Thursday, July 28, 2011


From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Of crickets, silk worms, and temples

Between two short work weeks comes a long weekend. We left “home” on Friday morning to spend a few days in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap Lake. Once the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap today is the place where most tourists land to see the dozens of temple ruins of Angkor.

On this trip we were joined by our host’s wife Neang and their boys Peace and Harmony, and fourteen people comfortably fit into a van very similar to last week’s. The road leading north is paved and in reasonable condition. With heavily loaded vehicles of all types connecting the towns and the occasional cow or pig slowly crossing, allow five to six hours for a trip the distance of Vienna – Salzburg.

The countryside looked greener and better developed agriculturally than the south, maybe due to the increasing rainfall as we finally getting into the rainy season. A pit stop along the way was an opportunity for Khim Chamroeun, our tour guide and driver for this trip, who happens to own the hotel in Siem Reap that we would stay at, to get some yummy snacks, crickets! We had tarantulas when we came here, and the kids seemed to enjoy the crickets (or our strange looks watching them), so let’s try!

They are right, crickets taste like chicken, crispy chicken. I couldn’t think of a really good answer to Natali’s question though why we are not simply having chicken then.

Our next stop was the Santuk Silk Farm, which is run by Bud Gibbons, an American Vietnam war veteran who returned to work on social projects, and when the funding for those programs came to end decided to stay and turn a non-profit organization into a socially responsible business, and his Khmer wife Nevin. Bud took us through the whole process of producing silk, starting with the worms enjoying their mulberry bush leave feast, followed by the cocooning which only lasts for about 72 hours, in which time the silk worm produced over 300 meters of fiber. Next, the cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water before multiple fibers are combined to create one silk thread. The last production step is the coloring of the threads. What remains in the pot is an empty cocoon shell and another culinary delight, a cooked silk worm.

The Cambodian silk produced here is stronger and has a yellowish color, most of the silk processed nowadays is Chinese silk though and the thread production here is mostly done for educational purposes. The actual “factory” is an open house with several wooden hand looms, where workers turn the threads into colorful, pretty scarves.

A production facility of different sorts was next on our route, just a few minutes from the silk farm. On both sides of the road stone cutters work on mostly Buddha and a few other statues, from handy palm size to meters high objects. Just standing there watching in the midday heat was cruel, hard to imagine what working here for many hours must be like.

We reached Siem Reap in the afternoon, dropped our stuff in the very spacious rooms at the very special Angkor Spirit Palace hotel, a charming building that gets visitors into the right mood for temple visits right away, and rushed over to the temples to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu mountain temple ruin on a hill, overlooking Angkor Wat. As the sky darkened with grey clouds, watching the number of tourists climbing up the narrow stairs turned out to be more impressive than the sunset itself, and with my sort of tense relationship with heights I was especially proud that I made it up, and down, the temple hill.

Just as we got back into the van it started pouring with rain; how quickly the weather can change and the amount of water suddenly coming down continues to amaze me. The evening program was a buffet dinner and a colorful Khmer dance performance at Kouley restaurant.

Early Saturday morning (no chance to sleep in on weekends) we started our Angkor tour. In order to understand the temples of Angkor let me share some historic information, shamelessly copied from Wolfgang’s #ibmcsc blog:

From roughly 900–1200 A.D., the Khmer Empire dominated Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos), as well as Thailand and a few other countries down here. It was a highly developed society, with both Buddhist and Hindu roots. Interestingly the religion swapped back and forth as kings came and went, such that one portion of the temples are dominated by Buddha figures, and the others by the Hindu gods. Today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. The two most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is the biggest religious building in the world, and this temple is what every tourist would recognize as the symbol of Cambodia. The walls on all levels feature endless stories carved into the rocks in amazing detail.

After the Khmer empire fell apart, almost all of the temples here were abandoned and swallowed by the jungles. They were re-discovered around 1860, and only de-jungled fairly recently.

The Buddhist temple Angkor Thum was our first stop, and our tour guide Socheat patiently explained the various scenes depicted in the reliefs.

Next was Ta Prohm, which was left in its wild state and is partially covered by huge trees, a truly amazing place where you cannot but take lots of pictures, and so we did.

Angkor Wat, the largest temple of the world, was our last sight for the day, and thanks to Baskar we learned a lot about Hindu gods and their appearances in different forms. Parts of the temple were closed in preparation for a ceremony, but even without getting to the top we got a good idea of the dimensions of this monument.

A description of a day at Angkor would not be complete without mentioning the sellers at each meeting point who offer hats, bags, wristbands, musical instruments, guidebooks, postcards, you name it and will entice visitors with anything from fishing for sympathy to irresistible special offers (“Only one dollar, Sir! Two for one dollar, Sir! Five for one dollar, Sir!”)

The day ended with a fantastic meal and a few beers at our host’s place, and I will save my floating village report for later.

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