Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Yet Another Temple

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

I know, I know. You're getting sick of the temples, right? Yes, you - the imaginary you who has stuck with me all the way through to the twenty-fifth post. 

I promise you - this is the last one. This ends tomorrow.

I was looking through my photos just now to decide which temple to write about under 'Yet Another Temple'. Despite the fact that I've written about so many temples over the past month, I still have about half a dozen left - Baphuon, Chao Say Tevoda, Thommanon, Ta Keo, Banteah Kdei, Pre Rup and Ta Som. Of these, Chao Say Tevoda, Thommanon and Ta Som are comparatively smaller temples. I didn't like Ta Keo because the Chinese seem to be reconstructing the temple rather than restoring it. Banteah Kdei is large and beautiful, but is too similar to Ta Prohm

I was inclined to write about Pre Rup, because it's so beautiful. I mean, just look at the photo below. Is it beautiful or is it beautiful? We visited it first thing in the morning on Day 2, and the way that the sandstone absorbed the rays of the rising sun was (and is) jaw-dropping. 

Pre Rup Temple
But this post is not going to be about Pre Rup. When I was looking through the photos, I found the Baphuon temple calling out to me. Somehow, I feel like I have some unfinished business with this temple. I don't know if I'll ever go back to Cambodia and finish whatever that business is, but there it is.

The thing I remember most about Baphuon is the heat. We got there around noon, after visiting Angkor Wat and Bayon. The sun was beating down on us like it personally hated us. We walked in with our heads down, barely daring to look up because of the heat and the glare. 

Baphuon is hardly a sight to soothe the sore eyes and weary limbs of the tired tourist. It's a steep pyramid that rises up to the heavens, drawing the eye ever upward to the top. Its worn steps would probably be dangerous, but the authorities have built wooden staircases with railings, which make it easier to climb. 

It's also a good thing that the temple has multiple levels at which to rest, because my husband and I just collapsed in the galleries on one of the upper levels. Aside - the central portion of the temple, which ends in a sort of peak, reminded me of that scene in Apocalypto where they cut heads off and throw them down the stairs. 

The temple is surrounded by tall trees and small ponds. After the visit, I sat on one of the stones underneath the trees, just enjoying the cool shade and the breeze. 

• • •

X is for X-Ray Vision

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Whew. I’m not sure I ever believed I would get this far in the AtoZChallenge.

And I nearly didn't; I've cheated a bit here and there - I've written really tiny posts; I've written multiple posts on a single day to catch up; I've used photos a lot so that I didn't have to write too much.

But still, here we are. I've climbed all the way up this steep mountain to the letter 'X'. There’s no obvious 'X' topic that I can think of, so I’m going to be innovative for a change. The theme for today is going to be ‘X-Ray Vision’ which is short for “What are five things I would’ve done differently had I known in advance how my Cambodia trip was going to be?”

  1. I would've done the Bangkok - Siem Reap journey by flight. I would probably still have done one of the journeys by bus to experience a land crossing, but still - at least one way by flight.
  2. I would’ve split Day 1 of the Cambodia trip into two. Day 1 was the most exhausting of the three-day Angkor tour, and it was honestly a little too much. After visiting Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple by mid-morning, we should have ideally rested a little bit rather than going on to the Baphuon temple immediately. We were so tired that we didn't really enjoy Baphuon (which involves quite a lot of climbing). It was only after lunch that we really perked up again.
  3. I would’ve made my husband pack his shoes. This seems like such a small detail, but it really did make a difference on Day 1 and Day 2 of the trip. I had read on Trip Advisor that sneakers or sports shoes would be the best choice while visiting the temples. I told my husband thrice to pack his shoes, but no - he preferred his sandals. Well, he suffered alright.
  4. I would’ve been more open to the food. Since we hadn't enjoyed the food in Thailand, we thought Khmer food would be the same, and we refused to experiment. It was only on Day 2 that we realized Khmer food was actually nice!
  5. I would’ve shopped more. I didn't shop as much as I should have because I got turned off by their general attitude towards Indians. I should have ignored that and just bought whatever I wanted. I also wish I had bought things from the people who were making things and selling them near the temples. That way, even if I’d got cheated, I would’ve been paying the person who created the art.
P.S. – Initially, I’d thought I would include the visit to Kompong Pluk here. But on second thoughts, I decided not to. Though I do think that the tour of the village was a little elitist, I did enjoy the visit to the lake and the walk through the mangrove.
• • •

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for Way Out There - Banteay Srei

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The tiny temple of Banteay Srei is so far away from Siem Reap that many wonder if it's worthwhile to go there. While the nearly 45-minute long journey can seem a bit too much for this small temple, Banteay Srei's exquisite carvings definitely make it worth the visit.

Banteay Srei (literally - Citadel of Beauty) is so small that it seems almost like a miniature model for some of the other Angkor temples. Its doors and gateways make it look like it was built for children. 

The temple is famous for its carvings, which make its sandstone surfaces glow with life. The carvings are so delicate that the central portion of the temple has been closed off. If there was an award for highest amount of carving per square foot, then Banteay Srei would definitely get it.

The Nataraja on the pediment of the eastern gopura 
Perhaps because of its size, it seems hugely crowded. Tourists bump into each other and get into each other's photos. Unlike at other temples, it's impossible to lose yourself in some tiny corner of the temple, or take even a single photo without a tourist in it.

The paddy fields that surround the temple
The Cambodian government appears to have spent some time and money on developing Banteay Srei as a proper tourist attraction. Unlike at the other temples, the complex has souvenir shops, restaurants and a very detailed exhibition on the history of the Angkor temples. (I wish they would set up a similar exhibition at Angkor Wat - that would have let us understand the temple chronology right from Day 1.) The temple is surrounded by forests and paddy fields, the latter watered by a canal. We also saw boards directing people to boat rides on the canal. 

Part of the exhibition
• • •

Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Victory Gate (And All The Other Gates)

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The ancient city of Angkor Thom had four gates, one in the center of each of the surrounding walls. Today, though the city itself is largely gone, these stone walls and their gates survive and offer an awe-inspiring sight to the visitor.

Four gigantic faces are mounted on top of a wide gateway guarded by elephants. A visitor approaching any of the gates first crosses a wide moat. The causeway leading across the moat is lined by a row of Asuras (demons) on one side and a row of Devas (Gods) on the other side. Both the Devas and the Asuras hold Nagas (snakes), symbolizing the churning of the ancient Sea of Milk to get Amrutha, the Nectar of the Gods.

The photos below are from South Gate, though Victory Gate (which is on the eastern side) is almost the same. 

The four faces

The rows of Asuras and Nagas

One of the Asuras - note his expression!

• • •

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for USD

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. But the entire country seems to survive on US Dollars. Everybody quotes prices in dollars. The ATMs dispense cash in dollars. 

I have no idea how this works. How can two currencies work in a country? How can the Cambodian government be okay with this? What implications, if any, does this have for the US economy?

There's no doubt, of course, that this is an extremely convenient arrangement for us tourists - you see, 1 USD is about 4000 riel. So being able to carry around dollars instead of thousands of riel is convenient. And of course, instead of cents, they use riel. So if you give a dollar for a half-dollar bottle of water, you'll get 2000 riel back. 

The word 'dollar' sounds very cute in the Cambodian accent. I don't think I'll ever forget the way the vendors used to call out every time they saw me, "Laddeee! One dollaaa laddeee, one dollaaa!" 
• • •

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Ta Prohm

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Ta Prohm - my favourite of the Angkor temples. Why did we feel like we had a connection to this temple? 

Though we were as tired as tired could be, though just the thought of exploring this large temple tired us out even more, Ta Prohm invited us to sit down and look around. To lie back and understand that humans matter very little. That no matter how much humans think of themselves, no matter how large the monuments they build for themselves, nature will still take over. It might take centuries, it might even take a millennium, but it will happen.

Ta Prohm, of course, is The One with the Trees. The photos you've seen of gigantic trees growing on top of shrines and in the middle of shrines and all around shrines? Most of those photos came from this temple. The Indian government is the one that's restoring Ta Prohm. We were supposed to a complete it in 2013, but work is still going on. 

Ta Prohm is a maze of green stones inside. Shrines spring out of nowhere. Masses of broken stone, precariously balanced. Those trees, towering over everything, throwing everything into a green gloom. If you want to get a sense of how tiny you are, stand next to those trees. You're smaller than a single root of a single tree, that's how small you are.

• • •

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Srah Srang

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

To the east of Banteay Kdei temple (on the Inner Round) is a large lake named Srah Srang. Though this modern name means 'Royal Bath', its inscription says the lake was for the benefit for 'all creatures except the dyke-breakers (elephants)'. 

The lake's landing stage hides it from the road, which makes it a pleasant surprise once you actually manage to climb up. Sitting on the stone landing platform of the lake is such a relief after the grueling heat of the temples. A cool wind blows, the water pleases the eye, the only sound is that of children playing nearby. It's a good spot for some much needed rest before winding up for the day.

The lion guardians of the landing platform

• • •

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for the Roluos Temples

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Before the ninth century, what we know today as Cambodia was just a collection of city states, each contained within its own fortress, and each fighting with all the other city states. It took a king named Jayavarman II to unite them all into the Khmer kingdom.

Jayavarman II had his capital at Hariharalaya on the shores of Lake Tonle Sap. Three Hariharalaya temples still survive, and today we know them as the Roluos group of temples. 

Preah Ko

Built in 880 AD by Indravarman I, Preah Ko is a set of six shrines on an elevated sandstone platform. The shrines are in two rows of three, with the ones at the front dedicated to the protecting deities of three Khmer kings and the ones at the back dedicated to those of their queens. The platform is surrounded by two enclosures, both now broken down. The forest, which must have claimed the temple over the centuries, has been beaten back to form another green enclosure.

Three of the six shrines
Bakong Temple

My favourite Ruolos temple for its sheer majesty, the Bakong temple is in the form of a large five-tiered pyramid topped by a central shrine. Built by Indravarman I in 881 AD as his State Temple, Bakong's grounds are littered with the remains of shrines and libraries, and its enclosures are surrounded by a moat. It was originally built of laterite, but was later clad in sandstone. Bakong is considered the first of the temple-mountains - a form that would later attain its zenith in Angkor Wat.

The Bakong temple-mountain
Lolei Temple

Built a decade after Preah Ko and Bakong, Lolei is a tiny temple - just four shrines clustered together in a square. Apparently, there were supposed to be two more, but they were never built. Today, a more modern monastery functions to the side of the temple. Though Lolei was originally built on an island in the middle of a reservoir, mango trees and papaya trees now thrive on its grounds.

Wooden steps lead up to the Lolei temple
• • •

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Quite a Small Temple

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The smallest temple we visited in Siem Reap was Prasat Kravan, which was our last stop on Day 1. Built of brick in the tenth century, this Vishnu temple was left incomplete. Its five shrines are arranged all in a row, facing east. It's unique because of the brick bas reliefs inside its central and northern shrines. The central shrine has images of Vishnu, while the northern shrine has images of his consort Lakshmi.

The afternoon sun lights up the shrines from the west

Lakshmi, with worshipers at her feet
• • •

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Preah Khan

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Preah Khan
It's funny how the time you visit a temple can have such an effect on how much you like it.

It was past four when we got to Preah Khan. This large temple is the last stop on the Grand Tour, also known as the Outer Round. Because we had taken our time at the other temples, we got there much later than other tourists. And that served us well, because we got the temple almost to ourselves. The last of them seemed to be leaving as we were going inside.

The three gopuras at the northern enclosure
The main road runs to the north of the temple, and then turns left and passes the western entrance of the temple. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the northern entrance, and told us that he would pick us up at the western entrance (though the main entrance of every temple is, of course, to the east and the rising sun). 

Built in the twelfth century, Preah Khan was actually much more than a temple. It was a Buddhist university, and so it's huge - almost a square kilometer in area. The outer-most enclosure is a high stone wall with majestic Garuda statues placed every fifty meters. It's surrounded by a wide moat. The causeway that leads across the moat to the three-towered gopura has, for railings, two nagas, each held by a line of devas and asuras (we had seen the same thing the previous day at the gates of Angkor Thom).

One of the Garuda statues in the outermost enclosure. Also note the head of one of the naga-holding devas (in darker stone to the right)

Inside the outer-most enclosure is a forest - this is where the university buildings stood eight hundred years ago. A wide path leads across the forest to the third enclosure.

Inside, Preah Khan is almost like a maze. The original plan was probably a simple one, but so many shrines have been added later on that it's difficult to figure out where one shrine begins and the other ends. Many are in such a state of disrepair that fallen masonry adds to the confusion. Massive silk cotton trees grow on some parts of the temple and add to the general air of neglect. The smell of pigeon shit is also much more obvious here than at other temples.

A silk cotton tree growing on the eastern wall

The central shrine of Preah Khan contains a massive shivalinga. Around the central shrine are a Shiva temple (to the north), a Vishnu temple (to the west) and a temple dedicated to old kings (to the south). An interesting feature is that, standing at the eastern entrance of the temple, it's possible to see all the way across the temple to the western entrance (and vice versa, of course).

The Shiva linga at the central shrine
Preah Khan is so large that, if you want to, you can spend a lot of time here - you can walk all around the outer enclosures, explore all the shrines and libraries, figure out how many small shrines there are. On the other hand, if you've visited other temples such as Ta Prohm, much of it will seem familiar. Since we were tired, we explored only the eastern and northern parts. 

When we left by the western gate, the late afternoon sun was lending a golden glow to the entire temple. We spent some time dawdling near the causeway, enjoying the coolness of the moat and the warmth of the stone statues. There was nobody around except an old couple, and we felt at peace with the world.

Thus ended our second day in Cambodia.

The moat

Goodbye, Preah Khan!
• • •

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for the Old Market

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Whew. We've had quite a week already, haven't we? We've visited a lake, a museum and a temple. So let's go shopping today! 

Siem Reap, despite being a small town, has three markets aimed at gullible tourists such as us - the Central Market, the Night Market and the Old Market. All three are within walking distance of each other, and very little distinguishes them in terms of products available or even prices. 

The Central Market gets its name from the fact that it's the closest to the city center. The Night Market, of course, opens only after 6 PM. The Old Market, presumably, is the oldest of these markets. It occupies an entire block off Pub Street.

We were told that the Old Market is where the locals shop. That's a little hard to believe, because we didn't see any locals there. And no wonder - the place is full of shops that sell souvenirs of different kinds; there's very little that the local would be interested in. As for us tourists, there are plenty of things on offer, as long as you're willing to bargain - wooden carvings of the famous Angkor face, silk stoles, cheap cotton t-shirts, beautiful dresses, cushion covers, jewellery, women's wear, dried fruits. 

Since we had just shopped at Chatuchak market in Bangkok, the Old Market seemed a bit small to us. But then how big can such a market be in a town the size of Siem Reap? There are at least a dozen stores that all sell the same thing. Which actually makes it easy for the buyer - you can ask around in a few shops before finally deciding where to buy from.

The only part of the market where the locals probably do shop is the food market in the center. You can tell that you're getting near the food market by the stink - the smell of different types of seafood. I refused to go near the place, but my husband (who loves seafood) ventured in. The place looks colourful, but I wouldn't even begin to know what all these things in the baskets are!

The different types of seafood inside the market
• • •

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Neak Pean

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The Jayatadaka today
Neak Pean was the strangest and creepiest of the temples we visited during our time in Siem Reap. Situated in  the middle of the Jayatadaka (the reservoir that served the then capital city), the temple was on an island once upon a time. Today, a wooden walkway leads from the main road to the temple across the long-dead reservoir.

The walkway
Neak Pean has a strange layout - the central shrine is in the middle of a pond, and has four shrines around it. Its base has two entwined nagas, which give the temple its modern name (Neak Pean literally means 'entwined snakes'). Each of the subsidiary shrines also has its own pond. A miniature horse rises up from the water near the eastern door of the central shrine.

Today, a fence bars access to the central pond and shrine. But I had no wish to go closer. I found the entire place silent and creepy - the silent forest, the green and still water, the inaccessible central shrine.

The central shrine, in the middle of its pond
• • •

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for the Museum of Mines and Missiles

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

In all the fuss about Angkor Wat and the other temples, we often forget that Cambodia is a country which has lived through some terrible times recently. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge are within living memory for Cambodians above the age of thirty. We outsiders may associate Khmer Rouge with the 1970s, but the movement only truly died down after Pol Pot died in 1998.

Old missiles line the entryway into the Museum

During the decades that the Khmer Rouge fought the Vietnamese Army (who invaded Cambodia because they were sick of Khmer Rouge raids into their territory), both sides laid hundreds of thousands of landmines in the fields and villages of Cambodia. These landmines are still there - and still cause death and disability to dozens of Cambodians each year. In addition to the landmines, there are unexploded missiles from the carpet-bombing that the US Army conducted to eliminate the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the supply chain of the Vietnamese guerrillas.

We didn't know all this, of course. We landed up in Cambodia purely to see the Angkor temples, quite forgetting to associate Cambodia with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It was only on Day 2, when we were on our way to Banteay Srei, that we spotted the Landmine Museum. The museum gave us a whole new perspective on life in Cambodia.

The Landmine Museum was started by a Cambodian man with the Japanese name of Aki Ra. Aki Ra spent many years as a soldier - first for the Khmer Rouge and later on for the Vietnamese Army. After the UN Accord brought peace of a sort to Cambodia in the early nineties, he started his life's true mission - removing landmines from the villages of Cambodia. Whenever farmers found a suspicious object in their fields, they would call him and he would go 'deal with it' for them. 

Just one of many displays of mines and missiles
The museum contains all the mines and missiles that Aki Ra has removed. A collection of old and rusted mines and missiles might sound boring, but it's not. For one, the sheer number and type of landmines is astounding, as is the number of countries who supplied them. At one point, there were four different groups laying mines in the ground in Cambodia - the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Army, the Thai Army (to protect their borders) and the Cambodian army itself. 

Secondly, Aki Ra is also running a school / orphanage for children who have suffered because of landmine explosions. The museum has their stories - tales of hope that bring a tear to the eye. 

The children created this display of all the different armies who laid mines in their country

Thirdly, the museum has free tour guides who make the experience much more visceral. Our tour guide was an American who, after years of contributing on and off to the work of landmine removal, had come and settled here five years ago to help Aki Ra out. He was absolutely brilliant - his passion for the cause and sheer dedication made the problem so real. 
A poster - the Khmer Rouge used child soldiers

And make no mistake - the problem is real. Three thousand people are currently working in Cambodia, removing landmines. Even with that many people, it's doubtful if all of Cambodia can be cleared of landmines in the next THOUSAND years. Almost every Cambodian knows somebody who has lost their limbs in a landmine explosion - the number used to be in the thousands earlier, but has now come down to less than hundred a year. Cambodian children receive lessons on how to deal with strange metallic-looking things on the ground. 

The tour had some embarrassing moments for us as Indians. Imagine being told that your country is one of a handful that haven't signed the Landmine Ban Treaty. Or that your country is one of the three that still produce landmines (the others are Pakistan and Myanmar). India claims that it can't sign the treaty because we use landmines on the border with Pakistan.

If you're ever in Siem Reap, make it a point to visit this museum. It's a bit away from Siem Reap, but if you're visiting Banteay Srei, then you have no excuse for not dropping in here.
• • •

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Lake Tonle Sap

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The first part of this post is here.

The brown canal

After we left the Floating Village behind, we were suddenly surrounded by mangroves on both sides. Despite the noise of the boat's engines, the world suddenly became peaceful - just the brown water, the green trees, the grey-blue sky, and us.

The mangrove

After a little while of this, we started noticing that the water was changing colour - it was becoming bluer. Soon, the mangroves thinned. The mud banks became more sandy. The horizons opened out and - we emerged from the canal onto a large body of water.

The border between the canal and the lake

I suddenly realized what this water body must be - this was Lake Tonle Sap! I'd spent many days dreaming of Cambodia and poring over Siem Reap on Google Maps, and I had seen this gigantic lake to the south of Siem Reap. (The lake is so large that it covers 1.5% of the surface area of CAMBODIA!) I'd wished then that we could visit it, but it had looked too far away from Siem Reap. But here we were! For some reason, I suddenly remembered the moment in Journey to the Center of the Earth where the accidental explorer stumbles on an underground ocean.

The lake was dotted here and there with floating structures - houses, restaurants, even storage platforms full of oil drums. Our rusty blue boat plodded heavily across the grey water towards one of the floating 'buildings'. The bright red awning told us it was a restaurant.

One of the restaurants

Ah, we realized, the usual tourist trap - the boat boy would take a cut of the money the restaurant owner earned from us. Which made us promptly decide not to eat there. For the sake of form, we got off and sat there for a few minutes before getting back on the boat - enough time for the boat boy to get a can of free soft drink.

On our way back, we stopped at a boat jetty we had seen on the way to the lake - a set of stairs led up from the jetty to a restaurant and to an attractive red walkway, which looked like it went quite a distance into the forest.

A board outside the restaurant

The walkway did, indeed, lead into the mangrove. It was a surreal sort of structure, a strange thing to find after the squalor of the village. Why had somebody decided to build this beautiful red thing in the middle of the forest? It looked like either their money or their interest had run out after a while. A few dozen meters from the restaurant, the walkway lost its railings, and then even the posts for the railings. That made us turn back, scared that the next thing to go would be the sticks supporting the walkway.

The walkway - the initial nice phase

And that was the end of our Kompong Pluk tour. We got back into the boat, which took us back past the mangrove, past the floating village, past all the boats and houses and people, to the muddy bank we had started from. Our tuk-tuk driver, smiling as always, collected us from the boat, and drove us back past the paddy fields, past the skinny cows, past the multiple entry gates, past the houses of rural Cambodia, back to our hotel.

It was our last day in Cambodia.
• • •

Sunday, April 13, 2014

K is for Kompong Pluk

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

I've been dreading writing this blog post. Just remembering the 2-3 hours we spent at Kompong Pluk is somehow tiring - though we did very little there other than sit on various types of transport. The only good part about writing about the experience is that I can split this long account into two posts for the AtoZChallenge - K for Kompong Pluk and L for Lake Tonle Sap.

But as usual, I'm beginning somewhere near the end.

Let me begin on the morning of Day 3. We had just finished visiting the Ruolos group of temples, which is about 10-15 kilometers to the east of Siem Reap town. The next item on the itinerary our hotel had provided was the Floating Village, which sounded very exciting. Which of the Floating Villages would we like to visit, our tuk-tuk driver asked us - the smaller one or the larger one? Since we had no way of knowing which one was better, we replied - whichever is closer.

And so we started off. We drove for what seemed like hours (but was probably no more than half an hour) through rural Cambodia. The roads were untarred, but serviceable. We kept ourselves entertained by comparing rural Cambodia to rural Kerala, and by commenting on how similar the two were. Perhaps Cambodia is a bit drier and dustier, but that may just have been the season. Oh, and the houses are on stilts!

Rice grains laid out to dry beside a typical Cambodian house on stilts
After some time, we started seeing more greenery around us, and guessed that we were close. Soon enough, the trees on either side disappeared; the landscape opened out. Wet green paddy fields surrounded us, shimmering in the heat and the sunshine.

What is this green called?

We soon arrived at a sort of check-post, with a one-storey building to one side. Our driver told us that we had to buy tickets in order to proceed further.

And so we got off, glad to stretch our legs. Seeing us, one member of a group of men who had been lounging nearby scrambled behind the ticket counter. This made us faintly suspicious - were we being had? Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, being asked to buy tickets from a guy who had just got behind a counter at a small building in the middle of acres of paddy fields.

Still, we trusted our driver, and paid for the tickets. We were also reassured by an official-looking board outside the building, which told us that we were entering ‘Kompong Puk Natural and Cultural Tourism Zone Development”. The guy behind the counter told us that the tickets were actually $20 per person, but $28 for a couple. Thank God for small mercies. $20 is how much an entire day's pass at the Angkor Archaeological Park costs, by the way.

The reassuring board
The road led straight on through more paddy fields. A narrow muddy channel of water kept us company on the left. Despite the wet paddy fields and the canal, the road was dry and dusty. On the way, we saw a brace of ducks, some skinny cows, a few farmers going about their daily routines. Being from India, we had never seen these things before in our lives, of course.

We finally reached another entry gate, with a one-roomed cabin next to it. Ahead, we could see a long line of old decaying boats tied to the muddy bank. The cabin had about half a dozen men, and one of them (a kid, really) leapt nimbly onto our tuk-tuk. He was to be our guide, we guessed. He guided us to one of the boats, even more dilapidated than the rest, and helped us in. It took him a couple of tries to start the boat. But the engine finally fired, and we were off!

The line of boats
The noise of the engine was terrific and terrible. Our boat created gigantic brown ripples in the narrow canal. On our left was what looked like a mangrove, and on our right the tall muddy bank. We wondered what would happen if another boat came along. Would the two boats pass each other unharmed? 

Our question was answered within a few minutes. We saw a boat with half a dozen fellow tourists heading towards us. Our boat boy went far to the right to avoid it. In fact, he turned the boat so sharply that we got stuck on the muddy bank. The tourists passed by, all waving merrily, but we were still stuck in the mud. It took the boy five minutes to get us loose. My husband and I sat still in the boat – partly amused and partly alarmed. Were we really trusting our lives to a boat that was barely able to float? Our only consolation was that the canal didn't seem very deep.

On we went. A few hundred meters further on, the first of the ‘floating houses’ started appearing - tall blue thatch structures that managed to be cheerful and depressing at the same time. Every house was on stilts, with narrow ladders for the residents to climb up. During the rainy season, the entire place will be covered in water, and the houses will seem, indeed, to be floating.

Interesting sort of bridge, that
The Floating Village is a village of fishermen and fisherwomen. Outside each house were half a dozen boats - both big boats like the ones we were on, and narrow canoes. We saw kids catching fish with nets, clad in barely anything. People sat on their front porch up above and stared at us. It soon became clear that the place is more of a slum than a village. 

We started feeling uncomfortable - who were we to spy into their lives like this, to stare at them going about their lives, to take photos of their houses and their boats and their laundry? We weren't rich aliens from another planet, we didn't belong to a different species. Hell, we came from a third world country too - with slums just as bad or far worse than this one. How they must resent us and our cameras, we thought. We fervently hoped that some of the money that we had paid would trickle down to them. 

Just as these uncomfortable thoughts were starting to bubble up in our mind, we left the village behind. The next part of the journey is in the next post. Till then, let me leave you with this comparatively cheerful photo of a fisher-woman happily having a cigarette while going about her daily routine.

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