I have been dreaming about going to Cambodia for years and finally we had a last minute trip to Siem Reap with our middle son a little while ago. Because it was so last minute we didn’t have time to do much research and let the hotel help us with a two day guided trip they recommended.
We were met by our guide and our first day of temple finding started. We drove north east out of Siem Reap for an hour and a half through the country side up into the mountains and the Kulen region. “Mountain of Lychees” is a mountain range in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, considered a holy mountain with religious significance to Hindus and Buddhists who come to the mountain in pilgrimage. We drove past the traditional tall stilt houses of Cambodia, simple corrugated ram shackle houses and some mere straw huts and were reminded of how poor Cambodia is. The country roads were lined with mothers boiling palm nectar, stalls selling palm sugar and half dressed children running around.
We stopped to see the river carvings, – the the river of the 1,000 lingas. There are over 1,000 lingas carved on the bed and river banks of the river in Phnom Kulen. The lingas are symbol of God Shiva’s essence and were carved into the sand stone rocks to purify the water of the river and make it fertile to then irrigate the rice fields. Quite a surreal sight.
Our next stop was at the summit of the hill and the Buddhist pagoda and a large reclining Buddha statue of eight meters length carved into a sandstone bock. To get there we walked through the small village and this was more interesting to me than seeing the giant buddha and being elbowed by lots of Russian and Chinese tourists. We walked through the small town and sampled delicious steet food. The sour mango and unripe banana slices with sugar, chili and fish sauce was delicious. So were the deep fried battered banana that we bought from a lady. Coconut pancakes were also good, so good that we had to come back for more. There was food that we chose to give a miss, things like dried gall bladder and mountain goat head. Wild boar stomach. We were asked to buy lotus to donate to buddha and to change money into small notes to give as gifts. I don’t like being told what to do. We walked past Russian and Chinese with thick wads of notes handing them out to all the beggars lining the stairs up to the temple. I don’t approve of this, I think begging should be encouraged and I think it is counter productive to the efforts that are made to put people in work. Especially in places like these where it’s turned into a an organised “thing”. 50% of Cambodians still live hand to mouth and all children are provided with free schooling by the government. Children go to chill either in the morning or in the afternoon and when they are not in school – they run little “businesses” to help their families. We supported another couple of boys who had put up a swing and decorated it with flowers. Anyone who wanted to sit in the swing and have their photo taken could donate a dollar. Fair enough. We were approached by a little boy and it was apparent that the guide wanted to support the local children and encouraged us to pay for the boy to “watch our shoes so that no one stole them” whilst we walked around the Buddha barefoot. I don’t mind paying the boy for watching our shoes – after all he is offering a service. He’s running a business and showing entreprenourship.We could easily put our shoes in our back packs, but the little boy earns a dollar a pair and can contribute to his family.
There were monks offering blessings for donations. Incents burning. Musicians playing and tourists laughing, Chinese shouting and Russians pushing past in line. We walked past the beggars and land mine victims resting their amputées on the steps. There were people selling food and wood carvings and people just sitting silently holding notes and hoping to be given some more. Old ladies, legless men and mothers with young children.
We walked through the village to a waterfall. All tourists are taken here. It was a beaitiful spot and we enjoyed swimming in the waterfall and having our feet nibbled at by the little fish. Not all tourists wanted to jump in to the water which was lucky for us who did as a lot of people come here. Even here on the river bed by the waterfall little micro businesses had formed. You could hire a tractor tire inner tube for a dollar or a locker for your clothes for another dollar. The water is considered holy and Khmers like to bottle it to take home with them. The water eventually flows into Tonle Sap Lake and is thought to bless the water ways of Cambodia. I couldn’t help but wish I had come here 10 years ago.