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Published: June 16th 2014
It's only a two hour flight from Đà Nẵng to Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park. Before leaving Vietnam for the next leg of our journey we had to take advantage of our proximity to this famous site. The Khmer empire ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from around 800AD to the 15th century. Angkor was the capital city of this shifting empire and comprises over 1000 temples in various states of decay spread out over 400 square kilometers. The temples built by the Khmers survived changes in rulers, ideologies, languages and religions before they were forgotten and ignored for centuries. The 'discovery' of the temples in the 1850's lead to much pillaging of sacred statues and carvings by both individuals looking to make a buck and museums in the name of education. When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia off from the rest of the world, the temples were mostly forgotten once again. In the mid-1990's tourists first started to trickle in to Cambodia to see these incredible ruins and by 2005 tourism had become the main source of income for the province. Siem Reap, the closest city, is a raucous jumble of hotels and restaurants, markets
and shops, which was forced to grow up amidst this boom.
I've separated this post into two parts: Siem Reap and Angkor. Like the format our opinions and feelings about the trip were divided. Siem Reap shocked us in many ways. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and is, tragically, known worldwide as one of the top places to procure children for sex. These children are very often sold into slavery by their own parents who are forced to make the decision to sacrifice one child to feed others. We read up on child safe tourism and steeled ourselves to expect begging but to see so many small children asking for money or food was heartbreaking. We had not experienced anything like it in our travels so far; not in Sri Lanka, not in Vietnam or Bali, not in Laos. Children were dressed in rags, if at all, barefoot, and moved from table to table of tourists at outdoor restaurants. Every single organization and human rights group focused on Southeast Asia asks tourists not to give them money directly, often their parents or criminal groups force children to beg as they know foreigners can't resist
them. If tourists continue to give, the cycle will continue. The answer, we learned, is to give to a reputable charity that supports these children and their families and helps them lift themselves out of poverty. Still, it was incredibly difficult to say no.
But children aren't the only ones to suffer. In Koulen National Park we walked past a long line of stalls displaying elephant tusks and tigers' teeth. Several people sold jewelry or religious iconography made from the ivory. On the steps to the temple (Wat Preah Ang Thon) men and women spread out bottles of snake's blood and pieces of animals' bodies, vying for space with the beggars. The head of a wild deer (many species of which are under pressure) along with it's skin and bones were hung on a fence and stewn along the walkway. The poaching industry is driven by the desire of body parts for medicinal or spiritual purposes and, on a smaller level, the "bush meat" trade. Cambodia has several vulnerable and endangered species. In the past it failed to monitor and regulate trade leaving loopholes in the law for poachers to jump through. This illegal trade still supplies
an enormous global black market. Sadly, we've become accustomed to this attitude toward animals - Vietnam is considered the worst country when it comes to the illegal trade of rhino horns and tiger parts - but we hadn't come face to face with it there. Everything we saw here was for sale right out in the open although Matt was told he could not take photographs.
Seeing these things made both of us angry but we had to remind ourselves that much of the trade in endangered species arises from the desperate poverty in Cambodia. It is visible everywhere you look. And yet the contradiction is that in spite of this, and the country's violent, bloody history, every person we met was truly warm and friendly.
Our driver, Mr. Heng, talked openly with us and was more than willing to answer all of our questions. In turn he asked us a lot of questions about the ongoing dispute between Vietnam and China on which he took take a strong anti-Vietnam stance. No surprise considering the long, complicated history between these two countries. Cambodia's population of 14 million is dwarfed by Vietnam's 88 million. Mr. Heng was born and
raised on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia and grew up amongst mainly Vietnamese Cambodians. Today the Vietnamese are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Cambodia with a significant presence and influence on the culture and many Cambodians feel culturally overwhelmed. Like many people from small towns he and his family left his village behind to follow the trail of tourists at Siem Reap.
Almost from the moment we arrived I was aggravated that we had booked such a short amount of time in Cambodia. There was so much that aroused my curiousity. But for this trip we were focused on temples. The next three days we visited Phnom Kulen National Park, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, East Mebon, Ta Som and Ta Prohm. Not an easy feat, I can tell you, under the searing sun.
We arrived at Angkor Wat, the most famous temple, before dawn. It was already almost too hot to bear at 5:30AM when we followed a hushed crowd down the walkway toward the temple, the stars still bright in the deep blue sky. At sunrise the temple was silhouetted and then set aglow with orange, pink, magenta.
It was the perfect way to begin our first day of exploration.
As the day progressed the heat bore down so viciously I could feel my brain start to simmer. At a certain point it just shut down and I lost the ability to retain any more information about the ruins we were touring. A heat rash on my inner arm that first erupted in Sri Lanka re-appeared. We knew when we booked the tickets that visiting in June would be a trade-off: we'd encounter fewer tourists but the heat and humidity would be excruciating.
I found myself letting go of all the information in the guide book and instead walking into mostly empty temples and finding a place to sit down in the shade. Butterflies were everywhere, ephemeral flashes of neon against the rust coloured sandstone. When it got really hot we noticed clusters of them flying in slow lazy circles and by mid-day they would descend on the sweaty handprints we left on the stones greedy for salt and minerals.
Except for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom the temples we chose to visit were almost deserted, several times we were completely alone. It was so
quiet. Matt snapped details of pediments and I sat and listened to the birds and looked off through the trees and thick vegetation outside the perimeter of the temples, trying to imagine what they were like when they were populated first by Hindus and then Buddhists. The silence merged with the heat and the humidity and coalesced into a haze. At Ta Prohm small yellow drops of sticky liquid fell onto our heads and clothes; we looked up to see several beehives - each at least one meter across - high up in the trees. One flashed before our eyes as a ripple of bees carried out a synchronised movement. I could feel the ages and hear the echo of footsteps belonging to tourists, looters and archeologists that had worn a shine into the steps until the carvings were almost invisible. The act of reclamation by the forest, especially at Ta Prohm, is mysterious and magical. It exposes the centuries that the deities had lain abandoned and forgotten, embraced only by the creeping vegetation sliding sibilantly through cracks and myna birds screaming overhead. I thought of the builders, whoever they were, stacking block after block in this crazy heat. How
many were injured or died? The level of devotion required is almost incomprehensible.
In the past century and a half, entire walls of reliefs were clumsily sheared off and statues sold whole to the highest bidder. But outside the crumbled perimeter wall at Banteay Srei stones lay like soldiers in straight lines, numbered and waiting to be put returned to their proper places. And still the memory of millions of prayers remain.
Heat slowed everything down and forced us to retreat inside our own heads. Sounds receded, urgency dissolved. The original plan was to visit the temples in the morning and spend the afternoons by the pool with cold drinks but we kept renegotiating with each other. "Just one more temple. Just another hour."
At the next stop the voices of the only other couple were so far ahead of us they were easy to ignore. I turned down the security guard's offers for a "VIP tour". They are there to ensure tourists don't overstep the ropes that protect the delicate carvings and crumbling stones but this one helped visitors crawl over barriers and took photos of them with their hands, bodies, and faces pressed to the
worn carvings. Turning away I discovered an isolated shady spot where I could sit and wait for Matt to finish shooting. I decided I didn't need to see every corner of every temple. Instead I let the years and devotion seep through the stones and into my body as I enjoyed a few quiet moments of reflection. On this trip I spent a lot time tut-tutting over careless desecration, mostly in the name of money but also because of foolishness. Matt and I saw graffiti at several of the temples, carved right into the sandstone over carvings thousands of years old. Looking out, listening to the birds and the jungle I realized that it didn't matter. The temples won't be diminished. The people who carved "Minh - Malaysia"and "Praath Anan 3/10/10" into the walls at Angkor Wat will eventually turn to dust, but the spirit of this place will continue in one form or another.
I will finish by passing on the same advice that many gave to us. If you are in the area, if you have the opportunity, go.
You won't regret it.
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