Ancient Angkor: Part 2

25 12 2008

Siem Reap, Cambodia

First thing in the morning (aka 8am) we drove out to Banteay Kdei, a short, cleaned temple with a few different sections to wander through. Gage chafed at the various fallen stones that had been stacked back up and placed in the middle of a courtyard, making the ruins look more like a colorblind kid had attempted to stack some Legos. There was an awesomely gigantic tree in one courtyard that consumed one temple wall and dwarfed everything around it. The only other noticeable feature of Banteay Kdei were the various kids wandering about trying to sell postcards, scarves, table clothes, and drinks. Although we would soon find that that was at every temple.

Big Tree at Banteay Kdei

Big Tree at Banteay Kdei

Next stop was the large and unimpressive Pre Rup. The thing I remember most about this temple was how we fell victim to another common scam, the forced tour guide. Standing atop Pre Rup and looking over the vast jungle, this Khmer guy comes up and starts chatting with us. Within seconds he’s reeling off facts about the temple in a non-stop monotone mumble. I suddenly realize what’s happening and attempt to dislodge us, but Gage gets caught when he tries to walk away. The guy quickly asks him for some money for his services and Gage coughs up about 10 cents which he later says is a tax for being a sucker.

Gage Atop Pre Rup

Gage Atop Pre Rup

Next up was the slightly out of the way Banteay Samre. Though cleaned up to the point of sterile, the various passages and funky central courtyard made it pretty fun. The center is a bit overbuilt and the grass is almost completely covered by stone rooms. Of course we did make the most of it by jumping from platform to platform and even lost each other in the maze of hallways and rooms for a good five minutes or so.

Jen inside Banteay Samre

Jen inside Banteay Samre

The next temple was the one that broke us. East Mebon, similar to the exposed format of Pre Rup, was uninspiring. We had been spoiled by Beng Melea and we just couldn’t hide it any more. For anyone with a thirst for history, ancient architecture and bas reliefs, all of these temples would be a blast, but Gage and I wanted to explore. We decided that we would skip the so so temples and pull out the big guns. Before leaving East Mebon, we did get one of the best pictures of the trip when Gage hopped onto a 1000+ year old elephant for a photo op, pleasing the Japanese tourists around us.

Ride!

Ride!

Skipping two other temples, we managed to hit the awesome Preah Khan at lunch time when the various tour groups break for an hour. Preah Khan is as cool as its name sounds. First you walk up an ancient path lined with massive stone guards, crossing over a lily pad covered moat. After that it’s a matter of not getting lost in the various passages, courtyards, and rooms. This is an awesome temple for exploring and I only wish that it were our first stop of the day, so that we weren’t so tired.

Entrance to Preah Kahn

Entrance to Preah Kahn

After that it was on to the legendary Bayon, the temple with a thousand Buddha faces. I don’t care how many tourists there were crawling on this heap of rocks, it was still incredible. Walking through Bayon you’d be inclined to agree with the ancient Khmers that their leaders were gods, because this place was truly divine. We stood atop this mountainous temple and would turn and turn and turn, trying to take in all of the Buddha faces that stared back at us from almost every pagoda and wall. We could look down from the railings and see the various passages below that were open to the sky. The outside of the temple wall was covered in remarkable bas relief scenes of ancient Khmer life and times. The detail of the drawings are so incredibly preserved that it seems like they must have been carved only a few decades ago. This was definitely one of my favorite temples.

At Bayon Surrounded by Buddha

At Bayon Surrounded by Buddha

Finally, we managed to drag ourselves out to the granddaddy himself, Angkor Wat. Now Angkor Wat is the soul of Cambodia. It is on their flag, their money, all advertisements for Cambodia, in paintings inside almost every business, on company logos, in short, it is everywhere. I can understand why, too. Just walking across the expansive moat and up to the outer walls is

Bas Reliefs at Angkor Wat

Bas Reliefs at Angkor Wat

humbling. The bas relief carvings of Angkor Wat far exceed any other temple in detail and preservation. They also cover virtually every single flat surface. These factors give Angkor Wat the worldwide reputation that keeps tourists coming in droves every day, at all hours. The sad part is that you are corralled like sheep, pushed along and made to walk in a particular direction, and often asked to keep it moving. When you get to the central pagodas, the stairs are shut off so that you are left at the bottom squinting up at the massive mounds of rocks. There is no way to capture something that big from that close up. If America were to have a world heritage site, this is what it would feel like. There’s nothing wrong with the way they manage it, in fact there are a lot of things that are very right about it, but after being spoiled by all of the other temples, it’s hard to see Angkor Wat in a similar fashion. I suppose the nice thing about it is that if anyone were to only see Angkor Wat from the outside, they would get the best view and the best picture of it that they could hope for.

Outside the Entrance to Angkor Wat

Outside the Entrance to Angkor Wat

I know this is already a massive post, but before I sign off, I do want to mention some things about the town of Siem Reap. The temples get all of the attention, and for good reason, but seeing the temples of Angkor and eating at a few western restaurants before returning home will only allow a person to visit Angkor, not Cambodia. Some guides may point out the bullet holes in the walls of various temples. Remnants of several years of war in Cambodia. This is just a clue to the more recent history of this country. I saw an article about the Landmine Museum in Angkor and we visited it on the first day. The museum is the work of one man named Aki Ra who has spent his adult life removing landmines from all over the country. He says that he’s good at working with landmines because he set thousands of them when he was forced to be a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. He had disarmed hundreds of landmines all over the grounds of the Angkor temples. The museum also served as a home to children affected by the millions of landmines that still litter their country today.

In front of a lot of bombs

In front of a lot of bombs

Cambodia is a country that has been completely ravaged by war. The poor and disabled are everywhere. At first glance, one would be inclined to suggest simple solutions to clean up the mess. Government programs, community projects, etc. But the Khmer Rouge killed off almost all of the educated people in the country. Cambodia emerged from decades of war with virtually no doctors, no professors, no politicians, no scientists, and no engineers. Rebuilding a society without basic education means there is no one to turn to to organize a reconstruction. This is why anyone visiting Cambodia will be struck by the massive amounts of NGO’s present there. Supporting these NGO’s is simple. It means shopping in stores that provide handiwork training programs to disadvantaged women, eating in restaurants that train abandoned street children in cooking, staying in hotels that train the disadvantaged in hospitality, and not giving to beggars. No one will turn to an NGO that requires them to go to school and learn about sanitation and human rights in return for training if they can make a living by holding out their hand. Just as in our own society, where we chose to spend our money and time can make a huge difference in the world.

For more pictures from Angkor, click here.

Suggestions:

  • First stop for anyone visiting Cambodia who wants to help should be the Singing Tree Cafe. Besides the incredibly tasty food they have info on local NGO’s, volunteer opportunities, documentary screenings, and free fast wifi (though they ask that people not download pictures or talk on Skype as they pay per MB of bandwidth).
  • The Landmine Museum is a bit outside the park on the way to Banteay Srei, but worth the visit. Ask to see the video documentary about Aki Ra and his efforts.
  • Stay at the Mandalay Inn. They have free wifi, clean well-decorated rooms, hot water, TV, a good restaurant, and loads of smiley staff. All for around $10. The tour desk is staffed by the friendly and helpful Chi-An who is more than happy to lay out all of your options without ever pressuring you to book anything. They have reasonable standard rates for temple touring with pre-made packages or you can ask them to customize something for you. I cannot recommend it enough.
  • Visit www.stay-another-day.org to check out easy ways to have fun and support the NGO’s.
  • It cost us $25 to get to Beng Melea and $5 each for the entrance fee (which is not covered in the standard Angkor Pass). It was also worth every penny.
  • The best free guides available all over town are the Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, by Canby Publications, the Stay Another Day guide, and the Touchstone guide, by Heritage Watch, which lists the best times to visit each temple according to the amount of tourists.
  • The Blue Pumpkin is a great funky place to go for yummy breakfast, exotic danishes, ice cream, and free wifi. Just be warned that it’s very popular. The vast majority of the outlets can be found on the first floor or the mezzanine level.
  • To get a picture of what Cambodia is facing in the wake of war, pick up a copy of Cambodia Now, by Karen Coates.
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