Kompong Phluuk & Apsara dancing

Trip Start Aug 03, 2009
Trip End Aug 10, 2009

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Apsara dancing

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Friday, August 7, 2009


Despite enjoying the night before to the full, we were up early as we wanted to watch the sunrise (which was lovely).

Usual breakfast.

Then, we had already arranged a trip to Tonlé Sap lake and the village of Kompong Phluk (which has many different spellings). He said it was not especially popular as most people only ever wanted to see Angkor.

The taxi which picked us up had seen better days (and that's polite). We gave up on the windows and doors!

Anyway, along the road to the lake. The hill (Phnom Krom) is the only one in the area and really dominates both from land and water. We had a boat waiting (on our own again) with a driver and sort of guide. It took us past the floating village (about 30 minutes) until we were leaving the river and heading into the lake. The lake was surprisingly choppy, but the boat (an old displacement hull put-put with canvas) managed fine. The guide pulled out a load of Cambodian beer (called Angkor Beer, of course, and a really nice light beer) for us.

We headed along the northern bank, passing a colourful Buddhist temple stuck on its stilts at the edge of the lake. We saw trees in the water at the edge, before we headed a little away from the shore. There were loads of fish, some really large (although it was hard to see as the water was a bit murky) and loads of floating water hyacinth (a fully aquatic plant which is free floating).

After about an hour we arrived at the edge of the village of Kampong Phluk. We had seen the forest for a while, and we were not surprised when we started to head down an inlet (the choppiness vanished almost immediately). One of our party was not too happy when some dug-out canoes headed towards us (that's the trouble with being involved in medicine! You know FAR too much). However, we were all keen, so on went our life jackets (no Cambodians bothered, of course). We went two in a boat (so, 2 boats then) with young girls at the front rowing (single oars). They both looked about 12, but turned out to be 16! The flooded forest was amazing! As soon as we got away from the inlet and among the trees it went almost totally quiet apart from the wildlife. We saw water snakes, some HUGE spiders (well, to me they were. Apparently they are a local delicacy and we were offered them later in our holiday but decided not to try) and a variety of birds, mainly sitting in the trees.

As we oared through the forest our two boats took slightly different courses so we often did not see anyone else at all. Eventually we headed back to the inlet to join it much further down. We passed some outlying houses on stilts and a few fisherboats. There were some large (but local, sustainable) fish traps which funneled the fish down to the trap by a series of switchback nets.

We got to a small landing point behind/under one of the houses and we were in the village itself. A young child stopped to talk to us. We were right at the beginning to the wet season and the village was a part way in the water. A few weeks later and the rest would be too. We rowed through the early part of the village looking at the houses until we go to the Buddhist temple. Then it was dry enough to go by land, past the temple, into the school and then to the top part of the village. The temple was huge and colourful- it really stood out in the village, and our guide (he was a local) was immensely proud of it. We had bought books and pencil with us and as we neared the school a load of children arrived (aged about 5-10) very excited. We gave out the books inside the school (the children were lovely, excited and polite).

The village was a typical Cambodian village. All the houses were on stilts (which is partly to keep them cool in the hot season and away from the water in the wet season). The houses in the still dry area were being patched and boats re-waterproofed ready for the water, but the areas already wet had been finished. The houses were for whole (extended) families. Most people used hammocks either slung under the house or inside it. Some had traditional roofs, but some people had moved to alternatives. All the children wanted to talk to us, though they didn’t know much English. We were the only tourists!

At the far end of the village we headed right back towards the river and went on board a floating café to have a cold drink before setting back for lunch. Our boat collected us from the café and we went back to the lake. It started to become quite overcast and the lake got very choppy (even our boat captain said he was a bit bothered), so we were quite pleased when we arrived back at the entrance of Siem Reap river and the Tara Riverboat. We got on board and went to top deck to wait for lunch (rice and chicken- pleasant, but not amazing). The Tara is a really large boat and they said in peak season they might have over 100 people, but we were on our own. Apparently it used to be the Cambodia-Vietnam ferry boat. Luckily the sun came back out.

As expected a really young child paddled up to the boat in his tin tub with a (dead) water snake asking us to pay to take his photo. We declined.

After a leisurely lunch we headed back up the river to collect our taxi. He asked if he could detour and show us the local countryside (for free), so we agreed. He turned up Phnon Krom hill- AMAZINGLY his car made it to the top (after a lot of work).

We stopped just before the top (you can’t go any further by car), went past the Buddhist pagoda and arrived at the Hindu temple at the top.

The temple is one of the earliest in the region. It was built by Yasovarman I was one of his 3 temple-mountains (literally on a mountain). It still has its central sanctuary and several towers, but much of the detail in the decoration is missing. There was some work on one side which looks as if it was not finished. Our taxi driver did not know much about the temple, so it was lucky we had bought a guide book with us. There were the usually lions and the apsara within an arch picture and some foliage that we could still see.

The view back over the lake was brilliant. We could see the Cambodian countryside for miles and as we had brought binoculars we were able to see fishermen on the lake, out towards Angkor and deep into the rice-fields countryside.

A note on Yasovarman I (889-910AD)

When Indravarman I died there was a civil war between his sons, with Yasovarman eventually winning. He chose not to relate himself to his father’s line, but instead claimed his right to rule through a line to the Chenla and Funan kings (see before). He built a new capital as well at Yasodharapura (now Angkor) and at the centre of his capital, Phnom Bakheng temple.

We finally drove back to Siem Reap and popped into the Raffles for a nice cocktail. Then we went to change into some cool clothes for our evening. We had already got the hotel to book an evening of apsara dancing and food (I know there were lots of places to go- we had already seen a little at the Temple club) but the Victoria Angkor Hotel was recommended as one of the best. It was a good thing we booked early and requested a table at the front because it was very busy when we arrived (by tuk tuk) and our table was waiting for us as expected. I would not have wanted to be at one of the further back tables (yes, they were near the buffet, but a long way from the dancers.)

The buffet was a really good deal- as much as we wanted covering a variety of eastern styles (curry, amok, noodles, Chinese, Japanese, soup….. and then a main course too) although the dessert was a little less exciting (blancmange, jelly…) but loads of local fruit which was nice. 

I especially liked the dragonfruit (both on its own and in a sort of soufflé), but there was also rambutan ice-cream, delicious mango and papaya creamy sort of pud, mangosteen (nothing like a mango- it’s white and yummy), durian pud, a cinnamony sapodilla and milk fruit (in about 5 different puddings).

As we started our puddings the lights began to dim and the show began. First we had an introduction dance and music (the players were in the corner). The women all wore their garlands (apparently papaya flowers, not the lotus flowers we thought they were) and open frangipani flowers in their hair.

Then there was a "Fisher" dance with men and women. They danced a more “peasant” dance with fishing pots and it was more lively than the other dances.

It was followed by some of the younger dancers, wearing traditional sampots (a long cloth wound around the body and tucked in through the legs like trousers) and then a brilliant duet between “Sita” and “Ravana” who wore a mask. The Ramayana elements were luckily very obvious.

Finally, the women came back in traditional apsara costumes and danced a royal or palace dance.  The prima danser wore the traditional white (lead dancer) costume. On their heads they wore the same headdresses as in Angkor.

Apsara dancing is a very old tradition, dating back to at least Angkorian times (look at all the pictures of them in Angkor). It was seen as a courtly pursuit, which maybe why it was so badly hit by the Khmer Rouge who hit dancers badly). Its origins seem to have been Indian (and this was obvious in the hand and foot movements we saw. The dancers must have practiced every day to get their fingers and toes so flexible they could turn at almost 180˚ angles). I bit like ballet, each pose has a meaning (eg. Crossed arms means happy or finger pointed up means now or today). They wore quite a bit of jewelry (of course I noticed) including anklets.

When the dances finished some people went on stage to have their photo taken with the dancers, but we did not fancy this. We got the tuk tuk back to the hotel and had a reasonably early night. 
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