Reporting on Cai Rang Floating Market, Vietnam & Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia, Jan. 30 2013

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Hello all.  I last reported from Can Tho, Vietnam, but had not yet visited the great Floating Market.  Cai Rang, on a channel of the Mekong River, boasts the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta.  I had hired a boatman and large boat for the 40 minute trip upriver, and left Can Tho before 6 in the morning.  Just as the sun was rising we arrived in Cai Rang where the floating market was in full swing.  Large and small boats clogged the eastern side of the river for a stretch of over a kilometer.  Morning mist and smoke from fires and boat engines made the air blue. Most of the larger boats, within each of which a family lived, carried just a single type of produce, using a tall wooden pole to the top of which was affixed a sample as advertisement.  Medium and small boats carried a variety of products.  Most boats were motorized with the 12 to 15 foot shaft propellers, but the smallest were mostly propelled by a set of oars operated by a standing person.  Small tea, coffee and snack boats shot back and forth within the melee offering their wares.  Most of the tour boats did not arrive until later in the morning, so the initial overall scene was one of just intense commercial activity.  We passed from end to end through the market twice, and I stood on the prow of our boat taking photos and video from a fairly high vantage point.  (As other tourists arrived, most had come by land and then hired the small boats at the nearby bridge; these required the tourists to remain seated near water-level, where I fear they often felt they were being run over by the larger boats, ours included.) The overall experience was a rather stunning visual and audio smorgasbord.  Video gives a much better feel for the experience; I took a number of HD video clips, but unfortunately have found them far too large to permit uploading to my website.  I need to find an alternative way to make them available, or learn to reduce the file size.  I have included a number of still photos below.

Near Cai Rang we visited a rice noodle factory.  A simple, ancient, but fascinating process.  Imagine a large clay oven – at one side a large bin into which was fed rice husks which dribbled down an hour-glass type funnel into a fire pit within the oven.  On top were two openings over which were attached a porous fabric.  A rice paste was ladled over the fabric and spread evenly, then covered for a minute or so with a bamboo “hat”, while paste was ladled on the other fabric.  When the “hat” was lifted, the thin paste had formed a translucent gelatin layer which was removed by using a large bamboo “whisk,” to which the gelatin clung.  The two foot diameter gelatin layers were placed on long bamboo frames for sun drying.  Once dried, the now hard rice disks were fed into a machine like a paper-shredder, which cut the disks into long narrow strips.  A person seated below the “shredder” collected the strips, folded them and stacked the rice noodles for packaging and sale.

Back in Can Tho, the street along the river north of the market was completely filled with flower stalls for the Chinese New Year.  The lunar New Year day is actually today, but the celebration goes for the entire week.  Yellow flowers and large imitation red fire-crackers, everywhere for sale, mark the occasion.  The streets in Vietnam generally are filled with traffic – but very few cars or tuk tuks.  Practically all transport is by motorbike and scooters.  As in Phnom Penh, walking the streets is a somewhat risky business.  The traffic does not stay in lanes or even the roadways.  I was pleased to find a Can Tho locally brewed beer, Phong Dinh (the historic name of Can Tho), which was very decent and sold in 450ml (pint) bottles for 45 cents in most restaurants.

Language often was a barrier in Vietnam.  Few people, even in mid-range hotels and restaurants, spoke any English, and most of those who spoke a little had such trouble with pronunciation that communication proved very difficult.  I found it sometimes easier to resort to a form of universal sign language for basic communication, but when trying to find directions or get information on boats and guides, I simply could not get comprehension even as to what I was asking.  This may be less of a problem in Saigon and Hanoi, but I suspect many tourists would find it easier to travel the Mekong Delta with a tour and guide organized from home (again, I warn against taking any of the Mekong Delta tours offered from Cambodia or within the Mekong – they consistently get horrid reviews).

From Can Tho I traveled by bus back to Chau Doc, where I stayed another night, and then the next morning an early departure by Hung Chau Speedboat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The border crossing is just a few kilometers up-river from Chau Doc.  For some reason it took our boat (about 35 people) an hour and quarter to have our paperwork cleared for leaving Vietnam.  At the Cambodian side of the border I had a little trouble – the immigration officer stated I did not have 3 clean “visa pages” left in my passport, and so could not enter.  Of course, subsequently, it proved that payment of $10 took care of any problem with insufficient visa pages (the problem had been exacerbated by the fact that Cambodia (now two entries) and Vietnam, each, took an entire page for the visa, and then another page for entry and exit stamps.  I now hope I don’t have a real issue with Thailand, though I still have a free visa page.

The speedboat trip was pleasant, as we consistently stayed near one shore or the other and so had good sightseeing on the way.  It took just under 6 hours for the journey, with arrival at the main boat dock in Phnom Penh, which was walking distance from the hotel I wished to try.  I stayed at the Paragon (I had tried to book this originally from the US, but their online booking did not work, nor did their message page nor email – never a good sign, but I had visually checked the hotel and rooms earlier).  This is the only mid-priced hotel on the main river walk; the room wasn’t much, but the balcony sits right over the river and provides the most wonderful views for my evening sunset beers.  The following day I traveled on by bus from Phnom Penh to Kompong Thom, to the northeast of Lake Tonle Sap.  As we left the bus station in Phnom Penh, we had to pass through the edge of a huge garment worker’s demonstration occurring not far from Wat Phnom and the main market.  I snapped a couple of pictures from the bus window; thankfully, the bus turned and routed around the demonstration.  The main highway in Cambodia runs from the capital, through Kompong Thom and on to Siem Reap.  The longer half, to Kompong Thom, is now mostly dug up and under construction.  The ride was terribly slow and dusty, taking a couple hours longer than promised.  A third of the way into the trip we were halted by military for half and hour with no explanation, and then coming the other way a long procession of police and military escorting a black limousine with Cambodian flag; the King passed us.  Half way through the trip I got a couple of new passengers seated in the seat beside me – a young village woman with a sickly infant.  The infant didn’t cry, but constantly struggled and grabbed my clothes and hairs on my arm.  The mother kept feeding him formula and rice and sundry foods.  During the second half of this stage the infant threw-up several mouthfuls onto my seat and pants.  After struggling to clean this mess up, the mother grabbed a plastic bag, and used it to herself throw-up for the remainder of the journey.  I was really pleased when I could depart the bus in Kompong Thom, even though they dropped me off a rather far dirty walk from my hotel.

Kompong Thom is a small, dusty town, with just one real hotel, the Arunras, where I stayed for a couple of nights for $15 (it was fine, with a balcony, AC, barely working fridge, non-working TV and hot water for one of the two showers I took, as well as blaring truck horns on the passing highway throughout the night).  The reason to stay in Kompong Thom is that it is within easy striking distance for a day trip to the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk.  On Tuesday I traveled by tuk tuk the 32 kilometers to the site; the first half of this trip was along the busy highway, but the second half was a very dusty dirt road.  As the occasional vehicle or truck passed us I kept my camera equipment covered, and learned I still can hold my breath as long as I used to as a boy – over two minutes.  Sambor Prei Kuk was the original capital for the Chenla era Cambodian kings.  Cambodia’s ancient history consists of just 3 named periods, though surprising little really is known of the first two.  The first named period was the Funan, named for a coastal location written of by Chinese traders, starting in the 1st century and lasting through the mid-6th century; no construction ruins exist for this period, though some artifacts are in museums. 

In the late 6th century, a former northern subsidiary of Funan, Chenla, gained independence, and quickly became the power in the area as all reference to Funan ceased.  Chenla’s capital and main center was just north-east of today’s Kompong Thom, where a number of brick temples were constructed in groups within vast double-walled compounds, known now as Sambor Prei Kuk.  Most of the temples, built in the early 7th century, are the oldest remaining structures in Cambodia, and by some considered the most important archaeologically in the country.  Subsequently, the first king of Angkor, Jayavarmin II, built a central temple in Sambor Prei Kuk, as he in 802 moved the capital to what today is Angkor (from this date the Angkorian period is considered to begin). 

Little visited by tourists, the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, all dedicated to Hindu deities, lie within virgin dry-forest with an abundant bird-life. The north and south groups of temples, and most outlying temples, were built during the 7th century, the early Chenla Period.  Just the middle grouping of temples was built later, at the start of the Angkorian Period in the early 9th century.  The Chenla temples are built with specific groupings of various temple types, with towers and pools within square double-walled compounds.  All main temple construction is brick; the stairs, lintels and some columns are of intricately carved black stone.  Parts of the compound walls of the Chenla Southern Group contain unique circular carvings of unknown significance, although one clearly shows a kneeling monkey before some being.  The outer walls of some of the octagonal towers of the Chenla era temples have carvings of “flying palaces”, abodes of Hindu deities, held aloft by tiny winged horses and “cherubs”.  The Central Temple Group, of the very early Angkorian Period, has its central temple tower guarded on both sides of its stairs by stone feathered lions (now reproductions as the originals have been removed to museums).

Back in Kompong Thom I detoured to several giant mahogany trees near the river where a large colony of Lyle’s Flying Foxes (giant fruit bats) roost during the day in the tree tops.  On Wednesday I took a minivan bus onward to Siem Reap; this was the first travel I have taken in the last month that actually arrived very close to the time promised.   To do this, the van driver drove like the devil himself was chasing us.  I do not know how the tires nor suspension survived, as the driver took us over all manner of pot holes at huge speed.

I had phoned 5 different mid-priced hotels in Siem Reap the day before arrival, and all were booked for the weekend (it is Chinese New Year), so I finally settled on a much cheaper guesthouse, the Angkor Friendship Inn, located near Psar Chas, the old market on the river, and the most active part of town.  Siem Reap is the main destination for my entire trip; this is the base for visiting some 400 square kilometers of the very center of the Angkorian Empire; for a period from 800 to about 1300 many of the kings built massive temple complexes, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, just kilometers north and east of Siem Reap.  I intend to spend the next 12 days or so based here, visiting dozens of temple complexes, as well as some famous birding sanctuaries around the Tonle Sap Lake. I already have arranged a 5am pickup tomorrow for the first of the birding expeditions, hopefully to see endangered Sarus Cranes and Elder’s Deer, among others.

Until Later, Dave

 

 

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