Wat Hanchey and Angkor Ban
We enjoyed a bright but hazy sunrise as Jahan proceeded upriver to Wat Hanchey, north of Kampong Cham, passing under the massive Japanese bridge that links this second largest city of Cambodia with the highway to Vietnam. Wat Hanchey is a modern temple complex on top of a hill, with a panoramic view of the Mekong River. It includes a primary school reminiscent of a time when monks were responsible for education up to high school. We had the choice of climbing the 330 steps to the top or riding on the pillions of motor scooters. There are clearly more moto drivers than potential passengers, so a simple lottery system is used, wherein we picked a wooden token out of a hat. We entered a colourful, modern Buddhist temple, which sits beside the small 8th century brick ruin of a pre-Angkorian Hindu structure. On its steps, we met a young novice monk who demonstrated how he wears his saffron robe (not, we learn, real saffron, but other vegetable coloring that approximates it). A few children ingratiated themselves to some of our company and stayed with them, hand in hand, throughout our visit.
Upon our return aboard, we received a blessing from two monks and their lay “sexton,” with our guides and members of the Jahan staff devoutly responding. The blessing was given in both traditional Pali and in Khmer. The monks needed to finish their blessing and return to their monastery for lunch quickly, as they are permitted to eat only twice a day, at dawn and before noon. It was a moving experience for all.
In the afternoon, we were treated to a talk by Paula Swart on the Mighty Mekong, in which she described the importance of the river to life in the six countries through which it flows. The Mekong basin is host to the largest variety of freshwater fish in the world, as the river drops some 18,000 feet from its Tibetan headwaters. Unfortunately, the river’s ecosystem is seriously threatened by damming, completed or planned, upstream in China and, soon, in Laos and perhaps even Cambodia.
Later, Jahan once again nosed into the bank of the river and we entered the village of Angkor Ban with its large temple (used during the Khmer Rouge period as a prison for local residents considered either CIA or KGB agents). The village, unlike many that were evacuated during that awful time, is intact with some buildings dating back at least 100 years. The reason for this is that the Khmer Rouge used its large dwellings as storerooms for rice and other food. When the Vietnamese Army and its Cambodian allies captured Angkor Ban, they did not burn it because there was still food stored there. We were invited by a charming elder of the village to visit her home, which was a rare honor. She is not rich, but showed immense pride in her traditional home that dates back 100 years or more. This opportunity to visit an authentic country village with its typical lifestyle was warmly welcomed by all of our guests.