14 January 2013

From spider whisperer to pagoda photographer

On Friday 11 January I set off on my latest adventure, a week travelling around Cambodia with my friend Marianne and two of her Cambodian family, young lads of 17 and 24. First, was a 6-hour bus trip from Siem Reap to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

The roads here can be dangerous and Route 6 has a sinister reputation but our trip was without incident. We had chosen a new bus company, Giant Ibis, with a comfortable air-conditioned bus, skilled drivers, complimentary bottles of water and chocolate pastries soon after setting off, and movies (we saw three: The Dictator, The Expendables, and The Amazing Spiderman) to keep the passengers amused. Actually, watching the movies was quite a bizarre experience as, with just a slight upward or downward motion, your eyes could move from the sight of a road full of tuk-tuks or an old wooden cart being pulled by two oxen to a scene of Hollywood-created carnage in Asian Russia or Spiderman saving the world from a giant lizard!

Halfway through the journey we stopped for a lunch break and then later we paused for a restroom break. That was hugely interesting, as we stopped in the small town of Skuon, which is well-known locally for the bizarre food on offer in its market. Spiders are the local speciality but we also saw beetles, crickets, frogs and small birds, to name just a few. I could never bring myself to eat such things, though other bus passengers did. I was, however, more than happy to have a live spider sitting on my hand, something that would have freaked me out in the past – I used to have quite a phobia about spiders, but have become braver – some might say crazier – in recent years! The spiders are a type of tarantula and are apparently at their tastiest when tossed in sugar and salt, then stir-fried with garlic in oil. I prefer mine alive!

Phnom Penh is a huge city of about 2.2million people but we had little time to explore, just a few hours free on Saturday morning. We tuk-tukked from our hotel to the Independence Monument which commemorates independence from France in 1953 and, these days, also serves as a war memorial to honour Cambodia’s war dead. The red sandstone tower recalls the architecture of an Angkor tower, with its multi-tiered roofs decorated with more than 100 nagas (seven-headed serpent statues). Shame about the concrete and glass skyscrapers in the background.

We walked from the monument down the grand Sihanouk Boulevard, past the equally grand buildings of the Buddhist Institute and the National Assembly, home to Cambodia’s parliament, then along the waterfront adjacent to the confluence of those two mighty rivers, the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. After a few blocks we turned left towards the Royal Palace. The street outside is currently closed off due to the death of former King Norodom Sihanouk, considered by most Cambodians to have been the father of their country. His passing on 15 October 2012 sent the entire country into a period of mourning that will last until his burial in February, and throughout the country there are billboards, large and small, showing his photo. Underneath a huge one of these at the Royal Palace there is an area where locals can light incense and place lotus flowers in memory of their beloved king.

The Royal Palace is closed during the mourning period but the grounds of the neighbouring Silver Pagoda are still open. This enclosure is a tranquil oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, and is a stunningly beautiful place. As well as the Silver Pagoda, so-named for the 5329 engraved silver tiles that cover its floor, the grounds contain ornately carved Chedi (stone towers) and other pagoda-like constructions, set amidst hundreds of ornamental plants in large pots. I was totally enchanted with the reflections to be found in the wide urns of waterlilies and many many photographs were taken.

I would have liked to have stayed longer but we needed to be back at the hotel to check out by midday. Next time!

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