FROM SULTRY SAIGON TO EPIC ANGKOR
I'm in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) about to leave for Kampuchea (Cambodia), land of a thousand smiles and a thousand sorrows. But first I slip in a day trip to the Mekong Delta. There are no Delta Blues here, unless it's the "muddy waters" of the Mekong. Instead, this is a place of Delta greens -- pale, dark, translucent, fluorescent, emerald, lime, jade, olive. Foliage abounds; fruits and vegetables flourish. I sample coconut wine, banana wine and snake wine. I partake of elephant ear fish, spring rolls, chili chicken, rose apples, mango and succulent coconut candy.
This is also where I allow a friendly (so I'm told) 10 foot python to be draped around my shoulders. The python is strong. It's been working out. When it flexes its snaky muscles, I pay attention. I feel deep respect. I am tempted to call it "sir". I fervently hope the snake wine I just sampled has no family connection.
Next day, I'm on a public bus equipped with DVD service and Charlie Chaplin silent movies heading to the Vietnamese border town of Moc By, and thence to Phnom Penh. I have friends there – a Canadian computer consultant married to a German brewmeister. I reconnected with them recently, only to find they're working here on contract. I spend my evenings learning about ex-pat life in Cambodia.
One morning I find myself immersed in a world of brutality and terror. I'm at Tuol Seng prison also known as S21, a place where the horrors of Pol Pot's regime are laid bare. At S21, victims were subjected to unspeakable acts of torture before being transported to the killing fields just outside town. The photos of the victims are displayed starkly on the prison walls. A knot of anger builds inside me.
At the nearby Choeung Ek killing fields, I feel a great sadness. An estimated 10,000 men, women and children were brutally murdered in this place and their bodies thrown into pits. There were killing fields like these all over Cambodia. Between 1975 and 1978, around 2 million Cambodians died, either murdered directly by the Khmer Rouge or as a result of starvation and disease. That's 25% of the population gone in four years. Impossible to make sense of this madness!
Two days later I'm on my way to Siem Reep and the ruins of Angkor, capital of the once mighty Khmer empire. The sprawling expanse is believed to have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, supporting up to a million people at a time when 30,000 lived in London. Words like monumental, surreal, magnificent fail to do justice to this immense complex of temples and palaces.
Our Cambodian tour guide learned his English from an East End Londoner and an Australian. His accent lies somewhere in between. ("Wot, wat, mate?" says he.)
The tour includes eleven of the Angkor sites. One of my favourites is Ta Prohm where the strangler fig trees have inserted their enormous roots like fingers of the gods into the temple structures uprooting massive limestone foundation stones like pebbles.
A small but wondrous temple, Banteay Srei, features intricately carved "apsaras" (water nymphs) in seductive poses, as well as figures of gods, demons and mythical creatures.
Angkor Wat itself is a colossal temple built wholly for the purpose of worship. Its extensive bas-reliefs depict stories from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as 12th century AD battles of the Khmer kingdom.
The town of Siem Reep makes no bones about its raison d'etre which is largely to service the Angkor tourist trade. Pub Street crawls with restaurants, bars, shops and massage outlets. The main market has the usual conglomeration of cheap clothing, jewelry and food stuffs.
I decide to try a fish pedicure. For $3 and a free Angkor beer, I put my legs in a sidewalk fish tank and let a school of frenzied finned creatures nibble away until my feet are as smooth as silk. The grin on my face is a good advertisement for passers-by to try the same treatment.
Then it's goodbye Siem Reep, and hello Bangkok, via an all-day bus and minivan ride. The two-lane, drive-on-the-right, relatively relaxed Kingdom of Cambodia roadway transforms itself into a four-lane, drive-on-the-left, increasingly clogged and frenetic Kingdom of Thailand highway. May the protection of the Buddha be with us!
IF YOU GO:
I used a small group eco-tour company, G Adventures, for this nine day trip through Cambodia.
Credit: Barry Truter
1. The muddy waters of the Mekong Delta
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