ITINERARY: Siem Riep, Angkor (Lou to Laos, Joan stayed in Siem Reap)
While slashing through dense Cambodian jungles in 1860, French naturalist Henri Mouhot was stunned to uncover a massive complex of stone temples. While searching for exotic insects, Mouhot had stumbled upon the ancient Khymer ruins of Angkor. Swollen roots of banyan trees and a labyrinth of vines had overwhelmed the stone towers, arches and pillars - creating a setting fit for Indiana Jones.
The most famous theft occurred at
They hacked off four large blocks of sandstone bas-relief and loaded them onto
the oxcarts. Back in Siem Reap they packed the relics into boxes labeled
"chemical products" and transferred them to a river steamer bound for
Who was killed? Anyone who was
considered an "intellectual" - i.e. who might have the brains to
oppose Pol Pot. This included teachers, doctors, government workers, many urban
residents - including anyone who spoke a foreign language or simply wore
eyeglasses! (To escape death, you had to pretend to be a farmer or pedicab
driver.) Next, minorities (especially the Chinese and Vietnamese living in
The cities were emptied at gunpoint and
residents sent to the country - often to starve to death. Everyone was forced
to work 12-16 hour days, primarily in the rice fields. Families were routinely
separated; eating was done in communal dining halls; religion was banned, as was
speaking a language other than Khymer. Eventually, Pol Pot made a serious
error. He attacked
Many travelers go to
The sun was setting as we walked across the long causeway of the vast, encircling moat and through the huge stone gates of Angkor Wat. (The name of the entire complex is Angkor. Wat means temple, so Angkor's main temple is known as Angkor Wat.) As dusk settled, we found ourselves almost alone in the massive, silent ruins. We climbed eroded stone steps to the third terrace and perched at the top, where we talked for awhile with two engaging Cambodian students. The bright saffron robes of four Buddhist monks glowed below us. As darkness fell, we steeled our nerves and gingerly worked our way down the nearly vertical steps.
Arising at 4:30 the next morning, we climbed aboard the two motos waiting outside in the darkness and rode into the past. The light of a full moon streamed through the dark trees along the road. Just as a peach-colored dawn began to color the water, we arrived at the royal bath of Sra Sarong. The steps leading down into this man-made lake are bordered by partially beheaded naga (five-headed cobra) sculptures and faceless stone lions. Dawn back-lit these beastly silhouettes, as well as those of naked Cambodian boys who gleefully plunged from the steps into the mottled water.
Leaving the lake, we rode to the temple of Ta Prohm. Although archeologists and historians understandably rank the magnificent Angkor Wat and the towering Angkor Thom higher on the scale of significance, and value Bantey Srei more highly for its beautiful bas-relief carvings, romantics like us find Ta Prohm the most captivating. This temple purposefully has been left in its ruined state, with no attempt at restoration. Visiting it alone in the early morning, we felt as if we had discovered it for the first time. The surrounding jungle creeps over everything in its path; banyan roots flow over walls and roofs like huge boa constrictors strangling their prey. Huge stones lie helter-skelter on the ground, ferns sprout from cracks, mosses and lichens cover everything. Totally alone, we wandered in delight for two hours, fleeing at the arrival of the first tour group of the day.
The next afternoon, we returned to the temples of Angkor under more "dignified" circumstances. With friends from Hawaii who were staying at the five-star Grand Hotel d'Angkor, we hired an air-conditioned van, driver and licensed guide. After awhile the long string of names and dates given us by the guide ran together meaninglessly. We missed the joy of riding motos and wandering around on our own. (Below, Joan with Marcy and Bob in Ta Prohm.)
LOU'S LAW OF TIGHTWAD TRAVEL
"The less you spend the closer you come to the reason you came" is Lou's law of tightwad travel. In general, the more you spend, the more isolated you become from the experience of being in a foreign country. The less you spend, the more authentic the experience. In the spirit of Lou's law, we persuaded our friends to try a moto trip with us the following day. The four moto drivers met us at our small hotel and we all roared across the river to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. The uniformed doorman peered dubiously at us in the darkness - probably fearing an invasion by the local Hell's Angels. Our friends climbed on their motos and we roared off to re-visit Sra Srang at sunrise, re-explore silent Ta Prohm, visit our moto leader's family, and ride a longboat through a fishing village floating on Tonle Sap Lake. Our friends later said that this day of cruising around on motos was their favorite day in their three-week trip to Southeast Asia. (So much for first class travel!)
One morning, our excellent moto leader Ong Mei (shown above with Lou) took us to Siem Reap's "killing fields" memorial - a small, glass-windowed pagoda with a horrifying pile of bones and skulls inside (photo near beginning of this travelogue). Mei opened the glass door to bring us closer to the skulls and etch a sense of this horror more deeply. Perhaps we saw the skulls of his parents and older brother - murdered by Pol Pot.
WE SPLIT UP
Too soon, our six days at Angkor came to an end and we were faced with a decision. Laos was next on the itinerary, but Joan was uneasy because only a week before another bomb had been found in Vientiane's airport and the U.S. State Department was warning that terrorist activity was increasing in southern Laos. "Other than that, why not go?" asked Lou. "YOU go, I'LL stay here!" replied Joan. So, after 18 months of non-stop togetherness, the Roses rambled in different directions.
Lou flew to Laos for nine days, while Joan remained in Siem Reap. She moved from La Noria (which was fully booked) to the Socheata Hotel to be near her new Canadian friend, Jan. Together, the two of them had a great time (albeit hot and sweaty) teaching English to eager 11- to 14-year-olds in the school run by Buddhist temple Wat Bo. The pair of middle-aged women flagged down motos to bump along rutted roads to nearby villages, took a couple of longboat trips, and enjoyed Khymer food in local cafes. The only difficult part was facing the many beggars who'd lost limbs to land mines while working in their rice fields. Normally averse to encouraging begging, Joan gave freely to these mutilated people but found that the more riels she gave, the more beggars arrived. So heartrending.
Meanwhile, Lou was adventuring in
Meanwhile, Lou was adventuring in LAOS
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS: South-East Asia on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet); Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; Cambodia, Laos Handbook (Moon Guides)
BACKGROUND READING: First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung
FILM: The Killing Fields
SIEM REAP LODGING: The lodgings nearest to Angkor Wat are four miles away in Siem Reap. The choices are many, from the luxurious Grand Hotel d'Angkor at $310-1900 a night(!) to very basic backpackers' guesthouses at $5-15.
La Noria Hotel was our choice. French-owned, delightful, across the river from the Grand. Located a block down a very pot-holed dirt road, it has twenty simple, but charming, double rooms with private bath set in the quiet tropical garden. $35/double with air conditioning; $25/double with fan. firstname.lastname@example.org
Socheata Hotel was where Joan stayed while Lou was in Laos (La Noria was full.) Bland compared with La Noria, but it was new, clean, quiet and closer to the center of town. $30/double, including air conditionaing, television, small refrigerator and breakfast. Friendly, English-speaking staff. Ph: 063 96 4454
ANGKOR TEMPLE COMPLEX: entry passes - $20/day; $40/three days; $60/week.
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com