Journal: Siem Reap, Cambodia.

21-26 July 2006

I could never have imagined that I was greeted by such an impressive airport in Siem Reap. This boutique airport is comparable to the exotic customs in Batam, Indonesia. The traditional Khmer architecture houses a modern and minimalist interior. When I arrived at the Cambodian-owned Hôtel de la Paix, I started to wonder: why don’t Chinese in general have such good taste?

The Hotel
What I liked most was that the hotel did not have a grand lobby. Strictly speaking, the hotel didn’t have a lobby. Upon our arrival, we were ushered to Kbach to have our welcome drinks. We were first awed by the scene of a couple of hotel guests laying lazily on the couch staring at us. We seemed so not belong there. After finishing the ginger-flavoured drink, we walked to our room. Along the way, one could easily spot the motif of the hotel – concentric layers – and it was until I visited the Angkor temples that I knew that this was in fact a Khmer style.

We, a party of three, have chosen the most luxurious room in the hotel – Duplex Spa Suite. It’s my first time to stay in a duplex and we were so excited to explore the hotel room, although it turned out that we didn’t utilize the duplex – we used the massage beds and read books outdoor for only once, leaving the outdoor bathtub untouched, of course. The major difference from the resort hotels in other countries was that it was a room with no view. When we looked outside from our comfy room, we could only see the muddy road and shabby houses. It only reinforced how poor the city was.

The whole trip to Siem Reap was dedicated to sight-seeing. If one doesn’t fancy cultural heritage, one should not go to Siem Reap. Of the four-day stay in Siem Reap, three of which had been devoted to visiting the temples and one to Tonle Sap Lake. Each individual visit was themed with a distinctive style.

Angkor Wat
We headed to Angkor Wat first and one just needs to visit there to be impressed. It was an exemplar of the Angkor temples and the immensity of it embraces all religious symbols one needs to know – Naga (the serpent), Apsara, Linga etc. Walking along the retangular gallery, we took loads of pictures of the fantastic carvings which were unique and different from one another, until we were soon tired of taking more.

Other than the visiting Chinese, as denoted by the buns on their heads, who travelled along the Mekong River, the Churning of the Sea of Milk was what I remembered most. It took thousands of years for the gods and demons to churn the sea of milk – it’s so yucky when I started to realise that the Linga is a phallus symbol.

Another thing I marked was the highest tower. One needs to climb up the 75 degrees stairway to the tower. The steps were made so petit and farther apart to make one walk cautiously and solemnly. I was so lucky to have climbed up and down the tower before the heavy rain poured.

Angkor Thom
I liked the carvings of Angkor Thom which showed the daily life of the people at that time, including cooking, gambling and drinking etc. The contrast of the richness of life and relics depicts what a hard time Cambodia has been experiencing in the last thousand years. It was also a wonderful experience when walking up the towers as you could get so close to the giant Buddhas.

Ta Prohm
The tour guide did a good job in planning the itinerary so that we could explore more from the temples rather than being bored by visiting so many of them. Not long away from the Angkor Thom City is my favourite Ta Prohm where one can find the robust trees intertwining with the historic treasures! The tree intrudes the temple and at the same time provide support to it. With the tension, they became interdependent and cannot live without each other. I couldn’t capture the images well, so I bought a postcard with the Ta Prohm photographed by John McDermott from his photo exhibition at FCC.

Banteay Srei
Further apart, we visited Banteay Srei where the nicest carvings were found on the pink sandstone. Perhaps it was because we went there in the middle of the day when the sun was right above us, or because it was a bit far from Siem Reap that there were only few tourists there. And the tourists there all carried a very professional camera as if they were sure that they could take the best photos from there.

We also went to a handful of other temples which I could not recall their name correctly, even though I have the counterfeit guidebook that my colleague lent me. Talking about this guidebook Ancient Angkor which is so renowned in Cambodia, I also wanted to buy a copy so that I can learn more about the temples afterwards. But the lowest price I was offered was USD4 instead of USD2 or even HKD1 at which my other friends paid. Poor authors Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques! You two deserve an acknowledgment here.

Tonle Sap Lake
On our last day, we visited Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap Lake was a mystery to me as I often heard of this place from my workplace, just so often I heard of about Mekong River. The pronunciation was so French that it was added an exotic touch. However, when I went there after a long and rugged road, what I found were only shabby boats along the two sides of the channel. You could see the people lying lazily on the hammocks, babies naked, children playing in the muddy water. You could also occasionally find floating schools where children wear slightly ragged school uniform. When the chartered boat reached the end of the channel you could see the limitless water, that you couldn’t tell it’s a lake instead of sea. We then reached the pier where crocodiles, catfish, and the same counterfeit guidebooks and VCDs one could find in other touristy spots were displayed. What’s left in our mind was not the enormity of Tonle Sap Lake which spans from Siem Reap over to Phnom Penh, but a heavy heart sagged by the deplorable situation facing the poverty-stricken boat people.

Culinary Journey
Despite the heavy heart, life goes on and we did have an empty stomach to fill. In fact, because of the lack of entertainment in Siem Reap, food weighed ever more important in our trip. Hôtel de la Paix did offer the best food in town. The restaurant Meric provided very nice breakfast as well as Khmer style dinner. We had tried the whole variety of the breakfast during the five mornings we spent there: egg Benedict, egg white omelette, Khmer noodles, smoked salmon bagel etc. Of course, there were also fresh fruit and fruit juice, bread and cereals. Most pampering was that the Lavazza coffee which was also available at the café next door.

The dinner at Meric was fantastic though relatively expensive at Siem Reap standard. One would naturally choose the Khmer set dinner with eight courses at USD28 rather than from à-la-carte menu which you could only choose two courses with the same price. We tried the set dinner twice and we were most impressed by the prawn soup which was sooooo rich like lobster bisque. We also tried the dinner on a swing table. The experience was unique although C in the end felt swing-sick and couldn’t finish the dinner.

We tasted other Khmer food at a French-run restaurant called Viroth’s as well as FCC Cambodia. Each restaurants cost us around USD30 for three of us, but the food was less distinctive than Meric’s. At FCC, the view of fantastic though, with billiard room of free admission. I think it would also be a good choice to stay in the colonial style FCC.

Post-Mortem
Whenever I’m asked, ‘How’s your trip in Cambodia?’ ‘Er….’ and then I was speechless for ten seconds before I could say something like ‘it’s always good to have holidays.’ It’s very much like going on one of the work trips and returning with a heavy heart.

But why should I be sad? My clinical psychologist friend prompted me: ‘Perhaps the people in Cambodia are happy.’ True, people have their own perception about happiness. Why should I bother? Didn’t I find those kids jumping into the muddy water when the daily heavy rain started to pour were among the happiest ones in the world? I can’t tell others’ happiness from my own unhappiness; just as their mums can’t tell the rain from the muddy water.

4 thoughts on “Journal: Siem Reap, Cambodia.

  1. thanks for sharing yr travel experiences! i really wanna see the photos..what is happiness? there is no answer for this question, as u said diff ppl have diff preception..but i can always find the trail of happiness from the children… their “openness" to the outside world …their responses are alwaysdirect and true … “light-hearted “without any burden…i guess its the source of happiness which is lacking in adult world…

  2. Cambodia trip is quite eye-opening for me. The excursion to Tonle Sap Lake is particularly heartaching. I just doubt how much of the US$10 ticket proceeds the tourist office gets from visitors are used towards the betterment of boat people. Have the boat people been consulted on their willingness to act as human exhibits? Have dignity of the lakeside villagers been respected in this arrangement? Is poverty a piece of goods on display and for sale? I cannot tell if the boat people are happy or not. I can tell from their hearty laughter that the kids jumping into the muddy moat of Angkor Wat amidst the rain are having great fun. C for cheers to Cambodia!

  3. Every encounter in Cambodia has given us some food for thought: the bureacracy of the processing of landing visa at the airport, the children asking me for money after I took a photo of them, the small girl asking me to buy the bracelets in English and Mandarin, the man and nature in Ta Prohm, the relics of the temples, the man peeing in Tonle Sap Lake…Do you remember the tour guide told me that people in Siem Reap earn USD 60 per month? I later learned that policemen in Phnom Penh are earning USD 20 a month… It’s exactly these lingering thoughts that leave me a disturbed mind…bunbun, do you remember when was the last time we laughed out of pure happiness? I saw those innocent laughters from those muddy kids in water, as well as fro those running down the 75-degree tower in their flip-flops…Stay young.

  4. Three years later, I re-read what I wrote. 'What's happiness?' It's still a difficult question to answer.

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