Friday, 5 April 2013

Angkor City, Banteay Srei and the Landmine Museum

So we awoke for 8am and Saro was waiting for us, he took us first to an ATM as I needed money for the tickets, then took us to the ticket booth ($40 for a 3 day pass) where you even have your photo taken! Then it was onto our first stop – the Landmine museum. We passed many villages along the way.  It was on the way to Banteay Srei, which was a good hours drive, but it was lovely for some ‘air-con’ as David called it!

When we arrived we realised it was more than just a museum. Aki Ra, himself a child of the war, and the founder of the museum, had created not only a museum educating people about landmines, the cause etc, and created a home for landmine child victims, but also had dedicated the whole of his adult life to de-mining and defusing bombs throughout Cambodia, and now has a license to conduct this full-time, a registered NGO team and international credit for his work (he won a CNN hero’s award). He doesn't know his age or when he was born and was believed to have been orphaned at 5 years old (his parents supposedly murdered by the Khmer Rouge). He was enlisted into the Khmer rouge army and actively fighting at 10, and defected into the Vietnamese liberation army a few years later. He had seen many of his friends killed, injured and maimed, was made to plant landmines, which is why he knows enough to now defuse them, and at 10 was using AK-47’s, M16’s, bazookas and rocket launchers. One comment in the museum was quite sobering; during my time in the Vietnamese army, I was young and so made to hunt for food at night. At night I would recognise my friends who were still fighting for the Khmer Rouge, and we would play and hunt together. In the morning, we would kill each other.

On one occasion he was even fighting against his own Uncle, whom he recognised and shot above his head until he ran away. Later after the war when they were reunited, he told him and they now joke about it. His uncle now helps run the children’s home alongside Aki Ra and his late wife. If you want to know more about his amazing life and works go to Wikipedia - there is even a film being made about his life, called The Perfect Soldier.

Then it was onto Banteay Srei, (meaning citadel of the women) a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, which is one of the only ancient temples to have such elaborate carvings on it. They say that it was built by women, as the carvings are too delicate and detailed for any man. We had a walk around, took some pictures and then noticed all the tourists in vest tops and shorts – huh! We had been cheated by our guesthouse as we were told we had to keep knees and shoulders covered, so there’s me sweating my arse off in a t-shirt and ali-baba pants, and I notice some clothes stalls at the exit – vest top here I come! So got myself a vestie for a bargain $3 and off we went with Saro back to Angkor City, turns out that we only have to keep covered for Angkor Wat itself, grumble.

Along the way we stopped off at a local village to see how Palm Sugar is made and produced. I learnt some interesting facts actually. There are two types of palm trees – male and female – male grows palm fruits and female grows the flower from which palm sugar/oil is made. They use little bamboo cane ladders to climb the trees in the morning and evening to collect the fruits and flowers. They then press the flowers for the palm oil, which in turn is processed into sugar and left to set in little circle parcels, later to be sold in pure form, or in sugar form for use in curries, cakes, sweets – or even just to eat on their own. We tried some and it was delicious – tasted just like the sugar on Frosties! We then tried some Palm Fruit, which was made up of different sections that you have to chop away at to get to the ‘jelly-like’ fruit – looks like a coconut – and is basically a jellied coconut with palm juice instead of coconut milk inside! Yum!

Then we went to one more temple and headed for lunch at a place he recommended, which we knew would basically mean bad food for a high price (nothing lower than $5) because he gets to eat there for free. Even though across the way there were plenty of local street eats which we’d asked to look for but he’d said there weren’t any! But we kinda gathered most tuk tuk drivers did this so we let him off. After lunch we went to some more temples – our route is outlined below:

First up was Ta Som, a small temple built at the end of the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII. Like the nearby Preah Khan and Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple) the temple was left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. It was actually pretty impressive and we took some pictures here, including our ‘Cambodian Dance’ pose which we’d stolen off a little boy in the royal palace back in Phnom Penh, and a ‘stepping on the guard’ pose. Then it was onto Preah Khan, a massive temple with tons and tons of corridors, I sat here for a bit to appreciate the deathy silence (other than people walking through) and SHADE. The ‘temple’ once combined the roles of city, temple and Buddhist University: there were 97,840 attendants and servants living there, including 1000 dancers and 1000 teachers.

This was where Saro had to leave us as he had ‘family issues’ that meant he had to rush home (hopefully it wasn’t too bad), so we waited around Preah Khan, drinking our body weight in water as just as soon as you took a gulp you’d sweated it back out again! We then went to find Ney, our new driver, who was cool but not as nice as Saro and he didn’t speak much English – dammit, we want Saro back!

He then took us onto our last temple which was Phnom Bakheng, or otherwise known as sunset hill where we were to watch the sunset. We got here quite early so we decided to climb the hill really slowly and then sat outside the temple at the top for  bit before entering. I was miffed as you had to cover your shoulders again so had to put my t-shirt back on which meant – sweat bucket! We started to see loads of big tour groups coming (most were Chinese, Japanese and Korean; surprise, surprise) so we decided to make our way up to the temple to see if we could get a good spot. We did but there was still an hour to go til sunset so we walked around a bit, taking photos and then I plonked myself down at one of the back pillars with an awesome view of sunset but away from all the crowds of tourists. We sat here for the next 45mins, but the sun went behind the hazy clouds before it actually set, so we only saw a little of sunset!

Then we made the trek down and found Ney before heading back to Siem Reap. I got dropped off at the little street joint for some takeaway food then headed back to Happy, ate, showered, chilled and then we both went to bed at around 9pm ready for an early rise for sunrise at Angkor Wat tomorrow.

I, before hand, had a mini panic as Little Bird hostel in Chiang Mai (where I’d be spending the next week for Song Kran – Thai new year – had mucked up my booking and so I now had no where to stay, so I contacted Nalinrat, the girl I’d met back in Jan when we were there, who owned a tour shop round the corner, to see if she could find me anywhere, so she set about looking for me and said she’d let me know. YAY! So yea, we went to bed, I couldn’t sleep as it was so goddamn hot! So took a sleeping pill and managed to at least get 4hrs in.

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