A A A print this page


Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 26, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

We were at Ta Prohm when the Rainy Season began ...

That line seems like it would be a good opening for a novel or short story, but since it's highly unlikely that I'll ever use it for either, I thought I would use it for the opening of this journal entry on our four days in Cambodia.

After we breezed through Cambodian immigration (this country depends on tourists and is happy to let you in), we were met by our wonderful guide, who goes by the nickname "Mao." He was our guide when George Bey and I made our first trip here in January 2009. We loved him then, and the larger "we" on this trip love him even more. "He may be the single nicest person I have ever met," Dan Garza said, and how could I disagree with that assessment? Mao is a devout Buddhist, an orphan whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

It was very hot when we arrived and had lunch at a place near Ta Prohm. I put on my Angkor Beer tee and ordered one with lunch. Some of the students had their first taste of amok fish and other Khmer cuisine. Mao told us that it had been 45 degrees Celsius the day before.

Sharon as Rainy Season begins, Ta Prohm

It was getting cloudy when we got to Ta Prohm, the amazing "jungle temple" with massive tree roots growing over its walls. We had not ventured very far into the complex when it began to pour and Mao told us it was the onset of the Rainy Season. It was a major blessing. We all loved getting drenched. "It was awesome when it started raining," Mary Rebecca Martin said for all of us. "I had so much fun." George Holmes wrote that Ta Prohm "was made oddly more beautiful by the rainstorm," and that's certainly the case. "I'm really glad it rained," Fran Tubb agreed. "It seemed to create a more real experience and I was better able to understand the magic of the place."

"This temple was magnificent to see with the massive roots growing around and on top of these ancient ruins," Heather Keenan said. "But what made it even better was the rain storm we got caught in. Not only did it provide a refreshing coolness, but it just made the temple feel more ancient." "It was a ruin," Kate Sundell wrote, "and then it rained, the architecture became alive. The language, the doorframes, the statues - it moved with the rain, shrouded everything in the mystery of reverence."

Rainy Ta Prohm

After a quick stop at the twin temples of Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, we went to Ta Keo, a tenth century pyramid temple like the later and much larger Angkor Wat with a central tower representing the mythical Hindu Mount Meru. Its steps are very steep and narrow. The students went up, but I choose to remain on the ground with my reconstructed knee intact.

The students were delighted when they saw our three-night home, the SomaDevi Angkor, and its beautiful swimming pool, which we all enjoyed before dinner. We took the short walk into the center of Siem Reap and the students quickly agreed that I had not misled them when I said that Siem Reap is to Cambodia what Hoi An is to Vietnam - the most "happening" place in the country. We dined at the wonderful little Khmer Kitchen, where I have eaten on all three of my visits to Cambodia, and everyone raved about the food almost as much as they had about Mango. I had the Khmer curry, which was very good, but I need to remember the next time to order the beef barbeque (not at all like our barbeque), which Anne Waldrop had and shared with us. She said the food was "incredibly delicious - by far the best $3.50 I've spent, maybe ever!"

The group got up at 4:15 AM the next morning to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but I was extremely tired, I saw the sunrise there on my first trip, and I didn't have my new camera with me, so I opted to sleep in. Although it was largely cloudy, most of the students loved the experience.

In mid-morning, we went out to the city of Angkor Thom, where most of the students rode elephants from outside the gate to Bayon, the temple of the smiling Buddhas. Mao is an avid photographer and knows all the perfect spots for photos in this marvelous complex (and everywhere else in the area).

Group with elephant, Angkor Thom

We also encountered an unfriendly monkey along the way - not an everyday occurrence stateside.

In the afternoon we went to explore Angkor Wat, which is said to be the largest religious structure in the world. Outside the temple, Mao bought a bag of fried crickets to munch on. I and several of the students tried them. The initial taste wasn't bad, but the after-taste wasn't very good. I think they could benefit from a dash of Tabasco.

We went around much of Angkor Wat and climbed to the top of the central tower. Along the way we passed several Buddha statues without heads. The Khmer Rouge had severed them. Then it was back to the hotel for more swimming and in the evening on to Amazon Angkor for traditional Khmer music and dance and a buffet dinner. Then it was back to Pub Street in town and the night market. Among other things, some us had fish nibble at our feet to remove dead skin and we discovered a local ale (stout) called "Black Panther." Excellent.

Day Three in Cambodia was, by consensus of the students, perhaps the best day of the entire trip. We journeyed out to Phnom Kulen, the holiest mountain in Cambodia and an area that was controlled by the Khmer Rouge during and after that group's reign of terror over the beautiful, gentle people of this country.

Cambodian girl, Phnom Kulen

We started at the river of a thousand linga, took a walk though a jungle path, and bought carved wood Buddha statues. Then we climbed to the top of the mountain, where there is a temple, a giant footprint in rock that is said to be that of the Buddha, and a huge reclining Buddha carved into the rock of the very top of the mountain. A Buddhist monk prayed over us and threw out holy water to sprinkle us, as in the renewal of baptism - so I blessed myself by making the sign of the cross on my chest when I felt the drops of water hit my head.

We all touched a large lingam-in-yoni (a phallus in a square representing the vagina) and washed our hands in the sacred fluid flowing down from the lingam into the yoni and out a groove in the latter.

Each time I am here, I further develop what I believe to be an accurate interpretation of all of this. Here's what I wrote on the topic after my first visit to Phnom Kulen a few months ago, in January:

It suddenly struck me that many aspects of Hinduism and some types of Buddhism fit together and that it's (surprise!) all about sex. The mountains, especially the Himalayas, and most especially Mount Everest, are sacred, and the sacred rivers (especially the Ganges) in which believers bathe flow from the sacred mountains. This is all symbolized in the water poured over the lingam (mountain) and flowing down the little channel (river) cut into the rock of the yoni, which is the holy sexual fluid in which believers wash their hands.

Now I can add another bit that I learned on this trip. Totally unlike the Vietnamese, Cambodians (and, I think, Indians and others in this region), see the northern side as the good side, and blessings flowing from the north. This, of course, is a reference to the holy, phallic Himalayas to the north and the holy fluids that flow down from them.

The best - as I knew, but the students did not - was yet to come. We went to the nearby Phnom Kulen Waterfalls. Mao arranged a thatch-covered platform with a rug on which we could eat. The lunch was made in the adjacent, Teuk Tleak Khnong Phnom Kulen, a somewhat sketchy looking open-air restaurant in which my group ate in January. It turned out to be fabulous food then, and this remote little restaurant took its place among my favorites in the world. We ordered four whole chickens cooked with honey, deer meat soup, and boar with morning glory.

Pheom Kulen Falls

While we awaited the preparation of our meal, the students explored around the small upper falls, where the rocks in the water are extremely slippery, and a few ventured ahead of schedule down to the bottom of the main falls.

The lunch was absolutely delicious, and as we sat lotus fashion eating honey chicken in our open hut, one of many in a small area by the upper falls, with a couple of students relaxing in hammocks that Mao hired for us, it occurred to me that this was almost like the site of the fictional compound of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The students agreed and considered taking up residence.

James Bridgforth pointed out that the chicken we were eating was probably the most humanely raised (free-range to the max) and freshest (as in killed shortly before it was cooked) that most of us have ever had. "It felt very primal ... and delicious," Dan Garza said of the food and the setting.

"As we ate honey chicken cross legged in a hut in the Cambodian jungle," Anne wrote, "I thought, 'This is the life!' So far from cell phones and computers and unnatural arbitrary stress."

It was the first waterfall that flatland Floridian Heather Keenan had ever seen, and she was not disappointed. Nor were more experienced waterfalls viewers. Even waterfall aficionado Anne Waldrop said it was "probably the most beautiful I've seen ... Nothing compares to the high, full jungle waterfall, complete with lush vegetation and vines dangling from the top. I felt as though I had stepped into the jungle book."

Several us went under the large falls and had a grand time. There were foot-nibbling fish swimming about, similar to but larger than the ones in the pedicure tanks in town.

"It was literally breathtaking standing underneath a waterfall in the gorgeous jungle of Cambodia," M.R. said. "If only we could have spent days in this paradise, that would have been amazing, but I am more than happy to have gotten to see it at all!" "I can safely say that sitting under a waterfall in Cambodia is one of the highlights of the trip, and of my life," George Holmes added.

"It was like a little paradise on top of a mountain," Fran says. "I felt like I was in my own personal heaven," Dan agreed. "I felt the presence of a power greater than myself."

"The highlight of the trip was going to the mountain and seeing the Buddha and then eating that wonderful meal above the falls and swimming in the falls," James concluded. "It was spectacular." Yes it was.

On the way out to the van, Mao bought us some fresh pineapple. It was the best-by far-pineapple I have ever tasted.

On the way back to Siem Reap, we visited the magnificent ninth century "women's temple," Bantaey Srey. Although everyone was exhausted, several of the students thought it was the best temple they have seen. In a typical comment, Sharon Yoo wrote, "We were all tired at this time, but it was one of the most beautiful temples that I have seen. The carvings were so intricate and it was interesting to see that they lasted so long."

"This day ranks among the highest in my life thus far," Anne testified in her journal.

It was finished with a meal at an Indian restaurant in Siem Reap, more night market, and a visit to a bar called The Linga ... The drinks had interesting names. Along the street, we encountered another powerful reminder of the horrors through which this beautiful country and people have so recently suffered: a beggar without hands or legs - obviously another victim of a land mine.

Group at orphanage, Siem Reap

Today we crowded several more activities into our final day in Indochina. We went to Les Artisans d'Angkor, then to an orphanage and to the Siem Reap killing field - a truly horrifying experience. The worst of it, though, was when Mao informed us that people still go to place flowers on Pol Pot's grave. HUH??? What can they be thinking?

We finished with a visit to the Siem Reap war museum and then a massage before going to the airport to begin our LONG journey home.

Cambodian security was the first to find my bottle of eyeglass cleaner that has been in my carryon on numerous previous flights. I got coffee at the little shop in the airport. At least this time they didn't offer me loose saltine crackers for my change, as they did in January. (This time it was an apple!)

None of the three minor injuries I suffered yesterday - a bruised hip from a little fall on the slippery rocks near the small upper falls (it was sandy at the bottom of the big falls and not a problem), a stubbed toe on a protruding root, and a smashed thumbnail on the door to the minibar when I was trying to get out a bottle of water I had put in it - would seem to qualify as the "million-dollar wound" coveted by so many Americans who were in Vietnam during the war, but I have the result they longed for: I'm getting on that big silver bird that will take me "home to freedom."