The fight briefly stopped at Champasak and then continued for Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had opted for air-travel for the sake of convenience. However, I faced problems in clearing immigration. The staff knew little English and could not understand my itinerary. I was repeatedly asked,” Where is your return ticket”? All my explanations fell on deaf ears. Finally, a big boss came and asked the same question. I showed him my ticket stating that my return was confirmed from Kuala Lumpur and that I would travel to that place by road for which I had already obtained visas for Thailand and Malaysia. The boss asked an officer to take photos of all my visas and cleared me.
There was hardly any transport for going to the city about 14 km away. However, a taxi could be arranged by an airport appointed agent for US$ 7. I had no option and requested a taxi which came in about 15 minutes. Paying the requisite charges, I got into it and asked the driver to take me to a budget hotel. The first few hotels, all located close by, did not suit my taste as I was looking for a spacious room with a window. Finally, a place called Side Walk Hotel seemed suitable for $20. Its rooms had large windows that provided plenty of natural light and a good view of the city.
Next day I joined a group for a daylong tour of Angkor Archaeological Complex, about 6 km away. The entry ticket was US$20. Before issuing the ticket, a photo of the purchaser was taken and embedded in the ticket for security reasons.
The guide took us to a raised platform to have a general view of the temples. It was spectacular as some temples were popping out from the deep forest. The guide went on non-stop disclosing that temples were over one thousand, some crumbled, some magnificent and some scattered in rice fields. The complex was believed to be the largest cluster of religious monuments in the world stretching over 400 sq. km. It was reportedly visited by two million annually.
First, we entered the Royal City, Angkor Thom. The guide told us that mostly wood was used for building structures which had since perished leaving no trace. But there were some stone monuments indicating that it was indeed a great city.
The famous Bayon temple was in the centre of Royal City. It had over 50 towers with huge carved faces all smiling with closed eyes as if in a state of Nirvana. Besides, there were carving of market scenes, cockfighting, chess game and religious rituals.
It was midday and the guide announced half-hour rest for lunch. Despite restrictions, many noodle and snack shops had sprouted up near the temples. I selected Chez Sophea and ordered the national dish, fish amoke. It was steamed and served in a banana leaf along with brown rice and fresh palm juice. It was a hearty lunch for only US$ 9.
Soon the guide returned and announced next stop as Ta Prohm. All became excited to go to a temple which featured in legendary films like Tom Raiders and Indiana Jones, the temple of doom. On reaching the site, all were spell-bound by what they saw. A temple crumbled and turned into ruin, its leftover walls and doorways gripped by trees and other foliage. It looked like in near future the temple will be swallowed up by the jungle. Hundreds of parrots had their nests in tree hollows and were flying over or in between the trees. To a first timer, it gave a feel of discovering a temple lost in a forest.
Finally, we went to Angkor Wat, originally Lord Vishnu Temple. It was heart and soul of Cambodia, its national symbol and pride. Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat, it is most inspired and spectacular monument. It had over 3,000 apsaras (supernatural pretty girls) carved into the walls. It had many towers of which the central one was Mt. Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.
By now, the sun was setting in mesmerizing all onlookers.
PHNOM PENH, 4th JULY, 2013
I left Siem Reap by bus at about 10:00 am and arrived Phnom Penh by 5:00 pm covering a distance 320 km. I paid US$ 13 for the ride. Cambodia had dual currency system where US$ as well as Khmer Riel were equally acceptable. The bus was VIP having reclining seats, foot-rest, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, safety seatbelts, on-board toilet, TV and video-on- demand.
On leaving the bus, I was swamped by tuk-tuk drivers. But they were not aggressive i.e. no one tried to snatch the carry-on or bag. I picked up one for $3 who took me to various hotels and guesthouses. I preferred one with an unusual name as Hotel Silver River, about 3-star type for $35 per night. I decided to just lie down and watch TV to update myself. There were usual news like hide and seek of Snowden, Nelson Mandela illness and US women abducted years ago found alive.
Briefly I went out for eating in the next door café.
On July 5th, I negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take me around for half a day tour for $11. He readily agreed and proceeded towards outskirts of the city. In the way, the driver took petrol which was available in one-liter Pepsi bottles all along the road-side shacks. This was something new for me and reflected apathy of the local administration.
Firstly, I was led to ‘Tuot Svay’, originally a school but turned into an interrogation and execution Center. Now it was being preserved as museum of genocide with photos of victims. Entry fee was small, about two dollars.
When Pol Pot took over 1976, he ruthlessly tried to reconstruct the country on the communist model of China. This required every citizen to work as laborer in collective farms. Those who opposed, mostly intellectual and educated people, were marked for elimination. They were dragged into jails on the charges of sedition or insurrection against lawful authority. As many as 17,000 were detained in Tuor Svay. Some died from torture during interrogation; others sent to a another site, about 17 km away, for killing
The ‘other site’ was known as Killing Fields, a term coined by a Cambodian Journalist after his escape from a death camp. Presently, it serves as a memorial. Except a stupa, it contained nothing on ground but had 9,000 bodies buried in the mass graves. The stupa had glass walls and was filled with 5,000 human skulls.
The entry fee was six dollars which included an audio-system for detailing about various spots marked by numbers. The details were horrible: victims were brought at night; they were told to kneel down and then clubbed to death to save bullets. As many as 1.7 million people were executed throughout the country.
The driver had brought his young son to play with while waiting for me and was happy with long time, if any, taken by me to see a particular site. On emerging from the memorial, he approached me and made me seated comfortably. We went to Russian Market in the City Centre. It was filled with mounds of clothing and chequered silk scarves besides CDs, DVDs and miniature carvings. At about 1 pm, the tuk-tuk dropped me at my hotel.
In the late afternoon, I went to The National Museum of Cambodia. It had a lovely courtyard in the center. The main attraction was ‘King Jayavarman VII in mediation pose. Besides, there were many statutes of Hindu gods and artifacts from prehistoric burial sites.
Unfortunately the Royal palace was closed when I went to see it after 5 pm. From outside, I could see two magnificent pagodas. Walking a little further, I was in surprise as I was facing riverfront. I walked on Sisowath Quay, an attractive boulevard running along the banks of River Mekong. It had large open space with manicured lawns, open pathways and palm trees. It was popular with Cambodian who had come in large number in the cool of the evening to enjoy the carnival like atmosphere.
I had been to Laos and Cambodia for the first time ever. In both the countries, people were friendly and always helped me in carrying my baggage to a bus etc. Besides, some time I overpaid some shop-keeper through an oversight and the excess was always returned.
My next destination would be Pattaya in Thailand. This bus would take about 1475 km or about 15 hours which include border crossing at Koh Kong. I took a deep breath and braced myself for a long ordeal.
continued Part IV