Convalescing Cambodia

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Where I stayed
B J's House

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The trip across from Thailand to Cambodia proved simpler than the guide books suggest. The train to the town near the Thai border, (there are only 2 each day), took six hours but cost only 1. Then we had to take a tuk-tuk to the border itself, stopping en route to collect a Cambodian visa from the Consulate office. Of course that meant filling in a form and attaching a photograph but I noticed while it was being processed that on the floor at the back of the office were stacks of hundreds of such completed forms – just resting there as if they had no homes to go to. So perhaps our forms will spend their lives there, but at least we were given a visa. Then it was a quick march through Thai Customs, then Migration, and into no-man's land.

There we were befriended by a young Cambodian man in a blue uniform shirt similar to a number of others who were also accompanying travellers. He explained that the Cambodian government was trying to reduce the number of scams carried out at the border by using volunteers to help travellers cross. He was helpful in steering us through the three checkpoints (one medical check where we had to sign to say we were not sick or carrying an infectious disease) and sorting out a minibus. You could say, I suppose, that this is not so much a scam as a business opportunity, as one volunteer accompanies each minibus to Siem Reap, giving him time to talk to his passengers and find anyone who wants to employ a guide/driver for the next day.

In fact we did hire him as a guide because his English is very good and we needed someone to take us to Angkor Wat. He turned out to be very good (even if he did wheedle a couple of extra dollars here and there!) and overall we felt he was charging a reasonable price so he took us to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other temples on two days and on the day in between he took us to the floating market at Kompung Pluk and then to his home which was only a few kilometres from the floating market.

The Angkor site is huge, approximately 1000 square kilometres, and contains numerous temples built between 800 and 1400, with the Classic Period extending from approximately 1000 to 1200. The most famous person connected with the complex was King Jayavarma VII who built a large proportion of the temples. He was Hindu but converted to Buddhism (although the two belief systems have similarities and overlap in many ways), so it is possible to detect this in the decoration of the buildings. His successor remained Hindu and had many of the Buddhas 'erased' by chiselling them off the walls!

The decorations retell the great stories from Hindu teachings as well as the history of battles between the Khmer Empire and it's neighbours. Our guide explained the role of the Garuda bird (transport of god Vishnu), the Apsara or heavenly nymphs, the Naga snake and many others. We had two very long days temple hopping in the tuk-tuk but it was fascinating. One in particular stands out. Banteay Srei is 30 kilometres out of Siem Reap. It seemed a long way to go when there are so many available locally, but Bruncheong, our guide assured us we had to do it and he was absolutely right. It was constructed in tough pink sandstone so has retained really detailed sculptures despite being much older, as it was built in the 9th Century. The other benefit from travelling further was that we managed to rest and enjoy the pleasant breeze in the tuk-tuk as temple hopping is exhausting, requiring much clambering over rocks and climbing of steep steps.

The temples are all in varying states of repair. Some were overgrown by jungle when they were rediscovered, and many have trees growing through them which cannot be removed as the ruins are being supported by them. This creates an atmosphere difficult to describe. The almost magical symbiosis resulting from a giant tree becoming intertwined into the fabric of a building, and covered in lichen, produces an almost hypnotic effect and looks as if it is straight out of a fairytale.

I was amazed at the number of countries involved in restoration work, including India, China, Russia, Canada, Korea, Germany, France, and UK, but despite their efforts there is still a huge amount to complete.

The purpose of visiting Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat but we did have reservations about the country itself for a couple of reasons. The first is that there are estimated to be between 4 and 5 million land mines buried on the land. As the guide book says, 'if you feel the need to go behind a bush – don't! Forget modesty and go on the footpath in front of the bush'. Which leads to the second concern, apart from the towns (really only Siem Reap and Phnom Penh), most of the country has no system of drains or sewers. As Bruncheong described his house, 'it has natural air-conditioning and natural toilet'. Not the healthiest environment to visit.

Despite our worries we really enjoyed the country as the people are very friendly and many speak much better English than we had encountered in Thailand. When we visited a Temple dedicated to a Sword (I know tht sounds odd), it took us a few minutes to catch on to Bruncheon's pronunciation of sword, it sounded like ' swat', as in killing flies. I tried to be tactful by saying it correctly a few times to help him but he still said 'swat', so eventually I said the word has a silent 'w'. 'Oh, I know sword,' he said (pronouncing it perfectly), 'but if I say that to anyone from Asia who is speaking English they never understand. I have to say swat'. Right!

When Bruncheong asked if we wanted to stop off at his family home and have him cook some food for us we were unsure what to expect. Most people live in rural communities, thinly spread out and visiting them is like stepping back into the middle ages. The houses are mostly built on stilts as the ground floods in the rainy season, so the living area is on the first floor. Bruncheong's house has two large rooms, one a bedroom/living room, the other a kitchen, a small room, and two large balconies which really provide the living areas as they catch any breeze around.

We think that his family are well off compared to many as they produce 40 tons of rice a year in fields away from the house, so are able to sell much of it, and have a large machine to thresh or do whatever has to be done to rice. They bought the tuk-tuk for Bruncheon so it is all part of a family business. They have a water cooler machine which looks out of place in the otherwise basic kitchen, a battery operated TV as they don't have electricity, and a water pump but no toilet facilities. At the bottom of the garden there are pigs, chickens and lots of fruit and coconut trees. He called his mother on mobiles to say we were going to visit.

It was very interesting to meet his parents and extended family, although they did not speak English. I had been practising the Cambodian for Hello, How are you?, and Thank you, all the way there. They were very welcoming with his mother preparing fresh oranges and sending the tuk-tuk driver (forgot to say that when Bruncheong is working as a guide he employs a friend as driver, who can then look after the tuk-tuk when he is away in the temples) to climb the tree and knock down coconuts. At one level the lifestyle looks like a rural idyll but I think I would need a bathroom before I could enjoy it. Most of the houses seem to be set up in a similar way even if they don't have the extra 'luxuries' that Bruncheong's family enjoy, and so there does not appear to be high levels of poverty although the annual income of families is very low. I think the ability to produce food and keep animals conceals the poverty to some extent especially in the rainy season when fish is readily available.  He cooked rice with fish and a delicious lemon and chilli sauce but the fish was the size of a sardine and we had one per person. It was then that I realised how little protein they eat and how dependant they are on fish, and their hens for eggs. We did not see fat Cambodians. It was a humbling lesson that left me feeling a glutton.

The government is not very visible but the NGOs are. There are charities and other organisations everywhere with workers from many different countries. At times it appears unbalanced, as if everything is being done to the country by others but that may be just because we don't speak the language so can't judge accurately. I hope so. That is why I called this blog 'Convalescing Cambodia. It feels as though the country is recovering from a dreadful illness and needs much nursing, medical and social support from all kinds of agencies.

On a lighter note, for those fashion conscious people out there, you might like to know pyjamas are big in Cambodia for all day wear. Real pyjamas with long sleeves, long legs, buttons up the front and collars. Haven't managed to get a good picture as Jim refuses to take photographs of women in their pyjamas. I thought I had adjusted to this vogue until the tall, slim and elegant owner of the hotel walked out of her office to reception in immaculate bright red pyjamas with teddy bear motifs. I did a double take before I could stop myself. I am sure there must be a story behind the pyjamas but have not tracked it down yet. Perhaps M & S sent a years production to help the country recover after the civil war?

From Siem Reap we took the bus to the only other major tourist area in Cambodia, the capital Phnom Penh. The journey was fascinating as the medieval style countryside passed by with hardly a village or town to be seen from the rather potholed and muddy road. The houses stretch out along the road, often with a haystack at the front, which by this time of the year (rainy season) is beginning to wobble out of shape where animals have eaten away at the sides and the rain has blurred the top out of shape, just like a snowman that starts to melt after a thaw. Cattle, buffalo, ducks and chickens roam around the roads and gardens and children and adults wander in and out of the water which floods everywhere, some playing, others fishing, or washing and some I didn't want to know what!

From Siem Reap we moved to Phnom Penh, the capital. The centre is much smaller than I expected and it is possible to walk to all the sites, the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, State Museum and minor Wats. The roads are terrifying as they are full of motorcycles, tuk-tuks and cars all going at different speeds in different directions. We had been taught by Bruncheong how to cross when he spotted us stuck at the side of a road. He grabbed one of our elbows in each of his arms and marched us into the traffic saying, 'walk same speed, don't go slower, don't go faster, don't stop, just same speed.' The theory is that the traffic will move around you, which miraculously, it does but it takes nerves of steel.

In the centre of Phnom Penh we had to cross a wide six lane road with the traffic coming from all directions. We were stuck there for 3 or 4 minutes when suddenly a parked tuk-tuk driver jumped down, grabbed our arms and like Bruncheong, marched us out. This time I just kept my eyes closed. In 10 seconds we were across and before I could say thank you he had turned straight round back into the traffic without looking, and was nearing the other side. Awesome, as the Australians say!

Our room was on the top floor of the hotel, so great for drying washing in a couple of hours. I hung out a dress and blouse and then noticed the sky darken. I stepped onto the balcony and decided it was safer to take them in as a storm was building but I could not reach them as Jim had put them up high on the air conditioning. I put my head inside the door and asked him to lift them down just as a gust of wind blew. I turned back to the washing to see the blouse had fallen on the floor but the dress had disappeared without trace. We looked down in the street, up on the roof, everywhere, but failed to spot it. So someone is probably having a change from their pyjamas and wearing my dress. At least it was clean!
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Comments

jenny on

looks a very interesting place, looking forward to our visit!!!
See you soon. Jennyxx

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