Another powerful kingdom
Saturday, January 30
After two days/three nights in Bangkok we flew on to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the city closest to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. A tuk-tuk took us to our hotel located on one of the side streets of this busy tourist town.
Having picked up a chest cold I was happy just settling into our room and doing more sink laundry. With the intense afternoon sun right outside our room, the clothes dried in less than three hours draped on a balcony. Max, in the meantime, picked up more bottled water for the room and later explored a bit while having an early dinner around the corner.
Sunday, January 31
Ready to leave by 9 we had arranged for a guide, Yanso, to steer us around the two largest complexes: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
And, the same guy who picked us up at the airport ferried the three us around in a tuk-tuk as we began exploring these former Khmer sites.
The write-ups talk about the breadth and scope of Angkor Wat, and thát’s exactly what struck us the most, beginning with the size of the moat surrounding this 12th ce. Hindu temple. Constructed by Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-52) this temple has become Cambodia’s national symbol. No surprise considering ít’s impressive setting. Angkor Wat has also been in continuous use since it was built, resulting in a more manicured look than those sites that have been abandoned.
Once we closed our mouths after viewing the moat and long causeway to one of the entrances, Yanso ushered us around and through the other visitors. He pointed out the rich detail of the carved sandstone as well as remnants of some of the bright colors, which used to adorn the walls.
We walked in and out of structures that began to blur together in spite of their magnificent details,
such as the scene of Suryavarman’s troops marching off to war and the depiction of heaven and hell (just one side of an 800m-long series of bas reliefs).
From there we rode to Angkor Thom, built by Suryavarman’s cousin, King Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181-1219). Crossing another moat, the bridge is decorated with 54 demons on one side and 54 gods on the other waged in a tug of war based on the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
Once through the gate we went straight to the highlight of Angkor Thom, the state temple of Bayan. This guy obviously loved his own reflection: on the 54 Gothic towers featured at Bayon, the temple this Buddhist king built, 216 faces resembling Jayavarman VII peer at you from all angles.
Fading fast and becoming templed-out, Yanso took us to some iconic sites, specifically from the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Not having seen it, the trees smothering the walls reminded more more of the 1984 movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was also filmed in SE Asia (only in Sri Lanka).
Yanso explained how the Cambodian government was delicately balancing the integrity of the temples with maintenance of ancient trees. As we saw throughout the site, humongous snaking roots threatened to totally destroy the buildings’ foundations and walls.
Actually what was more interesting to me was hearing about Cambodia’s more recent history involving the Khmer Rouge. Yanso related how most of his immediate family escaped the Killing Fields due to his mother hearing about Pol Pot’s death squads. She along with other villagers hid in the forest, which is where Yanso was born in 1978.
During the four years of civil war 1975-79 Cambodia lost two million out of a population of just over seven million. Stopping by a memorial (a stupa filled with genocide victims’ skulls and bone) Yanso pointed to various skulls indicating how short spades or hoes were used to crack open prisoners’ heads either from behind or the side.
We then slowly walked around some worn billboards featuring photos of Pol Pot and his henchmen then and now. To think that someone such as our guide could easily have been killed during this brutal regime was another sobering reminder of the world’s injustice, thanks to humankind.
By now I was ready to go prone, which is what I did while Max found another place for dinner.
Monday, February 1
While I stayed in bed Max ventured out to more temple sites with the same tuk-tuk driver from the previous days. Located up to an hour away some of the most spectacular ones were:
Banteay Srei, possibly constructed by Jayavarman V’s tutor, a Brahman, and featuring some of the most elaborate carvings on stone with a pinkish tone…
and Preah Neak Poan or “The Water Temple.”
Max also stopped by the Cambodia Land Mine museum. A former Khmer Rouge soldier, who as a teenager planted thousands of these devices, later saw the error of his ways and has spent the rest of his life in the tedious and dangerous task of locating and disarming them. Tens of thousands of them still remain, along with large numbers of unexploded cluster bombs dropped by the US during the “secret war.” In reviewing the history of the period the museum argues that US actions contributed to the rise of Pol Pọt.
Feeling a lot better by the time Max returned due to some pills from a local pharmacy, we headed off to the Phare, a circus troupe of young acrobats. The performers had been taught their skills at a circus school founded by an organization formed over 20 years ago. Nine children and their art teacher returned to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, from a refuge camp. Wanting to share the art of self-expression they started a school for the arts that then led to a free public school, music school, theater school, and finally a circus school. Over 1,200 underprivileged students have attended the public school and 500 the alternative ones.
In 2013 Phare opened a performance center in Siem Reap. Ít’s become so successful they raised monies via crowdsourcing enabling them to switch from renting to purchasing their own site. Their new location opened this January, and ít’s here we were part of the packed house watching the amazing energy and personalities of these youngsters.
Each performance lasts just over an hour and features a storyline illustrated by dialogue and acrobatics. The night we attended the performance was called “Chills” featuring a group of young campers overcoming their fears of some troublesome ghosts. As Max later said the ghosts could have been vestiges of Pol Póts brutality, which terrorized the people of Cambodia. Whatever the message, ít’s definitely worth seeing. These kids are amazing.
Tuesday, February 2
With a flight out late afternoon, we packed our bags and headed downstairs. The hotel staff’s hospitality continued right up to our final good-bye when they snapped a photo.
Having seen our fill of magnificent temples and powerful realms in less than six days we were ready to slow down. Our destination was a quaint tourist city, Luang Prabang, known for its blend of southeast Asian and French cultures.
We were really glad to have toured some of the world’s stunning, historical sites. And, now we were just as happy to know our travels would be coming to a standstill. Well, not exactly a standstill but at least staying in one guesthouse for awhile.
Laos, here we come!