Thursday, October 30, 2008

Charm City, Cambodia

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Today is the King’s birthday, another national holiday, and we are not sure if the Royal palace will be open for visitors. Everyone has an answer when we ask and none of the answers match.

We began our day by walking to the National Museum which was open. It houses a collection of antiquities dating back to the Eighth Century. Almost half of the displays are of Buddhist mythological figures including Buddha and Siva. Although they span one thousand years, they are remarkably consistent. There were standing and sitting figures, busts and Naga [the snake that shows up on bridges]. As they items got closer to modern times, there was more metalwork and tools, both agricultural and military; later displays included 18th Century teapots. We were only here for about a half-hour because of the heat, humidity and attention span of children and adults alike.

One of the highlights of the visit was lavender sticks. Lavender flowers had been skewered on wooden sticks and were offered by staff members as we walked through the exhibits. We were supposed to take the offering and place it in a receptacle in front of a Buddha. The hope was that we would also make a donation in the conveniently place box. We did the former but not the latter except for Caiden. He liked his flowers so much that the attendant indicated that he could keep them and they kept him busy and quiet for a long time.

We picked up tuk-tuks when we left. One of today’s drivers was the guide who took us around yesterday, so we knew he was reliable and spoke well. We went to the Russian Market which isn’t Russian anymore. It was like all of the other markets we have visited except it had wider aisles in spots. It had the usual conglomeration of goods for sale. MA and Briton both bought some Cambodian silk and Jon bought pirated copies of The Wire which are not available in Jakarta. Caiden slept through most of the shopping having fallen sound asleep again in the tuk-tuk. We wandered through the market past the fresh fruits and veggies and the proteins – chickens, fish, prawns, unidentifiable things – before exiting to find our tuk-tuks waiting for us.

Although it was early, we decided to eat and Danny, the lead driver, took us to a hole-in-the-wall near the FCC where we had eaten yesterday. The food was good [more curry and rice except for Jon’s Italian cold cut sub] but the exhaust fumes and street noise detracted from the experience. There was a brief rain “event”, as the TV guys say, while we ate, but it was done before we were. By the time we were ready to leave, a small tour bus had emptied out 10 or 12 tourists who piled into the restaurant. Then it was back to the hotel to rest before tackling the Royal Palace one last time.

It was worth the wait. The Thais and Cambodians are historically and culturally linked but not necessarily pleased about it. There have been conflicts for generations and political chicanery for decades. Indeed, Siem Reap is named in part for Siam [Siem]. Even without knowing of the historical ties, it is hard to miss the similarities in the two countries’ traditional architecture. The Thai temples and chedi are more rounded but still taper in layers as they climb skyward. The traditional roofs of the buildings are almost identical and the use of red and gold is common to both.

As a result, Phnom Penh is, or could be, a charming city. There is much French-inspired architecture, especially the use of wrought iron on balconies. There are many large, well-used parks filled with sculptures and fountains. And there are all of those buildings, some old and some new, resplendent in their bright colors. Many of these are newer structures built on the old model and used to house government agencies [such as the Ministry for Cults and Religion and the Council of Ministers, two which are near both our hotel and the Palace]. The poverty evident in many areas of the city detracts from its appeal, but Cambodia is a poor country and people crowd in from the agricultural areas looking for a better life which many don't find.

The palace grounds cover an area probably in excess of 10 acres; it’s just a guess. We walked around the perimeter yesterday so we have an idea of its size. The buildings are mostly in the “old” style with red tile roofs, uplifted corners and ornaments resembling stylized cranes at the end of the roof peaks. Of course everything is done in red and gold. The most amazing of the buildings is the formal reception hall. No pictures are allowed inside, or even through the windows, but the blaze of gold would obliterate any pictures anyway. Gold furniture and fixtures; gold columns, and Oriental rugs fill this enormous room. It almost resembles a Greek temple with flights of steps leading to a portico. Here, there are chairs so one can sit while removing one’s shoes for no one is allowed to wear them inside. There are “watchers” at all of the entrances and windows to be sure that visitors obey the rules. It is, in its own way, as beautiful as any of the temples we saw in Bangkok.

Another building of note is the Silver Temple [?]. This contains some displays like those in the National Museum – bowls, implements, etc. –but the piece de resistance is the collection of Buddha statues in all sizes and materials. The centerpiece is a green standing Buddha which may be jade [there was no explanatory material]. There must have been close to 500 Buddhas in this room, maybe more. It was a little overwhelming.

The grounds themselves are well maintained and beautiful. We wanted to stroll in the gardens before returning to the Himawari, but by 4 o’clock the gardens had been closed even though the buildings stayed open until 5:00 p.m. We walked back to the hotel glad for the chance to see the Palace complex and equally glad that we had avoided rain once again.

For dinner, we tuk-tuked to a Mediterranean restaurant that Briton had found and had shwarmas and appetizers [hummus, samosas, etc]. There was only one other table occupied and we laughed because the other couple had a three-month-old with them. At both tables, the parents alternated walking and eating. We tuk-tuked home and were packed for tomorrow’s departure by 8:30.

And so to bed.

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