Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Votes & Views #28
As our plane comes in to land, I scan the level, cultivated landscape for signs of monumental masonry and thick jungle. I see neither; but there is plenty of cultivation as well as habitations. Siem Reap airport looks like a charmingly modern, yet ethnic exhibition venue. Everywhere are stacked roofs with spike decorations on the peaks, red tiles and white gargoyles at the eaves. Picturesque is not the usual description for an airport, but most fitting for this beauty spot.
We run into problems with immigration. A mysterious misunderstanding - our carefully prepared E-visa applications, proudly bearing our photos, are brusquely refused and other forms are thrust into our hands and we are bundled off to fill them in. Bewilderment about describes our state - but argument would be futile, so best get on with it. Suddenly I have an official at my shoulder; he grabs passports, wrong forms, the partly filled in real McCoy, and wants to rush off. When I protest that Fay still has to do her thing, he just snaps 'enough' and gallops off, leaving us completely nonplussed. A few minutes waiting on tenterhooks to see whether we are to be summarily ejected - then he's back, grimly shepherding me to the front of the lengthy immigration queue. A young lady holds up a passport sporting a distinctly Chinese face and asks in an unknown tongue whether it is mine. I regretfully deny culpability and she finds another passport and repeats the query. All Europeans look the same. This time it's Fay's. Hastily I beckon the latter while nodding vigorously at the official. The matter is sorted, it is handed over - but still mine is nowhere to be seen. My dour minder runs along the counter and traces it; a few seconds later I affirm ownership and we're ushered off. Once more my Nemesis grabs the passports from me and gallops off to another part of immigration. Seconds later our papers are adorned with splendid visas, stamps and requisite Khmer squiggles. We are welcomed officially and cordially to Cambodia and told to have a good evening.
Wow. I don't know whether the crutches helped; the fact that we are getting on a bit; that I dropped a wad of dollars in the visa queue while scratching for the fee - or perhaps because I just looked like I could do with some help. Whichever it was - I would certainly commend this class of Communist officialdom to prospective visitors. We meet Chun Lee, our taxi driver, at the entrance - no problem. He is most solicitous about our comfort, health, family and wishes. The one thing that eludes him is our continent of origin. Despite numerous repeats and explanations, he is convinced we come from South America, because America is the only other geographical concept he has heard of besides Asia. Still, a lovely man – just his taxi is a little short of shock absorbers and the steering is a bit loose. We drive through Siem Reap - definitely lots of Thai influence on buildings. Much of it is in a poor state of maintenance and looks like a war zone, which it has been for decades. The roads occasionally interrupted by craters and refilled with sharp rubble between ordinary potholes and lakes. But then, we had been warned that we were going to arrive in the middle of the monsoon. As we flew in from the south, the huge lake, Tonle Sap had looked full to the brim and the surrounding countryside was a sodden network of rivers, canals and oxbow lakes. We were to learn differently later.
Our inn is located in an improbably narrow lane. Traffic noise should not be much of a problem, we think. The staff are charming and without exception, handsome young men. We are assigned to one Pieron as his English is pretty good. In no time we have sorted out the booking, finances and transport (he is happy to introduce us to his god-brother, Naga, of whom more later). We are shown to our room. It is dark at that end of the courtyard which is filled with lush tropical vegetation and swarms of mosquitos, besides which it looked like a welcoming place to sit in. Our room is disappointing, to say the least. There is hardly enough space to get undressed next to the bed, the tiles are stained, and one could do oneself serious injuries in both toilet and shower by bouncing off walls and sundry installations. We are somewhat disillusioned with the reality versus the pictures and happy descriptions we'd seen on the net when booking. Fay decides to ask for better accommodation - which might just be available elsewhere in the complex. After much searching on the computer by Pieron, it is discovered that there are two 'superior' rooms on offer, upstairs and on the ground floor, in the wing across the street. Downstairs proves to be similar to what we already had. At last, up a lethally steep and narrow, unguarded flight of stairs, we find a charming Rapunzel tower. An octagonal room with a high, pointed, tiled roof with no ceiling - just an occasional sunbeam peeping through the terracotta; a balcony overlooking the pool and restaurant; certainly a great improvement except that the steps were far from ideal for anyone on crutches. There is a paucity of furniture, the shape of the room is a little random, as are the concrete beams that cross off-centre above, with an afterthought of a post to hold up the roof supports - also off-centre. There is only a tiny window – just as an afterthought, but three sets of double
doors, main entry, balcony and bathroom. These are popular in this part of the world it seems, and grand entrances revealing the throne, as it were, are favoured. Still, it has charm, it's clean, freshly painted and there are few mould spores to set off asthma or hayfever attacks.
We take a test-walk down the neighbouring streets and peek in on local life, work, leisure, cooking, eating, bathing the kids - and whatever goes on at roadside in a third world country. We pop in at a chemist and find language barriers fade if you can write and know the active ingredients of your muti (medication) of choice. The promenade along the muddy channelled river that divides the town, is quite peaceful, and slowly, strollers and a streetfood hawker make their appearance. We stand closer to inspect what is on offer, but are not tempted as the contents of the duck eggs look suspiciously like half-cooked embryos, when a buyer takes a bite.
It has been a long day, so we return to our balcony, shout down to the bar for a couple of beers and a glassful of ice and watch the passing parade. The mosquitos pay us passing attention, but on the plus side, a tiny sunbird sips nectar from a huge, scarlet spike of an erthryna tree an arm's length away. Supper at the little terrace bistro is adequate and enlivened by competing geckos on the ceiling and a scrawny feline with manic blue eyes, a manky tail and a few ginger patches on milky grey flanks. She raucously requests a share of our meal and wolfs down anything including rice and chillies. She is joined by her two sprouts, one of whom gives me quite start by scooting up the trunk of a bushy potplant at my elbow - to disappear among the foliage, from where he peers out like a lemur. A homely place, with eager-to-please and friendly staff.
Here Naga must enter the tale, or Lim Yiv as is his proper name. A personable young man, in his mid-thirties, with remarkably good English skills, and an astonishing knowledge of his country, culture, history, politics and foods. He tells us that he had just taken the plunge, obtained a loan and purchased a somewhat roadworn tuktuk, ie a canopied trailer hitched into a post in the middle of the pillion of a moped. This is his pride and joy, and we are his first clients, he informs us beamingly - sure to bring good luck. It was more the other way round, for Naga and his shabby Rosinante carried us faithfully and securely through the mayhem of Cambodian traffic, through potholed and cratered roads, over rocks and through shallow ponds, in tropical sunshine and blinding downpour. Naga added a whole extra dimension to our stay, and we like to think that we found a friend.
Our first morning on the temple trail. It is cloudy and steamy. We rattle off over dreadful roads, through a fledgeling, skimpy jungle, which has been replanted just a few years ago to provide a fitting setting for the ‘lost temples’. The original giants have long been hacked down, bombed out of existence and converted to charcoal, so this is a very worthy attempt to remedy that sorry state. At the entrance gate of the archaeological complex we are welcomed by a bevy of exquisite young ladies in national dress and are duly photographed by the biometric camera, after which our personalised tickets are issued for a period of six days’ of unlimited access to my dream. After consulting with Naga, we decide to leave Angkor Wat for a better day when there is a possibility of viewing it from a balloon, in sunshine – perhaps? So we pass up on this icon – for today.
On to Angkor Thom, the large, walled city complex of some nine square kilometers in extent, in the middle of which is the Bayon, a temple known to the world by its giant, placid faces that adorn every face of each tower. It is an overwhelmingly emotional moment for me to walk among these mighty works and to revel in the fulfilment of a sixty-year old dream that I've harboured. An Asian paraphrase of Shelley’s line “I am Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works, ye mighty and despair” comes to mind – except that his name was Jayavarman, and I rejoice instead. We make our laborious way through, up steps, along galleries; more steps, down, up – assimilating by touch and sight the ponderous magnificence and atmosphere of the place. There must have been crowds of other tourists – I don’t remember. Such is the scale and majesty of the complex that no reasonable person could want it to themselves alone. We emerge from this part of the city an hour later - wiped out, but Naga is to hand to steer us through the throngs of pleading children and hawkers. One stands shamed in one’s relative affluence, when you are faced with inability to make a difference to so many in this ravaged part of the world, so we harden our hearts to the impassioned pleas of hordes of children, each begging for ‘a dollar, just one dollar, to help me go to school’ or other phrases in English. Whatever action you take – it’s the wrong one on one or more levels.
We tuktuk past the platform of the elephants, an arena where parades were held and a vast area was enclosed between embankments for the spectators, off to another part of the complex, Baphuon, where our trusty steeds await and we get acquainted by means of a bunch of bananas. The Asian elephant is much smaller than those grey eminences we're used to and I am able to rub cheeks with the lady. Unexpectedly her face and trunk are as soft as velvet, and so is her fine body-hair. Nothing like her spiky, emery-board African cousins that I have handled during a relocation project some decades earlier. As we trundle off in our jerking, swaying howdah, the mahout reminds us that this is the 21st century by tucking his cellphone over his ear under his rattan hat and having a long, loud conversation while steering our behemoth. Once used to the sway, it is quite pleasant, especially if one '.posts' a bit at the hips. Certainly it is an easier way than walking to get round the outside of the complex and a good vantage point from which to view the temple and its serene portraiture. Not quite so easy to get your steed to stop when you want to take a photo – and reversing the elephant via two language barriers is too much to expect. It starts to rain softly, pleasantly. It stops as the ride ends. Our mahout removes his raincape to reveal a t-shirt with a little pocket in the centre of his scrawny back. ‘Tips are appreciated’ it says underneath, and I have to laugh while stuffing a couple of greenbacks into it.
Naga takes us out through the Victory Gate, which though impressive from inside, is absolutely magnificent if you enter the city by it. Across the river, two more smaller temples follow, left of the road Ta Keo, and right Chau Say Thevada, and I can't resist a short stop and rummage about. Then there are those romantic images of walls and towers in the grip of Nature, essentially Shiva the destroyer - where the rapacious denizens of the forest envelop and devour the works of man. These are powerful elemental forces, and in places the fig-tree roots have extracted blocks of stone weighing a ton or more, and cast them aside. In other spots, roots frame a section of masonry, holding it together, while all around the rest has crumbled. Some trees, like prehistoric octopus-like monsters, sit and lord it over the ruined edifices. The complex of Ta Prohm. Impossibly photogenic, of course, but you need to be there every day for a week or more, with a battery of cameras and lenses to capture all the moods and essences. I don’t even attempt anything but an occasional happy-snap. I can’t resist another roadside temple of the cluster at Bantey Kdei on my own, since Fay's knee has declared 'enough'. We recuperate a little on the slow, bumpy ride back to town and we are decanted at the edge of the old market to fossick about.
Another assault on the senses, mostly olfactory. As this is, at least in part, a culinary tour, our first visited stall sells spices, most of which are familiar, but there are a number of nuts, seeds and teas that Naga has to interpret for us. Then we dive into the dark, reeking inferno of alleyways scarcely wide enough to accommodate one set of Western hips. Markets can be fascinating, or just a collection of innumerable traders hawking a limited variety of tourist tat. This one was the real deal. Carcases - whole and dismembered, of pigs, chickens, ducks, tiny bird corpses, fruit bats, frogs and a large variety of fish, crabs, shrimps, squid, clams, as well as the odd heaps of crickets, ant-eggs and who knows what other insects. Stopping only to let Fay crunch a toasted cricket (I declined, having eaten numbers of roasted grasshoppers in my youth) we hurriedly shuffle past the protein section and get to the veg and fruit. For a very modest sum, our friend negotiates tasting exotic fruits like mangosteen, longan, jackfruit, durian, three varieties of lychees, dragonfruit, teab, madeinh, khavet, sanlak – by now they are just names and descriptions scribbled down on a limp sheet of paper – at the time they epitomized the flavours of the tropics, and we get a takeaway bag for later. In the midst of this cornucopia, a posse of steaming vendors labour over roaring, gas-fired, shallow, wok-like utensils, and the sight and aroma of some flattened objects browning reminds us it is lunchtime. We strike a quick deal, and in no time we are perched on dreadfully uncomfortable, low stools about six inches square, about the same distance off the ground. The food was delicious; apparently a simple fried dumpling with a green filling, made mainly of shallots, hacked up beyond recognition and mixed with other, anonymous ingredients, with an extra dollop of stir-fried vegetables and herbs as an accompaniment. We promised ourselves a return visit. Fay wanted a mani- and pedicure for some ridiculous sum, so we left her to it and hunted down a bookshop. This was quite well-stocked on the subject of Angkor-anything, but for my linguistics collection, a Khmer phrasebook and simple dictionary was the best we could find.
Another lesson on international economics. As we leave the market, a beggar on the pavement raises his hands in supplication. He’s missing an arm and a leg – it could have been worse if he’d fallen foul of the Pol Pot regime, it occurs to me, since we have already been asked if we wish to inspect the genocide museums and killing fields in the vicinity. I scratch in the nearest pocket and come up with some banknotes in the local idiom. I select a couple bearing between two and three noughts apiece, as well as an outline of Angkor Wat, and offer them to the man. I am taken utterly aback when he angrily refuses the money and snarls at me. Naga looks on with a blank face, and when I enquire as to what the matter was, he just replies “you can’t buy anything for that!”. That’s quite an indictment against a government, when a beggar refuses to accept the lowest denominations of his own country. Not that we should cast aspersions – shortly after my return, it was announced that all transactions would be ‘rounded off to the nearest 10 cents’, so we’re heading in the same direction. When I first arrived in South Africa, I could sneak off to the café round the corner and buy a packet of 50 cigarettes for that amount!
We retired early as a dawn visit to Angkor was planned. Up at 4.30 and we were dropped off in the grey, unpromising dawn with instructions for a seven hundred-odd metre walk, to a viewpoint which would give the best silhouette of the temple against the rising sun. Together with a hundred or two hopeful devotees we sat, on the western side of a smallish lake - but it never happened. The day was fated to be dull, so we set out deeper into the 80-odd hectare structure. This is not an architectural description, nor an archeological report. It was the achievement of a quest, and I was fulfilled – I could embrace my dream. Up, up and round the galleries and terraces we went. For all her knee problems and despite being on crutches, Fay hobbled along, equally entranced by the past glories of this mighty work. We were foiled at the very centre, on the sixth level, where the Bakan, or focal point of Angkor, which is supposed to represent Mount Meru, the spiritual home of the Khmer in south China, loomed skywards. The steep flight of some twenty stairs were closed, 'for cleaning', said the sign, though Naga later said it was for a Buddhist ceremony or special day. Not too disappointed, we soldiered on and took in the best part of a kilometre of finely executed carved murals that ring one level of the temple. After some four hours, we were sheer templed out and emerged on the opposite side to which we had entered the complex. Naga and his very welcome tuktuk awaited. We did some damage to a couple of coconuts and bartered fiercely with a charming young lady selling imitation silk scarves (in the tropics). We were off into a lovely, cooling monsoon shower - most welcome, since we were utterly soaked anyway.
A rest was indicated, but the indefatigable Naga was keen to show us more. A fishing village, complete with market, said he; a boat ride up the river to a village on stilts, a fishing expedition - you name it, he knew where to find it. So we were routed from our cool room and set off along a fairly good road through what became increasingly rural surroundings. According to our sage it was very dry at present, the rainy season (which was still to arrive) often brought the shores of the great seasonal lake Tonle Sap, within a few kilometres of Siem Reap. Certainly all the houses at the roadside were raised on stilts, 4-6metres off the ground, with an occasional foul puddle underneath, but mostly just heaps of garbage, waiting for the next monsoon to wash it clean. Not very attractive, but interesting nonetheless. Everywhere strange contraptions consisting of a square metre of plastic sheeting was hung in the breeze between sticks. Underneath another shallow basin constructed of the same material, but half full of scummy water – a mosquito farm almost certainly, but the best guess I could make was an insect trap of sorts - possibly to feed fish. Naga laughed at my guess, but said 'close, but not fishfood - crickets'. Seems like a light is shone on these at night; the crickets are attracted and drop into the scum, where they drown, to be fried up and served to the likes of Fay! Sometimes better to know less.
For once our friend got it completely wrong. The putative fishing village consisted of a raw, bulldozed dam a few hundred metres long, with a few score boats moored on the margins. A huge, spanking new tourist complex had arisen from raw agricultural land, there were shiny, painted landing stages, tourist barges ferrying a dozen busloads of top-end tourists into carefully choreographed 'ethnic' experiences, restaurants and curio shops galore. A bit like Ice-World in Abu Dhabi. We about-turned right there. Instead, we took a leisurely drive back, spent a little time with a lovely lotus-seed selling lady, and I got laughed at when I tried eating a seed without peeling it - which left me spitting with a wry face. I spied an itinerant hawker pedalling along the road on his tricycle business that looked as if he might have some edibles. Indeed, the man had a fine mess of dumplings, ready for the steaming. Naga looked sceptical, but as the man said his goods contained nothing more lethal than duck eggs and onions, I lashed out with 50c US and bought me a damned fine lunch, which was cooked on the vendor’s portable charcoal cooker in front of my eyes - though neither Fay nor Naga would touch it.
That evening another date, this time more cultural. We had read about shadow-puppet performance cum dinner at a restaurant, and asked Naga to organize it for us. It was interesting to a point, but as with any dramatic performance in a language one doesn't understand, it loses something essential. The orphaned children troupe who presented the show did a fine job of making the grotesque shadows dance on the backlit screen, as well as performing the voice-overs and music. Mercifully, it lasted under an hour - which kept it within the bounds of entertainment. Some of the printed text translation we had been issued with, however, caused us much hilarity when it claimed that ‘a pair of lovers were burnished out from their city of Ayuthaya'.
As I didn't expect to be passing by way of Cambodia any time soon again, I wanted to see the remaining and earliest of the temples, which had been built during the ninth century in a different area, farther east of town. So once more we girded our loins and went templing to the Roluous Group which formed part of the ancient city of Hariharalaya. These differed in execution from the later structures at Angkor as they were on a much smaller scale and partly constructed from brick. Again we were enchanted at the first temple, Lolei, which was tiny, but had some maginificent bas reliefs round the doors of the tottering walls, some of which had been propped up with timber to prevent further collapse. The next, Preah Koh, was the oldest of this cluster, while Bakong, as a sort of mini-precursor of Angkor Wat, fascinated both of us, and no heat, weary body or injury would hold us back from climbing the last triumphant steps to the top. We had done our temples, and absolutely exhausted, we were dropped off on a hot afternoon for a rest.
There was more to see, so Naga and I went off to the Angkor Museum - most grandiose, with large display areas and audio-visual facilities. However, devilishly difficult to navigate for this foreigner, who despite a map managed to get thoroughly lost inside the two-storey building. An added irritation was that most of the quite well-translated labels were beyond my visual range. Many beautiful artifacts had been preserved, but there was none of that sense of community of culture as in the temples themselves, only fragments in an alien environment. How much more beautiful if it had been practicable to leave them where they had been found. Still, impressive collections everywhere, like the 1000 Buddhas’ Hall, the Khmer kings and the display of ancient stelae, bearing inscriptions recording historic events and changes in the ancient language. This, I think, was the starting point of my fascination with the writing systems and the written word in South East Asia, which in turn, became another search within a quest for the rest of the trip. On the way back the monsoon let rip with intent. Naga joined us for drink and a bite at the bistro and finally, as it was getting late, he had to scoot off home into the downpour, while we were escorted by a platoon of umbrella-bearers up our own, impossible staircase.
The morning's weather wasn’t much better, so we slithered round a modern, large Buddhist temple but really found nothing to delight the senses, just buddha-bling. A better suggestion was to visit an artist's academy to see how some good replicas were made. I was fortunate to get a guide to myself and the young man was most informative and pleasant company. It seemed that we were fated not to have any luck with the Angkor balloon trip due to the weather, so decided on a last market-trundle instead. I had told Naga about my new interest in the Khmer writings I had seen at the museum, so his task was to find me some, preferably antique, sample of writing. He duly led the way straight into a curio shop - and to my utter amazement, some ten minutes later, after a little statutory bargaining, I was the happy owner of a handwritten palm-leaf Khmer poetry book in wooden covers for the price of a fat modern thriller. Our delight was further increased by finding our dumpling lady in place and being able to partake of her delicious wares as a last supper. Luggage packed, bills paid, we said our farewells to the lovely guys at the hotel and Naga took us to the airport, where we parted with mixed feelings of gratitude and regret. For the best part of a week he mothered us, translated, transported, educated, entertained and helped us in every way he could, and we, in turn, hope that we have made some small contribution to his future. If any reader should need a Cambodian Man Friday, try firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +85517592789 and ask for Naga.
Next time: Laos