Subject: Looking for a Hotel in Lisbon
I have stayed at the Hotel Borges in Lisbon...Rua Garrett 108 tel 351 1 346 1951 2-3 stars in the center of town near the subway and next to 2 wonderful restaurants. Rooms include breakfast, very European, not expensive

Charlie SF 4543

From: lcurcgast Date: Sat Feb 26, 2000 10:28pm Subject: Cambodia

We left Saigon on a late morning flight for Phnom Penh. Our guide suggested picking us up at the hotel about 45 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave! Fortunately, we had not entirely forgotten our incoming encounter with Communist bureaucracy, and insisted she pick us up an hour and a half before departure time. (We were only about ten minutes from the airport.) As it was, we barely made the flight.

Our flight to Cambodia was aboard Royal Air Cambodge. Trust me, they take the baggage weight requirements seriously! Of course, we were overweight, as were the bags. Fortunately, they only charge for the overweight baggage! They calculate the amount overweight at the check-in counter, then send you to another counter to pay the charges. Then you return with the receipt, and they check your baggage through and give you boarding passes. From there, you go to the counter where they take the three documents back that you filled out when you entered the country. What do you mean you did not know you were supposed to keep those documents!? The good news is that they have blank ones at another counter that you can fill out all over again and then get back in line. They just check those documents there, then you go through and give one of the documents to someone in a uniform and go up to the departure area. There, the immigration officers check what you have left, look at you and look at your passport, look at you and look at your passport, look at you and look at your passport, and finally stamp the passport to allow you through. Oh yes, somewhere in there we went through security, and paid the departure tax. By the time we had done all of that, it was about ten minutes to departure and we did not know where our gate was. We made it, but I really recommend allowing plenty of time when leaving Saigon!

Royal Air Cambodge was a very pleasant airline. The trip to Phnom Penh was less than an hour on a Fokker 70.

Sad to say, Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia was not a pleasant place. It is difficult to convey the feeling of it. I have been many places where there are poor people, beggars and hawkers, but Phnom Penh seemed much worse than any of those places. An obvious answer is the number of people who have been crippled by land mines and now can only survive by begging, but it was more than that. The city itself is not a good place. It is on the shore of the Tonle Sap River, but it is not a nice waterfront.

I am really a city person, and even when people tell me they did not like a city, I usually disagree. Phnom Penh was an exception. Two good things about it were the food and our guide. He took us to two local restaurants where we had very good Cambodian food for reasonable prices. He was very anxious to have us like his country and his city. Overall, we liked his country and his people. His city, unfortunately, was another story.

The tour we were on, again only the four of us, had us overnight in Phnom Penh on the way in, which was not bad, especially considering we were at Le Royal, a Raffles Hotel. It is an oasis. The bad part was we returned there for a night and full day at the end of our visit to Cambodia. We ended up not leaving the hotel because we were so uncomfortable there. The only thing worth seeing, IMHO, is the complex surrounding the Royal Palace including the Silver Pagoda, which we were able to see in half a day. Our regular guide turned us over to a special guide for the visit there, and we learned a lot about the history and government from him. Since gaining independence from the French, the Kingdom of Cambodia has endured a turbulent political history, the most notorious part of which has been the takeover by the Khmer Rouge. Even today, in spite of having had free elections supervised by the U.N., the political situation is still uncertain. Although the king is technically a figurehead with no power, he wields considerable influence with the ministers, and there is real concern that his death will result in chaos once again.

>From Phnom Penh we flew to Siem Reap, leaving most of our luggage in Phnom penh at the hotel. The small planes have strict weight restrictions. Siem Reap, of course, is the jumping off point to visit the Khmer temples of Angkor.

Angkor was the reason we started planning this trip in the first place. The temples of Angkor were built over several centuries by the Khmer people. This is not the same as the Khmer Rouge! The Khmer people are, according to the guide book, Austro-Indean. Khmer Rouge is the derisive name used by King Sihanouk to refer to the Cambodian Communists, who killed approximately a third of the population after coming into power. The goal was allegedly peasant nation not reliant on any type of technology.

The Khmer temples we saw dated from the late tenth century to the early thirteenth century, and were built primarily by two kings of the Khmer Empire which actually dated from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. The two most prolific: Jayavarman VII and Suryavarman II.

The religion was primarily Hindu, although there was some Buddhist influence. Sometimes the temples seem to be a combination. The one we always see photos of is Angkor Wat, which was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat is not the name of the entire area, but of one temple complex. It is not the oldest nor is it the newest. It is the largest and the most completely excavated, restored and maintained. It was our first stop, and we were truly impressed. All of the photos we had seen did not do it justice. Photographs cannot show the immensity, nor can they show the thousands of details of the place, such as wall carvings on one level that relate the Ramayana! (Hindu creation story)

Angkor encompasses temples at varying stages of excavation and restoration. When the area was discovered, it was completely overgrown by jungle. Some of it is remarkably well preserved; other areas are quite crumbled and worn. Some of the temples deliberately were only partially excavated to allow access, but to see what the jungle had done. The other reason, of course, is that there is only so much money available to do the work. During the height of the Khmer Rouge reign, they used parts of the area for shelter and hiding. It is still not recommended to wander off the paths since mines were planted throughout the area, and many, many have not yet been recovered. One of the tragedies of modern Cambodia is the number of people, having survived the Killing Fields, who have been killed, injured and maimed by land mines.

The area is jungle, just partially cleared. There is no summer or winter, just rainy or dry. Even though we were there at the start of the dry season, there was still enough rain to make the roads a muddy mess and to make it very humid. We went out early each day to see temples before the heat of the day. The mornings were really pleasant, but getting toward mid-day we began to feel the heat and humidity. (Nothing like the Amazon, mind you, but still hot and humid!) We quit at around noon for lunch and siesta and went back out at 3:00 p.m. We were able to swim and relax in some shade during that break.

Our guide in Siem Reap was a very charming and knowlegeable young man named So Pheap with Indochina Services. He always brought us to the temples at the opposite end from where most of the tourists started. Although we caught up with them eventually, we had a lot of time in peace because of his approach. It was good to have a guide because there are so many sites and they are pretty overwhelming. Also, he was good at pointing out the best angles for photos.

We had two full days at the temples. An entire morning was devoted to Angkor Wat, and I am sure one could spend more time. With two days, we did not travel away from the main area of Angkor. I think it would require at least another day to go to some of the farther away temples. Also, it would be good to take a break of a day to see the village of Siem Reap. I am a bit of an archaeology/history buff (not so knowledgeable, but really like it) but I was on overload after two full days. Our third day we had some time to look around, and after that I would have liked to continue with more temples if we had had the time.

If I were going to pick the best to see with limited time, I recommend Angkor Wat (of course), Angkor Thom, Pre Reap, Ta Prohm and Thommanon. Even this would take at least a day and a half. Ta Prohm is one that has largely been left unexcavated and unrestored. Thommanon is small, but very beautiful and in a serene setting. The book by Dawn Rooney is the best guide to Angkor. It is everywhere in Siem Reap, but many of the shops still have the next to last edition. I found reading it after visiting was even better than reading it before, but it is written with tours of each temple and could be used to see everything on your own.

We had been lead to believe that Angkor is still untouristed. I would disagree. It certainly did not have the crowds of major European cities or of Macchu Picchu or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, but it was not empty by any stretch of the imagination. (We were there in mid-November.) There seemed to be some fairly good sized tour groups around. It is possible to fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok now, and I think that has truly opened up the tourist flow. There are big hotels under construction everywhere along the road from the airport to town and from town to the temple area. We stayed at the Grand Hotel D'Angkor, which is a magnificent resort style hotel, but there were other properties we passed that looked just fine and I am sure were less expensive. I have read of and been told that there are very nice places for about a third of the cost of the Grand Hotel.

The city of Siem Reap is also interesting. On our last morning we went out to Lake Tonle Sap, to see the floating houses and markets. We had a big boat for just the four of us. The ride there was as interesting as the boat ride. Because of the seasonal flooding, everyone builds their houses on stilts. During the dry season the animals and all of the stuff stay below the house. During the rainy season, everything goes upstairs. Everyone has a boat of some sort because the bicycles and motorbikes don't work very well in the water. :-) Plumbing, so far as we could see, was non-existent even though many houses looked very nice.

Lake Tonle Sap is a huge lake that leads to the Tonle Sap River. One way to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is by boat. It takes five to seven hours (I have read) on a fast boat, depending on the direction the river is flowing. It changes directions from the rainy season to the dry season. The lake expands and shrinks with the dry season, by an incredible amount. It is generally pretty shallow, so in dry season it shrinks miles! The boat ride is not recommended for western tourists, although it surely would be interesting. There is still some danger from the Khmer Rouge, apparently, or from government soldiers who are not happy about the boats not stopping at checkpoints intended to collect bribes. We saw a couple of the boats docked in Siem Reap, and they did not look too bad.

Most of the people in the area lost at least one family member to the Killing Fields, but the Cambodians appear to be a very resilient group. Those we talked with are encouraged by the resurgence of tourism, and we were often asked if we liked their country and if we would tell others to visit. Angkor is Cambodia's greatest economic resource.

Angkor is definitely worth the trip. Anyone who has the inclination should go sooner rather than later for two reasons: 1) It is becoming more and more crowded and 2) the political situation is still unsettled so it could be closed again at any time. We felt very fortunate to have gone when we did.

Lisa Chicago