Cambodia

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This may be a case of saving the best for last. Or maybe it was simply a coincidence that Oudong was the last place we visited in Cambodia.

Either way, here at the foot of the mountain, vendors from the local villages gather to sell all sorts of picnic food to the city folk who come to the mountain on weekends to “get away from it all” and relax.

Places along the road rented comfortable (well, if you’re Cambodian, I guess) resting places with clean mats and hammocks where visitors can relax after climbing the mountain and eating their fill of the fresh food.

A very long line of vendors–two or three rows deep in places and maybe a couple of football fields long–was getting ready for the lunchtime crowd as we came through.

  

The variety of food was incredible. Just above, for example, you see a tempting plate of battered fried ants. This was a food people were reduced to during the terrible years of starvation under the Khmer Rouge, and they discovered they were quite good. Fried ants, that is, not the Khmer Rouge. And so fried ants continue to be a popular snack food today.

Other tempting dishes included skewers of grilled frogs, grilled fish, some kind of custard, fried soft-shell crabs, olives, grilled chicken and <um, something>, some kind of small bird being defeathered in advance of grilling, and to go with it all, a nice salad with basil and hot peppers.

       

The line of vendors was endless, and the variety of food mind-boggling. Here we have the eggs of some kind of small bird and a spicy bean salad, grilled <um, something>, fried ants prepared with hot peppers, snails, grilled turtles, and salad.

     

Everyone here was getting ready for the lunchtime crowd.

   

Our one regret is that we didn’t eat any of this. The Beth Israel Hospital Travel Clinic had cautioned us too severely. But if I had known I was already sick, for sure I should have done it.

Spicy fried ants with mystery-stuffed grilled banana-leaf packets, yum!

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A number of new temples and monasteries have sprung up (or been rebuilt) in the vicinity of Oudong Mountain. We visited several. Alas, I don’t know the name of this temple. I can say only that it is fairly new and beautifully decorated, inside and out. The railings of the stairways and terraces are all seven-headed nagas (serpents), and lions guard the way.

  Inside, the temple is high and spacious. A large Buddha sitting under his Bo-tree dominates the room. His electric halo and fingers touching the ground show that he has achieved enlightenment.

 

 

The walls and ceilings are covered with paintings detailing the various incarnated lives of the Buddha.

 

 

Nearby a golden statue of the meditating Buddha protected by the king of nagas dominates a serene garden.

 

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Oudong Mountain is a popular weekend-morning destination for Cambodians as well as tourists. The ride from Phnom Penh takes about three quarters of an hour through the capital city’s suburbs and out into the countryside. Oudong Mountain first appears as a distant vision across the rice paddies.

Oudong was the capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866, when the capital was moved to Phnom Penh. There was much damage to the region in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge. Now, new structures and old intermingle peacefully. The climb to the top involves more than five hundred stairs whose railings are topped with resplendent enlightened Buddhas. A pool that graces one of the stairway landings is occupied by a troupe of monkeys.

  

 

The views from the terrace of the newest stupa are stunning, as are the terrace and the stupa itself.

 

 

The older stupas on the mountaintop blend ancient art with modern worship.

   

 

One of these older stupas had a small temple inside, where traditionally worshippers bring Buddha statues.

 

 

 

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Phnom Penh is the only city I know of that was founded by a woman. The way the story goes, in the mid-fourteenth century Lady Penh (Daun Penh) pulled a floating tree out of the river, and in it she found four bronze buddhas. Being a spiritual person, she knew what she had to do. On the spot where she found the tree, she built up a hill (phnom) and on it she built a temple (wat) to house the four buddhas. The place became a holy place of pilgrimage, and after Lady Penh’s death a small shrine was built to her.

And so “Phnom Penh” means Lady Penh’s Hill, and the hill itself is at the center of the city.

The main stupa on the hill contains the remains of the king Ponhea Yat who made the city his capital early in the fifteenth century, along with many buddha statues and offerings. The current building dates only from the early twentieth century.

 

On the grounds outside the stupa are many interesting artifacts. For example, here is a fine large ceremonial drum, housed in its own shelter. The painting on the drum is of a lunar eclipse–during which the demon Rahu is swallowing the moon.

 

A number of interesting spirit-houses dot the grounds.

 

There is still a small shrine to Lady Penh. Even after all these centuries, she is believed to have a special ability to grant wishes, and is especially helpful to women.

Lady Penh has two electric halos, and she is surrounded by gifts that her worshippers have given her. Notice the tray of nail polish bottles to her left, for example–a fitting gift from one woman to another. Lady Penh is extremely popular, and her shrine is always surrounded by petitioners. I can understand why. Don’t you think she looks kindly? Almost grandmotherly, with those glasses.

Er…wait. Daum Penh lived in the fourteenth century. Glasses??? Perhaps they were a gift from someone hoping they would help her to better see her admirers.

 

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The market’s Khmer name, Phsar Thmei, literally means “New Market.” But we call it “Central Market” in English. I don’t know, but I imagine I know, why: Unlike any other market we’ve visited, this one has a clear and unmistakeable center.

Built in 1935 in an art-deco style, the market comprises four wings around a central domed area. Around the market and its wings, ancillary vendors have set up additional stalls, as such vendors will.

The high-value merchandise is located under the central dome, attractively displayed in brightly lit cases.

   

We exited through the “food court,” an area of fast-food merchants, all busy preparing for the lunchtime rush.

   

Yes, that’s a durian that the man is cutting up, the fruit that is famous for a flavor that people who like it adore and for an odor that everyone else can’t stand. It turns out that *fresh* durians like this one don’t smell. I regret not having tasted it.

My favorite part of the market was the part we saw last. Flowers!

 

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Dan and I are market junkies. We don’t buy very much. Well, maybe a few silk scarves and wooden cow bells, that sort of thing, only a small smattering of the goods available. Mostly we’re there to absorb the patterns and rhythms of the place. The visual candy. And to experience each market’s unique character.

And so…allow me to present the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, so named in the 1980s when the Russians were the only tourists in town, and this is where they went to find cheap local goods to ship home. And it’s still probably the best place for that kind of thing today, as well as every other kind of merchandise under the sun. And as rich in visual candy as they come.

Here is a somewhat random walk through the market, in one side, through the food court in the middle, and out the other side.

             

 

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In the town of Siem Reap, an organization called Artisans d’Angkor provides employment for rural people by teaching them ancient handicrafts. This organization also runs a silk farm in a more remote area. It was a bit off the beaten tourist trail, and we had to ask our guide to bring us there. Thank heavens, no crowds!

The silk farm grows its own mulberry trees and raises its own silkworms. Not nearly enough to supply the large quantities of silk they need for their weaving operations (the rest comes from China), but the worm-growing part of the business still seemed young, as were the trees. It was a beginning.

Silk worms are entirely domesticated animals, no longer found in the wild. They grow fast and are voracious eaters that must be fed frequently. They live only about four weeks before beginning to spin their cocoons. When the cocoons are completed, all but a few (kept for breeding) are harvested and boiled to remove the sericin coating that holds the cocoon together and also, alas, to kill the forming moth within, which would otherwise secrete an acid that would damage the silk thread.

 

Each cocoon is made of a single silk filament more than half a mile long. The worker finds the ends of several cocoons (if you look hard you may be able to see the fine filaments leading to the tool in the worker’s hand above) and inserts them into a machine that unwinds them from the cocoon. It winds several filaments together into a thread on a reel. The threads are then wound onto bobbins.

   

Some of the thread is bleached into “fine” silk, and some is left its natural color as “raw” silk. The silk is then colored using dyes made from a variety of natural ingredients.

  

More detailed descriptions of the life of the silkworm (Bombyx mori) can be found here and here.

The finished, dyed silk is then woven using hand-operated looms.

    

 

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In Cambodia, the population is mostly Buddhist (94%), with a small admixture of Moslems (mostly Chan people) and Christians (mostly Chan and Vietnamese). But the old pre-Buddhist animistic religions still persist in a few practices. The most notable of these are the spirit houses that are found everywhere–on the properties of homes and shops and government buildings alike. Spirit houses are built for the resident spirits of the place, especially the dangerous ones, so that they will not move into the people’s houses or shops. Often, these spirit houses contain images or offerings of some kind for the spirits.

 

I briefly considered getting one for our home in Massachusetts, but it was hard to know how the neighbors would feel about it. Also, Dan and I figured the mailmen would persist in putting the mail there, which might be offensive to the spirits. And–the real deal-killer: the things are made of concrete, probably driving us way over the checked-luggage weight limit.

Shops of all sorts line the roads. Here are a basket store, a variety store, a cell phone store, and a gas station. Yes, gas by the liter, and probably illegal, too. Judging from the repose of the attendant, the gas station is not very busy.

   This roadside gate leads to an ancient monastery compound.

The town of Siem Reap itself is very tourist-oriented, with some strip development. But the older part of town retains a certain charm.

 

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The Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, is one of the largest and most important fresh-water systems in southeast Asia. It’s also one of the most interesting. The lake is connected via the Siem Reap River to the Mekong River and is home to a number of communities of ethnic Cham and Vietnamese people who live on houseboats. During the dry season the Siem Reap River flows from the lake, which at that time of year is only about a meter deep, and drains into the Mekong River. During the monsoon season, however, the Siem Reap River reverses direction and flows from the Mekong River into Tonle Sap Lake. The lake grows much larger (by a factor of four or five) and deeper (by a factor of eight or nine), and the people move seasonally from lake to the mouth of one of its feeder rivers and back again, wherever the fishing is best.

We visited during the start of monsoon season, and the river leading to the mouth of the lake was lined with houseboats. (The brown color of the water is due to a high rate of sedimentation, a normal phenomenon of this ecosystem.)

  

“People here live pretty close to their neighbors,” our guide pointed out. “So do you know what they do if it turns out they and their neighbors don’t get along?”

“What?” we asked.

His eyes gleaming, he said, “They move! Home and all!”

And we were, in fact, lucky enough to see someone in the process of doing just that.

  

And there weren’t just houseboats. There were also shop-boats of all sorts, and cafe-boats and basketball-court-boats and church-boats. All of these migrate up and down the lake with the people.

  

 

There’s even a grocery delivery service.

Since many of the people are fishermen, they work in the evenings and at night, and they rest during the day. And so we saw a lot of people at home, many of whom were sleeping in their hammocks.

    

At the mouth of the river,we reached the end of the settlement and the open expanse of the lake.

    

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Perhaps because this part of the trip was arranged through a travel agency through a travel agency (yes, that’s a chain of two travel agencies, as it turned out), there were several places where we were booked into a class of luxury hotel that was well above our normal standard. It’s quite possible that in some cases the amenities that we require (air conditioning during monsoon season, for example) were not available in lesser classes of hotel, especially since we also expressed a preference for older, historic buildings with some charm.

In any case, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is the kind of hotel where a uniformed man opens the door for us, and the ladies at the front desk greet us as we walk by, there are cool towels to wipe our faces after braving the outdoors, and a butler is available to assist us at any hour of the day or night. In short, when we enter the front door we have walked back in time to the best that the French colonial period had to offer.

Here is what I wrote in my journal the evening before we departed:

I am in a continual struggle with the staff here at the Raffles Hotel regarding how to serve me best. 

Now–you’d think that perhaps I am the one of us who would be the expert on the subject. But apparently not. 

Two or three times a day I move the TV remote control and entertainment guide off my night table (where I need the room for my stuff) and put them next to the TV (where they won’t get in my way). And two or three times a day I return to the room to find that they have moved them back to my night table.

They put a bottle of water and an extra glass on my night table. I am grateful for the water, and I move it to the bathroom where I need it. I move the glass to the table where the fruit is. Where I can ignore it. 

They rearrange all my belongings on my night table to make room for the glass, the water, the remote control, and the entertainment guide. I move all these things back into my familiar arrangement, where I can find what I might need in the middle of the night in the dark.

They arrange all my items on the counter in the bathroom in order by size. And they put the soap dish prominently in the middle. I move them back into groups by use, and I put the soap dish out of the way. 

I am going to win this silent dispute. Tomorrow, I leave. Bwah-ha-ha!

They are going to win this silent dispute. Tomorrow, I will be gone. Bwah-ha-ha indeed!

 

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