CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Phnom Penh bits and pieces
Photos to follow
My welcome at the Dara Reang Sey hotel was as warm and as friendly as ever after a break-neck journey from Kompong Thom. We'd started slowly enough but I knew we were in for a roller-coaster ride when a large log fell off the back of a lorry and missed the share-taxi by centimetres. The driver failed to heed any of the police road-blocks that lined the highway and refused to give ground to any other vehicle that attempted to overtake us. It was a pretty hair-raising three hour drive and by 11.15am I was sat at a table with the hotel owners and Gordon Sharpless, enjoying a cold pepsi and winding down. I also e-mailed my wife, briefly met Phalla who would return later in the afternoon, gratefully accepted the use of the hotel's mobile telephone whilst I was their guest and walked to the National Museum and the FCCC. The museum had two new sections on pre-history earthworks and a hall of Buddhas in various poses, not to mention a large increase in the number of items on display. I paid particular attention to the statues from Koh Ker after my recent visit, whilst one fantastic lintel in particular, from Prasat Sralao, really takes your breath away with its immaculate craftmanship. The museum is stocked full of incredible Khmer artifacts and seems to get better each time I visit it.
At the FCCC, I bumped into George Moore, a long-time e-mail associate of mine, as we admired the photographs lining the walls, taken by a mutual acquaintance, Gordon Sharpless. On my return to the hotel, waiting for me was Phanna and a friend, both of whom work for the Taxi Vantha company in the capital. Phanna was my young guide when I visited Kratie a year earlier and he's now living and working in Phnom Penh with the aim of earning enough money to put himself through school. I wished him luck and we parted as Phalla arrived at 5pm to take me to dinner at the home of my close friends in Tuol Kauk. The welcome, as always, was incredibly warm, lots of people arrived to say hello and the room belonging to Vourch and Sarein quickly filled to overflowing after dinner ended. I was back at the hotel by 10pm but not before I promised to be the guest of honour at a karaoke party with my friends a few days later. Instantly, I felt sorry for them as I've heard myself sing and its not very pleasant!
Next morning the largest motodub I've ever met, nicknamed Mr Thom (which means 'big') was collared to take me south along Highway 2. This was at 8am after my beef and noodles was washed down with strong coffee in the hotel's Khmer restaurant. He wore a helmet and I can understand why as he attempted to break the world's landspeed record on the way to reaching Phnom Chisor, an hour and thirty minutes later. I was actually relieved to climb the 412 steps at the southern entrance to the top of the hill! The ancient temple at the top affords a great view over the surrounding countryside and in my opinion, is well worth the effort. The temple itself holds a lot of interest with many lintels still in situ and on the plain directly below are two sanctuaries, accessible by a very steep set of laterite steps cut into the side of the hill. The first you reach is Sen Thmol, a laterite structure overgrown with vegetation with just one lintel in place. At Sen Ravang, a few hundred metres further on, my teenage guide, Him, who'd attached himself to me when I arrived at Phnom Chisor over an hour earlier, pointed out more lintels on the entrance gate.
Mr Thom, with his English as poor as my Khmer, had waited with his moto and was clearly relieved to see me return. After a cold drink, we made our way back to Highway 2 and turned northwards, stopping at the nearby twin towers of Prasat Neang Khmau, where the kids and monks seemed genuinely excited and happy to meet me. Our next target was Phnom Tamau followed by a fleeting visit to the temple of Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati. Most people visit the zoo at Phnom Tamau, but not me. Instead, we rode past the zoo entrance and onto two small hillocks closeby. At the largest of the hills, a ceremony involving trucks and vans full of nuns and lay people meant that my arrival was greeted with beaming smiles and waves. A short climb up the hill revealed the scant remains of an ancient brick temple, two surprisingly good quality lintels, one remaining colonette and three inquisitive monkeys. At the top of a steeper set of stairs at the second hill, a massive brick tower, known as Phnom Thma Doh, with a worn lintel and colonettes, was built to surround a gigantic stone boulder representing a natural linga, the largest of many boulders on the hill. We moved onto Tonle Bati where I'd visited the temple on a couple of previous occasions and it remains a tranquil place worthy of a picnic if you have time. We didn't, so it was another moto ride from hell to get back to the Dara for 2pm. To this day, I still don't know how I managed to stay on the moto. Next time I'll find out the Khmer words for 'slow down you madman.'
A peaceful afternoon ensued. I walked to the FCCC for lunch and some chill-out time people-watching from the balcony, e-mailed my wife from one of the internet shops springing up along Sisowath Quay and picked up the latest Canby Publications free guide to Phnom Penh (these guides are indispensable for visitors to the capital, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville). Back at the hotel, I talked at length with the owners and organised a visit to the Sunrise Children's orphanage upon my return from Kompong Chhnang in a couple of day's time. That evening I got a moto ride to the Tuol Sleng home of Peter Leth, an e-mail pal I'd met a year before, where we enjoyed a lovely dinner of 'kha' chicken with his Cambodian fiancee, Veasna and talked about her job in human rights, a charity that they'd just begun, arranging education for young Cambodian girls and lots more. After my two days in Kompong Chhnang, I spent a few hours at the Sunrise Children's Village orphanage in Takhmau the next morning, courtesy of Rosanna White, watching the adorable children practice for their forthcoming visit to Australia for a dance festival. Back in Phnom Penh, a gorgeous roast lamb lunch at the Garden Centre Cafe, in a quiet area of town, reminded me of home though a lunchtime date I'd arranged with an English tour operator failed to materialise.
Returning to the hotel, at 2pm Phalla arrived with a couple of motos in tow carrying more of my Tuol Kauk friends, namely Ara, Lina, Sokrom, Rina and Vicaka who'd decided to take me out to Prek Leap across the river for sweetcorn-cobs and rice dumplings. We sat in hammocks on a wooden platform next to the Tonle Sap river with hordes of other locals, including many teenagers with radios and playing card-games. A couple of hours later I was whisked off again, this time to the family home in Tuol Kauk for the party and karaoke singalong they'd promised a few days earlier. Tables were set up on the verandah of the large house where upwards of twenty families all live under one roof. A meal fit for a King including curried chicken (they'd prepared it specially as they knew it was my favourite) and amok fish was brought out and at least fifteen people sat down to eat. Once the food was consumed, the tables were removed and a tv set up with rows of chairs to begin the karaoke. Ara was very prominent but Lina had the best voice in my opinion, although young Neang surprised us all with the quality of her singing. Then it was my turn. Sam had found a cd of English karaoke and I gave it my best shot for no less than five songs, of which I only recognised two. I think I got away with it, as everyone seemed to be pleased with my efforts. I said my goodbyes at 10pm but instead of returning to the hotel, seven of us packed into a car and drove to Monivong Boulevard for late-night tikaloks, as my treat. A fun way to end the day.
For my final full day in Phnom Penh, I re-visted a couple of the key sights the city has to offer. Eggs and coffee for breakfast, Mr Thom moto'd me to the Royal Palace, where my $5 allowed me access to all the buildings in the palace compound and the Silver Pagoda area; the Throne Hall with its sublime decoration, my first look inside the cast-iron Napoleon III Pavilion which housed lots of old and worn paintings, portraits and dance costumes and the silver floor-tiles of the Silver Pagoda, with its display cases full of royal gifts and a solid gold Buddha containing 2,086 diamonds. In an adjoining area, an exhibition of Khmer crafts, a replica wooden house and royal elephant paraphernalia rounded off my visit after a group of friendly schoolkids couldn't help but practice their English on me and showed off their photo-cards of Britney Spears and Westlife! Lunch was a burger and chips at the Rendezvous cafe by the river and in the afternoon, I spent a few hours at the Tuol Sleng museum. The photo and painting exhibitions had been smartened up and re-arranged since my last visit and a film show has been introduced to put more perspective on what took place at the former high school. The fascinating film, produced by Cambodia's finest director Rithy Panh, was called Bophana and lasted ninety minutes, telling the story of two of S-21's victims.
For my last supper, I returned to the Tuol Kauk house, carrying armfuls of fruit. Dinner was a nice mixture of dishes for the ten of us and with a couple more girls arriving late, we sat and talked about lots of topics, but especially religion and music. I introduced them to Simon & Garfunkel, my pick-up truck tape for all occasions, before leaving my friends for the last time at 10.30pm. The next morning, the staff at the hotel turned out in force to wish me well and I thanked them for their hospitality, while Lina, Alis and Phalla accompanied me to the airport after an exchange of letters and gifts and promises to keep in touch. The goodbyes were upbeat as future trips to Cambodia are almost guaranteed and my noon flight to Singapore took off without a hitch, amid heavy security. At Changi airport, I took the free two hour tour of the city that included a coach ride to the marina and a boat trip, whilst I waited for my connecting flight. Sat next to a South African woman living in New Zealand and visiting friends in London, Adie Shrank was great company for the long journey home and I thank her for making the flight bearable. That completed trip number seven with the usual bundle of great memories and preparations already in hand for my next visit.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
November 2001 marked my 7th trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.
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