Published: July 13th 2008July 13th 2008
Tree eating temple
Called Ta Prohn, this is one place where instead of restoring the temple, the authorities have allowed a few large trees to continue growing in the temple area, to dramatic effect (see the Tomb Raider movie for more of this temple ..)
I won't explain why that is a horrible pun. Nor will I apologise for said pun. All I will claim is it was just too bad to leave unsaid. Moving along ...
So, venturing south from Ho Chi Minh city Vietnam, we entered the Mekong Delta. For those who haven't followed the story thus far, the Mekong is a freakin' massive river. It makes me realise why people talk so much about the Nile, the Mississippi and such forth. See, I always thought a river was about 20m wide with rapids. As opposed to a lake that is rectangular and roughly flows in one direction. This thing is huge - multiple kilometres wide at some points.
Anyway, as the Mekong gets close to discharging into the sea, it splits up into a lot of little rivers, splitting and rejoining, creating the Mekong delta area, an incredibly fertile area of land composed mainly of islands where the most useful form of transport is boat.
Due to the nature of travelling around this area (damn confusing), we joined a tour that would show us some highlights. We basically bussed for a few hours, visited a floating market (which was very
One of the few photos that came out ok, this is inside the first gate - you've already walked about 300m in to get to this point!!
cool - they displayed exactly what fruit/vegetable they were selling from their boat by putting one of their product up a
long bamboo pole!), got rowed around some inlets, told about the crocodiles that lived there (although most have ended up as belts and wallets .. we didn't exactly feel too sad about that), and encountered a few enormous pythons. In cages, thankfully, but the thought that they might be local made us a little jittery. We stayed the night on a slow boat going up the river which, apart from the 5.45am wake up call, was altogether rather pleasant.
We jumped on a fast boat for Cambodia (well, Andrew rather ungracefully entered by falling down the stairs, suffering bruising to his arm and ego) and headed further up river. Getting through the border was a laugh. Or more accurately, a confusing and slightly worrying encounter which turned out fine. First, you stop at the Vietnamese checkpoint and hand over you passports. Hmmm, given the love and attention that we have given our passports to avoid losing them, we tend to be a little jumpy about handing them over, especially when communication about what they are doing with our
Sunset at Bakheng hill
What you don't see is a few hundred other people crammed onto the hill for a good look!
passports (confiscating? photocopying? dumping in the river? selling to black market reps?) is somewhat limited. After a few grumpy words, it turns out we'll get our passports back up river at the Cambodian checkpoint. No-one on the boat is overly excited about this arrangement but we grudgingly agree. Concerns begin when we arrive at the Cambodian checkpoint and there are no passports to be seen. Hmmm. After 15 minutes and a few stares at the armed guards, they turn up, we get about 20 different stamps and all is well. We didn't even get overcharged! Who would have thought. But, in a typical welcome Cambodia style, touts have carried our bags up the hill without us knowing and are demanding payment. Thankfully, a firm 'no' did the trick this time.
5 minutes later, we arrived in Sunny Phomn Penh. Again with the touts, a swarm of tuk tuk drivers descended on the boat even before we had talked. We were going pretty close by so head down and walk to the hotel, arriving in perfect timing for the monsoon to fall as we were getting our room key. Nice. Turns out that it is the rainy season here and
The 200 faces at Bayon
One of our favourites - this is an incredible place to be by yourself
hence low season for tourist. This has all worked out in our favour as rooms are easy to get and cheaper and the weather, while still stifilingly hot for us whiteys, is relatively moderate for the area, only mid 30s or so with 80% plus humidity. (hence the fact I have been laughing at all the cold people in New Zealand - I sprung for aircon in our room last night just so we could get the temp below 30!)
We'd heard a lot about Pnomh Penh being a little dangerous and quite rough. In reality, the worst parts were rougher than Vietnam, but the flash parts were fancier than anything we've seen and more expensive, with meals for $5 and up - daylight robbery! Thankfully, we hunted out some cheaper places to eat ( the $3 indian set meal was a serious highlight) and set about some sight seeing. First up was the Royal palace and Silver pagoda (or as the locals call it 'Emerald Pagoda'). The palace was amazing, the style being similair to what we've seen in Laos and pictures of Thailand. Steep, golden rooves with dragons and details all over and walls painted in intricate patterns. Kelly sprung for a t-shirt on the door (singlets are a big no no in the temples) and we wandered around the grounds until we felt at ease. It was a fairly big complex (probably 500m by 500m) full of gardens, buildings and temples, mostly for ceremonial purposes - most of the area that is actually used day to day is off limit. The silver pagoda was something else - the entire floor is paved with thousands of 1.25kg silver tiles, hence the name. Alas, most of them were covered by carpets so tourist could walk around. The highlight was definitely two of the bhuddas stored there. The first was around life size but studded with diamonds. 3 of which were larger than 20 carats. Suffice to say, Kelly was somewhat awestruck. The second was a 2 foot tall seated Bhudda (I won't go into the multiple bhudda positions here..) that was carved out of one piece of pure Emerald. One piece. It looked amazing and is the reason for the locals calling it the Emerald Pagoda. I definitely rate the Bhudda over the floor any day.
A short walk through the blazing heat and we were at the national musuem. Unbelievable as it is, this place had 1400 year old artifacts on display without glass cases. Right there, face to face with a Vishnu from 600 AD. Madness. Anyway, we learnt a lot about the glory of the Khmer kingdom (included Cambodia, most of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand back in the day) and the vagueries of hinduism and bhuddism in the area. Its all a bit of a mish mash to say the least - a good prelude to Angkor Wat.
Suitably impressed with our grasp on local history, we chilled out in a public square for the afternoon, watching everyday stuff like a cyclo driver meeting his wife for dinner, kids playing soccer with tocraw balls and husband and wives playing badminton in the street. Very relaxing indeed.
The next day was all about history too, although this was more recent and altogether more concerning. But, if we were to see the glory that is Angkor Wat, we really felt some kind of obligation to understand the horrors that this country went through. Don't worry, I'll keep it short and to the point.
Briefly, the Khmer Rouge, lead by a guy called Pol Pot, took over the country in 1975, forced people out of cities to work on the land and set about remaking the country. Unfortunately, that involved a lot of fighting against the Vietnamese, taking food from the people to pay for the weapons and ultimately starving thousands of people who really needed that food to live. Along with this, they set about cleansing the local population of the weak, intelligent and impure (incredible how genocide is so similar place to place). At the end of the day, 1,700,000 people were killed or starved before the Vietnamese re-liberated the country.
And even then, the pains continue with Cambodia being one of the most landmined and bombed places in the world. Suffice to say, its been a rough last 30 years for the Cambodians, especially from such an advanced kingdom as the Khmers were, to go through such horrifics. But perhaps worse still is the lack of attention that this gets worldwide. I knew vaguely of Pol Pot before I came here but the scale is staggering.
Anyway, their history is a lot more complex than that, tied up with Vietnam, China, Thailand and the US in myriad complicated ways. There are plenty of good books including 'the killing fields' and 'first they killed my father' which cover the issue from people who lived through that time. It kind of intensifies the experience reading them here. Anyway, we visited the killing fields and S21, two of the focal points of the executions and it was all fairly emotional and horrible.
But, as I said, Cambodia also has incredible history as well, the biggest ( and most well known part of which) is Angkor Wat (or, more correctly, Angkor. Angkor Wat is one of dozens of amazing temples here). We have spent the last 3 days getting up before the crack of dawn (the last one unintentionally - the sun came through our window :) ) to see sunrises at these incredible temples. This was one of the things we had really looked forward to an it definitely lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, our photos don't really do it justice (technical difficulties and the like) and it seems that no photos could ever quite touch on the sheer scale of Angkor Wat itself (around a kilometre square with a 200m moat around the outside!). I've pinched a photo from Wikipedia to give you an idea.
But, as I mentioned, there are dozens of temples around, our favourite being Bayon, which has about 200 enormous stone faces, and is in the middle of a temple area known as Angkor Thom which dwarfs even Angkor Wat. Absolutely beautiful and we were rewarded for getting up early, being able to have the temple entirely to ourselves, apart from one other person, who was largely on the opposite side from us. Perfect.
As I said, although a little temple weary at the end of three days, was every bit as good as we'd hoped. Thoroughly recommended. We've now got a couple of days here to start writing cvs and cover letters and get into the job application spirit. (It all started fairly poorly when Kelly lost an awesome cover letter thanks to dodgy Cambodian power - terse words were had by both of us for the fact that a saved file got wiped .. bah!). Anyway, the real world is rapidly approaching and we're making arrangements for getting to Dublin and becoming employed again. Its all good.
Andrew and Kelly
P.S. As you may have noticed, Cambodia has had a fairly rough deal and there is an appalling amount of children begging and working and landmine victims around. It can get a bit overwhelming and its hard to say 'no' to beggars even when you know all the charities recommend not giving to beggars on the street. Instead, the best option seems to be to go through established charities that work with the local people to create lasting change. Its all fairly complex and there is still a lot of government corruption etc. that means not all the money gets where it should. But, at the end of the day, it is a step in the right direction.
If you feel so inclined, get a sponsor child in Cambodia through http://www.worldvision.co.nz/
or support local charities like http://www.streetfriends.org/
or even just buy something Cambodian made through trade aid. Its kind of crazy when you see what people around here will do with $1 a day - its a lot more to them than it is to us!
Also, on the landmine issue, check out http://www.maginternational.org/
for more info.