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Published: August 7th 2007
CAMBODIA: PART 1 OF 3
It always amazes me to visit new countries and experience unique cultures. Travelling to Cambodia introduced me to a culture which has experienced unbearable suffering, but yet has overcome their anguish and continued on as a nation of friendly and generous people. Arriving at the airport late on the night of March 21st I was immediately reminded of South America, where people greet each other with warm smiles and do not hesitate to conversate with a random passerby. Although airports are generally miserable places (especially when you are tired and hungry), I was immediately entertained by a group of customs officials who joked with me as I waited for my Cambodian Visa to be processed. Maybe because I was travelling solo, or maybe because I have been immersed in a "not-so-expressive" culture for the past 2 years, but the kindness I was showed at the airport was the perfect first impression of a country which did not disappoint.
The first 3 days of my Cambodian tour were spent exploring the ancient buildings of Angkor Wat during the day, and then touring Siem Reap during the evenings with two Hungarian friends from Tokyo, Berni
This temple is famous for its numerous stone faces which stare down at you as you tour the temple.
and Zoltan. Berni was lucky enough to have a Cambodian friend in Siem Reap, so instead of sticking strictly to the tourist activities and restaurants we were led to the local hangouts and feasted on real Cambodian cuisine. Sineth, our Cambodian friend, was the perfect guide for us. Her English was perfect, and she was not uncomfortable discussing any subject, so we were able to ask many questions. Learning of the injustices done to locals by large multinational corporations in terms of wages and working hours was astonishing. The majority of hotel workers (desk attendants, cleaning staff, etc.) in and around Siem Reap work from sunrise to sunset, 6 days a week... for a mere $60 - $70 a month! But, for many Cambodians that salary promises stability, and even Sineth (who was currently unemployed) wanted such a job because as she put it, she is "an expensive girl" and needs "a good salary. " It certainly is interesting going from one economy to another!
Although I had read bits of my Cambodia travel guide prior to travelling, I had not done much research on the actual temples of Angkor, and did not know much about their creation. I
flew into Siem Reap knowing that I wanted to see the world's largest religious monument, but other than that, really had no expectations. With that said...Angkor Wat is amazing!!! Walking through temples which are hundreds of years old is an absolutely breathtaking experience!! (...even more so once you have read a bit about each temple and have an idea of its history 😊 I will admit, being as ingnorant as I was about Angkor, 1 year ago I thought that the attraction was just one large temple, but in reality there are numerous temples spread out over approximately 40 miles around the city of Siem Reap. The temples were built between the 8th and 13th centuries and range from single towers made of bricks to vast stone temple complexes. Travelling from one complex to another via tuk tuk
and touring through the majestic temples which were constructed to honor both royalties and deities was an unforgettable experience. Unlike other World Heritage Sites, the temples of Angkor are boundary-free and visitors are not restricted to set paths. Being able to walk right up to beautiful sculptures, crawl under little archways, and sit on the same stone benches which were used by
powerful rulers hundreds of years ago really takes sightseeing to another level. Due to its size and grandeur, many tourists declare Angkor Wat (the actual wat, not the city of) as their favorite temple, but I think that after a full 2 days of temple visits I would have to say that I was most taken with Bayon, a massive temple complex built by Jayavarman VII between 1181 and 1220. Bayon features 3,936 feet of bas-relief carvings and mysterious Buddha faces carved on the towers. The Buddha faces are probably what attracted me to this temple so much. They all look so happy, and although a little creepy from some angles, create a unique atmosphere within the temple.
Mixed in amongst my pictures there is a picture of a single monk dressed in orange. This is Pasum, yet another kind Cambodian who contributed to my understanding of Cambodian culture. To finish off our first day of temple visits Bernie, Zoltak and I decided to opt for a low-key sunset at Bayon (as opposed to the mountain sunset which we were saving for our second night). It was here, while waiting for dusk, that I met and spoke with Pasum.
Pasum at Bayon
This is Pasum, a monk who was kind enough to share his story with me.
Pasum, wanting to practice his English, was more than happy to answer my questions about life as a monk in Cambodia. He became a monk when he was 10 years old, but it was not neccessarily for the religious aspects, but rather that his family had no money, and by becoming a monk he was provided with food, sheltar and education. He was in Angkor visiting his mother, but his monestary is actually in Phnom Penh. His father died a few years ago, which has made life even harder for his family. When I asked him if he enjoyed being a monk he smiled and told me that the more he studies at the monestary, "the happier his heart is." Sitting there on the benches of Bayon, looking at the stone Buddha faces, and talking with Pasum was just so peaceful... it is so weird to think about an experience such as this, and then to think of another moment in my life where I have been surrounded by the noise, smells and rush of a large city.
After a late night of dancing at the famous "Angkor What?" nightclub in Siem Reap, my third day I opted for
a morning of shopping followed by an afternoon tour to the Floating Village of Tonle Sap Lake. Although I was a little iffy about the idea of passing on a third and final day of temple visits, I am now really happy I made this change of plans. The floating village of Tonle Sap Lake is about a 30 minute tuk tuk
ride from the center of Siem Reap, and is a really interesting little community of about 4,000 people. The entire community is composed of fisherman and their families, and they all live in little wooden houses which float. During the dry season the entire town (including the floating police station, church, restaurants and schools) moves their buildings to the lake, but once rainy season approaches they all set a date and tow their buildings towards higher ground for safety. It was a very interesting little community, complete with a crocodile farm which is attached to the restaurant. (I asked my guide what the purpose of the crocodiles was and he motioned toward the restaurant where crocodile could be purchased.. and then toward the gift shop, where crocodile skin merchandise were on display! Sick!) So, with the sun shining
The famous tree of Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed
Construction on Ta Prohm began in 1186. Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII.
An inscription at Ta Prohm provides statistics on the temple's workers. Allowing for some exaggeration to honor the king, the inscription's report of around 80,000 workers, including 2700 officials and 615 dancers!
and a guide that spoke perfect English (the Cambodian government had sent him to England to study for 6 months), I spent my afternoon pleasently touring the village of Tonle Sap Lake in a boat similar to those of Thailand.
To wrap up my Siem Reap adventure I met up with the others at "Temple Balcony" and enjoyed a beautiful show of traditional Khmer dance as we feasted on delicious Khmer cuisine.
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