Thursday, March 10, 2011

Impressions of Cambodia

Day 3 -- Yes, we arrived here on day 2, so even if we think of it as the first day, I'm going to try to keep track of time with the travel agencies description. First, I have to answer Jackie. Yes, it's hot, but not terribly hot. It's very muggy, but this is not the monsoon season, so the humidity just hangs there. Of course we haven't really been in the sunshine, so maybe it would be hotter if we were; it's been hazy. There is a distinctive odor, but I couldn't say just what is so distinctive. There's incense, and gasoline or diesel, food being cooked in the street, fish for sale -- all of these smells running into one another. You notice it. 
So, day 3 and we started off in the morning on the road to Oudong. I think we turned left and just kept on going straight for a long time. There aren't too many roads to choose from. At first it was just like the coming in from the airport, the shops, the scooters, but then the road got progressively worse and the shops started to be spaced out a little more and noticeably less prosperous. It was a neighborhood of "Chams", a muslim minority. The girls were dressed the same as other girls but they wore headscarves in a recognizable fashion. The mosques are enormous, and they are recognizable as mosques, not like in China, where they looked like pagodas. As we left the city, the road continued to be lined with shops and houses. The road is a bit elevated and on either side, the shops are at road level, but behind the shop area is the living area and it's on stilts. This is the traditional Cambodian house. Most looked like they were single rooms. The walls are boards or dried woven palm fronds. The stilts are either wood posts or concrete. Because of termites, it seems that the more prosperous homes were on concrete. There were some very substantial homes on stilts, too, but most looked very small and ready to be blown away. The space below the home is used for storage. Some houses are perched very high off the ground; others are just the equivalent of one story up, and you could see the space being used as a dining area and hammocks were hanging above the table. As we continued further from the city, we went past fisheries, rice paddies, corn fields, lotus paddies and so on. The activities are grouped together, like the stretches of shops all doing the same business in the city. Off the main highway, there are some dirt roads leading into villages. Finally, one such road leads to the bottom of the Oudong Wat. 
Oudong is where, traditionally, the ashes of the royal family were kept. You climb up a hill and there are stupas with Buddha or other divinities. There are lots of families on outings for the day, praying. There are also a lot of beggars begging. And vendors selling water, fruit, incense, jasmin bouquets, lotus bouquets and other items for prayer. The gigantic Buddha is being repaired. It was severely damaged by American bombs during the Vietnam War, when Cambodia was being bombed. The restoration work is slow, though, depending on the flow of donations. Some of the smaller stupas are very old. You keep going up. There are more pagodas, a yellow one, a white one with ceramic decorations, and finally, a white molded plaster one at the very top. There's a very broad view of the plains below -- more pagodas, monasteries, villages, fields. The sky was gray and hazy and that flattened all perspective.
From the very top, there's a single staircase all the way straight down the hillside. More vendors, and then a troop of macaque monkeys begging for fruit.
On our way back into the city we stopped at a silversmith's shop. The women and children were hammering away at the brass and silver at the front. The dilemma -- are you to think of these children as child labor or as part of the family business? Here, it was a family business and the kids got up, traded places, and did fairly much as they pleased, it seemed. I asked about all the children we saw along the road during the day and our guide said it was a holiday. Apparently, they take the international day of women seriously and schools are closed as well as some public places. We saw the crowds of women coming out of clothing factories, though. And the food vendors were set up at the factory gates to sell them lunch.
We returned to Phnom Penh for lunch near the central market. It was one of those deals where the guide drops you off and the meal is served; you don't have to choose. It was very good. Dinner was the same kind of deal in a swankier place. Both meals were excellent.
After lunch we went to the Russian market, so named because that's where the Russians shopped when they were here after the overthrow of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. There are the usual tourist souvenir trinkets mixed with anything you might need in the way of hardware or to fix your scooter. None of us was inspired to buy anything then and there, so we went back to our minibus and went on to the National Museum. There's not much in the National Museum. The Khmer Rouge destroyed a lot. There are some Hindu deities from 
the 7th through 13th centuries -- a few examples so you can see the changes in style. In the household items section, there was an old family loom. The museum guide told us that traditionally, the women did the weaving and taught their daughters, but she, for example, never learned because her parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when she was 2. This was a common enough occurrence for some of the cultural links to the past to be lost entirely.
Our guide told us that at the time, 1975, the population of the country was 7 million and 3.3 million were killed by 1979, when the Vietnamese and Russians came in. He said that the plaque at the genocide museum, his old high school, stated 3.3 killed when it opened as a museum, but very soon the plaque disappeared and then was replaced with a new one -- only 2 million were killed. This was then replaced with a new one -- 1 million. He says that no matter what the plaques say, more the country was missing about half of its 
population. The Royal Palace and genocide museums were exceptionally closed, so we'll start with the palace tomorrow.
We took a sunset river cruise. It wasn't quite time for the sun to set, so we saw the sun just go behind clouds. What was interesting was on the rivers, anyway. The Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers merge at Phnom Penh, then separate for different channels to the sea. The Tonlé Sap is muddy and the Mekong is blue. There are two fishing communities: the Cambodians, who live on land and fish by day, and the Vietnamese, who come up the Mekong with the houseboats, live on the water, and fish day and night. The guide on the boat said they were overfishing and fish production was down. It was a pleasant hour-long cruise.
We had to take our mini-bus from the hotel to the restaurant for dinner. Traffic in Phnom Penh. Traffic runs smoothly. There is no road rage because cars or bikes cut in in front of you. It is a constant flow of give and take, of cutting in and around whatever obstacles there are, no matter what side of the road you're on. If you need to turn left, you sidle into the left lane to do it as quickly as possible while oncoming traffic goes by on your right. Cars are all very new models; mass car ownership is a very recent phenomenon. None seem to have had any accidents. Same for the scooters; they all look good 
as new, no bumps or scrapes. The bikes are in good condition, too. My impression is that everyone is careful. A scooter might be carrying a truckload of goods on the back or a family of three or four, the toddlers standing between the parents and cars going by left and right -- everyone is very careful and calm. While navigating an intersection is slow; it is rarely blocked completely. The thing is that if you are in or on a vehicle, you don't want to have to stop, so you just wriggle your way through.

Day 4
Because the Royal Palace was closed yesterday, we started the day there. The first thing you see, besides the buildings, is a tree, the Buddha tree, with flowers that bloom only in the morning and which fall off in the afternoon making room for new blooms the next morning. If we had visited yesterday afternoon, we wouldn't have seen this. The Khmer Rouge did not destroy the Royal Palace, nor indeed any of the buildings in Phnom Penh. They simply emptied the city of its people. The palace is a mix, should we say, Napoleonic Oriental? It was built during the French protectorate, during Napoleon III's short empire. As in China, yellow is the royal color. The palace building is white with yellow trim and yellow roof decorations. The throne room is immense with a long carpet that is a copy of the tiles underneath. Off to the side, there is a wardrobe building for the official wardrobe, now just for display. There is the silver pagoda with a floor of silver tiles. You can see it just inside, but most of the tiles are covered in carpet for visiting. There is a standing gold Buddha, a very small lying down Buddha and a jade Buddha on a very high pedestal.  As we walked around the light passing through the jade made beautiful effects. 
The king is Norodom Sihanouk's son. He's in his fifties, unmarried, no children. His father, who took Cambodia through independence (he abdicated in favor of his father so he could become Prime Minister and really run the government), the fifties, non-alignment, then allowing the North Vietnamese to use Cambodia, which led to American bombings, exile during the Khmer Rouge period, severe illness and all that, decided to retire. As king, he's not allowed to run the country and he was a hands-on monarch, so it became boring and 
frustrating. He called up his son, a dancer, in Paris, and told him to come home and be king. I asked what the plans were for succession and our guide just said that in Cambodia they don't make plans for the future. They'll deal with it when the time comes.
By the way, it's sunny today, and hot, but not unbearably hot – in the high eighties, I guess.
We hit the road for Takeo, a small silk-weaving town in the south, according to the guide book. We are in a charming guest house, very comfortable. We've taken a walk around town. It's too early. It's after-lunch lethargy, when reasonable people are taking naps. I saw one shop with fabric and a seamstress. All the other shops seem to be selling food and drink. The market was empty but for vendors having their lunch. The rice paddies are green here; there's a third crop on the way. That's exceptional; the norm is two crops, but the monsoon was generous last season and there is still water enough for a third crop. The waterway from here goes to the pagoda that we're going to visit tomorrow, I think. There's going to be a wedding later today, right outside our guest house. The men are busy preparing food -- coconuts in this corner, something in the pot in that corner, chopping vegetables on the table in the shade. Busy, busy, cooking and socializing. The ceremony is broadcast over loudspeakers. There is chanting and then a kind of monotone recitation and it goes on for hours. On our evening promenade, Georges and Marie-Hélène watched the proceedings and eventually got invited to sit and film inside. We had continued our walk and watched the goings on in the village across the pond.
The village is a small group of traditional houses on stilts, with their water cisterns, cattle roaming in from the rice paddies, and water hyacinths in the pond. There are poles sticking out of the plants. These are fish traps. The fish live underneath the water hyacinths and when they are big enough, nets are thrown over the plants and then the plants are removed, leaving only the fish. The fishermen we saw standing in the pond were fishing for frogs. We got these explanations because we ran into our guide on our walk. He also explained to us the wedding procedures. It's a two-day affair. Tonight, just the family is present and the tables are set for less than 100. Tomorrow, it'll be the whole wedding party, about 400. When we went off to dinner, they were also just starting to eat.
Everyone says hello. In Phnom Penh, every time you cross a child, he says hello. Here, too. Mothers with toddlers Aurelia's age in their arms come up to you to say hello and the babies say hello and bye-bye. I'm surprised -- not so much that the children are learning to greet tourists (mixed feelings about that), but that French has totally disappeared. After all, this was a French-speaking country 40 years ago. As a tourist, you are relieved that you can speak to people and try to understand, but there's also something sad about it.

Day 5
Since I don't have internet access yet, I'll just continue. It's 6:00 a.m. and the 
ceremony has picked up where it left off yesterday, with singing and music broadcast over the loudspeaker. So while Paul's in the shower, I'm getting these few words down.
---
Back in Phnom Penh for the night. Today was the first strenuous day. On the way to breakfast we got a peek at the wedding ceremony again. Many more tables were set up and the men were busy in front of our guesthouse preparing dishes. As we passed by the entrance, there was a whole ceremony going on. During the night, they had set up branches of bananas on either side of the entrance, one painted silver and the other gold. People came bearing gifts, often fruit, again painted silver and gold. There were some traditional dancers also in front. 
After breakfast we boarded a little speedboat for the visit to Phnom Da, an early, 6th-7th century pagoda up on a hill top. Phnom means hill, by the way. It was an hour's boat ride in the rice paddies. All along the way, people were fishing -- some with a rake to dig up a fish that lives under the mud on the river bottom, some with nets pulled across the ditch. It's a whole irrigation, naviagation system; on the way there I don't think we were on the river. On the way back, we were. The boat did not slow down when we passed canoe-like boats loaded with goods, or the fishermen neck-high in the water. We only slowed down to not get tangled in the nets or the water hyacinths. There were a few duck farms. A duck farm is a lot of ducks enclosed in a pen that is half on the ground, have in the water. There's not much room for the ducks to move. There were other flocks of ducks swimming free, but the norm seems to be the pens. There were children along the whole way -- hello, hello. My question, where's the school? There were pumps pumping water up into the irrigation ditches and there were intersections with other bid navigatable ditches. It's a whole network. The country was built on water management. Angkor Wat, the 12th century capital, is all about water management, having enough water to grow rice.
Phnom Da an hour later and started uphill. It's an impressive hike. The pagoda is built of volcanic stone and brick, no morter. The stonework is joined in such a way that there are no leaks, except of course, these buildings have suffered over time and the roofs are caved in, the carved stones have fallen down. This particular site is especially tragic. The pagoda is at the top of the hill and there are other prayer rooms in the caves in the hillside. These are even older religious sites. During the Pol Pot regime, prisoners were kept in the pagoda at the top and they were killed and cremated in the caves. 
We returned to Takeo by the same boat, but he took the river this time. Same activities, but we crossed an enormous cargo boat carrying rice to Vietnam. 
We had lunch at the same place as yesterday's lunch -- very good, again. Then hit the road for Chisor Phnom, up lots and lots of stairs to the top, where there is a pagoda complex dating from the 11th-12th century. It's lots and lots of stairs. After lunch, in the sun. Beautiful views of the plains from the hilltop and beautiful ruins among the more modern buildings. 
Back in the minibus with a stop at another pagoda on the way back to Phnom Penh. This time it was a hindu pagoda that is under restoration. There are some old brick vestiges and the site is interesting. There is a tremendous amount of money going into the pagodas in use. Somehow I think a lot of the money could be better used on the people, but it's their religion and their business. Just, when you see the level of poverty, you wonder.
We took a different staircase down the hill, through a little village. Rice was drying out on the roadside; chickens were running around; cattle were roaming the street; kids were running up to us to say hello.

1 comment:

Martina says Hello said...

Hi Ellen - thanks for your travel journal - it saves me a long flight ..... Continue with your travels and stay safe!
Martina