Cambodia · Travel Tales

Travel Tales: Tonle Sap and the Angkor’s great circuit

This is Part Two of my Vietnam-Cambodia trip blog entries. You can find other entries here:
Part One:Β The breathtaking Angkor and the laid-back Siem Reap
Part Three: A Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour

Also, while I studiously fact-check all my entries, I’m the only one to blame should there be any wrong information in my posts. πŸ™‚Β 

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Andy and I decided to stay in Siem Reap for another half a day after our Tonle Sap tour to see other temples farther away. More temples? a more practical person would ask. Oh, well. I was actually very much interested in Banteay Srei (lit. “citadel of women”) whose reddish hue changes at different times of the day.

We took the tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap Lake on that breezy morning. Tonle Sap (lit. “great lake”) is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We took a boat from the port by the Siem Reap River to get there. The Siem Reap River, along with many others, connects to Tonle Sap Lake, which connects to the Tonle Sap River, which in turn connects to the great Mekong.

The Siem Reap River and Tonle Sap Lake are quite shallow at this time of the year, but Tonle Sap has a HUGE floodplain. During the monsoon, the Tonle Sap River reverses its flow, the Mekong River pushes water up to the lake, and the lake expands dramatically from 2,700 sq. km. to 16,000 sq. km.

The Siem Reap River is about a meter deep. The water is muddy, but according to the boatman, it becomes blue during the monsoon season. If you look at the riverbank, you’d see that the water level rises and floods the plains when the rains come.

Andy and I ride the boat along Siem Reap River.
They even let us steer the boat!

The main attraction of this tour was the fishing village, where mostly ethnic Β Vietnamese lived. They live in a similar fashion in Halong.

Some of the houses in the village even have their own gardens!
A Catholic school
Soon-to-be-leather. They’re from the crocodile farm. I must admit that I do not know if this is ethical…

Speaking of ethics, Andy and I didn’t quite expect this: the boatmen asked us if we wanted to visit the school. Obviously we said, “YES!” (all caps to denote excitement). And then they asked us if we wanted to donate rice and water to the children, who were orphans and were being fed in the school as well. Still we said yes, even though half a sack of rice was quite expensive there because goods have to be delivered via boat from Siem Reap.

We even had our pics taken with the kids, who were apparently taking a break. Peace sign! SO CUTE. Although the boy in front doesn’t look too happy, I don’t know why. Also, ‘sup with my awkward smile? :p
And this is how the kids buy their snacks.

So why do I feel bothered? I was wondering if it is, you know, ethical to make tourism out of children. It bothered me even more when Sarin, our tuk-tuk driver, told us that they aren’t really orphans (or maybe not all of them). I was truly happy to help — we do a lot of outreach projects back in my school, after all, and this initially felt like an outreach abroad. And what’s wrong with helping others less fortunate? Even though they might not be orphans after all, they’re still poor, right? And even though droves go to see Angkor every day, only a few reap the economic benefits out of it.

But then, doesn’t that make schoolchildren tourist attractions? Are they truly the only ones who benefit from it?

Honestly, I still am torn between the desire to help children and learn about their lives even during a tour, and whether it’s ethical to do so.

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We went back to Siem Reap a little before noon, then quickly headed back to Angkor. We went to see the temples in the “great circuit” — that is, temples out of the way and quite impossible to see on a one-day tour. They say that if you want to see all the temples of Angkor, you should get a one-week pass.

East Mebon is still relatively near the inner circuit of Angkor.

East Mebon. We had to climb some steep stairs to get here.
Devata in East Mebon

Banteay Srei is almost an hour from the inner circuit. We passed some farmlands, stores, houses, and the Cambodian Landmine Museum on the way.

Here’s Sarin taking us to Banteay Srei.

Banteay Srei was the color of rust when we got there — the color of red sandstone in the afternoon light. Originally dedicated to Shiva, it got its more modern name because of the many carvings of devatas (demigoddesses).

A neat tourist complex was built around the temple. The complex includes restaurants, souvenir shops (where I got really good deals), and very informative infographics about the details in the carvings and the restoration process of the temple.

A pediment at Banteay Srei that depicts the abduction of Sita. The carvings are so beautiful! They look as though they’re carved from wood, not stone.
Inside the gates, going into the temple
Small statues of monkeys stand guard.
A view of Banteay Srei from the outside walls

Maybe Banteay Srei is not as grand or impressive as Angkor Wat or Bayon, but I found it to be the most enigmatic of all. Perhaps it’s the color of the temple, as red as the soil it was built on. Perhaps it’s the exquisite carvings, the intricate details of the bas reliefs of women. Perhaps it’s the fact that it was built by Hindu priests, not by god-kings, and that their prayers have somehow seeped into the walls. Perhaps it’s the presence of women — and indeed, why are women featured a lot in the Angkor temples, the ancient Khmers’ greatest monuments? Are they queens, princesses, demigoddesses, priestesses? Β Are these carvings like a twelfth century Facebook?Β Β It might be true, after all, that women in ancient Southeast Asia were quite powerful.

Look at the exquisite carvings! This was a library.
Just one of the many carvings of women in Banteay Srei.
What remains of this mythological creature can be found near the entrance.

We took the 45-minute ride back to the Angkor’s inner circuit. Our last stop was Preah Khan. The temple itself has four entrances from the four main directions, leading to a central room through more rooms and entrances; the aerial view would probably look like a cross.

An elephant stands guard at Preah Khan.
Preah Khan
The gate toward the entrance. The restoration includes supporting the trees so that they would not fall on the stone gates.
Soldiers standing guard with what seem to be their swords.
A last picture at Preah Khan.

To get back to Siem Reap, we passed by Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat again.

A closer look at the naga held by asuras (power-seeking deities, as opposed to the more benevolent devas, which can be found on the left-hand side of the causeway). Both Preah Khan and Angkor Thom have causeways flanked by these statues.

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Andy and I took a sleeper bus that night back to Ho Chi Minh. I found it to be a more relaxing ride than the day trip we took a couple of days before. I wish I’d known that there were buses that travel the night between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh — we wouldn’t have needed to spend a whole day traveling!

A word of caution, though — we changed buses in Phnom Penh, and we were all transferred to a regular express bus. It is quite unfair; we’d expected to be in a sleeper bus all the way to Ho Chi Minh. But we got to Ho Chi Minh all right.

Here’s what I was doing on the way back: I was listening to classical music in my iPhone (to tune out the bus driver, who was seriously very noisy) and reviewing the pics in my camera, and I might have slept with a smile on my face because I still couldn’t believe, even up to now, that I’d been to Angkor.

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5 thoughts on “Travel Tales: Tonle Sap and the Angkor’s great circuit

  1. Kamusta! My cousin and his friends just finished a trip to Vietnam-Cambodia as well. Maybe you saw them. This is one of the places that I have on my to-go list. Meantime, I enjoy seeing it through your eyes.

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