Monday, February 24, 6:10 a.m., Siem Reap
Yesterday was a long day full of experiences, and I wasn’t quite up to, or didn’t have the time to, recount it all yesterday. So here I am writing this down, first thing in the morning, just a couple of hours from seeing Angkor Wat!
We started yesterday with another look at small village life, a feature of this tour that has been extremely welcome.
Banteay Srei, our main destination for the morning, is nearly an hour away from Siem Reap, and along the way we stopped at a couple of places. Rice is, of course, a three-times-a-day staple of most diets here. Once upon a time, grinding the rice into flour and making noodles out of it was a treat saved for a single instance a year, on the Cambodian version of Thanksgiving Day. Now it’s much more commonplace, and we saw the traditional process by which the noodles are made. The rice is ground and soaked and pounded into a dough, which is then pressed through a fine sieve into long thin noodles that are immediately cooked.
They only stay fresh for one day. I tried some, and they were great. The young woman that prepared them was very attractive, and, apparently still unmarried at the late age of 28. As her mother lamented this fact, I thought, briefly, about offering her marriage and a trip to the U.S., but feared this might not go down so well, culturally or personally!
Most Cambodians don’t have access to electricity, and it was common in these villages to see car batteries employed as a source of power for televisions and for charging cell phones (which are ubiquitous here as everywhere else).
We also visited some basket makers. Using long strips of rattan and a little colored plastic, they create beautiful baskets of all sizes to order for middlemen that then sell them. It, like the noodle making, brings in a little extra income for families that largely make their living from farming.
The same goes for the candy makers we met later in the day, who use the fruit of the sugar palm tree, the national tree of Cambodia, to make liquid sugar that is formed into tasty treats. I bought a couple of baskets of these for work and home.
Then it was on to Banteay Srei!
Built in 967, much of it has remained in excellent repair due to the use of hard pink sandstone. Some smaller buildings around the central temple weren’t in such great repair, but even there one could admire the intricate carvings and sophisticated construction. Within the temple, the level of detail is amazing.
Depictions of the Hindu gods mix with scenes from the Ramayana on the three central towers and the two ancillary buildings that have been dubbed libraries (although their actual function remains unknown). All sorts of foliage and curlicues surround these scenes and adorn the pillars.
There were quite a few tourists, but not really enough to get in the way of the experience. My first Angkorean, or Khmer, temple!
After lunch we headed to the upper reaches of Tonle Sap Lake by dirt roads that put quite a strain on our bus, and on me bouncing up and down and all around in the back seat. But we made it to our boat, which took us to on of the many floating villages that exist on the vast Tonle Sap.
Along the way we saw a host of people fishing. Even in those shallow waters the fish were pretty abundant, and the fact that it was Sunday brought some recreational fishermen and -women as well. The floating villages looked pretty much like the small towns we have seen throughout Cambodia and Vietnam, except here all the homes and stores float on the water.
During a brief stop at a crocodile farm, a few people (not me!) tried water snake soup.
This excursion was yet another interesting insight into the lives of normal Cambodian folk.
We made our way back to the bus, which endured the bumps one further time to take us to a village where we got the chance to ride on a cart led by two water buffalo!
It was by now late in the day, and as we went we were able to see the blood-red sun just before setting. The ride the carts provided were a little too rough to take a picture, but the sight was memorable.
A brief break at the hotel preceded a buffet dinner that was accompanied by a music/dance performance. We saw a few minutes of the shadow puppets, which our guide R isn’t impressed with but which I quite liked despite having no idea of what was going on. After that came a play of short scenes from the Ramayana, the highlight of which, aside from the pretty dancers, was the concluding Apsara dance. A slow ensemble dance for a group of five dancers with one out in front, it featured very slow, elegant movement, a very particular posture of the body with arched back, and flowing gestures from the hands. I have a feeling that what we saw was a bit commercialized for the tourist market, but I still liked it.
On the bus for Angkor Wat in just over an hour!