Airports and Apsaras (Saturday, November 26)

Like most Americans, we were in the habit of calling the place we wanted to see "Angkor Wat." As visitors soon learn, however, Angkor Wat is one temple out of more than a hundred in the general area of the ancient Khmer capital, Angkor. There is no longer a city of that name; ruined temples and a few other features are all that's left of it. Travelers who want to see them come to the modern city of Siem Reap (whose name means "Defeat of the Siamese" — recalling a comparatively recent time when the Khmers had to win their freedom from the Thais instead of the other way around). Modern Cambodia is a desperately poor country anxious to make a good thing of its major tourist attraction, and something like 70 four- or five-star hotels have been built between Siem Reap and its airport in the last five years. Fortunately for travelers of more modest means, the city also has pleasant and inexpensive guest houses, and it was to one of these that we were bound.

But first we had to get to Siem Reap. Although it was shorter than any of the internal flights we'd taken in Thailand, the flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap cost more per ticket than all those other flights combined. It isn't unusual, of course, for cross-border flights to cost more per mile than internal ones, but the monopoly that one airline, Bangkok Air, holds on flights between the two cities may also have something to do with the high cost.

To be fair, however, everyone involved in moving people from Bangkok to Siem Reap seemed to be intent on getting what they could out of it, and the Cambodian government was very much in the game. At the terminal in Bangkok we had to pay $25 each to fill out a visa application. This had to be accompanied by photographs, which a local entrepreneur was ready to take for something like $10 per traveler. We also had to pay Thailand a 500-baht ($12.50) airport departure tax. When we landed at Siem Reap, we presented our applications, with pictures, and had to cough up another $20 each for the visas, plus an airport tax of $25 each (which was collected again when we were leaving the country).

At Don Muang Airport in Bangkok, we got another demonstration of the advantages of traveling with monks: when we joined the check-in line, a Bangkok Airways representative quickly showed up and detailed a young man to assist us with the paperwork. He escorted us to the appropriate visa and tax payment windows, and from there to the photographer's booth. By the time we were done with all that, it was nearly time for the flight to depart. As usual, the monks were boarded first. This is done not only out of respect, but also to ensure that a monk never has to sit beside a woman, as might happen if all other seats were taken first. Thai sensibilities would be profoundly shocked by such a breach of etiquette.

Our destination in Siem Reap, the Peace of Angkor Guest House, had been recommended to us by friends in Lexington who had stayed there the previous summer. Even now, with the tourist season getting into full swing, a room at the Peace of Angkor cost no more than $25 a night. (Except for the Radisson where we stayed on our first night in Bangkok, this was the only lodging we had to pay for on the whole trip.)

I'm quoting Cambodian prices in US dollars because that's how they're charged. No one wants riels, the Cambodian currency, which has little value outside the country, although you sometimes receive it as small change. For "big change" — for instance, when we used a $20 bill to buy something that cost $5, people always seemed willing to give us change in dollars; we didn't have to ask them to do that.

We’d been told about the currency situation from the same friends who'd recommended the guest house, so we’d set aside a wad of dollars to bring to Cambodia with us. At the last minute before leaving Bangkok, fearing that what we had might not be enough, we bought some more dollars from one of the currency exchanges that are always open in Thai airports.

Cambodia, like Thailand, had been experiencing unusually heavy rains, and as the plane descended on the approach to Siem Reap, I could see some evidence of this. One riverside village looked flooded, though I couldn't be absolutely certain of this. Siem Reap lies in a low, well-watered plain only a few miles north of Tonle Sap, whose name means "Great Lake" — the largest fresh-water lake in Southeast Asia. Its annual flooding enriched the soil for rice cultivation, and with the fish that it also provided, Tonle Sap was a major source of the Angkor empire's prosperity.

A van sent by the Peace of Angkor Guest House was waiting for us outside the airport when we had complied with all the entry protocols and had reduced our cash supply to the satisfaction of the officials in charge. The inn is operated by an English couple named Dave and Colleen, directing a staff of young Cambodians whose friendly diligence more than made up for their sometimes limited English. We had arranged in advance to hire a van and a guide for each day that we'd be there, and the young man who picked us up at the airport continued to be our driver throughout the visit. We had two guides, one for the day after we arrived and the other for the following day and a half. Dave not only took care of these arrangements, but was also very helpful in suggesting which of the many temples we should visit, and even what times offered the best chances for small crowds and good light for photography. Dave, who is a photographer, sometimes hires himself out as a guide for photography tours to outlying areas — in fact, during our stay he was gone for two days on one of these tours.

To get to the Peace of Angkor, we drove along the main highway from the airport, running a gauntlet of huge hotels on both sides. Many visitors never see anything else of the place, apart from the temples. Jayanto had been told by a monk who'd visited Angkor as the guest of some affluent travelers that there isn't any city of Siem Reap — nothing but a string of hotels. It's easy to bypass the city completely on the way from a five-star hotel to Angkor Wat or the other temples, so this impression isn't hard to understand. However, we drove part way into town, then turned up a dusty, unpaved side street, near the end of which we found the guest house: a two-story villa built in French colonial days. Only the main streets in Siem Reap are paved.

There was still a good bit of the afternoon left, but I was fatigued by the heat and decided to cower in our air-conditioned room and read. Dorothea went for a walk and wound up visiting a nearby monastery, Wat Po Lanka, where a young Cambodian monk who spoke pretty good English showed her around and told her about all the wall paintings in the temple. In the meantime Jayanto and Punnyo walked to the center of town to visit the gallery of a photographer who is married to a niece of Khun ST's.

As we had turned off the main road toward the Peace of Angkor, we saw a restaurant named Bayon II, and the van driver told us that they had a traditional Cambodian music and dance performance there every night. Dorothea and I decided to go there for dinner, traveling by tuk-tuk as it was a pretty long walk up a darkening street. Cambodian tuk-tuks are different from the ones in Thailand, which are single vehicles. A Cambodian tuk-tuk is a two-seat trailer harnessed to a regular motorbike. It’s somewhat quieter than the Thai variety and produces a great deal less blue smoke. We moved slowly, rocking and jolting on the unpaved road, which, though not rocky, was far from smooth. (Our modest speed was another big difference from the one tuk-tuk ride we'd had in Bangkok.)

It was 6:30 when the driver dropped us off. He told us that the performance would start an hour later and run until 8:30, and that he would be there at that time to pick us up. The restaurant was a huge, barnlike place with long tables at right angles to a big stage that occupied most of one side. At the far end, beyond the tables, the food was laid out in buffet fashion. Not all of it was great, but we couldn't fault the variety: there were Cambodian, Western, Chinese, Korean, and Thai dishes. (Not coincidentally, tourists in Siem Reap come largely from the West, China, Korea, and Thailand.) Most of the Cambodian offerings were appetizers, and very good, but the steam-table food was less successful. However, we found tasty noodles and enough other good things to make a pleasant meal, which was accompanied in my case by Angkor Beer, the major Cambodian brew.

There were few other diners in the big restaurant until, when it was nearly time for the show, the tour buses began to arrive. The schedule suited us well — we had secured seats close to the stage and the French tour group who later filled in around us contended with their food as they watched the dancing, while we were already through eating (though I sipped another Angkor).

There were between 15 and 20 dancers, men, women, boys, and girls. Some dances were done in the classical Cambodian tradition with curled-back fingers, slow-moving feet, and glittering costumes. This is called apsara dancing, using the Indian name for the dancers, supposed to be heaven-dwellers, whose images are carved on many Angkor temple walls. This picture, which I found on the web, was taken by a traveler at Bayon II during one of these classical dances. I don't know, of course, whether the dance routines descend directly from those of the ancient temple dancers or are a modern attempt to reconstruct them, but they were gracefully performed.

In other routines, the dancers enacted folk stories with great energy and humor. The music was provided by an ensemble made up of a marimbalike instrument, a set of gongs, a drum, and a one-stringed fiddle. We sometimes heard a singer — the wailing, nasal voice close to the sound of the fiddle, and sharing some characteristics of Isaan and — to a lesser extent, naturally — Appalachian music. What we were watching was certainly a tourist show, but it seemed to be done with full respect for Cambodian tradition, and the standard of performance was high enough to make it thoroughly enjoyable from our point of view. The bill was quite modest for what we'd received, and we returned to our lodging in a good mood.

This page last updated 3-5-2007