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Friday, May 18, 2007

Cambodia Charm

2003 - It was December, one of the best travel months to this magical kingdom. With just enough time to see 2 fantastic cities, we back-packed all the way through Phnom Penh & Siem Reap with the help of the Lonely Planet guidebook - just like the real pros. We arrived in Phnom Penh, hopped on a bus and ventured straight into the center of town to shop for a hotel. We picked River Star which was right on the river front and our room has the most fascinating views of the Tonle Sap river. Perfect.

After dropping our backpacks off, we hailed a motorbike and headed straight to the Cambodian genocide history sites– the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng prison/museum. Having quenched our thirst for knowledge, we then urged to rinse away the bad taste left in our mouths. Quickly the motorbike took us to Amoc CafĂ©, a restaurant we looked up on Lonely Planet, apparently renowned for an authentic Khmer curry called Fish Amok which is steamed not boiled. Wow! It was superb. Addicted to Khmer food by then, the rest of the two days were spent feasting at local restaurants. Then, we left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap. Under scorching heat and chilly winds from the Tonle Sap river, many would’ve found it totally uncomfortable to be stacked up on the roof like guni sacks for a 5-hour river ferry ride to Siam Reap. I, however, felt terribly alive.

For less than RM100, we got the best “seats”, best view, fresh air and the best chance s of survival should the boat capsized. Indeed, I wouldn’t have suggested a better or more interesting way to get to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. We saw villages by the riverside, the natives, boathouses and even ruins dating back to the Angkorian era. Immediately, the spur of excitement made me less patient. I couldn’t wait to stand before the Angkor Wat.

Finally we disembarked on what seemed more like a muddy river bank but was in fact Siem Reap’s ‘ferry terminal’. My eyes scanned frantically amongst the hundreds of men holding signages with names. Big Lyna Villa hotel…here we come! Actually, I could almost tell the hotel wasn’t going to be what we expected once we get there. After the long and bumpy road trip, sure enough…photos on the internet can be pretty deceiving. Nevertheless, we settled in for one night and checked in to another place we found while hiking around town. It’s called Golden Banana, with eleven truly charming pagoda-like rooms at only US$16 a night. We stayed till the end of our trip and feasted over some excellent “mum’s Khmer cooking”.

We spent everyday strolling around the markets, shopping for ‘krama’ scarfs, giving money to one-legged land mine victims on the streets and exploring true Khmer food (again) from vendors to fancy restaurants. Some other to-die-for dishes visitors should not miss are beef Loc Lac with peppery dip, Cambodian Kangkung soup and pan-fried bananas in butter and liquor.

It was Christmas Day. We rose at 4am. Our moto man, grateful to have been hired to take us to and around the temples for the next 5 days, was already waiting outside our hotel. Churning with excitement as his carriage swept through the darkness of Siem Reap, I knew the day I was waiting for has come. Not only had that day marked my seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, I was about to witness it in its most divine state – at the break of dawn.

6.05am - the first Crimson orange rays of the rising sun radiated the surrounding calm and bathed Angkor Wat with warmth and magic. Awestruck by such a magnificent sight, I was in total disbelief that there used to be life here 2,000 years ago....And princesses, court servants and goddesses had all bathed in this very lotus lake before me. Wild...

Later that day, we climbed the stairway to the peak of Angkor Wat (which was pretty steep and scary) just like how the monks used to do every morning for a thousand years to worship the kings and gods. What seemed more like the stairway to heaven, steepness was apparently synonymous with sincerity.

Then we spent the next 5 days moving around and within the Angkor moat admiring the splendor of each ruin and the artistry of the Bas-reliefs. These wall carvings depicted legendary tales and some so unbelievably intricate I wondered if they were really done by man. The sensation to be enveloped by lichen-covered, errie and crumbling ruins was other-worldly. Heaven and earth, battle of the Gods and Demons, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk… as I worked my imagination back to the 900s when there was life within these ancient kingdoms, it felt ghostly yet godly all at the same time.

I remember the Terrace of Elephants as ‘the trunks’, I remember Terrace of the Leper King as the ‘wall of Apsaras’, I remember Kbal Spean as the ‘river of underwater bas reliefs’, I remember Banteay Srei as ‘the pink temple, most intricately carved temple & believed to had been carved by a woman’ and my personal favorites, Bayon which I named ‘the face’ and Ta Prohm, best remembered as ‘the trees’.

Set deep in a jungle , Ta Prohm was but a maze of rubble and vegetation having been left to be swallowed by the encroaching trees over the hundreds of years. Its crumbling towers and walls were locked in what seemed like a slow muscular embrace of vast root systems.

Carpeted by lichen, moss and creeping plants today, close to 80,000 people were believed to have glorified the king within this structure during the 1100s.. Undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, I would personally suggest Ta Prohm to be placed high on every visitor’s list.

We left Siem Reap with a heavy heart. Everything I learnt about Cambodia the poverty-stricken country had been overwhelming and the warmth and generosity of these poor people, despite their state, had moved me and saddened me deeply. The people’s plight during the Khmer Rouge, remnants of war and their humble beings very quickly plunged me into strong compassion. I couldn’t help but felt very sorry for these nice people whom had crossed our path. Why do bad things happen to nice people?

I carried this heavy emotion with me to the back of the public bus back heading to Phnom Penh. Somehow, the bumpy ride through the dusty outskirt ‘sand roads’ seemed less enduring. Every stop our bus made was a food adventure. On big round plates atop their heads, Khmer villagers flocked around our bus (& every other bus) to sell drinks, gum, lotus seeds & deep-fried humongous spiders to passengers through our bus windows. Jumping at the chance to stream some blood back into our legs, we went for a walk & queued for a Khmer ham baguette sandwich from a local vendor. Authentic or what!

After 7 hours, we were back at our favorite hotel again. We spent New Years Eve dining by the Tonle Sap river to celebrate life. Then we went to a small theatre to catch the Apsara performance. Indeed a trip I’ll remember forever, we left Cambodia the next day with our backpacks stuffed with tons of gifts for friends we bought from the children of the temples. I also bought a book called First They Killed My Father which kept me company in the airplane. Like I had swallowed a light bulb, I returned home with a big piece of Cambodia and lot of inspiration.

Thank you for the experience Cambodia. ‘Au Khun’ !

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