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CAMBODIA: Asia’s Best Kept Secret

By Lyn Hancock

It was the last night of our tour of Cambodia, a tiny country squeezed between Thailand and Vietnam that until recently has been Asia’s best kept secret.

Our group of 12 world travellers had spent the previous three days in Siem Reap touring massive sandstone temple mountains such as the magnificent Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. It was built between the 9th and 12th centuries when the mighty Khmer empire was at its peak and the land we now know as Cambodia was the cultural heartland of Southeast Asia.

This evening we were in a new world, dining amid lush palms and water-lilied ponds in an open air restaurant at the newly built Angkor Village Resort.  Yet you could see the Cambodian architect’s pride in her country’s past by the pointed temple-style red tile roofs, the rooms built on stilts over water inspired by traditional village houses, and the quaint bridges and little docks over the lotus ponds. Like the temples, this hotel was fit for the gods.

Another celebration of the past was in our entertainment. We watched entranced as an elegant apsara dancer, lavishly dressed in a gilded silk tunic with an elaborate stupa-like headdress, showed us the supple stylized hand movements used to depict ancient Hindu epics.  We had seen her sandstone predecessors, heavenly dancers that were half women, half goddesses, carved into the bas-reliefs of temple walls.

Mr. Vee, the young Khmer guide who had so passionately led us around Cambodia for the previous week, stood up to say farewell.  “Please tell the world about my country, my people,” he pleaded. “We are a small country but we are proud of it and we have big hearts.”

Few yet go to Cambodia but those who do return profoundly impressed. I confess I knew little about Cambodia, or as Mr. Vee encouraged us to call it, Kampuchea, before I joined this tour arranged by World Expeditions, a company with a new office in Canada (Ottawa) that specializes in small group travel to exotic places.

I had read that Angkor Wat, the 12th century temple built by Khmer kings for the Hindu god Vishnu is regarded as one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world. I had seen that tourists love to take pictures at sunrise of its magnificent galleries and corncob towers.

I had heard vaguely of a fanatical dictator Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas who murdered millions of their own people as recently as 1979. I had seen Princess Di on television walking among Cambodia’s landmines and pleading for their removal.  (Unless you wander off into the jungle by yourself in certain remote parts of the country, Cambodia is now safe for tourists.)

I had heard of the movie The Killing Fields but I hadn’t seen it.  Nor had I seen Two Brothers, Apocalypse Now, or the popular Lara Croft: Tomb Raider which features Angelina Jolie. As the face of this famous actress and her family is on the cover of most magazines at grocery check-out counters, I could scarcely miss the story that she had adopted a Cambodian orphan.

But that was the extent of my knowledge.

Only since 1999 has peace come to this fascinating country and tourists been able to safely discover its attractions - its rich culture, its little known white sand beaches, birding and national parks, and its surprisingly warm and welcoming people. If you travel for the differences not the similarities, now is the time to go to Cambodia before it becomes just another fast developing Asian country. If you like the idea of responsible travel, it’s a country where you can make a difference.

To understand Cambodia you should start your tour in its capital Phnom Penh at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. As a French protectorate between 1864 and 1944, it was regarded as the most beautiful city in Indo China.

Incredibly, when the civil war ended in 1975, the victorious Khmer Rouge ordered everyone out of the city “for a few days” citing as an excuse an impending American invasion. Their real reason was to kill the intelligentsia - teachers, monks, engineers, architects, businessmen and the like. They wanted to reduce the population to a number they could control as peasants in communal-style living conditions which in reality meant dying as three million Cambodians perished and the rest of the world watched. In the meantime, “the few days” turned into four years and Phnom Penh became a ghost town of derelict buildings. It is a sign of Cambodian resiliency and massive international aid programs that the capital is now recapturing its earlier reputation.   

A visit to Phnom Penh is both heart breaking and upbeat.  Start at the infamous S-21 Prison and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum housed in an ordinary-looking high school and ponder the faces of the victims of Pol Pot’s torture campaign. Continue to Choeung Ek Memorial known as The Killing Fields, (remember the movie?), one of the places where people were executed and bodies were dumped in mass graves. That’s the heart-breaking part.

Now return downtown for the upbeat part. Have a low-cost nutritious lunch at Friends Restaurant and perhaps stay at Friends Guesthouse which opens in 2006. This is where you can make a difference. Orphans or street children will serve you as cooks and waiters. Their Picasso-style paintings line the walls and the money you pay for one of the best meals in town will help fund Cambodia’s recovery by giving them work experience. You can also go to Friends and Stuff next door and buy cookbooks, paintings and other items that the kids make. 

Now look at Cambodia’s history and rich culture. Take a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) to the riverfront and wander through the ornate Royal Palace, National Museum and Silver Pagoda  (also called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which display treasures that the Khmer Rouge did not destroy. You’ll find colossal murals, intricate ceiling frescoes, a floor covered with 5329 silver tiles and a 90kg golden Buddha encrusted with over 2000 diamonds. The Kingdom of Cambodia reveres its Royal Family and the compound also contains the royal residence.

At the Repository for Royal Regalia, one of our group volunteered to be wrapped in a traditional court costume. We learned that ladies of the court had to wear the royal colours, a different colour for each day of the week.  Out of respect for conservative Cambodian culture, you have to watch your attire too. Our leader was given a scarf to cover her sleeveless t-shirt before she could enter. And you must remember to take off your shoes before entering a temple, a monastery or some museums.

You’ll get lots of exercise climbing steps to these attractions but if you want more, then stroll the wide palm-fringed boulevard along the waterfront to enjoy sunset, join a free aerobics class, or climb to a rooftop restaurant such as Ponlock, Khmer Surin or the Foreign Correspondents Club.  My favourite Khmer food was curried fish amok served in a coconut shell. If you prefer more western dishes, go to the Sunway Hotel near Phnom Penh Hill where the city got its name.

No traveler will want to miss the temples of Angkor Archeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside the fast developing tourist town of Siem Reap. They were more than temples, they were once cities in their own right, some populated by more than a million people and collectively spread over several hundred square kilometers. It is hard to realize that they were largely hidden from the world by jungle and neglected for hundreds of years.

Depending on the level of your interest in history and religion, you can choose one-day, three-day or seven-day admission tickets. Remember to carry an extra passport-style photo for your laminated pass and hire a guide or book a tour to explain what you are seeing. If you don’t want to walk, you can rent a bike but bikes don’t climb steps and be warned, there are lots of steps. You may also want a walking stick. Go early in the day or at lunchtime if you want to avoid the crowds. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is popular but its silhouette is best in the dry season, ideally December to February.

My favourite images after three days of temple studies (Mr. Vee ensured we looked upon Angkor as a learning experience), were the profile of Angkor Wat mirrored in its surrounding moat, the massive sandstone faces with their enigmatic smiles atop the towers of the Bayon in the middle of Angkor Thom, and the scenes of daily life in 12th century Cambodia as carved in astounding detail along the wall friezes of all temples.  

Yet two lesser known temples, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei, are more endearing.

Ta Prohm or the Jungle Temple looks much the same as its more famous neighbours looked when they were rediscovered by European explorers in the 19th century. Enormous kapok trees with massive buttress roots like tentacles were relentlessly strangling the walls and towers in a grim embrace. Jumbled piles of stone blocks have already fallen to clog the corridors. We all crawled over the rubble to pose for pictures in front of one root-strangled doorway where an ecstatic Mr. Vee had met Angelina Jolie on the film set of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

If you look carefully at the carvings on the wall friezes, you will find amazing treasures such as the dark stone face of a woman peering out of a fissure in the bark of a tree, or incredibly, a tiny sandstone stegosaurus that will keep you wondering about its origins.  

Banteay Srei is called the Pink Temple or the Temple of Ladies because it is said that the detailed decorations on its high quality pink sandstone walls are so intricately beautiful they must have been carved by women rather than men. Many women, their faces shaded from the hot sun by scarves and straw hats, were working now to slowly and systematically clear weeds from the stone building blocks in ongoing reparation projects.

You can fly, drive or bus to Siem Reap but if you want to see that little has changed in rural Cambodia since the way of life depicted on these temple walls, then go by boat. You can take a speed boat from Phnom Penh along the Tonle Sap River and across Tonle Sap Lake or better still, you can do what we did and take the public ferry from Battambang, down the Sangker River and across Tonle Sap Lake. It’s the most scenic boat ride in the country and like most of Cambodia still cheap.

I don’t think the captain was counting passengers or paying attention to our weight but we and a few hardy backpackers took our chances and sat on the flat roof of the slender low-slung river boat.  For five or six hours, we enjoyed a panoramic view of centuries-old daily life that never flagged.

The locals crammed together on rows of seats downstairs amid their luggage and huge sacks of rice, vegetables and lemon grass probably bought at the Battambang market.  One lady in a straight-skirted red sarong made many arduous trips up and down the narrow gangplank between the boat and the crumbling bank with dozens of heavy bags and wicker baskets. As she struggled, I wondered why none came to help her. What an effort to bring home the family groceries!

Fishermen drifted downstream in their long wooden dugouts floating nets that extended almost all the way across the muddy brown river. Little kids poled dugouts from precarious standing positions. Whole families sat at water level in crowded boats with painted prows and primitive motors. A speedboat whizzed by with a load of Buddhist monks in their characteristic orange robes.

Trees along the river bank were festooned with plastic bags that looked like flags but were really floating garbage caught there by the wind and the previous week’s high water. Between the trees, bony cows stood on straw-filled platforms a few centimeters above the river. Pigs rooted in the ground inside their bamboo stockade. Farmers hung stripped banana leaves over poles to dry. Kids scooped fish in nets from the river bank.

Life is transparent in the wood and tin stilt houses of villages on each side of the river. Women bathed fully-clothed. Toddlers splashed naked. Children waved and shouted. Everyone smiled, a sign that the indomitable Cambodian spirit is surviving the atrocities of war.  Who would have thought that a few short years ago, fear of extermination bred silence.

We seemed to leave the river to chug overland, picking out the deepest canals through the vegetation on our journey towards Tonle Sap Lake. In the dry season November to February we would use a 4WD or bullock. Now in the wet season May to October the land was flooded after torrential rains and wooden huts floated on bamboo rafts. This is the home of the water people. They use boats to work in the flooded fields, go to schools, cafes, stores or visit neighbours.  When the land dries, they will tow their homes to deeper water in the Tonle Sap which is more an inland sea than a lake.

Our skipper steered us through a watery maze of grass, shrubs and aquatic plants. Some families balanced bare-footed on narrow rafts made of long poles or stood waist-deep in the water attending to their rice. Some in boats were pulling up lotus leaves and waterlilies. Other families collected morning glory that draped much of the vegetation. I was to see fried morning glory on the menu of the Soup Kitchen in Siem Reap. In Canada it’s a scourge and I toss it out. After the Khmer Rouge years when a starving person seen to even pick up a rat could be shot, Cambodians have learned to eat almost anything.

As we entered one of these channels, an oncoming boat laden with people backed into the bushes to let us squeeze through.  It is uncanny to think that in the dry season this is a dusty path or secondary road.

Suddenly, a flock of white birds erupted from the bushes and I felt I was in the Everglades. We saw pelicans, egrets, herons. Dozens of them. “There will be millions later when the water starts to dry up and the birds concentrate to feed on fish,” said Mr. Vee.

Cambodia can be a bird watcher’s paradise especially between December and May. If you become templed-out in Siem Reap, then arrange a row boat or take a tour to the Bird Sanctuary and Biosphere of Prek Toal from the floating village of Chong Kneas, just 11 km from Siem Reap.  Several rare breeds that gather together are the huge adjutant storks, the milky stork and the spot-billed pelican. Another bird sanctuary, Ang Trapeng Thmor Reserve about 100 km from Siem Reap, is one of only two places in the world where you can see the rare sarus crane as depicted on the bas-reliefs at Angkor temples.

About half way through the voyage, we tied up at a store in the floating village of Bak Prear to buy snacks and get a more intimate glimpse of life on the water. So snugly did we poke our prow into the middle of houses, boats, storage rafts and floating gardens from our position on the roof of our own boat that I felt we were right inside their living rooms. Seeing life of the water people so closely was one of the highlights of my trip to Cambodia.

I jumped onto the dock of the floating café and bought a bunch of bananas for fifty cents then asked politely to take pictures of the fascinating scene. At the front door of the store, a boat pulled up to buy gas sold in pop bottles. Outside a float house a couple of metres away, several men were filling bowls of silvery sardine-line fish to take to market for fish paste, one of Cambodia’s few exports. At the back door linked to a floating kitchen by a plank, a little girl was kneeling washing rice.

Throughout the voyage we nosed into jam-packed floating homes to unload passengers, cargo and take on more. At Bak Prear, the lady in red assembled her dozens of parcels, bags and baskets on one side of our front deck. Several children in a dugout punted towards her and hung alongside while she transferred her cargo. Time and time again. They must have been so eager to welcome her back that they filled up most of the boat, leaving little room for cargo.  Thus it took several trips across the waterway before she finally disembarked.

Finally the temple hill of Phnom Krom appeared on our horizon and we knew that Siem Reap was at hand. We tied up to a rickety dock at the floating village of Chong Kneas to be overwhelmed by would-be porters, souvenir and food sellers and hungry children. We gave them our business and most of our food and drinks.

It had been a fabulous journey and we had not yet seen Angkor Wat.

I returned home from Cambodia with armfuls of books on its history (First they Killed my Father and Stay Alive my Son written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide are unforgettable), a deep admiration and affection for its resilient people, and a desire to do something to help. In fact, I was so inspired by the angelic faces and turbulent background of the children that, I, too, sponsored an orphan.

Lyn Hancock - 2005



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