The sun was already hot when we woke at the crack of dawn next day to get ready for a long drive to Tonle Sap.

This enormous freshwater lake covers 2,700 square kilometres during the dry season. But by the end of the monsoon season, it more than quadruples to around 4,000 square metres. Shaped like a gourd, this body of water seems as big as a sea and large communities live beside it – and on it.

We watched the world go by through the minibus windows; we had seen the same houses on stilts on previous days, though it was always fascinating to see Cambodian life going by – chickens and dogs running about, babies sitting in basins being given their baths, children walking to school, women stoking up fires in the rounded clay ovens in their yards, presumably beginning to prepare the day’s meals. This time though, we watched as the houses on the edge of the road became more and more basic; tiny huts, some of which were in near-derelict state, and children who were not at school, but were in rags and ran about in the dust, barefoot. As we approached the muddy, bumpy road that took us to the lake, the poverty was increasingly evident; some of the huts, rising up on high stilts, were built over refuse dumps. The people we saw seemed to be going about their daily lives all the same, and there were smiling faces. Everywhere, there were communal wells, with signboards stating the names of those that had donated them from all over the world. It looked like a place that was on its way to better things – parts of the road were being rebuilt. But it had some considerable way to go.

We arrived at an inlet from the lake where there were rows of wooden passenger boats, and we clambered with Vong onto one of them, the boatman immediately starting up the engine so that we could chug along the inlet towards the main body of the lake. As we started down the inlet, there were boats with sheds on them, which Vong told us were floating schools. Besides them there was even a floating basketball court. We asked if we could make a donation for a school and the boatman pulled up alongside one so that we could step into it.

Girls and boys, all around the age of nine, were sitting taking a class on Cambodian social studies and the girl I sat next to showed me her exercise book, which showed some traditional Cambodian dance moves. The room was cheerfully decorated with drawings and colourful origami and the kids were just like kids anywhere – all getting up to say “good morning” and “welcome” politely, sitting down studiously then, after a while, as we spoke to the teacher, beginning to whisper and giggle. It seemed a happy place. It was explained to us that now every child had the right to free education, and every child attended school either in the morning or the afternoon – just half a day, so that they could help their families the rest of the time. The desks and chairs, pencils and notebooks, however, were often provided through donations. We hoped our small offering might buy a few extra bits and pieces for them.

We had fun on our brief stop there – we didn’t want to distract the kids from their studies for too long – and as we stepped back onto our boat and started back down towards the main body of the lake, smiling faces and waving hands appeared at the window to send us on our way.

We chugged along the narrow inlet towards open water in heavy two-way floating traffic. Boats had to pass close to one another as the edges of the inlet were still shallow after the long dry season and there was always a danger of the boats running aground.

Suddenly the reed beds disappeared and we were in open water and heading out to what looked like open sea stretching out to the horizon. The sky seemed enormous.

After two days of humid heat it was refreshing to be on the water, the breeze keeping us cool. Another opportunity to cool down – a tiny wooden boat with an engine suddeny zooms alongside us and a little girl of about eight jumps onto our boat clutching a basket of drinks. Her mother keeps up alongside her, holding a small baby with one arm while steering the boat with the other. The little girl won’t get off until we buy a can of drink.

“Vietnamese” says Vong. “Cambodians never sell like this” he says.

Suddenly, ahead of us, we see a whole village on water – one side of the lake was where the Vietnamese lived, said Vong – the other side for the Cambodians. Small boats with washing hung out on lines out the back; dogs at the prow, sniffing the air; a pig in a bamboo enclosure, also on a floating boat. A small garden, complete with large chilli plant, bobbed on polystyrene floats. More floating schools. Glimpses of neat dwellings inside many of the boats; children washing, grandmothers dozing on hammocks, smoke rising from small stove chimneys. Small children propelled themselves along in large round floating basins. Vong told us that these people were lake people who had lived on the water for generations – during the dry season they would live on their boats on the lake, fishing for their livelihoods, the children attending the floating schools, and in the monsoon season they would retreat out of the lake and up to a nearby mountain. The houses on stilts at the edge of the lake were all temporary – they would come back and rebuild them once the wet season was over and the water had receded.

We stopped at a large floating cafe, where there was a small display of the aquatic life of the lake, living specimens caught by the owners and kept in tanks. Eels, dacyllus, catfish, turtles, and even crocodiles.

We spend a good hour or so on the lake before returning back to shore for our drive back. By then, the morning batch of children were leaving school and going home for their lunch. We watched the landscape speed by in reverse – as we got closer to the town of Siem Reap, houses appeared more solid, the odd one with fancy balustrades and elaborate architecture built, said Vong, by Cambodians who had made money from tourist by selling souvenirs.

We were dropped off back at our hotel for a rest before heading back to the Angkor complex to see the last temples on our itinerary. We took refuge from the searing heat by the pool, jumping in now and then to keep cool. I kept thinking about what we had seen by the lake. Yes, people seemed cheerful and happy. Back in London, where people had relatively a great deal more – entitlement to health care, full education, welfare support and access to good sanitation, running water, electricity and communications, people often looked so miserable.

Our break over, Vong came to pick us up again for our last visit back to the temples – until next time. Of the three we visited – Kravan, Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm, the last was the most extraordinary. I haven’t seen Tomb Raider (featuring Vong’s maman-manquée, Angelina Jolie) but have seen excerpts from it on film review programs. I’d thought the stage sets had been designed using computer graphics. No. Angelina’s backdrop was the very real Ta Prohm, the temple that time forgot. For many centuries it lay hidden and forgotten and gradually the forest completely invaded it, growing up into a vast canopy through roofs, giant roots straddling entire walls, sculptures peering out of the gaps. We wandered through this enchanted place, the searing heat and humidity, along with the loud buzzing of the cicadas and the squawking screeches of the parrots adding to its wild and exotic atmosphere. The place is an ancient ruin, and its beauty has been preserved as it is. It can never be returned to its original state without being torn down and rebuilt from scratch. It is stunning as it is.

Our visit to Ta Prohm was a fitting end to our brief stay in Siem Reap. We would be catching an early morning flight next day to Saigon – officially known as Ho Chi MInh City – in Southern Viettnam. That night, Paul and I said goodbye to the lovely town of Siem Reap by visiting the streetside restaurant that he and I had spotted a couple of days before. We sat at plastic tables, eating delicious noodles and drinking ice cold Angkor Beer, watching the world go by on their scooters and bicycles. We’d loved our brief glimpse of Cambodia – if only we had more than two months to travel – and wondered what adventures Vietnam would offer up to us. We were going to have two weeks to explore. We couldn’t wait.

SPOT K & P

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A decent breakfast in the hotel and a reasonably early start for the next round of Angkor temples to explore. Again, we headed into the monsoon forest by car, showing our passes and the first stop was the compact Banteay Srei, considered the highest achievement in the art and architecture of classic Angkor civilisation.

This temple is considered one of the most beautiful with its volcanic rock of different subtle shades of green, pink and yellow – and because of the intricate, deep carvings that are in exceptionally good condition. Bas-reliefs depicting myths and stories about Shiva, to whom the temple was dedicated, were deeply and delicately carved.

More temples and archeological sites; Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prea Khan and Phnomh Bateng.

Of all these I loved the last three. Neak Prean is not so much a temple as a hospital built by (here he is again) the philanthropic Jayavarman VII. A place of healing, Neak Pean is an island temple within an island located in the middle of the “Sea of Victory”, Jayatataka, a vast reservoir lake, or baray, measuring 3,500 by 900 metres. Dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, symbol of mercy, the central island rises up in the centre of four pools, each of which is fed by a different gargoyle – heads of a human, a horse, a lion and elephant. To one side, a sculpture of the mythical horse, Balan, who saves all those in need, is seen carrying desperate men to safety, toward the central island.

The lakes were empty of water – they are full only at the end of the monsoon season – and Paul and I clambered in and out of each one in an anti-clockwise direction from south to east as those coming to be healed used to do 900 years ago, finally ending up on the central island. It’s said that pilgrims took the waters at each pool, picking the herbs and plants that grew around each of them and taking them as healing medicine in order to get well. The power of suggestion is a great thing. I came bouncing out of there full of energy, racing up steps as if I were eighteen again.

Having been “healed” I tested my luck by trying out a dish that Vong told me was “poison soup”. At another airy, bamboo and rush-roofed eatery in the jungle we sat and ate lunch and I just couldn’t resist trying out this soup, called samlor ka kor, after hearing Vong’s story. During the reign of one of the ancient Angkor Kings, it was found that one of the royal retinue, usually eunuchs, had somehow escaped the snip and had conducted an illicit affair with one of the royal concubines. The court conspired to get rid of this pseudo-eunuch, but felt unable to kill him in too obvious a manner. They therefore concocted a soup using the most poisonous plants they knew of and cooked it up with fish and served it to him. Their intended victim wolfed it down and asked for more as it was so delicious.

Not only did he not die, the soup went on to become a delicacy and continues to appear on Cambodian menus today. “Not using poisonous leaves any more though” said Vong. I was quite glad about that. It was deliciously herby with a chilli zip, like a soupy green fish curry and I lived to tell the tale.

At Preah Khan we saw the first of the temples which have been left as they were when they were found after long centuries of abandonment. Enormous trees grew out of, on top of and through the temple which had become swallowed up by the nature around it. We would see an even more impressive example of this the next day – Ta Prohm – which was used for filming Tomb Raider, on which more on the next post.

We ended our day of temple visits with a climb up to Phnomh Bateng. “Phnomh” means “mountain” in Khmer, and this one was one of the very few around. Temples built on flat ground had several levels rising up to a peak in the centre, symbolically representing a holy mountain. This one, said Vong, was a temple on a real mountain.

He left us to climb up and explore – we began our ascent accompanied by traditional Cambodian music played by men who eked out a living this way since losing limbs stepping on hidden mines. There are still many in Cambodia.

Vong had brought us here to watch the sunset over Angkor. As we approached the summit the temple appeared, and we clawed our way up extremely steep sets of stairs to get to the top. Still full of beans from my visit to Neak Pean, I raced to the top. All around us the light was becoming golden as the sun began to set. The whole world was there at the temple at the top of the mountain and we could hear Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Portuguese and of course, Khmer. Normally I’d balk at being surrounded by so many people but the atmosphere was that of a party. Everyone smiling and chatting and sharing in the experience, including a group of monks whose robes glowed bright in the light of the setting sun.

All around us stretched an extraordinary view – the dense jungle-forest; Angkor Wat, the whole of the massive East Baray reservoir, gleaming silver, many temples. Far on the horizon, storm clouds drifted, flashing occasional lightning. It was a spectacular and dramatic sight.

We, along with the world up there, watched the sun go down. It started to become dark and a few spots of rain announced that it was time to go; steep steps had to be negotiated safely while there was still light – there was no artificial lighting anywhere in the vicinity.

We arrived back in town and had a bite to eat at the stylish looking FCC Angkor hotel restaurant. We weren’t terribly impressed with the food and wished we’d eaten at the street-side restaurant near our hotel which was always full of Cambodians. We’d save that for tomorrow. Once back at the hotel, I slept better than I’d done for months.

I’m blown away.  I’ve seen pictures, documentaries and read descriptions about the Angkor temples – Angkor Wat, in particular – but none of these prepared me for the incredible reality.

 

[An aside:  I’m currently uploading this from Nha Trang in Vietnam.  It’s a hell of a struggle to upload these posts – internet speeds are s…l….o….w.   I’m watching a baby gecko on the wall beside me as I wait for this post to upload, from one of the very places there are here with internet.  It’s pretty basic, a hole in the wall!  As each photo takes fifteen minutes to upload, and one post can take well over an hour, I can only upload every once in a while, and with fewer pictures.  Thanks for your patience!  I’ll upload all photos to Flickr once I have better internet access.  Now, back to Cambodia…]

 

On our first day, as with each of the four days we were in Siem Reap, Vong, our guide, collected us from our hotel.  On the edge of town we drove through a checkpoint where we bought our three day passes for visiting the Angkor heritage sites.  Then on we continued, down a single paved road lined with rows of wooden and bamboo huts on stilts, dogs, bare-footed children and chickens running about.  Eventually the huts gave way to thick forest and suddenly we reached a towering gate topped by vast bas-relief sculptures of four gently smiling faces.  This was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the great ancient city of Angkor, and these faces, Vong told us, were the different faces of the Buddha, representing his four aspects of loving kindness, compassion, charity and sympathy.

 

Before the gate lay a long bridge flanked on either side by enormous sculptures.  This was the first of many naga sculptures we would see during out visits to various Angkor temples.  The seven heads of the naga, or serpent, reared up as balustrade ends, while on the right side, demons pulled at the snake’s body and on the opposite side, gods pulled back in an eternal tug-of-war.

 

 

Here was an illustration of the story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk – from the Ramayana, an epic of Hindu mythology.  Here was our first glimpse of the Hindu and Buddhist mix that would characterise some of the temples here.  In this particular scenario, recreated in a number of different sites, Vishnu umpires the tug of war, standing on a turtle’s back, as the demons and gods pull alternately at the naga, wrapped around a mountain which is twisted back and forth in the sea of milk, in order to create the elixir of life.  This took place during the creation of the universe.

 

I saw this as the circle of life, bad and good, bad and good, cycling back and forth in eternity. 

 

This was to be the first of many stories that Vong would tell us – complex myths involving the main characters – the Hindu gods and their consorts – Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Uma, Brahma, all of whom created many long stories involving jealousy, anger, love, forgiveness, a veritable Holy Soap Opera.  The temples of the Angkor period reflect Khmer beliefs, a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the stories are told in the bas-reliefs, the sculptures and architecture of each of the temples.  Most feature the three gods, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma – though most are dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu. It would take a lifetime to learn and discover all there is to the Angkor temples, I would imagine; a rich source of study.  There are countless books on the subject and there is, no doubt, still much that is mysterious about the place.  We found Michael D Coe’s book, Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation (Thames & Hudson), to be fascinating and informative, though it was Vong who brought everything to life for us.

 

We drove on under the bridge and further into the forest.  Coming upon a clearing, suddenly, there appeared a vast stretch of water – the Angkor Wat moat – then, the ancient towers of Angkor Wat itself.  As the first proper glimpse of these ancient temples it was breathtaking.  We continued to drive past, Vong teling us that we would be back later.  There was another temple he wanted to show us first.

 

We drove deeper into the monsoon forest until we reached another clearing.  This was to be the first and, I think, one of the most beautiful temples we saw – Bayon.

  

This was built in the twelfth century by Jayavarman VII, whose name cropped up again and again in our tour.  It seems he was considered the greatest of all the Khmer kings, a Mayahanist Buddhist, builder of hospitals and temples and extender of Khmer territory.  He built Angkor Thom, a city within a city, covering three square kilometres.  Many of the temples and hospitals he built, along with those built by other kings – including Angkor Wat – lie within it.

 

The kindly, smiling, beautiful faces of the Buddha that we saw on the South Gate of Angkor Thom and which characterise other temples built by Jayavarman VII were everywhere we turned in Bayon (there are fifty-four in total).  Like many of the other Angkor Temples, it was built on five levels, the layout reminding me of Inca ruins.  Well-preserved and graceful bas-relief sculptures were carved everywhere – graceful apsaras – dancing celestial nymphs – on many of the pillars, and representations of daily Khmer life.

 

 

 

Vong, who had studied for years before becoming an official guide, clearly knew his stuff – including where to get the perfect “Kodak moment”, nose to nose with one of the faces of the Buddha.

 

Following Bayon, we visited Baphuon,  built by the King Udayadityavarman II in the eleventh century, which had suffered great damage from collapse during monsoon season in the 1940s, then had its restoration, led by the French, severely disrupted by the Khmer Rouge.  Now, it seems, the painstaking task of putting the temple back together, piece by piece, was fully underway. 

 

Next, Phimeanakas, Suryavarman I’s state temple; it was said that in its top tower there lived a nine-headed naga snake woman, and that the king went there every night to sleep with her.  A more probable story about Suryavarman was his building of the impressive West baray, a reservoir 8 kilometres long and 1.4 kilometres wide, holding about 48 million cubic metres of water. It is so big it can be seen from outer space.  It had symbolic, as well as practical purpose – representing the Primordial Ocean.

 

We made a brief stop for lunch, Vong taking us to a local place where we sat at tables shaded by a woven rush mat roof, hammocks slung beside some of the tables where locals took refuge from the intense humidity and heat outside.  Paul and I ordered each ordered typical Cambodian dishes – Amok, a soupy coconut milk based stew served in a coconut, and Sour Soup – a… sour soup.  I asked Vong what the Khmer name for Sour Soup was.  “Sour Soup”, he told me.  Both were served with a plate of rice (chicken Amok for Paul, fish Sour Soup for me) and were herby, tangy, spicy with chilli and delicious.

 

Vong then took us to see the Elephant Terrace – a vast parade ground built by Jayavarman VII – the terrace adorned, as the name suggests, by enormous bas-relief carvings of an elephant procession – and opposite, a vast open area where it was said elaborate processions and displays took place, including large towers strung with rope for tight-rope walking acrobats to walk across to entertain the king and his guests.

 

We saw out our first day with the most famous and well-known of all the temples, Angkor Wat.  Built in the early twelfth century by Suryavarman II, this place was huge and impressive.  The entrance to the temple was along the Rainbow Bridge, straddling the vast 200 metre wide, 1.5 kilometre square moat.  All around, sugar palms, the national tree of  Cambodia, rose up, the damp lushness of the dense foliage everywhere lending to the exotic atmosphere.  Half way along the bridge, we watched a group of giggling boys take turns to leap from a great height into the moat and clamber up ancient stairs back up to the bridge again.  I imagined countless generations of young boys doing the same thing throughout the centuries that had passed since the buillding of the temple.

 

Inside, we climbed up increasingly steep stairs from one level of the temple to another – the outer, lower level comprising vast long corridors decorated with extraordinary bas-relief carvings illustrating Hindu mythologies.  At each higher level, narrower corridors and steeper stairs, with more and more carvings depicting Vishnu, to whom the temple was dedicated.  Four massive pools, representing the four oceans, are positioned at each corner, filling up during each wet season and reflecting back the strange shadows of the temple.  The extraordinary layout of the temple, aligned symbolically in a way that can only have been designed by builders using sophisticated measuring tools, can also be seen from outer space.

 

 

 

Breathless from the impressive array of temples we had seen, as well as from the humidity and heat, we were dropped off back at our hotel for a freshen up before Vong picked us up again to take us to a “dinner dance show”.  We are not big fans of such performances laid on for tourists but went along anyway.  A large all-you-can-eat buffet was on offer, with a wide range of Cambodian and Chinese food – and later in the evening a dance troupe performed various traditional Cambodian dances accompanied by live music which sounded to my ears like a mixture of Thai (finger cymbals), Indonesian (gamelan type instrument) and Chinese (string instrument) music, with drums.  The women danced with graceful, curved fingers familiar to me from Thai dance perfomances, flexing their feet and slowly stepping forward, heads bent.  We ended up enjoying it far more than we’d expected – and more than the food.  We knew we’d find better where the locals liked to eat.

 

After the heat, we were tempted when we got back to our hotel, to have a swim in its lovely looking pool.  But we were too tired.  I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The temples of Angkor filled my dreams.