The two faces of Siem Reap
A COMMITMENT By Tingting Cojuangco Updated April 26, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – It was a Saturday and we decided to go to the anticipated Mass at the modest wooden edifice more like a house than a Catholic church in Siem Reap. The Catholic community whose patron saint is John the Apostle is composed of 300 souls and hears Mass in two Catholic churches while sitting on floor mats. One of the Catholic churches was once a karaoke bar on the floating village of Chong Kneas where 70 locals now attend the services. Appropriately, their patron saint is St. Peter the Fisherman.
Siem Reap possesses two faces. Dusty and rural yet cosmopolitan with 200 luxury hotels for Hollywood teams, backpacking tourists, old and young and leaders of different countries they all converge for national security strategies, traveling miles to see the Angkor Wat in Siem, western Cambodia. The temple ruins of Angkor date from the 9th to 13th century during the Khmer empire and rank among the world’s most magnificent architectural wonders in stone.
With the influx of tourists, shopping is inevitable. A discount beyond one half of the merchandise cost can be had. Haggling goes on like in any Oriental country amid laughter and cajoling, lessening the tension and adding to the persuasion.
The city is surrounded by quaintness. High ceilings in eateries, electric fans turning around and around lazily with few air-conditioners about, floor-to-ceiling louvered windows, open balconies, tiled floors with diamond and flower designs, palm trees in huge ceramic plant boxes. The gentle people are used to foreigners so that no one whistles at Europeans in short shorts, sandals or T-shirts that show off heavy or slight breasts. Or at European women alone at night acquiring the day’s losses at prices unbelievably cheap, or riding the tuk tuk in harem pants such as those on the wall carvings of Angkor.
I just fell in love with Siem Reap, so much so that my staff teased me about Siem being my former residence in some lifetime in the 12th century when Suryavarman II was king in his temple capital city. It’s lured me for years and has become an obsession.
Before a trip, I reach for a history book and a map. It’s the ideal way to understand the place and people’s characters. I know, for instance, that I can’t go to Burma straightaway without passing through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Neither could I go to Cambodia without passing China, Korea and Bangkok. That’s why airline tickets become expensive. In that group of countries huddled together, traveling is cheaper, convenient and swifter. In our case, we fly over islands detached from each other. One hour and we’re still over the Philippine islands.
Angkor Wat has enticed me for years. It didn’t seem like I drove my travel agent and her assistant, Maritess Palanca and Trina Avila of Regal Travel, nuts. How understanding and composed they were as I changed travel dates so many times.
Seeing an opening in my schedule, I decided to see the temples. The ones I saw were dedicated to the Hindu gods, one of them Vishnu. Through centuries, Angkor has signified Mt. Meru, home of Indian mythology. History classes taught me that he was the essence of all beings, the master of and beyond, and the creator and the destroyer. I saw him on bas-reliefs. The Angkor later honored Buddhism.
I recalled literature classes under Cynthia Rivera and how interesting she made the deities appear, disguised as snakes, monkeys and elephants. How I memorized and conjured in my head images of lounging royalty and fierce battles in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita and then there was Vishnu again as Rama and Krishna with Brahma as the creator. Teachers can rouse the imagination and inspire or they can humiliate and discourage as well!
I had to acquire some form of memorabilia to bring home. It was elephant bone carved and polished to appear like tusks. I bought them for door handles. I needed and wanted a red thread on my wrist and it was placed by a Buddhist monk in a temple. You can get what you want if you put your heart to it.
The trips I just made to Cambodia enriched my prehistory collection with a few mementos to link the Philippines with Cambodia and our Asian neighbors. They are artifacts of the early Metal Age. I never thought I’d walk into an antiquity store with a sidewalk display of excavated glass, and gold and brass rings that excited me. Beautifully carved heavy jade were the same as the Lingling-O pendants still worn by our Ifugao tribes and split earrings were evidence of our Bronze Age settlements and that of Southeast Asia’s. I bought iron pellets with inscriptions like what I had bought years ago in Johor, Malaysia’s market.
And lo and behold, fashion lives in Siem Reap! I met Ricco Ocampo’s friends Loven Ramos, an independent PR and artist with Dawn who works at Hotel de la Paix. Both Loven and Dawn brought me to Eric Raisina, who devotes himself to developing Cambodian silk, weaving and dyeing it in his residence-shop. Another gown’s design is of raffia in flowerettes from Madagascar attached by crochet. His famous “silkfur” is executed by cutting out the silk in short strips and sown in rows and rows to make jackets look like fur. It’s become a sought-after design in Parisian fashion houses.
The exhibit at Raffles Hotel of Buddha intrigued me with its hand gestures. The Meditation Buddha’s hands are resting together on the lap, a position assumed by the Buddha when meditating under the pipal tree, and adopted since time immemorial by yogis.
We became younger again in Siem just walking and eating and listening to our guide Sok’s historical anecdotes while driving away insistent children selling magazines, slippers, soft drinks and T-shirts.
It is a charming place, even if your blush-on comes off from the heat, even if the machine for credit cards takes a while to work, even if dollars are favored over riel so that you regret changing your American cash to local money, and even if your feet begin to toast in the heat.