Thursday, October 31, 2013

Angkor What? - Siem Reap, Cambodia

With a beer bubbling away to my left and a back-lit keyboard beneath my fingers I am here once again to preach the gospel according to Jack Smith. Tonight I'm back at my new local 'The Tuckshop' and I have to proclaim that I love this place. It's got great music, great food, great beer, great service and it's comfortable - what more could a thirsty patron ask for? Pretty waitresses I hear the men proclaim? Yes, it has those too. If it had MJ it may be the perfect hangout spot in Singapore but let's not go into politics or Asian oppression, It gets messy very quickly.

It seems that my last post got onto the Facebook page of the bar in question which means If I want to avoid confrontations and stay out of fights I need to be careful about my opinions and display literary decorum. With that in mind I'm going to refrain tonight from being my usual candid self and stick to a topic I've wanted to jot about for a while; the beautiful Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Angkor - Kingdom of Wonder

Faces of Bayon @ Prasat Bayon, Ankor Thom

It was way back in May, 5 months ago now that me, Claudio and his beautiful fiance Grace decided to divert ourselves away from the usual hedonism of Phnom Penh and diversify our Cambodia experiences by visiting Siem Reap.

The name Siem Reap means 'Flat defeat of Siam' - today's Thailand and refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer peoples. The name, according to an oral tradition, was given by King Ang Chan (1516-1566). It was because of Ang Chan's victory against a Siamese invasion, slaying Thailand's Prince Ong, and capturing no less than 10,000 Siamese troops. After reading several books on both Cambodia and Thailand I know the history between these two neighbouring countries extends as far back in time as the chronicles document. With the dominance of the little brothers and sisters of Asia as a united global player I see a prosperous future for the two countries, this time without malice or bloodshed.

There are no flights from Singapore directly to Siem Reap and It's about 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Across country roads and through third world villages a regular paced car journey will take you around 5 or 6 hours but cost you only 40 - 50 USD. It's 40 degrees here most days and humid as hell, most cars here are negatively antiquated so the journey to Siem Reap can be borderline dolorous.

Wildlife Stop - The stops we made on the way to Siem Reap were few and far between but always kept us entertained.

Despite being full of Australian backpackers with matted dreadlocks and wearing singlets Siem Reap definitely has it's charms and wonders. The city is most famous for Angkor Wat or 'City of Temples', it's the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by the Khmer King  Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, it was the capital of the Khmer Empire and acted as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.

A mural @ Angkor Wat

The splendid artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate on 11th August 1863 and invading Thailand to take control of the ruins. Cambodia gained independence from France on 9th November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time.Scars of French colonialism are visible throughout Cambodia still to this day.

The view to the forest outside - Angkor Wat

The iPad and the Yellow Balloon @ Angkor Wat

The 2001 film 'Tomb Raider' starting Angelia Jolie was filmed in Angkor Thom, part of the greater Angkor Wat site and translating from Khmer to English directly as 'Great City'. Ta Phrom which is located approximately 1 Km east of Angkor Thom also plays a part in the Tomb Raider film, it's an ancient ruin made by man and reclaimed by mother nature. The grounds are filled with broken stone and dilapidated monuments like most other temples within the greater Angkor Wat vicinity, the only difference being that in Ta Phrom mother nature seems to have tried to reclaim her place. Colossal trees tower above the man made citadel, their roots seem to erupt from the ground - splitting rock and severing history.

Ta Phrom, Angkor Wat - Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Flat Defeat of Siam and The Great Tonle

The Angkor Wat site is breathtaking, chockablock with culture and wonder. It takes a good two or three days, 20 litres of water and a full tube of Factor 50 to see all of what Angkor Wat has to offer but it's well worth the dehydration and minor sunburn. There is more to Siem Reap than the remnants of the Angkor Empire, there is Siem Reap city itself.

The Tonle Sap River Lake is a combined River and Lake system of vital importance to Cambodia. It is the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia and directly responsible for 16% of the countries GDP through it's extensive fishing operations. Wikipedia facts aside, the lake is magnificent, it's massive. At it's peak it's area swells to 16,000 km2, it is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. During the dry season it shrinks and flows into the Mekong in Phnom Penh. The lake captures the most wonderful sunsets, reflections full of gold, it's one of those places with a little bit of magic.

Khmer Mist taken on the Tonle Sap

The giant lake is surrounded by five of Cambodia's provinces and it houses a total of 3 million people both on and around the lakes perimeter. After a day of traversing around the ruins of Angkor in 40 degree heat we took a lazy afternoon boat trip across the Tonle in our own private boat. Before I go on let me stop your imagination right there and paint an accurate picture for you of this adventure. Our boat was barely seaworthy; imagine the most rundown European canal boat you ever saw, now imagine it without any sides, made entirely of wood rotting in the humidity with an exposed engine at the back of the boat. I hope you get the picture. Despite the aesthetic issues with our boat it was functional (thankfully) and we made our tour and returned successfully. The tour takes a few hour but it's at a nice pace, steady enough so you can really enjoy the sound of internal combustion and pistons in motion (the scenery is pretty nice too). If I push sarcasm aside very briefly; it was one of the best experiences of my time in Asia so far. The children washing themselves in the river waving furiously waving to you, racing each other to see who can get closest to the boat. Set against the backdrop of a burning orange sunset I saw a peddle bike trail slowly across the horizon, it's rider completely in shadow wearing a conical Asian hat (called a do'un in Cambodia). We saw crocodiles or alligators (don't remember which and too lazy to Google) in confinement, probably a tourist thing, empty cans of beer littering their pen. Then there were the Children.

The Children of the Tonle Sap

I mentioned earlier than the Tonle Sap and it's surroundings house a total of 3 million people; a lot of which actually live on the lake itself in a floating village. Apparently during the time of Pol Pot many Cambodians (and Vietnamese) who were taking refuge around the river lake took to the waters for safety. It is a heavily populated Vietnamese area with a school, a church (of some kind), craftsmen, and a shop amongst it's many houses. I saw some stunning images (if only I was a better photographer) I could show you but we also realized that poverty is buoyant. Amongst the scattered floating homes of the Tonle lies a Children's home in which Vietnamese orphans take refuge.

As part of the 'tour package' the boat captain will take you to a store, conveniently located quite and close to the orphanage that sells bare essentials such as rice, tinned foods and toiletries. You are expected to go to this store, purchase items from the store and take them with you to the orphanage before you go. Completely taken back by the events and images of the Tonle we bought a fair share of items and took them to the floating orphanage. The boat captain then docks at the orphanage and you proceed to offload your items before meeting the children. A single woman looks after all the children on board as well as the assists with the docking of the boat, a very young woman, not 30 years of age. This is what struck me as strange is that the children, give or take a couple show you no emotion when you board. They continue doing their thing they were doing when you boarded, some don't even look up at you - it's as if they have seen it all before, boredom or monotony fills their eyes. After waving good bye to the animated few we headed off to catch the sunset and all I could think was that the giving of items to the children was fully orchestrated and that the items, after they were given could go straight back to the store for the next boat full of tourists to buy all over again. Am I a bad person for thinking that? A part of me still thinks that is the case however another part of me (my optimistic side) believes the children were only bored, they must see boat loads of tourists day in day out, doing the same old shit, dropping rice and soap and taking their token "Look at me with a poor child" photo. I'm still in two minds about it to be honest, I'm sure the mighty Google could help me explain but I'd like to think that our donating fed someone, other than the owner of the store.

Our boat captain and Tuk Tuk driver sitting on the front of the boat as the sun set.

I unfortunately don't have any photos of food to share with you in this blog, I can't really say many good things about the cuisine of Cambodia although I really wish I could. Maybe I just haven't found the right dish yet or the right chef to cook it for me but Cambodia doesn't need instragramed photos of food. The country is a magical one. Apologies if I said this in my blog about Phnom Penh but it's difficult to contemplate that the Khmer Rouge committed one of the worst periods of genocide in modern day history here only 40 years ago.

If you have the funds and time available you need to visit Cambodia. You need to see Angkor Wat. You need to see take a trip across the Tonle and you need to see the drunken Australians in pub street hanging out with hookers. It's all part and parcel of the Khmer Magic.

Cambodia: Truly the Kingdom of Wonder.