Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ruins and red dust

SIEM REAP: The old man called out to me from inner sanctum of the temple "come sit down here". I knew that he would just be wanting me to make a "donation", but he intrigued me nonetheless. We were out at an isolated Angkor temple, Banteay Samre, and for the first time there was almost no one else here. Rob was off walking around taking pictures so it was just me and the old guy and a statue of Buddha. I was compelled to sit down, he was certainly different from the women I had seen wanting “donations” for Buddha at other sites.

So I sat and he handed me a burning incense stick. I put it between my palms and he proceeded to recant his good luck chant. Here I was, almost alone with 800 year old walls surrounding me, being blessed in Khmer whilst sitting cross legged. and I was feeling positive. The chanting stopped after a minute and we stuck our incense sticks in the pot under Buddha. Then he tied some red wool around my wrist. I felt good, and for once and didn't mind handing over a small donation.

The Angkor temples have been special. Even when you add in the kids asking “cold drink, you buy, one dollar, when you come back you buy from me” in a strange American accent every time you try to enter one. Or the tour buses full of Japanese or Taiwanese tourists who strangely seemed to turn up just at the same time as you get to a different site. Wandering around the temples, in many places without barriers, is a fantastic experience. There are certainly older sites to visit in the world, and I have seen some, but the sheer scale of the structures and added ambiance which the harsh climate here has brought means Angkor, for me, is right up things to behold.

Now when most people think of Angkor, it is always of Angkor Wat. But that is just the start. So far for me the pick of the bunch has been Bayon. With many towers of huge faces peering down at you from all angles it really is amazing. What seems like just a jumble of rock from a distance is in fact a maze of galleries, steep stairs, alcoves and towers when you get inside.

Angkorian temple, just as imagined

So the last part of the week has been clambering over ruined temples, down dark ancient corridors, around tree root encased stone walls, past glorious carvings, but originally we landed in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. I was a tad dismissive of PP before. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so hasty. After all I had been in the country less than 24 hours. The capital has its charms, you just have to look past some of the, literally, poorer aspects – rubbish, shanty lined streets, traffic congestion. Once you do you realise and remember what this city has been through, there is much more to be gained from it.

There are a whole bunch of great people there. Whether they be in restaurants employing former street kids and giving them a chance or our fantastic tuk tuk driver Mr Lim with his own difficult past losing, like most people, family members. (Tuk tuk's here by the way are a little different than the Bangkok ones, they are just a motorbike with a trailer attached to the back. I call them chariots).

The positive progress that can be seen in PP now stems obviously from the horrors of the past when the Khmer Rouge ran the place in maniacal way from 1975 to 1979. As with any place that seems to have a torturous time a museum pops up to highlight it. Sometimes I feel I am just touring places with grisly ghosts in the cupboard (Auschwitz, Bosnia, East Timor before and now Saigon and PP here). But it is important to see these places of atrocities so we can hope this sort of thing never happens again.

First there was the Genocide Museum in the former interrogation prison, where you can walk around the actual beds used to strap people down and torture them with electric whips. Just in case you don't get the raw meaning, there are picture on the wall taken when the place was liberated showing decomposing bodies still strapped down. Wandering through the rooms full of photos of the prisoners when only 7 people survived or rows of cells not even big enough to lay down in was in the end just too much. But to top it off we visited the pock marked field outside of town where over 10,000 prisoners were brought, forced to kneel and then clubbed into a pit to save bullets before having their throats slit and buried.

Torture chamber
A torture cell at the Genocide Museum

It hasn't been all such a doom and gloom trip though. After leaving PP and heading 300km west to the country's second city, Battambang, we had a fantastic afternoon giving our time to converse in English at a village school. We met Narath by chance on a corner and he told us about his project and asked if we would like to volunteer our time. The idea is if the village children can speak English they are more likely to be employable. I am not sure how much the kids gained from it as our conversations in the end mostly involved “How are you?”, “What is your name?”, “Do you have brothers or sisters?”, but it was still a great experience for us at least.

To get out to some of the sites near Battambang we had to get covered in what the locals call Cambodian snow. The fine red dust this country seems built on. Who would have thought that Cambodia is so flat? I didn't know what to expect but nothing like driving through countryside similar to western New South Wales. And yet they have really bad roads. PNG bad.

We bounced through on these to reach the treasures the Khmers left the world. Angkorian temples. Firstly there was our afternoon getting a motorbike tour to visit two hilltop temples south of Battambang. By the time we had made it back to our cheap hotel, we were covered in the ochre and had sea legs from rolling up and down the Luna landscape roads. To reach Siam Reap, we had what should be a 3 hour trip become a 5 hour bounce-a-thon. But it has been worth it.

Next up, like the wool around tied around my wrist we are looping back to Phnom Penh. I would ideally like to get up to some of the places to the north of here, but it is just too difficult without being on some serious (read: expensive) 4WD tour. So Phnom Penh is next and then we are unsure. Like the Buddhist say, live in the moment.

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