Published: February 3rd 2012February 3rd 2012
We took the five-hour bus trip from the beach at Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City on January 25th
and then hopped in a taxi for the airport. HCMC was shut down for the Tet holiday so there was no chance to shop for the little things we thought we needed before our takeoff-at-dusk flight to Siam Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap is the town adjacent to the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor Wat which was the capital of the Kmer kingdom from 800 - 1300 AD. Here there is a vast temple complex of some of the largest religious monuments in the world.
We are only here for four nights so our experience here is a rather minimal, however, we saw in our first glance that Cambodia is a poorer country than Vietnam. The Vietnamese go about their business briskly and determinedly whereas here in Cambodia there seems to be a little more deference to the tourist...perhaps they are simply more in need of the money.
The taxi ride into town from the airport passed large hotels with crowds outside in the night heat. We saw whole cows and pigs being roasted over open fires. The
town is mobbed with Chinese tourists over the New Year holiday.
Darla had chosen a lovely hotel with a rooftop swimming pool. Our room was on the fifth floor overlooking the quiet, palm-lined streets.
The next morning we hired a guide who accompanied us in the taxi for the 7 km to the largest of this vast complex of temples, palaces and moats, Angkor Wat. Our guide said that sandstone was used for the structure of the monuments and lava rock for the endless walls and fortifications. All the construction is mortarless - simply a perfect fit from one stone to the next - one could not slide a sheet of paper between the units.
The first 200 years of construction were devoted to the Hindu gods and then the faith swung to Buddhism. The method of construction was to erect the structure of the monuments using squared blocks and then carve the features. The main temple of Angkor Wat is defined by a wide moat surrounding some 200 hectares of which 82 hectares were devote to the temple and its walls. We walked through the many passageways and courtyards lined with bas-relief sculpture telling the stories
Asparas - they entertain the gods and are the sensual rewards of kings and heroes who die in bravery
of the time and climbed up to the highest levels in the blazing sun. We probably would have missed a lot of the finer details if it not for our experienced guide.
After lunch our taxi took us to Anchor Thom and the stunning monument of Bayon. The many ‘heads’ or spires each had four faces of Buddha - one in each direction - symbolizing, according to our guide, the four tenets of good conduct: sincerity, compassion, pity and joy.
We were wasted by early afternoon as both of us took turns struggling with Delhi-Belly on this little trip. We headed back to the hotel and the rooftop pool until sunset. That evening we walked a couple of blocks to what one guide book called the ‘fanciest’ restaurant in town. We had out-of-this-world fresh spring rolls, coconut-curried chicken and fried eggplant with garlic and ginger along with a few of the local beers. Total cost was $22.
The plan for the next day was pretty ambitious: another temple visit in the morning and then an hour-long drive through the country followed by a three-hour boat ride to see the ‘floating village’.
We met our guide and
taxi driver in the hotel lobby at 7:30am. Our first stop was Banteay Srei, a small temple in a peaceful, isolated, wooded setting. This temple is some 20km from Siem Reap. We had hoped to beat the crowds but it was not to be, however, we were not in any way disappointed. This little jewel of a temple was made of pink sandstone and is really a miniature temple compared to the great royal temple we had seen the day before. Our guide was great at interpreting some of the stories chiseled in bas-relief, much to our amusement.
We drove back to and through Siem Reap and headed out of town toward the western edges of Tonl Sap Lake. This is a huge lake in the rainy season and significantly smaller in the dry season. Many fisher families like to live in a certain proximity to the lake year-round. So, they have built their houses on rafts or barges and, seasonally, move the community.
The road from Siem Reap passed along canals, beside rice paddies and through small villages. Along the way we passed a funeral and, a few kms further, a wedding. We left the taxi and
embarked in a tour boat at the head of a long, narrow and very muddy arm of the lake. We and the guide were the only passengers. As we cruised down the arm, amazingly, fishermen with nets stood in waist deep water every 100 yards or so. After we passed them they would throw their nets into our wake. Seems the passing boats wake up the fish and they are easier to catch. We passed a busy fish market and then the first floating village - a collection of huts tethered near each other near some trees. These are small houses with a little wooden walkway around the exterior. Usually there was an open sided but roofed area where people were gathered sitting, working and drinking tea. We cruised by very closely to the people and we could see directly into their homes. It was a brief almost too intimate moment.
We continued for another half-hour as the waterway became wider and wider as we moved along. Our destination was a floating restaurant/general store which served a community of about twenty to thirty floating houses. Many houses had a trail of attached, smaller rafts upon which were ducks, a
pig or two, a vegetable garden and a fish pen. The little floating store we were at had an attached crocodile pen with some very nasty looking, meter-long beasties dozing in the sun. We drank a beer, Darla cruised the tourist goods and we relaxed for about twenty minutes, then got back on the boat for the return trip to the head of the waterway and back to our taxi. The return trip to Siem Reap was bathed in the golden glow of late afternoon. The road was thick with uniformed school children on bicycles and water buffalo being herded home for the night.
We had what we would call a forgettable supper at a Thai restaurant except for the fact that one of the soup dishes had an innocuous looking little red chile floating about. Darla decided not to eat it and, being of a foolishly adventurous mind I popped it in my mouth. My later thoughts on this action centered around nuclear fission - or fusion or some kind of burning hell. My immediate thought was that someone had poked a burning stick in my mouth. If there was anything fortunate about the moment is that in
my haste to expel the burning ember I almost swallowed it but enough self-preservation instinct rejected that idea and I spat it out. There followed an intense twenty minutes of gargling beer and sucking air until the pain subsided. Note to self: Wake Up!
After that fun we engaged a tuktuk to take us to the Night Market. The streets were choked with traffic but we finally made it to the entrance to the warren of brightly lit narrow streets and passageway that make up the night market. Everything is for sale: all manner of clothing, footwear, jewelry along with little restaurants, manicures, pedicures, rows of customers in lounge chairs having their feet massaged. The most incredible service was a number of large aquariums full of little fish. A customer would climb onto an adjacent bench and lower their feet into the water. The little fish would swarm the feet and, so it was said, eat only the dead skin off the feet. We usually agree on most things but this was an easy one...it took us only a split second to agree that we would pass on this one.
The next day we slept in and then
lounged by the pool until the early afternoon. There are three markets in Siem Reap and the shoppers in our crew were lamenting that only one had been visited to date so we jumped into a tuktuk and headed across town to assuage the issue. The first alley we walked down had a little restaurant advertising pizza from a wood-fired oven. This we had to have and see the oven, too! Honestly, it was one of the best pizzas we have ever had - crackling thin crust, perfect combo of tomato and mozzarella and a sprinkling of fresh basil. Washed down with some excellent Ankgor lager and we were set for the afternoon.
Our guide had arranged some tickets to an evening buffet meal followed by some traditional Kmer dancing. At dusk we walked to the restaurant and met most of China - there was seating for hundreds and all manner of dishes served - a room full of sprouts, salads and spring rolls, eight vegetarian dishes in a line, eight fish dishes in another line, the pancake corner, the soup room, the stir-fried table and the barbeque corner and the dessert table. We splurged on a bottle of
white Australian Chardonnay. Soon the dancing started. It was traditional. It was elegant. The live Khmer music had that lilting oriental twang that captured ones heart. Darla found a seat at the edge of the stage and was near tears for the whole performance. I managed to crawl to the front of the stage and snap photos and take some video. The dances lasted about an hour. On the way out we agreed that for $12 each the evening was a success. However, the evening was not over...the subject of the Night Market came up again and before tired bones were allowed to rest they had to return for one last shopping spree.
We were off to the airport in the morning to return to Vietnam and our friendly beach house in Mui Ne. We arrived just before supper. It felt like we had come home we had such a warm welcome from the staff. We returned to our little beach-facing room relaxed and fulfilled.
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