Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Ancient Cities and Temples of Siem Reap

With Tuesday, May 5, being Coronation Day, the Thai government decided to make Monday, May 4, into a holiday as well, and we took the long weekend to visit Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see the amazing sites of Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The area is approximately 400 square kilometers and includes temples, buildings such as libraries, monuments, communication routes, and other features of ancient civilization.

We spent two full days in Siem Reap, flying into town late Friday night and leaving Monday afternoon, so we'd still have Tuesday to recover and get ready for school on Wednesday. At the Siem Reap airport, we got into a tuk tuk sent by our hotel to pick us up. Our hotel was very quiet and quaint, but our first night there didn't start out well at all. Apparently, even though we had already reserved a room there weeks prior to our arrival, the hotel still overbooked and didn't have a room for us our first night there! They ended up putting us up at another hotel nearby, but it still took at least half an hour to straighten out. By the time we got to the other hotel, it was close to 11 p.m., and we were exhausted. Thank goodness the rest of our stay at the first hotel was pleasant and without incident.
Poolside at our hotel.
Prior to our trip, our friends had recommended their tuk tuk driver to us, so we hired him to drive us around for the two days we were there. Riding in a tuk tuk was quite fun and enjoyable. They didn't have much power to them, so we didn't go very fast. There was a nice, albeit warm, breeze, and we were able to take in the sights and sounds of Siem Reap just by riding around. Our tuk tuk driver was really nice, spoke excellent English, and helped us plan our days there. We couldn't tell how old he was (we think probably around our age), but he told us he has five sons, ranging  from age 10 to 21. He said he and wife were trying for a girl, but decided to stop after the fifth boy. We really enjoyed talking with him and learning about him and his life.

Siem Reap itself is a town built around the tourist attractions of the Angkor ruins, so the town itself is quite rural. Wherever we went, there were water buffalo and chickens scattered everywhere. The people of Cambodia are wonderfully friendly and kind, with more substance to them than the Thai people. But the poverty in Cambodia is a lot more apparent than in Thailand, or at least Bangkok. Here in Bangkok, it seems the poor people still have everything they need. Most even have expensive smartphones. They seem content and supported by their communities. We rarely see beggars. But in Cambodia, there are more beggars. There was more of a sense of desperation. Everywhere we went, people as young as five or six years old were practically begging us to buy things from them. People stared at us with big, sad eyes as we passed them.
The main "highway."
The countryside.
The cows and chickens were soooo skinny.
An armless statue at the main intersection of town.
The Khmer cuisine is delicious, with influences from around the region -- including Thailand, Vietnam, and India -- as well as countries as far as France, but also with its own unique flavors. We immediately took a liking to the food in Cambodia, with its varied flavors, but without the spiciness of Thai food.

We began our first full day at the War Museum, which showcases the machines and weapons, such as machine guns and land mines, used during the Cambodian civil war, which only ended in 1998. The museum also offered free tours given by tour guides who personally experienced the war and all of whom were amputees. However, we walked the grounds on our own. Children were allowed to climb all over the tanks and machines and to handle the weapons; we took a picture of our son touching a couple of bombs. Only in Asia.
A helicopter from the war. Many of the war machines and weapons were from Russia.
Wooden weapons.
It was so strange to see tanks sitting among fruit trees in such an idyllic setting.
From there, we toured a silk farm/factory, where we were shown the process of silk-making by hand from silk worms to a finished silk product. It was fascinating. Each cocoon can produce 400 meters of silk. The outside layer of a cocoon produces a lower quality raw silk, whereas the inner layer of a cocoon is turned into higher quality and more expensive fine silk. The process of silk weaving is long, tedious, and time-consuming, with some products such as wall tapestries taking as long as seven months to make, excluding the process of cocoon-spinning by the silk worms. The farm makes and sells all its products onsite, and doesn't distribute them for sale anywhere else. The finished silk products were beautiful -- richly colored silk dresses, shirts, and ties; handbags, purses, and wallets; scarves and handkerchiefs; hats; and table cloths and wall tapestries.

That night, we ate at a restaurant that offered apsara dance performances with dinner. Our tuk tuk driver helped us make a dinner reservation earlier that day, and convinced the person taking our reservation to allow our son to eat for free (adults cost $12 each, and children are generally half price). Dinner consisted of a huge assortment of various courses in buffet style -- there were separate tables for meats and soups, salads, main courses, noodles, appetizers, fruits, and desserts. There also were people who made to order soup noodles. There was so much food. We got there a little after 6:30 to eat before the performance at 7:30. There were six different dances, with costume changes between each dance. The dancers were amazing and beautiful. They moved their limbs and bodies very precisely, stood on one leg for long periods of time, and had to hold their hands and wrists just so. One dance performance was of the tinikling dance, which we had just seen and learned about on the sitcome "The Middle" a few months ago! Who says you don't learn anything from watching TV?

We called it a night after the dinner performance. We had originally planned on going to Pub Street, a street with lively night life, and the night market, but we were all exhausted and had a long day the next day.
The mulberry trees used to feed silk worms.
Baby silk worms.
Cooking the cocoons to spin them into silk.
Spinning the silk onto spools.
Natural dyes.
Putting plastic on the silk to make patterns when the silk is dyed. This process takes days.
The restaurant where we watched apsara dancing.
One of the dances.
This dance was pretty and graceful.
Tinikling dancing.
When the show ended, audience members rushed the stage to take pictures and touch the dancers, as if they were objects. Very bizarre.
Our second full day there consisted of a day-long visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park. We started the day at 4:45 a.m., when our tuk tuk driver picked us up to drive us to the park, where we bought one-day passes to the park (there are one-day, three-day, or seven-day passes, but not two-day passes). Each one-day pass cost $20, with our photos on them; children under 12 are free. We began with the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which was underwhelming considering how much sleep I had to sacrifice for it. Our hotel had packed us each a breakfast, so we ate after watching the sun rise at around 5:30 or 6:00. The grounds were packed with tourists and people trying to sell us coffee, scarves, books, and maps.

After eating our breakfast, we made our way through the grounds of Angkor Wat, which took about an hour. By then, around 7:00, it was already steaming hot. We returned to our tuk tuk driver, who always waited for us at the entrance to the ruins, and he took us to the next one, the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. From there, we walked to Baphuon, where those over 12 years old can climb to the top of the temple for a view; the Terrace of the Elephants; and Terrace of the Leper King. After that, we drove to Preah Khan (or "Sacred Sword"), a temple that was built in the 12th century for one of the kings and the center of a large organization with approximately 100,000 officials and servants. It was probably the most dilapidated of all the sites we saw that morning.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat.
A lone child. All his friends ran away right before I snapped this picture.
Walls and walls of carvings depicting Cambodia's history.
Details of a wall carving.
A monk meditating.
A structure within Angkor Wat. The girls in the picture asked us to take a picture of them, so they were running to get in position. 
A Buddha statue.
Most walls were covered with carvings of gods and dancers.
At this point, we had already seen six sites, we had walked and climbed a ton already, and we were hot and tired, but it was only about 11:00 in the morning. We went to lunch at a quiet, out-of-the-way spot with amazing food, and rested for at least an hour while our tuk tuk driver hung out in a back room with other tour guides and drivers to watch the boxing match.

After lunch, we went to one more temple before returning to our hotel for the afternoon. This temple, Ta Prohm, was made famous by the films Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both of which were filmed there. I could see why those movies were filmed there -- the grounds and the condition of the buildings have largely been untouched. With gigantic trees growing out of many of the ruins and dilapidated stones everywhere, it was breathtaking. I felt as if I had gone back in time.
Temple of Bayon at Angkor Thom.
Doorway upon doorway everywhere.
Temple of Bayon has about 200 stone faces such as these.
Close-up of a face.
More intricate carvings.
Leaving the temple.
At around 4:30 that afternoon, we headed out again, this time to Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu and Buddhist temple atop a hill, for the sunset. The trip was not worth it, though. We had to hike for at least 15 minutes uphill, which is awful when it's hot and humid and there is no air flow because of the mountains. We were all drenched in sweat within a minute of starting the hike. Once at the hilltop, there was no shade and it was crowded. We waited for over an hour to see the sunset, but then clouds rolled in and the sun was obscured. Once it came back out, though, it was still high in the sky, and didn't seem like it was going to set anytime soon, so we decided to leave. I definitely would not recommend climbing up for the sunset unless you are there during the "winter" or hot season, when it's less likely to be cloudy.
View from atop Baphuon.
At Baphuon.
Another view from Baphuon.
After this last leg of the trip, our tuk tuk driver drove us back to our hotel, and we thanked him and said goodbye to him. He stayed a while to chat with us about Cambodian customs. He was going to a friend's wedding party that night, so we discussed the wedding customs in Cambodia, other Asian countries, and the U.S. According to him, the weddings of wealthy people could last up to three days, and cost about 1000USD (Cambodia uses American currency). Those with less money usually have a one-day wedding, which costs about $400. He told us his oldest son, at 21, just married a girl he works with. The one-day wedding was expensive to our tuk tuk driver -- according to Cambodian custom, the groom's family pays for the wedding.
The Terrace of Elephants.
Walls of elephant carvings at the Terrace of Elephants.
Hindu gods at the Terrace of Elephants.
Wall carvings at the Terrace of the Leper King.
Going into Preah Khan ("Sacred Sword").
At Preah Khan.
Stupa at Preah Khan.
The ruins at Preah Khan.
Overall, I enjoyed the trip. But this trip was tinged with some sadness for me, for a few reasons. First, this trip was the second-to-last trip we will make outside of Thailand before going home. This fact dawned on me as I was lounging by the hotel pool our first day there. In that moment, I realized that I will miss this life so much. I mean, how many people can say they're going to hop over to Cambodia -- or any other country -- or a random island just for the weekend? It is an amazing and surreal way to live.

Seeing how the Cambodian people live also made me sad. Here in Bangkok, we're rarely exposed to the poverty of the people, and when we are, it is not as stark or devastating as what we saw in Cambodia. Every time our tuk tuk stopped, several people immediately descended upon us to sell us things. It was especially difficult to see the children doing this. It was so hard to turn them away as I wanted to help them; at the same time, however, I didn't want to encourage their begging and pleading. I had to wonder what went through their heads when they saw my son -- someone who looks a little like them, but who has everything they don't and will never have. I felt a huge amount of guilt thinking about the difference in the quality of these children's lives and my son's life.
At Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were filmed. 
These huge tree roots were a sight to behold.
Another structure overtaken by nature.
Ruins at Ta Prohm.
Since witnessing the daily lives of the poor Cambodian people, I've felt nothing but gratitude for the life that I have. After our trip, I basically feel that I have no right to complain ever again. Any problem I may have or will ever have amounts to nothing compared to the problems the poor Cambodians have to deal with just to survive; my problems and issues feel like luxuries. I also feel a certain amount of disgust with the lives that we lead and the amount of excess and waste that we, and everyone else we know, have in our lives. My son, and my friends' children, seem so spoiled in comparison, living in their clean, safe homes with running water and electricity; eating their freshly cooked, hot meals; complaining about what's lacking in their lives.

Watching the Cambodian children, some as young as preschoolers, hawking their wares and being essentially left to their own devices, also made me painfully aware of how coddled, sheltered, and carefully tended to our own children are. The Cambodian children I saw are survivors and fighters, smart and savvy. At five or six years old, they were capable of so much more than my son is at eight. It made me question some of the things we do in the developed world to parent and educate our children. We're always talking about and trying to create for our children "real-life" learning experiences, but I wonder how real their experiences can be when everything is so planned, manipulated, and sanitized. Here we are, spending loads of money on language lessons, music classes, gymnastics lessons, and what-have-you, all in an effort to open their worlds; mold them into well-rounded, well-educated, and good human beings; or help them develop physical strength and agility, among other things. But in Cambodia and other countries, children are getting an actual, "real-life" education by picking up skills and applying them to their lives. For example, it is common for poor children in Cambodia, Vietnam, and other less developed countries, to be illiterate due to a lack of education. Yet, they will also know how to converse in six or eight different languages because they know they need these skills to make money. A friend of mine once traveled to one of these countries with a friend of hers who can speak many languages. One of the local children struck up a conversation with him, and didn't miss a beat when my friend's friend switched from one language to another.
A distant view of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng.
The sad and devastating history of the country also brought me down, and this tragic past can be seen in the people -- the way they carry themselves and on their faces. While they are always kind and gentle, there's also a heaviness to the spirit of the people in Cambodia. In comparison, the Thai people seem happy and carefree.

I thought the ancient ruins were magnificent and amazing. Nevertheless, I probably didn't get as much out of the trip as I could have because of the lack of knowledge and understanding I have about Cambodia's history. My husband had a guide book with him, and was reading up here and there, but I really didn't have the patience and energy to study everything in detail while wilting in 100-degree heat. The atmosphere also left more to be desired because of the hordes of tourists constantly shouting and shoving, and all the locals pestering us to buy things. I suppose that's a balance that would be hard to strike -- to be able to share a country's treasures and history with the rest of the world while preserving the characteristics of its culture and history.
At Phnom Bakheng.

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