Cambodia by the Numbers

Ancient temples clambered upon: 14

Times the A/C went out at my guesthouse in Siem Reap, on days when it was 90% humidity and 90*F out: 5

Times I said “oh my god” in horror at Choeung Ek and S-21: 15

Times I said “oh my god” in wonder at Angkor: 15

Teenagers who chatted with me over a couple hours of lunch: 3

Water bottles purchased so those same teenagers wouldn’t lose their day’s earnings: 3

Fish spas undergone: 1

Contented pizzas consumed: 3

Friends who I first met in Laos and then had meals with in Cambodia: 4

Total money spent: $706

Number of days in the country: 11

Average amount spent per day: $64.18

Total money spent, minus the flight from Laos: $514

Average amount spent per day, minus the flight from Laos: $46.73

Times I nearly passed out from the heat: 3

Times I complained about the heat, then and since: innumerable

Seconds I’d take to consider going back and seeing more of this country: 5

Embracing the sunrise

Last Day at Angkor: The Lady Temple and the Long Walk to the Lake

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

angkor pre rup

Banteay Srei 

This temple is called the “lady temple” because it’s shorter than the other temples, lady-sized. No one seems to be sure why it was built on such a small scale. It’s built of red sandstone, rather than the mix of sandstone, laterite, and brick used in some of the other temples. It’s also covered in beautiful decorative carvings, and because the buildings are only a little taller than eye level, it’s easy to admire the art.

On the approach, you can see how the temple is so much smaller than the other temples.

On the approach, you can see how the temple is so much smaller than the other temples.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Most of the statues in the park are copies because the originals kept losing their heads.

Most of the statues in the park are copies because the originals kept losing their heads to vandals.

angkor banteay srei

Gorgeous detail in Banteay Srei

Gorgeous detail in Banteay Srei

Also monkeys

Also monkeys

angkor banteay srei

Such cool detail

Such cool detail

Being demure in the lady temple

Being demure in the lady temple

angkor banteay srei

Banteay Samré

More than other temples I visited, Banteay Samré seemed like it was missing water. Everything was raised off the ground–the outer walls, the inner libraries, the inner temple–and since it was all closer together than Angkor Wat or similar, I got the feeling that there should have been water filling in all the empty spots. Like a floating temple. This was just what I wanted, though, and probably isn’t at all what it would have looked like in the 12th century.

Banteay Samre

Banteay Samre

Lot of water missing

Can’t you just see water filling in all those spaces?

That detail again

That detail again

angkor banteay samre

East Mebon

East Mebon

East Mebon

angkor east mebon

Dragonflies everywhere

Dragonflies everywhere

Ta Som

Ta Som

Ta Som

angkor ta som

Neak Pean

A royal lake, and a long walk through some pretty marshy areas to get to it. Tiny temples at the lake.

The long path to Neak Pean

The long path to Neak Pean

Love the symmetry of these lakes

Love the symmetry of these lakes

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

angkor preah khan angkor preah khan

The hall of dancers at Preah Khan

The hall of dancers at Preah Khan

The library at Preah Khan

The library at Preah Khan

angkor preah khan angkor preah khan

A Different Kind of Lunch Break

One of my favorite memories of the temples of Angkor doesn’t involve the temples at all–it involves a sticky plastic seat, a table in the shade, and two hours of conversation. After a morning at a couple temples, I took my driver’s advice and ate at the little restaurant across from Banteay Samre.

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

Two teenage girls took my order, and their mother brought out a delicious fish amok soup. One of the girls disappeared in the back with her mother, but the other one stayed out with me and chatted. My My, as she introduced herself, was sweet and silly, giggling after every sentence. Her friends, Jo and Tui, joined us, and they talked with me about school–which they sometimes go to and sometimes skip–and boys–one of My My’s friends, age 15 like her, has just had a baby. Tui’s English was almost perfect, but Jo and My My were able to hold a conversation just fine as well. I brought out a packet of coconut crackers and handed them around for everyone to share.

Fish amok soup--so good

Fish amok soup–so good

But as with nearly all the friendly conversations I had with locals throughout Southeast Asia, I felt an undercurrent of discomfort because the income inequality was always so evident. All three girls were trying to sell me something over lunch; My My had bottles of water and Tui had little ornaments. For me, the two hours we spent talking over my soup were a midday break, a relaxing lunch, but they were still on the clock. Every so often, one of the girls would break into the conversation with “Buy this one, just one, please help”; Tui, especially, was persistent. I didn’t buy anything til I was leaving, at which point I bought a water from each of them. They were very clear that buying just one water would only help that one girl; is there a system of quotas going on? I’m not sure if I shouldn’t have bought a lot more things, or overpaid by a lot, or if that would contribute to their staying out of school even more often, or what. Not sure what the Good Tourist move was.

But before I bought the waters, My My ran into the back and came out with large pieces of paper. I loaned them my pens, and each girl drew a picture, which they then gave to me to keep. I played several games of tic-tac-toe with Jo and My My showed me how to write her name in Khmer script. They teased me about not having a boyfriend and turned shyly away when I asked them if they had boyfriends. We took a photo before I left, and My My shouted my name as I got into the back of the tuk-tuk and the driver headed down the road.

My favorite lunch in Cambodia

My favorite lunch spot in Cambodia

I was a walking wallet but also a source of fun for them. To me, they were an intimidating reminder of how much I have and how much others don’t have, and also lovely individuals with personalities I can clearly remember now, months later. I hope we were something good to each other and that they had as much fun as I did laughing over soup and crackers.

More Angkor Temples–Look, They’re Just Really Cool, Okay?

Looks like it’s Angkor Week here at Stowaway! The temples were so amazing that I took at least 1,000 photos, so I suppose it’s not too surprising that I’m using four days to show them off. Enjoy!

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

The most interesting part of Ta Keo was the fact that it was undergoing renovations when I was there, so all the workings of the structure were laid out, labeled, and slowly put back together. Different nations sponsor renovations on different parts of the park at Angkor; Japan, the US, Australia, and India are among the countries that have contributed to restoring the temples to some of their former glory. Part of Ta Keo was covered in scaffolding, and the peace of the morning was broken by the sound of a large crane moving stones into place, a modern update to the never completed temple of the 11th century.

Every stone is labeled

Every stone is labeled for the giant jigsaw that is renovation

When the glass breaks, they know the stones have shifted, and they can adjust their renovations accordingly

When the glass breaks, they know the stones have shifted, and they can adjust their renovations accordingly

The stairs, which I actually climbed more like a ladder because they were so steep

The stairs, which I actually climbed more like a ladder because they were so steep

A little higgledy-piggledy

A little higgledy-piggledy

Ta Prohm brings to mind Indiana Jones movies, but it’s actually the site of filming for several scenes from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, so all the touts and drivers I encountered called it the Tomb Raider temple. The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, which decided what to do with the Angkor temples when France had control of Cambodia, decided to leave Ta Prohm as it was, to show how most of Angkor looked when Westerners stumbled upon it in the 19th century. So the jungle has crept over the bridge and wriggled through the walls, and the result is a beautiful blend of nature and architecture.

angkor ta prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

angkor ta prohm

They do a lot of work to make sure that the places open to visitors are structurally sound

They do a lot of work to make sure that the places open to visitors are structurally sound, while leaving the “classical ruins” look in place

A sense of scale

A sense of scale

angkor ta prohm angkor ta prohm

Superwoman

Superwoman

If I visit Angkor again, I’ll go to Sra Srang during sunrise; going during the middle of the day revealed that it was a large man-made lake (or baray, to use the term from my guidebook) that may or may not have once had a temple in the middle of it, but currently has nothing else. It was apparently a bathing pool for just about anyone to use (despite its current name meaning “royal baths”), which is a nice touch for an ancient kingdom.

Sra Srang

Sra Srang

On my last day in the park, I walked up the hill to Phnom Bakheng to see the sunset from there. As I mentioned in a post last week, I almost didn’t get to go in at all. I’m still annoyed that there are no signs or warnings at the base of the hill, and that you walk all the way to the top, and then stand in line, before someone says, “You can’t go in because you’re not dressed right.” Apparently, the scarf around my shoulders wasn’t enough. I wasn’t about to give up, so I looked around for someone who, in this heat, was wearing a shoulder-covering shirt and a shirt over that. I found someone! I turned to a woman waiting with her tour group, and asked if I could borrow the thin raincoat she was wearing. We had to overcome some language barriers for her to realize I wanted to borrow, not steal, her coat, and then she smiled and handed it over. The Clothing Police waved me in, and I ascended the stairs of the temple.

The path to the top of the hill

The path to the top of the hill

angkor Phnom Bakheng

The view was lovely–forests and barays and temples as far as the eye could see, in all directions. The sunset wasn’t very dramatic, as there was too much haze, but it was cool to look down at Angkor Wat from this height. I also liked the walk up and down the hill, when I got a glimpse of the small Baksei Chamkrong in the distance.

Baksei Chamkrong

Baksei Chamkrong

From Phnom Bakheng

From Phnom Bakheng

View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

200 Faces and A Stonework Cockfight at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was the first stop on my first day in the park, and it turned out to be my last stop of the day, because there’s so much to see and it’s too hot to move quickly from one site to the next. (Have I mentioned how hot it was in Southeast Asia yet? Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to dwell on that point for the next several weeks, because even summers spent in muggy Michigan swamplands and concrete-baked Chicago porches could not prepare me for the humid heat of this part of the world.) Anyway, heat aside, Angkor Thom was a great introduction to the wonders of the park at Angkor.

At Bayon in Angkor Thom

At Bayon in Angkor Thom (there I am for a sense of scale)

The South Gate

angkor thom face tower

The south gate is the main entrance point for modern visitors, and it’s an impressive introduction to King Jayavarman VII’s city-temple. The bridge over the moat is flanked by two rows of figures–gods on the left, demons on the right–and each group of figures holds the body of the rainbow naga, a giant serpent, which is either meant to bridge the world of the gods and the world of humans, or to show the creation myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk, making the center of the city the created world. That’s a difference between Angkor Thom and most of the other temples in the area–there’s no moat or wall around the main temple inside, Bayon, so archaeologists theorize that the whole city is meant to represent Mount Meru, rather than just the temple, which would seem to bring up a lot of theological questions in terms of the inhabitants of the city, what activities were and weren’t holy in the city, etc.

Serene gods

Serene gods

Anyway, this is how I reacted to these interesting archaeological and theological questions:

Holding up the snake

Holding up the snake

Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

The Bayon is a weird and wonderful temple. Its central portion is filled with face towers: large blocks of stone with a face carved in each of the four sides. The faces might resemble King Jayavarman VII or Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist tradition, or they might resemble Jayavarman as Lokesvara. There’s a long tradition of rulers around the world having their likeness dressed up as historical heroes or religious figures; it lends majesty. Apparently there are 216 faces in this one temple alone, but there used to be more, or maybe less. It’s hard to tell with all the renovations made over the centuries. So there may have been some significance to the number of faces found in the temple, but it’s hard to know what it would be.

So many faces at Bayon

So many faces at Bayon

The many face towers contribute to the crowded feeling of this temple, since there’s a tower cropping up just about everywhere you turn, unlike at other temples, where there were carefully planned distances between the considerably fewer towers. Apparently, the Bayon was just added to and added to over the years, and built up higher than it was originally intended to be, so we see more towers, and also narrower hallways, than at other temples.

Crowded hallways in Bayon

Crowded hallways in Bayon

The Bayon also has one of the most extensive collections of bas-relief friezes in the park. Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon does include friezes depicting mythological scenes from Hindusim, but there are also huge walls of bas-reliefs showing everyday life in the late 12th century in Angkor, as well as some historical events. There’s a wrestling match, a chess game, a cockfight, and a market scene, among many others.

Cockfighting

Cockfighting

Chess game

Chess game

There are also naval battles between the Khmer and their traditional enemies the Cham, and some processionals involving Khmer generals atop their elephants. I really enjoyed poring over all these scenes.

The friezes were multilevel

The friezes were multilevel

Dancing on a boat

Dancing on a boat

Crocodile mishaps

Crocodile mishaps

Bapuon

Bapuon

Bapuon

Here is where my guidebook’s last update (2003) came in sharp contrast with reality. The book shows photos of a grass-covered mound, and vaguely describes the massive temple as once more impressive than even the Bayon. Reality shows a completely restored, impressively massive temple, complete with ridiculously long bridge with a couple ponds on either side, and my first introduction to just how steep the steps of Angkor temples can be.

Everyone made jokes about what a workout it was to go up and down these stairs

Everyone made jokes about what a workout it was to go up and down these stairs

Ssssstone carvings

Ssssstone carvings

Not sure who carved the arrow--the ancients or modern restoration workers--but the hole was probably used to hold wooden pegs as stones were maneuvered into place, then removed when the stones were snugly fitted

Not sure who carved the arrow–the ancients or modern restoration workers–but the hole was probably used to hold wooden pegs as stones were maneuvered into place, then removed when the stones were snugly fitted

The Royal Palace and Phimeanakas

Philijdsf

Phimeanakas

I tried to follow my guidebook’s plan to get to the Elephant Terrace after the Bapuon, but found myself going through a side entrance to the grounds of the Royal Palace. Tucked back here is the Phimeanakas, the temple of the king. It wasn’t in great condition and couldn’t be climbed on. A dusty path led away from the temple toward what was left of the gate of the palace.

A rare instance of Khmer writing at Angkor

A rare instance of Khmer writing at Angkor

In a small grove of trees to the right, I saw a group of Cambodians eating lunch and resting from the heat of midday, kids running around playing games and screeching as kids do. Pretty much everyone I saw touristing at Angkor was white or East Asian, so I guessed these families were working here, and were taking a break. Then I saw a couple of the women stand up and grab plastic bags and long poles and realized that they were part of the crew I’d seen picking up litter all along the roadways on the way here. They were why Angkor was so much cleaner than most tourist sites I’d visited in Thailand.

Snack Break

The snacks tree

The snacks tree

I left the palace and went across the road to find some refreshment. As soon as I started crossing that road, at least three women started screaming out for me to visit their stall. I headed across the field toward the large tree under which the snack stalls were set up, but the women literally ran toward me in order to be the one to get me to buy a $1 bottle of water. It was disconcerting to be the focus of such a ferocious sales pitch, and saddening to get to the shelter of the tree and buy my mango slices and bottled water from the 10-year-old daughter of one of the women who had run to greet me. Several girls vied for my attention and my dollars, and they all talked to me in good English. They’d all learned English by selling snacks to thirsty tourists, and none of them could be spared by their parents to go to school, or if they could be spared, they couldn’t afford the uniforms required to attend.

I swallowed my privileged American white lady guilt along with the mango slices and went back across the road to see the rest of the structures, but I’d lost the enthusiasm I’d had earlier.

Elephant Terrace

Elephant Terrace

I admired the Elephant Terrace (so named for the long-trunked animals carved into the side of the terrace) and smiled as kids chased each other through the narrow walkways of the Leper King Terrace (so named for the king of legend who had leprosy, whose likeness might be seen in one of the carvings–or who might be called to mind simply because the lichen has eaten away the carving of the king figure here).

Restoration work is a giant jigsaw

Restoration work is a giant jigsaw

Dig the groovy swirls

Dig the groovy swirls

Then it was time to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat and head back to the air-conditioned comfort of the guesthouse before another day in the splendid ruins.

So. Hot.

So. Hot.

Angkor Wat: A Temple, A City, A Breathtaking Sight

When I say I’ve been to Angkor Wat, people sometimes reply, “where?” but when I show them this photo, they nod in recognition:

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Oh yeah, that place. The giant temple thing in Cambodia. In fact, Angkor Wat is the largest single religious monument in the world. (I guess that’s under dispute by Those Who Measure Religious Monuments or something, because most of the info I can find on it won’t give me a hard yes or no on the topic. Regardless, it’s huge–the outer wall runs over 2 miles long.) Of course it’s big, when you learn that “angkor” roughly translates to “city” and of course we know “wat” is fairly synonymous with “temple.” Angkor Wat is a temple and also a city.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Khmer king Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the beginning of the 12th century. He broke from tradition by dedicating it to Vishnu rather than Shiva, and orienting the temple complex to the west, rather than the east. In the next century, the main religion of the Khmers changed from Hinduism to Buddhism, so the religion associated with the temple changed, too. One of the main statues of the temple, which was somehow not destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (as most of the statuary was), is an eight-armed Vishnu whose head has been swapped out for a buddha’s head.

Vishnu/Buddha

Vishnu/Buddha

Other decorations, however, are not so easily changed from one religion to another. Angkor Wat is impressive not just for its size and age, but for the bas-relief friezes that run around a large part of one of the inner walls. These friezes show scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two Hindu epics. Many of the friezes have been restored by various conservation groups over the past few decades, and I’m so glad I got to see this artwork dusted off and cleaned up. It’s much easier to appreciate the incredible detail of each carving when the accumulated grime of centuries has been swept away.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Bas-relief frieze

Bas-relief frieze

Angkor Wat is built in the temple mountain style: it’s meant to resemble Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. There are always outer walls representing mountains, and usually a moat to represent the ocean. The inner temple is made up of five pyramids representing the five peaks of Mount Meru–usually four in the corners, and an elevated one in the center, the innermost sanctum of the gods.

angkor wat

One of the distinctive features of Khmer architecture, according to my architecture guidebook, was the “trick of perspective” achieved by progressively reducing the height of each structure from the center outwards, making the central towers appear even taller and more impressive. This architectural trick expresses the religious beliefs of its builders, too, since it emphasizes the importance of the home of the gods and the humility of the rest of creation in comparison to it–even the oceans are reduced to flat moats calmly reflecting Mount Meru’s glory back to it.

angkor wat

For those of us who haven’t made a study of Khmer architecture or Angkor period temples (and that’s most of us, isn’t it), it’s good to keep in mind that a Khmer temple “was not a meeting place for the faithful but the palace of a god,” as Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques note in Ancient Angkor. Thus, the tiny space in the interior of the central pyramid, made only to house the statue of the god and not for crowds of worshipers; the super steep stairs that were usually only scaled by a few temple workers; and small buildings housing various gods, the grouping of which made up one large temple, rather than one temple per god. This is such a different approach to religious architecture from the Western, Christian one that I hadn’t even realized I had been making assumptions about what a temple was for and how that affected the architecture until this book pointed it out.

angkor wat

I’m used to vast cathedrals built to house masses of congregants; the altar is often large and ostentatiously decorated, and it’s easy to see from just about anywhere in the building. The temple mountain structure of the Khmer Hindu places of worship also accommodates large crowds, but in the outer areas of the grounds; the inner areas are difficult to reach, and the sacred space is small and hidden from the casual eye. I love that the book made me look at the temple in a different way, and also had me reflect anew on the churches I’d been to before.

angkor wat

None of the buildings from the city surrounding the temple (the “angkor” part of “Angkor Wat”) have survived. They were likely made from wood, unlike the sandstone, brick, and laterite of the temples. This means that a lot of imagination is required to envision what it must have looked like in its heyday, a little harder than putting paint on the Forum in Rome, but not as difficult as seeing the cooking fires smoking at the side of Uluru. I stood on the east end of one of the interior walls of the temple and looked out over the forest that stretched to the moat nearly two miles away. All this forest was once royal palace, regular houses, streets, food stalls, markets–all populated with one of the largest concentrations of humanity in the pre-industrial age.

Aspara

Aspara

This is all about Angkor Wat, but let’s not forget that the Angkor period lasted several hundred years, and almost every king built at least one temple (perhaps as a mausoleum for himself, the god-king), so there are nearly a thousand temples in the area. Dozens of these have been restored and opened to the public. It all seems an embarrassment of riches once you see Angkor Wat. Not only is there this magnificent complex, but there are more–and in different styles, with their own delightful carvings and architectural quirks? I enjoyed discovering those temples as well; stay tuned this week for more on those.

Embracing the sunrise

Embracing the sunrise

Do’s and Don’ts at Angkor

I went to Angkor, World Heritage site and location of dozens of ancient temples renowned for their architecture, carvings, and historical importance, in March of this year. I read up a little on what to expect before I went, but was still tripped up by a few things I discovered on the ground. Here’s my advice for how to visit the temples with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment. Share your own tips in the comments!

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

DO:

Buy the 7-day pass for $60, if you have a flexible schedule and at least four days in the area. I bought the 3-day pass for $40, intending to use every day in full, but then I stepped outside and almost fainted from the humid heat (we’re talking over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day). If I’d had the 7-day pass I could have done half-days in the mornings and escaped to air conditioning in the afternoons, but as it was I had to push on through the heat. I still didn’t fit in everything I wanted to see, so I had to buy a 1-day pass for $20 for my last trip out there. If I’d spent that $60 upfront, I’d have had more time in the park for the same amount of money.

angkor

Bring at least a liter of water to drink and plan to buy at least another liter while at the park. It is 40*C/104*F on a regular basis here.

Bring a bandana or handkerchief. You’ll use it as a sweat rag during the amazingly humid days, and also as a face mask during your tuk-tuk rides on the often dusty roads.

Bring snacks, and a full lunch if you can swing it. Unlike in town, no one’s pulling a food cart all over the parks, and there are just a few places where restaurants are set up. I got hungry climbing up and down the many stairs of the temples, and was glad of the fruit and granola I had in my bag. Of course, your driver will know of the perfect little place to take you when it’s lunchtime, and they all seemed more or less the same to me, so why not say yes and let him have his commission?

Plot your trip ahead of time. If you’re just going for a day and you want to catch sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat and maybe see the Tomb Raider temple, then you’re fine and your tuk-tuk driver will have no trouble getting you to each place with plenty of time. However, if you have more time and want to explore the temples in more depth, work out with your driver ahead of time exactly where you want to go and in what order, and generally at about what time. My driver thought I would take less time than I did at each temple I went to, so he was surprised I couldn’t do his normal itinerary in one day, but I know I take a long time seeing sights, so I wasn’t surprised. I should have communicated better with my driver about timing, though, so that we both knew what to expect.

Bring a proper cardigan or long-sleeved shirt when going to Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng. I had a scarf to cover my shoulders as a sign of respect, which was fine at other temples, but at Angkor Wat and Bakheng I was turned away. I was told I needed to have a proper shirt–because a scarf is too easy to take off? I’m not sure what the reasoning was, but the guards were absolutely strict on this, despite there being no warnings about such rules at the ticket office or anywhere else, and as a result I never got to climb to the very top of Angkor Wat (yep, I planned to do it on my last day there, oops).

Plan more than one sunrise at Angkor Wat, if your schedule and sleepyhead ways can swing it. I only made it to one, and it was gorgeous, but I was torn between staying by the pond with the hundreds of other visitors to see the full sunrise, and scooting into the temple after a few minutes to explore while it was mostly still empty. I ended up doing the latter, and I do not regret that at all, but it would have been nice to have gone another time and just relaxed for sunrise.

angkor

DON’T:

Lose your pass. That ticket just cost you at least $20, and they won’t replace it. At nearly every temple I entered, I needed to show my pass before I could climb the steps of the actual temple, so don’t think you only need it at the entrance, either. They take your photo and put it on the pass when you buy the ticket, so there’s no mistaking whose ticket is whose.

angkor

Pay attention to guidebooks that say you need a special ticket to get non-consecutive passes. That may have been true in past years, but not anymore. If you buy a 3-day pass, you can use it on any three days in a week, and you can use a 7-day pass any seven days in a month.

Forget to bring or buy a guidebook. There are no helpful placards here, no clear markers next to exhibits of note. You can hire a guide for the day, and I overheard some great guides sharing in-depth information, but I also heard some impenetrable accents and bare-bones introductions to the sites, so the quality of the guides varies and it can get pricey to hire one if you’re on your own. I bought Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, and it proved pretty useful. There’s a lot of history up front and then the sections on specific temples focus more on the architecture. It was last updated in 2003 and there have been improvements to the park since then, so some of the info on what is accessible is outdated. I got the book for $8 at a bookstore in town, and then six different touts tried to sell me the same one for $1 at the park itself. You can go that route, but realize it’s probably an illegal copy so the publisher isn’t getting paid, and of course the tout sees maybe a few pennies of that money.

angkor

Stress about getting from Siem Reap to the park. Your guesthouse/hostel/hotel will have tuk-tuk drivers they can call, guaranteed. The only thing you’ll need to do is negotiate price, which you can prepare for by looking online to see what other people have paid in the past. If you’re fancy, you can take an air-conditioned car, but tuk-tuks are much more affordable and perfectly comfortable (see above about a face mask, though). Hopping on the back of a motorcycle is even cheaper, but if you’re fat they might not let you, even if you’ve done this before and you know it’ll be fine. You can also bicycle there, if bicycling in 90% humidity at 100 degree temperatures appeals to you. Pretty decent roads, not sure where you’d lock it up, scary drivers to share the road with, but you do get to set your own pace and schedule.

Try to go against the grain on the prescribed routes in the temples. There are no markers telling you what you’re looking at, as I mentioned, but there are plenty of signs telling you which way to walk once you’re in the temple. These are set up to manage the flow of the crowds, and are really helpful. You can always dart off to the side and come back or take a seat if you need a breather, but try not to turn around and head the opposite way everyone else is going. You’re gumming up the works. Of course, some temples don’t have a prescribed path, so you can hop about all you like there.

angkor

A Siem Reap Backpacker’s Spa Night

There are probably some really nice spas in Siem Reap, Cambodia (entrance to the wonders of Angkor), but I’m on a budget, so I made my own spa experience while I was there.

First, I put on just the right amount of scent:

Eau de DEET

Eau de DEET

Then I went down to the classy tourist area of town:

Yes, that's a neon sign reading "Pub Street" not 10 miles from the majesty of Angkor Wat

Yes, that’s a neon sign reading “Pub Street” not 10 miles from the majesty of Angkor Wat

I didn’t want my skin to end up scaly like these guys:

Get these dudes some lotion

Get these dudes some lotion

So I went to this spa, where a hundred attentive employees went to work on my feet and calves, until I felt tingly and revitalized:

The sign on the tank reads, "Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin"

The sign on the tank reads, “Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin”

It was a little alarming to see just how much dead skin there was for them to eat

It was a little alarming to see just how much dead skin there was for them to eat

(I am totally aware that these fish tanks aren’t exactly the most hygienic things around, but I seem to still be standing, so I guess it turned out okay.)

After all that, it was time for a healthy drink or two with friends:

I've had too many close calls on St. Patrick's Day not wearing green and getting pinched for it--I wasn't going to risk it, even in Cambodia

I’ve had too many close calls on St. Patrick’s Day not wearing green and getting pinched for it–I wasn’t going to risk it, even in Cambodia

Out with Viv and Russ from Australia

Out with Viv and Russ from Australia

Total cost: about $8. You can make your own spa night too!

ACAM: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hello, dearest fellow travelers! We are now moving from Singapore to Cambodia in the ACAM Project. I’ve been reading A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival by John Tully, and so far I’m liking it as a very brief overview. One of the things that Tully emphasizes is that there are so few records of Cambodia before the 16th century. Unlike the ancient and well-documented civilizations of China and Japan to the north, the Khmer people live in the hot, wet land of southeast Asia, which doesn’t do so well for preservation of paper. So what we know of the history of Cambodia is largely taken from what visitors wrote about it over the years, and also a bit from stone inscriptions.

Angkor Wat photo by Trey Ratcliff

If it's this magnificent now, imagine how Angkor Wat looked in its day.

The ancestors of the Khmer people built the city of Angkor in the 9th century CE, and at its height it was the largest city in antiquity, with a population of 1 million. One million people in one place in the pre-industrial age! For comparison, London grew hugely in the 16th century and still only reached 225,000. So Angkor, today a giant ruin of temples and not much else, was, for several hundred years, the largest city in the world.

Tully is eager to emphasize that the massive building projects of Angkor were all based on a huge slave population. I got a bit uncomfortable with his descriptions of the “overweening egotism and peculiar religiosity” (p. 25) of the devarajas (god-kings) who ruled over their enslaved subjects and commissioned giant temples. I’m not uncomfortable with pointing out the barbarism of slavery, but there are several other places in the book where Tully draws comparisons between the Angkor people and other ancient peoples, which helps put their culture in context. I mean, when I read about tens of thousands of slaves dragging several tons’ worth of stone to a building location to construct an enormous temple made for the glory of a god-king, the first thing I thought of was the ancient Egyptians. Right? Pharaohs, gods incarnate, built pyramids as massive tombs for themselves, to be filled with materials to carry into the afterlife; and all at the considerable expense of slaves’ sweat and blood. But Tully never draws this comparison, which strikes me as odd.

Maybe the constructions weren’t similar enough for him? He says several times that the wats were an unprecedented religious construction; they were temples and mausoleums at the same time. So they weren’t like a church or mosque, which may have some tombs in it but serves the main purpose of being a place of worship for people; nor were they like pyramids or large tombs, which serve the main purpose of housing the deceased. They were places to worship the deity Vishnu or Shiva, but only through worshiping the god’s manifestation on earth, the god-king’s body. (Or at least this is what I got from re-reading the relevant chapter over and over; please correct me in the comments if I’m missing something.)

Angkor Wat photo by Philip Lock

splendid

Speaking of religion, the wats (yep, the Angkor Wat is the largest religious construction of what used to be this major city, and that’s how it got that name) were part of a strain of Hinduism practiced in Angkor, influenced by Mahayana Buddhism and Khmer folk beliefs (p. 39). Tully references historians who believe that the decline of these religions and the rise of Theravada Buddhism contributed greatly to the decline of the Angkor empire. The drive to build monuments glorifying one man, at the expense of thousands of men who literally lived to serve him, was a concept supported by Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasized living a simple life resigned to suffering. This resignation to suffering may have comforted the laborers, but the more democratic focus on achieving nirvana by living a good life rather than making great displays may have stirred up discontent among them as well and undermined the devaraja rule. (Please note that I am not familiar with the particulars of various strains of Buddhism, so I’m paraphrasing Tully here, who is talking about Buddhism as it was practiced 1000 years ago. These may not be the same as current iterations of the religion.)

Tully points to two other major factors in the decline of the Angkor empire: increased raids by neighboring Siam (today known as Thailand), and environmental destruction. The city (which was spread over a large swath of land) depended on a particular system of irrigation canals. Deforestation above the canals caused damage to the water and soil below, which destroyed many fish and introduced still water patches perfect for malarial mosquitoes to breed in.

So the people believe in a more equitable religion, one that denounces material things, right around the time armies are invading, and old farming and forestry practices are destroying the people’s habitat. Easy to see how these factors combined to kill and displace people, and transform the population of a mighty kingdom into a minor city and eventually a grand ruin.

Photos from here; photo 1 taken by Trey Ratcliff, photo 2 taken by Philip Lock.