… by the way, this is all my own work and VSO has no responsibility at all (see disclaimer above) …
This has been the most difficult post to write to date and it’s a lengthy one so put on your speed-reading glasses! Across the holiday the five of us took well over 2000 photos, most of them in the temples of Angkor. Here is a text summary with some taster photos. For those who want a further vicarious taste of the fantastic experience we have had touring this beautiful and interesting country, you’ll have to ask Joan round for a meal and she can bring the CD!
From Kampong Cham we headed to Siem Reap. Joan did not really recover fully from her tummy problems but was well enough to move around and enjoy her days, if not always the food. Our first excursion was to a lakeside stilted village, Kampong Pluk: over 2500 people live here making their living from fishing, and, increasingly, tourism as the houses are on stilts some 14 or more metres high to take account of the dramatic change in levels of the Sap Lake during wet and dry season. Our visit was about a month after the end of the wet season and the waters will go down still further before it starts again in May/June.
The next day, we headed from our comfortable guest house up to the World Heritage site at Angkor. We took what is called the ‘short tour’ on the first day. This involves a visit to the square walled city of Angkor Thom, built by the Khmer Emperor Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century. It is massive in scale, with each wall of the square being 3km in length, with a central entrance gate approached over the surrounding moat. At the exact centre is the Bayon Temple, while other, older temples and historic buildings also remain. Most of the city, built of wood, has perished.
One of the most striking features of Angkor Thom is the face of Avalokitesvara ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon ). Over 200 large stone faces look on from the towers of the Bayon temple. They can also be found at the gates into the walled city. These enigmatic faces catch the light at all times of day. Some scholars believe that Jayavarman VII had his stone carvers model the face from his own. Whatever, he certainly seemed to have absolute power, based on the military conquests which are detailed on the remarkeable Bayon stone friezes, running for hundreds of metres around the lower courtyards.
This was a stunning start to the tour and was already enough to justify the visit. However there was much more to come. Next visit was to Ta Phrom, the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple which sits just outside Angkor Thom.
It was a spectacular, if very busy, visit. It was now midday and we sheltered from the hot sun for a few minutes under the trees surrounding Sra Sang, the ‘bathing pool for the Emperor and his courtesans’ (about 800m x 400m!). Energies restored, we headed for Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religous site. AW was built by one of J VII’s Hindu predecessors, Suryavarman II, in the early 12th Century, as my first little video explains! The second video shows us walking over the causeway across the (oceans) towards the main entrance. The third one is taken within the highest point of the temple that the public can access, in among the five towers and looking up to the highest one (‘Mount Meru’). As a bonus you’ll also get some shots of Joan. Some photos also credit to Joan and Beth!
The conventional tourist guides inform you that Angkor Wat is best seen at sunup or sundown. Well, I reckon there can’t be a bad time to see it, and, yes, in the halflight it is stunning as well!
Beth, Matthew and Jo had another couple of days scouting the more remote and less touristy temples. Joan and I hired bicycles on day two and revisited the sites of the first day and taking our time to go where we wanted and get off the beaten track inside Angkor Thom itself. This included time for Joan’s power nap, in a beautiful butterfly-filled meadow, overshadowed by the ‘towers of the acrobats’ – among Angkor Thom’s many other stone remains is a series of towers which are believed, among other things, to have acted as mooring points for high-wire acts performing across the massive imperial ceremonial square, to be seen from the opposing ‘Terrace of the Elephants’, in front of the royal palace.
This last picture is a bit of fun from the Bayon Temple.
Jo, Beth and Matthew joined Joan and I in Phnom Penh a couple of days later and we went on a joint excursion to the ‘Killing Fields’ site. This is one of many mass graves around the country, but its proximity to PP and its association with S21 prison (those who had confessed under torture were brought here in batches to be killed) have made it both a place of remembrance and a tourist site. It was a sobering visit. The central memorial contains many skeletons and skulls, but even more harrowing are the many ‘pits’ on the site, in some of which can be seen items of clothing and teeth which have worked their way up to the surface. There are still many bodies in there. Altogether over 20,000 met horrible ends, usually by being hit with a club on the back of the skull and heaved into a mass pit grave, on the site. Immediately adjacent to the site is a primary school, and although at first I was surprised at this, later my heart warmed to hear the happy sounds of young children playing, growing up in a Cambodia which is investing in their education and hoping for a peaceful and prosperous future. Let the past remain in the past, but let us never forget it.
There are no photos to show of this, but for those of you who are interested in following up on Cambodian History, I did a brief summary here on my blog in September some time. The best general history is by David Chandler (there is a fourth edition 2007) and the best autobiographical account of surviving through Khmer Rouge times that I have read is Someth May’s Cambodian Witness ( second hand copies available on Amazon cheaply ). The film Killing Fields is based around an inspiring but harrowing true story and there is considerable corroboration of its authenticity in various other accounts e.g Francois Bizot The Gate (beautifully written – evocative precise descriptions and strong emotions – he is the only European captured and interrogated by Khmer Rouge to have been released as innocent of the charges of spying) and Jon Swain River of Time (also in the French embassy in 1975, Swain writes about his life as a newspaper correspondent in the Vietnam war and in Cambodia). It is a fascinating and unique country and we all have things to learn from its experience. Although there are some parallels with Rwanda, there are many differences, not least that the civil war in Cambodia which began in the 1960s did not really end until Pol Pot’s death in 1998. That is the main reason, I believe, why so many Cambodians are happy with the present government, for all the kleptocratic tendencies of the powerful elite: during the recent period of peace, people have been able to put their heads down, mind their own business, try to keep out of the way of the powerful elite and make a better living for themselves and their families.
I had planned the end of the holiday as a relaxing few days at the beautiful former French resort of Kep (now increasingly popular as a tourist destination). Unfortunately Joan’s tummy bug decided that she was beginning to have too nice a time and she had a rather difficult couple of days, but, being a real trooper she carried on and tried to enjoy herself, lying by the pool in the delightful Verandah hotel ( http://tinyurl.com/5u8fhba ). It was a great experience and when Joan felt a little better, we took a trip on a hire motorbike (great fun) to neighbouring Kampot and a boat trip to the lovely tropical ‘Rabbit Island’.
Matthew had had to go back earlier than the rest of us. Meantime, Jo and Beth had had a few days chilling out at the beach at Sihanoukville. They joined us back in PP and treated Joan and I to a really nice closing meal (thanks to you guys). |The next morning was the last, long tuk tuk ride to the airport to see them off. I don’t know who felt worse, Joan who wanted to stay, or me, who wanted to go. Anyway life’s roller coaster takes us on..and now I have shuffled off my tourist identity and am back into working mode. So much to do now before I finish!!
PS Joan has added her comment on the holiday in the ‘comments’ section below!!