Cambodia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 262 (72)

Siem Reap

Thursday 25th November

Our good man Chan was waiting for us outside the hotel by the time we stepped out this morning and he whisked us off to the temple complex at Angkor again for another half day of temple trekking. He had taken us to see the three largest and most impressive temples yesterday but we studied the guidebook last night and there was one temple in particular that we wanted to see. The temple at Ta Som is apparently a particularly nice place to visit for photography with one structure at the East end of the site nearly completely engulfed by the rampant growth of a banyan tree. I also have in the back of my mind the image of one of those faces that we’ve seen on the temple towers, with the vines of a banyan tree growing all over it. I was also hoping that Ta Som might be the temple where this is located.

After explaining our love of photography, Chan took us straight to the temple at Ta Som and we spent a good half hour or more exploring all its nooks and crannies. We found and duly photographed the banyan tree engulfed structure from all possible angles. It is indeed very impressive to see but we never did find the vine-covered face. Chan’s English is reasonably good, certainly a hell of a lot better than our Cambodian, but there is still a little bit of a communications gap from time to time so I took my time in explaining to him that we were looking for the vine covered face specifically. He knew exactly what we were talking about and explained that what we were looking for was at Ta Prom, the second temple we visited yesterday. Unfortunately, however, the banyan vines in question were removed a few months ago. He explained that the temple at Ta prom was where some of the filming for the first Tomb Raider movie was done and it was probably on the cover art of the DVD that I remember seeing this image to begin with.

Ta Som was very interesting to walk about but the second temple we visited this morning was a little less so. We did, however, finally buckle under the weight off all the kids trying to sell us flutes and for $1 (€0,77) we bought two flutes – each. This was a communications failure of our own as neither of us realised that the other was parting with a Dollar in exchange for a couple of flutes. So, we now have four flutes to take along with us. Sandy was particularly keen to pick up some souvenirs whilst here in Cambodia. She didn’t buy very much in China and didn’t want to make that same mistake here so we ventured to take a closer look at what was being offered at the various market stalls. The problem is that once we get started with buying souvenirs, we find it difficult to stop and we ended up walking away with both hands stuffed full of souvenirs each. We bought some very nice woodcarvings, sarongs and tops for Sandy and a puppet on strings. How we are going to get all of this into our backpacks is something that we will have to worry about the next time we have to pack.

The half-day of temple trekking this morning was enough and we had Chan take us back to our hotel to rest for an hour or so. We later ventured out to grab a bite to eat and I quite fancied some of that rather tasty chicken noodle soup we ate yesterday whilst at Angkor. The first restaurant that we tried didn’t have noodle soup available but the second place did and we sat and enjoyed the meal with our every need being pampered to by the extremely friendly and helpful wait staff. I know it’s a cliché but the people here in Cambodia really are very nicest people you could ever wish to meet. I've heard this before from other travellers but it never really registered until now.

Chan needed to go to a wedding party this lunchtime but today marked the start of the two or three day long water festival that takes place throughout most of Cambodia once a year. Twenty-odd rowers in very long boats paddle up and down the rivers and waterways throughout Cambodia in a friendly round of boat races with the rest of the population lining the banks to cheer them all on. We made our way over to the Siem Reap River a hundred meters or so from our hotel and found a spot on the water side to sit and mingle with the locals to cheer on the rowers throughout the afternoon. It was a very jovial and relaxing atmosphere with kids running up and down, traders selling street food and all manner of other things, just as might be the case with any other summer celebration we might find back in the West. As the boats passed our section of the river, the crowds on both sides would chant to egg them on. The boats are very narrow, very long and hold some twenty two rowers all giving it their all. Unfortunately, they are not the most stable of craft and at least two vessels took on enough water to sink part way through the race. Two of these unfortunate but comical submergings took place just opposite where we were sitting on the riverbank. It was all a lot of fun and a real treat to see the local population in such high spirits and having such a good time. We had a lot of fun taking photos of all the kids and showing them the photos of themselves on the digital camera screens. A young man sitting next to me wanted to practice his English and I spent twenty minutes helping him with his pronunciation and generally getting to know him. The temples at Angkor Wat are a magnificent sight to behold but it’s these simple little interactions with the locals that I will probably remember most from Cambodia.

The boat race festivities lasted for much of the afternoon and it was thoroughly enjoyable to sit and casually observe. Chan had earlier suggested that we spend the evening at a local theatre & dinner show. We decided that for $12 (€9,23) each, we could quite do with absorbing some Khmer culture so we went back to the hotel to freshen up before he collected us again for this evening’s festivities. We’ve also been giving a lot of consideration over the past couple of days to what else to do whilst here in Cambodia. Apparently, the road to Phnom Penh is quite a good one so we are thinking of heading next to the nation’s capital. After that, we will head south to the coast by bus where we can apparently pick up a four or five hour boat ride back over to Bangkok. This all works out great as it enables us the opportunity to get to see more of Cambodia whilst taking us back into Thailand without having to negotiate that road from hell to Poipet.

Once the crowds started to slowly disperse towards the end of the boat race events, we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for this evening’s dinner and cultural nourishment. Chan was already waiting for us once we emerged to look for him and he took us across town to the theatre. Our seats were slightly off to one side but we had a good view of the stage nevertheless. The whole place had a very open air feel to it with a very dark ceiling and lots of light bulbs dangling from cables overhead. It wasn't until we had visited the various buffet tables to sample some of the food on offer that is dawned on us that we were actually sitting out in the open air between the brightly lit stage and the restaurant. The performances were of traditional Cambodia dancing with the performers moving around the stage in very graceful and methodical movements. It looked quite different to anything else I've yet seen and it was nice to add yet another new experience to our steadily growing list.

The one disadvantage to sitting out in the open air is that you are a slave to the elements. Although it’s the dry season now, it does rain from time to time and we were treated to bout of substantial downpour near the end of the evening’s entertainment. Chan is usually very early so I went to see if he had arrived to collect us already, since we were nearing the end of the evening anyway. As if by magic, he suddenly appeared next to me. Apparently, he’d been standing in the wings again, watching us enjoy ourselves, sensed that we were ready to go and so made his presence known.

I settled our bill, which came to exactly $30 (€23) after leaving a tip for the attentive wait staff. Chan whisked us back to our hotel and we bid him goodnight. We’ve agreed to retain his services again for a half-day tomorrow.