A thought-provoking visit to Siem Reap and Angkor
A clash of civilisations?
Throughout history civilizations have risen and fallen leaving
behind remnants that vary from the remarkable to the barely of note.
Somewhere in time there comes a convergence of opportunity, inspiration and
genius that creates an experience that should live as long as mankind. In
one of the most isolated and poorest countries on the planet a civilization
that reached its zenith between the ninth and thirteen centuries AD left its
testament to its ideals. Sitting in the forest of northwest Cambodia a
series of temples and monuments comprises the complex of Angkor, and to this
day, it is the most artistic and ambitious attempt by any civilization to
immortalize its beliefs.
carving at Angkor Wat.
When we first visited Angkor in 1996 only a few of the major sites had been
cleared of the landmines left behind by the vanquished Khmer Rouge who had
devastated and decimated Cambodia in the prior twenty years. The great
temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex ever constructed, was
mostly restored and could be viewed easily but the others were seriously
damaged and required great physical effort to make your way around and over
the collapsed structures that had suffered centuries of abandonment.
Today much has changed and though the thrill of exploring has been replaced
by the ease of touring, the sites will still overwhelm the visitor. Now
dozens of locations can be seen, as only one’s stamina and available time
place limits on the wonderful experience. Last year over two million
visitors came to Cambodia and most, of course, ended up at Angkor during
their stay. Fortunately, the more than 500 square kilometres that makes up
the area containing the main temples easily absorbs the crowds. Early
morning, (after the sunrise retreat to breakfast for the tour groups),
allows more casual visits during the period of the day when the temperature
is much more comfortable than the heat of late afternoon. The huge granite
and sandstone edifices absorb the beating sun throughout the day and radiate
it late in the afternoon, and early evening, adding to the tropical
father with two of the brothers and a grandchild.
In 1996 a few hotels and some guesthouses existed, catering to the small
number of visitors who arrived. The Grand Hotel built by the French in 1928
lay in ruins, but plans were underway to construct on the site a luxury
hotel to house the hoped for next generation of tourists. The Grand Hotel is
now indeed grand; lining the route from the airport is one mega-luxury hotel
after another - the wealthy travellers have indeed arrived. The city of Seem
Reap itself is saturated with small hotels and guesthouses that compete to
attract everyone not ensconced in virtual luxury with their tour group, and
whole streets are now entirely given over to restaurants or pubs. If any
other businesses ever existed in those areas they were quickly swept away in
the frenzy to meet the needs of the new visitors. All goods and services the
visitor might desire are available but be prepared to pay well and
preferably in American dollars. Development is continuing at a dizzying pace
with new hotels sprouting up in areas of the city that had previously seldom
seen a tour bus. Another form of development is taking place, as huge
shopping and condominium townhouse constructions rise throughout the city.
None are completed yet; it remains to be seen if there is a market for what
appear to be very expensive properties. The infrastructure in Seem Reap
would not appear conducive to long-term residence and other than the Angkor
complex there would be limited attractions to bring visitors back to the
area. One hopes that future visitors to the area will not have to battle
their way past the timeshare hucksters.
Where does one now find the descendents of the great civilization that
constructed Angkor? They are lodged in the past trying to cope with a future
that is coming at them with incredible speed. On our recent visit, we met
three brothers who came from a family that was created by the horror that
was visited on their country by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. Their
father had spent thirty two of his forty two years as a Buddhist monk but
was forced to leave his monastery or face certain death at the hands of the
Khmer Rouge. He married and has raised his family of five children. The
brothers run a motorbike/tuk tuk service that, amazingly, can be accessed
via a website created for them by an American friend.
Connected to the world by their website, they manage a successful business
and in the evenings run a small school in their village to teach the
children English. They are building a small classroom behind their home
which is being financed by donations of materials and supplies from the
visitors they guide through the wonders of Angkor. Living less than a
kilometer from the great temple itself, the brothers’ village lacks any
running water, and has no sanitation and no electricity. The children gather
around a small florescent light powered by a car battery to study a language
that may allow them to secure a living from the multitudes of tourists that
pass near their homes without even recognizing their existence. The children
wave and yell greetings to the tourist helicopters that swoop over their
straw huts, without realizing that no one will ever hear them or even
realize they are there.
We can hope that development will mean some elimination of the grinding
poverty that has most Cambodians living a life not far different than that
of the workers who built Angkor. Throughout Siem Reap one sees signs of the
effort being made by international aid organizations to encourage the
trickling down of part of the area’s huge tourist dollar revenue to the
average Cambodian. It is to be hoped that the Three Brothers Taxi Service
will continue to be successful and that their efforts to help their
neighbours improve their lives will ultimately make their world and ours a
The brothers, the children they teach,
and the little school they have built behind their home.
Chiang Mai’s 31st annual Flower Festival charms the crowds
Spectacular floats, beautiful girls, glorious flowers and sunshine
Henri Nelson Smith, Donovan Stewart and Alan
enjoying the weather at the Flower Festival.
At the Flower Festival; Mike, Linda and Gene
During ‘The month of Love’ Judy and Dale
in the middle of a heart of flowers.
Esther, Isra and Ezra Supapwarrakul (l/r) at
the Flower Festival.
Roshan Dhunjibhoy, Gebbard Dietsch and
Navina Sunderland (l/r) relaxing
for a few minutes during the Flower Festival.
Nothing is more appropriate for Chiang Mai, the city known traditionally
as the “Rose of the North” than a Flower Festival held to celebrate the
profusion of lovely blooms which light residents’ lives all year round.
This fragrant annual three day event was held last weekend in defiance
of the unseasonable but welcome rains of the previous two days.
Saturday, the day of the Grand Parade, dawned in dullness, but
brightened up beautifully by the afternoon, calming the fears of the
organisers and attracting crowds of spectators. Even before the parade
began, the theme of riotous colour was evident, with the street stalls
at the side of the moat road shaded by umbrellas of every shade
imaginable. The Grand Parade, as spectacular as ever, began with the
Flower Festival’s opening ceremony, performed by the Governor of Chiang
Mai, Wibun Sa-nguanphong and his deputy, Ruangwan Buanuch, outside the
Governor’s mansion. Led by the first of 24 floats, all amassed with
flowers of every shade and variety and amazingly depicting everything
from temples, mythical birds and animals through pink elephants to a
large-eared hare, (a favourite with the spectators), the Grand Parade
wound its way clockwise round the moat to its destination in Suan Buak
Haad City Park. A floral shrine with a life-sized standing figure of the
Buddha emphasised the Buddhist faith of the Kingdom; beautiful girls in
traditional costume rode the floats, and walked and danced in the
parade, some with umbrellas completely covered in flowers. Bands marched
between the floats, and dancers with elaborate headdresses of flowers
performed traditional Lanna dances. A drum band paraded in time to the
trumpets and trombones, whilst children ran along the side of the road
waving their multicoloured balloons as the marchers waved their flags
and banners. Hill Tribe people marched in the parade, wearing their
exotic traditional costumes and silver jewellery.
Once the Grand Parade reached the park, spectators were free to wander
amongst the many colourful stalls set up along the Suan Buak corner of
the moat. Local horticulturists and landscape experts made lavish
displays of flowers in miniature gardens, some even with waterfalls.
Banks of rose, carnations, bougainvillea, and every kind of tropical and
cold weather flower stretched along the pavement, together with many
food stalls providing much needed refreshment. Orchids, bonsai trees and
many other species were put on display after having been judged by a
panel of experts in order to choose the best of each species.
In the late afternoon, and well into the night, a stage was set in the
park for entertainments and a beauty contest, at which this year’s
Flower Festival Queen was chosen. Congratulations go to the local
government, the private sector, and the various district offices, all of
whom provided the spectacular floats which were the focus of this, the
31st Flower Festival. Congratulations also go, of course, to the
organisers and to everyone who took part in the Grand Parade. The Flower
Festival is one of the most loved of the Rose of the North’s public
celebrations, and reminds all of us to fully appreciate and protect the
beauty of nature which, here in Chiang Mai, surrounds us every day of
Care for Dogs truly cares for dogs
Three years ago, I lived in a district where many street dogs lingered
near the food vendors. Some dogs I knew then have since died from
disease or due to mishaps with cars on the busy road. I enjoyed knowing
a puppy named Hero, who was one of the survivors! At first a
cute, white ball of fur, he matured into a gentle, extra-friendly chap
prone to misadventures. A year ago, I noticed him ailing and also
bleeding from his penis. At first, I blamed trauma, suspecting he’d been
hit by a car. But otherwise, the accident hadn’t seemed to trouble him.
for Dogs shows the monks at the Wats which they visit how to look after
the dogs who make their homes there.
As time passed, he developed ugly tumours that began to burst and smell
terribly. Together with a friend who was also fond of Hero, I decided to
contact a dog rescue centre. After a few tries, we spoke to a group
called Care for Dogs. Within an hour, a member arrived to pick up Hero
and take him for treatment. A few hours later, Sarah from Care
for Dogs phoned to say that Hero had a sexually transmitted disease
called TVT (Transmissable Venereal Tumour). The tumours and bleeding
penis were symptoms. Sarah suggested keeping Hero in a safe place for
two months while treating him with injections to kill the disease
However, Hero detested confinement and his cries and complaints upset
the other dogs. Sarah had to return him to the streets, but she
developed a good plan. Each week she picked up Hero, took him to the vet
for a shot and dropped him off again. Now, three months later, Hero has
recovered almost fully. Only one small tumour remains. Interestingly,
our concern for Hero spurred the local people where he hangs out to care
for him too. He even receives regular baths.
victim of abuse, neglect and abandonment, Misha just after she was found
and taken to Care for Dogs.
Since its inception in 2006, Care for Dogs has done wonderful work. A
German woman, Karin Hawelka, and her French friend, Amandine
Lecesne, formed the organization and transformed an area beside
Karin’s lovely home into a dog sanctuary. They have several volunteer
workers. I met with volunteers Sarah and Gill, who showed me
around and introduced me to the many dogs. Typically, Care for Dogs has
70-80 resident canines at a time. Judging by the success rate so far,
about 200 per year can find new homes, adopted by visitors to the
at Care for Dogs, only a few months after she arrived.
The volunteers told me many of the dogs’ stories, all with sad
beginnings but often happy endings, thanks to timely care. For example,
Misha, a victim of abuse and abandonment barely recognizable as a
dog, entered care in November 2006. Her condition improved amazingly.
She still has a tumour on a back leg, but it’s benign. Surgery to remove
it isn’t worth the risk of infection. Judy, a gentle dog, suffers
quietly with heart problems and cancer. Cow Ai is a beautiful
female. Someone decided to sterilise her by operating through her side
and then sewing her up with fish gut. Petra survived poisoning,
but has terrible epileptic fits that prompt the other dogs to bay
frantically and rush to her side.
In a terrible case, Kazim entered the shelter with TVT and a
burst tumour that had left his back painfully raw. Another tumour had
invaded an eye socket, leaving him half-blind. With care and medicine,
he’s recovering. Some animals arrive with distemper. If treated in time,
they can recuperate. Unfortunately, one dog, little Nan Fon, was
shaking visibly when I saw her, and her death loomed. Once they have
spasms and chattering teeth, they’re beyond curing. Another dog,
Licorice, had better luck. She survived and revived.
The list continues. Hit by a motorbike, Paul has paralysed back
legs. Gill regularly massages his legs, and he exercises in a bath too.
At the moment, he gets around deftly, dragging his hindquarters, which
are covered to prevent abrasions.
Enclosures at the shelter serve different purposes. One is for puppies
awaiting adoption. Human visitors get to see the cute puppies first. A
litter romping about when I visited had been left, starving and covered
in faeces, on the doorstep in a closed box. They soon attracted helpful
attention from Gi, a resident dog with motherly instincts who has
had several surgeries for a hernia. A second enclosure houses nursing
mums and dogs recovering from surgery. Three more enclosures shelter
dogs with assorted conditions. Yet another keeps dogs in quarantine.
Several quarantined animals were adjusting from past distresses. Thanks
to a tip-off, Care for Dogs had found 15 canines at a property where
they’d lived all day, every day, caged separately in a dark room. Still
learning about light and space, the animals remained wary of people. One
still hid under a platform in a dark corner.
Gill is giving Paul, who is paralysed after an accident, a massage which
improves his circulation and general condition.
Care for Dogs strives to work in conjunction with the temples. If Thai
people don’t want their dogs anymore, they tend to leave them at the
Wats. Sometimes the animals are fed and sheltered, but maybe not if the
monks aren’t keen on dogs. The volunteers at Care for Dogs liaise with
some temples, treating dogs on site or taking them to the shelter for
sterilization. A school at one temple has raised money for Care for
Dogs, which then performs education programs, teaching people how to
care for pets.
I enjoyed watching the dogs interact with each other - the baiting,
affection, assertions by the “top” dog and clamouring if any dog felt
distress. At various moments, Gill, Sarah and I all shed tears,
sometimes because dogs left for the temples where they’d been picked up,
or because some suffered. Seeing the dogs cared for and loved stirred
Care for Dogs needs volunteers and funding. We paid for Hero’s treatment
by donation. As I visited, an American family arrived to contribute big
bags of dog food.
In fact, Care for Dogs just scratches the surface when it comes to
assisting Chiang Mai’s neglected and abused dogs. My canine friend,
Hero, carries a noble name, but the real heroes are these people helping
so much with limited space and resources. For more information: www.
carefordogs.org or http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=LQ1F81apioQ
This article was first published on www.cairnsmedia.com.