Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cambodia Day Three: The Temples of Angkor

It's on the flag.
It's on the beer.
It's on the money.
It's on the visas.
It's depicted in the paintings hanging on the walls of restaurants and hotels all over the country.
It's even on the handles of some of the silverware.
It's the iconic Angkor Wat, the pride of Cambodia, and the reason that thousands of foreigners flock to the country every year.Angkor Wat is the main building in the complex of Angkor temples. It was constructed in the 12th century for King Suryavarman II as the seat of the city of Angkor. In those days, Angkor was a main stop on a trade route between India and China, and the Khmer empire was a flourishing success. The wat has a long history, and has functioned in several capacities. It was first constructed as a Hindu religious building, specifically dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, who is generally recognized as the highest, most supreme god in Hinduism. Angkor Wat was later taken over by Srindravarman, a Buddhist monk, in the late 13th century. At that point, the religious significance of the building shifted from Hinduism to Theraveda Buddhism, which remains the most prominent religion in Cambodia today.

The people of Cambodia are fiercely proud of the wat, as evidenced by the images of it plastered all over the country. It seems as though the wat serves as a reminder of what the Khmer people once were, long ago- long before the hard times with the Khmer Rogue and the subsequent famine. It's as though the Khmer people can hold onto this as a symbol of what they once were, and perhaps as a reminder that they can rise out of their troubles and up to greatness once again (honestly, this doesn't seem an unlikely possibility. Tourism is just beginning to develop in Cambodia, and it seems that if they can take advantage of this and develop it, they could have a stable source of national income).

With all the hype, we were eager to see it. We woke up early (again) and got a quick breakfast at the restaurant attached to the guesthouse (banana pancakes!!). We had decided to rent bikes to tour the temples. A lot of people hire tuk tuks for the day, and the drivers generally also serve as guides, but Bryan and I thought we'd be more comfortable on our own, doing things at our own pace. So we rented bikes and pedaled into the madness of the Siem Reap streets. In town it was a little hectic, but things got easier a couple of kilometers away. We stopped at a checkpoint before the temples to be issued passes- pretty serious things, with our pictures on them and everything. Then we headed straight for Angkor Wat. First we got to the massive moat that surrounds it. The moat is huge- so big that when Bryan first saw it, he thought it was the river. It took us a while to pedal along the side of it and around to the front, where we caught our first glimpse of the famous towers. It's hard to describe what it's like to see the wat for the first time, and I feel like people far more eloquent than me have done a much better job, but, to say the least, it was humbling and awe-inspiring.At the front gate for entering Angkor Wat, there were tons of touts, mostly children, selling water, guidebooks (Ancient Angkor, Lonley Planet Cambodia, Angkor Wat & Siem Reap Encounter, and many more), postcards, offering to watch your bikes for you, etc. Everyone shouts out what they have and sometimes they approach you, but generally they let it go pretty quickly if you make it clear that you aren't interested. One girl helped us find a place to park our bikes, even though we didn't really need the help. We bought some water from her using American dollars, which is a strange thing about Cambodia. Everyplace accepts American money in addition to Cambodian riel. However, no one has American coins, so if you pay in US dollars and you need change, you'll get riel back. It was really strange to be using US dollars in a place so drastically different from where I'm used to spending them. Anyway, while the girl was fetching us an ice cold bottle of water, her friend approached me and asked me where I was from. When I said we were from the U.S., she recited "The U.S.A. Capital, Washington, D.C. President, Obama. Two daughters, Sasha and Maliaaa." I couldn't help but laugh, and I told her that she was very smart before we headed into the gate. We heard these little recitations of U.S.A. facts from a few more kids during our trip.After buying water we headed across the moat, through the gate and up toward the wat. There were several smaller buildings in between, and even before we reached the main building I was astounded at how well preserved these buildings were- around 900 years old, and still with exquisite detail in the carvings and bas-reliefs covering the walls. Apparently one reason that the buildings within the Angkor Wat complex are so well preserved is that the moat kept the encroaching jungle at bay. The following photo is of the main gate from inside the complex, looking back. Another small building is in the foreground. This huge statue was inside the main gate building, and was pretty intimidating from afar.The first bas-relief that we saw kept our attention for quite awhile. It was just so ornate. I felt like I could have looked at it for hours and still not have absorbed all of the details. My favorite part was the elephant.I thought this looked like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, perhaps a few centuries ahead of its time.Angkor Wat was stunning in its size, and it was truly amazing to see that every square inch of the place appeared to be detailed with a carving or embellishment of some sort. Even the bottoms of columns, where they met the floor had details, and parts of the roof that were difficult to see from the ground still had some sort of flair. Another bas-relief had one layer that depicted heaven and one for hell. I have to say, the representation of heaven seemed a little skewed- men reclined on chairs while servants circled them, fanning and feeding them. So it appeared to be heaven for the men- perhaps they were gods- but what about all those servants? Hell was pretty clearly unpleasant for everyone, however- rape, torture, bondage, and ravenous animals were abundant.The Churning of the Sea of Milk was another exquisite bas-relief, but at that point we were getting antsy to move on to get some new views, so we weren't taking as many pictures. As it turned out, Angkor Wat was just as impressive from the back.I love this picture of Bryan- the background looks strangely cartoonish.We climbed a steep set of stairs to the dizzying heights of the uppermost level of Angkor Wat, and looked out over the temple and the surrounding jungle. Looking back toward the gate from high up in the temple.After we'd spent hours drinking in the Angkor Wat atmosphere, we went back out the gate to get our bikes and pedal on to Angkor Thom, a larger complex with even more temples. On the way there, we stopped at a small temple on the side of the road. Baksei Chamkrong was charming, in part because we were the only ones there. Having been constructed in the mid-10th century, it's also one of the oldest temples of Angkor, and its reddish color gives it a unique appearance.The imposing south gate of Angkor Thom. Can you spot me on my bike?As always, Bryan and I were keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. It paid off just inside the walls of Angkor Thom when I spotted some movement at the edge of the jungle. I brought my bike to a screeching halt (no seriously, it was screeching. My brakes were so loud, it was preposterous) and I pointed out a group of monkeys. Bryan and I made a beeline for them and were promptly rushed by some touts trying to sell us food to feed the monkeys, which of course, we declined. The monkeys were long-tailed macaques, but were a different subspecies than the type I work with in S'pore. They were much larger than my monkeys, had lighter colored faces, darker fur on their heads, and much more white around their eyes. I think they might have been dark-crowned long-tailed macaques, but I'm not sure.Eventually we peeled ourselves away from the monkeys and headed to Bayon, one of the larger temples in Angkor Thom. In the towers of Bayon, we could hear bats chattering away, and the floors were covered in guano. This was a hallway of doorways within the temple. I was standing at the end of the hallway, and some strange trick of the light made me appear like a goddess!We finally left Bayon and biked past the Central Square, the Terrace of Elephants, out the Victory Gate, and past Thommanon. We stopped briefly at Ta Keo, pictured below.
Then we got to Ta Prohm!! I was really excited about Ta Prohm because it has some unique trees that have grown all over the temple ruins, and the Ta Prohm temple trees were featured in 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. I have a list of things that I hope to accomplish in my lifetime, and seeing 100 of these 1001 wonders is on that list, so I was excited to add another natural wonder to my tally! The trees did not disappoint. It's difficult to convey their size in photos- the trees were massive, completely dwarfing the ruins. Bryan and I posed with the trees to give them some scale.The trees are obviously bad for the preservation of the ruins- they displace bricks and wear away at the delicate carvings, sometimes completely engulfing large portions of buildings. The trees didn't even really look like plants, they looked more like ooze. In fact, they reminded me a lot of pizza dough.This is probably the most frequently photographed temple tree.We entered through the back of one of the temples, and came out next to a sign that said "NO ENTRY DANGER" Whoops!Of course, Alice and Flat Gavin joined us in Cambodia for another adventure!We finally headed away from the temples and back toward town. We biked about 27 km (~ 17 miles) that day.Back in town, we were VERY ready to eat dinner, so we dropped off our bikes and decided to see what Cambodia's version of Mexican food was like. We headed over to Viva! and had burritos that were much better than any of the Singaporean Mexican fare I've sampled. Then we checked out Angkor What?, a must-see for us, since we'd been making "wat" puns pretty much since we boarded the plane to Cambodia ("Saaaay WAT?!"). Angkor What? is a little bar that lets people write all over the walls and serves Mekong whiskey. Since we were there at about 4 pm, we were literally the only ones in the place. After that, we roamed around town a little bit, taking in the bustling streets and stopping at a couple of places for a $0.75 Angkor beer- cheap and heavenly after a hot, dusty day.As we were walking down the street, we saw these boys walking and laughing. As soon as they saw us, they turned serious and started rubbing their stomachs, asking for money. It's always heartbreaking to say no, but we'd been advised not to give money to children, who are often required to hand over the money to someone else that may not be a parent. Sadly, the child sex industry is thriving in Cambodia, so you can never be sure that you're really helping a child, or perhaps just contributing to something horribly sinister. Unless, of course, you hand out food, and we didn't have any on us.As we were sitting outside a cafe, we began hearing Rihanna blasting from somewhere nearby. I looked all around, and found that it was coming from Borei's tricked out rock 'n' roll tuk tuk!! This enterprising gentleman has set up his sweet ride to blast music, and he can even plug in your iPod to play your own music. We had just sat down so we had to decline a ride, but about 30 minutes later, we began roaming the streets looking for him, hoping to get a serenaded tour around town. We never found him, but some shady character pulled up next to us on his motorbike and offered "Weed? Marijuana? Cocaine?" Needless to say, we beat feet out of that part of town pretty fast.Later on, we headed to the Temple Club and caught an Apsara performance (a type of traditional Khmer dance) by some elegantly costumed young ladies.At that point, after a very taxing day, our camera's battery finally gave up and died. No small wonder, considering that the tons of pictures that I'm posting are only a small fraction of the ones we actually took. We stayed out for a little longer, taking in the sights and enjoying our last night in Cambodia. There was one final morning in Cambodia, but I won't do a whole post on it since we mostly just roused ourselves out of bed early (AGAIN!) and got a tuk tuk to the airport, where we ate breakfast and I discovered that, despite a lifetime of avoiding them, I actually love baked beans! Hunger will drive you to try some strange things. We left Cambodia feeling happy with our time there, and I know that I was hopeful that I would return someday.


  1. Those long-tailed macaques sure look quite different from those in Singapore!