Just One More Temple, Papa

By Carol L. Bowman

Part Two

(Part One published in April 2021 issue)

Banteay Srei

 

Hak and Chan waited in the lobby, fresh as morning lotus flowers. Hak asked, with his pervasive cheerfulness, “Did you have a good rest, Papa and Mama?” I smiled at Hak’s, now familiar, reference to us as his parents. “Our first stop, Banteay Srei, is 30 kilometers away, so we should get started.” I recounted our last night’s romp through the streets of Siem Reap to Hak while Chan drove the tuk-tuk.

Upon yesterday’s return, I headed to the hotel’s spa for a one-hour foot reflexology massage. The unbelievable price of $12 rejuvenated me to an even higher state of relaxation. The beautiful, young masseuse and her skillful hands erased my ‘temple fatigue.’ Invigorated, I coaxed Ernie. “Let’s see what Siem Reap has to offer at night.”  

The evening’s lower humidity greeted us as we picked our way along the uneven and broken sidewalk. The roadside, littered with cans, bottles, and exposed cables waited to trip the unprepared tourist.

Onward to the Old French Quarter, we trudged over the bridge which spans the polluted, foul smelling city river. Locals swarmed The Old Market, Phsar Chas, making last-minute purchases of strings of pork sausages, dried fish that hung from the rafters, rice, and greens. Without refrigeration in their homes, food shopping remains a daily chore.

On our way to Pub Street, where Cambodian delicacies sizzled in chic, two-story, open air restaurants, fish pedicures grabbed our attention. Rows of long, clear tanks, teeming with toothless, Red Garra (doctor fish), advertised, “Feed our hungry fish with your dead skin. No piranhas!” For $3.00, takers got a cold beer or coke, plus twenty minutes of feisty fish munching the dead skin off their bare feet that dangled in the tank. I just couldn’t do it.

At the ‘night market’ local teenagers encouraged us to try tasty Cambodian treats of fried tarantulas, scorpions, and spiders. I shrieked at the sight of these creepy crawlers... I wasn’t about to eat them.  Fried ice cream, made with bananas, chocolate chips, and cream scraped together until solid on a frozen pan, seemed more palatable.

We arrived at the oldest and most remote temple in the Archaeological Zone. Banteay Srei, called the Citadel of Women, is believed to have been built in 967 by female laborers. Pink hues radiated from red sandstone block walls and intricate carvings, considered the finest and best preserved of all Angkor Wat monuments, dazzled onlookers.

On our tuk-tuk ride back to Siem Reap, we stopped at two jewels; Ta Som and Preah Khan, both revealing exotic jungle atmospheres, leaning structures encased by banyan tree roots, and largely ignored by tourists. No hordes or busloads at Ta Som; just Hak, me and Papa. The early morning calls of jungle birds, the audible snaps of crackling twigs underfoot, and towering trees sheltering us from the sun’s harsh rays left me speechless. Preah Khan Temple, built in honor of Jayavarman VII’s father in 1191, supported more than 100,000 commonplace people who lived there and serviced an early hospital on site.     

As I headed for our fringed dray, a young lad pursued me with trinkets for sale. Cambodian Mafia extorts children to harass tourists to buy souvenirs, so to discourage this practice, I ignored his pleas. In my haste getting into the cart, a rusty bolt jutting out stabbed into my shin bone. Blood spurted down my leg. Ernie quickly tied his sweaty bandana above the wound as a tourniquet. Chan turned pale and Hak cried out, “Oh, no, Mama.”

From under the cart’s seat Chan removed a dusty roll of gauze and tended my leg with each wrap-around of the dirty bandage. Between the sweaty neckerchief and grey-looking gauze, the bleeding slowed. I worried ‘Has it been ten or twenty years since my last tetanus shot?’

With my leg begging for less activity, we made a deal with Hak. No more temples. We wanted to experience a boat ride on Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, known for supporting clusters of floating villages. Thousands of Cambodians remain completely dependent on this ecosystem.

Hak agreed, but cautioned that we only had time to drive to Chong Khneas, the most visited site, and the least authentic, which exhibited widespread pollution, overharvesting of fish, and depletion of important mangrove swamps.

After considering the drawbacks, we still wanted a glimpse. Tonle Sap connects to the complex Mekong River system, and in the rainy season its volume increases five-fold. The flow reverses with the flood waters backing up from the Mekong.

Once Hak procured our boat and driver, the sights, sounds and smells of Chong Khneas captured the moment. The muddy-colored lake, with plastic trash bobbing on top looked uninviting. Two naked children in a dug-out canoe near their floating-barge home jumped happily into the water, oblivious to its pollution.

As we sped along, make-shift residences, schools, churches, grocery stores, a basketball court, even a crocodile farm, all rocked back and forth, from tourist motorboat waves that lapped into the mangrove swamps.   Each floating structure had dilapidated rubber tires attached to its perimeter at water’s level. A young boy guided his small boat to the school’s wharf, a group of head-scarfed, chatty women, moored alongside the church, and an old woman in a dug-out filled with caldrons of steaming rice and fried fish rowed her traveling restaurant along.

Huge nets filled with crushed aluminum cans and plastic bottles hung from the sides of many homes, while others threw trash directly into their liquid garbage dump. Hak reminded us that the fish from this lake provide the largest portion of Cambodia’s food supply. I made a mental note to never order fresh fish from any local menu. People bathed, washed clothes, and played in this water. What about the ‘unseen,’ I thought. What about human waste disposal; what about disease and illnesses brought by lack of sanitation, what about the monsoons, when the people live in the middle of flood waters?’

Our boat driver slowed and anchored alongside a huge wharf. Hak gave us his sly look which we had come to know. “Tourist trap city,” he quipped.  We jumped from the boat to the wooden barge and onto the visitor mecca of Chong Khneas. We watched as a canoe with a woman at its helm, skimmed across the water toward her ‘gold-mine foreigners’ Her young son stood naked in the boat, a python, double the child’s size and weight, hanging around the boy’s neck.

Hak whispered, “She’s Vietnamese people. They come up the Mekong and settle here illegally.” From Hak’s tone of voice, it seemed that Cambodians also struggle with illegal immigration problems. Every country has border issues, even if that border is a river. The mother shook her fist at tourists, who took photos of ‘son and snake’ without throwing money into the canoe. Exploitation of children; time to leave, I motioned to Hak.

 

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