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Published: February 15th 2012
ONE THING THAT TRAVELING DOES is constantly break any and all stereotypes you have about a place. Take Cambodia for example. When I hear the word “Cambodia” I think of rural countryside, traditional villages, ancient ruins. Instead, after a long bus ride from Bangkok we arrived in Siem Reap and were greeted by neon lights, raging dance clubs, women in skin tight mini dresses, karaoke bars and lady boys selling frog legs (“sexy frogs…from sexy lady boy?”). While this obviously isn’t representative of the entire country, it is still at least a small part of it.Apparently the word is out on Siem Reap, home of the famous archeological ruins Angkor Wat.
In addition to having the most famous ruins in all of Southeast Asia Siem Reap just happens to be completely and totally adorable. Built alongside a picturesque river, brimming with international restaurants and shady tree lined streets, it quite accurately captures the sophisticated essence of it’s colonizer, France. Fancy a Hawaiian pizza? How about a tri-colored pasta? And, would you like an iced latte with that? Sure, why not. Although I felt guilty gorging on these savory delicacies rather than
eating local Cambodian food at every meal, I have to admit I enjoyed the familiar tastes. The shopping in Siem Reap is nothing short of spectacular as well. Several markets line the banks of the river selling beautifully made Cambodian handicrafts – silks, ethnic clothing, recycled bags, scarves. A few streets down is an area dedicated to the hordes of backpackers that drag their feet through Siem Reap on their obligatory Angkor Wat stop – Pub Street. Here sun burnt faces down cheap beer and dance to American pop music (I’m Sexy And I Know It!) on the tabletops of glitzy, faux-chic clubs. To be honest the scene felt a bit irreverent to me, especially having just left India; but maybe I’m just getting old.
We decided to explore Angkor Wat on bike so we could go at our own pace. I know this is considered a sin by many, but we only went for one day since the tickets were expensive ($20 for one day or $40 for three) and we are quickly running out of both liquid funds and time. I will admit it was rushed, but we made the most of the time we had. The
entire Angkor Archeological Park is really beautiful. It is a maze of swaying vines, gnarled tree branches and glowing green marshes with huge temple complexes jutting out of the vegetation every few kilometers. A common misconception is that Angkor Wat is the name of the entire park, but in fact Angkor Wat is just one temple of many in the archeological zone. We entered through the South gate of Angkor Thom, past the two rows of stone asuras (figures), under a giant stone archway with three crowned heads staring down at us and on to the majestic temple complex of Bayon. The outline of Bayon back lit by the morning sun was incredible. As you walk deeper into the complex giant stone faces began to take shape, their creases filled with dark soot collected over the decades. As you move about the complex they smile down at you with kind, gentle eyes. Bayon is composed of a hodge podge of staircases, archways, columns with carvings of celestial dancers (asparas), and the primary towers which contain the large smiling faces. There are also two bas-relief galleries, long stone walls with intricate carvings of battle scenes and daily Khmer life. These galleries
were the most interesting to me because of the nature of their images - people hunting in the woods, women cooking over an open fire, men heading off to war – these were the things that the Khmer held important, the details of their lives. They allowed me to picture Cambodia at that time and gave the temple a human face, transformed it from a pile of bricks to a story of culture and humanity.
After Bayon we continued biking through the jungle stopping to photograph several smaller temples along the way until we reached the vine covered ruins of Ta Prohm. This is the image that comes to mind when I hear the words Angkor Wat, and probably you do as well, as it is the most photographed temple. Fat, swollen tree roots have grown all over the ruins, intertwining and becoming one with the stone, creating one large phantasmal creature. It’s hard to imagine Ta Prohm without these roots, as they are what gives it so much character. The complex of Ta Prohm is large as well with many different areas to explore - doorways lead to courtyards which lead to hallways which lead to more doors.
While we were there, however, it was heavily under construction. Huge piles of bricks were strewn haphazardly throughout the complex. Within the piles you could pick out recognizable images – half the iris of an eye, or the upturned corner of a lip. If you ventured too far in any one direction you were suddenly encompassed in the thick jungle that surrounds Ta Prohm on every side. We spent the better part of the afternoon picking through the ruins and then moved on so that we could catch Angkor Wat for sunset.
We biked another 5 km or so through the jungle until we saw the familiar flicker of the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. We approached from the main gate, down a long a long promenade lined by nagas (serpents with several heads) passing over the moat and onto the temple lawns. Smaller temples flank either side and further on still are two rectangular twin reflecting pools. In the background the symbol of Cambodia, the majestic Angkor Wat temple looms overhead. The first thing you encounter as you enter the temple complex are the long hallways of bas reliefs that lead out to either side. As in Bayon,
the scenes are quite intricate and complex, although these images are primarily gritty battle scenes. The longer you look at the carvings, the more you see. There are multiple layers of details, making them practically three dimensional. Lighter, more subtle images hide behind the most visible carvings in the front. Next we wandered on into the interior of the main courtyard and up the steps to the higher terrace where you can gaze out over the entire complex. The temple felt very regal and powerful. The design was perfectly angular. And clean. No moss or overgrowth here. While impressive in it’s grandeur, it struck me that I found it quite boring, arrogant even. It lacked both the lush scenery of Ta Prohm and the quiet charm of Bayon. When you throw in the hordes of tourists here that had not been present at the other two, it definitely paled in comparison. The thousands of images I have seen of it displayed on postcards, paintings, and brochures all over Southeast Asia flashed across my eyelids. Oh well, I thought, if I was the symbol of a nation and one of the best known monuments on the continent I would be a
bit full of myself too.
We spent the next few days riding our bikes through the shady streets of Siem Reap, eating at cute cafes and checking out the numerous markets. One evening while wandering through the arts and crafts market we happened upon a place called Massage By Blind. Although still recovering from my traumatic massage experience in India, I had read that this place was reputable and plus I love supporting organizations that help disadvantaged populations, so we decided to try it out. The massage was incredible! The masseuses were incredibly talented; using a combination of deep pressure, medium pressure, and stretching techniques. It was not your typical relaxation massage, however, they really stretched and worked our muscles until they turned to jelly. The only real shocker came at the end. I was laying there with my eyes closed, thinking that it was over, when I heard the slap. This was followed by a sharp stinging sensation. There it was again, and then the pain, again. My masseuse was literally slapping my back over and over again. This lasted about 30 seconds, and then it was done. That was the grand finale. It wasn’t quite what I
was expecting, but it did leave my skin feeling revitalized and awake. I heard the same thing happening on the massage table next to me, so I assume that he wasn’t just mad at me – that it was an actual technique they had been taught.
The longer we stayed in Cambodia the more I began to notice the after effects of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war that plagued the country until the recent past. Just before traveling here I had read Loung Ung’s book First They Killed My Father, a memoir about the Khmer Rouge, so the destruction and trauma people experienced weighed heavily on my mind. I often caught myself wondering how old someone had been during the Khmer Rouge, or if they had lost family members. In fact, the more I thought about it the more visible the effects became. The most obvious of these effects were the people who were missing limbs. One morning while having breakfast we were approached five different times by beggars, three of the times were by people who were missing a limb. Each of these individuals was wearing a sign that read “land mind victim.” The land
mines are one of the many ways that the war continues to haunt Cambodians today. It was a strong reminder that many of the places we are visiting for fun, often beautiful and exotic, are situated in locales that face very serious issues – be it wars, starvation, poverty, or corruption. I feel the least I can do as a traveler is to be aware of these painful histories as well as the present challenges and spend my money in ways that support these communities and contribute to growth.
To see more pics of Siem Reap see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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