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OCTOBER 30

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia .

The flight was delayed by 40 minutes which gave us plenty of time to get in a few games of SkipBo (all of which were won by Terry).

We were picked up at the airport by Tayda (pronounced Tea-Da). Driving from the airport into Phnom Penh she explained what we would be doing for the balance of the day and how the lateness of our plane affected those plans. She said that she would take us directly to the hotel, where we could check into our room with a river view. She also gave us some safety tips on being in Phnom Penh. The most earnest was to be back near our hotel by 8:00pm and not to walk back streets after dark. She asked us not to be too long so that we might beat some of the closing times for the sights we were to see.  

 

The King used the building in the foreground to mount his elephant. 

We checked into Star Royal Hotel and followed a fellow up to our room which was tucked into a corner. He maneuvered our two backpacks around the maid's trolley and opened the door. With some difficulty, he got the air conditioner to work and left us to settle in. The room wasn't that great but adequate and having a river view would be great. We pulled back the closed drapes and faced a stucco wall two meters away.  We had to hurry so didn't inspect the room further.

When we reached the lobby, we told Tayda of the view from our room thinking perhaps there had been a mix-up. She spoke to the front desk and reported back that they were unable to move us.  

 

She took us to the Royal Palace where we saw solid gold soup bowls, solid gold Buddhas, solid gold dancing headdresses worn by the princess when she was young, solid gold plates and bowls, even a solid gold spittoon.

Next to the palace, we visited the Silver Pagoda, so named by tourists who remember it because of its spacious sterling silver tiled floor. She whisked us off to Wat Phnom and the National Museum [pictured right] where we were passed off to a museum guide who was very nice and very knowledgeable but, was repeating at a very slow pace, so much of what we had learned in Vietnam's museums and temples.  

What got to us most was the sights we saw at the entrances and exits of each of these landmarks. The human ravages of war were evident as we encountered so many dismembered persons begging for help in a country so poor.
So many of Cambodia's citizens have had harsh lives.  In recent history there have been several upheavals each with its own consequences.
In 1953 independence was declared from the French colonization of Indochina . In 1969 the war in neighbouring Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia as American and South Vietnamese troops invaded to attack Vietnamese forces that were operating in Cambodia .
 In 1975 a Cambodian resistance group, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over the capitol and implemented a campaign to create a peasant-led agrarian social order. 
Cities were forcibly emptied and people were resettled in rural labour camps. Anyone with foreign ties or education was liable to be executed.
By the time Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, approximately one in five Cambodians were dead and many of those who lived were maimed, while still others were dismembered by hidden and forgotten land mines. Not only have the land mines had (and continue to have) horrific effect on mankind, but they have also had devastating impact on elephant and tiger populations as well as other animal life.  
We returned to the hotel, maneuvered around the maid's cart and some bags of towels and then changed from the heat of the day by the one light in the room that worked (one didn't even have a light bulb) and took a walk to a recommended restaurant two blocks away. We shared what would be equivalent at a Chinese restaurant (Cambodian food is very similar), egg foo yung, beef stir-fry with vegetables and steamed rice, aided by some Heineken beer while being hovered over by, at any one time, three to five young waiters. 

Leaving the restaurant, we got a quick Cambodian language lesson from some twenty-something year old tuk-tuk drivers (a rickshaw type "taxi" powered by a motorcycle). We explained we were going to walk the short distance to our hotel. We made it half way and decided to visit the Foreigners' Club Lounge.  Climbing four flights of stairs found an open deck overlooking the street and the wide grassed boulevard that lay between the street and the also wide walkway which ran along the river's edge (like a straight Stanley Park seawall). Some back packers from Australia recommended we try the Angkor Beer on tap. Terry did and liked it. Sherrie had her favourite ... a 1.5 litre bottle of water.

The sights below were fascinating. Families, adults, teens and young children on their own. The vehicle traffic on the road was constant including numerous food wagons that stopped every so often in hopes of getting some business from the crowds gathered in the coolness by the river. 
The crowds were larger than normal for a Sunday because this Monday was a holiday in celebration of the king's coronation one year ago. Fireworks were expected and we had good seats to view over the river and so close to the palace, but, the fireworks had been cancelled; perhaps because the king was visiting his ailing father in Beijing . Our high perch, however, did let us view a new record (our personal view count) of six people on a motorcycle -- a father, mother and four little ones of varying ages.

Back at the hotel [picture below left from internet] we had time to view our room at a more relaxed pace and we concluded that we were happy to only be staying one night. 

As we prepared for bed a rather loud sound, like an electric drill starting and stopping, began emanating from either the next room or the room above. We expected that if they were doing any work it would end by 10:00pm. WRONG!! The sound continued through the night -- starting and stopping every six ... sometimes seven ... sometimes eight seconds. The two seconds between the times of six and eight only served to give hope that it had ended; only for that thought to be dashed when it would grind and whir again. There would be no use to complain; if they were too full to move us earlier they would be unable to do anything now. A sleepless night.

OCTOBER 31

We had an early flight out and were glad the night was over. The on again off again sound turned into a constant one at 6am. Tired, we made our way passed the maid's trolley and up to the floor above for the breakfast buffet. 

At the top of the stairs we saw the buffet tables covered with white sheets and were told to make an egg selection from a sheet of paper and pointed towards a table where we could make our own toast and pour some watered-down tang-like concoction. One guest arrived and asked "Where's the buffet? It was magnificent yesterday morning." We could only assume that the empty tables and the draped buffet were because they had so few guests ... which in turn begged the question why we had to deal with a room without a view, a doorway shared by cleaning equipment, one light, ripped sheets, torturous on again off again sounds all night and a cleanliness level that would not land them even one star (they claim three) in Canada. One would think in a society where so many people are begging for work at poverty wages, cleanliness in a hotel would not be an issue.  

Tayda and the driver picked us up and took us to the airport. On the way there, we asked about the uniformed men placed along the roadway. "Somebody important must be coming into town," she said.

We purchased some water at the coffee counter and sat at a table next to the glass walkway which guided people to and from the aircraft. During our second game of SkipBo, some big brass army types passed by. The one with the most medals on his chest looked down at the cards with a spark of interest. Shortly afterwards coming from the opposite direction was a rather large and upright entourage which worked it's way passed us. "There's the king," Terry said recognizing the gentleman in the middle of the line. 

 

A moment later an announcement came for the boarding of our plane. We walked down some stairs and stood in front of large glass doors which lead to the tarmac. Again the king passed by and as soon as he did, the doors opened and we almost fell in step with his group ten metres in front but they turned to some gates where his cavalcade of cars waited and we turned towards the plane for our flight to Siem Reap.  
We were met at the Siem Reap airport by a gentleman named Sophy who was also surprised by our lack of luggage. He introduced us to the driver, Somba. Instead of going directly to the hotel he asked us if we would agree to go directly to the first sites. We agreed.  

 

                                                                                                           

                                                                                                                 

Our first stop was at a check point where park officials took our pictures and information then laminated a park pass that was good for three days (though we would only be here for two).  
The three 9th century temples (known collectively as the “Roluos Group”) were unlike the temples we visited in Vietnam and Phnom Penh for these are no longer in active use. 
Some have only recently been claimed back from the forests that surround them. Reconstruction projects on some of Cambodia 's temples are being sponsored by other countries such as Switzerland, Germany and India.  

Sophy is very knowledgeable about the area's history and when we told him that photography was important to us, he went out of his way to show us the best camera angles to make the most of what we were viewing.

When we got back into the van, Somba had it always so cool and inviting. We were offered cold water (kept on ice in a cooler) and cold towelettes with which to wipe away the sticky heat. Very impressive.  

                                                                                      

After the first three temples that charmed us with their age (9th century) and, albeit decaying, beauty and their intricate carved details in limestone; we were taken to the hotel to check in, relax and refresh for a couple of hours before venturing out into the 32 degree C muggy heat again.  

The Angkor Star Hotel was a happy surprise and our room lovely with a balcony looking out to the front. Tonight we would sleep. A shower and a change of clothes and we were ready to go again at 2:30pm.  

                                                           
Sophy and Somba drove us to Angkor Wat -- one of the world's most impressive ruins.
                                                                                                                              
Sophy guided us through the gates and around the massive temple. It didn't take us long to recognize that we weren't following the route of the large-pack tour groups. Without missing what they were taking in, he was helping us explore more intimately these complex ruins. He took us to places with the best camera angles and lighting in mind.

When it came time to climb the steep steps on the centre tower Sherrie declined (the height, steepness and shallowness of steps were just too intimidating). Was Sherrie going to keep the camera to click Terry ascending and descending, or was Terry going to take it to capture views from the top. Sophy came up with a solution.  

Terry climbed up with Sherrie taking pictures. Sophy took the camera up to Terry. Terry took inside pictures of the reclining Buddha and outside views. When they were ready to come down again they avoided the 30 minute lineup to use the one set of stairs which has a side railing to hang onto and chose instead another long, steep and narrow step staircase. Sophy took the camera and came down the stairs (obviously not his first time) and handed the camera to Sherrie to capture Terry's decent.

A kilometre-plus length of mural carved in relief wraps around Angkor Wat. Sophy walked us through the depictions of battles, both factual and spiritual, plus pictures of everyday life way back when ... pictures of fishermen and hunters, carpenters and mothers giving birth, cooks and their ingredients ... all carved in limestone. In places where it had been touched a lot the stone had taken on a smooth shiny dark patina (actually better for picture taking) but the fear of the relief's life being shortened prompted "do not touch" signs to be placed. (We don't know if they are helping to stop the touching. We didn't, but the tactile urge was there.)  
Just as the sun was to set and shine its light on (not behind as it would in the morning light) the star of the show -- Angkor Wat's recognizable front entrance and five towers, Sophy guided us to the side of a lake in front so that we could get Angkor Wat and its reflection in the soft light of sunset. To add to the ancient scene a lady was taking that time to wash some clothes as she stood knee deep in the water. If it turns out as well on a larger screen as it did on the camera's view it should be one worth sharing.  

                                                                                                 
On the way back to the hotel but still close to Angkor Wat, we saw a monkey cross the road. Somba immediately parked the van on the side of the road and Sophy explained that because they are so used to humans it would be possible to get quite close. Only once in awhile did a male get aggressive. We got as close as we could for some good pictures but didn't intrude on their social behaviour as mother was grooming baby.  

 

Tour guides and drivers get special privileges at tour spots. Free meals seem to be the most common. Because of our way of traveling, these spots are no where on our radar screen (although we have had occasions to appreciate their toilet facilities - when singing a song is on the agenda). Other guides seem to hop from one tourist shop to the other. What we appreciated most about Sophy was his honesty.                                                

Nearing town Sophy asked if we might like to spend ten minutes or so at a tourist souvenir shop. They were encouraging guides to bring their tourists by offering a draw ticket for a brand new car each time they did.  We told him we would be pleased to stop. As with most of these shops the moment you walk through the door a personal shopper attaches to you like dust to a swiffer cloth. One personal shopper for each person ... just in case a couple splits up. The sales pressure is high. Within the first minute of meeting you they had asked where you are from. Blink at an item twice and they are pulling out a calculator and calculating the item in your country's currency ... ie: Canadian dollars. We got out without a purchase and we wished Sophy the best of luck in winning the car. 

We asked him to recommend a place for dinner. He named a couple. "If we go there will you and Somba get a free meal?" we asked.  

"Yes."

"Then pick out one where you would like to eat and we will be happy."  

Once we arrived, he helped us choose from the menu. They would not eat with us so we told them that when they finished they should go home and we would take a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

When we finished, they were there waiting for us and we climbed back into the van and slowly backed out of the parking lot. It was dark and some children were going through garbage piles put out by the restaurants and shops nearby. On the other side of the van we saw a lone boy of about four or five years old with two empty plastic bottles tucked under his arm looking for more such finds.  

"Stop the car please, Somba," Terry said and got out. He went up to the youngster and gave him some money. The little fellow's eyes grew huge with awe and delight at this unexpected happening. The sparkle in his eyes must have shone like fireworks because children came from out of nowhere and mobbed Terry so that he had difficulty getting back into the van. Somba opened the door and carefully slid it shut so no little fingers would get crunched. There were some sad faces as we pulled away. A few others were looking at what the little one had received and the little one's face was alight with sunshine.  

         

 NOVEMBER 1, 2005   

                           

We got an early 7:30 am start so as to beat the first crush of tourists traveling in packs.  

After going through the park checkpoint where we showed the passes they made yesterday, we proceeded to the South Gate.  Somba parked the van by the elephants and we walked towards ...

                                                                     the South Gate to look at the many faces lining the causeway.             

As with previous temples Sophy again took the time to tell us about the history, beliefs and pageantry of the ancient civilization.

Again, faces were prominent.  [To appreciate size, see the man in the white shirt in picture - right below]

Outside each temple entrance hawkers waited to tempt tourist with their low priced wears and beggars pleaded while others cooked.  The ladies pictured below were cooking frogs and fish ... the fish so fresh they still flapped against the heat.  Freshness counts in surroundings that are 35 degrees Celsius.

                       

Our next stop was at one of the smaller temples. Sophy explained how most temples were once surrounded by moats ... sometimes one, sometimes two. At the base of the centre tower of this temple a small moat still existed, then steep shallow stairs stretched up almost to the top.   

"There is a good view from up there," Sophy pointed. Again Sherrie declined as she had done at Angkor Wat, but Sophy directed us to the west side where a railing had been installed for those who desired a little more security. 

The operative word here was "little". Sherrie desired a lot of security, so along with holding onto the thin wobbly pipe which was clamped to the ancient rock slabs, Terry followed close behind with a strong presence and encouraging words. Hand over hand she climbed. Soon Terry's encouraging words were joined by two young boys (about 14 and 11 years old) looking down from the towers high platform. "Doing good, Madame (pronounced in the French way)," they called out. 

Sophy had said he would wait for us a the bottom, we thought it was because other than the view, there wasn't much to talk about. What we realized now was he had put us into the care of these amateur tour guides who pointed out some features at the top, including another set of stairs that climbed even steeper. Terry climbed up further while the boys ran and hopped up. Back at Sherrie's level, they pointed out the man-made lakes -- one for the king and another larger one for all his wives and concubines. The boys negotiated a fee after the tour and quickly called out encouraging words to the next climbers as we made our way down.  
Walking past the larger lake on the way back to the car, we saw a boy across the water. He was in the lake having a bath and washing the last of his clothes. His old bike lay on the grass above him while to the right of it he had stretched out his shirts and pants to dry smoothly in the sun. He hung a few undergarments on the bike's handlebars and finished taking his bath. The water looked cool in the heat of the day.  

Again we so appreciated the cold bottled water and cold damp cloths that Somba and Sophy had waiting for us in the van.

They drove us back to the hotel where we cooled down with showers and had a small snack.   

Still having time before Sophy and Somba returned, we hired a tuk-tuk to give us a tour of Siem Reap.  He took us through town, past children working in a plant covered waterway, a market where bananas were being unloaded and a street market selling used shoes.  
We arrived back in time to greet Somba and Sophy.  The white van (pictured right) is our tour car.
A stop at a 12th century temple gave us a sight of children swimming in the waters of this ancient place.  Many of Cambodia's children live without parents.  Many fend for themselves.  
Entering Ta Prohm the first sign of things to come were the roots of a tall tree pushing up the stone slabs of the walkway. Through all the sights we have seen in Asia so far, none have seemed to give any consideration to tourist safety. This is how it is. The way it has evolved naturally. There is an awe inspiring beauty in seeing ancient sights like this without the black topped trails and guard rails; one just must keep a balance between gawking and walking.  
Ta Prohn had nearly disappeared into the jungle. French explorers stumbled upon it in the 1860s. Still today the magnificent roots of trees push between and over huge stone blocks embracing the temple in a haunting and exotic scene. Pictures tell part of the story but it is one of those places on earth that really must be experienced to fully appreciate the human sensations it creates.
Sophy guided us around to the echo chamber ~ a tiny "room" (6'x10') between two open passageways. With our backs against one wall, we thumped our chests with our fists and deep sounds resonated.  
With each turn a new wonderful sight appeared before us. One could get lost in this temple ... both physically and emotionally. It's quiet eeriness was oddly soothing.  

He guided us further between fallen stone blocks to what was to become a favourite of Sherrie's. The roots had crept over and through a wall that had been carved with figures. As the roots spread this way and that, they had left an opening and from behind the opening peeked the face of one of the images. It has a Mona Lisa style smile as though it knows the secrets hidden deeper behind the roots.  

Pictures tell the story better than words.  

A young girl (about 10 years old) and her younger brother (about 6 or 7) sat on one of the ancient blocks writing on paper they held against their knees, perhaps homework if they were among the lucky who got to go to school. They weren't begging, they weren't selling. They were just being quiet within this silent history. We left them with some money and balloons (this time Sherrie had them in her pocket) and walked away from a haunting part of Cambodia 's past that held within its walls the youth of Cambodia's future.  

Sophy had suggested it might be nice to take in a traditional buffet complete with traditional dancing. The price was right ($12 per person). We told him we would like to do that tonight and if it would be beneficial to him, we would like him to make the arrangements.

Getting back into the van, Sophy told us about the last three temples on our agenda. "Not important temples. Two are small."  We explained that we were "templed out" and would prefer to freshen up at our hotel before going to dinner.  

On the drive back we watched elephants returning to the South Gate entrance of Angkor Thom.  Each had a driver and a passenger platform but no passengers. They were on their way to carry tourist to watch the sunset atop Phnom Bakheng.  Somba stopped and we got out to take photos of these large agile animals moving through the forest.  
At the hotel Sophy suggested Sherrie go to the room while he and Terry crossed the street to the restaurant and made arrangements for a table.  

At 7:00pm Sophy returned, walked us across the street and saw us settled into the reserved table (even though it meant up-seating a couple who had claimed it for their own) and then bid us "Good night." He had just enough time to have some dinner (his payment for bringing us) before he was due at his Spanish class.                                                

The buffet was large and varied. With our stomachs full, the length and excitement of the day caught up to us and we left early after only seeing a few of the dances. Tuk-tuk drivers waited outside to take tourists back to their hotels ... we just pointed across the street to ours and said "good night".  

       

continue to November 2 - 5, 2005

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