17-21 January, 2001
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Cambodia
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Ancient Wonders of the Khmer Empire
Angkor Wat -- one of the great architectural and artistic achievements of all time. When we first planned our trip around the world, we knew that the Southeast Asia portion of our itinerary must include a stopover in Cambodia to see Angkor. Considered one of the "Seven Great Architectural Achievements of Mankind," Angkor for many years was off-limits to travelers due to the civil war which raged in Cambodia from the mid-1970s to the 1990s.
Row of Hindu gods, entering Angkor Thom
To get some perspective on the pictures you're looking at, a brief overview of Cambodian history is necessary. The Khmers of ancient Cambodia were a highly advanced society, ruling over much of Southeast Asia (from Burma to Indochina) from the 9th through 14th centuries AD. During the 11th and 12th centuries AD, the Khmer empire was at its height of power. During this time, they developed almost unparalleled achievements in art and architecture. They built great cities filled with outstanding monuments and temples. The remains of their capital city of Angkor and its 300-plus monuments and temples are scattered over a huge area around the town of Siem Reap. One could literally spend ten or more days here and still not see everything. We only had five days. So we kept busy.
" Angkor is not orchestral; it is monumental. It is an epic poem which makes its effect, like the Odyssey and Paradise Lost, by the grandeur of its structure as well as by the beauty of the details. Angkor is an epic in rectangular forms imposed upon the Cambodian jungle. "
- Arnold Tuynbee
We were happy to learn that travel to Cambodia is a lot less of a hassle than it used to be ("used to be" meaning just a few years ago). Not long ago, the country was still a very dangerous place to travel. The civil war ended in 1993 after a UN-brokered peace deal, but Khmer Rouge terrorism and banditry continued well into the late 1990s. In 1996, the Khmer Rouge finally laid down their weapons, its members accepting amnesty in return for being allowed to be assimilated back into mainstream Cambodian society. Cambodia is still very much a "cutting edge" travel destination. Highway banditry (mostly economically driven) still exists between cities, and then of course there is the terrible problem of land mines, millions of which still remain, armed and ready to maim and kill, in the countryside.
A reflecting pond view of Angkor Wat
Given the nature of overland travel in Cambodia, we decided to play it safe and fly in and out of Siem Reap, the town adjacent to Angkor's many ancient ruins. There are now direct flights to and from Bangkok and Saigon, which made things even easier for us...we flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap, spent five days exploring the area, and then flew directly to Vietnam. We never had to visit the run-down and (supposedly) dangerous capital of Phnom Penh. Our visit to Cambodia was brief, but we still were profoundly affected not only by the spectacular ruins of Angor, but also by the amazingly kind and friendly Cambodian people. In just five short days, Cambodia perhaps affected us more than any other country we had visited so far.
Intricate bas-reliefs, Terrace of the Leper King
The greatest of the many Khmer architectural gems is Angkor Wat. Historians are unsure whether Angkor Wat was built as a temple or as a mausoleum for its builder, Jayavarman VII. But what they are sure about is that it was built in the mid-1100's and is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. To enter the temple complex, you walk down a long causeway with mythical naga (snake) ballustrades, over a wide moat and through a giant stone entry gate. Angkor is a representation of Mt. Meru, the mythical abode of the Hindu gods. Its central shrine represents Meru itself, while the surrounding gates and towers depicting the successive outer regions of the cosmos. The giant moat surrounding the entire Angkor complex represents the seven oceans which surround the mythical mountain. Looking upon the sight of Angkor, its royal splendor growing up out of the Cambodian jungle, it's hard not to feel as if you are in the midst of some great mystical presence. Angkor Wat, to us, was more impressive than any other archeological site either of us have ever seen (including, believe it or not, even Ephesus and the Great Pyramids of Giza).
Entering Angkor Wat via the causeway
The whole of Angkor is commanding in its grandeur, but there is also great beauty in the many small artistic details not noticeable at first distant glance. Elaborate stone carvings abound on every surface of the ancient temple. Most impressive of these is the kilometer-long wall of continuous bas-relief sculpture of the open gallery. The sweeping scenes here depict many historical and mythical stories, including battles in which King Jayavarman took place, scenes from the epic Ramayana, and the famous Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
Dancing apsaras at the Bayon
Entering the Bayon
Angkor Wat isn't the only spectacular archeological site at Siem Reap. Another favorite of many visitors is The Bayon, a temple featuring some of the most unusual architecture ever created. Looking like some combination of Gaudi-meets-ancient- Mayan architecture, the Bayon is a fascinating place to wander around. Many of you will probably recognize the benevolent smiling face which is featured everywhere at the Bayon. The face, repeated again and again on each of the four sides of the Bayon's 54 towers, is believed to be that of Jayavarman himself. Wherever you wander throughout the complex, the faces stare at you -- their knowing half-smiles, eyes closed as if in a deep trance -- but they are everywhere. As with most Buddhist temples, at the center (and highest point) lies the holy sanctuary -- a dark, cool place with a buddha image and wafting incense permeating the air. Surrounding the outer walls of the Bayon are some beautiful bas-relief carvings. Our favorites were the graceful, dancing fairy-like apsara figures.
The mysterious faces at the Bayon
Jen playing adventurer at Ta Prohm
Maybe even more impressive, in its own way, than Angkor Wat and the Bayon is the temple of Ta Prohm. This temple very much follows the Khmer design criteria of its day -- a central sanctuary surrounded by successive layers of courtyards, satellite buildings, and causeways. But Ta Prohm is unique in that it's the only major temple complex that has been left much as it was found -- jungle, ruins, and all. The archeologists decided to leave the wild splendor of Tha Prom intact, as they found it, in order to show people what Angkor looked like prior to the extensive renovations that have taken place since the beginning of the 20th century. There are few visitors to Ta Prohm, as well, which makes wandering through its vine-and-root-choked ruins even more magical. In places, great piles of stone blocks lie where walls have fallen down. In the many centuries that have passed since, entire trees have grown up from saplings to adult forest giants, their tangled roots snaking over, under and even through the ruined stone. Deep green moss grows in the many shaded areas. Vines hang down over entryways. Dusty rays of light break through gaps in the walls as one wanders around the interior of the temple, where, believe it or not, the ceiling is still intact in many places. If there ever was a place to inspire Indiana Jones fantasies, Ta Prohm is it. We spent a couple of hours just wandering around magnificent Ta Prohm, and we could have easily spent more time there. It's a remarkable, enchanting and mystical place. If you come to Angkor, do not miss it.
Mysterious, jungle-clad Ta Prohm
Modern Cambodia -- a Story of Human Tragedy
How could history be so cruel to such a gentle people? This is a question we found ourselves asking frequently during our visit to Cambodia. Here, in one of the poorest countries in the world (per capita income is only about $250 per year), where landmines left behind from the country's long civil war still kill and maim, the locals have much to be unhappy about. First, there was the carpet bombing the eastern portion of their country by the US military during the American-Vietnam War, which killed many innocent people (part of the U.S. government's unsuccesful attempt to "wipe out" the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through part of Cambodia). Then came the murderous regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, surely one of history's most evil souls, was responsible for killing (either by murder or starvation) over one million Cambodians during the reign of his Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s. His policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide left his country in a terrible state. Anybody with any sort of education, anybody associated with the west or ethnically not considered "pure Cambodian" was annihilated or sent away to "re-education camps," where they wasted away or were murdered. Cambodia's population shrunk by some 20% in those years, and thanks to Pol Pot, the current literacy rate remains an appalling 38%. And you thought Hitler had a bad rap sheet...
Buddhist nun at the Bayon
But wait. There's more. The Khmer Rouge officially disbanded in 1996, but the many years of civil war have left behind another problem: landmines. Cambodia may have the biggest landmine problem of any country in the world. These nasty weapons of war, designed by the Italians and whose implementation was taught by the British and the Americans, cost almost nothing to deploy. But their post-war cost, both in human and national economic terms, is staggering. A mine which costs from just $4 to $10 US to deploy costs some $10,000 to remove and destroy. Most of the landmines in Cambodia are anti-personnel mines, designed not to kill but to maim, imposing a heavy burden on the economic and social infrastructures of the affected government. Everywhere we traveled, we saw amputees. Old men, young women, children...it was terrible. Many farmers, returning to their fields after the fighting stopped, found their lives forever changed by run-ins with hidden mines. Every day, mines explode. Every day, people are killed or permanently disfigured. The mines around Angkor have been cleared (tourist dollars, you understand), but as many as 10 million are estimated to remain littered around the countryside.
Some of the kids are great salespeople (about to buy postcards we didn't really want)!
Everybody we met knows somebody who was killed during the murderous reign of Pol Pot. This is not an exaggeration -- every person we spoke with at any length, when questioned about their family, mentioned a loss (or several) during the Khmer Rouge years. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, close friends. The human tragedy this country has seen is staggering -- something that us westerners can probably never understand.
But for some reason, despite this terrible past and uncertain future, the Cambodians remain smiling, optimistic people. We were very surprised to find them the smiliest, most happy-go-lucky folks we've ever met. Cambodian hospitality is genuine, and their desire to be at peace with the world, welcoming strangers with open arms verges on the incomprehensible (especially considering that many of those strangers' countries have wreaked terrible havoc on the Cambodian nation). At least the country is at long last at peace, even if it is broke, incredibly poor, and undereducated.
Buffalos in a rural village
Lake Tonle Sap
A most unusual body of water
About 20km outside of Siem Reap lies the giant Tonle Sap Lake. This huge body of water is caused by a most unusual natural phenomenon. Every year, the mighty Mekong River (which lies quite a distance downstream from Tonle Sap's tributary river) produces more water than its choked delta in Vietnam can dump into the South China Sea. This causes the Mekong to back up, reversing the flow of the Tonle Sap river, causing the lake to fill up to several times its normal dry season size. Along the lake, immigrant Vietnamese fisherman families live on boat houses, making their meager livings from the abundance of fish in the lake. Our driver took us out to Tonle Sap one day, where we boarded a boat for a brief trip around the amazing lake. On the way back to Siem Reap, we passed through some very picturesque rural villages. We asked our driver to stop and let us out so we could walk around and meet some of the people. Many of them seemed surprised to see us westerners wandering around the back streets, but we were universally greeted with wide smiles and courteous "hellos" from those who knew at least a little english. The kids, as always, were the greatest, running up to us in droves to shout hello. We got some great people pictures that day, but unfortunately we didn't take many digital shots for the web (bummer).
Boat people and their house
Siem Reap itself is a pleasant little backwater town. Coming from hectic Bangkok, we were really happy to see that the primary form of transport in Cambodia remains the bicycle. The streets are blissfully noise-free because there aren't many motor vehicles. There are a fair number of motor scooters around, but for the most part, the Cambodians are just too poor to afford anything but bicycles. In Siem Reap and elsewhere, you'll see entire families of four stuffed onto a single bicycle, Dad or Mom peddling away like mad to get to wherever it is they're headed. Unlike in Bangkok or Saigon, crossing the street represents no problem in quiet Siem Reap...
Woman with girl at a temple
It's really too bad we couldn't have spent more time in Cambodia. The warmth of the people and the amazing Khmer ruins made us want to stay longer. But we couldn't -- we had a plane to Vietnam to catch. It was a quick one-hour flight from Siem Reap to bustling Saigon...
Back to Thailand On to Vietnam!
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