Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

The Temples of Angkor

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Cambodia was, overall, a hugely pleasant surprise. When planning the trip, we both agreed we wanted to go to Angkor Wat. Prior to all this travel, my geographic knowledge was pretty lacking; I asked Tommy where it was located. When he said Cambodia, I thought we would have to skip it. I didn’t know much about the country, but it had definitely negative connotations in my mind: poverty and genocide. Not exactly a prime vacation spot. For anyone who has wanted to go to Angkor Wat but has held back for similar reasons, I unhesitatingly recommend going. Even if my mental picture had been correct, Angkor Wat would have been worth the trek–and I’m happy to report that my impressions were pretty far off.

One thing that makes a visit to Cambodia easy for someone from the States is that you won’t have to change any money. The US dollar is pretty much the official currency. Cambodian Riel are basically used as small change instead of US coins. Prices are quoted in Riel, but it is understood that you will pay one dollar for every 4000 Riel. It was really odd to go to an ATM and have it spit out dollars… it’s a currency Tommy and I haven’t really looked at in months.

We got a prepaid taxi from the airport to our centrally-located hostel, which doubles as an Irish Pub. A quick walk around revealed that it was not the only foreign restaurant. Phnom Penh has every niche filled for tourists, including a Spanish tapas bar and a Mexican cantina. The restaurants are clustered along the river, where in the evening you pass lots of tourists sitting outside sipping drinks. We were both really foggy after our extremely short sleep the night before and paused for some breakfast or lunch, whichever it should properly be called at that time of midmorning. We found the food a little expensive. Looking at prices in dollars makes it seem worse, of course, but we would convert them into Baht or Rupees for a quick comparison, and found them still high for what we considered a poor country. Phnom Penh was looking more like a popular, slightly overpriced tourist destination than the foreign and untouched city we expected.

It was not at all evident that, just over thirty years ago, Phnom Penh had been a ghost town. The Khmer Rouge, an oppressive communist regime, took power in Cambodia in 1975. Their exact motivations and philosophy are still a little foggy to Tommy and I, even after several tries to understand it. Tommy brought along a book by Ben Kiernan on the Pol Pot regime and had read through most of it by the time we reached Phnom Penh; still, many of the policies of the Khmer Rouge seem so senseless and cruel that it is hard to divine much logic from them. They believed that the foundation of their new country would be in agriculture, and that the perfect citizens would be the village workers. They forced everyone to evacuate Phnom Penh and other cities, and herded them out into the country in a cruel death march during which many people died. The years that followed were filled with suffering and death for the Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who had been affiliated with the government or military of the old regime, as well as academics and other professionals. They deplored foreigners and anyone with familial connections to them. Outside of Phnom Penh and other cities, there are killing fields where executions took place, and huge mass graves have been unearthed. Estimates of how many people died vary, but Kiernan believes it was around 1.5 million. Pol Pot’s reign ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded, but Cambodia still languished in destruction and internal conflict until 1993, when they regained their independence.

We visited the killing fields on our first day in Phnom Penh. There is a large stupa in the center that is filled with human skulls to commemorate how many people lost their lives there. As you wander around the area, there are signs to mark the sites of mass graves and terrible killings. It is a sobering thing, like visiting Auschwitz. We went next to the school which had been turned into a prison, Toul Sleng. Many of its rooms were filled with stories photographs of prisoners who had suffered and died within its walls, and more still gave information on the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. It was enlightening but, as the prison’s brochure pointed out, they desperately need money to keep up and improve the museum.

After some time in an internet cafe, Tommy and I were pooped. We decided to eat an early dinner and head to bed. We walked along the river, where all of the restaurants advertised western food and tacked on a few Cambodian dishes to the end of their menus. In the end we opted for the Mexican cantina to try something different, as we’d been eating strictly spicy Indian and Thai food for the last three weeks or so. Afterwards we went to the Foreign Correspondents Club, a rooftop restaurant known for its journalist clientele, for dessert. Then we went to bed and slept for nearly twelve hours to make up for the night before.

The next day, our bus to Siem Reap left at 12:30. It is worth noting that the State Department says on its website that foreigners should “exercise caution” when using intercity buses and recommends flying. However, the bus that we took was luxurious compared with those we rode in India (which I doubt the State Department has listed any qualms about). It was air conditioned, had plush seats, left from an actual bus station at a pre-ordained time, and issued actual tickets with seat numbers. As in India, we pulled over at rest stops, which are built along the same vein as those in the US, but look quite different. This one had a small open restaurant with a thatched roof and lots of people selling snacks. As we got closer to one woman, we realized exactly what she was selling: bugs. Roasted crickets and tarantulas. The man sitting across from us on the bus bought a big bag of crickets and ate them as we drove, munching on their meaty thoraxes and tossing legs and heads on the floor of the bus. Ick.

We arrived in Siem Reap without incident and took a rickshaw to our hostel. It was a nice, cozy place with a pub downstairs. It promoted several projects to help the Cambodians get back on their feet. In fact, everywhere we looked in Siem Reap there was an advertisement for one project or another. In this tourism hub, the effort to recover was blatant and genuine.

The next day we ate breakfast on the hostel’s open veranda, where multiple rickshaw drivers stopped and asked us if we were going to see the temples. For a fairly standard rate, rickshaw drivers are hired for the day and will take you on a typical tourist’s circuit of Angkor. It’s actually a large complex that would require several kilometers of walking to see everything once you are there. We eventually said yes to one of the drivers, and he waited while we got our things.

The first stop on the ride is the ticket booth, situated well before any of the temples. We were very impressed with the operation. They even take digital photos of you and print them on the passes. The tickets aren’t exactly cheap (about $20 if we remember correctly), but we would soon realize that they were well worth the cost. We continued on after obtaining ours. The road curved along a reservoir, across which we could see an ancient stone bridge stretching across to the entry way of the most famous of Angkor’s temples, Angkor Wat. We pulled up across the reservoir from the temple, where we were bombarded with children offering souvenirs and cold water. Trying our best to wave them off, we headed for the bridge.

It was nothing short of magical walking across it towards the wall on the other side. We went through one of the passageways and were suddenly standing in front of a wide green courtyard, with a stone walkway leading straight across it to the massive temple of Angkor Wat. We made the scorching walk to the temple (the day was particularly hot), pausing to see the two small structures on either side of the walkway (the libraries). Rules apparently keep the hawkers and restaurants confined to a small portion of the courtyard hidden by trees, so we were free to explore without bother or interference.

The temple is spectacularly preserved, especially in comparison to the other temples we later saw. A covered walkway runs along its outer edge, protecting walls covered in elaborate murals depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Venturing in, we stepped carefully around one of many Buddhist shrines in the temple, where people were lighting incense and praying. There are more corridors and rooms inside, all lined with beautifully preserved relief sculptures of devatas, or nymphs. The inner courtyard is made of stone and surrounds the tall towers in the center. There are stairs to enter each one, but they are roped off. Behind the temple is a long road leading to a small, crumbling building and another reservoir. We explored it all, enchanted by its size and preservation. It was truly spectacular.

Our driver took us next to the complex of Angkor Thom, where the other temples are located. We stopped at Bayon, and our first glance at it positively took our breath away. Its intermediate state of disrepair has given it a characteristic, elaborately crumbling appearance that is strangely beautiful. The courtyard, rather than being immaculately clean as at Angkor Wat, was filled with fallen stones we had to climb over to reach the temple. Inside was a maze of dark, narrow corridors periodically opening to the light and offering glances of the towers above, which were adorned with giant human faces. Angkor Wat had been a beautiful and intriguing tourist attraction, but this was far more fascinating and fun. There were few other people there, and as we climbed through the ruin, exploring where we wished, we likened it to being in a video game or movie. I half expected to stumble upon a pitfall or spear trap. It had an unmistakably genuine feel that was exciting and wonderful.

We climbed a narrow metal staircase that had been installed over some crumbling stone steps in order to reach the upper part of the temple. Here was a flat roof from which the towers ascended. There were no ropes or guards here; we could climb and investigate where we wished. Many of the little rooms harbored by the towers contained Buddhist shrines. The sky became increasingly dark and stormy, and we thought we had better head on. We briefly visited the Royal Palace next door before the rain began to fall.

It was a substantial downpour, surely meant to remind us of the meaning of “monsoon season.” We took shelter in one of the many tourist restaurants set up nearby, watching as the souvenir shop owners closed up their tents to protect their merchandise, while the occasional rat ran from one to the other to keep dry. We sat and munched on spring rolls while children came up trying to sell souvenirs.

We waited it out because we were really excited about seeing our last temple of the day, Ta Prohm. It is the least well-preserved of the three, and its crumbling walls overtaken by huge trees with their roots dripping over the sides have produced some of the most evocative images of Angkor. (We also understand it is one of the temples used in the Tomb Raider movie, but neither of us have seen it.) If Bayon could be imagined as a treacherous place fraught with danger and challenges, Ta Prohm actually was. The pouring rain had surrounded it with a substantial moat. We had to make it across by balancing precariously on tree roots and loose stones. That brought us to the temple’s outer wall, which is surrounded by piles of rock, all pieces which have crumbled off the temple over time. Ordinarily the route for visitors would be to walk around the temple to the back side entrance, but the entire courtyard was flooded, meaning in order to keep our feet dry we had to clamber over the rocks to reach it. Inside was no less exciting. The crumbling ruin made for an even more dramatic and exciting setting. We had to navigate several more substantial moats and once came upon a small passage so dark we had to briefly illuminate it with our camera flash to make sure it wasn’t a deep puddle or bottomless pit. Comparing Angkor to the other sites we’ve seen, like Petra or the Pyramids, is difficult because it is so dynamic. None of the other “new world wonders” we’ve seen has allowed for so much exploration. And the complex is big–there is much more hat we didn’t see. A proper visit would allot several days for the whole thing. It was a genuinely magical experience wandering through those temples. Definitely a site well worth a visit, even if it does require a plane ride half around the world.

We came back wet with rain and sweat and pretty exhausted. We had dinner at a more upscale Cambodian restaurant called Viroth, and it was really delicious and still very cheap. Our hostel had lots of DVDs available, so we watched a couple of episodes of the British series The Office before we went to sleep.

Air Asia was a good deal more strict when flying out of the small Siem Reap airport than out of Bangkok. Whereas they let about three kilograms slide for us on our way to Phnom Penh, this time the lady checking us in was not going to budge on weight restrictions. Rather than pay $5 for every additional kilogram over 30 total, we ransacked our bags for everything that added significant weight and put it all in our carry ons. Tommy changed out of his shorts into his jeans and belt. Despite the heat, I put on a jacket and hat. We filled our bookbags until they were difficult to zip. We ended up checking in with one bag at 13.75 kg and the other at 16.25 kg. Perfect. There is a superficially enforced 7.5 kg limit for each carry on, but all of the Air Asia employees must know full well that all the passengers violate it. People show up with huge, heavy bags, trying to cram them into the overhead compartments. Our carry-ons weighed far more than 30 kg combined. The important thing was, we got on the plane, and were soon flying towards Borneo.

Photos from Phnom Penh

Photos from Angkor

Video of Bayon