Thursday, 6 December 2012

Cambodia Day 4: Tonle Sap, Phnom Krom, and a return to reality

The alarm sounding off at 6:30 am was significantly more annoying than it was just 24 hours before.  After a second full day of sightseeing, we were exhausted and reluctant to get out of bed - but we knew a very interesting day lay before us.

Rhat and our breakfast orders were waiting for us when we finally emerged from the room.  All you loyal readers by now know that Tuna was also awaiting us!  After breakfast, we put our tourist hats back on and met Savonn in the hotel driveway for our drive to Tonle Sap, the famed floating village.

Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, ranging in size from about 3,000 square km in the dry season to upwards of 15,000 square km during the monsoon season, when water from the Mekong river is pushed into the lake.  In the dry season, Tonle Sap averages about four feet deep, but in monsoon season it can get as deep as 30 feet, flooding fields and forests in all directions.

Our visit in November was toward the beginning of the dry season and the water level in the lake and surrounding fields was relatively low...but from the look of things, you wouldn't necessarily know it.  The drive from Siem Reap took us through several villages and along small rivers where houses are clearly built to avoid flooding.  When I say, "built to avoid flooding", I mean they are built several feet above the water on tiny stilts that appear hardly capable of bearing the weight of the structure.

Upon reaching the lake, we noticed in-process construction on a large luxury resort overlooking the docks.  The modern engineering and sturdy materials of the resort were in stark contrast to the primitive, fragile wood and metal framed homes that sit along the lake's edge only a few hundred yards away.  Many of the homes are 25- 35 feet above the current water level, perched on bamboo, wood and in very few places, concrete stilts.  Most had loose wood planks, balanced unevenly, from the front door to the roadway nearby.  Apparently a fear of heights and poor balance have been eliminated from the population that live there.

Once at the lake, Savonn escorted us through a small "boat terminal" and directly to a waiting boat and captain who would take us for a tour.  The boat could have handled about ten passengers, but we pushed off from the dock with only the five of us and the captain on board.  The water was a murky, "coffee with 2 cream", brown and relatively calm for such a large body of water. 

Shortly after leaving the dock, a small boat sped towards us.  Like a Somali pirate, but far less dangerous, the smaller and faster boat caught up to us and a young girl deftly stepped from the moving boat onto the back of ours and peddled snacks and drinks.  After we refused, she quickly stepped back onto the smaller boat, where her father waited, and the two shot off in another direction toward a boat full of tourists.  So many places we visited we were approached by children selling things.  As difficult as it was to refuse, it is important to in most cases.  Many of these children are forced, some by non-family members, to make a living like this.  Much of the money they receive doesn't even go to them.  It is a sad, sad situation, and trust me, very difficult to turn your back on.

A few minutes later, we approached one of the many floating villages on Tonle Sap.  This particular village was home to approximately 500 residents, all of whom live in small, floating homes anchored to the bushes and trees that poke through the water's surface.  Most are fishermen, but as in any town, there are people making a living in other ways.  For example the village had a floating school house, a floating Buddhist temple and there were several people going from boat house to boat house selling produce and other necessities.

As our boat passed by these "homes", children could be seen playing on the hard wooden floor of the boats or rocking in hammocks that hung inside and outside the structures.  Others bathed in the lake water, and we saw one boy just lean over and drink directly from the lake (not a good idea but this is how they live).  There were several boats where men and women sat inside a netted structure, smacking small fish as they jumped all around them - we were told they were making fish paste.  Other men had clearly just returned from fishing with large buckets full of the tiny fish (regular fishing season hadn't started yet - the law only allows fishing half the year to allow the fish to reproduce the other half).  The women we saw were mostly tending to children, or rowing small boats around the lake full of supplies.

As Savonn described it, the "rich" people have gas powered generators so they can power small TVs for short periods of time, while most others either run off of battery power or have no electricity at all.  We saw very few TV's, but I was surprised to see a few families gathered around a laptop watching and laughing at something.
As we approached the floating restaurant and gift shop, several young children approached our boat - floating in what appeared to be large silver keg buckets.  Around their necks or simply laying in the bottom of the bucket where the children sat, were large snakes that had been raised by the children and their families as a source of income.  Take a photo - make a donation.  One boy, pictured below, had a python 6+ feet in length around his neck.  Jennifer immediately broke out in hives and slowly walked backward, almost falling off the side of the boat.  Now THAT would have been an awesome end to this vacation!

The other *crazy* part of the floating restaurant was the crocodile farm.  Built under the boat with barriers was a pen holding probably 30-50 crocodiles caught in the river as babies and raised in captivity.  We just stared down into the pen in complete awe of these creatures that looked like statues but who would gladly chomp us into pieces if we leaned just a litle too far over the railing.

The entire scene was very surreal, and more than once Jennifer and I looked at each other incredulously and speculated as to how we got here.  The people were all very friendly, seemingly not concerned about yet another group of tourists gawking at their homes and their way of life, but it seemed impossible to believe people still live this way. 

Eventually, we made our way back to the boat dock, which now seemed far more civilized than just an hour before.  During the entire boat ride back, and upon reaching the dock, I couldn't help but notice just how many people were taking pictures of us, and especially the kids.  We were the unwitting subject of the stereotypical Asian tourist.  It was obvious that Caucasian children, in particular, are a rare sight.  Sophia and Cooper's blonde hair and blue eyes surely were interesting to so many of the people we saw along the way.

Temple at Phnom Krom
Revived by the cold aircon in the car, we started toward the final stop of our adventure, Phnom Krom.  Phnom Krom is a 140 meter high hill a short distance from Tonle Sap.  To get there, we climbed a few hundred steps and walked at least 1/2 mile up a steep winding road.  Once at the top, we saw an amazing temple built in the 9th century to honor the Hindu deities of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma.  The temple is far smaller then the others we had seen in Siem Reap, but the fact it was built on top of this hill, IN THE 9TH CENTURY was amazing. 

"Dry Season" at Tonle Sap
The view was spectacular as well, offering a view of Siem Reap from one vantage point - and a view over the small village and Tonle Sap lake from another.  From here, the  massive size of the lake was apparent, as was the unthinkable impact of the seasonal flooding.  I found myself wondering why so many people choose to put themselves in potential danger by living in a flood zone when a perfectly good, dry hill was only a short distance away.  Then I realized it was a stupid thought when 80% of the people who live there make a living fishing in the lake and the other 20% make their living related to something in or around the water.

After climbing back down what must have been a thousand steps, we headed back toward Siem Reap for one last lunch with Savonn, a final stop at Journeys Within, and then the drive to the Siem Reap airport.  At lunch, Savonn shared more stories about his family and children, and we enjoyed a few more Angkor beers.  Upon returning to Journeys Within, we said one last goodbye to Rhat, Alex, and other members of the JW staff...and of course Sophia and Cooper had a tearful goodbye with Tuna, the house dog.  As we pulled out of the JW driveway, the staff members all stood waving, and did not stop until we were out of sight.  Jennifer cried - OF COURSE.  Savonn made the drive to the airport with us, and saw us off to the airport entrance.

So after about 72 hours, 8 temples, 2 boat rides and countless Angkor beers, our visit to Cambodia came to an end.  We said a final farewell to Savonn, promising to keep in touch via Facebook and offering to provide a review for him on TripAdvisor.  We also made a note to send a supply of Frontline to Journeys Within to help Tuna stay healthy and avoid the Cambodian tics.  Most importantly, on this Thanksgiving weekend, we made a promise to ourselves to remember the children and families of Tonle Sap and the other small villages of Cambodia, and to never forget just how fortunate we are to have been born in the United States.

Here are some ways you can help the children and adults of Cambodia:

Journeys Within Our Community
Caring for Cambodia

Monday, 3 December 2012

Cambodia Day 3: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and More

Day three, like day two, began with breakfast at JW.  We were all a little more tired than the day before, but that's what 100 degree heat and ten miles of walking and stair climbing will do, when you're used to the comfort of Singapore's exceptionally convenient, air-conditioned public transportation system.  Nonetheless, we were all out of bed early and eager to explore more temples.

Tuna, the resident dog, was waiting in her usual spot just outside the glass doors to the small restaurant.  She barely moved when Jennifer and I stepped over her to go inside, and moved just enough to wag her tail as Sophia and Cooper greeted her.  Perhaps she had a rough night on the town?

After breakfast, we met Savonn at the hotel's driveway and headed toward our first stop of the day, Angkor Thom. 

Angkor Thom was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII.  Like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is massive, covering an area of over 9 km².  It is completely surrounded by a man-made moat and giant sandstone wall.  Within the wall surrounding this ancient Khmer city, there are several structures and multiple temples, at the exact center of which is the Bayon Temple.

The Bayon Temple is one of the most recognizable in due to the enormous stone faces found on every tower of the temple.  Savonn provided us with some history of the temple and we briefly viewed the structure from outside before walking a few steps away to meet a new friend, Sambo.

Sambo was the Asian elephant we would ride around the outside of the Bayon Temple to see the structure from the same vantage point as the French explorers who rediscovered the
temples in the mid 1860's.  The ride was bumpy, but a lot of fun, and I think there were as many pictures taken of us during the ride as we took of the temples.

Upon dismounting, Sophia and Cooper both fed Sambo a pineapple, which he quickly gobbled up, and we made our way inside the Bayon temple for a closer look.  The Bayon Temple, like most others we saw, is covered with reliefs depicting various Khmer legends and epic battles.  But the prominent feature of the temple is the multitude of large faces that adorn each of the towers.  What was most amazing was the consistency of each face and how much they looked alike.  Just remarkable considering how they must have been made nearly a thousand years ago. 

After exploring the Bayon Temple, we moved on to a neighboring temple called Phimeanakas.  This temple was built about 200 years earlier than the Bayon Temple and resembled a Mayan pyramid.  Sophia, Cooper and I climbed the steep steps to the top, which was much easier than coming back down.  Once on top, however, we were greeted by a Cambodian woman who smiled at the kids, offered them incense, and said a small prayer for our family...I think.  So I've got that going for me...which is nice.

After Phimeanakas, we visited several other spots within Angkor Thom, including the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants.  The former is believed to be a temple for the dead, and was named after King Yasovarman who was believed to be a Leper. The Terrace of the Elephants is a large multi-tiered area where the King would observe his army, consisting of many elephants.  It is also an area where he would greet his victorious warriors as they returned to Angkor Thom through the main gates.

Cooper called this an "ancient lego"
At this point in the day, the hot sun was wearing on all of us, and we were eager to head to lunch.  Savonn recommended a local restaurant run by his friend, called The Angkor Flower.  Upon pulling into the parking lot, the staff (who had been relaxing in hammocks outside) greeted us with a smile and welcomed us inside.  We were the first guests for lunch, but were soon joined by another 40 or so temple visitors.  I ordered Amok Fish (a local favorite), Jennifer had a delicious plate of fried noodles, and the kids ate some fried stuff - the most western of what was available on the menu.  We are working on their palates, but it is a slow and torturous process.

We invited Savonn to join us for lunch, which by his reaction, was not expected.  He was happy to eat with us and we had a very interesting conversation about his family, his life and his pride in his country and people.  A highlight for me was the discussion we had about Angkor Beer, Cambodia Beer and Black Panther Beer.  The latter he described as "the kind of beer you take when your friend tells you he killed a snake and invites you to dinner".  We loved the casual conversation and opportunity to better understand life outside the usual tourist experience.  Our pictures, along with our afternoon in the village and conversations with Savonn are clearly our favorite souvenirs from this trip. 

After lunch, we were re-energized and managed two more temple visits before heading back to Journey's Within.  The first was Ta Prohm, which is one of the most well known due to its role in some of the filming of Tomb Raider.  We saw no Lara Croft, but Sophia and Cooper filled in with plenty of climbing and jumping among the rubble. 

Ta Prohm was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as a Buddhist monastery and university.  It was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1992, and has become one of the most famous and visited temples in Siem Reap due to the trees growing in, around, and literally on the temple walls.  As a result of these trees, the temple has received limited restoration, as removing the trees will cause the temple to crumble. 

After exploring Ta Prohm, we were exhausted, but Sophia was eager to visit "just one more" before heading back to the pool, Tuna, and a cold Angkor Beer.  This last temple of the day was Banteay Srei.  Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei was considerably smaller than the other temples we visited, but was just as beautiful, and decorated with reliefs and carvings on almost every stone wall.  Evidence of our exhaustion, we took far less photos of what many consider the "jewel of Khmer", than we did at the other temples, but hopefully these give you a taste of what we experience there.

At this point, we stumbled to the cool air, ice-cold wet towels, and bottles of near freezing water that awaited us at the car.  Luckily, the ride home was pretty quick, and we relaxed the remainder of the afternoon by the pool.

Later that evening, we texted Moeng (our friendly local tuk tuk driver) to pick us up for dinner, and we headed to a small, out of the way Italian restaurant, L'Oasi, where we enjoyed one final dinner in Siem Reap.  The food was great, but the highlight of the evening was eavesdropping on a pair of American and French archaeologists having an impassioned discussion about the best way to approach restoration of a nearby temple.  It was fascinating to watch them rifle through pages of photos, diagrams and blueprints as they discussed differing points of view and techniques.  It sure made my job seem awfully boring!

After a short ride to town, we made arrangements for Moeng to pick us up one last time, and we headed to the Old Market for some final shopping.  We didn't last real long, but found some great souvenirs among the vendors at the market before heading back to Journeys Within for one last night before a visit to Tonle Sap, the floating village, and our final temple visit at Phnom Krom.

Stay tuned for day four....our final day in Cambodia.