Back in late April of 2012 I did a very brief bucket list trip to experience first hand some of the temples of the (once hidden within the jungle) capital city of Angkor (or Yaśodharapura}, from the time of the Khmer/Angkor Empire (802-1431 AD) near the modern city, popular tourist destination of Siem Reap, Cambodia. We arrived the evening of April 23 and left on the night of the 26th… so essentially only three days. I’m posting about it now– using the notes I wrote on my Facebook account at the time to remind myself … because, to be honest… I seriously doubt I’ll ever be able to do this trip a 2nd time.
I went there with my Canadian work colleague — the one whose home, in Mill Bay Vancouver Island, I visited in June 2016. We shared an office in the Business school’s Marketing department for the entire time I taught at Kyung Hee University in Seoul South Korea… and took this trip together over the course of an extended weekend — I’m vague on it at the moment, but I think it may have been the period given to students to prepare for their midterm exams.
Normally, this blog site will only cover trips from 2015 and later… or will reference back to previous trips because of more recent ones I’d just done (like the Halloween at Three Disney Parks post, or the one regarding Stubby Henge in Rolla, Missouri, where I compared it to the henge it mirrors back in England, visited in 2014)… But this was sort of a special case and the need to post about it has been plaguing me for a while now.
IF I were to go again, it would only be if I could stay there for like three weeks or longer, which is not something I would be willing to do as a woman traveling alone. So it would mean having to find a friend willing to go with me, and to spend that long leisurely exploring the sites together. This could of course happen, I’m just not sanguine about it…. so I’ve decided I sort of HAVE to document that trip (from SIX years ago) as best as I can remember it at this point… just for the heck of it.
So, let’s get started.
First off… Siem Reap’s Airport, was TINY!! The image below was NOT from the parking lot, as you might imagine, but was rather taken from the edge of the tarmac!
(Don’t worry, the plum-colored shirt I’m wearing has the consistency of mosquito netting… utterly transparent up close, but helps keep the little malaria carriers at bay.
The building was only one story tall, so it’s of the type of airport where they bring stairs to the plane, which is about as tall as the building itself… and then you have to walk over to the building…
As you can probably tell, we were able to get a direct non-stop flight from Korea to Siem-Reap airport. [One of the things we discovered while there is that Korean pretty much dominate a segment of the tourism trade there, and are disliked by the Cambodians because their businesses are insular — creating very little profit for the locals]. Passport control for all incoming flights is one tiny room…. and then you’re out.
Inside was easily the cutest nicest passport processing area I’d ever seen, replete with what I, in-retrospect, learned to recognize as re-creations of the Angkor Wat statues that decorate most of the hotels and such around town (at the time I was a bit worried they might be originals, but they looked too shiny and clean). These are usually made by handicapped artists — often folks who survived stepping on land mines — from a training place located near our hotel (see images of that later).
The whole building was very new, and very spotless. The Cambodian government has clearly been convinced of the benefits of tourism to its economy, and has invested likewise — probably with some help from UNESCO grants (but I was guessing).
This was the North Gate bridge entrance to the Angor Thom temple complex (I know this only by searching Google maps for photos, and this location was distinct), which was the first place of many that we visited on the first day, with my friend/office mate and our tour guide for the day – who I am still Facebook friends with almost six years later (I’m putting up his link so if you go there and want a good guide… hire him). He had been an English lit major in university (and as such spoke English impressively well) but had to leave because his wife started to have health issues and he needed to earn money
and our Tuk-tuk driver, who had been assigned to us for a whole trip… He picked us up at the airport and was supposed to have dropped us off at the end, but didn’t show up. I’m pretty sure we kind of stunned him cause we treated him like our friend instead of our hired help — only I ultimately think he didn’t trust it was real. We insisted he eat with us at almost every meal (he refused the first time, but then gave in), and treated him when he argued that it was out of his price range;
we introduced him to his first cheese burger and fries [which he enjoyed a lot, although he was wondering where the vegetables were — a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce weren’t doing it for him]. During those meals, he shared with us that he had been a street kid after his parents died under the Khmer Rouge (ruled Cambodia 1975 – 1979), [for those unfamiliar with the regime, I suggest you read up about the Killing fields, or see the movie of the same name] but had been pulling himself up by his own bootstraps ever since. His English was very good, all things considered … I no longer remember his name because he never stayed in touch with us….. even though he said he would. AND, I might add, my friend was all ready to send him a box of textbooks on topics he said he’d wanted to study, because he couldn’t really afford to go to school but still wanted to able to study … For those who don’t know… the tuk-tuk, a sort of mechanized update on the rickshaw, is the omnipresent form of taxi in Cambodia — only they’re SO CHEAP that you can afford to rent them by the day, like your personal chauffeur …. MUCH more pleasant
The carvings on the bridge are from Hindu mythology, and represent a serpent that is being used in a sort of epic tug of war, to churn the sea of milk. According to our guide, the process resulted in the birth of many Hindu gods and the dancing nymphs. We saw this sort of image often throughout the temples …. as to the missing heads, sadly, he told us that during the civil war folks would knock off the best ones and sell them on the black market to private collectors.
Something you see all over while traveling around these temples is workmen reconstructing them. On one hand, this is great for tourism… but as an anthropologist, I felt like I was continuously seeing an archeologist’s nightmare in progress. What they’re doing is taking the toppled blocks up from the ground, figuring out where they go and putting them back… so … on one hand, good… on the other… worrisome
Another thing you see is these temples aren’t just tourist destinations, they are still used by the locals for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it gets pretty depressing, a few times we saw mothers who had seriously sick kids and were praying for them… Often the sort of illnesses you just don’t see in affluent societies. One particularly unforgettable example was a baby who seemed to have water on the brain so that the head was the size of a large watermelon on the torso of a baby who looked to be less than a year old.
The cleaning staff is everywhere, constantly cleaning… Again, on one hand an archaeological nightmare, but it made me think of how this must have also been true way back when these temples were in their heyday.
We were worried about this little guy, but it turned out that his mom (one of the cleaning staff) and his FIVE brothers and sisters all weren’t far away… again you saw this a lot, mom’s who were on the cleaning staff brought all their kids with them… often kids who should have been in school.
At this point I have to make an admission… I think at some point before this trip I had ‘neuroticly’ turned off GPS tracking on my phone, and as such, I’m not actually sure WHICH temples the following photos are from… they’re in order… I just can’t specify the specific locations. and there are a lot of little temples along side the big ones that I’m pretty sure they took us to, and I’m only posting what I felt were the best pictures (there were a LOT of pictures)
Our tour-guide, took us off the beaten path around the back of the temples, away from the masses of tourists so that he could share with us one of his favorite things about this place…. the chorus of birds doing jazz rifts in the forest. Also, the trees in these jungles (much of which have been cleared in order to better display the temples) have a beauty to them that’s a bit like modern art
you can’t really see it from this angle but from the side (and looking at it sideways) this lump I’m touching looked like a head and two outstretched arms.
These wild chickens are EVERYWHERE… in case you ever doubted that the domesticated chicken began in Asia and moved west…all you need to do is look at these birds
they’re definitely chickens, but look really skinny, tough and inedible…. and they run very fast. This totally makes sense, think about it… flightless birds that are as slow as our domesticated chickens really do need to be protected from predators in order to survive, while these guys move SO fast… and you have to look hard cause their chicks are almost perfectly camouflaged by the leaves
When it came to the big temples like this one my friend, who is much hardier stock than me — the woman rode her bicycle to work every day while I took a taxi because just the walk up the hill (our University’s business school was at the top of a relatively steep hill) was too much for me.
These orchestras were everywhere, and would switch out every few hours at the same choice locations. All are made up of horribly disfigured amputees, missing limbs, eyes, you name it.
More toppled stones being replaced into the locations they believe they came from, like a giant 3D puzzle.
The hoards, lining up for the obligatory picture on the pedestal… Everyone comes here wanting to take the same picture… in the same place, under the same tree… Also note all the blocks of stone that are on the ground… Those are both the walls and I assume some ceiling bits?
If you look you’ll see that in the background, behind my friend and the guide, are two trees, with one wrapping itself around the one below it…. and killing it.
And when you walk through the doorway around to the other side of the wall you see this… the roots of the killer tree like the tendrils of an alien crushing the buildings….
But again everyone wants their picture in front of it, because its also kind of beautiful. After this our guide took us to a different place, but the Tuk tuk driver needed to stop for fuel first… which turned out to be kind of a horrifying experience….
these are what roadside gas stations look like in Cambodia…. they’re everywhere, loaded up with empty water bottles or such… filled with what looks like lemonade .. but is actually fuel.
As we drove we came across monkeys sitting by the side of the road, my friend and I kept squealing out.. “Baby monkeys!! Baby monkeys!! Baby monkeys!!” Our driver had to be convinced to turn around and let us ogle them… Cambodians see them as annoying pests
For some reason, maybe it was because we’d just seen the monkeys, our guide decided that when we approached Angkor Wat the first time it should be from the back side of the temple, rather than front…
And this is where we saw a representation of the monkey wars… I forget that actual story but after our glee at seeing monkey’s this was where our tour guide took us next
Note!! The Buddhas in this hallway are all missing their heads… Again, they were broken off and sold during the civil war (according to our guide)
When they dug this temple out of the jungle, this building was dense with bats, and the ground deep with bat-shit, which is apparently very acidic. The acid mud when the rain hit it ate away the bottoms of these pillars
Locals poured into here to have a red thread tied around their wrists, and to be blessed by the old man. Our tour guide (who was wearing one) explained that it was sort of Cambodian belief that these red bracelets warded off evil spirits
The detailed caving on this wall depict a massive battle from Hindu belief; the reason it is black and shiny is from so many hands having touched them over the years. As a result, now they try to discourage people from touching the walls because all the acid from their hand is eating away at the stone the same way that bat shit ate away at that pillar
This guy had earlier in the day asked me if I would take a picture for him. Later we ran into him again, and he insisted on buying me a coconut as a thank you, an offer that I quickly took him up on. I had already figured out at lunch that coconuts were going to be my dehydration savior. I was pretty much dying at the time, when our guide suggested I get a coconut water. I slurped the thing down, and my friend said she could see the light coming back into my eyes. I ordered two more and was right as rain and good to go, after having been almost at death’s door not a few minutes before, because of dehydration.
Coconut water is not only sterile to the point where you can use it as IV fluid in a pinch… but it’s better than Gatorade at curing dehydration. He ended up buying them for our whole group (including our guide). Turned out he was a retired cop from a Malay Island we’d never heard of, and was in town for two days just so that he could see Angkor Wat before he died. We agreed that too was why we had come as well, because it was a bucket list item — we then had to explain to him what a bucket list was.
After this, they took us to a silk farm; this group is trying to ensure that the traditional skill of silk production doesn’t disappear (which it almost did after the civil war), and also as a way of trying to keep locals in the rural areas by providing them with gainful employment
I learned that raw silk is actually yellow and is the other part of the shell… while refined silk is white and is the inner part of the silk thread
if you look close you see the individual threads being drawn out
An example of a traditional Cambodian pattern, is present in the stone carvings at the temples… of course they’re taking you here in hopes that you’ll buy some silk. We didn’t.
At the end of our VERY long day, we were taken for an hour-long foot/leg massage, which was included in the cost of the tour… we later discovered that a massage like this in Cambodia only costs about $5. They even offer them in the waiting area in the airport near the duty-free shops (only more expensive).
END of Day ONE
YUP, ALL of that was ONE day… in Cambodia, in April when the average temperature is a whooping 96 F !!!! AND HUMID!!! If I were to try to do all that today in those temps, I’d die!
DAY NUMBER TWO…
On the second day we went to a less visited area where the temples had not yet been “reconstructed” and the difference in what we were looking at was radical. The other places also had stones on the ground, but nowhere near as many. I’m not sure if Angkor Wat and the places we saw the day before — which draw most of the tourists — had when re-discovered simply been in better condition than this or not… and that’s why they’re famous. (As in maybe they weren’t the best temples at the height of the Khmer Empire, but were just the ones who survived best over time).
But consider (images above and below) the state of this building and
note the HUGE difference from the ones I visited yesterday
All HAIL Coconut water… seriously, if you go to Cambodia, this is your dehydration savior. Happily they were sold everywhere. When I first got there I was suspicious but it’s actually the safest thing you can drink. Coconut water is a completely sterile solution till the moment the flesh is pierced… and the women who work these stands are SO good at their jobs that they can whack off the top chunk suck that just a tiny layer of fresh coconut fruit is left covering the top. You poke a straw through that to get at the drink inside…. and if you’ve got a spoon, you can can scrape out the fresh coconut for a snack afterwards.
Like I said before, it was Cambodia, it was HOT and it was humid…. and I have a strong preference for elevators….
My friend however was more than game to climb up the temple steps, while I stayed on the ground and took photos.
These priests were really excited to talk to us. I think most tourists kind of just look at them in awe and don’t get that priestly duty in these countries isn’t any different from say… the two obligatory years of working as a missionary is for Mormons; the only difference being as Buddhists, you can do those two years at almost any age… (I of course know all this because my boyfriend in college was a getting his Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy) Although most folks chose to do their obligatory service to the religion it at about high-school because it makes it easier to find a good job or a wife if you’ve already done it, the fact is some will even do it when they’re young children
After this, our Tuk-Tuk driver took us to this temple, after asking us first if he could. As I said previously his parents died under the Khmer Rouge… these memorials, which include the actual bones dug up from the killing fields offer a stark reminder to the Cambodians of those times. It marks the location of the one the 20,000 mass grave sites that were uncovered after the end of the regime. To save on ammunition, most of these people were killed via blunt force trauma, hammers, blades, axes, etc.. The location is not just a holocaust spot, but rather doubles as a school and orphanage, so alongside this visual is the sound of children’s laughter.
At the end of the day, after a bit of a rest they took us to a buffet and show (included in the price of the hotel, if you can believe it); we insisted that our Tuk-tuk driver eat with us rather than stay out at the vehicle, which turned out to be a very good thing for us because, and we didn’t know this in advance, until he broke his leg in an accident which resulted in a limp, he had been a dancer at this very show and knew a lot of the dancers.
Apparently, in Cambodia, the hospitals just amputate badly broken legs that require anything more than just being set in cast. That is, of course, unless your family can pay for better care, and as I said previously he’d been a street orphan. So instead of going to a hospital for care, he’d had gone to the priests who did NOT amputate, but now one leg was a bit shorter than the other.
We had to get to bed a bit early that night, because our next morning was going to start very early. We were going to do the obligatory “sunrise over Angkor Wat” — a trip that was also included in the price of the hotel room.
For me, part of the fun was watching the hordes of tourists, all taking photos where if you adjusted your exposure right, it almost looked like you were there by yourself, watching it…
only you weren’t you wee surrounded by hundreds of people (and keep in mind this was the off season) watching the same thing….
I don’t even want to think about the crush would be like at the height of Siem Reap’s season.
One of the omni present features of the temples is the mass of hucksters, selling everything from silks, to fans, to postcards.
Something that is a bit disturbing about it is that more than a few of these hucksters should really be in school. But the economics of the situation is that their parents need them working, because tourists are more likely to buy something from a little kid.
We figured the pig had gotten away from the restaurant (which is off to the right of this location — it’s the same place where the cop bought me a coconut the day before.)
After this … my friend who I was traveling with leads a grueling pace…
we went on a boat trip down the river to where the floating towns are located
A boat loaded with priests… note the orange robes
Life along the river was kind facilitating, at first I wondered about having their lives on display like this, but then I figured a river is not really any different from road, or a train, and it was like how you can look in on people’s lives as you traveled past
A floating town (that’s not the shore)
That said, some of the house-boats were really, REALLY, nice and immacuatly kept up
Note how the well-kept houseboats have satellite dishes and TV antenna’s. Thing is when you first see it you don’t really notice those little details — in part because you have your own assumptions about how these people live their lives. Me, I was wondering how they got their power…
And there were also some less affluent homes
While there we stopped at a store where they tried to sell us school supplies for our next stop, which was going to the be the village’s school.
My friend, who is a bleeding heart liberal, wanted to buy some… but I was skeptical (having pointed out the satellite dishes to her along with some other details of affluence), and didn’t let her. Our Tuk-Tuk driver (who had come with us) grinned widely after I did so, and backed me up. He said normally he never says anything but it’s a huge scam. Tourists buy supplies, and as soon as they’re gone, the unopened supplies go right back the store to be sold over and over again, with most of the profit going to the store… which is NOT owned by the boat people.
And THEN after this visit, we were taken to a project not far from our hotel, where handicapped men were taught to create duplicates of the sculptures at the temples, to decorate hotels and sell to tourists.
By this point in the day I was really worn out by our travels, the early morning, and the heat, and my tummy for some reason wasn’t happy with me, so begged out of what my friend had lined up for us as for the afternoon (more temples). Instead I stayed home at the hotel and rested for a few hours, and got to enjoy the view from our hotel, before we went out for dinner
Before our trip, my friend and I discovered (to my horror) that by the time we got around to looking into it that it was too late to start the anti-malarial treatment. We got shots for Japanese Encephalitis and some other thing, but Malaria is a HUGE deal in Cambodia. That said, apparently since Siem Reap is the ONE major draw for tourism to the country, the government actually invests a lot of money in trying to control the mosquito population in the jungles that surround it. But I was still nervous, so I basically bathed in repellent on a daily basis, and soaked that cheese cloth like shirt in the stuff for good measure — I was not pleasant smelling the whole trip, but I didn’t care. Happily, I managed to avoid the little suckers and only got ONE mosquito bite, on our very last night in Cambodia (when I’d begun to get lax in my neuroticism), at the fancy restaurant we took our Tuk Tuk driver to which was on the edge of town (across from a graveyard) … I was praying it was NOT a malaria carrier… and luckily it wasn’t.