We decided to make Cambodia the only country on our trip we would visit for less than a month (except for layover stops). I didn’t want to miss it for one main reason - I really wanted to see Angkor Wat. We decided Vietnam would be our main home in Southeast Asia, but having seen countless pictures of the dramatic ancient ruins, I just had to see it in real life. We were only in the country for about four days, and most of our time was spent at the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park or crashing in the hotel room, recovering from heat, exertion, and in my case for one day, food/water poisoning.
*** A side note about water. I always knew, intellectually, how many people in the world have to live without clean drinking water. But it’s not until you spend time in an area with bad water that you recognize the impact. In Vietnam we could not drink the water, nor could we in Cambodia. With the rest of our trip bringing us to China, Turkey, and Africa, for most of the remainder of our journey we are bound to bottled water. We are lucky, we can afford to buy all of our drinking water. But even being very careful with our water, eating raw vegetables only when we can wash them ourselves or are in a very nice restaurant, and getting drinks without ice, both Doug and I have already had to deal with “traveler’s diarrhea”. Again, we’ve been lucky to have access to medicine like Pepto Bismol and antibiotics to minimize the effects.
The line I always heard was that local populations had developed a tolerance for the things in the water that made us travelers sick. That is a delusion. It may be true for some minerals and sediment in water (as we experienced with the glacial runoff water in Patagonia), but not for the bacterial contamination from poor sanitation that plagues much of the rest of the world. Water-related illness is responsible for keeping children out of school, adults out of work, and threatens survival for the youngest and oldest of communities. Three and half million people a year die from water-related disease. Those are not travelers.
We’ve only had to deal with this for about a month so far, and I keep thinking of what can be done to make progress on this. I have to imagine that by the time we leave Africa in a couple of months this issue is going to be even more present in my thoughts. I look at the huge piles of empty water bottles that fill trash cans, and I think not only of enormous problem of the plastic waste, but also of the wasted resources that could be diverted to the source of the problem - lack of proper sanitation. More people have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. There are great organizations doing good things out there, like Water.org, Lifesaver Systems, Mercy Corps, and smaller operations, like Sanergy.
OK, now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. ***
Cambodia has had a rough go of it over the past few decades. We were visiting to immerse ourselves in the remains of the Khmer Empire of the 9th - 13th centuries, but to understand the people of Cambodia, you have to address the more recent history.
In the 1960’s, the Cambodian monarchy tried to remain neutral as it was still establishing itself since gaining independence after French and Japanese rule. Despite their neutrality, the eastern region of the country, bordering Vietnam, sustained heavy damage from American bombing campaigns in an effort to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and camps in Cambodia. Meanwhile, a revolution was brewing throughout the country, fueled by a frustrated and left-leaning middle class. The movement called themselves the Khmer Rouge, and were led by a man later known as Pol Pot.
After a military coup in 1970, leadership of the new “Khmer Republic” was supportive of the United States and became openly hostile with North Vietnamese forces within the country. US bombing continued, and the North Vietnamese moved deeper and deeper into Cambodia to avoid the raids, thereby increasing interaction with the insurgent Khmer Rouge. The North Vietnamese began to lend their support to the communist uprising. Slowly, the Khmer Rouge expanded the territory they controlled, and in 1975 were able to defeat the Khmer Republic and take over the country.
With the communist Khmer Rouge now in power of the newly named Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot was named Prime Minister and was able to put his plan for an all agrarian society into motion. Cities were evacuated as the population was forced out to collective agricultural farms, with many dying of starvation and malnutrition during the disorganized transition. Under the restrictive Khmer Rouge, executions were widespread, for offenses ranging from being a businessman to speaking a foreign language. Anyone with an education or an opinion was suspect, and to be suspect was to be shot. In a population of under 8 million, estimates for total deaths under the four years of Khmer Rouge rule range from several hundred thousand to a few million.
Under the Khmer Rouge, international relations with Vietnam and Thailand worsened, and then grew overtly hostile, with China siding with Democratic Kamuchea and Russia siding with Vietnam. Vietnam ultimate invaded in 1978, and by early ‘79 the Khmer Rouge had been forced from the capital and into hiding. But the violence did not end there. Civil war raged for the next decade, until a UN supervised cease fire in 1991 which lead to free elections and the ultimate establishment of the current Kingdom of Cambodia.
I have a special connection to Cambodia, and the atrocities committed here. In 2000 - 2001, while living in Boston, I spent a year teaching 8th grade science at the Garfield Community Magnet School in Revere. With a fantastic program for English as a second language, we had a large population of foreign-born students, and in particular, a lot of Cambodian refugees. My teaching experience came at the hands of some amazing young students, many of whom were Cambodian. Some of these kids had unbelievable histories, and many of them had lost parents and family members to the Khmer Rouge. Kids are kids, and whether from Cambodia or Boston, they all had their ups and downs. But in my early 20’s, still idealistic about the ways of the world, these students had a huge impact on me and my understanding of what a person can overcome.
When we arrived in Siem Reap, I couldn’t help but see the faces of my students everywhere I looked, both in the young teens as last I saw them and in the young adults whom they may have become. Our experience with the people of Cambodia was a good one. The people we interacted with were warm, eager to please, and polite almost to a fault. In comparison to Vietnam, where the friendliness was outgoing and almost aggressive, Cambodians are quiet, almost shy. Due to the horrific practices of the Khmer Rouge, the population is very young, with very few elderly around.
In general, Cambodia is a very poor country, still recovering from its past. Many children come to the popular areas trying to sell postcards, bracelets, and bottled water to tourists. Travelers are warned not to buy from kids - the money rarely benefits them and any profit they bring in only encourages keeping them out of school. This young group, despite my refusal to buy their wares, did let me take their photo.
You see many bands playing traditional music in tourist areas - playing for tips and trying to sell CDs. They are in some way crippled, amputees, blinded, or maimed - victims of the landmines and unexploded cluster bombs left over from the war. Millions of mines remain and current efforts to remove them are expected to take 10-20 more years. Mostly scattered in rural areas and stumbled upon by farmers or curious children, the mines have left a legacy of amputees across the country. These victims were trained as musicians to address the high number who end up as beggars on the street.
The ugly history and poverty of Cambodia can not be ignored. But beyond that, the country has a quiet peacefulness to it that we appreciated, as I’m sure the local population does.
It’s the end of the dry season right now, so the rice paddies are mostly empty, but we did see a few farmers with a few sections planted, and plowing the fields in preparation of the major monsoon season planting in May.
Even in the touristy center of Siem Reap, with crowds of travelers and blocks packed with restaurants and bars, you can still find spots of tranquility.
Cambodia has been through some rough times, and you can see a population trying to put it behind them and advance. I’m rooting for them.
First full day in Siem Reap - time to hit the temples! Angkor Archaeological Park is huge, encompassing around 400 sq kms (~150 sq miles) and hundreds of temples, most dating from between the 9th and 12th centuries, when Angkor was the capital of the vast Khmer Empire. There are both Hindu and Buddhist temples, and many have existed as both at one time or another.
Of the many temples within the park, there is a clear hierarchy of interest and prioritization on any visit to the park is important. We were getting three-day passes, so we had plenty of time. Instead of hiring a tuk-tuk (a small motorbike powered rickshaw) for our first day, we decided to rent bicycles and pedal the few kilometers of flat road from town to the park. With no guide and no tuk-tuk driver, we could move about the park at our own pace, exploring where and when we wanted to. We decided to save the main temple, Angkor Wat, for later in our visit and instead struck out for Angkor Thom - the huge moat-ringed royal city that stood as the last capital of the Angkorian empire. It was hard biking right past the entrance to Angkor Wat, but we stuck to our plan, and were exited when we reached the massive stone South Gate of Angkor Thom.
We climbed around on the old walls, staring up at the giant carved faces which stare off in the four cardinal directions.
Here we had our first encounter with a wild troupe of long-tailed macaque monkeys, many of whom live in the park. Heeding the warnings regarding these frisky monkeys, we kept our distance while watching them, and they, clearly bored by people, basically ignored us.
On our bikes, we made our way to the center of Angkor Thom, to the state-temple of Bayon - one of the few originally Buddhist temples in the park. With it’s many towers with the four stone faces and ringed by exterior walls coverd in base-relief murals, this is one of the most popular areas in the park and is an iconic symbol of Khmer art.
Bayon is in various stages of restoration, and the intricate carvings can be seen both pre- and post-restoration.
Once we got a sense of the massive restoration projects ongoing, it didn’t feel so bad to fork over $40 each for our 3-day passes. This was an unfathomable amount of work. Can you imagine digging through a pile of rubble trying to put this puzzle back together?
And this is one small section of one small mural on one wall of one temple. The scale of Angkor Archaeological Park is hard to wrap your head around. We had spent the first half of the morning exploring Bayon, only to realize that was one small part of Angkor Thom, which was one tiny part of the park!! We had to keep moving. (Seriously, I took hundreds of photos in these three days. Narrowing them down to just a handful for the blog was very challenging!)
After Bayon we explored the rest of the Angkor Thom royal city as the sun climbed higher in the sky, slowly turning the day into a scorcher. We climbed Baphuon, looking back down on the long causeway leading up to it, and the ponds and grounds surrounding this Hindu mountain-temple.
We climbed the crumbling sandstone pyramid, Phimeanakas, the king’s temple.
Here our Red Sox hats caught someone’s attention, and in no time we made new friends with some fellow fans…from Taiwan! (It’s hard to see from this angle, but he’s wearing a Red Sox T-shirt!) We shared a few “Go Sox!” cheers and went on our way.
We explored the 300-meter long, intricately carved, Terrace of the Elephants,
and the endless carvings of nagas, demons, and mythical creatures along the Terrace of the Leper King.
We found our way to a short rock wall shaded by some trees to sit and relax before finding lunch, and we had a surprise visitor. One very friendly female macaque came running over and quickly climbed up onto Doug’s back! What to do? We knew the warnings not to approach, provoke, or feed the monkeys, but this particular scenario was not in the manual! Was it more dangerous to let her sit there or to try to shoo her away? She did not appear agitated, and none of the other monkeys around seemed willing to join her, so we decided to let it play out. My favorite part was when she started trying to groom Doug’s hair, but clearly had never encountered a baseball hat. She kept trying to eat the button on top. :-) After several minutes, when she wasn’t going anywhere, we had to do something. Doug reached into his backpack and got one of the small local bananas we had. She eagerly grabbed it, devoured it, and then ran off back into the trees. While it is technically ill-advised to feel them, we decided this was a win-win!!
After surviving the very aggressive marketing of the small restaurant salesmen and picking a place for a quick lunch, we plunged back into the heat and biked along the road leading out of Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate to the east. Here we explored the smaller Hindu temples of Chau Say Thevoda
Biking around the park had pluses and minuses. On the plus side, we had total freedom to go where we wanted and take our time. Instead of motoring through the areas without temples, we casually biked down these quiet forested lanes, enjoying the peace and tranquility of the park, away from the knots of tourists.
But the negative side was the heat and exhaustion! It was VERY warm, peaking at about 100F (38C) with very high humidity, we were getting pretty exhausted biking the many kilometers we had covered. So we picked one last temple to visit for the afternoon, and the clear winner was Ta Prohm. This sprawling Buddhist monastery is most known for its jungle atmosphere, with many of the invading fig and silk-cotton trees left uncleared. These trees have done massive damage to the original structure, and you can practically see the powerful limbs and roots tearing at the stone.
But the end result is a beautiful interplay between stone temple construction and jungle infiltration.
By late afternoon, our tanks were empty, and we still had to return the 10-15km back to our hotel. So we downed another bottle of water, put our heads down, and pedaled. We arrived at the hotel, crashed into the pool, finished the day with a wonderful meal at the hotel restaurant and fell asleep very early. Good thing we had two more days to continue exploring!
Day two in Cambodia started early. Very early. We left our hotel room just shy of 5:00am, the sky still dark. Though as evidence of the heat here, the air was still hot and heavy in what should be the coolest time of day! We were meeting our fantastic tuk-tuk driver, Bunly, for a ride to the central temple of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat, to watch the sunrise. With the most impressive details of this temple facing west, afternoons provide the best light for exploring this massive state-temple, and we planned to do so the following day. But the iconic silhouette makes for a dramatic dawn as the sun rises behind the distinctive towers, so we put that on our agenda as well.
We arrived at the site with the sky just beginning to lighten, along with hundreds of other visitors. People scattered along the central causeway or drifted off into the front lawn with cameras and tripods, ready to take in the shifting colors of the start of the day. The most popular spot for sunrise is in front of the reflecting pool, to get the scene doubled in the water’s surface. But as it is the end of the dry season, the pool was running a bit low on water and overrun with people. So, we shaded to the right of the causeway, in order to catch the spring sun rising directly behind the building. (At the equinox, the sun will rise from directly behind the central tower as viewed from the causeway.)
Over the next forty minutes or so, we watched a stunning display of color and light, with the dramatic silhouette of Angkor Wat, albeit with a bit of repair scaffolding visible, taking center stage.
What a fantastic start to the day!
We made our way back to our meeting place with Bunly and hopped back into the tuk-tuk. Our next stop was Banteay Srey, a Hindu temple 38km northeast of Angkor Wat. The journey takes about an hour in a tuk-tuk, and we ate the continental breakfast packed by our wonderful hotel, the Moon Boutique, along the way.
The drive to Banteay Srey was half the fun of the visit. We passed through village after village, watching farmers work the rice paddies and passed tuk-tuks loaded down with goods, like this charcoal shipment.
Local markets were already buzzing with the day’s trades, and tourist markets were just setting up to attract travelers with cold water, local goods, and sweets made from the sugar slow roasted from palms.
Along the way we stopped for gas at a typical Cambodian gas station.
Anyone who tried to swipe a sip of whiskey from these old bottles would be in for a surprise! Glass whiskey bottles and old plastic soda bottles dish out single servings of gas for the motorbikes and tuk-tuks.
We arrived at Banteay Srey early, but were far from the first ones there; the ruins were already bustling with tourists. This small temple is known for the beauty of its well preserved intricate carvings, covering every surface of the sandstone.
The classic Khmer artwork, carved in deep and dramatic fashion, is especially noticeable on doorways and archways.
The temple is rather small and it does not take long to visit the entire space. But there is also a nice nature walk available around the area. We wandered on a small boardwalk through a small forested area, with viewing platforms looking out over expanses of rice paddy, marsh, and rural homes.
While wandering around the paths, we caught glimpses of water buffalo working in the fields, several kinds of exotic birds, lizards, butterflies and many of the colorful dragonflies that flicker all over this country.
Having had a very full day of exploration the day before, and starting this day out so early, we were ready to call it a day. But on the drive home, Bunly suggested a stop at the temple-mountain of Pre Rup, another ancient Hindu site.
We climbed the old stone stairs for a great view of the temple grounds and the surrounding jungle.
Our exploration did not last long - we were pooped! We found Bunly and he took us back to the hotel for a relaxing second half of our day. That evening we had a wonderful meal at the intimate Tangram Gardens in Siem Reap and basked in our Cambodian experience thus far.
We had one day left, and the biggest temple of them all, Angkor Wat, left to explore.
I knew there was trouble when I woke up feeling queasy in the middle of the night. After my second trip to the bathroom around 3:00am, it was time to act. I watched Doug go through this for days in Vietnam, and we had one important day left in Cambodia. We had Cipro and Pepto-Bismol on hand for a reason, and I started taking both.
Traveling to the developing world is tricky business. One of the reasons we are taking our time in our travels, and staying at least a couple of weeks everywhere we go, is to mitigate time lost to illness. We made an exception in Cambodia, and now I was facing the consequences of that decision. We were leaving for China in the morning, and thus far had only explored Angkor Wat, the namesake of this whole area, from afar. Day three was supposed to be Angkor Wat day. We had a tuk-tuk reserved for after lunch and were going to stay all afternoon and enjoy the sunset from this enormous temple.
But at the start of the day, I wasn’t going anywhere. Dry toast for breakfast with a Pepto kicker. Nap. Soup for lunch with a Pepto kicker. Nap. By mid-afternoon I was feeling pretty drained, but the digestive distress and fever were under control. This was not going to stop us!! We had postponed our tuk-tuk pick up time, and I was determined to make it, if only for a few hours. So when 3:00 rolled around, we packed up some water and some extra Pepto, and off we went.
Angkor Wat was built in the mid 12th century, at the height of the Khmer Empire’s reign in the area. The temple, dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, is surrounded by a giant moat, and the three layers of the central pyramid climb 65 m (~213ft) into the air. The five lotus-inspired towers are so iconic they are featured on the Cambodian flag. The temple takes up an entire square kilometer, with the exterior wall and moat beyond. Coming down the causeway, before even seeing the temple, just the outer gate is impressive.
Once beyond the outer gate, walking down the central causeway, the central temple becomes visible, its massive size deceptive from afar.
Traveling as a photographer, visiting sites of ancient temples, churches, and historic buildings can be a frustrating experience. When a building is very old, and a tourist attraction, it often needs repairs…which brings scaffolding. Versailles, St. Just Church in Arbois, Munster Cathedral in Bern, the Zagreb Cathedral, the Buenos Aires Central Post Office, the Beehive in Wellington, and now Angkor Wat. This is a much more powerful image without the scaffolding and green tarps! Arg!!
As we walked along the causeway, the wind started to pick up, causing little dust storms to roll across the lawn. The air was cooling and the sky getting darker. My health was not going to be the only thing keeping our visit to Angkor Wat shorter than planned. A storm was definitely brewing.
Once we reached the central temple, we were met with the expansive bas-relief murals that cover the four first level walls.
Hundreds of meters, on each of the four walls, covered in detailed carvings, floor to ceiling. They are remarkably well preserved, with much of the detail still evident. The murals depict scenes of great battles, army marches, and scenes of heaven and hell. As is true for the rest of the temple, the sheer size of these bas reliefs is hard to describe, or capture in pictures. There is no single occurance of anything - it all stretches out in enormous proportions. Never one column, but hundreds.
And the level of detail is much richer than one can appreciate at first glance. There is no smooth surface. Around every central carving are endless delicate details.
As you work your way around the first level past the outer wall with the bas reliefs, the vertical weight of the temple starts to tower over you in impressive fashion,
with at least one of the five towers anchoring every angle as you look up to the second level.
In the gallery of the 1000 Buddhas you can explore old pools, now dry. The images of the Buddhas are all gone as well - stolen by time or thieves. But from the pools, the volume of stone starts to become clear.
When you work your way toward the central tower, you can’t help but train your eyes higher and higher up. The achitecture calls you skyward.
I couldn’t help but take photos of the Buddhist monks seen walking around these temples, their bright robes in such stark contrast, especially to the monotone lack of color in the stone used for Angkor Wat. The monks are used to it, and were happy to pose when I asked (though I liked the natural shots better.) I don’t know if these monks were residents of the local monastery or visiting from somewhere else, but they had their cameras out as much as I did!
While the Wat was built as a Hindu temple, it has been re-purposed as a Buddhist temple for many years, since Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia a few hundred years ago. There is now a Buddhist monastery on the grounds, and monks are frequently seen all over the archaeological park.
Once we climbed the steep set of stairs leading up from the second to the third level around the central tower, we found the four Buddha images, one facing each cardinal direction.
We visited each Buddha in turn, taking in the great views from these high perches. When facing west, we could see the wall on the back side of the gallery of the 1000 Buddhas, past the causeway and reflecting pool, and out to the exterior wall. Knowing the moat still lies behind this wall, the expanse of the grounds can truly be appreciated.
The wind was really whipping around by this time, and the storm threatening to break open at any moment. We could see lightning flashing in the distance. Climbing all these stairs, I was pretty beat, so we took this as a sign to go. I was so grateful we had been able to visit at all!
We descended staircase after staircase, and worked our way back out to the causeway. On our way out, we got to say our goodbyes to the local macaques, taking advantage of day’s worth of tourist trash and discarded coconut shells.
We said goodbye to the temples, goodbye to our tuk-tuk driver, and goodbye to Angkor. We had one quiet night at the hotel, and another bowl of soup for my still-recovering tummy. :-) And the next morning we said goodbye to Cambodia. It was a short visit, but a great one, and China awaits…