January 28, 2015 Siem Reap, Cambodia
I am up early and breakfast at my hotel, the City River Hotel in Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia. My guide, Sovann meets me at 8a as agreed. Yem is the name of my driver. He does not speak much, but seems to have a fair command of English. I can’t believe how much I’m getting for this trip. The cost is just over $800, but in addition to airfare, hotel and breakfast, I have a private guide and driver, with all admission fees paid.
We are off to see the ruins of the Khmer Empire. This great civilization lasted from 802 to 1431. They held Hindu religious beliefs up to the end of the 12th century and after than Buddhist religious practices, but there has been a strong mixing of these two religions throughout southeast Asia. The Capital of the Khmer Empire moved from the Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1341 and this grand empire went into a steady decline. The sites here in Siem Reap were mostly abandoned. Many were lost to the jungle for centuries.
We start at Angkor Wat, the best known. Sovann explains that it will be less crowded to start at the largest temple–the largest religious site in the world. Most guides bring their tours to Angkor Thom in the morning and continue to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. He is right. This is high season, but the crowds as we approach Angkor Wat are not too bad. This area seen 4 million tourists a year. Until recently, most were from South Korea. Last year, the majority of tourists were from Vietnam.
Sovann tells me that while a lot of money is made here at Angkor Wat, most of it does not go to the people, the Government or even for restoration. The temple sites are rented to a private company, with a lease for 90 years. He says this is an example of the corruption of the country and he is sad that the money is not better used. The private company is owned by a Vietnamese man and is just one of the many ties to that country and to communism. In 2005, Cambodia “gave” an island to Vietnam. While Cambodia is officially a democracy with a (relatively powerless) king, it has strong ties to communism through China and Vietnam. The current prime minister has been in power for 30 years. Single day tickets are $20 and three day tickets are $40. They have your photo on them and there are several checkpoints.
We pass the moat, dug by hand around temple complex. This has never gone dry, according to Sovann. It served to protect the temple and also to drain it during the rainy season.
After the moat is the high temple wall surrounding the entire complex, approximately 8 meters high. We approach Angkor Wat from the back side to avoid crowds. It is one of the few temples built facing west, toward the setting sun. The temple is built of sandstone, which came from a mountain 80km away (50 miles). The stone blocks were transported here by bamboo boat down the Siem Reap River (which runs in front of my hotel), then by elephant to the temple site. It’s good quality sandstone and harder than I would expect. The buildings and carvings are in better shape than you’d think. No mortar was used to keep the stones together. All are blocks, fitted closely and then finished with detailed carvings everywhere.
My guide walks with a bit of a limp and gives me frequent rest stops. I am grateful. With his slight handicap, he makes an excellent guide, good at finding the flattest approach. He reduces my climbing, often takes my hand on steep paths and helps me avoid walking hazards. I am lucky to have found him. If you want to see this wonderful site, don’t wait too long. You need good knees and strong legs.
The temple is built on three levels with 5 towers, a representation of heaven on earth. From our initial entrance we can see 3 tower–representing the Hindu trinity. From other views you can see all five, representing the peaks of the mythical Mount Meru.
At the center of Angkor Wat is the tallest tower on the highest level, with steep, new wooden steps to the top. These are less steep with a wider tread than the original steps, though. It must have been quite a hardship to climb those! No short-shorts or skirts are allowed, nor hats. A woman in front of me is removed from the line and told she cannot go up to the holy of holies (which I find odd when all the carvings are of bare naked women). Men are reminded to remove their hats.
My guide waits while I climb and explore. From this height you can see the moats, which partially protected the temple from being consumed by jungle. Though there is no evidence of them now, the bas-reliefs show crocodiles, which added an additional level of protection to the temple. There is a hot air balloon tethered ahead.
It’s all too beautiful to describe and I’m overwhelmed by the history and the grandeur, but also heat and hardship. I have to sit and wipe my eyes and calm my breathing. I feel like an overstimulated child badly in need of a nap. I’m grateful that my tears of joy and exhaustion come when there is no one around that I know.
I’m not a religious person, though I have a spiritual side. There is something powerful in a place where generations of people have brought their cares and worries and left them on the altar. I felt it in the Vatican, the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) and in Egyptian temples. I feel it here, too. In fact, the more we walk the more I am reminded of the ruins of Egypt.
Angkor Thom is our next stop and the name means Big City. It is a a separate, complex from Angkor Wat. The thick walls are 8 meters high and 12km around (26 feet high and 7.5 miles). There is also a wide moat. There are five gates into the city. Three are Cardinal points, but two are for special purposes. The victory gate is just for the returning army. The ghost gate is for soldiers lets who die in battle.
The approach bridge to the South Gate has an excellent, those damaged, example of the forces of good and evil. One side of the bridge has gods while the other demons. Each is pulling on the body of a great snake, a king cobra, known as the naga. It is a scene from a Hindu story called The Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk—a long and complicated story that Sovann tells me the next day. All the balustrades are the body of the naga–king of the water animals. You also see lions, king of the jungle animals (though there are no lions in SE Asia?).
The huge temple inside Angkor Thom is called the Bayon and each of the 54 towers has four faces. My guide says they are the faces of the Buddha. Only a few are smiling broadly. My guidebook calls the expressions “enigmatic.” Sovann takes my photo far more times than I’m likely to share, but one is with the face with the largest smile. He calls it “the face of Cambodia.” “Not only Cambodian people smile. Even the stones smile!” He clearly loves his country and it’s a beautiful thing to see in someone’s eyes.
It’s estimated that a million people once lived in and around this area. There is little that remains of their wooden structures, however. The area was abandoned when the capital was moved from Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1431. Many sites were lost to jungle for centuries. Only Angkor Wat remained in use, though barely.
All the walls of the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief. Even after all the centuries, the detail is quite amazing. The most striking are the apsara–the celestial dancing girls, in seductive poses. These sensuous women line the walls and columns, wearing ornate jewelry, imaginative headgear…and little else! There are also devada, dancers who can be male or female (though I don’t see any male figures dancing). They are portrayed is slightly less alluring poses than the aspsara. Personally, I can’t tell the difference. I notice many of the breasts of the women are shinny from constant touching. LOL
In the entry courtyard walls of Angkor Thom is a bas-relief of everyday scenes: fishing, cock fighting, farming and even a market scene–real finds for archeology. In the Eastern Gallery is a detailed scene of the wars between the Khmer and the Cham (or Champas), a Muslim tribe which no longer exist.
My favorite is the Terrace of the Elephants, with hundreds of almost life-sized elephants in poses of fighting or working along the 300m retaining wall. There are steps with elephant tusk balustrades and a raised platform for the king to mount his elephant. The terrace was used for royal review of military parades. It overlooks the marching grounds and both soldiers and elephant were trained here. The terrace adjoins the smaller Terrace of the Leper King. Both date from the 12th century.
We see the temple of Ta Prohm, site of the film Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. My guide got to meet her briefly and was quite proud that she adopted a child from Cambodia. He calls him the luckiest child of the country. This temple is known at Jungle Temple and was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, in honor of his mother. The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Jungle trees have destroyed and covered many Khmer buildings, but here they seem to be protecting them and even holding them together.
On the way to lunch, at a Khmer style restaurant, we pass a very old temple that was never finished. Built in the 10th century, it has 5 towers, but no statues or carvings. According to legend, the central tower was hit by lightning, a bad omen. The king abandoned construction.
My guide and driver take a much needed rest in hammocks while I lunch alone. I take my guide’s recommendation of Amok with fish, a local Khmer dish. It is a thick soup served in young coconut. I also order a cooling pineapple shake. It all arrives quickly and is more than enough for two. The soup is in a coconut with a star shaped lid cut into it. It’s piping hot and redolent of lemongrass, ginger and coconut milk. I’m not sure how it is usually eaten, but I spoon it into my mound of rice and enjoy my fill.
Though the bathroom is marked for women, it has a urinal with slices of lime in it. Also a huge spider. As I am washing my hands outside, a woman approaches the toilets and quickly retreats from one saying “that must be the men’s.” I say that I don’t think it matters which is which, but she laughs. “There’s a man already inside that one.” She says and points to the open door. She rolls her eyes to let me know she saw more of him than she wanted to!
After lunch we see a final temple, a small, almost abandoned one. Little reconstruction or restoration is evident. Banteay Kdei is beautiful, but I have temple overload. They are all beginning to jumble in my mind. I’ve taken way too many photos which may or may not help me sort them. I’m ready to go back to my hotel and glad that the itinerary is over for the day. I need to rest and absorb all I’ve seen.
Evening reflections along the Siem Reap River, during a leisurely dinner
I find it interesting that my almost constant ill feelings in Bien Hoa are gone here. I’ve had a rough day–lots of walking and climbing in heat and high humidity. Yet, I’m quite well. A bit tired, perhaps. Certainly I will sleep well tonight. But my sinuses are not full. My stomach isn’t even slightly queasy. I don’t feel like I need to lie down, or run to the bathroom. Maybe I really am allergic to something in Vietnam? Bien Hoa is the site of the former US military base and Agent Orange does come to mind, along with other chemicals. Who knows what’s in the water supply or the air? Or the soil?
The Cambodian script reminds me of Thai–ornate, incredibly beautiful and completely indecipherable. It flows so that I’m not sure where one letter ends and another begins. They are not like Chinese characters, nor like our familiar alphabet.
I’m hungry, but want something light so that I sleep well. I order a dish simply translated as “pumpkin with meats.” I think it’s a soup but when it arrives it’s more like a semi-solid French onion soup. I taste a slight sweetness that might be pumpkin and a bit of ground meat. It’s perfect and I believe that is real cheese on top! Despite the heat, foods are served piping hot–probably safest!
Sovann and I got into quite a philosophic discussion today. He is quite a deep thinker and is concerned about his young son and new child on the way. He asked for advice on teaching them, particularly English. He says that if money weren’t a problem, he would like to be a teacher. He wanted my opinion on who would be the next president and had many questions on American politics. He says that “all the world” follows American politics. It’s quite a responsibility.