Tuesday, November 17, 2009

12 September Farewell Hanoi

Saturday and all is well. I survived potential swelling, infection and a bout of Dengue fever. After a quick couple of showers to go we raced down to the pre-booked farewell breakfast only to discover our instructions were lost in translation. We lingered impatiently as they set up the buffet and pounced upon their every delivery. Happy with my standard 3+ plate intake of fruits, smoothies and coffee we bid the Serenade and Hanoi city farewell and leapt into the waiting car with the same speedway driver for the final shake up to the airport. Consistent to the end he surged through the inclement weather to our international departure lounge. Bidding him goodbye and good riddance full of smiles and hand shakes we turned our back on Vietnam and left on VN869 via Laong Prang (Laos captial) bound for Siem Reap (Cambodia) and three nights of cultural exploration.

*We ran into the Russians again at the airport and giggled at our chance reunion. They en route to Laos shared the first leg of our journey to Cambodia. K engaged them in the transit bus and again on the Laotian tarmac where an international exchange of business cards took place. One of the four was called Vladamir (of course) Belov and his wife was coming to Nelson later this year for a wedding. Pleasantries over we lamented the loss of an opportunity to bond on the boat in Ha Long Bay. Maybe an extra night would have done it. It is a fine line between balancing the courtesy of giving people their space and wanting to interact with them.

We had a quick uneventful turnaround in the Laos airport transit lounge of around 15 minutes where we managed to stretch our legs and bladders and catch some quick footage on video.

Our arrival in Siem Reap airport was to full sunshine. After escaping the Vietnamese acid rain, we welcomed the breeze less 30+ degrees reported by the airport. We cleverly bypassed the airport currency exchange and were greeted by the newest guide, Sophura and another 'mute' driver clueless to our language as we were to his. Eagerly we took extensive video footage heading into town on our 15 minute transit. Sophura was around our age and knowledgeable. We approved.

Our hotel was relatively new, stark white and an easy four stars in congruently fancy in this dusty little village/city. Large and expansive complete with swimming pool water feature and heaving in staff we were well impressed. Straight to the pool to test its water and cocktails while we waited for our room to be made up. The sun loungers, pina coladas and noodle dishes didn't disappoint as we took up residence poolside for a couple of hours as if we had been there for a week. Champing to get into our room before our 3pm pickup we reluctantly unhinged ourselves from the loungers and headed for room 318 three floors up. Changed and back to reception Sophura rejoined us after admitting to a lunch and afternoon nap prior to his return. Bundled back into the van we headed 10 minutes down the road to the famous Angkor Wat.

Our guide got us dropped off on the roadside where we were ushered over a fence and under some well placed trees. We could see the temple about 400m away magnificent from a distance surrounded by a moat and thousands of milling tourists in the oppressive afternoon heat.

In true Asian style I erected my travel umbrella to shade my skin from the sun. We literally dripped perspiration as we painstakingly listened to Sophura's exuberant verbose rendition of the entire history of the Angkor (area) wat (temple) and the common misinterpretations of the lay tourists.

It was about then after being bored into submission that we started to witness some chinks in his armour. The first nervous tic could be forgiven. The more fervant he become,the worse they got. We politely ignored the head rolling and shoulder shrugging but became slightly alarmed at the insane mutterings. I think he was taking a couple of personalities out for the day. The fact that he admitted to 'replacing' the original guide (due to sickness) left us nervous as to his credentials and sanity. We followed on dutifully distracted by his repetitious rantings and insistent interactions. A couple of his favourite phrases began with "I would like to inform you.... and It's amazing, How do they do that?"

We stifled giggles as not to enrage him as we now considered him fully blown 'pyscho serial killer' material. Glad of the company of the hundreds of fellow tourists we walked on tentatively. The temple had been built in 1113 and had see-sawed between Buddhism and Hinduism dependent on the King of the time. The Indians had brought both religions with them from India to Cambodia and of that the locals were grateful otherwise there would be no Angkor or the multitude of temples in it. This particular one was the most magnificent and had only been rediscovered by the French colonists in the late 1800's lost for the previous 400 years when the then King had fled to Phenon Penn pushed out by the invading Thais. As the Thais had captured all the scholars of the area and the majority of the people had left with the king, the Angkor (and all its temples) had been left to return to nature. The remaining populace were illiterate and thus the history and temples were lost. The jungle took back its place engulfing the area completely entombing the entire lot of wats.

Enter the French (19c) colonising at will and upon rumours learned from the locals they rediscovered and subsequently restored the lost city of the gods. The main structure consisted of five conical temples within a walled area surrounded by a moat that served to deter enemies and provide water for the city. A long central entrance path (400m) went out to the gate another horizontally wide magnificent structure decorated b intracately carved apsyrah (heavenly dancers) buddhas, serpents, lions and elephants. Sanscrit (Cambodian writings) told the story in carving too on the large blocks of sandstone used in its construction. Locals dotted the ruins worshipping the same gods in the same temples as their ancestors did centuries before them. Twin libraries were also a regular feature of the original architecture and lay on either side of the entrance. Large short steep staircases reminiscent of Inca temples led up to the five main towers. Pointy towers signified Buddhist temples and more low lying temples represented Hindu ones. When the Hindus were in power the Buddhas were all removed or chipped out of the carvings. The attention to detail was astounding and astounded the guide was with his disbelief of how it could have been done!

He said it only took 40 years to build which seems a 'jiffy' considering its expansiveness and intracacy. We were reminded of the wonder of the pyramids and Roman ruins and put it right up there in that league.

Agog at the experience and that of our ever insane guide we were happy to be redeposited back out our hotel 2 1/2 hot tedious hours later.

Alone again we discussed in depth the mental health of our Cambodian foe over more restorative cocktails poolside and wondered how we would survive the next two days with him.

Shaken but not stirred we decided not to venture out into town after dark for fear of meeting more of his unbalanced countrymen and instead stayed wihin the sanctuary of the 4 stars.

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