Sunday, August 3, 2014

Siem Reap -- Angkor's Ancient Treasure

Having also made two trips to Vietnam already in 2014, I am starting to tick more and more items from my Southeast Asia bucket list. For a 3-day weekend in July, I visited the ruins of Angkor Archaeological Park around Siem Reap, Cambodia. The park showcases the remains of what had been a mighty Khmer Empire from the 8th to the 13th century.

Outside of Angkor Wat

I arrived at tiny Siem Reap airport off a direct evening flight from Seoul on Friday evening, meeting my friend Xuanhoa from Vietnam. We went straight to sleep and the next morning woke up with one single goal in mind – to reach Angkor Wat temple as quickly as possible. Thankfully there was a brigade of tuk-tuk drivers waiting outside of our hotel and we were easily able to negotiate a driver to take us around for the entire day for $15. Gotta love Southeast Asia prices. One of the interesting and somewhat strange things that I noticed already was the dollarization of the Cambodian economy – almost every price was quoted to us in US dollars, and upon paying with dollars one also tends to receive most change in dollars, unless you get into sub-dollar units where the rare Cambodian currency makes an appearance rather than American coins. This makes understanding what products are worth much easier, though change was not always readily available for bigger bills ($20 and above).

The tuk-tuk driver spoke very little English, but seemed to be experienced in driving people around all of the various sights. First stop was the famous Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. The temple is quite large, as advertised, and takes a few hours to cover, though if you are a Hindu religious scholar you could spend days analyzing all of the elaborate carvings in the stone. I, on the other hand, am not familiar at all with the Hindu religion, so though the carvings were artistically interesting they lacked meaning for me. I bought the book "Ancient Angkor" from one of the many hawkers around the temple (they all seemed to have the same book), but the detailed explanations in the book did not make sense to me and, frankly, the book took away from the experience of just taking in the temple with my five senses.

Look at the huge tree growing out of the stone!  (at Ta Prohm)

Unlike many of the famous churches of Europe, Angkor Wat temple no longer seems to get great use besides the masses of tourists wandering about, though I did see the occasional monk in orange gown walking through. As you're walking around, you're simply admiring the scale of the construction and wondering how difficult it must have been for a pre-industrial culture to haul all that stone through the jungle to this place. The surrounding temple grounds are very grassy and green, perhaps because we visited during Cambodian rainy season. Once upon a time a large city surrounded the temple on those grounds, but the city and its inhabitants have long since disappeared.

Thankfully upon leaving the temple our tuk-tuk driver spotted us from the sea of tuk-tuk drivers waiting outside. One could get around Angkor park with a bicycle but walking only would simply not be possible – such is the scale of the place.

We continued on our circuit of the park into the large adjacent city Angkor Thom, and proceeded to The Bayon in the center, a complex of face towers. Over 200 faces are carved into the stone towers, and there is still debate regarding who is depicted. At the nearby Baphuon, we climbed up the steep steps to the summit for a view, then my friend pointed up to the sky. "Black cloud," she said, and we scampered down just in time to take cover inside a stone passageway as the heavens opened and rain started pouring down. It was rainy season, after all. Our journey disrupted for an hour or so, we waited for a lighter moment to hike out and try to find our tuk-tuk driver, though my long trousers still became extraordinarily damp on the walk.

The Bayon

After taking some time to dry off while eating a late lunch, the rain let up and we wandered back to the tuk-tuk to see the Ta Prohm temple, made famous by the movie "Tomb Raider". This temple was really cool. This temple was quieter and offered many opportunities to explore around the many hidden corners. Also there were massive trees that had grown up around the stone structure. Unfortunately this temple is in a bit of a shambles and looks like it is undergoing substantial restoration work, though we did not see any workers on this rainy afternoon. After making our way through the temple and stopping on the opposite end of the city for a fresh coconut milk, the heavens once again opened up, raining even more heavily than before, and this time my friend and I were stuck under a small tent with a couple Cambodians and their scarf shop. After an hour as the torrential downpour subsided slightly, and my friend and I needed to hike through the Ta Prohm to get back to our tuk-tuk before dark. On the way back the temple was completely empty, and we were surprised when the first person we saw in the temple was our tuk-tuk driver, who seemed to have become a little worried about whether he would see us again.

On Saturday evening we explored the night market of Siem Reap a little and walked along the cleverly named "Pub Street".

On Sunday my friend wanted to go further afield, so we wandered into a travel agency in Siem Reap town to book a car driver for the day. This time the price was $50 and we traveled in an old Toyota Camry from the 20th century, but at least it had strong air conditioning.

One of the outer temples...I lost track of all of the names!

My friend wanted to ride out to Kbal Spean, a small village about an hour's drive from Siem Reap. From there we did the roughly 1 mile trek up a hill in the jungle to the River of A Thousand Lingas. Here we could see Hindu sculptures that has been carved into the river banks. After our hike, and a picnic in the jungle by a waterfall, my friend and I headed back towards Siem Reap to visit the Banteay Srei, a more isolated temple with exquisite carvings cut into sandstone. Our driver continued taking us to other outer temples, including Pre Rup, with imposing brick towers that dominated the surrounding plain. The outer temples, though not quite as grand as those closer to Siem Reap, were still definitely worth visiting. It was nice to experience these areas which are less crowded but still very impressive. I lost track of the names of all the sights which we visited.

On Sunday evening we watched a traditional Aspara dance show, but I did not find it all that exciting. The dancers were very slow and there was little which was sexy about their movements!

On Monday, my friend Xuanhoa's birthday, we slept in and checked out late morning from our hotel. We ate delicious Japanese sashimi in Siem Reap, mailed some postcards, then rented bicycles and drove to the Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The day was warm and my friend became quite tired, but thankfully there was no rain. We were there to check out life on the lake and see the floating houses for the working fishermen. Though there were tons of tourists there when we arrived, including several busloads of Koreans, I could not understand the attraction of this lake. Tonle Sap is a dirty lake, the inhabitants are very poor and the point of taking a boat onto the lake seems to be to wrestle money from the wallets of unsuspecting, innocent tourists. Our boat driver seemed angry when we did not agree to make a $50 donation to "buy rice for the local school". I assume that those bags of rice are unopened and sold again day after day. The whole tour felt like a racket.

Floating Village, Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap

We returned to town late afternoon, ate a cheap Cambodian dinner, then I showered and headed to the airport for an overnight flight back to Seoul. Alas, short vacations! Also, Cambodian food is not all that delicious – there is a reason you don't see Cambodian restaurants overseas.

Cambodia is certainly one of the poorest countries I have ever visited. At all the sights around Siem Reap you see men, women, and children trying to sell your books, magnets, postcards, scarves, and other souvenirs. The kids know enough English to say "$1...I need to go to school"..."You are so handsome"...etc. etc. In Vietnam, my friend tells me that Cambodians are regarded as lazy people who just sit around waiting for handouts from donor countries. Vietnamese people even taunt that Cambodians are too lazy to have sex!  (though given the number of children around Siem Reap this clearly isn't true)  However, Siem Reap felt very safe, and I never felt threatened while there, even by the off-duty police officers who tried to sell me Cambodian police medallions!

I came away from this trip wondering how an ancient civilization that could have built such a mighty empire and magnificent temples had decayed into the poor state that it is today. It felt in Siem Reap, besides the airport and the hotels nearby, that since Angkor Wat the Cambodians have built little.

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