Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 3 - The Forgotten Temples

The magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, are the major attractions of a World Heritage site near the city of Siem Reap. But temples - some older than that - are in fact scattered all around Siem Reap. Not all are marked on tourist maps.

My recent visit to Cambodia was an official one to see development projects, including some near Siem Reap. My colleagues and I decided to visit a village not far from one of the major highways in the country. Not far in terms of kilometres from the highway, that is. In fact we ended up doing a 45-minute bone-rattling drive on barely discernible paths - sometimes not discernible at all! I would have suggested turning back, but there was nowhere to turn.
We spent an interesting 45 minutes in the village, visiting a textile weaving scheme that builds on a traditional skill to create modern designs and provide greater income to women. As we finished, we let out a collective groan in anticipation of the drive back. On a whim, one of colleagues asked the women if there was a better way back to the highway. And there was!

So we took this better route back. I have never been so thankful for a dirt track! Bumpy as it was, it was heaven compared with the drive out along the practically non-existent path. We were so happy we were almost shouting in glee. Then, suddenly, we rounded a corner and found much more cause for joy. Two old temples in the middle of nowhere! Amazing. There were no deities in these small temples, but to my untrained eye they looked like old Hindu temples. The temples were built with the large stones typical of Khmer architecture.

There was also part of a wall and several broken columns. There was a one-room modern building near the temples and a Buddha statue, also from recent times, placed in the open next to the old temples. So some people were aware of the old ruins. But there was no sign of an archaelogical authority or government agency.

Of course, these simple, probably older, temples don't begin to compare with the glory of Angkor Wat or the Bayon. But on that hot afternoon, after the gruelling drive to and from the village, they were like a gift. A beautiful sight for sore eyes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 2: Restaurants.

New food is one of the joys of travel. After many years turning more and more squeamish about trying new meats, I decided to enjoy Cambodia's rather "daring" cuisine. My Cambodian friends seemed to find something new for me to try at every meal! And it was all delicious.

Usually one of them would introduce the more exotic dishes. One day he just told me we were eating deer meat, which I know and like. So I was happily tucking into the dish. The meat was accompanied by some lovely crunchy stuff - a bit like very crisp onion rings. When I was halfway through this delicious dish, my friend casually said: "Oh, and I forgot to tell you, that stuff with the deer meat is red ants." Wow. It tasted rather good, I must say, but I don't know that I would have tried it had I known what it was - known before I tried it, that is! Anyway, great food in Cambodia.

The restaurants were interesting too, everything from the roadside eateries to the huge, tourist-bus-oriented buffet restaurant with a cultural show. Lovely dances.

Equally interesting was the decor in this roadside eatery. A couple of different styles, to say the least. Don't miss the giant mushrooms in the corner. Globalization or clash of cultures? Hmm.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cambodia Vignettes

Vignette 1 - Coke Seller on the Tonle Sap

We were chugging along in a motorized boat on Cambodia's huge Tonle Sap lake; I was facing the front of the boat, waiting for the lake to open out before us in its full glory. Suddenly a boy appeared just behind me - on our boat - with a bunch of cold drinks. I couldn't figure out where he had materialized from. Turned out he had jumped on from another boat that had come close to ours. I asked him if I could take a picture - he flashed me a big grin and a victory sign.

I twisted around to see his "mother ship" - couldn't spot a boat near us. Apparently the boat had come up close, the boy had hopped on, and his companion had swerved away from us. He asked me what I'd like to drink. I didn't really want anything, but how could I not buy from such an enterprising and charming seller? My two colleagues and I each bought something from the boy.

Once the transactions were complete, the boy moved to the edge of our boat. The other boat - manned by his father, he explained - magically appeared beside ours. The boy prepared to jump back on to his Dad's boat.

My Cambodian companions assured me all little kids on the Tonle Sap were expert swimmers in addition to being great saleskids.

So I relaxed and waved goodbye to the boy as he jumped into his own boat.