29 January 2013

Mariannie’s Martini Tour: shaken, not stirred

Marianne and I enlisted Mr T as our tuk-tuk driver and headed out of town on the road to Tonle Sap, the biggest fresh-water lake in South East Asia … but that wasn’t our destination. We were headed for Phnom Krom, the small hill near the entrance to the Tonle Sap boat tours and a significant local landmark, being the only hill for miles around.

We stopped at the bottom of a stairway leading up the hill and left Mr T to wait for us there. The steps were steep but my Peruvian-high-altitude lungs are still easing my climbing ability and, in an area with no other hills, it was nice to have views. The handrail was lined with engravings in Khmer and English text, with dollar figures next to them, as if people had donated money to fund the steps.

At the top we came out on a roadway leading to the top of the hill, still some way off. We hadn’t gone far before we came to a group of men, talking and playing cards in the shelter of a small open-sided hut. One, in a blue uniform, approached us, asking to see our temple passes (passes for the Angkor Park complex). We hadn’t been sure if we would need them or not, so pleaded ignorance and showed our volunteer IDs. The man agreed to let us in if we paid him a small bribe of $5. Though we were ethically opposed to this, it was better than paying $20 each for the temple pass and we didn’t want to waste our journey, so we paid.

We carried on up the road and were soon sweating copiously, while the man was probably gambling away our $5. At the top of the phnom (hill) there’s a modern pagoda complex and a remnant from the days of Angkor civilisation. The ancient complex was dedicated to the Hindu religion and constructed in the late 9th – early 10th century by King Yasovarman I in the Bakheng style. The three towers, dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, are now in very poor condition, the stone is much weathered and any sculptural details barely visible. Yet, as we wandered around them, we found ourselves surrounded by butterflies and able to enjoy the stunning views, difficult to capture on camera because of the hazy atmosphere.

The modern pagoda was interesting, too. There were statues of various characters from Buddhist myths, two huge white bulls guarding the entrance on one side, and human-like creatures with claw feet on another. The temple itself was full of the usual multitude of Buddhas large and small, small flags of recycled fabric strung across the ceiling from one side to the other, and brightly painted scenes from Buddha’s life covered the walls and ceiling. Outside there was a larger-than-life character dressed a bit like an ancient Superman, as well as statues of monks kneeling in a square around a shrine.

We were barked at quite loudly by a vicious-sounding dog, then, soon after, hailed by one of the monks and summoned to the building where he was. I now wonder if the dog had been trained to announce visitors! Monks don’t usually speak to women so we should have been suspicious of his motives. After the preliminary greetings and exchange of names, it turned out that the monk was soliciting donations and, in return for a small sum, we would have our names painted on the wall with the donation amount alongside. We succumbed and paid $5 each. One day I’ll need to return to see if our names really are on that wall!

After perhaps an hour, we headed back down to our patient tuk-tuk driver and were soon off to our next stop, Wat Chedei. Our route took us on to a dirt road, past rice fields, through a cattle and then a water buffalo traffic jam, alongside pools of water lilies and lotuses, past small farms and the occasional larger house painted in some garish colour, then on to another dirt road. This one was in very poor condition, with huge potholes, ruts and puddles – they call these dancing roads in Cambodia. It had rained the previous night which had helped to settle the dust but fuelled the puddles. “Mango rain’ one of our guesthouse security guards called it – rain to help fatten the mangos which are now fattening on the trees, ready to be harvested in April. Luckily we didn’t get stuck in the mud.

Eventually, after much dancing and shaking about, we reached Wat Chedei, in the middle of nowhere. Again there was a collection of buildings old and new. One, a former pagoda, was an almost total wreck – no roof, no windows or doors, grass growing on the floor, and a corrugated iron, makeshift roof over the Buddhas that looked incongruous in that setting. Things we saw: Aunty Betty’s red and pink café curtains hanging in the windows of the new temple; a gaggle of geese squawking at and chasing one of the flock; three long dragon-boats in a shed – bizarre when the only nearby water was a large lily-choked baray (reservoir); two lots of two kittens with very large ears and plaintive cries; two painted elephants guarding the main entrance, and red-and-green-painted temple dogs guarding another; a horrific mural that looked like the Buddhist version of hell; and no monks!

I posed on Mr T.’s tuk tuk before we left and, as we jiggled violently about on the road back to town, we decided we could open a tour company with me as driver – hence, Mariannie’s Martini Tours: shaken not stirred! The real martinis came later!

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