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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Friday, 23 January 2015 | Views [551]

Approaching Angkor Wat

Approaching Angkor Wat

We left the ship as soon as we docked in Bangkok (note to selves:  visit Bangkok on a future visit, because we missed it entirely on this trip), and got on a plane to Siem Riep, Cambodia.  We were met as we got off the plane, and our guide whisked us through customs and on to the Meridien Angkor Hotel.

Only eleven people from the cruise ship went on this excursion, which had us spending two nights away from the ship.  The group was nice and small and easily manageable, and there was only one really objectionable woman in the bunch.

We met again at 7:30 that first evening to go have dinner in a small theater, where we saw classic Cambodian apsara dancers performing.  Very graceful, and very athletic.  Dinner was fairly bland, unfortunately, as I’m sure they needed to cater to the lowest common denominator—elderly, white, picky tourists.

Next day we saw four temples.  The first thing we learned is that Angkor Wat is only one of over 1000 temples and palaces spread throughout Siem Riep province in northern Cambodia, where the leadership of the Khmer Empire lived and built during their 9th to 15th Century heyday.  These structures are spread out over a vast area, and are in all kinds of states of repair.  Many are undergoing restoration, and all are pretty busy with lots of tourists from all around the world.

The first temple we went to was Ta Prohm, famous for the big trees growing in and on the temple ruins, and famous as the film location for the “Tomb Raider” movie.  Next, we visited The Bayon, a Buddhist temple with over two hundred massive Buddha faces carved into the many towers decorating the interior of the grounds.

Next was lunch in a very nice restaurant, with a buffet offering that just didn’t seem to end.  After that, we visited a third temple, Banteay Srei.  For this one, the Khmer used pink limestone, and the carvings and reliefs here were more spectacular than anything we had seen yet.

Finally, we went to the big one, Angkor Wat itself.  It wasn’t pink, didn’t have intricate carvings, and didn’t have hundreds of giant Buddha faces, but it was big and very well preserved.  Walls around the entire complex, a moat that looked more like a lake, then a long walk along a stone causeway to get to the temple itself accentuated the grandeur of the main building itself.  There are five central stone towers, three of which are intact, courtyards, interior walls, rooms, shrines, and hallways.  Finally, we climbed a very steep staircase to the upper level, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the entire complex.  This is rumored to be the largest religious site in the world, and I am inclined to believe it.

(Cambodia is having problems with the crush of tourists that visit the Angkor area and Siem Riep province each year.  Each new hotel or resort that goes up drills wells to supply themselves with water, and because the high tourist season coincides with the Cambodian dry season, there are major concerns about damage to the water table, and cracking or sinking foundations under the monuments.  There are so many tourists that damage to the sandstone ruins caused by foot traffic alone is another major concern.  Managing the flow (and feeding and housing) of tourists is already straining resources, but since tourism is a major GDP contributor in this poor country, any talk of limiting tourist flow or closing some attractions to enhance conservation meets with clamorous resistance.)

We did dinner on our own that night, so we got together with another couple that we’ve been hanging out with since Cape Town, rented a tuk-tuk, and got a ride to a nice local restaurant.  It was touristy, of course, but better than the lunch we had.

Next morning it was off to the airport for a turbo-prop flight to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.  There we were met by another guide who escorted us to the king’s palace complex.  We saw some very Siamese-looking buildings and royal mausoleums on the grounds, and an amazingly opulent Buddhist shrine, with a solid gold Buddha statue sporting 23-carat diamond eyes, and an emerald Buddha 23 inches tall, carved from a single stone.  (A fellow traveler told me this was nothing compared to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but he wouldn’t elaborate.  We’ll see.)

After that, we settled in for a four-hour bus ride to the port city of Sihanoukville, where our cruise ship was waiting.  En route, our guide told us about his personal experiences with the Khmer Rouge.  When the latter came to power in 1975, backed by the Chinese government, they began a systematic extermination of anyone with education, or anyone critical of the government.  Even though the Vietnamese army helped overthrow the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they still managed to kill over two million of their fellow Cambodians in only four years. 

Our guide was seven years old in 1975.  His father was killed, and he himself was separated from his mother and younger brother, and sent to a labor camp where he lived and worked for three years.  He was finally reunited with his mother, who had given him up for dead long before.  His father’s previous good friend is the deputy prime minister today.


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