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I Haven't Been Everywhere But It's On My List I love to travel and experience the world but part of the fun for me is documenting those experiences through photography and writing. Follow along with me and enjoy the ride!

Angkor What?

CAMBODIA | Monday, 3 August 2015 | Views [265]

Nature taking over an empire long gone

Nature taking over an empire long gone

We are leaving Siem Reap today but I am so excited to tell you about our 4 days exploring the temples of Angkor. Angkor is a region in Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which spanned from the 9th to the 15th centuries.  Over the centuries, there were 4 major kings that influenced the construction of massive stone megacity, which was once home to millions (at a time when London was only 50,000 people big).
 
Our first day we woke up really early and left our hotel at 4:50am to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat because we were told it is a sight not to be missed.  Unfortunately, we came to Cambodia during the rainy season so it was too cloudy to see the majesty we read and heard about. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it much on that particular morning anyway because I was suffering from some severe nausea due to my malaria medication.  It was a bummer we missed the sunrise but the good thing about getting up to the park that early is that we spent 7 hours there and only the last couple were uncomfortably hot.  We hired a tuktuk driver for the day and he took us to all the temples on the big circuit.  Our first stop was Preah Khan.  One of the largest complexes at Angkor, it once housed over 1000 teachers and may have been a Buddhist university.  It is considered a fusion temple as it honors components from both the Hindu and Buddhist religions.  Most temples are have either Hindu or Buddhist influences so it was amazing to see both in one place.  It is said that the king who reigned during the construction of  Preah Khan was Buddhist but religiously tolerant and respected Hindus. The Khmer empire was originally a Hindu empire but transitioned back and forth between Buddhism over the centuries and you can see evidence in the statues and carvings in the temples.  Preah Neak Poan was next and it was a beautiful example of the elaborate water and irrigation systems found in Angkor.  It had a large square pool surrounded by four square smaller pools with a circular island in the middle.  Water once flowed into the four peripheral pools via four ornamental spouts in the form of a lion's head, an elephant's head, a horse's head and a human's head.  We saw Ta Som and East Mebon before heading out to the monuments of Rolous, which ones served as the capital from 887-889 to see Bakong and Preah Ko. We spent over 7 hours exploring the different temples and each one was just as amazing as the last.  Even still, we got back relatively early, because we started at 5am, and found a pool at a nearby hotel to cool off and relax in.  It was definitely one of our better ideas. We all knocked out pretty early that night, knowing that we were going back to the park the next day.
 
The next day, we decided to take the bikes from our hotel and see the temples on the small circuit.  It was really cool to see the city from that perspective but it was a very long day.  Our hotel is 7km from the park and the small circuit is about 25km so in total we biked 40km that day.  We started in the city of Angkor Thom.  It is the gates that grab you first followed by a massive representation of the myth of the Churning of the Milk.  It was said that the snake (naga) was tugged on my the gods and the demons in a sea of milk, churning for one hundred years in hopes of creating and immortality elixir.  The gates tower over you and the face of the gods state down upon you.  It must have been a foreboding sight for a peasant of the Khmer empire to approach the city of king-gods.  The first temple in Angkor Thom we went to was Bayon.  Bayon is a massive temple whose defining characteristic is the hundreds of serene stone faces carved into stone tower above.  There are countless faces staring down at you from every point inside the temple and seemed to me to be the ancient Big Brother. Around every corner there were dozens of new faces watching your every move.  It was spectacular!  Next we went to Baphuon, which some have called the world's largest jigsaw puzzle.  Before the civil war, the temple was painstakingly taken apart for restoration but the Khmer Rouge destroyed the meticulous records during the war.  After years of research, the temple is finally being restored and reconstructed.  From there we walked through the Terrace of the Leper King.  It is believed to be the site of a royal crematorium and has a 7m high terrace that has been protected from the elements so the carvings are still in great shape and are absolutely stunning.  Next was Ta Prohm, which is nicknamed "Tomb Raider Temple."  Here, nature has taken over an empire long gone.  The stone ruins are covered with vines and plants with the trees growing right out of the stone.  It was quite beautiful to see and made me think about what our world will look like after humans have become extinct.  It was so hot all day and I felt like I was just constantly dripping sweat all day long.  It was so bad at one point we walked up to the entrance of one of the temples and the guard checking our tickets asked me why I was sweating so much. We all got a good laugh out of that.  We got a little later start that morning and had a slower means of transportation so we only started heading back around 5pm.  We had been lucky that it had only rained once during the day and it was short enough that we could wait it out under the cover of the temple (not a bad way to wait out a rain storm I might add!). However, rainy season in Cambodia usually brings pretty heavy rain in the early evening and we learned that lesson the hard way.  We made it just out of the park before it started raining.  At first, it actually felt really nice but then the skies really opened up and we rode in pouring rain for about 5km.  We made it home safely but EVERYTHING was soaked.  We were dripping so much water that if we stopped walking for a second a pool formed at our feet almost immediately.  We cleaned up and had food delivered to the hotel (another one of our better ideas) and watched "Lara Craft: Tomb Raider" because many of the scenes were filmed at the temples we had been exploring for the last couple days.  It was pretty cool to recognize some of the places.
 
We were all sore from the biking the day before so we slept in a bit, did some planning for the rest of our trip (we only have 2 weeks left!!!) and got a later start.  We had one major temple left before seeing the king of all temples: Angkor Wat.  We had saved the best for last and it was stunning.  Angkor Wat means capital temple and is the largest religious monument in the world.  It is the best preserved temple in the park and is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since it was constructed.  We had hoped we would be able to catch sunset but the sun dipped below the clouds and we missed our chance again.  For dinner, we read about a restaurant on what is nicknamed "Pub Street" that offers a free show with dinner so we decided to check it out.  The food was good but the show was incredible!  It was traditional Khmer dances each with its own special meaning.  We saw the cup dance used at ceremonies, the coconut dance used to celebrate the natural resources of the land, the peacock dance that celebrates the native animals, the dance of 2 princes and the monkey king used to tell old stories and Khmer legends, and finally the fishing dance used to celebrate their lifestyle (and tell an adorable love story).  The show was accompanied by live musicians who were just as amazing as the dancers and it lasted almost 2 hours.  
 
On our final day in the park, we decided to take the tuktuk further north about 30km to Banteay Srei which is called the "Citadel of Women" because the carvings are so small and intricate it was believed they could only have been carved by the small hands of women.  That may or may not be true but the carvings were absolutely incredible.  They were much more intricate and preserved than any of the other temples we had been to (and we had been to a lot!) It was a relatively small temple compared to some of the others but it was breathtaking.  After that, we went further north to Kbai Spean.  
We hiked up the mountain about 2km through the jungle and found ourselves at a river.  The bed of the river and in the banks, there were hundreds of carvings.  It was mesmerizing to watch the water flow over the intricate carvings and again I couldn't help marveling at the amazing feat that was accomplished in this work thousands of years ago.  From the river we could hear screams of joy and the splashing from the nearby waterfall.  We made our way down where we found 2 waterfalls and 20 other travelers who were seeking refuge from the heat and found it in the cool water of the falls.  The water was beyond refreshing and was the perfect way to cool down after that long and hot hike.  The best part was that the falls had formed a natural waterslide with a small pool at the foot of it!  To say I enjoyed myself would be a drastic understatement.  We hiked back down the mountain, which was a bit more precarious in wet sandals, and had lunch before going to the land mine museum.  Tourists began hearing stories about a young khmer man who cleared land mines with a stick and had a house full of defused ordinances.  The man's name was Aki Ra and he began charging a dollar to see his collection, using the money to help further his activities. Thus began the Cambodia Land Mine Museum.  After decades of war, Cambodia was covered with unexploded bomb and land mines.  There were many people who tried to disarm these bombs on their own, some for the sake of making their home habitable again and some to collect scrap metal to sell to make end's meet. Many people died doing this because they were untrained.  Therefore, in 2007 the Cambodian government banned all de-mining activities that were not specifically sanctioned and licensed by the government thus Aki Ra had to cease his operation and his museum was closed.  He took a year off from his work but realized he needed to return to it to feel like he had a purpose so he worked with multiple foundations to start his own NGO.  His new NGO is now licensed and sanctionsed by the Cambodian government to difuse unexploded ordinances.  He has also reopened his museum in 2007 and it serves 3 purposes: 
  • To tell Aki Ra’s story
  • To tell the world about the horrors of landmines and explain that war is only half the problem. The aftermath of war continues long after the shooting stops.
  • To care for the children who live at the museum, many of whom were victims of land mines or whose parents could not care for them.

After the museum we headed back to the hotel and packed up for our early departure tomorrow morning!  

With love,

M

 

 

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