Floating Villages of the Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap: The Flowing Heart of Cambodia
[Floating Shop on the Tonle Sap at the Phnom Krom village]

I fell in love with the elemental power and beauty of the waterways of Cambodia . An entrancing waterlogged world, a stream so abundant and all-providing, a true river of life for its millions. Crisscrossing its pale-brown waterways on flitting boats and ferries, I was moved by the grace and purpose of people absorbed in its amphibious rhythms: journeying, planting, harvesting and netting.

Tonle Sap: The Flowing Heart of Cambodia
[Typical House in the Phnom Krom village which rise and wall with the tides of Tonle Sap river]

Thursday morning I watched life on , sampans, cone-hatted passengers, boat-dwellers steaming and frying their supper to the sound of tinny music.Numerous floating fish farms hug the river's edge, with cages reaching 18 feet into the water filled with fish destined for the factory 40 miles away. My boat wandered among the waterways lined with timber houses perched on stilts others floating on tires.

Tonle Sap: The Flowing Heart of Cambodia
[Tourist Boat on the Tonle Sap river]

As we slowly move forward past quaint fishing villages, the world floats by in shades of blue and the Tonle Sap seems like a long, wide, lazy, paradise. A pair of brown cheeked Kingfishers perch themselves elegantly on a pole, ignoring us as we slip slowly through endless beds of floating weeds.

Tonle Sap: The Flowing Heart of Cambodia
[Women at Phnom Krom buys her groceries from a floating vendor]

As I travel through Cambodia I realize that much of the nation's psyche is connected to water – the waterways of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong river.

"Thanks to the water, and thanks to the moon," my guide tells me.

"The water provides many things -- water gives us life."

Khmer Boxing : You Like Pradal Serey ?

Khmer Boxing

Today I learnt that Thai boxing isn't Thai. It is Cambodian.

"You like Pradal Serey (Khmer Boxing)?" my driver,a young enthusiastic man,asked me.

"Yes," [I lied, well I didn't quiet know what it was] I said. "Do you?"

"Yes very much", he beamed

I seemed to have hit a chord here - for my usually quiet moto driver started to spurt out large continuous sentences in broken English about the sport - it was was as if I had asked an Indian if he/she liked cricket. He went on to tell me how he once housed dreams of becoming a boxer himself but he had to stop when his girl friend frowned upon it (a very sad story indeed).

The gym, was a converted open-air garage with all the sweat, dedication, and poor-boy desperation of classic boxing gyms of yore. It had no ring, some punching bags, and padded equipment strewn across the floor. As I was changing in the back, I noticed three students taking a siesta on hammocks tied to a pillar at one end and what looked like a broken down military truck at the other. It was 2 p.m. Given the muscle-sapping heat of Cambodia, Khmer boxers practice early in the morning and late in the afternoon, sleeping the humid midday hours away.

I was lucky to find my instructor - Sang Kim Sean, a Grand Master of Khmer Bokator. Though more than sixty years old, he looked as if he was in his forties, and moved like a man much younger. I was scared.

We started with the basics, which are always the hardest to learn. Khmer fighters start with their hands high and their elbows out to create a cage around their head. When elbow strikes are an option, you would much rather create an impenetrable defense around your skull and leave your rib cage open than the other way around.

It took all of 10 minutes—OK, it was more like 3 — before I was gasping for breath and Sang was sitting me down and handing me a bottle of water.

"Siem Reap is hot," he said, trying to look sympathetic towards this barang [foreigner].

Khmer Boxing Training

Khmer Boxing

Khmer Boxing

Khmer Boxing

The key to Khmer Boxing is shin kicks, delivered in roundhouses to the legs, ribs, and head. Khmer fighters start training in year-round camps at the age of 10 or 11. Many start their professional careers at 13. If they are lucky, they will make it and continue to fight till 25. To turn their shins into weapons, they spend hours beating them with wooden staffs to calcify the bone. Sang's shins looked like they had barnacles beneath the skin.

"Pradal Serey is not karate. Drive through the body," Sang said, as we practiced the full commitment of a Khmer roundhouse.

When I was a boy, we used to have a game where two of us would exchange punches to the arm until one of us quit. This is Khmer Boxing, only with kicks, punches, knees, and elbows.

The Fight

Khmer Boxing

Khmer Boxing

siemreap3 199

I had had enough by this point and I turned from fighter to spectator. The training was pretty brutal, each fighter had locked his arms around the other's head, and they exchanged brutal knees to each other's chests. Back and forth it went until one gasped for air and then they stopped. I assumed that was it, and they would return to fighting strategically, looking for an advantage to win decisively. Again they ran toward each other, locked up, and spent the next three minutes exchanging knees, one-for-one. Again, they did the same routine. I've never seen anything like it. Their chests were pulped like raw meat, but they didn't seem to care. It was a test of fortitude to see who could remain standing. The fight over, they exchanged smiles and shook hands, the gloves were off and we went on a series of warm-up exercises.

Hopefully I'll get to see a real fight when I get to Phnom Penn - I've been told take plenty of pictures and bet 5 dollars on a Khmer box in a blue shorts whose name I can't quite remember.

Mister, you want my postcard ?

Mister, you want my postcard ?

I turn a corner off Bar Street towards Psar Chas. Two Khmer children – a boy and a girl - lay in my pursuit. A loud Khymer confab is exchanged as the children run towards me. The boy has obviously won as the girl discontinues her pursuit. One often runs into children at street corners trying to sell you souvenirs – bracelets, postcards, photocopied versions of Lonely Planet, t-shirts etc.

“Mister, you waannt my pooostcard”, he spurts out in a singsong Khmer accent.

"I have many pictures Mister, Angkor, Bayon …………"

"You’re from India Mister ?" [I nod]

"If I tell you capital of India – will you buy my postcards Mister ?"

"Captial of India? – New Delhi" [Impressive]

"Capital of Finland ? – Helsinki" [He’s good]

"I don’t need any postcards,” I tell him

"Buy my postcards and I’ll leave you alone Mister" [Blackmail – good touch]

"Do you have a girlfriend Mister ?"

"No", I reply

“May be you get girlfriend if you buy my postcard” [he smiles]

I briskly remove my wallet.

Fragrance and Spice Khmer Style

Khmer Food
[Khmer Girl cleans the glass front of her restaurent in Psar Chas (Old Market), Siem Reap.]

Khmer food is not usually spicy but what it lacks in spice it adds in fragrance. Dishes are usually dozed with peppers, lemon grass and coriander. Khmer cuisine borrows from many neighboring Asian cuisines and like most things in Indo-china the cuisine is the explosive result of two cultures - Indian and Chinese meeting in a cooking pot or a wok.

Fragrance and Spice Khmer Style
[Cambodian Soup being served - straight out of the the pots it was being served in to hungry customers]

The streets in Cambodia are littered with street hawkers selling their particular dish – from fried noodles to baguettes to charcoal-grilled meats and fresh fruit and ice-cream - from hand-carts or from baskets dangling from a shoulder pole. My next snack is never far. When in search for a cheap meal I find myself a market – which I find comes with an entire coterie of food stalls each selling their own specialty dishes – noodles soups, rice dumplings and rice porridge. Turn a corner and I'll find meat being grilled on charcoal, to be served with a spicy raw papaya salad and herbs, best downed with an Angkor Beer. Then there is the Cambodian equivalent of an Indian Dhabha, usually recognized by a row of pots on a slow burner on a table out in front. Who needs a menu when you can choose your next meal by lifting the lids and peering into the various simmering pots of food, pointing out what you like, smiling and then waiting for the meal to arrive at a nearby table and then proceeding to dig in.

siemreap2 162
[Bananas at Psar Chas Market]

Here is a list of stuff I’ve sunk my teeth into till now.


Fragrance and Spice Khmer Style

I'm told this is Cambodia's national dish, which I understand is Baked fish wrapped in a coconut leaf and cooked with green chillis and lemon grass - served in a green coconut curry. It reminded me of something in between a Thai Curry and something you would eat in Kerela.

Cambodian Rice Noodle Soup – Kyteow

Fragrance and Spice Khmer Style

This was my breakfast today which I acquired at a food stall in Psar Chas. The Soup, was basically thin rice noodles in a clear broth with chunks of boned chicken swimming in with bean sprouts, potatoes and bell peppers. The soup's other ingredients I couldn't make out initially but later found out to be sliced gizzards and congealed blood – they made the soup appear sinister in hindsight but ignorance being bliss I quite enjoyed my soup.

Well I'll add stuff to this list as and when I do eat something new and interesting - Fried crickets anybody ?

Angkor First Impressions.

Apsaras at Bayon
[Apsaras at Bayon at Angkor Thom]

Just before dawn, the towers of Angkor Wat are ink shadows etched under the paling indigo of blue of the tropical night. The first hint of dawn washes the sky with pink and reveals the mist wreathing the stones. The sun rises behind the temple’s luxuriant forest, and the first rays gild the pinnacle of the central sanctuary. Gradually the light slides down the towers, bathing the walls and galleries, and strengthens from apricot to gold as the sun enriches the spectrum until the great monument glows from within. It is a transcendental experience.

Angkor Wat Reflection Cliche
[No photographers visit to Angkor Wat will be finished without this shot. Come on reflection, giant temple do the math]

Angkor Wat, Day 1 in Cambodia
[A french tour group climbs the inner pyramid of the temple.]

Even without the romance of sunshine, or the most frequently watched sunset, when the towers are reflected in the ceremonial pool in the front of the monument. Angkor Wat is overwhelming. We are awed by vast achievements like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and by the inspired blend of iconography, form and spirituality of Java’s Borobudur or the symmetry of the Taj Mahal. But none surpasses the Angkor Wat, with its perfect fusion of symbolism, structure and scale.

Angkor Wat, Day 1 in Cambodia

This astonishing architectural masterpiece in Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Kingdom from the ninth century, was built in the first half of the twelfth century by Suryavarman 2, who reigned from 1113 until the mid century. It is hard to believe that this enormous marvel was built to appease the religious fervor of just one person. It is believed that only Suryavarman itself used the temples to worship devraja during his lifetime and the inner sanctums of which were inaccessible to anybody but him and the high priest. Oh well he was a god king.

Angkor Wat, Day 1 in Cambodia

The sunrise as I described in the first paragraph was magnificent - going early coupled by the fact that it is low season let me escape the day-tripping hordes. I walked around the temples in Angkor Thom but more about that later. As for Angkor Wat I think I'll go see it again tomorrow.

Tomorrow my post on Khmer Food - Yum !

Teesra Update - Saira Goes to Kathmandu

Death Comes by Full Moon

Here is a tiny snippet coaxing you folks to go over to go over to our Rickshaw Run blog - Teesra.org - and take a look at the wide selection of posts, mostly Shez and Neha have been posting. Now that we're back I promise the frequency of the posts will be regular and crisp - Photographs, words, video and audio as promised.

Here is a snippet from a post I wrote - Saira [our beloved auto-rickshaw] goes to Kathmandu

Tanks full, jerry cans filled we continued our descent into the Nepalli capital, to Thamel to what our guidebook described as “the intersection of Hippiedom and Hinduism, where Haight-Ashbury meets the Himalayas.

We spent the next day in Kathmandu exploring the old city, Saira resting in the hotel parking lot – catching a cherished glimpse of the Kumari, or living goddess, a prepubescent girl who was consigned to the upper-floor temple room where she was served as a flesh and blood incarnation of divinity. The pack roamed Durbar square; Neha in her curiousness quizzing our tour guide, Shez playing with smiling children and hatching silent dreams of opening orphanages in the Nepalli country side and me in the corner following them both sheepishly taking pictures of course.

You could also read about my packing habits as jest fully described by neha. Also show some love and leave a comment will you.

As for now I'm heading East bound to Cambodia - this time for real - not like last time when I fell sick at the opportune moment.