Travel Journal

Judy's visit - Siem Reap, Cambodia, 3/30-4/4

(Thursday 7 April 2011) by Joanne Chang
Angkor Wat blows me away. I can't believe I almost skipped over it, imagining it'd be like a Disney theme park full of sites I didn't care about, hordes of tourists, high ticket prices, and hawkers. There are a lot of tourists, and there are a lot of extremely persistent hawkers (mostly children), but the temples and history are incredible, and the prices well worth it. These behemoth lava and limestone compounds were built between the 9th and 12th centuries when present-day Cambodia's Khmer empire was the largest and most powerful in Southeast Asia, before they were sacked by Siam (Thailand). The ancient city of Angkor Wat extends over 37 square miles and the temples are scattered throughout, built by the hand of Kings for Hindu and Buddhist worship (depending on the king), illustrating an unquestionable devotion to their faith and also an internal struggle between religions that ultimately caused the empire to fall and the city to be abandoned. Only 150 years ago was Angkor Wat rediscovered by a French scholar while exploring the jungles of Cambodia (perhaps leading to the French occupation a couple years later), and with resources from the western world they began restoration in the 1900s, opening for tourism only in the 1960s.

Today the temples are in various stages of restoration and ruin, but the work completed is incredible and the enormity of it all is unreal. Mind-blowing. I really can't describe it in words, pictures don't do it justice. It's something you just have to see for yourself, to walk through these beautiful stone halls that stretch on forever, to feel the substance of the carvings and bas-reliefs on every surface, to see the work of one million men over thirty-seven years to construct a single compound (main temple Angkor Wat) that was never fully finished. I don't know how many tons of stone piled everywhere like children's building blocks, fig trees that swallowed the temples after the empire fell, smiling buddha faces towering over you that once covered four sides of fifty-four towers and days later I am in even more wonderment about how they did that. Compared to buildings of modern day and the means of construction, these people were out of this world. Maybe out of their minds. I can't imagine any of this undertaking in today's world. Nobody would dream of doing such a thing.

Child hawkers take a break, Pre Rup Temple
Child hawkers take a break, Pre Rup Temple
The history is wild, too. I had no idea that Cambodia was once the Khmer Empire ruling over parts of present-day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. I had no idea its strong cultural and political ties to China dating back to ancient times (Funan), that Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to Cambodia by an Indian-turned-Cambodian King who defeated the female Cambodian warrior, then married her. I even had no idea that 3 million Cambodians were killed during Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1978, that the US is largely responsible for a country full of unexploded bombs that today leave civilians disabled or dead, that people my age were faced with civil war on a daily basis up until 1998. It would be shameful for me to complain about a single thing ever again. The average salary in Cambodia is $60/month, parents cannot afford to send their children to school, many children are orphaned, those who are educated and want to see a world outside Cambodia cannot afford to get a passport. Because of Angkor Wat, tourism is a major industry and licensed guides make the most at $500/month working 10 hour days. Happy Lee at the guesthouse tells me this is the dream job after taking me to see the sunset, which comes after I catch him lying to me about room and bus charges. It can be difficult knowing that most people offering rides, rooms, food, goods ("$1 ok, Lady?") are trying to squeeze a few extra bucks out of me, but can I blame them? Their choices are limited. I have dollars, they don't. My dollars do much less for me, than they can for them. I have a lot of inner conflict about this though, I hate being taken advantage of. When the floating market charges $20 for paper and pencils and more for ramen noodles than they cost at Safeway, and asks you to donate them to the kids at the orphanage -- what is the correct response? There is an element of deceit in the tourism trade but in the end we all get what we need, and I can't argue that my good fortune is dumb luck, I was born into it and sadly the playing field will never be even.

Fig tree strangling Tha Prohm
Fig tree strangling Tha Prohm
So, in Siem Reap we feed dollars into the local economy. On Day 1 we hire a car and tour guide, and hit Banteay Srey (pink sandstone), Pre Rup, Tha Prohm (Tomb Raider), Banteay Kdei (mirror doorways), and the Landmine Museum. Tha Prohm is my favorite with the huge strangling fig trees covering the ruins, growing within and throughout them, literally strangling them. The trees here stretch so high and so wide, their trunks are like giant octopi with 50 legs, or like the Play-doh machine that makes spaghetti hair. I swear you've never seen anything like this. Tha Prohm is also sad because when the successor to King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple for his mother, converted to Hinduism they cut out all the heads of Buddha carvings on the walls, even the heads of Apsara dancers (they did this to many temples). Boooo. Our guide, Morin, is Judy's age and spent his young adult years in a Thailand refugee camp where he learned English from a UN worker, then worked for the UN detonating land mines before becoming a tour guide. His knowledge is impressive and we wish he could talk more but he's having a rough day. He makes up for it by taking us to the Cambodian Landmine museum (thank you, Judy, for insisting we go in), founded by Aki-ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, who is on a mission to clean up the millions of landmines leftover from war and runs an orphanage behind the museum for its victims. Stories of the kids posted on the wall are mesmerizing, inspiring, and saddening. The opportunity for them to get a primary education is so precious that they must leave their homes and villages to receive it, their parents loving them enough to let them go. A trip here demonstrates the power of one man's compassion and determination. In 2010 he was a Top 10 CNN Hero.

On Day 2 we wake up at 5 a.m. to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. There are already hundreds (thousands?) of people there. Angkor Wat is the main temple complex, and the largest Hindu temple in the world. Its outer walls are 1/2 mile long and covered with bas-reliefs telling stories of the Hindu Gods and historical Khmer battles. Our guide is an extremely knowledgable and talkative kid, but whose English is heavily accented so we only catch about a third of what he's saying as he gives us grave details about each story, character, symbol and significance, leading us around the sprawling compound. It's amazing the things they built, and the reasons why -- as a Hindu temple, only the King, royal subjects and dignitaries were allowed access to Angkor Wat with the King visiting only twice per month, a temple that took 1 million men 37 years to build! We also learn that starting in 1985 the army commander facilitated the removal of hundreds of thousands of Buddha statues from the temple to be sold to private buyers (mostly in the western world, they believe), until the end of the civil war. This man is now very rich and owns a 5-star hotel in Siem Reap. Blasphemy! People in the western world, please return these statues to the Cambodian people, geez. We go to Angkor Thom next, which houses the Bayon temple (224 compassionate Buddha faces), Baphoun (Reclining Buddha WIP) and the Royal Palace with concubine tower. Bayon is awesome, all these big smiling Buddha faces in the sky! They're so beautiful, peaceful, serene, you cannot be in a place like this and not feel joy and contentment in your heart. We take some goofy pictures, and learn that Bayon is the last of the Angkor temples to be built (by KJ VII), and it was a Buddhist temple until the King's successor who was unable to build his own temple converted it to Hindu, putting a jewel in the center of each Buddha face and calling it the 3rd eye of Shiva. I find that funny. Lastly we go to Preah Khan with its cross-shaped halls of never-ending doorways, the temple KJ VII built for his father. He was a busy man.

Our last day in Siem Reap together is more leisurely. We take a boat ride on the Tonle Sap Lake, where there is a village of Cambodians, Vietnamese and Muslims living on the lake. Not on the banks of the lake, but floating, on it. Houses, churches, markets, restaurants, a school, an orphanage, built of wood in the middle of the lake. Villagers in little boats selling their goods, hopping onto tourist boats offering sodas and putting big huge snakes on people and asking for $1. The latter happened to me, before I knew it there were two big snakes wrapped around my neck. They said "no poison", so ok. Kind of freaky anyway!
Tonle Sap is where they take us to the market and the orphanage. The orphanage is also a school for ~250 kids, half of which are orphans living there. The kids seem happy, playing rambunctiously with each other, pummeling the teacher who's handing out pieces of candy, helping each other to read and write, and stretching up their arms to me, to hold them. They are normal, energetic kids, except they're living on this wooden school-boat in the middle of a lake, 50 kids to 1 adult, but at least they're here, learning, with someone to care for them. It's the life they know. But seeing this makes me want to take one home, and I understand now Virginia's quest to adopt a child in need. To do something within your power to make it a little better. After the lake we go to the Angkor National Museum, get foot massages, and have our last dinner together at the Sugar Palm with nightcaps at the Red Piano. I feel conflicted just writing easy it is, to see poverty and return back to your normal life. How easy to accept the luxuries we are afforded.

Judy leaves on April 3, and as I head back to the room my heart sinks a little. It was perhaps more special than I realized to have her here, to experience this kind of wonder-travel together. From the temples to the lake village, elephant ride to border crossing, it was an eye-opening adventure and I'm grateful to have shared it with her. There really is nothing as strong and comforting as family. We are very lucky. For my last days in Siem Reap I move back to the $5 guesthouse, zip around on Happy Lee's motorbike, go back to Tha Prohm temple and adjust back into solitude. At midnight on April 4 I hop a night-bus to Kep, wondering on the way how my life in San Francisco will be, after a trip like this.

p.s. Thank you hotel boy, for the mango from your house. It was delicious.


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