Phchum Ben festivities

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , KH.16,
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but after just three days back in the classroom after the mid term break I find myself with another five days to kill. All of Cambodia stops for the week to celebrate the Buddhist holiday of Phchum Ben; a time to atone for all those bad things you've done in the past twelve months, pay respects to your ancestors and give offerings to the monks, in the hope of receiving a blessing of good will, health, fortune and charity. As with the Khmer new year holiday, all of the people return to their homeland, so I was not the only one trying to get out of Phnom Penh on saturday morning. The entire city was emptying! It took an hour to leave the city, a journey that usually takes only 10-15 minutes. The streets were choca-bloc full of motos, pickup trucks, cars, buses and minivans, full of people. For a hundred metres in front the only site was that of Khmers wrapped in kramas sitting atop minivans and trucks. I imagine the scene on April 17th, 1975 was not too dissimilar, except this exodus was not enforced by 12 year old kids at gunpoint.

After taking it relatively easy once I arrived in Siem Reap, I made may way out to Jayavarman VII children's hospital to see a free concert put on by Dr Beat Richner. The Swiss doctor worked at the Kantha Bopha children's hospital in Phnom Penh prior to the Khmer Rouge regime, and returned again in 1991 to continue working with the sick children of Cambodia. The hospital employs over 1600 Khmer staff, has no corruption (very rare) and offers free services for all children. At the concert, Dr Beat talks about the work they do at the hospital, and the problems they face, as well as playing a number of pieces on his cello, by Bach and himself. A friend told me about Dr Beat some months ago, although unfortunately the last time I was in Siem Reap he was back in Switzerland trying to raise money. The three Kantha Bopha children's hospitals in Cambodia (two in Phnom Penh, and the new one in Siem Reap) are state of the art, yet they've received widespread criticism from the WHO and western countries. They say a country with no economic viability such as Cambodia can't support hospitals such as these, and offering free services is totally wrong. Yet at the same time, there is a haemorragic dengue fever epidemic in Cambodia, and the world turns a blind eye. The following day I finally gave something back to the beautiful Khmer children who've given me so much to laugh about - 350ml of my blood.

I was invited by my friend Chhorng to attend a Phchum Ben party at his girlfriends house the next day, and there was no way I was going to refuse the offer! Chhorng picked me up at 7.30am, and took me 25 minutes out of town to a small house in amongst the rice paddies, not far from Siem Reap. The countryside was really beautiful, with the rice almost ready for harvest. At Reath's house, I helped prepare some rice cakes for three monks who arrived shortly thereafter. I then joined the family in receiving a blessing from the monks. It was really overwhelming stuff! Afterwards, Chhorng took the monks back to the pagoda, and I stayed at the house with Reath and her two sisters. One day earlier, I'd never have guessed I'd have been washing dishes with three Khmer girls, aged 19, 22 and 24, and trying to converse with them in their own language! There were plenty of laughs (no thanks to my awful Khmer), and I managed to find out a little about them. The family was really friendly, and I took a big group photo, which I promised to give to them when I returned in three months time.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, having a hot chocolate at FCC Siem Reap during a downpour, and later meeting some friends from Phnom Penh for dinner. After giving blood, I felt a little tired, and was definitely not going to do anything too hardcore!

The following day, Chhorng picked me up at 8am, and we began the long ride out to Phnom Kulen, some 40km north east of Siem Reap. I didn't make it out to Phnom Kulen last time I was here, mainly because of the exorbitant $20US entry fee. I budgeted for it this time, and decided that it was something I had to see, given the fact it held such an important place in Khmer history. It was from atop this mountain that King Jayavarman II proclaimed the Khmer empire an independent republic in the year 802, thus beginning a mighty 600 year reign, which included the construction of all of the famous temples. Given the huge entrance fee for foreigners, I knew of absolutely no one who had ever been there.

The ride was through some fantastic jungle scenery atop the huge plateau that was Phnom Kulen. Two hours after departing Siem Reap, we arrived near the summit of the mountain, and as I expected, I was the only foreigner here. Given the fact that Kulen mountain is the holiest mountain in the country, and it was the biggest buddhist holiday of the year, there were literally hundreds of Khmer people who'd made the pilgrimage here. The summit of Kulen mountain is marked by a giant boulder, 487m above sea level, and at the top of this there's a small pagoda, housing an ancient reclining buddha carved into the rock. The views over the jungle canopy were spectacular, although the reason everyone was here was to give offerings to the buddha. I felt really lucky to be here on this particular day, because on any other day during the year the place may not have had much to offer, however today it was alive.

After playing with a 4.5 metre long snake for about 20 minutes (possibly the highlight of my trip to Kulen), Chhorng and I made our way to famous waterfall, another 10 minutes on. The waterfall was in two stages, with the upper stage a small fall about 3 metres high. This was obviously the focal point of the trip for the Khmers. In typically Khmer style, everyone went underneath the waterfalll, fully clothed! It reminded me a lot of the rapids near Kratie during Khmer new year. The lower falls were much more spectacular, at a height of about 25 metres. There was an enormous amount of water puring over the edge, due to three months of monsoon rains.

Later that afternoon, after showering and having a siesta back at my guesthouse, I went back to Angkor Wat to see the sunset. My second visit left me no less astounded than my first, and in the hour and a half I was there I didn't even make it as far as the second level! It was a nice sunset, and the light allowed me to get much better photos than on my first visit. The thing that really struck me on this second visit was the sheer enormity and scale of the place. The hour and a half of daylight passed too quickly.

The next day, I woke early and spent the entire day re-visiting my favourite sites. I began by watching an incredible sunrise from Phnom Bakheng. Only nine people, including myself, clambered up the hill for sunrise so the atmnosphere was much more sublime and serene than sharing it with nine hundred others at sunset. I then spent the next 12 hours at The Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and finally Angkor Wat. It was really incredible to be able to see these sites again, taking my time, and discovering new things I'd missed the first time I saw them. Rather than take photos of everything, my camera was in my bag most of the day, and I only used it when I saw something that I knew would make a good photo.

The ride back to Phnom Penh was possibly the highlight of my five day trip, taking into account the fact I had seen the temples before. I was unable to get the express boat up the Tonle Sap in June as the water level was too low, so I had no hesitation getting the ride back this time. The day started out pretty badly, with it raining pretty heavily, and I was crammed in the back corner of the boat looking out of a tinted window at the dark skies. However after about half an hour it started to clear up, and I climbed on the roof. The journey was fantastic! It's hard to believe that there is a small sea right in the middle of the country I thought I knew inside out! The vast amount of water left by the monsoon rains rendered the entire countryside underwater as well, and it was really something to see it from the ground as opposed to from the window of a plane where I'd seen it from a few weeks earlier. The entire countryside was submerged. Floating villages, mosques, pagodas and schools popping up between the submerged palms, but no transport apart from boat. It was like another country.

Arriving back in Phnom Penh, the wave of aggressive touts at the jetty made me glad I wasn't a tourist here. Despite some rain, the five day break gave me a chance to see and do some things I'd been planning on doing for months. The only problem was that it meant I'd have to settle back into work, again!
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