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.

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Khmer Khabar (Part 1)

  • Typical building style in Phnom Penh.
  • The skyline of the capital city, which really only includes about half a dozen buildings over six or seven stories.
  • The gatehouse to the Royal Palace that sits along the Mekong River.
  • The tuk-tuks or motorcycle powered carriages we took all over Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat.
  • A delicious chicken burger with pesto mayonaise that I had at the Friends  Restaurant , a NGO that takes in children living on the street and trains them how to be chefs, waiters and restaurant owners so they can earn a decent living. The organization also runs a school next door.
  • The international flag of buddhism that is found all over Cambodia and Viet Nam. These flags were flying over a pagoda in Phnom Penh.
  • The Royal Palace seen through the gate. The palace was only open to the public between 2 and 5 PM and women were required to cover their knees and shoulders. Because of the restrictions we never made it inside.
  • The Cambodian Independence Monument is an example of classic Khmer architecture. The figures covering the structure are nagas or sea serpents, which represent the sea god are found all over Cambodia.

Sorry for the delay everyone. It has been a crazy last week traveling around Southern Vietnam and all over Cambodia, but I have not forgotten about you and the blog! I have pictures, videos, and plenty of news ( or khabar to continue with the alliteration theme) and stories to share.

My trip to Cambodia started a week agotoday. We were meeting as a group in the backpacking area of District 1 (the central part of the city) to catch a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. However, I had to leave a bit early to head to the doctor and get an ongoing throat issue cleared up. (Don’t worry I’m fine now.) After my appointment I walked out of the modern office building that the clinic is located in and began searching for a taxi. Since this was the third day of Tet the streets were deserted and there were not that many options from which to chose.

At the end of the street I found a man lounging on his motorbike though and he asked, “Ride!” Since the streets were deserted, the driver looked respectable and had a helmet and I had the address I was going to written down on a piece of paper I decided to give a motortaxi ride or xe ohm a shot. As with a lot of things in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to haggle about the price first which I was agreed upon at 30,000 dong or ba moui dong. The drive was nice and scenic, going past many of the city’s main sites. I had luckily picked a good driver who wentslow and I managed to enjoy the ride.

When we got to the bus station (which is really just a street filled with buses), I got off and tried to pay the driver but he insisted that we had really agreed upon 40,000 dong. I still am not sure if this is because 3 and 4 sound similar in Vietnamese, being ba and bone, or if he was just taking advantage of an obvious newcomer to the country. Unfortunately he was holding my bag hostage and I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. Also, the different of 10,000 dong equals about 50 cents so I ended up giving in rather quickly. Afterwards, I managed to find the other Americans and we boarded the bus for Cambodia.

The ride was rather uneventful. It started with the playing of calming music and video-recorded scenes of Vietnamese wildlife (a staple of travel no matter what type of transportation you are using here) and ended with an intense and incredibly long Chinese kung-fu movie. At the Cambodian-Vietnamese boarder we had to disembark three times, once on the Vietnamese side, again on the Cambodian side to get out visas and immigration paper work figured out, and finally to eat lunch at a rather questionable Cambodian road-side restaurant. (I’m still amazed that the only thing that has given me food poisoning up until this point is a Ho Chi Minh City Pizza Hut.) For being one of the poorest countries in theworld, Cambodia has a pretty elaborate immigration system with fingerprint scanner, digital cameras and rapid medical checks.

When we got to Phnom Penh after 6 hours on the bus I was struck by how different it is from Ho Chi Minh City. The streets are far less crowded with maybe only a third the traffic of Saigon. Instead of blocks that house dozens of smaller apartments, stores and pagodas all stacked on top of each other, each city block is taken up by one large, Soviet-looking concrete building. A few French colonial buildings remained but they were far and few between. The most noticeable buildings in the area were definitely the Buddhist pagodas which all had large courtyards and tall red and gold roofs. On some of the larger boulevards there are large monuments that celebrate Cambodian independence, the monarchy and “friendship” with Viet Nam. (The two countries have a bit of a conflicted history.)

Overall, the city definitely had some beauty, especially in the large public parks along the rivers and near the King’s palace estate in the downtown area, but it was simultaneously obvious how depressed Cambodia is. Phnom Penh and the country as a whole is not developing nearly as fast as Viet Nam. The buildings are of a poorer quality, there are far fewer businesses, more people sleep on the street and beggars can be found on every corner that also has tourists. I had wanted to mentally separate the current country I was visiting from the long history of civil war and genocide that usually come up when people think of this place, but it was incredibly difficult to do so. It was clear that Khmer people are just recently emerging from a long struggle and that the outside world is just beginning to take notice.

Xin Chao!

  • They have entire panda stores in China!
  • This is the gated drive of the guesthouses where we are staying.

Hello everyone!

It is day one in Ho Chi Minh City and everything is incredibly different. For one it is very warm. The current high of 88 degrees is quite different than the 19 degrees and snow I just missed in Chicago. I had pho for breakfast which was a little odd because it was very spicy and savory at 9 AM. I could have had pho again for lunch but decided to pass to give my stomach some time to adjust to the heat and new foods. I don’t understand anyone or anything on the street except the occasional American brand name item being sold in a small shop and I don’t really dare venture outside of a block radius until my Vietnamese roommate Nghiêm gets here in a few hours.

Although I had a bout of nerves last night and the expected “what the hell am I doing moment” as I tried to fall asleep, I am mostly excited right now. I’ve learned my first Vietnamese words but don’t really know how to spell them yet. They sound like “gamma” and “tra da!” as if you were doing a magic trick and mean “thank you” and “cold tea” respectively. (You can tell that my experience has pretty much been limited to food so far.) The restaurants that we have eaten at would not really be considered restaurants in America. They are more like stalls on the side of the busy streets. Some are bays in concrete buildings, others are held together mostly by sheet metal on hang off the side. They all seem to sell the same basic menu of noodles, teas, and rice dishes and have the same brightly colored plastic stools for customers to sit.

I have experienced so little of the city but am exhausted. The jet lag is pretty horrible even though I tried to adjust on the 14-hour flight to Shanghai. I hope to see a little more of the larger attractions that are nearby later this afternoon. Although eating some food and walking around the city are making things seem more solid, the trip yesterday is still surreal.

What I think was most surprising about it was all the different interactions I had with people before I even got to Vietnam: all the little half-conversations with Chinese families returning home, the multiple run-ins with a mid-western looking man who had worked in Vietnam for years a long time ago and the many misunderstandings that occurred in the Shanghai airport. All these things made me realize how much traveling is about people and our experiences with others. It’s easy to think of monuments and planes when preparing to travel but to make the most out of leaving the comfort of our homes we need to not only have patience with others who are extremely different from us, but also with ourselves.