Friday, May 15, 2009

SIEM REAP TEMPLES -Day 16 & 17

1. Basically, we had set aside 2 days to visit the temples of Siem Reap. With the advice of our tour guide, Sokha (picture on right), for the 1st day we visited the temples in Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat (he called it the inner or smaller circuit), and for the 2nd day we visited the more outlaying temples of Banteay Srei, Phnom Kulen and Beng Mealea. For the 1st day, we hired a tut-tut (driver's name is Heng), as the temples were nearby, and for the 2nd day we drove our Pajero. Ticket is US$20 per person per day, or US$40 for 3 days, covering the key temples, including Banteay Srei. Outlying ones are separately charged.

2. We started the first day tour with the visit to Angkor Thom (Angkor means city and Thom, big). Built by king Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), it is located on the site of the former Khmer capital that was razed by the Chams (of the Champa Empire, which had its centre in presently day South Vietnam). At its height, the city supported a population of 1 m, and within it lies many temples built by various kings. In the picture on the right, we were entering one of the gates of Angkor Thom.

3. In here, Bayon, built by Jayavarman VII, is spectacular and very unique, with its many towers of 4 faces of Buddha, and in the centre 8 faces of Buddha. Built as a Buddhist temple, we were told that there were 54 towers originally, but there are only 20+ towers left standing. I found the bas-reliefs starting from the East gate very interesting. Other than showing the everyday life of the Khmers at that time, it also depicts victorious battles of Khmers over the Chams, supported by Chinese forces. The soldiers could be identified by the different hair-dos.

4. After tea break (can see Sunny and I going for our toilet break in motorcyle? First time I sat as pillion rider), we continued our walk, passing Baphuon (was fenced up for conservation works) and trying to figure the outline of the reclining Buddha, and then climbed to the highest level of Phimeanakas. Here, Sunny and I took a picture at the top. From this position, we also had a good view of Baphuon and the surrounding areas. From here, we walked to the 350 m Terrace of the Elephants, which was a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies; if you can imagine, like our National Day Parade.

5. After lunch, we visited the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, just outside the walls of Angkor Thom on the Eastern side. Built around 1186, this Buddhist temple gives visitors the mysterious feeling of an Indiana Jones movie. Almost completed invaded by forests, many parts of the temple had crumpled, but in many parts kept together by tree roots that snake around the temple structures.

6. At about 2 pm, we left Ta Prohm for Angkor Wat (meaning city temple). Angkor Wat is the largest and most breathtaking of all Angkor temples. Surrounded by a 190 m wide moat, the Hindu temple measures 1.5 km by 1.3 km and was built by king Suryavarman II (1112-1152) as a funeral temple to honour Vishnu. Contrary to wide belief, Angkor Wat had never been abandoned. When Frenchman, Henri Mouhot "discovered" Angkor Wat in 1860s, it was a working monastery with monks and slaves. There are many bas-reliefs along the temple walls, which we had little time to visit, except the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Along the inner walls of the temples, there are many beautiful carvings of Apsaras (heavenly nymphs or goddesses). We were told that there are more than 30 different head gears.

6. With hindsight, it was a mistake to leave Angkor Wat to the last and leaving little time to see the complex.

7. After Angkor Wat, we proceeded to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, which I also did in my last visit. Unlike the last visit when I had to climb the steep slope with ropes on both sides to assist the climbers, there is now a gradual slope that circles round the hill to bring visitors to the top more easily. Unfortunately, in this visit, the sun decided to hide behind the clouds and we did not get to the full sunset we were hoping for. Anyway, it was still a beautiful view, as you can see on the right, at about 6.15 pm. After the event, people started to scramble down the flight of steep steps, before reaching the gradual slope to bring them down to the bottom of Phnom Bakheng.

8. On our 2nd day in Siem Reap, we travelled some 70 kms out of Siem Reap with our Pajero to visit Banteay Srei, Phnom Kulen, and Beng Mealea, as travelling in a tut-tut would just take far too long.

9. Banteay Srei means "women place", and in ancient time only women were permitted to enter the temple. Built in 967 by a Hindu Brahman with pink sandstone, Banteay Srei is reputedly to be the most beautiful of all Angkor temples, with its very

delicate cravings often 3 dimensional. What it lacks in size, it is made up by its sheer beautiful. Of the temples I had seen, this is my favourite.

10. We had earlier intended to visit Kbal Spean to see the River of the a Thousand Linga but was persuaded by Sokha to visit Phnom Kulen instead. He said that Phnom Kulen too has its thousand linga, in addition to the Buddha temple and a beautiful waterfall frequented by locals. Located some some 50 km from Siem Reap, it is 20 km of rough drive up the mountain. We took about 30 mins to get to the top. Vehicles are permitted only to drive up before 12 pm, and down only after 12. Phnom Kulen video

is a sacred of the Khmer people and is frequented by locals. We visited the river of the thousand linga and waterfall and the temple of the reclining Buddha. Visit to Phnom Kulen carried a separate entrance of US$20 per person, plus car toll charge.

11. Here we could see very delicate carvings of linga on the river bed, big and small. Water that flows over the linga is holy and in ancient time kings would come and bathed in the water 3 days in a year so that they could become great kings; or for others if they want to have more babies. To see more of the riverbed lingas, you could click on the video. Here you could see many locals enjoying themselves at the waterfall, and there are more lingas on the riverbed.

12. Our final stop for the 2nd day was Beng Mealea, 6.5 km from Phnom Kulen and some 70 km from Siem Reap. Built by the same king who built Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea had similar floor plan as Angkor Wat. The temple was completely overtaken by jungles though this had been scaled back in recent years. Many of the walls and towers had collapsed and crumbled down. In its current state, we could really appreciate the magnitude of the work involved to restore the temple. Every stone block in the piles has to be lifted by crane. Access of cranes in itself would be a real challenge. Seeing this, we now appreciated the restored temple like Banteay Srei much more.

13. The place was very quiet with no more than 6-7 other tourists; possibly because it was late and it was far away from Siem Reap. Visit also carried a separate charge of US$5 per person.

14. The next day we are off to Sihanoukville, a resort town along the Southern coast of Cambodia.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

CAMBODIA HERE WE COME, DAY 14 & 15

1. After the refreshing dip at Khon Pha Pheng, we drove South along Highway 13 to the Voem Kham/Don Kralor border crossing. We got there by about 2 pm, 10 May (Day 14). Here, the Laos and Cambodian authorities are simply housed in 2-3 single-storey builings like the one on the right, along Highway 13; with about 150 m separating them. Barriers that can be manually raised or lowered by ropes at one end are erected across Highway 13 to control the passage of vehicles. In all likelihood, the volume of traffic through this border crossing is not high.

2. Having undertaken the procedures 2 times before, at the Malaysia/Thai and Thai/Laos borders, we were more relaxed this time, but still we were a little anxious about the Cambodian side. We thought the Laos side should be straighforward. As it turned out, we were in for a small surprise. After we cleared the Laos immigration, we were told that the Customs was located some 4 km back along Highway 13 and we had to backtrack to the Customs office there to get our document stamped. We duly did just that, found the Laos customs in a similar single storey wooden building. The 2 officers there were very business like, reviewed our 2 documents and stamped on the "car permit" form (Doc 1 mentioned by me in the earlier posting). All done in less than 5 mins and we were, once again, off to the border crossing. Its unusual not to co-locate the immigration and customs offices, as this would have been more convenient for visitors.

3. On the Cambodian side, the immigration officer directed us to see the customs officer first, as he would decide if we could bring in the car into Cambodia. We found the Customs officer in the building behind, a friendly chap who spoke hardly any English. I presented the facilitation letter from the Cambodian Embassy in Singapore and after flipping through his pile of documents, he found the equivalent original copy. What we got from the Embassy was a photo-copy. He then proceeded to make a call with his hand-phone. After a number of tries, he managed to get through but we had no clue what the conversation was about as he spoke in Cambodian language. After the call was completed, he handed me a document which was already completed in hand writing and stamped and told us that we could go, adding that we should hand the document over before leaving for Vietnam. He knew we were going to Vietnam after Cambodia. It looks like the Cambodian Embassy in Singapore had done an good job priming the immigration and customs office of our impending trip. Happily we took the documents and proceeded to clear immigration. Immigration was easy, and we were done by 2.45 pm.

4. Soon we were along Highway 7 (which is a continuation of Highway 13 on the Laos side) and we started to wonder how the process would have gone if we were without the facilitation letter from the Cambodian Embassy in Singapore. The customs officer spoke very little English and it would have been a real challenge getting the documentation done. It would have surely taken much longer time.

5. There remained one problem. Unlike the Thai and Laos side, there's no company selling car insurance at the border crossing. Will try to buy one as soon as we can, possibly at Siem Reap.

6. Highway 7 is a good road, paved, one lane either way, well maintained. For most part after the crossing, it travels in a North-South direction on the East side of Mekong River. Our immediate destination was Stung Treng (50-60 km South of the border), to change some money and top up petrol. After circling the town a couple of times, Sunny decided to go on foot, and found a hardware shop that had the money to change, from US$ to Riel. The local petrol station there only sell 2 types of fuel - diesel and petrol, and the staff there spoke little English and could not tell us the octane number of its petrol. Suspecting that it is of lower grade like those in Laos (we could only find octane 91 petrol in Laos), we put in a can of octane booster before topping up. Petrol price: US$0.78 or thereabout. Pump prices quoted in US$, and they happily accepted US$.

7. As we approached Stung Treng, the GPS kept directing us to a ferry point. Our instinct told us that we should keep going along Highway 7 to see if there's a bridge crossing the tributary that flows into the Mekong. As it turned out, we were right, and our car virtually did the river crossing on the GPS screen.

8. It was about 5.30 pm when we reached Kratie, which is some 120 km South of Stung Treng. After Kratie, we had 2 choices: either we take a minor road that joins route 73, or stick to Highway 7 which is a bigger loop. The 2nd option is about 80 km longer than the first, but road condition of the first option is uncertain. We decided to stay the night at Kratie and take the shorter route the next day. We booked into Santepheap Hotel along the waterfront, for US$13 a night; very basic without internet. Mr Lim is the GM of the hotel, here in a picture with me the next morning.

9. A young man in his twenties while the Khmer Rouge was in power in the 70s, Mr Lim had the number 3820 at his finger tips, as this is the length of time that the Khmer Rouge was in power in Cambodia - 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. For 2 meals a day, many were forced to work in the rice fields during the wet season and to build dams during the dry season. Cambodia produced rice but there was little for people to eat. For a period before 1982, the currency for exchange was rice. It was a period that many like Mr Lim will not forget.

10. The next morning (11 May, Day 15), we did a detour to go dolphin watching before heading for Siem Reap. After various conservation programmes, including banning net fishing in the area, the dolphins (also called the Irrawaddy Dolphins) are making a comeback. Mr Lim assured us that we would be able to see the dolphins. Travelling 15 kms North up the coastal road, we found the boat launch point that provides this service. Combining with a backpacker from UK, Anna, we paid US$7 per person for an hour session. All in, I had 13-14 sightings of dolphin. But since they usually singly or in pair, and showed up for a fraction of a second, thats what I mostly see during the one hour. Anyway, its an interesting experience.

11. The quality of the road leading to route 73 and route 73 itself was very patchy. Short stretches of good paved road, but mostly work in progress, with a number of bridges been built (could see that good old military Bailey bridges are still useful), many stretches still filled with pot holes, very undulating. The 120 km to Kompong Cham took us more than 2 hrs, and we were there for lunch at about 1 pm.

12. Along the way, there were various interesting sights. We saw bullock carts pulled by 2 water buffaloes or cows and horse carriages competing for space with cars and motorbikes. At Chhlong where we went hunting for nice French colonial houses, we were blocked by a house on the move, in the middle of the road. The house that was been conserved was been moved to a new location. It is good to know that heritage conversation was considered important here, even in a small town like Chhlong.

13. At about 6 pm, we finally reached Siem Reap, got lost a little looking for Eight Room, the hotel that we booked for US$22 a night, twin sharing. Quek Bee Lan, who was joining us at Siem Reap, was there waiting for us. After a quick wash up, we had dinner at the nearby buzzy makan alley, a very touristic place full of falangs.

14. Next 2 days we will see temples after temples. Was last in Siem Reap about 4 years ago. Town seems more developed, more hotels, cars etc.