There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Across Cambodia to Siem Reap: Part 6 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

S picked us up at 8.30 with his driver, the ever-cheerful Mr Gung, and we the left Phnom Penh heading north for Siem Reap.

Through the straggling suburbs of Phnom Penh
It took a long time to leave the straggling city behind, but eventually we crossed the Tonle Sap and headed north into Kompong Cham province across a flat land of red earth with paddy fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Paddy fields stretching away into the distance
The highway was being widened and improved which meant that for substantial sections the usable road was very narrow indeed. There was no surface at all through the small town of Banteay which disappeared in a cloud of red dust.

Basket transporter
There is a motorbike under there somewhere
We stopped at a rest house just outside Skune, a town famous for its tarantulas which are stir fried and sold as food. According to the Rough Guide our car should have been surrounded by spider sellers as soon as it stopped, but this did not happen and we saw only one stall selling them. Cooked, they looked less like spiders than I had feared, but they still did not look like food. The big pile of grasshoppers mixed with garlic and chilli looked a little more edible, but not much.
Stir fried tarantulas, Skune
Perhaps closer to comfort food were grolan, bamboo tubes stuffed with sweetened sticky rice cooked with black beans and coconut.

Grolan, Skune
We continued into Kompong Thom province along a road lined with houses on stilts - the rainy season really is rainy here - through country where the main crop is cashew nuts. Cashew farmers live in poverty, S told us, because although there appear to be a large number of competing wholesalers, they are all owned by one man who uses his monopoly powers to keep prices for the farmers low and the consumers high.

Nuts set out to dry, near Skune
As will become clear, S liked his conspiracy theories. At this point I accepted his story, but later claims about subjects as diverse as the Cambodian genocide and draught beer called it into question. He did, though, raise an important point a little later, and on this one he was in agreement with the generally more plausible C. 'Cambodia,’ he said, ‘is a parliamentary democracy. We have elections every five years, and for the last thirty five years we have had the same prime minister. How do you think that happens?'
House on stilts, rural area Kompong Thom Province

Hun Sen formed an interim government under the Vietnamese in 1979. He has been in power ever since and his CPP party has won every election. There are active opposition parties and observers say the elections are free-ish but C and S are right, such political longevity does not happen where democracy functions normally.
Houses on stilts, rural area Kompong Thom province

We reached the small and surprisingly neat state capital - also called Kompong Thom - in time for lunch. Beetles.....
Beetles, Kompong Thom
.... and locusts were available, but I still have difficulty accepting insects and arachnids as food. Across the road from the insect stall was a large restaurant which seemed to be feeding half the population off Kompong Thom, and such itinerant foreigners as were passing through. A tomato based soup rich with prawns and pieces of squid was more to my taste, and a dish of chicken with the inevitable cashew nuts was pleasant if hardly ground-breaking.

Locusts, Kompong Thom

National Highway 6 would take as all the way to Siem Reap, but a little north of Kompong Thom we turned onto the 64 which has recently acquired a metalled surface. After a few kilometres we left the tarmac and joined a well-made but unsealed road which took us the 15km to Sambor Prei Kuk.

Phnom Penh, Kompong Thom and Siem Reap on the map of Cambodia

 In the 6th century an area known as Chenla, covering most of modern Cambodia, seceded from the declining Funnan Empire of the Mekong delta and built a capital at Sambor Prei Kuk. From 616 to 635 it was ruled by King Ishanarvarman who started a two hundred year period of tower building. The towers are all that remain of the capital which declined steadily in importance after 802 when Jayavarman II pronounced himself universal monarch with his capital at Angkor, thus starting the Angkorian period of Cambodian history.

Sambor Prei Kuk
The nearest tower has collapsed and only the lingam remains

 Several groups of towers and the remains of a pool lurk in the jungle. They were first cleared in 1962 but war intervened and the area became finally free of guerrilla activity only in 1998.

Sambor Prei Kuk
A couple off small children joined us, a boy and a girl, hoping to sell us scarves. They asked our names, introduced themselves and followed as S led us to the first set of towers.

They are simple structures in reasonable repair considering their age. Lifelike roaring stone lions stand outside some of them, though inside the statutes of gods have long disappeared, though a lingam or two remain.

Roaring stone lion, Sambor Prei Kuk

There are three main groups of towers, the central group also having the remnants of a ceremonial pool.

Ceremonial pool, Sambor Prei Kuk

The children scampered along behind us, occasionally giving advice, 'mind your step,' 'be careful of those roots they're slippery,' but leaving us alone when we came to look at the towers.

The final group are octagonal, and when we discovered the children could pronounce this word better than our professional English speaking guide, we knew we were eventually going to buy some scarves.

Octagonal Tower, Sambor Prei Kuk
Octagonal towers may have seemed a clever idea at the time, but it looks less clever 1400 years later. Cracks have appeared in the angles and several are gradually splitting into 8 parts.

Whether the wall holds up the tree of the tree holds up the wall is debatable
Sambor Prei Kuk

It was a hot day and walking along the shady jungle paths was very pleasant, but to venture far off the well-worn route runs the risk off encountering unexploded ordinance. Careful exploration is still finding more towers hidden in the jungle, but we remembered to say a silent ‘thank you’ to the brave people of the mine clearance teams who had made our visit safe – not to mention the lives of the ordinary people.

The paths are safe, the surrounding jungle is still mined, Sambor Prei Kuk

We asked the kids how much they wanted. ‘One dollar,’ they said. At that price it was hardly worth bargaining so we gave them a dollar each and became the proud owners of two scarves.

Indefatigable scarf sellers, Sambor Prei Kuk
As we walked back to the car, S said, ‘Pol Pot was born near here.' We nodded and he continued: 'He was not a bad man.' We looked astonished; we had read that some Cambodians retain a surprising regard for him, but there had been no hint of it from C. S went on to explain that Pol Pot was a victim not a perpetrator, trapped into being the unwilling agent of others. ‘It was all the fault of the Vietnamese and the Chinese,’ he said.

The claim makes little sense. The Vietnamese had just brought their own massive war to an end and were preoccupied, the Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge, as they would any other new nominally communist regime in southeast Asia, but although they had influence they were too distant to have power. Nonsensical as it may be, it represents a Cambodian way of coming to terms with the Cambodian on Cambodian nature of the killing. S was not a Cambodian ‘holocaust denier’- millions of people died and every family was affected, so that is not a tenable position - but he did say that the photos we had seen in Luol Sleng were taken by the Vietnamese to blacken the name of Pol Pot and asked: 'Why would the Khmer Rouge document their own crimes like that?' Clearly he has never been to Auschwitz and seen the mug shots on the walls there. The Nazis proved beyond doubt that genocidal killing and meticulous bureaucracy are not mutually exclusive.

'Why are the perpetrators not being sent to the Hague for a proper trial?' he asked, and answered himself: 'Because the Chinese will not allow it.' It was a valid question, but maybe not quite the right answer. Why has there been so much delay? Perhaps there are some people still in or close to power who need to hide certain events in their past.

Spean Praptos Bridge
Back on Highway 6 we continued for a couple of hours, pausing at Spean Praptos Bridge. Built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII (The Leper King) its 20 pointed stone arches span 87m across the gorge of a small river. Once the longest corbelled stone-arch bridge in the world it is exceptionally wide for its date and had proved to be very robust. It carried all the traffic of the highway until recently when a new bridge was built and the old one now carries nothing heavier than motorcycles.

Spean Praptos Bridge
We reached Siem Reap at dusk and checked into a hotel beside the Siem Reap River, which is a narrow and barely moving stream.

Siem Reap is not a large town with some 50,000 permanent residents, but in the season tourists double the population and it has all the facilities that such a mass of relatively well-off people could require.

It had been a long day and we did not feel like going far, but the restaurant next door provided a good dinner of ginger with chicken (a ginger lover's delight) and beef lok lak, which appears on every menu and consists of stir fried beef in a sweetish sauce accompanied by chips, which pleased Lynne as she was more than tired of rice. Washed down by a pitcher of draught Angkor beer it came to a very reasonable 12 dollars.

S later told us that draught beer was cheaper because it was watered down and adulterated. After a thorough organoleptic examination of the fermented beverage situation (beer-swilling), I decided that although neither Angkor beer nor Cambodia beer are ever going to win prizes, they are perfectly acceptable in both bottled and draught form, and the draught is, if anything, slightly preferable.

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