(by Alistair Fabius)
On the morning of our second day of exploring Angkor, Pow took us 21km north of Siem Reap through the countryside to Benteay Srei, aka the lady temple. With its intricate carvings and prestine detail, the temple was in a league of its own. They say it was built by women due to the sharpness of detail in the stone carvings, something only the touch of a woman can create. The nose on miniature elephant carvings actually had wrinkles. With tourists bumping shoulder to shoulder through the narrow corridors, we escaped onto a short nature path leading to a small lookout platform with a view of a clearing where we saw oxen grazing the fields past a meadow.
It was peaceful and serene. Afterwards we grabbed a quick bite of freshly bagged mango and pineapple back at the tourist centre and mini market that seems to accompany every Angkor site. Children as young as 5 are vigilantly trying to sell postcards and other trinkets with a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude. They all have the same lines, swearing they’ll remember you when you walk by their stall after viewing the site through their broken english. You can’t even fool them with French, and knowing that you already said no to the neighbouring vendor or have already bought what they too are selling doesn’t phase their efforts. Fortunately the polite Canadian attitude of “no thank you, no thank you, no thank you” eventually wards them off as they cling to the next tourist.
Pow then took us another 30km north to Kbal Spean. Unlike the rest of Angkor, this was more like a nature hike through the Cambodian jungle (3km round trip) which takes you to a small but beautiful waterfall, with Hindu carvings along the riverbed just past it. We stopped for a quick photo op and a short break along the river away from the tourist path where all you could hear was the buzzing of flying beetles, singing jungle birds, and the gentle rippling current. Back at the parking lot, we breaked again for lunch before the long tuk tuk ride back.
As we we made our way back through the countryside, we witnessed the true meaning of the developing world. Many of the houses were built with the surrounding materials and placed on stilts about 5 to 6 feet off the ground. Trucks with loads piling twice as high as their railings could hold came barreling past us, and we even witnessed a motorbike with two kids who couldn’t have been older than six who were struggling to keep it steady. A makeshift schoolbus, which was basically a larger flatbed pickup truck, was packed full of smiling schoolkids all in their unforms screaming as they passed by. I tried my best to capture what I could on camera but as this was a first for me, I also sat back trying to take it all in. It was shocking yet comforting at the same time to see people making do with the resources at hand, living in their day to day lives in what we would call at home poverty and despair.
About half way on our trip back to Siem Reap, Pow dropped us off at the Cambodian Landmine museum at my request. It was small and somewhat dingy, but as Renee would later comment, it was truly one of the most humbling experiences we’ve ever encountered. Packed with enormous amounts of detailed personal accounts on the Cambodian civil war, I literally had to fight my emotions to fend off tears while working my way through the museum. The museum was made possible by one man, Aki Ra, who had fought on both sides of the civil war, sometimes even purposefully shooting over the heads of his enemy rather than at them as he once had his own uncle in his sites. He was born in 1970, lost both his parents to the Khmer Rouge madness, and knew only war as a child joining the army when he was less than 10. In the years after the war he started dissarming the millions upon millions of unexploded ordinances and landminds scattered throughout the countryside. He also began adopting orphaned and disadvantaged children, many who had been maimed by landminds, and just behind the museum is where two dozen of them currently lived. Above all we experienced in Siem Reap, this stop is a must see, with all proceeds going to the children living there as well as maintaining the museum.
Just before we arrived at our guesthouse, Pow had one more temple in mind, Bakong, and we made one last stop for the day. Part of the Roluos group of temples, Bakong was the most intact of all that we had seen, it was as if the deities still lived within its walls. Furhermore, there was only a handful of tourists walking about, making it one of our favourites. Afterwards, Pow fed us some dried watermelon seeds, somewhat like a sunflower seed, it requires dexterity and patience to extract the seed within, something I never really mastered with my teeth and red bleached fingers that the seeds left behind.