Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2004
Subject: Hello from Siem Reap, Cambodia
This is our fourth full day here and already we seem to have packed in an enormous amount, mainly in the way of visiting temples. Angkor Wat is of course overwhelming in scale and quite magnificent. It's also seething with people - the traffic jam after sunset has to be seen to be believed - so it loses something in atmosphere, although the reflection of the sunset in the moat (more like a lake) was truly gorgeous. Some of the other temples, though, are absolutely magical, especially at lunchtime when the tour groups head back into town. Highlights include the Bayon, with its dozens of "enigmatically smiling" faces carved into the towers and a fabulously carved frieze; Banteay Srei with the most superbly intricate and delicate carvings directly into the sandstone (unlike the other temples, this one is pink); and Ta Prohm, where the jungle has been left at least partly in charge, with huge Spong (a kind of kapok) tree roots enveloping parts of the structures. It puts the Lost Gardens of Heligan into perspective!
We're staying at a wonderful hotel called the Angkor Village (thanks for the recommendation, Micki and Sonya), designed by an 'eccentric' French architect. It's a series of wooden cabins on different levels, all set amongst lush tropical plant life. The pool is a little tropical paradise on its own. (Eric: either the architect played one or more of the Myst/Riven games, or the designers thereof had a holiday here - it's just like one of the 'worlds').
On Saturday evening we went to the most extraordinary concert - if you can call it that. There's a Swiss doctor here, at the Jayavarman VII Children's Hospital, called Beat Richner. He also plays the cello and, under the name Beatocello, used to do so in a circus act. He puts on these 'concerts' weekly to raise funds for the hospital. He plays one or two of the slower movements from Bach's suites, and does a couple of rather wacky songs of his own (he has a very quirky sense of humour), but in between he talks about his cause in the most moving way, and shows a couple of short films about the work. He asks the younger tourists to give blood and the older ones for money; the ones in between, well... both. It's all very thought-provoking indeed, especially in relation to the arrogance of western 'experts' who come here (including Princess Anne) and pronouce that the facilities he wants are 'too sophisticated' for a poor country, while staying at the Sofitel hotel next door for $340 a night, when the average treatment for a child (5 nights, and several blood transfusions if they have dengue fever - one of the main killers) costs $170. No-one in the west talks about dengue fever. Rather, they get hysterical (his word) about SARS (not one case in Cambodia) and bird flu (still very rare). Hmmm - that's all got a bit heavy. So...
Yesterday we had a truly strange experience, visiting the floating village of Chong Kneas, where the Siem Reap river flows into the great Tonlé Sap Lake. And we mean floating: it's not another Venice - they do live on boats, and as the level (and thus the edge) of the lake moves, the whole village has to move with it. We saw one house being towed, as well as the local Catholic church (there are small Muslim and Vietnamese Catholic communities in the village). The village is in amongst the 'floating forest', although in this case the forest doesn't actually float, but the trees do live semi-submerged and look very odd sticking out of the water. Seeing it from above, as we did when the climbed the hill of Phnom Krom afterwards (Phnom, as in Penh, means a hill or mountain), you really would think it was somewhere like Bangladesh after a major flooding catastrophe - except it isn't. Amazing.
We've had some interesting canned drinks here: sour sop, winter melon and, strangest of all, 'grass jelly drink'. All quite pleasant actually, and not the kind of sticky horror you might expect. The best so far is lychee juice. We seem to have survived shrimps from the lake and a very peculiar something on a stick from a street vendor, which we concluded was pig's liver wrapped in... well maybe streaky bacon, but quite possibly not - maybe afterbirth (like the Greek sheftalia sausage). Other than that, the food has been mixed, but we did have an excellent - and very cheap - meal last night, with various fish concoctions (with frogs hopping about on the floor and geckos on the walls). Our tuk-tuk* driver took us for a Khmer breakfast of noodle soup and delicious tea.
* A tuk-tuk is one of the main forms of transport here: it's a cart for two, with a canopy above, pulled by a small motorbike.
OK - enough for now. We're off for a 'seeing hands' massage (by blind people), which comes highly recommended and helps to support them... and us, we hope! Next instalment probably from somewhere between Battambang (pronouced Battambong, apparently, where we set off early tomorrow on a three-hour boat trip) and Phnom Penh.
(Pete: I was right - Internet Explorer is all in English here, but this keyboard's a bit weird. As well as Khmer characters on the key caps, it has all kinds of extra modifier keys and a tiny little space bar, which I keep missing, and it took ages to work out how to get an apostrophe.)