Our journey began with a very early 5 hour train ride to Poiphet, a border crossing town into Cambodia. There is only one train that runs the route, and it is a local train. This means the amenities are minimal. We spent our time sitting on straight back, wooden bench seats that gave a whole new meaning to uncomfortable, and we had the padded ones. Most of the train was filled with just plain hardwood seats. I am convinced the Asians are made of tougher stuff we westerners, plus they have better balance. Remember the picture I posted of squat toilets in China? Well, the trains have raised, squat toilets, so going to the bathroom is like balancing on the edges of a metal bucket, while it is strapped to the back of a runaway horse! Very challenging stuff!
Still the ride was nice. We chugged passed endless beautiful countryside. There were flocks of cranes and egrets; herds of cows, water buffalo, and goats. It is the dry season so the rice paddies were bare, but the lotus ponds were in full bloom. In some places there were whole shallow lakes of them. They use lotus for all kinds of things. As a matter of fact, later in Siem Reap we learned you can eat fresh lotus seeds from the pods. They were excellent. We also ate fresh mangosteen, right off the tree….yum!
We were entertained by the kids on the train and all the unusual things the vendors were carrying up and down the aisle. We would pull into a station and one group of vendors would get off and new batch would pile on. We thought the train would be the most challenging part of our journey, but it was OK. Instead the border crossing turned out to be the most “interesting”.
The border is a few mile deep de-militarized zone. It doesn’t belong to either country. Which means all rules are flexible or perhaps even non-existent. We knew going in there were a lot of scams, but it is set up where it is impossible to avoid them all. We got caught in only 2 of many possibilities, and over paid by about $60. Many people get done for a lot more so I guess I can’t complain too much. Still somewhat harrowing. We paid too much for our Visa’s but it did save us time in a long line and we paid for a private taxi, which turned out to be a minivan full of people, then Tuk Tuk’s to our hotel. Even with avoiding the long line we were there 2 hours, doing what should take 15 minutes, and we were forced to walk most of distance, as the buses were not running that day. The extra money I paid did get us an escort for this which helped with luggage, but he wasn’t able to get us the taxi we paid for. There are lots of children here begging and doing all kinds of odd jobs. One tiny girl followed us on her tip toes for ages, holding an umbrella over us to keep the sun off. I gave her a ridiculous amount of money by local standards; hopefully she will get extra food or something for her efforts. It is always hard to see children struggling. Still visiting Cambodia was worth it.
Once we got to our hotel, we had massages which helped us get over the whole ordeal! Massage is readily available, cheap and good all over Asia: a true luxury. Our hotel was nothing fantastic, but it was close to everything and had air conditioning. After months without A/C it was a welcome change. The next morning we hired a Tuk Tuk for the day and went to visit Angkor Wat, location of the famous tomb scene in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Angkor Wat was main temple of the city of Angkor, which covers 400 sq km of forest. It was built over hundreds of years beginning in the 12th century (802-1220AD), and was the main Temple and Capital City of Cambodia, until recent history, when the capital was moved to Phnom Penh. During this time the Khmer kingdom covered most of Southeast Asia and China. Angkor Wat is the largest pyramid in Asia. Originally the whole city, including the main temple were dedicated to Lord Vishnu (Hinduism) and the construction was designed to copy Mount Meru. This is the Hindu version of heaven, or where the gods reside as they create all that is. It’s construction is also a copy of the constellation Draco, and some believe the site was used prior to and after construction for following and communicating with the heavens. Later in the 14th/15th century the whole place was converted to Buddhism. This means that you get artistic beauty from both, and a certain amount of destruction as the Buddhist attempted to eliminate the Hindu feel. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.
All this said, it is a wonderfully beautiful, giant park that the Cambodia people still live in and around. It is used daily by tourist, pilgrims and locals, including the local monkeys that live everywhere. The sheer size of it makes it worth seeing, but the Datiscaceae (Spung) trees are why I would come again and again. No pictures will do these or this place justice, but I have tried. There is a whole huge terrace and watering ponds just for the elephants! It really takes 5 days to see everything, but we were completely exhausted after one.
We went back to our hotel had a nap and then went out to sample Cambodia food. What a wonderful surprise it was. We fell in love with Khmer curry, banana flower salad, and Amok. Siem Reap, is home to a huge tourist trade and accordingly has everything you can imagine: night markets, day markets, tourist excursions, and all kinds of foreign food (we lived at the Blue Pumpkin: great French fusion café/ice cream parlor with long lounge seating where you can eat Khmer style…see the picture…fantastic). We want to open a chain of these in the UK.
The Blue Pumpkin adjoined a great little shop called Senteurs D’Angkor, that sold all kinds of locally produced, green goods: soaps, skin crèmes and scrubs, candles, herbal cooking blends, jams, bags made from recycled plastics, silks, etc. Plus handmade jewelry and they would let you make your own jewelry. We couldn’t resist this so we each made a lovely bracelet. They also gave free tours of their production workshop, so we went. What a great place. They grow most of their raw materials and bring artisans, handicap people, and women from the surrounding areas to make everything, including the woven boxes they package in. They also sell products of many other local artisans. The money they make goes back to support the community, and they pay for their employees children to go to school. I was happy to buy products from them. Really nice ladies.
One of the other artisan groups they carried was Artisan Angkor. We were hoping to spend the next day in the countryside and on the lake seeing the floating villages, but the dry season made that impossible, so we decide to go see the Artisan Angkok, which turned out to be a school for local artisans to learn and hone their skills. They teach sculpting in wood, stone, and metal; Painting on silk, wood Lacquering, and metal bowl turning. Then they also operate a start to finish silk farm. The school is side-by-side with full professional production studios. We got to watch everything and then they took us out to the silk farm. We watched silk coming into existence: from egg on mulberry leave to finished fine and raw silk products. Amazing process. Whoever figured this out the first time? Once has to wonder!
We were tired after this, so we had facials at Lemongrass, one of the premiere spas. They are famous for their all natural, made fresh daily skincare products that feature….you guessed it….lemongrass! I think it was wonderful, but we were out for the 2 hours….Our skin felt amazing afterwards! Later that night we went to the famous Pub Street (a street lined with places to eat/drink) and watch a bit of traditional Apsara Dancing. Really a bit slow and dramatic for our taste, but you have got to give them credit for finger and foot dexterity! As Kailin is a dancer/performance artist we take in everything we can to round out her knowledge. We did one other brave thing; we stuck our feet into a fish spa! Yes, that is right, a shallow tank filled with little fish that eat all the dead skin off your feet. Kailin nearly giggled herself to death!
Our plan was to take a boat to Phnom Penh, but once again the dry season prevented this, so we took another 6 hours, VIP bus ride, arriving late at night. The following morning we and hired a Tuk Tuk driver for the day….they really are great! He took us to Wat Phnom: active temple/park where people come to make wishes and send them to the gods on the wings of small birds. You can buy as many birds as you have wishes. You make your wish and turn them loose. We had lunch at….The Blue Pumpkin:Phnom Penh! Later we drove by the Independence Monument and went to the National Museum: most of the best statues from Angkor Wat are here. Then we went to Lili Pearls. This is the main store of the women who ran the jewelry making part of Senteurs D’Angkor. Interesting French gal, who has collected beads from all over the world. She even has some places making her custom beads. We could have stayed forever, but disciplined ourselves and moved on to see the Central Market. It is a market much like all the others in Asia, except the main building was built in 1937, Art Deco Style….It is a very beautiful indoor/outdoor building.
The next day we bit the emotional bullet and went to see Choeung Ek (the Killing fields) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (a former high school converted to a prison). More than 17,000 men, women, and children were tortured at Toul Sleng prison, then killed and buried in mass graves at Choeung Ek. The memorial here houses the bones of people they found in the mass graves. The Khmer Rouge communist regime (1975-1979) was a right nasty piece of humanity. Whatever the beliefs were and however noble those beliefs may have seemed when started by this group of “western educated” men…those beliefs end in tearing the heart out of a race of people. Cambodia was only just getting over its ring side seat to the Vietnam War and then Pol Pot took power. People were so scared of him that Phnom Penh empty over night when he defeated the powers that were in place.
This is why Cambodia is still a country in two times. There has been so much tragedy and pain here that the cultural/generational flows have been upset. The Khmer Rouge Regime set an already struggling country back even further. Today much of Cambodia is still without power. The countryside is still farmed almost completely with oxen, water buffalo and horse. Roads are only just being completed and brought up to standard. Most everything is done by hand/manual labor. Only in the cities is there progress and modern facilities. There is a huge population of orphans of all ages, and all major areas have slums. These slums are made up of people left behind and lost: with no families or skills, and serious emotional scarring after the KRR was eliminated. There are many organizations doing their best to help, but it will be years yet, before there is a decent average standard of living again. There are still war trials going on, but how do you punish people who killed a nation? What can be done that will lead to peace, not more violence? Kailin and I did what we could. We add our blessing to the area and opened a path of light for lost souls to follow back into peace.
We left the next morning for Guangzhou, had a 7 hour lay-over, then flew on to Xiangfan and took a taxi back to Wudang mountain. What a stunning difference in the energy between Cambodia and Wudang: A land of historic violence next to a mountain of Taoist prayer.