Sunday, 23 September 2012
Angkor What?! - Siem Reap, Cambodia
Aug 27, 2012 - September 12th, 2012
The road from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap is relatively new, cutting a scything slash through the Cambodian countryside. The hamlets and villages that punctuate the plains, a causeway built up in places over the flooded paddies, still yet to be surfaced for some kilometres of its duration. During the six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside. Families swam and bathed in ponds and pools, young boys and men ploughed flooded rice paddies whilst others reclined in hammocks or ate bowls of noodle soup beneath their stilted homes. This is some of SE Asia's most impoverished areas, notable in the use still of water buffalo as tractor units for plough or cart rather than the mechanization that has been brought to almost every other area we have seen, but to me these people seem have everything they need to live. The irrigated land is so rich and fertile, alive with crops and an abundance of livestock roam their yards. Being able to live off the land and with roofs over their heads I saw nothing but happiness in the smiling faces of tight knit families and communities. I had high hopes that Cambodia would offer a slightly different feel than the rest of the peninsula. At this point, we are both near exhaustion after four months of travel and Vietnam had certainly managed to drain every last inch of my energy and patience. I felt like I wanted to jump off the bus right there to experience their seemingly peaceful existence and felt disappointed to know I was en-route to yet another city.
Our couch surfing host, Sokham, met us off the bus and lead our tuk tuk 4km out of town, into the rural outskirts. Upon arrival at his home we were greeted by eight members of his extended family and were offered a beer before we could even put our bags down. Next, they handed us the carcass of a roasted animal. A bat, cooked whole. Not willing to turn down their hospitality and curious enough we accepted a taste of this meat, flavoured with pepper which had a stronger taste than liver. Not an awful flavour but bat hunting is certainly not about to be added to my list of necessary life skills.
Six were living in this three bedroom, single level brick home and they had cleared out the master bedroom for our use. An en-suite bathroom included a toilet and a well of water with a bucket used for bathing. The rest of the family; Sokham, his wife, her sister and three children including a 28 day old baby, a 6 year old daughter and a 8 year old daughter who is deaf. Having never left their countryside home the children had never seen white skin before. We were their first couch surfing guests. Pleased to be away from the city we bathed and enjoyed some of their leftover supper as Sokham, who has studied Angkor Archaeological Park for years through school and afterwards, outlined how our next three days touring the complex would be. He would be joining us provided we covered all expenses. Concerned with his suggestion of touring by tuk tuk for US$20 per day we attempted to explain to him that despite being white skinned, we have a tight budget and must opt for far cheaper option of hiring out bicycles instead. The following day was spent arranging the bikes and purchasing our three-day tickets from town. Thankfully locals were granted free access to the site but we passed over US$80 as the entry fee for ourselves.
He took us on an evening cycle ride through small villages in the countryside. Single room huts with no electricity or running water housed entire families, cooking fires outside their homes and stagnant, filthy pools of water littered with rubbish sat underneath the stilts of their homes. Women wrapped in colourful sarongs cooking dinner in large pots waved acknowledgement and encouraged their children to greet us in english as we passed; a group of young men playing volleyball; the entire community pausing just for a moment to welcome us. The young deaf girl, who's name I was never able to pronounce and therefore has unfortunately slipped my mind, stood on a luggage rack behind Sokham as we peddled into the courtyard of the local school. Run solely on foreign donations, the benefactors names were recorded on plaques and in the building names. Young, curious eyes peered around corners and were soon joined by a group of children who followed us around the courtyard. The ones who could get over their shyness eagerly practiced the english phrases they are taught here and we sat and chatted with the seven year olds for about 20 minutes.
Meals at Sokhams' home turned out to be something of a delight. His sister-in-law was a former chef and it wasn't long before Julian invited her to tag along with us for the rest of our journey. Her 'fish amok' is worthy of a mention; a traditional Cambodian dish similar to curryin style thick with coconut milk, but without curry as an actual ingredient. As a side dish; spicy pork with caramelized leaf vegetables. Never before have I seen Julian enjoying such strong, spicy flavours and I was both pleased and disappointed when he eagerly devoured his half, not leaving me any of his leftovers. Of course, each meal they provided for us we paid for in advance. Every day, prices for these meals escalated until finally we were paying more for meals at his home than we normally would for our usual street fare. We were happy to see, however, that our US$10 contribution fed the entire family and we all dined exceptionally well during our time there.
We were woken hours before our alarm by stray dogs and roosters who insisted it was morning every half hour after 0230. Between the animals outside and the newborn regularly waking the household with screams, we crawled out of bed at 0400 and soon thereafter the three of us were mounted upon our steeds and cycling into the dwindling night, eager to catch the suns first rays over one of the most famous sunrise spots in the world. Its been a long time since I noticed the stars and the ride through the countryside was exceptionally quiet and beautiful. We parked our bikes, presented out tickets and took the back gate into the grounds of Angkor Wat, following a large, carved stone wall. A bridge spanned the width of the 90m, moat, dug of course by hand those many centuries past.
The resonating sound of deep, monotone chanting drew me away from the path to a small temple in the forest. Monks in orange robes sat before a golden Buddha illuminated with candle light, chanting a mantra as the eastern horizon came to life in the pre dawn light.
I was shocked when we came upon the west side of Ankor Wat, to find hundreds of people already gathered on the banks of a pond staring up at the dark silhouette of the prangs against an indigo-blue sky. Sokham had brought us in by the road far less travelled and we had our first circuit of the temples extremities alone, having no notion of the gathering taking place a few hundred metres away. Photographers were preparing tripods and expensive camera equipment alongside tourists with compact point and shoots and i-Phones whilst a row at the front received instruction on a pro's photo-tour. Locals went about selling sarongs, books, postcards, coffee and coconuts and I found myself refusing the offers of many as the stars disappeared and gave way to an illuminating sky. All gathered together for one reason: The sunrise over Angkor Wat. Usually, when we put the effort into waking before dawn, we are presented with the gift of solitude, even at exceptional places, but this is one of the most famous buildings in the world and apparently word has gotten out.
Julian has aspired to stand in this spot for some 20 years and I left him, camera in hand, in rapture with sunrise and the mirrored reflection as the largest Hindu temple in the world blessed him with pink, lightly clouded skies, developing to pure gold as the day dawned.
When the sun rose and tourists buzzed back to life on a rapidly warming day, Sokham guided us into the temple pointing out stunning carvings and explaining the ever present symbolism. Designed to represent Mount Meru (home to the Hindu gods and centre of the known universe), Angkor Wat was dedicated to Lord Shiva, breaking tradition of pervious Kings who built temples dedicated to Vishnu.
Wondering how we had managed to find ourselves a quiet, empty space we slowly strolled through the outer gallery admiring the exquisite craftsmanship of bas-relief carvings, stone as smooth as marble, covering the inner walls telling the stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata; the two major Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India. Important battles on a couple of the walls followed by depictions of the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology.
The eastern gallery represents the Churning of the Sea of Milk; a large serpent slithers through a sea carrying hundreds of warriors, a battle between 92 asuras and 88 devas (deities). The interior courtyards were impossibly empty of people despite the hundreds I stood with at sunrise, they had dissipated across the huge area the park covers. Virtually every surface, every wall, column and roof shingle of the massive temple are carved with characters and scenes Hindu mythology; dragons, unicorns, chariots, elephants and women with elaborate hairstyles.
Sokham stood with his back against a wall in a small, almost claustrophobic space forming a doorway between two walls, and beat his hand against his chest, rhythmically, like the beating of a heart. The sound resonated deeply throughout the chambers' freakish acoustics and I felt the pulsations within myself. My soul felt shrouded with mystique, surrounded by beauty and overwhelmed with the splendour of it all and I struggled to understand how its possible for this place to have been forgotten about and lost until the French rediscovered it 400 years after it was abandoned in preference for Phnom Phen.
The Angkor Archaeological Park itself stretches some 400 square km (including forested areas) and contains several more magnificent remains of the Khmer empire and over 100 temples and ruins in total. Angkor Wat is the largest and most important of these followed closely by Angkor Thom, the royal citadel with the Bayon Temple at its centre. After consuming a large, fresh coconut whist Julian devoured his morning coffee we climbed back onto our bikes for a ride around the major sites of the 'little circuit'; the most popular of two routes within the complex.
Crowds gathered on a bridge lined with many larger than life carvings of devilish warriors before crossing under one of the four main entrance gates to Angkor Thom. The gates are a major sight in themselves and each is topped with the many faces of Buddha. Although the temples are dedicated to the Hindu god, there is a heavy Buddhist influence throughout the park. On the other side of the gate monkeys play on fabulously twisted vines hanging from some of the largest and most beautiful trees I have ever seen. One primate breaks apart a discarded coconut (humans having done the difficult initial entry) and with the mighty strength of his jaws, he tears off great chunks of husk for the white flesh inside.
Bayon: the Royal temple and one of the most widely recognized of the lot came into view at the end of the road and my eyes began to pick out some of the giant stone faces carved into its 54 towers. We wandered through the galleries, by now well and truly cluttered with other tourists, as the 216 faces (to whom they belong is still debated, as are the amount of faces) looked down upon us with half smiles, secure in their knowledge of the centuries past.
Cycling past the Elephant Terrace our bikes carried us along paved roads under the canopy of mature trees and out a second of the gates.
Once through this, we approach the oldest site of the complex. A crumbling bridge upon which sit white barked trees who's root systems have defiantly engulfed and taken over places one would have not thought likely for such specimens. No longer spanning the dried up river we clamber over and around the structure admiring it with mounting curiosity and affection, excited and teased for the temple to come.
We approached Ta Phrom made most famous in the west after its dramatic supporting role as a location in the Tomb Raider film. We entered beneath a stone doorway and followed hallways which opened up into a magnificent courtyards of grey stone; textured, coloured; eventually taken over and perfected by the course of time and seed.
Trees grow atop stone walls, their roots wrapped around columns, coaxing their grip off the smallest crevice; utilizing the stone as if it were a part of its own skin. The roots fish for moisture seeped and suspended in the porous stone, some of them not reaching the ground at all.
Twisted filigree of root and vine having taken dominant command of the architecture now stretch their branches skyward; mature, towering trees reaching for the sun. From one courtyard to the next examples of nature perfecting mans work humbled the hundreds of tourists to a quiet; interrupted periodically by the sounds of reconstruction coming from a restricted area of the temple or muffled excitement as another gem was uncovered at each turn.
A parasitic tree engulfing another, the white bark of the parasite contrasting with the deep brown of a dying host within, a hidden carving of Buddha in a tangle of roots. I decided this place to be my favourite of them all: One of the two mornings we had left must be spent here.
The heat caused me to pause under a tree a short while. Sokham whisked his fingers along the tops of some foliage which sat alongside a rock and immediately they weathered and wilted to the ground. Within a few moments they sprung back to life, faking their demise. Called the 'sleeping sponge' this kept Julian busy long enough for me to regain my strength and after some sweet, cold tea we were off again. Sokham had a particular place in mind for lunch, next to the kings private swimming pool where we might pause for a dip. This swimming pool turned out to be a large, rectangular lake; easily 100m along each side! We pulled up to his choice of restaurant and I immediately sensed it was not within our budget which was confirmed by the $5-15 dollar per dish price range. We declined apologetically but Sokham insisted. Despite watching us repeatedly make choices based on our meagre budget he just didn't understand the concept of white man not being able to continuously withdraw money from the hole in the wall. Not only would Julian and I not have been able to eat here but paying for a third person makes choices even more slim. We cycled back the way we came with a slightly stressed air between us but which we were able to shake off easily enough. The afternoon monsoon hit hard; we sought refuge at someones roadside home, a single room with a bed platform. A seven year old child was selling rice wine to those who approached as we lounged in hammocks and the ground was quickly flooded. By the time it ceased the afternoon had fallen into evening and since our (already paid for) dinner at his home was only two hours away we opted to skip lunch altogether and enjoyed a fabulous evening with his family.
Our pre-agreed three night stay as up so we packed our bags and moved into town; a guesthouse of Sokhams' recommendation seemed appropriate, quiet and cheap and we were left on our own the the evening; plans laid to meet the following afternoon as not to force Sokham out of bed at 0400 again. At 2100 the base began to pump, emanating from the hip-hop club next door to the hotel and rebounding off the painted walls which persisted until 0400. We were out of bed at 0430, somewhat exhausted and slightly irritated, for our ride to Big Tree Temple.
As we approached Ta Phrom for the second time and entered through the familiar archway I imagined what it would have been like for those who had rediscovered it. Not even the staff were yet on duty and we had the overgrown temple entirely to ourselves. The energy was overwhelming; my emotions soared as I attempted to capture it. To be blessed with silence and solitude here allowed for such a magnificently different feel and we are most definitely the most fortunate two people on the planet in that moment. Of course, it made for some fabulous photos as well. As the masses began to roll in promptly 0700 after their crowded sunrise at Ankor Wat, we walked on clouds out of there.
We explored a site of lesser importance on our way back home for a siesta. We climbed the exceptionally steep steps of the three tiered mountain influenced Baphuon. Along the back wall the cut stone tittered as if terribly misplaced. We soon learned that the entire back wall of the temple was a very large representation of a laying down Buddha. We returned home for a siesta when the heat of the day became draining.
Arriving at Sokhams late that afternoon we were disheartened to hear his wife had been in hospital that morning and he would be unable to join us that evening. We stayed to chat for a bit; they offered some fresh fruits from the garden and chilled green tea. As we went to leave, Sokham asked if we might pay them more money for "electricity" and hesitated before asking for an addition US$15. Stunned and unsure how to react we dishearteningly nodded in agreement before cycling out of there with a unpleasant feeling in our stomachs. Suddenly, it felt as though this couch surfing experience was not about the cultural exchange and time spent together but instead, it was about the money. If we paid this additional US$15 it would amount to the most expensive three days in SE Asia so far, despite missing lunch the previous day and despite Cambodia reputed to be one of the cheapest to travel through in SE Asia.
We headed past Angkor Wat once more for the sunset and were accosted by local people trying to make a buck as soon as we were dismounted. Further frustrated to find that they had "closed the hill" we intended to hike up which offered beautiful views at sunset. Confused by how they could 'close a hill' (as the Vietnamese 'close the ocean') we returned to our bikes surrounded by inveiglers. Our situation with Sokham had caused us to have a diminished view of the Cambodian ways in that moment and we couldn't help but ignore them all without a word and pedal hastily home. This newfound energy brewing between us made for a brisk, energetic battle with the traffic as we cycled home as quickly as our legs and single speed bikes could take us in hopes of meeting Sokham back at the hotel in 15 minutes, all the while a pending conversation brewing in my mind.
Invigorated and drenched in sweat we arrived back at the hotel to find the lobby empty. Upstairs, I took advantage of this energy and unrolled my yoga mat but 15 minutes into my practice Julian came up to tell me Sokham had arrived. Thankfully, he brought the situation up and it wasn't long before we were engaged in a heated conversation; trying to help him understand that we always pay our way when Couch Surfing but the community is not about trying to make money out of guests (there are other web sites for that), that we are on a tight budget which we were well over and that western people did not all come with an unlimited bank account and finally admitting that we felt taken advantage of. He rebutted by insisting he and his family ought to be compensated for the time spent with us playing 'tour guide'. Hugely disappointed with his views we tried further to explain that couch surfing is about enjoying the time spent together, making new friends and teaching each other new things for the enjoyment of it, not for monetary compensation. Moreover, we had paid for his bike, all this food and drinks whilst touring the temple and paid not only our way with each meal at his home but knew that the price they were charging covered feeding his entire family as well. He continued to press his point, offering suggested rates of pay for his services each day at which point Julian presented him with a bill we had conjured up earlier to use as a last resort which included a tally of the money we had spent for him to join us at Angkor, a per person price for each meal we shared as well as babysitting costs. If he wanted to charge us for 'his time' then we can certainly account for hours they had left us alone with the children whist they took a nap or went out to market. It made me significantly uncomfortable to tally up his 'bill' at over US$100 but all we were doing is playing his game by his rules, trying to make him see things from our point of view. In the end, he walked out the back door of the hotel and we were never to hear from him again. Regrettably, this soured my first less-than-great Couch Surfing experience in five years.
The following morning, our final day touring the complex, we returned to Angkor Wat for sunrise. As Julian fought for his place amongst the masses, I hydrated with a young coconut then made my way into a quiet internal courtyard of the temple and up steep stairs to an ancient building. The chanting of monks can be heard as I unroll my yoga mat in the pre-dawn light. Upon the plateau of a thousand year old library I flow through the sun salutations; a gong resonates in the distance. I am bathed in the suns first rays as it rises above the prangs of Angkor Wat. Never before has my yoga practice been such spectacle. People paused, took photos and some even sat watching for an extended period of time. After the spectacle at the front of the Wat, Julian quietly made his way to a corner capturing one of the most empowering moments of my life.
We cycled the less popular 'big circuit' visiting some of the minor sites within the complex including some of the oldest of the temples in the park. The ride through the rice paddies and orchards of the countryside was beautiful as we paused periodically along the way for the various sites. Every temple presented persistent young children selling postcards, penny whistles, bamboo mouth harps, fans, leather wallets and wristbands; suggesting a game of tic tac toe drawn into the sands with sticks. After a few games showing their mastery they pressed their packages of ten postcards towards us, singing the numbers from one to ten in three, four or five different languages, reciting the statistics and previous leaders of your home country. More convincing than the usual "Sir, Lay-dee, buy something from me?" they are altogether far too disarming. Some of you will soon be the proud owners of their efforts.
Upon the expiry of our tickets we embarked on a bike ride into the countryside in search of a "Land-mine Museum". A former Khmer Rouge child cadet giving back to his country by searching the countryside for unexploded bombs (see our last entry with reference to the bombings). He created a museum out of his home from the remnants of his past some 30km from Siem Reap. Leaving the city and venturing out into the countryside always brings a refreshing change to the mentality of city people. Every child from every home enthusiastically running to the side of the road, waving and shouting Hello! over and over again as we passed. I think its these necessary, humbling moments in the country that allow me realize that not everyone is after our wallets. In the heat we press on and on, with no indication of a Land-mine museum in sight. In the end, we cycled about 85km that day in our search. As we pressed on back to the city the the monsoon clouds opened up on us, drenching us in seconds yet we welcomed it, washing the buckets of sweat from our heated bodies.
A young man with his three siblings on a motorbike and trailer combination slowed and offered to give us a lift. Gratefully accepting in the fierce heat of the late afternoon sun, we piled our bikes on the back and climbed in next to the children allowing him, with relief, to cut our journey shorter by about 5km before dropping us off again. Offing him a couple of US$ for his help he looked almost offend and stuck his palms up to decline. This contact was definitely needed to restore our faith in the local people and we were grateful for his unselfish gesture.
Having personally returned Sokhams' bike the day we parted and after getting hit off my bike by a passing motorbike in rush hour traffic, grazing my forearm and bashing my hip painfully, we went to return the remaining two bikes after nine days of use. We were shocked when they accused us of having not returned the first bike, insisting that we had stolen it. The accusation was ridiculous of course but they insisted, demanding to see a written receipt as proof that we had returned the bike. Having foolishly never demanded a receipt, the man we had returned through not being present and the bike conveniently nowhere to be found they demanded we pay an additional US$50 on top of rental feels. Refusing to give in so easily to something we were sure was a clever scam it wasn't long before the authorities were involved. Blood dripping down the raw flesh of my arm Julian sent me home to clean up, taking the valuable camera gear off the scene leaving him with only some cash in his pocket. After about 30 minutes at home I couldn't stand waiting any longer and quickly returned to the shop.
Three branches of Cambodian officials were on scene now; Cambodian police, tourist police and immigration officers. The shop owner continued to press for Julian to pay the compensation for the so called lost bike or be taken to the station. Julian shrugged, agreeing to be taken back to the police station as he had all the time in the world but not much money as he emptied his pockets displaying the US$52 he had in anticipation of the rental bill. Surprised and discouraged it was clear that none of the police wanted the responsibility of the extensive paperwork that would be involved in making this an official matter and it wasn't long before the negotiations started and the shopkeepers accepted the proffered notes (which was only about US$6 more than the cost of rental fees for the bikes anyway).
It is situations like this that cause our Lonely Planet guidebook to warn their readers of scams in Cambodia. I am so certain we were set up and were reasonably lucky to get out of it better off then we might have been. Again and again the people here proved that money is their sole objective, that they feel entitled to it in a sense, by whatever means and they will do anything to get as much as possible from us. This is only the beginning of such experiences with the Khmers. I had been looking forward so much to experiencing Cambodia and the last thing I wanted was to walk away with a negative perspective. Sitting here in reflection some weeks later in Laos, thinking about Angkor Wat, the pressures we felt there don't linger in our minds but it had been intense and unrelenting since our first day in Phnom Phen and the strain was telling.
Angkor Wat has been an exceptional highlight of our trip in SE Asia, despite the persistent, demanding, mercenary nature of the Khmir people we have experienced so far. Phnom Phen itself was a struggle to walk around as we were persistently called to from every shop, every tuk tuk, every restaurant and every massage parlour, by the motorbike taxis and the guys selling DVDs, by the street kids, the market traders, the hookers, the dealers and the destitute single mothers, by the same people, many times per day, every day, every time we stepped foot into the streets and on one memorable occasion before we had even set foot outside the door. We often couldn't even sit at a meal without being approached by beggars and sellers. And the same rang true of Siem Reap
We moved from our noisy guesthouse (nightclub included) and finally found an exceptionally comfortable, quiet guesthouse down a back alley called The Red Lodge, duly noted in Lonely Planet. No traffic, no tuk tuk drivers and well priced. We would breathe here for a while. We hid behind the safety of the walls, writing and editing, reading and just taking some time out. We managed to find a very cheap restaurant where we were eating for US$1-2 per meal with fruit shakes for US$0.50 and ended up staying in the town for an unexpected 15 days, often not leaving the guesthouse at all except to eat. An absolute necessity for us at this point in our journey. We recharged our exhausted selves and spent very little money in an effort to compensate for the expenses of Angkor Wat. Changing our plans and about to turn away from the Thai border, heading north into Laos, we began at this time mentally and physically preparing for a second loop around the peninsular. We were almost ready. Almost.