Khmer Khabar (Part Two)

  • One of the entrances to the temple complexes that is still used to this day.
  • Trees have sprouted up in the middle of temples and cities since Angkor was inhabited centuries ago.
  • A stela of a Khmer woman.
  • The central tower of Angkor Wat.
  • The remains of buddha statues that are still venerated today.
  • One of hundreds of smiling buddha faces found through out Angkor.
  • The group at the door that was featured in Tomb Raider. It’s sad that pop culture has traveled this far.
  • Angkor Wat.

The second half of our trip to Cambodia was much lighter than the first. After about three days in Phnom Penh, we boarded a plane and traveled to Siem Reap in the north-western portion of the country. Today, Siem Reap is a small tourist town that must get nearly 90% of its business from hotels and tourist trapping gift shops. Driving around the city there is not much else besides a few small bike rental shops and restaurants, but the city’s nameactually refers to the defeat of the Siamese (Thai) army by the Khmers in the 17th Century. A common theme of Thai-Cambodian-Vietnamese history is war between the different groups. Of course, the reason for our visit to this area was to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding Khmer temples. As soon as we got unpacked at the hotel, we were off with our tour guide to see the park.

Chris decided that we should take tuk-tuks for the day because the open carriage allowsyou to see more than a tour bus; so after we tracked down enough to carry the whole group, we were a caravan of four carts each being pulled by a motorcycle. It took a while to drive into the park. The entrance is placed pretty far away from the temples and despite there being over 300 temples in the immediate area, it’s a bit of drive between some of them. After about fifteen minutes of riding through the jungle, we came up to our first destination.

The thing that is immediately apparent about Angkor Wat is the moat. As you drive upthrough the jungle the road abruptly turns to run alongside it. The water then quickly turns away at a 90 degree angle, revealing that is it in actuality man-made. The trail shortly follows the turn and then on the right-hand side the towers of the entry gate begin to rise from behind the trees. As you get closer, you realize that there is a giant cluster of tuk-tuks, buses, cars and bicycles all trying to park as close as they can to the bridge that crosses into the temple complex. Throw in dozens of Cambodian sellers of trinkets, drink and food into the mix and you have a bit of a circus.

Despite all the commotion, the complex was incredibly impressive. Our tour guide was in a bit of a hurry to show us everything, something that a few of us rectified by coming back the next morning, but we managed to see and learn a lot. Angkor Wat means temple-city, although the actual complex that the world thinks of as Angkor Wat was in reality just a temple. The way that the towers rise up out of a square courtyard represents how the mythical mountain home of the Khmer gods rises up over the physical world, which is defined by the four cardinal directions or four corners of a square. All the temples that theKhmer built face East, except for Angkor Wat, and no one really knows why this is the case. When the Khmer’s were using the temple for worship, the different levels of the complex were segregated in terms of class, with only priests being allowed at the top.

After we left Angkor Wat, we got back on our tuk-tuks and drove around to see some ofthe other famous temples, including the one that Angeline Jolie made famous in Tomb Raider (hurray!) and another that is known for housing hundreds of depictions of the Buddha. This later one included a huge dark room in the center of the tallest tower that was housing what had to be hundreds of bats.

One of the most interesting things about the Angkor complex was the fact that it was at the center of the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. Viet Nam, which was never heavily Hindu, was saved from these conflicts, but in ancient Cambodia there was a lot of bloodshed between the two religious groups. This is evident in the ancient templesbecause some are built to Buddha, others to Shiva and some started off serving one and were later retrofitted to host the spirit of the other. In the end, Buddhism won out with the vast majority of Cambodians today being Buddhist. Many of the temples at Angkor were also active religious sites with monks attending to various altars for the Great Buddha.

After a whole day climbing around temples we headed back to the hotel and the pool. Some of us had not had enough, however, and we got up at four the next morning to visitthe park again and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. When we got back to the temple it was still pitch black but that hadn’t stopped a handful of visitors from coming to the temple. At five they let us cross the long, stone bridge to the man-made island. The only thing that lit the way across the uneven stone road was the other visitors’ flashlight and my iPhone. Once we got back to the temple, we set out to see the places we were forced to rush through the other day. Exploring the long halls and giant rooms of the temple alone in thedark was completely worth getting up so early. It was an entirely different experience than visiting in the middle of the tourist-filled day. In the quiet and the dark the temples’ steles and sculptures seemed closer and more real. It was much easier to imagine the people that had once built and used such an important space.

After we got to the courtyard with the highest towers, we may have bribed the security guards to let us climb to the top of the tower before it officially opened at 7:30. Weexplored the top floors for a good hour before the sun rose around 7. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and the sunrise was not much, but the experience of getting to sit withone of the world’s most famous sites almost completely alone for hours was well worth the trouble and a few dollars.