Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cambodian culture

Sunday November 8, 2009

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Stories and photos by TAN SHIOW CHIN

With the double duty of playing tourist and examining tourism practices, 75 KDU College students set out to explore the rich heritage of Cambodia.

EXCELLENT. Oh my God! Surprising. An eye-opener. Wonderful. Fascinating.

These were some of the words used to describe the recent study tour to Cambodia by some 75 KDU College final-year students.

The Event Management and International Hotel and Tourism Management students spent four days exploring the tourist attractions of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh as part of their International Tourism module.

Jasmine Hong (right) handing out biscuits to pupils of the Kchass Primary School during the group’s visit to the school.

From ancient and recent historical sites to being swarmed by souvenir sellers calling out, “Buy from me; only one dollah!”, they soaked in the typical experience of a visitor to this beautiful but economically-backward country.

Frenetic first day

It was go, go, go from the moment the group touched down at the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport on their first day.

While their bags were checked in to the Ree Hotel, the students headed for their first stop at the Artisans D’Angkor.

This handicraft centre — established in 1992 with help from the European Union and is now an independent Cambodian company — trains uneducated rural youths, orphans and the hearing-impaired in traditional handicraft skills.

Said William Loh, 21: “Although I felt it was too crowded (with tourists) at the centre, it was still a very good experience. The trainees had amazing skills.”

Eritrean student Senet Kassaye Menghistie Desta, 21, agreed, saying that the trip made her realise that tourism is not only enriching for the visitor, but also for the local economy and community.

From the centre, it was then off to the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia – the Tonle Sap lake.

For many of the students, this was the highlight of the trip, for both the cooling, scenic boat ride, as well as the opportunity to see one of the lake’s floating villages.

Shared Iranian student Mahdi Saman, 24: “I liked the Tonle Sap lake because we could see how the people there live and how they sustain themselves.”

After the cruise, it was time to visit a part of Cambodia’s sad past.

Sad history: Some of the students in front of the glass-fronted stupa containing bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at Wat Thmei.

A stop at Wat Thmei allowed the students to view the bones of victims — housed in a special glass-walled stupa in the temple’s compound — killed in nearby areas during the Khmer Rouge regime.

By that time, the sun was starting to set and stomachs were rumbling after a long afternoon of sight-seeing.

Empty tummies were quickly filled at a buffet dinner, while a visit to the Angkor Night Market with its myriad of souvenir stalls after that helped to empty some wallets.

Exploring Angkor

The next day saw the students gearing up for a visit to the jewel of the Cambodian tourist industry – the Angkor temple complex.

Said local tour guide Phay Sophy: “There are thousands of temples in Cambodia, and hundreds in Angkor.”

With only one day to spare, the itinerary included the Ta Prohm temple, the ancient city of Angkor Thom, Bakheng Hill and of course, Angkor Wat itself.

Introduced to popular culture by the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Ta Prohm temple is also a favourite among tourists due to the many large trees that have overgrown and intertwined with its structure.

Built in the 12th century and abandoned in the 15th, the temple was intentionally left in this condition to allow visitors to see it in its “original state of neglect”.

Next was the last capital of the Khmer empire built by King Jayavarman VII – Angkor Thom.

Although the city itself contains many temples, the students only explored the main state temple Bayon.

Dominated by large stone faces carved onto the sides of the many towers scattered around the temple, the students took advantage of the opportunity to snap photo after photo from the compact upper terrace of the temple.

After exiting from the northern side of the Bayon, the group took a short walk past some of the other temples of the city.

The students listening to a guide (left) explaining how statues are produced in the polychromy, gilding and lacquering workshop at Artisans D’Angkor.

These included the Baphuon, the Terrace of the Elephants, which fronts the Phimeanakas temple, and some of the 12 Prasat Suor Prat towers.

Then it was back to Siem Reap for lunch, before tackling the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor Wat.

Although the cloudy sky suggested rain in the afternoon, it merely stayed overcast and humid, causing the students to fan themselves vigorously and perspire rivulets of sweat as they followed the guides around the vast temple complex.

Among the manifold carvings that fill the temple walls, it was the bas-relief friezes of Hindu myths along the outer gallery that caught the students’ attention.

Said Senet: “It was amazing to see how the ancient Cambodians could make the carvings and how they could last so long, and also the stories behind them.”

Penny Chong, 21, shared that out of the hundreds of photos she took on the trip, most were shot at Angkor Wat.

“We took pictures from the start to the end. We took photos of the architecture, as well as with friends, so that we can remember everything.”

The last stop of the day was the temple atop Bakheng Hill, which overlooks the entire Angkor complex.

Although the plan was to watch the sun set from the temple, the overcast sky and crowds of tourists did not provide the ideal conditions for it.

Phay (with white flag) pointing out some of the features of the Ta Prohm temple to the visitors

Having to hike up the hill after a long day of walking as well as climbing up – and down – narrow 80° steep stone steps provided an additional challenge for the students.

Some of them were also puzzled as to how the king ascended the temple as they doubted he would climb the extremely steep stairs.

But Phay quipped: “It isn’t easy to get into heaven.”

After such a long day, it was time for dinner, which was accompanied by a performance of traditional Cambodian dances and music.

Then, it was back to the hotel for a briefing by module head Gabriel Lau. (See sidebar.)

On to Phnom Penh

It was an early start the next morning to ensure that the bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh would reach the capital city in time for lunch.

The five-hour journey was interrupted for stops along the way; the first being the Kchass Primary and Secondary School just outside Siem Reap town.

Malaysian travel agent Lim Weng Sia, whose agency had organised the tour, had suggested the stop to donate stationery supplies to the school.

It was an opportunity for the students to visit a local school, as well as to get an insight of the Cambodian education system.

Said Joey Liew Hooi Yon, 20: “My favourite part of the trip was visiting the school. I came away feeling so lucky to be born in Malaysia.”

The group also stopped at the Kampong Kdey bridge — one of the longest, oldest and best preserved ancient bridges in Cambodia.

Built in the 12th century, the bridge was regularly used by heavy vehicles until 2005, when it was closed to all but light traffic to help preserve it.

Fried spiders, cockroaches and frogs were on the menu at the next stop — the informally-named Spider Market.

Verdict for the spiders: “It’s okay when you’re eating it, but there’s quite a nasty aftertaste.”

A warm welcome: The students in front of the Bayon temple in the ancient city of Angkor Thom

For the cockroaches: “It’s fried in the same sauce they use for wantan mee, so it tastes like that.”

In Phnom Penh, it was a grim visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the students learnt about the history of the infamous prison where around 20,000 people were tortured and killed.

Some students claimed they could see restless spirits around the spooky and depressing place!

After that, it was time for a more light-hearted visit to the city’s Russian Market.

Unfortunately, most of the stalls were closing by the time the group got there at 5.30pm. But the students made the most of the stop by exploring the other shops around the area.

They also had the opportunity to hit the city’s night market after dinner, where the light rain did not deter them from absorbing the bustling atmosphere and completing their shopping.

With a late morning flight home the next day, there was only time for a quick stop in front of the Royal Palace, where the Cambodian royal family lives, and the waterfront of the Mekong River just opposite, before having to say goodbye to Cambodia.

From a tourism perspective, the students could see that the country had great potential to further develop the industry.

“From my point of view, this country has much to offer compared to Indonesia or the Philippines,” said Austrian student Natascha Gmasz.

“Nothing compares to the magnificent Angkor Wat, or the floating village on the lake.”

And William commented that although the infrastructure in the country was not good, the students still managed to enjoy themselves.

“Cambodia has some unique scenery that appeals and should be aggressivley promoted to tourists,” he added.

Joey said: “The tourism industry in Cambodia does contibute to the economy and it really needs help from other countries to sustain its heritage.

“It has the potential to become a popular tourist destination and be as famous as one of its neighbours, Thailand.”

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