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The Temples of Angkor

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006


I’m not sure where to start in explaining the experience of Angkor. This area was once the capital of one of the world’s most powerful kingdom, the Khmers. The Angkor region alone boasts 300 temples and historic sites. To see them all would take weeks and to appreciate them on anything other than a surface level would require several more years of poring over Buddhist, Hindu, and archaeological texts.

It’s comical that some claim that the French “discovered” Angkor in the 19th century. How could you lose a capital that once had a population of over a million people. Of course this ethnocentric western view implicitly shows how eastern sites should be “found” by the west to be understood at all. It’s ridiculous.

It’s hard to say what impacted me the most. At first I suppose it’s the intricacy of the grounds; from the carvings up to the actual building designs. I was constantly asking myself how such a grand undertaking could be completed within the time span they had, roughly 150 years. My logistics side kept asking how much labor was required, where was the quarry, and who was the financier? It truly rivals the pyramids in scope.

Louise and I were always remarking about the pleasing differences in the temples. I would arrive at another temple thinking, “Oh great, another old temple,” only to find myself swept up in the subtle uniqueness of the new surroundings. The overgrown trees of some temples, the circular motif where the square usually prevails, or temples that sought to meld Buddhism and Hinduism all gave a fresh spin on what could all begin to look the same if you got lazy.

The crown jewel of Angkor is without a doubt Angkor Wat. Its scale is astounding, and its massive size give the wanderer the ability to strike out on your own, to sidestep the crowds and tour groups in the galleries and terraces to find your quiet little corner of the past. You should really see this place twice. At sunset and sunrise. And make sure to eavesdrop on the tours being given that explain the beautifully restore reliefs that stretch around the building perimeter depicting mythic battles, the history of Khmer kings, heaven and hell, and the best: the churning of the sea of milk, where the universe is rotated around a holy mountain by the masses and gods pulling a giant 5-headed serpent. Incredible.

In terms of logistics, Angkor is easy but more expensive compared to Thailand. We hired Mr. Pisith, our kind, soft-spoken Tuk-Tuk driver. To really do Angkor justice you should buy the 3-day pass for $40 US and hire a tuk-tuk. Pisith charged $17.50 per person for all three days. We tipped him well. It’s a huge area, and biking it as many do would be really hot. Tuk-tuk was the way to go.

I flew back to Bangkok on the evening of the 23rd. Louise and I had to end our week-long travel streak as I ended my S.E. Asian travel (this round), and prepared to enter China.

The mutiny of Siem Reap

Monday, February 20th, 2006

The contrast crossing into Cambodia is sharp. As you’re changing sides of the road (left to right), you can’t help but notice a different level of poverty immediately. Trash litters the dusty streets of Poipet, long a jumping point for war refugees into Thailand, and now a seedy gambling town. We passed through quickly.The border cross went far more smoothly than expected. The transportation bureau of Cambodia has successfully cut out the scammers and pickpockets by shuttling entrants from visa application office, to stamp office, to bus station. We caught the bus and began our journey on a long, flat, bumpy road. It isn’t far from the border to Siem Reap, but the trip took 6 hours, crawling.

Part of the reason for the length and speed of the trip is that the guy on board turned out to own a guest house in Siem Reap. At our lunch stop he told us of the dangers of S.R. after sundown, and how nice his guest house was. A group of Czechs began to plot the mutiny. They were not going to play into his scam. The evolution of tourist bus psychology unfolded in the most surreal and comical way.

I became the liaison between the Japanese tourists. The Czechs wanted solidarity. We would not fold to this “criminal” who was about to hold us hostage in his guesthouse. If I sound melodramatic, it is because the events that followed still confound me several days after. When the bus finally meandered into Siem Reap, the Czechs were watching the Lonely Planet map intently. When the bus made a left turn away from central S.R., the dam broke. There was screaming, swearing, and hands beating the sides of the bus. “We’re being kidnapped! Call the Police! Stop the bus for the LOVE OF GOD!” I became silent and exchanged pensive looks with Louise. The Czechs didn’t want anyone to get off the bus. Solidarity. Louise and I knew full well that the bus had stopped, so we got off to a chorus of “don’t do it!” “If you give in to them you are stupid!” I had much different opinions. We left.

We got a Tuk-Tuk and found a guest house near the center of town and that was that. What a trip! In retrospect, I realize now that they were really scared. They thought their safety was in jeopardy. I was frightened by them more than the bus folks. My policy remains to never call for police in a country that has had death squads and torture chambers. Call me crazy.

The business about Cambodia

Sunday, February 19th, 2006
2/18-2/19 I looked at my schedule and realized I would be flying to China in a week. Time in S.E. Asia is running out. At breakfast I pretended to flip a coin, out of a desire for romanticism really, ... [Continue reading this entry]