S IEM REAP - They came by boat. They came by plane. They came by motorbike, bus, car,
bicycle, ox cart and foot. In the end an estimated 25,000 people, mostly Cambodians,
went to Angkor Wat to view the total solar eclipse extravaganza on Oct 24.
There were no disasters, no major airport bottlenecks - and not a bullet was fired.
"Everybody was waiting for the shooting and there was none. They were so disappointed,"
said Sok Chenda, spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism.
"There was no shooting. This is proof that Cambodia is ready for tourism."
Indeed, provincial governor Toan Chay said that authorities had collected 3,000 guns
from military and police to prevent them from shooting to ostensibly scare off demons.
Three hundred officers were allowed to keep their guns.
Royal Air Cambodge increased flights to Siem Reap on the day before the eclipse from
four to seven, and sent up four flights the next morning.
Toan Chay, provincial governor, estimated the visitors at about 2,000, eight times
the normal visitor flow. All 600 registered hotel rooms were booked full in Siem
Reap Monday and Tuesday. Informal guest houses were harder to assess, but provincial
authorities had asked people to open up their villas to guests if necessary.
"Everybody made money ," said Graham Cleghorn, owner of Minefield Studios,
which sold about 100 specially handprinted eclipse T-shirts at $15 a pop.
"Thousands of happy tourists will go home saying what a great place Angkor Wat
He said on eclipse day cars were renting for $100 a day.
"I think we saw the future today," said a longtime ex-pat resident of Siem
Any problems were small. A couple of tourists moaned that the popular Bayon restaurant
ran out of bread one day and noodle soup the next day. One fast boat from Phnom Penh
ran out of gasoline on the Tonle Sap lake and spent four hours waiting for a fisherman
to bring extra fuel. Passengers jumped in the water to cool off while they waited.
Angkor Wat was the most popular place to watch the eclipse. Star gazers began arriving
at sunrise, setting up picnics, lighting incense and gazing at the shrinking crescent
of sun through smoked glass or strips of black film.
Two or three thousand people climbed the small mountain near the temple to watch.
A handful of people chose the Bayon or one of the more isolated temples. In villages
near Siem Reap, villagers watched the image of the eclipse in pools of water.
Moments before the eclipse reached totality at 10:58 am, many Cambodians rushed to
light incense and offer a prayer inside the temples.
"We have to offer up black candles, black incense, blackened chickens to scare
off bad spirits who could have arrived with the eclipse," said Pou Sothirak,
Minister of Industry.
Drums played and classical dancers performed before a table laden with pigs' heads,
bananas, flowers and other offerings.
Thousands of people shouted and cheered as the moon moved in front of the sun,
bathing the area in a shadowy darkness, with only the bright rim of the sun visible
around a black center. Inside the temples, pigeons flew in different directions as
if they were preparing to roost; and on the ponds outside, frogs started croaking.
Cambodian beliefs about eclipses are deeply held. According to one legend, the Hindu
god Rahu is a demon with an ugly face and an enormous mouth who tries to swallow
the sun and moon. How he spits the sun out - how the moon moves across the sun -
can spell prosperity or a bad harvest.
One old monk in Siem Reap passed a favorable verdict on the eclipse.
"I think the collapse of the sun will remove the war from Cambodia," said
Sao Vy, adapting the ancient legends a little, from a pagoda at the Bayon.
Radiant tourists expressed different views after the event. Aschinger Manfred, of
Linz, Austria, said it was his sixth eclipse. What was the difference between each?
"The country and the people," he said.
An Italian astronomer who photographed the spectacle at Angkor Wat said an eclipse
itself wasn't particularly important to astronomy.
"It's not important. With satellites and space telescopes and coronographs now,
it is important only for the popular magazines," said Walter Ferreri, of the
University of Torino.
But he said the viewing was spectacular because the weather was very good. Venus
and Mercury were easily visible.
A man from Japan who came with a group of 22 amateur photographers said it was his
third total eclipse and the best one he had ever seen.
"The last one was in Hawaii and it was a loser. It was raining and so we couldn't
see it," said Mochizuki Kazutaka.
The next eclipse will be visible from Mongolia in 1997. Another will be in Sumatra
in 1998, and Austria and other parts of Europe in 1999. As for Cambodia, it will
have to wait 75 years for another - and Siem Reap 300 years.