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Cambodia and Return to Vietnam

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Story by Judy Sullivan      Photos by Bill Sullivan

After a 3-hour trip through the Cambodian countryside, we arrived at Siem Reap for what was to be 3 nights at a beautiful Sofitel Royal Angkor Hotel. A true resort, it had a huge pool, multiple restaurants and landscaped gardens, and we were met by costumed dancers and band. Our first night’s dinner featured a buffet of regional foods and a show with the traditional dancers of the royal ballet. The elaborate costumes and much of the dance resembled those of Thailand and India with the same stylized hand movements.

Cambodian Dancer

Young girls can begin their training in the Aspara dance as young as 6. It was originally only taught at the palace and was only for women dancers with the sole exception of the male role of the monkey! There are now many male dancers. Few of the original teachers and costume designers survived the Pol Pot regime.

Province of Siem Reap    Cambodia’s thousand year-old temples have made this a major tourist destination. There are about 290 temples in a roughly 150-mile radius, but the city itself is charming with markets and upscale restaurants and a visual presence of the French influence in the architecture. There is a variety of cuisines scattered, mostly around the old market on Po Street. It has also been made famous by the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, as Angelina Jolie kick-boxed her way through Ta Prohm, the Angkorian temple overtaken by jungle roots. The main mode of transport from hotel to market is via the tuk-tuk, a rickshaw-type carriage pulled by a motorbike. You can find them anywhere and everywhere and travel almost any distance for about $3.00. We ventured into town for lunch at the famous Red Piano, allegedly favored by Angelina Jolie while filming her movie there. They have a cocktail named in her honor.  

Dr. Fish foot massage is a favorite tourist activity in town. For about $2.00, customers are seated on a bench and place their bare feet into a clear tank filled with fish. The fish will nibble the dead skin from your feet. The fish vary in size, and we even discovered a place that advertised “No Pirahana!”  Good to know!

Siem Reap is also the only province in Cambodia that possesses the Mulberry Tree, necessary for the production of silk. A visit to the silk farm outside of town showed us the process from the growth of the worm on the tree, all the way through the dying and weaving processes. The dyes are, for the most part, natural even using rusty nails to produce the burnt oranges and browns. The labor force in the factory is predominantly women, and once the training period is completed, their wages are some of the highest in the country. The finished products are beautifully displayed in the shop where they are, of course, available for purchase.

The first stop on any visit to the Angkor sites is at the main entrance where you will have a photo taken. This photo is then placed on a temple pass needed for admittance to any and all of the Angkor sites. You are offered either a 3-day or a 1-week pass. They range in price from $40.00 for the 3-day pass to $90.00 for the full week.

Angkor Wat  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered the masterpieces of Khmer architecture. A feat of both engineering and artistry built in the 12th century, the mammoth stone construction is surrounded by a moat and walls. The stone was not quarried at the site, but brought from an area some 45 kilometers away. Thousands of elephants were used in construction.  The temple is thought to have been originally built as a temple to the God Vishnu and, as such, is full of bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu epics. It is also the only temple facing west, and restored as a Buddhist shrine in the 16th century. When it was “discovered” in the 1860’s, it was greeted with a media blitz, but it was actually a working monastery at the time. Many of the local people sought refuge here during the Pol Pot regime. Any structure close to the jungles and left to its own devices will quickly be reclaimed by the jungle.  Some of the temples in this region have been “reclaimed” from the jungle on more than one occasion.  Most of them are in a constant state of repair.

The construction consists of 3 levels. The upper, or third level, carries the five towers and is reached by way of a steep outside staircase. It is said to only rise only 11 meters, but the steep angle makes the climb memorable! It took all the courage I could muster to attempt the climb; (I did not come all this way to miss anything) fearing mostly the return down the stairs. There was a long continuous gallery with niches containing carvings or statues, an occasional monk and a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

Angkor Thom    This was also built in the Khmer times during the 12th century, and contrary to Angkor Wat, was built as a city; one of the largest ever built. It too is surrounded by a moat and encloses a square. The approach across the moat is via a causeway lined with stone statues. Each of the 2 rows of figures carries the body of a giant serpent, the 7-headed naga.                                                                                                              

The central tower, called Bayon, is the most striking with huge stone faces of Buddha facing the four corners of the compass. There are so many that it appears to be a stone forest of towers rising like mountain toward the center. Only 37 of the original 45 are still standing, some missing faces on the sides. It too contains beautiful bas-relief carvings, some in Hindu tradition, some Buddhist.

Ta Prohm    This temple was built by the king to commemorate his mother. The trees here are slowly taking over the crumbling remains and are responsible for the atmosphere of the temple. The jungle has become part of the architecture, making inroads through fissures in the stone, maybe where birds have deposited seeds. Famous as the temple used in the filming of the Angelina Jolie film, “Tomb Raiders,” it is a perfect example of how the jungle will reclaim any structure left too long, unchecked. It is now being somewhat restored, however archeologists have determined that to remove many of the larger trees and roots would cause the walls to fall. It is thought to be a good example to visitors of the condition in which many of the temples were “discovered.”

Banteay Srei     This city is located near the Kulen National Park, once a place of pilgrimage due to its significance. Historically, this is the site where King Jayavarman II proclaimed his divine kinship, marking the beginning of the Khmer Empire. Banteay Srei is distinguished by the beautiful pink sandstone color. It was off-limits to visitors for many years, due to Khmer bandits in the area. A small Hindu temple built during the 10th century, it was not built as a royal temple, and sometimes referred to as the Citadel of Women. It too has been dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. There are 3 main towers and most noticeable are the detailed bas-relief carvings and architectural details, such as the mitered corners on the doorways. It has been described as the “jewel of Khmer art and achieved notoriety when Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture under DeGaulle, began removing and selling some of the apsaras. The pieces were recovered and restoration began in 1931.

Visits to the open-air markets and Les Chantiers-Ecoles, the vocational school training 650 apprentices per year in the traditional crafts, concluded our stay in Siem Reap. We were ready for an early evening flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hanoi, Vietnam      Here is the thousand year-old capital city of Vietnam. The original name was Thang Long, or the City of the Soaring Dragon and sits in the far north of the country in the Red River Delta. There are said to be over 300 new buildings in the city, but the Old Quarter is picturesque and a composite of French colonial architecture.  Most of the narrow network of streets and alleys have retained the names of the trader’s guilds and are known as the “36 streets.” The merchandise is offered by “subject.” There is Shoe Street, Cloth Street, Rice and Silk Streets, etc. You will also find a KFC and upscale restaurants within the old city.  It is along these streets that one will see the heart of the city and its people at their everyday work. 

Typical of the Vietnamese culture, most of the sanctuaries are built around local legends. On a tiny island in the Hoan Kiem Lake (The Lake of the Restored Sword) in the center of the city, stands the Tortoise pagoda. The legend dates back to the 15th century states that when the Chinese occupied the country, a turtle living in the lake gave a local fisherman a sword used to destroy the invaders. The fisherman was made emperor and returned the sword to the turtle.  To this day, the turtles within the lake are revered. Ngoc Son, Temple of the Jade Mountain sits near the north shore. The entire lake is surrounded by a lovely walkway and park-like setting making a perfect 1.5 mile walk on a good day. Traveling around the lake you will find restaurants, banks and shops, many of famous designers such as Gucci and Prada. We also spotted a Playboy store!

The grand old hotel of Hanoi, The Metropole,  was built by the French in 1901 and still reigns as the most famous hotel in Hanoi. She was recently in the news when an underground bunker was discovered during some garden renovations. These were used as a place of protection for many of the famous visitors to Hanoi during the Christmas Bombings of Hanoi in the Vietnam conflict. It is a favorite location for brides to be photographed, and we saw a steady parade of couples during our 3-night stay. It is within a block of the magnificent Opera House (another favorite bridal photo stop).                     

The Temple of Literature is a series of walled courtyards and gates, built in the 10th century and was Vietnam’s first University, a center of Confucian philosophy. The structure is dedicated to the scholars of the city who, when they have successfully completed their exams return to have their names engraved on tablets in the courtyard and become candidates for imperial civil service. They date back for centuries, some of them almost smooth due to the weathering.  There is a pavilion in the center containing a bronze tortoise worn shiny in places as it is rubbed for luck! The gardens are full of topiaries and colorful floral displays.

The Ho Chi Minh Memorial complex includes the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, museum and the simple stilt house where he spent his final days. The mausoleum was opened in 1975 during the reunification period. Ho Chi Minh lies in a glass-enclosed coffin in the air-conditioned hall, contrary to his wishes to be cremated! The body is sent each year to Moscow for “cosmetic restoration.” The huge concrete structure is guarded at the top of the steps by soldiers, and the entire complex is surrounded by a park. Also nearby is the Presidential Palace that was the residence of the former French Governor General of Indochina. Ho hated the building and the simple wooden structure nearby was built for and presented to him as a birthday gift.  You can visit his office and bedroom quarters on the second level.

A short walk away is the One Pillar Pagoda, a Lotus shaped pagoda emerging from the middle of a Lotus pond. This 11th century monument was originally made of wood and survived for centuries, until it was destroyed by the French when they abandoned the city in 1954. It has been replaced by a concrete pillar.

A visit to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” where American POW’s were held captive, gave us insight into that portion of history. Only 1/3 of the prison remains as a museum, while the rest of the property has been removed and replaced by an office building and condominium. The prison was originally built by the French in the center of the town to hopefully serve as a deterrent to crime. Again, much of the documentary has a distinct Vietnamese slant, including photos of prisoners (they refer to them as detainees!) enjoying volleyball, a lavish Christmas dinner, and opening gifts from family. John McCain was “rescued” by locals from his downed plane in the West Lake outside of town and interred here for many years. There are photos of him receiving medical care for his injuries.

The Vietnam Ethnology Museum gives glimpses of the daily life of the 54 ethnic groups residing in the country. Outside are traditional houses, each with its specific furnishings and surrounded by typical vegetation. We were unprepared for the extremely graphic sexual depictions of the sculptures surrounding the homes—leaving nothing to the imagination (Bill took plenty of photos, but this is a family magazine).

After dinner at a local restaurant, we were transported to the new, but small Hanoi airport where we did all that last minute “airport shopping” we needed to finish before our return to the US.  Passing through the security line required the usual passport check, as well as a digital fingerprint scan. Although on this trip we did miss some of the cities whose names are familiar to us from the Vietnam War era, we saw a wonderful cross-section of a country ravaged by war, famine, and poverty, yet vibrant and full of life. The restorations and new modern hotels built since the 60’s have made both Vietnam and Cambodia prominent tourist destinations; each for its own reason. It was a beautiful and memorable trip.

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