Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Angkor What?

It is hard to begin any discussion about Cambodia without some background. It is hard otherwise to appreciate the miraculous way these people continue through history (recent and past) to pick themselves up and continue their lives as gracious, joyful, proud human beings after living through so many unthinkable atrocities. In recent history, these atrocities have been perpetrated upon them by their own people (the Khmer Rouge), who both starved and worked them to death in work camps, or brutally tortured them before murdering them in mass executions. The number of deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge while in power from 1975-1979 is estimated at between 2 to 3 million.

This unthinkable genocide took place after Cambodia survived the unprecedented magnitude of ordinance dropped on indiscriminate sites in this country during the Vietnam War. Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.

And if that wasn’t enough, according to whoever records these things, Cambodia has one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

I could go into more detail, but I think this paints a clear enough picture. These people are survivors. Learning about their history and spending time in their country, has really been an education. The borders in this part of the world have been redrawn so many times, by so many governments that the populations of all of the countries in South East Asia are like a patchwork quilt. Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and Cambodians everywhere, either displaced through war and border realignments, relocated through political agreements, or escaping from one country or the other as refugees.

Somehow, with everything they have all been through, they manage to live together, at least on the surface, in harmony. I know as a tourist, I really have no real idea of what goes on here, but I am trying to get a grasp of it, because I find it to be a miracle of survival. And I want to believe that different ethnic peoples can live in peace even after killing each other so recently. (I have a vested interest in this concept.) I know hate must exist here, but it doesn’t destroy the possibility of progress and prosperity. Cambodia’s economy is growing steadily and life seems to be improving for these people. Seeing this with my own eyes has had a profound impact on me.

There were some other surprises too. The town of Siem Reap is not at all what I expected.

Big resort hotels line Airport Road coming into town, which is divided by the river. The centre of town is packed with resort style restaurants, hotels of all price levels, open markets, covered markets and storefronts. All of the signs are in both English and Kampuchean. All prices are in US dollars. Even the ATMs spit out American greenbacks. The streets, restaurants, and markets are filled with well-healed travelers here to experience the temples of Angkor Wat and beyond, visit floating villages, and marvel at the colourful silks and shimmering silver jewelry in the markets.

In my mind, I was expecting a small strip of basic hotels, tuk tuk drivers to take you out to the temples and moneychangers to give us piles of Cambodian Riel (the rate of exchange is 4,000 Riel for one US dollar). I also wasn’t expecting the population of Siem Reap province to be 1.8 million. When I started looking for a hotel online, I realized quickly that this town was no small village. Even before we arrived though, I knew there was something great about this place. Every hotel here gets great reviews. To me this is a sure sign that the people living and working in Siem Reap are content. And that the people visiting Siem Reap are having an amazing time!

I booked us into the Angkor Riviera (which everyone here calls the River-a), a large hotel on the river; five minutes walk from Pub Street and the Old Market. It ended up being as perfect as I had hoped. Great room, great breakfast, close enough to the action, but far enough away to be quiet.

We spent six nights and five days here. Three of those days were spent exploring temples from early morning to sunset. We spent our first day at the main temples of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complexes with a small group tour. For the second day we decided on a private car and guide to visit the temples at Pre Rup, Bantea Srei, and Banteay Samre, and the river of a thousand linga at Kbal Spean. By day three we decided we didn’t need a guide and hired a great tuk tuk driver to take us 70k out of town to the temples of Beng Melea with a visit to the Rolous complex on the way back. This gave us time to appreciate the countryside at our own pace. Each long, hot and tiring day of touring was concluded with great Khmer food, happy hour cocktails, and either market hopping, a cultural dance performance or a walk down Pub Street. We enjoyed every minute of our stay here.

I could write six more paragraphs about the large number of temples we visited, but I think the photos speak for themselves. Somehow, through all of the war and bloodshed here, these monuments remain as a reminder of another time.

Just a few facts: They were built between the 9th and 15th century when this area was the base of the Khmer Empire. The temples number over 1000 and are in all sizes and shapes, representing both Hindu and Buddhist religions. Some have been restored and some are simply piles of rubble. No matter how many you visit, you can be sure to be amazed.

Before coming here, I had only heard of Angkor Wat. I had no idea that this huge temple, considered to be the world’s largest religious monument, was one of over 1000! We did not visit 1000, but we did see our share of Buddhas, asperas, Shiva linga, and white, pink and red sandstone as well as brick structures. Some were massive and some were small. Some were intricately carved while others were simple. Some were full of interesting tree root structures and others were fully restored. I think we can safely say we did the temples of Angkor!

Sadly all good things must come to an end. We were picked up at our hotel by a minivan that would take us to the bus station where we would catch our bus to Phnom Penh. As our minivan left the hotel parking lot, there was a tap on our window. I looked over and there was our tuk tuk driver all smiles, waving us a final farewell. What a wonderful final memory of our stay here! If you are ever in Siem Reap, and you are in need a reliable driver, you should look him up. His name is Cheng Sangha and his usual spot is the Hotel Angkor Riviera. Tell him Naomi and Marc sent you!

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