Monthly Archives: November 2014

Angkor Archaeological Park.

There is so much to tell about Angkor Wat, it’s four hundred square miles, the largest religious structure in the world, temple after temple, the huge crowds, the incredible heat, elephants (poor things), tuk tuks and more tuk tuks, beautiful ponds and moats, imposing gates, clouds of dust, market stalls and food booths, and of course the history. I am at a loss to know even where to start, so maybe I won’t. Type Angkor Wat into your favorite search engine and you can read about it for hours and hours, put far more eloquently than I can achieve.

That said I really was quite overwhelmed by the grandeur, the heart stopping moments at sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat itself. The unexpected peace of sunrise at the lake, Sras Sarang where there only seven other tourists. The tranquility of Banteay Kdei, I didn’t even know it was there, hiding behind it’s gate adjacent to the lake. The imposing towers of Pre Rup and all those faces at Bayon. The spookiness of Ta Prohm with trees growing up and out of the walls. Other too. Too many to mention and anyway I have forgotten their names and my notes are a bit smudged, or is it my mind that is smudged. Lastly, the absolute horror story that was sunset at Phnom Bakheng.

Here then are some photos of my few days tuk tuking around the park, some with captions, some without. I think/hope they will speak for themselves. Lets see:

Sras Sarang.

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There were more children selling trinkets here than sunrise gazers.

There were more children selling trinkets here than sunrise gazers.

Bankeay Kdei.

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It's that man again!

It’s that man again!

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Pre Rup.

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I was quite charmed by the boy and his cows, at 6.00am.

I was quite charmed by the boy and his cows, at 6.00am.

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Angkor Wat.

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Sunrise.

Sunrise.

With the Lotus flowers.

With the Lotus flowers.

Lotus flowers.

Lotus flowers.

Sometimes it was not crowded at all.

Sometimes it was not crowded at all.

A bridge at the gateway.

A bridge at the gateway.

Bayon.

I left the visit to Bayon a bit late. The light had gone.

I left the visit to Bayon a bit late. The light had gone.

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Ta Prohm.

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Ta Prohm had these great walls. You know me and walls!

Ta Prohm had these great walls. You know me and walls!

Phnom Bakheng.

It was quite pleasant here for a little while.

It was quite pleasant here for a little while.

Then it wasn't. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Then it wasn’t. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Bizarrely, it was here that I saw my first ever drone. How odd.

Bizarrely, it was here that I saw my first ever drone. How odd.

I hope I have given you an idea of the splendor, the grandeur, the overall awesomeness.

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Battambang to Siem Reap via the Sangkar River.

It’s as if a spring has sprung. From the doldrums of Battambang to the glories of Angkor Wat I am on sensory overload. There has been so much to see, so much to do I can’t help but feel I will leave something out.

First there was the B and B in Battambang, such a joy after the “resort”. I don’t think I do resorts very well, you are expected to stay within the compound and enjoy what they have to offer. I didn’t. The B and B was small, intimate and they really seemed to care that I was enjoying myself. So thanks Sangkar Villa. Up early one morning to catch the 7am boat down river to Siem Reap. What a heap the boat was, it looked like it might sink of its own accord even before the fifty plus passengers embarked. We all squeezed into the cabin with seating four across and an aisle in the middle, very narrow, bags, shopping, backpacks and cargo stacked around us and made our way out into the stream. Sitting, crammed all together in the cabin, reminiscent of a small plane, was more than I could endure with six or seven hours ahead so I clambered up onto the roof. With the now famous hat and scarf I was well protected from the sun and the hours sped by. I wanted it to never end. I made mental notes of my feelings along the way, all of which I have forgotten but I do remember that “there is something timeless about river travel”. The banks were alive with bird life, the jungle coming right up to the edge. Numerous dwellings, river traffic, fisher folk, everybody waved as we passed and then to the floating villages. What a concept. All the houses float and can be towed around by row boat (great if you don’t like the neighbors!). Everything was there, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, churches, Temples and they were all floating. Everyone went about their business as if they were on land but they weren’t, they were afloat, in boats. What a life. The river varied, sometimes hugely wide, maybe three quarters of a mile and then the driver would dart off into a side alley where the stream was as wide as the boat. People got scratched by the tree branches. We had to push our way through massive growths of Water Hyacinths growing on the surface. Then a most peculiar thing occurred.

Others, escaping the claustrophobia of the cabin, made their way up onto the roof and a lady sat next to me taking photos as if her life depended on it. She obviously heard me chatting to two Khmers when I mentioned that I was from California. I made some trite remark and we got to chatting. From California she asked, where? San Francisco says I, oh, where? Well Marin actually, oh where? San Anselmo says I. Ha ha says she, I live in Larkspur. There we were, on the roof of a boat, floating down the Sangkar river, miles from anywhere and we are neighbors. I might have sat somewhere else, caught the boat on a different day, chosen not to make a trite remark. But it all came together and oh my how we laughed. Sabine, travelling with her friend Bernadette, also from SF, have continued the journey, but mostly by tuk tuk.

Arriving at Siem Reap we negotiated the river bank and its mud and went to our various hotels. I had booked a standard room in a place downtown and when I was ushered into a poolside suite I raised an eyebrow. Jacuzzi, super shower all wood carved, sofas, armchairs, four poster bed, the works. BUT, it had windows facing away from the pool and without there was a most enormous construction site. Diggers, cranes, dozers, you name it they were all there. The noise was incredible. This did not last long and I left the next morning. They were pouring concrete at midnight and started work again at 7am. Now I am ensconced in what I think is a tour group hotel, never the same guests from one day to the next, lots of people for lunch and dinner but very few for breakfast. On the Western tourist circuit I think Siem Reap qualifies for one day, bus tour to Angkor Wat and that’s it, off to the next place.

The Bopha Ankor Hotel does have one major benefit, undiscovered by the people passing through. Down the dusty alley beside the hotel is this quite amazing restaurant, the Square 24, not one hundred yards away. The dishes served here are well up to Marin, San Francisco even London standards. I am now on my fifth visit and all the staff greets me with the usual bows and hand clasping, which I am now confident enough to return. Not only is the food absolutely delicious (organic ,locally sourced,  etc), the presentation brilliantly performed, the ambience perfect, cool and airy, the décor understated Khmer, but the place is often packed. The price is notable, I have not paid more than $12, though I now seem to qualify for complimentary ice cream and green tea. Even though reservations are recommended they have always seem able to find a corner table for me and here I am today, scribbling away, watching the upscale diners from Belgium, I think, drinking my lemonade.

Oh dear, I have reached nine hundred words and have yet to start on the wonders nearby. Angkor Wat, Tah Promh, Sokh Sang, Tonle Sap Lake, pub street. Lets see if I can make this a two post day.

The river was narrow.

The river was narrow.

The river was wide.

The river was wide.

There were shops.

There were shops.

A new take on "moving house".

A new take on “moving house”.

Wash day maybe.

Wash day maybe.

Life goes on.

Life goes on.

Off to school.

Off to school.

Monk in a hurry.

Monk in a hurry.

Waves!

Waves!

A lady picking up supplies from our boat.

A lady picking up supplies from our boat.

Through the flooded forest.

Through the flooded forest.

Angkor Wat and the moon at dawn

I was looking through my photos on the camera when I returned to my hotel, as one does, after a hard day’s templeing. I discovered that the one I took this morning sometime between 5.00am and 5.30am of the dawn breaking and the moon came out quite well, so I thought I would share it right now. Sorry there isn’t more but I will post a new blog tomorrow (promise). These 4.00am starts are somewhat exhausting. Off for dinner.

Sorry Vicky and all others!

Hope this works!

Hope this works!

OK, here is another one. Sunset this time.

OK, here is another one. Sunset this time.

Dinner calls but here I am at Tah Promh, the Tomb Raider Temple.

Dinner calls but here I am at Tah Promh, the Tomb Raider Temple.

Battambang, and a kink in the road.

Something went quite wrong for a little while. I was permitted to stay in my room in Phnom Penh with the great view of the river front but only for an extra day so rather then make do in a not so great a room for the rest of the Water Festival I jumped on a bus to Battambang. The bus ride was no great journey, maybe six hours, and at the bus station at my destination there was a tuk tuk driver with my name on a sign. This was something of a surprise as I had not booked a ride, but a pleasant one nonetheless, and I was happy to be transferred to the hotel for the princely sum of two dollars. My room was pleasant with a small shaded terrace in front but this is where things went slightly awry. I had a huge attack of lethargy. Just the thought of buying another ticket, waiting around for another bus, finding another hotel became overwhelming. I think I had what they call ‘hit the wall’. I was really quite miserable for a couple of days and was just a little concerned that maybe I was getting sick, malaria crossed my mind. The hotel was set a little ways out of town and I couldn’t even get up the get up and go to find a tuk tuk to chug the short distance to downtown. I have actually read that solo travelers get afflicted in this way after a while alone, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the solution. Clearly this could not go on, so I texted my symptoms back to the family in far away San Anselmo and back came the solution, change hotels. Of course, palm to forehead. I moved. To a small villa run by a French couple from Paris, they have only owned it for six weeks and have a one year old and a four year old, Max, who goes to a Montessori School here in Battambang.

Well, Montessori is not unknown to me (!), we chatted, they immediately organized a tuk tuk tour of the town for me and insisted I join their family that evening for a trip to the circus. Lethargy fled away. Off around the sleepy town in the tuk tuk I saw many interesting things, one of which was a statue made entirely of melted down AK 47s (guns) created after the madness, it was really quite moving. Another was the enormous statue of the town’s founder (Ta Dumbong) with his stick. Battambang means “town of the lost stick”. It’s a great story but not worth going into here in any detail, just search for Battambang, lost stick and all will be revealed. I found some great restaurants, ate Western food a couple of times, walked the market, ambled through the streets admiring the colonial French architecture and generally threw off my funk.

Those in touch using Social Media will have seen me on the bamboo train, very funny in the pouring rain. This train, if it can be called a train, was created by the French and partially resurrected after being destroyed by the mad men. The little carriages (norrie or norry) are basically bamboo poles, strung together, making a bed, powered by two stroke engines, very loud, they can achieve speeds of 30 MPH, they seat four and are a big tourist attraction. I remarked to my tuk tuk driver that the clouds were looking a bit black, oh no, says he, it will not rain. We arrived at the station, a collection of shacks, and had to shelter as there was a shower. Climbing aboard we made our way down the track, the rain increased, a late monsoon, I got soaked and was on the verge of a sense of  humor failure when we arrived at the turnaround. Dashing into a shack we found hats, ponchos, water for sale and everybody smiled.

Off in the morning on the 7am boat, down the river, across the Tonle Sap Lake to Siem Reap. More tales of Angkor ahead.

The AK 47 statue.

The AK 47 statue.

Not much doubt what it is made of.

Not much doubt what it is made of.

Colorful market scene.

Colorful market scene.

The shoe department.

The shoe department.

Ta Dombong and his stick.

Ta Dombong and his stick.

The circus.

The circus.

More at the circus.

More at the circus.

The Bamboo Railway. You can see our carriage, or norrie, in the background, on the ground. someone has to give way!

The Bamboo Railway. You can see our carriage, or norrie, in the background, on the ground. someone has to give way!

The track ahead. About ten miles of it.

The track ahead. About ten miles of it.

Me on my Norry!

Me on my Norry!

Sleepy downtown Battambang.

Sleepy downtown Battambang.

Photos of the Water Festival in Phnom Penh.

There has not been a Water Festival for a few years as over 350 people died on a bridge here in 2010 during a panicked stampede. Therefore the authorities were out in force, closing roads, inspecting bags, setting up First Aid Posts and exercising crowd control. Just like home.

The Scene:

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The Racing Action:

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See the guy bailing!!

See the guy bailing!!

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The Boat Parade:

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Last minute adjustments, looks precarious.

Last minute adjustments, looks precarious.

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There were fireworks and I thought it would be nice to post a couple of great firework photos, but……..

I was wrong!!

I was wrong!!

Should have used a tripod.

Phew, hardest blog yet. Hope they look alright.

Bon Om Touk in Phnom Penh.

I woke up this morning with the sunrise and throwing open my doors I watched as the sun rose over the Mekong River. Definite goose bumps (pimples) moment which was augmented somehow by the atmosphere along the river bank. There seemed to be an air of expectancy about the place, which I couldn’t define but I knew it was there, so, leaving the doors open I went back to bed and listened. The hum grew, there was banging and pounding, beeping of course, but also laughing, shrills voices, faint cheers, boat horns sounding, this was no ordinary start to the day in Phnom Penh. No it was not. It is actually the start of Bon Om Touk, Bon Om Thook, Bonn Om Teuk or Bon Om Tuk. Oh really you say. Yes it is and it is exactly why I came to Cambodia at this time of year. The primary river of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap, does this miraculous thing twice every year. It changes direction. Yes! Really! During most of the year it flows South from the big Lake in the North and joins up with the Mekong here in Phnom Penh. During the rainy season however when the Mekong reaches flood stage the water in the Tonle Sap reverses direction and flows to the North back into the lake. I think that is most unusual and amazing and wanted to see it for myself. I missed it by a matter of days and the TS is now flowing to the South again, but the Cambodians think this is amazing too apparently and there is a huge week long festival, which began in the Twelfth Century, to celebrate the change of direction, it starts today and it is right outside my window.

The schools are closed, the population has the week off, the saffron robed monks are out in force blessing everybody, food booths have sprung up everywhere, the authorities are fencing off the green bits of the riverside park (hence the pounding and banging), the cops are everywhere, lounging on their motorcycles and on the river there are hundreds and hundreds of Dragon boats. Crewed by anything up to eighty rowers these brightly colored racing boats are up to one hundred feet long, many feature an eye on either side of the prow to ward off evil spirits and there will be three days of racing starting on Wednesday. Not only do the rowers face forwards, unlike back home, but there are some boats with all the rowers standing up. Today, and for the next two days there will be practices and elimination rounds. I was due to leave on Tuesday so I quickly remedied that, though getting a riverside room was impossible. There is a rooftop restaurant/bar from which I can watch if the crowds become too much, they anticipate over one million people to attend the fun and games, and this is happening right outside where I am staying. How great is that!

There are other tributes to the river as well, some Holy, like Auk Ambok when the celebrants gather at the Temples at midnight and eat ambok (flattened rice) mixed with banana and coconut. There will be parades along the river featuring illuminated boats during the evenings and apparently everyone gives thanks to the moon in anticipation of a good harvest.

It all sounds pretty fantastic, I stumbled on it by accident and I have only been here for twenty-four hours. I will keep you posted.

Update: I popped out again to see what was happening. Balloon sellers, more food booths, some drumming and the biggest line dance I have ever seen, Cambodian style, there are hundreds of swaying bodies all along the river bank. I have learned a new word “fluvial” as in “fluvial activities”, rivery stuff? I’m sure somebody knows.

Sunrise over the Mekong this morning.

Sunrise over the Mekong this morning.

A section of the riverside park on the banks of the Tonle Sap.

A section of the riverside park on the banks of the Tonle Sap.

Dragon Boats.

Dragon Boats.

More Dragon Boats and look at that horror story of a new hotel in the background. Right at the confluence of the two rivers. Quite ghastly.

More Dragon Boats and look at that horror story of a new hotel in the background. Right at the confluence of the two rivers. Quite ghastly.

Food booth.

Food booth.

Another food booth.

Another food booth.

Another one. OK, enough food booths!

Another one. OK, enough food booths!

Kid's activity apparatus on riverside park.

Kid’s activity apparatus on riverside park.

A young entrepreneur, selling water.

A young entrepreneur, selling water.

Another view of riverside park, just so you know what I am talking about.

Another view of riverside park, just so you know what I am talking about.