"Arctracer" Letters

Cambodia (Angkor Wat), Dec 2005 - Jan 2006

After looking at Dorothy and Dan's website about their November 2003 visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we really wanted to have a similar experience. From Malaysia it is just a short flight, and the inexpensive airfares of Air Asia encouraged us to go. We left "Arctracer" at the new marina in Penang, and took a bus to Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the 28th of December. There were plenty of cheap places to stay in Chinatown in KL. First we tried the "Red Dragon" where we stayed before, but they were full so we stayed nearby at the "Backpacker's Travelers Inn." We ate at a very unique vegetarian restaurant where they use no onion or garlic "because a lot of monks eat there." We don't know why monks avoid onions, but the food was excellent and cheap. Early the following morning we got a ride in a van to the airport with several other people who stayed at the same Inn.

After a 2-hour flight we arrived at the Siem Reap airport, set our watch back an hour, and got through Immigration and Customs. We took a taxi to the "Green Town Guest House" where Dorothy and Dan stayed. It is a clean, quiet, and inexpensive little place, very different from the huge fancy hotels sprouting up all around town. There we met Neang (pronounced Ning), a tuk-tuk driver who sleeps at Green Town to offer transport for their guests, rests on the seat of his tuk-tuk or in a friend's hammock while waiting for his customers, and who was eager to drive us throughout our visit. A tuk-tuk is a two-wheeled cart with a seat, attached to a motorcycle. Neang's had space for two people (some carry four) under a roof for protection from sun and rain. The tuk-tuk didn't travel as fast as cars, but we enjoyed the open air and felt close to the people and scenery. We had a nice lunch and walked around the town for a couple hours. At a bank we used a Visa card to obtain US dollars. Siem Reap does not have ATMs. They use US dollars and riels (Cambodian currency), but US dollars are preferred. We paid $60 each for 7 day laminated photo passes to all the temples.

Neang, our tuk-tuk driver, is 23 years old and speaks English very well. His father died about 6 years ago, so he had to quit school and find a job to help support his mother and three sisters who live far away from Siem Reap. The money he makes in the tourist business is very good. In six days of driving us around he got $104 and he told us that policemen and teachers make $30/month. Hence the cost of living is similar to Indonesia and Malaysia and $104 is more than most Cambodians make in 3 months. He bought a second- hand motorcycle and took individuals to the temples for a few months until he could get a loan for a tuk-tuk and carry two people for higher pay. He got a 14-month bank loan 6 months ago and makes payments of $80 per month. This is only $1120 including interest if he could make the payments each month. However there is a 4-month low season for tourists when the temperatures get to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). When the tourists aren't around and the payments still need to be made, the bank lets him borrow more to make payments. Also, it cost him $50 for a tuk-tuk permit and $15 for a helmet (which he never wore in town, but always wore on our longer trips on the big highways). He would like to become an official tourist guide, but the $1,000 US fee for the 6 months of training is beyond his means.

To end the day, we went to Phnom Bakheng Hill for the view of Angkor Wat at sunset. Many people hired elephants to take them up to the temple on top. To get aboard, people climbed steps to a platform that was the same height as the elaborate seat strapped on top of the elephant. At the top of the hill there was another platform for disembarking, or getting on for the ride down. At some point Nina wants to ride an elephant, but $15 seemed expensive and we believe we will find cheaper elephant rides in Thailand. Besides the elephant path, there are steep stairs (or what is left of them with all the roots growing through the ruins) that most people climb to the temple. The crowd was incredibly large - it seemed that everyone had the same plan as us. We enjoyed people-watching and taking photos looking down on Angkor Wat until the sun went below the horizon, then we walked down the winding elephant path, much slower since we had to wait for elephants, but MUCH less crowded with people. As at every tourist site we had to run a gauntlet of food stands, souvenir stands, and roaming hawkers of every sort. Books were very good deals, and we bought a couple of books with gorgeous photographs about the numerous temples in the area, dating from the 9th to 16th centuries. Nina bought a couple of silk scarves.

The next day, our first full day in Siem Reap, we had what turned out to be our usual breakfast at Green Town - good muesli (granola) with fruit and yogurt and coffee for Jerry and an omelet with good baguette and tea for Nina. Neang drove us to Angkor Thom, one of the largest temple complexes. The South Entrance is wonderful, and through it we arrived at the national temple of Cambodia - marvelous Bayon. From there we walked past Baphuon (closed for reconstruction) to the Elephants Terrace, Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas, the 12 Queen Towers, South Kleang, and some Buddhist images at a small village inside the complex. At the North Gate, Neang told us that many of the carved heads had been taken by the French. Most of the locals we met didn't care for the French, their former colonial masters. They believe the French gave some Cambodian land to Thailand and some to Vietnam, and the Cambodians want their land back and their artifacts returned from French museums. We had a nice relaxing lunch inside the complex and chatted with an English woman who is a volunteer English teacher in Phnom Penh for 6 months. She works with very deprived children and loves it.

After lunch we went with crowds of other tourists to Angkor Wat, and found ourselves talking to a monk inside for about an hour. He decided to become a monk at age 15 and now is in his 20s studying full time. Ninety percent of the Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists, but the temples have Buddhist, Hindu, and ancestor worship elements corresponding to the predominant religion at the time of construction. In Siem Reap Province there are over 5,000 monks, and we saw their orange robes all over the area. We walked around for a few hours and saw some of the wonderful architecture and artworks, but got tired and went back to the tuk-tuk knowing that we would return to see more another day. Angkor Wat is immense, occupying 500 acres inside a 3.5 mile long wall, surrounded by a moat that is 660 feet wide. After one day Jerry had taken so many photos he knew our existing camera memory was insufficient, so we stopped at a camera store and bought a 1-gigabyte memory card for our camera. (When we returned to the boat we had over 800 photos.)

We spent our second day riding more than an hour in the tuk-tuk to get to some out-of-town attractions. The scenery in most areas was green, with many rice fields, duck ponds, beautiful bright pink water lilies, a few lotus blossoms (their season was past) and many lotus leaves. We saw long-tailed macaques (monkeys) by some rural roadsides. Seventy percent of Cambodian people work in their rice fields part of the year. The three political parties of this democracy are Sam Rainsy, Cambodia Peoples and Funcinpec, and we saw many signs advertising them. Khmer is the official language, and the second language of the older generation is French while the second language of the younger people is English. We had no trouble getting along with just English, and learned almost no Khmer. We saw large road construction crews working mainly by hand - digging with pickaxes and shovels, carrying dirt and stones in woven baskets, smoothing surfaces with small brooms, and planting grass beside the road one small root at a time. Other workers were cutting rice with sickles, plowing with oxen and water buffalo and operating small sawmills. Some women carried portable 'soup kitchens' on their shoulders - a basket with vegetables and another basket with a stove and fuel suspended from a long, thin stick. Almost everything was transported by motorcycle. It was normal to see a family of four on one. A variety of homemade baskets and trailers were often added to carry firewood, vegetables, handicrafts, poultry, pigs, and everything else, with some of the loads surely exceeding all safety limits. It was a fascinating ride, but some sections were very dusty. The roads were extremely bad until they were improved this year, and this was the first time that Neang had taken his tuk- tuk over them. Nina bought a cotton scarf to shield her face from the dust before we rode back to town.

At Koulen National Park we hiked through the jungle to a waterfall on the "river of 1,000 lingas." Lingas are "a representation of the male organ of generation, a symbol of Shiva and his role in creation." The Hindus have three main gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - plus a multitude of minor deities and manifestations. The lingas looked like cylindrical stones all lined up in the river. The walk up was wonderful and relaxing, but coming down we encountered hordes of Japanese who didn't give way to those going in the opposite direction even where there was room for two-way traffic. Dorothy and Dan and cruising friends who visited Cambodia this past fall highly recommended going to see Banteay Srei temple. We also enjoyed its beautiful rose-colored sandstone covered with lovely carvings. On the way back we visited the temples of Preah Rup, Prasat Kravan and Banteay Samre. This night we had a special meal at Green Town. It had to be ordered 24-hours in advance. Two young women stood at our table and cooked beef over a wood fire on a small stove while we ate. The meat was cooked on the rounded stovetop, while soup and vegetables were cooked around the sides. It was a good meal for New Year's Eve and was the most expensive on their menu, costing a total of $5. New Year's Eve doesn't seem to be celebrated too much in Cambodia, perhaps because of their different calendar.

During the 3rd day of our visit we went to a silk farm to see the process of making silk. We saw the meter- high everlasting mulberry trees which the Cambodians acquired from Thailand, Japan & China. They are cut back and kept at 1-meter so that the women who pick the leaves to feed the silkworms 5 times a day can reach them easily. According to our guide, different silk is produced from different tree varieties. All Cambodian silk starts out yellow because of the soil, but we did see some bleached threads and some dyed threads. The worms are kept in covered baskets in screened rooms since they will die if a mosquito bites them. We saw worms of different sizes happily munching the mulberry leaves, and we saw some weaving their cocoons. Eighty percent of the cocoons are used to make silk and 20% are used to produce more worms. We watched the threads unrolled from cocoons which were in very hot water. Several cocoons have their strands combined into one thread, and each cocoon produces about 100 meters (yards) of raw silk from the outside of the cocoon plus 300 meters of fine silk from the inside of the cocoon. Some women were putting the silk thread on warps for the looms. It takes 4,200 threads to make a warp 1 meter wide. We saw silk being woven, some with simple patterns and some with ikat patterns (as we'd seen in Indonesia with cotton threads). To make ikat they tie- dye the threads before weaving, but only three women were being trained to do that at the silk farm.

We had to stop beside the road to taste deep-fried crickets. They are caught at night when they are attracted by lights to vertical plastic sheets with pools of water below. They are fried in oil for about 15 minutes. Then you pull off the wings, legs, and head and pop the rest in your mouth - very good tasting as it turned out. Cambodians enjoy them, and also export some to Thailand. We returned to Angkor Wat for the rest of the afternoon. There are VERY STEEP steps to the top level of the central tower, but Jerry managed to get up with only slight trauma (Aussie expression) due to his fear of heights. We took some photos from the top and many photos of the art inside. Then we had to contemplate getting back down. There are four sets of stairs, one on each side of the tower, but only one of them has a railing. We had not used this set of stairs to go up, but there was no other way for Jerry to get down, so we waited in the queue for 45 minutes to return to the ground and safety. Nina was worried about Jerry, who had to take some deep breaths, but he was fine as soon as he grasped the railing.

Our 4th day in Siem Reap was Jerry's birthday and we had a terrific day. We got up before daylight to have breakfast, and then rode the tuk-tuk two hours through the countryside to Beng Mealea temple that has recently been opened to the public. It has not been touched by renovations, so is quite a ruin with trees growing all over. A local guide led us through the ruins. It was neat to see a very long-tailed bird, a red- headed woodpecker, and a squirrel at the site. Again, this was the first time Neang had taken his tuk-tuk here. He had only used his motorcycle previously because of the terrible state of the roads. They are now like the roads to Banteay Srei - fairly smooth but very dusty. We noticed huge cement vases at houses all along the road and discovered that they hold the family cooking water. We watched a portable rice- threshing machine in operation, and learned its owner's pay is one basket of rice for every ten threshed. Far from the big town the people are obviously poorer. Some of the houses had straw sides as well as straw roofs.

Nearer town we visited more temples - Lolei, Bakong and Preah Ko of the Roluos Group. There and at some other sites we saw musicians playing to raise money for people injured by land mines. Many of the musicians themselves were handicapped. We gave them some token donations. Mines have been pretty well removed now from tourist sites, but there are probably still some live ones out in the countryside. We have heard that the US has restarted production of land mines, despite international treaties. They are horrible weapons, crippling children and other civilians long after the war is over, and we feel they should be banned.

Back at the guest house, Jerry had some laundry done by hand for him as his clothes were all red dust. We took showers and then walked to the Red Piano Restaurant that Dorothy and Dan loved. We splurged on a bottle of wine and sat on the upper floor to watch some of the street scene below while waiting for our delicious meal. They had posters of the movie "Tomb Raider" showing the star, Angelina Jolie, and Nina tried the drink that she enjoyed here during the filming. A "Tomb Raider" cocktail has Cointreau, lime juice and tonic - not great, but okay.

We were in the tuk-tuk by 8 am on our 5th day in Siem Reap for a "grand tour" of temples near Angkor Wat - Banteay Kdei, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Ta Keo, and finally Ta Prohm where some of "Tomb Raider" was filmed. Ta Som and Ta Prohm were our favorites with huge tree roots growing around the doorways and/or walls. The temples have wonderful carvings of Hindu or Buddhist gods, scenes from the Ramayana, and scenes of local life centuries ago. Some restoration has been done and some is ongoing, but the work is necessarily slow and enormous tasks remain. It is amazing how well these architectural marvels have survived despite centuries of neglect, and it is amazing that so many of the marvelous stone carvings are still in place and beautiful despite organized looting. The government seems to have reduced looting considerably, and the people seem to understand that tourism to these sites is vital to their economy, so we hope these treasures will survive.

(view photos of Angkor Wat)

(view photos of other temples near Siem Reap)

By our 6th day we had seen all the temples in the area and were ready for a different adventure. We walked to the post office, through the Royal Park with its hundreds of yellow- faced flying foxes, past the Royal Residence, checked our email and made reservations at a restaurant for a buffet and Khmer dancing. While Nina browsed in the market, Jerry got a haircut plus a head/neck/shoulders/arms massage for the grand total of 1 riel (30 cents). Then we rode the tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. At the end of the paved road we climbed stairs up a hill for a fantastic view of the lake, now fairly low in the dry season. Then we took the very bumpy and dusty road lined with "shacks" built up on high pilings or floating on the lake. The floating houses are very sensible because the level of the lake changes dramatically with the seasons and the fishermen need to move near the best fishing areas and near their rice fields. The narrow road was busy with tourist buses delivering and picking up people from the tour boats and the 6-hour ferry to Phnom Penh. The air was almost unbreathable - so foul that Nina had to put her scarf over her nose to avoid gagging. The stench was partly rotting fish and partly due to lack of toilet facilities and was incredibly strong in the blazing sun. It was picturesque, but probably the filthiest place we've been in all our travels. On our return trip, near town we saw skinned snakes drying in the sun, so stopped to try some. A man gets about 7 to 10 kilograms (14-20 pounds) in one evening by netting snakes sleeping on trees beside the lake. A kilogram is about 7 snakes, so each man gets over 50 snakes a night. They were roasted over a wood fire and had a pleasant tandori taste. Each ready-to-eat snake cost 500 riels (10 to15 cents). Our driver had never tasted them before, but after trying one he bought several for his family.

After showering to rid ourselves of Cambodia's thick red dust one last time, we walked to the Koulen Restaurant early to get a good table near the stage. As it turned out they already had a table with our name on it, so it wasn't necessary to arrive an hour before the buffet. All the long tables in front of the stage were reserved for bus tours, whose customers provide most of the income for the restaurant so they deserve the best seats. We really enjoyed the traditional Khmer dancing with fancy costumes similar to those used in Indonesia, plus modern dances in more modern costumes. A very amusing part of the evening was at the end of the hour-long show when hordes of Japanese tourists rushed on stage to get their photos taken with the dancers. The dance troupe was very patient and we heard that this is the norm with Japanese tourists every evening. We sometimes learn customs of tourists as well as locals!

(view photos of cambodian life)

We were in our tuk-tuk at 9am on January 5th for our trip back to the airport. After the 2- hour flight to Kuala Lumpur we waited at the airport for about 7 hours for another 50-minute flight to Penang. When we arrived at Penang airport we asked the "polis" where to go to get a "bas" back to Penang to the "feri" (which is next to the marina). They told us to walk across the parking lot into the small town. When we got to town we couldn't find a "bas stesen" so inquired. A man told us that 10 pm at night was too late and that we should take a "teksi," so we found a "teksi" to take us back to the boat for half the price that it would have cost us at the airport for the half hour drive. (The words in quotes are the way they are spelled here in Malaysia. Jerry says he will not be able to spell correctly if he stays here very long.)

After a fantastic trip we were happy to be back in Penang. A biopsy on Nina's forehead turned out to be benign, which was very good news. Jerry got antibiotics for an inner ear infection, and it is much better. After shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables we left the Penang marina after a stay of 31 days. We are not "marina" people and it was great to escape! We sailed to the 99- island archipelago of Langkawi and anchored for a week in a peaceful bay surrounded by limestone cliffs. We watched sea eagles, monkeys, and a swimming monitor lizard from time to time, sanded and varnished all the woodwork in our cockpit, and beached the boat to clean the filthy waterline, bottom and barnacled propellers.

Now we are anchored off the main town of Kuah, ready to see more of what Langkawi has to offer. It is a major tourist destination, with direct flights from such places as London and Taipei. We plan to be in this area (west coast Malaysia and Thailand) for a year, since there is so much to see and do. We plan to get some boat projects done, but will do a lot of easy cruising too.