Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The temples of Angor Wat

There are these two tiny kittens that like to approach us while we're eating breakfast on the hotel patio in the morning. They always seem to be really hungry, but they refuse to eat anything you feed them except meat - not any of the delicious pho or congee that our hotel serves, the sweet milk, or the fresh dragon fruit and papaya, just meat. They seem to particularly like fried chicken, which Cambodia does not seem to have a shortage of. Feeding the kittens is a great way to start the day. We'd arrived in Siem Reap, the night before, exhausted after 31 hours of traveling with no REM cycle since Tuesday night. It was now Friday. We were excited to start our honeymoon in Cambodia.

Our guide was an animated guy who called himself Robin Hood (I think the actual spelling was Huot), and often abruptly oscillated with no warning between goofily cracking jokes ("Say what? Ankghor Waaaat?") and soberly recounting brutal tales from the Khmer Rouge's regime ("My uncle and aunt were killed during the civil war. I know the man who killed them. I see him every day when I crossed the street from my home. That's why I moved here to Siem Reap, so I wouldn't have to see him all the time.")

 This is Cambodia. The horrors of the genocide are still fresh in everybody's memories. Everyone has family that was killed. All of our tour guides have been former guerilla soldiers, who, after the conflict, put down their guns and took up new foreign languages so they could resourcefully guide tourists through the sites of the killing fields and the Buddhist temples that make up Cambodia's emerging tourism industry.

Unlike its comparably more prosperous neighbour Thailand, Cambodia is still a poor country that is trying to put the pieces of itself back together. Nobody, including Cambodians, trusts the local Cambodian currency, and instead American dollars are used. Gas stations sell gasoline smuggled from thailand, packaged in pop bottles. Everywhere you turn, there are child vendors, who should be in school but have no such access, carefully looking out for foreigners to try to sell trinkets to. It's a sight that we're not used to.

Siem Reap is a city of one million people in Cambodia, with a name that translates roughly to "Death to the Thai people!!!" (my liberal translation). Thai people are not happy about this name. Most of the tourists in Siem Reap are Korean, and most are here to see the countless temples, particularly Angor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. These temples are breathtaking, and are the main reason for our visit to Cambodia. They are about a thousand years old from the Angkor period, deep in the Cambodian jungles, built in the Buddhist/Hindu traditional styles.

On our way to the temples, we took in the sights of the Cambodian countryside. Pickup trucks full of buddhist monks in the back drove down the dirt roads, carefully avoiding the skinny cows and roosters hanging out on the shoulders. We stopped at a roadside stand to taste freshly made palm sugar. I bought some lotus tea.

sampling palm sugar

really cool (and scary) tree ladder

water buffalo

poisonous spider!!!

Angkor Wat was, of course, magnificent, the size of 500 football fields, with maze-like structures, and intricate bas-relief telling important religious stories in photos. It's hard to describe this ancient structure with my words.

note that my husband and I are following the Korean honeymoon tradition of "coupling" our outfits

We spent the day exploring the other temples nearby as well. They say you can spend a whole week here, just hiking from temple to temple.  It's unbelievable how many of them lay in ruins for centuries, deep in the jungle, mostly undiscovered until this century.

my tall husband

do you see that stegosaurus? how did a dinosaur get carved on the temple walls???? 

It was amazing to see, on one hand, how much of the temples of had been preserved after all these years, and, on the other hand, how much awful destruction the temples had endured. When the Hindus took over, they smashed all the statues of buddha they could find, thousands of them. I saw one ancient altar that was once used for holding water; then during the war, soldiers used the stone altar as knife sharpeners; now, insensitive tourists use it as a garbage can. The temple walls are lined with bullet holes from during the Cambodia conflict.

Even now, it's curious to see how the temple ruins are treated. They are still viewed as holy sites; Buddhist monks offer their prayers there, and tourists are expected to dress modestly. But much of the temples still lie in ruins, with walls caved in, and bricks lying in chaos, while Cambodia tries to find the funding for more restoration. Tombs by the monastery are now used as motorcycle parking lots. Small children play all over the thousand year old ruins as a playground.

like puzzle pieces, waiting to be put back together

a thousand broken buddhas


the temples still serve as places of worship

For lunch we pulled over to a restaurant stop called Angkor Reach. We ordered stir-fried tofu, flat rice noodles and beef in bean sace, as well as cold Cambodian beer, which was a huge relief from the humid Cambodian jungle heat.

monkeys at the temple looking to steal food from tourists