Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sandstone and Lok Lak Amok Magic in Cambodia

Siem Riep, Day One, 4:35 am:

Alarm goes off. It is black outside, and our one-dollar-a-day rental bikes are locked up next to our hotel. We've been told that we must see the temple of Angkor Wat at sunrise, and it's a 40 minute ride to the temple.

We (Paula, the other 6th grade English teacher and former model whose daughter had a significant role in Almost Famous, Katherine and I) have just finished a long stretch of school on Friday and boarded a bus at 7 am Saturday morning to ride for 12 hours, through Phnom Penh and straight up to see these temples that everyone has told us are "magical."

We arrive in Siem Riep under a black starry sky, with only enough time to hire a tuk tuk driver into town from the bus station, eat dinner and rent our bikes, It is an understatement to tell you that I didn't feel like getting up and going, even after all of that effort. Or maybe I should say especially after all of that effort.

But of course we did. We had been pointed in the right direction the previous night, but no street lights helped us in the morning, so we just followed the random tuk tuks or other bicyclists and hoped they were going where we wanted to go. It was so dark we couldn't even see the road signs, and we marvelled on the way home how we managed to miss that pothole and that ditch of mud.

We got there for the sunrise, and everyone is right: the temple is magical in the morning.

The temples of Angkor, more than 100 stone temples built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, are the surviving remains of a religious and social metropolis. Our one dollar bikes are great (everything in Angkor seems to be one dollar: the bikes - rented with no forms- a pack of postcards, a banana shake...) The temple in the morning is the only time we feel the crunch of people. For the rest of the day, we leisurely ride the "smaller" 17 km loop, exploring sandstone temple after sandstone temple. At times we are the only ones at a site, and we get a little lost in a forest behind one temple looking for another. It is a air-con deluxe hot shower experience, not triple hot, only because even though ruins are cool, I can only see so much of them. Now ziplines into treehouses, well, I could live there (given the proper rat protection).

Timing is funny, too. I didn't study much about Angkor before going, so I was very surprised to learn that the temples were mostly dedicated to Hindu gods...for example, Angkor Wat itself is dedicated to the god Vishnu, and the temple layout is a representation of the Hindu religion. Well, I told you that in Ancient History we were leaving Egypt, but I didn't tell you that we were heading to India. On Friday, in preparation for the hard Monday return to school, I had read The Ramayana and prepared to assign new gods and goddesses (which we did today, and I wish I had a video of my kids learning their new names during internet research and the murmur that reached crescendo when they learned who they were connected to. And Terry's (Vishnu's) indignant tone when he comes and tells me "I am father to Anna (his arch enemy) and Khan, and I am married to Mia!" And here, just two days later, I am seeing relief after relief of dancing Apsaras and elephant-headed Ganeshas.

Cambodia surprises me in many ways. Perhaps the best surprise is the Triple Hot Shower with English TV food. We loved it. Our favorite dish was the national dish, called "Amok." It is baked fish with coconut, lemon grass and chili, served in a banana leaf. It's similar to Thai curry, but much more mild and moist -not soupy. The best thing we ate on the trip. Yep, the best food was in Cambodia, not Thailand. Your guess, #1 Fan, was wrong. But we will get to that.

Another dish I loved is called Lok Lak. It's grilled meat, fresh onions and tomatoes with a fried egg on top (that's when I was still friends with the egg-more on that later, too, in Thailand) covered with what is referred to as "Khmer sauce." Really tasty. And everything is prepared from scratch. We would stop in one of several kitchens outside of certain temple areas - kitchens that looked like no big deal touristy places- and the woman behind the counter would chop and prepare and take over a half an hour to bring us our food.

Another surprise: the kids. They are beautiful, very smart, and very, very pushy. They would meet us outside of temples selling their one dollar post cards and work and work and work us over. When they learned K was Canadian, they listed off an amazing list of facts: "Canadians speak two languages, it is a big country with a small population, prime minister Steven Harper..." When I asked what they knew about America, well, they would pause and say something like, "Capital, Washington DC." They knew practically nothing. Really, we ran across very few Americans. There were two on our bus from HCMC, and guess where home was: Phinney Ridge, about ten blocks from my condo. But many more Canadians traveling in Asia, for sure.
One boy, a smiley and not at all pushy kid named "Spiderman" - had Spiderman gloves to go with his name - well, I would have adopted him on the spot if someone had the paperwork ready. I thought he might have been ten or so, but he was 14. Sweetest spirited kid. I felt so sad walking away from him, and all of them, in general. You hear so many terrible things about kids in Cambodia (including Kristoff's article in Sunday's New York Times about child prostitution in Phnom Penh).
Day Two of Temple Visiting, we hired this tuk tuk driver, named Sok Phea. Sok Phea, like many Cambodian men, had studied to be a monk for three years before becoming a driver. He was really cool, and he drove us to a far away temple we had read about, as well as to a waterfall hike with a bunch of Hindu god river carvings. Honestly, I enjoyed this day even more (add the English TV). The three of us just sat in the tuk tuk, enjoying the beautiful view of the rice fields and the simple towns we passed. As you can see, Sok Phea has our bags in the tuk tuk, because he took us straight to the airport after our waterfall hike.
And at the tiny little airport of Siem Riep, you know what tasted really really good? The five bites I got of Katherine's Oreo Cookie Blizzard at the airport Dairy Queen. Triple Hot.


Brian Bowker said...

Angkor Wat is really cool - I would love to see it someday!

So is that the second young Spiderman you've met now?

The Norris Clan said...

Those kids sound way too smart for their own good...

Dad said...

Very interesting blog, Marjie. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Brian Bowker said...

Canada has a Prime Minister?

marjie said...

Brian, yes, two young "Spidermen" and one "Spiderboy."

Karyn, yeah, that's the sad part. They are so smart. I wanted to adopt Spiderman and send him to college. I want all of them to go to college. They claim they go to school in the mornings, but I don't know if I believe it.

And, Brian, I told Katherine that the kids in Cambodia know more about Canada than we do, and we - especially you - are on their border.

Mungo said...

Nice post, eh.

Thea said...

I loved Amok! Another great Marjie recommendation.