Merry Christmas! We’ve been in Siem Reap for I guess 4 days. Nice to stay put for awhile and we’ve taken a day off so to speak as it has been very hectic. Although Cambodia is a Buddhist country and thus does not celebrate Christmas, the hotels do have small Christmas Trees and some of the large ones have elaborate decorations for the tourists. The folks at our (small) hotel had (rather lame) Christmas music playing at breakfast, and have all gone out of our way to wish us a Merry Christmas. These wishes seem sincere and they seem a bit uncomfortable as they are not completely sure of the customs (some wish a happy Christmas). They are sincere and thus appreciated.
Of course one comes to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest place of worship in the world. 12th Century. And although there are some Buddhist shrines around, which people visit, it does not have a grand temple intact used for worship today. It IS huge, something like a square mile, but not our favorite. Size does not matter to us. Everyone comes here and thus, it takes the luster off of the visit. It was our first and I was wondering about the wisdom of spending a week in Siem Reap.
I truly enjoyed the bas reliefs and Angkor Wat, they were magnificent, but the hoards of tourists and the big groups were too much.
We next went to Ta Prohm. This is a temple that is covered covered with vines and seems to have more fame as a place where Angelina Jolie filmed a movie than as a temple. It is much more interesting, but again the hoards of people made it had to enjoy. I did manage to find a few pseudo quite shots but was becoming more worried that we had made a mistake as it is impossible to really enjoy and have any sense of the temples.
We did visit other temples this day, but….. the highlight was the baby and young macaques. Unfortunately, they were hounded…. but tourists.
Day two was much better. We visited Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. The focus was birding, but it was around temples. We were supposed to also get temple tour info, but unfortunately our guide was better with birds than temples. However, we liked the temples much better and there were few visitors. Day two was far superior!
Day 3 we hired our own driver and headed north so visit a small waterfall at Kbal Spean (The River of 1000 Lingas) with carvings of Shiva, the Hindu god of fertility, and her “penis collection” (linga = penis). Much like Pachamama, there is lots if interest in fertility with many carvings of Shiva and penis’. Slowly we were learning the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism. We had no sense or knowledge of this back and forth before our visit to Cambodia.
Then on to Banteay Seri, a small temple from 967 AD with some of the most intricate carvings. This is also a Hindu Temple dedicated to Shiva. One of our favorites!
Then a visit to the Mine Museum. We had thought it might be a repeat of the UXO museum in Laos, but the focus was mostly on the mining of the Vietnam and Thailand boarders by the Khmer Rouge to keep them out as this where the insurgency against the Khmer Rouge resided. There are also ordinances from the Vietnam War, but this does not seem to be the major focus. As most of the world recognized the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia (even though the had killed more than 3 Million of its citizens), the mines came from many countries including, the US, Soviet Union, and China (among others). This museum was put together by an ex-Khmer Rouge member, kidnapped at age 5 and made into a boy-soldier-mine placer turned insurgency fighter and then land mine remover. Another powerful and interesting visit.
This onto a lighter venue. Another community operation, a small butterfly farm working to save the butterflies of Cambodia. I would not say it was necessarily being a big success at saving butterflies, but it did provide jobs for locals and an opportunity to see some butterflies up close.
We then spent the evening at Phare: Cambodian Circus. This is a local non-profit arts group using the arts to heal from the atrocities of Pol Pot. A common theme in Cambodia. The piece we saw was called “Sokha” and is based on the story of the founder of Phare and his “life” through the era of the Khmer Rouge. Using acrobats, circus, dance, live music and live painting, they tell the the story. Powerful and incredibly well done.
Day 4, took us to Tonle Sap and the floating village of Prek Toal. Tonle Sap is a large lake, the largest bird breading area in Asia??, and in interesting lake. The levels vary greatly from year to year and the flow of the river reverses, not from ocean tides, but from the flow of the Mekong, perhaps 150 KM south. During the rainy season, the water from the Mekong backs up onto the Tonle Sap River and rises the level of Tonle Sap lake by maybe 10 feet. This is BIG lake, even in the dry season. You cannot see across it.
There is open lake, but lots of marsh/swamp/mangrove area – no idea what they call it. The trees are surprising in that they are not mangrove “type”, but rather single trunk trees that become submerged, at least partially.
There are something like more than 100 floating villages within this swamp area that rise and fall with the tide. The village we visited Prek Toal as 900 families and around 4000 people. They have schools, some rounded buildings (temples, government buildings, ….) but even the school floats. All transpo is via boat as there is no solid ground. Different from the reed islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru, each house/building has a bamboo floor and floats on pontoons of drums, styro, etc. As typical, there are varying degrees of wealth.
We have really “enjoyed“ talking with local people of their experiences. Although Cambodia is working to mend it’s wounds, families are still separated. Somewhere between 70 – 90% of the people are still agrarian and have no money. Thus, some folks are sent / go to the cities to work. Here, the wages are still low, but they make slightly more.
A tuk tuk driver for a day will take you around and wait for you as you visit. $18 for a full day. He has to pay for fuel. We spoke with one guy who said room rents were rented by the square meter at $50/month. A tuk tuk driver may have no fares for a day. Tourist season waxes and wains and there are lots of drivers. Wages for hotel workers or car drivers (you have to rent the car and pay for fuel), or guides is no better. Thus, the family stays in the countryside and the worker lives in a very small place in the city. They may work for a month or more before seeing their family. There are also folks that go to Thailand or Japan as construction workers but they make very low wages and may be legally, or illegally there. We should all understand this issue.
The government does not help. The current Prime Minister is working on his 6th term and will likely be re-elected next year.
Although there is an opposition candidate which educated people are excited about, it seems to us he has a slim chance. There are no political signs for him (taken down by the Government one driver told us). Also, the folks in the countryside have no education, knowledge or information on the opposition and thus just go along. The cycle continues and it will take time for Cambodia.