Hello again my faithful six followers and several anonymous people who seem to drop in here from time to time. I find it difficult to believe it is 10 days since I posted on this blog and I am now in Cambodia, moving ever South and getting hotter by the day, it really is getting a bit sticky here in Kratie, even with a bit of a river breeze. I am writing this in a little restaurant where I have sort of made friends with the extended family that run it, they really are very friendly which seems a little in contrast to the general attitude I have thus far encountered in Cambodia. This impression is backed up by conversations with other travellers and I fear that the Wonderful Khmer hospitality I experienced here some years ago is becoming a thing of the past in the mad dash to extract every $ they can from the tourist. I fear greatly they may kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but as always I am ahead of myself.
I left you on the wonderful island of Don Deth, well at least I alluded to it. I think the last proper correspondence was when I was heading to Champasak from Pakse which was a relatively painless journey. Champasak really is a one horse town and it appears the horse bolted some years ago. It does, however, boast the abolutely amazing Wat Phu, a pre-Angkorian Khmer temple now converted to Buddhism which simply has to be seen to be believed. I will cut and paste here the tip I composed for my Virtual Tourist pages (I hope you are all aware of VT by now). I realise it is in a slightly different format to that I usually employ on the blog, but I am damned if I am rehashing the whole thing again.
This tip concerns the amazing Wat Phou (also rendered Wat Phu / Pou) and it would be easy to run out of superlatives very quickly when trying to describe it. In my life I have been priveleged enough to have visited both Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Burma and, whilst not on the same scale, this place certainly merits comparison with both. For scholars of the region I should add that I have not yet visited Sukothai in Thailand but it is very much in my plans.
Imagine, if you will, a sort of Indiana Jones meets L. Rider Haggard with a bit of 1950's Boy's Own comic and a dash of Tomb Raider and you have the idea. I do not use the term comic book in the title to in any way demean the very obvious and continuing religious imprtance of the site but that is just what images were conjured up in my Western imagination when I visited here. So what exactly is this wonderful, mystical place?
As I mentioned, I had previously visited Angkor in Cambodia and marvelled at the way the civilisation here was so markedly advanced for it's time compared to what Europeans in now so-called developed countries were doing. When I read that Wat Phou pre-dated Angkor by some centuries, I was completely amazed. Isn't it strange how things go? A country who are now desperately trying to throw off the tag of "least-developed" in our post-Millenium world had the ability to make something as stunning as this when people in my country were basically living in not much better than mud huts on fortified hillsides. It never ceases to amaze me. Enough, however, of my ill-educated ramblings and onto the facts of the matter.
Although most of what remains here is from the 10th and 11th centuries AD, the original Hindu Temple (the Khmer who ruled here then were Hindu), remains has been dated back to the 5th and 6th centuries. The bulk of the work, however, was done later, and spanned several centuries. The results simply have to be seen to be believed. According to my practice, I will only upload one or two images here but a full travelogue will be forthcoming on my return home. Let me take you for a walk through it.
Go in the front gate and park up your scooter (or bicycle, depending on preference). Don't be fooled by the gatehouse affair on your right, that is not the ticket booth, although they will direct you there. It is actually co-located with the cafe and local craft shop in the large building to the right. Your guidebook may mislead you here. Mine stated that the staff would effecively let you wander about from sunrise to sunset, and this is the case but at a premium. Standard entrance for foreigners is 30,000 kip (and well worth it) but you can get a 40,000 kip ticket if you arrive before 0830 or after 1600.
After ticket purchase, my advice to you is to head straight across the carpark to the very well-presented exhibition / musem, which is included in the entry price. A number of the more vulnerable and important pieces have been preserved here and the whole place is impeccably set out with good annotation in both Lao and English. Don't miss the small but impressive collection of photos in the back corridor.
Leaving the exhibition hall, I suggest you follow the very good little pamphlet they give you with the ticket (available in several languages). As you look, you will walk along the left hand side of the Barays (man-made reservoir). The largest of these are 600 metres long, and to follow on an earlier theme, it amazes me that people that long ago could manage such feats of engineering. I wonder when the first comparable reservoir was constructed in Europe. I am neither historian nor archaeologist, although I would love to be either or both, but my gut instinct is that the Northern Baray must have been a later addition to accord with the need for water. If you remove it, everything else is perfectly symmetrical, but with it the whole thing is "thrown out of kilter" as we would say in my home country.
Turning right at the end of the Southern Baray, you walk along the gopura, a sort of terrace affair, which is still in reasonable repair given the vagaries of the weather here. It is then that you can, with a little imagination, transport yourself back to the glories of the ancient Khmer Empire. Turning West again, you begin the walk along the processional causeway towards the temple site proper. In those days, the high and mighty would have sat on the gopura either to watch guests arriving or watch sports in the Baray itself. I realise fully that I make constant comparisons to Angkor, and this is impossible to avoid. Walking along here is to experience exactly the same sensation as to walk along the ceremonial causeway in Angkor towards the elephant terrace. It is suggested that Phou was the inspiration for the causeway at Angkor. The whole thing is designed to awe and humble the visitor in the face of such obvious power, and it retains that power today albeit that it is semi-ruined. Imagine a vassal King approaching here, perhaps in the afternoon with a lowering, powerful Asian sun in his face, to approach his King, the most powerful man in his known world. Beyond the initial gopura, the eye would be drawn ever upwards into that sun towards the sacred and mysterious places half hidden by the glare above.
If this tip is becoming boring and somewhat akin to an ancient history lesson, please feel free to leave now, but I would like to record my impressions of a place that made a profound impression on me. I should digress yet again to explain something else. Every year in February or March, depending on the lunar calender, the Wat Phou festival takes place. This is between three and five days of revelry, drinking, music and so on. My timing was as always impeccable, impeccably bad that is. I arrived two days after the event finished to find gangs of workmen de-constructing stages, and a positive army of locals litter-picking. It really was rather a mess, although no doubt they would have had it back to normal in a day or two. Therefore, do not judge the site solely on my rather litter-strewn images.
If your imagination has allowed you to pass the majesty of the ceremonial causeway, you will come to two structures, both still in reasonable repair which are variously referred to as the quadrangles, pavilions or palaces. these were a later addition to the main temple, probably constructed in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. Pause here for a while to admire the quality of the workmanship and imagine what these places must have been like when new. The "palaces" are believed to have been places of worship segregated by gender, men on the right, women on the left, and the small structure to the rear of the women's side may have been the Queen's personal place.
Carrying on West, you will pass the Nandin temple on the left. I say you will pass by it as it is currently closed for renovation and I suspect will be for some time. It was dedicated to Nandi, the hump backed bull believed by Hindus to carry the God S(h)iva and, if you have followed my advice thus far, you will have seen an excellent statue of the nandi in the exhibition at the entrance. Just beyond the Nandin temple is the start of the ancient road to Angkor. You can just imagine people setting out on what was probably quite an arduous journey, albeit a much travelled one, as the Khmer Kings kept up Wat Phou right until the last days of the empire.
At this point you are going upwards on a set of sometimes quite steep steps, eventually to a height of 90 metres, where you will eventually emerge, breathless no doubt, in front of the main temple, a wonderful structure originally dedicated to S(h)iva and bearing some wonderful carvings all over the outside. It is now a Buddhist temple with a fine image inside, although expert opinion is divided as to when this change of use took place. It may have been in the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the 13th century or later on in the 14th century on the demise of the Khmer Empire and the return of Lao rule to the area.
After looking round the temple, walk to your left along a well-defined track and you will come to a large rock, the natural shape of which has lent itself to a carving of an elephant head on it. Elephants were hugely important in Khmer society as efficient workhorses, battle engines and status sypmbols. Indeed, Lao was once known as "Land of a million elephants". Should you require it, there are toilets close to Elephant Rock.
Double back on yourself to the other across the back of the main temple and you will come to one of the main reasons for this huge and impressive complex. Underneath an overhanging rock, there is a small shrine with water dripping down (it was the dry season) which is the holy spring. Even today, this is channelled into a cistern by means of a carved wooden channel. You should remember that this place is still a functioning place of worship as well as a World Heritage site and dress and act appropriately. In the temple's heyday, this water would have been channelled through the back wall of the temple where it washed the holy linga and was then further channelled into a receptacle outside for the faithful to bathe in.
Come back towards the front of the temple now and you will see the small remains of what is believed to be the library, and at this point you should stop. Sit down on one of the numerous rocks and just look. This is maybe the best bit. Whilst the temple may have been built here due to the supposed linga-like shape of the mountain or the sacred spring, the view alone should have been sufficient to make this place special, they are simply breathtaking. Look back out over the steps and the gopura, back past the vast barays, across an unbroken vista of flat, cultivated land to the Mekong flowing majestically on it's journey to the sea and I defy you not to be awestruck. I know this all sounds a bit William Wordsworth but this is the impression it left on me.
After taking your fill of the view, start your descent (be careful, it is steep) and walk back along the other side of the Southern baray to the entrance again. As you leave, take a lst look back over your shoulder at a place that I guarantee will have affected you in some way.
So that was Champasak, or just about all that there was to see here. Most of the locals restaurants were packing up by seven and after eating a decent meal in my guesthouse despite the best attentions of the tens of thousands of flyting beasties I moved South the next day to the island of Don Deth in the 4,000 islands, another one of my half-plans when I left home. when backpackers talk about having found the next great place, this is up amongst them, although regrettably I suspect it will not last. Mains electricity arrived here about two months before I did and it is undoubtedly only a matter of time until the first ATM arrives to cater to the gap year mob. It is still very good now, and the standard accomodation is in wooden shacks (laughingly referred to as bungalows) perched over the river. I must say I am always in favour of a place where you can see sand through the rather large spaces in the floorboards.
There is little to do on Don Deth, or Don Khone to which it is attached by a disused railway bridge but it is such a lovely relaxed place to do nothing in. Hammocks are standard issue with every shack, and you tend to spend the heat of the day lying in them, dozing and reading a book. I seem to keep crossing paths with a nice Kiwi guy as often happens on the road, and we swapped some books. Books are like backpackers currency, there is always a market for them. He gave me a book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell which I thoroughly recommend. It deals with the way our subconscious mind makes snap decisions all the time without us even knowing and some of the research results are amazing. It also makes some interesting points about racism. The author himself is of Jamaican / English parentage and was brought up mostly in Canada. He was appalled to find that in a particular test that he was racially biased against black people even though his mother is black. I suspect the burgeoning race relations industyl may be a little shocked by some of the findings here.
The other book he swapped with me was a book called "Love in the time of cholera" by a Colombian called Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have often seen travellers reading this author although I knew nothing about him and dismissed him somewhat as being what pretentious 20 year olds read. Actually, he is very good and I am really enjoying the book. It is a story of unrequited love set in the Caribbean at the start of the 20th century and not at all what I would normally read, but it is exceptionally well-written. Enough, however, of my literary choices.
One of the few things to do is to get a bicycle and go for a ride round both islands. there ard scooters for hire but on an island less than a mile long with only a couple of dusty tracks a couple of feet wide, you would never get it out of second gear. Picture me, if you will, on a rather aged, rather small, very pink ladies bike desperately trying to avoid the assorted livestock that wander at will about the place. I am sure it was some sight. Down on Don Khone you can go and visit the Li Phi falls which are the widest in Southeast Asia and about the third tallest. Although it was the very dry season, they were very impressive and they must be magnificent in the wet season. They are called Li Phi (pronounced Lee Pee) falls but htis is only a modern name dating back to the Second Indochina (Vietnam) War and literally means Ghost Falls. The reason is that bodies caused by the depradations of the American bombers further upstream used to get caught in the backwash of the falls. Yet another reminder of the recent history of this region.
I also managed another lifetimes ambition as I had my first swim in the Mekong. Swimming and tubing are very popular pastimes despite the risk of a particularly nasty aquatic parasite called bilharzia but this was not to be the major concern. Read on to find out what was. It is surprising in all the time I have spent on or near the river that I have never managed a dip in it and I found a beautiful secluded little spot, inhabited only by about 10,000 ants, one of which managed to get into my trunks and proceed to make a meal of my right buttock. Stupid brute.
I am glad I got there when I did, as I give the place 3 years at the most before it becomes another drug-fuelled Hell like Vang Vieng has become.
I could have happily stayed here a month but visa time was ticking yet again, so I had to make a run for the Cambodian border. On the apponted morning i.e. the last day of my visa, I got on the boat to Ban Nakasang to get the bus to the line. About 200 yards from the shore of the island the rather unstable longtail boat suddenly made a startling manoeuvre and the boatman excitedly pointed off to starboard. There, making very good speed was some sort of aquatic snake about thei thickness of my forearm with it's head out of the water. I have no idea how long it was as I could only see about two feet of its length above the surface but it must have been quite some beast. His mate, in the other boat with the luggage on made a valiant attempt to decapitate it woth the propellor but I didn't see if he managed or not. I think I shall curtail my Mekong swimming although I am glad I did it.
A short ride to the border and then the usual antics. Last time I enetered Cambo, it was the Yellow Fever scam. You were dragged into a shack at the Poipet border crossing and "forced" to pay $2 so some "doctor" could give you two aspirin which you didn't even have to take. I managed to avoid it by the old Forces maxim of "bullshit baffles brains." I do not have a yellow fever innoculation but I do have an innoculation booklet containing lots of very impressive stamps which completely baffled the alleged medico. I pointed to my polio jab or something and proclaimed it to be yellow fever. He let me pass. This time however you are confronted by a fairly official looking tent with a guy in a white coat and mask who points some sort of device at your head apparently to take your temperature. This in the baking midday sun when I was half-roasted anyway. The excuse this time is Swine Flu. You have to pay $1 for him to tell you you are hot and give you a bit of paper telling you that if you exhibit signs of fever you should consult a doctor. No shit, is that what you do when you get sick? Well, I never knew that.
I must say, I always find it exceptionally satisfying walking across a border, it is so much different than just arriving in a sterile airport. I think my favourite is the crossing from Poland into what was then Czechoslovakia just South of Zakopane where you walk through alovely forest for about 500 yards, the border being delineated by a lovely rustic wooden footbridge. I also remember walking into Hungary one time to the complete consternation of the border official who had obviously never seen a foreigner do it before. That took a couple of hours but they had the decency to keep me supplied with hot drinks while I waited.
Back to Cambodia, though. Another $2 "overtime" fee (it was Sunday, and I think this one is fairly legit). and onto another bus. I had read that Stung Treng was a bit of a nothing town and that tourists never go there, so that decided me. Big mistake. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impresson, so let me tell you my first impression of Stung Treng. Jumped off the bus and avoided the usual, although not very numerous, touts. I knew where I wanted to stay. The bus stops just by the market, and the stench was pretty ripe. I have travelled a bit and I am used to pit latrines and the like so it didn't put me off too much. I circumnavigated the market with my wheelalong kitbag (wonderful bit of kit, £12 in Petticoat Lane!) when I became aware it was dragging. I suspected a bit of rubbish, of which there was plenty, had sngged the wheel, and indeed it had. I looked down to find out I was dragging along a rather large rat. Fortunately (for me, not the rodent) it was completely flat, the victim of roadkill. Welcome to Stung Treng.
Undeterred, I found the hotel I was looking for and what a find despite the fac tthat it was built for hobbits or President Sarkozy (same thing really). Honestly, the roof in the foyer must have been about 5'9", and I was walking about bent double. Of course this led to the usual joking session with the staff, none of whom, of wither gender, was in danger of a bumped skull. The room itself was delightful, spotlessly clean, en-suite with satellite TV. How much? $6 a night, which is less than a fiver. Great value, as indeed is most of the accomodation here.
I took a wander to see the non-existent sights and my first impressions were totally confirmed. In one street, just off the main drag, cows were grazing in the rubbish that would have prevented a car passing. I don't know if there is some sort of dutman's strike or if this is normal here but the whole town literally stinks. The only wat was closed, so I retired to a decent little restaurant I had seen. I still had the gippy tummy so I thought something non-spicy would be in order and it turned out they did a decent burger. The owner had worked in a guesthouse in the capital for some time and spoke good English so we settled down to watch the English football, of which he was fond. Not a chance. His adorably precocious five year old daughter walks up to me and, bold as brass, says in perfect English, "Can you spell red?" Well, yes I can, so I did. You read that right. Whilst I had been mooching about Lao giving impromptu English classes here and there, I was now being quizzed on my English spelling by a bloody five year old. Very odd.
Despite my best intentions to give it a chance, I really could not face another day in ST, so I jumped on a bus to Kratie, yet another riverside town (actually it is the Provincial capital but you wouldn't think it). I had had little interaction with the locals in ST but here I am beginning to find a trend that I find disturbing and that is making me think about the whole impact of tourism, the validity of eco-tourism, and the development of underdeveloped countries. In stark contrast to the Lao, and only a relatively short distance from the border, things are very different. I left some laundry to be done at my (very nice) hotel yesterday, and was immediately quizzed. Had I seen the (Irriwaddy) dolphins, he could arrange a tour. Where was I going next, he had a private minubus for hire. Had I seen round town (you can walk end to end in 20 minutes), he could rent me a bicycle or motorbike. It is the same anywhere. If you go into a cafe for a bite to eat it is the same questions.
I know Cambodia is a very poor country and I do not decry anyone trying to improve their lot, but it appears to me that the country is just about divided into those that can speak English and work in the tourist trade, and those thayt can't and are in abject poverty. Consider it like this. A boatman can make about $25 - $30 a day for a trip for tourists to Kampi (the dolphin pool), but this is in a country where the averge annual wage is about $500. I fear they have moved too far too fast. What incentive os there for a man to remain in the country and preserve the traditional way of life if he can earn ten times as much ferrying tourists round in a minibus? I don't know enough about the Khmer social strructure to comment but I think it must surely lead to resentment amongst themselves. I also find it sad that they have to prostitute themselves (not in the literal sense although I know that goes on as well) by dealing only with foreigners.
As far as I can see this country is entirely dependent on tourism and foreign aid. The number of NGO (non-Governmental organisation) vehicles on the road is frightening. UN Development Programme. World Food Organization, this that and the other. The Government has produced a very lavish (and no doubt expensive and foreign funded) brochure listing "good" things you can do, like eating in restaurants that are training disadvantaged kids or buying crafts from specific shops etc. All very laudable, and all foreign driven. Travellers are always told not to give rural children money or sweets etc. as this leads to a begging / dependency culture. Surely, all this is just the same but on a grander scale.
Also, look at realpolitik. So-called "developed" nations don't do this for nothing although individuals and charities might. Governments are not altruistic, they are hard-headed and in the business of advancing themselves. There must always be some quid pro quo amongst all this. I just wonder what it is, and what the ultimate price will be in this region.
I know some of you will be aware that I had toyed with the idea, on retirement, of getting myself an education as a mature (chronoligically if not intellectually) student, and I thnk that International Development would be a fascinating thing to study. apart from anything else, it would give me a really good excuse to travel a lot!
I think I will head on tomorrow and get a bus to Kampong Cham, the next link in the chain going South. After that I will have a bit of a decision to make as Cambodia is effectively divided by the Tonle Sap Lake, an amazing place where the water flows into it in the wet season and back out of it during the dry. It is a phenomenal place to see with complete villages floating. Everything floats, temples, churches, bars, shops, houses, markets, it really is amazing. My decision is effectively whether to go back to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor complex or go the Southern route to Battambang where I have not been and always wanted to see. In line with what I was saying earlier, other travellers have told me that SR is now a "circus" and a "zoo". There is an inherent danger in re-visiting aplace you love and finding it has changed for the worse, and I am worried this might be the case in Angkor. I think I shall retain my wonderful memories of years ago and go the Southern route. Better, I think, to avoid the potential disappointment and focus on new things. Angkor itself will always be magnificent but I don't really want to see it in the context I have become all too aware of in Cambodia in my few days here. This place really has changed.
Well, I think that is us about up to date now, so I shall add the photos I didn't have the chance to upload to the last entry and upload this. I have no idea what internet access will be like further down the road, although PP should be OK, so hopefully I will fill you all in soon.
P.S For some daft reason, I cannot upload photos here so that will have to wait again, and if the title looks like gobbledegook to you, it reads New country, mew way of life in Khmer!