Tuesday, April 30, 2019

CAMBODIA - Tonlé Sap Lake & Kompong Khleang

Floating houses on Tonlé Sap Lake
Being in the vicinity of SIEM REAP, it sounds obvious to travel as far as Tonlé Sap, the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia,
The lake at sunset
This vast ecosystem corresponds to a lower depression caused by the collision of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate. It is part of the lower Mekong basin, having a supplementary flow of fresh water brought by the Tonlé Sap River and the Siem Reap River.
The lake has an average depth of one meter with sometimes deeper depth of 10 meters. Its volume varies with the seasons. Its length goes from 160km in the dry season but can reach 250km in the wet/monsoon season.
Many local communities live on its shore. In order to palliate with the water level, the traditional habitat uses unusually high stilt houses. Many simply live on floating houses. The main two activities of the region are
On a small boat
agriculture or fishing. Strangely, many of the floating clustering houses on the lake are Vietnamese, who still claim their rights on the Tonlé Sap lake. As it is a major biosphere in the region, it is now a protected area. There is a large bird population, but also a few Siamese crocodiles, while the water of the lake has a large population of the Mekong giant catfish, which can have a weight of 100kg to more than 200kg. There is also a small population of freshwater dolphins (the Irrawaddy Dolphin) whose population is unfortunately declining. 

Kampong Khleang is one of these local communities at about 50km away from Siem Reap. As there are closer villages nearer to town, Kompong Khleang if far less touristic than many others. It is fairly large (about 20,000 inhabitants) and not exactly on the shore of Tonlé Sap, at least during the dry season. 
Consequently, the village has remained fairly authentic and offers a good example of towering stilt houses, a regional characteristic.

Christian Sorand
Road access to Kompong Khleang

Riverboat harbor

Stilt houses on the riverbank
Young boat driver
Floating house
Floating school community
Evening lights
Paddy-field house


The increased popularity of Angkor Wat has boosted the city of Siem Reap on the western part of Cambodia. From a sleepy town at the end of the Khmer Rouge era, it has now become a bustling city with a myriad of gigantic hotel complexes or smaller boutique hotels. It now boasts a brand new state-of-the-art airport, as well as a fabulous new archaeological museum.
It may have had a positive aspect of the life of the locals. But of course, there is always a negative impact on a fast-growing economy. It may affect the general feeling of the place or threaten its past heritage.
Siem Reap nowadays seems to be a bit of the two sides. The city has grown exponentially from its outskirts but has been able to keep, or even embellish, its old historic center. 

A taste of Old Siem Reap

As Cambodia was once part of the French Indochina colony, Siem Reap has kept a certain colonial atmosphere from this period. The French quarter of the town has been kept. Memories of Henri Mouhot (1826-1861), who popularized the ruins of Angkor to the rest of the world in 1861, or of
Café Malraux
André Malraux (1901-1976) and of his wife Clara, who was suspected of looting the ruins of Angkor in the 1920s, have remained. Malraux was a renown Asian art collector and also became a famous writer. One of his many novels, 'La Voie Royale' (1930, 'The Royal Way') is about Angkor. In one of the narrow lanes of the historic town, a bar and restaurant bear the name of Malraux.
On the riverbank
The Siem Reap river, on its way to the great Tonlé Sap lake, still separates the two sides of town. Its magnificent shaded banks have been partially embellished. On its lower part, there are a few pedestrian bridges linking both riverbanks. As the right bank remains the heart of the city, this is a lively section at night, where many food stalls perpetuate a local Asian flavor that remains despite the newer international restaurants now competing with the traditional Khmer cuisine.
The old traditional market remains with its maze of alleys. But the artifacts belong more to the tourist junks than to a more traditional form. The old Chinese-like buildings have been restored in the surrounding area. Some have bright colors to accommodate today's taste. This whole area is now at the center of a wild nightlife draining all the tourists, who have come to visit the archaeological park. Pub Street is at the heart of this new touristic attraction.
Pub Street at night
If draft beer remains the cheapest (50c USD), food is fairly expensive on Cambodian standards. But of course, besides the ubiquitous North-American fast foods, it advertises all international tastes: French, Italian, Belgian, Mexican, Thai, Korean, Japanese, or of course Chinese to accommodate the continental Chinese invasion of Cambodia! Like in neighboring Thailand, the night activity includes, massage parlors, fish-spas, baked ice-creams, or other features pleasing the tourist crowds.
A positive aspect of this new economic impact is that most facades have been restored, the streets have been cleaned, and an array of nice shops has been added to the scene. For coffee drinkers, there are now many cafés open everywhere, offering an A/C cool atmosphere during the heat hours of the day.
The former Asian backpacker tradition of Southeast Asia remains subdued as a more affluent group of tourists have now overflowed Siem Reap as a gate to visit the ruins of Angkor Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. 
Museum entrance

              Colorful townhouse in the historical part of town

The Angkor National Museum was opened in 2007. This fine state-of-the-art museum is an absolute must to get a better understanding of the history of the Angkor period in the 12thcentury. It has been criticized as being owned by the Thais and for having an additional modern 'cultural mall'. In comparison, the café museum on the ground floor remains a disappointing spot, considering the existing space available, and the modernity of the premises!
In order to get a feel of the original heart of the city, besides walking along the Siem Reap river, it might be best to explore it still narrow streets or visit some of the traditional Buddhist temples in town.

Christian Sorand
One of the town alleys
At a Buddhist temple
On the Siem Reap riverbank
Pedestrian bridge

Mobile vendor

Night colors by the Siem Reap River

Colonial architecture at night

Monday, April 29, 2019

CAMBODIA - The other temples of Angkor Archaeological Park

Besides Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, there are many other temples in the historical park. A full day is hardly enough to see them all. Some more, it can be strenuous due not only to the heat but also to the effort of climbing up so many stairs in one day!
There exist two circuits to tour the archaeological park:
-one SMALL circuit that includes Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Kao, and Ta Prohm,
-and a GRAND circuit that includes most of the major sites of the small circuit but adds Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, Eastern Mebon and Pre Rup.

Option 1
Option 2
Depending on the way you choose to visit, you can slightly alter these two plans. As I was traveling with a friend, we chose to go with a local tuk-tuk. Both of us had been here previously and we just wanted to be back and spend a leisurely time on each site. So, we opted for a combination of the two major circuits that would skip Pre Rup (identical to Eastern Mebon) but add Ta Phrom.

1.Preah Khan.
This is another vast complex enclosed within walls measuring 700m x 800m. Its name means 'Sacred
Headless entrance guardians
Sword'. It dates back to the 12thcentury, built by Jayavarman VII in AD1191.
It is a huge covered maze with stone carvings and statues, often headless, due to the work of former poachers. As it was a center of worship and learning, it was also a temple of fusion between the old Hinduism and the new Buddhism.
One of this site most amazing features is a two-story side building, strangely looking like a classic Greek temple. It is thought to be a former library. 
History of Preah Khan

Decorative reconstitution
What do the sculptures stand for?
The Garuda image
A Hindu Shiva lingam

A Buddhist stupa
The former monastery library
Tree grasping the external wall

2.Preah Neak Poan.
Here is another unusual open temple, whose name means the 'Temple of the Intertwined Nagas'. I was also built by Jayavarman VII in the 12thcentury. As it is located on an island of a vast reservoir, its access requires a fair amount of walking on a wooden bridge.
Temple layout
This temple was clearly dedicated to water. The legendary Naga is a giant water snake, close to the image of a dragon. But what seems more striking here is the planning involved in its conception. There is a central pool designed as a large square surrounded by four smaller square pools. The whole concept looks like a giant cross. The square is a symbol of Earth. Each of the four smaller pools has its own spout in the shape of a head: in a clockwise manner, there is a lion, a horse, an elephant, and a human. The central pool has a circular island circled by two Nagas with intertwined tails. The circle is a symbol of the cosmos; the Nagas belong to the sky and the water; they are two, standing for the duality principle. In the end, the five squares consecrate the holiness of the place, since 5 is an odd number with importance in the Eastern mythological belief. Some more, the cross points to the four cardinal directions and stresses its universality.
On the boardwalk to Neak Poan
The central pool island

3.Ta Som.
This is a nearby 12thcentury Buddhist temple, which has been invaded by the forest environment, and providing an eerie atmosphere to the few visitors, who come here.
Paved access to Ta Som
About the conservation project
At Ta Som

4.Eastern Mebon.
This is another fine example of a Hindu temple-mountain with five towers on its top. The lower terrace is adorned with elephant statues at the corners.
General map of the temple-mountain
A view on the stairs up to the central prang
Elephant standing at one corner
On the upper terrace of Eastern Mebon

5.Ta Prohm.
This Buddhist temple was built by Jayavarman VII in the 12thcentury and was dedicated to his mother. As it has been partially swallowed by the forest, it became the site of a scene of the movie 'Tomb Raider' starring Angelina Jolie back in 2,000. 
Unfortunately, nowadays it is more invaded by loud and rude Chinese tourist groups than by its picturesque natural environment that requires respect and silence. It is so unbearable that it spoils the visit. A team of Indian archaeologists works at restoring the complex.
Ta Prohm amidst the tropical forest
Tree scale
Spectacular invasion
Temple wall and high trees

Christian Sorand