Cambodia – A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas
Cambodia almost never happened. It’s just that I needed to take off on yet another smugglers’ run (getting my Thai visa renewed!) which happens every three months, and I was considering a dash across the border this time instead of heading back to India. However, voila! I got my one-year visa and there was no need any more for any dashes and dots 🙂
Except –the idea had taken root in my mind, since I had already checked out flights and stuff. And so, I turned to my new trusty (HA!) best friend, TripAdvisor, for some hotels. The Bougainvillier in Phnom Penh sounded good, especially as one of my journalist friends, Don Ross, had stayed there on an earlier trip and said it panned out. Good-oh, wrote to them; the sales dude replied and was most helpful in arranging my pick-and-drop, bus ticket to Siem Reap, recommending a hotel there, and what-have-you and I was all set.
Cambodia is a visa-on-arrival country, which is a major factor in choosing a destination to travel to, when you decide to pick up your feet and move at a moment’s notice. The visa costs USD20 – most things, you will find as you go along, are pegged at a flat USD20. The other puzzling fact you will notice as you go along, is that the currency of transaction here is the US dollar and the locals pretty much turn up their noses if you pay in Cambodian Riels (don’t ask ME, I’m just the mutt tourist, but apparently this is a throwback to the UN peace-keeping days of 1993).
Okay, so I get charged 10 dollars for the taxi pick from the airport to the hotel – I learn later the correct price is more like six dollars. The Bougainvillier, I find when I get there, is a very, very basic property, whose saving grace is that it’s located right across the promenade and river. Of course, I’m royally ripped off here too, as I pay USD65 to Don’s 40 and later, when I venture out for a ramble, I find hotels in the adjoining side streets going at USD25. Merde! Now, this is the problem when you travel to parts of Asia that aren’t fully developed with all tourist infrastructure in place – you rely on the net too much and then you get **!@#** And me, I’ve got ‘sucker’ written across my forehead!
Anyhow, I go for a lovely walk along the river……I’m talking a very pleasant evening in late November with a cool breeze wafting over the waters. Amazingly, the locals use the promenade every evening for dance or aerobics classes – it’s quite a sight. There are some exercise machines out here too and I’ve gotta tell you this is a really conducive way to lose weight…swinging on some thingummies while quiet flows the river…it beats huffing and puffing on a stationary bike in an air-conditioned room.
Okay, to bed – it’s an early bus to Siem Reap in the morning. This is the city where the famed Angkor Vat is located. How far is it from Phnom Penh? Err – you want to hear this literally or figuratively? There is NO ‘literally’ coz the road is one merry, narrow, pot-holed stretch. Something that you’re airily assured will take about four hours, do NOT believe…I planned my whole visit to the ruddy ruins around this timing, totally swayed by internet hype of ‘splendid sunset over the Angkor Vat where the stones gleam golden’ and what-not and then was practising deep breathing in the bus! Would you believe the driver was more interested in talking to his helper than piloting this rackety set of wheels along the afore-mentioned pot-holed path?! No amount of my hollering was doing any good, coz nobody speakee English, you see. So did the day get any better? Sure – we had a flat tyre! The Irish girl sitting next to me, who has just spent six weeks in Thailand, reminds me that I would do better to practise the Thai way of life since I live there now :“mai pan rai” (doesn’t matter)or “ki farak paenda ae” or in other words “chalta hai yaar!”
So anyway, we chug into Siem Reap, and I quickly fling myself into a tuk-tuk and urge the driver on to the hotel Angkoriana, which is supposed to be fairly close to the Angkor Vat but which, I realise with a sinking heart as I near the hotel…..oh well, fill in the blanks yourself 🙁 It’s a real job to get the maddeningly slow receptionist to complete the formalities and just hand me the room key so I can dump my stuff – there is no concept of time or ‘hurry’ in Cambodia and I’m stressed just watching out for that looming sunset! (Also, seeing the breakfast menu next morning, I can’t say I’m sorry to leave this joint!)
Fortunately, I get this very nice, honest tuk-tuk driver, Chandra, who absorbs my urgency and drives like a bat out of hell! Skidding to a halt in front of the famed Angkor Vat, I’m off and running , not in the least mindful of how I’m going to find Chandra again in a sea of Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers, till he yells after me “I wearing red cap!” Yes, for USD15, you can arrange to have the tuk-tuk wait for as long as it takes you to finish with your visit, then he takes you on to the other temples in the vicinity and eventually back to your hotel.
I cough up another 20 dollars to have my mugshot imprinted on the ticket for the Angkor Vat and I’m finally in, I’m here! Well, I dunno what the UN is doing with all our dollars or having this declared as a World Heritage site but to me, a student of history and moreover coming from India, a land with the most amazing temple architecture, this looks like a pile of ruins! My second disjointed thought is – how exactly was all this grey stone gonna gleam golden in the sunset??
There is erratic scaffolding all over the structure and a reallllly steep, narrow, improvised metal staircase leads you to the top and into the temple. At first glance, I blanch. No way! But then I think – I just paid 20 of the brightest to prowl around the Angkor Vat and by golly, I’m gonna do it! And so I ascend into the archway that leads to the interiors. Some of the wall friezes are very reminiscent of south Indian temple architecture; hardly surprising, when you consider that the first thousand years of Khmer rule was by Hindu kings of Tamil-Malay origin. Shaivite and Vaishnavite traditions eventually gave way to Buddhism, which is the major religion now.
If it weren’t for a kind, elderly American gentleman, alternately cajoling his wife and me into taking a step at a time without looking down, I wouldn’t have made it back to terra firma! I rush back to the patient Chandra and we set off for Angkor Thom, the erstwhile capital city. The entrance is lined on either side by these guardian busts. Inside, the Prasat Bayon temple is truly impressive, with the many enigmatic faces carved in the imposing stone exterior. Not sure who these people are; Chandra didn’t know and my pal Wiki (Wikipedia!) states that it could either be King Jayavarman VII or a Bodhisattva.
Onward ho to Ta Prohm or the ‘Jungle Temple’ so-called because of the massive trees growing amid the ruins; indeed, it is almost as though the temple is perched on tree branches. Unfortunately, tourists are not allowed entry after 6pm and it is now so dark that I can’t even get good pictures. I sneak in anyway (well, this IS me!) so that I can imprint some images on my memory and then I get Chandra to drop me to the main street in town, where I can grab some dinner.
It’s another bus journey next morning back to Phnom Penh; either this driver is more experienced or else the company has been alerted to the presence of a madder-than-a-wet-hen Indian lady aboard! Whatever, the ride is more timely in comparison and the landscape is of paddy fields interspersed with lotus patches, go figure. I link up with Katja, a Norwegian girl sitting next to me on the bus, and we decide to meet up later for a river cruise and then dinner.
Back to the Bougainvillier, and I dump my stuff and race to Central Market (Phsar), before it’s time for my cruise date 🙂 Ah, you one-track minds…no, it’s not for my own gratification but I DID want to check out a market that’s mentioned in all the guide books and sites. And boy, is it different! It’s like you walk into a huge hall with a high, vaulted ceiling that opens out into other rooms…little stalls everywhere, selling everything from electronics to clothes to jewellery.
Katja calls to tell me she’s on her way so I head back to the promenade. We take a 5.30pm cruise so we can catch the sunset…the river here is a confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. It’s 25-dollars for an hour-long, extremely pleasant cruise – until that is, my new friend happens to mention she’s staying at a fairly comfortable guesthouse at seven dollars!! Oh my Buddha, why me?!
We’re sorry when the cruise comes to an end all too soon. It’s a toss-up now whether we head for dinner first or the Night Market; the latter wins, simply coz it’s on the way to where the restaurants are. Rather disappointing shopping, for one who is used to Bangkok night markets J Angry Birds seems to be quite popular in Cambodia. We stroll on, hoping to grab a bite, but are quite put off by people literally accosting us, shoving soiled menus in our faces and the perpetual chant of “Lady, Lady, eat, eat.” You have to remember that Cambodia is a very poor country, but this combination of guilt and aversion we feel at their poverty means its hard work indeed holidaying in a place like this.
We get out of the Night Market and back to the main street; by now, Katja is famished and close to fainting, so we pick the first restaurant that looks reasonably clean, and dive in. This is probably not the best time to tell you that she reminded me Cambodia is a country where dogs are a dish! Indeed, we have walked all this way and seen nary a dog, but then we come across a couple of strays on the way to the restaurant and look at each other in much relief 🙂 The food is surprisingly darned good; don’t judge the dish by the menu!
The next day, I’m off early to the Wat Unnalom, close to the hotel. The head priest of the country’s Buddhist order, along with many senior monks, lives here, so certain sections are not open to visitors. This is the most important Wat in Phnom Penh, also, like the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, this one has a relic of the Buddha – an eyebrow hair. Admission is free, and you can wander around to see some rich wall friezes, but nothing else to this Wat, really.
The Royal Palace isn’t far off but I give that a skip in order to meet Katja by the river once more, before I set off for my Killing Fields tour and thence on to the airport. The girls at the Bougainvillier are rather sad to see me go, as I was a fount of knowledge for them – right from shattering their dreams that Shahrukh Khan is not only married but daddy-of-two, to giving them hope that ole Salman is single yet 🙂 They think that I am Poonam Dhillon, not just coz of the first name but apparently I look like her, so they think I’m travelling incognito and insist on a picture…what to do. Sigh. Noblesse oblige…oh the burdens of being famous and goodlookin!!
The Killing Fields is pretty much on the same route to the airport or so the sales guy at the hotel informed me, and that’s the reason I decided to combine the two however, same route or not – I would earnestly advise you NOT to do anything so foolish. The visit to this absolutely grim and dreadful place leaves you so churned up that you are in no frame of mind to be battling airport procedures and flying to anyplace…you do need to be quiet and alone to reflect.
Don’t know how much you know about this, but the Killing Fields were like a mass grave during the Pol Pot regime of the Khmer Rouge of 1975-1979; monks, professionals, intellectuals, anybody suspected of having connections with either the former government or foreign governments was executed and buried in mass graves. To save on ammunition, executions were also carried out using sharpened bamboo sticks or poison; infants and little children were killed by swinging them and bashing their heads against a tree trunk (picture of the Chankiri Tree as below). Victims were also made to dig their own graves, much like the Nazi camps.
The Killing Fields at Phnom Penh is not the only one – but it is the best-kept monument. There is a museum in a tower (see pix) that contains hundreds of skulls frozen in the grimace of death; in some, it is possible to see the cause of death, as in a bullet hole or a caved-in side caused by a blow. Sometimes, you can see jaws which have teeth missing – teeth that were broken by the killing blow. Even now, especially during heavy rains when the top layer of soil shifts, it is not uncommon to come across scraps of cloth or bone fragments. Visitors are required to inform the guides or officials at the site. Yes, while walking around, I did see tiny scraps of fabric, but I am not entirely sure whether these are just fragments blown by the wind or that from buried victims; be that as it may, the visit here is a horrible macabre experience, a testimony of man’s utter evilness against his fellow man.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.