Our visit to Ha Long Bay was over. We disembarked the ship at mid-morning and boarded the bus for the trip to Hanoi airport. We’d be flying from Vietnam to Cambodia’s Siem Reap airport. Lunch (and Happy House) was at a swanky golf course. Judging by the buggies and caddies for hire – and the course itself, the green fees would be expensive. We were told no more golf courses were to be built in Vietnam. They needed the land for farming. And fair enough, too.
At the airport Pete and I decided to try Vietnamese coffee – black coffee with condensed milk. Actually, it reminded me of the coffee my parents drank at home when I was small, but they used evaporated milk, not condensed milk, and the Vietnamese version was too sweet for my liking. Coffee is a major export in Vietnam, including the special type where beans are collected from the droppings of civets. It’s supposed to taste better. Here’s the story.
After we’d been through immigration, Long collected our passports and our payment in US dollars (something like US$ 30 or 40 – don’t recall) for our Cambodian entry visas. APT would get these sorted for us in Siem Reap so we’d not be delayed.
We arrived at Siem Reap in the early evening, collected our passports and visas from Long, went through immigration and customs, and were driven to the Sofitel Hotel on the outskirts of the city. Dinner was a scotch in one of the hotel’s bars and room service club sandwiches while we watched the CNN news.
The following morning after breakfast we set off first to collect our photo ids for the visits to the Angkor temples. By now our numbers had swelled to ninety-four, with new arrivals joining the group at the hotel, so Long had to juggle four buses, each distinguished by a group colour. Pete and I and our other friends were in the blue group. We all headed off to have our mug shot taken to slip into a plastic holder to be worn around our necks. They were checked at each temple we visited. There was a bit of toing and froing as a few people got on the wrong bus and were re-directed. It’s important for the guides to know how many people they’ve got so they know if anyone is missing. Anytime this happened the errant individuals tended to be the same people and it was nice to see everyone helping them to get where they needed to be.
In the flow of human history, the temples at Angkor are not particularly old, having been built in what we would call the Middle Ages. They are contemporaries of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The difference is that the Cambodian structures were abandoned and largely forgotten until the French rediscovered them in the 19th century. Our local guide told us that they were abandoned because of invading armies. The people relocated elsewhere and never came back. The name Siem Reap means ‘victory over Siam’ and that illustrates the state of relationships between the two countries over many centuries. Like the Egyptian pyramids, the temples were not built by slaves. Working people had to serve the king and the choice was the army or temple-building. And while the Gothic cathedrals in Europe took hundreds of years to complete, these Angkor temples were built in a couple of decades.
Our first stop in the Angkor complex was The Bayon. Built in the 12th century by Cambodia’s most powerful king, Jayavarman VII, this temple is famous for the bas relief faces in the towers. Although most Cambodians today are Buddhist, the country was Hindu for a long time in its early history and this blend of two religions is evident in many places, not least this one.
Before we went into the temple itself our guide pointed out the elephant terrace which was once a parade platform for the king. Our attention was distracted by an elephant taking tourists for a ride. Our guide told us that the practice was to be stopped and the elephants set free. I clapped.
The temple was packed. Siem Reap has no shortage of visitors and people swarmed all over the building’s pavements and staircases. It’s nice to see the country is earning tourist dollars but I longed for a bit of privacy to reflect and enjoy. I tried to do that with my camera. The faces are amazing. It’s almost as if the tower is alive, with only the face visible smiling down on visitors. The features are unmistakably Khmer. The bas relief could have been the face of our local guide cast in stone.
Apart from the faces, there are statues and other bas reliefs that look more Hindu. Many depict battles, with the king or generals shown riding elephants.
We were taken back to the hotel and left to our own devices for lunch. That suited us. The hotel porters fetched us a tuk-tuk (see picture) which would take us to a pharmacy and back for US$5. We had brought a course of amoxycillin with us from Australia and used it between us to keep our illness at bay, but we needed more to cover both of us. You can get antibiotics over the counter in Cambodia so we stocked up on amoxycillin, paracetamol, mouth wash, and hair gel, then went over to a French bakehouse for a croque monsieur and a flat white. We’d explained all this to our tuk-tuk driver and he was happy to wait.
The traffic is nowhere near as chaotic as Hanoi. Nobody obeys the road rules, but there are a lot less vehicles on the road, mainly tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and tour buses.
Our local guide had been at pains to explain that Cambodia is a poor country and everybody’s trying to make a living. We should NOT let a tuk-tuk driver take us shopping. They had arrangements with the larger retail shops to bring in unsuspecting tourists, for which they’d make much more than just a fare. And the shops that made those deals were outsiders offering merchandise made elsewhere. Not that it mattered to us, since we already have enough dust-gatherers to last us until we pop our clogs.
That afternoon we were taken to Ta Prohm, the temple used for Angelina Jolie’s version of the movie Tomb Raider. No faces on this building, but lots of fig trees, their roots scrambling over the walls and through the doorways. After all this time, if the trees were removed much of the building would collapse. Walking could be difficult on the uneven surfaces where tree roots had shifted the paving, and in some places board walks had been erected to make life easier.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Opportunities of Development through Art centre, (ODA) an organisation that provides opportunities for disadvantaged children. APT has assisted in establishing three schools around Siem Reap and every year a percentage of profits made from tours in the region goes towards ODA and its projects. Education is seen as very important, especially learning English which opens up so many employment opportunities for these kids. While we were there the children performed some traditional dances for us. Quite a few of us bought some of the children’s original art work in the form of cards and prints. It wasn’t cheap but it was going to a good cause.
That evening we were treated to a Cambodian dance show performed by professional dancers in beautiful costumes, supported by a band using traditional instruments. The group performed three dances – a sacred dance performed in offering ceremonies and palatial festivals; a ritual courting dance; and a goddess defeating a demon. The dances are stylised and precise, with every gesture and expression having meaning. One day maybe one of the kids we watched perform at the school will be working here.
Then it was time for dinner and an early night. We’d be up early to watch the dawn at Angkor Wat.