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The Mekong Delta
Vietnam and Cambodia
One month of travel using local transport in this fascinating part of Indo-China.
During 1992, I spent five months travelling through several countries in South East Asia, the first two months with Talaat. We flew from London to Singapore and spent a few days enjoying the heat and the food.
We travelled overland through Malaysia and took a hydrofoil to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. We remained in this island nation for two months travelling through Java and Bali.
We Flew back to Singapore, and Talaat returned home. I continued to Thailand. I arranged a visa for Vietnam and flew between Bangkok and Saigon. I explored the southern part of Vietnam and visited Cambodia as a side trip. I returned to Vietnam and explored the centre and north of that country before flying from Hanoi back to Bangkok. After a few weeks around Thailand I flew back to London.
This account covers the first part of my trip in Vietnam and the side trip to Cambodia. This is the region dominated by the Mekong River and its extensive delta.
I had hardly slept I was so excited. I awoke at 5:30. As I left the guest house, it was beginning to get light. I caught a bus to Kao San Road where I had my breakfast (fruit salad and coffee). I had booked a minibus to the airport. The manic ride was with two Philippino doctors who, like me, had seen the 1988 total eclipse in their country and had been to London. They were on their way home from a conference in Kathmandu. The Bangkok to Saigon flight was 1 hour and 25 minutes. The countryside looked fertile and under-developed as we descended.
I found a room on the 5th floor of the government run Prince Hotel for $5. There is no lift; the higher the room, the cheaper it is. This was the foreigner price. I would encounter a dual price system every time I dealt with a government agency. The room itself was comfortable and had a balcony, shower, toilet, sink, soap, towels, cabinet, thermos flask full of hot water, mirror and two chairs.
Food is very cheap though. Across the road was a the Sinh Cafe, a place in which I would spend a lot of time. I had a sizzling pork and vegetables, rice, two soda and lemons, coffee and paid $1.75. I was even given a map of Saigon. Beurocracy is expensive. To register with the police and get travel permits for the places I wanted to visit in the country, I paid $19. Many places I wanted to visit were off limits to foreigners so I had to change my plans.
Supper was noodle prawn soup and a soda ($0.55). The cafe owner (Sinh) told me about his many attempts to escape from the country. He had always been caught. As many people in poorer countries, he wanted to live in the West and make "real money". I would get to know Sihn well in the coming days.
The street life was very busy and colourful. Women in conical straw hats and pyjama like outfits were carrying bamboo poles piled at each end with items for sale. Cyclos (Vietnamese rickshaws) were packed full of children or old people. Coal was being pushed in cycle carts. There were all manner of items on sale on street corners from French bread to motor lubricant. People smiled and were friendly. And there were bicycles - lots of them everywhere. The few motor vehicles were buses and lorries. These had a tank of water on their roofs to cool down the engine.
The Ben Nghe Channel (a tributary of the Saigon River) was full of small boats ferrying goods and houseboats. Houses on stilts lined the banks.
The Mariamman Temple is a 19th century Tamil Hindu temple. Only 100 Tamils remain in Saigon after 1975 and the temple was briefly converted into a factory. It has now been reopened and is even used by Chinese who leave joss sticks as offerings.
A short walk brought me to the huge grounds of The Reunification Hall. This was the Presidential Palace until 1975. On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gate and a soldier planted a flag on the balcony. These scene was beamed around the world. It marked the end of South Vietnam and the defeat of the USA. The building and its contents is preserved as it was that day. The rooms are large and tastefully decorated. I saw cabinet rooms, banquet rooms, reception areas, an officers' mess. The furniture was exquisite: silk covered chairs, urns, inlaid cabinets, a forty panelled lacquerware painting. The basement had command rooms with valve operated radio equipment, old teletex machines and other dated equipment. Tunnels lead away from the palace. Upstairs were entertainment areas. The views were good from the roof.
After lunch I visited the former USA Information Service building. It now houses The Museum of American War Crimes. It contains photographs documenting atrocities committed by USA and South Vietnamese forces. Many of the sources are American. Scenes include soldiers setting fire to houses, piles of bodies from the Binh Duong massacre (1970). the My Lai massacre (1968), captives being lead away, a group of soldiers gloating over the half naked bodies of female victims, North Vietnamese soldiers being dragged by a tank, two girls being led away to be raped, a soldier being dropped from a helicopter for not cooperating during interrogation, carpet bombing by B52s, napalm victims, USA planes spraying Agent Orange. Some of the worst scenes were of deformed children born to people contaminated by the dioxin in Angent Orange: twins joined at the waist, intestines outside the body, no or little brain, an eye in the centre of the head, deformed heads, no arms, three legs and much more. In the grounds were examples of artillery, bombs and tanks.
My next stop was the Cambodian Embassy where I had to fill in three forms, provide three photos and three photocopies of my passport. I then visited the former USA Embassy. It was completed in 1968 and was encased in a concrete shield as a protection against attack. An attack occurred shortly after it was opened. In 1975, thirty years of USA involvement in Vietnam ended as helicopters evacuated staff and their families from the roof. These scenes were also beamed around the world. The building has remained empty since then.
2km down a muddy dirt road was the 200 year old Giac Vien Pagoda, another monastery. There were similar statues and images as in the previous pagoda. The attractive brass incense holder had dragon heads on each side.
Another kilometre brought me to the Phung Son Pagoda. It has pink pillars and another Goddess of Mercy at the front. Apart from the usual statues and images, this temple had rosewood tables and an artificial mountain made of volcanic rocks.
I walked 700m while it showered to the Cha Tam Church, a white and yellow building dating from the beginning of the 20th century. In 1963 the president of South Vietnam (Ngo Dinh Dien) hid here after a coup but was captured and killed.
The Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda (Fukien style - 1902) was highly ornate. The roof was covered with ceramic carvings. Inside I enjoyed the many porcelain figures, like giant peacocks. There was a life size wooden horse - people make offerings to it and ring the bell around its neck if going on a long journey.
After a break for rain I found another Fukien temple: Quan Am Pagoda (1816). The ceramic roof scenes were spectacular: Chinese stories, ships, houses, people and dragons. I was getting pagoda overload but I had almost finished.
Thien Han Pagoda (19th century - dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea), Tam Sou Hoi Quan Pagoda (19th century - dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility), Nghia An Hoi Pagoda (with excellent guilded woodwork). The Cholon Mosque was uninteresting but the nearby market was picturesque and friendly. I stopped for a coconut and tea ($0.20) and a couple of cakes (also $0.20).
I headed south following the Ben Nghe Channel until it met the Saigon River passing through a friendly and busy market. There were many boats including a large Russian ship. I passed more markets as I headed north and crossed a river cluttered with wooden houses. Finally, next to yet another market I found the Le Van Duyet Temple, a shrine to a Vietnamese marshall who unified Vietnam and died in 1831.
The Tran Hung Dao Temple is a small structure set in a garden. It is dedicated to a Vietnamese hero who defeated 300,000 men sent by the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan in 1287. A relief told the man's life story.
Outside it was pouring with rain. I had lunch of noodle and chicken soup and two coffees which was over-priced at $1.80. The rain stopped and I entered the History Museum, an elegant pagoda shaped building set in a park. The museum was mildly interesting with more temple statues, and photographs of Vietnam's 54 ethnic groups. In the park I watched a performance of water puppets. This is a distinctly Vietnamese art form. The puppets are controlled from a small pavilion in the water tank. They come out from the pavilion, fight, dance and even do summersaults. The zoo was standard.
Back at Sinh cafe, I picked up the police registration stamp on my visa and my travel permit.
Water puppet show
Today I went on a minibus tour with the Sihn cafe with a group of 11 (nine from the UK, two from Germany). We headed for the region called Tay Ninh, a province close to the Cambodian border. The area is flat but well cultivated with rice, corn and peanuts. Brick making furnaces dotted the landscape and the the 800m Nui Ba Den (Black Lady Mountain) rose above the flatness. people waved and smiled at us as we passed.
Situated within a huge perimeter fence and entered through a gateway was a brightly coloured building, The Holy See of the Caodai. Caodaism is a religion unique to Vietnam. It was founded by a mystic called Ngo Minh Chien in the early part of the 20th century. It attempts to fuse secular and religious ideas from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Catholic Christianity and Islam. The priesthood is both male and female and they practice cellebacy. There are about 2 million followers, mainly in the south of Vietnam. Caodais believe in reincarnation with the ultimate goal being to break out of the cycle. Good acts include not killing. lying, or stealing, moderate living and avoiding excess sensuality. They believe in one God, the soul and communications with spirits and that messages from God were revealed to various prophets (including Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha) and were only applicable to the places and times of the recipients. They pray four times a day with women on the left, men on the right.
Off the main road is the region called Cu Chi. During the American War (1954 to 1975), this area became "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare". It looked peaceful enough as we drove through villages, paddies, banana trees and streams. The reason for the attention that this area received from the American invaders is found below ground level.
During the 1960s, the Vietnamese built an extensive network of tunnels under Cu Chi district only 35km from Saigon. These tunnels allowed the Vietnamese to move around unseen and control a large rural area. The tunnels were used as springboards to attack American positions in and around Saigon. The tunnels stretched all the way from Saigon to the Cambodian border. There were over 200km of tunnels, often several storeys deep and incorporating trap doors, living areas, storage and weapons facilities. There were even hospitals, kitchens and command rooms.
The Americans tried to undermine support by the resistance by forceably moving villages but new tunnels would be built. The Americans built some of their bases over the tunnels and found themselves being attacked from within while they slept. Despite the devastation they caused as well as the use of gas, dogs and fire, the Americans failed to destroy or even locate most of the tunnels.
The guide told us to find a hidden tunnel entrance. We all looked for five minutes and failed. It was close by all the time! We were also shown a trap made from a bamboo floor covering a pit of sharpened bamboo poles.
This had been an interesting day trip. We had a quick drink and drove back to Saigon as sunset approached. We spotted several large bomb craters, some filled with water. We had to push the vehicle out of the mud at one point. A shower was very welcome when I returned. Supper was sizzling pork, rice, croissant, soda, coffee and fruit salad: the day's activities had made me hungry.
I visited the Central Mosque and met the ethnic Chams who are the majority of Vietnam's Muslims. Their language is closer to Malay than to Vietnamese. Most wore turbans.
I spent the evening at Sihn's chatting to other travellers from Europe, New Zealand and USA until after midnight.
We walked to the river and hired a boat for an hour and a half for $1.60 each. The life on the water was colourful and interesting but the water was black and smelly. Our trip ended in Cholon. Thirty people stared at us while we had a drink.
I picked up my re-entry permit. I now had all the permissions I needed to visit the Mekong Delta, cross Vietnam's land border with Cambodia twice and a visa to enter that country. I could now leave Saigon. Supper was fried rice and fruit salad.
Mytho is a colourful and busy town on the banks of one of the many delta branches of the Mekong River. My room cost $5 again (foreigner price); it was not as good as the one in Saigon but it was quieter. From my window I could look down on the Bao Dinh Channel and watch boats steaming into the Mekong.
Mike met a friend of his and the three of us had lunch being giggled at by young females. I had chicken and rice. There was a lightning storm in the afternoon so I stayed in.
I met my two companions for supper. I had pork and beef noodle soup. The restaurant was like a set from a comedy. The video machine kept making a noise like someone stepping on a cat. The waiter was very camp and tried his best to please but kept getting it wrong as we sat trying to keep a straight face. He gave us free tea but poured iced tea and hot tea into the same glass. He kept re-filling our cold drinks with huge blocks of ice. One piece was too big to fit the glass. He would take our drinks bottles before we finished them. He re-filled a glass with hot tea while there was still lemon soda in it.
We moved to a small bar where I enjoyed ice cream, coffee and a cake for $0.45. Even at 9pm, the river is very busy. As I opened my hotel room door a woman stepped out of the shadows and made me a rather intimate offer which I declined. My room had a mosquito net and it was needed.
I watched the activity on the busy waterways. The variety of vessels was stunning: small row boats, tiny motor boats, ferries jammed with people and produce, huge brightly painted house boats. I even saw a floating fish market.
There were no large Viking Yachts on the waterway though. It would have been surprising to see any Viking Yachts for sale in the area since most of the boats were very simple and inexpensive.
I crossed a bridge into a quiet country area. I had lunch in a friendly family restaurant overlooking the river. I enjoyed fried chicken with rice. The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers originating in Tibet, flowing through China and passing between Laos and Thailand, through Cambodia and ending in Vietnam.
I slept all afternoon. Supper was another chicken and rice in another restaurant by the river.
I enjoyed this friendly place. It is famed for its orchards and boat building . I saw several being built. Lots of children followed me shouting "Lien Xo" and squealing with delight when I took photos. One girl took me to a house where the pet was a huge python. People were making thatching for roofs. The ferry brought me back.
I had another meal by the river: chicken, egg, and asparagus soup followed by coffee and cake. It is too humid to do much in the afternoon so I rested. Supper was an excellent diced beef on rice by that river. Watching the river life is the great pleasure in Mytho.
In the afternoon I took a bicycle to buy my bus ticket to Cambodia. There were three reasons why I couldn't purchase the ticket. Firstly, the next day was a Sunday and that bus didn't run. Secondly, my border permits and visa were at the hotel and I could not get a ticket without them. Thirdly, the ticket office was closed for lunch. I returned later and completed the transaction.
Nearby was the Museum of the Revolution so I paid a visit. The most interesting item was a 3 dimensional model of the tunnels at Cu Chi. I chatted to a large group of (female) university students while it rained. After an hour it was still raining; the students left and I sat with the old curator watching him mass rolling his cigarettes. We chatted in French and he told me he'd fought with the North Vietnamese army.
The rain stopped but the ride back was through waterlogged streets. It has rained a lot on this trip! At Sinh's I exchanged information with Daniel who had just come from Cambodia. Food was chicken and rice, fruit salad and soda.
Son Nan spoke perfectly pronounced BBC English. He often sounded like he'd swallowed a dictionary. He was amusing and informative. For a little help with his English pronounciation, he told me about life in modern Vietnam. He told me that students were the same the world over: "Hopes in their hearts, books in their hands, nothing in their pockets". We went to a photography exhibition. When we passed a group of people speaking Russian I made my companion laugh by shouting "Lien Xo".
The skies opened just as I reached Sinh's. I had pork sizzler, rice and soda. Back at the hotel, the chambermaid called me as I ascended the stairs. I thought she was going to offer me her services but instead she gave me a shirt that I'd left for cleaning the previous week. Supper was Thai noodles and fruit salad. I left early to pack. The next day I would be visiting Cambodia, my 50th country.
Apart from a Dutch couple, I was the only foreign passenger. The bus headed West to the Tay Ninh region and forked onto a smaller road with checkpoints. After 10km we arrived at the border, marked by a pair of arches. The border buildings were still being built and I walked between each office over a sea of mud. The Vietnamese immigration officer did not understand the terms "British" and "Dutch". I explained by saying "Anh" (England). The Dutch couple got their nationality across by naming some of their football players!
The Cambodian side was friendly. The country had just ended the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime with its emptying of cities and killing fields. The United Nations was present to oversee elections and was running the country until there was a functioning government. I did not know what sort of reception I would get. The woman on the Immigration desk kept losing my visa page and forgot to stamp me in until I prompted her. I was waved through a UN post manned by a Japanese soldier. Customs was manned by two Bulgarian officials listening to personal stereos: they ignored me. It appears that beaurocracy is lax here - no permits are needed.
The Khmer people are darker skinned than the Vietnamese, have squarer jaws and wear checkered head scarves. They are an attractive people. Considering their recent history, they were ready with a smile.
We drove along the Mekong River valley: it was flat and carpeted with rice fields stretching to the horizon. Bomb craters broke up the uniformity of the green. The temples were different to the Chinese like Vietnamese pagodas; they more resembled Thai structures. Most of the temples had been destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, so the ones I saw today were new or being rebuilt.
There were three types of houses: thatched mud brick bungalows, wooden structures on stilts, brightly painted wooden houses with covered steps. The roads were full of pot holes but traffic was light, mainly bicycles or motorised tractor-like carts. We had an hour wait to cross the river. I spotted rainbow coloured lobsters and roasted tortoise for sale. After a ten hour journey we arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, as it began to drizzle. The city appeared slightly busier than Saigon.
I walked 100m down a muddy side road and found a nice room for $4 with a friendly family. I had a late lunch of chicken rice, lemon soda and coffee - I had to squeeze my own lemons. I chatted to the few other travellers here. Supper was steak and chips with a delicious fruit salad. I sat with the family and helped them with their study of English.
I headed off down the city's wide bulevards. There were many white UN vehicles and more private cars than in Vietnam. Phnom Penn is situated where the Mekong River splits into two on its way to the delta. It has been capital since the mid 15th century. The city is charming if delapidated. Its 1970 population swelled from 300,000 to over a million when the American war spread from Vietnam. On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the city and depopulated it. Millions were killed until 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by Vietnam. The population had now returned to 700,000 but the city was still recovering.
Next to the palace is the Silver Pagoda, a large complex of buildings. I had the place to myself until the Dutch couple from the bus arrived. There was a library, several ornate stupas (Buddhist towers) covered with Garudas (a mythical beast), elephants and multi headed snakes. One wall was painted with the Ramayana, a Hindu epic.
The central building dates from 1982 and was preserved by the Khmer Rouge for propaganda purposes although 60% of the contents were destroyed. What was left was worth the $4 admission. Photography was not allowed "for security reasons".
These are some of the treasures I saw: a staircase of Italian marble, a floor made of 5000 silver tiles each weighing 1kg, a crystaline Buddha, a 90kg life size Buddha made of solid gold and decorated with 9584 diamonds (the largest 25 carats), a miniture silver stupa containing a relic from Sri Lanka, a silver Buddha, a bronze Buddha, a standing Buddha from Burma, a litter made from 23kg of gold for carrying the king, models of the other buildings, two smaller gold Buddhas (weighing 1.5kg and 4.5kg) decorated with diamonds weighing up to 16 carats.
These are examples of exquisite Khmer art and craftsmanship: intricately carved silver and gold boxes and bowls, bejewelled masks used in classical dance, many small gold items (including Buddhas).
Wat Phnom (from which the city gets its name) is set on a 27m high tree covered hill. A large staircase guarded by lion figures leads up to the top. The temple has fine reliefs and several statues of both Indian and Chinese deities.
Around the temple hill is the old European quarter with its fine avenues of buildings. The Chrouy Changvar Bridge was destroyed in 1975. I cycled to the edge, now a popular meeting place for young lovers. It was here in 1975 that New York journalist Sidney Schanberg was arrested and almost executed by the Khmer Rouge until rescued by Dith Prem, a scene reproduced in the film, The Killing Fields. Not far away is the former French Embassy. When the city was taken by the Khmer Rouge, 600 Cambodians and 800 foreigners took refuge here. Eventually, after many threats, the Cambodians had to be turned over to the new rulers, another scene reproduced in the film. Most were never seen again.
I cycled back to the area close to where I was staying and had lunch: fried prawns. I rested in the afternoon chatting to people at the house. Supper was chicken and rice.
The building was surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. Block 1 was used for high ranking prisoners: the Diplomatic Corps, scientists, intelectuals, writers, and former Khmer Rouge officers. By the end of the Khmer Rouge period, in 1979, only seven of the prisoners were found alive. Fourteen had been tortured to death even as Vietnamese forces approached the city. On the ground floor each room had a bed, some rags, a few implements of restraint and torture and a wall mounted photograph of the former inmate's body as it was found. These were very gruesome. The graves of these victims are in the courtyard. The upper rooms were used for mass detentions.
Block 2 had a large display of photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims. Room after room was full from floor to ceiling of portraits. There were men, women, young and old, country and city folk. The victims included nine foreigners. Most of those pictured never survived. One room had photographs of the prisoners after they had been tortured. Other rooms had torture equipment: sticks for beating, tanks for immersing heads in water, shakles, vices for crushing limbs, electric prods. Paintings showed how the tortures were carried out: electric shocks to genitals and women's nipples were routine. In the upstairs cells, there were bits of clothing, bowls, manacles and chains scattered around.
It warmed up as the sun came out. I visited Immigration for a visa extension and left my passport. I had a delicious coffee. The French influence in Vietnam and Cambodia means that the bread and coffee are generally excellent. It was afternoon as I headed out of the city.
Choeung Ek is the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners from S-21 were brought here and executed, usually by being bludgeoned to death (it saved on bullets). Between 1975 and 1978, over 17,000 people including infants were killed and buried at this site. In 1980, 43 of the 129 mass graves were exhumed to reveal the remains of 8985 people. These pits can still be seen - they contain fragments of bone and cloth. Over 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are displayed behind glass panels on a stupa erected in 1988. I had never seen anything like it. This country had some of the most beautiful art in the world and some of the most horiffic recent history. The Khmer Rouge sounded like a bunch of psychopaths. I was saddened by the knowledge that the USA and UK supported them after they were kicked out by the Vietnamese.
The journey back was quick. I picked up my visa extension and, after a couple of drinks, rode to the busy Central Market. I bought a hammock for my boat trip up country. The boat times are variable so I was not sure when I'd be leaving. For a late lunch I had noodle fishball soup. I was soon hungry again. Supper was fried beef and rice and a fruit salad. After a tiring day I relaxed, chatting all evening.
Today I walked around the town visiting markets and people watching. I chatted to some Muslim Chams and UN soldiers from Uruguay, Cameroon, India, and Indonesia. Lunch was beef and rice. After my long cycle ride the previous day, I spent the afternoon relaxing. Supper was chicken and chips. I packed my bags ready for the next day.
The boat was small and packed with people. I was one of six foreigners. We strung up our hammocks in the available space with help from the locals. A large barge was attached to our boat and this was being loaded with cargo. Departure was at 2pm and we slowly moved along the river passing the Chrouy Changvar Bridge with most of its spans missing.
The river was wide with many settlements on its banks. Houses were on stilts near or on the water. Fishing boats were plentiful, many of them Vietnamese, most Khmer. It soon clouded and the rain came. It was time to descend from the roof and swing in our hammocks. People were friendly but few spoke English. One bearded man spoke French "but not to the Khmer Rouge".
Supper was from my provisions of bread, cheese and fruit. We passed a picturesque fishing village as the sun set and I swang myself to sleep.
It got dark and Venus dominated the clear Western sky. The Milky Way was very spectacular. As we settled down to sleep an electrical storm blew up. The waves increased in size and the barge began to bang against our wooden boat. The crew cut the barge loose and towed it. As the storm became more violent, the locals moved from their hammocks and crowded onto the deck. Some threw up as the boat tossed about. Many were praying, others rubbing Tiger Balm onto themselves. The locals made one of the English men kneel and pray. Another man tied himself to the wooden beams. The rain lashed down.
I fell asleep to the pitching and rolling.
It was a beautiful setting. On the right was a causeway with a road and market. On the left were water houses, house boats and fish pens. We pulled in to a jetty.
After a shower and short rest, I hired a bicycle (for $1) and set off northwards along the green countryside passing bullock carts, water buffaloes and bicycles carrying goods.
From around 800AD until the mid 15th century, the Khmers ruled a vast Hindu and Buddhist empire stretching in the West from Assam in India to the Mekong Delta in the East. They ruled large areas of modern day Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Their capital was Angkor. During the centuries fabulous cities and huge temples were constructed in the area. The main structures date from between the 7th and 13th centuries. I now had two and a half days to see as much as I could of this empire's capital.
After 6km I arrived at Angkor Wat.
Although I had arrived at the world's largest temple complex, I couldn't, in fact, see anything. All around was dense jungle. In front of me was a huge 190m wide moat. Beyond was the South Gate, a wall and some towers soaring up between gaps in the trees. The moat itself forms a rectangle 1.3km by 1.5km. Within this moat is the outside wall of the complex. The wall measures 1025m by 800m giving an area of 0.8 km2, definately the largest temple complex I had ever encountered. I cycled around the wall in an anti-clockwise direction until I reached the huge and delapidated East Gate. A 200m path led to the view I'd looked forward to since my 1983 and 1988 visits to Asia when Cambodia was closed to all visitors.
The whole temple consists of three storeys, each enclosing a square surrounded by interlinked galleries and cloisters. The second and third storeys have huge towers with pointed cupolas on their corners. A central tower rises 31m from the third level (55m from the ground). The outline of this structure is present on Cambodia's flag.
It is a fascinating building to explore with passageways, galleries and close up relief detail. The carvings could be seen on window bars, roofs, over gateways and on columns.
This was a fabulous temple. I had already been here for 6 hours. Apart from a few UN personell and school children going home, there were very few visitors. I rode a further kilometre and climbed to the top of the 65m high Phnom Bakkeng for great views of Angkor Wat set in the middle of the emerald jungle as well as the shimmering Tonle Sap Lake. My reward was to be painfully bitten by ants.
It was a pleasant ride back as the sun sank in the West. I had a supper of chicken, mushrooms and rice with lots of liquid. I was in bed by 9:30.
1.5km further on I passed a small brick edifice called Baksel Chamkrong, dating from the early 10th century. Ahead lay a huge gateway to the Khmer capital city of Angkor Thom. This was once a large and thriving centre during the 11th century. The city had an area of 10km2; beyond the gateway was a road with jungle on either side. The centre of the city was still 1.2km away.
The city wall was 8m high and 12km long forming a perfect square; there is a surrounding moat 100m wide, once inhabited by crocodiles. A million people once lived in wooden houses inside the city. These have long since decayed; only the stone structures remain. I cycled along the quiet, forested road along with locals carrying produce.
At the centre of the city I came to the magnificent Bayon Temple, smaller than Angkor Wat but very different in appearance. It is built on three levels. Dominating the third level are 49 towers projecting 172 giant smiling faces of Avalokitesvara.
Nearby was the Baphuon (1060) a 43m high overgrown pyramid reached by a 200m stone walkway raised on circular stone columns. The city's main square was a huge area (500m by 200m) where processions would be held. The Royal Enclosure was very overgrown. It was fronted by the 350m long Terrace of Elephants, used as a reviewing stand for ceremonies in the square. The terrace was decorated with elephants, garudas and lions. There was another, smaller, stand, the Terrace of the Leper King (7m long) which had some seated figures carved into its walls.
I retraced my steps to Angkor Thom and exited by the Victory Gate passing a newly built temple, several decayed and undocumented structures set in thick jungle and the Siem Reap River. Ta Keo was an early 11th century sandstone Buddhist temple with a central tower over 50m high.
Not surprisingly, I was now tired. Passing an artificial pond (800m by 400m), I cycled the 3km to Angkor Wat where I rested chatting to children going home from school and UN soldiers. After another 7km I had returned to Siem Reap. Lunch was chicken and pineapple and rice. Angkor had so far been one of the most amazing places I had ever visited. And I still had another day. Supper was chicken, mushroom and rice in a place frequented by UN officials and soldiers. It cost $2.50. Cambodia is cheaper if you avoid places that UN staff use. By 9:30 I was fast asleep.
Lolei is in the compound of a Buddhist monastery. It dates from 900AD and consists of four red brick towers originally built on a small island which has since become part of the mainland. The sandstone carvings are Hindu with Shivas and yonis (female sex organ) being common. The doors are also sandstone and the lintels are intricately carved with demons and inscriptions in old Khmer.
The Bakong (881AD) was yet another shrine to Shiva. This one was hewn out of stone. An outer wall (300m by 250m) and a 50m wide moat lead to a causeway decorated with nagas. The buildings of a modern monastery lay inside the first set of walls. After two more walls there were libraries and red brick towers. The main structure was a large five level pyramid, 60m square. The third level had 12 small stupas. The original carvings had mostly eroded. I could just about make out lions and elephants along the stairways.
These older temples were interesting as they indicated the evolution to the later ones. The ride back was hot and tiring with frequent stops to take rural photographs. Back in Siem Reap, I had a delicious Cambodian spicy soup with rice and coffee. I spent the afternoon chatting to some new arrivals from the boat. Supper was beef and rice.
I had breakfast and bought some provisions for the boat trip: bread, cheese, water. A few of us, picked up a motorbike for the ride to the jetty. I had said "boat" but the driver thought I'd said "airport". I noticed we were going the wrong way and stopped my driver. He soon got the idea. The boat was a larger one that the one that had brought me. There was more room and it was faster. People helped me set up my hammock. I whiled away the pre-embarkation period by trying lots of snacks: sate, prawn crackers, pineapple, bananas. The boat set off at 5:20pm; there were six other foreigners amongst the packed crowd of passengers.
As we entered the lake it got dark and we all settled down for the night. I had a runny tummy... once; then I was fine.
After a chicken and rice lunch, I popped out with several other travellers to buy our bus tickets. I bought a Cambodian t-shirt and relaxed for the rest of the day.
The bus was not packed; there were only five foreigners - all from England. At 6am the bus sped off, crossed the river and left Phnom Penh. I was retracing my route from 12 days ago; for my companions, this was all new ground.
We needed an hour at the ferry crossing and reached the border by 1pm. The Cambodian side was quick. The immigration on the Vietnamese side was quick for me as all my papers were in order. Customs took longer as they counted out all my currency: dollars, travellers cheques and Thai Bhat. Of course, I kept my $100 worth of Vietnamese Dong secret - you are not allowed to import or export that currency.
Lunch was soup and bread. The bus was still at the border at 4pm and we were told that it wouldn't leave until nightfall. The five of us found a taxi for $3 each and piled in. I took everyone to the Prince Hotel in Saigon and shared a $6.50 room with one of the others, Chris. I enjoyed my shower after all the travel. Everybody enjoyed our meal at Sinh's - I had pork sizzler, rice, lemon soda and coffee.
I would be spending a few more days in Saigon (mainly paperwork and permits) before heading north...
Photographs and text : © 1992, 2003 KryssTal