16 January 2011

Shaken ... and stirred

This blog is way behind ‘cause I have been too busy doing things to write about them – always a good excuse – so now that I’m home I need to catch up.

First, what better way to spend the first day of a new year than tuk tuking my way around three magnificent temples, with Vibol as our delightful driver, in the jolly company of Marianne, one of her sponsored young men Tola, and fellow volunteer Wen Sung.
Bantay Srei, which means ‘Citadel of the Women’, came first. It’s quite a small Hindu temple complex and has exquisite, well-preserved carvings in a pinkish-coloured stone. Its name, as well as the delicate and intricate nature of the sculptural work, has led archaeologists to speculate that the carving was, in fact, done by women. Almost every inch of the temple buildings is covered with amazing carvings so it is one of the most popular temples with tourists.

We had hoped that by arriving early on New Year’s Day we would avoid the crowds, but no such luck. There were Koreans and Japanese by the coach load, as well as a horde of other nationalities who obviously hadn’t partied in Pub Street till the wee hours. There was even a monk amongst those jostling for the best photo positions, so I couldn’t resist taking his photo. 

Over the chatter of tour groups of mostly Asian tourists, we could hear Khmer music and gratefully followed the sound to escape the crowds. Tucked away across the water-filled moat and behind the wall that encloses the temple, a band of landmine victims turned musicians were playing their haunting tunes so we sat beneath a shady tree and listened to a couple of songs. Bands of men and women like these can be found at many of the tourist sites and in Pub Street. Their injuries range from missing limbs to blindness, but music is one way they can earn a small living. We each bought a copy of their CD and I have the music playing as I write this – it evokes memories of that day, and others.


 On the way to our next temple, we stopped for a photo opportunity of a water buffalo tethered at the side of the road. These are large beasts, frequently seen in the fields and rivers of Cambodia, but they appear quite placid, often being led along by the string through their noses by the smallest of children.

Mid-10th century Pre Rup was next. It’s a pyramid-shaped temple mountain, with interesting towers and gopuras (entrance pavilions) at each of the three levels and stone lions guarding the sides of the staircases. Since my ankle-breaking stairway experience in Turkey a couple of years back, I’ve been very wary of steep steps, so I didn’t climb up. Instead I wandered round the lower enclosure, enjoying a few moments of solitude. It’s difficult to be alone in these places for long though, and I was soon exchanging one dollar for 10 postcards. I eventually couldn’t resist the downcast look of the little girl when I kept insisting that I didn’t want any!

Pre Rup means ‘Turning the Body’ and Tola translated for us a sign whose message predicted that visitors exited the temple looking younger than when they entered. The magic didn’t work for me! My guide book says the name refers to a traditional method of cremation, so maybe the message had more to do with reincarnation – you exit in a newer, younger body than the one in which you were carried in.

During the hottest hour of the day we enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local restaurant catering specifically for the tourists, where Vibol’s commission for bringing us was a free lunch. More fresh, uncooked spring rolls! I wish we could get these at home – the thinnest of rice-based membranes wrapped full of crunchy vegetables and a little cooked chicken. Mmmmmm!

Our third temple of the day – and for me, the best – was Preah Khan. It is a large, eminently explore-able, late-12th-century complex, which may have been a Buddhist university. There are long galleries and small shrines throughout, with good apsara and lintel carvings, and an unusual two-storey section. With relatively few tourists, it was a delight to wander through the passageways. As we left, we indulged in a little more shopping, this time a temple rubbing each – an enduring memory of another wonderful day exploring the temples of Angkor. And, as temple exploration is hot, thirsty work, we enjoyed a refreshingly cold beer at a small stall opposite the entrance before leaving. As the late afternoon light is softer on the stones, we also stopped for brief photo shoots at Bayon and Angkor Wat during the return journey to our guest house.

Saturday was a superb way to start 2011, and Sunday continued the trend. Marianne and I went tuk tuking with Vibol again, this time to Kompong Phluk, a lake-side village built on stilts. During the wet season, from mid-May to early October, Tonle Sap lake’s area increases from 2500 to 13,000 sq km or more, so the stilts of the houses are between 6 and 7 metres high to cope with the hugely fluctuating water levels. It looks quite surreal!

Vibol joined us for the boat trip – his first time on a boat! – which was interesting to say the least. First, we had to walk along a very unstable-looking plank and scramble across the bows of two other boats to reach ours. Then, before we’d gone very far, our boat broke down and we drifted onto a sand bank. We were entertained by the children of a family who had set up temporary shelter on a bridge, while Vibol helped the driver fix the engine – most engines here are simple affairs and those who operate them must be mechanically minded – no calling the AA in Cambodia! They had no sooner got the engine going again than the row boat we had been towing came loose and we had to stop while our boatman waded through the shallow waters to retrieve it.

Ten minutes later we reached the village, still mostly flooded at this time of year, and chugged around between the houses. It felt very voyeuristic, peering so openly at the people going about their everyday lives, but the locals are used to it and at least some revenue from the fee we tourists pay for the journey goes to the local community. Not unexpectedly given the location, village life revolves around fishing; men and women were everywhere repairing nets and sorting the morning’s catch. Daily life is mostly water-based as well: pigs are kept in small floating sties; a greengrocer floats by in a canoe laden with fruit and vegetables; and three women haggle over the price of a woolly hat with another canoe-based saleslady.

We stopped briefly to walk along the only dry road in the village, but were instantly assaulted by people trying to sell us things, and by the midday heat, so escaped fairly quickly back to the relative peace of our boat – a loudly chugging boat motor is not very peaceful on the ears! I did, however, get a great shot of a chicken having a dust bath on the road.

Our boatman took us past the submerged forests at the lake’s edge and then out onto the lake itself, the largest in South East Asia and more like an inland sea. For a short while he turned off the engine and we enjoyed the tranquillity of bobbing about on the water. But, the quietness was short-lived and we were soon retracing our journey through the village and back to our starting point, before enjoying being shaken about again on the pot-holed red dirt access road in our tuk tuk. To paraphrase the famous James Bond’s catch phrase, it had been a weekend of experiences that had both shaken (the body) and stirred (the spirit).