25 May 2018 - Siem Reap, Cambodia
With our Malaysian 90 day visa ending on 19 May, we decided to make a side trip out of the country - to see yet another country. This time we chose Cambodia, and in particular Siem Reap (a very popular tourist destination). We drove our rental car to the airport in Kuala Lumpur, parked the car in Long Term Parking, and then took a 2 hour flight directly to Siem Reap. The flights, hotel (and breakfasts), and airport transfers cost $580 CDN for the two of us. This is one of the great things of positioning ourselves in SE Asia. We can take advantage of deals like this.
Cambodia had a difficult time at the end of the twentieth century. During the mid to late 70’s, under Pol Pot, the Kmer Rouge’s brutal regime was responsible for the death of nearly 3M of the country’s 8M population through war with Thailand, war with Vietnam and just poor planning and execution of Communist practices. Most of the intellectuals and educated were executed or died as a result of “displacement” (any that opposed Communism). All of that is behind them now, and the country has been open to tourism since 2004. It is a poor country, and definitely classified as third world. Although, there are more than 5M tourist arrivals per year, and the population is currently about 16M.
On the first day, we took a “small tour” around some of the famous Buddhist (and in some cases Hindu, or formerly Hindu) temples of Siem Reap. These were all reachable within a 30 minute Tuk-Tuk drive from our hotel. Some of the temples have changed over the years, and this sandstone carving, for example was changed from Hindu to Buddhist by “crossing the legs”.
Our driver for the whole week was Mr Two, age 32. His wife and family live about 3 hours drive from Siem Reap, in a remote village. Once a month, he unhooks his Tuk-Tuk from his 110cc Honda scooter and drives home to be with them (and bring money I suppose) - returning the next day. During the month in Siem Reap, he rents a room and works as much as he can. He was a really nice guy, and struggled to speak as much English as he could. We treated him well, hiring him every day and we even bought him a pair of sunglasses and gave him a set of Apple ear buds.
Our first temple stop was to see the world famous Angkor Wat (East gate entrance), the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat is built on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres).
Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu during the Khmer Empire (in the first half of the 12th century), it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. The temple is at the top end of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and is the country's prime tourist attraction (one day entrance cost is $37USD per person, although it gets more cost effective to visit more days).
Later in the morning, we visited Ta Phrom (locally known as Tomb Raider). This temple was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of the most popular temples with visitors.
Rather than cut some of these ancient trees down, conservationists are providing supports for the tree and root system.
The temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location set in the film Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. Although the film took visual liberties with other Angkorian temples, its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple's actual appearance, and made use of its eerie qualities.
The last temple stop on Monday was to see Angkor Thom, the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII and covers an area of 9 km². There are vast displays of bas-relief in sandstone depicting the various gods, goddesses, and other-worldly beings from the mythological stories and epic poems of ancient Hinduism (modified by centuries of Buddhism). Mingled with these images are carvings of actual known animals, like elephants, snakes, fish, and monkeys, in addition to dragon-like creatures that look like the stylized, elongated serpents (with feet and claws) found in Chinese art. Angkor Thom was abandoned some time prior to in the late fifteenth century, when it was believed to have sustained a population of 80,000–150,000 people. Angkor Thom was also used as a film site for the Tomb Raider movie, as well as the first King Kong movie of 1933. This site is where we first came into contact with many local monkeys.
Although it was in remarkably good condition, and the stairs were very steep. We did climb to the top, walk around a bit - and then walk down. In fact, this was the case for nearly all of the temples, lots of climbing required.
Most temples had four distinct entrances, and usually one or more were the scene of current Buddhist worship.
Several times through the week, we encountered an “amputee band” (and there were many). This was a group of men who suffered amputation from landmines (most of them were just farmers) and rather than beg for a living, they formed a band to play Cambodian music with authentic instruments at the sites. I’d rather give these guys a couple of bucks.
As the days went on, we stopped at more and more temples, way too numerous to name. In fact, we bought a 3 day temple pass, but spread it out over 5 days, so we didn’t suffer from “temple burn-out”. There were lots of signs asking that women cover their shoulders and knees but they didn’t seem to fuss with the men.
Some of the temples looked like they were losing the war of erosion to the jungle. Jungle overgrowth is relentless in this area of the world.
It was nice to see garbage cans and recycling programs in use. We saw lots of people picking up garbage, obviously they get “paid by the bag”.
One day we went to the Cambodian War Museum for a few hours. Although it was a bit small, and a bit crowded, it did tell an accurate story of the “secret war” (where American forces dropped more bombs on Cambodian Communist retreats than were dropped in WWII), the wars with Vietnam and Thailand and their own struggle and civil war. It was a little unsettling to see BMPs, BRDMs, BM-21 and Soviet tanks on display, all of them useless, rusting relics - and all of them considered part of the enemy forces during my Army training. I am getting old.
There don’t appear to be any elephants living in the wild in Cambodia, but you can hire this one for a ride.
We stopped at a crocodile farm, where you can buy a belt for $180 - $ 250, or a handbag for $1800 - $2000. We didn’t buy anything, we left that to the well-heeled Japanese and Chinese tourists. However, we were definitely concerned for the living conditions of the hundreds of crocodiles waiting for death.
Victory Gate is one of the 5 gates which guard the ancient city of Angkor Thom. It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century, serving as 1 of the 5 holy Buddhist gateways to Angkor Thom. Legend has it that this gate was significant during the reign of the King because he would send his army into battle through this major gate when defending the Kingdom. The archway itself is still in good condition, but the approaches have suffered from small arms fire during the civil war.
We ate “amok”, the national dish - a number of times through, sometimes with chicken, sometimes with fish or pork. Its a very nice coconut flavoured curry “soup” with rice. It is often served in a coconut.
For the remainder of the week, we saw even more temples and also quite a bit of the local countryside and city - all the while being transported by Mr Two’s Tuk-Tuk. This is what a STOP sign looks like in Cambodia.
In Canada, the province of Quebec has chosen to delete the word STOP from their ARRÊT sign. In Cambodia and most other places in the world - they have chosen to display the English word STOP together with the local language.
We stopped at a war memorial, honouring the names of thousands of known dead.
In the city centre of Siem Reap, we looked up into the trees and saw thousands of bats hanging.
This is what a lotus farm looks like.
This is what they sell, as a lotus flower (that has been manipulated) in the flower market.
Another thing that I’d never seen before was a “hammock bar”. I saw dozens of these little roadside cafes and bars in the Siem Reap area - and they had hammocks strung up inside. Get a beer, and relax in a hammock. Why not?
On Wednesday, we “treated” our driver Mr Two to lunch at Burger King. He could never afford it, and had rarely eaten Western style food. Unfortunately, Diane got food poisoning from her hamburger, salmonella to be specific - and was laid up for the last two days. We took her to the International Hospital on Friday, and they gave her IV fluids and medicine to kill the bacteria (diagnosed through a blood sample in about 30 minutes).