At Angkor WatSiem Reap, Cambodia
In front of one of the structures inside the temple grounds
August 11-15, 2010
Siem Reap is a combination of one of my least favorite places in Asia and one of my most treasured.
When I went to Bangkok, Thailand three years ago, I was disgusted and saddened by the paedophilia, prostitution and use of children as beggars. These are the same things that turn me off from Siem Reap. Walking down the street, I am offered lady boom boom, girl boom boom, lady-boy boom boom, Marijuana, opium and cocaine at least every five minutes. It is worse in some of the late night clubs. Being a male traveling by myself makes this happen a lot more than when I am with Christine.
Inbetween these offers, I have been hit up by children acting as beggars and salespeople, while their parents or pimps sit on a street corner waiting for them to return with money or food. Everything is given to the adult, and the child is sent back out on the street until late in the evening. I have seen these children hit, and worse yet, driven away with the pimp and a middle-aged white men to return about 45 minutes later. I watched as
A Cambodian pedicure
the parent or child paid a cut to the local police officer who turned his back as these transactions took place. The children beggars, in fear of returning to the adult empty-handed, are extremely aggressive and refuse to take no for an answer; often turning mean and sometimes even getting physical. It is sad what corrupt governments, poverty and war can create.
I watched all this take place as I sat dangling my feet in a tank of flesh-eating fish--a Cambodian pedicure. I did this everyday, which gave me the opportunity to talk to the locals and fellow tourists, and see the world go by. I must admit, it felt hypocritical to spend $2 on a fish pedicure while such poverty and crime surrounded me. But it also reminded me to see and appreciate the privilege in my life and in America where I can use my resources to make a difference for others.
There was also another side to Siem Reap that reminded me of Bagon in Myanmar (Burma). In both places, I climbed ancient temples and explored the different sites by tuk-tuk, a moped-pulled cart.
Siem Reap is home to the ancient temples of Angkor,
Monks going to worship
At the temple of Angkor Wat... I felt so fortunate to capture this image!
religious structures built nearly 1000 years ago by the god-kings of the Khmer empire. It is difficult to describe in words the impressive mass or ornate details of the stone temples, but the 200+ photos I took should help a little. It was equally difficult to choose which ones to post on my travelblog.
I spent three days visiting and photographing the sites. Surprisingly, this was not as much of a spiritual journey as I thought it would be, but I was overcome with historical fascination. Throughout my treks, I did a lot of reading to learn the history of the Cambodian people, both ancient and recent. It is quite a rich history that is filled with war and royalty.
The Angkor temple area has about 100 temples in a two-square mile radius, all made of fitted stone blocks. Many of these temples are surrounded by now waterless moats with temples and shrines inside each complex. Every square inch of the temples is decorated by carvings which include: nymphs, devils, gods, goddesses, lotus flowers, sea serpents, vines, symbols and visuals of various myths and legends.
The largest and most popular of these temples is Angkor Wat. It
At the Temple Bayon
is actually the largest religious structure in the world and was built in 1150 for King Suryavarman II as a tribute to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Seeing Angkor Wat was pretty impressive and it definitely is huge... but not one of my favorites.
I don't know if I can actually pick a favorite, but I can choose my top three: Bayon, Ta Prahm and Beng Melea.
What makes Bayon so cool are all the enigmatic smiling stone faces that resemble their builder, King Jayavarman VII. Everywhere you look in Bayon you can see these giant faces, all at a different angle, just staring straight ahead and smiling. Built around 1200, King J wanted to outdo his predecessors, so he built lots of pretty neat temples. Being a devout buddhist, he also added many buddhist carvings and sculptures.
Ta Prohm is on my top three because nature has taken over. Massive trees have grown on top of the temples and their huge roots have embedded themselves within the structures. Some parts of the temples have fallen due to these trees, but that just makes it even better.
My other favorite, Beng Melea, is way off the beaten
Where nature took over temple
path--about 45 miles outside of Siem Reap. Beng Melea has been subsumed by jungle. It is half in ruins which made me feel like Indiana Jones; climbing the fallen rocks and squeezing between collapsed pillars and doorways. There weren't a lot of tourists there, so John and I explored without much interruption.
Another fun adventure on the way to Beng Melea was visiting Kbal Spean. Set deep in the jungle, this included a hefty, sweaty hike, but playing in the waterfall at the end made it all worthwhile.
My reason for coming to Cambodia was to explore the legacy of war in this area. Nothing illustrates this point more than meeting the victims of landmines. Many of the adult beggars in Siem Reap are limbless Cambodians who have been maimed by the scores of mines placed by Vietnamese, American and Cambodian governments. As a result, Cambodia has the largest number of amputees per capita. Most of the victims I met were soldiers who stepped on a mine during the civil war. One man, Mr. Deuk, refuses to beg and sells books from a basket strapped around his neck. Many of the more recent victims are children or farmers
Legacy of War
The very real threat of landmines
who just ventured into uncleared territory.
While I wasn't too impressed by the landmine museum, my conversations with landmine victims was life-changing for me. When I return to the United States, I will investigate an NGO (which unfortunately I wasn't able to visit) to see how I can contribute.
One of the other things I wanted to do in Cambodia was talk to locals about their experiences of war. Reading about the Khmer Rouge is one thing, but to hear from a fellow human-being about their suffering is tragic. One man, Sopaea, told me about how his grandfather, a corn farmer, was shot and killed in his field because he gave some of his corn crop to his family instead of the government. Later, his father was killed and his mother and two-year old brother were imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge. The baby wouldn't stop crying, so the guards took the baby by his feet and beat him to death against a tree. He said his mom is now "not right in the head" and he, as the only surviving male of seven siblings, is working two jobs to support his families. His hope in life is to
be able to pay for his daughter to go to school. These are the very real and very ongoing efffects of war.
On a lighter note, my nights and early mornings have been spent at the raucous night life in Siem Reap, where I have learned I am the oldest solo traveler... but still fabulous! The most fun I had out was at a bar called Angkor What? where I danced on a bench until the wee hours. When Shakira came on, I showed tourists from around the globe how a latin swings his hips. Yeah, I know I'm not Latin, but Shakira isn't deaf and she sounds like it. So..."Whenever, wherever...I'm on tonight, You know my hips don't lie..."
I didn't so much enjoy the hooker bar, Temple, but I did meet the greatest girl from Long Beach who is teaching English in Thailand. No, she's not a hooker, but her and I chatted and danced for hours.
My oddest night out was at the X club which housed the third annual charity event... wait for it... Racing Bacon. It wasn't like the pig racing at the fair where a bunch of trained pigs run the
Finish line at a charity event at X club... Pig Racing
track for a treat. In the Cambodian version, the bar is the track with chairs and pool tables serving as an obstacle course while a bunch of drunk tourists chased terrified piglets to get to the finish line. The winner was a pig named The Swining, who beat out Schnitzel. My two favorites were Aporkolypse Now and Osama Pig Laudin, but they were only fast when running the wrong way.
At the bar, I met two very cool couples; one from Hawaii, the other from South Africa. The Hawaiian girl was so striking, I couldn't help but look at her. Neither could the South African man who was so drunk, I couldn't help but slur with him. All of them were great people whom I hope to see again in the future.
I have had such a great time going out and meeting people, that I have been completely unaware of the time. Twice I have been laughing and whooping it up when I noticed it looked funny outside. Upon closer inspection, I realized I was looking at a twilight sky and I had stayed out until morning, only to return home past 6 am.
My Little Pony
Grazing at Angkor Wat
all, Siem Reap had a lot to offer. Some of it upset me, some of it left me speechless, but all of it...
ALL OF IT...
touched me in a way that will help me make a difference in the future.
Because who I am makes a difference.
Who WE are makes a difference.
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