Friday, March 19, 2010

In solitude

Only one intact skull remains at the memorial at Wat Kesararam in Siem Reap
Whenever I am in the vicinity, I visit the remaining genocide memorials in Cambodia, usually constructed just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime at the end of the 1970s though many of these memorials have now virtually disappeared through neglect and disinterest amongst the local population. Only a handful are still cared for and remain the focus of annual ceremonies to remember the millions who died during the Pol Pot-led period. Often the memorials were erected after mass graves, which were to be found in nearly every district in the country, were dug up and the memorial stupas became the final resting place of the deceased. I have previously posted photographs from many of these memorials. Whilst I was in Siem Reap last week, I recalled a vague mention that Wat Kesararam, situated smack back in the middle of town on national road 6, had a small memorial. I was aware of the larger one at Wat Thmei, which I had visited many years before, but had not seen anything on a previous visit to Wat Kesararam. I posed the question to a couple of young monks on entering the pagoda compound and they pointed off into the distance, amongst a collection of burial stupas. A rickety wooden shrine was easy enough to find, though over time the collection of bones and skulls has obviously diminished and what remains today, is likely a fraction of what was in situ originally, judging by the fragments of skulls to be found. A group of workmen were sat next to the shrine, playing cards and looking at me quizzically, as I took some photos. The memorial doesn't even register on the original DC-Cam list of genocide memorials so I don't have any information as to where the deceased came from, numbers, and so on. I hope a future visit to the DC-Cam archives will enlighten me.
The simple wooden shrine amongst a collection of burial stupas at Wat Kesararam
The genocide memorial that remains today is likely a fraction of the original memorial
A wall painting at Wat Kesararam showing what happens to sinners

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Sunset on Cambodia

The setting sun from the top of Phnom Bakheng, where the crowds make it a forgettable experience nowadays
No, don't worry I'm not leaving Cambodia... these are just some pictures taken on my recent trip to Siem Reap and a view of the end of the day at two very different locations, both looking out over the expanse of fields and water, so prevalent in this beautiful country. Above is the view, over the tree-tops, from Phnom Bakheng, looking out to the western baray on the far right. It was hard to take a photo without a horde of tourist heads in the shot, but I managed it. The top of the mountain is a magnet for sunset snappers and there were literally thousands of people taking up every available inch, and making a din that completely spoiled the moment. It may be the highest spot in the Angkor Park to take your sunset pictures, and it used to be the best, but it's become a victim of its own success. Avoid it at all costs unless you simply can't stay away.
On the other hand, the two pictures below were taken on another hill, south of Siem Reap at Phnom Krom. This was a totally different experience altogether. The views were just as good, actually they are better (in the rainy season they must be fantastic with the fields flooded with water) and I was practically alone. A couple of other tourists had the same idea as me, but they arrived, snapped and left me in silence as I watched the sun slip below the horizon. You need a temple-ticket for Phnom Krom and its a fair hike up the mountain but the weathered temple looks good in the late afternoon sun and the views across the fields and the northeast corner of the Tonle Sap lake are simply gorgeous. Go now before the hordes realize what they're missing.
A beautiful setting sun from Phnom Krom, minus the hordes
A patchwork of green fields and water await you from the top of Phnom Krom

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

I've been lax again

Now is one of the most genuine and kind-hearted people I know and I'm proud to be her friend. She is a souvenir seller at Angkor Wat.
You'd think I'd be able to find the time to update my blog, I'm only in Siem Reap for goodness sake, not in some remote village in the back of beyond. However my excuse is that the hotel I stayed in last night didn't have free wi-fi and neither does the hotel I moved into today. The rest of the time I haven't stopped to catch breath. However the internet aside, both hotels are excellent and I shouldn't moan as they are both complimentary, courtesy of the respective hotel's sales teams. The Victoria Angkor, where I stayed last night, was top drawer stuff. They gave me the Maharadjah Suite room and it was like a dream, the bed was so comfortable that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It's a 5-star hotel so I would expect it to be pretty good and it didn't disappoint. This morning I moved to the Tara Angkor, a new boy to Siem Reap's four-star class hotels and it too is damn fine. I stayed here a couple of weeks ago and the breakfasts are the best ever. My room is pretty good though the bathroom could be a little bigger and my mouth is already watering when I think of tomorrow's breakfast!
My classy bedroom at Victoria Angkor Hotel
Now and I arriving at the wedding party, with the sun full in our face
I got into town on Saturday after the usual six-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, meeting my pal Sokhom and another friend, Chunly, who I hadn't seen for two years, at the lunch-stop in Kompong Thom en route. I popped into the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse to see Kim and her family before booking into the Victoria, having a quick swim and then out for dinner with Thanet, the sales manager of the Tara Angkor. As always she is the most generous of hosts and my chicken curry was unusually presented but pretty tasty. This morning I was out at 6.30am to take part in one of the traditional ceremonies for the wedding of Dary, the sister-in-law of my best friend Rieng. I joined a long line of guests carrying trays of assorted goodies to the home of the bride's parents, in this case, Rieng's newly-built house, before we tucked into an open-air breakfast, bathed in glorious sunshine. I retired to the Victoria to pack before Now arrived on her moto to take me to the lunchtime wedding party at a local restaurant, where nearly 500 guests ate and drank themselves to their hearts content. Now and I left around 2pm and headed out for a whistle-stop visit to a couple of areas of Angkor Wat I've never been to before and then we joined the hordes on top of Phnom Bakheng for sunset. I wanted to see how bad it really is these days and believe me, it was gruesome. Every possible vantage point was taken well before sunset and most of the audience was Asian, and very pushy. It was not a moment to savour in the slightest but we stuck it out til the end before we wandered back down the hill in the dark and headed for home. Now returned to her home in the Angkor Park whilst I headed for a curry at the popular Curry Walla and the internet shop, where I'm typing this right now.
The sun is out for the newly-married couple, with Dary resplendent in her 10th outfit change of the day
It got even worse than this at the top of Phnom Bakheng as sunset approached, as the scramble for places intensified

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Friday, February 6, 2009

On my travels

Although I'm still in the throes of posting photos from my recent trip to Siem Reap just a couple of weeks ago, I'll be on the Mekong Express bus again tomorrow morning, winging my way back up north to Siem Reap for another wedding and a couple of days scooting around Angkor. My friends at the Victoria Angkor and Tara Angkor, two of the best hotels in Siem Reap, have offered me accommodation, so I can sample their delights first-hand. Life isn't all bad. The wedding is the sister-in-law of my best pal Rieng and the party is on Sunday. On Monday I might well be back on my bicycle for a trip along the full length of the walls of Angkor Thom, while on Tuesday there's a small chance of a very special look at Angkor, but I won't count my chickens on that score until the day arrives. Don't you love a mystery?


Friday, January 23, 2009

Working out

Working out in the mid-day heat
Whilst I was pouring over the foundations of a ruined Angkorean temple site a few kilometres past Banteay Samre last week, I heard some grunting and muted thuds coming from a thicket just around the corner. Being of a nosey disposition, I ventured over to the thicket to find three Cambodian men in their twenties, giving this punchbag some serious attention with feet, fists and arms, despite it being mid-day and scorching hot as well. Through my translator, I asked if they were kick-boxers and they said no, but they liked to come to this spot to work out and to take out their frustrations - and judging by the efforts they put in, they must've had a few. I felt tired just watching them and taking a few photos. They carried on, taking turns to rest before stepping up to the punchbag again to kick, punch, elbow and knee themselves into a deep sweat, as I said my goodbyes and returned to Siem Reap.
These guys had feet and hands made of steel
Any rest was short-lived as they again stepped up to deliver their blows to the punchbag


Monday, January 19, 2009

Quad fun-time

I'm getting in some practice on my quad before we begin. I chose No 1 of course!
I've always shied away from motorbikes per se as it's never been something I've been keen to try, however, Quad bikes are a different kettle of fish altogether and after my first-ever Quad experience this afternoon, I'm a confimed fan. A dozen Hanuman employees took to the backroads and rice fields surrounding Siem Reap for a 90-minute runaround on the quads and I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say we had a ball. Okay so it was dusty, but the welcome from the village children who turned out in force along the route, as well as the peaceful sunset in the distance, when we stopped to give the less-confident drivers a whirl in a rice field, was well worth a bit of dust in the face. Only qualified car drivers are allowed to pilot the quads and after a half-hour of instruction and safety preparation, we took some picturesque tracks through a host of small villages - I noticed many homes had a Ting-Mong (scarecrow) on duty alongwith groups of excitable children shouting and waving a spirited welcome - and into the countryside. Accompanied by the quad-bike owners, we weren't allowed to let rip on this, the shortest of their routes, but I'm sure a much-longer adventure would allow you more lee-way to expose your quad-rallying skills. Nevertheless, it was a great way for the Hanuman team to end their brief stay in Siem Reap, dusty or not. Quad-biking gets a definite thumbs-up in my book.
A quick snap across the countryside as the sunset approached
A short break near a canal so time for a picture with one of my colleagues, Chrep
The setting sun provided a great backdrop to our trip
The dozen members of the Hanuman quad-biking rally team. LtoR: (back) Vichet, Chrep, Kosal, Kimchean, Nary, Serey, me, Daroeurn, Sim, Pisey; (front) Rith and Thoeun.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Gate of the Dead

One of the enigmatic faces of the Gate of the Dead
The East Gate of Angkor Thom at the Angkor complex of temples just outside of Siem Reap leads nowhere. Unlike the other four gates of Angkor Thom, the Gate of the Dead, as it's also known, is therefore rarely-visited though it's still in fair condition. The leafy track that runs the one and half kilometres from The Bayon to the gate was occupied by birds, butterflies and a shy troop of small monkeys when I paid a visit last week, apart from that it was deathly quiet for a gate by which dead bodies were allegedly disposed of. Like all the majestic gates at Angkor Thom, the East Gate is 75 foot in height with four faces of Lokiteshvara (or Jayavarman VII if you prefer, as I do) staring out to the four cardinal points. The quartet of elephant (Indra's mount, Airavata) trunk pillars, either side of the entrance, have fared to varying degrees, as have the praying figures above, and at this gate, there are no gods and demons holding nagas still remaining. Some wooden supports are in evidence to stop the elephant trunks from collapsing but by and large, the gate is in good nick. After admiring the amazing craftsmanship of these late 12th century builders, I took my bicycle onto the top of the eight-metre high wall and cycled along the parapet to the Victory Gate nearby.
The 1.5 kilometre leafy lane that runs from the Bayon to the East Gate
The western side of the gate with the elephant trunks on either side of the doorway
Indra and two consorts have seen better days
The nose of the south-facing Lokitesvara is missing
Another view of the south-facing Lokitesvara and praying figures
The Gate of the Dead from the eastern approach, which becomes a small track into the surrounding forest
A stylized lotus blossom on the wall next to a collapsed elephant trunk
Three praying figures above the eastern face of the East Gate of Angkor Thom

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Saturday, January 17, 2009


Invitations are coming thick and fast over the last few weeks. They include birthdays, house-warmings and wedding party invitations by the truckload after I jokingly complained about the lack of them even though it was the wedding season in Cambodia. Tonight it's the annual Hanuman staff party here in Siem Reap, where I'm staying in the lap of luxury at the fashionable Hotel De La Paix. I've just had a swim in the hotel's 1st floor pool - boy was it cold - and will get ready for tonight's party extravaganza soon enough. In checking my emails, Anne Bass has sent me an invitation to attend a preview screening of her Dancing Across Borders documentary film at CCF on Wednesday 21st, with cocktails beforehand. I flagged the film in my blog a couple of days ago so it was a nice gesture to get the invite from Anne. I will definitely be there. After tonight's party I've got another couple of nights in Siem Reap before heading back to Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Well that's the plan but it's liable to change at any time.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

My schedule

The East Gate of the city of Angkor Thom
Okay, enough stalling, what have I been doing the last few days? After attending parties galore in Siem Reap on Saturday and Sunday, it was all work, work, work on Monday through til Wednesday night. Now that I work in the tourism industry, rather than visiting the temples purely for fun, a few days in the temple capital of the world (in my view) necessitated me casting a keen eye over some of the Angkor temples, how and when to visit to see them at their best (without the crowds), testing guides, trying out a few remote sites and so on. Monday morning was spent meeting our new staff in our Siem Reap branch before a six-hour bicycle ride around Angkor Thom after lunch. I started at the South Gate and headed for the rarely-seen East Gate (or Gate of the Dead) which doesn't lead anywhere hence its solitude. I took my bike on top of the city wall to ride onto Victory Gate, sought out the hidden last known shrine of the Angkor period, Mangalartha (aka Monument 487 and Prasat Top East), before poking around some bits of rubble near the two Khleangs and the towers of Prasat Suor Prat. Onto the oft-overlooked handful of shrines that make up the Preah Pithu group - which house some fine carvings and are very peaceful - and then over the road to visit Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay. The latter was a major disappointment now that they have cut down the trees that gave it it's own unique forest setting. Hot and sweaty, I headed back to the office to catch up on my emails before taking my evening meal at the Curry Walla on Sivatha Street.
The gods lining the causeway to the South Gate of Angkor Thom
The eerie dawn light at Ta Prohm
Tuesday was an early start for a dawn visit and sunrise at Ta Prohm. It was pitch black when we arrived at 5.30am, no-one was about, not even the Apsara guards, and it was just me, my guide, a torch and the shrill of the green parrots that inhabit the temple's trees. We walked through the temple as the dawn light gradually improved as the sun rose over the horizon - which we obviously couldn't see as the temple was in the way - but the solitude inside one of Angkor's busiest temples was palpable and evidenced when my guide jumped a foot in the air as something scurried across our torchlit path. At 7pm we eventually saw another human as we made our way out of the east entrance and headed back for breakfast. I forgot to say that my overnight stay was at the Tara Angkor Hotel, which is pretty swish in all aspects, and their breakfast was a real treat after my early start in the extremely chilly air. Now warmed up, my day continued with the aid of my old pal, Kim Rieng and his moto. At 9am we headed out for a 9-hour trip to see a few of the remoter, rarely-visited sites of Phnom Bok, Prasat Banteay Ampil and Chau Srei Vibol. More on these sites in individual postings but Phnom Bok was a killer of a climb with 630 steps to the top, Banteay Ampil involved walking barefoot and pushing the moto through two small rivers and the route to Chau Srei Vibol was sandy and hard going. It was good to get back to my room at the HanumanAlaya (yes another change of hotel) for a welcome shower prior to a lovely meal and late-night chat at the home of my friends Eric and Lida.
Tree roots strangle this window frame at Prasat Banteay Ampil
The face of a demon, asura, on a false door of one of the towers of Bakong
A 5am start beckoned again on Wednesday. A new guide, a new temple, this time Preah Khan, but the bitterly cold air was the same. Preah Khan was an almost identical replica of Ta Prohm except there were no parrots, no sign of life at all, except for some bats, more doorways to duck through and by the time we reached the Hall of Dancers the first rays of sunlight were peering through the trees at the eastern entrance. Both of the guides gave me an excellent historical overview of the temples and the carvings (by torchlight) but also added snippets about the religions, the various gods, fauna, wildlife, customs, and so on. Certainly it reminded me that though my travels for many years have been solo, a well-informed guide who knows his/her stuff adds immeasurably to a visit to Angkor for first-timers. I'm certainly no novice but I learnt a few things on both of my dawn visits that I hadn't known before. After breakfast I conducted some training in the Siem Reap branch, took the opportunity to visit The Sothea luxury five-star resort that will open next month and gulped down lunch. Kim Rieng returned with his car this time and we headed out to the Roluos Group for a whistle-stop visit to Bakong and Preah Ko before taking a short-cut towards Chong Khneas, for an early evening sunset boat cruise on the edges of the Tonle Sap Lake. Dinner at HanumanAlaya and for the second time I fell asleep at my pc whilst trying to upload some photos to this blog. This morning it was back to Phnom Penh by Mekong Express at 7am - it takes six hours - despite the bus being clipped by a truck and we then came across a major road accident where a man's body lay in the road, motionless, with blood seeping from his head and his mouth. I fear he wasn't going to survive.
These are monks going to meditate, though they appear armed and ready to do battle
Some of the day's last rays of sunshine over the Tonle Sap Lake

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