To all our friends and guests who so generously donated.
It has now been one week since we left Panama, and 5 days since we arrived in Cambodia. Yes, it took us two days two reach Panama, partly because we crossed the international date line, and partly because we had a 7 hour stop-over in Los Angeles, which was well spend with our friends Ed & Suzan + their son Jason. Clearing immigration went smooth, our suitcase came rolling by the minute we passed the belt, and no sooner we left the exit we were greeted by Suzan.
With a beautiful California spring afternoon we rolled through Long Beach to the area known as ‘Cambodia Town’. Approximately 30.000 Cambodians live in L.A. It is hard to say how many of them settled in Cambodia Town, but the signs of shops and restaurants clearly show that it is a thriving community. We decided on Hak Heang restaurant, which happens to be quite a famous restaurants for it hosts concerts and meetings for the semi-exiled opposition party. Mr. Hak himself was serving this quiet evening, a wonderful host with a great sense of humour, and a buffet that was better than anything I have eaten yet in Cambodia proper.
Many thanks to Ed & Suzan, who ordered many useful items for our trip and the benefactors of our fund-raising
The next leg of our trip was to Guangzhou, in a brand new Airbus 380 which was about the only positive aspect of the experience. Fourteen-and-a-half hours of comatose hell, 500 zombies crossing the pacific. No relief from beer nor sleeping pills. Thanks for the offer Ed, I will not refuse it next time.
Early morning in Guangzou, great efficient airport, but Chinese people you are seriously disgusting. For once an airport with a smoking lounge and a coffee machine when I was in dire straits, but alas, the sounds of snot being gurgled and expunged in adjacent bathroom was just too much to take. And one more thing Chinese, you are supposed to poop IN the pot, not sit on the pot to poop next to it. I call on Chinese authorities to institute capital punishment for this hideous crime.
Ah the joys of travel. Sineth had foretold me about Cambodian immigration, but even my rather wild imagination could not make this up. As a Dutch passport holder there was no need for a visa, so we skipped the Visa Approval desk and went straight to passport control, where we were grumbled by a ‘lieutenant’ who looked like he was born in a septic tank. In Khmer, septic-man ordered me back to the Visa desk, and scolded me when I did not understand. Nice. Visa Desk consisted of a row of 10 officers, one sleeping, one doing embroidery, and the others doing various forms of nothing. $21 dollars and three stamps later my passport was literally thrown to my face. Back to septic-man, but in his place was now another second-lieutenant receiving a thumping from Sineth: “How come our people are so uneducated and corrupt, shame on you for shaming our country (!$&!!)”. Sineth’s rants are a good reason to finally learn Khmer.
Fortunately the conduct of government thugs rarely reflects the general population, the first representative being the nice taxi driver (tuk-tuk) of our (punctual German) guest house waiting for us with a sign.
Siem Reap is surprisingly small, just 10 minutes from the airport to town, but Sineth suggested an alternative road passed Angkor Wat, the most famous of the many temple complexes north of the present day location. The park checkpoint guard let us pass without a ticket.
That evening we paid a surprise visit to the family: father, fat sister, black sister, midget sister, one-bun brother, little brother, two brothers-in-law and several nephews and nieces were present, and even thought we arrived after dinner, little time was wasted to prepare a second one with copious amounts of beer.
It seems Cambodians always find a reason for another meal. Unlike Mediterranean food cultures where large meals are consumed three times a day, Cambodians have more of a grazing habit eating any time of day and night, without regime or limitations. Were it not for having a physically active population that considers being overweight shameful, this country would look a whole lot different.
Which brings us to fat-sister who although physically unable to keep up with the Joneses, has a keen business mind: the land she bought for herself and her sister as an investment, 6 years ago a useless rice-paddy, is now in a high-demand suburb. Siem Reap is expending rapidly; whilst the size of Santiago Panama, this town holds about four times as many people: +/-200.000. Every year tourism increases, especially from within south-east Asia. With the remainder of the economy flat on its belly, it is about the only source of income for the country. The villages are dying out, the capital Phnom Penh is on strike; the government declared martial law on its citizens, but in Siem Reap all is well.
The temples are magnificent as always, and being so large it is a very pleasant tourism experience. In fact, the sheer scale is immense: each temple complex actually was a walled neighbourhood in the enormous city of Angkor. The most well known complex of Angkor Wat is famous for having the largest and best preserved temple. But the walled city measuring 1,3km by 1,5km , surrounded by a 200m wide moat is one of many similar and larger sized complexes. At its heyday during the 12th and 13th century the city of Angkor might have had a population of 2 million people. The temples are all that remains, for houses were made of wood. Not a single manuscript survived; the only contemporary sources are the mostly religious inscriptions on the temples and reports from Chinese emissaries. I wonder if these emissaries started the Chinese tourist practice of peeing over other peoples’ temples.
What most guidebooks won’t tell you, is the sexual symbols of some of the temples. Several are adorned with penis towers (or ling for the yoga practitioners) and pussy pools (yoni). Of course the religious explanation sounds much more fancy, but let’s not beat around the bush. From Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan we learn: “Families of wealth may own more than one hundres slaves, those of lesser means content themselves with ten or twenty, only the very poor have none. (…) Generally speaking, the women, like the men, wear only a strip of cloth, showing bear breasts of milky whiteness.”
These observations stand in sharp contrast with present day Cambodian society, which is much more conservative. I remember the first time Sineth introduced me to her brother in Dubai, and told me not to show any intimacy for we were not married yet. (Please forgive her brother, she couldn’t help herself)
I get the impression that the Angkor empire, which collapsed suddenly and was forever wiped out from history, probably followed a similar path of other once great empires down decadence, self indulgence and pointless wars, inflating their currencies and weakening their moral fibres. Hey, what does that sound like?
It was the French who made the first efforts to restore the ancients monuments, or more correctly: preserving them piece by piece, replacing old bricks and adding some concrete support columns here and there. That was more than a hundred years ago, much of the repair works now look as old as the monument itself, so it is hardly noticeable. I do hope however, that rather than simply preserving what is left, some of these temples will be fully restored to their old splendour (and while we’re at it, let’s restore Rome’s Colosseum so games can be hosted there, move the Greek parliament back to the Acropolis, reopen ancient Roman bathhouses and so forth. Why is it that after a arbitrary period of neglect, we no longer care for our monuments?)
One of the few temples that hasn’t been preserved, is famous for being overgrown with trees. However we could not fully enjoy the site for Chinese
dogs tourists had peed all over it. Fortunately the monsoon is only weeks away.
Soon we will leave for the village for our second part of the trip. Stay tuned!