Touching down at Siem Reap
Cambodia seems to be made up of extremes: Extreme poverty and extreme wealth; extremely gorgeous houses and hotels and extremely dilapidated huts and shelters put together with pieces of wood; an attempt at kick-starting the country's tourism industry that seems to be diametrically opposed, even incompatible, with how the majority of the locals truly live. On our last day at the airport's boarding area, I bought a book titled Reconciliation in Cambodia which is about the aftermath of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime and the difficulties involved in holding accountable the perpetrators of the gross acts of violence against humanity with some stuff on the rule of law thrown into the mix, and whilst my mom was paying for the book, the cashier asked her where she was from.
My mom said, "Singapore."
The cashier said, "You're very lucky to live in Singapore."
Truer words have not been said. On the first day, immediately after arriving at Siem Reap from a 6.30 a.m. flight, the tour guides took us to a couple of obvious tourist trap-y places whose names I unfortunately cannot recall. They were handicraft workshops where busloads of tourists gawk at the locals making silk scarves and wooden statues, among other things. And of course, at the end of the tour we were brought to their souvenir shops but there was nothing much to buy.
After lunch we were driven to take a cruise on the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia that felt more like an ocean with its invisible shorelines and vast, seemingly endless reach. The roar of the motor drowned out any attempts at conversation, as well as the local tour guide's voice, so I spent the cruise trying to take pictures and getting my hair out of my eyes.
One of the many huts that we drove past on the way to the lake.
People actually live here.
We passed by many floating huts made of straw and wood and all sorts of fire hazardous materials. No electricity, no bed, no clean water, and I can only imagine what it's like inside one of those huts. Bare shelter, not much more. And the solemnity of the situation showed up right in our boat when a Cambodian girl, slightly less than ten, materialised out of seemingly nowhere with a dirty basket of a few cans of soft drinks and a few bunches of bananas.
Initially I thought she was on the top deck or something. I thought it was maybe an arrangement between locals like her and the people who ran the cruise business that they could stay on the top deck of the boats and try to sell soft drinks to tourists for US$1 a pop. It was only when I heard my father say that she jumped on board from her own boat that I realised that there was no arrangement. It was simply how locals like her tried to make a living. A while later another girl, about ten, jumped on board with a dirty basket of soft drinks and bananas. My mom bought a can of 7-Up from her. No one else entertained her. She walked past me and I saw that her right ear was being eaten away by some virus or disease. After making her first round she came back and made another round, because my mom had trouble finding a one-dollar note and so she couldn't find her boat. This time, no one bought anything from her.
They chase tourist boats in a small, narrow sampan powered by an engine. Three on a boat, often children, sometimes mothers with babies. They have to climb over the wooden railing of the tourist boat to get on board, which means that their own boat has to get close enough to the tourist boat. At a souvenir shop they wedge their boats in between tourist boats and sold soft drinks and bananas out of baskets, and I saw a good-looking boy with one arm rowing around in a big basin which my grandmother used to wash clothes, like this. I saw a cute little girl about five or six, standing on a boat with a large snake around her neck. Naturally I thought, "Oh so cute!" I trained my camera at her and she posed for me.
Immediately after I took her picture she said, "One dollar!"
This is how they fish.
This picture cost me US$1.
My mom had no change. My dad had no US dollars. I had no US dollars. We tried telling her that we were sorry and that we had no money, but she kept saying "one dollar", until my dad offered her the 7-Up my mom bought from the girl who jumped onto our boat. The snake girl didn't want it at first, but she relented after a while and took it.
At the souvenir shop there was another child with a snake around him. He looked about three. His mother was sitting next to him. A group of people crowded around him, all snapping pictures.
Contrast this to the five-star hotels, the four-star hotels, the three-star hotels with air-conditioning and clean water out of taps and toilets that flush your bodily wastes away, the SUVs that ferry tourists with money around run-down areas where people live in straw huts and where children run around without shoes on, SUVs with tourists who pass by such places with a barely-there glance and think to themselves how unfortunate these brown-skinned people are to be living in such horrible conditions, and by extension how fortunate they are to be able to sit in comfortable air-conditioned SUVs and tour buses to think such thoughts. How fortunate they are to be able to go back to a nice, clean hotel room at the end of a long, tiring day and take a nice hot clean shower with clean water in a clean toilet with fresh clean towels to dry themselves after the nice clean shower with water that flows from taps and shower faucets. How fortunate they are to be able to make jokes about "one dollar" as if there's anything to laugh about at all, to parade around with Esprit shades on and a River Island bag slung over one shoulder, how fortunate they are to be able to say "no" to children selling books and bags and bracelets and t-shirts and scarves in English Chinese German Japanese French.
How fortunate we are to have the option of leaving behind half the food on our plates at the breakfast buffet because we don't like the food, how fortunate we are to have the chance to feel guilty about it later, to feel guilty about bitching about the hotel not providing us with a box of tissue and facial towels and slippers instead of flip flops, to complain about bad food, how fortunate we are, really, to have the luxury to waste and to take things for granted. How lucky I am to be living in Singapore. Sometimes I forget what I'm complaining about, and it can't be right for me to make the "it's all relative" argument after seeing for myself just how pathetic and sad their living conditions are. How is it that foreigners enjoy comfortable beds and clean water but the locals have to make do with sleeping on dirty wooden floors by the lake and making a living by putting a snake around their children's shoulders? It is a very sad world.
On a brighter note, Days Two and Three were fantastic. We visited the Angkor Archaeological Park which was massive and shattered and exceeded all expectations and everything I could possibly imagine from what I'd heard about the place. I've seen pictures, but pictures seriously do not do the place justice. It was absolutely amazing, being in history that dates so far back, walking the halls and climbing the steps that the people back then - I can't even conceive of how back then "back then" was - walked and climbed. The way time stretched so far back and yet stood absolutely still, how the universe is truly much bigger than yourself, all of it was evident in the crumbling stones and fallen rocks and caved-in towers of the temples and houses that still stood tall and proud so many hundred years later. It was breath-taking and mind-blowing all at once.
The downside was, because the place is so damn famous, it was crawling with tourists - especially Angkor Wat, which we visited on our third day. It was rather mind-warping actually, with all these nationalities and accents gathered in one place. Singaporeans, Chinese, Japanese, French, Americans, British - very fascinating, to be sure, but it was just way too crowded. There were times where I could barely move without knocking into someone and that wasn't fun, considering how narrow the steps were and how the hallways really weren't made to accommodate so many people at one time.
Anyway, we all had to have our pictures taken for our very own personalised entrance ticket. I was looking sideways in my picture because I stood there smiling at the camera for like, 5 seconds, and nothing happened, so I was checking if they were taking my picture, and apparently they chose the moment in which I looked away to take my picture. Oh well, at least it turned out nice.
Me with the Angkor Balloon advertisement; my three-day pass; the ticket check point; the ticketing booth.
From there the tour bus took us to our first destination. On the way we passed by some structures which was very exciting indeed.
Taken from the bus.
I have to admit: I had no idea what I was looking at most of the time. The Cambodian tour guide spoke Mandarin because it was a Mandarin tour, and things got terribly lost in translation. It didn't help either that I didn't do any research before flying to Siem Reap and I have ashamed to say this but the only thing that I knew about Angkor Wat was that I loved the scene at the end of Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love" where Tony Leung whispered secrets into a hole in a wall there. And that was it. That was all I cared about. I could shoot myself right now for being so utterly shallow.
In my defence, it was really a great, gorgeously-filmed, heart-wrenching scene. So there. And no, I didn't eventually find that spot; to be really honest I only have a very vague impression of what that scene looks like. Oh well.
I also didn't listen to the guide and when I did listen I didn't understand most of what he said, so here are some pictures without much commentary. I took about a thousand three hundred pictures (yes, I'd gone slightly mad) and I can't post them all so these are just some of them, the better ones. The rest - most of the rest - will go on Facebook when I get off my arse long enough to do it.
Day Two, morning:
The bridge that leads to the temple are lined by two balustrades shaped as nagas, which are held by stone giants, many of which are headless as per above.
The temple itself. According to my itinerary, it's called Ta Prohm. Also, inside the temple, one of the many doors leading to I don't know where. They were mostly dark and occupied with fallen stones.
From inside the temple to out.
I don't know what this is, just that it was gorgeous.
I don't know what this is either, but the architecture is indescribably amazing.
A tree growing all over the stone walls.
A little boy randomly sitting on one of the window-type things. I don't know what he was doing there.
The gate to the temple.
The entrance to Prasat Kravan, which is made of brick.
At Preah Khan temple, more galleries being crushed by a tree.
A silvery tree.
Life in ruins and still smiling about it.
This one is interesting. I don't know where we were; all I know is that we had to climb very steep, very narrow steps. And it was a very long way up: see the bottom right picture. My brother chickened out, so I dumped my bag with him and had a go at it. I climbed up to the second landing, looked down, and almost died of fright. I looked up at the remaining steps I had to climb and decided that it was just too damn scary. So I got to the second landing and gave up. Tragic, isn't it? But getting down was even harder. I had to sit on the steps and slowly push myself downwards. Very tiring, but super fun.
After all of that, the last destination was this supposedly secret place that the tour guide wanted us to see. We hurried through a gate, walked up a steep slope, and saw a breath-taking and detailed sculpture of yet another Buddha image.
This one was special because we got really close up to it, close enough to touch.
On Day Three, we visited Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat from a distance with a moat in between. The water was very clear and very enticing, especially after walking through the vast temple, half the time in the hot sun, for a couple of hours.
Along one of the many galleries in Angkor Wat.
Stairway to heaven: According to the tour guide, this was where the king passed through to get to heaven.
Angkor Wat galleries.
Pictures really don't do justice to the majesty of the place.
First stop in the afternoon for Day Three. Note the wooden steps leading to the temple which I was still rather terrified of. Don't ask why; I don't know why either.
Amazingly detailed and vivid wall art along the galleries, depicting stories of war.
We visited a couple of other places after this one. A notable one had a maze-like passageway which was in the shape of a dragon. While walking it with my mom we thought it would never end, when in fact it merely led to the other end of the uh, fortress-like...thingy. Inside, a crippled man begged for money.
The end of Day Three consisted of walking up to Bakheng Mountain to see the sunset. It was like trekking and there was so many people all going up at the same time, all tourists, of all sorts of nationalities. I had no idea at all what was in store; I was under the impression that we'd walk up the mountain and settle down somewhere nice to see the sunset.
But no. Upon reaching the destination, I discovered this:
More steep-ass steps to climb. And just look at the sheer number of people already on top.
The steps there weren't like the ones I climbed up on Day Two; they were much narrower, and there was a lot more people there. We deliberated a while over whether or not to climb up. I was bloody scared of the climb down more than anything, because I'm not the most athletic person around and I have very lousy sense of balance. My brother is...let's not say, my dad is afraid of heights, and my mom is like me.
But then, it was a case of "since we're already here, and we trekked up here, just bloody do it". And bloody do it we (minus mom) did - until, again, the second landing.
I just couldn't go all the way up. It was too high, it was too crowded, there was no space, and I had this mortal fear of falling to my death because of my lousy sense of balance. So my dad and I (brother reached the first landing and went back down) stuck around to watch the sunset...halfway.
Honestly, I got slightly bored. The sun's descent was obvious, and it was gorgeous, but there was really nothing much to do. More importantly, I was worried about making my way down with all those people after the sun had fully set, so halfway through its setting I said to my dad, "Let's go."
We were also standing on fallen rocks because the view was better from there:
I have a funny look on my face because I was scared. Can't balance and all, you know? Yeah.
Getting down was a real bitch. I couldn't do the sit-down thing I did on Day Two because the steps weren't wide enough to accommodate my entire foot, so I had to crab-crawl my way down. Very tiring, but once again, it was really fun in a want-to-die-of-fright sort of way. I kind of wish I'd gone all the way up, but I know that if I had, I would just kill myself in that moment for subjecting myself to that kind of trauma and horror. But I think it would have been worth it. I should stop chickening out of such things, eh?
That's all the pictures I'm going to post. I'll post the links to the Facebook albums once that's done.
Siem Reap was really quite amazing. I didn't expect to be wowed like that, both in terms of seeing poverty for what it really is, and seeing history for what it really is. Being in those temples and ruins was almost like an out of body experience, so incredible in the fact of living and breathing history. Yet, at the same time, I found it very hard to visualise what it was like a thousand years ago, what life was like there; all I could see was now, viewing the sites through the lens of my digital camera, hearing different accents all around me, and about ten million tourists milling around. It would have been better if there were less people, but even with all those people it was already amazing.
Also, tourist dollar is one thing; developing your country is quite another. I was quite struck by how adaptable the locals seemed to be; kids were running up to me in the Archaeological Park speaking in Chinese to me. Tour guides spoke fluent Mandarin and English, and probably fluent French and Japanese too. There is so much potential in the country, and in its people, and yet it's so under-developed, its people are so poor. Sometimes you wish that you could help everyone - but you really can't.
I was going to write a few paragraphs about packaged tours but it's almost 12 midnight and I haven't yet sorted out my subjects registration stuff, so I'll leave that to another entry.
In short, though, I want to visit Cambodia again, maybe go to Phnom Penh, and definitely to Siem Reap again. Hopefully someday soon.