It was hot and oppressively humid the day we visited the Angkor Archaeological Park. The heat made it feel like we were moving in slow motion and actually, slower was better to mitigate any unnecessary sweating. We made the best of it and slathered on bug spray, donned our sun hats and billowy pants (at least the girls and I had the pants, I haven’t convinced JD to purchase them yet) and then headed into an amazing day of exploration. The going rate to hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day is 15 USD. This includes the 7.5 km ride out to the park from Siem Reap where the driver will take you around to the sites you want to see within the 402 acres of the complex, wait for you while you explore and then take you back to your accommodation.
alert: USD is accepted all over Cambodia as well as their own currency, the Reil. This makes for a confusing buying experience when you pay with USD and get some of the change back in Reil. It also causes the exchange rate to be really poor. We figured we paid an extra 2.5% with every purchase.
The famous five tower Angkor Wat temple that is most associated with Cambodia is actually just one of the over 100 temples that make up this ancient city. You can spend days exploring this park, walking through temples and admiring the carvings embedded in the walls. We chose to explore the park for only one day and with just a little research we had our plan mapped out with our top three picks.
Our first stop was of course Angkor Wat, which is the largest of the temples and is the most restored. The five towers that to me look like the buds of lotus flowers are actually designed to emulate Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hinduism. The green lawns shimmered with magic brought by the millions of flitting butterflies and swooping dragonflies. The walls inside were ornately decorated with scenes of Hindu stories and hundreds of Apsaras, female deities, carved into the stone. I later learned that the Apsara figure is one of the most important symbols of Khmer culture. Jacob and I took turns climbing the steep steps to the upper most towers (the girls had to be 12 or older to go). There, we were able to get close enough to see the intricate details of the towers and follow the path around the top floor for long distance views of the grounds. My favorite view was pointed out to me by the giant figure of Buddha sitting in the meditation position looking out on the grounds toward one of the gates.
After we left Angor Wat, Lee our Tuk Tuk driver, drove us along the forested road to the Angkor Thom complex and to see the Bayon Temple. This temple is filled with towers, which have giant, carved faces of the Bodhisattva (a Buddhist figure that represents a person on the road toward enlightenment). We learned that during the rule of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge defaced many of the sacred statues and temples in the entire Angkor Park as part of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place. At the Bayon Temple, this defacement was very evident. Many of the heads of various figures were missing and there were large bullet holes in many of the walls. However, one step inside told me that the destruction did nothing to effect the sacredness of the space. Every stone and every smiling Bodhisattva face that looked upon us at each turn radiated with a quiet calmness.
Our next stop was to Ta Prohm or the Jungle Temple. Locals also call it the Tomb Raider temple, as this was the temple that Angelina Jolie scrambled through for her movie of the same name. It definitely felt like we had been transported to an ancient time or a scene out of Indiana Jones (that one is more my speed). Nature has been allowed to run wild through the stone structures and I am so glad because the reward is the gloopy (Quinn’s word) roots that pour over the walls from trees that tower overhead. Moss and lichen adorn the walls and the smell of peppery earth fills the air. Here, too, there is a palpable silence of reverence that blankets the air and grounds (even with the many other tourists). Our driver met us on the opposite end from where he dropped us at the temple. As soon as we exited we were accosted by dozens of adults and children trying to get donations, sell us stuff or offer a Tuk Tuk ride,
“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk? Hey Lady, Tuk Tuk?”
This was the first time we had experienced this level of begging and I’ll call it, one to one advertising. Like a little island oasis in the chaos, Lee waved to us from his Tuk Tuk across the sea people.
The night before our exploration of Angkor Wat we had planned to go into the park to experience the sunset that so many travel sites and people recommended. We made arrangements with our taxi driver from the airport to take us there but when he arrived at our hostel at 4pm, a huge black rain cloud had filled the sky to the north in the direction of the temples. So, as any good salesmen will do, our taxi driver convinced us to head to Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating village and the sunset from there instead. Oh, those moments when you know you have just been sucked onto the tourist conveyor belt can be just the thing you need to wake you up to find your travel legs again. We should have seen the trap a mile away but our three-month break from trekking had dulled our senses.
Nevertheless, there we were piling into a small fishing boat with a guide sitting at the front and at the back (not sure exactly why he was needed) and the boat operator. Because of the drought, the lake was actually really shallow and once we arrived to the village we could see several people wading in the water pushing their boats instead of motoring them. Even though we were ushered to a floating market and asked to pay $50 to buy a 50 pound bag of rice to give to the children of the floating school (we didn’t have enough cash so made a $10 donation instead) and then taken to the crocodile farm where our “tour guides” proceeded to drink 4 beers each and attempted to get us to join the party, despite these unfortunate surprises, the village was actually really beautiful. We learned that because it is too dangerous to be out on the water during the rainy season storms, the residents tow their homes into the jungle that surrounds the lake. For the rest of the year they bob around, their houses rising and falling with the level of the water; fishing and tourism their prime source of income (please don’t take me as insensitive to the needs of the children at the school but if your gut is telling you something is awry it probably is. Who knows how much of that $50 actually ends up going to the school because I know that bag of rice did not cost 50 bucks).
Our last excursion into the cultural world of this region of Cambodia was to visit the Angkor Silk Farm that is located just a little outside of town. They offer free, guided tours to learn about the process of making silk (of course the end of the tour conveniently drops you at their silk shop with beautiful things to buy). The farm has several structures that are scattered around beautifully manicured gardens full of flowers and butterflies. Participants are only allowed to view two of the structures so that the silkworms’ exposure to humans and disease is kept to a minimum. The most interesting part of the process for me was to learn that the bright yellow cocoons of the silkworm actually hold the material needed for the thread. They are boiled to make it easier to extract the fibers. Sadly, if the worms were allowed to complete their metamorphosis and leave their cocoons, the fibers would be broken and therefore could not be made into silk. So, the worms are boiled in their cocoons (brutal, I know) and then after the fibers are removed, the worms are then savored as a nutty snack (the farm saves about 10% of it’s worms for reproduction). Our guide helped himself to a few and offered some to us; Jacob was the brave one. Witnessing the process from making the threads to then weaving them into fabric was truly educational and allowed us to have a further conversation with the girls about how cotton fabric is made as well.
Our visit to Siem Reap was a brief glance at the surface of Khmer culture. Because of wars the Cambodian people suffer extreme poverty and live in cities and towns with little to no infrastructure. Witnessing their way of life opened up questions for me about whether or not this community can thrive in such a seasonal business that is tourism. The utter desperation of stall owners in the market, kids begging in the street and the Tuk Tuk drivers all piled up on the side of the roads unsuccessfully trying to drum up business was overwhelming to say the least. However, I feel very fortunate to have been able to see the amazing Angkor temple complex and learn a little bit about the spirit of the people that refused to be beaten as well as the strength of the spirituality that survived oppression.