Part Four: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
On Thursday, the 16th, we got up early to catch the express boat to Siem Reap. My wife's cousin, my sister-in-law, and two of her children are with us, as are Thom and one of his friends. The boat leaves at about 7AM, from a small dock just north of Chroy Chungva bridge. The boat is narrow, with three seats on each side of a middle aisle. Several passengers prefer to ride on the top of the boat. The boat works its way up the Tonle Sap. We watch Phnom Penh disappear, and then the river begins to widen. Soon, it becomes not a river, but a lake, so wide that the banks are no longer visible. A TV screen in the front of the boat provides the entertainment. First there is the obligatory video of a karaoke show, and then a passable Chinese gangster movie, dubbed into Khmer. That's followed by Hard Target, the only genuinely good movie Jean-Claude Van Damme ever made. The whole trip takes about five hours. Jean-Claude has only killed half of the bad guys when the boat docks at Siem Reap.
The dock is chaotic. It's swarming with passengers, taxi drivers, and vendors. There are several drivers who work for the boat company. The company calls ahead with the passenger list, and by the time the boat gets to Siem Reap, there are drivers already waiting, holding signs with a passenger's name. Our driver has a small van. We pile in and make the short drive to Siem Reap city.
We get a room at the Vimean Thmei hotel (No. 012 Street Sivatha, Mondol 1, Quarter 2, Siem Reap). At $15 a night, it's a bargain. We have lunch nearby, and then head to Angkor. For me, a three-day pass cost $40. For everyone else, it's free.
At night, back at the hotel, the electricity goes off briefly. A hotel employee is at the door within minutes, carrying a supply of candles and matches. The power comes back on in about ten minutes. During the two and a half weeks that we spent in Cambodia, we experienced four or five such outages, none lasting more than five or ten minutes. It was yet another measure of how far Cambodia has come: in 1991, the electricity was off more often than it had been on, and the water was intermittant as well.
The sky is cloudy, but it's still hot. Soon, we can see the towers of Angkor Wat rising above the trees. It's a striking vision. But we elect to see Angkor Wat the next day. Our first stop will be Bayon.
Bayon is stunning. Built around 1200 A.D., it is smaller than Angkor Wat, but the design is eerily haunting. Numerous towers rise above a mountain of stone; each tower has four massive stone faces, staring out passively into the surrounding jungle.
In one of those odd coincidences that happens when travelling, while we're atop Bayon, my daughter collides with a woman and her husband. It turns out that they are from Chicago.
Just as we were leaving, it began to rain, and we headed back to the hotel. On the way back, my wife pointed out to me a handsome two-storey house. Decades ago, it had been the home of Dap Chhuon, a revolutionary leader who had fought against the French prior to Cambodia's independence.
In the morning, we head back to Angkor. Our first stop is Pre Rup, a large but badly decayed temple not far from Siem Reap. Afterwards, we head to Banteay Srei. In comparison to many of the other temples, Banteay Srei is fairly small, and not very well preserved. However, it's noteworthy for the quality of its carvings, which are said to be deeper and more detailed than those on most of the other ruins. Banteay Srei also occupies an interesting footnote in the literary world: the writer Andre Malraux was once jailed for stealing a stone apsara from a wall of the ruins at Banteay Srei, in the days when the temple was still enshrouded in jungle. And oddly enough, as if to highlight the theme of archeaological plunder, we happened to be at Angkor at the same time as a movie crew. They were filming a movie version of "Tomb Raider," the popular computer game. It was the first Hollywood film shot in Cambodia since Lord Jim in 1964.
At Banteay Srei, my daughter finds one thing that amuses her at least as much as the temple ruins: a tiny flowering plant, with fern-like leaves. Touch the leaves, and they quickly shrink away from your hand.
Not far from Banteay Srei, a road crew is at work. Most of them are women. They carry buckets of large rocks, carpeting the entire length of the road with softball-sized stones. Later, a steamroller will run over the rocks, cramming them deeply into the dirt. For a while, we drive on roads that are "paved" in this manner. It's difficult to decide whether or not it is really an improvement over the bare dirt.
Our next destination is Koulen. Situated in the deep, forested mountains northeast of Angkor, Koulen is popular for a temple perched high atop a tall stone mountain, and for a beautiful waterfall. Koulen requires separate admission from the rest of the temples at Angkor. We stop at a checkpoint along the road, where I pay the $20 admission. A small monkey is tied to a tree near the gate, and my children crouch nearby, laughing happily. I wait at the checkpoint while the three guards talk with our driver. On the wall of their shack, a poster shows a variety of landmines, grenades, artillery shells, and other bombs. Mines and other unexploded ordnance remain a serious problem in rural Cambodia.
Getting to Koulen is not easy. Beyond the main temples, the roads are all unpaved, and they curve first through flat countryside, then head up into the mountains. Heavy forest stretches away on either side of the road, and there is almost no traffic.
It takes a couple hours to reach Koulen. We stop briefly at a small outpost of roadside stands, where Tom buys a live snake. It's a couple feet long, and he wears it around his neck for a while. Then he puts it around my daughter's neck, and she's delighted. Cambodia, to her five-year-old eyes, is amazing: in Phnom Penh, you have the Cartoon Network on TV all day long, and out here in the countryside, you can wear a live snake around your neck.
At the Koulen waterfall, we rest in the shade, and climb down the hill to the bottom of the falls. We clamber out onto the rocks in the middle of the stream; my nephew straddles two rocks and dunks his whole torso into the cold, clear water. The temple, we're told, is about a kilometer away by foot, and we decide to drive there. As we're on our way back to the car, we run into the very same Chicago couple that we had met at Bayon the day before.
The temple at Koulen is nothing when compared to the large temples of Angkor, but it is impressive in its own way. It's hard to imagine the effort that would have gone into its construction. Inside the temple, carved into the stone, is a massive reclining Buddha. It's delightfully cool inside the temple, and the view is wonderful.
As we're leaving, Tom stops and donates his snake to the temple. Perhaps they would free it for good karma; I don't know. I'm certain, however, that a snake would not have been particularly well-received in the collection plate of the churches of my youth.
We leave Koulen by the same roads that brought us there. About an hour out of Koulen, as we're riding through the forest, I see a line of boys walking along the side of the road. There are eight or nine of them, probably fourteen or fifteen years old. The boy in front is holding an old carbine rifle. All of them are dressed similarly: olive drab pants, with either no shirt, or fatigues. The last boy is holding a hoe; the others are empty-handed. The boy with the rifle glares at the van as we pass, and I feel a chill. I don't know who they are, but I know what they look like: Khmer Rouge.
Tom, in the front seat, turns to Srey. "Khmer krahom," he says. Khmer krahom: literally, "red Khmer." The Khmer Rouge. The driver says something in Cambodian. "He says they are Khmer Rouge," Srey says. "He says out here there are a lot of them. Out in the countryside, outside Siem Reap city, there are alot."
It's an odd, unsettling thought, but not altogether surprising. An army of thousands does not vanish overnight, even in defeat. I sit in silence, thinking, and wondering. In the middle of the jungle, where were they going?
When we return from Koulen, we return to Angkor and head first to Ta Prohm. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the Angkor complex, many visitors - myself included - prefer Ta Prohm. When restoration work began on the temples in the 1920s and 1930s, vegetation and sediment covering many of the monuments was cleared away. At Ta Prohm, however, the trees that had invaded the temple were left largely intact. The result is breathtaking. To reach Ta Prohm, one first walks through a huge gateway, topped by massive stone heads. A long path leads through dense jungle. Birds and insects shriek at in a loud, unending, high-pitched whine. Magnificent trees overturn massive stone walls. Giant roots strangle entire buildings. Sandstone carvings are split apart at their seams. It isn't really an accurate picture of what the temples looked like before their restoration, but the effect is stunning.
Not far from Ta Prohm is the largest of all the temples: Angkor Wat. It is, in fact, the largest religious building in the world. Its five towers dwarf the surrounding trees. Long regarded as the national symbol of Cambodia, its image has graced every regime's flag since Cambodia received her independence in 1953.
A long stone causeway leads through a massive wall and into the temple. The scale is astonishing, and the intricacy is dazzling. It is almost impossible to imagine the structure as ever having been new. Climbing the steps to the central tower, one can sense the passage of hundreds of years: the stone steps are worn away to almost nothing. From the top of the temple, the vision is one of conquest: an image of stone and perserverence, defeating the jungle.
At ground level, reality once again encroaches: a small village of grass huts - a set for "Tomb Raider" - has been built on the grounds of the temple.
Hollywood, apparently, has come to Cambodia in other ways as well. Tom and his friend are still inside the temple, and the rest of us sit on the low wall beyond the baray, casually sipping Cokes. When Tom arrives, he says something to my wife, in Khmer. The only word I catch is "Rambo." Srey turns to me. "He says..." she thinks for a minute. "Arnold Schwarzeneggar is inside."
"Rambo??" I ask.
"Yes," she says, but then suddenly realizes that she's mistaken. "No, not Schwarzeneggar. What's his name?"
"Sylvester Stallone," I say, laughing.
"Yeah!" And she begins laughing, and tells her family that she really liked Stallone when she'd lived in Cambodia. But in Cambodia, his movies were always dubbed into Khmer. When she came to the United States, she went to see Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot, and was horrified to hear his real voice for the first time. After that she stuck with other action heroes: Schwarzeneggar, Van Damme, Norris, and, of course, Jackie Chan.
Personally, my own feeling was that regardless of the sound of his voice, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot should have been enough to persuade anyone to never see another Stallone movie.
The next day, we arise early to catch the boat back to Phnom Penh. I regretted not being able to stay in Siem Reap longer. Two days did not give us nearly enough time.
On the way back we sit across from a young Khmer woman, travelling with her mother. Sean had been running a slight fever for a couple days, and he began to cry. The young woman looked at him with pity. She was eating fried frog legs, and she handed him a small piece. He ate it happily and stopped crying. Since we're going downstream, the trip back to Phnom Penh takes slightly less time than the trip to Siem Reap. By noon we're home, just in time to avoid a pouring rain.
This article contains nine parts:
Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back
· Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom ·
Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
Part 6: Two Parties
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Between Barbie and Murder: Cambodia, 2005
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991