing of the bas relief carvings of Angkor.

Although bas relief does look like treatment for someone who's overdosed on classical music, it actually means sculpture which comes out slightly from a flat surface from the French bas meaning low. Angkor is absolutely covered with them including several hundred metres depicting the great Hindu myth the Ramayana.

We weren't heading for Angkor Wat yet though. We were off to Angkor Thom (Angkor Jerry's older brother) which is the biggest temple in the area. A stroll around the walls would cover 12km. Not only was it the biggest we saw, it was the most crowded. You could hardly move at points. Bit depressing really and seeing French tourists cavorting for cameras with locals in trumped up period costumes didn't really strike us as worth coming all this way for.

... more later... they're boarding our flight...

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Day 01 - Getting there

Well, we got to the airport fine... despite there being 3 (THREE!!!) inches of snow on the ground to stop us. I was in shorts and it was before 7am and snowing as we waited for the airport bus. It arrived just as I was losing the feeling in my right big toe.

Checking in was no problem but take-off was delayed an hour due to snow making the air traffic slower than usual. We had a couple of hours to kill in Bangkok anyway so we didn't worry about it. Oh... and by the way... we landed in Hong Kong for 30 mins too. Had no idea we were going to do that.

So, we hit Bangkok's new airport late and, waiting for us, was a member of Thai's staff with one of those little buggies. In thirty years of flying I've never been on one and I confess that I've always kind of hankered after it. There's something a little bit rebellious about driving indoors and we were glad of it too because the new airport is modelled on Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. For those of you who don't know Chesil beach it goes on for miles and, being shingle, it's very difficult to get from one end to the other. Thus seems to be the inspiration for this airport.

Interestingly too, the architects took some shortcuts to make this edifice: there are no nice finished ceilings. The guts of the building lie bare for all to see although some parts are covered in grey silk. But with the concrete, metal pipework and grey silk, it does seem a bit like something out of 1984... albeit with more shopping than Big Brother would ever tolerate.

The shopping goes on for miles. I kid you not but it took us 15 mins to walk from the Bangkok Airways check in desk to our gate (and we were legging it) and that was AFTER a ten minute ride on this little golfcart thing... and 20 of those 25 mins were walking past shops and the last five was actual gates for aircraft.

Well we arrived at Gate E2a to find it said "Pnomh Penh" - not Siem Reap as we wanted - and that there was absolutely no one there except us. We were, unbelievably, 50% of the passenger list. The other 50% turned up just as amazed as us and we headed out to the small propellor-driven aircraft.

On the way, we discovered that it wasn't just passengers who have trouble getting from one gate to another at the new airport. "Sorry but I have bad news." said the flight attendant on the bus across the tarmac, "Thai could not bring your bags to us. They will send them tomorrow." We were less than happy with this. We had no clothes!

The fight was short, uneventful and, as we said, almost devoid of passengers. We landed at the small but very nice Siem Reap International Airport shortly after 8pm and were met by Chuot who was to be our driver for the next day.

At the hotel we explained the plight of our bags. They were very sympathetic and gave us two free hotel t-shirts! Couldn't splash in the pool wearing just them though. We splashed in the shower instead and hit the hay.

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